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The big armor-tender vibrated, gently and not unpleasantly, as the contragravity field alternated on and off, occasionally varying its normal rate of five hundred to the second when some thermal updraft lifted the vehicle and the automatic radar-altimeter control acted to alter the frequency and lower it again. Sometimes it rocked slightly, like a boat on the water, and, in the big screen which served in lieu of a window at the front of the control cabin, the dingy-yellow landscape would seem to tilt a little. If unshielded human eyes could have endured the rays of Nu Puppis, Niflheim's primary, the whole scene would have appeared a vivid Saint Patrick's Day green, the effect of the blue-predominant light on the yellow atmosphere. The outside 'visor-pickup, however, was fitted with filters which blocked out the gamma-rays and X-rays and most of the ultra-violet-rays, and added the longer light-waves of red and orange which were absent, so that things looked much as they would have under the light of a G0-type star like Sol. The air was faintly yellow, the sky was yellow with a greenish cast, and the clouds were green-gray.
A thousand feet below, the local equivalent of a forest grew, the trees, topped with huge ragged leaves, looking like hundred-foot stalks of celery. There would be animal life down there, too--little round things, four inches across, like eight-legged crabs, gnawing at the vegetation, and bigger things, two feet long, with articulated shell-armor and sixteen legs, which fed on the smaller herbivores. Beyond, in the middleground, was open grassland, if one could so call a mat of wormlike colorless orpastel-tinted sprouts, and a river meandered through it. On the skyline, fifty miles away, was a range of low dunes and hills, none more than a thousand feet high.
No human had ever set foot on the surface, or breathed the air, of Niflheim. To have done so would have been instant death; the air was a mixture of free fluorine and fluoride gasses, the soil was metallic fluorides, damp with acid rains, and the river was pure hydrofluoric acid. Even the ordinary spacesuit would have been no protection; the glass and rubber and plastic would have disintegrated in a matter of minutes. People came to Niflheim, and worked the mines and uranium refineries and chemical plants, but they did so inside power-driven and contragravity-lifted armor, and they lived on artificial satellites two thousand miles off-planet. This vehicle, for instance, was built and protected as no spaceship ever had to be, completely insulated and entered only through a triple airlock--an outer lock, which would be evacuated outward after it was closed, a middle lock kept evacuated at all times, and an inner lock, evacuated into the interior of the vehicle before the middle lock could be opened. Niflheim was worse than airless, much worse.
The chief engineer sat at his controls, making the minor lateral adjustments in the vehicle's position which were not possible to the automatic controls. One of the radiomen was receiving from the orbital base; the other was saying, over and over, in an exasperatedly patient voice: "Dr. Murillo. Dr. Murillo. Please come in, Dr. Murillo." At his own panel of instruments, a small man with grizzled black hair around a bald crown, and a grizzled beard, chewed nervously at the stump of a dead cigar and listened intently to what was--or for what wasn't--coming in to his headset receiver. A couple of assistants checked dials and refreshed their memories from notebooks and peered anxiously into the big screen. A large, plump-faced, young man in soiled khaki shirt and shorts, with extremely hairy legs, was doodling on his notepad and eating candy out of a bag. And a black-haired girl in a suit of coveralls three sizes too big for her, and, apparently, not much of anything else, lounged with one knee hooked over her chair-arm, staring into the screen at the distant horizon.
"Dr. Murillo. Dr. Mur--" The radioman broke off in mid-syllable and listened for a moment. "I hear you, doctor, go ahead." Then, a moment later "What's your position, now, doctor?"
"I can see them," the girl said, lifting a hand in front of her. "At two o'clock, about one of my hand's-breadths above the horizon."
The man with the grizzled beard put his face into the fur around the eyepiece of the telescopic-'visor and twisted a dial. "You have good eyes, Miss Quinton," he complimented. "Only four personal armors; Ahmed, ask him where the fifth is."
"We only see four of your personal-armors," the radioman said. "Who's missing, and why?" He waited for a moment, then lowered the hand-phone and turned. "The fifth one's inside the handling-machine. One of the Ullerans. Gorkrink."
The larger of the specks that had appeared on the horizon resolved itself into a handling-machine, a thing like an oversized contragravity-tank, with a bulldozer-blade, a stubby derrick-boom instead of a gun, and jointed, claw-tipped arms to the sides. The smaller dots grew into personal armor--egg-shaped things that sprouted arms and grab-hooks and pushers in all directions. The man with the grizzled beard began talking rapidly into his hand-phone, then hung it up. There was a series of bumps, and the armor-tender, weightless on contragravity, shook as the handling-machine came aboard.
"You ever see any nuclear bombing, Miss Quinton?" the young man with the hairy legs asked, offering her his candy bag.
"Only by telecast, back Sol-side," she replied, helping herself. "Test-shots at the Federation Navy proving-ground on Mars. I never even heard of nuclear bombs being used for mining till I came here, though."
"Well, if this turns out as well as the other job, three months ago, it'll be something to see," he promised. "These volcanoes have been dormant for, oh, maybe as long as a thousand years; there ought to be a pretty good head of gas down there. And the magma'll be thick, viscous stuff, like basalt on Terra. Of course, this won't be anything like basalt in composition--it'll be intensely compressed metallic fluorides, with a very high metal-content. The volcanoes we shot three months ago yielded a fine flow of lava with all sorts of metals--nickel, beryllium, vanadium, chromium, indium, as well as copper and iron."
"What sort of gas were you speaking about?" she asked.
"Hydrogen. That's what's going to make the fireworks; it combines explosively with fluorine. The hydrogen-fluorine combination is what passes for combustion here; the result is hydrofluoric acid, the local equivalent of water. See, the metallic core of this planet is covered, much less thickly than that of Terra, with fluoride rock--fluorspar, and that sort of thing. There's nothing like granite here, for instance. That's why those big dunes, out there, are the best Niflheim has in the way of mountains. The subsurface hydrogen is produced when the acid filters down through the rock, combines with pure metals underneath."
"Dr. Murillo's inside, now," the radioman said. "Just came out of the inner airlock. He'll be up as soon as he gets out of his pressure-suit."
"As soon as he gets here, I'll touch it off," the bearded man said. "Everything set, de Jong?"
"Everything ready, Dr. Gomes," one of his assistants assured him.
The door at the rear of the control-cabin opened, and Juan Murillo, the seismologist, entered, followed by an assistant. Murillo was a big man, copper-skinned, barrel-chested; he looked like a third-or fourth-generation Martian, of Andes Indian ancestry. He came forward and stood behind Gomes' chair, looking down at the instruments. His assistant stopped at the door. This assistant was not human. He was a biped, vaguely humanoid, but he had four arms and a face like a lizard's, and, except for some equipment on a belt, he was entirely naked.
He spoke rapidly to Murillo, in a squeaking jabber. Murillo turned.
"Yes, if you wish, Gorkrink," he said, in the English-Spanish-Afrikaans-Portuguese mixture that was Sixth Century, A.E., Lingua Terra. Then he turned back to Gomes as the Ulleran sat down in a chair by the door.
"Well, she's all yours, Lourenço, shoot the works."
Gomes stabbed the radio-detonator button in front of him. A voice came out of the PA-speaker overhead: "In sixty seconds, the bombs will be detonated ... thirty seconds ... fifteen seconds ... ten seconds ... five seconds, four seconds, three seconds, two seconds, one second...."
Out on the rolling skyline, fifty miles away, a lancelike ray of blue-white light shot up into the gathering dusk--a clump of five rays, really, from five deep shafts in an irregular pentagon half a mile across, blended into one by the distance. An instant later, there was a blinding flash, like sheet-lightning, and a huge ball of varicolored fire belched upward, leaving a series of smoke-rings to float more slowly after it. That fireball flattened, then spread to form the mushroom-head of a column of incandescent gas that mounted to overtake it, engorging the smoke-rings as it rose, twisting, writhing, changing shape, turning to dark smoke in one moment and belching flame and crackling with lightning the next. The armor-tender began to pitch and roll; it was all the engineer and one of the assistants could do, together, to keep it level.
"In about half an hour," the large young man told the girl, "the real fireworks should be starting. What's coming up now is just small debris from the nuclear blast. When the shockwaves get down far enough to crack things open, the gas'll come up, and then steam and ash, and then the magma. This one ought to be twice as good as the one we shot three months ago; it ought to be every bit as good as Krakatoa, on Terra, in 59 Pre-Atomic."
"Well, even this much was worth staying over for," the girl said, watching the screen.
"You going on to Uller on the City of Canberra?" Lourenço Gomes asked. "I wish I were; I have to stay over and make another shot, in a month or so, and I've had about all of Niflheim I can take, now. The sooner I get onto a planet where they don't ration the air, the better I'll like it."
"Well, what do you know!" the large young man with the hairy legs mock-marveled. "He doesn't like our nice planet!"
"Nice planet!" Gomes muttered something. "They call Terra God's Footstool; well, I'll give you one guess who uses this thing to prop his cloven hoofs on."
"When are you going to Terra?" the girl asked him.
"Terra? I don't know, a year, two years. But I'm going to Uller on the next ship--the City of Pretoria--if we get the next blast off in time. They want me to design some improvements on a couple of power-reactors, so I'll probably see you when I get there."
"Here she comes!" the chief engineer called. "Watch the base of the column!"
The pillar of fiery smoke and dust, still boiling up from where the bombs had gone off far underground, was being violently agitated at the bottom. A series of new flashes broke out, lifting and spreading the incandescent radioactive gasses, and then a great gush of flame rose. A column of pure hydrogen must have rushed up into the vacuum created by the explosion; the next blast of flame, in a lateral sheet, came at nearly ten thousand feet above the ground, and great rags of fire, changing from red to violet and back through the spectrum to red again, went soaring away to dissipate in the upper atmosphere. Then geysers of hot ash and molten rock spouted upward; some of the white-hot debris landed almost at the acid river, half-way to the armor-tender.
"We've started a first-class earthquake, too," the Hispano-Indian Martian Murillo said, looking at the instruments. "About six big cracks opening in the rock-structure. You know, when this quiets down and cools off, we'll have more ore on the surface than we can handle in ten years, and more than we could have mined by ordinary means in fifty."
About four miles from the original blast, another eruption began with a terrific gas-explosion.
"Well, that finishes our work," the large young man said, going to a kitbag in the corner of the cabin and getting out a bottle. "Get some of those plastic cups, over there, somebody; this one calls for a drink."
"That's right," Gomes said. "You do something once, it may be an accident; you repeat the performance, and it's a success." He began pushing papers aside on his desk, and the girl in the too-ample coveralls brought drinking cups.
The Ulleran, in the background, rose quickly and squeaked apologetically. Murillo nodded. "Yes, of course, Gorkrink. No need for you to stay here." The Ulleran went out, closing the door behind him.
"That taboo against Ullerans and Terrans watching each other eat and drink," Murillo said. "What is that, part of their religion?"
"No, it's their version of modesty," the girl replied. "Like some of our sex-inhibitions, which they can't even begin to understand.... But you were speaking to him in Lingua Terra; I didn't know any of them understood it."
"Gorkrink does," Murillo said, uncorking the bottle and pouring into the plastic cups. "None of them can speak it, of course, because of the structure of their vocal organs, any more than we can speak their languages without artificial aids. But I can talk to him in Lingua Terra without having to put one of those damn gags in my mouth, and he can pass my instructions on to the others. He's been a big help; I'll be sorry to lose him."
"Yes, his year's up; he's going back to Uller on the Canberra. You know, it's impossible to keep some trace of fluorine from the air in the handling-machines, or even out on the orbiters, and it plays the devil with their lungs. He wanted to stay on another three months, to help with the next shot, but the medics wouldn't hear of it.... He's from Keegark, wherever on Uller that is; claims to be a prince, or something. I know all the other geeks kowtow to him. But he's a damn good worker. Very smart; picks things up the first time you tell him. I'll recommend him unqualifiedly for any kind of work with contragravity or mechanized equipment."
They all had drinks, now, except the chief engineer, who wanted a rain-check on his.
"Well, here's to us," Murillo said. "The first A-bomb miners in history...."
General Carlos von Schlichten threw his cigarette away, flexed his hands in his gloves, and set his monocle more firmly in his eye, stepping forward as the footsteps on the stairway behind him ceased and the other officers emerged from the squat flint keep--Captain Cazabielle, the post CO; big, chocolate-brown Brigadier-General Themistocles M'zangwe; little Colonel Hideyoshi O'Leary. Far in front of him, to the left, the horizon was lost in the cloudbank over Takkad Sea; directly in front, and to the right, the brown and gray and black flint mountains sawed into the sky until they vanished in the distance. Unseen below, the old caravan-trail climbed one side of the pass and slid down the other, a sheer five hundred feet below the parapet and the two corner catapult-platforms which now mounted 90-mm guns. On the little hundred-foot-square parade ground in front of the keep, his aircar was parked, and the soldiers were assembled.
Ten or twelve of them were Terrans--a couple of lieutenants, sergeants, gunners, technicians, the sergeant-driver and corporal-gunner of his own car. The other fifty-odd were Ulleran natives. They stood erect on stumpy legs and broad, six-toed feet. They had four arms apiece, one pair from true shoulders and the other connected to a pseudo-pelvis midway down the torso. Their skins were slate-gray and rubbery, speckled with pinhead-sized bits of quartz that had been formed from perspiration, for their body-tissues were silicone instead of carbon-hydrogen. Their narrow heads were unpleasantly saurian; they had small, double-lidded red eyes, and slit-like nostrils, and wide mouths filled with opalescent teeth. Except for their belts and equipment, they were completely naked; the uniform consisted of the emblem of the Chartered Uller Company stencil-painted on chests and backs. Clothing, to them, was unnecessary, either for warmth or modesty. As to the former, they were cold-blooded and could stand a temperature-range of from a hundred and twenty to minus one hundred Centigrade. Von Schlichten had seen them sleeping in the open with their bodies covered with frost or freezing rain; he had also seen them wade through boiling water. As to the second, they had practically no sex-inhibitions; they were all of the same gender, true, functional, hermaphrodites. Any individual among them could bear young, or fertilize the ova of any other individual. Fifteen years ago, when he had come to Uller as a former Terran Federation captain newly commissioned colonel in the army of the Uller Company, it had taken some time before he had become accustomed to the detailing of a non-com and a couple of privates out of each platoon for baby-sitting duty. At least, though, they didn't have the squaw-trouble around army posts on Uller that they had on Thor, where he had last been stationed.
An airjeep, coming in out of the sun, circled the crag-top fort and let down onto the terrace next to von Schlichten's command-car. It carried a bristle of 15-mm machine-guns, and two of the eight 50-mm rocket-tubes on either side were empty and freshly smoke-stained. The duraglass canopy slid back, and the two-man crew--lieutenant-driver and sergeant-gunner--jumped out. Von Schlichten knew them both.
"Lieutenant Kendall; Sergeant Garcia," he greeted. "Good afternoon, gentlemen."
Both saluted, in the informal, hell-with-rank-we're-all-human manner of Terran soldiers on extraterrestrial duty, and returned the greeting.
"How's the Jeel situation?" he asked, then nodded toward the fired rocket-tubes. "I see you had some shooting."
"Yes, sir," the lieutenant said. "Two bands of them. We sighted the first coming up the eastern side of the mountain about two miles this side of the Blue Springs. We got about half of them with MG-fire, and the rest dived into a big rock-crevice. We had to use two rockets on them, and then had to let down and pot a few of them with our pistols. We caught the second band in that little punchbowl place about a mile this side of Zortolk's Old Fort. There were only six of them; they were bunched together, feeding. Off one of their own gang, I'd say; the way we've been keeping them up in the high rocks, they've been eating inside the family quite a bit, lately. We let them have two rockets. No survivors. Not many very big pieces, in fact. We let down at Zortolk's for a beer, after that, and Captain Martinelli told us that one of his jeeps caught what he thinks was the same band that was down off the mountain night-before-last and ate those peasants on Prince Neeldink's estate."
"By God, I'm glad to hear that!" There'd been a perfect hell of a flap about that business. Before the Terrans came to Uller, it was a good year when not more than five hundred farm-folk would be killed and eaten by Jeel cannibals. The incident of two nights ago had been the first of its kind in almost six months, but the nobleman whose serfs had been eaten was practically accusing the Company of responsibility for the crime. "I'll see that Neeldink is informed. The more you do for these damned geeks, the more they expect from you.... When you get your vehicle re-ammoed, lieutenant, suppose you buzz back to where you machine-gunned that first gang. If there are any more around, they'll have moved in for the free meal by now." This breakdown of the Jeels' taboo against eating fellow-tribesmen was one of the best things he'd heard from the cannibal-extermination project for some time.
He turned to Themistocles M'zangwe. "In about two weeks, get a little task-force together. Say ten combat-cars, about twenty airjeeps, and a battalion of Kragan Rifles in troop-carriers. Oh, yes, and this good-for-nothing Konkrook Fencibles outfit of Prince Jaizerd's; they can be used for beaters, and to block escape routes." He turned back to Lieutenant Kendall and Sergeant Garcia. "Good work, boys. And if the synchro-photos show that any of that first bunch got away, don't feel too badly about it. These Jeels can hide on the top of a pool-table."
He climbed into the command-car, followed by Themistocles M'zangwe and Hideyoshi O'Leary. Sergeant Harry Quong and Corporal Hassan Bogdanoff took their places on the front seat; the car lifted, turned to nose into the wind, and rose in a slow spiral. Below, the fort grew smaller, a flat-topped rectangle of masonry overlooking the pass, a gun covering each approach, and two more on the square keep to cover the rocky hogback on which the fort had been built, with the flagpole between them. Once that pole had lifted a banner of ragged black marsh-flopper skin bearing the device of the Kragan riever-chieftain whose family had built the castle; now it carried a neat rectangle of blue bunting emblazoned with the wreathed globe of the Terran Federation and, below that, the blue-gray pennant which bore the vermilion trademark of the Chartered Uller Company.
"Where now, sir?" Harry Quong asked.
He looked at his watch. Seventeen-hundred; there wasn't time for a visit to Zortolk's Old Fort, ten miles to the north at the next pass.
"Back to Konkrook, to the island."
The nose of the car swung east by south; the cold-jet rotors began humming and then the hot-jets were cut in. The car turned from the fort and the mountains and shot away over the foothills toward the coastal plain. Below were forests, yellow-green with new foliage of the second growing season of the equatorial year, veined with narrow dirt roads and spotted with occasional clearings. Farther east, the dirty gray woodsmoke of Uller marked the progress of the charcoal-burnings. It took forty years to burn the forests clear back to the flint cliffs; by the time the burners reached the mountains, the new trees at the seaward edge would be ready to cut. Off to the south, he could see the dark green squares, where the hemlocks and Norway spruce had been planted by the Company. With a little chemical fertilizer, they were doing well, and they made better charcoal than the silicate-heavy native wood. That was the only natural fuel on Uller; there was no coal, of course, since fallen timber and even standing dead trees petrified in a matter of a couple of years. There was too much silica on Uller, and not enough of anything else; what would be coal-seams on Terra were strata of silicified wood. And, of course, there was no petroleum. There was less charcoal being burned now than formerly; the Uller Company had been bringing in great quantities of synthetic thermoconcentrate-fuel, and had been setting up nuclear furnaces and nuclear-electric power-plants, wherever they gained a foothold on the planet.
Beyond the forests came the farmlands. Around the older estates, thick walls of flint and petrified wood had been built, and wide moats dug, to keep out the shellosaurs. But now the moats were dry, and the walls falling into disrepair. Some of the newer farms, land devoted to agriculture with the declining demand for charcoal, had neither moats nor walls. That was the Company, too; the huge shell-armored beasts had become virtually extinct in the Konk Isthmus now, since the introduction of bazookas and recoilless rifles. There seemed to be quite a bit of power-equipment working in the fields, and big contragravity lorries were drifting back and forth, scattering fertilizer, mainly nitrates from Mimir or Yggdrasill. There were still a good number of animal-drawn plows and harrows in use, however.
As planets went, Uller was no bargain, he thought sourly. At times, he wished he had never followed the lure of rapid promotion and fantastically high pay and left the Federation regulars for the army of the Uller Company. If he hadn't, he'd probably be a colonel, at five thousand sols a year, but maybe it would be better to be a middle-aged colonel on a decent planet--Odin, with its two moons, Hugin and Munin, and its wide grasslands and its evergreen forests that looked and even smelled like the pinewoods of Terra, or Baldur, with snow-capped mountains, and clear, cold lakes, and rocky rivers dashing under great vine-hung trees, or Freya, where the people were human to the last degree and the women were so breathtakingly beautiful--than a Company army general at twenty-five thousand on this combination icebox, furnace, wind-tunnel and stonepile, where the water tasted like soapsuds and left a crackly film when it dried; where the temperature ranged, from pole to pole, between two hundred and fifty and minus a hundred and fifty Fahrenheit and the Beaufort-scale ran up to thirty; where nothing that ran or swam or grew was fit for a human to eat, and where the people....
Of course, there were worse planets than Uller. There was Nidhog, cold and foggy, its equatorial zone a gloomy marsh and the rest of the planet locked in eternal ice. There was Bifrost, which always kept the same face turned to its primary; one side blazingly hot and the other close to absolute zero, with a narrow and barely habitable twilight zone between. There was Mimir, swarming with a race of semi-intelligent quasi-rodents, murderous, treacherous, utterly vicious. Or Niflheim. The Uller Company had the franchise for Niflheim, too; they'd had to take that and agree to exploit the planet's resources in order to get the franchise for Uller, which furnished a good quick measure of the comparative merits of the two.
Ahead, the city of Konkrook sprawled along the delta of the Konk river and extended itself inland. The river was dry, now. Except in spring, when it was a red-brown torrent, it never ran more than a trickle, and not at all this late in the northern summer. The aircar lost altitude, and the hot-jet stopped firing. They came gliding in over the suburbs and the yellow-green parks, over the low one-story dwellings and shops, the lofty temples and palaces, the fantastically twisted towers, following a street that became increasingly mean and squalid as it neared the industrial district along the waterfront.
Von Schlichten, on the right, glanced idly down, puffing slowly on his cigarette. Then he stiffened, the muscles around his right eye clamping tighter on the monocle. Leaning forward, he punched Harry Quong lightly on the shoulder.
"Circle back, sergeant; let's have a look at that street again," he directed. "Something going on, down there; looks like a riot."
"Yes, sir; I saw it," the Chinese-Australian driver replied. "Terrans in trouble; bein' mobbed by geeks. Aircar parked right in the bloody middle of it."
The car made a twisting, banking loop and came back, more slowly. Colonel Hideyoshi O'Leary was using the binoculars.
"That's right," he said. "Terrans being mobbed. Two of them, backed up against a house. I saw one of them firing a pistol."
Von Schlichten had the handset of the car's radio, and was punching out the combination of the Company guardhouse on Gongonk Island; he held down the signal button until he got an answer.
"Von Schlichten, in car over Konkrook. Riot on Fourth Avenue, just off Seventy-second Street." No Terran could possibly remember the names of Konkrook's streets; even native troops recruited from outside found the numbers easier to learn and remember. "Geeks mobbing a couple of Terrans. I'm going down, now, to do what I can to help; send troops in a hurry. Kragan Rifles. And stand by; my driver'll give it to you as it happens."
The voice of somebody at the guardhouse, bawling orders, came out of the receiver as he tossed the phone forward over Harry Quong's shoulder; Quong caught it and began speaking rapidly and urgently into it while he steered with the other hand. Von Schlichten took one of the five-pound spiked riot-maces out of the rack in front of him. Themistocles M'zangwe had already drawn his pistol; he shifted it to his left hand and took a mace in his right. The Nipponese-Irish colonel, looking like a homicidally infuriated pixie, had an automatic in one hand and a long dagger in the other.
Harry Quong and Hassan Bogdanoff were old Uller hands; they'd done this sort of work before. Bogdanoff rose into the ball-turret and swung the twin 15-mm's around, cutting loose. Quong brought the car in fast, at about shoulder-height on the mob. Between them, they left a swath of mangled, killed, wounded, and stunned natives. Then, spinning the car around, Quong set it down hard on a clump of rioters as close as possible to the struggling group around the two Terrans. Von Schlichten threw back the canopy and jumped out of the car, O'Leary and M'zangwe behind him.
There was another aircar, a dark maroon civilian job, at the curb; its native driver was slumped forward over the controls, a short crossbow-bolt sticking out of his neck. Backed against the closed door of a house, a Terran with white hair and a small beard was clubbing futilely with an empty pistol. He was wounded, and blood was streaming over his face. His companion, a young woman in a long fur coat, was laying about her with a native bolo-knife.
Von Schlichten's mace had a spiked ball-head, and a four-inch spike in front of that. He smashed the ball down on the back of one Ulleran's head, and jabbed another in the rump with the spike.
"Zak! Zak!" he yelled, in pidgin-Ulleran. "Jik-jik, you lizard-faced Creator's blunder!"
The Ulleran whirled, swinging a blade somewhere between a big butcherknife and a small machete. His mouth was open, and there was froth on his lips.
"Znidd suddabit!" he screamed.
Von Schlichten parried the cut on the steel shaft of his mace. "Suddabit yourself, you geek bastard!" he shouted back, ramming the spike-end into the opal-filled mouth. "And znidd you, too," he added, recovering and slamming the ball-head down on the narrow saurian skull. The Ulleran went down, spurting a yellow fluid about the consistency of gun-oil. Then, without wasting words, he maced another of the things.
Ahead, one of the natives had caught the wounded Terran with both lower hands, and was raising a dagger with his upper right. The girl in the fur coat swung wildly, slashing the knife-arm, then chopped down on the creature's neck. To one side, a native somewhat better dressed than the others, to the extent of a couple of belts with gold ornaments, drew a Terran automatic. Von Schlichten hurled his mace and drew his pistol, thumbing off the safety as he swung it up, but before he could fire, Hassan Bogdanoff had seen and swung his guns around; the double burst caught the native in the chest and fairly tore him apart.
Another of them closed with the girl, grabbing her right arm with all four hands and biting at her; she screamed and kicked her attacker in the groin, where an Ulleran is, if anything, even more vulnerable than a Terran. The native howled hideously, and von Schlichten, jumping over a couple of corpses, shoved the muzzle of his pistol into the creature's open mouth and pulled the trigger, blowing its head apart like a rotten pumpkin and splashing both himself and the girl with yellow blood and rancid-looking gray-green brains.
Hideyoshi O'Leary, jumping forward after von Schlichten, stuck his dagger into the neck of a rioter and left it there, then caught the girl around the waist with his free arm. Themistocles M'zangwe dropped his mace and swung the frail-looking man onto his back. Together, they struggled back to the command-car, von Schlichten covering the retreat with his pistol. Another rioter--a Zirk nomad from the North, he guessed--was aiming one of the long-barreled native air-rifles, holding the ten-inch globe of the air-chamber in both lower hands. Von Schlichten shot him, and the Zirk literally blew to pieces.
For an instant, he wondered how the small bursting-charge of a 10-mm explosive pistol-bullet could accomplish such havoc, and assumed that the native had been carrying a bomb in his belt. Then another explosion tossed fragmentary corpses nearby, and another and another. Glancing quickly over his shoulder, he saw four combat-cars coming in, firing with 40-mm auto-cannon and 15-mm machine-guns. They swept between the hovels on one side and the warehouses on the other, strafing the mob, darted up to a thousand feet, looped, and came swooping back, and this time there were three long blue-gray troop-carriers behind them.
These landed in the hastily cleared street and began disgorging native Company soldiers--Kragan mercenaries, he noted with satisfaction. They carried a modified version of the regular Terran Federation infantry rifle, stocked and sighted to conform to their physical peculiarities, with long, thorn-like, triangular bayonets. One platoon ran forward, dropped to one knee, and began firing rapidly into what was left of the mob. Four-handed soldiers can deliver a simply astonishing volume of fire, particularly when armed with auto-rifles having twenty-shot drop-out magazines which can be changed with the lower hands without lowering the weapon.
There was a clatter of shod hoofs, and a company of the King of Konkrook's cavalry came trotting up on their six-legged, lizard-headed, quartz-speckled mounts. Some of these charged into side alleys, joyfully lancing and cutting down fleeing rioters, while others dismounted, three tossing their reins to a fourth, and went to work with their crossbows. Von Schlichten, who ordinarily entertained a dim opinion of the King of Konkrook's soldiery, admitted, grudgingly, that it was smart work; four hands were a big help in using a crossbow, too.
A Terran captain of native infantry came over, saluting.
"Are you and your people all right, general?" he asked.
Von Schlichten glanced at the front seat of his car, where Harry Quong, a pistol in his right hand, was still talking into the radio-phone, and Hassan Bogdanoff was putting fresh belts into his guns. Then he saw that the Graeco-African brigadier and the Irish-Japanese colonel had gotten the wounded man into the car. The girl, having dropped her bolo, was leaning against the side of the car, one foot heedlessly in what was left of an Ulleran who had gotten smashed under it, weak with nervous reaction.
"We seem to be, Captain Pedolsky. Very smart work; you must have those vehicles of yours on hyperspace-drive.... How is he, colonel?"
"We'd better get him to the hospital, right away," O'Leary replied. "I think he has a concussion."
"Harry, call the hospital. Tell them what the score is, and tell them we're bringing the casualty in to their top landing stage.... Why, we'll make out very nicely, captain. You'd better stay around with your Kragans and make sure that these geeks of King Jaikark's don't let the riot flare up again and get away from them. And don't let them get the impression that they can maintain order around here without our help; the Company would like to see that attitude discouraged."
"Yes, sir, I understand." Captain Pedolsky opened the pouch on his belt and took out the false palate and tongue-clicker without which no Terran could do more than mouth a crude and barely comprehensible pidgin-Ulleran. Stuffing the gadget into his mouth, he turned and began jabbering orders.
Von Schlichten helped the girl into the car, placing her on his right. The wounded civilian was propped up in the left corner of the seat, and Colonel O'Leary and Brigadier-General M'zangwe took the jump-seats. The driver put on the contragravity-field, and the car lifted up.
"Them, see if there's a flask and a drinking-cup in the door pocket next to you," he said. "I think Miss Quinton could use a drink."
The girl turned. Even in her present disheveled condition, she was beautiful--a trifle on the petite side, with black hair and black eyes that quirked up oddly at the outer corners. Her nails were black-lacquered and spotted with little gold stars, evidently a new feminine fad from Terra.
"I certainly could, general.... How did you know my name?"
"You've been on Uller for the last three months; ever since the City of Canberra got in from Niflheim. On Uller, there aren't enough of us that everybody doesn't know all about everybody else. You're Dr. Paula Quinton; you're an extraterrestrial sociographer, and you're a field-agent for the Extraterrestrials' Rights Association, like Mohammed Ferriera, here." He took the cup and flask from Themistocles M'zangwe and poured her a drink. "Take this easy, now; Baldur honey-rum, a hundred and fifty proof."
He watched her sip the stuff cautiously, cough over the first mouthful, and then get the rest of it down.
"More?" When she shook her head, he stoppered the flask and relieved her of the cup. "What were you doing in that district, anyhow?" he wanted to know. "I'd have thought Mohammed Ferriera would have had more sense than to take you there, or go there, himself, for that matter."
"We went to visit a friend of his, a native named Keeluk, who seems to be a sort of combination clergyman and labor leader," she replied. "I'm going to observe labor conditions at the North Pole mines in a short while, and Mr. Keeluk was going to give me letters of introduction to friends of his at Skilk."
With the aid of his monocle, von Schlichten managed to keep a straight face. Neither M'zangwe nor O'Leary had any such aid; the African rolled his eyes and the Japanese-Irishman grimaced.
"We talked with Mr. Keeluk for a while," the girl said, "and when we came out, we found that our driver had been killed and a mob had gathered. Of course, we were carrying pistols; they're part of this survival-kit you make everybody carry, along with the emergency-rations and the water-desilicator. Mr. Ferriera's wasn't loaded, but mine was. When they rushed us, I shot a couple of them, and then picked up that big knife...."
"That's why you're still alive," von Schlichten commented.
"We wouldn't be if you hadn't come along," she told him. "I never in my life saw anything as beautiful as you coming through that mob swinging that war-club!"
"Well, I never saw anything much more beautiful than those 40-mm's beginning to land in the mob," von Schlichten replied.
The aircar swung out over Konkrook Channel and headed toward the blue-gray Company buildings on Gongonk Island, and the Company airport, swarming with lorries and airboats, where the ten thousand-ton Oom Paul Kruger had just come in from Keegark, and the Company's one real warship, the cruiser Procyon, was lifting out for Grank, in the North. Down at the southern tip of the island, the three-thousand-foot globe of the spaceship City of Pretoria, from Niflheim, was loading with cargo for Terra.
"Just what happened, while you and Mr. Ferriera were in Keeluk's house. Miss Quinton?" Hideyoshi O'Leary asked, trying not to sound official. "Was Keeluk with you all the time? Or did he go out for a while, say fifteen or twenty minutes before you left?"
"Why, yes, he did." Paula Quinton looked surprised. "How did you guess it? You see, a dog started barking, behind the house, and he excused himself and...."
"A dog?" von Schlichten almost shouted. The other officers echoed him, and on the front seat, Harry Quong said, "Coo-bli'me!"
"Why, yes.... "Paula Quinton's eyes widened. "But there are no dogs on Uller, except a few owned by Terrans. And wasn't there something about...?"
Von Schlichten had the radio-phone and was calling the command car at the scene of the riot. The sergeant-driver answered.
"Von Schlichten here; my compliments to Captain Pedolsky, and tell him he's to make immediate and thorough search of the house in front of which the incident occurred, and adjoining houses. For his information, that's Keeluk's house. Tell him to look for traces of Governor-General Harrington's collie, or any of the other terrestrial animals that have been disappearing--that goat, for instance, or those rabbits. And I want Keeluk brought in, alive and in condition to be interrogated. I'll send more troops, or Constabulary, to help you." He handed the phone to M'zangwe. "You take care of that end of it, Them; you know who can be spared."
"But, what...?" the girl began.
"That's why you were attacked," he told her. "Keeluk was afraid to let you get away from there alive to report hearing that dog, so he went out and had a gang of thugs rounded up to kill you."
"But he was only gone five minutes."
"In five minutes, I can put all the troops in Konkrook into action. Keeluk doesn't have radio or TV--we hope--but he has his forces concentrated, and he has a pretty good staff."
"But Mr. Keeluk's a friend of ours. He knows what our Association is trying to do for his people...."
"So he shows his appreciation by setting that mob on you. Look, he has a lot of influence in that section. When you were attacked, why wasn't he out trying to quiet the mob?"
"When they jumped you, you tried to get back into the house," M'zangwe put in. "And you found the door barred against you."
"Yes, but.... "The girl looked troubled; M'zangwe had guessed right. "But what's all the excitement about the dog? What is it, the sacred totem-animal of the Uller Company?"
"It's just a big brown collie, named Stalin, like half the dogs on Terra. Somebody stole it, and Keeluk was keeping it, and we want to know why. We don't like geek mysteries; not when they lead to murderous attacks on Terrans, at least."
The aircar let down on the hospital landing stage. A stretcher was waiting, with a Terran interne and two Ulleran orderlies. They got the still-unconscious Mohammed Ferriera out of the car.
"You'd better go with them, yourself, Miss Quinton," von Schlichten advised. "You have a couple of nasty-looking bruises and bumps. A couple of abrasions, too, where those geeks grabbed you; they have hides like sandpaper. And better have that coat cleaned, before that goo on it hardens, or it'll be ruined."
"Yes. You have a lot of it on your uniform, too."
He glanced down at the blue-gray jacket. "So I have. And another thing. Those letters Keeluk was going to give you, the ones to his friends in Skilk. Did you get them?"
She felt in the pocket of her coat. "Yes. I still have them."
"I wish you'd let Colonel O'Leary have a look at them. There may be more to them than you think.... Hid, will you go with Miss Quinton?"
Posted November 1, 2012
I bought this on a recommendation, and at only $1, it wasn't a hard decision. Overall, the story was amusing, but very shallow and short.
Being mostly used to reading and writing fantasy, I found this a different sort of read. Written in an older style, the author used hyphenated compound words with irritating regularity, and broke the creative writing rule of "Show, don't tell" frequently. Conversations were often used to impart background info or other color, and very often just weren't how people would speak (especially in combat situations).
All that being said, it was an amusing diversion to read.
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Posted January 21, 2012
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Posted September 7, 2010
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