The War Against the Rull
By van Vogt, A. E.
Tor Books Copyright © 1999 van Vogt, A. E.
All right reserved.
As the spaceship vanished into the steamy mists of Eristan II, Trevor Jamieson drew his gun. He felt dizzy, sickened by the way he had been tossed and buffeted for long moments in the furious wind stream of the great ship. But awareness of danger held him tense there in the harness that was attached by cables to the antigravity plate above him. With narrowed eyes, he stared up at the ezwal which was peering down at him over the edge of the still-swaying skyraft.
Its three-in-line eyes, as gray as dully polished steel, gazed at him, unwinking; its massive blue head poised alertly and--Jamieson knew--ready to jerk back the instant it read in his thoughts an intention of shooting.
"Well," said Jamieson harshly, "here we are, both of us--thousands of light-years from our respective home planets. And we're falling down into a primitive hell that you, with only your isolated life on Carson's Planet to judge by, cannot begin to imagine despite your ability to read my thoughts. Even a six-thousand-pound ezwal can't survive down there alone."
A great claw-studded paw slid over the side of the raft, flicked down at one of the three slender cables that supported Jamieson's harness. There was a bright, steely ping
as the cable parted from the slashing blow, and the force of it lifted Jamieson in his harness several feet. He dropped back heavily and began swinging from the tworemaining cables as from a trapeze. Awkwardly, gun in hand, he craned his neck to defend these last two supports from attack.
But the ezwal made no further threatening move, and there was only the great head and the calm, unwinking eyes peering down at him. Finally, a thought penetrated to Jamieson. A thought cool and unhurried: "At the moment I have one concern. Of the hundred or more men on your ship, only you remain alive. Out of all the human race, therefore, only you know that the ezwals of what you call Carson's Planet are not senseless beasts but intelligent beings. Your government, we know, is having great difficulty in settling or keeping colonists on our planet, because we are regarded simply as a sort of natural force, very dangerous to cope with but unavoidable. That is just the way we want the situation to remain. Once human beings became convinced that we are an intelligent enemy, there would be a systematic, full-scale warfare against us. This would handicap us seriously in our unalterable purpose of driving all trespassers from our world. Because you know this, rather than take the slightest risk of your escaping the jungle dangers below, I took the chance of jumping on top of this antigravity raft just as you were launching yourself out of the lock."
"What makes you so sure," asked Jamieson, "that finishing me off will settle the matter? Have you forgotten the other ship with two ezwals aboard, a female and her young? At last contact, it was undamaged by the Rull warship that wrecked this one, and it is probably on its way to Earth right now."
"I am aware of that," returned the ezwal contemptuously. "And I am also aware of the frank disbelief on the part of its commander when you merely hinted that ezwals might be more intelligent than most human beings suspected. You alone might be able to convince Earth's government of the truth, because you alone are certain. As for the other ezwals you have captured, they will never betray their kind."
"Ezwals may not be quite as altruistic as you indicate," said Jamieson cynically. "After all, you saved your own life when you jumped on this antigravity raft. You would not have been able to operate a lifeboat, so you would have crashed with the ship by now, and I doubt that even an ezwal could--"
His voice collapsed in an ugh
of amazement as in a blur of motion the ezwal twisted up, a rearing, monstrous blue shape of frightful fangs and edged claws that reached at a gigantic bird. On huddled, tentlike wings, the bird was diving straight down at the raft. It did not swoop aside. Jamieson had a brief, terrifying glimpse of its protruding eyes and of the sicklelike talons, tensing for the thrust at the ezwal.
The crash as it struck the ezwal set the raft tossing like a ship in stormy waters. Jamieson swung with dizzy speed from side to side. Gusts of sound from the smashing beat of those great wings were like thunderclaps about his head. Gasping, he raised his gun. The white flame of it reached toward one of those wings and made a dark smear across it. The wing drooped, and, simultaneously, the bird was flung from the raft by the raging strength of the ezwal. It plunged down, and down, turning slowly, until it became lost against the dark background of the land mass below.
A grating sound above him made Jamieson look up quickly. The ezwal, dangerously off balance, teetered at the very edge of the raft, with its four upper limbs pawing the air uselessly. The remaining two fought with bitter effort at the metal bars on top of the raft--and won. The great body drew back, until, once again, only the massive head was visible. Jamieson lowered his gun in grim good humor.
"You see," he said, "even a bird was almost too much for us--and I could have burned your belly open. I didn't because of the simple fact that I need you--and you need me. Here is the situation: As nearly as I can reckon, the ship will have crashed by now on the mainland not far beyond the Demon Straits, a body of water about twenty miles wide which separates this great island from that mainland. We got out of that falling ship none too soon; in another minute or so, the slipstream would have made it impossible. But now our only chance of rescue is to get to it again. It has stores of food, and it will provide shelter against some of the most insensately feral animal life in the known galaxy. I might just possibly be able to repair the sub-space radio--or even one of the lifeboats.
"But to get there will take all the resources both of us can muster. First, fifty miles or more of hostile, dense jungle between here and the Demon Straits. Then to build a navigable raft large enough to protect us from sea monsters that could swallow you whole. All your tremendous strength and fighting ability, plus your telepathic powers, all my skill, plus my atomic weapon, will be needed to get us through. What do you say?"
There was no answer. Jamieson slid his gun into its holster. It would do no good to damage with his weapon the one being that could help him escape. He could only hope that the ezwal would be equally careful not to hurt him.
A warm, wet wind breathed against his body, bringing the first faint, obscene odors from below. The raft was still at a great height, yet through the steamy mists that pervaded this primeval land patches of jungle and sea showed more clearly now--a patternless sprawl of dark trees alternating with water that glimmered in the probing sunlight.
Minute by minute the scene grew vaster and more fantastic. To the north, as far as the eye could see among the coiling vapors, spread the dank tangle of vegetation. Somewhere in the dimness beyond, Jamieson knew, lay the ugly swell of water called the Demon Straits. It all added up to the endless, deadly reality that was Eristan II.
"Since you're not answering," continued Jamieson softly, "I must guess that you think you're going to get through by yourself. All your long life, all the long generations of your ancestors, you and your kind have depended entirely on your magnificent bodies for survival. While men herded fearfully in their caves, discovering fire as a partial protection, desperately creating weapons that had never before existed, always a bare jump ahead of violent death--all those hundreds of centuries, the ezwal of Carson's Planet roamed his great, fertile continents, unafraid, matchless in strength as in intellect, needing no homes, no fires, no clothing, no weapons, no--"
"Adaptation to a difficult environment," the ezwal interrupted coolly, "is a logical goal of the superior being. Human beings have created what they call civilization, which is in fact merely a material barrier between themselves and their environment. This barrier is so complex and unwieldy that merely keeping it going occupies the entire existence of the race. Individually, man is a frivolous, unsuspecting slave
, who spends his life in utter subservience to artificiality and dies wretchedly of some flaw in his disease-ridden body. And it is this arrogant weakling with his insatiable will to dominance that is the greatest existing danger to the sane, self-reliant races of the Universe!"
Jamieson laughed curtly. "But you will perhaps agree that even by your own standards there is something commendable about an insignificant manifestation of life which has fought successfully against all odds, aspired to all knowledge and finally attained the stars!"
"Nonsense!" The answer held overtones of brittle impatience. "Man and his thoughts constitute a disease. As proof, during the past few minutes, you have been offering specious arguments to lead once more to an appeal for my assistance. A characteristic example of human dishonesty.
"As further evidence," the ezwal continued, "I need but anticipate the moment of our landing. Assuming that I make no attempt to harm you, nevertheless your pitiful body will be in deadly danger continually, while I--well, you must admit that, though there may be beasts below physically stronger than I, the difference cannot be so great that my intelligence would not more than balance the situation. Actually, I question that there is to be found below a single beast both stronger and faster than I."
"A single beast, no," said Jamieson patiently. He felt tense and anxious, conscious that every argument he projected could mean life or death. "But, for example, your own well-populated planet would appear desolate by comparison with this one. Even a well-trained, well-armed soldier cannot long stand alone against a mob."
The response was immediate. "By that reasoning, neither could two. Especially if one is crippled by heredity and would present more handicap than help to the other despite the possession of a weapon that he relies upon much too heavily."
Jamieson struggled to control his exasperation. He pressed on. "I am not stressing the importance of my weapon, although it should not be underrated. The important thing--"
"Is your great intelligence. I suppose," came the retort, "which prompts you to protract a futile argument indefinitely."
intelligence," Jamieson said urgently. "I mean our
intelligence. I mean the advantage of--"
"What you mean is unimportant. You have convinced me that you will not escape alive from the island below. Therefore--"
This time, two great arms flashed downward in a single coordinated gesture. The two remaining cables attached to Jamieson's harness parted like mere strings. So mighty was the blow that Jamieson was flung upward and outward in a hundred-foot arc before his taut body began to descend through the moist, heavy air.
A thought, cool with irony, struck after him: "I observe that you are a provident man, Trevor Jamieson, in having not only a knapsack but a parachute strapped to your back. This should enable you to reach the ground safely. From that point on, you will be free to exercise your argumentative powers on any jungle denizens you chance to meet. Good-bye!"
Jamieson pulled the ripcord, clenched his teeth and waited. For an awful moment there was no slackening whatever in his fall. He twisted awkwardly to look, wondering if the chute had become fouled with one of the three broken cables still attached to his harness. His first glance brought a wave of relief. It was beginning to pull sluggishly from the pack. It had been thoroughly dampened, evidently, by the extreme humidity, and even after it opened, several seconds passed before it billowed full above him.
Jamieson unsnapped the cable remnants from his harness and flung them away. He was now falling at a very moderate speed due to the dense air--nearly eighteen pounds per square inch at sea level. He grimaced. Sea level was where he would be all too quickly now.
There was, he saw, no sea immediately beneath him. A few splotches of water, yes, and a straggle of trees. The rest was a sort of clearing, except that it wasn't, exactly. It had a grayish, repellent appearance. The shock of recognition came suddenly and drained the blood from his cheeks. Quagmire! An unfathomable sea of slimy, clinging mud! In panic he tore at the lines of his parachute, as if by sheer physical strength he would draw himself toward the jungle--that jungle so near yet too far by (he made a quick calculation) a quarter of a mile. He groaned and cringed in anticipation of the foul suffocating oblivion that was now only minutes away.
The sheer deadliness of the danger galvanizhed him. Jamieson began to manipulate the chute carefully for maximum drift. Abruptly, he saw that the solid mass of trees was beyond his reach. The parachute was less than five hundred feet above that deadly, mottled expanse of mud. The jungle itself was about the same distance to the northwest. To reach it would require at least a forty-five-degree descent--an impossibility without wind. Even as he had the thought, he felt the faintest of breezes lift the parachute slightly and waft it closer to the goal. As suddenly as it had come, the wind died. And it had not made enough difference.
The crisis was approaching swiftly. The edge of the jungle was two hundred feet away, then a hundred, and then he saw that his feet would hit the gray-green, stagnant mud in seconds. He lifted them as high as he could, at the same time running his hands up the twin groups of lines from where they converged into the harness. With a tremendous effort, he wrapped them around his fists and raised his whole body the length of his arms. Still not enough. His knees plowed into the slime a full thirty feet from the undergrowth marking the nearest solid ground.
Instantly, he flattened himself out on the yielding surface to distribute his weight, although the strong, brackish odor of the mire close to his face made breathing difficult. Before the parachute could spill all its air, he released his short grip on the lines so that it would be carried as far as possible away from him. There was just a chance that...
His luck did not run out yet. The limp parachute festooned itself among the nearest group of bushes. It did not come free at his gentle tug. But his body was already half immersed in the soft, sucking mud. He jerked tentatively a few times on the lines, then pulled firmly. The mud clung to him with deadly insistence.
Desperate, Jamieson hauled on the lines as hard as he could. His body came partly free; at the same time there was a tearing sound from the parachute, and the lines went slack. Jamieson shakily gathered them in until there was resistance, then pulled hard again. This time his body moved more easily. Two more pulls and he was sliding over the bubbling surface.
Keeping an even strain on the lines, he drew himself forward, hand over hand until at long last the tough roots of a shrub came within his grasp. In a final, frenzied burst of energy born of revulsion, he forced his way, scrambling through the branches of the shrub and flung himself against the parachute where it hung in folds over a tall bush. The bush bent double with his weight, then held him, swaying. For several minutes he lay there prone, almost unaware of his surroundings.
When he did look around, it was to receive a disappointment--one that was all the more keen because of what he had just been through. He was on a little island separated from the main bulk of forest by nearly a hundred feet of quagmire. The island was about thirty feet long by twenty wide; five trees, the tallest about thirty feet high, maintained a precarious existence on its soggy yet comparatively firm base.
The negative feeling yielded to hope. The combined height of the five represented a total of over a hundred feet. Definitely enough length. But--his first glow of hope faded. There was a small hatchet in his knapsack. He had a mental picture of himself felling those trees with it, trimming them and sliding them endwise into place. It would be a long and arduous task.
Jamieson sat down, conscious for the first time of a dull ache in his shoulders, the strained tenseness of his whole body and the oppressive heat. He could barely see the sun, a white blob in the misty sky, but it was almost straight overhead. That meant, on this rather slowly rotating planet, there would be about twelve hours until dark. He sighed with the realization that he had better take advantage of the relative safety of this isolated spot and rest awhile. As he selected a nook screened by overhanging bushes he was extremely mindful of the gargantuan bird of prey encountered earlier. He stretched out on the damp turf and rolled under a canopy of leaves.
The heat was bearable here, though the shade was scattered. The sky glared whitely from all directions. It hurt his eyes and he closed them. He must have slept. When he opened his eyes it took a moment to locate the sun. It had moved some distance toward the horizon. Two hours at least, perhaps three. Jamieson stirred, stretched, and realized that he felt refreshed. His mind stopped as he came to that realization--stopped from the shock of a staggering discovery.
A bridge of fallen trees, thicker, more solid than any on the little island stretched straight and strong across the mud to the jungle beyond. Jamieson's brain started functioning again. There could, after all, be little doubt as to who had performed that colossal feat. And yet, even though his guess had to be correct, he felt a vague, primordial panic as the blue saurianlike bulk of the ezwal reared above the bushes and three eyes of dull steel turned toward him. A thought came: "You need have no fear, Trevor Jamieson. On reconsideration, your point of view seemed to contain some merit. I will assist you for the time being, and--"
Jamieson's harsh laugh cut off the thought. "What you mean is that you've run up against something you couldn't handle. Since you're pretending to be altruistic, I guess I'll have to wait to find out what happened." He shouldered his knapsack and started toward the bridge. "In the meantime, we have a long way to go."
"The War Against the Rull" copyright 1959 by A. E. Van Vogt Continues...
Excerpted from The War Against the Rull by van Vogt, A. E. Copyright © 1999 by van Vogt, A. E.. Excerpted by permission.
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