Stepping away from the lift that had brought him from the Hazlitt, Captain Nelius Canby felt his cheek twitch at the whispered insult. The muscular, young Leddlebys ground crew foreman -- "Bert Hamilton" his name badge said -- curled his upper lip in amused derision. Canby refused to nibble at the bait. Instead of venting his intermittent irritation at the label he had encountered on too many worlds, he smiled and nodded a polite yet distant greeting.
Ignoring the now-scowling supervisor, Canby strode confidently towards the control building, his relaxed arms swinging easily at his sides. Unpleasant though the experience would be, he prepared himself as best he could to meet his designated shadow, Liaison Specialist Marilyn Hemmer.
His initial impression of this border planet screamed, "Wet!" And hot. Despite an air temperature considerably lower than his home world, New Hell, the humidity on Leddlebys more than compensated for that deficit. Before he had walked a hundred meters from his sleek but battered research and trade ship, Canby's white cotton shirt clung to his stout but taut torso like a gliding jelbeast suffocating its prey.
From the corner of one eye, he observed the cumbersome unloading of one of his remaining two oh-so-precious and oh-so-expensive heli-jets. He had lost one of those versatile craft on Edgar IV when the local viceroy confiscated it for "unpaid landing fees." The other vehicle still faced repairs from the volcanic eruption he had his fellow "ratters" had investigated during their survey of Kettleson...an intellectually fascinating but economically draining expedition.
A few of his experienced and hardened fellow traders scrutinized the actions of the Leddlebys men with critical comments flung at the natives like impotent barbs. The frustration and anger they evinced in their rigid, cross-armed stances confirmed their opinions of these minions of the landing field officer. Hamilton had adamantly refused to allow the ratters to unship their own equipment.
With studied control, Canby watched as Hemmer emerged from the blocky, cercrete structure that served as the command center for this impoverished settlement and its baked earth field. Looking up from the scratched compad clutched in her slender fingers, the woman narrowed her eyes at the ratship captain's approach. Her tone exuded a business-like nonchalance that clashed with her disdainful expression. "Captain Canby? I'm Marilyn Hemmer. Liaison Specialist. We spoke during your application for landing clearance."
Smiling, Canby extended a large hand. "Of course, Miss Hemmer. I don't so easily forget a pretty face. I'm happy to meet you in person and look forward to your experienced help in facilitating our exploration."
Blinking, Hemmer reflexively matched Canby's gesture. Whether her startled reaction reflected surprise at his warmness, his compliment, or his cooperativeness, Canby could not determine. In any event, his action had the desired effect of throwing her off-balance.
"Uh, sure. Of course," she said, verbally stumbling. Abruptly her brows furrowed as she thinned her lips. "You understand, of course, I will accompany you on your survey. Leddlebys will receive a fifty-five percent royalty on any new resources you discover."
With an off-handed flip of a hand, Captain Canby said, "And you also request..." Extort. "...a sixty percent fee on any realized gross sales from previously catalogued specimens."
"Yes." Nonplused, Marilyn Hemmer lowered her gaze to her compad. "If you'll accompany me inside, we'll log in your flight plan." She glanced to her right. "By the time we finish with the formalities and issue your final license, your heli-jet should be ready to depart."
Preceding this minor -- yet in this context, powerful -- bureaucrat, Canby entered the bedraggled structure as though eager to endure the torture of provincial paperwork.
In a very real sense, he did view the ordeal with eager anticipation. He and his fellow traders had come to Leddlebys to make money, to reap a profit large enough to compensate for their previous losses. The sooner he waded through the nonsense those such as Marilyn Hemmer threw at him, the sooner he could engage in the serious business of wresting wealth from this largely unexplored wilderness.
As Canby lifted off in his freshly fueled heli-jet, the people, vehicles, and buildings below rapidly shrank to toy-like dimensions. Despite his nearing the half-century mark in age, that old adrenaline-charged thrill of potential discovery, of an opportunity he had worked hard to obtain, coursed through him. The ceaseless drive that had urged him to abandon New Hell and strike out alone for the much disparaged, secretly feared, and openly envied Freezone sent his pulse into higher gear. His lips curved into a delicious grin of excitement. Though no guarantees of success existed, the values he might achieve during this mission formed their own inducement to action.
The landing area at Brighton, the first and still largest settlement on the planet, covered but a few acres of ground. The Hazlitt stood tall within that sanctuary, the only stellar craft currently utilizing its facilities. The deep yellow earth on which it rested had been scorched and packed often enough by the weight of other visitors that not even the aggressive plants of Leddlebys could reestablish dominance within that ragged circle. One local surface-to-orbit vessel crouched like an embarrassed relative near the edge of the field in the ratship's shadow. That spacecraft faced duty only when necessary. Fuel proved prohibitively expensive to guzzle for routine flights. Until local petroleum sources could be located and efficiently exploited, the settlers focused the majority of their endeavors earthward.
Peering outside the clear shell of the heli-jet, Canby scanned the blur of mottled green streaking beneath them. Its lushness reminded him of the primitive chaos he had struggled to overcome on Tanner's World. Then he had still been saving his meager pay to purchase his first shares in Captain Ingraham's ratship, the Bastiat. The reptilian tribes of Tanner's World had initially been more interested in his flesh than his trade, but the superior tools he offered quickly altered their perspectives. The ore deposits they had deeded to him had resulted in a profit-sharing that had advanced his plans to purchase his own ship one day from absurd to merely unlikely.
And beyond the monetary rewards of the transaction, the adventure had been damned fun...
Craning his neck, Canby saw the jungle undulate towards the too-distant horizons. With a detached portion of his awareness, he noted that the main Leddlebys settlement, Brighton, had disappeared from view.
All too well, this world matched its advertised image: a backwater pioneer community conveniently located near a minor jump point. Though boasting a large diameter, the planet suffered from a distressingly low concentration of metals. What it lacked in gravity, though, it more than made up for in vegetation.
Most of its tree-matted surface had been graced by only the most preliminary and cursory of satellite examinations. The five current settlements clustered in claustrophobic proximity to one another in the northern hemisphere. Long-distance travel consisted primarily of flights in simple fixed-wing aircraft, unsophisticated but recommended by their ease of maintenance and repair. Surface routes beyond a settlement waged a constant struggle against the vegetation simply to maintain the few roads the citizens had carved from the environment. Expanding those artificial avenues required more energy and time than could be economically justified for the present. Those factors plus the lack of a dependable ionosphere for electronic communications dictated that additional development occur within line-of-sight. Geosynchronous satellites would one day be installed to lessen the need for such restrictions, but for a financially precarious group, such tools remained a luxury to be postponed until the arrival of better fortune.
In the meantime, the leaders of Leddlebys squeezed what lucre they could from visiting ratships and less fortunate travelers destined to wend their way through this outpost of humanity.
Though the sentiment would have surprised Hemmer, Canby hoped his host's haul would be huge. While he labored under the sharp eyes of the diminutive but forceful Liaison Specialist, the more technically skilled traders would complete physical measurements of the planet itself, conduct atmospheric studies, and gather local plant and animal samples. The data would later be made available -- for a suitable price -- to whomever wanted it. Any discoveries of a more profitable nature -- new pharmaceuticals, useful mineral compounds, unusual foodstuffs -- would be closely guarded until an exclusive contract for exploitation of that resource could be concluded with the government.
The more Leddlebys made, the more he and his men made.
"Your heli-jet appears to be quite sophisticated," Marilyn said loudly from the passenger seat. The rhythmic thrum of the engine and blades rendered conversation difficult.
"Thanks," Canby said noncommittally. Was this a preliminary to some obtuse bargaining strategy?
"You have auto-pilot capabilities?"
"Sure. But it's more enjoyable flying it myself."
"But you're needed primarily for landings, takeoffs, and when something goes wrong?"
Rather than directly answer her question, Canby said, "I'm never afraid to trust myself to technology, but the human touch is ever appreciated." Smiling slyly, he said, "Why? Would Brighton like to buy this? I'd be happy to sell it to you for a good price."
Frowning, Hemmer grunted her opinion of that offer. "I just bet you would."
Roused from a reverie, the Liaison Specialist glanced, puzzled, at the pilot. "What'd you say?"
Canby laughed. "I just supplied what you were thinking. 'Ratter.' That's what most of those in this sector call us."
"You must be quite proud of your ability to read minds," Hemmer said dryly. "That talent has to make negotiating much easier for you."
"It's been my experience that the worlds we research and trade with tolerate our presence and the values we can supply, but damned few of you like or admire us or what we do."
Marilyn barked her incredulity. "What do you expect? You come to struggling worlds like Leddlebys, exploit us to the hilt, and then retreat to that 'Freezone' of yours as though you're too good for the likes of us. I've seen documentaries exposing your lavish lifestyles, your frivolities, your ostentatious displays of wealth. It's disgusting."
"So we're a necessary evil?"
Looking away, Marilyn's expression hardened.
Captain Canby took her silence as an affirmative to his query. He had heard all those accusations -- and worse -- countless times before. Depending upon his mood, he listened to those diatribes with anger, amusement, frustration, or resignation. Whether these customers of the Freezone ratters would ever see him and his fellow citizens for what they truly were -- traders engaged in voluntary transactions in all aspects of social life -- Canby could not guess. Though he sometimes despaired at the lies and distortions leveled against him and his people, he refused to permit such blindness and evasion to sour him into a cynical bitterness. Life lasted not nearly long enough to allow such petty responses to ruin his existence.
Suddenly facing him, Marilyn said, "And why doesn't your own government levy duties or taxes on the goods our businessmen bring to you? No wonder you ratship captains wallow in credits. No one forces you to share your wealth."
Canby shrugged. "I suppose my fellow citizens might prefer paying higher prices for their goods... Still, perhaps we should consult them first. Don't you think?"
Marilyn did not appreciate the twinkle in his eye. "Why don't you just attend to your flying."
Minutes passed in silence. Canby found the change refreshing.
"How do you know where you're going?" Marilyn asked abruptly.
"I don't. We're in a search pattern."
"Let me rephrase that. How do you know the way back?"
Canby smiled and patted the multicolored display in front of him. "The computer remembers my headings and also figures in any course changes."
"And you're searching for...?"
For a long moment, Canby regarded the woman who most assuredly did not trust him. Keeping his mission a secret would not be possible with her on his heels...especially if he succeeded. Without hesitation, he dug under the front of his cushioned seat and handed her a thin brown folder.
"Open it up," he said.
Slowly, Marilyn extracted three large color aerial photographs. Barely contained alarm tinged her voice. "Where did you get these?"
"The long shot is a tenbakki orchard," Canby said matter-of-factly. Reaching over, he tapped the top picture. A small, bright splash of orange vegetation stood out incongruously amidst an expanse of the omnipresent green.
"You aren't supposed to have these," Marilyn said accusingly.
"As you know, tenbakki is extremely rare. The only previously known orchard died off nearly five years ago."
"You bribed some desperate citizen for these, didn't you?" Mounting anger crackled in her voice.
"Actually, he contacted me. Seems he was in danger of losing his business. Couldn't meet his tax bill. I paid him enough to hold your tax collectors at bay with enough left over to cover his other liabilities. The fruit is highly prized in the luxury market, you know. Look at the next shot."
Unfocusing her gaze, Marilyn muttered to herself. "Has to be a pilot. Someone with access to a plane and --"
"You ever try one?"
"What?" Marilyn snapped.
Pulling out the second photo resting on the Liaison Specialist's lap, he pointed. The tenbakki captured in the next angle proved to be a large, gourd-shaped fruit. Purple, yellow, red, and blue swirls intertwined across its elongated and dimpled surface. The final picture framed a single tree. Obviously shot from ground level, it revealed a canopy of orange foliage splashed dazzlingly across the dark blue background of a midday sky.
"Each of those colored areas has a different flavor," Canby offered helpfully.
Almost trembling, Marilyn tightened her fingers into tiny fists. "That citizen should have reported this discovery to his local council. This should be shared with all of Leddlebys, not handed over to a...a..."
"Ratter like me?"
Through clenched teeth, Marilyn said, "You'll pay a twenty-percent penalty for this. You'll be lucky if you aren't banned from Leddlebys for good."
"That would be most unfortunate." Despite his bantering words, Captain Canby felt anything but amused by this situation. Given the restrictions, licenses, fees, taxes, levies, tariffs, and whatever other kinds of shackles the locals of this sector could devise from their fertile imaginations, he could barely afford to trade at a profit. Only the hope of the occasional spectacular find offered him a realistic chance to prosper...and in the process help the few rebels who opposed the insanity of their culture -- like the man who had risked fines and imprisonment to get this information to the owner of the Hazlitt.
Calming, Marilyn shook her head. "It's a reported aphrodisiac. Unproven, of course." She sneered. "But then I don't suppose the idle rich need much of an excuse to spend exorbitant amounts of money on such inanities. As long as it's something they alone can afford, it doesn't matter what the product is, I suppose. They're more concerned with the status and symbolism of exclusive possession."
"Oh, I don't deny such frivolous folks exist," Canby said, checking his display screen and the course plotted there. Too bad his pilot-informant had not been better at charting his own location. This orange needle in a green haystack might take awhile to detect. "But they can only waste so much money on themselves. The rest usually gets invested in jobs that benefit the average citizen you champion so vigorously."
"Better than none, at all, even if true. And if it weren't for those 'idle rich' who 'waste' their money on luxuries, those who supply those goods would never stay in business long enough to make such products available to everyone. Read your history books. Once upon a time, only governments and the extremely rich could afford to travel among the stars. Now nearly anyone can afford to fly where they will."
Clutching the photos, Marilyn waved them in the air like a smoking gun. "You're still being penalized for withholding this information."
Rather than continue an argument he could not win, Canby asked, "Why don't the citizens of Leddlebys just grow their own tenbakki orchards?"
Marilyn expelled a weary breath. "There's some combination of climate and soil content here -- maybe some trace element -- we've so far been unable to duplicate. We can grow the plant, but it won't bear fruit. Some compound missing in the local dirt; some lack of needed insect life; some subtle pollutant around the settlements. We don't know the answer. But we will. Eventually."
"Glad to hear you're not above 'exploiting' those idle rich yourself."
Marilyn nodded grimly. "They deserve whatever they get."
Surprisingly enough, Captain Canby agreed with that verdict...but not in the sense his companion meant.
Kilometers swept by below the heli-jet. Dispassionately precise numbers flashed on the display: air and ground speeds, vectors, heights, elapsed time. Like a noisy beast reborn out of mythology, the heli-jet soared above the alien landscape.
"Uh, oh." A note of cold alarm blossomed in Marilyn's voice, disturbing Canby's easy calm.
"What is it?" he asked firmly.
Reluctantly, his gaze followed the direction of her pointing finger.
Apprehension blossomed in Captain Canby's middle.
To the left, a forbidding, snow-tinged mountain range curved through a forty degree arc of horizon. Near one trailing edge of that rocky expanse, a blue-black mass of piled, angry clouds spread its gloomy stain across a light-blue sky. Even as the ratship captain watched, he could detect motion in that ebony wall of vapor.
With inexorable indifference, the storm poured itself in their direction, a viscous and vicious barrier to further progress. Flashes of actinic yellow-white light stabbed jagged trails of startling brightness through that line of clouds, urgent exclamations of danger looming rapidly towards them. "I may be overreacting here, but..."
"No. You're not. Turn us around."
With reflexive skill, Captain Canby followed that advice. Quickly.
"I've heard about these storms." Marilyn's barely audible voice emerged above the sounds of laboring engines and rushing air. Atavistic fear whitened her features.
"What have you heard?" Canby asked carefully.
"Boost your power. Now."
As the jet engine augmented the power of the blades, acceleration pressed Canby and his passenger into their seats. Speed mounted in a rising parabola. Unfortunately, the leading edge of that swirling disaster moved faster still. In mere minutes, it would overtake them.
"What have you heard?" Canby repeated, his voice sounding very hollow and tinny in the strange atmosphere through which they plowed.
"These storms pop out of these mountains at close to four-hundred kilometers an hour. Colder mountain air slides down the peaks. Hits the lower levels of hot, humid air. It happens infrequently. The original colonists lost a heli-jet and eight people when they first explored this section of Leddlebys. Fliers tend to avoid the mountains now."
So naturally I headed right for them... Canby permitted himself that single complaint then concentrated on the problem at hand.
The heli-jet rocked like a leaf on the disturbed surface of a pond as a preliminary caress of wind whipped past them. A sharply defined sheet of rain roared towards the diminutive treetops.
"We'll never make it through this downpour," Marilyn said numbly.
"I'll adjust my azimuth. Maybe we can slice across the front."
Despite a valiant struggle on Canby's part, the storm swallowed the small refuge of steel and plastic five minutes later.
Rain hammered the canopy in a cacophonous deluge. Twisting winds gripped the helpless heli-jet and tossed it about with the ease of a giant playing ball. An unexpected downdraft dropped them two-hundred meters in a matter of seconds, eliciting a strangled shriek from Marilyn and a grunt of effort from the ratship captain. Despite the spinning wiper blades, visibility dropped nearly to zero.
Why did I ever leave the emptiness of space...
"We'll crash if we keep this up!" Canby yelled above the banshee wail of the storm. If not for the computerized stabilization, he knew they would already have become a mangled ornament adorning the top of some strange tree. "We have to turn back. Run before it. Hope it'll die out soon. It's our only chance."
Gulping dryly, Marilyn nodded. "All right. Go ahead."
With difficulty, Canby reversed course. As the full force of the wind slammed broadside into the heli-jet, the wind threatened to send the craft spinning. But then the ratship captain swung them around and raced towards an unknown destination. The turbulence diminished as they rode with the unforgiving push of the storm. As their ground speed mounted, Canby eased back on the throttle. That extra fuel might soon prove extremely valuable.
For untold minutes, they fought the grip of the storm. Canby's arms and shoulders ached from strain and tension. He barely heard Marilyn when she spoke his name.
"What?" he snapped, jerking his gaze to the right.
"I think it's passed us." She pointed to the rear.
The bruised clouds there had begun to fade into a light gray tinged with buried veins of gold. Vague patches of anemic blue struggled to reassert themselves near the flat horizon. Ahead, black clouds still scudded along. The main storm had, indeed, swept beyond them, at last.
"Let's head back to Brighton," the Liaison Specialist said.
That was one suggestion Canby would gladly follow. With a sense of relief mingled with disappointment, he urged his ship into a gentle arc.
The display indicated they had traversed nearly six hundred kilometers since leaving the landing field.
"Heli-jet to Hazlitt. Over." Canby noted Marilyn's skeptical expression and shrugged. "It's worth a try." Pursing his lips in concentration, he still did not expect to succeed. Given the extended horizon of Leddlebys, the most logical conclusion was that they had passed out of radio range.
After ten minutes of failure to rouse a response, he replaced the microphone.
"I'd hoped Leddlebys tower, at least, would pick us up," Marilyn admitted glumly.
"That is too bad. We could use a friendly ear." With understated finality, Canby tapped the fuel gauge. The numbers there slowly but steadily crawled towards zero. "Not much more than half an hour left." His eyes locked with those of his watchdog. "I hope it's enough to find us a landing site. If it isn't..."
If not, leaving Leddlebys alive would be a long shot. A jungle canopy did not mesh well with the whirling blades of a heli-jet.
As that bleak and harrowing prospect melted into their awareness, they pressed on at only a few hundred meters altitude. Many of the trees below reached at least thirty meters in height. Such a narrow safety margin could vanish in an instant.
Shoving aside his apprehension, Canby scanned the canopy for a break -- any break -- in the never ending carpet of green. Finding a clearing large enough to effect a landing amidst that tightly packed vegetation would not be easy. While still far from dead, they were not that far from the trees. Skimming forty meters above the tangled jungle offered an extraordinarily clear view of native Leddlebys, but not one Canby could especially recommend.
Tapping a knee with the fingers of one hand, Marilyn inhaled a ragged breath. "Right. How much longer?"
"About ten minutes."
"Better try the radio again."
"You do it," Canby said tightly. "I'm too busy." Burying such distractions, he studied the instrument display. The race between the altimeter and the fuel gauge to reach zero continued towards its inevitable conclusion.
"Heli-jet to Brighton Control. Over... Heli-jet to Brighton. Over. Heli-jet to anyone. Ov-- Captain!"
"What!" The trader's gaze flew over the display. What new disaster loomed to sweep them away?
"Over there. To the right."
Canby peered past Marilyn. Precious seconds passed before the source of her excitement caught his eye.
A river. A wide, serenely flowing river cut a winding path through the dense jungle. It promised to be a wet landing...but far better that than attempting to convert a heli-jet into a treehouse.
Canby twisted his craft into a tight turn. With each tick of the clock, he closed the five hundred meter gap between them and the river. Alarmingly, the landing gear sliced through the broad leaves of the tallest trees. A distant corner of his mind prepared for the probability of a crash...
Suddenly, the leafy floor above which they skittered dropped away towards the ground.
"I know, I know," Canby ground out. Tension made his jaws ache as he killed their forward velocity, throttling back the engine.
To his puzzled but welcomed surprise, a broad, flat expanse of ground perhaps thirty meters in width extended along one bank of the river. From their low altitude, that savior field had been invisible until they emerged right above it. How such a clearing managed to exist in the middle of an otherwise impenetrable mass of flora, Canby did not know. Regardless, he had no intention of passing by such a gift.
The landing did not exactly qualify as...graceful...but both the humans and the heli-jet survived relatively intact. As Canby silenced the engine, he decided not to complain about his minor bruises.
Though shaking in release, the trader nevertheless grinned at Marilyn. Her smile beamed almost as broadly as his.
"We made it!" she exclaimed.
"I know. I was there."
Clapping her hands, Marilyn laughed and bounced on her seat. Her smile held for a moment before slowly leaking away like air from a punctured balloon. "Now what? We can't have more than a few dozen liters of fuel left. We're not going to be flying out of here."
"They'll come looking for us."
"Okay...," Marilyn said with less than complete conviction. "But what are the odds they'll find us? This is a very tiny clearing in an extremely large jungle. We're nowhere near our planned course. Unless they happen to come within radio range..."
"Yes, but --"
"They may decide the storm got us. I know I would."
"Don't be so cheerful. You'll get me to giggling." Stifling his annoyance at his companion's pessimism and her implicit criticism of his friends, Captain Canby unstrapped his safety harness. "Let's at least stretch our legs. Then we can decide what to do next."
As Canby shoved open the warped door, he nearly regretted his decision as the heat and humidity assailed him.
Reluctantly, Marilyn followed his example.
Though covered with a thick, yellow-green grassy growth, the soft, rich ground under the trader's boots verged on soggy. Not unusual near a river, especially not after the recent violent storm. Squinting, Canby peered up at the clearing sky. The lowering sun stared back, hot, blinding, unrepentant.
Rummaging under the pilot's seat, Canby extracted two velcro-packs. Attaching one to his waist strip, he handed the other to Marilyn.
"What's this?" she asked.
"We going somewhere?"
"Just put it on. S.O.P."
Doing as instructed, the Liaison Specialist pursed her lips. "What's in it?"
"Rations. Solar still. Firesticks. Medi-pak. Better to have it on you and not need it than to need it and not have it."
"I'm glad you don't have a needler in there," Marilyn said sternly.
Canby furrowed his brows. "Why's that?"
"Well, needlers are illegal for civilians to own, of course."
Rolling his eyes, Canby frowned. "Fine. If I had one you could toss me in jail when we return to Brighton. But since I don't just...just shut up." Quelling his anger, he headed away from his nemesis and towards the shadowed tree line.
"At least the heli-jet provides us with shelter," Marilyn protested. "Shouldn't we stay close to it?"
"Suit yourself," the trader said sourly over his shoulder. "But the 'r' in ratship stands for research. I intend to be productive as long as I'm stuck here."
"Shouldn't we remain at the radio? Just in case?"
Balling his hands into fists, Canby stomped to a halt and squeezed shut his eyes for a long moment. When he faced his companion, his lips compressed into a thin line. "The on-board computer will transmit a distress signal and beep my keypad if something comes in on the radio."
With her expression clouding, Marilyn strode defiantly towards the pilot. "Fine. Then let's check those trees. There may be something in there."
"Are you sure?" Canby asked in mock concern. "There may be a creature there with long teeth and sharp fangs who's just hankering for something new and tasty like us."
Catching up to the trader, Marilyn sneered politely. "Don't worry. I'll protect you."
Blowing out his lips, Canby let his fuming evaporate. Something about their surroundings struck him as most peculiar. The nearby grass reached barely ankle high, yet the vegetation beyond the heli-jet nearest the river soared to waist level. And the trees towards which they headed -- unlike their cousins behind the heli-jet -- also appeared free of undergrowth. That uncanny and unsettling resemblance to a well-tended orchard suggested...
"What?" she demanded. "What's the matter?"
At that point, Canby spied hazy movement under the trees.
Lifting a warning hand, he pointed towards this new potential danger. Quizzically, Marilyn followed the direction indicated by his index finger.
Gradually, the truncated forms solidified. With stolid slowness, short creatures plodded among the trees. The half-dozen...things...visible there stood approximately a meter-and-a-half tall and waved supple tentacles in the air. The alien torsos spread wide and squat at the bottom and tapered quickly to a narrow neck. Atop the "necks" sprouted blue-green tufts of feathery "leaves." Off-white highlights sprinkled the dark green bodies. Perhaps such coloration had evolved as a form of camouflage...
At that disturbing thought, Canby surveyed the jungle more closely. If their new acquaintances needed protective patterns, that implied something from which they had to hide.
"What are they?" Marilyn whispered as she approached the trader.
"I don't know. Caretakers? Animals? The owners?"
"Maybe we should head back to the heli-jet," the Liaison Specialist suggested with a hint of apprehension, tugging at his sleeve.
"Not yet," Captain Canby said firmly. "This could result in a big bonus. The first evidence for an indigenous higher animal here on Leddlebys. That information may prove valuable. Besides, they seem harmless enough. They didn't react to our landing."
"Famous last words," Marilyn muttered.
One of the "gardeners" stopped whatever it was doing and turned towards the intruders. A single huge eye situated a third of the way down from the top focused on the humans. As its (hers? his?) companions followed that example, the creature revealed that the lidless eye was matched by one on the opposite side of its body.
"Should we run?" Marilyn asked quietly.
"I don't think so. If they're dangerous, flight could send a bad signal. If they're harmless, there's no need to leave."
"I don't see any weapons."
"Unfortunately, their definition of a weapon may differ considerably from ours. Remain aloof. Don't let them know you're afraid."
Marilyn shot the captain a dirty look. "Speak for yourself."
"Oh. That's right," Canby said, grinning mischievously. "You're the 'liaison specialist.'"
Any retort Marilyn might have given was cut off by their gesticulating hosts as the aliens surrounded the newcomers. Ropy arms waved in the air like sinuous branches swaying in a heavy breeze.
"Any idea what they're saying?" Marilyn asked.
"How could I? They may simply be excited by our presence. Or they could be threatening or trying to intimidate us. Or --"
"I get the idea," Marilyn said wryly.
"I guess we play it by ear."
On the whole, the actions of the gardeners seemed compounded mostly of curiosity and friendliness, at least as a human might define those traits. The small, round mouths in no way presented any obvious menace. As best he could, Canby stayed motionless while the creatures' cool, slick tentacles flickered over him.
"I hope their taste buds are in their mouths where they belong," he said with less than complete facetiousness.
Abruptly the aliens shuffled away. Standing together, they waved their tentacles in one another's faces, intertwining them in rapid, intricate patterns.
"They're probably discussing how badly we smell," Marilyn suggested as she wiped a sheet of sweat from her forehead. "They seem intelligent enough. Or at least well-trained."
The six gardeners ceased their communication and headed towards the jungle's edge.
"Looks like they're losing interest in us. Shall we follow?" she asked.
"For awhile. The more we learn, the bigger the profit."
"If we make it back to receive it," Marilyn said cheerily.
Cautiously at first and then with a growing interest, Captain Canby approached the strange little beings. From a safe distance, he studied them as they performed their arcane duties.
The trees they tended loomed close to twenty-five meters in height and to well over a meter in diameter. The plants sported few branches but had a canopy of paddle-shaped leaves. Overlapping with those of the surrounding trees, the leaves created a nearly solid roof over the jungle floor.
Excited at his discovery, Canby nudged Marilyn. "I bet that clearing we landed in was being prepared for planting more of these trees."
"Sounds logical. Whatever these trees are for, they must be important to these beings."
Fascinated, Canby observed one of the little creatures stretch up on its short legs and broad, flat, toeless feet. With some difficulty, it reached towards a brown tube protruding from the bole of the tree. Using three of its tentacles, it pulled the smooth tube free. Next, the gardener half circled the trunk and inserted the tube into another hole that appeared to have been recently drilled.
"Look there," Marilyn said, pointing.
On the ground beside the tree lay a corkscrew device.
"An artifact... That suggests a higher order of intelligence."
Carefully, the plant-man placed an empty basket of mud-encased fiber beneath the tube.
Fifteen more minutes passed while the creatures repeated the simple procedure at tree after tree. Finally, each of the aliens lifted a weirdly shaped yoke supporting a pair of liquid-filled baskets and headed off into the jungle at a sedate pace.
"I wonder what that fluid is," Canby said, half to himself. "With a sample of that for analysis, I'd be in a good position to bargain."
"Do we go or stay?" Marilyn asked, breaking into his contemplation.
"We could wait here for these baskets to fill."
"At a single drop at a time, that could take quite awhile."
"True." Canby lifted his gaze. "Besides, I want to see where they live."
At that juncture, the last plant-man in line half-turned. With an uncannily human gesture, it beckoned the visitors to follow.
Captain Canby laughed. "With an invitation like that, how can we refuse? Come on."
Uncertainly, Marilyn eyed the empty baskets.
Grabbing her by an arm, Canby pulled the Brighton native along. "Come on!"
Reluctantly she nodded.
The cavalcade had already disappeared into the trees.
"Hurry up," Canby urged. "We don't want to lose them."
The two humans trotted after the plant-men but did not have far to go before spotting the trailing member of the party. Its rear eye stared at the visitors as they fell into step. It gave no indication as to whether it either welcomed or resented the couple's presence.
The path wound along, well-worn and easily followed. The orchard obviously represented a well-frequented locale. The most logical conclusion suggested that the tree sap provided a staple in the diets of the plant-people.
Twenty minutes later, the odd party entered another clearing. Oval in shape and close to one hundred meters by sixty in dimensions, the area held scores of tiny, open-roofed structures scattered about a central plaza. Something of importance seemed to be in the offing as the plaza rapidly filled with a large crowd of the plant-men. The six gardeners proceeded through the crowd. The humans had no choice but to continue in line as the basket carriers headed into the inner circle. The mass of alien bodies pressing in around them permitted no other option.
Nervously, Canby rubbed the tips of his fingers together. Having his exits blocked did nothing to ease his apprehension. A quick getaway had often meant the crucial difference between freedom and imprisonment. Or worse. Past experience prodded him to leave.
Carefully, the alien bearers lowered their burdens to the hard-packed ground. To Canby's mounting alarm, the other villagers surged eagerly forward. Though individually the plant-men massed less than even Marilyn, taken together they could quite easily overwhelm their guests.
Tentacles whipped excitedly from side to side. Lipless mouths smacked together in evident hunger. The plant-people and the gardeners engaged in what could only be some manner of ritual or greeting.
During this orchestrated melee, a strange realization dawned on Canby. Beyond the shuffling of feet and the faint slap, slap of tentacles hitting against one another, no sound emerged from their miniature hosts. Their friends gave every indication of being mute.
Turning to share his insight with Marilyn, he saw, to his surprise, that she seemed to have forgotten her hard-edged persona. A look of child-like wonder lit her lined face. Watching the uncannily beautiful and mysterious scene before them, she appeared transformed into someone almost...likable.
The orange-red disc of the setting sun began to disappear beyond the tree-lined horizon. As though on cue, all movement among the plant-men ceased. Their expectant attitudes indicated that some significant event would soon occur.
Marilyn grabbed Canby's arm.
"What...?" he asked, pulling away.
Kneeling, she pulled the trader down beside her. "I think it might be wiser if we don't intrude our height into this."
Gazing across the small sea of green bodies, Canby decided to agree. He had no desire to offend the aliens.
With slow dignity, the particular plant-man who had beckoned for the humans to follow (an especially broad band of white spread above one eye like some comical brow identified it) dipped a shallow, oval container of wood into one of the baskets. After taking a long, noiseless quaff, it lowered a clear membrane over its visible eye. The crowd stilled their rustling even further in anticipation of the next scene in this oddly moving drama.
At that moment, all hell broke loose.
A nerve rattling scream erupted from the edge of the crowd in the direction opposite the lowering sun. Immediately, the wildly gesticulating plant-men pushed and jostled past the humans. In frantic confusion, they attempted to flee the source of that unnerving sound.
"What's happening?" Marilyn shouted.
"I think we're under attack."
Without warning, Canby tripped and went down as squat bodies slammed into him. Rough feet scrabbled over his bruised legs and body. He struggled to rise but could not. The constant collisions prevented him from standing.
Abruptly a pair of strong hands thrust under his arms and yanked him to safety.
"Thanks!" he yelled. He had no reason to raise his voice, however. Despite their panic, the plant-men continued as silent as ever. Only their agitation betrayed their fear of the still-roaring interloper. The quiet added a cold touch to the scene that merely underscored the terror.
"Look!" Marilyn shouted. "Over there. Some kind of animal."
Their shadows stretched to where a four-legged beast disemboweled a too-slow plant-man. The carnage contrasted unsettlingly with the peacefulness that had reigned only moments before. Four other dead or barely moving villagers sprawled on the dusty ground around the strange animal.
Glancing about, Canby realized they were conspicuously alone. The scattered aliens had taken flimsy refuge in their open-doored huts. Great, staring eyes peered out into the gathering evening gloom. None of the aliens appeared eager to confront the beast and defend themselves.
As he turned back towards that threat, a shivering chill swept through Canby's middle. The carnivore -- all teeth and claws and fight -- had finished with its current slaughter and now stalked slowly in their direction.
"Let's get out of here," Marilyn said with wavering calm.
"I don't think so," Canby said with sudden resolve.
While that snarling mangler from a world barely explored padded closer, Canby stood his ground as though frozen in fear.
Marilyn noticed the trader's immobility. "Come on, Canby. Don't let it scare you."
"Sure you can. Just move slowly and --"
"No." Canby glanced about at the now-deserted compound. "We've got to help them before it kills again."
"Are you crazy?" the Liaison Specialist hissed.
"Maybe. But I'm a trader. And without trading partners..."
The beast continued its advance, baring its pointed teeth in saliva-dripping promise of an early death. A deep-throated growl emphasized its unfriendly intentions.
"Forget it, Canby! It'll have its fill pretty soon. Then it'll leave. If these people are willing to pay the price, don't you interfere."
An appeal to cultural relativism did not dissuade the trader. As the killer crept on, its powerful haunches rippling with barely suppressed power, Canby realized that only his larger size and strange appearance/smell had kept the beast at bay even this long.
"Yell at it," he said evenly as he gingerly slid a hand towards his emergency pouch. "I need time to reach that hut."
"Oh... You're nuts, Canby!"
"Please, Marilyn." The trader could see the creature's muscles tightening for a final spring at its novel prey.
"Hah-yuh!" A small rock hit the animal's flank. Spitting angrily, it spun in the direction of its tormentor.
Without looking back, Canby ran, yanking a pair of firesticks free as he did so. Reaching his goal, he plunged both hands into a wall of the hut he had selected. He pulled hard as he could and ripped a ragged section free.
"To the side!"
The trader dove to his left and heard rather than saw the predator slam past him. As its intended quarry rolled away, the beast crashed headlong into the hut. In the confusion, Canby fumbled the firesticks.
Fighting to untangle itself, the carnivore roared its frustration and rage. Rapidly, Canby scanned the dappled ground, trying not to dwell on the all-too-vivid image of those claws and teeth sinking painfully into his flesh.
Spotting the sticks, he bent and scooped up his precious prize.
Suddenly the ground rushed up and smacked him in the face. Sprawling in the dirt, Canby realized Marilyn had shoved him away from the killer's second attack. Which meant...
Twisting about, the trader saw Marilyn struggling to keep alien fangs from slashing open her exposed and vulnerable throat.
Adrenaline rushed through Canby. Scrambling to his feet, he swung a heavy, booted foot as hard as he could into the animal's heaving ribs. With triumphant satisfaction, he heard a bone crack.
At this new assault, the creature yowled in pain. Abandoning Marilyn, it turned on the ratship captain. Briefly, Canby caught a quick glimpse of red streaking Marilyn's arms as she dragged herself away.
The predator glared at the human. Bright blood rimmed its slavering mouth.
"Come on!" Canby screamed. "Try me and die."
Without hesitation, the beast charged. At the instant the animal left the ground, Canby dropped the hut material and moved in synch with the killer. Falling to his back on the ground, he thrust his feet up beneath the beast's belly, shoved, straining with his legs, and forward with his arms.
The creature's own momentum worked against it. Before it had time to establish a hold in an arm or leg, it flew ungracefully through the air in a long arc...right towards the plant-men's baskets.
With a loud splash, it landed square in the middle of one. Drenched and madder than ever, the predator tore free and spun, snarling. Its wide, yellow eyes fixed on Canby as the source of its torment and frustration. Two steps forward and it jumped.
This time the trader was prepared.
Breaking off the tips of the firesticks, he buried them in the hut material and held tightly onto his improvised torch. While fire would not be enough to kill it, he hoped the beast would find flame unfamiliar enough to frighten it away.
As the resinous cores mingled with the air, the ends of the firesticks flared to crackling life. The hut material, dry and brittle, spit and burned fiercely when Canby waved it towards the attacking animal.
The fire licked at the killer.
With a startled yell, the trader stumbled backward. A ball of flame meteored to earth beside him. Smoke and heat and screeches of agony swirled through the air. Staggering, the creature rose to its feet. A moment later, the still-burning, still-screaming animal streaked towards the jungle.
"What the hell...!" Canby said, mystified.
Stunned, he remained there only a moment.
"Marilyn..." Without hesitation, he ran towards his companion. "Marilyn!"
The Liaison Specialist sat on the dirt, leaning wearily against a sagging hut wall. Her formerly neat clothes hung loosely from her body, tattered and ripped. A gory mask of drying blood and dirt concealed her face. Long, red furrows striped her arms as they lay palm-up on the ground. Tears leaked from between her tightly closed eyelids.
"Marilyn? Can you hear me?"
Reluctantly, her eyelids shuttered half open.
"Cliché," she mumbled. "I expected better from you."
"How badly are you hurt?" The trader appreciated her courage but...
"I think it looks worse than it is." She swallowed. "I'm going to need some stitches, though. Especially my arms."
As delicately as he could, Canby lifted back what remained of her sleeves. The fresh, angry cuts ran ragged and deep where the beast's claws had raked her.
"I have to get you back."
"Back to where? The heli-jet's the next thing to being out of fuel. I'm not holding my breath for a rescue party, either. We could be stuck here for quite awhile."
Opening his medi-pak, the trader gingerly applied antiseptic.
Pulling down a corner of his mouth, he stood. "I'll apply some plastiskin strips later." He rummaged through his supplies. "The only pain-killer I have are these pills."
"I'll take them. Thanks." As she reached for the bottle, Marilyn winced and eased her arm back down. "Maybe you can...?"
"Of course." Kneeling, he shook out a pair of bright yellow pills from the small plastic bottle. Gently, he slipped them between his companion's blood-caked lips. "You know, you do look rather a mess."
With a ghostly smile, Marilyn closed her eyes.
Pushing himself erect, Canby stared down at the wounded bureaucrat's listless form.
At first singly and then in groups, the plant-men emerged from the shelter of their huts and converged on their rescuers. Subdued in demeanor, they undulated their tentacles in vague, uneasy motions.
Most halted a respectful distance from the diminishing fire still burning fitfully where the strange liquid had spilled. The unfamiliar phenomenon evidently baffled them.
Before the fire could spread to any of the other baskets, Canby strode over and stamped out the remaining flames. Tentacles waved more energetically as he stepped back.
The alien with the white eye band shuffled up to the tall human. Slowly, it extended its tentacles and danced them hesitantly over Canby's flushed face. The trader waited patiently until the inspection ended.
Briefly, "Eye Band" disappeared into a nearby hut. Returning, it held a large, wooden bowl. As it approached one of the unspilled baskets and dipped in the utensil, its fellows gathered closer. The crudely finished bowl emerged brimming with the clear liquid.
One of the villagers apparently violated a norm by crowding in too closely. The largest of Eye Band's tentacles whipped out with blurring speed and smacked the offending party. The overly impatient one scurried away, appropriately chastised.
With a peculiar kind of dignity all its own, Eye Band extended the bowl towards Canby.
Uncertainly, the trader gripped the bowl in both hands, afraid to spill any. Having witnessed Eye Band's capacity for irritation, Canby did not care to act in a fashion that might constitute a dangerous breach of custom. Uneasily, he peered into the shadowed bowl and its sloshing contents.
Gently yet firmly, his host nudged the offering upward.
The idea of drinking something as flammable as this gave Canby pause. Reflecting on the significant quantities of potent booze he had imbibed in his youth, however, placed the situation in a less intimidating light. "Probably just some kind of alcohol-laden sap...," he muttered.
Surveying the expectant villagers and all of those large eyes fixed steadfastly upon him, he supposed he had to make a gesture or risk alienating his potential customers. Slowly, he touched the rough rim of the bowl to his lips. As he did so, something familiar about the beverage's aroma tickled at his brain. Carefully, he dipped the tip of his tongue into the fluid.
Grinning delightfully, he pretended to drink. Not only could he save them both, he had just discovered the perfect product for this energy starved world.
The sap was not alcohol, not simply tree sap, but fuel. A crude form, true, but petroleum fuel, nonetheless. A plant-produced petroleum analog.
Solemnly, he handed back the bowl then added a short, flourishing bow for good measure.
Seemingly satisfied with the human's attention to proper protocol, Eye Band accepted the bowl and raised it high into the air.
Renewed life washed through the vitalized crowd. As Eye Band's five basket carriers scurried towards their respective baskets, the other villagers disappeared into their huts. Without delay, each returned and presented a bowl to be filled.
Half an hour passed before the last of the aliens had been served. Long before then, however, Canby had carried Marilyn into an unoccupied hut and arranged an impromptu grass bed for her. He decided not to mention the fuel-sap...not until he had sorted out the details...
Despite the deepening darkness and the possibility of other lurking carnivores, the trader steeled myself for a jaunt back to the heli-jet. He had to bring fresh water for Marilyn. Indeed, his own thirst grew more insistent by the moment.
They had walked the path in twenty minutes. Canby ran it in just over five. No carnivores leaped from the undergrowth to challenge him. The worst threat came in a buzzing swarm of insects which left their alien dinner alone after a nibble or two. Sometimes bad taste had its advantages.
The bright blue, twenty-liter plastic container he pulled from the heli-jet held only half that much water. The second one held nothing. The trader frowned. Whoever was responsible for checking emergency gear would receive one of his patented "little talks" when he returned to the Hazlitt. That remained for the future, however. More immediate concerns occupied his attention. On the control panel, the red radio light still glowed, awaiting a signal that might never come.
Closing the heli-jet door, Canby glanced towards the western tree line. Only a dying afterglow lingered there. He did not worry, though, about getting lost. The well-marked trail provided clues even a novice could follow.
As he entered the village, the compound seemed deserted. Presumably, the plant-men had merely retired for the night. Heading towards Marilyn's hut, he pondered how to proceed in the morning.
Given the ceremonial importance of that tree sap of theirs, they might not part with it easily or willingly. What could he trade which the diminutive aliens would value more than the sap? Firesticks? Useful though they might be in warding off predators, the villagers' fear of fire would doubtless cancel out that benefit. With time, he might teach them how properly to use such a rebellious servant. Marilyn's wounds, however, dictated a quick escape from this serendipitous discovery of theirs. If he were a different person, he could rise before the plant-men the next morning and empty the baskets before the harvesters arrived. But then, if what if could change reality, he would what if the storm which stranded them here from existence.
No. He could not -- or rather, would not -- steal. Not in this context. To do so would destroy the very thing he struggled to save: himself.
Inside the hut, Marilyn formed a darker mass on the floor. Gratefully, Canby lowered the heavy water container.
"Canby?" The Liaison Specialist's voice sounded low and hoarse.
"Here I am."
"About time." Her eyes opened to twin slits. "Get the water?"
"Don't stand there like a drell-head. Give me a drink."
Realizing he had neglected to bring a cup, the trader scanned the sparse interior of the hut. On a narrow shelf halfway up one wall rested a wooden bowl. Awkwardly, he filled it from the water container.
With sloppy enthusiasm, Marilyn drank the bowl dry. "Thanks," she croaked out.
For a long moment, Canby studied the woman whose job demanded she harness productive people such as him like mindless beasts of burden. All his professional life, he had fought and connived against, bribed and out-bested parasites such as her. Rather than tap into the true source of wealth -- individual human intelligence, ingenuity, and rationality -- the bureaucrats of this sector and the citizens who supported them preferred the "easier" route of force and false morality. Somehow their wants, desires, and needs always took precedence over his and other ratters'. Yet without the constant influx of goods and money from the Freezone, the economy here would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Despite that fact, the bureaucrats and politicians persisted in traveling the same path to destruction as so many other cultures before them.
Captain Canby chafed under the heavy hand of their controls. He did not care to be even a part-time slave. Still, he could do nothing but circumvent or accept those restrictions...for now.
Pondering his situation, he wondered how he might best the Liaison Specialist in this voiceless dance. He had no way of knowing how much blood she had lost; no way of knowing the extent of her injuries. If he abandoned her to fate, left her here, or waited until infection and weakness stole the last of her energy, who could prove him at fault? With her gone, he could keep the plant-men secret until he devised a mutually satisfying avenue for trade with them. Why should he concern himself with someone sworn to steal the wealth which represented his life? He owed her nothing positive. Indeed, eliminating obstacles to freedom could only be lauded.
But did her obvious offenses, her patent immorality in serving a system designed to bind others to her will justify a death sentence?
If the context warranted, he would not hesitant to kill swiftly and ruthlessly, without compunction or remorse, to defend his values both physical and spiritual. To define the present case in such a fashion, however...that, he was not quite prepared to accept.
Expelling a long breath, he peeled off his sweat-sodden shirt and ripped a wide strip from its hem. Rolling the material into a loose ball, he poured more water into the bowl then soaked the rag in it. After squeezing out the excess moisture, he gently dabbed at the blood smearing Marilyn's face. She winced at the pressure on the cuts but held her tongue.
Her arms proved to be in worse shape. Canby cleaned them as best he could, his opponent biting her lower lip to quiet her protests of pain. With the wounds sufficiently free of blood and dirt, the trader applied the plastiskin strips. They would keep the cuts clean and help hold the jagged edges together. Perhaps she would not scar too badly.
"Can I have something to eat?" Marilyn asked.
"Sure." But before Canby finished peeling the foil wrapper from a ration bar, his companion had fallen into a restless sleep.
Sinking back onto his heels, the trader examined his handiwork. For the moment, he had done all he could. As he leaned against the wall, he stared up through the roofless hut. Unfamiliar stars twinkled between scattered clouds. Before long, he nodded off, as well, the conundrum of how to obtain the fuel they needed still unsolved.
He awoke early, chilly and damp from morning dew. Marilyn, her features pale and drawn, lay on the floor of the hut opposite him, so still and quiet that for a heart-tripping moment he thought she had died in the night.
The slow, steady rise of her chest silenced his alarm.
Shivering, Canby rubbed his face and stood. He wanted to check out the orchard before his green friends arrived.
Stepping outside, he found the village slumbering in peaceful contrast to the terror of the previous night. The fresh air tingled in his lungs, the heat of the coming day no more than an unavoidable prospect safely to be ignored for now. The first light of dawn cast long, deep shadows across the earthen expanse. The mutilated bodies of the dead plant-men had vanished, whether buried or simply tossed into the jungle, he did not know.
At an easy pace, he jogged along the river trail. Without much enthusiasm, he chewed on a dry wedge of high-protein emergency rations. When he entered the clearing, he stuttered to a stop. The orchard tenders had risen even earlier than he. Six new natives shuffled from tree to tree trimming leaves and checking the contents of their woven baskets. They acted unaware of -- or did not care about -- the human's presence. Amid the trees clustered mounds of freshly turned sod. Burial places?
What to do?
Perhaps the direct approach might work. Gratitude for his vanquishing of the predator might pay for the fuel he required.
Casually, he approached the nearest basket, passing three of the plant-men on their way into the clearing. Canby paused to observe their labors. Each worker pulled tuber-like, dark masses from small woven baskets they dragged behind them. At widely spaced intervals, the plant-men shoved the tubers into the soggy ground and moved on.
A new orchard in the making?
Wiping damp palms along his legs, Captain Canby headed towards his goal. A memory of Eye Band's powerful tentacle reprimand of the prior evening rose up to slow his pace.
As smoothly as he could, he crouched and grabbed hold of a half-filled basket of sap. With no opposition, he started to straighten...
In a flash, he found myself surrounded by a half-dozen very agitated aliens. Their tapered tentacles wove intricate patterns in the air before the human's face. Warily, he forced his trembling knees to reverse direction. Easing the basket to the ground, he released his prize and backed away.
One by one, the tentacles slowed. Only when he had sidled back into the clearing did the plant-men resume their duties.
So much for the direct approach.
He did not have the time for protracted negotiations. Marilyn had not looked very well that morning. Frustrated, Canby watched the plant-men continue their repetitive tasks.
At a loss, he headed for the heli-jet. He detected no evidence it had been disturbed during the night. The plant-men had certainly evinced little interest it in. Perhaps simian-style curiosity did not rank as one of their distinguishing characteristics.
Without much hope, he tried the radio but got no response. For a long while he sat in the pilot's chair in something near a trance, only half-aware of his immediate surroundings. If only he could just take off and leave his troubles behind...
When concentration produced no suggestions, he rose from his seat and rummaged through the gear stowed behind it.
The pickings proved slim. Pondering the empty water container he had left behind, he ruefully realized just how much tree sap it would hold...if he could obtain any. For the plant-men, though, he doubted it offered a significant improvement over their baskets. Too narrow a neck.
A hammer as a more efficient substitute for their mallets? He could offer it, yet he felt certain he would require more than that to clinch this particular deal. That sap obviously formed an integral part of their existence. Sustenance to a degree. Perhaps with some type of religious significance. The graves gave testimony to their spiritual sense. He needed an offering that could compete on an equal footing...
An epiphany elicited a gleeful smile.
If the sap held such a sacred place in their lives, what he had to produce was a substance even more high-powered.
Scrambling through the pile he had accumulated, he triumphantly held up a silvery length of flexible tubing.
He had been stymied until he remembered a basic rule of business: every new venture required an initial investment of previously earned resources. He had been so fixated on increasing his fuel supply, he had subconsciously excluded what little of it remained from his capital stores. Only by breaking free of that constricting mind-set and accepting the risk inherent in any productive enterprise had he been able to hit upon the solution to his dilemma.
The dregs of fuel residing in the heli-jet's tanks did them no good staying there. Outside, though, that supply might purchase all the fuel they could use.
If his little friends enjoyed getting a buzz from their home-grown diesel, imagine how they would react to a stiff jolt from high-test jet fuel.
Clambering out of the heli-jet, Canby held the last container in one hand, the tubing in the other. Two metal cups -- the ones he had forgotten the evening before -- protruded from his dirty rear pockets. By the time he finished siphoning the fuel, the precious fluid sloshed close to the top of the container.
With a grunt of effort, he lifted his barter goods and staggered across the clearing. When he neared the trees beneath which rested the filling baskets, the trio of aliens there once again gesticulated frantically to keep him at bay.
Not exactly an overwhelming welcome.
As the other three caretakers converged on the interloper, the trader smiled inanely and lowered the container. With difficulty, he avoided spilling any of the fuel as he poured samples of his wares into the pair of cups. Holding his breath, he held out the cups to the two nearest plant-men.
Hesitantly, their agitation fading, they shuffled forward. After guardedly accepting the cups, they inspected them but did not drink.
All right. They viewed this as a ceremony, so...he would provide them with one. Nodding -- though he doubted the gesture meant anything to the aliens -- he retrieved one of the cups. The plant-man relinquished it readily enough.
Bowing, Canby lifted the cup to his lips, peered over the rim at his audience, and pretended to drink. Eagerly, he then pushed the cup towards his guinea pig's mouth.
First one, then the other gardener sipped at the fuel.
Their reactions proved even more intense than the human had anticipated they might be.
Seconds after swallowing the fuel, the two plant-men commenced hopping up and down. Wildly they spun and whirled, their eyes fairly bulging outward.
Somewhat alarmed, Canby stepped back. "Uh, oh." Had he overdone it?
Images of what the plant-men might do to Marilyn -- and him -- if he proved to be a murderer dashed through his mind.
As the pair concluded their strange dance, the trader tensed. If his nominal friends dropped dead, he wanted to be prepared for a quick exit.
Instead of keeling over, however, the aliens thrust their empty cups with passionate speed into the tentacles of their co-workers.
The fuel was a hit!
As he poured more fuel into the outstretched cups, he wondered how long his supply would last. From the corner of one eye, he noticed one of the aliens disappearing with astounding speed down the trail to the village. If the plant-man had gone to spread the good news, Canby would have to deal with more than just these six villagers.
He had to retrieve Marilyn before the fuel -- and his bargaining power -- ran dry. The container had a push-twist lid, one the natives would have trouble figuring out before he returned.
Half-filling the cups for the last pair of gardeners, he sealed the container and ran for the village. On his way there, a steady stream of plant-men passed him. His stomach dropped a bit. He had not realized exactly how many aliens inhabited this enclave. If all of them demanded a sample before trading with him...
Marilyn lay awake when the trader stepped into the hut. Dark circles discolored her eyes, accentuating puffy features still streaked with dirt.
"How are you feeling?" Canby asked.
She assayed an unconvincing smile.
"O.K." She started to rise, faltered, then fell back and rested her head between her knees. "I lied. I guess I am a bit weak," she said, her voice muffled and low. "Sort of dizzy, too."
The trader dug into his medi-pak. "Here's a couple more pills."
She nodded and accepted the pain killers. "So what's up? Anything on the radio?"
The trader shook his head. "Nothing. But we're getting out of here. Today." He had to tell her about the fuel. As much as he desired to keep his discovery a secret, the Liaison Specialist would soon figure out the details herself if he did not voluntarily reveal them.
Slowly her head came up. "What? How...?"
Sketching in the outline of his plan, he waited for her grateful response.
"It'll probably ruin the heli-jet," she said darkly.
Irritation at her cynical evaluation swamped his joy at solving a seemingly intractable problem. Resolutely, he shoved his reaction aside. He refused to let her bitter view of life spoil the savoring of his achievement. "Your concern for my property is quite touching," he said with faux appreciation. "I don't see we have much choice, however. We can't rely on anyone else to save us. Of course, I suppose you could order somebody to do so..."
Glowering at that jibe, Marilyn looked away. After a few seconds, her gaze slid back to her companion. "I suppose I deserved that." Her expression softened a small fraction. "I just want you to remember something." Perspiration filmed her forehead.
Impatiently, Canby raised a brow.
"Don't forget that life is rarely as simple and straightforward as you might think. Just as you have your constraints, I have mine."
Simple and straightforward! That he had never found life to be.
"We don't have time to argue philosophy and politics. If you want to stay here, fine. But I'm leaving. Now."
"You're not half as clever as you think you are." Marilyn's body sagged as though physically unable to maintain her defiant attitude.
Canby ignored that warning -- or threat -- and started for the doorway.
Almost regretfully, the trader spun about. Less gently than he had intended, he pulled Marilyn to her feet. She did not protest his rough treatment but merely draped her right arm over Canby's shoulders. Her skin felt hot to his touch.
Thirty minutes later, the two humans hobbled into the clearing. Plant-men packed the open area.
One of the aliens spotted them. Immediately, all those large eyes swung in the newcomers' direction.
"Hang on, boys," Canby said brightly. "The bar will open in a few minutes."
As the villagers separated to make a path, Canby scanned the grass for the container of jet fuel but could not spot it. He hoped he had not erred in leaving his supplies in the open. He had been reluctant to stash it in the heli-jet, though, lest the aliens attempt to liberate it prematurely. While he doubted they could seriously damage that craft, that was one risk he preferred not to take.
Half-dragging, half-carrying Marilyn towards the heli-jet, Canby eased her into the passenger seat and noted with alarm the ugly red streaking her arms. Infection of some kind, despite the antiseptic. Her sweat-drenched clothes reflected more than the warming weather.
The plant-men milled about in growing impatience. Wending his way through them, Canby felt relief when he saw Eye Band -- proper as always -- standing guard next to the container of jet fuel. The two metal cups from the heli-jet rested on the ground at the villager's feet. Breathing a sigh of relief, the trader stooped to pick one up.
"Well, old man," he said cheerily, "if I can convince you, I believe I'll have this deal wrapped up."
With a sweeping gesture, Canby unscrewed the lid and poured a healthy shot of fuel into the cup. Summoning up as much ceremonial dignity as he could muster, he presented the cup to Eye Band.
Like a connoisseur of fine wine, Eye Band sampled the fuel. The trader tensed. Long seconds ticked by before the plant-man handed back the cup. Canby accepted it and waited expectantly for the villager's reaction.
For an eternal moment, Eye Band did nothing.
Abruptly, the plant-man's tentacles rippled in alternating undulations. The rhythm gained in speed and complexity until Canby had difficulty tracing the motion of any single tentacle. This process continued for close to a minute. Finally, Eye Band reached for a wooden bowl held by another villager. With grave demeanor, the plant-man extended the empty bowl towards the human.
Clenching his fingers into fists, Canby exclaimed his happiness.
Knowing he had made his point, he filled the bowl. When Eye Band reached for it, however, the trader headed towards the orchard. A few attempts communicated the proper idea.
When finally Eye Band followed, Canby trotted ahead to the nearest basket. The other plant-men crowded in.
Once more the human held out the bowl. When Eye Band grasped it, the trader did not immediately release his grip. Instead he used one hand to grab the rim of the half-full basket.
Motionless, Eye Band studied Canby. Without warning, two of those thick tentacles whipped in a quick gesture.
Abruptly the aliens surged forward. Canby's heart stuttered as those squat bodies converged.
Rather than attacking, however, they approached merely to help. Each basket rose between a pair of alien porters. Laughing, Canby relinquished the bowl. Eagerly, Eye Band tipped it to his thin lips.
Like the leader of some bizarre parade, the trader waved the plant-men after him. Restlessly, he supervised the loading of the tree-fuel. He guesstimated a hundred liters would take them within radio range of Brighton. Once out of fuel, they would have to trust to luck to provide another suitable landing site.
From her seat in the craft, Marilyn took little notice of the preparations. Her haggard expression revealed the extent of her rapidly deteriorating condition.
As Canby finally pulled the makeshift funnel from the heli-jet's tank, a cool touch whispered across his neck. Eye Band stood there holding something dark and misshapen in its tentacles. A few moments passed before the trader recognized the lumps for what they were. His eyes widened as he accepted the tubers from which grew the petroleum producing trees. In thanks, he bowed.
With a departing wave of its tentacles, Eye Band acknowledged the gesture then scurried to rejoin its fellow villagers.
Hoping Marilyn's fever would prevent her from noticing his wondrous gift, Canby shoved the tubers and a handful of soil into his emergency pack. The present from the aliens might well balance all the deficits he had suffered during this trip out of the Freezone. If the tubers could be induced to grow elsewhere, he could avoid the exorbitant royalties demanded by the government of Leddlebys for such a valuable discovery. Any number of petroleum starved colonies would clamor for a treasure such as this.
After he climbed into the heli-jet, he discovered that Marilyn had at last passed out. Her arms hung at her sides, visibly swollen and mottled with red and purple splotches. Despite himself, Canby felt his stomach roll at the implications of those worsening symptoms.
In the orchard, Eye Band still dispensed the jet fuel. The trader hoped the aliens would not be too upset when that joy-juice gave out. Their native brew had to taste rather tame in comparison. One day, of course, the citizens of Leddlebys would use Marilyn's information to contact the plant-men. Then, perhaps, the plant-men could obtain all the fuel they desired.
Holding his breath, Canby started the engine. Like a consumptive oldster, the heli-jet sputtered and shook. As the motor revved to life, it emitted a rattling rumble. Black smoke billowed into the muggy air, but at least the heli-jet continued to run.
At this technological assault, the gathered plant-men beat a confused retreat into the trees.
Knowing the moment of truth had arrived, Canby pulled back on the stick. With a gut-wrenching lurch, the malnourished craft staggered into the air. Wheezing like an overweight bureaucrat, the ship climbed hesitantly above the treetops. The landing gear trimmed a few leaves during the ascent.
The ride would win no awards. Ear-grinding noises issued from what had once been a fine machine. This particular heli-jet would require a complete overhaul once back at the Hazlitt.
The trip itself proved a bit of an anti-climax, even though the fuel gauge hovered perilously close to empty before Captain Canby finally raised a crackling, static-distorted voice on the radio.
"Heli-jet, this is Hazlitt. What is your location?"
Feeling his muscles relax at last, Canby relayed the coordinates displayed on the computer. A request for more fuel completed his brief report.
"You can expect a rescue craft in approximately one hour. Hazlitt out."
Ten minutes passed before the trader found a relatively flat clearing near a small watering hole. With the fuel gauge resting squarely on zero, the craft touched down. After switching on the homing signal, Canby surrendered to his relief.
Swiveling towards Marilyn, he saw her eyes remained closed, her face still flushed and tight.
The time before pick-up passed quickly. Repackaging the tubers and soil samples, Canby taped them to his stomach under what remained of his shirt. With luck, the bulge would be passed off as nothing more important than a case of middle-age paunch. With that crucial task accomplished, he settled into his chair to wait.
The faint whup-whup of an approaching heli-jet roused him from a half-doze. Apparently his efficient crew had managed to rush through repairs on the damaged craft.
Deferring celebration and explanations until later, the traders transferred fuel and crew to the downed heli-jet. The return trip stretched to nearly two hours as Canby's original transport limped towards home.
At Brighton, the officials rushed Marilyn to the local hospital. Whatever she might know, she would not be sharing for some time.
Rather than gamble on losing the secret of the tuber, Captain Canby conferred with his fellow traders and convinced them that a rapid departure would be in their best interests. In order to placate the bureaucrats and to lull their suspicions, he freely revealed the plant-men's location. Let them expend their energies there. As the discoverer of those creatures and their marvelous trees, the Hazlitt would profit despite the confiscatory royalties. Of course, Canby intended the true wealth to -- almost literally -- grow on trees of his own nurturing. To ensure that eventuality, he withheld the existence of the tuber even from his own people. Only when they passed beyond the borders of this world would he unveil his hole card.
Packing gear and recalling personnel ate up two days. Then, mere hours before their departure, Canby received word that Liaison Specialist Marilyn Hemmer demanded to see him. With a sinking realization, the trader prepared for the worse.
Brought aboard the Hazlitt in a wheelchair, Marilyn's guarded expression did not bode well for the citizens of the Freezone. Escorted into Canby's cabin, she held her hands clasped firmly in her lap.
Politely, Canby nodded. "Liaison Specialist..."
"You almost made it."
"What?" Canby asked with a tinge of puzzlement. Despite knowing what was to come, his pulse accelerated.
"Let's not waste time here, Captain. I may have been sick with fever in that clearing, but I was not totally oblivious to my surroundings."
"I'm glad to hear that. I'd hate to think our entire trip had been wasted upon you."
"Not at all," Marilyn said, smiling thinly. "I saw what that plant-man gave you."
With his "secret" exposed, Canby released his tension and lolled back in his chair. He had learned long ago not to fight against a fait accompli. That made the bitter pill no easier to swallow, however. "Perhaps you hallucinated something. After all, you --"
Holding up a restraining hand, Marilyn said, "Please. Don't insult my intelligence."
Canby shrugged. "If you've come to gloat, spare me." Though he might have to accept the inevitable, that did not mean he had to like it.
"Hardly. I simply wanted to thank you for saving my life. What you do with a gift from a sentient being is hardly any of my concern."
Blinking, Canby straightened. "What? I don't understand."
Marilyn smiled, whether at her opposite's discomfiture or... "Our royalty schedule is based on undiscovered and hence unowned native material. Whatever you received, though, came from property of a people not under direct Leddlebys control. From my perspective, my office has no purview over such a transaction. You are free to depart."
Canby shook his head. "I don't get it. Aren't you against 'exploitation'?"
"Chalk it up to gratitude, if you like. But as I told you, some of us don't have many options."
For a moment, Marilyn's gaze unfocused as though she looked upon some inner landscape. "Meaning," she said, at last, "that, though we don't choose the world into which we are born, some people can learn from their mistakes. And even if they don't fully comprehend another culture, they can still reserve judgment until they gain more information."
Coming around his desk, Captain Canby extended a palm.
Startled, Marilyn grasped and shook the proffered hand.
"I hope we'll be able to do more business in the future," Canby said.
Marilyn grinned. "Count on it, Captain. Next time, I won't be such a pushover."
Canby laughed. "I welcome the challenge."
Once the Liaison Specialist exited the ship, Canby gave the order for liftoff.
As the Hazlitt tore a hole through the atmosphere, the senior trader gazed on the receding image of Leddlebys. Perhaps Marilyn would seek to make changes from within her system. Perhaps she would read the books that had inspired him, would venture to expand her horizons, would endeavor to accomplish more than her bosses considered possible. If she ever did fully experience the liberating sea-change that too few of the galaxy's peoples had, she would be welcomed as a valued member and competitor among the society of free peoples he so admired and respected.
Whatever course she followed, however, he would act as he always had regardless of the opinions of others.
Rising, he headed for the crew's lounge. He had a very pleasant surprise to share with his weary fellow traders.
Whistling tunelessly, he tossed the package and its unique treasure into the air.
What a great time it was to be alive!