Authors: Michael Berlyn
The Eternal Enemy
AS ALWAYS, FOR M. M. McCLUNG
Man is nothing more than what he makes himself.
The grips on the plastic handles were slippery with sweat even though the screamer's air conditioning blasted him. He tried to keep the muscles in his forearms and his hands from crampingâcontrolling the screamer was a delicate task and any sudden, jerky move could be his last. The screamer continued its level flight, just missing the carpet of treetops two meters below the belly of the craft. He knew the risks he took, flying this low just under the speed of sound, and he knew he had no choice.
If they caught him, there was no telling what they might do. What Van Pelt might do.
He glanced at the rear viewscreen and saw some mendils take to the air, a line almost a kilometer long, filling the sky like a rooster-tail wake. Their alien bodies disturbed him, spotted and mottled with clashing reds, greens, oranges, and blues, skin stretched so tightly he thought they should burst. And still the sight was more tolerable than looking into Van Pelt's eyes.
He needed to wipe his forehead on his sleeve, to shut his burning eyes for a few moments, to scratch the tip of his nose. He yearned for the massager bunk, the unit that lulled him to sleep each night, deep massaging every muscle in his solid, large frame. He wanted to feel the ground beneath his feet, to have this insane flight over, to be at rest on the planet's surface. To have this whole thing done with, Markos thought, to feel a resolution.
It was stupid to run. Stupid, but necessary, he realized. What other choice was there after what Van Pelt had done?
If there were only some kind of safety, some refuge to which he could flee. Still, he had a goal of sortsâdistance between himself and the ship, a large settlement of native sentient creatures, the Habers, in which to hide. If he could manage that, he would have time to plan, to think, to help.
Less than two kilometers ahead the trees ended. He could see the expansive yellow plain stretching out to the towering mountains on the haze-filled horizon.
His fevered hope was to find a village hidden on the plain, sheltered by the high weeds. The Habers would be friendlyâthey knew nothing else. He could set the screamer down a few kilometers from a settlement and make his exit. Yes. Set it down, then adjust the autopilot for a thirty-second delay, have the screamer take off at full throttle. The empty screamer would do a good enough job until it hit the mountains.
If someone were following him, as he suspected, it would buy him the time he needed.
The forest dwindled, disappeared behind him, becoming a low, solid wall in the rear viewscreen. A tone chimed, synchronized with a flashing red light above the detection screen.
Markos knew what the chase screamer looked likeâblue like his own, like all those from the
. He had no time to look. This was the horrible confirmation for which he was waiting.
The screamer flew a high course, making it easier for whoever was piloting it to detect his screamer. And Markos knew that if he'd detected the chase ship, the chase ship had detected him.
Markos's mind split between fighting the other screamer and fleeing, dropping even lower, closer to the ground to evade the chase screamer's detection devices.
Markos knew what his mistake had been. He should never have confronted Van Pelt. He should have stayed aboard the
and worked from within, talking to the other crew members, showing them how truly insane their captain had become. What kind of xenobiologist was he? How could he help the Habers now?
He had to clear his mind, make a decisionâthe right one. Van Pelt had probably sent Wilhelm after him. Wilhelm was the best screamer pilot around, capable of staying with just about any maneuver, and just as afraid of shooting down Markos's screamer as Markos was of shooting down Wilhelm's. So, then, there was little point in climbing and dueling it out up there, high above this alien world.
The handles eased forward as Markos applied slight pressure, praying his hands wouldn't slip. He cursed the designer of the control handlesâhow stupid to leave the plastic smooth.
As the craft lowered, the high grass seemed to bend to either side of the screamer, and then Markos realized he was too low, just above the tips of the grass. His eyes were wide open, paralyzed by the overwhelming sight of the grass speeding toward him. A few seconds of terror made him force his eyes away, glance at the overhead screens, the detection devices, and let go of the right handle long enough to throw a switch putting an added detection circuit into play.
He knew how important his flight was. If Wilhelm managed to catch him and bring him back, there was no telling what Van Pelt would do. And if Wilhelm caught him, the Habers would most likely be history.
Just the slight contact the crew of the
had had with the aliens had triggered off a string of rapid mutations in the Habers. Only their oldest rites were surviving. They had developed sound-speech a few days after the
had landed, dropping their method of communicating through prismatic displays of light. If the Habers weren't helped, they would mutate toward more human forms. He knew that as they changed physically, they would change culturally, too.
The readouts on the control panel showed that Wilhelm was almost five kilometers behind, right at the detection limit. With a few lucky maneuvers he could make the needed distance.
The radio chirped repeatedly, distracting Markos, its pulsating sound cutting through his ears. He knew it was Wilhelm, trying to establish contact, an attempt to talk him out of his flight.
Good, he thought. Ignore the signal and concentrate on losing him.
A thump from the bottom of the craft tensed every muscle in his body. At this speed, running into the tops of the wild grass could be fatal. He clenched the handles tightly, easing them back ever so slightly, rising above the grass a little more. A tiny grayish-brown pebble in his path grew to monstrous size in less time than it took him to open his mouth to scream.
He yanked back hard just as the screamer struck the boulder.
The space program had been nothing like what he'd dreamed of as a boy, but that never stopped him from dreaming. Blazing rockets, ray guns strapped to hips clad in silver lamÃ©, a beautiful and competent female copilot beside him, rushing headlong through the Solar System at incomprehensible speeds, dashing from planet to planet to help colonists over mysterious plagues and diseases.
Markos had known the difference between reality and fantasy, had known what the space program was really about when he was five, when the first wave of manned exploratory pods had left the Solar System on their long, solitary journeys.
But he still dreamed.
He'd taken the first battery of tests for NASA 2. He'd filled in answer after answer on the exams. He'd been poked and prodded, and he'd wondered whether or not he was doing the right thing by applying. But what else was there for him? It was as close to his dream as he'd ever get.
His parents were dead, his interactions with both sexes strained, bordering on nonexistent. When he did manage to make a friend, Markos latched onto him as if the person were an object or a possession. He always feared the new friend would leave for parts unknown for some inscrutable reason. And they all fulfilled his fears, never staying long enough to tell him why they left.
He'd had only one relationship with a woman, Theresa, and that had ended when she explained to him, “If I'm in the shower, you want to be there, too. If I'm dreaming, you'll want to get into the dream. Give me some room. You're suffocating me.”
He never really understood, so he applied to NASA 2 and prayed they would take him regardless of the realities of deep space. He considered NASA 1 first, but they were limited to projects within the Solar System and overseeing colonizationâall mundane chores learned through the training geltanks. NASA 2 was reshaping personalities as well as training minds for their missions, conditioning them to interact on a social and professional level, something that looked extremely attractive to him.
When one of the manned exploratory pods sent back a message from Tau Ceti, NASA 2 moved quickly, starting to build a larger ship to follow up what they thought had to be contact with an alien race.
With Theresa gone, all the Earth held was a slow, boring, lonely life. With NASA 2 he saw the chance to do something, to explore, interact, live.
He opened his eyes.
A Haber stood a few meters away, watching. It was 120 centimeters high, humanoid, with well-defined features. The outermost layer of skin on its face was transparent; the upper portion revealed small beads of organic crystals, clustered like clear pomegranate seeds, traced by a thin network of connecting fibers. There were fewer crystals in the Haber's face than he'd expectedâmost probably another mutation toward sound-speech, away from cold-light generation.
It had small hands, complete with opposable thumbs and jointed, stubby fingers. More mutations. Its body was covered with a gray, skinlike layer, an integral part of the creature. From its small size, Markos figured it was in or nearing its final cycle, something that made little sense to him.
hadn't been on this planet long enough for a mutated Haber to be this old.
They were alone in the darkened room with walls of carved stone. There was a faint musty smell in the air. Markos did his best to ignore the odd, painful jolts shooting through his body as he tried to push himself up into a sitting position. His head pounded and the room spun. He fell back to the bed of native grass and tried to orient himself, tried to overcome the nausea. From what he could make out, they were in an underground cavern or a cave.
He concentrated, trying to remember where he was, where the Haber had come from, why he felt ill. He closed his eyes and the pain increased. An image of an immense figure took shape in his mind, towering over him, the image and thoughts temporarily blocking out the physical pain.
It was Van Pelt.
The pain rushed back in a wave.
He could see the way Van Pelt had paced before the whole crew, hands clenching and unclenching behind his back. His sandy hair was long and shaggy, unlike the shorter, almost military style he'd worn over most of their journey. The top two buttons on his gray worksuit were open, his feet bare, his gray eyes sunken, rimmed with black circles.
“I need more information before I reach a decision,” Van Pelt said.
The crew remained silent. They had quickly learned not to offer information or opinions anymore. Markos had seen Van Pelt's degeneration start while they were still orbiting Gandji. The artifact had been there, just as the pod had reported, and Van Pelt had started to change. The way he pinched his bottom lip when deep in thought, the way he jiggled his foot when he crossed his legs, the way he cracked his neck by pivoting it around and aroundâhis mannerisms seemed to be taking him over, as if he were fighting some inner battle and losing.
The pressure on Van Pelt had increased after they'd landed and encountered some of the Habers. Markos had led the examination of the enigmatic creatures, and with every new discovery he related to Van Pelt, Van Pelt only seemed to get more and more upset.
Only one other ship had made contact with the Habers, and that contact had occurred a long time ago. The manned pod had never returned to Earth and had never sent a second message.
Van Pelt had grown more haggard, had aged too quickly even though he had received the geltank treatments.
“Markos? You're the closest thing to an expert we've got. What about these creatures? What are our real chances?”
All eyes turned to Markos. He licked his lips, glanced at Van Pelt's wild eyes, then at the deck. This was insane. “Well, Captain, we're, uhm â¦ we're not really in a serious situation. The Habers pose no threat to us at all. They don't have the technology that could have put that artifact in space around this starâ”
“A threat!” Van Pelt said.
threat. They're more peaceful in their philosophy, though definitely human in intelligence.”
“So you say, Markos. So you say. But you still haven't answered. Just what are our chances?”
“I'm not sure I understand,” Markos said, stalling, trying to formulate the safest way possible to answer.
“Will they fight? Yes or no? It's that simple. Your opinion?”
Will they? From everything Markos knew of the race, the Habers would never fight. Say yes, he told himself. Say yes, and maybe Van Pelt will fear a real confrontation, come to his senses, reestablish contact with NASA 2, report what he's discovered. Maybe he'll drop this ridiculous plan and follow procedures. But then again, he might not. He's strange enough to try anything. Strange enough to use the slightest hint of a threat as a justification for wiping them out. They have no weapons and they wouldn't know how to use them if we gave them some. If I tell him they won't fight, he might spare them. He might stop seeing them as a threat.