VI

After that they were together constantly. When Meta was on duty he brought her meals to the bridge and they talked. Jason learned little more about her world since, by unspoken agreement, they didn’t discuss it. He talked of the many planets he had visited and the people he had known. She was an appreciative listener and the time went quickly by. They enjoyed each other’s company and it was a wonderful trip.

Then it ended.

There were fourteen people aboard the ship, yet Jason had never seen more than two or three at a time. There was a fixed rotation of duties that they followed in the ship’s operation. When not on duty the Pyrrans minded their own business in an intense and self-sufficient manner. Only when the ship came out of jump and the PA barked assembly did they all get together.

Kerk was giving orders for the landing and questions were snapped back and forth. It was all technical and Jason didn’t bother following it. It was the attitude of the Pyrrans that drew his attention. Their talk tended to be faster now as were their motions. They were like soldiers preparing for battle.

Their sameness struck Jason for the first time. Not that they looked alike or did the same things. It was the way they moved and reacted that caused the striking similarity. They were like great, stalking cats. Walking fast, tense and ready to spring at all times, their eyes never still for an instant.

Jason tried to talk to Meta after the meeting, but she was almost a stranger. She answered in monosyllables and her eyes never met his, just brushed over them and went on. There was nothing he could really say so she moved to leave. He started to put his hand out to stop her — then thought better of it. There would be other times to talk.

Kerk was the only one who took any notice of him — and then only to order him to an acceleration couch.

Meta’s landings were infinitely worse than her take-offs. At least when she landed on Pyrrus. There were sudden acceleration surges in every direction. At one point there was a free fall that seemed endless. There were loud thuds against the hull that shook the framework of the ship. It was more like a battle than a landing, and Jason wondered how much truth there was in that.

When the ship finally landed Jason didn’t even know it. The constant 2 G’s felt like deceleration. Only the descending moan of the ship’s engines convinced him they were down. Unbuckling the straps and sitting up was an effort.

Two G’s don’t seem that bad — at first. Walking required the same exertion as would carrying a man of his own weight on his shoulders. When Jason lifted his arm to unlatch the door it was heavy as two arms. He shuffled slowly towards the main lock.

1

They were all there ahead of him, two of the men rolling transparent cylinders from a nearby room. From their obvious weight and the way they clanged when they bumped, Jason knew they were made of transparent metal. He couldn’t conceive any possible use for them. Empty cylinders a meter in diameter, longer than a man. One end solid, the other hinged and sealed. It wasn’t until Kerk spun the sealing wheel and opened one of them that their use became apparent.

“Get in,” Kerk said. “When you’re locked inside you’ll be carried out of the ship.”

“Thank you, no,” Jason told him. “I have no particular desire to make a spectacular landing on your planet sealed up like a packaged sausage.”

“Don’t be a fool,” was Kerk’s snapped answer. “We’re all going out in these tubes. We’ve been away too long to risk the surface without reorientation.”

***

Jason did feel a little foolish as he saw the others getting into tubes. He picked the nearest one, slid into it feet first, and pulled the lid closed. When he tightened the wheel in the center, it squeezed down against a flexible seal. Within a minute the CO2 content in the closed cylinder went up and an air regenerator at the bottom hummed into life.

Kerk was the last one in. He checked the seals on all the other tubes first, then jabbed the air-lock override release. As it started cycling he quickly sealed himself in the remaining cylinder. Both inner and outer locks ground slowly open and dim light filtered in through sheets of falling rain.

For Jason, the whole thing seemed an anticlimax. All this preparation for absolutely nothing. Long, impatient minutes passed before a lift truck appeared driven by a Pyrran. He loaded the cylinders onto his truck like so much dead cargo. Jason had the misfortune to be buried at the bottom of the pile so he could see absolutely nothing when they drove outside.

It wasn’t until the man-carrying cylinders had been dumped in a metal-walled room, that Jason saw his first native Pyrran life.

The lift truck driver was swinging a thick outer door shut when something flew in through the entrance and struck against the far wall. Jason’s eye was caught by the motion, he looked to see what it was when it dropped straight down towards his face.

Forgetful of the metal cylinder wall, he flinched away. The creature struck the transparent metal and clung to it. Jason had the perfect opportunity to examine it in every detail.

It was almost too horrible to be believable. As though it were a bearer of death stripped to the very essentials. A mouth that split the head in two, rows of teeth, serrated and pointed. Leathery, claw-tipped wings, longer claws on the limbs that tore at the metal wall.

Terror rose up in Jason as he saw that the claws were tearing gouges in the transparent metal. Wherever the creature’s saliva touched the metal clouded and chipped under the assault of the teeth.

Logic said these were just scratches on the thick tube. They couldn’t matter. But blind, unreasoning fear sent Jason curling away as far as he could. Shrinking inside himself, seeking escape.

Only when the flying creature began dissolving did he realize the nature of the room outside. Sprays of steaming liquid came from all sides, raining down until the cylinders were covered. After one last clash of its jaws, the Pyrran animal was washed off and carried away. The liquid drained away through the floor and a second and third shower followed.

While the solutions were being pumped away, Jason fought to bring his emotions into line. He was surprised at himself. No matter how frightful the creature had been, he couldn’t understand the fear it could generate through the wall of the sealed tube. His reaction was all out of proportion to the cause. Even with the creature destroyed and washed out of sight it took all of his will power to steady his nerves and bring his breathing back to normal.

***

Meta walked by outside and he realized the sterilization process was finished. He opened his own tube and climbed wearily out. Meta and the others had gone by this time and only a hawk-faced stranger remained, waiting for him.

“I’m Brucco, in charge of the adaptation clinic. Kerk told me who you were. I’m sorry you’re here. Now come along, I want some blood samples.”

“Now I feel right at home,” Jason said. “The old Pyrran hospitality.” Brucco only grunted and stamped out. Jason followed him down a bare corridor into a sterile lab.

The double gravity was tiring, a constant drag on sore muscles. While Brucco ran tests on the blood sample, Jason rested. He had almost dozed off into a painful sleep when Brucco returned with a tray of bottles and hypodermic needles.

“Amazing,” he announced. “Not an antibody in your serum that would be of any use on this planet. I have a batch of antigens here that will make you sick as a beast for at least a day. Take off your shirt.”

“Have you done this often?” Jason asked. “I mean juice up an outlander so he can enjoy the pleasures of your world?”

Brucco jammed in a needle that felt like it grated on the bone. “Not often at all. Last time was years ago. A half-dozen researchers from some institute, willing to pay well for the chance to study the local life forms. We didn’t say no. Always need more galaxy currency.”

Jason was already beginning to feel light-headed from the shots. “How many of them lived?” he mumbled vaguely.

“One. We got him off in time. Made them pay in advance of course.”

At first Jason thought the Pyrran was joking. Then he remembered they had very little interest in humor of any kind. If one-half of what Meta and Kerk had told him was true, six to one odds weren’t bad at all.

There was a bed in the next room and Brucco helped him to it. Jason felt drugged and probably was. He fell into a deep sleep and into the dream.

Fear and hatred mixed in equal parts and washed over him red hot. If this was a dream, he never wanted to sleep again. If it wasn’t a dream, he wanted to die. He tried to fight up against it, but only sank in more deeply. There was no beginning and no end to the fear and no way to escape.

When consciousness returned Jason could remember no detail of the nightmare. Just the fear remained. He was soaked with sweat and ached in every muscle. It must have been the massive dose of shots, he finally decided, that and the brutal gravity. That didn’t take the taste of fear out of his mouth, though.

Brucco stuck his head in the door then and looked Jason up and down. “Thought you were dead,” he said. “Slept the clock around. Don’t move, I’ll get something to pick you up.”

The pickup was in the form of another needle and a glassful of evil-looking fluid. It settled his thirst, but made him painfully aware of gnawing hunger.

“Want to eat?” Brucco asked. “I’ll bet you do. I’ve speeded up your metabolism so you’ll build muscle faster. Only way you’ll ever beat the gravity. Give you quite an appetite for a while though.”

Brucco ate at the same time and Jason had a chance to ask some questions. “When do I get a chance to look around your fascinating planet? So far this trip has been about as interesting as a jail term.”

“Relax and enjoy your food. Probably be months before you’re able to go outside. If at all.”

Jason felt his jaw hanging and closed it with a snap. “Could you possibly tell me why?”

“Of course. You will have to go through the same training course that our children take. It takes them six years. Of course it’s their first six years of life. So you might think that you, as an adult, could learn faster. Then again they have the advantage of heredity. All I can say is you’ll go outside these sealed buildings when you’re ready.”

Brucco had finished eating while he talked, and sat staring at Jason’s bare arms with growing disgust. “The first thing we want to get you is a gun,” he said. “It gives me a sick feeling to see someone without one.”

Of course Brucco wore his own gun continually, even within the sealed buildings.

“Every gun is fitted to its owner and would be useless on anyone else,” Brucco said. “I’ll show you why.” He led Jason to an armory jammed with deadly weapons. “Put your arm in this while I make the adjustments.”

***

It was a boxlike machine with a pistol grip on the side. Jason clutched the grip and rested his elbow on a metal loop. Brucco fixed pointers that touched his arm, then copied the results from the meters. Reading the figures from his list he selected various components from bins and quickly assembled a power holster and gun. With the holster strapped to his forearm and the gun in his hand, Jason noticed for the first time they were connected by a flexible cable. The gun fitted his hand perfectly.

“This is the secret of the power holster,” Brucco said, tapping the flexible cable. “It is perfectly loose while you are using the weapon. But when you want it returned to the holster — “ Brucco made an adjustment and the cable became a stiff rod that whipped the gun from Jason’s hand and suspended it in midair.

“Then the return.” The rod-cable whirred and snapped the gun back into the holster. “The drawing action is the opposite of this, of course.”

“A great gadget,” Jason said, “but how do I draw? Do I whistle or something for the gun to pop out?”

“No, it is not sonic control,” Brucco answered with a sober face. “It is much more precise than that. Here, take your left hand and grasp an imaginary gun butt. Tense your trigger finger. Do you notice the pattern of the tendons in the wrist? Sensitive actuators touch the tendons in your right wrist. They ignore all patterns except the one that says hand ready to receive gun. After a time the mechanism becomes completely automatic. When you want the gun — it is in your hand. When you don’t — it is in the holster.”

Jason made grasping motions with his right hand, crooked his index finger. There was a sudden, smashing pain against his hand and a loud roar. The gun was in his hand — half the fingers were numb — and smoke curled up from the barrel.

“Of course there are only blank charges in the gun until you learn control. Guns are always loaded. There is no safety. Notice the lack of a trigger guard. That enables you to bend your trigger finger a slight bit more when drawing so the gun will fire the instant it touches your hand.”

It was without a doubt the most murderous weapon Jason had ever handled, as well as being the hardest to manage. Working against the muscle-burning ache of high gravity, he fought to control the devilish device. It had an infuriating way of vanishing into the holster just as he was about to pull the trigger. Even worse was the tendency to leap out before he was quite ready. The gun went to the position where his hand should be. If the fingers weren’t correctly placed, they were crashed aside. Jason only stopped the practice when his entire hand was one livid bruise.

Complete mastery would come with time, but he could already understand why the Pyrrans never removed their guns. It would be like removing a part of your own body. The movement of gun from holster to hand was too fast for him to detect. It was certainly faster than the neural current that shaped the hand into the gun-holding position. For all apparent purposes it was like having a lightning bolt in your fingertip. Point the finger and blamm, there’s the explosion.

***

Brucco had left Jason to practice alone. When his aching hand could take no more, he stopped and headed back towards his own quarters. Turning a corner he had a quick glimpse of a familiar figure going away from him.

“Meta! Wait for a second — I want to talk to you.”

She turned impatiently as he shuffled up, going as fast as he could in the doubled gravity. Everything about her seemed different from the girl he had known on the ship. Heavy boots came as high as her knees, her figure was lost in bulky coveralls of some metallic fabric. The trim waist was bulged out by a belt of canisters. Her very expression was coldly distant.

“I’ve missed you,” he said. “I hadn’t realized you were in this building.” He reached for her hand but she moved it out of his reach.

“What is it you want?” she asked.

“What is it I want!” he echoed with barely concealed anger. “This is Jason, remember me? We’re friends. It is allowed for friends to talk without ‘wanting’ anything.”

“What happened on the ship has nothing to do with what happens on Pyrrus.” She started forward impatiently as she talked. “I have finished my reconditioning and must return to work. You’ll be staying here in the sealed buildings so I won’t be seeing you.”

“Why don’t you say ‘with the rest of the children’ — that’s what your tone implies? And don’t try walking out, there are some things we have to settle first — “

Jason made the mistake of putting out his hand to stop her. He didn’t really know what happened next. One instant he was standing — the next he sprawled suddenly on the floor. His shoulder was badly bruised, and Meta had vanished down the corridor.

Limping back to his own room he cursed women in general and Meta in particular. Dropping onto his rock-hard bed he tried to remember the reasons that had brought him here in the first place. And weighed them against the perpetual torture of the gravity, the fear-filled dreams it inspired, the automatic contempt of these people for any outsider. He quickly checked the growing tendency to feel sorry for himself. By Pyrran standards he was soft and helpless. If he wanted them to think any better of him, he would have to change a good deal.

He sank into a fatigue-drugged sleep then, that was broken only by the screaming fear of his dreams.

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