2: THE FLYER

The Flyer’s forecast was sound; some four hundred days passed before the storm let up noticeably. Five times during that period the Flyer spoke to Barlennan on the radio, always opening with a brief weather forecast and continuing a more general conversation for a day or two each time. Barlennan had noticed earlier, when he had been learning the strange creature’s language and paying personal visits to its outpost in the “Hill” near the bay, that it seemed to have a strangely regular life cycle; he found he could count on finding the Flyer sleeping or eating at quite predictable times, which seemed to have a cycle of about eighty days. Barlennan was no philosopher — he had at least his share of the common tendency to regard them as impractical dreamers — and he simply shrugged this fact off as something pertaining to a weird but admittedly interesting creature. There was nothing in the Mesklinite background that would enable him to deduce the existence of a world that took some eighty times as long as his own to rotate on its axis. Lackland’s fifth call was different from the others, and more welcome for several reasons. The difference was due partly to the fact that it was off schedule; its pleasant nature to the fact that at last there was a favorable weather forecast. “Barl!” The Flyer did not bother with preliminaries — he knew that the Mesklinite was always within sound of the radio. “The station on Toorey called a few minutes ago. There is a relatively clear area moving toward us. He was not sure just what the winds would be, but he can see the ground through it, so visibility ought to be fair. If your hunters want to go out I should say that they wouldn’t be blown away, provided they wait until the clouds have been gone for twenty or thirty days. For a hundred days or so after that we should have very good weather indeed. They’ll tell me in plenty of time to get your people back to the ship.”

“But how will they get your warning? If I send this radio with them I won’t be able to talk to you about our regular business, and if I don’t, I don’t see—”

“I’ve been thinking of that,” interrupted Lackland. “I think you’d better come up here as soon as the wind drops sufficiently. I can give you another set?perhaps it would be better if you had several. I gather that the journey you will be taking for us will be dangerous, and I know for myself it will be long enough. Thirty-odd thousand miles as the crow flies, and I can?t yet guess how far by ship and overland.? Lackland’s simile occasioned a delay; Barlennan wanted to know what a crow was, and also flying. The first was the easier to get across. Flying for a living creature, under its own power, was harder for him to imagine than throwing — and the thought was more terrifying. He had regarded Lackland’s proven ability to travel through the air as something so alien that it did not really strike home to him. Lackland saw this, partly. “There’s another point I want to take up with you,” he said. “As soon as it’s clear enough to land safely, they’re bringing down a crawler. Maybe watching the rocket land will get you a little more used to the whole flying idea.”

“Perhaps,” Barlennan answered hesitantly. “I’m not sure I want to see your rocket land. I did once before, you know, and — well, I’d not want one of the crew to be there at the time.”

“Why not? Do you think they’d be scared too much to be useful?”

“No.” The Mesklinite answered quite frankly. “I don’t want one of them to see me as scared as I’m likely to be.”

“You surprise me, Commander.” Lackland tried to give his words in a jocular tone. “However, I understand your feelings, and I assure you that the rocket will not pass above you. If you will wait right next to the wall of my dome I will direct its pilot by radio to make sure of that.”

“But how close to overhead will it come?”

“A good distance sideways, I promise. That’s for my own safety as well as your comfort. To land on this world, even here at the equator, it will be necessary for him to be using a pretty potent blast. I don’t want it hitting my dome, I can assure you.”

“All right. I will come. As you say, it would be nice to have more radios. What is this ‘crawler’ of which you speak?”

“It is a machine which will carry me about on land as your ship does at sea. You will see in a few days, or in a few hours at most.” Barlennan let the new word pass without question, since the remark was clear enough anyway. “I will come, and will see,” he agreed. The Flyer’s friends on Mesklin’s inner moon had prophesied correctly. The commander, crouched on his poop, counted only ten sunrises before a lightening of the murk and lessening of the wind gave their usual warning of the approaching eye of the storm. From his own experience he was willing to believe, as the Flyer had said, that the calm period would last one or two hundred days. With a whistle that would have torn Lackland’s eardrums had he been able to hear such a high frequency the commander summoned the attention of his crew and began to issue orders. “There will be two hunting parties made up at once. Dondragmer will head one, Merkoos the other; each will take nine men of his own choosing. I will remain on the ship to coordinate, for the Flyer is going to give us more of his talking machines. I will go to the Flyer’s Hill as soon as the sky is clear to get them; they, as well as other things he wants, are being brought down from Above by his friends, therefore all crew members will remain near the ship until I return. Plan for departure thirty days after I leave.”

“Sir, is it wise for you to leave the ship so early? The wind will still be high.” The mate was too good a friend for the question to be impertinent, though some commanders would have resented any such reflection on their judgment. Barlennan waved his pincers in a manner denoting a smile. “You are quite right. However, I want to save the time, and the Flyer’s Hill is only a mile away.”

“But—”

“Furthermore it is downwind. We have many miles of line in the lockers; I will have two bent to my harness, and two of the men — Terblannen and Hars, I think, under your supervision, Don — will pay those lines out through the bitts as I go. I may — probably will — lose my footing, but if the wind were able to get such a grip on me as to break good sea cord, the Bree would be miles inland by now.”

“But even losing your footing — suppose you were to be lifted into the air—” Dondragmer was still deeply troubled, and the thought he had uttered gave even his commander pause for an instant. “Falling — yes — but remember that we are near the Edge — at it, the Flyer says, and I can believe him when I look north from the top of his Hill. As some of you have found, a fall means nothing here.”

“But you ordered that we should act as though we had normal weight, so that no habits might be formed that would be dangerous when we returned to a livable land.”

“Quite true. This will be no habit, since in any reasonable place no wind could pick me up. Anyway, that is what we do. Let Terblannen and Hars check the lines — no, check them yourself. It will take long enough. “That is all for the present. The watch under shelter may rest. The watch on deck will check anchors and lashings.” Dondragmer, who had the latter watch, took the order as a dismissal and proceeded to carry it out in his usual efficient manner. He also set men to work cleaning snow from the spaces between rafts, having seen as clearly as his captain the possible consequences of a thaw followed by a freeze. Barlennan himself relaxed, wondering sadly just which ancestor was responsible for his habit of talking himself into situations that were both unpleasant to face and impossible to back out of gracefully. For the rope idea was strictly spur-of-the-moment, and it took most of the several days before the clouds vanished for the arguments he had used on his mate to appeal to their inventor. He was not really happy even when he lowered himself onto the snow that had drifted against the lee rafts, cast a last look backward at his two most powerful crew members and the lines they were managing, and set off across the wind-swept beach. Actually, it was not too bad. There was a slight upward force from the ropes, since the deck was several inches above ground level when he started; but the slope of the beach quickly remedied that. Also, the trees which were serving so nobly as mooring points for the Bree grew more and more thickly as he went inland. They were low, flat growths with wide-spreading tentacular limbs and very short, thick trunks, generally similar to those of the lands he knew deep in the southern hemisphere of Mesklin. Here, however, their branches arched sometimes entirely clear of the ground, left relatively free by an effective gravity less than one two-hundredth that of the polar regions. Eventually they grew close enough together to permit the branches to intertwine, a tangle of brown and black cables which furnished an excellent hold. Barlennan found it possible, after a time, practically to climb toward the Hill, getting a grip with his front pincers, releasing the hold of his rear ones, and twisting his caterpillarlike body forward so that he progressed almost in inchworm fashion. The cables gave him some trouble, but since both they and the tree limbs were relatively smooth no serious fouling occurred. The beach was fairly steep after the first two hundred yards; and at half the distance he expected to go, Barlennan was some six feet above the Bree’s deck level. From this point the Flyer’s Hill could be seen, even by an individual whose eyes were as close to the ground as those of a Mesklinite; and the commander paused to take in the scene as he had many times before. The remaining half mile was a white, brown, and black tangle, much like that he had just traversed. The vegetation was even denser, and had trapped a good deal more snow, so that there was little or no bare ground visible. Looming above the tangled plain was the Flyer’s Hill. The Mesklinite found it almost impossible to think of it as an artificial structure, partly because of its monstrous size and partly because a roof of any description other than a flap of fabric was completely foreign to his ideas of architecture. It was a glittering metal dome some twenty feet in height and forty in diameter, nearly a perfect hemisphere. It was dotted with large, transparent areas and had two cylindrical extensions containing doors. The Flyer had said that these doors were so constructed that one could pass through them without letting air get from one side to the other. The portals were certainly big enough for the strange creature, gigantic as he was. One of the lower windows had an improvised ramp leading up to it which would permit a creature of Barlennan’s size and build to crawl up to the pane and see inside. The commander had spent much time on that ramp while he was first learning to speak and understand the Flyer’s language; he had seen much of the strange apparatus and furniture which filled the structure, though he had no idea of the use to which most of it was put. The Flyer himself appeared to be an amphibious creature — at least, he spent much of the time floating in a tank of liquid. This was reasonable enough, considering his size. Barlennan himself knew of no creature native to Mesklin larger than his own race which was not strictly an ocean or lake dweller?though he realized that, as far as weight alone was considered, such things might exist in these vast, nearly unexplored regions near the Rim. He trusted that he would meet none, at least while he himself was ashore. Size meant weight, and a lifetime of conditioning prevented his completely ignoring weight as a menace. There was nothing near the dome except the ever present vegetation. Evidently the rocket had not yet arrived, and for a moment Barlennan toyed with the idea of waiting where he was until it did. Surely when it came it would descend on the farther side of the Hill — the Flyer would see to that, if Barlennan himself had not arrived. Still, there was nothing to prevent the descending vessel from passing over his present position; Lackland could do nothing about that, since he would not know exactly where the Mesklinite was. Few Earthmen can locate a body fifteen inches long and two in diameter crawling horizontally through tangled vegetation at a distance of half a mile. No, he had better go right up to the dome, as the Flyer had advised. The commander resumed his progress, still dragging the ropes behind him. He made it in good time, though delayed slightly by occasional periods of darkness. As a matter of fact it was night when he reached his goal, though the last part of his journey had been adequately illuminated by light from the windows ahead of him. However, by the time he had made his ropes fast and crawled up to a comfortable station outside the window the sun had lifted above the horizon on his left. The clouds were almost completely gone now, though the wind was still strong, and he could have seen in through the window even had the inside lights been turned out. Lackland was not in the room from which this window looked, and the Mesklinite pressed the tiny call button which had been mounted on the ramp. Immediately the Flyer’s voice sounded from a speaker beside the button. “Glad you’re here, Barl. I’ve been having Mack hold up until you came. I’ll start him down right away, and he should be here by next sunrise.”

“Where is he now? On Toorey?”

“No; he’s drifting at the inner edge of the ring, only six hundred miles up. He’s been there since well before the storm ended, so don’t worry about having kept him waiting yourself. While we’re waiting for him, I’ll bring out the other radios I promised.”

“Since I am alone, it might be well to bring only one radio this time. They are rather awkward things to carry, though light enough, of course.”

“Maybe we should wait for the crawler before I bring them out at all. Then I can ride you back to your ship — the crawler is well enough insulated so that riding outside it wouldn’t hurt you, I’m sure. How would that be?”

“It sounds excellent. Shall we have more language while we wait, or can you show me more pictures of the place you come from?”

“I have some pictures. It will take a few minutes to load the projector, so it should be dark enough when we’re ready. Just a moment — I’ll come to the lounge.” The speaker fell silent, and Barlennan kept his eyes on the door which he could see at one side of the room. In a few moments the Flyer appeared, walking upright as usual with the aid of the artificial limbs he called crutches. He approached the window, nodded his massive head at the tiny watcher, and turned to the movie projector. The screen at which the machine was pointed was on the wall directly facing the window; and Barlennan, keeping a couple of eyes on the human being’s actions, squatted down more comfortably in a position from which he could watch it in comfort. He waited silently while the sun arched lazily overhead. It was warm in the full sunlight, pleasantly so, though not warm enough to start a thaw; the perpetual wind from the northern icecap prevented that. He was half dozing while Lackland finished threading the machine, stumped over to his relaxation tank, and lowered himself into it. Barlennan had never noticed the elastic membrane over the surface of the liquid which kept the man’s clothes dry; if he had, it might have modified his ideas about the amphibious nature of human beings. From his floating position Lackland reached up to a small panel and snapped two switches. The room lights went out and the projector started to operate. It was a fifteen-minute reel, and had not quite finished when Lackland had to haul himself once more to his feet and crutches with the information that the rocket was landing. “Do you want to watch, Mack, or would you rather see the end of the reel?” he asked. “He’ll probably be on the ground by the time it’s done.” Barlennan tore his attention from the screen with some reluctance. “I’d rather watch the picture, but it would probably be better for me to get used to the sight of flying things,” he said. “From which side will it come?”

“The east, I should expect. I have given Mack a careful description of the layout here, and he already had photographs; and I know an approach from that direction will be somewhat easier, as he is now set. I’m afraid the sun is interfering at the moment with your line of vision, but he’s still about forty miles up — look well above the sun.” Barlennan followed these instructions and waited. For perhaps a minute he saw nothing; then his eye was caught by a glint of metal some twenty degrees above the rising sun. “Altitude ten — horizontal distance about the same,” Lackland reported at the same moment. “I have him on the scope here.” The glint grew brighter, holding its direction almost perfectly — the rocket was on a nearly exact course toward the dome. In another minute it was close enough for details to be visible — or would have been, except that everything was now hidden in the glare of the rising sun. Mack hung poised for a moment a mile above the station and as far to the east; and as Belne moved out of line Barlennan could see the windows and exhaust ports in the cylindrical hull. The storm wind had dropped almost completely, but now a warm breeze laden with a taint of melting ammonia began to blow from the point where the exhaust struck the ground. The drops of semiliquid spattered on Barlennan?s eye shells, but he continued to stare at the slowly settling mass of metal. Every muscle in his long body was at maximum tension, his arms held close to his sides, pincers clamped tightly enough to have shorn through steel wire, the hearts in each of his body segments pumping furiously. He would have been holding his breath had he possessed breathing apparatus at all similar to that of a human being. Intellectually he knew that the thing would not fall?he kept telling himself that it could not; but having grown to maturity in an environment where a fall of six inches was usually fatally destructive even to the incredibly tough Mesklinite organism, his emotions were not easy to control. Subconsciously he kept expecting the metal shell to vanish from sight, to reappear on the ground below flattened out of recognizable shape. After all, it was still hundreds of feet up … On the ground below the rocket, now swept clear of snow, the black vegetation abruptly burst into flame. Black ash blew from the landing point, and the ground itself glowed briefly. For just an instant this lasted before the glittering cylinder settled lightly into the center of the bare patch. Seconds later the thunder which had mounted to a roar louder than Mesklin’s hurricanes died abruptly. Almost painfully, Barlennan relaxed, opening and shutting his pincers to relieve the cramps. “If you’ll stand by a moment, I’ll be out with the radios,” Lackland said. The commander had not noticed his departure, but the Flyer was no longer in the room. “Mack will drive the crawler over here — you can watch it come while I’m getting into armor.” Actually Barlennan was able to watch only a portion of the drive. He saw the rocket’s cargo lock swing open and the vehicle emerge; he got a sufficiently good look at the crawler to understand everything about it — he thought — except what made its caterpillar treads move. It was big, easily big enough to hold several of the Flyer’s race unless too much of its interior was full of machinery. Like the dome, it had numerous and large windows; through one of these in the front the commander could see the armored figure of another Flyer, who was apparently controlling it. Whatever drove the machine did not make enough noise to be audible across the mile of space that still separated it from the dome. It covered very little of that distance before the sun set, and details ceased to be visible. Esstes, the smaller sun, was still in the sky and brighter than the full moon of Earth, but Barlennan’s eyes had their limitations. An intense beam of light projected from the crawler itself along its path, and consequently straight toward the dome, did not help either. Barlennan simply waited. After all, it was still too far for really good examination even by daylight, and would undoubtedly be at the Hill by sunrise. Even then he might have to wait, of course; the Flyers might object to the sort of examination he really wanted to give their machinery.

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