CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

JACK HOLLOWAY WAS bringing a hangover home from Mallorysport, but even without it he’d have felt like Nifflheim. Traveling east was always a bother — three hours airtime and three hours zone-difference. You had to get up before daylight to get in by cocktail time. He winced at the thought of cocktails; right now he’d as soon drink straight rat poison.

He’d done too much drinking since — since Little Fuzzy got drowned, go ahead and say it — and it hadn’t done a damn’s worth of good; as soon as he sobered up, he felt worse about it than ever. Hell, he’d had friends killed before, on Thor and Loki and Shesha and Mimir. Everywhere but on Terra; people didn’t get killed on Terra anymore, they just dropped dead on golf courses. If it had been anybody but Little Fuzzy… Why, Little Fuzzy was just about the most important person in the universe to him.

His head thumped and throbbed as though an overpowered and badly defective engine were running inside it. Too many cocktails before dinner at Government House when he got in, and then too many drinks in the evening with all that crowd after dinner. And the cocktail party after the opening of the Fuzzy Club; he’d needed a lot of liquor to keep from thinking how much Little Fuzzy would have enjoyed that.

They were going to put in a big commemorative plaque for Little Fuzzy, eight feet by ten: Little Fuzzy in gold with a silver chopper-digger on a dark bronze ground. He’d seen the sketches for it. It was going to be beautiful when it was done, looked just like the little fellow.

And then, when he’d wanted to go home, Ben and Gus had insisted that he stay over for the banquet for the delegates, and he wanted to help get them in a good humor. And, God, what a gang! One thing, they were all in favor of lynching Hugo Ingermann.

George Lunt, beside him, had tried to make conversation after they’d lifted out, then gave it up. He’d tried to sleep, and must have dozed off in his seat a few times. Each time he woke, his head hurt worse and he had a fouler taste in his mouth. He was awake when they passed over Big Blackwater; not a sign of smoke or anything going on. Grego’d moved everything he had there up to Yellowsand and was bringing men and equipment in from Alpha and Delta and Gamma. He’d seen one of the Company’s big contragravity freighters, the Zebralope, lifting out of Mallorysport air terminal for Yellowsand when he was leaving Government House. He hoped Grego got out a lot of sunstones before the trial.

Coming up Cold Creek, he couldn’t see any activity where they’d been holding the raft building classes. There weren’t many Fuzzies running around the camp either, though there was a small archery class. Gerd van Riebeek met him and shook hands with him as he got out. George Lunt excused himself and went off toward the ZNPF Headquarters. He’d have to look at his desk; he hated the thought of having to deal with what would be piled up on it.

Gerd was silly enough to ask him how he was.

“I have a hangover with little hangovers, and some of the little ones are just before having young. Is there any hot coffee around?”

That was a silly question, too; this was an office, and offices ran on hot coffee. They went into his office; Gerd called for some to be brought in. There was a stack of papers half the size of a cotton bale — he’d been right about that. He hung up his hat and they sat down.

“Didn’t see much of a crowd outside,” he mentioned.

“A hundred and fifty less,” Gerd told him. “They’re down in the Squiggle.”

“Good God!” He knew what the Squiggle was like. “What are a hundred and fifty of our Fuzzies doing in that place?”

Gerd grinned. “Working for the CZC, like everybody else. They’re shooting goofers with bows and arrows. Company had a lot of goofers in those young featherleaf trees they planted the watersheds with. Three days ago I sent fifty down to the chief forester at Chesterville. By yesterday morning they’d shot over two hundred goofers, so he wanted a hundred more, and I sent them. Captain Knabber and five Protection Force troopers are with them; Pancho went down with the second draft to observe. They’re dropping them off in squads of half a dozen, supplying and transporting them with air-lorries. In the evenings, they bring them into a couple of camps they’ve set up.”

“Why, I’ll be damned!” In spite of the headache, which the coffee was barely beginning to ameliorate, Jack chuckled. “Bet they’re having a great time. Your idea?”

“Yes. Juan Jimenez told me about the goofer situation. I’d been bothered about possible side effects of exterminating the harpies. The harpies kept the goofer increase down to reasonable limits, and now there are no harpies down there. I thought Fuzzies would do the job just as well. It’s axiomatic that a man with a rifle is the most efficient predator. Fuzzies with bows and arrows seem to be almost as good.”

“We’ll have rifles for them before long. Mart Burgess finished the ones for Gus’s Allan and Natty — I wish I could shoot like those Fuzzies! — and he’s making up a couple more for prototypes and shop-models for the Company. They’re going to produce them in quantity.”

“What kind of rifles? Safe for Fuzzies to use?”

“Yes, single-shots. Burgess got the action design from an old book. Remington rolling-block; they used them all over Terra in the first century Pre-Atomic.”

“That might be an answer to what you’re worrying about, Jack,” Gerd said. “You want something the Fuzzies can do to earn what they get from us, so they won’t turn into bums. Pest-control hunters.”

That idea of Fuzzy colonies on other continents… There was a burrowing rodent on Gamma that was driving the farmers crazy. And landprawns everywhere; they were distributed all over the planet. And Fuzzies loved to hunt.

The harpies had been exterminated completely on Delta Continent. There’d be something there that they had fed on, which would now be proliferating and turning destructive. Jack had some more coffee brought in, and he and Gerd talked about that for a while. Then Gerd went out, and he talked to the Company forester at Chesterville by screen, and to Pancho Ybarra, whom he located at one of the temporary Fuzzy hunting-camps. Then he started on the accumulation of paperwork.

He was still at it when the screen buzzed; one of the girls at message center.

“Mr. Holloway, we’ve just gotten a call from Yellowsand Canyon,” she began.

A clutching tightness in his chest. A call from Yellowsand might just be some routine matter, but then again, it might be… he forced calmness into his voice.

“Yes?”

“Well, the Zebralope, coming in from Mallorysport, reported sighting a big forest-fire up LakeChain River. They’ve transmitted in some views they took, and Mr. McGinnis, the Company general superintendent, sent a survey boat out to look at it. He thought you ought to be notified, since it’s on the Fuzzy Reservation. He’s calling Mr. Grego now for instructions.”

“Just where is it?”

She gave him the map coordinates. He jotted them down and told her to stand by. He snapped on a reading-screen, twisted the class-selector for maps, and then fiddled to get the latest revised map of the country up the Lake-Chain, finally centering the cross hairs on the given coordinates and stepping up magnification.

Funny place for a forest-fire, he thought. There hadn’t been any thunderstorms up that way for ten days. Not since the night Little Fuzzy was lost. Of course, a fire could smoulder for ten days, but…

“Let’s have the views,” he said.

“Just a moment, sir.”

A lot of things could start fires in the woods, but they were all hundred-to-one shots but two: Lightning and carelessness. Carelessness of some human — sapient, he corrected — being. And the commonest sort of carelessness was careless smoking. Little Fuzzy smoked; he’d had his pipe and tobacco and lighter with him in his shoulder bag.

There’d been a lot of trees and stuff uprooted above that had been shoved down into the canyon. Suppose he’d managed to grab hold of something and kept himself afloat; and suppose he’d managed to get out of the river…

He reduced magnification and widened the field. Yes. Suppose he’d been carried down below the mouth of the Lake-Chain River, on the left bank. He’d start back on foot, and when he came to where the Lake-Chain came in from the north to join the Yellowsand curving in from the east, what would he think?

Well, what would anybody who didn’t know the country think? He’d think the Lake-Chain was the Yellowsand, and go on following it. Of course, he had a compass, but he wouldn’t be looking at that, hanging to a log or a tree in the river. A compass would only tell him which way north was; it wouldn’t tell him where he’d been since he last looked at it.

“I have the fire views now, Mr. Holloway.”

“Don’t bother with them. I’ll get them later. You call Gerd van Riebeek and George Lunt; tell them I want them right away. And tell Lunt to put on an emergency alert. And then get me Victor Grego in Mallorysport.”

He reached for his pipe and lighter, wondering where his hangover had gone.

“And when you have time,” he added, “call Sandra Glenn at the Fuzzy Club in Mallorysport and tell her to hold up work on that commemorative plaque. It might just be a little premature.”

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