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Chapter 15

 

Brion hurled himself backward and sprawled flat in the dust and filth of the road. No poison dart sought him out; the empty silence still reigned. Telt's murderers had come and gone. Moving quickly, using the bulk of the car as a shield, he opened the door and slipped inside.

They had done a thorough job of destruction. All of the controls had been battered into uselessness, the floor was a junk heap of crushed equipment, intertwined with loops of recording tape bulging like mechanical intestines. A gutted machine, destroyed like its driver.

It was easy enough to reconstruct what had happened. The car had been seen when they entered the city—probably by some of the magter who had destroyed the Foundation building. They had not seen where it had gone, or Brion would surely be dead by now. But they must have spotted it when Telt tried to leave the city—and stopped it in the most effective way possible, a dart through the open window into the unsuspecting driver's neck.

Telt dead! The brutal impact of the man's death had driven all thought of its consequences from Brion's mind. Now he began to realize. Telt had never sent word of his discovery of the radioactive trace to the Nyjord army. He had been afraid to use the radio, and had wanted to tell Hys in person, and to show him the tape. Only now the tape was torn and mixed with all the others, the brain that could have analyzed it dead.

Brion looked at the dangling entrails of the radio and spun for the door. Running swiftly and erratically, he fled from the sand car. His own survival and the possible survival of Dis depended on his not being seen near it. He must contact Hys and pass on the information. Until he did that, he was the only offworlder on Dis who knew which magter tower might contain the world-destroying bombs.

Once out of sight of the sand car he went more slowly, wiping the sweat from his streaming face. He hadn't been seen leaving the car, and he wasn't being followed. The streets here weren't familiar, but he checked his direction by the sun and walked at a steady fast pace towards the destroyed building. More of the native Disans were in the streets now. They all noticed him, some even stopped and scowled fiercely at him. With his emphatic awareness he felt their anger and hatred. A knot of men radiated death, and he put his hand on his gun as he passed them. Two of them had their blowguns ready, but didn't use them. By the time he had turned the next corner he was soaked with nervous perspiration.

Ahead was the rubble of the destroyed building. Grounded next to it was the tapered form of a spacer's pinnace. Two men had come from the open lock and were standing at the edge of the burnt area.

Brion's boots grated loudly on the broken wreckage. The men turned quickly towards him, guns raised. Both of them carried ion rifles. They relaxed when they saw his offworld clothes.

"Bloody damned savages!" one of them growled. He was a heavy-planet man, a squashed-down column of muscle and gristle, whose head barely reached Brion's chest. A pushed-back cap had the crossed slide-rule symbol of ship's computer man.

"Can't blame them, I guess," the second man said. He wore purser's insignia. His features were different, but with the same compacted body the two men were as physically alike as twins. Probably from the same home planet. "They're gonna get their whole world blown out from under them at midnight. Looks as if the poor slob in the streets finally realized what is happening. Hope we're in jump-space by then. I saw Estrada's World get it, and I don't want to see that again, not twice in one lifetime!"

The computer man was looking closely at Brion, head tilted sideways to see his face. "You need transportation offworld?" he asked. "We're the last ship at the port, and we're going to boil out of here as soon as the rest of our cargo is aboard. We'll give you a lift if you need it."

Only by a tremendous effort at control did Brion conceal the destroying sorrow that overwhelmed him when he looked at that shattered wasteland, the graveyard of so many. "No," he said. "That won't be necessary. I'm in touch with the blockading fleet and they'll pick me up before midnight."

"You from Nyjord?" the purser growled.

"No," Brion said, still only half aware of the men. "But there is trouble with my own ship." He realized that they were looking intently at him, that he owed them some kind of explanation. "I thought I could find a way to stop the war. Now … I'm not so sure." He hadn't intended to be so frank with the spacemen, but the words had been uppermost in his thoughts and had simply slipped out.

The computer man started to say something, but his shipmate speared him in the side with his elbow. "We blast soon—and I don't like the way these Disans are looking at us. The captain said to find out what caused the fire, then get the hell back. So let's go."

"Don't miss your ship," the computer man said to Brion, and he started for the pinnace. Then he hesitated and turned. "Sure there's nothing we can do for you?"

Sorrow would accomplish nothing. Brion fought to sweep the dregs of emotion from his mind and to think clearly. "You can help me," he said. "I could use a scalpel or any other surgical instrument you might have." Lea would need those. Then he remembered Telt's undelivered message. "Do you have a portable radio transceiver? I can pay you for it."

The computer man vanished inside the rocket and reappeared a minute later with a small package. "There's a scalpel and a magnetized tweezers in here—all I could find in the med kit. Hope they'll do." He reached inside and swung out the metal case of a self-contained transceiver. "Take this, it's got plenty of range, even on the longer frequencies."

He raised his hand at Brion's offer to pay. "My donation," he said. "If you can save this planet I'll give you the whole pinnace as well. We'll tell the captain we lost the radio in some trouble with the natives. Isn't that right, Moneybags?" He prodded the purser in the chest with a finger that would have punched a hole through a weaker man.

"I read you loud and clear," the purser said. "I'll make out an invoice so stating, back in the ship." They were both in the pinnace then, and Brion had to move fast to get clear of the takeoff blast.

A sense of obligation—the spacemen had felt it too. The realization of this raised Brion's spirits a bit as he searched through the rubble for anything useful. He recognized part of a wall still standing as a corner of the laboratory. Poking through the ruins, he unearthed broken instruments and a single, battered case that had barely missed destruction. Inside was the binocular microscope, the right tube bent, its lenses cracked and obscured. The left eyepiece still seemed to be functioning. Brion carefully put it back in the case.

He looked at his watch. It was almost noon. These few pieces of equipment would have to do for the dissection. Watched suspiciously by the onlooking Disans, he started back to the warehouse. It was a long, circuitous walk, since he didn't dare give any clues to his destination. Only when he was positive he had not been observed or followed did he slip through the building's entrance, locking the door behind him.

Lea's frightened eyes met his when he went into the office. "A friendly smile here among the cannibals," she called. Her strained expression gave the lie to the cheeriness of her words. "What has happened? Since I woke up, the great stone face over there"—she pointed to Ulv—"has been telling me exactly nothing."

"What's the last thing you can remember?" Brion asked carefully. He didn't want to tell her too much, lest this bring on the shock again. Ulv had shown great presence of mind in not talking to her.

"If you must know," Lea said, "I remember quite a lot, Brion Brandd. I shan't go into details, since this sort of thing is best kept from the natives. For the record then, I can recall going to sleep after you left. And nothing since then. It's weird. I went to sleep in that lumpy hospital bed and woke up on this couch, feeling simply terrible. With him just sitting there and scowling at me. Won't you please tell me what is going on?"

A partial truth was best, saving all of the details that he could for later. "The magter attacked the Foundation building," he said. "They are getting angry at all offworlders now. You were still knocked out by a sleeping drug, so Ulv helped bring you here. It's afternoon now—"

"Of the last day?" She sounded horrified. "While I'm playing Sleeping Beauty the world is coming to an end! Was anyone hurt in the attack? Or killed?"

"There were a number of casualties—and plenty of trouble," Brion said. He had to get her off the subject. Walking over to the corpse, he threw back the cover from its face. "But this is more important right now. It's one of the magter. I have a scalpel and some other things here—will you perform an autopsy?"

Lea huddled back on the couch, her arms around herself, looking chilled in spite of the heat of the day. "What happened to the people at the building?" she asked in a thin voice. The injection had removed her memories of the tragedy, but echoes of the strain and shock still reverberated in her mind and body. "I feel so … exhausted. Please tell me what happened. I have the feeling you're hiding something."

Brion sat next to her and took her hands in his, not surprised to find them cold. Looking into her eyes, he tried to give her some of his strength. "It wasn't very nice," he said. "You were shaken up by it, I imagine that's why you feel the way you do now. But—Lea, you'll have to take my word for this. Don't ask any more questions. There's nothing we can do now about it. But we can still find out about the magter. Will you examine the corpse?"

She started to ask something, then changed her mind. When she dropped her eyes Brion felt the thin shiver that went through her body. "There's something terribly wrong," she said. "I know that. I guess I'll have to take your word that it's best not to ask questions. Help me up, will you, darling? My legs are absolutely liquid."

Leaning on him, with his arm around her supporting most of her weight, she went slowly across to the corpse. She looked down and shuddered. "Not what you would call a natural death," she said. Ulv watched intently as she took the scalpel out of its holder. "You don't have to look at this," she told him in halting Disan. "Not if you don't want to."

"I want to," he told her, not taking his eyes from the body. "I have never seen a magter dead before, or without covering, like an ordinary person." He continued to stare fixedly.

"Find me some drinking water, will you, Brion?" Lea said. "And spread the tarp under the body. These things are quite messy."

After drinking the water she seemed stronger, and could stand without holding onto the table with both hands. Placing the tip of the scalpel just below the magter's breast bone, she made the long post-mortem incision down to the pubic symphysis. The great, body-length wound gaped open like a red mouth. Across the table Ulv shuddered but didn't avert his eyes.

One by one she removed the internal organs. Once she looked up at Brion, then quickly returned to work. The silence stretched on and on until Brion had to break it.

"Tell me, can't you? Have you found out anything?"

His words snapped the thin strand of her strength, and she staggered back to the couch and collapsed onto it. Her bloodstained hands hung over the side, making a strangely terrible contrast to the whiteness of her skin.

"I'm sorry, Brion," she said. "But there's nothing, nothing at all. There are minor differences, organic changes I've never seen before—his liver is tremendous, for one thing. But changes like this are certainly consistent within the pattern of homo sapiens as adapted to a different planet. He's a man. Changed, adapted, modified—but still just as human as you or I."

"How can you be sure?" Brion broke in. "You haven't examined him completely, have you?" She shook her head. "Then go on. The other organs. His brain. A microscopic examination. Here!" he said, pushing the microscope case towards her with both hands.

She dropped her head onto her forearms and sobbed. "Leave me alone, can't you! I'm tired and sick and fed up with this awful planet. Let them die. I don't care! Your theory is false, useless. Admit that! And let me wash the filth from my hands… ." Sobbing drowned out her words.

Brion stood over her and drew a shuddering breath. Was he wrong? He didn't dare think about that. He had to go on. Looking down at the thinness of her bent back, with the tiny projections of her spine showing through the thin cloth, he felt an immense pity—a pity he couldn't surrender to. This thin, helpless, frightened woman was his only resource. She had to work. He had to make her work.

Ihjel had done it—used projective empathy to impress his emotions upon Brion. Now Brion must do it with Lea. He had had some sessions in the art, but not nearly enough to make him proficient. Nevertheless he had to try.

Strength was what Lea needed. Aloud he said simply, "You can do it. You have the will and the strength to finish." And silently his mind cried out the order to obey, to share his power now that hers was drained and finished.

Only when she lifted her face and he saw the dried tears did he realize that he had succeeded. "You will go on?" he asked quietly.

Lea merely nodded and rose to her feet. She shuffled like a sleepwalker jerked along by invisible strings. Her strength wasn't her own, and the situation reminded him unhappily of that last event of the Twenties when he had experienced the same kind of draining activity. She wiped her hands roughly on her clothes and opened the microscope case.

"The slides are all broken," she said.

"This will do," Brion told her, crashing his heel through the glass partition. Shards tinkled and crashed to the floor. He took some of the bigger pieces and broke them to rough squares that would fit under the clips on the stage. Lea accepted them without a word. Putting a drop of the magter's blood on the slide, she bent over the eyepiece.

Her hands shook when she tried to adjust the focusing. Using low power, she examined the specimen, squinting through the angled tube. Once she turned the sub-stage mirror a bit to catch the light streaming in the window. Brion stood behind her, fists clenched, forceably controlling his anxiety. "What do you see?" he finally blurted out.

"Phagocytes, platelets … leucocytes … everything seems normal." Her voice was dull, exhausted, her eyes blinking with fatigue as she stared into the tube.

Anger at defeat burned through Brion. Even faced with failure, he refused to accept it. He reached over her shoulder and savagely twisted the turret of microscope until the longest lens was in position. "If you can't see anything—try the high power! It's there—I know it's there! I'll get you a tissue specimen." He turned back to the disemboweled cadaver.

His back was turned and he did not see that sudden stiffening of her shoulders, or the sudden eagerness that seized her fingers as they adjusted the focus. But he did feel the wave of emotion that welled from her, impinging directly on his empathetic sense. "What is it?" he called to her, as if she had spoken aloud.

"Something … something here," she said, "in this leucocyte. It's not normal structure, but it's familiar. I've seen something like it before, but I just can't remember." She turned away from the microscope and unthinkingly pressed her gory knuckles to her forehead. "I know I've seen it before."

Brion squinted into the deserted microscope and made out a dim shape in the center of the field. It stood out sharply when he focused—the white, jellyfish shape of a single-celled leucocyte. To his untrained eye there was nothing unusual about it. He couldn't know what was strange, when he had no idea of what was normal.

"Do you see those spherical green shapes grouped together?" Lea asked. Before Brion could answer she gasped, "I remember now!" Her fatigue was forgotten in her excitement. "Icerya purchasi, that was the name, something like that. It's a coccid, a little scale insect. It had those same shapes collected together within its individual cells."

"What do they mean? What is the connection with Dis?"

"I don't know," she said; "it's just that they look so similar. And I never saw anything like this in a human cell before. In the coccids, the green particles grow into a kind of yeast that lives within the insect. Not a parasite, but a real symbiote… ."

Her eyes opened wide as she caught the significance of her own words. A symbiote—and Dis was the world where symbiosis and parasitism had become more advanced and complex than on any other planet. Lea's thoughts spun around this fact and chewed at the fringes of the logic. Brion could sense her concentration and absorption. He did nothing to break the mood. Her hands were clenched, her eyes staring unseeingly at the wall as her mind raced.

Brion and Ulv were quiet, watching her, waiting for her conclusions. The pieces were falling into shape at last.

Lea opened her clenched hands and smoothed them on her sodden skirt. She blinked and turned to Brion. "Is there a tool box here?" she asked.

Her words were so unexpected that Brion could not answer for a moment. Before he could say anything she spoke again.

"Not hand tools; that would take too long. Could you find anything like a power saw? That would be ideal." She turned back to the microscope, and he didn't try to question her. Ulv was still looking at the body of the magter and had understood nothing of what they had said.

Brion went out into the loading bay. There was nothing he could use on the ground floor, so he took the stairs to the floor above. A corridor here passed by a number of rooms. All of the doors were locked, including one with the hopeful sign TOOL ROOM on it. He battered at the metal door with his shoulder without budging it. As he stepped back to look for another way in, he glanced at his watch.

Two o'clock! In ten hours the bombs would fall on Dis.

The need for haste tore at him. Yet there could be no noise—someone in the street might hear it. He quickly stripped off his shirt and wrapped it in a loose roll around the barrel of his gun, extending it in a loose tube in front of the barrel. Holding the rolled cloth in his left hand, he jammed the gun up tight against the door, the muzzle against the lock. The single shot was only a dull thud, inaudible outside of the building. Pieces of broken mechanism jarred and rattled inside the lock and the door swung open.

When he came back Lea was standing by the body. He held the small power saw with a rotary blade. "Will this do?" he asked. "Runs on its own battery; almost fully charged too."

"Perfect," she answered. "You're both going to have to help me." She switched into the Disan language. "Ulv, would you find some place where you can watch the street without being seen? Signal me when it is empty. I'm afraid this saw is going to make a lot of noise."

Ulv nodded and went out into the bay, where he climbed a heap of empty crates so he could peer through the small windows set high in the wall. He looked carefully in both directions, then waved to her to go ahead.

"Stand to one side and hold the cadaver's chin, Brion," she said. "Hold it firmly so the head doesn't shake around when I cut. This is going to be a little gruesome. I'm sorry. But it'll be the fastest way to cut the bone." The saw bit into the skull.

Once Ulv waved them into silence, and shrank back himself into the shadows next to the window. They waited impatiently until he gave them the sign to continue again. Brion held steady while the saw cut a circle completely around the skull.

"Finished," Lea said and the saw dropped from her limp fingers to the floor. She massaged life back into her hands before she finished the job. Carefully and delicately she removed the cap of bone from the magter's head, exposing his brain to the shaft of light from the window.

"You were right all the time, Brion," she said. "There is your alien."