Deathworld II: The Ethical Engineer
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by Harry Harrison
Category: Science Fiction
Description: On the planet Pyrrus, human colonists have fought a centuries-old war with the native life forms. These life forms adapt to human tactics and technology, evolving new species so rapidly that natives returning from even brief trips off planet must be carried in protective armor canisters from their ship to the safe buildings, where they will learn of the latest deadly threats.
"The Ethical Engineer" is the second volume in the DEATHWORLD series. It was originally published as a two-part serial in ANALOG magazine in 1963.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1963 Analog
eBookwise Release Date: June 2010
18 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [188 KB]
Reading time: 122-171 min.
"Hard to put down." --New Scientist
"A coldly thrilling piece of science fiction." --The Spectator
Jason dinAlt looked unhappily at the two stretchers as they were carried by. "Are they at it again?" he asked.
Brucco nodded, the scowl permanently ingrained now on his hawklike face. "We have only one thing to be thankful for. That is--so far at least--they haven't used any weapons on each other."
Jason looked down unbelievingly at the shredded clothing, crushed flesh and broken bones. "The absence of weapons doesn't appear to make much difference when two Pyrrans start fighting. It seems impossible that this damage could be administered bare-handed."
"Well it was. Even you should know that much about Pyrrus by now. We take our fighting very seriously. But they never think how much more work it makes for me. Now I have to patch these two idiots up and try to find room for them in the ward." He stalked away, irritated and annoyed as always. Jason usually laughed at the doctor's irascible state, but not today.
Today, and for some days past, he had found himself living with a persistent feeling of irritation, that had arrived at the same time as his discovery that it is far easier to fight a war than to administer a peace. The battle at the perimeter still continued, since the massed malevolence of the Pyrran life forms were not going to call a truce simply because the two warring groups of humans had done so. There was battle on the perimeter and a continual feeling of unrest inside the city. So far there had been very little traffic between the city Pyrrans and those living outside the walls, and what contact there had been usually led to the kind of violence he had just witnessed. The only minor note of hope in this concert of discord was the fact that no one had died--as yet--in any of these fearsome hand-to-hand conflicts. In spite of the apparent deadliness of the encounters all of the Pyrrans seemed to understand that, despite past hatreds, they were all really on the same side. A distant rumble from the clouded sky broke through his thoughts.
"There is a ship on the radar," Meta said, coming out of the ground-control office and squinting up at the overcast. "I wonder if it is that ecology expedition that Brucco arranged--or the cargo ship from Ondion?"
"We'll find out in a few minutes," Jason said, happy to forget his troubles for the moment in frank admiration, since just looking at Meta was enough to put a golden edge on this gloom-filled day. Standing there, head back searching the sky, she managed to be beautiful even in the formless Pyrran coverall. Jason put his arms around her waist and exacted a great deal of pleasure from kissing the golden length of her up-stretched throat.
"Oh, Jason ... not now," she said in exasperation. Pyrran minds, by necessity, run along one track at a time, and at the present moment she was thinking about the descending spaceship. With a quick motion, scarcely aware of her action, she pulled his hands from her and pushed him away, an easy enough thing for a Pyrran girl to do. But in doing so she half fractured one of his wrists, numbed the other, and knocked Jason to the ground.
"Darling ... I'm sorry," she gasped, suddenly realizing what she had done, bending quickly to help him up.
"Get away, you lady weight-lifter," he growled, pushing aside the proffered hand and struggling to his feet. "When are you going to realize that I'm only human, not made of chrome steel bars like the rest of your people...." He stifled the rest of his words in disgust, at himself, his temper, this deadly planet and the cantankerousness of its citizens that was scratching away at his nerves. He turned and stamped away, angry at himself for taking out his vile mood on Meta, but still too annoyed to make peace.
Meta watched him leave, trying to say something that would end this foolish quarrel, but unable to. The largest blank in the Pyrran personality was an almost complete lack of knowledge of human nature, and her struggle to fill in the gaps--gaps she was only just beginning to realize existed--was a difficult one. The stronger emotions of hate and fear were no strangers to her; but for the first time she was discovering how difficult and complex was this unusual feeling of love. She let Jason go because she was incapable of any other action. Of course she could stop him by force, but if she had learned anything in the past few weeks, it was the discovery that this was one area where he was very sensitive. There was no doubt that she was far stronger than he--physically--and he did not like to be reminded about it. She went back into the ground-control room, almost eager to deal with the impersonal faces of the dials and scopes, material and unchanging entities that posed no conflicting problems.
Jason stood at the edge of the field and watched the ship come in for a landing, his anger forgotten temporarily in the presence of this break in routine. Perhaps this was the shipful of scientific eggheads that Brucco was expecting; he hoped so. It would be a pleasant treat to have a conversation with someone about a topic more universal than the bore dimensions of guns. With practiced eye he watched the landing which was a little sloppy, either a new pilot or an old one who didn't care much. It was a small ship so not many people would be aboard. Then the spacer turned for a moment, in a landing correction, and he had a quick glimpse of a serial number and tantalizingly familiar insignia on its stern--where had he seen that before?
The ship touched down and the flaring rockets died. There was only the click of cooling metal from the ship: no one emerged, nor did any of the Pyrrans seem interested enough in the newcomer to approach it. That must mean that no one had any business with it, and, of course, no curiosity either, for this along with imagination was in very short supply on the war-torn planet. Since no one else was making any moves, Jason went forward to investigate for himself.
A stingwing that had escaped the perimeter guards dived towards him and he blasted it automatically with his gun. The corpse thudded to the ground and the soil churned around it as the insectile scavengers fought for the flesh; only bare bones remained by the time he had taken two paces.
A muffled whine of motors told him that the lower hatch was opening, and Jason watched as a hairline crack appeared in the thick metal, then widened as the heavy door ground outwards. Through the opening he had a glimpse of a figure muffled in a heavy-duty spacesuit. That must be Meta's work, she would have contacted the ship by radio while it was on its way down and explained the standing orders that no off-worlders were to be allowed out of their ships unless wearing the heaviest armor. Since the armed truce between the human inhabitants there had been a lessening of the relentless warfare the Pyrran life forms waged against the city, but only to a slight degree. Deadly beasts still abounded, and the air was thick with toxic diseases. A stranger, unprotected, would be ill in five minutes, dead within ten--or much sooner if a horndevil or other beast got to him in the interval.
Jason felt a justified pride that he could walk this planet under his own power. The natives, adapted to the deadliness and heavy gravity since birth, were still his superiors, but he was the only off-worlder who could stand the dangers of Pyrrus. His gun whined out of his power holster into his waiting hand as he searched for some target to use his talents on. An armored piece of nastiness, with a lot of legs, was crawling into hiding under a rock and he blasted it neatly with a single shot. The gun snapped back into the holster and he turned to the open door of the spacer, his morale greatly improved.
"Welcome to Pyrrus," he told the ungainly figure that clumped out of the ship. There was a hefty maser-projector clutched in the armored gloves and whoever was inside the suit, the face was invisible behind the thick and tinted faceplate, seemed exceedingly nervous, turning to look in all directions.
"Don't worry," Jason said, fighting to keep a tone of smug satisfaction out of his voice, "I'll take care of things for you. I don't know what kind of horror stories you may have heard about Pyrrus--but they're all true. That's a nice looking heat ray you have there, but I doubt if you could move fast enough to use it."
The figure lowered the gun and fumbled for a switch on the front of the space armor, it clicked and a speaker diaphragm rustled.
"I'm looking for a man called Jason dinAlt. Can you tell me if he is on this planet or if he has left?"
It was impossible to tell the speaker's tone from the rasping diaphragm, and no face was visible that might betray an emotion. This was the moment when Jason should have shown caution, and have remembered that there were thousands of policemen scattered across the galaxy who would heartily enjoy putting him under arrest. Yet he couldn't imagine any of them going to the trouble of following him here. And certainly there could be very little danger from a spacesuited man with a rifle, not to the man who had learned to take Pyrrus on its own terms, and live.
"I'm Jason dinAlt," he said. "What do you want me for?"
"I've come a long way to find you," the speaker rasped. "Now"--the gloved hand pointed--"what is THAT?"
Jason's reactions were instantaneous, conditioned to move without thought. He wheeled, crouched, the gun in his hand and finger quivering lightly on the trigger, pointed in the indicated direction. There was nothing unusual to be seen, just an empty field and the control building at the edge.
"Whatever are you talking about ..." Jason asked, then stopped as it became very obvious what the stranger had been talking about. The large, flanged mouth of the maser-projector ground into the small of his back. His own gun snapped halfway out of its holster, buzzed briefly, then slipped back as he realized his position.
"That's much better," the stranger said. "If you attempt to move, turn, lower your gun hand or do anything I don't like I'll pull this trigger and...."
"I know," Jason sighed, careful to stand with every muscle frozen. "You will pull the trigger and burn a nice round hole through my backbone and intestines. But I would just like to know why? Who is it that is so interested in my worthless old carcass that they were willing to pay interstellar freight charges to send you and that oversize toaster all the way here in order to threaten it?"
Jason was only talking to kill time, since he knew this situation would not stay static for long, not on Pyrrus. He was completely right because before he had finished the ground-control door burst open and Meta ran out, circling to the left. At the same moment Kerk appeared from behind the building, his Pyrran reflexes absorbing the situation in an instant and with no perceptible delay he ran in the opposite direction. Both Pyrrans had their guns ready and closed in with the merciless precision of trained predators.
"Tell them to stop," the suit speaker grated at Jason. "I'll shoot you if they try anything."
"Hold it!" Jason shouted, and the running Pyrrans stopped instantly. "Don't come any closer and whatever you do don't shoot." He half-turned his head and spoke in a quieter voice to the suited figure behind him. "Now you see where you stand. Lower the gun and get back into your ship, I guarantee you'll stay alive if you do that at once."
"Don't try and buff me, dinAlt," the maser barrel pushed harder against his back. "You are my prisoner and your friends can't save you. Start walking backwards now--I'll stay right behind you."
"Look," Jason said calmly, not permitting himself to get angry. "Those are Pyrrans out there. Either of them could kill you so quickly that you couldn't possibly have time to pull that trigger. I'm saving your life--though I don't know why I'm bothering--so be a good boy and get back into your ship and go home and we'll give you a T for trying."
"Could I have him, please Kerk?" Meta called out, the deadly assumption of her remark punctuating Jason's logic. "After all, Jason means more to me than you. Shall I kill him yet, Jason?"
"Just shoot his gun hand off, Meta," Kerk told her, in the same emotionless tone. "I want to know who this is, why he came here, before he dies."
"Get back into your ship, you fool," Jason hissed. "You've got only seconds to live."
"Start walking backwards," his captor said. "You are under arrest. I'll count to three, then shoot. One ... two...."
Jason shuffled a cautious step to the rear and the Pyrran guns snapped up at the same instant, extended at arm's length. Jason was so close to the man in the spacesuit that the guns could have been pointed at him, the eyes sighting carefully over the dark muzzles.
"Don't shoot!" Jason shouted to his friends.
"Don't worry," Kerk called back. "We won't hit you."
"I know that--it's this idiot here that I'm worrying about. You just can't shoot him for trying to do his job. In fact I'm surprised to find out that there is one honest cop left on any of the places I've been."
"Don't talk so crazy," Meta said with maddening sweetness. "We'll kill him, Jason. We'll take care of you."
Anger hit him. "You will NOT take care of me because I can take care of myself. Either of you kill him and so help me I'll kill you." Jason shuffled backwards faster now until his legs hit the lower edge of the hatch. He clambered into it and burst out laughing at the dumfounded expressions of his friends' faces. The laugh died as something pricked the back of his neck. The pressure of the gun was gone and he swung around, surprised to see the floor rushing up towards him, but before it struck him blackness descended.
Consciousness returned, accompanied by a thudding headache that made Jason wince when he moved, and when he opened his eyes the pain of the light made him screw them shut again. Whatever the drug was that had knocked him out, it was fast working, and seemed to be oxidized just as quickly. The headache faded away to a dull throb and he could open his eyes without feeling that needles were being driven into them. He was seated in a standard spacechair that had been equipped with wrist and ankle locks, now well secured. A man sat in the chair next to him, intent on the spaceship's controls; the ship was in flight and well into space. The stranger was working the computer, cutting a tape to control their flight in jump-space.
Jason took the opportunity to study the man. He seemed to be a little old for a policeman, though on second thought it was really hard to tell his age. His hair was gray and cropped as short as a skull cap, but the wrinkles on his leathery skin seemed to have been caused more by exposure than advanced years. Tall and firmly erect, he appeared underweight at first glance, until Jason realized this effect was caused by the total absence of any excess flesh. It was as though he had been cooked by the sun and leeched by the rain until only bone, tendon and muscle were left. When he turned his head the muscles stood out like cables under the skin of his neck and his hands at the controls were the browned talons of some bird. A hard finger pressed the switch that actuated the jump control, and he turned away from the board to face Jason.
"I see you are awake. It was a mild drug. I did not enjoy using it, but it was the safest way."
When he talked his jaw opened and shut with the seriousness of a bank vault. The deep-set and cold blue eyes stared fixedly from under dark brows. Jason stared back just as steadily and chuckled.
"I suppose you didn't enjoy using the maser-projector either, nor threatening to cook holes in me. For a cop you seem to be very tender hearted."
"I did it only to save your friends. I did not want them to get hurt."
"Get hurt!" Jason roared with laughter. "Space-cop, don't you have any idea what Pyrrans are like, or what kind of a setup you were walking into? Don't you realize that I saved your life--though I really don't know why. Call me a natural humanitarian. You may have a swollen head and a ready trigger-finger, but you were so far out of your class that you just weren't in the race. They could have blasted you into pieces, then shot the pieces into smaller pieces, while you were still thinking about pulling the trigger. You should just thank me for being your savior."
"So you are a liar as well as a thief," Jason's captor answered with no change of expression. "You attempt to play on my sympathies to gain your freedom. Why should I believe this story? I came to arrest you, threatening to kill you if you didn't submit, and your friends were there ready to defend you. Why should you attempt to save my life? It does not make sense." He turned back to the controls to make an adjustment.
It didn't make sense, Jason agreed completely. Why had he saved this oaf who meant nothing to him? It was not an easy question to answer, though it had seemed so right at the time. If only Meta hadn't said that they would take care of him; he knew they could and was tired of it. He could take care of himself: he felt the anger rising again at the remembered words. Was that the only reason he had let this cop capture him? To show the Pyrrans that he was able to control his own destiny? Was the human ego such a pitiable thing that it had to keep reassuring itself of its own independence or lie down on its back and curl up its toes?
Apparently it was. At least his was. The years had taught him a certain insight into his own personality and he realized that his greedy little subconscious had collected all the cues and signals from the encounter at the spaceport and goaded him into a line of action that looked uncomfortably like suicide. The arrival of the stranger, the threat to himself, the automatic assumption by the Pyrrans that they would take care of him. Apparently his ego and his subconscious felt that he had been taken care of too long. They had managed to get him into this spot from which he could only be extricated by his own talents, far away from Pyrrus and the pressures that had been weighing on him so long.
He took a deep breath and smiled. It wasn't such a bad idea after all. Stupid in retrospect, but the stupidity could hopefully be kept in the past. Now he had to prove that there was something other than a death wish in his subconscious flight from Pyrrus, and he must find a way to reverse positions with this cop, whoever he was. Which meant that he had to find out a little more about the man before making any plans.
"I'm afraid you have the advantage of me, officer. How about telling me who you are and showing me a warrant or something under which you are performing this deed of interstellar justice."
"I am Mikah Samon. I am returning you to Cassylia for trial and sentencing."
"Ah, yes," Jason sighed. "I'm not surprised to hear that they are still interested in finding me. But I should warn you that there is very little remaining of the three-billion, seventeen-million credits that I won from your casino."
"Cassylia doesn't want the money back," Mikah said as he locked the controls and swung about in his chair. "They don't want you back either. You are their planetary hero now. When you escaped with your ill-gotten gains they realized that they would never see the money again. So they put their propaganda mills to work and you are now known throughout all the adjoining star systems as 'Jason 3-Billion', the living proof of the honesty of their dishonest games, and a lure for all the weak in spirit. You tempt them into gambling for money instead of working honestly for it."
"Pardon me for being thick today," Jason said, shaking his head rapidly to loosen up the stuck synapses. "I'm having a little difficulty in following you. What kind of a policeman are you to arrest me for trial after the charges have been dropped?"
"I'm not a policeman," Mikah said sternly, his long fingers woven tightly together before him, his eyes wide and penetrating. "I'm a believer in Truth--nothing more. The corrupt politicians who control Cassylia have placed you on a pedestal of honor. Honoring you, another--and if possible--a more corrupt man, and behind your image they have waxed fat. But I am going to use the Truth to destroy that image, and when I destroy the image I shall destroy the evil that produced it."
"That's a tall order for one man," Jason said calmly--much calmer than he really felt. "Do you have a cigarette?"
"There is, of course, no tobacco or spirits on this ship. And I am more than one man. I have followers. The Truth Party is already a power to be reckoned with. We have spent much time and energy in tracking you down, but it was worth it. We have followed your dishonest trail into the past, to Mahaut's Planet, to the Nebula Casino on Galipto, through a series of sordid crimes that turns an honest man's stomach. We have warrants for your arrest from each of these places, in some cases even the results of trials and your death sentence."
"I suppose it doesn't bother your sense of legality that those trials were all held in my absence," Jason asked. "Or that I have only fleeced casinos and gamblers--who make their living by fleecing suckers?"
Mikah Samon wiped away this consideration with a wave of his hand. "You have been proven guilty of a number of crimes. No amount of wriggling on the hook can change that. You should be thankful that your revolting record will have a good use in the end. It will be the lever with which we shall topple the grafting government of Cassylia."
"I'm beginning to be sorry that I stopped Kerk and Meta from shooting you," Jason said, shaking his head in wonder. "I have a very strong suspicion that you are going to cause yourself--and a lot of other people--a good deal of trouble before this thing is over. Look at me for instance--" he rattled his wrists in their restraining bands. The servo motors whined a bit as the detector unit came to life and tightened the grasp of the cuffs, limiting his movement. "A little while ago I was enjoying my health and freedom and I threw it all away on the impulse to save your life. I'm going to have to learn to fight those impulses."
"If that is supposed to be a plea for mercy, it is sickening," Mikah said. "I have never taken favors nor do I owe anything to men of your type. Nor will I ever."
"Ever like never is a long time," Jason said very quietly. "I wish I had your serenity of mind about the sure order of things."
"Your remark shows that there might be hope for you yet. You might be able to recognise the Truth before you die. I will help you, talk to you and explain."
"Better the execution," Jason choked.