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The Noble Savages

David Drake

"Ah, Guibert," said Officer Commanding (with Special Authority) McBrien from the depths of his malachite-lined office. "So glad you could make it. We don't chat often enough, you and I."

Right, thought Guibert. My direct superior through about twenty levels of Magnicate bureaucracy "asks" me to his office, and I'm going to decide to wash my hair instead?

The gold crests which dotted the malachite's ugly green were probably copied from McBrien's armorial bearings. Guibert's team joked that the Grand Harrier OC traced his ancestry back to Adam—though McBrien would have been offended at a comment that smacked of Patriarchal Religionism1.

"Ah—" said McBrien. He was nervous. Certainly not of me, a scruffy Petit Harrier team leader. "Will you have a drink, Guibert? I've got a darling little liqueur from—"

"No thank you, sir." The huge office was filled with ancient and valuable furnishings. Guibert felt an urge, quickly suppressed, to undo his fly and take a whiz into one of the ormolu vases flanking the doorway.

"Ah," McBrien repeated. He was a tall man, straight-backed, with the aquiline face of a Roman consul. (There were probably Roman consuls in his chain of descent too.) "Well, Guibert, would you like to sit down?"

"No thank you, sir."

McBrien's aristocratically pale visage flushed. "Sit down, Guibert!"

The chairs were Mission Style, black oak and leather. Guibert settled himself on one gingerly. It was so uncomfortable that it made him think of the cycle of torture and counter-torture which the Spanish and aboriginal cultures had inflicted on one another during the Mission Period.

"Ha-ha," McBrien said. "Sorry if I sounded abrupt, my good fellow. Pressures of command. I'm sure you know, being a commander yourself."

Commander of a four-man Petit Harrier insertion team and the commander of the Magnicate dreadnought Night-Blooming Cereus, the most powerful vessel in anything up to fifty light years. You bet, obvious parallels.

Speaking of Spanish/Aboriginal culture, McBrien's grin could have modeled for a sugar skull on the Day of the Dead celebrations. Would that be Patriarchal Religionism—or an Aspect of Native Culture and therefore a compliment to the OC?

"Ah," McBrien said. "You're sure you wouldn't like . . ."

Guibert wouldn't. Guibert was going to speak when ordered to, period. Guibert didn't have a clue about what he was doing in the OC's office, and he had a nasty suspicion that he wasn't going to be any happier about the situation when he learned what it was.

McBrien pursed his lips. He tented his fingers before him, then flattened his hands on the gleaming desktop in horror. He'd realized that he might have been thought to be indulging in prayer. Guibert waited, imagining wistfully though without real hope that the Grand Harrier would suddenly dismiss him.

"To tell the truth," McBrien lied brightly, "I've been thinking to myself, 'You know, Guibert looks like he needs some leave.' As a matter of fact, your whole team looks like it should have some time off, Guibert. You and, and . . ."

"Dayly, Karge, and Wenzil, sir?" Guibert said, volunteering information for the first time since he entered the OC's office. "Leave?"

McBrien relaxed visibly. "Exactly! Well, that's settled. I'm sure you gentlepersons will have a wonderful time on Sawick, a wonderful time. Have your team ready to go in half an hour, won't you? That's a good fellow."

Guibert blinked. "Sawick, sir?" he said. "Why in the name of the Nurturing Motherforce do you think we'd want to go there?"

McBrien drew himself up haughtily. He sniffed, a long sound in a nose as aristocratic as his. "Sawick is a favored destination among the cognoscenti, Guibert," he said. "Sawick provides a chance to view the sort of natural paradise from which our ancestors, sadly, turned millennia ago. The loss of that innocence is the root cause of the trouble and strife which have plagued our unfortunate race ever since."

Guibert rubbed his temples as if he could massage some sense out of his commanding officers words. Sawick had been discovered by Magnicate vessels only a few decades ago. It was some sort of nature preserve. The autochthones, cave-dwelling troglodytes, had put all but a few hectares of the planet off-limits to outsiders. The Emerging Planet Fairness Court saw to it that Magnicate citizens obeyed the local decision.

"Many thanks for your suggestion, sir," Guibert said carefully, "but I think my team"—most assuredly including the team leader—"would prefer Port Jennet as a leave destination. Port Jennet has many educational aspects of its own."

For example, the act Big Liz performs using a 2-liter beer bottle as a prop.

"Nonsense," McBrien said forcefully. "You'll want to better yourselves, I'm sure. I'm sure."

He pursed his lips again. "Besides," he added in a voice that was suddenly as thin as if he were speaking only on one sideband, "it occurs to me that you might be able to do me a little favor while you're there. Ah—"

McBrien stared pensively at his paperweight, an ancient gold statuette which had once tipped the scepter of a West African king. The image consisted of a fat man gorging himself while an emaciated man looked on. The tableau illustrated the native proverb that, "The man with food eats, and he owes nothing to the man with no food."

"A way to save on paperwork, don't you know, old chap?" the OC resumed with the same determinedly-false brightness as earlier. "Don't you just hate needless paperwork?"

Does a bear shit in the woods?

But if the brass are telling lies, it's no time for peons to stick to the truth . . . Guibert raised an eyebrow and said, "Action without organization is action wasted, sir. I'm sure you don't imagine that I or any other Petit Harrier would violate proper procedures."

McBrien's smile now looked like the rictus of a man being garroted. "Of course," he said, "of course. But since you'd be on leave and I don't believe that this little matter was deemed worthy of a formal report . . ."

What little matter?

Guibert didn't open his mouth, knowing that his best chance of getting out of this was not to get in to begin with. He crossed his hands ready in his lap and focused his eyes on the OC's beard-fringed chin.

"Ah . . ." said McBrien with a hopeful intonation. Guibert kept his eyes fixed and his lips together.

McBrien sighed. "The fact is," he said, looking at the gold paperweight again, "some young people—dependents of some of the dreadnought's personnel—borrowed a vessel from the Night-Blooming Cereus. My cutter, in fact. They, ah, wanted to visit Sawick. No harm done, of course."

Guibert blinked again. "No harm done?" he repeated incredulously. "Punks steal the OC's cutter—filled with top-drawer electronics—and they take it to a generally proscribed planet? And there's no harm done?"

"They aren't punks," McBrien said to the paperweight. The words were barely audible because his lips were so tightly compressed. "And anyway, the problem is that they, ah . . . seem to have disappeared."

"Benign Female Principle!" Guibert cursed. "The natives grabbed them, you mean?"

He tried to remember what he'd heard about the Sawickis. If he had the aliens right in his mind, they were humanoid but pasty, stunted and stone-blind. Sawick wasn't a place Guibert or anybody he wanted to know would pick for a local romance.

"Well, there's no evidence of that," McBrien said. "In fact, the Sawickis don't have any recollection of the ah, youngsters. Landing control personnel—Magnicate citizens—say the cutter took off from Sawick but suddenly vanished from their screens. I'm afraid that there may have been a, a . . ."

He looked up. "I'm not really sure what might have happened. But I thought, you know, since you and your team are going to Sawick anyway . . . ?"

Guibert shook his head. "Negative," he said. "Sir."

He cleared his throat. "Sir, with the sort of equipment built onto an admiral's cutter, and Sawick being a Class—what, Thirty?—world—"

"Thirty-two," McBrien agreed sadly.

"Great, Class Thirty-two, with a technology level that's almost but not quite up to the spoon stage," Guibert said. "Either the cutter blew up—or you've got to put out a full-dress alarm to prevent the autochthones from being infected."

McBrien shivered as though he'd just come out of a bath in ice water. "Oh, I don't think it's so very great a problem, old chap," he said in his single-sideband voice. "The Sawickis are so safe in their pre-industrial purity that I can't imagine them coming to harm. And a fuss, you see, might cause problems for those poor, misguided young people, don't you know?"

Guibert nodded grimly. "You bet," he agreed. "Like spending the next ten years in a Cultural Re-Education camp when the Mromrosii and the rest of the EPFC hear about what they pulled. And you know, for a change, I think I might agree with the Mromrosii."

McBrien pressed his fingers together. This time he didn't jerk them apart when he noticed what he was doing. "Guibert," he said, "I'd really like it if you and your team looked into this unofficially."

"Not without a direct order, sir," Guibert said. "Because me and my people would wind up hoeing rice paddies alongside the punks if we got caught covering up a thing like this."

McBrien bowed his head. "Guibert, do you want me to beg?" he whispered.

"No, sir," Guibert said. "I want you to. dismiss me, so that we can both forget we ever had this conversation."

"Guibert, my daughter Megan took the cutter. With seven of her friends."

OC McBrien stood up. He was normally a graceful man. This time there was a dangling looseness about him, like the motions of a scarecrow being hung on a pole. "If you won't take care of this, Guibert," he said, "then I'll have to go myself. Unofficially."

"Sir," Guibert said. "Sir, with all due respect, a Grand Harrier trying to act outside the system would screw things up beyond reasonable belief."

McBrien nodded. "Yes, Mister Guibert," he said. "I'm very much afraid you're right."

"By the Menstruation of the Life-Giving Yang," Guibert muttered as he got to his feet. "Sir, I'll talk to the team. No promises, but I'll talk to the team."

He'd order the team. It was his decision, he was in charge. And anyway, they were professionals. A pro doesn't sit around and watch an amateur make a bad situation worse.

"But one thing!" Guibert added sharply from the door. "If we do this"—and if we don't get our butts confined in a re-education camp till all of us but Wenzil are tripping on our beards—"then we get a real leave out of it. On Port Jennet!"

The Grand Harrier nodded assent. Even under the present circumstances, McBrien couldn't avoid a moue of distaste at the idea of personnel under his command having fun.


". . . so we'll be going down in a standard leave barge," Guibert explained to his team. "We'll have a full set of orbital scans, but no special equipment aboard."

"A leave barge!" Karge muttered, knuckling his curly auburn hair. "Typical of a faggot like McBrien to expect us to carry out his mission with a bare hull and an engine."

"We'll play it by ear," Guibert said mildly. "If it turns out we need more hardware, then I'll see about getting it."

He cleared his throat. "Dayly," he asked, "what have you got on the Sawickis?"

Wenzil, the team's weapons specialist, was about average height for a human female—a meter sixty-five. Dayly, the data systems specialist, was both shorter and slighter by 10%. He touched a key and projected a hologram of an average Sawicki above the console.

"Great," Karge said. "So now we know that Sawickis are toads."

Guibert pursed his lips. "Slugs, wouldn't you say?" he offered.

Wenzil glanced up, then returned to what she was doing. She'd stripped the team's stunners on her bunk. She was cleaning the contacts individually with an arc-and-vacuum unit and replating when she deemed it desirable.

It was the sort of task normally performed at armory level or above. Wenzil did it before every mission, and once a week or so when the team was on stand-down.

"What sort of stunner setting does the data bank suggest?" she asked as she peered critically at the main buss from Karge's weapon. "Not that I'd trust the data bank, but for a place to start."

Dayly clicked to the end of the file rather than scrolling down. He knew that out of squeamishness, the folks at Central Records would wait as long as they could before stating the information that any sane member of an insertion team wanted right up front: how to program their stunners to have an effect on local lifeforms.

"It says eight seventy-three," Dayly offered in a neutral tone.

The setting was almost certainly extrapolated rather than arrived at by empirical testing on the autochthones. Wenzil was likely to get very upset when her darling stunners didn't perform as she desired. Dayly didn't want to have any more association with a probable mistake than was necessary.

"Hmm," Wenzil said as she punched the code into the stunner she'd already reassembled. "They think Sawickis are slugs, all right, but sea slugs. This is a normal-atmosphere world, isn't it?" She didn't sound concerned, just interested.

"Within parameters," Guibert agreed. "A little high in noble gases, but still under two percent. The figures must be based on Sawicki physiology."

The trouble with stunners was that there were literally billions of life-forms in the known universe. A stimulus that had a stunning effect on one creature might not touch another—or might goad it to fury. Beasts as similar as Terran horses and dogs reacted in violently different ways to would-be knockout drugs.

And, of course, the difference between an incapacitating dose and a lethal dose was often less than a standard deviation within members of the same species. Central could be expected to err on the side of safety—for the hostile autochthones.

"Stunners have got to be the stupidest idea since faculty tenure," said Karge, the ethnology specialist. "It was probably some flaming queen like McBrien who mandated them."

"What we ought to have," said Wenzil, "is real weapons. If you blow a hole clear through something, you can be pretty sure it stops chewing your leg off."

"But that would be wrong," the other three team members chorused, "and the Mromrosii wouldn't like it!"

"Thank the Beneficent Flow of the All-Mother," Guibert said, "that at least we don't have to take a Mromrosi with us into this mare's nest."

The door to the team's compartment was locked. It opened anyway. A Mromrosi glided in on tiny feet hidden beneath the train of bright orange hair. The creature looked like an extremely steep-sided orange haystack a meter and a quarter high. Its single eye glinted at Guibert from behind a veil of hair. "What is our departure time, team leader?" it demanded.

The alien had a pleasant baritone voice. It sounded more human than OC McBrien did when he got nervous.

"Ah," Guibert said. He wondered if the syllable sounded as silly from him as when the Grand Harrier spoke it.

Karge leaned forward. "You won't need to come along this trip, Hairball," the big ethnologist said gently. "We're going on leave."

"I know all about your mission," the Mromrosi responded. "An attempt to carry out a mission without the presence of a representative of the Emerging Planet Fairness Court would lead to cultural re-adjustment for the perpetrators."

"You know," Wenzil said wistfully, "there are times I think I might quite like hoeing a rice paddy for the rest of my life. But I'd want the sentence to be for doing something interesting . . ."

She eyed the Mromrosi. Guibert didn't know whether or not the alien could read Wenzil's speculative expression accurately, but as team leader he didn't want to take chances. "Go on with your description of the autochthones please, Dayly," he said in a loud voice.

The data specialist turned to his console again. "Average height a meter fifty," he read in a singsong voice. "They live underground, growing fungus which they feed on decomposing vegetation which they gather from the surface during the hours of darkness."

"They can't stand sunlight?" Guibert asked.

"Now I wonder whether an eight-seven-three setting might not give me lower dispersion. . . ." Wenzil murmured as her attention returned to the numerical programming pad on the receiver of the second stunner.

The Mromrosi's eye rotated to fix Wenzil with its warm brown glare. "You must not depart from Central's recommended stunner settings!" the creature said. "You might harm an autochthon by such experimentation!"

"Please, Hairball," Guibert said primly. "Your interference with this briefing could cause one of us to make a mistake that would injure the indigenes with whom we come in contact."

It was impossible to tell Mromrosii apart except by hair color, and Karge insisted that they were able to change that. Further, the ethnologist didn't bother trying to pronounce names which he believed the Mromrosii picked at random. Since he got away with it, the rest of the team had picked up the habit also.

The Mromrosi's eye turned again. Guibert wasn't sure whether the whole body moved, or whether the eye slid across the alien's skin beneath the layer of hair.

"I apologize," Hairball said. "Continue."

"They can stand sunlight for a little while," Dayly said, "though they don't have any melanin or the equivalent in their skin, so they sunburn easily."

"You were right, chief," Karge said. "Slugs, not toads."

"The main reason they don't come out by day is that they don't have eyes as such," Dayly continued. "There's a modulated light emitter on top of their heads—a bioluminescent laser, for all practical purposes. There are pick-ups all around the body at neck level, giving them very precise active ranging—but in daylight they're at a disadvantage to creatures which have passive receptors."

"Eyes," Guibert translated aloud.

"Eyes," Dayly agreed. "Also, they have excellent hearing."

"Just how strong a laser are we talking about?" Wenzil asked with an intonation that Guibert couldn't initially place.

"Microwatts," Dayly said. "No danger at all."

The weapons specialist nodded sadly. "It probably wouldn't function if it were removed from the autochthon anyway," she said.

Hairball's eye snapped around, but the Mromrosi kept silent this time.

"The Magnicate made contact with Sawick forty-one years ago," Dayly said. "The autochthons were classified Thirty-two and were informed of their rights under the Emerging Planet Fairness Regulations. The Sawickis elected to eschew outside contact except at one village, the Big Grotto, where they've constructed a surface-level nature area as well. Sawick is believed to be very sparsely settled, but the terms of the autochthonal election make it difficult to determine the amount of sub-surface development."

"Slugs living under rocks," Karge said. "Just the sort of thing you'd expect a pansy like McBrien to get us into."

This wasn't helpful. "Look, Karge," Guibert said. "The only thing I know for sure about the OC's private life is that he's got a kid. Right?"

"Big deal," Karge said. "So did Oscar Wilde. He's a poofter, trust me."

"They sell handicrafts at Big Grotto," Dayly said. "And there's lodging on the surface there." lie squinted at the screen. "If these prices are right, I'm not going to be able to afford more than three nights on Sawick."

"I'll talk to his parentness," Guibert said. "Anything more?"

Dayly shrugged. "Nothing too striking in the local wildlife," he said. "Frankly, there wasn't much interest in the place except from nature freaks till the kids went missing. The scans done since would have showed up the cutter, though, no matter how small the bits it smashed into."

Guibert sighed. "I guess we're ready when you get the hardware put back together, Wenzil," he said.

Hairball scanned the insertion team one by one. "This should be very illuminating for you," the Mromrosi said. "Try to open your hearts and appreciate the differentness of this pure people, the Sawickis, who live at one with Nature. True nobility!"

"Blind, white slugs," Karge muttered. "With arms and legs."


The landing field serving the Big Grotto was paved with crushed stone. The sharp tang of quicklime made Guibert sneeze when he opened the hatch.

"Gesundheit," said Dayly.

Hairball looked at the data specialist. "Are you demonstrating subservience to Patriarchal Religionism, Harrier?" the Mromrosi asked suspiciously.

"No, no," said Karge. "Simply an Aspect of Native Culture. Its a charm against the possibility of our leader expelling his soul along with the sneeze."

"Ah," said the Mromrosi.

"Gee, I didn't know that," Dayly said.

From orbit, the landing field was a six-pointed star, brilliantly white against the dark green and russet of the forest covering most of the continent. A dozen ships, all of them Magnicate designs, were already on the ground. Two of them were medium-sized cruise liners.

"Come along!" a high-pitched voice called. Guibert looked out and saw his first autochthon. "If you miss this coffle, you'll have to wait till the next ship lands. We're certainly not going to waste an escort on a mere four of you."

Sawickis really were slugs, though their faces were broad and toadlike and the fleshy peak that held the laser-ranging organ could have passed for a dunce cap. This one, presumably a guide, wore a brown tunic made of something like bark cloth. It was decorated with geometric designs in black batik.

Guibert hopped to the warm gravel. Twenty-odd humans, roped together, waited at the edge of the field. Two of the four pasty autochthons accompanying the group carried meter-long prods with stone tips.

"Actually," Guibert said softly, "there's five of us." The boots of the insertion team crunched down behind him, followed by the vague whisper of Hairball's miniature feet. "And I didn't catch what you meant about 'coffle.' We're Magnicate officials on leave, you see."

Ignoring the team leader, the autochthon bowed low to Hairball. "Illustrious sky-brother," the Sawicki said. The creatures voice was unpleasant even when he was obviously trying to be unctuous. "Welcome to the only true world. On behalf of my people, I grant you the status of an honorary Sawicki."

Hairball fluttered in what Guibert supposed was the Mromrosi equivalent of a bow. "Thank you," he said. "Thank you. I am truly honored."

"Naw," Karge said after a critical glance at the Mromrosi. "You don't look a bit like a toad, Hairball."

"Maybe under the fur?" Dayly suggested.

The Mromrosi looked at them. "Sawicki means 'True Person' in their language," he said.

"Somehow," Guibert said, "I would have guessed that. Now, what's this coffle business?"

"Come along, come along," their guide demanded. "You're keeping me and my fellow True Men waiting."

He headed toward the line of humans at a lurching trot. The Sawicki wore boots made of a heavier version of the tunic material. His feet turned slightly on the gravel surface, though it seemed level enough to Guibert.

Hairball followed, drawing the team along behind him. "To prevent visitors from damaging the delicate ecology of this planet," the Mromrosi called over his shoulder, "the Sawickis link individuals together so that they won't leave the prescribed path. A very far-sighted regulation, I must say."

"What's delicate about this place?" Dayly asked. "It looks pretty normal to me."

The trees were of a number of species, all with noticeably conical trunks which suggested they had less stiffening material per unit of mass than Terran varieties. The branches were whiplike and small-leafed; the undergrowth tended to spike rather than spread.

"All ecologies must be carefully overseen to keep them in balance," Hairball said stiffly.

True enough. Nature herself was never in equilibrium. Only outside intellects tried to restrain the natural appetite for change. Usually badly.

"Do you suppose I could check my settings on some of those critters, sir?" Wenzil asked with more optimism than hope. She pointed with her left hand toward a bright-eyed creature clicking at the team from a scaly treetrunk.

"Certainly not!" Hairball said.

"Of course not," Guibert said. "What's that going to tell you that you need to know, Wenzil? It's no longer than your forearm and it seems to be an amphibian anyway!"

All the local life-forms Guibert noticed, with the exception of the Sawickis themselves, were either wet-skinned or chitinous. Some of the latter fluttered among the trees on gossamer wings a meter across. None of the potential targets would help the weapons specialist refine her stunner program. Shooting at them, even with a stunner, would cause more trouble than Guibert needed.

The team reached the tourists. The children were restive or shrieking, and several of the adults glared fiercely at the Harriers. Guibert wondered how long the civilians had been kept waiting.

"Stand here," their guide ordered, pointing to the end of the line. Two of the others grabbed Dayly by the elbows, presumably because he was small, to hustle him into place.

Karge said, "Oops!" and staggered forward, treading heavily on the feet of one of the autochthons. The Sawicki squealed and dropped Dayly's arm.

"Oops!" Guibert said.

The other Sawicki holding Dayly jumped back. Guibert hopped sideways and landed on their guide's foot. The guide squealed also.

"Mister Guibert!" Hairball cried. "Mister Karge!"

The autochthons and tourists looked at the Mromrosi. Dayly kicked the third Sawicki in the crotch and said, "Oops!" happily. The autochthon's squeal was higher pitched than those of his fellows.

The pair of Sawickis with goads moved closer. Wenzil stepped between them and the men of the team. Her hands were empty at waist height, and there was a dazzling smile on her face. The autochthons retreated.

Guibert bent and fingered the rope which tied the civilians together. The tourists drew away from him to either side.

The material was supple, but it seemed strong enough to tow barges with. "Cut from the outer skin of a mushroom that was grown for the purpose?" he guessed aloud.

Nobody responded. Guibert smiled tightly and said to their guide, "I don't think me and the team will need this to keep us on the path. As a matter of fact, I'm afraid it would make us stumble. A lot."

"I promise," Karge rumbled.

Hairball's eye dithered in one direction, then the other. He didn't speak. At last the Sawicki guide said, "Since you're slaves of a True Man—"

He bowed again to Hairball, then winced and rubbed his instep where Guibert had trod.

"—we will make an exception in this case. However, you'll have to surrender the weapons you're carrying to me."

"This," said Wenzil, pointing to the stunner in her cutaway holster, "is an icon of my religion. It would violate my cultural personhood to force me to give it up."

"That's ridiculous!" the guide squeaked.

Actually, it was pretty much true for Wenzil. "It would violate other serious strictures as well," Guibert said aloud. "Our, ah, overseer, Hairball, would have us punished severely were we to turn over equipment of such developed character to Class Thirty-two autochthones. It might poison the purity of your, ah, culture."

"I wonder if pearls upset the digestion of swine?" Karge murmured to one of the gaping tourists.

"They're not real weapons anyway," Wenzil said sadly.

The Sawickis' little laser emitters flashed red as they flicked from one member of the team to the next and finally focused on Hairball.

The Mromrosi sighed. "Yes, yes," he said, "I suppose that's correct. A technical matter only, of course—I realize that the truth that underpins your culture is proof against such baubles. But regulations are regulations, I'm afraid."

With obvious reluctance, Hairball added, "I will take responsibility for the good behavior of these, these . . ."

Instead of replying, the Sawicki guide turned and called, "Head 'em up and move 'em out!" One of his fellows jerked the cord around the waist of the leading tourist, pulling her down the path.

"I wish you people would learn to behave decently!" the Mromrosi said, glaring at Guibert.

"I wish," said Karge, stretching his long, muscular arms overhead, "that that queer McBrien was here drinking in slug culture instead of me."


They'd walked a half kilometer from the landing field without reaching the entrance to the Big Grotto. The forests muggy heat made Guibert feel as though he'd been taking a bath in his own sweat.

"I don't see why it's got to be this far," Dayly grumbled.

The data specialist had more work to do during stand-down than the rest of the team. He used that circumstance to avoid compulsory attendance in the Strength through Joy Room—the Night-Blooming Cereus' gym. Dayly's cleverness was costing him shin splints if nothing else right now.

"To keep the presence of starships from polluting the village's environment," Hairball said.

"To make the stupid tourists walk their legs off," Karge said.

They came around a bend in the trail. The entrance was in sight a hundred meters away, framed by a yoke made of three stone-headed spears. Either side of the trail was lined with booths from which Sawickis sold a variety of food, drink, and handicrafts.

Tourist children began to shriek and tug against the ropes in their haste to get something to drink. Because some pulled toward the right and others to the left, the line tangled so that no one was able to reach the booths. The autochthonous escort watched, making no effort to intervene.

The team walked over to the booths while shouting parents tried to sort out the mess. Guibert looked at a vat of yellowish fluid. Cups made of fungus caps lay beside it. Local insectoids clustered around the residue drying in the cups.

"Ten hubbies a cup, foreign non-person!" squeaked the Sawicki behind the counter.

"Really?" said Guibert. He took a swig from the straw to the condensing canteen woven into the back of his uniform jacket. For ten hubbies a pop, they could afford to import single-malt Scotch from Terra to sell.

Dayly sniffed the vat. "You know . . ." he said. "I've got a feeling that if I sent a sample of that stuff in for analysis, the lab report would say, 'Your bat has gonorrhea.' "

"You imbibed through your nostrils!" the autochthon cried. "Ten hubbies! Ten hubbies!"

"Pardon our error," said Karge. "Permit me to return your stock to its original volume." He spat into the center of the vat.

One of the escorts ran over to the counter clerk. The two chittered together with a great deal of gesturing. Though the Sawickis faced one another, the lasers in their pointy little heads flicked frequently toward the Harriers.

At last the clerk turned away and pretended to be studying the forest behind his booth. His laser continued to paint the team at intervals as the members drifted down the line of booths.

"You know . . ." said Guibert as he stood before a booth which was selling carved lanterns. "I quite like some of these designs."

"Remarkably delicate handicrafts, aren't they?" Karge agreed. "Remarkable for troglodytes, at any rate. I think upscale boutiques in The Hub might be able to market them."

Dayly cleared his throat. "According to the files," he said, "there's a Big Grotto Trading Association negotiating with Hub jobbers for bulk shipments."

The data specialist looked at the display and shook his head. "I dunno," he said. "Plastic would do a lot better, it seems to me."

Like most of the other Sawicki crafts on offer, the lanterns were made from the caps of large mushrooms, dried and scraped paper thin. The prepared hoods were chiseled into filigrees of enormous delicacy, each one unique.

Internally lighted, the lanterns would be strikingly beautiful. Even now, hanging from the frame of the booth like so many chicken carcasses at a butcher's shop, they had a "natural" loveliness greater than that of the surrounding forest.

The Sawicki clerk in the center of the booth looked like a grub poking its head out of a nutshell. He sneered at the humans.

Guibert rotated one of the lanterns slightly to change the angle of the light falling across the surface. The clerk reached out, plucked the lantern from the peg on which it hung, and dropped it behind his counter. He stamped down. The delicate tracery crunched beneath his foot.

"We True Men are above material covetousness, foreign non-person," the Sawicki squeaked.

"Interesting," Karge said as he and the team leader turned abruptly away.

"I wonder what they spend their hubbies on?" Dayly asked. "Besides a first-rate spaceport control system, that is. And salaries for Magnicate technicians to crew it."

"They ought to import food," Wenzil muttered. "Do you suppose they really eat that cat-barf themselves?"

"We've got our emergency rations," Guibert said. "And anyway, I don't think we're going to be here longer than tomorrow morning."

"All right, all right, foreign non-persons!" the Sawicki guide said. "You may untie yourselves now. You will now visit a village of True Men. Then you will be taken to your accommodations among the natural beauty of our planet."

"Everybody's eaten as much as they could choke down," Karge noted. "Or a little more than that." An eight-year-old was throwing up violently at the edge of the trail while her parents—looking rather green themselves—patted her helplessly. The ejecta didn't look a great deal different from the autochthonous soup the child had swallowed moments before.

"Thank the Ennobling Adiposity of the Mother for emergency rations," Guibert murmured.

"Come along!" repeated the guide. He and his fellows began prodding tourists toward the entrance to the grotto, using knuckles and goads. The pasty-faced autochthons gave the team a wide berth.

Hairball peered at the pool of vomit as he passed. "I suppose," he said in what was for him an unusually ruminative tone, "that since the Sawickis respect the lives even of plants, their meals—though perfectly natural—might not agree with digestions trained to freshly-killed food."

"Hey, Hairball," Karge said. "Did you bring any rations?" He reached the yoke of spears and kicked it aside.

The entrance to the Big Grotto was a large keyhole in the surface of the ground. A trail, only partly artificial, led down the side of the opening. Several smaller holes in the rock ceiling illuminated the interior with a diffused glow.

The cavern was about a hundred meters wide and at least a half klick in length. Sawickis and scores of tourists moved among the jumbled rock on the cave floor, but Guibert's eyes weren't sufficiently dark-adapted to see details.

"That ceiling—the cave roof?" he said, glancing upward.

"Umm?" said Wenzil who happened to be the person directly behind Guibert on the narrow trail.

"I'm surprised, as thin as the rock looks, that it's strong enough to hold together," Guibert explained. "I'd have expected the whole roof to come crashing down before now. Limestone rotted by ground water doesn't have particularly high tensile strength."

"Hope it doesn't fall while we're underneath," Wenzil said, though she didn't sound concerned. Things that she couldn't shoot and weren't going to shoot her didn't interest the weapons specialist very much.

At the bottom of the grotto, the pale light reminded Guibert of that beneath thirty meters of water. He could see objects well enough, but their outlines were softened by the faint, diffused illumination.

It was a pity that nothing similar could be done about the smell. Guibert at first thought the pong was that of concentrated Sawickis—there were about a hundred of them in sight, working on crafts or (more generally) lounging and curling their lips at the tourists clustered about them.

After a moment, Guibert realized that while Sawickis did stink, their dung stank a great deal worse. The noble autochthons squatted wherever they happened to be when their bowels gave them the signal.

He looked queasily at his feet—found that his fears were justified—and then noticed that the turd was so dry that it crumbled rather than clinging to the soles of his boots.

"Watch where you step," he warned his team.

"That's funny," Dayly said. "The files say they use their shit as part of the compost they grow the fungus on. Here they're just leaving it lie around."

"It's probably contact with outsiders that has caused the breakdown in the normal routine of the Big Grotto," Hairball said. "It's courageous—heroic, in fact—for the True Persons to sacrifice one of their own villages so that other races can be exposed to the purity of their culture."

"Or it's their idea of a joke on the tourists," Karge said. "As a matter of fact, I wonder if this whole place isn't a joke on the tourists. Do we know anything about how the slugs on the rest of the planet live?"

"Negative," said Dayly.

"Certainly not!" the Mromrosi said. "It's quite enough that one village be sacrificed to the greed of the Magnicate!"

"Judging by the prices for them baskets and the slush the slugs call food," Dayly said, "I wouldn't say the Magnicate was in the same league."

Guibert squared his shoulders and took a deep breath—the latter which he instantly regretted. They should have brought nose filters as well as emergency rations. "Well," he said, "if I could figure out a cute way to learn about the missing cutter, I suppose I'd try it. Since I can't, I guess I'll go ask the chief what he knows."

"That bugger McBrien could have managed that himself," Karge said.

Guibert cocked an eye at the ethnologist. "Got a better idea?" he demanded.

"Staying back on the Night-Blooming Cereus and playing with myself," Karge said. "Apart from that, no."

A Sawicki male, neither more nor less disgusting than any other Sawicki, sat on a block of fallen limestone in the center of the cavern. Given his elaborately-layered costume and the number of tourists clustered around him taking low-light holograms, he must have some rank.

"Once more into the breach . . ." Guibert muttered as he walked toward the fellow.

He passed near a pair of female Sawickis hacking patterns into mushroom caps with stone burins as more tourists recorded the process.

"That's odd," Karge said. "They aren't any good at all."

He was right. While the works for sale on the surface were craft raised to the level of art, these Sawickis were creating junk along the lines of jack-o'-lanterns butchered by three-year-olds.

"I could chew mushrooms and shit a better design," Wenzil agreed.

"See how contact with the outside has warped these poor innocents?" Hairball said.

"That doesn't," said Guibert, "explain where the good work is coming from, does it?"

"Good in patriarchal, anthropocentric terms, you mean," Hairball replied, adding a click that passed for a sniff in Mromrosi terms.

True enough; but not an answer to the question.

Guibert looked at the crowd. "You lead," he said to Hairball.

"Make way for the Mromrosi delegate!" he added loudly. Tourists turned and realized the tickle on the backs of their thighs was frizzy orange hair that walked. They hurled themselves sideways faster than Guibert could have moved them had he slammed into the crowd full tilt.

The front rank of tourists around the chief was on its knees, calling questions to the disdainful Sawicki. Hairball stopped and looked upward at the team leader. "To speak to the village chief," he said, "you must kneel. By this act you honor not the personhood of the chief, but rather the planet Sawick itself."

"Here, I'll take care of it," said Karge. The ethnologist pushed ahead of Guibert and the Mromrosi. He turned and dropped his trousers.

"Karge!" Guibert said. "What on earth are you doing?"

Tourists gasped, screamed, or giggled, depending on temperament. The crowd universally moved well back from the Harriers. The chief called something, bringing Sawickis on the run from all parts of the cavern.

"Honoring the planet as the locals do," Karge explained as he squatted. "Taking a dump."

"You can't do this!" Hairball cried.

"When on Sawick . . ." the ethnologist said. "Do as the Sawickis do."

"Mister Karge," Guibert said. "Don't. Or you walk home."

"What's going on here?" the chief demanded.

"Well, seeing as he's addressing us directly . . ." Karge said. He stood up again.

The autochthons had halted in a wide circle around the team instead of rushing directly to the chiefs aid. Guibert noted that the Sawickis' attitude appeared to be fear rather than anger.

Sawickis were the sort of bullies who wilted when anybody stood up to them.

"Of course, a seven-five-one setting, Marathrustran Bivalves, might throw them into syncope," Wenzil murmured. The weapons specialist seemed as happy as a pig in shit.

"What?" said Hairball. "What?"

Karge refastened his trousers. In a low voice, the ethnologist began to sing a Chippewa song, "Do you think she was humiliated, that Sioux woman I beheaded?"

"Some teenagers from a Magnicate dreadnought landed here last week in an eight-place cutter," Guibert said, "and they haven't come back. We were wondering if you recalled anything about them. Sir." Courtesy didn't cost much.

"Why should any True Man be concerned with faceless non-persons?" the chief said.

Wenzil turned to face them. "That doesn't sound like an answer to me," she said. The peculiar lilt in her voice made Guibert shiver.

Enough of the implications must have translated that the Sawicki chief said, "The question was asked through the non-persons who run the devil-machines that guide non-person spaceships. We at once held a village council. No one recalled the missing non-persons, since your faces are all the same anyway."

The guide who'd met the barge added, "We prayed that the soulless non-persons had died with minimal pain, however."

"Then I don't suppose there's much we can do here," Guibert said. "Thank you."

The team headed back toward the ramp up the side of the grotto.

"We'll do the nature watch and spend the night in the tourist lodgings," Guibert said. "Since according to the techs in the landing control facility, that's what the cutter did. We're playing this one by ear."

"You know," Dayly said thoughtfully, "he's lying. But lies are information too."

"Yeah," Karge agreed. "And it's information that turd-burglar McBrien wasn't going to have understood."


"Why would anybody pay good money to watch hogs root through garbage?" Guibert wondered aloud as he walked into the male barracks he, Karge and Dayly shared with ninety-odd other men. "Nature area, hell!"

"Ouch!" said Karge, crushing across his biceps the fly that just stabbed for a meal of his blood.

"Damned good money," Dayly agreed. "This all is coming out of official funds, isn't it, sir?"

"That, or out of that limp-wrist McBrien's hide," Karge said.

Tourist accommodations on Sawicki were sex-segregated. Hairball had presumably tossed the Mromrosi equivalent of a coin before deciding to go with Wenzil.

Not that there was much place to go. The barracks were pole frames, roofed with branches. They couldn't have approached being watertight even before their leaves dried up and fell away weeks or months before. The bunks were three-high, with no mattresses or bedding.

Lights were whatever individual tourists brought with them.

"True Men lie directly on bare rock," the autochthonal concierge—warden?—explained to a tearful father with an infant, no bedclothes, and no light with which to pick his way back to the landing field and a ship that might well be sealed for the night anyway.

"Wonder how that slug would like to be laid on the bare rock?" Karge said, fingering the knuckles of his big right hand. He peered at the circle of "floor" in his handlight and added, "Or mud, as the case may be."

Guibert guided the ethnologist toward their rack of bunks. "That's not what we're here for," he reminded Karge.

"Still," Karge said, "it'd be a way to improve my time. . . ."

Dayly sat on the top bunk, running data through the chip reader he was never without. From the team leader's angle, Dayly's air-projected holograms appeared to be chunks of terrain from the orbital scans.

Guibert's rank gave him the choice of accommodations: the bottom bunk, where his subordinates provided more rain cover than the roof did, or the top bunk which would prevent him from being crushed if the whole flimsy rack collapsed. He'd gone for the former, because Karge had picked the middle where his momentum would be low. Dayly didn't weigh enough to worry about.

"Ouch!" Karge said, slapping another fly. He wiped his hand disgustedly on his trouser leg for want of a rag. "They're sticky when they squish, and they seem to like me even better than they do the pigs. This is not going to be a fun night."

"Suoids, not pigs," said Dayly as he continued to sort through pictures of forest. They're native to Sawick."

"Don't tell me I don't know what a pig is," the ethnologist grumbled. "I'm from Lontano, remember? For that matter, I swatted my share of these damned gadflies when I was growing up, too."

Tourists huddled in clots around their fellows who'd brought lights, talking in desultory, often despairing, tones. When they got back to their homes, they would pontificate about the benefits they had bestowed on their offspring by exposing the children to the pure beauties of nature.

Not now, however. Guibert wondered whether some of the fortunate offspring weren't going to be strangled here on Sawick unless they stopped wailing. Not that he blamed the kids.

"Who says the pigs are native here?" Guibert asked. "Dayly?'

"The place was discovered forty years ago," the data specialist said without emphasis. "The suoids are present over the whole continent. Therefore they aren't Terran pigs."

"If insects can live on them and on humans, of whom I am one," said Karge, "then they're Terran pigs."

"Is there any other warm-blooded life on Sawick, Dayly?" Guibert asked.

"Sure, the Sawickis," Dayly said.

"Warm-blooded slugs," Karge said.

"Bingo!" said the data specialist. He reached down with his chip reader, making the rack creak dangerously as he did so. "Look at that, sir. This is an enhanced infra-red scan, blown up to one to a thousand."

Guibert stared at a hollow cross formed of faint white lines against the dark background. "Yeah?" he said.

"I told the system to sort for anomalies," Dayly explained. "This is what it came up with."

Karge craned his neck to see the display from the correct angle. "Its not the OC's cutter," he said.

"Of course not," Dayly said. "Even the Grands would have found that. This is the remains of a village. Trees have grown up over it, but on IR you can still see where the foundations were."

"Well I'll be damned," Guibert said. "The cutter had a complete recon system, didn't it?"

"You think the lads noticed something funny and decided to take a look?" Karge said. "I can't imagine they were satisfied with the entertainment they were getting around here."

"Yes sir," Dayly said. "I don't suppose Hairball would let us go take a close-up look tomorrow, would he?"

"Not at a proscribed area of the planet, unless we had direct evidence the cutter was there," Guibert said thoughtfully. "Of course the lads shouldn't have been there either."

"The lads," Karge noted, "shouldn't have gone off joyriding in that faggot McBrien's cutter to begin with."

Dayly snickered. "This means a bunch of spoiled kids figured out something that the Magnicate bureaucracy couldn't in forty years," he said.

"Does that surprise you?" Karge asked. "Remember, the kids didn't have Mromrosii from the EPFC sitting on their shoulders, making sure truth was twisted into the politically correct pattern."

"Well," said Guibert, "let's see if we can't get some sleep. We're likely to have a long day ahead of us tomorrow, unless Hairball can keep us from having engine trouble at the point I sort of think we're going to."


"Oh, golly!" Guibert said when the altimeter read 30K. "We're losing power! We have only enough thrust to permit me to set down softy."

"I'll engage the emergency alert transmitter!" said Karge cheerfully from the duplicate console. He switched the barge into stealth mode.

Guibert disconnected the barge's AI pilot and chopped the power. Dipping the nose, he started to glide toward the ancient building site. It was a bright, clear day. Inertial guidance and the vessel's passive sensors would be sufficient to put the team where they wanted to be.

The barge's skin formed a laminar path for the optical spectrum; longer wavelengths were scattered or absorbed. So long as the pilot avoided a turbulent wake (ripples in the atmosphere were radar-visible even if the cause of the disturbance wasn't), the vessel was virtually invisible.

The OC's cutter had even better stealth characteristics than the Petit Harrier barge did. Based on the description the port controllers had given, the lads had known exactly how to use their equipment.

Might be worth mentioning to a recruiting officer. Assuming the kids get back. Assuming we get back too.

"Shouldn't we be calling the port for help?" Hairball asked. The Mromrosi's voice remained a calm, dulcet baritone, but he looked twice as large as usual. His orange hair was sticking straight out from his skin.

"What?" said Karge. "You would have us use the manual override to interfere with the automatic alert system? You would have us violate Standard Operating Procedure?"

"Well, I—" the Mromrosi said. "Ah—of course those technical things aren't my field, you realize."

"Violate SOP indeed," Karge muttered.

"I'll log the improper request, sir," Dayly said, surprising Guibert. The data specialist was normally too straightforward to pick up on these little games.

Poor guy. Focused on Truth in a society dominated by Fairness.

"Or for that matter, setting three-three-one," Wenzil said, speaking aloud but without real hope that anybody else was interested. "Leonids and Hraunian vertebrates in general. The slugs' serotonin release system might well be similar."

"Hang on," said Guibert. "There may be some tree branches or—"

But there weren't. Guibert fluffed to a momentary hover on the attitude jets a few meters above the surface, then dropped the barge neatly into a circular clearing at the base of a low bluff.

"I do hope the True Persons won't be offended that we've trespassed on their planet," Hairball said. His concern, though real enough, had waited for the barge's safe landing.

"Maybe they've gotten used to it," said Dayly. He'd been watching the visual display without responsibility for the controls. "There was exhaust scarring on the soil. Another ship's been here recently."

"What?" said Hairball. "Trespassers in a proscribed area?"

"I think," Guibert said as he opened the hatch, "we've found the lads. Or at least where the kids went when they left the Big Grotto."

"Now, setting two thirty-six would provide improved range through this atmosphere. . . ." Wenzil said.

She smiled as she led the team out through the hatch. Hairball was uncharacteristically silent.

The air was warm and musty, but it lacked the sour smell that pervaded the environs of the Big Grotto. The Sawicki stench was for the most part confined underground, but the tourists were expected to dump their waste and garbage on a midden. Hogs and bacteria provided the remainder of the reclamation process, neither category an odor-free medium.

"There certainly isn't any sign of foundations from up close," Guibert said. "Did I land us in the right spot, Dayly?"

"Yessir," said the data specialist as he squatted. He opened his field kit and took out a small prybar.

The vegetation was subtly different from that in the neighborhood of the Big Grotto only a hundred klicks away. This forest wasn't quite a monoculture, but the large trees were limited to three or four species. Guibert had noted literally hundreds of different varieties along the path from the landing field, and he wasn't trying to make a detailed census.

"This is regrowth on a cleared area," he said. He walked toward the bluff twenty meters away.

He'd seen the outcrop during landing, but he'd expected that at ground level it would be concealed by the boles of closely spaced trees. The vegetation hadn't had time to build itself into the impenetrable layers that would thin the forest floor by light-starvation.

There was a path from the clearing to the bluff. Trees had been cut or shoved sideways by an object which was dragged through them with enough force to pull up half their roots.

"Well," offered Hairball, "obviously the Sawickis evolved on the surface. These are the remains—you say there are remains—of an early Sawicki village."

Dayly dropped a bit of black material into the isotope separator from his kit and paused for its reading. "Not as early as all that," he said. "Fifty-seven years ago, plus or minus three, from carbonized material trapped under the fused rock."

Karge laughed.

"Fused rock?" the Mromrosi said, utterly at sea. "From a volcano?"

"From an energy weapon," Guibert said. "Somebody blew the center out of a village, then used heavy equipment to break up the rest of it. Most of the buildings were probably wood anyhow."

The face of the bluff looked almost right. The join was invisible save for slight differences in lichen cover. The stone beneath Guibert's fingertips felt several degrees cooler than the material that closed the meters-wide hole in the outcrop.

"You didn't calibrate for the Carbon 14/16 ratio for Sawick's atmosphere!" Hairball cried in an access of hope. "That's why the date figure you got for the wood is so low!"

"Teach your grandmother to suck eggs!" Dayly snapped, seriously offended by the slur on his competence within his specialty. "Besides, it wasn't wood. It was carbonized bone. Human bone with ninety percent assurance."

"Come here, Dayly," Guibert said. "We've got what's either a plug or a door. If it's a door, I want you to open it." If it didn't open, maybe the barge could push the block out of the way.

"Piece of cake!" the data specialist said. He trotted over, rummaging in his case for another tool.

"I don't understand!" Hairball moaned. From the Mromrosi's tone, he did understand—but he really didn't like the implications of what he understood.

"Company coming," Wenzil called.

Guibert heard the sound too, the throb of rotors though the engines driving them were inaudible. He couldn't tell direction or distance through the forest.

"I guess I'll start with eight seventy-three and switch to—"

The barge exploded like a cone of thermite, flinging sparks in all directions. The quality of Sawicki energy weapons hadn't degraded during the past fifty-seven years.

An aircar with vertical fans front and rear sailed through the trees on the other side of the blazing barge, ten meters above the ground. The Sawicki crew was focused on the damage they'd done with their bow-mounted weapon.

Dayly was busy with the bluff face, but Guibert and Karge aimed their stunners. They were, of course, far slower than the weapons specialist.

Wenzil swept her beam across the aircar. The Sawicki crew began to laugh uncontrollably. The vehicle flipped and disappeared into the trees doing cartwheels.

"Awful!" Wenzil cried as she lowered her stunner to reprogram the keypad. "Try six-six-one!"

"Got it!" Dayly said. "It's a door!"

Three Sawickis ran out of the trees carrying thick tubes pointed forward from alongside their hips. They and the Harriers saw each other at the same time.

Guibert and Karge fired before the aliens could swing their bulky weapons to bear. The Sawickis hopped about, giggling. One of them triggered his weapon into a tree. A cubic meter of wood vanished in dazzling pyrotechnics. The trunk lifted skyward, then spiked straight down into the soil. Branches tangled with those of neighboring trees kept the bole upright.

Wenzil fired, using her new stunner setting. The Sawickis went limp and fell, their faces smiling beatifically.

"Not good enough!" the weapons specialist said. "Try five-four-nine!"

"Leave the damned setting!" Karge said. "It's fine the way it is!"

"Into the cave!" Guibert said. "It'll cover our flanks!"

"Modifying stunner settings to permanently impair the personhood of native races is forbidden by—" Hairball said.

Another aircar slid through the forest, banking between a pair of the larger trees. The Sawicki gunner fired a wrist-thick hose of stripped ions while the vehicle's bow was still a tad high. The face of the bluff shattered. A chunk of limestone the size of a grapefruit dropped onto Hairball.

The rock remained balanced for a moment. The ensemble looked like a golf ball on a furry orange tee.

The Mromrosi fell over. Guibert and Karge had ducked from the ravening burst. Wenzil didn't, so she beat the men to the new target.

Sawickis jumped in all directions from the air-car, shrieking and tearing at themselves as though they'd been dipped in acid. Neither the gunshield nor the vehicle's hull appeared to have offered any protection against the stunner's effect. The car described a half loop, then slammed into the ground under the thrust of its inverted rotors.

"That's the ticket!" Wenzil cried. "Five-four-nine!"

Guibert holstered his stunner to pick up Hairball. Karge was bending to do the same. To both men's surprise, the Mromrosi got to its tiny feet unaided. Little beggar must be boneheaded in pure fact!

"Come on!" Guibert said, grabbing a handful of orange hair while Karge gripped the Mromrosi from the other side. They ran into the cave, dragging the alien along.

Dayly's electronic manipulations had pivoted away a huge disk of rock-patterned plastic. The data specialist had gone ahead with a handlight; Wenzil would provide a rear guard that no slug was likely to dent.

"My faculties have been seriously disarrayed!" Hairball said. "Nothing I observe would be of the slightest evidentiary purpose in an EPFC hearing."

"Come on, run!" Guibert gasped. The Sawickis' energy weapons had forged burnt air and burnt rock into an anvil-hard stench that choked him.

"Particularly my prohibition on setting five forty-nine should be ignored!" Hairball said.

There was a crash of rending metal behind them. The amount of light coming through the cave mouth dimmed. "Wee-ha!" Wenzil called. She must have brought down another Sawicki vehicle, blocking the cave's entrance for at least the time being.

The tunnel's entrance. The sides were glass-smooth, line-straight, and perfectly round in cross-section. The Sawickis lived underground, all right, but they sure weren't limited to natural caves.

"There's something blocking the way!" Dayly warned.

The far edge of the handlight beam picked out bulk and motion. Guibert dropped the Mromrosi und fumbled for his stunner again. Were they Sawickis or—

The relays of Wenzil s stunner went tickticktick. Her motto was, "If it moves, you shoot."

A pair of Sawickis in the tunnel ahead screamed like damned souls and began running up the curving rock walls. Each time they overbalanced and crashed down, they rose and repeated the attempt.

The object almost filling the tunnel was OC McBrien's missing cutter. The Sawickis had dragged the vessel deep enough that the mantle of living rock would conceal the cutter from even the most sensitive Magnicate instruments.

The speed with which the Sawickis had excavated such an immense tunnel was amazing. Guibert wondered what they did with the tailings; though with a whole forested planet to work with, the slugs wouldn't have much difficulty in disposing of a few kilotonnes of rock without coming to the notice of orbital sensors.

Hairball was moving normally now. Karge scooped up an energy weapon dropped by the howling Sawickis. "Here," he said, offering it to Wenzil.

"Are you kidding?" the weapons specialist said. "Listen to those screams from up the tunnel ahead of us. I must be getting klicks of range on this setting!"

"Help!" called a human voice. "Help," this time by a chorus of many voices.

The cutter pointed nose-first down the tunnel.

Guibert got out his handlight and squeezed by the vessel. It was a tight fit but possible. "Dayly," he called over his shoulder. "Open us a hatch, will you?"

"Piece of cake!"

The Sawickis had bored an alcove into the side of the tunnel just ahead of where they left the cutter. The opening was barred. The tiny red bulb on the metal grill was the only light the ten humans inside the cell had seen for at least a week.

The eight teenagers wearing filthy but extremely expensive clothing were in reasonable shape. They reached out through the bars, babbling demands that Guibert release them.

The other two humans were indeterminate as to age and even sex. They clutched half-carven mushroom caps to their pale chests as though the objects were talismans against the terrors of change.

Their workmanship was intricate and strikingly beautiful.

"Got the cutter open, sir!"

"Then come unlock these bars," Guibert ordered. "We found the lads too."

"The Sawickis aren't really autochthons!" cried a girl with the same cold perfection of visage as OC McBrien. "The planet's called Novy Evgeny! It was settled by one of the first colony ships from Earth. The Sawickis came less than a hundred years ago and enslaved them!"

"Fifty-seven years," Guibert said grimly, remembering the scrap of bone.

"Hold the light for me," Dayly ordered with the assurance of a workman thinking only of his task. Guibert obediently illuminated the featureless lockplate as the data specialist attached a suction probe.

"The slaves do all the work," Megan McBrien said. Her fellows had quieted now that freedom was in sight. "The Sawickis don't do a thing, not even clean up for themselves. That's why the Big Grotto's so filthy. They can't have human slaves there, of course."

"Piece of cake," the data specialist murmured. Tumblers clicked; the lock sprang open.

It probably was that easy a task for Dayly. If asked, he would have said that his equipment had done all the work. Which it had. As soon as Dayly had told it what to do.

"Let's get aboard," Guibert said. "I don't want to spend any longer in this place than I have to."

He shooed Dayly, then the released prisoners, on ahead of him. The pair who'd been born on Sawick wouldn't go until Megan put an arm around the shoulders of each and guided them forward.

"The Sawickis put Ethan and Nicole in with us to teach us mushroom carving," she explained. They were going to keep us here for the rest of our lives."

The cutter was crowded with fifteen aboard, but Wenzil kept the non-essential personnel squeezed to the back of the cabin. Guibert dropped into the command seat.

"We can't back out of here," Karge said, his tone halfway between warning and question.

"Too true," Guibert agreed. "Wenzil! Did you program this boat's stunners to your pet setting?"

"Is the Pope a symbol of Patriarchal Domination?" the weapons specialist replied.

Ship-mounted stunners were identical to the hand weapons in all respects but size. If Wenzil thought she was getting kilometers of slug-abatement with a hand stunner, what would three hundred times the power do?

Something that should have been done at least fifty-seven years earlier.

Guibert triggered the bow stunners in a long burst, then keyed directions into the cutter's artificial intelligence. There was no way a human would be able to control the ship with the precision necessary to run through a maze of rock-walled tunnels.

"Hang on!" he warned. He engaged the AI.

Backblast from the jets rubbed the cutter along the roof with a short, nerve-rending squeal as they lifted, but in seconds they'd outrun their own shockwaves. The main screen combined sonics and low-light imagery to project a view of the route ahead. Guibert found it wasn't something he cared to observe at the present speed.

He touched a control. The navigation unit projected a hologram of the tunnel complex, a huge ant farm stretching for scores of kilometers beneath the ground. Rock walls made a perfect medium for echo-ranging. The cutter's sorting system converted the returns into a detailed map.

Someone put a hand on Guibert's armrest.

Wenzil had allowed Megan to worm forward once the cutter was under weigh.

"The Eugeners froze their population and used only appropriate technology," the girl said bitterly. "Five hundred years after they landed, they still lived in a single village. Except for the pigs getting loose, the planet was almost perfectly natural! How could the Sawickis enslave such innocent, harmless people?"

"The Sawickis . . ." Guibert said. Half of him was ashamed to be right. "The slugs play by the same rules as the rest of the universe, I'm afraid."

The cutter changed vector. On the main screen, hundreds of humans gawped from among the bulbous fruit of a mushroom farm. The Sawickis visible were rolling and clawing themselves with mad violence.

Another tunnel mouth loomed before the vessel. Guibert gave it a pulse with the big stunners.

"Hey, Wenzil?" he said. "How long before the stunner effect wears off on the slugs?"

"Darned if I know," Wenzil replied. "Five forty-nine's about a thirty-minute dose on Hagersfield Avians, if that's any help."

Hairball made a throat-clearing chirp. "Setting five-four-nine would erode the nerve sheathes of the, ah, interloping non-autochthons," he said. "The effect should be irreversible."

"No fooling?" Wenzil said.

Guibert triggered the weapons twice more for good measure.

"Of course," the Mromrosi added primly, "I am completely unable to observe or synthesize rationally because of my injury."

Something smashed against the cutter's bow. Guibert hoped it wasn't human. The slugs seemed to confine their slaves to fixed locations. Anyway, the object wasn't solid enough to be a problem to the armored hull.

Karge glanced over from the duplicate console. "You know," he said, "it doesn't look to me like there's an opening anywhere in the complex big enough to fit the cutter through."

"We'll make it," Guibert said.

The cutter yawed 30°. Guibert lay on the stunner switch.

"That's good," the ethnologist continued conversationally. "I've got a date for tomorrow night with a tech from Medical Team Five, and I'd really hate to miss it."

"Not the big blond!" Wenzil interjected. She sounded as incensed as Guibert had ever heard her on a subject that didn't affect her specialty.

"No, no," Karge said. "You're thinking of Boxall, and he's far too butch for me. Besides, I don't think he'd be interested. I mean Quilici, the little sweetheart who doesn't look old enough to shave."

The ethnologist shook his head angrily. "A date with Quilici's not something I want to miss because that fudge-packer McBrien can't keep his own house in order.

"Begging your pardon, madam," he added to the girl kneeling between the consoles.

"Hang on," Guibert warned again. As the bow rotated, he fired the stunners for a last time.

The cutter shot up a sloping shaft and into the huge natural cavity of the Big Grotto. Guibert locked out the autopilot and chopped the main throttles. The bow tilted slightly. The vessel quivered, then began to rise on the thrust of the attitude jets alone.

Tourists stared at the sudden apparition from the tunnel hidden at the back of the grotto. Some of the humans were screaming; but not, Guibert was sure, as loudly as the intermingled Sawickis whose sensory nerves were shorting out.

"Sir?" Dayly called in concern as the caverns roof swelled in the top portion of the screen.

"It's okay," Guibert said, hoping that he was correct. "The ceiling's too thin to be rock. The slugs roofed over a sinkhole to provide a big enough setting for the tourists when the Magnicate arrived."

The cutter crunched against the grotto's roof. It would be plastic, like the tunnel door, and the gaps the Sawickis left to provide minimal light for human visitors would weaken the structure still further.

It had to be plastic.

Guibert slid the main throttles up to their stops. The drive engines boomed, lifting the cutter through the structural plastic with a violent shudder. Bits of rock erupted to either side of the vessel like confetti at a triumphal parade.

Guibert reengaged the autopilot. "Next stop, the Night-Blooming Cereus," he said. His team and the freed prisoners, even the pair of locals, cheered wildly.

"Hey, Hairball?" Karge said. "Do you suppose with the evidence we're bringing back, the Grands'll be able to act without a full Fairness Court hearing?"

"Since my confusion and lack of evidentiary value won't be realized until I have a physical examination in a week or more," the Mromrosi said, "I rather think my recommendations for immediate action will carry some weight, yes."

He made the squealing noise of Mromrosi laughter before he added, "They may well accept my statement that stunner setting five-four-nine is peculiarly suitable to the personhood of the Sawickis, also."

1 Author's Note: Poul Anderson is in no way responsible for this work; however, certain plot elements are a direct result of my reading his excellent Planet of No Return (aka Question and Answer) thirty-odd years ago.—DAD

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