When people debate the worst movies ever, John Travolta's 2000 sci-fi epic Battlefield Earth is usually high on the list. This month, the Razzie awards called it the Worst Movie of the Decade, which is something we'd have to agree with.
Whatever you may think of it, there's one person who agrees it's a "train wreck": The guy who wrote it. J.D. Shapiro, who also wrote Robin Hood: Men in Tights, is now apologizing for his cinematic crime against humanity in a very funny and self-deprecating piece in the New York Post. Kudos for having a sense of humor.
The movie, as we all know, is based on a book by L. Ron Hubbard, who was a science fiction writer before he went on to found Scientology, of which Travolta is a devoted adherent.
Below are some excerpts from Shapiro's apology. Click over to read the entire hilarious essay.
Let me start by apologizing to anyone who went to see "Battlefield Earth."
It wasn't as I intended—promise. No one sets out to make a train wreck. Actually, comparing it to a train wreck isn't really fair to train wrecks, because people actually want to watch those. ...
I researched Scientology before signing on to the movie, to make sure I wasn't making anything that would indoctrinate people. ...
At dinner, John said again how much he loved the script and called it "The 'Schindler's List' of sci-fi."
My script was very, VERY different than what ended up on the screen. My screenplay was darker, grittier and had a very compelling story with rich characters. What my screenplay didn't have was slow motion at every turn, Dutch tilts, campy dialogue, aliens in KISS boots, and everyone wearing Bob Marley wigs. ...
I refused to incorporate the notes into the script and was fired.
I HAVE no idea why they wanted to go in this new direction, but here's what I heard from someone in John's camp: Out of all the books L. Ron wrote, this was the one the church founder wanted most to become a movie. He wrote extensive notes on how the movie should be made. ...
The only time I saw the movie was at the premiere, which was one too many times.
Once it was decided that I would share a writing credit, I wanted to use my pseudonym, Sir Nick Knack. I was told I couldn't do that, because if a writer gets paid over a certain amount of money, they can't. I could have taken my name completely off the movie, but my agent and attorney talked me out of it. There was a lot of money at stake.
Now, looking back at the movie with fresh eyes, I can't help but be strangely proud of it. Because out of all the sucky movies, mine is the suckiest.
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“Man,” said Terl, “is an endangered species.”
The hairy paws of the Chamco brothers hung suspended above the broad keys of the laser-bash game. The cliffs of Char’s eyebones drew down over his yellow orbs as he looked up in mystery. Even the steward, who had been padding quietly about picking up her saucepans, lumbered to a halt and stared.
Terl could not have produced a more profound effect had he thrown a meat-girl naked into the middle of the room.
The clear dome of the Intergalactic Mining Company employee recreation hall shone black around and above them, silvered at its crossbars by the pale glow of the Earth’s single moon, half full on this late summer night.
Terl lifted his large amber eyes from the tome that rested minutely in his massive claws and looked around the room. He was suddenly aware of the effect he had produced, and it amused him. Anything to relieve the humdrum monotony of a ten-year duty tour in this gods-abandoned mining camp, way out here on the edge of a minor galaxy.
In an even more professorial voice, already deep and roaring enough, Terl repeated his thought. “Man is an endangered species.”
Char glowered at him. “What in the name of diseased crap are you reading?”
Terl did not much care for his tone. After all, Char was simply one of several mine managers, but he, Terl, was chief of minesite security. “I didn’t read it. I thought it.”
“You must’ve got it from somewhere,” growled Char. “What is that book?”
Terl held it up so Char could see its back. It said General Report of Geological Minesites, Volume 250,369. Like all such books, it was huge but printed on material that made it almost weightless, particularly on a low-gravity planet such as Earth, a triumph of design and manufacture that did not cut heavily into the payloads of freighters.
“Rughr,” growled Char in disgust. “That must be two, three hundred Earth-years old. If you want to prowl around in books, I got an up-to-date general board of directors’ report that says we’re thirty-five freighters behind in bauxite deliveries.”
The Chamco brothers looked at each other and then at their game to see where they had gotten to in shooting down the live mayflies in the air box. But Terl’s next words distracted them again.
“Today,” said Terl, brushing Char’s push for work aside, “I got a sighting report from a recon drone that recorded only thirty-five men in that valley near that peak.” Terl waved his paw westward toward the towering mountain range silhouetted by the moon.
“So?” said Char.
“So I dug up the books out of curiosity. There used to be hundreds in that valley. And furthermore,” continued Terl with his professorial ways coming back, “there used to be thousands and thousands of them on this planet.”
“You can’t believe all you read,” said Char heavily. “On my last duty tour—it was Arcturus IV—”
“This book,” said Terl, lifting it impressively, “was compiled by the Culture and Ethnology Department of the Intergalactic Mining Company.”
The larger Chamco brother batted his eyebones. “I didn’t know we had one.”
Char sniffed. “It was disbanded more than a century ago. Useless waste of money. Yapping around about ecological impacts and junk like that.” He shifted his bulk around to Terl. “Is this some kind of scheme to explain a nonscheduled vacation? You’re going to get your butt in a bind. I can see it, a pile of requisitions this high for breathe-gas tanks and scoutcraft. You won’t get any of my workers.”
“Turn off the juice,” said Terl. “I only said that Man—”
“I know what you said. But you got your appointment because you are clever. That’s right, clever. Not intelligent. Clever. And I can see right through an excuse to go on a hunting expedition. What Psychlo in his right skull would bother with the things?”
The smaller Chamco brother grinned. “I get tired of just dig-dig-dig, ship-ship-ship. Hunting might be fun. I didn’t think anybody did it for—”
Char turned on him like a tank zeroing in on its prey. “Fun hunting those things! You ever see one?” He lurched to his feet and the floor creaked. He put his paw just above his belt. “They only come up to here! They got hardly any hair on them except their heads. They’re a dirty white color like a slug. They’re so brittle they break up when you try to put them in a pouch.” He snarled in disgust and picked up a saucepan of kerbango. “They’re so weak they couldn’t pick this up without straining their guts. And they’re not good eating.” He tossed off the kerbango and made an earthquake shudder.
“You ever see one?” said the bigger Chamco brother.
Char sat down, the dome rumbled, and he handed the empty saucepan to the steward. “No,” he said. “Not alive. I seen some bones in the shafts and I heard.”
“There were thousands of them once,” said Terl, ignoring the mine manager. “Thousands! All over the place.”
Char belched. “Shouldn’t wonder they die off. They breathe this oxygen-nitrogen air. Deadly stuff.”
“I got a crack in my face mask yesterday,” said the smaller Chamco brother. “For about thirty seconds I thought I wasn’t going to make it. Bright lights bursting inside your skull. Deadly stuff. I really look forward to getting back home where you can walk around without a suit or mask, where the gravity gives you something to push against, where everything is a beautiful purple and there’s not one bit of this green stuff. My papa used to tell me that if I wasn’t a good Psychlo and if I didn’t say sir-sir-sir to the right people, I’d wind up at a butt end of nowhere like this. He was right. I did. It’s your shot, Brother.”
Char sat back and eyed Terl. “You ain’t really going hunting for a man, are you?”
Terl looked at his book. He inserted one of his talons to keep his place and then thumped the volume against his knee.
“I think you’re wrong,” he mused. “There was something to these creatures. Before we came along, it says here, they had towns on every continent. They had flying machines and boats. They even appear to have fired off stuff into space.”
“How do you know that wasn’t some other race?” said Char. “How do you know it wasn’t some lost colony of Psychlos?”
“No, it wasn’t that,” said Terl. “Psychlos can’t breathe this air. It was man all right, just like the cultural guys researched. And right in our own histories, you know how it says we got here?”
“Ump,” said Char.
“Man apparently sent out some kind of probe that gave full directions to the place, had pictures of man on it and everything. It got picked up by a Psychlo recon. And you know what?”
“Ump,” said Char.
“The probe and the pictures were on a metal that was rare-rare-rare everywhere and worth a clanking fortune. And Intergalactic paid the Psychlo governors sixty trillion Galactic credits for the directions and the concession. One gas barrage and we were in business.”
“Fairy tales, fairy tales,” said Char. “Every planet I ever helped gut has some butt and crap story like that. Every one.” He yawned his face into a huge cavern. “All that was hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago. You ever notice that the public relations department always puts their fairy tales so far back nobody can ever check them?”
“I’m going to go out and catch one of these things,” said Terl.
“Not with any of my crews or equipment you ain’t,” said Char.
Terl heaved his mammoth bulk off the seat and crossed the creaking floor to the berthing hatch.
“You’re as crazy as a nebula of crap,” said Char.
The two Chamco brothers got back into their game and intently and alternately laser-blasted the entrapped mayflies into smoky puffs, one by one.
Char looked at the empty door. The security chief knew no Psychlo could go up into those mountains. Terl really was crazy. There was deadly uranium up there.
But Terl, rumbling along a hallway to his room, did not consider himself crazy. He was being very clever as always. He had started the rumors so no questions would get out of hand when he began to put into motion the personal plans that would make him wealthy and powerful and, almost as important, dig him out of this accursed planet.
The man-things were the perfect answer. All he needed was just one and then he could get the others. His campaign had begun and begun very well, he thought.
He went to sleep gloating over how clever he was.
It was a good day for a funeral, only it seemed there wasn’t going to be one.
Dark, stormy-looking clouds were creeping in from the west, shredded by the snow-speckled peaks, leaving only a few patches of blue sky showing.
Jonnie Goodboy Tyler stood beside his horse at the upper end of the wide mountain meadow and looked with discontent upon the sprawled and decayed village.
His father was dead and he ought to be properly buried. He hadn’t died of the red blotches and there was no question of somebody else catching it. His bones had just crumbled away. So there was no excuse not to properly bury him. Yet there was no sign of anyone doing so.
Jonnie had gotten up in the dawn dark, determined to choke down his grief and go about his correct business. He had yelled up Windsplitter, the fastest of his several horses, put a cowhide rope on his nose, and gone down through the dangerous defiles to the lower plain, and with a lot of hard riding and herding, had pushed five wild cattle back up to the mountain meadow. He had then bashed out the brains of the fattest of them and ordered his Aunt Ellen to push the barbecue fire together and get meat cooking.
Aunt Ellen hadn’t cared for the orders. She had broken her sharpest rock, she said, and couldn’t skin and cut the meat, and certain men hadn’t dragged in any firewood lately.
Jonnie Goodboy had stood very tall and looked at her. Among people who were average height, Jonnie Goodboy stood half a head taller, a muscular six feet shining with the bronzed health of his twenty years. He had just stood there, wind tangling his corn-yellow hair and beard, looking at her with his ice-blue eyes. And Aunt Ellen had gone and found some wood and had put a stone to work, even though it was a very dull one. He could see her now, down there below him, wrapped in the smoke of slow-roasting meat, busy.
There ought to be more activity in the village, Jonnie thought. The last big funeral he had seen was when he was about five years old, when Smith the mayor had died. There had been songs and preaching and a feast and it had ended with a dance by moonlight. Mayor Smith had been put in a hole in the ground and the dirt filled in over him, and while the two cross-sticks of the marker were long since gone, it had been a proper respectful funeral. More recently they had just dumped the dead in the black-rock gulch below the water pool and let the coyotes clean them up.
Well, that wasn’t the way you went about it, Jonnie told himself. Not with his father, anyway.
He spun on his heel and with one motion went aboard Windsplitter and with the thump of a hard bare heel sent the horse down toward the courthouse.
He passed by the decayed ruins of cabins on the outskirts. Every year they caved in further. For a long time anybody needing a building log hadn’t cut any trees: they had just stripped handy existing structures. But the logs in these cabins were so eaten up and rotted now, they hardly even served as firewood.
Windsplitter picked his way down the weed-grown track, walking watchfully to avoid stepping on ancient and newly discarded food bones and trash. He twitched his ear toward a distant wolf howl from up in a mountain glen.
The smell of new blood and the meat smoke must be pulling the wolves down, thought Jonnie, and he hefted his kill-club from where it dangled by a thong into his palm. He’d lately seen a wolf right down in the cabins, prowling around for bones, or maybe even a puppy or a child. Even a decade ago it wouldn’t have happened. But every year there were fewer and fewer people.
Legend said that there had been a thousand in the valley, but Jonnie thought that was probably an exaggeration. There was plenty of food. The wide plains below the peaks were overrun with wild cattle, wild pigs and bands of horses. The ranges above were alive with deer and goats. And even an unskilled hunter had no trouble getting food. There was plenty of water due to the melting snows and streams, and the little patches of vegetables would thrive if anybody planted and tended them.
No, it wasn’t food. It was something else. Animals reproduced, it seemed, but Man didn’t. At least not to any extent. The death rate and the birth rate were unbalanced, with death the winner. Even when children were born they sometimes had only one eye or one lung or one hand and had to be left out in the icy night. Monsters were unwanted things. All life was overpowered by a fear of monsters.
Maybe it was this valley.
When he was seven he had asked his father about it. “But maybe people can’t live in this place,” he had said.
His father had looked at him wearily. “There were people in some other valleys, according to the legends. They’re all gone, but there are still some of us.”
He had not been convinced. Jonnie had said, “There’s all those plains down there and they’re full of animals. Why don’t we go live there?”
Well, Jonnie had always been a bit of a trial. Too smart, the elders had said. Always stirring things up. Questions, questions. And did he believe what he was told? Even by older men who knew a lot better? No. Not Jonnie Goodboy Tyler. But his father had not brought any of this up. He had just said wearily, “There’s no timber down there to build cabins.”
This hadn’t explained anything, so Jonnie had said, “I bet I could find something down there to build a cabin with.”
His father had knelt down, patient for once, and said, “You’re a good boy, Jonnie. And your mother and I love you very much. But nobody could build anything that would keep out the monsters.”
Monsters, monsters. All his life Jonnie had been hearing about the monsters. He’d never seen one. But he held his peace. The oldsters believed in monsters, so they believed in monsters.
But thinking of his father brought an unwelcome wetness to his eyes.
And he was almost unseated as his horse reared. A string of foot-long mountain rats had rushed headlong from a cabin and hit Windsplitter’s legs.
What you get for dreaming, Jonnie snapped to himself. He put Windsplitter’s four hoofs back down on the path and drummed him forward the last few yards to the courthouse.
Chrissie was standing there, her leg being hugged as always by her younger sister.
Jonnie Goodboy ignored her and looked at the courthouse. The old, old building was the only one to have a stone foundation and stone floor. Somebody had said it was a thousand years old, and though Jonnie didn’t believe it, the place sure looked it. Even its seventeenth roof was as swaybacked as an overpacked horse. There wasn’t a log in the upper structure that wasn’t gaping with wormholes. The windows were mainly caved in like eyeholes in a rotted skull. The stone walkway close to it was worn half a foot deep by the bare horny feet of scores of generations of villagers coming here to be tried and punished in the olden days when somebody had cared. In his lifetime Jonnie had never seen a trial, or a town meeting for that matter.
“Parson Staffor is inside,” said Chrissie. She was a slight girl, very pretty, about eighteen. She had large black eyes in strange contrast to her corn-silk hair. She had wrapped around herself a doeskin, really tight, and it showed her breasts and a lot of bare leg.
Her little sister, Pattie, a budding copy of the older girl, looked bright-eyed and interested. “Is there going to be a real funeral, Jonnie?”
Jonnie didn’t answer. He slid off Windsplitter in a graceful single motion. He handed the lead rope to Pattie, who ecstatically uncoiled herself from Chrissie’s leg and snatched at it. At seven, Pattie had no parents and little enough of a home, and her sun rose and set only on Jonnie’s proud orders.
“Is there going to be meat and a burying in a hole in the ground and everything?” demanded Pattie.
Jonnie started through the courthouse door, paying no heed to the hand Chrissie put out to touch his arm.
Parson Staffor lay sprawled on a mound of dirty grass, mouth open in snores and flies buzzing about. Jonnie stirred him with his foot.
Parson Staffor had seen better days. Once he had been fat and inclined to pomposity. But that was before he had begun to chew locoweed—to ease his toothaches, he said. He was gaunt now, dried up, nearly toothless, seamed with inlaid grime. Some wads of weed lay on the stones beside his moldy bed.
As the toe prodded him again, Staffor opened his eyes and rubbed some of the scum out of them in alarm. Then he saw it was Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, and he fell back with lost interest.
“Get up,” said Jonnie.
“That’s this generation,” muttered the parson. “No respect for their elders. Rushing off to the bushes, fornicating, grabbing the best meat pieces.”
“Get up,” said Jonnie. “You are going to give a funeral.”
“A funeral?” moaned Staffor.
“With meat and sermons and dancing.”
“Who is dead?”
“You know quite well who’s dead. You were there at the end.”
“Oh, yes. Your father. A good man. Yes, a good man. Well, maybe he was your father.”
Jonnie suddenly looked a little dangerous. He was standing there at ease, but he was wearing the skin of a puma that he himself had slain and he had his kill-club on a wrist thong. The club seemed to jump of its own volition into his palm.
Parson Staffor abruptly sat up. “Now don’t take it wrong, Jonnie. It’s just that things are a little mixed up these days, you know. Your mother had three husbands one time and another, and there being no real ceremonies these days—”
“You better get up,” said Jonnie.
Staffor clawed for the corner of an ancient, scarred bench and pulled himself upright. He began to tie the deerskin he usually wore, and obviously had worn far too long, using a frayed woven-grass rope. “My memory isn’t so good these days, Jonnie. One time I could remember all kinds of things. Legends, marriage ceremonies, hunt blessings, even family quarrels.” He was looking around for some fresh locoweed.
“When the sun is straight up,” said Jonnie, “you’re going to call the whole village together at the old graveyard and you’re—”
“Who’s going to dig the hole? There has to be a hole, you know, for a proper funeral.”
“I’ll dig the hole,” said Jonnie.
Staffor had found some fresh locoweed and began to gum it. He looked relieved. “Well, I’m glad the town doesn’t have to dig the hole. Horns, but this stuff is green. You said meat. Who is going to kill and cook it?”
“That’s all taken care of.”
Staffor nodded and then abruptly saw more work ahead. “Who’s going to assemble the people?”
“I’ll ask Pattie to tell them.”
Staffor looked at him reproachfully. “Then there’s nothing for me to do until straight up. Why’d you wake me up?” He threw himself back down on the dirty grass and sourly watched Jonnie walk out of the ancient room.
Jonnie Goodboy sat with his knees to his chest, his arms wrapped around them, staring into the remains of the dance fire.
Chrissie lay on her stomach beside him, idly shredding the seeds from a large sunflower between her very white teeth. She looked up at Jonnie from time to time, a little puzzled but not unduly so. She had never seen him cry before, even as a little boy. She knew he had loved his father. But Jonnie was usually so tall and grand, even cold. Could it be that under that good-looking, almost pretty face, he felt emotions for her, too? It was something to speculate about. She knew very well how she felt about Jonnie. If anything happened to Jonnie she would throw herself off the cliff where they sometimes herded wild cattle to their death, an easy way to kill them. Yes, she'd just throw herself off that cliff. Life without Jonnie Goodboy would not only not be worth living, it would be totally and completely unbearable. Maybe Jonnie did care about her. The tears showed something.
Pattie had no such troubles. She had not only stuffed herself with roast meat, she had also stuffed herself with the wild strawberries that had been served by the heap. And then during the dancing she had run and run and run with two or three little boys and then come back to eat some more. She was sleeping so heavily she looked like a mound of rags.
Jonnie blamed himself. He had tried to tell his father, not just when he was seven, but many times thereafter, that something was wrong with this place. Places were not all the same. Jonnie had been—was—sure of it. Why did the pigs and horses and cattle in the plains have little pigs and horses and cattle so numerously and so continuously? Yes, and why were there more and more wolves and coyotes and pumas and birds up in the higher ranges, and fewer and fewer men?
The villagers had been quite happy with the funeral, especially since Jonnie and a couple of others had done most of the work.
Jonnie had not been happy with it at all. It wasn’t good enough.
They had gathered at sun straight up on the knoll above the village where some said the graveyard had been. The markers were all gone. Maybe it had been a graveyard. When Jonnie had toiled—naked so as not to stain his puma-skin cloak and doe britches—in the morning sun, he had dug into something that might have been an old grave. At least there was a bone in it that could have been human.
The villagers had come slouching around and there had been a wait while Pattie tore back to the courthouse and awakened Parson Staffor again. Only twenty-five of them had assembled. The others had said they were tired and asked for any food to be brought back to them.
Then there had been an argument about the shape of the grave hole. Jonnie had dug it oblong so the body could lie level, but when Staffor arrived he said it should be straight up and down, that graves were dug straight up and down because you could get more bodies into a graveyard that way. When Jonnie had pointed out that there weren’t any burials these days and there was plenty of room, Staffor had told him off in front of everybody.
“You’re too smart,” Staffor had rapped at him. “When we had even half a council they used to remark on it. Every few council meetings, some prank of yours would come up. You’d ridden to the high ridge and killed a goat. You’d gone clear up Highpeak and gotten lost in a blizzard and found your way back, you said, by following the downslope of the ground. Too smart. Who else trained six horses? Everybody knows graves should be straight up and down.”
But they had buried his father lying flat anyway, because nobody else had wanted to do more digging and the sun was now past straight up and it was getting hot.
Jonnie hadn’t dared suggest what he really wanted to do. There would have been a riot.
He had wanted to put his father in the cave of the ancient gods, far up at the top of the dark canyon, a savage cleft in the side of the tallest peak. When he was twelve he had strayed up there, more trying out a pony than going someplace. But the way up the canyon had been very flat and inviting. He had gone for miles and miles and miles and then he had been abruptly halted by giant vertical doors. They were of some kind of metal, heavily corroded. One couldn’t see them from above or even from the canyon rims. They were absolutely huge. They went up and up.
He had gotten off his pony and climbed over the rubble in front of them and simply stared. He had walked all around in circles and then come back and stared some more.
After a while he had gotten brave and had walked up to them. But push as he might, he couldn’t open them. Then he had found a latchlike bar and he had pried it off and it fell, just missing his foot. Rusted but very heavy.
He had braced his shoulder against one door, sure that it was a door, and pushed and pushed. But his twelve-year-old shoulder and weight hadn’t had much effect on it.
Then he had taken the fallen bar and had begun to pry it into the slight crack, and after a few minutes, he had gotten a purchase with it.
There had been a horrible groaning sound that almost stood his hair up straight, and he had dropped the bar and had run for the pony.
Once he was mounted, his fright had ebbed a bit. Maybe it was just a sound caused by the rusted hinges. Maybe it wasn’t a monster.
He had gone back and worked some more with the bar, and sure enough, it was just the door groaning on the pins that held it.
An awful smell had come out of the cracked opening. The smell itself had made him afraid. A little light had been let in and he peeked inside.
A long flight of steps led down, remarkably even steps. And they would have been very neat, except—
The steps were covered by skeletons tumbled every which way. Skeletons in strips of clothing—clothing like he had never seen.
Bits of metal, some bright, had fallen among the bones.
He had run away again, but this time not as far as the pony. He had suddenly realized he would need proof.
Bracing his nerve to a pitch he had seldom before achieved, he went back and gingerly stepped inside and picked up one of the bits of metal. It had a pretty design, a bird with flying wings holding arrows in its claws, quite bright.
His heart almost stopped when the skull he had removed it from tipped sideways and went to powder before his very gaze, as though it had reproached him with its gaping eyes for his robbery and then expired.
The pony had been in a white-coat lather when he pulled up in the village.
For two whole days he had said nothing, wondering how best to ask his questions. Previous experiences in asking questions had made him cautious.
Mayor Duncan was still alive at that time. Jonnie had sat quietly beside him until the big man was properly stuffed with venison and was quiet except for a few belches.
“That big tomb,” Jonnie had said abruptly.
“What big what?” Mayor Duncan had snorted.
“The place up the dark canyon where they used to put the dead people.”
Jonnie had taken out the bright bird badge and shown it to Mayor Duncan.
Duncan had looked at it, twisting his head this way and that, twisting the badge this way and that.
Parson Staffor, brighter in those days, had reached across the fire in a sudden swoop and grabbed the badge.
The ensuing interrogation had not been pleasant: about young boys who went to places that were forbidden and got everybody in trouble and didn’t listen at conferences where they had to learn legends and were too smart anyway.
Mayor Duncan, however, had himself been curious and finally pinned Parson Staffor into recounting an applicable legend.
“A tomb of the old gods,” the parson had finally said. “Nobody has been there in living memory—small boys do not count. But it was said to exist by my great-grandfather when he was still alive—and he lived a long time. The gods used to come into these mountains and they buried the great men in huge caverns. When the lightning flashed on Highpeak, it was because the gods had come to bury a great man from over the water.
“Once there were thousands and thousands living in big villages a hundred times the size of this one. These villages were to the east, and it is said there is the remains of one straight east where thousands lived. And the place was flat except for some hills. And when a great man died there the gods brought him to the tomb of the gods.”
Parson Staffor had shaken the badge. “This was placed on the foreheads of the great when they were laid to rest in the great tomb of the gods. And that’s what it is, and ancient law says that nobody is supposed to go there and must not go there and had better stay away from there forever—especially little boys.” And he had put the badge in his pouch, and that was the last Jonnie ever saw of it. After all, Staffor was a holy man and in charge of holy things.
Nevertheless, Jonnie thought his father should have been buried in the tomb of the gods. Jonnie had never been back there again and thought of it only when he saw lightning hit Highpeak.
But he wished he had buried his father there.
“Are you worried?” asked Chrissie.
Jonnie looked down at her, his reverie broken. The dying fire wove a reddish sheen into her hair and sparked in her dark eyes.
“It’s my fault,” said Jonnie.
Chrissie smiled and shook her head. Nothing could be Jonnie’s fault.
“Yes, it is,” said Jonnie. “There’s something wrong with this place. My father’s bones . . . in the last year they just crumbled like that skeleton’s in the tomb of the gods.”
“The tomb of the what?” said Chrissie idly. If Jonnie wanted to talk nonsense it was all right with her. At least he was talking to her.
“I should have buried him there. He was a great man. He taught me a lot of things—how to braid grass rope, how to wait for a puma to crouch before you stepped aside and hit him as he sprang; they can’t turn in midair, you know. How to cut hide into strips . . .”
“Jonnie, you aren’t guilty of anything.”
“It was a bad funeral.”
“Jonnie, it’s the only funeral I remember.”
“No, it was not a good funeral. Staffor didn’t preach a funeral sermon.”
“He talked. I didn’t listen because I was helping gather strawberries, but I know he talked. Did he say something bad?”
“No. Only it didn’t apply.”
“Well, what did he say, Jonnie?”
“Oh, you know, all that stuff about God being angry with the people. Everybody knows that legend. I can quote it myself.”
Jonnie sniffed a little impatiently. But she was interested and it made him feel a little better.
“ ‘. . . And then there came a day when God was wroth. And wearied he was of the fornicating and pleasure dallying of the people. And he did cause a wondrous cloud to come and everywhere it struck, the anger of God snuffed out the breath and breathing of ninety-nine out of a hundred men. And disaster lay upon the land and plagues and epidemics rolled and smote the unholy; and when it was done, the wicked were gone and only the holy and righteous, the true children of the Lord, remained upon the stark and bloodied field. But God even then was not sure and so he tested them. He sent monsters upon them to drive them to the hills and secret places, and lo, the monsters hunted them and made them less and less until at last all men remaining were the only holy, the only blessed, the only sure righteous upon Earth. Hey man!’ ”
“Oh, that one. You say it very nicely, Jonnie.”
“It’s my fault,” said Jonnie morosely. “I should have made my father listen. There is something wrong with this place. I am certain that had he listened and had we moved elsewhere, he would be alive today. I feel it!”
“Where else is there?”
“There’s that whole great plain out there. Weeks of riding on it, I am sure. And they say man once lived in a big village out there.”
“Oh, no, Jonnie. The monsters.”
“I’ve never seen a monster.”
“You’ve seen the shiny flashing things that sail overhead every few days.”
“Oh, those. The sun and moon sail overhead, too. So do the stars. And even shooting stars.”
Chrissie was frightened suddenly. “Jonnie, you’re not going to do something?”
“I am. With first light I am going to ride out and see if there really was a big village in the plains.”
Chrissie felt her heart contract. She looked up at his determined profile. It was as though she was sinking down, down, down into the earth, as though she lay in today’s grave.
“No, I’m going.”
“Jonnie, I’ll go with you.”
“No, you stay here.” He thought fast, something to deter her. “I may be gone for a whole year.”
Water got into her sight. “What will I do if you don’t come back?”
“I’ll come back.”
“Jonnie, if you don’t come back in a year, I’ll come looking for you.”
Jonnie frowned. He scented blackmail.
“Jonnie, if you’re leaving, you see those stars up there? When they come back to the same place next year and you haven’t returned, I will come looking.”
“You’d be killed out in the plains. The pigs, the wild cattle—”
“Jonnie, that is what I will do. I swear it, Jonnie.”
“You think I’d just wander off and never return?”
“That’s what I will do, Jonnie. You can go. But that’s what I will do.”
The first dawn light was painting Highpeak rose. It was going to be a beautiful day.
Jonnie Goodboy was completing the packing of a lead horse. Windsplitter was sidling about, biting at the grass, but not really eating. He had his eye on Jonnie. They were obviously going somewhere, and Windsplitter was not going to be left out.
Some wisps of smoke were coming from the breakfast fire of the Jimson family nearby. They were roasting a dog. Yesterday at the funeral feast nearly a score of dogs had gotten into an idiot fight. There had been plenty of bones and meat as well. But the pack had gotten into a fight and a big brindle had been killed. Looked like the Jimson family would have meat all day.
Jonnie was trying to keep his mind on petty details and off Chrissie and Pattie, who were standing there watching him quietly.
Brown Limper Staffor was also there, idling about in the background. He had a clubfoot, born that way. Obviously deformed and should have been killed, but he was the only child the Staffors had ever had, and Staffor was parson after all. Maybe mayor, too, since there wasn’t any now.
There was no affection whatever between Jonnie and Brown Limper. During the funeral dancing, Brown had sat on the sidelines making sneering remarks about the dancing, about the funeral, about the meat, about the strawberries. But when he had made a remark about Jonnie’s father—“Maybe never had a bone in the right place”—Jonnie had hit him a backhand cuff. Made Jonnie ashamed of himself, hitting a cripple.
Brown Limper stood crookedly, a faint blue bruise on his cheek, watching Jonnie get ready, wishes of bad luck written all over him. Two other boys of similar age—there were only five in the whole village who were in their late teens—wandered up and asked Brown what was going on. Brown shrugged.
Jonnie kept his mind carefully on his business. He was probably taking too much, but he didn’t know what he’d run into. Nobody knew. In the two buckskin sacks he was roping on either side of the lead horse, he had flint stones for fire, rat’s nests for tinder, bundles of cut thongs, some sharp-edged rocks that were sometimes hard to find and cut indifferently well, three spare kill-clubs—one heavy enough to crush a bear’s skull just in case—some warm robes that didn’t stink very much, a couple of buckskins for spare clothes . . .
He gave a start. He hadn’t realized Chrissie had come within a foot of him. He hoped he wouldn’t have to talk.
Blackmail, that’s what it was—plain as possible and all bad. If she’d said she would kill herself if he didn’t come back, well, one could have put that down to girl vaporings. But threatening to follow him in a year put another shadow on it entirely. It meant he would have to be cautious. He’d have to be careful not to get himself killed. It was one thing to worry about his own life; he didn’t care a snap for risk or danger. But the thought of Chrissie going down on the plains if he didn’t come back made him snow-cold at the pit of his stomach. She’d be gored or mauled or eaten alive and every agonizing second of it would be Jonnie’s fault. She had effectively committed him to caution and care—just what she intended.
She was holding something out to him. Two somethings. One was a large bone needle with a thong hole in it, and the other was a skin awl. Both were worn and polished and valuable.
“They were mama’s,” said Chrissie.
“I don’t need anything.”
“No, you have them.”
“I won’t need them!”
“If you lose your clothes,” she wailed, “how are you going to sew?”
The crowd had thickened. Jonnie didn’t need any outbursts. He snatched the needle and awl out of her hand and unlashed the neck of a sack and dropped them in, made sure they hadn’t missed and dropped out, and then relashed the sack.
Chrissie stood more quietly. Jonnie turned and faced her. He was a little bit shocked. There wasn’t even a smudge of color in her face. She looked like she hadn’t slept and had tick fever as well.
Jonnie’s resolution wavered. Then beyond Chrissie he saw Brown Limper tittering and talking behind his hand to Petie Thommso.
Jonnie’s face went tight. He grabbed Chrissie and kissed her hard. It was as though he had taken a board from an irrigation trough: the tears went down her cheeks.
“Now look,” said Jonnie. “Don’t you follow me!”
She made a careful effort to control her voice. “If you don’t come back in a year, I will. By all the gods on Highpeak, Jonnie, I will.”
He looked at her. Then he beckoned to Windsplitter, who sidled over. With one smooth spring he mounted, the lead rope of the other horse gripped in his hand.
“You can have my other four horses,” said Jonnie to Chrissie. “Don’t eat them; they’re trained.” He paused. “Unless you get awful hungry, of course, like in the winter.”
Chrissie hung on to his leg for a moment and then she stepped back and sagged.
Jonnie thumped Windsplitter with a heel and they moved off. This was going to be no wild free ride to adventure. This was going to be a tiptoe scout with care. Chrissie had seen to that!
At the entrance to the defile he looked back. About fifteen people were still standing there watching him go. They all looked dejected. He used a heel signal to make Windsplitter rear and waved his hand. They all waved back with sudden animation.
Then Jonnie was gone down the dark canyon trail to the wide and unknown plains.
The rest of the people drifted off. Chrissie still stood there, hoping with a wild crazy hope that he would ride into sight, returning.
Pattie tugged at her leg. “Chrissie. Chrissie, will he come back?”
Chrissie’s voice was very low, her eyes like ashes in a dead fire. “Goodbye,” she whispered.
Terl belched. It was a polite way to attract attention, but the belch didn’t make much impression through the whine and howl of machines in the transport department maintenance dome.
Zzt’s concentration on his work became more marked. Minesite Sixteen’s transport chief had little use for the security head. Every time a tool or a car or fuel turned up missing—or even just broken—it got attention from security.
Three crashed cars were strewn about in various stages of reassembly, one of them very messy with splotches of green Psychlo blood on the interior upholstery. The big drills that dangled from the ceiling rails pointed sharp beaks this way and that, idling in their programing. Lathes with nothing in their jaws spun waiting for something to twist and shave. Belts snarled and slapped at each other.
Terl watched the surprisingly nimble talons of Zzt disassemble the small concentric shells of a high-speed jet engine. Terl had hoped to detect a small tremble or two in Zzt’s paws—if the transport chief’s conscience was bothering him, it would be much easier to do business. There was no tremble.
Zzt finished the disassembly and threw the last ring on the bench. His yellow orbs contracted as he looked at Terl. “Well? What have I done now?”
Terl lumbered closer and looked around. “Where are your maintenance men?”
“We’re fifteen mechanics under complement. They were transferred to operations over the last month. I know it and you know it. So why are you here?”
As chief of security, Terl had learned through experience not to be very straightforward. If he simply asked for a manual reconnaissance plane, the transport chief would demand the emergency voucher, not get it, and say “No transport.” And there were no emergencies for security on this dull planet. Not real ones. In hundreds of years of operation, there had not been the slightest security threat to Intergalactic Mining operations here. A dull-dull-dull security scene, and consequently the chief of that department was not considered very important. Apparent threats had to be manufactured with guile as their sole ingredient.
“I’ve been investigating a suspicion of conspiracy to sabotage transport,” said Terl. “Kept me busy for the last three weeks.” He eased his bulk back against a wrecked car.
“Don’t lean on that recon. You’ll dent its wing.”
Terl decided it was better to be friendly and rumbled over to a stool at the bench where Zzt was working. “Confidentially, Zzt, I’ve had an idea that could get us some outside personnel. I’m working on it, and that’s why I need a manual recon.”
Zzt batted his eyebones and sat down on another stool, which creaked despairingly under his thousand-pound bulk.
“This planet,” said Terl confidingly, “used to have a sentient race on it.”
“What race was that?” asked Zzt suspiciously.
“Man,” said Terl.
Zzt looked at him searchingly. A security officer was never noted for his sense of humor. Some had been known to bait and entrap and then file charges. But Zzt couldn’t help himself. His mouthbones started to stretch, and even though he sought to control them, they spread and suddenly his laugh exploded in Terl’s face. Zzt hastily got it under control and turned back to his bench to resume work.
“Anything else on your mind?” asked Zzt, as an afterthought.
This was not going well, thought Terl. Well, that’s what happened when you were frank. It just didn’t mix with security.
“This suspicion of conspiracy to sabotage transport,” said Terl as he looked around at the wrecked cars with half-lowered eyebones, “could reach to high places.”
Zzt threw down a wrench with a clang. A low snarl rumbled in him. He sat there, staring in front of him. He was thinking.
“What do you really want?” he asked at last.
“A recon plane. For five or six days.”
Zzt got up and yanked a transport schedule clipboard off the wall and studied it. He could hear Terl almost purring.
“You see this schedule?” said Zzt, pushing it under Terl’s nose.
“Do you see where it has six drone recons assigned to security?”
“And do you see where this has been going on for”—Zzt peeled back sheet after sheet—“blast! For centuries, I suppose.”
“Have to keep a minesite planet under surveillance,” said Terl complacently.
“Under surveillance for what?” said Zzt. “Every scrap of ore was spotted and estimated long before your and my living memory. There’s nothing out there but mammals. Air organisms.”
“There might be a hostile landing.”
“Here?” sneered Zzt. “Company probes in outer space would detect it ages before it ever arrived here. Terl, transport has to fuel and maintain and recondition those drones two and three times a year. You know and I know the company is on an economy wave. Tell you what.”
Terl waited sourly to be told.
“If you will let us cancel those recon drones, I’ll put a triwheel ground cycle at your disposal for a limited time.”
Terl let out a small, shrill scream.
Zzt amended his bargain. “A ground car at your disposal when ordered.”
Terl lumbered over to the crashed vehicle that had blood on its seats. “Wonder if this was caused by faulty maintenance.”
Zzt stood there, unrelenting. The crash had been caused by too much kerbango on duty.
“One recon drone programed to cover the whole planet once a month,” said Zzt. “One ground car at your permanent disposal.”
Terl looked at the other wrecks but couldn’t think of anything. These investigations were done and dead. Teach him to close investigations!
He wandered back to Zzt. “One drone recon programed to cover the whole planet once a month. One armored and firepower ground car at permanent disposal with no questions on ammunition, breathe-gas or fuel requisitions.”
Zzt took the forms from the bench drawer and made them out. He shoved the papers and clipboard at Terl.
As he signed, Terl thought to himself that this transport chief really ought to be looked into. Maybe for ore robbery!
Zzt took the papers back and removed from the switchboard the combination keycard of the oldest and rattiest ground car that was gathering dust in the garage dome. He coupled it with a coupon book for ammo, another for breathe-gas and another for fuel.
The deal would never actually become part of recorded history as a deal, for the dates of the orders were carefully not coincident. Neither suspected that they had just materially altered the future of the planet. And not for the better of Intergalactic. But that is sometimes the way with large commercial companies.
When Terl had left to get his Mark II (armored, firepower, “The Enemy Is Ours”) ground car, Zzt thought to himself that it was wonderful what lies executives told just to be able to go hunting. Kill-mad they all were. Machine kill-mad, too, from the jam-ups he had to repair. What a story! Man a sentient race indeed! He laughed and got back to work.
Jonnie Goodboy Tyler galloped free across the vast ocean of grass, Windsplitter exuberantly stretching his legs, the lead horse rollicking along behind.
What a day. Blue sky and the wind a cooling freshness on his face.
Now two days out, he had come down from the mountains, through the foothills, and into the vastest plain he had ever imagined. He could still see the tiniest tip of Highpeak behind him, and with the sun, it kept him true on course and reassured him that he could find his way home whenever he wanted.
Total security! The herds of wild cattle were many, but he had been living with those all his life. A few wolves, but what were wolves? No bear, no puma so far. Why, in all reverence to the gods, did anybody ever stay cooped up in the mountains?
And monsters—what monsters? Phagh! Crazy tales!
Even that shiny, floating cylinder that had gone overhead every few days the whole of his life was overdue down here. It had come from west to east with the regularity of every other heavenly body, but even it seemed to have stopped. On his present course he would have seen it.
In short, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler was suffering from a badly swollen case of overconfidence. And the first disaster that hit him had to do with pigs.
Pigs were usually easy to kill—if you were a bit nimble and watched out for charges of the boars. And a small suckling pig was exactly what one could use for supper.
Right there ahead of him, clear in the late-afternoon light, was a compact herd of pigs out in the open. There were big ones and small ones, but they were all fat.
Jonnie pulled Windsplitter to a halt and slid off. The wind was not quite right, a bit too downwind to the pigs. They’d smell him if he approached directly.
With a bent-knee run, he brought himself silently around them until the wind was at right angles.
He stopped and hefted his club. The tall grass was nearly to his waist.
The pigs were rooting around a shallow depression in the plain, where water stood in the wet months, making a temporary marsh. There must be roots to be had there, Jonnie supposed. There were dozens of pigs, every one with his snout down.
With a crouching gait, staying below the grass tops, Jonnie went forward closing the distance yard by yard.
Only a few feet separated him now from the outermost fringe of pigs. Silently he rose until his eyes were just above the level of the grass. A small porker was only three arm-spans from him, an easy throw.
“Here’s for supper,” breathed Jonnie and heaved his kill-club straight and true at the head of the pig.
Dead on, a direct hit. The pig let out an ear-splitter and dropped.
But that wasn’t all that happened. Instant confusion roared.
Hidden from Jonnie by the tall grass and slightly behind him and to his right, a five-hundred-pound boar who had become tired of eating had lain down for a nap.
The squeal of the hit pig acted like a whip on the whole herd and away they went in an instant charge, straight upwind at Jonnie’s horses.
For the big boar, to see was to charge.
Jonnie felt like he had been struck by a mountain avalanche. He was knocked flat and squashed in instants so close together they felt like one.
He rolled. But the whole sky over him was filled with boar belly. He didn’t see but he sensed the teeth and tusks trying to find him.
He rolled again, the savage squeals mixing with the roaring pound of the blood in his ears.
Once more he rolled and this time he saw daylight and a back.
In the blink of an eye he was on the boar’s back.
He reached an arm across the throat.
The boar spun around and around like a bucking horse.
Jonnie’s arm tightened until he could feel his sinews crack.
And then the boar, strangled, dropped into a limp, jerking pile.
Jonnie unloaded quickly and backed up. The boar was gasping its breath back. It lurched to unsteady feet, and seeing no opponent, staggered off.
Jonnie went over and picked up the small pig, keeping an eye on the departing boar. But the boar, although it cast about and made small convulsive charges, still couldn’t see anybody, and after a bit it trotted in the direction the herd had taken, following the trampled grass.
There was no herd in sight.
And there were no horses!
No horses! Jonnie stood there with the dead pig. He had no sharp rock to cut it. He had no flints to start a fire and roast it. And he had no horses.
Chrissie’s promise and his own determination to be cautious hit him like a soggy hide.
It might even be worse. He looked at his legs, expecting to see tusk gashes. But he found none. His back and face ached a bit from the collision of the charge and his own collision with the ground, but that was all.
Mentally kicking himself, more ashamed than scared, he made off in the direction of the trail of crushed grass. After a while his depression wore off a bit, to be replaced by optimism. He began to whistle a call. The horses would not have just gone on running in front of the pigs. They would have veered off somewhere.
Just as darkness was falling he spotted Windsplitter calmly cropping grass. The horse looked up with a “Where-have-you-been?” And then, with a plainly mischievous grin, as though he had intended to all the time, came over and bumped Jonnie with his muzzle.
It took another ten minutes of anxious casting about to locate the lead horse and the packs.
Jonnie went back a short way to a little spring they’d passed and made camp.
There he made himself a belt and a pouch, and into the latter he put tinder and a flint and some small, sharp-edged stones. He put a stronger thong on the big kill-club and fastened it to the belt. He wasn’t going to be caught empty-handed a second time in this vast prairie. No indeed.
That night he dreamed of Chrissie being strangled by pigs, Chrissie mauled by bears, Chrissie crushed to a pulp under stampeding hoofs, while he stood helpless in the sky where the spirits go, unable to do a damned thing.
The “Great Village” where “thousands had lived” was obviously another one of those myths, like “monsters.” But he would look for it nonetheless.
By the half-light of the yellowing dawn, Jonnie was again trotting eastward.
The plain was changing. There were some features about it that didn’t seem usual, such as those mounds. Jonnie detoured from his way into the sun to look at one of them.
He stopped, leaning forward with a hand braced on Windsplitter’s shoulder, to study the place.
It was a little sort of hill, but it had a hole in the side. A rectangular hole. Otherwise the mound was all covered with dirt and grass. Some freak of nature? A window opening?
He slid off his horse and approached it. He walked around it. Then he paced it out. It was about thirty-five paces long and ten paces wide. Hah! Maybe the mound was rectangular too!
An old, splintered stump stood to one side and Jonnie appropriated a jagged piece of it.
He approached the window and, using the scrap of wood, began to push away the grass edges. It surprised him that he seemed to be digging not in earth but in loose sand.
When he got the lower part of the rectangle cleared, he could get right up to it and look into it.
The mound was hollow!
He backed up and looked at his horses and then around at the countryside. There wasn’t anything menacing there.
He bent over and started to crawl into the mound.
And the window bit him!
He backed right up and looked at his wrist.
It was bleeding.
It wasn’t a bad cut. It was that he was cut at all that startled him.
Very carefully he looked at the window more closely.
It had teeth!
Well, maybe they weren’t teeth. They were dull-bright and had a lot of colors in them and they stood all around the outside edges of the frame. He pulled one of them out—they were very loose. He took a bit of thong from his belt and tried it.
Wonder of wonders, the tooth readily cut the thong, far better than the best rock edge.
Hey, he thought, delighted, Look what I got! And with the greatest care—for the things did bite unless you were careful—he removed the splinters big and small from the frame and stacked them neatly. He went to his pack and got a piece of buckskin and wrapped them up. Valuable! You could cut and skin and scrape something wonderful with these things. Some kind of rock. Or this mound was the skull of some strange beast and these were the remains of its teeth. Wonderful!
When he had them all and they were carefully stowed in his pack—except one nice bit he put in his belt pouch—he returned to the task of entering the mound.
There was nothing to bite him now and he climbed through the rectangle. There wasn’t any pit. The level of the inside seemed to be a bit higher than the outside ground.
A sudden flurry startled him half out of his wits. But it was just a bird that had a nest in here, and it left through the window with a rustle of wings. Once outside, it found a place to sit and began to scold and scold and scold.
Jonnie fumbled his way through the dimness. There wasn’t much there, mainly rust. But there had been things there; he could tell from the rust piles and wall marks.
Walls? Yes, the place had walls. They were of some sort of rough stone or something, very evenly fitted together in big square blocks.
Yes, these were walls. No animal made anything like this.
And no animal made anything like this tray. It must have been part of something else, now turned to reddish powder. At the bottom of the powder were some circular disks about as big as three thumbnails. And at the bottom of the pile of disks was one that was almost bright.
Jonnie picked it up and turned it over. He caught his breath.
He moved over to the window where there was better light. There could be NO mistake.
It was the big bird with spread wings and arrows gripped in its claws.
The same sign he had found in the tomb.
He stood in quivering excitement for a bit and then calmed down. He had it now. The mystery was solved. And he went back out the window and showed Windsplitter.
“God house,” said Jonnie. “This is where they stayed while waiting to take great men up to the tomb. Pretty, isn’t it?”
Windsplitter finished chewing a mouthful of grass and gave Jonnie a shove in the chest. It was time they were going.
Jonnie put the disk in his belt pouch. Well, it was no “Great Village,” but it proved definitely that there were things to find out here in the plains. Walls, imagine that. Those gods could build walls.
The bird stopped scolding in some relief as Jonnie mounted up and moved away. It looked after the little cavalcade, and then, with a couple more criticisms, went back inside the ancient ruin.
Terl was as happy as a baby Psychlo on a diet of straight kerbango. Although it was late in the day, he was on his way!
He steered the Mark II ground car down off the ramp, through the atmosphere port, and into the open air.
There was a warning plaque on the ledge in front of the driver’s seat:
BATTLE READINESS MUST BE OBSERVED AT ALL TIMES! Although this tank is compression contained, personal face masks and independent breathing systems must be kept in place. Personal and unauthorized battle use prohibited. (signed) Political Department, Intergalactic Mining Company, Vice-Director Szot.
Terl grinned at the sign. In the absence of political officers—on a planet where there was no indigenous politics—and in the absence of a war department—on a planet that had nothing to war against—the chief of security covered both those functions. That this old battle car existed on the planet at all meant that it must be very, very old and in addition must have gotten there as a result of fixed allocations of vehicles to company stations. Clerks in Planet One, Galaxy One offices were not always well advised when they wrote their endless directives and orders to the far-flung outposts of the commercial empire. Terl threw his personal face mask and tank onto the gunner’s seat beside him and rubbed a thankful paw over his craggy face.
What a lark! The old car ran like a well-greased digger. Small, not more than thirty feet long and ten feet high, it skimmed above the ground like a low-flying wingless bird. Cunning mathematics had contoured it so that every exterior surface would make a hostile projectile glance off at an angle. Missile-proof glass slots gave a fine view of the terrain. Even the blast muzzles of its artillery were cleverly recessed. The interior upholstery, though worn and cracked in places, was a beautiful soothing shade of purple.
Terl felt good. He had five days of jet fuel and breathe-gas and five days of rations in their ten-pound packs. He had cleaned up every scrap of paper in his baskets and had started no new “emergencies.” He had a “borrowed” shaft analysis picto-recorder that would take great pictures when put to other uses. And he was on his way!
A break in the dull-dull life of a security chief on a planet without insecurities. A planet that wasn’t likely to produce many opportunities for an ambitious security chief to get promotion and advancement.
It had been a gut blow when they ordered him to Earth. He wondered at once what he had done, whom he had accidentally insulted, whose bad side he had gotten on, but they assured him that none of these was the case. He was young. A Psychlo had a life span of about one hundred ninety years, and Terl had been only thirty-nine when he had been appointed. It was pointed out to him that few ever became security chiefs at such a tender age. It would show in his record that he had been one. And when he came back from the duty tour, they would see. Plums, like planets you could breathe on, went to older Psychlos.
He had not been fooled, really. Nobody in security personnel pool, Planet One, Galaxy One, had wanted anything at all to do with this post. He could hear the future assignment interview now.
“Earth, rim star, third planet, secondary Galaxy Sixteen.”
“Oh. What did you accomplish on that post?”
“It’s all in the record.”
“Yes, but there’s nothing in the record.”
“There must be something. Let me see it.”
“No, no. Confidential company record.”
And then the final horror: “Employee Terl, it just happens that we have an opening in another rim star system, Galaxy Thirty-Two. It’s a quiet place, no indigenous life and no atmosphere at all. . . .”
Or even worse: “Employee Terl, Intergalactic has been dropping for some time on the exchange and we have orders to economize. I’m afraid your record doesn’t recommend continued employment. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”
He already had a bit of scribble on the wall. A month ago he’d received word that his tour of duty had been extended and there was no mention of his relief. A little bit of horror had touched him, a vision of a one-hundred-ninety-year-old Terl tottering around on this same planet, long forgotten by friends and family, ending his days in a dome-crazy stupor, lowered into a slit-trench grave, and ticked off the roster by a clerk who kept the records neat—but didn’t know a single face on them.
Such questionable fates required action. Big action.
There were better daydreams: waiting in a big entrance hall, uniformed ushers at attention, but one of them whispering to another, “Who’s that?” And the other, “Don’t you know? That’s Terl.” And the big doors opening: “The president of the company is waiting to thank you, sir. Please come this way. . . .” Ah, well!
According to the mine surveys there was an ancient highway to the north of here. Terl flipped the ground car onto auto and spread out a big map. Yep. There it was. Ran east and west. And west was where he wanted to go. It would be busted up and overgrown, maybe even hard to spot. But it would have no steep grades and it would run squarely up into the mountains. Terl had drawn a big circle around the target meadow.
Aha! There was the “highway” ahead.
He threw the controls to manual and fumbled a bit. He hadn’t driven one of these things since security school years ago, and his uncertain control made the car yaw.
He zoomed up the side embankment of the road and yanked back the throttles and pawed the brakes. The car slammed to earth in a geysering puff of dust, square in the center of the highway. It was a pretty jolting stop but not bad, not bad. He’d get smoother at it.
He picked up his face mask and tank and donned them. Then he hit the decompression button so the tanks would recontain the breathe-gas without waste. There was a momentary vacuum, a trifle uncomfortable on the hearing bones, and then with a sigh, the outside air entered the cab.
Terl swung open the top hatch and stood up on the seat, the tank creaking and shuddering under his repositioned weight. The wind felt cool outside the borders of his face mask.
He gazed around with some distaste. This sure was wide-wide-wide country. And empty-empty-empty. The only sound was the whisper of wind in the grass. And the sound of silence, vast silence. Even a far-off birdcall made the silence heavier.
Things were tan and green. The earth was tan and brown. The grass and occasional shrubs were green. The sky was an expansive blue, specked with white puffs of clouds. Sure a strange country. People on home planet wouldn’t believe it. Not for a minute. No lovely purple anywhere.
With a sudden inspiration Terl reached down into the car and grabbed the picto-recorder. He aimed it in a sweeping circle, letting it grind away. He’d send his folks a spool of this. Then they’d believe him when he said it was one horns-awful of a planet and maybe sympathize with him.
“My daily view,” he said into the recorder as he finished the sweep. The words rumbled through his mask, sounding sad.
Hey. There was