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The Ethical Engineer.
by Henry Maxwell Dempsey.
Jason dinAlt looked unhappily at the two stretchers as they were carried by. "Are they at it again?" he asked.
Brucco nodded, the scowl permanently ingrained now on his hawklike face. "We have only one thing to be thankful for. That is--so far at least--they haven't used any weapons on each other."
Jason looked down unbelievingly at the shredded clothing, crushed flesh and broken bones. "The absence of weapons doesn't appear to make much difference when two Pyrrans start fighting. It seems impossible that this damage could be administered bare-handed."
"Well it was. Even you should know that much about Pyrrus by now. We take our fighting very seriously. But they never think how much more work it makes for me. Now I have to patch these two idiots up and try to find room for them in the ward." He stalked away, irritated and annoyed as always. Jason usually laughed at the doctor's irascible state, but not today.
Today, and for some days past, he had found himself living with a persistent feeling of irritation, that had arrived at the same time as his discovery that it is far easier to fight a war than to administer a peace. The battle at the perimeter still continued, since the ma.s.sed malevolence of the Pyrran life forms were not going to call a truce simply because the two warring groups of humans had done so. There was battle on the perimeter and a continual feeling of unrest inside the city. So far there had been very little traffic between the city Pyrrans and those living outside the walls, and what contact there had been usually led to the kind of violence he had just witnessed. The only minor note of hope in this concert of discord was the fact that no one had died--as yet--in any of these fearsome hand-to-hand conflicts. In spite of the apparent deadliness of the encounters all of the Pyrrans seemed to understand that, despite past hatreds, they were all really on the same side. A distant rumble from the clouded sky broke through his thoughts.
"There is a ship on the radar," Meta said, coming out of the ground-control office and squinting up at the overcast. "I wonder if it is that ecology expedition that Brucco arranged--or the cargo ship from Ondion?"
"We'll find out in a few minutes," Jason said, happy to forget his troubles for the moment in frank admiration, since just looking at Meta was enough to put a golden edge on this gloom-filled day.
Standing there, head back searching the sky, she managed to be beautiful even in the formless Pyrran coverall. Jason put his arms around her waist and exacted a great deal of pleasure from kissing the golden length of her up-stretched throat.
"Oh, Jason ... not now," she said in exasperation. Pyrran minds, by necessity, run along one track at a time, and at the present moment she was thinking about the descending s.p.a.ceship. With a quick motion, scarcely aware of her action, she pulled his hands from her and pushed him away, an easy enough thing for a Pyrran girl to do. But in doing so she half fractured one of his wrists, numbed the other, and knocked Jason to the ground.
"Darling ... I'm sorry," she gasped, suddenly realizing what she had done, bending quickly to help him up.
"Get away, you lady weight-lifter," he growled, pushing aside the proffered hand and struggling to his feet. "When are you going to realize that I'm only human, not made of chrome steel bars like the rest of your people...." He stifled the rest of his words in disgust, at himself, his temper, this deadly planet and the cantankerousness of its citizens that was scratching away at his nerves. He turned and stamped away, angry at himself for taking out his vile mood on Meta, but still too annoyed to make peace.
Meta watched him leave, trying to say something that would end this foolish quarrel, but unable to. The largest blank in the Pyrran personality was an almost complete lack of knowledge of human nature, and her struggle to fill in the gaps--gaps she was only just beginning to realize existed--was a difficult one. The stronger emotions of hate and fear were no strangers to her; but for the first time she was discovering how difficult and complex was this unusual feeling of love. She let Jason go because she was incapable of any other action.
Of course she could stop him by force, but if she had learned anything in the past few weeks, it was the discovery that this was one area where he was very sensitive. There was no doubt that she was far stronger than he--physically--and he did not like to be reminded about it. She went back into the ground-control room, almost eager to deal with the impersonal faces of the dials and scopes, material and unchanging ent.i.ties that posed no conflicting problems.
Jason stood at the edge of the field and watched the ship come in for a landing, his anger forgotten temporarily in the presence of this break in routine. Perhaps this was the shipful of scientific eggheads that Brucco was expecting; he hoped so. It would be a pleasant treat to have a conversation with someone about a topic more universal than the bore dimensions of guns. With practiced eye he watched the landing which was a little sloppy, either a new pilot or an old one who didn't care much. It was a small ship so not many people would be aboard.
Then the s.p.a.cer turned for a moment, in a landing correction, and he had a quick glimpse of a serial number and tantalizingly familiar insignia on its stern--where had he seen that before?
The ship touched down and the flaring rockets died. There was only the click of cooling metal from the ship: no one emerged, nor did any of the Pyrrans seem interested enough in the newcomer to approach it.
That must mean that no one had any business with it, and, of course, no curiosity either, for this along with imagination was in very short supply on the war-torn planet. Since no one else was making any moves, Jason went forward to investigate for himself.
A stingwing that had escaped the perimeter guards dived towards him and he blasted it automatically with his gun. The corpse thudded to the ground and the soil churned around it as the insectile scavengers fought for the flesh; only bare bones remained by the time he had taken two paces.
A m.u.f.fled whine of motors told him that the lower hatch was opening, and Jason watched as a hairline crack appeared in the thick metal, then widened as the heavy door ground outwards. Through the opening he had a glimpse of a figure m.u.f.fled in a heavy-duty s.p.a.cesuit. That must be Meta's work, she would have contacted the ship by radio while it was on its way down and explained the standing orders that no off-worlders were to be allowed out of their ships unless wearing the heaviest armor. Since the armed truce between the human inhabitants there had been a lessening of the relentless warfare the Pyrran life forms waged against the city, but only to a slight degree. Deadly beasts still abounded, and the air was thick with toxic diseases. A stranger, unprotected, would be ill in five minutes, dead within ten--or much sooner if a horndevil or other beast got to him in the interval.
Jason felt a justified pride that he could walk this planet under his own power. The natives, adapted to the deadliness and heavy gravity since birth, were still his superiors, but he was the only off-worlder who could stand the dangers of Pyrrus. His gun whined out of his power holster into his waiting hand as he searched for some target to use his talents on. An armored piece of nastiness, with a lot of legs, was crawling into hiding under a rock and he blasted it neatly with a single shot. The gun snapped back into the holster and he turned to the open door of the s.p.a.cer, his morale greatly improved.
"Welcome to Pyrrus," he told the ungainly figure that clumped out of the ship. There was a hefty maser-projector clutched in the armored gloves and whoever was inside the suit, the face was invisible behind the thick and tinted faceplate, seemed exceedingly nervous, turning to look in all directions.
"Don't worry," Jason said, fighting to keep a tone of smug satisfaction out of his voice, "I'll take care of things for you. I don't know what kind of horror stories you may have heard about Pyrrus--but they're all true. That's a nice looking heat ray you have there, but I doubt if you could move fast enough to use it."
The figure lowered the gun and fumbled for a switch on the front of the s.p.a.ce armor, it clicked and a speaker diaphragm rustled.
"I'm looking for a man called Jason dinAlt. Can you tell me if he is on this planet or if he has left?"
It was impossible to tell the speaker's tone from the rasping diaphragm, and no face was visible that might betray an emotion. This was the moment when Jason should have shown caution, and have remembered that there were thousands of policemen scattered across the galaxy who would heartily enjoy putting him under arrest. Yet he couldn't imagine any of them going to the trouble of following him here. And certainly there could be very little danger from a s.p.a.cesuited man with a rifle, not to the man who had learned to take Pyrrus on its own terms, and live.
"I'm Jason dinAlt," he said. "What do you want me for?"
"I've come a long way to find you," the speaker rasped. "Now"--the gloved hand pointed--"what is THAT?"
Jason's reactions were instantaneous, conditioned to move without thought. He wheeled, crouched, the gun in his hand and finger quivering lightly on the trigger, pointed in the indicated direction.
There was nothing unusual to be seen, just an empty field and the control building at the edge.
"Whatever are you talking about ..." Jason asked, then stopped as it became very obvious what the stranger had been talking about. The large, f.l.a.n.g.ed mouth of the maser-projector ground into the small of his back. His own gun snapped halfway out of its holster, buzzed briefly, then slipped back as he realized his position.
"That's much better," the stranger said. "If you attempt to move, turn, lower your gun hand or do anything I don't like I'll pull this trigger and...."
"I know," Jason sighed, careful to stand with every muscle frozen.
"You will pull the trigger and burn a nice round hole through my backbone and intestines. But I would just like to know why? Who is it that is so interested in my worthless old carca.s.s that they were willing to pay interstellar freight charges to send you and that oversize toaster all the way here in order to threaten it?"
Jason was only talking to kill time, since he knew this situation would not stay static for long, not on Pyrrus. He was completely right because before he had finished the ground-control door burst open and Meta ran out, circling to the left. At the same moment Kerk appeared from behind the building, his Pyrran reflexes absorbing the situation in an instant and with no perceptible delay he ran in the opposite direction. Both Pyrrans had their guns ready and closed in with the merciless precision of trained predators.
"Tell them to stop," the suit speaker grated at Jason. "I'll shoot you if they try anything."
"Hold it!" Jason shouted, and the running Pyrrans stopped instantly.
"Don't come any closer and whatever you do don't shoot." He half-turned his head and spoke in a quieter voice to the suited figure behind him. "Now you see where you stand. Lower the gun and get back into your ship, I guarantee you'll stay alive if you do that at once."
"Don't try and buff me, dinAlt," the maser barrel pushed harder against his back. "You are my prisoner and your friends can't save you. Start walking backwards now--I'll stay right behind you."
"Look," Jason said calmly, not permitting himself to get angry. "Those are _Pyrrans_ out there. Either of them could kill you so quickly that you couldn't possibly have time to pull that trigger. I'm saving your life--though I don't know why I'm bothering--so be a good boy and get back into your ship and go home and we'll give you a T for trying."
"Could I have him, please Kerk?" Meta called out, the deadly a.s.sumption of her remark punctuating Jason's logic. "After all, Jason means more to me than you. Shall I kill him yet, Jason?"
"Just shoot his gun hand off, Meta," Kerk told her, in the same emotionless tone. "I want to know who this is, why he came here, before he dies."
"Get back into your ship, you fool," Jason hissed. "You've got only seconds to live."
"Start walking backwards," his captor said. "You are under arrest.
I'll count to three, then shoot. One ... two...."
Jason shuffled a cautious step to the rear and the Pyrran guns snapped up at the same instant, extended at arm's length. Jason was so close to the man in the s.p.a.cesuit that the guns could have been pointed at him, the eyes sighting carefully over the dark muzzles.
"Don't shoot!" Jason shouted to his friends.
"Don't worry," Kerk called back. "We won't hit you."
"I know that--it's this idiot here that I'm worrying about. You just can't shoot him for trying to do his job. In fact I'm surprised to find out that there is one honest cop left on any of the places I've been."
"Don't talk so crazy," Meta said with maddening sweetness. "We'll kill him, Jason. We'll take care of you."
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