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´╗┐Title: On the Fourth Planet
Author: Bone, J.F.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "On the Fourth Planet" ***

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                         ON THE FOURTH PLANET

                             by J. F. BONE

                         Illustrated by FINLAY

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                      Galaxy Magazine April 1963.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



      To Kworn the object was a roadblock, threatening his life.
         But it was also a high road to a magnificent future!


The Ul Kworn paused in his search for food, extended his eye and
considered the thing that blocked his path.

He hadn't notice the obstacle until he had almost touched it. His
attention had been focused upon gleaning every feeder large enough to
be edible from the lichens that covered his feeding strip. But the
unexpected warmth radiating from the object had startled him. Sundown
was at hand. There should be nothing living or non-living that radiated
a fraction of the heat that was coming from the gleaming metal wall
which lay before him. He expanded his mantle to trap the warmth as he
pushed his eye upward to look over the top. It wasn't high, just high
enough to be a nuisance. It curved away from him toward the boundaries
of his strip, extending completely across the width of his land.

A dim racial memory told him that this was an artefact, a product of
the days when the Folk had leisure to dream and time to build. It had
probably been built by his remote ancestors millennia ago and had just
recently been uncovered from its hiding place beneath the sand. These
metal objects kept appearing and disappearing as the sands shifted
to the force of the wind. He had seen them before, but never a piece
so large or so well preserved. It shone as though it had been made
yesterday, gleaming with a soft silvery luster against the blue-black
darkness of the sky.

As his eye cleared the top of the wall, he quivered with shock and
astonishment. For it was not a wall as he had thought. Instead, it was
the edge of a huge metal disc fifty raads in diameter. And that wasn't
all of it. Three thick columns of metal extended upward from the disc,
leaning inward as they rose into the sky. High overhead, almost beyond
the range of accurate vision, they converged to support an immense
cylinder set vertically to the ground. The cylinder was almost as great
in diameter as the disc upon which his eye first rested. It loomed
overhead, and he had a queasy feeling that it was about to fall and
crush him. Strange jointed excresences studded its surface, and in its
side, some two-thirds of the way up, two smaller cylinders projected
from the bigger one. They were set a little distance apart, divided by
a vertical row of four black designs, and pointed straight down his
feeding strip.

The Ul Kworn eyed the giant structure with disgust and puzzlement.
The storm that had uncovered it must have been a great one to have
blown so much sand away. It was just his fortune to have the thing
squatting in his path! His mantle darkened with anger. Why was it that
everything happened to him? Why couldn't it have lain in someone else's
way, upon the land of one of his neighbors? It blocked him from nearly
three thousand square raads of life-sustaining soil. To cross it would
require energy he could not spare. Why couldn't it have been on the Ul
Caada's or the Ul Varsi's strip--or any other of the numberless Folk?
Why did he have to be faced with this roadblock?

He couldn't go around it since it extended beyond his territory and,
therefore, he'd have to waste precious energy propelling his mass up
the wall and across the smooth shining surface of the disc--all of
which would have to be done without food, since his eye could see no
lichen growing upon the shiny metal surface.

       *       *       *       *       *

The chill of evening had settled on the land. Most of the Folk were
already wrapped in their mantles, conserving their energy until the
dawn would warm them into life. But Kworn felt no need to estivate. It
was warm enough beside the wall.

The air shimmered as it cooled. Microcrystals of ice formed upon the
legs of the structure, outlining them in shimmering contrast to the
drab shadowy landscape, with its gray-green cover of lichens stippled
with the purple balls of the lichen feeders that clung to them. Beyond
Kworn and his neighbors, spaced twenty raads apart, the mantled
bodies of the Folk stretched in a long single line across the rolling
landscape, vanishing into the darkness. Behind this line, a day's
travel to the rear, another line of the Folk was following. Behind them
was yet another. There were none ahead, for the Ul Kworn and the other
Ul were the elders of the Folk and moved along in the first rank where
their maturity and ability to reproduce had placed them according to
the Law.

Caada and Varsi stirred restlessly, stimulated to movement by the heat
radiating from the obstacle, but compelled by the Law to hold their
place in the ranks until the sun's return would stimulate the others.
Their dark crimson mantles rippled over the soil as they sent restless
pseudopods to the boundaries of their strips.

They were anxious in their attempt to communicate with the Ul Kworn.

But Kworn wasn't ready to communicate. He held aloof as he sent a
thin pseudopod out toward the gleaming wall in front of him. He was
squandering energy; but he reasoned that he had better learn all
he could about this thing before he attempted to cross it tomorrow,
regardless of what it cost.

It was obvious that he would have to cross it, for the Law was specific
about encroachment upon a neighbor's territory. _No member of the Folk
shall trespass the feeding land of another during the Time of Travel
except with published permission. Trespass shall be punished by the
ejection of the offender from his place in rank._

And that was equivalent to a death sentence.

He could ask Caada or Varsi for permission, but he was virtually
certain that he wouldn't get it. He wasn't on particularly good terms
with his neighbors. Caada was querulous, old and selfish. He had not
reproduced this season and his vitality was low. He was forever hungry
and not averse to slipping a sly pseudopod across the boundaries of his
land to poach upon that of his neighbor. Kworn had warned him some time
ago that he would not tolerate encroachment and would call for a group
judgment if there was any poaching. And since the Folk were physically
incapable of lying to one another, Caada would be banished. After that
Caada kept his peace, but his dislike for Kworn was always evident.

       *       *       *       *       *

But Varsi who held the land on Kworn's right was worse. He had advanced
to Ul status only a year ago. At that time there had been rumors among
the Folk about illicit feeding and stealing of germ plasm from the
smaller and weaker members of the race. But that could not be proved,
and many young Folk died in the grim process of growing to maturity.
Kworn shrugged. If Varsi was an example of the younger generation,
society was heading hell-bent toward Emptiness. He had no love for
the pushing, aggressive youngster who crowded out to the very borders
of his domain, pressing against his neighbors, alert and aggressive
toward the slightest accidental spillover into his territory. What
was worse, Varsi had reproduced successfully this year and thus had
rejuvenated. Kworn's own attempt had been only partially successful.
His energy reserves hadn't been great enough to produce a viable
offspring, and the rejuvenation process in his body had only gone to
partial completion. It would be enough to get him to the winter feeding
grounds. But as insurance he had taken a place beside Caada, who was
certain to go into Emptiness if the feeding en route was bad.

Still, he hadn't figured that he would have Varsi beside him.

He consoled himself with the thought that others might have as bad
neighbors as he. But he would never make the ultimate mistake of
exchanging germ plasm with either of his neighbors, not even if his
fertility and his position depended upon it. Cells like theirs would
do nothing to improve the sense of discipline and order he had so
carefully developed in his own. His offspring were courteous and
honorable, a credit to the Folk and to the name of Kworn. A father
should be proud of his offspring, so that when they developed to the
point where they could have descendants, he would not be ashamed of
what they would produce. An Ul, Kworn thought grimly, should have some
sense of responsibility toward the all-important future of the race.

His anger died as he exerted synergic control. Anger was a waster of
energy, a luxury he couldn't afford. He had little enough as it was. It
had been a bad year. Spring was late, and winter had come early. The
summer had been dry and the lichens in the feeding grounds had grown
poorly. The tiny, bulbous lichen feeders, the main source of food for
the Folk, had failed to ripen to their usual succulent fullness. They
had been poor, shrunken things, hardly worth ingesting. And those along
the route to the winter feeding grounds were no better.

Glumly he touched the wall before him with a tactile filament. It
was uncomfortably warm, smooth and slippery to the touch. He felt it
delicately, noting the almost microscopic horizontal ridges on the
wall's surface. He palpated with relief. The thing was climbable. But
even as he relaxed, he recoiled, the filament writhing in agony! The
wall had burned his flesh! Faint threads of vapor rose from where he
had touched the metal, freezing instantly in the chill air. He pinched
off the filament in an automatic protective constriction of his cells.
The pain ceased instantly, but the burning memory was so poignant that
his mantle twitched and shuddered convulsively for some time before the
reflexes died.

       *       *       *       *       *

Thoughtfully he ingested his severed member. With a sense of numbing
shock he realized that he would be unable to pass across the disc. The
implications chilled him. If he could not pass, his land beyond the
roadblock would be vacant and open to preemption by his neighbors. Nor
could he wait until they had passed and rejoin them later. The Law was
specific on that point. _If one of the Folk lags behind in his rank,
his land becomes vacant and open to his neighbors. Nor can one who has
lagged behind reclaim his land by moving forward. He who abandons his
position, abandons it permanently._

Wryly, he reflected that it was this very Law that had impelled him to
take a position beside the Ul Caada. And, of course, his neighbors knew
the Law as well as he. It was a part of them, a part of their cells
even before they split off from their parent. It would be the acme of
folly to expect that neighbors like Varsi or Caada would allow him to
pass over their land and hold his place in rank.

Bitterness flooded him with a stimulation so piercing that Caada
extended a communication filament to project a question. "What is this
thing which lies upon your land and mine?" Caada asked. His projection
was weak and feeble. It was obvious that he would not last for many
more days unless feeding improved.

"I do not know. It is something of metal, and it bars my land. I cannot
cross it. It burns me when I touch it."

A quick twinge of excitement rushed along Caada's filament. The old Ul
broke the connection instantly, but not before Kworn read the flash of
hope that Kworn had kindled. There was no help in this quarter, and
the wild greed of Varsi was so well known that there was no sense even
trying that side.

A surge of hopelessness swept through him. Unless he could find some
way to pass this barrier he was doomed.

He didn't want to pass into Emptiness. He had seen too many others go
that way to want to follow them. For a moment he thought desperately
of begging Caada and Varsi for permission to cross into their land for
the short time that would be necessary to pass the barrier, but reason
asserted itself. Such an act was certain to draw a flat refusal and,
after all, he was the Ul Kworn and he had his pride. He would not beg
when begging was useless.

And there was a bare possibility that he might survive if he closed his
mantle tightly about him and waited until all the ranks had passed. He
could then bring up the rear ... and, possibly, just possibly, there
would be sufficient food left to enable him to reach the winter feeding
grounds.

And it might still be possible to cross the disc. There was enough
warmth in it to keep him active. By working all night he might be able
to build a path of sand across its surface and thus keep his tissues
from being seared by the metal. He would be technically violating the
law by moving ahead of the others, but if he did not feed ahead, no
harm would be done.

       *       *       *       *       *

He moved closer to the barrier and began to pile sand against its base,
sloping it to make a broad ramp to the top of the disc. The work was
slow and the sand was slippery. The polished grains slipped away and
the ramp crumbled time after time. But he worked on, piling up sand
until it reached the top of the disc. He looked across the flat surface
that stretched before him.

Fifty raads!

It might as well be fifty zets. He couldn't do it. Already his energy
level was so low that he could hardly move, and to build a raad-wide
path across this expanse of metal was a task beyond his strength. He
drooped across the ramp, utterly exhausted. It was no use. What he
ought to do was open his mantle to Emptiness.

He hadn't felt the communication filaments of Caada and Varsi touch
him. He had been too busy, but now with Caada's burst of glee, and
Varsi's cynical, "A noble decision, Ul Kworn. You should be commended,"
he realized that they knew everything.

His body rippled hopelessly. He was tired, too tired for anger. His
energy was low. He contemplated Emptiness impassively. Sooner or later
it came to all Folk. He had lived longer than most, and perhaps it
was his time to go. He was finished. He accepted the fact with a cold
fatalism that he never dreamed he possessed. Lying there on the sand,
his mantle spread wide, he waited for the end to come.

It wouldn't come quickly, he thought. He was still far from the
cellular disorganization that preceded extinction. He was merely
exhausted, and in need of food to restore his energy.

With food he might still have an outside chance of building the path in
time. But there was no food. He had gleaned his area completely before
he had ever reached the roadblock.

Lying limp and relaxed on the ramp beside the barrier, he slowly became
conscious that the metal wasn't dead. It was alive! Rhythmic vibrations
passed through it and were transmitted to his body by the sand.

A wild hope stirred within him. If the metal were alive it might hear
him if he tried to communicate. He concentrated his remaining reserves
of energy, steeled himself against the pain and pressed a communication
filament against the metal.

"Help me!" he projected desperately. "You're blocking my strip! I
can't pass!"

Off to one side he sensed Varsi's laughter and on the other felt
Caada's gloating greed.

"I cannot wake this metal," he thought hopelessly as he tried again,
harder than before, ignoring the pain of his burning flesh.

Something clicked sharply within the metal, and the tempo of the sounds
changed.

"It's waking!" Kworn thought wildly.

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a creaking noise from above. A rod moved out from the
cylinder and twisted into the ground in Varsi's territory, to the
accompaniment of clicking, grinding noises. A square grid lifted from
the top of the cylinder and began rotating. And Kworn shivered and
jerked to the tremendous power of the words that flowed through him.
They were words, but they had no meaning, waves of sound that hammered
at his receptors in an unknown tongue he could not understand. The
language of the Folk had changed since the days of the ancients, he
thought despairingly.

And then, with a mantle-shattering roar, the cylinders jutting overhead
spouted flame and smoke. Two silvery balls trailing thin, dark
filaments shot out of the great cylinder and buried themselves in the
sand behind him. The filaments lay motionless in the sand as Kworn,
wrapped defensively in his mantle, rolled off the ramp to the ground
below.

The silence that followed was so deep that it seemed like Emptiness had
taken the entire land.

Slowly Kworn loosened his mantle. "In the name of my first ancestor,"
he murmured shakily, "what was that?" His senses were shocked and
disorganized by the violence of the sound. It was worse even than the
roar and scream of the samshin that occasionally blew from the south,
carrying dust, lichens, feeders and even Folk who had been too slow or
too foolish to hide from the fury of the wind.

Gingerly, Kworn inspected the damage to his mantle. It was minor. A
tiny rip that could easily be repaired, a few grains of sand that could
be extruded. He drew himself together to perform the repairs with the
least possible loss of energy, and as he did, he was conscious of an
emanation coming from the filaments that had been hurled from the
cylinder.

Food!

And such food!

It was the distilled quintessence of a thousand purple feeders! It
came to his senses in a shimmering wave of ecstasy so great that his
mantle glowed a bright crimson. He stretched a pseudopod toward its
source, and as he touched the filament his whole body quivered with
anticipation. The barrier was blotted from his thoughts by an orgy
of shuddering delight almost too great for flesh to endure. Waves of
pleasure ran through his body as he swiftly extended to cover the
filament. It could be a trap, he thought, but it made no difference.
The demands of his depleted body and the sheer vacuole-constricting
delight of this incredible foodstuff made a combination too potent for
his will to resist, even if it had desired to do so. Waves of pleasure
rippled through him as more of his absorptive surface contacted the
filament. He snuggled against it, enfolding it completely, letting the
peristaltic rushes sweep through him. He had never fed like this as
long as he could recall. His energy levels swelled and pulsed as he
sucked the last delight from the cord, and contemplated the further
pleasure waiting for him in that other one lying scarcely twenty raads
away.

Sensuously, he extended a pseudopod from his upper surface and probed
for the other filament. He was filled to the top of his primary vacuole
but the desire for more was stronger than ever--despite the fact that
he knew the food in the other filament would bring him to critical
level, would force him to reproduce. The thought amused him. As far
back as he could remember, no member of the Folk had ever budded an
offspring during the Time of Travel. It would be unheard of, something
that would go down through the years in the annals of the Folk, and
perhaps even cause a change in the Law.

The pseudopod probed, reached and stopped short of its goal. There was
nothing around it but empty air.

       *       *       *       *       *

Fear drove the slow orgasmic thoughts from his mind. Absorbed in
gluttony, he hadn't noticed that the filament had tightened and was
slowly drawing back into the cylinder from whence it came. And now it
was too late! He was already over the rim of the metal disc.

Feverishly, he tried to disengage his absorptive surfaces from the
filament and crawl down its length to safety, but he couldn't move. He
was stuck to the dark cord by some strange adhesive that cemented his
cells firmly to the cord. He could not break free.

The line moved steadily upward, dragging him inexorably toward a dark
opening in the cylinder overhead. Panic filled him! Desperately he
tried to loosen his trapped surfaces. His pseudopod lashed futilely
in the air, searching with panic for something to grip, something to
clutch that would stop this slow movement to the hell of pain that
waited for him in the metal high overhead.

His searching flesh struck another's, and into his mind flooded the Ul
Caada's terrified thought. The old one had reacted quicker than he,
perhaps because he was poaching, but like himself he was attached and
could not break free.

"Serves you right," Kworn projected grimly. "The thing was on my land.
You had no right to feed upon it."

"Get me loose!" Caada screamed. His body flopped at the end of a
thick mass of digestive tissue, dangling from the line, writhing and
struggling in mindless terror. It was strange, Kworn thought, that fear
should be so much stronger in the old than in the young.

"Cut loose, you fool," Kworn projected. "There isn't enough of you
adhered to hurt if it were lost. A little body substance isn't worth
your life. Hurry! You'll be too late if you don't. That metal is
poisonous to our flesh."

"But it will be pain to cut my absorbing surface," Caada protested.

"It will be death if you don't."

"Then why don't you?"

"I can't," Kworn said hopelessly. "All my surface is stuck to the
filament. I can't cut free." He was calm now, resigned to the
inevitable. His greed had brought him to this. Perhaps it was a fitting
punishment. But Caada need not die if he would show courage.

He rotated his eye to watch his struggling neighbor. Apparently Caada
was going to take his advice. The tissue below the part of him stuck
to the filament began to thin. His pseudopod broke contact. But his
movements were slow and hesitant. Already his body mass was rising
above the edge of the disc.

"Quick, you fool!" Kworn projected. "Another moment and you're dead!"

But Caada couldn't hear. Slowly his tissues separated as he reluctantly
abandoned his absorptive surface. But he was already over the disc.
The last cells pinched off and he fell, mantle flapping, full on the
surface of the disc. For a moment he lay there quivering, and then his
body was blotted from sight by a cloud of frozen steam, and his essence
vanished screaming into Emptiness.

       *       *       *       *       *

Kworn shuddered. It was a terrible way to die. But his own fate would
be no better. He wrapped his mantle tightly around him as his leading
parts vanished into the dark hole in the cylinder. In a moment he would
be following Caada on the journey from which no member of the Folk had
ever returned. His body disappeared into the hole.

--and was plunged into paradise!

His foreparts slipped into a warm, thick liquid that loosened the
adhesive that bound him to the cord. As he slipped free, he slowly
realized that he was not to die. He was bathed in liquid food! He was
swimming in it! He was surrounded on all sides by incredible flavors
so strange and delicious that his mind could not classify them! The
filament had been good, but this--this was indescribable! He relaxed,
his mantle spreading through the food, savoring, absorbing, digesting,
metabolizing, excreting. His energy levels peaked. The nuclei of his
germ plasm swelled, their chromosomes split, and a great bud formed and
separated from his body. He had reproduced!

Through a deadening fog of somatic sensation, he realized dully that
this was wrong, that the time wasn't right, that the space was limited,
and that the natural reaction to abundant food supply was wrong. But
for the moment he didn't care.

For thousands of seasons he had traveled the paths between equator and
pole in a ceaseless hunt for food, growing and rejuvenating in good
seasons, shrinking and aging in bad. He had been bound to the soil, a
slave to the harsh demands of life and Nature. And now the routine was
broken.

He luxuriated in his freedom. It must have been like this in the old
days, when the waters were plentiful and things grew in them that
could be eaten, and the Folk had time to dream young dreams and think
young thoughts, and build their thoughts and dreams into the gleaming
realities of cities and machines. Those were the days when the mind
went above the soil into the air and beyond it to the moons, the sun
and the evening stars.

But that was long ago.

He lay quietly, conscious of the change within him as his cells
multiplied to replace those he had lost, and his body grew in weight
and size. He was rejuvenated. The cells of his growing body, stimulated
by the abundance of food, released memories he had forgotten he had
ever possessed. His past ran in direct cellular continuity to the dawn
of his race, and in him was every memory he had experienced since
the beginning. Some were weak, others were stronger, but all were
there awaiting an effort of recall. All that was required was enough
stimulation to bring them out of hiding.

And for the first time in millennia the stimulus was available. The
stimulus was growth, the rapid growth that only an abundant food supply
could give, the sort of growth that the shrunken environment outside
could not supply. With sudden clarity he saw how the Folk had shrunk in
mind and body as they slowly adapted to the ever-increasing rigor of
life. The rushing torrent of memory and sensation that swept through
him gave him a new awareness of what he had been once and what he had
become. His eye was lifted from the dirt and lichens.

       *       *       *       *       *

What he saw filled him with pity and contempt. Pity for what the Folk
had become; contempt for their failure to recognize it. Yet he had been
no better than the others. It was only through the accident of this
artefact that he had learned. The Folk _couldn't_ know what the slow
dwindling of their food supply had done to them. Over the millennia
they had adapted, changing to fit the changing conditions, surviving
only because they were more intelligent and more tenacious than the
other forms of life that had become extinct. A thousand thousand
seasons had passed since the great war that had devastated the world.
A million years of slow adaptation to the barren waste that had been
formed when the ultimate products of Folk technology were loosed on
their creators, had created a race tied to a subsistence level of
existence, incapable of thinking beyond the basic necessities of life.

The Ul Kworn sighed. It would be better if he would not remember so
much. But he could suppress neither the knowledge nor the memories.
They crowded in upon him, stimulated by the food in which he floated.

Beside him, his offspring was growing. A bud always grew rapidly in
a favorable environment, and this one was ideal. Soon it would be as
large as himself. Yet it would never develop beyond an infant. It could
not mature without a transfer of germ plasm from other infants of the
Folk. And there were no infants.

It would grow and keep on growing because there would be no check of
maturity upon its cells. It would remain a partly sentient lump of
flesh that would never be complete. And in time it would be dangerous.
When it had depleted the food supply it would turn on him in mindless
hunger. It wouldn't realize that the Ul Kworn was its father, or if it
did, it wouldn't care. An infant is ultimately selfish, and its desires
are the most important thing in its restricted universe.

Kworn considered his situation dispassionately.

It was obvious that he must escape from this trap before his offspring
destroyed him. Yet he could think of no way to avoid the poison
metal. He recognized it now, the element with the twelve protons in
its nucleus, a light metal seldom used by the Folk even in the days
of their greatness because of its ability to rapidly oxidize and its
propensity to burst into brilliant flame when heated. With sudden shock
he realized that the artefact was nothing less than a gigantic torch!

Why had it been built like this? What was its function? Where had it
come from? Why hadn't it spoke since it had released that flood of
unintelligible gibberish before it had drawn him inside? Ever since he
had entered this food tank it had been quiet except for a clicking,
chattering whir that came from somewhere above him. He had the odd
impression that it was storing information about him and the way he
reacted in the tank.

And then, abruptly, it broke into voice. Cryptic words poured from it,
piercing him with tiny knives of sound. The intensity and rapidity of
the projections shocked him, left him quivering and shaking when they
stopped as abruptly as they had begun.

In the quiet that followed, Kworn tried to recall the sequence of the
noise. The words were like nothing he had ever heard. They were not the
language of the Folk either past or present. And they had a flow and
sequence that was not organic. They were mechanical, the product of a
metal intelligence that recorded and spoke but did not think. The Folk
had machines like that once.

How had it begun? There had been a faint preliminary, an almost
soundless voice speaking a single word. Perhaps if he projected it,
it would trigger a response. Pitching his voice in the same key and
intensity he projected the word as best he could remember it.

And the voice began again.

       *       *       *       *       *

Kworn quivered with excitement. Something outside the artefact was
forcing it to speak. He was certain of it. As certain as he was that
the artefact was recording himself and his offspring. But who--or
what--was receiving the record? And why?

This could be a fascinating speculation, Kworn thought. But there
would be time enough for that later. His immediate need was to get out.
Already the food supply was running low, and his offspring was becoming
enormous. He'd have to leave soon if he was ever going to. And he'd
have to do something about his own growth. Already it was reaching
dangerous levels. He was on the ragged edge of another reproduction,
and he couldn't afford it.

Regretfully, he began moving the cornified cells of his mantle and his
under layer toward his inner surfaces, arranging them in a protective
layer around his germ plasm and absorptive cells. There would be enough
surface absorption to take care of his maintenance needs, and his body
could retain its peak of cellular energy. Yet the desire to feed and
bud was almost overpowering. His body screamed at him for denying it
the right that food would give it, but Kworn resisted the demands of
his flesh until the frantic cellular urges passed.

Beside him his offspring pulsed with physical sensation. Kworn envied
it even as he pitied it. The poor mindless thing could be used as a
means to the end of his escape, but it was useless for anything else.
It was far too large, and far too stupid, to survive in the outside
world. Kworn extruded a net of hairlike pseudopods and swept the tank
in which they lay. It was featureless, save for a hole where the
filament had not completely withdrawn when it had pulled him into
this place. A few places in the wall had a different texture than the
others, probably the sense organs of the recorder. He rippled with
satisfaction. There was a grille of poison metal in the top of the tank
through which flowed a steady current of warm air. It would be pleasant
to investigate this further, Kworn thought, but there was no time. His
offspring had seen to that.

He placed his eye on a thin pseudopod and thrust it through the hole in
the wall of the tank. It was still night outside, but a faint line of
brightness along the horizon indicated the coming of dawn. The artefact
glittered icily beneath him, and he had a feeling of giddiness as he
looked down the vertiginous drop to the disc below. The dark blotch of
Caada's burned body was almost invisible against the faintly gleaming
loom of the still-warm disc. Kworn shuddered. Caada hadn't deserved a
death like that. Kworn looked down, estimating the chances with his new
intelligence, and then slapped a thick communication fibril against his
offspring's quivering flesh and hurled a projection at its recoiling
mass.

Considering the fact that its cells were direct derivations of his
own, Kworn thought grimly, it was surprising how hard it was to
establish control. The youngster had developed a surprising amount of
individuality in its few xals of free existence. He felt a surge of
thankfulness to the old Ul Kworn as the youngster yielded to his firm
projection. His precursor had always sought compliant germ plasm to
produce what he had called "discipline and order." It was, in fact,
weakness. It was detrimental to survival. But right now that weakness
was essential.

       *       *       *       *       *

Under the probing lash of his projection the infant extruded a thick
mass of tissue that met and interlocked with a similar mass of his own.
As soon as the contact firmed, Kworn began flowing toward his eye,
which was still in the half-open hole in the side of the tank.

The outside cold struck his sense centers with spicules of ice as he
flowed to the outside, clinging to his offspring's gradually extending
pseudopod. Slowly he dropped below the cylinder. The infant was
frantic. It disliked the cold and struggled to break free, but Kworn
clung limpetlike to his offspring's flesh as it twisted and writhed in
an effort to return to the warmth and comfort into which it was born.

"Let go!" his offspring screamed. "I don't like this place."

"In a moment," Kworn said as he turned the vague writhings into a
swinging pendulum motion. "Help me move back and forth."

"I can't. I'm cold. I hurt. Let me go!"

"Help me," Kworn ordered grimly, "or hang out here and freeze."

His offspring shuddered and twitched. The momentum of the swing
increased. Kworn tightened his grip.

"You promised to let go!" his offspring wailed. "You prom--"

The infant's projection was cut off as Kworn loosed himself at the
upward arc of the swing, spread his mantle and plummeted toward the
ground. Fear swept through him as his body curved through the thin
air, missing the edge of the disc and landing on the ground with a
sense-jarring thud. Behind and above him up against the cylinder, the
thick tendril of his offspring's flesh withdrew quickly from sight.
For a moment the Ul Kworn's gaze remained riveted on the row of odd
markings on the metal surface, and then he turned his attention to life.

There was no reason to waste the pain of regret upon that half
sentient mass of tissue that was his offspring. The stupid flesh of his
flesh would remain happy in the darkness with the dwindling food until
its flesh grew great enough to touch the poison metal in the ceiling of
the tank.

And then--

With a harsh projection of horror, the Ul Kworn moved, circling the
artefact on Caada's vacated strip. And as he moved he concentrated
energy into his high-level communication organs, and projected a
warning of danger.

"Move!" he screamed. "Move forward for your lives!"

The line rippled. Reddish mantles unfolded as the Folk reacted. The
nearest, shocked from estivation, were in motion even before they came
to full awareness. Alarms like this weren't given without reason.

Varsi's reaction, Kworn noted, was faster than any of his fellows.
The young Ul had some favorable self-preservation characteristics.
He'd have to consider sharing some germ plasm with him at the next
reproduction season, after all.

In a giant arc, the Folk pressed forward under the white glow of
emerging dawn. Behind them the artefact began to project again in its
strange tongue. But in mid-cry it stopped abruptly. And from it came
a wail of mindless agony that tore at Kworn's mind with regret more
bitter because nothing could be done about it.

His offspring had touched the poison metal.

Kworn turned his eye backwards. The artefact was shaking on its broad
base from the violence of his offspring's tortured writhings. As he
watched a brilliant burst of light flared from its top. Heat swept
across the land, searing the lichens and a scattered few of the Folk
too slow to escape. The giant structure burned with a light more
brilliant than the sun and left behind a great cloud of white vapor
that hung on the air like the menacing cloud of a samshin. Beneath the
cloud the land was bare save for a few twisted pieces of smoking metal.

The roadblock was gone.

       *       *       *       *       *

Kworn moved slowly forward, gleaning Caada's strip and half of his own
which he shared with Varsi.

He would need that young Ul in the future. It was well to place him
under an obligation. The new thoughts and old memories weren't dying.
They remained, and were focused upon the idea of living better than
at this subsistence level. It should be possible to grow lichens, and
breed a more prolific type of lichen feeder. Water channeled from the
canals would stimulate lichen growth a thousand-fold. And with a more
abundant food supply, perhaps some of the Folk could be stimulated to
think and apply ancient buried skills to circumvent Nature.

It was theoretically possible. The new breed would have to be like
Varsi, tough, driving and selfishly independent. In time they might
inherit the world. Civilization could arise again. It was not
impossible.

His thoughts turned briefly back to the artefact. It still bothered
him. He still knew far too little about it. It was a fascinating
speculation to dream of what it might have been. At any rate, one thing
was sure. It was not a structure of his race. If nothing else, those
cabalistic markings on the side of the cylinder were utterly alien.

Thoughtfully he traced them in the sand. What did they mean?





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