N-Space

Larry Niven

Tor Books

God was knocking, and he wanted in bad.
footfall, 1985
 
BORDERED IN BLACK
 
 
 
“Bordered in Black” is a nightmare vision.
If a vision were enough, it would have been sold at once. I wrote it as a vignette. Ed Ferman’s comment (months before my first story sale) was that it looked like an outline for a story. So I set it aside, and tackled it again a few years later. The version that appeared in F&SF was much changed.
If I wrote it today it would be changed again. A story needs more than the original idea…but the nightmare still shows through.
* * *
Only one figure stood in the airlock, though it was a cargo lock, easily big enough to hold both men. Lean and sandy haired, the tiny figure was obviously Carver Rappaport. A bushy beard now covered half its face. It waited patiently while the ramp was run up, and then it started down.
Turnbull, waiting at the bottom, suppressed growing uneasiness. Something was wrong. He’d known it the moment he heard that the Overcee was landing. The ship must have been in the solar system for hours. Why hadn’t she called in?
And where was Wall Kameon?
Returning spacers usually sprinted down the ramp, eager to touch honest concrete again. Rappaport came down with slow, methodical speed. Seen close, his beard was ragged, unkempt. He reached bottom, and Turnbull saw that the square features were set like cement.
Rappaport brushed past him and kept walking.
Turnbull ran after him and fell into step, looking and feeling foolish. Rappaport was a good head taller, and where he was walking, Turnbull was almost running. He shouted above the background noise of the spaceport, “Rappaport, where’s Kameon?”
Like Turnbull, Rappaport had to raise his voice. “Dead.”
“Dead? Was it the ship? Rappaport, did the ship kill him?”
“No.”
“Then what? Is his body aboard?”
“Turnbull, I don’t want to talk about it. No, his body isn’t aboard. His—” Rappaport ground the heels of his hands into his eyes, like a man with a blinding headache. “His grave,” he said, emphasizing the word, “has a nice black border around it. Let’s leave it at that.”
But they couldn’t, of course.
Two security officers caught up with them near the edge of the field. “Stop him,” said Turnbull, and they each took an arm. Rappaport stopped walking and turned.
“Have you forgotten that I’m carrying a destruct capsule?”
“What about it?” For the moment Turnbull really didn’t understand what he meant.
“Any more interference and I’ll use it. Understand this, Turnbull. I don’t care any more. Project Overcee is over. I don’t know where I go from here. The best thing we can do is blow up that ship and stay in our own solar system.”
“Man, have you gone crazy? What happened out there? You—meet aliens?”
“No comment.—No, I’ll answer that one. We didn’t meet aliens. Now tell your comedian friends to let go.”
Turnbull let himself realize that the man wasn’t bluffing. Rappaport was prepared to commit suicide. Turnbull, the instinctive politician, weighed chances and gambled.
“If you haven’t decided to talk in twenty-four hours we’ll let you go. I promise that. We’ll keep you here ’til then, by force if necessary. Just to give you an opportunity to change your mind.”
Rappaport thought it over. The security men still held his arms, but cautiously now, standing as far back as they could, in case his personal bomb went off.
“Seems fair,” he said at last, “if you’re honest. Sure, I’ll wait twenty-four hours.”
“Good.” Turnbull turned to lead the way back to his office. Instead, he merely stared.
The Overcee was red hot at the nose, glaring white at the tail. Mechs and techs were running in all directions. As Turn-bull watched, the solar system’s first faster-than-light spacecraft slumped and ran in a spreading, glowing pool.
* * *
…It had started a century ago, when the first ramrobot left the solar system. The interstellar ramscoop robots could make most of their journey at near lightspeed, using a conical electromagnetic field two hundred miles across to scoop hydrogen fuel from interstellar space. But no man had ever ridden a ramrobot. None ever would. The ramscoop magnetic field did horrible things to chordate organisms.
Each ramrobot had been programed to report back only if it found a habitable world near the star to which it had been assigned. Twenty-six had been sent out. Three had reported back—so far.
…It had started twelve years ago, when a well-known mathematician worked out a theoretical hyperspace over Einsteinian fourspace. He did it in his spare time. He considered the hyperspace a toy, an example of pure mathematics. And when has pure mathematics been anything but good clean fun?
…It had started ten years ago, when Ergstrom’s brother Carl demonstrated the experimental reality of Ergstrom’s toy universe. Within a month the UN had financed Project Overcee, put Winston Turnbull in charge, and set up a school for faster-than-light astronauts. The vast number of applicants was winnowed to ten “hypernauts.” Two were Belters; all were experienced spacers. The training began in earnest. It lasted eight years, while Project Overcee built the ship.
…It had started a year and a month ago, when two men climbed into the almost luxurious lifesystem of the Overcee, ran the ship out to Neptune’s orbit under escort, and vanished.
One was back.
Now his face was no stonier than Turnbull’s. Turnbull had just watched his work of the last ten years melt and run like quicksilver. He was mad clean through; but his mind worked furiously. Part of him, the smaller part, was wondering how he would explain the loss of ten billion dollars worth of ship. The rest was reviewing everything it could remember about Carver Geoffrey Rappaport and William (Wall) Kameon.
Turnbull entered his office and went straight to the book-shelf, sure that Rappaport was following. He pulled out a leather-bound volume, did something to the binding and poured two paper cups full of amber fluid. The fluid was bourbon, and it was more than ice cold.
Rappaport had seen this bookcase before, yet he wore a faintly puzzled frown as he took a cup. He said, “I didn’t think I’d ever anticipate anything again.”
“The bourbon?”
Rappaport didn’t answer. His first swallow was a gulp.
“Did you destroy your ship?”
“Yes. I set the controls so it would only melt. I didn’t want anyone hurt.”
“Commendable. And the overcee motor? You left it in orbit?”
“I hard-landed it on the Moon. It’s gone.”
“That’s great. Just great. Carver, that ship cost ten billion dollars to build. We can duplicate it for four, I think, because we won’t be making any false starts, but you—”
“Hell you wouldn’t.” Rappaport swirled the bourbon in his cup, looking down into the miniature whirlpool. He was twenty to thirty pounds lighter than he had been a year ago. “You build another Overcee and you’ll be making one enormous false start. We were wrong, Turnbull. It’s not our universe. There’s nothing out there for us.”
“It is our universe.” Turnbull let the quiet certainty show in his politician’s voice. He needed to start an argument—he needed to get this man to talking. But the certainty was real, and always had been. It was humanity’s universe, ready for the taking.
Over the rim of his cup Rappaport looked at him in exasperated pity. “Turnbull, can’t you take my word for it? It’s not our universe, and it’s not worth having anyway. What’s out there is—” He clamped his mouth shut and turned away in the visitor’s chair.
Turnbull waited ten seconds to point up the silence. Then he asked, “Did you kill Kameon?”
“Kill Wall? You’re out of your mind!”
“Could you have saved him?”
Rappaport froze in the act of turning around. “No,” he said. And again, “No. I tried to get him moving, but he wouldn’t— Stop it! Stop needling me. I can walk out anytime, and you couldn’t stop me.”
“It’s too late. You’ve aroused my curiosity. What about Kameon’s black-bordered grave?”
No answer.
“Rappaport, you seem to think that the UN will just take your word and dismantle Project Overcee. There’s not a prayer of that. Probability zero. In the last century we’ve spent tens of billions of dollars on the ramrobots and the Overcee, and now we can rebuild her for four. The only way to stop that is to tell the UN exactly why they shouldn’t.”
Rappaport didn’t answer, and Turnbull didn’t speak again. He watched Rappaport’s cigarette burning unheeded in the ashtray, leaving a strip of charred wet paper. It was uncharacteristic of the former Carver Rappaport to forget burning cigarettes, or to wear an untrimmed beard and sloppily cut hair. That man had been always clean shaven; that man had lined up his shoes at night, every night, even when staggering drunk.
Could he have killed Kameon for being sloppy?—and then turned messy himself as he lost his self-respect? Stranger things had happened in the days when it took eight months to reach Mars.—No, Rappaport had not done murder; Turnbull would have bet high on that. And Kameon would have won any fair fight. Newspapermen had nicknamed him The Wall when he was playing guard for the Berlin Nazis.
“You’re right. Where do I start?”
Turnbull was jerked out of his abstraction. “Start at the beginning. When you went into hyperspace.”
“We had no trouble there. Except with the windows. You shouldn’t have put windows on the Overcee.”
“Why not? What did you see?”
“Nothing.”
“Well, then?”
“You ever try to find your blind spot? You put two dots on a piece of paper, maybe an inch apart, and you close one eye, focus on one dot and slowly bring the paper up to your face. At some point the other dot disappears. Looking at the window in overcee is like your blind spot expanding to a two-foot square with rounded corners.”
“I assume you covered them up.”
“Sure. Would you believe it, we had trouble finding those windows? When you wanted them they were invisible. We got them covered with blankets. Then every so often we’d catch each other looking under the blankets. It bothered Wall worse than me. We could have made the trip in five months instead of six, but we had to keep coming out for a look around.”
“Just to be sure the universe was still there.”
“Right.”
“But you did reach Sirius.”
“Yes. We reached Sirius…”
* * *
Ramrobot #6 had reported from Sirius B, half a century ago. The Sirius stars are an unlikely place to look for habitable worlds, since both stars are blue-white giants. Still, the ram-robots had been programed to test for excessive ultraviolet. Sirius B was worth a look.
The ship came out where Sirius was two bright stars. It turned its sharp nose toward the dimmer star and remained motionless for twenty minutes, a silver torpedo shape in a great, ungainly cradle studded with heavy electromagnetic motors. Then it was gone again.
Now Sirius B was a searing ball of light. The ship began to swing about, like a hound sniffing the breeze, but slowly, ponderously.
“We found four planets,” said Rappaport. “Maybe there were more, but we didn’t look. Number Four was the one we wanted. It was a cloudy ball about twice the size of Mars, with no moon. We waited until we’d found it before we started celebrating.”
“Champagne?”
“Hah! Cigars and drunk pills. And Wall shaved off his grubby beard. My God, we were glad to be out in space again! Near the end it seemed like those blind spots were growing around the edges of the blankets. We smoked our cigars and sucked our drunk pills and yakked about the broads we’d known. Not that we hadn’t done that before. Then we slept it off and went back to work … ”
* * *
The cloud cover was nearly unbroken. Rappaport moved the telescope a bit at a time, trying to find a break. He found several, but none big enough to show him anything. “I’ll try infrared,” he said.
“Just get us down,” Wall said irritably. He was always irritable lately. “I want to get to work.”
“And I want to be sure we’ve got a place to land.”
Carv’s job was the ship. He was pilot, astrogator, repairman, and everything but the cook. Wall was the cook. Wall was also the geologist, astrophysicist, biologist, and chemist—the expert on habitable planets, in theory. Each man had been trained nine years for his job, and each had some training as backup man for the other; and in each case the training had been based largely on guesswork.
The picture on the scope screen changed from a featureless disk to a patterned ball as Carv switched to infrared. “Now which is water?” he wondered.
“The water’s brighter on the night side and darker on the day side. See?” Wall was looking over his shoulder. “Looks like about forty percent land. Carv, those clouds might cut out enough of the ultraviolet to let people live in what gets through.”
“Who’d want to? You couldn’t see the stars.” Carv turned a knob to raise the magnification.
“Hold it right there, Carv. Look at that. There’s a white line around the edge of that continent.”
“Dried salt?”
“No. It’s warmer than what’s around it. And it’s just as bright on the night side as on the day.”
“I’ll get us a closer look.”
* * *
The Overcee was in orbit, three hundred miles up. By now the continent with the “hot” border was almost entirely in shadow. Of the three supercontinents, only one showed a white shoreline under infrared.
Wall hung at the window, looking down. To Rappaport he looked like a great ape. “Can we do a reentry glide?”
“In this ship? The Overcee would come apart like a cheap meteor: We’ll have to brake to a full stop above the atmosphere. Want to strap down?”
Kameon did, and Carv watched him do it before he went ahead and dropped the overcee motor. I’ll be glad to be out of here, he thought. It’s getting so Wall and I hate the sight of each other. The casual, uncaring way Kameon fastened his straps jarred his teeth. He knew that Kameon thought he was finicky to the point of psychasthenia.
The fusion drive started and built up to one gee. Carv swung the ship around. Only the night side showed below, with the faint blue light of Sirius A shining softly off the cloud cover. Then the edge of dawn came up in torn blue-white cloud. Carv saw an enormous rift in the cloud bank and turned ship to shift their path over it.
Mountains and valleys, and a wide river…Patches of wispy cloud shot by, obscuring the view, but they could see down. Suddenly there was a black line, a twisting ribbon of India ink, and beyond that the ocean.
Only for a moment the ocean showed, and then the rift jogged east and was gone. But the ocean was an emerald green.
Wall’s voice was soft with awe. “Carv, there’s life in that water.”
“You sure?”
“No. It could be copper salts or something. Carv, we’ve got to get down there!”
“Oh, wait your turn. Did you notice that your hot border is black in visible light?”
“Yah. But I can’t explain it. Would it be worth our while to turn back after you get the ship slowed?”
Carv fingered his neatly trimmed Vandyke. “It’d be night over the whole continent before we got back there. Let’s spend a few hours looking at that green ocean.”
The Overcee went down on her tail, slowly, like a cautious crab. Layer after layer of cloud swallowed her without trace, and darkness fell as she dropped. The key to this world was the word “moonless.” Sirius B-IV had had no oversized moon to strip away most of her atmosphere. Her air pressure would be comfortable at sea level, but only because the planet was too small to hold more air. That same low gravity produced a more gentle pressure gradient, so that the atmosphere reached three times as high as on Earth. There were cloud layer from ground to 130 kilometers up.
The Overcee touched down on a wide beach on the western shore of the smallest continent. Wall came out first, then Carv lowered a metal oblong as large as himself and followed it down. They wore lightly pressurized vac suits. Carv did nothing for twenty minutes while Wall opened the box out flat and set the carefully packed instruments into their grooves and notches. Finally Wall signaled, in an emphatic manner. By taking off his helmet.
Carv waited a few seconds, then followed suit.
Wall asked, “Were you waiting to see if I dropped dead?”
“Better you than me.” Carv sniffed the breeze. The air was cool and humid, but thin. “Smells good enough. No. No, it doesn’t. It smells like something rotting.”
“Then I’m right. There’s life here. Let’s get down to the beach.”
The sky looked like a raging thunderstorm, with occasional vivid blue flashes that might have been lightning. They were flashes of sunlight penetrating tier upon tier of cloud. In that varying light Carv and Wall stripped off their suits and went down to look at the ocean, walking with shuffling steps in the light gravity.
The ocean was thick with algae. Algae were a bubbly green blanket on the water, a blanket that rose and fell like breathing as the insignificant waves ran beneath. The smell of rotting vegetation was no stronger here than it had been a quarter of a mile back. Perhaps the smell pervaded the whole planet. The shore was a mixture of sand and green scum so rich that you could have planted crops in it.
“Time I got to work,” said Wall. “You want to fetch and carry for me?”
“Later maybe. Right now I’ve got a better idea. Let’s get the hell out of each other’s sight for an hour.”
“That is brilliant. But take a weapon.”
“To fight off maddened algae?”
“Take a weapon.”
* * *
Carv was back at the end of an hour. The scenery had been deadly monotonous. There was water below a green blanket of scum six inches deep; there was loamy sand, and beyond that dry sand; and behind the beach were white cliffs, smoothed as if by countless rainfalls. He had found no target for his laser cutter.
Wall looked up from a binocular microscope, and grinned when he saw his pilot. He tossed a depleted pack of cigarettes. “And don’t worry about the air plant!” he called cheerfully.
Carv came up beside him. “What news?”
“It’s algae. I can’t name the breed, but there’s not much difference between this and any terrestrial algae, except that this sample is all one species.”
“That’s unusual?” Carv was looking around him in wonder. He was seeing a new side to Wall. Aboard ship Wall was sloppy almost to the point of being dangerous, at least in the eyes of a Belter like Carv. But now he was at work. His small tools were set in neat rows on portable tables. Bulkier instruments with legs were on flat rock, the legs carefully adjusted to leave their platforms exactly horizontal. Wall handled the binocular microscope as if it might dissolve at a touch.
“It is,” said Wall. “No little animalcules moving among the strands. No variations in structure. I took samples from depths up to six feet. All I could find was the one alga. But otherwise—I even tested for proteins and sugars. You could eat it. We came all this way to find pond scum.”
* * *
They came down on an island five hundred miles south. This time Carv helped with the collecting. They got through faster that way, but they kept getting in each other’s way. Six months spent in two small rooms had roused tempers too often. It would take more than a few hours on ground before they could bump elbows without a fight.
Again Carv watched Wall go through his routines. He stood just within voice range, about fifty yards away, because it felt so good to have so much room. The care Wall exercised with his equipment still amazed him. How could he reconcile it with Wall’s ragged fingernails and his thirty hours growth of beard?
Well, Wall was a flatlander. All his life he’d had a whole planet to mess up, and not a crowded pressure dome or the cabin of a ship. No flat ever learned real neatness.
“Same breed,” Wall called.
“Did you test for radiation?”
“No. Why?”
“This thick air must screen out a lot of gamma rays. That means your algae can’t mutate without local radiation from the ground.”
“Carv, it had to mutate to get to its present form. How could all its cousins just have died out?”
“That’s your field.”
A little later Wall said, “I can’t get a respectable background reading anywhere. You were right, but it doesn’t explain anything.”
“Shall we go somewhere else?”
“Yah.”
* * *
They set down in deep ocean, and when the ship stopped bobbing Carv went out the airlock with a glass bucket. “It’s a foot thick out there,” he reported. “No place for a Disneyland. I don’t think I’d want to settle here.”
Wall sighed his agreement. The green scum lapped thickly at the Overcee’s gleaming metal hull, two yards below the sill of the airlock.
“A lot of planets must be like this,” said Carv. “Habitable, but who needs it?”
“And I wanted to be the first man to found an interstellar colony.”
“And get your name in the newstapes, the history books—”
“—And my unforgettable face on every trivis in the solar system. Tell me, shipmate, if you hate publicity so much, why have you been trimming that Vandyke so prettily?”
“Guilty. I like being famous. Just not as much as you do.”
“Cheer up then. We may yet get all the hero worship we can stand. This may be something bigger than a new colony.”
“What could be bigger than that?”
“Set us down on land and I’ll tell you.”
* * *
On a chunk of rock just big enough to be called an island, Wall set up his equipment for the last time. He was testing for food content again, using samples from Carv’s bucket of deep ocean algae.
Carv stood by, a comfortable distance away, watching the weird variations in the clouds. The very highest were moving across the sky at enormous speeds, swirling and changing shape by the minutes and seconds. The noonday light was subdued and pearly. No doubt about it, Sirius B-IV had a magnificent sky.
“Okay, I’m ready.” Wall stood up and stretched. “This stuff isn’t just edible. I’d guess it would taste as good as the food supplements they were using on Earth before the fertility laws cut the population down to something reasonable. I’m going to taste it now.”
The last sentence hit Carv like an electric shock. He was running before it was quite finished, but long before he could get there his crazy partner had put a dollop of green scum in his mouth, chewed and swallowed. “Good,” he said.
“You—utter—damned—fool.”
“Not so. I knew it was safe. The stuff has an almost cheesy flavor. You could get tired of it fast, I think, but that’s true of anything.”
“Just what are you trying to prove!”
“That this alga was tailored as a food plant by biological engineers. Carv, I think we’ve landed on somebody’s private farm.”
Carv sat heavily down on a rainwashed white rock. “Better spell that out,” he said, and heard that his voice was hoarse.
“I was going to. Suppose there was a civilization that had cheap, fast interstellar travel. Most of the habitable planets they found would be sterile, wouldn’t they? I mean, life is an unlikely sort of accident.”
“We don’t have the vaguest idea how likely it is.”
“All right, pass that. Say somebody finds this planet, Sirius B-IV, and decides it would make a nice farm planet. It isn’t good for much else, mainly because of the variance in lighting, but if you dropped a specially bred food alga in the ocean, you’d have a dandy little farm. In ten years there’d be oceans of algae, free for the carting. Later, if they did decide to colonize, they could haul the stuff inland and use it for fertilizer. Best of all, it wouldn’t mutate. Not here.”
Carv shook his head to clear it. “You’ve been in space too long.”
“Carv, the plant looks bred-like a pink grapefruit. And where did all its cousins go? Now I can tell you. They got poured out of the breeding vat because they weren’t good enough.”
Low waves rolled in from the sea, low and broad beneath their blanket of cheesy green scum. “All right,” said Carv. “How can we disprove it?”
Wall looked startled. “Disprove it? Why would we want to do that?”
“Forget the glory for a minute. If you’re right, we’re trespassing on somebody’s property without knowing anything about the owner—except that he’s got dirt-cheap interstellar travel, which would make him a tough enemy. We’re also introducing our body bacteria into his pure edible algae culture. And how would we explain, if he suddenly showed up?”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“We ought to cut and run right now. It’s not as if the planet was worth anything.”
“No. No, we can’t do that.”
“Why not?”
The answer gleamed in Wall’s eyes.
* * *
Turnbull1, listening behind his desk with his chin resting in one hand, interrupted for the first time in minutes. “A good question. I’d have gotten out right then.”
“Not if you’d just spent six months in a two-room cell with the end of everything creeping around the blankets.”
“I see.” Turnbull’s hand moved almost imperceptibly, writing, NO WINDOWS IN OVERCEE #2! Oversized view-screen?
“It hadn’t hit me that hard. I think I’d have taken off if I’d been sure Wall was right, and if I could have talked him into it. But I couldn’t, of course. Just the thought of going home then was enough to set Wall shaking. I thought I might have to knock him on the head when it came time to leave. We had some hibernation drugs aboard, just in case.”
He stopped. As usual, Turnbull waited him out.
“But then I’d have been all alone.” Rappaport finished his drink, his second, and got up to pour a third. The bourbon didn’t seem to affect him. “So we stood there on that rocky beach, both of us afraid to leave and both afraid to stay…”
* * *
Abruptly Wall got up and started putting his tools away. “We can’t disprove it, but we can prove it easily enough. The owners must have left artifacts around. If we find one, we run. I promise.”
“There’s a big area to search. If we had any sense we’d run now.”
“Will you drop that? All we’ve got to do is find the ram-robot probe. If there’s anyone watching this place they must have seen it come down. We’ll find footprints all over it.”
“And if there aren’t any footprints? Does that make the whole planet clean?”
Wall closed his case with a snap. Then he stood, motionless, looking very surprised. “I just thought of something,” he said.
“Oh, not again.”
“No, this is for real, Carv. The owners must have left a long time ago.”
“Why?”
“It must be thousands of years since there were enough algae here to use as a food supply. We should have seen ships taking off and landing as we came in. They’d have started their colony too, if they were going to. Now it’s gone beyond that. The planet isn’t fit for anything to live on, with the soupy oceans and the smell of things rotting.”
“No.”
“Dammit, it makes sense!”
“It’s thin. It sounds thin even to me, and I want to believe it. Also, it’s too pat. It’s just too close to the best possible solution we could dream up. You want to bet our lives on it?”
Wall hoisted his case and moved toward the ship. He looked like a human tank, moving in a stormy darkness lit by shifting, glaring beams of blue light. Abruptly he said, “There’s one more point. That black border. It has to be contaminated algae. Maybe a land-living mutant; that’s why it hasn’t spread across the oceans. It would have been cleaned away if the owners were still interested.”
“All right. Hoist that thing up and let’s get inside.”
“Hmph?”
“You’ve finally said something we can check. The eastern shore must be in daylight by now. Let’s get aboard.”
* * *
At the border of space they hovered, and the Sun burned small and blinding white at the horizon. To the side Sirius A was a tiny dot of intense brilliance. Below, where gaps in the cloud cover penetrated all the way to the surface, a hair-thin black line ran along the twisting beach of Sirius B-IV’s largest continent. The silver thread of a major river exploded into a forking delta, and the delta was a black triangle shot with lines of silvery green.
“Going to use the scope?”
Carv shook his head. “We’ll see it close in a few minutes.”
“You’re in quite a hurry, Carv.”
“You bet. According to you, if that black stuff is some form of life, then this farm’s been deserted for thousands of years at least. If it isn’t, then what is it? It’s too regular to be a natural formation. Maybe it’s a conveyor belt.”
“That’s right. Calm me down. Reassure me.”
“If it is, we go up fast and run all the way home.” Carv pulled a lever and the ship dropped from under them. They fell fast. Speaking with only half his attention, Carv went on. “We’ve met just one other sentient race, and they had nothing like hands and no mechanical culture. I’m not complaining, mind you. A world wouldn’t be fit to live in without dolphins for company. But why should we get lucky twice? I don’t want to meet the farmer, Wall.”
The clouds closed over the ship. She dropped more slowly with every kilometer. Ten kilometers up she was almost hovering. Now the coast was spread below them. The black border was graded: black as night on Pluto along the sea, shading off to the color of the white sand and rocks along the landward side.
Wall said, “Maybe the tides carry the dead algae inland. They’d decay there. No, that won’t work. No moon. Nothing but solar tides.”
They were a kilometer up. And lower. And lower.
The black was moving, flowing like tar, away from the drive’s fusion flame.
* * *
Rappaport had been talking down into his cup, his words coming harsh and forced, his eyes refusing to meet Turn-bull’s. Now he raised them. There was something challenging in that gaze.
Turnbull understood. “You want me to guess? I won’t. What was the black stuff?”
“I don’t know if I want to prepare you or not. Wall and I, we Weren’t ready. Why should you be?”
“All right, Carver, go ahead and shock me.”
“It Was people.”
Turnbull merely stared.
“We were almost down when they started to scatter from the downblast. Until then it was just a dark field, but when they started to scatter we could see moving specks, like ants. We sheered off and landed on the water offshore. We could see them from there.”
“Carver, when you say people, do you mean—people? Human?”
“Yes. Human. Of course they didn’t act much like it…”
A hundred yards offshore, the Overcee floated nose up. Even seen from the airlock the natives were obviously human. The telescope screen brought more detail.
They were no terrestrial race. Nine feet tall, men and women both, with wavy black hair growing from the eyebrows back to halfway down the spine, hanging almost to the knees. Their skins were dark, as dark as the darkest Negro, but they had chisel noses and long heads and small, thin-lipped mouths.
They paid no attention to the ship. They stood or sat or lay where they were, men and women and children jammed literally shoulder to shoulder. Most of the seaside population was grouped in large rings with men on the outside and women and children protected inside.
“All around the continent,” said Wall.
Carv could no more have answered than he could have taken his eyes off the scope screen.
Every few minutes there was a seething in the mass as some group that was too far back pulled forward to reach the shore, the food supply. The mass pushed back. On the fringes of the circles there were bloody fights, slow fights in which there were apparently no rules at all.
“How?” said Carv. “How?”
Wall said, “Maybe a ship crashed. Maybe there was a caretaker’s family here, and nobody ever came to pick them up. They must be the farmer’s children, Carv.”
“How long have they been here?”
“Thousands of years at least. Maybe tens of hundreds of thousands.” Wall turned his empty eyes away from the screen. He swiveled his couch so he was looking at the back wall of the cabin. His dreary words flowed out into the cabin.
“Picture it, Carv. Nothing in the world but an ocean of algae and a few people. Then a few hundred people, then hundreds of thousands. They’d never have been allowed near here unless they’d had the bacteria cleaned out of them to keep the algae from being contaminated. Nothing to make tools out of, nothing but rock and bone. No way of smelting ores, because they wouldn’t even have fire. There’s nothing to bum. They had no diseases, no contraceptives, and no recreation but breeding. The population would have exploded like a bomb. Because nobody would starve to death, Carv. For thousands of years nobody would starve on Sirius B-IV.”
“They’re starving now.”
“Some of them. The ones that can’t reach the shore.” Wall turned back to the scope screen. “One continual war,” he said after awhile. “I’ll bet their height comes from natural selection.”
Carv hadn’t moved for a long time. He had noticed that there were always a few men inside each protective circle, and that there were always men outside going inside and men inside going outside. Breeding more people to guard each circle. More people for Sirius B-IV.
The shore was a seething blackness. In infrared light it would have shown brightly, at a temperature of 98.6° Fahrenheit.
“Let’s go home,” said Wall.
“Okay.”
* * *
“And did you?”
“No.”
“In God’s name, why not?”
“We couldn’t. We had to see it all, Turnbull. I don’t understand it, but we did, both of us. So I took the ship up and dropped it a kilometer inshore, and we got out and started walking toward the sea.
“Right away, we started finding skeletons. Some were clean. A lot of them looked like Egyptian mummies, skeletons with black dried skin stretched tight over the bones. Always there was a continuous low rustle of—well, I guess it was conversation. From the beach. I don’t know what they could have had to talk about.
“The skeletons got thicker as we went along. Some of them had daggers of splintered bone. One had a chipped stone fist ax. You see, Turnbull, they were intelligent. They could make tools, if they could find anything to make tools out of.
“After we’d been walking awhile we saw that some of the skeletons were alive. Dying and drying under that overcast blue sky. I’d thought that sky was pretty once. Now it was— horrible. You could see a shifting blue beam spear down on the sand and sweep across it like a spotlight until it picked out a mummy. Sometimes the mummy would turn over and cover its eyes.
“Wall’s face was livid, like a dead man’s. I knew it wasn’t just the light. We’d been walking about five minutes, and the dead and living skeletons were all around us. The live ones all stared at us, apathetically, but still staring, as if we were the only things in the world worth looking at. If they had anything to wonder with, they must have been wondering what it was that could move and still not be human. We couldn’t have looked human to them. We had shoes and coveralls on, and we were too small.
“Wall said, ‘I’ve been wondering about the clean skeletons. There shouldn’t be any decay bacteria here.’
“I didn’t answer. I was thinking how much this looked like a combination of Hell and Belsen. The only thing that might have made it tolerable was the surrealistic blue lighting. We couldn’t really believe what we were seeing.
“‘There weren’t enough fats in the algae,’ said Wall. ‘There was enough of everything else, but no fats.’
“We were closer to the beach now. And some of the mummies were beginning to stir. I watched a pair behind a dune who looked like they were trying to kill each other, and then suddenly I realized what Wall had said.
“I took his arm and turned to go back. Some of the long skeletons were trying to get up. I knew what they were thinking. There may be meat in those limp coverings. Wet meat, with Water in it. There just may. I pulled at Wall and started to run.
“He wouldn’t run. He tried to pull loose. I had to leave him. They couldn’t catch me, they were too starved, and I was jumping like a grasshopper. But they got Wall, all right. I heard his destruct capsule go off. Just a muffled pop.”
“So you came home.”
“Uh huh.” Rappaport looked up like a man waking from a nightmare. “It took seven months. All alone.”
“Any idea why Wall killed himself?”
“You crazy? He didn’t want to get eaten.”
“Then why wouldn’t he run?”
“It wasn’t that he wanted to kill himself, Turnbull, He just decided it wasn’t worthwhile saving Himself. Another six months in the Overcee, with the blind spots pulling at his eyes and that nightmare of a world constantly on his mind—it wasn’t worth it.”
“I’ll bet the Overcee was a pigpen before you blew it up.”
Rappaport flushed. “What’s that to you?”
“You didn’t think it was worthwhile either. When a Belter stops being neat it’s because he wants to die. A dirty ship is deadly. The air plant gets fouled. Things float around loose, ready to knock your brains out when the drive goes on. You forget where you put the meteor patches—”
“All right. I made it, didn’t I?”
“And now you think we should give up space.”
Rappaport’s voice went squeaky with emotion. “Turnbull, aren’t you convinced yet? We’ve got a paradise here, and you want to leave it for—that. Why? Why?”
“To build other paradises, maybe. Ours didn’t happen by accident. Our ancestors did it all, starting with not much more than what was on Sirius B-IV.”
“They had a helluva lot more.” A faint slurring told that the bourbon was finally getting to Rappaport.
“Maybe they did at that. But now there’s a better reason. These people you left on the beach. They need our help. And with a new Overcee, we can give it to them. What do they need most, Carver? Trees or meat animals?”
“Animals.” Rappaport shuddered and drank.
“Well, that could be argued. But pass it. First we’ll have to make soil.” Turnbull leaned back in his chair, face upturned, talking half to himself. “Algae mixed with crushed rock. Bacteria to break the rock down. Earthworms. Then grass…”
“Got it all planned out, do you? And you’ll have to talk the UN into it, too. Turnbull, you’re good. But you’ve missed something.”
“Better tell me now then.”
Rappaport got carefully to his feet. He came over to the desk, just a little unsteadily, and leaned on it so that he stared down into Turnbull’s eyes from a foot away. “You’ve been assuming that those people on the beach really were the farmer’s race. That Sirius B-IV has been deserted for a long, long time. But What if some kind of carnivore seeded that planet? Then what? The algae wouldn’t be for them. They’d let the algae grow, plant food animals, then go away until the animals were jammed shoulder to shoulder along the coast. Food animals! You understand, Turnbull?”
“Yes. I hadn’t thought of that. And they’d breed them for size…”
The room was deadly quiet.
Well?”
“Well, we’ll simply have to take that chance, won’t we?”
 
Copyright © 1990 by Larry Niven