Downward to the Earth

Robert Silverberg

Orb Books

ONE
 
 
He had come back to Holman’s World after all. He was not sure why. Call it irresistible attraction; call it sentimentality; call it foolishness. Gundersen had never planned to revisit this place. Yet here he was, waiting for the landing, and there it was in the vision screen, close enough to grasp and squeeze in one hand, a world slightly larger than Earth, a world that had claimed the prime decade of his life, a world where he had learned things about himself that he had not really wanted to know. Now the signal light in the lounge was flashing red. The ship would shortly land. Despite everything, he was coming back.
He saw the shroud of mist that covered the temperate zones, and the great sprawling icecaps, and the girdling blue-black band of the scorched tropics. He remembered riding through the Sea of Dust at blazing twilight, and he remembered a silent, bleak river-journey beneath bowers of twittering dagger-pointed leaves, and he remembered golden cocktails on the veranda of a jungle station on the Night of Five Moons, with Seena close by his side and a herd of nildoror mooing in the bush. That was a long time ago. Now the nildoror were masters of Holman’s World again. Gundersen had a hard time accepting that. Perhaps that was the real reason why he had come back: to see what sort of job the nildoror could do.
“Attention, passengers in lounge,” came a voice over the speaker. “We enter landing orbit for Belzagor in fifteen minutes. Please prepare to return to cradles.”
Belzagor. That was what they called the planet now. The native name, the nildoror’s own word. To Gundersen it seemed like something out of Assyrian mythology. Of course, it was a romanticized pronunciation; coming from a nildor it would really sound more like Bllls’grr. Belzagor it was, though. He would try to call the planet by the name it now wore, if that was what he was supposed to do. He attempted never to give needless offense to alien beings.
“Belzagor,” he said. “It’s a voluptuous sound, isn’t it? Rolls nicely off the tongue.”
The tourist couple beside him in the ship’s lounge nodded. They agreed readily with whatever Gundersen said. The husband, plump, pale, overdressed, said, “They were still calling it Holman’s World when you were last out here, weren’t they?”
“Oh, yes,” Gundersen said. “But that was back in the good old imperialist days, when an Earthman could call a planet whatever he damn pleased. That’s all over now.”
The tourist wife’s lips tightened in that thin, pinched, dysmenorrheal way of hers. Gundersen drew a somber pleasure from annoying her. All during the voyage he had deliberately played a role out of Kipling for these tourists—posing as the former colonial administrator going out to see what a beastly botch the natives must be making out of the task of governing themselves. It was an exaggeration, a distortion, of his real attitude, but sometimes it pleased him to wear masks. The tourists—there were eight of them—looked upon him in mingled awe and contempt as he swaggered among them, a big fair-skinned man with the mark of outworld experience stamped on his features. They disapproved of him, of the image of himself that he gave them; and yet they knew he had suffered and labored and striven under a foreign sun, and there was romance in that.
“Will you be staying at the hotel?” the tourist husband asked.
“Oh, no. I’m going right out into the bush, toward the mist country. Look—there, you see? In the northern hemisphere, that band of clouds midway up. The temperature gradient’s very steep: tropic and arctic practically side by side. Mist. Fog. They’ll take you on a tour of it. I have some business in there.”
“Business? I thought these new independent worlds were outside the zone of economic penetration that—”
“Not commercial business,” Gundersen said. “Personal business. Unfinished business. Something I didn’t manage to discover during my tour of duty here.” The signal light flashed again, more insistently. “Will you excuse me? We really should cradle up now.”
He went to his cabin and readied himself for landing. Webfoam spurted from the spinnerets and enfolded him. He closed his eyes. He felt deceleration thrust, that curiously archaic sensation hearkening back to space travel’s earliest days. The ship dropped planetward as Gundersen swayed, suspended, insulated from the worst of the velocity change.
Belzagor’s only spaceport was the one that Earthmen had built more than a hundred years before. It was in the tropics, at the mouth of the great river flowing into Belzagor’s single ocean. Madden’s River, Benjamini Ocean—Gundersen didn’t know the nildoror names at all. The spaceport was self-maintaining, fortunately. Automatic high-redundancy devices operated the landing beacon; homeostatic surveillance kept the pad repaved and the bordering jungle cropped back. All, all by machine; it was unrealistic to expect the nildoror to operate a spaceport, and impossible to keep a crew of Earthmen stationed here to do it. Gundersen understood that there were still perhaps a hundred Earthmen living on Belzagor, even after the general withdrawal, but they were not such as would operate a spaceport. And there was a treaty, in any case. Administrative functions were to be performed by nildoror, or not at all.
They landed. The webfoam cradle dissolved upon signal. They went out of the ship.
The air had the tropical reek: rich loam, rotting leaves, the droppings of jungle beasts, the aroma of creamy flowers. It was early evening. A couple of the moons were out. As always, the threat of rain was in the air; the humidity was 99%, probably. But that threat almost never materialized. Rainstorms were rare in this tropical belt. The water simply precipitated out of the air in droplets all the time, imperceptibly, coating you with fine wet beads. Gundersen saw lightning flicker beyond the tops of the hullygully trees at the edge of the pad. A stewardess marshaled the nine debarkees. “This way, please,” she said crisply, and led them toward the one building.
On the left, three nildoror emerged from the bush and solemnly gazed at the newcomers. Tourists gasped and pointed. “Look! Do you see them? Like elephants, they are! Are those nili—nildoror?”
“Nildoror, yes,” Gundersen said. The tang of the big beasts drifted across the clearing. A bull and two cows, he guessed, judging by the size of the tusks. They were all about the same height, three meters plus, with the deep green skins that marked them as western-hemisphere nildoror. Eyes as big as platters peered back at him in dim curiosity. The short-tusked cow in front lifted her tail and placidly dropped an avalanche of steaming purple dung. Gundersen heard deep blurred sounds, but at this distance he could not make out what the nildoror were saying. Imagine them running a spaceport, he thought. Imagine them running a planet. But they do. But they do.
There was no one in the spaceport building. Some robots, part of the homeostasis net, were repairing the wall at the far side, where the gray plastic sheeting had apparently succumbed to spore implantation; sooner or later the jungle rot got everything in this part of the planet. But that was the only visible activity. There was no customs desk. The nildoror did not have a bureaucracy of that sort. They did not care what you brought with you to their world. The nine passengers had undergone a customs inspection on Earth, just before setting out; Earth did care, very much, what was taken to undeveloped planets. There was also no spaceline office here, nor were there money-changing booths, nor newsstands, nor any of the other concessions one normally finds in a spaceport. There was only a big bare shed, which once had been the nexus of a bustling colonial outpost, in the days when Holman’s World had been the property of Earth. It seemed to Gundersen that he saw ghosts of those days all about him: figures in tropical khaki carrying messages, supercargoes waving inventory sheets, computer technicians draped in festoons of memory beads, nildoror bearers laden with outgoing produce. Now all was still. The scrapings of the repair robots echoed across the emptiness.
The spaceline stewardess was telling the eight passengers, “Your guide should be here any minute. He’ll take you to the hotel, and—”
Gundersen was supposed to go to the hotel too, just for tonight. In the morning he hoped to arrange for transport. He had no formal plans for his northward journey; it was going to be largely an improvisation, a reconnaissance into his own pockmarked past.
He said to the stewardess, “Is the guide a nildor?”
“You mean, native? Oh, no, he’s an Earthman, Mr. Gundersen.” She rummaged in a sheaf of printout slips. “His name’s Van Beneker, and he was supposed to be here at least half an hour before the ship landed, so I don’t understand why—”
“Van Beneker was never strong on punctuality,” Gundersen said. “But there he is.”
A beetle, much rusted and stained by the climate, had pulled up at the open entrance to the building, and from it now was coming a short red-haired man, also much rusted and stained by the climate. He wore rumpled fatigues and a pair of knee-high jungle boots. His hair was thinning and his tanned bald skull showed through the slicked-down strands. He entered the building and peered around, blinking. His eyes were light blue and faintly hyperthyroid-looking.
“Van?” Gundersen said. “Over here, Van.”
The little man came over. In a hurried, perfunctory way he said, while he was still far from them, “I want to welcome all you people to Belzagor, as Holman’s World is now known. My name’s Van Beneker, and I’m going to show you as much of this fascinating planet as is legally permissible to show you, and—”
“Hello, Van,” Gundersen cut in.
The guide halted, obviously irritated, in mid-spiel. He blinked again and looked closely at Gundersen. Finally he said, clearly not believing it, “Mr. Gundersen?”
“Just Gundersen. I’m not your boss any more.”
“Jesus, Mr. Gundersen. Jesus, are you here for the tour?”
“Not exactly. I’m here to take my own tour.”
Van Beneker said to the others, “I want you to excuse me. Just for a minute.” To the spaceline stewardess he said, “It’s okay. You can officially convey them to me. I take responsibility. They all here? One, two, three—eight. That’s right. Okay, the luggage goes out there, next to the beetle. Tell them all to wait. I’ll be right with them.” He tugged at Gundersen’s elbow. “Come on over here, Mr. Gundersen. You don’t know how amazed I am. Jesus!”
“How have you been, Van?”
“Lousy. How else, on this planet? When did you leave, exactly?”
“2240. The year after relinquishment. Eight years ago.”
“Eight years. And what have you been doing?”
“The home office found work for me,” Gundersen said. “I keep busy. Now I’ve got a year’s accumulated leave.”
“To spend it here?
“Why not?”
“What for?”
“I’m going up mist country,” Gundersen said. “I want to visit the sulidoror.”
“You don’t want to do that,” said Van Beneker. “What do you want to do that for?”
“To satisfy a curiosity.”
“There’s only trouble when a man goes up there. You know the stories, Mr. Gundersen. I don’t need to remind you, how many guys went up there, how many didn’t come back.” Van Beneker laughed. “You didn’t come all the way to this place just to rub noses with the sulidoror. I bet you got some other reason.”
Gundersen let the point pass. “What do you do here now, Van?”
“Tourist guide, mostly. We get nine, ten batches a year. I take them up along the ocean, then show them a bit of the mist country, then we hop across the Sea of Dust. It’s a nice little tour.”
“Yes.”
“The rest of the time I relax. I talk to the nildoror a lot, and sometimes I visit friends at the bush stations. You’ll know everyone, Mr. Gundersen. It’s all the old people, still out there.”
“What about Seena Royce?” Gundersen asked.
“She’s up by Shangri-la Falls.”
“Still have her looks?”
“She thinks so,” Van Beneker said. “You figure you’ll go up that way?”
“Of course,” Gundersen said. “I’m making a sentimental pilgrimage. I’ll tour all the bush stations. See the old friends. Seena. Cullen. Kurtz. Salamone. Whoever’s still there.”
“Some of them are dead.”
“Whoever’s still there,” Gundersen said. He looked down at the little man and smiled. “You’d better take care of your tourists, now. We can talk at the hotel tonight. I want you to fill me in on everything that’s happened while I’ve been gone.”
“Easy, Mr. Gundersen. I can do it right now in one word. Rot. Everything’s rotting. Look at the spaceport wall over there.”
“I see.”
“Look at the repair robots, now. They don’t shine much, do they? They’re giving out too. If you get close, you can see the spots on their hulls.”
“But homeostasis—”
“Sure. Everything gets repaired, even the repair robots. But the system’s going to break down. Sooner or later, the rot will get into the basic programs, and then there won’t be any more repairs, and this world will go straight back into the stone age. I mean all the way back. And then the nildoror will finally be happy. I understand those big bastards as much as anybody does. I know they can’t wait to see the last trace of Earthmen rot right off this planet. They pretend they’re friendly, but the hate’s there all the time, real sick hate, and—”
“You ought to look after your tourists, Van,” Gundersen said. “They’re getting restless.”


 
Copyright © 1969, 1970 by Agberg, Ltd.
Preface copyright © 2012 by Agberg, Ltd.