Deathworld - Harry Harrison - ebook

Deathworld ebook

Harry Harrison

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Some planet in the galaxy must - by definition - be the toughest, meanest, nastiest of all. If Pyrrus wasn't it ... it was an awfully good approximation! Harry Harrison cements his science fiction legacy with one of his most masterful novels, Deathworld!

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DEATHWORLD

Harry Harrison

OZYMANDIAS PRESS

Thank you for reading. If you enjoy this book, please leave a review.

All rights reserved. Aside from brief quotations for media coverage and reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced or distributed in any form without the author’s permission. Thank you for supporting authors and a diverse, creative culture by purchasing this book and complying with copyright laws.

Copyright © 2016 by Harry Harrison

Published by Ozymandias Press

Interior design by Pronoun

Distribution by Pronoun

ISBN: 9781531290856

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I.

II.

III.

IV.

V.

VI.

VII.

VIII.

IX.

X.

XI.

XII.

XIII.

XIV.

XV.

XVI.

XVII.

XVIII.

XIX.

XX.

XXI.

XXII.

XXIII.

XXIV.

XXV.

XXVI.

XXVII.

XXVIII.

I.

~

JASON DINALT SPRAWLED IN SOFT luxury on the couch, a large frosty stein held limply in one hand. His other hand rested casually on a pillow. The gun behind the pillow was within easy reach of his fingers. In his line of work he never took chances.

It was all highly suspicious. Jason didn’t know a soul on this planet. Yet the card sent by service tube from the hotel desk had read: Kerk Pyrrus would like to see Jason dinAlt. Blunt and to the point. He signaled the desk to send the man up, then lowered his fingers a bit until they brushed the gun butt. The door slid open and his visitor stepped through.

A retired wrestler. That was Jason’s first thought. Kerk Pyrrus was a gray-haired rock of a man. His body seemingly chiseled out of flat slabs of muscle. Then Jason saw the gun strapped to the inside of the other man’s forearm, and he let his fingers drop casually behind the pillow.

“I’d appreciate it,” Jason said, “if you’d take off your gun while you’re in here.” The other man stopped and scowled down at the gun as if he was seeing it for the first time.

“No, I never take it off.” He seemed mildly annoyed by the suggestion.

Jason had his fingers on his own gun when he said, “I’m afraid I’ll have to insist. I always feel a little uncomfortable around people who wear guns.” He kept talking to distract attention while he pulled out his gun. Fast and smooth.

He could have been moving in slow motion for all the difference it made. Kerk Pyrrus stood rock still while the gun came out, while it swung in his direction. Not until the very last instant did he act. When he did, the motion wasn’t visible. First his gun was in the arm holster—then it was aimed between Jason’s eyes. It was an ugly, heavy weapon with a pitted front orifice that showed plenty of use.

And Jason knew if he swung his own weapon up a fraction of an inch more he would be dead. He dropped his arm carefully and Kerk flipped his own gun back in the holster with the same ease he had drawn it.

“Now,” the stranger said, “if we’re through playing, let’s get down to business. I have a proposition for you.”

Jason downed a large mouthful from the mug and bridled his temper. He was fast with a gun—his life had depended on it more than once—and this was the first time he had been outdrawn. It was the offhand, unimportant manner it had been done that irritated him.

“I’m not prepared to do business,” he said acidly. “I’ve come to Cassylia for a vacation, get away from work.”

“Let’s not fool each other, dinAlt,” Kerk said impatiently. “You’ve never worked at an honest job in your entire life. You’re a professional gambler and that’s why I’m here to see you.”

Jason forced down his anger and threw the gun to the other end of the couch so he wouldn’t be tempted to commit suicide. He had hoped no one knew him on Cassylia and was looking forward to a big kill at the Casino. He would worry about that later. This weight-lifter type seemed to know all the answers. Let him plot the course for a while and see where it led.

“All right, what do you want?”

Kerk dropped into a chair that creaked ominously under his weight, and dug an envelope out of one pocket. He flipped through it quickly and dropped a handful of gleaming Galactic Exchange notes onto the table. Jason glanced at them—then sat up suddenly.

“What are they—forgeries?” he asked, holding one up to the light.

“They’re real enough,” Kerk told him, “I picked them up at the bank. Exactly twenty-seven bills—or twenty-seven million credits. I want you to use them as a bankroll when you go to the Casino tonight. Gamble with them and win.”

They looked real enough—and they could be checked. Jason fingered them thoughtfully while he examined the other man.

“I don’t know what you have in mind,” he said. “But you realize I can’t make any guarantees. I gamble—but I don’t always win ...”

“You gamble—and you win when you want to,” Kerk said grimly. “We looked into that quite carefully before I came to you.”

“If you mean to say that I cheat—” Carefully, Jason grabbed his temper again and held it down. There was no future in getting annoyed.

Kerk continued in the same level voice, ignoring Jason’s growing anger. “Maybe you don’t call it cheating, frankly I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned you could have your suit lined with aces and electromagnets in your boots. As long as you won. I’m not here to discuss moral points with you. I said I had a proposition.

“We have worked hard for that money—but it still isn’t enough. To be precise, we need three billion credits. The only way to get that sum is by gambling—with these twenty-seven million as bankroll.”

“And what do I get out of it?” Jason asked the question coolly, as if any bit of the fantastic proposition made sense.

“Everything above the three billion you can keep, that should be fair enough. You’re not risking your own money, but you stand to make enough to keep you for life if you win.”

“And if I lose—?”

Kerk thought for a moment, not liking the taste of the idea. “Yes—there is the chance you might lose, I hadn’t thought about that.”

He reached a decision. “If you lose—well I suppose that is just a risk we will have to take. Though I think I would kill you then. The ones who died to get the twenty-seven million deserve at least that.” He said it quietly, without malice, and it was more of a promise than a threat.

Stamping to his feet Jason refilled his stein and offered one to Kerk who took it with a nod of thanks. He paced back and forth, unable to sit. The whole proposition made him angry—yet at the same time had a fatal fascination. He was a gambler and this talk was like the taste of drugs to an addict.

Stopping suddenly, he realized that his mind had been made up for some time. Win or lose—live or die—how could he say no to the chance to gamble with money like that! He turned suddenly and jabbed his finger at the big man in the chair.

“I’ll do it—you probably knew I would from the time you came in here. There are some terms of my own, though. I want to know who you are, and who they are you keep talking about. And where did the money come from. Is it stolen?”

Kerk drained his own stein and pushed it away from him.

“Stolen money? No, quite the opposite. Two years’ work mining and refining ore to get it. It was mined on Pyrrus and sold here on Cassylia. You can check on that very easily. I sold it. I’m the Pyrric ambassador to this planet.” He smiled at the thought. “Not that that means much, I’m ambassador to at least six other planets as well. Comes in handy when you want to do business.”

Jason looked at the muscular man with his gray hair and worn, military-cut clothes, and decided not to laugh. You heard of strange things out in the frontier planets and every word could be true. He had never heard of Pyrrus either, though that didn’t mean anything. There were over thirty-thousand known planets in the inhabited universe.

“I’ll check on what you have told me,” Jason said. “If it’s true, we can do business. Call me tomorrow—”

“No,” Kerk said. “The money has to be won tonight. I’ve already issued a check for this twenty-seven million, it will bounce as high as the Pleiades unless we deposit the money in the morning, so that’s our time limit.”

With each moment the whole affair became more fantastic—and more intriguing for Jason. He looked at his watch. There was still enough time to find out if Kerk was lying or not.

“All right, we’ll do it tonight,” he said. “Only I’ll have to have one of those bills to check.”

Kerk stood up to go. “Take them all, I won’t be seeing you again until after you’ve won. I’ll be at the Casino of course, but don’t recognize me. It would be much better if they didn’t know where your money was coming from or how much you had.”

Then he was gone, after a bone-crushing handclasp that closed on Jason’s hand like vise jaws. Jason was alone with the money. Fanning the bills out like a hand of cards he stared at their sepia and gold faces, trying to get the reality through his head. Twenty-seven million credits. What was to stop him from just walking out the door with them and vanishing. Nothing really, except his own sense of honor.

Kerk Pyrrus, the man with the same last name as the planet he came from, was the universe’s biggest fool. Or he knew just what he was doing. From the way the interview had gone the latter seemed the better bet.

“He knows I would much rather gamble with the money than steal it,” he said wryly.

Slipping a small gun into his waistband holster and pocketing the money he went out.

II.

~

THE ROBOT TELLER AT THE bank just pinged with electronic shock when he presented one of the bills and flashed a panel that directed him to see Vice President Wain. Wain was a smooth customer who bugged his eyes and lost some of his tan when he saw the sheaf of bills.

“You ... wish to deposit these with us?” he asked while his fingers unconsciously stroked them.

“Not today,” Jason said. “They were paid to me as a debt. Would you please check that they are authentic and change them? I’d like five hundred thousand credit notes.”

Both of his inner chest pockets were packed tight when he left the bank. The bills were good and he felt like a walking mint. This was the first time in his entire life that carrying a large sum of money made him uncomfortable. Waving to a passing helicab he went directly to the Casino, where he knew he would be safe—for a while.

Cassylia Casino was the playspot of the nearby cluster of star systems. It was the first time Jason had seen it, though he knew its type well. He had spent most of his adult life in casinos like this on other worlds. The decor differed but they were always the same. Gambling and socialities in public—and behind the scenes all the private vice you could afford. Theoretically no-limit games, but that was true only up to a certain point. When the house was really hurt the honest games stopped being square and the big winner had to watch his step very carefully. These were the odds Jason dinAlt had played against countless times before. He was wary but not very concerned.

The dining room was almost empty and the major-domo quickly rushed to the side of the relaxed stranger in the richly cut clothes. Jason was lean and dark, looking more like the bored scion of some rich family than a professional gambler. This appearance was important and he cultivated it. The cuisine looked good and the cellar turned out to be wonderful. He had a professional talk with the sommelier while waiting for the soup, then settled down to enjoy his meal.

He ate leisurely and the large dining room was filled before he was through. Watching the entertainment over a long cigar killed some more time. When he finally went to the gaming rooms they were filled and active.

Moving slowly around the room he dropped a few thousand credits. He scarcely noticed how he played, giving more attention to the feel of the games. The play all seemed honest and none of the equipment was rigged. That could be changed very quickly, he realized. Usually it wasn’t necessary, house percentage was enough to assure a profit.

Once he saw Kerk out of the corner of his eye but he paid him no attention. The ambassador was losing small sums steadily at seven-and-silver and seemed to be impatient. Probably waiting for Jason to begin playing seriously. He smiled and strolled on slowly.

Jason settled on the dice table as he usually did. It was the surest way to make small winnings. And if I feel it tonight I can clean this casino out! That was his secret, the power that won for him steadily—and every once in a while enabled him to make a killing and move on quickly before the hired thugs came to get the money back.

The dice reached him and he threw an eight the hard way. Betting was light and he didn’t push himself, just kept away from the sevens. He made the point and passed a natural. Then he crapped out and the dice moved on.

Sitting there, making small automatic bets while the dice went around the table, he thought about the power. Funny, after all the years of work we still don’t know much about psi. They can train people a bit, and improve skills a bit—but that’s all.

He was feeling strong tonight, he knew that the money in his pocket gave him the extra lift that sometimes helped him break through. With his eyes half closed he picked up the dice—and let his mind gently caress the pattern of sunken dots. Then they shot out of his hand and he stared at a seven.

It was there.

Stronger than he had felt it in years. The stiff weight of those million-credit notes had done it. The world all around was sharp-cut clear and the dice was completely in his control. He knew to the tenth-credit how much the other players had in their wallets and was aware of the cards in the hands of the players behind him.

Slowly, carefully, he built up the stakes.

There was no effort to the dice, they rolled and sat up like trained dogs. Jason took his time and concentrated on the psychology of the players and the stick man. It took almost two hours to build his money on the table to seven hundred thousand credits. Then he caught the stick man signaling they had a heavy winner. He waited until the hard-eyed man strolled over to watch the game, then he smiled happily, bet all his table stakes—and blew it on one roll of the dice. The house man smiled happily, the stick man relaxed—and out of the corner of his eye Jason saw Kerk turning a dark purple.

Sweating, pale, his hand trembling ever so slightly, Jason opened the front of his jacket and pulled out one of the envelopes of new bills. Breaking the seal with his finger he dropped two of them on the table.

“Could we have a no-limit game?” he asked, “I’d like to—win back some of my money.”

The stick man had trouble controlling his smile now, he glanced across at the house man who nodded a quick yes. They had a sucker and they meant to clean him. He had been playing from his wallet all evening, now he was cracking into a sealed envelope to try for what he had lost. A thick envelope too, and probably not his money. Not that the house cared in the least. To them money had no loyalties. The play went on with the Casino in a very relaxed mood.

Which was just the way Jason wanted it. He needed to get as deep into them as he could before someone realized they might be on the losing end. The rough stuff would start and he wanted to put it off as long as possible. It would be hard to win smoothly then—and his psi power might go as quickly as it had come. That had happened before.

He was playing against the house now, the two other players were obvious shills, and a crowd had jammed solidly around to watch. After losing and winning a bit he hit a streak of naturals and his pile of gold chips tottered higher and higher. There was nearly a billion there, he estimated roughly. The dice were still falling true, though he was soaked with sweat from the effort. Betting the entire stack of chips he reached for the dice. The stick man reached faster and hooked them away.

“House calls for new dice,” he said flatly.

Jason straightened up and wiped his hands, glad of the instant’s relief. This was the third time the house had changed dice to try and break his winning streak, it was their privilege. The hard-eyed Casino man opened his wallet as he had done before and drew out a pair at random. Stripping off their plastic cover he threw them the length of the table to Jason. They came up a natural seven and Jason smiled.

When he scooped them up the smile slowly faded. The dice were transparent, finely made, evenly weighted on all sides—and crooked.

The pigment on the dots of five sides of each die was some heavy metal compound, probably lead. The sixth side was a ferrous compound. They would roll true unless they hit a magnetic field—that meant the entire surface of the table could be magnetized. He could never have spotted the difference if he hadn’t looked at the dice with his mind. But what could he do about it?

Shaking them slowly he glanced quickly around the table. There was what he needed. An ashtray with a magnet in its base to hold it to the metal edge of the table. Jason stopped shaking the dice and looked at them quizzically, then reached over and grabbed the ashtray. He dropped the base against his hand.

As he lifted the ashtray there was a concerted gasp from all sides. The dice were sticking there, upside down, box cars showing.

“Are these what you call honest dice?” he asked.

The man who had thrown out the dice reached quickly for his hip pocket. Jason was the only one who saw what happened next. He was watching that hand closely, his own fingers near his gun butt. As the man dived into his pocket a hand reached out of the crowd behind him. From its square-cut size it could have belonged to only one person. The thick thumb and index finger clamped swiftly around the house man’s wrist, then they were gone. The man screamed shrilly and held up his arm, his hand dangling limp as a glove from the broken wrist bones.

With his flank well protected, Jason could go on with the game. “The old dice if you don’t mind,” he said quietly.

Dazedly the stick man pushed them over. Jason shook quickly and rolled. Before they hit the table he realized he couldn’t control them—the transient psi power had gone.

End over end they turned. And faced up seven.

Counting the chips as they were pushed over to him he added up a bit under two billion credits. They would be winning that much if he left the game now—but it wasn’t the three billion that Kerk needed. Well, it would have to be enough. As he reached for the chips he caught Kerk’s eye across the table and the other man shook his head in a steady no.

“Let it ride,” Jason said wearily, “one more roll.”

He breathed on the dice, polished them on his cuff, and wondered how he had ever gotten into this spot. Billions riding on a pair of dice. That was as much as the annual income of some planets. The only reason there could be stakes like that was because the planetary government had a stake in the Casino. He shook as long as he could, reaching for the control that wasn’t there—then let fly.

Everything else had stopped in the Casino and people were standing on tables and chairs to watch. There wasn’t a sound from that large crowd. The dice bounced back from the board with a clatter loud in the silence and tumbled over the cloth.

A five and a one. Six. He still had to make his point. Scooping up the dice Jason talked to them, mumbled the ancient oaths that brought luck and threw again.

It took five throws before he made the six.

The crowd echoed his sigh and their voices rose quickly. He wanted to stop, take a deep breath, but he knew he couldn’t. Winning the money was only part of the job—they now had to get away with it. It had to look casual. A waiter was passing with a tray of drinks. Jason stopped him and tucked a hundred-credit note in his pocket.

“Drinks are on me,” he shouted while he pried the tray out of the waiter’s hands. Well-wishers cleared the filled glasses away quickly and Jason piled the chips onto the tray. They more than loaded it, but Kerk appeared that moment with a second tray.

“I’ll be glad to help you, sir, if you will permit me,” he said.

Jason looked at him, and laughed permission. It was the first time he had a clear look at Kerk in the Casino. He was wearing loose, purple evening pajamas over what must have been a false stomach. The sleeves were long and baggy so he looked fat rather than muscular. It was a simple but effective disguise.

Carefully carrying the loaded trays, surrounded by a crowd of excited patrons, they made their way to the cashier’s window. The manager himself was there, wearing a sickly grin. Even the grin faded when he counted the chips.

“Could you come back in the morning,” he said, “I’m afraid we don’t have that kind of money on hand.”

“What’s the matter,” Kerk shouted, “trying to get out of paying him? You took my money easy enough when I lost—it works both ways!”

The onlookers, always happy to see the house lose, growled their disagreement. Jason finished the matter in a loud voice.

“I’ll be reasonable, give me what cash you have and I’ll take a check for the balance.”

There was no way out. Under the watchful eye of the gleeful crowd the manager packed an envelope with bills and wrote a check. Jason took a quick glimpse at it, then stuffed it into an inside pocket. With the envelope under one arm he followed Kerk towards the door.

Because of the onlookers there was no trouble in the main room, but just as they reached the side entrance two men moved in, blocking the way.

“Just a moment—” one said. He never finished the sentence. Kerk walked into them without slowing and they bounced away like tenpins. Then Kerk and Jason were out of the building and walking fast.

“Into the parking lot,” Kerk said. “I have a car there.”

When they rounded the corner there was a car bearing down on them. Before Jason could get his gun clear of the holster Kerk was in front of him. His arm came up and his big ugly gun burst through the cloth of his sleeve and jumped into his hand. A single shot killed the driver and the car swerved and crashed. The other two men in the car died coming out of the door, their guns dropping from their hands.

After that they had no trouble. Kerk drove at top speed away from the Casino, the torn sleeve of his pajamas whipping in the breeze, giving glimpses of the big gun back in the holster.

“When you get the chance,” Jason said, “you’ll have to show me how that trick holster works.”

“When we get the chance,” Kerk answered as he dived the car into the city access tube.

III.

~

THE BUILDING THEY STOPPED AT was one of the finer residences in Cassylia. As they had driven, Jason counted the money and separated his share. Almost sixteen million credits. It still didn’t seem quite real. When they got out in front of the building he gave Kerk the rest.

“Here’s your three billion, don’t think it was easy,” he said.

“It could have been worse,” was his only answer.

The recorded voice scratched in the speaker over the door.

“Sire Ellus has retired for the night, would you please call again in the morning. All appointments are made in advan—”

The voice broke off as Kerk pushed the door open. He did it almost effortlessly with the flat of his hand. As they went in Jason looked at the remnants of torn and twisted metal that hung in the lock and wondered again about his companion.

Strength—more than physical strength—he’s like an elemental force. I have the feeling that nothing can stop him.

It made him angry—and at the same time fascinated him. He didn’t want out of the deal until he found out more about Kerk and his planet. And “they” who had died for the money he gambled.

Sire Ellus was old, balding and angry, not at all used to having his rest disturbed. His complaints stopped suddenly when Kerk threw the money down on the table.

“Is the ship being loaded yet, Ellus? Here’s the balance due.” Ellus only fumbled the bills for a moment before he could answer Kerk’s question.

“The ship—but, of course. We began loading when you gave us the deposit. You’ll have to excuse my confusion, this is a little irregular. We never handle transactions of this size in cash.”

“That’s the way I like to do business,” Kerk answered him, “I’ve canceled the deposit, this is the total sum. Now how about a receipt.”

Ellus had made out the receipt before his senses returned. He held it tightly while he looked uncomfortably at the three billion spread out before him.

“Wait—I can’t take it now, you’ll have to return in the morning, to the bank. In normal business fashion,” Ellus decided firmly.

Kerk reached over and gently drew the paper out of Ellus’ hand.

“Thanks for the receipt,” he said. “I won’t be here in the morning so this will be satisfactory. And if you’re worried about the money I suggest you get in touch with some of your plant guards or private police. You’ll feel a lot safer.”

When they left through the shattered door Ellus was frantically dialing numbers on his screen. Kerk answered Jason’s next question before he could ask it.

“I imagine you would like to live to spend that money in your pocket, so I’ve booked two seats on an interplanetary ship,” he glanced at the car clock. “It leaves in about two hours so we have plenty of time. I’m hungry, let’s find a restaurant. I hope you have nothing at the hotel worth going back for. It would be a little difficult.”

“Nothing worth getting killed for,” Jason said. “Now where can we go to eat—there are a few questions I would like to ask you.”

They circled carefully down to the transport levels until they were sure they hadn’t been followed. Kerk nosed the car into a darkened loading dock where they abandoned it.

“We can always get another car,” he said, “and they probably have this one spotted. Let’s walk back to the freightway, I saw a restaurant there as we came by.”

Dark and looming shapes of overland freight carriers filled the parking lot. They picked their way around the man-high wheels and into the hot and noisy restaurant. The drivers and early morning workers took no notice of them as they found a booth in the back and dialed a meal.

Kerk chiseled a chunk of meat off the slab in front of him and popped it cheerfully into his mouth. “Ask your questions,” he said. “I’m feeling much better already.”

“What’s in this ship you arranged for tonight—what kind of a cargo was I risking my neck for?”

“I thought you were risking your neck for money,” Kerk said dryly. “But be assured it was in a good cause. That cargo means the survival of a world. Guns, ammunition, mines, explosives and such.”

Jason choked over a mouthful of food. “Gun-running! What are you doing, financing a private war? And how can you talk about survival with a lethal cargo like that? Don’t try and tell me they have a peaceful use. Who are you killing?”

Most of the big man’s humor had vanished, he had that grim look Jason knew well.

“Yes, peaceful would be the right word. Because that is basically all we want. Just to live in peace. And it is not who are we killing—it is what we are killing.”

Jason pushed his plate away with an angry gesture. “You’re talking in riddles,” he said. “What you say has no meaning.”

“It has meaning enough,” Kerk told him, “but only on one planet in the universe. Just how much do you know about Pyrrus?”

“Absolutely nothing.”

For a moment Kerk sat wrapped in memory, scowling distantly. Then he went on.

“Mankind doesn’t belong on Pyrrus—yet has been there for almost three hundred years now. The age expectancy of my people is sixteen years. Of course most adults live beyond that, but the high child mortality brings the average down.

“It is everything that a humanoid world should not be. The gravity is nearly twice Earth normal. The temperature can vary daily from arctic to tropic. The climate—well you have to experience it to believe it. Like nothing you’ve seen anywhere else in the galaxy.”

“I’m frightened,” Jason said dryly. “What do you have—methane or chlorine reactions? I’ve been down on planets like that—”

Kerk slammed his hand down hard on the table. The dishes bounced and the table legs creaked. “Laboratory reactions!” he growled. “They look great on a bench—but what happens when you have a world filled with those compounds? In an eye-wink of galactic time all the violence is locked up in nice, stable compounds. The atmosphere may be poisonous for an oxygen breather, but taken by itself it’s as harmless as weak beer.

“There is only one setup that is pure poison as a planetary atmosphere. Plenty of H2O, the most universal solvent you can find, plus free oxygen to work on—”

“Water and oxygen!” Jason broke in. “You mean Earth—or a planet like Cassylia here? That’s preposterous.”

“Not at all. Because you were born in this kind of environment you accept it as right and natural. You take it for granted that metals corrode, coastlines change, and storms interfere with communication. These are normal occurrences on oxygen-water worlds. On Pyrrus these conditions are carried to the nth degree.

“The planet has an axial tilt of almost forty-two degrees, so there is a tremendous change in temperature from season to season. This is one of the prime causes of a constantly changing icecap. The weather generated by this is spectacular to say the least.”

“If that’s all,” Jason said, “I don’t see why—”

“That’s not all—it’s barely the beginning. The open seas perform the dual destructive function of supplying water vapor to keep the weather going, and building up gigantic tides. Pyrrus’ two satellites, Samas and Bessos, combine at times to pull the oceans up into thirty meter tides. And until you’ve seen one of these tides lap over into an active volcano you’ve seen nothing.

“Heavy elements are what brought us to Pyrrus—and these same elements keep the planet at a volcanic boil. There have been at least thirteen super-novas in the immediate stellar neighborhood. Heavy elements can be found on most of their planets of course—as well as completely unbreathable atmospheres. Long-term mining and exploitation can’t be done by anything but a self-sustaining colony. Which meant Pyrrus. Where the radioactive elements are locked in the planetary core, surrounded by a shell of lighter ones. While this allows for the atmosphere men need, it also provides unceasing volcanic activity as the molten plasma forces its way to the surface.”

For the first time Jason was silent. Trying to imagine what life could be like on a planet constantly at war with itself.

“I’ve saved the best for last,” Kerk said with grim humor. “Now that you have an idea of what the environment is like—think of the kind of life forms that would populate it. I doubt if there is one off-world species that would live a minute. Plants and animals on Pyrrus are tough. They fight the world and they fight each other. Hundreds of thousands of years of genetic weeding-out have produced things that would give even an electronic brain nightmares. Armor-plated, poisonous, claw-tipped and fanged-mouthed. That describes everything that walks, flaps or just sits and grows. Ever see a plant with teeth—that bite? I don’t think you want to. You’d have to be on Pyrrus and that means you would be dead within seconds of leaving the ship. Even I’ll have to take a refresher course before I’ll be able to go outside the landing buildings. The unending war for survival keeps the life forms competing and changing. Death is simple, but the ways of dealing it too numerous to list.”

Unhappiness rode like a weight on Kerk’s broad shoulders. After long moments of thought he moved visibly to shake it off. Returning his attention to his food and mopping the gravy from his plate, he voiced part of his feelings.