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The Five Hells of Orion: Part Two
by Frederik Pohl
Someone else could.
Someone was watching Herrell McCray, with the clinical fascination of a biochemist observing the wigglings of paramecia in a new antibiotic–and with the prayerful emotions of a starving, shipwrecked, sailor, watching the inward bobbing drift of a wave-born cask that _may_ contain food.
Suppose you call him “Hatcher” (and suppose you call it a “him.”) Hatcher was not exactly male, because his race had no true males; but it did have females and he was certainly not that. Hatcher did not in any way look like a human being, but they had features in common.
If Hatcher and McCray had somehow managed to strike up an acquaintance, they might have got along very well. Hatcher, like McCray, was an adventurous soul, young, able, well-learned in the technical sciences of his culture. Both enjoyed games–McCray baseball, poker and three-dimensional chess; Hatcher a number of sports which defy human description. Both held positions of some importance–considering their ages–in the affairs of their respective worlds.
Physically they were nothing alike. Hatcher was a three-foot, hard-shelled sphere of jelly. He had “arms” and “legs,” but they were not organically attached to “himself.” They were snakelike things which obeyed the orders of his brain as well as your mind can make your toes curl; but they did not touch him directly.
Indeed, they worked as well a yard or a quarter-mile away as they did when, rarely, they rested in the crevices they had been formed from in his “skin.” At greater distances they worked less well, for reasons irrelevant to the Law of Inverse Squares.
Hatcher’s principal task at this moment was to run the “probe team” which had McCray under observation, and he was more than a little excited. His members, disposed about the room where he had sent them on various errands, quivered and shook a little; yet they were the calmest limbs in the room; the members of the other team workers were in a state of violent commotion.
The probe team had had a shock.
“Paranormal powers,” muttered Hatcher’s second in command, and the others mumbled agreement. Hatcher ordered silence, studying the specimen from Earth.
After a long moment he turned his senses from the Earthman. “Incredible–but it’s true enough,” he said. “I’d better report. Watch him,” he added, but that was surely unnecessary. Their job was to watch McCray, and they would do their job; and even more, not one of them could have looked away to save his life from the spectacle of a creature as odd and, from their point of view, hideously alien as
* * * * *
Hatcher hurried through the halls of the great buried structure in which he worked, toward the place where the supervising council of all probes would be in permanent session. They admitted him at once.
Hatcher identified himself and gave a quick, concise report:
“The subject recovered consciousness a short time ago and began to inspect his enclosure. His method of doing so was to put his own members in physical contact with the various objects in the enclosure. After observing him do this for a time we concluded he might be unable to see and so we illuminated his field of vision for him.
“This appeared to work well for a time. He seemed relatively undisturbed. However, he then reverted to physical-contact, manipulating certain appurtenances of an artificial skin we had provided for him.
“He then began to vibrate the atmosphere by means of resonating organs in his breathing passage.
“Simultaneously, the object he was holding, attached to the artificial skin, was discovered to be generating paranormal forces.”
The supervising council rocked with excitement. “You’re sure?” demanded one of the councilmen.
“Yes, sir. The staff is preparing a technical description of the forces now, but I can say that they are electromagnetic vibrations modulating a carrier wave of very high speed, and in turn modulated by the vibrations of the atmosphere caused by the subject’s own breathing.”
“Fantastic,” breathed the councillor, in a tone of dawning hope. “How about communicating with him, Hatcher? Any progress?”
“Well … not much, sir. He suddenly panicked. We don’t know why; but we thought we’d better pull back and let him recover for a while.”
The council conferred among itself for a moment, Hatcher waiting. It was not really a waste of time for him; with the organs he had left in the probe-team room, he was in fairly close touch with what was going on–knew that McCray was once again fumbling among the objects in the dark, knew that the team members had tried illuminating the room for him briefly and again produced the rising panic.
Still, Hatcher fretted. He wanted to get back.
“Stop fidgeting,” commanded the council leader abruptly. “Hatcher, you are to establish communication at once.”
“But, sir….” Hatcher swung closer, his thick skin quivering slightly; he would have gestured if he had brought members with him to gesture with. “We’ve done everything we dare. We’ve made the place homey for him–” actually, what he said was more like, _we’ve warmed the biophysical nuances of his enclosure_ “and tried to guess his needs; and we’re frightening him half to death. We _can’t_ go faster. This creature is in no way similar to us, you know. He relies on paranormal forces–heat, light, kinetic energy–for his life. His chemistry is not ours, his processes of thought are not ours, his entire organism is closer to the inanimate rocks of a sea-bottom than to ourselves.”
“Understood, Hatcher. In your first report you stated these creatures were intelligent.”
“Yes, sir. But not in our way.”
“But in _a_ way, and you must learn that way. I know.” One lobster-claw shaped member drifted close to the councillor’s body and raised itself in an admonitory gesture. “You want time. But we don’t have time, Hatcher. Yours is not the only probe team working. The Central Masses team has just turned in a most alarming report.”
“Have they secured a subject?” Hatcher demanded jealousy.
The councillor paused. “Worse than that, Hatcher. I am afraid their subjects have secured one of them. One of them is missing.”
There was a moment’s silence. Frozen, Hatcher could only wait. The council room was like a tableau in a museum until the councillor spoke again, each council member poised over his locus-point, his members drifting about him.
Finally the councillor said, “I speak for all of us, I think. If the Old Ones have seized one of our probers our time margin is considerably narrowed. Indeed, we may not have any time at all. You must do everything you can to establish communication with your subject.”
“But the danger to the specimen–” Hatcher protested automatically.
“–is no greater,” said the councillor, “than the danger to every one of us if we do not find allies _now_.”
* * * * *
Hatcher returned to his laboratory gloomily.
It was just like the council to put the screws on; they had a reputation for demanding results at any cost–even at the cost of destroying the only thing you had that would make results possible.
Hatcher did not like the idea of endangering the Earthman. It cannot be said that he was emotionally involved; it was not pity or sympathy that caused him to regret the dangers in moving too fast toward communication. Not even Hatcher had quite got over the revolting physical differences between the Earthman and his own people. But Hatcher did not want him destroyed. It had been difficult enough getting him here.
Hatcher checked through the members that he had left with the rest of his team and discovered that there were no immediate emergencies, so he took time to eat. In Hatcher’s race this was accomplished in ways not entirely pleasant to Earthmen. A slit in the lower hemisphere of his body opened, like a purse, emitting a thin, pussy, fetid fluid which Hatcher caught and poured into a disposal trough at the side of the eating room. He then stuffed the slit with pulpy vegetation the texture of kelp; it closed, and his body was supplied with nourishment for another day.
He returned quickly to the room.
His second in command was busy, but one of the other team workers reported- nothing new–and asked about Hatcher’s appearance before the council. Hatcher passed the question off. He considered telling his staff about the disappearance of the Central Masses team member, but decided against it. He had not been told it was secret. On the other hand, he had not been told it was not. Something of this importance was not lightly to be gossiped about. For endless generations the threat of the Old Ones had hung over his race, those queer, almost mythical beings from the Central Masses of the galaxy. One brush with them, in ages past, had almost destroyed Hatcher’s people. Only by running and hiding, bearing one of their planets with them and abandoning it- with its population–as a decoy, had they arrived at all.
Now they had detected mapping parties of the Old Ones dangerously near the spiral arm of the galaxy in which their planet was located, they had begun the Probe Teams to find some way of combating them, or of fleeing again.
But it seemed that the Probe Teams themselves might be betraying their existence to their enemies–
The call was urgent; he hurried to see what it was about. It was his second in command, very excited. “What is it?” Hatcher demanded.
Hatcher was patient; he knew his assistant well. Obviously something was about to happen. He took the moment to call his members back to him for feeding; they dodged back to their niches on his skin, fitted themselves into their vestigial slots, poured back their wastes into his own circulation and ingested what they needed from the meal he had just taken…. “Now!” cried the assistant. “Look!”
At what passed among Hatcher’s people for a viewing console an image was forming. Actually it was the assistant himself who formed it, not a cathode trace or projected shadow; but it showed what it was meant to show.
Hatcher was startled. “Another one! And–is it a different species? Or merely a different sex?”
“Study the probe for yourself,” the assistant invited.
Hatcher studied him frostily; his patience was not, after all, endless. “No matter,” he said at last. “Bring the other one in.”
And then, in a completely different mood, “We may need him badly. We may be in the process of killing our first one now.”
“Killing him, Hatcher?”
Hatcher rose and shook himself, his mindless members floating away like puppies dislodged from suck. “Council’s orders,” he said. “We’ve got to go into Stage Two of the project at once.”
Before Stage Two began, or before Herrell McCray realized it had begun, he had an inspiration.
The dark was absolute, but he remembered where the spacesuit had been and groped his way to it and, yes, it had what all spacesuits had to have. It had a light. He found the toggle that turned it on and pressed it.
Light. White, flaring, Earthly light, that showed everything–even himself.
“God bless,” he said, almost beside himself with joy. Whatever that pinkish, dancing halo had been, it had thrown him into a panic; now that he could see his own hand again, he could blame the weird effects on some strange property of the light.
At the moment he heard the click that was the beginning of Stage Two.
He switched off the light and stood for a moment, listening.
For a second he thought he heard the far-off voice, quiet, calm and almost hopeless, that he had sensed hours before; but then that was gone. Something else was gone. Some faint mechanical sound that had hardly registered at the time, but was not missing. And there was, perhaps, a nice new sound that had not been there before; a very faint, an almost inaudible elfin hiss.
McCray switched the light on and looked around. There seemed to be no change.
And yet, surely, it was warmer in here.
He could see no difference; but perhaps, he thought, he could smell one. The unpleasant halogen odor from the grating was surely stronger now. He stood there, perplexed.
A tinny little voice from the helmet of the space suit said sharply, amazement in its tone, “McCray, is that you? Where the devil are you calling from?”
He forgot smell, sound and temperature and leaped for the suit. “This is Herrell McCray,” he cried. “I’m in a room of some sort, apparently on a planet of approximate Earth mass. I don’t know–“
“McCray!” cried the tiny voice in his ear. “Where are you? This is _Jodrell Bank_ calling. Answer, please!”
“I _am_ answering, damn it,” he roared. “What took you so long?”
“Herrell McCray,” droned the tiny voice in his ear, “Herrell McCray, Herrell McCray, this is _Jodrell Bank_ responding to your message, acknowledge please. Herrell McCray, Herrell McCray….”
It kept on, and on.
McCray took a deep breath and thought. Something was wrong. Either they didn’t hear him, which meant the radio wasn’t transmitting, or–no. That was not it; they _had_ heard him, because they were responding. But it seemed to take them so long….
Abruptly his face went white. Took them so long! He cast back in his mind, questing for a fact, unable to face its implications. When was it he called them? Two hours ago? Three?
Did that mean–did it _possibly_ mean–that there was a lag of an hour or two each way? Did it, for example, mean that at the speed of his suit’s pararadio, millions of times faster than light, it took _hours_ to get a message to the ship and back?
And if so … where in the name of heaven was he?
* * * * *
Herrell McCray was a navigator, which is to say, a man who has learned to trust the evidence of mathematics and instrument readings beyond the guesses of his “common sense.” When _Jodrell Bank_, hurtling faster than light in its voyage between stars, made its regular position check, common sense was a liar. Light bore false witness. The line of sight was trustworthy directly forward and directly after–sometimes not even then–and it took computers, sensing their data through instruments, to comprehend a star bearing and convert three fixes into a position.
If the evidence of his radio contradicted common sense, common sense was wrong. Perhaps it was impossible to believe what the radio’s message implied; but it was not necessary to “believe,” only to act.
McCray thumbed down the transmitter button and gave a concise report of his situation and his guesses. “I don’t know how I got here. I don’t know how long I’ve been gone, since I was unconscious for a time. However, if the transmission lag is a reliable indication–” he swallowed and went on–“I’d estimate I am something more than five hundred light-years away from you at this moment. That’s all I have to say, except for one more word: Help.”
He grinned sourly and released the button. The message was on its way, and it would be hours before he could have a reply. Therefore he had to consider what to do next.
He mopped his brow. With the droning, repetitious call from the ship finally quiet, the room was quiet again. And warm.
Very warm, he thought tardily; and more than that. The halogen stench was strong in his nostrils again.
Hurriedly McCray scrambled into the suit. By the time he was sealed down he was coughing from the bottom of his lungs, deep, tearing rasps that pained him, uncontrollable. Chlorine or fluorine, one of them was in the air he had been breathing. He could not guess where it had come from; but it was ripping his lungs out.
He flushed the interior of the suit out with a reckless disregard for the wastage of his air reserve, holding his breath as much as he could, daring only shallow gasps that made him retch and gag. After a long time he could breathe, though his eyes were spilling tears.
He could see the fumes in the room now. The heat was building up.
Automatically–now that he had put it on and so started its servo-circuits operating–the suit was cooling him. This was a deep-space suit, regulation garb when going outside the pressure hull of an FTL ship. It was good up to at least five hundred degrees in thin air, perhaps three or four hundred in dense. In thin air or in space it was the elastic joints and couplings that depolymerized when the heat grew too great; in dense air, with conduction pouring energy in faster than the cooling coils could suck it out and hurl it away, it was the refrigerating equipment that broke down.
McCray had no way of knowing just how hot it was going to get. Nor, for that matter, had the suit been designed to operate in a corrosive medium.
All in all it was time for him to do something.
Among the debris on the floor, he remembered, was a five-foot space-ax, tungsten-steel blade and springy aluminum shaft.
McCray caught it up and headed for the door. It felt good in his gauntlets, a rewarding weight; any weapon straightens the back of the man who holds it, and McCray was grateful for this one. With something concrete to do he could postpone questioning.
Never mind why he had been brought here; never mind how. Never mind what he would, or could, do next; all those questions could recede into the background of his mind while he swung the ax and battered his way out of this poisoned oven.
_Crash-clang!_ The double jolt ran up the shaft of the ax, through his gauntlets and into his arm; but he was making progress, he could see the plastic–or whatever it was–of the door. It was chipping out. Not easily, very reluctantly; but flaking out in chips that left a white powdery residue.
At this rate, he thought grimly, he would be an hour getting through it. Did he have an hour?
But it did not take an hour. One blow was luckier than the rest; it must have snapped the lock mechanism. The door shook and slid ajar. McCray got the thin of the blade into the crack and pried it wide.
He was in another room, maybe a hall, large and bare.
McCray put the broad of his back against the broken door and pressed it as nearly closed as he could; it might not keep the gas and heat out, but it would retard them.
The room was again unlighted–at least to McCray’s eyes. There was not even that pink pseudo-light that had baffled him; here was nothing but the beam of his suit lamp. What it showed was cryptic. There were evidences of use: shelves, boxy contraptions that might have been cupboards, crude level surfaces attached to the walls that might have been workbenches. Yet they were queerly contrived, for it was not possible to guess from them much about the creatures who used them. Some were near the floor, some at waist height, some even suspended from the ceiling itself. A man would need a ladder to work at these benches and McCray, staring, thought briefly of many-armed blind giants or shapeless huge intelligent amoebae, and felt the skin prickle at the back of his neck.
He tapped half-heartedly at one of the closed cupboards, and was not surprised when it proved as refractory as the door. Undoubtedly he could batter it open, but it was not likely that much would be left of its contents when he was through; and there was the question of time.
But his attention was diverted by a gleam from one of the benches. Metallic parts lay heaped in a pile. He poked at them with a stiff-fingered gauntlet; they were oddly familiar. They were, he thought, very much like the parts of a bullet gun.
In fact, they were. He could recognize barrel, chamber, trigger, even a couple of cartridges, neatly opened and the grains of powder stacked beside them. It was an older, clumsier model than the kind he had seen in survival locker, on the _Jodrell Bank_–and abruptly wished he were carrying now–but it was a pistol. Another trophy, like the strange assortment in the other room? He could not guess. But the others had been more familiar; they all have come from his own ship. He was prepared to swear that nothing like this antique had been aboard.
The drone began again in his ear, as it had at five-minute intervals all along:
“Herrell McCray, Herrell McCray, Herrell McCray, this is _Jodrell Bank_ calling Herrell McCray….”
And louder, blaring, then fading to normal volume as the AVC circuits toned the signal down, another voice. A woman’s voice, crying out in panic and fear: “_Jodrell Bank!_ Where are you? Help!”