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James Schmitz - Caretaker

By Ronnie Price,2014-11-24 16:03
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James Schmitz - Caretaker

caretaker

By JAMES H. SCHMITZ

If you look hard enough, you can usually find what you're seeking

    or trying to avoid!

Illustrated by EMSH

    TELL him," said Commander Lowndes' voice, speaking from the great exploration ship stationed on the other side of the world, "that we're recording it officially as Hulman's Planet. I think that might please him."

    Marder hesitated with his reply. Through the viewport of the parked little scout flier, he looked out at the vast, shadowy valley before him, at green and scarlet swamps, at gleaming dark waters threaded through them. A huge, blue-wooded wave of mountains rose beyond, the setting sun just touching their crest. In 'a quarter of an hour, it would be completely dark. His glance turned, almost reluctantly, to the subtantial but incongruous reality of Hulman's house nearby, its upper story and roof mirrored in the tiny swamp lake.

    "No, it wouldn't please him," he said. "Boyce suggested it during our first visit with Hulman today. He wants us to record it instead asI'll

    spell itC-r-e-s-g-y-t-h. Cresgyth. That's his phonetic interpretation of the name given it by the people here."

    "Fair enough," Commander Lowndes agreed, "if that's how he wants it." He inquired whether Marder had anything to add to the present report.

    "Not now," Marder said. "I'll call you back after we've met his woman."

    "HIS wife," Lowndes corrected him carefully. "I'm glad it happened to

    be you and Boyce who found Hulman. You're reliable men; you in particular, Marder. I don't need to emphasize that Hulman's chance discovery of what appears to be the first genuine human race ever encountered outside of Earth is of primary importance . . ." He continued to emphasize that obvious fact at some length. "Boyce might be inclined to hurry through the ah, diplomatic overtures," he concluded. "You'll be careful about that part of it, Marder?"

"Very careful," Marder promised.

    "On the two continents we've scanned so far, we've found no traces of human inhabitants, present or past. It's possible that Hulman's acquaintances are the sole survivors of humanity here. If we frighten the tribe into hiding, there may never be another contactand within

    a hundred years or less, they may have become extinct."

"I understand."

    "Fine. Now, thenwhat about these other creatures? What did Hulman have to say about them?"

    "In the twenty years he's been marooned in this valley, he's had only three or four actual encounters with themrather violent encounters,

    on his side. Apparently, they learned to avoid him after that. He seems," Marder added thoughtfully, "to have an almost psychopathic hatred for them."

    "Not very surprising!" Lowndes' tone was reproving, reminding Marder that Hulman had been, for the past forty years, one of the great, legendary names of stellar exploration. "Deems' scout reports it bagged a couple of specimens a few hours ago and is bringing them in. The description checks with what Hulman gave youa wormlike, blue body with

    a set of arms, legs, and a head. Out of water, they appear to wear some kind of clothes, presumably to conserve body moisture."

Marder agreed that it checked.

    "We've found them remarkably elusive otherwise," Lowndes went on. "There seems to have been a widespread rudimentary civilization along the seas and major lake coastsamphibious cave-builders is what they

    were originally. But all the caves we examined have been deserted for centuries, at least, which indicates major migratory movements of the species inland. The seas and lakes are almost completely barren of life above the plankton level."

    There had been, according to Hulman, some kind of planetary catastrophe, Marder said. Hunger had driven the "snakes," as he called them, out of the great lake chains of their origin, up into the valley swamp lands and along the river courses, forcing the remnants of the mysterious human race ahead of them in their slow migration and gradually reducing the human living area. Hulman had killed six of the bluish, wormlike creatures in this section of the valley, in the first few years after he had crashed on the planet; after that, they had ceased to show up here. But, until now, he had been unable to give the humans more effective help.

    AFTER Lowndes cut contact, Marder remained sitting in the scout for a time, gazing out at the vast, darkening valley with troubled, puzzled eyes. For twenty-two years after the destruction of his ship, Hulman had lived here, separated from the humanity of his origin by an enormity of light-years, by the black abyss of space, but in the company of a woman who was of an alien, dying race.

    "My wife!" Hulman had said, not defiantly but proudly, in speaking of her. "I called her Celia from the start, and she liked the name."

    Hidden somewhere in the shadowed swamps, the woman he'd called Celia was watching Hulman's great log house until she could overcome her timidity of the visitors from space.

    "She'll show up some time during the night," Hulman had laughed. "I'm leaving the doors open for her. I'll talk to her a little first, to reassure her, and you can meet her then. Meanwhile, why don't you have a look at her picture."

    Years ago, as a boy, Marder had first seen Hulman's early paintings of the outer worlds and, like countless thousands of others before and since, he had felt his imagination swell and grow wide with the cosmic grandeur of Hulman's vision of universal life.

    In the fifty or so paintings he had seen in the log house that day, the great sweep of space had dwindled to something apparently much more commonplace. Hulman's imagination seemed to have shrunk to correspond to the physical limitations of the valley that confined him. However, he had retained a characteristic and extraordinary precision of lifelike detail, particularly in regard to the human beings he had found

here.

    They were beautiful creatures; but the paintings aroused a revulsion in Marder, in which he recognized a vague flavoring of terror. In the one painting Hulman showed them of the woman Celia, that effect was particularly pronounced. Marder found it difficult to explain to himself. Boyce seemed insensitive to it, and there was nothing in Hulman's words or attitude to provide additional clues.

    Re-entering the house, Marder glanced back with more than a trace of uneasiness at the swamp from the doors Hulman had left open. After twenty years, Hulman should know whether danger threatened him from there; but for a visitor on a strange world, "it" and "they" were always present in the unknown dark outsidefears that usually were imaginary, but

    sometimes were not.

    Marder smiled a little grimly at his own present apprehensions and went in.

    HE found Hulman and Boyce in a cavernous cellar level beneath the house itself. It was well lit and showed familiar and reassuring features; power plants, storage rooms, even a hydroponic garden. The two men stood beside the opening of a deep fresh-water well, twenty feet across, which took up the left side of the main cellar hall.

    "Sixty feet down, it's ten degrees Fahrenheit," Hulman was stating, with a disarming house-owner's pride. He was a big man, rather heavy now, with a square-cut brown beard that showed only a few traces of gray. "I got the idea from Celia's people. Swamp water's none too healthy here at various seasons, but the well taps an underground river that's as pure as you could wish" He caught sight of Marder. "Any news?" His face had become suddenly anxious.

    "They're going to wait over there with the ship," Marder said, "a week or more, if required. We're to follow , your judgment in every way in establishing contact with the Cresgythians."

    "Good!" Hulman was obviously relieved. "We can't do anything till Celia comes inand we'll have to be very tactful then. But I'm sure it won't take a week."

"What makes them so shy of us?" Boyce inquired.

    A shadow passed over Hulman's face. "It's not you," he said. "It's me . . . Or it's an impression I gave them of the Earth kind of human beings."

    Back upstairs, with the three of them settled comfortably in the big living room, he explained. He'd given Boyce and Marder a room together on the top floor of the house, across a small hall from his own room and that of his wife.

    "I've never asked Celia much about her people," he said. "There's some kind of very strong taboo that keeps her from talking about them. When I tried to press her for details at first, it was almost as if I were committing some sort of gross indecency. But I do know they hate violence, insanity anything unbeautiful! And, you see . . ."

    When his ship crashed into the valley, he was the only man left alive on her out of the original crew of four. "Banning went insane two days before that and killed Nichols and Dawson," he said, his face drawn and taut, remembering it again over a period of twenty-two years. He paused. "And so I killed Banning before he could wreck the ship completely." He looked from one to the other of them. "It was unavoidable. But they never understood that, these people of Celia's."

"How did they find out?" Marder stirred uncomfortably.

    Hulman shrugged. "I was unconscious for about a month and completely blind for six months afterward. They got me out of the wreck and nursed me back to life, but as soon as I was out of danger, only Celia would stay with me. She and I were alone for weeks before I regained my sight. How did they find out? They're sensitive in a number of ways. And there were those bodies in the ship. Theywithdrew from me," he said with

    a grimace, "as soon as I no longer needed their help."

    "Then in all this time," Marder said slowly, "you never were able to gain their confidence?"

    Hulman stared at him a moment, apparently weighing the words. "It's not a question of confidence," he said finally. "It's a question ofwell,

    I'm trying to tell you! I didn't mind being alone with Celia." He grinned suddenly, almost boyishly. "The others stayed in a small lake village they had a couple of miles up the valley, across the swamps. Celia went up there every few days, but she never brought anyone back with her. I suspected it was simply because I was an alien. I thought they'd get over that in time. Celia seemed happy enough, so it wasn't a very acute

null

    they had in the village; and, that took up all my time for several months. For that whole period, I ignored our neighbors quite as thoroughly as they had ignored me."

    He grinned at his guests a little shamefacedly. "But you know, I couldn't keep it up then. There was something so curiously happy and peaceful about them, even if they were giving me the cold shoulder. And the one good look I'd had of them had showed me they were physically the most beautiful people I'd ever seen. One day, when Celia was gone, I made another trip to the villagewith exactly the same results as the first one. So I decided to look around for a less exclusive neighborhood.

    "I'd got the little flier of my ship repaired enough to take it off the ground and set it down again; and I calculated I'd salvaged enough fuel for at least one twenty-four-hour trip. Celia watched me take off. I flew high over the village and could see them down there, ignoring me as usual. Then I flew down the valley for almost fifty miles before I came across the first colony of the other onesthe snakes!"

    MARDER remembered something Lowndes had said. "Do the snakes live in caves?"

    "No!" Hulman said distastefully. "That's what fooled me. It was a village of stake houses set into the head of a little lake, almost like the one here. I set down on the lake, coasted up to the village, climbed up a ladder, and saw them!"

    He shuddered. "They just stood there, very quietly, watching me from the doors and windows.

What made it worse somehow was that they wore clothesbut the clothes

    didn't cover enough. Those weaving, soft, blue bodies and staring eyes! I backed off clown the ladder, with my gun ready, in case they rushed me; but they never moved . . ."

    He had found eight more colonies of the snakes farther down the valley, but no trace of another tribe of his beautiful humanoids. He flew up the valley then, high up into the mountains, almost exhausting his fuel; and beside a glacier-fed mountain lake was a tiny stake village, built into the water. And they were snakes again.

    "At the time, I didn't know just what to make of it. There was the

    possibility that my village represented an advance troop of human beings into a land of snakes. But I suspectedI felt even then, that it was

    the other way around; that it was the snakes that were encroaching on the humans. So I swore to myself that as long as I lived, at least, human beings were going to hold this section of the valley undisturbed and in safety.

"When I came back, I said to Celiashe was standing at the same spot

    I'd seen her last, as if she'd never left it`Celia, I must speak to

    your people. Go tell them I will come again tomorrow and that they must not run away.' She looked at me silently for a long time, and then she turned and left in the direction of the village. She came back late at night and crept into my arms and said, 'They have promised to wait for you.'

    "I set out next morning, full of great plans. The snakes lived in widely scattered settlements, after all. The villagers and I could wipe out those settlements one by one, until we'd cleared the land about us! That was the natural solution, wasn't it? I didn't realize then how different, in some ways, Celia's people were from us!”

BOYCE asked uneasily, "What happened?"

    "What happened?" Hulman repeated. "Well, I came over that rise, and there the village was. This time I knew they'd stayed at home! Then, not twenty feet off my path, I saw two of the snakes standing in the bushes, one watching me, the other looking at the village. Each had a kind of chunky crossbow across his shoulders; and they couldn't be seen from the village . . ."

    He paused and shook his head. "So I shot them both down, before they got over their surprise. That was all." He looked from one to the other again. "It was the natural thing to do, wasn't it?"

Boyce nodded uncertainly. Marder said nothing.

    Hulman leaned forward. "But apparently, from the point of view of the villagers, it wasn't! Because when I was done with the snakesone of

    them took three shots before it would lie stillthe village was empty

    again. When I got back home, I was actually sick with disappointment. And then I discovered that Celia was gone!

    "That was a bad three days. But she came back then. And on the morning she came back, I discovered they'd broken up the village overnight and moved on. I think they're not more than ten or twenty miles distant from here, but I never tried to look them up again."

Boyce said puzzled, "But I don't see"

    "Neither did I," Hulman interrupted, "until it was too late!" He gave his short bark of laughter again; there was, Marder realized, a sort of suppressed fury in it. "They won't kill their enemiesthey're too

    polite for that! So their enemies are gradually squeezing them out of existence."

    The three men studied each other in silence for a moment. Then Marder asked slowly, "Captain Hulman, what do you expect us to do in this situation?"

    "Kill the snakes!" Hulman said promptly. "As many as we can find! If the human beings of this world won't defend themselves, we'll have to defend them. As long as I've been here, no party of snakes has come past this point of the valley. A few of them have tried!" His eyes glittered with open hatred. "But I can't be on guard here forever. It's up to you and the other men on the ship to do the job right!"

    THOUGH Boyce was sleeping, Marder hadn't yet shut his eyes. The uneasiness was in him, too; and in him it was strong enough to offset the fatigue and excitement of the day. Vague night sounds came into the room they shared, a plaintive, thin calling like the distant cry of a bird. Not too different from the sounds on many other worlds he had known, and, as on all worlds that were new and strange, faintly tinged with the menace that was largely in the imagination.

    But it was Hulman himself who was the principal cause of Marder's uneasiness.

    The face of the old explorer, the rumbling, angry voice, his monomaniacal devotion to the strange humanoids kept recurring in his mind. Nothing Hulman had done previously to stimulate the imagination of Earthmen toward the laborious exploration of space could equal this final accidental achievement: to have encountered the first other human beings Earthmen had yet discovered in the Universe. Men had looked out from their world like children staring into a great, dark forbidding

    room. They had found space to be peopled sparsely with intelligent lifelife that was sometimes horrible, sometimes merely odd, sometimes beautiful in weird, incomprehensible ways. But never enough like Man to be acceptable!

    Hulman's fierce insistence on protecting what seemed to be the dying remnants of a human race against its own wishes was something Marder could understand well enough. He did not doubt that Boyce and the others would respond wholeheartedly to that insistence. Here was the proof that human life could rise spontaneously and endlessly throughout all the galaxies, that the Universe was not a darkened room, after all, but one lighted forever by the fires of humanity.

They had to protect that proof . . .

    Strangely enough, though Boyce was asleep and he awake, it was Boyce who first seemed aware of motion in the house. Marder heard him breathe and stir unquietly, and then come awake and grow still, listening, waiting. He smiled faintly at the familiar signs, the tense alertness, the silent questioning of the strange world about them: "What is it? Who moves?" On many other strange, dark worlds, he had been among Earthmen as they came awake, asking that question. And he with them …

    He grew aware of it then: there was motion in the house now, beyond the walls. Gradually, it resolved itself into slow, heavy steps on the carpeted flooring; and the picture of Hulman leaving his room to peer down the stairs came so convincingly into his mind that at once he relaxed again. And he was aware that Boyce was relaxing too.

    Neither of them spoke. After a time, Hulman went back to his room, walking carefully so as not to disturb his guests; and the house was still. Presently, Boyce was sleeping again. Marder tried to pick up the train of thoughts he had been following before the disturbance; but they eluded him now. Fatigue grew up in him like waves of mental darkness, smothering the remnants of uneasiness; and reluctantly he let himself drift off.

    The blast that roused him seemed to have gone off almost beside his head.

    HE found himself standing in the center of the room, gun in one hand, flashbeam in the other. Boyce's wide back was just disappearing through the door into the dark hall beyond; and Boyce's shout was in his ears:

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