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While The North Wind Blows

Dave Hunsacker, the early-morning air cold on his face, looked down from above on the dark tops of the big trees he was used to seeing from below. Not since the colonization ship had first brought the colonists to the planet had Dave enjoyed this particular view, and in fact, he was not enjoying it very much right now. Leaning out the open viewport as the space yacht slowly descended, he intently scanned the sea of shadowy treetops, where stray wisps of fog trailed up, and a little of the winter's snow still lay on the branches. Suddenly, near the top of a towering fern tree, a bright yellow glow appeared.

Dave cleared his throat.

"The pests are awake. There's the first blast."

He noted the location of the tree, near a large oblong clearing where the snow still lay in heaps.

In the forest just to the east of the clearing, a dozen more bright dots sprang to life.

He said urgently, "There's more of them! Better lift!"

The space yacht slowed its descent, paused, hovered—

Down below, the first glow blossomed into a climbing foot-thick pillar of fire that lit the surrounding treetops like the rising sun, and was reflected brightly on the snow of the nearby clearing.

The yacht continued to hover.

Dave pulled himself inside, and glanced around.

At the yacht's controls, Jim Fielding, the sweat running down his face, was using both hands to heave upward on the chrome-plated control-stick.

"Something's wrong," said Fielding. "I tried for maximum lift and got nothing."

"Let go, and try it again. If we don't get out of here fast, we're going to get cooked in flaming pitch."

Fielding let go of the control stick, and lifted gently.

Dave looked back out the viewport.

Now the other dots of light had lengthened into climbing lines of flame.

A mechanical voice spoke in soothing tones from a grille over the control board.

"This is your Stand-By Pilot speaking."

Dave, at the viewport, noted the sharply defined edges of the climbing streams of fire. Within the bright glow, shadows seemed to whirl and spin, appear and vanish. Like curving fingers, the dazzling streams were beginning to tilt toward the hovering yacht.

He slammed shut the viewport.

The mechanical voice was saying, " . . . detect no near physical obstacle below, and no approach of other spacecraft which would justify extreme acceleration. Your Helth-Gard System is countermanding, for your protection and the comfort of your guests, an overly extreme control-signal. Always be sure that you use your Convenience Control with care, and that small children do not obtain access to . . ."

With a feeling of unreality, Dave watched the bright curving fingertips dip toward him. Down below, fresh dots of light were blossoming into climbing streams of fire. He kept his voice level.

"Be gentle, and try to lift again!"

Fielding very cautiously lifted up on the shiny chrome stick.

The yacht began to climb.

Dave tensely watched the arcs of flame converge.

Fielding said, "Will we make it?"

"Not at this rate!"

Fielding with desperate caution lifted the stick further.

The yacht was rising with increasing speed, but the streams of flame were coming faster. Already he seemed to feel the heat of the flame on his face.

The yacht abruptly stopped rising, and again hovered.

"This is your Stand-By Pilot speaking. Advanced instruments detect no physical obstacle below, and no approach of other spacecraft which—"

A bell went off with a clang that vibrated the whole ship. The deck leaped underfoot like an express elevator hit from below by a giant's sledgehammer. There was a roar and a scream of tortured metal, a sense of unbearable pressure, and the world went black.

He came to to the sound of occasional spaced hammer-like blows, and a new and different mechanical voice:

" . . . your Emergency Safewatch Monitor Systems. We regret the momentary inconvenience of Interlock Maxiboost Acceleration, which was necessary to prevent severe equipment and personnel damage due to . . ." There was a pause, then the voice concluded " . . . excessive heat."

Dave Hunsacker, flat on the deck, opened his eyes to see Jim Fielding pull himself to a sitting position, then stagger to his feet to look at the shining chromium-plated stick, and then at the grille over the control panel.

Dave became aware of a severe headache, and of a need for profanity that no profanity he could think of would fill. The day before, the loud and boisterous people who had brought this yacht to the planet had set down near a place locally known as "Packbear Flats," and had rudely interrupted the end of the bears' winter sleep. When the bears finished relieving their irritation, Hunsacker and his settlement had inherited the yacht, and also, due to the earlier landing of a different yacht, they found themselves the delighted hosts for a number of attractive young women. The girls had been led to land because of the look of the spring sun on the winter snow, and the men in the other yacht had been attracted by the presence there of the girls' yacht. It seemed reasonable to Dave and his friends that two yachts, sitting upright in the open sunlight, and pulse-reflection-coated around their spire-like snouts, might attract any number of unwanted guests. The obvious thing to do was to get the yachts out of sight. And the obvious place to put them was under the trees near the clearing, where Dave and Jim Fielding had just tried to go.

Fielding let his breath out with a hiss.

"Well, the slags are sure through hibernating, just like the rest of the pests. But we've still got to get these things out of sight, somehow. Now what do we do?"

Dave got carefully to his feet.

"The obvious place is still the same."

"Under the big steelwood trees, just back from the edge of the clearing?"

"Right. The trees are big, well-spaced, clear of limbs for most of their height, and then the branches interlace thickly overhead. Also, they're close to the settlement. The spot is ideal."

"How do we get past the slags?"

Dave opened the viewport and peered down, where a single intensely bright line was still climbing up from the dark forest.

Fielding looked out beside him, watching as the bright line seemed to waver, and suddenly vanished. Fielding said exasperatedly, "Can you tell me how a thing like a giant caterpillar can generate, much less aim, a stream of flame?"

Dave shook his head. He said dryly, "However, they can."

Fielding nodded. "That time Abe and I decided there were getting to be too many of the things, and we tried to cut down a fern tree to get one of them—you remember that?"

Hunsacker grinned. "I remember it."

"That son-of-a-gun took a shot at me from his hole eighty feet up, and the flaming pitch was right behind me for a hundred yards. It was like trying to sneak off with their prey. The thing could have cooked me alive anytime, but it just didn't choose to do it. They only grill flying creatures."

"Unfortunately," said Dave, "as far as the slags are concerned, that now includes us. I wonder if there's any way we could come in from out of their range, near ground level, so they'd class us as ground animals."

Fielding thought a moment, then shook his head.

"The trees are too thick. It would take us forever to chop a way through."

From the grille over the control panel came a polite mechanical voice:

"This is your RoBoButler Service. A Type-3 light gravitor vessel of the skimmer class is again circling the ship, apparently endeavoring to gain your attention."

Dave glanced out the viewport, but saw nothing.

From somewhere came a hammering noise, as if someone reached out and pounded hard on the hull.

Fielding snapped on the communicator.

"Who's there?"

There was no reply, and he tried again, using the outside loudspeaker.

Dave glanced back out the viewport.

Around from his left, twelve-foot leathery wings stiffly outspread, kite-like tail slightly arched, and the big-beaked head on its long neck tilted to regard the yacht, came another of the planet's prime pests. As he watched, it moved its wings briefly with a flick-flick-flick sound, spun its tail and head, and reversed its course. It disappeared climbing to the left, and Hunsacker sucked in his breath and slammed shut the viewport.

"Now what?" said Fielding.

"We've had slags. Now we've got flits."

The creature suddenly reappeared in the viewport, circling back from the right. Its beak flashed out on its long neck, and banged against the viewport. Then for an instant its head was pressed against the transparent surface, the big eye peering in intently. Then it was gone.

The two men stood frozen, and it went through Dave's mind that one twist of that curved beak could rip out a man's throat, or strip his flesh from the thigh to the knee. Of course, the flits, for some reason, preferred to first soften up their prey by dropping it a hundred feet or so onto bare rock.

Hunsacker let his breath out slowly. Fielding cleared his throat.

"They don't come much closer than that, old buddy. If the port had been open, that thing could have run its extension-tongs neck in here and snaked one or the other of us right out for the long dive."

From the direction of the control panel there came again the polite mechanical voice:

"This is your RoBoButler Service. We repeat that a Type-3 light gravitor-vessel of the skimmer class is circling the ship, attempting to gain your attention."

"It's gained it," said Fielding, looking over the control panel. "I'd like to know the I.Q. of the computer that runs this luxury pot."

"Somewhere in the high teens or low twenties," said Dave, looking around and fixing in his mind, in case a quick retreat should be in order, the location of the shaft down to the next level. "It seems to me we ought to have some kind of a reply for that bird, before it tries again, knocks the port off its hinges, and climbs in."

"I'm looking for something sharp on this panel . . . Here, this looks promising." Fielding threw a switch, and a recorded voice boomed outside:

"Your attention, please. This vessel is fully protected by appropriate devices of the Advanced Synodic Products Corporation. It will retaliate automatically against any aggressive or hostile action."

The two men glanced at each other.

"That's more like it."

A shadow drifted across the viewport. From somewhere overhead, on the yacht's nose, came a faint rumble.

Hunsacker warily glanced out the viewport, to see the flying creature twist sharply to one side.

There was a blast of pink radiance, that narrowly missed it.

The flit shot down around the opposite side of the yacht, there was a violent scratching scrabbling noise, then a loud booming note, a sizzling sound, and a shriek.

Fielding, adjusting the viewscreen, said, "This yacht seems to have some kind of energy cannon mounted on it. —There goes the flit, diving straight down!"

Dave glanced at the screen, to see a burst of bright lines rise up from the forest to form a net around the creature, which abruptly spread its huge wings, twisted in the fiery lines and slammed wildly into the treetops.

The two men watched the screen thoughtfully.

Dave said, "What was that scratching sound after the energy cannon took a crack at the flit the first time?"

Fielding shook his head. "There must be some way to get a better look than I got. It seemed to me the flit tried to run up the side of the yacht to get at the cannon."

Hunsacker thought it over. "And what was the booming noise?"

"I don't know. Everything happened fast just then. I didn't see anything that ought to have made that noise." He glanced at the viewscreen, and worked its control switches. "The side of the ship seems to be okay."

Dave looked out the closed viewport.

"Rotate the ship, why don't you, and let's take a look around."

Fielding turned the chrome-plated control-stick, and the ship slowly rotated.

Peering out through the viewport, Dave Hunsacker saw a pair of dots approaching from the direction of the lightening sky to the east, and several more to the northeast. In the other directions, the sky was still too dark to make out anything in the distance.

"What do you see?" he asked.

"Flits," said Fielding. "Of course, we'd expect to see them. They're migrating north with the spring. And we're right on the main route."

"These don't look like they're migrating north right now. They're headed towards us."

Fielding nodded. "I see it, but I don't understand it. Well . . . Now what do we do?"

Dave tried to get a mental grip on the situation, but couldn't do it.

Fielding suggested, "Set down again?"

"We might as well, I suppose."

Fielding nodded moodily.

"Flits and slags; slags and flits . . . That's the story of this planet. If it isn't one miserable thing, it's another."

Dave nodded, and stared out the viewport. "They are headed this way, and coming fast."

"I'll set down." Fielding swung the ship back over the bluff, there was a brief dazzling flash from below, and he lowered the ship to a gentle landing beside the other yacht, in the clearing known as Packbear Flats. The two men dropped down the grav shaft, lowered the ramp, and got out.

There was a small crowd at the base of the second yacht, but Dave stopped beside a tall girl standing a little back from the crowd. He said nothing, looking at the working colonists and the watching girls, then glanced uneasily at the sky.

She followed his gaze. "Trouble?"

He noted that the flits he could still see from here were considerably closer, and still apparently headed for the same spot as before.

He nodded. "Trouble, with wings."

"The kind of bird that stalked us yesterday? —That was coming north in a big flock?"

"The same. Apparently the flock has paused and spread out to hunt. They do that sometimes, when there's bad weather further north."

"I can't see them."

"Look for a dot that seems not quite stationery, or a kind of dust particle with a slow waving motion. With practice, unless there's one inside a cloud, or coming at you with the sun behind it—you can spot them a long way off. —Especially after they drop down after you once or twice."

She smiled wryly.

"Did all these things turn out just for us? The bears, these flying things, and these things you mentioned that live in big trees, and knock down the flying things?"

"It's just that the weather's changing. The slags—the things in the trees—hibernate like the bears. The flits winter in the south. A week or two ago, all these things were out of sight." He glanced at the other space yacht. "Is it flyable?"

"The fuel line and some of the wiring had been ripped loose. That's nearly fixed. But the plates in the base section have been so badly battered that it would leak air no matter what we might do. It's flyable, I think, as long as it doesn't leave the planet. But we should get it out of sight. You'd be surprised how visible one of these yachts is from high up."

He nodded, but for a moment didn't say anything. Her presence affected him like cool water after a long hot day. Then he smiled, checked the sky again, and described what had happened. As he finished, he was conscious of someone else, and turned to see several men, and a strongly built woman of about medium height, a wrench in one hand, listening intently to him. This was Phyllis Laffert, about whom the colony's men, their egos rubbed raw by her abrasive tongue, often said, "If she was a man, you'd have to break her neck. Since she's a woman—well, what can you do?"

She said now, "Well, that's nice. The slags are awake, then?"

"Wide awake," said Dave. "There's one, just back from the edge of the clearing, that erupts like a volcano."

She narrowed her eyes.

"You'd say there are more around the clearing than last year?"

Dave nodded. "A lot more. Before we got away from there, there were dozens of them, and from where I was, only part of the forest was visible. On top of that, it's just turned warm, and the youngest ones will still be in torpor, so we didn't run into all of them."

"They have to be cut down," she said to the men, "or thinned out. It's getting so that if a dead leaf blows over that field, it's like an aerial barrage."

The men standing around looked profoundly uncomfortable, and said nothing.

She said, "We can't keep planting that field if those slags aren't thinned out somehow."

One of the men said hesitantly, "Maybe a little later in the year—"

She looked at him angrily.

"A little later, nothing. This should have been taken care of in the winter, while they were asleep. They have no natural enemies. It's up to us to control their numbers."

"Yes, but Phyl— To climb one of those trees at twenty below zero with your hands numb, and not a branch from the ground up for eighty feet—"

"They should be cut down."

"What? In a howling gale, trees that size, with the wood froze like rock?"

There was a brief twanging sound before she could reply and they all looked around, to see the other space yacht slowly and majestically rise up until it was at the height of the bluff, then pause, and climb slowly higher. It was perhaps one hundred and fifty feet above the height of the top of the bluff when a brilliant line of fire reached up toward the yacht from somewhere back in the forest.

Phyllis Laffert, in a tone of disgust, said, "Now they're there, too. —Scatter!"

Dave saw one of the disk-shaped skimmers sitting not far off. Since everyone else at once headed for the base of the bluff, and the caves there, he caught the girl's hand, and led her quickly to the skimmer.

From overhead came a loud clanging, but he didn't spare the time to glance up. He shot the skimmer off flat and fast, away from the bluff. When he glanced back, no one was in sight, the yacht was a mere speck high in the sky, and steam was rising from patches of snow on the flat land near the other yacht.

She glanced around, looked at him, and smiled suddenly, but said nothing.

He hovered briefly above some low trees below the bluff, his mind a maze of calculations.

He studied the sky, and the flits. They were still high up, and they were still coming. From his present angle of vision he could see no less than six of them.

She followed his gaze. "Now I see them. What are they doing?"

"That's what I want to find out."

He swung the skimmer up, and the morning sun, just lighting the treetops, seemed to lift over the horizon as he rose. Still below the top of the bluff, he passed above the yacht left standing below, and as the sun struck its upright bow, a piercing green flash half-blinded him.

He said, "That's the pulse-reflection coating?"

She nodded. "It stores up light-energy—however feeble the light may be—and releases it almost straight up when the stored energy reaches a certain level. You can see the flash a long distance up. Since it emits only the wave-length coded for that particular yacht, to a certain extent you can identify the yacht by eye—by the color of the flash."

"You can see it very well?"

"Yes. It's like a beacon."

"Can you scrape this coating off?"

"You have to somehow dismount the cannon first. The coating is a safety feature, and as I remember the service manual, the cannon is hooked up to protect the coating from damage by life-forms attracted by the radiation pulses."

He nodded.

"And you say there were fifteen yachts in the party you started out with?"

She nodded. "We broke up after the trouble on one of the colony planets. That was when it dawned on us that some of the others were using a kind of drug, and raiding the colonists."

"All we need is another crew like that last one. —Hang on!"

She took a strong grip on the handholds.

He glanced around, noted the yacht overhead had moved off to the side, and shot up above the edge of the bluff. As the forest atop the bluff dropped below, he slowed, and watched.

A lance of flame about an inch thick started climbing from below. It arched up like a fusion beam warping through a dense gravitic field, and it was headed so nearly straight for them that Dave could only judge its height by the foreshortened glowing curve he could make out. He started climbing again.

She crouched low, peering over the edge.

There was a sort of wavering of the bright curve, and then it broke, and as far as could be seen, there was nothing.

They were now high up, and the wind was beginning to buffet the skimmer. Dave glanced around, but not down. He hadn't been in the open at such a height in years, and an attack of vertigo was all he needed.

She said, "That was just one of them?"

He nodded. "Usually there's a bunch of them, so anything passing overhead runs the risk of getting grilled in the pattern put up by the colony. The only way to avoid being attacked is to get well below tree level; but you can still get hit when anything else gets attacked. If you happen to be down there when the hot pitch comes down, that's not much fun."

The skimmer's communicator buzzed and crackled. Jim Fielding's voice said, "Nice fireworks. You okay?"

"Yeah. This thing has a good rate of climb."

"Don't shake hands with yourself too soon. Another batch of flits are out."

Dave looked around. "That makes sense. Where did you see them?"

"To the west. They're headed north, and there must be fifty or sixty at least in this part of the main body. How high are you now?"

"High enough so I'm afraid to look over the edge. Why?"

"Then you're about their height. Watch out the flankers don't get diving room above you."

Dave looked around, and saw nothing in the cloudy gloom to the west.

"This wasn't a flock of young ones, was it?"

"The smallest one I saw looked about twenty feet across the wingtips."

"How were they flying?"

"Beat. But hungry. They weren't making a sound, apart from a slow creak of their wings. We got a good look. This yacht is nice for sightseeing."

"Did they attack?"

"They ignored us. But they may not ignore you."

Dave looked to the west and again saw nothing.

"Thanks," he said.

"Glad to bring the happy tidings," said Fielding.

Dave was now gradually starting to freeze. He felt for the communicator's shut-off, and said, "See you, Jim, I hope."

"Yeah. Good luck, Dave."

He found some kind of a switch, the communicator clicked, and he looked around. To the east, he spotted the flits he had seen before.

The huge creatures were close now, coming together as if drawn from half of a circle miles across. As he watched, one-by-one they came together, and swung around each other, a total of nine huge predators with their outstretched heads turning first this way, then that.

Dave cautiously looked over the edge of the skimmer. Far below, almost directly beneath the circling flits, was the oblong clearing.

They seemed to be at about the same height, and directly over the same part of the forest, where the yacht had been attacked by the first flit.

He frowned. What had brought all these predators together? Particularly at just the spot where one of their number had attacked the ship—which had since moved on?

"Fish around in that compartment," he said, "and see if you can find a blanket, robe, or something."

She drew out a large plaid blanket, and passed it to him. As he took it, it grew warm to the touch.

From somewhere came a flick-flick-flick sound, and he glanced up.

A huge creature, big beak outstretched, hurried past some sixty feet overhead, dropped down, and joined the other circling monsters.

Dave gave brief silent thanks that they were still alive, and glanced at the girl. Her pale expression as she searched the sky reaffirmed his estimate of her sense. But the fact remained that they had both missed that one, and it could have had them if it hadn't been on more urgent business.

There were now ten gigantic flits circling slowly, turning their heads alertly in all directions.

Dave looked around.

She said, "There."

From the vague gray background to the west emerged another one.

Eleven flits circled patiently, looking earnestly all around.

She pointed toward the northwest.

"Here's another."

As Dave glanced around, he faintly heard something coming from a different direction. Then, it was clearer:


He looked down.

Below the level of the skimmer, neck outstretched, head tilted, came another one—this time from the southwest.

There were now thirteen of the gigantic creatures circling, necks outstretched, tilting their heads this way and that.

He glanced around, and saw, due west, an unusually big one flapping its way in against the wind.

Now fourteen of the monsters circled, grimly patient.

Dave's mind was a boiling turmoil as he tried to join disconnected bits and pieces of information to make some sense of what was happening. One after another the thoughts flashed into his mind, to be examined like the separate pieces of a puzzle:

The flits were coming north.

They were hungry.

They were at or close to the spot where one had attacked the yacht.

The yacht, at that time, had just barely escaped the slags.

The slags lived in resinous trees, could digest the cellulose of the trees, but seemed to also need a small amount of protein. The slags got protein by knocking down flying creatures that passed overhead, the huge flits making particularly desired targets.

Except for the slags, the flits had no known natural enemies.

The slags themselves had no known natural enemies at all.

The flits, except when migrating lived separated, each pair apparently having their own territory, and adjusting the borders according to their numbers.

The slags lived in colonies, which increased fast.

The slags apparently made their raw material from the resin of the trees in which they lived, but how they made it in such quantities, projected it to such heights—and particularly how they lit it in the first place—were mysteries none of the colonists had yet solved. About all that was definitely known was that the slags were very free with their fiery blast in wet weather, and cautiously sparing in times of drought.

Dave thought it over in bafflement, and two more pieces of information occurred to him:

The slags were far more numerous now than when the colonists had first arrived.

The flits, too, were clearly more numerous.

—And then, as he watched the circling flits, the scattered pieces of information suddenly began to fit together. He glanced around, aware that he had fallen into a dangerous reverie, and then he saw that the girl was alertly keeping watch, one hand on the skimmer's gun.

Dave glanced at the flits in momentary puzzlement. The day before, he'd been certain that one of them was stalking the skimmer—getting in position for an attack. Today, they acted almost as if the skimmer were a fellow creature.

Frowning, he said, "Chloe?"

She smiled.

He said, "I want to try something. Keep an eye on these flits, and let me know if any of them makes any motion as if to attack us. I'm going to be watching the forest."

She nodded, and glanced carefully all around.

He swung the skimmer past the huge monotonously circling creatures, and one or two of the monsters glanced at him with what appeared to be an approving friendly gaze. For a moment, he had a weird sense of circling with his fellows, high in the sky, wings spread, the world stretched out below. He told himself that he needed sleep, recovered the thread of his thoughts, and started to drop the skimmer down.

After a moment, she caught her breath, started to speak, then remained tensely silent. Then she glanced at him.

"They don't seem to be going to attack us—but they're following us down."

He looked up, to see that several of the huge creatures had left the circle, and were spiraling down, following the skimmer.

"Hang on," he said. "Apparently, there has never been anything on this planet roughly their size and shape that could fly, except themselves—so they seem to accept us as being one of them. In case they change their minds, though, we want to be ready to get out of here in a hurry."

She watched them alertly. "I hope they don't change their minds."

"The slags, of course, will also take us for flits."

Dave, looking down at the forest a little later, thought that they were almost as low now as the yacht had been when the slags had gone to work on it. But, so far, there was no response from below, and he continued to drop down.

Then, near the edge of the clearing, a yellow glow burst into life, and another, and another. Dozens of glowing lines began to climb up out of the still dark forest into the sunlight.

From above came a sudden booming, a noise such as Dave and Jim Fielding had heard earlier, but far louder, and growing louder yet. The separate notes seemed to reinforce, resonate, gather power—

"Hang on!" said Dave. He checked to see that she had a firm grip, then shot the skimmer fast to the side. The forest and the rising streams of fire blurred, the booming died away, he peered ahead, and up, and sent the skimmer into a steep climb.

The forest dropped away below, until they were looking down on scattered clouds, sunlit treetops, and two curving arcs of gray specks that converged toward the gray-and-white rectangle of snow-filled clearing atop the bluff. Even here, in the whistle of an icy wind, he could hear a faint booming note, and see a cross-hatching of bright lines against the darker background of the forest.

She looked all around. "Is it safe here?"

He glanced around dubiously. "If your friends on the other yachts don't show up. If the skimmer doesn't quit on us."

"What happened back there? Did you figure out what they were doing?"

"Something Jim Fielding said occurred to me. He said it looked as if the flit that attacked us had tried to run up the side of the ship to get at the energy cannon. Now, the energy cannon used heat-energy as a weapon. To one of these flying monsters, what would that mean that an energy cannon is?"

"A slag?"

"Exactly. And the yacht—a vertical cylinder—what can that be but a very tall tree? Now, if the flit tries to run up the side of the ship, which it thinks is a tree, to get the energy-cannon, which it thinks is a slag, what will it do with a real slag?"

She looked over the edge, where the gray specks were vanishing, and the bright lines were no longer visible.

"Then," she said, "that booming was a call, and the flits that hear it go to the spot where they heard the call given. But why should they prey on the slags now and not ordinarily?"

"Ordinarily, they're spread out in pairs. What can one or two of them do against a whole colony of slags? But now they're migrating, and they're in large numbers. What they live on when they're migrating, I don't know, but I imagine they welcome a nice juicy slag when they can get it—and there's a big colony of them down there. The possibility should have dawned on us before. Something must keep down the numbers of the slags, or they'd overrun the planet."

He glanced around, looked down, and saw a cloud of steam drifting from the forest near the clearing.

He snapped on the communicator.


"Dave?" answered Jim Fielding's voice. "You still with us?"

"So far. Why?"

"A hurricane of flits went by, headed in your direction. I thought maybe they were taking turns dropping you on the rocks."

"No, we're friends with them. We showed them where your pals the slags hang out, and the flits went down for a visit."

There was a silence and a murmur of voices, then Fielding said, "Abe's in touch with us from the other skimmer, near the cabins. He says there was a noise like the sky had turned into a washtub, and someone was pounding on it, and then there was a terrific uproar, with screams, breaking branches, streaks of fire in all directions, sizzling snow, shrieks, bellows, and clutching noises. Do you mean to tell me the flits went after the slags?"

Dave glanced all around, just in case, then said, "It seems reasonable to me. But I don't know what happened. We got out of there. You can go take a good close look if you want to."

"If there weren't quite so many holes in this tub, we would. Where are you now?"

"Roughly over the clearing. It seems to me that we're about three miles up. You know, it might be possible to get those yachts into the forest now without getting cooked. The slags have something else to think about."

"That's a thought. Maybe we could." There was a tense pause. "We won't get another chance like this. Okay, we're going to try it."

"Good luck."

"Thanks. Same to you, Dave . . . I hope."

"See you, Jim." He snapped off the communicator, and glanced at the girl, who, the blanket tight around her shoulders, and her hands gripping the edge of the skimmer, was looking over the rim to see beneath the skimmer. She turned, and glanced around overhead.

Dave watched approvingly, not only struck by her looks, but by her alertness. He glanced quickly around, then started down.

"You seem," he said, "to catch onto the spirit of this place unusually fast."

She nodded. "In some ways, it's just like home. Only there should be more snow, and a lot of salt water."

"A colony planet?"

She said ironically, "Just a planet to get rich quick on, and get off of in three years."

He grinned. "I suppose a person could learn a lot in those three years."

She nodded. "Such as 'Keep looking ahead, or you may go through where it's thin, and come up where it's thick.' That is, under the ice."

He considered it, and glanced briefly around. "No wonder this place seems almost like home to you. The spirit's the same. It's just the details that are different. But we have a poet here, to immortalize the details. Can you equal this:

"'Do your dreaming while at home in bed.

Our stranglebush makes walking sleepers dead.'"

"H'm," she said, "'stranglebush.'" She grinned and glanced around. "Yes, I think we had something almost as nice:

"'Stay on-trail

That's the law.

Snowtrapper has

A one meter jaw.'"

They looked at each other, and suddenly they were both laughing.

He said, "There was something I wanted to ask you, but I've been hesitating. For one thing, there's something about this place which—while at least it's not civilization—still, it falls short of perfection. Moreover—"

"Do you," she said, smiling, "always make these long speeches before you say something?"

"I was afraid you might not appreciate what it's actually like here."

She glanced around alertly. "That's true, but I do know what civilization is like. We found that out after Daddy found the ore-body, and all of a sudden we had money." She said this as she might have said, "Then I slipped in a hole and got a broken leg."

Dave glanced around, and studied a large dark cloud about half-a-mile away. He glanced down, where the treetops swayed, and steam and wet smoke boiled up.

"This," he said looking back at her, "encourages me to offer you a way to escape from all that."

"Some day, if you ever get around to actually making the offer, maybe I'll tell you what happened. You want to know in case you ever should land in the same spot."

"The way things are here, the danger of that is slight. However, there are other things, and I'm trying to remember . . . yes, I think I've got it, now. You should know at least this much before I say anything else. Just keep an eye on that big dark cloud while I recite this."

She cast a quick look around, and watched the cloud. He thought a moment, then slowly recited:

"'Welcome, Friend, to our planet of ease.
In winter here, you will sneeze and freeze;
But don't complain without good reason;
Save your curse for a still worse season.
When sweet summer's sun the snows doth warm,
The pests pour forth in a hideous swarm:
Bears and badgers, slags and flits,
Bugs to drive you out of your wits;
Stung you'll be, and frequently bit.
Just name it, Friend; we've got it.'"

She laughed, and he said, "That doesn't cover it, but you should have some idea."

She glanced at him shyly, then spoke in a soft voice. "I think I follow your reasoning; but you're so cagey about actually saying anything that I'm having a little trouble springing the trap." She glanced at the cloud. "However, there's still time, if you hurry. Perhaps it will help if I recite a verse:

"'While the icy northwind still doth blow,
Hasten your travelings o'er the snow.
Brethren, sweet springtime's cozy hush
Will sink you deep in bottomless mush.'

"And," she said, looking around, "this is going to be a warm day."

He took a quick glance around, then, alternately glancing at the approaching cloud and at the space yacht slowly descending toward the clearing, he proposed.

She accepted.

During that instant when neither was watching, there burst from the cloud, wings folded and claws outstretched, a large flit, followed by a second, a third, and a fourth. They shot past the yacht, directly between it and the skimmer, and headed for the forest. Atop the yacht, the energy cannon loomed out of its housing.

Dave shouted, "Hang on."

She gripped the holds, he glanced back, and snapped the skimmer sharply to the north.

The blaze of pink radiance shot past, the flits vanished through a hole in the treetops, a slag below was already taking a shot, and as Dave swerved sharply, another flit dropped out of the cloud and went past like a boulder.

He got more height, then went over the edge of the bluff high enough to avoid the slag nested in the trees somewhere down there, and at once was almost blinded by the glare from the nose of the yacht below. He glanced through the afterimages to observe that she had shut her eyes in time, and as he dropped down toward the yacht, he wondered briefly just what this planet she had come from had actually been like, to breed such alertness and mental control.

Sometime soon, he thought, he'd have to ask her—sometime when the door was triple-barred and braced, his gun loaded and handy, the shutters barred from within, and either a roaring fire in the fireplace, or the chimney-stone lowered solidly into its rests, and the lift-pole jammed in place.

But not just now.

He glanced around intently.

It didn't pay to let the mind wander.


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