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The Sieve

Benton squinted narrowly at the green leaf Dave Ander was experimentally rolling in his hand.

"I don't know, Dave," said Benton. "Maybe it's none of my business. Still—" He looked around at the trees, some of them six feet through the butt, that surrounded the clearing. The carcass of the dead roller was still sprawled over a heap of fallen logs at the edge of the clearing. The wrecked dozer was still upside down, and was already rusting where the roller's claws had ripped off the protective coating. Benton took a deep breath. "All the same, we've got to get going again. Summer won't last forever."

Ander broke up several more pieces of dried gray leaf, then tipped his hand to let the small pieces sift out onto the green leaf. He rolled the leaf up again, bound it carefully with the pliable stalk of a small vine, then tied it and broke off the rest of the vine. He turned it this way and that.

"Ah," he said.

"Dave," said Benton, "are you going to smoke the thing now?"

"Why not?" Ander felt through his pockets and came out with a pack of matches. He struck one.

"Dave—" said Benton. He hesitated, and again looked over the clearing. Of the row of cabins, only the "Administrative Center" was undamaged. And on the porch of the Administrative Center sat four men and three women, their backs against the wall. Their legs were outstretched, and their heads tilted back. A wisp of white smoke drifted out away from them toward the south.

Ander touched the match to the gray flecks protruding from his rolled leaf. The match blew out. Ander swore, and hastily struck another. Eagerly he sucked on the leaf.

"Dave," said Benton. "For the love of Heaven. Look. It doesn't do any good. Nothing's changed. When you get through with that, where are you? You're no better off than when you started."

"Ah-h-h," said Ander. His eyes closed and opened again dreamily. He sat down on the ground, sucked hard, blew out a cloud of white smoke, then lay back in the earth that had been plowed and was already growing up again in weeds.

Benton looked down at Ander for a moment, looked at the four men and three women leaning against the Administrative Center. He looked at the dead and slowly decomposing roller, whose stench, once the wind shifted, would be carried this way to make the place practically uninhabitable. He glanced at the burned earth where the supply rocket had landed tools, medical supplies, and seed, and to which it would not return until next spring. He looked again at Ander, lying comfortably in the sun and rolling his head from side to side as he blew out white smoke. Ander's face wore a look of complete contentment.

Benton looked at Ander's face, looked at the weeds and ruins, and found no words suitable to express his feelings. He turned on his heel and started back toward the cabins.

The sun, sliding down toward the west, was hot on Benton's back and shoulders as he crossed the furrows. His shirt clung to his skin. He was thirsty. He felt slightly light-headed from hunger. He was aware that his mind was functioning with the same degree of efficiency as a dismasted sailing vessel.

He passed a log cabin with the roof smashed in, the chimney knocked full length on the ground, and the logs at one corner mashed down like a child's toy under an adult's foot. On the half-ruined porch of this cabin sat a girl. The girl had blond hair and high cheekbones. Her head was tilted back, and her shirt open at the throat to show smooth white skin.

Benton stopped. "Dr. Forbes?"

The girl blew twin jets of white smoke out her nostrils. She tilted her head forward and regarded him dreamily. She opened her mouth, and moved her lips soundlessly. After a moment, words came. "Yes, Ben?"

Benton walked over to look down at her. "Ander, Stephenson, Ginetti, Muller, and Greenbaum are all smoking the stuff."

She looked up at him with a faint smile. "Are they, Ben?"

The way she said it made him feel foolish. "Also," he said, "Shirley, Tac, Lou-Ann, and you."

"I see, Ben." She nodded wisely and drew on the rolled leaf. A submerged hint of some other emotion crossed her face. "What about Gina?"

"I haven't seen Gina since the rollers went through."

She smiled faintly. "Have you looked?"

"I've looked all over the place."

"Why, Ben?"

"Why?" He stared at her. "A rocketship," he said, "puts down at a spaceport. One of the landing legs collapses. Fourteen injured passengers are carried off. The passenger list shows there were fifteen on board. The spaceport officials search the ship for the last passenger. Why?"

The blond girl shook her head and smiled lazily. She picked up and held out toward him an unsmoked rolled leaf with a few gray flecks protruding from one end. She smiled with her head tilted back. "Sit down, Ben."

"No, thanks," said Ben.

"We might share a dream, Ben."

"Wouldn't that be nice?" he said sourly. "And sooner or later, we'd wake up."

"What of it, Ben?" She patted the rough floor beside her. "Sit."

He didn't move. "Thanks," he growled, "but I'll stand."

She smiled dreamily. "Afraid, Ben?"

He said, "When the rollers came through, were you afraid?"

"I was," she said. "Oh, I was afraid. But I'm not now."

"Aren't you? I'm more afraid now. Exactly what do we do when winter comes?"

"Winter?" she said. She frowned as if she could not quite place the word.

"Winter," he said. "This isn't Earth. We can't shove a half-credit in the slot and walk off with dinner on a tray. We've got to have the food stored. To store it, we've got to raise it. To raise it, we've got to plant it. To plant it, we've got to work the ground. Nine people sitting around blowing smoke out their noses don't get much work done."

She started to giggle, choked, coughed, then held out the rolled leaf. "Ben," she said, "never condemn without knowledge. That was my mistake. I tried to stop people from using this. I was very righteous, Ben. You see, I only saw it from the outside. But then, I experienced it myself. Now I have a much broader viewpoint. I can see it from the inside, too. I'm in a position to judge both sides of the question, Ben, and you're not. You can't judge me so long as you remain lofty and superior—and ignorant—looking at me from without."

"I'm not trying to judge you," said Ben grimly. "I just want to get the dozer fixed, the field plowed, and the seed in. Once we do that, you can smoke the stuff all you want."

At some point while he was talking, the girl began to smile. She giggled, spluttered, and sat shaking silently. "Ben—" she said, her voice soft and low, her head tilted back, her lips parted, and the mass of smoldering poison clenched in her fingers. "Ben, dear, don't be so superior."

Benton turned away, started toward the Administrative Center, took a long look at the row of people on the porch, blowing out smoke and lolling with their heads back, and decided that he would go somewhere else.

He turned around. His gaze took in the wrecked cabins, the dead roller, the overturned dozer, the weeds in the field, and the immense trees of the forest. He thought he saw something move in the deep shadows of the trees. He walked to the second cabin from the Administrative Center, ducked under the broken logs, and felt his way around the gloomy interior. On the mantel of the fireplace was a pair of binoculars. He took them down, went outside, studied the forest a minute, then raised the binoculars. At last he made out, in the shadows of the trees, a human figure carrying something that he couldn't quite see, but which appeared long and slender, like a dart gun.

Ben studied this figure for a long while, then swung the glasses slowly right and left and saw nothing moving in the forest. The forest, he told himself, was understandably quiet after the rollers went through. The hunting party wasn't due back yet for another day or two. Gina was missing, true, yet the hunters had taken all the dart guns but one, and that one, Ben knew, was in this cabin right over the fireplace. Therefore, how was it that someone carrying a dart gun was walking through the forest?

Ben got down his own dart gun and stepped outside.

He went around the side of the cabin to the back, crossed a narrow strip of plowed earth, wormed through a barricade of overturned tree stumps, and trotted to the nearest corner of the clearing. He ran along the edge of the clearing, and swung into the forest as he approached the far side, where he had seen the figure moving.

By this time, a cloud of fire gnats had located him. Ben threaded his way through the forest while these gnats worked him over like so many red-hot knitting needles. By the time Ben spotted the figure moving through the trees ahead of him, he had a number of welts the size of a man's thumbnail. He studied the figure for an instant, noting the green gum smeared on face and hands to keep bugs away, and, held in one hand, the metal pole with short, angled rods at the top.

Ben called out, "Gina?" He kept the gun centered as he walked closer.

The figure stopped and turned to look at him. In a weary voice, the girl said, "Now what?"

Ben lowered the gun. "I saw you from the cabin. The way you were carrying that thing, I took it for a dart gun. I wondered who it was."


Ben waved the cloud of gnats away from his face. "Let's not stand here all day."

They started toward the clearing. Ben said, "What is that thing?"

"The top of the uniwave mast," said Gina. "I had just set it up when the rollers came through. When I dug myself out again, it was gone. I followed their path and finally found it."

He frowned. "When did you leave?"

"I helped get the leaf-smokers out of their ruins first. I guess about an hour after the rollers came through."

"You slept out?"

She laughed. "There's no hotel out there."

"What was it like?"

"Heaven until around midnight, and purgatory from then on. I was so tired I fell asleep the first soft place I came to. When I woke up, it was cold, damp, and too dark to go anywhere else. But anyway, I had the antenna." She glanced at him. "Has anything happened here?"

He said, "Ander, Tac, Genetti, and Dr. Forbes are on the weed with the rest."

After a moment, the girl took a deep breath and said, "Forbes gave us all those lectures against it, too."

"Well," said Ben, "now she's approached it with real scientific detachment, and she can lecture us from either side."

"How about you?"

"No thanks," said Ben sourly. "I'd like to be alive next spring."

"So would I. But I have my doubts."

"It's simple enough," said Ben angrily. "We've got to have water, food, fuel, and shelter to get through the winter. The supply ship drilled the well while it was here, so that's done. We've got wood all around us, and all we've got to do is cut it up. We've got food to last us till after harvest, but that's all. So either we plant more now or we starve this winter. What could be simpler than that?"

"My brother," said Gina, "is an engineer. He and two friends went to work on New Mars when New Mars was begging for engineers. The three of them were getting triple pay, tax-free, and double for overtime, plus a big bonus if they stayed for thirty-six months. Now, of those three, two of them stayed the full time and came back with ninety thousand credits; the other one got to drinking a kind of fermented cactus juice, got fired, ended up working as a laborer, drank up his pay, and got killed in a landslide."

They were walking across the fields toward the cabins, and it suddenly occurred to Ben that there might be a tricky situation as he and Gina passed Dr. Forbes' cabin. Already he could see the sun slanting on her blond hair and motionless figure. As Ben was trying to think what to do, Gina went on:

"The two friends that came back said it was a matter of simple logic: The three years would go by no matter what they did. The only question was, where would they be at the end of it?"

"True," said Ben. They were getting closer to the cabins, and he had yet to think of anything.

"They also said that they had gone blank in the face talking simple logic, and it didn't do any good."

"Yes," said Ben.

"And," said Gina, "I'm afraid logic isn't going to help us much here, either."

"Hm-m-m," said Ben. They were almost in front of Dr. Forbes' cabin.

"Well," came the musical voice of the blond girl, the sun shining on her hair, "I see you found her, Ben."

"Yeah," said Ben, moving on.

"Attractive, isn't she, Ben?"

Ben looked at Gina, her face and hands smeared with thick green gum, her hair matted, and dressed in work clothes that had as much shape as a sack thrown over a post.

Gina glanced at Ben with a look of surprise, then looked back at Dr. Forbes angrily.

Ben wished sincerely that he were somewhere else.

Dr. Forbes said, "He was looking for you, Gina."

"Thanks," said Gina.

Dr. Forbes said, "Oh, she's a fine animal, Ben, no doubt. But will she share your dreams?"

Ben tried to get his feet working, and failed.

Dr. Forbes leaned her head back lazily, and drew on a rolled leaf. The sun, now slanting across her tilted head, accentuated the hollow of her cheeks.

"Will you," Ben burst out, "kindly put that thing down for a minute and get something to eat?"

She smiled contentedly. "If you'll smoke it, Ben, I'll stop. We can talk and dream together."

"No, thank you," said Ben.

"Who knows, you might save me, Ben."

"Sure, I can get you out of the quicksand by jumping in with you."

"Ooh," said the blond girl, "you are so righteous, Ben."

Gina bowed her head and walked away without saying anything.

Dr. Forbes shut her eyes and smiled lazily.

Ben turned away angrily, went to his cabin and put the dart gun away. He went back out and found Gina by the communications shack. With her face smeared with the green gum, Ben couldn't see her expression. She said, in a perfectly ordinary tone, "She never did like me. I don't know why. Maybe because I am a mere technician and she has her doctor's degree."

"Maybe," said Ben. "I doubt it."

Gina shrugged. "Will you help me fix the antenna?"

"Sure," said Ben.

It took them the rest of the day to get the antenna fixed, and all the following day to straighten out the shambles in the communications shack. The next afternoon, Ben spotted the hunting party coming through the woods. He went out to meet them.

The hunting party consisted of a man named Becket, tall and rangy, and with hard eyes; two men carrying the carcass of a medium-sized animal on a pole slung over their shoulders; three tall girls with grim expressions; and a grinning man with a piece of grass dangling out of one corner of his mouth, who was called Potter.

Ben looked at their faces and said nothing. Becket glanced around and whistled. "What hit this place?"

"Rollers," said Ben.


Ben pointed. "There's a dead one over there, if you want to look at it. They put their heads on their tails, and roll like hoops."

Potter said, "You're out of your head, man. You've been smoking too much of that good weed."

Ben said, ignoring Potter, "They rolled out of the forest from the north, mashed down the cabins, flipped the dozer out of their way and disappeared into the forest on this side."

Becket said, "How did you kill it?"

"With a dart gun."

"Where did you aim?"

"The head rests on top of the tail when they're rolling. I shot when the neck was exposed."

Potter said, "It's coming out your ears, man."

Becket said, "Use an enzyme-tipped dart?"

Ben nodded. "Nothing else would even have made them itch."

Potter said, "You boys can blow off the gas, if you want to. It's me for that little old weed." He turned to look over the three girls and said, "Anybody want to come along?"

Two of the three tall girls looked pointedly away from Potter. The third idly shifted her gun so it aimed directly at him. She toyed with the trigger mechanism.

Potter jumped aside. There was a puff, and something whined past him.

Potter yelled, "Becket, did you see that? Did you? I got something coming for that!"

Becket turned to look at the girl and said, "Don't waste ammunition." He glanced back at Ben. "Where is everybody?"

"Smoking the weed."

Becket winced. "All of them?"

"All but Gina."

Becket scowled. "We've got to get this place planted."

"Sure," said Ben agreeably.

"Damn it," said Becket, "it's all right to smoke that stuff if they do their work. Who's in charge here now?"

"What do you mean?" said Ben. "Muller's conscious. He's colony administrator. He isn't dead, or disabled under the terms of the Code."

Potter said, "Is that little blond doctor on the weed?"

Becket was looking over the weeds flourishing in the field. "This has got to be planted," he said. "Haven't you done anything to get the dozer fixed?"

Ben said grimly, "Maybe I didn't get it across to you. I'll try again."

Potter said, "Why, he's trying to make you look like a fool, Becket."

Ben said, "Excuse me just a minute, Becket." He turned and walked over toward Potter, who raised his gun and said, grinning, "Walk easy, Boy. I might just decide to put a little enzyme in your blood, Boy. How you think you'd like that?"

The girl who had fired the dart toward Potter snapped back the bolt and swung up her gun.

Potter whirled, his own gun coming up.

Ben sprang forward, and struck Potter on the chin. As Potter tried to struggle, Ben jerked the gun away from him, smashed the butt into his head, and stepped back. Potter collapsed on the ground.

Ben looked at the girl who had raised her gun and distracted Potter. "Thanks."

The girl said, "Is he dead?"

Ben felt Potter's pulse. "No."

"Then," said the girl, "it isn't over yet."

Ben frowned and walked back to Becket. "I was saying," said Ben, "Muller is still in control of his senses. They all are. Are you asking me why I don't make them put down the weed, get up, and do what they're supposed to?"

Becket frowned, but didn't answer for a moment.

Ben said, "I know, seeing this mess comes as a shock. I'll do anything I can to straighten it out. You just tell me, though, what am I going to do?"

Becket looked around at the half-crushed cabins, and the weeds in the fields. He said, "You can't talk sense with them?"

"Oh, they'll talk sense. They just won't do anything."

"Well, why not take the weed away from them?"

"Because they can walk north, south, east, or west, and get more anytime they feel like it. There are nine of them and one of me. Figure it out."

Becket shook his head. "I see what you mean. I'm sorry I jumped on you. But I can tell you one thing. We're going to have to figure something out, and soon." He motioned to the rest of his party. "Let's go." He walked beside Ben on the way back. As the party split up on approaching the cabins, Ben saw Gina watching him from the door of the communications shack. She cupped her hands and called out:

"The set's working. West Three is on the screen."

The face on the screen was that of a man with a heavy beard, narrowed eyes, and a carefully blank expression. He said roughly, "What do you want?"

Ben stared at him for an instant, then said, "Well, a bunch of rollers went through here several days ago, and knocked out our transmitter—"

"Working now, ain't it?"

"Yes," Ben said, "it is, but—"

"Then what do you want?"

Ben could feel pressure building up, as if his head were about to explode. He leaned forward and said slowly and distinctly, "We would like to use it."

The man stared back at him, then his bristly face split into a gap-toothed grin. "New here, are you?"

"We haven't been here a month yet."

"Hm-m-m." The man turned away. They could hear his voice as he asked. "How does their bearing check?"

Another voice said, "It fits with what they say. But they could be a lot closer, using a damp-down on the beam power."

"I don't figure them carrying that much equipment around with them." The bearded man turned around. "Just landed, eh? Are these 'rollers' you talk about pretty big, tuck their tails under their heads and roll along giving a shove with their feet every now and then?"

"That's it," said Ben.

"Tell me something," said the bearded man. "How do they see so they never hit a tree?"

Ben blinked. "I don't know."

"You wouldn't believe it, but we had a man killed deciding that question. They can see because their eyes stick out on stalks, like a snail's. Whether it's true, I don't know; but that's it, we've decided. You want to kind of decide things, so in the middle of winter, when the snow's six feet deep outside, and the wind's been blowing steady for three weeks, you won't have too many unsettled questions laying around."

The possibilities this comment seemed to open up left Ben speechless for a moment. He swallowed and nodded.

"Another thing. How many are there in your party?"

"Eighteen," said Ben. "There were twenty, but two of the women got sick just after we landed, and died."

"Funny," said the bearded man, "the women generally die in the winter. Late winter."


"Well," he said, "how many of these eighteen are boobs?"

Ben leaned toward the screen and cupped his ear. "What? I didn't hear you."

"How many of these eighteen are boobs? You know, jerks, deadheads. Fools."

Ben blinked. "Well—" He thought a moment. "One, maybe."

"Then you're in heaven and don't know it. All right, tell me this. How many of your people are absolutely, one-hundred per cent trustworthy?"

Ben thought a moment. "Maybe eight."

"Then you've got too big a proportion of people you can't trust. Kill the rest."

Ben clenched his hands. "Wait a minute."

The bearded man leaned forward and said earnestly, "You kill them, or they will kill you and themselves both. We aren't on the home planet. You're still on ship rations, so you don't know what you're up against yet. You think you plant your seed and work your crop and harvest your crop and the horn of plenty runs over. You think you'll do your work and get your pay. That isn't how it goes.

"The first year we were here, we felled, cleared, burned, plowed, planted, and raised a fine crop. A little animal no bigger than your hand came out of the forest by the tens of thousands one night, while we were sitting around telling each other what a fine new life we were building here, and these little animals stripped every grain of corn off almost every ear in the field, and we sat there and heard the corn rustle and never knew anything was going on until it dawned on somebody that there wasn't any wind. Don't plant corn. Plant potatoes."

Ben shut his eyes a minute. "We planned to put in a lot of corn."

"Put in a lot of potatoes instead."

"We don't have that many."

The bearded man shrugged. "Tough. Leave word with the supply ship next time it comes."

Ben turned aside and glanced at Gina for a moment. In that moment, Ben saw Gina as sturdy, sound, and hard-working. This moment passed in a flash; when it was gone, Ben was left with the solid impression that he could rely on Gina. A part of Ben's mind that had clung with concern to Dr. Forbes let go for that moment, much as Ben would have let go of a clump of poison ivy.

The bearded man was looking at him. "We didn't do it right," he said. "We did it slow and messy. We had a woman liked to make men jealous of each other. Took us almost a year to get rid of her. It's a plain miracle we didn't all kill each other off first. Then we had a man wouldn't pull his own weight. We lugged him along for a year-and-a-half. He had an accident through sheer carelessness, and then it was up to us to give him a blood transfusion. We had the equipment. But we didn't do it. We needed the blood ourselves. That wasn't all, either. We even had one that figured he'd be king and we'd work for him. He had a talent for it, I'll admit that. It took us three weeks to evolve through that mess, and when the end came, we had a grand finale that wakes me up with the shakes even yet."

He looked at Ben shrewdly. "You see what I mean, boy. Don't go through all that. Do it fast. Do it neat. And don't put it off either. I've thought this over a lot, now that it's too late for us to do it. I think the thing to do is to get the lot of them drunk some night, and add a little something to the liquor. Or, you could set up a night guard that incidentally looks in on everybody, now and then as they sleep. Naturally, none of them is going to volunteer for night guard. When they get used to the routine, they won't even wake up when you look in. Then some dark night, bash their brains in while they sleep. Or—"

He went on this way detailing with relish plan after plan, while Ben's thoughts grew numb and his brain froze over. Ben heard someone move behind him, and glanced around.

Becket was staring open-mouthed looking at the screen. He tore his gaze away and looked at Ben.

"Potter's smoking the weed," he said. "With Dr. Forbes."

Ben shook his head wearily.

Becket said, "I see what you mean about their being logical. She almost convinced me she was sane and I am crazy."

Ben nodded, and started to turn away.

Becket cleared his throat unhappily. He said, "She said to tell you—if you don't come to see her soon, she'll make her dream with Potter."

Ben shut his eyes and stood perfectly still.

"She said," Becket went on unhappily, "that in her dream, she can call him Ben, and never know the difference."

Something seemed to rise up inside of Ben, and hammer to be let loose. When it died away, he heard himself say, in a voice that sounded calm, "Well, I can't stop her."

"She's going to kill herself with that weed," said Becket miserably. "She's skin and bones."

"All she's got to do is put the weed down, open some concentrate, and work her jaws."

"But, Ben—" cried Becket.

Ben glanced around and saw that Gina was crying. For some reason, this made him mad. "Listen," he said to Becket, "when she started on that stuff it turned me inside out. The way she talked and acted, I could see the whole sequence of events stretched out into the future. We aren't at the end yet. You and I are going to suffer the agonies of hell while she floats around in dreamland. It's going to take time.

"But she won't suffer," said Ben angrily. "You tell me. You've looked at her face. Is she in any pain?"

Becket drew a deep shuddering breath. "No," he said finally. "But we've got to do something!"

"You're perfectly free to think on it," said Ben. "If you think of any way we can nurse ten grown-up babies through spring, summer, fall, and winter and still have time to do the work we've got to do, you let me know."

From Becket's expression, it was plain that he was thinking hard.

Ben glanced at the screen and saw that the bearded man was watching with a puzzled intentness. "Well," he said, and nodded his head wisely, "it sounds like you have your troubles. But there'll be more. And you're too far away to count on anyone but yourself. You just remember what I—" He stopped and said, in a different tone of voice, "But you won't. It isn't human nature."

"No," said Ben wearily. "We won't. But then, we won't have to."

When the supply rocket landed next spring, the crew found eight healthy men and women, three babies, and on the edge of the clearing, ten neat graves with flowers growing around them.

As the ship lifted after unloading its supplies, one of the crewmen turned and said to another, "It seldom fails. You come back after the first winter, and there's only half the people left. It's like a sieve. Some get through, and some don't. But what happens?"

"Who knows? They don't talk about it much. All I know is, I don't want to be a pioneer."

"No, nor me either."

They shook hands on it. Fervently.


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