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1. Mad Planet

In all his lifetime of perhaps twenty years, it had never occurred to Burl to wonder what his grandfather had thought about his surroundings. The grandfather had come to an untimely end—in a fashion which Burl remembered as a succession of screams coming more and more faintly to his ears, while he was being carried away at the topmost speed of which his mother was capable.

Burl had rarely or never thought of his grandfather since. Surely he had never wondered what his great-grandfather had thought, and most surely of all he never speculated upon what his many-times-removed great-grandfather had thought when his lifeboat landed from the Icarus. Burl had never heard of the Icarus. He had done very little thinking of any sort. When he did think, it was mostly agonized effort to contrive a way to escape some immediate and paralyzing danger. When horror did not press upon him, it was better not to think, because there wasn't much but horror to think about.

At the moment, he was treading cautiously over a brownish carpet of fungus, creeping furtively toward the stream which he knew only by the generic name of "water." It was the only water he knew. Towering far above his head, three man-heights high, great toadstools hid the gray sky from his sight. Clinging to the yard-thick stalks of the toadstools were still other fungi, parasites upon the growths that once had been parasites themselves.

Burl appeared a fairly representative specimen of the descendants of the long-forgotten Icarus crew. He wore a single garment twisted about his middle, made from the wing-fabric of a great moth which the members of his tribe had slain as it emerged from its cocoon. His skin was fair without a trace of sunburn. In all his lifetime he had never seen the sun, though he surely had seen the sky often enough. It was rarely hidden from him save by giant fungi, like those about him now, and sometimes by the gigantic cabbages which were nearly the only green growths he knew. To him normal landscape contained only fantastic pallid mosses, and misshapen fungus growths, and colossal molds and yeasts.

He moved onward. Despite his caution, his shoulder once touched a cream-colored toadstool stalk, giving the whole fungus a tiny shock. Instantly a fine and impalpable powder fell upon him from the umbrella-like top above. It was the season when the toadstools sent out their spores. He paused to brush them from his head and shoulders. They were, of course, deadly poison.

Burl knew such matters with an immediate and specific and detailed certainty. He knew practically nothing else. He was ignorant of the use of fire, of metals, and even of the uses of stone and wood. His language was a scanty group of a few hundred labial sounds, conveying no abstractions and few concrete ideas. He knew nothing of wood, because there was no wood in the territory furtively inhabited by his tribe. This was the lowlands. Trees did not thrive here. Not even grasses and tree-ferns could compete with mushrooms and toadstools and their kin. Here was a soil of rusts and yeasts. Here were toadstool forests and fungus jungles. They grew with feverish intensity beneath a cloud-hidden sky, while above them fluttered butterflies no less enlarged than they, moths as much magnified, and other creatures which could thrive on their corruption.

The only creatures on the planet which crawled or ran or flew—save only Burl's fugitive kind—were insects. They had been here before men came, and they had adapted to the planet's extraordinary ways. With a world made ready before their first progenitors arrived, insects had thriven incredibly. With unlimited food-supplies, they had grown large. With increased size had come increased opportunity for survival, and enlargement became hereditary. Other than fungoid growths, the solitary vegetables were the sports of unstable varieties of the plants left behind by the Ludred. There were enormous cabbages, with leaves the size of ship-sails, on which stolid grubs and caterpillars ate themselves to maturity, and then swung below in strong cocoons to sleep the sleep of metamorphosis. The tiniest butterflies of Earth had increased their size here until their wings spread feet across, and some—like the emperor moths—stretched out purple wings which were yards in span. Burl himself would have been dwarfed beneath a great moth's wing.

But he wore a gaudy fabric made of one. The moths and giant butterflies were harmless to men. Burl's fellow tribesmen sometimes came upon a cocoon when it was just about to open, and if they dared they waited timorously beside it until the creature inside broke through its sleeping-shell and came out into the light.

Then, before it gathered energy from the air and before its wings swelled to strength and firmness, the tribesmen fell upon it. They tore the delicate wings from its body and the still-flaccid limbs from their places. And when it lay helpless before them they fled away to feast on its juicy meat-filled limbs.

They dared not linger, of course. They left their prey helpless—staring strangely at the world about it through its many-faceted eyes—before the scavengers came to contest its ownership. If nothing more deadly appeared, surely the ants would come. Some of them were only inches long, but others were the size of fox-terriers. All of them had to be avoided by men. They would carry the moth-carcass away to their underground cities, triumphantly, in shreds and morsels.

But most of the insect world was neither so helpless nor so unthreatening. Burl knew of wasps almost the length of his own body, with stings that were instantly fatal. To every species of wasp, however, some other insect is predestined prey. Wasps need not be dreaded too much. And bees were similarly aloof. They were hard put to it for existence, those bees. Since few flowers bloomed, they were reduced to expedients that once were considered signs of degeneracy in their race: bubbling yeasts and fouler things, or occasionally the nectarless blooms of the rank giant cabbages. Burl knew the bees. They droned overhead, nearly as large as he was, their bulging eyes gazing at him and everything else in abstracted preoccupation.

There were crickets, and beetles, and spiders . . . . Burl knew spiders! His grandfather had been the prey of a hunting tarantula which had leaped with incredible ferocity from its tunnel in the ground. A vertical pit, a yard in diameter, went down for twenty feet. At the bottom of the lair the monster waited for the tiny sounds that would warn him of prey approaching his hiding-place.

Burl's grandfather had been careless. The terrible shrieks he uttered as he was seized still lingered vaguely in Burl's mind. And he had seen, too, the webs of another species of spider—inch-thick cables of dirty silk—and watched from a safe distance as the misshapen monster sucked the juices from a three-foot cricket its trap had caught. He remembered the stripes of yellow and black and silver that crossed upon its abdomen. He had been fascinated and horrified by the blind struggling of the cricket, tangled in hopeless coils of gummy cord, before the spider began its feast.

Burl knew these dangers. They were part of his life. It was this knowledge that made life possible. He knew the ways to evade these dangers. But if he yielded to carelessness for one moment, or if he relaxed his caution for one instant, he would be one with his ancestors. They were the long-forgotten meals of inhuman monsters.

Now, to be sure, Burl moved upon an errand that probably no other of his tribe would have imagined. The day before, he had crouched behind a shapeless mound of inter-tangled growths and watched a duel between two huge horned beetles. Their bodies were feet long. Their carapaces were waist-high to Burl when they crawled. Their mandibles, gaping laterally, clicked and clashed upon each other's impenetrable armor. Their legs crashed like so many cymbals as they struck against each other. They fought over some particularly attractive bit of carrion.

Burl had watched with wide eyes until a gaping hole appeared in the armor of the smaller one. It uttered a grating outcry—or seemed to. The noise was actually the tearing of its shell between the mandibles of the victor.

The wounded creature struggled more and more feebly. When it ceased to offer battle, the conqueror placidly began to dine before its prey had ceased to live. But this was the custom of creatures on this planet.

Burl watched, timorous but hopeful. When the meal was finished, he darted in quickly as the diner lumbered away. He was almost too late, even then. An ant—the forerunner of many—already inspected the fragments with excitedly vibrating antennae.

Burl needed to move quickly and he did. Ants were stupid and short-sighted insects; few of them were hunters. Save when offered battle, most of them were scavengers only. They hunted the scenes of nightmare for the dead and dying only, but fought viciously if their prey were questioned. And always there were others on the way.

Some were arriving now. Hearing the tiny clickings of their approach, Burl was hasty. Over-hasty. He seized a loosened fragment and fled. It was merely the horn, the snout of the dead and eaten creature. But it was loose and easily carried. He ran.

Later he inspected his find with disappointment. There was little meat clinging to it. It was merely the horn of a Minotaur beetle, shaped like the horn of a rhinoceros. Plucking out the shreds left by its murderer, he pricked his hand. Pettishly, he flung it aside. The time of darkness was near, so he crept to the hiding place of his tribe to huddle with them until light came again.

There were only twenty of them; four or five men and six or seven women. The rest were girls or children. Burl had been wondering at the strange feelings that came over him when he looked at one of the girls. She was younger than Burl—perhaps eighteen—and fleeter of foot. They talked together sometimes and, once or twice, Burl shared an especially succulent find of foodstuffs with her.

He could share nothing with her now. She stared at him in the deepening night when he crept to the labyrinthine hiding place the tribe now used in a mushroom forest. He considered that she looked hungry and hoped that he would have food to share. And he was bitterly ashamed that he could offer nothing. He held himself a little apart from the rest, because of his shame. Since he too was hungry, it was some time before he slept. Then he dreamed.

Next morning he found the horn where he had thrown it disgustedly the day before. It was sticking in the flabby trunk of a toadstool. He pulled it out. In his dream he had used it.

Presently he tried to use it. Sometimes—not often—the men of the tribe used the saw-toothed edge of a cricket-leg, or the leg of a grasshopper, to sever tough portions of an edible mushroom. The horn had no cutting edge, but Burl had used it in his dream. He was not quite capable of distinguishing clearly between reality and dreams; so he tried to duplicate what happened in the dream. Remembering that it had stuck into the mushroom-stalk, he thrust it. It stabbed. He remembered distinctly how the larger beetle had used its horn as a weapon. It had stabbed, too.

He considered absorbedly. He could not imagine himself fighting one of the dangerous insects, of course. Men did not fight, on the forgotten planet. They ran away. They hid. But somehow Burl formed a fantastic picture of himself stabbing food with this horn, as he had stabbed a mushroom. It was longer than his arm and though naturally clumsy in his hand, it would have been a deadly weapon in the grip of a man prepared to do battle.

Battle did not occur to Burl. But the idea of stabbing food with it was clear. There could be food that would not fight back. Presently he had an inspiration. His face brightened. He began to make his way toward the tiny river that ran across the plain in which the tribe of humans lived by foraging in competition with the ants. Yellowbellied newts—big enough to be lusted for—swam in its waters. The swimming larvae of a thousand kinds of creatures floated on the sluggish surface or crawled over the bottom.

There were deadly things there, too. Giant crayfish snapped their claws at the unwary. One of them could sever Burl's arm with ease. Mosquitoes sometimes hummed high above the river. Mosquitoes had a four-inch wingspread, now, though they were dying out for lack of plant juices on which the males of their species fed. But they were formidable. Burl had learned to crush them between fragments of fungus.

He crept slowly through the forest of toadstools. What should have been grass underfoot was brownish rust. Orange and red and purple molds clustered about the bases of the creamy mushroom-trunks. Once, Burl paused to run his weapon through a fleshy column and reassure himself that what he planned was possible.

He made his way furtively through the bulbous growths. Once he heard clickings and froze to stillness. Four or five ants, minims only eight inches long, were returning by a habitual pathway to their city. They moved sturdily along, heavily laden, over the route marked by the scent of formic acid left by their fellow-townsmen. Burl waited until they had passed, then went on.

He came to the bank of the river. It flowed slowly, green scum covering a great deal of its surface in the backwaters, occasionally broken by a slowly enlarging bubble released from decomposing matter on the bottom. In the center of the stream the current ran a little more swiftly and the water itself seemed clear. Over it ran many water-spiders. They had not shared in the general increase of size in the insect world. Depending as they did on the surface tension of the water for support, to have grown larger and heavier would have destroyed them.

Burl surveyed the scene. His search was four parts for danger and only one part for a way to test his brilliant notion, but that was natural. Where he stood, the green scum covered the stream for many yards. Down-river a little, though, the current came closer to the bank. Here he could not see whatever swam or crawled or wriggled underwater; there he might.

There was an outcropping rock forming a support for crawling stuff, which in turn supported shelf-fungi making wide steps almost down to the water's edge. Burl was making his way cautiously toward them when he saw one of the edible mushrooms which formed so large a part of his diet. He paused to break off a flabby white piece large enough to feed him for many days. It was the custom of his people, when they found a store of food, to hide with it and not venture out again to danger until it was all eaten. Burl was tempted to do just that with his booty. He could give Saya of this food and they would eat together. They might hide together until it was all consumed.

But there was a swirling in the water under the descending platforms of shelf-fungi. A very remarkable sensation came to Burl. He may have been the only man in many generations to be aware of the high ambition to stab something to eat. He may have been a throw-back to ancestors who had known bravery, which had no survival-value here. But Burl had imagined carrying Saya food which he had stabbed with the spear of a Minotaur beetle. It was an extraordinary idea.

It was new, too. Not too long ago, when he was younger, Burl would have thought of the tribe instead. He'd have thought of old Jon, bald-headed and wheezing and timorous, and how that patriarch would pat his arm exuberantly when handed food; or old Tama, wrinkled and querulous, whose look of settled dissatisfaction would vanish at sight of a tidbit; of Dik and Tet, the tribe-members next younger, who would squabble zestfully over the fragments allotted them.

But now he imagined Saya looking astonished and glad when he grandly handed her more food than she could possibly eat. She would admire him enormously!

Of course he did not imagine himself fighting to get food for Saya. He meant only to stab something edible in the water. Things in the water did not fight things on land. Since he would not be in the water, he would not be in a fight. It was a completely delectable idea, which no man within memory had ever entertained before. If Burl accomplished it, his tribe would admire him. Saya would admire him. Everybody, observing that he had found a new source of food, would even envy him until he showed them how to do it too. Burl's fellow-humans were preoccupied with the filling of their stomachs. The preservation of their lives came second. The perpetuation of the race came a bad third in their consideration. They were herded together in a leaderless group, coming to the same hiding place nightly only that they might share the finds of the lucky and gather comfort from their numbers. They had no weapons. Even Burl did not consider his spear a weapon. It was a tool for stabbing something to eat only. Yet he did not think of it in that way exactly. His tribe did not even consciously use tools. Sometimes they used stones to crack open the limbs of great insects they found incompletely devoured. They did not even carry rocks about with them for that purpose. Only Burl had a vague idea of taking something to some place to do something with it. It was unprecedented. Burl was at least an avatar. He may have been a genius.

But he was not a high-grade genius. Certainly not yet.

He reached a spot from which he could look down into the water. He looked behind and all about, listening, then lay down to stare into the shallow depths. Once, a huge crayfish, a good eight feet long, moved leisurely across his vision. Small fishes and even huge newts fled before it.

After a long time the normal course of underwater life resumed. The wriggling caddis-flies in their quaintly ambitious houses reappeared. Little flecks of silver swam into view—a school of tiny fish. Then a larger fish appeared, moving slowly in the stream.

Burl's eyes glistened; his mouth watered. He reached down with his long weapon. It barely broke through the still surface of the water below. Disappointment filled him, yet the nearness and apparent probability of success spurred him on.

He examined the shelf-fungi beneath him. Rising, he moved to a point above them and tested one with his spear. It resisted. Burl felt about tentatively with his foot, then dared to put his whole weight on the topmost. It held firmly. He clambered down upon the lower ones, then lay flat and peered over the edge.

The large fish, fully as long as Burl's arm, swam slowly to and fro beneath him. Burl had seen the former owner of this spear strive to thrust it into his adversary. The beetle had been killed by the more successful stab of a similar weapon. Burl had tried this upon toadstools, practicing with it. When the silver fish drifted close by again, he thrust sharply downward.

The spear seemed to bend when it entered the water. It missed its mark by inches, much to Burl's astonishment. He tried again. Once more the spear seemed diverted by the water. He grew angry with the fish for eluding his efforts to kill it.

This anger was as much the reaction of a throw-back to a less fearful time as the idea of killing itself. But Burl scowled at the fish. Repeated strokes had left it untouched. It was unwary. It did not even swim away.

Then it came to rest directly beneath his hand. He thrust directly downward, with all his strength. This time the spear, entering vertically, did not appear to bend, but went straight down. Its point penetrated the scales of the swimming fish, transfixing the creature completely.

An uproar began with the fish wriggling desperately as Burl tried to draw it up to his perch. In his excitement he did not notice a tiny ripple a little distance away. The monster crayfish, attracted by the disturbance, was coming back.

The unequal combat continued. Burl hung on desperately to the end of his spear. Then there was a tremor in the shelf-fungus on which he lay. It yielded, collapsed, and fell into the stream with a mighty splash. Burl went under, his eyes wide open, facing death. As he sank he saw the gaping, horrible claws of the crustacean, huge enough to sever any of Burl's limbs with a single snap.

He opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came out. Only bubbles floated up to the surface. He beat the unresisting fluid in a frenzy of horror with his hands and feet as the colossal crayfish leisurely approached.

His arms struck a solid object. He clutched it convulsively. A second later he had swung it between himself and the crustacean. He felt the shock as the claws closed upon the cork-like fungus. Then he felt himself drawn upward as the crayfish disgustedly released its hold and the shelf-fungus floated slowly upward. Having given way beneath him, it had been pushed below when he fell, only to rise within his reach just when most needed.

Burl's head popped above water and he saw a larger bit of the fungus floating nearby. Even less securely anchored to the river-bank than the shelf to which he had trusted himself, it had broken away when he fell. It was larger and floated higher.

He seized it, crazily trying to climb up. It tilted under his weight and very nearly overturned. He paid no heed. With desperate haste he clawed and kicked until he could draw himself clear of the water.

As he pulled himself up on the furry, orange-brown surface, a sharp blow struck his foot. The crayfish, disappointed at finding nothing tasty in the shelf-fungus, had made a languid stroke at Burl's foot wriggling in the water. Failing to grasp the fleshy member, it went annoyedly away.

Burl floated downstream, perched weaponless and alone upon a flimsy raft of degenerate fungus; floated slowly down a stagnant river in which death swam, between banks of sheer peril, past long reaches above which death floated on golden wings.

It was a long while before he recovered his self-possession. Then—and this was an action unique to Burl: none of his tribesmen would have thought of it—he looked for his spear.

It was floating in the water, still transfixing the fish whose capture had brought him to this present predicament. That silvery shape, so violent before, now floated belly-up, all life gone.

Burl's mouth watered as he gazed at the fish. He kept it in view constantly while the unsteady craft spun slowly downstream in the current. Lying flat he tried to reach out and grasp the end of the spear when it circled toward him.

The raft tilted, nearly capsizing. A little later he discovered that it sank more readily on one side than the other. This was due, of course, to the greater thickness of one side. The part next to the river-bank had been thicker and was, therefore, more buoyant.

He lay with his head above that side of the raft. It did not sink into the water. Wriggling as far to the edge as he dared, he reached out and out. He waited impatiently for the slower rotation of his float to coincide with the faster motion of the speared fish. The spear-end came closer, and closer . . . . He reached out—and the raft dipped dangerously. But his fingers touched the spear-end. He got a precarious hold, pulled it toward him.

Seconds later he was tearing strips of scaly flesh from the side of the fish and cramming the greasy stuff into his mouth with vast enjoyment. He had lost the edible mushroom. It floated several yards away. He ate contentedly nonetheless.

He thought of the tribesfolk as he ate. This was more than he could finish alone. Old Tama would coax him avidly for more than her share. She had a few teeth left. She would remind him anxiously of her gifts of food to him when he was younger. Dik and Tet—being boys—would clamorously demand of him where he'd gotten it. How? He would give some to Cori, who had younger children, and she would give them most of the gift. And Saya—

Burl gloated especially over Saya's certain reaction.

Then he realized that with every second he was being carried further away from her. The nearer river-bank moved past him. He could tell by the motion of the vividly colored growths upon the shore.

Overhead, the sun was merely a brighter patch in the haze-filled sky. In the pinkish light all about, Burl looked for the familiar and did not find it, and dolefully knew that he was remote from Saya and going farther all the time.

There were a multitude of flying objects to be seen in the miasmatic air. In the daytime a thin mist always hung above the lowlands. Burl had never seen any object as much as three miles distant. The air was never clear enough to permit it. But there was much to be seen even within the limiting mist.

Now and then a cricket or a grasshopper made its bullet-like flight from one spot to another. Huge butterflies fluttered gaily above the silent, loathsome ground. Bees lumbered anxiously about, seeking the cross-shaped flowers of the giant cabbages which grew so rarely. Occasionally a slender-waisted, yellow-bellied wasp flashed swiftly by.

But Burl did not heed any of them. Sitting dismally upon his fungus raft, floating in midstream, an incongruous figure of pink skin and luridly-tinted loincloth, with a greasy dead fish beside him, he was filled with a panicky anguish because the river carried him away from the one girl of his tiny tribe whose glances roused a commotion in his breast.

The day wore on. Once, he saw a band of large amazon ants moving briskly over a carpet of blue-green mold to raid the city of a species of black ants. The eggs they would carry away from the city would hatch and the small black creatures would become the slaves of the brigands who had stolen them.

Later, strangely-shaped, swollen branches drifted slowly into view. They were outlined sharply against the steaming mist behind them. He knew what they were: a hard-rinded fungus growing upon itself in peculiar mockery of the trees which Burl had never seen because no trees could survive the conditions of the lowland.

Much later, as the day drew to an end, Burl ate again of the oily fish. The taste was pleasant compared to the insipid mushrooms he usually ate. Even though he stuffed himself, the fish was so large that the greater part remained still uneaten.

The spear was beside him. Although it had brought him trouble, he still associated it with the food it had secured rather than the difficulty into which it had led him. When he had eaten his fill, he picked it up to examine again. The oil-covered point remained as sharp as before.

Not daring to use it again from so unsteady a raft, he set it aside as he stripped a sinew from his loincloth to hang the fish around his neck. This would leave his arms free. Then he sat cross-legged, fumbling with the spear as he watched the shores go past.


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