Three scientists came to the mysterious planet Nacre to discover, to explore, to record. Utterly defenseless, they trekked through the grotesque jungle of multiform mushrooms and dense spore-clouds, hoping to unlock the secret of this strange world. The stunning climax of their mission was just the beginning of a complex drama in which their survival—and return to earth—could spell the extinction of humanity.
Eighteen space explorers had died or disappeared on Nacre, a planet dominated by mushrooms, spore-clouds, a dim sub, and strange one-eyed creatures called mantas.
To this forbidden planet came three more scientists to explore, discover and record. They barely understood what their mission was, and the significance of the mantas they were able to bring back with them to Earth. Subble, a government investigator, was sent to interview them—to learn how they succeeded where many others before them had failed.
Subble was a very particular kind of investigator--one who could be judgmental without bias, who could kill without guilt, whose only real job would be, eventually, to die in a job well done. He couldn't know when that eventuality would arrive. He could only keep trying...
The trio of scientists he confronted was indeed strange: Veg, the brawn of the group was a vegetarian. Aquilon, the beauty, ate everything—she was an omnivore. Cal was the brains of the crew. His emaciated body could only survive by drinking the blood of animals ... a carnivore.
Just as the three of them discovered one another's dark secrets, Subble was able to learn the true meaning of the relationship between Aquilon, Veg and Cal...between omnivore, herbivore, and carnivore—and the effect they had on the mantas and ultimately, on Earth's survival.
Twenty-one times New York Times Bestselling Author
Piers Anthony is one of the world's most prolific and popular authors. His fantasy Xanth novels have been read and loved by millions of readers around the world, and have been on the New York Times Best Seller list twenty-one times.
Although Piers is mostly known for fantasy and science fiction, he has written several novels in other genres as well, including historical fiction, martial arts, and horror. Piers lives with his wife in a secluded woods hidden deep in Central Florida.
I have read tens of thousands of books, but most especially science fiction. I can only attribute my love and fascination for sci-fi to this wondrous work by Piers Anthony! This was my first sci-fi book, but it has not been my last. Anthony's extraordinary ability to describe the incredible alien environment, the beauty of the background and it's entitled creatures was so amazing that I am forced to renew it's wonder regularly. I highly recommend this to all readers!Amazon Customer
Piers Anthony has written some great books. This is one part of a trilogy. Lots of great tension, action, and sci-fi adventure!Allen Pooron
This book truly deserves a five star rating. Excellent read. The crazy part is that Orn is even better and Ox is even betterer ;)Galactuson
A sound read about an alternate world if it specified the time of the setting. Nonetheless,the action and plot is just right.Dean Morrealeon
Piers Anthony was quite competent with science fiction, prior to his move away from the genre and primarily into fantasy. This one is imaginative, creative and reads quickly. It features biological and ecological themes, and the cast includes many varied plant and fungoid life forms. Plants were a main creation in many of Anthony's Xanth books, and the seeds (if you'll pardon the pun) were planted here. The story follows three human explorers who study mysterious life forms on the planet Nacre, then return to earth and become the unwitting participants in a race to save humanity from an ecological disaster. The mystery of the life on Nacre, and its connection to the explorers and to earth, is laid out well and paced right for suspense and intrigue. The writing is efficient, but falls noticeably short of what fans of later works would expect. The concept is the emphasis of the story, and it was hard for me to become attached to any of the characters. The outcome mattered little to me, but the story was entertaining anyway. This work of science fiction differed considerably in that regard from another Anthony book, "Bio Of A Space Tyrant". Anthony established there that he could develop empathetic characters, which were necessary for that story to work. This one works without it, thanks to Anthony's powerful imagination. I always wondered what kind of science fiction writer he could have become, had he chosen to remain in the genre. But his career success speaks for itself. A few space tales by him are more enjoyable than the assembly line of stories produced by many inferior writers.Tactitles -- Amazon Review
A cyborg is sent to investigate the activities of three scientists on the planet Nacre. As he questions them, he hopes to find out the secret of the Mantas, creatures brought back from Nacre. The alien world covered by fungoid live forms is a truly unique creation. An excellent Anthony foray into science fiction.Larry Eischenon -- Amazon Review
Subble, a government investigator, is sent to interview the three survivors of an Earth mission to the planet Nacre. As he listens to their stories, he begins to piece together what really happened on Nacre and what it means. It seems that each of the three had something special about them, and their uniqueness is what saved them. But, there is even more going on here, and they are all trying to hide something. It is up to Subble to get to the bottom of things and make the correct report to his superiors.
This is actually one of Piers Anthony's earliest books, having been first published in 1968. It's also the first book in a trilogy. It is an interesting book, with the sort of cerebral storyline that has all but disappeared from any descent science-fiction today. Indeed, in many ways, this is more of a thought exercise than it is a work of fiction - examining differences that your physiology has on who and what you are.
Star Wars it isn't, so if you are looking for that kind of story you will probably be disappointed. But, if you are looking for the kind of amazingly different kind of science-fiction that they used to write, then you will no doubt enjoy it immensely.Kurt A. Johnson -- Amazon Review
Chapter 1: A Loaf of Bread
North of Appalachia an outcropping of wilderness survived. Subble aligned visible topography with known coordinates and guided his craft to a soft landing beside a thickly-spoked bull spruce. The distinctive gum smell of it surrounded him as he stepped out, and decades of rotting needles crunched underfoot.
The measured ring of steel striking hardwood led him past a grossly twisted yellow birch and into a subforest of tall beech trees. The forest was rather pleasant, in a disordered way; it occurred to him that few places on Earth remained so close to Nature's original.
The sound that had seemed so near was actually some distance away. Subble threaded his way through a thicket of young ash and maple and came at last to a forest trail: two slick brown ruts cut in the leafy floor. Clusters of toadstools sprouted periodically along it, and he spied one large bracket fungus embracing a decaying stump. Tiny gnats found him and hovered tirelessly before his eyes.
The trail debouched into an artificial clearing formed by a felled beech. A man stood facing away from him, one booted foot braced against the scarred trunk, his broad back flexing as he swung a heavy axe. The lumberman was powerful; it showed in the checkered bulge of sleeve and in the smoothness of the swing. Chips scattered with every second connection as the blade bit a growing triangular section from the base of a hefty branch.
The limb severed and crashed into a leafy jungle beyond the trunk. The man turned and saw Subble, balancing the axe in his left hand while wiping the sweat off his forehead with a meaty right forearm.
“Yeah?” he inquired, scowling.
This was the ticklish part. “I'm an investigator,” Subble said, and kept his distance.
The man stiffened. Subble noted the slight elevation of the tendons along the back of the hand holding the axe, the sudden creases in a normally amiable face, and the slight shifting of weight. “Yeah?”
“All I want is information. If you are Vachel Smith, social code number 4409—”
“Cut it. I been Veg ten year and I ain't a number yet.”
Subble ignored the tone and the exaggerated accent. “All right, Veg. I got a job, same as you, and I got to do it if I like it or not. Sooner we—”
Veg threw the axe at the beech stump, where it caught neatly, the handle vibrating. He closed his fists and took one step forward. “Last time a damn city slicker talked down to me, I broke his collarbone.
Speak your piece and get out.”
Subble smiled. “Very well—I'll stick to my own language. But I must have your cooperation. There is information nobody else can provide.”
“I don't know. That's why I have to ask.”
“You don't know!” Veg seemed uncertain whether to laugh or swear, and his accent eased considerably. “You come poking into my lot and you don't even know what you're looking for?”
It was best to keep him asking questions. “That's right.”
But Veg did not keep asking. “Mister, you're trying to make a fool out of me.” He moved in.
Subble blew his breath out audibly in a controlled show of exasperation. He was not as large as the lumberman nor as heavily muscled, but he did not back off. “If you attempt to force me off your premises by physical means, I will have to employ certain defensive techniques at my command,” he said as Veg advanced.
“Yeah?” Veg leaped.
Subble stepped aside and put his right foot forward as Veg's right fist came at his head. He jammed his right toe against Veg's, bent his knees, grabbed the big man's shirt, spun around counter- clockwise and threw him over his shoulder.
Veg landed in the slippery moist earth of the trail, unharmed and undismayed. “Yeah!” he said again, and launched himself a second time.
Subble ducked, caught Veg in the stomach with a shoulder block and followed it up with a quick and effective series of grips about the neck and shoulders.
Veg kept his feet, but his head lolled and both arms dangled. Subble let him catch his balance and recover the use of his extremities. “I gave you fair warning.”
The lumberman shook himself and stretched his head from side to side. “Yeah,” he said.
“Now I have to talk with you, because that's my job. I'll leave as soon as I have what I need. I'm willing to trade for what I get.”
“Mister, nobody ever bought me yet.”
“Nobody offered to. You take a break and I'll fill in for as long as it takes you to talk. That way you won't lose any time and I'll be out of your way in a hurry.”
Veg laughed, his good humor seemingly restored by his setback. “You sure are a determined cuss.
There aren't any fancy nerves you can pinch on a bolt of beech, mister. I don't know you and I won't tell you a thing.”
Subble was careful not to threaten the man. He looked around at the divergent timber, spotting a shy cinnamon-brown thrush with indistinct spots on its breast. “Veery,” he said.
Veg followed his gaze. “Yeah, I know him,” he said more softly. “Comes around every two, three days. Got a hermit thrush, too—state bird, you should hear him sing! Never found the nest, though.”
Then he remembered whom he was talking to and scowled again.
“I must have been pretty clumsy to set you against me so quickly.” It was a calculated overture.
“Mister, it's not you. Anyone who knows a veery when he sees one has some good in him. It's the government. We don't truck much with—you really don't know what you came for?”
“An agent's memory is washed blank before every assignment. I have been given three addresses and a caution signal. That was, literally, all I knew about you before I landed. Your name, where to find you, and a warning of danger.”
“It prevents me from approaching the case with a bias. Everything must come from the case itself, nothing from my expectations or records which may be incomplete or distorted.”
“But if you don't even know what—I mean, I could lie to you and you'd never guess. I could tell you I'm a petty thief on the lam—”
“I thought you said you had no—”
Subble glanced at the tree again, but the bird was gone. So, oddly, were most of the other ubiquitous creatures of the forest. Something had subdued them. “I was given no information, but my training enables me to obtain it very quickly. I know a good deal about you now.”
“Okay, Mister what's-your-name—”
“Mister Government Agent. How do you know I'm not a thief?”
“I can give you a general idea. I'm equipped to pick up your respiration, heartbeat, muscle tension, the nuances of facial expression, vocal inflection, subvocal—”
“You saying you can tell when I'm lying just by watching me?”
“Yes. You are not a devious man.”
“I'm not a liar, either. But I'm not so sure about you.”
Subble took no offense. “You are wise. I am a devious man. I am fully capable of lying when my mission requires it, and I am an expert at it.”
Veg touched his sore neck. “More than that, I guess.”
“Yes—I could have maimed you or killed you. But that's my specialty, and I don't misuse my training any more than you would misuse your axe, or destroy that thrush's nest. You could cut down every sapling in the forest—”
“God, no! This's fourth generation timber now. I'm just cleaning out the weed trees and—” He paused. “Yeah, I guess I see what you mean. You don't go 'round hurting people for the fun of it. But you still can't find out a thing if I don't talk to you.”
“I'm afraid I can, if there is no alternative.”
Veg studied him with genuine curiosity. “How?”
“By making statements, asking questions, and reading your reactions.”
“Okay. I'm going to shut up now. You tell me what you learn.”
“You may not like this, Veg.”
The man picked up his axe and returned to the trunk he had been limbing.
“Are you a vegetarian?” Subble asked. “Yes, you are,” he answered himself immediately.
“You already knew!” Veg shouted, shaken. “You wouldn't even've asked that question if you didn't know!”
“I knew—but you were the one who told me. Your nickname, for one thing, and the smell of your breath, and your tension when I mentioned killing. You haven't touched meat for a decade.”
Veg's mouth was tight. “Tell me something you couldn't've found in a government snoop-file,” he said. He didn't bother to chop any more.
“If you will put down your weapon—”
“Weapon? Oh.” He pitched the axe at the stump, missing this time.
“You see, you're upset now—and I would have to act precipitously if you were to attack me with that. Are you sure you—”
“Go ahead. Prove it.”
Subble's voice was low, but he watched Veg very carefully.
“Are you interested in baseball?... No. Shakespeare?... No. Any other playwright?... Yes. Modern?...
Yes, but not too modern... American? Foreign?... Ah, English? Shaw, of course!”
Veg started to say something, but didn't. Stronger medicine was required before he would be convinced.
“How about women?... Yes and no. Not just any woman. Are you in love?... Yes, I see that you are, and not casually, but there is something wrong. Is she pretty?... Yes, lovely. Have you slept with her, man to woman?... No? But you aren't impotent... No! Would she let you?... She would, probably. Her name is Aquilon—”
Veg's lunge missed by several inches. “Easy! The name happens to be the second on my list,” Subble explained. “It was logical, in the circumstance, that she would be the one you—now don't charge me again.”
The big man halted. “Yeah, you did warn me. Again.” He looked at Subble with a certain difficult respect. “I guess I believe you.”
“I don't want to pry into your private affairs. All I want is the information I was sent for. My offer stands. If you want anything for your trouble—”
“Mister—Subble, you said?—you have more on the ball than I figured. But I already said: it's not you. It's the government. That's trouble every time. I have a notion what you came for, and I can't tell you. Not when some bureaucrat's going to—”
“I'm not an ordinary agent. What you tell me is held in confidence. I gather the information, assimilate it and make a single verbal report from which all irrelevancies are excluded. I may need to learn some personal matters in order to pursue my investigation and draw conclusions, but no one else need know.”
“You sound pretty sure of that.”
“I am sure. I'm sorry my word is worthless, since I could and would easily break it. I'll just have to assure you unofficially that I could be lying now, but am not. Your relationship with Aquilon has no relevance to—oh, oh.”
“Yeah. Just me and you, okay. But it isn't. It's my friends and the government, and I just don't have the right.”
Subble had expected something like this. The nature of the assignment was beginning to take shape, and he was now in a position to obtain a great deal from Veg—but his very training in prevarication, as with that in combat, made him exceedingly careful of the rights of others. An agent who gained his ends ruthlessly was apt to be unsuccessful in the end, since force inevitably inspired counterforce.
And it was not wise to act in a manner that would increase the general distrust of agents as a whole.
There was danger—extreme danger, he suspected now—and not from Veg himself. It was essential that no personal antagonism be added to it.
“Veg, I have all day, as far as I know, and tomorrow too. I'm not on a schedule, but I do have to get at the facts, whatever they may be. How about letting me stay with you for a few hours, so we can get to know each other, and you can tell me as much as you feel free to. I won't push you for any more than that, once you draw the line, and you'll have the confidence that you are not simply spouting off to a stranger.”
“What if I decide to tell you nothing?”
“Then you tell me nothing.”
Veg thought about it, scratching his sandy head. “You going to talk to 'Quilon?”
“I have to. And Calvin. And anybody else who knows whatever it is.”
“And you don't report till the end, just a summary?”
“I guess I'd better, then. God, I sure don't like it, though.”
Subble smiled, but not inside. He could see that Veg had grave misgivings, and not on purely personal grounds. There was danger, and Veg knew it, and it was personal and immediate.
“I understand that you do not bear me any more than residual ill-will,” Subble observed. “You respect physical ability, as many strong men do. But you are afraid that if I learn too much, I will be harmed or killed, and that will make real trouble. I mention this only so that you will be aware that I know.
And you are right: while I do not fear death, if I do die there will be a thorough and official investigation. You know what that means.”
“Yeah,” Veg said unhappily.
Subble dropped the subject. It was always difficult to obtain the trust of a normal person, but always necessary. He believed that frankness was best, and before long it would occur to Veg that he would be well advised to see that the agent got enough information at least to preserve his life. “How can I help?”
“Well—” Veg looked about, searching for some pretext to accept the inevitable. “Say—there is a little matter I've been saving up for a special occasion. This way.”
He trotted down the fresh logging track, intersecting another trail and following that. Subble saw the prints and ordure of horses, animals rarely seen today but still used in these protected tracts.
Machines of all types were banned here; men harvested trees with hand tools and hauled out the logs with animal labor. Anyone who didn't care for the physical life was invited out in a hurry. There were too many people and too many machines in the world, and the fringe wilderness was a jealously guarded area.
Veg angled away from the trail, brushing by the round leaves of a young basswood and the serrated ones of the maples to jump over an ancient stone wall. Over a century ago men had built such walls by hand, using the great chunks of rock they cleared from their fields; such a wall had inspired the poet Robert Frost to discourse upon its mending, but no one cared to mend it now.
A sitting chipmunk dropped its acorn and scurried silently away. “Sorry, pal—didn't see you,” Veg muttered as the handsome striped body disappeared. He pulled up under a huge blazed beech and put his hands to his mouth. “Yo, Jones!” he yelled.
In a few minutes two dark men appeared and came to stand beyond the tree. “What'sa matter—lonesome?” one inquired with blunt sarcasm. He was a husky individual, smaller than Veg but sure of himself. He wore the standard denims and checkered shirt, and a small neat mustache. His companion was similar, lacking the mustache.
“Naw,” Veg said. He put his hands on his hips aggressively. “Remember that business about this boundary last month?”
“You mean when you tried to poach on our territory?”
“I mean when you hauled the marker-stone twenty feet out of line and claimed three of my best white ash and a rock maple.” He gestured, and Subble saw the stone some distance beyond.
“Re-claimed, you mean.”
“And I said I'd take care of it when the time came.”
The two men nodded, smirking.
“Well, the time's come,” Veg said.
The mustached man approached. “That your second?” he asked, glancing disparagingly at Subble. “A city slick?”
“That's my second. Name's Subble.” He turned to Subble. “This is Hank Jones. He and his brother work this lot next to mine—and some of mine, too.”
“City duds!” Jones said. “Well, I reckon bound'ry jumpers can't be choosy.” He unlimbered a roundhouse left at Veg.
It was grandiose and clumsy by Subble's standards, but basic rules were evident. The two men moved out into the clearing beyond the tree, exchanging ferocious blows and taking almost no evasive action, but the object seemed to be to beat the opponent into submission without doing irreparable damage. Fists, feet and heads were freely employed, but never fingers or teeth, and eyes and crotches were left alone. Jones' brother called lewd encouragement and advice to his side, but did not interfere.
Veg took the first blow on the ear and shrugged it off. His own fist drove into Jones' belly, forcing the man away. Jones charged back headfirst, butting with such power that Veg fell to the ground. As he rolled to hands and knees, Jones put his boot up and shoved him down again, following this with a hard kick with the side of the boot to the shoulder.
Toe-points also outlawed, Subble surmised, and heel-stomping.
Veg growled and leaped, fists alternating like pistons even before they met the target. He backed Jones against the beech and blasted mercilessly at his midsection until the man doubled over.
Jones' brother edged toward the pair, and Subble also moved in. Veg was an independent sort, and would not have accepted a “second” unless he deemed it necessary.
The combatants bounced away from the tree, dirty and sweaty but with undiminished energies. Veg backed off to recover his balance, and Jones' brother surreptitiously poked a stick between his feet.
Veg tripped, and Jones was on him immediately.
Subble strode across the arena and stood before his opposite number. “Friend, if you want to participate, pick your own fight,” he suggested.
The man scowled and swung. The attack was incredibly crude—but Subble accepted the blow on the shoulder and replied with a moderate jab to the gut. He had no need of his special skills here, and preferred not to display them. Obviously these encounters were family affairs, and all interested parties participated.
The single fight had become two—and privacy had dissipated. Only partially concerned with the mock-fight he was engaged in, Subble watched and listened to the other lumbermen as they emerged from the forest on all sides, until a great circle of cheerful faces surrounded them.
The sounds of extracurricular activity penetrated a long distance, it seemed, and the neighbors wasted no time dealing themselves in.
“Veg and Hank Jones are settling their account, as I make it,” one man explained to his companion.
“My guess is the stranger was standing in for Veg's second, and figured to keep Job Jones out of it.
“I'll second the stranger,” the other said. “He's holding up his end okay, considering.”
“Yeah?” a third put in. “I'm for Job.”
“Son, you picked a loser. Neither Jones can last long without his brother.”
The third raised his fist. “I'm his brother, far as you're concerned.”
And the third fight commenced. In like manner the two new antagonists were seconded, and soon a fourth battle was underway.
Subble laughed inwardly. He had been right: fighting was as much pleasure as business to these hardy folk, and any pretext would do. They could not stand idly by and let others war; they had to join in. But it was man to man, not group to group.
He ducked a swing from Job Jones and butted him in approved fashion. Job backed into another contestant, jarring the other man's aim as he cocked his fist “Sorry,” Job muttered. “Forget it,” the other said, and proceeded with his own concern.
The ring was crowded now, resembling a ballroom filled with strenuous dancers. It was impossible to tell for which side any given man stood—yet each pair remained distinct and no one intentionally struck anyone except his assigned antagonist. As in the dance, each couple created its discrete formations in the midst of babel. There even seemed to be music.
A hand fell upon his shoulder. “Your turn's up,” Veg said jovially. “Take a seat.”
Surprised, Subble broke. Job Jones quit immediately and went to the far side to join his brother, while Veg squatted down to view the melee. Hank Jones was playing a harmonica with some rude skill... so there was music now!
Before long the man who had seconded Subble joined them, his match lining up with the seated Joneses. New matches were still being formed from the uncommitted pool, distinguished by cleaner clothing and absence of bruises, and this in turn was constantly reinforced by arriving spectators. The men bore a common stamp of sturdy self-assurance and lusty living that contrasted with what Subble knew the city-norm to be.
“No room for everyone at once,” Veg explained.
Someone hauled out a guitar and began strumming more or less in time with the harmonica, and another man took a stick and began setting the beat on the scarred beech.
Subble was astonished at the scope of the battle. A dozen pairs were brawling in the clearing, and as many more men were scattered about the fringe. Someone had hauled in a wagon bearing a monstrous keg of beer, and wooden mugs of the frothing liquid were being circulated along with pails of forest berries and triangular beechnuts.
Subble accepted a warm beer and took a swallow. The activity had made him pleasantly thirsty—that, he realized, was part of the point of all this. It was technically a malt beverage—but home-brewed to about twenty proof. He smiled; he was sure the local soft-liquor taxmen had never met this keg.
Veg noticed his reaction. “You didn't come for this?” he asked with sudden concern.
Subble drained his high-potency mug. “You know it ain't!”
This time Veg did not take exception to the language.
The battle waned as the beer fumes drifted. The active participants became ten, then eight, as each contest fissioned into thirsty individuals. The lines of the seated extended almost entirely around the circle, the men conversing contentedly and waving their mugs.
The show dwindled to two, and finally to a single encounter. The audience watched avidly now, rooting not so much for one man or the other as for the fight itself.
“Which one is ours?” Subble inquired, having lost track. “Or does it matter anymore?”
“It matters,” Veg said. “I hope it's Buff. He's a good man.”
Buff was a good man, and in due course he was conceded the victory. The last two grabbed mugs and gulped them pantingly as they plumped to the ground. The music finished with a flourish and an expectant silence came.
“Now the fun begins,” Veg muttered. Then, loudly: “This meeting's to settle my boundary dispute with the Jones boys. Who did you second, Buff, you lop-eared bastard?”
“Not you, turnip!” Buff called back. He finished his beer. “I follow Zebra.”
“You with me, animal?” Hank Jones yelled next.
“Naw, brushface,” Zebra said. “I'm with Kenson.”
And so it went, Veg and Jones taking turns challenging each ascending member of the victory chain, exchanging good-natured insults at every step while the keg gurgled to its steaming dregs and beechnut shells littered the ground. Long before the line finished Subble recognized its outcome, but refrained from comment.
“I follow this Fancy-Dan stranger here!” Subble's second proclaimed, and belched.
“And who the hell's your better man, you city refugee?” Veg shouted for the benefit of those who had joined the party too late to know.
“You are—in the daytime!” Subble cried. There was a burst of applause for the winner.
In moments a strong-backed crew had moved the boundary rock to the position Veg indicated, and an impromptu a capella group sang several verses of The Frozen Logger.
I see that you are a logger,
And not just a common bum—
'Cause nobody but a logger
Stirs his coffee with his thumb!
Jones, it appeared, didn't feel like playing his instrument any more, but he did come up to shake hands. “I wasn't going to cut those trees,” he said.
The crowd dissipated, the men returning to their separate plots, happy for the break. The beermaster hitched his team and tilted down the track. Subble wondered who paid the cost of such refreshment, and decided that there were probably standing arrangements. Perhaps, instead of logging, he brewed—but received an allotment from the lumber mill anyway. Whatever it was, the system seemed to be functioning smoothly.
Subble mouthed the conventionalities, but abruptly his attention was elsewhere. At the fringe of it all something deadly watched, hardly more than a dark shadow lost behind the trees. He focused his trained perceptions and picked up a momentary flicker, a suggestion of motion, a subdued whistle. As a wolf might glare at the fires of early man, waiting for the embers to die, waiting for sleep...
“You did okay,” Veg said, and the shadow was gone. Subble sniffed, but picked up only the rotting leaves and pushing fungus of the forest floor. He had lost it.
They tramped back to the original work area, the forest as empty as before, though Subble knew that many men were still within a mile. Soon the distant sounds of their labors would resume.
Veg's tongue had been loosened by several mugs of brew. “You catch on quick, and you fight fair once you get going. What do you make of our bunch?”
“It's a good bunch. I wish it were possible to—”
“Sub, don't start pulling that government-agent reserve on me again. We've been through a party together, and we won!” But it was Veg's own reserve that had dissipated.
A party: fists and drink and a symbol of friendship. Why was it that men so often could only respect each other after testing their respective mettles in combat? Here it was physical; but in the more sophisticated, less open gatherings, male and female, it also went on continually. Men and animals measured each other before giving of each other, establishing, if not a pecking order, at least a nuance order. Was this a fundamental characteristic of life?
Subble regretted that he was not free to explore this thesis thoroughly. Agents were doers rather than thinkers, however their inclinations might run. “Well, there's little I can relate to,” he told Veg. “My background is not like yours. I've never been to a—party—like this before. I was raised more conventionally.”
Veg unpacked a collapsible saw from a cache in a tree.
“I'm not exactly bright, but I know your education was not conventional,” he said. He led the way to a pile of peeled spruce logs. “Grab an end and we'll get to know each other.”
Subble accepted the proffered handle and fell into the rhythm of sawing. He knew that it was a matter of pull, not push, and that no weight should be applied; the saw's own weight would take it through the wood in its own fashion. The teeth were sharp and angled out alternately so that the cut was wider than the thickness of the saw; sharpening would be a tedious chore, but the saw worked well enough here.
What he hadn't known was the importance of a balanced, comfortable position that provided circulation for the legs and free play for arms and upper body. He was doing it incorrectly, and though he was not tired he knew that an ordinary man would wear out quickly this way.
Veg had marked off four foot lengths, and each time one bolt was severed he brought the next mark over the balancing point and began again. “Now take me,” he said, pulling his end without noticeable exertion. “Folks take me for an ordinary, no-count joker who won't eat meat, and that's okay. But I have things I—”
He paused, and Subble knew that he had almost let slip something about the menace that had cast its strange eye upon the party. He certainly knew about it, and the matter was definitely relevant to Subble's mission; the signals were strong. But Veg was not yet ready to speak of this.
They sawed for a while. Subble copied Veg's stance, and finally caught on to the swing of it. The motions were relaxing, vaguely similar to the steady beat of waves upon a lonely shore, leading the mind to introspection. Jets of sweet-smelling sawdust splattered across his foot and into the top of his sock, giving him another lesson in woodsman's clothing. The curlicues settled on his toe were twisted lengths, some like little worms, rather than the powder he had expected. The texture would depend upon the nature and hardness of the wood, he thought.
“Well, like why I don't eat meat,” Veg was saying instead of whatever he had intended. “It's okay to talk about how the world's too crowded, not enough places to live, not enough food to go around, everybody going crazy because there's no room to holler in. So they tell me I get a neurosis from all that, and that's why I have to make it harder for myself. You believe that?”
“No,” Subble said, sensing the proper answer to the ambiguous question. Veg was trying to come to grips with the problems posed by the frustration of the territorial imperative, though he evidently was not familiar with the terms. Every creature sought out a territory of its own, distinct from that of other representatives of its species; birds sang, in part, to define by sound the limits of their domains, their foraging grounds, and men liked to talk of their homes as being their castles. The contest he had just participated in had been a rather tangible manifestation of that need; it was important for Veg to know exactly where his boundaries were, even though the land was his only to the extent of limited cutting rights. Successful defense of those boundaries gave him a fundamental satisfaction; he had fought for his territory and won. Neurotic? Hardly; it was a return to normalcy.
“You're damn right, no. Those headshrinkers never set their twinkletoes in the forest. They've never been off-world. That's why—”
Once more that pause. Veg kept approaching the key and shying away.
“You're a vegetarian—and this is part of what I may have been sent to investigate,” Subble said, helping him. “But you don't feel free to tell me just what the connection is.”
“Yeah.” They sawed for another period in silence. An inchworm mounted Subble's shoe, struggling to navigate the unsteady sawdust strings and freezing when it thought it was observed. All creatures had their problems and their frights, he thought. An inchworm hid itself in stillness; a man in silence.
Veg tried again. “Tell me if you ever heard anything like this. Maybe it makes sense to you. When I was a kid, my brother—well, he was a good guy. Everybody liked him. I liked him. We fought sometimes, but no real trouble—I mean, I had the muscle and he had the savvy, so we didn't feel crowded. We'd go around together all the time, but I knew he was the one going to make good. In the long run, you know, because of his brains. I didn't mind. He was right for it.
“Then he took sick. He was in the hospital, but he looked okay. I saw him there, and he said he felt fine, and that they told him he was going to be back in school again soon and to keep up with his studies. I guess that's the only time I was jealous of him, a little, “cause all he had to do was lie around all day, while I had all those dull classes.
“Then he died. A teacher just came up and told me one day, that he'd gone the way they always knew he would. From the first day, almost, they'd known. Only they never told him that, or his friends, or me. Cancer—and all those doctors lying about it, telling us he was getting better and all, when he was dying. Them and their hypocritic oath. I didn't believe it at first; I used to dream he was still there, only he'd broken his leg or something and they thought it was real bad, but it got better after all, you know? I guess it took me a couple of years to believe he was gone, all the way down in my mind.
“And it got to me. I mean, here was my brother, a good guy, nobody had anything against him, but he died. And it got in my head, if there'd been this god—I don't believe in God—this guy looking down, saying 'One of these two boys has to go, there isn't room anymore for both,' and he had to make the choice, see... well, I was the one he should have taken, because I didn't have much to give the world anyway. You have to save the sheep and cast out the goat, or whatever, and he was the sheep.
“But this god took the wrong one. And there was this destiny, this good life, meant for my brother—and the wrong boy left to fill it. I was living his life, and it was all wrong, all wrong. But then I thought, now this mistake's been made, and it's too late to fix it, but it isn't all gone quite if I save as much as I can. What I have to do is, is—well, make something out of it the way he was supposed to make it, you know? Prove that maybe it wasn't, a big mistake, just a small one, and not so much was changed after all.”
They sawed another bolt in silence. The inchworm had negotiated the shoe and disappeared into the crushed leafery beyond, and the sawdust was mounding tremendously three or four inches high. A swift fly had settled upon it, savoring its freshness, perhaps. The scene darkened alarmingly, then brightened as an unseen cloud crossed the sun. It was amazing how absorbing the microcosm became with a little concentration.
“Any of that make sense to you?” Veg inquired after a bit.
“Too much,” Subble said, suffering a personal pang that surprised him.
“But it still hurt, knowing how he died,” Veg said, encouraged. How often people were afraid to express their true feelings, for fear of ridicule, and so presented artificial ones instead. Veg was concerned because he had let slip the mask and failed to be artificial, but now it was all right. “I thought about it, and if there was one thing I was sure of, it was that death like that was wrong. I don't care what they say about statistics and survival—so many boys might've died, and him being the one that—but then I saw that those other boys were all somebody's brother too, you know, and probably if I knew them I'd know why they should live too. It wasn't all right to kill anybody's brother. And then I thought, what about the animals...
“And when I stopped thinking, I wasn't killing anything that moved, or letting anybody else do it for me. It's as though that meat is his flesh.”
“But you will fight,” Subble observed.
“Yeah. I never did understand those pacifist types that preach nonviolence and demonstrate against war and then go home to a big juicy steak dinner. At least a man can fight back. Smack on the jaw doesn't hurt him, but—”
Subble moved so quickly that Veg, who was looking right at him, spoke the last several words and finished his stroke before realizing he was alone.
“Wha—?” But Subble was already coming back to resume sawing, disappointed. The menace at the fringe had moved faster yet, which deepened the mystery. Few animate things on Earth could elude an agent on the move.
“What kind of man are you?” Veg demanded somewhat belligerently. “You were just a blur—”
“I was after that thing. It's been stalking us all afternoon. I'm pretty sure that's what I was sent for.”
“You saw it?” Veg made no pretense of ignorance, though this would have made little difference to Subble in any event.
“Only a flicker. Just enough to tell me it is animal and alien. You're fooling with strong medicine, Veg.”
“Yeah.” The big man seemed almost relieved to be committed. “But it isn't what you think. I don't know what you think, but it isn't that.”
“I don't have an opinion. I was sent to gather information on a matter relevant to Earth security. I make no judgment and no final decision. When I tell you that thing is dangerous, that's observation, not opinion. It reacted faster than I did.”
Veg's brow wrinkled. “Just because it got the jump on you, it's a threat to the world?”
“I'm a very quick man, Veg. My powers are a threat to any normal community, unless completely under control.”
Veg was hostile again. “So why should I trust you at all?”
“It's not a question of trust. You have to take me for what I am and make your decisions accordingly.”
“Okay— tell me what you are.”
“I'm a special breed of government agent. I'll have to give you some background—”
“This continent is lightly populated compared to some, but its economic and political organizations are still immensely complicated. Every facet contributes exponentially to the overall—” Subble saw that Veg wasn't following, so shifted his ground. “Take crime. If a woodsman murders his neighbor to get his cutting rights, the other lumbermen will have a pretty good idea who did it, won't they?”
“Yeah. Not too many secrets hereabouts.”
“That's the 'isolated community' approach. Everybody knows everybody, and trouble is easily handled by the group. But suppose I killed someone here, and went back home in my flyer before anything was done about it?”
“Guess we'd have to report it to the sheriff. But it'd be pretty hard for him to—”
“Precisely. Crime is no longer simple when there are many communities involved and interacting, and so many conflicting interests. Your sheriff's estimate of the situation would be valueless in running me down, because he wouldn't know me or my motives. I could walk into any body shop in Appalachia and have my facial features modified, hair restyled and recolored, body profile altered by braces and injections—I could be quite unrecognizable to you in half an hour. Even if the sheriff had my exact identity—which he probably wouldn't—it could take enough time to run me down so that my lawyer could cover the evidence against me. And believe me, the changes a body shop could make in my physical appearance are as nothing compared to what a lawyer can do to my legal appearance.”
“You telling me you can get away with murder?”
“Yes. In today's complex world, almost anybody can—if he knows how. All he has to do is avoid detection or capture for the few hours necessary to cover his traces—his legal ones—and the job of bringing him to justice becomes so complicated and expensive that it isn't worth making the attempt.”
Veg shook his head. “I'm just a simple country boy. I'll take your word it's rough in the big city. What has that got to do with why you're here?”
“Obviously we can't let the murderers go free—or any other criminals. And that's only one section of the problem. What we need is a carefully trained and disciplined force of investigators, who can wrap up most cases so quickly that complications never develop. Men who can be assigned at a moment's notice and take hold immediately. Men who have the brains and muscle to act on their own, but the discipline to be inhumanly fair. Men whose reports will be so similar that a central computer can correlate them without having to make adjustments for individual ignorance or bias.”
Veg frowned again. “You still aren't answering my question.”
Subble smiled in reply. “I'm almost there. You wouldn't let Jones' brother arbitrate your dispute with Jones, would you?”
“Hell no! He'd—”
“So you understand what I mean by bias. The trouble is every person on this world is biased in some manner, even if he doesn't want to be. But when thousands of reports are being submitted by thousands of agents on thousands of unique situations every hour, bias is a luxury we can't afford.
The computer has to be sure that the case is accurately presented, or the report is worthless. Yet it can't send out a bunch of identical robots—”
“You are a man?” Veg demanded.
“I am a man—but not an ordinary one. That is, not ordinary in the usual sense.”
“Cut the pussyfooting and tell me!”
“I'm a stripped-down human chassis rebuilt to computer specifications—physical and mental.”
“No. I am a man, with a man's memories and feelings. I was born and raised as you were, and I'm sure I had my problems and my successes—but the past I have now has been grafted on with the body.”
Veg struggled with the concept. “You mean you aren't real? You can't—”
“I'm real—but not as I was born. Whatever I was was cut away, and the entire framework of the ideal agent substituted. My memories—all of them—are his memories, and my abilities are his abilities.
There are thousands like me, male and female.”
“Just so your report will be like someone else's?”
“More or less. It's not merely a matter of standardization, but conformity to the highest qualifications.
I can do things that my original personality could never have achieved.”
“Like moving in a blur,” Veg agreed. Then, after a moment: “I guess I see why you understood about my filling in for my brother's life. That's what you're doing. You're another peavey made out of a cant hook—only you don't even know what you started out to be.”
Subble decided not to inquire what the difference was between a peavey and a cant hook.
They had finished the sawing. Veg stood up and stretched cramped legs. “Sub, I guess I know everything about you I want to. I'll tell you as much as I can, but I can't tell you everything. I mean, I know more, but—”
“But there is Aquilon. I understand.”
“Yeah. 'Quilon and Cal and the rest of it. And when I stop, you don't ask any more questions, you just get out of here and I won't see you again, okay? And you don't poke around after what's in the forest, either.”
“Agreed,” Subble said. The discomfort normal people felt around the retread was a fact of his life, and did not disturb him. Perhaps some of the antipathy stemmed from the fact that agents only questioned people who had something to conceal. Veg had agreed to cooperate to a certain extent, and that was all that was required.
As Veg talked, Subble forgot the man's lingering homespun mannerisms and language and absorbed the episode as though it were his own. He imagined himself on a distant colony-planet, gazing at scenery unlike any on Earth, breathing through a filter in his nose and riding beside a lovely but unsmiling woman.