Image of the gods, p.1

Image of the Gods, page 1


Image of the Gods

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Image of the Gods

  Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at

  Transcriber's Note:

  This etext was produced from _The Counterfeit Man More Science Fiction Stories by Alan E. Nourse_ published in 1963. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and typographical errors have been corrected without note.

  Image of the Gods

  It was nearly winter when the ship arrived. Pete Farnam never knew ifthe timing had been planned that way or not. It might have beencoincidence that it came just when the colony was predicting its firstreal bumper crop of all time. When it was all over, Pete and Mario andthe rest tried to figure it out, but none of them ever knew for surejust _what_ had happened back on Earth, or _when_ it had actuallyhappened. There was too little information to go on, and practicallynone that they could trust. All Pete Farnam really knew, that day, wasthat this was the wrong year for a ship from Earth to land on Baron IV.

  Pete was out on the plantation when it landed. As usual, his sprayer hadgotten clogged; tarring should have been started earlier, before it gotso cold that the stuff clung to the nozzle and hardened before the spraycould settle into the dusty soil. The summer past had been the colony'sfinest in the fourteen years he'd been there, a warm, still summer withplenty of rain to keep the dirt down and let the _taaro_ get well rootedand grow up tall and gray against the purple sky. But now the _taaro_was harvested. It was waiting, compressed and crated, ready forshipment, and the heavy black clouds were scudding nervously across thesky, faster with every passing day. Two days ago Pete had asked Mario tosee about firing up the little furnaces the Dusties had built to helpthem fight the winter. All that remained now was tarring the fields, andthen buckling down beneath the wind shields before the first winterstorms struck.

  Pete was trying to get the nozzle of the tar sprayer cleaned out whenMario's jeep came roaring down the rutted road from the village in acloud of dust. In the back seat a couple of Dusties were bouncing up anddown like happy five-year-olds. The brakes squealed and Mario bellowedat him from the road. "Pete! The ship's in! Better get hopping!"

  Pete nodded and started to close up the sprayer. One of the Dustiestumbled out of the jeep and scampered across the field to give him ahand. It was an inexpert hand to say the least, but the Dusties seemedso proud of the little they were able to learn about mechanized farmingthat nobody had the heart to shoo them away. Pete watched the fuzzybrown creature get its paws thoroughly gummed up with tar before hepulled him loose and sent him back to the jeep with a whack on thebackside. He finished the job himself, grabbed his coat from the back ofthe sprayer, and pulled himself into the front seat of the jeep.

  Mario started the little car back down the road. The young colonist'sface was coated with dust, emphasizing the lines of worry around hiseyes. "I don't like it, Pete. There isn't any ship due this year."

  "When did it land?"

  "About twenty minutes ago. Won't be cool for a while yet."

  Pete laughed. "Maybe Old Schooner is just getting lonesome to swap tallstories with us. Maybe he's even bringing us a locker of T-bones. Whoknows?"

  "Maybe," said Mario without conviction.

  Pete looked at him, and shrugged. "Why complain if they're early? Maybethey've found some new way to keep our fields from blowing away on usevery winter." He stared across at the heavy windbreaks between thefields--long, ragged structures built in hope of outwitting the viciouswinds that howled across the land during the long winter. Pete pickedbits of tar from his beard, and wiped the dirt from his forehead withthe back of his hand. "This tarring is mean," he said wearily. "Glad totake a break."

  "Maybe Cap Schooner will know something about the rumors we've beenhearing," Mario said gloomily.

  Pete looked at him sharply. "About Earth?"

  Mario nodded. "Schooner's a pretty good guy, I guess. I mean, he'd tellus if anything was _really_ wrong back home, wouldn't he?"

  Pete nodded, and snapped his fingers. One of the Dusties hopped overinto his lap and began gawking happily at the broad fields as the jeepjogged along. Pete stroked the creature's soft brown fur with histar-caked fingers. "Maybe someday these little guys will show us where_they_ go for the winter," he said. "They must have it down to ascience."

  Somehow the idea was funny, and both men roared. If the Dusties had_anything_ down to a science, nobody knew what. Mario grinned andtweaked the creature's tail. "They sure do beat the winter, though," hesaid.

  "So do we. Only we have to do it the human way. These fellas grew up inthe climate." Pete lapsed into silence as the village came into view.The ship had landed quite a way out, resting on its skids on the longshallow groove the colonists had bulldozed out for it years before, thefirst year they had arrived on Baron IV. Slowly Pete turned Mario'swords over in his mind, allowing himself to worry a little. There _had_been rumors of trouble back on Earth, persistent rumors he had takencare to soft-pedal, as mayor of the colony. There were other things,too, like the old newspapers and magazines that had been brought in bythe lad from Baron II, and the rare radio message they could pick upthrough their atmospheric disturbance. Maybe something _was_ going wrongback home. But somehow political upheavals on Earth seemed remote tothese hardened colonists. Captain Schooner's visits were always welcome,but they were few and far between. The colony was small; one ship everythree years could supply it, and even then the _taaro_ crates wouldn'thalf fill up the storage holds. There were other colonies far closer tohome that sent back more _taaro_ in one year than Baron IV could grow inten.

  But when a ship did come down, it was a time of high excitement. Itmeant fresh food from Earth, meat from the frozen lockers, maybe even alittle candy and salt. And always for Pete a landing meant a longevening of palaver with the captain about things back home and things onBaron IV.

  Pete smiled to himself as he thought of it. He could remember Earth, ofcourse, with a kind of vague nostalgia, but Baron IV was home to him nowand he knew he would never leave it. He had too many hopes investedthere, too many years of heartache and desperate hard work, too muchdeep satisfaction in having cut a niche for himself on this dusty,hostile world, ever to think much about Earth any more.

  Mario stopped in front of the offices, and one of the Dusties hopped outahead of Pete. The creature strode across the rough gravel to the door,pulling tar off his fingers just as he had seen Pete do. Pete followedhim to the door, and then stopped, frowning. There should have been ababble of voices inside, with Captain Schooner's loud laugh roaringabove the excitement. But Pete could hear nothing. A chill of uneasinessran through him; he pushed open the door and walked inside. A dozen ofhis friends looked up silently, avoiding the eyes of the uniformedstranger in the center of the room. When he saw the man, Pete Farnamknew something was wrong indeed.

  It wasn't Captain Schooner. It was a man he'd never seen before.

  * * * * *

  The Dustie ran across the room in front of Pete and hopped up on thedesk as though he owned it, throwing his hands on his hips and staringat the stranger curiously. Pete took off his cap and parka and droppedthem on a chair. "Well," he said. "This is a surprise. We weren'texpecting a ship so soon."

  The man inclined his head stiffly and glanced down at the paper he heldin his hand. "You're Peter Farnam, I suppose? Mayor of this colony?"

  "That's right. And you?"

  "Varga is the name," the captain said shortly. "Earth Security andSupply." He nodded toward the small, frail-looking man in civilianclothes, sitting beside him. "This is Rupert Nathan, of the ColonialService. You'll be seeing a great deal of him." He held out a smallwallet of papers. "Our credentials, Farnam. Be so
good as to examinethem."

  Pete glanced around the room. John Tegan and Hank Mario were watchinghim uneasily. Mary Turner was following the proceedings with her sharplittle eyes, missing nothing, and Mel Dorfman stood like a rock, hisheavy face curiously expressionless as he watched the visitors. Petereached out for the papers, flipped through them, and handed them backwith a long look at Captain Varga.

  He was younger than Captain Schooner, with sandy hair and pale eyes thatlooked up at Pete from a soft baby face. Clean-shaven, his whole personseemed immaculate as he leaned back calmly in the chair. His civiliancompanion, however, had indecision written in every line of his pinkface. His hands fluttered nervously, and he avoided the colonist's eyes.

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