World of tiers 02 the.., p.13

World of Tiers 02 - The Gates of Creation, page 13

 

World of Tiers 02 - The Gates of Creation
 


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  They made it back to the area around the gate, which had been stable and would continue to be so-they hoped.

  They got to the safety zone just in time to escape the sudden sink­ing of the land behind them. A hole, broad and shallow at first, ap­peared. Then it narrowed and deepened. The sides closed in on themselves, there was a smacking sound, and the hole reversed its original process. It widened out until all was smooth as before, ex­cept that the foot-high, thin growths sprouting from each depression kept on vibrating.

  "What in Los' name!" Luvah said over and over. He was pale, and the freckles stood out like a galaxy of fear.

  Wolff was a little sick himself. Feeling the earth tremble under him had been like being caught in an earthquake. In fact, that was what he had thought when it first happened.

  Somebody yelled behind him. He spun to see Palamabron trying to get back through the gate through which he had just stepped only to go flying vainly through the frame. He must have been following them and waited until he thought they had gone some distance from the gate. Now, he was trapped as much as they.

  More so, since Wolff had use for him. Wolff shoved the others away from Palamabron's throat and shouted at them to leave him alone. They drew back while Palamabron shook and his teeth chat­tered.

  "Palamabron," Wolff said, "you have been sentenced to death be­cause you broke truce with us and murdered your cousin."

  Palamabron, seeing that he was not to be killed out of hand, took courage. Perhaps he thought he had a chance. He cried, "At least I did not eat my own brother! And I had to kill him! He attacked me first!"

  "Enion was struck in the back of the head," Wolff said.

  "I knocked him down!" Palamabron shouted. "He started to rise when I seized a rock and hit him with it. It was not my fault he had his back turned. Would you ask me to wait until he had turned around?"

  "There's no use talking about this," Wolff said. "But you can go free. Your blood will not be on our hands. Only, you can't stay with us. None of us would feel safe to sleep at night or turn our backs on you."

  "You are letting me go?" Palamabron said. "Why?"

  "Don't waste time talking," Wolff said. "If you don't get out of our sight within ten minutes, I'll let the others at you. You'd better leave. Now!"

  "Wait a minute," Palamabron said. "There's something very sus­picious about this. No, I won't go."

  Wolff gestured at the others. "Go ahead. Kill him."

  Palamabron screamed, turned, and ran away as swiftly as he could. He seemed weak, and his legs began to move slowly after the first thirty yards. He looked back several times, then, seeing that they were not coming after him, he quit running.

  The earth swelled behind him and built up until it was twice as high as his head. At the moment it gained its peak, Palamabron looked over his shoulder again. He saw the giant wave racing to­wards him, and he screamed and began to run again. The wave collapsed, the tremors following the collapse upsetting Palamabron and knocking him off his feet. He scrambled up and continued to go on, although he was staggering by now.

  A hole opened up ahead of him. He screamed and darted off at right angles to it, seeming to gain new strength from terror. The hole disappeared, but a second gaped ahead of him. Again, he raced away, this time diagonally to the hole.

  Another wave began to build up before him. He whirled, slipped, fell hard, rolled over, and stumbled away. Presently, the swelling, which had risen directly between Palamabron and the Lords, grew so high that it walled him off from their sight. After that, the wave froze for a moment, rigid except for a slight trembling. Gradually, it sub­sided, and the plain was flat again, with the exception of a six-foot long mound.

  "Swallowed up," Vala said. She seemed thrilled. Her eyes were wide open, her mouth parted, the lower lip wet. Her tongue flicked out to trace with its tip the oval of both lips.

  Wolff said, "Our father has indeed created a monster for us. Perhaps, this entire planet is covered with the skin of ... of this Weltthier."

  "What?" said Theotormon. His eyes were still glazed with terror. And though he had been shrinking during the starvation on the last world, he now seemed to have dwindled off fifty pounds in the past two minutes. His skin hung in loops.

  "Weltthier. World-animal. From German, a Terrestrial language."

  A planet covered with skin, he thought. Or maybe it was not so much a skin as a continent-sized amoeba spread out over the globe. The idea made him boggle.

  The skin existed; there was no denying that. But how did it keep from starving to death? The millions and millions of tons of proto­plasm had to be fed. Certainly, although it ate animals, it could not get nearly enough of these to maintain itself.

  Wolff decided to investigate the subject, if he ever got the chance. He was as curious as a monkey or a Siamese cat, always probing, pondering, speculating, and analyzing. He could not rest until he knew the why and how.

  He sat down to rest while he considered what to do. The others, Vala excepted, also sat or lay down. She walked from the "safety zone," placing her feet carefully with each step. Watching her, he un­derstood what she was doing. Why had he not thought of that? She was avoiding contact with the plants (hairs?) that grew from the holes (pores?). After traveling on a circle with a radius of about twenty-five yards, she returned to the gate area. Not once had the skin trembled or begun to form threatening shapes.

  Wolff stood up and said, "Very good, Vala. You beat me to it. The beast, or whatever it is, detects life by touch through the feelers or hairs. If we navigate as cautiously as ships going through openings in reefs, we can cross over this thing. Only trouble is, how do we get past those?"

  He pointed outwards to the horny buttes, the excrescentoid hills. The hairs began to crowd together at their bases, and beyond the buttes they carpeted the ground.

  She shrugged and said, "I don't know."

  "We'll worry about it when we get to it," he said. He began walk­ing, looking downwards to guide himself among the feelers. The Lords followed him in Indian file, with Vala again being the only ex­ception. She paralleled his course at a distance of five or six yards to his right.

  "It's going to be very difficult to hunt animals for food under these conditions," he said. "We'll have to keep one eye on the hairs and one on the animal. A terrible handicap."

  "I wouldn't worry," she said. "There may be no animals."

  "There is one I'm sure exists," Wolff said. He did not say anything more on the subject although it was evident that Vala was wondering what he meant. He headed towards the "tree" in a branch of which he saw the nest. A circular pile of sticks and leaves, it was lodged at the junction of the trunk and a branch and was about three feet across. The sticks and leaves seemed to be held together with a gluey substance.

  He stepped between two feelers, propped his club against the tree, and shinnied up the trunk. Halfway up, he saw the tops of two hex­agons on one of the buttes. When he got to the nest, he clung to the trunk with his legs, one arm around the trunk, while with the other hand he poked through leaves on top of the nest. He uncovered two eggs, speckled green and black and about twice the size of turkey eggs. Removing them one by one, he dropped them to Vala.

  Immediately thereafter, the mother returned. Larger than a bald eagle, she was white with bluish chevrons, furry, monkey-faced, fal­con-beaked, saber-toothed, wolf-eared, bat-winged, archeopteryx-tailed, and vulture-footed.

  She shot down on him with wings folded until just before she struck. The wings opened with a whoosh of air, and she screamed like iron being ripped apart. Perhaps the scream was intended to freeze the prey. If so, it failed. Wolff just let loose of the trunk and dropped. Above him came a crash and another scream, this time of frustration and panic, as the beast rammed partly into the nest and partly into the trunk. Evidently, it had expected to have its momen­tum absorbed by Wolff's body. And it may have underestimated its speed in its fury.

  Wolff hit the ground and rolled, knowing that he was distur
bing the feelers but unable to prevent it. He came up on his feet, clumps of glued-together sticks and leaves raining around him from the shat­tered nest. He got to one side just in time to escape being hit by the body of the half-stunned flier. However, the blow would not have been a full one, since the creature had slowed its fall with an instinc­tive outspreading of wings.

  By then, the earth-skin was reacting to the messages transmitted by the feelers. Not only Wolff had contacted them. The other Lords had scattered when Wolff fell, and they had brushed against hairs all around the tree.

  "Back to the tree," Wolff yelled at them. Vala had anticipated his advice; she was already halfway up the trunk. He began shinnying after Vala, only to feel talons sharp and hot as glowing-white hooks fasten into his back. The flying beast had recovered and was at him again. Once more, he let loose and fell backward. He kicked his feet against the trunk and shoved out to throw himself into a horizontal attitude. And so he came down hard but with the beast below him.

  Two breaths whooshed out, his and that of the beast crushed be­neath him. Less hurt, Wolff rolled off, stood up, and kicked the thing in the ribs. Its mouth gaped beneath the brownish beak, its two saber teeth covered with saliva and blood. Wolff kicked again and turned back to the tree. He was bowled over by two Lords frantic to get to the safety of the tree. Tharmas stepped on his head and used it as a springboard to leap for the trunk. Rintrah pulled him down, shoved him away, and started to climb. Staggering back from the push, Tharmas fell over Wolff, who was just getting to his hands and knees.

  From her perch near the top of the tree, Vala was laughing hyster­ically. She laughed and pounded her thigh and then, suddenly, shrieked. Her hold lost, she fell hard, broke off a branch, turned over, and came down on her shoulder. She lay stunned at the base of the tree.

  Theotormon was perhaps the most terrified. Still huge despite the many pounds of fat that had thawed off him, and handicapped by having flippers, he had a hard time scaling the tree. He kept slipping back down, the while he could not refrain from looking over his shoulder and gibbering.

  Wolff managed to get to his feet. Around him, around the tree, rather, the skin was going mad. It rose in great waves that chased after Luvah and Ariston. These two were going around in circles with great speed, their fright giving their weary and hungry bodies fresh strength. Behind them, the earth-flesh rose up, moved swiftly after them, then began to curl over. Other waves appeared ahead of them, and pits yawned beneath their feet.

  Suddenly, Luvah and Ariston passed each other, and the various moving tumors and depressions hot on their heels collided. Wolff was confused by the chaos of tossing, bumping, smacking, gulping shapes of protoplasm. More than anything, the scene resembled a collection of maelstroms.

  Before the skin could get its signals straight and reorganize, it had lost Ariston and Luvah. They gained the trunk of the tree, but they impeded each other's ascent. While they were clawing at each other, Wolff picked up the body of the flier and hurled it from him as far as he could. It landed on an advancing swell, which stopped the mo­ment it detected the carcass. A depression appeared around and be­neath the body. Slowly, it sank until it was below the surface. Then the lips of the hole closed over it, and there was only a mound and a seam to show what was beneath.

  The flier had been a sacrifice, since Wolff had wanted to keep the body for food. The area around the tree smoothed out, made a few ripples, and became as inert as if it were truly made of earth. Wolff went around the tree to examine Vala. She was sitting up, breathing hard, her face twisted with pain. Since the skin was springy, the im­pact had not been as hard as if it had occurred on hard dirt. She was bruised on her shoulder and the side of her face, and for a while she could not move her arm.

  Her worst injury seemed to be to her dignity. She cursed them for a pack of cowardly fools and males fit only to be slaves-if that. The Lords were abashed by her insults or sullen. They felt that she was right; they were ashamed. But they were certainly not going to admit the truth.

  Wolff began to think the whole affair had been funny. He started laughing, then straightened up with a groan. He had forgotten the gashes inflicted by the flier's talons. Luvah looked at his back and clucked. The blood was still oozing out, although he expected that it would soon stop flowing. He certainly hoped that Wolff would not be­come infected, since there was no medicine to be had.

  "You're very cheerful," Wolff growled. He looked around for the eggs. One was smashed and spread over the base of the tree. The other was nowhere in sight and presumably had been swallowed by the skin.

  "Oh, Los!" moaned Ariston. "What do we do now? We're about to die of hunger; we're lost; we can't leave this tree without being swallowed alive by that monster. Our father has killed us, and we have not even gotten close to his stronghold."

  "You Lords and Makers of Universes are pitiful creatures indeed when stripped of your fortress walls and your weapons," Wolff said. "I'll tell you another old Earth proverb. There's more than one way to skin a cat."

  "What cat? Where?" Theotormon said. "I could eat a dozen cats right now."

  Wolff rolled his eyes upwards but did not answer. He told the others either to get on the other side of the tree or go up it. Then he took Theotormon's knife and went out a few feet from the tree. Squatting, he jammed the knife with all his strength into the skin. If it was flexible enough to shape itself into rough pseudopods or holes, it had to be vulnerable.

  He snatched the knife out of the wound and rose and retreated a few steps. The skin shrank away, became a hole, then a cone formed around the wound, and the cone thrust up, like a crater slowly build­ing itself. Wolff stood patiently. Soon the crater flattened out, and the wound was revealed. Instead of the blood he had been half-expect­ing, a thin pale liquid oozed out.

  He approached the wound, taking care to avoid the hairs near it. Quickly he slashed at the skin again, dug out a quivering mass of flesh, and ran back to the tree. There was a storm of protoplasmic shapes once more: waves, craters, ridges, and brief swirlings in which the flesh formed corkscrew pillars. Then it subsided.

  Wolff said, "The skin immediately around the tree seems to be tougher and less flexible than that further away. I think we're safe as long as we stand on it, although the skin might be capable of a . . .a tidal wave that could sweep us off. Anyway, we can eat."

  The other Lords took turns cutting out chunks. The raw flesh was tough, slimy with ichor, and ill-smelling, but it could be chewed and swallowed. With something in their bellies, they felt stronger and more optimistic. Some lay down to sleep; Wolff walked to the shore. Vala and Theotormon followed him, and Luvah, seeing them, de­cided to go along. The land area ended abruptly with no beach for transition. Along the edge there were so few feelers they could relax a little. Wolff stood on the very edge and looked into the water. De­spite the fact that there was no sun to cast its beams, the clear water allowed him to see quite deep into it.

  There were many fish of various sizes, shapes, and colors swim­ming close to shore. Even as he watched, he saw a long slender pale tentacle shoot out from under the edge and seize a large fish. The fish struggled but was drawn quickly back under the edge. Wolff got down on all fours and leaned out over the edge to see what kind of creature it was that had caught the prey. The rim on which he stood extended out quite far. In fact, he could not see the base of the land. Instead, he saw a mass of writhing tentacles, many of which gripped fish. And farther back were tentacles that hung deep into the abyss. Presently, one coiled upon itself and brought up a gigantic fish from the deeps.

  He withdrew his head hastily, since one of the nearby tentacles was snaking out and up in his general direction. He said, "I won­dered how such a monster could get enough to eat. It must feed mainly on the sea life. And I'll bet that this animal on which we stand is a vast floater. Like the islands of the waterworld, this thing is free, unattached to any base."

  "That's nice to know," Luvah said. "But how does that help us?"


  "We need more to eat," Wolff replied. "Theotormon, you're the swimmer among us. Would you jump in and swim around a bit? Stay close to shore and be ready to shoot back in. Come out fast, like a seal."

  Theotormon said, "Why should I? You saw how those tentacles grabbed those fish."

  "I think they're grabbing blindly. Maybe they can detect vibrations in the water, I don't know. But you're fast enough to evade them. And the tentacles immediately under this edge are small."

  Theotormon shook his head. "No, I won't risk my life for you."

  "You'll starve if you don't," Wolff said. "We can't keep on cutting out chunks of skin. It gets too violent."

  He pointed at a fish that was just skimming by below the surface. It was fat and sluggish with a head shaped like a sphinx. "Wouldn't you like to sink your teeth in that?"

  Theotormon drooled, and his belly thundered, but he would not go after it.

  "Give me your knife, then," Wolff said. He removed the weapon from its scabbard before Theotormon, standing on one leg, could lift the other to clutch the hilt with his toes. He turned and ran and dived out as far as he could. The fish wheeled away from him and scooted away. It was slow but not so slow that he could catch it. Nor had he thought he could. He was interested in finding out if a tentacle, feel­ing the vibrations of the splash and his strokes, would come probing for him.

 
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