Lloyd Biggle, Jr.: Monument

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Lloyd Biggle, Jr. Monument
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    Street & Smith Publications, Inc.
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    Фантастика и фэнтези / на английском языке
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Monument: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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Native planet protection tax strategy.

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Lloyd Biggle, Jr.  


It came to O'Brien quite suddenly that he was dying.

He was lying in a sturdy woven-vine hammock, almost within reach of the flying spray where the waves broke in on the point. The caressing warmth of the sun filtered through the ragged sao trees. The shouts of the boys spearing fish off the point reached him fitfully on playful gusts of fragrant wind. A full gourd hung at his elbow. He had been half-dozing in a drowsy state of peaceful contentment when the realization snapped coldly across his idle thoughts and roused him to icy wakefulness.

He was dying.

The fact of death disturbed him less than the realization that he should have thought of it sooner. Death was inevitable from the instant of birth, and O'Brien was a long lifetime from babyhood. He wondered, sometimes, just how old he might be. Certainly a hundred, perhaps even a hundred and fifty. In this dreamy land, where there were no seasons, where the nights were moist and the days warm and sunny, where men measured age by wisdom, it was difficult to keep an alert finger on the elusive pulse of time. It was impossible.

But O'Brien did not need a calendar to tell him he was an old man.

The flaming-red hair of his youth had faded to a rusty gray. His limbs were stiff each morning from the night's dampness. The solitary hut he had built on the lovely rise of ground above the point had grown to a sprawling village, as his sons, and grandsons and great-grandsons, and now great-great grandsons, brought home their wives. It was the village of langru, the village of fire-topped men, already famous, already a legend. Maidens were eager to mate with the young men of fire, whether their hair was red or the native blond. The sturdiest youths came to court the daughters of fire, and many of them defied tradition and settled in the village of their wives.

O'Brien had enjoyed a good life. He knew he had lived far beyond the years that would have been his in the crazed rush of a civilized land. But he was dying, and the great dream that had grown until it shaped his life among these people was beyond his reach.

He jerked erect, shook his fist at the sky, and shouted hoarsely in a long-unused language. "What are you waiting for? What are you waiting for?"

As soon as O'Brien appeared on the beach, a dozen boys came splashing towards him. "Langri!" they shouted. "Langri!"

They leaped about him excitedly, holding up fish for his approval, waving their spears, laughing and shouting. O'Brien pointed up the beach, where a large dugout canoe was drawn up on the sand.

"To the Elder," he said.

"Ho! To the Elder! Ho! To the Elder!"

They raced ahead of him, scrambling furiously for places because the canoe would not hold them all. O'Brien waded into the melee, restored order, and told off the six he wanted for paddlers. The others raced into the surf after the canoe, swimming around and under it until the paddlers got up speed.

The boys shouted a song as they dipped their paddles — a serious song, for this was serious business. The Langri wished to see the Elder, and it was their solemn duty to make haste.

O'Brien leaned back wearily and watched the foam dancing under the outriggers. He had little taste for traveling, now that his years were relentlessly overtaking him. It was pleasant to lounge in his hammock with a gourd of fermented fruit juice, acting the part of a venerable oracle, respected, even worshipped. When he was younger he had roamed the length and breadth of this world. He had even built a small sailing boat and sailed completely around it, with the only tangible result being the discovery of a few unlikely islands. He had trekked tirelessly about the lone continent, mapping it and speculating on its resources.

He knew that he was a simple man, a man of action. The natives' awe of his supposedly profound wisdom alarmed and embarrassed him. He found himself called upon to settle complex sociological and economic problems, and because he had seen many civilizations and remembered something of what he had seen, he achieved a commendable success and enjoyed it not at all.

But O'Brien knew that the sure finger of doom was pointing directly at this planet and its people, and he had pondered, and debated with himself on long walks along the sea, and paced his hut through the hours of misty night while he devised stratagems, and finally he was satisfied. He was the one man in the far-flung cosmos who could possibly save this world that he loved, and these people he loved, and he was ready to do it. He could do it, if he lived.

And he was dying.

The afternoon waned and evening came on. Fatigue touched the boys' faces and the singing became strained, but they worked on tirelessly, keeping their rhythm. Miles of coast drifted by, and scores of villages, where people recognized the Langri and crowded the shore to wave.

Dusk was hazing the distant sea and purpling the land when they made the turn into a shallow bay and rode the surf up onto a wide, sloping beach studded with canoes. The boys leaped up and heaved the canoe far up onto the beach. They slumped to the sand in exhaustion, and bounced up a moment later, beaming with pride. They would be guests of honor, tonight, at any hut in the village they chose to visit. Had they not brought the Langri?

They moved through the village in a procession that gained in numbers with each hut they passed. Respectful adults and awed children stepped forth and solemnly followed after O'Brien. The Elder's hut was apart from the others, at the top of the hill, and the Elder stood waiting there, a smile on his wrinkled face, his arms upraised. Ten paces away O'Brien stopped and raised his own arms. The villagers watched silently.

"I greet you," O'Brien said.

"Your greetings are as welcome as yourself."

O'Brien stepped forward, and they clasped hands. This was not a native form of greeting, but O'Brien used it with the older men who were almost life-long friends.

"I ordered a feast in the hope that you would come," the Elder said.

"I came in the hope there would be a feast," O'Brien returned.

With the formalities thus satisfied, the villagers began to drift away, murmuring approval. The Elder took O'Brien's arm and led him past the hut, to a small grove of trees where the hammocks hung. They stood facing each other.

"Many days have passed," the Elder said.

"Many," O'Brien agreed.

He looked at his friend closely. The Elder's tall, gaunt frame seemed as sturdy as ever, but his hair was silvery white. The years had traced lines in his face, and more years had deepened them, and dimmed the brightness in his eyes. Like O'Brien, he was old. He was dying.

They settled themselves in the hammocks, and lay facing each other. A young girl brought gourds to them, and they sipped the drink and rested in silence as the darkness closed in.

"The Langri is no longer a traveler," the Elder said.

"The Langri travels when the need arises," O'Brien said.

"Let us then talk of that need."

"Later. After we have eaten. Or tomorrow — tomorrow would be better."

"Tomorrow, then," the Elder said.

The girl returned with pipes and a glowing coal, and they smoked in silence while fires leaped high in the darkness and the rippling night breeze brought the savory odors of the coming feast blended with the crisp sea air. They finished their pipes and solemnly took their places of honor.

* * *

In the morning they walked together along the shore, and seated themselves on a knoll overlooking the sea. Sweet-scented blossoms crowded up around them, nodding in the wind. The morning light sparkled brightly on the leaping water. Brightly-colored sails of the fishing fleet were pinned flower-like to the horizon. To their left, the village rested sleepily on the side of the hill, with only three thin plumes of smoke drifting upwards. Small boys romped in the surf, or walked timidly along the beach to stare up at the Elder and the Langri.

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