Gérard Klein: The Overlords of War

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Gérard Klein The Overlords of War
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The Overlords of War

by Gérard Klein

Le del charrie un mauvais grain.
Est-ce aujourd’hui, est-ce demain
Que tous les peuples harasses
Vivront enfin pour s’embrasser?
Et rataplan et rataplan
Les morts se vengent des vivants.

The welkin bears a seed of sorrow—
Is it today, is it tomorrow
That all the weary peoples will
Learn how to kiss instead of kill?
Rat-tat-tat goes the drummer’s stick—
The dead take vengeance on the quick.

Song by Frehel

Chapter 1

The Monster was weeping like a little child—not with remorse at having killed three dozen men, but at finding itself so far from its mother world. Corson could understand its distress; it was all he could do not to give way to the same feeling.

In the darkness his hands groped along the ground, warily because according to the Briefings there were plants here which cut like razors. They encountered a clear space. Only then, and with extreme slowness, did he advance a little. Beyond, the “grass” was as soft as a fur pelt. Surprised, Corson drew back his hands. The plants ought to be hard and knife-keen. Uria was a hostile and dangerous world. According to the Briefings, soft plants ought to indicate a trap. Uria was at war with Earth.

What he needed to know most urgently was whether the natives were already aware of the arrival of two strangers—the Monster and George Corson. The Monster was equipped to cope with them. Corson wasn’t. For the twentieth time he worked it out: the natives would have seen the ship founder in flames and would probably assume its crew to be dead. They wouldn’t carry out a search during the night if the Urian jungle were even half as dangerous as the Briefings claimed.

His calculations always brought Corson to the same conclusion.

He had to face three mortal threats: from the Monster, from the natives, and from the wild beasts of Uria. Weighing the risks, he decided to stand up. He wouldn’t get far on all fours. If he found himself too close to the Monster, that would cost him his life. He could estimate what direction it lay in, but not how. far away it was. The night seemed to muffle sound, or perhaps fear had taken the edge off his hearing.

Gently, gently, he rose to his feet, trying not to rustle the grass or any foliage there might be. Stars shone peacefully overhead, in patterns that were strange but not menacing, stars like those he had seen scores of times from the surface of worlds scattered around the galaxy. The starry vault was a reassuring sight, if a meaningless one. Long ago, on Earth, men had coined names for constellations which they believed unchangeable, but which were only the result of observing the heavens from a briefly privileged vantage point That was past; so too was the divine ranking of the stars.

The situation, Corson told himself, was by no means hopeless. He had a good gun, although it was almost empty. He had eaten and drunk just before the accident, which would enable him to keep going for some hours. The air was fresh, which would prevent him from becoming drowsy. On top of that he was the sole survivor of a crew of thirty-seven men and hence must enjoy incredible good luck. Last, he could move freely; he was neither handicapped nor even hurt.

The wails of the Monster redoubled, which brought Corson’s attention back to the most pressing of his problems. If he hadn’t been very close to the Monster’s cage when it launched its attack, he would probably now be drifting in a thin cloud through the Urian stratosphere. He had been trying to communicate with the Monster, as his job required. From the other side of an invisible wall the Monster fixed him with six of the eighteen eyes ringing what it was convenient to call its waist. Those lidless orbs changed color in a variable rhythm which constituted one of its modes of communication. The six long claw-tipped fingers on each of its six paws tap-tapped on the floor of its cage, in a second communication mode, and a dull monotonous cry escaped from its upper orifice, which Corson could not see. The Monster was at least three times his height, and its mouth was surrounded by a forest of tendrils which from a distance might be mistaken for hairs, but close up looked pretty much like what they were: slender strands as tough as steel, capable both of lashing out at fearful speed and of acting as tactile antennae.

Corson had never doubted that the Monster was intelligent. Besides, the Briefings said so. It might even be more intelligent than a man. The great weakness of the species it belonged to had been to Overlook—perhaps to scorn—that great invention which had made humans and sundry other races so powerful: society. The Briefings declared that this case was not unique. On Earth itself, before the age of space and the systematic exploitation of the oceans, there had existed in the sea an intelligent species, remarkably individualistic, which had never taken the trouble to build a civilization. Extinction had been the price the dolphins paid for their neglect. But creating a society was not in itself a warranty that a species would survive. The pitiless war between Earth and Uria was in a fair way to proving that.

The eyes, the fingers, and the voice of the Monster, from the far side of the invisible wall, conveyed a message which Corson understood perfectly well even though he was unable to decipher the creature’s language: “As soon as I can, I shall destroy you!”

For a reason unknown to him, the chance had arisen. He couldn’t believe that the ship’s generators had broken down. More likely, Urian forces had spotted them and opened fire. During the picosecond it took for the computers to activate the defensive screens, while the force fields of its cage were momentarily short of power, the Monster had attacked with unheard-of ferocity. Using the limited control of time and space it was capable of, it had hurled part of its environment a great distance off, and that had caused the disaster. Proof, if any were needed, that the Monster was by far the most formidable of the weapons employed by Earth in its war against Uria.

Neither Corson nor the Monster had been killed in the initial explosion because the latter was protected by its force-field cage and the former by a shield of the same type, though smaller, which he wore against a possible attack by the Monster. The Archimedes had plunged toward the stormy depths of Uria’s atmosphere. At that moment, in all likelihood, only Corson and the Monster survived on board. Corson, by reflex, had locked his shield to the cage. When the vessel was only a few hundred meters above the ground the Monster had uttered a shrill cry and reacted in the face of danger. It had displaced itself a few fractions of a second in time, carrying part of nearby space along with it. Corson was within that space. Abruptly he found himself, in the Monster’s company, outside the ship and spinning through the air. The resilience of his force shield enabled him to withstand the shock. The Monster, concerned for its own safety, took care of the rest. Corson had landed at its side, and taking advantage of its confusion had managed to run blindly off into the dark.

The whole episode had been an object lesson in the potential of the Monster. Corson knew some of its talents, suspected others, but had never dared hint in his reports that the beast might be this hard to kill.

Imagine, though, an animal hunted by a pack of hounds. Cornered, it rounds on them. The attackers hesitate for an instant. An invisible barrier seems to divide them from the quarry. Then they rush at it. And suddenly find themselves a second earlier. Or two seconds. In the exact spot where they were before crossing that imperceptible line. They can never reach their prey because, time and time again, it hurls them into its past. And when they are dazed enough, the hunted becomes the hunter.

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