Poul Anderson: A Circus of Hells

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Poul Anderson A Circus of Hells
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Bribed to explore a supposedly barren moon, Lt. Flandry finds it swarming with a hideous race of killers, controlled by a deranged computer brain!

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A Circus of Hells

by Poul Anderson

Chapter I

The story is of a lost treasure guarded by curious monsters, and of captivity in a wilderness, and of a chase through reefs and shoals that could wreck a ship. There is a beautiful girl in it, a magician, a spy or two, and the rivalry of empires. So of course—Flandry was later tempted to say—it begins with a coincidence.

However, the likelihood that he would meet Tachwyr the Dark was not fantastically low. They were in the same profession, which had them moving through a number of the same places; and they also shared the adventurousness of youth. To be sure, once imperialism is practiced on an interstellar scale, navies grow in size until the odds are huge against any given pair of their members happening on each other. Nevertheless, many such encounters were taking place, as was inevitable on one of the rare occasions when a Merseian warship visited a Terran planet. A life which included no improbable events would be the real statistical impossibility.

The planet was Irumclaw, some 200 light-years from Sol in that march of the human realm which faced Betelgeuse. Lieutenant (j.g.) Dominic Flandry had been posted there not long before, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth until he learned that even so dismal a clod had its compensations. The Merseian vessel was the cruiser Brythioch, on a swing through the buffer region of unclaimed, mostly unknown suns between the spaces ruled in the names of Emperor and Roidhun. Neither government would have allowed any craft belonging to its rival, capable of spouting nuclear fire, any appreciable distance into its territory. But border authorities could, at discretion, accept a “goodwill visit.” It broke the monotony and gave a slight hope of observing the kind of trivia which, fitted together, now and then revealed a fact the opposition would have preferred to keep secret.

In this case Merseia profited, at least initially.

Official hospitality was exchanged. Besides protocol, the humans were motivated, whether they knew it or not, to enjoy the delicate frisson that came from holding converse with those who—beneath every diplomatic phrase—were the enemy. Flandry did know it; he had seen more of life than the average twenty-one-year-old. He was sure the liberty parties down in Old Town were being offered quite a few drinks, and other amenities in certain cases.

Well, why not? They had been long in the deeps between the stars. If they were straight back from here, they must travel a good 140 light-years—about ten standard days at top hyperspeed, but still an abyss whose immensity and strangeness wore down the hardiest spirit—before they could raise the outermost of the worlds they called their own. They needed a few hours of small-scale living, be their hosts never so hostile.

Which we aren’t anyway, Flandry thought. We should be, but we aren’t, most of us. He grinned. Including me. Though he would have liked to join the fun; he couldn’t. The junior officers of Irumclaw Base must hold the customary reception for their opposite numbers from the ship. (Their seniors gave another in a separate building. The Merseians, variously bemused or amused by the rigid Terran concept of rank, conformed. They set more store by ceremony and tradition, even that of aliens, than latter-day humans did.) While some of the visitors spoke Anglic, it turned out that Flandry was the only man on this planet who knew Eriau. The mess hall had no connection to the linguistic computer and there was no time to jury-rig one. His translations would be needed more than his physical presence.

Not that the latter was any disgrace, he reflected rather smugly. He was tall and lithe and wore his dress uniform with panache and had become a favorite among the girls downhill. Despite this, he remained well liked by the younger men, if not always by his superiors.

He entered at the appointed evening hour. Under Commander Abdullah’s fishy eye, he saluted the Emperor’s portrait not with his usual vague wave but with a snap that well-nigh dislocated his shoulder. And a heel click to boot, he reminded himself. Several persons being in line ahead of him, he had a minute for taking stock. Its tables removed except for one bearing refreshments—and its chairs, in deference to the guests—the room stretched dreary. Pictures of former personnel, trophies and citations for former accomplishments, seemed to make its walls just the more depressing. An animation showed a park on Terra, trees nodding, in the background the skyward leap of a rich family’s residential tower and airborne vehicles glittering like diamond dust; but it reminded him too well of how far he was from those dear comforts. He preferred the darkness in the real window. It was open and a breeze gusted through, warm, laden with unearthly odors.

The Merseians were a more welcome sight, if only as proof that a universe did exist beyond Irumclaw. Forty of them stood in a row, enduring repeated introductions with the stoicism appropriate to a warrior race.

They resembled especially large men…somewhat. A number of their faces might have been called good-looking in a craggy fashion; their hands each had four fingers and a thumb; the proportions and articulations of most body parts were fairly anthropoid. But the posture was forward-leaning, balanced by a heavy tail. The feet, revealed by sandals, were splayed, webbed, and clawed. The skin was hairless and looked faintly scaled; depending on sub-species, its color ranged from the pale green which was commonest through golden brown to ebony. The head had two convoluted bony orifices where man’s has external ears. A ridge of serrations ran from its top, down the spine to the end of the tail.

Most of this anatomy was concealed by their uniforms: baggy tunic, snug breeches, black with silver trim and insignia. The latter showed family connections and status as well as rank and service. The Merseians had politely disarmed themselves, in that none carried a pistol at his wide belt; the Terrans, in turn, had refrained from asking them to remove their great knuckleduster-handled war knives.

It wasn’t the differences between them and men that caused trouble, Flandry knew. It was the similarities—in planets of origin and thus in planets desired; in the energy of warm-blooded animals, the instincts of ancestors who hunted, the legacies of pride and war—

“Afal Ymen, may I present Lieutenant Flandry,” Abdullah intoned. The young man bowed to the huge form, whose owner corresponded approximately to a commander, and received a nod of the ridged and shining pate. He proceeded, exchanging names and bows with every subordinate Merseian and wondering, as they doubtless did too, when the farce would end and the drinking begin.

“Lieutenant Flandry.”

Mei Tachwyr.”

They stopped, and stared, and both mouths fell open.

Flandry recovered first, perhaps because he became aware that he was holding up the parade. “Uh, this is a, uh, pleasant surprise,” he stammered in Anglic. More of his wits returned. He made a formal Eriau salutation: “Greeting and good fortune to you, Tachwyr of the Vach Rueth.”

“And…may you be in health and strength, Dominic Flandry…of Terra,” the Merseian replied.

For another moment their eyes clashed, black against gray, before the man continued down the line.

After a while he got over his astonishment. Albeit unexpected, the happenstance that he and Tachwyr had met again did not look especially important. Nonetheless, he went robotlike through the motions of sociability and of being an interpreter. His gaze and mind kept straying toward his former acquaintance. And Tachwyr himself was too young to mask entirely the fact that he was as anxious to get together with Flandry.

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