Midworld, p.1Alan Dean Foster
Alan Dean Foster
This book is dedicated to:
and all the rest of the breathren
who inspired …
A Biography of Alan Dean Foster
“… where highest woods impenetrable to star or sunlight, spread their umbrage broad.”
—Milton, Paradise Lost
“Who hears the fishes when they scream?”
“…… !!! .. ?? … O!!”
WORLD WITH NO NAME.
Green it was.
Green and gravid.
It lay supine in a sea of sibilant jet, a festering emerald in the universe-ocean. It did not support life. Rather, on its surface life exploded, erupted, multiplied, and thrived beyond imagining. From a soil base so rich it all but lived itself, a verdant magma spilled forth to inundate the land.
And it was green. Oh, it was a green so bright it had its own special niche in the spectrum of the impossible, a green pervasive, an everywhere-all-at-once, omnipotent green.
World of a chlorophyllous god.
Save for a few pockets of rancid blue, the oceans themselves were green from a surfeit of drifting plant life that nearly strangled the waters. The mountains were green until they blended into green froth; only at the heights did lichens battle with creeping ice as on most worlds waves warred with the land. Even the air had a pale green cast to it, so that looking through it one would seem to be staring through lenses cut from purest peridot.
There was no question of the planet’s ability to support life. Rather, it was a question of its supporting too much life, too well.
Even so, in all the life that grew and flew and fought and died on the most fertile globe in the heavens, there was not a single creature that thought—not in the manner in which thought is usually and comfortably defined.
It must be considered that that which inhabited the world with no name regarded the universe in a fashion other than usual … if anything did so at all. Oh, there were the furcots, of course, but they had not even a name that could be called a name until the people came.
They arrived, these people did, on the way to some place else. To the commander and officers of the colony ship, who studied and cursed and ranted at their controls and coordinates, it was a clear case of a malign accident. This was not the planet to which their automatic pilot should have brought them. Now they were in orbit, with no fuel to go anywhere else, without proper equipment to settle on this world, without time or way to call for help. They would have to make do with this calamitous landfall.
The colonists voted a Soviet ballot and set about the matter of bringing civilization to this world. They were tired and desperate and overconfident, but unprepared.
They put down in that green hell. It filtered out the preponderance of human chaff from the seed grain right quick and neat, and ate them alive. And it changed those it did not.
Mankind in those early days was used to controlling the universe, by force if necessary. Those who held to such practice did not beget a second generation on the world with no name. A few, less constrained by pride and more resilient, survived and had children. Their offspring grew up with no illusions about the supremacy of humankind or anykind. They matured and observed the world around them through different eyes.
Roll the log.
Give and take.
Bend with the wind.
Adapt, adapt, adapt …!
BORN WATCHED THE MORNING mist rise and dreamed of the sun. He snuggled deeper into the cranny in the thomabar tree and wrapped his cloak of green fur more tightly about himself. Thoughts of the sun cheered him a little. Hard work, much climbing, and courage had gifted him with that sight three times in his modest lifetime. Not many men could boast of that, he prided himself.
To see the sun one had to climb to the top of the world. And crawl to the crown of one of the Pillars or emergents that were the world’s buttresses. To ascend to such places was to court death from the host of ravenous shapes that drifted and soared in the Upper Hell.
He had done it three times. He was among the bravest of the brave—or as some in the village insisted, the maddest of the mad.
The damp mist thinned further as the rising sun sucked moisture from the Third Level. He shivered. It was dangerous as well as uncomfortable to rest comparatively exposed so early in the day, when all sorts of unpleasant things roamed the canopy world. But dawn and dusk were the best times for hunters to hunt, and Born counted himself their equal. A good hunter did not hide away safe while others took the best game.
He thought of calling to Ruumahum, but the big furcot was not close by, and a yell now would surely scare away potential kill. For the moment he would have to do without the comfort of his companion’s hulking warmth.
That Ruumahum was within calling distance Born did not doubt. Once a furcot was joined to a person it never strayed far until that person died. When he died … Born angrily shrugged off the thought. These were useless musings for a man engaged in a hunt.
Three days out from the village now and he had encountered nothing worth taking. Plenty of bushackers, but he would walk the surface itself before he would return to the village with only a bushacker or two. He burned with remembrance of Losting’s return with the carcass of the breeder, remembrance of the admiration and acclaim accorded the big man. Small things, frivolous things, but nevertheless he burned.
The breeder had been as big as Losting, all claws and pincers, but it was those threatening claws and pincers that were filled with the best white meat, and Losting had laid them at the feet of Brightly Go, and she hadn’t refused them. That was when Born had stormed out of the village on his present, and thus far futile, hunt.
He had never been able to match Losting in size or strength, but he had skill. Even as a child he had been clever, faster than his friends, and had taken every opportunity to prove it. Though none questioned his abilities now, he would have been appalled to learn that everyone considered him a bit reckless, a touch crazy. They wouldn’t have understood Born’s constant need to prove himself to others. In this one way, he was a throwback.
Now he was soloing again, always a dangerous situation. He concentrated on shutting himself off from the world, blended with the foliage, became a part of the prickly green, virtually invisible in the meandering pathway of the cubble.
The mist had fled, rising into the Second Level. The air was clear although still moist. Born’s view of the big epiphytic bromeliad several meters down the vine was unobstructed. The huge parasitic blossom grew from the center of the cubble, parasite feeding on parasite. Broad spatulate leaves of olive and black backed the green bloom. Thick petals grew tightly together, curving out and up to form a water-tight basin. As was usual following the evening rain, it was now filled with fresh water a meter deep. Eventually, something worth killing would come to partake of it.
Around him the forest awoke, the hylaeal chorus of barks, squeaks, chirps, howls, and screeches taking up where less loquacious nocturnal cousins had left off.
He was discouraged enough to consider trying another place, when he detected movement in the branches and lianas above the natural cistern. He risked edging forward, momentarily break
Moving as little as possible, he shifted the snuffler from its resting place. The meter-and-a-half-long tube of green wood was six centimeters around at its back end, narrowing to barely one at its tip. Gently he slid it out on the hump of wood in front of him. It rested there motionless, like a leafless twig. He sighted it on the cistern. Reaching into the quiver slung across his back under the cape, he pulled out one of the ten-centimeter-long thorns it held. Holding it carefully by its fan-shaped tail end, where it had been snapped from the parent plant, he slid it into the open back end of the snuffler.
The sack slung next to the quiver produced a tank seed. It was bright yellow, veined with black and slightly bigger around than a man’s fist. Its leathery surface was taut as a drum. Born eased it into the back of the snuffler, then latched the backblock in place. Above, the rustling had become a crashing and bending of thick branches.
Wrapping his right hand around the pistollike trigger and using the other to steady the long barrel, he settled himself on the weapon, still as a statue. Concentrating on the bromeliad, he strove to reach out and become one with the plant.
See what a fair resting place I offer, he thought tensely. How spacious this cubble limb, how broad and tasty its companions, how clear and fresh and cool the water I have caught so patiently just for you. Come down to me and drink deep of my well!
A lost breeze blew, riffling leaf tips on the bromeliad. Born held his breath and prayed it would not carry his scent to whatever was making its ponderous way downward.
A last loud crunching of parted vegetation, and the vertical traveler showed himself—a dark brown cone shape, covered with stubby brown fur. At the flat end of the cone two long tentacles reached out. Red-irised eyes tipped them. Evenly spaced around the cone-shaped body of the grazer were four thickly-muscled arms, which held it suspended between upper and lower branches with the aid of the prehensile tail that extended from the point of the cone.
Nearly two meters of bulk, five times Born’s weight, the grazer would be difficult to kill. The thick, close-matted fur would be hard to penetrate, but only a thin bristle covered the flat base of the cone. To strike there Born would have to wait until the creature turned toward him. The tiny round mouth set in the center of the base was harmless, lined with four opposing sets of flat grinding teeth. But those arms could reduce the cubble path to splinters. A man would come apart much more easily.
One arm shifted its grip, grabbed a lower branch. The tail curved down to grip the same support. Then the upper and left arm let go and the grazer swung lower still. Born wished he had prepared a little more thoroughly, setting out a second tank seed and jacari thorn. Now it was too late. A single slight movement from him and the grazer would be gone in a blur of arms and tail. It could travel up, down, or sideways through the forest with tremendous speed. It could also circle behind a man almost before he had time to turn.
It paused on the liana directly above the cistern. The tail and double-handed grip rotated it slowly as it looked in all directions. Once, it seemed to Born that the weaving eyes stared straight at his hiding place, but they neither stopped nor hesitated and swung on past. Apparently satisfied with the state of the neighborhood, the grazer dropped to the cubble. Three arms supported it in a semistanding pose on the outer edge of the bromeliad. It leaned forward, the broad flat face dipping down to the water. Born could hear slurping sounds.
The real problem was: when he whistled, would that massive head turn left or right? If he guessed wrong, he would lose precious, perhaps decisive, seconds. Making his choice, Born slid the tip of the snuffler slightly in the grazer’s direction. He pursed his lips and let go with a low, stuttering whistle. The grazer wouldn’t touch meat, but flowerkit eggs were a delicacy.
At the sound of Born’s imitation of a female flower-kit’s danger call, the big head came up and around and stared directly at him. Letting out a short, nervous breath, the hunter pulled hard on the trigger. Inside the barrel a long, sharpened sliver of ironwood shot backward, punctured the tank seed’s stretched skin. There was a soft bang as the gas-filled seed exploded. The compressed gas was further compressed by the narrowing barrel of the snuffler. Thus propelled, the jacari thorn shot outward and hit square center of the grazer’s flat, bristly face, just above the mouth and between the two eye stalks.
All four jaws dilated. There was a horrid choking shriek. The aural catalyst set off the surrounding forest, and the panicked howling and crying continued for long moments.
The grazer took a hopping, threatening jump toward Born, shook briefly as it landed barely two meters away, and collapsed down off the cubble. But the paralyzed hands and tail held it firm to the big vine. Those powerful, multidigited fingers would have to be cut or pried open.
He watched the creature steadily. Grazers had a way of playing dead until their attacker came close, when they would unexpectedly reach out to clutch and rend with limb-tearing violence. But this one didn’t even quiver. The thorn had pierced its brain and killed it instantly.
Born sighed, put the snuffler down and stood up, stretching cramped muscles. The green fur cloak fell freely from his neck. Taking his bone skinning knife from his belt, he stepped free of the sheltering crevice and walked down the broad vine toward the limp shape. Easily five times his mass, Born mused, and almost all of that edible! But tasting it in one’s mind and cooked over a hot fire were two different things. There was now the small matter of getting the prized carcass back to the village and dealing with hungry scavengers along the way. The sooner they left here, the better.
Bending over the edge of the cubble, he got busy with the knife. Muscle and tendon parted as he cut at the hands and tail which held it fast. The grazer fell into the foliage just below,
A voice like an idling locomotive sounded suddenly behind him. Born leaped instinctively, sailed out and down before grabbing a branch of the cubble and jerking to a muscle-biting stop. Panting, he turned and looked back up. He had recognized the rumbling even as he jumped, but too late to stay the reflex action.
Ruumahum stood looking down at him from the main bole of the cubble. The furcot moved closer, all six of his thick legs gripping the wood. The ursine face peered at him, the three dark eyes set in a curve over the muzzle staring down mournfully. Great claws scratched at the branch.
Born shook his head and swung himself onto the vine.
“I’ve told you often, Ruumahum, not to sneak up on me like that.”
“Fun,” Ruumahum protested.
“Not fun,” Born insisted, making use of a herbaceous stalk to return to his former level. A short jump and he was back on the cubbleway. Grabbing Ruumahum by one of his long floppy ears, he pulled and shook by way of making his point.
The furcot was as long as the grazer, though not quite as massive. He was also incredibly powerful, quick, and intelligent. A furcot pack would be the scourge of the canopy world were it not for the fact that they were lazy beyond imagining and spent most of their lives engaged in fulfilling a single passion—sleep.
“Not fun,” Born finished, with a last admonishing yank. Ruumahum nodded, walked around the hunter, and sniffed down at the grazer below.
“Too old not,” he rumbled. “Good eating … much good eating.”
“If we can get it back Home,” Born agreed. “Can you manage?”
“Can manage,” the furcot replied, without a moment’s hesitation.
Born bent over the edge, studied the corpse. “It struck a pretty solid branch, but it could easily slip off. Do you want to pick it up, or circle beneath and catch it when I shove it free?”
Born nodded. Ruumahum started downward, making a wide circle to take him below the grazer. Once positioned, Born would move directly down until he could push it off. Neither of them wished to descend after a tumbling carcass to unpredictable depths, to levels unkn
There were seven levels to the forest world. Mankind, the persons, preferred this, the Third. So did the furcots. Two levels rose above this one, to a sun-bleached green roof and the Upper Hell. Four lay below, the Seventh and deepest being the Lower and True Hell, over four hundred and fifty meters below the Home.
Many men had seen the Upper Hell. Born had seen it three times and lived. But only two legendary figures had ever made their way to the Lower. To the surface. To the perpetually dark swamp, a moist land of vast open pits and mindless abominations that crawled and swam and ate.
Or so they had claimed. The first had not been of whole mind when he returned and had died soon after. The second had returned with several important parts of himself gone, but had confirmed the ravings of his companion, though he, too, screamed almost every night.
Not even the furcots, hunting back through ancestral memories, could tell of one of their kind who had ever descended below the Sixth Level. It was a place to be shunned. Understandable, then, that neither man nor companion desired to go hunting there for fallen prey. Ruumahum appeared beneath the grazer and growled. Born shouted an answer and started down. The grazer was still hanging from the branch when he reached it, but a single shove was enough to dislodge it. Bracing himself, Ruumahum dug the claws of rear and middle legs into the hard wood of the cubble. Reaching out slightly, he slammed both fore-paws, either of which could crush a man’s skull with much less effort, deep into the body of the grazer, just below the tail.
With Born’s aid, the grazer was then balanced evenly on Ruumahum’s back. Forepaws steadied the dead weight while Born tied it securely with unbreakable form from the loops at his waist, passing the line several times round the carcass and under the furcot’s two bellies. He knotted it and stood aside.
“Try it, Ruumahum. Any shifting?”
The furcot dug all three pairs of claws into the wood and leaned experimentally to the left, then right. Then he shook deliberately, raised his head, and lowered his hips. “Shift not, Born. Good rest.”
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