Hal Clement

Cycle of Fire


CONSIDERING THE general nature of a lava field the glider had no business looking as sound as it did. Its tail assembly was intact; its fuselage had suffered only the removal of fabric from the lower side; even the narrow wings appeared undamaged. Had there been a catapult within three thousand miles one would have been tempted to try launching the craft. Even Dar Lang Ahn might have been deceived, if his eyes had been his only source of information.

He had more than eyes, however. He had been the unfortunate who had ridden the machine in. He had seen the pitted black surface of the flow suddenly sweep toward him as an unexpected wind had dragged him toward the nameless volcano; he had felt the impact and the partial rebound as the springy wood frame of the aircraft had done its best to absorb the shock; and, most important, he had heard both main wing spars fail. The first question in his mind was not how to get aloft again but whether or not he should wreck the glider more obviously before he left it, and that was not really a question. The real problem was raised by the books.

There were not many of these, of course; Ree Pell Un had been far too foresighted to trust a very large fraction of the city’s knowledge to one aircraft. Still, they could not be ignored; it was his duty to get them intact to the Ice Ramparts, and eight hundred years is quite long enough to develop a strong devotion to duty. Dar Lang Ahn had lived that long.

Fortunately they were not heavy. He set resolutely to work making as much as possible into a pack that could be carried without hampering either his walking or his use of weapons. When he finally straightened up and started purposefully away from the wreck he was laden with perhaps half his own weight in books, a tenth as much food, and the crossbow and bolts which had been his inseparable companions since early life. The greater part of his food remained behind, but no reading matter.

He had thought about the direction to take while loading up. A great circle course to his intended destination was a shade over two thousand miles, of which roughly half was ocean. The way he had planned to fly was much longer, because of the islands which made it possible to get across that ocean in stages never greater than fifty miles. He decided to stick to this route, because he had already traveled it several times and knew the way. To be sure, the landmarks would look different from the ground, but that should not prove a great difficulty to his photographic memory.

He did not, of course, start in the direction he intended to maintain. That would have led almost directly over the mountain on whose flanks he had crashed. Dar was a better mountain climber than any human being ever would be, owing to natural advantages of physique, but the top of this mountain was emitting a faint, steady plume of yellow smoke, and the lava under his feet was, it seemed to him, rather warmer than sunlight could account for. Therefore, while his immediate goal on the near shore of the ocean lay to the northeast and the nearest edge of the lava straight north, he turned until the crimson sun he called Theer was to his left and behind him and the smaller, blue Arren straight behind, and started into the northwest.

A lava field is not easy to cross on foot, even without a heavy load. Laden as Dar Lang Ahn was, it is torture. His feet were tough enough to resist the sharp bits of rock which he could not avoid, but there was no such thing as a level path. Again and again he had to revise his estimate of the time the journey would take, but he never admitted to himself that he might not complete it.

Twice he ate and drank, if the token sip and nibble that he took could be called by such names. Both times he kept walking. There were less than fifty miles between the place where the glider had crashed and the edge of the lava sheet, but if he were to fall asleep before crossing those miles he would almost certainly die of thirst. There was no water on the lava, so far as he knew, and with summer approaching he needed water as badly as a human being would in the same situation.

The first of his meals found him far enough from the mountain to turn northward, putting Theer directly behind him. Arren was catching up with the red sun, but shadows were still short. Accustomed though he was to two light sources, the presence of both suns made it a little more difficult to judge the terrain more than a few dozen yards ahead, and consequently he frequently missed short cuts.

Still, he made progress. The second “meal” found him out of sight of the volcano and a few hours later he was sure he could see a line of green ahead. This might, of course, have been a mirage, with which Dar Lang Ahn was totally unfamiliar. It might also have been a denser covering of the spiky, pulpy, barrel-shaped plants which grew here and there on the lava itself. The traveler, however, felt sure that it was real forest — plants whose presence would mean a plentiful supply of the water he was beginning to want badly. He gave the equivalent of a grin of relief, resettled the pack of books across his shoulders, drank off the rest of his water, and started once more for the horizon. He discovered his mistake some time before he actually became thirsty again.

Traveling in anything like a straight line he could have walked the distance to the forest easily. Even with the sort of detours he had been forced to make on the lava field he could cover it before suffering too seriously from thirst. He simply had not counted on extraordinary detours, since he did not remember seeing from the air anything different from the general run of cracks and ridges on the lava flow. His memory did not betray him, as it turned out, but the terrain did.

Theer had nearly ceased his westward travel and was rising noticeably, preparing for his yearly swoop back toward Arren, when Dar Lang Ahn found the barrier. It was not a wall, which he would never have considered impassable in any case; it was a crack — a crack which must have formed after the lava mass as a whole had almost completely hardened, for it was far too deep and long to have been caused by the mere splitting of a bit of hardened crust under the pressure of fluid from below.

He had never noticed it from above simply because it was not straight; it snaked its way among the more ordinary irregularities of the region, so that he had traveled along it for more than an hour before he grasped the actual situation. That was when the crack began to curve back toward the now distant volcano.

When he did realize what was happening Dar Lang Ahn stopped instantly and sought the shade of an up- jutting slab of rock before he even began to think. He did not pause to berate his own foolishness, though he recognized it clearly enough; he concentrated on the problem that faced him.

The walls of the crevasse were unclimbable. Normally lava hardens in a surface rough enough to permit the claws of one of his people to get a grip on a nearly vertical surface, but this had been a split through the whole mass. True, the rock was full of gas bubbles and many of these had been opened by the crack and were large enough to furnish him support, but these occurred only near the surface. The opposite wall of the crevasse showed that only a few yards down the bubbles shrank to pinpoint size and, for practical purposes, vanished. Besides, the wall was not merely vertical. It “waved” so that no matter where he started down — or from which side, had he had a choice — he would find an overhang before descending very far. No, climbing was out.

The gap was too wide to jump — in most places too wide even for one without a burden, and Dar Lang Ahn never thought of abandoning his load.

He had no rope and not enough harness on his body or pack to improvise a line that would reach even as far as he could jump. Nothing grew on the lava from which either a rope or a bridge could be fashioned. The plants proved to be of a pulpy texture inside, quite without woody tissue, and the skins were not even tough enough to resist his claws.

The thing that delayed him longest in finding a solution was, of course, his determination not to be separated from the books. It took him an unbelievably long time to get the idea that the separation need not be permanent; he could throw the books across the gap and then jump himself.

This disposed of nearly all the difficulties, since he recalled several places where he was pretty sure of being able to jump across the crack if he was unhampered. He simply had to find one where a reasonably flat area existed, within reach of his throwing arm, on the far side of the crevasse.

Вы читаете Cycle of Fire
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату