Produced by Adam Buchbinder and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
Produced by Adam Buchbinder and the Online Distributed
Transcriber’s Note: This e-text was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction, October, 1955. Extensive research did not reveal any evidence that the U. S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
By F. L. WALLACE
Illustrated by DIEHL
The price of life was a life for a life—which was all the reward the victim looked for!
His hands were shaking as he exhibited the gifts. If he were on Earth, he would be certain it was the flu; in the Centaurus system, kranken. But this was Van Daamas, so Lee Bolden couldn’t say what he had. Man hadn’t been here long enough to investigate the diseases with any degree of thoroughness. There were always different hazards to overcome as new planets were settled.
But whatever infection he had, Bolden was not greatly concerned as he counted out the gifts. He had felt the onset of illness perhaps an hour before. When he got back to the settlement he’d be taken care of. That was half a day’s flight from here. The base was equipped with the best medical facilities that had been devised.
He stacked up the gifts to make an impressive show: five pairs of radar goggles, seven high-velocity carbines, seven boxes of ammunition. This was the natives’ own rule and was never to be disregarded—it had to be an odd number of gifts.
The Van Daamas native gazed impassively at the heap. He carried a rather strange bow and a quiver was strapped to his thigh. With one exception, the arrows were brightly colored, mostly red and yellow. Bolden supposed this was for easy recovery in case the shot missed. But there was always one arrow that was stained dark blue. Bolden had observed this before—no native was ever without that one somber-looking arrow.
The man of Van Daamas stood there and the thin robe that was no protection against the elements rippled slightly in the chill current of air that flowed down the mountainside. “I will go talk with the others,” he said in English.
“Go talk,” said Bolden, trying not to shiver. He replied in native speech, but a few words exhausted his knowledge and he had to revert to his own language. “Take the gifts with you. They are yours, no matter what you decide.”
The native nodded and reached for a pair of goggles. He tried them on, looking out over fog and mist-shrouded slopes. These people of Van Daamas needed radar less than any race Bolden knew of. Living by preference in mountains, they had developed a keenness of vision that enabled them to see through the perpetual fog and mist far better than any Earthman. Paradoxically it was the goggles they appreciated most. Extending their sight seemed more precious to them than powerful carbines.
The native shoved the goggles up on his forehead, smiling with pleasure. Noticing that Bolden was shivering, he took his hands and examined them. “Hands sick?” he queried.
“A little,” said Bolden. “I’ll be all right in the morning.”
The native gathered up the gifts. “Go talk,” he repeated as he went away.
Lee Bolden sat in the copter and waited. He didn’t know how much influence this native had with his people. He had come to negotiate, but this might have been because he understood English somewhat better than the others.
A council of the natives would make the decision about working for the Earthmen’s settlement. If they approved of the gifts, they probably would. There was nothing to do now but wait—and shiver. His hands were getting numb and his feet weren’t much better.
Presently the native came out of the fog carrying a rectangular wicker basket. Bolden was depressed when he saw it. One gift in return for goggles, carbines, ammunition. The rate of exchange was not favorable. Neither would the reply be.
The man set the basket down and waited for Bolden to speak. “The people have talked?” asked Bolden.
“We have talked to come,” said the native, holding out his fingers. “In five or seven days, we come.”
It was a surprise, a pleasant one. Did one wicker basket equal so many fine products of superlative technology? Apparently it did. The natives had different values. To them, one pair of goggles was worth more than three carbines, a package of needles easily the equivalent of a box of ammunition.
“It’s good you will come. I will leave at once to tell them at the settlement,” said Bolden. There was something moving in the basket, but the weave was close and he couldn’t see through it.
“Stay,” the man advised. “A storm blows through the mountains.”
“I will fly around the storm,” said Bolden.
If he hadn’t been sick he might have accepted the offer. But he had to get back to the settlement for treatment. On a strange planet you never could tell what might develop from a seemingly minor ailment. Besides he’d already been gone two days searching for this tribe in the interminable fog that hung over the mountains. Those waiting at the base would want him back as soon as he could get there.
“Fly far around,” said the man. “It is a big storm.” He took up the basket and held it level with the cabin, opening the top. An animal squirmed out and disappeared inside.
Bolden looked askance at the eyes that glowed in the dim interior. He hadn’t seen clearly what the creature was and he didn’t like the idea of having it loose in the cabin, particularly if he had to fly through a storm. The man should have left it in the basket. But the basket plus the animal would have been two gifts—and the natives never considered anything in even numbers.