After a contract dispute with Doubleday over my second novel, and another editor’s refusal to buy a novella I was sure was the best thing I ever wrote, I was done with science-fiction. I started in on “straight” fiction, a novel and various short stories. A famous literary agency that sought me out after early SF success refused to try to place “After August.” It sold one short story — for a hundred bucks — to a downmarket skin magazine imitating Playboy.
After that I pretty much gave up on writing, period. Newspapering gave me plenty of typewriter time, and instant gratification from public reaction to my news breaks.
There matters rested until I met Richard Laurence Baron, a gigantic Shakespearean actor doing a Navy tour to avoid the draft, who also happened to be a science-fiction fan — and professed amazement to meet one of his favorite authors. When he asked what I was working on, I said zilch — I’m done with SF. He was having none of that, and turned into a one-man cheering section. Even offered to help me break writer’s block. About the only idea I had left was about Ball, a spherical cyborg, inspired by a high-school friend who, when Sputnik flew, said he wished he could be encased in such a device, protected from human emotions.
Baron and I had numerous talks about what might challenge Ball. He had an idea for a character he wished he could be: a tall, lean, martial-arts expert.
He was six and a half feet tall, Baron, but lean he was not. He was like a huge Teddy bear. All-you-can eat restaurants trembled at his approach; when we pub-crawled, his sheer delight at topless table dancers made them want to take him home. He was far too shy to go.
Baron invented the hierarchy of the greer. For a brief stint we wrote alternate chapters of the tale, feeling our way. He wanted to name the planet Algonquin. I didn’t, and chose Pondoro. He suggested a lengthy title: “Such a Hunting Then There Was,” channeling greer syntax. Then the Navy sent him to the far Pacific, he got interested in writing other things, and our correspondence tailed off. I worked on the story off and on for thirty years before an old pal from my Florida newspaper days, now a Manhattan executive, said he’d find me another agent if I had a book to look at. He rolled his eyes at Baron’s title, and said fix that.
“Bloodsport” was my second published novel, over 30 years after my first.
It was good to get away from the city. The small hunting car dived smoothly into the evening sky and settled onto a course the dash compass called north. Cold night air breathed into the cockpit from pressure-vents.
“Mind?” the pilot asked.
“No,” I said, and the Pondoro air flowed more freely.
The raw chill, after weeks of the spacer’s rigidly controlled environment, was good on my skin. We were low enough for it to have a fresh dirt smell to it, and then the pungent odor of a salt sea, and that was good too.
“Ramsey?” Ball loomed, incongruous, in the rear passenger seating.
“What?” I didn’t want conversation now. Not with Ball, not with anybody.
The rejoinder was suspiciously gentle. “The empathometer is reading well into the creative zone. Do you wish to vocalize?”
For a moment I had forgotten what century we were in. Isaac Walton and Hemingway and all those back then were lucky; they never had their quill and inkwell fitted out with Ball’s technology. They could loaf when they wanted to, without having to justify it to their writing machinery.
“No,” I said. “Let it build. It’s been a long time gone.”
“Not in fact,” said Ball. “Simply out of use. According to the readout…”
“Let it rest, Ball.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m very sure.”
And they didn’t get pep talks from their writing equipment, either. I was beginning to realize why Intergalactic Cybernetics had scrapped the design. There are certain points beyond which humans still won’t be pushed. The meter must have wavered, because Ball shut up. The pilot concentrated on his driving. No automatics. I liked that, too.
I lay back in the right-hand seat and let the feel of the dark bulk of the world beneath us come up. The odors. Now I could distinguish faint, indefinable alienness. At first, it had smelled like home. Like Acme. Like Old Earth, for that matter. Funny how you immediately catalog the familiar before you start on the strange. The world below was hospitable to terrestrials, so it was home immediately by contrast to the spaceship. Not for the first time I wondered what makes spacemen tick. But I really wasn’t interested, no more than I was interested in what makes big city cab drivers tick.
The guide was named Nail. Just that. Small, quick-moving man with lots of sun and weather on his face and arms, eyes that looked nervous until you saw they were looking at everything instead of away from anything. Hunter’s eyes. And a bit of hunted, too. Enough hunted to increase my respect for the greer, sight unseen.
“Where we headed?” I asked.
“Straight to camp. Unless you’d rather stop at the lodge…” a sideward dip of his head indicated my shipboard informals.
“No. The camp it is. I’ll change right there. I did want to sight my gun for Pondoro atmosphere, though. Will we be too close to the game?”
“LaChoy has some hushers. You got a beam gun or what?”
“I’ve got a rifle. I don’t believe in beamers.”
He looked at me full face for the first time since we had left the spaceport. “Greers are tough critters.”
“That’s what I hear.”
“They are,” said Nail. “They are tough, and they kill people who didn’t think it would happen.”
“I’m sure they do,” I said. “So do germs and viruses and spaceships that phase into the lost dimension. So does old age, for all those billions who can’t afford restoratives.”
He nodded. “Like that, huh?”
“That’s why I’m here.”
“I think you’ll like it here, Mr. Ramsey.”
He turned back to the controls, laid the car over and pointed it at a warm yellow-red eye that centered in the forward windscreen and swelled rapidly. He pulled out of the swoop with a touch of his stick and planted us like a dropped feather in the peripheral glow of what turned out to be a big campfire.
“Atmosphere,” I remarked.
“We do it straight here, Mr. Ramsey,” Nail said. “Go on over to the fire, I’ll unload you. You don’t want to miss the snake.”
“More of our atmosphere, I guess you writers call it,” he said. “Pondoro’s only eight-foot-tall storyteller in residence.”
“You’re right,” I said. “Who would want to miss a yarning boa constrictor?”
“Python,” said Nail.
“He calls himself Python.”
“Okay, Python.” I headed for the fire, with Ball drifting silently behind me.
Python. Twenty paces from the fire I saw it was apt. Of the maybe half-dozen figures around the blaze, there was no question who held center stage, reclined on one elbow at full length along the ground. His mellow baritone was almost tangible in the fireglow. The audience would be captive sparrows, I thought, and that voice would be the weaving of the neck — or was that the method of the cobra? I am weak on Terran histecology; never mind: Ball could fill in the blanks.
“Ramsey…?” Ball murmured.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, record it.”
There were empty camp chairs. I dropped into one to listen. Ball eased up beside me.
“You hunters,” the long man tolled in his bell of a voice. “You hunters of greer around your fires from night. Will you be brave when the toril spits you out into the sunlight to face the death you came to find?”
“Death!” The voice belled it sweetly. And again, “Death!”
Python’s hooded gaze swept the assemblage, ignoring Ball. The eyes were deep-set, introspective. I met the gaze, and it moved on.
“Ball?” I asked softly.
Python was speaking again.
“…plastic worlds in plastic orbit, on a plastic plane, and all the sharp ground down and coated plastic. Unprecedented lifespan, all the microscopic legions worse than tigers held at bay, wondrous argosies to ply the void in as peaceful commerce as homo sapience will ever know — what is there then to stir the blood and excite our glands awake to our after-all mortality?”
“Why, here on poor Pondoro there is the greer, so here to poor Pondoro come captains of the universe to make their sport — or be made sport of, which? To seek a death, though not too close, lest the palate be glutted of plastic life and yearn too strongly for the one flesh finality, which the greer supplies full gladly.”
“Ramsey,” Ball said.
“A toril is the gate through which fighting bulls enter the arena to confront their antagonist.”
“The term is archaic. Very old. Used only on worlds where the mortal combat of man and bull is viewed as sport.”
Python’s voice tolled on.
“…do the captains care that the greer have other reasons to exist than for a kind of death dance they build themselves? Not one particle of matter, or of energy, or of time, is what the captains care, so long as the sport be hot and deadly, and their aim be true.
“But if the greer, who hunted these reaches undisputed for ages, should weary of the sport, what then, Oh hunters brave by firelight, what then? For the greer is a mighty breed — how mighty, no one dead remembers, no one living knows…”
“Are you for real?” said a voice. Ball’s.
The mood snapped, and shadows moved restively around the fireglow.
“Who’s that?” one of the men said. Lean, big mustached, leaving no question he considered an answer his due. That would be LaChoy, my principal outhunter.
“Ramsey,” I said.
“And what is that?” He nodded chill disapproval at Ball.
“My fortune, what’s left of it,” I said.
Ball loomed forward into the firelight, the reflected glow flaming along his side.
“What’s it to you, Hairlip?”
“Watch it, Ball.”
“Ramsey, this has gone far enough,” the man with the mustache said. “Your reputation has preceded you, but you left it at the spaceport, grab?”
“Don’t be tough,” I said. “I can’t control him. I spent enough on Ball to buy your goddamn contract with change for enough goons to make you eat it, and I can’t do a thing with him.”
“I won’t have it interrupting.”
“Interrupting lies,” Ball said coldly. The fire crawled and fluttered on his great impassive hide as he circled the storyteller. “Lies told as stories is storytelling but lies told as phony mysticism is nothing but lies.”
“That’s you doing that,” LaChoy said. “Quit it, Ramsey — that sounds just like you.”
I shrugged. “Thanks for reading my stuff, but you’re wrong.”
“Customs wouldn’t let an uncontrollable machine on this planet!”
Ball sniggered. Sure, they recorded it for him somewhere. Some black mass, maybe, or some vampire revel. But it sounded as if it gave him the most fiendish pleasure to introduce that sound into the growing tension.
“Customs will allow all kinds of unimagined things on this world,” Ball said. “Especially in the way of machines.”
I didn’t get it, but LaChoy did; his face went stiff and his eyes got very, very watchful. He was looking at the cyborg in a way I did not like at all. This was getting serious fast. Except to Ball.
“Lies,” Ball said contemptuously.
He circled the supine storyteller with a kind of wavering hop that was slow and hypnotic — and wholly a part of whatever Ball was up to, because Ball’s usual method of locomotion is a dead steady drift, like a satellite in eternal orbit.
“Unreasonable lies at that. Baseless imaginings, told as precognition. The great galactic mousetrap, about to spring on mankind’s neck right here on poor Pondoro; and well-deserved at that, humans being what they are.”
Python rose without using his arms. His legs tucked themselves with a swift economy of motion I should have recognized then. His arms drifted out in front of him, moving like twin magnets tracking Ball, and the hands began to flex slowly with what seemed enormous power.
“Where’s the foundation for it?” Ball said. “The planet talks to you, and whispers greers are more than men. Tell the planet for me that it is full of crap.”
Someone was breathing like a sump pump on an Acme barge. Python. The arc of his arms gradually widened. The hand-flex continued. Ball continued his insolent promenade.
“Why don’t you tell a true tale, storyteller born of woman and therefore man. You were born of woman?”
Ball always came back to that, even with bottle birthing common as the womb between the stars. His harping on it was always tinged with that deep rancor of the formless cyborg encased in artifice, a womb’s miscarriage, a bottle’s spillage, cursed to live.
Python said nothing, but Ball had scored. Ball usually scores. He was birthed, if that’s the word, maybe spawned is better, by a society where this kind of conversational savagery — all others being prohibited — is the planetary sport. The storyteller continued in his trance.
“Well?” Ball said. “Will you tell a true story to this gathering, you pathetic creature — or shall I?”
There was a slow movement in the outer darkness. Nail, gliding in a hunter’s crouch, a short spring gun in his hand. Python’s gyrations had fined and strengthened until it was incredible bone and sinew could bear those tensions. Nail raised the gun and I saw it jerk. When the hyposliver bit, Python went straight up as if catapulted, arms flashing like scimitars. There was a sodden thud, and a nasty wet snapping sound, loud against the inhuman silence of that lunge.
In the middle of his gigantic leap, he buckled. Completely. With his feet high as my head, and the rest of him a whole lot higher, he just sagged in the middle and seemed to come all apart.
Ball hovered over the fallen storyteller. He made a small cryptic sound I have come to call his real laughter. I hoped nobody else caught on just then.
“You have a Medfac?” Ball’s voice was neutral, but there was no question he was speaking to LaChoy.
“You might use it. He fractured his right forearm, cracked two fingers and jammed his entire right hand trying to skewer me. With accompanying flesh, circulatory and nervous system damage, of course.”
LaChoy was very quiet. “Of course. Do you know what he could have done if Nail hadn’t — ?”
If Ball could have shrugged, that would have been the place for it.
“Destroyed himself trying to use me for a volleyball. They made me to last longer than he was made to last. Any reasonable creature could tell that without coming to harm. Well? The Medfac?”
“I’ll help carry him,” I said.
“Not necessary,” LaChoy said shortly. He spoke loudly then. “S-M!”
A figure materialized at his elbow. It had been there all the time, just far enough away to be invisible except to Ball, because now his crack about illegal machines here made sense. The S-M was a Rongor battle robot, absolutely outlaw stuff.
“Take Python to the med-tent and plug him into the Medfac,” LaChoy said to the Rongor. “Dial up whatever’s needed to fix the damage, will you?”
The gunport where a human face would be snick-snacked a salute. I couldn’t see if the armament was in place. The robot glided smoothly around Ball, lifted the limp form of the storyteller and was swallowed in the darkness.
LaChoy walked over and studied the dark smear where Python had lain. “I think this needs sleeping on. Your machine shouldn’t have started it, Ramsey.”
“Cyborg,” Ball said, and made the laughing sound.
“Ball!” I said.
He made the sound again.
His sphere actually seemed to contract and sulk, but he quit.
“Agreed,” I said again. “You thinking about civil charges?”
LaChoy waved a hand. “Forget it. Python was actual aggressor. Counter charges?”
“Skip it. On both counts: Host and antagonist.”
“Done and recorded.”
“This was a bad way to start.”
“I agree to that!”
“We’ll pull out tonight.”
“We’ll kick it around tomorrow. Now, me for bed. Your tent is ready.”
The others — I figured them for a client, another full-time guide, a campy and what would be two mechanics an outfit this size would carry — had stayed out of it, and now they rose and faded, making no move to introduce themselves.
Nail came up. “Your tent is this way.”
“Sorry we ruined the act,” I said.
“It’s done. LaChoy will speak on it in the morning.”
“Runs a tight camp, does he?”
“Tight. Good night, Mr. Ramsey.”
“Good night,” I said, but I didn’t believe it.
Sunto killed and fed in the false dawn, blood and dew on his claws and neck fur. He quenched his thirst in a misting rivulet that bounded down a cliff from the loftier peaks of his hunting range, and evacuated his bowels healthily, before he made his way to the meadow of the council pool. By the time he reached that shrine, dayfire was on the crags, burnishing their stone to deep purple brilliance, and was hunting the lower ridges for the last of night.
He had hunted formally today, spurning the younger rams of the herd he kept in the breaks above the council pool. His lower belly had cried out in simple body hunger for the warm strong flesh of the youngsters, but his higher belly knew more than mere food was needed for this pilgrimage. So he hunted the old herd ram, which had escaped him before this, determined to go hungry to the pool if he failed.
His belly, seat of all knowledge and hunting power, fashioned invisible nets of fear around his chosen quarry, unstrengthened by that flaring full-bellied force which could hold a bison herd in blizzard country against all its collective instinct to migrate to its winter home. Such force, brutally applied, would have melted the old ram’s courage and forced it blind with terror to the shallow alluvial terrace where Sunto waited to break his fast.
But such brute force would leave nothing of the ram’s courage for its slayer to drink with its blood, so the ram moved to its fate at a natural pace, nervous but without suspicion. It was a hunt worthy of a hunt singer, to sing it down among the hahns that old Sunto of the Orange Claw still was best of them all.
Sunto somberly considered his spirit brother in the surface of the pool, and his brother faithfully studied him. A pebble dislodged into the pool could shatter his brother’s visage as no natural blow but the big-shouting fire claw of a Two-Legs could shatter his own. But the waters of the pool would regain their calm, and the brother would return to mimic his dislodger scowl for scowl, as no hunter ever returned from the well-struck blow of a Two-Legs.
He considered the ancient puzzle of cubhood: where does the spirit brother hunt, when the flesh brother forever leaves the pool? But his stomach quickly provided another, grimmer question: where would all spirit brothers hunt if all hunters forever left the pool? And he was back in the grip of the awful dream which had awakened him in his mountain den, hackles lifting. The change in him had wakened his mate, a low rumble of half-fear rising in her throat as she sensed the strangeness on him.
“Sunto, what troubles thou?” It was an accusation, as if the thing which drove him from his sleep was his own doing. But she was heavy with pregnancy, and irritable.
“I smell tomorrow.” Shivering.
He heaved out of his sleeping crouch, regretting loss of body warmth in the tangled moss, but unable to lie quietly.
“I smell tomorrow, and it is full of peril! The hunt, the hahns, the very herds we live by — danger, danger — don’t thou smell it? The lesson of the Permanent Lairs, coming now to pass…”
The belligerence went out of her then, supplanted by an almost superstitious awe.
“Speak not of the Permanent Lairs with the cublings so near birthing — would thou mark them with that old madness? Out, Sunto — out, old Orange Claw dreamer! Run the bare mountains, hunt, drink good hot blood — that’s what thou need to wash away this fever…”
There was no point in arguing — Sunto went.
And now the pool, strange premonition uneased. The meadow’s life moved nervously around the furry form crouched at its shrine. A small winged hunter stooped clumsily, half missed its mark. Its prey skittered off unevenly, leaving an erratic tracing of dark blood on the still-damp grass. A flock of bright-feathered fowl, which had frozen in a bright-leaved thicket when the winged hunter struck, now exploded in a wasted burst of fear sound and buzzed off down the falling ground. Came a snort and crash upwind as a hilldeer, coming to the water, suddenly sensed the neural leakage from Sunto’s troubled belly and fled with no scent to guide it.
The Permanent Lairs. Always, those had been the danger, humping stubbornly above the ground where the large glacier river flowed out onto the plains. There had the Orange Claw hahn of his fathers ranged, and in its pride turned aside from the natural order of things. Fullest-bellied of all hunters, finest trackers ever known, invincible in the brutal hahn wars of those bygone times, their blind pride had sown the seed of Orange Claw ruin. They alone defied the rhythm of the seasons and stayed in their sheltered valley while all other things great and small followed the dayfire’s migration to its winter home.
For survival of their winter-born cubs, they raised permanent lairs of river stone, muscled into place with the fear-driven labor of the huge, slow-footed eaters of tree trunks, and cemented firm by the big-toothed flattail river dam-builders, working in a near coma of dread. For their winter diet the hahn marshaled a well-mixed herd of fat plains game in the valley. Young hunters sharpened their stomachs by holding the herd against its mindless drive to migrate. The Permanent Lairs had seemed the finest thing a stomach could digest, much envied by the hahns, before the Lesson fell upon the Orange Claw.
It was a Lesson then, as now, beyond misreading.
Those of the Orange Claw who survived its learning hunted the mountains far from those accursed Lairs from that point forward. Hunted far, and sickened and died — or changed — beneath the poison winds the Lesson spawned. All hahns knew fear when the Lairs would not fall back of themselves into the mother water, but none would risk marshaling the builder-beasts again, to undo the mischief, for fear of calling down another Lesson.
Sunto shifted uneasily.
Now, visions of those slowly eroding structures haunted his belly when he woke and when he slept. His recurring dream was of the dayfire come down from heaven, coalesced into a burning ball of flame to hunt among the Permanent Lairs for the spoor of the builders…
Such a vision was sheer madness. The hunting Thing in the dream was kin, and yet not kin, to Two-Legs. It was spirit brother to the bright boulders light as thistle in which Two-Legs floated from hunt to hunt, and in its heart and in its hide the lurid dayfire burned.
Sunto’s dreams had begun when that strange long Two-Legs without a fireclaw had denned these recent seasons in the Permanent Lairs. The long Two-Legs did not hunt, and would not be hunted, though full-bellied hunters tried their stomachs against him. He denned, he ate, he wandered the Orange Claw valley as on a quest. His belly called strongly and strangely, but he did not hunt.
Or did he?
The long Two-Legs held the hidden memory of the hunting dayfire ball deep within his own belly, that much was clear. It was a puzzle, but Sunto’s belly told him it was so, reading things beyond the reach of eye and claw.
Reading of the puzzle was heavy work, too heavy for solitary brooding by the pool. He raised his heavy head to study the innocent reflection of dayfire where it gathered in the council pool, then sent his silent summons flashing to the hahns.