Read The Kar-Chee Reign Online

Authors: Avram Davidson

The Kar-Chee Reign (2 page)

BOOK: The Kar-Chee Reign
11.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The long morning had been filled with noise. The long afternoon was strangely silent. The silence at first was filled with remembered echo.

Earth’s remaining people had worked themselves into an unprecedented fatigue. They had also, it seemed, finally and forever plundered their planet dry. Scarcely a trace of crude metals remained, and not even a trace of mineral fuels. The very wastes of the ancient mines had been reclaimed, reprocessed, redigested, and re-consumed. In the last stages, the technicians had cannibalized their own technology, gobbling up factories and smelting down fabric and machinery to consolidate and produce the ultimate ships. The near-empty cities were at last dismantled for their bones and scrap, ruins ravaged like pigs nosing for truffles.

Finally, no more ships were built on earth and no more migrant parties sent off. For a while yet, though, the old world Earth stayed in touch with her children via out-world-built ships touching down with visitors. But there were never many of them; and as the Earth-born in the outer worlds grew old and died off, there were ever fewer. So, finally, even they ceased. There was no announcement, only that the perhaps penultimate one bore notice, in the form of so few passengers, that the children-planets had become too caught up in their own concerns to care much about the withered mother-world.

Yet no doubt habit alone might have served to keep up a communication with some semblance of regularity. The migrants had been as careful as they might to purge and to protect themselves against bringing communicable disease with them as they swarmed out to the series of worlds which later became known as The Inner Circle. But when they learned of the presence among them of the deadliest such disease of all it was too late: it had blazed up, and it was not to die down for centuries.

Its name was War.

And it was then, when all the other worlds of human tenancy were so pre-empted and preoccupied that the very awareness of the Earth-Motherworld became only faint memory — less, perhaps, than the memory of Juteland was to England during her Colonial wars — it was then that the Kar-chee came. Earth-planet may have seemed sucked dry, worthless, to those who now lived or whose fathers had once lived on it … just as the rind and the pulp of a squeezed orange might. But that same would not seem worthless at all to a pig or a swarm of flies. Nor did it seem so to the Kar-chee. They left their lairs around the Ring Stars and swarmed down onto weary, exhausted, riven old Earth, to pick the bones and crack the plundered planet for its marrow.

• • •

The spring and the man-made salt-lick were well set up for hunting, the arroyo and ravine being so as to provide an almost perfect situation for ambush. Only the one narrow way led up to the water welling up at the foot of an abrupt cliff: as the deer went up, so that same way they had to come down. “Beating” was here not the most exact word — the younger boys went up to the top of the cliff-face by another and roundabout way and pelted any deer they might find below with stones and sticks. It was doubtless not sporting, but this was a conception unknown to them. They killed what they needed, and no more, and it made sense to kill as quickly and easily as possible.

Lors and Duro levered down their goat-foot crossbows and loaded them with a bolt each. Tom-small nocked an arrow into his short straight bow, and the three of them picked their hiding places among the rocks and hunkered down. They could, if need be, maintain the position for hours. But, as it turned out, they had to maintain it for something much less.

From above and ahead, faint but clear, after perhaps a quarter of an hour, the three heard a series of whistles. Duro got up, swearing. Lors shrugged. To Tom-small, who looked at them inquiringly, he said, “No game at the spring. Well, we’ll have to go all the way up there to see if there’s anything along the path … and then come all the way down again, if there is or there isn’t.”

“Oh, Devil!” said Duro, again.

And there was nothing along the path.

There was nothing along the usual beats, either — no actual game, that is. There was spoor and trace, to be sure, and these signs made them all look at each other with faces wrinkled in uncertainty.

“Upland,” Tom-small said. “Everything seems to have gone upland…. Do you know why?”

The brothers didn’t. “I don’t know who’d be beating up from downland hereabouts,” Lors said. “I don’t smell any fire, either.” Automatically, at this suggestion, they all sniffed the air. As though to accomodate them at just that moment the wind shifted.

“What is
” Duro asked, scowling.

No one knew. It was musty and pungent and utterly strange. It might be connected with the curious absence of game; it might not. “Let’s go see what it is,” said Duro.

Lors shook his head. “Popa didn’t send us out for anything but to get meat, and the meat’s all gone upland, it seems, so we just have to go upland after it. When we get back we can tell him about it, and he’ll know what to do.”

“By the time we get back with anything — if we find anything — they’ll all be hungry, anyway,” his brother pointed out. He looked windward, made as though to reload his crossbow.

“The longer we wait and gibble-gabble, the hungrier they’ll be. Up,” said the elder. And turned and started. Tom-small and the younger boys followed at once. So, after a moment, did Duro. They went upland, all of them, but they came within shot of no game. Once they stopped stock-still at the sight of three deer outlined upon the top of a ridge, heads all up. For a moment nothing moved, nothing was heard. Then, far off and below, it came … deep and distinctive and strange, and it sounded again — the deer darted off and were gone — and it seemed to have ended upon a higher, a questioning note.

“It’s no horn,” guest Tom-small said, low-voiced, evidently answering his own unspoken questioning.

But as to what it was, none had any suggestion. They nodded when Lors said, finally, “All game gone upland … nobody beating besides us, that we know of … a bad smell, a strange smell … and now a strange noise….

“My guess is that whatever made the smell is making the noise. It’s gotten late. We’d better go back and tell Popa, that’s the best thing, and we can kill stock for the guests and then we’d all better find out what this thing is.”

As they started back, Duro said, “Maybe it would be better to find out as soon as can be, even if it’s got to be done on an empty belly.” His brother grunted his agreement. The smaller boys were all silent, and kept close instead of spreading out. The sun declined away behind the mountain and the air felt chilly on their skins — and perhaps it was not just the air.

They followed Lors without questioning when he picked a trail over fallen rock which would cut time off their return. And it was while the loose shale was still sliding a bit under their feet that they all stopped short with no more sound at first than the hissing intake of breath and looked down where his hand pointed and where it trembled despite all his brave effort.

Along the distant shore below, at that same shelving beach where the first Rowan had brought his tiny boat ashore, there, outlined against the wine-dark sea, they saw the forms of two utterly strange and utterly dissimilar figures stalking across the twilight landscape — one erect, though slightly stooping; the other on all four giant legs which held it high above the sand.

Slowly, fearfully, they sank down and spread themselves flat upon the shale. After an infinity of time the two strange beasts passed out of sight around a bend in the shore line. Then, crouching, sliding, trotting almost as they squatted and slid, spraddle-legged, the young hunters vanished into the safe-promising shadows. And only when the dearly familiar walls of the homesite, outlined by the vigorous fires still burning outdoors, came into view did any of them speak. It was the youngest and smallest of the boys.

“Devil,” he said. “Devil.” He was not swearing. “Devil — Devil — it was the Devil!” he chattered.

And Lors said, “Maybe…. Maybe…. But
— which one?”


low on one side. Whether the underbeams had been lashed wrong, or if something in the wood had caused more and sooner waterlogging, or — No one worried or cared about that any longer. It was accepted with a brute resignation, like the burning sun and the scant food and drink, the waves which lapped up and over all around and left salt encrustations which itched and stung the swollen flesh. Three people already had gone off that perilous slope — one had slipped and slid, shrieking, while the others had looked on and blinked their burning eyes and licked their cracking lips and otherwise done nothing; one had simply rolled off, a scatter of rags and flailing limbs, uttering no sound; and the third, with a pleased smile and a look of anticipation, had just walked off at a brisk pace, knee-deep before he’d plunged out of sight.

Now and then a shark circled, leisurely, and those who still had the energy to do so crawled as high as they could, as though fearing that the great cartilaginous fish might suddenly sprout legs and climb up after them. And now and then a huge sea-turtle flippered by, paying them no attention at all; some eyed it hungrily, but helplessly: the small boat in which they might have pursued it had gone in a storm uncounted time ago, and even had it remained it was doubtful if any of them now would have had the strength to man it.

Some few fishing-lines still dangled, some presently without even hooks, and none with other bait than a bit of cloth of similar counterfeit. It had been days since any of these had succeeded in catching anything — a bony, ugly thing, but the man whose line it adhered to had eaten it at once, fearful and famished and secretive and swift. Then he had vomited it all up. Then he had eaten it a second time, shameful and slow and sick.

It had been months. It seemed like months. Perhaps it was only weeks. Perhaps, by now, years. Liam would know, if anyone knew, Cerry thought. Vaguely, she considered asking Liam if he still kept up his records. But the notion soon ceased to interest her. She had too little voice left, her mouth and throat were too dry, for her to call over to him where he sat, crouching, motionless. He might be dead. But she didn’t want to face this possibility. If Liam were dead then the rest of them were as good as dead. So she made her mind consider other things.

Suppose the raft were to encounter flying fish. A whole entire school of them. Then the sail and the awning could be used as nets. Everyone would have something to eat. And then — since flying fish lived in the tropics and in the tropics it was very rainy — then it would rain, and the rain water would be caught in those same sails and awnings. All at once everyone would be better, healthy, alert, in good spirits and humor. Their luck thus once turned, obviously land would be the next thing to appear.

It would be a good land, with friendly people, not savage, neither terrible nor terrified. The land and people didn’t know of hunger, and there were no dragons in that land and neither were there Kar-chee. And … and then …

Cerry wondered what was next, smiling and giving little nods. The bubble did not so much burst as simply vanish; and, the vision forgotten as though it had never begun, she wondered and fretted mildly how long they had all been on the raft. At least a month. She had had her courses just before they’d embarked — a minor discomfort and a common and regular one: odd that she should remember it against the background of that hideous time and trouble — and then, surely, she had had them again at least once since then, aboard the raft. She could not remember it having happened another time. Which meant that it had not been two months yet. Or, possibly, that her body no longer functioned as it once had. Small wonder, if this were so. But what if Liam were dead?

The fear was worse than the pain of finding out. So, slowly and so slowly, Cerry raised herself onto her painful hands and knees and began to crawl and to creep and to climb across the cant of the raft toward the figure which half-sat, half-crouched, in the splotchy shade of the tattered awning. And the gorgeous golden sun beat down unceasingly from the blazing blue of the silent sky. There was a child stretched out, face down, back moving in slight rise and fall of feeble breath. Cerry did not dare stop or try to move other than as she was moving. Neither did the woman move who croaked, “Murderers! Murderers!” as Cerry dragged herself over the child.

“Are you human beings?” the woman demanded. “Or are you dragons? Kill me, kill me, only leave my child alone….” Her head, at least, at last, commenced to weave from side to side, but by then Cerry was past. “Help, help,” the woman croaked, striking her head with her skeletal paw of a hand. “Human beings: help, help. There are dragons on the raft….” The child gave a ghost of a whimper. “Yes, my precious. Don’t cry, my dearest love. Mother’s coming….” She moved toward the child like a crippled snake.

A hot gust smote the sea. The torn cloth slapped and snapped. The raft shook. A wave hit it; it shook again. Something dead went floating by and someone not quite dead pointed and wept, but it was too far away. Liam had one brown eye and one blue eye and otherwise his eyes were red as blood. His sun-bleached, salt-encrusted hair moved in the light wind like clumps of dirty marsh grass. He didn’t blink or breathe as Cerry came lurching and creeping. “Liam, don’t be dead. Tell me how long it’s been,” Cerry asked. He didn’t blink or breathe. She could see the wind moving the little hairs on his chest, but she couldn’t see the chest move.

She butted his knee with her head, like a lamb forcing its dam to give down milk. He fell over on his side. “Don’t be dead, Liam,” she begged.

After minutes, hours, years, he said something. He made a sort of snoring noise. He said something. “What, Liam? What?”

She crept close. “Maybe a dream,” he said. She listened. She strained to hear. The man who had pointed to the dead thing watched them. He sat up a bit. He watched them. The mother stroked her child’s face. But her eyes did not really watch the child. Her eyes watched them. “May be a dream, Cerry,” Liam said. “But I think I did. One night … I think …”

BOOK: The Kar-Chee Reign
11.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Adrenaline by Jeff Abbott
V-Day by annehollywriter
Viking Passion by Speer, Flora
Sisterhood by Palmer, Michael
Zombiestan by Mainak Dhar
Matty and Bill for Keeps by Elizabeth Fensham
Royal Inheritance by Kate Emerson