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   Chapter 12 12

The Lani People By Jesse F. Bone Characters: 14057

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Kennon wondered if his colleagues in human medicine felt toward their patients as he did toward the Lani, or if they ultimately lost their individuality and became mere hosts for diseases, parasites, and tumors-vehicles for the practice of surgical and medical skills-economic units whose well-being meant a certain amount of credits. Probably not, he decided. They were human and their very humanity made them persons rather than things.

But the possession of individuality was not an asset in the practice of animal medicine where economics was the main factor and the satisfaction of the owner the principal personality problem. The normal farm animals, the shrakes, cattle, sheep, morks, and swine were no problem. They were merely a job. But the Lani were different. They weren't human, but they were intelligent and they did have personality even though they didn't possess that indefinable quality that separated man from the beasts. It was hard to treat them with dispassionate objectivity. In fact, it was impossible.

And this lack of objectivity annoyed him. Should he be this way? Was he right to identify them as individuals and treat them as persons rather than things? The passing months had failed to rob them of their personalities: they had not become the faceless mass of a herd of cattle or a flock of sheep. They were still not essentially different from humans-and wouldn't men themselves lose many of their human characteristics if they were herded into barracks and treated as property for forty generations? Wouldn't men, too, approach the animal condition if they were bred and treated as beasts, their pedigrees recorded, their types winnowed and selected? The thought was annoying.

It would be better, Kennon reflected, if he didn't have time to think, if he were so busy he could drop to his bed exhausted each night and sleep without dreaming, if he could keep on the run so fast that he wouldn't have time to sit and reflect. But he had done his work too well. He had trained his staff too thoroughly. They could handle the petty routines of minor treatment and laboratory tests as well as he. He had only the intellectual stimulation of atypical cases and these were all too rare. The routine inspections were boring, yet he forced himself to make them because they filled the time. The hospital wards were virtually empty of patients, the work was up to date, the whole island was enjoying a carnival of health, and Kennon was still impaled upon the horns of his dilemma. It wasn't so bad now that the first shock was over, but it was bad enough-and showed no signs of getting better. Now that Copper realized he wanted her, she did nothing to make his life easier. Instead she did her best to get underfoot, usually in some provocative position. It was enough to try the patience of a marble statue Kennon reflected grimly. But it did have its humorous side and were it not for the fact that Copper wasn't human could have been thoroughly enjoyable. That, however, was the real hell of it. He couldn't relax and enjoy the contest-his feet were on too slippery ground. And Copper with her unerring female instinct knew just what to do to make the footing slipperier. Sooner or later, she was certain that he would fall. It was only a question of applying sufficient pressure at the right spot and the right time. Now that she knew he desired her, she was content to wait. The only thing that had bothered her was the uncertainty whether he cared or not. For Copper the future was a simple thing and she was lighthearted about it. But not so Kennon. Even after the initial shock had passed there still remained the moral customs, the conditioning, and the prohibitions. But Copper-was Copper-and somehow the conditioning lost its force in her presence. Perhaps, he thought wryly, it was a symptom of the gradual erosion of his moral character in this abnormal environment.

"I'm getting stale," he confided to Copper as he sat in his office idly turning the pages of the Kardon Journal of Allied Medical Sciences. "There's nothing to do that's interesting."

"You could help me," Copper said as she looked up from the pile of cards she was sorting. He had given her the thankless task of reorganizing the files, and she was barely half through the project.

"There's nothing to do that's interesting," he repeated. He cocked his head to one side. From this angle Copper looked decidedly intriguing as she bent over the file drawer and replaced a stack of cards.

"I could suggest something," Copper said demurely.

"Yes, I know," he said. "You're full of suggestions."

"I was thinking that we could go on a picnic."

"A what?"

"A picnic. Take a lunch and go somewhere in the jeep. Maybe up into the hills. I think it might be fun."

"Why not?" Kennon agreed. "At least it would break the monotony. Tell you what. You run up to the house and tell Kara to pack a lunch and we'll take the day off."

"Good! I hoped you'd say that. I'm getting tired of these dirty old cards." She stood up and sidled past the desk. Kennon resisted the impulse to slap as she went past, and congratulated himself on his self-control as she looked at him with a half-disappointed expression on her face. She had expected it, he thought gleefully. Score one for morality.

He smiled. Whatever the other Lani might be, Copper was different. Quick, volatile, intelligent, she was a constant delight, a flashing kaleidoscope of unexpected facets. Perhaps the others were the same if he knew them better. But he didn't know them-and avoided learning. In that direction lay ulcers.

"We'll go to Olympus," he said.

Copper looked dubious. "I'd rather not go there. That's forbidden ground."

"Oh nonsense. You're merely superstitious."

She smiled. "Perhaps you're right. You usually are."

"That's the virtue of being a man. Even if I'm wrong, I'm right." He chuckled at the peculiar expression on her face.

"Now off with you-and get that lunch basket packed."

She bowed. "Yes, master. Your slave flies on winged feet to execute your commands."

Kennon chuckled. Copper had been reading Old Doc's romances again. He recognized the florid style.

* * *

Kennon landed the jeep in a mountain meadow halfway up the slope of the peacefully slumbering volcano. It was quiet and cool, and the light breeze was blowing Olympus's smoky cap away from them to the west. Copper unpacked the lunch. She moved slowly. After all, there was plenty of time, and she wasn't very hungry. Neither was Kennon.

"Let's go for a walk," Copper said. "The woods look cool-and maybe we can work up an appetite."

"Good idea. I could use some exercise. That lunch looks big enough to choke a horse and I'd like to do it justice."

They walked through the woods, skirting scant patches of underbrush, slowly moving higher on the mountain slopes. The trees, unlike those of Beta, did not end abruptly at a snow line, but pushed green fingers upward through passages between old lava flows, o

n whose black wrinkled surfaces nothing grew. The faint hum of insects and the piping calls of the birdlike mammals added to the impression of remoteness. It was hard to believe that scarcely twenty kilometers from this primitive microcosm was the border of the highly organized and productive farmlands of Outworld Enterprises.

"Do you think we can see the hospital if we go high enough?" Copper said. She panted a little, unaccustomed to the altitude.

"Possibly," Kennon said. "It is a long distance away. But we should be able to see Alexandria," he added. "That's high enough and big enough." He looked at her curiously. "How is it that you're so breathless?" he asked. "We're not that high. You're getting fat with too much soft living."

Copper smiled. "Perhaps I'm getting old."

"Nonsense," Kennon chuckled. "It's just fat. Come to think of it you are plumper. Not that I mind, but if you're going to keep that sylphlike figure you'd better go on a diet."

"You're too good to me," Copper said.

"You're darn right I am. Well-let's get going. Exercise is always good for the waistline, and I'd like to see what's up ahead."

Scarcely a kilometer ahead they came to a wall of lava that barred their path. "Oh, oh," Kennon said. "We can't go over that." He looked at the wrinkled and shattered rock with its knifelike edges.

"I don't think my feet could take it," Copper admitted.

"It looks like the end of the trail."

"No-not quite," Kennon said. "There seems to be a path here." He pointed to a narrow cleft in the black rock. "Let's see where it goes."

Copper hung back. "I don't think I want to," she said doubtfully. "It looks awfully dark and narrow."

"Oh, stop it. Nothing's going to hurt us. Come on." Kennon took her hand.

Unwillingly Copper allowed herself to be led forward. "There's something about this place that frightens me," she said uncomfortably as the high black wails closed in, narrowing until only a slit of yellow sky was visible overhead. The path underfoot was surprisingly smooth and free from rocks, but the narrow corridor, steeped in shadows, was gloomy and depressingly silent. It even bothered Kennon, although he wouldn't admit it. What forces had sliced this razor-thin cleft in the dense rock around them? Earthquake probably. And if it happened once it could happen again. He would hate to be trapped here entombed in shattered rock.

Gradually the passage widened, then abruptly it ended. A bleak vista of volcanic ash dotted with sputter cones opened before them. It was a flat tableland, roughly circular, scarcely half a kilometer across, a desolation of black rock, stunted trees and underbrush, and gray volcanic ash. A crater, somewhat larger than the rest, lay with its nearest edge about two hundred meters away. The rock edges were fire polished, gleaming in the yellow sunshine, and the thin margin of trees and brush surrounding the depression were gnarled and shrunken, twisted into fantastic shapes.

"Hey! what's this?" Kennon asked curiously. "That crater looks peculiar, like a meteor had struck here-but those stunted plants-hmm-there must have been some radioactivity too." He looked at the crater speculatively. "Now I wonder-" he began.

Copper had turned a sickly white. "No!" she said in a half-strangled voice-"oh, no!"

Kennon looked at her. "You know what this is?" he demanded.

"No," Copper said. But her voice was unsteady.

"You're lying."

"But I don't know." Copper wailed. "I'm only guessing. I've never seen this place before in my life! Please!-let's get out of here!"

"Then you know about this," Kennon demanded.

"I think it's the Pit," Copper said. "The redes don't say where it is. But the description fits-the Circle of Death, the Twisted Land-it's all like the redes say."

"Redes?-what are redes? And what is this business about circles of death? There's something here that's peculiar and I want to know what it is."

"It's nothing. Truly. Just let's go back. Let's leave this place. It's no good. It's tabu."

"Tabu? You've never used that word before."

"Forbidden."

"Who forbids it?"

"The Gods-the Old Ones. It is not for Lani. Nor for you." Her voice was harsh. "Come away before it is too late. Before the Silent Death strikes you down."

"I'm going to have a look at this."

"You'll be killed!" Copper said. "And if you die, I die too."

"Don't be foolish. There's nothing here that can hurt me. See those trees and plants growing right up to the crater's edge. If they can take it permanently, I can stand it for a few moments. If there's any radioactivity there, it's not very much."

"But the redes say-"

"Oh, forget those redes. I know what I'm doing. Besides, I'm a Betan and can stand more radiation than most men. A brief exposure isn't going to hurt me."

"You go and I go too," Copper said desperately.

"You'll stay here where it's safe," Kennon said flatly.

"I'm going with you," Copper repeated. "I don't want to live without you."

"I tell you I won't be hurt. And one quick look isn't going to bother whatever's down there."

"That's what Roga the Foolish said when he opened Lyssa's tower. But he brought men to Flora. And your little look may bring an even greater calamity."

Kennon shrugged, and started Walking toward the crater's edge.

Copper followed.

He turned to order her back, but the words died on his tips as he saw the terror and determination on her face. Neither commands nor pleas would move her. If he went she would follow. The only way he could stop her would be with violence, and he didn't want to manhandle her. He felt an odd mixture of pride, tenderness, and admiration for her. Were their situations reversed, he doubted whether he would have the courage she was showing. He sighed. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps he did need an antiradiation suit.

"All right," he said. "You win. I'll get some protective clothing and look at it later."

Her knees sagged, but he caught her before she fell, and held her erect until her strength returned. Belatedly he understood the emotional strain that had been gripping her. "If you come back later, sir, you'll take me with you." The words were a statement, not a question.

He nodded. "Providing you wear a radiation suit," he said.

She grimaced with distaste and he chuckled. Clothing and Copper simply didn't get along together.

"Well?"

"All right," she said unhappily.

"And there's one more condition."

"What's that?" she asked suspiciously.

"That you tell me about this place. You obviously know something about it, and with all your talking, you've never mentioned it to me."

"It is forbidden to talk of these things to men," Copper said-and then, perversely, "Do you want me to tell you now?"

"No-it can wait. We have come a long way and I am hungry. I listen poorly on an empty stomach. Let's go back to the jeep and you can tell me later."

Copper smiled. "That's good," she said. "I'd feel better away from this place."

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