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EXCERPT: Midworld, by Alan Dean Foster

When humans arrive on the planet Midworld, they convince an unsuspecting native to help them find a depleting natural resource.

midworld alan dean foster excerpt post





By Alan Dean Foster

“Hello. Is anyone alive here? It is safe to come out. The devil has gone to its cousins in Hell.”

The moaning ceased abruptly and was followed by clicking, metallic sounds. Then the section of rectangular metal began to disappear inward, on hinges.

A man peered out and up at him uncertainly. Something small and reflective shone in his hand. Born caught his breath. It was an axe—No, no … a knife made of the same material as the axe, only far cleaner and smoother. After a long stare the man’s gaze went around the open cavity in the metal. When he satisfied himself that Born’s words were true and the sky-devil was safely gone, he emerged into the open space and commenced a detailed survey of the mass of tangled instrumentation and components while keeping a watchful eye on Born.

Born studied the giant. Though he was only a normal-sized man by normal man standards, he towered a good twenty-five centimeters over Born. He displayed other surprising characteristics, as well. He was undeniably a person, but the differences were striking. His hair was orange-red instead of brown, his eyes blue instead of green, and his skin—his skin was so pale as not to be believed, though among his own people he was considered moderately well tanned. His build was slim and his face freckled and friendly.

“Jan?” A second voice, slightly higher. “Is it clear to—?” Then the speaker caught sight of Born, standing quietly on the surface of the skimmer. She was a couple of centimeters taller than the man. Her body beneath the torn single-piece jungle suit, was bony and athletic. Short hair the color of tarnished silver indicated she was somewhat older, as well. Strong, long legs showed from the beige shorts and their color was also, to Born, unbelievably pale. She seemed less nervous than the man, a little more assured.

“Who the hell is that?” she asked with a jerk of her head. The man she had called Jan continued picking disgustedly at the crushed remnants of the skimmer’s controls.

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“The man who just saved our lives, I think. For the moment.” He stared up at the sky uneasily.

“The sky-devil is dead,” Born informed him. “It went too near a stimulated Dunawett’s plant. It will not trouble you again.”

The man digested this information, grunted something noncommittal, and turned back to his discouraged probing. “Board’s shot to hell and gone, Kimi,” he finally declared. “What didn’t come apart in the touchdown, “that flying carnivore pecked to shreds. This skimmer isn’t going anywhere except the scrap yard.”

The woman sat down in. the ruins of a swivel chair, bent now at an angle its designers had never intended. Born stared curiously at her. She suddenly became conscious of his attention and looked up at him.

“What are you staring at, short stuff?”

Born bristled, more at her tone than the words. “If my presence makes you uncomfortable…” He hefted the snuffler, turned to go. 

“No, no, wait a minute, fellow.” She rested her head in crossed arms for a minute. “Give me a second, will you? We’ve just been through a pretty rough time.” She looked up again, locked fingers. “You’ve got to understand, when our drive went…” She noticed Born’s questioning frown and tried again. “When the thing that powered our skimmer…” The frown deepened. She patted the metal wall next to her. “When this thing which carries us through the air…” Born’s face showed an expression of disbelief, but she pressed on. “… crashed here, we thought we were already dead. Instead we crawled out of what was left of our chairs and found we were still alive. Shaken, but alive.”

She gestured at the surrounding green walls. “This incredible planet—three-quarters of a kilometer of stratified rain forest—cushioned our fall just enough.” Her voice dropped. “Then that long-necked horror landed on top of us. We barely got through the engine-access hatch when it started working on the door. I thought we were dead all over again. Now you show up and insist some local vegetable has slaughtered something it would take an arm’s-length laser to discourage. And then there’s the matter of yourself, which is no small shock to us, either.” 

“What about myself?” queried Born, unaccountably self-conscious.

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She made a fluttering, tired gesture. “Just look at you.” Born declined to do so. “You’re an anomaly, you don’t belong here, according to what we’ve been told,” she added hastily. “This is supposed to be an unreported, barely surveyed, uninhabited world known only to—”

“Careful, Kimi,” the man said warningly, glancing back over his shoulder.

She waved him off. “What for, Jan. This”—and she nodded toward Born—“native obviously knows nothing that could complicate our presence here.” She looked back at Born as she got to her feet. “As I said, this is supposed to be an uninhabited world. All of a sudden, on the heels of a series of rather disconcerting events, we’re faced with accepting your presence. I presume you’re not a solitary freak? There are others of your kind?”

“The village supports many,” Born told her, in what he hoped was an adequate answer. These giants were fascinating.

“I said native, but what kind remains to be determined.” She studied Born openly. He bore her examination because he was engaged in one of his own. “You’re nearly a whole foot shorter than an average adult, but you’ve got the arms and shoulders of a weight-lifter.” Her gaze lowered considerably. “And what look like awfully long, probably “prehensile toes. You’re dark as old redwood and with hair to match … but green eyes. Altogether, the most remarkable specimen I’ve seen in a long time. Though not,” she added in an odd tone, “for all that, unappealing.” The man made a sound which Born interpreted as one of distaste, though for what reason he could not imagine.

Strange and fascinating these giants! Yet it was they who were calling him strange.

“If your people developed here,” the woman was concluding, “despite your coloring and size and grabby toes, it has to be the most unlikely case of parallel evolution on record. And you speak Terranglo. What do you say, Jan?”

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The man looked up briefly at Born, then sighed and made a gesture of helplessness toward the board he had been working on. “I don’t know why I’m fooling with this. It’s hopeless. Even if we could fix the drive without the aid of a full machine shop, that flying beast chewed up the controls like so many worms in a paper bag. We’re stuck here. The tridee’s in no better shape. And all that talk about dying’s probably still appropriate.”

“You give, up too soon, too easily, Jan,” she admonished him. She looked at Born. “Our small friend here appears to have unpredictable resources. I don’t see why he couldn’t—”

The man whirled, confronting her with outrage barely held in check. “Are you crazy? It’s hundreds of kilometers to the station through this impenetrable morass …”

“His people seem able to negotiate it,” she said quietly.

“… and if you’re thinking of hoofing it, guided by some ignorant primitives—!” he continued.

The language of the giants was peculiar, high and distorted, but Born could make out the meaning of many of their words. One word he recognized clearly, despite the twisted accent, was “ignorant.”

“If you are so much the smarter,” he interrupted sharply, “how come you to be here like this?” And he kicked the blue skin of the skimmer.

The giant called Kimi smiled. “He’s got you there, Jan.” The man uttered another disgusted sound and made a related gesture. But he didn’t call Born ignorant again.

“Now then,” the woman said formally, “I think introductions are in order. First off, we’d like to thank you for saving our lives, which you most surely did.” She glanced at the man. “Wouldn’t we, Jan?”

He made a muffled sound vaguely intelligible as “yes.”

“My name,” she went on, “is Logan … Kimi Logan. This sometimes buoyant, occasionally depressed associate of mine is Jan Cohoma. And you?”

“I am called Born.”

“Born. That’s a fine name. A fitting name for one so brave, for a man who’d tackle a meat-eater like that winged monster single-handed.”

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Born expanded with pride. Strange the giants might be, but this one at least could be properly admiring. Maybe one day Brightly Go would regard him as well as this peculiar giant did.

“You mentioned a village, Born,” she continued.

He turned, pointed up and southwest. “The Home lies that way, a fair walk through the forest and two levels higher. My brothers will greet you as friends.” And admire the hunter who had braved the sleeping blue demon and killed a sky-devil to rescue them, he thought to himself.

He jumped up and down several times on the blue metal, then noticed that both giants had drawn away and were watching him. “I’m sorry,” he explained. “I mean you no harm. Of all who came here only I had the courage to descend and find you out. I guessed this … thing … was not alive, but something carved.”

“It’s called a skimmer,” Cohoma told him. “It carries us across the sky.”

“Across the sky,” Born repeated, not really believing the words. It seemed impossible that anything so heavy could fly.

“We’re glad you did, Born. Aren’t we, Jan? Aren’t we?” She nudged him and he muttered assent. His initial antagonism toward Born was weakening rapidly as he realized that the small native posed no threat to them. Quite the contrary, it seemed.

“Yes, it certainly was a brave act. An extraordinary act, now that I think of it.” He smiled.

“You’ve come this far, Born. Maybe you could help us at least try to get back to our station—our home on this world.”

“We got a last fix before we went down,” Logan told him. She hesitated, then pointed in a direction toward the Home tree. “It’s in that direction, about … let’s see, how can I get some idea of the distance across to you?” She thought a moment. “You said something about levels in the forest?”

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“Everyone knows the world is made of seven levels,” Born explained, as though lecturing a child, “from the Lower Hell to the treetops.”

“Figure the average height of one of the big emergents,” she murmured. “Say a little over seven hundred meters.” She engaged in some mental computation, translating meters into levels, and told Born how far away the station lay.

Now it was Born’s turn to smile; he was too courteous to laugh. “No one has ever traveled more than five days’ journey from the Home,” he told them. “I myself only recently went two, and that proved dangerous enough. Now you are talking of a journey of many seven-days. It cannot be done, I think.”

“Why not?” Cohoma objected. “You’re not afraid, are you? Not,” he added quickly as Born took a step toward the bigger man, “an exceptional hunter like yourself?”

Born relaxed slightly. He had already decided that of the two giants, he liked the man far the less.

“It is not a question of fear,” he told them, “but of reason. The balance of the world is delicate. Each creature has its place in that balance, takes what is needed, and returns what it can. The further one moves from one’s own niche, the more he disrupts the order of things. When the balance is upset severely, people die.”

“I think what he’s saying, Jan,” Logan said to her companion, “is that they believe the further they go from their home village, the more the chances of successfully returning to it are reduced. 

An understandable feeling, but the explanation is interesting. I wonder how they came to that world-view way of thinking. It’s not natural.”

“Natural or not,” Cohoma objected, “I still don’t see why—”

“Later,” she cut him off. He turned away, muttering to himself. “I think the first thing we should do,” she suggested, “is get out from under this open space before a relative of the monster you so smoothly dispatched, Born, gets curious and comes round to investigate.”

That was the first sensible thing the giants had said. He beckoned for them to follow. Cohoma filled his pockets with small packages from various compartments, then let Born lead the way into the trees.

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