Wheelworld is written by Harry Harrison who is also the author of Deathworld, Make Room! Make Room! (filmed as Soylent Green), the popular Stainless Steel Rat books, and many other famous works of SF. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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July 02, 2012
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Excerpt from Wheelworld by Harry Harrison
The sun had set four years ago and had not risen since.
But the time would be coming soon when it would lift over the horizon again. Within a few short months it would once more sear the planet's surface with its blue-white rays. But until that happened the endless twilight prevailed and, in that half-light, the great ears of mutated corn grew rich and full. A single crop, a sea of yellow and green that stretched to the horizon in all directions--except one. Here the field ended, bounded by a high metal fence, and beyond the fence was the desert. A wasteland of sand and gravel, a shadowless and endless plain that vanished into dimness under the twilight sky. No rain fell here and nothing grew here--in sharp contrast to the burgeoning farmland beyond. But something lived in the barren plains, a creature that found its every need in the sterile sands.
The flattened mound of creased gray flesh must have weighed at least six tonnes. There appeared to be no openings or organs in its upper surface, although close examination would have revealed that each of the nodules in the thick skin contained a silicon window that was perfectly adapted to absorb radiation from the sky. Plant cells beneath the transparent areas, part of the intricate symbiotic relationships of the lumper, transformed the energy into sugar. Slowly, sluggishly,by osmotic movement between cells, the sugar migrated to the lower portion of the creature, where it was transformed into alcohol and stored in vacuoles until needed. A number of other chemical processes were also taking place on this lower surface at the same time.
The lumper was draped over a particularly rich outcropping of copper salts. Specialized cells had secreted acid to dissolve the salts, which had then been absorbed. This process had been going on for a measureless time, for the beast had no brain recognizable as such, or any organs to measure time with. It existed. It was here, eating, cropping the minerals as a cow would grass. Until, as in a grazed field, the available supply of food was gone. The time had come to move on. When the supply of nourishment fell away, chemoreceptors passed on their messages and the thousands of leg muscles in the lumper's ridged lower surface began to retract. Fueled now by the carefully stored alcohol, the muscles were actuated in a single, orgasmic spasm that sent the six tonnes of thick, carpetlike hulk hurtling over thirty meters through the air.
It cleared the fence that ringed the farm, and fell with an immense thudding impact into the two-meter high Gammacorn, crushing it flat, vanishing from sight behind the screen of green leaves and arm-long, golden ears. At its thickest point the lumper was only a meter through, so it was completely hidden from the view of the other creature that rumbled toward it.
Neither of them had a brain. The six-tonne organic beast was controlled completely by the reflex arcs that it had been born with some centuries earlier. The metallic creature weighed twenty-seven tonnes, and was controlled by a programmed computer that had been installed when it was built. Both of them had senses--but were not sentient. Each was totally unaware of the other until they met.
The meeting was very dramatic. The great form of the harvester approached, clanking and whirring industriously. It was cutting a swathe thirty meters widethrough the evenly aligned rows of corn that marched away to the horizon. In a single pass it cut the corn, separated the ripe ears from the stalks, chopped the stalks to small bits, then burnt the fragments in a roaring oven. The water vapor from this instant combustion escaped from a high chimney in white trails of vapor, the ash billowed out in a black cloud from between the clanking treads to settle back to the ground. It was a very efficient machine at doing what it was supposed to do. It was not supposed to detect lumpers hidden in the corn field. It ran into the lumper and snapped off a good two hundred kilos of flesh before the alarms brought it to a halt.
As primitive as its nervous system was, the lumper was certainly aware of something as drastic as this. Chemical signals were released to activate the jumping feet and within minutes, incredibly fast for a lumper, the muscles contracted and the beast jumped again. It wasn't a very good leap though, since most of the alcohol had been exhausted. The effort was just enough to raise it a few meters into the air to land on top of the harvester. Metal bent and broke, and many more alarm signals were tripped to add to the ones already activated by the beast's presence.
Wherever the gold plating of the harvester had been torn or scratched away the lumper found toothsome steel. It settled down, firmly draped over the great machine, and began placidly to eat it.
"Don't be stupid!" Lee Ciou shouted, trying to make himself heard above the babble of voices. "Just think about stellar distances before you start talking about radio signals. Sure I could put together a big transmitter, no problem at all. I could blast out a signal that could be even received on Earth--someday. But it would take twenty-seven years to reach the nearest inhabited planet. And maybe they wouldn't even be listening ... ."
"Order, order, order," Ivan Semenov called out,hitting the table with the gavel in time to the words. "Let us have some order. Let us speak in turn and be recognized. We are getting nowhere acting in this fashion."
"We're getting nowhere in any case!" someone shouted. "This is all a waste of time."
There were loud whistles and boos at this, and more banging of the gavel. The telephone light beside Semenov blinked rapidly and he picked up the hand-piece, still banging the gavel. He listened, gave a single word of assent and hung the instrument up. He did not use the gavel again but instead raised his voice and shouted.
There was instant silence and he nodded. "Jan Kulozik--are you here?"
Jan was seated near the rear of the dome and had not taken part in the discussion. Wrapped in his own thoughts, he was scarcely aware of the shouting men, or of the silence, and had been roused only when he heard his name spoken. He stood. He was tall and wiry, and would have been thin but for the hard muscles, the result of long years of physical work. There was grease on his coveralls, and more smeared on his skin, yet he was obviously more than just a mechanic. The way he held himself, ready yet restrained, and the way he looked toward the chairman spoke as clearly as did the golden cogwheel symbol on his collar.
"Trouble in the fields at Taekeng-four," Semenov said. "Seems a lumper tangled with a harvester and knocked it out. They want you right away."
"Wait, wait for me," a small man called out, fighting his way through the crowd and hurrying after Jan. It was Chun Taekeng, head of the Taekeng family. He was as ill-tempered as he was old, wrinkled, and bald. He punched one man who did not get out of his way fast enough, and kicked ankles of others to move them aside. Jan did not slow his fast walk, so that Chun had to run, panting, to catch up with him.
The maintenance copter was in front of the machine shop, and Jan had the turbines fired and the blade turning as Chun Taekeng climbed arthritically in.
"Ought to kill the lumpers, wipe out the species," he gasped as he dropped into the seat by Jan. Jan did not answer. Even if there were any need, which there was not, wiping out the native species would be next to impossible. He ignored Chun, who was muttering angrily to himself, and opened the throttle wide as soon as they had altitude. He had to get there as soon as possible. Lumpers could be dangerous if they weren't handled right. Most of the farmers knew little about them--and cared even less.
The countryside drifted by below them like an undulating and yellow specked green blanket. Harvesting was in its final stages so that the fields of corn no longer stretched away smoothly in all directions, but had been cut back in great gaps by the harvesting machines. Rising columns of vapor marked the places where the machines were working. Only the sky was unchanging, a deep bowl of unrelieved gray stretching from horizon to horizon. Four years since he had seen the sun, Jan thought, four endless and unchanging years. People here didn't seem to notice it, but at times the unchanging halflight was more than he could bear and he would reach for the little green jar of pills.
"There, down there," Chun Taekeng called out shrilly, pointing a claw-like finger. "Land right there."
Jan ignored him. The shining gold hulk of the harvester was below them, half covered by the draped mass of the lumper. A big one, six, seven tonnes at least. It was usually only the smaller ones that reached the farms. Trucks and track-trucks were pulled up around it; a cloud of dust showed another one on its way. Jan circled slowly, while he put a call through on the radio for the Big Hook, not heeding Chun's orders to land at once. When he finally did set down, over a hundred meters from the harvester, the little man was beginning to froth. Jan was completely unaffected; itwas the members of the Taekeng family who would suffer.
There was a small crowd gathered around the flattened harvester, pointing and talking excitedly. Some of the women had chilled bottles of beer in buckets and were setting out glasses. It was a carnival atmosphere, a welcome break from the monotony and drudgery of their lives. An admiring circle watched while a young man with a welding torch held it close to the draping curtain of brown flesh that hung down the side of the machine. The lumper rippled when the flame touched it; greasy tendrils of foul-smelling smoke rose from the burnt flesh.
"Turn off that torch and get out of here," Jan said.
The man gaped up slackly at Jan, mouth hanging open, but did not turn off the torch or move. There was scarcely any distance between his hairline and his eyebrows and he had a retarded look. The Taekeng family was very small and inbred.
"Chun," Jan called out to the Family Head as he tottered up, wheezing. "Get that torch away before there is trouble."
Chun shrieked with anger and emphasised his remarks with a sharp kick. The young man fled with the torch. Jan had a pair of heavy gloves tucked into his belt and he pulled them on. "I'll need some help," he said. "Get shovels and help me lift the edge of this thing. Don't touch it underneath though. It drips acid that will eat a hole in you."
With an effort a flap was lifted and Jan bent to look under. The flesh was white and hard, wet with acid. He found one of the many jumping legs, the size and roughly the same shape as a human leg. It was folded into a socket in the flesh and it pulled back when he dragged on it. But it could not resist a continuous tension and he drew it out far enough to see the direction of bend of the stocky knee. When he released it it slowly returned to position.
"All right, let it drop." He stepped away and scratched a mark on the ground, then turned and sighted along it. "Get those trucks out of there," he said. "Move them off to left and right, at least as far away as the copter. If this thing jumps again it will land on top of them. After the burning it might just do that."
There was some confusion as to what he meant, but no confusion when Chun repeated the orders at the top of his lungs. They moved quickly. Jan wiped his gloves on the stubble then climbed on top of the harvester. A sound of loud fluttering announced the arrival of the Big Hook. The big copter, the largest on the planet, rumbled up and hovered overhead. Jan took his radio from his belt and issued orders. A square opening appeared in the belly and a lifting bar dropped slowly down at the end of the cable. The downdraft of the rotors beat at Jan as he placed the bar carefully, then set the large hooks, one by one, into the edge of the lumper. If the creature felt the sharp steel in its flesh, it gave no indication. When the hooks were set to his satisfaction, Jan circled his hand over his head and the Big Hook began to slowly lift.
Following his directions, the pilot put tension on the cable, then began carefully to reel it in. The hooks sank deep and the lumper began to shiver with a rippling motion.This was the bad time. If it jumped now it could wreck the copter. But the edge came up, higher and higher, until the moist white underside was two meters in the air. Jan chopped with his hand and the Big Hook moved slowly away, towing the edge of the creature behind it level with the ground. It was like taking a blanket by the edge and turning it back. Smoothly and easily the lumper rolled until it was lying on its back on the ground, its underside a great expanse of glistening white flesh.
In a moment it changed, as the thousands of legs shot suddenly into the air, an instantly grown forest of pale limbs. They stood straight up for long seconds, then slowly dropped back to rest.
"It's harmless now," Jan said. "It can't get off its back."
"Now you will kill it," Chun Taekeng said warmly.
Jan kept the distaste from his voice. "No, we don't want to do that. I don't think you really want seven tonnes of rotting flesh in your field. We'll leave it there for now. The harvester is more important." He radioed the Big Hook to land, then detached the lumper from the lift bar.
There was a bag of soda ash in the copter, kept there for just this kind of emergency. There was always some kind of lumper trouble. He climbed on top of the harvester again and threw handfuls of the soda ash into the pools of acid. There did not seem to be much pitting, but there could be trouble inside if the acid had dripped into the machinery. He would have to start taking the plates off at once. A number of the covers were buckled and some of the bogie wheels torn free, so that it had shed one track. It would be a big job.
With the one track still powered, and four trucks towing the other side, he managed to back the harvester a good two hundred meters away from the lumper. Under the critical eye, and even more critical comments, of Chun Taekeng, he had the Big Hook drag the lumper into position and turn it over.
"Leave the ugly beast here! Kill it, bury it! Now it is right side up again and will jump again and kill us all."
"No it won't," Jan said. "It can only move in one direction, you saw how the legs were aligned. When it jumps again it will be headed back for the wastelands."
"You can't be sure, accurate ... ."
"Accurate enough. I can't aim it like a gun, if that's what you mean. But when it goes it is going out of here."
Right on cue the lumper jumped. It had no reasoning power and no emotions. But it did have a complex set of chemical triggers. They must all have beenactivated by the rough handling it had had, the apparent reversal of gravity, burning, and having pieces removed. There was a heavy thud as all the legs kicked out at once. Some of the women screamed and even Chun Taekeng gasped and fell back.
The immense form was hurled into the air, soaring high. It cleared the field and the sensor beams and fell heavily into the sand outside. A heavy cloud of dust roiled out on all sides of it.
Jan took his toolbox from the copter and set to work on the harvester, pleased to lose himself in his work. As soon as he did this, when he was left alone, his thoughts returned instantly to the ships. He was tired of thinking about them and talking about them, but he could not forget them. No one could forget them.