Rorg sensed bright light through his closed eyelids. He gingerly, groggily opened his eyes and examined his moorings as lethargy lifted.
He lay on his back, on dry ground, surrounded by small grayish trees. The terrain seemed flat and he seemed intact.
He slowly, carefully sat up. He was mindful that, as he did so, the force-field surrounding him evaporated. He could hear the hiss of the miniature field projector self-destructing. After the self-destruct, its only possible use was as a projectile, and usually there were rocks around just as serviceable – not that the projector now looked much different from a rock.
As always, though, there was the belt pack, left by the locator service. Such packs were stocked with a sparse assortment of standard items: monofilament line, thin and light enough to catch fish but also strong enough for Rorg to hang from; a sharp, light-bladed knife; a solid-state lighter; a compass; a survival blanket, strong enough to suspend him in a tree; twenty foodpack bars; a canteen; water purification tablets, and several other such basic survival items.
On this, his eleventh time on one of these outings, he was at 457 meters above sea level, and the planet had a magnetic field that, at this location, had a declination of 34 degrees west of true north. Those items of information were, as usual, the only things he knew about the place where he had been dropped. He knew slightly more about his ultimate destination on the planet: what the transmitter site looked like from a holograph, its general direction from the dropoff site, what it looked like on a small map of its surrounding kilometer, and its elevation. That was the sum total of knowledge given him about this entire planet – that, and that it had a breatheable atmosphere, and that any fatal toxins were locked away in organisms, and not in the air or water.
Rorg loved it. One more chance to show that he was the master of himself and whatever wilderness environment they stuck him in. This had been his vacation every year since he had become an adult. He grinned and stood up, anticipating another outing of exploration and exercise. And, of course, muscle toning and weight loss. He always lost plenty of weight on these vacations. They were the perfect counterpoint to his boring, sedentary career as data manager.
He strapped on the pack and took his bearings. There were no landmarks to be seen, only the tired-looking trees, sparse herbs, and thickets of gray, thorny vines between the trees. As he rotated, he saw that he was mistaken; directly behind him was a smallish obsidian-like boulder, the only large rock in sight. Noting its appearance, he began walking confidently through the woods.
As he walked, he looked back, keeping his bearings on the rock. As usual, he avoided thick groundcovers and thickets, but he was nonetheless frequently forced to make his way through the thorny vines.
The woods thinned ahead, and he looked out over a vast vista of forested land. He made his way to the edge of the precipice and looked down a sheer drop of several hundred meters. He knew the destination was 87 meters higher than his present elevation, so he was presumably at the edge of a highland. He turned around and walked back through the woodlands, passing the boulder at his dropoff site. At a similar distance on the far side of the boulder, he found himself again atop a cliff. He turned to his right and began following the edge of the precipice.
As he walked, he continued to survey the terrain in the distance as well as that immediately at hand. There were sheer-sided mesas scattered through the landscape, and distant hills could be seen at the horizon. The mesas topped out at the same level as his elevation . A river appeared, gleaming in the sun, kilometers away, snaking across the forest with several smaller tributaries. Now and again he heard bestial noises from the forest below; now and again he saw flying forms in the sky, some of which landed in the forest to his right, but never close enough to him to clearly see.
As he followed the cliff edge, he left the river behind. An hour later, he glimpsed water again. As he continued, he realized it was the same river. He had walked full circle; he was on a mesa like those in the distance.
Rorg felt some concern. Climbing down cliffs was not his favorite activity, but surely there was some way to get down. If he slipped and fell, he was dead. He knew the locator service wouldn't even bother to check on him for three weeks. There were probably some other people dropped in the same area of this planet, but they wouldn't be any help – they would be in the same boat as Rorg. One or several people on a particular planet often died before they could be retrieved.
At least if Rorg died, nobody would miss him. He'd been married for a few years, but it hadn't worked, and he hadn't been inclined to try it again. He was also currently without a lover. His parents had died long ago, and he had been an only child. He was not a highly social person and had few friends. He was, perforce, self-reliant.
He circumambulated the mesa top again, frequently lying down on the rocky edge and peering over the sheer cliffs below, dizzying though the process was. More than once he felt like retching from vertigo. But not a chimney, nor cleft, nor ledge below could he see. All that showed was sheer rock.
The fourth time he did this, his sight was attracted by a moving shape at the base of the cliff. A large lizard-like creature scurried across the fallen rocks there, certainly very large to be seen from this height. It seemed to have--could it? It had FOUR pairs of legs.
Rorg sat back to consider this. Eight legs. His was a background strong in biology, but it included no eight-legged creatures, apart from small invertebrates. Actually, his college professor had been clear about this issue. Lots of two-legged and four-legged animals, and a few planets specialized in six-legged vertebrates, but no eight-legged vertebrates were known anywhere. That was some years ago, but surely he'd have read about them if they'd been discovered since.
The implication of this was that this was definitely a planet of which Rorg had no knowledge. He knew something about most of the 384 Earth-type planets discovered, last count that he knew of. That was one of his strengths on these survival outings: he usually was able to figure out what planet he had been dropped on, and usually had a better idea than usual how to make his way to the destination. Often he knew if he could safely eat the wildlife.
But not here. Not here, at all. This was a strange place to him, apparently a place discovered only recently. This was confirmed by his examination of the plants, different from any he'd ever seen. How could they know that this planet was safe enough to sponsor in their outings, if it was that new?
Damn, damn, damn, he thought. This is going to be harder--and more dangerous--than usual. Not only that, but he'd have to use his monofilament line to rappel off the cliff, since he certainly couldn't survive three weeks up here without water of any kind. He hoped that they had given him enough of the line.
At least he had the rest of the day for it, however long this day was, since part of the deal was that the initial drop was made in early morning.
After completing his walkaround inspection of the cliffs below, Rorg unfastened his pack to search for the line--and stopped and gaped in horror. His gaze met with--junk. That is, junk and rocks and sticks. And one hairbrush. He dumped out the contents and carefully went through them--and found not one item of the standard survival pack, and certainly no food, nor anything in which to carry water.
Rorg stared uncomprehendingly at the items on the ground for long minutes before he recovered enough to sink his head into his hands. He was screwed, definitely screwed. What kind of a sick practical joker had done that? His only link to civilization as he knew it, other than his clothes, was missing. Worse, the very items that he needed to rely on for life itself were missing. He tossed the hairbrush and the junk back into the pack, more to avoid littering than any other reason, but left the sticks and stones on the ground.
Rappeling's bad enough, Rorg thought, and climbing down is out of the question. I'm no rock climber, and, besides, that rock has no place to hold on to. There are a few fallen trees, but not one of them is even a twentieth as tall as the cliff. There is absolutely nothing here suitable for making a hang-glider or a parachute.
After long moments of stunned contemplation, he arose and walked into the forest. He grabbed a vine, careful to avoid the thorns, and pulled. It had no give whatsoever. He pulled with all his strength, and felt a gentle give in the ground and a stinging in his hands there they slipped against the thorns, but still the vine would not uproot and would not break. These vines must be the only way, he thought grimly, but how do I do this?
He could not pull them loose; he could not break them; he could not bite them through – he tried all three. Rorg searched the cliff's edge and found a few large flakes of rock. With these, he tried cutting the thorny vines. They were too soft and dull; useless. He tried prying the thorns off the vines, but they were firmly fixed.
He searched and found a good, solid rock, large but just light enough that he could carry it. He returned to the obsidian boulder and smashed the smaller rock against the edge of it. After dozens of tries, he had managed to break loose several large flakes with sharp edges. He carried them back to the cliff's edge. With a great deal of effort, they would cut the vines.
His next step was to return to the place where the base of the cliff was the highest, and there he started cutting vines in the woods and pulling them out to the edge of the cliff. It took seemingly forever to cut through even one vine. These must be the galaxy's toughest vines, he thought.
At day's end--Rorg guessed it was around eighteen standard hours since he'd awoken here--his mouth and throat were parched, he had a headache, his stomach was in a knot, his arms ached, his clothing was soaked with sweat, his fingers were sore and bleeding, and he had a pile of vines hopefully big enough to string together to descend the cliff.
He crept back to the rock where he'd awoken, and curled up next to it, his head on the fanny pack for a pillow. A black, moonless night descended, punctuated only by sparse stars. There was no constellation or configuration in the sky that he could recognize.
Waking in the dark, he lay and listened to the night screams, hoots, whistles, and grunts filtering through the night air. None were close, though; they were apparently all from below except for a few hoots from the fliers roosting in trees. The night certainly was alive with noise.
He lay in the dark for a long time, then dozed back off to sleep. After another fitful eternity, he stared up at a lightening sky, and searched the horizon for the brightest spot. Long days and long nights here, he thought. The longest I've ever seen. He watched the dawn, gently flexing his abused fingers and hands, then finally forced himself to rise. He wandered around the mesa top for an hour, to reassure himself that no water was available. Then he walked back to the vines and begin knotting them together, tearing his hands further on the thorns.
The vines were not only unbreakable, they were highly pliable, so knotting was possible, and eventually Rorg had them all connected. He carefully fed out the line over the cliff, using his underwear now to pad his hands.
He had overestimated length; the vines were more than one hundred percent longer than needed. He had spent hours more cutting more of them and tying them on until the line was more than twice the required length. He looped the line in half and passed the end bight around the biggest tree he could find near the edge, then fed the vines back through the bight, then looped them around another tree before dropping them over the edge. This took a considerably long time.
He lay on his belly and shook the vines as he fed them down, straightening them all the way to the bottom, where the ends lay, draped over large boulders.
The line attracted the attention of a large lizard-like thing, possibly the same one Rorg had seen before, which began playing with the end like a cat would a dangling string. Rorg tried jerking it up, but the thing had hold of it and would not let go. They played tug-of-war like this for long moments, during which Rorg was sweating with fear that the vines would break, when his attention--and the lizard's--was transfixed by a crashing commotion in the forest.
A THING, huge, vicious, and also eight-legged (actually six-legged and two-armed), lunged at the lizard-thing that was trying to leave as rapidly as possible, but not rapidly enough. Rorg watched in horror, pulling the vine back up swiftly, as the THING ripped the other creature to shreds and devoured most of it, bones and all, orange blood splattering the rocks.
At last, sated, the THING waddled off. Rorg was no longer sweating with fear. He was too dehydrated now for that, but he was shaking. Definitely shaking. The THING was easily much bigger than an Earthly elephant, even bigger than a Vestan thuggan. And it had teeth and claws enough for a dozen average large carnivores.
Rorg sat back to re-think the situation. He had never before been this afraid, but fear could not stand in the way of necessary action. He had never been dumped in such a place before; that was one of the rules: no carnivores big enough to eat you in a few bites (or even just one bite, in this case).
He could not, COULD NOT, remain here on the mesatop. He would be dead of dehydration within two days, more likely by next morning, at the rate he was going. He got up to examine the plant life to be certain, but there was indeed no stored water within the herbage.
He walked back to the edge and the vines. My only hope, he thought grimly, is that that THING is so full that it won't come after me. Gathering himself, he again let down the vine and carefully prepared himself.
He lowered himself over the edge, his hands padded by his underwear ripped in two. As long as he was careful, the sturdy thorns would aid him in keeping his grip. He inched his way down, his legs and feet firmly clamped around the vine, thorns ripping his pants legs, biting into his arms, chest and belly. He inched down and crept down for eternities. Each time he moved a hand down, it was a trial to free the underwear from the grabbing thorns, and a further trial to try to wrap it around the next spot to protect himself from the thorns.
Again and again he thought he would pass out. He was reeling from the heat and dehydration but he kept carefully maintaining his rhythm, carefully, carefully: one hand move down, grip; the other hand, move down, grip; body move down; feet move down, clamp. He was doing this for his life, for his entire life, and knew it to be literally true. That was all he was doing. His entire purpose in life was to inch down the vine. This day, this vine was his life.
He began taking breaks, clinging, immobile, resting as best he could. The further down he crept, the more often he took these breaks. Finally, he was only making one move down the vine between these rests.
Something was wrong; he had no more feeling in his hands, arms and legs. But he kept going. Blood stained the padding for his hands and onto his clothing, but he kept going. His feet struck something solid, but he kept going--and realized he was finally down. He groggily turned around, still clutching the vine for support. The forest and the cliff reeled around him. Orange blood splattered the rocks nearby, and the stench threatened to make him pass out. Had he had anything in his stomach, he would not have had it there for long.
Rorg was standing on the rocky breakdown at the top of a high slope, surrounded by immense, jagged boulders. He was standing in the shadow of an especially huge boulder leaning against the cliff. The air was still and stifling and thick with humidity. It was much more humid and hot here than on top.
No, the air was now not quite still, there was a stirring. And Rorg realized that it wasn't the air, but the branches below him--the branches in the tops of the trees and all branches below and he stared in horror at the THING coming out of the woods at him, a half-mile away.
Rorg clutched the vine in terror and panic and only terror and panic could force his muscles to function, back up the vine, humping back up the thorny line, to the top of the boulder, pulling the vine back up after him in sheer terror and desperation as the THING came snarling up below him, leaping up against the rock, topping out scarce meters below where he was standing, and Rorg pressed back into the rock of the cliff in sheer horror.
Even horror could not maintain him in a standing position for long, and he slumped down on the boulder's top, only half-sensible, as the THING tried again and again to make him dessert. Rorg was hardly aware of the THING finally giving up and leaving; he was hardly aware of anything the rest of that day, what there was left of it. He was not sure, as much as he could think now, even if he were safe here, that he could survive until morning. He was half-delirious and another eighteen hours without water could be the end. And he slipped into unconsciousness.
What Rorg finally knew next was that it was as black around him as he'd ever seen even in the deepest cavern and he was soaking wet and the rock was soaking wet. The sky and the air were also soaking wet in a drenching rain that seemed never to end or to even diminish slightly and he angled his mouth up to the rain, feeling as though he would drown. He regained enough awareness to pull off his shirt and feebly wring water out of it into his avid mouth, the rain soaking it back in as fast as he could wring it out. He wrung out the water again and again, perhaps for hours, until he was sated with water, urinating in his pants because he lacked the strength to stand up to go through the usual routine (but, after all, the rain was washing it right back out), slumping down on the rock on his belly to keep the rain out of his face, drifting in and out of sleep as the pounding rain on his back and head kept waking him again and again.
Finally he passed into utter blackness in his head as well as outside it until he awoke in brightness. His first awareness was of the pervading soreness and pain that wracked his body and its every surface, not to mention the burning in the palms of his hands, but he was alive and besotted with the fluid of life within him. Long minutes passed before he could summon up the fortitude to force his limbs to move against the pain. One by one, he moved leg, arm, leg, arm, head and neck until he rolled up onto his hands and knees and blearily examined the world around him. His stomach was somewhere within him rolled up into a small, hard, distant knot.
He sat up, back against the cliff as he built up awareness and circulation. He painstakingly pulled off his socks and shoes to dry them in the sun.
Rorg still had the pack strapped to him, with its useless contents. A strict rule of the game, however, was that no artifacts were to be left behind, and no trash. He had dutifully even thrown the melted force-field projector into it, once it had cooled off.
The pack contained only useless junk, but he re-examined it anyway. There still was nothing of any use whatsoever except for the hairbrush: a few scraps of crumpled paper, some miscellaneous metal parts to something that he could not recognize, some plastic shapes that had no discernible purpose. And the hairbrush. After a pause, he shrugged, and brushed his hair.
At last, feeling some spark of life, he also felt the call of nature, the first time since he'd set foot on the planet. He painfully squatted, leaning back against the rock face where the angle of the boulder separated from the wall, and voided his bowels, cramping painfully. The waste cascaded down the back of the rock, splattering on the surface below the boulder. And as he was squeezing out the last, he felt a stillness but stirring in the woods, and the THING appeared.
He warily, carefully holding up his trousers and edged away, back towards the highest point of the rock. The THING ran towards the huge rock, towards Rorg, and leaped off a lower boulder. With the added lift, it reached the top, its immense arms slamming onto the surface scant centimeters from Rorg's feet, but unable to take hold, sliding back off, hitting the ground with a crash. It snuffled around the base for a moment, and became attracted by Rorg's scat. Rorg could hear sounds like eating – was the THING EATING his waste? Then he heard a spectacular thrashing below him. He looked over the edge only to see the THING in fatal convulsions.
Rorg watched cautiously, the THING in its death throes, until it lay still on the ground. He stood and stared at it, amazed. It must have found Rorg's leavings to be a deadly poison. Hopefully, he thought, it's territorial, with a really BIG territory, so maybe I don't need to worry about another one for a while.
He used one of the underwear halves to wipe himself somewhat clean, and wrapped it in the other piece and put it in the pack. He shook the vines over the other edge of the rock and achingly climbed down. He walked closer to take a good look, but not too closely. He stared at it for many long minutes, then continued on his way, relieved. He also felt more relieved than ever that he hadn't immediately died of poisoning when, atop the mesa, he had tried to chew through the vine. Of course, his being poisonous to the local wildlife did not necessarily mean that it would be poisonous to him.
He began walking towards the distant hills in what he judged to be the general direction of the pickup site. The forest was a true rainforest, thick and wet, with unexpected pools, but Rorg went on with a dogged determination. There were, after all, game trails (or maybe they’re just predator trails, he thought).
After all, he reasoned, if I ever reach the hills, there are bound to be clear streams there and plenty of shelter, as well as places to climb out of reach from carnivores, and there's certain to be less risk of really large carnivores there because of less large food. At least, so I hope.
He walked slowly because of his aching muscles, but at least his feet were so far relatively unaffected, his soles as fresh as any part of his body could be. He passed many tempting seeds, nuts, berries and insect-like creatures, but he wasn't yet delirious enough from hunger to risk instant death. He still had some fifteen pounds or so of excess body mass.
Rorg headed for the next and nearest mesa between himself and the higher plateau. After hours of walking, he had no idea how near he was. The forest was thick and steaming, and he constantly had to force his way through thickets and to walk around obstacles. The trees here were immense, some with diameters of ten meters and more. He periodically passed mounds, many of which showed large boulders in their interiors, apparently the same rock as the mesas. These must be mesas in the last stages of disappearing, he thought.
At last, Rorg came upon a larger hill, rising above tree level. He doggedly climbed to the top. It was just high enough to see the surrounding landscape. I've strayed from my course somewhat, he thought, but maybe I can still make that mesa before night.
As he made his way back down the hill, one of the lizards, like the one he'd seen butchered, came around the curve, straight at him. He held his hands up and sort of shrieked, and the lizard-thing turned and ran, even though its head was as high as his was.
He continued his arduous way through the woods, ever expecting another THING to lunge at him out of nowhere. Several times, he passed what appeared to be its scat or the remains of its meals. Several times, he came to small streams, and had to walk along the bank until he could find a place to cross on a fallen tree. After all, he had no idea what might be lurking under the water’s surface. Often, he heard rustles and bestial noises in the underbrush. Once, something unidentifiable swung down in front of his face, brushing against his face, but it was gone too fast to see what it was. His scratches and sores ached, and life was hell.
He finally reached the far mesa, again parched, but not daring to drink from the streams. He found a steady drip of water off the side of the mesa from the rain of the night before. For an hour, he held his mouth below the drip and gathered in the water. He stopped when his stomach began feeling queasy. He climbed up among the boulders until he found a high but cramped cleft that appeared safe, crawled in, and went to sleep.
After the interminable hours of another impossibly long night, Rorg again awoke to pain and aching, his stomach cramping. He retched, but stretched himself again into full awareness. He embarked again to the next mesa.
Around midday, he came upon a large stream, tributary to the river. It was deep and green, sluggishly flowing under over-draping greenery. After what he’d seen, there wasn’t a chance he was going to try to ford or swim a stream this large. He turned and began walking upstream, paralleling the stream. As he walked, he came to more small streams, often having to follow them upstream to cross them.
Progress like this was slower than ever, and the day was getting on. The next mesa was nowhere in sight.
And then Rorg heard the sounds he least wanted to hear. The same kind of stirring, the same kind of snuffling far off behind him. And he started running, blindly, if running it could be called. He ran into the bank of the large stream where it curved across his path, and ran along it until he came to an immense fallen tree, and edged out on it, out across the stream. The new THING had picked up his scent now, and was coming up from behind--fast. He was terrified, but his bowels weren't loose – they couldn’t be loose; they were empty. He reached the far bank and jumped off the log as the THING came to the bank and hesitated, while Rorg ran on.
Then Rorg remembered--he still had the bloody, ripped-up, soiled underwear in his pack. In desperation, he pulled out the inner, soiled piece and flung it down in his path. He ran on shortly and tripped over a downed log, and lay there, panting, momentarily unable to move.
He could hear the THING coming up behind him, having crossed the stream. And he could hear it pause, and he rose on his elbow and peered back over the log. Sure enough, it had eaten the underwear, and was scanning to resume his trail. He forced himself to his feet, stumbling on, fortunately now in a dense thicket of small trees which slowed down the THING much more than it slowed him.
Actually, the THING was getting slower and slower, and began bellowing and moaning. Rorg, unable to run any farther for the moment, looked back. The THING had stopped, panting hard, convulsions ripping its body. Maybe I got it after all, he thought. But it never dropped, just kept doing what it was doing, and Rorg thought: maybe there just wasn't enough of whatever in my blood and my crap smears to kill it and it's going to recover; I better get out of here.
He stumbled on.
And stumbled on. He came to another rocky hill and crawled up it, now in the twilight, looking for a hiding place. He found it, sort of, a cleft between two huge boulders. He just hoped that they were large enough that a THING could not move them. He took out the other half of his bloody underwear, the cleaner half that he hadn’t used for wiping, and used his teeth to help rip it in half again. He dropped each half on either side of the huge boulders, as a precaution.
But now, in the dark, he heard no THING. He heard many sounds, and once woke to the feeling of something nudging his boot. He screamed and kicked wildly, blindly, and whatever it was ran out and away.
And morning came again after an eternity. He was wakeful many hours before dawn, still dozing a bit here and there but generally too afraid to go deeply back into sleep. He arose and painfully pulled himself from his tiny cave. Both underwear scraps were gone. Groaning, he climbed the rest of the way to the top of the hill to survey the landscape.
The mesa was THERE. He'd missed it by quite a bit--his course had been badly off. There was no other mesa or large hill other than that one between himself and the hills, which were now much closer and more distinct.
Rorg wearily began again, trudging toward this mesa. The hills were too distant to make today. Weak from hunger, his progress was slow and his many scratches and puncture wounds burned, itched and ached, as did his muscles. This night there had been no moisture, and Rorg was again parched. If only he could trust the local waters.
The mesa was apparently away from the stream, so Rorg found himself with less water in his path. By mid-morning, the ground was sloping gently upward, and he eventually glimpsed the mesa through the trees. This one had a larger and longer slope up to it than the others, and his knees and ankles complained at the exertion. Reaching the base of the cliff, he began walking around to look for water drips. He found a small one eventually, and spent the next hour drinking from it in tiny licks. His stomach again cramping, he continued walking around the mesa, feeling more dead than alive, passing a place where an immense slab of the side of the mesa had slipped off and down, leaning out slightly, held in place only by a large boulder.
Rorg rounded a fluted column on the face of the cliff and there came upon. . .another THING. Or maybe the same one as the day before. It didn't matter; he was running--more or less--the other way.
And it didn't matter to the THING; Rorg was food to be pursued, and he heard it behind him. The thought flitted through his mind that these THINGS viewed as food anything that moved. Silently screaming in his head as he ran, Rorg almost lost his only opportunity. Stumbling on a rock, he twisted halfway around to see the slipped column. He reached it just as the THING came up behind him. He dove into the small space under the base of the column, under the edge of the supporting boulder as the THING grunted and reached for him. Farther, farther back through he desperately pushed himself, the THING reaching in furiously after him. He squeezed out the far end, and the THING screamed, making a final desperate lunge through the rocky space, and dislodged the boulder.
And time stood still like that for years, perhaps. And Rorg, backing up in terror, watched the column slowly, majestically lean over and begin falling. The THING, too, saw it coming, and tried backing up, but it was too late. Rorg watched the rock crush the THING, orange blood spraying out, as the edge of the falling column brushed Rorg's outstretched foot.
Rorg fell backward and lay there a long time in utter stillness and horror. A LONG time. He finally collected his wits enough to walk over and saw that the THING was, indeed, as dead as any living thing could be.
He found a cleft in the cliff face, seemingly safe, and stayed there for the rest of the day and the entire night, as well. Rorg felt so much like surrendering to death. He could not possibly survive much longer. His guts were cramping horribly from the water he was drinking and who knew what else. He was constantly dizzy, sick, and headachy with starvation and salt depletion. His muscles screamed in agony whenever he moved. His feet were blistered from rubbing against worn, filthy socks soaked with sweat. Why not end it all now? But he slept and woke in the morning and willed himself to go on.
He continued towards the hills, slower than ever. Around midday he came again to the stream, and turned to again parallel it. The ground was now often sloping slightly upwards, and he passed fewer and fewer THING paths. He often again was forced to cross small side streams, but there always was a tree fallen, somewhere.
Rorg was now traveling at about half a mile per hour at the fastest, but was certain that his only chance of survival lay ahead, and he intended to find it. The ground kept gradually rising in swells and ridges, until he found himself entering a deep cleft in the rock, the same rock that formed the mesas, whence issued the stream. By nightfall, he'd found a cozy rock shelter under a bluff overlooking the stream, with a seepage spring. He again drank gratefully until the stomach pain forced him to stop.
The next morning, he blearily looked out at the brightening light over the stream from deep within his shelter, then groggily crawled out. And could not stand up. And was seized by large, furry hands and pulled upright, suspended from two massive arms.
The thing that held him was just one of five similar beings. They all had long, silky fur, looking something like an artist's depiction of an ancestral humanoid ape, but much larger and with twice as many arms and legs. One of them gently poked Rorg, pulled gently at his clothes, and jabbered something to the one holding him. Rorg was lowered to the ground, but still held in place, and he looked around more carefully.
The apoids, as he thought of them, were all wearing minimal pieces of clothing, including some sort of broad, painted leather belt for carrying rudimentary tools. Another absolute rule of this game had been violated: no dropoffs on planets where developing intelligent life-forms lived.
Rorg gestured to himself and managed to croak out, "Rorg." He was simply too exhausted to be paralyzed with terror. One of the apoids pointed at him with one or two--or maybe three--hands, Rorg not being much able to keep up with such details at this point, and imitated Rorg's croak: "Ghohg." Close enough for alien vocal cords. Rorg held up his hands to show that they were empty, and the large hands released him into the middle of the five creatures.
He said, slurred, "I don't suppose you guys know Galactic Standard, do you?" They just stared at him. Rorg asked the same kind of question in three other languages, and they just looked at him blankly.
They gestured at him to go with them, and they moved off, Rorg in the middle. He was hardly able to walk, and they were moving rapidly, but then slowed until he could manage. They did not appear to be hostile, and they seemed remarkably accepting of his alien-ness. After long hours, they reached their village.
Rorg half-expected to meet other humans in the village, since other people were surely dropped into the area. But perhaps no one else had survived; perhaps they all had received the phony packs. There was still that question: Who could have sabotaged his pack? Rorg didn't know any of the answers, but he usually passed no more than two or three Earth days before he ran into someone, alive or dead. He was aware of at least two occasions that someone who had been dropped went insane from hunger and became a cannibal, murdering live human victims for supper or just eating a corpse conveniently found.
But there were no other humans in the villages, nor any sign they'd ever been there. Nonetheless, the apoids seemed to treat Rorg considerately. Rorg noticed a great number of animals of various descriptions in the village, all of which seemed to be at home. Probably many of these were food animals, but some were also obviously pets, judging from the way he saw apoids treating them.
Rorg was gestured to sit down on a boulder by a fire-pit, one of many. Apoids sat on various others. They were sized to fit the large creatures, while Rorg's legs just dangled off the edge of his.
One of them ambled out towards Rorg and two of the hunting party seemed to report to him or her. This one seemed to be important; it had some decorations in its fur that the others didn't, and its hair was almost black in contrast to most of the others' chocolate brown.
Rorg noticed, out of the corner of his eye, an apoid grooming itself with a rough comb. Getting an idea, he carefully (under watchful eyes) unfastened the fanny pack and took out the hairbrush. Barely able to fasten his fingers around it, he held it out momentarily toward the black apoid, then carefully and deliberately brushed his hair with it. He held it out again, and the black apoid took it and carefully used it to brush its own hair. It talked excitedly, apparently pleased, and passed it around, each apoid thoroughly brushing down the one next to it. I've got a hit here, thought Rorg, pleased.
The black one came and squatted in front of Rorg and examined him carefully. It said something and Rorg just shrugged and held out his hands. The black one took his hands and looked them over, then compared them with its own. It opened and closed its hands, and Rorg opened and closed his, which lacked one joint in each of his five fingers that the apoids had in their seven--no thumbs, but both end fingers were rotatable to be opposable.
It pointed to its own hand and said, "g'unt". Rorg pointed to his hand, said "g'unt" as best he could, then clearly said "hand". "Henn" the black one repeated, then made the same expression Rorg had seen when he handed it the hairbrush.
This went on for some time until each had learned some twenty or so words of the other's language. They exchanged names, and Rorg learned that the black one's name--or maybe title--was "Ho'na," and learned the names of several others. Another apoid came over and offered Rorg some food, but Rorg pointed to the food and to his belly and tried to make a painful face. The apoid looked at him blankly, then set the food down and left. How much longer could he survive without eating? It was probably a good thing that he had had those surplus pounds when dropped off.
Rorg tried to think of a way to communicate his plight to the apoids. If he could just draw or paint them a picture of the transmitter, his destination . . . The minimal leather clothing the villagers wore was painted with crude but cryptic symbols and pictures. He pointed to the pictures, and Ho'na talked for a while, and realized that Rorg wasn't understanding. Rorg pointed again to various of the symbols, and Ho'na took off the broad belt and handed it to Rorg. Rorg pointed to the pictures and handed it back, and Ho'na took it and made an odd expression before putting it back on.
After a while, Ho'na touched him on the shoulder and gestured around. It pointed out several things, including a large earthen structure full of water where several apoids were drinking water or filling vessels, and pointed out a pool by the nearby stream where an apoid was bathing, and guided Rorg to a small, empty hut. Then the apoids left Rorg alone, free to explore around their village.
Rorg took a good, long drink, then stumbled around for an hour or so, looking for some way to draw. He could only walk a short way, then sat and rested, then repeated the process. He could find nothing, and the rocky ground at the village was impossible to draw in. Whatever the apoids used to draw and paint was nowhere evident.
Finally, Rorg had an idea. The apoids had several immense, flat and smooth stones that they used for pounding and grinding roots, bark and nuts, and he went over to one that was clean and not being used. He scratched around until he found some smaller rocks that were softer than the large one, and scratched symbols onto it. His aching and stiff arm and hands, as well as his light, throbbing head, made it difficult but he managed.
The apoids were watching him, fascinated. Ho'na came over and stared intently at what Rorg had drawn. What he had drawn was the transmitter at his destination. After a few moments, Ho'na became excited, and gestured over several other apoids. Rorg pointed at himself, then at the drawing. Ho'na pointed at Rorg, then off into the distance, and Rorg nodded, and mimicked its pointing.
Ho'na pointed up at the lowering sun and the horizon, and Rorg understood. Too far to go today. Rorg pointed at the horizon, nodding his understanding, and Ho'na pointed toward Rorg's hut. Rorg noticed other apoids going into their huts. He went to the pool and bathed as best he could, tenderly cleansing his many painful and even suppurating sores, then walked to his hut and lay down on the mat inside. And instantly collapsed into sleep.
Stumbling out of the hut the next morning, aching in every muscle and joint, Rorg found a band of apoids, including Ho'na, already waiting for him. They set off, walking slowly to accommodate Rorg's stumbling pace. After only half an hour, Rorg fell and could not get up. One of the apoids picked him up and carried him, trading off with others the rest of the day.
They walked for the entire day, until dusk threatened, and they began mounting a hillside. As they surmounted the hill, the transmitter came into view in a large clearing. The party stopped at the edge of the clearing, but Rorg forced himself stumblingly towards it and became aware of a presence overhead. So did the apoids. They looked on in consternation as the small spaceship settled down at the far edge of the clearing. Small for a spaceship, yet many times bigger than the taxi shuttles that usually greeted him.
Three people, two women and a man, came out. One called, "Welcome, Rorg! You were earlier than expected!"
Rorg gaped. This was not the usual way this was done. They always picked him up in a taxi shuttle, not an actual spaceship. It always had just one pilot. Usually he had to trigger the transmitter and wait up to a week for someone to appear. Never before had someone been waiting for him, but he recouped enough to croak out, "You got anything to eat?"
One of the people, now close, held out a couple of food bars, and Rorg began gulping them down as they helped him into the ship. Rorg waved to the apoids as he entered, then turned around and asked, "I don't get it, what's going on?"
One of the women guided him into a seat, and sat by him. Rorg realized that the other two were missing, and he looked out to see the man carrying the transmitter toward the ship and the woman talking to the apoids, apparently in their own language. "What about the others?" Rorg asked.
"There are no others, just you," one of the women said. Rorg was silent at this news. Then, after a few moments, “Why?”
“We’ll talk after you rest a bit. You’ve had a rough time, I can see.” She held up an injector. “Let me give you some antibiotics.” Rorg held out his arm.
The injector held more than antibiotics, Rorg thought as he passed into unconsciousness. He awoke an indeterminate amount of time later after some curious but terrifying dreams. He was in a bed, clean and bandaged. An IV dripped into his arm. He was still exhausted and considering trying to get out of bed when the woman who had given him the injection came in with a tray. “Eat,” she said. “We’ll talk after you eat.” She unplugged the IV and capped it off. “When you’re done, press this call button.”
Rorg ate in silence, then followed pressed the button. Two of the people came into the room.
“So what was that all about?” Rorg asked.
After a few moments, the other woman spoke. "This was a test, Rorg. We've watched you, and want to make an offer for your consideration."
"I don't get it," Rorg said, repeating himself, "What in hell's going on?"
The man repeated, "This was a test. For you and OF you. You've done well through a lot of the survival outings, and we wanted to see how well you could really do. You came through."
"But, but. . .the pack stuff?"
"All calculated to see if you had your wits about you, as you did," he said. "Let me introduce myself, I'm Edo."
"I'm Redala," the woman said, "and Hara is piloting."
"I'm Rorg," he said, aware as he said it how stupid sounded. Of course they knew he was Rorg.
Redala nodded and explained. "The Galactic Special Services need experienced, seasoned, stable and tested people," she said. "The kind of people we need are few and far between. We've done an intense psychological profile on you, of course, and while you've failed in your relationships with women, you still have a sound sense of ethics and a high degree of emotional stability and self-reliance. What's more, you passed this survival test with flying colors."
Rorg groaned. “I applied to you people three years ago, and you turned me down resoundingly!”
“Well, of course,” she replied. “We had to so that we could observe you objectively. If we had accepted you, it would have affected your subsequent behavior.”
“Don’t you think that your rejection affected it rather strongly?”
“Well, of course, but you held up well. And did quite well this trip, I might add.”
"It was just chance that I didn't get eaten by that THING," he muttered.
Redala shrugged. "You saved yourself from those animals more than once," she pointed out. "You're alive and intact, even if I had to tend your sores, give you antibiotics, and treat you for the water poisoning."
“God,” he groaned, “This is all so corny and trite!”
She shrugged again. “It works.”
"What about those apoid creatures?" Rorg asked. "I thought contact with primitive intelligent races wasn't allowed."
"That was already violated by renegade traders with these apoids, as you call them," Redala told him. "Although there was little direct contact, the tribes of this area knew that humans existed. Fortunately, the traders did not abuse these life forms, but actually had a couple of positive interactions. We have, however, studied these creatures for a while. They're not especially violent. There are still a lot of remote tribes on this planet that will remain untouched, and we've dealt with the traders. These tribes will have mythic tales for years to come, but since some of the more distant tribes are already much more technologically advanced, we don't think it will be a problem."
"But even more to the point, we needed to be sure that you could deal rationally with alien races. So you passed. Will you join us?"
Rorg sank back into his seat. "Great gods, you people almost killed me," he gurgled.
"Only almost," Redala said and grinned. "Weren't you getting a little tired of how easy these outings had become?"
Rorg contemplated the question for long moments as they emerged into space and Redala produced a medical kit. Yes, he thought, they had been getting too easy. Yes, he had wanted a larger thrill. Yes, he still wanted a more exciting life. Why not a change in career?
"Yes," he said. "I guess so."
"Yes, you were tired of easy outings?"
"Hell, no, give me an easy outing. But I'd like a more exciting life."
"So you'll join us?" she said.
"I'm yours," Rorg said, as she started swabbing his wounds. "Just don't make me climb down any more thorn vines."
"You never know what's going to happen," she said. "But I've never had to climb down a thorn vine."
"So how did they test you?" he asked.
"Don't ask--but I think you got off kind of easy," she said.