THE ATTITUDE of the reception committee was not encouraging. It seemed to indicate that I was not a welcome guest. I knew that if I let them get within bow range, a flight of arrows was almost certain to get me; so the thing to do was keep them out of bow range. I stood up in the cockpit and leveled my pistol at them, and they immediately disappeared behind rocks and trees.
I wished very much to examine my engine and determine if it were possible for me to repair it, but I realized that as long as these men of Punos were around that would be impossible. I might go after them; but they had the advantage of cover and of knowing the terrain; and while I might get some of them, I could not get them all; and those that I did not get would come back, and they could certainly hang around until after dark and then rush me.
It looked as though I were in a pretty bad way, but I finally decided to get down and go after them and have it out. Just then one of them stuck his head up above a rock and called to me. He spoke in one of the five languages of Unis that I had learned.
“Are you a Unisan?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Then do not shoot,” he said. “We will not harm you.”
“If that is true,” I said, “go away.”
“We want to talk to you,” he said. “We want to know how the war is going and when it will end.”
“One of you may come down,” I said, “but not more.”
“I will come,” he said, “but you need not fear us.”
He came down toward me then, an old man with wrinkled skin and a huge abdomen, which his skinny legs seemed scarcely able to support. His gray hair was matted with twigs and dirt, and he had the few gray hairs about his chin which connote old age on Poloda.
“I knew you were from Unis when I saw you: blue uniform,” he said. “In olden times the people of Unis and the people of Punos were good friends. That has been handed down from father to son for many generations. When the Kapars first attacked us, the men of Unis gave us aid; but they, too, were unprepared; and before they had the strength to help us we were entirely subjugated, and all of Punos was overrun with Kapars. They flew their ships from our coastlines, and they set up great guns there; but after a while the men of Unis built great fleets and drove them out. Then, however, it was too late for our people.”
“How do you live?” I asked.
“It is hard,” he said. “The Kapars still come over occasionally, and if they find a cultivated field they bomb and destroy it. They fly low and shoot any people they see, which makes it difficult to raise crops in open country; so we have been driven into the mountains, where we live on fish and roots and whatever else we can find.”
“Many years ago,” he continued, “the Kapars kept an army stationed here, and before they were through they killed every living thing that they could find—animals, birds, men, women, and children. Only a few hundred Punosans hid themselves in the inaccessible fastnesses of this mountain range, and in the years that have passed we have killed off all the remaining game for food faster than it could propagate.”
“You have no meat at all?” I asked.
“Only when a Kapar is forced down near us,” he replied. “We hoped that you were a Kapar, but because you are a Unisan you are safe.”
“But now that you are so helpless, why is it that the Kapars will not permit you to raise crops for food?”
“Because our ancestors resisted them when they invaded our country and that aroused the hatred upon which Kapars live. Because of this hatred they tried to exterminate us. Now they fear to let us get a start again, and if we were left alone there would be many of us in another hundred years; and once again we would constitute a menace to Kapara.”
Harkas Yen had told me about Punos and I had also read something about the country in the history of Poloda. It had been inhabited by a virile and intelligent race of considerable culture. Its ships sailed the four great oceans of Poloda, carrying on commerce with the people of all the five continents. The central portion was a garden spot, supporting countless farms, where grazed countless herds of livestock; and along the coastline were its manufacturing cities and its fisheries. I looked at the poor old devil standing before me: this was what the warped, neurotic mind of one man could do to a happy and prosperous nation!
“Won’t your ship fly?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I want to examine the motor and find out.”
“You’d better let us push it into the canon for you,” he said. “It can be better hidden there from any Kapars who may fly over.”
There was something about the poor old fellow that gave me confidence in him, and as the suggestion was a wise one, I accepted it. So he called his companions and they came down out of the canon—eleven dirty, scrawny, hopeless-looking creatures of all ages. They tried to smile at me, but I guess the smiling muscles of their ancestors had commenced to atrophy generations before.
They helped me push the ship into the canon, where, beneath a large tree, it was pretty well hidden from above. I had forgotten the dead men aboard the ship; but one of the Punosans, climbing up on the wing, discovered the two in the after cockpit; and I knew that there must be another one in the belly of the ship. I shuddered as I thought what was passing through the creature’s mind.
“There are dead men in the ship,” he said to his fellows; and the old man, who was the leader, climbed up on the wing and looked; then he turned to me.
“Shall we bury your friends for you?” he asked, and a weight of fear and sorrow was lifted from my shoulders.
They helped me remove the cartridge belts and uniforms from the bodies of my friends and then they scooped out shallow graves with their knives and their hands, and laid the three bodies in them and covered them again.
When these sad and simple rites were ended, I started taking my engine down, the twelve Punosans hanging around and watching everything I did. They asked many questions about the progress of the war, but I could not encourage them to think that it would soon be over, or ever.
I found the damage that had been done to my engine, and I knew that I could make the necessary repairs, for we carried tools and spare parts; but it was getting late and I could not complete the repairs until the following day.
The old man realized this and asked me if I would come to their village and spend the night there.
I could have slept in the ship, but purely out of curiosity I decided to accept his invitation.
Before we started for his village he touched me timidly on the arm. “May we have the guns and ammunition of your dead friends?” he asked. “If we had them, we might kill some more Kapars.”
“Do you know how to use them?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “we have found them on the bodies of Kapars who crashed here, and those whom we killed, but we have used up all the ammunition.”
I followed them up the canon and then along a narrow, precipitous trail that led to a tiny mesa on the shoulder of a towering peak. A waterfall tumbled from the cliff above into a little lake at its foot, and from there a mountain stream wandered across the mesa to leap over the edge of another cliff a mile away. Trees grew along one side of the stream and up to the foot of the cliff, and among these trees the village was hidden from the eyes of roving pilots.
Hide! Hide! Hide! A world in hiding! It seemed difficult to imagine that anyone had ever walked freely in the sunlight on the surface of Poloda without being ready to dodge beneath a tree, or into a hole in the ground; and I wondered if my world would ever come to that. It didn’t seem possible; but for thousands of years, until a hundred years ago, no inhabitant of Poloda would have thought it possible here.
In the village were a hundred people, forty women, fifty men, and ten children, poor, scrawny little things, with spindly arms and legs and enormous bellies, the result of stuffing themselves with grasses and twigs and leaves to assuage the pangs of hunger. When the villagers saw my escort coming in with me they ran forward hungrily, but when they recognized my blue uniform they stopped.
“He is our friend and guest,” said the chief. “He has killed many Kapars, and he has given us guns and ammunition to kill more.” And he showed them the weapons and the ammunition belts.
They crowded around me then and, like the twelve men, asked innumerable questions. They dwelt much upon the food we had in Unis, and were surprised to know that we had plenty to eat, for they thought that the Kapars must have devastated Unis as they had Punos.
The little children came timidly and felt of me. To them I was a man from another world. To me they were the indictment of a hideous regime.
The hunting party whose activities I had interrupted had brought in a couple of small rodents and a little bird. The women built a fire and put a large pot on it, in which there was a little water. Then they took the feathers off the bird and skinned the rodents, and threw them in without cleaning them. To this they added herbs and roots and handfuls of grass.
“The skins will make a little soup for the children for breakfast,” an old woman explained to me as she laid them carefully aside.
They stirred the horrible mess with a piece of a small branch of a tree, and when it boiled the children clustered around to sniff the steam as it arose; and the adults formed a circle and stared at the pot hungrily.
I had never seen starving people before, and I prayed to God that I might never see any again unless I had the means wherewith to fill their bellies; and as I watched them I did not wonder that they ate Kapars, and I marveled at the kindliness and strength of will that kept them from eating me. When those mothers looked at me I could imagine that they were thinking of me in terms of steaks and chops which they must forego although their children were starving.
In a community in which there were forty adult women there were only ten children, but I wondered how there could be any, as infant mortality must certainly be high among a starving people. I could imagine that I was looking at the remnant of a race that would soon be extinct, and I thought that there must be something wrong with all the religions in the universe that such a thing could happen to these people while the Kapars lived and bred.
When they thought the mess in the pot was sufficiently cooked, little cups of clay, crudely burnt, were passed out, and the chief carefully measured out the contents of the pot with a large wooden ladle. When he came to me, I shook my head; and he looked offended.
“Is our fare too mean for you?” he asked.
“It is not that,” I said. “I am well fed, and tomorrow I shall eat again. Here are starving men, and starving women, and, above all, starving children.”
“Forgive me,” he said. “You are a very kind man. The children shall have your share.” Then he dipped out another cupful and divided it among the ten children, scarcely a mouthful apiece; but they were so grateful that once again the tears came to my eyes. I must be getting to be a regular softy; but before I came to Poloda I had never seen such sadness, such courage, such fortitude, or such suffering, as I have upon this poor war-torn planet.