Not that he looked like a monster now, as he sat toying endlessly with a pile of stones.
The ground trembled with the strain of pent-up pressures;
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To Bell the Cat
by Joan D. Vinge

Another squeal of animal pain reached them from the bubble tent twenty meters away. Juah-u Corouda jerked involuntarily as he tossed the carved gaming pieces from the cup, spoiling his throw. "Hell, a triad.… Damn that noise; it's like fingernails on metal."

"Orr doesn't know the meaning of 'surrender.'" Albe Hyacin-Soong caught up the cup. "It must be driving him crazy that he can't figure out how those scaly little rats survive all that radioactivity. How they ever evolved in the first place—"

"He doesn't know the meaning of the word 'mercy.' " Xena Soong-Hyacin frowned at her husband, her hands clasping her elbows. "Why doesn't he anesthetize them?"

"Come on, Xena," Corouda said. "They're just animals. They don't feel pain like we do."

"And what are any of us, Juah-u, but animals trying to play God?"

"I just want to play squamish," Albe muttered.

Corouda smiled faintly, looking away from Xena toward the edge of the camp. A few complaints, hers among them, had forced Orr to move his lab tent away from the rest. Corouda was just as glad. The noises annoyed him, but he didn't take them personally. Research was necessary; Xena—any scientist should be able to accept that. But the bleeding hearts are always with us. No matter how comfortable a society became, no matter how fair, no matter how nearly perfect, there was always someone who wanted flas to pick at. Some people were never satisfied; he was glad he wasn't one of them. And glad he wasn't married to one of them. But then, Albe always liked a good argument.

"Next you'll be telling me that he doesn't feel anything either!" Xena pointed.

"Keep your voice down, Xena. He'll hear you. He's right over there. And don't pull down straw men; he's got nothing to do with this. He's Piper Alvarian Jary; he's supposed to suffer."

"He's been brainwiped. That's like punishing an amnesiac; he's not the same man—"

"I don't want to get into that again," Albe said, unconvincingly.

Corouda shook his head, pushed the blond curls back under his peaked cap and moved further into the shade. They sat cross-legged on the soft, gray-brown earth with the studied primitivism all wardens affected. He turned his head slightly to look at Piper Alvarian Jary, sitting on a rock in the sun; alone as usual, and as usual within summoning range of Hoban Orr, his master. Piper Alvarian Jary, who for six years—six years! Was it only six?—had been serving a sentence at Simeu Biomedical Research Institute, being punished in kind for the greatness of his sin.

Not that he looked like a monster now, as he sat toying endlessly with a pile of stones. He wore a plain, pale coverall sealed shut to the neck in spite of the heat; dark hair fell forward into his eyes above a nondescript sunburned face. He could have been anyone's menial assistant, ill at ease in this group of ecological experts on an unexplored world. He could have been anyone—

Corouda looked away, remembering the scars that the sealed suit probably covered. But he was Piper Alvarian Jary, who had supported the dictator Naron—who had bloodied his hands in one of the most brutal regimes in mankind's long history of inhumanity to man. It had surprised Corouda that Jary was still young. But a lifetime spent as a Catspaw for Simeu Institute would age a man fast. Maybe that's why he's sitting in the sun; maybe he wants to fry his brains out.

"—that's why I wanted to become a warden, Albe!" Xena's insistent voice pulled his attention back. "So that we wouldn't have to be a part of things like this … so that I wouldn't have to sit here beating my head against a stone wall about the injustice and the indifference of this society—"

Albe reached out distractingly and tucked a strand of her bound-up hair behind her ear. "But you've got to admit this is a remarkable discovery we've made here. After all, a natural reactor—a concentration of uranium ore so rich that it's fissioning. The only comparable thing we know of happened on Terra a billion years before anybody was around to care." He waved his hand at the cave mouth 200 meters away. "And right in that soggy cave over there is a live one, and animals survive in it! To find out how they could have adapted to that much radiation—isn't it important for us to find that out?"

"Of course it is." Xena looked pained. "Don't patronize me, Albe. I know that as well as you do. And you know that's not what I'm talking about."

"Yes, I know it isn't.…" He sighed in surrender. "This whole expedition will be clearing out soon; they've got most of the data they want already. And then the six of us can get down to work and forget we ever saw any of them; we'll have a whole new world all to ourselves."

"Until they start shipping in the damned tourists—"

"Hey, come on," Corouda said, too loudly. "Come on. What're we sitting here for? Roll them bones."

Albe laughed, and shook the cup. He scattered the carved shapes and let them group in the dirt. "Hah, Two-square."

Corouda grunted. "I know you cheat; if I could just figure out how. Xena—"

She turned back from gazing at Piper Alvarian Jary, her face tight.

"Xena, if it makes you feel any better, Jary doesn't feel anything. Only in his hands, maybe his face a little."

She looked at him blankly. "What?"

"Jary told me himself; Orr killed his sense of feeling when he first got him, so that he wouldn't have to suffer needlessly from the experiments."

Her mouth came open.

"Is that right?" Albe pushed the sweatband back on his tanned, balding forehead. "Remember last week, he backed into the campfire.… I didn't know you'd talked to him, Juah-u. What's he like?"

"I don't know. Who knows what somebody like that is really like? A while back he came and offered to check a collection of potentially edible flora for me.…" And Jary had returned the next day with the samples, looking tired and a little shaky, to tell him exactly what was and wasn't edible, and to what degree. It was only later, after he'd had time to run tests of his own, that he had understood how Jary had managed to get the answers so fast, and so accurately. "He ate them, to see if they poisoned him. Don't ask me why he did it; maybe he enjoys being punished."

Xena withered him with a look.

"I didn't know he was going to eat them." Corouda slapped at a bug, annoyed. "Besides, he'd have to drink strychnine by the liter to kill himself. They made Jary into a walking biological lab—his body manufactures an immunity to anything, almost on the spot; they use him to make vaccines. You can cut off anything but his head and it'll grow back—"

"Oh, for God's sake." Xena stood up, her brown face flushed. She dropped the cup between them like something unclean, and strode away into the trees.

Corouda watched her go; the wine-red crown of the forest gave her shelter from his insensitivity. In the distance through the trees he could see the stunted vegetation at the mouth of the reactor cave. Radiation had eaten out an entire hillside, and the cave's heart was still a festering radioactive sink hot enough to boil water. Yet some tiny alien creatures had chosen to live in it … which meant that this expedition would have to go on stewing in the sun until Orr made a breakthrough, or made up his mind to quit. Corouda sighed and looked back at Hyacin-Soong. "Sorry, Albe. I even disgusted myself this time."

Albe's expression eased. "She'll cool down in a while.… Tell her that, when she comes back."

"I will." Corouda rolled his shirtsleeves up another turn, feeling uncomfortably hot. "Well, we need three if we're going to keep playing." He gestured at Piper Alvarian Jary, still sitting in the sun. "You wanted to know what he's like—why don't we ask him?"

"Him?" Incredulity faded to curiosity on Albe's face. "Why not? Go ahead and ask him."

"Hey, Jary!" Corouda watched the sunburned face lift, startled, to look at him. "Want to play some squamish?" He could barely see the expression on Jary's face, barely see it change. He thought it became fear, decided he must be wrong. But then Jary squinted at him, shielding his eyes against the sun, and the dark head bobbed. Jary came toward them, watching the ground, with the unsure, shuffling gait of a man who couldn't find his footing.

He sat down between them awkwardly, an expressionless smile frozen on his mouth, and pulled his feet into position.

Corouda found himself at a loss for words, wondering why in hell he'd done this. He held out the cup, shook it. "Uh—you know how to play squamish?"

Jary took the cup and shook his head. "I don't g-get much chance to play anything, W-warden." The smile turned rueful, but there was nothing in his voice. "I don't get asked."

Corouda remembered again that Piper Alvarian Jary stuttered, and felt an undesired twinge of sympathy. But hadn't he heard, from somebody, that Jary had always stuttered? Jary had finally loosened the neck of his coveralls; Corouda could see the beginning of a scar between his collarbones, running down his chest. Jary caught him staring; a hand rose instinctively to close the seal.

Corouda cleared his throat. "Nothing to it, it's mostly luck. You throw the pieces, and it depends on the—"

Another mindless squall came from the tent behind them. Jary glanced toward it.

"—the distribution, the way the pieces cluster.… Does that bother you?" The bald question was out before he realized it, and left him feeling like a rude child.

Jary looked back at him as though it hadn't surprised him at all. "No. They're just animals. B-better them than me."

Corouda felt his anger rise, remembering what Jary was … until he remembered that he had said the same thing.

"Piper! Come here, I need you."

· · · · · 

Corouda recognized Hoban Orr's voice. Jary recognized it too, climbed to his feet, stumbling with haste. "I'm sorry, the Doctor wants me." He backed away; they watched him turn and shuffle off toward Orr's tent. His voice had not changed. Corouda suddenly tried not to wonder why he was needed.… Catspaw: person used by another to do something dangerous or unpleasant.

Corouda stood up, brushing at his pants. Jary spent his time outside while Orr was dissecting; Piper Alvarian Jary, who had served a man who made Attila the Hun, Hitler, and Kahless look like nice guys. Corouda wondered if it were possible that he really didn't like to watch.

Albe stood with him and stretched. "What did you think of that? That's the real Piper Alvarian Jary, all right. 'Better them than me … just a bunch of animals.' He probably thinks we're all a bunch of animals."

Corouda watched Jary disappear into the tent. "Wouldn't surprise me at all."

· · · · · 

Piper Alvarian Jary picked his way cautiously over the rough, slagged surface of the narrow cave ledge, setting down one foot and then the other like a puppeteer. Below him, some five meters down the solid rock surface here, lay the shallow liquid surface of the radioactive mud. He rarely looked down at it, too concerned with lighting a path for his own feet. Their geological tests had shown that a seven-meter layer forty meters down in the boiling mud held a freakish concentration of fissile ores, hot enough once to have eaten out this strange, contorted subterranean world. He risked a glance out into the pitch blackness, his headlamp spotlighting grotesque formations cast from molten rock; silvery metallic stalactites and stalagmites, reborn from vaporized ores. Over millennia the water-saturated mass of mud and uranium had become exothermic and then cooled, sporadically, in one spot and then another. Like some immense witches' caldron, the whole underground had simmered and sputtered for nearly half a million years.

Fumes rising in Jary's line of sight shrouded his vision of the tormented underworld; he wondered vaguely whether the smell would be unpleasant, if he could remove the helmet of his radiation suit. Someone else might have thought of Hell, but that image did not occur to him.

He stumbled, coming up hard against a jagged outcropping. Orr's suited form turned back to look at him, glittered in the dancing light of his own headlamp. "Watch out for that case!"

He felt for the bulky container slung against his hip, reassuring his nerveless body that its contents were still secure. Huddled inside it, creeping over one another aimlessly, were the half dozen sluggish, rat-sized troglodytes they had captured this trip. He turned his light on them, but they did not respond, gazing stupidly at him and through him from the observation window. "It's all right, D-doctor."

Orr nodded, starting on. Jary ducked a gleaming stalactite, moved forward quickly before the safety line between them jerked taut. He was grateful for the line, even though he had heard the warden named Hyacin-Soong call it his leash. Hyacin-Soong followed behind him now with the other warden, Corouda, who had asked him to play squamish this morning. He didn't expect them to ask him again; he knew that he had antagonized Hyacin-Soong somehow—maybe just by existing. Corouda still treated him with benign indifference.

Jary glanced again at the trogs, wishing suddenly that Orr would give up on them and take him home. He wanted the safety of the Simeu Institute, the security of the known. He was afraid of his clumsiness in these alien surroundings, afraid of the strangers, afraid of displeasing Orr.… He let the air out of his constricted lungs in a long sigh. Of course he was afraid; he had good reason to be. He was Piper Alvarian Jary.

But Orr would never give up on the trogs, until he either broke the secret code of their alien genes or ran out of specimens to work with. Orr wanted above all to discover how they had adapted to the cave in the geologically short span of time the reactor had been stable—everyone in the expedition wanted to know that. But even the trogs' basic biology confounded him: what the functions were of the four variant kinds he had observed; how they reproduced when they appeared to be sexless, at least by human standards; what ecological niches they filled, with such hopelessly rudimentary brains. And particularly, how their existence was thermodynamically possible. Orr believed that they seined nutrients directly from the radioactive mud, but even he couldn't accept the possibility that their food chain ended in nuclear fission. The trogs themselves were faintly radioactive; they were carbon-based, could withstand high pressures, and perceived stimuli far into the short end of the EM spectrum. And that was all that Orr was certain of, so far.

Jary clung with his gloved hands to the rough wall above the ledge as it narrowed, and remembered touching the trogs. Once, when he was alone, he had taken off his protective gloves and held one of them in his bare hands. Its scaled, purplish-gray body had not been cold and slippery as he had imagined, but warm, sinuous, and comforting. He had held onto it for as long as he dared, craving the sensual, sensory pleasure of its motion and the alien texture of its skin. He had caressed its small unresponsive body, while it repeated over and over the same groping motions unperturbed, like an untended machine. And his hands had trembled with the same confusion of shame and desire that he always knew when he handled the experimental animals.…

There had been a time when he had played innocently with the soft, supple, pink-eyed mice and rabbits, the quick, curious monkeys, and the iridescent fletters. But then Orr had begun training him as an assistant; and observation of the progress of induced diseases, the clearing away of entrails and blood, the disposal of small, ruined bodies in the incinerator chute had taught him their place, and his own. Animals had no rights and no feelings. But when he held the head of a squirming mouse between his fingers and looked down into the red, amorphous eyes, when he caught its tail for the jerk that would snap its spine, his hands trembled.…

The ground trembled with the strain of pent-up pressures; Jary fell to his knees, not feeling the bruising impact. Behind him he heard the curses of the wardens and saw Orr struggle to keep his own balance up ahead. When his hands told him the tremor had passed, he began to crawl toward Orr, using his hands to feel his way, his palms cold with sweat. He could not compensate for unexpected motion; it was easier to crawl.

"Piper!" Orr jerked on the safety line. "Get up, you're dragging the specimen box."

Jary felt the wardens come up behind him, and heard one of them laugh. The goad of sudden sharp memory got him to his feet; he started on, not looking back at them. He had crawled after the first operation, the one that had killed his sense of touch—using his still-sensitive hands to lead his deadened body. The lab workers had laughed; and he had laughed too, until the fog of his repersonalization treatment began to lift, until he began to realize that they were laughing at him. Then he had taught himself, finally, to walk upright like a human being; to at least look like a human being.

Up ahead he saw Orr stop again, and realized that they must have reached the Split already. "Give me some more light up here."

He moved forward to slacken the line between them and shined his lamp on the almost meter-wide crevice that opened across their path. The wardens joined him; Orr gathered himself in the pool of their light and made the jump easily. Jary moved to the lip of the cleft and threw the light of his headlamp down, down; saw its reflection on the oily, gleaming water surface ten meters below. He swayed.

"Don't stand so close to the edge!"

"Just back up, and make the jump."

"Don't think about it—"

"Come on, Jary; we don't have all day!"

Hyacin-Soong struck at his shoulder just as he started forward. With a choked cry of protest he lost his footing, and fell.

The safety line jerked taut, battering him against the tight walls of the cleft. Stunned and giddy, he dangled inside a kaleidoscope of spinning light and blackness. And then, incredulous, he felt the safety line begin to give.… Abruptly it let go, somewhere up above him, and he dropped six meters more to the bottom.

"Jary! Jary—?"

"Can you hear us?"

Jary opened his eyes, dimly surprised that he could still see—that his headlamp still functioned, and the speakers in his suit, and his brain.…

"Are you all right, Piper?"

Orr's voice registered, and then the meaning of the words. A brief, astonished smile stretched Jary's mouth. "Yes, Doctor, f-fine!" His voice was shaking. The absurdity of his answer hit him, and he began to laugh.

"Well? What happened?"

Jary noticed that his lunge for the box had driven him deeper into the mud; the water was up to his chest now. "I've g-got it. But I'm st-st-stuck in the mud; I'm sinking." He glanced up at the external radiation meters inside his helmet. "Every dosimeter's in the red; my suit's going to overload f-fast." He leaned back, trying to see Orr's face past the convex curve of the cleft wall. He saw only a triple star, three headlamp beams far above him, shafting down between the vertical walls of the slit.

"Keep your head up so we can see you; we'll throw you down a line." He recognized Corouda's voice, saw the rope come spiraling down into his piece of light. "Tie it around your waist."

The end of the rope hung twisting half a meter above his head. He struggled upward, clinging to the wall, but his muddy gloves could not hold the slick fibers and he dropped back, sinking deeper. "It's too short. I c-can't do it."

"Then tie on the specimen case, at least."

"I can't reach it!" He struck at the rock wall with his fist. "I'm sinking deeper, I'll fry. G-get me out!"

"Don't thrash," Corouda said evenly, "you'll sink faster. You'll be all right for at least fifteen minutes in that suit. Find a handhold on the wall and keep it. We'll be back soon with more equipment. You'll be all right."


"Don't let go of that case."

"Yes, Doctor.…" The triple star disappeared from his view, and he lost track of the cleft's rim. He could touch both walls without stretching his arms; he found a low ledge protruding, got the specimen case and one elbow up onto it. Steam clouded his faceplate and he wiped it away, smearing the glass with water and mud instead. The trogs had grown quiet on the ledge, as if they were waiting with him. There was no sound but his own quick breathing; the trap of rock cut him off utterly from even the reassurance of another human voice. He was suddenly glad to have the trogs for company.

The minutes stretched. Huddled in his cup of light, he began to imagine what would happen if another earth tremor closed this tiny fracture of the rock … what would happen if his suit failed.… Sweat trickled down his face like tears; he shook his head, not knowing whether he was sweating with the heat of the mud or the strain of waiting. His suit could have torn when he fell; the radioactive mud could be seeping in, and he would never know it. He had been exposed to radiation in some of Orr's experiments; it had made him sick to his stomach, and once all his hair had fallen out. But he had never had to see the flesh rot off of his bones, his body disintegrating in front of his eyes.…

His numb hand slipped from the ledge, and he dropped back into the mud. He hauled himself out again, panting, sobered. He had too much imagination; that was what Orr had always told him. And Orr had taught him ways to control his panic during experimentation, as he had taught him to control his body's biological functions. He should know enough by now not to lose his head. But there were still times when even everything he knew was not enough. And it was then that he came the closest to understanding what Piper Alvarian Jary had done, and why he deserved his punishment.

He relaxed his breathing, concentrating on what was tangible and real: the glaring moon-landscape of the mottled wall before his face, the bright flares of pain as he flexed the hand he had bruised against the stone. He savored the vivid sensory stimulation that was pain, that proved he was alive, with a guilty hunger heightened by fear. The gibbous, mirrorlike eyes of the trogs pooled at the view window of the box, reflecting light, still staring intently through him as if they saw into another world. He remembered that they could, and turned his head slightly, uneasily. He froze, as the small, beslimed face of another trog broke the water beside his chest; then two, and three … suddenly half a dozen.

Moving with a sense of purpose that he had never seen them show, they began to leap and struggle up the face of the wall—and up his own suit, as though he was nothing more than an extension of the stone. He stayed motionless, not able to do anything but stare as stupidly as his own captives. His captives … a trog dropped from his shoulder onto the ledge; they were all trying to reach the box. Had the captive ones called them here? But how? They were stupid, primitive; creatures with rudimentary brains. How could they work together?

But they were working together, clustered now around the box, some probing with long webbed fingers, the larger ones pushing and prying. They searched its surface with their bodies, oblivious to the light of his headlamp, as though the only way they could discover its nature was through their sense of touch. He remembered that they were blind to the segment of the EM spectrum that to him was visible light. He was only a part of the rock, in their darkness. And here in the darkness of the cave they were reasoning, intelligent creatures—when outside in the camp they had never shown any kind of intelligence or group activity; never anything at all. Why? Did they leave their brains behind them in the mud when they surfaced?

Jary wondered suddenly if he had lost his own mind. No, it was really happening. If his mind was ever going to snap, it would have happened long ago. And there was no doubt in his mind that these animals had come here for one reason—to free the captives from their cage. These animals …

He watched their tireless, desperate struggle to open the cage, knowing that it was futile, that they could only fail in the end. The captive trogs were doomed, because only a human being could open the lock to set them free. Only a human being—

His hand rose crookedly, dripping mud, and reached out toward the case; the trogs seemed to recoil, as if somehow they sensed him coming. He unsealed the lock, and pulled up the lid. The trogs inside shrank down in confusion as the ones on the outside scrambled over the ledge. "C-come on!" He pulled the box to him angrily and shook it upside down, watched their ungainly bodies spill out into the steaming water.

He set the case back on the ledge and clung there, his mind strangely light and empty. And then he saw the second circle of brightness that lapped his own on the wall, illuminating the empty cage. He looked up, to see Corouda suspended silently from a line above his head, feet braced against the shadowed rock. He could see Corouda's dark eyes clearly, and the odd intentness of his face. "Need some help, Jary?"

He looked back at the empty box, his hand still holding onto the strap. "Yes."

Corouda nodded, and tossed him a rope.

· · · · · 

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© 1977 by Joan D. Vinge. First published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, summer 1977 issue.