by Fred Saberhagen
Published by TOR
Copyright expanded version (c) 1981 by Fred Saberhagen
2nd printing TOR jacket art by: David Mattingly
2nd printing TOR ISBN: 0-812-55290-3

IT DROVE MEN MAD . . . but each in a different way. In one the effect was total utter addiction. In another, a compulsion to absolute obedience. In a third, idealistic monomania. In a fourth, unending, all-consuming lust. Of all the enigmas surrounding the planet Kappa, none was more inscrutable than that mysterious liquid central to all the native rites.

There was, in fact, only one certainty about it: Now that it threatened to contaminate the worlds of Earth, its source would have to be destroyed -- even though for the native Kappans the Water of Thought was as necessary as the Breath of Life itself.


This was a quick fun read from an author I previously enjoyed greatly (book of swords series). Have an hour or two free and take the plunge into a self contained and nicely complete story. [Rob, Goodreads]

Chapter One

       In the dream a faceless figure came pacing after Boris. Clad in a groundsuit, it groped toward him with hands whose fingers writhed like snakes, menacing and venomous.
       No, Boris told the figure, it’s not me you want. Those are your hands, not mine. And then he realized that he was waking up.

* * *

       He lay in the bottom of a little two-passenger sportboat with a float-cushion tucked under his head. The boat was pulled into the shore of a tiny river island, and the light of an alien though very Sol-like sun came dappling down on him through alien trees, making leaf-shadows of shapes that to Earth-descended eyes were subtly wrong. The sun reflected from the quiet water to shimmer upward on Brenda’s laughing face and her dark brown hair as she bent over him.
       Boris was blond and bony and tall, with innocent blue eyes in a rough face; it crossed his mind now that Brenda was his opposite in just about every physical detail. He had met her ten days ago, when he had arrived on the planet, and though he hadn’t been alone with her for any length of time until today, he had been looking forward to the chance.
       Her manner now was one of playful reproach and overlain with just a little concern. “I don’t mind your dozing off,” she told him. “But must you have nightmares?”
       “I guess I must. Was I making noises?” He stretched luxuriously, trying to remember the dream. But already the burden of it was slipping away.
       “What were you dreaming about?”
       He sighed. The sound was part contentment with this, his waking world, part something else. “I think it probably had something to do with my last job.”
       Brenda became more sympathetic. His work impressed her. “Where was that?”
       “Oh. Parsecs away from here.”
       “Well, of course. But what happened? If you don’t mind my asking.”
       “I don’t mind. What happened was a man on my crew opened his helmet when he shouldn’t have. As simple as that. Something got in and began eating at him.”
       “Oh, horrible. Now I wish I hadn’t asked. Was he…”
       She had never heard of the man before, and still it hurt her personally to hear about it. “The medics saved him. He’s getting a new face built.”
       Brenda looked at Boris silently for a long moment. Then with some hesitation she asked: “Did they blame you for it?”
       “No.” Boris sat up, making the boat rock soft ripples into the gentle river. He looked round at the peaceful green wilderness that filled island and shores alike. Hayashi was, or had been, a planeteer, not an infant. He shouldn’t have needed extra warnings, and leading by the hand.
       Once, more years and planets ago than he cared right now to think about, Boris had been young and green. Then a planeteering scheme of his had led to the drowning of a number of men. But why should he recall that old disaster, on this pleasant afternoon? He didn’t know. And why should Brenda immediately ask him if he had been blamed for what happened to Hayashi? Did he look guilty? By any professional standard he was far from being a failure.
       He needed this leave; and an idyllic layover on the way home to Sol was a special bonus. Lately, even before the Hayashi incident, he had been feeling tired and stale.
       He grinned abruptly at Brenda. “Enough about nightmares!” And he caught her by the arm and gently pulled.
       “Oh, oh,” said Brenda, gently chiding, and gently resisting. But her opposition was not very intense, and perhaps would not be too prolonged—
       The communicator was chiming at them from under the dashboard of the little sportboat.
       With a quick little gasp that sounded more like vexation than relief, Brenda suddenly exerted strength impressive for a young woman of her size and pulled away from him. “It must be important, or they wouldn’t call.”
       She twisted around to touch a switch. “Brenda here. And Colonel Brazil. What’s up?”
       A male voice from the instrument at once began shouting at them, telling a confused story about a killing. Boris let the babble go on while he disengaged himself fully from Brenda and got the boat moving, away from the island and into open water. He steered carefully around a bend in the river, then accelerated downstream at the top thrust of the sporter’s waterjets. A few kilometers ahead, he could see above the treetops the insubstantial-looking forcefield screens that were activated on occasion to shield the tiny colony of Earth-descended people.
       Brenda, in shock over what the communicator was telling her, was silent. Boris put practiced calm into his voice as he answered it. “Is that you, Morton?” If Boris remembered correctly, Don Morton was the name of the colonist who happened to be presently standing the routine defensive watch. If any serious trouble had arisen, Morton might be forgiven a tendency to over-excitement. For ten years there had been a colony of Earth-descended humans on this lonely, lovely planet called Kappa. Ten quite peaceful years, according to what Boris had heard about it, and no doubt by now the colonists were beginning to imagine that they understood the place.
       “Yes, it’s me. This is Don Morton. The defense tower.”
       “All right, fine. What’s happened? This is Colonel Brazil. Start again, will you?”
       “It’s Jones.” Morton’s voice had regained some self-control. “He’s gone crazy and killed a native. And now he’s run away.”
       Hang on. I’ll be there in about two minutes.”
       Almost all that Boris knew about Edmund Jones was that like himself the man was a planeteer, and that he was spending a lengthy leave here on Kappa pursuing an interest in anthropology that he said was both professional and personal. Boris too was on leave, but only stopping over, waiting for a ship that would carry him home to Sol System.
       Boris Brazil and Edmund Jones had started out a few hours ago on a picnic with Brenda and Jane, another currently unattached young woman of the colony. But Jones had a standing request that he be notified at once whenever a native medicine man visited the colony, and so Morton had called Jones on his boat radio about noon to tell him that a shaman had arrived and was setting up camp near the colony’s main gate.
       Certainly Jones had not been drunk or otherwise deranged when, accompanied by a disappointed Jane, he deserted the picnic and hurried back to see the witch doctor. That gave him less than a standard hour to somehow get in shape for craziness, killing, and running away.
       The sportboat skimmed the placid stream, between shores covered with growth just a bit too open and pleasant to be called jungle. Something in the air and sun of Kappa gave to chlorophyll in leaves a greener-than-reality travel advertisement look. Had it been easier of access, the planet might have more tourists and make an excellent site for a big colony, thought Boris. As things were, dust clouds and more or less permanent atomic storms peppered the whole section of Galactic arm around Kappa, making c-plus travel permanently uncertain.
       Boris slowed the boat as it passed the riverside landing field where shuttles came down from visiting starships. The landing field was empty now. Just ahead, the colony’s defensive forcefield opened a gate in itself at the place where it bulged out over and into the river. Driving in through the gate, he docked beside a rank of miscellaneous water craft. Brenda stepped up to the dock beside him, and together they strode toward the defense tower. This was a neglected-looking building four or five stories high near the center of the small residential compound. The compound contained only a couple of dozen structures altogether, built mostly of glass and native wood and stone, and inhabited by fewer than three hundred Earth-descended people. The colonists lived here, while automated machinery did the routine work of running mines and farms and ranches out in the zones of Kappa’s grimmer climates, where intelligent natives were few or none.
       The Space Force, with its planeteers and research teams, was gone from Kappa, moved on to worlds yet unexplored. The colonists were people who liked the life of an isolated small town, or they would not have remained on Kappa long, maintaining a foothold for Earth, and making themselves comfortably prosperous. Kappa had never offered them worse than incidental and occasional danger.
       But now Boris found half a dozen anxious people, including Brenda’s friend Jane, gathered in the room that occupied the whole top level of the defense tower. All were crowded around Morton’s sentry chair, watching his viewscreens.
       Pete Kaleta, the colony’s pudgy mayor, was speaking. “It all looks normal at the silver mine; he went in the other direction anyway. Oh, Brazil, very glad you’re here.”
       “What’s it all about?”
       The colonists looked uncertainly at each other. When no one else seemed eager to speak, Jane began. “Jones—Eddie—hardly said a word all the way back here in the boat. But he didn’t seem wild or anything. Just thoughtful.”
       Boris asked: “So what happened when he got here?”
       Kaleta took a deep breath, and spoke. “A pair of men from a tribe just west of here arrived shortly after you four had left on your picnic. They started to set up camp just outside our main gate. One of them, a witch doctor by his face paint, said he wanted to see Jones—Jones has been talking to all the local witchmen. So Morton got Jones on the radio and Jones came back, put on a groundsuit, and walked out through the main gate.”
       “Put on a groundsuit?” asked Boris. “Why?”
       Kaleta gestured nervously. “He didn’t say. I suppose he wanted to impress the natives. Or maybe he just wanted to have the radio handy.”
       There were handier ways than putting on a suit, thought Boris, to carry a radio around.
       The big viewscreen in front of the sentry chair showed the area just outside the main gate. The grass there was littered with bright bits of fabric, scattered wooden boxes, and primitive utensils. In the foreground stood a native pack animal, grazing placidly. Heavy leather straps hung broken from its back; someone or something had torn the panniers from its sides and scattered the contents.
       Don Morton, a powerfully-built young man, swung round in his sentry chair, and took up the story. “Jones went out there in the groundsuit and talked to the natives. I wasn’t paying any particular attention to just what he said—I’m not even sure he had his suit radio on then.” Morton looked at Boris belligerently, as if expecting to be accused of something.
       “All right, go on.”
       When Morton hesitated, Jane said: “I came up here to watch, after Eddie told me he’d rather go out and talk to them alone. The first thing I saw was one of the Kappans outside offering Eddie a drink. He poured it from a funny kind of bottle—I’ve never seen one just like it before. And then Eddie did radio in. He said something like, ‘Hey, better have a stomach pump ready, just in case.’ He didn’t drink whatever it was right away. He still had his helmet on, and was standing there talking to the witch doctor.”
       “Morton, I wish you’d called me,” said Mayor Kaleta, staring into the viewscreen.
       Morton shifted nervously in his chair. “Well, anyway, Jones sounded like he was serious about the stomach pump. So I called up the infirmary, and talked to Doc, here.”
       Doc pulled thoughtfully at a heavy mustache. “What that stuff was, I can’t imagine. I wouldn’t expect a small amount of any Kappan drink to have much effect on an Earthman—unless it was meant to be a poison. You know, Kappans and Earth-descended are remarkably similar in their biology, even for two prime-theme human races; I’ve seen experimental skin grafts made to take from one to the other. Anyway, as Morton says, I did get a stomach cleaner ready.”
       Morton took up the story again. “By the time I finished talking to Doc, Jones had his helmet off, and was starting to drink, from a little cup. He took a sip, and then he stood there talking for another minute; I don’t know what about. Then he gulped the rest of the stuff down. Then, first thing I knew, he and the Kappans were arguing. I was just starting to pay closer attention when I guess he must have shut off his radio. I have no idea what the fight was about.” Morton looked at Jane.
       She said: “Well, I saw Eddie step forward, shouting at the Kappans. I guess he was threatening them. They backed away; they looked frightened and surprised.”
       “Jones grabbed at them,” said Morton. “He knocked them down behind those bushes there. I think he must have killed them; you know the power in those suits. Then he tore the baskets off the pack animal and scattered all the stuff inside, as if he were looking for something. By that time I was already calling you and the mayor.”
       Mayor Kaleta seemed much worried. But he had nothing to say, for the moment.
       “What kind of suit did Jones put on?” Boris asked.
       “Heavy ground armor,” Morton answered. “We keep two suits of it ready, just in case. We’ve never needed it.”
       “Ugh.” It seemed to Boris that things just might get much worse before they started getting better. He decided that he had better put on the other armored suit himself before going out to investigate.
       Jane said: “And then Eddie found the bottle, where the Kappans had put it away, all wrapped up. He took another little drink, in a hurry, and then he set the bottle down in the grass as if it were something precious. Then he came back in through the gate.”
       “Oh, yes.” Morton had an angry look. “He radioed: ‘Open up the outer gate, you fool, I need a rifle.’ Well, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. When he came back like that, I thought he must have some good reason. I mean, he’s a planeteer, isn’t he? He’s supposed to know what he’s doing in … in strange situations. Right?”
       Boris said: “Well, let’s find out how strange the situation is. So you opened the outer gate, and he came in again?”
       “Right. And I opened the little door to the arms room, and he went in and got an energy rifle. We keep a couple of them handy, like the suits. And then he trotted off without another word, heading west.”
       Jane added: “And he picked up the odd little bottle and took it along with him.”
       The silent mayor had one hand over his eyes.
       “I’d better get out there,” said Boris. He adjourned the meeting to the arms room at the main gate, where he could get himself fitted into the remaining suit of heavy ground armor while the talk went on.
       So, it seemed that Jones was running amok, with equipment that would make the average man as dangerous as a troop of saber-wielding cavalry. And Jones was not an average man, but a planeteer, with all the skills, including combat skills, of the professional interstellar explorer. Boris was a chief planeteer himself, when not on leave enjoying rest and recreation as he was now. So, it was quite logical for the colonists to call on him in an emergency like this one, and let him take over. Set one to catch one.
       Possibly, he thought as he began cladding himself in armor, Jones is still rational. It’s just that he’s discovered something that makes it right for him to manhandle a couple of natives, arm himself even further, and then run off without a word of explanation. Boris couldn’t imagine what such a discovery might be.
       “Anything else peculiar around here? Unexplained?” he asked, while a couple of the colonists helped him with the fittings and fastenings of the armored suit.
       “Things have been pretty dull,” Kaleta said.
       “Since Magnuson disappeared,” said Doc. When Boris looked at him, he amplified: “An anthropologist, named Emanuel Magnuson. Used to work for the Space Force, spent most of his time out in the hills near Great Lake. He was supposed to leave when the last of the Space Force people pulled out, but instead he vanished. Looked like some carnivore probably got him.”
       “But you weren’t sure?” Boris probed. “Could the Kappans have done him in?”
       “We’ve always kept on good terms with them,” said Mayor Kaleta, looking at Doc. “The Space Force seemed to be satisfied that Magnuson was killed by animals.”
       Doc, squatting to work on one of Boris’s boots, contrived to shrug. “Maybe they were. He was a strange one. He’d argue his theories … there, how’s that feel?”
       “Okay.” Boris brought an arm in from one suit sleeve and fastened his helmet from the inside. Then, checking his breathing apparatus as he went, he headed for the outer gate. For all the suit’s weight and bulk, walking in it was easier than without it. Its limbs, powered by a tiny hydrogen fusion power lamp, were driven by servomechanisms that followed the movements of the wearer.
       As he passed the door to the arms room Boris stepped in, took down the remaining energy rifle, and checked the charge. Such a weapon was effective at close range even against heavy groundsuit armor. If it should ever come to that.
       When the main gate shimmered open for him, Boris went out and saw the scattered Kappan goods, and the grazing, phlegmatic animal. It would be nice, he thought, to find tracks indicating that the two Kappans had departed the area at a speed impossible for seriously injured men, and to find Jones sleeping off his strange intoxication behind a bush. Sometimes, Boris had noticed, the world was not nice.
       Kappans were a leathery-skinned people, with very wide-set eyes and bulging foreheads, grotesque by Earthly standards of appearance. The first man Boris found in the bushes was quite dead, with the insects at him already. The appearance of his head suggested that he might well have died of a blow from the power-driven arm of a groundsuit.
       Boris’s helmet radio brought him the collective gasp of the people in the defense tower; they were watching through the television eye that rode on his shoulder.
       “That’s not the witch doctor,” someone commented.
       Boris turned up the sensitivity of his suit’s air mikes and kept on searching, holding the rifle ready with the safety off. When he had moved on a few more meters he caught the sound of ragged breathing. The second Kappan had crawled under a bush to hide. The wide-set eyes were open, and from behind oozing blood and witchman’s paint they followed Boris.
       “Send out a couple of stretcher bearers,” he radioed. “And someone tell me a few soothing words to use.”
       Boris, helmet under one arm but still wearing the rest of the groundsuit, stood beside the hospital bed in which the injured Kappan lay. While Doc worked on the man, Brenda acted as translator.
       “He says, just as soon as Jones had smacked his lips over the drink, he demanded to know where it came from. Jones was being initiated into the—well, the Kappan witch doctors’ union, I guess you’d call it—so they told him the truth. It comes in trade from the western hill people, near the Great Lake. Then Jones demanded that they give him more of the drink, and when they wouldn’t do that he went after it. They tried to stop him from tearing up their goods, but he just knocked them aside.”
       “What was in the drink?”
       The Kappan hesitated for some time before giving his short answer. Brenda glanced around at the blank faces of the other colonists present, frowned, and translated for Boris. “He says, ‘The Water of Thought.’ ”
       “What’s that mean?”
       Everyone still looked blank. “I’ve never heard of it,” said Kaleta, who had just come into the infirmary. “And I’ve been here eight years, always in contact with the natives.”
       “Maybe this guy’s making it up,” said Morton, shaking his head.
       Boris said: “Well, an Earth-sized planet can hold a lot of secrets. I’d be out of a job if it couldn’t.” He drummed metal fingers on the helmet under his arm. “You’re all sure that there was nothing in the Space Force reports about such a drink, or poison, or whatever?”
       Everyone nodded or murmured assent. “I can check the memory banks,” the mayor said. “But I’m sure already. We practically memorized all those reports.”
       “Then maybe this man is lying about it. Or it’s something new.”
       Brenda again questioned the Kappan, then passed along his reply, which was fairly lengthy. “He says it’s old, very old. The Water of Thought lets a man communicate with his animal ancestors; very powerful medicine. He can tell us about it now, because we’ve saved his life. No one else has ever reacted to it the way Jones did, he says; he says he guesses Earth-descended men are just different.”
       “If only Jones had remembered that simple fact,” said Doc morosely. “Well, you people had better all clear out of here for a while. My patient needs some rest.”
       “Two anthropologists,” said Boris, thinking aloud as he walked to the door of the infirmary. “One vanishes somewhere near this Great Lake, and the other is last seen running toward it. It is west of here, isn’t it? Or is there more than one Great Lake?”
       The colonists, most of them coming along with Boris, probed one another with the quick searching looks of people who have known one another for a long time.
       “There’s just one that I know about,” said the mayor finally. “I don’t see any connection, though, between what happened to Magnuson and what Jones is doing.”
       Brenda was keeping thoughtfully silent.
       “Excellent man in his field, he was,” said Morton, leading the way out into the sunlight. “Magnuson, I mean.”
       Time was passing, and Boris was in a hurry to get moving. But he had the feeling there was something relevant that he was not being told. “I’ve got to go after Jones. If any of you know anything that might help me, I’d better hear it.”
       Mayor Kaleta shrugged irritably. “We’re telling you all we know, Brazil. No doubt you’re right; someone must stop Jones, or there’s no telling what he’ll do, what problems he’ll involve us in with the natives. Frankly I’m glad you’re willing to take the risk of going after him. I don’t want to send out a lot of untrained people, not knowing what he’s up to with that suit and rifle, or what the natives might…” He looked back uncertainly toward the infirmary.
       “You’re right,” Boris said. “Better keep your people here, inside the defenses, as much as possible. I’ll need a copter and a pilot, though.”
       “Right. I’ll see that a machine’s ready.” Kaleta hurried off.
       “I’m as good a pilot as there is around,” said Brenda.