Tony and the Beetles

By Philip K. Dick

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Title: Tony and the Beetles

Author: Philip K. Dick

Release Date: October 7, 2012 [EBook #40964]

Language: English


Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at


by Philip K. Dick

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Orbit volume 1
number 2, 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


Reddish-yellow sunlight filtered through the thick quartz windows into
the sleep-compartment. Tony Rossi yawned, stirred a little, then opened
his black eyes and sat up quickly. With one motion he tossed the covers
back and slid to the warm metal floor. He clicked off his alarm clock
and hurried to the closet.

It looked like a nice day. The landscape outside was motionless,
undisturbed by winds or dust-shift. The boy's heart pounded excitedly.
He pulled his trousers on, zipped up the reinforced mesh, struggled into
his heavy canvas shirt, and then sat down on the edge of the cot to tug
on his boots. He closed the seams around their tops and then did the
same with his gloves. Next he adjusted the pressure on his pump unit and
strapped it between his shoulder blades. He grabbed his helmet from the
dresser, and he was ready for the day.

In the dining-compartment his mother and father had finished breakfast.
Their voices drifted to him as he clattered down the ramp. A disturbed
murmur; he paused to listen. What were they talking about? Had he done
something wrong, again?

And then he caught it. Behind their voices was another voice. Static and
crackling pops. The all-system audio signal from Rigel IV. They had it
turned up full blast; the dull thunder of the monitor's voice boomed
loudly. The war. Always the war. He sighed, and stepped out into the

"Morning," his father muttered.

"Good morning, dear," his mother said absently. She sat with her head
turned to one side, wrinkles of concentration webbing her forehead. Her
thin lips were drawn together in a tight line of concern. His father had
pushed his dirty dishes back and was smoking, elbows on the table, dark
hairy arms bare and muscular. He was scowling, intent on the jumbled
roar from the speaker above the sink.

"How's it going?" Tony asked. He slid into his chair and reached
automatically for the ersatz grapefruit. "Any news from Orion?"

Neither of them answered. They didn't hear him. He began to eat his
grapefruit. Outside, beyond the little metal and plastic housing unit,
sounds of activity grew. Shouts and muffled crashes, as rural merchants
and their trucks rumbled along the highway toward Karnet. The reddish
daylight swelled; Betelgeuse was rising quietly and majestically.

"Nice day," Tony said. "No flux wind. I think I'll go down to the
n-quarter awhile. We're building a neat spaceport, a model, of course,
but we've been able to get enough materials to lay out strips for--"

With a savage snarl his father reached out and struck the audio roar
immediately died. "I knew it!" He got up and moved angrily away from the
table. "I told them it would happen. They shouldn't have moved so soon.
Should have built up Class A supply bases, first."

"Isn't our main fleet moving in from Bellatrix?" Tony's mother fluttered
anxiously. "According to last night's summary the worst that can happen
is Orion IX and X will be dumped."

Joseph Rossi laughed harshly. "The hell with last night's summary. They
know as well as I do what's happening."

"What's happening?" Tony echoed, as he pushed aside his grapefruit and
began to ladle out dry cereal. "Are we losing the battle?"

"Yes!" His father's lips twisted. "Earthmen, losing to--to _beetles_. I
told them. But they couldn't wait. My God, there's ten good years left
in this system. Why'd they have to push on? Everybody knew Orion would
be tough. The whole damn beetle fleet's strung out around there. Waiting
for us. And we have to barge right in."

"But nobody ever thought beetles would fight," Leah Rossi protested
mildly. "Everybody thought they'd just fire a few blasts and then--"

"They _have_ to fight! Orion's the last jump-off. If they don't fight
here, where the hell can they fight?" Rossi swore savagely. "Of course
they're fighting. We have all their planets except the inner Orion
string--not that they're worth much, but it's the principle of the
thing. If we'd built up strong supply bases, we could have broken up the
beetle fleet and really clobbered it."

"Don't say 'beetle,'" Tony murmured, as he finished his cereal. "They're
Pas-udeti, same as here. The word 'beetle' comes from Betelgeuse. An
Arabian word we invented ourselves."

Joe Rossi's mouth opened and closed. "What are you, a goddamn

"Joe," Leah snapped. "For heaven's sake."

Rossi moved toward the door. "If I was ten years younger I'd be out
there. I'd really show those shiny-shelled insects what the hell they're
up against. Them and their junky beat-up old hulks. Converted
freighters!" His eyes blazed. "When I think of them shooting down Terran
cruisers with _our_ boys in them--"

"Orion's their system," Tony murmured.

"_Their_ system! When the hell did you get to be an authority on space
law? Why, I ought to--" He broke off, choked with rage. "My own kid," he
muttered. "One more crack out of you today and I'll hang one on you
you'll feel the rest of the week."

Tony pushed his chair back. "I won't be around here today. I'm going
into Karnet, with my EEP."

"Yeah, to play with beetles!"

Tony said nothing. He was already sliding his helmet in place and
snapping the clamps tight. As he pushed through the back door, into the
lock membrane, he unscrewed his oxygen tap and set the tank filter into
action. An automatic response, conditioned by a lifetime spent on a
colony planet in an alien system.

       *       *       *       *       *

A faint flux wind caught at him and swept yellow-red dust around his
boots. Sunlight glittered from the metal roof of his family's housing
unit, one of endless rows of squat boxes set in the sandy slope,
protected by the line of ore-refining installations against the horizon.
He made an impatient signal, and from the storage shed his EEP came
gliding out, catching the sunlight on its chrome trim.

"We're going down into Karnet," Tony said, unconsciously slipping into
the Pas dialect. "Hurry up!"

The EEP took up its position behind him, and he started briskly down the
slope, over the shifting sand, toward the road. There were quite a few
traders out, today. It was a good day for the market; only a fourth of
the year was fit for travel. Betelgeuse was an erratic and undependable
sun, not at all like Sol (according to the edutapes, fed to Tony four
hours a day, six days a week--he had never seen Sol himself).

He reached the noisy road. Pas-udeti were everywhere. Whole groups of
them, with their primitive combustion-driven trucks, battered and
filthy, motors grinding protestingly. He waved at the trucks as they
pushed past him. After a moment one slowed down. It was piled with
_tis_, bundled heaps of gray vegetables dried, and prepared for the
table. A staple of the Pas-udeti diet. Behind the wheel lounged a
dark-faced elderly Pas, one arm over the open window, a rolled leaf
between his lips. He was like all other Pas-udeti; lank and
hard-shelled, encased in a brittle sheath in which he lived and died.

"You want a ride?" the Pas murmured--required protocol when an Earthman
on foot was encountered.

"Is there room for my EEP?"

The Pas made a careless motion with his claw. "It can run behind."
Sardonic amusement touched his ugly old face. "If it gets to Karnet
we'll sell it for scrap. We can use a few condensers and relay tubing.
We're short on electronic maintenance stuff."

"I know," Tony said solemnly, as he climbed into the cabin of the truck.
"It's all been sent to the big repair base at Orion I. For your

Amusement vanished from the leathery face. "Yes, the warfleet." He
turned away and started up the truck again. In the back, Tony's EEP had
scrambled up on the load of _tis_ and was gripping precariously with its
magnetic lines.

Tony noticed the Pas-udeti's sudden change of expression, and he was
puzzled. He started to speak to him--but now he noticed unusual
quietness among the other Pas, in the other trucks, behind and in front
of his own. The war, of course. It had swept through this system a
century ago; these people had been left behind. Now all eyes were on
Orion, on the battle between the Terran warfleet and the Pas-udeti
collection of armed freighters.

"Is it true," Tony asked carefully, "that you're winning?"

The elderly Pas grunted. "We hear rumors."

Tony considered. "My father says Terra went ahead too fast. He says we
should have consolidated. We didn't assemble adequate supply bases. He
used to be an officer, when he was younger. He was with the fleet for
two years."

The Pas was silent a moment. "It's true," he said at last, "that when
you're so far from home, supply is a great problem. We, on the other
hand, don't have that. We have no distances to cover."

"Do you know anybody fighting?"

"I have distant relatives." The answer was vague; the Pas obviously
didn't want to talk about it.

"Have you ever seen your warfleet?"

"Not as it exists now. When this system was defeated most of our units
were wiped out. Remnants limped to Orion and joined the Orion fleet."

"Your relatives were with the remnants?"

"That's right."

"Then you were alive when this planet was taken?"

"Why do you ask?" The old Pas quivered violently. "What business is it
of yours?"

Tony leaned out and watched the walls and buildings of Karnet grow ahead
of them. Karnet was an old city. It had stood thousands of years. The
Pas-udeti civilization was stable; it had reached a certain point of
technocratic development and then leveled off. The Pas had inter-system
ships that had carried people and freight between planets in the days
before the Terran Confederation. They had combustion-driven cars,
audiophones, a power network of a magnetic type. Their plumbing was
satisfactory and their medicine was highly advanced. They had art forms,
emotional and exciting. They had a vague religion.

"Who do you think will win the battle?" Tony asked.

"I don't know." With a sudden jerk the old Pas brought the truck to a
crashing halt. "This is as far as I go. Please get out and take your
EEP with you."

Tony faltered in surprise. "But aren't you going--?"

"No farther!"

Tony pushed the door open. He was vaguely uneasy; there was a hard,
fixed expression on the leathery face, and the old creature's voice had
a sharp edge he had never heard before. "Thanks," he murmured. He hopped
down into the red dust and signaled his EEP. It released its magnetic
lines, and instantly the truck started up with a roar, passing on inside
the city.

Tony watched it go, still dazed. The hot dust lapped at his ankles; he
automatically moved his feet and slapped at his trousers. A truck
honked, and his EEP quickly moved him from the road, up to the level
pedestrian ramp. Pas-udeti in swarms moved by, endless lines of rural
people hurrying into Karnet on their daily business. A massive public
bus had stopped by the gate and was letting off passengers. Male and
female Pas. And children. They laughed and shouted; the sounds of their
voices blended with the low hum of the city.

"Going in?" a sharp Pas-udeti voice sounded close behind him. "Keep
moving--you're blocking the ramp."

It was a young female, with a heavy armload clutched in her claws. Tony
felt embarrassed; female Pas had a certain telepathic ability, part of
their sexual make-up. It was effective on Earthmen at close range.

"Here," she said. "Give me a hand."

Tony nodded his head, and the EEP accepted the female's heavy armload.
"I'm visiting the city," Tony said, as they moved with the crowd toward
the gates. "I got a ride most of the way, but the driver let me off out

"You're from the settlement?"


She eyed him critically. "You've always lived here, haven't you?"

"I was born here. My family came here from Earth four years before I was
born. My father was an officer in the fleet. He earned an Emigration

"So you've never seen your own planet. How old are you?"

"Ten years. Terran."

"You shouldn't have asked the driver so many questions."

They passed through the decontamination shield and into the city. An
information square loomed ahead; Pas men and women were packed around
it. Moving chutes and transport cars rumbled everywhere. Buildings and
ramps and open-air machinery; the city was sealed in a protective
dust-proof envelope. Tony unfastened his helmet and clipped it to his
belt. The air was stale-smelling, artificial, but usable.

"Let me tell you something," the young female said carefully, as she
strode along the foot-ramp beside Tony. "I wonder if this is a good day
for you to come into Karnet. I know you've been coming here regularly to
play with your friends. But perhaps today you ought to stay at home, in
your settlement."


"Because today everybody is upset."

"I know," Tony said. "My mother and father were upset. They were
listening to the news from our base in the Rigel system."

"I don't mean your family. Other people are listening, too. These people
here. My race."

"They're upset, all right," Tony admitted. "But I come here all the
time. There's nobody to play with at the settlement, and anyhow we're
working on a project."

"A model spaceport."

"That's right." Tony was envious. "I sure wish I was a telepath. It must
be fun."

The female Pas-udeti was silent. She was deep in thought. "What would
happen," she asked, "if your family left here and returned to Earth?"

"That couldn't happen. There's no room for us on Earth. C-bombs
destroyed most of Asia and North America back in the Twentieth Century."

"Suppose you _had_ to go back?"

Tony did not understand. "But we can't. Habitable portions of Earth are
overcrowded. Our main problem is finding places for Terrans to live, in
other systems." He added, "And anyhow, I don't particularly want to go
to Terra. I'm used to it here. All my friends are here."

"I'll take my packages," the female said. "I go this other way, down
this third-level ramp."

Tony nodded to his EEP and it lowered the bundles into the female's
claws. She lingered a moment, trying to find the right words.

"Good luck," she said.

"With what?"

She smiled faintly, ironically. "With your model spaceport. I hope you
and your friends get to finish it."

"Of course we'll finish it," Tony said, surprised. "It's almost done."
What did she mean?

The Pas-udeti woman hurried off before he could ask her. Tony was
troubled and uncertain; more doubts filled him. After a moment he headed
slowly into the lane that took him toward the residential section of the
city. Past the stores and factories, to the place where his friends

The group of Pas-udeti children eyed him silently as he approached. They
had been playing in the shade of an immense _hengelo_, whose ancient
branches drooped and swayed with the air currents pumped through the
city. Now they sat unmoving.

"I didn't expect you today," B'prith said, in an expressionless voice.

Tony halted awkwardly, and his EEP did the same. "How are things?" he


"I got a ride part way."


Tony squatted down in the shade. None of the Pas children stirred. They
were small, not as large as Terran children. Their shells had not
hardened, had not turned dark and opaque, like horn. It gave them a
soft, unformed appearance, but at the same time it lightened their load.
They moved more easily than their elders; they could hop and skip
around, still. But they were not skipping right now.

"What's the matter?" Tony demanded. "What's wrong with everybody?"

No one answered.

"Where's the model?" he asked. "Have you fellows been working on it?"

After a moment Llyre nodded slightly.

Tony felt dull anger rise up inside him. "Say something! What's the
matter? What're you all mad about?"

"Mad?" B'prith echoed. "We're not mad."

Tony scratched aimlessly in the dust. He knew what it was. The war,
again. The battle going on near Orion. His anger burst up wildly.
"Forget the war. Everything was fine yesterday, before the battle."

"Sure," Llyre said. "It was fine."

Tony caught the edge to his voice. "It happened a hundred years ago.
It's not my fault."

"Sure," B'prith said.

"This is my home. Isn't it? Haven't I got as much right here as anybody
else? I was born here."

"Sure," Llyre said, tonelessly.

Tony appealed to them helplessly. "Do you have to act this way? You
didn't act this way yesterday. I was here yesterday--all of us were here
yesterday. What's happened since yesterday?"

"The battle," B'prith said.

"What difference does _that_ make? Why does that change everything?
There's always war. There've been battles all the time, as long as I can
remember. What's different about this?"

B'prith broke apart a clump of dirt with his strong claws. After a
moment he tossed it away and got slowly to his feet. "Well," he said
thoughtfully, "according to our audio relay, it looks as if our fleet is
going to win, this time."

"Yes," Tony agreed, not understanding. "My father says we didn't build
up adequate supply bases. We'll probably have to fall back to...." And
then the impact hit him. "You mean, for the first time in a hundred

"Yes," Llyre said, also getting up. The others got up, too. They moved
away from Tony, toward the near-by house. "We're winning. The Terran
flank was turned, half an hour ago. Your right wing has folded

Tony was stunned. "And it matters. It matters to all of you."

"Matters!" B'prith halted, suddenly blazing out in fury. "Sure it
matters! For the first time--in a century. The first time in our lives
we're beating you. We have you on the run, you--" He choked out the
word, almost spat it out. "You white-grubs!"

They disappeared into the house. Tony sat gazing stupidly down at the
ground, his hands still moving aimlessly. He had heard the word before,
seen it scrawled on walls and in the dust near the settlement.
_White-grubs._ The Pas term of derision for Terrans. Because of their
softness, their whiteness. Lack of hard shells. Pulpy, doughy skin. But
they had never dared say it out loud, before. To an Earthman's face.

Beside him, his EEP stirred restlessly. Its intricate radio mechanism
sensed the hostile atmosphere. Automatic relays were sliding into place;
circuits were opening and closing.

"It's all right," Tony murmured, getting slowly up. "Maybe we'd better
go back."

He moved unsteadily toward the ramp, completely shaken. The EEP walked
calmly ahead, its metal face blank and confident, feeling nothing,
saying nothing. Tony's thoughts were a wild turmoil; he shook his head,
but the crazy spinning kept up. He couldn't make his mind slow down,
lock in place.

"Wait a minute," a voice said. B'prith's voice, from the open doorway.
Cold and withdrawn, almost unfamiliar.

"What do you want?"

B'prith came toward him, claws behind his back in the formal Pas-udeti
posture, used between total strangers. "You shouldn't have come here,

"I know," Tony said.

B'prith got out a bit of _tis_ stalk and began to roll it into a tube.
He pretended to concentrate on it. "Look," he said. "You said you have a
right here. But you don't."

"I--" Tony murmured.

"Do you understand why not? You said it isn't your fault. I guess not.
But it's not my fault, either. Maybe it's nobody's fault. I've known you
a long time."

"Five years. Terran."

B'prith twisted the stalk up and tossed it away. "Yesterday we played
together. We worked on the spaceport. But we can't play today. My family
said to tell you not to come here any more." He hesitated, and did not
look Tony in the face. "I was going to tell you, anyhow. Before they
said anything."

"Oh," Tony said.

"Everything that's happened today--the battle, our fleet's stand. We
didn't know. We didn't dare hope. You see? A century of running. First
this system. Then the Rigel system, all the planets. Then the other
Orion stars. We fought here and there--scattered fights. Those that got
away joined up. We supplied the base at Orion--you people didn't know.
But there was no hope; at least, nobody thought there was." He was
silent a moment. "Funny," he said, "what happens when your back's to the
wall, and there isn't any further place to go. Then you have to fight."

"If our supply bases--" Tony began thickly, but B'prith cut him off

"Your supply bases! Don't you understand? We're beating you! Now you'll
have to get out! All you white-grubs. Out of our system!"

Tony's EEP moved forward ominously. B'prith saw it. He bent down,
snatched up a rock, and hurled it straight at the EEP. The rock clanged
off the metal hull and bounced harmlessly away. B'prith snatched up
another rock. Llyre and the others came quickly out of the house. An
adult Pas loomed up behind them. Everything was happening too fast. More
rocks crashed against the EEP. One struck Tony on the arm.

"Get out!" B'prith screamed. "Don't come back! This is our planet!" His
claws snatched at Tony. "We'll tear you to pieces if you--"

Tony smashed him in the chest. The soft shell gave like rubber, and the
Pas stumbled back. He wobbled and fell over, gasping and screeching.

"_Beetle_," Tony breathed hoarsely. Suddenly he was terrified. A crowd
of Pas-udeti was forming rapidly. They surged on all sides, hostile
faces, dark and angry, a rising thunder of rage.

More stones showered. Some struck the EEP, others fell around Tony, near
his boots. One whizzed past his face. Quickly he slid his helmet in
place. He was scared. He knew his EEP's E-signal had already gone out,
but it would be minutes before a ship could come. Besides, there were
other Earthmen in the city to be taken care of; there were Earthmen all
over the planet. In all the cities. On all the twenty-three Betelgeuse
planets. On the fourteen Rigel planets. On the other Orion planets.

"We have to get out of here," he muttered to the EEP. "Do something!"

A stone hit him on the helmet. The plastic cracked; air leaked out, and
then the autoseal filmed over. More stones were falling. The Pas swarmed
close, a yelling, seething mass of black-sheathed creatures. He could
smell them, the acrid body-odor of insects, hear their claws snap, feel
their weight.

The EEP threw its heat beam on. The beam shifted in a wide band toward
the crowd of Pas-udeti. Crude hand weapons appeared. A clatter of
bullets burst around Tony; they were firing at the EEP. He was dimly
aware of the metal body beside him. A shuddering crash--the EEP was
toppled over. The crowd poured over it; the metal hull was lost from

Like a demented animal, the crowd tore at the struggling EEP. A few of
them smashed in its head; others tore off struts and shiny arm-sections.
The EEP ceased struggling. The crowd moved away, panting and clutching
jagged remains. They saw Tony.

As the first line of them reached for him, the protective envelope high
above them shattered. A Terran scout ship thundered down, heat beam
screaming. The crowd scattered in confusion, some firing, some throwing
stones, others leaping for safety.

Tony picked himself up and made his way unsteadily toward the spot where
the scout was landing.

       *       *       *       *       *

"I'm sorry," Joe Rossi said gently. He touched his son on the shoulder.
"I shouldn't have let you go down there today. I should have known."

Tony sat hunched over in the big plastic easychair. He rocked back and
forth, face pale with shock. The scout ship which had rescued him had
immediately headed back toward Karnet; there were other Earthmen to
bring out, besides this first load. The boy said nothing. His mind was
blank. He still heard the roar of the crowd, felt its hate--a century of
pent-up fury and resentment. The memory drove out everything else; it
was all around him, even now. And the sight of the floundering EEP, the
metallic ripping sound, as its arms and legs were torn off and carried

His mother dabbed at his cuts and scratches with antiseptic. Joe Rossi
shakily lit a cigarette and said, "If your EEP hadn't been along they'd
have killed you. Beetles." He shuddered. "I never should have let you go
down there. All this time.... They might have done it any time, any day.
Knifed you. Cut you open with their filthy goddamn claws."

Below the settlement the reddish-yellow sunlight glinted on gunbarrels.
Already, dull booms echoed against the crumbling hills. The defense ring
was going into action. Black shapes darted and scurried up the side of
the slope. Black patches moved out from Karnet, toward the Terran
settlement, across the dividing line the Confederation surveyors had set
up a century ago. Karnet was a bubbling pot of activity. The whole city
rumbled with feverish excitement.

Tony raised his head. "They--they turned our flank."

"Yeah." Joe Rossi stubbed out his cigarette. "They sure did. That was at
one o'clock. At two they drove a wedge right through the center of our
line. Split the fleet in half. Broke it up--sent it running. Picked us
off one by one as we fell back. Christ, they're like maniacs. Now that
they've got the scent, the taste of our blood."

"But it's getting better," Leah fluttered. "Our main fleet units are
beginning to appear."

"We'll get them," Joe muttered. "It'll take a while. But by God we'll
wipe them out. Every last one of them. If it takes a thousand years.
We'll follow every last ship down--we'll get them all." His voice rose
in frenzy. "Beetles! Goddamn insects! When I think of them, trying to
hurt my kid, with their filthy black claws--"

"If you were younger, you'd be in the line," Leah said. "It's not your
fault you're too old. The heart strain's too great. You did your job.
They can't let an older person take chances. It's not your fault."

Joe clenched his fists. "I feel so--futile. If there was only something
I could do."

"The fleet will take care of them," Leah said soothingly. "You said so
yourself. They'll hunt every one of them down. Destroy them all. There's
nothing to worry about."

Joe sagged miserably. "It's no use. Let's cut it out. Let's stop kidding

"What do you mean?"

"Face it! We're not going to win, not this time. We went too far. Our
time's come."

There was silence.

Tony sat up a little. "When did you know?"

"I've known a long time."

"I found out today. I didn't understand, at first. This is--stolen
ground. I was born here, but it's stolen ground."

"Yes. It's stolen. It doesn't belong to us."

"We're here because we're stronger. But now we're not stronger. We're
being beaten."

"They know Terrans can be licked. Like anybody else." Joe Rossi's face
was gray and flabby. "We took their planets away from them. Now they're
taking them back. It'll be a while, of course. We'll retreat slowly.
It'll be another five centuries going back. There're a lot of systems
between here and Sol."

Tony shook his head, still uncomprehending. "Even Llyre and B'prith. All
of them. Waiting for their time to come. For us to lose and go away
again. Where we came from."

Joe Rossi paced back and forth. "Yeah, we'll be retreating from now on.
Giving ground, instead of taking it. It'll be like this today--losing
fights, draws. Stalemates and worse."

He raised his feverish eyes toward the ceiling of the little metal
housing unit, face wild with passion and misery.

"But, by God, we'll give them a run for their money. All the way back!
Every inch!"

End of the Project Gutenberg EBook of Tony and the Beetles, by Philip K. Dick


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