The branch quivered resentfully under him.
"Careful, there!" whooshed the eerie voice. "It took me all summer to grow those!"
Kolin could feel the skin crawling along his backbone.
"Who are you?" he gasped.
The answering sigh of laughter gave him a distinct chill despite its suggestion of amiability.
"Name's Johnny Ashlew. Kinda thought you'd start with what I am. Didn't figure you'd ever seen a man grown into a tree before."
Kolin looked about, seeing little but leaves and fog.
"I have to climb down," he told himself in a reasonable tone. "It's bad enough that the other two passed out without me going space happy too."
"What's your hurry?" demanded the voice. "I can talk to you just as easy all the way down, you know. Airholes in my bark--I'm not like an Earth tree."
Kolin examined the bark of the crotch in which he sat. It did seem to have assorted holes and hollows in its rough surface.
"I never saw an Earth tree," he admitted. "We came from Haurtoz."
"Where's that? Oh, never mind--some little planet. I don't bother with them all, since I came here and found out I could be anything I wanted."
"What do you mean, anything you wanted?" asked Kolin, testing the firmness of a vertical vine.
"Just what I said," continued the voice, sounding closer in his ear as his cheek brushed the ridged bark of the tree trunk. "And, if I do have to remind you, it would be nicer if you said 'Mr. Ashlew,' considering my age."
"Your age? How old--?"
"Can't really count it in Earth years any more. Lost track. I always figured bein' a tree was a nice, peaceful life; and when I remembered how long some of them live, that settled it. Sonny, this world ain't all it looks like."
"It isn't, Mr. Ashlew?" asked Kolin, twisting about in an effort to see what the higher branches might hide.
"Nope. Most everything here is run by the Life--that is, by the thing that first grew big enough to do some thinking, and set its roots down all over until it had control. That's the outskirts of it down below."
"The other trees? That jungle?"
"It's more'n a jungle, Sonny. When I landed here, along with the others from the Arcturan Spark, the planet looked pretty empty to me, just like it must have to--Watch it, there, Boy! If I didn't twist that branch over in time, you'd be bouncing off my roots right now!"
"Th-thanks!" grunted Kolin, hanging on grimly.
"Doggone vine!" commented the windy whisper. "He ain't one of my crowd. Landed years later in a ship from some star towards the center of the galaxy. You should have seen his looks before the Life got in touch with his mind and set up a mental field to help him change form. He looks twice as good as a vine!"
"He's very handy," agreed Kolin politely. He groped for a foothold.
"Well ... matter of fact, I can't get through to him much, even with the Life's mental field helping. Guess he started living with a different way of thinking. It burns me. I thought of being a tree, and then he came along to take advantage of it!"
Kolin braced himself securely to stretch tiring muscles.
"Maybe I'd better stay a while," he muttered. "I don't know where I am."
"You're about fifty feet up," the sighing voice informed him. "You ought to let me tell you how the Life helps you change form. You don't have to be a tree."
"Uh-uh! Some of the boys that landed with me wanted to get around and see things. Lots changed to animals or birds. One even stayed a man--on the outside anyway. Most of them have to change as the bodies wear out, which I don't, and some made bad mistakes tryin' to be things they saw on other planets."
"I wouldn't want to do that, Mr. Ashlew."
"There's just one thing. The Life don't like taking chances on word about this place gettin' around. It sorta believes in peace and quiet. You might not get back to your ship in any form that could tell tales."
"Listen!" Kolin blurted out. "I wasn't so much enjoying being what I was that getting back matters to me!"
"Don't like your home planet, whatever the name was?"
"Haurtoz. It's a rotten place. A Planetary State! You have to think and even look the way that's standard thirty hours a day, asleep or awake. You get scared to sleep for fear you might dream treason and they'd find out somehow."
"Whooeee! Heard about them places. Must be tough just to live."
Suddenly, Kolin found himself telling the tree about life on Haurtoz, and of the officially announced threats to the Planetary State's planned expansion. He dwelt upon the desperation of having no place to hide in case of trouble with the authorities. A multiple system of such worlds was agonizing to imagine.
Somehow, the oddity of talking to a tree wore off. Kolin heard opinions spouting out which he had prudently kept bottled up for years.
The more he talked and stormed and complained, the more relaxed he felt.
"If there was ever a fellow ready for this planet," decided the tree named Ashlew, "you're it, Sonny! Hang on there while I signal the Life by root!"
Kolin sensed a lack of direct attention. The rustle about him was natural, caused by an ordinary breeze. He noticed his hands shaking.
"Don't know what got into me, talking that way to a tree," he muttered. "If Yrtok snapped out of it and heard, I'm as good as re-personalized right now."
As he brooded upon the sorry choice of arousing a search by hiding where he was or going back to bluff things out, the tree spoke.
"Maybe you're all set, Sonny. The Life has been thinkin' of learning about other worlds. If you can think of a safe form to jet off in, you might make yourself a deal. How'd you like to stay here?"
"I don't know," said Kolin. "The penalty for desertion--"
"Whoosh! Who'd find you? You could be a bird, a tree, even a cloud."
Silenced but doubting, Kolin permitted himself to try the dream on for size.
He considered what form might most easily escape the notice of search parties and still be tough enough to live a long time without renewal. Another factor slipped into his musings: mere hope of escape was unsatisfying after the outburst that had defined his fuming hatred for Haurtoz.
I'd better watch myself! he thought. Don't drop diamonds to grab at stars!
"What I wish I could do is not just get away but get even for the way they make us live ... the whole damn set-up. They could just as easy make peace with the Earth colonies. You know why they don't?"
"Why?" wheezed Ashlew.
"They're scared that without talk of war, and scouting for Earth fleets that never come, people would have time to think about the way they have to live and who's running things in the Planetary State. Then the gravy train would get blown up--and I mean blown up!"
The tree was silent for a moment. Kolin felt the branches stir meditatively. Then Ashlew offered a suggestion.
"I could tell the Life your side of it," he hissed. "Once in with us, you can always make thinking connections, no matter how far away. Maybe you could make a deal to kill two birds with one stone, as they used to say on Earth...."
Chief Steward Slichow paced up and down beside the ration crate turned up to serve him as a field desk. He scowled in turn, impartially, at his watch and at the weary stewards of his headquarters detail. The latter stumbled about, stacking and distributing small packets of emergency rations.
The line of crewmen released temporarily from repair work was transient as to individuals but immutable as to length. Slichow muttered something profane about disregard of orders as he glared at the rocky ridges surrounding the landing place.
He was so intent upon planning greetings with which to favor the tardy scouting parties that he failed to notice the loose cloud drifting over the ridge.
It was tenuous, almost a haze. Close examination would have revealed it to be made up of myriads of tiny spores. They resembled those cast forth by one of the bushes Kolin's party had passed. Along the edges, the haze faded raggedly into thin air, but the units evidently formed a cohesive body. They drifted together, approaching the men as if taking intelligent advantage of the breeze.
One of Chief Slichow's staggering flunkies, stealing a few seconds of relaxation on the pretext of dumping an armful of light plastic packing, wandered into the haze.
After a few heartbeats, he dropped the trash and stared at ship and men as if he had never seen either. A hail from his master moved him.
"Coming, Chief!" he called but, returning at a moderate pace, he murmured, "My name is Frazer. I'm a second assistant steward. I'll think as Unit One."
Throughout the cloud of spores, the mind formerly known as Peter Kolin congratulated itself upon its choice of form.
Nearer to the original shape of the Life than Ashlew got, he thought.
He paused to consider the state of the tree named Ashlew, half immortal but rooted to one spot, unable to float on a breeze or through space itself on the pressure of light. Especially, it was unable to insinuate any part of itself into the control center of another form of life, as a second spore was taking charge of the body of Chief Slichow at that very instant.
There are not enough men, thought Kolin. Some of me must drift through the airlock. In space, I can spread through the air system to the command group.
Repairs to the Peace State and the return to Haurtoz passed like weeks to some of the crew but like brief moments in infinity to other units. At last, the ship parted the air above Headquarters City and landed.
The unit known as Captain Theodor Kessel hesitated before descending the ramp. He surveyed the field, the city and the waiting team of inspecting officers.
"Could hardly be better, could it?" he chuckled to the companion unit called Security Officer Tarth.
"Hardly, sir. All ready for the liberation of Haurtoz."
"Reformation of the Planetary State," mused the captain, smiling dreamily as he grasped the handrail. "And then--formation of the Planetary Mind!"
CUM GRANO SALIS.
By Randall Garrett
Just because a man can do something others can't does not, unfortunately, mean he knows how to do it. One man could eat the native fruit and live ... but how?
"And that," said Colonel Fennister glumly, "appears to be that."
The pile of glowing coals that had been Storage Shed Number One was still sending up tongues of flame, but they were nothing compared with what they'd been half an hour before.
"The smoke smells good, anyway," said Major Grodski, sniffing appreciatively.
The colonel turned his head and glowered at his adjutant.
"There are times, Grodski, when your sense of humor is out of place."
"Yes, sir," said the major, still sniffing. "Funny thing for lightning to do, though. Sort of a dirty trick, you might say."
"You might," growled the colonel. He was a short, rather roundish man, who was forever thankful that the Twentieth Century predictions of skin-tight uniforms for the Space Service had never come true. He had round, pleasant, blue eyes, a rather largish nose, and a rumbling basso voice that was a little surprising the first time you heard it, but which seemed to fit perfectly after you knew him better.
Right at the moment, he was filing data and recommendations in his memory, where they would be instantly available for use when he needed them. Not in a physical file, but in his own mind.
All right, Colonel Fennister, he thought to himself, just what does this mean--to me? And to the rest?
The Space Service was not old. Unlike the Air Service, the Land Service, or the Sea Service, it did not have centuries or tradition behind it. But it had something else. It had something that none of the other Services had--Potential.
In his own mind, Colonel Fennister spelled the word with an upper case P, and put the word in italics. It was, to him, a more potent word than any other in the Universe.
Because the Space Service of the United Earth had more potential than any other Service on Earth. How many seas were there for the Sea Service to sail? How much land could the Land Service march over? How many atmospheres were there for the Air Service to conquer?
Not for any of those questions was there an accurate answer, but for each of those questions, the answer had a limit. But how much space was there for the Space Service to conquer?
Colonel Fennister was not a proud man. He was not an arrogant man. But he did have a sense of destiny; he did have a feeling that the human race was going somewhere, and he did not intend that that feeling should become totally lost to humanity.