Most human problems are circular and fall apart when a single trivial part of them is solved. There used to be enmity between races because they were different, and they tended to be different because they were enemies, so there was enmity--The big problem of interstellar flight was that nothing could travel faster than light, and nothing could travel faster than light because mass increased with speed, and mass increased with speed--obviously!--because ships remained in the same time-slot, and ships remained in the same time-slot long after a one-second shift was possible because nobody realized that it meant traveling faster than light. And even before there was interstellar travel, there was practically no interplanetary commerce because it took so much fuel to take off and land. And it took more fuel to carry the fuel to take off and land, and more still to carry the fuel for that, until somebody used power on the ground for heave-off instead of take-off, and again on the ground for landing. And then interplanetary ships carried cargoes. And on Xosa II there was an emergency because a sandstorm had buried the almost completed landing grid under some megatons of sand, and it couldn't be completed because there was only storage power because it wasn't completed, because there was only storage power because---- But it took three weeks for the problem to be seen as the ultimately simple thing it really was. Bordman had called it a circular problem, but he hadn't seen its true circularity. It was actually--like all circular problems--inherently an unstable set of conditions. It began to fall apart when he saw that mere refrigeration would break its solidity.
In one week there were ten acres of desert covered with silicone-wool-felt in great strips. By day a reflective surface was uppermost, and at sundown caterwheel trucks hooked on to towlines and neatly pulled it over on its back, to expose gridded black-body surfaces to the starlight. And the gridding was precisely designed so that winds blowing across it did not make eddies in the grid-squares, and the chilled air in those pockets remained undisturbed and there was no conduction of heat downward by eddy currents, while there was admirable radiation of heat out to space. And this was in the manner of the night sides of all planets, only somewhat more efficient.
In two weeks there was a water yield of three thousand gallons per night, and in three weeks more there were similar grids over the colony houses and a vast roofed cooling-shed for pre-chilling of air to be used by the refrigeration systems themselves. The fuel-store--stored power--was thereupon stretched to three times its former calculated usefulness. The situation was no longer a simple and neat equation of despair.
Then something else happened. One of Dr. Chuka's assistants was curious about a certain mineral. He used the solar furnace that had made the silicone wool to smelt it. And Dr. Chuka saw him. And after one blank moment he bellowed laughter and went to see Ralph Redfeather. Whereupon Amerind steel-workers sawed apart a robot hull that was no longer a fuel tank because its fuel was gone, and they built a demountable solar mirror some sixty feet across--which African mechanics deftly powered--and suddenly there was a spot of incandescence even brighter than the sun of Xosa II, down on the planet's surface. It played upon a mineral cliff, and monstrous smells developed and even the African mining-technicians put on goggles because of the brightness, and presently there were threads of molten metal and slag trickling--and separating as they trickled--hesitantly down the cliff-side.
And Dr. Chuka beamed and slapped his sweating thighs, and Bordman went out in a caterwheel truck, wearing a heat-suit, to watch it for all of twenty minutes. When he got back to the Project Engineer's office he gulped iced salt water and dug out the books he'd brought down from the ship. There was the specbook for Xosa II, and there were the other volumes of definitions issued by the Colonial Survey. They were definitions of the exact meanings of terms used in briefer specifications, for items of equipment sometimes ordered by the Colony Office.
When Chuka came into the office, presently, he carried the first crude pig of Xosa II iron in his gloved hand. He gloated. Bordman was then absent, and Ralph Redfeather worked feverishly at his desk.
"Where's Bordman?" demanded Chuka in that resonant bass voice of his. "I'm ready to report for degree-of-completion credit that the mining properties on Xosa II are prepared as of today to deliver pig iron, cobalt, zirconium and beryllium in commercial quantities! We require one day's notice to begin delivery of metal other than iron at the moment, because we're short of equipment, but we can furnish chromium and manganese on two days' notice--the deposits are farther away."
He dumped the pig of metal on the second desk, where Aletha sat with her perpetual loose-leafed volumes before her. The metal smoked and began to char the desk-top. He picked it up again and tossed it from one gloved hand to the other.
"There y'are, Ralph!" he boasted. "You Indians go after your coups! Match this coup for me! Without fuel and minus all equipment except of our own making--I credit an assist on the mirror, but that's all--we're set to load the first ship that comes in for cargo! Now what are you going to do for the record? I think we've wiped your eye for you!"
Ralph hardly looked up. His eyes were very bright. Bordman had shown him and he was copying feverishly the figures and formulae from a section of the definition book of the Colonial Survey. The books started with the specifications for antibiotic growth equipment for colonies with problems in local bacteria. It ended with definitions of the required strength-of-material and the designs stipulated for cages in zoos for motile fauna, subdivided into flying, marine, and solid-ground creatures: sub-sub-divided into carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores, with the special specifications for enclosures to contain abyssal creatures requiring extreme pressures, and the equipment for maintaining a healthfully re-poisoned atmosphere for creatures from methane planets.
Redfeather had the third volume open at, "Landing Grids, Lightest Emergency, Commerce Refuges, For Use Of." There were some dozens of non-colonized planets along the most-traveled spaceways on which refuges for shipwrecked spacemen were maintained. Small forces of Patrol personnel manned them. Space lifeboats serviced them. They had the minimum installations which could draw on their planets' ionospheres for power, and they were not expected to handle anything bigger than a twenty-ton lifeboat. But the specifications for the equipment of such refuges were included in the reference volumes for Bordman's use in the making of Colonial surveys. They were compiled for the information of contractors who wanted to bid on Colonial Survey installations, and for the guidance of people like Bordman who checked up on the work. So they contained all the data for the building of a landing grid, lightest emergency, commerce refuge for use of, in case of need. Redfeather copied feverishly.
Chuka ceased his boasting, but still he grinned.
"I know we're stuck, Ralph," he said amiably, "but it's nice stuff to go in the records. Too bad we don't keep coup-records like you Indians!"
Aletha's cousin--Project Engineer--said crisply: "Go away! Who made your solar mirror? It was more than an assist! You get set to cast beams for us! Girders! I'm going to get a lifeboat aloft and away to Trent! Build a minimum size landing grid! Build a fire under somebody so they'll send us a colony ship with supplies! If there's no new sandstorm to bury the radiation refrigerators Bordman brought to mind, we can keep alive with hydroponics until a ship can arrive with something useful!"
"You don't mean we might actually live through this! Really?"
Aletha regarded the two of them with impartial irony.
"Dr. Chuka," she said gently, "you accomplished the impossible. Ralph, here, is planning to attempt the preposterous. Does it occur to you that Mr. Bordman is nagging himself to achieve the inconceivable? It is inconceivable, even to him, but he's trying to do it!"
"What's he trying to do?" demanded Chuka, wary but amused.
"He's trying," said Aletha, "to prove to himself that he's the best man on this planet. Because he's physically least capable of living here! His vanity's hurt. Don't underestimate him!"
"He the best man here?" demanded Chuka blankly. "In his way he's all right. The refrigeration proves that! But he can't walk out-of-doors without a heat-suit!"
Ralph Redfeather said dryly, without ceasing his feverish work: "Nonsense, Aletha. He has courage. I give him that. But he couldn't walk a beam twelve hundred feet up. In his own way, yes. He's capable. But the best man----"
"I'm sure," agreed Aletha, "that he couldn't sing as well as the worst of your singing crew, Dr. Chuka, and any Amerind could outrun him. Even I could! But he's got something we haven't got, just as we have qualities he hasn't. We're secure in our competences. We know what we can do, and that we can do it better than any--" her eyes twinkled--"paleface. But he doubts himself. All the time and in every way. And that's why he may be the best man on this planet! I'll bet he does prove it!"
Redfeather said scornfully: "You suggested radiation refrigeration! What does it prove that he applied it?"
"That," said Aletha, "he couldn't face the disaster that was here without trying to do something about it--even when it was impossible. He couldn't face the deadly facts. He had to torment himself by seeing that they wouldn't be deadly if only this one or that or the other were twisted a little. His vanity was hurt because nature had beaten men. His dignity was offended. And a man with easily-hurt dignity won't ever be happy, but he can be pretty good!"
Chuka raised his ebony bulk from the chair in which he still shifted the iron pig from gloved hand to gloved hand.
"You're kind," he said, chuckling. "Too kind! I don't want to hurt his feelings. I wouldn't, for the world! But really ... I've never heard a man praised for his vanity before, or admired for being touchy about his dignity! If you're right ... why ... it's been convenient. It might even mean hope. But ... hm-m-m---- Would you want to marry a man like that?"
"Great Manitou forbid!" said Aletha firmly. She grimaced at the bare idea. "I'm an Amerind. I'll want my husband to be contented. I want to be contented along with him. Mr. Bordman will never be either happy or content. No paleface husband for me! But I don't think he's through here yet. Sending for help won't satisfy him. It's a further hurt to his vanity. He'll be miserable if he doesn't prove himself--to himself--a better man than that!"
Chuka shrugged his massive shoulders. Redfeather tracked down the last item he needed and fairly bounced to his feet.
"What tonnage of iron can you get out, Chuka?" he demanded. "What can you do in the way of castings? What's the elastic modulus--how much carbon in this iron? And when can you start making castings? Big ones?"
"Let's go talk to my foremen," said Chuka complacently. "We'll see how fast my ... ah ... mineral spring is trickling metal down the cliff-face. If you can really launch a lifeboat, we might get some help here in a year and a half instead of five----"
They went out-of-doors together. There was a small sound in the next office. Aletha was suddenly very, very still. She sat motionless for a long half-minute. Then she turned her head.
"I owe you an apology, Mr. Bordman," she said ruefully. "It won't take back the discourtesy, but--I'm very sorry."
Bordman came into the office from the next room. He was rather pale. He said wryly: "Eavesdroppers never hear good of themselves, eh? Actually I was on the way in here when I heard--references to myself it would embarrass Chuka and your cousin to know I heard. So I stopped. Not to listen, but to keep them from knowing I'd heard their private opinions of me. I'll be obliged if you don't tell them. They're entitled to their opinions of me. I've mine of them." He added grimly, "Apparently I think more highly of them than they do of me!"
Aletha said contritely: "It must have sounded horrible! But they ... we ... all of us think better of you than you do of yourself!"
"You in particular. 'Would you marry someone like me? Great Manitou, no!'"
"For an excellent reason," said Aletha firmly. "When I get back from here--if I get back from here--I'm going to marry Bob Running Antelope. He's nice. I like the idea of marrying him. I want to! But I look forward not only to happiness but to contentment. To me that's important. It isn't to you, or to the woman you ought to marry. And I ... well ... I simply don't envy either of you a bit!"
"I see," said Bordman with irony. He didn't. "I wish you all the contentment you look for." Then he snapped: "But what's this business about expecting more from me? What spectacular idea do you expect me to pull out of somebody's hat now? Because I'm frantically vain!"
"I haven't the least idea," said Aletha calmly. "But I think you'll come up with something we couldn't possibly imagine. And I didn't say it was because you were vain, but because you are discontented with yourself. It's born in you! And there you are!"
"If you mean neurotic," snapped Bordman, "you're all wrong. I'm not neurotic! I'm not. I'm annoyed. I'll get hopelessly behind schedule because of this mess! But that's all!"
Aletha stood up and shrugged her shoulders ruefully.
"I repeat my apology," she told him, "and leave you the office. But I also repeat that I think you'll turn up something nobody else expects--and I've no idea what it will be. But you'll do it now to prove that I'm wrong about how your mind works."
She went out. Bordman clamped his jaws tightly. He felt that especially haunting discomfort which comes of suspecting that one has been told something about himself which may be true.
"Idiotic!" he fumed, all alone. "Me neurotic? Me wanting to prove I'm the best man here out of vanity?" He made a scornful noise. He sat impatiently at the desk. "Absurd!" he muttered wrathfully. "Why should I need to prove to myself I'm capable? What would I do if I felt such a need, anyhow?"
Scowling, he stared at the wall. It was irritating. It was a nagging sort of question. What would he do if she were right? If he did need constantly to prove to himself---- He stiffened, suddenly. A look of intense surprise came upon his face. He'd thought of what a self-doubtful, discontented man would try to do, here on Xosa II at this juncture.
The surprise was because he had also thought of how it could be done.
The Warlock came to life. Her skipper gloomily answered the emergency call from Xosa II. He listened. He clicked off the communicator and hastened to an exterior port, deeply darkened against those times when the blue-white sun of Xosa shone upon this side of the hull. He moved the manual control to make it more transparent. He stared down at the monstrous, tawny, mottled surface of the planet five thousand miles away. He searched for the spot he bitterly knew was the colony's site.
He saw what he'd been told he'd see. It was an infinitely fine, threadlike projection from the surface of the planet. It rose at a slight angle--it leaned toward the planet's west--and it expanded and widened and formed an extraordinary sort of mushroom-shaped object that was completely impossible. It could not be. Humans do not create visible objects twenty miles high, which at their tops expand like toadstools on excessively slender stalks, and which drift westward and fray and grow thin, and are constantly renewed.
But it was true. The skipper of the Warlock gazed until he was completely sure. It was no atomic bomb, because it continued to exist. It faded, but was constantly replenished. There was no such thing!
He went through the ship, bellowing, and faced mutinous snarlings. But when the Warlock was around on that side of the planet again, the members of the crew saw the strange appearance, too. They examined it with telescopes. They grew hysterically happy. They went frantically to work to clear away the signs of a month and a half of mutiny and despair.
It took them three days to get the ship to tidiness again, and during all that time the peculiar tawny jet remained. On the sixth day the jet was fainter. On the seventh it was larger than before. It continued larger. And telescopes at highest magnification verified what the emergency communication had said.
Then the crew began to experience frantic impatience. It was worse, waiting those last three or four days, than even all the hopeless time before. But there was no reason to hate anybody, now. The skipper was very much relieved.
There was eighteen hundred feet of steel grid overhead. It made a crisscross, ring-shaped wall more than a quarter-mile high and almost to the top of the surrounding mountains. But the valley was not exactly a normal one. It was a crater, now: a steeply sloping, conical pit whose walls descended smoothly to the outer girders of the red-painted, glistening steel structure. More girders for the completion of the grid projected from the sand just outside its half-mile circle. And in the landing grid there was now a smaller, elaborate, truss-braced object. It rested on the rocky ground, and it was not painted, and it was quite small. A hundred feet high, perhaps, and no more than three hundred across. But it was visibly a miniature of the great, now-uncovered, re-painted landing grid which was qualified to handle interstellar cargo ships and all the proper space-traffic of a minerals-colony planet.
A caterwheel truck came lurching and rolling and rumbling down the side of the pit. It had a sunshade and ground-reflector wings, and Bordman rode tiredly on a hobbyhorse saddle in its back cargo section. He wore a heat-suit.
The truck reached the pit's bottom. There was a tool shed there. The caterwheel-truck bumped up to it and stopped. Bordman got out, visibly cramped by the jolting, rocking, exhausting-to-unaccustomed-muscles ride.
"Do you want to go in the shed and cool off?" asked Chuka brightly.
"I'm all right," said Bordman curtly. "I'm quite comfortable, so long as you feed me that expanded air." It was plain that he resented needing even a special air supply. "What's all this about? Bringing the Warlock in? Why the insistence on my being here?"
"Ralph has a problem," said Chuka blandly. "He's up there. See? He needs you. There's a hoist. You've got to check degree-of-completion anyhow. You might take a look around while you're up there. But he's anxious for you to see something. There where you see the little knot of people. The platform."
Bordman grimaced. When one was well started on a survey, one got used to heights and depths and all sorts of environments. But he hadn't been up on steel-work in a good many months. Not since a survey on Kalka IV nearly a year ago. He would be dizzy at first.
He accompanied Chuka to the spot where a steel cable dangled from an almost invisibly thin beam high above. There was a strictly improvised cage to ascend in--planks and a handrail forming an insecure platform that might hold four people. He got into it, and Dr. Chuka got in beside him. Chuka waved his hand. The cage started up.
Bordman winced as the ground dropped away below. It was ghastly to be dangling in emptiness like this. He wanted to close his eyes. The cage went up and up and up. It took many long minutes to reach the top.
There was a platform there. Newly-made. The sunlight was blindingly bright. The landscape was an intolerable glare. Bordman adjusted his goggles to maximum darkness and stepped gingerly from the swaying cage to the hardly more solid-seeming area. Here he was in mid-air on a platform barely ten feet square. It was rather more than twice the height of a metropolitan skyscraper from the ground. There were actual mountain-crests only half a mile away and not much higher. Bordman was acutely uncomfortable. He would get used to it, but---- * * * * *
"Well?" he asked fretfully. "Chuka said you needed me here. What's the matter?"
Ralph Redfeather nodded very formally. Aletha was here, too, and two of Chuka's foremen--one did not look happy--and four of the Amerind steel-workers. They grinned at Bordman.
"I wanted you to see," said Aletha's cousin, "before we threw on the current. It doesn't look like that little grid could handle the sand it took care of. But Lewanika wants to report."
A dark man who worked under Chuka--and looked as if he belonged on solid ground--said carefully: "We cast the beams for the small landing grid, Mr. Bordman. We melted the metal out of the cliffs and ran it into molds as it flowed down."
He stopped. One of the Indians said: "We made the girders into the small landing grid. It bothered us because we built it on the sand that had buried the big grid. We didn't understand why you ordered it there. But we built it."
The second dark man said with a trace of swagger: "We made the coils, Mr. Bordman. We made the small grid so it would work the same as the big one when it was finished. And then we made the big grid work, finished or not!"
Bordman said impatiently: "All right. Very good. But what is this? A ceremony?"
"Just so," said Aletha, smiling. "Be patient, Mr. Bordman!"
Her cousin said conversationally: "We built the small grid on the top of the sand. And it tapped the ionosphere for power. No lack of power then! And we'd set it to heave up sand instead of ships. Not to heave it out into space, but to give it up to mile a second vertical velocity. Then we turned it on."
"And we rode it down, that little grid," said one of the remaining Indians, grinning. "What a party! Manitou!"
Redfeather frowned at him and took up the narrative.
"It hurled the sand up from its center. As you said it would, the sand swept air with it. It made a whirlwind, bringing more sand from outside the grid into its field. It was a whirlwind with fifteen megakilowatts of power to drive it. Some of the sand went twenty miles high. Then it made a mushroom-head and the winds up yonder blew it to the west. It came down a long way off, Mr. Bordman. We've made a new dune-area ten miles downwind. And the little grid sank as the sand went away from around it. We had to stop it three times, because it leaned. We had to dig under parts of it to get it straight up again. But it went down into the valley."
Bordman turned up the power to his heat-suit motors. He felt uncomfortably warm.
"In six days," said Ralph, almost ceremonially, "it had uncovered half the original grid we'd built. Then we were able to modify that to heave sand and to let it tap the ionosphere. We were able to use a good many times the power the little grid could apply to sand-lifting! In two days more the landing grid was clear. The valley bottom was clean. We shifted some hundreds of millions of tons of sand by landing grid, and now it is possible to land the Warlock, and receive her supplies, and the solar-power furnace is already turning out pigs for her loading. We wanted you to see what we have done. The colony is no longer in danger, and we shall have the grid completely finished for your inspection before the ship is ready to return."
Bordman said uncomfortably: "That's very good. It's excellent. I'll put it in my survey report."
"But," said Ralph, more ceremonially still, "we have the right to count coup for the members of our tribe and clan. Now----"
Then there was confusion. Aletha's cousin was saying syllables that did not mean anything at all. The other Indians joined in at intervals, speaking gibberish. Aletha's eyes were shining and she looked incredibly pleased and satisfied.
"But what ... what's this?" demanded Bordman when they stopped.
Aletha spoke proudly.
"Ralph just formally adopted you into the tribe, Mr. Bordman--and into his clan and mine! He gave you a name I'll have to write down for you, but it means, 'Man-who-believes-not-his-own-wisdom.' And now----"
Ralph Redfeather--licensed interstellar engineer, graduate of the stiffest technical university in this quarter of the galaxy, wearer of three eagle-pinion feathers and clad in a pair of insulated sandals and a breechcloth--whipped out a small paint-pot and a brush from somewhere and began carefully to paint on a section of girder ready for the next tier of steel. He painted a feather on the metal.
"It's a coup," he told Bordman over his shoulder. "Your coup. Placed where it was earned--up here. Aletha is authorized to certify it. And the head of the clan will add an eagle-feather to the headdress he wears in council in the Big Tepee on Algonka, and--your clan-brothers will be proud!"
Then he straightened up and held out his hand.
Chuka said benignly: "Being civilized men, Mr. Bordman, we Africans do not go in for uncivilized feathers. But we ... ah ... rather approve of you, too. And we plan a corroboree at the colony after the Warlock is down, when there will be some excellently practiced singing. There is ... ah ... a song, a sort of choral calypso, about this ... ah ... adventure you have brought to so satisfying a conclusion. It is quite a good calypso. It's likely to be popular on a good many planets."
Bordman swallowed. He was acutely uncomfortable. He felt that he ought to say something, and he did not know what.
But just then there was a deep-toned humming in the air. It was a vibrant tone, instinct with limitless power. It was the eighteen-hundred-foot landing grid, giving off that profoundly bass and vibrant, note it uttered while operating. Bordman looked up.
The Warlock was coming down.
The SKY TRAP by FRANK BELKNAP LONG