"You could call this the first trade exchange between your world and ours," another savage added. "Give us the machine; we'll send you fresh food from the village."
The argument was logical and eventually the natives had their way. Perhaps it was Ann Howard's intervention that decided the point. She vehemently disapproved; a gift of techniques should be withheld until she had examined their cultural traditions. But Martin Lord was a trade agent, and he had no intention of allowing his mission to be wrecked by the ephemeral doubts of a teacher. Here at the onset was the time to make it clear that he was in command. He gave the natives the machine.
As the six men trudged across the burned earth carrying the heavy apparatus easily on their shoulders, Lord wondered if either he or Ann Howard had much to do with the negotiations. He had an unpleasant feeling that, from the very beginning, the natives had been in complete control of the situation.
Less than an hour after the six men had departed, a band of natives emerged from the forest bearing gifts of food--straw baskets heaped with fruit, fresh meat wrapped in grass mats, hampers of bread, enormous pottery jars filled with a sweet, cold, milky liquid. Something very close to the miraculous had occurred. Every native had learned to use the Federation language.
A kind of fiesta began in the clearing beside the Ceres. The natives built fires to cook the food. The women, scantily dressed if they were clothed at all, danced sensuously in the bright sunlight to a peculiarly exotic, minor-keyed music played on reed and percussion instruments. Laughing gaily, they enticed members of Lord's crew to join them.
The milky drink proved mildly intoxicating--yet different from the stimulants used in the Federation. Lord drank a long draught from a mug brought him by one of the women. The effect was immediate. He felt no dulling of his reason, however; no loss of muscular control, but instead a stealthy relaxation of mental strain joined with a satisfying sense of physical well-being. A subtle shifting in prospective, in accepted values.
The savage feast, which grew steadily more boisterous, Lord would have called an orgy under other circumstances. The word did occur to him, but it seemed fantastically inapplicable. Normally the behavior of his men would have demanded the severest kind of disciplinary action. But here the old code of rules simply didn't apply and he didn't interfere with their enjoyment.
The afternoon sun blazed in the western sky; heat in shimmering waves hung over the clearing. Lord went into the ship and stripped off his uniform; somehow the glittering insignia, the ornamental braid, the stiff collar--designed to be impressive symbols of authority--seemed garish and out of place. Lord put on the shorts which he wore when he exercised in the capsule gym aboard ship.
Outside again, he found that most of the men had done the same thing. The sun felt warm on his skin; the air was comfortably balmy, entirely free of the swarms of flies and other insects which made other newly contacted frontier worlds so rugged.
As he stood in the shelter of the landing ladder and sipped a second mug of the white liquor, Lord became slowly aware of something else. Divested of their distinguishing uniforms, he and his crew seemed puny and ill-fed beside the natives. If physique were any index to the sophistication of a culture--but that was a ridiculous generalization!
He saw Ann Howard coming toward him through the crowd--stern-faced, hard-jawed, stiffly dignified in her uniform. The other women among the crew had put on their lightest dress, but not Ann. Lord was in no frame of mind, just then, to endure an interview with her. He knew precisely what she would say; Ann was a kind of walking encyclopedia of the conventions.
Lord slid out of sight in the shadow of the ship, but Ann had seen him. He turned blindly into the forest, running along the path toward the village.
In a fern-banked glen beside the miniature waterfall he had met Niaga.
No woman he had ever known seemed so breathtakingly beautiful. Her skin had been caressed by a lifetime's freedom in the sun; her long, dark hair had the sheen of polished ebony; and in the firm, healthy curves of her body he saw the sensuous grace of a Venus or an Aphrodite.
She stood up slowly and faced him, smiling; a bright shaft of sunlight fell on the liquid bow of her lips. "I am Niaga," she said. "You must be one of the men who came on the ship."
"Martin Lord," he answered huskily. "I'm the trade agent in command."
"I am honored." Impulsively she took the garland of flowers which she had been making and put it around his neck. When she came close, the subtle perfume of her hair was unmistakable--like the smell of pine needles on a mountain trail; new grass during a spring rain; or the crisp, winter air after a fall of snow. Perfume sharply symbolic of freedom, heady and intoxicating, numbing his mind with the ghosts of half-remembered dreams.
"I was coming to your ship with the others," she said, "but I stopped here to swim, as I often do. I'm afraid I stayed too long, day-dreaming on the bank; time means so little to us." Shyly she put her hand in his. "But, perhaps, no harm is done, since you are still alone. If you have taken no one else, will I do?"
"I--I don't understand."
"You are strangers; we want you to feel welcome."
"Niaga, people don't--that is--" He floundered badly. Intellectually he knew he could not apply the code of his culture to hers; emotionally it was a difficult concept to accept. If his standards were invalid, his definitions might be, too. Perhaps this society was no more primitive than--No! A mature people would always develop more or less the same mechanical techniques, and these people had nothing remotely like a machine.
"You sent us a gift," she said. "It is only proper for us to return the kindness."
"You have made a rather miraculous use of the language machine in a remarkably short period of time."
"We applied it to everyone in the village. We knew it would help your people feel at ease, if we could talk together in a common tongue."
"You go to great pains to welcome a shipload of strangers."
"Naturally. Consideration for others is the first law of humanity." After a pause, she added very slowly, with her eyes fixed on his, "Mr. Lord, do you plan to make a colony here?"
"Eventually. After we repair the ship, I hope to negotiate a trade treaty with your government."
"But you don't intend to stay here yourself?"
"Have we failed in our welcome? Is there something more--"
"No, Niaga, nothing like that. I find your world very--very beautiful." The word very inadequately expressed what he really felt. "But I'm not free to make the choice."
She drew in her breath sharply. "Your people, then, hold you enslaved?"
He laughed--uneasily. "I'm going home to manage Hamilton Lord; it's the largest trading company in the Federation. We have exclusive franchises to develop almost five hundred planets. It's my duty, Niaga; my responsibility; I can't shirk it."
"Why not--if you wanted to?"
"Because I'm Martin Lord; because I've been trained--No, it's something I can't explain. You'll just have to take my word for it. Now tell me: how should I go about negotiating a treaty with your people?"
"You spoke of the government, Martin Lord; I suppose you used the word in a symbolic sense?"
"Your chieftain; your tribal leader--whatever name you have for them."
Her big, dark eyes widened in surprise. "Then you meant actual men? It's a rather unusual use of the word, isn't it? For us, government is a synonym for law."
"Of course, but you must have leaders to interpret it and enforce it."
"Enforce a law?" This seemed to amuse her. "How? A law is a statement of a truth in human relationship; it doesn't have to be enforced. What sane person would violate a truth? What would you do, Martin Lord, if I told you we had no government, in your sense of the word?"
"You can't be that primitive, Niaga!"
"Would it be so terribly wrong?"
"That's anarchy. There'd be no question, then, of granting us a trade franchise; we'd have to set up a trusteeship and let the teachers run your planet until you had learned the basic processes of social organization."
Niaga turned away from him, her hands twisted together. She said, in a soft whisper that was flat and emotionless, "We have a council of elders, Martin Lord. You can make your treaty with them." Then, imperceptibly, her voice brightened. "It will take a week or more to bring the council together. And that is all to the good; it will give your people time to visit in our villages and to get better acquainted with us."
Niaga left him, then; she said she would go to the village and send out the summons for the council. By a roundabout path, Lord returned to the clearing around the Ceres. The forest fascinated him. It was obviously cultivated like a park, and he was puzzled that a primitive society should practice such full scale conservation. Normally savages took nature for granted or warred against it.
He came upon a brown gash torn in a hillside above the stream, a place where natives were apparently working to build up the bank against erosion. In contrast to the beauty that surrounded it, the bare earth was indescribably ugly, like a livid scar in a woman's face. In his mind Lord saw this scar multiplied a thousand times--no, a million times--when the machines of the galaxy came to rip out resources for the trade cities. He envisioned the trade cities that would rise against the horizon, the clutter of suburban subdivisions choking out the forests; he saw the pall of industrial smoke that would soil the clean air, the great machines clattering over asphalt streets.
For the first time he stated the problem honestly, to himself: this world must be saved exactly as it was. But how? How could Lord continue to represent Hamilton Lord, Inc., as a reputable trade agent, and at the same time save Niaga's people from the impact of civilization?
It was sunset when he returned to the Ceres. On the clearing the festivities were still going on, but at a slower pace. Ann Howard was waiting for Lord at the door of his cabin. She registered her official disapproval of the revelry, which Lord had expected, and then she added, "We can't make a treaty with them; these people have no government with the authority to deal with us."
"You're wrong, Ann; there's a council of elders--"
"I beg to differ, Mr. Lord." Her lips made a flat, grim line against her teeth. "This afternoon I made a point of talking to every native in the clearing. Their idea of government is something they call the law of humanity. Whether it is written down or not, I have no way of knowing; but certainly they have no such thing as a central authority. This rather indicates a teacher trusteeship for the planet, I believe."
"You've made a mistake, Ann; I'll have to check for myself."
Lord and Ann Howard moved together through the clearing and he began to talk to the natives. In each case he elicited the same information that Ann had given him. The mention of a governing council seemed to amuse the savages. Lord and Ann were still conducting their puzzling inquest when Niaga returned from the village. She said that the council had been called and would meet within a week.
"There seems to be some difference of opinion," Ann told her coldly, "between you and your people."
"Yes," Lord added uncertainly, "I've been asking about the council and--"
"But you didn't phrase your question clearly," Niaga put in smoothly. "We're not quite used to using your words yet with your definitions." To make her point, she called the same natives whom Ann and Lord had questioned, and this time, without exception, they reversed their testimony. Lord was willing to believe the language had caused the difficulty. Niaga's people were entirely incapable of deception; what reason would they have had?
From that hour, the clearing was never altogether free of native guests. They deluged Lord's crew with kindness and entertainment. Lord never left the ship, day or night, without having Niaga slip up beside him and put her arm through his. Because Ann Howard had made her objections so clear, the native women, in an effort to please the teacher, had taken to wearing more clothing than they were accustomed to. But they rejected the sack-like plastics which Ann dispensed in the schoolroom and put on the mist-like, pastel-colored netting which they used normally to decorate their homes. If anything, the addition of clothing made the women more attractive than ever.
The scientists among Lord's men analyzed the planetary resources and found the planet unbelievably rich in metals; the botanists determined that the seeds for the exotic fruits and flowers were exportable. All told, Niaga's world could develop into the richest franchise in the Federation.
Niaga took Lord to visit the villages which were close to the landing site. Each town was exactly like its neighbors, a tiny cluster of small, yellow-walled, flat-roofed houses nestled among the tall trees close to a cleared farmland which was worked co-operatively by everyone in the village. No single town was large, yet judging from the number that he saw, Lord estimated the planetary population in the billions.
Continuously Niaga tried to persuade him to stay and build a colony in the new world. Lord knew that the other natives were being as persuasive with the rest of the crew. And the temptation was very real: to trade the energetic, competitive, exhausting routine that he knew for the quiet peace and relaxation here.
As the days passed the rigid scheduling of exploratory activities, always practiced by a trade mission, began to break down. The charming savages of this new world put no monetary value on time, and something of their spirit began to infect Lord's crew. They stopped bucking for overtime; most of them applied for accumulated sick leave--so they could walk in the forest with the native women, or swim in the forest pools. Even Lord found time to relax.
One afternoon, after a swim with Niaga, they lay in the warm sun on the grassy bank of a stream. Niaga picked a blue, delicately scented water lily, and gently worked it into his hair. Slowly she bent her face close until her lips brushed his cheek.
"Must you really go away when the treaty is made?"
"I'm a Lord, Niaga."
"Does that matter? If you like it here--"
"Niaga, I wish--I wish--" He shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
"Why is it so important for you to build your trade cities?"
As he sought for words to answer her question, the spell of her presence was broken. He saw her for what she was: an extremely beautiful woman, sensuously very lovely, yet nonetheless a primitive--a forlorn child without any conception of the meaning of civilization. "We keep our union of planets economically sound," he explained patiently, "and at peace by constantly expanding--"
"I have visited the schoolroom your teacher has put up beside the ship. I have seen her models of the many machines your people know how to build. But why do you do it, Martin Lord?"
"The machines make our lives easier and more comfortable; they--"
"More comfortable than this?" She gestured toward the stream and the cultivated forest.
"Your world moves at the pace of a walk, Niaga; with our machines, you could rise above your trees, reach your destination in minutes--when now it takes you days."
"And miss all the beauty on the way. What point is there in saving time, and losing so much that really matters? Do your machines give you anything--you as a person, Martin Lord--that you couldn't have here without them?"
The question was unanswerable. It symbolized the enormous gulf that lay between Niaga and himself. More than that, Lord saw clearly that the trade cities would destroy her world utterly. Neither Niaga nor her way of life could survive the impact of civilization. And the exotic charm, the friendly innocence was worth saving. Somehow Lord had to find a way to do it.
Lord was by no means surprised when the first three men jumped ship and went to live in one of the quiet villages. Subconsciously he envied them; subconsciously he wished he had the courage to make the same decision. Although Ann Howard demanded it, Lord couldn't seriously consider taking measures to stop further desertions.
When Don Howard jumped ship, he brought the issue to a head. Ann maneuvered Lord so that he would have to take a stand. What and how, he didn't know.
It was the first time since the landing that Niaga had not been waiting outside the ship for Lord. At his request she had gone to the village to find what progress had been made in calling the council of elders. Lord knew where to find her, but after his talk with Ann he walked slowly along the forest path. He stopped to dip his face into the stream where he had first met Niaga. Anything to put off the showdown. Lord was trying desperately to understand and evaluate his own motivation.
He accepted the fact that he had not stopped the desertions because, if enough men jumped ship, the Ceres would be unable to take off again. Lord could then have embraced Niaga's temptation without having to make the decision for himself. But that was a coward's way out and no solution. There would always be people like Ann Howard who would not accept the situation. They would eventually make radio communication with the Federation, and the location of Niaga's world would no longer be a secret.
Fundamentally that was the only thing that counted: to preserve this world from the impact of civilization.
Then suddenly, as he listened to the music of the stream, Lord saw how that could be done. Ann Howard had offered him a deal; she would keep her word. Everything hinged on that.
Don Howard had to be brought back--if persuasion failed, then by force.
Martin Lord ran back to the clearing. From a supply shed he took a pair of deadly atomic pistols. Their invisible, pin-point knife of exploding energy could slice through eighteen feet of steel, transform a mountain into a cloud of radioactive dust.
He ran through the forest to the village. As usual, the children were playing games on the grass, while the adults lounged in front of their dwellings or enjoyed community singing and dancing to the pulsing rhythm of their music. The sound of gaiety suddenly died as Lord walked between the rows of houses.
Strange, he thought; they seemed to guess what was in his mind. Niaga ran from the quiet crowd and took his hand.
"No, Martin Lord; you must not interfere!"
"He is a free man; he has a right to choose--"
"I'm going to take him back." He drew one of his guns. She looked at him steadily, without fear, and she said, "We made you welcome; we have given you our friendship, and now you--"
He pushed her aside brutally because her gentleness, her lack of anger, tightened the constriction of his own sense of guilt. Lord fired his weapon at the trunk of a tree. The wood flamed red for a moment and the sound of the explosion rocked the air, powdering the grass with black ash.
"This is the kind of power controlled by men," he said. His voice was harsh, shrill with shame and disgust for the role he had to play. "I shall use this weapon to destroy your homes--each of them, one by one--unless you surrender Don Howard to me."
As he turned the pistol slowly toward the closest yellow wall, Niaga whispered, "Violence is a violation of the law of humanity. We offered Don Howard sanctuary and peace--as we offer it to all of you. Stay with us, Martin Lord; make your home here."
He clenched his jaw. "I want Don and I want him now!"
"But why must you go back? Your world is powerful; your world is enormous with cities and machines. But what does it hold for you as a man, Martin Lord? Here we give you the dreams of your own soul, peace and beauty, laughter and dignity."
"Surrender, Don!" Although he was vaguely aware of it, he had no time to consider consciously the strangely sophisticated wording of her argument. When she continued to talk in the same gentle voice, the temptation caressed his mind like a narcotic; against his will, the tension began to wash from his muscles. Driven by a kind of madness to escape the sound of her voice, he pulled the trigger. The yellow wall exploded. Concussion throbbed in his ears, deafening him--but he still heard her whisper in the depths of his soul, like the music of a forest stream.