After a fashion. Jrann-Pttt yawned and rose. But why are we sitting here? Let's start back to our camp. We will be able to converse more comfortably.
They made their way through the jungle--now walking, now wading where the mud became water. Small creatures with hardly any thoughts scurried before them as they went.
The commandant may have already made contact with their rulers, Dfar-Lll suggested, springing forward to illuminate the way. In that case, we couldn't hope to remain undiscovered for long.
Oh, these creatures are not Venusians. There's no intelligent life here. They hail from the third planet of this system and, according to their thoughts, this is the only vessel that was capable of traversing interplanetary space. So we needn't worry about extradition treaties or any other official annoyances.
If they're friendly, why didn't you spend the night in their ship? It certainly looks more comfortable than our collapsible moslak--which, by the way, collapsed while you were gone. I hope we'll be able to put it up again ourselves. I must say this for the lieutenant--he was good at that sort of thing.
Jrann-Pttt made a gesture of distaste. He was unfortunately good at other things, too. But let's not discuss him. I'm not staying with the strangers because I want to pick up one or two little things--mostly some of our food to serve them. I used up all the supplies in my pack and I want them to think we're living off the land. They believe me to be a primitive and it's best that they should until I decide just how I'm going to make most efficient use of them. Besides, I didn't want to leave you alone.
The younger saurian sniffed skeptically.
"Honestly, Pitt," Mrs. Bernardi said, keeping to leeward of the tablecloth the lizard-man was efficiently shaking out of the airlock, "I've never had a--an employee as competent as you." But the word she had in mind, of course, was "servant." "I do wish you'd come back to Earth with us."
"Perhaps you would compel me to come?" he suggested, as Algol and the mosquito-bat entered into hot competition to catch the crumbs before they sank into the purple ooze.
"Oh, no! We'd want you to come as our guest--our friend." Naturally, her thoughts ran, a house guest would be expected to help with the washing up and lend a hand with the cooking--and, of course, we wouldn't have to pay him. Though my husband, I suppose, would requisition him as a specimen.
I fully intend to go to Earth with them, Jrann-Pttt mused, but certainly not in that capacity. Nor would I care to be a specimen. I must formulate some concrete plan.
The captain was crawling on top of the spaceship, scraping off the dried mud, brushing away the leaves and dust that marred its shining purity. The hot, humid haze that poured down from the yellow clouds made the metal surface a little hell. Yet it was hardly less warm on the other side of the clearing, where Miss Anspacher tried desperately to write up her notes on a table that kept sinking into the spongy ground, and hindered by the thick wind that had arisen half an hour before and which kept blowing her papers off. The sweet odor of the flowers tucked in the open neck of her already grimy white blouse suddenly sickened her and she flung them into the mud.
"We won't be going back to Earth for a long time!" she called. Gathering up the purple-stained papers, she came toward the others, little puffs of mist rising at each step. "We like it here. Lovely country."
How could she think to please even the savage she fancied him to be by such an inanity, Jrann-Pttt wondered. No one could possibly like that fetid swamp. Or was it not so much that she was trying to please him as convince herself? Was there some reason the terrestrials had for needing to like Venus. It hovered on the edge of the women's minds. If only it would emerge completely, he could pick it up, but it lurked in the shadows of their subconscious, tantalizing him.
"I'd like to know when we're going to start putting up the shelters," Mrs. Bernardi said, pushing a streak of fog-yellow hair out of her eyes. "I can't stand being cooped up for another night on that ship."
"You're planning to put up shelters--to live outside of the ship?" This would seem to confirm his darkest suspicions. Even a temporary settlement would leave them too open to visitation from the commandant. What his attitude toward the aliens might be, Jrann-Pttt didn't know. He might consider them as specimens, as enemies or as potential allies. What his attitude toward Jrann-Pttt and his companion would be, however, the saurian knew only too well. Had they reported the lieutenant's demise immediately, it was possible the commandant might have been brought to believe it was an accident. Now he would unquestionably think Jrann-Pttt had killed Merglyt-Ruuu on purpose--which was not true; how was Jrann-Pttt to know that the mud into which he'd knocked the lieutenant was quicksand?
"Anything against putting up shelters?" Captain Greenfield growled from his perch.
"Monster!" the mosquito-bat shrieked at the cat. "Monster! Monster!"
There was a painfully embarrassed silence.
"The creature is not intelligent," Jrann-Pttt explained, smiling. "It merely has vocal apparatus that can reproduce a frequently heard word, like--you have a bird, I believe, a--" he searched their minds for the word--"a parrot."
"Monster!" the mosquito-bat continued. "Monster! Monster!"
"Shut up or I'll wring your neck!" the captain snarled. The mosquito-bat obeyed sullenly, apparently recognizing the threat in his tone.
But the concept of "monster" hung heavily in the air between the terrestrials and the lizard-man. They should not feel so bad about it, he thought, for they are the monsters themselves. But that would never occur to them and I can hardly reassure them by saying....
"Don't worry," Professor Bernardi said smoothly. "To him, it's we who are the monsters."
A sudden gust of wind nearly whipped the tablecloth out of Jrann-Pttt's hands. He fought with it for a moment, glad of something tangible to contend with. "About the shelters," he said. "They might not stand up against a storm."
"So this is monsoon country," Bernardi observed thoughtfully. "Do you know when the storms usually come, Jrann-Pttt?" The other shook his head. "Peculiar. There usually is a season for that sort of thing."
"I ... come from another part of the planet."
"Storms here are bad, eh?" the captain commented, swinging himself down easily. "Frankly, that worries me. Ship's resting on mud as far as I can see, and if there's one thing I do know something about, it's mud. If it got any wetter, the ship might sink."
"Maybe we should leave," Mrs. Bernardi suggested. "Go to another part of the planet where it's drier, or--" she tried not to show the sudden surge of hope--"leave for home and come back after the rainy season."
There was a sudden silence, and Jrann-Pttt found himself able to pick up the answers to some of his questions from the alien minds. His worst fears were confirmed. Plan A was out. But something could still be done with these creatures.
"Doesn't she know?" the captain demanded accusingly. "You brought her here without telling her?"
Bernardi spread his hands wide in a futile gesture. "She should know; I've told her repeatedly. She just doesn't understand ... or doesn't want to."
"I know they'll forgive us," Mrs. Bernardi said stubbornly. "We--you--haven't done anything really wrong, so how could they do anything terrible to us? After all, didn't they refuse you the funds because they said you couldn't--"
"Shhh, Louisa," her husband commanded.
Jrann-Pttt smiled to himself.
--"do it," she went on. "And you did. So they were wrong and they'll have to forgive us."
"Tcha!" Miss Anspacher said. "Since when was there any fairness in justice?"
"On the other hand," Mrs. Bernardi continued, "we have no idea of how dangerous the storms here could be."
"Very dangerous," Jrann-Pttt said.
"For you, perhaps," the captain retorted. "Maybe not for us."
"Now that's silly," Miss Anspacher said. "You can see that Jrann-Pttt is much more--" she blushed--"sturdily built than we are."
"I don't mean that we could face it without protection," the captain replied angrily. "Naturally I mean that our superior technology could cope with the effects of any storm."
"Well, Captain, we'll have to put that superior technology to use at once," the professor told him. "You'd better start blasting that rock."
Laden with equipment and malevolent thoughts, the captain trudged off into the murky jungle. The others would not even offer to help. Confounded scientists; they certainly took his status as captain seriously. He wished, for a disloyal moment, that he had stayed on Earth. The quiet routine of a test pilot had prepared him for nothing like this. Were Miss Anspacher and adventure worth it? At the moment, he thought not. But he was on Venus and it was too late to change his mind.
Jrann-Pttt followed him into the jungle, keeping some distance behind, for he had good reason to suspect that Greenfield would take his warm interest in terrestrial technology for plain spying. Or, worse yet, he might try to press the lizard-man into service; Jrann-Pttt felt he had demeaned himself quite enough already.
"Have you noticed," Miss Anspacher asked, pushing the mass of damp brown hair off her neck as she came alongside him, "how the--the smell--" a scientist does not mince words--"of the swamp has grown stronger?"
Jrann-Pttt halted. He had a good idea of what the captain's reactions to the sight of himself and Miss Anspacher arriving hand-in-hand would be. "Yes, it is getting rather overpowering. Perhaps, for a lady of your delicate sensibilities, it would be best to--"
"I can stand a bad smell just as well as a male--any male!"
"Perhaps even better," Jrann-Pttt said, "for I was on the verge of turning back myself."
"Oh," she said, appeased. "Well, in that case, I'll go back with you ... how quiet everything is!"
He had not noticed. For him, it would never be quiet because of the stream of jangled thoughts constantly pouring into the back of his mind from everything sentient that surrounded him.
For a moment, he wondered what it would be like to be non-telepathic like the terrestrials, to have peace from the clamor of confused impressions, emotions and ideas that persistently beat at his mind. But that would be wondering how it was to be deaf to avoid discord, or blind to shut out ugliness.
"The lull before the storm, I suppose," she said brightly. Now is his opportunity to kiss me--only perhaps they don't have kissing in his society. His mouth does seem to be the wrong shape. And if I kissed him, it might violate a taboo.
During their short absence, the citrine clouds that closed off the sky had changed to a sinister umber. It was now almost as dusky in the clearing as in the jungle itself, when Jrann-Pttt and Miss Anspacher returned and joined the others.
Professor Bernardi stood looking up with sharp gray eyes at a sky he could not see. "I hope Greenfield can finish the blasting more quickly than he estimated," he muttered.
"Will we hear the noise way out here, Carl?" his wife worried nervously.
"Only two kilometers away? Of course we'll hear it. I do wish you wouldn't always be asking such stupid questions."
She shivered. "Well, I hope they get it over with right away. If we just have to sit here waiting and waiting and waiting, I'll go mad. I know I will."
"You should try to keep your nerves in check, Louisa," Miss Anspacher snapped. Silly little fool.
"At least I can control my glands!" Mrs. Bernardi flared back. Sex-starved spinster.
"I shall make some tea, ladies," Jrann-Pttt interposed. "I'm sure we will all feel the better for it."
Mrs. Bernardi smiled at him feebly. "You're such a comfort, Pitt. I don't know why you of all creatures should be the one to remind me of home."
"Home," remarked Mortland, emerging from the airlock, "is where the heart is. Did I hear someone say 'tea'?"
As Jrann-Pttt hung the kettle over the fire, suddenly the air erupted in stunning violence of sound. The ground undulated under their feet and water slopped out of the kettle, almost putting out the fire that rose high to claw at it. Rivulets of thick, muddy liquid welled out of the ground and drabbled their feet. The women turned pale. Algol gave a faint cry and hid under Mrs. Bernardi's skirts, trembling, while the mosquito-bat tried to lift Mortland's toupee and hide in his hair. The ship itself quivered and seemed to jump slightly in the air, then returned to its resting place.
All was quiet again, quieter than it had been before. Mortland anxiously gnawed his light mustache. "Better hurry with that tea, there's a good fellow. I'm violently allergic to loud noises."
"They'll probably continue all day," the professor said with almost malevolent cheerfulness, "so you might as well get used to them." Who is he to have nerves? I am easily the most sensitive person here, but I manage to control myself.
"I don't know how I'm going to stand it!" Mrs. Bernardi shrieked. "I just know something terrible is going to happen."
"Please try to restrain yourself, Louisa," her husband ordered. "After it's over, you'll find we'll be much more comfortable and secure with the ship resting on rock."
"If you ask me, that blast made it sink a little," Mortland said. "I wonder whether--"
He was interrupted by a thrashing in the bushes. Dfar-Lll burst forth, shedding scales. Do not despair, Jrann-Pttt. I am here, ready to save you or die at your side.
The women clutched each other, Miss Anspacher praying silently and fervently to Juno, Lakshmi, Freya, Isis and a host of other esoteric female deities she had picked up in the course of her avocational researches.
"He seems to be one of Jrann-Pttt's people," Bernardi observed, "so there should be nothing to fear."
Dfar-Lll, you fool! Jrann-Pttt ideated angrily. Nothing's wrong. They're just blasting out a better berth for their vessel. And now you've spoiled my plans.
"What did you think at that poor little creature!" Mrs. Bernardi blazed. "He's crying!" And, sure enough, amethyst tears were oozing out of the young saurian's large, liquid eyes.
I du-didn't mean any harm.
"Monster!" Mrs. Bernardi accused Jrann-Pttt. "All men are monsters, whether they're aliens or not."
"You're so right, Louisa!" Miss Anspacher exclaimed, regarding the younger creature in an almost kindly manner.
I'm sorry, r-Lll, Jrann-Pttt apologized. I was upset by that noise, too. How could you possibly know what it was? Come, let me introduce you to the creatures.
Dfar-Lll stepped forward diffidently. Jrann-Pttt put a hand on the moss-green shoulder. "Allow me to introduce my companion, Dfar-Lll," he said aloud.
The youngster looked at him.
Mrs. Bernardi thrust out her hand. "I'm very glad to meet you, Lil."
Agitate it with one of yours. It's a courtesy. Don't let her see how repulsive she is to you. Remember, you're just as repulsive to her.
Dfar-Lll offered a shy, seven-fingered hand. "Pleased ... to meet you ... ma'am," the young lizard squeaked.
"Why, he's just a baby, isn't he?" Mrs. Bernardi asked.
I am not a baby! Dfar-Lll thought indignantly. At the end of this year, I shall celebrate my pre-maturity feast, or I would have. And furthermore-- There was another thunderous blast of sound. After the ground had stopped trembling, the six found themselves ankle-deep in muddy water. Algol, who was in considerably deeper than his ankles, mewed fretfully. Mrs. Bernardi picked him up and comforted him.
"Perhaps blasting wasn't such a good idea," the professor muttered. "Maybe I should tell Greenfield to call a halt and we'll take our chances with the storm. As a matter of fa--"
"The ship!" Mortland cried. "It is sinking!"
And the big metal ball slowly but visibly was indeed subsiding into the mud.
"Stop it, somebody!" Miss Anspacher snapped in her customary schoolroom manner.
The professor was pale, but he held on to his calm. "What can we do? Even if we could get the captain back in time, there's no way we can stop it. It's too heavy to pull out manually, and the engines, of course, are inside."
As they watched in horror, the ship sank deeper and deeper, picking up momentum as more of it went under. With a loud, sucking sound, it vanished into the ooze. Muddy water gurgled over it and, where the ship had been, there was now a small lake.
"This could be the beginning of a legend," Miss Anspacher murmured. "Or the end."
There was another vibrant detonation. "Someone ought to go tell the captain there's no use blasting any more," Bernardi said wearily. "We have nothing to put on the rock when he smooths it off." He began to laugh. "I suppose you could call this poetic justice." And he went on laughing, losing a bit of his former self-control.
There goes Plan B, Jrann-Pttt thought.
A star of intensely bright green lightning split the clouds and widened to cover the visible expanse of sky. There was a planet-shaking clap of thunder that made Greenfield's puny efforts sound like the snapping of twigs in comparison and it began to rain hard and fast.
"If only I hadn't gone and blasted that damn rock," the captain grumbled, squeezing water out of his shirt-tails, "we'd have been all right. Probably the storm wouldn't have done a thing to the ship except get it wet. If you can even call it a storm."