"I can and I do," Jrann-Pttt replied, haughtily squeegeeing his wet scales. "All I said was that a storm might be coming up and it might be dangerous. How was I to know it would last only half an hour?"
"Even the camp stools pulled through," Greenfield pointed out, "and you said shelters wouldn't stand up."
"I only said they might not. Can't you understand your own language?"
The fissure in the clouds had not quite closed yet and through it the enormous, blazing disk of the sun glared at them, twice as large as it appeared from Earth. It was a moot point as to whether they'd be dried out or steamed alive first.
"Might as well collect whatever gear we have left and get it to higher ground," Miss Anspacher said efficiently. "Two feet of water won't do anything any good--even those camp stools."
"It's my belief you wanted this to happen," Greenfield accused Jrann-Pttt. "You wanted to get rid of us."
"My dear fellow," Jrann-Pttt replied loftily, "the information I gave you was, to the best of my knowledge, accurate. However, I happen to be a professor of zoology and not a meteorologist. Apparently you people live out in the open like primitives," he continued, ignoring Dfar-Lll's admiring interjection, "and are accustomed to the vicissitudes of weather. I am a civilized creature; I live--" or used to live--"in an air-conditioned, light-conditioned, weather-conditioned city. It is only when I rough it on field trips like this to trackless parts of the--globe that I am forced to experience weather. Even then, I have never before been caught in a situation like this."
In fact, I was never before caught or I wouldn't be in this situation at all.
"Oh, Jrann-Pttt," sighed Miss Anspacher, "I knew you couldn't be just an ordinary native!"
"How did you get into this situation then?" Professor Bernardi asked. He had an unfortunate talent for going directly to the point.
"The third member of our expedition died," Jrann-Pttt explained. "He was our dirigational expert. Our guide."
"How did he happen to--"
"Are we just going to stand here chatting," Miss Anspacher demanded, "or are we going to do something about this?"
"What can we do?" Mrs. Bernardi asked weakly. "We might just as well lie down and--"
"Never say die, Louisa," Miss Anspacher admonished.
"I suggest we go to my camp to see what shape it's in," Jrann-Pttt said, furiously putting together Plan C. "Some of the supplies there might prove useful."
Captain Greenfield looked questioningly at Bernardi. The professor shrugged. "Might as well."
"All right," the captain growled. "Let's pick up whatever we can save."
Since there wasn't much that could be rescued, the little safari was soon on its way. Jrann-Pttt led, carrying Algol in his arms. Behind came Mortland, bearing a camp stool and the kettle into which he had tucked a tin of biscuits and into which the mosquito-bat had tucked itself, its orange eyes glaring out angrily from beneath the lid. Next came Mrs. Bernardi with her knitting, her camp stool and her sorrow.
Dfar-Lll followed with two stools and the plastic tea set. Close behind was Miss Anspacher, with the sugar bowl, the earthenware teapot and an immense bound volume of the Proceedings of the Physical Society of Ameranglis for 1993. Professor Bernardi bore a briefcase full of notes and the table. The rain had damaged the latter's mechanism, so that its legs kept unfolding from time to time, to the great inconvenience of Captain Greenfield, who brought up the rear with the blasting equipment. Behind them and sometimes alongside them came something--or someone--else.
"Surely your camp must have been closer to ours than this," Miss Anspacher finally remarked after they had been slogging through mud and water and pushing aside reluctant vegetation for over an Earth hour.
"I am very much afraid," Jrann-Pttt admitted, "that our camp has been lost--that is to say, inundated."
"What are we going to do now?" the captain asked of the company at large.
Professor Bernardi shrugged. "Our only course would seem to be making for one of the cities and throwing ourselves upon the na--Jrann-Pttt's people's hospitality. If Professor Jrann-Pttt has even the vaguest idea of the direction in which his home lies, we might as well head that way." I wonder whether the natives could help us raise the ship.
"I'm sure my people will be more than happy to welcome you," Jrann-Pttt said smoothly, "and to make you comfortable until your people send another ship to fetch you."
The terrestrials looked at one another. Dfar-Lll looked at Jrann-Pttt.
Professor Bernardi coughed. "That was the only spaceship we had," he admitted. "The first experimental model, you know." We don't expect to stay on this awful planet forever. After all, as Louisa says, the government will have to forgive us. Public opinion and all that.
"Oh," the saurian said. "Then we shall have the pleasure of your company until they build another?"
There was silence. "We have the only plans," the professor said, gripping his briefcase more tightly. "I am the inventor of the ship, so naturally I would have them." If we brought back some specimens of Venusian life--of intelligent Venusian life--to prove we'd been here....
"Matter of fact, old fellow," Mortland said, "we took all the plans with us so they couldn't build another ship and follow--"
"Mortland!" the professor exclaimed.
"But they're telepaths," Miss Anspacher said. "They must know already."
Everyone turned to look at the saurians.
"I have ... certain information," Jrann-Pttt admitted, "but I cannot understand it. You are in trouble with your rulers because they would not give you the funds, claiming space travel was impossible?"
"That's right," Bernardi said. Not really specimens, you understand. Guests.
"And you went ahead and appropriated the funds and materials from your government, since you were in a trusted position where you could do so?"
"Of course the question is now academic, for the ship is gone, but since you proved the possibility of space travel by coming here, wouldn't your government then dismiss the charges against you?"
"That's exactly what I keep telling him!" Mrs. Bernardi exclaimed.
But her husband shook his head. "The law is inflexible. We have broken it and must be punished, even if by breaking it we proved its fundamental error." Why let him know our plans?
Why, Jrann-Pttt, that sounds just like our own government, doesn't it?
Yes, it does. We should be able to establish a very satisfactory mode of living with these strangers.
"We'd hoped that after a year or so the whole thing would die down," Mortland explained frankly, "and we'd go back as heroes."
"Do you know the way to your home, Jrann-Pttt?" the professor asked anxiously.
"Since we were able to catch a glimpse of the sun, I think I can figure out roughly where we are. All we must do is walk some two hundred kilometers in that direction--" he waved an arm to indicate the way--"and we should be at the capital."
"Will your people accept us as refugees?" Miss Anspacher demanded bluntly, "or will we be captives?" Which is what I'll bet the good professor is planning for you, if only he can figure some way to get you and, of course, ourselves back.
"We should be proud to accept you as citizens and to receive the benefits of your splendid technology. Our laboratories will be placed at your disposal."
"Well, that's better than we hoped for," the professor said, brightening. "We had expected to have to carve our own laboratories out of the wilderness. Now we shall be able to carry on our researches in comfort." No need to trouble the natives; we'll be able to raise the ship ourselves. Or build a new one. And I'll see to it personally that they have special quarters in the zoo with a considerable amount of privacy.
"If I were you, I wouldn't trust him too far," the captain warned. "He's a foreigner."
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Captain!" Miss Anspacher said. "I, for one, trust Jrann-Pttt implicitly. Did you say this direction, Jrann-Pttt?" She stepped forward briskly. There was a loud splash and water closed over her head.
Captain Greenfield rushed forward to haul her out. "Well," she said, daintily coughing up mud, "I was wet to begin with, anyway."
"You're a brave little woman, Miss Anspacher," the captain told her admiringly.
"This sort of thing may present a problem," Professor Bernardi commented. "I hope that was only a pot-hole, that the water is not going to be consistently too deep for wading."
"There might be quicksand, too," Mrs. Bernardi said somberly. "In quicksand, one drowns slowly."
Dfar-Lll gave a start. Surely you don't intend to lead them back to base?
Precisely. The swamp is unfit for settlement.
But to return voluntarily to captivity?
Who mentioned anything about captivity? Assisted by our new friends, we have an excellent chance of taking over the ship and supplies by a surprise attack.
But why should these aliens assist us?
Jrann-Pttt smiled. Oh, I think they will. Yes, I have every confidence in Plan C.
"I suggest," the professor said, ignoring his wife's pessimism, "that each one of us pull a branch from a tree. We can test the ground before we step on it, to make sure that there is solid footing underneath."
"Good idea," the captain approved. He reached out the arm that was not occupied with Miss Anspacher and tugged at a tree limb.
And then he and the lady physicist were both floundering in the ooze.
"Well, really, Captain Greenfield!" she cried, refusing his aid in extricating herself. "I always thought you were at least a gentleman in spite of your illiteracy!"
"Wha--what happened?" he asked as he struggled out of the mud. "Something pushed me; I swear it."
Jrann-Pttt mentalized. "It seems the tree did not like your trying to remove a branch."
"The tree!" Greenfield's pale blue eyes bulged. "You're joking!"
"Not at all. As a matter of fact, I myself have been wondering why there were so many thought-streams and yet so few animals around here. It never occurred to me that the vegetation could be sentient and have such strong emotive defenses. In all my experience as a botanist, I--"
"I thought you were a zoologist," Bernardi interrupted.
"My people do not believe in excessive specialization," the saurian replied.
"Trees that think?" Mortland inquired incredulously.
"They're not very bright," Jrann-Pttt explained, "but they don't like having their limbs pulled off. I don't suppose you would, either, for that matter."
"I propose," Miss Anspacher said, shaking out her wet hair, "that we break up the camp stools and use the sticks instead of branches to help us along."
"Good idea," the captain said, trying to get back into her good graces. "I always knew women could put their brains to use if they tried."
She glared at him.
"I thought we'd use the furniture to make a fire later," Mortland complained. "For tea, you know."
"The ground's much too wet," Professor Bernardi replied.
"And besides," Miss Anspacher added, "I lost the teapot in that pot-hole."
"But you managed to save the Proceedings of the Physical Society," Mortland snarled. "Serve you right if I eat it. And I warn you, if hard-pressed, I shall."
"How will we cook our food, though?" Mrs. Bernardi demanded apprehensively. "It's a lucky thing, Mr. Pitt, that we have you with us to tell us which of the berries and things are edible, so at least we shan't starve."
The visible portion of Jrann-Pttt's well-knit form turned deeper green. "But I regret to say I don't know, Mrs. Bernardi. Those 'native' foods I served you were all synthetics from our personal stores. I never tasted natural foods before I met you."
"And if the trees don't like our taking their branches," Miss Anspacher put in, "I don't suppose the bushes would like our taking their berries. Louisa, don't do that!"
But Mrs. Bernardi, with her usual disregard for orders, had fainted into the mud. Pulling her out and reviving her caused so much confusion, it wasn't until then that they discovered Algol had disappeared.
The party had been trudging through mud and water and struggling with pale, malevolent vines and bushes and low-hanging branches for close to six Earth hours. All of them were tired and hungry, now that their meager supply of biscuits and chocolate was gone.
"Remember, Carl," Mrs. Bernardi told her husband, "I forgive you. And I know I'm being foolishly sentimental, but if you could manage to take my body back to Earth--"
"Don't be so pessimistic." Professor Bernardi absent-mindedly leaned against a tree, then recoiled as he remembered it might resent being treated like an inanimate object. "In any case, we'll most likely all die at the same time."
"I never did want to go to Venus, really," Mrs. Bernardi sniffled. "I only came, like Algol did, because I didn't have any choice. If you left me behind, I'd have had to bear the brunt of.... Where is Algol?" She stared at Jrann-Pttt. "You were carrying him. What have you done with him?"
The lizard-man looked at her in consternation. "He jumped out of my arms when you fainted and I turned back to help. I was certain one of the others had him."
"He's dead!" she wailed. "You let him fall into the water and drown--an innocent kitty that never hurt anybody, except in fun."
"Come, come, Louisa." Her husband took her arm. "He was only a cat. I'm sure Jrann-Pttt didn't mean for him to drown. He was just so upset by your fainting that he didn't think...."
"Not Jrann-Pttt's fault, of course," Miss Anspacher said.
"After all, we can't expect them to love animals as we do. But Algol was a very good sort of cat...."
"Keep quiet, all of you!" Jrann-Pttt shouted. "I have never known any species to use any method of communication so much in order to communicate so little. Don't you understand? I would not have assumed the cat was with one of you, if I had not subconsciously sensed his thought-stream all along. He must be nearby."
Everyone was still, while Jrann-Pttt probed the dense underbrush that blocked their view on both sides. "Over here," he announced, and led the way through the thick screen of interlaced bushes and vines on the left.
About ten meters farther on, the ground sloped up sharply to form a ridge rising a meter and a half above the rest of the terrain. The water had not reached its blunted top, and on this fairly level strip of ground, perhaps three meters wide, Algol had been paralleling their path in dry-pawed comfort.
"Scientists!" Louisa Bernardi almost spat. "Professors! We could have been walking on that, too. But did anybody think to look for dry ground? No! It was wet in one place, so it would be wet in another. Oh, Algol--" she reached over to embrace the cat--"you're smarter than any so-called intelligent life-forms."
He indignantly straightened a whisker she had crumpled.