He efficiently deployed the personnel to the positions on the raft where he felt they might be least useless, the gear being piled in the middle and surmounted by Algol, who naturally assumed possession of the softest and safest place by the divine right of cats.
The captain does have a commanding presence, Miss Anspacher thought, and a sort of uncouth grace. Moreover, he cannot read my mind--in fact, he often cannot even understand me when I speak.
"All right!" he bellowed. "Cast off!"
The vine unfastened the rope that it had insouciantly attached to a tree trunk, remarking to the others, "Don't let the trees intimidate you. Actually their bark is worse than their bite." Now it dropped lithely on board the raft, looking for a comfortable resting place.
"Please don't twine around me," Miss Anspacher said coldly. "If you insist upon coming with us, you will have to choose an inanimate object to cling to."
"All right, all right," it tried to soothe her. "No need to get yourself all worked up over such a mere triviality, is there? I'll just coil myself tidily around one of those spare logs. I must say you're warmer, though."
Yes, she is, isn't she? thought the captain, and squeezed her hand.
The raft drifted down the river. Since the current was flowing in the desired direction, there did not appear to be any need to use the poles, and everyone sat or reclined as comfortably as possible in the suffocating heat. The yellow haze had become so thick that they seemed to be at the bottom of a custard cup.
"I do hope we're heading the right way," Professor Bernardi said, although who knows what is right and what is wrong any more?
"Perhaps we aren't," Mrs. Bernardi mused, stroking Algol, who had crawled into her lap. "Perhaps we will go drifting along endlessly. Every sixteen days, it will get dark and every sixteen days it will get light, and meanwhile we will continue floating along, never going anywhere, never getting anywhere, never seeing anything but haze and raft and river and each other." Algol wheezed in his sleep.
"Nonsense!" Jrann-Pttt said rudely. "I have a compass. I know the direction perfectly well."
"And yet you let us think we were wandering about blindly." Miss Anspacher gave him a contemptuous look. The captain pressed her hand.
"Since you seem to breathe the same air and eat much the same food that we do, Mr. Pitt," Mrs. Bernardi changed her tack, "I suppose we'll be physically comfortable on your planet for the rest of our lives. Our children will be born there and our children's children, and eventually they'll forget all about Earth and think it was only a legend."
"But you did expect to settle permanently on Venus, didn't you?" the vine asked, bewilderedly. "Or for a long visit, anyway. So I don't really see that it makes much difference if you go to Jrann-Pttt's Alpha Centauri place. So much nicer to be living with friends, I should think."
"But Alpha Centauri is so very far away," Mrs. Bernardi sighed. "There wouldn't be much chance of our ever getting back."
"Look!" Mortland exclaimed. "The river's branching. Which fork do we take?"
Jrann-Pttt, who had been dabbling his arms idly in the translucent violet-blue water, withdrew them hastily as nine green eyes, obviously belonging to the same individual, rose to the surface and regarded him with more than casual interest. He consulted his compass. "Left."
"Contrarily!" the mosquito-bat suddenly squeaked, pointing a small rod at his companions. "Rightward."
There was a stunned silence.
"Monster!" Mortland cried in reproach. "You can talk! How could you deceive us like that?"
"Can talk," the creature retorted. "Me not intelligent life-form, ha! Who talks last talks best. Have not linguistic facility of inferior life-forms, but can communicate rudely in your language."
"Remember," Mortland cautioned, "there are ladies present."
"Have been lying low and laughing to self--ha, ha!--at witlessness of lowerly life-forms."
"But why?" Mrs. Bernardi demanded distractedly. "Haven't we been kind to you?"
"You be likewise well treated in our zoo," it assured her. "All of you. Our zoo finest in Galaxy. And clean, too."
"Now really, sir, I must protest--" Professor Bernardi began, trying to extricate a blaster unobtrusively from the pile of gear in which the too-confident terrestrials had cached their weapons.
Monster gestured with his rod. "This is lethal weapon. Do not try hindrancing me. Hate damage fine specimens. Captain, go rightward."
"Oh, is that so!" Greenfield retorted hotly. "Let me tell you, you--you insect!"
"George!" Miss Anspacher clutched his arm. "Do what it says. For my sake, George!"
"Oh, all right," he muttered. "Just for you, then. Told you not to trust any of 'em," he went on, reluctantly poling the raft in the ordered direction. "Foreigners!"
"Fine zoo," the mosquito-bat insisted. "Very clean. Run with utmost efficientness. Strict visiting hours."
"And there goes Plan D," the vine said lightly. There was a hint of laughter in its voice. Jrann-Pttt stared at it in consternation. "Are you also from the Alpha Centauri system, sir?" It turned its attention to the mosquito-bat. "Naturally I'm curious to know where I'm going," it explained, "since I seem definitely to be included in your gracious invitation."
"Alpha Centauri, hah!" the mosquito-bat snorted. "I from what Earthlets laughingly term Sirius. Alpha Centauri merely little star."
"Now see here!" Jrann-Pttt sprang to his feet. Criminal he might be, but he was not going to sit there and have his sun insulted!
"Gentlemen! Gentlemen!" Miss Anspacher cried. "No use getting yourself killed, Jrann-Pttt!"
"Correctly," Monster approved. "Elementary intelligence displayed. Why damage fine specimens?"
From one prison into another, the saurian mentalized bitterly.
Yes, returned Dfar-Lll, and it's all your fault. The junior lizard burst into tears. I wish I had let Merglyt-Ruuu do what he wanted. I would have been better off.
"Sirius," the vine repeated. "That's even farther away than Alpha Centauri, isn't it? I never thought I would get that far away from the swamp! This really will be an adventure!"
"How do you know--" Professor Bernardi began.
"Frankly," it went on, "I don't see why you chaps are so put out by the whole thing. What's the difference between Alpha Centauri and Sirius anyway? Matter of a few light-years, but otherwise a star's a star for all that."
"To Jrann-Pttt, we wouldn't have been specimens," Mrs. Bernardi said, belatedly recognizing the advantages of Alpha Centauri.
"No, not specimens," the vine told her easily. "I don't suppose you know he had no intention of taking you back to his system. He wanted you to help him kill the officers of his ship so they couldn't look for him and the other escaped prisoner or report back to his planet. Then he was going to put the ship out of commission and found his own colony here with you as his slaves. I'd just as soon be a specimen as a slave. Sooner. Better to reign in a zoo than serve in a swamp!"
"Just how do you know all this?" Miss Anspacher demanded.
"It's obvious enough," Bernardi said gloomily. "Another telepath." How can we compete or even cope with creatures like these? What a fool I was to think I could outwit them.
"Telepathy just tricksomeness," the mosquito-bat put in jealously. "I have no telepathy, yet superior to all."
"But why should Mr. Pitt want to kill his officers?" Mrs. Bernardi asked querulously. "He's the commandant, isn't he? Or is he a professor? I never got that straight."
"He was one of the criminals on the ship," the vine told her. "What you might call a confidence man. This is about the only system in the Galaxy where he isn't wanted. He did tell you the truth, though, when he said they were sent on an expedition to collect zoological specimens. Dangerous work," it sighed, "and so his people use criminals for it. They were sent out in small detachments. Our friend here killed his guard in a fight over a female prisoner, which was why--"
"But what happened to the female prisoner?" Miss Anspacher's eye caught Dfar-Lll's. "Oh, no!" she gasped.
"Why not?" Dfar-Lll demanded. "I'm as much of a female as you are. Maybe even more."
The captain leaned close to Miss Anspacher. "No one can be more feminine than you are, Dolores," he whispered.
"But he--she's so young!" Mrs. Bernardi wailed.
The vine made an amused sound. "Don't you have juvenile delinquents on Earth?"
"Oh, what does all that matter now?" Jrann-Pttt said sullenly. "We're all going to a Sirian zoo, anyway."
"Correctly," approved the monster-bat. "Finest zoo. Clean. Commodious cages. Reasonable visiting hours. Very nice."
Mrs. Bernardi began to cry.
"Now," the vine comforted her, "a zoo's not so bad. After all, most of us spend our lives in cages of one kind or another, and without the basic security a zoo affords--"
"But we don't know we're in cages," Mrs. Bernardi sobbed. "That's the important thing."
Professor Bernardi looked at the vine. "But why are you--" he began, then halted. "Perhaps I don't want an answer," he said. There was no hope at all left in him, now that there was no doubt.
"You are wise," the vine agreed quietly. Algol arose from Mr. Bernardi's lap and rubbed against its thick pale green stem. He knew. The mosquito-bat looked at both of them restlessly.
The yellow haze had deepened to old gold. Now it was beginning to turn brown.
"It's twilight," Miss Anspacher observed. "Soon it will be dark."
"Perhaps we'll sail right past his ship in the night," Mortland suggested hopefully.
The mosquito-bat gave a snort. "Ship has lights. All modern convenients."
Suddenly the air seemed to have grown chilly--colder than it had any right to be on that torrid planet. All around them, it was dark and very quiet.
"I think I do see lights," Mortland said.
"Must be ship," Monster replied. And somehow the rest of them could sense the uneasiness in the thin, piping, alien voice. "Must be!"
"Your ship's a very large one then," Bernardi commented as they rounded a bend and a whole colony of varicolored pastel lights sprang up ahead of them.
"Not my ship!" the mosquito-bat exclaimed in a voice pierced with anguish. "Not my ship!"
Before them rose the fantastic, twisting, convoluting, turning spires of a tall, marvelous, glittering city.
"You will find that the streets actually are filled with chlorophyll," the vine said. "And I know you'll be happy here, all of you. You see, we can't have you going back to your planets now. No matter how good your intentions were, you'd destroy us. You do see that, don't you?"
"You may be right," Bernardi agreed dispiritedly, "although that doesn't cheer us any. But what will you do with us?"
"You'll be provided with living quarters comparable to those on your own planets," the vine told him, "and you'll give lectures just as if you were in a university--only you'll be much more secure. I assure you--" its voice was very gentle now--"you'll hardly know you're in a zoo."
By Richard Stockham
Why can't you go home again after years in space? There had to be an answer ... could he find it in time, though?
Sitting at his desk, Colonel Halter brought the images on the telescreen into focus. Four booster tugs were fastening, like sky-barnacles, onto the hull of the ancient derelict, Alpha.
He watched as they swung her around, stern down, and sank with her through the blackness, toward the bluish-white, moon-lighted arc of Earth a thousand miles below.
He pressed a button. The image of tugs and hull faded and the control room of the old ship swam onto the screen.
Colonel Halter saw the crew, sitting in a half circle, before the control panel.
The telescreen in the control room of old Alpha was yet dark. The faces watching it held no care lines or laugh lines, only a vague expression of kindness. They could be faces of wax or those of people dying pleasantly.
Colonel Halter shook his head. Brilliant--the finest space people in the field seventy-five years back--and now he was to get them to come out of that old hull. God almighty, how could you pull people out of an environment they were perfectly adjusted to? Logic? Force? Reason? Humoring? How could you know?
Talk to them, he told himself. He dreaded it, but the problem had to be faced.
He flipped a switch on his desk; saw light jump into their screen and his own face take shape there; saw their faces on his own screen, set now, like the faces of stone idols.
He turned another dial. The picture swung around so that he was looking into their eyes and they into his.
Halter said, "Captain McClelland?"
One of the old men nodded. "Yes."
McClelland was clean-shaven. His uniform, treated against deterioration, was immaculate, but his body showed frail and bony through it. His face was long and hollow-cheeked, the eyes deep-set and bright. The head was like a skull, the nose an eagle's beak.
"I'm Colonel Halter. I'm a psychotherapist."