I nodded, and Wilson continued.
"Commander McClellan was a choleric person, as courageous a man as ever wore the blue and silver of the Service, and very thoughtful of his men. We had had a bad trip; two swarms of meteorites that had worn our nerves thin, and a faulty part in the air-purifying apparatus had nearly done us in. While the exit was being unsealed, he gave the interior crew permission to go off duty, to get some fresh air, with orders, however, to remain close to the ship, under my command. Then, with the usual landing crew, he started for the Filanus.
"He had forgotten, under the stress of the moment, that the force of gravity would be very small on a body no larger than this. The result was that as soon as they hurried out of the ship, away from the influence of our own gravity pads, they hurtled into the air in all directions."
Wilson paused. Several seconds passed before he could go on.
"Well, the trees--I suppose you know something about them--reached out and swept up three of them. McClellan and the rest of the landing crew rushed to their rescue. They were caught up. God! I can see them ... hear them ... even now!
"I couldn't stand there and see that happen to them. With the rest of the crew behind me, we rushed out, armed only with our atomic pistols. We did not dare use the rays; there were a dozen men caught up everywhere in those hellish tentacles.
"I don't know what I thought we could do. I knew only that I must do something. Our leaps carried us over the tops of the trees that were fighting for the ... the bodies of McClellan and the rest of the landing crew. I saw then, when it was too late, that there was nothing we could do. The trees ... had done their work. They ... they were feeding....
"Perhaps that is why we escaped. We came down in a tangle of whipping branches. Several of my men were snatched up. The rest of us saw how helpless our position was ... that there was nothing we could do. We saw, too, that the ground was literally honeycombed, and we dived down these burrows, out of the reach of the trees.
"There were nineteen of us that escaped. I can't tell you how we lived--I would not if I could. The burrows had been dug by the pig-like animals that the trees live upon, and they led, eventually, to the shore, where there was water--horrible, bitter stuff, but not salty, and apparently not poisonous."
We lived on these pig-like animals, and we learned something of their way of life. The trees seem to sleep, or become inactive, at night. Not unless they are touched do they lash about with their tentacles. At night the animals feed, largely upon the large, soft fruit of these trees. Of course, large numbers of them make a fatal step each night, but they are prolific, and their ranks do not suffer.
"Of course, we tried to get back to the clearing, and the Dorlos; first by tunneling. That was impossible, we found, because the rays used by the Filanus in clearing a landing place had acted somewhat upon the earth beneath, and it was like powder. Our burrows fell in upon us faster than we could dig them out! Two of my men lost their lives that way.
"Then we tried creeping back by night; but we could not see as can the other animals here, and we quickly found that it was suicide to attempt such tactics. Two more of the men were lost in that fashion. That left fourteen.
"We decided then to wait. We knew there would be another ship along, sooner or later. Luckily, one of the men had somehow retained his menore. We treasured that as we treasured our lives. To-day, when, deep in our runways beneath the surface, we felt, or heard, the crashing of the trees, we knew the Service had not forgotten us. I put on the menore; I--but I think you know the rest, gentlemen. There were eleven of us left. We are here--all that is left of the Dorlos crew. We found no trace of any survivor of the Filanus; unaware of the possibility of danger, they were undoubtedly, all the victims of ... the trees."
Wilson's head dropped forward on his chest. He straightened up with a start and an apologetic smile.
"I believe, Hanson," he said slowly, "I'd better get ... a little ... rest," and he slumped forward on the table in the death-like sleep of utter exhaustion.
There the interesting part of the story ends. The rest is history, and there is too much dry history in the Universe already.
Dival wrote three great volumes on L-472--or Ibit, as it is called now. One of them tells in detail how the presence of constantly increasing quantities of volcanic ash robbed the soil of that little world of its vitality, so that all forms of vegetation except the one became extinct, and how, through a process of development and evolution, those trees became carniverous.
The second volume is a learned discussion of the tree itself; it seems that a few specimens were spared for study, isolated on a peninsula of one of the continents, and turned over to Dival for observation and dissection. All I can say for the book is that it is probably accurate. Certainly it is neither interesting nor comprehensible.
And then, of course, there is his treatise on ocrite: how he happened to find the ore, the probable amount available on L-472--or Ibit, if you prefer--and an explanation of his new method of refining it. I saw him frantically gathering specimens while we were getting ready to leave, but it wasn't until after we had departed that he mentioned what he had found.
I have a set of these volumes somewhere; Dival autographed them and presented me with them. They established his position, I understand, in his world of science, and of course, the discovery of this new source of ocrite was a tremendous find for the whole Universe; interplanetary transportation wouldn't be where it is to-day if it were not for this inexhaustible source of power.
Yes, Dival became famous--and very rich.
I received the handshakes and the gratitude of the eleven men we rescued, and exactly nine words of commendation from the Chief of my squadron: "You are a credit to the Service, Commander Hanson!"
Perhaps, to some who read this, it will seem that Dival fared better than I. But to men who have known the comradeship of the outer space, the heart-felt gratitude of eleven friends is a precious thing. And to any man who has ever worn the blue and silver uniform of the Special Patrol Service, those nine words from the Chief of Squadron will sound strong.
Chiefs of Squadrons in the Special Patrol Service--at least in those days--were scanty with praise. It may be different in these days of soft living and political pull.
By Murray F. Yaco
Thirty million miles out, Keeter began monitoring the planet's radio and television networks. He kept the vigil for two sleepless days and nights, then turned off the receivers and began a systematic study of the notes he had taken on English idioms and irregular verbs.
Twelve hours later, convinced that there would be no language difficulty, he left the control room, went into his cabin and fell into bed. He remained there for sixteen hours.
When he awoke, he walked to a locker at the end of his cabin, opened the door and carefully selected clothing from a wardrobe that was astonishing both for its size and variety. For headdress, he selected a helmet that was not too different in design from the "space helmets" he had viewed on a number of television programs. It would disappoint no one, Keeter reflected happily, as he took a deep breath and blew an almost imperceptible film of dust from the helmet's iridescent finish.
Trousers and blouse were a little more of a problem, but finally he compromised on items of a distinct military cut; both were black and unembellished, providing, he hoped, an ascetic, spiritual tone to temper the military aura.
Boots were no problem at all. The black and silver pair he wore every day were, by happy coincidence, a synthesis of the cowboy and military footgear styling he had observed hour after weary hour on the pick-up panel in the control room.
He placed the helmet carefully on his head, took time to make sure that it did not hide too great a portion of his impressively high forehead, and then walked leisurely to the control room.
In the control room he checked the relative position of two green lights on the navigation panel, shut off the main drives, clicked the viewscreen up to maximum magnification and took over the manual controls. A little less than two hours later, at 11:30 A.M. Eastern Standard Time, he landed smoothly and quietly near the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Watching from a port in the airlock, Keeter was impressed with the restraint of the reception committee. Obviously, the entire city had been alerted several hours before his arrival. Now, only orderly files of military equipment could be seen on the city's streets, converging cautiously toward the gleaming white hull and its lone occupant.
He opened the airlock and stepped out on a small platform which held him a full hundred feet above the grass covered park. He watched as an armored vehicle approached within shouting distance, then stopped. Telling himself that it was now or never, he raised both arms to the sky, a gesture which spoke eloquently, he hoped, of peace, friendship and trust.
Later that afternoon, behind locked doors and sitting somewhere near the middle of an enormous conference table, Keeter nonchalantly confessed to an excited gathering of public officials that he had landed on the planet by accident. It was not, he implied, a very happy accident.
"I didn't know where the hell I was," he explained carelessly, in excellent English that awesomely contained the suggestion of a midwestern twang. "Some kind of trouble with the ship's computor--if you know what a computor is." He suppressed a yawn with the back of his hand and continued. "Anyway, the thing will repair itself by morning and I'll get out of your hair. Too bad I had to land in a populated area and stir up so much fuss, but from the ship this place looked more like an abandoned rock quarry than a city. Now, if it's okay with you, I'll get back to the ship and--"
A senator, Filmore by name, at the opposite end of the table jumped to his feet. "You mean you had no intention of contacting us? My God, man, don't you realize what this means to us? For the first time, we have proof that we're not alone in the universe! You can't just--"
Keeter called for silence with an impatient wave of his hand. "Come, come, gentlemen. You're not the only other humanoid race in the galaxy. We don't have time to call on every undeveloped race we happen to run across. Besides, I never did like playing the role of 'the mysterious alien who appears unannounced from outer space.' Primitives always require so much explanation."
"Primitives!" exploded the senator. "Why, of all the impudent--"
The senator was quieted by a colleague who placed his hand over the offended man's mouth.
The presiding officer at the meeting, a General Beemish, arose and addressed the visitor. "We realize that from your point of view this planet has not exactly achieved the cultural or technological level of your, er, homeland--"
"You said a mouthful," agreed Keeter, who was now cleaning his nails with the pin attached to a United Nations emblem that somebody had stuck to his tunic earlier in the day.
"Look," said the general, gamely trying again. "We're not quite as unsophisticated as you seem to think. There are three billion persons on this planet--persons who are well fed, reasonably well educated, persons who owe allegiance to only one government. We're making great strides technologically, too. Within a decade, we'll be established on the moon--our satellite. Why, even our school children are space-minded."
"Sure," said Keeter, who had turned in his chair and was now staring out the window. "Nice little place you got here. Say, is there a bathroom around this place. I gotta--"
Someone showed the visitor to a bathroom where to everyone's astonishment he proceeded to remove his clothes and leisurely shower. The meeting was adjourned for thirty minutes. When he had finished his shower, he dressed, walked back into the conference room, waved a cheery good-bye, and before anyone realized what was happening, he had unlocked the door from the inside and closed it behind him.
For a full thirty seconds, no one said anything. Then suddenly someone managed to gasp, "My God, what'll we do?"
"There's nothing we can do," said General Beemish. There were tears in his eyes.
Keeter walked all the way back to the ship. It took him an hour and forty minutes. Long enough, he hoped, for someone to have scooted ahead and notified the military personnel guarding the area to keep hands off.
No one attempted to stop him. He boarded the ship, made himself something to eat, walked to a stock room and pocketed a defective transistor from an unemptied disposal tube in a corner. Five minutes later he reappeared on the platform outside of the airlock. Fifteen minutes later he was delivered in a military staff car to the conference room he had left barely two hours before.
Everyone was transfigured by his reappearance. Beemish looked especially radiant as Keeter sat down at the table, pulled the transistor from his pocket, and stated his business quickly.
"Look, it's probably no use asking, but I need a repair part for that damned computor. Something's wrong with the automatic repair circuits, and I don't feel like staying up all night to find the trouble." He held the transistor toward them at arm's length. "Frankly, I don't think you'll have much luck reproducing it, but I thought I'd ask anyway--"
"May I see it?" asked Beemish, leaning forward and eagerly stretching out a hand.
Keeter seemed to hesitate for a minute, then shrugged his shoulders and dropped the transistor into the general's sweating palm.
Three persons got up from the table and crowded around Beemish, trying to get a look at the alien product.
"Well," said Keeter. "What do you think? If it's too far advanced for you, don't hesitate to say so. I'll just get back to the ship and start working."
"Not at all, not at all," said a small, white haired man who had finally wrested the transistor from Beemish. He squinted at the thing through a pocket magnifier. "We'll have it for you by morning, I'm quite sure."
"I'm not quite so sure," said Keeter, yawning, "but I need the sleep anyway. See you here at eight in the morning." He yawned again, got up from the table and walked out once more through the door.
When Keeter reappeared in the morning, Beemish ushered him into the conference room with a hearty clap on the back. When everyone was seated, he pulled a small jewel box from a pocket and handed it ceremoniously to Keeter.
"I already ate breakfast," said Keeter, setting the box on the table.
"No, no, no," groaned Beemish. "That's not food--open it up, man!"
Keeter lifted the box to eye level, squinted at it suspiciously for a moment, then sniffed it. "You're sure--"
"Yes, yes," shouted a dozen impatient voices, "open it, open it up!"
Keeter shrugged and opened the box. Twelve tiny, identical transistors lay gleaming on a bed of black velvet.
"Well?" said Beemish, eagerly.
"Hm-m," answered Keeter.
"What do you mean, hm-m," asked Beemish nervously.
"I mean it's a silly damn way to pack transistors."
"But they look like they'll do the job," said Keeter, snapping the lid closed.
The sighs of relief were heard in the corridor.
Keeter pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. "I realize that I've put you all to a lot of trouble, and I'd like to offer some kind of payment for your services, but frankly, gentlemen, I don't know how I can--"
"Oh, you can, you can," interrupted Beemish excitedly. "What I mean to say is that if you really want to, you can."
"Why, er, you could provide us with a small amount of information." Beemish looked definitely nervous.
"Be more specific, general." Keeter was beginning to look grim.
"Well, we were thinking--I mean, it would be nice if you'd agree to have a friendly chat with some of our people. For instance, an hour or so with our physicists, then maybe a half hour with a few sociologists, and perhaps the same amount of time with the senator's committee--"
Keeter closed his eyes and sighed. "Okay, okay, boys, but let's make it quick. Also, let's keep it to twenty minutes for each inquisition. Come on, when do we start? Now?"
The scientists were the first--and the easiest. He gave them just enough information to whet their appetites, just enough to plant the suggestion that it took a great deal of tolerance and patience on his part to hold an interview with such backward people.
"Gentlemen, I'd love to explain the principle of the neutrino drive, but frankly, I don't know where to begin. You--you just don't have the mathematics for it." He didn't bother to add that neither did he.
"Yes, of course, I'm sure I understand what you're getting at. My God, why shouldn't I? Even a child could understand those equations."
"You call that a representation of the mass-energy constant? No offense, old man, but I'm afraid you're going to have to start all over again. Invention doesn't take the place of research, you know."
The social scientists were next: "As I explained a moment ago, we are heterosexual and live an organized community life, but not in any cultural context that could be explained by the term. You might say that our cultural continuum (although the term for us is quite meaningless) is a function of an intricately structured social organism, with institutional coordinates that are largely internalized. Do you follow me gentlemen?" They certainly did not.
But the senator's committee, as usual, got the information it wanted.
Senator Humper: Now, young man, you claim that your base is on one of three inhabited planets of Aldebaran. You also claim that in the known universe there are twelve hundred or more inhabited worlds, all welded together in a kind of super United Nations. Did you or did you not state as much?
Humper: Well, now it appears that we're getting some place. Tell us, how does each planet manage to qualify for--er--membership in this organization?
Keeter: Why, they have to pass the test, of course.
Humper: Test? What test?
Keeter: The Brxll-Hawkre-Gaal test. We administer it to anybody who seems to be qualified.
Humper: Er--tell us, young man, just exactly what sort of test is this? An intelligence test?
Keeter: Yes, you might call it that, although it has a number of sections. Actually, Gaal has divided it into three parts.
Humper: I see. Well, what kind of parts?