"I'll tell the cockeyed world you won't!" Hilton broke in. "Me marry a damned female Ph.D.? Uh-uh. Mine will be a cuddly little brunette that thinks a slipstick is some kind of lipstick and that an isotope's something good to eat."
"One like that copy of Murchison's Dark Lady that you keep under the glass on your desk?" she sneered.
"Exactly...." He started to continue the battle, then shut himself off. "But listen, Sandy, why should we get into a fight because we don't want to marry each other? You're doing a swell job. I admire you tremendously for it and I like to work with you."
"You've got a point there, Jarve, at that, and I'm one of the few who know what kind of a job you're doing, so I'll relax." She flashed him a gamin grin and they went on into the control room.
It was too late in the day then to do any more exploring; but the next morning, early, the Perseus lined out for the city of the humanoids.
Tula turned toward her fellows. Her eyes filled with a happily triumphant light and her thought a lilting song. "I have been telling you from the first touch that it was the Masters. It is the Masters! The Masters are returning to us Omans and their own home world!"
"Captain Sawtelle," Hilton said, "Please land in the cradle below."
"Land!" Sawtelle stormed. "On a planet like that? Not by ..." He broke off and stared; for now, on that cradle, there flamed out in screaming red the Perseus' own Navy-coded landing symbols!
"Your protest is recorded," Hilton said. "Now, sir, land."
Fuming, Sawtelle landed. Sandra looked pointedly at Hilton. "First contact is my dish, you know."
"Not that I like it, but it is." He turned to a burly youth with sun-bleached, crew-cut hair, "Still safe, Frank?"
"Still abnormally low. Surprising no end, since all the rest of the planet is hotter than the middle tail-race of hell."
"Okay, Sandy. Who will you want besides the top linguists?"
"Psych--both Alex and Temple. And Teddy Blake. They're over there. Tell them, will you, while I buzz Teddy?"
"Will do," and Hilton stepped over to the two psychologists and told them. Then, "I hope I'm not leading with my chin, Temple, but is that your real first name or a professional?"
"It's real; it really is. My parents were romantics: dad says they considered both 'Golden' and 'Silver'!"
Not at all obviously, he studied her: the almost translucent, unblemished perfection of her lightly-tanned, old-ivory skin; the clear, calm, deep blueness of her eyes; the long, thick mane of hair exactly the color of a field of dead-ripe wheat.
"You know, I like it," he said then. "It fits you."
"I'm glad you said that, Doctor...."
"Not that, Temple. I'm not going to 'Doctor' you."
"I'll call you 'boss', then, like Stella does. Anyway, that lets me tell you that I like it myself. I really think that it did something for me."
"Something did something for you, that's for sure. I'm mighty glad you're aboard, and I hope ... here they come. Hi, Hark! Hi, Stella!"
"Hi, Jarve," said Chief Linguist Harkins, and: "Hi, boss--what's holding us up?" asked his assistant, Stella Wing. She was about five feet four. Her eyes were a tawny brown; her hair a flamboyant auburn mop. Perhaps it owed a little of its spectacular refulgence to chemistry, Hilton thought, but not too much. "Let us away! Let the lions roar and let the welkin ring!"
"Who's been feeding you so much red meat, little squirt?" Hilton laughed and turned away, meeting Sandra in the corridor. "Okay, chick, take 'em away. We'll cover you. Luck, girl."
And in the control room, to Sawtelle, "Needle-beam cover, please; set for minimum aperture and lethal blast. But no firing, Captain Sawtelle, until I give the order."
The Perseus was surrounded by hundreds of natives. They were all adult, all naked and about equally divided as to sex. They were friendly; most enthusiastically so.
"Jarve!" Sandra squealed. "They're telepathic. Very strongly so! I never imagined--I never felt anything like it!"
"Any rough stuff?" Hilton demanded.
"Oh, no. Just the opposite. They love us ... in a way that's simply indescribable. I don't like this telepathy business ... not clear ... foggy, diffuse ... this woman is sure I'm her long-lost great-great-a-hundred-times grandmother or something--You! Slow down. Take it easy! They want us all to come out here and live with ... no, not with them, but each of us alone in a whole house with them to wait on us! But first, they all want to come aboard...."
"What?" Hilton yelped. "But are you sure they're friendly?"
"How about you, Alex?"
"We're all sure, Jarve. No question about it."
"Bring two of them aboard. A man and a woman."
"You won't bring any!" Sawtelle thundered. "Hilton, I had enough of your stupid, starry-eyed, ivory-domed blundering long ago, but this utterly idiotic brainstorm of letting enemy aliens aboard us ends all civilian command. Call your people back aboard or I will bring them in by force!"
"Very well, sir. Sandy, tell the natives that a slight delay has become necessary and bring your party aboard."
The Navy officers smiled--or grinned--gloatingly; while the scientists stared at their director with expressions ranging from surprise to disappointment and disgust. Hilton's face remained set, expressionless, until Sandra and her party had arrived.
"Captain Sawtelle," he said then, "I thought that you and I had settled in private the question or who is in command of Project Theta Orionis at destination. We will now settle it in public. Your opinion of me is now on record, witnessed by your officers and by my staff. My opinion of you, which is now being similarly recorded and witnessed, is that you are a hidebound, mentally ossified Navy mule; mentally and psychologically unfit to have any voice in any such mission as this. You will now agree on this recording and before these witnesses, to obey my orders unquestioningly or I will now unload all Bureau of Science personnel and equipment onto this planet and send you and the Perseus back to Terra with the doubly-sealed record of this episode posted to the Advisory Board. Take your choice."
Eyes locked, and under Hilton's uncompromising stare Sawtelle weakened. He fidgeted; tried three times--unsuccessfully--to blare defiance. Then, "Very well sir," he said, and saluted.
"Thank you, sir," Hilton said, then turned to his staff. "Okay, Sandy, go ahead."
Outside the control room door, "Thank God you don't play poker, Jarve!" Karns gasped. "We'd all owe you all the pay we'll ever get!"
"You think it was the bluff, yes?" de Vaux asked. "Me, I think no. Name of a name of a name! I was wondering with unease what life would be like on this so-alien planet!"
"You didn't need to wonder, Tiny," Hilton assured him. "It was in the bag. He's incapable of abandonment."
Beverly Bell, the van der Moen twins and Temple Bells all stared at Hilton in awe; and Sandra felt much the same way.
"But suppose he had called you?" Sandra demanded.
"Speculating on the impossible is unprofitable," he said.
"Oh, you're the most exasperating thing!" Sandra stamped a foot. "Don't you--ever--answer a question intelligibly?"
"When the question is meaningless, chick, I can't."
At the lock Temple Bells, who had been hanging back, cocked an eyebrow at Hilton and he made his way to her side.
"What was it you started to say back there, boss?"
"Oh, yes. That we should see each other oftener."
"That's what I was hoping you were going to say." She put her hand under his elbow and pressed his arm lightly, fleetingly, against her side. "That would be indubitably the fondest thing I could be of."
He laughed and gave her arm a friendly squeeze. Then he studied her again, the most baffling member of his staff. About five feet six. Lithe, hard, trained down fine--as a tennis champion, she would be. Stacked--how she was stacked! Not as beautiful as Sandra or Teddy ... but with an ungodly lot of something that neither of them had ... nor any other woman he had ever known.
"Yes, I am a little difficult to classify," she said quietly, almost reading his mind.
"That's the understatement of the year! But I'm making some progress."
"Such as?" This was an open challenge.
"Except possibly Teddy, the best brain aboard."
"That isn't true, but go ahead."
"You're a powerhouse. A tightly organized, thoroughly integrated, smoothly functioning, beautifully camouflaged Juggernaut. A reasonable facsimile of an irresistible force."
"My God, Jarvis!" That had gone deep.
"Let me finish my analysis. You aren't head of your department because you don't want to be. You fooled the top psychs of the Board. You've been running ninety per cent submerged because you can work better that way and there's no glory-hound blood in you."
She stared at him, licking her lips. "I knew your mind was a razor, but I didn't know it was a diamond drill, too. That seals your doom, boss, unless ... no, you can't possibly know why I'm here."
"Why, of course I do."
"You just think you do. You see, I've been in love with you ever since, as a gangling, bony, knobby-kneed kid, I listened to your first doctorate disputation. Ever since then, my purpose in life has been to land you."
"But listen!" he exclaimed. "I can't, even if I want...."
"Of course you can't." Pure deviltry danced in her eyes. "You're the Director. It wouldn't be proper. But it's Standard Operating Procedure for simple, innocent, unsophisticated little country girls like me to go completely overboard for the boss."
"But you can't--you mustn't!" he protested in panic.
Temple Bells was getting plenty of revenge for the shocks he had given her. "I can't? Watch me!" She grinned up at him, her eyes still dancing. "Every chance I get, I'm going to hug your arm like I did a minute ago. And you'll take hold of my forearm, like you did! That can be taken, you see, as either: One, a reluctant acceptance of a mildly distasteful but not quite actionable situation, or: Two, a blocking move to keep me from climbing up you like a squirrel!"
"Confound it, Temple, you can't be serious!"
"Can't I?" She laughed gleefully. "Especially with half a dozen of those other cats watching? Just wait and see, boss!"
Sandra and her two guests came aboard. The natives looked around; the man at the various human men, the woman at each of the human women. The woman remained beside Sandra; the man took his place at Hilton's left, looking up--he was a couple of inches shorter than Hilton's six feet one--with an air of ... of expectancy!
"Why this arrangement, Sandy?" Hilton asked.
"Because we're tops. It's your move, Jarve. What's first?"
"Uranexite. Come along, Sport. I'll call you that until ..."
"Laro," the native said, in a deep resonant bass voice. He hit himself a blow on the head that would have floored any two ordinary men. "Sora," he announced, striking the alien woman a similar blow.
"Laro and Sora, I would like to have you look at our uranexite, with the idea of refueling our ship. Come with me, please?"
Both nodded and followed him. In the engine room he pointed at the engines, then to the lead-blocked labyrinth leading to the fuel holds. "Laro, do you understand 'hot'? Radioactive?"
Laro nodded--and started to open the heavy lead door!
"Hey!" Hilton yelped. "That's hot!" He seized Laro's arm to pull him away--and got the shock of his life. Laro weighed at least five hundred pounds! And the guy still looked human!
Laro nodded again and gave himself a terrific thump on the chest. Then he glanced at Sora, who stepped away from Sandra. He then went into the hold and came out with two fuel pellets in his hand, one of which he tossed to Sora. That is, the motion looked like a toss, but the pellet traveled like a bullet. Sora caught it unconcernedly and both natives flipped the pellets into their mouths. There was a half minute of rock-crusher crunching; then both natives opened their mouths.
The pellets had been pulverized and swallowed.
Hilton's voice rang out. "Poynter! How can these people be non-radioactive after eating a whole fuel pellet apiece?"
Poynter tested both natives again. "Cold," he reported. "Stone cold. No background even. Play that on your harmonica!"
Laro nodded, perfectly matter-of-factly, and in Hilton's mind there formed a picture. It was not clear, but it showed plainly enough a long line of aliens approaching the Perseus. Each carried on his or her shoulder a lead container holding two hundred pounds of Navy Regulation fuel pellets. A standard loading-tube was sealed into place and every fuel-hold was filled.
This picture, Laro indicated plainly, could become reality any time.
Sawtelle was notified and came on the run. "No fuel is coming aboard without being tested!" he roared.
"Of course not. But it'll pass, for all the tea in China. You haven't had a ten per cent load of fuel since you were launched. You can fill up or not--the fuel's here--just as you say."
"If they can make Navy standard, of course we want it."
The fuel arrived. Every load tested well above standard. Every fuel hold was filled to capacity, with no leakage and no emanation. The natives who had handled the stuff did not go away, but gathered in the engine-room; and more and more humans trickled in to see what was going on.
Sawtelle stiffened. "What's going on over there, Hilton?"
"I don't know; but let's let 'em go for a minute. I want to learn about these people and they've got me stopped cold."
"You aren't the only one. But if they wreck that Mayfield it'll cost you over twenty thousand dollars."
"Okay." The captain and director watched, wide eyed.
Two master mechanics had been getting ready to re-fit a tube--a job requiring both strength and skill. The tube was very heavy and made of superefract. The machine--the Mayfield--upon which the work was to be done, was extremely complex.