"Be reasonable, Stormy," Ryan pleaded. "This might be some deep scientific mystery we could never discover in our lifetime. We might never get off this planet."
That was probably behind his thinking all along, why he had been so quick to find a scapegoat to explain it all away. Explorers didn't have to have all the answers, or even theories. But, if they ever wanted to get anyplace in the Service, they damned well better.
"So what?" Ekstrohm asked. "The Service rates us as expendable, doesn't it?"
By Ekstrohm's suggestion, they divided the work.
Nogol killed pigs. All day he did nothing but scare the wart-hogs to death by coming near them.
Ryan ran as faithful a check on the corpses as he could, both by eyeball observation and by radar, video and Pro-Tect circuits. They lacked the equipment to program every corpse for every second, but a representative job could be done.
Finally, Ekstrohm went scouting for Something Else. He didn't know what he expected to find, but he somehow knew he would find something.
He rode the traction-scooter (so-called because it had no traction at all--no wheels, no slides, no contact with the ground or air) and he reflected that he was a suspicious character.
All through life, he was going around suspecting everybody and now everything of having some dark secret they were trying to hide.
A simple case of transference, he diagnosed, in long-discredited terminology. He had something to hide--his insomnia. So he thought everybody else had their guilty secret too.
How could there be any deep secret to the pseudo-death on this world? It was no doubt a simple fear reaction, a retreat from a terrifying reality. How could he ever prove that it was more? Or even exactly that?
Internal glandular actions would be too subtle for a team of explorers to establish. They could only go on behavior. What more in the way of behavior could he really hope to establish? The pattern was clear. The pigs keeled over at any unfamiliar sight or sound, and recovered when they thought the coast was clear. That was it. All there was! Why did he stubbornly, stupidly insist there was more to it?
Actually, by his insistence, he was giving weight to the idea of the others that he was strange and suspicious himself. Under the normal, sane conditions of planetfall the phobias and preoccupations of a space crew, nurtured in the close confines of a scout ship, wouldn't be taken seriously by competent men. But hadn't his subsequent behavior given weight to Ryan's unfounded accusations of irrational sabotage? Wouldn't it seem that he was actually daring the others to prove his guilt? If he went on with unorthodox behavior-- That was when Ekstrohm saw the flying whale.
Tension gripped Ekstrohm tighter than he gripped the handlebars of his scooter. He was only vaguely aware of the passing scenery. He knew he should switch on the homing beacon and ride in on automatic, but it seemed like too much of an effort to flick his finger. As the tension rose, the capillaries of his eyes swelled, and things began to white out for him. The rush of landscape became blurred streaks of light and dark, now mostly faceless light.
The flying whale. He had seen it.
Moreover, he had heard it, smelt and felt it. It had released a jet of air with a distinctive sound and odor. It had blown against his skin, ruffled his hair. It had been real.
But the flying whale couldn't have been real. Conditions on this planetoid were impossible for it. He knew planets and their life possibilities. A creature with a skeleton like that could have evolved here, but the atmosphere would never have supported his flesh and hide. Water bodies were of insufficient size. No, the whale was not native to this world.
Then what, if anything, did this flying alien behemoth have to do with the pseudo-death of the local pig creatures?
I'll never know, Ekstrohm told himself. Never. Ryan and Nogol will never believe me, they will never believe in the flying whale. They're explorers, simple men of action, unimaginative. Of course, I'm an explorer too. But I'm different, I'm sensitive-- Ekstrohm was riding for a fall.
The traction-scooter was going up a slope that had been eroded concave. It was at the very top of the half-moon angle, upside down, standing Ekstrohm on his head. Since he was not strapped into his seat, he fell.
As he fell he thought ruefully that he had contrived to have an accident in the only way possible with a traction-scooter.
Ekstrohm's cranium collided with the ground, and he stopped thinking....
Ekstrohm blinked open his eyes, wondering. He saw light, then sky, then pigs.
But--the pigs shouldn't be alive. When he was this close they should be dead.
Only they weren't.
Why ... why ...
He moved slightly and the nearest pig fell dead. The others went on with their business, roaming the plain. Ekstrohm expected the dropping of the pig to stampede the rest into dropping dead, but they didn't seem to pay any attention to their fallen member.
I've been lying here for hours, he realized. I didn't move in on them. The pigs moved in on me while I was lying still. If I keep still I can get a close look at them in action.
So far, even with video, it had been difficult to get much of an idea of the way these creatures lived--when they weren't dead.
Observe, observe, he told himself.
There might be some relationship between the flying whale and the pigs.
Could it be the whales were intelligent alien masters of these herds of pigs?
Ekstrohm lay still and observed.
Item: the pigs ate the soft, mosslike grass.
Item: the pigs eliminated almost constantly.
Item: the pigs fought regularly.
Here was something, Ekstrohm realized.
Why did animals fight?
Rationalizations of nature-lovers aside, some fought because they had plain mean nasty dispositions--like some people. That didn't fit the pigs. They were indolent grazers. They hadn't the energy left over for sheer-cussedness. There had to be a definite goal to their battles.
It wasn't food. That was abundant. The grassy veldt reached to all horizons.
Sex. They had to be fighting for mates!
He became so excited he twitched a foot slightly. Two more pigs dropped dead, but the others paid no heed.
He watched the lazily milling herd intently, at the same time keeping an eye out for the flying whales. Back on Earth porpoises had been taught to herd schools of fish and of whales. It was not impossible an intelligent species of whale had learned to herd masses of land animals.
But Ekstrohm knew he needed proof. He had to have something to link the pseudo-death of the wart-hogs to the inexplicable presence of the whales. Perhaps, he thought, the "death" of the pigs was the whales' way of putting them into cold storage--a method of making the meat seem unattractive to other animals, on a world perhaps without carrion scavengers....
Something was stirring among the pigs.
One under-sized beastie was pawing the dirt, a red eye set on the fattest animal in sight. Then Shortie charged Fatso. But abruptly a large raw-boned critter was in Shortie's path, barring him from Fatso.
Faced by Big Boy, Shortie trembled with rage and went into a terrible temper tantrum, rolling on the ground, pawing it in frenzy, squealing in maddened rage. Then Shortie was on his feet, desperate determination showing in every line of his body. With heedless, desperate, foolhardy courage he charged Big Boy.
Big Boy took the headlong charge in his side with only a trifling grunt.
Shortie bounced ten feet in the light gravity, and grimly wallowed to his feet. He leveled an eye at Big Boy, and his legs were pumping in frenzied fury again.
Big Boy shifted his kilos of weight casually and met Shortie head on.
The tremendous ker-rack reverberated from the bluff behind Ekstrohm.
Shortie lay on the ground.
No, Ekstrohm thought, he isn't dead. His sides were pumping in and out. But he was knocked cold.
Ekstrohm had to sympathize with him. He had never seen a more valiant try against insurmountable odds.
Big Boy was ambling over towards Fatso, apparently to claim his prize. Fatso apparently was the sow.
But Big Boy stalked on past Fatso. She squealed after him tentatively, but he turned and blasted her back with a bellowing snort.
Ekstrohm watched the scene repeated with other actors several times before he was sure.
The older males, the Big Boys, never collected the favors of the harem for themselves.
Instinctively, the pigs were practicing birth control. The older males abstained, and forced the younger males to do the same.
On a world like this, Ekstrohm's first thought was of death.
He thought, these pigs must be like lemmings, deliberately trying to destroy their own race, to commit geno-suicide.
But that didn't answer any of the other questions, about the pseudo-death, the alien whales ...
And then Ekstrohm thought not of death but of life.
The traction-scooter was where he had left it, hanging upside down on the underside of the concave slope. It had stopped automatically when his weight had left the seat. He reached up, toggled the OVERRIDE switch and put it manually into reverse.
Once straightened out, he was on his way back to the base.
I feel good, he thought. I feel like I could lick my weight in spacemen.
Only then did he realize why he felt so good.
What had happened had been so strange for him, he couldn't realize what it had been until now.
While he had been knocked out, he had been asleep.
For the first time in years.
Sleep. He felt wonderful. He felt like he could lick all of his problems....
Ekstrohm roared back into the base. The motor was silent on the traction-scooter, of course, but the air he kicked up made its own racket.
Ryan and Nogol came out to greet him sullenly.
"Listen," he told them, "I've got the answer to all of this."
"So have we," Ryan said ugly. "The first answer was the right one. We've been scaring pigs to death and watching them, scaring and watching. We learned nothing. You knew we wouldn't. You set us up for this. It's like you said. You fed all of these beasts your stuff in advance, something that acts when they get excited...."
It didn't make sense, but then it never had. You couldn't argue with prejudice. He was "different." He didn't act like they did. He didn't believe the same things. He was the outsider, therefore suspect. The alien on an alien world.
Ekstrohm sighed. Man would always be the final alien, the creature man would never understand, sympathize with or even tolerate.
There was no point in trying to argue further, Ekstrohm realized.
"You'll never understand, Ryan. You could have seen all the things I saw if you'd bothered to look, but you were too anxious to blame me. But if I can't make you understand, I can at least beat you into acceptance."
"Huh?" Ryan ventured.
"I said," Ekstrohm repeated, "that I'm going to beat some sense into your thick skull."
Ryan grinned, rippled his massive shoulders and charged.
Ekstrohm remembered the lesson Shortie had taught him with Big Boy. He didn't meet the captain's charge head on. He sidestepped and caught Ryan behind the ear with his fist. The big man halted, puzzled. Ekstrohm sank his fist into the thick, solid belly.
Slowly, Ryan's knees gave way and he sank towards the ground.
When his chin was at the right level of convenience, Ekstrohm put his weight behind his right.
Ryan swayed dreamily backward.
But he threw himself forward and one ham of a fist connected high on Ekstrohm's cheek. He was shaken to his toes, and the several hours' old pain in the back of his head throbbed sickeningly. One more like that would do for him.
Ekstrohm stood and drove in a lot of short punches to Ryan's body, punches without much power behind them because he didn't have it. But he knew better than to try a massive attack on a massive target.
When he couldn't lift his arms any more, Ekstrohm stopped punching. He realized Ryan had fallen on his face a few seconds before.
Then he remembered, and whirled. He had left his back exposed to Nogol.