"We'll know what we're after when darkness falls," he said. "But that's a good twelve hours away. In the meantime, there's a possibility that our missing key is outside the crater, rather than here inside it."
They turned on him together, both baffled and apprehensive.
"What do you mean, outside?" Farrell demanded. "There's nothing there but grassland. We made sure of that at planetfall."
"We mapped four Hymenop domes on reconnaissance," Gibson reminded him. "But we only examined three to satisfy ourselves that they were empty. The fourth one--"
Farrell interrupted derisively. "That ancient bogey again? Gib, the domes are always empty. The Bees pulled out a hundred years ago."
Gibson said nothing, but his black-browed regard made Farrell flush uncomfortably.
"Gib is right," Stryker intervened. "You're too young in Colonial Reclamations to appreciate the difficulty of recognizing an alien logic, Arthur, let alone the impossibility of outguessing it. I've knocked about these ecological madhouses for the better part of a century, and the more I see of Hymenop work, the more convinced I am that we'll never equate human and Hymenop ideologies. It's like trying to add quantities of dissimilar objects and expressing the result in a single symbol; it can't be done, because there's no possible common denominator for reducing the disparate elements to similarity."
When Farrell kept silent, he went on, "Our own reactions, and consequently our motivations, are based on broad attributes of love, hate, fear, greed and curiosity. We might empathize with another species that reacts as we do to those same stimuli--but what if that other species recognizes only one or two of them, or none at all? What if their motivations stem from a set of responses entirely different from any we know?"
"There aren't any," Farrell said promptly. "What do you think they would be?"
"There you have it," Stryker said triumphantly. He chuckled, his good-nature restored. "We can't imagine what those emotions would be like because we aren't equipped to understand. Could a race depending entirely on extra-sensory perception appreciate a Mozart quintet or a Botticelli altar piece or a performance of Hamlet? You know it couldn't--the esthetic nuances that make those works great would escape it completely, because the motives that inspired their creation are based on a set of values entirely foreign to its comprehension.
"There's a digger wasp on Earth whose female singles out a particular species of tarantula to feed her larvae--and the spider stands patiently by, held by some compulsion whose nature we can't even guess, while the wasp digs a grave, paralyzes the spider and shoves it into the hole with an egg attached. The spider could kill the wasp, and will kill one of any other species, but it submits to that particular kind without a flicker of protest. And if we can't understand the mechanics of such a relationship between reflexive species, then what chance have we of understanding the logic of an intelligent race of aliens? The results of its activities can be assessed, but not the motivations behind those activities."
"All right," Farrell conceded. "You and Gib are right, as usual, and I'm wrong. We'll check that fourth dome."
"You'll stay here with Xav," Stryker said firmly, "while Gib and I check. You'd only punish yourself, using that foot."
After another eight-hour period of waiting, Farrell was nearing the end of his patience. He tried to rationalize his uneasiness and came finally to the conclusion that his failing hinged on a matter of conditioning. He was too accustomed to the stable unity of their team to feel comfortable without Gibson and Stryker. Isolated from their perpetual bickering and the pleasant unspoken warmth of their regard, he was lonesome and tense.
It would have been different, he knew, if either of the others had been left behind. Stryker had his beloved Reclamations texts and his microfilm albums of problems solved on other worlds; Gibson had his complicated galactic charts and his interminable chess bouts with Xavier....
Farrell gave it up and limped outside, to stand scowling unhappily at the dreary expanse of swampland. Far down under the reasoning levels of his consciousness a primal uneasiness nagged at him, whispering in wordless warning that there was more to his mounting restlessness than simple impatience. Something inside him was changing, burgeoning in strange and disturbing growth.
A pale suggestion of movement, wavering and uncertain in the eddying fog, caught his eye. A moment of puzzled watching told him that it was the bedraggled young woman they had seen earlier by the lake, and that she was approaching the ship timorously and under cover.
"But why?" he wondered aloud, recalling her bovine lack of curiosity. "What the devil can she want here?"
A shadow fell across the valley. Farrell, startled, looked up sharply to see the last of the Falakian sun's magenta glare vanishing below the crater's southern rim. A dusky forerunner of darkness settled like a tangible cloud, softening the drab outlines of bramble thickets and slime pools. The change that followed was not seen but felt, a swelling rush of glad arousal like the joy of a child opening its eyes from sleep.
To Farrell, the valley seemed to stir, waking in sympathy to his own restlessness and banishing his unease.
The girl ran to him through the dusk on quick, light feet, timidity forgotten, and he saw with a pleasant shock of astonishment that she was no longer the filthy creature he had first seen by the lakeside. She was pretty and nubile, eyes and soft mouth smiling together in a childlike eagerness that made her at once infinitely desirable and untouchably innocent.
"Who are you?" he asked shakily.
Her hesitant voice was music, rousing in Farrell a warm and expectant euphoria that glowed like old wine in his veins.
"Koaele," she said. "Look--"
Behind her, the valley lay wrapped like a minor paradise in soft pearly mists and luminous shadows, murmurous with the far sound of running water and the faint chiming of voices that drifted up from the little blue lake to whisper back in cadenced echo from the fairy maze of bridging overhead. Over it all, like a deep, sustained cello note, rose the muted humming of great flame-winged moths dipping and swaying over bright tropical flowers.
"Moths?" he thought. And then, "Of course."
The chrysalids under the sod, their eclosion time completed, were coming into their own--bringing perfection with them. Born in gorgeous iridescent imago, they were beautiful in a way that hurt with the yearning pain of perfection, the sorrow that imperfection existed at all--the joy of finally experiencing flawlessness.
An imperative buzzing from the ship behind him made a rude intrusion. A familiar voice, polite but without inflection, called from an open port: "Captain Stryker in the scoutboat, requesting answer."
Farrell hesitated. To the girl, who followed him with puzzled, eager eyes, he begged, "Don't run away, please. I'll be back."
In the ship, Stryker's moon-face peered wryly at him from the main control screen.
"Drew another blank," it said. "You were right after all, Arthur--the fourth dome was empty. Gib and I are coming in now. We can't risk staying out longer if we're going to be on hand when the curtain rises on our little mystery."
"Mystery?" Farrell echoed blankly. Earlier discussions came back slowly, posing a forgotten problem so ridiculous that he laughed. "We were wrong about all that. It's wonderful here."
Stryker's face on the screen went long with astonishment. "Arthur, have you lost your mind? What's wrong there?"
"Nothing is wrong," Farrell said. "It's right." Memory prodded him again, disturbingly. "Wait--I remember now what it was we came here for. But we're not going through with it."
He thought of the festival to come, of the young men and girls running lithe in the dusk, splashing in the lake and calling joyously to each other across the pale sands. The joyous innocence of their play brought an appalling realization of what would happen if the fat outsider on the screen should have his way: The quiet paradise would be shattered and refashioned in smoky facsimile of Earth, the happy people herded together and set to work in dusty fields and whirring factories, multiplying tensions and frustrations as they multiplied their numbers.
For what? For whom?
"You've got no right to go back and report all this," Farrell said plaintively. "You'd ruin everything."
The alternative came to him and with it resolution. "But you won't go back. I'll see to that."
He left the screen and turned on the control panel with fingers that remembered from long habit the settings required. Stryker's voice bellowed frantically after him, unheeded, while he fed into the ship's autopilot a command that would send her plunging skyward bare minutes later.
Then, ignoring the waiting mechanical's passive stare, he went outside.
The valley beckoned. The elfin laughter of the people by the lake touched a fey, responsive chord in him that blurred his eyes with ecstatic tears and sent him running down the slope, the Falakian girl keeping pace beside him.
Before he reached the lake, he had dismissed from his mind the ship and the men who had brought it there.
But they would not let him forget. The little gray jointed one followed him through the dancing and the laughter and cornered him finally against the sheer cliffside. With the chase over, it held him there, waiting with metal patience in the growing dusk.
The audicom box slung over its shoulder boomed out in Gibson's voice, the sound a noisy desecration of the scented quiet.
"Don't let him get away, Xav," it said. "We're going to try for the ship now."
The light dimmed, the soft shadows deepened. The two great-winged moths floated nearer, humming gently, their eyes glowing luminous and intent in the near-darkness. Mist currents from their approach brushed Farrell's face, and he held out his arms in an ecstasy of anticipation that was a consummation of all human longing.
"Now," he whispered.
The moths dipped nearer.
The mechanical sent out a searing beam of orange light that tore the gloom, blinding him briefly. The humming ceased; when he could see again, the moths lay scorched and blackened at his feet. Their dead eyes looked up at him dully, charred and empty; their bright gauzy wings smoked in ruins of ugly, whiplike ribs.
He flinched when the girl touched his shoulder, pointing. A moth dipped toward them out of the mists, eyes glowing like round emerald lanterns. Another followed.
The mechanical flicked out its orange beam and cut them down.
A roar like sustained thunder rose across the valley, shaking the ground underfoot. A column of white-hot fire tore the night.
"The ship," Farrell said aloud, remembering.
He had a briefly troubled vision of the sleek metal shell lancing up toward a black void of space powdered with cold star-points whose names he had forgotten, marooning them all in Paradise.
The audicom boomed in Gibson's voice, though oddly shaken and strained. "Made it. Is he still safe, Xav?"
"Safe," the mechanical answered tersely. "The natives, too, so far."
"No thanks to him," Gibson said. "If you hadn't canceled the blastoff order he fed into the autopilot...." But after a moment of ragged silence: "No, that's hardly fair. Those damned moths beat down Lee's resistance in the few minutes it took us to reach the ship, and nearly got me as well. Arthur was exposed to their influence from the moment they started coming out."
Stryker's voice cut in, sounding more shaken than Gibson's. "Stand fast down there. I'm setting off the first flare now."
A silent explosion of light, searing and unendurable, blasted the night. Farrell cried out and shielded his eyes with his hands, his ecstasy of anticipation draining out of him like heady wine from a broken urn. Full memory returned numbingly.
When he opened his eyes again, the Falakian girl had run away. Under the merciless glare of light, the valley was as he had first seen it--a nauseous charnel place of bogs and brambles and mudflats littered with yellowed bones.
In the near distance, a haggard mob of natives cowered like gaping, witless caricatures of humanity, faces turned from the descending blaze of the parachute flare. There was no more music or laughter. The great moths fluttered in silent frenzy, stunned by the flood of light.
"So that's it," Farrell thought dully. "They come out with the winter darkness to breed and lay their eggs, and they hold over men the same sort of compulsion that Terran wasps hold over their host tarantulas. But they're nocturnal. They lose their control in the light."
Incredulously, he recalled the expectant euphoria that had blinded him, and he wondered sickly: "Is that what the spider feels while it watches its grave being dug?"
A second flare bloomed far up in the fog, outlining the criss-cross network of bridging in stark, alien clarity. A smooth minnow-shape dipped past and below it, weaving skilfully through the maze. The mechanical's voice box spoke again.
"Give us a guide beam, Xav. We're bringing the Marco down."
The ship settled a dozen yards away, its port open. Farrell, with Xavier at his heels, went inside hastily, not looking back.
Gibson crouched motionless over his control panel, too intent on his readings to look up. Beside him, Stryker said urgently: "Hang on. We've got to get up and set another flare, quickly."
The ship surged upward.
Hours later, they watched the last of the flares glare below in a steaming geyser of mud and scum. The ship hovered motionless, its only sound a busy droning from the engine room where her mass-synthesizer discharged a deadly cloud of insecticide into the crater.
"There'll be some nasty coughing among the natives for a few days after this," Gibson said. "But it's better than being food for larvae.... Reorientation will pull them out of that pesthole in a couple of months, and another decade will see them raising cattle and wheat again outside. The young adapt fast."
"The young, yes," Stryker agreed uncomfortably. "Personally, I'm getting too old and fat for this business."
He shuddered, his paunch quaking. Farrell guessed that he was thinking of what would have happened to them if Gibson had been as susceptible as they to the overpowering fascination of the moths. A few more chrysalids to open in the spring, an extra litter of bones to puzzle the next Reclamations crew....
"That should do it," Gibson said. He shut off the flow of insecticide and the mass-converter grew silent in the engine room below. "Exit another Hymenop experiment in bastard synecology."
"I can understand how they might find, or breed, a nocturnal moth with breeding-season control over human beings," Farrell said. "And how they'd balance the relationship to a time-cycle that kept the host species alive, yet never let it reach maturity. But what sort of principle would give an instinctive species compulsive control over an intelligent one, Gib? And what did the Bees get out of the arrangement in the first place?"
Gibson shrugged. "We'll understand the principle when--or if--we learn how the wasp holds its spider helpless. Until then, we can only guess. As for identifying the motive that prompted the Hymenops to set up such a balance, I doubt that we ever will. Could a termite understand why men build theaters?"
"There's a possible parallel in that," Stryker suggested. "Maybe this was the Hymenop idea of entertainment. They might have built the bridge as balconies, where they could see the show."
"It could have been a business venture," Farrell suggested. "Maybe they raised the moth larvae or pupae for the same reason we raise poultry. A sort of insectile chicken ranch."
"Or a kennel," Gibson said dryly. "Maybe they bred moths for pets, as we breed dogs."
Farrell grimaced sickly, revolted by the thought. "A pet farm? God, what a diet to feed them!"
Xavier came up from the galley, carrying a tray with three steaming coffee-bulbs. Farrell, still pondering the problem of balance between dominant and dominated species, found himself wondering for the thousandth time what went on in the alert positronic brain behind the mechanical's featureless face.
"What do you think, Xav?" he demanded. "What sort of motive would you say prompted the Hymenops to set up such a balance?"
"Evaluation of alien motivations, conversely," the mechanical said, finishing the Reclamations Handbook quotation which Stryker had begun much earlier, "is essentially impossible because there can be no common ground of comprehension."
It centered the tray neatly on the charting table and stood back in polite but unmenial deference while they sucked at their coffee-bulbs.
"A greater mystery to me," Xavier went on, "is the congenital restlessness that drives men from their own comfortable worlds to such dangers as you have met with here. How can I understand the motivations of an alien people? I do not even understand those of the race that built me."
The three men looked at each other blankly, disconcerted by the ancient problem so unexpectedly posed.
It was Stryker who sheepishly answered it.
"That's nothing for you to worry about, Xav," he said wryly. "Neither do we."