Readers will remember the scientific premise Mr. Rayer made
in his excellent story "Stormhead" published in No. 40
last year. This month he produces another such outstanding
idea dealing with a planet having a totally alien environment
by Earth standards — and no known means of communication
between the inhabitants and the visiting humans.
Illustrated by QUINN
A dry wind murmured round the two vertical hulls of the ships, carrying tiny sand trails off across the desert. Ian mopped his brow, wishing the sun were low, instead of still rising slowly to its zenith. The fifty hour day of Pleione could seem infinitely long to a species accustomed to a planetary rotation of only twenty-four hours. With twenty hours since dawn, the sun was not yet at its noon, and thirty hours would pass before its slow setting beyond the hills westward. Added was the discomfort of the simoon that blew ceaselessly over the sandstone desert, crisping a man’s skin and making his eyes prickle.
His boots sank in the dust as he plodded on to the shade of the camp, slightly bowed so that he looked less than his full six feet, blue overall collar up, and sunhat jammed low on his brown unruly hair to shade his neck.
A man had his head under the bonnet of a half-track lorry. He emerged, perspiring, and slapped dust from his brown overall.
“ Distributor head gone, Captain,” he stated.
Ian halted in the shade of the fringe of low bushes. “ Suspect the natives again ?”
Martin Withers wiped his face. Ten years Ian’s senior, he looked young for thirty-five. “ Who else?” he growled.
Ian supposed he was right. No one in the camp would remove a vital part from the vehicle. The two ships had brought no troublemakers. There was nothing on Pleione, or anywhere in the whole Pleiades group, to attract that type.
“ I’ll see if I can get something done about it,” he promised.
“ Be glad if you would. Captain.”
The light sandy head disappeared again, and Ian went on among the huts of the earthmen’s camp. Mentally he cursed natives who made off with vital parts certainly useless to them. His back prickled with heat under his captain’s blue. He momentarily abominated even the scientific investigation which had spotted a planet amid the two thousand scattered stars of the group, and landed two ships of sweating men upon her unspeakably arid surface.
A girl came from one of the smallest huts. She looked prettier than anyone had a right to, on Pleione, Ian thought. Joan Carrie, plain by name but not by nature, and technically co-ordination officer. So far there had been no co-ordination between Men and Pleionians, and he had to be disapproving. That was hard, with a girl of scarcely twenty-four, dark haired, grey-eyed, and now with a brilliantly white silk scarf vivid against the green of her overall. Blue for a captain, green for a civvie, he thought. But it was the only green thing he had seen in three weeks on the planet.
“ More pilfering,” he said succinctly.
Joan Carrie looked downcast. “ Why do they do it ?”
“ That’s what you’re supposed to tell us.”
Faint pink suffused her cheeks. “ I haven’t had time to establish communication with the natives — ”
“ I thought two to three weeks was the text-book interval for basics.” Her eyes’ flashed. “ Likely enough — -with a vocal species ! The Pleionians are not vocal. They use no kind of audible vibration whatever, nor any other sound, so far as we can discover.”
Ian felt contrite. Joan Carrie was qualified, he reminded himself. Nothing in the world other than ability would have got her a place on the Wildshine.
“ Sorry, the damn heat.” He let it sound an apology. “ We’re making a trip north as soon as Withers has got the half-track fixed. You’ll wish to come ?”
“ Of course.”
He left her. It was too easy to snap. Pleione was dry as tinder, and made a man’s temper brittle. From a mile altitude the planet had looked promising, except for the dearth of visible surface water. Down, they had found her to be covered with low bushes and thin- leaved trees of slow growth and an indescribable dryness. Bushes and trees were brown, except for tiny shoots never visible at a distance. In three weeks he had found no lake, river or stream. Air and gravity resembled Earth. But there were no clouds to fend away the scorching heat of her giant sun. It never rained. No watercourses threaded the hills and investigation by autogyro revealed no vegetation of a nature suggesting damp soil. The whole planet was a tinder box.
The half-track was running evenly. As Withers cut the engine Ian wondered whether the theft of the distributor-head was chance. A child might remove it in ignorance, because it was detachable — or a higher intelligence might decide it was essential to the vehicle . . .
Two men in a second half-track had gone south, and Ian guessed they would only substantiate earlier exploration. The sandy plain ran south for many miles, bordering a forest a full hundred and fifty miles in extent. West, the forest was flanked by mountain ridges that trailed away into hills to the south. There, vast arid dunes ran across to the sandstone desert, enclosing a peninsula of woodland. Only one small Pleionian village had been located that way. As he mounted the lorry-step Ian wondered if the flat appendages of the Pleionians were handy at loosening distributor clips.
“ With luck we’ll be back before Penny and Sims,” he said.
He hoped the northward exploration would be more promising than the earlier trip south. The autogyro showed much — but not villages hidden under the enormous, thin-leaved trees. Establishing real contact with the natives was now of major priority.
As he waited by the truck for the others Ian wondered if the expedition to Pleione would be wasted. The Wildshine and Moorstone had before now touched down on planets of a wondrous strangeness, leaving mankind with the narrow alternatives of clearing out again or committing slow suicide by remaining. Pleione did not appear that bad — yet. Main difficulties were the extreme dryness and lack of effective contact with the spined natives, who had observed man’s coming without visible surprise.
Martin swung up into the truck and drank from a bottle of squash under his seat. “ Driest place in the cosmos,” he stated, grimacing. “ Miracle there’s so much vegetation.”
“ It’s adapted to conditions.” Ian got up. “ Leaves are tiny. The trees are slow-growing, and judging from what we saw, have very extensive roots.”
They had dug by the edge of the forest, seeking indications of sub-surface moisture. There was none, but a mass of roots and fibres close as a woven blanket.
Martin lit half a cigarette, exhaled smoke a few times, and snuffed it out. His small ration never lasted.
“ Think Miss Carrie will ever talk with them ?” he asked.
“ The natives ? Should do — it’s her job.” And one she had shown ability at previously, Ian reflected.
“ Perhaps they don’t talk.”
“ All civilised species communicate somehow, it’s the first requirement for progress.”
Joan came from behind the tin huts. She paused, looking south. “ Think we should wait for Sims and Penny ?”
Ian shook his head. “No need for that.” The truck the pair had taken was one with no radio.
They began following the edge of the sandstone desert, avoiding the occasional clumps of bushes that crept out from the forest. Dry wind sent thin sheets of dust speeding across their path and they drew on goggles.
“ Ever thought what would happen if a forest fire started ?” Joan asked once.
Ian eyed the dry woodland. Tall, resinous trees grew fifty- and eighty-feet tall from the blanket of brush high as a man, through which narrow trails wound.
“ Probably be pretty bad,” he admitted.
Joan stood up in the truck, the dusty wind stirring her dark hair. “ Makes anything I’ve ever seen look like a kids’ bonfire.”
A mile from the ship site the woodland began to curve away slowly to the east, visible as a long, brown line ahead. They surmounted a slow rise, and Martin slowed the half-track abruptly.
“ Some of our new friends,” he said.
Three natives stood at the edge of the forest twenty yards away. Upright, they were a full six feet, Ian judged, and their fronts were of thick, wrinkled skin like the underside of a tortoise. Nearby were half a dozen thick pancakes, as he silently designated them, perhaps five feet in diameter, eighteen inches thick, and covered with spines. They rose as the truck stopped, displaying hairless undersides, and joined their companions, moving quickly on rudimentary feet. Nine pairs of dark eyes moved in unison, watching him as he descended. Each appeared ready to flop back on its belly, spines raised.
Ian halted and waved, smiling. Speech was useless and he had never heard an audible sound pass between the Pleionians. Some of them carried thongs hanging from one upper limb. Ian wondered whether chance or reason had prompted the theft of the distributor head.
Joan removed her goggles, revealing circles of clear skin. “ I’ll try them again,” she suggested.
Ian returned to the truck. The nine flat faces directed themselves upon the girl, and he watched as she made symbolic movements with both hands. He could not pretend to follow her methods, but knew they were sound.
“ Suppose they’ll talk one day,” Martin said, and reached for the last stub of his week’s ration.
“ Miss Carrie will find how, given time — ”
A sizzling thud, and howl halted Ian’s words. Martin fell back over his seat, cigarette flying, a hand clasped to his temple. He struggled up.
“ What the devil !”
Blood was flowing from under his palm. Ian’s gaze swept over him and back to the group fifteen yards distant. From the end of one stumpy forearrh a loose thong still swayed. Martin’s hand came on his shoulder.
“ This hit me!”
His gauntlet opened to disclose a ball scarcely a thumb’s width in diameter. Ian took it. Quite light, it was wood, carved to perfect shape, and undoubtedly thrown with astonishing speed and power.
“ Wood !” Martin growled. “ Why the devil wood !” His gesture took in the sandstone desert, where in moments a man might gather more pebbles than he could carry. He looked at the blood on his fingers, swore, and jumped from the truck. “ Time I tried a little communication !”
The Pleionians watched him take five paces, then flopped upon the reddish dust. Nine thick, spined pancakes confronted Martin. He shoved the edge of one with his boot, and grunted in pain.
“ They’re not getting away with it like that !”
He fetched a crowbar from the truck and levered the Pleionian up and over. Its bare surface was momentarily visible, then hidden again as it folded itself head to toe. Martin poked it with the bar.
“ Damn thing !”
“ Better leave it,” Ian suggested. He put the wooden missile in a pocket. “ We’ll go on north. From what I’ve seen of others these won’t open up for an hour or more.”
He looked back several times as they rode. The Pleionians were motionless, one rolled, the others flat heaps of steely spines.
“ I believe they converse by wrinkling their thorax skin,” Joan said as they dwindled from sight.
Ian looked at her quickly. “ Going to be difficult to learn ?”
He saw she would not commit herself. “ What do you think of this ?” He put the wooden ball in her hand.
She examined it, face pensive. “Looks as if it’s been used before, and retrieved.” She indicated abrasions on the hard wood.
Martin scowled in the driving seat. “ Why attack me ?”
Joan Carrie shrugged. “ Attack ? Perhaps it was — defence.”
Martin grunted disbelief. “ I hadn’t threatened them !”
Nearly three miles from camp, a broad clearing ran into the woodland and hut roofs were just visible amid the trees. They turned in, the truck engine echoing from the high trunks. Pleionians appeared at the hut doors, paused, then melted with quick steps into the forest. The vehicle halted among deserted buildings made of sticks and mud.
Ian descended, disappointed, though it was the biggest village yet found.
“ Let’s investigate,” he said.
After an hour his disappointment had changed to astonishment and admiration. The huts were beautifully made, never crude, and internally showed a high standard of culture.
“ They never cook,” Joan observed.
Ian looked round the hut they had entered, with its coloured woven bed, carved ornaments, and smooth plank floor. “ Vegetarians, I suppose,”
Nowhere had he seen any fire or cooking arrangements. It was, he supposed, never cold.
“ Writing,” Martin put in.
He held up a book of bound sheets, each covered with strange characters. Ian wondered if Joan could make anything of them — probably, given time.
The air in the hut was oppressive with heat, and he went out. It might be unwise to leave the truck unguarded. The thought had scarcely come when he realised the vehicle was gone. Or was he mistaken, amid the orderly huts ? A quick search showed he was not and he summoned the others. The marks where it had rested were clear, as were the incoming tracks, and a second series apparently leading back to the desert.
“ I’ll swear the engine didn’t start !” Martin said.
They ran back along the cleft amid the trees and emerged upon the sandy plain. The half-track truck stood two hundred yards out in the desert. Far away to the left a score of forms were slipping into the trees and Ian had a glimpse of long ropes they carried.
“ Damned funny reception !” he growled.
The vehicle was unharmed and started at once. Martin pushed up his goggles and wiped sweat from his eyes, leaving a dusty smear. Ian saw unease in his glance. A stillness had settled over the desert, but he knew it would not last for long. The wind always blew a little; sometimes it blew strongly, whipping dust across the dunes.
“ We’ll go back to camp and see if Sims and Penny have found anything,” he suggested.
He hoped Joan might make something of the book, and that it could help. The Pleionians were civilised — and civilised races had customs and rules of conduct. It was increasingly clear that in some way those rules were being broken by the men from the two ships, and that could be dangerous. A man might break a taboo without knowing, and therein lay their danger.
They drove into the face of a mounting wind that carried dust even more thickly. Never had he experienced so dry an atmosphere, Ian thought, as he sweated on the bumpy seat. He looked for even a tiny cloud, and found none. The sun was past its zenith, hot and unblinking, glaring on the flanking rim of trees so that they shone like painted scenery under arc-lamps.
“ Hell, but it’s hot," Martin grunted once.
Dust sped back in a long trail from their tracks, and the silvery lances of the two ships dawned out of the haze ahead. Ian opened his mouth to speak, and closed it with a snap. The others could see for themselves — and words had flown; the tin huts and all their equipment stood a good two hundred yards out in the desert, apparently transported wholesale.
“ And what d’you make of that ?” Martin demanded for the fifth time, his sandy hair tumbled and his light blue eyes screwed up in disgust. “ Everything’s exactly as we left it — ”
“ You wanted to find something damaged ?” Ian asked, irritated.
“ Not exactly — but it would help explain.”
Ian left him. The sun, now low, struck the huts fully, and the temperature was unendurable. He planned to sleep amid the trees and felt he needed it, after a mere two hours’ cat-nap that mid-after-noon. Fifty hours of daylight were a nuisance, difficult to adapt to, as were the fifty hours of gloom reduced only by Pleione’s single, small moon.
Most of the scientific data had already been stored ; air content, gravity, and innumerable samples of insect, plant and mineral. The lack of surface water was awkward, but not final, he thought. The natives drank from deep wells that dotted even areas where no village stood. Some nights there was a fine, immeasurably gentle precipitation of dew, just detectable by instruments, and enough to maintain the dry, brittle vegetation. Not from natural forces did any threat come, but from the natives. Taboos too often broken could arouse an anger which would sweep the Earthmen away.
He found Joan. “ First we’ve got to get an idea of what we’re doing wrong,” he pointed out.
She looked tired. “ You feel we’re getting on the wrong side of the natives ?”
“ Almost certainly. That’s why I won’t have the huts moved back into the shade. Judging from the local population level, there may be a hundred million natives on this planet. We cannot colonise if they oppose. No one back home approves of force, even if we could maintain ourselves against attack, which is doubtful.”
He went to sleep wondering why Sims and Penny were overdue, and wishing they had radio, to contact the hut station, autogyro, or half-track truck. Both had been confident of early return, and were experienced men. Thus could an unimportant oversight assume serious proportions, he thought.
He awoke with Pleione’s small moon glowing weakly behind the tall trees, and saw he had slept over six hours. The air was less hot, but very dry, absorbing moisture so that his lips cracked as he yawned. He rose, slapping his clothing, and dust drifted like mist, subsiding among the trees. ’
“ You trust them more than I do, sleeping here alone,” a voice said.
Martin came from the shadows. Ian folded the blankets upon which he had lain.
“ They haven’t shown general hostility yet.”
“ Then let’s hope they don’t !” The other felt the lump on his brow. “ Sims and Penny aren’t back.”
Ian knew that fact had been nagging at his own mind. Not for another thirty hours would the sky begin to lighten in the east, with infinite slowness as the sun dragged reluctantly up. The night was silent. South lay a hundred and fifty square miles of the central forests, the sand gully, and then nearly fifty square miles of the south forest. If mischance had arisen, the missing pair could be anywhere in that area.
“ I’d like to take the autogyro,” Martin said.
Ian frowned. “ Risky, at night.”
“ Not if I keep along the edge of the desert. I could land there in moonlight.”
A good plan, Ian thought. The little autogyro was extremely safe, and economical enough to stay aloft until dawn, if necessary.
“ Keep in contact with us at the camp,” he suggested.
“ I will.”
Martin vanished amid the tall, slender trunks. Time to go back to camp himself, Ian decided. Only an occasional rustle, very faint, told that living things other than he was in the forest. Minor creatures were few, though large-eyed, squirrel-like rodents were sometimes glimpsed among the trees.
He went back to camp. Two crewmen quartered in the Wildshine had helped get the autogyro ready and echoes drifted far across the sandstone plain as it took off, skimming south. Joan had returned to sleeping in her ship, Ian noted, but Bill Miles, the tall radio engineer from the Moorstone, was in the hut that had served as radio shack.
“ Beats me how all this stuff was moved without being got out of order, Captain,” he said.
Ian studied the radio gear, several separate, interconnected units. “ None of you in the ships saw anything ?”
“ No, sir.” Miles turned power switches and waited for the transmitter to heat. “ Our sleep period. You said watch need not be kept.”
“ True enough.” The men had wanted rest. “ Any opinion how everything was moved ?”
“ Mostly by hand. I’d say — if hands are what they have. It’s mostly sandstone, here, but there were some tracks. Also a few indications that they used a wheeled vehicle for the heavier stuff.” He indicated the set. “ This was disconnected, carried in separate units, and re-connected correctly. There was no other way.”
A carrier came on the speaker, and Ian was silent. The Pleionians were not ignorant savages — that was growing increasingly clear. They had brains, civilisation. Also definite ideas about the proper place for things like tin huts and half-track trucks !
“ Withers here,” the speaker said.
“ You are strong and clear.”
Miles looked at Ian questioningly, and Ian took the hand mike. " Martin.”
“ Keep talking to us if you see anything of note.”
“ I will.”
Ian left Miles standing by and went out. Martin’s trip would not take long, but searching systematically over the miles of woodland might be a very different matter.
A Pleionian was coming from the forest, walking with a waddling motion. It halted two paces away, tall as Ian, its round eyes fixed on him. In the moonlight he saw that the skin of its thorax was wriggling irregularly.
“ So that is the way you talk !” he said.
The wriggling stopped, then began more rapidly. The Pleionian extended one flipper, rather like that of a walrus, but with opposing digits. Between them was a cylinder of wood several inches long and round as a closed fist.
Ian took it automatically. The thick folds of skin wobbled, then were still, as if the creature knew it was not understood. It turned and went back quickly into the forest, spines glinting in ridges as it moved.
Ian looked at the cylinder, and his brows rose. The whole surface was covered with carvings of wonderful delicacy. Undoubtedly a job for Joan !
At the ship he talked with her for half an hour, and found she had got no nearer an understanding of the natives’ language. A spark came in her grey eyes as she studied the cylinder.
“ Possibly they have no hearing,” she said. “ Similarly, skin-wrinkling is out, for us. With no common basis, there can be no communication. But a written language may be a very different thing !”
“ Work on it all you can.”
He left her. Back in the hut Martin was talking on the radio. “ No sight of the truck yet. The sand gully is away to my right. Beyond is the south forests. As they were Sim’s main interest I’m beginning from there.”
The murmur of the craft’s motor drifted from the speaker. Ian went outside, standing in the long parallelogram of light thrown through the open door, and listened. Wind whispered past now, more brisk, hot and dry as a midsummer noon. Ports of both ships stood open, circles of reflected light.
Miles went off duty and Ian sat on a case of equipment, waiting a replacement radio-watch. Two hours had passed since Martin had left, and the speaker awoke again.
“ Withers to camp.”
Ian started at the voice and its undertone of excitement. “ Captain here.”
“ I’ve seen the truck. It’s out from the trees near the end of the sand gully towards its south end.”
“ Sims and Penny ?”
“ No sign of them yet.” The background drone changed, showing Martin was banking down. “ Too distant to see properly. There’s nothing moving.” The engine murmur faded again. “ I’m dropping low. If they’ve heard me they haven’t signalled.”
Silence came, then a grunt. Something in it made Ian grasp the microphone fiercely. “ Martin !”
“ Sorry.” The word was clipped, urgent. “ Yes, they’re there — dead or unconscious. By the truck.”
“ Land and investigate !” Ian snapped. “ Don’t get out unless it’s safe !”
“ The truck is two hundred yards from the forest.” Wind swished audibly through the rotor blades, followed by bursts from the motor. “ I’m fifteen yards from the truck.” The voice was clipped, precise, resonant with the efficiency that had gained its owner his place on the Wildshine. “ No movement. No natives. I’m getting out to fetch Sims and Penny.”
The silence grew, broken only by the occasional swish of sand grains upon the tin hut. A strange bumping came over the radio link, then Martin’s voice.
“ Sims is dead — killed. Penny is unconscious. They’ve been attacked.”
“ Bring them back,” Ian snapped.
” Will do.”
Outside, Ian wondered what disaster had arisen fifteen miles south across the wooded plain. Attacked, Martin had said. He would not make a mistake over that.
A murmur grew, and the autogyro slanted down out of the southern sky. It turned to taxi near, and the headlights went out. The relief radioman was coming from the ships and Ian called him.
Sims was beaten to death. Penny was unconscious still, head bruised. Probably he would live.
Martin stood in the radio shack with a hard expression on his face. “ So they’re not so harmless,” he growled.
Ian felt it did not fit, yet. The brutal attack upon the two men was not such as he would have expected from the Pleionians, placid race hitherto wholly unwarlike.
“ Any indication of the reason ?” he asked.
Martin shook his head, loose throat-strap swinging. “ None. Looked to me as if they’d been attacked from behind while eating.”
“ No injured natives, or signs of a fight ?”
“ Not that I could see.”
Ian watched the second stretcher go from view. “ I don’t believe this planet’s species would murder without cause. I’d like you to take me out.”
Martin shrugged. “ Nothing easier. Captain.”
Ships and sand silvery with moonlight drifted behind. The great central forest sped past, flanked far to the west by hills that joined the sand dunes edging the south forest. The long sand gully, half a mile and more wide, slid by, and Ian picked out the truck. Martin put the autogyro down near it.
“ Wait here and keep your eyes open,” Ian ordered.
“ Will do. Captain.”
He searched round the truck, examining the sand. There had been no fight. But tracks led from the forest, and he followed them, a possibility dawning.
The truck had been pushed out from the edge of the forest. Sims and Penny had camped there, a stone’s throw from its rim, and a dead, flattened camp-fire, and opened tin of beans, showed Martin’s guess had been in part correct. The beans were cold, as were the cinders. The fire could not have been more thoroughly extinguished if a score of elephants had tramped it into the dust. Yet Ian knew no such creatures had been there — only Pleionians.
Martin was standing by the autogyro. He dangled a plastic casing with nine leads in one hand. “ I’d like to drive the truck back. You could take the plane. I glanced at the truck’s engine when I fetched Sims — the distributor-head was gone, that’s all.”
“ Again ?” Therefore reason, not chance, Ian thought.
“ I also had a crewman dump a pack transmitter in the plane,” Martin stated.
“ Good.” Ian saw his last objection was gone.
“ With luck, I can make it back in an hour.”
Martin went to the truck. Ian watched him a moment, then returned to the autogyro. He noted that Martin had already removed the pack transmitter, good for twenty miles range at a pinch, and had put it by the driver’s seat. Within ten minutes the truck’s engine started. Martin waved, and Ian took the autogyro up, and turned it for camp. Memory of the flattened fire lingered. He scowled and nibbled his lower lip as the dark brown woodlands slid below his stumpy wings. Theft of the first distributor-head was not chance, but logic, showing intelligence. Similarly, then, could he assume the attack on Sims and Penny was logic ? If so, what was its basis, grave enough to prompt murder ?
The craft swished down to the silver sand, bumped lightly, and halted, rotor drifting into motionlessness. Miles came from the radio hut, half running.
“ There’s a fight started in the trees. Captain !”
“ A fight ?” Ian descended, astonished.
“ Between some of the natives ! Listen.”
Thumping, punctuated by sounds of rapid movement, came from the forest. Ian peeled off his helmet.
“ How long has this been going on?”
“ Only a few minutes — began just as you were preparing to land.”
“ We’d better look. None of the men are there ?”
“ No, sir. They prefer the ships.”
Reasonable — and safer, Ian thought. But understanding of a planet’s predominate species was not achieved by sitting safe in impregnable ships while indigenous beings lived and died unobserved outside.
“ Better be careful,” the radio engineer warned as they moved in among the trees.
The matted carpet of root tendrils was soft under Ian’s feet, the Pleionians too occupied to hear or heed his approach. A group swayed and bobbed amid the trunks, concealing something in their midst. He moved closer, nerves taut, and flashed his electric torch upon the heaving mass. Round, dark eyes turned on him, then were gone. The group melted, was lost amid the trees, and he found his beam directed upon three crumpled forms — Pleionians, and dead. The sheer fury of the overwhelming attack had almost flattened them into the resilient earth.
Repulsed, he walked round the motionless shapes. Two were of usual size ; one was much smaller. He wondered if the three had been a family, parents and child, all slain.
“ The whole lot are nuts — -killers!” Miles declared from the shadows. “ Sims and Penny, then this. We’ll be next !”
The three had fought back. The adults still grasped finely-smoothed staffs ; the half-grown offspring clutched a stick to which was fastened a pointed flint. But the attack had been too violent and sure.
“ Let’s get back to the ships,” Miles urged uneasily.
Might be as well, Ian admitted. “ Check that Withers is all right.”
“ Yes, sir.”
Ian returned to the twin vessels slowly, unable to understand what he had seen. Everything had suggested the Pleionians were sane, kindly, peaceful . . . until Sims had died. Now three fellows had perished, killed by their own kind.
Miles reported Martin Withers was making progress, but might camp at the end of the gully to wait dawn, as finding a way between the trees was difficult. Ian ascended into his ship, and found Joan pouring over the wooden cylinder, scores of sketches at her side. He watched her.
“ Make anything of it ?”
Her head shook, not rising. “ I can, given time. It’s easier than the symbols in the north village sample. It’s no Rosetta stone, but logically arranged. I’ve got a dozen characters or more, and others are coming.”
He felt interest. “ Understand anything from it ?”
Her grey eyes flickered momentarily upon him. “ A man who knows a dozen English words can’t read English.”
“ Sorry.” He realised that circumstances were putting an edge to his voice and impatience. “ You’ll let me know when you get any- thing definite.”
“ Of course.”
He left her and descended to the sandstone plain. Half the fifty-hour night was gone but the air was still hot and dry. He contacted Martin from the hut, learned the truck was definitely risky to drive until dawn, and agreed Martin should camp. Outside, the wind had brisked a trifle, coming more from the south. It carried the woody smell of two hundred square miles of forest. Away beyond the north village were literally hundreds of thousands of square miles of exactly similar forest, Ian thought. Pleione was wooded everywhere except on very high ground, and where sandstone lay exposed. Never was there a planet so dry, so wooded, so baked by uninterrupted mid-day sun . . .
He frowned, walking amid the huts. The whole planet’s surface was a tinder-box ... no water, no rain, long, dry days. And the trees, slow-growing, resinous . . .
An undefinable unease drew at his nerves. The smell of the vast forests was like tar in his nostrils. Miles away, Sims had been killed cooking beans. Cooking beans ! Ian thought. A shock ran through him. He was momentarily stunned, then his feet were flying back to the radio hut.
Martin was a long time answering. He sounded bored. “ Withers here — ”
“ For mercy’s sake don’t have a campfire !” Ian’s fingers were steel around the microphone.
“ A camp fire — ?”
“ That’s what I said !”
“ But cold beans are muck.”
“ Then you’ve got a fire ?” Ian rapped.
“ Of course.” Martin sounded hurt. "
Ian groaned aloud. This, on a planet where the whole native culture was directed towards one end, if he guessed correctly. His teeth snapped.
“ Go put it out !”
“ I don’t see — ”
“ Put it out !” Ian’s roar shook the tin walls.
There was a pause, then ; “ Very well, will do.”
Ian put down the mike, wondering if Martin thought him mad — if, perhaps, he was mad. How could a creature of green, wet, steamy Earth understand the minds of beings born on a world sun-baked and arid as Pleione, or comprehend what basis for survival might have arisen ?
He was only at the hut door when the radio bleeted furiously. Martin’s voice was echoing from the speaker before Ian could gain the equipment.
“ Captain here !”
“ Wind blew the sparks across and the forest’s started burning!” Ian felt shaken. Too late, he thought. “ Put it out if you can! We’re on our way.”
“ A strip twenty yards long is on fire — ”
“ Don’t talk, Do what you can!”
“ Yes, Captain.”
The speaker fell silent. Twenty yards, Ian thought as he ran from the shack. Two hundred square miles — the whole of Pleione’s wooded surface ?
A general alert brought every man in the two ships awake and out. Four trucks in all were available, two very powerful, with bulldozer scoops at present not even unloaded. If the worst happened, they could perhaps confine the blaze to the south forest. Ian decided as he waited impatiently for the autogyro to be re-fuelled. West, the sand gully ended in sandhills. South was desert, linking up with the sandstone plain east.
He should have realised before, he thought as he gave final orders and took the tiny craft up. The high temperature and low humidity, parching up the universal woodland, made even a cigarette end vitally dangerous.
Red tinted the southern sky and the smell as of a pitch furnace in blast came on the wind. At two miles distance Ian could see the black smoke pouring up into the moonlit sky. He jerked the helmet mike round to his lips.
“ Captain Summers here.”
“ Listening, sir.” An edge was to the radioman’s voice.
“ Get all the trucks and men down to make a fire break from the gully to keep this lot from spreading !”
“ They’re on their way, sir !”
Smoke came from the south on the dry wind, bringing a momentary blast of hot air. Ian circled up and north again, until he spotted the headlamps of the trucks bouncing along the edge of the desert. In the trucks jogged fire-fighting equipment from the ships, efficient but never intended for a purpose such as this.
“ Withers through from truck,” the radio said. “ He reports the fire is absolutely out of his control.”
“ Order him to leave and join the others !”
Seen from altitude, the fire was a blazing patch perhaps fifty acres in extent, red tongues reaching up amid the tall trees. Time yet to confine it, Ian thought.
Within an hour his opinion had changed. The trucks swept in, bulldozers scraping lanes through the bush. Men worked with axes, sweating, illuminated redly and drawing back as flames crept up. Then the wind brisked. A shower of sparks and leaping fire raced along the ground and through the treetops, white and sparkling like a living thing. The fire was half a mile long and a mile wide and Ian saw it had won.
“ Order the men right back to make a break from desert to gully !” Better abandon the whole fifty square miles of the south forest than lose the fire altogether, he thought.
“ Yes, sir !”
The man’s voice was scared, and Ian guessed he could see the glow and smell the fury that was spreading like a great red weal. As the trucks withdrew, long streamers of flame leapt onwards. Behind them the heart of the fire blazed red and white, sparks rising as great trunks fell.
Ian banked across over the gully where Sims had died. Two miles wide at its southern end, it stretched north-east for several miles, petering away into the forest. Between its point and the desert the neck of woodland offered a line of defence.
The trucks began to lurch up and down, headlights blazing, shovelling away brush and saplings. The fire had quite two miles to come, Ian judged. The time that permitted depended on the wind.
He repeatedly criss-crossed the area, watching the red fury to the south grow in size. Two hours passed, and a clear line, visible in the moonlight, began to appear across the neck of woodland. As the flames approached, the line grew broader, revealing heaving machines and sweating men. Martin had joined them, his truck hauling felled trees aside, and Ian’s hopes rose.
Dawn was approaching when the fire reached the break, burning a trifle more slowly, but still pouring flame a hundred feet high. Occasionally long streamers reached ahead, sluicing through the bush like flaming liquid, adding everything it touched to the incandescence. The front of the fire grew straight, levelling with the fire-break. Then, slowly at first, red began to reach across.
Ian dragged off his goggles, wiped them, and took the autogyro higher. Half a dozen slow, red fires were inching across the line of cleared forest !
He took the craft down on the desert edge amid the trucks. Martin came running, yelling above the crackle and roar of flame.
“ It’s the roots, tendrils, compost — yards and yards thick of it !”
The ground itself was burning ! Aghast, Ian knew he should have anticipated it. The woodland grew on a strata of combustible material that had accumulated for millions of years.
A bulldozer nosed into the fury, and sank almost from sight amid glowing cinders. It backed, tracks throwing clouds of embers over driver and crew, and Ian knew they had failed.
This was the culture pattern of Pleione ! Make no fire. A creature who made fire risked the planet itself. Wooden missiles, because stones could cause sparks. Kill a child if it makes a stone axe. Kill its parents if they try to protect it. Survival is a hard master, but one who must be obeyed. Kill a man if he smokes, if he uses a camp fire. Move his dangerous machines from the brittle, explosive forest. And Men had not understood, because to mankind the discovery of fire had been his first step upwards, not a catastrophe able to plunge the planet back into a dark age.
“ Get into the trucks and back to camp !” Ian roared. “ The woods narrow between the ships and west mountain ridge! If we don’t stop the fire there we’ll die fighting it !”
The central forest would have to go, all hundred and fifty square miles of it. Only thus could they gain time. If the fire escaped, then the thousands of miles of tinder-dry woodland to the north would follow.
Ian was scarcely aware that dawn had come. Just north of the ship site the bulldozers swept aside brush and trees, and began working on the earth itself. But it was no earth, he thought as he swung an axe. It was a layer of roots and debris from above, varying in depth from a few feet to masses fifteen and twenty feet thick.
They had been working an hour when the trees of the central forest began to vibrate with a queer, whispering murmur of terror. Out from them swept hoards of the tiny squirrel creatures, tails streaming, eyes wide. They leapt from tree to truck, and truck to tree, bridging the gap, thousands upon thousands, and then all were suddenly gone. The whisper of terror subsided, moving on into the vast northern forests.
It was almost noon when the roar of the fire dawned into hearing. Many men had not slept or eaten in the twenty-four hours. Ian took up the autogyro, and was aghast at the holocaust of the central forest. The updraught of hot air made flight over the area impossible, but he circled north and saw that the fire had reached the sandhills and mountain ridge, there to halt reluctantly.
They began throwing explosives when the fire-front was five hundred yards from the gap, snuffing down the fury of the blaze and keeping the flames low. Gusts of blastingly hot air struck them, forcing them back, arms shielding sooty faces. The bulldozers lurched upon the very rim of advancing fire, throwing the brush back again and again, but always withdrawing. The wind freshened, blowing strongly from the south, then fell. The sun was halfway between zenith and setting when Ian knew they had won.
He left half the men patrolling the gap, watching for creeping tongues of flame. Others scoured the intact forest edge ceaselessly, fire-extinguishers ready to quell any spark carried on the rising air. Embers still rose half a mile in the sky, falling through the twenty-thousand feet column of smoke that rose awesomely from the remains of the central forest.
The sun was very low when Ian became aware of a strange procession coming out of the north forests. Searchlights played on the gap, where men still watched. The autogyro was just descending from a survey of the untouched woodland, to assure that no fire had started there. But not to these things did the Pleionians give attention. Instead, Ian saw they were approaching him with a determination that spoke of prior agreement and plan.
Joan, plastered with soot from driving a truck, came up beside him.
“ Another few weeks and I’ll know their writing,” she said.
He indicated the advancing line. “ They won’t wait that long.”
He wondered if this was to be the end for men on Pleione. Men had committed the unforgivable, jeopardising the planet.
The leader halted, laying a moon-shaped disc of wood at Ian’s feet. Joan’s breath hissed in relief.
“ Their symbol of peace and thanks — ”
Ian relaxed. “ Thanks ?”
“ Presumably for halting the fire.”
The others passed in single file, depositing gifts upon the token of peace. Odd creatures, Ian thought. -The oddity had arisen from the pressure of circumstance. Without fire, mankind would never have survived as a naked, helpless being. Fire had been Man’s great discovery, a shield protecting the beginnings of his civilisation. Denied that aid, the Pleionians had developed spines. Creatures who used fire would be about as welcome as madmen running amok with the power of universal destruction in their hands. The knowledge brought inspiration.
“ We’ll begin with lighters, cigarettes and matches !” he said. “ Yes, even Martin’s !”
Pockets were turned out and a tiny pile grew on the dust. When finished, Ian withdrew from it, gesturing. The Pleionian leader took up waterproof matches, opened them, and struck one deftly. A rustle passed among his fellows. He placed the match upon the sand, and extinguished it, scraped a hole, and pushed the earthmen’s offerings into it. Ian watched the sand stamped flat.
“ Good,” he said. “ They understand us now, and we them. The latter is important. While we’re here we respect their culture pattern. Only madmen make fire. Fire is insanity, death. Never use it.”
He looked at the thick, drifting smoke. Every planet imposed its own conditions for survival — adherence to those conditions was not fanciful generosity, but necessity.
Francis G. Rayer.
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