Authors: John Brunner
Tags: #Science fiction
a society? Assuming this is a city?”
“Shelter. Transport. Distribution of resources.”
“Qualify. Consider decentralization.”
“Agreed. Means of exchange. Means of communication.”
“Means of exchange most important. If they have money or its equivalent, how do we get our hands on some of it?”
“Archaic? Consider automation.”
“Consider nothing. Wait and see. Bushman in New York.”
“Totems on every street corner? Red and green taboos? They shall not pass?”
“Good analogy. Mystic influence of the stop light. Are we comparatively as backward in social evolution?”
“Additional: occupation of leisure, assuming automation, entertainment.”
“Bushman in a movie house. Two-dimensional images meaningless. Lack associations: furniture; telephones; cars.”
“More important: lack social knowledge. Law enforcement instead of revenge. Forms of politeness highly specialized. Law enforcement here, or fundamental social education?”
This was a continual current of mental argument, sparking inside their shared mind like firecracker chains, breaking every few instants over the insulating gap left by the absence of Fritz Schneider.
“Are we expecting roads, assuming wheeled transport, assuming necessity to walk, assuming too much? This slope is not a road.”
The pale gray slope took perhaps ten minutes to traverse; there was still a watch on Joe’s wrist, but it had run down, and even having set it arbitrarily, on the strength of Rohini’s estimate of the local time, was no help until the length of this planet’s day was known. The slope was indeed not a road. At its base it broadened out into a series of graceful curves of ground, on the crest of each curve being a light colored patch.
Joe detoured slightly, finding it hard to ascend the side of the nearest rise, and approached one of the pale patches. They remembered that the strange opening in the side of the Federation
ship, through which Gyul Kodran had emerged, resembled this patch slightly.
“Transport terminal?” hesitantly proposed Stepan. “Use it if it is?”
“Too dangerous as yet,” the consensus voted. Joe went back to their original line of walking. When he had gone twenty paces, there came a sighing sound from behind him; he whirled.
Standing over the pale patch he had just been inspecting was an object taller than himself, very much like an ear of corn stripped of its husk, for it was formed like a tall narrow barrel and covered with a coat of silky yellow down.
It began to flicker. From it, as it flickered, duplicates of itself began to proceed, spreading outwards in rhythmical waves across the rise and fall of the ground. A glance around showed that the other light-colored patches had each produced a similar object, and was likewise flickering thousands into existence out of an original one.
A tenor sound, which chorded on a distant octave with the ever-present low-pitched humming filled the air.
“Is this for us, or has this anything to do with us?” the question arose.
“Are they living creatures, or is this the counterpart of a bed of flowers?” Mrs. King asked.
“Harmonic periodicity,” stated Rohini Das after a pause. “Logarithmic spiral outwards. Could be natural. Might well be product of intelligence.”
One of the latest generated of the objects was approaching Joe. A spasm of apprehension grasped them. Joe had to clear his throat.
He waited until the object was less than ten feet away and uttered a greeting in Esperanto. Possibly the first creature, if this was a creature, to meet the stranger would be one able to communicate.
Absurdly, an answer chorded out of the air—formed by the pervading tenor and bass sound.
“You are intruding.”
Astonished, Joe took an automatic step back. “We—I apologize,” he said vaguely, thinking it was the golden thing
which had spoken. But it was not. The golden thing proceeded with majesty on its way, and the chorded words recurred.
“You are intruding.”
Glancing about him, Joe saw that there were now thousands of the golden objects covering the gray slope of the ground like mobile shrubs. They were beginning to flow into a patterned movement like a dance.
“Move,” decided the team. Joe turned and faced the way he had been going, only to find that the golden things now spread before him like a shifting wall. He started forward nonetheless, but the pace of their weaving was getting more rapid, and soon he was having to leap, jump, halt abruptly in order to avoid collision.
Still the whirling grew faster. He and the rest recognized despairingly that sooner or later collision was inevitable, and almost in the same moment, as he halted to avoid one of the objects, another struck him from behind.
It was curiously yielding and buoyant, like a pillow, but it bounced off him and diverted to one side. The diversion brought it into collision with another; like a chain reaction or like falling skittles disorder flowed out from where he had been struck.
Appalled, he halted and stared after the wake of the disturbance.
A new chord was struck suddenly in the air. A word formed. “Stop!”
The whirling of the golden objects died to nothing. Some of them toppled to the ground and lay still; others balanced where they were, quivering.
Again words formed. This time they were unequivocal.
Panting, Joe obeyed without question, hurrying forward between or over the golden objects until he emerged at last onto an expanse of ground which was clear of them. As soon as that happened, the movement began again returning bit by bit to its original classical precision.
“High handed!” was Stepan’s angry reaction.
“In keeping,” countered Joe. “The impression they gave was that they were prepared to tolerate us only if we didn’t make a nuisance of ourselves.”
“What do they classify as a nuisance?” Lawrence demanded.
By hurrying out of the area occupied by the golden things, he had reached the edge of the possible city. The ground here was still gray, but of a rather different shade and a very different texture, being rough and somehow tacky. He plodded a little as he went. On his right was one of the things he had seen from the edge of the bowl-shaped lawn and classed as a tree. Close-up, it did seem to be vegetable, but had neither leaves nor branches, only scale-like plates of bluish-green mounted on a stumpy green trunk.
“All the plates are oriented towards the sun,” Mrs. King pointed out. “Either it’s vegetable, or it’s a device for employing solar power in some way.”
Joe stepped towards it, finding the going harder as he came nearer, with the intention of touching one of the sun-oriented plates. As his arm reached out, there was a sudden warning of danger from Lawrence.
“The ground is probably tacky as a warning—
Pictured with this was the idea of people following lines of least resistance in the locality of fragile equipment or dangerous objects.
“Agreed?” the team asked itself, and recognized the high possibility of what Lawrence suggested. Sweating, Joe turned around and began cautiously to feel his way forward where the tackiness grew less. It was fifty yards before the ground was altogether free of the sticky sensation.
He paused to wipe his face and take a deep breath. As he did so, there was a blurring in the air in front of him. Astonished, he froze, staring.
The blurring became whirling and cylindrical, cleared, remaining well-defined. Out of the cylindrical vacancy someone looked.
It took a moment to adjust to the knowledge that it must be someone and not
, for it was brown and slate-colored, and certain small formal symbols decorated its upper forward parts. Between the symbols were two recognizable and indisputable eyes: large, brown-irised, wet-shining. In a way hard to describe, Joe found its air at first expectant, as though the creature were on the verge of saying or doing
something. Then it relaxed conveying weary contempt, and the cylinder out of which it looked in mid-air blurred into whirling and vanished from sight.
“We rang an alarm, and someone came running?” suggested Joe. The team turned the idea over and agreed.
“More care,” counseled Rohini Das with a suspicion of superiority.
“We’ve done well so far,” countered Mrs. King mildly. “At least we’re still alive.”
Their movement away from the tacky danger zone had brought them close to the first possible building of the city. There seemed to be no such formal organization into streets and blocks as was found on Earth; Rohini Das suggested that the key to the arrangement was to be found in some harmonic function which related the buildings and perhaps their uses to each other. There was only one way to find out. Cautiously, alert for renewed tackiness underfoot, Joe moved toward the closest building. This was a structure—so perfect it seemed to have been grown rather than built—like a ribbed shell, springing out all along one side into a sort of gallery. Under the roof of the gallery were openings to the interior.
There was no warning of danger. Joe walked up to the first of the openings and peered through.
Beyond the opening, there were creatures like the slate and brown one that had appeared in mid-air a few moments ago. The shock of that appearance had partly prevented Joe from seeing clearly what they were like; now, though, he could discern that they were basically of a coiled shape, with a flexible springy body four feet long and numerous appendages with which they moved about.
The room in which he saw them was unexpectedly huge, far huger than he had anticipated. The walls and roof were of a pearly white substance with an even luminescence. Arranged across the vast expanse of the floor were contorted objects which he compared automatically to furniture, because the creatures were resting in them or moving about in cup-shaped hollows as though restless.
The silence was eerie. That was the first moment he realized that the humming which had accompanied his movements so far was no longer audible.
“Do any of us understand what’s going on?” he asked.
The team answered that it was hopeless to try without more information. At their suggestion, he moved to look in at the next opening. Strangely enough, this one lead on to a different room, also vast, but with squared corners and lighted with a dull brick-red light. Here there were different creatures, perhaps grayish or white, but lit redly, stumpy and seemingly without appendages, opening and shutting a lipless gap on their upper ends and emitting a shrill wail.
Another opening, and differences again: a chamber of crystal, whose walls gave the illusion of opening on to a flat oily sea. Here creatures shaped like sea lilies moved in a cloud of steam, back and forth from the walls to a group in the center who clustered as though growing from a single root on a jagged block as transparent as glass.
Another opening, and the last: four thick things like bloated snakes twined in blue darkness, rustling. The air was fetid-hot.
“The creature floating in the air seemed to know who we were,” ventured Lawrence. “We aren’t going to get anywhere unless we try and communicate. I propose starting with that race.”
“Agreed,” the team decided and accordingly Joe returned to the first entrance. In the middle of the opening he stood, cleared his throat and called out.
With terrifying suddenness, the slate and brown creatures froze. Some of them began to move menacingly towards him.
It took the team’s combined courage and determination to resist the impulse to turn and run; the soles of Joe’s feet itched with the desire for flight. But the creatures halted more than arm’s length away, and surrounded him, staring.
Finally one of them moved very close, and uttered three halting words in Esperanto with a voice precisely like Gyul Kodran’s. So someone, at least, knew about his arrival and was prepared.
“Are you well?”
It was not the question Joe had been expecting; Lawrence was quicker than he, and assumed control to make an answer.
“Well at present, thank you for your inquiry. But I shall not long continue to be well without what Gyul Kodran stated I was allowed to bring: food and other necessities. It was
agreed between him and my people that I might have what I brought.”
The thought crossed the team’s mind that Joe must have been fed during the voyage, while he was unconscious—or had the voyage been so brief that he had not yet become hungry again?
Others of the group of creatures spoke in rapid tones to the one which had addressed Joe. There was a definite sense of dismay in their attitude; it was hard to explain how such an emotion could be conveyed to someone totally unfamiliar with their “expressions.”
A vague puzzlement began to grow in the team’s minds.
Now the one that had spoken before was replying to questions—or accusations—launched by his companion. Lawrence was remaining temporarily in control; his linguistic faculty was stretched to the uttermost, but he indicated sudden confidence.
“It’s a language all right,” he asserted, pleased. “It has word and sentence units, and a range of sounds which I ought to be able to imitate easily enough.”
To the others, the conversation of the aliens would have been a mere buzzing; hearing it through the filter of Lawrence’s expert knowledge, however, they were enabled to understand how he could begin to grasp it almost at once. His auditory memory was phenomenally highly trained; the third repetition of the same sound was enough to file it in his memory with a tentative assigned meaning. So far, he could not do more than assign guesses—but even that was good.
At last a decision of some kind appeared to be reached. The spokesman uttered the single word, “Wait.” And turned and disappeared among the others.
“I get the clearest possible impression,” said Rohini Das, “that they weren’t actually expecting us.”
The possible consequences of that idea occupied their minds for some time. It was an alarming suggestion—but Rohini was right.
“Why? Do you think it was their intention to break their word and deliberately handicap us?” Stepan demanded.