Authors: John Brunner
Tags: #Science fiction
Briaros glanced at him. “That’s right,” he said. “And I pray that was the only one. Because if someone aims for the Federation ship when it comes down tomorrow …”
He didn’t have to finish his sentence to create an aura of grey despair in those who heard him.
characteristic thing about the Federation ship was that it was not impressive. It was fifty or sixty feet long and
shaped something like a barrel with capped ends. It was colored a plain, rather nondescript coppery brown. But the fury of its landing boiled a square mile of the sea.
, thought Joe, and glossed the thought for the benefit of the others who had not the same knowledge of engineering techniques.
That’s where they’re ahead of us
. Old Stormalong
will be a quarter-mile long and nearly as much in circumference; that thing over there goes further and faster and employs more energy to better purpose than a hundred of anything we could design
The steam off the ocean cleared in a rising breeze. Something happened at one end of the ship–a part of the hull glistened, became translucent and allowed something to pass.
Gyul Kodran? It was the same shifting pattern in the same nonhuman shape. They waited for a clue.
There were less than five hundred people privileged to witness this unique episode in human history. Ranged on the sand at the edge of the bay were Briaros and his staff who had come with him last night, Lagenfeld with the group of technicians and psychologists who had undertaken the personality-transfer, and lastly a guard of honor of UN troops drawn up in two squads, one at either side of the secretary-general’s party. They were disarmed, of course.
Probably there were others still on duty at the Tiger’s Claws emplacements. Briaros’s anxious words were still hot in memory: “If someone aims for the Federation ship …!”
Joe turned to Briaros on the instigation of Lawrence Tshekele and asked in a whisper, “Sr. Briaros, where did last night’s missile come from?”
Briaros turned haunted eyes on him. “From a yacht chartered by the One Race One World League.”
“Who or what?”
“Not going to be ordered around by any six-legged monsters,” said Briaros, curling his lip. The parody of a policy statement sufficed to create a defined picture of the organization; Joe felt dismay spread through the team.
“Do you think …?” he said, and Briaros interrupted.
“That Gyul Kodran knows about it? Who can say? But look, something’s happening!”
The being who had emerged from the ship, had completed his slow, careful survey of the welcoming party. Now he was
coming forward; one could say walking forward, because the rhythm of his movements resembled the rhythm of walking, but owing to the enshrouding pattern of lights and colors about him it was not possible to see whether he used legs or if so how many of them.
“Walking on water?” The idea flashed up from Joe’s memory. “Does he know what that means to some human groups?”
Schneider’s comment was characteristic. “Assume for safety’s sake that Gyul Kodran knows everything–or that if he doesn’t himself, he knows someone who knows.”
Rohini Das indicated absently that there were relationships in the oncoming creature’s movements; they could be reduced to a set of harmonic functions and showed that he was carrying something held against his body by the upper limb or limbs on his left side. The analysis was performed so swiftly that it almost surprised her companions out of their shared nervousness; it was the first time since they were joined together that Rohini had turned her mind to a question of math.
“Heavy? Light?” Practical as always, Stepan posed the question. Joe turned it aside.
“They could save themselves the trouble of carrying anything heavy.”
“Sometimes one carries heavy objects because one is capable of doing so: weight-lifting, exercising.”
“Anthropomorphic,” cut in Schneider, not exactly brusquely, but with an aura of caution against generalizing.
Now Gyul Kodran–if it was he–was at the edge of the beach. Not altering the smooth pattern of his progress, he approached Briaros, Lagenfeld, and Joe, where they stood side by side in the center of the welcoming party. He left no footprints in the sand, only localized roughness as though the surface had been disturbed by a light pass with a brush.
At last, ten feet away from them, he halted. His neutral voice spoke in the language that he had used previously.
“I am Gyul Kodran. I remember you, secretary-general Briaros; we were well acquainted.”
Briaros stepped forward. “We are glad to see you back on our planet,” he said, his voice firm and oratorical. “Do you
wish to stay for any length of time or to return at once with our representative?”
“You are accepting our challenge, then?” Gyul Kodran’s voice betrayed nothing; nonetheless, a questioning thought from Mrs. King passed through the team’s mind.
Did he expect us not to? Is he surprised?
They reserved judgment. Briaros seemed to have been struck by the same idea; he spread his hands and shrugged.
“We considered refusing,” he said, speaking slowly as if composing his words with care. “Indeed, we are determined to reserve the right to contest your decision, because although it may be possible to select a perfectly typical individual from a race which is more uniform than ours …”
“Typical?” said Gyul Kodran, and a ghost of humor rang in his voice. “Would you not have chosen an optimum member of your race?”
Briaros shrugged again. “It is as you say; your command of this language is better than mine. But we maintain that the choice of an individual who is truly representative of humanity is impossible.”
“And believing this, you still wish to try your luck?”
“We are not trusting to luck,” said Briaros stiffly.
“Very well then. Who is your representative to be?”
Briaros turned slightly to the side, and Joe paced forward. The nervousness continued, but it was controlled–artificially controlled. It had to be. It was not possible to see whether Gyul Kodran had eyes; nonetheless the team felt that they were being scrutinized, and beyond the mere inspection of the enigmatic alien there was the critical eye of the human race, looking on its representative as the members of an army in ancient times might have looked on the champion singled out from their ranks to settle a quarrel with the enemy’s best man.
“So!” said Gyul Kodran at last. “And who are you? Why were you selected?”
Schneider moved with the smoothness of reflex into control of Joe’s speech muscles and vocal cords. Joe’s voice uttered preplanned words.
“My name is Joseph Hardy Morea,” he said. “I am an engineer. I have abilities in the physical and human sciences, in aspects of art and culture, and in some few other of the
fields of human achievement. If an individual had to be chosen, logically the choice must fall on someone versatile.”
“Logically indeed,” said Gyul Kodran. “Well, then, let us go. I know well that your entire race is awaiting our verdict with impatience; I feel that to delay even an hour will be irksome to them.”
Briaros bowed his head; his lips were trembling a little, and he perhaps could not trust himself to speak. Joe glanced at him and permitted Schneider to go on speaking.
“What I wish to take is assembled over there”–he pointed to a stack of crates containing his belongings–“and we will arrange to have it brought to the ship if you prefer.”
“No need,” said Gyul Kodran. He moved a limb within his shroud of mists, revealing that Rohini Das was correct in saying that he held something against his body. A fleeting glimpse of an object like a control panel showed; the stacked crates rose into the air and with a swishing noise skimmed across the narrow stretch of water towards the ship. The panel through which Gyul Kodran had emerged accepted them.
There was an undisciplined but forgivable murmur of amazement from the ranked troops; casual use of antigrav in that fashion was not a familiar sight on the face of Earth, although in space, in the environment to which Joe was accustomed and where solar power could be had for the asking, it was commonplace. If it was meant to impress the representative himself, the gesture failed. The shared mind of the team was engaged with a more immediate question raised by Lawrence Tshekele.
“I think he suspects.”
“Evidence?” countered Stepan promptly, and did not wait for any to be offered. “As the doc has said, we must assume he knows everything. If you were dealing with a race like ours, wouldn’t you assume that we would try to find a loop-hole in the rules?”
There were amusing overtones about the archaic distinction between amateurs and professionals in sport, through which the sporting authorities of Stepan’s own country had been the first to drive their steam roller.
“And conversely,” Schneider put in.
“Disagreement. We are compelled to assume that they intend to keep their own rules.” From Mrs. King.
“Qualify that,” from Rohini Das. “This is like a problem in math. We know there are rules; so far we don’t know if we know them all. I suspect not.”
“They were presented straightforwardly enough,” Joe commented.
“Agree with Rohini,” from Lawrence. “We are not equipped to find out whether these straightforward rules mean the same to an alien mind until we actually get to grips with that mind.”
“Will we ever?” pessimistically from Rohini.
The last sharp reminder was–as usual–from Schneider. The team acknowledged its justice, and their minds shared a tribute to him. Although outwardly Earth’s representative was Joe Morea; although inwardly they were working together as a team; if they succeeded in meeting the challenge set them, the credit would have in justice to go to Fritz Schneider not only because he had made Ksesshinsky’s ridiculous-seeming idea of
a superman into a practical reality, but also because of the way he had smoothed over their difficulties, welded them into a single group, maintained and steadied the delicate balance between their minds both before the actual transfer and now after it. It was on him that their success or failure hinged, and success seemed possible now.
they would want to prevent us from seeing the interior of the ship especially since our official pose is as Joe who has been announced as an engineer.”
The thought, which had begun in the fraction of a second while the darkness was overcoming them, continued when the darkness lifted. It was still incomplete when Joe’s eyes opened and sensation flooded back into his body. Their body.
He was lying on his back on a slightly yielding surface. He was wearing clothes, the same that he had been wearing when he waited on the beach with Briaros for Gyul Kodran’s arrival. He became aware of mild warmth, probably indicating an ambient temperature equivalent to that of a spring day on Earth. There was pressure on the skin of his back, because he was lying on it, which suggested that he was a little heavier than usual–or possibly he was sluggish and fatigued.
His field of vision, when he first opened his eyes, included nothing but an area of light blue sky, patched with grayish clouds. His ears reported almost total silence. There was a low-pitched humming just at the edge of hearing, but it was so indistinct it might have been the simple aftereffect of what he had undergone–whatever had been done to him to make him unconscious for the period since leaving the island, it must have been fairly drastic.
But it was his nose that brought him the most important information, which advised him that he really was somewhere else. The sense of smell is less important to man than to most terrestrial animals of high organization, yet its power to influence the mind on a less than conscious level remains immense. Joe’s olfactory nerves were sharpened by his period in space, where men trained themselves to rely on changes of odor for recognizing faults in their canned air supplies. Perhaps that was what made him the first of the team to notice fully what was occurring, although the same data were available to them all.
He sat up sharply. It was not that there was any particular individual smell that was strange in the air about him. It was the air itself that smelled differently. Just as water, in itself theoretically without taste, nonetheless tastes different if it comes from a standing pool or from a rapidly-flowing stream, so this air differed from the air he had breathed on Earth.
They did it. They really brought us here
Lawrence Tshekele was tossing up random fragments of ideas mainly concerned with Proust’s A
la Recherche du Temps Perdu
, distracting himself from a flash of alarm and anxiety by making a comparison between the taste of biscuit crumbled in tea that opened the past to Proust and the scent of air that had opened the future to them now. There was always something like that going on in their
shared mind–unexpected, very individual associations between the present and things lying in memory which somehow enriched their combined personalities.
He got to his feet–yes, there was definitely a hint of increased gravity; possibly ten per cent?–and the team mobilized automatically to find out for certain, referring to Stepan for memory of kinesthetic data acquired during his previous control of Joe’s body and for a definitive assessment of the state of its fatigue or freshness, and then to Rohini to perform the complex but rapid conversion of the sense data into quantities related to gravity. The process took perhaps a tenth of a second; the answer came out at eight per cent higher gravity plus or minus two per cent.
They acknowledged to each other that they were working well in combination at the same time as they were studying their surroundings through Joe’s eyes.
They stood now on the spot where they had been lying, in the middle of a level expanse of short-growing vegetation, not unlike some forms of terrestrial moss in appearance, but bluer, speckled with pale yellow dots about three millimeters in diameter, and very much more springy–almost resembling fine turf in the way it sank like a carpet beneath the feet.
Nothing else was to be seen except the sky and this expanse of vegetation.
“What have they done to us–dumped us in the middle of the country?” from Stepan. Correction came swiftly from Rohini.
“Not country. This lawn must be bowl-shaped to give such a sharp outline. Probably artificially landscaped. Curves differently from formations due to weathering–” There was the accompaniment of the visualization of a graph whose equation contained half a dozen independent variables.
“Park?” suggested Joe. The idea fitted. Lawrence half accepted it, pointing out that an advanced race might have landscaped their entire planet–especially a race which was naturally more uniform and homogeneous than humanity, and placed less of a premium on wild beauty.
“What about our belongings?” from Mrs. King. “Is this a rule we didn’t know about–that we have to find them, as well?”
“Without food–” Stepan interjected, but at that point a sudden realization overtook them.
A clamor of mental horror crowded Joe’s brain, as the entire team simultaneously felt an absence, a blankness like amputation, a sensation of loss and deprivation.
It was fantastically eerie to be calling out inside one’s own head; desperation led to the escape of grunts from one’s lips that no one could hear except oneself. It was fantastically terrifying also to have lost someone inside one’s own head.
Where he had been in the smooth new interlocking rhythm of the team, there was now a hiatus, a gap, like a missing tooth in that the absence itself was the important thing.
clamored all the other minds together, and expanded their silent cry to:
Gone where? Gone how? Gone why? What are we to do now?
The panicky inquiry lasted perhaps five seconds–longer than it took to realize there was no hope of driving Schneider back from wherever he had gone, because even struggling in vain was more supportable at first than admitting the truth of what had happened. A terrible sensation of fear grasped Joe’s guts; his hands shook, and his head swam. All the team drifted helplessly in the driving stream of horror.
Suddenly memories of Schneider’s memories, overtones of knowledge which the team had shared in their brief period together, began to click together. Understanding came as each contributed:
“He was afraid–” Mrs. King.
“Not only of failure by the team–” from Rohini Das.
“Not really of failure by the team–” from Joe.
“Of failure by himself,” from Stepan.
“Because he sensed in himself a weakness and held back from a second venture into another body,” Lawrence ended, putting all the facts together. “Why?”
They turned that problem around, too. They found they were aware of what Schneider had suspected about his having spent too long in his own body to be able to withstand a
second shock as the one he had had when his personality was transferred into the body of his wife.
“What happened to his wife? He never mentioned her when we were separate,” remembered Mrs. King. “Nor did his thoughts stray to her, except in passing, when we came together.”
Suggestion of anger from Stepan: Why did he make us take such a risk without warning us?”
Joe countered: “Unfair! He was a fine and brave man who felt he had made himself indispensable, and who perhaps sacrificed himself.” Joe qualified that with memories of what Schneider had done for them in welding them together–the way he had turned aside possible quarrels while they were cooped up in their small hut; the way he had guided them into an understanding of the possibilities of their present combination. “We must show that we have learned from him: tribute to his memory …”
“Where to?” once more, this time from Rohini. Mrs. King suggested answers.
“As it were encapsulated? Intolerable strain resulting in flight by denial of external stimuli and refusal to offer own data to exterior/ourselves? Simple unconsciousness also possible, owing to phenomenon affecting localized area of common brain, area where himself centered–”
“Contradict,” Lawrence brought forward, blocking further progress on that line of thought. “Not localized; personality of each of us distributed, intermeshing in the brain, sharing common centers, sharing visual centers, auditory centers, etc., divided from each other only by typical personal relationship of patterns of charged neurones identifying us, like different colored threads woven together in the same blanket.”
“Let’s worry about that later,” Joe proposed. “Right now, we have another problem. What are we to do?”
“Tentative reason for putting us down out of sight of our belongings,” Stepan put forward. The wave of bodily panic that had gone with the realization of Schneider’s loss had begun to subside; the associated hormones and nervous sensations of the panic state naturally affected all their thinking together, and now they were all calming down at once. There was a silent invitation to pursue the idea.
“The test is not simply to survive, by camping out in isolation, but to get about, contact inhabitants, perhaps travel, adjust to completely alien circumstances. We cannot claim to pass the test if we stay here in peace and do nothing; hence they make it imperative that we move in search of our food and other supplies.”
“Highly probable,” was the mutual comment. After it: “And where to?”
“Begin at random: accept data; improve performance. We are rats in a maze.” Mrs. King put forward memories of tests on experimental animals. Then their corporate thinking was beginning to smooth out again after their shock.
“Move?” Agreement, Joe began to walk warily forward.
Without Schneider …
That thought never passed far from the front of their minds, and before they had gone very far they had been compelled to admit that it would remain like knowledge of a lost limb. It was a terrifying handicap to have received directly on arrival, before even one of the hundreds of problems lying ahead had been coped with. On first waking, they had been given new and precious confidence by the rapid, co-ordinated measurement the team had performed to determine the local gravity; now their confidence felt hollow, light weight, illusory.
Struggle against it
Rohini Das brought forward new information, as though to provide a distraction. Data from the cloud patterns, the way Joe was walking, the position of the sun, and the direction of the wind, integrated together with the rapidity of a computer gave interlocking sets of possibilities like dependent variables. These were the highest probabilities: this was the southern hemisphere of the planet, medium to high latitude, local time shortly after midday, season summer. Behind each of these statements was a picture which was less visualized than felt, with factors representing the planet, its primary, the orbit, the inclination of its axis, an assortment of possible diameters for the local sun related to the foregoing two items.
An optimistic suggestion came from Stepan: “Tonight if we see the stars, will we not be able to find out where we are?”
Wry disagreement from Joe. “That kind of job would take
years with a computer and our best available data, which we don’t have.”
The lawn on which they had awoken was, as Rohini had suggested, in the shape of a very shallow bowl, perhaps a mile in radius. The sides steepened as Joe came closer, so that it was not until they were very close indeed to the rim that they were able to look over the skyline and see what lay beyond.
In that moment, they had their first glimpse of the city–it had to be a city or the counterpart of a city. What else could it be?
They looked out from the rim of their lawn-bowl, and saw deliberately imposed order: lines, squares, subtle curves. At first that was all they saw. Then they began to relate these outlines to objects–possibly buildings, possibly machines, possibly vegetation. There were things that might be trees, or their equivalent: how high, not being able immediately to assess their distance, they could not know. Distance was all but impossible to judge, because the relation between the things they were looking at differed from what they were subconsciously accustomed to wherever they were on Earth. The scale of proportions was not quite human.
There was movement. Slightly out of focus objects crossed gaps between what might be buildings. Something like a slice of light stabbed upwards from behind a possible tree, and was gone. The low-pitched humming which they had hardly noticed for some time increased and decreased in volume and began to hint at rise and fall of pitch.
The colors of the possible city were blue-green, white, barred red and gold, black shading to lustrous grey like the wing of a pigeon. The shapes were complex, almost topological in complexity. Here and there a simple cuboid stuck out like a shout in silence.
Ahead of Joe’s feet a pale gray slope of some artificial material led down to the possible city. There seemed nothing to do but to go forward.