Cultural Exchange by Bone, Jesse F. (Jesse Franklin)

Cultural Exchange

By J. F. BONE

_How could any race look so ferocious and yet be peaceful--and devise so nasty a weapon?_

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Worlds of If Science Fiction, January 1960. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

I

I couldn't help listening to the big spaceman sitting alone at the corner table. He wasn't speaking to me--that was certain--nor was his flat, curiously uninflected voice directed at anyone else. With some surprise I realized that he was talking to himself. People don't do that nowadays. They're adjusted.

He noted my raised eye-brows and grinned, his square teeth white against the dark planes of his face. "I'm not psycho," he said. "It's just a bad habit I picked up on Lyrane."

"Lyrane?" I asked.

"It hasn't been entered on the charts yet. Just discovered." His voice was inflected now. And then it changed abruptly. "If you must know, this is ethanol--C_{2}H_{5}OH--and I drink it." He looked at me with an embarrassed expression in his blue eyes. "It's just that I'm not used to it yet," he explained without explaining. "It's easier when I vocalize."

"You sure you're all right?" I asked. "Want me to call a psychologician?"

"No. I've just been certified by Decontamination. I have a paper to prove it."

"But--"

"Draw up a chair," he invited. "I hate to drink alone. And I'd like to talk to somebody."

I smiled. My talent was working as usual. I can't walk into a bar without someone telling me his life history. Nice old ladies buttonhole me at parties and tell me all about their childhoods. Boys tell me about girls. Girls tell me about boys. Politicians spill party secrets and pass me tips.

Something about me makes folks want to talk. It's a talent and in my business it's an asset. You see, I'm a freelance writer. Nothing fancy or significant, just news, popular stuff, adventure stories, problem yarns, romances, and mysteries. I'll never go down in history as a literary great, but it's a living--and besides I meet the damnedest characters.

So I sat down.

"I guess you're not contagious if you've been through Decontamination," I said.

* * * * *

He looked at me across the rim of an oversized brandy sniffer--a Napoleon, I think it's called--and waggled a long forefinger at my nose. "The trouble with you groundhogs is that you're always thinking we spacers are walking hotbeds of contagion all primed to wreck Earth. You should know better. Anything dangerous has about as much chance of getting through Decontamination as an ice cube has of getting through a nuclear furnace."

"There was Martian Fever," I reminded him.

"Three centuries ago and you still remember it," he said. "But has there been anything else since Decontamination was set up?"

"No," I admitted, "but that was enough, wasn't it? We still haven't reached the pre-Mars population level."

"Who wants to?" He sipped at the brownish fluid in the glass and a shudder rippled the heavy muscles of his chest and shoulders. He grinned nastily and took a bigger drink. "There, that ought to hold you," he muttered. He looked at me, that odd embarrassed look glinting in his eyes. "I think that did it. No tolerance for alcohol."

I gave him my puzzled and expectant look.

He countered with a gesture at the nearly empty brandy glass. I got the idea. I signaled autoservice--a conditioned reflex developed over years of pumping material out of spacemen--and slipped my ID into the check slot of the robot as it rolled up beside us and waited, humming expectantly.

"Rum," the spaceman said. "Demerara, four ounces."

"You are cautioned, sir," the autoservice said in a flat mechanical voice. "Demerara rum is one hundred fifty proof and is not meant to be ingested by terrestrial life-forms without prior dilution."

"Shut up and serve," I said.

The robot clicked disapprovingly, gurgled briefly inside its cubical interior and extruded a pony glass of brownish liquid. "Sir, you will undoubtedly end up in a drunkard's grave, dead of hepatic cirrhosis," it informed me virtuously as it returned my ID card. I glared as I pushed the glass across the table.

"Robots," I said contemptuously. It was lost on that metallic monstrosity. It was already rolling away toward another table.

The spaceman poured the pony glass into his Napoleon, sniffed appreciatively, sipped delicately and extended a meaty hand. "My name's Halsey," he said. "Captain Roger Halsey. I skipper the _Two Two Four_."

"The Bureau ship that landed this morning?"

He nodded. "Yeah. I'm one of the Bureau's brave boys." There was a faint sneer in his voice. "The good old Bureau of Extraterrestrial Exploration. The busy BEE." He failed to pronounce the individual letters. "You're a reporter, aren't you?" he asked suddenly.

"How'd you guess?"

"That little trick of not answering an introduction. Most of you sludge pumpers do it, but I never knew why."

"Libel and personal privacy laws," I said. "If you don't know who we are, you can't sue."

He grinned. "Okay. I don't care. Keep your privacy. All I want is someone to talk to."

I smiled inwardly.

"Think my job's exciting?" he asked. "Skipper of an exploration ship. Poking my nose into odd corners of the Galaxy. Seeing what's over the hill."

"Of course," I said.

"Well, you'd be wrong ninety-nine times out of a hundred. It's just a job. Most of it is checking--or did you know that only one sun in ten has planets, and only one in ten thousand has a spectrum that will support human life, and that only one in ten thousand planets has Earthlike qualities? So you can imagine how we felt when we ran across Lyrane." He grimaced wryly. "I had it on the log as Halsey's Planet for nearly two weeks before we discovered it was inhabited." He shrugged. "So the name was changed. Too bad. Always did want to have a planet named after me. But I'll make it yet."

I clucked sympathetically. Capt. Halsey sighed, and this is what he told me.

II

It's a beautiful world, Lyrane is. Like Earth must have been before it got cluttered up with people. No cities, no smoke, no industrial complexes--just green plains, snowy mountains, dark forests, blue seas, and white polar caps all wrapped in cotton clouds swimming in the clearest atmosphere you ever saw. It made my eyes ache to look at it. And it affected the crew the same way.

We were wild to land. We came straight in along the equatorial plane until we hit the Van Allen Belt and the automatics took over. We stopped dead, matched intrinsics and skirted the outer band, checking the radiation quality and the shape of the Belt. It was a pure band that dipped down at the poles to form entry zones. There was not a sign of bulges or industrial contaminants.

Naturally we had everything trained on the planet while we made our sweeps--organic detectors, radar, spectroanalytic probes--all the gadgets the BEE equips us with to make analysis easy and complete. The readings were so homelike that every man was landsick. I wasn't any different from the rest of them, but I was in command and I had to be cautious about setting the _Two Two Four_ down until we'd really wrung the analytic data dry.

So, while the crew grumbled about hanging outside on a skyhook, we kept swinging around in a polar orbit until we knew that world below us like a baby knows its mother. It checked clean to five decimal places, which is the limit of our gadgetry. Paradise, that's what it was--a paradise untrod by human foot. And every foot on the ship was itching.

"When we gonna land, Skipper?" Alex Baranov asked me. It was a gross breach of discipline, but I forgave him. Alex was the second engineer, an eager kid on his first flight out from Earth. Like most youngsters, he thought there was romance in space, but right now he was landsick. Even worse than most of us. And, like most kids, he'd leap where angels'd dread to walk on tiptoe.

"We'll land," I assured him. "You'll be down there pretty soon."

He hurried off to tell the others.

We set the ship down in the middle of one of the continental land masses in an open plain surrounded by forest and ran a few more tests before we stepped out, planted the flag, and claimed the place for the Confederation. After that we had an impromptu celebration to thoroughly enjoy the solid feel of ground under our feet and open sky overhead. It lasted all of five minutes before we came to our senses and posted a guard.

It was five minutes too long. Alex Baranov had a chance to get out of sight and go exploring, and, like a kid, he took it. We didn't miss him for nearly ten minutes more, and in fifteen minutes a man can cover quite a bit of territory.

"Anyone see where he went?" I asked.

"He was wearing a menticom," one of the crew offered. "Said he wanted to look around."

"The idiot!" I snapped. "He had no business going off like that."

"Nobody told him not to," Dan Warren said. Dan was my executive officer, and a good hand in case of trouble, but he left the command decisions to me, and of course I figured that everybody knew the cardinal rule of first landings. The net result was that Alex had disappeared.

I went back into the ship and broke out another menticom.

"Alex!" I broadcasted. "Return to ship at once!"

"I can't, Skipper," Alex's projection came back to me. "I'm surrounded."

"By what? Where?"

"They look sorta human--bigger than us. I'm near the edge of the forest nearest the ship. I can't do anything. I didn't bring a blaster." There was panic in his thoughts. And then suddenly I saw two hairy bipeds flash across Alex's vision. Both of them were carrying spears. The nearest one jumped and lunged. The scene dissolved in a blaze of red panic and the projection cut off as though someone had turned a switch.

I had a fix now and turned to face a knob of forest jutting out into the plain. Near the forest's edge I saw a flurry of movement that vanished as I watched.

"Break out a 'copter," I ordered.

"Why?" Warren asked, and then I realized that I alone of all the crew had seen what had happened to Alex.

I told them.

* * * * *

The search, of course, was unproductive. I didn't expect that it would be anything else. I was pretty certain that Alex was a casualty. I'd felt people die while wearing menticoms, and the same blank sense of emptiness had blotted out Alex. It was a bad deal all around. I liked that kid.

But Alex's death had provided data. This world was inhabited and the inhabitants weren't friendly. So I had the crew stake out a perimeter which we could energize with the ship's engines, and activated a couple of autoguards for patrol duty. Alex wasn't a pleasant thought, but we weren't equipped to retrieve bodies. So I wrote him in the log as missing and let it go at that.

I had to correct the entry a week later when Alex came walking up to the perimeter as large as life and just as healthy, wearing a mild sunburn, a sheepish expression, and nothing else.

The autoguard announced his coming and I headed the delegation that met him. I read him the riot act, and after I'd finished chewing on him he was pinker than ever.

"Okay, sir--so I was a fool," he said. "But they didn't hurt me. Scared me half to death, but once they realized I was intelligent there was no trouble. They were fascinated by my clothes." Alex grinned ruefully. "And they're pretty strong. They peeled me."

"Obviously," I said coldly.

"They have a village back in the woods." He pointed vaguely behind him. "It'd pay to take a look at it."

"_Mister_ Baranov," I said. "If I don't throw you in the brig for what you've done, it's only because you may have brought back some information we can use. What are these natives like? What did they do to you besides making you a strip-tease artist? What cultural level are they? How many of them do you estimate there are? What do they look like? Get up to the ship and report to Lieutenant Warren for interrogation and draw new clothing." I had the same half exasperated, half angry tone that a relieved mother has when one of her youngsters returns home late but unharmed.

* * * * *

Alex must have recognized it, because he grinned as he went off.

I contacted Warren on the intercom. "Dan," I said, "Baranov's back--apparently unharmed. I want him given the works. When you've gotten everything you can get, have a man detailed to watch him. If he so much as looks suspicious, heave him in the brig."

Warren's answering projection had a laugh in it. "Always cautious, hey, Skipper? Okay, I'll see that he gets the business."

It turned out that Alex didn't have much real information except for a description of the natives, their village, and their attitude toward him. It was about what you'd expect from a kid, interesting but far from helpful.

The delegation of natives showed up a half hour later. They came walking across the open space between the ship and the forest as though they hadn't a care in the world. Four of them--big hairy humanoids, carrying spears. They were naked as animals. Not that they needed clothes with all that hair, but just the same their appearance gave me a queasy feeling--like I was looking at man's early ancestors suddenly come to life.

If you can imagine a furry humanoid seven feet tall, with the face of an intelligent gorilla and the braincase of a man, you'll have a rough idea of what they looked like--except for their teeth. The canines would have fitted better in the face of a tiger, and showed at the corners of their wide, thin-lipped mouths, giving them an expression of ferocity.

They came trotting straight across the plain, moving with grace and power. All external signs pointed to them being a carnivorous, primitive race. Hunters, probably. The muscles of my scalp twitched as some deep-buried instinct inside me whispered, "_Competition!_"

* * * * *

I've met plenty of humanoids, but these were the first that roused any emotion other than curiosity. Perhaps it was their fierce appearance, or the bright, half-contemptuous intelligence in their eyes, or the confident arrogance in their approach, or merely that they looked more like us than the others I had met. Whatever it was, it was strong, and I had the impression that the feeling was mutual.

"Stop!" I said as they approached the periphery.

"Why should we?" the foremost native replied in perfect Terran.

"Because that barrier'll burn you to a nice crisp cinder if you don't."

"That's a good reason," the native said, nodding.

Then the delayed reaction took over and the shock nearly floored me, until I saw that he was wearing Alex's menticom. Well, that explained the language and the feeling of mutual distrust--and it could explain why I thought Alex had died back there in the jungle. A mental communicator snatched from its wearer's head can give that impression.

But it raised an entirely new set of questions. Where did this savage learn to operate the circlet and how did he recognize its purpose? I guess I wasn't too smart, because the native was tuned to me and I wasn't shielding my thoughts at all.

He chuckled--it sounded like the purr of a cat. "We are not stupid, Earthman."

"So I see," I said uneasily.

"I am K'wan, chief of this segment. I wish to know why you are here."

"To survey your world. We are members of the Bureau of Extraterrestrial Exploration. It is our job to make surveys of planets."

"Why?"

"For trade, colonization, and exploitation," I answered. There was no sense in giving him a dishonest explanation. With him wearing that communicator, it would have done no good to try.

"And what have you decided about us?"

"That's not our job. We just investigate and report. What happens next is not our affair. But if you're worrying--don't. There are plenty of worlds available without bothering inhabited places. Since you are intelligent, we would probably like to trade with you, if you have anything to trade--but that, of course, is up to you. We never intrude where we are not wanted, as long as we are treated with respect. If we are attacked, however, that is a different story." It was the old respect-and-threat routine that worked with primitive races. But I wasn't at all sure it was working now.

"Strange," K'wan said. "I would have sworn you were a predatory race. You are enough like us to be our little cousins." He scratched his head with a surprisingly human gesture. "In your position I would have attacked to show my power and inspire respect. Perhaps you are telling the truth."

"A predator can grow soft when he has too much prey," I said.

"Aye, there is truth in that. But what is too easy and how much is too much? And does a man change his habits of eating just because he is fat?"

"You can find out."

"I do not think that would be wise," the native said. "Although you are physically weak, you sound confident. Therefore you are strong. And strength is to be respected. Let us be friends. We will make an agreement with you."

* * * * *

I shook my head. "It is not our place to make agreements. We only observe."

"You have not done much of that," he said pointedly. "You sit here and send your machines over our seas and forests, but you do not see for yourselves. You cannot learn this way."

"We learn enough," I said shortly.

"We have talked of you at our council," K'wan continued, "and we think that you should know more before you depart. So we have come to make you an offer. Let four of your men come with me, and four of mine will stay with you. We will exchange--and you can see our ways while we see yours. That would help us understand each other."

It sounded reasonable. An exchange of hostages--or call it a cultural exchange, if you'd prefer. I told him that I'd think it over and to come back tomorrow. He nodded, turned, and together with his retinue disappeared into the jungle.

* * * * *

We hashed K'wan's proposal over at a board meeting that night and decided that we'd take it. The exact status of Lyranian culture worried us. It is a cardinal rule never to underestimate an alien culture or to judge it by surface appearances. So we organized a team that would form our part of the "cultural exchange."

I would go, of course. If K'wan could visit us, I could hardly stay back. Alex was selected partly because he was an engineer, mostly because he'd been over the ground before. Ed Barger, our ecologist, and Patrick Allardyce, our biologist, made up the remainder of the party. I'd have liked to take the padre and Doc, but Doc was more valuable at base, and if I could have only four men, I wanted fighting men.

"Now," I said, "we'll take along a tight-beam communicator. Coupled to our menticoms, it should be able to reach the ship and put what we see and what happens on permanent record." Then I turned to Dan Warren. "If anything goes wrong, don't try to rescue us. Finish your observations and get out. You understand? And get those exchange natives into Interrogation. Condition them to the eyeballs with cooperation dogma. We may need some friends here when the second echelon makes a landfall."

Warren nodded. I didn't have to elaborate.

The native village was about what I expected from our reconnaissance flights. It was beautifully camouflaged. You couldn't tell it from the rest of the forest except that the trees were larger and were hollow--apparently hewn out with patient care to make a comfortable living space inside. Lyranians lived in one place, if what I could see of their dwellings was any criterion. I wanted to look inside, but K'wan hustled us down the irregular "street" that wound through the grove of giant trees until we finally came to the granddaddy of them all, a trunk nearly forty feet in diameter.

K'wan gestured at the tree. "Your house while you are here. We made it for you Earthmen." His voice came over my menticom and was duly recorded on the ship, since we were in constant contact, giving our impressions of the place. So far it was strictly SOP.

"Thanks," I said. "We appreciate it." I was really touched at this tribute. K'wan had probably evacuated his own house to furnish us quarters where we could be together. The size of it indicated that it must be the chief's residence. But like all primitives he had to lie a little and the fiction of making this place for us was a way of salvaging pride in the face of our technological superiority.

He walked inside and we followed, expecting to find a gloomy hole--but instead the room glowed with a soft light that came from the walls themselves. The air was cool and comfortable, a pleasing contrast to the heat outside.

"What the--" I began, but Allardyce was already peering at the walls.

"A type of luminous fungus," he said. "A saprophyte. Lives on the wood of this tree and gives off light. Clever."

I shut my mouth and looked around. There were other rooms opening off this one and along one wall a knobby imitation of a staircase led upward to a hole overhead.

"Hmmm, a regular skyscraper," Ed Barger commented, noting the direction of my gaze. "Well, we should not be crowded, at any rate."

I had been noticing something was wrong without realizing it. You know the feeling you get when you've lost something, but can't quite remember what it was. Then my neurons made connections and I realized that the communicator and the menticom were both as dead as if we were in a lead box.

Quietly I moved to the door--and Dan's voice hammered in my ears: "Skipper! Answer me! What's wrong?"

"Nothing, Dan," I said. "We just went into the quarters they assigned us. Something about them blocks transmission and reception. We're all fine."

"Oh." Dan sounded relieved. "For a minute I was worried."

"One of the boys'll call in every two hours," I assured him. "If you don't hear from us then, it'll be time to do something."

"Okay, Skipper, but what'll I do?"

"That'll be your decision," I said. "You'll be ranking officer."

Dan's chuckle was humorless. "Thanks, but I hope we keep on hearing from you."

"Don't worry--you will. These people look worse than they really are. At least they have been nice so far."

"They'd better stay that way," Dan replied grimly.

It was my turn to chuckle. "Keep calm and keep your blasters dry. I'm going inside now. You'll hear from us in two hours."

* * * * *

Ed Barger looked at me a trifle oddly as I came through the doorway. "A while ago you were laughing at that story K'wan was telling us about making this house for us. I caught your undertone."

"Sure. What about it?"

"Well, I'm not so sure he was lying."

"Huh?"

"Take a look around you."

I did. It was a nice room, considering its origin--low benches around the walls, a table and four chairs in the center, a soft, thick floor covering that was a pleasure to the feet.

"See anything unusual?" Ed asked.

"No," I said.

"What about those benches?"

"They're part of the walls," I said, "cut out of the tree when it was hollowed out."

"Cut to _our_ size?"

I did a double take. Barger was right. The Lyranians were seven feet tall and long-legged, but the benches were precisely right for human sitting, and the table in the center was only three feet above the gray floor. Suddenly I didn't feel so good.

"And those rooms--there are four of them--scaled to people _our_ size?"

I shrugged. "So they modified the joint for us."

"You still don't get it. This place is _living_. It's _growing_. Nothing here except those chairs isn't part of this tree, and I'm not sure that they weren't. Besides, how did they know that there'd be four of us?"

"They could have been hopeful, or maybe four is their idea of a delegation. Remember there were four of them that visited us, and they suggested that four of us visit them."

"It's obvious," Allardyce added, "that this place _has_ been made for us. K'wan wasn't lying."

Barger shook his head. "I still don't like it. I think we'd better get out of here. If they are as good biologists as this tree indicates, they're a Class VI civilization at least--and we're not set up to handle levels that high."

"I don't think that's necessary," Allardyce said. "They don't seem unfriendly, and until they do, we're better off sitting pat and playing the cards as they're dealt. We can always warn the ship in case anything goes wrong."

"Don't be jumpy," Alex broke in. "I told you they were all right. They grew the place for me. It's just grown a little since."

I made a noncommittal noise.

"It's true," Alex said. "While I was here I needed quarters and nobody wanted me in with them. They have some custom about not letting strangers in their houses after sunset. So they took a sapling and sprayed it with some sort of stuff and by the next afternoon I had a one-room house."

"Where did you stay that first night?" I demanded.

Alex shrugged. "In one of the trees down the street," he said, pointing through the door. "It was some sort of a storage warehouse. No air conditioning and blacker than the inside of the Coal Sack. It rains pretty bad at night and they had to give me some shelter."

He was right on time with his last statement, because the skies opened up and started to pour. The four-hour evening rain had begun. It had fascinated us at first, the regularity with which the evening showers arrived and left, but our meteorologist assured us that it was a perfectly natural phenomenon in a planet with no axial tilt.

"But growing a tree in a day is fantastic," I said. "What's more, it's unbelievable, a downright--"

"Not so fantastic," Allardyce interrupted. "This really isn't a tree. It's a cycad--related to the horsetail ferns back on Earth. They grow pretty fast anyway and they might grow faster here. Besides, the Lyranians could have some really potent growth stimulants. In our hydroponics stations we use delta-gibberelin. That'll grow tomatoes from seed in a week, and forage crops in three days. It could be that they have something better that'll do the job in hours."

"And one that makes a tree grow _rooms_?" I scoffed.

* * * * *

Allardyce nodded. "It's possible, but I hate to think of the science behind it--it makes me feel like a blind baby fumbling in the dark--and I'm supposed to be a good biologist." He shivered. "Their science'll be centuries ahead of ours if that is true."

"Not necessarily," Barger said. "They could be good biologists or botanists and nothing much else. We've run into that sort of uneven culture before."

"Ha!" Allardyce snorted. "That shows how little you know about experimental biology. Anybody able to do with plants what these people do would have to know genetics and growth principles, biochemistry, mathematics, engineering and physics."

"Maybe they had it once and lost most of it," I suggested. "They wouldn't be the first culture that's gone retrograde. We did it after the Atomic Wars and we were several thousand years recovering. But we hadn't lost the skills--they just degenerated into rituals administered by witch doctors who handed the formulas and techniques down from father to son. Maybe it's like that here. Certainly these people give no evidence of an advanced civilization other than these trees and their native intelligence. Civilized people don't hunt with spears or live in tribal groups."

Barger nodded. "That's a good point, Skipper."

"Well, there's no sense speculating about it; maybe we'll know if we wait and see," Allardyce summed up.

I set sentries, three hours on and nine off, to keep Dan informed of our situation, and since rank has its privileges, I took the first watch. We were all tired from our walk through the woods; the others turned in readily enough. I was sufficiently worried about the hints and implications in the native culture to keep alert--but nothing happened. I checked in with Dan back at the ship and went to awaken Alex, who had drawn the second watch, and turned in to the bedroom allotted to me. Normally I can sleep anywhere, but I kept thinking about houses grown from trees and upholstery grown from fungus, about spear-carrying savages who understood the working principle of a menticom.

It was all wrong and my facile explanation of a regressed culture didn't satisfy me. Superior technology and savagery simply didn't go together. Even in our Interregnum Period, islands of culture and technology had remained, and men hadn't reverted to complete savagery. But there were no such islands on this world--or none that were apparent.

Such enclaves couldn't have escaped our search mechanisms, which are designed precisely to locate such things. And besides, an advanced biological technology would have no need for hunting or spears. They could grow all the food they needed. Any damn fool knew that. Then why the noble savage act? For if our analysis was right, it must be an act. Why were they trying to hoodwink us? The only answer was that there was a high civilization here that was being deliberately hidden from us. The only mistake they had made was in underestimating us--the old story of civilized men sneering at savages, but in reverse.

The trees, therefore, must be such old and primitive techniques that they thought nothing of them, deeming them so inconsequential that even savages like us would know of them and not be suspicious. At that, they probably didn't have too much time after they detected us orbiting and intending to land. And if that were true, there could be only one place where their civilization was hidden.

* * * * *

I tried to get to my feet, to warn the others--but I couldn't move and no sound came from my flaccid vocal cords. I was paralyzed, helpless, and K'wan's amused thought floated gently into my brain. "I told the others that you humans were an advanced race, but they couldn't believe an obviously warlike species that depended upon _machinery_ could be anything but savages. And your man Alex confirmed their beliefs. So we tried to meet you on your own ground--savage to savage, as it were. It seems as though we weren't as good at being savages as we thought." And K'wan stepped through an apparently solid section of tree trunk that parted to let him pass!

This tree was nothing but a mousetrap, and we were the mice! Why hadn't one of us carried the discussion a bit further? Any idiot should know that biological agents were fully as deadly as physical ones. And these people were self-admittedly predatory. Contempt at my stupidity was the only emotion that filled my mind--that we would be trapped like a flock of brainless sheep and led bleating happily to slaughter. Raw anger surged through me, smothering my fear in a red blanket of rage.

K'wan shook his head. "Your reaction works against you. It's primitive--and, I think, dangerous. We cannot risk associating with a race that cannot control themselves. You have developed too fast--too soon. We are an old race and a slow race, and our warlike days are far behind us. The council was right. Something must be done about you or there will be more of your kind on Lyrane--hard, driving, uncontrolled, violent." He sighed--a very human sigh--half regret, half resignation.

"And you promised no harm would come to us if we came with you," I thought bitterly.

"I said you would come to no harm, nor will you. You'll just be changed a little."

"Like Alex?"

"Yes."

"What did you do to him?"

He grinned, exposing his long tusks. "You'll find out," he said. He sounded just like a villain in a cheap melodrama.

He took the menticom circlet off my head and all communication stopped. Two other Lyranians stepped through the wall, lifted me and carried me out like a shanghaied drunk from a spaceport bar. I wasn't particularly surprised at the laboratory that lay behind the wall. After all, an observation cage had to have its laboratory facilities.

These were good--very good indeed. Even though I knew hardly anything about biological laboratories, there was no doubt that here were the products of an advanced technology. I hated to admit it, but it looked as though we had run into what we had always feared but had never found--a civilization superior to ours. From the windowless appearance of the place, it was probably underground, and K'wan's look and nod seemed to confirm my guess.

They laid me out on a table, took blood and tissue samples and proceeded to forget me while they ran tests and analyses. I kept trying to move, but it wasn't any use.

A group of about a dozen oldsters came in, looked at me and went away. The council, I guessed.

In a surprisingly short time K'wan came back, distinguishable by the menticom circlet. He was holding something that looked like a jet hypo in his hand. The barrel was full of a cloudy red liquid that swirled sluggishly behind the confining glass.

"This won't hurt," he said, his thoughts amplified by the circlet.

He lifted my arm, examined it and nodded. There was a high-pitched, sibilant hiss as he touched the trigger of the syringe and I felt a brief sting near my elbow.

"There--that's that!" he said. "Now we'll take you back and get the others."

I swore at him coldly and viciously.

He smiled.

Alex helped lay me back on my bed in the tree house. He looked down at me and grinned. It wasn't a pleasant grin. It reminded me of a crocodile.

* * * * *

Naked, I was standing on an endless sandy plain. Off in the distance the _Two Two Four_ stood on her landing jacks, a tall, needle-pointed tower of burnished silver metal. The sun beat down from a cobalt sky burning my bare back as I trudged painfully across the hot shifting sand. My feet, scorched and blistered, sent agony racing through me with every step I took toward the tall silver column that seemed to recede from me as fast as I approached. My throat was choked with dust and my mind filled with fear and pain.

I had to reach the ship. I _had_ to. Yet I knew with dreadful certainty that I would not.

He came at me from a hollow in the sandy ground, a huge, furry Lyranian--bigger than any I had seen. His white tusks glittered in the sunlight as he leaped at me.

Twisting, I avoided him and turned to run. To fight that mountain of fanged flesh was futile. He could rip me apart with one hand. But I moved with viscid slowness, stumbling through the shifting sands.

In a moment he was upon me, clutching with his huge hands, snapping at my throat with his tusked mouth. Fear pumped adrenalin into my system and I fought as I had never fought before, breaking his holds, throwing jarring punches into his fanged face as he clawed and bit at me.

With a violent effort I broke away and ran again toward the safety of the distant ship. For a moment I left him behind as he scrambled to regain his feet and came running after me. He was on me again, hands reaching for my throat. I couldn't get away. And again we fought, battering and clawing at each other, using fists, feet and teeth, biting and gouging. His strength was terrible and his hot, fetid breath was rank in my nostrils. With a grunt of triumph he tripped me and I fell on my back on the blazing sand. I screamed as my back struck the searing surface, but he held me helpless and immovable, pinned beneath his massive, crushing weight.

And then he began to eat me!

I felt his sharp fangs sink into my shoulder muscles and meet in my flesh. With a rush of frantic strength I threw him off again and again, ran stumbling across the plain. Once more he caught me and again we fought.

It went on endlessly--the fight, the temporary breakaway, the flight, the pursuit, and the recapture. I wondered dully why no one on the ship had seen us. Perhaps they were looking in the wrong direction, or perhaps they weren't even looking. If I survived this and found that they hadn't been on watch--I snarled and slammed my fist into the Lyranian's face.

Both of us were covered with blood, but he was visibly weaker. It was no longer a fight; we were too exhausted for that. We pawed at each other feebly, and I could detect something oddly like fear in him now. He couldn't hold me--but neither could I finish him.

I gathered my last remaining strength into one last blow. My torn fist smashed into his bloody face. He toppled to the ground and I fell beside him, too spent to move. I lay there panting, watching him.

He rose to his hands and knees and came crawling toward me, trembling with weakness. I felt his smothering weight pinning me as he fell across me. He twisted slowly, his fanged mouth gaping to bite again. His jaws closed on my arm. I was done--beaten--too weary and bruised to care. He had won. But his teeth couldn't break my skin. Like me, he was finished.

We lay there as the sun beat down, glaring at each other with fear and hate. And suddenly--over us--loomed the familiar faces of my crew and the tall tower of the _Two Two Four_.

Somehow I had reached the ship and safety!

* * * * *

I awoke. I was bathed with sweat. My muscles were aching and my head was a ball of fire. I looked around. Everything seemed normal. My menticom was on my head and I was lying on the bed in the tree house. Painfully I rose to my feet and staggered into the main room.

"My God! Skipper, you look awful!" Allardyce's voice was sharp with concern. "What's wrong?"

"I don't know," I muttered. "My head's splitting."

"Here, sit down. Let me take a look at you." Allardyce produced a thermometer and stuck it in my mouth. "Mmmm," he said worriedly. "You've got fever."

"I feel like I've been through the mill," I said.

"We'd better get back to the ship. Doc should have a look at you."

I wanted nothing more than the familiar safety of the ship, away from these odd natives and exotic diseases that struck despite omnivaccination. And we should get back before the others fell sick.

"All right, Pat," I said. "Contact Dan. Have him send the big 'copter. We'll leave at once." I discounted the experience of last night as delirium, but just to make sure, I checked with Allardyce and Barger when they came in.

"Obviously fever," Barger said. "Nothing happened to me like you describe."

"Nor to me," Allardyce said.

I nodded. They were right, of course, unless the Lyranian in _their_ dreams had eaten and absorbed them. Then--but that was sheer nonsense. I was being a suspicious fool. But that dream--all of it--had been damnably real.

We made our excuses to K'wan as the 'copter fluttered down into a nearby clearing.

"I'm sorry about this," K'wan said apologetically, "but I never thought of the possibility of diseases. We are all immune. We do have some biological skill, as you've surely guessed, but our engineering technology is far inferior to yours. We thought it would be better not to let you know about us until we had a chance to observe you. But you undoubtedly have seen enough to deduce our culture." He grinned--a ferocious grimace that exposed his long tusks. "I suppose we are rather bad liars. But then we're not accustomed to deception."

"I understand," I said. "You had no way of knowing what we were really like. We could have been the advance guard of a conquering space armada. You showed great courage to open relations with us."

"Not as great as yours. We had the opportunity of examining your man Alex. You had only his untried opinions to go by."

The 'copter came down with a flutter of rotor blades, and I shook hands with K'wan. For a moment I was tempted to call Dan and tell him to turn our hostages loose, but on second thought decided that could wait. I slipped my menticom off. There was no point in broadcasting my thoughts, and without the gadget K'wan couldn't intercept them unless they were directed. After all, we were a minority on this world and Earth didn't even know where we were yet. A ship can cross hyper-space far more easily and quickly than the most powerful transmitter can broadcast across normal space. It would be a thousand years before Earth could hear from us by radio, even if they could distinguish our messages from stellar interference. While I felt oddly friendly, there was no reason to take chances, especially if there was any truth in that dream.

"You will be leaving soon?" K'wan asked. "You and the ship?"

"Yes," I said. "We have done all we can do here."

I looked up at him. He was standing there--_holding_ the menticom in his _hand_--yet I understood him!

I didn't let the astonishment show on my face, nor the shock that coursed through my mind _when the Lyranian in my brain tried vainly to scream a warning_! Instead I took the circlet and turned to go.

"Remember what you are to do; the others will help," K'wan said.

"I will remember," I replied. _You're damn well right I'll remember_, I thought grimly.

The Lyranian was supposed to wreck the ship.

* * * * *

He waved farewell as I turned to enter the 'copter. "Our thoughts go with you for your success," he said.

The Lyranian in my brain screamed and struggled, but I held him easily. I was his master, not he mine. There would be no sabotage on the _Two Two Four_. He wouldn't wreck my ship.

"Dan," I said as we went into orbit, "did Alex come aboard?"

"Of course."

"Where is he?"

"Down in the engine room, I suppose, or in his bunk. It's not his watch."

"Maybe you'd better check. But before you do--"

He waited for me to continue, and finally I was able to.

"Put Allardyce, Barger, and myself in the brig," I said. "Set a guard over us with instructions to shoot if we try to make a break. Then get Alex, if he's aboard. Frankly, I don't think you'll find him. They didn't need a ship's commander, a sociologist or a biologist, but they did need an engineer. Now get going. This is an order!"

Warren stiffened. "Yes, sir--sorry, sir!"

Inside my skull, the Lyranian came to life--struggled briefly--and then quit. Barger, Allardyce and I spent the rest of the trip home in the air-conditioned, radiation-resistant, germproof, dustproof, escape-resistant brig. Alex, of course, wasn't aboard. There aren't many places on a starship where a man can hide, and the crew searched them all.

Even so, I kept worrying about the ship's safety all the way back. It was a miserable trip. I suppose it was just as miserable for the Lyranians in my two companions who kept worrying about how to destroy us. It didn't do them any good either. They never got a chance, and ultimately we reached Decontamination.

Barger and Allardyce are up there now. The medics think they can erase the Lyranians with insulin shock, but it'll take time. Mine, being a nice, tame one, was considered to be more valuable in me than out. We're going to have to know a lot about Lyrane in a hurry if we're going to do anything about those people, and my Lyranian can tell us plenty.

But I'll bet we'll find things different on Lyrane when we go back. They'll have at least ten years, and with the brains they've got--and Alex's brain to pick--they'll do just fine from an engineering point of view. I'll bet they'll even have spaceships.

From what I can gather from my alter ego, they checked Alex's brain and didn't like what they saw. That's the trouble with romantics. They always remember the wars and the fighting, never the stodgy, peaceful interims. But you simply don't spring that sort of stuff on a culture like Lyrane's. And I suppose my anger didn't help things any, but if not for that anger and my primitive bull-headedness, we might not be here.

III

Capt. Halsey hurriedly downed the rum. "Skippers are picked because they're tough-minded and authoritarian. In space you need it occasionally. Fortunately I lived up to specifications. A peaceful sort like my Lyranian just couldn't take it--fortunately."

"Fortunately?" I asked.

"Sure. What else? Possibly those natives we conditioned would help our case, possibly not. And in the meantime the Lyranians would suck Alex dry. And with the _Two Two Four_ gone it'd be maybe a couple of hundred years before we ran into them again, and by then they'd really be ready--loaded for bear with itchy trigger fingers--and we just might have a war on our hands. As it is we'll send out a battle fleet to give some authority to our negotiators so no one will get hurt. They just shouldn't have picked Alex as typical of us. With his attitude and our weapons, they naturally got a lot of wrong ideas."

"Wrong?" I prompted the skipper.

Halsey chuckled. "Yes, that's what I said--wrong ideas," he said in that remote second voice. "Just because you've forgotten self-defense doesn't mean that other peaceful civilizations don't remember it."