Planetary Consciousness is a fine and needed thing, much talked about these days. But it ain't Absolute Truth either. For it is finite, closed – which is to say, less than human. The aliens in this story have a remarkably sane-sounding world view – and it is the duty of the sane
to cure the insane, isn't it? Isn't it?
Herein will be heard echoes of Lazarus Longs sobs for Mary Sperling, and perhaps the introductory bars of a Song for Lya. What does it mean to be human?
A man with hallucinations he cannot stand, trying to strangle himself in a homemade straitjacket, is not a pretty sight. But after a while, grimly thought Jerry McWhin, the Star Scout's navigator, the ugly and terrible seem to backfixe in erect, filling you with fury instead of harrowing you further. Men in crowds and packs could be stampeded briefly, but after a while the individual among them would turn, get his back up, and slash back.
At least – the hyperstubborn individual in himself had finally so reacted.
Determinedly, with fingers that fumbled from lack of sleep, he got the strangling man – Wally Blake, an assistant ecologist – untangled and
into a position where it would be difficult for him to try to choke
out his own life again. Then Jerry went out of the sick-bay storeroom, leaving Wally and the other seven men out of the Star Scout's complement of twelve who were in total restraint. He was lightheaded from exhaustion; but a berserk something in him snarled like a cornered tiger and refused to break like Wally and the others.
When all's said and done, he thought half-crazily, there's worse ways to come to the end of it than a last charge, win or lose, alone into the midst of all your enemies.
Going down the corridor, the sight of another figure jolted him a little back toward common sense. Ben Akham, the drive engineer, came trudging back from the air-look corridor with a flame thrower on his back. Soot etched darkly the lines on his once-round face.
"Get the hull cleared?" asked Jerry. Ben nodded exhaustedly.
"There's more jungle on her every morning," he grunted. "Now those big thistles are starting to drip a corrosive liquid. The hull needs an antiacid washing. I can't do it. I'm worn out."
"We all are," said Jerry. His own five-eleven frame was down to a hundred and thirty-eight pounds. There was plenty of food – it was just that
the four men left on their feet had no time to prepare it; and little enough time to eat it, prepared or not.
Exploration Team Five-Twenty-Nine, thought Jerry, had finally bitten off more than it could chew, here on the second planet of Star 83476. It was nobody's fault. It had been a gamble for Milt Johnson, the Team captain, either way – to land or not to land. He had landed; and it had turned out bad.
By such small things was the scale toward tragedy tipped. A communication problem with the natives, a native jungle evidently determined to digest the spaceship, and eight of twelve men down with something like suicidal delirium tremens – any two of these things the Team could probably have handled.
But not all three at once.
Jerry and Ben reached the entrance of the Control Room together and peered in, looking for Milt Johnson. "Must be ootside, talking to that native again," said Jerry.
"Ootside? – oot – side!" exploded Ben, with a sudden snapping of frayed nerves. "Can't you say 'out-side'? – 'out-side,' like everybody else?"
The berserk something in Jerry lunged to be free, but he caught it and hauled it back.
"Get hold of yourself!" he snapped.
"Well . . . I wouldn't mind you sounding like a blasted Scotchman all the time!" growled Ben, getting himself, nevertheless, somewhat under control. "It's just you always do it when I don't expect it!"
"If the Lord wanted us all to sound alike, he'd have propped up the Tower of Babel," said Jerry wickedly. He was not particularly religious himself, but he knew Ben to be a table-thumping atheist. He had the satisfaction now of watching the other man bite his lips and control himself in his turn.
Academically, however, Jerry thought as they both headed out through the ship to find Milt, he could not really blame Ben. For Jerry, like many Scot-Canadians, appeared to speak a very middle-western American sort of English most of the time. But only as long as he avoided such vocabulary items as "house" and "out," which popped off Jerry's tongue as "hoose" and "oot." However, every man aboard had his personal peculiarities. You had to get used to them. That was part of spaceship – in fact, part of human – life.
They emerged from the lock, rounded the nose of the spaceship, and found themselves in the neat little clearing on one side of the ship where the jungle paradoxically refused to grow. In this clearing stood the broad-shouldered figure of Milt Johnson, his whitish-blond hair glinting in the yellow-white sunlight.
Facing Milt was the thin, naked, and saddle-colored humanoid figure of one of the natives from the village, or whatever it was, about twenty minutes away by jungle trail. Between Milt and the native was the
glittering metal console of the translator machine.
". . . Let's try it once more," they heard Milt saying as they came up and stopped behind him.
The native gabbled agreeably.
"Yes, yes. Try it again," translated the voice of the console.
"I am Captain Milton Johnson. I am in authority over the crew of the ship you see before me."
"Gladly would I not see it," replied the console on translation of the native's jabblings. "However – I am Communicator, messenger to you sick ones."
"I will call you Communicator, then," began Milt.
"Of course. What else could you call me?"
"Please," said Milt, wearily. "To get back to it – I also am a
"No, no," said the native. "You are not a Communicator. It is the sickness that makes you talk this way."
"But," said Milt, and Jerry saw the big, white-haired captain swallow in an attempt to keep his temper. "You will notice, I am communicating with you."
"I see," said Milt patiently. "You mean, we aren't communicating in the sense that we aren't understanding each other. We're talking, but you don't understand me –"
"No, no. I understand you perfectly."
"Well," said Milt, exhaustedly. "I don't understand you."
"That is because you are sick."
Milt blew out a deep breath and wiped his brow. "Forget that part of it, then," he said. "Many of my crew are upset by nightmares we all
have been having. They are sick. But there are still four of us who are well –"
"No, no. You are all sick," said Communicator earnestly. "But you should love what you call nightmares. All people love them."
"Including you and your people?"
"Of course. Love your nightmares. They will make you well. They will make the little bit of proper life in you grow, and heal you."
Ben snorted beside Jerry. Jerry could sympathize with the other man. The nightmares he had been having during his scant hours of sleep, the past two weeks, came back to his mind, with the indescribably alien, terrifying sensation of drifting in a sort of environmental soup with identifiable things changing shape and identity constantly around him. Even pumped full of tranquilizers, he thought – which reminded Jerry.
He had not taken his tranquilizers lately.
When had he taken some last? Not since he woke up, in any case. Not since . . . yesterday, sometime. Though that was now hard to believe.
"Let's forget that, too, then," Milt was saying. "Now, the jungle is growing all over our ship, in spite of all we can do. You tell me your people can make the jungle do anything you want."
"Yes, yes," said Communicator, agreeably.
"Then, will you please stop it from growing all over our spaceship?"
"We understand. It is your sickness, the poison that makes you say this. Do not fear. We will never abandon you." Communicator looked almost ready to pat Milt consolingly on the head. "You are people, who are more important than any cost. Soon you will grow and cast off your poisoned part and come to us."
"But we can come to you right now!" said Milt, between his teeth. "In fact – we've come to your village a dozen times."
"No, no." Communicator sounded distressed. "You approach, but you do not come. You have never come to us."
Milt wiped his forehead with the back of a wide hand. "I will come back to your village now, with you," he said. "Would you like that?" he asked.
"I would be so happy!" said Communicator. "But – you will not come.
You say it, but you do not come."
"All right. Wait –" About to take a hand transceiver from the console, Milt saw the other two men. "Jerry," he said, "you go this time. Maybe he'll believe it if it's you who goes to the village with him."
"I've been there before. With you, the second time you went," objected Jerry. "And I've got to feed the men in restraint, pretty soon," he added.
"Try going again. That's all we can do – try things. Ben and I'll feed
the men," said Milt. Jerry, about to argue further, felt the pressure of a sudden wordless, exhausted appeal from Milt. Milt's basic berserkedness must be just about ready to break loose, too, he realized.
"All right," said Jerry.
"Good," said Milt, looking grateful. "We have to keep trying. I should have lifted ship while I still had five well men to lift it with. Come on, Ben – you and I better go feed those men now, before we fall asleep on our feet."
They went away around the nose of the ship. Jerry unhooked the little black-and-white transceiver that would radio-relay his conversations with Communicator back to the console of the translator for sense-making during the trip.
"Come on," he said to Communicator, and led off down the pleasantly wide jungle trail toward the native village.
They passed from under the little patch of open sky above the clearing and into green-roofed stillness. All about them, massive limbs, branches, ferns, and vines intertwined in a majestic maze of growing things. Small flying creatures, looking half-animal and half-insect, flittered among the branches overhead. Some larger, more animal-like creatures sat on the heavier limbs and moaned off-key like abandoned puppies. Jerry's head spun with his weariness, and the green over his head seemed to close down on him like a net flung by some giant, crazy fisherman, to take him captive.
He was suddenly and bitterly reminded of the Team's high hopes, the day they had set down on this world. No other Team or Group had yet to turn up any kind of alien life much more intelligent than an anthropoid ape. Now they, Team 523, had not only uncovered an intelligent, evidently semi-cultured alien people, but an alien people eager to establish relations with the humans and communicate. Here, two weeks later, the natives were still apparently just as eager to communicate, but what they said made no sense.
Nor did it help that, with the greatest of patience and kindness, Communicator and his kind seemed to consider that it was the humans who were irrational and uncommunicative.
Nor that, meanwhile, the jungle seemed to be mounting a specifically directed attack on the human spaceship.
Nor that the nightmare afflicting the humans had already laid low eight of the twelve crew and were grinding the four left on their feet down to a choice between suicidal delirium or collapse from exhaustion.
It was a miracle, thought Jerry, lightheadedly trudging through the jungle, that the four of them had been able to survive as long as they had. A miracle based probably on some individual chance peculiarity of strength that the other eight men in straitjackets lacked. Although, thought Jerry now, that strength that they had so far defied analysis. Dizzily, like a man in a high fever, he considered their four surviving personalities in his mind's eye. They were; he thought, the four men
of the team with what you might call the biggest mental crotchets.
– or ornery streaks.
Take the fourth member of the group – the medician, Arthyr Loy, who
had barely stuck his nose out of the sick-bay lab in the last forty-eight hours. Not only because he was the closest thing to an M.D. aboard the ship was Art still determined to put the eight restrained men back on their feet again. It just happened, in addition, that Art considered himself the only true professional man aboard, and was not the kind to admit any inability to the lesser mortals about him.
And Milt Johnson – Milt made an excellent captain. He was a tower of strength, a great man for making decisions. The only thing was, that having decided, Milt could hardly be brought to consider the remote possibility that anyone else might have wanted to decide differently.
Ben Akham was another matter. Ben hated religion and loved machinery – and the jungle surrounding was attacking his spaceship. In fact, Jerry was willing to bet that by the time he got back, Ben would be washing the hull with an acid-counteractant in spite of what he had told Jerry earlier.
And himself? Jerry? Jerry shook his head woozily. It was hard to be self-analytical after ten days of three and four hours sleep per twenty. He had what his grandmother had once described as the curse of the Gael – black stubbornness and red rages.
All of these traits, in all four of them, had normally been buried safely below the surfaces of their personalities and had only colored them as individuals. But now, the last two weeks had worn those surfaces down to basic personality bedrock. Jerry shoved the thought out of his mind.
"Well," he said, turning to Communicator, "we're almost to your village now . . . You can't say someone didn't come with you, this time."
Communicator gabbled. The transceiver in Jerry's hand translated.
"Alas," the native said, "but you are not with me."
"Cut it out!" said Jerry wearily. "I'm right here beside you."
"No," said Communicator. "You accompany me, but you are not here. You
are back with your dead things."
"You mean the ship and the rest of it?" asked Jerry.
"There is no ship," said Communicator. "A ship must have grown and been alive. Your thing has always been dead. But we will save you."
They came out of the path at last into a clearing dotted with whitish, pumpkin-like shells some ten feet in height above the brown earth in which they were half-buried. Wide cracks in the out-curving sides gave view of tangled roots and plants inside, among which other natives could be seen moving about, scratching, tasting, and making holes in the vegetable surfaces.
"Well," said Jerry, making an effort to speak cheerfully, "here I am."
"You are not here."
The berserk tigerishness in Jerry leaped up unawares and took him by the inner throat. For a long second he looked at Communicator through a red haze. Communicator gazed back patiently, evidently unaware how close he was to having his neck broken by a pair of human hands.
"Look –" said Jerry, slowly, between his teeth, getting himself under control, "if you will just tell me what to do to join you and your people, here, I will do it."
"That is good!"
"Then," said Jerry, still with both hands on the inner fury that fought to tear loose inside him, "what do I do?"
"But you know –" The enthusiasm that had come into Communicator a moment before wavered visibly. "You must get rid of the dead things, and set
yourself free to grow, inside. Then, after you have grown, your unsick self will bring you here to join us!"
Jerry stared back. Patience, he said harshly to himself.
"Grow? How? In what way?"
"But you have a little bit of proper life in you," explained Communicator. "Not much, of course . . . but if you will rid yourself of dead things and concentrate on what you call nightmares, it will grow and force out the poison of the dead life in you. The proper life and the nightmares are the hope for you –"
"Wait a minute!" Jerry's exhaustion-fogged brain cleared suddenly and nearly miraculously at the sudden surge of excitement into his bloodstream. "This proper life you talk about – does it have something
to do with the nightmares?"
"Of course. How could you have what you call nightmares without a little proper life in you to give them to you? As the proper life grows, you will cease to fight so against the 'nightmares' . . ."
Communicator continued to talk earnestly. But Jerry's spinning brain was flying off on a new tangent. What was it he had been thinking earlier about tranquilizers – that he had not taken any himself for some time? Then, what about the nightmares in his last four hours of sleep?
He must have had them – he remembered now that he had had them. But evidently they had not bothered him as much as before – at least, not
enough to send him scrambling for tranquilizers to dull the dreams' weird impact on him.
"Communicator!" Jerry grabbed at the thin, leathery-skinned arm of the native. "Have I been chang – growing?"
"I do not know, of course," said the native, courteously. "I profoundly hope so. Have you?"
"Excuse me –" gulped Jerry. "I've got to get oot of here – back to th'