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
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 Communicator."
"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
"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' ship!"
Illustration by RICK BRYANT
He turned, and raced back up the trail. Some twenty minutes later, he burst into the clearing before the ship to find an ominous silence hanging over everything. Only the faint rustle and hissing from the ever-growing jungle swallowing up the ship sounded on his eardrums.
"Milt – Ben!" he shouted, plunging into the ship. A hail from farther down the main corridor reassured him, and he followed it up to find all three unrestrained members of the crew in the sick
bay. But – Jerry brought himself up short, his throat closing on him – there was a figure on the
"Who . . ." began Jerry. Milt Johnson turned around to face him. The captain's big body mercifully hid most of the silent form on the table.
"Wally Blake," said Milt emptily. "He managed to strangle himself after all. Got twisted up in his restraint jacket. Ben and I heard him thumping around in there, but by the time we got to him, it was too late. Art's doing an autopsy."
"Not exactly an autopsy," came the soft, Virginia voice of the medician from beyond Milt. "Just looking for something I suspected . . . and here it is!"
Milt spun about and Jerry pushed between the big captain and Ben. He found himself looking at the back of a human head from which a portion of the skull had been removed. What he saw before him was a small expanse of whitish, soft inner tissue that was the brainstem; and fastened to it almost like a grape growing there, was a small, purplish mass.
Art indicated the purple shape with the tip of a sharp, surgical instrument.
"There," he said. "And I bet we've each got one."
"What is it?" asked Ben's voice, hushed and a little nauseated.
"I don't know," said Art harshly. "How the devil would I be able to tell? But I found organisms in the bloodstreams of those of us I've taken blood samples from – organisms like spores, that look
like this, only smaller, microscopic in size."
"You didn't tell me that!" said Milt, turning quickly to face him.
"What was the point?" Art turned toward the Team captain. Jerry saw that the medician's long face was almost bloodless. "I didn't know what they were. I thought if I kept looking, I might know more. Then I could have something positive to tell you, as well as the bad news. But – it's no use
"Why do you say that?" snapped Milt.
"Because it's the truth." Art's face seemed to slide apart, go loose and waxy with defeat. "As long as it was something nonphysical we were fighting, there was some hope we could throw it off. But – you see what's going on inside us. We're being changed physically. That's where the nightmares come from. You can't overcome a physical change with an effort of will!"
"What about the Grotto at Lourdes?" asked Jerry. His head was whirling strangely with a mass of ideas. His own great-grandfather – the family story came back to mind – had been judged by his
physician in 1896 to have advanced pulmonary tuberculosis. Going home from the doctor's office, Simon Fraser McWhin had decided that he could not afford to have tuberculosis at this time. That he would not, therefore, have tuberculosis at all. And he had dismissed the matter fully from his mind.
One year later, examined by the same physician, he had no signs of tuberculosis whatsoever.
But in this present moment, Art, curling up in his chair at the end of the table, seemed not to have heard Jerry's question. And Jerry was suddenly reminded of the question that had brought him pelting back from the native village.
"Is it growing – I mean was it growing when Wally strangled himself – that growth on his brain?"
Art roused himself.
"Growing?" he repeated dully. He climbed to his feet and picked up an instrument. He investigated the purple mass for a moment.
"No," he said, dropping the instrument wearily and falling back into his chair. "Looks like its outer layer has died and started to be reabsorbed – I think." He put his head in his hands. "I'm not
qualified to answer such questions. I'm not trained . . ."
"Who is?" demanded Milt, grimly, looming over the table and the rest of them. "And we're reaching the limit of our strength as well as the limits of what we know –"
"We're done for," muttered Ben. His eyes were glazed, looking at the dissected body on the table. "It's not my fault –"
"Catch him! Catch Art!" shouted Jerry, leaping forward.
But he was too late. The medician had been gradually curling up in his chair since he had sat down in it again. Now, he slipped out of it to the floor, rolled in a ball, and lay still.
"Leave him alone." Milt's large hand caught Jerry and held him back. "He may as well lie there as someplace else." He got to his feet. "Ben's right. We're done for."
"Done for?" Jerry stared at the big man. The words he had just heard were words he would never have imagined hearing from Milt.
"Yes," said Milt. He seemed somehow to be speaking from a long distance off.
"Listen –" said Jerry. The tigerishness inside him had woken at Milt's words. It tugged and snarled against the words of defeat from the captain's lips. "We're winning. We aren't losing!"
"Quit it, Jerry," said Ben dully, from the far end of the room.
"Quit it – ?" Jerry swung on the engineer. "You lost your temper with me before I went down to the village, about the way I said 'oot'! How could you lose your temper if you were full of tranquilizers? I haven't been taking any myself, and I feel better because of it. Don't tell me you've been taking yours! – and that means we're getting stronger than the nightmares."
"The tranquilizers've been making me sick, if you must know! That's why I haven't been taking them –" Ben broke off, his face graying. He pointed a shaking finger at the purplish mass. "I'm being changed, that's why they made me sick! I'm changing already!" His voice rose toward a scream. "Don't you see, it's changing me –" He broke off, suddenly screaming and leaping at Milt
with clawing fingers. "We're all changing! And it's your fault for bringing the ship down here. You did it –"
Milt's huge fist slammed into the side of the smaller man's jaw, driving him to the floor beside the still shape of the medician, where he lay quivering and sobbing.
Slowly Milt lifted his gaze from the fallen man and faced Jerry. It was the standard seventy-two degrees centigrade in the room, but Jerry saw perspiration standing out on Milt's calm face as if
he had just stepped out of a steam bath.
"But he may be right," said Milt, emotionlessly. His voice seemed to come from the far end of some lightless tunnel. "We may be changing under the influence of those growths right now –
each of us."
"Milt!" said Jerry, sharply. But Milt's face never changed. It was large, and calm, and pale – and
drenched with sweat. "Now's the last time we ought to give up! We're starting to understand it now. I tell you, the thing is to meet Communicator and the other natives head on! Head to head we can crack them wide open. One of us has to go down to that village."
"No. I'm the captain," said Milt, his voice unchanged. "I'm responsible, and I'll decide. We can't lift ship with less than five men and there's only two of us – you and I – actually left. I can't risk one
of us coming under the influence of the growth in him, and going over to the alien side."
"Going over?" Jerry stared at him.
"That's what all this has been for – the jungle, the natives, the nightmare. They want to take us
over." Sweat ran down Milt's cheeks and dripped off his chin, while he continued to talk tonelessly and gaze straight ahead. "They'll send us – what's left of us – back against our own people. I
can't let that happen. We'll have to destroy ourselves so there's nothing for them to use."
"Milt –" said Jerry.
"No." Milt swayed faintly on his feet like a tall tree under a wind too high to be felt on the ground at its base. "We can't risk leaving ship or crew. We'll blow the ship up with ourselves in it –"
"Blow up my ship!"
It was a wild-animal scream from the floor at their feet; and Ben Akham rose from almost under the table like a demented wildcat, aiming for Milt's jugular vein. So unexpected and powerful was the attack that the big captain tottered and fell. With a noise like worrying dogs, they rolled together under the table.
The changed tiger inside Jerry broke its bonds and flung free.
He turned and ducked through the door into the corridor. It was a heavy pressure door with a wheel lock, activating metal dogs to seal it shut in case of a hull blow-out and sudden loss of air. Jerry slammed the door shut, and spun the wheel.
The dogs snicked home. Snatching down the portable fire extinguisher hanging on the wall alongside, Jerry dropped the foam container on the floor and jammed the metal nozzle of its hose between a spoke of the locking wheel and the unlocking stop on the door beneath it.
He paused. There was silence inside the sick-bay lab. Then the wheel jerked against the nozzle and the door tried to open.
"What's going on?" demanded the voice of Milt. There was a pause. "Jerry, what's going on out there? Open up!"
A wild, crazy impulse to hysterical laughter rose inside Jerry without warning. It took all his will power to choke it back.
"You're locked in, Milt," he said.
"Jerry!" The wheel spoke clicked against the jamming metal nozzle, in a futile effort to turn. "Open