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."