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Chapter 19

By Sara Hicks,2014-06-11 22:47
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Chapter 19

C H A P T E R

19

?-NO. WAIT STOP HIM!" MARY INTERRUPTED HERSELF AS

    Squonk headed toward the entry port.

    Jim did.

    "So," he said, "Squonk's been promoted from an 'it,' has he? Probably high time. I've been getting him mixed up with other 'its' every time I try to talk about him and things. Just remember it was you who renamed him, not me."

    "Don't be ridiculous," said Mary. "Now, bring him back here." For Jim had imagined Squonk being signaled to halt and he (to give him his new pronoun) had obeyed by going stone still.

    "Tell him to move the temperature control all the way down to zero," added Mary.

    "What?"

    "Just do it, Jim."

    "All right." Jim obeyed. He directed Squonk to the ship's interior atmosphere controls on the console, then to the temperature control among them, and finally to moving the temperature control to zero degrees celsius.

    "Now up to twenty-three degrees," ordered Mary. "Now, down to nine degrees."

    212

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    When the control knob brought the sharp point of the indicator back

    to nine on the scale, the whole area of the climate controls, which were mounted in the midst of the ship's controls vertically on the panel directly before the pilot's command position, fell outwards, showing themselves to be hinged at the bottom. Revealed was a dark recess, about half a meter square and of invisible depth.

    "Very clever," commented Jim. "Turning a temperature control into the dial of a combination safe. Very clever indeed. Now what?" "Now have Squonk reach in there and see if he finds anything." Squonk, at Jim's orders, explored the aperture with the tip of one of his tentacles. It appeared from what Jim could see to be a recess about as deep as it was high or wide.

    The tentacle came out holding nothing.

    "Tell him too bad," said Mary, with satisfaction in her voice. "Apparently the key wasn't there."

    Jim passed the message on.

    "But do you mind telling me," he asked, "just exactly what's going on? Why all that trouble to set up a secret place and then have it empty?" "It wasn't empty," said Mary, a -little smugly. "Now that tentacle of Squonk's been infiltrated by a microtransmitter that'll broadcast anything seen or heard in his vicinity back to the ship's recorder." "What recorder?"

    "The same one that's been recording every noise and action aboard this ship since we started."

    "Our mind-to-mind conversations, too?"

    "No," said Mary regretfully. "It couldn't pick up the mindtomind talking. It's only recorded when you speak out loud through the ship's internal and external communication system, the way you talked to Louis Mollen and me when we were back at Base and you were first in AndFriend. Now, when we get out in that city, I'm going to start making notes on what I observe. We can't transmit those back to the ship via Squonk's transmitter, so I'll dictate them to you and you do what you'd ordinarily do to repeat them out loud over AndFriend's internal communications system. Actually, you'll be repeating them out loud to the recorder."

214 I Gordon R. Dickson _

    For a moment Jim was silent.

    "So," he said. "This was set up from the start, too, was it?" "We only hoped, then, that we'd end up captured by the Laagi; but of course every contingency was planned for as far as we could imagine it," said Mary briskly. "Now, we've got to get going with Squonk. Will you tell him to head for the city buildings?"

    Jim did. His mind was too full for words and Mary was evidently busy making plans, because they did not talk again until they were well in

among the buildings on one of the green paths.

    "Squonk's waiting to be told where to look," Jim said finally. "I've been thinking about that," answered Mary. "We'll simply have to try various buildings until we find what I want; but I've been deciding what to look into first in this alien society. What we want, I think, is some place where Laagi get together to talk. Enough pictures of them signaling to each other ought to give the people back home enough information to break down their gestures into a language we can understand."

    "Maybe," said Jim. "But if the way they think is completely different from the way we do, their language isn't going to make any sense, anyway." "As I've said before, this is a technological civilization. There have to be parallels between its problems and their ways of handling them, and our own problems and solutions. Some sort of understanding has to be possible; and any sort of understanding, Jim, is a world of improvement over what we've had so far where they're concerned." "Hmm," said Jim.

    "You don't agree?"

    "Oh, I agree," said Jim. "Yes, any improvement's worth the cost." She was right, of course, he told himself. He found himself admiring her single-mindedness. Now that he was completely over his outrage at being drafted into this situation instead of being asked, he had to face the fact that he had had a chip on his shoulder where she was concerned from the first moment he had met her in Mollen's office, before she had ridden out in

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    his gunner's seat in their successful effort to bring back La Chasse Gallerie and what was left of the mind of Raoul.

    All right, she had her own shoulder chip, too. Hopefully, she would put it aside in time, as he was beginning to put his aside. A little wistfully, he wondered what she would be like if she did. He had never really let himself know her; and she, of course, had never really made herself available to be known. He had got his back up about her from the initial instant of meeting. First, because she was not a space fighter -not what Frontier pilots like him considered a space fighter. Second, because she was arrogant on the basis of her expertise in a field that he knew next to nothing about and thought even less of, and that arrogance rubbed him the wrong way. His own arrogance, he had to admit to himself, now, had been completely invisible to him. Somewhere in that childhood of hers, she must have been forced into taking a turn toward toughness. He had always taken entirely for granted his own cheerful childhood, with plenty of friends his own age all

    through the growing-up years, with aunts, uncles, grandparents and likeable cousins -not to mention, now that he stopped to consider them, a remarkably happy set of loving parents. Loving to each other as well as to him. He could see why she might assume he had had a careless and easy ride through life, particularly since she had taken a thorough look at his life's records, which of course she had done as a necessary preliminary to using him as part of her project. About the only thing he had had in common with her was that they had both been only children. The one element she would not have found in his records would have been his own private idealism, the determination to do at least one worthy and memorable thing in his life . . . though come to think of it, she must have sensed something of it, since there had been that moment just after they had La Chasse Gallerie safely back home and she had told him that his nature was that of a "white knight."

    Which of course it wasn't. He might have white-knight- dreams, but he was thoroughly practical, too. She would find out how practical when he broke loose of this hypnotic control she was using to keep him on a tether. But . . . even that really didn't matter, except as a principle, now that he understood and liked her better.

216 / Gordon R. Dickson

    He wondered if there were some magic words that would make her open up about what had made her what she was.

    From somewhere, he could not say exactly where, he had acquired a firm conviction that if she would just put aside her prickly armor for a moment. she would show him someone very good to know. He had become more and more sure that her combativeness was a shield behind which she hid her true self. Just like one of those people who go around warning the world how stubborn he or she is, while really only setting up a defense against the secret belief that anyone could talk him or her into anything. Mary's toughness, he now firmly believed, was a shield for a natural instinct toward a tenderness which she felt she must hide. Again, he could not remember exactly how he had reached this decision. A number of small straws in the wind of their mutual adventuring must have pointed him to it.

    It dawned on him suddenly then that somewhere along the way, she would need evidence of his own strength and abilities before she could be open with him. For her own reasons, some of which might be buried in that past she evidently disliked, she had a need to cling to the illusion that he waswhat was it she had called him once? A featherbrained flyboy. That shielded inner self of her would need positive, undeniable evidence he was no such thing before she would permit herself to deal with him

    on an equal level. So one of the reasons for his breaking himself loose of her hypnotic reins would be to establish that he was strong enough for her to trust him and be relaxed with him.

    On the other hand, of course, he could be dead wrong about all this. But, what the hell, it was worth a try. He woke up suddenly to the fact that Squonk was still coursing eagerly along the green pathway, waiting for instructions. Mary seemed to have gone off into her thoughts just as Jim had gone off into his.

    "Squonk's still waiting," he said.

    "I know that," she said. "I haven't been able to come up with any reason to pick a particular building to try first. Have you?"

    "No," he said.

    "I suppose we'll just have to try them at random."

    "Looks like it."

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    "Will you tell Squonk to go into the next entrance we come to, then?" He did.

    Squonk carried them only a small distance farther down the path, therefore, before turning in through one of the typical doorways. This time they found themselves in what might have been an office building, if it had not looked so much like a honeycomb. Or perhaps it could be best described as a honeycomb taken over and made into an office building. There seemed to be innumerable floors, none of them higher in the ceiling than would comfortably accommodate an adult Laagi, with each floor having innumerable corridors and each corridor lined on both sides with openings into cubicles. In each cubicle was a Laagi, working a bank of controls, or simply standing motionless, staring at the bank of controls-and that was all there was to it.

    "None of them are communicating," said Mary.

    "At least, not unless they're doing it through that console in front of each one," said Jim. "Maybe it's some sort of information or control center."

    "Anyway," said Mary decisively, "it doesn't offer me anything I can work with. If you'll just repeat the words after me for the sake of the ship's recorder, I'll make a brief description of it by way of a report, so that we can come back here, if what we learn elsewhere makes it worthwhile."

    She did so, Jim parroting her words faithfully, a phrase at a time. "On to the next building," said Mary.

    But the next building was exactly like the one they just left. In fact, the next three buildings they tried were exactly like the first.

    "They have to be the Laagi equivalent of offices," said Jim. "So many of them?"

    "Aren't our cities loaded with office buildings? What would an alien say if he could look into them and see people looking at screens and talking into receptors?"

    "It's pushing belief past the limit," Mary said firmly, "to hypothesize that the Laagi have a business structure in their society that much like ours:"

    "All right," said Jim as they left the fourth building. "How

218 ! Gordon R. Dickson .

    about this? Each one of those Laagi you see there is controlling some piece of automatic machinery somewhere else; and the controllers are all gathered together so that their work can be coordinated better." "That's . . . ,just possible," said Mary doubtfully. "Anyway, we can't do anything but keep trying other buildings."

    But the next building was different. The upper floors were honeycomb offices, but the ground-level floor was divided into what seemed to be a large number of lofty, dome-cei- auditoriums; and the likeness to an auditorium in each case was increased by the fact that in each something resembling an audience of Laagi were working at very small consoles of controls on posts before them, while at the far end of the room an actively gesticulating Laagi seemed to be having an argument, or something like it, with the image of another Laagi blown up to many times life-size in the tank of a screen filling the wall behind the living gesticulator.

    The floor was concave, from the entrance to the far end where the screen was, giving all the Laagi in the "audience" a good view of both the living and the screened individual. These two seemed to take turns, one gesticulating for a while while the other stood motionless, then the motionless one would become active and the recent speaker would cease all movement. The stubby fingers of the Laagi in the crowd flew over their consoles as this progressed.

    "An instructor and his students?" said Jim. "Or a conductor leading a silent symphony performance?"

    "We'd better wait until it's finished, whatever it is," said Mary. "Tell Squonk to start searching the room. It's big enough so that it ought to take him hours."

    Jim did. Squonk scurried off to the nearby wall and began a careful tentacle search along its base.

    "My guess would be=

    "Don't bother me now," Mary interrupted. "I don't want to miss anything that goes on."'

    Jim fell silent. He watched the crowd and the two Laagi up front, the live and the imaged; but after a while his mind began to give up on any attempt to make sense out of what was happening ....

    "Jim!" It was Mary calling him. He had lost a chunk of time in what seemed to pass as sleep for him ever since he had

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    become a bodiless entity. He stared at the room. The two Laagi were still up front. The mass of the rest were as busy with their consoles as ever.

    "Sorry," he said. "How long was I out?"

    "Nearly four hours," she said. "Jim, there's a limit. This may go on for weeks, for all we know. The recorder must have a few hundred thousand gesture-bits from those two lecturers or whatever they are. I want to go and take a look at the rest of the city. Tell Squonk we're leaving." "Want to look upstairs before we go out?"

    "Just more offices. No, I want some place where there's a number of Laagi talking to each other. Something like a . . . a club or a restaurant in human terms. I don't suppose you can get the idea of a place like that across to Squonk?"

    "I can try," said Jim.

    He tried envisioning a room, of unspecified dimensions, but plainly larger than the cubicles they had come to call offices, and in that room a number of Laagi standing or sitting in groups and talking body language to each other. Squonk stopped still on the pathway. Jim read the creature's emotions as interested and willing, but puzzled. "No go," said Jim.

    "Maybe he knows of a place like that, but doesn't connect it with hunting for the key?"

    "I didn't think of that," said Jim.

    He introduced the image of the key to his mental image and added anxiety over finding it to his emotional projection.

    Squonk was plainly still puzzled. But he started to move again. They went some distance and passed a number of buildings without the creature turning into any of them.

    "I figured he'd understood the sort of place we wanted to search for the key next," said Jim. "But I didn't expect him to go this kind of distance. Maybe he was thinking of a place that's not in this city at all."

    "All to the good if he is," said Mary. "We'll find out about their local transportation system."

    Their destination, however, turned out not to require transportation to another city. After some distance along a complicated route through

the pathways, Squonk turned into one more entrance.

    It was as close to what Jim had envisioned as made so

220 I Gordon R. Dickon

    difference. In an area almost as large as one of the aidito- but under a less lofty ceiling and upon a level floor, Laagi stood or sat in groups, gesticulating at others in the same group. Squonks were moving about and through the crowd. Those Laagi seated were perched on one of the cupshaped seats, each on a slanted support, like those in the Laagi spaceships and elsewhere. About the only difference seemed to be that these particular seats were movable. Apparently at signals which Jim and Mary could not separate from the other movements of their body languages, a squonk would come scurrying up to the Laagi who wished to sit with one of the seats, the lower end of which seemed to adhere to the floor the moment it was set down. Abandoned seats were also picked up and carted away to the wall of the room by squonks.

    In fact, squonks were everywhere, and included a group that seemed to be continuously at work doing nothing else but cleaning the floor and lower walls of the room. Jim could see stow why Squonk had doubted that this would be a place to find the strange thing that the invisible Laagi commanding him wanted to be found.

    "This is more like it!" said Mary grimly.

    "If conversations between Laagi are what you want, it certainly is," said Jim. "It does look like some kind of club."

    "Or political grouping."

    "Or a think tank of some sort," said Jim.

    "Well, whatever it really is remains to be found out," said Mary. "Why don't you go back to sleep or something? I'll be busy. I can wake you when I'm ready to dictate a report."

    "Thank you," said Jim clearly and precisely, "but I'm not tired at the moment. Thank you just the same, though."

    Mary laughed. There was as much excitement as humor in her mental voice at the moment.

    "Bet you go to sleep anyway," she said.

    Jim did not answer that. Mary evidently settled down to wordless observing, and Squonk continued his diligent search along the base of the wall.

    Jim was left with leisure to take a better look at the place and its occupants himself. Light seemed to flood the place from all angles, so that there were no visible sources. It was the same deep yellow of the sunlight outside, so that it might have been daylight somehow piped in or introduced. The floor

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    was a dap, rich red, much darker than the footpads of the squonks. The chair seats were a dark green and the walls started as dark brown at the base and changed gradually toward yellower and lighter shades as they mounted toward the apex of the domed ceiling.

    There was a sudden horrendous clatter, to which no one in the room seemed to pay any attention except the unfortunate squonk which had been the cause of it. Certainly, thought Jim, Laagi must be absolutely without a sense of hearing; and probably the squonks were, too. What he had heard had been the very noisy result of two of the chair-carrying squonks colliding to send the chairs they had been carrying crashing to the floor.

    What had happened had clearly been an accident. The tentacles of a squonk appeared extremely nimble, but there was obviously a limit to the amount of strength they possessed. One squonk seemed able to carry one chair comfortably by curling all its tentacles around the shaft that supported the seat. One squonk was also all that was needed to set the chair upright when it had been brought to the Laagi wanting it. The lower end of the support rod fastened itself by some invisible means firmly and automatically to the floor when the chair was set up. Apparently this adhesive, or otherwise self-fastening end, of the shaft of the chair being carried by one squonk had touched and fastened itself to the leg of one carried by mother. Tripped up, or perhaps overbalanced by the unexpected double weight, both chairs and the squonk that carried one had tumbled to the floor.

    One squonk hurried off, leaving things as they were. The other pushed itself back to its feet, using its tentacles. It then tried to pick up the chair it had originally been carrying and found it firmly attached to the other chair. After a few seconds of futilely trying to lift the awkward structure composed of the two joined chairs, the squonk put it down and scurried over to another squonk headed away after having just delivered another chair.

    The second squonk stopped, the two entwined the ends of their tentacles momentarily, and the second squonk hurried away, while the first returned to the tangle of the joined chairs. After a few minutes, the second squonk-at least Jim thought it was the second squonk, since the creatures all

222 / Gordon R. Dickson

    looked so much alike that it was difficult to be sure-returned with what looked like a small rod with a sort of pistol grip at one end,

held in one tentacle.

    The second squonk touched the far tip of the rod to the point at which the chairs joined, both squonks took hold of a chair apiece and pulled with what seemed to be considerable effort; and the two chairs parted. Taking a chair apiece they trotted off and were lost in the crowd from the point of view afforded Jim by Squonk himself.

    Jim watched them disappear, fascinated. It was the first time he had seen anything resembling communication or teamwork among the squonks. He continued to watch the room carefully, hoping for some further evidence of squonk cooperation, but no reason for such activity evidently occurred. He had seen, however, two squonks not only communicate, but solve a problem on their own without specific orders from any of the Laagi standing around; and that, he told himself, was food for thought.

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