DR. CHATVIEUX took a long time over the microscope, leaving la Ventura with nothing to do but look at the dead landscape of Hydrot. Waterscape, he thought, would be a better word. From space, the new world had shown only one small, triangular continent, set amid endless ocean; and even the continent was mostly swamp.
The wreck of the seed-ship lay broken squarely across the one real spur of rock which Hydrot seemed to possess, which reared a magnificent twenty-one feet above sea level. From this eminence, la Ventura could see forty miles to the horizon across a flat bed of mud. The red light of the star Tau Ceti, glinting upon thousands of small lakes, pools, ponds and puddles, made the watery plain look like a mosaic of onyx and ruby.
gIf I were a religious man,h the pilot said suddenly, gIfd call this a plain case of divine vengeance.h
Chatvieux said: gHmn?h
gItfs as if wefd been struck down for—is it hubris, arrogant pride?h
gWell, is it?h Chatvieux said, looking up at last. gI donft feel exactly swollen with pride. Do you?h
gIfm not exactly proud of my piloting,h la Ventura admitted. gBut that isnft quite what I meant. I was thinking about why we came here in the first place. It takes a lot of arrogance to think that you can scatter men, or at least things very much like men, all over the face of the galaxy. It takes even more pride to do the job—to pack up all the equipment and move from planet to planet and actually make men, make them suitable for every place you touch.h
gI suppose it does,h Chatvieux said. gBut wefre only one of several hundred seed-ships in this limb of the galaxy, so I doubt that the gods picked us out as special sinners.h He smiled dryly. gIf they had, maybe theyfd have left us our ultraphone, so the Colonization Council could hear about our cropper. Besides, Paul, we try to produce men adapted to Earthlike planets, nothing more than that. Wefve sense enough to know that we canft adapt men to a planet like Jupiter, or to a sun, like Tau Ceti.h
gAnyhow, wefre here,h la Ventura said grimly. gAnd we arenft going to get off. Phil tells me that we donft even have our germ-cell bank any more, so we canft seed this place in the usual way. Wefve been thrown onto a dead world and dared to adapt to it. What are the panatropes to do with our carcasses—provide built-in waterwings?h
. gNo,h Chatvieux said calmly. gYou and I and all the rest of us are going to die, Paul. Panatropic techniques donft work on the body; that was fixed for you for life when you were conceived. To attempt to rebuild it for you would only maim you. The panatropes affect only the genes, the inheritance-carrying factors. We canft give you built-in waterwings, any more than we can give you a new set of brains. I think wefll be able to populate this world with men, but we wonft live to see it.h
The pilot thought about it, a lump of cold blubber collecting in his stomach. gHow long do you give us?h
gWho knows? A month, perhaps.h
The bulkhead leading to the wrecked section of the ship was pushed back, admitting salt, muggy air, heavy with carbon dioxide. Philip Strasvogel, the communications officer, came in, tracking mud. Like la Ventura, he was now a man without a function, and it appeared to bother him. He was not well equipped for introspection, and with his ultraphone totally smashed, unresponsive to his perpetually darting hands, he had been thrown back into his own mind, whose resources were few. Only the tasks Chatvieux had set him to had prevented him from setting like a gelling colloid into a permanent sulk.
He unbuckled from around his waist a canvas belt, into the loops of which plastic vials were stuffed like cartridges. gMore samples, Doc,h he said. gAll alike—water, very wet. I have some quicksand in one boot, too. Find anything?h
gA good deal, Phil. Thanks. Are the others around?h
Strasvogel poked his head out and hallooed. Other voices rang out over the mudflats. Minutes later, the rest of the survivors of the crash were crowding into the panatrope deck: Saltonstall, Chatvieuxf senior assistant, a perpetually sanguine, perpetually youthful technician willing to try anything once, including dying; Eunice Wagner, behind whose placid face rested the brains of the expeditionfs only remaining ecologist; Elfftherios Venezuelos, the always-silent delegate from the Colonization Council; and Joan Heath, a midshipman whose duties, like la Venturafs and Philfs, were now without meaning, but whose bright head and tall, deceptively indolent body shone to the pilotfs eyes brighter than the home sun.
Five men and two women—to colonize a planet on which gstanding roomh meant treading water.
They came in quietly and found seats or resting places on the deck, on the edges of tables, in corners. Joan Heath went to stand beside la Ventura. They did not look at each other, but the warmth of her shoulder beside his was all that he needed. Nothing was as bad as it seemed.
Venezuelos said, gWhatfs the verdict, Dr. Chatvieux?h
gThis place isnft dead,h Chatvieux said. gTherefs life in the sea and in the fresh water, both. On the animal side of the ledger, evolution seems to have stopped with the crustacea; the most advanced form Ifve found is a tiny crayfish, from one of the local rivulets, and it doesnft seem to be well distributed. The ponds and puddles are well-stocked with small metazoans of lower orders, right up to the rotifers—including a castle-building rotifer like Earthfs Floscularidae. In addition, therefs a wonderfully variegated protozoan population, with a dominant ciliate type much like Paramoecium, plus various Sarcodines, the usual spread of phytoflagellates, and even a phosphorescent species I wouldnft have expected to see anywhere but in salt water. As for the plants, they run from simple blue-green algae to quite advanced thallus-producing types— though none of them, of course, can live out of the water.h
gThe sea is about the same,h Eunice said. gIfve found some of the larger simple metazoans—jellyfish and so on— and some Palinuridae almost as big as lobsters. But itfs normal to find salt-water species running larger than fresh-water. And therefs the usual plankton and nanno-plankton population.h
gIn short,h Chatvieux said, gwefll survive if we fight.h
gWait a minute,h la Ventura said. gYoufve just finished telling me that we wouldnft survive. And you were talking about us, the seven of us here, not about the genus Man, because we donft have our germ-cell banks any more.h
gWe donft have the banks. But we ourselves can contribute germ-cells, Paul. Ifll get to that in a moment.h Chatvieux turned to Saltonstall. gMartin, what would you think of taking to the sea? We came out of it once.h
gNo good,h Saltonstall said immediately. gI like the idea, but I donft think this planet ever heard of Swinburne, or Homer either. Looking at it as a colonization problem alone, as if we werenft involved in it ourselves, I wouldnft give you an Oc dollar for epi oinopa ponton. The evolutionary pressure there is too high; the competition from other species is prohibitive; seeding the sea should be the last thing we attempt. The colonists wouldnft learn a thing before theyfd be gobbled up.h
gWhy?h la Ventura said. Once more, the death in his stomach was becoming hard to placate.
gEunice, do your sea-going Coelenterates include anything like the Portuguese man-of-war?h
The ecologist nodded.
gTherefs your answer, Paul,h Saltonstall said. gThe sea is out. Itfs got to be fresh water, where the competition is less formidable and there are more places to hide.h
gWe canft compete with a jellyfish?h la Ventura asked.
gNo, Paul,h Chatvieux said. gNot with one that formidable. The panatropes make adaptations, not gods. They take human germ-cells—in this case, our own, since our bank was wiped out in the crash—and modify them genetically toward those of creatures who can live in any reasonable environment. The result will be manlike, and intelligent. It usually shows the donorsf personality patterns, too, since the modifications are usually made in the morphology, not mind, of the resulting individual.
gBut we canft transmit memory. The adapted man is worse than a child in his new environment. He has no history, no techniques, no precedents, not even a language. In the usual colonization project, the seeding teams more or less take him through elementary school before they leave the planet to him, but we wonft survive long enough to give such instruction. Wefll have to design our colonists with plenty of built-in protections and locate them in the most favorable environment possible, so that some of them will survive learning by experience alone.h
The pilot thought about it, but nothing occurred to him which did not make the disaster seem realer and more intimate with each passing second. Joan Heath moved slightly closer to him. gOne of the new creatures can have my personality pattern, but it wonft be able to remember being me. Is that right?h
gThatfs right. In the present situation wefll probably make our colonists haploid, so that some of them, perhaps many, will have a heredity traceable to you alone. There may be just the faintest of residuums of identity—panatropyfs given us some data to support the old Jungian notion of ancestral memory. But wefre all going to die on Hydrot, Paul, as self-conscious persons. Therefs no avoiding that. Somewhere wefll leave behind people who behave as we would, think and feel as we would, but who wonft remember us—or the Earth.h
The pilot said nothing more.
gSaltonstall, what do you recommend as a form?h
The panatropist pulled reflectively at his nose. gWebbed extremities, of course, with thumbs and big toes heavy and thornlike for defense until the creature has had a chance to learn. Smaller external ears, and the eardrum larger and closer to the outer end of the ear-canal. Wefre going to have to reorganize the water-conservation system, I think; the glomerular kidney is perfectly suitable for living in fresh water, but the business of living immersed in fresh water, inside and out, for a creature with a salty inside means that the osmotic pressure inside is going to be higher than outside, so that the kidneys are going to have to be pumping virtually all the time. Under the circumstances wefd best step up production of urine, and that means the antidiuretic function of the pituitary gland is going to have to be abrogated.h
gWhat about respiration?h
gHmm,h Saltonstall said. gI suppose book-lungs, like some of the arachnids have. They can be supplied by intercostal spiracles. Theyfre gradually adaptable to atmosphere-breathing, if our colonist ever decides to come out of the water. Just to provide for that possibility, Ifd suggest retaining the nose, maintaining the nasal cavity as a part of the otological system, but cutting off the cavity from the larynx with a membrane of cells that are supplied with oxygen by direct irrigation, rather than by the respiratory system. Such a membrane wouldnft survive for many generations, once the creature took to living out of the water even for part of its life time; itfd go through two or three generations as an amphibian, and then one day itfd suddenly find itself breathing through its larynx again.
gAlso, Dr. Chatvieux, Ifd suggest that we have it adopt sporulation. As an aquatic animal, our colonist is going to have an indefinite life-span, but wefll have to give it a breeding cycle of about six weeks to keep up its numbers during the learning period; so therefll have to be a definite break of some duration in its active year. Otherwise itfll hit overpopulation before itfs learned to cope with it.h
gAlso, itfd be better if our colonists could winter over inside a good, hard shell,h Eunice Wagner added in agreement. gSo sporulationfs the obvious answer. Many other microscopic creatures have it.h
gMicroscopic?h Phil said incredulously.
gCertainly,h Chatvieux said, amused. gWe canft very well crowd a six-foot man into a two-foot puddle. But that raises a question. Wefll have tough competition from the rotifers, and some of them arenft strictly microscopic; for that matter even some of the protozoa can be seen with the naked eye, just barely, with dark-field illumination. I donft think your average colonist should run much under 250 microns. Give them a chance to slug it out.h
gI was thinking of making them twice that big.h
gThen theyfd be the biggest animals in their environment,h Eunice Wagner pointed out, gand wonft ever develop any skills. Besides, if you make them about rotifer size, it will give them an incentive for pushing out the castle-building rotifers, and occupying the castles.h
Chatvieux nodded. gAll right, letfs get started. While the panatropes are being calibrated, the rest of us can put our heads together on leaving a record for these people. Wefll micro-engrave the record on a set of corrosion-proof metal leaves, of a size our colonists can handle conveniently. We can tell them, very simply, what happened, and plant a few suggestions that therefs more to the universe than their puddles. Some day they may puzzle it out.h
gQuestion,h Eunice Wagner said. gAre we going to tell them theyfre microscopic? Ifm opposed to it. It may saddle their entire early history with a gods-and-demons mythology that theyfd be better off without.h
gYes, we are,h Chatvieux said; and la Ventura could tell by the change in the tone of his voice that he was speaking now as their senior on the expedition. gThese people will be of the race of men, Eunice. We want them to win their way back into the community of men. They are not toys, to be protected from the truth forever in a fresh-water womb.h
gBesides,h Saltonstall observed, gthey wonft get the record translated at any time in their early history. Theyfll have to develop a written language of their own, and it will be impossible for us to leave them any sort of Rosetta Stone or other key. By the time they can decipher the truth, they should be ready for it.h
gIfll make that official,h Venezuelos said unexpectedly.
And then, essentially, it was all over. They contributed the cells that the panatropes would need. Privately, la Ventura and Joan Heath went to Chatvieux and asked to contribute jointly; but the scientist said that the microscopic men were to be haploid, in order to give them a minute cellular structure, with nuclei as small as Earthly rickettsiae, and therefore each person had to give germ-cells individually—there would be no use for zygotes. So even that consolation was denied them: in death they would have no children, but be instead as alone as ever.
They helped, as far as they could, in the text of the message which was to go on the metal leaves. They had their personality patterns recorded. They went through the motions. Already they were beginning to be hungry, but there was nothing on Hydrot big enough to eat.
After la Ventura had set his control board to rights—a useless gesture, but a habit he had been taught to respect, and which in an obscure way made things a little easier to bear—he was out of it. He sat by himself at the far end of the rock ledge, watching Tau Ceti go redly down.
After a while Joan Heath came silently up behind him, and sat down too. He took her hand. The glare of the red sun was almost extinguished now, and together they watched it go, with la Ventura, at least, wondering somberly which nameless puddle was to be his Lethe.
He never found out, of course. None of them did.
~ * ~
Old Shar set down the thick, ragged-edged metal plate at last, and gazed instead out the window of the castle, apparently resting his eyes on the glowing green-gold obscurity of the summer waters. In the soft fluorescence which played down upon him, from the Noc dozing impassively in the groined vault of the chamber, Lavon could see that he was in fact a young man. His face was so delicately formed as to suggest that it had not been many seasons since he had first emerged from his spore.
But of course there had been no real reason to have expected an old man. All the Shars had been referred to traditionally as goldh Shar. The reason, like the reasons for everything else, had been forgotten, but the custom had persisted. The adjective at least gave weight and dignity to the office—that of the center of wisdom of all the people, as each Lavon had been the center of authority.
The present Shar belonged to the generation XVI, and hence would have to be at least two seasons younger than Lavon himself. If he was old, it was only in knowledge.
gLavon, Ifm going to have to be honest with you,h Shar said at last, still looking out of the tall, irregular window. gYoufve come to me at your maturity for the secrets on the metal plates, just as your predecessors did to mine. I can give some of them to you—but for the most part, I donft know what they mean.h
gAfter so many generations?h Lavon asked, surprised. gWasnft it Shar III who first found out how to read them?h
The young man turned and looked at Lavon with eyes made dark and wide by the depths into which they had been staring. gI can read whatfs on the plates, but most of it seems to make no sense. Worst of all, the plates are incomplete. You didnft know that? They are. One of them was lost in a battle during the final war with the Eaters, while these castles were still in their hands.h
gWhat am I here for, then?h Lavon said. gIsnft there anything of value on the remaining plates? Do they really contain ethe wisdom of the Creatorsf, or is that myth?h
gNo. No, itfs true,h Shar said slowly, gas far as it goes.h
He paused, and both men turned and gazed at the ghostly creature which had appeared suddenly outside the window. Then Shar said gravely, gCome in, Para.h
The slipper-shaped organism, nearly transparent except for the thousands of black-and-silver granules and frothy bubbles which packed its interior, glided into the chamber and hovered, with a muted whirring of cilia. For a moment it remained silent, probably speaking telepathically to the Noc floating in the vault, after the ceremoifious fashion of all the protos. No human had ever intercepted one of these colloquies, but there was no doubt about their reality; humans had used protos for long-range communication for generations.
Then the Parafs cilia buzzed once more. Each separate hair-like process vibrated at an independent, changing rate; the resulting sound waves spread through the water, intermodulating, reinforcing or cancelling each other. The aggregate wave-front, by the time it reached human ears, was eerie but recognizable human speech.
gWe are arrived, according to the custom.h
gAnd welcome,h said Shar. gLavon, letfs leave this matter of the plates for a while, until you hear what Para has to say; thatfs a part of the knowledge Lavons must have as they come into their office, and it comes before the plates. I can give you some hints of what we are. First Para has to tell you something about what we arenft.h
Lavon nodded, willingly enough, and watched the proto as it settled gently to the surface of the hewn table at which Shar had been sitting. There was in the entity such a perfection and economy of organization, such a grace and surety of movement, that he could hardly believe in his own new-won maturity. Para, like all the protos, made him feel unfinished.
gWe know that in this universe there is logically no place for man,h the gleaming, now immobile cylinder upon the table droned abruptly. gOur memory is the common property of all our races. It reaches back to a time when there were no such creatures as men here, nor any even remotely like men. It remembers also that once upon a day there were men here, suddenly, and in some numbers. Their spores littered the bottom; we found the spores only a short time after our seasonfs Awakening, and inside them we saw the forms of men, slumbering.
gThen men shattered their spores and emerged. At first they seemed helpless, and the Eaters devoured them by scores, as in those days they devoured anything that moved. But that soon ended. Men were intelligent, active. And they were gifted with a trait, a character, possessed by no other creature in this world. Not even the savage Eaters had it. Men organized us to exterminate the Eaters, and therein lay the difference. Men had initiative. We have the word now, which you gave us, and we apply it, but we still do not know what the thing is that it labels.h
gYou fought beside us,h Lavon said.
gGladly. We would never have thought of that war by ourselves, but it was good and brought good. Yet we wondered. We saw that men were poor swimmers, poor walkers, poor crawlers, poor climbers. We saw that men were formed to make and use tools, a concept we still do not understand, for so wonderful a gift is largely wasted in this universe, and there is no other. What good are tool-useful members such as the hands of men? We do not know. It seems plain that so radical a thing should lead to a much greater rulership over the world than has, in fact, proven to be possible for men.h
Lavonfs head was spinning. gPara, I had no notion that you people were philosophers.h
gThe protos are old,h Shar said. He had again turned to look out the window, his hands locked behind his back. gThey arenft philosophers, Lavon, but they are remorseless logicians. Listen to Para.h
gTo this reasoning there could be but one outcome,h the Para said. gOur strange ally, Man, was like nothing else in this universe. He was and is unfitted for it. He does not belong here; he has been—adopted. This drives us to think that there are other universes besides this one, but where these universes might lie, and what their properties might be, it is impossible to imagine. We have no imagination, as men know.h
Was the creature being ironic? Lavon could not tell. He said slowly: gOther universes? How could that be true?h
gWe do not know,h the Parafs uninfected voice hummed.
Shar had resumed sitting on the window sill, clasping his knees, watching the come and go of dim shapes in the lighted gulf. gIt is quite true,h he said. gWhat is written on the plates makes it plain. Ifll tell you what they say.
gWe were made, Lavon. We were made by men who were not as we are, but men who were our ancestors all the same. They were caught in some disaster, and they made us, and put us here in our universe—so that, even though they had to die, the race of men would live.h
Lavon surged up from the woven spyrogyra mat upon which he had been sitting. gYou must think Ifm a fool!h
gNo. Youfre our Lavon; you have a right to know the facts. Make what you like of them.h Shar swung his webbed toes back into the chamber. gWhat Ifve told you may be hard to believe, but it seems to be so; what Para says backs it up. Out unfitness to live here is self-evident:
gThe past four Shars discovered that we wonft get any farther in our studies until we learn how to control heat. Wefve produced enough heat chemically to show that even the water around us changes when the temperature gets high enough. But there wefre stopped.h
gBecause heat produced in open water is carried off as rapidly as itfs produced. Once we tried to enclose that heat, and we blew up a whole tube of the castle and killed everything in range; the shock was terrible. We measured the pressures that were involved in that explosion, and we discovered that no substance we know could have resisted them. Theory suggests some stronger substances— but we need heat to form them!
gTake our chemistry. We live in water. Everything seems to dissolve in water, to some extent. How do we confine a chemical test to the crucible we put it in? How do we maintain a solution at one dilution? I donft know. Every avenue leads me to the same stone door. Wefre thinking creatures, Lavon, but therefs something drastically wrong in the way we think about this universe we live in. It just doesnft seem to lead to results.h
Lavon pushed back his floating hair futilely. gMaybe youfre thinking about the wrong results. Wefve had no trouble with warfare, or crops, or practical things like that. If we canft create much heat, well, most of us wonft miss it; we donft need any. Whatfs the other universe supposed to be like, the one our ancestors lived in? Is it any better than this one?h
gI donft know,h Shar admitted. gIt was so different that itfs hard to compare the two. The metal plates tell a story about men who were travelling from one place to another in a container that moved by itself. The only analogy I can think of is the shallops of diatom shells that our youngsters use to sled along the thermocline; but evidently whatfs meant is something much bigger.
gI picture a huge shallop, closed on all sides, big enough to hold many people—maybe twenty or thirty. It had to travel for generations through some kind of space where there wasnft any water to breathe, so that the people had to carry their own water and renew it constantly. There were no seasons; no ice formed on the sky, because there wasnft any sky in a closed shallop.
gThen the shallop was wrecked somehow. The people in it knew they were going to die. They made us, and put us here, as if we were their children. Because they had to die, they wrote their story on the plates, to tell us what had happened. I suppose wefd understand it better if we had the plate Shar III lost during the war, but we donft.h
gThe whole thing sounds like a parable,h Lavon said, shrugging. gOr a song. I can see why you donft understand it. What I canft see is why you bother to try.h
gBecause of the plates,h Shar said. gYoufve handled them yourself now, so you know that wefve nothing like them. We have crude, impure metals wefve hammered out, metals that last for a while and then decay. But the plates shine on, generation after generation. They donft change; our hammers and our graving tools break against them; the little heat we can generate leaves them unharmed. Those plates werenft formed in our universe— and that one fact makes every word on them important to me. Someone went to a great deal of trouble to make those plates indestructible, and to give them to us. Someone to whom the word estarsf was important enough to be worth fourteen repetitions, despite the fact that the word doesnft seem to mean anything.h
Lavon stood up once more.
gAll these extra universes and huge shallops and meaningless words—I canft say that they donft exist, but I donft see what difference it makes,h he said. gThe Shars of a few generations ago spent their whole lives breeding better algae crops for us, and showing us how to cultivate them, instead of living haphazardly on bacteria. Farther back, the Shars devised war engines, and war plans. All that was work worth doing. The Lavons of those days evidently got along without the metal plates and their puzzles, and saw to it that the Shars did, too. Well, as far as Ifm concerned, youfre welcome to the plates, if you like them better than crop improvement—but I think they ought to be thrown away.h
gAll right,h Shar said, shrugging. gIf you donft want them, that ends the traditional interview. Wefll go our—h
There was a rising drone from the table-top. The Para was lifting itself, waves of motion passing over its cilia, like the waves which went silently across the fruiting stalks of the fields of delicate fungi with which the bottom was planted. It had been so silent that Lavon had forgotten it; he could tell that Shar had, too.
gThis is a great decision,h the waves of sound washing from the creature throbbed. gEvery proto has heard it, and agrees with it. We have been afraid of these metal plates for a long time, afraid that men would learn to understand them and to follow what they say to some secret place, leaving the protos. Now we are not afraid.h
gThere wasnft anything to be afraid of,h Lavon said indulgently.
gNo Lavon before you had ever said so,h the Para said. gWe are glad. We will throw the plates away.h
With that, the shining creature swooped toward the embrasure. With it, it bore away the remaining plates, which had been resting under it on the table-top, suspended delicately in the curved tips of its supple ventral cilia. Inside its pellucid body, vacuoles swelled to increase its buoyancy and enable it to carry the heavy weight.
With a cry, Shar plunged toward the window.
But Para was already gone, so swiftly that it had not even heard the call. Shar twisted his body and brought up on one shoulder against the tower wall. He said nothing. His face was enough. Lavon could not look into it for more than an instant.
The shadows of the two men began to move slowly along the uneven cobbled floor. The Noc descended toward them from the vault, its single thick tentacle stirring the water, its internal light flaring and fading irregularly. It, too, drifted through the window after its cousin, and sank slowly away toward the bottom. Gently its living glow dimmed, flickered in the depths, and winked out.
~ * ~
For many days, Lavon was able to avoid thinking much about the loss. There was already a great deal of work to be done. Maintenance of the castles, which had been built by the now-extinct Eaters rather than by human hands, was a never-ending task. The thousand dichotomously-branching wings tended to crumble with time, especially at their bases where they sprouted from one another, and no Shar had yet come forward with a mortar as good as the rotifer-spittle which had once held them together. In addition, the breaking through of windows and the construction of chambers in the early days had been haphazard and often unsound. The instinctive architecture of the Eaters, after all, had not been meant to meet the needs of human occupants.
And then there were the crops. Men no longer fed precariously upon passing bacteria snatched to the mouth; now there were the drifting mats of specific water-fungi and algae, and the mycelia on the bottom, rich and nourishing, which had been bred by five generations of Shars. These had to be tended constantly to keep the strains pure, and to keep the older and less intelligent species of the protos from grazing on them. In this latter task, to be sure, the more intricate and far-seeing proto types cooperated, but men were needed to supervise.
There had been a time, after the war with the Eaters, when it had been customary to prey upon the slow-moving and stupid diatoms, whose exquisite and fragile glass shells were so easily burst, and who were unable to learn that a friendly voice did not necessarily mean a friend. There were still people who would crack open a diatom when no one else was looking, but they were regarded as barbarians, to the puzzlement of the protos. The blurred and simple-minded speech of the gorgeously engraved plants had brought them into the category of pets—a concept which the protos were unable to grasp, especially since men admitted diatoms on the half-frustrule were delicious.
Lavon had had to agree, very early, that the distinction was tiny. After all, humans did eat the desmids, which differed from the diatoms only in three particulars: their shells were flexible, they could not move (and for that matter neither could all but a few groups of diatoms), and they did not speak. Yet to Lavon, as to most men, there did seem to be some kind of distinction, whether the protos could see it or not, and that was that. Under the circumstance he felt that it was a part of his duty, as the hereditary leader of men, to protect the diatoms from the few who poached on them, in defiance of custom, in the high levels of the sunlit sky.
Yet Lavon found it impossible to keep himself busy enough to forget that moment when the last clues to Manfs origin and destination had been lifted, on authority of his own careless exaggeration, and borne away.
It might be possible to ask Para for the return of the plates, explain that a mistake had been made. The protos were creatures of implacable logic, but they respected Man, were used to illogic in Man, and might reverse their decision if pressed—
We are sorry. The plates were carried over the bar and released in the gulf. We will have the bottom there searched, but ...
With a sick feeling he could not repress, Lavon knew that that would be the answer, or something very like it. When the protos decided something was worthless, they did not hide it in some chamber like old women. They threw it away—efficiently.
Yet despite the tormenting of his conscience, Lavon was nearly convinced that the plates were well lost. What had they ever done for Man, except to provide Shars with useless things to think about in the late seasons of their lives? What the Shars themselves had done to benefit Man, here, in the water, in the world, in the universe, had been done by direct experimentation. No bit of useful knowledge had ever come from the plates. There had never been anything in the plates but things best left unthought. The protos were right.
Lavon shifted his position on the plant frond, where he had been sitting in order to overlook the harvesting of an experimental crop of blue-green, oil-rich algae drifting in a clotted mass close to the top of the sky, and scratched his back gently against the coarse bole. The protos were seldom wrong, after all. Their lack of creativity, their inability to think an original thought, was a gift as well as a limitation. It allowed them to see and feel things at all times as they were—not as they hoped they might be, for they had no ability to hope, either.
The long halloo came floating up from the sleepy depths. Propping one hand against the top of the frond, Lavon bent and looked down. One of the harvesters was looking up at him, holding loosely the adze with which he had been splitting free from the raft the glutinous tetrads of the algae.
gIfm up here. Whatfs the matter?h
gWe have the ripened quadrant cut free. Shall we tow it away?h
gTow it away,h Lavon said, with a lazy gesture. He leaned back again. At the same instant, a brilliant reddish glory burst into being above him, and cast itself down toward the depths like mesh after mesh of the finest drawn gold. The great light which lived above the sky during the day, brightening or dimming according to some pattern no Shar ever had fathomed, was blooming again.
Few men, caught in the warm glow of that light, could resist looking up at it—especially when the top of the sky itself wrinkled and smiled just a momentfs climb or swim away. Yet, as always, Lavonfs bemused upward look gave him back nothing but his own distorted, hobbling reflection, and a reflection of the plant on which he rested. Here was the upper limit, the third of the three surfaces of the universe.
The first surface was the bottom, where the water ended.
The second surface was the thermocline, the invisible division between the colder waters of the bottom and the warm, light waters of the sky. During the height of the warm weather, the thermocline was so definite a division as to make for good sledding and for chilly passage. A real interface formed between the cold, denser bottom waters and the warm reaches above, and maintained itself almost for the whole of the warm season.
The third surface was the sky. One could no more pass through that surface that one could penetrate the bottom, nor was there any better reason to try. There the universe ended. The light which played over it daily, waxing and waning as it chose, seemed one of its properties.
Toward the end of the season, the water gradually became colder and more difficult to breathe, while at the same time the light grew duller and stayed for shorter periods between darknesses. Slow currents started to move. The high waters turned chill and started to fall. The bottom mud stirred and smoked away, carrying with it the spores of the fields of fungi. The thermocline tossed, became choppy, and melted away. The sky began to fog with particles of soft silt carried up from the bottom, the walls, the corners of the universe. Before very long, the whole world was cold, flocculent with dying creatures.
Then the protos encysted; the bacteria, even most of the plants—and, not long afterward, men, too—curled up in their oil-filled amber shells. The world died until the first current of warm water broke the winter silence.
Just after the long call, a shining bubble rose past La-von. He reached out and poked it, but it bounded away from his sharp thumb. The gas bubbles which rose from the bottom in late summer were almost invulnerable— and when some especially hard blow or edge did penetrate them, they broke into smaller bubbles which nothing could touch, leaving behind a remarkably bad smell.
Gas. There was no water inside a bubble. A man who got inside a bubble would have nothing to breathe.
But, of course, it was impossible to enter a bubble. The surface tension was too strong. As strong as Sharfs metal plates. As strong as the top of the sky.
As strong as the top of the sky. And above that—once the bubble was broken—a world of gas instead of water? Were all worlds bubbles of water -drifting in gas?
If it were so, travel between them would be out of the question, since it would be impossible to pierce the sky to begin with. Nor did the infant cosmography include any provisions for bottoms for the worlds.
And yet some of the local creatures did burrow into the bottom, quite deeply, seeking something in those depths which was beyond the reach of Man. Even the surface of the ooze, in high summer, crawled with tiny creatures for which mud was a natural medium. Man, too, passed freely between the two countries of water which were divided by the thermocline, though many of the creatures with which he lived could not pass that line at all, once it had established itself.
And if the new universe of which Shar had spoken existed at all, it had to exist beyond the sky, where the light was. Why could not the sky be passed, after all? The fact that bubbles could sometimes be broken showed that the surface skin that formed between water and gas wasnft completely invulnerable. Had it ever been tried?
Lavon did not suppose that one man could butt his way through the top of the sky, any more than he could burrow into the bottom, but there might be ways around the difficulty. Here at his back, for instance, was a plant which gave every appearance of continuing beyond the sky.
It had always been assumed that the plants died where they touched the sky. For the most part, they did, for frequently the dead extension could be seen, leached and yellow, the boxes of its component cells empty, floating embedded in the perfect mirror. But some were simply chopped off, like the one which sheltered him now. Perhaps that was only an illusion, and instead it soared indefinitely into some other place—some place where men might once have been born, and might still live ...
The plates were gone. There was only one other way to find out.
Determinedly, Lavon began to climb toward the wavering mirror of the sky. His thorn-thumbed feet trampled obliviously upon the clustered sheathes of fragile stippled diatoms. The tulip-heads of Vortae, placid and murmurous cousins of Para, retracted startledly out of his way upon coiling stalks, to make silly gossip behind him.
Lavon did not hear them. He continued to climb doggedly toward the light, his fingers and toes gripping the plant-bole.
gLavon! Where are you going? Lavon!h
He leaned out and looked down. The man with the adze, a doll-like figure, was beckoning to him from a patch of blue-green retreating over a violet abyss. Dizzily he looked away, clinging to the bole; he had never been so high before. He had, of course, nothing to fear from falling, but the fear was in his heritage. Then he began to climb again.
After a while, he touched the sky with one hand. He stopped to breathe. Curious bacteria gathered about the base of his thumb where blood from a small cut was fogging away, scattered at his gesture, and wriggled mindlessly back toward the dull red lure.
He waited until he no longer felt winded, and resumed climbing. The sky pressed down against the top of his head, against the back of his neck, against his shoulders. It seemed to give slightly, with a tough, frictionless elasticity. The water here was intensely bright, and quite colorless. He climbed another step, driving his shoulders against that enormous weight.
He might as well have tried to penetrate a cliff.
Again he had to rest. While he panted, he made a curious discovery. All around the bole of the water plant, the steel surface of the sky curved upward, making a kind of sheathe. He found that he would insert his hand into it—there was almost enough space to admit his head as well. Clinging closely to the bole, he looked up into the inside of the sheathe, probing it with his injured hand. The glare was blinding.
There was a kind of soundless explosion. His whole wrist was suddenly encircled in an intense, impersonal grip, as if it were being cut in two. In blind astonishment, he lunged upward.
The ring of pain travelled smoothly down his upflung arm as he rose, was suddenly around his shoulders and chest. Another lunge and his knees were being squeezed in the circular vise. Another—
Something was horribly wrong. He clung to the bole and tried to gasp, but there was—nothing to breathe.
The water came streaming out of his body, from his mouth, his nostrils, the spiracles in his sides, spurting in tangible jets. An intense and fiery itching crawled over the surface of his body. At each spasm, long knives ran into him, and from a great distance he heard more water being expelled from his book-lungs in an obscene, frothy sputtering. Inside his head, a patch of fire began to eat away at the floor of his nasal cavity.
Lavon was drowning.
With a final convulsion, he kicked himself away from the splintery bole, and fell. A hard impact shook him; and then the water, which had clung to him so tightly when he had first attempted to leave it, took him back with cold violence.
Sprawling and tumbling grotesquely, he drifted, down and down and down, toward the bottom.
~ * ~
For many days, Lavon lay curled insensibly in his spore, as if in the winter sleep. The shock of cold which he had felt on re-entering his native universe had been taken by his body as a sign of coming winter, as it had taken the oxygen-starvation of his brief sojourn above the sky. The spore-forming glands had at once begun to function.
Had it not been for this, Lavon would surely have died. The danger of drowning disappeared even as he fell, as the air bubbled out of his lungs and readmitted the life-giving water. But for acute dessication and third degree sunburn, the sunken universe knew no remedy. The healing amnionic fluid generated by the spore-forming glands, after the transparent amber sphere had enclosed him, offered Lavon his only chance.
The brown sphere was spotted after some days by a prowling ameba, quiescent in the eternal winter of the bottom. Down there the temperature was always an even 4, no matter what the season, but it was unheard of that a spore should be found there while the high epilimnion was still warm and rich in oxygen.
Within an hour, the spore was surrounded by scores of astonished protos, jostling each other to bump their blunt eyeless prows against the shell. Another hour later, a squad of worried men came plunging from the castles far above to press their own noses against the transparent wall. Then swift orders were given.
Four Para grouped themselves about the amber sphere, and there was a subdued explosion as the trichocysts which lay embedded at the bases of their cilia, just under the pellicle, burst and cast fine lines of a quickly solidifying liquid into the water. The four Paras thrummed and lifted, tugging.
Lavonfs spore swayed gently in the mud and then rose slowly, entangled in the web. Nearby, a Noc cast a cold pulsating glow over the operation—not for the Paras, who did not need the light, but for the baffled knot of men. The sleeping figure of Lavon, head bowed, knees drawn up to its chest, revolved with an absurd solemnity inside the shell as it was moved.
gTake him to Shar, Para.h
The young Shar justified, by minding his own business, the traditional wisdom with which his hereditary office had invested him. He observed at once that there was nothing he could do for the encysted Lavon which would not be classifiable as simple meddling.
He had the sphere deposited in a high tower room of his castle, where there was plenty of light and the water was warm, which should suggest to the estivating form that spring was again on the way. Beyond that, he simply sat and watched, and kept his speculations to himself.
Inside the spore, Lavonfs body seemed rapidly to be shedding its skin, in long strips and patches. Gradually, his curious shrunkenness disappeared. His withered arms and legs and sunken abdomen filled out again.
The days went by while Shar watched. Finally he could discern no more changes, and, on a hunch, had the spore taken up to the top of the tower, into the direct daylight.
An hour later, Lavon moved in his amber prison.
He uncurled and stretched, turned blank eyes up toward the light. His expression was that of a man who had not yet awakened from a ferocious nightmare. His whole body shone with a strange pink newness.
Shar knocked gently on the walls of the spore. Lavon turned his blind face toward the sound, life coming into his eyes. He smiled tentatively and braced his hands and feet against the inner wall of the shell.
The whole sphere fell abruptly to pieces with a sharp crackling. The amnionic fluid dissipated around him and Shar, carrying away with it the suggestive odor of a bitter struggle against death.
Lavon stood among the shards and looked at Shar silently. At last he said:
gShar—Ifve been above the sky.h
gI know,h Shar said gently.
Again Lavon was silent. Shar said, gDonft be humble, Lavon. Youfve done an epoch-making thing. It nearly cost you your life. You must tell me the rest—all of it.h
gYou taught me a lot while you slept. Or are you still opposed to euselessf knowledge?h
Lavon could say nothing. He no longer could tell what he knew from what he wanted to know. He had only one question left, but he could not utter it. He could only look dumbly into Sharfs delicate face.
gYou have answered me,h Shar said, even more gently than before. gCome, my friend; join me at my table. We will plan our journey to the stars.h
~ * ~
There were five of them around Sharfs big table: Shar himself, Lavon, and the three assistants assigned by custom to the Shars from the families Than, Tanol and Stravol. The duties of these three men—or, sometimes, women —under many previous Shars had been simple and onerous: to put into effect in the field the genetic changes in the food crops which the Shar himself had worked out in laboratory tanks and flats. Under other Shars more interested in metal-working or in chemistry, they had been smudged men—diggers, rock-splitters, fashioners and cleaners of apparatus.
Under Shar XVI, however, the three assistants had been more envied than usual among the rest of Lavonfs people, for they seemed to do very little work of any kind. They spent long hours of every day and evening talking with Shar in his chambers, poring over records, making mysterious scratch-marks on slate, or just looking at simple things about which there was no obvious mystery. Sometimes they actually worked with Shar in his laboratory, but mostly they just sat.
Shar XVI had, as a matter of fact, discovered certain rudimentary rules of inquiry which, as he explained it to Lavon, he had recognized as tools of enormous power. He had become more interested in passing these on to future workers than in the seductions of any specific experiment, the journey to the stars perhaps excepted. The Than, Tanol and Stravol of his generation were having scientific method pounded into their heads, a procedure they maintained was sometimes more painful than heaving a thousand rocks.
That they were the first of Lavonfs people to be taxed with the problem of constructing a spaceship was, therefore, inevitable. The results lay on the table: three models, made of diatom-glass, strands of algae, flexible bits of cellulose, flakes of stonewort, slivers of wood, and organic glues collected from the secretions of a score of different plants and animals.
Lavon picked up the nearest one, a fragile spherical construction inside which little beads of dark-brown lava —actually bricks of rotifer-spittle painfully chipped free from the wall of an unused castle—moved freely back and forth in a kind of ball-bearing race. gNow whose is this one?h he said, turning the sphere curiously to and fro.
gThatfs mine,h Tanol said. gFrankly I donft think it comes anywhere near meeting all the requirements. Itfs just the only design I could arrive at that I think we could build with the materials and knowledge we have.h
gBut how does it work?h
gHand it here a moment, Lavon. This bladder you see inside at the center, with the hollow spyrogyra straws leading out from it to the skin of the ship, is a bouyancy tank. The idea is that we trap ourselves a big gas-bubble as it rises from the bottom and install it in the tank. Probably wefll have to do that piecemeal. Then the ship rises to the sky on the bouyancy of the bubble. The little paddles, here along these two bands on the outside, rotate when the crew—thatfs these bricks you hear shaking around inside—walks a treadmill that runs around the inside of the hull; they paddle us over to the edge of the sky. Then we pull the paddles in—they fold over into slots, like this— and, still by weight-transfer from the inside, roll ourselves up the slope until wefre out in space. When we hit another world and enter the water again, we let the gas out of the tank gradually through the exhaust tubes represented by these straws, and sink down to a landing at a controlled rate.h
gVery ingenious,h Shar said thoughtfully. gBut I can foresee some difficulties. For one thing, the design lacks stability.h
gYes, it does,h Tanol agreed. gAnd keeping it in motion is going to require a lot of footwork. On the other hand, the biggest expenditure of energy involved in the whole trip is going to be getting the machine up to the sky in the first place, and with this design thatfs taken care of—as a matter of fact, once the bubblefs installed, wefll have to keep the ship tied down until wefre ready to go.h
gHow about letting the gas out?h Lavon said. gWill it go out through those little tubes when we want it to? Wonft it just cling to the walls of the tank instead? The skin between water and gas is pretty difficult to deform—to that I can testify.h
Tanol frowned. gThat I donft know. Donft forget that the tubes will be large in the real ship, not just straws as they are in the model.h
gBigger than a manfs body?h Than said.
gNo, hardly. Maybe as big, though, as a manfs head.h
gWonft work,h Than said tersely. gI tried it. You canft lead a bubble through a pipe that small. As Lavon said, it clings to the inside of the tube and wonft be budged. If we build this ship, wefll just have to abandon it once we hit our new world.h
gThatfs out of the question,h Lavon said at once. gPutting aside for the moment the waste involved, we may have to use the ship again in a hurry. Who knows what the new world will be like? Wefre going to have to be able to leave it again if it is impossible to live in.h
gWhich is your model, Than?h Shar said.
gThis one. With this design, we do the trip the hard way—crawl along the bottom until it meets the sky, crawl until we hit the next world, and crawl wherever wefre agoing when we get there. No aquabatics. Shefs treadmill-powered, like Tanolfs, but not necessarily man-powered; Ifve been thinking a bit about using diatoms. She steers by varying the power on one side or the other; also we can hitch a pair of thongs to opposite ends of the rear axle and swivel her that way, but that would be slower and considerably less precise.h
Shar looked closely at the tube-shaped model and pushed it experimentally along the table a little way. gI like that,h he said presently. gIt sits still when you want it to. With Thanfs spherical ship, wefd be at the mercy of any stray current at home or in the new world—and for all I know there may be currents of some sort in space, too, gas currents perhaps. Lavon, what do you think?h
gHow would we build it?h Lavon said. gItfs round in cross-section. Thatfs all very well for a model, but how do you make a really big tube of that shape that wonft fall in on itself?h
gLook inside, through the front window,h Than said. gYoufll see beams that cross at the center, at right angles to the long axis. They hold the walls braced.h
gThat consumes a lot of space,h Stravol objected. By far the quietest and most introspective of the three assistants, he had not spoken until now since the beginning of the conference. gYoufve pretty well got to have free passage back and forth inside the ship. How are we going to keep everything operating if we have to be crawling around beams all the time?h
gAll right, come up with something better,h Than said, shrugging.
gThatfs easy. We bend hoops.h
gHoops!h Tanol said. gOn that scale? Youfd have to soak your wood in mud for a year before it would be flexible enough, and then it wouldnft have the strength youfd need.h
gNo, you wouldnft,h Stravol said. gI didnft build a ship-model, I just made drawings, and my ship isnft as good as Thanfs by a long distance. But my design for the ship is also tubular, so I did build a model of a hoop-bending machine—thatfs it on the table. You lock one end of your beam down in a heavy vise, like so, leaving the butt sticking out the other side. Then you tie up the other end with a heavy line, around this notch. Then you run your rope around a windlass, and five or six men wind up the windlass, like so. That pulls down the free end of the beam until the notch engages with this key-slot, which youfve pre-cut at the other end. Then you unlock the vise, and therefs your hoop; for safety you might drive a peg through the joint to keep the thing from springing open unexpectedly.h
gWouldnft the beam you were using break after it had bent a certain distance?h Lavon asked.
gStock timber certainly would,h Stravol said. gBut for this trick you use green wood, not seasoned. Otherwise youfd have to soften your beam to uselessness, as Tanol says. But live wood will flex enough to make a good, strong, single-unit hoop—or if it doesnft, Shar, the little rituals with numbers that youfve been teaching us donft mean anything after all!h
Shar smiled. gYou can easily make a mistake in using numbers,h he said.
gI checked everything.h
gIfm sure of it. And I think itfs well worth a trial. Anything else to offer?h
gWell,h Stravol said, gIfve got a kind of live ventilating system I think should be useful. Otherwise, as I said, Thanfs ship strikes me as the type we should build; my ownfs hopelessly cumbersome.h
gI have to agree,h Tanol said regretfully. eeBut Ifd like to try putting together a lighter-than-water ship sometime, maybe just for local travel. If the new world is bigger than ours, it might not be possible to swim everywhere you might want to go there.h
gThat never occurred to me,h Lavon exclaimed. gSuppose the new world is twice, three times, eight times as big as ours? Shar, is there any reason why that couldnft be?h
gNone that I know of. The history plates certainly seem to take all kinds of enormous distances practically for granted. All right, letfs make up a composite design from what we have here. Tanol, youfre the best draftsman among us, suppose you draw it up. Lavon, what about labor?h
gIfve a plan ready,h Lavon said. gAs I see it, the people who work on the ship are going to have to be on the job full-time. Building the vessel isnft going to be an overnight task, or even one that we can finish in a single season, so we canft count on using a rotating force. Besides, this is technical work; once a man learns how to do a particular task, it would be wasteful to send him back to tending fungi just because somebody else has some time on his hands.
gSo Ifve set up a basic force involving the two or three most intelligent hand-workers from each of the various trades. Those people I can withdraw from their regular work without upsetting the way we run our usual concerns, or noticeably increasing the burden on the others in a given trade. They will do the skilled labor, and stick with the ship until itfs done. Some of them will make up the crew, too. For heavy, unskilled jobs, we can call on the various seasonal pools of idle people without disrupting our ordinary life.h
gGood,h Shar said. He leaned forward and rested linked hands on the edge of the table—although, because of the webbing between his fingers, he could link no more than the fingertips. gWefve really made remarkable progress. I didnft expect that wefd have matters advanced a tenth as far as this by the end of this meeting. But maybe Ifve overlooked something important. Has anybody any more suggestions, or any questions?h
gIfve got one,h Stravol said quietly.
gAll right, letfs hear it.h
gWhere are we going?h
There was quite a long silence. Finally Shar said: gStravol, I canft answer that yet. I could say that wefre going to the stars, but since we still have no idea what a star is, that answer wouldnft do you much good. Wefre going to make this trip because wefve found that some of the fantastic things that the history plates say are really so. We know now that the sky can be passed, and that beyond the sky therefs a region where therefs no water to breathe, the region our ancients called espace.f Both of these ideas always seemed to be against common sense, but nevertheless wefve found that theyfre true.
gThe history plates also say that there are other worlds than ours, and actually thatfs an easier idea to accept, once youfve found out that the other two are so. As for the stars—well, we just donft know yet, we havenft any information at all that would allow us to read the history plates on that subject with new eyes, and therefs no point in making wild guesses unless we can test the guesses. The stars are in space, and presumably, once wefre out in space, wefll see them and the meaning of the word will become clear. At least we can confidently expect to see some clues —look at all the information we got from Lavonfs trip of a few seconds above the sky!
gBut in the meantime, therefs no point in our speculating in a bubble. We think there are other worlds somewhere, and wefre devising means to make the trip. The other questions, the pendant ones, just have to be put aside for now. Wefll answer them eventually—therefs no doubt in my mind about that. But it may take a long time.h
Stravol grinned ruefully. gI expected no more. In a way, I think the whole project is crazy. But Ifm in it right out to the end, all the same.h
Shar and Lavon grinned back. All of them had the fever, and Lavon suspected that their whole enclosed universe would share it with them before long. He said:
gThen letfs not waste a minute. Therefs a huge mass of detail to be worked out still, and after that, all the hard work will just have begun. Letfs get moving!h
The five men arose and looked at each other. Their expressions varied, but in all their eyes there was in addition the same mixture of awe and ambition: the composite face of the shipwright and of the astronaut.
Then they went out, severally, to begin their voyages.
~ * ~
It was two winter sleeps after Lavonfs disastrous climb beyond the sky that all work on the spaceship stopped. By then, Lavon knew that he had hardened and weathered into that temporarily ageless state a man enters after he has just reached his prime; and he knew also that there were wrinkles engraved on his brow, to stay and to deepen.
gOldh Shar, too, had changed, his features losing some of their delicacy as he came into his maturity. Though the wedge-shaped bony structure of his face would give him a withdrawn and poetic look for as long as he lived, participation in the plan had given his expression a kind of executive overlay, which at best gave it a mask-like rigidity, and at worst coarsened it somehow.
Yet despite the bleeding away of the years, the spaceship was still only a hulk. It lay upon a platform built above the tumbled boulders of the sandbar which stretched out from one wall of the world. It was an immense hull of pegged wood, broken by regularly spaced gaps through which the raw beams of the skeleton could be seen.
Work upon it had progressed fairly rapidly at first, for it was not hard to visualize what kind of vehicle would be needed to crawl through empty space without losing its water; Than and his colleagues had done that job well. It had been recognized, too, that the sheer size of the machine would enforce a long period of construction, perhaps as long as two full seasons; but neither Shar and his assistants nor Lavon had anticipated any serious snag.
For that matter, part of the vehiclefs apparent incompleteness was an illusion. About a third of its fittings were to consist of living creatures, which could not be expected to install themselves in the vessel much before the actual takeoff.
Yet time and time again, work on the ship had had to be halted for long periods. Several times whole sections needed to be ripped out, as it became more and more evident that hardly a single normal, understandable concept could be applied to the problem of space travel.
The lack of the history plates, which the Para steadfastly refused to deliver up, was a double handicap. Immediately upon their loss, Shar had set himself to reproduce them from memory; but unlike the more religious of his ancestors he had never regarded them as holy writ, and hence had never set himself to memorizing them word by word. Even before the theft, he had accumulated a set of variant translations of passages presenting specific experimental problems, which were stored in his library, carved in wood. But most of these translations tended to contradict each other, and none of them related to spaceship construction, upon which the original had been vague in any case.
No duplicates of the cryptic characters of the original had ever been made, for the simple reason that there was nothing in the sunken universe capable of destroying the originals, nor of duplicating their apparently changeless permanence. Shar remarked too late that through simple caution they should have made a number of verbatim temporary records—but after generations of green-gold peace, simple caution no longer covers preparation against catastrophe. (Nor, for that matter, did a culture which had to dig each letter of its simple alphabet into pulpy water-logged wood with a flake of stonewort encourage the keeping of records in triplicate.)
As a result, Sharfs imperfect memory of the contents of the history plates, plus the constant and millenial doubt as to the accuracy of the various translations, proved finally to be the worst obstacle to progress on the spaceship itself.
gMen must paddle before they can swim,h Lavon observed belatedly, and Shar was forced to agree with him.
Obviously, whatever the ancients had known about spaceship construction, very little of that knowledge was usable to a people still trying to build its first spaceship from scratch. In retrospect, it was not surprising that the great hulk still rested incomplete upon its platform above the sand boulders, exuding a musty odor of wood steadily losing its strength, two generations after its flat bottom had been-laid down.
The fat-faced young man who headed the strike delegation to Sharfs chambers was Phil XX, a man two generations younger than Shar, four younger than Lavon. There were crowfs-feet at the corners of his eyes, which made him look both like a querulous old man and like an infant spoiled in the spore.
gWefre calling a halt to this crazy project,h he said bluntly. gWefve slaved away our youth on it, but now that wefre our own masters, itfs over, thatfs all. Over.h
gNobodyfs compelled you,h Lavon said angrily.
gSociety does; our parents do,h a gaunt member of the delegation said. gBut now wefre going to start living in the real world. Everybody these days knows that therefs no other world but this one. You oldsters can hang on to your superstitions if you like. We donft intend to.h
Baffled, Lavon looked over at Shar. The scientist smiled and said, gLet them go, Lavon. We have no use for the faint-hearted.h
The fat-faced young man flushed. gYou canft insult us into going back to work. Wefre through. Build your own ship to noplace!h
gAll right,h Lavon said evenly. gGo on, beat it. Donft stand around here orating about it. Youfve made your decision and wefre not interested in your self-justifications. Good-bye.h
The fat-faced young man evidently still had quite a bit of heroism to dramatize which Lavonfs dismissal had short-circuited. An examination of Lavonfs stony face, however, seemed to convince him that he had to take his victory as he found it. He and the delegation trailed in-gloriously out the archway.
gNow what?h Lavon asked when they had gone. gI must admit, Shar, that I would have tried to persuade them. We do need the workers, after all.h
gNot as much as they need us,h Shar said tranquilly. gI know all those young men. I think theyfll be astonished at the runty crops their fields will produce next season, after they have to breed them without my advice. Now, how many volunteers have you got for the crew of the ship?h
gHundreds. Every youngster of the generation after Philfs wants to go along. Philfs wrong about that segment of the populace, at least. The project catches the imagination of the very young.h
gDid you give them any encouragement?h
gSure,h Lavon said. gI told them wefd call on them if they were chosen. But you canft take that seriously! Wefd do badly to displace our picked group of specialists with youths who have enthusiasm and nothing else.h
gThatfs not what I had in mind, Lavon. Didnft I see a Noc in these chambers somewhere? Oh, there he is, asleep in the dome. Noc!h
The creature stirred its tentacle lazily.
gNoc, Ifve a message,h Shar called. gThe protos are to tell all men that those who wish to go to the next world with the spaceship must come to the staging area right away. Say that we canft promise to take everyone, but that only those who help us to build the ship will be considered at all.h
The Noc curled its tentacle again, and appeared to go back to sleep.
~ * ~
Lavon turned from the arrangement of speaking-tube megaphones which was his control board and looked at the Para. gOne last try,h he said. gWill you give us back the history plates?h
gNo, Lavon. We have never denied you anything before, but this we must.h
gYoufre going with us though, Para. Unless you give us back the knowledge we need, youfll lose your life if we lose ours.h
gWhat is one Para?h the creature said. gWe are all alike. This cell will die; but the protos need to know how you fare on this journey. We believe you should make it without the plates, for in no other way can we assess the real importance of the plates.h
gThen you admit you still have them. What if you canft communicate with your fellows once wefre out in space? How do you know that water isnft essential to your telepathy?h
The proto was silent. Lavon stared at it a moment, then turned deliberately back to the speaking tubes. gEveryone hang on,h he said. He felt shaky. gWefre about to start. Stravol, is the ship sealed?h
gAs far as I can tell, Lavon.h
Lavon shifted to another megaphone. He took a deep breath. Already the water seemed stifling, although the ship hadnft moved.
gReady with one-quarter power ... One, two, three, go.h
The whole ship jerked and settled back into place again. The raphe diatoms along the under hull settled into their niches, their jelly treads turning against broad endless belts of crude nematode leather. Wooden gears creaked, stepping up the slow power of the creatures, transmitting it to the sixteen axles of the shipfs wheels.
The ship rocked and began to roll slowly along the sandbar. Lavon looked tensely through the mica port. The world flowed painfully past him. The ship canted and began to climb the slope. Behind him, he could feel the electric silence of Shar, Para, and the two alternate pilots, Than and Stravol, as if their gaze were stabbing directly through his body and on out the port. The world looked different, now that he was leaving it. How had he missed all this beauty before?
The slapping of the endless belts and the squeaking and groaning of the gears and axles grew louder as the slope steepened. The ship continued to climb, lurching. Around it, squadrons of men and protos dipped and wheeled, escorting it toward the sky.
Gradually the sky lowered and pressed down toward the top of the ship.
gA little more work from your diatoms, Tanol,h Lavon said. gBoulder ahead.h The ship swung ponderously. gAll right, slow them up again. Give us a shove from your side, Tol—no, thatfs too much—there, thatfs it. Back to normal; youfre still turning us! Tanol, give us one burst to line us up again. Good. All right, steady drive on all sides. It shouldnft be long now.h
gHow can you think in webs like that?h the Para wondered behind him.
gI just do, thatfs all. Itfs the way men think. Overseers, a little more thrust now; the gradefs getting steeper.h
The gears groaned. The ship nosed up. The sky brightened in Lavonfs face. Despite himself, he began to be frightened. His lungs seemed to burn, and in his mind he felt his long fall through nothingness toward the chill slap of the water as if he were experiencing it for the first time. His skin itched and burned. Could he go up there again? Up there into the burning void, the great gasping agony where no life should go?
The sandbar began to level out and the going became a little easier. Up here, the sky was so close that the lumbering motion of the huge ship disturbed it. Shadows of wavelets ran across the sand. Silently, the thick-barreled bands of blue-green algae drank in the light and converted it to oxygen, writhing in their slow mindless dance just under the long mica skylight which ran along the spine of the ship. In the hold, beneath the latticed corridor and cabin floors, whirring Vortae kept the shipfs water in motion, fueling themselves upon drifting organic particles.
One by one, the figures wheeling about the ship outside waved arms or cilia and fell back, coasting down the slope of the sandbar toward the familiar world, dwindling and disappearing. There was at last only one single Euglena, half-plant cousin of the protos, forging along beside the spaceship into the marches of the shallows. It loved the light, but finally it, too, was driven away into deeper, cooler waters, its single whiplike tentacle undulating placidly as it went. It was not very bright, but Lavon felt deserted when it left.
Where they were going, though, none could follow.
Now the sky was nothing but a thin, resistant skin of water coating the top of the ship. The vessel slowed, and when Lavon called for more power, it began to dig itself in among the sand-grains and boulders.
gThatfs not going to work,h Shar said tensely. gI think wefd better step down the gear-ratio, Lavon, so you can apply stress more slowly.h
gAll right,h Lavon agreed. gFull stop, everybody. Shar, will you supervise gear-changing, please?h
Insane brilliance of empty space looked Lavon full in the face just beyond his big mica bullfs-eye. It was maddening to be forced to stop here upon the threshold of infinity; and it was dangerous, too. Lavon could feel building in him the old fear of the outside. A few moments more of inaction, he knew with a gathering coldness at the pit of his stomach, and he would be unable to go through with it.
Surely, he thought, there must be a better way to change gear-ratios than the traditional one, which involved dismantling almost the entire gear-box. Why couldnft a number of gears of different sizes be carried on the same shaft, not necessarily all in action all at once, but awaiting use simply by shoving the axle back and forth longitudinally in its sockets? It would still be clumsy, but it could be worked on orders from the bridge and would not involve shutting down the entire machine—and throwing the new pilot into a blue-green funk.
Shar came lunging up through the trap and swam himself to a stop.
gAll set,h he said. gThe big reduction gears arenft taking the strain too well, though.h
gYes. Ifd go it slow at first.h
Lavon nodded mutely. Without allowing himself to stop, even for a moment, to consider the consequences of his words, he called: gHalf power.h
The ship hunched itself down again and began to move, very slowly indeed, but more smoothly than before. Overhead, the sky thinned to complete transparency. The great light came blasting in. Behind Lavon there was an uneasy stir. The whiteness grew at the front ports.
Again the ship slowed, straining against the blinding barrier. Lavon swallowed and called for more power. The ship groaned like something about to die. It was now almost at a standstill.
gMore power,h Lavon ground out.
Once more, with infinite slowness; the ship began to move. Gently, it tilted upward.
Then it lunged forward and every board and beam in it began to squall.
Lavon started sharply at the shout. The voice was coming at him from one of the megaphones, the one marked for the port at the rear of the ship.
gWhat is it? Stop your damn yelling.h
gI can see the top of the sky! From the other side, from the top side! Itfs like a big flat sheet of metal. Wefre going away from it. Wefre above the sky, Lavon, wefre above the sky!h
Another violent start swung Lavon around toward the forward port. On the outside of the mica, the water was evaporating with shocking swiftness, taking with it strange distortions and patterns made of rainbows.
Lavon saw Space.
~ * ~
It was at first like a deserted and cruelly dry version of the bottom. There were enormous boulders, great cliffs, tumbled, split, riven, jagged rocks going up and away in all directions, as if scattered at random by some giant.
But it had a sky of its own—a deep blue dome so far away that he could not believe in, let alone compute, what its distance might be. And in this dome was a ball of reddish fire that seared his eyeballs.
The wilderness of rock was still a long way away from the ship, which now seemed to be resting upon a level, glistening plain. Beneath the surface-shine, the plain seemed to be made of sand, nothing but familiar sand, the same substance which had heaped up to form a bar in Lavonfs own universe, the bar along which the ship had climbed. But the glassy, colorful skin over it—
Suddenly Lavon became conscious of another shout from the megaphone banks. He shook his head savagely and asked, gWhat is it now?h
gLavon, this is Tol. What have you gotten us into? The belts are locked. The diatoms canft move them. They arenft faking, either; wefve rapped them hard enough to make them think we were trying to break their shells, but they still canft give us more power.h
gLeave them alone,h Lavon snapped. gThey canft fake; they havenft enough intelligence. If they say they canft give you more power, they canft.h
gWell, then, you get us out of it,h Tolfs voice said frightenedly.
Shar came forward to Lavonfs elbow. gWefre on a space-water interface, where the surface tension is very high,h he said softly. gThis is why I insisted on our building the ship so that we could lift the wheels off the ground whenever necessary. For a long while I couldnft understand the reference of the history plates to eretractable landing gear,f but it finally occurred to me that the tension along a space-water interface—or, to be more exact, a space-mud interface—would hold any large object pretty tightly. If you order the wheels pulled up now, I think wefll make better progress for a while on the belly-treads.h
gGood enough,h Lavon said. gHello below—up landing gear. Evidently the ancients knew their business after all, Shar.h
Quite a few minutes later—for shifting power to the belly treads involved another setting of the gear box—the ship was crawling along the shore toward the tumbled rock. Anxiously, Lavon scanned the jagged, threatening wall for a break. There was a sort of rivulet off toward the left which might offer a route, though a dubious one, to the next world. After some thought, Lavon ordered his ship turned toward it.
gDo you suppose that thing in the sky is a estarf?h he asked. gBut there were supposed to be lots of them. Only one is up there—and onefs plenty for my taste.h
gI donft know,h Shar admitted. gBut Ifm beginning to get a picture of the way the universe is made, I think. Evidently our world is a sort of cup in the bottom of this huge one. This one has a sky of its own; perhaps it, too, is only a cup in the bottom of a still huger world, and so on and on without end. Itfs a hard concept to grasp, Ifll admit. Maybe it would be more sensible to assume that all the worlds are cups in this one common surface, and that the great light shines on them all impartially.h
gThen what makes it seem to go out every night, and dim even in the day during winter?h Lavon demanded.
gPerhaps it travels in circles, over first one world, then another. How could I know yet?h
gWell, if youfre right, it means that all we have to do is crawl along here for a while, until we hit the top of the sky of another world,h Lavon said. gThen we dive in. Somehow it seems too simple, after all our preparations.h
Shar chuckled, but the sound did not suggest that he had discovered anything funny. gSimple? Have you noticed the temperature yet?h
Lavon had noticed it, just beneath the surface of awareness, but at Sharfs remark he realized that he was gradually being stifled. The oxygen content of the water, luckily, had not dropped, but the temperature suggested the shallows in the last and worst part of autumn. It was like trying to breathe soup.
gThan, give us more action from the Vortae,h Lavon said. gThis is going to be unbearable unless we get more circulation.h
There was a reply from Than, but it came to Lavonfs ears only as a mumble. It was all he could do now to keep his attention on the business of steering the ship.
The cut or defile in the scattered razor-edged rocks, was a little closer, but there still seemed to be many miles of rough desert to cross. After a while the ship settled into a steady, painfully slow crawling, with less pitching and jerking than before, but also with less progress. Under it, there was now a sliding, grinding sound, rasping against the hull of the ship itself, as if it were treadmilling over some coarse lubricant the particles of which were each as big as a manfs head.
Finally Shar said, gLavon, wefll have to stop again. The sand this far up is dry, and wefre wasting energy using the treads.h •
gAre you sure we can take it?h Lavon asked, gasping for breath. gAt least we are moving. If we stop to lower the wheels and change gears again, wefll boil.h
gWefll boil if we donft,h Shar said calmly. gSome of our algae are dead already and the rest are withering. Thatfs a pretty good sign that we canft take much more. I donft think wefll make it into the shadows, unless we do change over and put on some speed.h
There was a gulping sound from one of the mechanics. gWe ought to turn back,h he said raggedly. gWe were never meant to be out here in the first place. We were made for the water, not for this hell.h
gWefll stop,h Lavon said, gbut wefre not turning back. Thatfs final.h
The words made a brave sound, but the man had upset Lavon more than he dared to admit, even to himself. gShar,h he said, gmake it fast, will you?h
The scientist nodded and dived below.
The minutes stretched out. The great red gold globe in the sky blazed and blazed. It had moved down the sky, far down, so that the light was pouring into the ship directly in Lavonfs face, illuminating every floating particle, its rays like long milky streamers. The currents of water passing Lavonfs cheek were almost hot.
How could they dare go directly forward into that inferno? The land directly under the gstarh must be even hotter than it was here!
gLavon! Look at Para!h
Lavon forced himself to turn and look at his proto ally. The great slipper had settled to the deck, where it was lying with only a feeble pulsation of its cilia. Inside, its vacuoles were beginning to swell, to become bloated, pear-shaped bubbles, crowding the granulated protoplasm, pressing upon the dark nuclei.
gIs ... is he dying?h
gThis cell is dying,h Para said, as coldly as always. gBut go on—go on. There is much to learn, and you may live, even though we do not. Go on.h
gYoufre—for us now?h Lavon whispered.
gWe have always been for you. Push your folly to the uttermost. We will benefit in the end, and so will Man.h
The whisper died away. Lavon called the creature again, but it did not respond.
There was a wooden clashing from below, and then Sharfs voice came tinnily from one of the megaphones. gLavon, go ahead! The diatoms are dying, too, and then wefll be without power. Make it as quickly and directly as you can.h
Grimly, Lavon leaned forward. gThe estarf is directly over the land wefre approaching.h
gIt is? It may go lower still and the shadows will get longer. Thatfs our only hope.h
Lavon had not thought of that. He rasped into the banked megaphones. Once more, the ship began to move, a little faster now, but still seemingly at a crawl. The thirty-two wheels rumbled.
It got hotter.
Steadily, with a perceptible motion, the gstarh sank in Lavonfs face. Suddenly a new terror struck him. Suppose it should continue to go down until it was gone entirely? Blasting though it was now, it was the only source of heat. Would not space become bitter cold on the instant—and the ship an expanding, bursting block of ice?
The shadows lengthened menacingly, stretching across the desert toward the forward-rolling vessel. There was no talking in the cabin, just the sound of ragged breathing and the creaking of the machinery.
Then the jagged horizon seemed to rush upon them. Stony teeth cut into the lower rim of the ball of fire, devoured it swiftly. It was gone.
They were in the lee of the cliffs.
Lavon ordered the ship turned to parallel the rock-line; it responded heavily, sluggishly. Far above, the sky deepened steadily, from blue to indigo.
Shar came silently up through the trap and stood beside Lavon, studying that deepening color and the lengthening of the shadows down the beach toward their world. He said nothing, but Lavon was sure that the same chilling thought was in his mind.
Lavon jumped. Sharfs voice had iron in it. gYes?h
gWefll have to keep moving. We must make the next world, wherever it is, very shortly.h
gHow can we dare move when we canft see where wefre going? Why not sleep it over—if the cold will let us?h
gIt will let us,h Shar said. gIt canft get dangerously cold up here. If it did, the sky—or what we used to think of as the sky—would have frozen over every night, even in summer. But what Ifm thinking about is the water. The plants will go to sleep now. In our world that wouldnft matter; the supply of oxygen there is enough to last through the night. But in this confined space, with so many creatures in it and no supply of fresh water, we will probably smother.h
Shar seemed hardly to be involved at all, but spoke rather with the voice of implacable physical laws.
gFurthermore,h he said, staring unseeingly out at the raw landscape, gthe diatoms are plants, too. In other words, we must stay on the move for as long as we have oxygen and power—and pray that we make it.h
gShar, we had quite a few protos on board this ship once. And Para there isnft quite dead yet. If he were, the cabin would be intolerable. The ship is nearly sterile of bacteria, because all the protos have been eating them as a matter of course and therefs no outside supply of them, any more than there is for oxygen. But still and all there would have been some decay.h
Shar bent and tested the pellicle of the motionless Para with a probing finger. gYoufre right, hefs still alive. What does that prove?h
gThe Vortae are also alive; I can feel the water circulating. Which proves that it wasnft the heat that hurt Para. It was the light. Remember how badly my skin was affected after I climbed beyond the sky? Undiluted starlight is deadly. We should add that to the information from the plates.h
gI still donft get the point.h
gItfs this. Wefve got three or four Noc down below. They were shielded from the light, and so must be alive. If we concentrate them in the diatom galleys, the dumb diatoms will think itfs still daylight and will go on working. Or we can concentrate them up along the spine of the ship, and keep the algae putting out oxygen. So the question is: which do we need more, oxygen or power? Or can we split the difference?h
Shar actually grinned. gA brilliant piece of thinking. We may make a Shar of you yet, Lavon. No, Ifd say that we canft split the difference. Therefs something about daylight, some quality, that the light Noc emits doesnft have. You and I canft detect it, but the green plants can, and without it they donft make oxygen. So wefll have to settle for the diatoms—for power.h
gAll right. Set it up that way, Shar.h
Lavon brought the vessel away from the rocky lee of the cliff, out onto the smoother sand. All trace of direct light was gone now, although there was still a soft, general glow on the sky.
gNow then,h Shar said thoughtfully, gI would guess that therefs water over there in the canyon, if we can reach it. Ifll go below again and arrange—h
gWhatfs the matter?h
Silently, Lavon pointed, his heart pounding.
The entire dome of indigo above them was spangled with tiny, incredibly brilliant lights. There were hundreds of them, and more and more were becoming visible as the darkness deepened. And far away, over the ultimate edge of the rocks, was a dim red globe, crescented with ghostly silver. Near the zenith was another such body, much smaller, and silvered all over ...
Under the two moons of Hydrot, and under the eternal stars, the two-inch wooden spaceship and its microscopic cargo toiled down the slope toward the drying little rivulet.
~ * ~
The ship rested on the bottom of the canyon for the rest of the night. The great square doors were thrown open to admit the raw, irradiated, life-giving water from outside—and the wriggling bacteria which were fresh food.
No other creatures approached them, either with curiosity or with predatory intent, while they slept, although Lavon had posted guards at the doors. Evidently, even up here on the very floor of space, highly organized creatures were quiescent at night.
But when the first flush of light filtered through the water, trouble threatened.
First of all, there was the bug-eyed monster. The thing was green and had two snapping claws, either one of which could have broken the ship in two like a spyrogyra straw. Its eyes were black and globular, on the ends of short columns, and its long feelers were as thick through as a plant-bole. It passed in a kicking fury of motion, however, never noticing the ship at all.
gIs that—a sample of the kind of life we can expect in the next world?h Lavon whispered. Nobody answered, for the very good reason that nobody knew.
After a while, Lavon risked moving the ship forward against the current, which was slow but heavy. Enormous writhing worms, far bigger than the nematodes of home, whipped past them. One struck the hull a heavy blow, then thrashed on obliviously.
gThey donft notice us,h Shar said. gWefre too small. Lavon, the ancients warned us of the immensity of space, but even when you see it, itfs impossible to grasp. And all those stars—can they mean what I think they mean? Itfs beyond thought, beyond belief!h
gThe bottomfs sloping,h Lavon said, looking ahead intently. gThe walls of the canyon are retreating, and the waterfs becoming rather silty. Let the stars wait, Shar; wefre coming toward the entrance of our new world.h
Shar subsided moodily. His vision of space had disturbed him, perhaps seriously. He took little notice of the great thing that was happening, but instead huddled worriedly over his own expanding speculations. Lavon felt the old gap between their two minds widening once more.
Now the bottom was tilting upward again. Lavon had no experience with delta-formation, for no rivulets left his own world, and the phenomenon worried him. But his worries were swept away in wonder as the ship topped the rise and nosed over.
Ahead, the bottom sloped away again, indefinitely, into glimmering depths. A proper sky was over them once more, and Lavon could see small rafts of plankton floating placidly beneath it. Almost at once, too, he saw several of the smaller kinds of protos, a few of which were already approaching the ship—
Then the girl came darting out of the depths, her features blurred and distorted with distance and terror. At first she did not seem to see the ship at all. She came twisting and turning lithely through the water, obviously hoping only to throw herself over the mound of the delta and into the savage streamlet beyond.
Lavon was stunned. Not that there were men here— he had hoped for that, had even known somehow that men were everywhere in the universe—but at the girlfs single-minded flight toward suicide.
Then a dim buzzing began to grow in his ears, and he understood.
gShar! Than! Stravol!h he bawled. gBreak out crossbows and spears! Knock out all the windows!h He lifted a foot and kicked through the big bullfs-eye port in front of him. Someone thrust a crossbow into his hand.
gEh? Whatfs happening?h Shar blurted.
The cry went through the ship like a galvanic shock. The rotifers back in Lavonfs own world were virtually extinct, but everyone knew thoroughly the grim history of the long battle man and proto had waged against them.
The girl spotted the ship suddenly and paused, obviously stricken with despair at the sight of the new monster. She drifted with her own momentum, her eyes alternately fixed upon the ship and jerking back over her shoulder, toward where the buzzing snarled louder and louder in the dimness.
gDonft stop!h Lavon shouted. gThis way, this way! Wefre friends! Wefll help!h
Three great semi-transparent trumpets of smooth flesh bored over the rise, the many thick cilia of their coronas whirring greedily. Dicrans—the most predacious of the entire tribe of Eaters. They were quarreling thickly among themselves as they moved, with the few blurred, pre-symbolic noises which made up their glanguage.h
Carefully, Lavon wound the crossbow, brought it to his shoulder, and fired. The bolt sang away through the water. It lost momentum rapidly, and was caught by a stray current which brought it closer to the girl than to the Eater at which Lavon had aimed.
He bit his lip, lowered the weapon, wound it up again. It did not pay to underestimate the range; he would have to wait until he could fire with effect. Another bolt, cutting through the water from a side port, made him issue orders to cease firing.
The sudden irruption of the rotifers decided the girl. The motionless wooden monster was strange to her, but it had not yet menaced her—and she must have known what it would be like to have three Dicrans over her, each trying to grab away from the others the largest share. She threw herself toward the bullfs-eye port. The three Eaters screamed with fury and greed and bored in after her.
She probably would not have made it, had not the dull vision of the lead Dicran made out the wooden shape of the ship at the last instant. It backed off, buzzing, and the other two sheered away to avoid colliding with it. After that they had another argument, though they could hardly have formulated what it was that they were fighting about. They were incapable of saying anything much more complicated than the equivalent of gYaah,h gDrop dead,h and gYoufre another.h
While they were still snarling at each other, Lavon pierced the nearest one all the way through with an arbalesk bolt. It disintegrated promptly—rotifers are delicately organized creatures despite their ferocity—and the surviving two were at once involved in a lethal battle over the remains.
gThan, take a party out and spear me those two Eaters while theyfre still fighting,h Lavon ordered. gDonft forget to destroy their eggs, too. I can see that this world needs a little taming.h
The girl shot through the port and brought up against the far wall of the cabin, flailing in terror. Lavon tried to approach her, but from somewhere she produced a flake of stonewort chipped to a nasty point. Since she was naked, it was hard to tell where she had been hiding it, but its purpose was plain. Lavon retreated and sat down on the stool before his control board, waiting while she took in the cabin, Lavon, Shar, the other pilots, the senescent Para.
At last she said: gAre—you—the gods—from beyond the sky?h
gWefre from beyond the sky, all right,h Lavon said. gBut wefre not gods. Wefre human beings, just like you. Are there many humans here?h
The girl seemed to assess the situation very rapidly, savage though she was. Lavon had the odd and impossible impression that he should recognize her: a tall, deceptively relaxed, tawny young woman, someone from another world, but still ...
She tucked the knife back into her bright, matted hair— aha, Lavon thought confusedly, thatfs a trick I may need to remember—and shook her head.
gWe are few. The Eaters are everywhere. Soon they will have the last of us.h
Her fatalism was so complete that she actually did not seem to care.
gAnd youfve never co-operated against them? Or asked the protos to help?h
gThe protos?h She shrugged. gThey are as helpless as we are against the Eaters. We have no weapons which kill at a distance, like yours. And it is too late now for such weapons to do any good. We are too few, the Eaters too many.h
Lavon shook his head emphatically. gYoufve had one weapon that counts, all along. Against it, numbers mean nothing. Wefll show you how wefve used it. You may be able to use it even better than we did, once youfve given it a try.h
The girl shrugged again. gWe have dreamed of such a weapon now and then, but never found it. I do not think that what you say is true. What is this weapon?h
gBrains,h Lavon said. gNot just one brain, but brains. Working together. Co-operation.h
gLavon speaks the truth,h a weak voice said from the deck.
The Para stirred feebly. The girl watched it with wide eyes. The sound of the Para using human speech seemed to impress her more than the ship itself, or anything else it contained.
gThe Eaters can be conquered,h the thin, burring voice said. gThe protos will help, as they helped in the world from which we came. The protos fought this flight through space, and deprived Man of his records; but Man made the trip without the records. The protos will never oppose Man again. I have already spoken to the protos of this world, and have told them that what Man can dream, Man can do, whether the protos wish it or not.
gShar, your metal records are with you. They were hidden in the ship. My brothers will lead you to them.
gThis organism dies now. It dies in confidence of knowledge, as an intelligent creature dies. Man has taught us this. There is nothing that knowledge ... cannot do. With it, men ... have crossed ... have crossed space ...h
The voice whispered away. The shining slipper did not change, but something about it was gone. Lavon looked at the girl; their eyes met. He felt an unaccountable warmth.
gWe have crossed space,h Lavon repeated softly.
Sharfs voice came to him across a great distance. The young-old man was whispering: gBut—have we?h
Lavon was looking at the girl. He had no answer for Sharfs question. It did not seem to be important.