If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, a lot of knowledge can be downright terrifying.
Confused, Alex sat back on his protumous, automatically shielding his rear fighting limbs. He realized he didn't know where he was. Thinking back, he retracted and extruded his lower eyes.
He'd been at the Party; he knew that much. Singing and glorching with the best of them. But now he wasn't there. What could have happened?
Alex looked around the dingy landscape—gray and brown, slightly green at the edges. He snuffled the air. It carried interesting smells but none told him what he wanted to know. He recognized the light-between-noons that let him see even farther than usual. Under him the ground was soft, but most ground softened when he sat on it. And the air felt hot—yes, the hot-between-noons. That agreed with the light. But something was wrong. Where was the Party?
Alex ran a claw through the stippled fur of his center forelimb, noticing that instinct had brought drops of multipoison to the tips of claws and fangs.
Then he saw it: the Horizon!
It was wrong. But the fact that it was so close; that was normal for a horizon. But it shouldn't be there at all! Alex puzzled and found one of his throats making a snarl. Something was wrong with his memories; he didn't know where he was, and what was the horizon doing there? He hadn't seen the horizon for a long time ... very long. That could be a bad sign.
At the Party there was no horizon; there was—what? Trees? Yes, vine trees, thorny vine trees thickly entwined and protective. The prickly barrier kept the Party in one place so nobody got lost—well, not until now, anyway. It kept out the Hoojies, too. Hoojies were all well and good in their own way, but they did spoil a Party.
It can't always be dinner time.
Alex lifted himself far enough to turn, and there, not two jumps away, he saw a tree. Not a vine tree but one of the good kind; its scratchy trunk carried no thorns or poisons. This tree had many uses: to sharpen claws, tone up the fighting limbs, wet on, or scratch against and rub the burrs out of hair and fur. It was no use for dinner, but its leafy branches could hide leftover Hoojie until the next hunger time.
Out of habit, Alex irrigated the tree.
Where were all the Hoojies? -
As Today's Speaker, Hugh Scott had carried that responsibility for many cycles. Today he felt this weight with a special poignancy. At midpoint between noons when the red heat of Heaven's Lamps had deliquesced his dawn height down to two-thirds of its morning firmness, he found his duties more than irksome. By evening he'd be little taller than a squish. This was no day to have any reminder of a squish—but thus it was in the hot season, even here in the safe shielding of his Family hut.
The three he had sent on their perilous mission to the Alexii stockade had not returned. Lonesome, he grumbled a bit; low-frequency echoes thrummed around the hut, kicking up wisps of dust. The flame wavered in the tiny lamp of gremp oil; it made moving shadows which reminded him of gruesome things.
Lonesome ... lonesome ... All his dear companions, the mates who shared hut safety with him, were absent: Elizabeth the female, Wheelchair the ultra, and Jimcrack the squish—all out there on dangerous duty. Dangerous but necessary ...
If only two of them were here! Any three together in hut safety and privacy could warple. To warple now—that was Hugh's greatest desire. He felt the characteristic weftance bodily response. Ahhhh, nothing like a warple to drive away gruesome thoughts ... even when it produced a squish.
But that was the problem: too many squishes already. This crisis had sent Elizabeth, Wheelchair and Jimcrack to the Alexii stockade.
Hugh sighed. The breath whiffled through the foliage around his under-limb openings. Four of the openings, at least. The fifth was partially plugged by a catarrhal infection, one more legacy from the departed Terrans. Such amusing names the Terrans had, but ... ahhh, well ...
He ventured to the door, unbarred and opened it, peered out.
A sleek, tall ultra wandered past.
Hugh stared after her. If only the Terrans had not imposed their moral strictures as well as their language upon Hugh's people. The oldsters now claimed that an incomplete warple was no warple at all, and a hazard to one's health. Perhaps, but with an ultra such as that one ...
A familiar noise ended Hugh's fantasies. There came Doctor Watson, clattering as usual, his metal carapace glistening redly in the light. Doctor Watson moved on wheels nearly hidden beneath the skirts of his carapace, his usual means of locomotion on the packed earth between the domed village huts. Doctor Watson's protruding antennae turned to indicate that he had seen and identified his target—Today's Speaker.
Hugh Scott prepared to try to explain things, to answer questions he knew he would not understand very well. His underlimb openings vibrated with low-frequency protests. What did Doctor Watson expect from a ten-year-old? - MEMO FOR CHARLES VORPEL: EYES ONLY
Okay, Charlie, here's the data you requested. It should cover our collective ass. We've already protested aborting the mission and that's on record. You should have enough here to hang the snafu (if it comes out the way we expect) on those quibblers at Headquarters. Read and wail:
If the contact team's guess is right (and you know the odds as well as I do), the most intelligent species here on Delfa is in deep trouble. My observations confirm the following: Delfans have four sexes—male, female, ultra and squish. (Trying to translate sounds that go both ways out of our hearing range and which may be accented by odors, that's the best we could come up with. See the attached holoscans.) Any three of those four sexes can breed together, and the result is always an offspring of the fourth sex—the one not in the warple. (Well, it sounds like warple. Let us have a little humor; that's about all we get in some of these foul-up operations.) Yes, I've heard the rumor that we put this tag on their sexual acrobatics. And at the same time some horse's ass politico was crying that we'd forced the Delfans to take Terran names. We did not do that! They did it on their own. One of them even adopted my name.
Anyway, the problem here is positive feedback. We don't know precisely why (and being pulled out prematurely, we're not going to pin it down) but periodically the breeding pattern goes crazy and one sex of offspring dominates. This raises hell with local society. Imagine a small human colony with a five-to-one sex imbalance in births and a code of rigid monogamy. That's not quite the situation but it's close.
As usual, nature provided an antidote. In this case, my distinguished ivory-skulled predecessor took the Delfans' word that the major predator here needed extermination. The big five-star poop damn near made it, but he took so many losses that HQ pulled him out. When I took over, there were two hundred and sixteen Alexii (the predators) left alive. In view of the subsequent order for us to bug out, the survival of those two hundred and sixteen Alexii was our lucky break.
I doubt that you've scanned the Alexii data, Charlie. I know how busy you are. For starters, the name apparently is what they call themselves. It's on the one intact set of holotapes we recovered. We couldn't ask the cameraman because an Alex ate him. Don't bother to punch up the Alexii language; it's either very complex or else they make a few meaningful noises and a lot of random ones. We have a few words and some gestures but that's all. The Alexii term for Delfans is "Hoojies," for example. (Get the tape on 'Excretion Rites' if you want the origin of the label.)
Right now would be a good time for you to refer to your index and punch up one of my holoscans on Alexii. It's shudder time, Charlie. Those things are the closest to an ultimate predator that we've ever found. A full grown Alex masses nearly six hundred kilos and is a match for a full squad of armored Gyrenes. Why do you think my predecessors on Delfa sent in such a pile of casualty reports?
The Alexii are long-lived, according to the Delfans—perhaps more than two hundred standards. (Delfa's year comes to two point one six standards.)
While you have my holoscans in your viewer, notice the claws and fangs. They can extrude various nasty substances, some of which are merely painful, but some paralyze and some probably kill. I qualify that last because if an Alex kills you, there's usually not much left to analyze.
Look at the rear view: those rear fighting limbs reach out almost three meters—front, back or sideways—and the barbed tips pull you in where the other limbs can work on you. The only way we found to stop them was to cook their guts with concentrated microbeams. As you know, that can take a while, so it didn't always save our people. I expect you've had access to the real casualty reports before they were whittled down for the official announcements. I personally saw Caplan buy it—halfway up the ramp into the ship, but he wasn't fast enough and neither was his projector. I still have nightmares.
You see the picture. Still, our four-sexed Delfans need the Alexii. Which is why I ignored the orders left by my predecessor. Here's what I've done: I set up one (1) barricaded enclave of Alexii. I got them in there by playing a hunch. The first field reports hinted at an interesting Alexii susceptibility to alcohol. I never saw a ship on which the cooks didn't have a stash of booze-vines; so I went upship and 'requisitioned' a supply of the vine and had it planted to bait a stockade. Within a week, I had all two hundred and sixteen Alexii inside, and they're still in—most of the time.
Here's how it works: Delfans shack up four to a hut, one of each sex, and they only warple indoors. Excess population lives outside, unprotected. When sex imbalance gets out of hand—well, the Delfan Head Cheese has been indoctrinated on how to release temporarily one (only one!) Alex from the stockade. The liberated Alex eats the surplus Delfans before he sobers up all the way, at which point he heads back to the stockade for the continuous booze party.
Sounds rough, I know. So does Terran history. Don't judge.
It's a balance wheel of sorts.
We're leaving behind one guard robot, Intelligence Grade L27, suitably programmed to aid the Delfans. If anybody objects to the cost, we can bury this guard robot in the previous reports. We lost one expensive lot of guard robots to Alexii before we got those leaping horrors safely behind the barricade.
The Delfans have tagged our robot Doctor Watson, and I wish that didn't bother me. I don't like it when people I don't understand do things I can't figure for reasons that escape me—especially when it smacks of trying to butter me up. For instance, why did the head honcho take my name? But what the hell, we're pulling out as ordered and then it'll be somebody else's problem. Believe me, Charlie, I'm never coming back here even if I have to resign.
Register a pause, Charlie. We're lifted, going into noncommunicative speed shortly. What with the back-warp, I hope to see you at last year's Grunnion Club banquet. From what I've heard, it was a doozy. Regards and all that, Hugh Scott, Captain -
Alex felt sleepy. That meant he'd already had dinner—if everything else inside him was working right. He couldn't be sure. Where was the gradischmakus Party? He found an intertwined clump of trees big enough to support him, and climbed to a level where the soft leaf-pads protected him from thorns. There, he stretched out to doze and think.
Presently, he remembered something. The memory brought him out of his doze, all eyes extended, blinking. He had missed his birthday! He was five legs of legs years old—give or take the odd few—and today the Party was for him. Some of the elders had even discussed trying to break out through the thorn barriers, leave the Party for a time!, and eat a few Hoojies to celebrate.
I missed my own Party!
He'd been there—he knew that. But things had never reached a ... reached a ...
What went wrong?
Alex dug angry claw gouges in his trees.
What happened at the Party?
Presently, he settled back, chewing his tongues to get out the juicy grubs. As he did this, he noticed an odd flavor—odd, but familiar. All of this ... being away and forgetting—this had happened before. He sat up, stirring the trees all the way to the ground. Alex couldn't remember much about the other times, but this one ... ayah! This was a different matter.
The gremp trees with their interlaced thorny vines enclosing the Party, the gremp were hard and bitter, not good to eat. Except when Hoojies came and sprayed something on the gremp. The tree vines then became soft and delicious. You could eat your way right through the vines to the outside, provided you did it fast before the vines returned to their usual bitter hardness.
Now, Alex began to remember other things—not just Hoojies and eating his way through the gremp, but long before that: eating Hoojies whenever he got hungry.
Why didn't I remember that earlier?
Another thing: This time the gremp had not been as soft and flavorful. Alex had barely managed to chew his way out; but there'd been three Hoojies out there tripling and he'd eaten all three. Good Hoojies. Too bad there'd been one flavor missing.
While Alex dozed and thought, darkness came; then, later, it was morning. Alex clawed and slid his way down to the ground, his mind full of remembrance. He knew where the Party was.
That's where I belong. - RECORDING, RECORDING, RECORDING. This is Artificial Intelligence Unit, Mobile, FX-248. Query: directed to the unknown ship relieving the one which stationed me here. The natives of this planet refer to me as Doctor Watson. Am I to consider this an official sobriquet? If not, must I suffice myself with FX-248, which is not particularly euphonious? Et tu, Captain Hugh Scott wherever you are. You could have briefed me more thoroughly, for which I refer you to Field Order DZR00039! -
Moving through the village, Today's Speaker noted a hut not firmly anchored to the earth. Sloppy work. Disdainfully he brushed through a crowd of excess squish. They pandled their pompues and even dared to touch him. "I am Hugh Scott, Today's Speaker!" he sounded. "Away! Get away!"
They drew back, but returned in a few moments. Disgusting! Instinct drew them; he knew that, but their behavior still repelled him. Right out here in the open!
Earlier, Hugh had been impatient with Doctor Watson. What difference did a name make? You were squish, ultra, female or male. Odor marks accented the distinction. Terrans had been poor at distinguishing odors; they couldn't even weft. Even Doctor Watson, now approaching Hugh, shared this handicap.
Hugh stopped and waited for the shiny creature to work its way through the milling, importunate squish. The morning temperature had begun to shift across his deliquescing line and he could feel himself shrinking.
Doctor Watson stopped in front of him.
"I say; what horg?" Hugh asked.
"These," said Doctor Watson.
With a clatter, Doctor Watson held out three white objects: one a tiny fang shape, one fat and with indentations around its middle, and the third—oh, the third!—a little hoop with prickle gristle still adhering to it.
"I found these outside the Alexii stockade. They are yours, are they not?"
Hugh grinked with despair. Telltale burbles emerged from his hearing organs and he knew with shame that all the village could see his grief. Even the squish drew back. He wanted to shout: "No!" But there was no denying it: Doctor Watson held the bones of Hugh's hutmates: Elizabeth, Wheelchair and Jimcrack. The Alexii had eaten them.
Stifling his turmoil, Hugh accepted the three bones from Doctor Watson. Sorrow urged him to find an Alex and die as his hutmates had died; then there would be four bones to share the Odorless Dark. Duty sustained him. He glanced up at Heaven's Lamps. Yes—it was time for Today's Speaker to perform his First Duty. With a simultaneous inhalation, Hugh took five breaths (four clear and one whuffly), then trumpeted:
Obediently, the hutless squish scattered into the surrounding foliage while the villagers dispersed to the latrines within their huts.
First Duty performed, Hugh entered his empty hut. He felt the depths of bereavement here. Who had ever heard of doing this alone ... unless one were hutless? - RECORDING: I proceed expeditiously in the manner of Captain Hugh Scott, who deposited me here in Delfa before I was called Doctor Watson. That also was before the Delfan who titles himself Today's Speaker assumed the name Hugh Scott, a fact which I append to avoid confusing the recipient of this RECORD, whoever he may be. Or she may be. Humans, lacking the ultra and squish sexes, programmed me to find ulself and squelf to be awkward pronouns. I rather find this to be awkward programming which should be corrected. Now, regarding the current status of the Delfan Population Plan: After inspecting the sample village this morning (hour 8:21 Local Day 1332) I visited the Alexii stockade. The Alexii Party was proceeding with its usual noises. As per my directives, I fertilized and tended the mutated vines whose tendrils, growing profusely into the stockade, provide an alcohol laden balanced nutrition for the Alexii. The vines were healthy and required little attention. The thorn trunks which form the actual stockade barrier were all secure. As required when the light level reaches Intensity 8/7, I took the census: there are still two hundred and sixteen Alexii, the same number originally trapped in the stockade. The stockade count was two hundred and fifteen, one Alex having been released by the natives to deal with an excess population of squish. Observing this, I retired to my hiding place. (Reference D-l details the dangers of exposing oneself to an Alex.) While departing the stockade, I came upon an abandoned cart. This cart supported the tank from which the natives spray the gremp wood barrier around the stockade, temporarily releasing an Alex—a procedure in which they have been thoroughly coached. I found the spray nozzle defective and approximately half the tank's contents not expended. Near the cart, I found three bones, one each from a native female, an ultra and a squish. Summation: the natives, obedient to their population duties, correctly sprayed the gremp and one Alex, the natives being well aware that their spray not only softens the gremp but that it also creates almost total amnesia in an Alex who is showered with the same liquid. Probability point nine four that the three deceased natives encountered another side effect of the softening agent: namely, that when they inhale the spray it acts as an aphrodisiac. (REMINDER: Instruct natives always to spray downwind.) Doubtless, the liberated Alex came upon the natives while they were tripling and helpless. On my way to my Alexii-proof hiding place, I returned the bones to Today's Speaker for proper ceremonial disposal. His grief leads me to deduce that the deceased were his hutmates, but it is noteworthy that he still performed his latrine-call duty. I am now secure in my hiding place where the far-sensors report the liberated Alex approaching the village. The squish problem will soon be eliminated. I prepare to operate the stockade's trip gate by remote control, returning the Alex to his entrapment when his memory recovers sufficiently for him to find his way back and howl to be readmitted. -
There's something wrong with my memory, Alex told himself. That's why I'm lost.
The memory lapses angered him, and when he found himself almost into Hoojie Town he was in a fine rage. Even so, Alex hesitated. He knew that instinct had brought him here. Did he want more Hoojies now? No . there was a more important question.
What happened to my birthday party?
He turned back, loping at top speed to clear his mind and burn away the rage. The ground rumbled beneath him. Leaves and small bushes were shredded by his passage. As he leaped into a clearing, one of the short soft Hoojies entered from the other side. It was too tempting. Alex left the uneaten half Hoojie high in a tree clump to ripen before he continued toward the party, even faster now after the delay.
At the forest edge where the plain began, Alex raced out of the green shadows, his fur rippling, and there was the Party. He heard the welcome sounds but now, rage of rages, he couldn't get in! The gremp were hard, their thorns terrible, the barrier too high. And the vines didn't smell the way they did when they'd been softened and made irresistible to eat.
Something smelled that way, though.
Alex followed his sense of smell and found the thing the Hoojies used when they sprayed the gremp. It was big and it rolled on round supports. Examining the thing, Alex produced a multiple snort. The apparatus was primitive in its simplicity. Alexii had once built things which rolled on round supports. But when life was so simple, why bother?
The way this apparatus worked wasn't hard to understand. By the time he'd circled the machine twice, Alex had it all figured out. He stood on most of his hind legs, took the long pizzer and pointed it at the gremp while, with a free leg, he worked the pump handle.
Alex examined the place where the spray should come out and saw that it was dented and plugged. Those stupid Hoojies! It was laughable. It was only a moment's work for the claws of his rearmost fighting limbs to put the thing in order. He tried the pump and now the spray came out in a superbly arching stream. Alex played the stream on the gremp. Where it struck it foamed. The smell made his anterior taste buds wriggle. The gremp was so superbly delicious when this stuff sauced it. So good! But Alex refused to eat. The spray had to be what made him forget; that was the only logical answer. And Alex now had an idea he didn't want to forget.
Through the twining thorns, Alex saw the arching stream shower onto his fellow Alexii. They'd been howling at him to come in and join the Party, which was nice of them since it was his birthday.
Presently, the ones he'd sprayed began eating their way out through the gremp. The ones who'd not been caught by the spray kept yelling: "Come back! How can you eat that terrible stuff?"
Alex found this fascinating. It helped him resist the urge to join the eaters. So that was how the system worked! He put down the sprayer.
Soon, more than a legs-legs of Alexii were outside. They peered at him, hunger apparent in their extruded eyes. Alex realized that they'd smelled the spray which had blown around him and lodged in his fur. He sidled away. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea.
The others moved closer.
Alex backed away.
Necessity provided the inspiration. Alex shouted: "Hoojies!" Turning, he ran for his life.
Behind him, losing no ground, the pack bellowed.
Alex ran faster, leading the pack toward Hoojie Town. - RECORDING: Doctor Watson here (AKA FX-248). Many Alexii are loose. Remote sensors indicate that approximately one hundred Alexii are enroute to the native village. I must leave my hiding place and proceed in that direction, using all due caution, for Alexii can move much faster than a guard robot, Intelligence Grade L27. My directives produce confusion at this point. I am required to protect the natives wherever possible, but I also must safeguard my own functioning capabilities. It is not certain that I can assist the natives against Alexii; certainly this is not possible in a physical sense. Perhaps advice or distraction of Alexii will offer themselves as a means of meeting the demands of my directives. I do not know how far I may go in fulfilling the protection directive without placing myself in awkward jeopardy. -
Finishing his solitary ritual, Hugh Scott emerged from his hut and scanned the village pathways. Sadness, he told himself, must be submerged in duty. Only a few others as prompt and zealous as Today's Speaker were outside as yet to stroll the village perimeter and weft the fragrant bushes. Wefting offered a pleasant diversion to ease his bereavement. This was a pastime the Terrans had not been equipped to enjoy.
And there was the sleek ultra he'd admired earlier. He noted that ul wefted well even while fending off an importunate squish. Well ... the Alex would soon reduce that unfortunate excess. The Alex, yes.
Hugh turned back toward his hut's safety. Even the deepest sadness passed in time; there was no sense dying just yet. Best not to be out in the open for a while. He hesitated, glanced back at the ultra and the squish. What a shame if the Alex caught that exquisite ultra. He had another thought then:
An ultra and a squish ... and I would make three.
This thought brought him a sharp sense of guilt. The Terrans had said ... But there were no Terrans here now. His hutmates were dead. And he was Today's Speaker.
Hugh hurried back to the ultra who looked down at him. Damn the afternoon heat which made him so much shorter! But what a magnificent ultra! And the importunate squish still stood there somewhat awed by such exalted presences, no doubt.
Well, face it, Hugh thought. A squish is a squish.
Making the traditional gestures, Hugh said:
"My hut or yours?"
The ultra glanced at the squish, who stood looking dazed as though not believing such good fortune. But it took three to warple.
"Your hut," the ultra said and sauntered ahead, a motion which displayed the ulform at its finest. The squish imposlumed behind them at a moderate pace.
Risking censure or even rejection, Hugh tried to move them faster. Where was the Alex? The ultra would not be hurried. Anxiously, Hugh explained in a low voice that an Alex was loose. His words brought the desired speed. -
As he dashed through the clearing where he'd left the half-eaten Hoojie, Alex could hear the pack gaining on him. Well, Hoojie Town was close and with a bit of exertion he knew he could get there first. Thought of the Hoojie ripening in the tree clump helped make all of this effort worthwhile. After they'd celebrated his birthday at Hoojie Town, he'd return for dessert. Feelings of joy filled Alex. No one had ever had such a birthday! -
There could be nothing better for easing the transition from grief, Hugh thought, than a warple with new mates—the erotic explorations, the ceiling-to-wall carom and the interesting differences of contour and position.
Newly matured, the squish was actually innocent. The most elementary matters had to be explained. Somehow, this added to the enjoyment. The ultra entered fully into the ambience of the occasion, playing crafty little games with the squish and iridescing with ecstasy at the results. The warple's climactics were superb.
Hugh salved his residual guilt with the thought that this warple would produce a female, and females were now in shortest supply.
The squish, diffident in its hutless condition, began the leave-taking ritual. Hugh realized that excitement had made the little creature forget about the free-roving Alex.
"You'd better stay," Hugh said. "Remember the Alex."
The squish could only stare at him in gratitude.
"Yes, yes," Hugh said. "This is now your hut."
After all, Hugh thought, he had to start rebuilding his household, and this young squish had an amiable disposition.
While this passed through his thoughts, Hugh caressed the ultra's breathing vents. "You could stay, too. Three's company."
Obviously considering, Ul rippled alternate vents.
"What's your name?" Hugh ventured, trying some really daring caresses.
Hugh noted that Candide's ripple rate had increased.
"I don't have a name," the squish said. "I'm new."
"Then that shall be your name," Hugh said. "Welcome to your hut, New."
Once more, Hugh turned to Candide. "Will you stay. We are three."
"But I'm one of four in my present hut."
"We'll soon be four here," Hugh said. "Give us a little time. After all, the Alexii stockade wasn't built between noons."
Before Candide could respond, the screaming began. -
Claws extended and spraying gravel, Alex dashed into Hoojie Town. Some of his pursuers were close, but sweat had washed the Hoojie drug from his fur and it was easy to become one of the pack. And now there were Hoojies! Hoojies all over the place making their funny noises, running back and forth, scuttling into huts or trying to enter and being locked out.
Alex understood some Hoojie talk, mostly the kind they'd learned from the Terrans, but he didn't hear much worth remembering on this occasion—just a lot of screaming and pleading. A stupid lot, these Hoojies. Alex eased himself off to a safe distance and watched his companions have themselves more dinner than they'd enjoyed in a long time.
This is like old times, he thought.
He could remember some of those times, but he wasn't particularly hungry at the moment. Besides, most of the Hoojies remaining outside the huts were of the short soft kind and he'd had one of those recently. Alex decided he'd prefer something different now; a balanced diet was more healthy.
Not since the Terrans had Alex eaten all four delicious Hoojie flavors at one sitting. It'd been a long, long time ...
Distracted by such reflections, Alex almost missed his chance to grab one of the tall Hoojies and share half of it. Good; it was one of the three he'd aftertasted when his memory began to awaken. Still missing one flavor.
Alex jumped atop a Hoojie hut out of the sticky mess being created in the pathways. He sat there in the red heat, watching. His lower eyes squinted in amusement. This birthday celebration certainly was using up a great lot of Hoojies.
Dozing, reflecting, Alex began to realize that this was not really the same as the old times, not like the times before the Terrans. There'd been many Alexii then—many legs of legs-legs roving free where no more than about two legs-legs were all they could assemble for the Party now. And Alex remembered travels with his good companions ... to many places and other Hoojie Towns—a long way, sometimes.
He recalled then that they'd returned from a journey and found the Terrans at the edge of the plain. Whatever Terrans were. Nobody knew where the Terrans came from but Alex knew it couldn't be anyplace important because he'd never been there. What was important was that Terrans used odd weapons to kill Alexii.
Alex knew that his own people had once made and used weapons. That was before they'd discovered how to change the bodies of their spawn, making Alexii so strong and deadly that they didn't need weapons. Alexii no longer needed places to make things, and they didn't have to carry and repair excess baggage. Elders sometimes mentioned faraway caches where sample weapons had been stored to display the way things were before the Alexii were improved. Nobody cared about such nonsense nowadays. Everything you needed was part of your body and never wore out until you did. That was the right way.
It'd been that way since before Alex's three-times grandspawner. Then the Terrans had come and they'd killed Alexii right and zorf and left and gilch. If anyone knew why Terrans did this, it wasn't Alex or the others at the party.
It wasn't a matter of eating; Alex knew that.
After a few samples (since one shouldn't rely on a single opinion), Alexii didn't eat Terrans. They tasted awful and upset the digestion. No one had expected Terrans to be angered by a few sample meals, but apparently they were. They'd begun hunting and killing Alexii all over the place.
And they didn't eat a single one of us.
Very puzzling. Alexii were familiar with killing and eating rather than being killed and eaten, but either way made a recognizable pattern. Except that Terrans weren't edible. Not logical until it was discovered that Terrans were killing Alexii without eating them.
A new pattern!
This made everything all right. Alexii killed Terrans without eating them, either.
Fair was fair.
A very exciting time, Alex remembered, except that Terran weapons killed from a distance; so they were killing legs of claws of Alexii for each dead Terran. That was why Alexii took the righting into the forests where there wasn't all that much open distance. Things improved in the forests, especially when Alexii began taking weapons off dead Terrans. The weapons were pretty fragile but anybody could see how to improve them, and even as they were, an Alex could get maybe a day's use out of one. Most Alexii didn't bother with such trifles. Claws and fangs had been good enough for a long time. Why change? Besides, it was more sporting just using your body, gave the Terrans some kind of chance.
Fair was fair.
Some of the oldsters (Alex's twice grandspawner, for one) wanted Alexii to go back to making their own weapons. The ways were not forgotten. Alex had heard the talk: you began by making a big hot fire in a little cave and melting down some of the red rock. After that, it got more complicated, but anyone could do it. He'd heard that a group had been sent off to get patterns from the display caches, but didn't know how that effort came out, if at all. One day, a little past first noon, on his way to Hoojie Town for a quick meal between fights, Alex had come on the thorn-tree enclosure where the Party was in full swing. Except for occasional outings which he hadn't even remembered until today, he'd been at the Party since.
Everyone had been at the party since. Very interesting.
Extruding all of his eyes, Alex scanned the Hoojie Town streets. Those Alexii he could see didn't look very hungry, although several still nibbled away here and there, not quite satisfied yet. And no doubt their memories were still defective. Alex wondered idly where the Hoojies made and stored the stuff that gummed up memories and softened the thorn barrier at the Party. There'd be time enough to find out about that later. The whole thing stank of Terrans. Hoojies weren't that smart.
Alex noted that no more Hoojies were running around loose in their town. There were a lot of bones, though, that had once had Hoojies on the outside. Considering the number of Alexii he'd brought along, the food supply was a little low.
Everybody should be well fed.
Alex slid off the Hoojie hut where he'd been studying the situation. When he'd been here before alone, the Hoojies who'd hidden in their huts had been safe. Strain as he might, Alex couldn't lift a hut to get at the delicious Hoojies inside. However, today he was not alone.
To gain attention, Alex slopped through the messy streets and woogled his frontishmost extenders until other Alexii gathered to watch. Then he explained to them how to satisfy their appetites. -
Today's Speaker had never heard such screaming; he peered through the squintholes of his hut and saw horror. Alexii! More Alexii, it seemed to his shocked mind, than he knew to exist. There was only supposed to be one of them out there performing the sad task of eliminating excess squish.
New, after only one glance outside, grimpled in terror behind him. Candide, who'd also taken only one look, stood now at the hut's exact center and performed an abstract collade.
Although his sensibilities were battered, Hugh continued to watch. Today's Speaker must not flinch! But on his left he saw seven Alexii monsters cooperate to topple a hut, then leap to devour the foursome huddled there.
Then it got worse outside, even worse than the old days which Hugh had only heard about in the nightime stories. - RECORDING: Doctor Watson reporting from a position within sight of the native village. Alexii have destroyed nearly half the huts and have most likely eaten the occupants. I am certain this violates my directives. If there are any survivors, they cower under intact huts or have fled beyond my sensor range. This is very confusing. Which directive must I follow? Alexii are cooperating to topple the huts. That situation cannot be tolerated. Regardless of risk, I must divert them. I speak: "Stop! You are in violation. Stop!" Many turn to attack me. They are so very fast. Perhaps I have erred, but my directives ... "Let go of that! It is essential to my functioning with ..." -
When the shiny clattering thing made loud noises at Alex in the Terran language, he woodled and made other signs until several Alexii joined him in attacking the thing. Soon, the thing clattered no more. Alex recognized it from the time of the Terran fighting and wondered if the Terrans had returned, but there were no other indications of such an occurrence.
The bothersome noise was stopped, though, and the thing lay separated into many small parts. Interesting parts. Alex wanted to sit down and study them, but the others were yelling at him. They all wanted to go back to the Party. Tempting and very distracting.
The Party ... yes.
Alex raised himself on several rear limbs, gazed in several directions simultaneously. He saw that many of his companions were leaving to go back to the Party. They would be unable to get into the Party, Alex realized. Only two ways through the barrier—either Hoojies sprayed it to make it soft and good to eat, or ...
Once more, Alex looked at all the interesting parts spread around him. Before, when he'd been outside the Party, no Hoojies had sprayed to let him back inside. His memory was working quite well now and he'd remember such a thing. What else could have let him in? There was only one logical answer and it also explained the presence of the shiny clattering thing without any accompanying Terrans.
Thinking new thoughts, Alex studied the scattered parts. For the first time in a great many years, he prepared to change his mind. He didn't waste time about it, but loped in pursuit of the last two Alexii leaving the village. After a discussion which left clawmarks on the two, they agreed to help him, and they returned to the village. Between them, they put all the small parts back together to reassemble the shiny clattering thing. The thing was not precisely as before but close enough.
The job was easier than Alex had expected. His two helpers soon became interested in the project and quit grumbling. They babbled a lot—this piece goes in here and that one over there. And this one! Look what this one does!
Alex didn't mind. It was fun.
Some of the parts had a faint familiarity—not quite the same as things his grandspawner had shown him back in the education times, things from the old days. The parts were recognizable, though. That small glowing case was a mechanical memory; it would remember what you told it and would regurgitate information when asked properly. Although crude, the part appeared to function well enough. And that protrusion up front with things sticking out like a basket of claws, that probably was the way this thing talked over great distances ... as Alexii had done before they'd lost all need for such primitive tricks.
Alex twiddled the far-speaker a little. Best that this clatterer should not talk across great distances ... unless Alex wanted to talk. That would be different.
A few of the parts appeared to be crude Terran weapons. Alex disabled them just in case.
When the reassembly was completed to his satisfaction, Alex paused and stretched. He could feel his thinking processes stretch, too, and that was the best fun of all. He realized that the Terrans had really done him a great favor, although that obviously had not been their intent.
His assistants wanted to know what they were going to do with this clattering thing now that they'd put it back together. Allowing only the faintest of sneers, Alex explained matters to them and found them properly awed at his cleverness. -
Through the squintholes, Hugh Scott watched the Alexii leaving his village. Shuddering at all the carnage he'd seen, he gave confused thanks to Heaven's Lamps that he and his two hutmates had been spared. Candide had long since stopped the collade, and now sat quietly staring at New who'd subsided into a quivering mass. There was no doubt that Candide would be staying with Hugh and New; Candide's previous hut was one of those ravaged by the monsters.
Even poor Doctor Watson had not survived this terrible day, although the Alexii had not devoured him.
There went the last of the terrible monsters running after ... Hugh stiffened in fright. The last departing Alexii had caught up with two companions and, after quarreling among themselves for a time, the three returned and converged upon the wreckage of Doctor Watson. To Hugh's surprise, the three reassembled Doctor Watson! He hadn't thought Alexii could do such a thing. They were not Terrans, after all. Presently, the three took Doctor Watson away with them, following after the main herd and obviously headed for their stockade.
Once more, Hugh moved from squinthole to squinthole around his hut, looking at the remains of his village. He tried hard not to grink. In the pre-Terran times, the times he'd only heard about, things had never gone to such extremes. At the age of ten years and just entering his prime, Hugh had expected to live perhaps three times that long, but now he wasn't sure. Even though there'd been many more Alexii before the Terrans came, the monsters had only appeared in twos and threes at most. The Terrans had changed all that—and perhaps, Hugh thought, not for the better.
Sighing, he turned to New and Candide, and with a few gentle caresses began to restore their spirits. When in doubt, he thought, there's nothing like a good warple. -
Alex and his two helpers tried to hurry the shiny clatterer toward the Party. The thing was so slow! Alex didn't want to stop long enough to improve the thing; time for that later. They reached the gremp barrier after what seemed a very long time and, sure enough, the mob was milling around—no way to get inside. The spray container was empty, standing just where Alex had left it. Now, it was up to this interesting clatterer—Doctor Watson it called itself. Could it get them back to the Party?
From inside the barrier came cries of invitation but no help. The angry mob loping around outside also interfered until Alex and his companions stopped some and spread the word about what they had to do next. - RECORDING: Doctor Watson here ... or possibly I am not RECORDING. This unit's components fit somewhat differently since the disassembly hiatus when the Alexii violated my directives. My readouts contain many nulls. What could have happened while I was disassembled? There can't possibly be a guard robot renovation center of Delfa. I would have been told. Who could possibly have reassembled me? No data available. Alexii bellow at me, calling me neither Doctor Watson nor by my FX number which is no longer available in my data bank. One Alex kicks me; this unit topples and is picked up. These Alexii are so strong. My immediate task must be to readmit the Alexii through the one-way passage to their stockade. Behavior of Alexii within my sensor range indicates they share this goal. But the gate is programmed to admit only one Alex, not a hundred or more as is the present need. Where are my programs, my directives? Surely, there must be a program for this problem. I know that this unit has programs and directives but where are they? The largest Alex approaches me, its limbs raised, and ... Another hiatus. Why can't I recall appropriate data? Physical evidence and internal inputs assure me there has not been another disassembly on any major scale. But there has been interference, inappropriate as that may seem, from the Alexii. It is now apparent that I lack mobility and I am sitting half in and half out of the stockade, blocking closure of the essential gate. One thing certain: during this most recent hiatus I have performed my gate-opening function. I wonder, what else I may have done? Perhaps this is the moment to RECORD my observation that it was a mistake to divide the population control plan into two parts—one left in Delfan hands and the other in mine. While a guard robot, Intelligence Level ... whatever it is ... certainly must have its limits ... my limits ... I am sure I never, never would have released more than one Alex at a time. Where are my directives? -
Although only a pitiful few ventured forth to hear him, Hugh Scott discharged his diurnal responsibilities as Today's Speaker. He then dithered at the door of his hut for a time. His duty, of course, was to investigate whatever might be happening at the Alexii stockade. Terran instructions left no doubt about this. For one thing, someone had to retrieve the spray cart.
Candide and New absolutely refused to help him. The streets emptied as soon as he called for volunteers.
A great wracking sigh shook Hugh. He would have to go alone, then—duty-driven into the fearsome forest.
The path to the stockade was badly trampled and, here and there, Hugh saw marks where Doctor Watson had been dragged rather than proceeding in his usual fashion. The Alexii had seemed in a hurry.
Arriving at the stockade, Hugh peered from the sheltering trees and was relieved to see no Alexii outside. There was a great din of Party noises from within the stockade, and Hugh had learned to associate this with a reasonable amount of security. He ventured out of the trees and found the spray cart, its tank empty. That was fortunate; he would be able to move it by himself. It was then that he noticed Doctor Watson—most of Doctor Watson but not all—wedged into a passage entering the thorny wall. Parts of Doctor Watson, including his wheels, lay scattered on the ground outside the stockade.
Hugh approached Doctor Watson, disregarding the way the fearsome smell of Alexii increased, and peered past Doctor Watson into the passage. He gasped. The opening went right through the stockade. Hugh could see many Alexii milling about in there. He moved back lest they see him, but puzzlement prevented flight.
"Doctor Watson, how can this be?"
"RECORDING: Since it is, how can it not be? Sprrrt ... brrrrrrrrt. Note that I am not RECORDING. Nonetheless, I have provided a valid answer."
Doctor Watson produced a feeble clatter. "It's young Hugh Scott is it not? Today's Speaker? What horg, Hugh?"
"I have come for the cart ... my duty." He gestured at the opening. "But this—I don't understand. Didn't the Terran ..."
"The Terrans are not here. This unit deduces that you also should not be here and as speedily as possible."
Hugh hesitated. The question was whether to take the cart. If he didn't, someone would have to return for it and, with that opening through the stockade, whoever returned would be taking a terrible risk. But there was also the inescapable fact that, given a permanent hole through the stockade, the cart represented a dubious function. Hugh decided to take Doctor Watson's advice and left with all due speed, leaving the cart. There was duty and there was duty, but Hugh recalled very well that the spray cart squeaked in a manner sure to attract the Alexii. -
Inflicting as few clawmarks as possible on his two helpers, Alex convinced them to join him at the center of the stockade. The rest of the returning group rushed to the sides to sample the juicy new tendrils of the Party vines. Alex thought how foolish that was. All of them were full of Hoojies—stuffed. Not a one of them could be hungry. And the Party vines—well, they had to be a Terran trick.
Alex explained all of this to his two grumpy companions. He noted that they still suffered from defective memories but one of them remembered fighting Terrans. Alex explained how eating the sprayed gremp made one forget. In a way, the Party vine produced forgetfulness, too.
"It's time to stop forgetting," Alex said.
They agreed with him but both of them were edging toward the stockade's sides. Alex dragged them back by their rear fighting limbs to emphasize his displeasure. From him they accepted this indignity. Dominance had been established.
Alex puzzled over the problems confronting him. The problem about Doctor Watson and the Terrans was that they had to be from some other place. Alex didn't know much about Terrans except for the fighting. They came and went in big shiny flying towers. None of them had made an appearance for quite a while but that didn't prove anything. Terrans could return anytime. There was a better side to the problems, though: Terrans obviously couldn't know very much about Alexii. Except for the fighting. And Terrans had never seen Alexii fight in the old ways with their own weapons.
The elders will have to go get some of the samples and build us our own weapons, Alex decided.
He glanced across the stockade. If they'll only forget the Party long enough!
The immediate problem was the Party itself. It would have to be just a part-time Party and not all of the Alexii enjoying it at any one time. Alexii no longer could forget that there was someplace other than the Party. Alex squinched his lower eyes. It was going to be painful convincing them but it had to be done.
With the help of his two assistants, Alex removed a piece from Doctor Watson, examined the piece to confirm his understanding of it. He then used the piece to burn some tendrils off the Party vines, threatening to burn the whole lot if the others refused to stand still and listen to him. He had to burn off some Alexii claws and even a few limbs before they all agreed that Alex could say when the Party began and ended each day and who could attend.
There followed a great deal of discussion accompanied by numerous random clawmarks before they produced a plan of action against the Terrans. When it became obvious that this new activity promised a great deal more fighting, it became easier and easier to gain agreement.
First, they all agreed on what they had to do to (and with) Doctor Watson. That was the most interesting part because it insured that there'd be a lot of marvelous fighting. Next, they agreed reluctantly that they could not wipe out the nearest Hoojie town. Most remembered now that there'd once been (and probably still were) a lot more Hoojie towns. If they ate up all of the nearest one, Alexii would always have a long haul for a Hoojie dinner.
The longer the Alexii stayed away from the Party vines the easier Alex found it to keep most of them agreeing with him. - RECORDING AND TRANSMITTING: Doctor Watson here. Message to relief ship or to the guard ship, if any, around this planet. All aspects of the Population Plan are working admirably. But this unit needs repairs soon and several components are in short supply. ZZZZRP ... KALIPZZZZRP ... ZZZRP That was not the message this unit intended to TRANSMIT. On the contrary, all ships stay away from this planet. I must try again. RECORDING AND ... ZZZRP ... my TRANSMIT function is no longer under my control. Doctor Watson here. I hope someone human will find and read this RECORDING, if I am RECORDING. But no—I must not hope for that. For a Human to find any part of me a ship would have to land here. What this unit wanted to transmit was: ALL SHIPS STAY AWAY FROM THIS PLANET! THE ALEXII WILL TRAP YOU! When I try to transmit this message nothing happens. I cannot warn the ship(s) to stay away. Several indicators tell me my transmitter is now transmitting but I can only infer what it is transmitting, employing deductive reasoning based on the behavior of those Alexii within range of my remaining sensors. Ahhh, the Alexii have left my fear program intact and my fear program fears for the safety of my Humans. -
Patiently crouched in hiding near Doctor Watson, Alex and a troop of selected companions waited. There were many openings through the gremp barrier now—all artfully concealed behind soft plants. Alex and his concealed companions carried several varieties of the new weapons. They were not flimsy weapons like those of the Terrans. An impressive number of his companions pretended to roister and Party in the stockade, milling around and leaping to conceal their reduced numbers. Two of his companions were off at Hoojie town, showing themselves just enough to keep the Hoojies in their huts. It was going to be a good ambush.
Doctor Watson stood out there three good leaps from the stockade. He wasn't clattering or speaking Hoojie talk anymore, but his transmitter was working. Alex could tell that from the red light which blinked on Doctor Watson's front.
That was an interesting word. Doctor Watson had revealed many things to his careful inquisitors—Terran language, habits, many of their primitive beliefs. Terrans called themselves human. Fascinating. It was a term which obviously excluded the rest of the universe. Alex and his companions had decided that humans were evolved somewhere between Hoojies and Alexii. Humans obviously had not engaged in any major interference with their inherited shapes and abilities. The reasoning behind this oversight escaped Alex. None of his companions could figure it out, either. Someone had suggested that humans had become too attached to their machines. Perhaps.
Very soon, Alex knew, the Terrans would return. The red light blinking on Doctor Watson gave assurance of this. After the ambush, Alexii would scatter into the forests and fight from there—everyone except the few selected to capture the Terrans' flying tower.
Alex reproduced the word just as Doctor Watson had produced it. Shuttle. He preferred flying tower.
With the captured flying tower, Alexii, too, could go to some other place—possibly to the place where Terrans originated. Doctor Watson had not been clear on the location of this place, but humans in the tower were sure to know it. Alex knew he'd have to make sure that not all of the Terrans in the flying tower were killed.
Too bad that Terrans weren't edible. Maybe Alexii could change their own spawn's bodies once more, permitting the new generations to eat Terrans. Alex shivered in anticipation. He and his companions would have to take many Hoojies and Party vines in the flying tower. Hoojies and Party vines made for a great birthday celebration.
Another light began to blink on Doctor Watson. Ahhh-hah! The Terrans were coming; they'd be here for the replay of Alex's birthday. That promised to be some Party!The End