The Test Colony

by Winston Marks

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Benson did his best to keep his colony from going native, but what can you do when the Natives have a rare human intelligence and know all about the facts of life?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

It was the afternoon of our arrival. Our fellow members of the “test colony” were back in the clearing at the edge of the lake, getting their ground-legs and drinking in the sweet, clean air of Sirius XXII. I was strolling along the strip of sandy beach with Phillip Benson, leader of our group, sniffing the spicy perfume of the forest that crowded within twenty feet of the water’s edge.

Half a billion miles overhead, Sirius shone with an artificially white glow. Somewhere on the horizon, Earth lay, an invisible, remote speck of dust we had forsaken 24 dreary, claustrophobic months ago.

The trip had taken its toll from all of us, even tough-minded Phil Benson. We both found it difficult to relax and enjoy the invigorating, oxygen-rich air and the balmy climate. As official recorder, I was trying to think of words suitable to capture the magnificence, the sheer loveliness of the planet which would be our home for at least four years, perhaps forever.

Each absorbed in his own thoughts, Benson and I were some 500 yards from the clearing when he stopped me with a hand on my arm. “Who is that?” he demanded.

Up the beach where he pointed, two naked forms emerged from the calm waters. They skipped across the sand and began rolling together playfully in the soft grasses at the forest’s edge. Even at this distance they were visibly male and female.

“I can’t make them out,” I said. My only thought was that one of the young couples had swum down ahead of us and was enjoying the first privacy attainable in two years.

Benson’s eyes were sharper. “Sam, they--they look like--”

Our voices must have reached them, for they sprang apart and rose to their feet facing us.

“Like youngsters,” I supplied.

“We have no kids with us,” Benson reminded me. He began to move forward, slowly, as though stalking a wild animal.

“Wait, Phil,” I said. “The planet is uninhabited. They can’t be--”

He continued shuffling ahead, and I followed. Within 20 paces I knew he was right. Whoever they were they hadn’t come with us!

Benson stopped so quickly I bumped into him. “Look, Sam! Their hands and feet! Four digits and--no thumbs!”

I could now make out the details. The two forms were not quite human. The toes were long and prehensile. The fingers, too, were exceptionally long, appearing to have an extra joint, but as Benson mentioned, there was no opposing thumb.

They stood well apart now, the female seeking no protection from the male. Curiosity was written in their faces, and when we stopped advancing they began edging forward until they were only five yards away.

Their outlines, instead of becoming clearer, had fuzzed up more as they approached. Now it was evident that their bodies were lightly covered with a silky hair, some two or three inches long. It had already dried out in the warm sun and was standing out away from their skins like golden haloes.

They stood well under five feet tall, and in every detail, except the body hair and digits, appeared to be miniature adults, complete with navels.

Even in the midst of the shock of surprise, I was taken by their remarkable beauty. “They’re true mammals!” I exclaimed.

“Without a doubt,” Benson said, eyeing the full contours of the lithe little female. Her pink flesh tones were a full shade lighter than those of the male. Both had well-spaced eyes under broad foreheads. Their fine features were drawn into fearless, half-quizzical, half-good-natured expressions of deep interest. They stood relaxed as if waiting for a parley to begin.

“This,” said Benson, “is one hell of a note!”

They cocked their heads at the sound like robins. I said, “Why? They don’t appear very vicious to me.”

“Neither does man,” Benson replied. “It’s his brain that makes him deadly. Look at those skulls, the ear placement, the eyes and forehead. If I know my skull formations, I think man has met his intellectual equal at last--maybe, even, his superior.”

“What makes you think they may have superior minds?” As a psychologist I felt Benson was jumping to a pretty quick conclusion.

“The atmosphere. Forty percent oxygen. Invariably, on other planets, that has meant higher metabolisms in the fauna. In a humanoid animal that strongly implies high mental as well as physical activity.”

As if to prove his point, the two little creatures tired of the one-sided interview, bent slightly at the knees and leaped at a forty-five degree angle high into the tree branches. The female caught the first limb with her long fingers and swung out of sight into the foliage. The male hung by his long toes for a moment, regarding us with an inverted impish expression, then he, too, vanished.

I grunted with disappointment. Benson said, “Don’t worry, they’ll be back. Soon enough.”

As we returned to the clearing Jane Benson and Susan, my wife, came to meet us. Although both brunettes rated high in feminine charms among the forty women of our group, somehow they appeared a little ungainly and uncommonly tall against my mental image of the little people we had just left. Their faces were pale from the long interment in the ship, and bright spots of sunburn on cheekbones and forehead gave them a clownish, made-up appearance.

“We’ve sorted and identified the fruits,” Sue called to us. “The handbook is right. They’re delicious! We’ve got a feast spread. Just wait until you--” She caught our expressions. “What’s wrong?”

Benson shrugged. “You girls go on ahead and get the crowd together. I have an important announcement to make.” Jane pouted a little and hesitated, but Benson insisted. “Run along now, please. I want to gather my thoughts.”

We trailed after them slowly. I didn’t like Benson’s moody reaction to our discovery of an intelligent life-form. To me it was exciting. What fabulous news I would have to send back with the first liaison ship to contact us four years hence! And it would be entirely unexpected, because the original exploration party had failed to make the discovery. That in itself was an intriguing mystery. How could twenty-two scientists, bent on a minute examination of a planet’s flora and fauna, overlook the most fabulous creation of all--an animal virtually in men’s image? The only guess I could make was that they must belong to a nomadic tribe small enough to escape discovery.

Benson broke silence as the narrow beach strip began to widen into the grassy plain where our ship squatted like a hemispherical cathedral. “This poses so many problems,” he said shaking his head.

I said, “Phil, I think you’re taking your job too seriously. You just can’t plan every detail of organizing our community down to the rationing of tooth-powder.”

“Planning never hurt any project,” Benson said.

“I disagree,” I told him. “You’ve had too long to dwell on your plans. Now the first unpredictable incident throws you into an uproar. Relax, Phil. Take your problems one at a time. We don’t even know that we’ll ever see the little creatures again. Maybe they’re shy.”

He scarcely heard me. He was a large, well-muscled man of 46 years, an ex-college president and an able administrator. He and Jane, his wife, were the only two of our party older than the 35-year age limit. His background as a sociologist and anthropologist and his greater maturity were important factors in stabilizing a new colony, but his point of view had grown excessively conservative, it seemed to me.

A crew of craftsmen with their busy little power saws had constructed a sloping ship’s ramp of rough planks sawed from the nearest trees. We stepped through and over the assembled people who were lying around in the grass at the base of the ramp, and Benson mounted twenty feet above us at the entrance to the ship.

Everyone was in high spirits, and a light cheer rippled through the assembly. Benson, however, ignored it and bent a thoroughly serious gaze out over his “flock”.

“Please give me your closest attention,” he began and waited until everyone was quiet. “Until further notice, we must proceed under a yellow alert during daylight hours and a red alert at night. All work parties leaving the ship will check with the scribe every hour on the hour. We will resume sleeping in the ship. Women are restricted to within 100 yards of the ship at all times. Men will go armed and will please inform themselves of their position on the security watch list which will be posted tonight.” He squinted in the bright sunlight. “For the moment, you men with sidearms, post yourselves around the ship. Sound off loud if you sight anything larger than a rabbit.”

The men named got slowly to their feet, fingering their light hunting pistols self-consciously. Benson continued, “You may appreciate these precautions when I tell you that Sam Rogers and I just encountered two remarkably humanoid animals on the beach less than half a mile from here.”

Tension replaced levity, as Benson described our meeting with the natives. I thought he gave it a needlessly grim emphasis with such terms as, “quicker than cats“, and “devilishly intelligent“, but I held my peace.

He summarized, “I do not want to alarm anyone unduly, but we must face up to the fact that we are totally unprepared for such a contingency. The exploration group failed us badly in overlooking these creatures. They may not be inimical to our culture, but until this is established we must consider them prime threats. That is all,” he concluded.

No one grumbled aloud, but their faces showed keen disappointment at the resumption of quartering in the ship. Reluctantly, the women began rolling up the still-deflated air-mattresses that were scattered about the soft, deep grass. Sue complained, “Sam, if these people don’t get a little privacy pretty soon we’ll turn into an ant colony. There’ll be lovin’ in the streets.”

“It’s not my idea,” I said. “I’ll be nailed to a table at the foot of the ramp all day making check marks. Phil is taking this entirely too big. The little people are really charming. He neglected to mention that they are beautifully formed and quite gentle in their--their actions.”

“Actions?” she said. “What happened, really?”

I described the conditions under which we first saw the natives, and she laughed a little strainedly. “I can just imagine the look on Phil Benson’s face.”

I knew what she meant. In trying to enforce the shipboard rule of segregation of the sexes, our leader had developed an oversensitive attitude toward certain aspects of modesty. In the unutterable boredom of space, the pledge we had all taken to complete continence for the voyage was a severe test to all forty couples.

Had propriety and space considerations been the only reasons for the infamous “no-romance” regulation, it would never have held up. But all concerned realized the problem of childbirth in space under the jam-packed living conditions, tight water and food rationing and the fetid, recirculated air.

Now the second honeymoons were over before they started. It was back to the ship and the night-life of monks and nuns.

That night, Sue and I joined the four ship’s officers, their wives, Phillip Benson and Jane in the navigation cupola atop our doomed ship that had become a “fortress”. The small control room was the only semi-private room in the ship, and even Benson was admitted by invitation only. The meeting was a council of war, so to speak, and the officers were pressed into service to organize and operate the security guard.

When the guard watch was worked out for a week in advance, I spoke up. “I think we’re getting off on the wrong foot, Phil. We can’t stay penned up like animals at night and expect to function as humans.”

Benson argued: “We are a carefully balanced group, Sam. We can’t afford casualties. Look at our medical corps, two doctors and four nurses. Suppose we were attacked and lost them?”

Captain Spooner, whose authority had lapsed when we touched down, backed up Benson. “I see no great hardship in the precautions. Inconvenience, yes, but nothing that the danger doesn’t fully justify.”

He was a cocky, virile, bald-headed little terrier of 35 years. His very young wife and the wives of the other three officers seemed only lightly perturbed at the prospects of continuing celibacy, which confirmed my suspicions.

I said, “That’s gritty of you, Captain, but remember, the rest of us haven’t had the relative privacy of the bridge. If this restriction continues long I predict violations of the discipline, and probably some serious behaviour problems.”

My position as colony psychologist had become somewhat obscured under the snowstorm of paperwork that my secondary job as official scribe had brought. Benson seemed now to recall that mental health was my concern. He said, “I thought you reported high morale upon arrival.”

“I did, but the tensions are there, and it’s foolish to draw them too tightly. We have a well-picked, highly adaptable group of people. Let’s keep them that way. The quicker we hit a more normal existence the less risk we run of emotional disturbances.”

“They’ll take it,” Benson said positively, and Spooner nodded in arrogant agreement.

My 20-hour wristwatch, geared to the shorter rotation of Sirius XXII, said nine o’clock, one hour before noon, when the women began undressing.

There had been an air of conspiracy among them all morning, a studied casualness as they wandered around near the ship, forming small conversational eddies, dispersing and reforming elsewhere. I had just finished checking in the 11-man fruit-gathering detail. I looked up from my roster in time to see the first motions of the “great disrobing”. Zippers unzipped, snaps popped open, slacks, skirts, blouses and jumpers fell to the grass, and a dazzling spectacle of space-bleached feminine epidermis burst into view.

The ladies were very calm about it, but a chorus of yips sounded and swelled into a circus of cheers from the male working parties.

Before I could fathom it Benson came charging down the ramp followed by his fruit-stowing detail. He stopped at the foot of the ramp, mouth open and eyes pinched with annoyance.


He spotted Jane and Sue. “What is going on out here?” he demanded loudly.

Our two wives waved at us and strolled over, doing a splendid job of acting unconcerned. “Just a little sun-bathing,” Jane said, shooing a small insect from a pale shoulder.

Susan refused to meet my eye. She was watching two birds soar overhead. “It’s fantastic,” she said. “If you don’t look at things too closely, you’d never know we weren’t at a summer camp up in Wisconsin--except for the fruits. They remind me more of Tahiti. It’s marvelous! The mosquitoes don’t even bite.”

“They will,” I said, “as soon as they get a good taste of human blood. And baby, you’re sure making it easy for them.”

Benson was distracted from the conversation by the converging male colonists, who were whooping and yelling like a horde of school boys. He backed up the ramp and ordered, “Let’s get on with the work. You’ve seen your wives in the altogether before.”

The men quieted a little, but one yelled, “Yeah, but not lately!”

Another added, “And not all together.”

In spite of the fact that nude sun-bathing was a commonplace, twenty-second-century custom on Earth, by tacit consent clothes had been worn at all times aboard ship. The women had gone along with Benson for two years on such matters, so this was clearly a feminine protest against the spirit of the yellow alert.

Young doctors Sorenson and Bailey came trotting up, grinning appreciatively but wagging their fingers. Without consulting Benson, Bailey mounted the ramp and shouted, “Blondes and redheads, ten minutes exposure. Brunettes, fifteen.”

A great booing issued from the men, but Bailey held up his hand for silence. “The medical staff will make no effort to enforce these exposure maximums, but be advised that the radiation here is about the same as Miami Beach in June, so don’t let the air-conditioning fool you.”

Benson was spared further decisions on the issue, because at that moment one of the sentries remembered to take a quick look at the vector of forest he was supposed to be guarding. Unable to make his voice heard over the hub-hub, the guard fired his pistol in the air.

We all jumped up and stared, and Benson muttered, “Dear God!”

Our people were scattered over an acre around the ramp, and encompassing them was a semi-circle of at least a hundred “savages”, frozen like bronze statues at the sound of the gun-shot. They curved in an arc less than a hundred yards from the ship.

Their hands were empty of weapons, and their motionless attitudes were in no way threatening. To the contrary, they seemed small and quite inoffensive except for their numbers.

Acting in my capacity as psychologist, I ran up the ramp and called out as calmly as a shout would permit, “Everybody take it easy! Don’t make any quick moves. Above all, don’t anyone fire off a weapon again unless there is an obvious attack.”

Benson clutched my arm. “Are you mad? We’ve got to get the women inside.”

“That’s what I’m thinking,” I said. “But if we invite attack by running they won’t all make it.”

“They aren’t armed. The men can stand them off.”

“Then what are you worrying about?” I demanded. “Relax for a minute and see what happens.”

Benson simmered and reluctantly accepted my logic. Meanwhile, the line of natives became mobile again. They closed in at a casual saunter, rolling off the balls of their long feet with a peculiar, slow, bouncing motion.

A ripple of subdued exclamations ran through our people, and in turn the little natives moved their lips, turned their heads to one another and seemed to be commenting among themselves.

Benson began hissing futile commands for the women to start boarding the ship. No one paid any attention. I could sense no great danger in the situation. In fact I felt more attracted than repelled by the little golden-haired creatures.

Bailey, who was still on the ramp, took a different view. He called out, “They don’t look dangerous, but keep away from them. Lord knows what kind of bugs they may have in them.”

It was a sobering thought. Their most insignificant disease germ might easily wipe out our colony if it proved contagious.

Yet, how could we stop these natives without inflicting bloodshed? On they came in their shambling, loose-gaited walk. Benson was unsnapping his holster flap, and even the highly curious women were beginning to shrink back toward the gangplank, when a light breeze swept through us from behind. It rustled the grass softly and moved into the natives, only 20 yards away.

The wavering line stopped again. Segments began to retreat, first singly, then in pairs and groups. All but a handful of the most curious suddenly bounded for the forest and disappeared.

The others came forward again, but with increasing bewilderment. Repeatedly, they raised their noses and sniffed the air.

Bailey said from behind us, “They catch our scent and don’t know what to make of it. Thank heavens most of them took off. We can handle a dozen of them easily enough.”

Our people opened ranks and let the little creatures infiltrate. Sue squeezed my arm. “Why, they’re beautiful little things! They make me feel self-conscious with my bleached-out skin. They certainly look intelligent, those eyes--no fear in them at all--look, they’re even smiling!”

Indeed, several of the creatures were grinning broadly at the male members of our party. They found our clothing amusing.

Now we could hear their soft voices conversing in a language that was liquid with a great many compound vowel sounds, not unlike Earth’s Finnish tongue. Their quick, dark eyes seemed to take in everything. They seemed torn between a consuming curiosity and a strong aversion to our scent. One by one they satisfied the former and yielded to the latter, dropping back and racing for the forest in great, joyous bounds punctuated with happy little whoops of undefinable emotion.

At last only one, chesty little male was left. Benson exhaled heavily beside me. “It’s the little fellow we saw on the beach, Sam. Look, he’s coming through.”

A tawny stripe of brown, furry hair ran from his high forehead, over the crown of his proud skull and down his neck to fade into the typical, deep, golden fuzz of his body. As he approached the ramp I saw that his face was smooth, entirely free of hair as though clean-shaven.

By now Benson was as fascinated as the rest of us. I stepped down in front of him to confront our visitor. I placed a hand on my chest and said, “Sam Rogers!”

The dark eyes swept from my feet to my head and fastened upon my face. He pointed four long fingers at me and repeated distinctly, “Samrogers.”

My name is easy to pronounce, but it was a shock to hear it from the lips of an extra-terrestrial being.

Then he placed the same hand on his own chest and said, “Joe!” Actually, it came out with a rapid widening and narrowing of his lips that sounded like a quick version of, “Jo-ah-o-ah-oh,” but the vowel echoes were so rapid that for practical purposes it read, “Joe,” to me.

I pointed my hand at him and repeated, “Joe!” He looked vaguely disappointed at my crude aspiratory control, but then a bright smile creased his cocky little face. His hand flicked out and back.


Involuntarily I nodded my head. He nodded back and smiled again. Before I could think of what comes after, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” he wrinkled his nose, squinted his eyes, whirled and darted off for the timber.

We stood rooted for a minute, then Bailey said, “We must really stink. Plucky little fellow took it as long as he could.”

Benson looked back at Bailey and me. “Well, what do you think?”

I looked at Bailey, and he looked at Dr. Sorenson. “Lord, I don’t know. Except for the possibility of microbe infection, they appear perfectly harmless to me,” Sorenson said.

I said, “Since they don’t like our scent there doesn’t seem to be much danger of contact. Phil, why don’t we call off the yellow alert with the exception of a rule or two about fraternization in closed spaces?”

Benson looked over his people. All were paired off now, husband with wife. And to a man their arms were wrapped protectively around their respective spouses, watching for the decision. Their faces read, “Is this innocuous little race of people the cause of all the trouble?”

Benson rubbed the gray of his temple with a knuckle. He mounted the ramp and announced, “The emergency is reduced to a blue alert. Women will have the freedom of the clearing and the visible beach, but only authorized working parties will enter the forest. Men will continue to wear sidearms. When outside shelters are complete we will sleep in them, but until then, or until we are better informed about the natives, we shall continue sleeping in the ship.”

The new order of the day did nothing to mitigate the resentment and tension, but it did accelerate assembly of the lumber mill and house construction. The little Sirians seemed to have satisfied their curiosity, for they left us to our labors for a whole week.

The first building of our projected village was completed on the seventh day. It was little more than a two-room shanty, but it represented the most sought after prize of the moment, privacy!

We drew lots for it, and, with the uncommon justice, one of the hardest working amateur carpenters won. The women brought in armloads of grass for a couch and decorated it with wild-flowers. When evening fell it seemed like an occasion for a celebration, and Benson relented on the evening curfew.

We gathered scraps from the lumber mill, carefully cleared a sandy strip on the beach of all inflammable matter and built a huge bonfire. In the rich atmosphere even the green wood burned merrily, spitting green sap and sending up clouds of pungent, aromatic smoke.

Sue had just curled up in the crook of my arm, and we were working on a case of Earth-nostalgia, when we noticed our visitors again. They came bounding, up to the wide rim of the firelight. They jabbered in excited, ecstatic voices but stopped short of our human assembly. Only one, I recognized him as Joe, picked his way through us and came close to inspect the crackling blaze.

Fascinated, Sue and I watched his profile contort with an expression of immense admiration. It was not the awe of a savage, but the heartfelt appreciation of a human for a rare and beautiful spectacle.

“Fire must be unknown to them,” Sue whispered.

“At least mighty rare,” I said. “The handbook says no volcanoes and no thunderstorms.”

Joe turned at the sound of our low voices. With eyes half-blinded by the glare he searched for me. “Samrogers!” he called clearly. “Samrogers!”

I rose to my feet and answered, “Joe! Right here, Joe.”

He picked his way over to me, smiling broadly and glancing back at the fire every step or two. A pace away he stopped, pointed at me, said, “Samrogers,” pointed at himself, said, “Joe!” then pointed at the fire and waited.

It was a clearly indicated question. I answered it respectfully, “Fire!”

He repeated, “Fire,” and his eyes glowed like sparks. Then he made gestures of picking up some of the fire and taking it away, turning to me to pose the question.

Sorenson, propped up on an elbow, said, “I’ll be damned. He’s asking you to give him some of the fire.”

“No,” Benson said. “He knows fire, knows you can’t take the flames. He’s asking for the means to build a fire.”

I faced Joe, shook my head solemnly and said, “No!” To give meaning to the word I sat down and turned my head away for a moment. When I looked back Joe was looking very disappointed. It made Sue so sad that she held out a wedge of sweet melon to him. Joe accepted the gift easily, gracefully and with a small smile of “thank you”. He turned back, squatted as near the blaze as comfort would permit and chewed absently at the melon.

Thereafter he ignored the animated conversation that sprang up among us. Jane wanted to know why we didn’t give him one of our lighters. “He’s just as intelligent as we are,” she insisted. She got no argument on that score, but her husband pointed out that the golden people were unaccustomed to handling fire, and that during the present dry season even the green foliage might take off in a holocaust if ignited in this rich, oxygen air.

Even as he spoke, a long, slender pole, flaming at one end, toppled from the settling fire and rolled near Joe. With scarcely a pause to debate, he leaped to his feet, grabbed the pole by the cool end and waved it aloft like a torch.

With a triumphant yell he plunged through us and out across the field bearing his prize aloft trailing sparks.

I tried to shoot low, but my light caliber pellet caught him rather high in the thigh. He dived to the ground senseless in a shower of sparks. His fellow creatures immediately gathered around him. When we closed in to retrieve the fire-wand and stamp out the sparks, the other natives faded away, crinkling their noses. They made no effort to remove Joe, but cast many admiring glances back at the fire he had stolen.

Sue came up storming at me. “You didn’t have to shoot him.” She started to kneel down beside him, but Dr. Bailey restrained her.

“Easy, Susan. Remember the quarantine.”

“We can’t let him lie there and bleed to death,” I said, feeling unaccountably ashamed for my deed, although there was scarcely an alternative.

Benson came up, “Nice shot, Sam.”

I said, “Phil, I want permission to enter quarantine with Joe, here. Let me have the instruments, and I’ll probe for the bullet and take care of him.”

Benson shook his head. “We can’t take that chance. We couldn’t spare you if you caught something.”

“Who could you spare better?” I demanded. “See here, we’ve got to find out sooner or later whether these little fellows carry anything contagious. If they do, well, then we have a decision to face, but we can’t decide anything until we know.”

Sue was at my side now. She said. “You have a dozen people who can punch a micro-writer. Sam and I aren’t indispensable. Besides, it was he who crippled the poor little fellow.”

Without waiting for an answer she called out, “Larson, where are you?” The lucky carpenter tried to draw back in the shadows, knowing full well what she had in mind.

Benson stared at me for a minute. He said gruffly, “Very well, if you can talk Larson out of his cottage, go ahead, play hero!”

I didn’t feel very heroic right then. Two hours later, when we had the bullet out of Joe and had him bedded down comfortably for the night, Sue cosied up to me in our double sleeping silks and murmured, “What a guy has to go through out here to get a little privacy!”

Poor Larson!

Bailey and Sorenson set up their lab outside our cabin door. Joe’s wound was seriously infected, and none of our cautiously applied remedies would control the raging fever with which he awoke the first morning. He lay, apathetic, eyes half closed, murmuring, “Tala! Tala!”

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