Zen

by Jerome Bixby

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Because they were so likable and intelligent and adaptable--they were vastly dangerous!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

It’s difficult, when you’re on one of the asteroids, to keep from tripping, because it’s almost impossible to keep your eyes on the ground. They never got around to putting portholes in spaceships, you know--unnecessary when you’re flying by GB, and psychologically inadvisable, besides--so an asteroid is about the only place, apart from Luna, where you can really see the stars.

There are so many stars in an asteroid sky that they look like clouds; like massive, heaped-up silver clouds floating slowly around the inner surface of the vast ebony sphere that surrounds you and your tiny foothold. They are near enough to touch, and you want to touch them, but they are so frighteningly far away ... and so beautiful: there’s nothing in creation half so beautiful as an asteroid sky.

You don’t want to look down, naturally.


I had left the Lucky Pierre to search for fossils (I’m David Koontz, the Lucky Pierre‘s paleontologist). Somewhere off in the darkness on either side of me were Joe Hargraves, gadgeting for mineral deposits, and Ed Reiss, hopefully on the lookout for anything alive. The _Lucky Pierre_ was back of us, her body out of sight behind a low black ridge, only her gleaming nose poking above like a porpoise coming up for air. When I looked back, I could see, along the jagged rim of the ridge, the busy reflected flickerings of the bubble-camp the techs were throwing together. Otherwise all was black, except for our blue-white torch beams that darted here and there over the gritty, rocky surface.

The twenty-nine of us were E.T.I. Team 17, whose assignment was the asteroids. We were four years and three months out of Terra, and we’d reached Vesta right on schedule. Ten minutes after landing, we had known that the clod was part of the crust of Planet X--or Sorn, to give it its right name--one of the few such parts that hadn’t been blown clean out of the Solar System.

That made Vesta extra-special. It meant settling down for a while. It meant a careful, months-long scrutiny of Vesta’s every square inch and a lot of her cubic ones, especially by the life-scientists. Fossils, artifacts, animate life ... a surface chunk of Sorn might harbor any of these, or all. Some we’d tackled already had a few.

In a day or so, of course, we’d have the one-man beetles and crewboats out, and the floodlights orbiting overhead, and Vesta would be as exposed to us as a molecule on a microscreen. Then work would start in earnest. But in the meantime--and as usual--Hargraves, Reiss and I were out prowling, our weighted boots clomping along in darkness. Captain Feldman had long ago given up trying to keep his science-minded charges from galloping off alone like this. In spite of being a military man, Feld’s a nice guy; he just shrugs and says, “Scientists!” when we appear brightly at the airlock, waiting to be let out.


So the three of us went our separate ways, and soon were out of sight of one another. Ed Reiss, the biologist, was looking hardest for animate life, naturally.

But I found it.


I had crossed a long, rounded expanse of rock--lava, wonderfully colored--and was descending into a boulder-cluttered pocket. I was nearing the “bottom” of the chunk, the part that had been the deepest beneath Sorn’s surface before the blow-up. It was the likeliest place to look for fossils.

But instead of looking for fossils, my eyes kept rising to those incredible stars. You get that way particularly after several weeks of living in steel; and it was lucky that I got that way this time, or I might have missed the Zen.

My feet tangled with a rock. I started a slow, light-gravity fall, and looked down to catch my balance. My torch beam flickered across a small, red-furred teddy-bear shape. The light passed on. I brought it sharply back to target.

My hair did not stand on end, regardless of what you’ve heard me quoted as saying. Why should it have, when I already knew Yurt so well--considered him, in fact, one of my closest friends?

The Zen was standing by a rock, one paw resting on it, ears cocked forward, its stubby hind legs braced ready to launch it into flight. Big yellow eyes blinked unemotionally at the glare of the torch, and I cut down its brilliance with a twist of the polarizer lens.

The creature stared at me, looking ready to jump halfway to Mars or straight at me if I made a wrong move.

I addressed it in its own language, clucking my tongue and whistling through my teeth: “Suh, Zen--”

In the blue-white light of the torch, the Zen shivered. It didn’t say anything. I thought I knew why. Three thousand years of darkness and silence...

I said, “I won’t hurt you,” again speaking in its own language.

The Zen moved away from the rock, but not away from me. It came a little closer, actually, and peered up at my helmeted, mirror-glassed head--unmistakably the seat of intelligence, it appears, of any race anywhere. Its mouth, almost human-shaped, worked; finally words came. It hadn’t spoken, except to itself, for three thousand years.

“You ... are not Zen,” it said. “Why--how do you speak Zennacai?”

It took me a couple of seconds to untangle the squeaking syllables and get any sense out of them. What I had already said to it were stock phrases that Yurt had taught me; I knew still more, but I couldn’t speak Zennacai fluently by any means. Keep this in mind, by the way: I barely knew the language, and the Zen could barely remember it. To save space, the following dialogue is reproduced without bumblings, blank stares and What-did-you-says? In reality, our talk lasted over an hour.

“I am an Earthman,” I said. Through my earphones, when I spoke, I could faintly hear my own voice as the Zen must have heard it in Vesta’s all but nonexistent atmosphere: tiny, metallic, cricket-like.

“Eert ... mn?”

I pointed at the sky, the incredible sky. “From out there. From another world.”

It thought about that for a while. I waited. We already knew that the Zens had been better astronomers at their peak than we were right now, even though they’d never mastered space travel; so I didn’t expect this one to boggle at the notion of creatures from another world. It didn’t. Finally it nodded, and I thought, as I had often before, how curious it was that this gesture should be common to Earthmen and Zen.

“So. Eert-mn,” it said. “And you know what I am?”

When I understood, I nodded, too. Then I said, “Yes,” realizing that the nod wasn’t visible through the one-way glass of my helmet.

“I am--last of Zen,” it said.

I said nothing. I was studying it closely, looking for the features which Yurt had described to us: the lighter red fur of arms and neck, the peculiar formation of flesh and horn on the lower abdomen. They were there. From the coloring, I knew this Zen was a female.

The mouth worked again--not with emotion, I knew, but with the unfamiliar act of speaking. “I have been here for--for--” she hesitated--”I don’t know. For five hundred of my years.”

“For about three thousand of mine,” I told her.


And then blank astonishment sank home in me--astonishment at the last two words of her remark. I was already familiar with the Zens’ enormous intelligence, knowing Yurt as I did ... but imagine thinking to qualify years with my when just out of nowhere a visitor from another planetary orbit pops up! And there had been no special stress given the distinction, just clear, precise thinking, like Yurt’s.

I added, still a little awed: “We know how long ago your world died.”

“I was child then,” she said, “I don’t know--what happened. I have wondered.” She looked up at my steel-and-glass face; I must have seemed like a giant. Well, I suppose I was. “This--what we are on--was part of Sorn, I know. Was it--” She fumbled for a word--”was it atom explosion?”

I told her how Sorn had gotten careless with its hydrogen atoms and had blown itself over half of creation. (This the E.T.I. Teams had surmised from scientific records found on Eros, as well as from geophysical evidence scattered throughout the other bodies.)

“I was child,” she said again after a moment. “But I remember--I remember things different from this. Air ... heat ... light ... how do I live here?”

Again I felt amazement at its intelligence; (and it suddenly occurred to me that astronomy and nuclear physics must have been taught in Sorn’s “elementary schools”--else that my years and atom explosion would have been all but impossible). And now this old, old creature, remembering back three thousand years to childhood--probably to those “elementary schools”--remembering, and defining the differences in environment between then and now; and more, wondering at its existence in the different now--

And then I got my own thinking straightened out. I recalled some of the things we had learned about the Zen.

Their average lifespan had been 12,000 years or a little over. So the Zen before me was, by our standards, about twenty-five years old. Nothing at all strange about remembering, when you are twenty-five, the things that happened to you when you were seven...

But the Zen’s question, even my rationalization of my reaction to it, had given me a chill. Here was no cuddly teddy bear.

This creature had been born before Christ!

She had been alone for three thousand years, on a chip of bone from her dead world beneath a sepulchre of stars. The last and greatest Martian civilization, the L’hrai, had risen and fallen in her lifetime. And she was twenty-five years old.

“How do I live here?” she asked again.

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