Bill Bradley shooed away the group of Quxas that had surged over the first-base line. With broad grins on their flat, piebald faces, they moved away--in the wrong direction, of course--and squatted in a smiling semicircle around Pat Reed, who was playing third. This was bad, because Reed was a fifty-fifty player: It was an even chance whether he got the ball or the ball got him. One of the half-domesticated thrags broke loose and cantered across the outfield with its peculiar five-legged gait. In the hubbub, Ray Bush stole second. Nobody seemed to notice.
Sighing heavily, Bill returned to the mound and whiplashed in a fast one, tight across the letters. The hitter got only a small piece of it; a pop fly sauntered toward left field. Judging it to a nicety, Gust Mustas came racing in, evaded a tethered thrag, leaped a hole some Quxa had dug and forgotten, and made a shoestring catch, retiring the side. The Quxas cheered deliriously.
Bill trotted off the mound. For a moment, the thrill of the game held him. This was the way things should be: The feel of smoothly flowing muscles, the thudding sound of horsehide hitting a leather glove, the weight of a bat in your hands in your first ball game after clambering over and scrabbling in an unexplored planet for fourteen months.
Then he caught sight of Candace Mathews, walking among the pneuma-huts that served as the outpost camp for the expedition. Gloom enveloped him again, surrounding him like a dank fog.
For fourteen long months, Bill had feasted on the memory of Candy Mathews, on his recollection of her turquoise eyes and cascading brown hair, on the remembrance of her soft lips on his last night under the four moons of Vensor III.
Today she had arrived with the seventy-odd men and women who comprised the appraisal unit, the final group of the planet’s explorers. He had looked forward like a schoolboy to her coming. And, like a schoolboy, he had suffered black despair when his dreams were shattered.
For the Candy Mathews who got off the shuttlebug at Camp Outpost was not the Candy Mathews who had said soft words on Vensor III. She was, instead, a self-assured young woman, somehow harder, who felt only an indifferent tolerance toward a tall young man named Bill Bradley, and an all-consuming, hero-worshipping infatuation for a newcomer, a dapper walking brain, Vance Montgomery, one of the council’s smart boys, with the title of planet evaluator.
“He’s simply wonderful,” she had said. And the joy of life had gone out of Bill Bradley.
The appraisal group brought in athletic equipment and Bill’s men spontaneously declared a holiday, their first on the planet. Baseball was the order of the afternoon and they shanghaied a not unwilling Bill to pitch. He should, he knew, be laying out reports for Montgomery to study. He did not particularly want to be with Montgomery.
Bill sat on the xetal log that served as a bench.
One Quxa was bent over, examining first base. He made a colorful sight. The first baseman slapped him jovially on the loin cloth to move him.
The owner of the thrag caught up to it and was struggling manfully to lead it away. The five-legged beast defied his efforts, rearing and dragging him. A dozen Quxas stood nearby. Their sympathies were obviously with their fellow-Quxa, but they made no move to help him.
Reed was on the bench next to Bill. He had come in with the appraisal group.
“Your vivid friends,” he said, cocking a thumb at the Quxas, “don’t appear too bright.”
“They’re smart enough,” said Bill. “Almost as intelligent as we are. It’s just that they’ve never risen above a herd culture.”
“Look,” said Reed. “I’m a silviculturist. Give me a hunk of wood and I can tell how long it took to grow, what it’s good for, where it can be raised and how much board and profit can be made out of it. But this kind of talk throws me. Try another wave-length.”
“Socially, they’re like the seals or penguins back on Earth. They like to gather in groups. The things they can do individually, they do well. But they don’t know how to help each other. That’s beyond them.”
“Don’t understand the meaning of cooperation?”
“The word isn’t even in their language. I’ve seen forty of them standing around, fretting and stewing, while the horals killed off one of their fellows.”
“What are horals?”
“The other dominant life-form here. Nasty brutes, like big upright ants with tentacles. Stand about as high as my chest. Most malignant things I’ve seen. One Quxa can handle any horal, maybe even two or three. But the horals hunt in packs. Good-by Quxa.”
“Killing them off, are they?”
“This is the last big concentration the Quxas have left. In another hundred years, there’ll be no more Quxas.”
They looked again at the natives. The Quxas were something to see--human in form, although somewhat shorter than Earthmen; their skins were blotched and dashed with patches of vivid colors. Antiquarians talked of their resemblance to the ancient circus clowns, a likeness furthered by their broad, flat faces and habitual grins.
“Sort of hate to see them disappear,” Bill said glumly. “They’re happy, good-natured creatures. In their whole race, I know only one who’s mean. We’ve done our best to help them. But if they won’t cooperate even in a matter of life and death, what incentive can you offer them?”
An elbow dug into him.
“Up to the platter, dream boy,” said Gust Mustas. “A hit means two runs.”
Selecting a bat, Bill made his way to the plate. In the middle distance, Vance Montgomery emerged from a hut. Candy went to him eagerly, put a hand on his arm. A deep rage engulfed Bill.
The first pitch was a curve that failed to break. As it came fatly over the plate, Bill swung angrily. The ball rocketed up and away, past the infield, over the head of the desperately running left-fielder and dropped toward a sure home run.
Then a curious thing happened. One of the Quxas darted away from the gabbling group along the foul line, his short legs churning over the uneven ground. As the ball sank, he dove, plucked it out of the air with one broad hand, turned a somersault and came up with it, grinning. It was an impossible catch and the Earthmen joined the Quxas in applause. Still clinging to the ball, the Quxa made little bobbing bows of acknowledgment.
“Throw it in!” shouted Bill. The Quxa stood motionless. “Throw it in, Adlaa!” Bill urged. He went through a throwing motion.
The Quxa nodded comprehension. He went into a violent wind-up. His left foot came up, his upper body went back, his right arm snapped in an arc. The ball flew from his hand, straight and fast.
In the wrong direction, of course.
The pack of Quxas pelted after it, shouting, picked it up and threw again. To his surprise, Bill found himself pounding after them, bawling fruitless pleas, aware that he looked foolish, but, in his rage, not caring. He closed in on them on the fifth throw and his fingertips touched the ball. He succeeded only in deflecting it. There was a dull thunk and the game was over. The ball had struck Vance Montgomery, planet evaluator, squarely in the left eye.
Three things were said then to Bill Bradley.
One was by Montgomery as he handed back the ball. “I was not aware, Bradley, that the job of camp leader entailed joining the rowdyism of the native races.”
One was by Candy Mathews, hopping with anger. “You’re a barbarian, Bill Bradley. Monty might have been badly hurt.”
The third was by a clot of Quxas, crowding eagerly. “Play ball! Billbrad, more play ball!”
To the first two, Bill did not reply. To the Quxas, he said one word, “Nuts!” and dolefully followed Montgomery into the headquarters hut.
In spite of his natural prejudice against Montgomery, Bill was forced into a reluctant admiration for the way the man worked.
Montgomery’s task was to recommend whether the planet should be marked for immediate colonization, placed on a reserve list for future expansion, or be left strictly alone as unworthy of occupancy. He tore through Bill’s reports like a small child through a bag of jellybeans. His questions, if pompous, were pointed.
Within twenty-four hours, ready to leave for the main camp, he called a conference.
He stood before the group, as dapper as a man can be with a rainbow bruise under one eye, complacently listening to the resonance of his own voice. Beside him, Candy nodded worshipful agreement. Bill grumped in a corner.
For a full forty-five minutes, Montgomery outlined additional data he wanted gathered. His voice was faintly chiding, implying by its tone that anybody but a dolt would have obtained the information long ago.
“And now,” he said, “we come to the question of the humanoid denizens of this planet--the so-called Quxas.” He fingered his black eye. “Many persons might conclude that the Quxas are not worth saving; and in themselves, they are not. However, my preliminary conclusions--based, unfortunately, on insufficient data--lead me to believe that this planet will be used for colonization in about five hundred years. It would be very convenient then to have a dominant life-form friendly to the galactic humans and capable of being integrated with the colonists. Some method of preserving the Quxas must therefore be worked out. In this, the advance group has failed lamentably.”
He paused, glanced around triumphantly.
“How do I propose to achieve this? By a historical method. What do nations do when they are in peril? They call upon a single man, place themselves under him and let him lead them out. When the ancient western civilization was in its greatest danger after the fall of Rome, the people gathered around the strong men, made them kings and dukes and earls, and were saved from barbarism.
“I shall do the same for the Quxas. The Quxas shall have a king.”
His eyes sought out Bill.
“My acquaintance here has been short. I must rely on advice. Bradley, whom would you recommend as king of the Quxas?”
“Well,” said Bill slowly, “Moahlo is the most intelligent. He’s good-natured and kindly. He has a lot of artistic ability. Some of his carvings are being taken back for the Galactic Folk Museum.”
“An artist!” said Montgomery in disgust. “Well, let’s have a look at him.”
Moahlo was finishing a figurine near one of the meandering paths that the Quxas had worn by habit, not design. A bemused group of natives looked on admiringly.
Down the path came Ratakka, the biggest of the Quxas, his shoulders proudly back, his face set in the truculent scowl. Bill knew and disliked him, and apprehensively felt sure the peaceful scene would be destroyed. Alone of an amiable, tolerant race, Ratakka was perpetually ill-tempered, the rankling product of Lord knew what alien genetic accident or trauma.
Ratakka found his path obstructed by the carving. Callously, he brought his foot down on the delicate figurine, crushing it to splinters. Moahlo sprang up in gentle protest. Ratakka gave him the back of a meaty hand that knocked him off his feet. Two spectators indicated disapproval. Ratakka smashed their heads together and strode on.
“To save a culture, Bradley,” said Montgomery, who had watched the brutal display with admiration, “you need strength, not delicacy or feeling. That man shall be king of the Quxas.”
He ran after Ratakka.
The members of the outpost staff looked at Bill in dismay. He shrugged sadly and walked out of the headquarters hut. At the doorway, Adlaa was waiting for him with the same old plea.
“Play ball?” he begged. “More play ball, Billbrad?”
In his despondent mood, Bill did not care.
“All right. I’ll throw the ball to you and you throw it back to me.”
“Quxas not do that.”
“It’s just as much fun to throw the ball in one direction as in any other direction,” Bill explained patiently. “Unless you throw it back, forget it--no play ball.”
Adlaa thought seriously. “Hunky dokey. Want play ball.”
They were tossing it back and forth in the middle of a cheering group when a half-track passed, taking Montgomery, Candy and Ratakka to the main camp. The look that the girl gave Bill was disdainful.
“There’s a gaggle of natives outside in assorted shades,” said Pat Reed the next day. “They want to play ball. Moahlo’s at their head. He carved a bat.”
“Tell them to beat it. We’re busy.”
“Let’s give them some fun while we can. They won’t enjoy life much after King Rat gets back here.”
“That’s the truth,” Bill agreed. “All right.”
“I wish your painted idiots would get over their baseball mania,” complained Rudy Peters, the mineralogist, two days later. “Look me over carefully, will you, Bill? I think my throwing arm just dropped off.”
“They’re nutty about it, all right,” Bill Bradley said. “Too bad it couldn’t have been about something with some economic value.”
“Economic value, the man wants. Okay, I’ll talk economic value to you. Bet you fifty units I can make a better ball team out of these freaks than you can.”
“Well, make it thirty.”
“You’re on, sucker. I’ve lined up the sweetest shortstop that ever spit in a glove...”
“Here’s your thirty,” said Rudy Peters a week after. “How was I to know that shortstop wouldn’t throw the ball to anyone except the center-fielder?”
“Team play’s the stuff, lad,” said Bill Bradley. “Stress team play. Twenty-five, twenty-seven, twenty-nine, thirty. Exactly right. Another lesson at the same price?”
He was refused, but never on an exploration had Bill Bradley had so much fun. And never, he reminded himself grimly, had he got so little work done. The Quxas were neglecting their skimpy food plots in their eagerness to play. They were getting lean. Finally, with reluctance, Bill called a temporary halt to baseball.