Kaiser stared at the tape in his hand for a long uncomprehending minute. How long had the stuff been coming through in this inane baby talk? And why hadn’t he noticed it before? Why had he had to read this last communication a third time before he recognized anything unusual about it?
He went over the words again, as though maybe this time they’d read as they should.
OO IS SICK, SMOKY. DO TO BEDDY-BY. KEEP UM WARM. WHEN UM FEELS BETTER, LET USNS KNOW.
Kaiser let himself ease back in the pilot chair and rolled the tape thoughtfully between his fingers. Overhead and to each side, large drops of rain thudded softly against the transparent walls of the scout ship and dripped wearily from the bottom ledge to the ground.
“Damn this climate!” Kaiser muttered irrelevantly. “Doesn’t it ever do anything here except rain?”
His attention returned to the matter at hand. Why the baby talk? And why was his memory so hazy? How long had he been here? What had he been doing during that time?
Listlessly he reached for the towel at his elbow and wiped the moisture from his face and bare shoulders. The air conditioning had gone out when the scout ship cracked up. He’d have to repair the scout or he was stuck here for good. He remembered now that he had gone over the job very carefully and thoroughly, and had found it too big to handle alone--or without better equipment, at least. Yet there was little or no chance of his being able to find either here.
Calmly, deliberately, Kaiser collected his thoughts, his memories, and brought them out where he could look at them:
The mother ship, Soscites II, had been on the last leg of its planet-mapping tour. It had dropped Kaiser in the one remaining scout ship--the other seven had all been lost one way or another during the exploring of new worlds--and set itself into a giant orbit about this planet that Kaiser had named Big Muddy.
The Soscites II had to maintain its constant speed; it had no means of slowing, except to stop, and no way to start again once it did stop. Its limited range of maneuverability made it necessary to set up an orbit that would take it approximately one month, Earth time, to circle a pinpointed planet. And now its fuel was low.
Kaiser had that one month to repair his scout or be stranded here forever.
That was all he could remember. Nothing of what he had been doing recently.
A small shiver passed through his body as he glanced once again at the tape in his hand. Baby talk...
One thing he could find out: how long this had been going on. He turned to the communicator and unhooked the paper receptacle on its bottom. It held about a yard and a half of tape, probably his last several messages--both those sent and those received. He pulled it out impatiently and began reading.
The first was from himself:
YOUR SUGGESTIONS NO HELP. HOW AM I GOING TO REPAIR DAMAGE TO SCOUT WITHOUT PROPER EQUIPMENT? AND WHERE DO I GET IT? DO YOU THINK I FOUND A TOOL SHOP DOWN HERE? FOR GOD’S SAKE, COME UP WITH SOMETHING BETTER.
VISITED SEAL-PEOPLE AGAIN TODAY. STILL HAVE THEIR STINK IN MY NOSE. FOUND HUTS ALONG RIVER BANK, SO I GUESS THEY DON’T LIVE IN WATER. BUT THEY DO SPEND MOST OF THEIR TIME THERE. NO, I HAVE NO WAY OF ESTIMATING THEIR INTELLIGENCE. I WOULD JUDGE IT AVERAGES NO HIGHER THAN SEVEN-YEAR-OLD HUMAN. THEY DEFINITELY DO TALK TO ONE ANOTHER. WILL TRY TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THEM, BUT YOU GET TO WORK FAST ON HOW I REPAIR SCOUT.
SWELLING IN ARM WORSE AND AM DEVELOPING A FEVER. TEMPERATURE 102.7 AN HOUR AGO.
The ship must have answered immediately, for the return message time was six hours later than his own, the minimum interval necessary for two-way exchange.
DOING OUR BEST, SMOKY. YOUR IMMEDIATE PROBLEM, AS WE SEE IT, IS TO KEEP WELL. WE FED ALL THE INFORMATION YOU GAVE US INTO SAM, BUT YOU DIDN’T HAVE MUCH EXCEPT THE STING IN YOUR ARM. AS EXPECTED, ALL THAT CAME OUT WAS “DATA INSUFFICIENT.” TRY TO GIVE US MORE. ALSO DETAIL ALL SYMPTOMS SINCE YOUR LAST REPORT. IN THE MEANTIME, WE’RE DOING EVERYTHING WE CAN AT THIS END. GOOD LUCK.
Sam, Kaiser knew, was the ship’s mechanical diagnostician. His report followed:
ARM SWOLLEN. UNABLE TO KEEP DOWN FOOD LAST TWELVE HOURS. ABOUT TWO HOURS AGO, ENTIRE BODY TURNED LIVID RED. BRIEF PERIODS OF BLANKNESS. THINGS KEEP COMING AND GOING. SICK AS HELL. HURRY.
The ship’s next message read:
INFECTION QUITE DEFINITE. BUT SOMETHING STRANGE THERE. GIVE US ANYTHING MORE YOU HAVE.
His own reply perplexed Kaiser:
LAST LETTER FUNNY. I NOT UNDERSTAND. WHY IS OO SENDING GARBLE TALK? DID USNS MAKE UP SECRET MESSAGES?
The expedition, apparently, was as puzzled as he:
WHAT’S THE MATTER, SMOKY? THAT LAST MESSAGE WAS IN PLAIN TERRAN. NO REASON WHY YOU COULDN’T READ IT. AND WHY THE BABY TALK? IF YOU’RE SPOOFING, STOP. GIVE US MORE SYMPTOMS. HOW ARE YOU FEELING NOW?
The baby talk was worse on Kaiser’s next:
TWAZY. WHAT FOR OO TENDING TWAZY LETTERS? FINK UM CAN WEAD TWAZY LETTERS? SKIN ALL YELLOW NOW. COLD. COLD. CO
The ship’s following communication was three hours late. It was the last on the tape--the one Kaiser had read earlier. Apparently they decided to humor him.
OO IS SICK, SMOKY. DO TO BEDDY-BY. KEEP UM WARM. WHEN UM FEELS BETTER, LET USNS KNOW.
That was not much help. All it told him was that he had been sick.
He felt better now, outside of a muscular weariness, as though convalescing from a long illness. He put the back of his hand to his forehead. Cool. No fever anyway.
He glanced at the clock-calendar on the instrument board and back at the date and time on the tape where he’d started his baby talk. Twenty hours. He hadn’t been out of his head too long. He began punching the communicator keys while he nibbled at a biscuit.
SEEM TO BE FULLY RECOVERED. FEELING FINE. ANYTHING NEW FROM SAM? AND HOW ABOUT THE DAMAGE TO SCOUT? GIVE ME ANYTHING YOU HAVE ON EITHER OR BOTH.
Kaiser felt suddenly weary. He lay on the scout’s bunk and tried to sleep. Soon he was in that phantasm land between sleep and wakefulness--he knew he was not sleeping, yet he did dream.
It was the same dream he had had many times before. In it, he was back home again, the home he had joined the space service to escape. He had realized soon after his marriage that his wife, Helene, did not love him. She had married him for the security his pay check provided. And though it soon became evident that she, too, regretted her bargain, she would not divorce him. Instead, she had her revenge on him by persistent nagging, by letting herself grow fat and querulous, and by caring for their house only in a slovenly way.
Her crippled brother had moved in with them the day they were married. His mind was as crippled as his body and he took an unhealthy delight in helping his sister torment Kaiser.
Kaiser came wide awake in a cold sweat. The clock showed that only an hour had passed since he had sent his last message to the ship. Still five more long hours to wait. He rose and wiped the sweat from his neck and shoulders and restlessly paced the small corridor of the scout.
After a few minutes, he stopped pacing and peered out into the gloom of Big Muddy. The rain seemed to have eased off some. Not much more than a heavy drizzle now.
Kaiser reached impulsively for the slicker he had thrown over a chest against one wall and put it on, then a pair of hip-high plastic boots and a plastic hat. He opened the door. The scout had come to rest with a slight tilt when it crashed, and Kaiser had to sit down and roll over onto his stomach to ease himself to the ground.
The weather outside was normal for Big Muddy: wet, humid, and warm.
Kaiser sank to his ankles in soft mud before his feet reached solid ground. He half walked and half slid to the rear of the scout. Beside the ship, the “octopus” was busily at work. Tentacles and antennae, extending from the yard-high box of its body, tested and recorded temperature, atmosphere, soil, and all other pertinent planetary conditions. The octopus was connected to the ship’s communicator and all its findings were being transmitted to the mother ship for study.
Kaiser observed that it was working well and turned toward a wide, sluggish river, perhaps two hundred yards from the scout. Once there, he headed upstream. He could hear the pipings, and now and then a higher whistling, of the seal-people before he reached a bend and saw them. As usual, most were swimming in the river.
One old fellow, whose chocolate-brown fur showed a heavy intermixture of gray, was sitting on the bank of the river just at the bend. Perhaps a lookout. He pulled himself to his feet as he spied Kaiser and his toothless, hard-gummed mouth opened and emitted a long whistle that might have been a greeting--or a warning to the others that a stranger approached.
The native stood perhaps five feet tall, with the heavy, blubbery body of a seal, and short, thick arms. Membranes connected the arms to his body from shoulder-pits to mid-biceps. The arms ended in three-fingered, thumbless hands. His legs also were short and thick, with footpads that splayed out at forty-five-degree angles. They gave his legs the appearance of a split tail. About him hung a rank-fish smell that made Kaiser’s stomach squirm.
The old fellow sounded a cheerful chirp as Kaiser came near. Feeling slightly ineffectual, Kaiser raised both hands and held them palm forward. The other chirped again and Kaiser went on toward the main group.
They had stopped their play and eating as Kaiser approached and now most of them swam in to shore and stood in the water, staring and piping. They varied in size from small seal-pups to full-grown adults. Some chewed on bunches of water weed, which they manipulated with their lips and drew into their mouths.
They had mammalian characteristics, Kaiser had noted before, so it was not difficult to distinguish the females from the males. The proportion was roughly fifty-fifty.
Several of the bolder males climbed up beside Kaiser and began pawing his plastic clothing. Kaiser stood still and tried to keep his breathing shallow, for their odor was almost more than he could bear. One native smeared Kaiser’s face with an exploring paw and Kaiser gagged and pushed him roughly away. He was bound by regulations to display no hostility to newly discovered natives, but he couldn’t take much more of this.
A young female splashed water on two young males who stood near and they turned with shrill pipings and chased her into the water. The entire group seemed to lose interest in Kaiser and joined in the chase, or went back to other diversions of their own. Kaiser’s inspectors followed.
They were a mindless lot, Kaiser observed. The river supplied them with an easy existence, with food and living space, and apparently they had few natural enemies.
Kaiser walked away, following the long slow bend of the river, and came to a collection of perhaps two hundred dwellings built in three haphazard rows along the river bank. He took time to study their construction more closely this time.
They were all round domes, little more than the height of a man, built of blocks that appeared to be mud, packed with river weed and sand. How they were able to dry these to give them the necessary solidity, Kaiser did not know. He had found no signs that they knew how to use fire, and all apparent evidence was against their having it. They then had to have sunlight. Maybe it rained less during certain seasons.
The domes’ construction was based on a series of four arches built in a circle. When the base covering the periphery had been laid, four others were built on and between them, and continued in successive tiers until the top was reached. Each tier thus furnished support for the next above. No other framework was needed. The final tier formed the roof. They made sound shelters, but Kaiser had peered into several and found them dark and dank--and as smelly as the natives themselves.
The few loungers in the village paid little attention to Kaiser and he wandered through the irregular streets until he became bored and returned to the scout.
The Soscites II sent little that helped during the next twelve hours and Kaiser occupied his time trying again to repair the damage to the scout.
The job appeared maddeningly simply. As the scout had glided in for a soft landing, its metal bottom had ridden a concealed rock and bent inward. The bent metal had carried up with it the tube supplying the fuel pump and flattened it against the motor casing.
Opening the tube again would not have been difficult, but first it had to be freed from under the ship. Kaiser had tried forcing the sheet metal back into place with a small crowbar--the best leverage he had on hand--but it resisted his best efforts. He still could think of no way to do the job, simple as it was, though he gave his concentration to it the rest of the day.
That evening, Kaiser received information from the Soscites II that was at least definite:
SET YOURSELF FOR A SHOCK, SMOKY. SAM FINALLY CAME THROUGH. YOU WON’T LIKE WHAT YOU HEAR. AT LEAST NOT AT FIRST. BUT IT COULD BE WORSE. YOU HAVE BEEN INVADED BY A SYMBIOTE--SIMILAR TO THE TYPE FOUND ON THE SAND WORLD, BARTEL-BLEETHERS. GIVE US A FEW MORE HOURS TO WORK WITH SAM AND WE’LL GET YOU ALL THE PARTICULARS HE CAN GIVE US. HANG ON NOW!
Kaiser’s reply was short and succinct:
WHAT THE HELL?
Soscites II’s next communication followed within twenty minutes and was signed by the ship’s doctor:
JUST A FEW WORDS, SMOKY, IN CASE YOU’RE WORRIED. I THOUGHT I’D GET THIS OFF WHILE WE’RE WAITING FOR MORE INFORMATION FROM SAM. REMEMBER THAT A SYMBIOTE IS NOT A PARASITE. IT WILL NOT HARM YOU, EXCEPT INADVERTENTLY. YOUR WELFARE IS AS ESSENTIAL TO IT AS TO YOU. ALMOST CERTAINLY, IF YOU DIE, IT WILL DIE WITH YOU. ANY TROUBLE YOU’VE HAD SO FAR WAS PROBABLY CAUSED BY THE SYMBIOTE’S DIFFICULTY IN ADJUSTING ITSELF TO ITS NEW ENVIRONMENT. IN A WAY, I ENVY YOU. MORE LATER, WHEN WE FINISH WITH SAM.
J. G. ZARWELL
Kaiser did not answer. The news was so startling, so unforeseen, that his mind refused to accept the actuality. He lay on the scout’s bunk and stared at the ceiling without conscious attention, and with very little clear thought, for several hours--until the next communication came in:
WELL, THIS IS WHAT SAM HAS TO SAY, SMOKY. SYMBIOTE AMICABLE AND APPARENTLY SWIFTLY ADAPTABLE. YOUR CHANGING COLOR, DIFFICULTY IN EATING AND EVEN BABY TALK WERE THE RESULT OF ITS EFFORTS TO GIVE YOU WHAT IT BELIEVED YOU NEEDED OR WANTED.
CHANGING COLOR: PROTECTIVE CAMOUFLAGE. TROUBLE KEEPING FOOD DOWN: IT KEPT YOUR STOMACH EMPTY BECAUSE IT SENSED YOU WERE IN TROUBLE AND MIGHT HAVE NEED FOR SHARP REFLEXES, WITH NO EXCESS WEIGHT TO CARRY. THE BABY TALK WE AREN’T TOO CERTAIN ABOUT, BUT OUR BEST CONCLUSION IS THAT WHEN YOU WERE A CHILD, YOU WERE MOST HAPPY. IT WAS TRYING TO GIVE YOU BACK THAT HAPPY STATE OF MIND. OBVIOUSLY IT QUICKLY RECOGNIZED THE MISTAKES IT MADE AND CORRECTED THEM.
SAM CAME UP WITH A FEW MORE IDEAS, BUT WE WANT TO WORK ON THEM A BIT BEFORE WE SEND THEM THROUGH. SLEEP ON THIS.
Kaiser could imagine that most of the crew were not too concerned about the trouble he was in. He was not the gregarious type and had no close friends on board. He had hoped to find the solitude he liked best in space, but he had been disappointed. True, there were fewer people here, but he was brought into such intimate contact with them that he would have been more contented living in a crowded city.