The strangers landed just before dawn, incinerating a good li of bottom land in the process. Their machines were already busily digging up the topsoil. The Old One watched, squinting into the morning sun. He sighed, hitched up his saffron robes and started walking down toward the strangers.
Griffin turned, not trying to conceal his excitement. “You’re the linguist, see what you can get out of him.”
“I might,” Kung Su ventured sourly, “if you’d go weed the air machine or something. This is going to be hard enough without a lot of kibitzers cramping my style and scaring Old Pruneface here half to death.”
“I see your point,” Griffin answered. He turned and started back toward the diggings. “Let me know it you make any progress with the local language.” He stopped whistling and strove to control the jauntiness of his gait. Must be the lower gravity and extra oxygen, he thought. I haven’t bounced along like this for thirty years. Nice place to settle down if some promoter doesn’t turn it into an old folks home. He sighed and glanced over the diggings. The rammed earth walls were nearly obliterated by now. Nothing lost, he reflected. It’s all on tape and they’re no different from a thousand others at any rate.
Griffin opened a door in the transparent bubble from which Albañez was operating the diggers. “Anything?” he inquired.
“Nothing so far,” Albañez reported. “What’s the score on this job? I missed the briefing.”
“How’d you make out on III, by the way?”
“Same old stuff, pottery shards and the usual junk. See it once and you’ve seen it all.”
“Well,” Griffin began, “it looks like the same thing here again. We’ve pretty well covered this system and you know how it is. Rammed earth walls here and there, pottery shards, flint, bronze and iron artifacts and that’s it. They got to the iron age on every planet and then blooey.”
“Artifacts all made for humanoid hands I suppose. I wonder if they were close enough to have crossbred with humans.”
“I couldn’t say,” Griffin observed dryly. “From the looks of Old Pruneface I doubt if we’ll ever find a human female with sufficiently detached attitude to find out.”
“He came ambling down out of the hills this morning and walked into camp.”
“You mean you’ve actually found a live humanoid?”
“There’s got to be a first time for everything.” Griffin opened the door and started climbing the hill toward Kung Su and Pruneface.
“Well, have you gotten beyond the ‘me, Charlie’ stage yet?” Griffin inquired at breakfast two days later.
Kung Su gave an inscrutable East Los Angeles smile. “As a matter of fact, I’m a little farther along. Joe is amazingly coöperative.”
“Spell it Chou if you want to be exotic. It’s still pronounced Joe and that’s his name. The language is monosyllabic and tonal. I happen to know a similar language.”
“You mean this humanoid speaks Chinese?” Griffin was never sure whether Kung was ribbing him or not.
“Not Chinese. The vocabulary is different but the syntax and phonemes are nearly identical. I’ll speak it perfectly in a week. It’s just a question of memorizing two or three thousand new words. Incidentally, Joe wants to know why you’re digging up his bottom land. He was all set to flood it today.”
“Don’t tell me he plants rice!” Griffin exclaimed.
“I don’t imagine it’s rice, but it needs flooding whatever it is.”
“Ask him how many humanoids there are on this planet.”
“I’m way ahead of you, Griffin. He says there are only a few thousand left. The rest were all destroyed in a war with the barbarians.”
“How many races were there?”
“I’ll get to that if you’ll stop interrupting,” Kung rejoined testily. “Joe says there are only two kinds of people, his own dark, straight-haired kind and the barbarians. They have curly hair, white skin and round eyes. You’d pass for a barbarian, according to Joe, only you don’t have a faceful of hair. He wants to know how things are going on the other planets.”
“I suppose that’s my cue to break into a cold sweat and feel a premonition of disaster.” Griffin tried to smile and almost made it.
“Not necessarily, but it seems our iron-age man is fairly well informed in extraplanetary affairs.”
“I guess I’d better start learning the language.”
Thanks to the spade work Kung Su had done in preparing hypno-recordings, Griffin had a working knowledge of the Rational People’s language eleven days later when he sat down to drink herb infused hot water with Joe and other Old Ones in the low-roofed wooden building around which clustered a village of two hundred humanoids. He fidgeted through interminable ritualistic cups of hot water. Eventually Joe hid his hands in the sleeves of his robe and turned with an air of polite inquiry. Now we get down to business, Griffin thought.
“Joe, you know by now why we’re digging up your bottom land. We’ll recompense you in one way or another. Meanwhile, could you give me a little local history?”
Joe smiled like a well nourished bodhisattva. “Approximately how far back would you like me to begin?”
“At the beginning.”
“How long is a year on your planet?” Joe inquired.
“Your year is eight and a half days longer. Our day is three hundred heartbeats longer than yours.”
Joe nodded his thanks. “More water?”
Griffin declined, suppressing a shudder.