Stamped Caution - Cover

Stamped Caution

by Raymond Z. Gallun

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: It's a funny thing, but most monsters seem to be of the opinion that it's men who are the monsters. You know, they have a point.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Ten minutes after the crackup, somebody phoned for the Army. That meant us. The black smoke of the fire, and the oily residues, which were later analyzed, proved the presence of a probable petroleum derivative. The oil was heavily tainted with radioactivity. Most likely it was fuel from the odd, conchlike reaction-motors, the exact principles of which died, as far as we were concerned, with the crash.

The craft was mainly of aluminum, magnesium and a kind of stainless steel, proving that, confronted with problems similar to ones we had encountered, aliens might solve them in similar ways. From the crumpled-up wreckage which we dug out of that Missouri hillside, Klein even noticed a familiar method of making girders and braces lighter. Circular holes were punched out of them at spaced intervals.

I kept hunting conviction by telling myself that, for the first time in all remembered history, we were peeking behind the veil of another planet. This should be the beginning of a new era, one of immensely widened horizons, and of high romance--but with a dark side, too. The sky was no longer a limit. There were things beyond it that would have to be reckoned with. And how does unknown meet unknown? Suppose one has no hand to shake?

The mass of that wreck reeked like a hot cinder-pile and a burning garbage dump combined. It oozed blackened goo. There were crushed pieces of calcined material that looked like cuttlebone. The thin plates of charred stuff might almost have been pressed cardboard. Foot-long tubes of thin, tin-coated iron contained combined chemicals identifiable as proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Food, we decided.

Naturally, we figured that here was a wonderful clue to the plant and animal life of another world. Take a can of ordinary beef goulash; you can see the fibrous muscle and fat structure of the meat, and the cellular components of the vegetables. And here it was true, too, to a lesser degree. There were thin flakes and small, segmented cylinders which must have been parts of plants. But most was a homogeneous mush like gelatin.

Evidently there had been three occupants of the craft. But the crash and the fire had almost destroyed their forms. Craig, our biologist, made careful slides of the remains, tagging this as horny epidermis, this as nerve or brain tissue, this as skeletal substance, and this as muscle from a tactile member--the original had been as thin as spaghetti, and dark-blooded.

Under the microscope, muscle cells proved to be very long and thin. Nerve cells were large and extremely complex. Yet you could say that Nature, starting from scratch in another place, and working through other and perhaps more numerous millions of years, had arrived at somewhat the same results as it had achieved on Earth.

I wonder how an other-world entity, ignorant of humans, would explain a shaving-kit or a lipstick. Probably for like reasons, much of the stuff mashed into that wreck had to remain incomprehensible to us. Wrenches and screwdrivers, however, we could make sense of, even though the grips of those tools were not hand-grips. We saw screws and bolts, too. One device we found had been a simple crystal diaphragm with metal details--a radio. There were also queer rifles. Lord knows how many people have wondered what the extraterrestrial equivalents of common human devices would look like. Well, here were some answers.

A few of the instruments even had dials with pointers. And the numeral 1 used on them was a vertical bar, almost like our own. But zero was a plus sign. And they counted by twelves, not tens.

But all these parallels with our own culture seemed canceled by the fact that, even when this ship was in its original undamaged state, no man could have gotten inside it. The difficulty was less a matter of human size than of shape and physical behavior. The craft seemed to have been circular, with compartmentation in spiral form, like a chambered nautilus.

This complete divergence from things we knew sent frost imps racing up and down my spine.

And it prompted Blaine to say: “I suppose that emotions, drives, and purposes among off-Earth intelligences must be utterly inconceivable to us.”

We were assembled in the big trailer that had been brought out for us to live in, while we made a preliminary survey of the wreck.

“Only about halfway, Blaine,” Miller answered. “Granting that the life-chemistry of those intelligences is the same as ours--the need for food creates the drive of hunger. Awareness of death is balanced by the urge to avoid it. There you have fear and combativeness. And is it so hard to tack on the drives of curiosity, invention, and ambition, especially when you know that these beings made a spaceship? Cast an intelligence in any outward form, anywhere, it ought to come out much the same. Still, there are bound to be wide differences of detail--with wide variations of viewpoint. They could be horrible to us. And most likely it’s mutual.”

I felt that Miller was right. The duplication of a human race on other worlds by another chain of evolution was highly improbable. And to suppose that we might get along with other entities on a human basis seemed pitifully naive.

With all our scientific thoroughness, when it came to examining, photographing and recording everything in the wreck, there was no better evidence of the clumsy way we were investigating unknown things than the fact that at first we neglected our supreme find almost entirely.

It was a round lump of dried red mud, the size of a soft baseball. When Craig finally did get around to X-raying it, indications of a less dense interior and feathery markings suggesting a soft bone structure showed up on the plate. Not entirely sure that it was the right thing to do, he opened the shell carefully.

Think of an artichoke ... but not a vegetable. Dusky pink, with thin, translucent mouth-flaps moving feebly. The blood in the tiny arteries was very red--rich in hemoglobin, for a rare atmosphere.

As a youngster, I had once opened a chicken egg, when it was ten days short of hatching. The memory came back now.

“It looks like a growing embryo of some kind,” Klein stated.

“Close the lump again, Craig,” Miller ordered softly.

The biologist obeyed.

“A highly intelligent race of beings wouldn’t encase their developing young in mud, would they?” Klein almost whispered.

“You’re judging by a human esthetic standard,” Craig offered. “Actually, mud can be as sterile as the cleanest surgical gauze.”

The discussion was developing unspoken and shadowy ramifications. The thing in the dusty red lump--whether the young of a dominant species, or merely a lower animal--had been born, hatched, started in life probably during the weeks or months of a vast space journey. Nobody would know anything about its true nature until, and if, it manifested itself. And we had no idea of what that manifestation might be. The creature might emerge an infant or an adult. Friendly or malevolent. Or even deadly.

Blaine shrugged. Something scared and half-savage showed in his face. “What’ll we do with the thing?” he asked. “Keep it safe and see what happens. Yet it might be best to get rid of it fast--with chloroform, cyanide or the back of a shovel.”

Miller’s smile was very gentle. “Could be you’re right, Blaine.”

I’d never known Miller to pull rank on any of the bunch. Only deliberate thought would remind us that he was a colonel. But he wasn’t really a military man; he was a scientist whom the Army had called in to keep a finger on a possibility that they had long known might be realized. Yes--space travel. And Miller was the right guy for the job. He had the dream even in the wrinkles around his deep-set gray eyes.

Blaine wasn’t the right guy. He was a fine technician, good at machinery, radar--anything of the sort. And a nice fellow. Maybe he’d just blown off steam--uncertainty, tension. I knew that no paper relating to him would be marked, “Psychologically unsuited for task in hand.” But I knew just as surely that he would be quietly transferred. In a big thing like this, Miller would surround himself only with men who saw things his way.

That night we moved everything to our labs on the outskirts of St. Louis. Every particle of that extraterrestrial wreck had been packed and crated with utmost care. Klein and Craig went to work to build a special refuge for that mud lump and what was in it. They were top men. But I had got tied up with Miller more or less by chance, and I figured I’d be replaced by an expert. I can say that I was a college man, but that’s nothing.

I guess you can’t give up participation in high romance without some regret. Yet I wasn’t too sorry. I liked things the way they’d always been. My beer. My Saturday night dates with Alice. On the job, the atmosphere was getting a bit too rich and futuristic.

Later that evening, Miller drew me aside. “You’ve handled carrier pigeons and you’ve trained dogs, Nolan,” he said. “You were good at both.”

“Here I go, back to the farm-yard.”

“In a way. But you expand your operations, Nolan. You specialize as nurse for a piece of off-the-Earth animal life.”

“Look, Miller,” I pointed out. “Ten thousand professors are a million times better qualified, and rarin’ to go.”

“They’re liable to think they’re well qualified, when no man could be--yet. That’s bad, Nolan. The one who does it has to be humble enough to be wary--ready for whatever might happen. I think a knack with animals might help. That’s the best I can do, Nolan.”

“Thanks, Miller.” I felt proud--and a little like a damn fool.

“I haven’t finished talking yet,” Miller said. “We know that real contact between our kind and the inhabitants of another world can’t be far off. Either they’ll send another ship or we’ll build one on Earth. I like the idea, Nolan, but it also scares the hell out of me. Men have had plenty of trouble with other ethnic groups of their own species, through prejudice, misunderstanding, honest suspicion. How will it be at the first critical meeting of two kinds of things that will look like hallucinations to each other? I suspect an awful and inevitable feeling of separateness that nothing can bridge--except maybe an impulse to do murder.

“It could be a real menace. But it doesn’t have to be. So we’ve got to find out what we’re up against, if we can. We’ve got to prepare and scheme. Otherwise, even if intentions on that other world are okay, there’s liable to be an incident at that first meeting that can spoil a contact across space for all time, and make interplanetary travel not the success it ought to be, but a constant danger. So do you see our main objective, Nolan?”

I told Miller that I understood.

That same night, Klein and Craig put the lump of mud in a small glass case from which two-thirds of the air had been exhausted. The remainder was kept dehydrated and chilled. It was guess work, backed up by evidence: The rusty red of that mud; the high hemoglobin content of the alien blood we had seen; the dead-air cells--resistant to cold--in the shreds of rough skin that we had examined. And then there was the fair proximity of Mars and Earth in their orbits at the time.

My job didn’t really begin till the following evening, when Craig and Klein had completed a much larger glass cage, to which my outlandish--or, rather, outworldish--ward was transferred. Miller provided me with a wire-braced, airtight costume and oxygen helmet, the kind fliers use at extreme altitudes. Okay, call it a spacesuit. He also gave me a small tear-gas pistol, an automatic, and a knife.

All there was to pit such armament against was a seemingly helpless lump of protoplasm, two inches in diameter. Still, here was an illustration of how cautiously you are prompted to treat so unknown a quantity. You are unable to gauge its powers, or lack of them, for you have nothing on which to base a judgment.

I became like a monk--my pressure armor was my robe; the chilly semi-vacuum inside that glass cage, my cell. Nights out with Alice were going to be far between.

On the third evening, that lump of mud, resting in dried-out soil similar to itself, split along the line where Craig had originally cut it. Out onto the cage floor crept what the records designated as E.T.L.--Extra-Terrestrial-Life. It was finished with the mud shell that had enabled it to survive a crash and fire.

Craig, Klein, Miller and a lot of news reporters stared into the glass cage from outside. There was nothing for me to do just then except watch that tiny monster, and try to read, in its every clumsy, dragging movement, some fragmentary unveiling of many riddles.

Although it might have shrunk a bit since I had last seen it, it looked more complete. The dusky pink of its wrinkled integument was darker. It had dozens of short tendrils, hardly thicker than horsehair, with which it pulled itself along. It had lost some leaflike pieces of skin. Laterally, two eyes gleamed, clear and slit-pupiled. Its jaws, hinged on a horizontal plane, opened and closed between fleshy flaps. Through the thin plastic of my oxygen helmet, I heard a querulous “chip-chip-chip,” which reminded me of the squeaking of an infant bat.

The E.T.L. crept in a small looping course on the cage floor, back to one half of the mud shell that had encased it. It tried to mount this, perhaps to gain a vantage point for better observation. But it fell and turned over. Its ventral surface was ceiling-ward; its tendrils writhed furiously as it tried to right itself. I thought of a horseshoe crab, stranded on its back and kicking helplessly. But this thing’s form and movement were even more alien.

After a moment, I followed an impulse which was part duty to my job and part pity. I tipped the little horror back on its bottom, glad that there was a glove between me and it. Then I did the same thing I would do with a pet puppy or kitten. I set a dish of food--chemically prepared to duplicate the contents of the tubes we had found in the wreck--right down in front of the E.T.L.

It fumbled at the stuff and, possibly because of a gravity two-and-a-half times as great as it was made for, it almost got itself stuck in the mess. But it freed itself. Its mouth-flaps began to make lapping movements as it sucked the nourishment.

I felt prematurely relieved. This was no potentially dominant wizard in a strange body, I told myself. This was pure animal.

Over my helmet radiophone--there was a mike outside the cage, so they could communicate with me when I was inside--I heard Miller say to the reporters:

“The feeding instinct. They’ve got it, too. Now we know for sure...”

I think that the E.T.L. had colic from that first meal, though, like any half-smart puppy trainer, I tried not to let it eat too much. It writhed for a while, as if in pain. And I was on pins. How was I supposed to know just what was best to feed the thing, so it would survive? Everything was guesswork, varying formulas cautiously, groping. And it wasn’t only the food. There was the searching for the temperature, the air-pressure and the degree of dryness at which the E.T.L. seemed most comfortable. And there was also the fiddling around with light-composition and intensities, variable in the sun lamps, to find what seemed best.

We seemed to have figured things out right--or else the monster was just rugged. It shed several skins, thrived and grew active. Its size increased steadily. And other things began to grow in that cage. Odd, hard-shelled, bluish-green weeds; lichenous patches, dry as dust; invisible, un-Earthly bacteria--all were harmless, possibly even beneficial, to my charge.

How did all this stuff come into being? Miller and Craig had examined the dried clay of the E.T.L.’s discarded casing with microscopes. They scraped dust from every fragment of the wreck that hadn’t been blasted too much with fire, and made cultures. They were looking for spores and seeds and microbes. And it wasn’t long before they had classified quite a list of other-world biological forms. The most common of these they transplanted into the cage.

Often I even slept inside the cage, clad in my armor. That’s devotion to a purpose for you. In a way, it was like living on a little piece of Mars. Often enough I was bored stiff.

But plenty did happen. From the start Etl--we began calling the thing that--showed an almost electrically intense curiosity for everything. Some of the habits of its kind were written in its instincts. It basked in strong light, but it liked dark corners, too. At night--when we turned the sun lamps off, that is--it would bury itself in the dusty soil. Protection against nocturnal cold might have been the reason for that.

When he was a month and two days out of his clay shell, Etl tried to rear up vertically on his tendrils. He kept toppling over. Maybe he was trying to “walk.” But there were no bones in those tendrils and, of course, the strong Earth gravity defeated him.

Lots of times I tried to see what he could do. A real scientist would call this “making tests.” I just called it fooling around. I made him climb a stool for his food. He seemed to make a careful survey first, eying each rung; then he drew himself up in one motion.

During one of my rare nights in town--to get a refresher from outlandish stuff in Alice’s company--I bought some toys. When I came back to relieve Craig, who had taken care of Etl during my absence, I said: “Etl, here’s a rubber ball. Let’s play.”

He caught it on the second try, in those swift, dextrous tendrils. There was a savagery in the way he did it. I thought of a dog snapping a bumblebee out of the air. Yet my idea that Etl was just an animal had almost vanished by then.

I got into the habit of talking to him the way you do to a pup. Sort of crooning. “Good fella, Etl. Smart. You learn fast, don’t you?”

Stuff like that. And I’d coax him to climb up the front of my spacesuit. There were fine, barb-like prongs along the length of his many tentacles; I could feel them pulling in the tough, rubberized fabric, like the claws of a climbing kitten. And he would make a kind of contented chirping that might have had affection in it.

But then there was the time when he bit me. I don’t know the reason, unless it was that I had held onto his ball too long. He got my finger, through the glove, with his snaggy, chalk-hued mandibles, while he made a thin hissing noise.

Pretty soon my hand swelled up to twice its size, and I felt sick. Klein had to relieve me in the cage for a while. The bite turned out to be mildly venomous. Before that, I’d had a rash on my arms. An allergy, probably; maybe some substance from those Martian plants had gotten inside my spacesuit and rubbed onto my skin. Who knows? Perhaps Earthly flesh can sense alien life, and reddens to fight it off. And there you have one of the potential disadvantages of contact with unknown worlds.

That poisoned bite was one thing. But Etl’s show of rage was another--a sign of the mixed nature of all his kind, emerging a bit from the shadows of enigma. Here revealed was the emotion on which things like murder are based. These creatures had it, just as we did. Maybe it’s necessary for any kind of thing that can progress upward from nothing. Still, people did not find it reassuring when they heard about it on the newscast.

After that, popular opinion insisted that the cage be constantly surrounded by four manned machine-guns pointing inward. And tanks of cyanogen were so arranged that the poison gas could be sent gushing into the cage at any time.

Part of my mind felt these precautions were completely exaggerated. There is a certain, ever-present segment of any public, whose jittery imagination is a constant fuse-cap for panic. Such cowardice angered me.

But the rest of me went along with Miller when he said: “We’re in the dark, Nolan. For all we know, we might be up against very swift maturity and inherited memory. And we’ve got to go on testing Etl ... with toys, psychological apparatus and tools and devices made by his own people. Suppose he ‘remembers’ skills from his ancestors, and can build dangerous new devices, or make old ones work again? If his kind are bent on being enemies, we’d better find it out as soon as possible, too, hadn’t we? No, I don’t truly expect any serious developments, Nolan. Still--just for insurance--eh?”

A year passed without great mishap--unless I should mention that Alice and I got married. But it didn’t spoil anything, and it raised my morale. We got a bungalow right on the lab grounds.

A lot had been accomplished, otherwise. Once I let Etl play with my gun, minus cartridges. He was avidly interested; but he paid no attention to the Hopalong cap pistol that I left in its place when I took the gun back. He figured out how to grip simple Martian tools, threading his tactile members through the holes in their handles; but complicated devices of the same origin seemed more of a puzzle to him than to the rest of us. So our inherited-memory idea faded out.

Etl liked to work with those slender tendrils of his. The dexterity and speed with which he soon learned to build many things with a construction set seemed to prove a race background of perhaps ages of such activities. I made a tower or a bridge, while he watched. Then he was ready to try it on his own, using screwdrivers that Klein had made with special grips.

Of course we tried dozens of intelligence tests on Etl, mostly of the puzzle variety, like fitting odd-shaped pieces of plastic together to form a sphere or a cube. He was hard to rate on any common human I.Q. scale. Even for an Earthian, an I.Q. rating is pretty much of a makeshift proposition. There are too many scattered factors that can’t be touched.

With Etl, it was even tougher. But at the end of that first year Miller had him pegged at about 120, judging him on the same basis as a five-year-old child. This score scared people a lot, because it seemed to hint at a race of super-beings.

But Miller wasn’t jumping to conclusions. He pointed out to the reporters that Etl’s kind seemed to grow up very rapidly; 120 was only twenty points above the norm--not uncommon among Earth youngsters, especially those from more gifted families. Etl seemed to have sprung from corresponding parentage, he said, for it seemed clear that they had been of the kind that does big things. They’d made a pioneering voyage across space, hadn’t they?

Etl could make chirps and squeaks and weird animal cries. Human speech, however, was beyond his vocal powers, though I knew that he could understand simple orders. He had a large tympanic membrane or “ear” on his ventral surface. Of course we wondered how his kind communicated with one another. The way he groped at my fingers with certain of his tentacles gave us a clue. There were tiny, nerve-like threads at their extremities. Seeing them prompted Miller to do something as brave as it was foolhardy.

He called in a surgeon and had a nerve in his arm bared. It must have hurt like the devil, but he let Etl clutch it with those thread-like members.

I was cockeyed enough to follow Miller’s example and found out how much it really hurt. The idea was to establish a nerve channel, brain to brain, along which thoughts might pass. But nothing came through except a vague and restless questioning, mixed with the pain of our experiment.

“It doesn’t work with us, Nolan,” Miller said regretfully. “Our nervous systems aren’t hooked up right for this sort of stunt, or Etl’s nerve cells are too different from ours.”

So we had to fall back on simpler methods of communication with Etl. We tried teaching him sign language, but it didn’t work too well, because tentacles aren’t hands. Klein’s inventive ability, plus some pointers from me about how Etl used his tendrils, finally solved the problem.

Klein made a cylindrical apparatus with a tonal buzzer, operated by electricity, at one end. It had dozens of stops and controls, their grips in the shape of tiny metal rings, along the sides of the cylinder.

First I had to learn a little about how to work that instrument with my big fingers. The trick was to mold the sounds of the buzzer, as human lips and tongue mold and shape tones of the vocal cords, so that they became syllables and words.

“Hell-oh-g-g-Et-t-l-l ... Chee-s-s-ee-whad-d I-ee got-t?”

It was tougher for me than learning to play a saxophone is for a boy of ten. And the noises were almost as bad.

I turned the apparatus over to Etl as soon as I could. Let him figure out how to use it. I’d just give him the words, the ideas. Of course he had to get educated, learn his cat, dog and rat, and his arithmetic, the same as a human kid, even if he was from another world. In a way, it was the law. You can’t let a youngster, capable of learning, stay home from school.

And I was Etl’s tutor. I thought what a crazy situation we had here; an entity from one planet being brought up on another, without any real knowledge of his own folks, and unable to be very close to those entities by whom he was being reared. It was strange and sad and a little comic.

For a while I thought I had a stammering parrot on my hands: “Hel-l-l-l-o ... Hell-oh-g-o ... N-n-ol-l-an-n-n ... Hell-lo-oh.”

Etl never lost that habit of repetition. But he made progress in his studies.

“One, two, t’ree, fo’, fibe, siss ... One time one ee one, toot time one ee two...”

Picture it the way it was--I, clad in a spacesuit, crouching beside Etl in the cold, thin air inside that cage, tracing numbers and words in the dusty soil on the floor, while he read aloud with his voice tube or copied my words and figures with a sharp stick. Outside the transparent cage, the television cameras would be watching. And I would think that maybe in a way Etl was like Tarzan, being raised by apes.

Four more years went by. I had offspring of my own. Patty and Ron. Good-looking, lovable brats. But Etl was my job--and maybe a little more than that.

At the end of two years, he stopped growing. He weighed fifty-two pounds and he was the ugliest-looking, elongated, gray-pink, leathery ovoid that you could imagine. But with his voice tube clutched in his tendrils, he could talk like a man.

He could take the finest watch, apart, repair and clean it in jig-time--and this was just one skill among scores. Toward the end of the four years, a Professor Jonas was coming in regularly and getting into a spacesuit to give him lessons in physics, chemistry, college math, astronomy and biology. Etl was having his troubles with calculus.

And Etl could at least ape the outward aspects of the thoughts and feelings of men. There were things he said to me that were characteristic, though they came out of apparent sullenness that, for all I knew, had seeds of murder in it: “You’re my pal, Nolan. Sort of my uncle. I won’t say my father; you wouldn’t like that.”

Nice, embarrassing sentiment, on the surface. Maybe it was just cool mimicry--a keen mind adding up human ways from observation of me and my kids, and making up something that sounded the same, without being the same at all. Yet somehow I hoped that Etl was sincere.

Almost from the building of the cage, of course, we’d kept photographs and drawings of Mars inside for Etl to see.

Hundreds of times I had said to him things like: “It’s a ninety-nine and ninety-nine hundredths per cent probability that your race lives on that world, Etl. Before the ship that brought you crashed on Earth, we weren’t at all sure that it was inhabited, and it’s still an awful mystery. I guess maybe you’ll want to go there. Maybe you’ll help us make contact and establish amicable relations with the inhabitants--if there’s any way we can do that.”

During those five years, no more ships came to Earth from space, as far as we knew. I guessed that the Martians understood how supremely hard it would be to make friendly contact between the peoples of two worlds that had always been separate. There was difference of form, and certainly difference of esthetic concepts. Of custom, nothing could be the same. We didn’t have even an inkling of what the Martian civilization would be like.

One thing happened during the third year of Etl’s existence. And his presence on Earth was responsible. Enough serious interest in space travel was built up to overcome the human inertia that had counteracted the long-standing knowledge that such things were possible. A hydrogen-fusion reaction motor was built into a rocket, which was then hurled to the moon.

Miller went along, ostensibly to help establish the first Army experimental station there, but mostly to acquire the practical experience for a far longer leap.

In a way, I wished I could have gone, too; but, after all, the shadows in Etl’s background were far more intriguing than the dead and airless craters and plains of the lunar surface.

Before Miller and the other moon-voyagers even returned, Detroit was busy forging, casting and machining the parts for a better, larger and much longer-range rocket, to be assembled in White Sands, New Mexico.

When Miller got back, he was too eager and busy to say much about the moon. For the next two and a half years, he was mostly out in White Sands.

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