As the dust drifted clear of the ship’s landing skids, at least two things became obvious:
One--although they had missed the city (if that’s what it was) by miles, they had nevertheless managed to slam down near one of the numerous rural estates.
Two--the landscape would be crawling with Zaortian Fuzzy Tails for a long while to come. They were still pouring out of hatches sprung open by the crunching impact.
Kent Cassidy untangled himself from the control column and plucked one of the Fuzzy Tails from his neck. The creature scampered around until it found the ruptured hatch, then scurried through to join the squealing zoological exodus.
“There goes ten thousand credits’ worth of cargo,” groaned Gene Mason. His stout form was slumped in dejection before the view port.
Cassidy sniffed the refreshing air that was drifting into the ship. “Any idea where we are?”
“After the directional stabilizer blew, we made three blind jumps, all in the direction of Galactic Center. We could be anywhere between Zaort Seven and the Far Rim.”
“Hey, look,” said Cassidy.
From the hatchway, the sumptuous estate sprawled nearby, its many gabled manor closed off behind a high wire fence. Cassidy squinted, but failed to recognize the bold, flowing architectural style.
A small, bent figure clung to the wire netting of the fence. He was shouting at the ship, but his excited words were no match for the decompression hisses of the auxiliary drive.
“Humanoid?” Mason suggested.
“Human, I’d say.” Cassidy gestured toward the gear locker. “Better break out the translator.”
In baggy trousers and sagging blouse, the man raced back and forth behind the fence--the picture of frustrated anger. However, large, doleful eyes, complemented by a bald head and huge, pendulous ear lobes, belied his furious actions.
Presently the squeals of the Fuzzy Tails trailed off in the distance and the auxiliary drive quieted with a final sigh. And now the native’s shouts rang out distinct and loud:
“Quick! From here get you! Shoo! Scram! Or out there I’ll come and apart tear you!”
“It’s English!” Mason exclaimed.
“Of a sort. Archaic, but understandable. And not at all friendly.”
Mason scratched his blunt chin. “Guess we’re not too far off the beaten star paths, eh?”
Cassidy could find no grounds for challenging this observation as they started down the ladder--not until he looked overhead and saw three suns shining in the same sky. As far as he knew, there were no settled trinary systems.
Beyond the fence the native, a wisp of a man was still fuming. “The hell away from here get! You I’m warning--no closer come!”
Mason displayed a half frown. “He’s sure a sour cuss.”
“You stay with the ship,” said Cassidy. “I’ll see what’s fouling his tubes.”
Before Cassidy reached the fence, his pet Fuzzy Tail came scampering from behind a bush. It clambered up his trousers and wrapped itself around his neck. This encouraged the speculation that perhaps the shipment of Tails could be bartered for repairs to the stabilizer--if there was a local space technology, and if they could corral the animals.
The native grew even more frenzied now as Cassidy drew up before him.
“Trespasser! Back get! My property this be! Scram! You I’ll kill!”
The Fuzzy Tail uncoiled itself from around Cassidy’s neck. Perching on his shoulder, it fussed back at the native in chirping, excited tones. It not only acted at times as though it owned Cassidy, but it also exercised a personal responsibility for his welfare.
“Quiet!” Cassidy snapped out.
It caught both the Fuzzy Tail and the old man by surprise. The animal bounded for cover while the native rocked back on his heels.
“Be you not just a--little bit afraid?” His eyebrows mounted the wrinkled expanse of his forehead.
The nearby hedge rustled and parted to let through a dark-haired girl whose tanned skin suggested accustomed exposure to the multiple sunlight. Wearing a belted tunic that lacked inches of reaching her knees, she confronted the old man calmly.
“It’s all about what, Papa?” she asked, with a trace of an amused smile.
“Trespassers! On our property, Riva! The alarm sound! Scat! To the woods take! Or a dead duck you be!”
“Now, Papa,” she chided. Then, through the fence, “Him you musn’t mind. It’s only his duty he’s attending to.”
From the distance, Cassidy had suspected the man was of Terran descent. Now, with Riva in the picture, he was certain this world was stocked either by intent or accident with true humans.
“We’re from Terra,” he said.
She frowned. “Ter-ra?”
“Earth. The original world--”
Incomprehension flooded her even features. But her confusion was only temporary. “Let’s play.”
It seemed like an altogether acceptable suggestion, Cassidy thought, eying the attractive girl. But he went on, “This is our ship and--”
“Ship?” Then she chased away her puzzlement with a sudden smile. “Some nice games I know.”
There was no space technology on this planet, Cassidy decided. They’d be strictly on their own as far as repairing the directional stabilizer was concerned.
By this time Papa, his eyes focused afar, had exploded again. “Charge!” he roared. “After him! Wa-hoo! Away don’t let him get!” He was gripping the fence and straining toward the field.
Cassidy turned and saw, in the distance, a skimmer vehicle floating along several feet off the ground. In full pursuit was a shouting youth who paused occasionally to seize a rock and hurl it at the craft.
The old man turned toward his daughter. “A good chase that be. Bet he wins.”
“Not a chance.” The girl frowned. “That be Nedal. Not so swift is he. Loses interest too quick, he does.”
She surveyed Cassidy. “Be you a chaser?”
“No, but I could do with a couple of stiff shots.”
This drew Papa’s attention back to the matter at hand. “Trespassers! The road hit! Scat! Some dust kick up!”
“Quiet!” Cassidy shouted. “Will you listen a minute? I--”
Two loyal Fuzzy Tails came charging up to the fence and added their raucous chatter to Papa’s screeching diatribe, which had continued unchecked despite Cassidy’s loud, desperate plea.
In the next instant, though, it seemed that a dam had burst overhead. Materializing from nowhere, at least a ton of water poured down on the agile-tongued native, the two Fuzzy Tails, Riva and Cassidy himself, bringing an abrupt end to all the commotion.
The animals streaked for the safety of the bushes while Papa and the girl dived back through the hedge. Bedraggled, Cassidy headed for the ship, wondering what sort of meteorological quirk he had encountered.
“No, sir,” he said some time later as he attacked the directional selector with pliers and a screwdriver, “I don’t like the setup. I don’t like it worth a damn.”
Mason traced the power lead to the junction box beside the hatch. “Maybe they aren’t all like that.”
“In this sort of place, chances are that the first people you run into are typical. I’m afraid--”
“Say!” Mason interrupted, staring outside. “Look at this!”
Cassidy went over to the hatch and watched a dozen or so men sprinting across the field, their voices rising in excited waves. A lithe young woman was in full flight before them. But she was screaming in delight as she turned now and then to beckon them on. One overtook her and brought her down with a waist tackle. She rebounded to her feet, however, and took off again.
Two of the pursuers collided and sprawled on the ground. They sprang up and tore into each other. Unconcerned with the personal dispute, the chase struck off in a new direction, heading toward the ship as it paralleled one of the nearby fenced-in estates.
Behind the wire mesh, a burly young man came charging down the main steps of the manor and raced along with the others.
“That be the way!” he yelled encouragement. “Her go get! It’s gaining you are! Hurry!”
He drew up in time to avoid crashing into the side fence, then stood there watching the chase recede in the distance.
Within a hundred feet of the ship, one of the men fell out of the group, panting. He squinted at the vessel, then crept forward, circling to the right. Within arm’s reach, he walked back and forth alongside the hull, giving it a close inspection. Finally he paused and fumbled with his clothes.
Cassidy started. “Look what he’s doing!”
“Against the side of the ship, too!” said Mason.
Hearing them, the native jerked his head up toward the hatch, then backed off for a better view.
“Stinkers!” he yelled, shaking his fist. “Out here come and fight! Take you both on I can!”
When they only gaped, he whirled and sped off to rejoin the chase.
“You see?” said Cassidy. “Now what do you think?”
“I think we’d better get that directional stabilizer working.”
It took more than an hour to locate the trouble. “The rectifier circuit’s shot,” Cassidy said finally. “But maybe we can patch it up. Some of the amplifiers I suppose we can do without. But a hyper-oscillator we’ve got to have.”
“Say, you’re doing it too,” said Mason.
“Talking like the natives.”
Cassidy looked up. “Guess it’s something that grows on you. Well, what do we do now?”
“Maybe the natives can help us.”
“If they don’t even know where they’re from, they probably left their volts and amps behind too. But that’s only an assumption.”
“In that case,” Mason said with a sigh, “there’s only one thing left to do--take Riva up on her invitation to, ah, play.”
“Funny,” Cassidy grunted, heading for the hatch.
“I was only joking.”
“I’m not. If we can get in that house, we’ll know for sure whether or not they’ve developed electronic devices.”
Halfway across the field, they were almost run down by the laughing girl and her retinue of galloping suitors, if that’s what they were. She was a well-proportioned blonde whose wind-frothed tresses suggested a nymph in flight.
At the fence, they were confronted by Riva, who smiled up at Cassidy and said, “You I was just going to come and get. Ready to play yet you are?”
He looked away and cleared his throat. “Not quite, Riva. We’d like to visit your house.”
“It’s some interesting games I know. Enjoying them you’d surely be.” Her smile, revealing even teeth that contrasted ruddy cheeks, was as persistent as her intent on playing.
Staring at the girl, Cassidy wrestled with a pang of wistful envy over the Olympian life he had witnessed thus far on this world. Maybe they were all irresponsible and childlike. But was that bad?
Mason pointed in alarm toward the meadow in front of the next estate. An ominous-looking, furry thing, supported on six or eight spindly legs, was racing across their field of vision.
“Hurt you he won’t,” the girl assured them, noticing their apprehension. “Nothing to be afraid of there is.”
“What is it?” Cassidy was still trying to determine whether it was an overgrown spider or a dry-land octopus.
“Look!” Mason exclaimed. “It’s on a leash!”
And Cassidy noticed the thong that extended from the creature to the human who was running along behind it.
“To Wolruf he belongs,” the girl explained. “One of them I can get for you too--if you want.”
Her slender hand reached out through the fence and tugged at Cassidy’s sleeve. “To chase me wouldn’t you like?” she asked, pouting.
Glancing behind her, Cassidy spotted the girl’s father bearing down on them in a sprint that was nothing short of phenomenal for his age. He began shouting with the last few strides and was in full lung when he hurled himself at the fence. “Git! Out! Away! I’ll--”
Riva moved back and glanced overhead and Papa, seeing some hidden significance in her gesture, lowered his voice.
“You I’ll tear into and apart I’ll rip!” he went on in a menacing whisper. “Your limbs I’ll scatter like--”
“Papa, it’s not afraid of you they are.”
“They’re not?” He was disappointed.
“The house they want to come in and see.”
He began working up a rage again, but caught himself and looked up into his daughter’s face. “Mean you--my house they want to see?”
When she nodded Papa seized the lowest strand of wire and lifted the fence high enough for Cassidy and Mason to crawl under. “Why, arranged it can be, I think.”
Its architectural prominences rendered shadowless in the tri-solar light, the manor was even more imposing close at hand. Of stone construction, it flaunted millwork and beams whose rich carvings would have been welcome on any mansion in the known Galaxy.
Mounting the steps, Mason observed, “Nice little layout they’ve got here.”
Riva moved closer to Cassidy. “Inside is cozy,” she said behind a coy smile. “Play we can really in there.”
Papa had been at the door for some time, fumbling with the lock. In a burst of impatience, he drew off and gave it a solid kick. Then he went back and tried rattling the handle. After a while there was a click and it swung open.
Cassidy followed him into a blaze of iridescent color and unfamiliar form. The huge, circular room was like a vast diorama and it was impossible to tell exactly where the solid objects blended in with the jumbled geometric pattern of the wall.
He walked across a carpet of undulant fibers that reached well above his ankles. And he tripped across a padded, Z-shaped slab that protruded from the wall but slithered into a U and retracted as soon as it received the burden of his weight.
Laughing, Riva helped him up and he paused for a closer visual inspection of his outlandish surroundings. Objects of weird shapes and unguessable purposes hung from the ceiling, some changing form and size as he watched. Scattered about were articles of furniture (he guessed) that resembled giant starfish supported at their centers and extremities by coiled springs. Only, each arm was shaped like a trough that ran into the bowl-like central depression of the piece.
A gleeful scream sounded behind them and Papa went tearing by. With a running leap, he landed on an arm of one of the starfish. Its supporting spring contracted under the weight, then catapulted him ceilingward. When he came down again, it was on an arm of another starfish, then another.
The fourth collapsed, depositing him on the floor, and its spring went twanging across the room. Struggling to his feet, he staggered into something resembling a clothes tree, knocked it over and sprawled beside it.
He roared with delight as he snapped the stem of the thing across his knee and hurled the pieces at the ceiling. They scored direct hits on one of the bulky objects suspended overhead and it came crashing down with a twinkling roar amid a shower of sparks.
“Yow-ee!” he exuberated. “So much fun I never had!”
Riva helped him up. “Papa, it’s control yourself you must. The last time--remember?”
But he only shook her off and went bounding through an archway. His hectic progress through the house was punctuated by sounds of crashing destruction.
“Honestly,” Riva said, spreading her hands, “what to do with him I don’t know.”