“People are basically alike,” Harding said democratically. He sat idly against the strawlike matting of the hut wall and reached for a native fruit in a nearby bowl. “They’re all suckers, even the smartest of them; in fact, the ones who think they’re the smartest generally wind up to be the dumbest.” Carefully, he bit into the fruit which resembled an orange and, mouth full, nodded approvingly. “Say, these aren’t bad. Try one.”
Sheckly shook his head, determined to avoid as many aspects of this culture as he could. “But these aren’t people,” he reminded, not happy with the thought. “They’re lizards.”
Harding shrugged and settled back, his grinning features ruddy in the flaring torchlight. “Humanoids have no monopoly on suckerhood. When it comes to that, we’re all brothers under the skin, no matter what color or how hard the skin may be.” He sighed, contemplating the harvest-to-be. “No, Sheckly, it’ll be like taking candy from a baby. We’ll be out of here with our pockets bulging before the Space Patrol can bat an eyelash in this direction.”
Unconvinced, Sheckly stared glumly through the open doorway of the hut into the warm humid night, where a fire flared in the darkness and long shadows danced and slithered around it.
“It’s not the Space Patrol I’m worried about,” he said, after a while. “I don’t mind fleecing humanoids--” he shivered, grimacing--”but lizards!”
Harding laughed. “Their riches are as good as anybody else’s. The trouble with you, Sheckly, you’re too chicken-hearted. If it weren’t for me, you’d still be small-timing back on Earth. It takes imagination to get along these days.”
Sheckly grunted, for he had no ready answer to deny this truth. While he didn’t like the reference to his inability to get along in the world without Harding’s help, the man was right about other things. It did take imagination, all right, mixed with a generous supply of plain ordinary guts; that, plus an eye focused unfalteringly on the good old credit sign.
He certainly could not get along without Harding’s timing. The man knew just when Patrol Ships would be at certain spots, knew their schedules for visiting these small otherworlds, and always he was several steps ahead of them. They went into a planet, their rocket ship loaded with gambling devices--cards, dice, roulette wheels, and other cultural refinements--and set up shop which could be folded at a moment’s notice if necessary. Natives seemed almost eager to be skinned of their riches, and he and Harding happily obliged them.
“Listen to them out there,” Harding marveled, leaning forward to hear the sharp scrapings that represented music. “They must be having some kind of ceremony.”
Sheckly nodded, shivering slightly, though the air was hot and humid. He wished again, as he often had in the past, he could have some of Harding’s assurance, some of that unrelenting optimism that insisted everything would turn out favorably. But he didn’t like these strange primitive worlds, he didn’t trust them or their inhabitants. The lizard-people had seemed friendly enough, but by looking at a strange reptile you couldn’t tell how far it would jump. When the Earth ship landed, the creatures had come slithering to them with all but a brass band, welcoming the Earthlings with the hissings that composed their language. One of them--the official interpreter, he proclaimed himself--knew a peculiarly good brand of English, and welcomed them in a more satisfactory manner, but still Sheckly didn’t like it. Harding had called him chicken-hearted, and he felt a certain amount of justified indignance at the description. Cautious would be a better word, he decided.
These people appeared friendly to the Earthlings, but so did the Earthlings give the appearance of friendliness to the natives; that was proof in itself that you couldn’t trust actions to indicate purpose. But even more than that, their basic alienness troubled Sheckly more than he dared admit aloud. Differences in skin color and modified body shapes were one thing, but when a race was on a completely different evolutionary track it was a time for caution. These were a different people, on a different planet under a different star. Their customs were strange, how strange he could yet only guess, though he preferred not to. This ceremony now, for example, what did it mean? A rite for some serpent god perhaps. A dance in honor of the Earthmen’s arrival. Or it might just as easily be a preliminary to a feast at which the visitors would be the main course.
“I just wish we knew more about the creatures,” he complained, trying to shove that last thought from his mind.
Harding looked annoyed, as he drew his attention from the alien music which had fascinated him. “Stop worrying, will you? They’re probably among the friendliest creatures in the universe, even if they do look like serpents out of Eden. And the friendly ones rate A-1 on my sucker-list.”
Sheckly shuddered and cast an annoyed glance into the night. “How can anybody concentrate with that infernal racket going on out there? Don’t they ever sleep?”
“Patience,” Harding advised calmly, “is a noble virtue. Ah, here comes our interpreter.”
Sheckly started involuntarily, as a scaley head thrust itself into the hut. The serpentman had a long sharp knife gleaming in one hand. “Pardon, sirs,” the head said slurringly, as a forked tongue sorted over the unfamiliar syllables. “The leader wishes to know will you join us?”
“No, thanks,” Sheckly said, staring at the knife.
Harding said, “We should join them. We don’t want to offend these creatures, and if we’re real friendly we might make out better.”
“You go out then. I’m going to see if I can get some sleep.”
Harding shrugged, his glance making it plain he knew Sheckly lacked nerve more than sleep. To the serpentman he said, “Tell your leader my companion is tired from our long journey and would rest now. However, I will be happy to join you.”
“Yesss,” the serpent head hissed and withdrew.
“Boy, will I be glad to get out of here,” Sheckly muttered.
“Sometimes I wonder why I ever teamed up with a pansy like you, Sheckly,” Harding said harshly, a disgusted look on his face. “There are times when I regret it.” He turned and walked from the hut.
Sheckly stared bitterly after him. He felt no anger at the denunciation, only a plaguing irritableness, an annoyance with both Harding and himself. He should have gone out there with Harding, if only to show the man that he was not afraid, that he was no coward. And yet, as he sat there listening to the strange sounds creeping across the warm dampness, he made no move to rise, and he knew he would not.
Grunting disgustedly, Sheckly stretched out on the floor matting and tried to think of other things. He stared at the orange-flaring torch and contemplated putting it out, but the sounds from the outside drifted in upon him and changed his mind. After a while, he closed his eyes and dozed.
He woke suddenly and sat upright, a cold sweat making him tremble. What had wakened him? he wondered. He had the vague notion that someone had screamed, yet he wasn’t sure. In the faltering torchlight, he could see Harding had not returned. He listened intently to the noises outside, the scraping, the hissing, the slithering. No screams came.
I’m not going to stay here, he told himself. I’ll leave tomorrow, I don’t care what Harding says. I’ll go crazy if I have to spend another night like this. Exhausted, he fell asleep.
Morning came, and the alien sun slanted orange rays through the cabin doorway. Sheckly opened his eyes and stared at the thatched roof. The torch had burned out, but it was no longer needed for light. Thank goodness for morning, he thought. Morning brought a temporary sanity to this world, and after the madness of the night it was a reprieve he welcomed gladly. He had not opposed Harding till now, but desperation was a strong incentive to rebellion. When Harding returned-- Startled, he considered the thought. When Harding returned?
He sat up and stared around him. Harding was not in sight. Panic came, and he leaped up, blood racing, as though to defend himself against invisible enemies. Perhaps he’d gotten up early, Sheckly thought. But suppose he hadn’t returned? Suppose--
He jumped, as the interpreter entered the hut behind him. “The Leader wishes you to join him for eating,” the serpentman said.
“No,” Sheckly said hastily. They weren’t going to make a meal out of him. “No, thanks. Look, I’ve got to leave your planet. Leave, understand? Right away.”
“The leader wishes you to join him,” the creature repeated. This time the sword crept into his hands.
Sheckly stared at the sword, and his heart leaped. He thought there was a tinge of red on the blade’s edge. Mentally, he shook his head. No, it was his imagination again. Just imagination. Still, the drawn sword clearly indicated that the invitation was not to be refused.
“All right,” he said weakly. “All right, in a few minutes.”
“Now,” the other said.
“Okay, now,” the Earthling agreed listlessly. “Where is my companion?”
“You will see him,” the creature promised.
Sheckly breathed a sigh of relief at that. Harding was probably all right then. It made him feel better, though it would make the task of leaving much harder.
They had arrived at twilight the previous day, so they hadn’t the opportunity to see the village in its entirety. They hadn’t missed much, Sheckly realized as he walked along, for the grouped huts were unimpressive, looking somewhat like a primitive African village back on Earth. But the Earthling would have preferred the most primitive Earth native to these serpents. In the distance, the slim nose of the rocket ship pointed the way to freedom, and Sheckly looked longingly at it.
At one end of the village was a small mountain of what appeared to be plastic clothing, milkily translucent--which was strange, since these creatures wore no clothing. The Earthling wondered at this but did not ask about it. Other thoughts more important troubled him.
“In here,” the interpreter told him, stopping before the largest hut.
Hesitating briefly, Sheckly entered and the creature followed him in. Seated on the floor were the leader and his mate and several smaller reptiles that evidently were the children. Between them lay several bowls of food. Sheckly grimaced and turned hastily away as he saw small crawling insects in one bowl.
“Sit down,” the interpreter directed.
Harding was not in evidence. “Where is my companion?” he asked.
The interpreter conferred briefly with the leader, then told Sheckly, “He could not come. Sit down--eat.”
Sheckly sat down, but he didn’t feel like eating. He wondered why Harding could not come. At a sudden thought, he said, “I have rations on my ship--”
“Eat,” the interpreter said, gripping his sword.