All things considered--the obscure star, the undetermined damage to the stellar drive and the way the small planet’s murky atmosphere defied precision scanners--the pilot made a reasonably good landing. Despite sour feelings for the space service of Haurtoz, steward Peter Kolin had to admit that casualties might have been far worse.
Chief Steward Slichow led his little command, less two third-class ration keepers thought to have been trapped in the lower hold, to a point two hundred meters from the steaming hull of the Peace State. He lined them up as if on parade. Kolin made himself inconspicuous.
“Since the crew will be on emergency watches repairing the damage,” announced the Chief in clipped, aggressive tones, “I have volunteered my section for preliminary scouting, as is suitable. It may be useful to discover temporary sources in this area of natural foods.”
Volunteered HIS section! thought Kolin rebelliously.
Like the Supreme Director of Haurtoz! Being conscripted into this idiotic space fleet that never fights is bad enough without a tin god on jets like Slichow!
Prudently, he did not express this resentment overtly.
His well-schooled features revealed no trace of the idea--or of any other idea. The Planetary State of Haurtoz had been organized some fifteen light-years from old Earth, but many of the home world’s less kindly techniques had been employed. Lack of complete loyalty to the state was likely to result in a siege of treatment that left the subject suitably “re-personalized.” Kolin had heard of instances wherein mere unenthusiastic posture had betrayed intentions to harbor treasonable thoughts.
“You will scout in five details of three persons each,” Chief Slichow said. “Every hour, each detail will send one person in to report, and he will be replaced by one of the five I shall keep here to issue rations.”
Kolin permitted himself to wonder when anyone might get some rest, but assumed a mildly willing look. (Too eager an attitude could arouse suspicion of disguising an improper viewpoint.) The maintenance of a proper viewpoint was a necessity if the Planetary State were to survive the hostile plots of Earth and the latter’s decadent colonies. That, at least, was the official line.
Kolin found himself in a group with Jak Ammet, a third cook, and Eva Yrtok, powdered foods storekeeper. Since the crew would be eating packaged rations during repairs, Yrtok could be spared to command a scout detail.
Each scout was issued a rocket pistol and a plastic water tube. Chief Slichow emphasized that the keepers of rations could hardly, in an emergency, give even the appearance of favoring themselves in regard to food. They would go without. Kolin maintained a standard expression as the Chief’s sharp stare measured them.
Yrtok, a dark, lean-faced girl, led the way with a quiet monosyllable. She carried the small radio they would be permitted to use for messages of utmost urgency. Ammet followed, and Kolin brought up the rear.
To reach their assigned sector, they had to climb a forbidding ridge of rock within half a kilometer. Only a sparse creeper grew along their way, its elongated leaves shimmering with bronze-green reflections against a stony surface; but when they topped the ridge a thick forest was in sight.
Yrtok and Ammet paused momentarily before descending.
Kolin shared their sense of isolation. They would be out of sight of authority and responsible for their own actions. It was a strange sensation.
They marched down into the valley at a brisk pace, becoming more aware of the clouds and atmospheric haze. Distant objects seemed blurred by the mist, taking on a somber, brooding grayness. For all Kolin could tell, he and the others were isolated in a world bounded by the rocky ridge behind them and a semi-circle of damp trees and bushes several hundred meters away. He suspected that the hills rising mistily ahead were part of a continuous slope, but could not be sure.
Yrtok led the way along the most nearly level ground. Low creepers became more plentiful, interspersed with scrubby thickets of tangled, spike-armored bushes. Occasionally, small flying things flickered among the foliage. Once, a shrub puffed out an enormous cloud of tiny spores.
“Be a job to find anything edible here,” grunted Ammet, and Kolin agreed.
Finally, after a longer hike than he had anticipated, they approached the edge of the deceptively distant forest. Yrtok paused to examine some purple berries glistening dangerously on a low shrub. Kolin regarded the trees with misgiving.
“Looks as tough to get through as a tropical jungle,” he remarked.
“I think the stuff puts out shoots that grow back into the ground to root as they spread,” said the woman. “Maybe we can find a way through.”
In two or three minutes, they reached the abrupt border of the odd-looking trees.
Except for one thick trunked giant, all of them were about the same height. They craned their necks to estimate the altitude of the monster, but the top was hidden by the wide spread of branches. The depths behind it looked dark and impenetrable.
“We’d better explore along the edge,” decided Yrtok. “Ammet, now is the time to go back and tell the Chief which way we’re--Ammet!“
Kolin looked over his shoulder. Fifty meters away, Ammet sat beside the bush with the purple berries, utterly relaxed.
“He must have tasted some!” exclaimed Kolin. “I’ll see how he is.”
He ran back to the cook and shook him by the shoulder. Ammet’s head lolled loosely to one side. His rather heavy features were vacant, lending him a doped appearance. Kolin straightened up and beckoned to Yrtok.
For some reason, he had trouble attracting her attention. Then he noticed that she was kneeling.
“Hope she didn’t eat some stupid thing too!” he grumbled, trotting back.
As he reached her, whatever Yrtok was examining came to life and scooted into the underbrush with a flash of greenish fur. All Kolin saw was that it had several legs too many.
He pulled Yrtok to her feet. She pawed at him weakly, eyes as vacant as Ammet’s. When he let go in sudden horror, she folded gently to the ground. She lay comfortably on her side, twitching one hand as if to brush something away.
When she began to smile dreamily, Kolin backed away.
The corners of his mouth felt oddly stiff; they had involuntarily drawn back to expose his clenched teeth. He glanced warily about, but nothing appeared to threaten him.
“It’s time to end this scout,” he told himself. “It’s dangerous. One good look and I’m jetting off! What I need is an easy tree to climb.”
He considered the massive giant. Soaring thirty or forty meters into the thin fog and dwarfing other growth, it seemed the most promising choice.
At first, Kolin saw no way, but then the network of vines clinging to the rugged trunk suggested a route. He tried his weight gingerly, then began to climb.
“I should have brought Yrtok’s radio,” he muttered. “Oh, well, I can take it when I come down, if she hasn’t snapped out of her spell by then. Funny ... I wonder if that green thing bit her.”
Footholds were plentiful among the interlaced lianas. Kolin progressed rapidly. When he reached the first thick limbs, twice head height, he felt safer.
Later, at what he hoped was the halfway mark, he hooked one knee over a branch and paused to wipe sweat from his eyes. Peering down, he discovered the ground to be obscured by foliage.
“I should have checked from down there to see how open the top is,” he mused. “I wonder how the view will be from up there?”
“Depends on what you’re looking for, Sonny!” something remarked in a soughing wheeze.
Kolin, slipping, grabbed desperately for the branch. His fingers clutched a handful of twigs and leaves, which just barely supported him until he regained a grip with the other hand.
The branch quivered resentfully under him.
“Careful, there!” whooshed the eerie voice. “It took me all summer to grow those!”
Kolin could feel the skin crawling along his backbone.
“Who are you?” he gasped.
The answering sigh of laughter gave him a distinct chill despite its suggestion of amiability.
“Name’s Johnny Ashlew. Kinda thought you’d start with what I am. Didn’t figure you’d ever seen a man grown into a tree before.”
Kolin looked about, seeing little but leaves and fog.
“I have to climb down,” he told himself in a reasonable tone. “It’s bad enough that the other two passed out without me going space happy too.”
“What’s your hurry?” demanded the voice. “I can talk to you just as easy all the way down, you know. Airholes in my bark--I’m not like an Earth tree.”
Kolin examined the bark of the crotch in which he sat. It did seem to have assorted holes and hollows in its rough surface.
“I never saw an Earth tree,” he admitted. “We came from Haurtoz.”
“Where’s that? Oh, never mind--some little planet. I don’t bother with them all, since I came here and found out I could be anything I wanted.”
“What do you mean, anything you wanted?” asked Kolin, testing the firmness of a vertical vine.
“Just what I said,” continued the voice, sounding closer in his ear as his cheek brushed the ridged bark of the tree trunk. “And, if I do have to remind you, it would be nicer if you said ‘Mr. Ashlew,’ considering my age.”
“Your age? How old--?”
“Can’t really count it in Earth years any more. Lost track. I always figured bein’ a tree was a nice, peaceful life; and when I remembered how long some of them live, that settled it. Sonny, this world ain’t all it looks like.”
“It isn’t, Mr. Ashlew?” asked Kolin, twisting about in an effort to see what the higher branches might hide.
“Nope. Most everything here is run by the Life--that is, by the thing that first grew big enough to do some thinking, and set its roots down all over until it had control. That’s the outskirts of it down below.”
“The other trees? That jungle?”
“It’s more’n a jungle, Sonny. When I landed here, along with the others from the Arcturan Spark, the planet looked pretty empty to me, just like it must have to--Watch it, there, Boy! If I didn’t twist that branch over in time, you’d be bouncing off my roots right now!”
“Th-thanks!” grunted Kolin, hanging on grimly.
“Doggone vine!” commented the windy whisper. “He ain’t one of my crowd. Landed years later in a ship from some star towards the center of the galaxy. You should have seen his looks before the Life got in touch with his mind and set up a mental field to help him change form. He looks twice as good as a vine!”
“He’s very handy,” agreed Kolin politely. He groped for a foothold.