Vital Ingredient

by Charles V. De Vet

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: It is man's most precious possession--no living thing can exist without it. But when they gave it to Orville, it killed him.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“Now watch,” Remm said, indicating the native. Macker had been absent, exploring the countryside in the immediate vicinity of their landing place, and had not witnessed the capture of the native, or the tests his two companions made on it.

Macker followed Remm’s gaze to where the biped native sat hunched. The creature was bent into an ungainly position, its body crooked at incongruous angles, in such a way as to allow most of its weight to rest on a packing-box at the base of a middle angle. Its stubby feet, on the ends of thin, pipelike legs, rested against the floor of the space ship. Its body was covered, almost entirely, with an artificial skin material of various colors. Some of the colors hurt Macker’s eyes. In the few places where the flesh showed through the skin was an unhealthy, pallid white.

Slowly the creature’s head swiveled on its short neck until it faced them.

“Those orifices in the upper portion of its skull are evidently organs of sight,” Remm said. “It sees that we are quite a distance away. It will probably attempt to escape again.”

Slowly--slowly--the native’s head rotated away from them in a half-circle until it faced Toolls, working over his instruments on the far side of the room. Then it turned its head back until it faced the door of the ship.

“It is setting itself for flight now,” Remm said. “Notice the evidence of strain on its face.”

The creature leaned forward and the appendages on the ends of its upper limbs clutched the sides of the box as it propelled its body forward.

It raised its right foot in a slow arc, employing a double-jointed, breaking action of its leg. For a long moment it rested its entire weight on its lumpy right foot, while its momentum carried its body sluggishly forward. Then it repeated the motion with its left leg; then again its right. All the while evidencing great exertion and concentration of effort.

“It is making what it considers a mad dash for freedom,” Remm said. “Probably at the ultimate speed of which it is capable. That would be ridiculous except that it’s normal for its own environment. This is definitely a slow-motion world.”

The creature was a third-way to the door now. Once again its head turned in its slow quarter-circle, to look at them. As it saw that Remm and Macker had not moved it altered the expression on its face.

“It seems to express its emotions through facial contortions,” Remm said. “Though I suspect that the sounds it makes with the upper part of its trachea during moments of agitation are also outlets of emotional stress, rather than efforts at communication.” He called across the room to Toolls. “What did you find out about its speech?”

“Extremely primitive,” Toolls replied. “Incredible as it may appear to us it uses combinations of sounds to form word-symbols. Each word indicates some action, or object; or denotes degree, time, or shades of meaning. Other words are merely connectives. It seems to make little use of inflections, the basis of a rational language. Thoughts which we can project with a few sounds would take it dozens of words to express.”

“Just how intelligent is it?” Macker asked.

“Only as intelligent as a high degree of self-preservation instinct would make it.”

“Are you certain that it is a member of the dominant species of life on the planet?”

“There’s no doubt about it,” Toolls replied. “I’ve made very careful observations.”

“This attempt at escape is a pretty good example of its intelligence,” Remm said. “This is the sixth time it has tried to escape--in exactly the same way. As soon as it sees that we are farther away from it than it is from the door, it makes its dash.”

The creature was one step away from the space ship’s open portal now and bringing its foot up to cross the threshold. Remm walked over and lifted it off the floor.

“Its legs are still moving in a running motion,” Macker said. “Doesn’t it realize yet that you’ve picked it up?”

[Illustration: It was an arm to be proud of--but what good was it?]

“Its nervous system and reflexes are evidently as slow as its motor muscles,” Remm replied. “There has not been time for the sensation of my picking it up to reach the brain, and for the brain to send back its message to the legs to stop their running motion.”

“How heavy is it?” Macker asked.

“Only a few ounces,” Remm replied. “But that’s logical considering that this is a ‘light’ planet. If we took it back to our own ‘heavy’ world, gravity would crush it to a light film of the liquid which comprises the greater part of its substance.”

Remm set the creature down on the box in its former queerly contorted position. Toolls had left his instruments and strolled over beside them to observe the native.

“One of its appendages seems bent at a peculiar angle,” Macker said.

“I noticed that,” Remm answered. “I think that I may have broken the bone in several places when I first captured it. I was not aware then of how fragile it was. But now that you mention it, I should be able to use that injury to give you a good illustration of the interplay of emotional expressions on its face. Observe now as I touch it.”

Remm reached over and touched--very lightly--the broken portion of the native’s appendage. The muscles of the creature’s face pulled its flaccid flesh into distorted positions, bunching some and stretching others. “It is very probably registering pain,” Remm said.

Suddenly the starch seemed to leave the native’s body and it slowly slumped across the packing-box.

“Why is it doing that, Toolls?” Remm asked.

Toolls concentrated for a minute, absorbing the feelings and thought pulsations emanating from the creature. “The conscious plane of its mind has blanked out,” he said. “I presume the pain you caused by touching its wounded member resulted in a breakdown of its nervous system. The only thought waves I receive now are disjointed impressions and pictures following no rational series. However, I’m certain that it will be only temporary.”

“Don’t you think that in justice to the creature we should repair its wound before we free it?” Macker asked.

“I had intended to have it done,” Remm replied. “You shouldn’t have any trouble fixing it, should you, Toolls?”

“No,” Toolls answered. “I may as well attend to it right now.” He rolled the portable converter over beside the creature and carefully laid its arm in the “pan.” The converter automatically set its gauges and instruments of calculation, and gave its click of “ready.”

Toolls fed a short length of basic into the machine and it began its work. The native was still unconscious.

The bone of the wounded arm slowly evaporated, beginning with the wrist joint. The evaporated portion was instantly replaced by the manufactured bone of the converter. At the same time it repaired all ruptured blood vessels and damaged ligaments and muscles.

“It was not possible, of course, for me to replace the bone with another of the same composition as its own,” Toolls said, after the machine had completed its work. “But I gave it one of our ‘heavy’ ones. There will be no force on this planet powerful enough to break it again.”

The native’s first evidence of a return to consciousness was a faint fluttering of the lids that covered its organs of vision. The lids opened and it looked up at them.

“Its eyesight is as slow as its muscular reactions,” Remm said. “Watch.” Remm raised his hand and waved it slowly in front of the native’s face. The eyes of the native, moving in odd, jerking movements, followed the hand’s progress. Remm raised the hand--speeding its action slightly--and the eyesight faltered and lost it. The native’s eyes rolled wildly until once again they located the hand.

Remm took three steps forward. The native’s eyes were unable to follow his change of position. Its gaze wandered about the room, until again its settled on Remm’s waiting figure.

“Can you imagine anything being so slow,” Remm said, “and still...” Suddenly Macker interrupted. “Something is wrong. It is trying to get up, but it can’t.” The native was registering signs of distress, kicking its legs and twisting its body into new positions of contortion.

“I see what the trouble is,” Toolls said. “It’s unable to lift the appendage with the new bone in. I never thought of that before but its ‘light’ muscles aren’t strong enough to lift the limb. We’ve got the poor creature pinned to the box by the weight of its own arm.”

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