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Title: A Matter of Taste
Author: Stecher, L. J., Jr.
Language: English
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                           A MATTER OF TASTE

                           By JOSEPH WESLEY

                      _When a planet turns in an
                     insurance claim, it could run
                       to more than real money._

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
              Worlds of If Science Fiction, January 1961.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


    CASE RL472 XYA 386. Oral report of Claims Adjuster Mark Atkinson
    (#384 762). Transcribed by Telepath Operator #842 765J (Tellus).
    First and Final Report. CASE CLOSING SYMBOL: AAA.

I arrived on the fourth planet of Sunder's Pride stark naked and
stood comfortably in the snow, listening to the wind howl by, while
waiting for the Expedition Manager to approach from the edge of the
small clearing and welcome me. The Manager's name is Obadiah Jones.
Like the rest of the expedition, he's from one of the minor Vegan
colonies--Kinnison III--but he's undifferentiated Earth stock.

He bustled forward, wearing a full protective suit and helmet--the
temperature is thirty degrees below zero centigrade at noon and the
atmosphere is poisonous--but I could see the expression of relief on
his face through his face plate.

"You're from Interstellar Insurance?" he panted under the one and a
half G of Sunder's Pride.

I assented with a dignified nod.

He looked me up and down--my skin wasn't even showing goose pimples,
of course--and then shrugged his shoulders. "The insurance company
sent a first-class Mental Control Operator, I see, but it was a waste
of talent. Maybe they didn't believe our reports. We've had our own
operators here--good ones, too--and they haven't been able to find any
solution. The Aliens are much better at all sorts of Mind Control than
even our most talented men. I know our Policy says that you can keep
us from calling in the military authorities for a week, but it's just
a waste of time--and, more important, it's a waste of lives, too. I
suggest that you give us authority to call in the Navy right away."

"How many lives have you lost so far?" I asked.

"Only a dozen, but at regular intervals."

"That hardly seems excessive for an exploratory expedition," I
commented.

He shook his head impatiently. "I said _at regular intervals_. The
Aliens treat us like we were cattle. Or sheep."

"Not exactly," I said, "or you would scarcely have called _me_ in. You
must be operating at a profit, and that means you're trading with these
Aliens."

He scowled, but did not deny it.

       *       *       *       *       *

Of course I knew this already. As an independent Claims Adjuster, it
goes without saying that I'd checked into the case before teleporting
to the planet. Their profit was enormous, and our losses would be
proportionately large if the military was invited to come in and spoil
trade while saving lives.

Their charter called for exclusive trading rights on any planet they
opened for ten years. And they had the usual clause in their Policy
against loss by "government" action, meaning the military, even at
their own invitation. The military is fast, but it's not neat. The cost
could run to billions for us, so my job was to try to find another way.

"Well," he said, "can we send an emergency signal to the Navy?"

"When does the next regular interval expire?" I asked.

He checked the timepiece set into the sleeve of his suit, and then
scratched some number in the clean wind-swept surface of snow. His
watch kept local time, of course. "In about fourteen Earth hours," he
translated at last.

"Then there's no hurry, is there?" I leaned against the gale that was
blowing across the clearing. "Why don't we go to your office so you can
brief me?"

He turned and stumped his way heavily to a gap at the edge of
the clearing, and then along a narrow path that wound its way
circuitously among tall, slender, tinkling, half-living ice trees.
I strolled lightly beside him, but my bare feet left deep imprints
in the crustless snow. In about fifteen minutes we reached the human
settlement, with its airlock set modestly into a great mound of snow.

Here we had a little difficulty; the lock was designed to pass bulky
protective suits. If I had gone through it bare, I'd have let in some
of the poisonous atmosphere into the camp. We solved that, though. Mr.
Jones passed a suit out to me through the lock and I put it on. I wore
it all the way to his office, and then he rustled me up one of his
spare kilts--an ugly purple thing.

"Now, Obadiah," I said, after I'd lighted one of his stogies and
settled myself into his most comfortable chair, "why this urgent call
for help? Our records show that you've never hollered copper in your
life, and you've had two expeditions nearly wiped out around you.
You've got the best profit record in your organization."

"It's those Aliens," said Mr. Jones. "They arrived here on Sunder's
Pride just a few days behind us. I've always felt that someday
we'd come up against some life-form that would be too much for us,
and I'm afraid that we've done it at last. They trade us some of
the most magnificent works of art that have ever been seen in the
universe--you've undoubtedly admired some of them, and I'm sure you
know the prices they bring--and they do it as if they were tossing
glass beads to savages."

"And if we are such savages, what can we have to trade in return?" I
asked.

"They don't seem to be any great snakes with mechanical things," he
answered. "They call them 'gadgets,' but they buy them. The only
trouble is, that's not all they buy." He was sweating, his face turning
as green as the polka dots on his kilt. He mopped his face and chest
with a large handkerchief, and then sat there holding it and looking at
it as if he'd never seen a bandanna before.

       *       *       *       *       *

I felt sorry for him. These provincial types have an automatic feeling
of horror at the thought of meeting some superior creatures that will
replace man in the Galaxy. So I let him sit there for a couple of
minutes to recover before I prompted him.

"Well?" I said at last. "The additional stuff they buy--what is it?"
This hadn't been part of the reports.

"Oh. Yes. Once every five days they take one man. I may have given you
the idea that they killed them. They don't. They ship them off. They
say we are very popular, and when there are enough of us on the market
to bring the price down, we should make ideal pets. And we can't do a
thing to stop them."

I flicked the ash of my cigar delicately onto his carpet. "You can't?
What have you tried?"

He leaped to his feet and balled his fists belligerently. "I'm trying
to call in the military, but first I've got to get through the red tape
of calling in you insurance people. Now will you give me authority to
call in a fleet before it's too late?"

I smiled in a superior manner and straightened a pleat on the hideous
kilt. "If you feel this way, then why do you worry about money? Why
didn't you just call the fleet directly and forfeit your insurance?"

He glared at me through red-rimmed eyes. "I tried that," he said. "If
only we had some central government to turn to--but that's impossible
in space, of course. So I went to the only centralized force there is.
And they said that they have to count on voluntary contributions from
the member planets, and they couldn't afford to answer every call for
help. They told me to contact my insurance company."

"Which," I commented mildly, "is another centralized force in space,
in spite of what you say. It's widespread, it's profit-making,
and it gets the job done. Nobody has to try to beg for voluntary
appropriations from penurious planetary governments."

"This isn't a crackpot fear of aliens," he said, as soon as I stopped
talking. "I've seen aliens before, in all parts of the Galaxy. I don't
panic."

"Then you must have tried something else before hollering Uncle," I
said. "Like, perhaps, keeping all of your men inside the dome here when
the time for another abduction approaches?"

       *       *       *       *       *

He waved a hand impatiently. "We've tried everything a large group of
top-flight minds can think of," he said. "My own organization has an
exceptional research staff, as I'm sure you know. The Aliens work by
mental control. We've had everyone brought into this building, have
double-checked them, and have sealed the doors with a time lock. It
turned out that one of the men was missing--we'd only imagined he was
among us when we assembled.

"We scoured the planet before we landed and saw no signs of the Aliens.
We've seen no Alien ships land since we arrived. We have no idea where
they are, except that there's one sizable area not far from here that
we can't seem to penetrate. The only evidence we have that the Aliens
arrived after we did is that they told us so. Whatever that's worth.

"We've brought in some of mankind's best Mental Control Operators.
People like you, who are able to walk around in a poisonous atmosphere
in sub-zero weather without any protection or any clothes at all. Every
one of them is now among the victims. The Aliens apparently thought it
would be a good joke to take them."

He paused. "So you see, we don't expect you to be around very long.
Just so you call in the military before the Aliens call _you_ in, we'll
try to control our grief when you go."

"That's courteous of you," I said. "But you are suffering under an
understandable misapprehension. You seem to believe--probably because
of my somewhat unorthodox costume when I arrived--that I am a Master
Controller. In point of fact, nothing could be farther from the case. I
have no such powers. Or almost none, anyway.

"I arrived naked because of the enormous expense of teleportation.
Those machines require gigantic amounts of power and skilled
technicians. At ten thousand a pound, I saved the company five thousand
by leaving my kilt behind, and even more when you consider my shoes. As
for a protective suit--why, such an unnecessary cost would have been
thrown out by our accountants in a minute."

Obadiah Jones sneered at me in disbelief, but I tolerantly ignored
his attitude. "Let's admit, for the time being, that these Aliens are
better at Mental Control than we are," I said. "Then does it make sense
for us to fight them with their own weapons, giving them cards and
spades before the start of the game? Now take me to the edge of this
place where you say we can't go."

In spite of Mr. Jones' urgent pleas, I refused to wear a protective
suit, except to go out through the lock. I knew he was worried about
the Mind Control he still was convinced I was using to survive
unprotected on the surface. He was afraid that when I came up against
the Aliens and what he called their "superior powers," it would mean
my death, if I didn't have a suit. Since I had equally valid reasons
for not wearing the suit, and since I didn't want to explain them, I
refused to argue. I just took the thing off as soon as we were outside.
I left the kilt on, though. I thought its ugliness might irritate the
Aliens.

       *       *       *       *       *

Obadiah Jones kept up a running patter of conversation as he led me
toward the forbidden area. "We haven't been idle," he said. "We've
learned a lot about the Aliens' Mind Control. For one thing, they work
on our emotions. Several of us who are still alive have been exposed
to that. There were eight or nine of us in a group, the first time one
of us was Chosen. He said an overwhelming feeling of love was drawing
him in one direction; right after that, the rest of us felt a strong
sensation of revulsion and fear. We ran away, leaving him behind. We
never saw him again.

"They also control our senses. We see and hear what they want us to.
It's perfect hallucination. But you'll know that for yourself in a few
minutes."

I knew it already, of course. It had been in Jones' reports--all except
the bit about their capturing his men. And I had come prepared. I must
admit to feeling a distinct sensation of excitement as we approached
the area. But it was not induced, I am sure, by the Aliens, and in any
event it was not sufficiently intense to trigger my defense mechanisms.

"Here we are," said Obadiah Jones at last, pointing to a marker
attached to one of the ice trees. "Beyond that sign the troubles begin."

"It doesn't look like an alien artifact to me," I said, examining the
crudely made marker carefully.

"It isn't. I had it put up after one of our men was missing for two
days, wandering around in that area that they claim for themselves."

"Well, I'll find out just how good their claim is," I said. "I'm going
in there."

"Good luck," said Mr. Jones. "I'll wait for you here. But, just in case
I never see you again, won't you please give me authorization to call
in the Fleet? You can postdate it, and cancel it if you get back."

I nodded. "I'll give you an authorization dated tomorrow--if you'll
give me your gun first. You might just accidentally happen to kill me
after getting that paper from me, considering how important you think
it is to get the Fleet here fast, and how sure you are that I'll be
trapped."

Jones looked startled, and then sheepish, and gave me the gun without
comment. I wrote out the paper he wanted, and then strolled up the path
past the marker. It didn't look any different on the other side. It
went straight into the forbidden area, and I do mean straight. It went
on without the slightest sign of a turn, as far as the eye could see,
and there were no cross trails anywhere along it.

I stepped out at a good swift pace, striding along it long after Jones
disappeared from view behind me. I saw no signs of Aliens; I saw no
signs of anything unusual at all, until, about two hours after I
started, I saw a marker in the distance ahead of me. Jones was sitting
on the snow, just on the other side of the tree with the marker on it.
I strolled up toward him, crossed the invisible line, hiked up my kilt
to keep it from getting damp, and sat down on the soft snow beside him.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Hello," he said non-committally. "You made pretty good time. In fact,
that's a new record for the course."

"Then I'm not the first man to take that walk?" I asked.

"Nope. Just the fastest. I'm glad you didn't try to turn around and
come back along the path. That way, you'd have gotten lost. Well, shall
we go back to the camp and call in the Navy?"

"No, I'm going back in," I said calmly.

He waved one gloved hand at me. "It's your funeral," he said. "Or what
amounts to the same thing, anyway."

I stood up, dusted off the snow where some of it had stuck to me, and
settled my kilt into as fashionable a manner as was possible. I crossed
the line and started down the trail again, just as I had before, but
this time I didn't follow my eyes. Soon after losing sight of Mr.
Jones, I cut sharply off the clearly visible trail to the right and
started to weave my way through a thicket of the ice trees.

Gradually a sensation of fear entirely foreign to my usual nature
built up within me, but I ignored it and kept going. As the sensation
increased to a nearly uncontrollable level, one of the automatic
mechanisms I had had the foresight to have implanted in my body
operated, and a few drops of a drug were shot into my veins and almost
instantly took effect. I still felt the fear sensation, but it no
longer had the power to bother me much. With that drug in my blood
stream, no emotion could affect me strongly.

As I worked my way through the tinkling jungle of ice trees, there was
an amazing change. Before my eyes, the trees suddenly seemed to clothe
themselves in leaves and bark, and the sounds became those of birds
and insects. I was working my way through a jungle of Earth. The heavy
gravity of Sunder's Pride had not disturbed me before, but now it was
replaced by the almost buoyant feeling resulting from the far lighter
gravity of Earth. The harsh yellow glow of the sunlight striking on
eternal ice was replaced by the vibrant blues and greens of tropical
Earth.

My fear sensation, which had been generalized, suddenly sharpened. I
was reminded of a time, on Earth, when I had nearly died in a tropical
river teeming with piranha fish. I still have a couple of scars from
that episode. Before me I could see the river flowing. Even under the
calming influence of the drug, I could feel my heart pounding in my
throat.

I must confess that it took a distinct effort of will for me to wade
into the water. It was boiling with the flashing forms of angry fish.
As I stepped forward I could feel their greedy jaws snapping into my
flesh, feel the pointed rows of teeth on the bones of my ankles, then
my legs, then my thighs.

       *       *       *       *       *

Despite the agony I continued on, and the water level gradually rose
until it closed over my head and my sight faded as the fish bit out
my eyes. I think I might have screamed then, if I hadn't already felt
the fish tear out my throat, so that I knew screaming was impossible.
Besides, I didn't want to open my mouth and let them get to work on my
tongue. I protected the soft spot under my chin with the hand that held
Obadiah's gun.

If any of you homeside heroes ever wonder if we Claims Adjusters really
earn our considerable salaries, let me clue you: We do.

When, stripped to a skeleton, I still kept moving stolidly ahead, the
boiling of the water slowly died away, the pain ceased, and my sight
gradually came back. The jungle was still there, but I found that I was
climbing up out of the river onto a trail that somehow seemed familiar.
The fear sensation was gone, too, to be replaced by a very different
one.

I remembered why I had gone into the jungle on Earth, so many years
before, and why the trail was familiar. And who had been at the end of
it. And who _was_ at the end of it. She was soft and beautiful, and she
had loved me for a while. She loved me still, I realized, and she was
waiting for me. I hurried my steps and the automatic mechanism again
put a few drops of the drug into my blood stream.

I could still feel the sensation of longing, but the urgency was gone.
I let the feeling continue to pull me forward without fighting it, and
willingly followed the twists and turns of the still familiar trail.

As the trees thinned out until I could see the well-remembered cottage
with its thatched roof, its single room, its wide veranda, I slowed.
The house stood alone, with no trees around it, just the way she and I
had wanted it.

I stopped at the last tree and looked at the house for several minutes.
Nothing moved that I could see. Circling slowly from tree to tree, I
continued watching the house until I was staring at it from a point
nearly opposite the place where I had first seen it. Then I began to
walk toward it. Even the sound of the birds had faded away, although
I could still smell the heady fragrance of tropical flowers. She had
always kept a large bouquet of them on the table beside the bed.

When I had reached a point about twenty paces from the house, I wheeled
suddenly and leaped forward, aiming at a spot where nothing showed to
the eye. There was a moment--the merest instant--of dizziness, and then
a room suddenly materialized around me. The room looked alien, and
there were two Aliens at the far end of it. The usual drag of one and a
half Earth gravities had returned.

       *       *       *       *       *

This, I felt, was the first undistorted view any man on Earth had had
of these Aliens, except as a pet. They had not expected any human to be
able to find his way here, to this room at the center of their base.

The room was not what I had expected. I had thought that I would
find myself on the inside of a spaceship, and by no stretch of the
imagination could this ever have traveled between the stars. It was
unmistakably a prefab hut.

The two Aliens better fitted my preconceptions. They looked something
like overgrown sea anemones, with three multi-jointed arms and three
short legs. They were just over two meters tall. They were extremely
sluggish in their movements, as might be expected from creatures that
depended almost entirely on their mental abilities for control of their
environment.

They looked at me for a few minutes--all of their eyes were startlingly
humanlike in appearance--and I imagine that they had expressions of
surprise, if I could have found any expression, or interpreted from
their tendrils just where their faces were. Finally one of them moved
slowly to the far wall, extended one of his arms and depressed a lever
on a rather crude-looking panel attached to that wall. He then moved
slowly back to his companion and both of them continued to stare at me.

I waved cheerily at them. "Hi, fellows," I said. I could detect no
answer, but the room wavered a little before my eyes. I blinked and
shook my head and my vision cleared.

"So you haven't been trained in the techniques of Mental Control of
Earthmen," I commented. "That's interesting."

A feathery stalk slowly rose from among the coiling things that circled
their tops, and at the same time I heard a gentle dragging noise
approaching the door of the hut.

"It sounds as if we might be about to have company," I said. "That
will be pleasant."

I examined my two hosts closely, because I had the feeling that I
wouldn't be able to see them much longer as they really were.

"It's good of you to be so cautious," I said. "If you hadn't been so
careful as to shield this hut, just in case we Earthmen turned out to
have adequate Mind Control powers of our own, I wouldn't have had this
chance to see you two in all your natural ugliness. Your friends out
there would have kept me under control all this time.

"And what's more," I added, "I wouldn't even have known that you
creatures had something that would shield your power. Our scientists
will be very interested in examining this hut in great detail."

       *       *       *       *       *

Just then the door of the hut swung open and two elflike creatures
appeared to walk briskly in. I glanced at them and then back to where
my two slow-moving acquaintances had been standing. They were no longer
in sight.

"Perhaps we can make things a little more comfortable for you," said
one of the brisk elves. "You have earned most special treatment from
us." He gestured and the strangeness of the room strangely disappeared.
The walls were suddenly paneled in mahogany and hung with rich drapes.
Easy chairs were placed at intervals around a long, brilliantly
polished table. A picture window showed a bucolic scene bathed in cool
sunshine. A deep pile rug covered the floor.

I looked around appreciatively. "Very nice," I complimented them. "And
in excellent taste. But you have forgotten one thing, haven't you?"

"What's that?" asked the second elf, in a piping voice.

"Why, you forgot about the gravity. It's still at Sunder's Pride
normal."

"So it is," said the elf. "But then you can't expect us to think of
everything. Besides, it doesn't seem to bother you the way it does most
of the other creatures of your kind."

The gravity did not appear to change.

"No matter," I said politely. I strolled over to the table and stroked
it with the hand that was not holding the gun. It seemed very real.

"Won't you sit down?" asked the first elf. "I'm sure you will find the
chairs very comfortable."

"I'm sure I would," I said, "but no, thank you. I'm certain it would
provide you with a lot of innocent merriment if I squatted in thin air
under the impression that I was settled into a cosy chair, but I did
not come here to amuse you."

The elf smiled. "You are very different from the others who lumbered to
this planet in those clumsy artifacts. You are almost like a Person, in
spite of your feverish rushing around. Several of our laboratories will
bid very high for the right to examine you."

I bowed acknowledgment of his compliment. "I'm not in one of your
laboratories yet," I said mildly.

"It will be very interesting to find out how you managed to get here in
spite of our Mind Control," said the second elf. "Your arrival without
the necessity of swaddling yourself in awkward garments indicated a
certain amount of ability along mental lines, but I sense no more of
it in you than several others of your kind have managed to muster. The
others all brought premium prices on the market, despite conveyances
and garments."

"I gather you don't think much of mechanical contrivances," I said
lightly.

       *       *       *       *       *

Alien the First shrugged. "They make interesting toys," he said. "But,
of course, they are useless crutches in building a civilization. They
bring good prices when peddled for the amusement of our children and
the shallower-minded adults."

"Listening to your remarks about our spaceships," I continued, "I
presume all of you teleported here. We Earthmen may not be very good
at Mind Control, but I think we have a good grasp of the principles,
and I don't see how you could teleport without some sort of terminal
device. Didn't you have to send that here by machine?"

There was a brief silence, and then Alien the Second answered. "I
suppose it doesn't matter if we tell you. After all, we have you in
our possession. As you suggest, we do need a terminal device. But we
didn't use machinery; we used minds--the minds of you Earthmen. When
the first of you landed on this uninhabited planet, we discovered that
your undirected capacities were sufficient to serve as the terminal of
a teleport system.

"We couldn't go directly to any of your more populous planets, because
the vast numbers of your untrained minds cause so much static that the
noise level is too high to permit a sharp enough focus for teleporting.

"Of course, now that we're here, where you've set up a teleport
terminal that connects into your foolish mechanical network and ties
into all of your thousands of planets, we'll have no trouble going
anywhere among your worlds that we want to. And as soon as we have
built up enough consumer demand for you creatures as house pets, we'll
move in for the harvest."

"It might not be too bad at that," I said. "I've got a cat back home on
Earth and she runs my household pretty much to suit her fancy. But I'm
afraid it's not the same thing for Earthmen to be house pets."

"The ones we've got are doing a very good job at it," said Number Two.
"And, as we indicated, you won't get the chance to be a pet."

"You seem very sure that you have me under your control."

"Very sure," said Number One. "In this confined space, with our
training, the two of us could overcome all but one in a thousand of our
own kind--so do you think you have a chance?"

I decided that a simple expletive would suffice as an answer. I didn't
know enough about them to be sure it was biologically possible for them
to carry out my suggestion, but it wasn't important. They ignored me.

       *       *       *       *       *

At least they didn't answer me. Instead, a cage suddenly appeared
around me, leaving me scarcely room to move around. I reached out and
tapped one of the bars. It seemed very strong. I didn't think I was
even close to panicking, but the implanted device in my body fed some
more of the drug into my veins. I may have felt a little more tense
than I realized.

At any rate, the time for action seemed to have arrived, and it was not
on the mental level. I spun toward an apparently empty portion of the
room and emptied Obadiah's pistol. The sound of the explosive pellets
was very loud in the room.

The bars writhed, wavered and disappeared, as did the elflike
creatures. The atmosphere of the room turned momentarily opaque, and
when it cleared, what I could see was once again a clumsy prefab. Two
of the Aliens were still standing in a corner. The remains of the other
two were splashed pretty generally throughout the room. It was quite a
mess.

"Well," I said, "thanks for the party. You'll excuse me for running."

There was no answer. The two surviving Aliens hadn't learned much about
Earthmen. I walked over and lifted one of them. He weighed about three
hundred pounds, I judged. That would be a couple of hundred on Earth.
Hefty creatures. I figured that one was about all I could handle. I
looked around at the articles in the room and then decided not to use
any of them. I was sure that everything I saw was actually there, but
it didn't seem wise to take chances.

I took off Obadiah's purple kilt and tore it into strips without
regret. Then I used the strips to fasten one of the Aliens securely,
so he couldn't use his arms or his legs. I didn't know if he could do
anything, loose, but I didn't want him to try. The other Alien I heaved
up onto my shoulders. Then I walked out of the room.

There were a few of the ice trees scattered around, but the countryside
looked barren. I couldn't visually identify any landmarks, but I
started off without hesitation, and in about three hours I was back at
the marker. From there on I used my eyes to follow the path back to the
airlock. I had no trouble.

This time Mr. Jones gave me a checked kilt. I know you won't believe
me, but it was even more hideous than the purple one. The red and
yellow squares were at least three inches across. Luckily, I didn't
have to look at it--just wear it.

Jones was a little confused as to why I had brought back one of the
Aliens. He didn't even recognize it as an Alien at first, of course.
He'd never seen one of them before--just the elfin form they'd wanted
him to see.

I'd had no more hallucinations and the other Earthmen seemed to be
seeing normally too. Apparently there had been only the two trained
beings among the Aliens on Sunder's Pride--and only the four of them in
all.

       *       *       *       *       *

Nevertheless, I was in a hurry. I sent out an urgent call for one of
the most skilled Mental Controllers in Interstellar Insurance. I'll
admit that there are times when they can be put to use.

Jones and I went down to the clearing that was the teleport terminal to
welcome him.

The company chose to send that young self-styled genius Ralph Carter.
He's supercilious and conceited and altogether obnoxious--I don't know
why you hire such people--but no question of it, he's a real expert in
his field. He was dressed in a dark green kilt in the latest style, and
he smirked when he saw the thing I had on. I ignored his attitude, as
befitted a gentleman.

I figured that it was time to move fast. While I showed Carter the way
to the headquarters, I explained why I had called for him. I wanted him
to get into communication with the Alien and find out the location of
his home worlds.

"But how can I do that?" Carter asked. "I don't know anything at all
about these Aliens."

"Can't you use your mental training to help you learn to talk mind to
mind?"

"I suppose so. That shouldn't take more than a few days. The techniques
are well established with other new races we've encountered. But
learning his language won't make him answer."

I looked at him with my most superior manner. "While you're learning
his language, I suggest you learn some of his psychology. Then you can
get some of our engineers to design you a machine that will function
the way a polygraph does with humans--act as a lie detector. With the
proper choice of questions, you should find out anything you want to
know."

He shuddered delicately at the mention of that naughty word "machine."
Mentalists sometimes become purists and make fools of themselves by
trying to do without machinery--something like the attitude of the
Aliens.

When I had given Carter his instructions, I turned to the rest of
the expedition. "I want all of your weapons," I said. "And don't try
holding out on me. That's to include knives and scissors, too. We'll
lock them up in Jones' vault."

"Now see here," said Jones. "Some more of those Aliens may show up any
time. We can't afford to go out without our guns."

"That's just the reason you've got to get rid of them. I don't want you
to start shooting each other--and me. Now, send out a party as fast as
you can to bring back a sample of the building material that blocks out
their minds. We'll ship it back to Earth and see if they can put it
into mass production. Have the party bring back that second Alien, too.
If we happen to spoil the one we've got making him talk, it would be
nice to have a spare."

       *       *       *       *       *

While the small group was away, I had Obadiah improvise some leg irons
out of light chain and padlocks, and used them to hobble all of the
Earthmen who remained in camp. Jones screamed like a holta whose mate
has estivated, but it didn't do him any good. I had the authority.

He got even madder when I put the irons on him and at the same time
turned him down again when he wanted to call in the military. The idea
of a space fleet around while the Aliens were still free to use their
mind powers gave me cold chills.

When the group returned from the Aliens' camp, they did so without the
Alien. They brought back the still tied strips of the purple kilt. It
looked as if he'd teleported right out of them. But at least they did
have a piece of the prefab hut with them. I had it sent back to Earth,
but not until after I'd attached chains to the party's legs, so that
they had to creep along with six-inch steps like the others.

As the days passed without any apparent action from the Aliens,
dissatisfaction and grumbling grew. My precautionary action with
the chains was very unpopular. At the end of the first week after my
arrival on Sunder's Pride, Jones tried to invoke the Policy he'd signed
with the company to call in the military, on the grounds that the
situation hadn't been resolved in the prescribed time, and that the use
of chains proved that the colony was in even greater danger than before
I had arrived.

I invoked the "substantial progress" clause, of course, but the fact
that I'd changed the combination to the vault and had the only gun in
the entire camp outside of it probably was more convincing to him.

Carter called in a top-flight Engineer and made real progress in
developing lie-detector techniques against the Alien. The Aliens were
basically a guileless lot. I almost felt sorry for them.

Things eased up a little when Earth sent us a stack of sheets they
claimed would be just as good in blocking out thoughts as the sample
we had sent them. The Alien captive told us, after Carter persuaded
him a little, that the blocking power was impressed on their building
materials by a mental process. We used electronic techniques, and our
Engineers said they could have done it years before, if Mentalists and
they could have gotten together on the work.

By testing, we found that the stuff we had blocked out anything Carter
could transmit, so I let the rest of our people take off their chains
as long as they were inside camp--as soon that is, as we had it fully
protected. They worked faster on that job than they ever had worked in
their lives before.

       *       *       *       *       *

A few hours later, I was strolling down toward Telepath Clearing with
a courier to send a report back to Earth when the Aliens returned.
The first warning we had was a sudden wave of hate that struck like
a physical blow. It brought the courier to his knees, momentarily
helpless. Even with an automatic and instantaneous shot of the drug, it
had me grinding my teeth.

Whether it was the rapidity of my recovery and my quickness of thought,
or whether it was just the effect of the hate spasm, I didn't know--at
any rate, I did the right thing. Before the courier could get up off
his knees and try to kill me, as I was sure he would do, I slugged him
alongside the ear with the butt of my pistol.

The hatred sensation seemed to be channeled and directed. It made us
want to destroy Aliens--not each other--and that was unexpected to me.
And because the courier was on his way back to Earth, I'd left the
chains off him. In another few seconds, I figured, he'd have tried to
kill me--or, at least, that was my initial thought, until I realized
that, since I am a human, he wouldn't have felt hate for me. By that
time, and quite properly, I had laid him out cold.

I reached down and picked up the courier, intending to toss him lightly
across my shoulder and start back to the camp. I found that I had a
problem--I couldn't figure which one of my three stumpy legs to start
walking with. I extended all my eyes and examined myself. I looked like
an Alien wearing a checked kilt.

Unhappily, I tried to lick my labial fringes with my tongue--and
suddenly realized that I had no tongue! It was an unnerving
realization, even to me. But then I knew why the Aliens were
transmitting hatred of themselves; any Earthman who knew what an Alien
looked like would attack me on sight.

I closed all of my eyes and concentrated, but I couldn't seem to be
able to figure out which of my three hands held the gun, for I could
no longer see it. I decided it was time for me to get back inside the
barrier.

That was a devil of a lot easier to decide than it was to do. I could
see three legs and I could feel three legs, but I didn't know how to
operate three legs. I was slowed down to a sort of hobble. It wasn't as
slow as the sluggish amble of the real Aliens, but it wasn't any faster
than the other Earthmen could move, hobbled by chains.

I couldn't afford to delay very long, though. Some of the unchained
men inside of the shack might take it into their heads to step outside
without remembering to hobble themselves, considering that I was not
there to remind them, and I didn't feel up to trying to handle anything
like that.

       *       *       *       *       *

I sneaked up as close as I could get to the lock without being seen.
There were six men gathered in front of it, waiting for me. I couldn't
think of anything else to do, so I just lit out for the airlock,
shuffling along as fast as I could go. The men swarmed around me. I
threw the courier at the first group to arrive--he was still out--and
gained a few seconds. But then they hung on me, they pummeled me, they
bit and they clawed.

I just kept struggling bravely forward; I couldn't think of anything
else to do. At the last minute, just as I thought I was going down
under the mass of feet and fists, two of the men somehow got tangled in
each other's chains, and I managed to break loose long enough to pull
myself into the lock.

As the outer door swung closed, I found myself with two arms, two
legs and, praise be, a tongue. Obadiah's kilt was missing and I'm
happy to say that I never saw it again. The gun was visible once more,
still firmly clutched in my right hand. It was empty; my fingers were
squeezing tightly on the trigger. Much good it had done me!

I passed quickly into the headquarters building, bringing with me a
breath of poisonous outer air that set the men inside, except for
Carter, to gasping and choking. Not even pausing to say hello, or to
apologize for bringing in some of the outer atmosphere with me, I
hurried over to the control panel and switched on the visual receptors
that showed the outside of the lock. The men out there were fighting
each other to get inside the building and kill me. As they managed
to battle their way in through the lock, they looked bewildered for
a moment, and then all of them, released from the frenzy of hate,
collapsed into unconsciousness.

We were a bloody mess, every one of us, but not one of us was seriously
hurt. The Aliens had outsmarted themselves. While I had looked like one
of them, those parts of me--like my eye stalks--that had seemed to be
most vulnerable, so that the Earthmen had gone after them, had turned
out to be things like ears and noses. They hurt, but they didn't put
me out of action when they were battered. That's all that had saved me
from being killed. I didn't figure that out till later, I must admit.

I counted us. We were all safe inside. Then I used an amplifier,
connected up to a loudspeaker outside, to call the Aliens. I called for
several minutes, without receiving any response, before I realized that
they spoke with their minds exclusively and couldn't penetrate into the
headquarters where we were with their pseudo-voices.

I sighed and started to go outside, but Jones hauled me back and made
me put on a protective suit. He said he couldn't stand another whiff of
that atmosphere.

       *       *       *       *       *

Once outside, I had no trouble communicating with the Aliens. They were
very anxious to talk. Apparently they were convinced that, since they
believed my mental powers were at least as strong as theirs, there
were probably many more Earthmen like me that they wouldn't be able to
tackle. I had no trouble at all making a lucrative trading deal with
them for Jones' company, once I convinced them that I knew the location
of their planets, and that it would be an easy matter to blast them
from the face of the universe with primitive, uncivilized fusion bombs.
They even promised to send back the men they had taken as pets.

After that, I staggered back inside the camp and slept the clock around.

When I woke, I found that all of the men were very anxious to know the
secret of my success, especially Carter, who knew very well that I had
no skill at Mental Control.

I was glad to oblige them, as a reward for Carter's courtesy in giving
me his stylish green kilt, which fitted me very well. Obadiah gave
Carter another of his horrors--and it was the worst we had seen to
date, as I let that young worthy know with a simple cock of an eyebrow.

It was all very simple, as I explained to my admiring audience. The
reports we'd had back at the headquarters of the Interstellar Insurance
Company indicated that it was useless to try to compete with the Aliens
on the mental level, where they were strongest. This was the mistake
that Jones and his so-called experts had made.

I decided, when I was given the assignment to straighten things out,
that the best way to compete was where we Earthmen are strongest: with
mechanical "gadgets." So I had our scientists implant a power source
in my body. It made use of short half-life radioactive isotopes for the
energy source--not too well shielded, but what the hell, I've already
fathered my family--and gave me more power than I could ever need.

In order to be able to use that power, I'd had the scientists set up
a closed-cycle system in my body. The combustion products created by
the "burning" of food by my body cells, as in all humans, were carbon
dioxide and water. These were broken down, in another gadget implanted
in my body, into oxygen, carbon and hydrogen.

The oxygen I used directly; another compact machine synthesized
carbohydrates to complete the closed-loop cycle. I neither breathed
nor ate during the entire time I was on Sunder's Pride, except for the
purpose of talking, and that breathing never went past the larynx.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was lucky I didn't need to breathe, too. Otherwise I'd have drowned
in imaginary water while wading in that river the Aliens had created in
my mind.

"Also," I explained, "I had a sort of supersonic sonar device set into
me, with the transponder in my chest. That's why I had to avoid wearing
a protective suit; unless my chest was bare, I squelched the signals. I
used this sonar to judge what was going on around me, no matter what I
seemed to see."

"Now don't feed us that," said Jones belligerently. "We aren't that
dumb. Don't you think we tried using sonar and radar to fool the
Aliens? They worked on all our senses. What we saw on a radar or sonar
screen matched perfectly the false picture we thought we were seeing
with our eyes. It was the same when we used aural reception. What came
in through our ears matched what we thought we saw. So now stop kidding
around and tell us the truth."

I smiled condescendingly. "I am telling you the absolute truth,
Obadiah. You didn't use your head. Of course the sound signals I
received from the sonar matched what I thought I saw. I didn't
underestimate the Aliens. It's just that sound to my ears wasn't the
only read-out method I used. In addition to connecting to the nerves
of my ears, which the Aliens expected, the sonar output also connected
to the nerves of my tongue. Anything ahead of me tasted sweet, and
anything behind me tasted salt. To my left was bitter, to my right acid.

"The Aliens didn't expect me to _taste_ what was to be seen around me,
and what they didn't know about, they couldn't counter. No matter what
I saw or heard, I just followed my tongue.

"I had a few bad moments one time, when by accident, more or less, the
actions of the Aliens almost made me imagine that my tongue was being
destroyed, but I managed to work my way out of that by keeping my mouth
closed. Just the other day, though, I had some more rough minutes when
I found that, along with thinking I had the body of an Alien, I also
thought I had no tongue, like them.

"You see, I used what the Aliens consider to be primitive mechanical
toys. Oh, and one more thing, not quite so primitive: my brains. You
might all profit by trying that once in a while."

"Well," said Jones at last, "I've got to give you credit. You knew what
you were doing."

"That's all right," I said magnanimously. "I had the choice of trying
to combat them with Mental Control, where the Aliens are stronger, or
with mechanical science, where humans are stronger. Which I chose to
use." I punned, "was just a matter of taste."

End of report. I'm going on a long vacation with my bonus money.

And what I do while I'm away is none of your business. Don't send me
any of your preaching letters this time. How I have my fun is also a
matter of taste.





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