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Title: Action on Azura
Author: Osborne, Robertson
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                            ACTION ON AZURA

                         By ROBERTSON OSBORNE

              The Others--the Nameless Ones--had tried to
            conquer this fair and gentle world, searing the
          very sky with vicious flame, drenching the natives
            with death. They failed. Then came the Terrans,
              with a new idea ... a different weapon....

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                       Planet Stories Fall 1949.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


On the thirty-third day out of Earth Central, the _Special Agent_
heterodyned itself out of w-space and re-entered the normal continuum.
The little 1400-ton vessel fell free toward the fifth planet of Procyon
for half an hour before planetary drive was applied to slow it into an
orbit.

Allan Stuart, linguist, in this maiden mission of CONTACT INCORPORATED,
felt seasick again during the period of free fall. Of the six men
aboard, he was the only one who hadn't spent at least one hitch in the
Solar System Patrol. He was doggedly trying to steady his nerves by
floating a row of dictionaries in midair when the intercom startled
him. It was the voice of James Gordon, ship's captain and head of the
new firm.

"All hands! We start spiraling in shortly and we should land on Azura
in about five hours. Nestor, relieve White in the drive room. The rest
of you come on up to Control for a final briefing."

The bony little linguist sighed, put away his books, and unstrapped
himself. Nausea made him hiccup. Detouring sadly around the intricate,
day-old wreckage of what had been a beautiful cephaloid unit, he swung
stiffly out of the lab. In the corridor he had to squeeze past a badly
torn-up wall. Dan Rogers, one of the two planetary scouts, shut off a
welding torch and coasted along with him.

"Little old piece of nickel-iron sure raised heck, didn't it, Mr.
Stuart?" drawled the scout. "Come out into normal space for two minutes
to get a bearing, and--WHAM!" He propelled himself along with the
effortless efficiency of a man accustomed to doing without gravity.

Stuart, correcting course with some difficulty, took a moment to
answer. "Hm? Oh, the meteor! Yes, indeed it did. My leg is still stiff,
and of course half my equipment is just junk now. But I guess we were
rather fortunate at that, since none of us was killed. All the way to
Procyon ... three point four parsecs. Dear me!" He clucked, shaking his
head, and wondered again how the other five men in the crew could take
these things so casually.

He drifted into the control room with Rogers and hovered near the desk.
Brettner, the other scout, came in playing some outlandish sort of
guitar; White, engineer and assistant astrogator, joined him in a final
caterwauling chorus of "The Demon of Demos."

The ship's captain swung his chair to face them, his angular face
folding into a responsive grin. Then he waved a tele-tape at the four
men and looked more serious.

"Here's Patrol's latest summary of the situation," he announced. "Still
no response from Procyon V, otherwise known as Azura. No activity in
the ruined cities. No further clashes with traders, because the traders
have given up. However, the natives are still taking pot-shots from
the woods at any scouting parties that dare to sit down on the planet.
Every attempt at contact is fiercely rejected.

"The Patrol lads, naturally, are forbidden to shoot back, at least
until they find out what this is all about ... which, of course, is
where our own little expedition of specialists comes in. Incidentally,
it seems fairly certain the natives know nothing of radio, so we'll be
safe in using microwave to feel our way down in the dark."

He accepted a cigarette from Rogers and nodded toward a month-old
report titled: Unofficial Data as of 31 October 2083; Procyon V (Azura).

"I know we have precious little to go in there with, but that's the
situation. A million credits from Earth Central, if we establish
friendly contact." He smoked a while, grey eyes on the ceiling. Then,
as nobody spoke, he added: "The Patrol has had two more skirmishes,
not far from here, with what we've called the Invader culture. None of
their ships has been captured, but it's fairly certain they're the same
vicious crowd we've fought near Rigel, Alpha Centauri, and so on. They
seem to be heading this way again slowly. Here...."

       *       *       *       *       *

He handed out half a dozen photographs of strange-looking spacecraft.
"They're undoubtedly the gang that blew hell out of Azura a few years
ago, before we got here, and gave the natives such a violent dislike of
strangers. The Invader's weapons are somewhat inferior to ours, but he
apparently has the considerable advantage of having superior position
in regard to bases ... particularly around here. The patrol simply
can't stand up to a determined attack in this region unless a base is
made available, preferably on Azura."

Brettner said, softly, "That's what we're really after, isn't it?
Nobody's handing us a million credits just for cultural purposes."

The leader of the expedition nodded. "Yep. Once we talk to these
Azurans, I think we can convince them we all have a common enemy. An
enemy who seems to enjoy smashing things just for fun. I have a hunch
the Azurans expect the Invaders back, too ... that might account for
their apparent determination to remain hidden." He reached for the log.
"Incidentally, what's the latest on the damage situation?"

Stuart shook his head unhappily and brushed hair out of his eyes.
"One cephaloid is completely ruined. It was the one I had trained to
translate into Universal Speech from whatever other language would
be fed into it later. I was going to teach it what Azuran I could
pick up and use it as a direct interpreter. We have to use Universal
Speech, you see, because cephaloids simply can't handle homonyms such
as 'see' and 'sea,' or 'threw' and 'through.' However," his worried
look lessened, "the multiple analyzer is all right. And the stand-by,
originally conditioned only for generalized language response, has been
retrained in Universal Speech and will learn Azuran from the analyzer."

He managed a feeble smile. "After all, the natives are manlike, and
we know they had a city culture much like ours, so there is a good
possibility of our finding mutually intelligible symbols. And we know
what their language sounds like, thanks to the trader who got away with
a recording."

White spoke up. "I hope you weren't counting too much on the portable
teleview, Mr. Stuart. It's a total loss. So is the long-range
microphone. It's going to be tough to study their language at a
distance." He looked at Gordon. "The ship is okay, chief, except for
the debris we're still cutting away. All the animals are dead; I guess
you knew that. And all we've salvaged from the jeep is the power unit
and one repulsor. We'll have to walk where we can't use the scout ship."

Brettner, when the captain looked at him, said quietly: "We're awful
low on food. Just about enough to get us back, with three or four days
to spare. Can't we eat any of this Azuran stuff?"

Gordon shook his head. "The water and air are all right, but there's no
food for us down there. Good thing, in a way."

He laughed at the surprised expressions. "All Terrestrial life is based
on complexes of iron, magnesium, or copper, but Azuran life seems to be
built on cobalt complexes. Consequently both sides are immune to the
diseases of the other. You remember the terrible plagues that hit the
Terrestrial port areas in the old days, and the grim effects of our
landings on Alpha Centauri III and Proxima II. But the biostat labs
report that Terrestrial and Azuran tissue cultures have only a toxic
effect on each other ... no parasitic viability whatever."

He looked up at the chronometer. "About time to begin our spiral, if
we're to land before daybreak in that area we picked out. Let's get
some sleep. White, you'll relieve me for a couple of hours, soon as
we've established our trajectory."

       *       *       *       *       *

Stuart, on the way out, picked up the sheaf of papers summarizing what
was known about Azura. He strapped into his bunk absent-mindedly and
lay there trying to visualize his first non-solar planet. Many kinds of
intelligent animals, the reports agreed. Evidently a mutation leading
to intelligence had occurred quite early in the diversification of the
animal phyla.

One of the traders, said the report, claimed he had even learned to
converse in a limited way with what he called monkey-rats. These had
about the intelligence of a five-year-old human, and displayed the
group cooperation common to many Azuran forms.

Too bad the trader hadn't been able to stay there longer. He had
finally found some of the natives, just at the time they had found him.
He was preparing to leave his ship and accept their thanks for the fine
gifts he had set out, when gifts, trees, and nearby boulders began to
blow up all around. He had taken off without further discussion.

Four other traders and three Patrol ships had failed. A small
freighter, landing to make emergency repairs, had disappeared. The only
weapon the natives had, apparently, was a disrupter of some sort, with
a range of only two or three kilometers. But the wreckage of the cities
showed plainly that the invaders had used weapons of the same type as
Earth's, probably with a range of hundreds of kilometers. That meant--

He awoke, struggling, as if from a nightmare. The klaxon was sounding
off, jarring his teeth. Gordon's slightly nasal voice came over the
loudspeaker: "Landing stations, everybody. We're sitting down in
fifteen minutes."

The linguist hastily unfastened his safety belts, rolled out, and
scrambled into primary space gear. "Secondary equipment?" he asked
Rogers, who was getting dressed beside him.

"Naw, no armor. Leave your oxygen off, too. This is a Class E planet,
just like home."

Stuart scrambled down to the control room and strapped himself in
beside the stern-view screen. He could hear White and Brettner in the
drive room, sleepily arguing about who had mislaid the coffee jug.
Such nonchalance! he thought. Trembling with excitement, he nearly
dropped his camera. "I wonder how soon I can get some pictures," he
muttered. "If I could only photograph our landing ... that would really
liven up the next meeting of the Philological Society!" He had already
taken over a hundred pictures of the expedition, and his hobby was the
subject of much ribbing from the rest of the six-man corporation.

Gordon looked over from the control board and interrupted his thoughts.
"Stuart! See anything out there?"

A dial over the linguist's head indicated only a hundred meters to go.
His screen showed a dark landscape, illuminated by two of the four
moons. "Tree directly below," he announced. "Better move to the red
side about twenty meters."

The vessel shifted slightly and eased down smoothly under Gordon's
practised handling. Relays clacked; the drive hummed softly.

Suddenly a rough branch scraped along the side, making metallic echoes
in the double walls. Seconds later the ship settled with a gritty
crunching. A few kicks of the drive leveled it off.


                                  II

There was profound silence for a moment after the drive died away.
Someone yelled "Wahoo!" Then Rogers came clattering down the ladder. He
beckoned to Stuart, who was already climbing out of the seat eagerly.

"Time for the landing party," said the scout. He eyed the camera.
"Remember now, play your cards close to your chest. Don't go skittering
off to take pictures. First we patrol once around the ship, then we get
the camouflage nets pegged down, right away. Then we sit tight 'till
we've had a good look around in daylight."

As they approached the arms locker, they found Nestor drawing out three
blast-rifles. He held out two of them. "Your weapons, gentlemen," said
the chubby engineer, bowing. "I'm guarding the airlock while you're out
there. And next time we cut cards for this little privilege, I'm going
to shuffle the deck myself. Six years in the Patrol before this trip,
and I've been first-to-land only once in my life!"

The linguist smiled, feeling his taut nerves relax a bit. He pushed the
Outside Test button beside the lock at the end of the corridor. A green
light flashed. "Air's already been okayed," Nestor told him.

Stuart pushed another button. The inner door withdrew from its permoid
gasket and swung aside. The three men clanked into the echoing airlock
chamber, where a touch on a third stud slid shut the inner door and
opened the outer.

The night lay mysterious before them, full of exotic odors, unfamiliar
sounds, and double shadows. The slender linguist clambered like an
eager monkey down the fin rungs and stood inhaling deeply.

He was adjusting his camera when Rogers whispered in his ear, "Come on,
let's make a tour around the clearing." Into his microphone, the scout
reported: "Beginning our circuit, chief. Circling counterclockwise."

Rifles unslung, the two began walking cautiously. They had gone about
halfway, and Stuart was studying the two moons, when his feet were
abruptly yanked out from under him and he fell to the ground. The patch
of pinkish grass under him seemed to ripple, rolling him over and over
helplessly until he was brought up against a rounded hummock. Before he
could struggle to his feet, he came floundering back again to be dumped
at the edge of the patch. Sitting up dazedly, he found Rogers looking
for something to shoot at.

"What the devil happened?" whispered the scout. Gordon's voice came
over the earphones: "What's going on down there? All I can hear up here
in the turret is grunts and whispers, but what I see sure looks screwy!"

Stuart got up lamely, rubbing his sore leg. "I was sniffed at and
rejected, in a manner of speaking," he answered. "Watch." He drew his
hand gun, which happened to be the most convenient thing, and tossed
it on the animated grass before the flabbergasted scout could stop
him. Immediately it was whisked away to the central hump, brushed
with feelers, and sent tumbling back to his feet. "A most intriguing
experience," murmured the linguist, studying the pink grass with his
head cocked to one side. "I shall have to try it again when there's
more time." He picked up the gun and limped away on patrol.

Rogers, with an expression of surprised scorn and amusement on his
handsome face, explained briefly to Gordon what had happened. As he
caught up with Stuart, he glanced toward the nose of the _Special
Agent_. "See anything yet, chief?"

In the nose turret, two gun barrels continued their sweep. "Nope,"
came back Gordon's voice. "There's a broad prairie just beyond the
trees on the 'East' side of this clearing, if you remember. Plain as
day in this double moonlight. Almost looks like my home state, except
for a few hills of that phosphorescent coral rock. Maybe--HEY! Some
kind of critters running toward the hills! About five kilometers away.
Flashes...." He broke off, as if absorbed in watching.

       *       *       *       *       *

The two men on the ground slowly continued their patrol, listening
intently. In about fifteen seconds, above the faint rustling of the
leaves in the pre-dawn breeze, they heard far-off snarling roars,
mingled with crackling explosions. Almost total silence followed, as
if the whole forest were listening. "All quiet," Gordon reported after
a while. "Must have been what the traders called hell-cats, attacking
some native settlement. Looks like we made a fair guess about where to
find some natives."

"We also know where they keep some of their popguns," added Rogers
sarcastically.

Gordon's voice chuckled. "Patrol says the only known weapon has an
apparent range of two or three kilometers at most, and probably is not
portable."

The scout looked skeptical. "Patrol says," he repeated sourly.
"Apparently, probably, maybe. I notice our old buddies haven't cared to
get within a hundred kilometers of said popgun."

When the tour around the ship had been completed, Rogers looked up.
"Okay, chief. Ready for the nets."

Far up in the nose appeared a black hole. White climbed out and spread
a conical camouflage net over the nose. Then he ducked back into the
ship. "Here comes the first strip," said Gordon. "I hope this gimmick
works!" A slot opened behind the skirt of the conical net, and a sheet
of neolon camouflage unrolled downward. Rogers seized the bundle of
stakes at its lower end and had the strip pegged down in a few seconds,
with willing but ineffectual help from the inexperienced Stuart.

"All right so far," the scout reported. Another strip came down. Stuart
grabbed the stakes, then put them down to rearrange the rifle slung
across his back. Suddenly there was a blur of movement and the stakes
disappeared around a fin.

Rogers, carrying the rubber mallet, walked up and nudged him. "Come
on! Dawn's about to break, laddie. What are you staring at?" His own
eyes widened as the bundle of stakes came back and dropped near his
feet. He whipped out a flashlight and revealed a pair of "monkey-rats"
scurrying away. He laughed and shook his head. "Things around here
have a cockeyed way of putting back what they don't want. I suppose
these fellers were after metal, like Venus blacksmith lizards."

The two men resumed working, and at length the entire ship was
tented. Not long after they had finished, the light was strong enough
to show the beady-eyed little monkey-rats sitting nearby, watching
curiously. The fearless creatures, as large as cocker spaniels, were an
indeterminate red-gray in color, four-legged, and had two six-fingered
tentacles where Stuart expected a muzzle. Bright black eyes looked
out from under bony ridges. The monkey-rats carried short spears, and
seemed to have pouches slung on their backs.

"Too bad we can't feed 'em," murmured the scout. "I bet we can make
friends with them. We better explore a little more, though, first."
Stuart strolled with him to where a narrow neck of turf led from the
clearing out to the prairie. A brook followed this little alley into
the woods.

Rogers pointed to the near bank, where a miniature scaffolding of
bright orange and blue matchsticks stood a few centimeters high.
"Construction plant," said the linguist, remembering a trader's
description. Nearby were three mossbacks, looking like turtles with
tufts of green on their backs. "Possibly symbiotic," Stuart thought to
himself. The creatures dabbled their forelegs in the water and blinked
sleepily.

The monkey-rats, following the men, apparently discovered the mossbacks
just then; there was a sudden squirrel-like chittering sound as one
of them pointed with a tentacle. Immediately two small spears flashed
through the early morning light and chunked into one of the mossbacks.
The creature squawked once and fell over; its companions looked at
it stupidly for a moment, then dove clumsily into the brook. The
monkey-rats dashed over to their prey, seized it with their tentacles,
and began to hustle it toward the nearby trees.

       *       *       *       *       *

Without warning, a sky-colored creature like a hawk swooped over them
and dropped a rock. One of the monkey-rats was hit in the leg and fell
sprawling. The other whistled with rage and hurled an ineffectual
spear. The hawk came back a moment later and began to bomb them with
more rocks. The injured one was being half-carried by its companion,
and both were screaming angrily.

Rogers scowled at the battle. "Looks like he doesn't want to leave his
friend," he growled. Suddenly he whipped out a hunting-knife, aimed for
an imperceptible split second, and let fly. The hawk was slashed open
down the belly from head to tail. It flopped heavily onto the patch
of pink grass, snapping with vicious grey teeth in dying hatred. The
uninjured monkey-rat ran to retrieve the knife.

The two men went to look at the wounded one and found it dragging a
bleeding hind leg. It seemed especially shocking to Stuart, somehow,
that the blood was red, although of a more brilliant shade than that
of Terrestrial mammals. The creature turned to face the men, waving a
spear defensively and shrilling for help. Its companion came charging
up with the knife and two spears. The two forms of life eyed each other
for a moment.

"Here's your opportunity to make friends with them," urged Gordon over
the radio. "They seem accustomed to manlike beings. Maybe they can be
of some use to us. Worth trying, anyway."

The scout squatted and made soothing sounds. Stuart backed away a few
steps, so as to represent less of a threat, and began taking pictures
as unobtrusively as possible.

Rogers studied the situation in a moment, then extended his empty
hands, palms up, in response to a whispered suggestion from the
semanticist. Both monkey-rats cocked their heads and watched him
sharply, murmuring to each other.

Moving slowly as Stuart directed, the scout tore a strip of bandage
from his first-aid packet and allowed it to be examined. He reached for
one of the wooden spears, needle-tipped with something like obsidian,
but it was withdrawn hastily. He broke off a small branch from a nearby
bush and tried to splint the broken leg. The creature squealed and
snapped at him, but neither monkey-rat threatened him with a weapon.
They seemed more curious than afraid.

Nonplussed for a moment, the Earthman whistled softly, thinking. "Give
them your other knife," suggested Stuart. The scout drew it out and
dropped it hastily before a spear could be launched at him.

Two knives! The creatures examined them with obvious pleasure, testing
the blades and inspecting them closely. Again Rogers reached out; this
time his touch was tolerated. "Warm-blooded," he said quietly into his
microphone. "Feels like two bones in the upper leg." He succeeded in
straightening the limb and tying it up. Then he pantomimed carrying
the victim and pointed into the woods. The other monkey-rat pushed the
injured one toward him and made tentacle motions which evidently meant
"yes." He picked up the one with the broken leg, carried it a short
distance into the woods, and set it down. The other followed, bristling
with knives and spears. Stuart came behind at a discreet distance,
observing carefully and making notes. Occasionally he snapped a picture.

The scout poured some water into the palm of his hand and offered it.
The injured animal shot out a tubular orange tongue and sucked up the
water. The two men were trying to establish further communication when
suddenly their earphones crackled.

"You men outside! Stand by the neck of the clearing! There's been
some shooting over near those coral rocks, and here comes a native
hell-for-leather with three hell-cats after him. Heading for the
clearing, I think. Try to catch him ... he seems to be unarmed. We'll
get out and hold off the hell-cats from up here!"


                                  III

Rogers was belly-down in the grass at one side of the entrance before
Gordon finished talking. Stuart dashed after him, noticing absently
as he passed the pink grass that it was churning and enveloping the
carcass of the dead hawk. He reached the edge of the clearing and took
up a position across the brook from Rogers. He could see nothing but
dust through the grass and heavy scrub. The canteen gouged into his
flank, and his holster seemed caught in a root. He struggled to get
the blast-rifle unslung from his back, wishing for the twentieth time
that he had had at least a little experience at this sort of thing.
Just one hitch in the Patrol, for instance....

The radio broke in on his whispered swearing. "You might have to do
some shooting down there. These machine-guns may not stop all the
hell-cats dead in their tracks, but I don't want to use anything
bigger ... no use letting the neighborhood know what we've got."

A few seconds later the native came pounding desperately through the
alley into the clearing. "Hold him!" yelled the scout. Stuart sprang to
his feet with a leveled rifle and confronted the astounded humanoid,
who collided with a tree and stopped. Nestor came dodging out through
the nets to cover the prisoner with another gun. The brilliant red
manlike creature, obviously understanding the weapons, still tried to
edge away from the squalling roars of the hell-cats not far behind on
the prairie.

The twin sixty-millimeter guns in the nose burst out with a clatter.
The noise of the exploding projectiles was deafening. Clumps of dirt
and scrub flew high into the air. Then Nestor's blast-rifle roared
once, sharply.

[Illustration: _Nestor's blast-rifle roared once, sharply._]

Abruptly there was silence. The Azuran had obviously discovered the
ship behind the camouflage; he stared at it, blinked, and stared again,
as though in disbelief. Stuart began taking pictures of him. "No more
cats," came Gordon's voice. "They were bunched up and Nestor got 'em
all. Ah, I notice our new friend has seen through the camouflage net."

The native's reaction was sudden, unexpected. He shuddered and slumped
to the ground, a picture of dejection. His tentacles were limp. Nothing
would induce him to communicate. At length Stuart offered water; the
native suddenly arose, as if in a hopeless rage, knocked the canteen
aside, and kicked the linguist's injured leg. Then the red being sank
to the ground again.

"Damn!" growled Stuart through clenched teeth. He rubbed his leg. "I
suppose he thinks we're the Invaders, coming back to ravage his people
again. Either he never saw the Invaders himself, or we happen to
resemble them. Or maybe the terror of the invasion was so great that
a serious semantic confusion exists, labelling all strangers as Bad.
Well, at any rate, I'll have to go through some semantic analysis to
establish any rapport at all." Meditating on the problem, he sent
Nestor back to the ship for drawing materials, and bent over to
retrieve the canteen. The native immediately knocked him flat and fled
into the woods.

Rogers started after the Azuran, unslinging his gun, but Gordon spoke
up from the airlock, where he had been about to climb down to the
ground. "Dan! Get out of those woods, you half-wit! Let him go; you
can't possibly catch him. Anyway, we may be able to see where he goes,
if he breaks out into open country again. White, will you keep an eye
on the edge of the woods from up there? Be ready to man the 'scope.
I'll be right up."

Nestor sat down beside the linguist a few minutes later and held out a
cup of fragrant coffee. "Here, Mr. Stuart. I figured you guys could use
breakfast better than drawing materials right now. Feel okay?"

Stuart sipped and nodded gratefully. "Mmm. Yes, fine, thanks."

The plump little flight engineer handed him a sandwich. "You're due for
relief about now anyway. The boss and I will be out here, and White and
Brettner inside. You and Rogers can sleep a while."

The linguist leaned back against a tree and lit a cigarette. "Has the
native showed up again?" he asked his microphone.

White answered. "Yeah. He high-tailed it across the prairie and
disappeared among the coral rocks. Chief says for you to come in,
Stuart; he wants to know what you found out."

       *       *       *       *       *

Stuart picked up his rifle, canteen, camera, and cup. He wondered
vaguely, as he trudged wearily over to the ship, how he had gotten
so tired. Then he realized that, like the others, he had gotten only
five hours' sleep in the past two nights. Procyon was yellow-white and
hot on his back, even through the netting, as he clambered up the fin
rungs. He felt sleepy.

In the captain's crowded little cabin he dropped into a chair and
yawned. Gordon stretched, scratching lazily, and grinned at him.
"Bored, on your first day ashore?"

The linguist smiled ruefully. "Tired, yes, but hardly bored. I don't
mind admitting the first few hours have been rather disappointing. We
had a native right here, I stood face to face with him, and we even
saved his life ... well, no use yowling about it. I presume he's gone
off to warn the others now. Our element of surprise, as you fellows
say, is lost." He brushed the hair out of his eyes. "What shall we do
about it, Gordon?"

The leader drummed on the desk a while. "I dunno. This sort of
situation was never covered in Patrol courses. Maybe the General Staff
studies this stuff, but I was just a line officer, like the other guys.
If you remember, we figured we'd sort of make up our operations plan as
we went along. You probably know as much about it as we do, from all
your reading. Nothing predictable about any of this; we just have to
react to whatever develops. What would you suggest?"

"Um. Well, I've a half-formed scheme for--er, seizing the bull by
the horns. The natives are certain to react immediately, either by
attacking us or by disappearing again. I feel that we should assume the
initiative as soon as possible, without waiting for them to maneuver
one of their weapons within range of us."

"How do we assume the initiative?"

"Yes, exactly--how?" The semanticist shook his head. "I'll have to
sleep on it at least a little while, Gordon. Right now I feel unable to
think. But somehow we have to convey to the Azurans the knowledge that
we are friendly. We'll have to find some way of representing the idea
to them."

"Drop leaflets," suggested Gordon, wryly. "Or put up one of those
billboards they used to have all over a hundred years ago. Everybody in
the universe must have become accustomed to some kind of advertising by
now!" He laughed heartily. "Okay, Stuart. Go fall into your bunk. Let's
hope you wake up with a good idea!"

The thoughtful little language expert got up to leave. "Billboard.
Billboard ... there may be something in that, even if you were joking."

His musings were broken off by the alarm bell and the intercom's
squawk. "All hands! Battle stations! Chief, three natives just popped
up from a hole in the ground about two hundred meters away. Strong
radar indication."

As Stuart ran down to his post at the airlock, he heard Gordon's calm
voice from the intercom. "All right, Brettner. Keep them covered, but
don't fire."

At the lock, the linguist remembered to punch the personnel buttons
as the men climbed in, out of breath and swearing. He pushed the stud
beside his own name last and shut the lock as the "All Aboard" shone
green.

Gordon spoke again, apparently to someone in the control room with him.
"They've evidently lugged a disrupter or something along a tunnel. Seem
to have a couple of big beasts of burden carrying a gadget ... looks
like one of those old pack howitzers. Let's wait 'till they get it
nearly assembled, so we can get an idea of--hup! Let's GO!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Stuart had forgotten to buckle his safety straps. He just had time to
grab a stanchion when the violent acceleration tripled his weight and
nearly threw him to the floor. No more than a heartbeat later, there
was a muffled boom from outside the ship, and a section of blazing tree
went rocketing past the glassite window.

After a few seconds' acceleration he felt the ship take on a horizontal
component. The pressure eased off. He got up from his hands and knees
and adjusted the periscope controls until he got a view of the ground.
There was a group of burning trees several kilometers below, sliding
rapidly to the east. Several times the scenery shifted rapidly as the
ship zigzagged.

As he swung the 'scope, Stuart was thunderstruck to discover a hole
blasted in the edge of a fin, not four meters away from where he stood.
Shreds of charred camouflage netting fluttered in tangled strings.

On the intercom, White's voice broke the tense silence. "Gimme that
again, slowly, somebody. What happened, anyway?"

Gordon answered. "That must have been a tunnel they came out of, right
at the edge of the woods. Maybe they use it to get home if hell-cats
happen to catch them out on the prairie. That fellow we caught today
was probably heading for it, hoping to lose the cats in the woods
first."

After a moment, he added, "Anyway, they showed up with a heavy weapon
and nearly got us. Patrol guessed wrong about its portability, and I
guessed wrong about its operation."

Stuart commented, "Good thing someone happened to be on duty in the
turret, and we were able to take off on such short notice."

"_Happened!_" barked the captain. "Mr. Stuart, that's the first rule of
_any_ ship landing on territory listed as 'unsafe', and it 'happens' to
be Rules Seven through Sixteen of the Patrol Regulations!"

Brettner eased the linguist's embarrassment by changing the subject
a little. "Did you all see the colossal helpers they had carrying
that weapon? Must be what the traders called heffalumps ... I thought
the pictures were fakes. Those critters practically did the shooting
themselves, and they were talking to the natives! This is some
planet--everybody talks to everybody except us!"

Gordon spoke again. "White, I want you to rig up a mosaic alarm with
controls in the turret, Number One Lock, and control room ... before
tonight, if possible. Jury-rig it, just so it goes off when anything
larger than a mossback moves near the ship. Get as much range as you
can."

"That means dismantling the space-probe and comparator, boss. Not
enough spare checkerboards to scan three hundred and sixty degrees with
a decent vertical coverage. And for stereo-perception, so the thing can
discriminate between a nearby leaf and a far-away heffalump--"

"All right, do the best you can. Can you hook it up with an infra-red
snooper for night work? I don't believe the natives can see
infra-red ... I hope. Procyon's a little farther toward the blue than
Sol is."

"I'll see what I can do. Can't get very good resolution with the
electro-optical stuff we have for infra-red. We had to weed out four
tons, you know, and the Hollmann scanners are three and a half parsecs
back, in our shop."

Stuart noticed that the ship's course had steadied. A look through
the 'scope showed the recently-abandoned clearing now swinging under
the stern again, far below. He was about to take a picture of it when
Gordon called him.

"Stuart, will you go to the drive room and give Nestor a hand? He's
scanning the area with microwave, and I want you to use the stern-view
telescope. Those characters may have decided to go back to their base
without using the tunnel; maybe we can keep out of sight and get a good
fix on where they hole up."

       *       *       *       *       *

The linguist retracted the periscope and saw to it that the guard
plates slid over the outer lens. Then he dodged through the radiation
trap into the darkened drive room. He was wondering how to strap
himself into the seat without taking off all his photographic gear,
when Nestor, peering into the radar screen, snapped his fingers.

"Got a blip, Gordon," said the engineer with suppressed excitement.
"One metallic object about the size of a foot-locker, maybe a little
bigger. Boy, do those rocks show up! Must be nearly all metal."

In a moment the leader answered. "I believe I see something. Awkward
angle, though, on this turret telescope. How about you, Stuart?"

"No, frankly, I--"

Gordon cut in. "What magnification are you using?"

"Let me see ... all I can get--sixty-four diameters."

"Too much; cut it down to twelve. Center your 'scope. Now look at the
cross-hair grids. Find the lower part of F-7; you should see something
around there."

"More likely F-6 from here," put in Nestor. "That's where my indication
is."

"Oh, yes! I see them. Three natives and two ... my goodness, those
heffalumps _are_ big! Almost as big as elephants!"

Gordon answered, "Yes, and apparently considerably more useful. Well,
keep a sharp watch on the group. Let me know where they go, and be sure
you mark the spot on a large-scale sketch or photo. I've got to send
off a report to Patrol; we're keeping them posted on every development."

"Like a bomb-defusing squad," said Nestor hollowly. "The next crew will
take up where we left off, see?"

The ship, swinging slowly ahead of the little raiding party, came to a
stop about six kilometers above and slightly beyond the coral rocks.

White spoke over the intercom. "I don't think they'll see us here.
We're in the sun. But keep yourselves strapped in, gang; we're going
to move in a hurry if they point that thing at us. You guys below let
me know if they do anything suspicious. I can't see too much on the
control room screens."

In the drive room, the power hummed softly. Relays clicked occasionally
as the minutes passed. The creatures on the ground entered a faint
trail winding among the hills of bright coral rock. Now and then one
of the heffalumps stopped and adjusted the load on his back, using the
middle two of his six limbs. Nestor nudged the language expert's arm.

"Looks like they're getting close to home. Better get set to take some
pictures."

Stuart nodded, having already picked up a plate magazine, and loaded
the camera box on the side of the telescope. He adjusted the controls
from time to time with nervous delicacy, occasionally tapping the
shutter button. Suddenly he switched to higher magnification,
exclaiming, "There they go! Into that cave!" He took three pictures in
rapid succession at different magnifications. He also banged his nose
hard on the eyepiece, and wondered some hours later how it came to be
so tender.

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a clatter of feet on the steel ladder. Gordon came running
over to him, an unfinished report in one hand and a half-eaten
hamburger in the other. "Lessee," he demanded.

The linguist showed him. Only the cave mouth could be seen now, black
in the hot sunlight. It was halfway up a hill of dense coral, and was
protected from the front by another hill.

The chief took a bite of hamburger and grinned at Stuart. "This is a
bit of luck," he said happily through the mouthful. "We wouldn't have
found that hideout in ten years if they hadn't taken a potshot at us!"

Nestor exhaled cigarette smoke, looking cynical. "Swell. What do we do
now? Wave a hankie at them?"

Gordon's expression became less cheerful. "We don't know yet. Things
have moved a little fast. But whatever we do, we'll have to get it
done fast. You guys might as well know now what came in a little while
ago on the radio." He drew a deep breath. "An Invader base has been
discovered--within striking distance of this area. It's a jolt, of
course, but at least we've finally discovered a base of theirs. Earth
Central says either we close this deal in four days or the planet will
have to be taken over the hard way."

Stuart shook his head sadly, thinking of the already-ruined cities
below. "Our little firm had better live up to its name," he said.

Gordon nodded. "A task force is already on the way."

Brettner had come cat-footed down the ladder. "There's one way to
hustle things up," he growled, patting his hip holster. "I wish you'd
let me blister their stern-plates a little. Little old Frontier Lawyer
here would teach 'em some manners right now!"

Stuart repressed a shudder.

The captain strode over and confronted the scout with a frown. "That's
what we're here to avoid, Mr. Brettner, and you know it. Our weapons
are purely for defense, and there'd be hell raised if we harmed any
natives. If we got out of here alive, we'd lose our million credits
and all our expenses, as well as being tried for unauthorized warlike
acts." He sounded hoarse with fatigue and irritation. "Get over any
belligerent ideas you may have. That goes for all of you--at least on
this trip."

He looked sternly at the group a moment, then nodded toward the ladder.
"Let's go have a conference. Nestor, will you stay here and keep a
sharp eye on that hideout?"

The chubby engineer leaned back in the seat, swung the eyepiece over
into a comfortable position, and sighed. "Yeah, all right. Somebody
better bring me some food before long, though. I'm dying."


                                  IV

Up in the "conference room", the men gathered about Gordon at the
controls. He checked the autopilot and sat drumming his fingers on
the desk. Finally he looked squarely at the language expert. "Mr.
Stuart ... it seems fairly obvious now that the outcome of this entire
expedition depends almost solely on you. You're the one who knows how
to convey ideas, probably as well as any human being alive, according
to the information we got before we asked you to join us. All the rest
of us can do is run this ship and make like space-fighters."

He raised a hand at Stuart's beginning protest, and went on. "Let me
finish my little speech. You're trained for this sort of thing, even if
you do lack non-Terrestrial experience. You figured out the elements of
the Alpha Centauri II and IV languages from nothing but sound movies, a
few years back. Now, what I'm getting at is this: you tell us what has
to be done, and we'll try to figure out a way to do it. We're starting
from scratch, of course; that meteor, by a million-to-one chance,
ruined all our previous plans."

Stuart pulled at his ear a moment. "Well, all those plans were designed
to give me at least the minimum amount of observation I'd need to
prepare a friendly message. Now, while my stock of Azuran symbols is
still zero, we've gained some information. It's too bad we lost the
horses and bloodhounds, for the combination can't be beaten when it's a
matter of finding someone in hiding. However, we do know where at least
three natives are. And personally, I don't regret it a bit that I'll
not make use of those hasty riding lessons."

He paused, and White spoke up. "Even if we do know where some of them
are, I don't see how we can use Plan One. How can we set up hidden
microphones and telicons, when the ruddy natives live in a cave?"

Brettner, looking disgusted, added, "Even when we catch one of the
critters by dumb luck, he won't talk. Trained not to. And that tears up
the second plan."

The captain nodded. "And our third scheme ... to watch and wait, using
long-range equipment, and play for the breaks. That sure seemed like a
flexible plan. But of course it was blown all over the Milky Way along
with our food. Anyway, the news from Patrol makes speed essential."

There was glum silence for a while. Then Rogers offered, "There must be
some way we can use our knowledge of where at least three of them are
hiding--even if the place is defended with a natural barricade and a
souped-up pack howitzer."

After a thoughtful moment, the little language expert cleared his
throat hesitantly. "Er--I should like to suggest something...." They
all looked at him, making him feel rather self-conscious, but he went
on. "You said something about an old-fashioned billboard, Gordon, that
got me thinking. I have a good many pictures of the expedition and our
activities--" he reddened, remembering the frequent ribbings about his
photographic activity "--and I can make a few sketches for the rest
of it. You see, I was thinking we could sneak down there at night and
leave a series of pictures where the natives would find them in the
morning."

He was talking rapidly now, full of steam, pacing back and forth.
"The pictures would show that we are _not_ the Invaders, that we are
friendly--I took pictures of Rogers helping the monkey-rats, for
instance--and then we could have a couple of pictures of Terrestrials
and Azurans exchanging gifts." He stopped, embarrassed, wondering
whether his scheme sounded naive to these practical men. "It--it's been
tried before with considerable success ... in some cases."

Gordon thought it over a while, rubbing the stubble on his
cheeks. "Might work," he mused aloud. "What about setting up an
automatic-sequence gimmick of some kind, controlled from here while we
watch their reaction with a telescope? We could turn the pages,
see? ... or should we just tack up a string of pictures along the
path?"

Rogers sat forward. "Machine might be better, if we can rig it up soon
enough. Separate pictures might get blown away or something, for all we
know, or some kind of critter might destroy 'em."

       *       *       *       *       *

Stuart stopped pacing and squinted at the ceiling. "Yes, I like the
machine. We could include a little pickup unit so I could record
and analyze their comments, knowing just what they were looking at.
That would really help a lot." He snapped his fingers, struck with
inspiration. "What about ending the little show with a real surprise? A
gift that would really demonstrate our good intentions?"

What did he consider a suitable gift?

"A blast-rifle!" he answered boldly.

"What the devil!" exclaimed Gordon. The others indicated various
degrees of consternation. They stared at Stuart as if he had suggested
turning pirate. But he showed a firmness that was new to them--and to
himself.

"Nothing else will do the trick as simply and surely," he insisted.
"In the first place, their most desperate need, as they see it right
now, is probably an efficient but simple weapon of some sort, capable
of being enlarged into a heavy defensive piece of great range. I
understand our blast-rifle is such a weapon. I believe they live in
absolute terror of another attack, and they apparently have little or
no technology left with which to prepare for such an attack. Hence
their going underground."

He paused to let the point sink in. "And in the second place, it seems
reasonable to believe they would understand our good intentions from
such a gift. Surely they will see that no one planning an aggressive
move is going to arm his intended victims first! Their behavior
certainly indicates that they are accustomed to direct action, rather
than to Machiavellian subtleties of plot and counter-plot."

Nestor stuck out a skeptical lower lip. "How will they know we're
making a gesture that means anything? I mean, they still might figure
the gun is just a little toy in our league, and that we're not running
any risk at all by giving it to them."

Stuart hesitated before replying. He nodded in appreciation of
intelligent analysis. "That's a difficult point which will have to be
worked out later ... possibly on the spot. First of all, we shall have
to establish contact. It will also be necessary to show them we have
a defensive screen, too--which they would doubtless be overjoyed to
have--and that we are willing to turn it off and trust them. It will be
a delicate and intriguing problem in psycho-logic."

Rogers shook his head and laughed a little. "It sounds as cockeyed as
'Uncle Willie' Ulo's stories about Sinus V. But, so help me, I believe
it'd work!" All at once his expression changed, and he looked hard at
the expert. "One thing, though, mister. I know I wouldn't care for the
job! Who's going to be the guinea-pig and go down for the first little
chat with them?"

Stuart smiled thinly. "Who will bell the cat, eh? Another fair
question. Well, I shall set up the apparatus, and of course I intend to
try out its effect, too. I shall confront the natives myself after they
have received our picture message and the gun."

The others protested, but there was a stubborn set to his jaw. "After
all," he explained later to Gordon, "while you fellows have been
acquiring glamor, so to speak, I've been leading a rather dull life. I
intend to have at least one little fling at dangerous living. Besides,
I'm the only really expendable man in the crew ... the rest of you are
necessary to the operation of the _Special Agent_. And anyway, I'm only
here because I know something about communicating ideas. This is part
of my job, if anything is."

The rest of the day and a major part of the night, except for brief
catnaps, were spent in fabricating the device which Gordon designed
to Stuart's specifications. Even White's work on the mosaic alarm
was suspended. The linguist planned, sketched, and worked with his
photographs for ten hours before allowing himself to rest. He had done
all he could with his part of the project, and decided to lend a hand
in the shop ... but first he would massage the leg which had been so
painfully gouged when the meteor struck. He sat down to ease the ache,
and promptly fell asleep.

       *       *       *       *       *

When they woke him three hours later, his machine was ready. In his
meticulous way, he had made careful notes of the picture sequence, and
other five members of Contact, Incorporated had arranged everything as
indicated. He examined the device sleepily, rubbing the back of his
neck and yawning. "Looks okay," he grunted. "Controls tested? Good.
Nice job, very nice." Still blinking, he helped carry the makeshift
metal-and-plastic assembly into the scout ship in Number Three Lock.

Brettner climbed in and sat down next to him at the controls. "Sort
of a lucky thing for us this old planet has four moons," grinned the
scout. "All four were in the sky until a few minutes ago. Too much
light for us to pussyfoot around on the surface, so you and I had a
chance for a nap. Now there's only two ... just enough for us to work
by. We'll have to hustle though."

A few minutes later, under Brettner's skillful handling, the little
ship settled to a quick, silent landing about two kilometers from the
cave. The scout got out and began unloading the apparatus. Stuart, now
fully alert, held a low-voiced radio conversation with Gordon. "Still
no sign of any activity?"

The captain's voice was blurred with fatigue. "No, nothing, except some
infra-red indications of large animals to the south. We'll keep you
informed. For Pete's sake, be careful."

The linguist, nervous as he was, chuckled. "Good of you to remind us."
He put on his bone-conduction earpiece, throat-mike, and all the other
gear designed for planets with breathable atmospheres. Clambering out
of the little vessel, he joined Brettner. The two men helped each
other with the slings of their backpacks, locked up the ship, and
started off.

Stuart had to run occasionally to keep up with the other's easy,
practised stride. The extra rifle and his half of the apparatus jounced
and dug into his back. Occasionally he heard Brettner whisper into
his mike, asking for directions. The compass was useless near the
iron-bearing coral rocks.

Like the scout, Stuart had studied the route in advance, but traversing
it in the dark was a grimly different matter. The double shadows of the
two moons were confusing and made him stumble. Once a sensitive bush of
some kind shuddered and drew back with a moan when he grasped it for
support. He shuddered and brushed sweat off his face and sleeve. What
did anyone know, after all, about the number of dangerous organisms
this planet harbored? Carnivorous plants, for instance, or even
animals, might not have sense enough to avoid iron complexes such as
human blood....

Something soft beneath his foot shrieked horribly in the night and slid
away. He went down on one knee, but waved when Brettner turned as if to
help him up. "I'm letting this get me," he thought angrily. He got up
and jogged along again, trying to imitate the scout's powerful stride.

Abruptly they came upon the trail. They had just started along it when
a warning came from the _Special Agent_. "One of those animals on the
prairie must have picked up your scent. Probably a hell-cat sloping off
toward the trail now. Ye gods! ... he must be doing sixty kilometers!
Now he's slowing ... you should see him about a hundred meters ahead in
a few seconds. He's sneaking onto the trail."

The linguist's heart thudded as he crouched in shadow with the scout.
"What do we do, Brettner?" he whispered.

"Have to use this," the other replied, hauling out a wide-barrelled,
clumsy looking Texas Slugger. "Picked up this sweetheart on Callisto,
but I only got three shells." He aimed down the path through an offset
sight. "Don't get behind this, laddie."

       *       *       *       *       *

In the moonlight farther up the trail, a sinuous beast like a huge
armor-plated cat glided out from the brush. It opened jaws a meter
wide, showing double rows of dull green phosphorescent teeth, and began
to lope toward the men. The scout fired when it was less than sixty
meters away, and a rocket-propelled projectile hissed out toward it.
A few meters out, the 2000-G drive of the projectile cut in, and the
missile crashed into the hell-cat with terrible impact.

The creature was a hollow mass of pulp almost instantaneously. The
only sounds had been the brief hiss of the rocket, the even shorter
crackling of the accelerated drive, and an earth-shuddering crunch when
the device had struck a wall of rock beyond the beast. Apparently these
had not alarmed the other nocturnal creatures about, for the various
animal cries went on as before.

"Come on," said the scout, resuming the trail. "We got to hurry."
Stuart followed, wrinkling his nose at the horrible stench of the dead
animal. Nearby, a brightly glowing hole in the rock showed where the
missile had buried itself and disintegrated.

By the time the men reached their objective, a little trailside
clearing just out of sight from the cave, the language expert was
thoroughly winded. It was some satisfaction to him to note that the
scout was sweating heavily too. Brettner unshouldered his equipment,
took a sip of water from his canteen, and moved up the path a few
meters to keep watch on the cave. The opening glowed less brightly than
the luminescent rock around it.

Stuart worked as rapidly as he could in the moonlight and ghostly shine
of the hill. His footing was uncertain on the irregular coral. Twice
he stopped and crouched, rifle ready, as his sensitive ears detected
a change in the pattern of night sounds. A wild assortment of odors
drifted with the faint breeze; once a friendly little creature smelling
like fragrant Scotch offered him a pebble and giggled. In his anxious
haste, the linguist dropped two bolts into the twisted crevices of the
rock, and he began to feel he was having a nightmare.

When the assembly was nearly completed, Nestor warned over the radio,
"Better step on it, guys. We can see daylight coming from up here.
You have about half an hour to get away." By the time the device was
operating satisfactorily, there was enough light to see clearly. The
two men on the ground picked up the tools and canteens hastily and
hurried back along the trail.

They had gone about halfway when a stone the size of a baseball landed
with a vicious clank on the scout's headgear. He swore softly and
sagged against a bush, fighting dizzily to stay on his feet. Stuart
snatched up a smaller rock and hurled it at the attacking stone-hawk,
which was banking into another dive in the dim morning light. The
stone smashed one wing. The creature spun and flopped through the air,
screaming and gobbling, until it crashed into a tree and fell dead.

Brettner shook his head and grinned ruefully. "Good thing I got a
wooden head.... Yeah, I'm okay." He examined the dent in his helmet,
and spit contemptuously at the dead hawk. "That's some arm you've got,
mister," he added respectfully.

Stuart examined his arm, pleased. "Used to pitch on the varsity," he
explained. "Did you hear the mouthings of that vicious bird? He was
swearing at us, I'm sure!" He resumed the march, wondering absently
whether all these Azuran creatures spoke basically the same language.
From what little he had been able to observe, it seemed likely.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was almost full daylight when they reached their scout ship. "Come
on up," Nestor told them. "No sign of activity around the cave yet, but
you better keep between it and the sun just in case somebody peeks."
Brettner took off immediately.

Ten minutes later Stuart was seated at his apparatus, stuffing
breakfast food into his mouth and feeling very tired. "Been making this
stuff for a hundred and fifty years," he grumbled to himself, chewing
doggedly, "and it's still lousy." Suddenly he dropped his spoon and
adjusted the view screen controls. Gordon walked in, buttoning up his
dungarees and yawning. "Brother," said the chief, "when we get back
we're going to sleep for two weeks!" He looked at the busy linguist and
was immediately wide awake. "What's up?"

Stuart pointed to the screen. "Native just peeked out." He reached over
toward one of the cephaloids, mindless brains with tremendous memory
and associative power, and began flipping switches. Activating solution
flowed through the micro-cellular colloid; little lights on a panel
winked on as the surface potentials reached operating level.

The linguist glanced briefly at the screen. "I guess there's time to
show you one of its little tricks, just to warm it up," he said. He
sang, in Universal Speech, a couple of ribald verses of "The Venus of
Venus," then touched a switch. Immediately the song came back at him
through a little speaker, but in English--and with the unmistakable
drawl of Rogers. "I conditioned it a few minutes ago with his
voice," explained Stuart. He was delighted with Gordon's reaction of
incredulous astonishment. "It's really a wonderful mechanism, Gordon.
It--oops! There's a native!"

He jabbed hastily at the "Primary Condition" stud, erasing the song
and the accent, and switched on the remote control for the picture
sequence. He handed Gordon a headset. "Will you monitor the pickup,
please? The rest of this stuff will keep me busy." He fell silent,
watching the screen.

Gordon reached over and switched on the movie camera set up beside him
to record the scene.


                                   V

Three scarlet natives had come out of the cave. They stood in a patch
of brilliant sunlight, swinging their middle limbs about and playing
with a sassy little monkey-rat as men would with a fox terrier. At
length they picked up what seemed to be a crossbow and several spears,
slung bundles across their sloping shoulders, and started down the
trail. They walked slowly, spears at the ready, and were obviously
alert. Frequently they glanced up, or paused as if listening.

Rounding a turn, the lead native stopped abruptly, leaped back and
dropped flat. The other two dropped almost simultaneously. The leader
motioned cautiously for his companions to crawl forward; he pointed
with a tentacular upper limb toward the picture sequence machine
gleaming in the morning light. On it was showing a picture of a native,
enlarged from Stuart's picture of his temporary "prisoner".

The semanticist had evidently made a good guess in alien psychology,
for no hostile move was made toward the machine. The natives lay there
studying it, making occasional guarded gestures to each other. They
stiffened as the next picture flipped into view. It was a Terrestrial
family with two children. It was the picture Stuart kept beside his
bunk, and was the best thing he could think of to put across the
concept of a peaceful people.

Still no hostile move. No sounds, either, except the background
chirping and jabbering of other animals.

Anxiously, Stuart fussed with his controls. He flipped to the next
picture and a dozen after that without getting an audible response.
The natives were shown views of Terrestrial life, New York and the
space-port, the _Special Agent_, and two views of the receding Earth.

Then the linguist tried one of his sketches. It showed a globular
ship, such as the Invaders were believed to have used, attacking
the Terrestrial ship. In the following sketches, the Earth ship was
damaged, but managed to destroy the other.

One of the natives was evidently jolted into comment at this point.
"Aru!" came distinctly over the loudspeaker. Stuart immediately
murmured "Picture Fifteen" in Universal Speech into his microphone. He
beamed at Gordon, relaxed a little, and hit the sequence button again.

The next set of pictures showed the approach to Azura, the landing, and
Rogers' kindly treatment of the monkey-rats. Again a comment came from
the middle native, evidently younger and less well-trained. This time
he uttered several syllables, which the cephaloid duly absorbed. The
rear native thwacked him across the back angrily. Stuart bounced in his
seat with silent glee. He made microscopic adjustments to the analyzer
and continued the show.

Behind him, the door opened quietly. Rogers came in with some breakfast
for Gordon. The scout raised his eyebrows inquiringly; the chief winked
and nodded at the screen, holding up a hand in the "okay" gesture.
Stuart looked around at them, his finger hesitating over the sequence
button. He shut off his mike for a moment. "This is one of the parts
I'm dubious about. We swing into our sales talk here. Man sees native,
puts down gun, and approaches peacefully. Then they exchange gifts."

He pushed the stud thoughtfully. "If the response to this is favorable,
do you think we ought to go ahead with the rest?"

The chief frowned. "Sure. Why not?"

"Well ... I suppose it would be foolish to stop now. I don't have
enough material yet to prepare a verbal message, and they seem to be
understanding this one anyway. On the other hand ... they might not
like this. It shows us helping them to rebuild a city, and giving them
weapons." He lit a cigarette and hit the button again. "They might
wonder what we want in return."

Gordon put down his coffee and scratched his chin. "Well, I don't think
we ought to revise our plans now, Stuart. I think they'd be glad to
offer us a base, in return for protection. We might as well go ahead."

       *       *       *       *       *

The linguist nodded. The minutes passed as he continued the series of
pictures. After a while he opened his mouth to say something, but was
interrupted by a gabble of sounds from the pickup unit. The natives
were pointing upward and discussing something. Pilot lights on the
cephaloid hookup showed that the material was being received, passed
back and forth for analysis, and stored away. Stuart threw in a key
word now and then to identify the picture being shown.

"It's clear that they understand," he whispered. "Now for the clincher.
We help them fight off the Invaders. I hope they don't get the idea
that our presence would make another Invader attack more likely."

He continued to push the stud every twenty or thirty seconds, lips
moving as he counted. When the counter showed the end of the sequence
approaching, he nodded in satisfaction. The natives were still talking
to each other. "Good thing we've got these cephaloids," Stuart
whispered. "An electronic analyzer could never sort out the three
voices. Nor could any linguist alive, for that matter."

Once again he paused, finger hovering. "This is where we show them
pictures of a blast-rifle, how to use it, and so on--and then the
magic box opens and we give them one." His whisper was faint, and he
swallowed. "Should I go ahead?" He seemed to be asking himself.

Gordon studied him a few seconds. "Play it your own way, Stuart. The
risk is yours, so the decision ought to be."

The linguist put out his cigarette with trembling fingers. "Yes.... I
realize that I talked you into letting me go ahead with my own plan.
But ... you see ... well, I've never done anything especially brave or
dangerous, as all you fellows have. The plan _might_ be made to work
out without my actually going down there in person. I've been wondering
what you would say if I ... backed out."

The chief got up and clapped him on the back, awkwardly. "Why, not a
thing, Stuart. Wouldn't say a word. A man's personal project is his
own, in this kind of business. Long as it doesn't affect the welfare of
anyone else, he can volunteer for, or refuse, any job."

Stuart smiled slowly and sat up straight. "Then I'll go ahead. I just
wanted to be sure I could have backed out if I'd wanted to. If I do
something worthwhile, I want it to be without compulsion." He punched
the sequence button vigorously, while the chief stared at him with
amused respect. He grinned back at Gordon. "Sit down, Captain, and keep
an eye on the natives."

Gordon sat, applying his attention to the scene on the ground. "Think
they'll get this part?"

"They certainly ought to. I even made a sketch of a native destroying
a hell-cat with my new gun." After a few minutes of attentive study by
the three natives, the series was finished. The language expert reached
over and depressed a different stud without hesitation. "There it is. A
nice little blast-rifle, practically new!"

The screen showed the front of a box falling open under the sequence
machine. The three Azurans raised their heads and stared. Then they
looked up at the sky, and back at the box. Their conversation was
excited, not at all hushed.

Finally the leader sent the third native around in a flanking move,
equipped with the crossbow. When the new position had been taken up,
the three studied the situation and seemed to discuss its various
aspects. Suddenly, while the flanker held a bead on the machine, the
one who had been in the lead stood up and advanced warily toward the
proffered gun. He studied it at close range, after looking over the
scene carefully.

Abruptly he laid down his spear and seized the blast-rifle. He remained
crouching, obviously waiting for something to happen. When nothing did,
he straightened up and began to examine the weapon. He turned to the
last picture, still showing on the machine, and carefully conformed his
tentacles around the gunstock as indicated. Then he looked about, as if
seeking a target.

A large, brilliant blue tree about twenty meters away seemed to be his
choice. He spent a moment getting the sights lined up and then pulled
the trigger.

       *       *       *       *       *

The entire lower half of the tree disappeared in a tremendous explosion
of steam and splinters. The upper part of it came smashing down, as did
great sections of others directly behind the target.

The stunned native staggered to his feet, still clutching the gun, and
cooed at it lovingly. His two companions came running up, whistling
and gabbling with excitement. They were allowed to take the gun up on
the hill and try it out--at more distant targets. Several trees and a
good-sized rock disappeared with a noisy violence that was obviously
satisfactory.

The leader remained with the picture machine and began to examine it.
He jumped, startled, when Stuart flipped one more sketch into view.
It showed the little scout ship about to land. After the native had
studied it a while, Stuart gave him the last one. This was a sketch of
the linguist himself, stepping out of the scout ship and greeting a
waiting Azuran.

The reaction to this was immediate and positive. Shrill commands sent
the smaller native into ambush in the shrubbery; the other came running
down the hill, handed over the gun, and fled to the cave. The leader,
still watching the sky, squatted down to wait, rifle beside him. After
a moment he took something out of his knapsack and apparently began to
munch on it. Twice he snatched up the gun and sighted through it, as
though practising.

Stuart frowned at the screen. "They seem to understand I'm about to
visit them, but they're not convinced they can trust visitors. No
reason why they should be, I suppose." He disconnected the pickup unit
from the cephaloid circuit.

Gordon cocked his head to one side reflectively. "Well, I don't think
the situation is too bad. You've seen how cautious they are ... they
must have been very badly scared when their cities were destroyed.
Perfectly natural. It's also evident they're not fundamentally warlike;
their behavior shows an absence of military background. Even a couple
of traders noticed that, by the way, over on the other side of the
planet last year."

The linguist shook his head reprovingly. "Let's avoid semantic
confusions when we can, Gordon. Their behavior does not fit in with
_your_ notion of military background. We have no right to say what it
connotes _in their culture_."

The captain acknowledged the reasonableness of this statement with
a smile and left him to the solitude he needed. He began the task
of receiving the material the cephaids had assimilated, feeding in
associations of "probable general context" with the natives' comments
regarding each picture. He laughed to himself as he realized that a
certain amount of projection of his own notions was inevitable.

Such was the tremendous power of the cephaloids, and the delicate,
almost intuitive skill of his handling, that the major part of the
analysis was complete in little more than an hour. He switched the
controls to "Translate, Univ. Sp. to Other." Indicator needles shifted
and steadied as the surface potentials readjusted in the semi-living
colloids.

Then, before proceeding further, he asked the captain to join him
again. When Gordon was seated, the expert smiled wryly at him. "This
is usually considered very poor procedure, but there's only one word
I can be fairly sure of as a check on this thing. It seems reasonable
that, when the middle native exclaimed 'Aru!', he meant 'Good'!!
That was when we destroyed the attacking ship, if you remember ... a
little fiction which I shall have to explain to them later." Into the
microphone he said, in Universal Speech, "Good. That is good."

"Aru. Aru naa lo," replied the loudspeaker.

Stuart, though he relaxed a little then, lost no time. It took him only
a few minutes to memorize several phrases which the jelly-and-silver
translator gave him. By the time Brettner had the little scout ship
warmed up for him, Stuart was prepared to tell the natives, "Peace! I
come in peace. Your people and my people have the same enemy. Therefore
let us be friends and work together. We shall give you large and strong
weapons."

He turned to leave the lab, but stopped to squint once more at the
screen. Only the native with the gun was visible, still grimly waiting.
The linguist finished buckling on his gear with nervous fingers. "They
look awfully well-disciplined to me," he murmured to himself. "Wish
I felt a little more nonchalant about this!" He clumped down the
passageway to Number Three Lock, where he met Brettner climbing out of
the scout ship.

Brettner slapped him on the back, saying, "She's all wound up. Good
luck, chum. Keep away from the girlies, hear?" From the control
room, Rogers shouted gaily, "Send us a postcard, laddie. One of them
Venus-type!" The two scouts guffawed heartily. Gordon looked out and
waved at him.

The linguist climbed into the control seat, laughing in spite of
himself. He waved at Brettner, shut the inner door, and opened the
outer. A monitor light showed green. "Ready," he told the intercom. He
was surprised at how steady his voice and hands were.

"Cast off!" came Gordon's voice.


                                  VI

He touched the "release" button and felt himself flung away from the
_Special Agent_. He boosted his little vessel around a semicircle
several kilometers in diameter, as he had been instructed, so the
position of the big ship would not be given away when he approached the
ground. He overmodulated the drive then, to make plenty of noise, and
headed directly for the waiting native. Over a suitable grassy spot, he
waited until he was sure the Azuran had seen him; then he eased down
slowly, careful not to make any sudden moves.

He landed with the nose about ten degrees too low, settled with a
rolling bump, and opened the port as soon as he could manage. He
mumbled to himself a bit, practising his little speech. Then he stepped
out.

The blast-rifle looked like a ninety-millimeter projector. It scowled
viciously at his abdomen from only twenty paces away. He swallowed
several times and managed a trembly little smile.

The native continued to inspect him sourly through the peepsight. A
tentacle seemed to twitch impatiently at the trigger.

"After all," the linguist thought rapidly, "a facial expression such
as a smile is probably meaningless to him. I shall have to make a more
significant sign, as in that sketch." He unbuckled his holster belt and
carefully laid it to one side, hand-guns and all. Still no response.

He walked forward halfway to the native, holding up his open hands. He
recited his speech, then, and stood waiting.

With his first words, the other's attitude changed. The gun was lowered
slowly while the native stared at him with big, black, disk-like eyes.
He stared back, examining the bright red native with interest. Long
feet, with two toes like pincers; heavily muscled legs; middle limbs
like arms, with short, powerful hands of a sort; two six-fingered
tentacles growing out from the sides of the head--

One of the middle limbs reached out and tugged at his arm
experimentally. The native said something evidently meaning "Come
along". Stuart walked along with him, reporting "Okay, so far," into
his radio. The two beings walked up to the entrance to the cave, from
where the scout ship could just be seen. Suddenly the smaller native
sprang out of the brush and backed the linguist against a tree, holding
the crossbow almost at his throat. The first native whirled, aimed the
blast-rifle at the scout ship, and fired. There was a flash at the
ship's bow, and a deep gash was blasted into the metal.

"Aru!" said the natives.

Stuart's earphone crackled, but the signal was weak. "What's going on?"
came Gordon's voice, faintly. "Get away from them and we'll blow them
to smithereens!"

He tried to think clearly. "I don't know how to get away," he realized
miserably. "Never had any of that combat training." He found the native
with the blast-rifle chattering at him; the other had withdrawn the
crossbow from his throat. "I'm all right," he reported weakly. He
listened to the native a moment, then added, "This is rather puzzling,
though. They actually seem friendly. I believe one of them is telling
me that we're friends now."

"That lousy iron hill you're on is killing your signal, Stuart. I can
hardly hear you. You're in plain sight, though, through the telescope.
Shall we come after you?"

The natives were pulling at the linguist's arm, urging him toward the
cave. "No, keep out of sight a while," he shouted, shaking his head. "I
believe they want me to come with them."

       *       *       *       *       *

The reply from the _Special Agent_ was unintelligible. Stuart allowed
the Azurans to guide him into the cave; he was not surprised to find
it the end of a long tunnel through the coral. Two other natives came
running past and took up positions as guards just inside the entrance.

The phosphorescent material of the hill itself supplied a feeble light.
There seemed to be an alarm system of some sort, for handles were set
into small square boxes on the walls every fifty meters or so.

During the hour-long walk, Stuart learned bits of the natives'
language. If one could apply the hitherto universally valid criteria of
the Linguistic Academy, he decided, this language represented a long
history of high culture and philosophical achievement. He found the
idea encouraging.

He was already constructing simple sentences when the tunnel turned
sharply and entered a small cave. It was really an underground room, he
noticed, with several corridors leading away. One of his guides pulled
a lever; a moment later a dozen other natives entered the room. With
them was a monkey-rat, sporting Rogers' two hunting knifes; it pointed
to the linguist and chattered shrilly. The linguist recognized one of
the Azurans as the one he had caught. The first to enter, however,
seemed considerably older than the rest. Stuart guessed he was a high
official.

The elderly one approached the Earthman and held out his tentacles
to the sides. It seemed to mean something. There was a short, tense
silence.

"Of course!" exclaimed Stuart to himself. "The gesture of peaceful
intent: showing the absence of weapons!" He held up his hands, likewise
empty, and repeated his speech.

There were murmurs of "Aru!" around him. Unobtrusive weapons were
unobtrusively lowered. Sketching materials were brought to the
official: sheets of something like parchment, and a reed which exuded
an inky substance through a fine hole. Two blocks of what seemed to
be extraordinarily soft wood were carried in; the official sat down,
somewhat in human fashion, and motioned the language expert to do
likewise.

The "conversation" lasted almost two hours. Stuart, by sketching and
using a few words, explained his mission. The natives seemed to
understand; judging by their awareness of the outer universe, they
had considerable scientific knowledge. He guessed, though, that their
technology was more biological than mechanical. They knew where the
Invaders were from, what they had looked like, and how some of their
mechanisms had operated. But Azuran culture, never warlike, had been
unable to strike back, and had been so badly smashed that there had
been no opportunity to use the captured knowledge.

"They nearly destroyed my people," explained the official with words
and pictures. "We were many millions. Now only thousands. We saved
what we could and hid underground, scattered. For five years we
have struggled to stay alive. Now we are regaining our strength and
can think of building again. But always we must be ready for the
Invaders. They killed for nothing or for amusement. Took nothing except
specimens; apparently they wanted nothing here but sport. They simply
attacked without warning one day, all over the planet, and hunted us
for fifty-four days. Then they disappeared. We caught a few live ones
outside their ships by trickery, and we captured two small ships the
same way. But in our difficulty we have had little time to investigate
the ships."

"Where are the captured creatures?" asked Stuart.

"Oh, they did not live long." The other's manner did not indicate
regret. "They needed high temperature and a special atmosphere to
stay alive, and of course we had inadequate means to care for them.
We made very thorough biological studies of them, however." He shook
his tentacles, as if in disgust. "They were remarkably unpleasant.
Colorless, and gritty to the touch. Completely hateful. They used to
throw dissected specimens of our people out of their ships; sometimes
live people were dropped."

       *       *       *       *       *

He nodded toward the blast-rifle. "You are good to offer weapons. From
certain records we found, we believe the enemy will return soon. I
understand your need for a base here. I can speak for my people ...
what is left of them. We accept your offer. Come down again tomorrow to
the clearing in your big ship. Our highest leader will be present, and
a treaty will be made."

Abruptly, thus, the interview was over. The old native was obviously
tired. The linguist got to his feet, intending to express his pleasure
at the outcome. He had his mouth open, and it stayed that way when
the blast-rifle was suddenly thrust into his hands. The official, who
had handed it to him, put a tentacle on his shoulder in what Stuart
recognized as a gesture of friendship.

The linguist grinned, put his hand on the other's shoulder, and handed
back the weapon.

There was a great din of whistling and cries of "Aru! Aru naa lo!"
It became a sort of cheer, with a crowd of natives following Stuart
and his three guides back down the tunnel. The old official stood and
watched them go.

Back in the daylight, the linguist was startled to discover that
Procyon was low in the sky and that night was near. He hurried down the
path toward his scout ship to get away from the iron hill. Hastily he
switched on his radio. Before he could catch his breath enough to talk,
he heard White's voice.

"Hey, I see him! There he is, chief; there's the little guy!" Sounds of
the drive being activated came through the earphone.

Gordon's voice cut in. "You okay, Stuart?"

"Yes, yes, I'm all right. Come on down--peaceably."

"What's the deal?"

"They're convinced. They'll have their president, or whatever, here in
the morning to sign a treaty with us."

"WHAT?!"

A moment later the big ship landed with a silent rush, flattening out a
large expanse of scrub. The ground crunched under it. A dozen wide-eyed
natives watched from a respectful distance.

The lower port flew open; Gordon and Rogers came scrambling down the
ladder. The two men came running over, hand-guns swinging heavily at
their sides. The turret guns were trained on the hill before the cave.

"Is this on the level?" demanded Gordon.

"Yes. I'll explain later, after I've had some sleep."

The captain's eye fell on the scout ship. "Looks like your ship will
navigate all right," he said, still out of breath. "Probably have to
replace the autopilot and tracker, though. But why in blazes did they
take a shot at it? And why wasn't your defensive field on?"

The linguist kicked a pebble. "I forgot to ask them why they did that.
I guess they figured my gesture of offering a weapon didn't mean much
unless I was vulnerable to the weapon myself. Or maybe they felt that,
if I came in good faith, I'd come without protection. Anyway, they
didn't want to shoot me just to find out, so they tested it on the
ship and decided I was--er, on the level. If it _had_ been on, they'd
probably have shot me immediately with the crossbow. Or maybe they'd
have figured out what the glow was and shot me without testing it. Then
they'd have gone back in the tunnel and sealed it up for good."

He suddenly laughed aloud, face alight with pleasure and surprised
realization. "For the first time on this trip, I'm glad I've never had
any military experience! If I'd been well-trained, that field would
have been turned on!"

Gordon's strained face relaxed. He looked at Stuart in awe, and put an
arm around his shoulders. After a moment he said, musingly, "What do we
do next? We've got to get back, but we also ought to see this through
when the brass gets here."

Stuart's reply was prompt. "You go back. Leave me food for a couple of
days and tell Patrol to bring me what I need for a long stay. I'll see
this thing through."

"Can I take a picture of you tomorrow with the Azuran big chief? It'd
look swell in the papers back home." Gordon's tone was bantering.

The linguist looked him in the eye. "I wish you would," he said,
soberly.



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