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A Taste of Poison

James Cardan strained to move his left arm, which lay dead still across his chest. But like everything else he’d tried to move since he came to, the arm lay where it was.

Cardan knew that he was on his back, lying as if he’d been thrown down bodily. It was perfectly dark where he was, cool, and very quiet. He could sense the position of his limbs, and with his outstretched right hand could feel a little of the smooth surface he was lying on.

But he couldn’t move.

Cardan forced himself to think back, to see if he could find out what had happened.


He had, he remembered, been driving back from the meeting he’d called at the branch office in Milford. As the car’s headlights reached far ahead in the moonless night, his mind circled back again and again to the problem the meeting hadn’t solved. The violent arguments as to if, how, and when the company should install an electronic computer were still echoing through Cardan’s consciousness as he spotted his shortcut up ahead.

Cardan glanced in the rearview mirror, and let up on the gas. He tapped the brakes lightly, and swung off onto a back road that cut over the ridge and around hairbreadth curves to join Route 36. He slowed the car for a moment to study the water trickling down the hilly dirt road, then stepped on the gas.

As usual, he got going too fast, and the car went into a shuddering vibration on the corduroy ridges of the road. Cardan grunted, slowed down, and reached over to press in the lighter, meanwhile shifting his dead cigar to the other corner of his mouth.

The trouble, he told himself, guiding the car with automatic skill around the swinging curves, was that no one seemed to know how a computer would actually work out in any specific case. Cardan believed that his own special skill, which had put him at the head of the firm, lay in his ability to draw out the truth in what a man said from the general mass of overstatement, obscurity and prejudice. But in this problem, his special skill was of no more value than a water pump with its intake pipe in a dry well. After he separated out the obscurity, overstatement, and prejudice, there was nothing left.

The lighter popped out, and Cardan waited till he came to a straight stretch, then groped for it, keeping his eyes on the road. He puffed the cigar alight, and felt around to get the lighter back in its socket. He drove steadily for some time, then pressed harder on the gas to gather speed for the last uphill stretch before he reached the top.

For the sixth or seventh time since leaving the meeting, Cardan’s mind was sifting over the violent partisan arguments. Cardan, who despised yes-men, and only hired anyone who plainly had the backbone to stand up and state his own opinion, now asked himself how he had come to end up with such a bunch of bull-headed egomaniacs.

The car topped the rise, dipped down around a sharp curve—and Cardan brought the car to a sudden stop.

A medium-sized pine lay across the road directly in front of him.

Cardan shifted the once-more-dead cigar to the other side of his mouth, and jabbed the lighter back in its socket. The road was so narrow that there were few places where he could turn around, and to back down the steep curving slope at night would take a long time.

The lighter popped out, and he puffed the cigar alight, thinking furiously. The tree ahead wasn’t too big. “Let’s see,” he thought, “didn’t I get one of those all-steel rubber-handled hatchets with a leather case and put it in the trunk about the same time I got the chains—after the car got stuck on that hunting trip and we had to wrench branches off the trees to get some kind of traction?”

Cardan cramped the wheels of the car toward the side of the road where there was the hill instead of the ravine, made sure the parking brake was set, shut off the ignition and got out. He stretched his cramped limbs, drew in a deep breath, was surprised to smell a faint geranium-like odor, and—

—Found himself lying on his back in a cool dark place, able to sense the position of his body, but unable to move.

Feeling a sense of grim satisfaction that he had at least discovered part of what had happened, Cardan filed away that geranium scent for future reference. Before he had time to do anything else, a vertical gray line appeared on the wall opposite him. The line rapidly widened to a gray block, with the shadow of a low mound at its base. The mound moved, like a loose pile of rope from which a free end rose up of its own accord, to hold horizontally what appeared to be a short length of pipe.

There was a hiss, and a geranium-like scent was strong in the air.

Cardan was aware, first, of a lapse of time. Then he sensed that he was on his feet, held upright by something that gripped him under each arm, and at the waist, knees, and ankles. What felt like a set of padded clamps pressed against the sides of his head. There was a faint prickling sensation across his forehead and along the top, both sides, and the back of his head. It felt to Cardan as if a great many sharp points were evenly pressed against his scalp.

Directly behind him, there was a conversation going on that he couldn’t quite get into focus, while somewhere in front of him, and off to his left there was a sound of splashing.

Cardan cautiously tried to move his limbs, and got no response. He mentally summarized what he knew of his situation, and discovered that all he knew was that he was unable to move and was in a dark cool place where he had seen a shadow that made no sense, and now heard various sounds that added up to nothing familiar. He wished to get out of this place; but paralyzed from head to foot, how was he to do it?

Cardan mentally grumbled to himself, and an habitual impulse went out that would ordinarily shift a dead cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other. Then there was a pause corresponding to the time needed to puff the cigar alight, and then Cardan was deep in thought. His thought wasn’t in words or logic, but was a mental groping, with an inner sensation like that of a man in a darkened room searching through the things in his pockets for a match.

In time, Cardan’s thoughts seemed to gradually focus, and then come to a point, and there rose up from the depths of his unconscious a mood, a set of attitudes like those of a man who fits the point of a wedge into a crack, then eyes it calculatingly, and reaches for a sledgehammer. At the same instant, he thought, “Somebody wants to know something.” With this thought impulses started out along certain nerves that would ordinarily slightly narrow his eyes, and adjust the cigar between his clamped teeth at a certain specific angle that produced, in even his most pugnacious associates, a twinge of foreboding followed by a state of maximum alertness.

Then he became aware of an odd effect that had been going on for some time without his being conscious of it.

From behind him came the conversational gabble he had heard before, an out-of-focus noise like an earnest discussion being carried out on the other side of thick wall. But now, after each comment, words formed in Cardan’s consciousness, as if an interpreter were translating the discussion for his benefit. The lag between gabble and translation decreased, and it suddenly occurred to Cardan that he seemed to be getting the meaning a little ahead of the translated words. He listened carefully, and heard:

“. . . zz brgt hvd gdn nbbbn how does that show up on your dwell meter now?”

“. . . grbbl bbz mddb jj still too big a spread. Am I doing something wrong?”

“. . . Bb zbbd zd you’re overcorrecting. Here.”

“Oh. I see.”

Just before the two sounds merged, Cardan was sure that he was getting the meaning a fraction of a second ahead of the translated words. It seemed first the meaning came to him, and then a part of his own mind translated the meaning into words. He puzzled over this, which seemed to be a kind of electronic telepathy.

Behind him, one of the voices said, “Higher. We don’t want to unblock that far down.”


“A little radially. There.”


There was a stinging pain, as if a spark had landed between Cardan’s shoulders and expanded in a puff of flame through his chest, neck, and head. Cardan suddenly realized that he could now move the muscles of his chest, neck and head, but could not move even this part of his body freely, because of the clamps that gripped him. He tried to open his eyes, and found that they were partly open already. All he could see was a general dull gray shadow.

From off to Cardan’s right, a voice spoke sharply. “Is the receiver ready?”

To Cardan’s front and left there was a splash. “Taking a bath,” came a new voice. “Why? The specimen’s not ready yet, is it?”

“I don’t know about the specimen. But I just got the warning signal from Control.”

There was a low muttering noise, and a loud splash. Cardan, peering into the dimness, tried to look not quite directly at the source of the noise. He saw a vague series of upright wavering forms, which seemed at first like streamers of a dark flame, and which then produced a mental picture of snakes weaving upright in a circle.

Behind him, a voice said sharply, “There. It had a thought.”


“Gone now. But it must be coming to.”

To Cardan’s right, a voice said sharply, “Hurry!”

From the place Cardan was watching came a sound like a sail slatting in the wind, and then a low brisk rubbing sound. He could now only make out a vague mass.

Gradually, Cardan was forming an opinion about whatever it was that had captured him. The thought caused a chilly sensation to travel up and down his spine, and this in turn caused his jaw muscles to set an imaginary cigar at a more pugnacious angle. Simultaneously, the muscles around his eyes tensed. His face, in the shadowy room, took on a look which often created a paralytic hesitancy in people who had succeeded in getting him at a disadvantage.

Meanwhile, in the depths of his mind, an intense sifting process continued, and Cardan was aware, now and then, of a vague mental image.

Behind him, a voice said, “There. No, my mistake. Wait. There, again.”

The excitement, Cardan realized, sprang up each time he saw a mental picture. Cautiously, he formed a fuzzy mental picture of a wrist watch floating in space.

“It’s almost conscious,” said the voice.

“Keep an eye on it. I’m going to have a spare contact put on standby.”

A voice from the right called, “Specimen ready?”

“Not yet. It’s slow coming to.”

“Hurry it up. Receiver! Control red!”

The low rubbing sound out in front of Cardan stopped abruptly. Behind him, a low voice said, “Try the stribulator.”

A vague scatter of sparks crossed Cardan’s field of vision.

To his right, someone called sharply, “Control red-yellow!”

“Coming.” A clicking thumping noise rapidly approached.

There was another vague scatter of sparks across Cardan’s field of vision. An instant later someone called tensely, “Control yellow!”

It was clear to Cardan that something was about to happen. He peered alertly into the gloom, and was rewarded when a very dim light snapped on overhead, revealing a thing like a dentist’s chair, with a variety of padded armrests held up by jointed, faintly glimmering polished rods.

“Control blue-yellow!”

Into this chair hurtled a sizable monstrosity, like a tangle of snakes around a central mass. Cardan, trying to get it into focus, had the impression of a kind of squid, which hastily distributed its arms on the multiple rests, gave a final twitch, and sat intensely still.

A humming tone sounded. To Cardan’s right, a crisp voice spoke:

“Sector 139, sir. We have a planet, and a specimen of a moderately intelligent race.”

The thing in the chair opposite Cardan stirred, then spoke in an incisive voice, entirely different from what Cardan had heard before.

“Spotlight,” it said sharply.


A sizable lens overhead gave a feeble glow, like a flashlight with nearly dead batteries. The creature in the chair leaned forward, as if peering at Cardan. The central mass of the creature, seen from directly in front, looked like a huge inverted horseshoe. Cardan made out a faint reflected glimmer in the dark space inside the horseshoe-shaped body, and suddenly realized that that dark space might be one huge eye.

After staring at Cardan for some time, the thing drew back with a faint leathery creaking sound.

“Enough,” came its voice. “Dim that light.”

The feeble glow faded out. Cardan thoughtfully filed away the information that these creatures might have uncommonly sensitive eyes. He also noted that they seemed to have some kind of scientifically-assisted process, by which a distant authority could communicate through the body and senses of a “receiver.”

The creature opposite Cardan spoke, using the tone of a busy person who has no time to waste. It said, “This is the dominant species?”

“Yes, your excellency.”

“Is it intelligent?”

“Moderately so, sir.”

“Has it constructed artificial aids? Can it manipulate tools?”

“Yes, your excellency, to both questions.”

“Then where is its eye?”

There was a little pause, then the hesitant answer, “It has microeyes, your excellency. They’re a . . . a little hard to find. High up, in the receptor head.”

Another little pause followed. “Oh. I see. Yes, of course.” Cardan thoughtfully noted the irritation in the voice, “All right,” it said, “now, directly below the microeyes is a vertical ridge with two small holes at the bottom.”

“Air-duct openings, your excellency.”

“And below that?”

“The food-intake and mastication apparatus.”

“How does it communicate?”

“Well, sir, we think it can talk. But there are technical difficulties with this specimen, and—”

“None of that. Can you or can’t you get it to talk?”

“Well, you see, your excellency—”

“Yes or no?”

There was a silence. A somewhat more authoritative voice spoke up, and Cardan recognized the executive protecting his assistant from an angry superior.

“You see, Chairman Thall,” said the new voice, “the specimen’s vocal centers have been zzztically stimulated under anesthesia, and calibrated. Naturally, I know nothing of the details. But I have heard the creature make sounds while unconscious. What Mr. Stol meant to say—”

The chairman gave a low, inarticulate sound that translated an instant later as “Gah.” Then it said sharply, “Listen, will it talk to me now?

Yet another voice cut in, “No, sir. The technicians have had hours to run through the standard routines. But they’re hung up. Why, I don’t know.”

“Ah,” growled the monster in the chair, and Cardan listened intently to the antagonism in the voice. “So it’s you again, Skaa? Another planet, eh?”

“Yes, sir. My ninth.”

“And the technicians have had several hours to ‘run through the routines’—is that what you said?”

“That’s right, sir. They have.”


There was a pause, then the voice spoke more smoothly. “Well, then, suppose you describe this planet to me yourself.”

“Gladly, sir. The planet has suitable gravity and atmosphere. About a fourth is land area. Night on the planet is blinding, but day is just about right. We have carried out a quick examination, and find that most of the plant life is edible. A number of the animal forms, however, are evidently poisonous to us.”

“What do you mean, ‘evidently’?”

There was a silence, and Cardan sensed a developing tension in the room.

“Well, your excellency,” said the voice of Skaa, “as you know, I am a believer in the direct methods of General Meio. Rather than spend the next hundred years carrying out elaborate tests to see what might be poisonous, I offered a bonus to volunteers, who ate samples.”

“How many volunteers did you lose this time?”

“Thirty-nine and three still doubtful.”

“Forty-two! Just what is your total by now?”

“Eight useable planets discovered, and three partly settled. Has anyone a higher record?”

There was a long silence. Then the creature in the chair spoke in a voice that had an undertone like snapping sparks. “How do you replace these losses?”

“I give the surviving volunteers their bonus, and a steep increase in mating allotments. I up the general mating norm. Between one planet and the next, there’s time to raise a new set of basic workers, and train up replacements from the crew for any technical spots vacated.”

“So far, you’ve been lucky. If the odds—”

“The devil with the odds.”

Cardan admiringly told himself that this Skaa was no yes-man. On the other hand, Chairman Thall sounded as if his patience was strained to the breaking point. Cardan’s imaginary cigar shifted around thoughtfully.

Chairman Thall’s voice, rigid with self-restraint, said, “Very well. Now, your recommendations as to this planet?”

“Wipe out the dominant life form, then settle the planet.”

“You consider the dominant life form might be more dangerous than useful?”

“I do. At present they have a passable civilization, and use atomic fission in weapons and embryonic power applications. My examination was quick, so it’s hard to say if they have fusion or not. It doesn’t matter. They are plainly split in competing geographical fragments. Progress is going on. Who knows when their science may develop beyond science? We should wipe them out now, while it’s easy.”

“You’re certain they’re not dangerous as yet?”

“Positive. I checked that carefully.”

“Then I agree. ‘Fix them while they’re little, or when they’re big they may fix you’.”

“Yes, sir,” said Skaa. “Exactly.”

“Well, now that that’s settled, let’s hear this creature talk. A life form as weird as this one shouldn’t die without a few words on record.”

There was a grating noise from here and there around the room, like bones being ground up. This translated belatedly as a sound of hearty chuckling.

Cardan’s face smoothed out as if a switch had been thrown, disconnecting the muscles of his face from what went on in the brain within.

The creature in the chair leaned forward.

“Speak up, specimen.”


Feeling his way cautiously, Cardan said in respectful tones, “Yes, your excellency?”

There were numerous small creakings, clicks, and stirrings in the room. Cardan gathered that he had a sizable audience. From behind him came vague mutterings, and Cardan remembered that to these huge-eyed creatures, thought without mental images was unthinkable. For their benefit, Cardan produced a mental picture of a vague, many-limbed creature.

The monster in the chair said, “You’ve heard our conversation, then?”

Cardan said humbly, “I heard you talking, your excellency.”

The creature spoke to Cardan in the tone of an adult speaking to a child. “I mean, did you understand what we were talking about.”

Cardan made foggy mental pictures of undistinguishable objects. He said, “I lost track, your excellency. I mean, I figure the boys below can handle it. It’s not my job.”

A slight pause followed, filled with numerous creaking noises from around the room.

“Boys below?” said Chairman Thall inquiringly.

“Yeah,” said Cardan. “I mean, yes, your excellency.”

“You mean to say, the people down on your world?

Cardan visualized a vague, slightly lopsided sphere. “Well, no, your excellency. The guys underneath.  What I mean— It’s a . . . a” He pictured a vague mass with odd bumps sticking out here and there, then let it fade out. “I can’t think of the word.”

The creature seated before Cardan snapped, “Psychotechnicians! What is the intelligence of this creature?”

“As a rough estimate, your excellency, we would say the intelligence factor is around forty.”

“Forty! What is the use of talking to an idiot?”

Cardan judged that the time was right for the first rap on the wedge. He said plaintively, “Your excellency, maybe I’m no brain, but you won’t find a harder worker anywhere under the sun. Or under the moon, either.”

At the word “moon” there was a general creak and clack all over the room. Someone spat out a low curse.

“Moon!” thundered the chairman. “Does this planet have a moon?

“Yes,” said the voice of Skaa angrily, “it does have a moon. Planets often do, you know, and this has only one moon, anyway.”

“How bright is it?”

“I don’t know. As it happens, it’s in the planet’s shadow right now.”

“Specimen,” snapped the creature, turning in its chair, “how bright is your moon?”

Cardan visualized a huge dazzling disk. “It’s better not to look straight at it, your excellency.”

“I see. Someone snap on that spotlight. Is it brighter than that?”

The feeble glow lit up behind its lens. If this bothered the big eyes of the aliens, Cardan could imagine what moonlight would do. For the benefit of the psychotechnicians, Cardan visualized a mental comparison showing the glaring moon on one side, and a faint glimmer on the other side. Aloud, he said, “It’s a whole lot brighter than that, your excellency.”

Skaa’s voice cut in. “After all, it’s only one moon, your excellency. It can be devegrated; it wouldn’t cost too much to zzzpostuzztalate the whole thing.”

“Might not cost much,” snapped the chairman, “but if you know anything, you know it only takes one single mistake, and the whole surface will crystallize over with an albedo like polished chromium.”

“There is that possibility, but—”

“You should have told me there was a moon. Now just keep quiet.”

“It doesn’t make any—”

“Shut up, I said!” The chairman’s voice rose menacingly, and a tight silence gripped the room.


Cardan, satisfied he had the point of the wedge driven into the crack, bided his time. Meanwhile, he let an occasional vague mental image drift through his mind, to keep the psychotechnicians occupied.

The monster in front of him grumbled, “Seeing that you won’t give me the information you ought to, I’ll have to wring it out of this alien idiot here. Who knows what else you haven’t told me?”

“Sir,” said Skaa stiffly, “if you’d asked me, I’d have told you. But—”

“But you’re in a hurry to go out and discover another planet, and run up your record? And let somebody else come here and do all the work?”

“I think,” said Skaa coldly, “that my record justifies my actions. If you want to call a Board of Inquiry, I’ll be glad—”

Cardan, who wanted to use this antagonism for his own purpose, suddenly realized that the situation might blow up prematurely. In a loud voice, Cardan spoke up:

“Why should I tell them about Underneath? Who are those guys, anyway?”

Skaa’s voice cut off abruptly. From that direction, Cardan could hear several low earnest voices, as if Skaa’s subordinates were trying to argue him out of a head-on clash. The chairman—the monster seated directly opposite Cardan—was also silent; Cardan thought he could understand the situation. Settling planets must be like opening a great many boxes, an unpredictable percentage of which contain booby traps. After the first ruinous explosion, the man in charge will insist on precautions. But new workers, hired after the wreckage from the explosion has been cleared away, will come to doubt the need for precautions. Cardan could imagine that the chairman must ache and yearn for a small explosion, to teach the headlong Skaa some caution. And right now, the chairman was probably relieved that the alien idiot had opened its mouth just in time to prevent a showdown.

“Hm-m-m,” said the chairman, twisting around with a leathery creak, “so, you don’t like moonlight, eh?”

“No, your excellency,” said Cardan. He decided it was time to tap his wedge in a little farther, and let a vague mental picture of the moon drift through his mind, followed by a sharply visualized rectangle. Behind, there was a murmuring, as the psychotechnicians conferred about this new phenomenon.

“Now,” growled the chairman, “your planet has only one moon, hasn’t it?”

“That’s right, your excellency. There’s only one big moon.”

“One big moon!” the chairman exploded. “Are there any small ones?”

“No, your excellency,” said Cardan humbly.

“All right,” growled the chairman. “Now then, what was that remark about ‘boys below’?”

“Well, just that, your excellency.”

“ ‘Just that’? Just what?

“I mean, they’re underneath. You know.”

There was a sound as of steam escaping under pressure. “Psychotechnicians!” roared the monster.

“Yes, your excellency?”

Cardan let a vague image drift across the sharply defined rectangle as the chairman said furiously, “Is this specimen evading my question on purpose?”

“No, your excellency. The creature is stupid. It just doesn’t understand.”

“Then how am I to get an answer out of it?”

“If you could get it to start talking, your excellency, it might be possible to guide the conversation, and get at the information indirectly.”

“I see.”

Skaa’s voice cut in irritatedly. “How can anyone get information out of an idiot? Can you squeeze blood out of a vacuum?”

“Keep out of this,” said the chairman warningly.

Cardan, sensing another premature crisis, drew in his breath and sneezed loudly, then sneezed again, and again.

The chairman swiveled around angrily. “Now, what’s wrong with you?

In the background, Cardan could hear low voices arguing with the muttering Skaa. Very humbly, Cardan said, “I’m sorry, your excellency. My nose tickled. I sneezed.”

“All right,” said the chairman ill-temperedly, “now let’s get on with this.” He added angrily, “And I hope there will be no more interruptions.”


Cardan stood in humble silence, and made his mental image of the rectangle clearer and sharper, while allowing a fuzzy blob to half-form and drift over it.

Behind Cardan, there was a low confused muttering. Off to his right he heard Skaa spit out an epithet, while another voice pleaded urgently, “No, no, don’t do it!”

The chairman was saying angrily “. . . Picture is pretty confused and I want to fill in the details. At least, do your best and try to understand. Now when you speak of this ‘underneath,’ do you mean—”

Behind Cardan, one of the psychotechnicians muttered, “He isn’t going at it the right way.”

“Well, don’t get mixed up in it. There’s nothing we can do. But, say, look at this image.”

Cardan was very gradually enlarging the rectangle.

One of the psychotechnicians said, “Remarkable image persistence for this creature. Almost like an entirely different—”

To Cardan’s right, Skaa’s voice was gradually becoming louder, despite the clamor of pleading voices around him.

“. . . Do you mean,” the monster in the chair facing Cardan was saying, “that they are physically underground, or—”

“All I know, your excellency,” said Cardan quickly, “is my own job, and what I read in the papers, and—”

“All right,” snarled the creature, leaning forward, “start there then. What is your job?”

Cardan had the momentary balancing sensation of the man who eyes the wedge as he readies the sledgehammer. Then he began to speak, his voice earnest, eager to please.

“I’m a dollar-mender, your excellency. I mend dollars. Some get torn, and others get wrinkled. I put them in the ‘In’ slot, and throw the switch down. Then when the red light flashes, I take them out the ‘Out’ slot, and feed them in the drier. Oh, I forgot. I throw the switch up after I take them out of the machine. See, because the cycle’s finished. Then I take some more dollars off the belt, and put them in the ‘In’ slot, and throw the switch down. When the red light flashes, I take them out the ‘Out’ slot and—”

There was a universal creak and clack all around Cardan. The faintly visible chairman had what seemed to be a stupefied look. As Cardan rattled on, Skaa’s voice cut in sarcastically, “Fill in the details. Very important, you know, to fill in the details. Yes, sir. Here we stand, officers of the Fleet. We could be doing our duty. But instead here we stand, awash in claptrap. ‘Throw up the “Up” switch. Reach in the “Out” slot.’ Oh, this is a dangerous alien race, I tell you. We must proceed with great caution, as our noble leader here—”

The chairman’s voice came out in a crackling roar. “That will do! Guards!

Cardan, satisfied that the situation had come to a head, and that his reputation for stupidity was now unshakably established, suddenly altered his mental picture. Within the rectangle, he visualized numerous radiating lines, drawn from a common center. Slowly, then faster and faster, these lines began to whirl. The rectangle enlarged, and the whirling lines spun faster, till they filled his entire field of mental vision.

Behind him, Cardan could hear the sudden exclamation. Concentrating hard, he made the spinning spokes whirl yet faster, the central hub enlarging till it in turn filled his entire field of vision.

He then immediately visualized everything he could think of. Slide rules, microscopes, cameras, photographs, paint brushes, apples, revolvers, ammunition, graph paper, pencils, pens, atomic models, ring stands, hunting rifles, lions, cats, dogs, bears, maps on old parchment, algebraic formulae, tables of integrals, radar sets, oscilloscopes, vacuum tubes, condensers, transistors, remembered drawings of futuristic devices, lightning bolts, coils of wire hanging in space. As fast as he could think of anything, he pictured it, and thrust it aside to picture something else.

Behind him rose a scream, a wild shriek that wavered over the hubbub to bring a sudden silence, and then a roar from the chair, “Now what’s happened?”

“Sir . . . your excellency,” shouted the psychotechnician. “It’s changed!

What do you mean?

“The alien isn’t the same any more. Its intelligence factor is over three hundred!

Judging that this was the moment of maximum confusion, Cardan spoke in a voice as coldly flat and authoritative as he could make it. “You are no longer talking to the dollar-mender. I am an Underman. I now occupy this body.”

There was a tense silence, and Cardan, moving fast, said flatly, “My mind is now shielded from your technology.” He had visualized a gray blur, like blowing fog. “I will remain here only long enough to deliver this warning:

“The planet below is occupied by many power groups. They are rivals, and have for generations hidden their newest advances from one another. To avoid a childish secrecy which hides things from itself as well as others, they have built complete, self-sufficient installations underground. Only those of the highest ability can go below, and these must mate only among themselves. In these conditions, progress has been swift. But no new device is permitted on the surface until it is certain that it cannot suggest secret developments to a rival. The devices visible to you are obsolete surfaces devices, which give no measure of the present power of this planet.” Cardan paused for just an instant, then added:

“You are warned. You now have sufficient information to make your decision. If you attempt to injure anyone below, you will be destroyed. If you wish to depart peacefully, you will so signify by returning this captive unharmed. You will then leave.

“Our wishes for your happiness and advancement go with you.


Cardan visualized a spinning mass, which withdrew to show whirling spokes, then a rectangle that enclosed the spokes and then that shrank, till the spokes slowed and vanished, and then the rectangle itself was gone.

For a long moment, Cardan waited, like a general whose reserves have been sent into action. The silence stretched out.

Then, suddenly, the creature before Cardan said, “Wait!

“Too late, your excellency,” said the psychotechnician, “he’s gone. He’s broken contact.”

There was another silence, then a creaking and a stirring in the room.

To Cardan’s right, there was a ponderous clanking, as of a many-limbed creature being led off with all its many limbs in chains.

“Wait, guards,” said the chairman, a hint of benevolence mingled with the triumph in his voice. “What do you say now, Skaa?”

Skaa said slowly, “I can see I must have been wrong somewhere, your excellency.”

“You admit I was right?”

There was a long pause. The chains rattled. Reluctantly, Skaa said, “Yes.”

“Ah-ha.” The chairman’s tone was almost genial. “And do you apologize for what you started to say back there?”

Another pause followed. Then, in a tone of deep depression, the words, “I apologize.”

“Good. Fine! Guards! Unchain him!”

There was a clatter and thud that went on for about thirty seconds.

The chairman’s voice said, “Now, Commander Skaa, as soon as possible have this specimen carefully set down on his home planet. Then get out of here. And take my advice. Don’t mope over this. You’re still young. There are other worlds to conquer. When you bite into something and taste poison, the only thing to do is spit it out. That’s common sense.”

There was a faint hiss nearby, and Cardan smelled a strong, familiar, geraniumlike odor.


Cardan was vaguely aware of a lapse of time before he felt a sensation like a puff of flame that burst through his body from the back to the ends of his limbs. He sat up to see the gray light of dawn in the east. He was in his car behind the wheel, with the engine turned off and a medium-sized pine dragged to the side off the road ahead.

Cardan pressed in the car’s lighter, and felt in his inside coat pocket for a cigar. Stripping off the outer wrapper, and biting off a bit of the end, he put the cigar in his mouth. The lighter popped out, and he puffed the cigar alight.

“Hm-m-m,” he said, looking out through clouds of smoke. A section of his mind was trying to argue him around to the belief that he had fallen asleep and dreamed the incident.

Cardan snorted. He rolled the window down a little way, and took a light cautious sniff of the outside air. It smelled fresh, and free of any geraniumlike odor. Carefully, he got out, and bent to look at the wet dirt of the road. It was covered with numerous thick curving marks, as if a multitude of flexible-limbed creatures had hastily bundled the tree off to the side of the road.

“You see,” growled Cardan, to the skeptical part of his mind. Grumblingly, it subsided. He shifted the cigar around to the other side of his mouth, picked up a small piece of branch on the road to scrape the worst of the mud off the bottom of his shoes, got back in the car, slammed the door and started the engine.

“Hm-m-m,” he said again. It had just occurred to him that he had just about decided to get a computer. He fished around to find the reason for this development, and found that a number of ideas had rearranged themselves, under the crystallizing influence of some comment he had heard recently. But what was the comment?

He was well down the winding dirt road near the highway when it came to him. It was a remark he had overheard in that dark room: “You never know when their science may develop beyond science.”

Cardan shifted his dead cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other.

An intense curiosity was starting to develop within him.

“. . . What was beyond science?

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