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“As World Scouts, your keenest challenge will be to span the gap between human and alien minds. The risky and delicate business of interspecies contact must never be left to chance.”

Orientations, World Scout Training Tape #011123


Miss Lydia Prinks was somebody’s aunt. Not the aunt of several somebodies, but the aunt of one person only and with no other living brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, or nieces to her name. A sort of singleton aunt. It would be possible to describe her further, but it would not be in good taste. To draw a clearer picture possibly would be to destroy the anonymity that Miss Prinks has, at the cost of a very great sacrifice indeed, maintained. Think of her then as a singleton aunt, and you have a pretty fair picture of her.

She lived on a sort of annuity in a small apartment up three flights of stairs on a certain street in a middle-sized city. The apartment had pale gold curtains of lace, a green carpet, and furniture upholstered in wine red. It had an assortment of good books in the bookcases and good pictures on the wall and a large, fat cat called Solomon on a footstool. It was a very proper sort of apartment for a singleton aunt living on an annuity, and Miss Prinks lived a peaceful, contented sort of life there.

That is to say, she did live a peaceful, contented sort of life until one afternoon just after lunch when the grandfather clock in the corner of the living room, having gone from twelve noon through twelve forty-five, went one step farther than it had ever done before, and instead of striking one o’clock, struck thirteen.

“What on earth—” said Miss Prinks, looking up astonished from her current Book-of-the-Month Club selection and staring at the clock. Solomon, the fat cat, also raised his head inquiringly.

“What on earth?” repeated Miss Prinks indignantly. She stared hard at the clock, for she was a very ladylike person herself, and the apartment was very ladylike, and there is something nearly bohemian about a clock which, after twenty-eight years of striking correctly, jumps the traces and tolls off an impossible hour like thirteen.

“Now who’s responsible for this, I’d like to know?” said Miss Prinks, almost fiercely, addressing the room at large. And then it happened.

Miss Prinks had not really expected an answer to her question. But she got one. For no sooner had the words left her mouth—in fact, while the words were still vibrating in the air—a strange something like a small, busily whirling dust devil began mistily to take form in the middle of the green carpet. At first only a wisp of vapor, it grew rapidly until it was quite solidly visible and the breeze of its rapid rotation fluttered the gold lace curtains.

“I’m afraid,” spoke an apologetic voice inside Miss Prinks’ head, “that I am responsible, Madam.”

Now this was not the sort of answer which would be calculated to calm the fears of an ordinary person who has just discovered that it is thirteen o’clock—a time that never was, and it is profoundly hoped, will never be again. But Miss Prinks was a singleton aunt of great courage and rock-hard convictions. Her personal philosophy started with the incontrovertible fact that she was a lady and went on from there. Starting from this fact, then, and going down the line of natural reasoning, it followed that the miniature dust devil, whatever else it might be, was a Vandal—a clock-gimmicking Vandal, just as the neighborhood boys who played baseball in the adjoining vacant lot were window-smashing Vandals, and the drunken man who on one previous occasion had parked his car up on the apartment building’s front lawn was a grass-destroying Vandal, and with Vandals Miss Prinks took a firm line.

“You’re a Vandal!” she said angrily, to put the creature in its place and make it realize that she saw it for what it was.

This appeared to disconcert the dust devil somewhat. It paused before replying, by thought-waves, of course.

“I beg your pardon?” it thought. “I don’t seem to understand that name you called me. Surely you never saw me before?”

“Perhaps not,” retorted Miss Prinks, fiercely. “But I know your type!”

“You do?” The dust devil’s thought was clearly astonished. Then it seemed to gather dignity. “Be that as it may,” it thought. “Allow me to explain what has happened.”

“Very well,” said Miss Prinks in the cold, impartial tones of a judge agreeing to hear a case.

“You may know my type,” said the dust devil, mentally. “But I am sure you do not know me personally. I am—” he paused, and Miss Prinks felt little light fingers searching for the proper term in her mind, “a scientist of the eighty-third Zanch dimension. I was doing some research into the compressibility of time for a commercial concern in my sector of eighty-third dimensional space. They wished to know whether it would be feasible to package and ship time in wholesale quantities.”

Miss Prinks made an impatient gesture.

“Anyhow,” thought the dust devil hurriedly, “to make a long story short, there was an explosion, and roughly an hour of the time I was experimenting with was blown into your day. Naturally, I am extremely sorry about it, and I’ll be only too glad to take the hour back.”

“My clock—” said Miss Prinks, coldly.

“I will take care of it,” said the dust devil, or Zanch scientist, to refer to him correctly. “I will realign its temporal coordinates and make whatever spatial corrections are necessary.” He waited anxiously for Miss Prinks to agree.

Now, to tell the truth, Miss Prinks was beginning to soften inside. The politeness of the Zanch scientist was making a good impression on her in spite of herself. But she did not want to give in too easily.

“Well . . .” she said, hesitantly.

“Ah, but naturally!” cried the Zanch scientist mentally. “You feel yourself entitled to some compensation for the temporal damage done to your day. Don’t think another word. I understand completely.”

“Well . . .” said Miss Prinks, with a hint of a deprecating smile that in a less ladylike person would have been a simper. “I know nothing at all about business arrangements of that type.”

“Of course,” said the Zanch scientist. “Allow me . . .” Light fingers seemed to touch the surface of Miss Prinks’ mind. “Forgive me for saying it, but I have reviewed your condition and notice several improvements that could be made. If you have no objection . . . ?”

Miss Prinks half-turned her head away.

“Of course not,” she said.

It has often been recorded in history that two people have come to shipwreck upon the mutual misunderstanding of a single word. This was merely one more of those instances. Miss Prinks was a lady, and she thought in ladylike terms. To her, the word condition referred to a person’s position in the world, and particularly to that aspect of position which is related to the financial by grosser minds. She believed, therefore, that the Zanch scientist was, with the utmost delicacy, offering her monetary damages. Such things were, out of consideration for one another’s feelings, referred to in periphrasis. Her sensitivity to the social situation forbade her to do anything as gross as inquiring about the amount.

The Zanch scientist, of course, had no such intention in mind. He was telepathic, but not particularly perceptive, and he knew nothing of human mores. To him, Miss Prinks was an organism with certain mental and physical attributes. Frankly, over a cup of something Zanchly, he was later to admit to a coworker that these were pretty horrible. But such bluntness was reserved for moments of intimacy among his own people. In his way, he also had manners. Therefore he used the thought condition, as a manager might refer to his boxer, or, more appositely, as a doctor might refer to a patient in the last stages of a wasting disease.

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