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The Green Thumb

Pete felt so bad about Tobur getting killed on his account, that Uncle Gunnar and Aunt Edith were afraid at first they’d have take him to a psychiatrist in Stellamont. But they finally talked him around.

“It wasn’t your fault, Pete,” Uncle Gunnar said again and again. “It was just one of those things. How could you know—or anyone know—that the harmless little tinklers were bait leading to that thing in the swamp? Maybe you shouldn’t have gone off by yourself, but we should have kept an eye on you too—” And so on for days, meanwhile always behaving so Pete could be sure he meant what he said. Uncle Gunnar was really swell.

“We just don’t know enough about this planet,” he kept saying. “People—” he meant nonhumans like Tobur, too—”are going to die because of storms and earthquakes and wild beasts; disease and poison; and every other way they can die, here on Nerthus and on a thousand other worlds, till we get to know them. Till we understand the whole of a geology, and an ecology different from Earth’s, in the million big and little ways that some two billion years of separate evolution can create. It’s the price we pay. Because Tobur died, we now know what a menace the tinklers represent—we can save some of those children who kept disappearing as you did, Pete—we’re just a little more secure on this planet. Sure, I’ll miss him; all my life I’m going to miss his ugly old face—but he didn’t die for nothing.”

So Pete’s visit stretched on some more.

It was hard to think that so beautiful a planet as Nerthus could kill people. Nerthus was almost another Earth. Sunlight spilled out of a high blue sky over plains and hills and shining rivers; woods rustled and whispered; the long, sad winds blew over more kilometers of loneliness and peace than a man could imagine. There weren’t many colonists here yet—Stellamont was the only town—not a very big one either—and the farms were sprinkled thinly. When you had an aircar and a televisor, you weren’t far from anyone in time, but your neighbor was still far off in space and the nights were big and lonely.

So Pete was surprised when Joe came walking in.

It happened one afternoon when he was alone in that fifty-hectare stretch of forest and lawn which they called the front yard. Aunt Edith was in the house, which Pete could glimpse through the trees; and Uncle Gunnar was working in back somewhere repairing one of the semirobot machines. Pete had grown tired of watching him and had wandered off to where he was now—flat on his stomach watching a colony of formicoids making one of their big nests.

Joe came very quietly. Suddenly he just was there, a shadow falling athwart the streaming sunlight, tall and thin and not moving. Pete looked up and gulped a little and felt his heart speed up. This was an alien.

“H-hello,” he said, getting to his feet.

“How do you do,” said the stranger. He spoke Terran with the flat perfection that showed he had learned it by psychophonic means; his only accent was what the shape of his vocal apparatus forced on him, a hissing lisp you could barely hear.

Pete looked him up and down. He wasn’t human, nor did he belong to any other race Pete had ever heard of. But there are so many races knocking around the Galaxy these days—with more being discovered all the time—that nobody pretends to know them all.

He was very tall, about two-point-three meters, with long legs and a skinny frame—classifiable as “humanoid” except that he had four arms, one pair smaller than, and below, the other. His head was big and round, with long pointed ears and large, yellow eyes—between which were the noseless nostrils, and above which waved two feathery antennae. Except for a pouched belt, he was naked, but sleek greenish fur covered his whole body. He looked sort of like a Vashtrian or maybe a Kennacor, but he wasn’t.

“Who are you?” asked Pete. Then he remembered his manners—after all, he was going on eleven—and said: “Pardon. I am Wilson Pete of Sol, and this place belongs to my uncle Thorleifsson Gunnar. Can I help you?”

“Perhaps so,” said the stranger. “I understand your uncle is looking for an assistant.”

Now Uncle Gunnar did need somebody pretty badly. Even with all the automatics and semirobots he had, one man just couldn’t run a place this size alone. After Tobur’s death, he had put an ad on the telecast for a hired hand, but he hadn’t expected much result. Labor was still scarce on Nerthus, and what new men did arrive generally went to work in Stellamont at fancy wages. So—Cosmos rocketblast, this was luck!

“You bet he does,” said Pete. “Come on!” And he ran on ahead, the stranger’s long legs keeping up without hurrying.

They found Uncle Gunnar perspiring and oily in the machine-shed. He looked up, wiped the sweat off his red-bearded face, and said a polite hello. When he heard that the newcomer wanted to work for him, his eyes lit up; but he only nodded. “Come on in and talk about it,” he suggested.

So they went into the house, and Uncle Gunnar peeled off his greasy clothes—as any sensible person did on warm day like this. Aunt Edith was surprised to see the alien; she wasn’t used to nonhumans the way an old space-explorer like Uncle Gunnar would be, and she didn’t quite know how to behave. But the stranger didn’t seem to mind.

Uncle Gunnar hesitated when it came to introductions. “I am from Astan IV,” said the newcomer. “My designation—well, call me Joe.”

“Astan IV—can’t say I’ve ever of it,” said Uncle Gunnar. “Newly discovered?”

“Not quite. Galactic explorers landed several years ago. But being, on the whole, a race without much interest in technology or foreign adventure, we have remained obscure. I am one of the few of us who really cares to see what the Galaxy and its civilization are like. So I am working my—it is the best way to learn.” Joe’s voice was very gentle and quiet, and there was something in his luminous eyes which Pete liked.

“Why didn’t you stay at Stellamont to work? You could earn more money there than I can pay you,” said Uncle Gunnar.

“I have seen other colony-towns; they are very much alike. This time I wanted an insight into colonial life itself—also, a chance to rest from confining mechanical environments. I heard your advertisement and walked over here.”

“From Stellamont? Through unexplored forest? That’s a several weeks’ walk; I haven’t had the ad that long.”

“Oh, a colonist gave me a ride part of the way. The forest does not frighten me; it is friendly. My home world is forested.”

“Well—” Uncle Gunnar scratched his head. You could see he was wondering whether to take a chance on an alien who might not be any use at all—who might even be a fugitive from the law. But he did need help a lot, and Joe was so nice and soft-spoken.

“Well—blazes, why not?” Uncle Gunnar smiled. “We’ll see how it works, Joe. Sit down and rest a while. Edith, where in space is that whisky?”

The hired man didn’t really go to work till the next morning, but Uncle Gunnar spent a while the evening before showing him around. Pete tagged along with his eyes popping. This would be something else to tell the kids about when he got back to Earth. “There was a real alien working for us. He came from so far away that even my uncle had never heard of his planet, and he had four arms and no nose and we called him Joe.”

They went down to the animals. Uncle Gunnar had only a few from Earth—a couple of cows, some pigs and chickens. He was more interested in taming the native life, and had had pretty good luck with a couple of the six-legged mammalian species. There were some “steers” that were good for meat and leather; some “ponies” that could be ridden through the woods where a car or tractor wouldn’t go, and he was working with the winged, four-legged fowl, too.

“A lot of the colonists here are importing all their stuff—animals and plants alike—and trying to raise them as if Nerthus were Earth,” he explained. “It won’t work. We can’t put them into a wholly different ecology without a long period of careful breeding. Little things will affect them: certain insect bites poison them; the grass and soil don’t have quite the right composition; trace elements are missing—the result is poor stock. Look at those cows of mine, for instance. Runty, and that in spite of my buying feed from Earth to supplement their diet. But the native critters are all fat and sassy.

“We have to use cut and try, figuring out what species it will be practical to domesticate. It took man on Earth a long time to find out that the horse and the wild cow could be tamed, while the bison and the zebra could not—but the result was worth waiting for. Man won’t ever be really at home on Nerthus till he’s become part of it himself,”

The cows stamped and rolled their eyes in the gloom of the stable; Joe made them a little nervous. But the native animals stood quietly. Some tiny difference in smell, no doubt.

“But can man. your race, eat native foods without suffering from the same deficiencies?” asked Joe.

“That’s a good question,” said Uncle Gunnar. “It’s one of our major problems. First, of course, we have to find out what plants and flesh are actually poisonous to us—that’s a matter for chemical analysis, or for experiment with animals from Earth. Then we have to learn what vitamins, minerals, and trace-elements we need are lacking in the food we can eat. At present, we supplement our diets with tablets containing the missing factors, and that works well enough. But ultimately we have to change some of the native stock—by mutation and selective breeding—and we ourselves will have to change to a certain degree, too. The latter will accomplish itself in a few generations.

“We’re an adaptable breed, and everyone born here will change just a little bit because of the differences acting on him from conception onward. Natural selection will change the heredity—say in the course of a thousand years or so. Nobody will die, but those people whose heredity is a little better adapted to Nerthus will have more children.”

“So that ultimately you will become—Nerthusians,” said Joe.

“That’s right. Just as man colonizing other worlds will adapt to them. Just as man, back on Earth, adapted racially to different environments. The old Eskimos, for instance, got so they could be perfectly healthy on a straight meat diet. The Kalahari Bushmen became able to drink brackish water, and little enough of that, and developed a water-storing steatopygia.” Uncle Gunnar had quite a library on the subject of adaptation.

“And there is no native race here?” asked Joe.

“Intelligent life? No. This planet was checked pretty thoroughly for such beings before it was opened to colonization, and no sign was found. No villages; no artifacts; not even stone tools. It’d have been nice if there had been natives; they could have told us a lot of things we’ve had to find out for ourselves. But then, if there had been aborigines the law would have forbidden colonization.”

“That is a—humane attitude.”

“Also a sensible one. In the early days, men did settle on planets with primitive native races. It only led to conflict in which man, though always the victor, often paid a heavy price. And the worst of it was, that once colonization was begun it couldn’t be stopped; you can’t evacuate people who’ve built their lives in a certain place. The struggle just had to continue until some compromise—not very satisfactory to either side—could be worked out.”

Joe nodded, slowly, his eyes shining in the half-darkness with strange yellow lights.

In the next few days, it became pretty plain that Joe just wasn’t any good with machinery. He tried, but he only made a mess of things; he never could learn the simplest principles of repair and maintenance. He was all thumbs and muttering awkwardness. When he drove a truck or tractor, he got tensed up till you’d think he would explode, and the machine veered off to one side and snarled at his handling.

But it was another story with the animals and the plants. He could make the ponies—still half-wild—do things no one else had dreamed of. He had them hauling carts without a driver, coming when he whistled, and standing quiet while he curried their gleaming greenish-gray hides. He went into the woods and came back with a basketful of grasses which the fowl gobbled up: they began to get fat so quick you could almost see the flesh building. When Uncle Gunnar asked Joe how he knew about that, he shrugged.

“We of Astan IV live closer to wild nature than your people,” he said. “Now I knew your fowl ordinarily live in certain meadow areas; I noticed that on my way here. It occurred to me that their natural food would be some plant common in such regions, so I looked for types which would probably be nutritious.”

He studied the garden, and the orchard and the fields, too, and came up with some funny ideas. “Plant some of this,” he said, holding up a small blue flower, “with your native grain; you will have a better yield.”

“Why so?” asked Uncle Gunnar. “It’s just a weed.”

“Yes, but it is always found growing side-by-side with the wild prototypes of the grain. I suspect there is a symbiosis of some kind; try it, anyway.”

Uncle Gunnar shrugged, but let Joe sow some of the flowers in a field. It wasn’t long before you could see that the grain there was healthier than anywhere else.

“Joe must belong to an odd race,” said Uncle Gunnar. “They’re morons where it comes to mechanical things, but they have a feel for living systems which we humans will never match.”

“Maybe our race could use some of it,” said Aunt Edith. She had grown quite fond of Joe—especially when he found a mixture of grass and clay which could be worked into baskets and pottery. She didn’t like the plastic stuff they made at Stellamont, and imports from Earth cost too much.

“Every species to its own strength,” answered Uncle Gunnar. “I’ve seen races like his—here and there in the Galaxy—living in so close a symbiosis with nature that they never had to develop any mechanical technology. But they weren’t the less intelligent for that. Still—the machine-minded races, like ours, have their part to play, too.”

Pete wandered out, looking for the hired hand. He found him setting out native lycopersiconoid plants in the garden. They had good berries, but humans had never been able to grow them. Joe had brought some back from the Woods and they grew all right for him.

“He just has a green thumb,” Aunt Edith said, smiling.

“Or else,” suggested Uncle Gunnar, “one of our hormones, excreted in very small quantities through the skin, kills the seeds—and Joe’s metabolism doesn’t include that hormone.”

The alien looked up and his mouth twisted in the wry way that was his smile, “Hello, Pete,” he said.

“Hello,” said Pete, hunkering down beside him. “Aren’t you tired?”

“No,” said Joe, going on with his work; his hands were swift and gentle among the frail stems. “No, this I like. Sunshine and open air and the sweet smell of life—how can one grow weary?” He shook his big round head. “How can you shut yourselves away from life, you humans?”

Joe didn’t come into the house much, except for meals. He slept outside, under a tree—even when it rained.

“Oh, a spaceship is all right,” said Pete.

Joe shuddered a little. He raised his eyes again, sweeping the broad horizon and the whispering, sun-drappled forest. “And would you really make this world over?” he asked. “Would you really cut down the trees and wound the earth with mines and shut away the sky with cities?”

“Well, not too much, I guess,” said Pete. “Earth is pretty woodsy these days too. But o’ course, there’ll be a lot more people here, and they’ll have to build and plant.”

“I know a little of your god,” said Joe. “Your all-pervading primordial Cosmos, whom you do not even pretend to understand. That is a machine god, Pete—a mathematician’s god. Have you ever wondered if there might not be other gods, if the old spirits of a land might not have something to say?”

“I don’t know,” mumbled Pete. Sometimes Joe talked oddly.

“Out in the cold great dark of space, between the flaming suns, one might know Cosmos,” said Joe. “Awe and wonder and impersonal magnificence—yes. But it is in the forests and the rivers and the small winds that my gods live—gods of life, Pete, not of flame and vacuum. Little gods, maybe, concerned with a tree or a flower or a dreaming brain—not with meaningless hugeness; not with a universe which is mostly incandescent gas. But I still think that on the last day my gods will speak louder.”

Pete didn’t know what to answer. He thought maybe Joe was afraid men would settle on Astan IV, so he said quickly, “You got your own planet; nobody’s ever going to take it away from you. Man won’t, and he won’t let anyone else do it either.”

“Perhaps not,” agreed Joe. “But I wonder. Even with the best intentions in the universe, you could conquer other races—not physically, but by sheer dominance, forcing them to imitate your ways or become insignificant. If we started having mines and factories on our own world—even if the mines were our own—it would never be the same planet again, and we would not be the same race. We would have chosen an alien destiny.”

“What’s Astan IV like?” asked Pete.

“Oh—like Nerthus. Wild and open and almost empty. There aren’t many of us, but we like room. I can’t explain very well.”

“Were you ever on Earth?”

“No, nor on any of the great worlds of the Galaxy. I simply worked my way along the odd trade-lanes, seeing obscure and backward planets. I fear I would have little of interest to tell you.”

“Oh.” Pete was disappointed. Uncle Gunnar was full of stories about his travels, and so had Tobur been. Joe was nice, but he wasn’t as much fun as Tobur.

“In fact,” said Joe, “I will be the one to ask questions. I came to learn, since I have all too little to teach—or, rather, men would never listen to anything I tried to teach. How many humans are there, all in all?”

“Gosh, I dunno. I don’t think anybody does; they’re spread over so many worlds. But lemme see—” Pete thought back to what he had learned in astrography or from books and films or from listening to grownups talk. Before long, he was telling Joe all he knew, while the alien nodded and asked questions. It was the first time Pete had ever explained things to anyone except a littler kid, and he nearly burst with the importance of it.

“I see,” said Joe. “It is a very loose arrangement, and Nerthus has little direct contact with Earth. But tell me, Pete; if Earth’s civilization is as satisfactory as you say, why do men come here at all? What can they gain by it?”

“Oh—different things, I guess. A lot of settlers never were on Earth; they were born on other planets, and haven’t ever been conditioned to the setup at home. They wouldn’t be very happy living there, you got to grow up in an integrate civilization to like it.”

“Those are big words for a boy of your age,” smiled Joe.

“I don’t understand it all,” admitted Pete. “But they say I will someday. Well, anyway, there are people who like lots of room, and people who want to be doing something different all the time, and—oh, all sorts of people.”

“But what economic motive is there? There is little outside trade, you told me—the avertigonite harvests barely pay for the imports you must have. What economic value to your civilization is a colony like this?”

“Mostly it gives living room for people. They got to go somewhere, you know. And they want a home, land of their own, a place to belong. They say—uh—the social value of an enterprise takes pre—precedence over the economic value. That means if people are happy it doesn’t matter if they aren’t making much credit.”

“I see. A commendable attitude, I suppose—though it seems to have taken your race a fantastically long time to discover a self-evident fact. But you mean that the colonists—here on Nerthus, for instance—are determined to stay at all costs?”

“Why, sure. What sort of pioneers would it be who couldn’t take a little trouble without quitting?”

Joe shook his head. “You humans will go far,” he murmured. “You are still fighting animals. You will even fight for your happiness.” He straightened. “Well, that takes care of the plants. Let’s go round up the ‘steers’, shall we?”

Sometimes when the moons were full, Pete couldn’t sleep.

He woke up now and lay for a while in the shadows of his room. The cold, strange light slanted through the windows and streamed along the floor, casting double shadows that were as sharp and black as if someone had cut them out with a knife. There was a breeze blowing in the open windows, billowing the curtains like pale ghosts; he could hear its low mournful voice in the trees outside. And there were things talking and singing in the night—birds and insects unknown to Earth, a high sweet trill and a soft liquid laughter and the chiming of little glass bells. Pete lay quiet and listened to the night.

Then he thought he’d get up and look out, as long as he was awake. He leaned on the windowsill and the moonlight was like cold colorless day; he could see just as clear to the edge of the woods.

All at once he stiffened. There was a tall, thin shape walking over the lawn, black against the moonglow. Why, that was Joe . . . only what was he doing?

The alien stopped at the boundary of the forest and whistled, a funny soft trill sliding up and down the scale and along Pete’s backbone. Maybe he was singing to himself, thought Pete; maybe he liked to walk alone under the moons and talk to the night.

All of a sudden, Pete thought it would be fun to sneak up on Joe and watch him and maybe jump out and say “Boo!” Maybe afterward they’d sit under Joe’s tree, with moonlight speckling the shadows around them, and talk about the planets in outer space. Joe was nice to talk to.

So Pete turned and went down the hall to the front door and slipped quietly out and around the house. He felt wide awake now, but in a funny way as if the moonbeams shone inside his head. He laughed to himself at the way Joe would jump when he hollered.

Trees and bushes on the lawn gave plenty of cover. Pete slipped softly across the cool wet grass, half blinded by the flooding moonlight, until he was crouched in the shadow of a great bole only some three meters from where Joe was standing.

The alien was still a high, gaunt outline with too many arms, and for a minute Pete was just a little bit afraid. The night was so full of voices and eyes and sliding darknesses, and the house was only a vague blur between the trees.

Now Joe whistled again, and no human could have whistled just the way he did. And wings came down out of the sky.

It was a great night-flying strigiformoid, Pete knew—he’d heard their weird hooting in the woods, caught glimpses of huge yellow eyes out of shadow. This one whispered down to close one pair of great talons on one of Joe’s wrists. There it sat while he stroked it with another hand and murmured to it in a soft, throaty tongue. Pete watched, without daring to move. He hardly dared to breathe, or those terrible eyes might turn around and look at him.

Joe fished in a pouch with his other two hands, brought out a narrow roll of paperite, and tied it around one of the bird’s legs. Then he laughed, softly and not very humanly, and tossed his burden into the air.

Black wings against the stars, then silence.

Pete moved, without meaning to. And Joe was on him in one long jump.

He loomed over the boy with his head seeming to scrape the moons, and his own eyes burned with yellow fire. Pete shrank away.

“Why—why, Pete!” Suddenly Joe stepped back, so that the moonlight fell on his face. He smiled, a little shakily. “Pete, you startled me. What are you doing here?”

“I—I came out—for a walk—” mumbled Pete, not looking up.

“When you should have been in bed? Tchk, tchk.” Joe shook his head. “Your aunt and uncle would not like that, Pete.”

“I saw you were walking around, and came out to talk with you—”

“Any time, Pete. Except your bedtime. Now get up to the house, and I won’t tell anybody.”

“But what were you doing with that bird?”

“That? Oh, he’s a pet of mine. He comes when I call.”

“I didn’t think they could be tamed. Uncle Gunnar knows a man who tried to tame one, for hunting—and it wouldn’t.”

“I just had better luck, Pete. Now, come along.” Joe laid a hand on his shoulder and steered him toward the house.

Pete wasn’t afraid right now, so he piped up again: “What were you tying that message on it for?”

“That wasn’t a message. It was just a roll of paperite. I was experimenting to see whether the orvish—the strigiformoid can be trained to carry letters. They are very intelligent birds, I think they can be taught to go from place to place.”

“But who needs that? Everybody’s got a ‘visor.”

“The ‘visors might break down, you know.”

“No, they wouldn’t; if they did, somebody would soon come to see why we weren’t heard from.”

“Well, that shows how little I know about it,” laughed Joe. “But I may want to take some strigiformoids back to Astan IV with me to use that way. I told you we don’t want machines there.”

They were quite near the house now, so Joe stopped. “Run on in, Pete. Dry your feet; they are soaking with dew. And if you won’t tell anyone about your coming out at night—you know you are not supposed to—then I won’t.” He turned away. “Goodnight, Pete.”

When Pete woke up next day, he thought that perhaps it had been a dream. But then he decided it wasn’t; there were still grass-stains on his feet.

Joe was nice and quiet as ever, at breakfast. After chores he didn’t have anything to do right away, so he went back to his books. He’d borrowed a lot of texts from Uncle Gunnar—books on biological subjects, all of them—and studied them every chance he got. He was especially interested in biochemistry and biophysics, which told him things he’d never known before, in spite of his people being so good at the life sciences.

“What’s the matter, Peter?” asked Aunt Edith. She always did call him by that sissy name. “You look a little sad today.”

“Just thinking,” he said.

He had a lot to think about. He hadn’t got very far in psychology yet in school, but he had learned the basics of multiordinal evaluation—which meant you had to look at everything twice and think it through for yourself, instead of just taking somebody else’s word. So he was still wondering about Joe.

He found his favorite place—a big, mossy rock warmed by the sun—and sat down with his back against it, letting his mind wander for a while. Pretty soon, it went of its own accord to what Joe had done and said.

Sure, Joe was nice, but there were a lot of things about him which didn’t fit. Little things. Like the way he always dodged talking about planets he’d been to, even his home world. Like what he’d been doing last night—and his explanation had been pretty silly, when you looked at it again, as if he’d made it up just then. If he meant to wander on from there, he couldn’t go lugging a cageful of strigiformoids with him—anyway, the people of Astan IV must have some better ways for communicating than messenger birds.

Well, alien psychologies weren’t human, and you could get habits and customs and training which made them odder yet. But even so—

Come to think of it, Joe claimed his home world was very like Earth or Nerthus. But they were both the third planets of GO dwarfs; wouldn’t the fourth planet be pretty cold? The systems of similar stars were usually very much alike—especially where it came to the spacing of planets. Astan could be an exception, sure—but—

Suppose, now, just suppose Joe was lying. Suppose he—well, shucks, suppose he belonged to a civilization outside our own. Man, and the races allied with man, didn’t really know much about the Galaxy; it was too big. Man had found several other species which had developed interstellar travel on their own, and there was no reason to suppose he’d found them all.

If such an outlying culture wanted to spy out our own without revealing itself—either because it had hostile ideas, or because it was just cautious—what would it do? The answer was ready-made: Pete had seen a dozen stereofilms with that motif. They’d send their agents into our territory to pose as harmless tourists, students, workers from some or other of the thousand backwoods planets nobody had ever heard about, but which do belong with us.

Joe could have been landed from a spaceship which was now somewhere out in the unvisited forest. He could be transmitting information by bird, for fear of a radio set being overheard—or simply because a plain wanderer such as he claimed to be wouldn’t be carrying around a radio. And when he had all the information he wanted—

Would Nerthus make a good base for the aliens? It had no defenses; one warship could take it over.

Maybe he was making too much out of a little thing. Uncle Gunnar would laugh and advise him to stay away from thrillers for a while. But Cosmos whiskers, a guy couldn’t just sit and do nothing even if he wasn’t sure!

After a while, Pete figured out what a good detective would do, and sat for a while shivering with excitement. It would be easy enough, too, and it would settle the question and warn the other people—It was just plain swickerjack, that idea!

Only—wait. He had to do it secretly, because he knew how little grownups would believe him. Or if they did believe, and let him make that call, Joe might be somewhere around and might use his nameless powers to stop them.

Or suppose that didn’t happen either; suppose they let him go through with it, and then Joe turned out to be just what he said he was—that would make a fellow look awfully silly. So Pete had to wait till night.

That day dragged on forever; it seemed as if the sun were stuck up in the sky and would never sink. And Joe was around the house, working, saying no word but always having his big eyes open.

“What’s the matter, Peter?” asked Aunt Edith at lunch. “You don’t look well at all.”

“Oh, I’m all right,” he muttered. “Honest I am.”

“Strain,” said Joe, who sat right next to him. “What are you worrying about, Pete?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all,” said Pete.

Joe buttered a piece of bread—funny he should be doing that, every day, while the remembrance of alien suns burned in his skull. “You ought to be doing something to clear your mind,” he said. “Why don’t you come with me this afternoon? I am going into the forest for some humus. Your aunt’s wagtail flowers are not doing at all well, and I suspect their soil is deficient.”

“Oh, no—I can’t,” gasped Pete, and his heart seemed about to burst through his ribs.

“‘Certainly you can,” said Uncle Gunnar. “Do you good.”

Pete fought not to stand up and scream that he couldn’t; that he didn’t dare; that Joe knew he knew, and would murder him out in the green silence. Because maybe Joe wouldn’t.

“All right,” he said. “But excuse me a minute first.”

He went to his room and scrawled a note which he left in his drawer where it could be found. Joe is an alien agent. If I don’t come back, it’s because he don’t want me to talk. Love, Pete.

He thought how his uncle and aunt would feel when they saw that brave little message, and tears filled his own eyes. Then he remembered that, in psych training, you were warned against such thoughts; he went slowly back to meet Joe.

So they took a pony and a wagon, and went into the forest; nothing happened all afternoon. Joe talked on as he always did, mostly about how it was a shame for people to come and disturb the quiet woods, and cut down the windy trees on high hills. And once he looked at Pete in a strange sorrowful way and shook his head, very slowly. But that was all, and they were back in time for supper.

Pete fumed and fidgeted away the endless hours; now the worst of it was that he was no longer sure. Joe just didn’t act the way you’d expect a nonhuman spy to act. Come to think of it, what in all space was there to spy on out here?

Only—Joe still didn’t ring true.

The sun went down in a mist of fire and shortly afterward Pete was sent to bed. He lay for another century or two while the grownups sat in the living room. And, even after the lights were out, he waited until he couldn’t stand it any longer and slipped out of the covers.

He risked a glance at the moonlit lawn. It was all white and gray and sliding black shadow, the singing of the night, and the far glitter of the stars. No sign of Joe; maybe he was asleep under his tree. Please let him be asleep!

Down the hall went Pete, and into the living room. The moonlight didn’t come in much on this side of the house; the room was a pit of darkness through which he felt his way to the televisor in the corner. Once something creaked, as if under a footstep, and he stood shaking; but the place stayed silent.

He worked the luminous dial as quietly as he could. The screen flickered to life, its glow picking out the furniture which had loomed like so many crouching beasts. He wanted to call the central office of the spaceport at Stellamont. He didn’t know just what time of day or night it would be there, but being the only spaceport on the planet it ran on a continuous schedule, anyway.

After a while he got a young woman, “Please,” he whispered, “I’m calling for my uncle, Thorleifsson Gunnar.”

“Pardon me?” she asked in a voice that seemed to shake the walls. “I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

Pete shook as he turned down the volume. But he still had to raise his own voice and repeat himself. Cosmos, this was making noise enough to rouse the planet.

“My uncle would like some information,” he went on. He was getting less nervous now; his trained cortex was taking over in his psychosomatic system. “Only he’s busy and asked me to get it instead.”

“Certainly.” All the world, it seemed, knew Uncle Gunnar.

“You got a Galactic Catalogue, haven’t you? A cross-indexed list of all known planets, with descriptions?”

“Naturally. All ports have them.”

“Is yours up to date?”

“Well, it can’t be much more than a year behind the official reports. What would you like to know?”

“Look—is there a planet called Astan IV? That’s prob’ly the native name, though I’m not sure.”

“That doesn’t matter; the Catalogue gives names in all languages. But can you tell me more about it?”

“Well, it’s Earth-type and was supposed to have been discovered several years ago. The natives—” He described Joe as well as he could, ending with the remark that their culture was nonmechanical. “Uncle would also like to know if any native of that planet, or any being answering that description—” he stumbled a little over the big words in his hurry—”has come into Stellamont lately.”

“I can check passenger-registers for that. But may I ask why your uncle wanted to know all this?”

“He—oh, he’s writing a book, and he’s not sure about that planet—”

“I see. Well, just wait a few minutes, please, while I consult the robofiles.”

“Sure. An’ thanks!”

The girl’s head slipped out of the screen. Pete looked around, trembling a little with relief.

“Do you not trust me, Pete?” asked Joe.

Pete shuddered back, stumbling toward the corner.

Joe’s tall gaunt form leaned against the doorway, all four arms folded, a smile on his face that wasn’t a human smile. In the dim half-light of the glowing screen his eyes were like amber moons.

He spoke very softly, so that the alien lisp stood out clear in the humming stillness. “What do you think I am, Pete?”

“I—I—” Pete opened his mouth to scream.

“Don’t,” said Joe. Suddenly there was a weapon in one hand.

Pete caught himself and tried to stop the feverish shaking of his body. “What do you want?” he gasped. “What’re you here for?”

“I noticed light in the living room, and thought I had better have a look,” said Joe. He padded across the room, toward the bookshelves. “But why are you asking those questions of the female?”

“You’re an alien,” said Pete through clapping teeth. “You’re an enemy spy—”

“From where?” Joe’s voice was as soft and easy as ever. Over in the shadowy corner, where he now was, you could hardly see him.

“I don’t know. But now I can prove it—”

“Of course. The records will show that no such planet as Astan IV has ever been described, and no being of my description has landed at Stellamont; therefore I am proved a liar. But does it follow that I am your enemy?”

Pete didn’t answer. Presently Joe sighed. “Turn off the ‘visor, Pete,” he said. “The female may suspect something is wrong, but I will be gone before any action could be taken.”

He began taking books off the shelves with two free hands. “I fear I am also turning out to be a thief,” he said. “But it cannot be helped; I need those texts.”

“‘What’re you gonna do?” whispered Pete. “What’re you gonna do?”

“Why, I don’t know.” Joe smiled, a brief flash of white teeth in the gloom. His eyes were golden lanterns out of that dimness. “It depends on my nature, doesn’t it? If I am the monstrous invader as in your cheap entertainments, then I should kill everyone in the house now, should I not? But that may not be my nature. What do you think I am, Pete? Where did I come from?”

“I don’t know, how could I know—please, Joe—”

“Tell me what you think. Quickly, now!”

So Pete blurted it out fast, the words tumbling over each other to escape. And Joe nodded.

“You are shrewd, Pete,” he said. “Yes, you have guessed it. Only we are from further away than you thought, and our intentions are not evil. We are simply studying your culture from the inside before making open contact.

“I have to go now; my spaceship is waiting, out in the forest. My report will be one of many, on the basis of which our leaders will decide whether to reveal ourselves to you or not. I would suggest that you keep this a secret. The more chance we get to study you without fear of detection, the more likely we are to find out your good points. I have found many in my stay here, which is one reason why I am not going to kill you. Now goodbye. Pete.”


Joe stood very still and his eyes glowed across the room. Uncle Gunnar’s huge shadowy form stood in the doorway and the vague light gleamed off the gun in his hand.

“I’ve been listening for a while,” said Uncle Gunnar, heavily. “You’ll stay right there, Joe.”

“I will do nothing of the sort,” replied Joe evenly. “Before you could kill me, my weapon could be fired; it would get both you and the boy. Let me out.”

“Nothing doing. I’ve got the drop on you. This magnum slug’ll get you by hydrostatic shock before you can squeeze that trigger. And I can’t let a potential menace go free.”

“You forget that there is an armed spaceship waiting for my return,” said Joe, just as calmly as before. “My comrades won’t like it if I am slain; they will take revenge. Now—let me out.”

He started walking across the room, not raising the weapon in his hand but still having his finger curled on its trigger. “Perhaps you can get me first.” he said; “but will you risk the boy’s life in the attempt?”

“Let’s be reasonable,” said Uncle Gunnar. “I’ll go out to that ship with you and talk to your friends.”

“No.” said Joe. “We are departing tonight.”

He was almost up to Uncle Gunnar. And suddenly he sprang, a great dark blur of motion. There, was a moment of wild tangle, then Uncle Gunnar went spinning halfway across the room and Joe was out through the door.

Uncle Gunnar plunged after him. Joe fired his weapon—a great glare of light and thunder of noise—but it was at the closed front door. He blew it off its hinges and leaped out.

Uncle Gunnar’s gun snarled, but Joe was already another shadow on the moonlit lawn. And then he was into the woods and away.

The next thing Pete remembered, he was crying on Aunt Edith’s breast while Uncle Gunnar patted him clumsily and mumbled something about his being a brave kid. “But you should’ve told me,” he said. “You should’ve told me. I heard noises in here and came and listened—but if you’d told me beforehand—”

So Pete gulped out the whole story of how he’d come to suspect Joe, and in the end Uncle Gunnar nodded his red head with a grim look in his eyes.

Aunt Edith was white, “So he’s going back to his warship,” she whispered. “Back to his planet—”

“Maybe.” Uncle Gunnar walked around the room. It was still hazed with smoke from the charred door. “Maybe so. But why did he take my books?” He looked at the empty places on the shelves. “Biological texts—the application of physical science to biology—but Joe already knew more about living things than any man ever did.”

He scratched his head. “I can’t figure it out, Edith. He wanted to fill the gaps in his knowledge, I suppose. The physical-science angle of biology. That proves his race is backward in physics and chemistry—which I knew already from his awkwardness with an ignorance of machinery—

But how could a race without such knowledge build spaceships?”

“Maybe some other race is involved,” suggested Aunt Edith. “Maybe they build and run ships of that particular culture.”

“Maybe.” Uncle Gunnar sounded doubtful. “But it still doesn’t ring true, somehow—”

He stopped, and stood for a long, long minute where he was, and his face went white. “Oh, almighty Cosmos,” he whispered at last. “That’s the answer!”

“What is?” Aunt Edith’s voice was near breaking with strain.

“Joe—Joe—he lied. How he lied! And when his first lie broke down, he used another—Sunblaze, the being’s a genius!”

“What do you mean? Who is he? What is he?”

Uncle Gunnar fought for control. Then his tones came out, unnaturally steady. “It all fits in. Most of the vertebrate life on this planet has six limbs. The mammals have greenish fur. So does Joe.”

“You mean—oh, no!”

“Yes, dear. That’s also why our native animals weren’t alarmed by his smell—why he knew so much about botany, Nerthusian botany—the green thumb—sure!”

“Joe is a native of this planet.” There was a very long silence. Then Uncle Gunner laughed harshly and went on: “They must be a non-mechanical culture, beings living in the woods—but not savages. This whole business was too sophisticated for a savage. I think they must have evolved tools, may live in the boles of trees—anyway, they didn’t have anything which our first explorers would recognize as belonging to intelligent life. Especially since they were suspicious of us. They hid from us. All this time, when we thought, we were alone, they?ve been watching us—

“They could easily have stolen things. ‘Visors, psychophone equipment, books—enough to get an idea of our culture, to learn our language—and then they finally sent an agent to live with us and really get to know us. . . . Joe.”

He laughed again. “Oh, it was brilliant. Joe knew we probably wouldn’t get around to checking up on him—and we wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for Pete here. Even when we did, he almost had us believing he came from outer space. He’d have had mankind scouring the Galaxy for his mythical home planet—turning the universe inside out, looking everywhere but right here under our own noses!

“And he’s still won. He’s escaped with as much information as he could use. He’s taken my books, which will teach his people enough additional biology to put them centuries ahead of us. If they get to thinking about biological warfare—And we still don’t know a thing about them! Not their numbers, or where they live, or how they think, or what they want—not a thing!”

Aunt Edith held Pete close to her. She replied in a dry whisper: “But Joe was so—nice—”

“Oh, sure.” Uncle Gunnar looked moodily out at the eerie white night. “Oh, sure. A pleasant fellow, who may or may not be typical of his kind. Who may or may not have been posing. He’s gotten away, though.

“His race is in one hell of a good bargaining position. We’ll hunt for them—of course we will—but they’ll have plenty of time to prepare themselves.”

“They won’t choose war?” asked Aunt Edith. “They know they can’t win against the whole Galaxy.”

“No. But they can blackmail all kinds of concessions out of the Galaxy by threatening war against its colonists here. If they want to.”

He shrugged wearily. “Maybe they won’t want to; maybe they’ll decide to cooperate with us. Between man and Nerthusian, this planet could be made a paradise for all races. But we don’t know what they’re like, Edith, Pete—we just don’t know—”

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