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“Just stupid, carefree, happy-go-lucky kids, eh?”
Dr. Tarnier shrugged.
“Go away,” said Kielland in disgust, and turned back to the reports with a sour taste in his mouth.
Later he called the Installation Comptroller. “What do you pay Mud-pups for their work?” he wanted to know.
“Nothing,” said the Comptroller.
“We have nothing they can use. What would you give them–United Nations coin? They’d just try to eat it.”
“How about something they can eat, then?”
“Everything we feed them they throw right back up. Planetary incompatibility.”
“But there must be something you can use for wages,” Kielland protested. “Something they want, something they’ll work hard for.”
“Well, they liked tobacco and pipes all right–but it interfered with their oxygen storage so they couldn’t dive. That ruled out tobacco and pipes. They liked Turkish towels, too, but they spent all their time parading up and down in them and slaying the ladies and wouldn’t work at all. That ruled out Turkish towels. They don’t seem to care too much whether they’re paid or not, though–as long as we’re decent to them. They seem to like us, in a stupid sort of way.”
“Just loving, affectionate, happy-go-lucky kids. I know. Go away.” Kielland growled and turned back to the reports … except that there weren’t any more reports that he hadn’t read a dozen times or more. Nothing that made sense, nothing that offered a lead. Millions of Piper dollars sunk into this project, and every one of them sitting there blinking at him expectantly.
For the first time he wondered if there really was any solution to the problem. Stumbling blocks had been met and removed before–that was Kielland’s job, and he knew how to do it. But stupidity could be a stumbling block that was all but insurmountable.
Yet he couldn’t throw off the nagging conviction that something more subtle than stupidity was involved….
Then Simpson came in, cursing and sputtering and bellowing for Louie. Louie came, and Simpson started dictating a message for relay to the transport ship. “Special order, rush, repeat, rush,” Simpson grated. “For immediate delivery Piper Venusian Installation–one Piper Axis-Traction Dredge, previous specifications applicable–“
Kielland stared at him. “Again?”
Simpson gritted his teeth. “Again.”
“Blub,” said Simpson. “Blub, blub, blub.”
Slowly, Kielland stood up, glaring first at Simpson, then at the little muddy creatures that were attempting to hide behind his waders, looking so forlorn and chastised and woebegone. “All right,” Kielland said, after a pregnant pause. “That’s all. You won’t need to relay that order to the ship. Forget about Number Seven dredge. Just get your files in order and get a landing craft down here for me. The sooner the better.”
Simpson’s face lit up in pathetic eagerness. “You mean we’re going to leave?”
“That’s what I mean.”
“The company’s not going to like it–“
“The company ought to welcome us home with open arms,” Kielland snarled. “They should shower us with kisses. They should do somersaults for joy that I’m not going to let them sink another half billion into the mud out here. They took a gamble and got cleaned, that’s all. They’d be as stupid as your pals here if they kept coming back for more.” He pulled on his waders, brushing penitent Mud-pups aside as he started for the door. “Send the natives back to their burrows or whatever they live in and get ready to close down. I’ve got to figure out some way to make a report to the Board that won’t get us all fired.”
He slammed out the door and started across to his quarters, waders going splat-splat in the mud. Half a dozen Mud-pups were following him. They seemed extraordinarily exuberant as they went diving and splashing in the mud. Kielland turned and roared at them, shaking his fist. They stopped short, then slunk off with their tails between their legs.
But even at that, their squeaking sounded strangely like laughter to Kielland….
In his quarters the light was so dim that he almost had his waders off before he saw the upheaval. The little room was splattered from top to bottom with mud. His bunk was coated with slime; the walls dripped blue-gray goo. Across the room his wardrobe doors hung open as three muddy creatures rooted industriously in the leather case on the floor.
Kielland let out a howl and threw himself across the room. His samples case! The Mud-pups scattered, squealing. Their hands were filled with capsules, and their muzzles were dripping with white powder. Two went between Kielland’s legs and through the door. The third dove for the window with Kielland after him. The company man’s hand closed on a slippery tail, and he fell headlong across the muddy bed as the culprit literally slipped through his fingers.
He sat up, wiping mud from his hair and surveying the damage. Bottles and boxes of medicaments were scattered all over the floor of the wardrobe, covered with mud but unopened. Only one large box had been torn apart, its contents ravaged.
Kielland stared at it as things began clicking into place in his mind. He walked to the door, stared out across the steaming gloomy mud flats toward the lighted windows of the Administration shack. Sometimes, he mused, a man can get so close to something that he can’t see the obvious. He stared at the samples case again. Sometimes stupidity works both ways–and sometimes what looks like stupidity may really be something far more deadly.
He licked his lips and flipped the telephone-talker switch. After a misconnection or two he got Control Tower. Control Tower said yes, they had a small exploratory scooter on hand. Yes, it could be controlled on a beam and fitted with cameras. But of course it was special equipment, emergency use only– He cut them off and buzzed Simpson excitedly. “Cancel all I said–about leaving. I mean. Change of plan. Something’s come up. No, don’t order anything–but get one of those natives that can understand your whistling and give him the word.”
Simpson bellowed over the wire. “What word? What do you think you’re doing?”
“I may just be saving our skins–we won’t know for a while. But however you manage it, tell them we’re definitely not leaving Venus. Tell them they’re all fired–we don’t want them around any more. The Installation is off limits to them from here on in. And tell them we’ve devised a way to mine the lode without them–got that? Tell them the equipment will be arriving as soon as we can bring it down from the transport.”
“Oh, now look–“
“You want me to repeat it?”
Simpson sighed. “All right. Fine. I’ll tell them. Then what?”
“Then just don’t bother me for a while. I’m going to be busy. Watching TV.”
An hour later Kielland was in Control Tower, watching the pale screen as the little remote-controlled explorer circled the installation. Three TV cameras were in operation as he settled down behind the screen. He told Sparks what he wanted to do, and the ship whizzed off in the direction the Mud-pup raiders had taken.
At first, there was nothing but dreary mud flats sliding past the cameras’ watchful eyes. Then they picked up a flicker of movement, and the ship circled in lower for a better view. It was a group of natives–a large group. There must have been fifty of them working busily in the mud, five miles away from the Piper Installation. They didn’t look so carefree and happy-go-lucky now. They looked very much like desperately busy Mud-pups with a job on their hands, and they were so absorbed they didn’t even see the small craft circling above them.
They worked in teams. Some were diving with small containers; some were handling lines attached to the containers; still others were carrying and dumping. They came up full, went down empty, came up full. The produce was heaped in a growing pile on a small semisolid island with a few scraggly trees on it. As they worked the pile grew and grew.
It took only a moment for Kielland to tell what they were doing. The color of the stuff was unmistakable. They were mining piles of blue-gray mud, just as fast as they could mine it.
With a gleam of satisfaction in his eye, Kielland snapped off the screen and nodded at Sparks to bring the cameras back. Then he rang Simpson again.
“Did you tell them?”
Simpson’s voice was uneasy. “Yeah–yeah, I told them. They left in a hurry. Quite a hurry.”
“Yes, I imagine they did. Where are your men now?”
“Out working on Number Six, trying to get it up.”
“Better get them together and pack them over to Control Tower, fast,” said Kielland. “I mean everybody. Every man in the Installation. We may have this thing just about tied up, if we can get out of here soon enough–“
Kielland’s chair gave a sudden lurch and sailed across the room, smashing into the wall. With a yelp he tried to struggle up the sloping floor; it reared and heaved over the other way, throwing Kielland and Sparks to the other wall amid a heap of instruments. Through the windows they could see the gray mud flats careening wildly below them. It took only an instant to realize what was happening. Kielland shouted, “Let’s get out of here!” and headed down the stairs, clinging to the railing for dear life.
Control Tower was sinking in the mud. They had moved faster than he had antic.i.p.ated, Kielland thought, and snarled at himself all the way down to the landing platform below. He had hoped at least to have time to parley, to stop and discuss the whys and wherefores of the situation with the natives. Now it was abundantly clear that any whys and wherefores that were likely to be discussed would be discussed later.
And very possibly under twenty feet of mud– A stream of men were floundering out of Administration shack, plowing through the mud with waders only half strapped on as the line of low buildings began shaking and sinking into the mora.s.s. From the direction of Number Six dredge another crew was heading for the Tower. But the Tower was rapidly growing shorter as the buoys that sustained it broke loose with ear-shattering crashes.
Kielland caught Sparks by the shoulder, shouting to be heard above the racket. “The transport–did you get it?”
“I–I think so.”
“They’re sending us a ferry?”
“It should be on its way.”
Simpson sloshed up, his face heavy with dismay. “The dredges! They’ve cut loose the dredges.”
“Bother the dredges. Get your men collected and into the shelters. We’ll have a ship here any minute.”
“But what’s happening?”
“We’re leaving–if we can make it before these carefree, happy-go-lucky kids here sink us in the mud, dredges, Control Tower and all.”
Out of the gloom above there was a roar and a streak of murky yellow as the landing craft eased down through the haze. Only the top of Control Tower was out of the mud now. The Administration shack gave a lurch, sagging, as a dozen indistinct gray forms pulled and tugged at the supporting structure beneath it. Already a circle of natives was converging on the Earthmen as they gathered near the landing platform shelters.
“They’re cutting loose the landing platform!” somebody wailed. One of the lines broke with a resounding snap, and the platform lurched. Then a dozen men dived through the mud to pull away the slippery, writhing natives as they worked to cut through the remaining guys. Moments later the landing craft was directly overhead and men and natives alike scattered as she sank down.
The platform splintered and jolted under her weight, began skidding, then held firm to the two guy ropes remaining. A horde of gray creatures hurled themselves on those lines as a hatchway opened above and a ladder dropped down. The men scurried up the ropes just as the plastic dome of the Control Tower sank with a gurgle.
Kielland and Simpson paused at the bottom of the ladder, blinking at the scene of devastation around them.
“Stupid, you say,” said Kielland heavily. “Better get up there, or we’ll go where Control Tower went.”
“Wrong again. Everything saved.” Kielland urged the administrator up the ladder and sighed with relief as the hatch clanged shut. The jets bloomed and sprayed boiling mud far and wide as the landing craft lifted soggily out of the mire and roared for the clouds above.
Kielland wiped sweat from his forehead and sank back on his cot with a shudder. “We should be so stupid,” he said.
“I must admit,” he said later to a weary and mystified Simpson, “that I didn’t expect them to move so fast. But when you’ve decided in your mind that somebody’s really pretty stupid, it’s hard to adjust to the idea that maybe he isn’t, all of a sudden. We should have been much more suspicious of Dr. Tarnier’s tests. It’s true they weren’t designed for Venusians, but they were designed to a.s.sess intelligence, and intelligence isn’t a quality that’s influenced by environment or species. It’s either there or it isn’t, and the good Doctor told us unequivocally that it was there.”
“But their behavior.”
“Even that should have tipped us off. There is a very fine line dividing incredible stupidity and incredible stubbornness. It’s often a tough differential to make. I didn’t spot it until I found them wolfing down the tetracycline capsules in my samples case. Then I began to see the implications. Those Mud-pups were stubbornly and tenaciously determined to drive the Piper Venusian Installation off Venus permanently, by fair means or foul. They didn’t care how it got off–they just wanted it off.”
“But why? We weren’t hurting them. There’s plenty of mud on Venus.”
“Ah–but not so much of the blue-gray stuff we were after, perhaps. Suppose a s.p.a.ce ship settled down in a wheatfield in Kansas along about harvest time and started loading wheat into the hold? I suppose the farmer wouldn’t mind too much. After all, there’s plenty of vegetation on Earth–“
“They’re growing the stuff?”
“For all they’re worth,” said Kielland. “Lord knows what sort of metabolism uses tetracycline for food–but they are growing mud that yields an incredibly rich concentration of antibiotic … their native food. They grow it, harvest it, live on it. Even the way they shake whenever they come out of the mud is a giveaway–what better way to seed their crop far and wide? We were mining away their staff of life, my friend. You really couldn’t blame them for objecting.”
“Well, if they think they can drive us off that way, they’re going to have to get that brilliant intelligence of theirs into action,” Simpson said ominously. “We’ll bring enough equipment down there to mine them out of house and home.”
“Why?” said Kielland. “After all, they’re mining it themselves a lot more efficiently than we could ever do it. And with Piper warehouses back on Earth full of old, useless antibiotics that they can’t sell for peanuts? No, I don’t think we’ll mine anything when a simple trade arrangement will do just as well.” He sank back in his cot, staring dreamily through the port as the huge orbital transport loomed large ahead of them. He found his throat spray and dosed himself liberally in preparation for his return to civilization. “Of course, the natives are going to be wondering what kind of idiots they’re dealing with to sell them pure refined extract of Venusian beefsteak in return for raw chunks of unrefined native soil. But I think we can afford to just let them wonder for a while.”
AS LONG AS YOU WISH.
By John O’Keefe
If, somehow, you get trapped in a circular time system … how long is the circ.u.mference of an infinitely retraced circle?
The patient sat stiffly in the leather chair on the other side of the desk. Nervously he pressed a coin into the palm of one hand.
“Just start anywhere,” I said, “and tell me all about it.”
“As before?” Without waiting for an answer, he continued, the coin clutched tightly in one hand. “I’m Charles J. Fisher, professor of Philosophy at Reiser College.”
He looked at me quickly. “Or at least I was until recently.” For a second his face was boyish. “Professor of Philosophy, that is.”
I smiled and found that I was staring at the coin in his hand. He gave it to me. On one side I read the words: THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS COIN IS FALSE. The patient watched me with an expressionless face; I turned over the coin. It was engraved with the words: THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS COIN IS FALSE.
“That’s not the problem,” he said, “not my problem. I had the coin made when I was an undergraduate. I enjoyed reading one side, turning it over, reading the other side, and so on. A fiendish enjoyment like boys planning where to put the tipped-over outhouse.”
I looked at the patient. He was thirty-eight, single, medium build, had an M.A. and Ph.D. from an eastern university. I knew this and more from the folder on my desk.
“Eight months ago,” he continued, “I read about the sphere found on Paney Island.” He stopped, looking at me questioningly.
“Yes, I know,” I said. I opened my desk drawer, took out a clipping from the newspaper, and handed it to him.
I read the clipping before putting it back in the drawer.
Manila, Sept. 24 (INS) Archeologists from University of California have discovered in earth fault of recent quake a sphere two feet in diameter of an unidentifiable material.
Dr. Karl Schwartz, head of the group, said the sphere was returned to the University for study. He declined to answer questions on the cultural origin of the sphere.
“There wasn’t any more in the newspapers about it,” he said. “I have a friend in California who got me the photographs.”
He looked at me intently. “You won’t believe any of this.” He pressed the coin into the palm of his hand. “You won’t be able to.”
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