by J.D. Cummins
Gary opened his eyes to see a grove of green trees. They might be palm trees, but they are bent over in a complete arch so their tops touch the ground. Strange. Where the tops touch the ground there's the trunk of another tree. They must continue to grow from one tree to the next. The arches trail off into the dense jungle.
In the quiet forest he heard through his sound-port the hissing of hot metal touching the damp ground. It's amazing I survived the crash. But where's the rest of the crew?
He staggered to his feet and stared at the pile of rubble that was once the pride of the new explorer-class ships. Lucky my space suit's still intact. No telling what's in the atmosphere on this planet. Green leaves are encouraging. It must require at least water and carbon dioxide to make green vegetation, and vegetation should be producing some oxygen.
He looked up at the gray-green pods among the leaves, and wondered if they were edible. Can't take a reading on the atmosphere. Sensors must have been damaged in the crash. I may find food and water here, but how can I eat or drink if I can't open my visor? If the carbon dioxide level's too high, or if the decomposition of vegetable matter makes too much methane, I might die from just a whiff of this atmosphere.
What life forms inhabit this strange land? He had no weapons, and no protection but that afforded by his space suit. He tried to remember the events leading up to the crash. He must have been in suspension when it happened. That's it! I remember going into my 30 day sleep period. The sleep-cocoon must have saved my life while the rest of the crew died.
Snap out of it. I've got to explore the area to see what's available here. He followed one row of tree arches that seemed to provide a path into the jungle. As he started into the canopied jungle he saw just the quickest flash of movement off to one side. His nerves were tense, so maybe he imagined it. He stood a long moment looking around for anything that might break the silence and tranquility.
He tramped along the row of trees until he came to a path through the undergrowth. He saw no footprints on its hard packed surface. He looked both ways down the path, made a mental note of the direction back to the wreckage, and started down the path to the right. He proceeded with caution.
He looked back to see just the glimpse of motion among the trees behind him, but wasn't quick enough to see what might be following him. Was a predator stalking him?
He proceeded until he saw a man in a strange space suit coming around a bend. He leaped into the brush and hid behind one of the strange tree-trunks.
The man marched by, each step in precise military cadence. A guard on patrol? Better stay out of sight until I know what kind of reception I might get.
After the guard went by, Gary continued down the path. When he came to a clearing he moved off into the bushes while he studied the clearing. Several thatched roof huts sat along each side of the path. The thatch is still green. Is it still alive, or was it just harvested?
Two small persons came out of one of the huts, and he was shocked to see that their hair was green and their skin had a gray-green tint. They wore short bathrobes made of a green cloth material, as though they had just come from swimming. With that long hair they look like little girls.
A man approached the girls along the path from the opposite direction. That looks like a man, wearing his green hair clipped short and almost as tall as I am. The man carried a small bundle and walked with a relaxed gate, not with the stiff stride of the guard Gary saw earlier.
When the man came close to the little girls, he called to them and they ran up to him. He stopped, and the girls opened their cloaks. He touch each tiny breast and then walked on up the path. Gary watched as the child-molester went to the door of a hut, where he was greeted by a young woman holding a baby. The little girls walked away along the path.
Gary stood in the open alongside the path, so intent on the tableau in the clearing that he was taken by surprise when another space-suited guard came up the path behind him. With no time to escape, Gary froze in position. The guard paid no attention to him, but continued along the path and disappeared into the jungle beyond the clearing.
Another green-haired man came down the path from the other side of the clearing. When he started to pass one of the huts, another man ran out of the hut and embraced him. They kissed, then hurried back into the hut.
Gary marched down the path, imitating the guard's distinct cadence. Maybe I'll be mistaken for one of the guards. I'll have to take that chance. At least the people I've seen look almost human, except for that green hair and gray complexion.
He passed the home of the child-molester, and then the house where the two queers were. On the other side of the clearing he crossed another path, and now the path he was on widened. It made sense that this wider path led to some town or village, but he decided to continue his bluff and marched on with the copied stride.
He passed some short-haired men and long-haired women. All the women were young, but the men had varied hair coloring from the same bright green to a sparse gray. He saw girls of many sizes. At least all the smaller people looked like girls. I wonder where the little boys are?
Now the broadening path led into a large clearing with rows of thatched huts spreading as far as he could see. Hope I find something here to help make sense of what I've seen.
He continued into the village and came to an open park. Here many men sat around tables, engaged in a board game. I don't expect to see any game I recognize.
A young woman came up to the table and the men turned to look at her. She smiled and opened her robe, to show off her naked gray body to them. They all smiled at her and one young man got up from the table and went with her to a tiny nearby hut. They went in together, and the other men returned to their game, paying no further attention to the prostitute and her customer.
Many men sat at the tables, but none of the players looked like women. He saw many people walking through the area, but all the women were young. None of the women had the gray hair so common among the men at the tables.
Further down the path he saw another little park, with many children playing. The children all seemed to be girls, and he looked in vain to find even one little boy.
Where are the boys? And the gray-haired ladies? Are boys and old women not allowed to appear in public? Are the boys and older women isolated from this area of young girls and men in another town? And why are men and young women so promiscuous?
He didn't see the guards approaching until his arms were pinned to his sides and his legs were disabled by strong bands. They lifted him off his feet and carried him into a large thatched building as though he were a heavy log. Once inside the building the guards strapped him to a table and left.
It was some time before two greenish-gray faces appeared in his visor. Their jade-green eyes studied him with what he hoped was curiosity, not hostility. They prodded and poked at his space suit, then carefully removed his visor.
Gary held his breath, but the warm atmosphere had the odor of tropical vegetation. He inhaled, and the air seemed all right. He continued to breath, getting more confident that the air was safe.
I don't need a space suit here. The air must contain enough oxygen. And all this greenery must be due to something like chlorophyll, that uses carbon dioxide. Hope there isn't enough of that to be poisonous. I wonder if the atmosphere also contains nitrogen, or some other inert gas. Or gasses. I hope there is no radioactive tritium or radon.
He relaxed and his breath-rate returned to normal. The faces above him also seemed to relax and they examined his face. The odd-looking instruments they used to study him were not at all what he expected from the crude appearance of the thatched buildings in this place. They made squeaking noises with their mouths, That must be their speech. They seemed to want him to respond.
Gary decided to cooperate, and gave his name, rank and serial number. He followed up with an explanation of his mission, and told them the story of his adventures so far in their land. He then proceeded to ask all the questions he wanted answered if he were able to communicate with this alien race. His own voice sounded strange to him: a little like Donald Duck. Of course! The inert gas in their atmosphere contains helium. That also explains why their voices sound squeaky.
"I am Exronda."
Gary wondered that the squeaky voice now sounded more like his own. The creature was trying to imitate his voice.
"I am Exronda."
Gary was startled. The repeated sounds seemed to make sense. Was it possible for this creature to learn English from listening to a few phrases of it. If so, he needed a lot more vocabulary, so Gary started talking about the things he had seen around him, including the colors. He tried to find ways to use all the words he would need to hear back from the creatures in order to understand their world.
The green men seemed pleased, and removed the restraints from his arms. They stepped back to see what he would do. Gary sat up on the table, and removed his helmet. It felt good to be able to look all around at his surroundings. He studied the strange instrumentation surrounding him. He marveled at the contrast between the rustic appearance outside the building and this well-equipped laboratory in which he was a specimen.
Gary started removing the upper part of his space suit, and Exronda moved closer. He reached out to touch Gary's hand. He seemed to lose any fear of this strange reddish alien, and studied the hand as though it were just an interesting new specimen. The detachment of a scientist was evident.
Gary was just as fascinated by the nature of Exronda. He studied the warm green hand, with it's four fingers that formed a flat palm or rotated so they were all opposed to each other. They didn't need a thumb.
One of the men in the laboratory moved over to a row of guards, lined up along one wall. He opened a door in the chest of one of the guards, showing an array of modules. He pulled out a section and carried it to a workbench. The guards are robots! No wonder they look like men in space suits. These people appear to be primitive and simple, but they've built robots. I was able to walk around and observe things only because they thought I was another robot.
Exronda loosed the restraints on Gary's legs and motioned for him to sit up. Gary slid off the table onto his feet. Exronda moved back and removed his robe. He stood there naked, then turned around slowly as if to show Gary all of his body. He then put back on the robe and spoke to an assistant, who brought a robe to Gary and laid it on the table.
"OK. Guess it's time to show and tell. You want to see what I look like. I hope you're a scientist, not a gourmet." Gary started work on the fasteners of his suit, as the men around him stared in fascination. He removed all his clothes and picked up the robe. He was putting it on when he was startled to see Exronda approaching him with a small sharp instrument.
Exronda may have read the alarm in Gary's face. He stopped short. Without hesitation he plunged the instrument into the tip of one of his own fingers, drawing a drop of green blood. Gary wasn't surprised, as he already assumed their blood contained chlorophyll. He watched Exronda wipe the blood onto a small transparent square and insert the square into an instrument near the table. A large screen lit up to show the magnified particles in the green blood.
Exronda held out to him another sharp instrument and stepped back with a hopeful look on his gray-green countenance. "So now I get to make the sacrifice. I see. You want to examine a red blood sample. You must have figured out that it's red by now."
When the sample was displayed on the screen, the magnification showed the red cells. The men gathered around the screen in awe. Exronda pushed some buttons and they exclaimed one word that Gary guessed was their word for oxygen. One of the assistants brought out a clear cylinder, about a foot high. It had strange symbols arranged along a spiral line that wound several times around the cylinder. Exronda showed Gary the eighth symbol on the line and said something in his language. Gary recognized that this was their table of the elements, displayed on the cylinder.
Gary took the cylinder and started to name the elements. "Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium ." His audience hung on every word until Gary reached the end of his knowledge.#
Gary relaxed, dressed in his robe, sitting outside the little hut they gave him. The gray-green people passing along the path outside his door were beginning to lose interest in this strange person from another world. He was learning their language, and several of the scientists were learning English the better to study him. He was even beginning to admire the young women who passed by. He wondered what would happen if one of them came into his hut.
Exronda had already explained the mystery of what became of all the boys and old women. There were none. Each baby was born as a girl, grew to puberty, and then had constant sex with many men until she became pregnant. After her baby was weaned she lost the ability to bare children. She then changed into a functional male, able to sire children.
Gary had said, "That solves your overpopulation problem, but how do you maintain the population, with less than one adult child per adult mother. Disease or accident must sometimes disrupt the cycle."
Exronda was reluctant to answer, but after a long pause he said, "The sex change is due to the young women being exposed to many partners. In a few sparsely populated places the exposure is less, so a woman might not change sex until she gives birth to several children. The system is self-regulating."
"By a benign sexually transmitted disease? This means I must remain celibate. Who knows how that disease might affect a human? And what harmless agents in my own body might cause a pandemic in this population; never exposed to any of them."
Exronda thought about it for a time. He asked Gary to submit samples to his laboratory. The scientists ran many tests on these samples, alone and in combination with many samples from their own people. They reached the conclusion that there seemed to be no problem, but asked Gary to refrain from contact with their young women. Gary worried that Exronda might think he was such a danger to the general population that he needed to be isolated, or even terminated.
So here he was, a lonely stranger. Celibate by necessity while surrounded by young women, whom he found ever more attractive and who showed some interest in him.
He took many long walks in the woods, and sometimes caught a fleeting glimpse of some small creature.
Gary asked about small animals, but his hosts seemed not to understand even the concept of animals. Exronda explained that their race had arisen from mutations of lichens, those symbiotic colonies of single-celled plants and animals that form small static growths on rocks or trees.
He explained the theory that these simple growths had evolved into active forms. They developed the ability to absorb simpler colonies and their ability to move allowed them to drift about the forest in search of food. By a process of evolution they developed into the warm-blooded creatures they were today. They now grew their own food: those pods of lichens he had seen on the strange trees in the forest.
This more advanced relationship between the creatures and their environment led to a sophisticated society with time to make advances in science. No predators threatened them. They needed little time to secure food, shelter, and clothing. They were all the same so they had no need to defend their territory. They developed the robots to do any heavy work. Their long-distance communication eliminated the necessity of travel, and why travel when their world was the same everywhere. Their casual promiscuity removed any conflict over sex, so they had no cause for war or violence. What a fortunate society!#
While he was walking in the woods one day, Gary discovered a small hut, almost hidden from view on the path. He noticed the hut because he was scanning the underbrush looking for another of those flashes of motion he had been seeing since his arrival on this planet. Curiosity led him to the door of the hut, where he was greeted by a gray-haired old crone. She was stooped with age, and her face showed the wrinkles he had observed on a few of the old men in the villages.
The words of her tired old voice were hard for him to distinguish, but she was asking him what he wanted from her. Then he realized that here was an old woman, something the scientists told him could not exist on this planet. He explained that he was a stranger to this world, and had been told that such as she did not--could not--exist.
"But I do exist. I sometimes wish I did not. I must hide myself away here in the woods. But you are as strange as I. You do not seem to have any trouble being different. But then, you are old enough to be a man. Even your redness is acceptable if you are a man at your age. Not like poor Nogril. He has to hide himself away too."
"What is the problem with Nogril? Who is he?"
The old woman turned and called into the hut. "Nogril, come out to see the strange red man."
A voice came from the dark shadows inside the hut, "I do not want the red man to see me. I do not want any person to see me. Leave me alone. I will come out when I am old, so no one will notice that I am so strange."
The old woman looked even more weary. "Red man, you have to come in. You are strange too, so maybe you can convince him it is all right to be different." She turned and went into the hut.
Gary followed her into the hut. The frail old woman showed no fear of the creature she called "Nogril". Why should he be afraid to confront this mysterious creature. When his eyes were accustomed to the dim light inside, he saw a small boy cowering in a corner. Like the old woman, the boy was an oddity--a mutations that might occur in any species. This must be the creature I glimpsed in the woods.
Were the other people in this society afraid of the boy? Unlike the old woman, his genes might be propagated in the population with disastrous results. If the population were split into boys and girls the nature of their society might change. Boys develop conflicts over girls, starting a competitive society like his own. Who knows where it might end. Their tranquil society had reason to fear this little boy.
Gary was deeply troubled when he left the unfortunate pair in their isolated hut. The present society needs nothing. It has no conflict and no competition. But what if it changes? It seems that any change would be destructive, while offering no compensating advantage. He didn't dare mention the boy to Exronda. The scientists might regard the existence of a boy as the danger Gary had already surmised. Well it isn't my problem--or is it? They might soon decide I'm a potential threat to their society.
Gary continued to be attracted to some of the girls who passed his door. Was it possible for him to make a dangerous experiment with one of them? He dismissed the idea as a rationalization of his desire for relations with these girls who were becoming less strange and ever more attractive.
On one of his walks in the woods, he saw nobody on the path for a long time. The path was narrow as though seldom used. It might be abandoned because of some change in the population around that neighborhood. He had about decided it led nowhere, when an attractive young lady came around a bend in the path.
He was sure she was one of the girls he had seen passing his hut on many occasions, and if so she would recognize him. She gave him her most engaging smile, and opened her cloak to show off her body. He did likewise and she came toward him, trailing the cloak behind her. He threw off his cloak and spread it out on the side of the trail. He lay down on the cloak and waited for her.
He felt dizzy, and the scene began to whirl about him. When he looked at the girl again she had turned into a horrible vision. Her hair was in flames. Her face had red-rimmed eyes, flaring red nostrils, and an angry red mouth filled with sharp white teeth. Her whole body took on a choleric cast, presenting a most horrible vision. A hideous sound came from her crimson mouth.
"It's about time you woke up. I've been waiting all month for you to come out of suspension and make love to me before it's my turn to sleep for a month."
Gary shook his head and the dizzy spell left him. The beautiful redhead wore only a smile, and was ready to welcome him back with her gorgeous body. He put aside the nightmare of his long dream and tried to reach up to her, but he was still in restraints. He relaxed as she hurried to help him out of his space suit and fell into the bed with him. He was going to enjoy the long trip to the small planets around Alpha Centauri.