Author: Jerome Bixby
Illustrator: Ed Emshwiller
Release date: May 10, 2019 [eBook #59470]
Credits: Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
Trying to keep a supercolossal laboratory
invisible when two curious aliens are poking
around can be a trying affair for even the
most brilliant of minds....
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, December 1955.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Gop's thoughts had the bluish-purple tint of abject apology: "They're landing, Master."
Pud looked up from the tiny thig-field he had been shaping in his tentacles. "Of course they are," he thought-snapped. "You practically invited them down, didn't you? If you'd only kept a few eyes on the Detector, instead of day-dreaming—"
"I'm sorry," Gop said unhappily. "I wasn't day-dreaming, I was observing the magnificent skill and finesse with which you shaped the thig. After all, this system is so isolated. No one ever came along before.... I just supposed no one ever would—"
"A Scientist isn't supposed to suppose! Until he's proven wrong, he's supposed to know!" Thirty of Pud's eyes glowered upward at the tiny alien spaceship, only ninety or so miles above the surface of the laboratory-planet and lowering rapidly. The rest of Pud's eyes—more than a hundred of them, set haphazardously in his various-sized heads like gurf-seeds on rolls—scoured every inch of the planet's visible surface, to make certain that no sign of the Vegans' presence on the planet, from the tiniest experiment to the gigantic servo-mechanical eating pits, was left operating or visible.
Irritatedly he squelched out of existence a yim-field that had taken three weeks of laborious psycho-induction to develop. His psycho-kineticut stripped it of cohesion, and its faint whine-and-crackle vanished.
"I told you to deactivate all our experiments," he snapped at Gop. "Don't you understand Vegan?"
Abashed, the Junior Scientist lowered his many eyes.
"I—I'm sorry," Gop said humbly. "I thought the yim might wait until the creatures landed, Master ... perhaps their auditory apparatus would not have been sufficient to reveal its presence to them, in which case the field would not have had to be—"
"All right, all right," Pud grunted. "I appreciate your point ... but, dripping mouthfuls, you know that any risk of detection is too great. You know the regulations on Contact!"
"Speaking of which, part of your seventh head is showing."
The Junior Scientist included the head in the personal invisibility field which he himself was broadcasting.
"Of all the suns in this sector," Pud thought, eying the little spaceship, "and of all the planets around this particular sun, they have to choose this one to land on. Chew!"
Gop flushed. A member of the Transverse Colon Revivalists, he found Pud's constant atheistic swearing very disturbing. He sighed inwardly. Usually at least one of Pud's heads could manage to keep its sense of humor, but right now all of them were like proton-storms. The Senior Scientist was on the verge of one of his totalitantrums.
"They must have sighted flashes from our experiments," Pud went on, "before you decided you could spare just one set of eyes for the Detector!"
Though both Vegans were invisible to other eyes, they remained visible to each other because their eyes were adjusted to the wavelength of their invisibility fields. By the same token, they could see all their invisible experiments—a vast litter of gadgets, gismos, gargantuan gimmicks, shining tools, huge and infinitesimal instruments, stacks of supplies, and various types of energy fields, the latter all frozen in mid-activity like smudges on a pane of glass. The sandy ground was the floor of the Vegans' laboratory; small hills and outcroppings of rock were their chairs and work-benches. Like a spaceship junkyard, or an enormous open-air machinery warehouse, the laboratory stretched away from the two Scientists in every direction to the planetoid's near horizon.
Pud intensified the general invisibility field to the last notch, and the invisible experiments became even more invisible.
The thig-field was a nameless-colored whorl of energy in the Senior Scientist's tentacles. In his concern for the other experiments, he had forgotten to deactivate it. It grew eagerly to the size of a back yard, then of a baseball diamond, then of a traffic oval, and one shimmering edge of it touched his body, which he had not insulated. Energy crackled. Pud jumped forty feet into the air, swearing, and slapped the field into non-existence between two tentacles.
His body, big as an apartment house, floated slowly downward in the laboratory-planet's light gravity.
The tiny alien spaceship touched the ground just as he did. The rocket flare flickered and died.
The ship sat on its fins, about thirty feet—Vegan feet—away. In its shining side, a few Vegan inches above the still smoking rocket tubes, was a small black hole.
"Master, look!" Gop thought. "Their ship is damaged ... perhaps that's why they landed!" And he started to extend a tentative extra-sensory probe through the hole.
Pud lashed out with a probe of his own, knocking Gop's aside before it could enter the hole. "Nincompoop! ... don't go esprobing until we know if they're sensitive to it or not! Can't you remember the regulations on Contact for just one minute?"
The tiny spaceship sat silently, while its occupants evidently studied the lay of the land. Small turrets halfway up its sides twitched this way and that, pointing popgun armament.
Pud inspected the weapons extra-sensorily, and thought an amused snort: the things tossed a simple hydrogen-helium pellet for a short distance.
Gop, nursing a walloping headache as a result of Pud's rough counterprobe, thought sourly to himself: "I try to save the yim ... that's wrong. He forgets to deactivate the thig ... that's all right. I esprobe ... that's wrong. He esprobes ... that's all right."
At last: "They're getting out," Gop observed.
A tiny airlock had opened in the side of the ship. A metal ladder poked out, swung down, settled against the ground.
The aliens—two of them—appeared; looked down, looked up, looked to the right and to the left. Then they came warily down the ladder.
For a few minutes the giant Vegans watched the creatures wander about. One of them approached one of Pud's tails. Irritatedly Pud lifted it out of the way. The little creature snooped on, unaware that twenty tons of invisible silicoid flesh hung over its head. Pud curled the tail close to him, and did likewise with all his other tails.
"You'd better do the same," he advised Gop, his thought-tone peevish.
Silently, Gop drew in his tails. One unwise move, he knew, and the Senior Scientist would start thinking in roars.
One of Gop's tails scraped slightly against a huge boulder. The scales made a tractor-on-gravel sound.
Pud thought in roars.
The tiny creature had stopped and was turning its helmeted head this way and that, as if trying to see where the sound had come from. It had drawn a weapon of some sort from a holster at its belt—another thermonuclear popgun.
The creature turned and came back toward the Vegans, heading for his ship. Pud lifted his tail again. The creature passed under it, reached the ship, joined its partner.
"I heard it too, Johnny," Helen Gorman said nervously. "A loud scraping noise—"
"It seemed to come from right behind me," Johnny Gorman said. "Damn near scared me off the planet ... I thought it was a rockslide. Or the biggest critter in creation, sneaking up on me. I couldn't see anything, though ... could you?"
Johnny stood there, blaster in hand, looking around, eyes sharp behind his faceplate. He saw nothing but flat, grayish-red ground, a scattering of stone outcroppings large and small; nothing but the star-clouded black of space above the near horizon, and the small sun of the system riding a low hillock like a beacon.
"Blue light," he said thoughtfully. "Green light. Red and purple lights. And a mess of crazy colors we never saw before. Whatever those flashes were, honey, they looked artificial to me...."
Helen frowned. "We were pretty far off-world when we saw them, Johnny. Maybe they were aurorae—or reflections from mineral pockets. Or magnetic phenomena of some kind ... that could be why the ship didn't handle right during landing—"
Johnny studied the upside-down dials on the protruding chest-board of his spacesuit.
"No neon in the atmosphere," he said. "Darned little argon, or any other inert gas. The only large mineral deposits within fifty miles are straight down. And this clod's about as magnetic as an onion." He gave the surrounding bleak terrain another narrow-eyed scrutiny. "I suppose it could have been some kind of aurora, though ... it's gone now, and there isn't a sign of anything that could have produced such a rumpus." He looked around again, then sighed and finally holstered his blaster. "Guess I'm the worrying type, hon. Nothing alive around here."
"I wonder what that sound was."
"Probably a rock falling. This area's been undisturbed for God knows how many million years ... the jolt of our landing just shook things up a little." He grinned, a little sheepishly. "As for the landing ... I was so scared after that meteor hit us, it's a wonder I didn't nail the ship halfway into the planet, instead of just jolting us up."
Helen looked up at the three-foot hole in the side of the ship.
Johnny followed her gaze, and grunted. "We'd better get to work." He turned to the ladder that led up to the airlock. "I'll rig the compressor to charge the spare oxy-tanks ... we'll have to delouse this air of ammonia, but otherwise it's fine. Look, honey, I won't need any help; why don't you get busy on a PC?"
Helen nodded, still staring up at the meteor-hole. "You know," she said slowly, "it wouldn't happen again this way in a million years, Johnny. Thank God, this clod was here ... we ought to name it Lifesaver."
"Yeah, sure," Johnny said ironically. "It'll save our lives. Only thing is, it got us into this mess in the first place!"
He started up the ladder, using only his arms, legs trailing.
Helen got down on hands and knees and began poking around for the two dozen or so samples needed for Standard Planetary Classification. Bits of rock, air, vegetable growth, dust—the dust was very important. All went into vac-containers at her belt.
Then suddenly she said, "O-o-o-oof!" and reared back on her knees and clapped both hands to her helmet. Her eyes squeezed shut behind her faceplate, then opened wide and frightened.
By the time her hands reached her helmet, Johnny had his blaster out and was floating toward the ground, looking around for something to shoot at. His boots touched, and two long light-gravity steps brought him to her side.
Pud had been leaning over the tiny spaceship, one of his faces only feet above the little creatures.
Gop's thought came: "What are they?"
"Fanged if I know. Bipeds ... never saw such little ones." Pud adjusted several eyes to a certain wavelength and studied the creatures through their spacesuits. He gave Gop a thought-nod: "Mammals. Bi-sexual. They're probably mates."
"It's a miracle they didn't land right in the middle of one of our experiments."
That brought back Pud's ill-temper. "Miracle! Didn't you see me give this cosmic kiddycar of theirs a couple of psychokineticlouts so they'd land where they did?" The Senior Scientist glared around at their thousand-and-one experiments, and then down at the little spaceship, smaller than the smallest of them, squatting on toy fins. He curled a tentacle, as if wishing he could swat it.
Gop knew, however, that despite Pud's irritation at having his work interrupted, he was just a little intrigued by the aliens. No matter how insignificant they were they were animate life of some intelligence, and Pud must be wondering about them.
Gop thought it might be a good idea to dwell on that, in order to keep Pud from getting his heads in an uproar again.
"Can you get into their thoughts?" he inquired.
"I haven't tried. I don't think I could keep my potential down to their level."
"Wonder where they're from."
"Who cares?" Pud snorted. "I just wish they'd go away."
Gop noted, though, that Pud's heads were lowering closer over the creatures.
"They're nowhere near acceptable Contact level, are they?" Gop said, after a moment.
"From their appearance, I'd say they're even beneath classification. Reaction motor in their ship. Primitive weapons. Protective garments ... they can't even adjust physically to hostile environments!"
A minute passed.
Pud said, "Mm. Well. I think I will see what I can read ... just to have something to talk about at the Scientists' Club."
He sent out a tentative probe ... a little one ... just enough to register in one of his brains the total conscious content of one of the little creature's minds. He was afraid to go deeper, after the subconscious, though actually that was far more important. But deep probing would probably be felt for what it was, while conscious probing was just a little painful.
The creature popped erect in its squatting position, and clapped its upper extremities to its head.
The other one, which had been scrambling up the ladder to the ship's airlock, drew its popgun and joined the first.
"They're from someplace called Earth," Pud said. "In the V-LM-12Xva Sector of this Galaxy, as nearly as I can make out. They're an Exploration Team, sent out by their planet to gather data on the nature of the physical universe." He paused to consult the third memory bank of his fifth brain, where he had impressed the content of the creature's mind. "They've had space travel for about two hundred of their years. I translate that as about eleven of ours." He consulted again. "Highly materialistic. Externally focused. Very limited sensorium. An infant race, chasing everything that moves, round and round through their little three-dimensional universe. They've a long way to go."
"What are they doing here?"
"Hm." Pud consulted again. "A routine exploration flight brought them to this system ... and an almost unbelievable coincidence has served to delay them here. They dropped their meteor-screens for just a moment—at just the wrong moment. A large meteor came along, entered the ship, and destroyed both their atmosphere-manufacturing equipment and the large pressure tank of atmosphere which they kept as reserve in case the equipment should fail." He paused. "Mixture of hydrogen and oxygen ... they can't live without it. At any rate, the ship was evacuated, and they barely had time to get into the ... mm, spacesuits, they call them ... which they now wear. The accident left them with no atmosphere whatever, except the small amount in the tanks of those suits. That will be exhausted in a short time ... I gather that if this planet hadn't been here, they'd have been goners. As it stands, they plan to charge their spare suit-tanks, which weren't harmed, with the air of this planet, and then return to their Earth, subsisting on the tanked air, by hyperspatial drive...." Again Pud paused. "Hm. Well, now! I'd overlooked that. So they have hyperspatial drive, at least ... and after only two hundred years of space travel! Hm. Perhaps they are worth a closer look...."
Pud lowered his heads over the two little aliens, who were moving warily, popguns drawn, away from the ship.
"Pud," Gop said nervously.
"One of them is crawling toward the time-warp."
"Well, don't tell me about it ... lift the warp out of the way!"
Gop extended a tentacle, first reconstituting it on the seventh atomic sublevel so he wouldn't get it blown off, and gently picked up the time-warp. It looked like a blue-violet frozen haze in his grasp. He set it down on the other side of the spaceship, anchoring it again to now so it wouldn't go flapping off along the time-continuum.
"So they didn't land because they saw flashes from our experiments," he said a little triumphantly.
One of Pud's heads turned and gave the Junior Scientist an acid look, while the others continued to observe the aliens.
"They lowered their meteor-screens," he said nastily, "thus bringing about this entire bother, because they wanted to get a better look at the flashes."
Gop was silent, but he thought acidly: "That's what you say—you won't let me esprobe, and when you do, you manage to prove it's all my fault."
Johnny Gorman had just said to Helen, "I want to chip a few samples off that outcropping over there ... come on, hon."
He started toward the ridge of gray-black rock. Helen followed on his heels.
"As-pir-in," she said, deliberately falsetto, and her helmet-valet fed her another pill with a sip of water.
"Then we'll go back and stick inside the ship until the tanks are charged," Johnny went on, a little grimly. "I think we're just edgy. Planets don't give people headaches ... and there's nothing alive within in a million miles of this dustball." He hefted his blaster, which he had adjusted to Wide-Field. "But just in case...."
"Pud," Gop said, still more nervously.
"Yes, I see, you idiot! Lift the tharn-field out of their way ... I'll take care of the space-warp generator!"
The giant Vegans, for all their bulk, moved soundlessly and at great speed until they were between the aliens and the stone outcropping toward which they appeared to be heading. Gop extended a tentacle, curled it at an odd angle, and picked up the shimmering tharn-field, which was the Vegans' reservoir of Basic Universal Energy. Set in any energy matrix, tharn became that energy; added to any existing energy, tharn augmented it to any desired potential. Thus it was extremely valuable to their experiments ... and very risky stuff to handle, as well.
Gingerly, Gop set the tharn down beyond the outcropping. At the same time he picked up several instruments that lay nearby—an electron-wrench, a snurling-iron, a plotz-meter, several pencil-rays. He placed them on the ground beside the tharn.
Pud had curled twelve tentacles around the space-warp generator—it was as big as a city block, and heavy, even in light gravity. He puffed a thought at Gop: "Give me a tentacle."
Gop helped his Master place the generator safely on the other side of the ridge.
Johnny Gorman banged off a handful of rock, and shoved it into the vac-container at his belt.
"Okay, hon," he said. "Let's go."
They stood once more moment atop the ridge, looking out over the barren, rusty-gray plain that the ridge had until now concealed from their gaze.
"Looks just as dead as the rest," Johnny observed. "I guess we were just jumpy over nothing." He turned to start down the slope. "Come on."
In three long light-gravity steps he had reached the bottom, and turned to steady Helen.
She wasn't there.
She had tripped and tumbled off the other side of the ridge. He could hear her screaming.
"Putrefied proteins!" Pud roared. "Help me get it out of the tharn!"
The two Vegans leaned over the ridge. While Gop forced the writhing folds of the tharn-field apart with two reconstituted tentacles, Pud reached in, plucked the little alien out and set it upright.
It immediately scrabbled up the side of the ridge as fast as it could and joined its mate, which had bounded up the other side.
"Now look at what you've done!" Pud raged. "What about the rules on Contact! The Examiners will get this out of us when we report on our Projects ... mountains of bites, we've revealed ourselves!"
"Not really, Master," Gop said, rushing his thoughts. "All the creature will know is that it tumbled into the field, and then was somehow ejected by it ... a trick of gravity, perhaps ... a magnetic vortex ... it won't know what really happened—"
"That—field—was—supposed—to—be—turned—off," Pud said, every one of his faces green with rage.
"You are a stupid, clumsy, few-headed piece of provender!"
Gop flushed clear down to his tails. "I'm sorry," he said. "I can't think of everything at once! I must have accidentally activated the tharn when I moved it. I'm sorry!"
Pud clapped a tentacle to his prime forehead. "What next!" he moaned.
"Oh, Johnny, Johnny," Helen sobbed. "I tripped when I started to turn around, and fell down the other side, and all of a sudden ... it was horrible ... I thought I was going crazy—"
Johnny Gorman had his arms tight around her. Behind her back, his blaster was pointed straight down the far slope of the ridge, ready to atomize anything that moved.
"What, honey?" he said. "What happened? I didn't see anything near you ... what happened?"
"It was like I was in a hurricane ... I couldn't see anything, but something seemed to be whirling around me, something as big as the universe ... and it seemed to be whirling inside me too! I felt—it felt like ... Johnny, I was crossed!"
"Crossed?" He shook her gently. "What do you mean, you were crossed?"
"It felt like my right side was my left side, and, my heart was beating backwards, and my eyes were looking at each other, and I was just twisted all downside up outside and inside out upside, and ... Johnny," she wailed, "I am going crazy!"
"Oh, no, you're not," he said grimly. "You're going back to the ship! I don't know what gives with this creepy clod, but I know we're not moving an inch outside the ship until we blast off! Come on!"
"They're crawling back toward their ship, Pud ... look out, they're heading for the dimensional-warp!"
Pud extended a tentacle ninety feet and slapped the dimensional-warp out of the path of the scurrying creatures.
The warp bounced silently on the rocky ground, caromed like a fire-ball from boulder to boulder, encountered stray radiation from the tharn-field that still glowed invisibly on the other side of the ridge, and became activated; it emitted concentric spheres of nameless-colored energy, and a vast snapping and crackling.
"There," Gop thought triumphantly at Pud. "That's just what I did with the tharn-field.... I guess nobody is above accidents, eh?"
Pud thought pure vitamins at his Junior Scientist. "You idiot, I didn't accidentally turn on the warp! You left the tharn on, and it triggered the warp! Why didn't you deactivate the tharn?"
"Why didn't you?" Gop shot back. "You were there too!"
Pud lashed a tentacle over the outcropping, and the tharn-field became inactive. Then he looked around, and every eye in his prime head popped. "Look out, the dimensional-warp is spreading ... it's lost its cohesion ... oh, digestion, they're in that now!"
Johnny and Helen Gorman were in a universe of blazing stars and nebulae that whirled like cosmic carousels; of gas clouds that seethed in giant turbulence ... it was the universe of creation, or a universe in its death-throes....
The boiling universe exploded away from them in soundless radiation, in all directions ... in five directions, their subconscious minds told them ... it vanished into nothingness, a nothingness that surrounded them like white blindness, and then suddenly it was restored again, roiling, churning, flashing with the bright eyes of novae, shot with the sinuous streamers of rushing gas clouds, pulsing with the heartbeats of winking variables ...
And suddenly they were tumbling head over heels along the rocky ground of the little planetoid again.
"At least we got them out of that," Pud puffed. "The sub-temporal field, Gop ... help me lift it ... hurry!"
"Master, all our experiments are activated! The tharn radiated enough to activate everything!"
"Help me lift the sub-temporal field!"
"Master, it's too late ... they're in it!"
A million miles above their heads was the vast sweep of All Time, like a rushing, glassy, upside-down river ... they tumbled through a chaos where Time, twice in each beat of their hearts, bounced back and forth between creation and entropy, and took them with it.... Time was a torrent beneath whose surface they were yanked back and forth from Beyond the End to Before the Beginning like guppies on a deepsea line; a torrent whose banks were dark eternity, and whose waters were the slippery substance of years....
Pud deactivated the sub-temporal field with a lash of a tentacle, and the two little aliens rolled from it like dice from a cup, gasping and wailing. Immediately they started running again toward their ship, dodging between the faint flickers of red, blue, green, scarlet and nameless-colored light that marked the location of those experiments which, now activated and releasing their fantastic energies, defied even the invisibility fields that still surrounded them.
The aliens brushed against another experimental field, and it twisted itself in one millionth of a second into a fifth-dimensional topological monstrosity that would take weeks to untangle—if it didn't explode first, for it bulged dangerously at the seams.
Pud hastily back-tentacled the field into an interdimensional-vortex, where, if it did explode, it would disrupt an uninhabited universe so far down on the scale of subspaces that nobody would get hurt.
Then the Senior Scientist gathered ten tons of machinery in a tentacle and hoisted it while the creatures ran beneath. Gop was psychokineticarrying five energy-fields toward the sidelines, with another dozen or so wrapped in his tentacles. Pud silently dumped his load of machinery and reached for something else in the creatures' path.
But the creatures scurried erratically, stopping, dashing off in this direction, skidding to a halt as they saw something else to terrify them, and then dashing off in that direction just as the Vegans had dealt with an obstacle to their progress in this direction.
"Pud! ... one of them fell through the intraspatial-doorway to the other side of the planet!"
"Well, for the love of swallowing, reach through and get it! If those beasts see it, they'll tear it to pieces!"
Helen Gorman faced something that was a cross between a tomcat and an eggplant on stilts. It looked hungry. It bounded toward her in forty foot lopes.
"Johnny ... Johnny, where are you...."
Several other garage-sized beasts converged on her, all looking as hungry as the first. In reality, they weren't hungry—their food consisted of stone, primarily, while they also drew sustenance from cosmic radiation. But they liked to tear things to pieces. They were native to the planetoid; the Vegan Scientists had gathered them up and shoved them through the intraspatial-doorway to this side of the planet, where they wouldn't be underfoot all the time. It was a one-way doorway, through which Pud or Gop would occasionally reach to pluck one of the beasts back for use in experimentation.
Now, just as the beasts reached Helen Gorman, one of Gop's tentacles came through the doorway, followed by one of his smaller heads. The Junior Scientist picked up Helen, and hastily extruded another tentacle from the first to bat aside one of the beasts that leaped after her.
The part of the tentacle bearing Helen Gorman swished back through the doorway. The head and the rest of the tentacle followed.
The beasts commenced fighting among themselves, which was what they did most of the time anyway.
Gop, however, in his haste, had forgotten to repolarize the molecules of his body while retreating through the doorway ... and the moment he cleared the doorway on the other side of the planet, the doorway reversed—still one-way, but now the other way.
And eventually one of the beasts, attracted by all the flickering and flashing and frantic scrabbling visible through the doorway, abandoned the fun of the fight and leaped, like a ten-ton gopher, through the opening.
The others followed, naturally. They always chased and tore apart the first one to cut and run.
Gop had just set Helen Gorman on the ground, and Johnny Gorman, seeing her apparently materialize from thin air and float downward, had just started to stagger toward her, when the ten-ton gopher began to vivisect one of Pud's tails. The animal hadn't seen the tail, of course—it was invisible. But it had stumbled over it, and been intrigued.
Pud leaped ninety feet into the air, roaring. Roaring out loud, not thought-roaring. And roaring with a dozen gigantic throats. The sound thundered and rolled and crashed and echoed from the low hills around.
The beast fell off Pud's tail, bounced, looked around, and made for Johnny Gorman as the only visible moving object.
Johnny's eyes were still bugging from the gargantuan roar he had just heard. He saw the beast and dodged frantically, just as Gop's invisible tentacle shot out to bowl the beast over.
In dodging, Johnny tumbled into another energy-field.
... He stood on his own face, saw before his eyes the hairy mole on the back of his neck, and threw a gray-and-red insideout hand before his eyes in complete terror. Then Pud nudged him gently out of the field, and before Johnny's eyes, in an instantaneous and unfathomable convolution, the hand became normal again.
About that time the rest of the beasts emerged from the intraspatial-doorway. While some of them continued the fight that had begun on the other side of the planet, others started for Johnny Gorman and for Helen, who was now sitting up weakly and shaking her head.
A beast resembling a steam-shovel on spider's legs rammed full-tilt into a force-field. The field bounced fifty feet and merged with another field in silent but cataclysmic embrace, producing a sub-field which converted one tenth of one percent of all water within a hundred foot radius to alcohol.
The effect on Johnny and Helen was instantaneous ... they became drunk as hoot-owls. Their eyes bleared and refused to focus. Their jaws sagged. Johnny stumbled, and sat down hard. He and Helen stared dolefully at each other through their faceplates.
Pud gave up every last hope of avoiding Contact.
He picked up Johnny with one tentacle and Helen with another and set them down on top of their spaceship, where there was just enough reasonably flat surface on the snip's snub nose to hold them.
The beasts were chasing one another around and around through the wreckage of the laboratory. They romped and trampled over delicate machines, sent heavier equipment spinning to smash against boulders; they ran head-on into sizzling energy-fields and, head-off, kept running.
Pud grabbed up an armful of beasts, raced to the doorway, reversed it and poured them through. He grabbed up more beasts, threw them after. Gop was busily engaged in the same task. Some of the beasts began fighting among themselves even as the Vegans held them—Gop jumped as one tore six cubic yards of flesh from a tentacle. He healed the tentacle immediately, then hardened it and all his other tentacles to the consistency of pig iron. He held back that particular beast from the lot. When the others had been tossed through, he hauled back his tentacle, wound up, and pegged the offending beast with all his might. It streaked through the doorway like a projectile, legs and eyestalks rigid.
Pud plucked a machine from the two-foot claws of the very last beast, and tossed the beast through. Then he examined the machine—it was beyond repair. He slammed that through the doorway too.
In ten seconds, the two Vegan Scientists had slapped and mauled all their rioting experiments into inaction.
Silence descended over the battle-ground. Silence, more nerve-shattering than the noise had been.
Pud looked around at the remains of the laboratory, every face forest-green with rage.
Machines lay broken, tilted, flickering, whining, wheezing, like the bodies of the wounded. Delicate instruments were smashed to bits. The involuted field that Pud had flung through the vortex had evidently burst, as he had feared—for the vortex had vanished. So, probably, had the universe the field had burst in. The two fields that had interlocked were ruined, each having contaminated the other beyond use. Other energy-fields, having absorbed an excess of energy from the tharn, were bloated monstrosities or burned-out husks.
It would take weeks to get the place straightened up ... even longer to replace the smashed equipment and restore the ruined fields.
Many experiments in which time had been a factor would take months—and in some cases years—to duplicate.
All that was bad enough.
But worst of all ... the little aliens had been Contacted.
Like it or not, the aliens knew that something was very much up on this planetoid.
Like it or not, they'd report that, and more of their kind would come scurrying back to investigate.
Pud groaned, and studied the little creatures, who sat huddled together on the nose of the ship.
"Well," he thought sourly to Gop, "here we are."
"Do you think that from now on you'll watch the Detector?"
"Oh, yes, Master—I will."
"And do you think it matters a Chew now if you do or not? Now that we've revealed ourselves?"
"We have a choice," Pud said acidly. "We can destroy these little aliens, so they can't report what they've seen. That's out, of course. Or we can move our laboratory to another system ... a formidable job, and Food knows whether we'd ever find another planet so suited to our needs. And even if we did do that, and they found nothing when they returned here, they'd still know we were around somewhere."
"They wouldn't know that we're around, Master."
"They'd know something is around ... don't mince words with me, you idiot. You know that they've seen enough to draw the very conclusions we don't want them to draw. You know how vital it is that no race under Contact-level status know of the existence of other intelligent races ... particularly races far in advance of it. Such knowledge can alter the entire course of their development."
"So what are we to do, eh? Here we are. And there—" Pud motioned with a tentacle at the little aliens—"they are. As you can see, we must reveal ourselves to still a greater extent ... they can't even get into their ship to leave the planet without our help!"
Gop was silent.
"Also—" Pud sent a brief extra-sensory probe at the aliens, and both of them clutched at their helmeted heads—"their problem of air supply is critical. There is very little left in their suit-tanks, and the time required for their machines to refine air from this planet's atmosphere has been wasted in—in—the entertainment so recently concluded. At this moment they are resigned to death. Naturally, we must help them." He paused. "Well, my brilliant, capable, young Junior Nincompoop? Any ideas on how we can help them, and still keep our Scientists' status when the Examiners get the story of this mess out of us?"
"I thought not." Pud continued his frowning scrutiny of the aliens for a moment. Then he looked up, his faces blank. "Eh? You do?"
"Well, great gobs of gulosity, what?"
"Master, do you recall the time experiment that you wanted to try a few years ago? Do you recall that the idea appealed to you very much, but that you wanted an intelligent subject for it, so we could determine results by observing rational reactions?"
"I recall it, all right. My brave young Junior Scientist declined to be the subject ... though Food knows you're hardly intelligent enough to qualify anyway. Yes, I remember ... but what's that got to do with—"
Pud paused. The jaws of his secondary heads, which were more given to emotion, dropped. Then slowly his faces brightened, and his many eyes began to glow.
"Ah," he thought softly.
"You see, Master?"
"I do indeed."
"If it works, we'll have no more problem. The Examiners will be pleased at our ingenuity. The aliens will no longer—"
"I see, I see ... all right, let's try it!"
Pud reached down and picked one of the aliens off the nose of the ship. It slumped in his grasp immediately. The other alien began firing its popgun frantically at the seemingly empty air through which its mate mysteriously rose.
The thermonuclear bolts tickled Pud's hide. He sighed and relaxed his personal invisibility field and became visible. That didn't matter now.
The alien stared upward. Its face whitened. It dropped its popgun and fell over backward, slid gently off the ship's nose and started a slow light-gravity fall toward the ground.
Pud caught it, and said, "I thought that might happen. Evidently they lose consciousness rather easily at unaccustomed sights. A provincial trait."
He slid the aliens gently into the airlock of their ship.
The Vegans waited for the aliens to regain consciousness.
Eventually one did. Immediately, it dragged the other back from the lock, into the body of the ship. A moment later the lock closed.
"Now hold the ship," Pud told Gop, "while I form the field."
Flame flickered from the ship's lower end. It rose a few inches off the ground. Gop placed a tentacle on its nose and forced it down again. He waited, while the ship throbbed and wobbled beneath the tentacle.
Now, for the first time, Gop himself esprobed the aliens. He sent a gentle probe into one of their minds—and blinked at the turmoil of terror and helplessness he found there.
Faced with death at the hands of "giant monsters," the aliens preferred to take off and "die cleanly" in space from asphyxiation, or even by a mutual self-destruction pact that would provide less discomfort.
Gop withdrew his probe, wondering that any intelligent creature could become sufficiently panicky to overlook the fact that if the "monsters" had wanted to kill them, they would be a dozen times dead already.
Pud had shaped a time-field of the type necessary to do the job. It was a pale-green haze in his tentacles.
He released the field and, under his direction, it leaped to surround the spaceship, clinging to it like a soft cloak. As the Vegans watched, it seemed to melt into the metal and become a part of it—the whole ship glowed a soft, luminescent green.
"Let it go," Pud said.
Gop removed his tentacle.
The ship rose on its flicker of flame—rose past the Vegans' enormous legs and tails, past their gigantic be-tentacled bodies, past their many necks and faces, rose over their heads.
Gop sneezed as the flame brushed a face.
And Pud began shaping a psychokinetic bolt in his prime brain. For this purpose he marshaled the resources of all his other brains as well, and every head except his prime one assumed an idiot stare.
He said, "Now!" and loosed the bolt as a tight-beam, aimed at the ship and invested with ninety-two separate and carefully calculated phase-motions.
The ship froze, fifty miles over their heads. The flicker from its rocket tubes became a steady, motionless glow.
Pud said, "Now," again, and altered a number of the phase-motions once, twice, three times, in an intricate pattern.
The ship vanished.
As one, the many heads of the Vegan Scientists turned to stare at the point in the sky where they had first sighted the ship.
There it was, coasting past the laboratory-planet, tubes lifeless; coasting on the velocity that had brought it from the last star it had visited.
There it was, just as it had been before the tiny aliens had sighted the flickerings that had caused them to relax their meteor-screens.
There it was, sent back in time to before all the day's frantic happenings had happened.
Pud and Gop esprobed the distant aliens ... and then looked at each other in complete satisfaction.
"Fine!" Pud said. "They don't remember a thing ... not a single alimentary thing!" He looked around them, at the shambles of the laboratory. "It's a pity the experiment couldn't repair all this as well ... is everything turned off?"
"No experiments operating, you nincompoop? No flashes?"
"Then they should have no reason to land, you idiot.
"You know," Pud said, "in a way it was rather a fortunate thing that they landed. It enabled me to perform a very interesting experiment. We have demonstrated that a creature returned through time along the third flud-subcontinuum will not retain memory of the process, or of what transpired between a particular point in time and one's circular return to it. I'm glad you stimulated me to think of it. Best idea I ever had."
Pud turned his attention to the ruins of the laboratory. He moved off, half his heads agonizing over the destruction caused by today's encounter, the other half glowing at its satisfactory conclusion.
Gop sighed, and esprobed the little aliens for the last time ... a final check, to make certain that they remembered nothing.
"Johnny, how about that little planet down there ... to the left?"
"Let's drop the meteor-screens for a better look."
Hastily, Gop reached out and tapped the meteor aside.
"Heck, that planet looks like a dud, all right ... but it's two days to the next one ... and I've got a terrific headache!"
"Funny ... I've got one too."
"Well, what say we land and stretch our—"
By that time Gop had hastily withdrawn his headache-causing probe. He stared anxiously upward.
After a moment, he said, "They're landing, Master."