The magnitude of that thought and its implications staggered Lanceford’s imagination.
After two years of exploration and contact with the dominant race of this planet, the BEE still knew literally nothing about the sort of people with whom they were dealing. This instantaneous, neural contact proved that. Equated against the information dished out in Basic Training, it merely emphasized the fact that the BEE was grossly ignorant.
Anthropological Intelligence had a lot to account for—the job they’d done so far could have been performed by low-grade morons. In wishing to avoid the possibility of giving offense, in hiding behind a wall of courtesy and convention, there had been no contact worthy of the name. Yet here was the possibility of a rapport that could be closer than any which existed between any races in the Galaxy.
Lanceford groaned with silent frustration. To learn this when he was dying was the bitterest of ironies. In any other circumstances, the flash of insight could be parlayed into a key which might unlock the entire problem of Niobian relationships.
Bitterly he fought against the curtain of unconsciousness that closed down on him, trying by sheer will to stay awake, to make some move that could be interpreted, to leave some clue to what he had learned.
It was useless. The darkness closed in, inexorable and irresistible.
Arthur Lanceford opened his eyes, surprised that he was still alive. The pain was gone from his face and the swelling had subsided. He grinned with relief—his luck had held out.
And then the relief vanished in a wave of elation. He held the key. He knew the basics for mutual understanding. And he would be alive to deliver them to the specialists who could make them operate.
He chuckled. Whatever the cure was—the BEE drug, Kron’s treatment, whatever it was, it didn’t matter. The important thing was that he was going to live.
He wondered whether that flash of insight just before unconsciousness had been real or a figment of delirium. It could have been either, but Lanceford clung to the belief that the contact was genuine. There was far too much revealed in that sudden flash that was entirely alien to his normal patterns of thought.
He wondered what had triggered that burst of awareness. The BEE drug, the stuff Kron had given him, the poison of the sith and the histamines floating around in his system—it could have been any one of a number of things, or maybe a complex of various factors that had interacted to make him super-receptive for an instant of time.
It was something that would have to be reported and studied with the meticulous care which the BEE gave to any facet of experience that was out of the ordinary. A solution might possibly be found, or the whole thing might wind up as one of those dead ends that were so numerous in Exploration work. But that was out of his field and, in consequence, out of his hands. His specialty wasn’t parapsychological research.
Kron was standing beside his bed, long doglike face impassive, looking at him with pleased satisfaction. Behind him, a group of natives were clustered around the cooking fire. It was as if no time had passed since the allergy struck—but Lanceford knew differently. Still, the lost time didn’t matter. The bright joy that he was going to live transcended such unimportant things.
“Looks like you won’t have to bury me after all,” Lanceford said happily.
He stretched his arms over his head. He felt wonderful. His body was cool and comfortably free of the hot confinement of the protection suit. He did a slow horrified doubletake as he realized that he was lying on the sleeping platform practically naked—a tempting hors d’oeuvre for the thousand and one species of Niobe’s biting insects.
“Where’s my suit?” he half shouted.
Kron smiled. “You don’t need it, friend Lanceford. If you will notice, you are not bitten. Nor will you be.”
Kron didn’t answer. It wasn’t the proper time, and the euphoria that he and the Earthman were enjoying was too pleasant to shatter.
Lanceford didn’t press the matter. Apparently Kron knew what he was talking about. Lanceford had been watching one particularly vicious species of biting fly hover above his body. The insect would approach, ready to enjoy a mandible full of human epidermis, but, about six inches from his body, would slow down and come to a stop, hanging frustrated in midair. Finally the fly gave up and flew off into the darkness of the rafters. Lanceford hoped that one of the spiders would get it—but he was convinced. Whatever happened to him while he was unconscious had made him as insect-repellent as the Niobians.
The smell of cooking came from the firepit and, incredibly, it smelled good.
Lanceford looked startledly at Kron. “I’m hungry.”
“An excellent sign,” Kron replied. “You are nearly cured. Soon you will be able to finish this trek.”
“Incidentally,” Lanceford said, “for the first time since I have been out on this showerbath world of yours, you’re cooking something that smells fit to eat. I think I’d like to try it.”
Kron’s eyebrows rose and he hummed softly under his breath. This was something entirely unexpected—an added delight, like the flavor of komal in a sorat stew. He savored it slowly, enjoying its implications.
“What is it?” Lanceford persisted.
“A dish called akef,” Kron said. The name was as good as any and certainly described the effect well enough.
The last hundred miles had been a breeze. Lanceford stood at the edge of the clearing, looking across the planed-off landscape to the shimmering hemispherical bulk of Base Alpha, glistening like a giant cabochon jewel under Niobe’s dark sky. Without the protection suit to slow him down and hamper his movements, what would have been a week’s trip had been shortened to four days.
In a few minutes, he would be back among his own kind—and he wasn’t sure whether he was glad or sorry. Of course, there was a certain satisfaction in bringing back a first-class discovery—perhaps the greatest in the short history of Niobian exploration—but there was a stigma attached to the way it had been found. It wouldn’t be easy to confess that it had practically been forced upon him, but it would have to be done. It would have been much nicer to have found the answer by using his head. There would have been some really deserved prestige in that.
He sighed and turned to Kron. “Farewell, friend,” he said soberly, “and thanks.”
“We are even,” Kron replied. “You saved my life from a roka and I saved yours from the sith. The scales are balanced.”
Lanceford blinked. He had forgotten that incident where he had shot the big catlike animal shortly after the ‘copter had dropped them for the start of their journey back to Base. Apparently it was after Kron—or at least the native had thought so. Lanceford grinned ruefully. Score another point for blind luck.
“But, Kron, it’s not that easy. You have given me a secret of your people and I shall have to tell it to mine.”
“I expected that you would. Besides, it is no secret. Even our children know its composition and how to make it. We have never held it from you. You simply wouldn’t accept it. But it is about time, friend Lanceford, that your race began learning something of Niobe if they wish to remain here—and it is about time that we began learning something about you. I think that there will be some rather marked changes in the future. And in that regard, I leave you with the question of whether a civilization should be judged entirely upon its apparent technological achievements.”
“I—” Lanceford began.
“You have learned how we avoid the insects,” Kron continued, maneuvering past the abortive interruption, “and perhaps someday you will know the full answer to my question. But in the meantime, you and your kind will be free to move through our world, to learn our ways, and to teach us yours. It should be a fair exchange.”
“Thanks to akef,” Lanceford said fervently, “we should be able to do just that.”
Kron smiled. “You have used the drug enough to have overcome the mental block that prevented you from naming it before. The word I coined from your own language of science is no longer necessary.”
“I suppose not, but it’s pleasanter to think of it that way.”
“You Earthmen! Sometimes I wonder how you ever managed to achieve a civilization with your strange attitudes toward unpleasant facts.” Kron smiled broadly, relishing the memory of his deception and Lanceford’s shocked awakening to the truth. “I hope,” he continued, “that you have forgiven my little deceit and the destruction of your protective clothing.”
“Of course. How could I do otherwise? It’s so nice to be rid of that sweatbox that I’d forgive anything.” Lanceford frowned. “But there’s one thing that puzzles me. How did you disguise the stuff?”
“I didn’t,” Kron replied cryptically. “You did.” He turned away and, with characteristic Niobian abruptness, walked off into the jungle. His job was done and natives were never ones to dally with leavetaking, although their greetings were invariably ceremonious.
Lanceford watched until the native was out of sight and then walked slowly across the clearing toward the dome. He had learned a lot these past few days, enough to make him realize that his basic training had been so inadequate as to be almost criminal. It was lacking in many of the essentials for survival and, moreover, was slanted entirely wrong from a psychological point of view.
Sure, it was good enough to enable a man to get along, but it seemed to be particularly designed to deny the fact that the natives obviously possessed a first-rate culture of their own. It didn’t say so directly, but the implications were there. And that was wrong. The natives possessed a civilization that was probably quite as high as the one Terra possessed. It was simply oriented differently. One thing was certain—the Confederation wasn’t going to expropriate or exploit this planet without the natives’ consent. It would be suicide if they tried.
He grinned. Actually there would be no reason for such action. It was always easier to deal with advanced races than to try to conquer or educate primitive ones. Kron had the right idea—understanding, exchange, appreciation—Confederation culture for Niobian. It would make a good and productive synthesis.
Still grinning, Lanceford opened the airlock and stepped inside, ignoring the pop-eyed guard who eyed his shorts and sandals with an expression of incredulous disbelief.
Alvord Sims, Regional Director, Niobe Division BEE, looked up from his desk and smiled. The smile became a nose-wrinkling grimace as Lanceford swung the pack from his shoulders and set it carefully on the floor.
“Glad to see that you made it, Lanceford,” Sims said. “But what’s that awful smell? You should have done something about it. You stink like a native.”
“All the baths in the world won’t help, sir,” Lanceford said woodenly.
He was tired of the stares and the sniffs he had encountered since he had entered the base. In his present condition, a fellow-human smelled as bad to him as he did to them, but he didn’t complain about it and he saw no reason why they should. Humanity should apply more courtesy and consideration to members of their own species.
“It’s inside me,” he explained. “My metabolism’s changed. And incidentally, sir, you don’t smell so sweet yourself.”
Sims sputtered for a moment and then shrugged. “Perhaps not,” he admitted. “One can’t help sweating in this climate even with air-conditioning.”
“It’s the change inside me,” Lanceford said. “I suppose it’ll wear off in time, once I’ve been on a normal diet. But I didn’t think that was too important in view of the information I have. I’ve learned something vital, something that you should know at once. That’s why I’m here.”
“That’s decent of you,” Sims replied, “but an interoffice memo would have served just as well as a personal visit. My stomach isn’t as good as it once was. Ulcers, you know.”
“The executive’s disease,” Lanceford commented.
Sims nodded. “Well, Arthur, what did you find that was so important?”
“That we’ve been fools.”
Sims sighed. “That’s nothing new. We’ve been fools since the day we left Earth to try and conquer the stars.”
“That’s not what I mean, sir. I mean that we’ve been going at this Niobe business the wrong way. What we need is to understand the natives, instead of trying to understand the planet.”
“Out of the mouths of babes and probationers—” Sims said with gentle irony.
“It pays off,” Lanceford replied doggedly. “Take my case. I’ve found out why the natives are insect-proof!”
“That’s a new wrinkle. Can you prove it?”
“Certainly. I came the last hundred miles in shorts.”
“What happened to your suit?”
“Kron destroyed it accidentally.”
“Accidentally—hah!” Sims snorted. “Niobians never do things accidentally.”
Lanceford looked sharply at the director. The observation carried a wealth of implications that his sharpened senses were quick to grasp. “Then you know the natives aren’t simple savages, the way we were taught in Basic Training?”
“Of course! They’re a non-technical Class V at the very least—maybe higher. Somehow they’ve never oriented their civilization along mechanical lines, or maybe they tried it once and found it wanting. But no one in the upper echelons has ever thought they were stupid or uncivilized.”
“Later,” Sims said. “You’re entitled to an explanation, but right now I’d appreciate it if you’d finish your statement. What makes the natives insect-proof?”
“That’s the repellent.”
“In more ways than one,” Sims said.
“It’s not so bad after you get used to it. It just smells awful at first.”
“That’s an understatement, if I ever heard one.”
“Perhaps the lab can analyze it and find the active principle,” Lanceford said hopefully.
“If they do, I’ll bet it is distilled quintessence of skunk,” Sims replied gloomily. “I’ll be willing to bet that our native friends tried that trick ages ago and gave it up for a bad job. They’re pretty fair biochemists as well as being philosophers.”
“Could be,” Lanceford said thoughtfully. “I never thought of that.”
“You’d better start thinking all the time. These lads are smart. Why do you think we have this complicated rigmarole about native relations and respect? Man, we’re running scared. We don’t want to lose this planet, and anything less than the kid-glove treatment would be sheer suicide until we learn how far we can go. These natives have an organization that’d knock your eye out. I didn’t believe it myself until I got the proof. As you learn more about it, you’ll understand what I mean. We’re dealing with an ecological unit on this planet!”
“But I thought—”
“That you were here to explore a primitive world?”
“Wasn’t that what I was trained for?”
“No. We can do that sort of thing with a couple of geodetic cruisers. We don’t need men trekking through the jungles to assay a world’s physical resources. That business went out of date during the Dark Ages. There’s a better reason than that for these treks.”
“You asked the question. Now answer it,” Sims said. “You have enough data.”
Lanceford thought for a moment “I can see one reason,” he said slowly.
“The trek could be a test. It could be used to determine whether or not the probationer was a survival type—a sort of final examination before he’s turned loose in a responsible job here in the BEE.”
Sims smiled. “Bull’s-eye! It’s part of the speedup—a pretty brutal part, but one that can’t be helped if we want to get this planet in line quickly enough to stop the riot that’s brewing in the Confederation. It’s as much for Niobe’s good as ours, because the Confederation wants that gerontin like an alcoholic wants another drink—and they’re not going to wait for normal exploration and development. That’s why the treks. It’s a tough course. Failure can and often does mean death. Usually we can pull a misfit out in time, but not always. If you live through the trek and we don’t have to pull you out, though, you’ve proved yourself a survival type—and you’re over the first hurdle.
“Then we check with your guide and anyone you happen to meet en route. The natives are very cooperative about such things. If you pass their evaluation, you’re ready to join the club. It’s been forming ever since we landed here two years ago, but it’s still pretty exclusive. It’s the nucleus of the BEE’s mission here, the one that’ll get things rolling with the gerontin plantations. We’ll know about you in a few more minutes after the Cyb Unit gets through processing your data.” Sims grinned at the thunderstruck youngster.
Lanceford nodded glumly. “I’ll probably fail. I sure didn’t use my head. I never caught the significance of the trek, I failed to deduce the reason for the insect-repellent qualities of the natives, and I missed the implications of their culture until I had almost reached Base. Those things are obvious. Any analytical brain would have figured them out.”
“They’re only obvious when you know what you’re looking for,” Sims said gently. “Personally, I think you did an excellent job, considering the handicaps you have faced. And the discovery of the vorkum was masterly.”
Lanceford blushed. “I hate to admit it, but Kron literally shoved the stuff down my throat.”
“I didn’t mean the method by which you learned that vorkum was the stuff we’ve been searching for,” Sims said. “I meant the results you obtained. Results are what count in this business. Call it luck if you wish, but there is more to it than that. Some people are just naturally lucky and those are the sort we need here. They’re survival types. A lot is going to depend on having those so-called lucky people in the right places when we settle Niobe’s status in the Confederation.”
He paused as the message tube beside his desk burped a faint hiss of compressed air and a carrier dropped out into the receiving basket.
“Somehow I think that this is your membership card to the club,” he said. He read it, smiled, and passed the sheet to Lanceford. “And now, Arthur, before I appoint you as a Niobe Staff member, I’d like to know one thing.”
“What is that, sir?”
“Just why in the name of hell did you bring that pack in here with you? I’ve just realized where that smell is coming from!”
“I didn’t dare leave it anywhere,” Lanceford said. “Someone might have thrown it down a disposal chute.”
“I wouldn’t blame them. That’s vorkum you have in there, isn’t it?”
Lanceford nodded. “Yes, sir. I didn’t want to lose it.”
“Why not? We can always get more from the natives if we need it.”
“I know that, sir. We can, but this is all I’ll get for the next six months, and if I ration myself carefully, it might last that long. You see, sir, it’s mildly habit-forming—like cigarettes—and one gets accustomed to it. And besides, you really don’t know what flavor is until you’ve tried vorkum on chocolate.”