/ Language: English / Genre:sf,

Trouble with the Natives

Arthur Clarke


Trouble with the Natives

by Arthur C. Clarke

The flying saucer came down vertically through the clouds, braked to a halt about fifty feet from the ground, and settled with a considerable bump on a patch of heather-strewn moorland.

“That,” said Captain Wyxtpthll, “was a lousy landing.” He did not, of course, use precisely these words. To human ears his remarks would have sounded rather like the clucking of an angry hen. Master Pilot Krtclugg unwound three of his tentacles from the control panel, stretched all four of his legs, and relaxed comfortably.

“Not my fault the automatics have packed up again,” he grumbled. “But what do you expect with a ship that should have been scrapped five thousand years ago? If those cheeseparing form-fillers back at Base Planet—”

“Oh, all right! We’re down in one piece, which is more than I expected. Tell Crysteel and Danstor to come in here. I want a word with them before they go.”

Crysteel and Danstor were, very obviously, of a different species from the rest of the crew. They had only one pair of legs and arms, no eyes at the back of the head, and other physical deficiencies which their colleagues did their best to overlook. These very defects, however, had made them the obvious choice for this particular mission, for it had needed only a minimum of disguise to let them pass as human beings under all but the closest scrutiny.

“Now you’re perfectly sure,” said the Captain, “that you understand your instructions?”

“Of course,” said Crysteel, slightly huffed. “This isn’t the first time I’ve made contact with a primitive race. My training in anthropology—”

“Good. And the language?”

“Well, that’s Danstor’s business, but I can speak it reasonably fluently now. It’s a very simple language and after all we’ve been studying their radio programmes for a couple of years.”

“Any other points before you go?”

“Er—there’s just one matter.” Crysteel hesitated slightly. “It’s quite obvious from their broadcasts that the social system is very primitive, and that crime and lawlessness are widespread. Many of the wealthier citizens have to use what are called ‘detectives’ or ‘special agents’ to protect their lives and property. Now we know it’s against regulations, but we were wondering…”

“What?”

“Well, we’d feel much safer if we could take a couple of Mark III disrupters with us.”

“Not on your life! I’d be court-martialled if they heard about it at the Base. Suppose you killed some of the natives—then I’d have the Bureau of Interstellar politics, the Aborignes Conservancy Board, and half a dozen others after me.”

“There’d be just as much trouble if we got killed,” Crysteel pointed out with considerable emotion. “After all, you’re responsible for our safety. Remember that radio play I was telling you about? It described a typical household, but there were two murders in the first half hour!”

“Oh, very well. But only a Mark II—we don’t want you to do too much damage if there is trouble.”

“Thanks a lot; that’s a great relief. I’ll report every thirty minutes as arranged. We shouldn’t be gone more than a couple of hours.”

Captain Wyxtpthll watched them disappear over the brow of the hill. He sighed deeply.

“Why,” he said, “of all the people in the ship did it have to be those two?”

“It couldn’t be helped,” answered the pilot. “All these primitive races are terrified of anything strange. If they saw us coming, there’d be general panic and before we knew where we were the bombs would be falling on top of us. You just can’t rush these things.”

Captain Wyxtpthll was absentmindedly making a cat’s cradle out of his tentacles in the way he did when he was worried.

“Of course,” he said, “if they don’t come back I can always go away and report the place dangerous.” He brightened considerably. “Yes, that would save a lot of trouble.”

“And waste all the months we’ve spent studying it?” said the pilot, scandalized.

“They won’t be wasted,” replied the captain, unravelling himself with a flick that no human eye could have followed. “Our report will be useful for the next survey ship. I’ll suggest that we make another visit in — oh, let’s say five thousand years. By then the place may be civilized—though frankly, I doubt it.”

Samuel Higginsbotham was settling down to a snack of cheese and cider when he saw the two figures approaching along the lane. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, put the bottle carefully down beside his hedge-trimming tools, and stared with mild surprise at the couple as they came into range.

“Mornin’,” he said cheerfully between mouthfuls of cheese.

The strangers paused. One was surreptitiously ruffling through a small book which, if Sam only knew, was packed with such common phrases and expressions as: “Before the weather forecast, here is a gale warning,” “Stick ’em up—I’ve got you covered!”, and “Calling all cars!” Danstor, who had no needs for these aids to memory, replied promptly enough.

“Good morning my man,” he said in his best B.B.C. accent. “Could you direct us to the nearest hamlet, village, small town or other such civilized community?”

“Eh?” said Sam. He peered suspiciously at the strangers, aware for the first time that there was something very odd about their clothes. One did not, he realized dimly, normally wear a roll-top sweater with a smart pin-striped suit of the pattern fancied by city gents. And the fellow who was still fussing with the little book was actually wearing full evening dress which would have been faultless but for the lurid green and red tie, the hob-nailed boots and the cloth cap. Crysteel and Danstor had done their best, but they had seen too many television plays. When one considers that they had no other source of information, their sartorial aberrations were at least understandable.

Sam scratched his head. Furriners, I suppose, he told himself. Not even the townsfolk got themselves up like this.

He pointed down the road and gave them explicit directions in an accent so broad that no one residing outside the range of the B.B.C’s West Regional transmitter could have understood more than one word in three. Crysteel and Danstor, whose home planet was so far away that Marconi’s first signals couldn’t possibly have reached it yet, did even worse than this. But they managed to get the general idea and retired in good order, both wondering if their knowledge of English was as good as they had believed.

So came and passed, quite uneventfully and without record in the history books, the first meeting between humanity and beings from Outside.

“I suppose,” said Danstor thoughtfully, but without much conviction, “that he wouldn’t have done? It would have saved us a lot of trouble.”

“I’m afraid not. Judging by his clothes, and the work he was obviously engaged upon, he could not have been a very intelligent or valuable citizen. I doubt if he could even have understood who we were.”

“Here’s another one!” said Danstor, pointing ahead.

“Don’t make sudden movements that might cause alarm. Just walk along naturally, and let him speak first.”

The man ahead strode purposefully towards them, showed not the slightest signs of recognition, and before they had recovered was already disappearing into the distance.

“Well!” said Danstor.

“It doesn’t matter,” replied Crysteel philosophically. “He probably wouldn’t have been any use either.”

“That’s no excuse for bad manners!”

They gazed with some indignation at the retreating back of Professor Fitzsimmons as, wearing his oldest hiking outfit and engrossed in a difficult piece of atomic theory, he dwindled down the lane. For the first time, Crysteel began to suspect uneasily that it might not be as simple to make contact as he had optimistically believed.

Little Milton was a typical English village, nestling at the foot of the hills whose higher slopes now concealed so portentous a secret. There were very few people about on this summer morning, for the men were already at work and the women folk were still tidying up after the exhausting task of getting their lords and masters safely out of the way. Consequently Crysteel and Danstor had almost reached the centre of the village before their first encounter, which happened to be with the village postman, cycling back to the office after completing his rounds. He was in a very bad temper, having had to deliver a penny postcard to Dodgson’s farm, a couple of miles off his normal route. In addition, the weekly parcel of laundry which Gunner Evans sent home to his doting mother had been a lot heavier than usual, as well it might, since it contained four tins of bully beef pinched from the cookhouse.

“Excuse me,” said Danstor politely.

“Can’t stop,” said the postman, in no mood for casual conversation. “Got another round to do.” Then he was gone.

“This is really the limit!” protested Danstor. “Are they all going to be like this?”

“You’ve simply got to be patient,” said Crysteel. “Remember their customs are quite different from ours; it may take some time to gain their confidence. I’ve had this sort of trouble with primitive races before. Every anthropologist has to get used to it.”

“Hmm,” said Danstor. “I suggest that we call at some of their houses. Then they won’t be able to run away.”

“Very well,” agreed Crysteel doubtfully. “But avoid any thing that looks like a religious shrine, otherwise we may get into trouble.”

Old Widow Tomkins’ council-house could hardly have been mistaken, even by the most inexperienced of explorers, for such an object. The old lady was agreeably excited to see two gentlemen standing on her doorstep, and noticed nothing at all odd about their clothes. Visions of unexpected legacies, of newspaper reporters asking about her l00th birthday (she was really only 95, but had managed to keep it dark) flashed through her mind. She picked up the slate she kept hanging by the door and went gaily forth to greet her visitors.

“You’ll have to write it down,” she simpered, holding out the slate. “I’ve been deaf this last twenty years.”

Crysteel and Danstor looked at each other in dismay. This was a completely unexpected snag, for the only written characters they had ever seen were television programme announcements, and they had never fully deciphered those. But Danstor, who had an almost photographic memory, rose to the occasion. Holding the chalk very awkwardly, he wrote a sentence which, he had reason to believe, was in common use during such breakdowns in communication.

As her mysterious visitors walked sadly away, old Mrs Tomkins stared in hauled bewilderment at the marks on her slate. It was some time before she deciphered the characters—Danstor had made several mistakes—and even then she was little the wiser.

TRANSMISSIONS WILL BE RESUMED AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

It was the best that Danstor could do; but the old lady never did get to the bottom of it.

They were little luckier at the next house they tried. The door was answered by a young lady whose vocabulary consisted largely of giggles, and who eventually broke down completely and slammed the door in their faces. As they listened to the muffled, hysterical laughter, Crysteel and Danstor began to suspect, with sinking hearts, that their disguise as normal human beings was not as effective as they had intended.

At Number 3, on the other hand, Mrs Smith was only too willing to talk—at 120 words to the minute in an accent as impenetrable as Sam Higginsbotham’s. Danstor made his apologies as soon as he could get a word in edgeways, and moved on.

“Doesn’t anyone talk as they do on the radio?” he lamented. “How do they understand their own programmes if they all speak like this?”

“I think we must have landed in the wrong place,” said Crysteel, even his optimism beginning to fail. It sagged still further when he had been mistaken, in swift succession, for a Gallup Poll investigator, the prospective Conservative candidate, a vacuum-cleaner salesman, and a dealer from the local black market.

At the sixth or seventh attempt they ran out of housewives. The door was opened by a gangling youth who clutched in one clammy paw an object which at once hypnotized the visitors. It was a magazine whose cover displayed a giant rocket climbing upward from a crater-studded planet which, whatever it might be, was obviously not the Earth. Across the background were the words: “Staggering Stories of Pseudo-Science. Price 25 cents.”

Crysteel looked at Danstor with a “Do you think what I think?” expression which the other returned. Here at last, surely, was someone who could understand them. His spirits mounting, Danstor addressed the youngster.

“I think you can help us,” he said politely. “We find it very difficult to make ourselves understood here. You see, we’ve just landed on this planet from space and we want to get in touch with your government.”

“Oh,” said Jimmy Williams, not yet fully returned to Earth from his vicarious adventures among the outer moons of Saturn. “Where’s your spaceship?”

“It’s up in the hills; we didn’t want to frighten anyone.”

“Is it a rocket?”

“Good gracious no. They’ve been obsolete for thousands of years.”

“Then how does it work? Does it use atomic power?”

“I suppose so,” said Danstor, who was pretty shaky on physics. “Is there any other kind of power?”

“This is getting us nowhere,” said Crysteel, impatient for once. “We’ve got to ask him questions. Try and find where there are some officials we can meet.”

Before Danstor could answer, a stentorian voice came from inside the house.

“Jimmy! Who’s there?”

“Two… men,” said Jimmy, a little doubtfully. “At least, they look like men. They’ve come from Mars. I always said that was going to happen.”

There was the sound of ponderous movements, and a lady of elephantine bulk and ferocious mien appeared from the gloom. She glared at the strangers, looked at the magazine Jimmy was carrying, and summed up the situation.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!” she cried, rounding on Crysteel and Danstor. “It’s bad enough having a good-for-nothing son in the house who wastes all his time reading this rubbish, without grown men coming along putting more ideas into his head. Men from Mars, indeed! I suppose you’ve come in one of those flying saucers!”

“But I never mentioned Mars,” protested Danstor feebly.

Slam! From behind the door came the sound of violent altercation, the unmistakable noise of tearing paper, and a wail of anguish. And that was that.

“Well,” said Danstor at last. “What do we try next? And why did he say we came from Mars? That isn’t even the nearest planet, if I remember correctly.”

“I don’t know,” said Crysteel. “But I suppose it’s natural for them to assume that we come from some close planet. They’re going to have a shock when they find out the truth. Mars, indeed! That’s even worse than here, from the reports I’ve seen.” He was obviously beginning to lose some of his scientific detachment.

“Let’s leave the houses for a while,” said Danstor. “There must be some more people outside.”

This statement proved to be perfectly true, for they had not gone much further before they found themselves surrounded by small boys making incomprehensible but obviously rude remarks.

“Should we try and placate them with gifts?” said Danstor anxiously. “That usually works among more backward races.”

“Well, have you brought any?”

“No I thought you—”

Before Danstor could finish, their tormentors took to their heels and disappeared down a side street. Coming along the road was a majestic figure in a blue uniform.

Crysteel’s eyes lit up.

“A policeman!” he said. “Probably going to investigate a murder somewhere. But perhaps he’ll spare us a minute,” he added, not very hopefully.

P.C. Hinks eyed the strangers with some astonishment, but managed to keep his feelings out of his voice.

“Hello, gents. Looking for anything?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” said Danstor in his friendliest and most soothing tone of voice. “Perhaps you can help us. You see, we’ve just landed on this planet and want to make contact with the authorities.”

“Eh?” said P.C. Hinks startled. There was a long pause—though not too long, for P.C. Hinks was a bright young man who had no intention of remaining a village constable all his life. “So you’ve just landed, have you? In a spaceship, I suppose?”

“That’s right,” said Danstor, immensely relieved at the absence of the incredulity, or even violence, which such announcements all too often provoked on the more primitive planets.

“Well, well!” said P.C. Hinks, in tones which he hoped would inspire confidence and feelings of amity. (Not that it mattered much if they both became violent—they seemed a pretty skinny pair.) “Just tell me what you want, and I’ll see what we can do about it.”

“I’m so glad,” said Danstor. “You see, we’ve landed in this rather remote spot because we don’t want to create a panic. It would be best to keep our presence known to as few people as possible until we have contacted your government.”

“I quite understand,” replied P.C. Hinks, glancing round hastily to see if there was anyone through whom he could send a message to his sergeant. “And what do you propose to do then?”

“I’m afraid I can’t discuss our long-term policy with regard to Earth,” said Danstor cagily. “All I can say is that this section of the Universe is being surveyed and opened up for development, and we’re quite sure we can help you in many ways.”

“That’s very nice of you,” said P.C. Hinks heartily. “I think the best thing is for you to come along to the station with me so that we can put through a call to the Prime Minister.”

“Thank you very much,” said Danstor, full of gratitude. They walked trustingly beside P.C. Hinks, despite his slight tendency to keep behind them, until they reached the village police station.

“This way, gents,” said P.C. Hinks, politely ushering them into a room which was really rather poorly lit and not at all well furnished, even by the somewhat primitive standards they had expected. Before they could fully take in their surroundings, there was a “click” and they found themselves separated from their guide by a large door composed entirely of iron bars.

“Now don’t worry,” said P.C. Hinks. “Everything will be quite all right. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Crysteel and Danstor gazed at each other with a surmise that rapidly deepened to a dreadful certainty.

“We’re locked in!”

“This is a prison!”

“Now what are we going to do?”

“I don’t know if you chaps understand English,” said a languid voice from the gloom, “but you might let a fellow sleep in peace.”

For the first time, the two prisoners saw that they were not alone. Lying on a bed in the corner of the cell was a somewhat dilapidated young man, who gazed at them wearily out of one resentful eye.

“My goodness!” said Danstor nervously. “Do you suppose he’s a dangerous criminal?”

“He doesn’t look very dangerous at the moment,” said Crysteel, with more accuracy than he guessed.

“What are you in for, anyway?” asked the stranger, sitting up unsteadily. “You look as if you’ve been to a fancy-dress party. Oh, my poor head!” He collapsed again into the prone position.

“Fancy locking up anyone as ill as this!” said Danstor, who was a kind-hearted individual. Then he continued, in English, “I don’t know why we’re here. We just told the policeman who we were and where we came from, and this is what happened.”

“Well, who are you?”

“We’ve just landed—”

“Oh, there’s no point in going through all that again,” interrupted Crysteel. “We’ll never get anyone to believe us.”

“Hey!” said the stranger, sitting up once more. “What language is that you’re speaking? I know a few, but I’ve never heard anything like that.”

“Oh, all right,” Crysteel said to Danstor. “You might as well tell him. There’s nothing else to do until that policeman comes back anyway.”

At this moment, P.C. Hinks was engaged in earnest conversation with the superintendent of the local mental home, who insisted stoutly that all his patients were present. However, a careful check was promised and he’d call back later.

Wondering if the whole thing was a practical joke, P.C. Hinks put the receiver down and quietly made his way to the cells. The three prisoners seemed to be engaged in friendly conversation, so he tiptoed away again. It would do them all good to have a chance to cool down. He rubbed his eye tenderly as he remembered what a battle it had been to get Mr Graham into the cell during the small hours of the morning.

That young man was now reasonably sober after the night’s celebrations, which he did not in the least regret. (It was, after all, quite an occasion when your degree came through and you found you’d got Honours when you’d barely expected a Pass.) But he began to fear that he was still under the influence as Danstor unfolded his tale and waited, not expecting to be believed.

In these circumstances, thought Graham, the best thing to do was to behave as matter-of-factly as possible until the hallucinations got fed up and went away.

“If you really have a spaceship in the hills,” he remarked, “surely you can get in touch with it and ask someone to come and rescue you?”

“We want to handle this ourselves,” said Crysteel with dignity. “Besides, you don’t know our captain.”

They sounded very convincing, thought Graham. The whole story hung together remarkably well. And yet…

“It’s a bit hard for me to believe that you can build interstellar spaceships, but can’t get out of a miserable village police station.”

Danstor looked at Crysteel, who shuffled uncomfortably.

“We could get out easily enough,” said the anthropologist. “But we don’t want to use violent means unless it’s absolutely essential. You’ve no idea of the trouble it causes, and the reports we might have to fill in. Besides, if we do get out, I suppose your Flying Squad would catch us before we got back to the ship.”

“Not in Little Milton,” grinned Graham. “Especially if we could get across to the ‘White Hart’ without being stopped. My car is over there.”

“Oh,” said Danstor, his spirits suddenly reviving. He turned to his companion and a lively discussion followed. Then, very gingerly, he produced a small black cylinder from an inner pocket, handling it with much the same confidence as a nervous spinster holding a loaded gun for the first time. Simultaneously, Crysteel retired with some speed to the far corner of the cell.

It was at this precise moment that Graham knew, with a sudden icy certainty, that he was stone-sober and that the story he had been listening to was nothing less than the truth.

There was no fuss or bother, no flurry of electric sparks or coloured rays—but a section of the wall three feet across dissolved quietly and collapsed into a little pyramid of sand. The sunlight came streaming into the cell as, with a great sigh of relief, Danstor put his mysterious weapon away.

“Well, come on,” he urged Graham. “We’re waiting for you.”

There were no signs of pursuit, for P.C. Hinks was still arguing on the phone, and it would be some minutes yet before that bright young man returned to the cells and received the biggest shock of his official career. No one at the “White Hart” was particularly surprised to see Graham again; they all knew where and how he had spent the night, and expressed hope that the local Bench would deal leniently with him when his case came up.

With grave misgivings, Crysteel and Danstor climbed into the back of the incredibly ramshackle Bentley which Graham affectionately addressed as “Rose”. But there was nothing wrong with the engine under the rusty bonnet, and soon they were roaring out of Little Milton at fifty miles an hour. It was a striking demonstration of the relativity of speed, for Crysteel and Danstor, who had spent the last few years travelling tranquilly through space at several million miles a second, had never been so scared in their lives. When Crysteel had recovered his breath he pulled out his little portable transmitter and called the ship.

“We’re on the way back,” he shouted above the roar of the wind. “We’ve got a fairly intelligent human being with us. Expect us in—whoops!—I’m sorry—we just went over a bridge—about ten minutes. What was that? No, of course not. We didn’t have the slightest trouble. Everything went perfectly smoothly. Good-bye.”

Graham looked back only once to see how his passengers were faring. The sight was rather unsettling, for their ears and hair (which had not been glued on very firmly) had blown away and their real selves were beginning to emerge. Graham began to suspect with some discomfort, that his new acquaintances also lacked noses. Oh well, one could grow used to anything with practice. He was going to have plenty of that in the years ahead.

The rest, of course, you all know; but for the full story of the first landing on Earth, and of the peculiar circumstances under which Ambassador Graham became humanity’s representative to the universe at large, has never before been recounted. We extracted the main details, with a good deal of persuasion, from Crysteel and Danstor themselves, while we were working in the Department of Extraterrestrial affairs.

It was understandable, in view of their success on Earth, that they should have been selected by their superiors to make the first contact with our mysterious and secretive neighbours, the Martians. It is also understandable, in the light of the above evidence, that Crysteel and Danstor were so reluctant to embark on this later mission, and we are not really very surprised that nothing has ever been heard of them since.