Master salesman Alf Vickers walked slowly along the beach behind his companion, and pondered. He was never quite sure how to begin his talks. If it had been a question of selling, alone, he would have had no worries, even though it was necessary to employ careful reasoning rather than emotional high pressure when one was not too well acquainted with the emotional build up of an alien race; but when the selling had to be done to an entire people, and there was a moral certainty of reprimand and perhaps of disrating if the Federation Government caught him, he began to think of the consequences of his errors, before he made them.
The people, at least, were a peaceful seeming lot for such a rugged planet; that was some relief. The frowning, almost sheer six thousand feet of Observatory Hill, at whose foot he now stood, had made him think uncomfortably of the wilder mountain tribes of history and legend on Earth. Big as they were, he reflected, gazing at the specimen walking ahead of him, the few he had met were almost painfully polite. It had made easy the task of revealing nothing of himself or his mission until he had acquired a good control of their language; but courteous or not, Vickers felt that the explanation could not be put off much longer.
Serrnak Deg, who had devoted so much time to teaching his speech to the Earthman, was plainly curious; and there was only one plausible reason for his insisting that morning that they drive alone to the beach at the foot of the mountain. Plainly, he was willing to keep Vickers’ secrets from his compatriots if Vickers so wished; but he had definite intentions of learning them himself.
Vickers braced himself as Deg stopped walking and turned to face him. As the man stopped beside him, the Heklan began to talk.
“I have asked you no questions since you first intimated a desire not to answer them. I have taken you on trust, on what seemed to me a thin excuse — that you feared the results of possible misunderstanding caused by your ignorance of our language. I think my expenditure of time and effort merits some reward in the shape of satisfied curiosity.”
“The excuse was not thin,” replied Vickers in the Heklan language. “More than one man in my position has suffered injury or death as a result of just such misunderstandings. It is important that you get no false ideas from me about my people, the world from which I come, and the other races and worlds which are depending on my success. It is my intention to tell not only you, but eventually all your people, my full story; but I am depending on you for assurance that I can make myself clear, and I also want to hear your impression of what I say before it is transmitted to the rest of the planet or to that part of it with which you are on friendly terms.”
He stopped to gather his thoughts. The surroundings were not quite what he would have chosen — a rocky beach at the foot of a nearly perpendicular cliff, pounded by breakers from an ocean that was tinted a curiously disconcerting pink. The sky was a slightly deeper shade, and suspended in it was the hardly visible disk of a giant red sun.
The audience would have been more disconcerting than the environment, to one less accustomed than Vickers to nonhuman beings. Serrnak Deg had no need of the heavy jacket with which Vickers warded off the stiff breeze. He was protected by a layer of fat which must have accounted for half of his weight; and the fur that covered his body was thick enough to hide the straps supporting his only garment — a pair of trunks whose primary function was to contain pockets. His face, with its enormous eyeballs and almost nonexistent nose, reminded Vickers of a spectral tarsier; but the well-developed skull behind the grotesque features had already shown itself to contain a keen brain.
“One of our mapping vessels noted some time ago that this planet was inhabited by intelligent creatures,” Vickers went on. “There is a standard procedure in such cases. We learned long ago not to make immediate, open contact with the bulk of the world’s population. It is a mathematical certainty that there will be enough objection to contact with aliens to result in violence.”
“I find that hard to believe,” interjected Serrnak. “Why should there be objection?”
The Earthman creased his brows and tried to remember Deg’s word for “superstition,” but the concept had never arisen in their conversation. “There have been many reasons,” he finally answered. “The one that leaps to my mind I am still unable to express in your language. I am afraid you will have to be content with my assurance that it is so. For that reason, a single agent is always sent to contact the smallest practicable group of individuals, to become acquainted with them and through them with their people, and with their help to accustom the race gradually to the existence, appearance, and company of natives of other worlds. Make no mistake; it is a delicate task, and an error can have really ghastly results. I hope you don’t find that out first hand.”
“I don’t know about your business, but errors can be pretty serious in mine,” said Deg. “What consequence, other than this planet’s failure to join the organization you refer to as ‘We,’ can arise from mistakes of yours? I take it that you are the agent responsible for us.”
“I am; I’m sorry if I am not giving my explanations in proper order. It is my business to convince you and your fellows at this place that the Federation can do your people untold good, and to enlist your help in persuading your race, or at least your nation, to the same effect.”
“Why should persuasion be necessary?” asked Serrnak. “It seems obvious that good would result from such an action. Contact between groups living on different parts of this one world has always produced beneficial exchanges of ideas and natural products, and I should imagine that this would be even more true of interplanetary commerce. Some planets, I suppose, would have more than enough metals, for example — that occurred to me because that is one of our most serious lacks; and certainly, if you have solved the secret of interstellar travel, there is much we can learn from you. Do you really mean to imply that some races have actually refused to benefit by such a chance?”
Vickers nodded solemnly.
“Too many,” he said. “A certain suspicion of strangers, a doubt as to our intentions, is natural of course. We expect and allow for it; our work is to allay it, and prove that we have no intention of dealing unfairly with anybody. Your attitude is encouraging; I hope a majority of your people share it. Do you suppose they will, Deg?”
The answer was slow and hesitant.
“I can’t be sure — naturally. I have already given you my feelings on the matter, but I cannot answer for everyone. I will test my coworkers here, as I suppose you want me to, bearing your warnings carefully in mind. Will that be satisfactory?”
“That will be excellent. I can’t find the words to thank you, but I’ll try to give any help in my power if you have undesirable reactions. I admit I have worried a good deal about the outcome of this meeting; one can never be sure of having chosen the right person for the first advances.”
“I understand why you wanted privacy as much as possible for our conversations. You chose a good place to land on this world; we are about as isolated a group as you could have found, except perhaps for the stations in the far interior of this continent. The cities are mostly located in the larger islands of the equatorial zone — I suppose you observed that, before landing. If I may ask, how did you find this station? It is not particularly easy to mark from the air, according to my experience.”
“It was found by accident, on a photograph,” replied Vickers. “We decided that, if it were not deserted, it should prove a good place to start operations. We were not sure of its purpose; I still don’t know what you do here, but it had the desired isolation, and the presence of someone with authority seemed probable. Are you in very close touch with any of the cities?”
“We have to be. This is a weather station, and is tied into a tight communication network linking all the observatories on this continent with one of the cities. The constant flow of reports is received there, and integrated into a master weather map of the continent; and an intercity net further combines these maps into a world map in one of the largest population centers. The information and world forecasts are there made available to any who have need of them — including the original stations; we require the total picture for long-range local forecasting. All the exact sciences have a similar network for co-ordination and exchange of information.”
“That sounds efficient,” remarked Vickers. “We have similar organization on and between the worlds of the Union. There is a great deal of written information on such matters in my ship; I shall be glad to translate for you, any time you care to come aboard. The more you understand about our civilization, the better.”
“I shall take advantage of that offer presently,” returned Deg. “At the moment, I fear I have ignored my duties too long. There will be several hours’ observation records in my office, and one of the computing machines has been behaving suspiciously. If it goes out altogether it may be more than our technician can handle, and I’d hate the thought of doing much of that computation manually. Would you care to visit my office? I can show you something of the station on the way, and you can return the favor when I visit your ship.”
Vickers had been hoping for such an offer. He had not wanted to make the suggestion himself, but up to now he had acquired very little idea of the state of technical advancement of these people. A look at any sort of laboratory would give him a good idea of their science in general, for no field of knowledge progresses far without corresponding development in the others. He gladly accepted Serrnak’s offer.
They had been walking as they conversed, toward the point where the giant breakers flung themselves against the stone rampart of the lowest terrace. Now the meteorologist turned back toward the hill, the Earthman following. Parked against the face of the cliff was Deg’s car, a four-wheeled vehicle with enormous balloon tires. Its owner vaulted easily over the side into the driver’s seat; Vickers clambered in more slowly, hampered by the sixty pounds that Heklas gravity added to his normal weight.
Deg set the car in motion, picking his way between rockfalls. Vickers constantly expected to see the tires cut through by the sharp-edged fragments of slate littering the way, but the tough treads remained intact; and presently the stones disappeared, as the mountain was left behind. After a quarter of an hour, Deg was able to turn inland, and a little later there began to be signs of a narrow road, which led in a rather steep climb back toward the hill. Here they were able to put on more speed, although Deg was bothered part of the time by the sun shining in his eyes. Vickers was able to look directly at the hazy, mottled crimson disk without much discomfort.
About a quarter of the way up, the road skirted a small pocket in the hillside, covering perhaps a quarter of an acre. It was covered with regular rows of purplish vegetation, and a small, low-roofed stone building stood between it and the road. Deg stopped the car and entered the building, indicating that Vickers should wait. The Earthman heard conversation through the open door, but was unable to distinguish any words. The Heklan emerged after a moment, and the ride continued. Vickers had seen several of the little gardens on the way down the mountain, but Deg did not offer to explain them on either trip.
The rest of the drive was uneventful, and the car presently emerged from the road — now almost a tunnel — onto a nearly flat space two or three hundred yards across, beyond which the hill rose sharply to its real summit two hundred feet above. At the base of this final peak, an opening fifty yards across and half as high led into the hill; and from the opening, and equally wide, a paved, level strip ran across the flat space to its very edge. Vickers had assumed this to be a landing runway for aircraft; and the silvery hull of his own little ship lay now to one side of it.
The car drove straight on into the cavern, through it, and into a smaller chamber beyond, in which a number of the vehicles were parked. Leaving the vehicle here, the men proceeded through two narrow hallways. Along both sides of the second were a number of doors; Deg opened one of these, to reveal an elevator, into which he motioned the Earthman. It was similar to the terrestrial elevator, controlled by the passenger. Vickers counted the buttons, trying to get some idea of the extent of the station. There were forty-five of them, indicating that there were at least that many levels to the observatory.
Deg touched one of the highest buttons with the horny tip of a finger, and they were carried smoothly upwards. Vickers could not tell the number of levels they passed, but the ride was comparatively short. They emerged directly into a large room, which Deg described as the local integration and prediction laboratory.
It was about one hundred feet square. Its most prominent feature was a set of six five-foot globes, spaced equally along one wall, and representing the first maps Vickers had seen of Hekla. Each was covered with a complicated network of lines and symbols; the Earthman assumed that these were the equivalents of the isobars, fronts, cloud symbols and other data with which meteorologists habitually decorate their work. They meant little to Vickers. He was able to tell, from his recollection of the planet’s surface as viewed from space, that the deep purple areas represented water, while land was white. The globes were evidently of some translucent material like frosted glass, and were lighted from within.
At the base of each globe was a desk, at which an operator sat. Some were working small computing machines; others were busy with the incomprehensible diagrams and graphs of their profession. On the rest of the floor space were a number of larger computers, some manned and active, others deserted. Across the room from the globes four more of the machines, far larger and more complex than their fellows, were set at the four sides of a large table whose top was a map, evidently of the region centering about the observatory, set up and lighted in similar fashion to the world maps. The operators of these calculators were grouped about the keyboard nearest to Vickers and Deg; and with a word of apology, the Heklan stepped over to them, to listen to their conversation.
Vickers waited for him, gazing around at the ordered efficiency represented in the activity of the laboratory. It pleased him; everything he saw bespoke a high culture, considerable progress in the physical sciences, mechanical skill, and an apparent tendency toward international co-operation — a smoothly working planet-wide weather system could scarcely be maintained in the face of strained international relationships. He also noted an apparent lack of metal; it was used only where necessary, as in electric conductors. Wood and synthetics were used almost entirely.
He was not too surprised; he had known of the low density of the planet before leaving the big interstellar flyer which had brought him and his smaller ship to the neighborhood of R Coronae. Hekla had nearly twice the diameter of Earth, but its surface gravity was only forty percent higher. The forty percent, he reflected, was plenty; his legs were aching perpetually, and he had been getting — and needing — twelve hours’ sleep out of twenty-four. Hekla’s thirty-two-hour day complicated his schedule; day or night, he had to sleep after twelve or fourteen hours of activity. The Heklans, even when the proportionate length of their day was considered, got along with unbelievably little rest; Deg, Vickers had learned, counted on four to five hours of sleep, which he got as soon after sunset as his work permitted.
Vickers’ reflections were interrupted by Serrnak’s return.
“I am very sorry,” the Heklan said, “but I cannot show you more of our station at the moment. The main integrator is definitely making mistakes, and I shall have to help carry out alternate procedure with the smaller machines until the technical section can correct the trouble. I shall send someone to show you the way back to your ship, unless you wish to do something else until I can rejoin you.”
“I will return to the ship, for a while at least,” replied Vickers. “I can find my own way, if you will tell me the level at which I should stop the elevator. I saw no means of telling the number of the floor from which we started.
“The flight ramp and road exit are on the thirtieth level,” Deg informed him. “The control buttons in the cage are in order. I regret being so abrupt, but there is nothing else to be done. I will come to your ship when I am again free.”
Vickers nodded, touched Serrnak’s hand in the standard Heklan gesture of farewell, and entered the elevator. It was lit by a source which would have reminded the Earthman of an old carbon filament bulb, if he had ever seen such a thing, but the reddish glow was sufficient to enable him to count off thirty buttons. He pressed the thirtieth, and felt the cage sink slowly downwards. The ride, as before, was brief, and the door opened automatically at its termination.
He stepped into the corridor, turned right — and stopped short. The hallway should have extended for twenty yards and been crossed by another at that point. Instead, only a few paces from the elevator it opened directly into a room almost as large as the integration laboratory above. Electrical equipment, as unfamiliar as any other scientific apparatus to Vickers, crowded the floor; and among the installations sat or stood fully a score of Heklans, all apparently busily occupied. Vickers stood gazing into the chamber for several moments, until one of the workers chanced to glance up. His big eyes blinked once; then he took a pair of earphones from his head, rose from his seat, and approached the Earthman.
“Your ship is out on the landing ramp, which is on the thirtieth level,” he said. “Can I help you in locating it?”
“I thought I had reached the thirtieth level,” replied Vickers. “Serrnak Deg told me that the elevator buttons were in order, and I certainly pressed the thirtieth.” The Heklan looked steadily at him for several seconds, and blinked once more. Then he nodded his head violently.
“I think I see what must have happened,” he said. “You counted upward from the bottom of the panel. You are now on the sixteenth of the forty-five levels. The station was dug downwards from the top of the mountain, and it was natural to number in that direction. Do your people normally number from the ground up?”
“Yes, we do, on buildings above ground level; but if I had stopped to recall that this place is underground I should at least have asked Deg whether you counted up or down. It is a silly error on my part. Now that I am here, however, do you mind my seeing your department? I will try to keep out of the way of any activity.”
The big eyes blinked again, as their owner hesitated. Vickers decided that the expression on the grotesque face denoted discomfort.
“I dislike to appear discourteous,” the answer finally came, “but the trouble in the computing department has thrown a heavy load on us. We are all extremely busy, so that I can neither guide you around our section myself, nor provide another to do so. Some of the equipment is too dangerous to permit your examining it unattended. I am extremely sorry, but there is nothing I can do to grant your request. Do you think you can find the way back to your ship from here? If not, I can show you to the landing stage.”
He started to move toward the elevator before Vickers could answer him; but the Earthman declined the offer of guidance. The Heklan pointed out the proper button — they were labeled in Heklan characters, but the numbers happened not to stand out very clearly to blue-sensitive eyes — and returned to the chamber of electrical devices, leaving an elevator with a decidedly thoughtful occupant.
Vickers retraced his original way from the ship without further misadventure, passed through the air lock, still pondering. Until the time he had left Serrnak in his laboratory, everything had appeared to be proceeding favorably. The meteorologist had evidently been convinced of his sincerity — Vickers chalked up another point in favor of the policy of sticking to the truth as much as possible; but the technician on the sixteenth level had been patently anxious to get rid of him. The creature had said the entire force was too busy to show him around the department, and in the same breath had offered to guide him back to the spaceship. A personal dislike, or actual physical repugnance to a member of an alien race might be responsible, of course; but the apparently genuine effort at courtesy suggested some other cause.
Vickers settled down in a well padded chair — his ship was a converted lifeboat, and he had personally fitted it with items of luxury seldom found on such a craft — and gave his mind to the problem. In the first place, no Heklan except Serrnak Deg had had opportunity to become acquainted with him; during the three months in which he had learned the language of this race, Vickers had confined his attention to that one individual, and had caught no more than fleeting glimpses of the other inhabitants of the station. It seemed, therefore, that the Heklan on the sixteenth level either had formed an instantaneous dislike of the Earthman, had acquired one from Deg, or had been ordered by the same individual not to permit Vickers to examine that level. The first possibility the man had already dismissed as unlikely; and the other two posed the same question — to wit, what had he done or said to arouse the Heklan’s suspicion or dislike? Deg must be a fine actor, if Vickers’ opinion of his own ability to judge the expression of the Heklan face was not overrated; for no suggestion of any emotion save friendly interest had been apparent to the man in Serrnak’s attitude.
The conversation of the last hour or two was the most probable source of trouble. Vickers reviewed his words, with the aid of a nearly eidetic memory. He had, in the first place, adhered strictly to the truth in describing the Federation and its method of establishing contact with “new” races. He had described himself as an agent of the Federation, which was his only serious departure from scrupulous verity; but the lie should not have been obvious to Deg. He had answered the Heklan’s questions plausibly — and truthfully, as he recalled. He had known more than one Federation ambassador, and knew their usual troubles.
It was at this point that a recollection of the nature of Deg’s questions suddenly stood out in Vickers’ mind. There had been only one of importance, though he had asked it more than once, and in a variety of ways. The Heklan had been unable to understand why membership in or dealings with the Federation had been refused by some races; and — had he been entirely unmoved by Vickers’ speech, “A certain suspicion of strangers is natural”? A moment later he had said that “naturally” he could not answer for the attitude of the rest of his people; had the inflection of his voice as he uttered that word denoted sarcasm, or some other emotion — or was Vickers’ imagination adding to the picture painted by memory?
The man had not learned so much as he had meant to of the living conditions on Hekla. If the population were small and conditions hard, an instinct of co-operation rather than competition might be dominant; such cases were not unknown. If this were true of Hekia, Deg and his people would not be merely reluctant to have dealings with outsiders; they would be terrified at the mere thought, after the impression the meteorologist must have gained from what Vickers had considered “natural.”
The theory made Vickers extremely uncomfortable, but long cogitation produced no other. He berated himself for giving so much information without obtaining any in return; but there was no use reviving a dead issue. He determined to return to the observatory, both to check his theory and to obtain some of the missing information. He arose, opened the air lock, and walked across the small plateau toward the great entry way.
Twenty minutes later, a very thoughtful man, he was sitting in his control room. He had met four Heklans inside the entrance; they had been extremely polite; but he had not reached the elevator. Something was decidedly wrong. He had learned nothing new or helpful on the second trip, but it seemed pretty certain that action was required.
Action was not Vickers’ strong point, and none knew the fact better than he. Where a good personality and a working knowledge of practical persuasion were required, he shone; but if there were need of a more specialized field of knowledge, he knew when to call for help.
He turned to the panel below the outer vision screens, and pulled a small section out and down to form a shelf. On this was mounted a small medium-crystal unit. Such a transmitter was standard lifeboat equipment, but this set’s crystal had been recharged, removing it from the universal distress medium, and matched to only one other unit, which was in the interstellar ship now resting on Hekla’s innermost satellite. The set was keyed, as the high-frequency interrupter which permitted voice and, later, vision to be sent and received even by a ship in second-order flight had not at that time been developed.
Vickers checked the tiny green light which assured him that heat or stray static charges had not altered the crystal’s medium; then, at a very fair speed, he began rapping out a message. He had to wait several minutes for an acknowledgment, but finally a brief series of long and short flashes blinked from a second bulb above the key, and he closed the unit, satisfied.
There was nothing more he could do at the moment. He had been active since mid-morning, and it was now well after noon; he suddenly realized that his legs and back were aching fiercely from the unaccustomed walking under Heklan gravity. Vickers rose, closed and secured the inner air lock door, and dropped thankfully onto his bunk.
When he awoke, the sun was quite low in the west. Its enormous disk, ill-defined at the best of times, was nearly hidden in haze; the western half of the sky was tinted a deep blood-red never approached by a terrestrial sunset. The daily cumulus cloud was still above the mountain, its top streaming away inland and forming a crimson-lit finger pointing at Observatory Hill. Vickers, looking at it, was reminded to turn on the homing transmitter in his ship, in case his help should have difficulty in locating him.
He spent more than an hour at the board, using all his radio equipment in every combination and on every band he could reach, in an effort to pick up Heklan communications. On the entire electromagnetic spectrum, except the bands of too high frequency for communication beyond the horizon, static was strong and constant; frequency modulation did little to help, and brought nothing that might have been an intelligent message. He considered charging a spare crystal, but realized that no unit so far energized on any Federation world had chanced on the medium of a widely separated crystal, and the chances against doing so had been computed as something like the number of electrons in the universe. Two crystals had to be charged in physical contact to respond to each other across what, for want of a better name, was called a “medium.” Even if Heklan science had reached such a point, there was no hope of discovering the fact by searching the legions of possible media. Vickers took that for granted, and after some time at the radios was prepared to state that they had no other means of long-range communication.
He had given up the search and was eating, when a second lifeboat settled down beside his own. Vickers failed to notice it for several minutes; when he did, he immediately snapped on the standard communicator and tuned to the frequency his crew normally used on such occasions. He gave the set a moment to warm, and then called.
“Hello, Dave! Is everything all right?” The answer came back at once.
“This is Macklin. Rodin is here, all right. He’s in the air lock, compressing; I’m afraid he’s a little annoyed at you. Why in the name of common sense didn’t you let us know that you had an atmospheric pressure of forty pounds on this blasted hilltop? He could have ridden all the way in the lock, building up gradually. He’ll be over there as soon as possible; as soon as he opens the lock, you’d better trot over and help him. He had enough stuff to set up in business for himself. All right?”
“All serene. Can you stay with us, or do they want the boat back in a hurry?”
“I have to go back. I don’t know what they want with this can, and I’m much too modest to suppose they’d need me, but them’s the orders. You’d better watch for Dave; the lock pressure is nearly forty now.”
“All right. Don’t get lost.”
Vickers snapped off the set, and opened the inner lock door. A glance through the control room port showed that the other ship was still sealed, but he strolled out onto the landing stage and waited there for Rodin to emerge. He noted with a shiver that the temperature at the top of the hill had not increased perceptibly since morning.
He had only a few moments to wait; the lock of the visiting ship opened silently, and its occupant hailed him.
“Hello, Alf? What have you messed up this time?”
“Don’t take so much for granted, cloud-chaser,” returned Vickers. “As a matter of fact, I’m not quite sure what, if anything, has been botched. I’m just a little doubtful of the attitude I aroused in the lad who runs this place. It’s a weather station, and he’s a member of your honored and ancient profession, so I called on you to stand by and assist in further negotiations.”
“You would. I’d just gotten back on a more or less human eating and sleeping schedule. Will you help me get my stuff over to your ship? Mack is probably getting tired of waiting.” Vickers nodded and they set to work; Rodin continued to talk, commenting unfavorably on Hekla’s atmospheric pressure, gravity — this as he tried to lift a piece of apparatus normally well within his strength — temperature, and various other characteristics. He did not mention its weather, except to say that it looked interesting from an academic viewpoint.
The equipment had been transferred, and the men were settled in the warmth of Vickers’ ship before Rodin asked for details of the situation. Vickers gave a report of the last three months, pointing out that he had refused either to give an explanation of himself or request information of his hosts until he was sure of his ability to use their language; that Serrnak Deg, the only Heklan with whom he had come into more than momentary contact during this time, had seemed both friendly and interested until exchange of information had begun; and that Vickers had given much more information than he had received. He stressed the fact that the Heklan’s behavior had not become openly hostile; they were carefully keeping him away from anything in the observatory that might do him good, but they were being very polite about it. Rodin asked a question at this point.
“If they don’t want you, who aren’t a scientist, wandering around the place, what good will I do? Don’t you want them to know I’m a meteorologist?”
“I don’t want to wander. Deg said he’d call for me as soon as his emergency had passed — which may merely mean when he’s made the place safe for inspection by a suspicious alien. I’ll introduce you to him as a fellow meteorologist. Your inability to speak his language will take care of any risk there might be of your saying the wrong thing. I don’t know how advanced their metro is — the lab I saw looked quite imposing, but they may not be up to us. That’s one thing I’d like you to pass judgment on. If they’re behind us, we’ll try to make you helpful to them in as many ways as possible — generally produce a good impression. If they know more than you, we’ll decide on some other course of action.”
“You’re the boss. You must have learned something about these folks, and formed some plans, so I’ll follow your lead. I don’t suppose you noticed anything pertinent about the climate and local weather, did you? I know it’s summer, of course; but is this a representative temperature? How’s the lapse rate? Did you notice anything of the prevailing winds and general cloud forms? Don’t answer — I can tell by your expression. I have my work cut out for me. Can you get hold of any locally produced weather maps, or even a decent relief map either of the continent or the whole planet?” Vickers pursed his lips doubtfully.
“The only weather maps I’ve seen are those big globes in the integration laboratory, unless the screens of those computing machines could be called maps. I think they put out their answers in terms of the squiggles you fellows deface paper with. If Deg will let us into that laboratory again, you can judge that for yourself; but I wouldn’t count on that happening. I don’t know about printed maps or charts; I’ve seen books, bound like ours, but I haven’t even tried to read their language, and haven’t seen how their books are illustrated. They undoubtedly have relief maps; if you need them in meteorology; I suppose they do too, and should have them around; but getting hold of one is something you’ll just have to pray for.”
Rodin nodded, and dropped the subject. They discussed the physical appearance of the Heklans, speculating on their probable evolutionary history; the doings on Hekla’s satellite during Vickers’ three-month absence from the interstellar ship; and every subject that occurred to them. They had plenty of time, for two of Hekla’s long days had rolled by and the sun was again in the west before Serrnak Deg appeared outside the air lock.
Vickers heard him slap the outer door with the flat of his hand, and immediately opened the lock. The pudgy being walked — in spite of his build, his motion was nothing like a fat man’s waddle — into the control room, where Rodin was waiting. The tarsierlike face showed no surprise as the big eyes took in the two Earthmen. Vickers forestalled any remarks by speaking himself.
“This is David Rodin, a meteorologist from the crew of the ship that brought me to this planetary system,” he said. “I called for him after I left you two days ago. If I had known the nature of this place, I would have arranged to have him accompany me when I came, and learn your language at the same time. I imagine you would find a member of your own profession a more interesting conversationalist than I. I shall do my best to make up for my failure by acting as interpreter — I shall have to learn more of your meteorological terms, as well as our own, if you start to talk shop. Rodin would like to see your observatory with us, if you are ready to show the rest of it to me.”
“We noticed your friend’s arrival,” replied Deg. “I regret being kept busy for so long. I will gladly show him the integration room if you wish it — perhaps he will understand our simple installations without explanation. I should be grateful for any improvements he might suggest. Do you wish to come now, or would you rather show me some of the photographic material you promised to let me see the next time I visited you?”
Vickers felt slightly nonplussed, and admitted to himself that Deg, if he were trying to be an unobtrusive hindrance to further human exploration of his observatory, could scarcely have done better. He gave the only possible answer.
“By all means stay and see the material. Dave’s arrival had driven it from my mind. The pictures are accompanied by much printed information which you won’t be able to read; but we can probably make up for that. Rodin has traveled even more than I, and can give first-hand explanations of much that you will see. The atlases are in the library to the rear of the ship.”
Vickers took care to hide his annoyance as the two men and the Heklan examined and discussed the records of the dozens of worlds that made up the Federation and the human, near-human, and completely unhuman beings that peopled them. Deg expressed surprise that his own world, so comparatively close to Earth and Thanno, the principal Federation planets, had remained overlooked while Federation sway had reached across the Galaxy and beyond to its sprawling satellites, the Magellanic Clouds. The men pointed out the vast number of stars, which rendered surveys either cursory in nature or prohibitively long in duration. A sun was likely to be investigated closely enough to detect its planets, if any, only if there were something intrinsically peculiar about the star itself, as was the case with R Coronae. Privately, Vickers wondered how soon the Federation actually would become interested enough in the giant variable to give it a close looking over.
Deg remained until sunset. By that time both the human beings were again badly in need of sleep, and the Heklan had gathered about as much knowledge of other races of the Galaxy as any one could without firsthand experience.
Vickers watched his guest through the control room port as he vanished into the still faintly crimson-lit gloom. A general glumness permeated the atmosphere of the room. Rodin waited for his companion to make some remark, but Vickers remained silent for several minutes. To the meteorologist’s disappointment, he finally retired without saying anything about the problem in hand.
Sunrise, after the five and a half hours of darkness which prevailed at this season, found both men awake, though not entirely refreshed. Rodin, owing to his brief residence on Hekla, was in rather better condition than Vickers, but even he was beginning to feel and show the effects of the excess gravity. Both men ate an enormous breakfast — Vickers’ stores were far from exhausted — and then the “diplomat” led the way out of the ship, purposefully toward the great entrance in the rock.
“If I don’t get in this time, I think I’ll give it up as a bad job,” he remarked as they approached the opening. “I’m beginning to think Deg is a little too smooth for me. I wish I were more certain of what cooled him so toward us; my present idea is just a working hypothesis, and goodness knows when it may stop working.”
The men passed into the shadowy hangar, in which Vickers had never yet seen an aircraft. No one was there; the tunnels opening into the great cavern yawned dimly lighted and empty. Vickers led the way toward the elevator, without stopping to wonder where the Heklans might be. He knew the natives would meet them before they got far.
He was right. As they turned the last corner, bringing them in sight of the elevator, a Heklan stepped from the cage. Vickers was not sure whether or not it was one of the individuals whom he had already encountered — his comparative isolation with Deg while he was learning the Heklan language had given him no opportunity to study facial or other differences between members of that race — but this specimen was far too tall to be Deg himself. His eyes were almost on a level with those of the Earthmen, while his general build was in normal Heklan proportion. He must have weighed, on Hekla, between four and five hundred pounds.
The tremendous native listened politely to Vickers’ request to see Serrnak Deg, and nodded when the man finished speaking.
“I was coming to see you,” he said. “Deg has asked me to act as your guide. He will be glad to see you whenever you particularly wish it, but routine duties of his position, which he has been rather neglecting for the past few months, prevent him from spending all his time with you from now on. He asks me to apologize for any seeming discourtesy, but I am sure you understand his difficulties. In what way can I help you now?”
“My friend is a meteorologist, and would be interested in seeing the integration laboratory Deg showed me, as well as your observing apparatus. I understand perfectly why Deg cannot be with us, and I thank you for granting your time. Perhaps if we went first to the integration laboratory, and you explained your weather maps and their symbols to Rodin, he could comprehend the rest of your system more easily. He has been eager to see that laboratory ever since I described it to him. Does that meet with your approval?” Vickers had ideas of his own about the assignment of this enormous individual as their host, but determined to make the best of the situation.
“Whatever you wish,” returned the guide. “My name, by the way, is Marn Trangero — either name is acceptable as a form of address, as you probably gathered from Deg. We will go up to the integration room, then, if you are ready; as a matter of fact, Deg is probably there himself, just now, so if there is something you particularly wished to discuss with him, you will have a chance to do so.”
Vickers nodded understanding as they entered the dimly lit elevator. The Heklan pressed the button — Vickers examined carefully the faint character beside it as he did so — and they slid gently upward.
The laboratory was as Vickers remembered it; the globes, the computing machines, the operating personnel. The big central machine was active this time, with the four operators in their seats on each side. Marn pointed out one of these individuals.
“Deg is here, as I thought,” he said. “Did you particularly wish to speak to him?”
“Not if he is busy,” replied Vickers. “Could you explain these devices to us? I will translate to Rodin as well as I can, though you will probably have to explain most of your scientific terms with simpler words. What is the connection between those globes and the computers beneath them?”
“The globes are weather maps. The computers handle observed values of air pressure, temperature, humidity, and similar factors, setting them up as isopleths on the globes and calculating their individual trends. Each of the machines handles one such variable and its individual characteristics. The results of these computations are fed to the intermediate machines, and finally to the master computer, which is supposed to give a complete weather picture. All the factors at once could be shown on the main screen, but it would make a very confusing picture. The trouble, of course, is that each factor is dependent on all the others, and the integration has to be fed back to the individual machines to correct their values for each few minutes of a prediction. It is really a very clumsy system: a single computer capable of tracking all the variables at once would be far speedier and more convenient. Such a machine is being designed at one of our research centers, but it is so far much too bulky, complex, and tricky for an outpost such as this. I should like a chance at it myself, as you can well imagine.”
Vickers could imagine; he recalled scientist friends of his own who would give ten years of their lives for six months’ time at some particular laboratory, or machine, or in some fellow worker’s company. He relayed the explanation to Rodin, who nodded in understanding and examined very closely each of the globes in turn. The meteorologist then spent several minutes carefully observing the operation of the keyboards of several of the machines. He finally asked for an illustration of the system’s accuracy; Vickers relayed the question to Marn.
“Since I am not acquainted with your own progress in this field, I hesitate to call our work accurate,” was the reply. “In meteorology, it is difficult to define accuracy, in any case. If you like, however, I can translate the machine’s prediction of the next few hours’ weather. From a cursory glance, it seems to me that it will be different enough from the local norm to afford you a fair check on our methods. If you will wait a few moments, I will interpret the records from the machine.”
He left them, while Vickers explained his proposition to Rodin. The meteorologist approved strongly, and they waited expectantly for the Heklan’s return. He was gone only a few minutes.
“You know,” he began as he approached the men, “that this station is at the coast of a large continental area. You have undoubtedly noticed the stiff sea breeze which forms a normal part of our weather at this season. It is a direct cause of the cumulus cloud which builds up above this hill each day.
“Since your arrival, Vickers, the weather has departed only very slightly from the norm. Now, however, a weak warm front has developed to the southwest, and is moving in this direction. Its first symptoms, high thin clouds, will arrive about midday. They will lower rapidly, reaching the level of the station three and a half hours later, and precipitation will occur almost immediately after that. Winds will continue rising until the rain starts; thereafter they will decrease, and shift from south to west. I could give you numerical values for wind velocity, air pressure, temperature, and so forth; but they would have to be translated into your units, and I don’t believe either of us can do that. All clouds should disappear before sunset, including the cumulus head one usually sees over this point. Deg has just warned the gardeners on the lower slopes of the front, I see. It might be a good idea to move your ship into the hangar — though you know the strength of your own creations better than I; use your judgment. Winds sometimes become rather violent here at the hilltop.”
“The ship is a pretty solid piece of machinery, and we can anchor to the mountain if necessary,” replied Vickers. “Why do you warn the gardeners, if this is to be a weak front? And what is the nature of the gardens I saw on my drive with Deg a few days ago?”
“The plants nourish a fermenting protozoan in their roots, and store alcohol in their stems and spore pods. The longer they grow, the higher the alcoholic content; but a strong wind ruptures the pods and frees the alcohol. Consequently, we try to harvest just before a wind. The local gardens are small; we simply produce enough to power the station. I believe there are efforts under way to modify the protozoans to produce better fuels, but if they have met with success we have yet to receive the benefits. Your arrival, of course, may obviate the need for further work along such lines; you certainly didn’t cross interstellar space on combustion engines.”
Vickers nodded absently at this remark, as he translated the gist of the forecast to Rodin. The latter listened carefully, making certain of details that seemed unimportant to his companion, and finally asked to see the observing portions of the station.
Trangero agreed instantly to this request, and turned back to the elevator. Once again they traveled upward, emerging this time into a small chamber from which half a dozen doors opened. The Heklan led them through one of these.
They found themselves on a flat area, only a few yards square, and obviously artificial, located only a dozen yards below the actual peak of Observatory Hill. A metal ladder led to the peak itself, which was topped by a slender but solid-looking tower. Part of the platform was walled with stone, and the rest guarded by a metal rail. Several instruments were mounted on the rail itself, and some larger devices on the rock just outside. The tower was topped by a tiny vane. Marn showed the men each of the instruments in turn, vaulting the rail easily to demonstrate those beyond it. Neither of the human beings enjoyed going outside its protection; the rock was smooth, and after the first few feet sloped very steeply toward the landing ramp sixty yards below. The ship was just visible from the safe side of the railing.
The instruments seemed normal enough to Vickers, and even Rodin had little to say about them. There were thermometers, precipitation gauges, and hygrometers, all connected electrically to recorders in the laboratories below. The vane on the tower was similarly connected to record wind direction, and it contained a pivot head to measure velocity. The few other devices were slight variants of standard — to Rodin— equipment; and the meteorologist felt rather let down at the end of the tour. He felt fairly surely that the Heklans, in spite of their efficient world net, were no further advanced in meteorology than any Federation planet; but he decided not to voice the opinion until after checking a fair number of their predictions. He awaited the approaching storm with interest. He glanced occasionally to the southwest while they were at the summit, but the omnipresent haze of Hekla’s dense atmosphere hid the horizon; and no signs of the approaching weather appeared before Marn shepherded the men back to the elevator. The other parts of the station, which the Heklan insisted on showing them, were connected with the maintenance of the place rather than with its primary function. The power plant was on the same level as the hangar; it consisted of six surprisingly small electric generators driven by equally diminutive internal-combustion engines, which, according to Marn, burned the alcohol produced by the gardens on the slopes of the hill. These units powered the elevator, supplied heat and light sufficient for the Heklans’ small needs, and operated the numerous items of electrical equipment.
They spent fully three hours inspecting the station; if Marn had been ordered to tire the men out on nonessential details, he was doing splendidly. Rodin lost interest after leaving the roof. Vickers kept up a good front, but eventually even he had to call a halt for rest. Perhaps his fatigue can be blamed for causing him to forget an issue he had planned to force — the roomfull of electric equipment from which he had been diverted two days before, and which Marn had skipped by accident or design. Vickers did forget it, made his excuses to the Heklan, and was back in the ship before he recalled the matter. By that time he was nearly asleep, settled back in one of the chairs in the ship’s library.
He slept four or five hours. Rodin remained awake for some time, but was asleep when Vickers awoke; by the time both had finished sleeping, eating, and talking over the morning’s events, the sun was well up in the sky. So far the weather appeared normal, though Vickers, who had been around long enough to be used to it, thought the breeze was less strong and the cumulus banner less well developed than usual. Marn’s weather was not jumping the gun, at any rate.
It was not late, either. A few minutes before noon — as nearly as they could judge the time — Rodin detected the first wisps of cirrus, high above. They must have been above the horizon for some time, invisible in the haze. As the men were on the landward — and consequently the leeward — side of the hill, the change in wind direction was not noticeable for some time; but its strength mounted rapidly as the clouds thickened and dropped closer to the hilltop. Rodin, stepping outside the ship for a moment, was taken by surprise and knocked over by a gust that eddied around the rock shoulder. He got to his feet immediately, bracing himself against the metal hull, and looked around. Toward the west, the haze had thickened so that it was now impossible to make out details on the plateau inland. Two or three thousand feet overhead, the scud raced along parallel to the coast. On Earth, under similar circumstances, the cloud layers would have been gray; but the fainter, red light of R Coronae here gave them an indescribably eerie pinkish color. All traces of the sky had by now disappeared. Rodin could actually feel in his ears the change in air pressure as other eddies swirled by him. It was still cold; the frontal surface, of course, had not yet come down to his level.
He returned to the control room, thinking. If Vickers had translated correctly, Marn had forecast a weak front; and this outside weather could already be called violent without stretching facts. Either the Heklan prediction was inaccurate, or Rodin would have to revise his ideas of what constituted a violent storm. In three months of residence, Vickers had noticed nothing extraordinary about the weather; and it seemed probable that if Heklan atmospheric phenomena were built to a different scale, the fact would have become apparent in that time. Rodin, thinking the matter over, adopted his usual course of withholding an opinion.
The wind increased, and as the clouds thickened the pinkish light faded into total darkness. Rain began to beat against the metal hull, and the light from the control room window penetrated only a few feet into the murk. The clouds had reached the level of the hilltop. Rodin cautiously opened the outer air lock door again; fortunately it was power-operated, or he would have been unable to close it. Several times the ship shuddered from end to end under the blast. Vickers charged the anchoring fields along the keel after the first tremor, but evidently the rock itself was quivering; an occasional vibration could still be felt during the heaviest gusts of wind. There would be more shattered rock on the terraces when the weather cleared.
The time passed slowly. Rodin kept watching the clock, trying to figure the time of Heklan day on the twenty-four-hour dial in order to keep check on Marn’s prediction. Vickers read and thought, while the storm reached and passed its height. Twice the men were disturbed by an odd, crackling sound, and looked up to see ghostly fingers of fire crawling about the transparent ports. The meteorologist blinked at the sight; he was accustomed to electrical activity in storms with strong vertical development, but to get it with strictly horizontal winds somewhat surprised him. He wondered what velocity the wind must have reached to ionize the raindrops. Vickers felt thankful for the metallic construction of the ship.
Slowly the shuddering diminished, the howling of the wind died, and the dense fog grew once more pinkly luminous. The men ventured outside again, finding that the wind was still strong, but no longer savage. The fog was thinning, and the wind, true to prediction, was blowing from inland, bringing even to this height odors from the vast plains and hills of the great continent.
Rodin stood looking, as the view cleared, at the reappearing sun and the vaguely visible landscape, sniffing the odd smells, and gradually acquiring a puzzled expression. Vickers noted it, and started to ask the nature of the trouble; but he changed his mind, knowing that he was unlikely to get an answer, and went into the ship instead. He found himself shivering, as usual on Hekla, so he picked up the jacket he had discarded after the morning’s inspection tour. Attired in this, he went outside again.
Rodin was waiting for him, the expression of puzzlement still on his face. He caught sight of Vickers, and beckoned to him.
“Let’s go back to the station,” he said. “I want to pick a bone with Marn, or with Deg, if necessary. There are one or two things going on that I don’t fully understand. These friends of yours don’t have to sleep half the day like a couple of poor Earthmen, do they?”
“They should still be active,” Vickers replied, looking at the sun. “It’s a couple of hours till sundown, if what I can see of the sun and what I can guess of the horizon’s position aren’t combining to fool me. These fellows sleep for a few hours each night from habit, and I guess they can do without that for quite a time. There should be no trouble in finding Marn, if he’s supposed to be looking after us.”
There was no trouble. They did not meet Trangero the moment they entered the station, but the first Heklan who saw them made it his business to deliver them into the proper custody, and led them to an office on a floor two or three levels below the integration room. Marn raised his enormous bulk from behind a desk as they entered. Vickers thought fleetingly of the curious similarity between human and Heklan forms of courtesy; then he turned his attention to the task of interpreting for the two weather men. Rodin opened the conversation with a question.
“Did I understand correctly that you were basing the prediction for the last few hours upon the passage of a warm front?”
“That is correct. I was several minutes off on the time of passage; but that is not included explicitly in the machine solutions that are recorded, and I did not occupy a machine with the detailed problem.”
“Then a front actually did pass? Why is it that there is no perceptible temperature change? I expected it to be a good deal warmer, from the amount of water vapor that was condensed at the frontal surface.”
“I can only suppose that you are working from acquaintance with a different set of conditions. The temperature change was slight, I agree — I said the front was weak. I should have given you numerical values if we had had any measuring system in common. We must remedy that situation as soon as possible, by the way. The condensation and precipitation which seems abnormal to you agreed as usual with the predictions, as did the winds.”
Rodin pondered for several moments before replying to this. “There’s a good deal I don’t understand even yet,” he finally said. “I’d better start from the beginning and learn your units. Then I might try following some of your computations manually. If that doesn’t clear me up, nothing will. Can you spare the time?”
Vickers hesitated before translating this. He hated the thought of using so much time as Rodin’s proposal would require; the months he had spent on the alien language seemed more than enough. There seemed, however, no alternative; so he transmitted the meteorologist’s request. Marn agreed, as he had expected; and what was worse, the energetic giant plunged immediately into the task, and kept at it for nearly four hours. The translation of units of distance, temperature, weight, angle, and so forth was not in itself a difficult problem; but it was complicated enormously by Vickers’ lack of scientific vocabulary. By the time Rodin had acquired a table of Heklan numerals and a series of conversion graphs, both Earthmen were in a sadly irritated frame of mind.
Vickers was more than willing to call it a day when they returned to the ship, but the meteorologist seemed to partake of the determination displayed by his Heklan fellow. He settled down with his written material, which included one of the maps made during the recent frontal passage, and began working. Vickers wanted to remain awake to hear his conclusions, and settled into a chair in the cramped library; but sheets of used paper began to litter the place, and Rodin, whenever he had to probe among them to check some previous figures, plainly considered his friend to be rather in the way. Vickers finally gave up and went to bed — a habit into which he was falling more and more deeply. The weather man labored on.
He was a red-eyed scarecrow, hunched over the little desk, as he expounded his results the next morning. His words were slow and careful; he had evidently spent a long time on Vickers’ problem after obtaining a satisfactory solution of his own.
“There is one fact that I think will help you greatly,” he said. “This planet is in an ice age — we could tell that from space. In this hemisphere, where it is now two Earth years past midsummer, the ice cap extends more than thirty degrees from the pole. In the other, the large island and continental masses possess glacial sheets scores of feet in thickness to within forty degrees of the equator; and heavy snow fields reach to less than twenty degrees south latitude in spots. On smaller islands, whose temperatures should be fairly well stabilized by the ocean, there appears to be much snow at very low latitudes.
“I suppose, though that’s outside my line, that these people developed their civilization as a result of the period of glaciation, just as the races of Earth, Thanno, and a lot of the other Federation planets seem to have. Now, however, they have the situation of a growing race cramped into the equatorial regions of a planet — admittedly a large one, but with most of its land area in the middle latitudes.
“On Earth we pushed the isotherms fifteen degrees further from the equator, and benefited greatly thereby. How about selling the same idea to the Heklans, if you really want a convincing example of what we can do for them?”
“Two questions, please,” returned Vickers. “First, what’s this about changing the Earth’s weather? I don’t recall ever having heard of such a thing. In the second place, I’m afraid we’ll have to sell the Heklans a little more than possible advantages. Our working theory, remember, is that I inadvertently got them leery of the combative and competitive elements of Federation culture. How would curbing their ice age, if you can do it, help that? Also, and most important, how does it help us to get a corner on the metal trade here before a real Federation agent steps in and opens the place up? Once that happens, every company from Regulus to Vega will have trading ships on Hekla; and we want Belt Metals to be solidly established here by that time. How about that?”
“To answer your first point, we didn’t change Earth’s weather, but its climate. There’d be no point in trying to explain the difference to you, I guess. They stepped up the CO2 content of the atmosphere, producing an increased blanketing effect. At first the equatorial regions were uncomfortably hot as a result; but when the thing stabilized again a lot of the polar caps had melted, and a lot of formerly desert land in the torrid zones, which had been canalized for the purpose, had flooded in consequence. The net result was an increased evaporation surface and, through a lot of steps a little too technical for the present discussion, a shallower temperature drop toward the poles. The general public has forgotten it, I know, but I thought it was still taught in history. Surely you heard of it sometime during your formative years.”
“Perhaps I did. However, that doesn’t answer the other question.”
“That’s your problem, at least for the details. I should say, however, that their acceptance of that proposition would entail the purchase of a lot of machinery by the Heklans. A genius like you can probably take the idea on from there.”
Vickers pursed his lips silently, and thought. There seemed to be some elements of value in Rodin’s idea; elements from which, with a little cerebration, something might be built.
“If they were to accept such a proposition, how long would it take to get the thing under way?” he asked finally.
“The general plans could be obtained directly from the records, and apparatus set up in a few months, I imagine,” was the answer. “It would depend to some extent on the nature and location of Hekla’s volcanic areas — they are the best source of carbon dioxide, I believe; they were used on Earth. I imagine the Alula would require quite a few round trips to Sol to transport enough apparatus for this planet.”
“How soon could we promise results to the Heklans? Remember, we want to establish ourselves solidly with them before competition gets too heavy. If a Federation agent gets here before any agreements are reached, trade of any sort will be frozen until the diplomats finish shaking hands. Until one does arrive, they can’t touch us legally for entering into contracts with the Heklans, though they may frown slightly at the company’s failure to report the discovery of civilization here.”
“I’m afraid it would be a couple of decades — half a year or so, here — before the change in climate would be really noticeable. However, the theory would be clear enough to people like Deg; and they would begin to notice results on their maps almost immediately.”
“How much increase in CO2, would be needed to produce a useful result? And would that much be harmful to the Heklans? I imagine we would have to show Deg some solid figures to overcome his suspicions enough even to consider the proposal.”
“I’ve done a little figuring in that direction, but I can’t give you a precise answer to the first question until I have more accurate and detailed knowledge of the present composition of Hekla’s atmosphere. You’ll have to do some investigating of your own for the second; I have no idea of the physical limitations of these people. That fellow Trangero looks rugged enough to take an awful beating from almost anything.”
“The question is not whether they can stand it, but whether it will cause them discomfort. That would be plenty to squash the whole idea, unless they have a collective personality appallingly different from ours. In any case, the proposition will have to be presented delicately. We shall hold more discussions with Marn or Deg or any one else who will listen to us, provided he is a meteorologist; and I think it will be possible to build up to the subject, while describing our mechanical abilities and history and so on, in such a way as to make him think it’s his own idea. The plan certainly has possibilities, Dave. We’ll eat, and you’d better sleep, and then we’ll have another session in the observatory. Sound all right?”
Rodin agreed that it sounded all right. It was just bad luck that Marn Trangero didn’t.
The conversations seemed to steer themselves in the way Vickers desired, for several hours. They ran from subject to subject, dealing with matters connected with the Federation whenever Trangero held the conversational initiative, and veering back to things Heklan when Vickers could get control. The Earthmen learned of the lives of the half billion Heklans scattered among the equatorial islands of their planet; of their commerce, their science, their arts — but nothing of their wars, except against their environment. Casual references to feats of physical strength and resistance to cold, heat, and hunger made the human beings blink, but partly reassured them of the creatures’ ability to stand slight modifications of their atmosphere.
The Heklan learned of the doings of the natives of the scores of worlds whose co-operating governments called themselves the Federation. Vickers censored carefully the more drastic references to strife, though he did try to make clear the more harmless aspects of a competitive culture. If he had known the mechanics of atomic converters and second-order drive units, Marn would probably have wormed the information from him; the creature was at least as acute a questioner as Vickers. The man was slowly realizing this fact, though he had originally believed that the giant had been chosen as their companion principally for his physical qualities. He wondered, as he strove to lead the talk to climate and the possibility of Federation science’s improving it for Hekla, whether the bulky being were not laughing silently at his attempts. It was a demoralizing suspicion, which success did nothing to allay; for the “success” came with suspicious rapidity after he set to work in earnest.
He had introduced the story Rodin had told him of the undertaking to modify the climate of their home planet; and Marn had appeared extremely interested, asking for a description of the results. Then he asked for a comparison of the normal climates of Earth and Hekla. It was this request that Vickers misconstrued as success for his efforts. With rather good salesmanship, he decided to break off the discussion at this point, pleading the usual fatigue — they had been talking for several hours. Marn, he felt, had conceived the desired idea and should grow more enthusiastic if allowed to mull it over for a few hours. Vickers had become enthusiastic himself, which was a pity.
When they next met, Vickers felt happier than ever; for Main’s first words were a request for the method the Earthmen had employed to modify their climate. He asked, politely enough not to give offense, that Vickers translate Rodin’s explanation rather than attempt to give one of his own; evidently he wanted precision. Vickers assented gladly. Rodin had found some details of the operation in Vickers’ library, and was able to add much more from his own memory; so for half an hour he and Vickers alternated relation and translation, while the absorbed Heklan listened silently, his round face showing no expression that Vickers could interpret.
“An absorbing tale,” Trangero said when the Earthmen had finished. “I applaud the ingenuity of your meteorologists and astronomers. I have seen no maps of your planet, but I gathered that much of its land area is in the middle latitudes, as is the case with Hekla. An operation such as you have described would open to us millions of square miles of land areas which at present we can use only in summer and autumn, if at all. It is a pity that it would not be effective on this planet.”
For a moment Vickers sat, stunned by the Heklan’s matter-of-fact remark.
“Why would it not work here?” he finally asked. “I have gathered that carbon dioxide is no more dangerous to you than to us; and it should be as effective a blanketing agent here. I realize the enormous thickness and extent of your ice caps, but even they would eventually yield to a general increase in temperature.”
“Undoubtedly they would,” replied Marn. “Unfortunately, your plan remains unworkable. In the first place, the atmosphere of this planet already contains approximately one and a half percent of carbon dioxide. More would not harm us, but neither would it help. You have forgotten something, which Rodin should have remembered if he knows as much of astronomy as our science requires. Our sun is much redder than yours; and an increase in the atmospheric content of any infrared opaque gas such as carbon dioxide, ozone, or water vapor would cut out nearly as much additional incident radiation as it would retain the natural heat. I admit there would be some gain, but to make it enough to be a real help would demand a radical change in our atmosphere. You are working under different conditions here than you met on your own world, and your meteorology will not help us.”
Vickers thought furiously as the Heklan fell silent. Rodin, who had not understood a word of the last conversation, realized from his friend’s expression that something had gone seriously wrong. He tapped Vickers’ shoulder to gain his attention, and asked for an explanation. It was given to him.
“Is he right, Dave?” asked Vickers, at the end. “Surely there is some modification of that trick that would work for this world. I hate to give up that idea.”
“I can’t, on the spur of the moment, think of anything that would serve,” replied Rodin, “but it seems to me that there must be some fairly simple solution. If necessary, we can call in one of the physics or chemistry boys, though I don’t like to do that. I’d advise you not to appear too perturbed about the matter — after all, this was supposed to be one of Marn’s suggestions. Just let the conversation ride on for an hour or two, and we can talk it over at dinner.”
Vickers recognized the soundness of this bit of advice, and endeavored to abide by it. He was never sure that Marn had not noticed and interpreted the symptoms of annoyance the Earthman must have shown; but the creature never gave any indication of realizing what had occurred.
The rest of the morning was spent in answering his questions about beings and events beyond the R Coronae system.
In spite of his promise, Rodin said practically nothing at dinner; and immediately after the meal he repaired to the library. Vickers followed, and occupied a seat well out of the meteorologist’s way. Silence ensued, broken only by the rustling of paper and the occasional scratch of a stylus in Rodin’s hand. Vickers neither wrote nor read; he sat and thought, while his friend worked. In his own way, he also was working.
Presently Rodin looked up. “Marn is a bright specimen, no doubt,” he said, “but he went a little too far when he implied that our knowledge of meteorology would not be helpful here. There are plenty of ways to alter climate in any direction you please, and some of them must be applicable to this planet. Of course, we want methods which will require the use of plenty of heavy machinery, so that we can sell them the equipment; but that doesn’t narrow the field much, when one is working on a world-wide scale.
“The problem works down to a reasonably simple root. With a given solar constant, there are a number of things that can happen to the incoming energy. A certain percentage is reflected, and a certain percentage absorbed. Modification of that ratio offers one means of climate control; that, in effect, is what we suggested to Marn. It may yet be possible, but the nature of R Coronae’s radiation makes it difficult.
“If you take the absorbed energy as it is, the next point is distribution. Currents in the atmosphere and hydrosphere normally take care of that business; and both of those are subject to interference and consequently to control. Ocean currents, of course, are easier to direct; and it might be worth while to examine more closely the distribution of land and water areas of this planet, with that thought in mind. Distribution by air currents is modified by the height, friction values, existing temperature, and Heaven knows what other characteristics of the land over which they flow; that’s the sad fact that makes meteorology more of a nightmare than a science, at times.
“I should say that redirection of ocean currents offered your best bet; we can try it on Marn, anyway. It will depend a lot on Hekla’s geography, but he will realize that as well as I and will be able to pass judgment. That’s the best I have to offer at the moment.”
At least, Vickers realized, there was still hope even from his point of view. The construction work that would be required by such a plan meant plenty of heavy machinery. He agreed with Rodin on the subject of working the plan into the next conversation with Marn.
The Heklan readily agreed to show Rodin something of the geography of his world, when the meteorologist put the question up to him. He left the Earthmen for a moment, and returned with a heavy book, which proved to be an atlas. Inside its front cover was a folded leaf which opened into a map, several feet square, of the planet. It was on a projection similar to Goode’s homolosine and showed the entire surface of the world; but only a few scattered areas in the arctic and antarctic regions showed anything like the detail displayed on the settled, tropical islands. The Heklans had done little exploring of their own polar caps; Marn said that such regions as the maps showed in detail were in the neighborhood of meteorological stations similar to the one on Observatory Hill.
Rodin, however, was not particularly interested in the polar caps. He examined closely the sea which extended entirely around the globe in the equatorial regions, broken only by the large islands and archipelagos on which most of Main’s race dwelt. In both the northern and southern hemispheres there lay enormous continental masses divided by relatively narrow arms of sea; and the more the meteorologist looked at these, the more confidence he felt in the practicability of diverting warm currents up those arms.
“I see that you have settlements near the equatorial coasts of these land masses,” he finally said to Marn. “Why is it not possible to spread further inland?”
“The extremes of temperature in the continental interiors not only make settled life there impossible, but cause violent and uncomfortable weather at the coast settlements and on the nearer islands,” was the answer, as Rodin had expected. “The polar caps never melt entirely down to the ground over more than a tiny fraction of their area. They are too thick; and any gains made in the warm seasons are lost in the cold ones — quite evenly; the planet has reached a state of near equilibrium in that respect. It is unfortunate from the point of view of living space requirements; but I hate to picture the results of a major change which would interfere with that stability.”
“Why should that be serious?” asked Rodin. “I had been considering that angle ever since our last talk; and it seems to me that sea walls could be designed to deflect the currents which now run around the planet in the equatorial ocean, into these arms of the sea which reach up between the continents. If this were done, it should result in an earlier melting of the ice to the east of the water, permitting the bare ground to absorb more radiant heat. That should gradually operate to get you ahead of the melting-freezing cycle, and the new equilibrium point should give you a good deal of livable land space.”
Marn appeared interested.
“Could you go into a little more detail on that plan? I should like to hear how completely you have been able to handle the situation.”
Rodin bent over the map, and began to indicate what he considered the best location and design for the sea walls, working as well as he could from a memory of the current-control installations on Vega V. Marn was unable to give him much data on ocean depth, but that was not too important. The coasts of the continents involved had a more direct bearing on the situation, and Marn was well informed on their nature. Rodin once more began to feel hopeful. He finished his exposition with the words, “If you feel that the undertaking is practical, any or all of the peoples of the Federation will be glad to help you with experience and equipment.”
Marn did not answer for several moments, and the expectations of the Earthmen mounted with each second of delay. They should have known better by this time.
“It is a well thought out program; better planned, I think, than your first,” the Heklan finally said. “Of course, you are under a handicap in that you are so completely ignorant of Heklan conditions. Your ingenuity and evident experience, however, have started me hoping that perhaps some of your Federation scientists could perform this feat, which seems to me impossible. I hope you will present the problem to your colleagues of the Federation, and that some of them will see fit to give their attention to the matter.” He paused, as though to give Vickers a chance to translate this speech; but before the man could do so, he appeared to have a further idea. “I think it would do no harm to let my people know of your presence, Vickers,” he said. “I am sure they would be fascinated by the possibilities you have unfolded to me; and I don’t believe your reason for wanting secrecy is valid any longer.”
Vickers found himself in the hot part of a pincer movement, and thought furiously as he translated Trangero’s speech to Rodin. “I guess we can let him broadcast if he wants to,” he concluded, “but please do some fast talking on this weather business. He hasn’t told me why your sea walls won’t work; just takes it for granted.”
“I don’t believe he would tell me; and I believe it would work,” answered the meteorologist. “He’s keeping something up his sleeve, and we’ll never worm it out of him. I think we’d better get out of here, and take a little trip. That would give us a chance to check my idea for ourselves — he’s quite right in saying that I don’t know enough about this planet. It might also present us with a better opportunity to do our work than this weather station seems to offer. Why not let these fellows announce our presence, and use the occasion to make a tour of the planet?”
Vickers could think of nothing better, and Marn seemed agreeable. So did Serrnak Deg, when the matter was broached to him. And so it was that the little lifeboat rose from Observatory Hill on what proved to be one of the most trying journeys either man had ever made. Serrnak Deg and Marn Trangero watched the sliver of metal vanish to the south; then they looked at each other, with almost human grins wrinkling their grotesque features. They left the tiny platform from which they had been watching, and entered the elevator. Marn got off at the level on which his office was situated, but Deg went on down; and Vickers would have been interested to note that the Heklan proceeded directly to the room from which the Earthman had been so carefully kept.
But Vickers had no opportunity to note this fact. He watched the cumulus banner above the hill fade into the haze astern; and when it was out of sight, he gave his attention to the landscape unfolding below them. It seemed a sufficiently pleasant country, of forested hills and open plains; but a close inspection of the forests showed great tree-ferns and fungi rather than normal trees, and Vickers knew that in Hekla’s ten or twelve years of winter even this coastal strip was a howling, blizzard-racked desert of snow and ice; and just out of sight to the right as they followed the seacoast southward was the remnant of a giant ice cap where the heights were still snow-capped even at this season.
Rodin was only moderately interested in the view, until the coast began to curve gently westward. Then he began to make careful checks, using one of the maps he had obtained at the weather station. Several times he lowered the ship to the water, checking its depth and temperature; frequently he cruised as low as was safe among the hills and above the trees, examining Vickers knew not what characteristic of the planet’s surface. The meteorologist’s pile of notes and computations grew in thickness, while Vickers did little save look on and enjoy himself.
Southward they drove, breaking away from the coast and moving far out over a broad stretch of sea, until the geodet told them they were nearly above the equator; then westward, still dropping occasionally for Rodin’s perpetual measurements, over more water, interrupted at times by islands. Twice they saw what were evidently Heklan communities; each time they were small, but each boasted a landing strip similar to, but much longer than, the one on Observatory Hill. Several winged aircraft were parked in the open near each strip, and a single machine, similar in exterior design to the terrestrian lifeboat. Vickers was curious about its method of propulsion, since the Heklans were without atomic power, but he did not bother to descend to investigate.
For ninety hours they chased the sun, veering far enough to right and left to examine the near shores of most of the continental masses.
Each time they did so, Rodin expressed greater confidence in his plan; and as the geodet told them that they were again approaching the longitude of Observatory Hill, he swung the ship northward, prepared to argue its merits to the limit.
Vickers took over the controls for a time, to let the meteorologist straighten out the last of his paper work. It was a token job, since the automatic controls were holding the craft on course and at a constant pressure altitude. They were cruising at a very moderate speed, since Rodin wanted time for his work; they were, Vickers calculated, about an hour and a half from the observatory. The usual layer of haze was overhead — thicker than normal, Vickers decided; the red sunlight pouring through the upper ports seemed less intense than usual.
He did not see the clouds until they were less than twenty miles ahead. It was the first extensive cumulus development he had seen on Hekla, and he debated calling Rodin; but he decided such clouds could not be too unusual, and failed to do so. He simply sat and watched the wall of vapor grow more distinct as the little ship approached it. It extended as far as he could see on either side and — up. An airplane pilot of an earlier century would not have come within miles of that angry black barrier; Rodin might have decided to go over it, but Vickers let the automatic controls carry the tiny machine straight into its heart. Even then, if the altitude control had been connected to the radio altimeter, no harm might have been done; unfortunately, Vickers had tied it in to the atmospheric pressure gauge, in anticipation of reaching land.
The initial turbulence made no impression on ship or occupants; but five seconds after the sun had faded from sight the ship stuck its nose into the low pressure of an updraft, and Vickers left his seat. For several seconds he was dazed by the force with which his head struck the ceiling. In those few seconds the ship lost six thousand feet of altitude as the automatic controls sought a level of pressure equal to that at which they had been set. Before they succeeded, and before Vickers could regain his feet and the manual controls, the updraft was passed; and he was pressed helplessly against the deck as the ship plunged upward again. As it slowed, he seized the back of his chair and tried to brace himself against the sickening motion. For a moment he was partially successful, and he dared to let go with one hand in order to reach once more for the controls. As he touched them, there was a violent sideward lurch; and his hand, instead of striking the toggle controlling the altitude mechanism, opened the bar switch handling the sensation currents from the attitude gyros on the automatic pilot.
The ship could not have been out of control more than three or four minutes altogether; but those minutes were more than enough. Without the gyros, she no longer held an even keel, but pitched, yawed, rolled completely over again and again, still striving to follow the dictates of the altitude control. That barometer was sensitive enough for control in the upper stratosphere of planets like Earth and Thanno; and in the tremendous pressure changes accompanying turbulence in Hekla’s dense atmosphere the little device went mad. Vickers, dazed and bleeding, bouncing from floor to ceiling and wall to wall of the control room, finally managed to hold on to the board long enough and firmly enough to set the selector at zero pressure. Still bucking and rolling, the ship went shooting upwards, and at last broke out into the crimson sunlight---more than thirty kilometers above the ocean, if the radio altimeter could be believed. The air was calmer here, and the ship quieted down enough for Vickers to level it by manual control, reset the toppled attitude gyros, and cut them in again.
With a steady deck once more under his feet, he staggered back to the library where Rodin had been working. The meteorologist had taken a beating, but had suffered less damage than Vickers, owing chiefly to the fact that the library furniture was for the most part heavily upholstered. He made acrid inquiry into the cause of the disturbance, and was not particularly sympathetic with Vickers’ injuries. They went forward to the control room together, and Vickers gazed through the port at the innocent-looking, fluffy pink mass below them while Rodin applied antiseptic and dressings to his contusions. When he had finished this job, the meteorologist began to observe, too.
Vickers had halted the ship when he had regained control, and they were hanging motionless above the wall of vapor. They were still in sight of the edge where they had entered it; and when Rodin set the ship in motion again, they ran within a few minutes into an almost equally sharp termination on the other side. The front was only thirty or forty miles wide; and this, together with the altitude of the cumulus barrier, indicated a frontal slope that made Rodin whistle. Then he stopped to think; and the more he thought the less he was able to understand how a mass of cold air of such size and, apparently, extreme low temperature could have wandered so far from the pole in midsummer. Then he remembered the violence which had resulted from a very slight temperature change, during the warm front he had watched at Observatory Hill; and he took the ship down on the cold side of the front to the altitude at which they had been flying when they ran into trouble, and compared temperatures. The difference was not great, but it was far greater than had been the case on the other occasion; and considering the density and other peculiarities of Hekla’s atmosphere, it could account for such a violent front. It remained to account for the air mass. Rodin began to think out loud, as he considered this problem.
“This stuff appears to be of polar continental origin, judging by its temperature and dryness,” he said. “It’s not extremely cold, but in Hekla’s atmosphere it could still have formed over the polar ice cap, and probably did. On Earth, such a mass couldn’t come anything like this far south in summer. The normal surface circulation is too strong for it, and remains too strong as long as the ground is receiving much solar energy. However, it could be forced down like this if we supposed another, still colder, mass to the east of its source region, against which it was carried by the normal trade circulation and thence deflected southward. Also, a general cooling of the continental areas to the south of the source region might permit it to be carried down here around a normal cyclone.
“Either supposition demands a decrease in ground surface temperature comparable to that experienced at the onset of winter. I can’t imagine any large area waiting until this late in the summer to become covered by snow; but I can’t see any other means of dropping the temperature of a large area to any great extent, unless the axis of the planet shifts enough to decrease insolation in this hemisphere.” He grinned wryly as he made that remark; he realized perfectly well that the application of sufficient force to shift the axis of a major planet would buckle its crust at the very least, and more probably disrupt the world.
“How about night cooling?” asked Vickers. “This planet rotates more slowly than Earth.”
“Not enough; in summer the nights are short anyway; and why would it wait until now, fully two Earth years after midsummer, to take effect?”
“Then how about this mist that seems to have been cutting off some of the sunlight of the last day or two? You must have noticed it — it appears to be above any level at which we’ve flown, so it can’t be very dense; but it seems to be practically planet-wide, and cuts off enough light for me to notice without instruments.”
“I hadn’t noticed it particularly,” said Rodin thoughtfully. “A high layer of water vapor or dust would have a blanketing effect, and would actually increase surface temperature, even though it cut off some visible light. However, there’s something to the idea; the stuff might just possibly have a high reflecting power, I suppose. It won’t hurt us to go up and find this layer, anyway.”
Rodin went back to the controls, and started the ship climbing slowly. Then he started the recorder of the radiograph he had set up at one of the portholes when he had first arrived, and waited while they rose through the thinning atmosphere to a level at which the outside pressure was no longer detectable. There he stopped ship and recorder, and removed the graph from the latter. The haze layer, if it existed, should have betrayed its presence by a more or less sharp break in the curve — or rather, a change in its slope — at the proper level; but Rodin, to his disgust, was unable to find anything of the sort by visual inspection. He was beginning to check the instrument for flaws that would affect its sensitivity, when Vickers remarked that the sun seemed still to be rather weaker than usual — rather as Sol would appear from Earth during a partial eclipse, allowing for the difference in their intrinsic luminosities.
“An eclipse?” queried Rodin. “Hekla has only two satellites big enough and near enough to produce a respectable eclipse; and even the partial phase would last only a few hours. You noticed this dimness a couple of days ago.”
He went to the port and looked up at the sun. From Hekla’s surface the human eye could bear to look directly at R Coronae’s immense disk, but here above the atmosphere it was a little too bright for comfort. He rummaged in a drawer under the control panel, found a pair of shielded goggles; with these he approached the port again, and looked long and earnestly at the fuzzy crimson blot hanging in the blackness of space. At last he called Vickers, gave him the goggles, and asked him to look, describe, and if possible explain what he saw. Vickers obediently donned the eye shields and went to the port.
He had seen red giant suns before — who hadn’t? He was familiar with the brilliant crimson or orange disks, with brightness fading rapidly toward the ill-defined edges, bordered by a faintly luminous rim of atmosphere that faded rapidly outward against the star-shot background of the Galaxy. R Coronae should have been the same.
Perhaps it was, he thought at last. Perhaps it did have a normal disk; but he couldn’t see it — at least, not all of it. The lower quarter was visible, fading as it should and equipped with a normal atmosphere rim. A short distance up from this lower edge, however, a black line was etched across the crimson, projecting on each side. Where it appeared against the background of space, it glowed very faintly red. Above the line the stellar disk was hidden almost completely, as though by a cloud whose edge was represented by the border of black. The cloud, if it was a cloud, apparently grew thinner toward the top; for the upper side of the disk was faintly visible through it. Vickers slid the goggles up on his forehead and took a quick look at the sun without them. He could see the foggy disk, and was just able to make out the dark line. Evidently the “cloud” actually cut off less light than the view through the shields indicated; but if, as it appeared, the appendage were attached to the star rather than to Hekla itself, a drop in temperature was not very surprising. He turned away from the port and addressed Rodin, who was waiting impatiently.
“If clouds are possible in a star’s atmosphere, I’d say you had something on R Coronae quite similar to this cold front of yours right below us,” he said. “If it happens very often, I suppose it’s the explanation of the star’s variability.” He made this statement, so staggering to the meteorologist, in such a matter-of-fact tone that it was several seconds before Rodin could find voice. Finally he half-spoke, half-choked:
“You…you mean you have known all along that this star is a variable, and didn’t think it worth while to tell me? You mean—” he sputtered, and lost voice again; and Vickers realized that the color of his face was not entirely due to the sunlight.
“Of course I knew it was a variable; didn’t you? Most of the red giants are, to a slight extent, but it doesn’t particularly bother the planets of Betelgeuse and Antares. I remembered that, and looked up this star in the type index before we arrived. It gave a C.I. and size about the same as the giants I mentioned, and was marked ‘V’ as they were, so I supposed it was the same sort of business here.”
Rodin did not answer, but turned on his heel and strode back to the library, Vickers close behind. He found the index Vickers had used, checked its source of information, and located the indicated volume on the shelves. He thumbed through this for a moment, stopped, and read silently for a minute or two; then he handed the tome to Vickers and indicated the proper section. Vickers read, and slowly understood.
“—a Coronae Borealis is the name-star of a group of suns characterized photometrically by a light-curve of the form shown, and spectroscopically by the presence of strong carbon indications. It was suggested long before interstellar travel was achieved that the light variations were caused by temporary condensations of carbon vapor in the stellar atmospheres; and the correctness of this assumption was shown in the excellent series of photographs made by the Galactic Survey ship Zenith, which follow the formation of masses of carbon clouds through a full cycle from the beginning of condensation to complete dispersal. The actual mechanism and processes involved have not been closely studied, but it has been suggested that such a study should be conducted by a composite board of astrophysicists and meteorologists, as the phenomena seem to bear strong resemblance to those of planetary weather.
“ ‘The Zenith noted the presence of two planets in a cursory photographic sweep of the R Coronae system, but they were not closely examined, nor was the possibility of the presence of others eliminated.’ “
Rodin nodded slowly as Vickers finished his reading.
“You called the shot very nicely a few minutes ago,” he said, “when you called that black line a cold front. I should say that you were one hundred percent right. Blast it, to be a meteorologist in this system I’d have to know more astrophysics than a lot of Federation professors. You’ve certainly let me make an awful idiot of myself in front of those Heklans.”
“Do you really think so?” asked Vickers seriously. “I don’t see how they could expect you to know any better. You’re a meteorologist, not an astronomer, as you said.”
“On this planet, the distinction is probably narrow to the point of invisibility. Their weather men would have to be first-rate solar physicists. I must have seemed to them like a self-opinionated, bungling incompetent — insisting time after time on the feasibility of a plan whose greatest flaw would have been obvious to a Heklan layman. I don’t want to go back to that station, Alf — I couldn’t face one of those people now.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to,” replied Vickers. “I sympathize with you, and am extremely sorry for your sake that it turned out this way; but from my point of view it’s the best thing that could have happened. I hoped for something good to eventuate from your visit, but I didn’t dare hope for this much.”
Rodin’s interjection at this point was of an interrogative and profane nature. Vickers smiled slightly, set the ship in motion once again toward Observatory Hill, and began to explain.
“I told you at the time of your arrival,” he said, “that I feared I had unwittingly aroused in our hosts a fear of the competitive aspects of our Federation culture. That was quite true and correct, so far as it went. There was a little more than that to the situation, however. The Heklans had appreciated a still more fundamental fact about us. With interplanetary and interstellar travel, an already existing and working form of interworld government, with our knowledge of space and time and matter which cropped up occasionally and inevitably in my conversations with Serrnak Deg, it was glaringly obvious to them that our civilization was materially far in advance of theirs; that their achievements, compared to ours, were childish. As that realization sank in, they began to react in a fashion too painfully human not to be recognized.
“If something weren’t done about that reaction, Hekla would not only refuse the minor dealing with us such as our attempt to sell them metal and machines represents — they would, for their own protection, refuse to have anything whatever to do with the Federation and its component races. You know what has happened on other planets when a culturally and mentally inferior race was forced into contact with their betters. They died out, rapidly, and the cause was not deliberate extermination. In many cases, strenuous efforts were made to preserve them. Such things happened on Earth long before man left the planet; and it has happened all over the Galaxy since then.
“The Heklans are not our mental inferiors; they are intelligent enough to recognize a danger which must have been completely new to them, and to act on it in the only possible way — although that way is not a very good one, even from their own viewpoint. They may get rid of us, but they would have a hard time forgetting us.”
“Are you sure they recognize the danger?” interjected Rodin.
“Reasonably sure; and even if they don’t, it is none the less real — and our making fools of ourselves is just as good a cure. We showed them a field — probably not the only one, but certainly the most obvious — in which they are not merely our equals but have advanced far beyond us. We showed them in a way that will penetrate — their sense of humor seems to be as well developed as ours; and we showed them at the relatively minor price of your reputation — and mine, of course.” The last phrase was an afterthought inspired by Rodin’s attitude. The meteorologist calmed himself again with an effort, and asked a question.
“When did you realize what was happening to them, and what led you to that belief?”
“After my first long conversation with Serrnak Deg, I started to return to the ship alone. By an error, I stopped the elevator at the wrong level, and saw a room full of electrical machinery. I am not a scientist, but I think I know a teletype keyboard when I see it. Before I could see more, I was hustled out of the room. When I got back to the ship, I spent quite a while searching the frequency bands we have found practical for communication. I heard nothing, and yet the station was obviously in constant contact with the rest of the planet — even I know that a weather map can’t be kept up to date otherwise. Disregarding the remote chance that they had either medium transmitters or a means of radiant communication undreamed of by us, it seemed obvious that the station was actually connected by metallic cables with other centers of communication. The method is primitive, as even you will admit; why should they conceal the installation from me, if they were not ashamed of its simplicity?
“Later, when they showed us around the station, and failed to hide any of the other primitive equipment such as internal combustion engines, I was sure they had decided to give up the attempt to conceal the inferiority they felt in the face of our apparatus. Deg had visited the lifeboat by then, remember. They were planning then, and must have been planning until we started this trip, to break with us completely.
“You can see why I didn’t tell you this before. I’m not sure I should have told you now, because it will be necessary for you to go back to that station and not only admit your ignorance to Marn and Deg, but put the capping stone on the business by asking for enlightenment. I hope you have the intestinal fortitude to do it.”
Rodin smiled wryly.
“I guess I can’t let you down, since you’ve gone this far. Perhaps I can make up the face I’ve lost here by staying a while, learning some Heklan meteorology, and publishing a few papers for the benefit of the rest of the Galaxy. I can be the first non-Heklan stellar meteorologist, anyway, which ought to have some weight with my beloved colleagues. All right, Alf, I’ll try it.”
Vickers nodded and smiled slightly, as he altered the course slightly to bear toward the cloud banner of Observatory Hill, now vaguely visible in the distance.
“I was sure you would. After all, reputation or no scientific reputation, you have a job for which you get paid, same as I. Just don’t lose any chance of building up to the Heklans the importance of their contributions to the meteorological knowledge of the Federation races.”
“I won’t,” answered Rodin, “and it won’t need much of my help. They really have something that will drive some of my friends wild, and will probably rock the astronomers slightly in their seats.
“But speaking of jobs, you also have one; and how does your proving to all concerned that it is impractical to work on Hekla’s climate fit in with a program supposed to sell large quantities of metal?”
Vickers set the ship gently down on the ramp before turning to face his friend.
“That was solved some time ago. My motives in assuring successful relations with this race were not entirely humanitarian, though of course I don’t regret the good I’m doing. My personal problem, of sales, was solved long ago, as I say; but without any Heklans the solution would be somewhat impractical. Hence the call for your invaluable assistance. Tell me, Dave, what you do if the landlord won’t repair the air conditioner in your apartment?” He smiled at the look of comprehension on the other’s face. “Of course. Granting the availability of other quarters, you move.
“There are certainly other quarters available for the Heklans, even if they are restricted to the systems of red giant stars; and the Federation can undoubtedly find a number of suitable worlds in a very few years, even if they are not already known.
“Any race that goes in for colonization in a big way, Dave, is going to need spaceships in considerable numbers; and I am sure that Belt Metals will be only too glad to provide them. In fact, I think we might both draw a very comfortable bonus on such a transaction; and I plan, at the first opportune moment, to put the proposition to Serrnak Deg.”
Vickers rose from the control seat, touching as he did so the switch that opened the inner air lock door.
“I think that covers all the problems of the moment,” he said, as he struggled into a jacket. “Now come on into that station with me, Dave. I want to see you eat humble pie!”