"Russell's deceptively simple plot, embellished and brought up to date by Foster, refreshingly explored the classic SF theme of overcoming alien differences to eliminate war."Booklist
Design for Great-Dayby Alan Dean Foster, Eric Frank Russell
When a strange starship appears mysteriously on a distant alien world, bearing only a single human and his bee-like extraterrestrial companion, the powerful warlord of that world laughs at the stranger's preposterous demand: End an all-out war with an interstellar rival, or face devastating consequences. But James Lawson, emissary from an intergalactic
When a strange starship appears mysteriously on a distant alien world, bearing only a single human and his bee-like extraterrestrial companion, the powerful warlord of that world laughs at the stranger's preposterous demand: End an all-out war with an interstellar rival, or face devastating consequences. But James Lawson, emissary from an intergalactic federation of advanced race, means every word he says, and has the power to back them upwhatever the cost.
- Tom Doherty Associates
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 4.25(w) x 6.75(h) x 0.65(d)
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The little ship, scarred and battered, sat on the plain and ignored the armed guard that had surrounded it at a safe distance. As an example of an extraplanetary vessel it was remarkably unimpressive. A featureless, flattened ovoid devoid of ports or visible doorways, no bigger than one of the lifeships or escape pods utilized by the dominant race of the world on which it had just arrived. It looked barely capable of transporting a few individuals between cities on the same continent, much less conveying them between worlds.
In fact, more than one of the newly emplaced guards wondered if it might not actually be some sort of lifeboat or emergency craft that had been cast off from a damaged mother ship locked in orbit high above. Though they had yet to receive any indication that this might indeed be the case, it seemed a plausible enough explanation. Possibly the parent vessel had been destroyed, or tumbled helplessly to burn up in the thick atmosphere. There were any number of rational possibilities that offered more plausible explanations.
Not only did the eccentric craft look too small to be capable of interplanetary travel, it did not give off a glow suggestive of rapid passage through the atmosphere, which meant that it either moved very slowly or exceptionally fast. The heavily armed soldiers who had hastily formed a defensive perimeter around the vessel's landing site were not prepared to speculate either way, but nothing could stop them from making offhand guesses. They were neither scientists nor engineers but ordinary troops.
In the average soldier speculation was a potentially dangerous quality, one devoutly to be avoided at all costs. Indulging in the process frequently brought down disapprobation and disaster and was only rarely rewarded. It was an activity best left to officers and non-military personnel. The heavily armed troopers were more than content to follow orders, aim weapons, and wait for someone to tell them what to do next.
It was impossible, however, not to wonder at the tiny vessel's composition or means of manufacture. Though without running appropriate scientific analysis it was impossible to tell for certain, it did not appear to be fashioned either of metal or the more familiar metaloceramic composites. There was some discussion among the more knowledgeable onlookers of nanocarbon tubes embedded in a bonding ceramic or glass matrix, but the dullish appearance of the intruder's matte epidermis provided little in the way of support or rebuttal for such theory.
In fact, depending on which way the early morning light happened to strike the ship's surface, it was not only difficult to guess what it might be fashioned of, but whether it possessed a solid skin at all. Light played tricks with the onlookers' eyes and with the ship's exterior. At times it seemed one could see halfway through the vessel, while when clouds scudded by overhead it appeared far more substantial.
In actuality, the little ship was possessed of a consistency that fell somewhere between an aerogel and the core of a neutron star. Its component atoms were arranged in such a way as to not only baffle an experienced observer but utterly defeat the best analytical instruments that could be brought to bear; so the urgently assembled troops could be excused their confusion.
A few voices suggested that the vessel itself might be nothing more than an illusion, a projection designed to deceive the eye and fool the mind. The War Department was known to be working on all manner of new projects. Perhaps the troops had been rushed out to check the efficacy of some new aspect of psychological warfare. Some suggested that if it were nothing more than a facile apparition it was an extremely clever one, because it had scorched the ground in its immediate vicinity and gave every indication from the earth that was depressed around its outer edge of having real mass and weight. It was no lustrous phantom, no incorporeal composition of smoke and carefully shaded floating films. It was real, and what it was made of might be quite prosaic, or contrastingly extraordinary. As the soldiers had been issued strict orders while outbound from the nearby city not to approach the craft too closely under any circumstances, they could not satisfy their curiosity even by simple touch.
Not that any of them particularly wanted to stroll up to the outlandish vessel and run a hand along its eerily indistinct flanks anyway, but it was natural to be curious about its makeup as well as its origins. There was always an air of mystery about the unknown, and this little ship trailed one behind it like an ethereal cape blowing in the wind. The hastily assembled squadron of guards could be ordered not to touch, but they could not be ordered not to think. Like ordinary soldiers anywhere, they had plenty of spare time in which to engage in that entertaining if not necessarily educational practice. Squatting on the open plain distant from the city, they availed themselves of the opportunity frequently and with inspired sarcasm.
However rapidly the intruder had penetrated the local atmosphere it gave off no heat from its passage. None, zero. Instruments confirmed what the soldiers suspected. It was most remarkable. All descending vessels gave off some residual heat, if not as a result of the passage through atmosphere, then from their engines and drives. Notwithstanding the singed soil that formed a blackened halo of modest dimensions around the base of the vessel, the temperature of the air in its immediate vicinity was no different from that elsewhere on the plain.
Some continued to argue that whether real or illusionary, it was nothing more than a clever training exercise, a trick of advanced dimensions designed to test their readiness and reactions to the unexpected and not immediately explicable. As time passed and nothing happened, this hypothesis gained credence among the assembled and increasingly bored ring of guards.
One suggested that a single shot would make myth of the vessel's reality. This headstrong individual was quickly restrained by his friends. Being friends, they had no interest in seeing their bold companion sentenced to an extended term in gaol. Besides which, he owed some of them money.
So they sat or stood, and guessed and guarded, the latter task in this particular instance turning out to be a very dull deal indeed.
A large, bluish sun burned overhead, illuminating their surroundings if not their thoughts. It lit the edges of flat, waferlike clouds in brilliant purple. While some might have found the scene starkly beautiful, few of the attending soldiers bothered to remark on what was to them a common occurrence. Regardless of species, soldiers on duty rarely had the time or inclination to ruminate on the aesthetics of their surroundings.
The strange sun was not alone in the sky. It was accompanied by two tiny moons shining like pale spectres low in the east. A thirdlarger, rounder, and more mellow in aspectwas diving into the westward horizon.
At considerable altitude above the stolid mass of the sprawling city roamed its aerial patrol, a number of tiny, almost invisible dots weaving a tangle of vapor trails. There were more now than there had been a little while ago, as distant craft continued to assemble in tardy response to the laggard alarm that had finally announced the visitor's presence, but the latest arrivals were as confused and concerned as their predecessors.
The dots displayed the irritated restlessness of a swarm of disturbed gnats, for their crews were uncomfortably aware of the strange invader now sitting motionless on the plain far below. Their speculation was driven by a greater urgency than that of the soldiers on the ground, for they were acutely aware that they had missed something, and would be called to account for it sooner rather than later.
It was not that any one of them had been derelict in his duty, which was to serve as the homeworld's last line of defense against suspicious intruders. Their mission was to watch the immediate vicinity of the planet, to query any artificial object that came within a certain distance, and to reduce it to glowing gas and powder if adequate explanations for its presence were not immediately forthcoming. As a rule this was a task they carried out with great skill and pride, The tiny vessel now resting undisturbed on the surface below was a very visible debunker of the first accomplishment and impugner of the latter.
Now there was nothing the pilots and their crews could do about it. They were up in the stratosphere, the intruder was safely down on the ground: an altogether unacceptable state of affairs. Indeed, they would have intercepted it had that been possible, which it wasn't.
How can one block the path of an unexpected and unannounced object moving with such stupendous rapidity that its trace registers as a mere flick on an advanced predictor screen some seconds after the source has passed? The patrol's integrated systems were only now beginning to generate figures on the intruder's size and velocity. Data on the first seemed to fluctuate, which made no sense at all. The second…the second made considerably less than zero sense. The fact that a dozen different sets of instruments confirmed the figures rendered them no less nonsensical. The patrol's ranking officer ordered all findings withheld until some sense could be made of them. He was not about to risk what had up to that time been a distinguished career by giving the stamp of approval to such lunacy.
Blessed by a refreshing lack of any need to display drive and intelligence, the troops on the ground suffered no such pangs. They kept careful watch and awaited the arrival of someone who was permitted the initiative that they were denied. This was an entirely comfortable state of affairs that, as far as they were concerned, could last until the millennium. As long as no activity was evident on the part of the little ship, correspondingly little reaction was demanded of them. This constituted a battlefield condition with which they were reasonably content.
All of them had either four legs and two arms or four arms and two legs, according to the need of the moment. That is to say: the front pair of underbody limbs could be employed as either feet or hands, like those of a baboon. Superior life does not establish itself by benefit of brains alone; manual dexterity is equally essential. The quasi-quadrupeds of this world had a barely adequate supply of the former compensated by more than enough of the latter.
Where multiple limbs protruded through simple, dun-colored clothing they were covered in short, bristly light-brown fur. Darker ruffs were present at wrists and ankles as well as along the broad reach of shoulders and sternum. Their skulls were mounted on thick but flexible necks that emerged from between the fore pair of shoulders. Two dark, efficient eyes that were better at close-up work than at seeing for distance flanked a unique pattern of small multiple nasal openings above the wide slit of a mouth.
White teeth were sharp and pointed in front, flat in back. Fine hairs screened the nasal portals, filtering the cool air as it was inhaled. The rear feet were heavily shod in thick boots; the center pair were sheathed in thick gloves, while the upper were left free. They were tailless and large-rumped. Short pants, center-body vests, and upper torso garments were fastened with invisible closures. These boasted a variety of pockets and pouches in addition to insignia and other marks of individual identification. Overlaid on the entire arrangement was a network of wide but light straps resembling a dray animal's harness, which was designed to support a variety of military equipment.
Although it was not for them to decide what action to take against this sorry-looking object from the unknown, they had plenty of curiosity concerning it, and no little apprehension. Much of their nosiness was stimulated by the knowledge that the vessel was of no identifiable type, despite the fact that they could recognize all the seventy basic patterns common to their entire region. Of course, none of them were specialists and there was always the possibility of a recent discovery or two that had yet to be included in the regularly reviewed journals. In addition, there was also the possibility it might be an experimental device of their own invention.
Granting all this, the complete lack of external protrusions was disconcerting. The flattened ovoid showed no weapons port, no communications antenna: nothing. There was a suggestion of a single, narrow port at one end, but it was not transparent, and those who strained for a look could see nothing inside.
The possibility of it being a remotely guided or purely mechanical vehicle was not to be discounted. Drones were used extensively by both sides, both for surveillance and communications. Of one thing they could be certain: thus far it was being anything but wildly communicative.
As for their apprehension, that was a consequence of the sheer nonchalance of the visitor's arrival. Ever since its presence had been noted, communications of every kind, from panic to unbridled fury to open curiosity, had been burning up the comm systems. The little vessel had burst like a superswift projectile through the overlapping system of detectors that enveloped the planet, treated the outlying orbital stations and atmospheric patrols with disdain, and sat itself down not in some obscure canyon or camouflaging forest, but within clear view of the capital city.
Something drastic would have to be done about it. On that point one and all regardless of position or rank were agreed. But the appropriate tactics would be defined by authority, not by underlings.
So they hung around in dips and hollows and behind rocks, and scratched and held their weapons, and hankered for their superiors in the city to wake up and come running.
Circumstances have an importunate way of forcing themselves upon the noncommittal. Time, unlike a great many individuals, is impatient. In much the same way that the planetary defenses had been brought to naught by bland presentation of an accomplished fact, so were the guards now similarly disturbed. Giving distant sluggards no time to make up their minds and spring into action, a gap appeared in the side of the ovoid and a thing came out.
This small movement had a way of focusing the attention of the surrounding hexapods wonderfully. They abruptly sprang into action. Or rather into position, no other action being immediately required. Superbly prepared, each individual took his place according to training. Small and heavy portable weapons were tuned to maximum, inter-sextet communications engaged, and shielding activated. The result was a condition of armed readiness sufficient to make superiors proud and adversaries think twice before doing anything that might be interpreted as a hostile move.
The creature looked around, sniffed the air, and then stepped down to the gravelly surface. As a sample of unfamiliar life it was neither big nor fearsome. If it possessed any natural integral armament it was not immediately apparent. There were no long fangs, no sharpened claws, no massive musculature or threatening tentacles. It carried nothing that could not fit in a pocket.
A biped with two arms and a beige-hued face, wearing a one-piece suit of pale green, close-fitting clothing, it was no taller than any of the onlookers and not more than one-third their weight. There was some short fur atop the egg-shaped skull, but otherwise the flesh that was visible was naked. Slim arms terminated in a succession of smaller digits. It was impossible to tell if the shod feet consisted of a similarly subdivided arrangement or a single hoof or pad. Its eyes were small but bright; and the curved protrusions on either side of the head were most likely external ears of indeterminate sensitivity.
A peculiar creature in no way redoubtable. In fact, it looked soft. One could jump on it with all four feet and squash it. Relaxing in spite of themselves, the armed troopers searched in vain for a third set of limbs. Unless the creature was a multiple amputee, the diminished physiology it displayed must be its natural condition. Though this engendered a certain amount of sympathy on the part of several of the soldiers, they did not let down their guard. The fact that no weapons were visible did not mean that none were present.
Nevertheless, despite its inoffensive appearance, one could not hold it entirely in contempt. There were aspects that gave one reason to pause and think. Most notable among these was the absence of readily recognizable ordnance. Moreover, though they had no way of interpreting the meaning of this particular alien's posture and gestures, it was moving about with the subtle assurance of one who had reason to view weapons as so much useless lumber.
In the second place, it was mooching airily around the ship, hands in pockets, inspecting the scarred shell for all the world as if this landing marked a boring call on tiresome relatives. Most of the time it had its back to the ring of troops, magnificently indifferent to whether or not anyone chose to blow it apart. The initial tension among said soldiers was beginning to give way to a distinct feeling of bemusement.
Apparently satisfied with its survey of the vessel, the creature suddenly turned and walked straight toward the concealed watchers. The gap in the flank of the ship from which it had originally emerged remained wide open in a manner suggesting either criminal carelessness or supreme confidence, more probably the latter. Completely at peace with a world in the midst of war, the biped ambled directly toward a small cluster of guards, bringing the need for initiative nearer and nearer, making them sweat with anxiety and creating such a panic to his private deities that the alien would not change course and swerve in his direction. Most were greatly relieved to see that it did not.
Turning to its left with studied casualness, the intruder came face-to-face with Yadiz, a common trooper momentarily paralyzed by sheer lack of an order to go forward, go backward, shoot the alien, shoot himself, or do something. This resulted in a complete lack of movement on the part of the soldier, who gawked at the biped in utter helplessness.
The alien scrutinized the trooper as casually as if different life-forms in radically different shapes were more common than pebbles on a shingle beach. This inspection continued for several minutes, during which time communications flew across the ether but no one took any action. All waited to see what the alien would do next.
As for the trooper yclept Yadiz, he became so embarrassed by his own futility that he began swapping his weapon from hand to hand and back again.
"Surely it's not that heavy," remarked the alien with complete and surprising fluency. As he spoke he eyed the weapon and sniffed.
Startled, the trooper dropped the gun, which promptly went off with a high-pitched, ear-splitting crash. A piece of rock flew into shards and something whined shrilly through the air. The alien turned and followed the whine with its eyes until the sound finally died out.
Then the creature said gently to Yadiz, "Wasn't that rather silly?"
There was no need to formulate a reply. It was a conclusion the trooper already had reached about one second before the bang. He picked up the weapon with a foot-hand, transferred it to a primary hand, found it upside down, turned it right way up, got the strap tangled around his fist, had to reverse it to get the limb free, turned it right way up again.
Some sort of answer seemed to be necessary, but for the life of him Yadiz could not conceive of one that was wholly satisfactory. Wheels spun within his mind, producing friction but no movement. Struck dumb, he posed there holding his weapon by the muzzle and at arm's length, like one who has recklessly grabbed a mamba and dares not let go. In all his years as a trooper, of which there were more than several, he couldn't recall a time when possession of a firearm had proved such a handicap.
He was still searching in vain for a verbal means of salvaging his self-respect when his immediate superior arrived to break the spell.
A little breathless with haste, the newcomer looked askance at the biped, said to Yadiz, "Who gave you orders to shoot?"
"What business is it of yours?" asked the biped, coldly disapproving. "It's his own gun, isn't it?"
This interjection took Yadiz's superior aback. He had not expected another life-form to speak with the accentless fluency of a native, much less treat this matter of wasting a charge from the angle of personal ownership. The thought that a trooper might have proprietary rights to his weapon had never occurred to him. And now that he had captured the thought he did not know what to do with it. He hefted his own weapon and stared at it as if it had just miraculously appeared in his hand, changed it to another hand by way of insuring its realness and solidity. His pupils were flexing in time to his thoughts.
"Be careful," advised the biped. He nodded toward Yadiz. "That's the way he started."
Turning to Yadiz, the alien said in calm, matter-of-fact tones, "Take me to Markhamwit."
Yadiz couldn't be sure whether he actually dropped the gun again or whether it leaped clean out of his hands. Anyway, it did not go off.
The species with whom the biped was conversing were not subject to stuttering. Nevertheless, both troopers looked as if they would have been more than willing to give some form of verbal dislocation a try.
Initial appearances to the contrary, Yadiz was clearly the more sagacious of the pair. He demonstrated his superior intelligence by keeping his mouth shut while his newly arrived colleague declared with assurance, "That's impossible."
"No it's not," the alien replied confidently.
"Do you know who Markhamwit is?" the trooper inquired, slightly goggle-eyed. In contrast, Yadiz, experienced soldier that he was, kept silent.
"No," responded the biped. "I want you to take me to someone whom I don't know who is. That's logical, isn't it?"
The trooper started to reply, hesitated, and managed to duplicate Yadiz's game of confused cat's cradle with his thoughts instead of his hands. The resulting confusion saw him on the verge of a sudden breakdown.
The biped took pity on him. "I'll make it easy for you. North, south, east, or west. Markhamwit must lie in one of those general directions. Kindly lead me in the appropriate one. You will not be required to analyze my request further."
Yadiz was motioning frantically with his eyes, not daring to open his mouth. His colleague took note, registered an affirmative reply by means of a subtle gesture, and then motioned with his own weapon.
"You are now our prisoner."
The biped sighed. "Oh, all right. If you insist. But let's get on with it"
Feeling a little better (but only a little), the trooper seemed to regain some of the energy he'd had when he arrived. "I will go and find an officer."
"That doesn't do me any good," the alien declared.
"I am not here to do you any good." The soldier was feeling much better now. He flicked a glance at his colleague. "Keep an eye on him while I try to find someone better equipped to deal with this. Don't let him out of your sight." As soon as Yadiz nodded, the other soldier whirled and scampered off on four limbs.
This left Yadiz confronting the alien by himself. The biped stared at him. After a minute of this Yadiz began to sweat.
"Well," said the biped finally, "are you going to take me to Markhamwit?"
"I am supposed to wait here until Bazari returns with an officer."
"Because he told you to wait?"
"Does Bazari rank you?"
Yadiz hesitated only briefly. "No. We are of the same rank."
"Does he have more experience than you?"
"Nooo. Actually, I think I have more experience."
"Then you're obviously better equipped to deal with the situation than he is. So take me to Markhamwit."
"I am not qualified to make such a decision."
"I understand." The biped's lips parted to expose its teeth. It was a most disconcerting expression. "Let me make it simple for you. We try very hard to keep things simple."
Yadiz felt some of the tension ooze out of him. "I would appreciate that."
Copyright © 1995 by Thranx, Inc.
Meet the Author
The bestselling author of more than 100 books, Alan Dean Foster is one of the most prominent writers of modern science fiction & fantasy. Born in New York City in 1946, he studied filmmaking at UCLA and first found success in 1968, when a horror magazine published one of his short stories. He is the author of the popular Pip & Flinx novels as well as dozens of film novelizations, including Transformers, Star Wars, the first three Alien films, and the story for the first Star Trek film.
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