Not exactly the words you would expect at an instant when history changes course and the universe can never again be what it was. The die is cast; In this sign conquer; It is not fit that you should sit here any longer; We hold these truths to be self-evident; The Italian navigator has landed in the New World; Dear God, the thing works!–no man with any imagination can recall those, or others like them, and not have a coldness run along his spine. But as for what little Mierna first said to us, on that island half a thousand light-years from home . . .
by Poul Anderson
Please, mister, could I have a cracker for my oontatherium?”
Not exactly the words you would expect at an instant when history changes course and the universe can never again be what it was. The die is cast; In this sign conquer; It is not fit that you should sit here any longer; We hold these truths to be self-evident; The Italian navigator has landed in the New World; Dear God, the thing works!—no man with any imagination can recall those, or others like them, and not have a coldness run along his spine. But as for what little Mierna first said to us, on that island half a thousand light-years from home . . .
The star is catalogued AGC 4256836, a K2 dwarf in Cassiopeia. Our ship was making a standard preliminary survey of that region, and had come upon mystery enough—how easily Earthsiders forget that every planet is a complete world!—but nothing extraordinary in this fantastic cosmos. The Traders had noted places that seemed worth further investigation; so had the Federals; the lists were not quite identical.
After a year, vessel and men were equally jaded. We needed a set-down, to spend a few weeks refitting and recuperating before the long swing homeward. There is an art to finding such a spot. You visit whatever nearby suns look suitable. If you come on a planet whose gross physical characteristics are terrestroid, you check the biological details—very, very carefully, but since the operation is largely automated it goes pretty fast—and make contact with the autochthones, if any. Primitives are preferred. That’s not because of military danger, as some think. The Federals insist that the natives have no objection to strangers camping on their land, while the Traders don’t see how anyone, civilized or not, that hasn’t discovered atomic energy can be a menace. It’s only that primitives are less apt to ask complicated questions and otherwise make a nuisance of themselves. Spacemen rejoice that worlds with machine civilizations are rare.
Well, Joril looked ideal. The second planet of that sun, with more water than Earth, it offered a mild climate everywhere. The biochemistry was so like our own that we could eat native foods, and there didn’t seem to be any germs that UX-2 couldn’t handle. Seas, forests, meadows made us feel right at home, yet the countless differences from Earth lent a fairyland glamour. The indigenes were savages, that is, they depended on hunting, fishing, and gathering for their whole food supply. So we assumed there were thousands of little cultures and picked the one that appeared most advanced: not that aerial observation indicated much difference.
Those people lived in neat, exquisitely decorated villages along the western seaboard of the largest continent, with woods and hills behind them. Contact went smoothly. Our semanticians had a good deal of trouble with the language, but the villagers started picking up English right away. Their hospitality was lavish whenever we called on them, but they stayed out of our camp except for the conducted tours we gave and other such invitations. With one vast, happy sigh, we settled down.
But from the first there were certain disturbing symptoms. Granted they had humanlike throats and palates, we hadn’t expected the autochthones to speak flawless English within a couple of weeks. Every one of them. Obviously they could have learned still faster if we’d taught them systematically. We followed the usual practice and christened the planet “Joril” after what we thought was the local word for “earth”—and then found that “Joril” meant “Earth,” capitalized, and the people had an excellent heliocentric astronomy. Though they were too polite to press themselves on us, they weren’t merely accepting us as something inexplicable; curiosity was afire in them, and given half a chance they did ask the most complicated questions.
Once the initial rush of establishing ourselves was over and we had time to think, it became plain that we’d stumbled on something worth much further study. First we needed to check on some other areas and make sure this Dannicar culture wasn’t a freak. After all, the Neolithic Mayas had been good astronomers; the ferro-agricultural Greeks had developed a high and sophisticated philosophy. Looking over the maps we’d made from orbit, Captain Barlow chose a large island about 700 kilometers due west. A gravboat was outfitted and five men went aboard.
Pilot: Jacques Lejeune. Engineer: me. Federal militechnic representative: Commander Ernest Baldinger, Space Force of the Solar Peace Authority. Federal civil government representative: Walter Vaughan. Trader agent: Don Haraszthy. He and Vaughan were the principals, but the rest of us were skilled in the multiple jobs of planetography. You have to be, on a foreign world months from home or help.
We made the aerial crossing soon after sunrise, so we’d have a full eighteen hours of daylight. I remember how beautiful the ocean looked below us, like one great bowl of metal, silver where the sun struck, cobalt and green copper beyond. Then the island came over the world’s edge, darkly forested, crimson-splashed by stands of gigantic red blossoms. Lejeune picked out an open spot in the woods, about two kilometers from a village that stood on a wide bay, and landed us with a whoop and a holler. He’s a fireball pilot.
“Well—” Haraszthy rose to his sheer two meters and stretched till his joints cracked. He was burly to match that height, and his hook-nosed face carried the marks of old battles. Most Traders are tough, pragmatic extroverts; they have to be, just as Federal civils have to be the opposite. It makes for conflict, though. “Let’s hike.”
“Not so fast,” Vaughan said: a thin young man with an intense gaze. “That tribe has never seen or heard of our kind. If they noticed us land, they may be in a panic.”
“So we go jolly them out of it,” Haraszthy shrugged.
“Our whole party? Are you serious?” Commander Baldinger asked. He reflected a bit. “Yes, I suppose you are. But I’m responsible now. Lejeune and Cathcart, stand by here. We others will proceed to the village.”
“Just like that?” Vaughan protested.
“You know a better way?” Haraszthy answered.
“As a matter of fact—” But nobody listened. The government operates on some elaborate theories, and Vaughan was still too new in Survey to understand how often theory has to give way. We were impatient to go outside, and I regretted not being sent along to town. Of course, someone had to stay, ready to pull out our emissaries if serious trouble developed.
We emerged into long grass and a breeze that smelled of nothing so much as cinnamon. Trees rustled overhead, against a deep blue sky; the reddish sunlight spilled across purple wildflowers and bronze-colored insect wings. I drew a savoring breath before going around with Lejeune to make sure our landing gear was properly set. We were all lightly clad; Baldinger carried a blast rifle and Haraszthy a radiocom big enough to contact Dannicar, but both seemed ludicrously inappropriate.
“I envy the Jorillians,” I remarked.
“In a way,” Lejeune said. “Though perhaps their environment is too good. What stimulus have they to advance further?”
“Why should they want to?”
“They don’t, consciously, my old. But every intelligent race is descended from animals that once had a hard struggle to survive, so hard they were forced to evolve brains. There is an instinct for adventure, even in the gentlest herbivorous beings, and sooner or later it must find expression—”
“Holy jumping Judas!”
Haraszthy’s yell brought Lejeune and me bounding back to that side of the ship. For a moment my reason wobbled. Then I decided the sight wasn’t really so strange . . . here.
A girl was emerging from the woods. She was about the equivalent of a Terrestrial five-year-old, I estimated. Less than a meter tall (the Jorillians average more short and slender than we), she had the big head of her species to make her look still more elfin. Long blondish hair, round ears, delicate features that were quite humanoid except for the high forehead and huge violet eyes added to the charm. Her brown-skinned body was clad only in a white loincloth. One four-fingered hand waved cheerily at us. The other carried a leash. And at the opposite end of that leash was a grasshopper the size of a hippopotamus.
No, not a grasshopper, I saw as she danced toward us. The head looked similar, but the four walking legs were short and stout, the several others mere boneless appendages. The gaudy hide was skin, not chitin. I saw that the creature breathed with lungs, too. Nonetheless it was a startling monster; and it drooled.
“Insular genus,” Vaughan said. “Undoubtedly harmless, or she wouldn’t— But a child, coming so casually—!”
Baldinger grinned and lowered his rifle. “What the hell,” he said, “to a kid everything’s equally wonderful. This is a break for our side. She’ll give us a good recommendation to her elders.”
The little girl (damn it, I will call her that) walked to within a meter of Haraszthy, turned those big eyes up and up till they met his piratical face, and trilled with an irresistible smile:
“Please, mister, could I have a cracker for my oontatherium?” * * *
I don’t quite remember the next few minutes. They were confused. Eventually we found ourselves, the whole five, walking down a sun-speckled woodland path. The girl skipped beside us, chattering like a xylophone. The monster lumbered behind, chewing messily on what we had given it. When the light struck those compound eyes I thought of a jewel chest.
“My name is Mierna,” the girl said, “and my father makes things out of wood, I don’t know what that’s called in English, please tell me, oh, carpentry, thank you, you’re a nice man. My father thinks a lot. My mother makes songs. They are very pretty songs. She sent me out to get some sweet grass for a borning couch, because her assistant wife is going to born a baby soon, but when I saw you come down just the way Pengwil told, I knew I should say hello instead and take you to Taori. That’s our village. We have twenty-five houses. And sheds and a Thinking Hall that’s bigger than the one in Riru. Pengwil said crackers are awful tasty. Could I have one too?”
Haraszthy obliged in a numb fashion. Vaughan shook himself and fairly snapped, “How do you know our language?”
“Why, everybody does in Taori. Since Pengwil came and taught us. That was three days ago. We’ve been hoping and hoping you would come. They’ll be so jealous in Riru! But we’ll let them visit if they ask us nicely.”
“Pengwil . . . a Dannicarian name, all right,” Baldinger muttered. “But they never heard of this island till I showed them our map. And they couldn’t cross the ocean in those dugouts of theirs! It’s against the prevailing winds, and square sails—”
“Oh, Pengwil’s boat can sail right into the wind,” Mierna laughed. “I saw him myself, he took everybody for rides, and now my father’s making a boat like that too, only better.”
“Why did Pengwil come here?” Vaughan asked.
“To see what there was. He’s from a place called Folat. They have such funny names in Dannicar, and they dress funny too, don’t they, mister?”
“Folat . . . yes, I remember, a community a ways north of our camp,” Baldinger said.
“But savages don’t strike off into an unknown ocean for, for curiosity,” I stammered.
“These do,” Haraszthy grunted. I could almost see the relays clicking in his blocky head. There were tremendous commercial possibilities here, foods and textiles and especially the dazzling artwork. In exchange—
“No!” Vaughan exclaimed. “I know what you’re thinking, Trader Haraszthy, and you are not going to bring machines here.”
The big man bridled. “Says who?”
“Says me, by virtue of the authority vested in me. And I’m sure the Council will confirm my decision.” In that soft air Vaughan was sweating. “We don’t dare!”
“What’s a Council?” Mierna asked. A shade of trouble crossed her face. She edged close to the bulk of her animal.
In spite of everything, I had to pat her head and murmur, “Nothing you need worry about, sweetheart.” To get her mind, and my own, off vague fears: “Why do you call this fellow an oontatherium? That can’t be his real name.”
“Oh, no.” She forgot her worries at once. “He’s a yao and his real name is, well, it means Big-Feet-Buggy-Eyes-Top-Man-Underneath-And-Over. That’s what I named him. He’s mine and he’s lovely.” She tugged at an antenna. The monster actually purred. “But Pengwil told us about something called an oont you have at your home, that’s hairy and scary and carries things and drools like a yao, so I thought that would be a nice English name. Isn’t it?”
“Very,” I said weakly.
“What is this oont business?” Vaughan demanded.
Haraszthy ran a hand through his hair. “Well,” he said, “you know I like Kipling, and I read some of his poems to some natives one night at a party. The one about the oont, the camel, yeah, I guess that must have been among ’em. They sure enjoyed Kipling.”
“And had the poem letter-perfect after one hearing, and passed it unchanged up and down the coast, and now it’s crossed the sea and taken hold,” Vaughan choked.
“Who explained that therium is a root meaning ‘mammal’?” I asked. Nobody knew, but doubtless one of our naturalists had casually mentioned it. So five-year-old Mierna had gotten the term from a wandering sailor and applied it with absolute correctness: never mind feelers and insectoidal eyes, the yao was a true mammal.
After a while we emerged in a cleared strip fronting on the bay. Against its glitter stood the village, peak-roofed houses of wood and thatch, a different style from Dannicar’s but every bit as pleasant and well-kept. Outrigger canoes were drawn up on the beach, where fishnets hung to dry. Anchored some way beyond was another boat. The curved, gaily painted hull, twin steering oars, mat sails and leather tackle were like nothing on our poor overmechanized Earth; but she was sloop-rigged, and evidently a deep keel made it impossible to run her ashore.
“I thought so,” Baldinger said in an uneven voice. “Pengwil went ahead and invented tacking. That’s an efficient design. He could cross the water in a week or less.”
“He invented navigation too,” Lejeune pointed out.
The villagers, who had not seen us descend, now dropped their occupations—cooking, cleaning, weaving, potting, the numberless jobs of the primitive—to come on the run. All were dressed as simply as Mierna. Despite large heads, which were not grotesquely big, odd hands and ears, slightly different body proportions, the women were good to look on: too good, after a year’s celibacy. The beardless, long-haired men were likewise handsome, and both sexes were graceful as cats.
They didn’t shout or crowd. Only one exuberant horn sounded, down on the beach. Mierna ran to a grizzled male, seized him by the hand, and tugged him forward. “This is my father,” she crowed. “Isn’t he wonderful? And he thinks a lot. The name he’s using right now, that’s Sarato. I liked his last name better.”
“One wearies of the same word,” Sarato laughed. “Welcome, Earthfolk. You do us great . . . lula . . . pardon, I lack the term. You raise us high by this visit.” His handshake—Pengwil must have told him about that custom—was hard, and his eyes met ours respectfully but unawed.
The Dannicarian communities turned what little government they needed over to specialists, chosen on the basis of some tests we hadn’t yet comprehended. But these people didn’t seem to draw even that much class distinction. We were introduced to everybody by occupation: hunter, fisher, musician, prophet (I think that is what nonalo means), and so on. There was the same absence of taboo here as we had noticed in Dannicar, but an equally elaborate code of manners—which they realized we could not be expected to observe.
Pengwil, a strongly built youth in the tunic of his own culture, greeted us. It was no coincidence that he’d arrived at the same spot as we. Taori lay almost exactly west of his home area, and had the best anchorage on these shores. He was bursting with desire to show off his boat. I obliged him, swimming out and climbing aboard. “A fine job,” I said with entire honesty. “I have a suggestion, though. For sailing along coasts, you don’t need a fixed keel.” I described a centerboard. “Then you can ground her.”
“Yes, Sarato thought of that after he had seen my work. He has started one of such pattern already. He wants to do away with the steering oars also, and have a flat piece of wood turn at the back end. Is that right?”
“Yes,” I said after a strangled moment.
“It seemed so to me.” Pengwil smiled. “The push of water can be split in two parts like the push of air. Your Mister Ishihara told me about splitting and rejoining forces. That was what gave me the idea for a boat like this.”
We swam back and put our clothes on again. The village was abustle, preparing a feast for us. Pengwil joined them. I stayed behind, walking the beach, too restless to sit. Staring out across the waters and breathing an ocean smell that was almost like Earth’s, I thought strange thoughts. They were broken off by Mierna. She skipped toward me, dragging a small wagon.
“Hello, Mister Cathcart!” she cried. “I have to gather seaweed for flavor. Do you want to help me?”
“Sure,” I said.
She made a face. “I’m glad to be here. Father and Kuaya and a lot of the others, they’re asking Mister Lejeune about ma-the-matics. I’m not old enough to like functions. I’d like to hear Mister Haraszthy tell about Earth, but he’s talking alone in a house with his friends. Will you tell me about Earth? Can I go there someday?”
I mumbled something. She began to bundle leafy strands that had washed ashore. “I didn’t used to like this job,” she said. “I had to go back and forth so many times. They wouldn’t let me use my oontatherium because he gets buckety when his feet are wet. I told them I could make him shoes, but they said no. Now it’s fun anyway, with this, this, what do you call it?”
“A wagon. You haven’t had such a thing before?”
“No, never, just drags with runners. Pengwil told us about wheels. He saw the Earthfolk use them. Carpenter Huanna started putting wheels on the drags right away. We only have a few so far.”
I looked at the device, carved in wood and bone, a frieze of processional figures around the sides. The wheels weren’t simply attached to axles. With permission, I took the cover off one and saw a ring of hard-shelled spherical nuts. As far as I knew, nobody had explained ball bearings to Pengwil.
“I’ve been thinking and thinking,” Mierna said. “If we made a great big wagon, then an oontatherium could pull it, couldn’t he? Only we have to have a good way for tying the oontatherium on, so he doesn’t get hurt and you can guide him. I’ve thinked . . . thought of a real nice way.” She stooped and drew lines in the sand. The harness ought to work.
With a full load, we went back among the houses. I lost myself in admiration of the carved pillars and panels. Sarato emerged from Lejeune’s discussion of group theory (the natives had already developed that, so the talk was a mere comparison of approaches) to show me his obsidian-edged tools. He said the coast dwellers traded inland for the material, and spoke of getting steel from us. Or might we be so incredibly kind as to explain how metal was taken from the earth?
The banquet, music, dances, pantomimes, conversation, all was as gorgeous as expected, or more so. I trust the happy-pills we humans took kept us from making too grim an impression. But we disappointed our hosts by declining an offer to spend the night. They guided us back by torch-glow, singing the whole distance, on a twelve-tone scale with some of the damnedest harmony I have ever come across. Mierna was at the tail of the parade. She stood a long time in the coppery light of the single great moon, waving to us.
* * *
Baldinger set out glasses and a bottle of Irish. “Okay,” he said. “Those pills have worn off by now, but we need an equivalent.”
“Hoo, yes!” Haraszthy grabbed the bottle.
“I wonder what their wine will be like, when they invent that?” Lejeune mused.
“Be still!” Vaughan said. “They aren’t going to.”
We stared at him. He sat shivering with tension, under the cold fluoroluminance in that bleak little cabin.
“What the devil do you mean?” Haraszthy demanded at last. “If they can make wine half as well as they do everything else, it’ll go for ten credits a liter on Earth.”
“Don’t you understand?” Vaughan cried. “We can’t deal with them. We have to get off this planet and— Oh, God, why did we have to find the damned thing?” He groped for a glass.
“Well,” I sighed, “we always knew, those of us who bothered to think about the question, that someday we were bound to meet a race like this. Man . . . what is man that Thou art mindful of him?”
“This is probably an older star than Sol,” Baldinger nodded. “Less massive, so it stays longer on the main sequence.”
“There needn’t be much difference in planetary age,” I said. “A million years, half a million, whatever the figure is, hell, that doesn’t mean a thing in astronomy or geology. In the development of an intelligent race, though—”
“But they’re savages!” Haraszthy protested.
“Most of the races we’ve found are,” I reminded him. “Man was too, for most of his existence. Civilization is a freak. It doesn’t come natural. Started on Earth, I’m told, because the Middle East dried out as the glaciers receded and something had to be done for a living when the game got scarce. And scientific, machine civilization, that’s a still more unusual accident. Why should the Jorillians have gone beyond an Upper Paleolithic technology? They never needed to.”
“Why do they have the brains they do, if they’re in the stone age?” Haraszthy argued.
“Why did we, in our own stone age?” I countered. “It wasn’t necessary for survival. Java man, Peking man, and the low-browed rest, they’d been doing all right. But evidently evolution, intraspecies competition, sexual selection . . . whatever increases intelligence in the first place continues to force it upward, if some new factor like machinery doesn’t interfere. A bright Jorillian has more prestige, rises higher in life, gets more mates and children, and so it goes. But this is an easy environment, at least in the present geological epoch. The natives don’t even seem to have wars, which would stimulate technology. Thus far they’ve had little occasion to use those tremendous minds for anything but art, philosophy, and social experimentation.”
“What is their average IQ?” Lejeune whispered.
“Meaningless,” Vaughan said dully. “Beyond 180 or so, the scale breaks down. How can you measure an intelligence so much greater than your own?”
There was a stillness. I heard the forest sough in the night around us.
“Yes,” Baldinger ruminated, “I always realized that our betters must exist. Didn’t expect we’d run into them in my own lifetime, however. Not in this microscopic sliver of the galaxy that we’ve explored. And . . . well, I always imagined the Elders having machines, science, space travel.”
“They will,” I said.
“If we go away—” Lejeune began.
“Too late,” I said. “We’ve already given them this shiny new toy, science. If we abandon them, they’ll come looking for us in a couple of hundred years. At most.”
Haraszthy’s fist crashed on the table. “Why leave?” he roared. “What the hell are you scared of? I doubt the population of this whole planet is ten million. There are fifteen billion humans in the Solar System and the colonies! So a Jorillian can outthink me. So what? Plenty of guys can do that already, and it don’t bother me as long as we can do business.”
Baldinger shook his head. His face might have been cast in iron. “Matters aren’t that simple. The question is what race is going to dominate this arm of the galaxy.”
“Is it so horrible if the Jorillians do?” Lejeune asked softly.
“Perhaps not. They seem pretty decent. But—” Baldinger straightened in his chair. “I’m not going to be anybody’s domestic animal. I want my planet to decide her own destiny.”
That was the unalterable fact. We sat weighing it for a long and wordless time.
The hypothetical superbeings had always seemed comfortably far off. We hadn’t encountered them, or they us. Therefore they couldn’t live anywhere near. Therefore they probably never would interfere in the affairs of this remote galactic fringe where we dwell. But a planet only months distant from Earth; a species whose average member was a genius and whose geniuses were not understandable by us: bursting from their world, swarming through space, vigorous, eager, jumping in a decade to accomplishments that would take us a century—if we ever succeeded—how could they help but destroy our painfully built civilization? We’d scrap it ourselves, as the primitives of our old days had scrapped their own rich cultures in the overwhelming face of Western society. Our sons would laugh at our shoddy triumphs, go forth to join the high Jorillian adventure, and come back spirit-broken by failure, to build some feeble imitation of an alien way of life and fester in their hopelessness. And so would every other thinking species, unless the Jorillians were merciful enough to leave them alone.
Which the Jorillians probably would be. But who wants that kind of mercy?
I looked upon horror. Only Vaughan had the courage to voice the thing:
“There are planets under technological blockade, you know. Cultures too dangerous to allow modern weapons, let alone spaceships. Joril can be interdicted.”
“They’ll invent the stuff for themselves, now they’ve gotten the idea,” Baldinger said.
Vaughan’s mouth twitched downward. “Not if the only two regions that have seen us are destroyed.”
“Good God!” Haraszthy leaped to his feet.
“Sit down!” Baldinger rapped.
Haraszthy spoke an obscenity. His face was ablaze. The rest of us sat in a chill sweat.
“You’ve called me unscrupulous,” the Trader snarled. “Take that suggestion back to the hell it came from, Vaughan, or I’ll kick our your brains.”
I thought of nuclear fire vomiting skyward, and a wisp of gas that had been Mierna, and said, “No.”
“The alternative,” Vaughan said, staring at the bulkhead across from him, “is to do nothing until the sterilization of the entire planet has become necessary.”
Lejeune shook his head in anguish. “Wrong, wrong, wrong. There can be too great a price for survival.”
“But for our children’s survival? Their liberty? Their pride and—”
“What sort of pride can they take in themselves, once they know the truth?” Haraszthy interrupted. He reached down, grabbed Vaughan’s shirt front, and hauled the man up by sheer strength. His broken features glared three centimeters from the Federal’s. “I’ll tell you what we’re going to do,” he said. “We’re going to trade, and teach, and xenologize, and fraternize, the same as with any other people whose salt we’ve eaten. And take our chances like men!”
“Let him go,” Baldinger commanded. Haraszthy knotted a fist. “If you strike him, I’ll brig you and prefer charges at home. Let him go, I said!”
Haraszthy opened his grasp. Vaughan tumbled to the deck. Haraszthy sat down, buried his head in his hands, and struggled not to sob.
Baldinger refilled our glasses. “Well, gentlemen,” he said, “it looks like an impasse. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, and I lay odds no Jorillian talks in such tired clichés.”
“They could give us so much,” Lejeune pleaded.
“Give!” Vaughan climbed erect and stood trembling before us. “That’s p-p-precisely the trouble. They’d give it! If they could, even. It wouldn’t be ours. We probably couldn’t understand their work, or use it, or . . . It wouldn’t be ours, I say!”
Haraszthy stiffened. He sat like stone for an entire minute before he raised his face and whooped aloud.
* * *
Blessed be whiskey. I actually slept a few hours before dawn. But the light, stealing in through the ports, woke me then and I couldn’t get back to sleep. At last I rose, took the drop-shaft down, and went outside.
The land lay still. Stars were paling, but the east held as yet only a rush of ruddiness. Through the cool air I heard the first bird-flutings from the dark forest mass around me. I kicked off my shoes and went barefoot in wet grass.
Somehow it was not surprising that Mierna should come at that moment, leading her oontatherium. She let go the leash and ran to me. “Hi, Mister Cathcart! I hoped a lot somebody would be up. I haven’t had any breakfast.”
“We’ll have to see about that.” I swung her in the air till she squealed. “And then maybe like a little flyaround in this boat. Would you like that?”
“Oooh!” Her eyes grew round. I set her down. She needed a while longer before she dared ask, “Clear to Earth?”
“No, not that far, I’m afraid. Earth is quite a ways off.”
“Maybe someday? Please?”
“Someday, I’m quite sure, my dear. And not so terribly long until then, either.”
“I’m going to Earth, I’m going to Earth, I’m going to Earth.” She hugged the oontatherium. “Will you miss me awfully, Big-Feet-Buggy-Eyes-Top-Man-Underneath-And-Over? Don’t drool so sad. Maybe you can come too. Can he, Mister Cathcart? He’s a very nice oontatherium, honest he is, and he does so love crackers.”
“Well, perhaps, perhaps not,” I said. “But you’ll go, if you wish. I promise you. Anybody on this whole planet who wants to will go to Earth.”
As most of them will. I’m certain our idea will be accepted by the Council. The only possible one. If you can’t lick ’em . . . get ’em to jine you.
I rumpled Mierna’s hair. In a way, sweetheart, what a dirty trick to play on you! Take you straight from the wilderness to a huge and complicated civilization. Dazzle you with all the tricks and gadgets and ideas we have, not because we’re better but simply because we’ve been at it a little longer than you. Scatter your ten million among our fifteen billion. Of course you’ll fall for it. You can’t help yourselves. When you realize what’s happening, you won’t be able to stop, you’ll be hooked. I don’t think you’ll even be able to resent it.
You’ll be assimilated, Mierna. You’ll become an Earth girl. Naturally, you’ll grow up to be one of our leaders. You’ll contribute tremendous things to our civilization, and be rewarded accordingly. But the whole point is, it will be our civilization. Mine . . . and yours.
I wonder if you’ll ever miss the forest, though, and the little houses by the bay, and the boats and songs and old, old stories, yes, and your darling oontatherium. I know the empty planet will miss you, Mierna. So will I.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go build us that breakfast.”