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They couldn't have fire!
Maybe the strangest thing of all, n.o.body was trying to explain what had happened. Now you take mankind, he's always right in there with an explanation for everything. Maybe it's not the right one, maybe, looking back, it's a silly one--but at the time he believes it, and that's a comfort.
But this was like being in a dream, knowing it's a dream, knowing it can't happen this way, and so it doesn't have to be explained. And yet, isn't that the worst part of a bad dream? No explanation for what's happening in it? Nothing you can do about it, either?
Somebody said, it being dark and all, they should get some sleep.
Somebody mentioned being thankful there weren't any children. That was one of the hards.h.i.+ps of being an experimental colonist, you couldn't have children. Wouldn't be right to expose children to hards.h.i.+ps they'd have to suffer helpless. Only here, the way kids were, he wouldn't have been surprised if kids would have taken to it a lot easier than the grown folks.
The people sort of bedded down all together, the way a herd of animals take shelter, each, even in its sleep, taking comfort from the presence and protection of the others. They bedded around on the ground, making themselves comfortable as possible. One thing you could say, experimental colonists might not be long on brains, the way scientists are, but they weren't picked for that. They were picked for endurance, and the brainy will often crack up under a strain that the enduring kind hardly notices. Far as endurance went, physical, this wasn't bad.
Up through the leaves, and in between the trees, the stars were as bright as ever--brighter because there wasn't no fire to dim their glow.
They couldn't see Earth, of course, but everybody knew right where to look for Sol. There it was, a tiny little spot of light in its constellation. It was still there.
Somebody said into the darkness that it was only two more days until the regular monthly communication with Earth was due. That as soon as E.H.Q.
didn't hear from them, there'd be a rescue party out here in nothing flat. So, at worst, it meant living this way only five or six more days.
That made everybody feel better. It was a comforting thing to look up through the leaves, to see Sol in the sky, to know they weren't forgotten back home; that on Earth people would soon be buzzing around like a disturbed hive of hornets, with stingers c.o.c.ked and ready as soon as the message didn't get through.
Yep, somebody said, just like the museum collection of Western movies where the U.S. cavalry always got there in time. At least they weren't being attacked by no Indians, somebody said.
Or were they? Maybe everybody asked that to themselves, but n.o.body said it.
Most everybody got some sleep. No one really suffered, any discomfort just showed them how soft they were getting with easy living.
Considering everything, they were coming along just fine. And in a few days everything would be all right again. They went to sleep thinking that even if there was some equivalent to the old-time Indians attacking them, rescue would soon be here and they would be safe.
Because man always wins.
Most people were wide awake by dawn. Some had slept in little bits, waking often enough to keep a sense of continuity. Others, those who slept better, awoke with a start; looked around themselves wildly, realized they were lying out in the open plumb naked in front of other people; maybe wondered for an instant what kind of party they'd been to the night before; and nearly bolted in panic before they remembered.
Most everyone felt sort of surprised that things weren't back to normal, with yesterday being something soonest forgot soonest mended. It takes time for folks to realize--things.
Not having a hot drink for breakfast was another little hards.h.i.+p, a reminder of how soft they'd got. But n.o.body complained. Seemed like everybody had woke with a determination to make the best of things and help one another do the same. Everybody was pitching in together to make the best of things. Once they bit into the cool fruit on the trees around them, even not having a hot drink to start the day didn't seem to matter.
Some of the women got together and decided it would help things get back to normal if the people covered their nakedness, or least parts of it.
It might be all right just among themselves, they said, because everybody was in the same fix and knew what happened--but how would they feel when the rescue s.h.i.+p landed and they had to walk out in front of strange men with nothing on?
They picked some big green leaves without any trouble. But when they strove to pin them together with thorns, the thorns just slipped out and fell to the ground. Then they tried sewing the leaves together with bindweed. Same thing. The bindweed slithered out and fell to the ground.
One woman figured to stick some leaves together with thick mud from the river and paste them with more mud on her body. It wouldn't stick, peeled right off like she was oiled. One man said he could do it without leaves, just cover himself with mud. He lay down in a muddy pool and got himself covered with wet clay.
He was a sight. All at once he looked vulgar, obscene. And n.o.body had, before. That did it. Somebody said they were humans, not pigs, and if the men on the rescue s.h.i.+p had never seen a naked body before it was time they did. What was so wrong about the human body, anyhow?
They made the muddy man go bathe himself in the river, and gave up trying to cover themselves. All at once the desire to cover themselves was a nasty kind of thinking, something to be ashamed of.
Midmorning somebody got to wondering if the ten colonists who'd broken off from the main colony and moved across the ridge were all right.
Soon as he reminded them, everybody began to laugh. What fools they'd all been. Showed you how a bit of trouble could keep a man from thinking straight. Here they'd been eating and sleeping like animals when, all the while, just across the ridge there'd be houses and beds, fires and clothes. Sure, those folks might differ in some opinions, but humans always stood ready to help one another in distress, differences forgotten.
In a body, they started for the ridge. Everybody knew just where the dissidents had built their homes. But when they got to the top of the ridge there weren't no houses there. Nothing but virgin woods, same as this side. That shook them up. They'd been so sure.
Maybe it was the jolt of that, maybe it was a measure that we still weren't thinking straight, something--they didn't go on down and join forces. n.o.body thought of it, somehow. They went back down and congregated around where the village had been. Maybe it was the beginning of something that would come later, something Cal would see for himself. That they were already not thinking the way humans do.
Thinking and behaving more the way dumb animals do.
Nothing else worth mentioning happened that day, nor the next. In some ways it was still like a dream. The way people were just accepting things, without question, maybe without curiosity. Jed remembered one time an E had said there was a wider gap between the thinking man and the average man than there was between that average man and the ape.
He'd resented it at the time, of course, but now he thought of it again and began to realize what the E had meant.
Two or three people commented on how easy it was to go back to nature, wondered why they hadn't all done it before. How stupid it was for man to knock himself out chasing all over the universe, undergoing such hards.h.i.+ps, when all a man could ever want was right here.
Jed tried to put down this kind of talk when it came up. He reminded them it was Lotus Land thinking, and would be the ruination of a prime bunch of colonists. He reminded them they'd been through hards.h.i.+ps worse than this, and had ought to keep their wits about them.
Funny thing, though. He couldn't get very excited about it. Just did it because it was his duty. Maybe not even that strong, maybe because once upon a time, long ago, hardly remembered, it had been his duty.
It was the next day that things got real rough.
Somebody, in a clearer-thinking moment, said they couldn't be sure when the rescue s.h.i.+p would get here; that when the rescuers came and didn't see any village they wouldn't know what to think--maybe they'd just go away. Shows we weren't thinking so straight after all, to believe that you'd go away just because you didn't find our village.
Anyhow, hadn't we ought to work out some kind of a message? Maybe sc.r.a.pe some kind of a message on the ground? They decided the smooth sand above the tide line down on the sea sh.o.r.e was the best place for it.
n.o.body had anything else to do, so the whole colony, all forty of them, walked the couple of miles down to the seash.o.r.e. They picked out a nice stretch of white sand, and with a broken piece of driftwood they started to scratch a message, just a big SOS. The driftwood wriggled out of their hands like a snake. n.o.body could hold it. Several men tried together, made no difference.
Somebody started scooping out a furrow with his hands. The furrow closed up and smoothed out right behind him. Somebody tried piling up sand, first in letters, then in code signals. Made no difference. Sand smoothed right out again.
Then somebody got a bright idea. All right, he said. Didn't need to use a stick, or scoop out a furrow, or pile up the sand. They had their bare feet, didn't they? They could tromp out the letters that way.
Footprints, close together, would be as good as a furrow.
That's when it happened.
Jed tried it himself. And his footprints disappeared. They just weren't there. Everybody looked behind himself, where he'd been walking. n.o.body was leaving any footprints.
That's when they bolted in panic.
Jed looked quickly at Cal when he told him how the colonists had spooked, bolted in panic. As if he expected disbelief.
"Maybe that seems funny to you," he commented. "After taking so much we'd spook like crazy animals and hightail for the woods over not making footprints."
"Pretty fundamental thing," Cal said with a shrug. "Animals are aware of spoor long before they are aware of tools. It hit deep down into fundamental being, a thing like that."
Jed looked relieved. Hussein and Van Ta.s.sel exchanged glances, as if confirming their belief that an E would understand their problems. Cal appreciated the confidence expressed in that glance, but did not feel it was justified. It was now pretty obvious that this was some alien co-ordinate system, never before encountered by man. But how to get hold of it? How to reconcile with it? Coexist with it?
Never before encountered by man? What if the myths of early man be true?
And too authentic the legends of his being a p.a.w.n to the will of the G.o.ds? Could there have been some factual basis for the G.o.ds? And not, as was supposed, rationalizations dreamed up by man to account for the control of phenomena at a level beyond his own power to control?