Half a billion miles overhead, Sirius shone with an artificially white glow. Somewhere on the horizon, Earth lay, an invisible, remote speck of dust we had forsaken 24 dreary, claustrophobic months ago.It was the afternoon of our arrival. Our fellow members of the "test colony" were back in the clearing at the edge of the lake, getting their ground-legs and drinking in the sweet, clean air of Sirius XXII. I was strolling along the strip of sandy beach with Phillip Benson, leader of our group, sniffing the spicy perfume of the forest that crowded within twenty feet of the water's edge.The trip had taken its toll from all of us, even tough-minded Phil Benson. We both found it difficult to relax and enjoy the invigorating, oxygen-rich air and the balmy climate. As official recorder, I was trying to think of words suitable to capture the magnificence, the sheer loveliness of the planet which would be our home for at least four years, perhaps forever.
Each absorbed in his own thoughts, Benson and I were some 500 yards from the clearing when he stopped me with a hand on my arm. "Who is that?" he demanded.
Up the beach where he pointed, two naked forms emerged from the calm waters. They skipped across the sand and began rolling together playfully in the soft grasses at the forest's edge. Even at this distance they were visibly male and female.
"I can't make them out," I said. My only thought was that one of the young couples had swum down ahead of us and was enjoying the first privacy attainable in two years.
Benson's eyes were sharper. "Sam, they—they look like—"
Our voices must have reached them, for they sprang apart and rose to their feet facing us.
"Like youngsters," I supplied.
"We have no kids with us," Benson reminded me. He began to move forward, slowly, as though stalking a wild animal.
"Wait, Phil," I said. "The planet is uninhabited. They can't be—"
He continued shuffling ahead, and I followed. Within 20 paces I knew he was right. Whoever they were they hadn't come with us!
Benson stopped so quickly I bumped into him. "Look, Sam! Their hands and feet! Four digits and—no thumbs!"
I could now make out the details. The two forms were not quite human. The toes were long and prehensile. The fingers, too, were exceptionally long, appearing to have an extra joint, but as Benson mentioned, there was no opposing thumb.
They stood well apart now, the female seeking no protection from the male. Curiosity was written in their faces, and when we stopped advancing they began edging forward until they were only five yards away.
Their outlines, instead of becoming clearer, had fuzzed up more as they approached. Now it was evident that their bodies were lightly covered with a silky hair, some two or three inches long. It had already dried out in the warm sun and was standing out away from their skins like golden haloes.
They stood well under five feet tall, and in every detail, except the body hair and digits, appeared to be miniature adults, complete with navels.
Even in the midst of the shock of surprise, I was taken by their remarkable beauty. "They're true mammals!" I exclaimed.
"Without a doubt," Benson said, eyeing the full contours of the lithe little female. Her pink flesh tones were a full shade lighter than those of the male. Both had well-spaced eyes under broad foreheads. Their fine features were drawn into fearless, half-quizzical, half-good-natured expressions of deep interest. They stood relaxed as if waiting for a parley to begin.
"This," said Benson, "is one hell of a note!"
They cocked their heads at the sound like robins. I said, "Why? They don't appear very vicious to me."
"Neither does man," Benson replied. "It's his brain that makes him deadly. Look at those skulls, the ear placement, the eyes and forehead. If I know my skull formations, I think man has met his intellectual equal at last—maybe, even, his superior."
"What makes you think they may have superior minds?" As a psychologist I felt Benson was jumping to a pretty quick conclusion.
"The atmosphere. Forty percent oxygen. Invariably, on other planets, that has meant higher metabolisms in the fauna. In a humanoid animal that strongly implies high mental as well as physical activity."
As if to prove his point, the two little creatures tired of the one-sided interview, bent slightly at the knees and leaped at a forty-five degree angle high into the tree branches. The female caught the first limb with her long fingers and swung out of sight into the foliage. The male hung by his long toes for a moment, regarding us with an inverted impish expression, then he, too, vanished.
I grunted with disappointment. Benson said, "Don't worry, they'll be back. Soon enough."
As we returned to the clearing Jane Benson and Susan, my wife, came to meet us. Although both brunettes rated high in feminine charms among the forty women of our group, somehow they appeared a little ungainly and uncommonly tall against my mental image of the little people we had just left. Their faces were pale from the long interment in the ship, and bright spots of sunburn on cheekbones and forehead gave them a clownish, made-up appearance.
"We've sorted and identified the fruits," Sue called to us. "The handbook is right. They're delicious! We've got a feast spread. Just wait until you—" She caught our expressions. "What's wrong?"
Benson shrugged. "You girls go on ahead and get the crowd together. I have an important announcement to make." Jane pouted a little and hesitated, but Benson insisted. "Run along now, please. I want to gather my thoughts."
We trailed after them slowly. I didn't like Benson's moody reaction to our discovery of an intelligent life-form. To me it was exciting. What fabulous news I would have to send back with the first liaison ship to contact us four years hence! And it would be entirely unexpected, because the original exploration party had failed to make the discovery. That in itself was an intriguing mystery. How could twenty-two scientists, bent on a minute examination of a planet's flora and fauna, overlook the most fabulous creation of all—an animal virtually in men's image? The only guess I could make was that they must belong to a nomadic tribe small enough to escape discovery.
Benson broke silence as the narrow beach strip began to widen into the grassy plain where our ship squatted like a hemispherical cathedral. "This poses so many problems," he said shaking his head.
I said, "Phil, I think you're taking your job too seriously. You just can't plan every detail of organizing our community down to the rationing of tooth-powder."
"Planning never hurt any project," Benson said.
"I disagree," I told him. "You've had too long to dwell on your plans. Now the first unpredictable incident throws you into an uproar. Relax, Phil. Take your problems one at a time. We don't even know that we'll ever see the little creatures again. Maybe they're shy."
He scarcely heard me. He was a large, well-muscled man of 46 years, an ex-college president and an able administrator. He and Jane, his wife, were the only two of our party older than the 35-year age limit. His background as a sociologist and anthropologist and his greater maturity were important factors in stabilizing a new colony, but his point of view had grown excessively conservative, it seemed to me.
A crew of craftsmen with their busy little power saws had constructed a sloping ship's ramp of rough planks sawed from the nearest trees. We stepped through and over the assembled people who were lying around in the grass at the base of the ramp, and Benson mounted twenty feet above us at the entrance to the ship.
Everyone was in high spirits, and a light cheer rippled through the assembly. Benson, however, ignored it and bent a thoroughly serious gaze out over his "flock".
"Please give me your closest attention," he began and waited until everyone was quiet. "Until further notice, we must proceed under a yellow alert during daylight hours and a red alert at night. All work parties leaving the ship will check with the scribe every hour on the hour. We will resume sleeping in the ship. Women are restricted to within 100 yards of the ship at all times. Men will go armed and will please inform themselves of their position on the security watch list which will be posted tonight." He squinted in the bright sunlight. "For the moment, you men with sidearms, post yourselves around the ship. Sound off loud if you sight anything larger than a rabbit."
The men named got slowly to their feet, fingering their light hunting pistols self-consciously. Benson continued, "You may appreciate these precautions when I tell you that Sam Rogers and I just encountered two remarkably humanoid animals on the beach less than half a mile from here."
Tension replaced levity, as Benson described our meeting with the natives. I thought he gave it a needlessly grim emphasis with such terms as, "quicker than cats", and "devilishly intelligent", but I held my peace.
He summarized, "I do not want to alarm anyone unduly, but we must face up to the fact that we are totally unprepared for such a contingency. The exploration group failed us badly in overlooking these creatures. They may not be inimical to our culture, but until this is established we must consider them prime threats. That is all," he concluded.
No one grumbled aloud, but their faces showed keen disappointment at the resumption of quartering in the ship. Reluctantly, the women began rolling up the still-deflated air-mattresses that were scattered about the soft, deep grass. Sue complained, "Sam, if these people don't get a little privacy pretty soon we'll turn into an ant colony. There'll be lovin' in the streets."
"It's not my idea," I said. "I'll be nailed to a table at the foot of the ramp all day making check marks. Phil is taking this entirely too big. The little people are really charming. He neglected to mention that they are beautifully formed and quite gentle in their—their actions."
"Actions?" she said. "What happened, really?"
I described the conditions under which we first saw the natives, and she laughed a little strainedly. "I can just imagine the look on Phil Benson's face."
I knew what she meant. In trying to enforce the shipboard rule of segregation of the sexes, our leader had developed an oversensitive attitude toward certain aspects of modesty. In the unutterable boredom of space, the pledge we had all taken to complete continence for the voyage was a severe test to all forty couples.
Had propriety and space considerations been the only reasons for the infamous "no-romance" regulation, it would never have held up. But all concerned realized the problem of childbirth in space under the jam-packed living conditions, tight water and food rationing and the fetid, recirculated air.
Now the second honeymoons were over before they started. It was back to the ship and the night-life of monks and nuns.
That night, Sue and I joined the four ship's officers, their wives, Phillip Benson and Jane in the navigation cupola atop our doomed ship that had become a "fortress". The small control room was the only semi-private room in the ship, and even Benson was admitted by invitation only. The meeting was a council of war, so to speak, and the officers were pressed into service to organize and operate the security guard.
When the guard watch was worked out for a week in advance, I spoke up. "I think we're getting off on the wrong foot, Phil. We can't stay penned up like animals at night and expect to function as humans."
Benson argued: "We are a carefully balanced group, Sam. We can't afford casualties. Look at our medical corps, two doctors and four nurses. Suppose we were attacked and lost them?"
Captain Spooner, whose authority had lapsed when we touched down, backed up Benson. "I see no great hardship in the precautions. Inconvenience, yes, but nothing that the danger doesn't fully justify."
He was a cocky, virile, bald-headed little terrier of 35 years. His very young wife and the wives of the other three officers seemed only lightly perturbed at the prospects of continuing celibacy, which confirmed my suspicions.
I said, "That's gritty of you, Captain, but remember, the rest of us haven't had the relative privacy of the bridge. If this restriction continues long I predict violations of the discipline, and probably some serious behaviour problems."
My position as colony psychologist had become somewhat obscured under the snowstorm of paperwork that my secondary job as official scribe had brought. Benson seemed now to recall that mental health was my concern. He said, "I thought you reported high morale upon arrival."
"I did, but the tensions are there, and it's foolish to draw them too tightly. We have a well-picked, highly adaptable group of people. Let's keep them that way. The quicker we hit a more normal existence the less risk we run of emotional disturbances."
"They'll take it," Benson said positively, and Spooner nodded in arrogant agreement.
My 20-hour wristwatch, geared to the shorter rotation of Sirius XXII, said nine o'clock, one hour before noon, when the women began undressing.
There had been an air of conspiracy among them all morning, a studied casualness as they wandered around near the ship, forming small conversational eddies, dispersing and reforming elsewhere. I had just finished checking in the 11-man fruit-gathering detail. I looked up from my roster in time to see the first motions of the "great disrobing". Zippers unzipped, snaps popped open, slacks, skirts, blouses and jumpers fell to the grass, and a dazzling spectacle of space-bleached feminine epidermis burst into view.
The ladies were very calm about it, but a chorus of yips sounded and swelled into a circus of cheers from the male working parties.
Before I could fathom it Benson came charging down the ramp followed by his fruit-stowing detail. He stopped at the foot of the ramp, mouth open and eyes pinched with annoyance.
Our two wives waved at us and strolled over, doing a splendid job of acting unconcerned. "Just a little sun-bathing," Jane said, shooing a small insect from a pale shoulder.He spotted Jane and Sue. "What is going on out here?" he demanded loudly.
Susan refused to meet my eye. She was watching two birds soar overhead. "It's fantastic," she said. "If you don't look at things too closely, you'd never know we weren't at a summer camp up in Wisconsin—except for the fruits. They remind me more of Tahiti. It's marvelous! The mosquitoes don't even bite."
"They will," I said, "as soon as they get a good taste of human blood. And baby, you're sure making it easy for them."
Benson was distracted from the conversation by the converging male colonists, who were whooping and yelling like a horde of school boys. He backed up the ramp and ordered, "Let's get on with the work. You've seen your wives in the altogether before."
The men quieted a little, but one yelled, "Yeah, but not lately!"
Another added, "And not all together."
In spite of the fact that nude sun-bathing was a commonplace, twenty-second-century custom on Earth, by tacit consent clothes had been worn at all times aboard ship. The women had gone along with Benson for two years on such matters, so this was clearly a feminine protest against the spirit of the yellow alert.
Young doctors Sorenson and Bailey came trotting up, grinning appreciatively but wagging their fingers. Without consulting Benson, Bailey mounted the ramp and shouted, "Blondes and redheads, ten minutes exposure. Brunettes, fifteen."
A great booing issued from the men, but Bailey held up his hand for silence. "The medical staff will make no effort to enforce these exposure maximums, but be advised that the radiation here is about the same as Miami Beach in June, so don't let the air-conditioning fool you."
Benson was spared further decisions on the issue, because at that moment one of the sentries remembered to take a quick look at the vector of forest he was supposed to be guarding. Unable to make his voice heard over the hub-hub, the guard fired his pistol in the air.
We all jumped up and stared, and Benson muttered, "Dear God!"