He raised his open hand, bowed, and started off-tall, angular. We watched him go. He stopped near the tent and said, “You know, you should be a bit more delicate with these septipods. Otherwise you just tag and tag, and it, the one with the tag, has all the hassle.”
And he left. I lay on my stomach for a long while and then looked at Mashka. She was still watching him. It was clear that Leonid Andreevich Gorbovsky had made an impression on her. But not on me. His notions about how the bearers of intelligence in the universe could turn out to be immeasurably superior to us had not moved me at all. So let them be. If you asked me, the more superior they were, the less chance we would have of meeting up with them along the way. It was like fishing for roach, where a wide-mesh net was useless. And as for pride, humiliation, shock—well, we would probably live through it. I myself would somehow live through it. And if we were discovering and were exploring for ourselves a universe they had tamed long ago, well, what of it? It wasn’t tame from our point of view! Anyhow, for us they were just a part of nature that we had to discover and explore, even should they be three times superior to us—to us they were part of the environment! Although, of course, if, say, they had tagged me the way I would tag a septipod…
I glanced at my watch and sat up hurriedly. It was time to get back to work. I noted down the number of the last ampule. I checked the aquastat. I ducked into the tent, found my ultrasonic rangefinder, and put it in the pocket of my swim trunks.
“Give me a hand, Mashka,” I said, and started to strap on the aquastat.
Mashka was still sitting in front of the radio, listening to the unfading “whee-waa.” She helped me put on the aquastat, and together we went into the water. Under water I turned on the rangefinder. Signals rang out. My tagged septipods were wandering all over the lake in their sleep. We looked knowingly at one another, and surfaced. Mashka spat, pushed her wet hair back from her forehead, and said, “There’s a difference between an interstellar ship and wet slime in a gill bag.”
I told her to return to shore and I dove again. No, in Gorbovsky’s place I wouldn’t be so worried. All this was too frivolous, like all that astroarchaeology of his. Traces of ideas! Psychological shock! There wouldn’t be any shock. Probably we wouldn’t even notice each other. They could hardly find us all that interesting.
17. The Planet with All the Conveniences
Ryu stood up to his waist in lush green grass and watched the helicopter land. Silver and dark-green shock waves from the rotors’ backwash swept over the grass. It seemed to him that the helicopter was taking its time about landing, and he shifted impatiently from foot to foot. It was very hot and close. The small, white sun was high, and moist heat rose up from the grass. The rotors started squealing more loudly, and the helicopter turned sideways to Ryu, then instantly dropped four or five feet and sank into the grass at the top of the hill. Ryu ran up the slope. The engine went quiet, the rotors turned more slowly, then stopped. Several people got out of the helicopter. The first was a lanky man in a jacket with rolled-up sleeves. He wore no helmet, and his sun-bleached hair stuck out on end over his long brown face. Ryu recognized him: it was Pathfinder Gennady Komov, the leader of the group. “Hello, landlord,” Komov said gaily, extending his hand. “Konnichi-wa!”
“Konnichi-wa, Pathfinders,” said Ryu. “Welcome to Leonida.”
He held out his hand too, but they had to cross another ten paces to make contact.
“I’m very, very glad to see you,” said Ryu, smiling widely.
“Did you get lonely?”
“And how! Alone on a whole planet.”
Behind Komov’s back someone said, “Damn!” and something dropped noisily into the grass.
“That’s Boris Fokin,” Komov said without turning around. “An archaeologist equipped with full autodescent.”
“At least when there’s such lush grass,” Boris Fokin said, getting up. He had a small red mustache, a freckled nose, and a white filmiplast helmet, now knocked aslant. He wiped his green-smeared hands on his pants and introduced himself. “Fokin. Pathfinder archaeologist.”
“Welcome, Fokin,” said Ryu.
“And this is Tatyana Palei, archaeological engineer,” said Komov.
Ryu pulled himself together and inclined his head politely. The archaeological engineer had outrageous gray eyes and blinding white teeth. The archaeological engineer’s hand was strong and rough. The archaeological engineer’s coverall draped itself with devastating elegance.
“Just call me Tanya,” said the archaeological engineer.
“Ryu Waseda,” said Ryu. “Ryu is the given name, and Waseda is the surname.”
“Mboga,” said Komov. “Biologist and hunter.”
“Where?” asked Ryu. “Oh, forgive me. A thousand apologies.”
“Never mind, Comrade Waseda,” said Mboga. “Pleased to meet you.”
Mboga was a pigmy from the Congo, and only his black head, wrapped tightly in a white kerchief, could be seen over the grass. The steel-blue barrel of a carbine stuck up next to his head.
“This is Tora-Hunter,” Tanya said.
Ryu had to bend down to shake Tora-Hunter’s hand. Now he knew who Mboga was, Tora-Hunter Mboga, member of the Commission on the Preservation of the Wildlife of Alien Planets. The biologist who had discovered the “battery of life” on Pandora. The zoopsychologist who had tamed the monstrous Martian sora-tobu hiru, the “flying leeches.” Ryu was embarrassed by his faux pas.
“I see that you don’t carry a weapon, Comrade Waseda,” said Mboga.
“I do have a pistol,” Ryu said. “But not a very heavy one.”
“I understand.” Mboga nodded encouragingly and looked about, “We did end up setting the prairie on fire,” he said softly.
Ryu turned around. A flat plain covered with lush shining grass stretched from the hill to the very horizon. Two miles from the hill the grass was on fire, kindled by the landing boat’s reactor. Thick puffs of white smoke sailed through the whitish sky. The boat could be seen dimly through the smoke-a dark egg on three widespread struts. A wide burned-out patch around the boat showed black.
“It will soon go out,” said Ryu. “It’s very damp here. Let’s go—I’ll show you your estate.”
He took Komov by the arm and led him past the helicopter to the other side of the hill. The others followed. Ryu looked back several times, nodding at them with a smile.
Komov said in vexation, “It’s always a bad show when you spoil things with your landing.”
“The fire will soon go out,” Ryu repeated.
He heard Fokin behind him, fussing over the archaeological engineer. “Careful, Tanya girl, there’s a tussock here.”
“I see it,” the archeological engineer answered. “Watch your own step.”
“Here is your estate,” said Ryu.
A broad, calm river crossed the green plain. In a river bend gleamed a corrugated roof. “That’s my lab,” said Ryu. To the right of the laboratory, streams of red and black smoke rose up into the sky. “They’re building a storehouse there,” Ryu said. They could see silhouettes of some sort rushing about in the smoke. For an instant there appeared an enormous clumsy machine on caterpillar treads-a mother robot-and then something flashed in the smoke, a peal of rolling thunder rang out, and the smoke began to pour more thickly. “And there’s the city,” said Ryu. It was rather more than a kilometer from the base to the city. From the hill the buildings looked like squat gray bricks. Sixteen flat gray bricks, sticking up out of the green grass.