Star God First Pages

Prologue

At first there was only a sense of dissociation of self, of drifting outward in all directions, of slowly expanding beyond the walls of the office, beyond the surface of the planet, until he felt as big as space. It seemed as though the stars were contained within himself, the nearer ones at least. He could not see, or hear, or feel, or smell, but he could perceive in other ways. He knew the stars were there, inside his boundaries. He could sense the planets, the comets, the dust and gas. He knew there were stars outside himself too, could sense the tension between them, the gravitational forces. If he directed his attention to the planet which was Toragos, where the United Council of the Churches of the Seven Worlds was located, he could feel, on the planet’s surface, a thin electric-like excitement of life. It was awesome. It was wonderful.

But even as he let his strange new senses roam off in seven directions at once, he became aware of something else, a quality of personality, a sense of presence, a feeling of curiosity, not coming from himself. And this sense of being came from all the space which he filled, bounded as he was, and he knew that it was the Visitor.

He was not able to think, only to perceive and to know. The cosmos around him, the worlds and stars within him, the being which, for the moment, was him occupied his whole attention. And then slowly the vision began to fade.

Within instants he recovered his awareness of his true surroundings; his desk, his office, the bookshelves, the communicator console. There was just the briefest moment of disorientation.

“Chairman Thorgunson,” a voice said from the comcon.

“Yes, Eddy,” Eric Thorgunson said. His secretary’s face appeared on the screen.

“We have that preliminary report,” the young man said.

“Send it on in.”

” … excuse me, sir, but are you feeling all right?”

“Yes, thank you, I’m quite fine. I’ve just finally had one of those visions the report is all about.”

“Oh, I see. Very good sir.” And Eddy’s face disappeared, the screen blanked, and sheets of paper began to appear face down from the slot underneath. When the flow stopped, there were twenty-seven pages. Eric Thorgunson, Chairman of the United Council of the Churches of the Seven Worlds, turned the stack over and began to read.

The report was concerned with the effects on the population at large of the very type of vision Thorgunson had just experienced. The first occurrence had been some seven or eight months ago, Terran time. The exact date was uncertain, because many of the early visions were not recognized as being a part of the same syndrome, and were not reported as such, if they were reported at all. It was only within the last month and a half that a problem was recognized to exist. And the visions were not limited to Humans only. The other two Peoples who made up the society of the Seven Worlds, the spider-like Charosin and the Skapon with their six limbs, who could go on two legs or four, also suffered.

The UCCSW was interested for two major reasons. The first was a strong religious interpretation of the visions by a number of people, and the second was the goal of service to which the UCCSW was dedicated. As Chairman, it was Thorgunson’s job to know just what the Council was getting into; hence the report.

Visions, such as Thorgunson had just had, were reported among all peoples on all the Seven Worlds. There seemed to be no distinction as to species, race, or planet of origin, nor as to social level, education, or income. Such a uniform distribution was not in itself unusual. What was strange was that all the visions reported were more or less the same: an experience of vastness, of filling space, of perceiving stars inside one’s self, of a sense of being other than one’s self, and so on.

At first these experiences were thought to be delusions or psychoses, as people reported them to their doctors. But the onset was sudden, and the number of cases so high within such a short time, that it was soon realized that whatever was causing the visions, it was not a simple hallucination on the part of the visionary. All the reports were too similar.

It soon became apparent to a large number of people that though it was, at first, the official interpretation, insanity was not a sufficient explanation. People were warned of the possibility of a vision, told not to worry, and measures were taken for the psychiatric treatment of any who desired it. And indeed, even from the very first, there were people with incipient psychoses who went over the edge, their full-blown madness precipitated by this one seemingly innocent vision.

However, most personal opinion seemed to concentrate on the idea that the visions were religious revelations, that gods or angels were somehow responsible for the sense of expansion. Too many people felt the presence of a personality while they were under the influence of the vision, and interpreted this in the only way they knew how, as the mind of their traditional deity, or as one of the messengers or demons commonly associated with their religion.

The UCCSW had been formed shortly after the Three Peoples had more or less mutually discovered each other, over two thousand years ago. Philosophical differences could not be ignored, and faced with the reality of intelligent alien life, local differences, such as that between Protestant and Catholic, or Buddhist and Moslem, suddenly seemed small and silly. Each species found the philosophical systems of the other Peoples so radically different in certain aspects, and so much the same in others, that at first there were no grounds for comparison at all. But it didn’t take long before religious leaders of all three species realized that, without guidance, there would be almost certain war within a matter of years. And war on an interplanetary scale would be brief and final. So the United Council was formed, with representatives of all religious groups of all three species. And as the four colony worlds two Human, one Charsin, one Skapos-evolved into full fledged members of an interplanetary society, the Council adopted its present name, and thus became the first, and so far only, interspecies interplanetary governing body in existence.

The Prime Directive of the Council was to eliminate religious prejudice and prevent religious conflict. And so far its job, though requiring constant attention, had been easy. The Council had been well-founded, by geniuses. But now, with the advent of what was commonly being called the Visitor, they had more on their hands than they could handle.

So far the visions seemed to be having two major effects on the population as a whole. First, a radical increase in absenteeism, as people who thought the visions were symptoms of insanity stayed away from their jobs, took vacations, took sick leave, or, in some cases, did in fact become insane. Secondly, there was a drastic drop in morale, as people who were convinced the visions were religious in nature argued and squabbled over their interpretation and significance. Both effects were having a detrimental effect on the economy, enough so that various governments were enacting emergency measures, none of which, in Thorgunson’s opinion, did anything but aggravate the situation.

And now this report, which offered a third explanation. Deep space scientists, in stations located between the stars, had reported the presence of a cloud of coherent neutrinos, enveloping the whole of the Seven Worlds and more, some ten parsecs in diameter. The cloud had shown up on the detectors at about the same time as the first reports of the visions. It was postulated, therefore, that the neutrino cloud, something totally unheard of in nature and thought to be impossible, was in fact the body of some kind of interstellar being. This, some people felt, could account for the sense of awareness and curiosity that many people reported in their visions.

Thorgunson finished the report and sat back with a sigh. This new theory was not going to help. Now there would be three factions to argue, instead of two. And one footnote to the report indicated that certain groups were trying to contact the Visitor. It was time the UCCSW took a hand in things.

The Council did not like to meddle. Part of its policy was to keep out of affairs as much as possible. But here was a situation which called for a coordinated effort. And however much the Three Peoples might cooperate, they were by no means coordinated. The Three Peoples occupied seven worlds, and something on the order of four hundred political nations. Various coalitions and leagues existed, but none with any authority over the whole. The Council did not have such authority either, nor did it want it, but it did have a structure, an organization, which had offices and branches in every major city on every world, and which formed a unifying link among all the Peoples. So, Thorgunson reasoned, it was up to the UCCSW to do something about this so-called Visitor, whatever it was.

He touched the comcon, and his secretary’s face appeared.

“Send in Lucas and Frome,” he said, and the screen cleared at once. A moment later a man and a woman entered the office. Thorgunson waved them into chairs with the document he’d just finished.

“Have you seen this?” he asked.

“Yes,” Alice Lucas said. “It’s pretty reliable, but it’s out of date.”

“It just came in this morning,” Thorgunson protested.

“I know, but there was a lot of flap about verification and so on. Like I said, what’s there is verified. But it’s a month out of date.”

“So why haven’t I been kept informed?”

“Policy,” Henri Frome answered. “It’s in Jakosprent’s department.”

“But he knows better than to keep this from me.”

“True, but his staff are jealous of the fact that he’s the Skapon Representative, and follow the rule book to the letter.”

“Of course,” Lucas amended, “we don’t do them any better.”

“How much of this is due to the so-called Visitor?” Thorgunson demanded.

“Some,” Lucas said, “but not all. But it’s getting worse.”

“Okay. So I don’t get the reports until they’re verified. So can either of you tell me just what the situation really is right now, unverified, of course?”

His two aides looked at each other, and Thorgunson didn’t like the silent message he saw passing between them.

“Spill it,” he said softly.

“Okay,” Lucas said. “This is how it is. For those people remaining on the job, production is down about 25 percent all across the board. Those off the job are either in some kind of religious retreat, in hospitals undergoing therapy, or have just run away on sudden vacations. And that amounts to 13 percent of the work force. At all levels.”

“I still find it difficult to believe,” Thorgunson said, “that this could all be caused by simple visions.”

“Wait till you’ve had one,” Frome said dryly.

“I have had, just an hour ago.”

“And?” Frome asked. Lucas heaved a sigh, as if of relief.

“And nothing. I saw the stars, I felt a presence. That’s all. It was awesome, but that’s all.”

“But that isn’t all,” Frome protested. “Don’t you see, if you are having visions now too, then nobody’s safe.”

“But safe from what?” Thorgunson asked.

“Mass psychosis, what else?” Frome said softly. Lucas snorted.

“That’s as may be,” Thorgunson said. “Lucas, what’s your opinion?”

“It’s an evolved being of some sort. It can’t be a psychosis. Too many people have had the same vision. There’s no personal element. Somehow we are all being made aware of this being out there, a real being. The neutrino cloud is its body, I think.”

While Lucas was talking, Thorgunson watched Frome, whose expression was one of exasperation. Thorgunson started to say something, and then, to his surprise, found that he disagreed with both his aides.

“No, you’re both wrong,” he said.

“Hah!” Frome snapped. “Now you see it. Now you understand why things are going to pot. Now you have an opinion. And it doesn’t matter what it is, you can’t let it be, you’ll have to defend it to everybody, and none of us will get any work done.”

“Nonsense, it’s perfectly clear … I mean … ahh … yes, I see.” He had to bite his lip to keep from saying anything more. To him, it was so obvious. The Visitor was god (with a small “g”), and he felt sure he could make the others see it his way. But at the same time he knew that it would never be. Frome was convinced the Visitor was a common psychosis, and Lucas, that it was a super animal. There was no way they were going to change his mind, so he knew there was no way he was going to change theirs.

“Can we avoid discussing it altogether?” he asked at last.

“That’s what we’re trying to do,” Lucas answered. “So far, we here at the Council are feeling the effects least. We’re used to keeping our mouths shut when some fool comes out with a ridiculous religious theory.” She chuckled. “So we keep our mouths shut about this too. But I’m afraid elsewhere things are not so good.”

“Like how?”

“So far most disruption is due to most people being concerned over their sanity or their souls. They have a vision, are frightened by the experience, and stay home. Or see a doctor. Or take a vacation. Just running scared. Some are seeing priests and other religious leaders. Some are really going crazy, unable to accept the reality of the vision, or the pressure of the dissension. It is a rather frightening experience, after all — at least I thought so,” she hastened to add, seeing the disagreement in the faces of the two men.

“The important thing is,” Frome said, “that there is no sign of any abatement. Things are getting worse. More and more people are having their first vision, and many have had two or three. In some cases, the visions become more lucid, longer, more intricate. And opinions are forming, lines are being drawn. People fight about what the Visitor is instead of working together, or they go crazy, or give up.”

“I dread to think,” Thorgunson said, “how long it will take before all you’ve told me is verified and I get the official report.”

“At least a month,” Lucas said.

“We can’t wait a month,” Thorgunson snapped. “I can project the percentages as well as you can. We’ve all noticed a drop in production, a rise in the suicide rate. And you say the curve is still going up.”

“If it’s any comfort,” Lucas said, “Jakosprent is basically in agreement. Unofficially, of course.”

“How about the Charosin?”

“I haven’t talked to Megrath Bilopos personally,” Lucas said, “but her aide was complaining just this morning that you ought to do something about it.”

“Sure. Leave it up to me. Any ideas?”

“Just one,” Frome said, “and it will take some working out. Obviously we can’t all be right. But we could all be wrong. I know what I believe, but if you two are in such deep error, then logically, in spite of what I feel, I could be too. So it seems to me the only answer is to find out what the Visitor really is. If it really is a mass psychosis, then we’ll know what to do about it.”

“I agree,” Lucas said. “But the problem is, how do we find out? Maybe you’ve heard, an experimental group at Duke has figured out a way to contact “it” by means of induced telepathy. They succeeded five times. Each contacter came back insane, for real, catatonic.”

“Oh, my God,” Thorgunson said, “No, I hadn’t heard.”

“What about the Yakatskoi?” Frome suggested.

“What about them?”

“They have been observed this whole time, the travelers here in the Seven Worlds. They show no signs of being affected at all. Maybe they know the answer.”

“It’s a long shot,” Thorgunson said, but in the back of his mind, a plan was beginning to form. “They have never allowed visitors to their home world, and they never talk about themselves while they’re visiting us. Communication with them, outside of a strictly limited area, is practically impossible.”

“Get a Free Lance Agent,” Lucas suggested.

“Of course, what else? But it will have to go through the Council first. It will have to be prepared, presented, approved …. ”

“We’ll get right on it,” Lucas said. “Time is running short.”

Chapter One

Satinas was the first outsider in almost two thousand Terran years to stand on the surface of Zeberibe. He stepped from under the illusory protection of his small ship, the Herald, and looked up at the great globe of Geremaal, the true planet around which Zeberibe orbited, filling forty-five degrees of the deep blue western sky.

The sun was the red M6eV Wolf 359, hot, though Zeberibe and its parent Geremaal were at the outer edge of its ecosphere. Satinas could look at the sun directly without damaging his eyes. It moved visibly across the sky. Its red disk was three times the apparent size of Sol as seen from Terra. It was really a very small star, but Zeberibe was terribly close, by Solar standards.

He unfastened the top third of his blue and cream uniform shirt. It was humid, here at the equator. The lawn on which the Herald rested, and on which he stood, was fern-like, short, very green, soft and thick. It stretched away in all directions for kilometers, broken here and there by carefully tended ornamental plantings, some of which looked like, but which could not have been, rose bushes.

Only the upper half of Geremaal was illuminated now, as the sun approached its zenith. Zeberibe orbited its huge parent in just four hours and twelve minutes. In a little over an hour, it would be sundown. Then two hours six minutes later, dawn. But though the sun sped to the west, Geremaal, four hundred thirty-five times the mass of Terra and over five times Terra’s diameter, hung unmoving, going through its phases like a monster moon rushing into some unknown future. For Geremaal was the true planet, though lifeless, and Zeberibe was its living moon, tidally locked with one face always turned to its giant host. Surface to surface, the two were only fifty-six thousand three hundred kilometers apart, one seventh the distance between Terra and Luna.

“Come on down, Sair,” he said softly to the air. There was a snap behind him, and his Pilot stepped through the portal. In a moment she was beside him. She was almost as tall as he.

“You’re making history,” she said.

“It’s my job to make history,” he answered without pride, which was true. He was a Free Lance Agent, one of only a thousand or so in the Seven Worlds. He and his fellows made history every day. Theirs was the job of acting as intermediaries between species, races, nations. Wherever two cultures met, for business or otherwise, a Free Lance Agent was usually present to ensure effective communication.

Sair was proud. She felt it was better to be a Free Lance Agent’s Pilot than to captain any other ship. She enjoyed her work, and especially enjoyed not having a routine itinerary, like the liner captains, or worse yet, waiting in a parking orbit for months, as the Space Force ships did. As a Free Lance Agent’s Pilot, she was always off to somewhere else, at any time, to places where most captains could never hope to go.

And her boss was the best of the Free Lance Agents, and that, too, made Sair proud. It reflected on her, but more importantly, he was someone she could respect. There were few enough people in the Seven Worlds whom Sair could look up to: Chairman Thorgunson of the UCCSW; President Abshomb of Lakropos, Vespir, the Skapos home world at Tau Ceti; Ilios Mel, the author; Draid, her little brother, the mathematical genius; and a few others … and Tosh Ranier, of course, Medical Officer of the Herald. And Satinas.

And there was something else that she felt about him, but she kept that a secret, even from herself.

She’d been working with Satinas for seven years now, and he’d done amazing things even back then.

But this job was different, and very special. Zeberibe had been discovered almost two thousand years ago, but its inhabitants, the molluskoid Yakatskoi, had made it clear at once that they did not wish to join the Three Peoples, that they did not want to establish formal relations, that they did not want visitors. Though they frequently traveled as guests among the Three Peoples of the Seven Worlds, they kept their own world private. The Three Peoples respected this wish, and Satinas had come now, only after very special permission had at last been obtained by his present employers.

“Where’s our welcoming party?” Sair asked after a moment.

“As you see,” he said, waving a hand at the carefully tended lawns and plantings. “Their ideas of promptness and propriety are different from ours.” The sun sped into the west. “And their ideas of time.”

He wanted to explore. He wanted to go to those hills in the west which seemed to support the now almost wholly shadowed Geremaal. He wanted to find out what those low, white domes were, a few kilometers to the south. And in the north, behind and beyond the Herald, grew a dense forest, resembling the giant fems and mosses that had grown on Terra millions of years ago. But this might be his only chance to talk with the Yakatskoi, and he dared not fail to make the rendezvous. After the mission was done, perhaps-if the Yakatskoi granted him the liberty.

The sun touched the upper limb of Geremaal, and within moments the world was shadowed. Behind the huge, black disk, the sky was still bright, but elsewhere the stars sprang out, and if he had wanted to, he could have picked out Sol.

He glanced back at the thirty-meter main disk of his ship, resting on its engine pod, seven meters above the ground. Lights glowed there, but the domes to the south were dark.

They waited the half hour it took the sun to cross behind Geremaal. And then, for a brief moment, the sun reappeared in the gap between Geremaal and the horizon, flooding them with a blood red light. And then true night fell.

“Maybe they’re not coming,” Sair said, and shivered. It was getting cold, fast. She wouldn’t admit that she was just the least bit afraid.

“Maybe not,” he said, refastening his shirt. “We’d better wait in the ship.”

They walked back under the main disk, and in turn were snapped up into it by the teleportal.

He and his Pilot stepped from the portal onto the bridge, where the other eleven members of his crew were waiting. They had been watching on the forward screens, switched now to an outside view, though in the brief night of Zeberibe, they didn’t show much at the moment.

It was an oddly balanced complement. Besides himself and Sair, there were four other Humans, almost half the total crew. There were four Skapon, three meters tall when on two legs, two meters when on four. Their middle limbs could function as either arms or legs, depending on the need of the moment; their upper limbs were exclusively arms. The skin of their hands and faces was green and smooth. The color did not go well with the blue of their uniforms. Their heads resembled Terran crocodiles with bulging foreheads.

The last three crew members were Charosin, meter-long spiders, glossy black with yellow tiger-stripes, seven jewel eyes, each of their eight sturdy legs ending in a hand with a central thumb and two pairs of opposed fingers. They wore no clothes, but bore blue and cream patches on their hard chitin in lieu of uniforms.

Humans, Skapons, Charosin, the Three Peoples of the Seven Worlds.

“What happens now, Satinas?” Beraben, one of the Skapon asked. He was sitting as a man would sit, four arms folded across his tall, jointed torso.

“We wait,” the Free Lance Agent answered.

“How long?” Beraben asked. He never liked to show deference to anyone. He tried to give an impression of casual indifference to the people of rank and power with whom he came into contact as a member of Satinas’s crew. But his service was always performed cheerfully, if informally. And he was loyal.

“Until somebody comes,” Satinas answered.

“That could be never.”

“I don’t think so. Get us some coffee, will you?”

“Sure,” Beraben said, and stood like a centaur on four legs. “Anybody else?” All except the Charosin responded. They, the Charosin, did not drink, but sucked their food live and, deferring to the sensibilities of the others, in private. Beraben, Skapos Life Support Technician, left the bridge.

They sat and waited, Humans and Skapon on chairs, Charosin on their webbed hammocks. After a moment, Beraben returned with a tray.

They waited some more, drinking their coffee, talking softly among themselves. Falil Aladin, Human Navigator, spoke least. Meramors, Skapos Assistant Pilot, spoke most. Satinas did not talk at all. He went over and over again, in his mind, what he knew about Yakatskoi, trying to puzzle out what had gone wrong. They had been directed to this place, at this time. At least, that was how he and his employers had understood it. But communication with the Yakatskoi was notoriously tricky. Something had been misinterpreted.

The sun came up in the east, a glorious explosion of red, scarlet, carmine, vermilion, orange, gold, and amber. A new “day” was beginning, just two hours and six minutes after the old one ended.

Meramors turned her green crocodile face from the tracer screen she was watching.

“A Yakatskem is coming from the south,” she said.

Satinas stood, stretched the cramp from his muscles, and went to the portal at the rear of the bridge. There was a snap, and he was on the ground, in the damp, warm air of the new morning that was fast growing old.

~

He stepped out from under the disk of the Herald into the full glare of the red sun. Toward the south, coming from the enigmatic white domes, was a quickly moving dark spot. It had been three kilometers off when Satinas had left the ship, but was nearing rapidly.

Satinas had seen Yakatskoi before, but never up close. They moved as a snail moved, but not at a snail’s pace. In just moments the Yakatskem had come to within five meters and stopped.

It reminded him of statues he had seen on Earth, of the Buddha sitting calmly crosslegged. A warm gray mound of firm flesh, two short thick tentacles sprouting from what would have been the shoulders. On top was a bulbous knob that looked like a head. The sensory organs were in fact massed there, but the creases in it were not a face. The base resembled crossed legs, below a bulbous belly, but was just the forward edge of a great snail foot. The belly bulge concealed not intestines, but the creature’s brain.

They stood there, Human and Yakatskem, watching each other as the red sun climbed rapidly in the sky.

“You are very young,” the Yakatskem said. Its voice had no resonance. There were no visible speech organs.

“Thirty-five of my years,” Satinas answered. “Less than a quarter of my expected life.” He could not even guess at his host’s age.

“You are not alone,” the being said again. It did not move as it spoke, though its shadow grew shorter.

“There are twelve others on board,” Satinas said. The Yakatskem raised a tentacle and with the tip of it drew a circle in the air over its “head.”

“Yes,” Satinas said. “The rest of the ship, the long thin part, contains the engines.”

“The shuttles are very different,” the Yakatskem said. It would know of shuttles, of course. They came at the Yakatskor request to take them to the Seven Worlds.

“Will you come aboard and meet my crew?” Satinas asked.

“There is no telling, at this moment,” the other answered.

I’ve missed there, he thought, reminded sharply of the difficulty of communicating with these people. Their frame of reference was different in a way that was not at all well understood.

“If you have the desire,” he said, “we should like you to come aboard and visit us.”

“Of course,” the Yakatskem answered, and started forward.

A small breeze sprang up from the east and ruffled through Satinas’s dark hair. He could see, as the Yakatskem neared, faint pink and lavender markings on the warm gray skin. The being drew up to him, and he led it to the spot under the disk where the portal worked. There was a snap, and they were on the bridge.

The knob on the top of the Yakatskem, the “head” of the Buddha-shape, pulsed and rippled. It barely came up to Satinas’s shoulder.

“Greetings,” it said, and slid toward the center of the room.

Everybody stopped. There were murmurs of polite hellos, and then all was quiet again. Satinas went to his command chair, in front of which the Yakatskem was standing, and sat.

“May we offer you refreshment?” Dorchis, the Human Steward asked.

“Please do,” the Yakatskem said, turning to her, “but I have no need. I thank you.” It faced Satinas again. “If you please,” it said.

Satinas hesitated a moment. “Of course,” he said, “my crew.” Then he named each member in turn and told his or her position. The Yakatskem watched closely as they rose or shifted in acknowledgment, and said hello again to each.

“Thank you,” it said when Satinas had finished. “I am your Guide. I have other names, but ‘Guide’ is more meaningful to you than any of them, so it will do.”

“We are glad to make your acquaintance, Guide,” Satinas said. He gestured with his hand, and everyone but Sair, Tosh Ranier, the spider-like doctor, and Smardogan, the Skapos Engineer, quietly left.

“Please make yourself comfortable,” he went on. Guide did not move, but Smardogan, on four legs, lowered himself into a crouch on the deck. Whether or not Guide could appreciate it, this gesture eliminated any sense of formality.

“I thank you, on behalf of all the Seven Worlds,” Satinas said, “for allowing us to visit you here. We understand your desire for privacy, and your hospitality is greatly appreciated.”

“It is simple,” Guide said.

Satinas felt out of his depth again. He had been briefed. He had studied Yakatskor reactions as recorded on their various visits to the Seven Worlds, and knew he did not understand them, but he had hoped to be able to communicate a little better than this. He felt tense, but it was this sort of thing, after all, that made him do what he did.

“Are you the one to whom I present my business?” he asked.

“No. I shall take you to them in time. Now I must measure.”

“Tell us what you would like us to do, and I’ll do my best to help.”

“That is another scale,” it said, joggling, and Satinas found himself floundering again.

He tried for half an hour to establish some meaningful contact. Sair, Tosh Ranier, and Smardogan acted as sounding boards, asking an occasional question, but really being there so that he could observe their reactions. But at last Guide indicated that he wished to leave. Satinas was just as glad. The strain was telling on him, and the other three were mentally exhausted. He led Guide to the portal, snapped with it to the ground seven meters below, and stood watching as the Yakatskem slid away, gradually picking up speed until it was moving faster than a Skapos could run.

“It’s a toughie,” said a voice near his ear.

“Yes, Smardogan,” he said to the air. “It is. What do you think?”

“First, that the Yakatskem is just as confused as you. Second, that it’s almost as adept at dealing with strange situations. Third, that you’ll have to reach some understanding between you before we can go on to the next step of the mission, and if we fail that, the whole thing aborts. Fourth —”

“Right, right.” He stepped to the portal and snapped back to the bridge.

“— it’s a matter of referents, not reference,” the Engineer continued, rising to four feet and brushing off the knees of his uniform. Tosh Ranier had left the bridge.

“Now you’re making as much sense as Guide did,” Satinas complained.

“No,” the Skapos protested, and spelled the two words. He had a meticulous mind, perceived the finest distinctions of meaning, and didn’t always understand how his genius worked.

“I don’t see what difference it makes.”

‘Tm not sure I do either,” Smardogan admitted, “but I have this hunch….”

Satinas sighed and sat down. Him and his damn hunches, he thought. But they were usually right. “How about you, Sair?” he asked.

“Like he said, it’s a toughie.” She swiveled her seat around to face him, eyes bright. “Their behavior elsewhere isn’t the same as at home, apparently.”

“Those that go visiting are probably very carefully briefed,” Satinas said.

“And Guide isn’t,” Smardogan added. “If they go to one of the Seven Worlds, they expect to deal with us on our terms.” There was a small tray of cheese beside him, and he nibbled delicately as he spoke. “Here, they expect us to deal with them on their terms. We just don’t know what those terms are yet.”

Satinas covered his eyes with a hand. This was the kind of problem he enjoyed, but he’d never found communication so elusive before. It was a challenge worthy of his talents, but it made his head spin.

“Let’s call it a day,” he said, standing. He went through the portal to the Agent’s Lounge and found Tosh Ranier dangling spiderishly from her ceiling knob, a glass of whiskey in one outstretched hand.

“Thanks,” he said, taking the drink. “Any opinion?”

“That’s your department,” Tosh said, spinning down to the deck. She stretched her legs and scurried over to the small table where she had been perched before he had come in. “But you’ll do it,” she added, as he sat down across from her. “If anybody can, that is.”

“I sure hope so,” he said.

~

After ten hours of solid rest he felt much better. The trip from Sol to Wolf 359 had taken almost eight and a half days, and he had not been at his best when Guide had made its appearance.

He dressed leisurely, running through the problem in his mind. The difficulty was not so much that he and the Yakatskem were so very different-which they were-but that they seemed to be so similar. A dialogue would begin, and to all appearances, each knew what the other was talking about. Only after a few exchanges did it become apparent that both had been laboring under misconceptions. The real difference in thought and speech patterns was too subtle to notice.

He left his room, crossed the portal into the Crew’s Lounge and Mess. Only Meramors with her perpetual crocodile grin was there, finishing up a simple breakfast.

“Am I the last?” Satinas asked.

“Yes, sir,” she said. “Except for Skolor Malaki. She had another vision. I guess it really shook her.”

Satinas sighed. That, after all, was what it was all about.

“Where is she now?” he asked as he fixed himself some coffee, a couple of rolls, and a piece of ham.

“Still below in her cabin,” Meramors said, finishing her breakfast. “She’ll be all right. She’s a tough old spider.”

“She is that,” Satinas agreed. Skolor Malaki had been a Communications Officer for as many years as Satinas had been alive, and would probably go on just as much longer.

Meramors cleared away and left the Mess before Satinas’s breakfast was all ready, so he sat on a couch instead of at a table.

The more subtle the problem, the more difficult it was. And the real problem lay in the fact that he did not know what the difference between Humans and Yakatskoi was. The peoples of the Seven Worlds got along together because, after considerable study and effort, the psycho-social differences between species had been thoroughly analyzed and understood, and learning to cope with those differences was a part of every child’s education.

But no such analysis had ever been done on the Yakatskoi. They had not allowed it.

His problem, then, was not so much to overcome those differences, but to discover what they were. Only then could he hope to begin making progress toward some kind of understanding, and to initiate at last his real business here on Zeberibe.

He finished his coffee and felt a rush of euphoria. Around him the eddies and currents of space became manifest, with the scattered stars as nodes of energy, pinpoints of matter. There was a presence, and a sentience, an awareness of all this but not yet of him. He touched the concept here and there, but awoke no response. Perhaps just as well.

His perspective shifted, and he looked at stars he knew from his travels, but as if he were bigger than the spaces between them. There was a sense of curiosity, slowly being satisfied, and of increasing understanding, which was yet only a small way toward perfection. There also was a hint of loneliness.

Who are you? he asked soundlessly, and the presence around him stirred, and began to shift. With a lurch, he withdrew himself, and became aware of the lounge again.

He was calm, though he could understand that such an experience would shake a less sophisticated person like Skolor Malaki. It was his third such vision, more intense this time, more compelling. The Charsin, on the other hand, had had seven, counting this last one, and she was more sensitive than he. Soon she would be one of the converts. To which school, he wondered.

He shook himself, took his cup and plate back to the kitchen, and then went to the bridge, where he found everyone assembled, except Malaki.

“Tosh,” he said, “go check up on Skolor and see if she needs anything.”

“I’ve just been,” the doctor answered. It was like her to have anticipated his wishes. “She’ll be okay. I gave her a sedative.”

“Okay. Well, people, any sign of our hosts?”

“Yes, sir,” Mirip Tekh, the spider Co-pilot said. “Just as you entered the bridge.”

“Their timing is perfect,” Sair said wryly.

“So it seems,” Satinas said. “Let’s try something different. Let’s see if Guide will knock.”

He waited in his command chair and watched the forward screen as the Yakatskem rapidly approached from the south, as it had the last time. Tosh Ranier climbed up the back of his chair and perched over his shoulder — a liberty no one else would dare to take, not even Sair. But Tosh Ranier had a special relationship with Satinas. She encouraged it. She knew that in spite of his competence, there was a secret doubt somewhere in the back of his mind, and she felt protective of him. Charosin were not a motherly species, relatively speaking, but Tosh Ranier was unusual. She felt similarly toward the other members of the crew, but Satinas was special, of course.

The shadows on the vast expanse of lawn indicated that the sun was falling into the west; it would soon be dark again.

“No clock at all,” Vabriin, the Human Assistant Engineer said, hands in her pockets.

“On a world like this,” Falil Aladin said, “who needs one, or would use one if he had one?”

Satinas just sat and waited.

The Yakatskem — Satinas assumed it was Guide-neared and stopped just beyond the overhang of the ship. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, with unmistakable dignity-or was it?-Guide moved under the ship, and the view on the screen shifted to follow. At the place of the portal, Guide stopped, and after another moment, said, “Greetings.”

Satinas nodded, there was a snap, and Guide appeared at the rear of the bridge. Satinas rose to his feet and turned to say hello.

“Satinas,” Guide said first, “you are welcome.”

“Thank you,” Satinas said, feeling awkward at the reversal of the expected formula.

“Shall we, then?”

“I beg your pardon,” Satinas said, “but perhaps I should not have spoken. I fear I have not understood you.”

“My apologies,” Guide said. “I forget our differences. Would you be so kind as to be our guests? Your mission here is, as I understand, urgent. How can we help, if we cannot talk? To have bent so far, to not continue would be a waste.”

“I fully agree. I admit I found our last meeting highly confusing, and the fault is mine, I’m sure. I will be glad to accompany you.”

“That is most courageous. We have made arrangements in anticipation. How soon can you and your crew be ready?”

“My crew? You want us all to come?”

“I don’t understand. How else? Are you not a unit, a team?”

“Yes, of course, but someone must stay with the ship.”

“For what reason?”

“It’s a regulation.”

“It serves no purpose here.”

Careful, Satinas thought. Their concepts of generosity were peculiar and touchy. He could blow it all right now if he didn’t watch himself.

“Guide,” he said, “we appreciate your offer. It is our lack of understanding which makes us hesitate. Such offers of hospitality are not usually made, in our experience.”

“I too fail to understand. Shall I say, will you come or will you go?”

There was no mistaking the finality in that. Accept the generosity or forget the whole thing. There was nothing the Yakatskoi hated more, as had been painfully learned, than having a gift of any kind rebuffed.

“Certainly we will come,” Satinas said. Nobody else made a sound. “Whenever you wish.”

“At the fourth dawn,” Guide said, “I shall meet you on the lawn.”

Without further comment the Yakatskem slid to the portal. A snap, and it was gone. The forward screen followed the being as it moved from under the ship and across the short fem lawn toward the south. As before, it gradually picked up speed and soon was gone from sight.

“What do we do?” Sair asked, turning away from the screen.

“We go,” Satinas answered, slumping in his chair.

“But how will we guard the ship?” The thought of leaving the Herald unprotected on a strange world offended her sense of propriety and caution.

“Against whom, Sair? The Yakatskoi? They’ve turned down every offer of technical assistance we’ve ever made. They could have a ship just like this one in ten days if they asked. There’s no reason to post a watch, and every reason in the world not to disappoint them.”

“I don’t like it,” Ketsinoro the Assistant Navigator said. All four arms moved in a typical Skapon gesture of distrust and discomfort.

“Neither do I,” Satinas said, “but if we’re going to get their assistance, we’ll have to play by their rules.”

“I’ll check out the cutter,” Smardogan said, standing.

“No, I think we’ll be expected to walk.”

“All that distance?”

“What’s five kilometers, more or less?”

“Well, if there’s no need … ”

“There is need. If Guide brings transportation, fine. If it asks the use of our ship or one of our cutters, fine. If it ‘walks,’ we’ll walk. Until we know the rules of the game, we’ll just have to follow blindly.”

~

The fourth dawn was spectacular-as usual. It had rained lightly during the last dark period, and the short fern was damp underfoot. Satinas surveyed his crew. Each carried a bundle containing prepared food and emergency equipment. He did not know what the Yakatskor diet was, but he was pretty sure it would not be compatible with anything the Three Peoples ate. The spider-like Charosin would have the hardest time. They required a diet that was still slightly alive, but Dorchis was a genius at things like that.

He turned back to the south, to where the domes lay some five kilometers distant. That, presumably, was the Yakatskor city. He and his crew would be the first aliens to enter such a city. Everyone was prepared to note and record as much as possible-provided the Yakatskoi didn’t object.

Guide approached. He? She? It? Satinas knew nothing of the  gender of these people.

“Greetings,” Guide said, stopping two meters from Satinas. “That won’t be necessary.” One of its appendages wobbled vaguely at the crew.

“We hope not,” Satinas said, “but we thought you might not be prepared to feed us, just as we are unable to feed you.”

“But of course,” Guide said. “If you wish, nevertheless. Shall we go?”

There was no further ceremony. They started out, Guide keeping an easy pace.

The hike was easy, and somehow invigorating, as if the air on this world were charged with something special. It wasn’t, of course.

Sair paused frequently to examine the bizarre “blooms” on the several carefully maintained plantings they passed. Xenobotany was her hobby, and her second interest in life; her first, of course, was being her career as a Pilot. She was no less an expert at it.

“They aren’t really flowers,” she said of a spectacular “bloom” of red, yellow, and black. “At least, not in the true botanical sense. All of these plants reproduce by spores, not seeds. I don’t know what you’d call them.”

The blooms, or decorative foliage, or whatever, were very colorful, and some even had a scent, though not always what Satinas would call pleasant. Guide, however, seemed pleased with Sair’s interest, and did not hurry her when she chose to pause a moment to examine some plant or other. The rest of the crew tried to be equally patient.

At last they neared the first of the domes and stepped from the fern lawn onto a glossy white pavement, less than a meter wide, curving around the dome to either side. As they followed the curve of the walkway to the left, it intersected another, similar walkway, slightly wider than the first. At the intersection, at one side, was a hole in the ground, lined with the glossy white material of the pavement and the domes, and about thirty centimeters in diameter.

“Underground,” Satinas said, suddenly understanding the “city.”

“Yes,” Guide answered, “very much like being inside one of your — ah — skyscrapers, so I’m told. But different.”

They continued into the city, along a maze of pavements, a lacework of curving walkways which lay between the domes, dividing the ground into oddly shaped plots. Each intersection had at least one hole next to it, some of them as wide as seventy centimeters. And the domes had holes too, near the ground, where the walkway dead-ended against them. The smaller domes, three meters in diameter and a meter high, had only one hole. The largest ones, fifteen meters across and five meters high, had as many as twenty. The domes themselves were seldom closer than a hundred meters to each other, and seemed to be located in no particular pattern, either with respect to themselves, or to the lattice of walkways which arced and curved between them.

They saw no other Yakatskoi the whole time.

At last Guide led them up to one of the larger domes and stopped in front of the hole in its side, which sloped steeply down into the structure.

“I believe,” Guide said, “that this entrance is large enough to accommodate you all. Below is where you’ll be staying.”

Then Guide pressed its bulk against the hole and squeezed through, bonelessly, in spite of the fact that it was twice as wide as the hole. Satinas watched as, slug-like, the Yakatskem slipped down and then disappeared.

Satinas removed his pack and put one foot tentatively into the hole.

“It’s safe,” he said. “There’s some kind of peristaltic force in the walls.” He stepped in and, holding his pack over his head, slid slowly down the steep incline, held gently by the energy field of the tube.

After a descent of what seemed about thirty meters he emerged  from a wall of an octahedral chamber, easily large enough to stand up in. The triangular floor and ceiling were level and parallel, with the other six surfaces of identical size and at appropriate angles. They were all of a warm pastel orange color that somehow made his mouth water. Guide stood at one of the wall-planes, and indicated another opening, through which Satinas stepped, and he found himself sliding down an inclined wall of another, much larger chamber, of identical shape to the first. Here were benches,  cushions, tables, and other furniture, making the chamber into a comfortable lounge.

“Where does the light come from?” asked Sair from behind him, sliding down the wall as he had done.

“I don’t know. Micro-organisms in the air, I’d guess.”

Tosh Ranier appeared next.

“Almost like home,” she said, “if it were above ground instead of below and rounded instead of flat, and had windows.”

Satinas said nothing, but waited until his entire crew had arrived, followed at last by Guide.

“We have gone to some trouble,” Guide said, “and if we have made any errors, I hope you will tell me of them, so they can be corrected. We, after all, know so little about you.”

“Much more than we do about you,” Satinas said.

“We have had more opportunity,” Guide said. “Let me show you your accommodations.”

Guide led them through several adjoining chambers, of varying sizes and pastel shades, no two on the same level. Besides the lounge, there was a mess, a complex sanitary facility, a sleeping room for each person, and a kind of amphitheater office. There were also four exits into the rest of the city.

When the tour was over, Guide led them back to the lounge. “If you have need of rest,” Guide said, “there is time.”

“Not right away,” Satinas said, “but soon, in about six hours.”

“I must learn this,” Guide said. “How long is an hour?”

“Do you have any kind of time-keeping device?”

“Yes, here,” From some fold of itself, Guide took a small sphere and handed it to Satinas. He looked at it. There was an obvious face, divided into thirty-seven segments, and four hands swept across it.

“Wait a minute,” Smardogan said, taking the watch from Satinas in his upper left hand. He examined the watch closely for a moment. “From dawn to dawn is four point two hours,” he said.

“Aha,” Guide said, took back his clock, and did things to it.

Smardogan went on to explain minutes and seconds in his usual precise way, and Guide made further adjustments.

“Very good,” Guide said. “Then, if it pleases you, refresh yourselves, and in an hour I shall return and we shal go meet your host.”

“That will be fine,” Satinas said, and Guide left instantly. Satinas turned to his crew.

“Well, people, let’s try to make ourselves comfortable.”

~~~~~~~