"Nice-looking place, isn't it, Captain?" Simmons asked with elaborate casualness, looking through the port. "Rather a paradise." He yawned.
"You can't go out yet," Captain Kilpepper said, noting the biologist's immediate disappointed expression.
"No." Kilpepper looked out of the port at the rolling meadow of grass. Sprinkled with red flowers, it appeared as luscious as it had two days ago when they had landed. To the right of the meadow was a brown forest shot through with yellow and orange blossoms. To the left was a row of hills, coloured in contrasting shades of blue-green. A waterfall tumbled down one of the hills.
Trees, flowers, all that sort of thing. The place was undeniably pretty, and it was for that reason that Kilpepper distrusted it. Experience with two wives and five new ships had taught him that a lovely exterior can conceal almost anything. And fifteen years in space had added lines to his forehead and grey to his hair, but hadn't given him any reason for altering his conviction.
"Here are the reports, sir," Mate Morena said, handing him a sheaf of papers. Morena had a petulant expression on his broad, rugged face. Behind the door, Kilpepper could hear shuffling feet and whispering voices. He knew it was the crew, assembled to hear what he would say this time.
They wanted outside, but bad.
Kilpepper skimmed the reports. They were the same as the last four groups. Atmosphere breathable and free of dangerous micro-organisms, bacteria count nil, radargraph all clear. Some form of animal life in the nearby forest, but no energy manifestations. Detection of a large metallic mass, possibly an iron-rich mountain, several miles south. Noted for further investigation.
"That's fine," Kilpepper said unhappily. The reports vaguely annoyed him. He knew from past experience that there was usually something wrong with every planet. It paid to find it at the start, before costly accidents resulted.
"Can we go out, sir?" Morena asked, his short body stiffly erect. Kilpepper could almost feel the crewmen behind the door holding their breath.
"I don't know," Kilpepper said. He scratched his head, trying to think of some good reason for refusing again. There
"All right," he said at last. "Post a full guard for the time being. Let four men out. No one goes beyond twenty-five feet of the ship." He had to let them go. After sixteen months in the hot, cramped spaceship, he'd have a mutiny on his hands if he didn't.
"Yes sir!" Mate Morena said, and dashed out of the door.
"I suppose that means the scientific team can go out," Simmons said, his hands jammed in his pockets.
"Sure," Kilpepper said wearily. "I'll go with you. After all, this expedition is expendable."
The air of the unnamed planet was fragrant after the musty, recirculated air of the ship. The breeze from the mountains was light and steady and refreshing.
Captain Kilpepper sniffed appreciatively, arms folded across his chest. The four crewmen were walking around, stretching their legs and breathing in great lungfuls of fresh air. The scientific team was standing together, wondering where to begin. Simmons bent down and plucked a spear of grass.
"Funny-looking stuff," he said, holding it up to the sunlight.
"Why?" Captain Kilpepper asked, walking over.
"Look at it." The thin biologist held it higher. "Perfectly smooth. Doesn't show any sign of cell formation. Let me see—" He bent over a red blossom.
"Hey! We got visitors!" A crewman named Flynn was the first to spot the natives. They came out of the forest and trotted across the meadow to the ship.
Captain Kilpepper glanced at the ship. The gunners were ready and alert. He touched his sidearm for reassurance, and waited.
"Oh, brother," Aramic murmured. As the ship's linguist, he eyed the advancing natives with intense professional interest. The rest of the men just stared.
In the lead was a creature with a neck at least eight feet long, like a giraffe's, and thick, stubby legs, like a hippopotamus". It had a cheerful expression on its face. Its hide was purple, sprinkled with large white dots.
Next in line came five little beasts with pure white fur. They were about the size of terriers, and they had an owlishly solemn expression. A fat, red little creature with a green tail at least sixteen feet long brought up the rear.
They stopped in front of the men and bowed. There was a long moment of silence, then everyone burst into laughter.
The laughter seemed to be a signal. The five little ones leaped to the back of the hippo-giraffe. They scrambled for a moment, then climbed on each other's shoulders. In a moment they were balanced, five high, like a team of acrobats.
The men applauded wildly.
The fat animal immediately started balancing on his tail.
"Bravo!" shouted Simmons.
The five furry animals jumped off the giraffe's back and started to dance around the pig.
"Hurray!" Morrison, the bacteriologist, called.
The hippo-giraffe turned a clumsy somersault, landed on one ear, scrambled to his feet and bowed deeply.
Captain Kilpepper frowned and rubbed one hand against another. He was trying to figure out some reason for this behaviour.
The natives burst into song. The melody was strange, but recognizable as a tune. They harmonized for a few seconds, then bowed and began to roll on the grass.
The crewmen were still applauding. Aramic had taken out his notebook and was jotting down the sounds.
"All right," Kilpepper said. "Crew, back inside."
They gave him reproachful looks.
"Let some of the other men have a chance," the captain said. Regretfully, the men filed back inside.
"I suppose you want to examine them some more," Kilpepper said to the scientists.
"We sure do," Simmons stated. "Never saw anything like it."
Kilpepper nodded and went back into the ship. Four more crewmen filed past him.
"Morena!" Kilpepper shouted. The mate came bounding into the bridge. "I want you to find that metal mass. Take a man and keep in radio contact with the ship at all times."
"Yes sir," Morena said, grinning broadly. "Friendly, aren't they, sir?"
"Yes," Kilpepper said.
"Nice little world," the mate said.
Mate Morena went off to collect his equipment.
Captain Kilpepper sat down and tried to figure out what was wrong with the planet.
Kilpepper spent most of the next day filling out progress reports. In the late afternoon he put down his pencil and went out for a walk.
"Have you got a moment, Captain?" Simmons asked. "There's something I'd like to show you in the forest." Kilpepper grumbled out of habit, but followed the biologist. He had been curious about the forest himself.
On the way, they were accompanied by three natives. These particular three looked like dogs, except for their colouring — red and white, like peppermit candy.
"Now then," Simmons said with ill-concealed eagerness once they were in the forest. "Look around. What do you see that strikes you as odd?"
Kilpepper looked. The trees were thick-trunked and spaced wide apart. So wide apart, in fact, that it was possible to see the next clearing through them.
"Well," he said, "you couldn't get lost here."
"It's not that," Simmons said. "Come on, look again."
Kilpepper smiled. Simmons had brought him here because he made a better audience than any of his preoccupied colleagues.
Behind them, the three natives leaped and played.
"There's no underbrush," Kilpepper stated, after walking a few yards farther. There were vines twisting up the sides of the trees, covered with multicoloured flowers. Glancing around, Kilpepper saw a bird dart down, flutter around the head of one of the peppermint-coloured dogs, and fly away again.
The bird was coloured silver and gold.
"Don't you see anything wrong yet?" Simmons asked impatiently.
"Only the colour scheme," Kilpepper said. "Is there something else?"
"Look at the trees."
The boughs were laden with fruit. It hung in clumps, all on the lower branches, of a bewildering variety of colours, sizes, and shapes. There were things that looked like grapes, and things that looked like bananas, and things that looked like watermelons, and—
"Lots of different species, I guess," Kilpepper hazarded, not sure what Simmons wanted him to see.
"Different species! Look, man. There are as many as ten different kinds of fruit growing on one branch!"
Examining closer, Kilpepper saw it was true. Each tree had an amazing multiplicity of fruit.
"And that's just impossible," Simmons said. "It's not my field, of course, but I can state with fair certainty that each fruit is a separate and distinct entity. They're not stages of each other."
"How do you account for it?" Kilpepper asked.
"I don't have to," the biologist grinned. "But some poor botanist is going to have his hands full."
They turned and started to walk back. "What were you here for?" Kilpepper asked.
"Me? I was doing a little anthropological work on the side. Wanted to find out where our friends lived. No luck. There are no paths, implements, clearings, anything. Not even caves."
Kilpepper didn't think it unusual that a biologist should be making a quick anthropological survey. It was impossible to represent all the sciences on an expedition of this sort. Survival was the first consideration — biology and bacteriology. Then language. Af ...