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´╗┐Title: The Talkative Tree
Author: Fyfe, Horace Brown, 1918-1997
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Talkative Tree" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



By H. B. Fyfe


THE TALKATIVE TREE


    Dang vines! Beats all how some plants
    have no manners--but what do you expect,
    when they used to be men!


All things considered--the obscure star, the undetermined damage to the
stellar drive and the way the small planet's murky atmosphere defied
precision scanners--the pilot made a reasonably good landing. Despite
sour feelings for the space service of Haurtoz, steward Peter Kolin had
to admit that casualties might have been far worse.

Chief Steward Slichow led his little command, less two third-class
ration keepers thought to have been trapped in the lower hold, to a
point two hundred meters from the steaming hull of the _Peace State_. He
lined them up as if on parade. Kolin made himself inconspicuous.

"Since the crew will be on emergency watches repairing the damage,"
announced the Chief in clipped, aggressive tones, "I have volunteered my
section for preliminary scouting, as is suitable. It may be useful to
discover temporary sources in this area of natural foods."

_Volunteered HIS section!_ thought Kolin rebelliously.

_Like the Supreme Director of Haurtoz! Being conscripted into this
idiotic space fleet that never fights is bad enough without a tin god on
jets like Slichow!_

Prudently, he did not express this resentment overtly.

His well-schooled features revealed no trace of the idea--or of any
other idea. The Planetary State of Haurtoz had been organized some
fifteen light-years from old Earth, but many of the home world's less
kindly techniques had been employed. Lack of complete loyalty to the
state was likely to result in a siege of treatment that left the subject
suitably "re-personalized." Kolin had heard of instances wherein mere
unenthusiastic posture had betrayed intentions to harbor treasonable
thoughts.

"You will scout in five details of three persons each," Chief Slichow
said. "Every hour, each detail will send one person in to report, and he
will be replaced by one of the five I shall keep here to issue rations."

Kolin permitted himself to wonder when anyone might get some rest, but
assumed a mildly willing look. (Too eager an attitude could arouse
suspicion of disguising an improper viewpoint.) The maintenance of a
proper viewpoint was a necessity if the Planetary State were to survive
the hostile plots of Earth and the latter's decadent colonies. That, at
least, was the official line.

Kolin found himself in a group with Jak Ammet, a third cook, and Eva
Yrtok, powdered foods storekeeper. Since the crew would be eating
packaged rations during repairs, Yrtok could be spared to command a
scout detail.

Each scout was issued a rocket pistol and a plastic water tube. Chief
Slichow emphasized that the keepers of rations could hardly, in an
emergency, give even the appearance of favoring themselves in regard to
food. They would go without. Kolin maintained a standard expression as
the Chief's sharp stare measured them.

Yrtok, a dark, lean-faced girl, led the way with a quiet monosyllable.
She carried the small radio they would be permitted to use for messages
of utmost urgency. Ammet followed, and Kolin brought up the rear.

                   *       *       *       *       *

To reach their assigned sector, they had to climb a forbidding ridge of
rock within half a kilometer. Only a sparse creeper grew along their
way, its elongated leaves shimmering with bronze-green reflections
against a stony surface; but when they topped the ridge a thick forest
was in sight.

Yrtok and Ammet paused momentarily before descending.

Kolin shared their sense of isolation. They would be out of sight of
authority and responsible for their own actions. It was a strange
sensation.

They marched down into the valley at a brisk pace, becoming more aware
of the clouds and atmospheric haze. Distant objects seemed blurred by
the mist, taking on a somber, brooding grayness. For all Kolin could
tell, he and the others were isolated in a world bounded by the rocky
ridge behind them and a semi-circle of damp trees and bushes several
hundred meters away. He suspected that the hills rising mistily ahead
were part of a continuous slope, but could not be sure.

Yrtok led the way along the most nearly level ground. Low creepers
became more plentiful, interspersed with scrubby thickets of tangled,
spike-armored bushes. Occasionally, small flying things flickered among
the foliage. Once, a shrub puffed out an enormous cloud of tiny spores.

"Be a job to find anything edible here," grunted Ammet, and Kolin
agreed.

Finally, after a longer hike than he had anticipated, they approached
the edge of the deceptively distant forest. Yrtok paused to examine some
purple berries glistening dangerously on a low shrub. Kolin regarded the
trees with misgiving.

"Looks as tough to get through as a tropical jungle," he remarked.

"I think the stuff puts out shoots that grow back into the ground to
root as they spread," said the woman. "Maybe we can find a way through."

In two or three minutes, they reached the abrupt border of the
odd-looking trees.

Except for one thick trunked giant, all of them were about the same
height. They craned their necks to estimate the altitude of the monster,
but the top was hidden by the wide spread of branches. The depths behind
it looked dark and impenetrable.

"We'd better explore along the edge," decided Yrtok. "Ammet, now is the
time to go back and tell the Chief which way we're--_Ammet!_"

Kolin looked over his shoulder. Fifty meters away, Ammet sat beside the
bush with the purple berries, utterly relaxed.

"He must have tasted some!" exclaimed Kolin. "I'll see how he is."

He ran back to the cook and shook him by the shoulder. Ammet's head
lolled loosely to one side. His rather heavy features were vacant,
lending him a doped appearance. Kolin straightened up and beckoned to
Yrtok.

For some reason, he had trouble attracting her attention. Then he
noticed that she was kneeling.

"Hope she didn't eat some stupid thing too!" he grumbled, trotting back.

As he reached her, whatever Yrtok was examining came to life and scooted
into the underbrush with a flash of greenish fur. All Kolin saw was that
it had several legs too many.

He pulled Yrtok to her feet. She pawed at him weakly, eyes as vacant as
Ammet's. When he let go in sudden horror, she folded gently to the
ground. She lay comfortably on her side, twitching one hand as if to
brush something away.

When she began to smile dreamily, Kolin backed away.

                   *       *       *       *       *

The corners of his mouth felt oddly stiff; they had involuntarily drawn
back to expose his clenched teeth. He glanced warily about, but nothing
appeared to threaten him.

"It's time to end this scout," he told himself. "It's dangerous. One
good look and I'm jetting off! What I need is an easy tree to climb."

He considered the massive giant. Soaring thirty or forty meters into the
thin fog and dwarfing other growth, it seemed the most promising choice.

At first, Kolin saw no way, but then the network of vines clinging to
the rugged trunk suggested a route. He tried his weight gingerly, then
began to climb.

"I should have brought Yrtok's radio," he muttered. "Oh, well, I can
take it when I come down, if she hasn't snapped out of her spell by
then. Funny ... I wonder if that green thing bit her."

Footholds were plentiful among the interlaced lianas. Kolin progressed
rapidly. When he reached the first thick limbs, twice head height, he
felt safer.

Later, at what he hoped was the halfway mark, he hooked one knee over a
branch and paused to wipe sweat from his eyes. Peering down, he
discovered the ground to be obscured by foliage.

"I should have checked from down there to see how open the top is," he
mused. "I wonder how the view will be from up there?"

"Depends on what you're looking for, Sonny!" something remarked in a
soughing wheeze.

Kolin, slipping, grabbed desperately for the branch. His fingers
clutched a handful of twigs and leaves, which just barely supported him
until he regained a grip with the other hand.

The branch quivered resentfully under him.

"Careful, there!" whooshed the eerie voice. "It took me all summer to
grow those!"

Kolin could feel the skin crawling along his backbone.

"Who _are_ you?" he gasped.

The answering sigh of laughter gave him a distinct chill despite its
suggestion of amiability.

"Name's Johnny Ashlew. Kinda thought you'd start with _what_ I am.
Didn't figure you'd ever seen a man grown into a tree before."

Kolin looked about, seeing little but leaves and fog.

"I have to climb down," he told himself in a reasonable tone. "It's bad
enough that the other two passed out without me going space happy too."

"What's your hurry?" demanded the voice. "I can talk to you just as easy
all the way down, you know. Airholes in my bark--I'm not like an Earth
tree."

Kolin examined the bark of the crotch in which he sat. It did seem to
have assorted holes and hollows in its rough surface.

"I never saw an Earth tree," he admitted. "We came from Haurtoz."

"Where's that? Oh, never mind--some little planet. I don't bother with
them all, since I came here and found out I could be anything I wanted."

"What do you mean, anything you wanted?" asked Kolin, testing the
firmness of a vertical vine.

                   *       *       *       *       *

"Just what I said," continued the voice, sounding closer in his ear as
his cheek brushed the ridged bark of the tree trunk. "And, if I do have
to remind you, it would be nicer if you said 'Mr. Ashlew,' considering
my age."

"Your age? How old--?"

"Can't really count it in Earth years any more. Lost track. I always
figured bein' a tree was a nice, peaceful life; and when I remembered
how long some of them live, that settled it. Sonny, this world ain't
all it looks like."

"It isn't, Mr. Ashlew?" asked Kolin, twisting about in an effort to see
what the higher branches might hide.

"Nope. Most everything here is run by the Life--that is, by the thing
that first grew big enough to do some thinking, and set its roots down
all over until it had control. That's the outskirts of it down below."

"The other trees? That jungle?"

"It's more'n a jungle, Sonny. When I landed here, along with the others
from the _Arcturan Spark_, the planet looked pretty empty to me, just
like it must have to--Watch it, there, Boy! If I didn't twist that
branch over in time, you'd be bouncing off my roots right now!"

"Th-thanks!" grunted Kolin, hanging on grimly.

"Doggone vine!" commented the windy whisper. "_He_ ain't one of my
crowd. Landed years later in a ship from some star towards the center of
the galaxy. You should have seen his looks before the Life got in touch
with his mind and set up a mental field to help him change form. He
looks twice as good as a vine!"

"He's very handy," agreed Kolin politely. He groped for a foothold.

"Well ... matter of fact, I can't get through to him much, even with the
Life's mental field helping. Guess he started living with a different
way of thinking. It burns me. I thought of being a tree, and then he
came along to take advantage of it!"

Kolin braced himself securely to stretch tiring muscles.

"Maybe I'd better stay a while," he muttered. "I don't know where I am."

"You're about fifty feet up," the sighing voice informed him. "You ought
to let me tell you how the Life helps you change form. You don't _have_
to be a tree."

"No?"

"_Uh_-uh! Some of the boys that landed with me wanted to get around and
see things. Lots changed to animals or birds. One even stayed a man--on
the outside anyway. Most of them have to change as the bodies wear out,
which I don't, and some made bad mistakes tryin' to be things they saw
on other planets."

"I wouldn't want to do that, Mr. Ashlew."

"There's just one thing. The Life don't like taking chances on word
about this place gettin' around. It sorta believes in peace and quiet.
You might not get back to your ship in any form that could tell tales."

"Listen!" Kolin blurted out. "I wasn't so much enjoying being what I was
that getting back matters to me!"

"Don't like your home planet, whatever the name was?"

"Haurtoz. It's a rotten place. A Planetary State! You have to think and
even look the way that's standard thirty hours a day, asleep or awake.
You get scared to sleep for fear you might _dream_ treason and they'd
find out somehow."

"Whooeee! Heard about them places. Must be tough just to live."

Suddenly, Kolin found himself telling the tree about life on Haurtoz,
and of the officially announced threats to the Planetary State's planned
expansion. He dwelt upon the desperation of having no place to hide in
case of trouble with the authorities. A multiple system of such worlds
was agonizing to imagine.

                   *       *       *       *       *

Somehow, the oddity of talking to a tree wore off. Kolin heard opinions
spouting out which he had prudently kept bottled up for years.

The more he talked and stormed and complained, the more relaxed he felt.

"If there was ever a fellow ready for this planet," decided the tree
named Ashlew, "you're it, Sonny! Hang on there while I signal the Life
by root!"

Kolin sensed a lack of direct attention. The rustle about him was
natural, caused by an ordinary breeze. He noticed his hands shaking.

"Don't know what got into me, talking that way to a tree," he muttered.
"If Yrtok snapped out of it and heard, I'm as good as re-personalized
right now."

As he brooded upon the sorry choice of arousing a search by hiding where
he was or going back to bluff things out, the tree spoke.

"Maybe you're all set, Sonny. The Life has been thinkin' of learning
about other worlds. If you can think of a safe form to jet off in, you
might make yourself a deal. How'd you like to stay here?"

"I don't know," said Kolin. "The penalty for desertion--"

"Whoosh! Who'd find you? You could be a bird, a tree, even a cloud."

Silenced but doubting, Kolin permitted himself to try the dream on for
size.

He considered what form might most easily escape the notice of search
parties and still be tough enough to live a long time without renewal.
Another factor slipped into his musings: mere hope of escape was
unsatisfying after the outburst that had defined his fuming hatred for
Haurtoz.

_I'd better watch myself!_ he thought. _Don't drop diamonds to grab at
stars!_

"What I wish I could do is not just get away but get even for the way
they make us live ... the whole damn set-up. They could just as easy
make peace with the Earth colonies. You know why they don't?"

"Why?" wheezed Ashlew.

"They're scared that without talk of war, and scouting for Earth fleets
that never come, people would have time to think about the way they have
to live and who's running things in the Planetary State. Then the gravy
train would get blown up--and I mean blown up!"

The tree was silent for a moment. Kolin felt the branches stir
meditatively. Then Ashlew offered a suggestion.

"I could tell the Life your side of it," he hissed. "Once in with us,
you can always make thinking connections, no matter how far away. Maybe
you could make a deal to kill two birds with one stone, as they used to
say on Earth...."

                   *       *       *       *       *

Chief Steward Slichow paced up and down beside the ration crate turned
up to serve him as a field desk. He scowled in turn, impartially, at his
watch and at the weary stewards of his headquarters detail. The latter
stumbled about, stacking and distributing small packets of emergency
rations.

The line of crewmen released temporarily from repair work was transient
as to individuals but immutable as to length. Slichow muttered something
profane about disregard of orders as he glared at the rocky ridges
surrounding the landing place.

He was so intent upon planning greetings with which to favor the tardy
scouting parties that he failed to notice the loose cloud drifting over
the ridge.

It was tenuous, almost a haze. Close examination would have revealed it
to be made up of myriads of tiny spores. They resembled those cast forth
by one of the bushes Kolin's party had passed. Along the edges, the haze
faded raggedly into thin air, but the units evidently formed a cohesive
body. They drifted together, approaching the men as if taking
intelligent advantage of the breeze.

One of Chief Slichow's staggering flunkies, stealing a few seconds of
relaxation on the pretext of dumping an armful of light plastic packing,
wandered into the haze.

He froze.

After a few heartbeats, he dropped the trash and stared at ship and men
as if he had never seen either. A hail from his master moved him.

"Coming, Chief!" he called but, returning at a moderate pace, he
murmured, "My name is Frazer. I'm a second assistant steward. I'll think
as Unit One."

Throughout the cloud of spores, the mind formerly known as Peter Kolin
congratulated itself upon its choice of form.

_Nearer to the original shape of the Life than Ashlew got_, he thought.

He paused to consider the state of the tree named Ashlew, half immortal
but rooted to one spot, unable to float on a breeze or through space
itself on the pressure of light. Especially, it was unable to insinuate
any part of itself into the control center of another form of life, as a
second spore was taking charge of the body of Chief Slichow at that very
instant.

_There are not enough men_, thought Kolin. _Some of me must drift
through the airlock. In space, I can spread through the air system to
the command group._

Repairs to the _Peace State_ and the return to Haurtoz passed like weeks
to some of the crew but like brief moments in infinity to other units.
At last, the ship parted the air above Headquarters City and landed.

The unit known as Captain Theodor Kessel hesitated before descending the
ramp. He surveyed the field, the city and the waiting team of inspecting
officers.

"Could hardly be better, could it?" he chuckled to the companion unit
called Security Officer Tarth.

"Hardly, sir. All ready for the liberation of Haurtoz."

"Reformation of the Planetary State," mused the captain, smiling
dreamily as he grasped the handrail. "And then--formation of the
Planetary Mind!"


END


  [ Transcriber's Note:
    This e-text was produced from Worlds of If January 1962. Extensive
    research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on
    this publication was renewed.
  ]





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