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Title: A Matter of Protocol
Author: Sharkey, Jack
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Matter of Protocol" ***

                         A MATTER OF PROTOCOL

                            By JACK SHARKEY

                       Illustrated by SCHELLING

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                     Galaxy Magazine August 1962.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

                First Contact was always dangerous--but
                   usually only to the man involved!

From space, the planet Viridian resembled a great green moss-covered
tennis ball. When the spaceship had arrowed even closer to the lush
jungle that was the surface of the 7000-mile sphere, there was still no
visible break in the green cloak of the planet. Even when they dipped
almost below their margin of safety--spaceships were poorly built
for extended flight within the atmosphere--it took nearly a complete
circuit of the planet before a triangle of emptiness was spotted.
It was in the midst of the tangled canopy of treetops, themselves
interwoven inextricably with coarse-leaved ropy vines that sprawled and
coiled about the upthrust branches like underfed anacondas.

Into the center of this triangle the ship was lowered on sputtering
blue pillars of crackling energy, to come to rest on the soft loamy

A bare instant after setdown, crewmen exploded from the airlock and
dashed into the jungle shadows with high-pressure tanks of gushing
spume. Their job was to coat, cool and throttle the hungry fires
trickling in bright orange fingers through the heat-blackened grasses.
Higher in the trees, a few vines smoldered fitfully where the fires had
brushed them, then hissed into smoky wet ash as their own glutinous
sap smothered the urgent embers. But the fire was going out.

"Under control, sir," reported a returning crewman.

Lieutenant Jerry Norcriss emerged into the green gloaming that cloaked
the base of the ship with a net of harlequin diamonds. Jerry nodded
abstractedly as other crewmen laid a lightweight form-fitting couch
alongside the tailfins near the airlock. On this couch Jerry reclined.
Remaining crew members turned their fire-fighting gear over to
companions and stood guard in a rough semi-circle with loaded rifles,
their backs to the figure on the couch, facing the jungle and whatever
predatory dangers it might hold.

Ensign Bob Ryder, the technician who had the much softer job of simply
controlling and coordinating any information relayed by Jerry, leaned
out through the open circle in the hull.

"All set, sir," said the tech. Jerry nodded and settled a heavily
wired helmet onto his head, while Bob made a hookup between the helmet
and the power outlet that was concealed under a flap of metal on the

Helmet secured, Jerry lay back upon the couch and closed his eyes. "Any
time you're ready, Ensign."

Bob hurried back inside, found the panel he sought among the jumble of
high-powered machinery there, and placed a spool of microtape on a
spindle inside it.

He shut the panel and thumbed the button that started an impulse
radiating from the tape into the jungle.

The impulse had been detected and taped by a roborocket which had
circled the planet for months before their arrival. It was one of
the two Viridian species whose types were as yet uncatalogued by the
Space Corps, in its vast files of alien life. Jerry's job, as a Space
Zoologist, was to complete those files, planet by planet throughout the
spreading wave of slowly colonized universe.

Bob made sure the tape was functioning. Then he clicked the switch that
would stimulate the Contact center in Jerry's brain and release his
mind into that of the taped alien for an immutable forty minutes.

Outside the ship, recumbent in the warm green-gold shadows, Jerry's
consciousness was dwarfed for an instant by a white lightning-flash
of energy. And then his body went limp as his mind sprang with
thought-speed into Contact....

       *       *       *       *       *

Jerry opened his eyes to a dizzying view of the dull brown jungle
floor. He blinked a moment, then looked toward his feet. He saw two
sets of thin knobby Vs, extending forward and partly around the tiny
limb he stood upon, their chitinous surface shiny with the wetness of
the jungle air.

Slowly working his jaws, he heard the extremely gentle "click" as they
came together. The endoskeleton must exist all over his host's body.

After making certain it would not disturb his balance on the limb, he
attempted bringing whatever on the alien passed for hands before his

Sometimes aliens had no hands, nor any comparable organisms. Then Jerry
would have to soft-pedal the mental nagging of being "amputated," an
unavoidable carryover from his subconscious "wrong-feeling" about

But this time the effort moved up multi-jointed limbs, spindly as a
cat's whiskers, terminating in a perpetually coiling soft prehensile
tip. He tried feeling along his torso to determine its size and shape.
But the wormlike tips were tactilely insensitive.

Hoping to deduce his shape from his shadow, he inched sideways along
the limb on those inadequate-looking two-pronged feet toward a blob of
yellow sunlight nearer the trunk.

The silhouette on the branch showed him a stubby cigar-shaped torso.

"I seem to be a semi-tentacled no-hop grasshopper," he mused to
himself, vainly trying to turn his head on his neck. "Head, thorax and
abdomen all one piece."

He tried flexing what would be, in a man, the region of the
shoulderblades. He was rewarded by the appearance of long, narrow
wings--two sets of them, like a dragonfly's--from beneath two flaps of
chitin on his back.

He tried an experimental flapping. The pair of wings--white and stiff
like starched tissue paper, not veinous as in Earth-insects--dissolved
in a buzzing blur of motion. The limb fell away from under his tiny
V-shaped feet. And then he was up above the blinding green blanket
of jungle treetops, his shadow pacing his forward movement along the
close-packed quilt of wide leaves below.

"I'd better be careful," thought Jerry. "There may be avian life here
that considers my species the _piéce de resistance_ of the pteroid

Slowing his rapid wingbeat, he let himself drop down toward the nearest
mattress-sized leaf. He folded his out-thrust feet in mid-air and
dropped the last few inches to a cushiony rest.

       *       *       *       *       *

A slight shimmer of dizziness gripped his mind.

Perhaps the "skull" of this creature was ill-equipped to ward off the
hot rays of the tropic sunlight. Lest his brain be fried in its own
casing, Jerry scuttled along the velvet top of the leaf, and ducked
quickly beneath its nearest overlapping companion. The wave of vertigo
passed quickly, there in the deep shadow. Under the canopy of leaves
Jerry crawled back to a limb near the top of the tree.

A few feet from where he stood, something moved.

Jerry turned that way. Another creature of the same species was
balancing lightly on a green limb of wire-thickness, its gaze fixed
steadily toward the jungle flooring, as Jerry's own had been on
entering the alien body.

Watching out for predators? Or for victims?

He could, he knew, pull his consciousness back enough to let the
creature's own consciousness carry it through its daily cycle of
eating, avoiding destruction, and the manifold businesses of being an
ambient creature. But he decided to keep control. It would be easier
to figure out his host's ecological status in the planet's natural
life-balance by observing the other one for awhile.

Jerry always felt more comfortable when he was in full control. You
never knew when an alien might stupidly stumble into a fatality that
any intelligent mind could easily have avoided.

Idly, as he watched his fellow creature down near the inner part of
the branch, he wondered how much more time he would be in Contact.
Subjectively he'd seemed to be enhosted for about ten minutes. But one
of the drawbacks of Contact was the subjugation of personal time-sense
to that of the host. Depending on the species he enhosted, the
forty-minute Contact period could be an eternity, or the blink of an

       *       *       *       *       *

Nothing further seemed to be occurring. Jerry reluctantly withdrew some
of his control from the insect-mind to see what would happen.

Immediately it inched forward until it was in the same position it had
been in when Jerry made Contact: V-shaped feet forward and slightly
around the narrow branch, eyes fixed upon the brownish jungle floor,
body motionless with folded wings. For awhile, Jerry tried "listening"
to its mind, but received no readable thoughts. Only a sense of
imminence.... Of patience.... Of waiting....

It didn't take long for Jerry to grow bored with this near-mindless
outlook. He reassumed full control. Guiding the fragile feet carefully
along the branch, he made his way to his fellow watcher, and tried
out the creature's communication system. His mind strove to activate
something on the order of a larynx; the insect's nervous system
received this impulse, changed in inter-species translation, as a broad
request for getting a message to its fellow. Its body responded by
lifting the multi-jointed "arms" forward. It clapped the hard inner
surfaces of the "wrists" together so fast that they blurred into
invisibility as the wings had done.

A thin, ratchetty sound came forth from that hardshell contact. The
other insect looked up in annoyance, then returned its gaze to the
ground again.

Aural conversation thus obviated, Jerry tried for physical
attention-getting. He reached out a vermiform forelimb-tip and tugged
urgently at the other insect's nearest hind leg. An angry movement gave
out the unmistakable pantomimic message: "For pete's sake, get off my
back! I'm _busy_!" The other insect spread its thin double wings and
went buzzing off a few trees away, then settled on a limb there and
took up its earthward vigil once more.

"Well, they're not gregarious, that's for sure," said Jerry to himself.
"I wish I knew what the hell we were waiting for!"

He decided he was sick of ground-watching, and turned his attention to
his immediate vicinity. His gaze wandered along all the twists, juts
and thrusts of branch and vine beneath the sun-blocking leaves.

And all at once he realized he was staring at another of his kind.
So still had its dull green-brown body been that he'd taken it for a
ripple of bark along a branch.

Carefully, he looked further on. Beyond the small still figure he soon
located another like it, and then another. Within a short space of
time, he had found three dozen of the insects sitting silently around
him in a spherical area barely ten feet in diameter.

       *       *       *       *       *

Oddly disconcerted, he once more spread his stiff white wings and
fluttered away through the treetops, careful to avoid coming out in
direct sunlight this time.

He flew until a resurgence of giddiness told him he was over-straining
the creature's stamina. He dropped onto a limb and looked about once
more. Within a very short time, he had spotted dozens more of the
grasshopper-things. All were the same, sitting in camouflaged silence,
steadily eyeing the ground.

"Damn," thought Jerry. "They don't seem interested in eating, mating or
fighting. All they want to do is sit--sit and _wait_. But what are they
waiting for?"

There was, of course, the possibility that he'd caught them in an
off-period. If the species were nocturnal, then he wouldn't get any
action from them till after sunset. That, he realized gloomily, meant a
re-Contact later on. One way or another, he would have to determine the
functions, capabilities and menace--if any--of the species with regard
to the influx of colonists, who would come to Viridian only if his
report pronounced it safe.

Once again, he let the insect's mind take over. Again that
over-powering feeling of imminence....

He was irritated. It couldn't just be looking forward to nightfall!
There were too many things tied in with the imminence feeling: the
necessity for quiet, for motionlessness, for careful watching.

The more he thought on it, the more he had the distinct intuition that
it would sit and stare at the soft, mulch-covered jungle floor, be it
bright daylight or blackest gloom, waiting, and waiting, and waiting....

Then, suddenly, the slight feel of imminence became almost unbearable

The change in intensity was due to a soft, cautious shuffling sound
from down in the green-gold twilight. Something was coming through the
jungle. Something that moved on careful feet along the springy, moist
brown surface below the trees.

Far below, a shadow detached itself slowly from the deeper shadows of
the trees, and a form began to emerge into the wan filtered sunlight.

An all-encompassing lance of silent white lightning. Contact was

       *       *       *       *       *

Jerry sat up on the couch, angry. He pulled the helmet off his head as
Bob Ryder leaned out the airlock once more. "How'd it go, sir?"

"Lousy. I'll have to re-establish. Didn't have time to Learn it
sufficiently." A slight expression of disappointment on the tech's face
made him add, "Don't tell me you have the other tape in place already?"

"Sorry," Bob said. "You usually do a complete Learning in one Contact."

"Oh--" Jerry shrugged and reached for the helmet again. "Never mind,
I'll take on the second alien long as it's already set up. I may just
have hit the first one in an off-period. The delay in re-Contact may be
just what I need to catch it in action."

Settling the helmet snugly on his head once more, he leaned back onto
the couch and waited. He heard the tech's feet clanking along the metal
plates inside the ship, then the soft clang of an opening door in the
power room, and--

Whiteness, writhing electric whiteness and cold silence. And he was in

       *       *       *       *       *

Darkness, and musky warmth.

Then a slot of light appeared, a thin fuzzy line of yellow striped
with spiky green. Jerry had time, in the brief flicker, to observe
thick bearlike forelimbs holding up a squarish trapdoor fastened with
cross-twigs for support. Then the powerful forepaws let the door drop
back into place, and it was dark again.

He hadn't liked those forepaws. Though thick as and pawed like
a bear's, they were devoid of hair. They had skin thin as a
caterpillar's, a mottled pink with sick-looking areas of deathly white.

Skin like that would be a push-over to actinic rays for any long
exposure. Probably the thing lived underground here, almost
permanently. His eyes had detected a rude assortment of thick wooden
limbs curving in and out at regular intervals in the vertical wall of
soil that was the end of this tunnel, just below the trapdoor. Tree
roots. But formed, by some odd natural quirk, into a utile ladder.

But why had the thing peered out, then dropped the door to wait? Did
_every_ species on this planet hang around expectantly and nothing
else? And what was the waiting for?

Then he felt the urge within the creature, the urge to scurry up that
ladder into the light. But there was, simultaneously, a counter-urge in
the thing, telling it to _please_ wait a _little_ longer....

Jerry recognized the urge by quick anthropomorphosis. It was the goofy
urge. The crazy urge. Like one gets on the brinks of awesome heights,
or on subway platforms as the train roars in: The impulsive urge to
self-destruction, so swiftly frightening and so swiftly suppressed....

Yet, it had lifted and dropped that lid too briefly to have seen
anything outside. Could it be _listening_ for something? Carefully, he
relinquished his control of the beast, fraction by fraction, to see
what it would do.

It rose on tiptoe at once, and again lifted that earthen door.

It squinted at the profusion of green-yellow sunlight that stung
its eyes. Then it rose on powerful hind limbs and clambered just
high enough on that "ladder" to see over the grassy rim of the
trapdoor-hole. Jerry then heard the soft shuffling sound that had
re-alerted it, and saw the source.

Out on the matted brown jungle flooring, beneath the towering trees,
another of the bear-things was moving forward from an open turf-door,
emitting low, whimpering snorts as it inched along through the
dappling yellow sunlight.

Obviously it was _following_ that manic-destruction impulse that he
just felt and managed to suppress. It must have been almost a hundred
degrees out there. And the damned thing was _shivering_.

       *       *       *       *       *

Here and there, Jerry noticed suddenly, other half-opened trapdoors
were framing other bear-things' heads. The air was taut with electric
tension, the tension of a slow trigger-squeeze that moves millimeter by
millimeter toward the instant explosion....

The soft shuffling sounds of the animal's movement jogged Jerry's
memory then, and he knew it for the sound he had heard when enhosted in
the grasshopper-thing. Was a bear-thing what they'd been waiting in the
trees so silently for? And what would be the culmination of that vigil?

Then the bear-thing he was in Contact with hitched itself up another
root-rung. Jerry saw the thing toward which the quaking creature was
headed, in a hunched crawl, its whimpers more anguished by the moment.

Pendant in the green gloaming, about four feet above the spongy brown
jungle floor, hung a thick yellow-gray gourd at the tip of a long vine.
Its sides glittered stickily with condensed moisture that mingled
with the effluvium of the gourd itself. The odor was both noisome and
compelling, powerful as a bushel of rotting roses. It sickened as it
lured, teased the nostrils as it cloyed within the lungs.

To this dangling obscenity the bear-thing moved. Its eyes were no
longer afraid, but glazed and dulled by the strength of that musky
lure. Its movements were fluid and trancelike.

It arose on sturdy hind limbs and struck at the gourd with a gentle
paw, sending it jouncing to one side on its long green vine. As it
bobbed back, the creature struck it off in the opposite direction with
a sharper blow.

Jerry watched in fascination. The gourd swung faster; the mottled
pink-white alien creature swayed and wove its forelimbs and thick body
in a ritual dance matching the tempo of the arcing gourd.

Then Jerry noted that the vine was unlike earth-vines which
parasitically employ treetops as their unwilling trellises. It is a
limp extension of the tip of a tree branch itself. So were all the
other vines in that green matting overhead.

       *       *       *       *       *

A ripping sound yanked his gaze back to the dazed creature and the
gourd again.

A ragged tear had riven the side of the gourd. Tiny coils of green
were dribbling out in batches, like watchsprings spilled from a paper
bag. They struck with a bounce and wriggle on the resilient brown
mulch. And then, as they straightened themselves, Jerry knew them for
what they were: Miniature versions of the grasshopper-things, shaped
precisely like the adults, but only a third as large.

The bear-thing's movements had gone from graceful fluidity to frenzy
now. A loud whistle of fright escaped it as the last of the twitching
green things flopped from its vegetable cocoon, whirred white wings to
dry them and flew off.

And the lumbering creature had reason for its fright.

The instant the last coil of wiggly green life was a vanishing blur in
the green shadows, a cloud of darker green descended upon the pink form
of the beast from the trees.

The grasshopper-things were waiting no longer. Thousands swarmed on the
writhing form, until the bear-thing was a lumpy green parody of itself.

As quickly as the cloud had plunged and clustered, it fell away. The
earth was teeming with the flip-flopping forms of dying insects, white
wings going dark brown and curling like cellophane in open flame. The
bear-thing itself was no longer recognizable, its flesh a myriad
egg-like white lumps. It swayed in agony for a moment, then toppled.

Instantly the other creatures--his host with them--were racing forward
to the site of the encounter. Jerry felt his host's long gummy tongue
flick out and snare one--just one--of the dead adult insects. It was
ingested whole by a deft backflip of tongue to gullet. As his host
turned tail and scurried for the tunnel once more, Jerry swiftly took
control again, and halted it to observe any further developments.

       *       *       *       *       *

Each of the other things, after a one-insect gulp, was just vanishing
back underground. The turf-tops were dropping neatly into almost
undetectable place hiding the tunnels. The sunlight nipped at his pale
flesh, but Jerry held off from a return to the underground sanctuary,
still watching that lump-covered corpse on the earth. Then....

The vine, its burden gone, began to drip a thick ichor from its ragged
end upon the dead animal beneath it.

And as the ichor touched upon a white lump, the lump would swell,
wriggle, and change color. Jerry watched with awe as the color became a
mottled pink, and the surface of the lumps cracked and shriveled away,
and tiny forms plopped out onto the ground: miniature bear-things,
tiny throats emitting eager mouse-squeaks of hunger.

They rushed upon the body in which they'd been so violently incubated
and swiftly, systematically devoured it, blood, bone and sinew.

And when not even a memory of the dead beast was left upon the soil,
the tiny pink-white things began to burrow downward into the ground.
Soon there was nothing left in the area but a dried fragment of vine, a
few loose mounds of soil and a vast silence.

"I'll be a monkey's uncle!" said Jerry ... forgetting in his excitement
that this phrase was nearly a concise parody of the Space Zoologists'
final oath of duty, and kiddingly used as such by the older members of
the group.

The whole damned planet was symbiotic! After witnessing those alien
life-death rites, it didn't take him long to figure out the screwball
connections between the species. Insects, once born of vine-gourds
and fully grown, then propagated their species by a strange means:
laying bear-eggs in a bear-thing and dying. And dying, eaten by the
surviving bears, they turned to seeds which--left in the tunnels by the
bear-things as droppings--in turn took root and became trees.

And the trees, under the onslaught of another bear-thing on a dangling
pod, would produce new insects, then drip its ichor to fertilize the
eggs in the newly dead bear-thing....

Jerry found his mind tangling as he attempted a better pinpointing of
the plant-animal-insect relationship. A dead adult insect, plus a trip
through a bear-thing's alimentary canal, produced a tree. A tree-pod,
with the swatting stimulus of a bear-thing's paws, gave birth to new
insects. And insect eggs in animal flesh, stimulated by the tree-ichor,
gestated swiftly into young animals....

That meant, simply, that insect plus bear equals tree, tree plus bear
equals insect, and insect plus tree equals bear. With three systems,
each relied on the non-inclusive member for the breeding-ground.
Insect-plus-ichor produced small animals _in_ the animal flesh.
Dead-insect-plus-bear produced tree _in_ the tree-flesh (if one
considered dead tree leaves and bark and such as the makeup of the
soil.) Bear-swats-plus-tree produced insects.... "Damn," said Jerry to
himself, "but _not_ in the insect-flesh. The thing won't round off...."

He tried again, thinking hard. In effect, the trees were parents to
the insects, insects parents to the bears, and bears parents to the
trees.... Though in another sense, bear-flesh gave birth to new bears,
digested insects gave birth (through the tree-medium) to new insects,
and trees (through the insect-medium) gave birth to new trees....

Jerry's head spun pleasantly as he tried vainly to solve the confusion.
Men of science, he realized, would spend decades trying to figure
out which species were responsible for which. It made the ancient
chicken-or-egg question beneath consideration. And a lot of diehard
evolutionists were going to be bedded down with severe migraines when
his report went into circulation....

A dazzle of silent lightning, and Contact was over.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Ready with that first tape again," Bob Ryder said as Jerry removed the
Contact helmet and brushed his snow-white hair back from his tanned,
youthful face. "Or do you want a breather first?"

Jerry shook his head. "I won't need to re-Contact that other species,
Ensign. I got its life-relationships from the second Contact."

"Really, sir?" said Bob. "That's pretty unusual, isn't it?"

"The whole damned planet's unusual," said Jerry, rising from his supine
position and stretching luxuriously in the warm jungle air. "You'll see
what I mean when you process the second tape."

Bob decided that Jerry--running pretty true to form for a Space
Zoologist--wasn't in a particularly talkative mood, so he had to
satisfy himself with waiting for the transcription of the Contact to
get the details.

Later that day, an hour after takeoff, with Viridian already vanished
behind them as the great ship plowed through hyper-space toward Earth
and home, Bob finished reading the report. Then he went down the
passageway to the ward room for coffee. Jerry was seated there already.
Bob, quickly filling a mug from the polished percolator, slid into a
seat across the table from his superior and asked the question that had
been bugging him since seeing the report.

"Sir--on that second Contact. Has it occurred to you that you'd
relinquished control to the host _before_ you saw that other creature
move out and start swatting the gourd-thing?"

"You mean was I taking a chance on being destroyed in the host if the
creature I was Contacting gave in to the urge to do the swatting?"

"Yes, sir," said Bob. "I mean, I know you can take control any time, if
things get dangerous. But wasn't that cutting it kind of thin?"

Jerry shook his head and sipped his coffee. "Wrong urge, Ensign.
You'll note I recognized it as the _goofy_ urge, the impulse to die
followed instantly by a violent surge of self-preservation. It wasn't
the death-wish at all. Myself and the creatures who remained safely at
the tunnel-mouths had a milder form of what was affecting the creature
that _did_ start swatting the gourd."

"Then what was the difference, sir? Why did that one particular
creature get the full self-destruction urge and no other?"

Jerry wrinkled his face in thought. "I wish I didn't suspect the answer
to that, Ensign. The only thing I hope it _isn't_ is the thing I have
the strongest inkling it _is_: Rotation. Something in their biology has
set them up in a certain order for destruction. And that rite I saw
performed was so un-animal, so formalized--"

Bob's eyes widened as he caught the inference. "You think they have
an inbuilt protocol? That if one particular creature missed its cue,
somehow, the designated subsequent creature would simply wait forever,
never jumping its turn?"

"That's what I mean," nodded Jerry. "I hope I'm wrong."

"But the right creature made it," said Bob, blinking. "We can't have
upset the ecology, can we?"

"Things develop fast on Viridian," mused Jerry. "If I figure the
time-relationship between their egg-hatching rate and growth rate,
those trees must mature in growth in about a month. And we managed to
shrivel a half dozen vines with our rocket fires when we landed, and
probably that many again when we blasted off...."

"We dropped CO_{2} bombs after we cleared the trees," offered the tech,
uneasily. "The fire was out in seconds."

"That wouldn't help an already-shriveled vine, though, now would it!"
sighed Jerry. "And if my hunch about protocol is correct--"

"The life-cycle would interrupt?" gasped the tech.

"We'll see," said Jerry. "It'll take us a month to get back, and
there'll be another six months before the first wave of engineers is
sent to begin the homesteads and industry sites. We'll see, Ensign."

       *       *       *       *       *

It took two months for the engineers to go out and return.

They hadn't landed. A few orbits about the planet had shown them
nothing but a vast dead ball of dust and rotted vegetation, totally
unfit for human habitation. They brought back photographs taken of the
dead planet that no longer deserved the name it had rated in life.

But Jerry Norcriss, Space Zoologist, made it a special point to avoid
looking at any of them.

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Matter of Protocol" ***

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