Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Clifford Donald Simak: Retrograde Evolution

Clifford Donald Simak, Retrograde Evolution, Relatos de misterio, Tales of mystery, Relatos de terror, Horror stories, Short stories, Science fiction stories, Anthology of horror, Antología de terror, Anthology of mystery, Antología de misterio, Scary stories, Scary Tales, Salomé Guadalupe Ingelmo

THE trader had saved some space in the cargo hold for the babu root which, ounce for ounce, represented a better profit than all the other stuff he carried from the dozen planets the ship had visited.

But something had happened to the Google villages on the plant Zan. There was no babu root waiting for the ship and the trader had raged up and down, calling forth upon all Googles dire maledictions combed from a score of languages and cultures.

High in his cubbyhole, one level down from the control room and the captain's quarters, Steve Sheldon, the space ship's assigned co-ordinator, went through reel after reel of records pertaining to the planet and studied once again the bible of his trade, Dennison's Key to Sentient Races. He searched for a hidden clue, clawing through his close-packed memory for some forgotten fact which might apply.

But the records were very little help.

Zan, one of the planets by-passed on the first wave of exploration, had been discovered five centuries before. Since that time traders had made regular visits there to pick up babu root. In due time the traders had reported it to Culture. But Culture, being busy with more important things than a backwoods planet, had done no more than file the report for future action and then, of course, had forgotten all about it.

No survey, therefore, had ever been made of Zan, and the record reels held little more than copies of trading contracts, trading licenses, applications for monopolies and hundreds of sales invoices covering the five hundred years of trade. Interspersed here and there were letters and reports on the culture of the Googles and descriptions of the planet, but since the reports were by obscure planet-hoppers and not by trained observers they were of little value.

Sheldon found one fairly learned dissertation upon the babu root. From that paper he learned that the plant grew nowhere else but on Zan and was valuable as the only known cure for a certain disease peculiar to a certain sector of the galaxy. At first the plant had grown wild and had been gathered by the Googles as an article of commerce, but in more recent years, the article said, some attempts had been made to cultivate it since the wild supply was waning.

Sheldon could pronounce neither the root's drug derivative nor the disease it cured, but he shrugged that off as of no consequence.

Dennison devoted less than a dozen lines to Zan and from them Sheldon learned no more than he already knew: Googles were humanoid, after a fashion, and with Type 10 culture, varying from Type 10-A to Type 10-H; they were a peaceful race and led a pastoral existence; there were thirty-seven known tribal villages, one of which exercised benevolent dictatorship over the other thirty-six. The top-dog village, however, changed from time to time, apparently according to some peaceful rotational system based upon a weird brand of politics. Googles were gentle people and did not resort to war.

And that was all the information there was. It wasn't much to go on.

But, for that matter, Sheldon comforted himself, no co-ordinator ever had much to go on when his ship ran into a snag. A co-ordinator did not actually begin to function constructively until everyone, including himself, was firmly behind the eight-ball.

Figuring the way out from behind the eight-ball was a co-ordinator's job. Until he faced dilemma, a yard wide and of purest fleece, he was hardly needed. There was, of course, the matter of riding herd on traders to see that they didn't cheat, beyond a reasonable limit, the aliens with whom they traded, of seeing that they violated no alien tabus and outraged no alien ethics, that they abided by certain restraints and observed minimum protocol, but that was routine policing—just ordinary chores.

Now, after an uneventful cruise, something had finally happened—there was no babu root and Master Dan Hart of the starship Emma was storming around and raising hell and getting nowhere fast.

Sheldon heard him now, charging up the stairs to the co-ordinator's cubbyhole. Judging the man's temper by the tumult of his progress, Sheldon swept the reels to one side of the desk and sat back in his chair, settling his mind into that unruffled calm which went with his calling.

"Good day to you, Master Hart," said Sheldon when the irate skipper finally entered.

"Good day to you, Co-ordinator," said Hart, although obviously, it pained him to be civil.

"I've been looking through the records," Sheldon told him. "There's not much to go on."

"You mean," said Hart, with rage seething near the surface, "that you've no idea of what is going on."

"Not the slightest," said Sheldon cheerfully.

"It's got to be better than that," Hart told him. "It's got to be a good deal better than that, Mister Co-ordinator. This is one time you're going to earn your pay. I carry you for years at a good stiff salary, not because I want to, but because Culture says I have to, and during all that time there's nothing, or almost nothing, for you to do. But now there is something for you to do. Finally there is something to make you earn your pay. I've put up with you, had you in my hair, stumbled over you, and I've held my tongue and temper, but now that there's a job to do, I'm going to see you do it."

He thrust out his head like an angry turtle. "You understand that, don't you, Mister Co-ordinator?"

"I understand," said Sheldon.

"You're going to get to work on it," said Hart. "You'll get on it right away."

"I'm working on it now."

"Indeed," said Mister Hart.

"I've satisfied myself," said Sheldon, "that there's nothing in the records."

"And what do you do now?"

"Observe and think," said Sheldon.

"Observe and think!" yelped Hart, stricken to the core.

"Maybe try a hunch or two," said Sheldon. "Eventually we'll find out what's the trouble."

"How long?" asked Hart. "How long will all this mummery take?"

"That's something I can't tell you."

"So you can't tell me that. I must remind you, Mister Co-ordinator, that time spells money in the trading business." .

"You're ahead of schedule," Sheldon told him calmly. "You've shaved everything on the entire cruise. You were brusque in your trading almost to the point of rudeness despite the standards of protocol that Culture has set up. I was forced time after time to impress upon you the importance of that protocol. There were other times when I let you get away with murder. You've driven the crew in violation of Labor's program of fair employment. You've acted as if the devil were only a lap behind you. Your crew will get a needed rest while we untangle this affair. The loss of time won't harm you."

Hart took it because he didn't know quite how far he could push the quiet man who sat behind the desk. He shifted his tactics.

"I have a contract for the babu," he said, "and the license for this trade route. I don't mind telling you I'd counted on the babu. If you don't shake loose that babu, I'll sue…"

"Don't be silly," Sheldon said.

"They were all right five years ago," said Hart, "the last trip we were here. A culture just can't go to pot in that length of time."

"What we have here," said Sheldon, "is something more complicated than mere going to pot. Here we have some scheme, some plan, something deliberate. The Type 10 culture village stands there to the west of us, just a mile or two away, deserted, with its houses carefully locked and boarded up. Everything all tidy, as if its inhabitants had moved away for a short time and meant to come back in the not too distant future. And a mile or two outside that Type 10 village we have instead another village and a people that average Type 14."

"It's crazy," Hart declared. "How could a people lose four full culture points? And even if they did, why would they move from a Type 10 village to a collection of reed huts? Even barbarian conquerors who capture a great city squat down and camp in the palaces and temples—no more reed huts for them."

"I don't know," said Sheldon. "It's my job to find out."

"And how to correct it?"

"I don't know that, either. It may take centuries to correct."

"What gets me," said Hart, "is that god-house. And the greenhouse behind it. There's babu growing in that greenhouse."

"How do you know it's babu?" Sheldon demanded. "All you've ever seen of babu was the root."

"Years ago," said Hart, "one of the natives took me out and showed me. I'll never forget it. There was a patch of it that seemed to cover acres. There was a fortune there. But I couldn't pull up a single plant. They were saving it, they said, until the root grew bigger."

"I've told the men," said Sheldon, "to keep clear of that god-house and now, Hart, I'm telling you. And that means the greenhouse, too. If I catch anyone trying to get at babu root or anything else growing in that greenhouse, there'll be hell to pay."

A short time after Hart left, the chief of the Google village climbed the stairs to call on the co-ordinator.

He was a filthy character, generously inhabited by vermin. He didn't know what chairs were for and squatted on the floor. So Sheldon left his chair and squatted down to face him, but immediately shuffled back a step or two, for the chief was rather high.

Sheldon spoke in Google lingo haltingly, for it was the first time he had used it since co-ordinator college days. There is, he supposed, not a man on the ship that could not speak it better than I, for each of the crew was on Zan before and this is my first trip.

"The chief is welcome," Sheldon said.

"Favor?" asked the chief.

"Sure, a favor," Sheldon said.

"Dirty stories," said the chief. "You know some dirty stories?"

"One or two," said Sheldon. "But I'm afraid they're not too good."

"Tell 'em," said the chief, busily scratching himself with one hand. With the other he just as busily picked mud from between his toes.

So Sheldon told him the one about the woman and the twelve men marooned on an asteroid.

"Huh?" said the chief.

So Sheldon told him another one, much simpler and more directly obscene.

"That one all right," said the chief, not laughing. "You know another one?"

"That's all I know," said Sheldon, seeing no point in going on. "Now you tell me one," he added, for he figured that one should do whatever possible to get along with the aliens, especially when it was his job to find what made them tick.

"I not know any," said the chief. "Maybe someone else?"

"Greasy Ferris," Sheldon told him. "He's the cook, and he's got some that will curl your hair."

"So good," said the chief, getting up to go.

At the door he turned. "You remember another one," he said, "you be sure to tell me."

Sheldon could see, without half trying, that the chief was serious about his stories.

Sheldon went back to his desk, listening to the soft paddling of the chief's feet going down the catwalk. The communicator chirped. It was Hart.

"The first of the scout boats are in," he said. "They reported on five other villages and they are just the same as this. The Googles have deserted their old villages and are living in filthy huts just a mile or two away. And every one of those reed-hut villages has a god-house and a greenhouse."

"Let me know as soon as the other boats come in," said Sheldon, "although I don't suppose we can hope for much. The reports probably will be the same."

"Another thing," said Hart. "The chief asked us to come down to the village for a pow-wow tonight. I told him that we'd come."

"That's some improvement," Sheldon said. "For the first few days they didn't notice us. Either didn't notice us or ran away."

"Any ideas yet, Mister Co-ordinator?"

"One or two."

"Doing anything about them?"

"Not yet," said Sheldon. "We have lots of time."

He clicked off the squawk box and sat back. Ideas? Well, one maybe. And not a very good one.

A purification rite? An alien equivalent of a return to nature? It didn't click too well. For, with a Type 10 culture, the Googles never strayed far enough from nature to want to return to it.

Take a Type 10 culture. Very simple, of course, but fairly comfortable. Not quite on the verge of the machine age, but almost—yes, just short of the machine age. A sort of golden age of barbarism. Good substantial villages with a simple commerce and sound basic economics. Peaceful dictatorship and pastoral existence. Not too many laws to stumble over. A watered-down religion without an excess of tabus. One big happy family with no sharp class distinction.

And they had deserted that idyllic life.

Crazy? Of course it was crazy.

As it stands now the Googles seem barely to get along. Their vocabularly is limited; why, I speak the language even better than the chief, Sheldon told himself.

Their livelihood was barely above the survival level. They hunted and fished, picked some fruit and dug some roots, and went a little hungry—and all the time the garden patches outside the deserted villages lay fallow, waiting for the plow and hoe, waiting for the seed, but with evidence of having been worked only a year or so before. And in those patches undoubtedly they had grown the babu plants as well as vegetables. But the Googles now apparently knew nothing of plow or hoe or seed. Their huts were ill-made and dirty. There was family life, but on a moral level that almost turned one's stomach. Their weapons were of stone and they had no agricultural implements.

Retrogression? No, not just simple retrogression. For even in the retrogression, there was paradox.

In the center of the Type 14 village to which the Googles had retreated stood the god-house, and back of the god-house stood the greenhouse with babu growing in it. The greenhouse was built of glass and nowhere else in the Type 14 village was there any sign of glass. No Type 14 alien could have built that greenhouse, nor the god-house, either. No mere hut, that god-house, but a building made of quarried stone and squared timbers, with its door locked tight by some ingenious means that no one yet had figured out. Although, to tell the truth, no one had spent much time on it. On an alien planet, visitors don't monkey with a god-house.

I swear, said Sheldon, talking aloud to himself, that the god-house was never built by that gang out there. It was built, if I don't miss my guess, before the retrogression. And the greenhouse, too.

On Earth when we go away for a vacation and have potted flowers or plants that we wish to keep alive, we take them to a neighbor or a friend to care for them, or make arrangements for someone to come in and water them.

And when we go on vacation from a Type 10 culture back to Type 14, and we have some babu plants that are valuable as seed stock, what do we do with them? We can't take them to a neighbor, for our neighbor, too, is going on vacation. So we do the best we can. We build a greenhouse and rig it up with a lot of automatic gadgets that will take care of the plants until we come back to care for them ourselves.

And that meant, that almost proved, that the retrogression was no accident.

The crew slicked themselves up for the pow-wow, putting on clean clothes, taking baths and shaving. Greasy hauled put his squeeze box and tried a tune or two by way of warming up. A gang of would-be singers in the engine room practiced close harmony, filling the ship with their caterwauling. Master Hart caught one of the tube-men with a bottle that had been smuggled aboard. He broke the man's jaw with one well-directed lick, a display of enthusiastic discipline which Sheldon told Hart was just a bit extreme.

Sheldon put on a semidress outfit, feeling slightly silly at dressing up for a tribe of savages, but he salved his conscience with the feeling that, after all, he was not going all the way with a full-dress uniform.

He was putting on his coat when he heard Hart come down from his quarters and turn toward his cubbyhole.

"The rest of the scouts came in," said Hart from the door.


"They are all the same. Every single tribe has moved out of its old village and set up a bunch of hovels built around a higher culture god-house and a greenhouse. They're dirty and half starving, just like this bunch out here."

"I suspected it," said Sheldon.

Hart squinted at him, as if he might be calculating where he best could hang one.

"It's logical," said Sheldon. "Certainly you see it. If one village went native for a certain reason, so would all the rest."

"The reason, Mister Co-ordinator, is what I want to know."

Sheldon said calmly, "I intend to discover it."

And he thought: It was for a reason, then. If all of them went native, it was for some purpose, according to some plan! And to work out and co-ordinate such a plan among thirty-seven villages would call for smooth-working communication, far better than one would look for in a Type 10 culture.

Feet pounded on the catwalk, thundering up. Hart swung around to face the door, and Greasy, charging into it, almost collided with him.

The cook's eyes were round with excitement and he was puffing with his run.

"They're opening the god-house," he gasped. "They just got the—"

"I'll have their hides for this," Hart bellowed. "I issued orders not to fool around with it."

"It isn't the men, sir," said Greasy. "It's the Googles. They've opened up their god-house."

Hart swung around to Sheldon.

"We can't go," he said.

"We have to go," Sheldon said. "They've invited us. At this particular moment, we can't offend them."

"Side-arms, then," said Hart. "With orders not to use them except as a last resort."

Hart nodded. "And some men stationed up here with rifles to cover us if we have to run for it."

"That sounds sensible," said Sheldon.

Hart left at the double.

Greasy turned to go.

"Just a moment, Greasy. You saw the god-house standing open?"

"That I did, sir."

"And what were you doing down there?"

"Why, sir…" From his face, Sheldon could see that Greasy was fixing up a lie.

"I told him one," said Sheldon. "He didn't seem to get it."

The cook grinned. "Well, you see, it was like this. Some of them Googles were cooking up some brew and I gave them some points, just to help along a bit. They were doing it all wrong, sir, and it seemed a pity to have their drinking spoiled by ignorance. So…"

"So, tonight you went down to get your cut."

"That, sir, was about the way it was."

"I see," said Sheldon. "Tell me, Greasy, have you been giving them some pointers on other things as well?"

"Well, I told the chief some stories."

"Did he like them?"

"I don't know," said Greasy. "He didn't laugh, but he seemed to like them all right."

"I told him one," said Sheldon. "He didn't seem to get it."

"That might be the case," said Greasy. "If you'll pardon me, sir, a lot of your stories are a bit too subtle."

"That's what I thought," said Sheldon. "Anything else?"

"Anything—oh, I see. Well, there was one fixing up a reed to make a flute and he was doing it all wrong…"

"So you showed him how to make a better flute?"

"That I did," said Greasy.

"I am sure," said Sheldon, "that you feel you've put in some powerful licks for progress, helping along a very backward race."

"Huh," said Greasy.

"That's all right," said Sheldon. "If I were you, I'd go easy on that brew."

"That's all you want of me?" asked Greasy, already halfway out the door.

"That's all I want," said Sheldon. "Thanks, Greasy."

A better brew, thought Sheldon. A better brew and a better flute and a string of dirty stories.

He shook his head. None of it, as yet, added up to anything.

Sheldon squatted on one, side of the chief and Hart squatted on the other. Something about the chief had changed. For one thing, he was clean. He no longer scratched and he was no longer high. There was no mud between his toes. He had trimmed both his beard and hair, scraggly as they were and had combed them out—a vast improvement over the burrs and twigs and maybe even birds' nests once lodged in them.

But there was something more than cleanliness. Sheldon puzzled over it even as he tried to force himself to attack the dish of food that had been placed in front of him. It was a terrible-looking mess and the whiff he had of it wasn't too encouraging, and, to make matters worse, there were no forks.

Beside him, the chief slurped and gurgled, shoveling food into his mouth with a swift, two-handed technique. Listening to his slurping, Sheldon realized what else was different about him. The chief spoke better now. Just that afternoon he had talked a pidgin version of his own tongue, and now he talked with a command of the language that amounted almost to fluency!

Sheldon shot a glance around the circle of men squatted on the ground. Each Earthman was seated with a Google to each side of him, and between the slurping and the slopping, the natives made a point of talking to the Earthmen. Just like the Chamber of Commerce boys do when they have guests, thought Sheldon—doing their best to make their guests content and happy and very much at home. And that was a considerable contrast with the situation when the ship first had landed, when the natives had peeked out of doorways or had merely grunted, when they'd not actually run away.

The chief polished his bowl with circling fingers, then sucked his fingers clean with little moans of delight. Then he turned to Hart and said, "I observe that in the ship you eat off an elevated structure. I have puzzled over that."

"A table," mumbled Hart, having hard going with his fingers.

"I do not understand," said the chief, and Hart went on to tell him what a table was and its advantage over squatting on the ground.

Sheldon, seeing that everyone else was eating, although with something less than relish, dipped his fingers in the bowl. Mustn't gag, he told himself. No matter how bad it is, I mustn't gag.

But it was even worse than he had imagined and he did gag. But no one seemed to notice.

After what seemed interminable hours of gastronomical torture, the meal was done, and during that time Sheldon told the chief about knives and forks and spoons, about cups, about chairs, pockets in trousers and coats, clocks and watches, the theory of medicine, the basics of astronomy, and the quaint Earthian custom of hanging paintings on a wall. Hart told him about the principles of the wheel and the lever, the rotation of crops, sawmills, the postal system, bottles for the containment of liquid and the dressing of building stone.

Just encyclopedias, thought Sheldon. My God, the questions that he asks. Just encyclopedias for a squatting, slurping savage of a Type 14 culture. Although, wait a minute now—was it still 14? Might it not, within the last half day, have risen to a Type 13? Washed, combed, trimmed, with better social graces and a better language—it's crazy, he told himself. Utterly and absolutely insane to think that such a change could take place in the span of half a day.

From where he sat he could look across the circle directly at the god-house with its open door. And staring at the black maw of the doorway, in which there was no hint of life or light, he wondered what was there and what might come out of it—or go into it. For he was certain that within the doorway lay the key to the enigma of the Googles and their retrogression, since it seemed that the god-house itself must have been erected in preparation for the retrogression. No Type 14 culture, he decided, could have erected it.

After the meal was over, the chief rose and made a short speech, telling them that he was glad the visitors could eat with the tribe that night, and that now they would have some entertainment. Then Hart stood up and made a speech, saying they were glad to be on Zan and that his men had come prepared to offer a small matter of entertainment in return, if the chief would care to see it. The chief said he and his people would. Then he clapped his hands as a signal and about a dozen Google girls came out and marched around in the center of the circle, going through a ritual figure, weaving and dancing without benefit of music. Sheldon saw that the Googles watched intently, but none of it made much sense to him, well-grounded as he was in alien ritual habits.

Finally it was over. One or two misguided Earthmen clapped, but quickly subsided into embarrassed silence when everyone else sat in deathly quiet.

Then a Google with a reed pipe—perhaps the very one, Sheldon thought, upon which Greasy had done his consultative engineering—squatted in the center of the circle and piped away with a weird inconsistency that would have put to shame even the squeakiest of Earthly bagpipers. It lasted for a long time and seemed to get nowhere, but this time the ship's crew, perhaps in relief at the ending, finally, of the number, whooped and clapped and yelled and whistled as if for an encore, although Sheldon was fairly sure they meant quite the opposite.

The chief turned to Sheldon and asked what the men were doing. Sheldon had a reasonably hard time explaining to him the custom of applause.

The two numbers, it turned out, were the sum total of the entertainment program whomped by the Googles, and Sheldon would have liked to ask the chief if that was all the village could muster, a fact which he suspected, but he refrained from inquiring.

The ship's crew took over, then.

The engine-room gang gathered together, with their arms around each other's shoulders in the best barbershop tradition and sang half a dozen songs, with Greasy laboring away on the squeeze box to accompany them. They sang old songs of Earth, the songs all spacemen sing, with unshed tears brightening their eyes.

It wasn't long before others of the crew joined in, and in less than an hour the ship's entire complement was howling out the songs, beating the ground with the flats of their hands to keep time and flinging back their heads to yelp the Earth words into the alien sky.

Then someone suggested they should dance. One of the tubemen called the sets while Greasy humped lower over his squeeze box, pumping out "Old Dan Tucker" and "Little Brown Jug" and "The Old Gray Mare" and others of their kind.

Just how it happened Sheldon didn't see, but all at once there were more sets. The Googles were dancing, too, making a few mistakes, but their Earthmen teachers guided them through their paces until they got the hang of it.

More and more of them joined in, and finally the entire village was dancing, even the chief, while Greasy pumped away, with the sweat streaming down his face. The Google with the reed pipe came over after a while and sat down beside Greasy. He seemed to have got the technique of how to make the music too, for his piping notes came out loud and clear, and he and Greasy hunkered there, playing away like mad while all the others danced. The dancers yelled and hollered and stamped the ground and turned cartwheels which were totally uncalled for and strictly out of place. But no one seemed to care.

Sheldon found himself beside the god-house. He and Hart were alone, pushed outward by the expanding dance space.

Said Hart: "Mister Co-ordinator, isn't that the damnedest thing that you have ever seen."

Sheldon agreed. "One thing you have to say about it: The party is a wingding."

Greasy brought the news in the morning when Sheldon was having breakfast in his cubbyhole.

"They've dragged something out of that there god-house," Greasy said.

"What is it, Greasy?"

"I wouldn't know," said Greasy. "And I didn't want to ask."

"No," said Sheldon, gravely. "No, I can appreciate you wouldn't."

"It's a cube," said Greasy. "A sort of latticework affair and it's got shelves, like, in it, and it don't make no sense at all. It looks something like them pictures you showed me in the book one time."

"Diagrams of atomic structure?"

"That's exactly it," said Greasy. "Except more complicated."

"What are they doing with it?"

"Just putting it together. And puttering around with it. I couldn't tell exactly what they were doing with it."

Sheldon mopped up his plate and shoved it to one side. He got up and shrugged into his coat. "Let's go down and see," he said.

There was quite a crowd of natives around the contraption when they arrived, and Sheldon and Greasy stood on the outskirts of the crowd, keeping quiet and saying nothing, being careful not to get in the way.

The cube was made of rods of some sort and was about twelve feet on each side, and the rods were joined together with a peculiar disc arrangement. The whole contraption looked like something a kid with a fullblown imagination might dream up with a super-tinker-toy set.

Within the cube itself were planes of glasslike material, and these, Sheldon noticed, were set with almost mathematical precision, great attention having been paid to the exact relationship between the planes.

As they watched, a heavy box was brought out of the god-house by a gang of Googles, who puffed and panted as they lugged it to the cube. They opened the box and took out several objects, carved of different materials, some wood, some stone, others of unfamiliar stuff. These they set in what appeared to be prescribed positions upon the various planes.

"Chess," said Greasy.


"Chess," said Greasy. "It looks like they're setting up a game of chess."

"Could be," said Sheldon, thinking, if it is a chess game, it is the wildest, most fantastic, toughest game I have ever seen.

"They got some screwy chess games, now," said Greasy. "Fairy chess, they call it, with more squares to the board and more pieces, different than the ones you use just regular. Me, I never could rightly get the hang of even normal chess."

The chief saw them and came over.

"We are very confident," he said. "With the help you gave us, we can't help but win."

"That is gratifying," Sheldon said.

"These other villages," said the chief, "haven't got a ghost. We have them pegged dead center. This will be three times, hand-running."

"You are to be congratulated," said Sheldon, wondering what it was all about.

"It's been a long time," said the chief.

"So it has," said Sheldon, still very much at sea.

"I must go now," said the chief. "We start now."

"Wait a second," Sheldon asked him. "You are playing a game?"

"You might call it that," the chief admitted. . "With these other villages—all the other villages?"

"That's right," said the chief.

"How long does it take? With all those villages, you and the other thirty-six…"

"This one won't take long," the chief declared, with a knowing leer.

"Good luck, chief," said Sheldon and watched him walk away.

"What's going on?" asked Greasy.

"Let's get out of here," said Sheldon. "I have work to do."

Hart hit the ceiling when he learned the kind of work that Sheldon had to do.

"You can't third-degree my men!" he shouted. "I won't have it. They haven't done a thing."

"Master Hart," said Sheldon, "you will have the men line up. I'll see them in my quarters, one at a time, and I won't third-degree them. I just want to talk to them."

"Mister Co-ordinator," said Hart, "I'll do the talking for them."

"You and I, Master Hart," said Sheldon, "did our talking last night. Much too much of it."

For hours on end, Sheldon sat in his cubbyhole which the men filed in one at a time and answered the questions that he shot at them:

"What questions did the Googles ask you?"

"How did you answer them?"

"Did they seem to understand?"

Man by man the notes piled up, and at last the job was done.

Sheldon locked the door, took a bottle from his desk and had a liberal snort; then he put the bottle back again and settled down to work, going through the notes.

The communicator beeped at him.

"The scouts are in," said Hart's voice, "and every single village has one of those cubes set up in front of their god-house. They're sitting around in a circle and they seem to be playing some sort of game. Every once in a while someone gets up from the circle and makes a move on one of the planes in the cube and then goes back and sits down again."

"Anything else?"

"Nothing else," said Hart. "That was what you wanted, wasn't it?"

"Yes," said Sheldon, "I guess that was what I wanted."

"Tell me one thing," asked Hart. "Who are they playing?"

"They're playing one another."

"One another what?"

"The villages," said Sheldon. "The villages are playing against one another."

"You mean thirty-seven villages?"

"That's what I mean."

"Would you tell me just how in hell thirty-seven villages can play one single game?"

"No, I can't," said Sheldon. But he had the terrible feeling that he could. That he could make a guess at least.

When it had become apparent that the retrogression was a planned affair, he remembered, he had wondered about the problem of communications which would have been necessary to have thirty-seven villages simultaneously retrogress. It would have taken, he had told himself, a higher order of communications than one would expect to find in a Type 10 culture.

And here it was again—an even tougher communications job, an odd, round-robin game in which these same thirty-seven villages played a game upon a complicated board.

There is one answer for it, he told himself. It simply couldn't be, but there is no other answer lor it—telepathy—and that is almost unthinkable in a Type 10 culture, let alone a Type 14.

He clicked off the squawk box and went back to work. He took a large sheet of paper to serve as a master chart and thumbtacked it to the desk, then started on the notes, beginning with the top one and going through to the very last. And when he had finished the chart, he sat back and looked at it, then put in a call for Hart.

Five minutes later Hart climbed the stairs and knocked at the door. Sheldon unlocked it and let him in. "Sit down, Hart," he said. "You have something?"

"I think I have," said Sheldon. He gestured at the sheet thumbtacked on the desk. "It's all there."

Hart stared at the chart. "I don't see a thing."

"Last night," said Sheldon, "we went to the Google pow-wow, and in the short time we spent there, we gave that particular village the most complete and comprehensive outline of a Type 10 culture that you have ever seen. But what really scares me is that we went somewhere beyond Type 10. I haven't worked it out completely, but it looks nearer Type 9M than Type 10."

"We what?"

"They pumped it out of us," said Sheldon. "Each of our men was questioned about certain cultural matters, and in not a single instance was there duplication. Each of the set of questions asked was a different set of questions. Just as if those Googles were assigned certain questions."

"What does it mean?" asked Hart. "It means," said Sheldon, "that we have interfered in one of the slickest social setups in the entire galaxy. I hope to God…"

"Slick social setup! You mean the Googles?"

"I mean the Googles," Sheldon said.

"But they never amounted to anything," Hart said. "They never will amount to anything. They…"

"Think hard," said Sheldon, "and try to tell me what is the most outstanding thing about the Google culture. We have a history of five hundred years of trade with them. During those five hundred years there is one fact about them that sticks up like a bandaged thumb."

"They're dumb," said Hart.

"Not from here, they aren't."

"They never got anywhere," said Hart. "Weren't even going anywhere, far as I could see."

"That's part of it," said Sheldon. "Static culture."

"I'll be damned," said Hart, "if I'll play guessing games with you. If you have something on your mind…"

"I have peace on the mind," said Sheldon. "In all the five hundred years we've known the Googles, there has been no dissension among them. They've never fought a war. That is something that cannot be said for any other planet."

"They are just too dumb to fight," said Hart.

"Too smart to fight," said Sheldon. "The Googles, Master Hart, have done something no other people, no other culture, has ever been able to do in all galactic history. They've found a way in which to outlaw war!"

For thousands upon thousands of years, empire after empire had been built among the stars and upon the many planets that circled round the stars.

And one by one, lonely and beaten, each empire had fallen, and one by one other empires had risen to take their place and in their turn had fallen. And those that existed in this day would fall in time.

This is the old, old cycle, Sheldon told himself, the ancient disease of force and arrogance and desperation—the ageless pattern of cultural development.

Never had a day existed since the first beginning that there had not been war at one place or another within the galaxy.

War came about because of economic pressure, mostly, although there were other causes—the ambitions of a certain being or of a certain race, the strange death-wish psychology which bloomed in certain cultures, an overweening racism, or a religion that spoke in terms of blood and death, rather than in terms of love and life.

Break down the causes of war, Sheldon thought, and we would find a pattern—certain factors which made for war and certain other factors which made for victory, once war had been invoked.

Now, suppose we made a study of war, its causes and the winning of it. Suppose we worked out the relevant relationships which each factor held to all the other factors, and not only that, but the relevant power of certain groups of factors against other groups of factors—factors of racial ingenuity and technology, of the human spirit, of logistics, of cultural development and the urge to protect and retain that culture, and hatred or the capacity to hate, all the many factors, tangible and intangible, which went into the making and the winning of a war.

And broken down into concrete terms, what would some of those factors be? What factors pushed a culture to the point of war? What factors made a victor? Certainly not just steel and firepower, certainly not courage alone, or generalship alone, or logistics or any other thing that could stand alone.

There would be other things as well, little, inconsequential, homely items, like sitting in a chair instead of squatting on the floor to eat, or using a knife and fork and not fingers. And other things, like dirty stories and better-drinking likker and a better pipe fashioned from a reed. For into all of these would go certain principles—the principle involved in the making of a better beer might light the way to manufacture a chemical that could be used in war; the perverted wit that shaped a dirty story might be turned to more destructive use in the propaganda section; the knowledge that made a better musical instrument might be extended to fashion an instrument that was not musical, but deadly.

It would be abilities such as these which would supply the economic pressure that might start a war, or contribute to that sense of superiority and intolerance and invincibility which might incline a tribe to war.

And if we watched the factors which represented these and other abilities, we would know when a war was about to pop.

And it was these same basic abilities and attitudes, plus a million other factors, which would determine who would win if a war should start.

Knowing this, we could assign certain actual values to all these cultural factors, although the value, as in a hand of cards, would be increased or decreased as they occurred in combination.

Sheldon got up and paced the tiny room, three steps up and three steps back.

Suppose then, he thought, we made a game of it—a game of war, with all the factors represented by game pieces assigned sliding values. Suppose we played a game instead of fighting a war. Suppose we let the game decide which side would have won if there had been a war.

Suppose, furthermore, that we watched cultures and detected the rise of those factors which finally lead to war. Suppose we could say that if the rise of certain factors should continue, war would then be inevitable in five years or ten.

Suppose we could do this—then we could catch a war before it started. We could see the danger signals and we would know the crisis point. And when we reached the crisis point, we played a game—we did not fight a war.

Except, Sheldon told himself, it wouldn't work.

We could play a game and decide a war, and once it had been decided, the factors that made for war would still be there; the crisis point would stand. We would be right back where we started; we would not have gained a thing. For the game, while it might decide who would have won the war, would not upset or correct the economic pressure, would not erase the crisis point.

No doubt the game could show which side would have won. It could predict, with a small percentage error, the outcome of a war. But it could not wipe out excess populations, it could not wrest trade advantages from the opposing side—it wouldn't do the job.

It wouldn't work, he told himself. It was a beautiful theory, a great idea, but it just wouldn't work.

We'd have to do more than play a game. We'd have to do a great deal more than play a game.

Besides determining who would have won the war if there had been a war, we would have to remove voluntarily the factors which had brought about the war—the solid, substantial facts of economic pressure, of intolerance, of all the other factors which would be involved.

It wasn't only the matter of playing a game, but of paying a price as well. There would be a price for peace and we'd have to pay the price.

For there would be more than one set of factors.

There would be the set that showed a war was coming. And there would be another set which would show that beyond a certain point the hard-won formula for peace simply wouldn't work.

It would work, perhaps, for a Type 10 culture, but beyond that, the factors involved might get so complicated that the formula would collapse under its own weight. A Type 10 culture might be able to deal with a factor which represented the cornering of the market on a certain food, but they could not deal with a factor which represented the complexity of galactic banking.

The formula might work for a Type 10 culture, but it might not work for Type 9; it might be utterly worthless for Type 8.

So the Googles not only played the game, but they paid the price of peace. And the price of peace was to run the other way. They retreated from advancement. They went clear back to 14 and they stayed there for a while, then went forward rather swiftly, but not as far as they were before they retrogressed. They went back voluntarily, and they stayed back, so they wouldn't fight a war.

They went back, not because war was less likely in a Type 14 culture than in a Type 10 culture, but they went back so that the formula, once it had been used, would be effective; they stayed back so that they had some room to advance before they again reached the point beyond which the formula would break down.

But how would they go back? How would they retreat from a 10 to a 14 culture? Retrogress—sure they would retrogress. They would leave their comfortable village and go back and live in squalor and all the time the gameboard and the pieces and the position values they had earned in their Type 10 existence would be safely locked away inside the god-house. There would come the day when they had advanced far enough so they could play the game, and they played it then, according to the rules and with what they had—unless they hit the jackpot, and a spaceship from a higher culture landed in their midst and handed them on a silver platter, as it were, a load of atom bombs to be used in a bow-and-arrow war.

Sheldon sat down at his desk, and held his head in his hands.

How much, he asked himself, how much more did we give them than they had before? Have we wrecked the formula? Have we given them so much that this village just outside the ship can bust the formula wide open? How much tolerance would there be? How far could they advance beyond a Type 10 culture and still be within the safety limit?

He got up and paced the floor again.

It's probably all right, he told himself. They've played the game for five hundred years we know of—for how. many thousands of years more than that we simply cannot know. They would not willingly break down the formula; they would know the limit. For there must be a deeply ingrained fear of war within their very culture, or otherwise they would not continue to subscribe to the formula. And it's a simple formula, really. Simple. Like falling off a log! Except—how did a people deliberately retrogress?

Hypnotism? Hypnotism wouldn't work, for what would happen to the hypnotist? He'd remain as a random and dangerous factor.

A clever machine, perhaps, except the Googles had no machines at all. So it couldn't be machines.

Drugs, maybe.

There was a root, and out of the root a drug was made to fight a disease peculiar to a certain sector of the galaxy—the babu root. Zan was the only place where the babu plant was grown.

"Good Lord," said Sheldon, "I didn't think of that. I read about it. What was that disease?"

He dug out his reels and put them in the viewer and found the dissertation on the use of the babu root, and he found the name of the disease, which was unpronounceable. He looked through the index of his reels and found a reel with the medical information, and there were few lines on that strange disease:

… nervous disorder, with high emotional tensions involved, in many cases stressing a sense of guilt, arising from the inability to forget past experiences. The drug induces a complete state of forgetfulness, from which the patient gradually recovers, retaining basic precepts rather than the welter of detailed experiences, the impingement of which contributes to his condition.

That's it, of course! That's the perfect answer! The Googles ate of the babu root, perhaps ceremonially, and they forgot, and in the forgetting they sloughed their culture from them, retrogressing four entire culture points. Then, after a time, the effect of the babu root would gradually wear away and they would remember, and remembering, advance up the cultural scale. They would remember, not the details of their former culture, but only its basic precepts, and in that way they'd not climb as high as they had been before. In that way they'd leave a margin through which they would advance toward the next crisis. Then once again, they'd eat of the babu root and once again war would be averted.

For, while the game would determine who would have won the war if one had been fought, the forgetting and the slow recovery from the babu would wipe out the cause of war, would remove the crisis point.

The formula worked because, even before they played the game, the factors of war would have been upset and the crisis point have already disappeared.

"God forgive us," Sheldon said, "our little grasping souls."

He went back to the desk and sat down. With a hand that suddenly was heavy, he reached out and thumbed up the communicator for a call to Hart.

"What is it now?" rasped Hart.

"Get out of here," Sheldon ordered. "Get off this planet as quickly as you can."

"But the root…"

"There isn't any root," said Sheldon. "Not any more, there isn't any root."

"I have a contract."

"Not now," said Sheldon. "It is null and void, contrary to galactic interests."

"Contrary!" He could hear Hart choking on his rage. "Look here, Co-ordinator, they need that root out in sector 12. They need…"

"They'll synthesize it," Sheldon said. "If they want it they'll have to synthesize it. There is something more important…"

"You can't do this," said Hart.

"I can," said Sheldon. "If you think I can't, try me out and see."

He snapped the toggle down and waited, sweating out the issue.

Ten minutes passed before he heard the men running in the ship below, preparing for blast-off.

He watched the planet fade behind them as the ship fled into space.

Courage, he said to himself, thinking of the Googles, the bare, cold courage of it. I hope it's not too late. I hope we didn't tempt them too far. I hope they can offset the damage that we did.

There must have been a day when the Googles were a great race, building a great civilization—greater, perhaps, than any culture now in the galaxy. For it would have taken a fantastically advanced people to have done what they have done. It was no job for a Type 10 culture, nor for a Type 6 culture, which is the best that Earth itself can boast.

It had taken intelligence and great compassion, sharp analytical ability and sober objectivity to figure out the factors and how they could be used.

And it had taken courage beyond imagination to activate the course those ancient Googles had worked out—to trade a culture that might have reached Type 2 or 3, for a Type 10 culture, because their plan for peace would not work beyond a Type 10 culture.

Once having worked, it must now continue working. All the courage of the race must not now be lost. It is a formula that must not be allowed to fail. It must not be allowed to fail because of the profit that traders made out of the babu root. It must not be allowed to fail through contact with other uncouth creatures who might be higher on the cultural yardstick, but who are without the common sense and the courage of the Googles.

And another thing—we must not run the chance that the babu root became a mere article of commerce. We could not blind the Googles to the greater value of the root, the value in which lay the greatest hope the galaxy had known.

Sheldon went back to the chart he'd made and checked through the information which the Googles had pumped out of the crew, and it added up to just slightly more than a Type 10 culture—a Type 9R, perhaps. And that was dangerous, but probably not too much so, for the Type 10A, if the Googles ever got that far, probably still represented a certain margin of safety. And there was the matter of the lag in the culture, due to the babu-eating, which would probably add an additional safety margin.

But it had been close. Too close for comfort. It demonstrated another factor, the factor of temptation—and that was something that could not be allowed to continue.

He went back to the record reels and spent hours studying the invoices, and once again he saw the cold, stark courage and the insistent dedication of the Googles.

There was not a single item on any of the invoices which went beyond a Type 10 culture.

Imagine, he told himself, settling for a better hoe when they could have had atomic engines!

Imagine, for five hundred years, refusing merchandise and comfort that would have made the Googles a greater people and a happier and more leisured people.

Greater and happier—and, more than likely, dead.

Once long ago, in mighty cities now hidden in the dust of the planet's surface, the Googles must have learned the terrible bitterness of a most artful and accomplished war and must have recoiled from the death and agony and the blind futility, and the knowledge of that day still dwelt within the minds of the Googles of today.

And that knowledge the galaxy could not afford to lose.

Sheldon picked up the chart and rolled it into a cylinder and slipped a couple of rubber bands around it. He put the reels away.

For five hundred years the Googles had held out against the lure of traders who would have given them anything they asked for the babu root. Traders who, even if they had known the truth, still would have willingly and thoughtlessly wrecked the protective Type 10 culture for the sake of profit.

They had held out for five hundred years. How much longer could they hold out? Not forever, certainly. Perhaps not for a great deal longer.

The chief and his tribe had weakened momentarily in acquiring information beyond the Type 10 culture limit. Might that not mean that already the moral fiber was weakening, that the years of trading had already sown their poison?

And if the Googles had not held out—if they did not hold out—the galaxy then would be the poorer and the bloodier.

For the day would come, many years from now perhaps, when it might be safe to make a survey, to conduct a study of this great thing the Google had accomplished.

And out of that study certainly would come the first great step toward peace throughout the galaxy, a hint as to how the principle might apply without the stultifying need of a static culture.

But the study itself could not be made for many years. Not until the random factors of the last five hundred years of trade had been swept away.

He sat down at the desk, pulled out the voice-writer, and inserted a sheet of paper.

He spoke a heading which the machine printed quickly:

Recommendation for the indefinite closing of the planet Zan to all visitors and traders.

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