By CHARLES V. DE VET
Illustrated by KOSSIN
[Transcriber Note: This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction March 1955. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Smart man, Bruckner—he knew how to handle natives ... but they knew even better how to deal with smart terrestrials!
Bruckner was a man deeply imbued with a sense of his own worth. Now as he rested his broad beam on the joined arms of Sweets and Majesky, he winked to include them in a "this is necessary, but you and I see the humor of the thing" understanding. Like most thoroughly disliked men, he considered himself quite popular with "the boys."
The conceited ham's enjoying this, Sweets thought, as he staggered down the aisle under the big man's weight. At the ship's entrance, he glanced out across the red-sand plain to where the natives waited.
They wore little clothing, Sweets noted, except the chief. He sat on his dais—carried on the shoulders of eight of his followers—dressed in long streamers of multi-colored ribbons. Other ribbons, rolled into a rope, formed a diadem on his head.
The only man more impressively dressed was Bruckner. He wore all the ceremonial trappings of a second century Gallic king, complete with jewel-studded gold crown.
As Sweets and Majesky grunted with their burden across the ten yards separating the ship from the thronelike chair that had been brought out earlier, their feet kicked up a cloud of red dust that coated their clothing and clogged their nostrils.
The dust had originally been red ferric sand. But the action of winds and storms had milled it together, grain against grain, through the ages, until it had become a fine red powder that hung in the hot still air after they had passed.
Most of Waterfield's Planet, they had discovered on their inspection flight the day before, had been a desert for more centuries than they could accurately estimate. Its oases, however, were large and plentiful and, as observed from the air, followed a clear-cut, regular pattern. The obvious conclusion was that they were fed by underground rivers.
The crewmen deposited their burden in the chair and stood waiting.
"Nice work, men," Bruckner muttered in an undertone. "Now keep up the act. Bow from the waist and retire discreetly to the background."
Majesky said something under his breath as they complied.
The greeting ceremony got off to a good start after that, Sweets had to admit. Whatever else might be said of Bruckner, he knew his job as a psychologist.
Bruckner rose to his feet, raised his right hand, palm forward, and intoned gravely, "Earthmen greet you." He spoke in the language of the natives.
The tribal chieftain raised his hand negligently in reply, but neither rose nor spoke.
With a great display of magnanimity, Bruckner sent over a bolt of bright red cloth.
The chieftain accepted the gift and sent back a large wooden box carried by two of his men. They lowered the box at Bruckner's feet and one of them opened a door in its side.
The large animal—or bird; the Earthmen couldn't be certain which—that stepped out stood about seven feet tall, with a body shaped like a bowling pin. It walked on webbed feet that angled outward, had short flippers, set low on a body covered with coarse hair that might have been feathers, and was armed with long, vicious claws. There was something so ludicrous about its appearance that Sweets had difficulty stifling the chuckle that rose in his throat.
The animal, however, took itself very seriously. When it saw its audience—the spaceship's crew—watching, it took two spraddling steps forward, pulled the bulk of its pot-bellied stomach up into its chest and paused dramatically.
It gave three very loud, hoarse burps, somewhere between the squawk of a duck