The ship came down from space.
It came down riding on a spire of flame, white hot metal surrounded by a sheath of matter turned to plasma from the heat of its passage.
In its cells lived some tens of men and women, big and small, ethnographers and sociologists, scientists and spacemen, and not a few of the animals man takes, usually unwittingly, with him wherever he goes: from roundworms and head lice to mice and mosquitoes. In a few years those animals would have created a massive ecological disaster, but the time was not yet.
The mother ship stayed up above in orbit, and hundreds of other men and women lived in its chambers and monitored their instruments and passed on messages to the home planet left parsecs behind. Those men and women would never see the world they had left again; by the time they got back, those they had known and loved had been dust for so long even their names would have been forgotten.
The expedition had been built on one premise; that of all the worlds yet surveyed by the Global Supercomputer, this was the planet that had the conditions creating the greatest chances of harbouring intelligent life. Oh, there were the radio sources from beyond the galaxy, but the race would be extinct before it ever reached one of those vast intelligences the size of stars, and the Global Supercomputer only licked at the data contained in them before passing it on to the appropriate scientific committees. But in this galaxy, within the reach of the volume of space the race could reach, this one had the highest chances of intelligent life.
And that is why, at an aptly astronomical cost, the expedition had been fitted out and sent to this planet revolving around a minor star no one had ever bothered to name before…
The captain of the expedition sat in his cabin in the mother ship and wished with all his heart that he could have gone on the trip down to the planet; but he had given up his place as per orders. He couldn’t even name the planet after himself. It had already been named before the expedition had ever left, in honour of some long dead explorer the captain had never heard of before.
And so the expedition came down to Gagarin.
They had expected to find villages and communes, because the Global Supercomputer had told them they would find intelligence. Maybe they would even encounter resistance, so a few old-fashioned guns – some shotguns and some good old bolt action hunting rifles – were carried on down with them. A few volleys should scare any bow wielding tribesmen into negotiations. They hadn’t seen any villages from orbit, but when they landed they were prepared for – anything.
And when they landed, what did they find? Well…
A world of grass it was. It was a world of tall, waving, aromatic grass with, here and there, giant stony pillars with mushroom tops. A few tiny rodent-like creatures scrambled among the grass stems and the matted roots, while huge herds of much larger pseudo-bovines munched at the leaves. There were warm shallow seas, green and scummy with algal growth and whose floors were paved with large bivalve molluscs with soft shells that looked like giant clams. And that was all.
No villages, no communes, no primitive steam engines. There wasn’t even a single naked savage.
But since all that money had already been spent…
The captain of the expedition may have missed out on having the planet named after himself, but he knew a good business opportunity when he saw one. And that grassland planet, for all that it had no mineral wealth, was all opportunity…
So, with the guidance of Captain van der Decken, Commerce came to Gagarin.
What sort of commercial success can one make of a planet with no minerals, which does not lie on or near any of the interstellar transport routes?
The answer was, as it so often is, tourism.
In a relatively short time great hotels towered over the grasslands and looked out over the warm shallow oceans. Tourists who could pay – the billionaires and trillionaires of the galaxy – came in their thousands to laze on the beaches and go for safaris on the lovely grasslands, to shoot the vast herds of almost-cows and to feast on the clams.
Those clams were really, it turned out, delicious.
They were so delicious that they had achieved a cult status in the galaxy, and soon enough great cordon bleu chefs who had worked in the best eateries of a dozen worlds came to cook them too… stewed clams, steamed clams, clams cut alive from their soft shells and eaten still quivering with a dash of chef’s secret sauce, and a dozen other preparations. The pseudo-bison were almost inedible for the gastronaut, but the clams more than compensated.
And so the tourists came, sat in their deckchairs and sipped their light grass wine with live pseudo-beetle larvae wriggling out their lives at the bottom of their glasses, and ate their clams and soaked up all that lovely sun and speculated about the tall stony mushroom pillars, of whose nature nothing had ever been discovered.
It was found that the clams had a low reproductive rate and could not be commercially farmed, so their numbers began dropping drastically. But by then the tourist economy was so dependent on the clams that it was suggested that once the clams were all gone they would simply import more from the mother planet and sell them as the genuine article.
And so the years passed…
Zhang Dehuai was not all that much of a scientist. In many ways, he was thought of as a crank.
He held, one admits, views that might be thought of as odd. One of those views said that the Global Supercomputer couldn’t possibly be mistaken, manifestly ignoring the hundreds of instances when it had been demonstrably wrong – and therefore when the Supercomputer had said there was intelligence on Gagarin, there must be intelligence on Gagarin. And he had invented a machine which, he said, could track down that intelligence…
Also, it helped that Zhang Dehuai was a bit of a gourmand. He had always wanted to try the fabled clams of Gagarin with beetle larva grass wine. He had never thought he would be able to do either, though, until a misguided committee at the University decided to give him a grant (the financial year was drawing to an end and the money was lying unspent and would revert back to the general fund unless disbursed).
And so it was that Zhang Dehuai came down to Gagarin.
Zhang landed by shuttle at Van der Decken Spaceport one lovely summer day. He was taken by Hovercraft to his luxury hotel (all hotels on Gagarin were luxury; no one but those who could afford luxury hotel accommodation could afford the trip in the first place) and, after freshening up, he carefully unpacked and assembled his apparatus. After that he politely turned down the offer of a place on the next bison hunting trip, ordered a packed lunch of clam and beetle wine, and headed for the nearest mushroom pillar, which he could see clearly on the horizon.
Zhang had a theory, you see: he was convinced that the pillars, whatever they were, were the centre of intelligence. Either they contained the intelligence in some form, or they, themselves, were alive and intelligent. With his apparatus, he was determined to prove it. If he was successful, the next day he would return with independent witnesses and prove it again…
Zhang set up his instrument at the foot of the pillar. It rose high above him, mysterious and beautiful in its stony majesty, slim and straight till it expanded into a great hood that seemed to shut out half the sky. Zhang looked up at it with a great deal of hope but not too much emotion, and got down to work.
The instrument worked only at short ranges. It had, among other things, a detector that was linked to a strength meter and a direction indicator. Zhang calibrated it to ignore his own brain waves and pointed the detector towards the mushroom pillar.
He pushed it as close as he could to the pillar and switched it on again. Still nothing.
Zhang would not have got where he was if he was the sort to be easily disheartened. He decided that perhaps the intelligence was dormant; sleeping, maybe, and would wake. Very well, he would wait. He sat back and realised, suddenly, that he was hungry. He hadn’t eaten anything since the ship and there was, in his backpack, the beetle wine and clams he had so long craved.
He took a sip of the wine. It was light, he decided, with the taste of the oil of the grass, leavened by wind and sun, and the dying beetle larva, still struggling weakly, had flavoured it nicely with its own unique tang. He sipped a little more of it, and took out and ate the first clam. It was alive, the best way of eating it, or so they said; he had no trouble separating it from its soft shell, and dipped it in the secret sauce and ate it quickly in a few bites. The edge gone from his hunger, he reached into his pack and removed the second clam. He was going toenjoy this one…
He had just applied his shelling knife to the clam when he happened to look at the instrument. The detector was live, the needle quivering eagerly, and the direction indicator was pointing right at him…
Zhang put the knife down slowly and looked at the clam in his hand. “You,” he said.
Little red and blue lights flickered up and down the face of the console of his apparatus. “Yes,” said the speaker.
“So you are intelligent.”
“Yes, we all are. Those of us who are left.”
“And why did you never let us know you’re intelligent before this? Why didn’t you let me know before I ate your friend?”
“Uh, well, that wasn’t my friend, that was our President you just ate,” said the clam, and the detector’s needles shrugged apologetically.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2008