By WYMAN GUIN
Illustrated by DICK FRANCIS
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction May 1956.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The only kind of gag worth pulling, I always
maintained, was a cosmic one—till I learned the
Cosmos has a really nasty sense of humor!
There were three of them. Dozens of limp little mutants that would have sent an academic zoologist into hysterics lay there in the metabolic accelerator. But there were three of them. My heart took a great bound.
I heard my daughter's running feet in the animal rooms and her rollerskates banging at her side. I closed the accelerator and walked across to the laboratory door. She twisted the knob violently, trying to hit a combination that would work.
I unlocked the door, held it against her pushing and slipped out so that, for all her peering, she could see nothing. I looked down on her tolerantly.
"Can't adjust your skates?" I asked again.
"Daddy, I've tried and tried and I just can't turn this old key tight enough."
I continued to look down on her.
"Well, Dad-dee, I can't!"
"You can't turn this old key tightly enough."
"That's what I say-yud."
"All right, wench. Sit on this chair."
I got down and shoved one saddle shoe into a skate. It fitted perfectly. I strapped her ankle and pretended to use the key to tighten the clamp.
Volplas at last. Three of them. Yet I had always been so sure I could create them that I had been calling them volplas for ten years. No, twelve. I glanced across the animal room to where old Nijinsky thrust his graying head from a cage. I had called them volplas since the day old Nijinsky's elongated arms and his cousin's lateral skin folds had given me the idea of a flying mutant.
When Nijinsky saw me looking at him, he started a little tarantella about his cage. I smiled with nostalgia when the fifth fingers of his hands, four times as long as the others, uncurled as he spun about the cage.
I turned to the fitting of my daughter's other skate.
"Mother says you are eccentric. Is that true?"
"I'll speak to her about it."
"Don't you know?"
"Do you understand the word?"
I lifted her out of the chair and stood her on her skates. "Tell your mother that I retaliate. I say she is beautiful."
She skated awkwardly between the rows of cages from which mutants with brown fur and blue fur, too much and too little fur, enormously long and ridiculously short arms, stared at her with simian, canine or rodent faces. At the door to the outside, she turned perilously and waved.
Again in the laboratory, I entered the metabolic accelerator and withdrew the intravenous needles from my first volplas. I carried their limp little forms out to a mattress in the lab, two girls and a boy. The accelerator had forced them almost to adulthood in less than a month. It would be several hours before they would begin to move, to learn to feed and play, perhaps to learn to fly.
Meanwhile, it was clear that here was no war of dominant mutations. Modulating alleles had smoothed the freakish into a beautiful pattern. These were no monsters blasted by the dosage of radiation into crippled structures. They were lovely, perfect little creatures.
My wife tried the door, too, but more subtly, as if casually touching the knob while calling.
"Be right there."
She peeked too, as she had for fifteen years, but I blocked her view when I slipped out.
"Come on, you old hermit. I have a buffet on the terrace."
"Our daughter says I'm eccentric. Wonder how the devil she found out."
"From me, of course."
"But you love me just the same."
"I adore you." She stretched on tiptoe and put her arms over my shoulders and kissed me.
My wife did indeed have a delicious-looking buffet ready on the terrace. The maid was just setting down a warmer filled with hot hamburgers. I gave the maid a pinch and said, "Hello, baby."
My wife looked at me with a puzzled smile. "What on Earth's got into you?"
The maid beat it into the house.
I flipped a hamburger and a slice of onion onto a plate and picked up the ketchup and said, "I've reached the dangerous age."
"Oh, good heavens!"
I dowsed ketchup over the hamburger, threw the onion on and closed it. I opened a bottle of beer and guzzled from it, blew out my breath and looked across the rolling hills and oak woods of our ranch to where the Pacific shimmered. I thought, "All this and three volplas, too."
I wiped the back of my hand across my mouth and said aloud, "Yes, sir, the dangerous age. And, lady, I'm going to have fun."
My wife sighed patiently.
I walked over and put the arm that held the beer bottle around her shoulder and chucked her chin up with my other hand. The golden sun danced in her blue eyes. I watched that light in her beautiful eyes and said, "But you're the only one I'm dangerous about."
I kissed her until I heard rollerskates coming across the terrace from one direction and a horse galloping toward the terrace from the other direction.
"You have lovely lips," I whispered.
"Thanks. Yours deserve the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, too."
Our son reared the new palomino I had just bought him for his fourteenth birthday and yelled down, "Unhand that maiden, Burrhead, or I'll give you lead poisoning."
I laughed and picked up my plate and sat down in a chair. My wife brought me a bowl of salad and I munched the hamburger and watched the boy unsaddle the horse and slap it away to the pasture.
I thought, "By God, wouldn't he have a fit if he knew what I have back there in that lab! Wouldn't they all!"
The boy carried the saddle up onto the terrace and dropped it. "Mom, I'd like a swim before I eat." He started undressing.
"You look as though a little water might help," she agreed, sitting down next to me with her plate.
The girl was yanking off her skates. "And I want one."
"All right. But go in the house and put on your swim suit."
"Oh, Mother. Why?"
"Because, dear, I said so."
The boy had already raced across the terrace and jack-knifed into the pool. The cool sound of the dive sent the girl scurrying for her suit.
I looked at my wife. "What's the idea?"
"She's going to be a young woman soon."
"Is that any reason for wearing clothes? Look at him. He's a young man sooner than already."
"Well, if you feel that way about it, they'll both have to start wearing clothes."
I gulped the last of my hamburger and washed it down with the beer. "This place is going to hell," I complained. "The old man isn't allowed to pinch the maid and the kids can't go naked." I leaned toward her and smacked her cheek. "But the food and the old woman are still the best."
"Say, what goes with you? You've been grinning like a happy ape ever since you came out of the lab."
"I told you—"
"Oh, not that again! You were dangerous at any age."
I stood up and put my plate aside and bent over her. "Just the same, I'm going to have a new kind of fun."
She reached up and grabbed my ear. She narrowed her eyes and put a mock grimness on her lips.
"It's a joke," I assured her. "I'm going to play a tremendous joke on the whole world. I've only had the feeling once before in a small way, but I've always...."
She twisted my ear and narrowed her eyes even more. "Like?"
"Well, when my old man was pumping his first fortune out of some oil wells in Oklahoma, we lived down there. Outside this little town, I found a litter of flat stones that had young black-snakes under each slab. I filled a pail with them and took them into town and dumped them on the walk in front of the movie just as Theda Bara's matinee let out. The best part was that no one had seen me do it. They just couldn't understand how so many snakes got there. I learned how great it can be to stand around quietly and watch people encounter the surprise that you have prepared for them."
She let go of my ear. "Is that the kind of fun you're going to have?"
She shook her head. "Did I say you are eccentric?"
I grinned. "Forgive me if I eat and run, dear. Something in the lab can't wait."
The fact was that I had something more in the lab than I had bargained for. I had aimed only at a gliding mammal a little more efficient than the Dusky Glider of Australia, a marsupial. Even in the basically mutating colony, there had been a decidedly simian appearance in recent years, a long shift from the garbage-dump rats I had started with. But my first volplas were shockingly humanoid.
They were also much faster than had been their predecessors in organizing their nervous activity after the slumbrous explosion of growth in the metabolic accelerator. When I returned to the lab, they were already moving about on the mattress and the male was trying to stand.
He was a little the larger and stood twenty-eight inches high. Except for the face, chest and belly, they were covered with a soft, almost golden down. Where it was bare of this golden fur, the skin was pink. On their heads and across the shoulders of the male stood a shock of fur as soft as chinchilla. The faces were appealingly humanoid, except that the eyes were large and nocturnal. The cranium was in the same proportion to the body as it is in the human.
When the male spread his arms, the span was forty-eight inches. I held his arms out and tried to tease the spars open. They were not new. The spars had been common to the basic colony for years and were the result of serial mutations effecting those greatly elongated fifth fingers that had first appeared in Nijinsky. No longer jointed like a finger, the spar turned backward sharply and ran alongside the wrist almost to the elbow. Powerful wrist muscles could snap it outward and forward. Suddenly, as I teased the male volpla, this happened.
The spars added nine inches on each side to his span. As they swept out and forward, the lateral skin that had, till now, hung in resting folds was tightened in a golden plane that stretched from the tip of the spar to his waist and continued four inches wide down his legs to where it anchored at the little toe.
This was by far the most impressive plane that had appeared till now. It was a true gliding plane, perhaps even a soaring one. I felt a thrill run along my back.
By four o'clock that afternoon, I was feeding them solid food and, with the spars closed, they were holding little cups and drinking water from them in a most humanlike way. They were active, curious, playful and decidedly amorous.
Their humanoid qualities were increasingly apparent. There was a lumbar curvature and buttocks. The shoulder girdle and pectoral muscles were heavy and out of proportion, of course, yet the females had only one pair of breasts. The chin and jaw were humanlike instead of simian and the dental equipment was appropriate to this structure. What this portended was brought home to me with a shock.
I was kneeling on the mattress, cuffing and roughing the male as one might a puppy dog, when one of the females playfully climbed up my back. I reached around and brought her over my shoulder and sat her down. I stroked the soft fur on her head and said, "Hello, pretty one. Hello."
The male watched me, grinning.
He said, "'Ello, 'ello."
As I walked into the kitchen, giddy with this enormous joke, my wife said, "Guy and Em are flying up for dinner. That rocket of Guy's they launched in the desert yesterday was a success. It pulled Guy up to Cloud Nine and he wants to celebrate."
I danced a little jig the way old Nijinsky might do it. "Oh, great! Oh, wonderful! Good old Guy! Everybody's a success. It's great. It's wonderful. Success on success!"
I danced into the kitchen table and tipped over a basket of green corn. The maid promptly left the kitchen for some other place.
My wife just stared at me. "Have you been drinking the lab alcohol?"
"I've been drinking the nectar of the gods. My Hera, you're properly married to Zeus. I've my own little Greeks descended from Icarus."
She pretended a hopeless sag of her pretty shoulders. "Wouldn't you just settle for a worldly martini?"
"I will, yes. But first a divine kiss."
I sipped at my martini and lounged in a terrace chair watching the golden evening slant across the beautiful hills of our ranch. I dreamed. I would invent a euphonious set of words to match the Basic English vocabulary and teach it to them as their language. They would have their own crafts and live in small tree houses.
I would teach them legends: that they had come from the stars, that they had subsequently watched the first red men and then the first white men enter these hills.
When they were able to take care of themselves, I would turn them loose. There would be volpla colonies all up and down the Coast before anyone suspected. One day, somebody would see a volpla. The newspapers would laugh.
Then someone authoritative would find a colony and observe them. He would conclude, "I am convinced that they have a language and speak it intelligently."
The government would issue denials. Reporters would "expose the truth" and ask, "Where have these aliens come from?" The government would reluctantly admit the facts. Linguists would observe at close quarters and learn the simple volpla language. Then would come the legends.
Volpla wisdom would become a cult—and of all forms of comedy, cults, I think, are the funniest.
"Darling, are you listening to me?" my wife asked with impatient patience.
"What? Sure. Certainly."
"You didn't hear a word. You just sit there and grin into space." She got up and poured me another martini. "Here, maybe this will sober you up."
I pointed. "That's probably Guy and Em."
A 'copter sidled over the ridge, then came just above the oak woods toward us. Guy set it gently on the landing square and we walked down to meet them.
I helped Em out and hugged her. Guy jumped out, asking, "Do you have your TV set on?"
"No," I answered. "Should I?"
"It's almost time for the broadcast. I was afraid we would miss it."
"From the rocket."
"For heaven's sake, darling," my wife complained, "I told you about Guy's rocket being a success. The papers are full of it. So are the broadcasts."
As we stepped up on the terrace, she turned to Guy and Em. "He's out of contact today. Thinks he's Zeus."
I asked our son to wheel a TV set out onto the terrace while I made martinis for our friends. Then we sat down and drank the cocktails and the kids had fruit juice and we watched the broadcast Guy had tuned in.
Some joker from Cal Tech was explaining diagrams of a multi-stage rocket.
After a bit, I got up and said, "I have something out in the lab I want to check on."
"Hey, wait a minute," Guy objected. "They're about to show the shots of the launching."
My wife gave me a look; you know the kind. I sat down. Then I got up and poured myself another martini and freshened Em's up, too. I sat down again.
The scene had changed to a desert launching site. There was old Guy himself explaining that when he pressed the button before him, the hatch on the third stage of the great rocket in the background would close and, five minutes later, the ship would fire itself.
Guy, on the screen, pushed the button, and I heard Guy, beside me, give a sort of little sigh. We watched the hatch slowly close.
"You look real good," I said. "A regular Space Ranger. What are you shooting at?"
"Darling, will you please—be—quiet?"
"Yeah, Dad. Can it, will you? You're always gagging around."
On the screen, Guy's big dead-earnest face was explaining more about the project and suddenly I realized that this was an instrument-bearing rocket they hoped to land on the Moon. It would broadcast from there. Well, now—say, that would be something! I began to feel a little ashamed of the way I had been acting and I reached out and slapped old Guy on the shoulder. For just a moment, I thought of telling him about my volplas. But only for a moment.
A ball of flame appeared at the base of the rocket. Miraculously, the massive tower lifted, seemed for a moment merely to stand there on a flaming pillar, then was gone.
The screen returned to a studio, where an announcer explained that the film just shown had been taken day before yesterday. Since then, the rocket's third stage was known to have landed successfully at the south shore of Mare Serenitatis. He indicated the location on a large lunar map behind him.
"From this position, the telemeter known as Rocket Charlie will be broadcasting scientific data for several months. But now, ladies and gentlemen, we will clear the air for Rocket Charlie's only general broadcast. Stand by for Rocket Charlie."
A chronometer appeared on the screen and, for several seconds, there was silence.
I heard my boy whisper, "Uncle Guy, this is the biggest!"
My wife said, "Em, I think I'll just faint."
Suddenly there was a lunar landscape on the screen, looking just as it's always been pictured. A mechanical voice cut in.
"This is Rocket Charlie saying, 'Hello, Earth,' from my position in Mare Serenitatis. First I will pan the Menelaus Mountains for fifteen seconds. Then I will focus my camera on Earth for five seconds."
The camera began to move and the mountains marched by, stark and awesomely wild. Toward the end of the movement, the shadow of the upright third stage appeared in the foreground.
Abruptly the camera made a giddy swing, focused a moment, and we were looking at Earth. At that time, there was no Moon over California. It was Africa and Europe we were looking at.
"This is Rocket Charlie saying, 'Good-by, Earth.'"
Well, when that screen went dead, there was pandemonium around our terrace. Big old Guy was so happy, he was wiping tears from his eyes. The women were kissing him and hugging him. Everybody was yelling at once.
I used the metabolic accelerator to cut the volplas' gestation down to one week. Then I used it to bring the infants to maturity in one month. I had luck right off. Quite by accident, the majority of the early infants were females, which sped things up considerably.
By the next spring, I had a colony of over a hundred volplas and I shut down the accelerator. From now on, they could have babies in their own way.
I had devised the language for them, using Basic English as my model, and during the months while every female was busy in the metabolic accelerator, I taught the language to the males. They spoke it softly in high voices and the eight hundred words didn't seem to tax their little skulls a bit.
My wife and the kids went down to Santa Barbara for a week and I took the opportunity to slip the oldest of the males and his two females out of the lab.
I put them in the jeep beside me and drove to a secluded little valley about a mile back in the ranch.
They were all three wide-eyed at the world and jabbered continuously. They kept me busy relating their words for "tree," "rock," "sky" to the objects. They had a little trouble with "sky."
Until I had them out in the open country, it had been impossible to appreciate fully what lovely little creatures they were. They blended perfectly with the California landscape. Occasionally, when they raised their arms, the spars would open and spread those glorious planes.
Almost two hours went by before the male made it into the air. His playful curiosity about the world had been abandoned momentarily and he was chasing one of the girls. As usual, she was anxious to be caught and stopped abruptly at the bottom of a little knoll.
He probably meant to dive for her. But when he spread his arms, the spars snapped out and those golden planes sheared into the air. He sailed over her in a stunning sweep. Then he rose up and up until he hung in the breeze for a long moment, thirty feet above the ground.
He turned a plaintive face back to me, dipped worriedly and skimmed straight for a thorn bush. He banked instinctively, whirled toward us in a golden flash and crashed with a bounce to the grass.
The two girls reached him before I did and stroked and fussed over him so that I could not get near. Suddenly he laughed with a shrill little whoop. After that, it was a carnival.
They learned quickly and brilliantly. They were not fliers; they were gliders and soarers. Before long, they took agilely to the trees and launched themselves in beautiful glides for hundreds of feet, banking, turning and spiraling to a gentle halt.
I laughed out loud with anticipation. Wait till the first pair of these was brought before a sheriff! Wait till reporters from the Chronicle motored out into the hills to witness this!
Of course, the volplas didn't want to return to the lab. There was a tiny stream through there and at one point it formed a sizable pool. They got into this and splashed their long arms about and they scrubbed each other. Then they got out and lay on their backs with the planes stretched to dry.
I watched them affectionately and wondered about the advisability of leaving them out here. Well, it had to be done sometime. Nothing I could tell them about surviving would help them as much as a little actual surviving. I called the male over to me.
He came and squatted, conference fashion, the elbows resting on the ground, the wrists crossed at his chest. He spoke first.
"Before the red men came, did we live here?"
"You lived in places like this all along these mountains. Now there are very few of you left. Since you have been staying at my place, you naturally have forgotten the ways of living outdoors."
"We can learn again. We want to stay here." His little face was so solemn and thoughtful that I reached out and stroked the fur on his head reassuringly.
We both heard the whir of wings overhead. Two mourning doves flew across the stream and landed in an oak on the opposite hillside.
I pointed. "There's your food, if you can kill it."
He looked at me. "How?"
"I don't think you can get at them in the tree. You'll have to soar up above and catch one of them on the wing when they fly away. Think you can get up that high?"
He looked around slowly at the breeze playing in the branches and dancing along the hillside grass. It was as if he had been flying a thousand years and was bringing antique wisdom to bear. "I can get up there. I can stay for a while. How long will they be in the tree?"
"Chances are they won't stay long. Keep your eye on the tree in case they leave while you are climbing."
He ran to a nearby oak and clambered aloft. Presently he launched himself, streaked down-valley a way and caught a warm updraft on a hillside. In no time, he was up about two hundred feet. He began criss-crossing the ridge, working his way back to us.
The two girls were watching him intently. They came over to me wonderingly, stopping now and then to watch him. When they were standing beside me, they said nothing. They shaded their eyes with tiny hands and watched him as he passed directly above us at about two hundred and fifty feet. One of the girls, with her eyes fast on his soaring planes, reached out and grasped my sleeve tightly.
He flashed high above the stream and hung behind the crest of the hill where the doves rested. I heard their mourning from the oak tree. It occurred to me they would not leave that safety while the hawklike silhouette of the volpla marred the sky so near.
I took the girl's hand from my sleeve and spoke to her, pointing as I did so. "He is going to catch a bird. The bird is in that tree. You can make the bird fly so that he can catch it. Look here." I got up and found a stick. "Can you do this?"
I threw the stick up into a tree near us. Then I found her a stick. She threw it better than I had expected.
"Good, pretty one. Now run across the stream and up to that tree and throw a stick into it."
She climbed skillfully into the tree beside us and launched herself across the stream. She swooped up the opposite hillside and landed neatly in the tree where the doves rested.
The birds came out of the tree, climbing hard with their graceful strokes.
I looked back, as did the girl remaining beside me. The soaring volpla half closed his planes and started dropping. He became a golden flash across the sky.
The doves abruptly gave up their hard climbing and fell away with swiftly beating wings. I saw one of the male volpla's planes open a little. He veered giddily in the new direction and again dropped like a molten arrow.
The doves separated and began to zigzag down the valley. The volpla did something I would not have anticipated—he opened his planes and shot lower than the bird he was after, then swept up and intercepted the bird's crossward flight.
I saw the planes close momentarily. Then they opened again and the bird plummeted to a hillside. The volpla landed gently atop the hill and stood looking back at us.
The volpla beside me danced up and down shrieking in a language all her own. The girl who had raised the birds from the tree volplaned back to us, yammering like a bluejay.
It was a hero's welcome. He had to walk back, of course—he had no way to carry such a load in flight. The girls glided out to meet him. Their lavish affection held him up for a time, but eventually he strutted in like every human hunter.
They were raptly curious about the bird. They poked at it, marveled at its feathers and danced about it in an embryonic rite of the hunt. But presently the male turned to me.
"We eat this?"
I laughed and took his tiny, four-fingered hand. In a sandy spot beneath a great tree that overhung the creek, I built a small fire for them. This was another marvel, but first I wanted to teach them how to clean the bird. I showed them how to spit it and turn it over their fire.
Later, I shared a small piece of the meat in their feast. They were gleeful and greasily amorous during the meal.
When I had to leave, it was dark. I warned them to stand watches, keep the fire burning low and take to the tree above if anything approached. The male walked a little away with me when I left the fire.
I said again, "Promise me you won't leave here until we've made you ready for it."
"We like it here. We will stay. Tomorrow you bring more of us?"
"Yes. I will bring many more of you, if you promise to keep them all here in this woods until they're ready to leave."
"I promise." He looked up at the night sky and, in the firelight, I saw his wonder. "You say we came from there?"
"The old ones of your kind told me so. Didn't they tell you?"
"I can't remember any old ones. You tell me."
"The old ones told me you came long before the red men in a ship from the stars." Standing there in the dark, I had to grin, visioning the Sunday supplements that would be written in about a year, maybe even less.
He looked into the sky for a long time. "Those little lights are the stars?"
I glanced about and presently pointed over a tree. "From Venus." Then I realized I had blundered by passing him an English name. "In your language, Pohtah."
He looked at the planet a long time and murmured, "Venus. Pohtah."
That next week, I transported all of the volplas out to the oak woods. There were a hundred and seven men, women and children. With no design on my part, they tended to segregate into groups consisting of four to eight couples together with the current children of the women. Within these groups, the adults were promiscuous, but apparently not outside the group. The group thus had the appearance of a super-family and the males indulged and cared for all the children without reference to actual parenthood.
By the end of the week, these super-families were scattered over about four square miles of the ranch. They had found a new delicacy, sparrows, and hunted them easily as they roosted at night. I had taught the volplas to use the fire drill and they were already utilizing the local grasses, vines and brush to build marvelously contrived tree houses in which the young, and sometimes the adults, slept through midday and midnight.
The afternoon my family returned home, I had a crew of workmen out tearing down the animal rooms and lab building. The caretakers had anesthetized all the experimental mutants, and the metabolic accelerator and other lab equipment was being dismantled. I wanted nothing around that might connect the sudden appearance of the volplas with my property. It was already apparent that it would take the volplas only a few more weeks to learn their means of survival and develop an embryonic culture of their own. Then they could leave my ranch and the fun would be on.
My wife got out of the car and looked around at the workmen hurrying about the disemboweled buildings and she said, "What on Earth is going on here?"
"I've finished my work and we no longer need the buildings. I'm going to write a paper about my results."
My wife looked at me appraisingly and shook her head. "I thought you meant it. But you really ought to. It would be your first."
My son asked, "What happened to the animals?"
"Turned them over to the university for further study," I lied.
"Well," he said to her, "you can't say our pop isn't a man of decision."
Twenty-four hours later, there wasn't a sign of animal experimentation on the ranch.
Except, of course, that the woods were full of volplas. At night, I could hear them faintly when I sat out on the terrace. As they passed through the dark overhead, they chattered and laughed and sometimes moaned in winged love. One night a flight of them soared slowly across the face of the full Moon, but I was the only one who noticed.
I made daily trips out to the original camp to meet the oldest of the males, who had apparently established himself as a chief of all the volpla families. He assured me that the volplas were staying close to the ranch, but complained that the game was getting scarce. Otherwise things were progressing nicely.
The males now carried little stone-tipped spears with feathered shafts that they could throw in flight. They used them at night to bring down roosting sparrows and in the day to kill their biggest game, the local rabbits.
The women wore bluejay feathers on their heads. The men wore plumes of dove feathers and sometimes little skirts fashioned of rabbit down. I did some reading on the subject and taught them crude tanning of their rabbit and squirrel hides for use in their tree homes.
The tree homes were more and more intricately wrought with expert basketry for walls and floor and tight thatching above. They were well camouflaged from below, as I suggested.
These little creatures delighted me more and more. For hours, I could watch the adults, both the males and females, playing with the children or teaching them to glide. I could sit all afternoon and watch them at work on a tree house.
So one day my wife asked, "How does the mighty hunter who now returns from the forest?"
"Oh, fine. I've been enjoying the local animal life."
"So has our daughter."
"What do you mean?"
"She has two of them up in her room."
"I don't know. What do you call them?"
I went up the stairs three at a time and burst into my daughter's room.
There she sat on her bed reading a book to two volplas.
One of the volplas grinned and said in English, "Hello there, King Arthur."
"What's going on here?" I demanded of all three.
"Nothing, Daddy. We're just reading like we always do."
"Like always? How long has this been going on?"
"Oh, weeks and weeks. How long has it been since you came here that first time to visit me, Fuzzy?"
The impolite volpla who had addressed me as King Arthur grinned at her and calculated. "Oh, weeks and weeks."
"But you're teaching them to read English."
"Of course. They're such good pupils and so grateful. Daddy, you won't make them go away, will you? We love each other, don't we?"
Both volplas nodded vigorously.
She turned back to me. "Daddy, did you know they can fly? They can fly right out of the window and way up in the sky."
"Is that a fact?" I said testily. I looked coldly at the two volplas. "I'm going to speak to your chief."
Back downstairs again, I raved at my wife. "Why didn't you tell me a thing like this was going on? How could you let such an unusual thing go on and not discuss it with me?"
My wife got a look on her face that I don't see very often. "Now you listen to me, mister. Your whole life is a secret from us. Just what makes you think your daughter can't have a little secret of her own?"
She got right up close to me and her blue eyes snapped little sparks all over me. "The fact is that I was wrong to tell you at all. I promised her I wouldn't tell anyone. Look what happened when I did. You go leaping around the house like a raving maniac just because a little girl has a secret."
"A fine secret!" I yelled. "Didn't it occur to you this might be dangerous? Those creatures are over-sexed and...." I stumbled into an awful silence while she gave me the dirtiest smile since the days of the Malatestas.
"How did you ... suddenly get to be ... the palace eunuch? Those are sweet lovable little creatures without a harm in their furry little bodies. But don't think I don't realize what's been going on. You created them yourself. So, if they have any dirty ideas, I know where they got them."
I stormed out of the house. I spun the jeep out of the yard and ripped off through the woods.
The chief was sitting at home as comfortable as you please. He was leaning back against the great oak that hid his tree house. He had a little fire going and one of the women was roasting a sparrow for him. He greeted me in volpla language.
"Do you realize," I blurted angrily, "that there are two volplas in my daughter's bedroom?"
"Why, yes," he answered calmly. "They go there every day. Is there anything wrong with that?"
"She's teaching them the words of men."
"You told us some men may be our enemies. We are anxious to know their words, the better to protect ourselves."
He reached around behind the tree and, right there in broad daylight, that volpla pulled a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle out of hiding. He held it up apologetically. "We have been taking it for some time from the box in front of your house."
He spread the paper on the ground between us. I saw by the date that it was yesterday's. He said proudly, "From the two who go to your house, I have learned the words of men. As men say, I can 'read' most of this."
I just stood there gaping at him. How could I possibly recoup this situation so that the stunning joke of the volplas wouldn't be lost? Would it seem reasonable that the volplas, by observing and listening to men, had learned their language? Or had they been taught it by a human friend?
That was it—I would just have to sacrifice anonymity. My family and I had found a colony of them on our ranch and taught them English. I was stuck with it because it was the truth.
The volpla waved his long thin arm over the front page. "Men are dangerous. They will shoot us with their guns if we leave here."
I hastened to reassure him. "It will not be like that. When men have learned about you, they will leave you alone." I stated this emphatically, but for the first time I was beginning to see this might not be a joke to the volplas. Nevertheless, I went on. "You must disperse the families at once. You stay here with your family so we remain in contact, but send the other families to other places."
He shook his head. "We cannot leave these woods. Men would shoot us."
Then he stood and looked squarely at me with his nocturnal eyes. "Perhaps you are not a good friend. Perhaps you have lied to us. Why are you saying we should leave this safety?"
"You will be happier. There will be more game."
He continued to stare directly at me. "There will be men. One has already shot one of us. We have forgiven him and are friends. But one of us is dead."
"You are friends with another man?" I asked, stunned.
He nodded and pointed up the valley. "He is up there today with another family."
He had the advantage of short glides, but the volpla chief couldn't keep up with me. Sometimes trotting, sometimes walking fast, I got way ahead of him. My hard breathing arose as much out of my anxiety about the manner of handling this stranger as it did out of the exertion.
I rounded a bend in the creek and there was my son sitting on the grass near a cooking fire playing with a baby volpla and talking in English to an adult volpla who stood beside him. As I approached, my son tossed the baby into the air. The tiny planes opened and the baby drifted down to his waiting hands.
He said to the volpla beside him, "No, I'm sure you didn't come from the stars. The more I think about it, the more I'm sure my father—"
I yelled from behind them, "What business do you have telling them that?"
The male volpla jumped about two feet. My son turned his head slowly and looked at me. Then he handed the baby to the male and stood up.
"You haven't any business out here!" I was seething. He had destroyed the whole store of volpla legends with one small doubt.
He brushed the grass from his trousers and straightened. The way he was looking at me, I felt my anger turning to a kind of jelly.
"Dad, I killed one of these little people yesterday. I thought he was a hawk and I shot him when I was out hunting. I wouldn't have done that if you had told me about them."
I couldn't look at him. I stared at the grass and my face got hot.
"The chief tells me that you want them to leave the ranch soon. You think you're going to play a big joke, don't you?"
I heard the chief come up behind me and stand quietly at my back.
My son said softly, "I don't think it's much of a joke, Dad. I had to listen to that one crying after I hit him."
There were big black trail ants moving in the grass. It seemed to me there was a ringing sound in the sky. I raised my head and looked at him. "Son, let's go back to the jeep and we can talk about it on the way home."
"I'd rather walk." He sort of waved to the volpla he had been talking to and then to the chief. He jumped the creek and walked away into the oak woods.
The volpla holding the baby stared at me. From somewhere far up the valley, a crow was cawing. I didn't look at the chief. I turned and brushed past him and walked back to the jeep alone.
At home, I opened a bottle of beer and sat out on the terrace to wait for my son. My wife came toward the house with some cut flowers from the garden, but she didn't speak to me. She snapped the blades of the scissors as she walked.
A volpla soared across the terrace and landed at my daughter's bedroom window. He was there only briefly and relaunched himself. He was followed from the window in moments by the two volplas I had left with my daughter earlier in the afternoon. I watched them with a vague unease as the three veered off to the east, climbing effortlessly.
When I finally took a sip of my beer, it was already warm. I set it aside. Presently my daughter ran out onto the terrace.
"Daddy, my volplas left. They said good-by and we hadn't even finished the TV show. They said they won't see me again. Did you make them leave?"
"No. I didn't."
She was staring at me with hot eyes. Her lower lip protruded and trembled like a pink tear drop.
"Daddy, you did so." She stomped into the house, sobbing.
My God! In one afternoon, I had managed to become a palace eunuch, a murderer and a liar!
Most of the afternoon went by before I heard my son enter the house. I called to him and he came out and stood before me. I got up.
"Son, I can't tell you how sorry I am for what happened to you. It was my fault, not yours at all. I only hope you can forget the shock of finding out what sort of creature you had hit. I don't know why I didn't anticipate that such things would happen. It was just that I was so intent on mystifying the whole world that I...."
I stopped. There wasn't anything more to say.
"Are you going to make them leave the ranch?" he asked.
I was aghast. "After what has happened?"
"Gee, what are you going to do about them, Dad?"
"I've been trying to decide. I don't know what I should do that will be best for them." I looked at my watch. "Let's go back out and talk to the chief."
His eyes lighted and he clapped me on the shoulder, man to man. We ran out and got into the jeep and drove back up to the valley. The late afternoon Sun glared across the landscape.
We didn't say much as we wound up the valley between the darkening trees. I was filled more and more with the unease that had seized me as I watched the three volplas leave my terrace and climb smoothly and purposefully into the east.
We got out at the chief's camp and there were no volplas around. The fire had burned down to a smolder. I called in the volpla language, but there was no answer.
We went from camp to camp and found dead fires. We climbed to their tree houses and found them empty. I was sick and scared. I called endlessly till I was hoarse.
At last, in the darkness, my son put a hand on my arm. "What are you going to do, Dad?"
Standing there in those terribly silent woods, I trembled. "I'll have to call the police and the newspapers and warn everybody."
"Where do you suppose they've gone?"
I looked to the east where the stars, rising out of the great pass in the mountains, glimmered like a deep bowl of fireflies.
"The last three I saw were headed that way."
We had been gone from the house for hours. When we stepped out onto the lighted terrace, I saw the shadow of a helicopter down on the strip. Then I saw Guy sitting near me in a chair. He was holding his head in his hands.
Em was saying to my wife, "He was beside himself. There wasn't a thing he could do. I had to get him away from there and I thought you wouldn't mind if we flew over here and stayed with you till they've decided what to do."
I walked over and said, "Hello, Guy. What's the matter?"
He raised his head and then stood and shook hands. "It's a mess. The whole project will be ruined and we don't dare go near it."
"Just as we set it off—"
"Set what off?"
"The Venus rocket! Rocket Harold!"
My wife interjected. "I was telling Guy we didn't know a thing about it because they haven't delivered our paper in weeks. I've complained—"
I waved her to silence. "Go on," I demanded of Guy.
"Just as I pushed the button and the hatch was closing, a flock of owls circled the ship. They started flying through the hatch and somehow they jammed it open."
Em said to my wife, "There must have been a hundred of them. They kept coming and coming and flying into that hatch. Then they began dumping out all the recording instruments. The men tried to run a motor-driven ladder up to the ship and those owls hit the driver on the head and knocked him out with some kind of instrument."
Guy turned his grief-stricken face to me. "Then the hatch closed and we don't dare go near the ship. It was supposed to fire in five minutes, but it hasn't. Those damned owls could have...."
There was a glare in the east. We all turned and saw a brief streak of gilt pencil its way up the black velvet beyond the mountains.
"That's it!" Guy shouted. "That's the ship!" Then he moaned. "A total loss."
I grabbed him by the shoulders. "You mean it won't make it to Venus?"
He jerked away in misery. "Sure, it will make it. The automatic controls can't be tampered with. But the rocket is on its way without any recording instruments or TV aboard. Just a load of owls."
My son laughed. "Owls! My dad can tell you a thing or two."
I silenced him with a scowl. He shut up, then danced off across the terrace. "Man, man! This is the biggest! The most—the greatest—the end!"
The phone was ringing. As I went to the box on the terrace, I grabbed my boy's arm. "Don't you breathe a word."
He giggled. "The joke is on you, Pop. Why should I say anything? I'll just grin once in a while."
"Now you cut that out."
He held onto my arm and walked toward the phone box with me, half convulsed. "Wait till men land on Venus and find Venusians with a legend about their Great White Father in California. That's when I'll tell."
The phone call was from a screaming psychotic who wanted Guy. I stood near Guy while he listened to the excited voice over the wire.
Presently Guy said, "No, no. The automatic controls will correct for the delay in firing. It isn't that. It's just that there aren't any instruments.... What? What just happened? Calm down. I can't understand you."
I heard Em say to my wife, "You know, the strangest thing occurred out there. I thought it looked like those owls were carrying things on their backs. One of them dropped something and I saw the men open a package wrapped in a leaf. You'd never believe what was in it—three little birds roasted to a nice brown!"
My son nudged me. "Smart owls. Long trip."
I put my hand over his mouth. Then I saw that Guy was holding the receiver limply away from his ear.
He spluttered. "They just taped a radio message from the rocket. It's true that the radio wasn't thrown out. But we didn't have a record like this on that rocket."
He yelled into the phone. "Play it back." He thrust the receiver at me.
For a moment, there was only a gritty buzz from the receiver. Then the tape started playing a soft, high voice. "This is Rocket Harold saying everything is well. This is Rocket Harold saying good-by to men." There was a pause and then, in clear volpla language, another voice spoke. "Man who made us, we forgive you. We know we did not come from the stars, but we go there. I, chief, give you welcome to visit. Good-by."
We all stood around too exhausted by the excitement to say anything. I was filled with a big, sudden sadness.
I stood for a long time and looked out to the east, where the sprawling mountain range held a bowl of dancing fireflies between her black breasts.
Presently I said to old Guy, "How long do you think it will be before you have a manned rocket ready for Venus?"