WHERE THE PHPH PEBBLES GO
By MIRIAM ALLEN DeFORD
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of Tomorrow April 1963
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
It was a strange world and a deadly
one, the incredible alien planet—
Gral and Hodnuth were playing phph. In case you are not a phph fan, and haven't ever seen Bliten's classic Ways of Improving Your Phph Game, its essence consists in lobbing pebbles at a target as near the horizon as your skill permits. After each throw, you fly over to see how far you went.
It sounds like a simple game, but it has complicated restrictions and rules, and a good phph player can command any amount of heavy service from the spectators. Since a lot of the Ground Dwellers are also phph addicts (they could never become players, of course, being far too small and light to handle the phph pebbles), this means that a real champion never has to do any kind of work again, being fed, clothed, housed and entertained by his admirers, and can devote all his time to the game.
Gral and Hodnuth, having alternated as champions for many a long ganath, had it pretty easy. But neither of them was given to lying back on his laurels and growing soft. This meant that when a match was announced, Ground Dwellers as well as we Real People came by the hanthoids from zygils around to watch through viewing-tubes—and whichever of the two won piled up a lot of bilibs of voluntary service. (Voluntary service, as most economists admit, is true wealth, since the pledge is incumbent on the offerer's heirs until it is fully satisfied, and can likewise be willed by the recipient to his heirs).
Naturally, no phph player is absolutely perfect; if he were, there would be no contest and nobody would bother to attend a game. Pebbles fall short, they go awry, and sometimes they are thrown so hard that they escape altogether from our light gravity and fly into outer space. At the end of the game period the referee (usually a superannuated former champion) tots up the score and announces how many times each player missed the target and by which of these errors he missed it. By a rather confusing arithmetical computation he then determines which of them won, and the winner collects his pledges—and the fans collect the side bets they have been making all through the game.
In this particular game Hodnuth won. But then he won about half the time, so that wasn't what gave it its importance. The Ground Dwellers, as everyone knows, are an excitable and volatile race (which is why we conquered them so easily, with the added advantage of our command of levitation and our immensely greater size and strength), so just an ordinary phph game often looks like a riot. When anything out of the way occurs, such as the appearance of a new young contender to take on one of the champions, the Ground Dwellers simply go wild. And this time they practically exploded. I confess that even we Real People were amazed.
One of the Thinkers was discovered attending the game.
Now, when we first arrived here, and cleaned up on the Ground Dwellers and established them in their proper subservient position, the Thinkers were our leaders. It was they who had figured out the whole invasion, had headed the Sixty Hastgunt Flight, and had worked out the tactics and logistics of the Great Conquest. But once we were settled and things were going smoothly, they called a last General Meeting and told us that their part was finished, and that now they were going to retire to the Far Colony and go on with their Thinking. Since then, if a problem arises that our own Council can't handle, one of us has to fly to the Far Colony and obtain the advice of a Thinker. They live together there with their families (supported of course by all of us) and spend all their time in study and research. It is one of the natural advantages of us Real People that we have these specialized Thinkers to do all our intellectual and cultural tasks and teach us what we need to know, leaving us others free for the truly satisfying functions of government and commerce.
Never in all the ganaths since that last General Meeting had a Thinker been seen among us, and that so august a being should condescend to attend a mere phph game was unbelievable. Yet there he was—easily recognizable, naturally, since all Thinkers have long white hair and long white beards. (Even the female Thinkers—though some heretics say their beards are artificial.) In fact, that is the way one knows that a new Thinker has been born. Soon after birth his hair and beard begin to grow, both white, and as soon as he is weaned we fly him to the Far Colony to be reared and educated by his own. If a Thinker has a child who isn't one, they send him back to us.
As soon as the spectators realized that a Thinker was among them, the excitement reached boiling point. The Ground Dwellers almost went crazy—for, of all things, the Thinker had seated himself not in the perches of honor of the Real People, in front, but in the Ground Dwellers' bleachers. We ourselves noticed all the scrambling and heaving, and when some of us flew over to investigate we could hardly believe our eyes.
When I say scrambling and heaving, I don't mean they were mobbing him. They're much too afraid of us for that, and anyway their reverence for the Thinkers is positively religious—much more so than ours. After all the Thinkers are simply specialized members of our own race, and though we revere them we could scarcely worship them, as the Ground Dwellers do. No, they were clearing a respectful space all around him, but then they kept gazing at him in awe, half of them falling on their knees in his presence. I sneaked a glance at the phph players, and as I suspected they were looking anything but happy. Phph champions are pretty vain. They don't care for rival attractions.
One of our party—it was Sephar, who as usual pushed himself forward—bowed to the Thinker and asked if he wouldn't be more comfortable among us. But he shook his white head and said no, he could see better where he was. (I wonder if Thinkers may not have a bit of vanity too, and if he wasn't enjoying seeing all those poor creatures prostrate themselves around him!)
"Then will Your Honor join us when the game is over?" persisted Sephar. "If you would enter my poor pit of a dwelling, it would overwhelm me with pleasure to have you feast with us."
His poor pit of a dwelling, indeed! I wish you could see the palace he lived in—the roof-opening is plated with solid nagh!
I was just about bursting with indignation, but I should have known you can trust a Thinker to deflate a fellow like that.
"Thank you, brother," he said mildly, "but I'm here doing some research and I'll have to fly back right after the game."
Sephar opened his mouth to argue, but by that time I had him by the wing and I pulled him back—he said rudely, I say firmly. "Do you want to give us a bad name for presumption, brother?" I whispered. "Don't interfere with a Thinker when he's Thinking!"
Some of the rest of us nodded agreement, so Sephar shut up. But he had a nasty gleam in his eye and I braced myself for trouble later. We bowed and returned to our places. Thanks to Sephar and his performance, I missed the last throw Gral made, which lost him the contest. But I heard the moan from the spectators who weren't watching the Thinker instead, so I knew he'd lobbed a too-high one. It must have been a humdinger—one of the throws into space. I glanced back as I was flying away, and the Thinker was standing up and gazing intently after it. Well, I thought to myself, imagine a Thinker getting worked up over a phph throw!
The game was over soon after that, and Hodnuth went around collecting his pledges while Gral was being consoled by his backers. When I got a chance to look again where the Thinker had been sitting, he had disappeared.
The one who hadn't disappeared was Sephar. He was waiting for me, just as I'd expected.
"Not here!" I snarled at him. "Do you want the Ground Dwellers to see Real People in a brawl?"
So we adjourned to Marnag's courtyard, which was the nearest dueling place, and it was a nice little fight, and I won. Quite a group gathered around, and I was pleased to see that several of my friends were making bets on me. Some of Sephar's sycophants lugged him off to the hospital to have a fractured wing-tip treated. The rest came home with me and we spent our winnings on a good dinner with plenty of mastonyi to wash it down.
Several of us speculated about the Thinker, and we wondered if his "research" wasn't a fake and if he'd just decided to enjoy a game like the rest of us.
"After all," Marnag pointed out, "he might be only a boy. You can't tell with a Thinker. I suppose young Thinkers can be frivolous and rebellious like our own youngsters."
Nipar, who is something of a wag, yelled: "Hey, listen to Marnag—he's Thinking! Come on, Marnag, are you really a Thinker in disguise? Let's see if that green hair of yours is dyed—you could have shaved the beard!"
And he poured a pitcher of mastonyi right over Marnag's head to find out if the color would come off. After that, the party got really rough, and I don't remember the rest of it.
A whole ganath after that, the Thinkers sent one of their messengers to tell us in the Council that we were summoned to a meeting in the Far Colony. That doesn't happen often, so we knew something extremely important must be up. I for one was all of a twitter.
Not one of us connected the summons with that Thinker who had come to the phph contest between Gral and Hodnuth. That was our stupidity. We should have guessed it when we found the two champions had been sent for also. Gral flew next to me on the trip, and of all things, both he and Hodnuth were carrying with them several phph pebbles which the Thinkers had ordered them to bring along.
It's hard to tell the Thinkers apart—at least for us who aren't Thinkers—but I recognized the one who had been at the game. He sat right by Hledo, who always acts as their spokesman when we consult them about anything.
"Welcome and thank you for coming so promptly," Hledo began. "Did you two phph players bring the pebbles?"
Gral and Hodnuth handed over the load, and Hledo passed it on to the one we knew.
"This is Myrwan," Hledo said, "and he will tell you the urgent thing he has Thought."
"I became interested a long time ago," Myrwan began in the rather rusty voice all the Thinkers except Hledo have—they spend most of their time in study and meditation, and don't talk much among themselves—"in a question that seems never to have occurred to any of Us.
"Where do phph pebbles go when they are thrown beyond our feeble gravity and escape into outer space? What becomes of them in the end? And who, if anyone, collects them, and what conclusions about them and our world do such persons draw?"
I raised my hand to ask a question, and Myrwan nodded.
"I don't understand." I said politely. (Meaning he was being too abstruse for any of us, for it is understood that there is no keener apprehension in the council than my own.) "Is Your Honor implying that there exist outside our world other intelligences that would be capable of observing and drawing conclusions from the pebbles?"
"Exactly. I know that the general belief is that it is impossible that extraplanetary beings can exist, least of all intelligent beings. That was the belief of my own colleagues until I gave them the results of my recent Thought. It is the reason We have summoned you here.
"For some time now We have been receiving peculiar radio waves from outside the world. We have considered them merely manifestations of random radiation from other planets and stars. But now they have suddenly become—shall I say rhythmical? Measured? Directional? They leave the impression that someone, or something, is trying to communicate with us.
"The astronomers among Us have become more and more concerned. We have finally been led to the reluctant belief that Our former theories have been wrong—that this actually is not the only inhabited planet.
"Now, I need not tell you how disastrous it would be for us if that were true. If there are intelligent beings on other planets, if they are trying to communicate with us, then the next step would be that they would try to visit us."
Marnag raised his hand.
"What harm would that do? If such beings exist, and if they could come here, why couldn't we go there too—wherever it is—and wouldn't that enrich our lives? Of course I'm not a Thinker—" I had a fleeting vision of Nipar and the pitcher of mastonyi!—"but I'm a Real Man and I can see no reason why it would hurt us to find we are not alone in the universe."
"No," said Myrwan dryly. "You are not a Thinker, my friend. We enjoy here a completely stable civilization. It is the best of all possible social systems. We do not want it disturbed."
"I see," said Marnag, and several others nodded. I confess that a heretical idea crossed my mind—that any such disturbance might well dethrone the Thinkers first of all—but I suppressed it. Myrwan went on:
"And that is where the phph pebbles come in. In the course of my researches on these previously unknown waves, I began to wonder what, if anything, had initiated the interest of outsiders in our planet, assuming that outsiders exist. Certainly we had made no move toward trying either to reach or to communicate with any putative dwellers on other planets. There had been no major changes on our planet that could have enlisted the attention of outside astronomers, even granting that they have telescopes as powerful as our own.
"Only one thing, so far as I can ascertain, has ever left this planet for outer space. And that was the phph pebbles.
"We call them pebbles. To beings who might consider us giants—and if there really are intelligent beings in other worlds they might well be of an entirely different size from us, though no less dangerous for all that—they might seem huge meteors. Suppose that, though most of them would undoubtedly burn up and all of them be considerably reduced before they struck another planet as meteorites, some of them at least might still be sufficiently large to be analyzed chemically? And suppose that where they struck there existed beings capable of analyzing them?"
This was getting a little deep for anybody not a Thinker to take in. Several Council members raised their hands plaintively and so indicated.
"All right, I'll try to make it plainer," Myrwan said. "Let us pretend that instead of the little fragments of space debris that fall harmlessly in the annual meteor showers here, we were pelted with enormous chunks of matter, perhaps causing major damage to property and life. Wouldn't We immediately undertake an intensive study to determine whence they came, and of what, precisely, they consisted?
"And if We found that these residual meteorites contained material indicating their origin in an inhabited world—still worse, in a world sufficiently evolved to entail the possibility or probability that its highest life-forms might be intelligent or even civilized—wouldn't we take steps at once to investigate? Moreover, wouldn't we be outraged to the point where our primary object would be to avenge ourselves?
"Of course we would. And so of course would any beings on other planets, under similar circumstances."
"You mean," Marnag asked, "that if beings came here from space they would attack us?"
"That too. But even if that were not their reaction, curiosity alone could be enough to spur them on to exploration."
"But—but what can we do?" quavered old Gantes. He is really growing too senile to be on the Council much longer.
"We can discourage them. And we can mislead them."
"We can make certain that nothing reaches them in the future which gives them the least sign that any but the lowest forms of life, if even those, exist in our world.
"I studied this whole question systematically, as We always do. I came to the conclusion that only the phph pebbles could possibly betray us. I attended a phph game to see for myself if a pebble actually could be thrown with sufficient force to become, as it were, an artificial meteor. I found that it could. Indeed, I saw Gral make such a throw."
Gral looked stricken. He fell flat on his face, groveling before the Thinkers.
"Oh, Your Reverences," he cried, "I never dreamt—I never—"
"Get up, Gral," Myrwan ordered. "Nobody's blaming you. Nobody expects anyone but a Thinker to Think."
"We'll make it a rule from now on to hold our shots. We'll bar anyone from the game forever who lobs a pebble too hard," Hodnuth promised fervently.
"Far from it," said Myrwan. "On the contrary, in the future you must concentrate on supra-gravity shots. Give extra points to anyone who performs one."
"Why?" several of us murmured, completely bewildered.
"Because I have already analyzed three pebbles I brought back with me from the game. With the ones you have brought, I shall be able to make further tests. If they confirm my previous findings, I Think We shall be able to mislead any potential attackers.
"Every phph pebble henceforth will be doctored. To use any unauthorized pebble will become a felony. What has happened in the past we can't change, but there may still be time to save ourselves. From this time forth there are going to be more 'meteors' shot off our atmosphere than ever before—and every one of them is going to tell a completely false story about conditions in their place of origin.
"Of course We may be entirely wrong. These new waves may be due to purely physical causes. Other planets may all be as devoid of intelligent life as We have always assumed. But if there is the faintest possibility—and I feel there is—that we are in danger, it would be fatal not to take such measures as we can to avert it."
"What's in the pebbles now that could tell anything about us?" Gral asked. "And if something is, how could you alter it?"
Myrwan froze up a little. The Thinkers don't like to have us ask detailed questions. But he realized that Gral was still upset, and answered kindly.
"It wouldn't mean a lot to you if I told you. But you can understand this much—chemical analysis of the pebbles I've looked at so far shows fragments of embedded fossils."
"Of plants, you mean?"
"Plants don't become fossilized," he said. "In one pebble there was a microscopic piece of a metal knife. In another there was half of a fossilized tooth. Ground Dweller relics, true, but human. You must remember that all the hills around here from which you gather the pebbles are really million-ganath-old burial places of the Ground Dwellers. We haven't bothered to dig up most of them because we're so rich in prehistoric remains, with our immensely old civilization, that we have all the fossils and ancient artifacts we need.
"But let's imagine an alien civilization a great deal younger than ours. Let's imagine that in even one of those pebbles—which would be meteorites to them—even a minute trace of that kind of thing should be left. What would they Think?—for they would have to have Thinkers too, to be civilized at all.
"I'll tell you what they'd Think. They'd decide that somewhere out in space there is a rich, undiscovered planet full of valuable knowledge and, even better, valuable artifacts. Probably a world with a culture much more advanced than their own. And they'd try hard to trace the direction from which those meteorites came, and to calculate the distance. Then suppose they had some means of transportation in space.
"That may well be what these new radio waves mean. They may be attempts at communication—if we were foolish enough to respond to them. We don't dare to take any chances.
"So from now on there are going to be swarms and swarms of those meteoroids—and every one of them is going to be a real artifact on its own—a manufactured one, made according to Our specifications, carrying an unmistakable message. A false one!
"They will be cunningly constructed from forms of matter injurious to any conceivable variety of life. We'll cover them all. And they'll be barren of even the most primitive bacteria. They will carry in themselves a silent warning: 'Approach the planet from which these come at peril of your instant death ... not matter what kind of being you are!' That should save us forever."
I'd been wondering why Sephar had kept his big mouth shut all this time. To my way of feeling, he should never have been with us at all. He would never have been a Council member if he hadn't been a multibilibaire. But I'd won a fair fight with him, and officially we had to be friends, so I hadn't protested when I found he was included in the summons.
But now the big blowhard had to put his two grocs' worth.
"Your Reverence—Your Honor—" he spluttered. "May I ask a question?"
"Since players have been lobbing pebbles out into space for thousands and thousands of ganaths, and as Your Honor says, some of them must long ago have landed somewhere, who knows what dead give-aways may have been in any of them?"
"Is that your question?"
"No, I have two. First, why haven't these intelligent beings whose existence you're presupposing—" I saw Myrwan's face set, and I knew he'd noted that rude and insulting word, but I managed to conceal my smile—"why haven't they come here before this? And since they haven't come, if they're smart enough to figure out our whereabouts why aren't they also smart enough to realize the difference between the old pebbles and these new ones, and to know that we're putting something over on them?"
We sometimes say that though the Thinkers are of course overwhelmingly our superiors mentally, they lack the emotional control which is the great characteristic of the rest of us Real People. I wish those scandalmongers could have seen Myrwan then. His face was as white as his beard and his wings quivered, but he let Sephar have his say out and he answered him very quietly.
"As to your first question, brother," (and if anybody ever called me "brother" in that tone I'd know it was a case of fight or run) "the only logical reason is that it must be only recently that such beings have reached a state of culture where they are able to analyze the pebbles and draw the right conclusions from them.
"And the answer to your second question is that we can only hope. Hope that all of the pebbles already in their possession are free of—shall we say, incriminating evidence? All we can guarantee is that all they find in the future will be. Does that answer you satisfactorily?"
"It will have to," muttered Sephar sullenly. I moved away from him and was glad to notice that I was not the only one.
"What I have said to you," continued the Thinker calmly, "you may communicate to any of the Real People you wish. You will naturally keep it from the Ground Dwellers; there is no reason to agitate them at present. Time enough for that if we should ever need them as soldiers—which I devoutly hope we never shall."
"But who will make the artificial pebbles if the Ground Dwellers aren't to know about them?" asked Marnag. "What about our slogan—'Thought from the Thinkers, government and administration from the Real People, technical skill and heavy labor from the Ground Dwellers'?"
"We shall handle that. When you go home, tell Earnig I want to see him at once. Brief him first. He and his Bureau will see that the job is done, and the Ground Dwellers needn't be told just what they are making. They'll be delighted to hear that We are planning a new kind of phph pebble to increase the interest of the game—they love it whenever one is batted clear away."
Well, all this was last ganath. The new pebbles are in use. So far nothing has happened—unless you count the fact that, according to Myrwan, those peculiar radio waves have ceased. Let us hope that if his whole theory is correct—and Thinkers don't talk about their Thoughts till they're pretty sure of them—those alien beings have given up, decided either that they were mistaken and there is no intelligence here able to communicate, or that they themselves haven't the ability to interpret our answers.
Sephar? Oh, he isn't around any more. One of the Thinkers is doing some experiments in Psychological Adjustment. Hledo asked the Council's recommendation of somebody they could commandeer as a test subject, according to the Agreement on Thinkers' Privileges, and I got them to suggest Sephar. He was very nasty about it, but I ignored his underbred invective. I felt it my duty also respectfully to remind Hledo of Sephar's past indiscretions, in case they'd forgotten.
Usually when the Thinkers have finished with a subject he's no longer of much use and they put him in a rest home for the remainder of his life. So since I've done pretty well for myself lately, I was able to buy Sephar's home, with its nagh-plated roof-opening, and move into it.
He had a very attractive wife, who of course couldn't go with him to the Far Colony. It just goes to show that virtue (as one of the Thinkers once remarked wittily) is its own reward.