- Author: Evelyn E. Smith
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Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction June 1956. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U. S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
One thing Man never counted on to take along into space with him was the Eternal Triangle—especially a true-blue triangle like this!
"What's the matter, darling?" James asked anxiously. "Don't you like the planet?"
"Oh, I love the planet," Phyllis said. "It's beautiful."
It was. The blue—really blue—grass, blue-violet shrubbery and, loveliest of all, the great golden tree with sapphire leaves and pale pink blossoms, instead of looking alien, resembled nothing so much as a fairy-tale version of Earth.
Even the fragrance that filled the atmosphere was completely delightful to Terrestrial nostrils—which was unusual, for most other planets, no matter how well adapted for colonization otherwise, tended, from the human viewpoint, anyway, to stink. Not that they were not colonized nevertheless, for the population of Earth was expanding at too great a rate to permit merely olfactory considerations to rule out an otherwise suitable planet. This particular group of settlers had been lucky, indeed, to have drawn a planet as pleasing to the nose as to the eye—and, moreover, free from hostile aborigines.[Pg 79]
As a matter of fact, the only apparent evidence of animate life were the small, bright-hued creatures winging back and forth through the clear air, and which resembled Terrestrial birds so closely that there had seemed no point to giving them any other name. There were insects, too, although not immediately perceptible—but the ones like bees were devoid of stings and the butterflies never had to pass through the grub stage but were born in the fullness of their beauty.
However, fairest of all the creatures on the planet to James Haut—just then, anyhow—was his wife, and the expression on her face was not a lovely one.
"You do feel all right, don't you?" he asked. "The light gravity gets some people at first."
"Yes, I guess I'm all right. I'm still a little shaken, though, and you know it's not the gravity."
He would have liked to take her in his arms and say something comforting, reassuring, but the constraint between them had not yet been worn off. Although he had sent her an ethergram nearly every day of the voyage, the necessarily public nature of the messages had kept them from achieving communication in the deeper sense of the word.
"Well, I suppose you did have a bit of a shock," he said lamely. "Somehow, I thought I had told you in my 'grams."
"You told me plenty in the 'grams, but not quite enough, it seems."
Her words didn't seem to make sense; the strain had evidently been a little too much. "Maybe you ought to go inside and lie down for a while."
"I will, just as soon as I feel less wobbly." She brushed back the long, light brown hair which had got tumbled when she fainted. He remembered a golden rather than a reddish tinge in it, but that had been under the yellow sun of Earth; under the scarlet sun of this planet, it took on a different beauty.
"How come the preliminary team didn't include—it in their report?" she asked, avoiding his appreciative eye.
"They didn't know. We didn't find out ourselves until we'd sent that first message to Earth. I suppose by the time we did relay the news, you were on your way."
"Yes, that must have been it."
The preliminary exploration team had established the fact that the planet was more or less Earth-type, that its air was breathable, its temperature agreeably springlike, its mineral composition very similar to Earth's, with only slight traces of unknown elements, that there was plenty of drinkable water and no threatening life-forms. Human beings could, therefore, live on it.
It remained for the scout team[Pg 81] to determine whether human beings would want to live on it—whether, in fact, they themselves would want to, because, if so, they had the option of becoming the first settlers. That was the way the system worked and, in the main, it worked well enough.
After less than two weeks, this scout team had beamed back to Earth the message that the planet was suitable for colonization, so suitable that they would like to give it the name of Elysium, if there was no objection.
There would be none, Earth had replied, so long as the pioneers bore in mind the fact that six other planets had previously been given that name, and a human colony currently existed on only one of those. No need to worry about a conflict of nomenclature, however, because the name of that other planet Elysium had subsequently been changed by unanimous vote of settlers to Hades.
After this somewhat sinister piece of information, Earth had added the more cheerful news that the wives and families of the scouts would soon be on their way, bringing with them the tools and implements necessary to transform the wilderness of the frontier into another Earth. In the meantime, the men were to set up the packaged buildings with which all scout ships were equipped, so that when the women came, homes would be ready for them.
The men set to work and, before the month was out, they discovered that Elysium was neither a wilderness nor a frontier. It was populated by an intelligent race which had developed its culture to the limit of its physical abilities—actually well beyond the limit of what the astounded Terrestrials could have conceived its physical abilities to be—then, owing to unavoidable disaster, had started to die out.
The remaining natives were perspicacious enough to see in the Terrestrials' coming not a threat but a last hope of revivifying their own moribund species. Accordingly, the Earthmen were encouraged to go ahead building on the sites originally selected, the only ban being on the type of construction materials used—and a perfectly reasonable one under the circumstances.
James had built his cottage near the largest, handsomest tree in the area allotted to him; since there were no hostile life-forms, there was no need for a closely knit community. Everyone who had seen it agreed that his house was the most attractive one of all, for, although it was only a standard prefab, he had used taste and ingenuity to make it a[Pg 82] little different from the other unimaginative homes.
And now Phyllis, for whom he had performed all this labor of love, for whom he had waited five long months—the tedium of which had been broken only by the intellectual pleasure of teaching English to a sympathetic native neighbor—Phyllis seemed unappreciative. She had hardly looked at the inside of the cottage, when he had shown her through, and now was staring at the outside in a blank sort of way.
The indoctrination courses had not, he reflected, reconciled her to the frontiersman's necessarily simple mode of living—which was ironic, considering that one of her original attractions for him had been her apparent suitability for the pioneer life. She was a big girl, radiantly healthy, even though a little green at the moment.
He just managed to keep his voice steady. "You don't like the house—is that it?
"But I do like it. Honestly I do." She touched his arm diffidently. "Everything would be perfect if only—"
"If only what? Is it the curtains? I'm sorry if you don't like them. I brought them all the way from Earth in case the planet turned out to be habitable. I thought blue was your favorite color."
"Oh, it is, it is! I'm mad about the curtains."
Perhaps it wasn't the house that disappointed her; perhaps it was he himself who hadn't lived up to dim memory and ardent expectation.
"If you want to know what is bothering me—" she glanced up apprehensively, lowering her voice as she did—"it's that tree. It's stuck on you; I just know it is."
He laughed. "Now where did you get a preposterous idea like that, Phyl? You've been on the planet exactly twenty-four hours and—"
"—and I have, in my luggage, one hundred and thirty-two ethergrams talking about practically nothing but Magnolia this, Magnolia that. Oh, I had my suspicions even before I landed, James. The only thing I didn't suspect was that she was a tree!"
"What are you talking about, honey? Magnolia and I—we're just friends."
"Purely a platonic relationship, I assure you," the tree herself agreed. It would have been silly for her to pretend not to have overheard, since the two were still standing almost directly underneath her. "Purely platonic."
"She's more like a sister to me," James tried to explain.[Pg 83]
Phyllis stiffened. "Frankly, if I had imagined I was going to have a tree for a sister-in-law, I would have thought before I married you, James." Bursting into tears, she ran inside the cottage.
"Sorry," he said miserably to Magnolia. "It's a long trip out from Earth and an uncomfortable one. I don't suppose the other women were especially nice to her, either. Faculty wives mostly and you know how they are.... No, I don't suppose you would. But she shouldn't have acted that way toward you."
"Not your fault," Magnolia told him, sighing with such intensity that he could feel the humidity rise. "I know how you've been looking forward to her arrival. Rather a letdown, isn't it?"
"Oh, I'm sure it'll be all right." He tried to sound confident. "And I know you'll like Phyllis when you get to know her."
"Possibly, but so far I'm afraid I must admit—since there never has been any pretense between us—that she is a bit of a disappointment. I—and my sisters also—had expected your females, when they came, to be as upright and true blue as you. Instead, what are they? Shrubs."
The door to the cottage flew open. "A shrub, am I!" Phyllis brandished an axe which, James winced to recall, was an item of the equipment he had ordered from Earth before the scout team had learned that the trees were intelligent. "I'll shrub you!"
"Phyllis!" He wrested the axe from her grip. "That would be murder!"
"'Woodman,' as the Terrestrial poem goes," the tree remarked, "'spare that tree! Touch not a single bough! In youth it sheltered me and I'll protect it now!'"
Good of her to take the whole thing so calmly—rather, to pretend to take it so calmly, for he knew how sensitive Magnolia really was—but he was afraid this show of moral courage would not diminish Phyllis's dislike for her; those without self-control seldom appreciate those who have it.
"If you'll excuse us," he said, putting his arm around his wife's heaving shoulders, "I'd better see to Phyllis; she's a little upset. Holdover from spacesickness, I expect. Poor girl, she's a long way from home and frightened."
"I understand, Jim," Magnolia told him, "and, remember, whatever happens, you can always count on me."
"I must say you're not a very admirable representative of Terrestrial womanhood!" James snapped, as soon as the door had slammed behind him and his wife, leaving them alone together in[Pg 84] the principal room of the cottage. "Insulting the very first native you meet!"
"I did not either insult her. All I said was, 'What beautiful flowers—do you suppose the fruit is edible?' How was I to know it—she could understand? Naturally I wouldn't dream of eating her fruit now. It would probably taste nasty anyway. And how do you think I felt when a tree answered me back? You don't care that I fainted dead away, and I've never fainted before in my life. All you care about is that old vegetable's feelings! It was bad enough, feeling for five months that someone had come between us, but to find out it wasn't someone but something—!"
"Phyllis," he said coldly, "I'll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head."
Dropping into the overstuffed chair, his wife dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. "She wasn't so very polite to me!"
"Look, Phyllis—" he strove to make his voice calm, adult, reasonable—"you happened to have hit on rather a touchy point with her. Those trees are dioecious, you know, like us, and she isn't mated. And, well, she has rather a lot of xylem zones—rings, you know."
"Are you trying to tell me she's old?"
"Well, she's no sapling any more. And, consideration aside, you know it's government's policy for us to establish good relations with any intelligent life-form we have to share a planet with. You weren't in there trying."
Phyllis put away her handkerchief with what he hoped