The Silent Partners
by Bob Shaw

At first he could see nothing about her except that she was dressed in furs, then that her hair was blonde and, in spite of the night wind, as smooth as glass. When the woman drew nearer he made out the glitter of jewellery at her ears and throat, and of gold at her wrists. Then he could see her face, which was beautiful. He did not know the woman and yet her face was almost familiar, like that of someone he might have dreamt of a long time ago.

Purvey crouched in the utter darkness of the bushes and waited for her to come within reach.

From where he had stationed himself he could see both lamplit entrances to the tiny park, and something of the quiet suburban streets beyond. It was strange then that he had not noticed the woman come through the gates, but perhaps he had overdone it with the whisky while he was waiting. It was years now since he had had to go out and actually rob somebody, and his nerves had needed damping down with alcohol. The outlook in the confidence business was pretty bleak when a practitioner of twenty years’ standing had to resort to outright robbery.

Taking a deep breath, he slid the pistol from his pocket and quickly stepped out on to the path. “Don’t make a sound,” he warned the woman. “Just hand over your purse and that stuff you’re wearing.” He stared into her face, trying to gauge whether she was the type to do as she was told or the unpredictable, troublesome variety of customer.

In the dim light coming from the street Purvey saw that something had gone terribly wrong with the beautiful face. His hand flew nervously to his mouth and he took a step backwards, raising the pistol protectively.

The woman sagged bonelessly, crumpled, withered away in a second, leaving nothing but a small dark object writhing on the ground at Purvey’s feet. With a moan of sheer despair he turned to run …

He was much too late.

Purvey very rarely dreamed, but when he was twelve years old he had once had a nightmare in which he had committed suicide by lying in a coffin with earth and roses in it. The thorns had pierced his flesh and drawn the blood from him—making the roses flourish and bloom—until he had been sucked dry and was lying dead beneath a beautiful living shroud of blossoms. Then, as one can do in dreams, he had realized he did not want to commit suicide, after all.

He had that same feeling now.

Huge fleshy leaves and dozens of dark green tendrils lay across his chest and face, stirring slightly in the wind and sending exploratory tricklets of cold water into his clothing. Summoning all his strength, he pushed the tangled mass aside, sat up and realized at once that he was aboard a spaceship. He had been back and forth to the Langrangian colonies in moon orbit enough times to enable him to recognize the sensation, even though his surroundings looked less like the interior of a spaceship than almost anything else he had seen.

The low, almost circular room was brilliantly lit from the ceiling in some places and dark in others, giving an impression of shadowy vastness quite out of keeping with its true size. The walls were dark brown and streaming with moisture. Large fans, positioned at intervals around the walls, were making random-seeming movements on their bearings and creating a cold, irregular wind.

The floor was covered with a thin coating of mud from which jutted a disorderly clutter of instrument pedestals, machine housings, cables and low partitions. There appeared to be nobody in the room but himself.

Purvey scrambled to his feet, almost fell with dizziness, and made his way over to one of the instrument stands which was emitting a red glow and a peculiar high-pitched whistle which kept changing in tone. On the pedestal was a small screen depicting a few brilliant stars against a background of crimson space. The markings on the dials were little blobs of many different colours.

He made a circuit of the room, assuring himself that it was empty, then he began shouting for someone to come and let him out. Nobody came. Purvey was feeling dizzier by the minute as though the air contained some insidious intoxicant. He crossed the room, falling once on the slippery mud, and stood staring down at the little view screen, wondering how he got into the nightmarish predicament.

All at once his memory of recent events iced into sharp focus in his mind—the woman in the park! How could he have forgotten that hideously dissolving face or the way she had turned into the indescribable thing on the ground? He ran his fingers over the smooth glass of the view screen, feeling slightly relieved at the realization that she, it, was not in the immediate vicinity.

Something behind him made a wet, slithering sound.

Purvey spun round, feeling his mouth drag itself out of shape with fear. The dark green stuff which had been spilling across his face and chest when he awoke had come crawling after him, leaving a broad trail behind it in the mud. In the centre of the mass of leaves and tendrils Purvey glimpsed a complicated, knobbly core about half a metre in diameter. Some of the tendrils ended in shiny black beads which looked as though they might serve the function of eyes.

Purvey backed away from the thing and felt in his pocket for the pistol. It was not there. When a wall ended his retreat he stood staring at the moving growth as it laboured towards him propelled by some dimly seen agitation under its core. It stopped advancing when it was about one human pace away from him and remained motionless for what seemed to Purvey a long, long time. Then he noticed that—across one huge leaf on top of the mass—faint letters bleached out in a lighter green had appeared.

The thing was trying to communicate with him.

“You shall have gold,” the letters spelled out. The black-beaded tendrils waved gently in the air, and the odour of the thing reached up to Purvey—the smell of dusty ivy growing on a decaying wall.

Purvey, responding to one of his favourite words, was immediately less apprehensive. “What for?” He sank down on to his heels and tried to peer into the depths of the apparently intelligent vegetation. “Why will I have gold?”

Another long pause ensued, then the green writing faded and was replaced by, “Explosion wrecked part of ship,” then, “including repair shop,” then, “Lurr has made rough repairs,” then, “you are highly mobile,” then, “you will stand by during trip,” then, “Lurr will pay with gold.”

“I don’t know how to repair spaceships,” Purvey pointed out, playing for time in which to think.

“The work will be simple. You are mobile. I will direct you.” The sentences took a long time to come across by means of the thing’s, Lurr’s, controlled etiolation effect.

Purvey groped around in his pocket and found a flattened pack of cigarettes and a permatch. When he struck the match it burned with a large brilliant flame, and he guessed that the air in the ship was loaded with oxygen. That might explain why he felt so dizzy, almost drunk. He blew out the match with some difficulty, put it away, and drew deeply on the cigarette, relishing it.

“Will you take me back to Earth afterwards?”

“Yes.”

Purvey considered asking Lurr to promise, but decided against it as he had no way of knowing how much the vegetable’s word was worth. It might be no more trustworthy than some of his friends.

“I’d like to know how you got me here,” he said. “It seemed a bit … sort of unethical.” Not the sort of behaviour one would expect from a salad citizen, he thought reprovingly, but there was no reply to his question. He noticed that the black beads had dulled, as though Lurr had gone to sleep. Purvey snorted disgustedly. He crouched against the wall, coat collar turned up, and finished his cigarette. The only sound in the room was the restless whispering of the fans on the wall above.

Some time later, after a period of uneasy sleep, Purvey woke up with a new problem.

The vine-like growths that formed the extensions of Lurr’s body were draped wetly across him as they had been on his first awakening. He ended the distasteful intimacy by pushing the dark green mass away, trying to understand why it came near him at all. He was pretty sure that Lurr was as sexless as a cabbage, and yet its touch had something of the quality of a ghastly, yearning caress. Was it possible for a plant to become perverted? Purvey found something particularly unpleasant in the thought of being violated by a vegetable.

“Listen,” he said suspiciously. “How long will the trip last?”

A broad leaf unfurled and the laboured writing appeared. “Fifteen of your days.”

“What about food?” Purvey demanded. “I’ll need food.”

“You shall share the Ahtaur’s food.”

“Ahtaur? What’s that?”

“Ahtaur is a helper. She brought you here.”

“I don’t want her food,” Purvey said, suddenly afraid.

“Ahtaur will not mind.” Lurr stirred slowly and moved away, leaving a trail through which could be seen the whitish metal of the floor beneath. There were small perforations in it and, as Purvey watched, more mud welled up through them until the metal was covered.

Purvey followed Lurr, wondering if its last remark had been some kind of sarcasm. Could a thing like Lurr have a sense of humour? Purvey hoped not. It was bad enough to be touched up in his sleep by a sex-starved broccoli without it going around making wisecracks afterwards.

Reaching a little door low down on a bulkhead, Lurr extended a tendril, touched a white circle and the door opened revealing a plain cupboard-like interior. At the touch of another circle, a hatch opened in the rear surface and a block of pink spongy material slid out. Purvey picked it up warily, but he had been hungry long before his current misfortunes had begun, and he had little trouble bringing himself to taste the strange food. It was slightly warm, chewy, and tasted like lobster paste with a strong dash of red pepper. It was better than he had expected.

When he had finished eating Purvey obtained a rather unsatisfactory drink from one of the little rivulets of water which ran down the walls at intervals. Lurr had gone to one of his instrument panels and was lying motionless beside it, eye stalks extended and poised over the array of meters.

By constant questioning Purvey learned that the ship he was on was a kind of scout which had been escorting a huge interstellar liner or battleship. When the accident had occurred, rather than have the mother ship stop to give assistance, Lurr had radioed that it would be possible for the scout to reach base unaided. If the scout failed to return, however, the mother ship would come back and find it. Lurr’s race only fought wars when attacked by aggressors, but their battleships were very big and powerful.

Purvey noted that the last statement echoed various utterances made by human politicians in the United Nations, and he began to wonder if it had been intended as some kind of a hint. For the possessor of such an alien mind, to say nothing of the body housing it, Lurr seemed to have an excellent control of the English language and did not waste many words.

“How is it,” Purvey asked, “that you speak, I mean write English so well?”

But the black beads were dull again. He wandered around the room looking at the alien mechanisms, flapping his arms to keep warm, and trying to decide what was wrong about the place. It was all wrong, of course, being the product of the thinking of an alien life form. But there was another wrongness …

Purvey found that he got tired easily. Time dragged by in the monotonous discomfort of the room and he slept often, crouched in the darkest corner where there was the least mud. This was the place where the explosion had occurred, as was evidenced by the seared metalwork, dented machine housings and shattered ceiling lights. Purvey liked it best because it was the one place that Lurr seemed to avoid.

Once, when he was feeling particularly miserable and Lurr was in one of its unresponsive moods, he decided to look for something in which to wrap himself for warmth. His showerproof was heavy with mud, wet and useless as a garment, and he found himself longing for heat in any form.

He went to the row of low doors and opened several of them by pressing the white circle, which was a common feature. Inside he found perfectly normal shelves stacked with unmarked boxes or machine parts which, although beaded with moisture, showed no signs of corrosion. One shelf was loaded with hundreds of blocks of coloured glass or plastic, another with what looked like purple seaweed.

A larger door had a red circle on it. Numb with the cold, Purvey opened the door and saw a little room, in the centre of which glowed an old-fashioned, pot-bellied stove. He was stooping to cross the threshold when it occurred to him that the stove just could not be there, and he jarred to a halt. Something moved near his feet. Just before he jumped back and slammed the door he had a blurry vision of a fat slug-like creature rearing up with grey mouth agape.

Lurr was suddenly conscious again, holding up his communicative leaf. “I see you recognized the Ahtaur this time.”

“This time?” Purvey said. “Was that the woman I saw?”

Lurr seemed quite active and alert as the sentences appeared in answer, noticeably quicker than before. The Ahtaur was a very slow-moving, carnivorous animal indigenous to Lurr’s home planet. It got close to its victims by telepathically invading their minds and controlling the visual centres to make itself appear attractive to them. Apparently, Lurr had muzzled the Ahtaur, fitted it with something he described as a force field grab, and lowered it to Earth to find a human being in a quiet and lonely place. Purvey, who liked quiet and lonely places, had walked into the trap.

As a by-product of their study of the Ahtaur’s ability, Lurr’s people had been able to develop a device which enabled them to detect and comprehend the thoughts of intelligent animals. Purvey eyed his green companion speculatively, rubbing the stubble on his chin, and wondering if he had picked up another note of warning.

On the fifth day, reckoned by his wrist watch, Purvey discovered that Lurr had been telling him lies.

His feeling that there was a subtle wrongness in the set-up finally culminated in the realization that there were two entirely separate sets of controls in the room. The set which was in use, and at which Lurr spent most of its time, was grouped along one wall. Every part of it, every short pedestal and housing, was constructed with smooth, brilliant metal and with the high standard of workmanship that Purvey associated with good pinball machines. The joints in the metal were barely discernible and the little coloured dots that Lurr used instead of numbers were perfect circles and squares etched into the metal.

The unused set of controls was scattered over the centre of the floor area and, in contrast, reminded Purvey of a radio he had built during a course of remedial training. There were plates which did not fit, unfilled holes, bolts which bolted nothing, and the coloured markings were roughly shaped blobs of enamel. Scooping away some handfuls of mud, he found that holes had been burned in the floor to let associated cables and pipes pass through.