Turbon stared fixedly at the mouth of the cave where the two-legged food creature was trapped. He had an uneasy feeling that something was beginning to go wrong with his plan, but was unable to decide what it could be.
His wife stirred impatiently, ripples of green morning sunlight running like water along her powerful body. “I still think we should send in a bunch of females,” she said. “If the food creature does kill a couple of them it will be so much the better. You and I can have the food creature and the others can have the dead females.”
Turbon suppressed a sarcastic reply. He had spent years building up his public image of the imperturbable Philosopher King, but there were times when Cadesk annoyed him so much he almost threw it all to the winds. For perhaps the thousandth time he wished fervently he had been born a female, in which case he would have destroyed Cadesk with one blow and—the ultimate insult—refused to eat her afterwards.
“Be calm, dearest. You mustn’t forget that I have been listening to these creatures’ radio transmissions for years while—I might point out—others were immersed in brutish pleasures. I know them. There will be about twenty others in the space ship …”
“The space ship.”
“You mean the shell?”
“Yes, dearest, I mean the shell; but we must learn to think of it as something more than a food container—it is a machine which can fly from star to star, not just a large exoskeleton. As long as the trapped food creature is alive the others will not leave here. I expect them to emerge from the space ship at any moment and try to retrieve their companion—then, thanks to my wisdom, we will have twenty to share among us. I shall not be greedy, of course, perhaps two or three…
“Stop rambling,” Cadesk interrupted coarsely. “I can’t listen to you and that stupid shouting at the same time.”
Turbon glanced up to where six males were crouched before the cave-mouth, emitting, in obedience to his orders, blasts of radio waves from their speech centres each time the food creature within tried to communicate with the space ship from which it had strayed. He wondered if he should try to explain something of what he had learned about the strangers who walked on only two legs.
Years previously, when he had first heard their voices filtering down from the sky, Turbon had believed he was listening to beings like himself who by virtue of strong metallic traces in their nervous systems were able to communicate by radio emission. It had been a long time before he realised his imagined giants who could shout from star to star were, in reality, only creatures who spoke with sound waves but employed radio to extend their range. The next big step forward had been the discovery that the creatures also transmitted pictures. After a year of intense mental effort and discipline—during which Cadesk had continually threatened to leave him because of the apparent loss of his sexual powers—he had learned to unscramble the signals and actually see the pictures from the sky. Once this breakthrough had been made Turbon got to know a lot about the unfamiliar creatures and had learned their language.
“If the shouting goes on much longer,” Cadesk said petulantly, “I won’t be able to eat.”
Turbon ignored this comment, partly because it was such a blatant lie but mainly because he had realised what was going wrong. The creature had previously been making sporadic attempts to use its radio transmitter, but for the last few seconds the attempts had been coming very close together. The massed shouts from the six males, faithfully superimposing themselves on the signals from the cave, were forming a pattern of long and short bursts of radio noise.
He tugged Cadesk’s tail in panic. “Get up near the cave at once and tell the males to shout continuously. No more of this starting and stopping. The food creature is using them to send its message.” Cadesk gave him an exasperated glance, but she slid obediently away through the yellow undergrowth. At an early stage Turbon had learned the code which the sky creatures used for continuous wave transmissions and, with a sinking sensation, he applied it to the emergent pattern.
“…able to study these beasts for some time without their knowledge. The main thing to remember when you come for me is that only the females can kill. If you pick them off first the males will run for cover. They are easy to tell apart. In fact you cannot go wrong in identifying male and female because…” The remainder of the message was drowned out as the six males, having been reached by Cadesk, swung over to producing an uninterrupted blast of noise. Turbon twitched with relief.
They held a meeting of the Elder Council right away. “That’s it then,” Cadesk said briskly when told the situation. “It would be stupid to try an attack now that the food creatures have our secret. I vote we rush the cave now and at least get something. I must say, also, that the creature wasn’t long in deciding who matters and who doesn’t around here.” She flexed her great killer’s muscles and lay down. The other five members of the Council, being male, registered as much protest as they dared but the general feeling of the meeting was that Cadesk had scored a definite point.
Turbon stepped into the breach quickly, aware that this was an important chance to demonstrate the superiority of mind over muscle. “It is true,” he announced, “the food creatures are aware that our females invariably carry out the…less pleasant tasks associated with the perpetuation of our species, but…”
“Don’t be too modest,” Cadesk interrupted. “One of these days you’ll learn how to talk ְem to death.”
“…but, important as this piece of information undoubtedly is, it’s of little value to anyone encountering us for the first time. The differences in physiognomy, musculature, pigmentation, etc, which enable us to distinguish male from female so readily are meaningless without prior knowledge. In short, the food creatures can’t tell one of our males from one of our females—so, in effect, nothing has changed.”
Cadesk looked impressed. “He’s right, you know. Perhaps we ought to keep to the original plan, but I hope something happens soon. I can almost smell them from here.” She smacked her lips and drooled slightly in a way which Turbon, in spite of himself, found captivating.
In the afternoon of the following day something did happen. A door on the spaceship swung open and fourteen of the two-legged food creatures, carrying weapons, set out across the mile of jungle which lay between their ship and the cave.
The plan was immediately put into action. It was not a highly developed scheme because the Trelgans, as the dominant life form on a world of primitive jungle, were in the habit of simply running headlong at anything which moved and then eating it. But for Turbon’s advice about weapons they would have done the same thing with the new arrivals from the sky. Instead they had devised what they felt was a subtle little manoeuvre—the idea being to hide behind trees until the strangers were in their midst and then run headlong and eat them.
When the big moment arrived the food creatures made it easy by following a dead straight line to the cave, moving slowly through the ochre vegetation, weapons at the ready, red uniforms catching the sun. Turbon and Cadesk had mustered all their forces for the attack—two dozen females and four times as many males. They even had time to find a good vantage point half way up a huge tree overlooking the scene of the ambush, which was a flat piece of ground quite close to the cave.
“You’re certain nothing can go wrong?” The wait was straining Cadesk’s naturally minute store of patience.
“Of course, dearest,” Turbon replied peacefully. “The food creature told the others they would have no trouble identifying our females, but he didn’t get the chance to say how. Perhaps, being mammals, they are assuming we are too, and will be looking for creatures with great lactic glands thumping about all over the place.” He laughed at the idea and then fell silent as the leaders of the little column of food creatures came into view at the far edge of the clearing.
It seemed to take an eternity for the slow-moving file to reach the centre but they finally made it and Turbon gave the signal to attack.
Moving with beautiful precision the Trelgans emerged from hiding and converged on the food creatures at top speed, their hurtling bodies smashing smaller bushes and trees out of the way. The strangers’ weapons began to flash but Turbon noted with satisfaction that the females were well spaced among the males, and Cadesk almost fell from her perch in anticipatory excitement.
“Don’t they smell good,” she slobbered. “Tear ’em apart!”
Turbon smiled indulgently, then realised that he could now only see about half the females who had started the charge. The file of food creatures had contracted into an efficient little knot and the sharp reports of their weapons were a continuous crash of thunder. And the astonishing, ghastly truth was that they were concentrating their fire on the widely-spaced females! Even as he realised what was happening, the number of females withered under the accurate shooting until there were only five…four…three…two…
A solitary female escaped with the fleeing males as the charge suddenly reversed its direction and raced outwards like the ripple from a pebble dropped in water. Only ten hellish seconds had elapsed since the beginning of the attack but in that time Turbon had lost more than half of his subjects, including all but one female. He was almost unable to believe it had happened. How could it have happened?
“This is your fault,” Cadesk snarled. “This wouldn’t have happened but for your big ideas. That settles it—from now on I give the orders around here.”
“But I don’t understand it,” Turbon protested numbly as the file of food creatures reformed and passed out of sight in the direction of the cave. “The one we trapped gave absolutely no information as to how the others could tell female Trelgans from males. There was just no way they could have known!”
Cadesk slapped him across the face with her powerful tail. “Shut up and let’s go,” she snapped. “I’m hungry.” They climbed down from the tree and together moved into the clearing where the survivors of the illfated charge were already returning to dine off their unlucky comrades. In spite of the great shock they had received Turbon and Cadesk still made a handsome couple by Trelgan standards, and the afternoon sun glinted on their sleek, heavy bodies.
On his blue body.
And her pink body.