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THE SERPENT RIVER ***




Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net









THE SERPENT RIVER

By Don Wilcox

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Other Worlds May 1957.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]




The Code was rigid - no fraternization with the
peoples of other planets! Earth wanted no
"shotgun weddings" of the worlds of space!


"Split" Campbell and I brought our ship down to a quiet landing on the
summit of a mile-wide naked rock, and I turned to the telescope for a
closer view of the strange thing we had come to see.

It shone, eighteen or twenty miles away, in the light of the late
afternoon sun. It was a long silvery serpent-like _something_ that
crawled slowly over the planet's surface.

There was no way of guessing how large it was, at this distance. It
might have been a rope rolled into shape out of a mountain - or a chain
of mountains. It might have been a river of bluish-gray dough that had
shaped itself into a great cable. Its diameter? If it had been a hollow
tube, cities could have flowed through it upright without bending their
skyscrapers. It was, to the eye, an endless rope of cloud oozing along
the surface of the land. No, not cloud, for it had the compactness of
solid substance.

We could see it at several points among the low foothills. Even from
this distance we could guess that it had been moving along its course
for centuries. Moving like a sluggish snake. It followed a deep-worn
path between the nearer hills and the high jagged mountains on the
horizon.

_What was it?_

"Split" Campbell and I had been sent here to learn the answers.
Our sponsor was the well known "EGGWE" (the Earth-Galaxy Good
Will Expeditions.) We were under the EGGWE Code. We were the first
expedition to this planet, but we had come equipped with two important
pieces of advance information. The Keynes-Roy roving cameras (unmanned)
had brought back to the Earth choice items of fact about various parts
of the universe. From these photos we knew (1) that man lived on this
planet, a humanoid closely resembling the humans of the Earth; and
(2) that a vast cylindrical "rope" crawled the surface of this land,
continuously, endlessly.

We had intentionally landed at what we guessed would be a safe distance
from the rope. If it were a living thing, like a serpent, we preferred
not to disturb it. If it gave off heat or poisonous gases or deadly
vibrations, we meant to keep our distance. If, on the other hand, it
proved to be some sort of vegetable - a vine of glacier proportions - or
a river of some silvery, creamy substance - we would move in upon it
gradually, gathering facts as we progressed. I could depend upon
"Split" to record all observable phenomena with the accuracy of
split-hairs.

Split was working at the reports like a drudge at this very moment.

I looked up from the telescope, expecting him to be waiting his turn
eagerly. I misguessed. He didn't even glance up from his books. Rare
young Campbell! Always a man of duty, never a man of impulse!

"Here Campbell, take a look at the 'rope'."

"Before I finish the reports, sir? If I recall our Code, Section Two,
Order of Duties upon Landing: A - "

"Forget the Code. Take a look at the rope while the sun's on it.... See
it?"

"Yes sir."

"Can you see it's moving? See the little clouds of dust coming up from
under its belly?"

"Yes sir. An excellent view, Captain Linden."

"What do you think of it, Split? Ever see a sight like that before?"

"No sir."

"Well, what about it? Any comments?"

Split answered me with an enthusiastic, "By gollies, sir!" Then, with
restraint, "It's precisely what I expected from the photographs, sir.
Any orders, sir?"

"Relax, Split! That's the order. Relax!"

"Thanks - thanks, Cap!" That was his effort to sound informal, though
coming from him it was strained. His training had given him an
exaggerated notion of the importance of dignity and discipline.

He was naturally so conscientious it was painful. And to top it all,
his scientific habit of thought made him want to stop and weigh his
words even when speaking of casual things such as how much sugar he
required in his coffee.

Needless to say, I had kidded him unmercifully over these traits.
Across the millions of miles of space that we had recently traveled
(our first voyage together) I had amused myself at his expense. I
had sworn that he would find, in time, that he couldn't even trim
his fingernails without calipers, or comb his hair without actually
physically splitting the hairs that cropped up in the middle of the
part. That was when I had nicknamed him "Split" - and the wide ears that
stuck out from his stubble-cut blond hair had glowed with the pink of
selfconsciousness. Plainly, he liked the kidding. But if I thought I
could rescue him from the weight of dignity and duty, I was mistaken.

Now he had turned the telescope for a view far to the right. He paused.

"What do you see?" I asked.

"I cannot say definitely. The exact scientific classification of the
object I am observing would call for more detailed scrutiny - "

"You're seeing some sort of object?"

"Yes sir."

"What sort of object?"

"A living creature, sir - upright, wearing clothes - "

"A _man_?"

"To all appearances, sir - "

"You bounder, give me that telescope!"


2.

If you have explored the weird life of many a planet, as I have, you
can appreciate the deep sense of excitement that comes over me when,
looking out at a new world for the first time, I see a man-like animal.

Walking upright!

Wearing adornments in the nature of clothing!

I gazed, and my lungs filled with the breath of wonderment. A man!
Across millions of miles of space - a man, like the men of the Earth.

Six times before in my life of exploration I had gazed at new realms
within the approachable parts of our universe, but never before had the
living creatures borne such wonderful resemblance to the human life of
our Earth.

A man!

He might have been creeping on all fours.

He might have been skulking like a lesser animal.

He might have been entirely naked.

He was none of these - and at the very first moment of viewing him I
felt a kinship toward him. Oh, he was primitive in appearance - but had
my ancestors not been the same? Was this not a mirror of my own race
a million years or so ago? I sensed that my own stream of life had
somehow crossed with his in ages gone by. How? Who can ever know? By
what faded charts of the movements through the sky will man ever be
able to retrace relationships of forms of life among planets?

"Get ready to go out and meet him, Campbell," I said. "He's a friend."

Split Campbell gave me a look as if to say, Sir, you don't even know
what sort of animal he is, actually, much less whether he's friendly or
murderous.

"There are some things I can sense on first sight, Campbell. Take my
word for it, he's a friend."

"I didn't say anything, sir."

"Good. Don't. Just get ready."

"We're going to go _out_ - ?"

"Yes," I said. "Orders."

"And meet both of them?" Split was at the telescope.

"Both?" I took the instrument from him. Both! "Well!"

"They seem to be coming out of the ground," Split said. "I see no signs
of habitation, but apparently we've landed on top of an underground
city - though I hasten to add that this is only an hypothesis."

"One's a male and the other's a female," I said.

"Another hypothesis," said Split.

The late evening sunshine gave us a clear view of our two "friends".
They were fully a mile away. Split was certain they had not seen our
ship, and to this conclusion I was in agreement. They had apparently
come up out of the barren rock hillside to view the sunset. I studied
them through the telescope while Split checked over equipment for a
hike.

The man's walk was unhurried. He moved thoughtfully, one might
guess. His bare chest and legs showed him to be statuesque in mold,
cleanly muscled, fine of bone. His skin was almost the color of the
cream-colored robe which flowed from his back, whipping lightly in
the breeze. He wore a brilliant red sash about his middle, and this
was matched by a red headdress that came down over his shoulders as a
circular mantle.

The girl stood several yards distant, watching him. This was some
sort of ritual, no doubt. He was not concerned with her, but with the
setting sun. Its rays were almost horizontal, knifing through a break
in the distant mountain skyline. He went through some routine motions,
his moving arms highlighted by the lemon-colored light of evening.

The girl approached him. Two other persons appeared from somewhere back
of her.... Three.... Four.... Five....

"Where do they come from?" Split had paused in the act of checking
equipment to take his turn at the telescope. If he had not done so, I
might not have made a discovery. The landscape was _moving_.

The long shadows that I had not noticed through the telescope were a
prominent part of the picture I saw through the ship's window when I
looked out across the scene with the naked eye. The shadows were moving.

They were tree shadows. They were moving toward the clearing where the
crowd gathered. And the reason for their movement was that the trees
themselves were moving.

"Notice anything?" I asked Split.

"The crowd is growing. We've certainly landed on top of a city." He
gazed. "They're coming from underground."

Looking through the telescope, obviously he didn't catch the view of
the moving trees.

"Notice anything else unusual?" I persisted.

"Yes. The females - I'm speaking hypothetically - but they _must_ be
females - are all wearing puffy white fur ornaments around their elbows.
I wonder why?"

"You haven't noticed the trees?"

"The females are quite attractive," said Split.

I forgot about the moving trees, then, and took over the telescope.
Mobile trees were not new to me. I had seen similar vegetation on other
planets - "sponge-trees" - which possessed a sort of muscular quality. If
these were similar, they were no doubt feeding along the surface of the
slope below the rocky plateau. The people in the clearing beyond paid
no attention to them.

I studied the crowd of people. Only the leader wore the brilliant garb.
The others were more scantily clothed. All were handsome of build. The
lemon-tinted sunlight glanced off the muscular shoulders of the males
and the soft curves of the females.

"Those furry elbow ornaments on the females," I said to Split,
"they're for protection. The caves they live in must be narrow, so
they pad their elbows."

"Why don't they pad their shoulders? They don't have anything on their
shoulders."

"Are you complaining?"

We became fascinated in watching, from the seclusion of our ship. If we
were to walk out, or make any sounds, we might have interrupted their
meeting. Here they were in their native ritual of sunset, not knowing
that people from another world watched. The tall leader must be making
a speech. They sat around him in little huddles. He moved his arms in
calm, graceful gestures.

"They'd better break it up!" Split said suddenly. "The jungles are
moving in on them."

"They're spellbound," I said. "They're used to sponge-trees. Didn't you
ever see moving trees?"

Split said sharply, "Those trees are marching! They're an army under
cover. Look!"

I saw, then. The whole line of advancing vegetation was camouflage for
a sneak attack. And all those natives sitting around in meeting were as
innocent as a flock of sitting ducks. Split Campbell's voice was edged
with alarm. "Captain! Those worshippers - how can we warn them? Oh-oh!
Too late. Look!"

All at once the advancing sponge-trees were tossed back over the heads
of the savage band concealed within. They were warriors - fifty or more
of them - with painted naked bodies. They dashed forward in a wide
semicircle, swinging crude weapons, bent on slaughter.


3.

They were waving short clubs or whips with stones tied to the ends.
They charged up the slope, about sixty yards, swinging their weird
clubs with a threat of death.

Wild disorder suddenly struck the audience. Campbell and I believed we
were about to witness a massacre.

"Captain - _Jim_! You're not going to let this happen!"

Our sympathies had gone to the first groups, the peaceable ones. I had
the same impulse as Campbell - to do something - anything! Yet here we
sat in our ship, more than half a mile from our thirty-five or forty
"friends" in danger.

Our friends were panicked. But they didn't take flight. They didn't
duck for the holes in the rocky hilltop. Instead, they rallied and
packed themselves around their tall leader. They stood, a defiant wall.

"Can we shoot a ray, Jim?"

I didn't answer. Later I would recall that Split _could_ drop his
dignity under excitement - his "Captain Linden" and "sir." Just now he
wanted any sort of split-second order.

We saw the naked warriors run out in a wide circle. They spun and
weaved, they twirled their deadly clubs, they danced grotesquely. They
were closing in. Closer and closer. It was all their party.

"Jim, can we shoot?"

"Hit number sixteen, Campbell."

Split touched the number sixteen signal.

The ship's siren wailed out over the land.

You could tell when the sound struck them. The circle of savage ones
suddenly fell apart. The dancing broke into the wildest contortions you
ever saw. As if they'd been spanked by a wave of electricity. The siren
scream must have sounded like an animal cry from an unknown world. The
attackers ran for the sponge-trees. The rootless jungle came to life.
It jerked and jumped spasmodically down the slope. And our siren kept
right on singing.

"Ready for that hike, Campbell? Give me my equipment coat." I got
into it. I looked back to the telescope. The tall man of the party
had behaved with exceptional calmness. He had turned to stare in our
direction from the instant the siren sounded. He could no doubt make
out the lines of our silvery ship in the shadows. Slowly, deliberately,
he marched over the hilltop toward us.

Most of his party now scampered back to the safety of their hiding
places in the ground. But a few - the brave ones, perhaps, or the
officials of his group - came with him.

"He needs a stronger guard than that," Campbell grumbled.

Sixteen was still wailing. "Set it for ten minutes and come on," I
said. Together we descended from the ship.

We took into our nostrils the tangy air, breathing fiercely, at first.
We slogged along over the rock surface feeling our weight to be
one-and-a-third times normal. We glanced down the slope apprehensively.
We didn't want any footraces. The trees, however, were still
retreating. Our siren would sing on for another eight minutes. And
in case of further danger, we were equipped with the standard pocket
arsenal of special purpose capsule bombs.

Soon we came face to face with the tall, stately old leader in the
cream-and-red cloak.

Split and I stood together, close enough to exchange comments against
the siren's wail. Fine looking people, we observed. Smooth faces.
Like the features of Earth men. These creatures could walk down
any main street back home. With a bit of makeup they would pass.
"Notice, Captain, they have strange looking eyes." "Very smooth."
"It's because they have no eyebrows ... no eye lashes." "Very
smooth - handsome - attractive."

Then the siren went off.

The leader stood before me, apparently unafraid. He seemed to be
waiting for me to explain my presence. His group of twelve gathered in
close.

I had met such situations with ease before. "EGGWE" explorers come
equipped. I held out a gift toward the leader. It was a singing
medallion attached to a chain. It was disc-shaped, patterned after a
large silver coin. It made music at the touch of a button. In clear,
dainty bell tones it rang out its one tune, "Trail of Stars."

As it played I held it up for inspection. I placed it around my own
neck, then offered it to the leader. I thought he was smiling. He was
not overwhelmed by the "magic" of this gadget. He saw it for what it
was, a token of friendship. There was a keenness about him that I
liked. Yes, he was smiling. He bent his head forward and allowed me to
place the gift around his neck.

"Tomboldo," he said, pointing to himself.

Split and I tried to imitate his breathy accents as we repeated aloud,
"Tomboldo."

We pointed to ourselves, in turn, and spoke our own names. And then,
as the names of the others were pronounced, we tried to memorize each
breathy sound that was uttered. I was able to remember four or five of
them. One was Gravgak.

Gravgak's piercing eyes caused me to notice him. Suspicious eyes? I did
not know these people's expressions well enough to be sure.

Gravgak was a guard, tall and muscular, whose arms and legs were
painted with green and black diamond designs.

By motions and words we didn't understand, we inferred that we were
invited to accompany the party back home, inside the hill, where we
would be safe. I nodded to Campbell. "It's our chance to be guests of
Tomboldo." Nothing could have pleased us more. For our big purpose - to
understand the Serpent River - would be forwarded greatly if we could
learn, through the people, what its meanings were. To analyze the
river's substance, estimate its rate, its weight, its temperature, and
to map its course - these facts were only a part of the information we
sought. The fuller story would be to learn how the inhabitants of this
planet regarded it: whether they loved or shunned it, and what legends
they may have woven around it. All this knowledge would be useful when
future expeditions of men from the Earth followed us (through EGGWE)
for an extension of peaceful trade relationships.

Tomboldo depended upon the guard Gravgak to make sure that the way was
safe. Gravgak was supposed to keep an eye on the line of floating trees
that had taken flight down the hillside. Danger still lurked there, we
knew. And now the siren that had frightened off the attack was silent.
Our ship, locked against invaders, could be forgotten. We were guests
of Tomboldo.

Gravgak was our guard, but he didn't work at it. He was too anxious to
hear all the talk. In the excitement of our meeting, everyone ignored
the growing darkness, the lurking dangers. Gravgak confronted us with
agitated jabbering:

"Wollo - yeeta - vo - vandartch - vandartch! Grr - see - o - see - o - see - o!"

"See - o - see - o - see - o," one of the others echoed.

It began to make sense. They wanted us to repeat the siren noises. The
enemy had threatened their lives. There could very well have been a
wholesale slaughter. But as long as we could make the "see - o - see - o"
we were all safe.

Split and I exchanged glances. He touched his hand to the equipment
jacket, to remind me we were armed with something more miraculous than
a yowling siren.

"See - o - see - o - see - o!" Others of Tomboldo's party echoed the demand.
They must have seen the sponge-trees again moving toward our path.
"_See - o - see - o!_"

Our peaceful march turned into a spasm of terror. The sponge-trees
came rushing up the slope, as if borne by a sudden gust of wind. They
bounced over our path, and the war party spilled out of them.

Shouting. A wild swinging of clubs. And no cat-and-mouse tricks. No
deliberate circling and closing in. An outright attack. Naked bodies
gleaming in the semi-darkness. Arms swinging weapons, choosing the
nearest victims. The luminous rocks on the ends of the clubs flashed.
Shouting, screeching, hurling their clubs. The whizzing fury filled the
air.

I hurled a capsule bomb. It struck at the base of a bouncing
sponge-tree, and blew the thing to bits.

The attackers ran back into a huddle, screaming. Then they came
forward, rushing defiantly.

Our muscular guard, Gravgak was too bold. He had picked up one of their
clubs and he ran toward their advance, and to all of Tomboldo's party
it must have appeared that he was bravely rushing to his death. Yet
the gesture of the club he swung so wildly could have been intended as
a _warning_! It could have meant, Run back, you fools, or these
strange devils will throw fire at you.

I threw fire. And so did my lieutenant. He didn't wait for orders,
thank goodness. He knew it was their lives or ours. Zip, zip,
zip - BLANG-BLANG-BLANG! The bursts of fire at their feet ripped the
rocks. The spray caught them and knocked them back. Three or four
warriors in the fore ranks were torn up in the blasts. Others were
flattened - and those who were able, ran.

They ran, not waiting for the cover of sponge-trees. Not bothering to
pick up their clubs.

But the operation was not a complete success. We had suffered a serious
casualty. The guard Gravgak. He had rushed out too far, and the first
blast of fire and rock had knocked him down. Now Tomboldo and others of
the party hovered over him.

His eyes opened a little. I thought he was staring at me, drilling me
with suspicion. I worked over him with medicines. The crowd around us
stood back in an attitude of awe as Split and I applied ready bandages,
and held a stimulant to his nostrils that made him breath back to
consciousness.

Suddenly he came to life. Lying there on his back, with the club still
at his fingertips, he swung up on one elbow. The swift motion caused
a cry of joy from the crowd. I heard a little of it - and then blacked
out. For as the muscular Gravgak moved, his fingers closed over the
handle of the club. It whizzed upward with him - apparently all by
accident. The stone that dangled from the end of the club crashed into
my head.

I went into instant darkness. Darkness, and a long, long silence.


4.

Vauna, the beautiful daughter of Tomboldo, came into my life during the
weeks that I lay unconscious.

I must have talked aloud much during those feverish hours of darkness.

"Campbell!" I would call out of a nightmare. "Campbell, we're about to
land. Is everything set? Check the instruments again, Campbell."

"S-s-sh!" The low hush of Split Campbell's voice would somehow
penetrate my dream.

The voices about me were soft. My dreams echoed the soft female voices
of this new, strange language.

"Campbell, are you there?... Have you forgotten the Code, Campbell?"

"Quiet, Captain."

"Who is it that's swabbing my face? I can't see."

"It's Vauna. She's smiling at you, Captain. Can't you see her?"

"Is this the pretty one we saw through the telescope?"

"One of them."

"And what of the other? There were two together. I remember - "

"Omosla is here too. She's Vauna's attendant. We're all looking after
you, Captain Linden. Did you know I performed an operation to relieve
the pressure on your brain? You must get well, Captain." The words of
Campbell came through insistently.

After a silence that may have lasted for hours or days, I said,
"Campbell, you haven't forgot the EGGWE Code?"

"Of course not, Captain."

"Section Four?"

"Section Four," he repeated in a low voice, as if to pacify me and put
me to sleep. "Conduct of EGGWE agents toward native inhabitants: A, No
agent shall enter into any diplomatic agreement that shall be construed
as binding - "

I interrupted. "Clause D?"

He picked it up. "D, no agent shall enter into a marriage contract with
any native.... H-m-m. You're not trying to warn me, are you, Captain
Linden? Or are you warning _yourself_?"

At that moment my eyes opened a little. Swimming before my blurred
vision was the face of Vauna. I did remember her - yes, she must have
haunted my dreams, for now my eyes burned in an effort to define her
features more clearly. This was indeed Vauna, who had been one of the
party of twelve, and had walked beside her father in the face of the
attack. Deep within my subconscious the image of her beautiful face and
figure had lingered. I murmured a single word of answer to Campbell's
question. "Myself."

In the hours that followed, I came to know the soft footsteps of Vauna.
The caverns in which she and her father and all these Benzendella
people lived were pleasantly warm and fragrant. My misty impressions of
their life about me were like the first impressions of a child learning
about the world into which he has been born.

Sometimes I would hear Vauna and her attendant Omosla talking together.
Often when Campbell would stop in this part of the cavern to inquire


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