BY WILLIAM MORRISON
Xhanph was the fully accredited ambassador from Gfun,
and Earth's first visitor from outer space.
History and the amenities called for a tremendous
reception. But earth people are funny people....
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, October 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
All the way over, all through the loneliness of the long trip, he hadconsoled himself with the thought of the reception he would get. Howthey would crowd around him, how they would gape and cheer! All themost prominent and most important Earthlings would rush to see him,to touch their own appendages to his tentacles, to receive his reportof interplanetary good will. His arrival would certainly be the mostcelebrated occasion in all the history of Earth....
He was coming in for a landing, and it was no time for day-dreaming.He brought the ship down slowly, in the middle of a large square, ascarefully as if he were settling down among his own people. He gavethem a chance to get out from under him before making contact with theground. When the ship finally rested firmly on the strange planet, hegave a sigh of relief, and for a few long seconds sat there motionless.And then he began to move toward the door.
The increased gravity did not affect him as badly as he had thought itwould. For the dense atmosphere, with its high oxygen content, he hadof course been prepared. He injected another dose of respiratory enzymeinto his bloodstream just to make sure, and then swung open the door.The inrush of air caused only a momentary dizziness.
Then he climbed over the side and stared about in surprise.
No one was paying any attention to him.
Their indifference was so enormous that it struck him like a blow.Individuals of both sexes—he could easily distinguish them by thedifference in their clothing—were going about their own business asif he simply were not there. A small animal running about on all fourshad its forepart to the ground. It trotted from one place to another,making a slight noise with an organ that he felt sure was used for theintake of oxygen. When it came to him, it sniffed slightly, withoutany especial interest, and then ran off to more important business. Noother creature paid him even that much attention.
Can it be, he asked himself incredulously, that they don't see me?Perhaps their organs of vision make use of different wave lengths.Perhaps to them I and the ship are not pink and gray respectively, buta perfect black which fails to register. I must speak to them, I mustmake myself known. They may be startled, but I must take the chance.
He rolled over to an individual who towered over him a full spard,and said gravely, "Greetings! I, Xhanph, bring you greetings from theinhabitants of the planet, Gfun. I come with a message of friendship—"
There could be no doubt that the other heard him. And saw him too. Helooked straight at Xhanph, muttered something, probably about a pinkmonster, which Xhanph could guess at but not really interpret, andmoved on impatiently. Xhanph stared after him with an incredulity thatgrew by the moment.
They didn't understand his language, that he realized. But surelythey didn't have to understand in order to be interested. The verysight of his ship, a mere glimpse of him, the first visitor frominterplanetary space, should have been enough to bring them flockingaround. How could they possibly greet him with such disinterest, withsuch faces which even to a stranger seemed cold and chilling?
When you have traveled as far as he had traveled, you don't give upeasily. Another, a shorter individual, was coming toward him, and hebegan again, "Greetings! I, Xhanph—"
This time the individual didn't even stop, but muttered something whichmust surely have been of the nature of an oath. And hurried on.
Xhanph tried five more times before he gave up. If there had been theslightest indication of interest, he would have kept on. But therewasn't. The only feeling he could detect was one of impatience at beingannoyed. And he saw that there was nothing else to do but go back tohis ship.
For a while he sat there, brooding. One possible solution struckhim, although it didn't seem at all probable. These people were notrepresentative of their kind. Perhaps this entire area he had taken fora city was nothing more than a retreat for the mentally disabled, forthose who had found the strain of living too much and had sunk backinto a kind of stupor. Perhaps elsewhere the people were more normal.
At the thought, he brightened for a moment. Yes, that must be it.Convincing himself against his own better judgment, he lifted the shipinto the air again and set it down a few dozen grolls away.
But there was no difference. Here, too, the faces looked at himblankly, and people hurried away impatiently when he tried to stop them.
He knew now that it was useless to pick up the ship still another timeand set it down elsewhere. If there was some rational explanationfor such irrational behavior, it could be found here just as well asanywhere else. And explanation there must be. But he would have to lookfor it. It would not come to him if he simply sat there in the ship andwaited for it.
He got out and locked the ship so that in case some one finally didshow curiosity, no harm would come to it. Then he began to roll aroundthe city.
Everywhere he met the same indifference as at first. Even the childrenstared at him without curiosity, and went on with their games. Hestopped to watch—and to listen.
They bounced balls, and as they bounced, they recited words. Whensomething interrupted the even tenor of the game and they had to beginagain, they went back to the start of the recitation. Surely, they werecounting. Listening carefully, he learned the fundamentals of theirsystem of numerals. At the same time, for the sake of permanence, hemade pictorial and auditory records.
Every now and then the game would be interrupted by a quarrel. And achildish quarrel, of course, was sure to be full of recriminations.You did this, I did that. He learned the names of the objects withwhich they played, he learned the words for first and second persons intheir different forms. He learned the word for the maternal parent, whoseemed to stand in the closest relation to the young ones.
By evening he had acquired a fairly good child's grasp of the language.He rolled back in the direction of the ship. When he came to the placewhere it should be, he had a sudden feeling of panic. The ship was gone.
They must have dragged it away. Their whole pretense of indifferencemust have been a trick, he thought excitedly. They had waited untilthey could tamper with it without his interference, in order to learnits secrets. What had they done with it? Perhaps they had harmed it,possibly they had ruined the drive. How could he ever get off thisaccursed planet, how would he ever get back to Gfun?
He rolled hastily over to the nearest man and tried to put his newfoundvocabulary to use. "Where—where—" He realized suddenly that he didn'tknow the word for ship. "Where galenfain?"
The man looked at him as if he were crazy, and walked on.
Xhanph did some swearing on his own account. He began to rollmadly around the square, becoming more desperate from moment tomoment. Finally, just when he thought he would explode from rageand frustration, he found the ship again. It had been dragged toa neighboring street and left on a vacant lot, surrounded by rustycans, broken bottles, and various other forms of garbage and rubbishindigenous to this section of the planet.
Relief mingled with a feeling of outrage. Xhanph swore again. Theindignity of it was enough to start an interplanetary war. If they everheard of it back on Gfun, they would want to blast this stupid andinsulting planet out of existence.
He hastened into the ship, and found to his joy that there had beenno damage. There was nothing to prevent him from taking off again andgetting back to Gfun. But the mystery of his reception still intriguedhim. He could not leave without solving it.
He rolled out of the ship again and stood there watching it. Evidentlythey had regarded this miracle of engineering as nothing more than somuch rubbish. They would probably leave it alone now. He could let itremain here, and in the meantime carry on his investigating as before.
Things would go more rapidly now that he understood some of theelements of human speech. All he had to do was keep his hearingappendages open and interpret the key words as he heard them. Itshouldn't take him long. One of the reasons he had been selected tomake the trip was that he had a gift for languages, and a day or twomore should suffice to establish communications.
He left the ship again, and began to roll around the city. He listenedto traffic policemen directing the flow of helicopters, he stoodby unobtrusively while boy talked with girl—these conversationsturned out to be very limited in scope, as well as uninstructive insyntax—and he even managed to get into a place of amusement wherethree dimensional images created in him a sense of nostalgia. From hisslight knowledge of the language, he could perceive that the dialoguewas so stale that he himself could have supplied it from storieswritten long ago on his native planet. After a lapse of many hours, themajority of the people disappeared from the streets, and he decided itwas time to return to his ship and suspend animation.
In the morning he set out again. By the end of that day he felt hecould understand the spoken language well enough. What next?
To learn the language in written form might take too long, and besides,to solve his mystery he would have to waste time in digging up therecorded forms that contained the necessary information. No, he wouldhave to find some one to talk to, some one who would have the necessaryinformation at his tentacle-tips, or as they called the appendageshere, finger-tips.
He began to approach various people again, undiscouraged by theircold and impolite replies. Finally he found the informant he had beenseeking, an old, white-haired individual who was walking slowly, withthe aid of a cane, along one of the wider and quieter streets.
The man looked at him with calm lack of interest as he approached.Xhanph came to a stop, and said, "Greetings! I, Xhanph, bring yougreetings from the inhabitants of the planet, Gfun. I come with amessage of friendship."
"Very glad to make your acquaintance, sir," said the old man politely,but still without genuine interest.
At last some one who had answered! Xhanph started his portablerecording machine going.
"I wish for information. Perhaps you can give it to me."
"Ah, my young fellow, I have seen a great deal and know a great deal.But it isn't very often that you young ones want to find out what weold folks know."
"Perhaps I have not made myself clear. I am an inhabitant of theplanet, Gfun."
"Yes, indeed. Do you intend to stay here long?"
"I have come with a message of friendship. But I have found no one toreceive it."
"Mmm. That's unfortunate," the old man said. "People are very impatientnowadays. Time is money, they say. Can't spare the money to stopand talk. Couldn't spare it myself, not so long ago. I'm retirednow, though. Used to run a stereo store, up around Mudlark Street.Biggest store in the city. Everybody used to buy from me. Jefferson J.Gardner's my name. You may have heard of me on—where did you say youcome from?"
"Gfun. However, I wish to make clear—"
"Never sold any stereos to any one on Gfun. Probably don't get goodreception up there. Sold 'em to everybody else, though. I'm well knownhere, Mr.—"
"Xhanph. But before you go further—"
"Got into the stereo game when they first came out. Went like hotcakesin those days. Although I don't suppose you know what a hotcake is.Quality didn't count. Only thing that counted was size of screen andstrength of the three-dimensional effect. Mr.