The Aliens, Murray Leinster, Astounding Science Fiction, August 1959. Note: The copyright for this magazine short fiction has expired in the United States and was not renewed, thus, The Aliens now resides in the public domain.

Electricians half-floated, half-dragged extra batteries to the radar room. Baird hooked them in. The universe outside the ship again appeared filled with brilliantly colored dots of light which were stars. More satisfying, the globe-scanners again reported no new objects anywhere. Nothing new within a quarter million miles. A half-million. Later Baird reported:

“Radars report no strange objects within a million miles of the Niccola, sir.”

Except the ship we’re welded to! But you are doing very well. However, microphones say there is movement inside the Plumie.

Diane beckoned for Baird’s attention to a screen, which Baird had examined before. Now he stiffened and motioned for her to report.

“We’ve a scanner, sir,” said Diane, “which faces what looks like a port in the Plumie ship. There’s a figure at the port. I can’t make out details, but it is making motions, facing us.”

Give me the picture!” snapped the skipper.

Diane obeyed. It was the merest flip of a switch. Then her eyes went back to the spherical-sweep scanners which reported the bearing and distance of every solid object within their range. She set up two instruments which would measure the angle, bearing, and distance of the two planets now on this side of the sun—the gas-giant and the oxygen-world to sunward. Their orbital speeds and distances were known. The position, course, and speed of the Niccola could be computed from any two observations on them.

Diane had returned to the utterly necessary routine of the radar room which was the nerve-center of the ship, gathering all information needed for navigation in space. The fact that there had been a collision, that the Niccola’s engines were melted to unlovely scrap, that the Plumie ship was now welded irremovably to a side-keel, and that a Plumie was signaling to humans while both ships went spinning through space toward an unknown destination—these things did not affect the obligations of the radar room.

Baird got other images of the Plumie ship into sharp focus. So near, the scanners required adjustment for precision.

“Take a look at this!” he said wryly.

She looked. The view was of the Plumie as welded fast to the Niccola. The welding was itself an extraordinary result of the Plumie’s battle-tactics. Tractor and pressor beams were known to men, of course, but human beings used them only under very special conditions. Their operation involved the building-up of terrific static charges. Unless a tractor-beam generator could be grounded to the object it was to pull, it tended to emit lightning-bolts at unpredictable intervals and in entirely random directions. So men didn’t use them. Obviously, the Plumies did.

They’d handled the Niccola’s rockets with beams which charged the golden ship to billions of volts. And when the silicon-bronze Plumie ship touched the cobalt-steel Niccola—why—that charge had to be shared. It must have been the most spectacular of all artificial electric flames. Part of the Niccola’s hull was vaporized, and undoubtedly part of the Plumie. But the unvaporized surfaces were molten and in contact—and they stuck.

For a good twenty feet the two ships were united by the most perfect of vacuum-welds. The wholly dissimilar hulls formed a space-catamaran, with a sort of valley between their bulks. Spinning deliberately, as the united ships did, sometimes the sun shone brightly into that valley, and sometimes it was filled with the blackness of the pit.

While Diane looked, a round door revolved in the side of the Plumie ship. As Diane caught her breath, Baird reported crisply. At his first words Taine burst into raging commands for men to follow him through the Niccola’s air lock and fight a boarding party of Plumies in empty space. The skipper very savagely ordered him to be quiet.

“Only one figure has come out,” reported Baird. The skipper watched on a vision plate, but Baird reported so all the Niccola’s company would know. “It’s small—less than five feet ... I’ll see better in a moment.” Sunlight smote down into the valley between the ships. “It’s wearing a pressure suit. It seems to be the same material as the ship. It walks on two legs, as we do ... It has two arms, or something very similar ... The helmet of the suit is very high ... It looks like the armor knights used to fight in ... It’s making its way to our air lock ... It does not use magnetic-soled shoes. It’s holding onto lines threaded along the other ship’s hull ...”

The skipper said curtly:

Mr. Baird! I hadn’t noticed the absence of magnetic shoes. You seem to have an eye for important items. Report to the air lock in person. Leave Lieutenant Holt to keep an eye on outside objects. Quickly, Mr. Baird!

Baird laid his hand on Diane’s shoulder. She smiled at him.

“I’ll watch!” she promised.

He went out of the radar room, walking on what had been a side wall. The giddiness and dizziness of continued rotation was growing less, now. He was getting used to it. But the Niccola seemed strange indeed, with the standard up and down and Earth-gravity replaced by a vertical which was all askew and a weight of ounces instead of a hundred and seventy pounds.

He reached the air lock just as the skipper arrived. There were others there—armed and in pressure suits. The skipper glared about him.

“I am in command here,” he said very grimly indeed. “Mr. Taine has a special function, but I am in command! We and the creatures on the Plumie ship are in a very serious fix. One of them apparently means to come on board. There will be no hostility, no sneering, no threatening gestures! This is a parley! You will be careful. But you will not be trigger-happy!”

He glared around again, just as a metallic rapping came upon the Niccola’s air-lock door. The skipper nodded:

“Let him in the lock, Mr. Baird.”

Baird obeyed. The humming of the unlocking-system sounded. There were clankings. The outer air lock dosed. There was a faint whistling as air went in. The skipper nodded again.

Baird opened the inner door. It was 08 hours 10 minutes ship time.

The Plumie stepped confidently out into the topsy-turvy corridors of the Niccola. He was about the size of a ten-year-old human boy, and features which were definitely not grotesque showed through the clear plastic of his helmet. His pressure suit was, engineering-wise, a very clean job. His whole appearance was prepossessing. When he spoke, very clear and quite high sounds—soprano sounds—came from a small speaker-unit at his shoulder.

“For us to talk,” said the skipper heavily, “is pure nonsense. But I take it you’ve something to say.”

The Plumie gazed about with an air of lively curiosity. Then he drew out a flat pad with a white surface and sketched swiftly. He offered it to the Niccola’s skipper.

“We want this on record,” he growled, staring about.

Diane’s voice said capably from a speaker somewhere nearby:

Sir, there’s a scanner for inspection of objects brought aboard. Hold the plate flat and I’ll have a photograph—right!

The skipper said curtly to the Plumie:

“You’ve drawn our two ships linked as they are. What have you to say about it?”

He handed back the plate. The Plumie pressed a stud and it was blank again. He sketched and offered it once more.

“Hm-m-m,” said the skipper. “You can’t use your drive while we’re glued together, eh? Well?”

The Plumie reached up and added lines to the drawing.

“So!” rumbled the skipper, inspecting the additions. “You say it’s up to us to use our drive for both ships.” He growled approvingly: “You consider there’s a truce. You must, because we’re both in the same fix, and not a nice one, either. True enough! We can’t fight each other without committing suicide, now. But we haven’t any drive left! We’re a derelict! How am I going to say that—if I decide to?”

Baird could see the lines on the plate, from the angle at which the skipper held it. He said:

“Sir, we’ve been mapping, up in the radar room. Those last lines are map-co-ordinates—a separate sketch, sir. I think he’s saying that the two ships, together, are on a falling course toward the sun. That we have to do something or both vessels will fall into it. We should be able to check this, sir.”

“Hah!” growled the skipper. “That’s all we need! Absolutely all we need! To come here, get into a crazy right, have our drive melt to scrap, get crazily welded to a Plumie ship, and then for both of us to fry together! We don’t need anything more than that!”

Diane’s voice came on the speaker:

Sir, the last radar fixes on the planets in range give us a course directly toward the sun. I’ll repeat the observations.

The skipper growled. Taine thrust himself forward. He snarled:

“Why doesn’t this Plumie take off its helmet? It lands on oxygen planets! Does it think it’s too good to breathe our air?”

Baird caught the Plumie’s eye. He made a gesture suggesting the removal of the space helmet. The Plumie gestured, in return, to a tiny vent in the suit. He opened something and gas whistled out. He cut it off. The question of why he did not open or remove his helmet was answered. The atmosphere he breathed would not do men any good, nor would theirs do him any good, either. Taine said suspiciously:

“How do we know he’s breathing the stuff he let out then? This creature isn’t human! It’s got no right to attack humans! Now it’s trying to trick us!” His voice changed to a snarl. “We’d better wring its neck! Teach its kind a lesson—”

The skipper roared at him.

“Be quiet! Our ship is a wreck! We have to consider the facts! We and these Plumies are in a fix together, and we have to get out of it before we start to teach anybody anything!” He glared at Taine. Then he said heavily: “Mr. Baird, you seem to notice things. Take this Plumie over the ship. Show him our drive melted down, so he’ll realize we can’t possibly tow his ship into an orbit. He knows that we’re armed, and that we can’t handle our war heads at this range! So we can’t fool each other. We might as well be frank. But you will take full note of his reactions, Mr. Baird!”

Baird advanced, and the skipper made a gesture. The Plumie regarded Baird with interested eyes. And Baird led the way for a tour of the Niccola. It was confusing even to him, with right hand converted to up and left hand to down, and sidewise now almost vertical. On the way the Plumie made more clear, flutelike sounds, and more gestures. Baird answered.

“Our gravity pull was that way,” he explained, “and things fell so fast.”

He grasped a handrail and demonstrated the speed with which things fell in normal ship-gravity. He used a pocket communicator for the falling weight. It was singularly easy to say some things, even highly technical ones, because they’d be what the Plumie would want to know. But quite commonplace things would be very difficulty to convey.

Diane’s voice came out of the communicator.

There are no novelties outside,” she said quietly. “It looks like this is the only Plumie ship anywhere around. It could have been exploring, like us. Maybe it was looking for the people who put up Space-Survey markers.

“Maybe,” agreed Baird, using the communicator. “Is that stuff about falling into the sun correct?”

It seems so,” said Diane composedly. “I’m checking again. So far, the best course I can get means we graze the sun’s photosphere in fourteen days six hours, allowing for acceleration by the sun’s gravity.

“And you and I,” said Baird wryly, “have been acting as professional associates only, when—”

Don’t say it!” said Diane shakily. “It’s terrible!

He put the communicator back in his pocket. The Plumie had watched him. He had a peculiarly gallant air, this small figure in golden space armor with its high-crested helmet.

They reached the engine room. And there was the giant drive shaft of the Niccola, once wrapped with yard-thick coils which could induce an incredible density of magnetic flux in the metal. Even the return magnetic field, through the ship’s cobalt-steel hull, was many times higher than saturation. Now the coils were sagging: mostly melted. There were places where re-solidified metal smoked noisomely against nonmetallic floor or wall-covering. Engineers labored doggedly in the trivial gravity to clean up the mess.

“It’s past repair,” said Baird, to the ship’s first engineer.

“It’s junk,” said that individual dourly. “Give us six months and a place to set up a wire-drawing mill and an insulator synthesizer, and we could rebuild it. But nothing less will be any good.”

The Plumie stared at the drive. He examined the shaft from every angle. He inspected the melted, and partly-melted, and merely burned-out sections of the drive coils. He was plainly unable to understand in any fashion the principle of the magnetronic drive. Baird was tempted to try to explain, because there was surely no secret about a ship drive, but he could imagine no diagrams or gestures which would convey the theory of what happened in cobalt-steel when it was magnetized beyond one hundred thousand Gauss’ flux-density. And without that theory one simply couldn’t explain a magnetronic drive.

They left the engine room. They visited the rocket batteries. The generator room was burned out, like the drive, by the inconceivable lightning bolt which had passed between the ships on contact. The Plumie was again puzzled. Baird made it clear that the generator-room supplied electric current for the ship’s normal lighting-system and services. The Plumie could grasp that idea. They examined the crew’s quarters, and the mess room, and the Plumie walked confidently among the members of the human crew, who a little while since had tried so painstakingly to destroy his vessel. He made a good impression.

“These little guys,” said a crewman to Baird, admiringly, “they got something. They can handle a ship! I bet they could almost make that ship of theirs play checkers!”

“Close to it,” agreed Baird. He realized something. He pulled the communicator from his pocket. “Diane! Contact the skipper. He wanted observations. Here’s one. This Plumie acts like soldiers used to act in ancient days—when they wore armor. And we have the same reaction! They will fight like the devil, but during a truce they’ll be friendly, admiring each other as scrappers, but ready to fight as hard as ever when the truce is over. We have the same reaction! Tell the skipper I’ve an idea that it’s a part of their civilization—maybe it’s a necessary part of any civilization! Tell him I guess that there may be necessarily parallel evolution of attitudes, among rational races, as there are parallel evolutions of eyes and legs and wings and fins among all animals everywhere! If I’m right, somebody from this ship will be invited to tour the Plumie! It’s only a guess, but tell him!”

Immediately,” said Diane.