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.

From the radar room he watched the Plumie place an object in the air lock and withdraw. He watched from a scanner inside the ship as someone brought in what the Plumie had left. An electronics man bustled forward. He looked it over quickly. It was complex, but his examination suddenly seemed satisfying to him. But a grayish vapor developed and he sniffed and wrinkled his nose. He picked up a communicator.

Sir, they’ve sent us a power-generator. Some of its parts are going bad in our atmosphere, sir, but this looks to me like a hell of a good idea for a generator! I never saw anything like it, but it’s good! You can set it for any voltage and it’ll turn out plenty juice!

Put it in helium,” snapped the skipper. “It won’t break down in that! Then see how it serves!

In the radar room, Baird drew a deep breath. He went carefully to each of the screens and every radar. Diane saw what he was about, and checked with him. They met at the middle of the radar room.

“Everything’s checked out,” said Baird gravely. “There’s nothing else around. There’s nothing we can be called on to do before something happens. So ... we can ... act like people.”

Diane smiled very faintly.

“Not like people. Just like us.” She said wistfully: “Don’t you want to tell me something? Something you intended to tell me only after we got back to base?”

He did. He told it to her. And there was also something she had not intended to tell him at all—unless he told her first. She said it now. They felt that such sayings were of the greatest possible importance. They clung together, saying them again. And it seemed wholly monstrous that two people who cared so desperately had wasted so much time acting like professional associates—explorer-ship officers—when things like this were to be said ...

As they talked incoherently, or were even more eloquently silent, the ship’s ordinary lights came on. The battery-lamp went on.

“We’ve got to switch back to ship’s circuit,” said Baird reluctantly. They separated, and restored the operating circuits to normal. “We’ve got fourteen days,” he added, “and so much time to be on duty, and we’ve a lost lifetime to live in fourteen days! Diane—”

She flushed vividly. So Baird said very politely into the microphone to the navigation room:

“Sir, Lieutenant Holt and myself would like to speak directly to you in the navigation room. May we?”

Why not?” growled the skipper. “You’ve noticed that the Plumie generator is giving the whole ship lights and services?

“Yes, sir,” said Baird. “We’ll be there right away.”

They heard the skipper’s grunt as they hurried through the door. A moment later the ship’s normal gravity returned—also through the Plumie generator. Up was up again, and down was down, and the corridors and cabins of the Niccola were brightly illuminated. Had the ship been other than an engineless wreck, falling through a hundred and fifty million miles of emptiness into the flaming photosphere of a sun, everything would have seemed quite normal, including the errand Baird and Diane were upon, and the fact that they held hands self-consciously as they went about it.

They skirted the bulkhead of the main air tank. They headed along the broader corridor which went past the indented inner door of the air lock. They had reached that indentation when Baird saw that the inner air-lock door was closing. He saw a human pressure suit past its edge. He saw the corner of some object that had been put down on the air-lock floor.

Baird shouted, and rushed toward the lock. He seized the inner handle and tried to force open the door again, so that no one inside it could emerge into the emptiness without. He failed. He wrenched frantically at the control of the outer door. It suddenly swung freely. The outer door had been put on manual. It could be and was being opened from inside.

“Tell the skipper,” raged Baird. “Taine’s taking something out!” He tore open a pressure-suit cupboard in the wall beside the lock door. “He’ll make the Plumies think it’s a return-gift for the generator!” He eeled into the pressure suit and zipped it up to his neck. “The man’s crazy! He thinks we can take their ship and stay alive for a while! Dammit, our air would ruin half their equipment! Tell the skipper to send help!”

He wrenched at the door again, jamming down his helmet with one hand. And this time the control worked. Taine, most probably, had forgotten that the inner control was disengaged only when the manual was actively in use. Diane raced away, panting. Baird swore bitterly at the slowness of the outer door’s closing. He was tearing at the inner door long before it could be opened. He flung himself in and dragged it shut, and struck the emergency air-release which bled the air lock into space for speed of operation. He thrust out the outer door and plunged through.

His momentum carried him almost too far. He fell, and only the magnetic soles of his shoes enabled him to check himself. He was in that singular valley between the two ships, where their hulls were impregnably welded fast. Round-hulled Plumie ship, and ganoid-shaped Niccola, they stuck immovably together as if they had been that way since time began. Where the sky appeared above Baird’s head, the stars moved in stately procession across the valley roof.

He heard a metallic rapping through the fabric of his space armor. Then sunlight glittered, and the valley filled with a fierce glare, and a man in a human spacesuit stood on the Niccola’s plating, opposite the Plumie air lock. He held a bulky object under his arm. With his other gauntlet he rapped again.

“You fool!” shouted Baird. “Stop that! We couldn’t use their ship, anyhow!”

His space phone had turned on with the air supply. Taine’s voice snarled:

We’ll try! You keep back! They are not human!

But Baird ran toward him. The sensation of running upon magnetic-soled shoes was unearthly: it was like trying to run on fly-paper or bird-lime. But in addition there was no gravity here, and no sense of balance, and there was the feeling of perpetual fall.

There could be no science nor any skill in an encounter under such conditions. Baird partly ran and partly staggered and partly skated to where Taine faced him, snarling. He threw himself at the other man—and then the sun vanished behind the bronze ship’s hull, and only stars moved visibly in all the universe.

But the sound of his impact was loud in Baird’s ears inside the suit. There was a slightly different sound when his armor struck Taine’s, and when it struck the heavier metal of the two ships. He fought. But the suits were intended to be defense against greater stresses than human blows could offer. In the darkness, it was like two blindfolded men fighting each other while encased in pillows.

Then the sun returned, floating sedately above the valley, and Baird could see his enemy. He saw, too, that the Plumie air lock was now open and that a small, erect, and somehow jaunty figure in golden space armor stood in the opening and watched gravely as the two men fought.

Taine cursed, panting with hysterical hate. He flung himself at Baird, and Baird toppled because he’d put one foot past the welded boundary between the Niccola’s cobalt steel and the Plumie ship’s bronze. One foot held to nothing. And that was a ghastly sensation, because if Taine only rugged his other foot free and heaved—why—then Baird would go floating away from the rotating, now-twinned ships, floating farther and farther away forever.

But darkness fell, and he scrambled back to the Niccola’s hull as a disorderly parade of stars went by above him. He pantingly waited fresh attack. He felt something—and it was the object Taine had meant to offer as a return present to the Plumies. It was unquestionably explosive, either booby-trapped or timed to explode inside the Plumie ship. Now it rocked gently, gripped by the magnetism of the steel.

The sun appeared again, and Taine was yards away, crawling and fumbling for Baird. Then he saw him, and rose and rushed, and the clankings of his shoe-soles were loud. Baird flung himself at Taine in a savage tackle.

He struck Taine’s legs a glancing blow, and the cobalt steel held his armor fast, but Taine careened and bounced against the round bronze wall of the Plumie, and bounced again. Then he screamed, because he went floating slowly out to emptiness, his arms and legs jerking spasmodically, while he shrieked ...

The Plumie in the air lock stepped out. He trailed a cord behind him. He leaped briskly toward nothingness.

There came quick darkness once more, and Baird struggled erect despite the adhesiveness of the Niccola’s hull. When he was fully upright, sick with horror at what had come about, there was sunlight yet again, and men were coming out of the Niccola’s air lock, and the Plumie who’d leaped for space was pulling himself back to his own ship again. He had a loop of the cord twisted around Taine’s leg. But Taine screamed and screamed inside his spacesuit.

It was odd that one could recognize the skipper even inside space armor. But Baird felt sick. He saw Taine received, still screaming, and carried into the lock. The skipper growled an infuriated demand for details. His space phone had come on, too, when its air supply began. Baird explained, his teeth chattering.

Hah!” grunted the skipper. “Taine was a mistake. He shouldn’t ever have left ground. When a man’s potty in one fashion, there’ll be cracks in him all over. What’s this?

The Plumie in the golden armor very soberly offered the skipper the object Taine had meant to introduce into the Plumie’s ship. Baird said desperately that he’d fought against it, because he believed it a booby trap to kill the Plumies so men could take their ship and fill it with air and cut it free, and then make a landing somewhere.

Damned foolishness!” rumbled the skipper. “Their ship’d begin to crumble with our air in it! If it held to a landing—

Then he considered the object he’d accepted from the Plumie. It could have been a rocket war head, enclosed in some container that would detonate it if opened. Or there might be a timing device. The skipper grunted. He heaved it skyward.

The misshapen object went floating away toward emptiness. Sunlight smote harshly upon it.

Don’t want it back in the Niccola,” growled the skipper, “but just to make sure—

He fumbled a hand weapon out of his belt. He raised it, and it spurted flame—very tiny blue-white sparks, each one indicating a pellet of metal flung away at high velocity.

One of them struck the shining, retreating container. It exploded with a monstrous, soundless, violence. It had been a rocket’s war head. There could have been only one reason for it to be introduced into a Plumie ship. Baird ceased to be shaky. Instead, he was ashamed.

The skipper growled inarticulately. He looked at the Plumie, again standing in the golden ship’s air lock.

We’ll go back, Mr. Baird. What you’ve done won’t save our lives, and nobody will ever know you did it. But I think well of you. Come along!

This was at 11 hours 5 minutes ship time.

A good half hour later the skipper’s voice bellowed from the speakers all over the Niccola. His heavy-jowled features stared doggedly out of screens wherever men were on duty or at ease.

Hear this!” he said forbiddingly. “We have checked our course and speed. We have verified that there is no possible jury-rig for our engines that could get us into any sort of orbit, let alone land us on the only planet in this system with air we could breathe. It is officially certain that in thirteen days nine hours from now, the Niccola will be so close to the sun that her hull will melt down. Which will be no loss to us because we’ll be dead then, still going on into the sun to be vaporized with the ship. There is nothing to be done about it. We can do nothing to save our own lives!

He glared out of each and every one of the screens, wherever there were men to see him.

But,” he rumbled, “the Plumies can get away if we help them. They have no cutting torches. We have. We can cut their ship free. They can repair their drive—but it’s most likely that it’ll operate perfectly when they’re a mile from the Niccola’s magnetic field. They can’t help us. But we can help them. And sooner or later some Plumie ship is going to encounter some other human ship. If we cut these Plumies loose, they’ll report what we did. When they meet other men, they’ll be cagey because they’ll remember Taine. But they’ll know they can make friends, because we did them a favor when we’d nothing to gain by it. I can offer no reward. But I ask for volunteers to go outside and cut the Plumie ship loose, so the Plumies can go home in safety instead of on into the sun with us!

He glared, and cut off the image.

Diane held tightly to Baird’s hand, in the radar room. He said evenly:

“There’ll be volunteers. The Plumies are pretty sporting characters—putting up a fight with an unarmed ship, and so on. If there aren’t enough other volunteers, the skipper and I will cut them free by ourselves.”

Diane said, dry-throated:

“I’ll help. So I can be with you. We’ve got—so little time.”

“I’ll ask the skipper as soon as the Plumie ship’s free.”

“Y-yes,” said Diane. And she pressed her face against his shoulder, and wept.

This was at 01 hours, 20 minutes ship time. At 03 hours even, there was peculiar activity in the valley between the welded ships. There were men in space armor working cutting-torches where for twenty feet the two ships were solidly attached. Blue-white flames bored savagely into solid metal, and melted copper gave off strangely colored clouds of vapor—which emptiness whisked away to nothing—and molten iron and cobalt made equally lurid clouds of other colors.

There were Plumies in the air lock, watching.

At 03 hours 40 minutes ship time, all the men but one drew back. They went inside the Niccola. Only one man remained, cutting at the last sliver of metal that held the two ships together.

It parted. The Plumie ship swept swiftly away, moved by the centrifugal force of the rotary motion the joined vessels had possessed. It dwindled and dwindled. It was a half mile away. A mile. The last man on the outside of the Niccola’s hull thriftily brought his torch to the air lock and came in.

Suddenly, the distant golden hull came to life. It steadied. It ceased to spin, however slowly. It darted ahead. It checked. It swung to the right and left and up and down. It was alive again.

In the radar room, Diane walked into Baird’s arms and said shakily:

“Now we ... we have almost fourteen days.”

“Wait,” he commanded. “When the Plumies understood what we were doing, and why, they drew diagrams. They hadn’t thought of cutting free, out in space, without the spinning saws they use to cut bronze with. But they asked for a scanner and a screen. They checked on its use. I want to see—”

He flipped on the screen. And there was instantly a Plumie looking eagerly out of it, for some sign of communication established. There were soprano sounds, and he waved a hand for attention. Then he zestfully held up one diagram after another.

Baird drew a deep breath. A very deep breath. He pressed the navigation-room call. The skipper looked dourly at him.

Well?” said the skipper forbiddingly.

“Sir,” said Baird, very quietly indeed, “the Plumies are talking by diagram over the communicator set we gave them. Their drive works. They’re as well off as they ever were. And they’ve been modifying their tractor beams—stepping them up to higher power.”

What of it?” demanded the skipper, rumbling.

“They believe,” said Baird, “that they can handle the Niccola with their beefed-up tractor beams.” He wetted his lips. “They’re going to tow us to the oxygen planet ahead, sir. They’re going to set us down on it. They’ll help us find the metals we need to build the tools to repair the Niccola, sir. You see the reasoning, sir. We turned them loose to improve the chance of friendly contact when another human ship runs into them. They want us to carry back—to be proof that Plumies and men can be friends. It seems that—they like us, sir.”

He stopped for a moment. Then he went on reasonably;

“And besides that, it’ll be one hell of a fine business proposition. We never bother with hydrogen-methane planets. They’ve minerals and chemicals we haven’t got, but even the stones of a methane-hydrogen planet are ready to combine with the oxygen we need to breathe! We can’t carry or keep enough oxygen for real work. The same thing’s true with them on an oxygen planet. We can’t work on each other’s planets, but we can do fine business in each other’s minerals and chemicals from those planets. I’ve got a feeling, sir, that the Plumie cairns are location-notices; markers set up over ore deposits they can find but can’t hope to work, yet they claim against the day when their scientists find a way to make them worth owning. I’d be willing to bet, sir, that if we explored hydrogen planets as thoroughly as oxygen ones, we’d find cairns on their-type planets that they haven’t colonized yet.”

The skipper stared. His mouth dropped open.

“And I think, sir,” said Baird, “that until they detected us they thought they were the only intelligent race in the galaxy. They were upset to discover suddenly that they were not, and at first they’d no idea what we’d be like. But I’m guessing now, sir, that they’re figuring on what chemicals and ores to start swapping with us.” Then he added, “When you think of it, sir, probably the first metal they ever used was aluminum—where our ancestors used copper—and they had a beryllium age next, instead of iron. And right now, sir it’s probably as expensive for them to refine iron as it is for us to handle titanium and beryllium and osmium—which are duck soup for them! Our two cultures ought to thrive as long as we’re friends, sir. They know it already—and we’ll find it out in a hurry!”

The skipper’s mouth moved. It closed, and then dropped open again. The search for the Plumies had been made because it looked like they had to be fought. But Baird had just pointed out some extremely commonsense items which changed the situation entirely. And there was evidence that the Plumies saw the situation the new way. The skipper felt such enormous relief that his manner changed. He displayed what was almost effusive cordiality—for the skipper. He cleared his throat.

Hm-m-m. Hah! Very good, Mr. Baird,” he said formidably. “And of course with time and air and metals we can rebuild our drive. For that matter, we could rebuild the Niccola! I’ll notify the ship’s company, Mr. Baird. Very good!” He moved to use another microphone. Then he checked himself. “Your expression is odd, Mr. Baird. Did you wish to say something more?

“Y-yes, sir,” said Baird. He held Diane’s hand fast. “It’ll be months before we get back to port, sir. And it’s normally against regulations, but under the circumstances ... would you mind ... as skipper ... marrying Lieutenant Holt and me?”

The skipper snorted. Then he said almost—almost—amiably;

“Hm-m-m. You’ve both done very well, Mr. Baird. Yes. Come to the navigation room and we’ll get it over with. Say—ten minutes from now.”

Baird grinned at Diane. Her eyes shone a little.

This was at 04 hours 10 minutes ship time. It was exactly twelve hours since the alarm-bell rang.