Harris frowned. “And they’re here, in the woods?”
“I see.” He ground his cigarette out impatiently. “You don’t suppose there’s any chance you could take me to them, do you?”
“Yes. I have this problem and I have to solve it. You see, the Base Commander on Terra has assigned this to me, this business about the Pipers. It has to be solved. And I’m the one assigned to the job. So it’s important to me to find them. Do you see? Do you understand?”
“Well, will you take me to them?”
The girl was silent. For a long time she sat, staring down into the water, resting her head against her knee. Harris began to become impatient. He fidgeted back and forth, resting first on one leg and then on the other.
“Well, will you?” he said again. “It’s important to the whole Garrison. What do you say?” He felt around in his pockets. “Maybe I could give you something. What do I have. . .” He brought out his lighter. “I could give you my lighter.”
The girl stood up, rising slowly, gracefully, without motion or effort.
Harris’ mouth fell open. How supple she was, gliding to her feet in a single motion! He blinked. Without effort she had stood, seemingly without change. All at once she was standing instead of sitting, standing and looking calmly at him, her small face expressionless.
“Will you?” he said.
“Yes. Come along.” She turned away, moving toward the row of ferns.
Harris followed quickly, stumbling across the rocks. “Fine,” he said. “Thanks a lot. I’m very interested to meet these Pipers. Where are you taking me, to your village? How much time do we have before nightfall?”
The girl did not answer. She had entered the ferns already, and Harris quickened his pace to keep from losing her. How silently she glided!
“Wait,” he called. “Wait for me.”
The girl paused, waiting for him, slim and lovely, looking silently back.
He entered the ferns, hurrying after her.
“Well I’ll be damned!” Commander Cox said. “It sure didn’t take you long.” He leaped down the steps two at a time. “Let me give you a hand.”
Harris grinned, lugging his heavy suitcases. He set them down and breathed a sigh of relief. “It isn’t worth it,” he said. “I’m going to give up taking so much.”
“Come on inside. Soldier, give him a hand.” A Patrolman hurried over and took one of the suitcases. The three men went inside and down the corridor to Harris’ quarters. Harris unlocked the door and the Patrolman deposited his suitcase inside.
“Thanks,” Harris said. He set the other down beside it. “It’s good be be back, even for a little while.”
“A little while?”
“I just came back to settle my affairs. I have to return to Y-3 tomorrow morning.”
“Then you didn’t solve the problem?”
“I solved it, but I haven’t cured it. I’m going back and get to work right away. There’s a lot to be done.”
“But you found out what it is?”
“Yes. It was just what the men said. The Pipers.”
“The Pipers do exist?”
“Yes.” Harris nodded. “They do exist.” He removed his coat and put it over the back of the chair. Then he went to the window and let it down. Warm spring air rushed into the room. He settled himself on the bed, leaning back.
“The Pipers exist, all right — in the minds of the Garrison crew! To the crew, the Pipers are real. The crew created them. It’s a mass hypnosis, a group projection, and all the men there have it, to some degree.”
“How did it start?”
“Those men on Y-3 were sent because they were skilled, highly-trained men with exceptional ability. All their lives they’ve been schooled by complex modern society, fast tempo and high integration between people. Constant pressure toward some goal, some job to be done.
“Those men are put down suddenly on an asteroid where there are natives living the most primitive of existence, completely vegetable lives. No concept of goal, no concept of purpose, and hence no ability to plan. The natives live the way the animals live, from day to day, sleeping, picking food from the trees. A kind of Garden-of-Eden existence, without struggle or conflict.”
“So? But –”
“Each of the Garrison crew sees the natives and unconsciously thinks of his own early life, when he was a child, when he had no worries, no responsibilities, before he joined modern society. A baby lying in the sun.
“But he can’t admit this to himself! He can’t admit that he might want to live like the natives, to lie and sleep all day. So he invents The Pipers, the idea of a mysterious group living in the woods who trap him, lead him into their kind of life. Then he can blame them, not himself. They ‘teach’ him to become a part of the woods.”
“What are you going to do? Have the woods burned?”
“No.” Harris shook his head. “That’s not the answer; the woods are harmless. The answer is psychotherapy for the men. That’s why I’m going right back, so I can begin work. They’ve got to be made to see that the Pipers are inside them, their own unconscious voices calling to them to give up their responsibilities. They’ve got to be made to realize that there are no Pipers, at least, not outside themselves. The woods are harmless and the natives have nothing to teach anyone. They’re primitive savages, without even a written language. We’re seeing a psychological projection by a whole Garrison of men who want to lay down their work and take it easy for a while.”
The room was silent.
“I see,” Cox said presently. “Well, it makes sense.” He got to his feet. “I hope you can do something with the men you get back.”
“I hope so, too,” Harris agreed. “And I think I can. After all, it’s just a question of increasing their self-awareness. When they have that the Pipers will vanish.”
Cox nodded. “Well, you go ahead with your unpacking, Doc. I’ll see you at dinner. And maybe before you leave, tomorrow.”
Harris opened the door and the Commander went out into the hall. Harris closed the door after him and then went back across the room. He looked out the window for a moment, his hands in his pockets.
It was becoming evening, the air was turning cool. The sun was just setting as he watched, disappearing behind the buildings of the city surrounding the hospital. He watched it go down.
Then he went over to his two suitcases. He was tired, very tired from his trip. A great weariness was beginning to descend over him. There were so many things to do, so terribly many. How could he hope to do them all? Back to the asteroid. And then what?
He yawned, his eyes closing. How sleepy he was! He looked over at the bed. Then he sat down on the edge of it and took his shoes off. So much to do, the next day.
He put his shoes in the corner of the room. Then he bent over, unsnapping one of the suitcases. He opened the suitcase. From it he took a bulging gunny-sack. Carefully, he emptied the contents of the sack out on the floor. Dirt, rich soft dirt. Dirt he had collected during his last hours there, dirt he had carefully gathered up.
When the dirt was spread out on the floor he sat down in the middle of it. He stretched himself out, leaning back. When he was fully comfortable he folded his hands across his chest and closed his eyes. So much work to do — But later on, of course. Tomorrow. How warm the dirt was. . .
He was sound asleep in a moment.
“I don’t like it,” Major Crispin Eller said. He stared through the port scope, frowning. “An asteroid like this with plenty of water, moderate temperature, an atmosphere similar to Terra’s oxygen-nitrogen mix –”
“And no life.” Harrison Blake, second in command, came up beside Eller. They both stared out. “No life, yet ideal conditions. Air, water, good temperature. Why?”
They looked at each other. Beyond the hull of the cruiser, the X-43y, the barren, level surface of the asteroid stretched away. The X-43y was a long way from home, half-way across the galaxy. Competition with the Mars-Venus-Jupiter Triumvirate had moved Terra to map and prospect every bit of rock in the galaxy, with the idea of claiming mining concessions later on. The X-43y had been out planting the blue and white flag for almost a year. The three-member crew had earned a rest, a vacation back on Terra and a chance to spend the pay they had accumulated. Tiny prospecting ships led a hazardous life, threading their way through the rubble-strewn periphery of the system, avoiding meteor swarms, clouds of hull-eating bacteria, space pirates, peanut-size empires on remote artificial planetoids —
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