“Yes, I know,” Telzey said. “Of course, the Kyth people are all right.”
“Yes, they’re all right. But otherwise—”
“Well, I know it’s going to be a lot of trouble for you,” she said. “And I’m sorry I caused it. But there really wasn’t anything else I could do.”
“No, it seems there really wasn’t,” Klayung agreed. “Nevertheless—well, that’s something I wouldn’t recommend you try very frequently!”
Telzey was silent a moment.
“I’m not sure I’d try it again for any reason,” she admitted. “At the end there, I nearly didn’t get back.”
Klayung nodded. “There was a distinct possibility you wouldn’t get back.”
“Were you thinking of having Noal go on as Noal?” Telzey inquired.
“That should be the simplest approach,” Klayung said. “We’ll see what the Makeup Department says. I doubt it would involve excessive structural modifications. . . . You don’t agree?”
Telzey said, “Oh, it would be simplest, all right. But—well, you see, Noal was just nothing physically. He’s got a great body now. It would be a shame to turn him back to being a nothing again.”
Klayung looked at her a moment.
“Those two have had a very bad time,” Telzey continued. “Due to Larien. It seems sort of fair, doesn’t it?”
“If he’s to become Larien Selk officially,” Klayung remarked, “there’ll be a great many more complications to straighten out.”
“Yes, I realize that.”
“Besides,” Klayung went on, “neither Noal nor Hishee might want him to look in the least like Larien.”
“Well, they wouldn’t now, of course,” Telzey agreed. “But after your therapists have cleared up all the bad things Larien’s done to them, it might be a different matter.”
Klayung’s sigh was almost imperceptible. “All right. Supposing we get the emotional and mental difficulties resolved first, and then let the principals decide for themselves in what guise Noal is to resume his existence. Would that be satisfactory?”
Telzey smiled. “Thanks, Klayung!” she said. “Yes, very satisfactory!”
Prologue: The Pork Chop Tree
In research laboratory 3230 of the Planetary Quarantine Station two thousand miles out from the world of Maccadon, Professor Mantelish of the University League stood admiringly before a quarantine object. It had been unloaded from his specimen boat some hours ago and aroused from the state of suspended animation in which he had transported it back to the Hub from its distant native world.
It was a plant-form and a beautiful one, somewhere between a tree and a massive vine in appearance, its thick, gray-sheened trunk curving and twisting up to a point about twenty-five feet above the conditioning container in which it was rooted. Great heart-shaped leaves of a deep warm green sprang from it here and there; and near the top was a single huge white flower cup. A fresh and pleasant fragrance filled the laboratory.
Mantelish, an immense old man, scratched his scalp reflectively through his thick white hair, his gaze shifting from this point to that about the plant. Then his attention centered on a branch immediately above him where something had begun to move. A heavy, tightly coiled tendril swung slowly out from the branch, unwinding with a snaky motion until it lay flat in the air. Simultaneously, three new leaves, of a lighter green and smaller than the mature ones about them, unfolded along the tendril’s length and spread away from it.
“So it started right in growing again as soon as you woke it up!” a voice said behind Mantelish.
He looked around. A slim red-headed girl in shorts had entered the laboratory and was coming over to him.
“Yes, it did, Trigger,” he said. “As I’ve suspected, it will speed up or slow down its growth and reproduction processes in accordance with the area it finds available to it.”
“Until it’s covered a planet.” Trigger studied the new tendril a moment. “Pretty ambitious for a tree, isn’t it?”
Mantelish shrugged. “It’s a prolific and highly adaptable life form. Do you happen to know where Commissioner Tate is at present?”
“Dissecting one of the specimens from the other boat,” said Trigger. “I stopped by there just now, and he told me not to come in . . . what he was doing was pretty gooey and I wouldn’t want to see it. He said he’d be along in a few minutes. There was something he wanted to find out about the thing. Have you fed baby those slow-down hormones you were talking about?”
“Yes. They’re having the expected effect. The new branch you saw it put out is the only indication of growth it’s given during the past twelve minutes.”
“So that will work, eh?”
“Under laboratory conditions we certainly can control its growth,” Mantelish said. “But let’s not be too hasty. Much more definite safeguards will be required before there can be any question of releasing the tree to the public. There’s the matter of curbing its various forms of propagation, particularly the periodic release of self-propelled airborne seeds. Under present circumstances, our beautiful tree could become a very definite nuisance on any Hub world to which it was introduced.”
“Well, those are problems which simply will have to be solved!” Trigger said. “Because everyone who has a garden is going to want to have one of them. You hear that, pet?” She stepped out on the conditioning container, ran her palms lightly along the tree’s trunk. “You’re not only about the most edible thing around,” she told it, “and you’re not only beautiful—you also have a wonderful personality. You’re going to become a great big fad everywhere in the Federation!”
Mantelish laughed. “Trigger, you’re crooning to it.”
“Well, I feel like crooning to it,” she said. “I feel very affectionate toward it. Did I tell you that on the trip back, when it was in stasis and I couldn’t go near it, I’d dream about the trees every night?”
“I did. There I’d be climbing around in that wonderful forest again, or stretching out for a nap on one of the leaves—and they curl up around you so nicely when you lie down on them! You know, I think I’ll climb up baby right now . . .
“Why not?” said Mantelish. “If it weren’t for my weight, I might try it myself.”
“If you ate just what you got from the tree,” Trigger told him, “you’d trim down fast.” She caught a branch above her, swung herself over to a level section of the main trunk, and walked along it till it curved upward. Then she clapped her hands to the trunk and went up quickly all fours style like a cat to the highest point where the tree turned level again. She stood up there, reached for the white flower cup overhead and drew it toward her.
“When did the bud open?” she asked.
“Almost immediately after I brought it out of stasis,” Mantelish said, looking up. “Is it in seed?”
Trigger peered into the cup.
“Full of seeds! But they’re still soft and unfeathered. We’re not going to let you puff those away on the wind, baby. You have to become civilized now. Ah!” She reached back of the flower, plucked something from its stem.
“What have you found?” asked Mantelish.
“Some of the black cherry things,” said Trigger. “I do believe baby remembered how much I like them and grew them especially for me.” She sat down on the trunk, legs dangling, popped one of the black cherry things into her mouth. “Did you get the reports on the samples you sent back?”
“Yes, they were waiting for me here,” Mantelish said.
He shrugged. “They confirm officially what we already know. Almost every part of the trees has a high nutritional value for the human organism.”
“Yes, of course. But what do they say about the flavors?”
“The reports don’t mention flavors, Trigger. They weren’t checking on that.”
“Well, they should have been checking on it,” said Trigger. “The flavors certainly are important. So is the variety—something new being put out every few days, so that you could get your meals from one tree all your life and never grow tired of the diet! Along with hammock leaves, and warm cubbyholes in the trunks to snuggle up in when it rains too hard. . . . You know what the very special thing is, though? It’s the feeling that you’re so welcome to everything—that the trees like you and want you to be around!”
Mantelish cleared his throat. “I had that impression occasionally. It’s quite curious. Others also reported it.”
“Of course, they reported it. It’s a very definite thing. I had the feeling strongly all the time we were there.” Trigger patted the trunk beside her. “And I’m getting it—very strongly—from baby right now. It’s glad I’m sitting up here with it again!”
Mantelish shook his head slowly.
“It would be difficult to prove,” he said, with some uneasiness in his tone, “that your imagination isn’t simply running away with you there. . . .”