“Well, I don’t think it’s my imagination,” Trigger told him. “And you know, it shouldn’t really be too surprising. Because there the trees are—and everyone agrees they’re a highly evolved life-form. But they’re the only highly evolved life-form on their world. All the other creatures we saw around looked as dull as anything alive can get.”
Mantelish frowned. “I didn’t find them at all dull,” he remarked. “It was a fauna of well-adapted parasites. A successful parasite, of course, may appear oversimplified to the untrained eye. But with the trees’ forests almost covering that world, there would be little reason for other organisms to develop qualities that might have made them more intriguing to you. After all, the trees supply them with everything they require.”
“Yes, and the trees evidently don’t mind feeding the rest of the planet, or they wouldn’t be so edible,” Trigger agreed. “Just the same, those parasites must become pretty boring company. I think the trees would like to have more interesting guests around for a change—that’s why they try to let us know we’re welcome.”
“Well, those are fancies, Trigger,” Mantelish said deprecatingly.
“You think so? I don’t. And I think we should accept their invitation. I think the Federation should declare that whole world a vacation land! They could put big fast ships on the run and bring in people by the tens of thousands for a month or so . . . families with children, anyone who wants a change, especially people who feel run-down or tensed up. It would be wonderful for everybody! Everything would be free—and the trees would love it—”
Trigger broke off, looked over at the entrance, smiled. “Hi, Commissioner!” she said. “‘We were discussing—anyway, I was—what could be done with the tree world.”
“That’s a rather good question,” said Commissioner Tate.
Trigger got to her feet, and half walked, half slid, back down along the tree’s thick serpent trunk to the ground as Commissioner Tate came across the laboratory toward them. He’d been in charge of the Federation expedition which discovered and investigated the planet of the trees, and had returned to the Hub with Mantelish and Trigger in another specimen boat crammed with assorted organisms for biological study.
“Got several bits of news for you two,” he said.
“About what?” Mantelish asked.
The Commissioner glanced up at the tree. “In a way, about our little friend here. A transmitter call from Expedition Headquarters reached my boat while we were coming in on Maccadon around six hours ago. One thing they reported was that three members of the paleontological team we left digging around down there have walked off the job.”
“Walked off the job?” Trigger repeated.
“Yes,” said the Commissioner. “This was a few days ago. They left a note which said in effect not to bother them. They’d found the world of their dreams, and they weren’t coming back.”
Trigger said after a moment, “Well, one can hardly blame them for that.”
“No. I wouldn’t blame them. However, I’ve notified Patrol Command. They’ve got a few ships cruising about the area they can get to the planet in under a week, with instructions to round up our three strays and bring them back to the Hub. They won’t have gone far, of course.” He smiled briefly. “All they want is to prowl around among the trees and be happy. They’ll be found somewhere within a mile of the camp.”
“I suppose so,” Trigger said hesitantly. She paused, frowning. “But do we really have any right, legal or otherwise, to interfere with them if that’s their decision? It’s not an off-limits world. Why shouldn’t they just be considered the first settlers there? After all, the trees would give human beings everything they need to live as well as they could live anywhere else.”
“So they would,” said the Commissioner. “Well, there’s the second part of the report I had. The paleontological team hadn’t been looking for anything of the sort, of course, but they’ve come across a couple of ruins and begun to uncover them.”
“Ruins?” said Mantelish, surprised.
“Yes,” the Commissioner said. “Those three wouldn’t be the first human settlers on that world, Trigger. The ruins are about eight hundred years old, and there’s enough to show quite definitely that they were once occupied by human beings.”
Trigger looked startled. “Human beings—where would they have come from?”
“Presumably it was one of the groups that were pushing out from the Old Territory during the period the Hub was being settled. Interstellar drives and transmitters weren’t too efficient at the time. I got in contact with the Charting Bureau and had them run a check on an area around the trees’ world representing a current week’s cruising range. An early colonial group which wanted to settle a number of worlds without losing contact among themselves shouldn’t have scattered farther than that. The Bureau ran the check and called me back. They had the information I wanted. Charting records show that two other terratype planets within the area I inquired about are also covered with a blanket of apparently homogenous forest vegetation.”
Trigger asked, “You mean those early colonists transplanted the trees to those two other worlds?”
“Evidently they did.”
Mantelish nodded. “A reasonable supposition. If no restrictions were placed on it, the tree should cover the land areas of a terratype world to which it was introduced rather rapidly.”
“Well, I can understand that,” said Trigger. “But why the ruins?” There was uneasiness in her voice. “Even eight hundred years ago, they must have had methods enough to keep the trees out of places they didn’t want them to be.”
“No doubt they had the methods,” the Commissioner agreed.
Trigger looked at him, her face troubled. “You’re thinking of the three men who walked off the job back there?”
“What else? They’d never be settlers in the ordinary sense, Trigger. They simply turned their backs on civilization. The colonists did the same thing. They deserted their settlements, went to live among the trees.”
“But not all of them!” Trigger protested. “Some people might want to spend their lives like that, and if that’s what they like, why not? But a whole group of colonists doesn’t simply leave everything they’ve built up and go away.”
“Not under normal circumstances,” the Commissioner agreed. “But the circumstances were far from normal. You’ve talked about a feeling you have that the trees want us around. The evidence we’ve been getting indicates you’re right . . . they do want us around, and they do something about it. It hadn’t occurred to me before to look for the symptoms, but I’d say now that in the short period we were there, all of us who were in regular contact with the trees became somewhat addicted to them.”
“Addicted?” Trigger looked up at the tree, back at the Commissioner, expression startled, then reflective.
“Yes,” she said slowly. “I’ve become addicted to them, anyway! Not too seriously. It’s mainly liking to be near them, feeling that they like you to be there . . . that they’re beautiful friendly things that want to take care of you. . . .”
He nodded. “I know. And in the case of our wandering paleontologists, those feelings simply become strong enough to override their ordinary good sense. The colonists, who were constantly surrounded by the trees, had no chance of escaping the effect indefinitely. We have to assume they all succumbed to it.”
Trigger said after a moment, “But what happened to them afterwards? You’d think with the trees to look after them, their descendants should still have been there when we arrived.”
“I wondered about that, too,” said the Commissioner. “And there was another matter. If the tree is covering three terratype worlds in that section of space, the odds are two to one that the world on which we found it is one of those to which it was carried by the human colonists.”
Mantelish shook his head emphatically.
“No!” he said. “It’s quite obvious that the tree did originate on that world. You overlook the fact that the fauna there is so completely adapted to it that—” He paused, eyes narrowing abruptly. He scowled absently at the Commissioner for a moment. “Unless—” he began.
The Commissioner nodded. “Unless! That was my thought. In so short a time—a mere eight hundred years—the wide assortment of creatures we found there couldn’t possibly have changed from an independent existence to one in which they had become parasites on the trees, physically modified to the extent that they could no longer have survived away from their hosts . . . unless the life-form which likes to have other life-forms around has methods which go beyond simple addiction to keep guests permanently with it.
“I took three of the specimens in my boat apart on a hunch. The third of them was the thing which looks a good deal like a limp, gangly hundred-pound frog. It’s practically blind, and it has about the same amount of brains as a frog. Of course, it doesn’t need much intelligence to crawl from leaf to leaf and along the tree’s branches. But most of its internal arrangements are still essentially human.”