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DYNAMIC SCIENCE FICTION, December 1952

Novelet of Tomorrow's Frontier By Dave Dryfoos

BLUNDER
ENLIGHTENING

On this world in the system of Altair, Sam Sarno and his wife encountered something humans had never dreamed of. They were prepared for alien life that might be hostile, or fearful, or any variation in between. But the beings here simply and flatly ignored man...

TRUDGING homeward over the rolling prairie of planet Altair 3, bright Altair itself sinking swiftly behind him, his shadow lengthening in front, Sam Sarno let his head hang, his shoulders sag, his feet stumble heedlessly among the mossy tussocks. He was tall, blond, husky, and rugged-looking; yet he walked like an old man. He knew it— and for the moment didn't care.

He'd spent the day ranging through a native garden now out of sight to the rear, clambering up and down a high granite cliff that overhung the garden. The exertion hadn't exhausted him—he was young and athletic.

The planet Altair 3 was strange and virgin to human beings. Unknown, unrecognizable dangers might be hiding behind the nearest bush, lurking under the ground, infesting every breath of air. Sam Sarno had been especially selected and trained for duty in such places, was mentally and temperamentally prepared for the strain. Beyond routine precautions drilled into him till they were second nature, he took no heed of hazards.

It was defeat that bowed his shoulders—the complete, utter, incomprehensible failure that his excursion had been. He felt weighted down by shame, crushed under the need to admit once again that he'd gotten exactly nowhere in his efforts to contact the natives.

He didn't know what to tell Sally, his wife; he couldn't understand why he'd failed. The situation was clearcut; the prescribed methods of dealing with it, infallible. The rock-paintings on the cliff behind him proved the existence of a culture here, and Sam had been trained to make swift, smooth contact with cultured non-terrestrials.

Those paintings were really something, Sam admitted to himself. Seen from the ship that had brought him, they'd seemed grander than any works of graphic art on Earth; and a closer view confirmed their merit. Huge, they were: colorful, abstract, harmonious—obviously the creations of intelligent beings.

Because it is comparatively easy to see through an atmosphere from the top down, he'd been able to observe the painters at work, even while still aboard ship. They were odd-looking creatures: small, dingy, grotesque—but cultured, just the same.

It was then that he and Sally had been given the job of contacting these painters; marooned here to live with them for six months; ordered to make an anthropological study of their culture before announcement of the planet's discovery led to an influx of traders who'd bring in new products and methods, missionaries who'd bring new ideas.

Sam remembered how honored he and Sally had felt when they got their assignment. It was their first major one: and, as he had to admit, easy as such jobs go—especially since neither weapons nor factories to make them had been seen from the ship.

That is—it should have been easy. Altair 3 was in many ways comparable to Earth. Size, mass, radiation received, length of day, chemical composition—all were similar. The Universe having been created all at one time, evolutionary forces must have operated on Altair 3 about as long as on Earth—should have gone about as far. By rights, a terrestrial nan should have much in common with these natives; contact ought to have been quickly established.

But it hadn't been. Today, as on all previous days, the natives had completely ignored him; Sam couldn't see why.

OF COURSE, the painters, now—and there'd been three of them again today, at work on widely-separated ledges along the granite escarpment—the painters might possibly have resented his intrusion while they labored. They'd been busy enough, clinging there high above the ground, hanging on with all four feet, spreading with the fingers of both hands the pigments held in gourds suspended from prehensile tails.

They looked like unintelligent bugs, with their oily, lozenge-shaped exoskeletal bodies, only three feet long. Still, they were artists, beyond any doubt. They might be not only intelligent, but temperamental; maybe that was why they'd seemed to look right through him after he'd risked his neck climbing the cliff to get near.

They had eyes, though; the nature of their paintings made it dear that they saw the same things Sam did* And anyway there was no such excuse for that other native—the one who'd been standing in the garden below the cliff. Just standing around, it had been, rubbing its three-thumbed, five-fingered hands together, not doing a thing. Yet that one had ignored him. too.

The whole mess was completely frustrating. Sam almost wished the natives had been hostile, or thievish, or frightened: then he'd have known what to do. But never, on any of the sixteen extra-solar planets previously visited, had terrestrial man been simply ignored: it was unbelievable. And Sam would be blamed for it.

No use dwelling on that, though; no use letting Sally see how dejected he felt. Topping the last rise, Sam consciously squared his shoulders, even broke into a shambling trot for the last hundred yards to his prefabricated shack.

Sally waited at the door, dark hair carefully brushed, disposable dress new, full lips brightly tinted. These past few months she'd seemed to grow even prettier than she'd been before.

But her eyes were heavy. Sam often felt—and often said—that his wife's blue eyes were so big, anybody could see through them and tell what she was thinking. Right now, he was sure, she shared his sense of failure.

He kissed her without a word. Then he admitted, "No luck, hon... Anything new here?"

"Ants," she said, closing the door behind him. "Not real ones, but something like. I followed their trail back to the nest. It was like an anthill, more or less. Social. Cooperative. They seem to like sw...

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