A slender tulip tree rose from its mound on the planet Shrlndu. Around it danced a Khorji pup, looking like a small living drum. Tendrils encircled the rims, top and bottom. Purple orbs that were eyes alternated with tendrils at the top; the rapid movement of its bottom tendrils provided motivation as it circled the tree.
The tree, the pup, and the mound were all that was there – until, with a popping sound caused by displaced air molecules, a man stood at the foot of the mound.“Man!” exclaimed the pup. Its top tendrils stroked the drum surface. The vibrations made words. A thin flap lifted from its side and beckoned. “Good! Come! There is trouble!” The pup started away from the mound.
The man, wearing white slacks, a white shirt and white tennis shoes, didn’t move. Seeing he was not following, the pup stopped. “Come!” he declared. “Trouble!”
With a crooked grin, the man said,”Just what a man wants,” he remarked, sarcastically. “Trouble!”
“Not until I find out something,” the man said. He pointed to his chest. “My name is Greg Calkins. Your name?” he asked, pointing at the pup.
“Come!” the pup said, impatiently, tendrils vibrating.
“Your name?” the man repeated.
“Name Thwil, Gregcalkins. Now come!”
Calkins did not move. “Where am I?” he asked. “What is this place?” A sweep of his hand took in the entire area. There were mounds with tulip trees on them for miles around.
“Place Shrlndu,” Thwil said, spinning around. “Come!”
Shrugging, Greg Calkins stepped off the mound and followed Thwil. “Everywhere I pop up there’s trouble,” he thought.
Greg Calkins was not a superstitious man; in fact, if all the scientific degrees he had earned were listed after his name, his name would triple in length. Nonetheless, he had only one explanation for why he ‘popped up’ the way he did: He was cursed!
It started when his wife, Shanna, came down with a new form of cancer. “We’ve found cures for nearly all forms of cancer,” he assured her. “We’ll cure this one, too!”
But weeks went by with no breakthrough. “I need more time!” he thought. Cryogenics would not work; some cancer cells could multiply even in cryogenics; besides, Shanna didn’t like being cold! “I need a stasis field,” he decided. No one had yet developed one, but there had been much speculation about one.
Under the pressure of immediate necessity, Calkins invented one.
It took over a year to perfect the remedy, but he succeeded. Shanna was lying on a table in the stasis field, beautiful in repose. “The cure is ready, my wonderful love,” he said, a broad smile of anticipation on his face. Calkins flipped a switch.
Shanna opened her eyes, smiled at him – then screamed in pain and writhed on the table as her body. . .changed. Time caught up with the field; Shanna’s body underwent over one year’s changes in seconds, and the cancer killed her.
Grabbing a metal bar, Calkins had lashed out at the stasis machine, screaming “Damn science!” He slashed thru some wires and chips. “Damn science!” he repeated, throwing the rod at the machine – and, with an electric flash, the scientist disappeared.
“I damned science,” Calkins reasoned. “That put a curse one me. Science struck back by sticking me away in some dimension where I only come out when there is trouble for me to take care of. But I can’t do anything about my own trouble!”
It later occurred to him that throwing the metal bar into his hastily-created stasis field had created a negative energy temporal field that lingered with him – but, with perverse humor, he preferred thinking of it as a curse.
He followed the Khorji pup. There seemed to be hundreds of tulip tree mounds, some mounds without the tree, and occasional ponds of water. Any time Calkins stopped to examine something, Thwil would spin around a time or two and say, “Come, Gregcalkins! Trouble!”
Calkins chuckled with dry humor. “Trouble was here before I showed up,” he said. “Now that I’m here, it’s suddenly an emergency!”
Without pausing, Thwil thrummed, “You man, Gregcalkins. Man fix.”
In five more minutes, they were on a mound above a small settlement. Five teepee-like structures were in the low space between the mounds. Young Khorji played between the teepees, and a larger Khorji was on his way up the mound to meet them.
“That Jorit, our leader,” Thwil explained. “Jorit!” Thwil exclaimed, louder. “Man here. Man named Gregcalkins!”
As the pup finished talking, Jorit had reached them. Jorit was at least twice Thwil’s size, which made him about five feet tall. “Gregcalkins,” the Khorji leader said. He extended a slender flipper from his side. Calkins bent down to shake his extended tip. “You can fix the troubles?”
“I can try,” Calkins said. “What is the trouble?”
“Let us go to my place,” Jorit said. He started back down the slope. “Thwil, thank you. Now you go home,” he said to the pup. “We have business.”
The pup scooted away and went into a teepee. Jorit led Calkins into a neighboring hut. Inside, the Khorji picked up a candle from the top of a chest in the center of the teepee floor. Beside it was a ‘striker’, an iron-and-flint mechanism with which to light the candle. Lighting it, sparks reflected in the Khorji’s purple eyes. Jorit pointed at a light fixture that hung from the middle of the teepee. “The hanging light no longer works,” he said.
Greg Calkins had seen no wires nor receptors, so he guessed that ‘hanging light’ had been battery operated. “Was the hanging light still operating when man left?” he asked.
“Yes,” Jorit said. “It burned for a very long time after man left. Man also gave us candles and strikers–“
A shrill scream sliced the air.
Calkins tossed back the flap of the teepee – to see the next teepee, where Thwil had gone, in flames. The scream came from inside the flames. The man snatched off his shirt and ran into the flames. Inside, he enveloped Thwil in the shirt and rushed back out.
He put Thwil down. “You okay?” he asked.
The Khorji pup’s tendrils vibrated, then thrummed out, “Thwil okay. Thank Gregcalkins.” He looked at Calkins. “You not burn. Why?”
“It’s part of what happened to me, Thwil,” the scientist answered. “My body always rebuilds itself.” He held up the shirt, still in his hands. “Same with the clothes I was wearing when it happened. Look.” He held the shirttail in both hands and ripped. The material separated. . .then rejoined.
The scientist put his shirt back on and turned to Jorit. “Why the teepees?” he asked. He hadn’t realized how sharply he asked until Jorit withdrew a few inches. “I’m not angry at you,” he explained. “But I was wondering. . . .”
“What did you live in before man came along?”
A wave of Jorit’s flipper took in the surrounding mounds. “Here,” he said.
“Apparently you have perfect weather,” Calkins said. “Good average temperature, no rain, no storms – you have no need of shelter. Or,” he added, bitterly, “fires to light their insides. Tear them down!” he ordered.
“But man said –“
“I’m a man!” Greg Calkins said, tightly. “Tear them down!”
After the teepees were dismantled, the man turned to Thwil. “Now, about this trouble you mentioned – where is it?”
“Jorit is leader,” the pup said, hesitantly.
“For this, I am in charge,” Calkins said. “Do you know where the trouble is?”
“Know where start,” Thwil agreed.
“Then let’s go and get this over with!”
After they had been going several minutes, the Khorji pup stopped. “Hear trouble,” he said.
The scientist stood still. He saw nothing, so he assumed that Thwil wasn’t saying the trouble was ‘here’, so the pup must have meant he heard the cause of the trouble. He cocked his head to one side, but wasn’t sure. Then he looked down at Thwil. The pup’s tendrils were all unmoving. Calkins lay down on the ground, ear against the soil. Yes, there was definitely a sound!
“I should have asked,” he said, apologizing. “Just what is the trouble?”
“Digger,” Thwil said. “Started. Is digging.”
Calkins stood up. “By itself?” he asked.
“Great; something went wrong, the digger is out of control.” He thought a moment. “Is it digging deep, or just a little under the surface?”
“Little,” Thwil replied. “Emptied two pools.”
“Ah!” Greg said. “That could be bad. Well, let’s get going.” Then he stopped. “I have an idea,” he said to the Khorji pup. “My legs are much longer than yours; I can cover ground faster. Why don’t I carry you and you give me directions?”
“Carry?” Thwil asked, blankly.
“Pick you up and hold you,” Greg Calkins explained. “I walk; you guide.” The scientist leaned over, slipped his fingers under Thwil, fingers alternating with the Khorji pup’s tendrils. He lifted. The pup was a little heavier than he had thought, but still fairly light. He straightened, and started walking.
“How’s this?” he asked.
“Carry good!” answered the pleased Thwil.
+ + + +
Soon they came across another Khorji village. Greg Calkins introduced himself to the leader and said, “Take down the huts. They are not needed! Any other Khorji you meet, tell them that man’s new orders are to do away with these things!”
Five minutes after they left there, they found the trouble.
–Well, they found where a large, rather square hole came out of one mound. Opposite that mound, a similar hole went down. “Let’s go after it,” Greg said. He pointed down one passage. “Sound comes from there.”
The digger left tread tracks. They led into a rather square tunnel which the man looked down. He put Thwil down between the tracks. “Let’s go get it, sport,” he said.
“Name Thwil,” the Khorji pup objected.
Greg chuckled. “Joke,” he said.
Together, they moved down the tunnel. When it got too dark to continue, Greg reached into his pocket and pulled out one of the few things that came with him - a one-inch disc about one quarter inch thick. “Light!” the man said, holding the disc between thumb and forefinger and pointing it ahead. Bright light filled the tunnel ahead of them. Then, when they turned a curve and saw lights ahead of them.
It moved slowly. The scientist said, “Off!” and the light went away. He put the disc in his pocket and he the pup caught up with the digger quickly. Thru the door windows, Greg could see the control room, filled with flickering lights and switches. “Now!” he said, putting his hand on the slidegrip that opened the door.
“Stuck!” Calkins said. He took a step forward as the digger continued moving. “Maybe this will do,” Calkins said. He turned sideways, stood on one leg and, with the other, kicked at the glass using his heel.
Again, nothing happened.
There were no rocks, no sticks – nothing to help him break the glass. Then, a thought came to him. “Thwil,” he said. “I’m going to pick you up and point you at the digger. I want you to scream as loud as you can. Loud, and shrill!” he said. “Okay?”
“Scream loud,” the pup said – but his voice did not reflect any understanding.
The scientist picked up the little Khorji and aimed him at the door. ?Now!” he said.
Thwil screamed, and made it loud – but, again, nothing happened.
“Shrill!” Calkins said. “As shrill as you can – and loud. Do it and keep it up!”
The pup’s scream rose in pitch and volume. Greg Calkins wished he could hold Thwil and cover his ears at the same time. Then –
There was a tinkling sound, and the glass in the door cracked.
“More!” Greg insisted. Then –
The glass fell out of the door. The glass covering the instruments inside broke. Instrument lights went out.
The digger stopped.
“That’s enough!” the scientist said. He put the little Khorji down. “You stopped the digger!” he said, exultantly. “You did it yourself, Thwil!”
The Khorji was pleased – but puzzled. “I stop trouble?” he asked. “Just do what Gregcalkins say.”
Greg reached his hand thru the broken door window and opened the door. “Let’s just make certain,” he said, stepping inside and looking around. With the instrument lights out, the only light was from a glowing ceiling. There were no chairs and no entrance going deeper into the digger. Apparently, all the rest of it was machinery.
At each side of the instrument panel, a rod went from the floor to the ceiling – probably for someone to hold onto when they were checking the instruments. Calkins took off his shirt. Using its amazing recuperative powers, he bent down, tore it, held it against the bottom of the rod, then pulled it out when it healed itself. Standing tall, he did the same at the top of the rod.
What fell to the floor had a satisfactory sound of heavy metal. Swinging the bar, the man smashed at the instruments. Until – the ceiling collapsed on him.
“Gregcalkins!” the pup exclaimed. “You hurt?”
The ceiling was heavy, and pressed Greg to the floor. “I’m okay, Thwil,” he said. “Just. . . gotta get out from under this.”
“Thwil get help!” the pup said.
Greg started to object, but then decided it might be good to give the pup something he could do. “Go,” he said. “I’ll be okay.” He watched the small Khorji turn and leave, then dug his shirt out from under the wreckage. Cutting the ceiling into pieces would take a while, but he had time.
Since his accident, ‘time’ didn’t seem to matter any more. He didn’t age. He wasn’t even sure which ‘time’ he was in – how much time passed between awakenings. . .days, weeks, eons? He might never know; so far, the places he had popped into were inhabited by aliens who were removed from man’s civilization, so he had no way to find out what year or century he might be in.
He cut out another piece of the ceiling and tossed it aside. By the time Thwil returned, he should be free. . .if he was here at all! Once the ‘problem’ is taken care of wherever he appeared, he usually didn’t stay around much longer.
Thwil returned before Greg Calkins was reclaimed by time. He had two adult Khorji with him. The three stopped to watch the scientist push aside the last piece of the ceiling material.
“About what?” Calkins asked.
“Most did not think a man would need help,” the Khorji answered.
Calkins thought quickly. He did not want to reduce Thwil’s stature in the eyes of others of his race. “Thwil misunderstood,” he said. “Not his fault,” he went on. “All the excitement caused it.” He waved a hand at the now-silent digger. “The digger is stopped,” he went on. “With Thwil’s help, I was able to turn it off. I wanted others to see, so they would know.”
“That is good. We will tell others. Come!” The last was to his partner. They started back down the tunnel.
“Glad Gregcalkins. . .okay,” the Khorji pup said, struggling a little with the slang.
Calkins kneeled down to get his eyes more on Thwil’s level. “I cannot be hurt, Thwil,” Greg assured him. “Well,” he amended, “only for a second. This. . .thing that happened to me, my curse, sees to that.”
“Curse good,” the pup said.
“Not really,” the scientist said. “Because of it, I zap all around – with no control of when I go or where I go or when I leave.”
“Not go!” Thwil pleaded.
“I’ve got no control of it,” the man said. Even as he said it, a sleepy feeling crept over him. “I feel it coming on now,” he added. He wanted to leave some good advice for the young pup. “Use your mind, Thwil. Think things thru. Ask questions; always ask questi. . .”
A dejected Khorji pup stood alone in the tunnel.