The Golden Man
A Lost In Space Adventure
Spring was in the air, but it was a spring unlike one ever seen on Earth. Fantastically beautiful flowers seemingly blossomed right from rocks in riotous cascades of color, while the parching, oppressive heat spoke more of a Kansas August than a Vermont May. But that was hardly surprising, as this springtime was not on Earth at all, but on a far, fantastical world utterly unknown to Earthly observatories and astronomers. The star it orbited, its sun, was barely visible even to the Cyclopean telescopes orbiting Earth, and its only record in the annals of mankind’s wisdom was a cryptic string of letters and numerals lost on the 216th page of Volume 23 of a catalog of 12th magnitude stars.
In all the Universe, there were precisely seven Earth beings who knew of this remote planet, and it was their sad fate to be shipwrecked on it. John and Maureen Robinson, with their three children, a space pilot by the name of West, and a problematical doctor bearing the unlikely name of Zachary Smith were the ones blessed with this knowledge. It was a knowledge which, all other things being equal, they would gladly have gone without. They had set out to colonize the nearby (in astronomical terms) world of Alpha Centauri 4, a world nearly the twin of Earth. They were to have been the vanguard, with dozens more colonists following, then hundreds, then thousands.
Instead, they were – here. Their ship was damaged nearly to the point of irreparability: the engine casings were cracked, and hatches once vacuum-tight no longer kept even a stiff breeze on the outside. They had perhaps 1/100th the fuel necessary to achieve orbit, never mind go somewhere else. In any case, they had no idea where they were in relation to anyplace they might want to go.
Human beings, though, have a remarkable ability to adapt to the most unkind circumstances. They are practically universal maxims of Mankind that adversity should be turned into opportunity, that a stiff upper lip should always be kept, and that lemonade should be made of the lemons which life serves.
All of which goes to the point, what an unlikely and absurd thing it was that a pretty young girl from Earth was skipping happily through sand and over rocks, singing a bright little song to herself, picking some of those fantastically beautiful flowers, and gathering them in a basket. Her name was Penny, and she was the middle child of the Robinsons, noted above. Some distance behind her followed Doctor Zachary Smith, likewise noted above. As an adult, he was nominally minding her, in fact, it was more Penny who was minding him.
“Take a care, child,” said Dr. Smith. “You mustn’t over-exert yourself in this climate.”
Penny smiled to herself. She knew that was Dr. Smith’s way of asking her to slow down, as he was getting winded. She stopped and turned, walked slowly back to where Smith was leaning against an outcropping of granite.
“See all the lovely spring flowers, Dr. Smith?” Penny held the basket of blossoms up for his inspection. Smith turned his head away and stifled a sneeze.
“Even here, those things make me allergic,” Smith groused at her. “I suppose you plan on bringing those right into the ship?”
“Well of course, Dr. Smith, they’re so pretty!”
“Pretty, bah. They make me sneeze, and likely your mother or sister as well. Terrible inconvenience and discourtesy.”
“I’m sure we have some medicine for allergies, Dr. Smith,” Penny replied patiently.
Really, she thought, I think he doesn’t like them just because they are pretty. Sometimes grownups are a terrible mystery, even though I’m nearly one myself. I hope I don’t get like Dr. Smith that way, all of a sudden. “Maybe we can just put them on the dinner table outside, then.”
Smith sniffed ostentatiously and dabbed at his nose with a handkerchief. That would suit him much better in any case; more importantly, he had succeeded in crushing the girl’s fancy and bending her own will to his. He smiled tightly to himself. It wasn’t much of a game, but he had won it.
“Come on, Dr. Smith, let’s see if we can find some more big yellow ones!”
Smith scowled in annoyance. “I thought we agreed that we had enough of those–”
His voice cut off as he heard Penny utter a small shriek. “Penny! Penelope! Get back here at once! And tell me what’s wrong!” The girl had disappeared around a turn. A well-known path led through a small canyon of twisted rock formations and down to a pleasant little grove where there was a spring-fed pool a few feet across, and a patch of lush green growth.
She popped back into Smith’s view almost instantly, and the alarmed look on her face quickly disappeared to be replaced with laughter. She beckoned Smith over. As he caught up with her, he became aware of a slow, low-pitched, nearly sub-sonic thrumming in the air. It made him itch.
“What’s wrong, child?”
“Oh, nothing, Dr. Smith,” said Penny, still laughing in embarrassment at her own alarm. “I found the alien ship Daddy told us about last night.”
“What!” exclaimed Smith, jumping back a few feet. “Come away at once, we must tell the rest before they can do us any harm.”
“Don’t be silly, it’s one little ship. Let’s say hello and see if they need any help.”
Smith rolled his eyes and set his feet to run. “You are far too naïve and trusting, Penelope!” he lectured. “Far too eager to extend unwarranted kindness to those who might wish you harm.” Smith relished the dark irony of his warning.
“Oh, just come on!” Penny grabbed Smith by the wrist and dragged him on along the path. “There, see?”
In the clearing was certainly a spaceship of some kind, although noticeably different from any of the other occasional alien craft which touched down on this world. It rather resembled their own Jupiter 2, except that it was slightly smaller, and the upper half was a dome of semi-opaque glass or plastic. No door or hatchway was evident. The inside seemed to be crowded, very crowded, with – something. Long, slender shapes poked up their heads, then cascaded over in torrents of bizarre silhouettes. It reminded Penny of something she had seen in books about Earth, about the different ways people had learned to grow things.
“Dr. Smith, it’s a greenhouse! Look! It’s all full of plants!”
“And who might be the gardener, I wonder,” he muttered to himself.
“Hello? Hello?” Penny dragged Smith along as she approached the greenhouse-ship.
“Stop it at once, you silly girl! You’ll get us killed!”
There was a pause in the slow, rhythmic thrum from the ship, and a portion of the dome which faced the humans dissolved. Dr. Smith and Penny could now clearly see that the interior was indeed a small jungle. A miasmic cloud of vapor puffed roiling out and over the sand to where they stood, not ten feet distant.
“Oh, yecch!” exclaimed Penny. “What a stink, it’s like a mud-bog or something! I wonder what lives in there!” She waved her hands before her face for cleaner air.
“Who is there? Who is there, answer me at once!” A voice called out from some sort of loudspeaker system, a harsh, gritty voice that was almost as offensive in its own way as the smell, Penny admitted to herself. Something about it made her think of the sound of bubbling slime, and rocks scraping together in it.
“Hello? Sir? My name is Penny Robinson. I live on this planet with my family and Dr. Smith here, oh, and Major West, who’s our pilot, and I –”
“Silence!” burbled the voice. “Get away from here at once and leave me alone. We have no business with each other.”
“Sir? Is there anything you need? We don’t have much, but if you need food or water or something, we’ll be glad to share what we can. . .” Penny was peering into the jungle, trying to see the traveler. Far inside was a hint of movement. She took a few more steps toward the open hatchway. “Are you hurt? My friend here is a doctor, and I’m sure he’d be glad to –”
Penny was assaulted two ways then, by the harsh shout of the jungle-bound alien before her, and the grasp of Dr. Smith on her shoulder, trying to pull her away.
“Are you mad, child? Heaven only knows what sort of monster is lurking in there. No kind I’d be able to offer aid to, I’ll wager. Try to help and he’d probably murder us in payment and feed us to his plants; they have a distinctly carnivorous look to them. That’s the sort of treachery you must learn to expect in this universe, Penelope.”
Penny shook loose of the doctor and took another couple of tentative steps toward the ship. “Sir? Do you even have I name I can call you?”
The voice formed an angered growl. From deep inside the ship, a trio of blue orbs fired from a plasma rifle whipped overhead with a banshee scream to splatter and burn against the rocks.
“That was the customary warning salvo!” shouted the voice. “The next will be better aimed, and not from such a toy!” Gun-ports opened on the lower hull: very large and powerful-looking projectile weapons poked their barrels through.
“I think he means it, Penny. Omit your farewells and run.”
The girl stood her ground a moment more. “All right, then, we’re going! I’m sorry I spoke to you, I’m sorry I offered to help you, and I’m sorry I wanted to be your friend! You can just sit there and rot in your swamp all alone!”
She turned and stormed away, Smith following in her wake.
Penny jogged the last twenty feet or so up to the encampment around the disabled Jupiter 2, her home and one-time spaceship. “Mother! Daddy!” she called. “Guess what!” She placed the basket of flowers in the middle of the picnic table, and arranged them artfully. “Mother!” she called again. Finally, Maureen Robinson appeared from inside.
“What’s all the shouting, darling?” she asked.
“Tell Daddy he was right, that was a spaceship he saw on the scanners last night. Dr. Smith and I just came from there. I talked to him, the nasty little thing, for a little bit, until he chased us off.”
“Oh, dear. And your father away now.”
“He took Don and your brother to check on the remote seismograph that’s been out of service for a week, and then he figured he’d double check the weather station that’s beyond it. And he wanted to scout for another water source, too, just in case our spring starts to go dry. They should be back in a few days. Penny dear, tell me some more about this alien. Does he seem dangerous? I should let your father know if there’s any trouble brewing.”
Penny recounted the brief tale in detail. Her mother’s eyes widened in alarm when she told of the plasma rounds fired, but then seemed thoughtful. “How high did you say they were?”
“Maybe, ten or fifteen feet overhead. Almost twenty where they finally hit the rocks.”
Maureen pursed her lips thoughtfully. “He wasn’t really trying to shoot you then?”
Penny, in turn, pursed her own. “I suppose not. He did say it was a warning.”
Maureen smiled. “Either that or he’s a very poor shot. I think it would be best if we just left him alone, like he asked you. And we won’t need to worry the men about it.”
Penny looked uncertain. “He was an awful grouch. I think maybe he’s just very unhappy about something.”
“Don’t you worry about whether he’s happy or not. Just leave him alone.”
Disappointed, Penny cast her eyes to the ground. “Yes, Mother.”
“Now. Let’s have some dinner. Dr. Smi– Oh, there you are.” Smith appeared as if by magic at the mention of food. “Penny, go down to the galley with Dr. Smith and help bring up lunch. Judy’s been busy cooking and she’ll appreciate a hand, and I think we’ll all appreciate a nice meal outside. Oh, what lovely flowers! Thank you, Penny.”
Dusk was falling as the three Robinson ladies and Dr. Smith finished dinner, and a slightly cooler breeze began trickling in from the west. They sat back to enjoy the darkening of the day, and watch the stars come out.
The absent Will, youngest of the children, had lately begun a sky chart to mark the positions of the stars, and identify the wandering of any other planets in this system (none so far). Penny aided in this project by tracing out and naming constellations. Will patiently tolerated her efforts, partially, he told himself, because it was traditional to astronomy.
He would not have admitted it to anyone –he barely admitted it to himself– but he also enjoyed her company. Over the past year, his sister had started growing away from most of the diversions they had once filled their spare time with – hopscotch was long gone, their sometimes aggressive games of Catch were infrequent, even chess seemed to bore her now. Poring over the charts, debating whether a certain star should be counted with the constellation to the east or to the west, deciding on names – it was just a nice time spent together as brother and sister.
Penny may have been tracing out constellations or just idly stargazing, but it was she who suddenly pointed and exclaimed, “Look, a shooting star!” Reflexively, the entire company turned their heads heavenward and watched a fiery red trail crawl across the sky.
“That’s awfully slow for a meteor,” Maureen opined cautiously. “Robot!” she called. Their mechanical companion rolled in from his perimeter guard station.
“Yes, Mrs. Robinson?” he boomed.
“Robot, take a look up there, quickly. Does that look like a meteor or a ship?”
The mechanical man’s sensor array spun around, analyzing. He whirred and hummed thoughtfully for a moment, then announced his findings. “Warning! Object is definitely identified as an alien vessel! Size indicates a single-man ship. Projected landing area – approximately 1 mile east of here!”
Maureen jumped to her feet. With her husband absent, she was in command. “Dr. Smith, you and Judy set up the force-field. Robot, take Penny and check the perimeter. Oh, aliens!” She spat the word like a curse. “Haven’t seen any in months, now two in a day, and all the men gone!”
“I heard that, madam!” griped Dr. Smith, pretending to help Judy with their chore.
As the party retired for the night, Maureen double checked the force-field, engaged the manual locks on the entry hatches, and paused just a moment at the radio console, debating whether to alert her husband.
No, she told herself. He said I should call him for emergencies. This isn’t an emergency. Just a routine Yellow Alert precautionary exercise. The force-field is set and the Robot is outside, scanning the area with his defensive weapons systems charged and armed.
There is no emergency, she thought, I’m in charge and in control. Maureen Robinson went to bed.
The little group rose for breakfast just at sunrise. Penny and Judy had prepared a light meal of synthetic eggs and coffee, while Maureen checked in with the Robot to see if he had anything to report from the night watch; he did not. She switched off the force-field and set it to recharge off of its solar panel.
Smith appeared in time to eat, too late for any of the minor pre-breakfast chores, but that was his long-established custom. Hardly anyone ever bothered commenting on it, or even noticing it anymore.
Penny and Judy shared a secret joke over the eggs; Judy threw her head back and laughed.
And stopped abruptly. “Mother–” she began, pointing. “What’s that?” Near the encampment was a small flat rock which occasionally served the Robinsons as a table or workbench. Now, a most surprising something rested on it: a large box, somewhat more than two feet to a side. It was wrapped in gold-foil paper and was topped with an elaborate bow, also of gold foil. It looked like something which should have held the place of honor beneath a Christmas tree.
Penny, nearest, jumped right over to it, instantly recognizing it for what it was: “It’s a present from someone!” she cried with delight.
“Step away, child!” barked Dr. Smith. “It may be dangerous. Some kind of trap,” he cautioned, with rare prescience.
“Yes, Penny, Dr. Smith is right,” stated Maureen. “Robot, can you scan that and tell us what’s in it?”
“Affirmative, Mrs. Robinson. Clear the area! Warning! Mind the gap! Robot at work!” He wheeled over briskly, shooing the others to a safe distance. His claws extended over the package, sensor arrays hitched back and forth, a panoply of lights whirled through his clear dome-top.
“This is safe!” he announced at length. “And if sensor readings are accurate, I compute the contents to be extremely tasty!”
Four mouths opened in astonishment. “Tasty?” four voices exclaimed together, and together they gathered around the box, ripped the paper from it, and pulled off the lid. They all gasped aloud and looked at each other with bewildered delight.
Smith’s hands were the first in, and withdrew a large, irregular parcel. “A ham!” he cried. “Oh, I can smell it! Dear lady,” he wheedled, turning to Maureen, “do put this on the menu for dinner this evening!”
The Robot observed Smith hugging the ham, rapture on his usually sullen visage. “Birds of a feather,” observed the Robot, speeding away before the doctor could frame a retort.
Penny pulled out a small glass jar, studied the label. “What’s ‘caviar’?” she asked.
Smith grabbed that, too. “Simply exquisite, is what it is, dear child.” He studied the label himself. “This is genuine Russian caviar. From Earth! Do you know what this means?” he demanded excitedly.
Maureen pulled out a box of chocolates, Judy, a bottle of perfume and a jewelry box full of golden necklaces. They examined the labels: all either originated on Earth, or had been copied by someone who was extremely familiar with their home planet. None dared speak the hope they suddenly shared.
“Who, though?” asked Maureen. “And more importantly . . . why?”
“Who? That would be me,” announced an unfamiliar voice. “Why? A simple gesture of friendship.”
The four spun in astonishment at the voice, and were only more astonished to see the being who now approached them. He was tall, very human-looking, and very gold. All his visible skin was golden-tan, his hair golden-yellow and falling in curls to his neck. He wore a simple tunic wrapped about him, toga-like, falling in folds, likewise as gold as the paper which had wrapped the box of gifts.
His features were finely-chiseled and classical: Dr. Smith exclaimed, “A Greek god! A veritable Greek god!” Smith studied the stranger a moment more. “Why, the very image of Apollo Belvedere! If you are not an Olympian deity, dear sir, you are, pardon the crude expression, the spitting image of one.”
“Please! I am no deity, Olympian or otherwise. Just an ordinary mortal creature such as yourselves. Although I thank you kindly, sir, for the compliment. My name is Keema. Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
Maureen stepped forward. “Good morning, Mr. Keema. I’m Maureen Robinson, these are my daughters, Penny and Judy. And this is Dr. Smith. Our . . . friend.”
“Charmed and delighted, ladies.” One by one, he took one of their hands in both of his, bowed low, and kissed it lightly. The girls giggled softly at each other; they had never been so greeted before.
“Dr. Smith.” He shook Smith’s hand firmly, and looked long into his eyes. It seemed as if they shared an unspoken secret.
Maureen took another step forward. “Thank you very much your gifts, Mr. Keema. I don’t want to seem discourteous, but just why have you taken what seems to be a great deal of trouble for us?”
“Simple friendship, as I said plainly before. I had no idea this planet was inhabited before I landed. I wanted you to know I was here, and will be for a short while, on a rather unhappy purpose. And I wanted to meet you, to see the sort of people you might be. It has been my sad experience that all too often, simple gestures such as this,” indicating the box of gifts, “simple kindnesses, are too often repaid with treachery and betrayal. But I see at a glance that you are good and honest types, and I have nothing to fear from you, nor you from me.”
Penny looked up sharply. Something the golden Keema said sounded an awful lot like something Dr. Smith had said just recently, and she wasn’t entirely certain that was reassuring.
There was little time for her to think on this, though, as Keema’s glib voice continued. “I am afraid, my friends, that I am here for a single terrible purpose. I am here to fight a war.” He paused while that sank in.
“A war?” asked Maureen, aghast. “You mean this whole planet is going to become a battlefield?”
“No, not the whole planet. There will be no armies. There will be only me, and my single foe. His world and mine have been locked for centuries in a grueling war of attrition, a hopeless stalemate. Our leaders agreed to an ancient solution: two champions will meet in single combat, the victor to determine the final end. If I fall, my whole planet falls, my whole race and civilization will be destroyed. If I triumph – well, my people intend to show mercy to those who would show none to us.”
A small commotion interrupted the golden man’s discourse. Dr. Smith and Penny were engaged in a whispered, but heated, debate. Suddenly, Penny shook her head at Smith and stepped forward. “I think we met your –your enemy– yesterday, Mr. Keema.”
Keema turned with a brief look of alarm clouding his face. “Indeed? Did you speak with him? What did he tell you?”
“He didn’t have much to say,” Penny admitted. “He was very grouchy to us, and wouldn’t come out to say hello, and he even shot at us. Kind of.”
“I see,” said Keema. “Well, you understand, then, what sort of a foe I face. A monster who would shoot at a helpless child!” Keema turned back, and dropped his voice entreatingly. “Mrs. Robinson, I shall do my very best to ensure that our battlefield comes nowhere near your ship, nor the monster itself. I hereby undertake to assure your own safety as zealously as I shall engage that creature in battle. You may rest easily.”
He paused dramatically, then continued, “I do not anticipate having any difficulty defeating that creature, but just in case . . . I hope I may count on your support, if necessary. Those creatures, the Zeedam, are a cowardly race, but cunning. Ugly beasts, and liars. If he resorts to some sort of trickery, then neither will I be bound by terms which forbid outside help.”
Maureen eyed Keema for a long moment, considering all he had said. “Mr. Keema, we are certainly grateful to you, and you are welcome to come and visit us any time you are here. However, regardless of anyone’s rules, you need to understand that this isn’t our war, it’s yours. We’ll feed you if you’re hungry, give you water if you’re thirsty, and we’ll care for you if you’re injured. But I will not let us participate in others’ disputes.”
For a moment, it seemed that anger flickered in golden eyes. Then: “I understand. And I admit you’re quite right. I came here not expecting to find any aid, and I shouldn’t expect any. My dear friends, I will bid you good day for now. Let me caution you though, I can’t say when the fighting will commence, and I will do my best to keep it away from you, but it would be very foolish, very dangerous for you to leave your encampment from here on out, at least until the fighting is done. Stay close. Do not try to find me, and especially don’t go back to that Zeedam monster’s ship. You were fortunate to have escaped once with your lives.” With that, the golden man spun theatrically and strode away.
The women sat down at the table, while Smith examined the box of gifts, eagerly pawing through to find anything more which they might have missed.
“Well, girls? What do you think? Did I make the right decision?”
Penny spoke up quickly. “There’s something about him I don’t like. He’s just too – golden. Too perfect. Too bossy.”
“I don’t know, Mother. If he gets hurt, or – killed – and we didn’t help him when we could have, wouldn’t that make us partly responsible?”
“I suppose you could say the same thing about Penny’s alien. I still think we should just stay out of it.”
“Ridiculous, madam!” puffed Dr. Smith. “It’s obvious he knows of Earth, you know these labels yourself! If we help him, he will help us! And what more do we need, than to get back home?” His voice rose to a fevered plea at his last words.
Maureen groaned inwardly. Something so important that it might mean their rescue off of this planet was something that everyone should be in on. But by now the men would be beyond radio range, and not due back for another day and a half, at least. If only the war wouldn’t start . . .
“He never said what the fight was even about did he?” she asked suddenly.
Penny and Judy shook their heads. “It doesn’t matter!” pleaded Smith. “We must help him!”
“All right. Penny, I think you’re right. Something about him just doesn’t feel right, does it? I want you to take me down to see the other one. Maybe we can figure out exactly what’s going on, and if we should help anybody at all, or just batten down the hatches until it’s all over.”
Smith hung his head and moaned miserably. “Dear lady, promise me one thing, do? You will cook this ham tonight, please?”
“What’s wrong, Dr. Smith?” asked the Robot. “Running low?”
A half hour’s walk brought Maureen and Penny to the other alien’s ship. “Let me go ahead, Mother, he’ll know me.” Penny led through the last bit of the trail and out into the clearing. “Hello? Mr.,uh, –you never told me your name– but this is Penny again, and I brought my mother with me and she wants to talk to you.”
“Go away,” growled the voice.
“Hello, sir? I’m Maureen Robinson. I’m in charge of our little bunch, and we’re just trying to understand what’s going on.”
“Nothing you need concern yourselves with. I told that silly girl as much already, and you seem to be just as silly. Now get out and don’t make me shoot at you.”
“He’s not very friendly, is he, Penny?”
“No. I wonder why, though.”
“Hello? We’re not trying to be nosy, we’re trying to protect ourselves. If there’s going to be some kind of war in our neighborhood, I want to know why, and I want to know if there’s anything we can do to stop it. Maybe you two don’t have to fight.”
There was a long silence. “So. He’s already been at you, has he? I saw him come down last night, but I didn’t think he’d be on to you so quickly. Isn’t he a striking fellow, all gold and glittery and shiny? Quite the figure of a human male, isn’t he, Mrs. Robinson?”
Maureen bit her lip in outrage, and felt color tinge her cheeks.
“And what did he tell you of me? That I’m a hideous, nasty, monster? Well, I am! And that’s why I’m telling you to get out of here, now!”
“Why are you fighting?” Maureen plunged ahead, her momentary embarrassment past. “Maybe I can help you two negotiate some kind of –”
“You should know very well this is a war that has dragged on for centuries! You think we haven’t tried everything possible, a dozen times over, to resolve our differences? Keema’s people are insolent, arrogant, refuse to listen, and lie as easily as breathe!”
“At least Mr. Keema has some manners!” shouted Penny. “I– I’m really trying to like you, you know, but you’re making it very difficult!”
“Good! I don’t want you liking me! Now for the last time, go! This war is likely to start any time, and I don’t need you two chatterboxes here to distract me if it does!”
Maureen and Penny looked at each other in frustration. “Come on, Penny. We can’t do anything here, after all.”
Penny paused just a moment behind her mother, before turning back up the rocky pathway. “Mr. Keema was right, after all! You are nothing but a mean, nasty, unreasonable . . . creature!” She stood still, waiting to hear one more reply, but none came. Never before had she wanted so badly to be proven wrong. With a petulant sniff, she marched off after her mother.
Back at the ship, the ladies were preparing dinner –the ham, of course– when a thought struck Penny. She looked about to make sure Dr. Smith wasn’t in earshot, and tugged on her mother’s sleeve.
“Mother, this may sound very foolish, but . . .” she hesitated, and Maureen encouraged her. “That mean little alien. He talks that way, but he surely doesn’t act that way. All his shouting and insults, even the shooting – do you think he was chasing us away just to make sure we wouldn’t get hurt if Mr. Keema suddenly started shooting at him?”
Maureen gazed thoughtfully at her daughter. “From the mouths of babes,” she murmured. “You just may be right. It might explain his acting so strangely.” She sighed. “It’s just so difficult with aliens. What seems strange to us may be perfectly normal to them.” She sighed again. “I think after dinner, I’ll go over and thank Mr. Keema for the ham again. And see if I can pry anything more out of him.”
The ham was delicious, and was served surrounded by vegetables and greens from the Robinson’s own gardens. They passed around the caviar –Maureen had toasted up some bread to serve little dollops of it on– and Dr. Smith was happier than any could recall him ever being. Penny took one taste and made a face, Judy appreciated it a little more. Maureen and Smith enjoyed it thoroughly, and she had Penny put it away in the refrigerator, to make sure there would be some left for the men. They capped off dinner passing around the box of chocolates, and that too was put away for future reference.
“Come on Judy, let’s you and me go find Mr. Keema, before it gets dark. We should be able to follow his footprints, and we know he isn’t far away. Penny, put up the force field after us, and Robot, sentry duty on the perimeter.”
“What may I do for our gallant lady commander, whilst she is away on her mission?” asked Smith.
“Wash the dishes, please, Dr. Smith. And stay out of the caviar, you’ll make yourself sick if you keep sneaking back to it like that.”
Guiltily, he wiped his mouth. “I am a medical doctor, you know! I have many more skills than simply . . . washing . . .” His voice trailed off as the two vanished into the landscape. “Bah!” said Dr. Smith.
The golden man’s footprints were easy to follow. Away from Smith and Penny, Judy and Maureen chatted about womanly things, giggled over their men and their quirks, fretted about young Will. Suddenly: “Oh, Mother, look. The tracks split off, two different ways.”
Maureen looked about. One set went east, over a rise, the other trailed off into the distance, to the south. She followed the eastward tracks slowly, while Judy headed south. “Don’t go too far, Judy, not by yourself. I’ll call if I see Keema’s ship or camp up this way, and you do the–”
“Mother, help!” Judy interrupted with a cry of alarm. Maureen bolted down the southern path, then brought herself up short, in panic.
“Judy, don’t move! Not an inch!”
“I know, I see! What is it?” All around her feet was a mesh of light, about twenty feet across, a soft purple glow that hovered a few inches over the ground. Whatever it was bore a disturbing resemblance to a spider’s web. The beams of light formed squares no more than six inches per side where Judy stood, each foot trapped in a separate square.
“I’m afraid to lift my feet, they’ll hit the light beams! What is it, Mother? I heard a little click and I stopped, and this just appeared out of nowhere.”
“I don’t know! It’s either some kind of laser or a trigger for something. Just – don’t move and stay calm. Deep breaths, darling.” Maureen turned and ran back the way she had come, following the footprints. Now, though, she called out Keema’s name, begging his help. He appeared suddenly.
“Why, Mrs. Robinson, what’s wrong? Has someone been harmed?”
“No. Not yet. I don’t think. Come look.” She grabbed him by the wrist and hurried him along the way. “Look,” she said, pointing at her daughter.
Keema looked at Maureen, evidently puzzled. He looked at Judy, and waved politely. “Hello, Judy. Pleasant evening, isn’t it?”
Maureen spun on him, resisted the urge to slap him. “What is that all around her? That web?”
“I’m afraid I see nothing, Mrs. Robinson, only your daughter standing there, and the ground. What do you want me to look at?”
“Don’t you see that web of purple light all around her? It’s a– a minefield or laser net or something, and we are very frightened!”
A look of comprehension dawned on the golden face. “Purple light beams, you say? I’m afraid my eyes don’t have as great a range in the spectrum as yours. The color you call purple is entirely invisible to me, just as ultraviolet is to you. You would not know that. But my enemy certainly does. Judy!” he called. “Look carefully. Is there one place on the edge where the beams intersect, and seem much brighter?”
“Yes!” she said. “Over there.”
“Mrs. Robinson, kindly guide me to where your daughter is pointing, and make sure I don’t step into a beam. As you suggest, this is indeed a minefield, and it likely would have been the death of me.”
She guided him around the edge of the web until she too saw the bright spot Judy indicated.
“Take your finger, and draw a line in the sand just outside the beam,” directed Keema. “This node,” he explained, “marks the control relay.” He dug into the sand to find the buried device.
“Careful!” gasped Maureen, as his hand came within a whisker of touching the beam.
He dug deeper. Finally there was an audible snap, and the web vanished.
“Judy, walk quickly over here! There are charges in the ground. Just walking over them shouldn’t be enough to set them off, but they may be booby-trapped to go off once the beam-trigger is disconnected!”
Judy ran lightly over, and all three fled toward the Jupiter 2. Behind them, they heard a series of explosions. The three made it back to the encampment as dusk turned to dark.
“Robot, turn off the force field and let us in!” Maureen called, which he did. “Judy, sit down, you’re very pale and you’re still shaking.”
Judy nodded and did so. “You saved my life, Mr. Keema. Thank you.”
“And you surely saved mine, Mrs. Robinson, Judy. Thank you.”
At the commotion, Penny and Dr. Smith came running out of the ship; Judy briefly explained what had happened, and her sister gave her a quick hug. Over Judy’s shoulder, Penny glimpsed the golden man. He was smiling, and Penny thought he looked rather pleased with himself.
He turned to Dr. Smith. “I hope you enjoyed the delicacies I brought, Doctor.”
“Oh, indeed, Mr. Keema, I haven’t tasted such things in far too long.”
He dropped his voice. “And now, I have had the opportunity of saving the beautiful girl’s life. Of all these, Doctor, I hope you at least know that I am your friend.”
“It is beyond question, dear Mr. Keema.”
“Good. I have a favor to ask of you. I need your help. I need weapons! That vile Zeedam is a craven coward, but his arsenal is a match of my own. Just a little more, I will tip the balance of power in my favor, and crush him!” Keema looked about again, to be sure none were listening. “My own scanners detect some laser weapons here. I know what you have. I want you to bring me one of the rifles, with all the power packs. You have neutron grenades, too. Bring me those, as well. Come to my base in the morning. You’ll be able to follow the footprints. Be careful to head east, not south, where the tracks diverge. Do this for me, and as soon as my triumph is complete, I will take you back to Earth. Or anywhere you choose! Those women, too, if they want – or if you want.”
“Your offer grows increasingly intriguing,” murmured Smith. “You may consider it done.”
Keema grabbed Smith by the shoulder, his face suddenly hard. “I will consider it done when it is done. Don’t disappoint me, Dr. Smith.” The golden man strode off.
“But it is such a little thing!” pleaded Smith, a short while later. “One laser rifle with power packs, and a few grenades! Surely this isn’t too much for the man who saved your daughter’s life? Hasn’t he proven his good intentions? Hasn’t the other demonstrated his own hostility? What more can you desire? And when all is done – escape and freedom from this wretched planet! He will take us all to Earth, or to Alpha Centauri, if you prefer! Dear lady, Mrs. Robinson, by the time the men –the other men– are back, it may be too late, the war may be done, and Mr. Keema dead! It is up to you, madam.”
For the hundredth time, Maureen closed her eyes to marshal her thoughts. Dr. Smith was making a certain amount of sense, she admitted, and that itself seemed a poor omen.
“Judy? What do you think?”
“I think Dr. Smith is right, Mother. Mr. Keema has done nothing but good for us. He saved my life. Even if we’re not sure, I think we owe him something. Sometimes you just have to let go and trust someone. You and Father have been teaching us that since we were small.”
She shook her head. “Something just isn’t right. Doesn’t that business with the minefield seem just a little too convenient? Judy gets trapped, and all of sudden there he is to save the day? I still don’t think that the Zeedam wants to hurt us. I’m not sure we should help either of them, but if we did help one, it should be him.”
“I think I agree with you, Penny. So a vote isn’t going to work, we’re deadlocked.”
“It’s not just us, madam, the fate of an entire other world, an entire civilization, may very well rest on your shoulders this moment.”
Maureen felt tears sting. This was so unfair! Who am I, she thought, to decide the fates of worlds? If I only had just a little more information . . .
“Robot!” she called. “I have a very important job for you . . .”
Crawling slowly through the warm blackness of the night, the Robot reviewed his mission parameters again. If I wasn’t a robot, he thought, I might think I was nervous. Be silent. Get close. Monitor any radio transmissions or voices. Analyze weaponry. Scan full sensor spectrum for any intelligence which might shed more light on the golden man’s intentions and strength. Take no chances, and be back by morning.
The Robot detected a radio burst coming from Keema’s compound. It was a powerful signal, but encoded. It will take me days to decrypt that, he thought, and cautiously wheeled in closer. He began detecting the whisper of sensors against his chassis – Keema’s own security system. A faint light was looming from beyond the next rockpile. I’m very close, now, and I am computing Danger. If I wasn’t a robot, I might think I was afraid. Now he could hear the voice of the golden man, like a far bell in the still night air. Adjust this receptor, boost the gain . . .
“. . . as planned . . . will have weapons by morning . . . very gullible . . . not a thing . . . complete victory . . . then will . . . with their very own weapons . . . yes, Field Marshal . . . look delicious too . . .”
EXTREME DANGER! the Robot shouted to himself. Time to get while the getting is good. He began his retreat, acutely aware of the Danger! warning throbbing in his circuits. That was when his left tread spun free in the loose sand, and the right one pushed him around, face first, into a granite pylon. The clang of his torso on rock echoed like a gong. If I wasn’t a robot, he thought, I might think I’m panicking. That was his last thought before an electronic blast from the golden man’s arsenal blew his brains out.
Aboard the Jupiter 2, three women slept, although not very soundly. In the common passageway outside their cabins, Dr. Smith walked back and forth experimentally. First, he stomped a bit, muttering sour nothings to himself, then tiptoed furtively, finally walking normally.
Convinced that the three were beyond disturbance by any prowling, he silently climbed the ladder to the upper deck, felt in his pocket for a key. He was quite proud of this key. It had taken weeks of patient on-and-off work, first removing the weapons locker key from John Robinson’s desk, tracing it onto a small bronze plate, returning the real key, then filing down the bronze into a functional duplicate. All for such an emergency as this, he thought smugly.
There were eight rifle power packs charged and ready; Smith tucked five into a backpack. This case held the neutron grenades, he put six in the backpack. He then snapped power packs into two of the laser rifles. These would stay here: just in case things went bad for some reason, he would have firepower ready instantly. There were two pistols as well, nestled into their charging units – their power packs were integrated, not removable. These would stay. Three or four others were with the men –the other men– in the Chariot. Lastly, he took the rifle which would go to Keema. Rifle and backpack he tucked inconspicuously into a corner of the ready room/utility locker by the hatch.
A few hours blissful sleep, he thought, then up before dawn, awake before those quarrelsome women, and out the door with the goods. With any luck, back before they were up to wonder at his early absence, and back to bed. Only have to worry about that fool Robot upsetting the applecart, now.
Dr. Smith retired to his cabin, stretched out with a satisfied smile on his face, and slept the peaceful sleep of the righteous.
In the early hours, a quiet alarm signaled. A figure arose, slipped into clothes, surreptitiously made its way to the upper deck, and vanished into the pre-dawn darkness.
Mother never actually ordered me not to go back, Penny rationalized to herself, stealing away alone to the Zeedam ship. And this is so very important.
“Hello? Sir? Zeedam soldier?” Penny called. It was quite dark outside, and there seemed to be no light inside the ship. She wasn’t even sure the hatchway was open, as it had been. Poor thing, she thought. I suppose he has to sleep sometime, too. But . . . Penny strode boldly up to the ship and knocked on the glass dome. Immediately floodlights burned away the outside dark, and purplish flashes strobed within. “It’s just me, Penny! I need to talk to you!”
Things moved inside the dome, and the lights faded down from emergency alert mode. A section of the hull vanished, letting the fetid smog within pour out into Penny’s face.
“Is there something wrong with you?” growled the voice. “Here I am trying to get a few hours sleep,
and – ”
“No!” piped Penny. “I’ve listened to your mean old griping enough. Now it’s my turn, and you’re going to listen to me!”
“Well, well, well. I’m impressed with your spirit, if not your sense. Go ahead. I’m listening.”
“Did you plant a minefield near Mr. Keema’s ship? Judy, my sister, could have been killed! Mr. Keema saved her.”
“That’s what he said, is it? It certainly must be true then. Mr. Keema is so charming and handsome. So shiny! He could never lie to you. A minefield? Oh, of course. What a cowardly kind of trap! Typical of something I would do. That’s what you think, isn’t it?”
“No – I don’t know! I don’t know anything anymore.”
“You think maybe he set it all up, to impress you and ingratiate himself with you? That maybe it was all just a little too convenient? Tell me child, would you believe me if I were to tell you exactly that, now? Me, a mean, nasty, hideous thing? Against the word of The Golden Mr. Keema?”
Penny paused. “Yes. Yes, I would. I don’t trust him, I haven’t from the start. I’m not sure I like you very much, because you are very disagreeable, but that doesn’t mean I won’t believe you. Or that I don’t trust you.”
“Your honesty is refreshing, child. It is the simple honesty of a pure, simple heart. Very well. You don’t like me, but you trust me. Would you still trust me if you could see what a grotesque monster I am?”
“I don’t think it matters one little bit what you look like.”
“Enter, then, if you wish to put your trust in me to the test.”
“All – all right. I’m coming in. Where are you?”
“All the way in the back. Just start walking, I’m sure you’ll find me.”
Penny stepped hesitantly inside. “Is that you, back by that green light?”
Penny followed a narrow walkway through the little jungle. She was surrounded with green: stems, stalks, leaves, blossoms, all shades of green and a riot of shapes. And this one here –
“Hello, Penny,” it said.
Penny screamed, over and over, wishing it was only a nightmare.
“Oh, please stop that, child! The sound makes my skin feel like it’s on fire!”
Finally, she got control of herself and looked closer at her host. Her heart pounded.
“I’m not very attractive to your eyes, am I? I warned you.”
“Ye– yes, you did. You are very frightening for me to look at. You’ve told me the truth again.”
“I am of a kind you would call amphibian. That is one reason I must stay in this ship so much. The air in here is very moist, and I am extremely uncomfortable outside, on this world.”
With the initial horror past, Penny looked at him closer. He was vaguely frog-like, if a frog stood on two legs, back hunched over nearly horizontal. His forelegs – no, his arms, Penny corrected herself, ended in clumsy paws of three digits. She shuddered again to look at his face. The wide mouth was filled with row upon row of needle-like teeth; it reminded her of pictures she had seen of Earthly fish which lived deep in the oceans. Feelers or tentacles hung down from the corners of the mouth, almost like a mustache. They writhed and twisted as if with a life of their own: even as she watched, one of them snapped a large dragonfly out of the air and stuffed it into the corner of the mouth. Red eyes the size of baseballs sat on short stalks on either side of his face.
The black skirt or kilt he wore was surrealistically jarring.
“Your mouth doesn’t move when you speak.”
“I am speaking to you directly now, touching your mind. It is easier than trying to fit the words of your language into this mouth.”
“I think I understand.”
“I’m not reading your mind. We feel it is very rude, what you would call eavesdropping. Sometimes, though, you will have a very strong thought, which I can’t help but hearing – such as your fear that I would read your mind, just now. And earlier, did you not notice that I spoke your very thoughts about The Famous Keema Rescue – it was just a little too convenient?”
“Why won’t you tell me your name?”
He spoke then, with his voice. To Penny, it sounded like the garble of a music tape running backwards, with lots of static. “That’s why. You couldn’t pronounce it at all, so why should you know it?”
Penny sighed. “Because that’s how people get to know one another, mine and yours both, I think.”
“In our language, that name signifies one whose work is the making of cloth. If that helps you to know me.”
“I see. My name’s just a name, I guess. But there’s more I need to tell you. Mr. Keema came asking for us to give him some of our weapons. He thinks he’ll be able to beat you with them.”
“I suppose you did.”
“No. No we didn’t . . . not yet. I said we shouldn’t, but Mother is waiting to hear what more the Robot can find out about him first before deciding. I think if you come to our ship and help explain things to the others, like you have to me, Mother will decide to keep out of it.”
“I haven’t explained a thing to you, Penny.”
“Why, yes– Oh. I guess you’re right. But you have to try! You must come and help Mother and Judy understand the truth about Mr. Keema.”
“I’ve already told you I can’t bear the dry air on this planet! There would be little point, anyway. How should I convince two who are so smitten with the golden god? Run home now, little girl. It’s more dangerous than ever for you here. I may be attacked at any moment.”
Penny turned to go, then looked back. “I was right about that, too. You never tried to hurt us, did you? You were just scaring us away so we wouldn’t get hurt.”
“Go, Penny,” was the creature’s curt response.
“I think I have made a mistake about you, you know. I think you’re really very sweet.”
“Won’t you move so I can close that hatch, you foolish child?”
Penny smiled, waved, and ran off. The sun was just coming up.
Suddenly, she noted an odd silvery glimmer out in the wastelands, about a half-mile distant from the ship. Curious but cautious, she drew closer, and soon made out the familiar shape of the Robot. What’s he doing so far out there? Penny wondered, and started jogging to him. He was moving, she observed, but very erratically. “Oh dear, Robot, what’s happened to you?” as she intercepted him.
His movement across the sand was mostly random. The warm, familiar flicker of diodes and bulbs in his dome top was completely absent, the sensor arrays were still. There was no whirring or humming of his logic relays, and in place of the friendly cherry-red flashing of his Vocalizer was a sullen blue glow. Putting her ear to the Robot’s torso, she heard a small, flat mechanical voice repeating over and over: “Fatal error in high-function cybernetic stem. Please initiate complete systems restart.”
Penny sighed in dismay; this had happened once before, when he got struck by lightning. All the circuit breakers controlling his high logic and synthetic brain functions had blown out, and left him nothing but a machine. “At least you’re moving, this time. Come on, Robot, let’s get you back to the ship, and maybe Dr. Smith can reset you.” She grabbed at a claw and tugged: his gross motor functions were intact, at least, and he allowed himself to be led across the gravelly sands like an infant.
As she approached the ship, Penny saw a familiar figure. “Look, Robot, there’s Dr. Smith! I wonder why he’s up so early today? Hello! Dr. Smith!” Penny waved and pointed at the Robot, who remained oblivious to her chatter. “Why, he ran back inside! I wonder what he was carrying? Well, as long as he can get you restarted. Just a few hours and you’ll be your old self again.”
Back at the ship, Maureen looked at the Robot despairingly. “This doesn’t look good at all. Dr. Smith, get him started, please. Judy, Penny, let’s set the force-field. No-one comes in or out. And no weapons go out. You understand me?”
Dr. Smith concealed his anger, nodded accommodatingly. The girls started wheeling the force-field generator into position. Suddenly, Judy screamed.
“Penny. Penny, I have decided to follow your suggestion. Tell your family who I am, if they have not guessed.”
“Oh, thank you! I knew you’d come! Mother, Judy, this is the Zeedam alien, and he’s my friend. He’s our friend, and I’m sure of it.”
“Greetings, Robinsons. I’m afraid I cannot stay very long, for a number of reasons. I simply wish to warn you of the being who calls himself Keema. I will not ask aid for myself, but simply advise that you not help – the golden man.”
Maureen, steeling herself to the sight of the alien, addressed him plainly. “So far, I have no reason to trust either of you, or to help either of you. You two go fight your war, and leave us out of it!”
“I could ask nothing more. I’m afraid that there is another who will not allow that.”
“At least Keema never came here armed. You’re carrying the plasma rifle you shot at my daughter with. And you ask me to trust you?”
“Mother!” exclaimed Penny. “We’ve misjudged him very badly. Listen to him!”
“No! Do not listen to a word of his lies!” Keema himself now strode into the camp. “Just – just look at the monster!”
Hearing the voice, the Zeedam swung his rifle up and drew a bead on the golden target. Keema’s hand dropped to his hip – now, he was carrying a small sidearm, and grasped the butt of it.
“Stop it, both of you!” Maureen almost screamed. “Our camp is neutral ground, as of now! Both of you, drop the weapons. You will not fight your war here.”
Keema’s eyes flared momentarily, then a gracious smile curved on his lips. “Of course, Mrs. Robinson. Please forgive me.” Slowly, he drew the pistol and dropped it on the ground. “Now you,” he called to the Zeedam.
“You see?” asked Keema. “He is treacherous, and has no regard for the wishes of a lady. He is everything I have told you.”
Penny ran to the Zeedam. “Please, sir, put it down. You’re scaring me now.”
“No, Penny. You know I’m suffering in this desert. Even at my best, I am helpless against your golden man – unarmed. I refuse to leave myself defenseless. Or perhaps I am just the treacherous coward he says. You, Golden Keema, we all see your wonderful courage, throwing down your weapon. Why, even I could believe what you say.”
Maureen interrupted. “Why can’t you two just stop? Have you tried talking, making some sort of compromise?”
Keema sniffed. “There can be no compromise with such . . . evil. All we want is peace.”
“What you call peace, my people call prison!”
“What you call freedom is nothing but ill-mannered, reckless anarchy!”
“Stop it, now!” shouted Maureen. “Both of you, just get out of here! Leave us alone, and go blow each other to bits, for all I care, just leave us alone!”
Keema turned and smiled graciously. “I apologize. Imposing on such a kind hostess as yourself is unforgivable.” He recovered his weapon, and glared at the Zeedam. “And as for you – my patience is at an end. Prepare for hostilities to commence.” He marched away.
The Zeedam leaned against a table. “Penny. Please. A drink of water, I beg you.”
Without a word, Penny ran into the ship to oblige. He drank about half the glass, and poured the rest over his head. “Ah, much better. Thank you. I will always think of you fondly.”
He grasped Penny’s hand, raised it, and let the tip of one tentacle touch the tip of her index finger. “That is how my people bid farewell to one they are fond of. So – farewell.” He shuffled off awkwardly over the desert sand.
Penny’s voice quavered. “Mother, he’s going off to die.”
Maureen hugged her daughter close. “I’m sorry, darling, but it’s not our concern. I wish it could be, but it isn’t. Now listen. I need to lie down, I have a terrible headache. Switch on the force-field, then I think you should go lie down, too.”
“But – ”
“Hush, dear. Try not to think about it.”
Dr. Smith sidled up to Judy. “My dear, do you suppose you might find us a bite to eat? I’m perfectly ravenous.”
Good, he thought a minute later. Two resting, one cooking. Now, he thought, is the flood in the affairs of this man. He retrieved the weapons hidden by the hatch, paused a moment where the Robot stood, systems still restarting. “Take all the time in the world, dear friend,” he snarled, resetting the process again.
Smith vanished into the bleak landscape.
“Mr. Keema? Mr. Keema? Are you there?” Smith flinched; already there were streaks of energy trails overhead, and explosions as warheads slammed against force-fields. Showers of shattered granite cascaded down on his head as he slipped through the ravines. He spied the small hut which was Keema’s headquarters.
“Dear Mr. Keema! I have something for you!”
“Well, well, Dr. Smith. I feared you had lost your nerve and betrayed me. Show me.”
Smith handed him the laser rifle and dumped the contents of the backpack out on the floor.
Keema eyed the cache with delight. “Splendid!” he exclaimed. “Just the thing to tip the balance of power. These neutron grenades, especially. His defenses are too sophisticated to protect against such crude, primitive devices.”
So probably yours as well, calculated Smith. A good tidbit of knowledge.
Another explosion shook the ground.
“I always say, Mr. Keema, why have we been put into this universe, if not to offer the generous hand of friendship to one in need. I do hope you shall be able to return the favor in kind, and see me returned safely to Earth.” Smith stepped to the door, and stuck his head out. For some reason, there was an unpleasant closeness to the air in Keema’s hut, an almost animal-like muskiness.
Keema laughed, and something about it set a chill to Smith’s spine. “Never fear, Dr. Smith, never fear. The hand of friendship, indeed!”
Dr. Smith felt a light touch on his shoulder, then screamed in pain. He looked, and saw three furry, black fingers adorned with two-inch long claws; the claws bit deep into his flesh. Blood poured from the wounds.
“What are you –” Smith screamed again, in terror greater than simple agony. Behind him was no golden man, no Olympian god, no Apollo Belvedere.
Coarse black fur covered a flabby, barrel-shaped body, and misshapen limbs like broken wings terminated in the claws still hooking his shoulder. Atop all was a rodent-like face – not just any rodent, Smith’s mind registered. A bat – a vampire bat.
“What have you done with Mr. Keema?!” Smith wailed.
“I am he, none other, Dr. Smith!” a shrill voice screeched. “What, don’t you care for me anymore, my dear friend?”
“You’re more of a monster than the other one!”
“Yes, I am, Dr. Smith! And how glad I am to regain my real body! How I hate the soft, flaccid, ugly shape of a man!” The mouth opened wide in hysterical laughter, revealing a few large, sharply pointed teeth. “Except as a rare dinner treat!”
Smith fell to his knees in a near faint. “Oh, no, what have I done?” he simpered. “Dearest Penny, you were right all along.” He looked up at the loathsome form, then rolled his eyes even further upward. “Dear Lord in Heaven, if ever You were there, let this be quick and merciful . . .”
He was more grateful, though, for the thudding shockwave a moment later which sent him and Keema sprawling on the floor. The creature rolled awkwardly, but in a flash, Smith was out the door, racing toward the Jupiter 2.
His screams and incoherent shrieks alerted the women, and Judy dropped the force-field quickly, so he entered the encampment without missing a fleeing footstep. Maureen stepped over, and Smith flung himself at her feet.
“Forgive me, dear lady, forgive me, do. You were right, Penny was right, Keema is a terrible creature not to be trusted, and I fear now I have precipitated what will be the end of us all! Forgive me, and do something!” He quickly confessed his theft and delivery of the weapons.
“Dr. Smith, stop panicking!” Judy grasped him by the shoulders and pulled him to his feet. “We’re safe for now. He’ll be too busy with Penny’s alien for a while to worry about us, and maybe he’ll be defeated after all.”
“I’ll be sure everything we have is charged up and ready,” stated Maureen, going to the weapons locker.
“Of course, Judy, Penny’s alien, where is she? Penny! Come here at once! We must apologize to him and ask him to help us. He can’t refuse, he’s our friend, isn’t he Penny? Oh! Penny. There you are. Go ask your friend –tell him!– we need his help!”
“Oh, Dr. Smith! How can he help us now? We have to warn him, and maybe we can help him. Come on!”
Penny grabbed Smith by the hand and dragged him behind, protesting. Subsonic generators shook the ground with quakes, and lens-lasers arched like murderous rainbows from one piece of ground to another. Infra-red heat projectiles screamed glaringly overhead, and plasma bombs burst into the darkening sky.
“There he is!” Penny shouted, pointing. The Zeedam ship was illuminated under a flood of bright energy, and the glass dome was already cracked and broken. “We’re too late!” she wept.
There was one final blast. The dome shattered, and she saw a squat, green body blown out onto the rocks. Penny screamed in anguish, and raced over to the Zeedam. Smith crawled along behind.
“Penny. Penny, I told you to get out of here.”
“I won’t,” she stated defiantly. “This is our fault, and – oh! You’re hurt so badly.” A face-tentacle lay severed and squirming on the ground. Purplish liquid dribbled from the Zeedam’s face where the appendage had been. “Please let me help you.”
“You insist on being a fool, do you? Go . . . inside my ship, then. Back where you first found me. You will find . . . a white box, with a purple circle on the cover. Bring it.”
Penny climbed into the shattered ship, found what was the alien’s first-aid kit. “What do I do?” she asked.
“Take . . . the white tube. It is an adhesive. Put some on . . . the severed end of the tentacle. . . and bind it on with the cloth strips.” He groaned in pain. “Without that, I have few of my senses. Only sight . . . and hearing.”
She re-attached the feeler. “At least the explosions have stopped.”
“Only . . . for him to come and . . . finish me. And you too, little fool.” He put his head back and groaned. “Why are you doing this, you silly girl?”
Penny put a hand to his cheek. “Because it’s what human beings do for each other.”
“He is coming. Go. Don’t make me be angry with you.”
Behind her, Smith shrieked a warning; Penny looked up and shrieked in turn, seeing Keema’s real form for the first time.
Keema cackled a laugh. “Be sure to tell everyone ‘Thank you’ for me, pretty little Penny!”
She recognized their own neutron grenade in his paw, watched as it arced in. A corner of her mind observed, Things really do happen in slow motion when you’re about to die. The grenade dug into the sand three feet from her. Look how fast the little red light is flashing, she thought.
Another corner of her mind awoke, and spat fury at the once-golden man. Penny dove at the grenade, and remembered playing Catch with Will. Her hand scooped up the grenade and she hurled it, straight and hard at Keema. It caught him squarely in the eye before dropping to the ground. Those are, she thought, very powerful grenades. “Dr. Smith, help us!”
Smith looked at Keema, who staggered, clutching at his eye. The grenade flashed its last moments away. He saw behind him the trail leading to the safety of the narrow granite canyon.
He saw Penny.
“No,” he said. “You won’t have her today.”
Smith scrambled and jumped. The explosion which killed Keema scorched Dr. Smith’s back with second-degree burns; Penny and the Zeedam were untouched.
Penny put her hand on the alien’s shoulder. “It’s over. The war is done.” She gasped as she saw Dr. Smith, the back of his shirt burnt off, and the skin of his back not much better.
“Dr. Smith? Are you OK?” Carefully, she jostled his shoulder and was relieved to hear him groan in pain. Turning to the alien, she asked, “Is there anything in that first aid kit that can help him?”
The Zeedam too made a sound of pain as he sat up. “I will try.”
“Don’t,” ordered Smith. “Leave me be. Let me perish in agony. I realize now how wrong I was, what a wicked monster that Keema was . . . what a wicked monster I’ve been.”
“Pay no attention,” Penny whispered to the Zeedam. “He’s always like that when he’s goofed up and gotten caught.”
The alien passed a small flashing wand over Smith’s back, covering the tortured skin with a cooling anesthetic, disinfectant, and cell stimulant to speed healing.
“Why, why are you doing this for me? I’m the one who betrayed you, betrayed the Robinsons, and gave Keema the weapons he wanted.”
“As Penny said, it is something human beings do for one another. In any case, I cannot hold it against you that you were fooled by Keema. It is a common weakness of humans to be deceived by appearance and seduced by flattery.
“Penny, are you all right? Are you hurt at all?”
“No, I’m fine. Yourself?”
“I hurt some. That’s all. Here, help me stand.”
“I hope you’re going to be all right. You and all your planet. I hope all your people are as nice as you.”
Carefully, Penny stretched her arms around his plump torso and hugged him tight. “You come and visit with us before you leave, promise me.”
“I shall. My ship is badly damaged, but rescue is on the way. Penny, I want to explain something to you. Look at me now.”
She gasped, astonished. In place of the squat alien form was a tall, very human, man. Penny could hardly look away from him, and her heart pounded. “Is – is this what you really –”
“No, what you see now is only an illusion. You see a – a composite of every male of your kind who has meant something to you in your life. Look closely.”
Penny caught her breath as she realized the Zeedam’s appearance reminded her of many, now. She saw a boy, in long-ago fifth grade, who pulled her braids incessantly in class, and another just a year later, who stole a kiss at a dance. There was the roguish grin of another boy, imprisoned in a dark, terrible place, whose sudden abandonment of her left her heart aching, and troubled by new, barely-comprehended yearnings. Others, too, all but forgotten. Even, she saw wondering, his eyes – weren’t those her father’s own piercing eyes gazing down with paternal fondness?
“Stop,” she whispered. “I’m afraid.”
The vision shimmered, and the alien was again himself. “I could have done that to any of you, at any time, and you would have been helpless to deny me anything. You felt that, didn’t you?”
Penny bit her lip and nodded silently.
“It is a terrible power we command, and so we do not use it except in the direst of circumstances.” He studied Penny’s face, looked into her eyes. “Perhaps that was a mistake. I forgot you are so young. Remember that what you saw was nothing but an illusion. Never let your heart fall in love with an illusion. Do you understand me?”
She embraced the creature again. “It’s all right. I like you best just as you are.”
“Run along now, child. Your mother is worried for you. In my mind, she is almost screaming her fear.”
“Remember to come visit before you go.” Impulsively, Penny kissed the cold, wet cheek before disentangling her arms from him and running off. “Bye!”
“And you, Dr. Smith. You did a courageous, noble thing here. But I can see many dark things which trouble you and lead you into dangerous places. I could help you. I can lighten the dark places within you, heal the interior wounds.”
Smith looked at the alien long and hard before saying, “No. What you suggest means to tamper with the very thing that makes us humans what we are, and who we are as individuals. A lobotomy is a lobotomy, no matter how fine the instruments used. I am neither saint nor hero; perhaps I could be one or the other, someday. But that is something which is mine alone to determine.”
The Zeedam nodded. “Your people and mine truly are quite the same, regardless of our appearance. I wish you well, and hope that you find a way out of the dark jungle within. You too, I will see again before I leave. Here – I believe this is a customary salute for this occasion.” He extended a cold, clammy paw. Smith looked at it with momentary distaste, but took it in his hand.
“You indeed are a gentleman, sir. Thank you for your medical aid, but now I must return to the ship, and find some fresh clothing. I bid you good evening.”
The Zeedam sighed and stepped into the wreckage of his ship. It would be uncomfortable for him without the protective dome. At least now, he thought, maybe I can get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Smith approached the Jupiter 2. He had stripped off the filthy remains of the burnt shirt and tied it about his waist. Seeing the Robinson women outside, he hastily crossed his arms over his chest.
“Well, I see you’re back,” he growled at the Robot. “Don’t worry, we’ve already discovered what a fright that Keema was.”
“I like your new look, Dr. Smith,” opined the Robot. “Have you joined a naturist society?”
“Spare me the innuendo, you tedious tinman.” He turned to Mrs. Robinson. “Dear lady, when you have a moment, do you suppose you could find some fresh clothing for me in the laundry?”
Maureen laughed. It felt good to laugh, even at Dr. Smith’s wheedling, now that the most important decision of the day was coffee or tea. “Of course, Dr. Smith. I’ll get you something right away.”
“And do you suppose – is there, by any chance, just a little bit of that ham left for dinner?”