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The hitch hikers, p.1
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       The Hitch Hikers, p.1

           Vernon L. McCain
 
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The Hitch Hikers


  Produced by Greg Weeks, David Wilson and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net

  +--------------------------------------------------------------+ | | | Transcriber's note: | | | | This story was published in _If: Worlds of Science Fiction_, | | November 1954. Extensive research did not uncover any | | evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was | | renewed. | | | +--------------------------------------------------------------+

  _Illustrated by Kelly Freas_

  The Hitch Hikers

  _The Rell, a great and ancient Martian race, faced extinction when all moisture was swept from their planet. Then, one day, a lone visitor--a strange, two-legged creature composed mostly of water--landed on Mars..._

  BY VERNON L. MC CAIN

  The dehydration of the planet had taken centuries in all. The Rell hadstill been a great race when the process started. Construction of thecanals was a prodigious feat but not a truly remarkable one. But whatuse are even canals when there is nothing to fill them?

  What cosmic influences might have caused the disaster baffled even thegroup-mind of the Rell. Through the eons the atmosphere had drifted intospace; and with it went the life-giving moisture. Originally a liquidparadise, the planet was now a dry, hostile husk.

  The large groups of Rell had been the first to suffer. But in time eventhe tiny villages containing mere quadrillions of the submicroscopicentities had found too little moisture left to satisfy their thirst andthe journey ever southward toward the pole had commenced.

  The new life was bitter and difficult and as their resources weredepleted so also did their numbers diminish.

  Huddled at their last retreat the Rell watched the ever smaller ice capannually diminish and lived with the knowledge they faced extinction. Amere thousand years more would see even this trifling remainder gone.

  Oh, you might say there was hope ... of a sort. There might be Rell inthe northern hemisphere. The canals girdled the globe and a similar icecap could well exist at the opposite pole. Rell perhaps survived therealso.

  But this was scant comfort. The fate of the Rell in the South wassealed. What hope of any brighter future for those in the North? And ifthey survived a few hundred thousand years longer ... or if they hadperished a similar period earlier, what actual difference did it make?

  There was no one more aware of this gloomy future than Raeillo/ee13.

  In the old days a single unit of the group-mind of the Rell would havepossessed but a single function and exercised this function perhaps adozen times during his life. But due to the inexorable shrinkage onlythe most important problems now could command mind-action and each unithad been forced to forsake specialization for multi-purpose endeavors.

  Thus Raeillo/ee13 and his mate Raellu//2 were two of the five thousandunits whose task was to multiply in any group-mind action involvingmathematical prediction. Naturally Raeillo/ee13 and Raellu//2 did notwaste their abilities in mundane problems not involving prediction. Nordid they divide, add, or subtract. That was assigned to other units justas several million of the upper groups had the task of sorting andinterpreting their results. Raeillo/ee13 and Raellu//2 multiplied only.And it must be admitted they did it very well. It is a pity the Rellcould not have multiplied physically as easily as Raeillo/ee13 andRaellu//2 multiplied mentally.

  With the exception of an occasional comet or meteor the Rell were seldomdiverted by anything of a physical nature. The ice cap was their soleconcern.

  But one afternoon a rare physical phenomenon was reported by a bank ofobserver Rell.

  "In the sky's northwest portion," an excited injunction came through."Observe that patch of flaming red!"

  More observer Rell were quickly focused on the novel sight and furtherdata was rapidly fed into the interpretive bank.

  The Rell were justifiably proud of their interpreters. With the raceshrinkage it had proved impossible to properly train new interpreters.So, not without a great deal of sacrifice, the old interpreters, datingback to when the canals still flowed with water, had been kept alive.

  They were incredibly ancient but there was no doubt as to their ability.It was a truism among the Rell that the interpretive banks arrived attheir conclusions faster than any other group and that these conclusionscould be checked to hundreds of decimal places without findinginaccuracy.

  So it was no surprise to have the interpretive bank respond almostinstantly, "It is quite odd but the flame appears to be of artificialorigin."

  "Artificial!" came the rough and questing probe of the speculative bank."But how could Rell possibly be out there?"

  "Who mentioned Rell?" was the interpretive bank's smug answer. They werenot utterly averse to demonstrating their superior mental abilities onoccasion.

  The speculative bank replied, "Artificial implies intelligence, andintelligence means Rell..."

  "Does it?" the interpretive bank interrupted. The speculative bankwaited but the interpretive bank failed to enlarge on the provocativequery.

  The Rell had found certain disadvantages accrued to abnormalprolongation of life and thus were not unused to the interpretive bank'soccasional tendency to talk in riddles.

  "Perhaps not," the speculative bank replied after a quick check with thelogical formulae held in reserve by the historical bank. "It istheoretically possible that Rell-like individuals might have developedelsewhere, and perhaps even have developed intelligence, although,according to the historical bank, such an idea has never before beensubjected to consideration. But what is the flame doing?" theycontinued, a trifle resentful at having been left to do work properly inthe interpretive bank's province.

  The observation and interpretive banks once more came into play,studying the situation for several minutes. "The flame appears to be theexhaust of a fairly crude vessel," the interpretive bank finallyreported, "propelled by ignition of some gaseous mixture."

  "Is it moving?"

  "Quite rapidly."

  "Where is it going?"

  This called into play the prophecy division of the mind and Raeillo/ee13and Raellu//2, who had been merely interested onlookers before,hurriedly meshed themselves with the other forty nine hundred odd oftheir fellows. (It was impossible to say at any given time just how manythere were in their computer section, as several births and deaths hadoccurred among the group since beginning the current observations. Thesewould be suspended for the next several moments, however, as there was astrict prohibition against anyone being born, dying, or otherwiseengaging in extraneous activity while their particular bank was eitheralerted or in action.)

  Raeillo/ee13 and Raellu//2 felt the group discipline take hold much morefirmly than the free-and-easy mesh which each unit enjoyed with thecomplete group-mind during periods of leisure.

  With a speed that would have been dizzying and incomprehensible to anyindividual unit, the observing banks relayed huge masses of extraneousdata to the interpretive bank. They strained out the salient facts andin turn passed these to the computing:prediction section. Here they wererouted to the groups who would deal with them. Raeillo/ee13 and Raellu//2found their own talents pressed into service a dozen or more times inthe space of the minute and a half it took the computing:prediction andinterpretive banks to arrive at the answer.

  "It's aimed here," the interpretive bank reported.

  "Here!" a jumble of incoherent and anarchistic thoughts resounded frommany shocked and temporarily out-of-mesh units.

  "Order!" came a sharp command
from the elite corp of three thousanddisciplinary units.

  As stillness settled back over the group-mind the speculative bank oncemore came in. "By here ... do you mean _right_ here?"

  "Approximately," replied the interpretive bank with what would havesounded suspiciously like a chuckle in a human reply. "According tocalculations the craft should land within half a mile of our presentlocation."

  "Let's go there then and wait for it!" That thought from the now seldomused reservation of impulse.

  The speculative bank murmured, "I wonder if there would be any danger.How hot is that exhaust?"

  Calculations were rapidly made and the answer arrived at. The Rellprudently decided to remain where they were for the present.

  * * * * *

  Captain Leonard Brown, USAF, hunched over the instruments in the crampedcontrol cabin which, being the only available
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