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Published 21 July 2015

"The Harmonizer" (1944) - a science-fiction classic by A. E. van Vogt

Although the November 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction featured Killdozer by Theodore Sturgeon on its cover, the outstanding story in that issue in our humble opinion was this strangely credible tale by A. E. van Vogt, about how an alien "ibis" plant, quite its central character, was not only responsible for the disappearance of the dinosaurs from Earth (!) but also for an equally dramatic impact on life in our own time (!!).

With the original Astounding illustrations by Kramer.

e-book versions of this quintessential van Vogt story can be downloaded by clicking on the attachments below.


After it had sent two shoots out of the ground, the ibis plant began to display the true irritability of intelligent living matter: It became aware that it was growing.
The awareness was a dim process, largely influenced by the chemical reaction of air and light upon the countless membranes that formed its life structure. Tiny beads of acid were precipitated on these delicate colloidal films. The rhythm of pain-pleasure that followed surged down the root.
It was a very early stage in the development of an ibis plant. Very.
Like a newborn puppy, it reacted to stimuli. But it had no purpose as yet, and no thought. And it was not even dimly aware that it had been alive previously.
Slash! Snip! The man’s hoe caught the two silvery shoots, and severed them about two inches below the ground.
"I thought I’d got all the weeds out of this border," said the man.
His name was Wagner, and he was a soldier scheduled to leave for the front the next day. He didn’t actually use the foregoing words, but the gist of his imprecation is in them.
The ibis plant was not immediately aware of what had happened. The series of messages that had begun when the first shoot pushed up through the soil, were still trickling down the root, leaving the impact of their meaning on each of a multitude of colloidal membranes. This impact took the form of a tiny chemical reaction, which in its small way caused a sensation.
Instant by instant, as those messages were transmitted by the slow electricity that obtained in the membranous films, the ibis plant came more alive. And tiny though each chemical consciousness was in itself, no subsequent event could cancel it in the slightest degree.
The plant was alive, and knew it. The hoeing out of its shoots and the upper part of its root merely caused a second wave of reactions to sweep downward.
The chemical effect of this second wave was apparently the same as the earlier reaction: Beads of acid composed of not more than half a dozen molecules each, formed on the colloid particles. The reaction seemed the same, but it wasn’t. Before, the plant had been excited, almost eager.
Now, it grew angry.
After the manner of plants, the results of this reaction were not at once apparent. The ibis made no immediate attempt to push up more shoots. But on the third day, a very curious thing started to happen. The root near the surface came alive with horizontal sub-roots.
These pushed along in the soil darkness, balancing by the simple process of being aware, like all plants, of gravitation.
On the eighth day, one of the new roots contacted the root of a shrub. And began to wind in and around it. Somehow then a relation was established, and on the fifteenth day, a second set of shoots forced the soil at the base of the shrub, and emerged into the light.
The radical, the astounding thing about this second set of shoots was that they were not of a silvery hue. They were a dark green. In color, shape and texture the leaves, as they developed seemed more and more exact duplicates of the leaves of the shrub.
Rapidly the new shoots shot up. As the weeks sped by, the "fear" that had induced chameleonism faded, and the leaves reverted to their silver color. Slowly, the plant became conscious of human and animal thoughts. But not till two hundred days later did the ibis begin to show its basic sensitivity.
The reaction which followed was as potent and far reaching as had been the results of that same sensitivity in its previous existence.
That was eighty million years before.

The ship, with the ibis plants aboard, was passing through the solar system when the catastrophe happened.
It came down onto an earth of marsh, fog and fantastic reptilian monsters. It came hard and out of control; its speed as it struck the thick atmosphere was approximately colossal. And there was absolutely nothing that the superbeings aboard could do about it.
What had occurred was a precipitation of the matter held in suspension in the drive chambers. As a result of the condensation, the crystalloids in the sub-microscopic twilight zone above the molecule state lost surface area. Surface tensions weakened to a tenth, a hundredth, a thousandth of what was necessary. And at that moment, by the wildest accident, the ship passed near Earth and tangled with the dead mass of the gigantic planet’s magnetic field.
Poor ship! poor beings! Crashed now, dead now nearly eighty thousand thousand years.
All that day and night, remnants of the ship burned and fused, and flared again, in a white, destroying incandescence. When that first, fire-shattered darkness ended, not much remained of what had been a mile-long liner. Here and there over the Cretaceous land and water and primeval forest, unburnt sections lay, jagged lumps of metal rearing up towards the perpetually muggy heavens, their lower parts sunk forever into a thick fetid soil that would eat and eat at their strength until at last, the metal defeated, its elements would dissolve into earth and become earth.
Long before that happened, the ibis that were still alive had reacted to the dampness, and sent creepers out over the broken metal of what been their culture room, out towards the gaping holes that opened into the soil.
There had been three hundred plants, but in that last terrible period before the crash, some effort had been made to destroy them.
Altogether eighty-three ibis survived the deliberate attempt at their destruction; and among them there was a deadly race to take root. Those that came last knew instinctively that they had better move on.
Of these latter, weakened by an injury in the crash, was the ibis. It reached the life-giving earth last of all. There followed a painful and timeless period when its creepers and its roots forced their way among the massed tangle of its struggling fellows, towards the remote edge of the gathering forest of silver shrubs.
But it got there. It lived. And, having survived, having taken possession of a suitable area in which to develop without interference, it lost its feverishness, and expanded into a gracious silver-hued tree.
A hundred, a hundred and fifty, two hundred feet tall it grew. And then, mature and satisfied, it settled down to eternal existence in a grotesque yet immensely fertile land.
It had no thought; it lived and enjoyed and experienced existence. For a thousand years no acid beads formed on its colloidal membranes except the acids of reaction to light, heat, water, air and other extrania of simply being alive.
The idyllic life was interrupted one gray soggy morning by a dull but tremendous thunder and a shak­ing of the ground. It was no minor earthquake. Continents shook in the throes of rebirth. Oceans rushed in where had been land; and land surged wetly out of the warm seas.
There had been a wide expanse of deep marsh water separating the forest of ibis trees from the mainland. When the shuddering of a tortured planet ended in the partial stability of that uneasy age, the marsh was joined to the distant higher ground by a long, bare, hill-like ridge.
At first it was merely mud, but it dried and hardened. Grass sprouted and shrubs made a tangle of parts of it. Trees came up from drift seed; the young growth raced for the sky and simultaneously waged a bitter battle for space, but all that was unimportant beside the fact that the ridge existed; the gap that isolated the ibis had been bridged.
The new state of things was not long in manifesting. One timeless day a creature stamped boldly along the height, a creature with a rigidly upheld armored tail, teeth like knives and eyes that glowed like fire with the fury of unending bestial hunger.
Thus came Tyrannosaur Rex to the peaceful habitat of the ibis, and awakened from a latent condition a plant that had been cultivated and developed by its creators for one purpose only.

Animals were no new thing to the ibis trees. The surrounding marshes swarmed with great placid vegetarians. Gigantic snakes crawled among the ferns at the water edge, and writhed through the muddy water. And there was an endless scurrying of young, almost mind­less, beasts in and out among the silver trees.
It was a world of hungry life, but the hunger was for vegetation, or for living things that were scarcely more than plants, for the long lush marsh grass, the leaf- laden shrubs, the soggy roots of water plants, and the plants themselves, for primitive fish, for wriggling things that had no awareness of pain or even of their fate. In the quiet torpor of their existence, the plant-eating reptiles and amphibians were little more than Gargantuan plants that could move about.
The most enormous of all these well-behaved creatures, the long-necked, long-tailed brontosaurus, was eating away on the generous leaves of a tall fern on the morning that the flesh-eating dinosaur stalked onto the scene with all the tact of a battering ram.
The struggle that followed was not altogether one-sided. The brontosaurus had, above everything else, weight and a desire to get out of there.
The process of getting was made especially difficult by the fact that Tyrannosaur Rex had his amazing teeth sunk into the thick lower part of the big fellow’s neck; and also in some unsubtle fashion he had dug his claws into the thick meat of the great slab of side to which he was clinging. Movement for the brontosaurus was strictly limited by the necessity of carrying along the multi-tonned dinosaur.
Like a drunken giant, the great beast staggered blindly towards the marsh water. It it saw the ibis tree it was a visualization that meant nothing.
The crash knocked the brontosaurus off its feet, a virtual death sentence for a creature that, even under the most favorable circumstances required ten minutes to recover from such an unbalanced prostration.
In a few minutes, the dinosaur administered the coup de grace; and, with a slobbering and bloody ferocity, started gorging.
It was still at this grisly meal half an hour later when the ibis began reacting in a concrete fashion.
The initial reactions had begun almost the moment the dinosaur arrived in the vicinity. Every sen­sitive colloid of the tree caught the blasts of palpable lusts radiated by the killer. The thought waves of the beast were emitted as a result of surface tensions on the membranes of its embryo brain; and as these were electric in nature, their effect on the delicately balanced films of the ibis’s membranes was to set off a feverish manufacture of acids.
Quadrillions of the beads formed; and, though once again they seemed no different from similar acids created as a result of other irritations, the difference began to manifest itself half an hour after the brontosaurus grunted its final agony.
The ibis tree and its companions exuded a fragrance in the form of billions on billions of tiny dust motes. Some of these motes drifted down to the dinosaur, and were gulped into its lungs from where, in due course, they were absorbed into its bloodstream.
The response was not instantly apparent. After several hours, the dinosaur’s gigantic stomach was satiated. It stalked off to wallow and sleep in a mud-hole, quickly made extra-odorous by its own enormous droppings and passings, a process that continued as easily in sleep as during consciousness.
Waking, it had no difficulty scenting the unrefrigerated meat of its recent kill. It raced over eagerly to resume feeding, slept and ate again, and then again.
It took several days for its untiring digestion to absorb the brontosaurus to the extent that it was once more ravenously hungry.
Oddly, then, it didn’t go hunting. Instead, it wandered around aimless and terribly restless, looking for carrion. All around, amphibians and snakes moved and had their being—ideal prey. The dinosaur showed no interest.
Except for hopelessly inadequate carrion of small reptiles, it spent the next week starving to death in the midst of plenty.
On the fifteenth day a trio of small, common dinosaurs came across its wasted body, and ate it without noticing that it was still alive.

On the wings of a thousand breezes, the fragrant spores drifted. There was no end to them. Eighty-three ibis trees had started manufacturing that for which they had been created; and, once started, there was no stopping.
The spores did not take root. That wasn’t what they were for. They drifted; they hung in the ed­dies above quiet glades, sinking re­luctantly towards the dank earth, but always swift to accept the em­brace of a new wind, so light, so airy themselves that journeys half­way around the earth proved not beyond their capabilities.
In their wake they left a trail of corpses among the killer reptiles. Once tantalized by the sweet-scented motes, the most massive murderers in the history of the planet lost their brutality, their will to kill—and died like poisoned flies.
It took time of course, but of that at least there was a plenitude. Each dead carnivore provided car­rion meat for the hungry hordes that roamed the land; and so after a fashion, over the decades, tens of thousand of individuals lived on because of the very abundance of dead meat eaters.
In addition there was a normal death rate among the non-meat eaters that had always provided a measure of easy food; and since there were fewer meat eaters every year, the supply of meat per capita increased, at first gradually, and then with a suddenness and totality that was devastating.
The death of so many killers had created an imbalance between the carnivore and their prey. The vegetarians in their already huge numbers began to breed almost without danger. The young grew up in a world that would have been idyllic except for one thing : there was not enough food.
Every bit of reachable green, every root, vegetable and shoot was snatched by eager jaws before it could begin to mature.
For a time the remnants of the killers feasted. And then, once more, a balance was struck—that ended again and again as the prolific vegetarians dropped their young into a world made peaceful by the exudation of plants that couldn’t stand brutality, yet felt nothing when death came by starvation.
The centuries poured their mist of forgetfulness over each bloody dip of that fateful seesaw. And all the while, as the millenniums slipped by, the ibis maintained their peaceful existence. For long and long it was peaceful, without incident of any kind. For a hundred thousand years the stately silver trees stood on their almost-island, and were content.
During that vast expanse of time, the still unstable earth had rocked many times to the shattering and re-forming fury of colossal earthquakes, but it was not until they were well into their second hundred thousandth year that they were again affected.
A continent was rift and torn. The gap was about a thousand miles long, and in some places as much as twenty-five miles deep. It cut the edge of the island, and plummeted the ibis tree into an abyss three miles deep.
Water raged into the hole, and dirt came roaring down in almost liquid torrents. Shocked and buried, the ibis tree succumbed to its new environment. It sank rapidly to the state of a root struggling to remain alive against hostile forces.
It was three thousand years later that the second-last act of the ibis trees was played out on the surface of the planet.
A ship clothed in myriad colors slipped down through the murk and the gloom of the steaming jungle planet that was Cretaceous earth. As it approached the silver-hued grove, it braked its enormous speed, and came to a full stop directly over the island in the marsh.
It was a much smaller machine than the grand liner that had crashed to a fiery destruction so many, many years before. But it was big enough to disgorge, after a short interval, six graceful patrol boats,
Swiftly, the boats sped to the ground.
The creatures who emerged from them were two-legged and two-armed, but there the resemblance to human form ended.
They walked on rubbery land with the ease and confidence of absolute masters. Water was no barrier ; they strode over it as if they were made of so much buoyant fluff. Reptiles they ignored; and, for some reason, whenever a meeting threatened, it was the beasts that turned aside, hissing with fear.
The beings seemed to have a profound natural understanding of purposes, for there was no speech among them.
Without a sound or waste mo­tion, a platform was floated into position above a small hill. The platform emitted no visible or audi­ble force, but beneath it the soil spumed and ripped. A section of the drive chamber of the old, great ship catapulted into the air, and was held captive by invisible beams.
No dead thing this. It sparkled and shone with radiant energy. Ex­posed to the air, it hissed and roared like the deadly machine it was. Torrents of fire poured from it un­til something—something green— was fired at it from a long gun-like tube.
The greenness must have been a-energy. and potent out of all pro­portion to its size. Instantly, the roaring, the hissing, the flaring of the energy in the drive chamber was snuffed out. As surely as if it were a living thing mortally struck, the metal lost its life.
The super-beings turned their concentrated attention on the grove of ibis trees. First they counted them. Then they cut incisions into several roots, and extracted a length of white pith from each. These were taken to the parent ship, and subjected to chemical examination.
It was in this way that the dis­covery was made that there had been eighty-three trees. An inten­sive search for the missing tree be­gan.
But the mighty rent in the plan­et’s great belly had been filled in by drift and mud and water. Not a trace of it remained,
"It must be concluded," the com­mander noted finally in his logbook, "that the lost ibis was destroyed by one of the calamities so common on unfinished planets. Unfortunately great damage has already been done to the natural evolution of the jungle life. Because of this acceler­ated development, intelligence, when it finally does emerge, will be dan­gerously savage in its outlook.
"The time lapse involved pre­cludes all advance recommendations for rectification."
Eighty million years passed.

Wagner hurried along the quiet suburban road and through the gate. He was a thick beefy soldier with cold blue eyes, coming home on leave; and at first, as he kissed his wife, he didn’t notice that there had been bomb damage to his house.
He finally saw the silver tree.
He stared.
He was about to exclaim, when he noticed that one whole wing of the house was an empty shell, a single wall standing vacuously in a precarious balance.
"Die !-! ? !-! ? !? Americannerin!" he bellowed murderously. "!-! ?-! !?!-?-!"
It was less than an hour later that the sensitive ibis tree began to give off a delicious perfume.
First Germany, then the rest of the world breathed the spreading "peace."
It all worked out as beautifully as that.

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