According to tradition, the man who held the Galactic Medal of Honor could do no wrong. In a strange way, Captain Don Mathers was to learn that this was true.
DON MATHERS snapped to attention, snapped a crisp salute to his superior, said, “Sub-lieutenant Donal Mathers reporting, sir.”
The Commodore looked up at him, returned the salute, looked down at the report on the desk. He murmured, “Mathers, One Man Scout V-102. Sector A22-K223.”
“Yes, sir,” Don said.
The Commodore looked up at him again. “You’ve been out only five days, Lieutenant.”
“Yes, sir, on the third day I seemed to be developing trouble in my fuel injectors. I stuck it out for a couple of days, but then decided I’d better come in for a check.” Don Mathers added, “As per instructions, sir.”
“Ummm, of course. In a Scout you can hardly make repairs in space. If you have any doubts at all about your craft, orders are to return to base. It happens to every pilot at one time or another.”
“However, Lieutenant, it has happened to you four times out of your last six patrols.”
Don Mathers said nothing. His face remained expressionless.
“The mechanics report that they could find nothing wrong with your engines, Lieutenant.”
“Sometimes, sir, whatever is wrong fixes itself. Possibly a spot of bad fuel. It finally burns out and you’re back on good fuel again. But by that time you’re also back to the base.”
The Commodore said impatiently, “I don’t need a lesson in the shortcomings of the One Man Scout, Lieutenant. I piloted one for nearly five years. I know their shortcomings—and those of their pilots.”
“I don’t understand, sir.”
The Commodore looked down at the ball of his thumb. “You’re out in space for anywhere from two weeks to a month. All alone. You’re looking for Kraden ships which practically never turn up. In military history the only remotely similar situation I can think of were the pilots of World War One pursuit planes, in the early years of the war, when they still flew singly, not in formation. But even they were up there alone for only a couple of hours or so.”
“Yes, sir,” Don said meaninglessly.
The Commodore said, “We, here at command, figure on you fellows getting a touch of space cafard once in a while and, ah, imagining something wrong in the engines and coming in. But,” here the Commodore cleared his throat, “four times out of six? Are you sure you don’t need a psych, Lieutenant?”
Don Mathers flushed. “No, sir, I don’t think so.”
The Commodore’s voice went militarily expressionless. “Very well, Lieutenant. You’ll have the customary three weeks leave before going out again. Dismissed.”
Don saluted snappily, wheeled and marched from the office.
Outside, in the corridor, he muttered a curse. What did that chairborne brass hat know about space cafard? About the depthless blackness, the wretchedness of free fall, the tides of primitive terror that swept you when the animal realization hit that you were away, away, away from the environment that gave you birth. That you were alone, alone, alone. A million, a million-million miles from your nearest fellow human. Space cafard, in a craft little larger than a good-sized closet! What did the Commodore know about it?
Don Mathers had conveniently forgotten the other’s claim to five years’ service in the Scouts.
He made his way from Space Command Headquarters, Third Division, to Harry’s Nuevo Mexico Bar. He found the place empty at this time of the day and climbed onto a stool.
Harry said, “Hi, Lootenant, thought you were due for a patrol. How come you’re back so soon?”
Don said coldly, “You prying into security subjects, Harry?”
“Well, gee, no Lootenant. You know me. I know all the boys. I was just making conversation.”
“Look, how about some more credit, Harry? I don’t have any pay coming up for a week.”
“Why, sure. I got a boy on the light cruiser New Taos. Any spaceman’s credit is good with me. What’ll it be?”
Tequila was the only concession the Nuevo Mexico Bar made to its name. Otherwise, it looked like every other bar has looked in every land and in every era. Harry poured, put out lemon and salt.
Harry said, “You hear the news this morning?”
“No, I just got in.”
“Colin Casey died.” Harry shook his head. “Only man in the system that held the Galactic Medal of Honor. Presidential proclamation, everybody in the system is to hold five minutes of silence for him at two o’clock, Sol Time. You know how many times that medal’s been awarded, Lootenant?” Before waiting for an answer, Harry added, “Just thirty-six times.”
Don added dryly, “Twenty-eight of them posthumously.”
“Yeah.” Harry, leaning on the bar before his sole customer, added in wonder, “But imagine. The Galactic Medal of Honor, the bearer of which can do no wrong. Imagine. You come to some town, walk into the biggest jewelry store, pick up a diamond bracelet, and walk out. And what happens?”
Don growled, “The jewelry store owner would be over-reimbursed by popular subscription. And probably the mayor of the town would write you a letter thanking you for honoring his fair city by deigning to notice one of the products of its shops. Just like that.”
“Yeah.” Harry shook his head in continued awe. “And, imagine, if you shoot somebody you don’t like, you wouldn’t spend even a single night in the Nick.”
Don said, “If you held the Medal of Honor, you wouldn’t have to shoot anybody. Look, Harry, mind if I use the phone?”
“Go right ahead, Lootenant.”
Dian Fuller was obviously in the process of packing when the screen summoned her. She looked into his face and said, surprised, “Why, Don, I thought you were on patrol.”
“Yeah, I was. However, something came up.”
She looked at him, a slight frown on her broad, fine forehead. “Again?”
He said impatiently, “Look, I called you to ask for a date. You’re leaving for Callisto tomorrow. It’s our last chance to be together. There’s something in particular I wanted to ask you, Di.”
She said, a touch irritated, “I’m packing, Don. I simply don’t have time to see you again. I thought we said our goodbyes five days ago.”
“This is important, Di.”
She tossed the two sweaters she was holding into a chair, or something, off-screen, and faced him, her hands on her hips.
“No it isn’t, Don. Not to me, at least. We’ve been all over this. Why keep torturing yourself? You’re not ready for marriage, Don. I don’t want to hurt you, but you simply aren’t. Look me up, Don, in a few years.”
“Di, just a couple of hours this afternoon.”
Dian looked him full in the face and said, “Colin Casey finally died of his wounds this morning. The President has asked for five minutes of silence at two o’clock. Don, I plan to spend that time here alone in my apartment, possibly crying a few tears for a man who died for me and the rest of the human species under such extreme conditions of gallantry that he was awarded the highest honor of which man has ever conceived. I wouldn’t want to spend that five minutes while on a date with another member of my race’s armed forces who had deserted his post of duty.”
Don Mathers turned, after the screen had gone blank, and walked stiffly to a booth. He sank onto a chair and called flatly to Harry, “Another tequila. A double tequila. And don’t bother with that lemon and salt routine.”
An hour or so later a voice said, “You Sub-lieutenant Donal Mathers?”
Don looked up and snarled. “So what? Go away.”
There were two of them. Twins, or could have been. Empty of expression, heavy of build. The kind of men fated to be ordered around at the pleasure of those with money, or brains, none of which they had or would ever have.
The one who had spoken said, “The boss wants to see you.”
“Who the hell is the boss?”
“Maybe he’ll tell you when he sees you,” the other said, patiently and reasonably.
“Well, go tell the boss he can go to the …”
The second of the two had been standing silently, his hands in his great-coat pockets. Now he brought his left hand out and placed a bill before Don Mathers. “The boss said to give you this.”
It was a thousand-unit note. Don Mathers had never seen a bill of that denomination before, nor one of half that.
He pursed his lips, picked it up and looked at it carefully. Counterfeiting was a long lost art. It didn’t even occur to him that it might be false.
“All right,” Don said, coming to his feet. “Let’s go see the boss, I haven’t anything else to do and his calling card intrigues me.”
At the curb, one of them summoned a cruising cab with his wrist screen and the three of them climbed into it. The one who had given Don the large denomination bill dialed the address and they settled back.
“So what does the boss want with me?” Don said.
They didn’t bother to answer.
The Interplanetary Lines building was evidently their destination. The car whisked them up to the penthouse which topped it, and they landed on the terrace.
Seated in beach chairs, an autobar between them, were two men. They were both in their middle years. The impossibly corpulent one, Don Mathers vaguely recognized. From a newscast? From a magazine article? The other could have passed for a video stereotype villain, complete to the built-in sneer. Few men, in actuality, either look like or sound like the conventionalized villain. This was an exception, Don decided.
He scowled at them. “I suppose one of you is the boss,” he said.
“That’s right,” the fat one grunted. He looked at Don’s two escorts. “Scotty, you and Rogers take off.”
They got back into the car and left.
The vicious-faced one said, “This is Mr. Lawrence Demming. I am his secretary.”
Demming puffed, “Sit down, Lieutenant. What’ll you have to drink? My secretary’s name is Rostoff. Max Rostoff. Now we all know each other’s names. That is, assuming you’re Sub-lieutenant Donal Mathers.”
Don said, “Tequila.”
Max Rostoff dialed the drink for him and, without being asked, another cordial for his employer.
Don placed Demming now. Lawrence Demming, billionaire. Robber baron, he might have been branded in an earlier age. Transportation baron of the solar system. Had he been a pig he would have been butchered long ago; he was going unhealthily to grease.
Rostoff said, “You have identification?”
Don Mathers fingered through his wallet, brought forth his I.D. card. Rostoff handed him his tequila, took the card and examined it carefully, front and back.
Demming huffed and said, “Your collar insignia tells me you pilot a Scout. What sector do you patrol, Lieutenant?”
Don sipped at the fiery Mexican drink, looked at the fat man over the glass. “That’s military information, Mr. Demming.”
Demming made a move with his plump lips. “Did Scotty give you a thousand-unit note?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “You took it. Either give it back or tell me what sector you patrol, Lieutenant.”
Don Mathers was aware of the fact that a man of Demming’s position wouldn’t have to go to overmuch effort to acquire such information, anyway. It wasn’t of particular importance.
He shrugged and said, “A22-K223. I fly the V-102.”
Max Rostoff handed back the I.D. card to Don and picked up a Solar System sector chart from the short-legged table that sat between the two of them and checked it. He said, “Your information was correct, Mr. Demming. He’s the man.”
Demming shifted his great bulk in his beach chair, sipped some of his cordial and said, “Very well. How would you like to hold the Galactic Medal of Honor, Lieutenant?”
Don Mathers laughed. “How would you?” he said.
Demming scowled. “I am not jesting, Lieutenant Mathers. I never jest. Obviously, I am not of the military. It would be quite impossible for me to gain such an award. But you are the pilot of a Scout.”
“And I’ve got just about as much chance of winning the Medal of Honor as I have of giving birth to triplets.”
The transportation magnate wiggled a disgustingly fat finger at him, “I’ll arrange for that part of it.”
Don Mathers goggled him. He blurted finally, “Like hell you will. There’s not enough money in the system to fiddle with the awarding of the Medal of Honor. There comes a point, Demming, where even your dough can’t carry the load.”
Demming settled back in his chair, closed his eyes and grunted, “Tell him.”
Max Rostoff took up the ball. “A few days ago, Mr. Demming and I flew in from Io on one of the Interplanetary Lines freighters. As you probably know, they are completely automated. We were alone in the craft.”
“So?” Without invitation, Don Mathers leaned forward and dialed himself another tequila. He made it a double this time. A feeling of excitement was growing within him, and the drinks he’d had earlier had worn away. Something very big, very, very big, was developing. He hadn’t the vaguest idea what.
“Lieutenant, how would you like to capture a Kraden light cruiser? If I’m not incorrect, probably Miro class.”
Don laughed nervously, not knowing what the other was at but still feeling the growing excitement. He said, “In all the history of the war between our species, we’ve never captured a Kraden ship intact. It’d help a lot if we could.”
“This one isn’t exactly intact, but nearly so.”
Don looked from Rostoff to Demming, and then back. “What in the hell are you talking about?”
“In your sector,” Rostoff said, “we ran into a derelict Miro class cruiser. The crew—repulsive creatures—were all dead. Some thirty of them. Mr. Demming and I assumed that the craft had been hit during one of the actions between our fleet and theirs and that somehow both sides had failed to recover the wreckage. At any rate, today it is floating, abandoned of all life, in your sector.” Rostoff added softly, “One has to approach quite close before any signs of battle are evident. The ship looks intact.”
Demming opened his eyes again and said, “And you’re going to capture it.”
Don Mathers bolted his tequila, licked a final drop from the edge of his lip. “And why should that rate the most difficult decoration to achieve that we’ve ever instituted?”
“Because,” Rostoff told him, his tone grating mockery, “you’re going to radio in reporting a Miro class Kraden cruiser. We assume your superiors will order you to stand off, that help is coming, that your tiny Scout isn’t large enough to do anything more than to keep the enemy under observation until a squadron arrives. But you will radio back that they are escaping and that you plan to attack. When your reinforcements arrive, Lieutenant, you will have conquered the Kraden, single-handed, against odds of—what would you say, fifty to one?”
Don Mathers’ mouth was dry, his palms moist. He said, “A One Man Scout against a Miro class cruiser? At least fifty to one, Mr. Rostoff. At least.”
Demming grunted. “There would be little doubt of you getting the Galactic Medal of Honor, Lieutenant, especially since Colin Casey is dead and there isn’t a living bearer of the award. Max, another drink for the Lieutenant.”
Don said, “Look. Why? I think you might be right about getting the award. But why, and why me, and what’s your percentage?”
Demming muttered, “Now we get to the point.” He settled back in his chair again and closed his eyes while his secretary took over.
Max Rostoff leaned forward, his wolfish face very serious. “Lieutenant, the exploitation of the Jupiter satellites is in its earliest stages. There is every reason to believe that the new sources of radioactives on Callisto alone may mean the needed power edge that can give us the victory over the Kradens. Whether or not that is so, someone is going to make literally billions out of this new frontier.”
“I still don’t see …”
“Lieutenant Mathers,” Rostoff said patiently, “the bearer of the Galactic Medal of Honor is above law. He carries with him an unalienable prestige of such magnitude that … Well, let me use an example. Suppose a bearer of the Medal of Honor formed a stock corporation to exploit the pitchblende of Callisto. How difficult would it be for him to dispose of the stock?”
Demming grunted. “And suppose there were a few, ah, crossed wires in the manipulation of the corporation’s business?” He sighed deeply. “Believe me, Lieutenant Mathers, there are an incredible number of laws which have accumulated down through the centuries to hamper the business man. It is a continual fight to be able to carry on at all. The ability to do no legal wrong would be priceless in the development of a new frontier.” He sighed again, so deeply as to make his bulk quiver. “Priceless.”
Rostoff laid it on the line, his face a leer. “We are offering you a three-way partnership, Mathers. You, with your Medal of Honor, are our front man. Mr. Demming supplies the initial capital to get underway. And I …” He twisted his mouth with evil self-satisfaction. “I was present when the Kraden ship was discovered, so I’ll have to be cut in. I’ll supply the brains.”
Demming grunted his disgust, but added nothing.
Don Mathers said slowly, looking down at the empty glass he was twirling in his fingers, “Look, we’re up to our necks in a war to the death with the Kradens. In the long run it’s either us or them. At a time like this you’re suggesting that we fake an action that will eventually enable us to milk the new satellites to the tune of billions.”
Demming grunted meaninglessly.
Don said, “The theory is that all men, all of us, ought to have our shoulders to the wheel. This project sounds to me like throwing rocks under it.”
Demming closed his eyes.
Rostoff said, “Lieutenant, it’s a dog-eat-dog society. If we eventually lick the Kradens, one of the very reasons will be because we’re a dog-eat-dog society. Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. Our apologists dream up some beautiful gobbledygook phrases for it, such as free enterprise, but actually it’s dog-eat-dog. Surprisingly enough, it works, or at least has so far. Right now, the human race needs the radioactives of the Jupiter satellites. In acquiring them, somebody is going to make a tremendous amount of money. Why shouldn’t it be us?”
“Why not, if you—or we—can do it honestly?”
Demming’s grunt was nearer a snort this time.
Rostoff said sourly, “Don’t be naive, Lieutenant. Whoever does it, is going to need little integrity. You don’t win in a sharper’s card game by playing your cards honestly. The biggest sharper wins. We’ve just found a joker somebody dropped on the floor; if we don’t use it, we’re suckers.”
Demming opened his pig eyes and said, “All this is on the academic side. We checked your background thoroughly before approaching you, Mathers. We know your record, even before you entered the Space Service. Just between the three of us, wouldn’t you like out? There are a full billion men and women in our armed forces, you can be spared. Let’s say you’ve already done your share. Can’t you see the potentialities in spending the rest of your life with the Galactic Medal of Honor in your pocket?”
It was there all right, drifting slowly. Had he done a more thorough job of his patrol, last time, he should have stumbled upon it himself.
If he had, there was no doubt that he would have at first reported it as an active enemy cruiser. Demming and Rostoff had been right. The Kraden ship looked untouched by battle.
That is, if you approached it from the starboard and slightly abaft the beam. From that angle, in particular, it looked untouched.
It had taken several circlings of the craft to come to that conclusion. Don Mathers was playing it very safe. This thing wasn’t quite so simple as the others had thought. He wanted no slip-ups. His hand went to a food compartment and emerged with a space thermo which should have contained fruit juice, but didn’t. He took a long pull at it.
Finally he dropped back into the position he’d decided upon, and flicked the switch of his screen.
A base lieutenant’s face illuminated it. He yawned and looked questioningly at Don Mathers.
Don said, allowing a touch of excitement in his voice, “Mathers, Scout V-102, Sector A22-K223.”
“Yeah, yeah …” the other began, still yawning.
“I’ve spotted a Kraden cruiser. Miro class, I think.”
The lieutenant flashed into movement. He slapped a button before him, the screen blinked, to be lit immediately again.
A gray-haired Fleet Admiral looked up from papers on his desk.
Don Mathers rapped, “Miro class Kraden in sector A22-K223, sir. I’m lying about fifty miles off. Undetected thus far—I think. He hasn’t fired on me yet, at least.”
The Admiral was already doing things with his hands. Two subalterns came within range of the screen, took orders, dashed off. The Admiral was rapidly firing orders into two other screens. After a moment, he looked up at Don Mathers again.
“Hang on, Lieutenant. Keep him under observation as long as you can. What’re your exact coordinates?”
Don gave them to him and waited.
A few minutes later the Admiral returned to him. “Let’s take a look at it, Lieutenant.”
Don Mathers adjusted the screen to relay the Kraden cruiser. His palms were moist now, but everything was going to plan. He wished that he could take another drink.
The Admiral said, “Miro class, all right. Don’t get too close, Lieutenant. They’ll blast you to hell and gone. We’ve got a task force within an hour of you. Just hang on.”
“Yes, sir,” Don said. An hour. He was glad to know that. He didn’t have much time in which to operate.
He let it go another five minutes, then he said, “Sir, they’re increasing speed.”
“Damn,” the Admiral said, then rapid fired some more into his other screens, barking one order after another.
Don said, letting his voice go very flat, “I’m going in, sir. They’re putting on speed. In another five minutes they’ll be underway to the point where I won’t be able to follow. They’ll get completely clear.”
The Admiral looked up, startled. “Don’t be a fool.”
“They’ll get away, sir.” Knowing that the other could see his every motion, Don Mathers hit the cocking lever of his flakflak gun with the heel of his right hand.
The Admiral snapped, “Let it go, you fool. You won’t last a second.” Then, his voice higher, “That’s an order, Lieutenant!”
Don Mathers flicked off his screen. He grimaced sourly and then descended on the Kraden ship, his flakflak gun beaming it. He was going to have to expend every erg of energy in his Scout to burn the other ship up to the point where his attack would look authentic, and to eliminate all signs of previous action.
The awarding of the Galactic Medal of Honor, as always, was done in the simplest of ceremonies.
Only the President and Captain Donal Mathers himself were present in the former’s office in the Presidential Palace.
However, as they both knew, every screen in the Solar System was tuned into the ceremony.
Don Mathers saluted and stood to attention.
The President read the citation. It was very short, as Medal of Honor citations were always.
… for conspicuous gallantry far and beyond the call of duty, in which you single-handedly, and against unbelievable odds, attacked and destroyed an enemy cruiser while flying a Scout armed only with a short-beam flakflak gun …
He pinned a small bit of ribbon and metal to Don Mathers’ tunic. It was an inconspicuous, inordinately ordinary medal, the Galactic Medal of Honor.
Don said hoarsely, “Thank you, sir.”
The President shook hands with him and said, “I am President of the United Solar System, Captain Mathers, supposedly the highest rank to which a man can attain.” He added simply, “I wish I were you.”
Afterwards, alone in New Washington and wanting to remain alone, Don Mathers strolled the streets for a time, bothered only occasionally when someone recognized his face and people would stop and applaud.
He grinned inwardly.
He had a suspicion already that after a time he’d get used to it and weary to death of it, but right now it was still new and fun. Who was the flyer, way back in history, the one who first flew the Atlantic in a propeller-driven aircraft? His popularity must have been something like this.
He went into O’Donnell’s at lunch time and as he entered the orchestra broke off the popular tune they were playing and struck up the Interplanetary Anthem. The manager himself escorted him to his table and made suggestions as to the specialties and the wine.
When he first sat down the other occupants of the restaurant, men and women, had stood and faced him and applauded. Don flushed. There could be too much of a good thing.
After the meal, a fantastic production, Don finished his cigar and asked the head waiter for his bill, reaching for his wallet.
The other smiled. “Captain, I am afraid your money is of no value in O’Donnell’s, not for just this luncheon but whenever you honor us.” The head waiter paused and added, “in fact, Captain, I doubt if there is a restaurant in the Solar System where your money holds value. Or that there will ever be.”
Don Mathers was taken aback. He was only beginning to realize the ramifications of his holding his Galactic Medal of Honor.
At Space Command Headquarters, Third Division, Don came to attention before the Commodore’s desk and tossed the other a salute.
The Commodore returned it snappily and leaned back in his chair. “Take a seat, Captain. Nice to see you again.” He added pleasantly, “Where in the world have you been?”
Don Mathers slumped into a chair, said wearily, “On a bust. The bust to end all busts.”
The Commodore chuckled. “Don’t blame you,” he said.
“It was quite a bust,” Don said.
“Well,” the Commodore chuckled again, “I don’t suppose we can throw you in the guardhouse for being A.W.O.L. Not in view of your recent decoration.”
There was nothing to say to that.
“By the way,” the Commodore said, “I haven’t had the opportunity to congratulate you on your Kraden. That was quite a feat, Captain.”
“Thank you, sir,” Don added, modestly, “rather foolish of me, I suppose.”
“Very much so. On such foolishness are heroic deeds based, Captain.” The Commodore looked at him questioningly. “You must have had incredible luck. The only way we’ve been able to figure it was that his detectors were on the blink. That may be what happened.”
“Yes, sir,” Don nodded quickly. “That’s the way I figure it. And my first blast must have disrupted his fire control or something.”
The Commodore said, “He didn’t get in any return fire at all?”
“A few blasts. But by that time I was in too close and moving too fast. Fact of the matter is, sir, I don’t think they ever recovered from my first beaming of them.”
“No, I suppose not,” the Commodore said musingly. “It’s a shame you had to burn them so badly. We’ve never recovered a Kraden ship in good enough shape to give our techs something to work on. It might make a basic difference in the war, particularly if there was something aboard that’d give us some indication of where they were coming from. We’ve been fighting this war in our backyard for a full century. It would help if we could get into their backyard for a change. It’s problematical how long we’ll be able to hold them off, at this rate.”
Don Mathers said uncomfortably, “Well, it’s not as bad as all that, sir. We’ve held them this far.”
His superior grunted. “We’ve held them this far because we’ve been able to keep out enough patrol ships to give us ample warning when one of their task forces come in. Do you know how much fuel that consumes, Captain?”
“Well, I know it’s a lot.”
“So much so that Earth’s industry is switching back to petroleum and coal. Every ounce of radioactives is needed by the Fleet. Even so, it’s just a matter of time.”
Don Mathers pursed his lips. “I didn’t know it was that bad.”
The Commodore smiled sourly at him. “I’m afraid I’m being a wet blanket thrown over your big bust of a celebration, Captain. Tell me, how does it feel to hold the system’s highest award?”
Don shook his head, marveling. “Fantastic, sir. Of course, like any member of the services I’ve always known of the Medal of Honor, but … well, nobody ever expects to get it.” He added wryly, “Certainly not while he’s still alive and in health. Why, sir, do you realize that I haven’t been able to spend one unit of money since?” There was an element of awe in his voice. “Sir, do you realize that not even a beggar will take currency from me?”
The Commodore nodded in appreciation. “You must understand the position you occupy, Captain. Your feat was inspiring enough, but that’s not all of it. In a way you combine a popular hero with an Unknown Soldier element. Awarding you the Galactic Medal of Honor makes a symbol of you. A symbol representing all the millions of unsung heroes and heroines who have died fighting for the human species. It’s not a light burden to carry on your shoulders, Captain Mathers. I would imagine it a very humbling honor.”
“Well, yes, sir,” Don said.
The Commodore switched his tone of voice. “That brings us to the present, and what your next assignment is to be. Obviously, it wouldn’t do for you to continue in a Scout. Big brass seems to be in favor of using you for morale and …”
Don Mathers cleared his throat and interrupted. “Sir, I’ve decided to drop out of the Space Service.”
“Drop out!” The other stared at Mathers, uncomprehending. “We’re at war, Captain!”
Don nodded seriously. “Yes, sir. And what you just said is true. I couldn’t be used any longer in a Scout. I’d wind up selling bonds and giving talks to old ladies’ clubs.”
“Well, hardly that, Captain.”
“No, sir, I think I’d really be of more use out of the services. I’m tendering my resignation and making arrangements to help in the developing of Callisto and the other Jupiter satellites.”
The Commodore said nothing. His lips seemed whiter than before.
Don Mathers said doggedly, “Perhaps my prestige will help bring volunteers to work the new mines out there. If they see me, well, sacrificing, putting up with the hardships …”
The Commodore said evenly, “Mr. Mathers, I doubt if you will ever have to put up with hardships again, no matter where you make your abode. However, good luck. You deserve it.”
Outside headquarters, Don Mathers summoned a cab and dialed his hotel. On the way over, he congratulated himself. It had gone easier than he had expected, really. Although, come to think of it, there wasn’t a damn thing that the brass could do.
He had to laugh to himself.
Imagine if he’d walked in on the Commodore a month ago and announced that he was going to drop out of the Space Service. He would have been dropped all right, all right. Right into the lap of a squadron of psycho experts.
At the hotel he shucked his uniform, an action which gave him considerable gratification, and dressed in one of the score of civilian costumes that filled his closets to overflowing. He took pleasure in estimating what this clothing would have cost in terms of months of Space Service pay for a Sub-lieutenant or even a Captain. Years, my boy, years.
He looked at himself in the dressing-room mirror with satisfaction, then turned to the autobar and dialed himself a stone-age-old Metaxa. He’d lost his taste for the plebian tequila in the last few days.
He held the old Greek brandy to the light and wondered pleasurably what the stuff cost, per pony glass. Happily, he’d never have to find out.
He tossed the drink down and whistling, took his private elevator to the garages in the second level of the hotel’s basement floors. He selected a limousine and dialed the Interplanetary Lines building.
He left the car at the curb before the main entrance, ignoring all traffic regulations and entered the building, still whistling softly and happily to himself. He grinned when a small crowd gathered outside and smiled and clapped their hands. He grinned and waved to them.
A receptionist hurried to him and he told her he wanted to see either Mr. Demming or Mr. Rostoff, and then when she offered to escort him personally he noticed her pixie-like cuteness and said, “What’re you doing tonight, Miss?”
Her face went pale. “Oh, anything, sir,” she said weakly.
He grinned at her. “Maybe I’ll take you up on that if I’m not too busy.”
He had never seen anyone so taken aback. She said, all flustered, “I’m Toni. Toni Fitzgerald. You can just call this building and ask for me. Any time.”
“Maybe I’ll do that,” he smiled. “But now, let’s see Old Man Demming.”
That took her back too. Aside from being asked for a date—if asked could be the term—by the system’s greatest celebrity, she was hearing for the first time the interplanetary tycoon being called Old Man Demming.
She said, “Oh, right this way, Captain Mathers.”
Don said, “Mr. Mathers now, I’m afraid. I have new duties.”
She looked up into his face. “You’ll always be Captain Mathers to me, sir.” She added, softly and irrelevantly, “My two brothers were lost on the Minerva in that action last year off Pluto.” She took a deep breath, which only stressed her figure. “I’ve applied six times for Space Service, but they won’t take me.”
They were in an elevator now. Don said, “That’s too bad, Toni. However, the Space Service isn’t as romantic as you might think.”
“Yes, sir,” Toni Fitzgerald said, her soul in her eyes. “You ought to know, sir.”
Don was somehow irritated. He said nothing further until they reached the upper stories of the gigantic office building. He thanked her after she’d turned him over to another receptionist.
Don Mathers’ spirits had been restored by the time he was brought to the door of Max Rostoff’s office. His new guide evidently hadn’t even bothered to check on the man’s availability, before ushering Mathers into the other’s presence.
Max Rostoff looked up from his desk, wolfishly aggressive-looking as ever. “Why, Captain,” he said. “How fine to see you again. Come right in. Martha, that will be all.”
Martha gave the interplanetary hero one more long look and then turned and left.
As soon as the door closed behind her, Max Rostoff turned and snarled, “Where have you been, you rummy?”
He couldn’t have shocked Don Mathers more if he’d suddenly sprouted a unicorn’s horn.
“We’ve been looking for you for a week,” Rostoff snapped. “Out of one bar, into another, our men couldn’t catch up with you. Dammit, don’t you realize we’ve got to get going? We’ve got a dozen documents for you to sign. We’ve got to get this thing underway, before somebody else does.”
Don blurted, “You can’t talk to me that way.”
It was the other’s turn to stare. Max Rostoff said, low and dangerously, “No? Why can’t I?”
Don glared at him.
Max Rostoff said, low and dangerously, “Let’s get this straight, Mathers. To everybody else, but Demming and me, you might be the biggest hero in the Solar System. But you know what you are to us?”
Don felt his indignation seeping from him.
“To us,” Max Rostoff said flatly, “you’re just another demi-buttocked incompetent on the make.” He added definitely, “And make no mistake, Mathers, you’ll continue to have a good thing out of this only so long as we can use you.”
A voice from behind them said, “Let me add to that, period, end of paragraph.”
It was Lawrence Demming, who’d just entered from an inner office.
He said, even his voice seemed fat, “And now that’s settled, I’m going to call in some lawyers. While they’re around, we conduct ourselves as though we’re three equal partners. On paper, we will be.”
“Wait a minute, now,” Don blurted. “What do you think you’re pulling? The agreement was we split this whole thing three ways.”
Demming’s jowls wobbled as he nodded. “That’s right. And your share of the loot is your Galactic Medal of Honor. That and the dubious privilege of having the whole thing in your name. You’ll keep your medal, and we’ll keep our share.” He growled heavily, “You don’t think you’re getting the short end of the stick, do you?”
Max Rostoff said, “Let’s knock this off and get the law boys in. We’ve got enough paper work to keep us busy the rest of the week.” He sat down again at his desk and looked up at Don. “Then we’ll all be taking off for Callisto, to get things under way. With any luck, in six months we’ll have every ounce of pitchblende left in the system sewed up.”
There was a crowd awaiting his ship at the Callisto Spaceport. A crowd modest by Earth standards but representing a large percentage of the small population of Jupiter’s moon.
On the way out, a staff of the system’s best speech writers, and two top professional actors had been working with him.
Don Mathers gave a short preliminary talk at the spaceport, and then the important one, the one that was broadcast throughout the system, that night from his suite at the hotel. He’d been well rehearsed, and they’d kept him from the bottle except for two or three quick ones immediately before going on.
The project at hand is to extract the newly discovered deposits of pitchblende on these satellites of Jupiter.
He paused impressively before continuing.
It’s a job that cannot be done in slipshod, haphazard manner. The system’s need for radioactives cannot be overstressed.
In short, fellow humans, we must allow nothing to stand in the way of all out, unified effort to do this job quickly and efficiently. My associates and I have formed a corporation to manage this crash program. We invite all to participate by purchasing stock. I will not speak of profits, fellow humans, because in this emergency we all scorn them. However, as I say, you are invited to participate.
Some of the preliminary mining concessions are at present in the hands of individuals or small corporations. It will be necessary that these turn over their holdings to our single all-embracing organization for the sake of efficiency. Our experts will evaluate such holdings and recompense the owners.
Don Mathers paused again for emphasis.
This is no time for quibbling. All must come in. If there are those who put private gain before the needs of the system, then pressures must be found to be exerted against them.
We will need thousands and tens of thousands of trained workers to operate our mines, our mills, our refineries. In the past, skilled labor here on the satellites was used to double or even triple the wage rates on Earth and the settled planets and satellites. I need only repeat, this is no time for personal gain and quibbling. The corporation announces proudly that it will pay only prevailing Earth rates. We will not insult our employees by “bribing” them to patriotism through higher wages.
There was more, along the same lines.
It was all taken very well. Indeed, with enthusiasm.
On the third day, at an office conference, Don waited for an opening to say, “Look, somewhere here on Callisto is a young woman named Dian Fuller. After we get me established in an office, I’d like her to be my secretary.”
Demming looked up from some reports he was scanning. He grunted to Max Rostoff, “Tell him,” and went back to the papers.
Max Rostoff, settled back into his chair. He said to the two bodyguards, stationed at the door, “Scotty, Rogers, go and make the arrangements to bring that damned prospector into line.”
When they were gone, Rostoff turned back to Don Mathers. “You don’t need an office, Mathers. All you need is to go back to your bottles. Just don’t belt it so hard that you can’t sign papers every time we need a signature.”
Don flushed angrily, “Look, don’t push me, you two. You need me. Plenty. In fact, from what I can see, this corporation needs me more than it does you.” He looked scornfully at Demming. “Originally, the idea was that you put up the money. What money? We have fifty-one percent of the stock in my name, but all the credit units needed are coming from sales of stock.” He turned to Rostoff. “You were supposed to put up the brains. What brains? We’ve hired the best mining engineers, the best technicians, to do their end, the best corporation executives to handle that end. You’re not needed.”
Demming grunted amusement at the short speech, but didn’t bother to look up from his perusal.
Max Rostoff’s face had grown wolfishly thin in his anger. “Look, bottle-baby,” he sneered, “you’re the only one that’s vulnerable in this set-up. There’s not a single thing that Demming and I can be held to account for. You have no beefs coming, for that matter. You’re getting everything you ever wanted. You’ve got the best suite in the best hotel on Callisto. You eat the best food the Solar System provides. And, most important of all to a rummy, you drink the best booze and as much of it as you want. What’s more, unless either Demming or I go to the bother, you’ll never be exposed. You’ll live your life out being the biggest hero in the system.”
It was Don Mathers’ turn to sneer. “What do you mean, I’m the only one vulnerable? There’s no evidence against me, Rostoff, and you know it. Who’d listen to you if you sounded off? I burned that Kraden cruiser until there wasn’t a sign to be found that would indicate it wasn’t in operational condition when I first spotted it.”
Demming grunted his amusement again.
Max Rostoff laughed sourly. “Don’t be an ass, Mathers. We took a series of photos of that derelict when we stumbled on it. Not only can we prove you didn’t knock it out, we can prove that it was in good shape before you worked it over. I imagine the Fleet technician would have loved to have seen the inner workings of that Kraden cruiser—before you loused it up.”
Demming chuckled flatly. “I wonder what kind of a court martial they give a hero who turns out to be a saboteur.”
He ran into her, finally, after he’d been on Callisto for nearly eight months. Actually, he didn’t remember the circumstances of their meeting. He was in an alcoholic daze and the fog rolled out, and there she was across the table from him.
Don shook his head, and looked about the room. They were in some sort of night spot. He didn’t recognize it.
He licked his lips, scowled at the taste of stale vomit.
He slurred, “Hello, Di.”
Dian Fuller said, “Hi, Don.”
He said, “I must’ve blanked out. Guess I’ve been hitting it too hard.”
She laughed at him. “You mean you don’t remember all the things you’ve been telling me the past two hours?” She was obviously quite sober. Dian never had been much for the sauce.
Don looked at her narrowly. “What’ve I been telling you for the past two hours?”
“Mostly about how it was when you were a little boy. About fishing, and your first .22 rifle. And the time you shot the squirrel, and then felt so sorry.”
“Oh,” Don said. He ran his right hand over his mouth.
There was a champagne bucket beside him, but the bottle in it was empty. He looked about the room for a waiter.
Dian said gently, “Do you really think you need any more, Don?”
He looked across the table at her. She was as beautiful as ever. No, that wasn’t right. She was pretty, but not beautiful. She was just a damn pretty girl, not one of these glamour items.
Don said, “Look, I can’t remember. Did we get married?”
Her laugh tinkled. “Married! I only ran into you two or three hours ago.” She hesitated before saying further, “I had assumed that you were deliberately avoiding me. Callisto isn’t that big.”
Don Mathers said slowly, “Well, if we’re not married, let me decide when I want another bottle of the grape, eh?”
Dian flushed. “Sorry, Don.”
The headwaiter approached bearing another magnum of vintage wine. He beamed at Don Mathers. “Having a good time, sir?”
“Okay,” Don said shortly. When the other was gone he downed a full glass, felt the fumes almost immediately.
He said to Dian, “I haven’t been avoiding you, Di. We just haven’t met. The way I remember, the last time we saw each other, back on Earth, you gave me quite a slap in the face. The way I remember, you didn’t think I was hero enough for you.” He poured another glass of the champagne.
Di’s face was still flushed. She said, her voice low, “I misunderstood you, Don. Even after your brilliant defeat of that Kraden cruiser, I still, I admit, think I basically misunderstood you. I told myself that it could have been done by any pilot of a Scout, given that one in a million break. It just happened to be you, who made that suicide dive attack that succeeded. A thousand other pilots might also have taken the million to one suicide chance rather than let the Kraden escape.”
“Yeah,” Don said. Even in his alcohol, he was surprised at her words. He said gruffly, “Sure anybody might’ve done it. Pure luck. But why’d you change your mind about me, then? How come the switch of heart?”
“Because of what you’ve done since, darling.”
He closed one eye, the better to focus.
He recognized the expression in her eyes. A touch of star gleam. That little girl back on Earth, the receptionist at the Interplanetary Lines building, she’d had it. In fact, in the past few months Don had seen it in many feminine faces. And all for him.
Dian said, “Instead of cashing in on your prestige, you’ve been devoting yourself to something even more necessary to the fight than bringing down individual Kraden cruisers.”
Don looked at her. He could feel a nervous tic beginning in his left eyebrow. Finally, he reached for the champagne again and filled his glass. He said, “You really go for this hero stuff, don’t you?”
She said nothing, but the star shine was still in her eyes.
He made his voice deliberately sour. “Look, suppose I asked you to come back to my apartment with me tonight?”
“Yes,” she said softly.
“And told you to bring your overnight bag along,” he added brutally.
Dian looked into his face. “Why are you twisting yourself, your inner-self, so hard, Don? Of course I’d come—if that’s what you wanted.”
“And then,” he said flatly, “suppose I kicked you out in the morning?”
Dian winced, but she kept her eyes even with his, her own moist now. “You forget,” she whispered. “You have been awarded the Galactic Medal of Honor, the bearer of which can do no wrong.”
“Oh, God,” Don muttered. He filled his glass, still again, motioned to a nearby waiter.
“Yes, sir,” the waiter said.
Don said, “Look, in about five minutes I’m going to pass out. See that I get back to my hotel, will you? And that this young lady gets to her home. And, waiter, just send my bill to the hotel too.”
The other bowed. “The owner’s instructions, sir, are that Captain Mathers must never see a bill in this establishment.”
Dian said, “Don!“
He didn’t look at her. He raised his glass to his mouth and shortly afterward the fog rolled in again.
When it rolled out, the unfamiliar taste of black coffee was in his mouth. He shook his head for clarity.
He seemed to be in some working class restaurant. Next to him, in a booth, was a fresh-faced Sub-lieutenant of the—Don squinted at the collar tabs—yes, of the Space Service. A Scout pilot.
Don stuttered, “What’s … goin’ … on?”
The pilot said apologetically, “Sub-lieutenant Pierpont, sir. You seemed so far under the weather, I took over.”
“Oh, you did, eh?”
“Well, yes, sir. You were, well, reclining in the gutter, sir. In spite of your, well, appearance, your condition, I recognized you, sir.”
“Oh.” His stomach was an objecting turmoil.
The Lieutenant said, “Want to try some more of this coffee now, sir? Or maybe some soup or a sandwich?”
Don groaned. “No. No, thanks. Don’t think I could hold it down.”
The pilot grinned. “You must’ve thrown a classic, sir.”
“I guess so. What time is it? No, that doesn’t make any difference. What’s the date?”
Pierpont told him.
It was hard to believe. The last he could remember he’d been with Di. With Di in some nightclub. He wondered how long ago that had been.
He fumbled in his clothes for a smoke and couldn’t find one. He didn’t want it anyway.
He growled at the Lieutenant, “Well, how go the One Man Scouts?”
Pierpont grinned back at him. “Glad to be out of them, sir?”
Pierpont looked at him strangely. “I don’t blame you, I suppose. But it isn’t as bad these days as it used to be while you were still in the Space Service, sir.”
Don grunted. “How come? Two weeks to a month, all by yourself, watching the symptoms of space cafard progress. Then three weeks of leave, to get drunk in, and then another stretch in space.”
The pilot snorted deprecation. “That’s the way it used to be.” He fingered the spoon of his coffee cup. “That’s the way it still should be, of course. But it isn’t. They’re spreading the duty around now and I spend less than one week out of four on patrol.”
Don hadn’t been listening too closely, but now he looked up. “What’d’ya mean?”
Pierpont said, “I mean, sir, I suppose this isn’t bridging security, seeing who you are, but fuel stocks are so low that we can’t maintain full patrols any more.”
There was a cold emptiness in Don Mathers’ stomach.
He said, “Look, I’m still woozy. Say that again, Lieutenant.”
The Lieutenant told him again.
Don Mathers rubbed the back of his hand over his mouth and tried to think.
He said finally, “Look, Lieutenant. First let’s get another cup of coffee into me, and maybe that sandwich you were talking about. Then would you help me to get back to my hotel?”
By the fourth day, his hands weren’t trembling any longer. He ate a good breakfast, dressed carefully, then took a hotel limousine down to the offices of the Mathers, Demming and Rostoff Corporation.
At the entrance to the inner sanctum the heavyset Scotty looked up at his approach. He said, “The boss has been looking for you, Mr. Mathers, but right now you ain’t got no appointment, have you? Him and Mr. Rostoff is having a big conference. He says to keep everybody out.”
“That doesn’t apply to me, Scotty,” Don snapped. “Get out of my way.”
Scotty stood up, reluctantly, but barred the way. “He said it applied to everybody, Mr. Mathers.”
Don put his full weight into a blow that started at his waist, dug deep into the other’s middle. Scotty doubled forward, his eyes bugging. Don Mathers gripped his hands together into a double fist and brought them upward in a vicious uppercut.
Scotty fell forward and to the floor.
Don stood above him momentarily, watchful for movement which didn’t develop. The hefty bodyguard must have been doing some easy living himself. He wasn’t as tough as he looked.
Don knelt and fished from under the other’s left arm a vicious-looking short-barrelled scrambler. He tucked it under his own jacket into his belt, then turned, opened the door and entered the supposedly barred office.
Demming and Rostoff looked up from their work across a double desk.
Both scowled. Rostoff opened his mouth to say something and Don Mathers rapped, “Shut up.”
Rostoff blinked at him. Demming leaned back in his swivel chair. “You’re sober for a change,” he wheezed, almost accusingly.
Don Mathers pulled up a stenographer’s chair and straddled it, leaning his arms on the back. He said coldly, “Comes a point when even the lowest worm turns. I’ve been checking on a few things.”
Demming grunted amusement.
Don said, “Space patrols have been cut far below the danger point.”
Rostoff snorted. “Is that supposed to interest us? That’s the problem of the military—and the government.”
“Oh, it interests us, all right,” Don growled. “Currently, Mathers, Demming and Rostoff control probably three-quarters of the system’s radioactives.”
Demming said in greasy satisfaction, “More like four-fifths.”
“Why?” Don said bluntly. “Why are we doing what we’re doing?”
They both scowled, but another element was present in their expressions too. They thought the question unintelligent.
Demming closed his eyes in his porcine manner and grunted, “Tell him.”
Rostoff said, “Look, Mathers, don’t be stupid. Remember when we told you, during that first interview, that we wanted your name in the corporation, among other reasons, because we could use a man who was above law? That a maze of ridiculously binding ordinances have been laid on business down through the centuries?”
“I remember,” Don said bitterly.
“Well, it goes both ways. Government today is also bound, very strongly, and even in great emergency, not to interfere in business. These complicated laws balance each other, you might say. Our whole legal system is based upon them. Right now, we’ve got government right where we want it. This is free enterprise, Mathers, at its pinnacle. Did you ever hear of Jim Fisk and his attempt to corner gold in 1869, the so-called Black Friday affair? Well, Jim Fisk was a peanut peddler compared to us.”
“What’s this got to do with the Fleet having insufficient fuel to …” Don Mathers stopped as comprehension hit him. “You’re holding our radioactives off the market, pressuring the government for a price rise which it can’t afford.”
Demming opened his eyes and said fatly, “For triple the price, Mathers. Before we’re through, we’ll corner half the wealth of the system.”
Don said, “But … but the species is … at … war.”
Rostoff sneered, “You seem to be getting noble rather late in the game, Mathers. Business is business.”
Don Mathers was shaking his head. “We immediately begin selling our radioactives at cost of production. I might remind you gentlemen that although we’re supposedly a three-way partnership, actually, everything’s in my name. You thought you had me under your thumb so securely that it was safe—and you probably didn’t trust each other. Well, I’m blowing the whistle.”
Surprisingly fast for such a fat man, Lawrence Demming’s hand flitted into a desk drawer to emerge with a twin of the scrambler tucked in Don’s belt.
Don Mathers grinned at him, even as he pushed his jacket back to reveal the butt of his own weapon. He made no attempt to draw it, however.
He said softly, “Shoot me, Demming, and you’ve killed the most popular man in the Solar System. You’d never escape the gas chamber, no matter how much money you have. On the other hand, if I shoot you …”
He put a hand into his pocket and it emerged with a small, inordinately ordinary bit of ribbon and metal. He displayed it on his palm.
The fat man’s face whitened at the ramifications and his hand relaxed to let the gun drop to the desk. “Listen, Don,” he broke out. “We’ve been unrealistic with you. We’ll reverse ourselves and split, honestly—split three ways.”
Don Mathers laughed at him. “Trying to bribe me with money, Demming? Why don’t you realize, that I’m the only man in existence who has no need for money, who can’t spend money? That my fellow men—whom I’ve done such a good job of betraying—have honored me to a point where money is meaningless?”
Rostoff snatched up the fallen gun, snarling, “I’m calling your bluff, you gutless rummy.”
Don Mathers said, “Okay, Rostoff. There’s just two other things I want to say first. One—I don’t care if I die or not. Two—you’re only twenty feet or so away, but you know what? I think you’re probably a lousy shot. I don’t think you’ve had much practice. I think I can get my scrambler out and cut you down before you can finish me.” He grinned thinly, “Wanta try?”
Max Rostoff snarled a curse and his finger whitened on the trigger.
Don Mathers fell sideward, his hand streaking for his weapon. Without thought there came back to him the long hours of training in hand weapons, in judo, in hand to hand combat. He went into action with cool confidence.
At the spaceport he took a cab to the Presidential Palace. It was an auto-cab, of course, and at the Palace gates he found he had no money on him. He snorted wearily. It was the first time in almost a year that he’d had to pay for anything.
Four sentries were standing at attention. He said, “Do one of you boys have some coins to feed into this slot? I’m fresh out.”
A sergeant grinned, approached, and did the necessary.
Don Mathers said wearily, “I don’t know how you go about this. I don’t have an appointment, but I want to see the President.”
“We can turn you over to one of the assistant secretaries, Captain Mathers,” the sergeant said. “We can’t go any further than that. While we’re waiting, what’s the chances of getting your autograph, sir? I gotta kid …”
It wasn’t nearly as complicated as he’d thought it was going to be. In half an hour he was seated in the office where he’d received his decoration only—how long ago was it, really less than a year?
He told the story briefly, making no effort to spare himself. At the end he stood up long enough to put a paper in front of the other, then sat down again.
“I’m turning the whole corporation over to the government….”
The President said, “Wait a minute. My administration does not advocate State ownership of industry.”
“I know. When the State controls industry you only put the whole mess off one step, the question then becomes, who controls the State? However, I’m not arguing political economy with you, sir. You didn’t let me finish. I was going to say, I’m turning it over to the government to untangle, even while making use of the inventories of radioactives. There’s going to be a lot of untangling to do. Reimbursing the prospectors and small operators who were blackjacked out of their holdings by our super-corporation. Reimbursing of the miners and other laborers who were talked into accepting low pay in the name of patriotism.” Don Mathers cut it short. “Oh, it’s quite a mess.”
“Yes,” the President said. “And you say Max Rostoff is dead?”
“That’s right. And Demming off his rocker. I think he always was a little unbalanced and the prospect of losing all that money, the greatest fortune ever conceived of, tipped the scales.”
The President said, “And what about you, Donal Mathers?”
Don took a deep breath. “I wish I was back in the Space Services, frankly. Back where I was when all this started. However, I suppose that after my court martial, there won’t be …”
The President interrupted gently. “You seem to forget, Captain Mathers. You carry the Galactic Medal of Honor, the bearer of which can do no wrong.”
Don Mathers gaped at him.
The President smiled at him, albeit a bit sourly. “It would hardly do for human morale to find out our supreme symbol of heroism was a phoney, Captain. There will be no trial, and you will retain your decoration.”
“But I don’t want it!”
“I’m afraid that is the cross you’ll have to bear the rest of your life, Captain Mathers. I don’t suppose it will be an easy one.”
His eyes went to a far corner of the room, but unseeingly. He said after a long moment, “However, I am not so very sure about your not deserving your award, Captain.”
It isn’t travel that is broadening, stimulating, or educational. Not the traveling itself. Visiting new cities, new countries, new continents, or even new planets, yes. But the travel itself, no. Be it by the methods of the Twentieth Century—automobile, bus, train, or aircraft—or be it by spaceship, travel is nothing more than boring.
Oh, it’s interesting enough for the first few hours, say. You look out the window of your car, bus, train, or airliner, or over the side of your ship, and it’s very stimulating. But after that first period it becomes boring, monotonous, sameness to the point of redundance.
And so it is in space.
Markham Gray, free lance journalist for more years than he would admit to, was en route from the Neptune satellite Triton to his home planet, Earth, mistress of the Solar System. He was seasoned enough as a space traveler to steel himself against the monotony with cards and books, with chess problems and wire tapes, and even with an attempt to do an article on the distant earthbase from which he was returning for the Spacetraveler Digest.
When all these failed, he sometimes spent a half hour or so staring at the vision screen which took up a considerable area of one wall of the lounge.
Unless you had a vivid imagination of the type which had remained with Markham Gray down through the years, a few minutes at a time would have been enough. With rare exception, the view on the screen seemed almost like a still; a velvety blackness with pin-points of brilliant light, unmoving, unchanging.
But even Markham Gray, with his ability to dream and to discern that which is beyond, found himself twisting with ennui after thirty minutes of staring at endless space. He wished that there was a larger number of passengers aboard. The half-dozen businessmen and their women and children had left him cold and he was doing his best to avoid them. Now, if there had only been one good chess player—
Co-pilot Bormann was passing through the lounge. He nodded to the distinguished elderly passenger, flicked his eyes quickly, professionally, over the vision screen and was about to continue on his way.
Gray called idly, “Hans, I thought the space patrols very seldom got out here.”
“Practically never, sir,” the other told him politely, hesitating momentarily. Part of the job was to be constantly amiable, constantly watchful of the passengers out here in deep space—they came down with space cafard at the drop of a hat. Markham Gray reminded Bormann of pictures of Benjamin Franklin he’d seen in history books, and ordinarily he didn’t mind spending a little time now and then talking things over with him. But right now he was hoping the old duffer wasn’t going to keep him from the game going on forward with Captain Post and the steward.
“Just noticed one on the screen,” the elderly journalist told him easily.
The co-pilot smiled courteously. “You must have seen a meteorite, sir. There aren’t any—”
Markham Gray flushed. “I’m not as complete a space neophyte as your condescending air would indicate, Lieutenant. As a matter of fact, I’ll stack my space-months against yours any day.”
Bormann said soothingly, “It’s not that, sir. You’ve just made a mistake. If a ship was within reasonable distance, the alarms would be sounding off right now. But that’s not all, either. We have a complete record of any traffic within a considerable distance, and I assure you that—”
Markham Gray pointed a finger at the lower left hand corner of the screen. “Then what is that, Lieutenant?” he asked sarcastically.
The smile was still on the co-pilot’s face as he turned and followed the direction of the other’s finger. The smile faded. “I’ll be a makron!” he blurted. Spinning on his heel, he hurried forward to the bridge, muttering as he went.
The older man snorted with satisfaction. Actually, he shouldn’t have been so snappy with the young man; he hated to admit he was growing cranky with age. He took up his half completed manuscript again. He really should finish this article, though, space knew, he hadn’t enough material for more than a few paragraphs. Triton was a barren satellite if he’d ever seen one—and he had.
He had almost forgotten the matter ten minutes later when the ship’s public address system blurted loudly.
BATTLE STATIONS! BATTLE STATIONS! ALL CREW MEMBERS TO EMERGENCY STATIONS. ALL PASSENGERS IMMEDIATELY TO THEIR QUARTERS. BATTLE STATIONS!
Markham Gray was vaguely familiar with the fact that every Solar System spacecraft was theoretically a warcraft in emergency, but it was utterly fantastic that—
He heaved himself to his feet, grunting with the effort, and, disregarding the repeated command that passengers proceed to their quarters, made his way forward to the bridge, ignoring the hysterical confusion in passengers and crew members hurrying up and down the ship’s passageways.
It was immediately obvious, there at the craft’s heart, that this was no farce, at least not a deliberate one. Captain Roger Post, youthful officer in command of the Neuve Los Angeles, Lieutenant Hans Bormann and the two crew members on watch were white-faced and shaken, momentarily confused in a situation which they had never expected to face. The two officers stood before the bridge vision screen watching, wide-eyed, that sector of space containing the other vessel. They had enlarged it a hundred-fold.
At the elderly journalist’s entrance, the skipper had shot a quick, irritated glance over his shoulder and had begun to snap something; he cut it off. Instead, he said, “When did you first sight the alien ship, Mr. Gray?”
“Yes, alien. When did you first sight it? It is obviously following us in order to locate our home planet.” There was extreme tension in the captain’s voice.
Markham Gray felt cold fingers trace their way up his back. “Why, why, I must have noticed it several hours ago, Captain. But … an alien!… I….” He peered at the enlarged craft on the screen. “Are you sure, Captain? It seems remarkably like our own. I would say—”
The captain had spun back around to stare at the screen again, as though to reassure himself of what he had already seen.
“There are no other ships in the vicinity,” he grated, almost as though to himself. “Besides that, as far as I know, and I should know, there are no Earth craft that look exactly like that. There are striking similarities, I’ll admit, to our St. Louis class scouts, but those jets on the prow—there’s nothing like them either in existence or projected.”
His voice rose in an attempt to achieve decisiveness, “Lieutenant Bormann, prepare to attack.”
Suddenly, the telviz blared.
Calling the Neuve Los Angeles. Calling the Neuve Los Angeles. Be unafraid. We are not hostile.
There was quiet on the bridge of the earth ship. Screaming quiet. It was seemingly hours before they had recovered even to the point of staring at one another.
Hans Bormann gasped finally, unbelievingly, “How could they possibly know the name of our ship? How could they possibly know the Amer-English language?”
The captain’s face was white and frozen. He said, so quietly that they could hardly make it out, “That’s not all. Our alarms still haven’t been touched off, and our estimators aren’t functioning; we don’t know how large they are nor how far away. It’s unheard of—.Somehow they’ve completely disrupted our instruments.”
Markham Gray followed the matter with more than average interest, after their arrival at the New Albuquerque spaceport. Not that average interest wasn’t high.
Finally man had come in contact with another intelligence. He had been dreading it, fearing it, for decades; now it was here. Another life form had conquered space, and, seemingly, had equipment, in some respects at least, superior to humanity’s.
The court martial of Captain Roger Post had been short and merciless. Free access to the trial had been given to the press and telviz systems, and the newscasts had carried it in its entirety, partially to stress to the public mind the importance of the situation, and partially as a warning to other spacemen.
Post had stood before the raised dais upon which were seated SupSpaceCom Michell and four other high-ranking officers and heard the charge read—failure to attack the alien craft, destroy it, and thus prevent the aliens—wherever they might be from—returning to their own world and reporting the presence of man in the galaxy.
Markham Gray, like thousands of others, had sat on the edge of his chair in the living room of his small suburban home, and followed the trial closely on his telviz.
SupSpaceCom Michell had been blunt and ruthless. He had rapped out, bitingly, “Roger Post, as captain of the Neuve Los Angeles, why did you not either destroy the alien craft, or, if you felt it too strong for your ship, why did you not blast off into space, luring it away from your home planet?”
Post said hesitantly, “I didn’t think it necessary, sir. His attitude was—well, of peace. It was as if we were two ships that had met by chance and dipped their flags in the old manner and passed on to their different destinations. They even were able to telviz us a message.”
The SupSpaceCom snapped, “That was undoubtedly a case of telepathy. The alien is equipped in some manner to impose thoughts upon the human brain. You thought the telviz was used; actually the alien wasn’t speaking Amer-English, he was simply forcing thoughts into your minds.”
Markham Gray, watching and listening to this over his set, shook his head in dissatisfaction. As always, the military mind was dull and unreceptive. The ridiculousness of expecting Post to blast off into space in an attempt to fool the other craft in regard to his home planet was obvious. The whole affair had taken place within the solar system; obviously the alien would know that one of Sol’s nine major planets was mankind’s home. Finding out which one wouldn’t be too difficult a job.
Roger Post was saying hesitantly, “Then it is assumed that the alien craft wasn’t friendly?”
SupSpaceCom Michell indicated his disgust with an impatient flick of his hand. “Any alien is a potential enemy, Post; that should be elementary. And a potential enemy is an enemy in fact. Even though these aliens might seem amiable enough today, how do we know they will be in the future—possibly in the far future? There can be no friendship with aliens. We can’t afford to have neighbors; we can’t afford to be encircled by enemies.”
“Nor even friends?” Captain Post had asked softly.
Michell glared at his subordinate. “That is what it amounts to, Captain; and the thing to remember is that they feel the same way. They must! They must seek us out and destroy us completely and as quickly as possible. By the appearance of things, and partially through your negligence, they’ve probably won the first round. They know our location; we don’t know theirs.”
The supreme commander of Earth’s space forces dropped that point. “Let us go back again. When you received this telepathic message—or whatever it was—what was your reaction? Did it seem friendly, domineering, or what?”
Roger Post stood silent for a moment. Finally he answered, “Sir, I still think it was the telviz, rather than a telepathic communication, but the … the tone of voice seemed to give me the impression of pitying.”
“Pitying!” Michell ejaculated.
The captain was nervous but determined. “Yes, sir. I had the distinct feeling that the being that sent the message felt sorry for us.”
The SupSpaceCom’s face had gone red with indignation.
It was three years before another of the aliens was sighted. Three hurried, crowded, harassed years during which all the Solar System’s resources were devoted to building and arming a huge space fleet and rushing space defenses. The total wars of the Twentieth Century paled in comparison to the all out efforts made to prepare for this conflict.
The second view of the alien ship was similar to the first. This, time the Pendleton, a four-man scout returning to the Venus base after a patrol in the direction of Sirius, held the intruder in its viewer for a full five minutes. Once again, no estimation of its distance nor size could be made. All instruments pertaining to such detection seemed to fail to function properly.
And again the alien had sent a message—seemingly, at least, by telviz. We are no danger to you, mankind. Seek your destiny in peace. Your troubles are from within.
The Pendleton would have attempted to follow the strange craft, but her fuel tanks were nearly dry and she had to proceed to Venus. Her captain’s report made a sensation.
In a way, the whole business had been a good thing for Markham Gray. As a free lancing journalist, he’d had a considerable advantage. First, he was more than usually informed on space travel and the problems relating to it, second, he had been present at—in fact, had made himself—the first sighting of the aliens.
His articles were in continuous demand in both magazines and newspaper supplements; editors clamored for additional material from his voco-typer. There was but one complaint against his copy—it wasn’t alarmist enough, sensational enough. Humanity had been whipped into a state of hysteria, an emotional binge, and humanity loved it.
And it was there that Markham Gray refused to go along. He had agreed with poor Captain Post, now serving a life sentence in the Martian prison camps; there had been no sign of hostility from the alien craft. It was man who was preparing for war—and Gray knew of no period in history in which preparations for war did not eventually culminate in one.
So it was not really strange that it was he the aliens chose to contact.
It came in the early hours of the morning. He awakened, not without a chill of fear, the sound of his telviz set in his ears. He had left it turned off, he knew that. He shook his head to clear it, impatient of the fact that with advancing years it was taking an increasing time to become alert after sleep.
He had not caught the message. For a brief moment he thought the sound had been a dream.
Then the telviz spoke again. The screen was blank. It said, You are awake, Mr. Gray?
He stared at it, uncomprehending.
He said, “I … I don’t understand.” Then, suddenly, he did understand, as though by an inspired revelation. Why they were able to speak Amer-English. Why their ship looked like a Terran one. Why they had been able to ‘disrupt’ the Earth ships instruments.
He said haltingly, “Why are you here?”
We are familiar with your articles. You alone, Mr. Gray, seem at least to seek understanding. Before we left, we felt it our duty to explain our presence and our purpose—that is, partially.
“Yes,” he said. Then, in an attempt to check the conclusion at which he had just arrived, he added, “You are going from the Solar System—leaving your home for a new one?”
There was a long silence.
Finally: As we said, we were going to explain partially our presence and purpose, but obviously you know more than we had thought. Would you mind revealing the extent of your knowledge?
Gray reached to the foot of the bed and took up his night robe; partly because it was chilly, partly to give himself time to consider his answer. Perhaps he shouldn’t have said that. He was alone in this small house; he had no knowledge of their intentions toward him.
But he had gone too far now. He said, “Not at all. I am not sure of where we stand, but things should be much clearer, shortly. First of all, your spaceships are tiny. Probably less than ten pounds.”
About four, Mr. Gray.
“Which explains why our instruments did not record them; the instruments weren’t disrupted, your ships were really too small to register. That’s where we made our first mistake. We assumed, for no valid reason, that you were approximately our own size. We were willing to picture you as non-human and possessing limbs, organs, and even senses different from ours; but we have pictured ‘aliens’, as we’ve been calling you, as approximately our own size. Actually, you must be quite tiny.”
Quite tiny, Markham Gray. Although, of course, the way we think of it is that you are quite huge.
He was becoming more confident now; widely awake, it was less strange to hear the words come from his commonplace home model telviz set. “Our second mistake was in looking for you throughout space,” he said softly.
There was hesitation again, then, And why was that a mistake, Markham Gray?
Gray wet his lips. He might be signing his death warrant, but he couldn’t stop now. “Because you are not really ‘aliens,’ but of Earth itself. Several facts point that way. For instance, your ships are minute models of Earth ships, or, rather, of human ships. You have obviously copied them. Then, too, you have been able to communicate with humans too easily. An alien to our world would have had much more trouble. Our ways, our methods of thinking, are not strange to you.”
You have discovered a secret which has been kept for many centuries, Markham Gray.
He was more at ease now; somehow there was no threat in the attitude of the other. Gray said, “The hardest thing for me to understand is why it has been kept a secret. Obviously, you are a tiny form of Earth life, probably an insect, which has progressed intellectually as far beyond other insect forms as man beyond other mammals. Why have you kept this a secret from humans?”
You should be able to answer that yourself, Mr. Gray. As we developed, we were appalled by the only other form of life on our planet with a developed intelligence. Why, not even your own kind is safe from your bloodlust. The lesser animals on Earth have been either enslaved by man—or slaughtered to extinction. And even your fellows in the recent past were butchered; man killed man wholesale. Do you blame us for keeping our existence a secret? We knew that the day humans discovered there was another intelligence on Earth they would begin making plans to dominate or, even more likely, to destroy us. Our only chance was to find some refuge away from Earth. That is why we began to search the other stars for a planet similar to this and suitable to our form of life.
“You could have fought back, had we attempted to destroy you,” Gray said uncomfortably.
The next words were coldly contemptuous. We are not wanton killers, like man. We have no desire to destroy.
Gray winced and changed the subject. “You have found your new planet?”
At last. We are about to begin transportation of our population to the new world. For the first time since our ancestors became aware of the awful presence of man on the Earth, we feel that we can look forward to security.
Markham Gray remained quiet for a long time. “I am still amazed that you were able to develop so far without our knowledge,” he said finally.
There was an edge of amusement in the answering thought. We are very tiny, Mr. Gray. And our greatest efforts have always been to keep from under man’s eyes. We have profited greatly, however, by our suitability to espionage; little goes on in the human world of which we don’t know. Our progress was greatly aided by our being able to utilize the science that man has already developed. You’ve noted, for instance, how similar our space ships are to your own.
Gray nodded to himself. “But I’m also impressed by the manner in which you have developed some mechanical device to duplicate human speech. That involved original research.”
At any rate, neither man nor we need dread the future any longer. We have escaped the danger that overhung us, and you know now that we are no alien enemies from space threatening you. We wish you well, mankind; perhaps the future will see changes in your nature. It is in this friendly hope that we have contacted humanity through you, Mr. Gray.
The elderly journalist said quietly, “I appreciate your thoughtfulness and hope you are correct. Good luck to you in your new world.”
Thank you, Markham Gray, and goodbye.
The set was suddenly quiet again.
Markham Gray stood before the assembled Military Council of the Solar System. He had told his story without interruption to this most powerful body on Earth. They listened to him in silence.
When he had finished, he waited for their questions. The first came from SupSpaceCom Michell. He said, thoughtfully, “You believe their words to be substantially correct, Gray?”
“I believe them to be entirely truthful, your excellency,” the journalist told him sincerely.
“Then they are on the verge of leaving the Earth and removing to this other planet in some other star system?”
“That is their plan.”
The SupSpaceCom mused aloud. “We’ll be able to locate them when they blast off en masse. Their single ships are so small that they missed being observed, but a mass flight we’ll be able to detect. Our cruisers will be able to follow them all the way, blasting them as they go. If any get through to their new planet, we’ll at least know where they are and can take our time destroying it.”
The President of the Council added thoughtfully, “Quite correct, Michell. And in the early stages of the fight, we should be able to capture some of their ships intact. As soon as we find what kind of insect they are, our bacteriologists will be able to work on a method to eliminate any that might remain on Earth.”
Markham Gray’s face had paled in horror. “But why?” he blurted. “Why not let them go in peace? All they’ve wanted for centuries is to escape us, to have a planet of their own.”
SupSpaceCom Michell eyed him tolerantly. “You seem to have been taken in, Mr. Gray. Once they’ve established themselves in their new world, we have no idea of how rapidly they might develop and how soon they might become a threat. Even though they may be peaceful today, they are potential enemies tomorrow. And a potential enemy is an enemy, who must be destroyed.”
Gray felt sickness well through him “But … but this policy…. What happens when man finally finds on his borders a life form more advanced than he—an intelligence strong enough to destroy rather than be destroyed?”
The tolerance was gone now. The SupSpaceCom said coldly, “Don’t be a pessimistic defeatist, Gray.”
He turned to the admirals and generals of his staff. “Make all preparations for the attack, gentlemen.”
THERE were four men in the lifeboat that came down from the space-cruiser. Three of them were still in the uniform of the Galactic Guards.
The fourth sat in the prow of the small craft looking down at their goal, hunched and silent, bundled up in a greatcoat against the coolness of space—a greatcoat which he would never need again after this morning. The brim of his hat was pulled down far over his forehead, and he studied the nearing shore through dark-lensed glasses. Bandages, as though for a broken jaw, covered most of the lower part of his face.
He realized suddenly that the dark glasses, now that they had left the cruiser, were unnecessary. He slipped them off. After the cinematographic grays his eyes had seen through these lenses for so long, the brilliance of the color below him was almost like a blow. He blinked, and looked again.
They were rapidly settling toward a shoreline, a beach. The sand was a dazzling, unbelievable white such as had never been on his home planet. Blue the sky and water, and green the edge of the fantastic jungle. There was a flash of red in the green, as they came still closer, and he realized suddenly that it must be a marigee, the semi-intelligent Venusian parrot once so popular as pets throughout the solar system.
Throughout the system blood and steel had fallen from the sky and ravished the planets, but now it fell no more.
And now this. Here in this forgotten portion of an almost completely destroyed world it had not fallen at all.
Only in some place like this, alone, was safety for him. Elsewhere—anywhere—imprisonment or, more likely, death. There was danger, even here. Three of the crew of the space-cruiser knew. Perhaps, someday, one of them would talk. Then they would come for him, even here.
But that was a chance he could not avoid. Nor were the odds bad, for three people out of a whole solar system knew where he was. And those three were loyal fools.
The lifeboat came gently to rest. The hatch swung open and he stepped out and walked a few paces up the beach. He turned and waited while the two spacemen who had guided the craft brought his chest out and carried it across the beach and to the corrugated-tin shack just at the edge of the trees. That shack had once been a space-radar relay station. Now the equipment it had held was long gone, the antenna mast taken down. But the shack still stood. It would be his home for a while. A long while. The two men returned to the lifeboat preparatory to leaving.
And now the captain stood facing him, and the captain’s face was a rigid mask. It seemed with an effort that the captain’s right arm remained at his side, but that effort had been ordered. No salute.
The captain’s voice, too, was rigid with unemotion. “Number One …”
“Silence!” And then, less bitterly. “Come further from the boat before you again let your tongue run loose. Here.” They had reached the shack.
“You are right, Number …”
“No. I am no longer Number One. You must continue to think of me as Mister Smith, your cousin, whom you brought here for the reasons you explained to the under-officers, before you surrender your ship. If you think of me so, you will be less likely to slip in your speech.”
“There is nothing further I can do—Mister Smith?”
“Nothing. Go now.”
“And I am ordered to surrender the—”
“There are no orders. The war is over, lost. I would suggest thought as to what spaceport you put into. In some you may receive humane treatment. In others—”
The captain nodded. “In others, there is great hatred. Yes. That is all?”
“That is all. And, Captain, your running of the blockade, your securing of fuel en route, have constituted a deed of high valor. All I can give you in reward is my thanks. But now go. Goodbye.”
“Not goodbye,” the captain blurted impulsively, “but hasta la vista, auf Wiedersehen, until the day … you will permit me, for the last time to address you and salute?”
The man in the greatcoat shrugged. “As you will.”
Click of heels and a salute that once greeted the Caesars, and later the pseudo-Aryan of the 20th Century, and, but yesterday, he who was now known as the last of the dictators. “Farewell, Number One!”
“Farewell,” he answered emotionlessly.
Mr. Smith, a black dot on the dazzling white sand, watched the lifeboat disappear up into the blue, finally into the haze of the upper atmosphere of Venus. That eternal haze that would always be there to mock his failure and his bitter solitude.
The slow days snarled by, and the sun shone dimly, and the marigees screamed in the early dawn and all day and at sunset, and sometimes there were the six-legged baroons, monkey-like in the trees, that gibbered at him. And the rains came and went away again.
At nights there were drums in the distance. Not the martial roll of marching, nor yet a threatening note of savage hate. Just drums, many miles away, throbbing rhythm for native dances or exorcising, perhaps, the forest-night demons. He assumed these Venusians had their superstitions, all other races had. There was no threat, for him, in that throbbing that was like the beating of the jungle’s heart.
Mr. Smith knew that, for although his choice of destinations had been a hasty choice, yet there had been time for him to read the available reports. The natives were harmless and friendly. A Terran missionary had lived among them some time ago—before the outbreak of the war. They were a simple, weak race. They seldom went far from their villages; the space-radar operator who had once occupied the shack reported that he had never seen one of them.
So, there would be no difficulty in avoiding the natives, nor danger if he did encounter them.
Nothing to worry about, except the bitterness.
Not the bitterness of regret, but of defeat. Defeat at the hands of the defeated. The damned Martians who came back after he had driven them halfway across their damned arid planet. The Jupiter Satellite Confederation landing endlessly on the home planet, sending their vast armadas of spacecraft daily and nightly to turn his mighty cities into dust. In spite of everything; in spite of his score of ultra-vicious secret weapons and the last desperate efforts of his weakened armies, most of whose men were under twenty or over forty.
The treachery even in his own army, among his own generals and admirals. The turn of Luna, that had been the end.
His people would rise again. But not, now after Armageddon, in his lifetime. Not under him, nor another like him. The last of the dictators.
Hated by a solar system, and hating it.
It would have been intolerable, save that he was alone. He had foreseen that—the need for solitude. Alone, he was still Number One. The presence of others would have forced recognition of his miserably changed status. Alone, his pride was undamaged. His ego was intact.
The long days, and the marigees’ screams, the slithering swish of the surf, the ghost-quiet movements of the baroons in the trees and the raucousness of their shrill voices. Drums.
Those sounds, and those alone. But perhaps silence would have been worse.
For the times of silence were louder. Times he would pace the beach at night and overhead would be the roar of jets and rockets, the ships that had roared over New Albuquerque, his capitol, in those last days before he had fled. The crump of bombs and the screams and the blood, and the flat voices of his folding generals.
Those were the days when the waves of hatred from the conquered peoples beat upon his country as the waves of a stormy sea beat upon crumbling cliffs. Leagues back of the battered lines, you could feel that hate and vengeance as a tangible thing, a thing that thickened the air, that made breathing difficult and talking futile.
And the spacecraft, the jets, the rockets, the damnable rockets, more every day and every night, and ten coming for every one shot down. Rocket ships raining hell from the sky, havoc and chaos and the end of hope.
And then he knew that he had been hearing another sound, hearing it often and long at a time. It was a voice that shouted invective and ranted hatred and glorified the steel might of his planet and the destiny of a man and a people.
It was his own voice, and it beat back the waves from the white shore, it stopped their wet encroachment upon this, his domain. It screamed back at the baroons and they were silent. And at times he laughed, and the marigees laughed. Sometimes, the queerly shaped Venusian trees talked too, but their voices were quieter. The trees were submissive, they were good subjects.
Sometimes, fantastic thoughts went through his head. The race of trees, the pure race of trees that never interbred, that stood firm always. Someday the trees—
But that was just a dream, a fancy. More real were the marigees and the kifs. They were the ones who persecuted him. There was the marigee who would shriek “All is lost!” He had shot at it a hundred times with his needle gun, but always it flew away unharmed. Sometimes it did not even fly away.
“All is lost!“
At last he wasted no more needle darts. He stalked it to strangle it with his bare hands. That was better. On what might have been the thousandth try, he caught it and killed it, and there was warm blood on his hands and feathers were flying.
That should have ended it, but it didn’t. Now there were a dozen marigees that screamed that all was lost. Perhaps there had been a dozen all along. Now he merely shook his fist at them or threw stones.
The kifs, the Venusian equivalent of the Terran ant, stole his food. But that did not matter; there was plenty of food. There had been a cache of it in the shack, meant to restock a space-cruiser, and never used. The kifs would not get at it until he opened a can, but then, unless he ate it all at once, they ate whatever he left. That did not matter. There were plenty of cans. And always fresh fruit from the jungle. Always in season, for there were no seasons here, except the rains.
But the kifs served a purpose for him. They kept him sane, by giving him something tangible, something inferior, to hate.
Oh, it wasn’t hatred, at first. Mere annoyance. He killed them in a routine sort of way at first. But they kept coming back. Always there were kifs. In his larder, wherever he did it. In his bed. He sat the legs of the cot in dishes of gasoline, but the kifs still got in. Perhaps they dropped from the ceiling, although he never caught them doing it.
They bothered his sleep. He’d feel them running over him, even when he’d spent an hour picking the bed clean of them by the light of the carbide lantern. They scurried with tickling little feet and he could not sleep.
He grew to hate them, and the very misery of his nights made his days more tolerable by giving them an increasing purpose. A pogrom against the kifs. He sought out their holes by patiently following one bearing a bit of food, and he poured gasoline into the hole and the earth around it, taking satisfaction in the thought of the writhings in agony below. He went about hunting kifs, to step on them. To stamp them out. He must have killed millions of kifs.
But always there were as many left. Never did their number seem to diminish in the slightest. Like the Martians—but unlike the Martians, they did not fight back.
Theirs was the passive resistance of a vast productivity that bred kifs ceaselessly, overwhelmingly, billions to replace millions. Individual kifs could be killed, and he took savage satisfaction in their killing, but he knew his methods were useless save for the pleasure and the purpose they gave him. Sometimes the pleasure would pall in the shadow of its futility, and he would dream of mechanized means of killing them.
He read carefully what little material there was in his tiny library about the kif. They were astonishingly like the ants of Terra. So much that there had been speculation about their relationship—that didn’t interest him. How could they be killed, en masse? Once a year, for a brief period, they took on the characteristics of the army ants of Terra. They came from their holes in endless numbers and swept everything before them in their devouring march. He wet his lips when he read that. Perhaps the opportunity would come then to destroy, to destroy, and destroy.
Almost, Mr. Smith forgot people and the solar system and what had been. Here in this new world, there was only he and the kifs. The baroons and the marigees didn’t count. They had no order and no system. The kifs—
In the intensity of his hatred there slowly filtered through a grudging admiration. The kifs were true totalitarians. They practiced what he had preached to a mightier race, practiced it with a thoroughness beyond the kind of man to comprehend.
Theirs the complete submergence of the individual to the state, theirs the complete ruthlessness of the true conqueror, the perfect selfless bravery of the true soldier.
But they got into his bed, into his clothes, into his food.
They crawled with intolerable tickling feet.
Nights he walked the beach, and that night was one of the noisy nights. There were high-flying, high-whining jet-craft up there in the moonlight sky and their shadows dappled the black water of the sea. The planes, the rockets, the jet-craft, they were what had ravaged his cities, had turned his railroads into twisted steel, had dropped their H-Bombs on his most vital factories.
He shook his fist at them and shrieked imprecations at the sky.
And when he had ceased shouting, there were voices on the beach. Conrad’s voice in his ear, as it had sounded that day when Conrad had walked into the palace, white-faced, and forgotten the salute. “There is a breakthrough at Denver, Number One! Toronto and Monterey are in danger. And in the other hemispheres—” His voice cracked. “—the damned Martians and the traitors from Luna are driving over the Argentine. Others have landed near New Petrograd. It is a rout. All is lost!”
Voices crying, “Number One, hail! Number One, hail!”
A sea of hysterical voices. “Number One, hail! Number One—”
A voice that was louder, higher, more frenetic than any of the others. His memory of his own voice, calculated but inspired, as he’d heard it on play-backs of his own speeches.
The voices of children chanting, “To thee, O Number One—” He couldn’t remember the rest of the words, but they had been beautiful words. That had been at the public school meet in the New Los Angeles. How strange that he should remember, here and now, the very tone of his voice and inflection, the shining wonder in their children’s eyes. Children only, but they were willing to kill and die, for him, convinced that all that was needed to cure the ills of the race was a suitable leader to follow.
“All is lost!“
And suddenly the monster jet-craft were swooping downward and starkly he realized what a clear target he presented, here against the white moonlit beach. They must see him.
The crescendo of motors as he ran, sobbing now in fear, for the cover of the jungle. Into the screening shadow of the giant trees, and the sheltering blackness.
He stumbled and fell, was up and running again. And now his eyes could see in the dimmer moonlight that filtered through the branches overhead. Stirrings there, in the branches. Stirrings and voices in the night. Voices in and of the night. Whispers and shrieks of pain. Yes, he’d shown them pain, and now their tortured voices ran with him through the knee-deep, night-wet grass among the trees.
The night was hideous with noise. Red noises, an almost tangible din that he could nearly feel as well as he could see and hear it. And after a while his breath came raspingly, and there was a thumping sound that was the beating of his heart and the beating of the night.
And then, he could run no longer, and he clutched a tree to keep from falling, his arms trembling about it, and his face pressed against the impersonal roughness of the bark. There was no wind, but the tree swayed back and forth and his body with it.
Then, as abruptly as light goes on when a switch is thrown, the noise vanished. Utter silence, and at last he was strong enough to let go his grip on the tree and stand erect again, to look about to get his bearings.
One tree was like another, and for a moment he thought he’d have to stay here until daylight. Then he remembered that the sound of the surf would give him his directions. He listened hard and heard it, faint and far away.
And another sound—one that he had never heard before—faint, also, but seeming to come from his right and quite near.
He looked that way, and there was a patch of opening in the trees above. The grass was waving strangely in that area of moonlight. It moved, although there was no breeze to move it. And there was an almost sudden edge, beyond which the blades thinned out quickly to barrenness.
And the sound—it was like the sound of the surf, but it was continuous. It was more like the rustle of dry leaves, but there were no dry leaves to rustle.
Mr. Smith took a step toward the sound and looked down. More grass bent, and fell, and vanished, even as he looked. Beyond the moving edge of devastation was a brown floor of the moving bodies of kifs.
Row after row, orderly rank after orderly rank, marching resistlessly onward. Billions of kifs, an army of kifs, eating their way across the night.
Fascinated, he stared down at them. There was no danger, for their progress was slow. He retreated a step to keep beyond their front rank. The sound, then, was the sound of chewing.
He could see one edge of the column, and it was a neat, orderly edge. And there was discipline, for the ones on the outside were larger than those in the center.
He retreated another step—and then, quite suddenly, his body was afire in several spreading places. The vanguard. Ahead of the rank that ate away the grass.
His boots were brown with kifs.
Screaming with pain, he whirled about and ran, beating with his hands at the burning spots on his body. He ran head-on into a tree, bruising his face horribly, and the night was scarlet with pain and shooting fire.
But he staggered on, almost blindly, running, writhing, tearing off his clothes as he ran.
This, then, was pain. There was a shrill screaming in his ears that must have been the sound of his own voice.
When he could no longer run, he crawled. Naked, now, and with only a few kifs still clinging to him. And the blind tangent of his flight had taken him well out of the path of the advancing army.
But stark fear and the memory of unendurable pain drove him on. His knees raw now, he could no longer crawl. But he got himself erect again on trembling legs, and staggered on. Catching hold of a tree and pushing himself away from it to catch the next.
Falling, rising, falling again. His throat raw from the screaming invective of his hate. Bushes and the rough bark of trees tore his flesh.
Into the village compound just before dawn, staggered a man, a naked terrestrial. He looked about with dull eyes that seemed to see nothing and understand nothing.
The females and young ran before him, even the males retreated.
He stood there, swaying, and the incredulous eyes of the natives widened as they saw the condition of his body, and the blankness of his eyes.
When he made no hostile move, they came closer again, formed a wondering, chattering circle about him, these Venusian humanoids. Some ran to bring the chief and the chief’s son, who knew everything.
The mad, naked human opened his lips as though he were going to speak, but instead, he fell. He fell, as a dead man falls. But when they turned him over in the dust, they saw that his chest still rose and fell in labored breathing.
And then came Alwa, the aged chieftain, and Nrana, his son. Alwa gave quick, excited orders. Two of the men carried Mr. Smith into the chief’s hut, and the wives of the chief and the chief’s son took over the Earthling’s care, and rubbed him with a soothing and healing salve.
But for days and nights he lay without moving and without speaking or opening his eyes, and they did not know whether he would live or die.
Then, at last, he opened his eyes. And he talked, although they could make out nothing of the things he said.
Nrana came and listened, for Nrana of all of them spoke and understood best the Earthling’s language, for he had been the special protege of the Terran missionary who had lived with them for a while.
Nrana listened, but he shook his head. “The words,” he said, “the words are of the Terran tongue, but I make nothing of them. His mind is not well.”
The aged Alwa said, “Aie. Stay beside him. Perhaps as his body heals, his words will be beautiful words as were the words of the Father-of-Us who, in the Terran tongue, taught us of the gods and their good.”
So they cared for him well, and his wounds healed, and the day came when he opened his eyes and saw the handsome blue-complexioned face of Nrana sitting there beside him, and Nrana said softly, “Good day, Mr. Man of Earth. You feel better, no?”
There was no answer, and the deep-sunken eyes of the man on the sleeping mat stared, glared at him. Nrana could see that those eyes were not yet sane, but he saw, too, that the madness in them was not the same that it had been. Nrana did not know the words for delirium and paranoia, but he could distinguish between them.
No longer was the Earthling a raving maniac, and Nrana made a very common error, an error more civilized beings than he have often made. He thought the paranoia was an improvement over the wider madness. He talked on, hoping the Earthling would talk too, and he did not recognize the danger of his silence.
“We welcome you, Earthling,” he said, “and hope that you will live among us, as did the Father-of-Us, Mr. Gerhardt. He taught us to worship the true gods of the high heavens. Jehovah, and Jesus and their prophets the men from the skies. He taught us to pray and to love our enemies.”
And Nrana shook his head sadly, “But many of our tribe have gone back to the older gods, the cruel gods. They say there has been great strife among the outsiders, and no more remain upon all of Venus. My father, Alwa, and I are glad another one has come. You will be able to help those of us who have gone back. You can teach us love and kindliness.”
The eyes of the dictator closed. Nrana did not know whether or not he slept, but Nrana stood up quietly to leave the hut. In the doorway, he turned and said, “We pray for you.”
And then, joyously, he ran out of the village to seek the others, who were gathering bela-berries for the feast of the fourth event.
When, with several of them, he returned to the village, the Earthling was gone. The hut was empty.
Outside the compound they found, at last, the trail of his passing. They followed and it led to a stream and along the stream until they came to the tabu of the green pool, and could go no farther.
“He went downstream,” said Alwa gravely. “He sought the sea and the beach. He was well then, in his mind, for he knew that all streams go to the sea.”
“Perhaps he had a ship-of-the-sky there at the beach,” Nrana said worriedly. “All Earthlings come from the sky. The Father-of-Us told us that.”
“Perhaps he will come back to us,” said Alwa. His old eyes misted.
Mr. Smith was coming back all right, and sooner than they had dared to hope. As soon in fact, as he could make the trip to the shack and return. He came back dressed in clothing very different from the garb the other white man had worn. Shining leather boots and the uniform of the Galactic Guard, and a wide leather belt with a holster for his needle gun.
But the gun was in his hand when, at dusk, he strode into the compound.
He said, “I am Number One, the Lord of all the Solar System, and your ruler. Who was chief among you?”
Alwa had been in his hut, but he heard the words and came out. He understood the words, but not their meaning. He said, “Earthling, we welcome you back. I am the chief.”
“You were the chief. Now you will serve me. I am the chief.”
Alwa’s old eyes were bewildered at the strangeness of this. He said, “I will serve you, yes. All of us. But it is not fitting that an Earthling should be chief among—”
The whisper of the needle gun. Alwa’s wrinkled hands went to his scrawny neck where, just off the center, was a sudden tiny pin prick of a hole. A faint trickle of red coursed over the dark blue of his skin. The old man’s knees gave way under him as the rage of the poisoned needle dart struck him, and he fell. Others started toward him.
“Back,” said Mr. Smith. “Let him die slowly that you may all see what happens to—”
But one of the chief’s wives, one who did not understand the speech of Earth, was already lifting Alwa’s head. The needle gun whispered again, and she fell forward across him.
“I am Number One,” said Mr. Smith, “and Lord of all the planets. All who oppose me, die by—”
And then, suddenly all of them were running toward him. His finger pressed the trigger and four of them died before the avalanche of their bodies bore him down and overwhelmed him. Nrana had been first in that rush, and Nrana died.
The others tied the Earthling up and threw him into one of the huts. And then, while the women began wailing for the dead, the men made council.
They elected Kallana chief and he stood before them and said, “The Father-of-Us, the Mister Gerhardt, deceived us.” There was fear and worry in his voice and apprehension on his blue face. “If this be indeed the Lord of whom he told us—”
“He is not a god,” said another. “He is an Earthling, but there have been such before on Venus, many many of them who came long and long ago from the skies. Now they are all dead, killed in strife among themselves. It is well. This last one is one of them, but he is mad.”
And they talked long and the dusk grew into night while they talked of what they must do. The gleam of firelight upon their bodies, and the waiting drummer.
The problem was difficult. To harm one who was mad was tabu. If he was really a god, it would be worse. Thunder and lightning from the sky would destroy the village. Yet they dared not release him. Even if they took the evil weapon-that-whispered-its-death and buried it, he might find other ways to harm them. He might have another where he had gone for the first.
Yes, it was a difficult problem for them, but the eldest and wisest of them, one M’Ganne, gave them at last the answer.
“O Kallana,” he said, “Let us give him to the kifs. If they harm him—” and old M’Ganne grinned a toothless, mirthless grin “—it would be their doing and not ours.”
Kallana shuddered. “It is the most horrible of all deaths. And if he is a god—”
“If he is a god, they will not harm him. If he is mad and not a god, we will not have harmed him. It harms not a man to tie him to a tree.”
Kallana considered well, for the safety of his people was at stake. Considering, he remembered how Alwa and Nrana had died.
He said, “It is right.”
The waiting drummer began the rhythm of the council-end, and those of the men who were young and fleet lighted torches in the fire and went out into the forest to seek the kifs, who were still in their season of marching.
And after a while, having found what they sought, they returned.
They took the Earthling out with them, then, and tied him to a tree. They left him there, and they left the gag over his lips because they did not wish to hear his screams when the kifs came.
The cloth of the gag would be eaten, too, but by that time, there would be no flesh under it from which a scream might come.
They left him, and went back to the compound, and the drums took up the rhythm of propitiation to the gods for what they had done. For they had, they knew, cut very close to the corner of a tabu—but the provocation had been great and they hoped they would not be punished.
All night the drums would throb.
The man tied to the tree struggled with his bonds, but they were strong and his writhings made the knots but tighten.
His eyes became accustomed to the darkness.
He tried to shout, “I am Number One, Lord of—”
And then, because he could not shout and because he could not loosen himself, there came a rift in his madness. He remembered who he was, and all the old hatreds and bitterness welled up in him.
He remembered, too, what had happened in the compound, and wondered why the Venusian natives had not killed him. Why, instead, they had tied him here alone in the darkness of the jungle.
Afar, he heard the throbbing of the drums, and they were like the beating of the heart of night, and there was a louder, nearer sound that was the pulse of blood in his ears as the fear came to him.
The fear that he knew why they had tied him here. The horrible, gibbering fear that, for the last time, an army marched against him.
He had time to savor that fear to the uttermost, to have it become a creeping certainty that crawled into the black corners of his soul as would the soldiers of the coming army crawl into his ears and nostrils while others would eat away his eyelids to get at the eyes behind them.
And then, and only then, did he hear the sound that was like the rustle of dry leaves, in a dank, black jungle where there were no dry leaves to rustle nor breeze to rustle them.
Horribly, Number One, the last of the dictators, did not go mad again; not exactly, but he laughed, and laughed and laughed….
JOE PRANTERA called softly, “Al.” The pleasurable, comfortable, warm feeling began spreading over him, the way it always did.
The older man stopped and squinted, but not suspiciously, even now.
The evening was dark, it was unlikely that the other even saw the circle of steel that was the mouth of the shotgun barrel, now resting on the car’s window ledge.
“Who’s it?” he growled.
Joe Prantera said softly, “Big Louis sent me, Al.”
And he pressed the trigger.
And at that moment, the universe caved inward upon Joseph Marie Prantera.
There was nausea and nausea upon nausea.
There was a falling through all space and through all time. There was doubling and twisting and twitching of every muscle and nerve.
There was pain, horror and tumultuous fear.
And he came out of it as quickly and completely as he’d gone in.
He was in, he thought, a hospital and his first reaction was to think, This here California. Everything different. Then his second thought was Something went wrong. Big Louis, he ain’t going to like this.
He brought his thinking to the present. So far as he could remember, he hadn’t completely pulled the trigger. That at least meant that whatever the rap was it wouldn’t be too tough. With luck, the syndicate would get him off with a couple of years at Quentin.
A door slid open in the wall in a way that Joe had never seen a door operate before. This here California.
The clothes on the newcomer were wrong, too. For the first time, Joe Prantera began to sense an alienness—a something that was awfully wrong.
The other spoke precisely and slowly, the way a highly educated man speaks a language which he reads and writes fluently but has little occasion to practice vocally. “You have recovered?”
Joe Prantera looked at the other expressionlessly. Maybe the old duck was one of these foreign doctors, like.
The newcomer said, “You have undoubtedly been through a most harrowing experience. If you have any untoward symptoms, possibly I could be of assistance.”
Joe couldn’t figure out how he stood. For one thing, there should have been some kind of police guard.
The other said, “Perhaps a bit of stimulant?”
Joe said flatly, “I wanta lawyer.”
The newcomer frowned at him. “A lawyer?”
“I’m not sayin’ nothin’. Not until I get a mouthpiece.”
The newcomer started off on another tack. “My name is Lawrence Reston-Farrell. If I am not mistaken, you are Joseph Salviati-Prantera.”
Salviati happened to be Joe’s mother’s maiden name. But it was unlikely this character could have known that. Joe had been born in Naples and his mother had died in childbirth. His father hadn’t brought him to the States until the age of five and by that time he had a stepmother.
“I wanta mouthpiece,” Joe said flatly, “or let me outta here.”
Lawrence Reston-Farrell said, “You are not being constrained. There are clothes for you in the closet there.”
Joe gingerly tried swinging his feet to the floor and sitting up, while the other stood watching him, strangely. He came to his feet. With the exception of a faint nausea, which brought back memories of that extreme condition he’d suffered during … during what? He hadn’t the vaguest idea of what had happened.
He was dressed in a hospital-type nightgown. He looked down at it and snorted and made his way over to the closet. It opened on his approach, the door sliding back into the wall in much the same manner as the room’s door had opened for Reston-Farrell.
Joe Prantera scowled and said, “These ain’t my clothes.”
“No, I am afraid not.”
“You think I’d be seen dead wearing this stuff? What is this, some religious crackpot hospital?”
Reston-Farrell said, “I am afraid, Mr. Salviati-Prantera, that these are the only garments available. I suggest you look out the window there.”
Joe gave him a long, chill look and then stepped to the window. He couldn’t figure the other. Unless he was a fruitcake. Maybe he was in some kind of pressure cooker and this was one of the fruitcakes.
He looked out, however, not on the lawns and walks of a sanitarium but upon a wide boulevard of what was obviously a populous city.
And for a moment again, Joe Prantera felt the depths of nausea.
This was not his world.
He stared for a long, long moment. The cars didn’t even have wheels, he noted dully. He turned slowly and faced the older man.
Reston-Farrell said compassionately, “Try this, it’s excellent cognac.”
Joe Prantera stared at him, said finally, flatly, “What’s it all about?”
The other put down the unaccepted glass. “We were afraid first realization would be a shock to you,” he said. “My colleague is in the adjoining room. We will be glad to explain to you if you will join us there.”
“I wanta get out of here,” Joe said.
“Where would you go?”
The fear of police, of Al Rossi’s vengeance, of the measures that might be taken by Big Louis on his failure, were now far away.
Reston-Farrell had approached the door by which he had entered and it reopened for him. He went through it without looking back.
There was nothing else to do. Joe dressed, then followed him.
In the adjoining room was a circular table that would have accommodated a dozen persons. Two were seated there now, papers, books and soiled coffee cups before them. There had evidently been a long wait.
Reston-Farrell, the one Joe had already met, was tall and drawn of face and with a chainsmoker’s nervousness. The other was heavier and more at ease. They were both, Joe estimated, somewhere in their middle fifties. They both looked like docs. He wondered, all over again, if this was some kind of pressure cooker.
But that didn’t explain the view from the window.
Reston-Farrell said, “May I present my colleague, Citizen Warren Brett-James? Warren, this is our guest from … from yesteryear, Mr. Joseph Salviati-Prantera.”
Brett-James nodded to him, friendly, so far as Joe could see. He said gently, “I think it would be Mr. Joseph Prantera, wouldn’t it? The maternal linage was almost universally ignored.” His voice too gave the impression he was speaking a language not usually on his tongue.
Joe took an empty chair, hardly bothering to note its alien qualities. His body seemed to fit into the piece of furniture, as though it had been molded to his order.
Joe said, “I think maybe I’ll take that there drink, Doc.”
Reston-Farrell said, “Of course,” and then something else Joe didn’t get. Whatever the something else was, a slot opened in the middle of the table and a glass, so clear of texture as to be all but invisible, was elevated. It contained possibly three ounces of golden fluid.
Joe didn’t allow himself to think of its means of delivery. He took up the drink and bolted it. He put the glass down and said carefully, “What’s it all about, huh?”
Warren Brett-James said soothingly, “Prepare yourself for somewhat of a shock, Mr. Prantera. You are no longer in Los Angeles—”
“Ya think I’m stupid? I can see that.”
“I was about to say, Los Angeles of 1960. Mr. Prantera, we welcome you to Nuevo Los Angeles.”
“To Nuevo Los Angeles and to the year—” Brett-James looked at his companion. “What is the date, Old Calendar?”
“2133,” Reston-Farrell said. “2133 A.D. they would say.”
Joe Prantera looked from one of them to the other, scowling. “What are you guys talking about?”
Warren Brett-James said softly, “Mr. Prantera, you are no longer in the year 1960, you are now in the year 2133.”
He said, uncomprehendingly, “You mean I been, like, unconscious for—” He let the sentence fall away as he realized the impossibility.
Brett-James said gently, “Hardly for one hundred and seventy years, Mr. Prantera.”
Reston-Farrell said, “I am afraid we are confusing you. Briefly, we have transported you, I suppose one might say, from your own era to ours.”
Joe Prantera had never been exposed to the concept of time travel. He had simply never associated with anyone who had ever even remotely considered such an idea. Now he said, “You mean, like, I been asleep all that time?”
“Not exactly,” Brett-James said, frowning.
Reston-Farrell said, “Suffice to say, you are now one hundred and seventy-three years after the last memory you have.”
Joe Prantera’s mind suddenly reverted to those last memories and his eyes narrowed dangerously. He felt suddenly at bay. He said, “Maybe you guys better let me in on what’s this all about.”
Reston-Farrell said, “Mr. Prantera, we have brought you from your era to perform a task for us.”
Joe stared at him, and then at the other. He couldn’t believe he was getting through to them. Or, at least, that they were to him.
Finally he said, “If I get this, you want me to do a job for you.”
“That is correct.”
Joe said, “You guys know the kind of jobs I do?”
“That is correct.”
“Like hell you do. You think I’m stupid? I never even seen you before.” Joe Prantera came abruptly to his feet. “I’m gettin’ outta here.”
For the second time, Reston-Farrell said, “Where would you go, Mr. Prantera?”
Joe glared at him. Then sat down again, as abruptly as he’d arisen.
“Let’s start all over again. I got this straight, you brought me, some screwy way, all the way … here. O.K., I’ll buy that. I seen what it looks like out that window—” The real comprehension was seeping through to him even as he talked. “Everybody I know, Jessie, Tony, the Kid, Big Louis, everybody, they’re dead. Even Big Louis.”
“Yes,” Brett-James said, his voice soft. “They are all dead, Mr. Prantera. Their children are all dead, and their grandchildren.”
The two men of the future said nothing more for long minutes while Joe Prantera’s mind whirled its confusion.
Finally he said, “What’s this bit about you wanting me to give it to some guy.”
“That is why we brought you here, Mr. Prantera. You were … you are, a professional assassin.”
“Hey, wait a minute, now.”
Reston-Farrell went on, ignoring the interruption. “There is small point in denying your calling. Pray remember that at the point when we … transported you, you were about to dispose of a contemporary named Alphonso Annunziata-Rossi. A citizen, I might say, whose demise would probably have caused small dismay to society.”
They had him pegged all right. Joe said, “But why me? Why don’t you get some heavy from now? Somebody knows the ropes these days.”
Brett-James said, “Mr. Prantera, there are no professional assassins in this age, nor have there been for over a century and a half.”
“Well, then do it yourself.” Joe Prantera’s irritation over this whole complicated mess was growing. And already he was beginning to long for the things he knew—for Jessie and Tony and the others, for his favorite bar, for the lasagne down at Papa Giovanni’s. Right now he could have welcomed a calling down at the hands of Big Louis.
Reston-Farrell had come to his feet and walked to one of the large room’s windows. He looked out, as though unseeing. Then, his back turned, he said, “We have tried, but it is simply not in us, Mr. Prantera.”
“You mean you’re yella?”
“No, if by that you mean afraid. It is simply not within us to take the life of a fellow creature—not to speak of a fellow man.”
Joe snapped: “Everything you guys say sounds crazy. Let’s start all over again.”
Brett-James said, “Let me do it, Lawrence.” He turned his eyes to Joe. “Mr. Prantera, in your own era, did you ever consider the future?”
Joe looked at him blankly.
“In your day you were confronted with national and international, problems. Just as we are today and just as nations were a century or a millennium ago.”
“Sure, O.K., so we had problems. I know whatcha mean—like wars, and depressions and dictators and like that.”
“Yes, like that,” Brett-James nodded.
The heavy-set man paused a moment. “Yes, like that,” he repeated. “That we confront you now indicates that the problems of your day were solved. Hadn’t they been, the world most surely would have destroyed itself. Wars? Our pedagogues are hard put to convince their students that such ever existed. More than a century and a half ago our society eliminated the reasons for international conflict. For that matter,” he added musingly, “we eliminated most international boundaries. Depressions? Shortly after your own period, man awoke to the fact that he had achieved to the point where it was possible to produce an abundance for all with a minimum of toil. Overnight, for all practical purposes, the whole world was industrialized, automated. The second industrial revolution was accompanied by revolutionary changes in almost every field, certainly in every science. Dictators? Your ancestors found, Mr. Prantera, that it is difficult for a man to be free so long as others are still enslaved. Today the democratic ethic has reached a pinnacle never dreamed of in your own era.”
“O.K., O.K.,” Joe Prantera growled. “So everybody’s got it made. What I wanta know is what’s all this about me giving it ta somebody? If everything’s so great, how come you want me to knock this guy off?”
Reston-Farrell bent forward and thumped his right index finger twice on the table. “The bacterium of hate—a new strain—has found the human race unprotected from its disease. We had thought our vaccines immunized us.”
“What’s that suppose to mean?”
Brett-James took up the ball again. “Mr. Prantera, have you ever heard of Ghengis Khan, of Tamerlane, Alexander, Caesar?”
Joe Prantera scowled at him emptily.
“Or, more likely, of Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin?”
“Sure I heard of Hitler and Stalin,” Joe growled. “I ain’t stupid.”
The other nodded. “Such men are unique. They have a drive … a drive to power which exceeds by far the ambitions of the average man. They are genii in their way, Mr. Prantera, genii of evil. Such a genius of evil has appeared on the current scene.”
“Now we’re getting somewheres,” Joe snorted. “So you got a guy what’s a little ambitious, like, eh? And you guys ain’t got the guts to give it to him. O.K. What’s in it for me?”
The two of them frowned, exchanged glances. Reston-Farrell said, “You know, that is one aspect we had not considered.”
Brett-James said to Joe Prantera, “Had we not, ah, taken you at the time we did, do you realize what would have happened?”
“Sure,” Joe grunted. “I woulda let old Al Rossi have it right in the guts, five times. Then I woulda took the plane back to Chi.”
Brett-James was shaking his head. “No. You see, by coincidence, a police squad car was coming down the street just at that moment to arrest Mr. Rossi. You would have been apprehended. As I understand Californian law of the period, your life would have been forfeit, Mr. Prantera.”
Joe winced. It didn’t occur to him to doubt their word.
Reston-Farrell said, “As to reward, Mr. Prantera, we have already told you there is ultra-abundance in this age. Once this task has been performed, we will sponsor your entry into present day society. Competent psychiatric therapy will soon remove your present—”
“Waita minute, now. You figure on gettin’ me candled by some head shrinker, eh? No thanks, Buster. I’m going back to my own—”
Brett-James was shaking his head again. “I am afraid there is no return, Mr. Prantera. Time travel works but in one direction, with the flow of the time stream. There can be no return to your own era.”
Joe Prantera had been rocking with the mental blows he had been assimilating, but this was the final haymaker. He was stuck in this squaresville of a world.
Joe Prantera on a job was thorough.
Careful, painstaking, competent.
He spent the first three days of his life in the year 2133 getting the feel of things. Brett-James and Reston-Farrell had been appointed to work with him. Joe didn’t meet any of the others who belonged to the group which had taken the measures to bring him from the past. He didn’t want to meet them. The fewer persons involved, the better.
He stayed in the apartment of Reston-Farrell. Joe had been right, Reston-Farrell was a medical doctor. Brett-James evidently had something to do with the process that had enabled them to bring Joe from the past. Joe didn’t know how they’d done it, and he didn’t care. Joe was a realist. He was here. The thing was to adapt.
There didn’t seem to be any hurry. Once the deal was made, they left it up to him to make the decisions.
They drove him around the town, when he wished to check the traffic arteries. They flew him about the whole vicinity. From the air, Southern California looked much the same as it had in his own time. Oceans, mountains, and to a lesser extent, deserts, are fairly permanent even against man’s corroding efforts.
It was while he was flying with Brett-James on the second day that Joe said, “How about Mexico? Could I make the get to Mexico?”
The physicist looked at him questioningly. “Get?” he said.
Joe Prantera said impatiently, “The getaway. After I give it to this Howard Temple-Tracy guy, I gotta go on the run, don’t I?”
“I see.” Brett-James cleared his throat. “Mexico is no longer a separate nation, Mr. Prantera. All North America has been united into one unit. Today, there are only eight nations in the world.”
“Where’s the nearest?”
“That’s a helluva long way to go on a get.”
“We hadn’t thought of the matter being handled in that manner.”
Joe eyed him in scorn. “Oh, you didn’t, huh? What happens after I give it to this guy? I just sit around and wait for the cops to put the arm on me?”
Brett-James grimaced in amusement. “Mr. Prantera, this will probably be difficult for you to comprehend, but there are no police in this era.”
Joe gaped at him. “No police! What happens if you gotta throw some guy in stir?”
“If I understand your idiom correctly, you mean prison. There are no prisons in this era, Mr. Prantera.”
Joe stared. “No cops, no jails. What stops anybody? What stops anybody from just going into some bank, like, and collecting up all the bread?”
Brett-James cleared his throat. “Mr. Prantera, there are no banks.”
“No banks! You gotta have banks!”
“And no money to put in them. We found it a rather antiquated method of distribution well over a century ago.”
Joe had given up. Now he merely stared.
Brett-James said reasonably, “We found we were devoting as much time to financial matters in all their endless ramifications—including bank robberies—as we were to productive efforts. So we turned to more efficient methods of distribution.”
On the fourth day, Joe said, “O.K., let’s get down to facts. Summa the things you guys say don’t stick together so good. Now, first place, where’s this guy Temple-Tracy you want knocked off?”
Reston-Farrell and Brett-James were both present. The three of them sat in the living room of the latter’s apartment, sipping a sparkling wine which seemed to be the prevailing beverage of the day. For Joe’s taste it was insipid stuff. Happily, rye was available to those who wanted it.
Reston-Farrell said, “You mean, where does he reside? Why, here in this city.”
“Well, that’s handy, eh?” Joe scratched himself thoughtfully. “You got somebody can finger him for me?”
“Look, before I can give it to this guy I gotta know some place where he’ll be at some time. Get it? Like Al Rossi. My finger, he works in Rossi’s house, see? He lets me know every Wednesday night, eight o’clock, Al leaves the house all by hisself. O.K., so I can make plans, like, to give it to him.” Joe Prantera wound it up reasonably. “You gotta have a finger.”
Brett-James said, “Why not just go to Temple-Tracy’s apartment and, ah, dispose of him?”
“Jest walk in, eh? You think I’m stupid? How do I know how many witnesses hangin’ around? How do I know if the guy’s carryin’ heat?”
“A gun, a gun. Ya think I’m stupid? I come to give it to him and he gives it to me instead.”
Dr. Reston-Farrell said, “Howard Temple-Tracy lives alone. He customarily receives visitors every afternoon, largely potential followers. He is attempting to recruit members to an organization he is forming. It would be quite simple for you to enter his establishment and dispose of him. I assure you, he does not possess weapons.”
Joe was indignant. “Just like that, eh?” he said sarcastically. “Then what happens? How do I get out of the building? Where’s my get car parked? Where do I hide out? Where do I dump the heat?”
“Dump the heat?”
“Get rid of the gun. You want I should get caught with the gun on me? I’d wind up in the gas chamber so quick—”
“See here, Mr. Prantera,” Brett-James said softly. “We no longer have capital punishment, you must realize.”
“O.K. I still don’t wanta get caught. What is the rap these days, huh?” Joe scowled. “You said they didn’t have no jails any more.”
“This is difficult for you to understand, I imagine,” Reston-Farrell told him, “but, you see, we no longer punish people in this era.”
That took a long, unbelieving moment to sink in. “You mean, like, no matter what they do? That’s crazy. Everybody’d be running around giving it to everybody else.”
“The motivation for crime has been removed, Mr. Prantera,” Reston-Farrell attempted to explain. “A person who commits a violence against another is obviously in need of medical care. And, consequently, receives it.”
“You mean, like, if I steal a car or something, they just take me to a doctor?” Joe Prantera was unbelieving.
“Why would anybody wish to steal a car?” Reston-Farrell said easily.
“But if I give it to somebody?”
“You will be turned over to a medical institution. Citizen Howard Temple-Tracy is the last man you will ever kill, Mr. Prantera.”
A chillness was in the belly of Joe Prantera. He said very slowly, very dangerously, “You guys figure on me getting caught, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Brett-James said evenly.
“Well then, figure something else. You think I’m stupid?”
“Mr. Prantera,” Dr. Reston-Farrell said, “there has been as much progress in the field of psychiatry in the past two centuries as there has in any other. Your treatment would be brief and painless, believe me.”
Joe said coldly, “And what happens to you guys? How do you know I won’t rat on you?”
Brett-James said gently, “The moment after you have accomplished your mission, we plan to turn ourselves over to the nearest institution to have determined whether or not we also need therapy.”
“Now I’m beginning to wonder about you guys,” Joe said. “Look, all over again, what’d’ya wanta give it to this guy for?”
The doctor said, “We explained the other day, Mr. Prantera. Citizen Howard Temple-Tracy is a dangerous, atavistic, evil genius. We are afraid for our institutions if his plans are allowed to mature.”
“Well if you got things so good, everybody’s got it made, like, who’d listen to him?”
The doctor nodded at the validity of the question. “Mr. Prantera, Homo sapiens is a unique animal. Physically he matures at approximately the age of thirteen. However, mental maturity and adjustment is often not fully realized until thirty or even more. Indeed, it is sometimes never achieved. Before such maturity is reached, our youth are susceptible to romantic appeal. Nationalism, chauvinism, racism, the supposed glory of the military, all seem romantic to the immature. They rebel at the orderliness of present society. They seek entertainment in excitement. Citizen Temple-Tracy is aware of this and finds his recruits among the young.”
“O.K., so this guy is dangerous. You want him knocked off before he screws everything up. But the way things are, there’s no way of making a get. So you’ll have to get some other patsy. Not me.”
“I am afraid you have no alternative,” Brett-James said gently. “Without us, what will you do? Mr. Prantera, you do not even speak the language.”
“What’d’ya mean? I don’t understand summa the big words you eggheads use, but I get by O.K.”
Brett-James said, “Amer-English is no longer the language spoken by the man in the street, Mr. Prantera. Only students of such subjects any longer speak such tongues as Amer-English, French, Russian or the many others that once confused the race with their limitations as a means of communication.”
“You mean there’s no place in the whole world where they talk American?” Joe demanded, aghast.
Dr. Reston-Farrell controlled the car. Joe Prantera sat in the seat next to him and Warren Brett-James sat in the back. Joe had, tucked in his belt, a .45 caliber automatic, once displayed in a museum. It had been more easily procured than the ammunition to fit it, but that problem too had been solved.
The others were nervous, obviously repelled by the very conception of what they had planned.
Inwardly, Joe was amused. Now that they had got in the clutch, the others were on the verge of chickening out. He knew it wouldn’t have taken much for them to cancel the project. It wasn’t any answer though. If they allowed him to call it off today, they’d talk themselves into it again before the week was through.
Besides, already Joe was beginning to feel the comfortable, pleasurable, warm feeling that came to him on occasions like this.
He said, “You’re sure this guy talks American, eh?”
Warren Brett-James said, “Quite sure. He is a student of history.”
“And he won’t think it’s funny I talk American to him, eh?”
“He’ll undoubtedly be intrigued.”
They pulled up before a large apartment building that overlooked the area once known as Wilmington.
Joe was coolly efficient now. He pulled out the automatic, held it down below his knees and threw a shell into the barrel. He eased the hammer down, thumbed on the safety, stuck the weapon back in his belt and beneath the jacketlike garment he wore.
He said, “O.K. See you guys later.” He left them and entered the building.
An elevator—he still wasn’t used to their speed in this era—whooshed him to the penthouse duplex occupied by Citizen Howard Temple-Tracy.
There were two persons in the reception room but they left on Joe’s arrival, without bothering to look at him more than glancingly.
He spotted the screen immediately and went over and stood before it.
The screen lit and revealed a heavy-set, dour of countenance man seated at a desk. He looked into Joe Prantera’s face, scowled and said something.
Joe said, “Joseph Salviati-Prantera to interview Citizen Howard Temple-Tracy.”
The other’s shaggy eyebrows rose. “Indeed,” he said. “In Amer-English?”
“Enter,” the other said.
A door had slid open on the other side of the room. Joe walked through it and into what was obviously an office. Citizen Temple-Tracy sat at a desk. There was only one other chair in the room. Joe Prantera ignored it and remained standing.
Citizen Temple-Tracy said, “What can I do for you?”
Joe looked at him for a long, long moment. Then he reached down to his belt and brought forth the .45 automatic. He moistened his lips.
Joe said softly, “You know what this here is?”
Temple-Tracy stared at the weapon. “It’s a handgun, circa, I would say, about 1925 Old Calendar. What in the world are you doing with it?”
Joe said, very slowly, “Chief, in the line you’re in these days you needa heavy around with wunna these. Otherwise, Chief, you’re gunna wind up in some gutter with a lotta holes in you. What I’m doin’, I’m askin’ for a job. You need a good man knows how to handle wunna these, Chief.”
Citizen Howard Temple-Tracy eyed him appraisingly. “Perhaps,” he said, “you are right at that. In the near future, I may well need an assistant knowledgeable in the field of violence. Tell me more about yourself. You surprise me considerably.”
“Sure, Chief. It’s kinda a long story, though. First off, I better tell you you got some bad enemies, Chief. Two guys special, named Brett-James and Doc Reston-Farrell. I think one of the first jobs I’m gunna hafta do for you, Chief, is to give it to those two.”
THE Place de France is the town’s hub. It marks the end of Boulevard Pasteur, the main drag of the westernized part of the city, and the beginning of Rue de la Liberté, which leads down to the Grand Socco and the medina. In a three-minute walk from the Place de France you can go from an ultra-modern, California-like resort to the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid.
It’s quite a town, Tangier.
King-size sidewalk cafes occupy three of the strategic corners on the Place de France. The Cafe de Paris serves the best draft beer in town, gets all the better custom, and has three shoeshine boys attached to the establishment. You can sit of a sunny morning and read the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune while getting your shoes done up like mirrors for thirty Moroccan francs which comes to about five cents at current exchange.
You can sit there, after the paper’s read, sip your expresso and watch the people go by.
Tangier is possibly the most cosmopolitan city in the world. In native costume you’ll see Berber and Rif, Arab and Blue Man, and occasionally a Senegalese from further south. In European dress you’ll see Japs and Chinese, Hindus and Turks, Levantines and Filipinos, North Americans and South Americans, and, of course, even Europeans—from both sides of the Curtain.
In Tangier you’ll find some of the world’s poorest and some of the richest. The poorest will try to sell you anything from a shoeshine to their not very lily-white bodies, and the richest will avoid your eyes, afraid you might try to sell them something.
In spite of recent changes, the town still has its unique qualities. As a result of them the permanent population includes smugglers and black-marketeers, fugitives from justice and international con men, espionage and counter-espionage agents, homosexuals, nymphomaniacs, alcoholics, drug addicts, displaced persons, ex-royalty, and subversives of every flavor. Local law limits the activities of few of these.
Like I said, it’s quite a town.
I looked up from my Herald Tribune and said, “Hello, Paul. Anything new cooking?”
He sank into the chair opposite me and looked around for the waiter. The tables were all crowded and since mine was a face he recognized, he assumed he was welcome to intrude. It was more or less standard procedure at the Cafe de Paris. It wasn’t a place to go if you wanted to be alone.
Paul said, “How are you, Rupert? Haven’t seen you for donkey’s years.”
The waiter came along and Paul ordered a glass of beer. Paul was an easy-going, sallow-faced little man. I vaguely remembered somebody saying he was from Liverpool and in exports.
“What’s in the newspaper?” he said, disinterestedly.
“Pogo and Albert are going to fight a duel,” I told him, “and Lil Abner is becoming a rock’n’roll singer.”
“Oh,” I said, “the intellectual type.” I scanned the front page. “The Russkies have put up another manned satellite.”
“They have, eh? How big?”
“Several times bigger than anything we Americans have.”
The beer came and looked good, so I ordered a glass too.
Paul said, “What ever happened to those poxy flying saucers?”
“What flying saucers?”
A French girl went by with a poodle so finely clipped as to look as though it’d been shaven. The girl was in the latest from Paris. Every pore in place. We both looked after her.
“You know, what everybody was seeing a few years ago. It’s too bad one of these bloody manned satellites wasn’t up then. Maybe they would’ve seen one.”
“That’s an idea,” I said.
We didn’t say anything else for a while and I began to wonder if I could go back to my paper without rubbing him the wrong way. I didn’t know Paul very well, but, for that matter, it’s comparatively seldom you ever get to know anybody very well in Tangier. Largely, cards are played close to the chest.
My beer came and a plate of tapas for us both. Tapas at the Cafe de Paris are apt to be potato salad, a few anchovies, olives, and possibly some cheese. Free lunch, they used to call it in the States.
Just to say something, I said, “Where do you think they came from?” And when he looked blank, I added, “The Flying Saucers.”
He grinned. “From Mars or Venus, or someplace.”
“Ummmm,” I said. “Too bad none of them ever crashed, or landed on the Yale football field and said Take me to your cheerleader, or something.”
Paul yawned and said, “That was always the trouble with those crackpot blokes’ explanations of them. If they were aliens from space, then why not show themselves?”
I ate one of the potato chips. It’d been cooked in rancid olive oil.
I said, “Oh, there are various answers to that one. We could probably sit around here and think of two or three that made sense.”
Paul was mildly interested. “Like what?”
“Well, hell, suppose for instance there’s this big Galactic League of civilized planets. But it’s restricted, see. You’re not eligible for membership until you, well, say until you’ve developed space flight. Then you’re invited into the club. Meanwhile, they send secret missions down from time to time to keep an eye on your progress.”
Paul grinned at me. “I see you read the same poxy stuff I do.”
A Moorish girl went by dressed in a neatly tailored gray jellaba, European style high-heeled shoes, and a pinkish silk veil so transparent that you could see she wore lipstick. Very provocative, dark eyes can be over a veil. We both looked after her.
I said, “Or, here’s another one. Suppose you have a very advanced civilization on, say, Mars.”
“Not Mars. No air, and too bloody dry to support life.”
“Don’t interrupt, please,” I said with mock severity. “This is a very old civilization and as the planet began to lose its water and air, it withdrew underground. Uses hydroponics and so forth, husbands its water and air. Isn’t that what we’d do, in a few million years, if Earth lost its water and air?”
“I suppose so,” he said. “Anyway, what about them?”
“Well, they observe how man is going through a scientific boom, an industrial boom, a population boom. A boom, period. Any day now he’s going to have practical space ships. Meanwhile, he’s also got the H-Bomb and the way he beats the drums on both sides of the Curtain, he’s not against using it, if he could get away with it.”
Paul said, “I got it. So they’re scared and are keeping an eye on us. That’s an old one. I’ve read that a dozen times, dished up different.”
I shifted my shoulders. “Well, it’s one possibility.”
“I got a better one. How’s this. There’s this alien life form that’s way ahead of us. Their civilization is so old that they don’t have any records of when it began and how it was in the early days. They’ve gone beyond things like wars and depressions and revolutions, and greed for power or any of these things giving us a bad time here on Earth. They’re all like scholars, get it? And some of them are pretty jolly well taken by Earth, especially the way we are right now, with all the problems, get it? Things developing so fast we don’t know where we’re going or how we’re going to get there.”
I finished my beer and clapped my hands for Mouley. “How do you mean, where we’re going?”
“Well, take half the countries in the world today. They’re trying to industrialize, modernize, catch up with the advanced countries. Look at Egypt, and Israel, and India and China, and Yugoslavia and Brazil, and all the rest. Trying to drag themselves up to the level of the advanced countries, and all using different methods of doing it. But look at the so-called advanced countries. Up to their bottoms in problems. Juvenile delinquents, climbing crime and suicide rates, the loony-bins full of the balmy, unemployed, threat of war, spending all their money on armaments instead of things like schools. All the bloody mess of it. Why, a man from Mars would be fascinated, like.”
Mouley came shuffling up in his babouche slippers and we both ordered another schooner of beer.
Paul said seriously, “You know, there’s only one big snag in this sort of talk. I’ve sorted the whole thing out before, and you always come up against this brick wall. Where are they, these observers, or scholars, or spies or whatever they are? Sooner or later we’d nab one of them. You know, Scotland Yard, or the F.B.I., or Russia’s secret police, or the French Sûreté, or Interpol. This world is so deep in police, counter-espionage outfits and security agents that an alien would slip up in time, no matter how much he’d been trained. Sooner or later, he’d slip up, and they’d nab him.”
I shook my head. “Not necessarily. The first time I ever considered this possibility, it seemed to me that such an alien would base himself in London or New York. Somewhere where he could use the libraries for research, get the daily newspapers and the magazines. Be right in the center of things. But now I don’t think so. I think he’d be right here in Tangier.”
“It’s the one town in the world where anything goes. Nobody gives a damn about you or your affairs. For instance, I’ve known you a year or more now, and I haven’t the slightest idea of how you make your living.”
“That’s right,” Paul admitted. “In this town you seldom even ask a man where’s he’s from. He can be British, a White Russian, a Basque or a Sikh and nobody could care less. Where are you from, Rupert?”
“California,” I told him.
“No, you’re not,” he grinned.
I was taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“I felt your mind probe back a few minutes ago when I was talking about Scotland Yard or the F.B.I. possibly flushing an alien. Telepathy is a sense not trained by the humanoids. If they had it, your job—and mine—would be considerably more difficult. Let’s face it, in spite of these human bodies we’re disguised in, neither of us is humanoid. Where are you really from, Rupert?”
“Aldebaran,” I said. “How about you?”
“Deneb,” he told me, shaking.
We had a laugh and ordered another beer.
“What’re you doing here on Earth?” I asked him.
“Researching for one of our meat trusts. We’re protein eaters. Humanoid flesh is considered quite a delicacy. How about you?”
“Scouting the place for thrill tourists. My job is to go around to these backward cultures and help stir up inter-tribal, or international, conflicts—all according to how advanced they are. Then our tourists come in—well shielded, of course—and get their kicks watching it.”
Paul frowned. “That sort of practice could spoil an awful lot of good meat.”