. . . And Then There Were None
By Eric Frank Russell.
Published June 1951 in Astounding Science Fiction magazine (Vol. XLVII, No. 4).
PDF (2.7 MB)
Illustrated by Rogers
It was a very difficult world to get along on. Not that the people were exactly unfriendly; it wasn’t even that they were willful—they were, if anything, won’tfull!
The battleship was eight hundred feet in diameter and slightly more than one mile long. Mass like that takes up room and makes a dent. This one sprawled right across one field and halfway through the next. Its weight made a rut twenty feet deep which would be there for keeps.
On board were two thousand people divisible into three distinct types. The tall, lean, crinkly-eyed ones were the crew. The crop-haired, heavy-jowled ones were the troops. Finally, the expressionless, balding and myopic ones were the cargo of bureaucrats.
The first of these types viewed this world with the professional but aloof interest of people everlastingly giving a planet the swift once-over before chasing along to the next. The troops regarded it with a mixture of tough contempt and boredom. The bureaucrats peered at it with cold authority. Each according to his lights.
This lot were accustomed to new worlds, had dealt with them by the dozens and reduced the process to mere routine. The task before them would have been nothing more than repetition of well-used, smoothly operating technique but for one thing: the entire bunch were in a jam and did not know it.
Emergence from the ship was in strict order of precedence. First, the Imperial Ambassador. Second, the battleship’s captain. Third, the officer commanding the ground forces. Fourth, the senior civil servant.
Then, of course, the next grade lower, in the same order: His Excellency’s private secretary, the ship’s second officer, the deputy commander of troops, the penultimate pen pusher.
Down another grade, then another, until there was left only His Excellency’s barber, boot wiper and valet, crew members with the lowly status of O.S.—Ordinary Spaceman—the military nonentities in the ranks, and a few temporary ink-pot fillers dreaming of the day when they would be made permanent and given a desk of their own. This last collection of unfortunates remained aboard to clean ship and refrain from smoking, by command.
Had this world been alien, hostile and well-armed, the order of exit would have been reversed, exemplifying the Biblical promise that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. But this planet, although officially new, unofficially was not new and certainly was not alien. In ledgers and dusty files some two hundred light-years away it was recorded as a cryptic number and classified as a ripe plum long overdue for picking. There had been considerable delay in the harvesting due to a superabundance of other still riper plums elsewhere.
According to the records, this planet was on the outermost fringe of a huge assortment of worlds which had been settled immediately following the Great Explosion. Every school child knew all about the Great Explosion, which was no more than the spectacular name given to the bursting outward of masses of humanity when the Blieder drive superseded atomic-powered rockets and practically handed them the cosmos on a platter.
At that time, between three and five hundred years ago, every family, group, cult or clique that imagined it could do better some place else had taken to the star trails. The restless, the ambitious, the malcontents, the eccentrics, the antisocial, the fidgety and the just plain curious, away they had roared by the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands.
Some two hundred thousand had come to this particular world, the last of them arriving three centuries back. As usual, ninety per cent of the mainstream had consisted of friends, relatives or acquaintances of the first-comers, people persuaded to follow the bold example of Uncle Eddie or Good Old Joe.
If they had since doubled themselves six or seven times over, there now ought to be several millions of them. That they had increased far beyond their original strength had been evident during the approach, for while no great cities were visible there were many medium to smallish towns and a large number of villages.
His Excellency looked with approval at the turf under his feet, plucked a blade of it, grunting as he stooped. He was so constructed that this effort approximated to an athletic feat and gave him a crick in the belly.
“Earth-type grass. Notice that, captain? Is it just a coincidence, or did they bring seed with them?”
“Coincidence, probably,” said Captain Grayder. “I’ve come across four grassy worlds so far. No reason why there shouldn’t be others.”
“No, I suppose not.” His Excellency gazed into the distance, doing it with pride of ownership. “Looks like there’s someone plowing over there. He’s using a little engine between a pair of fat wheels. They can’t be so backward. Hm-m-m!” He rubbed a couple of chins. “Bring him here. We’ll have a talk, find out where it’s best to get started.”
“Very well.” Captain Grayder turned to Colonel Shelton, boss of the troops. “His Excellency wishes to speak to that farmer.” He pointed to the faraway figure.
“The farmer,” said Shelton to Major Hame. “His Excellency wants him at once.”
“Bring that farmer here,” Hame ordered Lieutenant Deacon. “Quickly!”
“Go get that farmer,” Deacon told Sergeant major Bidworthy. “And hurry—His Excellency is waiting!”
The sergeant major, a big, purple-faced man, sought around for a lesser rank, remembered that they were all cleaning ship and not smoking. He, it seemed, was elected.
Tramping across four fields and coming within hailing distance of his objective, he performed a precise military halt and released a barracks-square bellow of, “Hi, you!” He waved urgently.
The farmer stopped, wiped his forehead, looked around. His manner suggested that the mountainous bulk of the battleship was a mirage such as are five a penny around these parts. Bidworthy waved again, making it an authoritative summons. The farmer calmly waved back, got on with his plowing.
Sergeant major Bidworthy employed an expletive which—when its flames had died out—meant, “Dear me!” and marched fifty paces nearer. He could now see that the other was bushy-browed and leather-faced.
Stopping the plow again, the farmer leaned on a shaft, picked his teeth.
Struck by the notion that perhaps during the last three centuries the old Earth-language had been dropped in favor of some other lingo, Bidworthy asked, “Can you understand me?”
“Can any person understand another?” inquired the farmer, with clear diction. He turned to resume his task.
Bidworthy was afflicted with a moment of confusion. Recovering, he informed hurriedly, “His Excellency, the Earth Ambassador, wishes to speak with you at once.”
“So?” The other eyed him speculatively. “How come that he is excellent?”
“He is a person of considerable importance,” said Bidworthy, unable to decide whether the other was being funny at his expense or alternatively was what is known as a character. A good many of these isolated planet-scratchers liked to think of themselves as characters.
“Of considerable importance,” echoed the farmer, narrowing his eyes at the horizon. He appeared to be trying to grasp an alien concept. After a while, he inquired, “What will happen to your home world when this person dies?”
“Nothing,” Bidworthy admitted.
“It will roll on as usual?”
“Then,” declared the farmer, flatly, “he cannot be important.” With that, his little engine went chuff-chuff and the wheels rolled forward and the plow plowed.
Digging his nails into the palms of his hands, Bidworthy spent half a minute gathering oxygen before he said, in hoarse tones, “I cannot return without at least a message for His Excellency.”
“Indeed?” The other was incredulous. “What is to stop you?” Then, noting the alarming increase in Bidworthy’s color, he added with compassion, “Oh, well, you may tell him that I said”—he paused while he thought it over—”God bless you and good-by!”
Sergeant major Bidworthy was a powerful man who weighed two-twenty pounds, had hopped around the cosmos for twenty years, and feared nothing. He had never been known to permit the shiver of one hair—but he was trembling all over by the time he got back to the ship.
His Excellency fastened a cold eye upon him and demanded, “Well?”
“He won’t come.” Bidworthy’s veins stood out on his forehead. “And, sir, if only I could have him in my field company for a few months I’d straighten him up and teach him to move at the double.”
“I don’t doubt that, sergeant major,” soothed His Excellency. He continued in a whispered aside to Colonel Shelton. “He’s a good fellow but no diplomat. Too abrupt and harsh voiced. Better go yourself and fetch that farmer. We can’t sit here forever waiting to find out where to begin.”
“Very well, your excellency.” Colonel Shelton trudged across the fields, caught up with the plow. Smiling pleasantly, he said, “Good morning, my man!”
Stopping his plow, the farmer sighed as if it were another of those days one has sometimes. His eyes were dark-brown, almost black, as they looked at the other.
“What makes you think I’m your man?” he inquired.
“It is a figure of speech,” explained Shelton. He could see what was wrong now. Bidworthy had fallen foul of an irascible type. Two dogs snarling at one another, Shelton went on, “I was only trying to be courteous.”
“Well,” meditated the farmer, “I reckon that’s something worth trying for.”
Pinking a little, Shelton continued with determination. “I am commanded to request the pleasure of your company at the ship.”
“Think they’ll get any pleasure out of my company?” asked the other, disconcertingly bland.
“I’m sure of it,” said Shelton.
“You’re a liar,” said the farmer.
His color deepening, Colonel Shelton snapped, “I do not permit people to call me a liar.”
“You’ve just permitted it,” the other pointed out.
Letting it pass, Shelton insisted, “Are you coming to the ship or are you not?”
“I am not.”
“Myob!” said the farmer.
“What was that?”
“Myob!” he repeated. It smacked of a mild insult.
Colonel Shelton went back.
He told the ambassador, “That fellow is one of these too-clever types. All I could get out of him at the finish was ‘myob,’ whatever that means.”
“Local slang,” chipped in Captain Grayder. “An awful lot of it develops over three or four centuries. I’ve come across one or two worlds where there’s been so much of it that one almost had to learn a new language.”
“He understood your speech?” asked the ambassador, looking at Shelton.
“Yes, your excellency. And his own is quite good. But he won’t come away from his plowing.” He reflected briefly, then suggested, “If it were left to me, I’d bring him in by force, under an armed escort.”
“That would encourage him to give essential information,” commented the ambassador, with open sarcasm. He patted his stomach, smoothed his jacket, glanced down at his glossy shoes. “Nothing for it but to go speak to him myself.”
Colonel Shelton was shocked. “Your excellency, you can’t do that!”
“Why can’t I?”
“It would be undignified.”
“I am aware of it,” said the ambassador, dryly. “Can you suggest an alternative?”
“We can send out a patrol to find someone more co-operative.”
“Someone better informed, too,” Captain Grayder offered. “At best we wouldn’t get much out of one surly hayseed. I doubt whether he knows a quarter of what we require to learn.”
“All right.” His Excellency abandoned the notion of doing his own chores. “Organize a patrol and let’s have some results.”
“A patrol,” said Colonel Shelton to Major Hame. “Nominate one immediately.”
“Call out a patrol,” Hame ordered Lieutenant Deacon. “At once.”
“Parade a patrol forthwith, sergeant major,” said Deacon.
Bidworthy went to the ship, climbed a ladder, stuck his head in the lock and bawled, “Sergeant Gleed, out with your squad, and make it snappy!” He gave a suspicious sniff and went farther into the lock. His voice gained several more decibels. “Who’s been smoking? By the Black Sack, if I catch—”
Across the fields something quietly went chuff-chuff while balloon tires crawled along.
The patrol formed by the right in two ranks of eight men each, turned at a barked command, marched off noseward. Their boots thumped in unison, their accoutrements clattered and the orange-colored sun made sparkles on their metal.
Sergeant Gleed did not have to take his men far. They had got one hundred yards beyond the battleship’s nose when he noticed a man ambling across the field to his right. Treating the ship with utter indifference, the newcomer was making toward the farmer still plowing far over to the left.
“Patrol, right wheel!” yelled Gleed. Marching them straight past the wayfarer, he gave them a loud about-turn and followed it with the high-sign.
Speeding up its pace, the patrol opened its ranks, became a double file of men tramping at either side of the lone pedestrian. Ignoring his suddenly acquired escort, the latter continued to plod straight ahead like one long convinced that all is illusion.
“Left wheel!” Gleed roared, trying to bend the whole caboodle toward the waiting ambassador.
Swiftly obedient, the double file headed leftward, one, two, three, hup! It was neat, precise execution, beautiful to watch. Only one thing spoiled it: the man in the middle maintained his self-chosen orbit and ambled casually between numbers four and five of the right-hand file.
That upset Gleed, especially since the patrol continued to thump ambassadorwards for lack of a further order. His Excellency was being treated to the unmilitary spectacle of an escort dumbly boot-beating one way while its prisoner airily mooched another. Colonel Shelton would have plenty to say about it in due course, and anything he forgot Bidworthy would remember.
“Patrol!” hoarsed Gleed, pointing an outraged finger at the escapee, and momentarily dismissing all regulation commands from his mind. “Get that yimp!”
Breaking ranks, they moved at the double and surrounded the wanderer too closely to permit further progress. Perforce, he stopped.
Gleed came up, said somewhat breathlessly, “Look, the Earth Ambassador wants to speak to you—that’s all.”
The other said nothing, merely gazed at him with mild blue eyes. He was a funny looking bum, long overdue for a shave, with a fringe of ginger whiskers sticking out all around his pan. He resembled a sunflower.
“Are you going to talk with His Excellency?” Gleed persisted.
“Naw.” The other nodded toward the farmer. “Going to talk with Zeke.”
“The ambassador first,” retorted Gleed, toughly. “He’s a big noise.”
“I don’t doubt that,” remarked the sunflower.
“Smartie Artie, eh?” said Gleed, pushing his face close and making it unpleasant. He gave his men a gesture. “All right—shove him along. We’ll show him!”
Smartie Artie sat down. He did it sort of solidly, giving himself the aspect of a statue anchored for aeons. The ginger whiskers did nothing to lend grace to the situation. But Sergeant Gleed had handled sitters before, the only difference being that this one was cold sober.
“Pick him up,” ordered Gleed, “and carry him.”
They picked him up and carried him, feet first, whiskers last. He hung limp and unresisting in their hands, a dead weight. In this inauspicious manner he arrived in the presence of the Earth Ambassador where the escort plonked him on his feet.
Promptly he set out for Zeke.
“Hold him, darn you!” howled Gleed.
The patrol grabbed and clung tight. His Excellency eyed the whiskers with well-bred concealment of distaste, coughed delicately, and spoke.
“I am truly sorry that you had to come to me in this fashion.”
“In that case,” suggested the prisoner, “you could have saved yourself some mental anguish by not permitting it to happen.”
“There was no other choice. We’ve got to make contact somehow.”
“I don’t see it,” said Ginger Whiskers. “What’s so special about this date?”
“The date?” His Excellency frowned in puzzlement. “Where does that come in?”
“That’s what I’d like to know.”
“The point eludes me.” The ambassador turned to Colonel Shelton. “Do you get what he’s aiming at?”
“I could hazard a guess, your excellency. I think he is suggesting that since we’ve left them without contact for more than three hundred years, there’s no particular urgency about making it today.” He looked at the sunflower for confirmation.
That worthy raffled to his support by remarking, “You’re doing pretty well for a half-wit.”
Regardless of Shelton’s own reaction, this was too much for Bidworthy purpling nearby. His chest came up and his eyes caught fire. His voice was an authoritative rasp.
“Be more respectful while addressing high-ranking officers!”
The prisoner’s mild blue eyes turned upon him in childish amazement, examined him slowly from feet to head and all the way down again. The eyes drifted back to the ambassador.
“Who is this preposterous person?”
Dismissing the question with an impatient wave of his hand, the ambassador said, “See here, it is not our purpose to bother you from sheer perversity, as you seem to think. Neither do we wish to detain you any longer than is necessary. All we—”
Pulling at his face-fringe as if to accentuate its offensiveness, the other interjected, “It being you, of course, who determines the length of the necessity?”
“On the contrary, you may decide that yourself,” said the ambassador, displaying admirable self-control. “All you need do is tell—”
“Then I’ve decided it right now,” the prisoner chipped in. He tried to heave himself free of his escort. “Let me go talk to Zeke.”
“All you need do,” the ambassador persisted, “is to tell us where we can find a local official who can put us in touch with your central government.” His gaze was stem, commanding, as he added, “For instance, where is the nearest police post?”
“Myob!” said the other.
“The same to you,” retorted the ambassador, his patience starting to evaporate.
“That’s precisely what I’m trying to do,” assured the prisoner, enigmatically. “Only you won’t let me.”
“If I may make a suggestion, your excellency,” put in Colonel Shelton, “let me—”
“I require no suggestions and I won’t let you,” said the ambassador, rapidly becoming brusque. “I have had enough of all this tomfoolery. I think we’ve landed at random in an area reserved for imbeciles and it would be as well to recognize the fact and get out of it with no more delay.”
“Now you’re talking,” approved Ginger Whiskers. “And the farther the better.”
“I’m not thinking of leaving this planet if that’s what is in your incomprehensible mind,” asserted the ambassador, with much sarcasm. He stamped a proprietary foot on the turf. “This is part of the Earth Empire. As such, it is going to be recognized, charted and organized.”
“Heah, heah!” put in the senior civil servant, who aspired to honors in elocution.
His Excellency threw a frown behind, went on, “We’ll move the ship to some other section where brains are brighter.” He signed to the escort. “Let him go. Doubtless he is in a hurry to borrow a razor.”
They released their grips. Ginger Whiskers at once turned toward the still-plowing farmer, much as if he were a magnetized needle irresistibly drawn Zekeward. Without a word he set off at his original mooching pace. Disappointment and disgust showed on the faces of Gleed and Bidworthy as they watched him go.
“Have the vessel shifted at once,” the ambassador instructed Captain Grayder. “Plant it near a suitable town—not out in the wilds where every hayseed views strangers as a bunch of gyps.”
He marched importantly up the gangway. Captain Grayder followed, then Colonel Shelton, then the elocutionist. Next, their successors in due order of precedence. Lastly, Gleed and his men.
The gangway rolled inward. The lock closed. Despite its immense bulk, the ship shivered briefly from end to end and soared without deafening uproar or spectacular display of flame.
Indeed, there was silence save for the plow going chuff-chuff and the murmurings of the two men walking behind it. Neither bothered to turn his head to observe what was happening.
“Seven pounds of prime tobacco is a heck of a lot to give for one case of brandy,” Ginger Whiskers was protesting.
“Not for my brandy,” said Zeke. “It’s stronger than a thousand Gands and smoother than an Earthman’s downfall.”
The great battleship’s second touchdown was made on a wide flat one mile north of a town estimated to hold twelve to fifteen thousand people. Captain Grayder would have preferred to survey the place from low altitude before making his landing, but one cannot maneuver an immense space-going job as if it were an atmospheric tug. Only two things can be done so close to a planetary surface—the ship is taken up or brought down with no room for fiddling betweentimes.
So Grayder bumped his ship in the best spot he could find when finding is a matter of split-second decisions. It made a rut only twelve feet deep, the ground being harder and on a rock bed. The gangway was shoved out; the procession descended in the same order as before.
His Excellency cast an anticipatory look toward the town, registered disappointment and remarked, “Something’s badly out of kilter here. There’s the town. Here’s us in plain view, with a ship like a metal mountain. A thousand people at least must have seen us even if the rest are holding seances behind drawn curtains or playing pinochle in the cellars. Are they excited?”
“It doesn’t seem so,” admitted Colonel Shelton, puffing an eyelid for the sake of feeling it spring back.
“I wasn’t asking you. I was telling you. They are not excited. They are not surprised. In fact, they are not even interested. One would almost think they’ve had a ship here before and it was full of smallpox, or sold them a load of gold bricks, or something like that. What is wrong with them?”
“Possibly they lack curiosity,” Shelton offered.
“Either that or they’re afraid. Or maybe the entire gang of them are crackers. A good many worlds were appropriated by woozy groups who wanted some place where their eccentricities could run loose. Nutty notions become conventional after three hundred years of undisturbed continuity. It’s then considered normal and proper to nurse the bats out of your grandfather’s attic. That, and generations of inbreeding, can create some queer types. But we’ll cure ’em!”
“Yes, your excellency, most certainly we will.”
“You don’t look so balanced yourself, chasing that eye around your pan,” reproved the ambassador. He pointed southeast as Shelton stuck the fidgety hand firmly into a pocket. “There’s a road over there. Wide and well-built by the looks of it. Get that patrol across it. If they don’t bring in a willing talker within reasonable time, we’ll send a battalion into the town itself.”
“A patrol,” repeated Colonel Shelton to Major Hame.
“Call out the patrol,” Hame ordered Lieutenant Deacon.
“That patrol again, sergeant major,” said Deacon.
Bidworthy raked out Gleed and his men, indicated the road, barked a bit, shooed them on their way.
They marched, Gleed in the lead. Their objective was half a mile and angled slightly nearer the town. The left-hand file, who had a clear view of the nearest suburbs, eyed them wistfully, wished Gleed in warmer regions with Bidworthy stoking beneath him.
Hardly had they reached their goal than a customer appeared. He came from the town’s outskirts, zooming along at fast pace on a contraption vaguely resembling a motorcycle. It ran on a pair of big rubber balls and was pulled by a caged fan. Gleed spread his men across the road.
The oncomer’s machine suddenly gave forth a harsh, penetrating sound that vaguely reminded them of Bidworthy in the presence of dirty boots.
“Stay put,” warned Gleed. “I’ll skin the guy who gives way and leaves a gap.”
Again the shrill metallic warning. Nobody moved. The machine slowed, came up to them at a crawl and stopped. Its fan continued to spin at low rate, the blades almost visible and giving out a steady hiss.
“What’s the idea?” demanded the rider. He was lean-featured, in his middle thirties, wore a gold ring in his nose and had a pigtail four feet long.
Blinking incredulously at this get-up, Gleed managed to jerk an indicative thumb toward the iron mountain and say, “Earth ship.”
“Well, what d’you expect me to do about it?”
“Co-operate,” said Gleed, still bemused by the pigtail. He had never seen one before. It was in no way effeminate, he decided. Rather did it lend a touch of ferocity like that worn—according to the picture books—by certain North American aborigines of umpteen centuries ago.
“Co-operation,” mused the rider. “Now there is a beautiful word. You know what it means, of course?”
“I ain’t a dope.”
“The precise degree of your idiocy is not under discussion at the moment,” the rider pointed out. His nose-ring waggled a bit as he spoke. “We are talking about co-operation. I take it you do quite a lot of it yourself?”
“You bet I do,” Gleed assured. “And so does everyone else who knows what’s good for him.”
“Let’s keep to the subject, shall we? Let’s not sidetrack and go rambling all over the map.” He revved up his fan a little then let it slow down again. “You are given orders and you obey them?”
“Of course. I’d have a rough time if—”
“That is what you call co-operation?” put in the other. He shrugged his shoulders, indulged a resigned sigh. “Oh, well, it’s nice to check the facts of history. The books could be wrong.” His fan flashed into a circle of light and the machine surged forward. “Pardon me.”
The front rubber ball barged forcefully between two men, knocking them sidewise without injury. With a high whine, the machine shot down the road, its fan-blast making the rider’s plaited hairdo point horizontally backward.
“You goofy glumps!” raged Gleed as his fallen pair got up and dusted themselves. “I ordered you to stand fast. What d’you mean, letting him run out on us like that?”
“Didn’t have much choice about it, sarge,” answered one, giving him a surly look.
“I want none of your back-chat. You could have busted a balloon if you’d had your weapons ready. That would have stopped him.”
“You didn’t tell us to have guns ready.”
“Where was your own, anyway?” added a voice.
Gleed whirled round on the others and bawled, “Who said that?” His irate eyes raked a long row of blank, impassive faces. It was impossible to detect the culprit. “I’ll shake you up with the next quota of fatigues,” he promised. “I’ll see to it—”
“The sergeant major’s coming,” one of them warned.
Bidworthy was four hundred yards away and making martial progress toward them. Arriving in due time, he cast a cold, contemptuous glance over the patrol.
Giving a brief account of the incident, Gleed finished aggrievedly, “He looked like a Chickasaw with an oil well.”
“What’s a Chickasaw?” Bidworthy demanded.
“I read about them somewhere once when I was a kid,” explained Gleed, happy to bestow a modicum of learning. “They had long haircuts, wore blankets and rode around in gold-plated automobiles.”
“Sounds crazy to me,” said Bidworthy. “I gave up all that magic-carpet stuff when I was seven. I was deep in ballistics before I was twelve and military logistics at fourteen.” He sniffed loudly, gave the other a jaundiced eye. “Some guys suffer from arrested development.”
“They actually existed,” Gleed maintained. “They—”
“So did fairies,” snapped Bidworthy. “My mother said so. My mother was a good woman. She didn’t tell me a lot of tomfool lies—often.” He spat on the road. “Be your age!” Then he scowled at the patrol. “All right, get out your guns, assuming that you’ve got them and know where they are and which hand to hold them in. Take orders from me. I’ll deal personally with the next one along.”
He sat on a large stone by the roadside and planted an expectant gaze on the town. Gleed posed near him, slightly pained. The patrol remained strung across the road, guns held ready. Half an hour crawled by without anything happening.
One of the men said, “Can we have a smoke, sergeant major?”
They fell into lugubrious silence, watching the town, licking their lips and thinking. They had plenty to think about. A town—any town of human occupation—had desirable features not found elsewhere in the cosmos. Lights, company, freedom, laughter, all the makings of life. And one can go hungry too long.
Eventually a large coach came from the outskirts, hit the high road, came bowling toward them. A long, shiny, streamlined job, it rolled on twenty balls in two rows of ten, gave forth a whine similar to but louder than that of its predecessor, but had no visible fans. It was loaded with people.
At a point two hundred yards from the road block a loud-speaker under the vehicle’s bonnet blared an urgent, “Make way! Make way!”
“This is it,” commented Bidworthy, with much satisfaction. “We’ve got a dollop of them. One of them is going to chat or I leave the service.” He got off his rock, stood in readiness.
“Make way! Make way!”
“Bust his bags if he tries to bull his way through,” Bidworthy ordered the men.
It wasn’t necessary. The coach lost pace, stopped with its bonnet a yard from the waiting file. Its driver peered out the side of his cab. Other faces snooped farther back.
Composing himself and determined to try the effect of fraternal cordiality, Bidworthy went up to the driver and said, “Good morning.”
“Your time-sense is shot to pot,” observed the other. He had a blue jowl, a broken nose, cauliflower ears, looked the sort who usually drives with others in hot and vengeful pursuit. “Can’t you afford a watch?”
“It isn’t morning. It’s late afternoon.”
“So it is,” admitted Bidworthy, forcing a cracked smile. “Good afternoon.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” mused the driver, leaning on his wheel and moodily picking his teeth. “It’s just another one nearer the grave.”
“That may be,” agreed Bidworthy, little taken with that ghoulish angle. “But I have other things to worry about, and—”
“Not much use worrying about anything, past or present,” advised the driver. “Because there are lots bigger worries to come.”
“Perhaps so,” Bidworthy said, inwardly feeling that this was no time or place to contemplate the darker side of existence. “But I prefer to deal with my own troubles in my own time and my own way.”
“Nobody’s troubles are entirely their own, nor their time, nor their methods,” remarked the tough looking oracle. “Are they now?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” said Bidworthy, his composure thinning down as his blood pressure built up. He was conscious of Gleed and the patrol watching, listening, and probably grinning inside themselves. There was also the load of gaping passengers. “I think you are chewing the fat just to stall me. You might as well know now that it won’t work. The Earth Ambassador is waiting—”
“So are we,” remarked the driver, pointedly.
“He wants to speak to you,” Bidworthy went on, “and he’s going to speak to you!”
“I’d be the last to prevent him. We’ve got free speech here. Let him step up and say his piece so’s we can get on our way.”
“You,” Bidworthy informed, “are going to him.” He signed to the rest of the coach. “And your load as well.”
“Not me,” denied a fat man, sticking his head out of a side window. He wore thick-lensed glasses that gave him eyes like poached eggs. Moreover, he was adorned with a high hat candy-striped in white and pink. “Not me,” repeated this vision, with considerable firmness.
“Me, neither,” indorsed the driver.
“All right.” Bidworthy registered menace. “Move this birdcage an inch, forward or backward, and we’ll shoot your pot-bellied tires to thin strips. Get out of that cab.”
“Not me. I’m too comfortable. Try fetching me out.”
Bidworthy beckoned to his nearest six men. “You heard him—take him up on that.”
Tearing open the cab door, they grabbed. If they had expected the victim to put up a futile fight against heavy odds, they were disappointed. He made no attempt to resist. They got him, lugged together, and he yielded with good grace, his body leaning sidewise and coming halfway out of the door.
That was as far as they could get him.
“Come on,” urged Bidworthy, displaying impatience. “Show him who’s who. He isn’t a fixture.”
One of the men climbed over the body, poked around inside the cab, and said, “He is, you know.”
“What d’you mean?”
“He’s chained to the steering column.”
“Eh? Let me see.” He had a look, found that it was so. A chain and a small but heavy and complicated padlock linked the driver’s leg to his coach. “Where’s the key?”
“Search me,” invited the driver, grinning.
They did just that. The frisk proved futile. No key.
“Who’s got it?”
“Shove him back into his seat,” ordered Bidworthy, looking savage. “We’ll take the passengers. One yap’s as good as another so far as I’m concerned.” He strode to the doors, jerked them open. “Get out and make it snappy.”
Nobody budged. They studied him silently and with varied expressions, not one of which did anything to help his ego. The fat man with the candy-striped hat mooned at him sardonically. Bidworthy decided that he did not like the fat man and that a stiff course of military calisthenics might thin him down a bit.
“You can come out on your feet,” he suggested to the passengers in general and the fat man in particular, “or on your necks. Whichever you prefer. Make up your minds.”
“If you can’t use your head you can at least use your eyes,” commented the fat man. He shifted in his seat to the accompaniment of metallic clanking noises.
Bidworthy did as suggested, leaning through the doors to have a gander. Then he got right into the vehicle, went its full length and studied each passenger. His florid features were two shades darker when he came out and spoke to Sergeant Gleed.
“They’re all chained. Every one of them.” He glared at the driver. “What’s the big idea, manacling the lot?”
“Myob!” said the driver, airily.
“Who’s got the keys?”
Taking a deep breath, Bidworthy said to nobody in particular, “Every so often I hear of some guy running amok and laying ’em out by the dozens. I always wonder why—but now I know.” He gnawed his knuckles, then added to Gleed, “We can’t run this contraption to the ship with that dummy blocking the driver’s seat. Either we must find the keys or get tools and cut them loose.”
“Or you could wave us on our way and go take a pill,” offered the driver.
“Shut up! If I’m stuck here another million years I’ll see to it that—”
“The colonel’s coming,” muttered Gleed, giving him a nudge.
Colonel Shelton arrived, walked once slowly and officiously around the outside of the coach, examining its construction and its occupants. He flinched at the striped hat whose owner leered at him through the glass. Then he came over to the disgruntled group.
“What’s the trouble this time, sergeant major?”
“They’re as crazy as the others, sir. They give a lot of lip and say, ‘Myob!’ and couldn’t care less about his excellency. They don’t want to come out and we can’t get them out because they’re chained to their seats.”
“Chained?” Shelton’s eyebrows shot upward. “What for?”
“I don’t know, sir. They’re linked in like a load of lifers making for the pen, and—”
Shelton moved off without waiting to hear the rest. He had a look for himself, came back.
“You may have something there, sergeant major. But I don’t think they are criminals.”
“No.” He threw a significant glance toward the colorful headgear and several other sartorial eccentricities, including a ginger-haired man’s foot-wide polka-dotted bow. “It is more likely that they’re a bunch of whacks being taken to a giggle emporium. I’ll ask the driver.” Going to the cab, he said, “Do you mind telling me your destination?”
“Yes,” responded the other.
“Very well, where is it?”
“Look,” said the driver, “are we talking the same language?”
“You asked me if I minded and I said yes.” He made a gesture. “I do mind.”
“You refuse to tell?”
“Your aim’s improving, sonny.”
“Sonny?” put in Bidworthy, vibrant with outrage. “Do you realize you are speaking to a colonel?”
“Leave this to me,” insisted Shelton, waving him down. His expression was cold as he returned his attention to the driver. “On your way. I’m sorry you’ve been detained.”
“Think nothing of it,” said the driver, with exaggerated politeness. “I’ll do as much for you some day.”
With that enigmatic remark, he let his machine roll forward. The patrol parted to make room. The coach built up its whine to top note, sped down the road, diminished into the distance.
“By the Black Sack!” swore Bidworthy, staring purple-faced after it. “This planet has got more punks in need of discipline than any this side of—”
“Calm yourself, sergeant major,” advised Shelton. “I feel the same way as you—but I'm taking care of my arteries. Blowing them full of bumps like seaweed won’t solve any problems.”
“Maybe so, sir, but—”
“We’re up against something mighty funny here,” Shelton went on. “We’ve got to find out exactly what it is and how best to cope with it. That will probably mean new tactics. So far, the patrol has achieved nothing. It is wasting its time. We’ll have to devise some other and more effective method of making contact with the powers-that-be. March the men back to the ship, sergeant major.”
“Very well, sir.” Bidworthy saluted, swung around, clicked his heels, opened a cavernous mouth. “Patro-o-ol! . . . right form!”
The conference lasted well into the night and halfway through the following morning. During these argumentative hours various oddments of traffic, mostly vehicular, passed along the road, but nothing paused to view the monster spaceship, nobody approached for a friendly word with its crew. The strange inhabitants of this world seemed to be afflicted with a peculiar form of mental blindness, unable to see a thing until it was thrust into their faces and then surveying it squint-eyed.
One passer-by in midmorning was a truck whining on two dozen rubber balls and loaded with girls wearing colorful head-scarves. The girls were singing something about one little kiss before we part, dear. Half a dozen troops lounging near the gangway came eagerly to life, waved, whistled and yoohooed. The effort was wasted, for the singing continued without break or pause and nobody waved back.
To add to the discomfiture of the love-hungry, Bidworthy stuck his head out of the lock and rasped, “If you monkeys are bursting with surplus energy, I can find a few jobs for you to do—nice dirty ones.” He seared them one at a time before he withdrew.
Inside, the top brass sat around a horseshoe table in the chartroom near the bow and debated the situation. Most of them were content to repeat with extra emphasis what they had said the previous evening, there being no new points to bring up.
“Are you certain,” the Earth Ambassador asked Captain Grayder, “that this planet has not been visited since the last emigration transport dumped the final load three hundred years back?”
“Positive, your excellency. Any such visit would have been recorded.”
“If made by an Earth ship. But what about others? I feel it in my bones that at sometime or other these people have fallen foul of one or more vessels calling unofficially and have been leery of spaceships ever since. Perhaps somebody got tough with them, tried to muscle in where he wasn’t wanted. Or they’ve had to beat off a gang of pirates. Or they were swindled by some unscrupulous fleet of traders.”
“Quite impossible, your excellency,” declared Grayder. “Emigration was so scattered over so large a number of worlds that even today every one of them is under-populated, only one-hundredth developed, and utterly unable to build spaceships of any kind, even rudimentary ones. Some may have the techniques but not the facilities, of which they need plenty.”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve always understood.”
“All Blieder-drive vessels are built in the Sol system, registered as Earth ships and their whereabouts known. The only other ships in existence are eighty or ninety antiquated rocket jobs bought at scrap price by the Epsilon system for haulage work between their fourteen closely-planned planets. An old-fashioned rocket job couldn’t reach this place in a hundred years.”
“No, of course not.”
“Unofficial boats capable of this range just don’t exist,” Grayder assured. “Neither do space buccaneers, for the same reason. A Blieder-job takes so much that a would-be pirate has to become a billionaire to become a pirate.”
“Then,” said the ambassador, heavily, “back we go to my original theory—that something peculiar to this world plus a lot of inbreeding has made them nutty.”
“There’s plenty to be said for that notion,” put in Colonel Shelton. “You should have seen the coach load I looked over. There was a mortician wearing odd shoes, one brown, one yellow. And a moon-faced gump sporting a hat made from the skin of a barber’s pole, all stripy. Only thing missing was his bubble pipe—and probably he’ll be given that where he was going.”
“Where was he going?”
“I don’t know, your excellency. They refused to say.”
Giving him a satirical look, the ambassador remarked, “Well, that is a valuable addition to the sum total of our knowledge. Our minds are now enriched by the thought that an anonymous individual may be presented with a futile object for an indefinable purpose when he reaches his unknown destination.”
Shelton subsided, wishing that he had never seen the fat man or, for that matter, the fat man’s cockeyed world.
“Somewhere they’ve got a capitol, a civic seat, a center of government wherein function the people who hold the strings,” the ambassador asserted. “We’ve got to find that place before we can take over and reorganize on up-to-date lines whatever setup they’ve got. A capitol is big by the standards of its own administrative area. It’s never an ordinary, nondescript place. It has certain physical features lending it importance above the average. It should be easily visible from the air. We must make a search for it—in fact, that’s what we ought to have done in the first place. Other planets’ capitol cities have been found without trouble. What’s the hoodoo on this one?”
“See for yourself, your excellency.” Captain Grayder poked a couple of photographs across the table. “There are the two hemispheres as recorded by us when coming in. They reveal nothing resembling a superior city. There isn’t even a town conspicuously larger than its fellows or possessing outstanding features setting it apart from the others.”
“I don’t place great faith in pictures, particularly when taken at long distance. The naked eye sees more. We have got four lifeboats capable of scouring the place from pole to pole. Why not use them?”
“Because, your excellency, they were not designed for such a purpose.”
“Does that matter so long as they get results?”
Grayder said, patiently, “They were designed to be launched in space and hit up to forty thousand. They are ordinary, old-style rocket jobs, for emergencies only. You could not make efficient ground-survey at any speed in excess of four hundred miles per hour. Keep the boats down to that and you’re trying to run them at landing-speed, muffling the tubes, balling up their efficiency, creating a terrible waste of fuel, and inviting a crash which you’re likely to get before you’re through.”
“Then it’s high time we had Blieder-drive lifeboats on Blieder-drive ships.”
“I agree, your excellency. But the smallest Blieder engine has an Earth mass of more than three hundred tons—far too much for little boats.” Picking up the photographs, Grayder slid them into a drawer. “What we need is an ancient, propeller-driven airplane. They could do something we can’t do—they could go slow.”
“You might as well yearn for a bicycle,” scoffed the ambassador, feeling thwarted.
“We have a bicycle,” Grayder informed. “Tenth Engineer Harrison owns one.”
“And he has brought it with him?”
“It goes everywhere with him. There is a rumor that he sleeps with it.”
“A spaceman toting a bicycle!” The ambassador blew his nose with a loud honk. “I take it that he is thrilled by the sense of immense velocity it gives him, an ecstatic feeling of rushing headlong through space?”
“I wouldn’t know, your excellency.”
“Hm-m-m! Bring this Harrison in to me. We’ll set a nut to catch a nut.”
Grayder blinked, went to the caller board, spoke over the ship’s system. “Tenth Engineer Harrison wanted in the chartroom immediately.”
Within ten minutes Harrison appeared. He had walked fast three-quarters of a mile from the Blieder room. He was thin and wiry, with dark, monkeylike eyes, and a pair of ears that cut out the pedaling with the wind behind him. The ambassador examined him curiously, much as a zoologist would inspect a pink giraffe.
“Mister, I understand that you possess a bicycle.”
Becoming wary, Harrison said, “There’s nothing against it in the regulations, sir, and therefore—”
“Darn the regulations!” The ambassador made an impatient gesture. “We’re stalled in the middle of a crazy situation and we’re turning to crazy methods to get moving.”
“I see, sir.”
“So I want you to do a job for me. Get out your bicycle, ride down to town, find the mayor, sheriff, grand panjandrum, supreme galootie, or whatever he’s called, and tell him he’s officially invited to evening dinner along with any other civic dignitaries he cares to bring and, of course, their wives.”
“Very well, sir.”
“Informal attire,” added the ambassador.
Harrison jerked up one ear, drooped the other, and said, “Beg pardon, sir?”
“They can dress how they like.”
“I get it. Do I go right now, sir?”
“At once. Return as quickly as you can and bring me the reply.” Saluting sloppily, Harrison went out. His excellency found an easy-chair, reposed in it at full length and ignored the others’ stares.
“As easy as that!” He pulled out a long cigar, carefully bit off its end. “If we can’t touch their minds, we’ll appeal to their bellies.” He cocked a knowing eye at Grayder. “Captain, see that there is plenty to drink. Strong stuff. Venusian cognac or something equally potent. Give them an hour at a well-filled table and they’ll talk plenty. We won’t be able to shut them up all night.” He lit the cigar, puffed luxuriously. “That is the tried and trusted technique of diplomacy—the insidious seduction of the distended gut. It always works—you’ll see.”
Pedaling briskly down the road, Tenth Engineer Harrison reached the first street on either side of which were small detached houses with neat gardens front and back. A plump, amiable looking woman was clipping a hedge halfway along. He pulled up near to her, politely touched his cap.
“Scuse me, ma’am, I’m looking for the biggest man in town.”
She half-turned, gave him no more than a casual glance, pointed her clipping-shears southward. “That’d be Jeff Baines. First on the right, second on the left. It’s a small delicatessen.”
He moved on, hearing the snip-snip resume behind him. First on the right. He curved around a long, low, rubber-balled truck parked by the corner. Second on the left. Three children pointed at him and yelled shrill warnings that his back wheel was going round. He found the delicatessen, propped a pedal on the curb, gave his machine a reassuring pat before he went inside and had a look at Jeff.
There was plenty to see. Jeff had four chins, a twenty-two-inch neck, and a paunch that stuck out half a yard. An ordinary mortal could have got into either leg of his pants without taking off a diving suit. He weighed at least three hundred and undoubtedly was the biggest man in town.
“Wanting something?” inquired Jeff, lugging it up from far down. “Not exactly.” Tenth Engineer Harrison eyed the succulent food display, decided that anything unsold by nightfall was not given to the cats. “I’m looking for a certain person.”
“Are you now? Usually I avoid that sort—but every man to his taste.” He plucked at a fat lip while he mused a moment, then suggested, “Try Sid Wilcock over on Dane Avenue. He’s the most certain man I know.”
“I didn’t mean it that way,” said Harrison. “I meant I was searching for somebody particular.”
“Then why the dub didn’t you say so?” Jeff Baines worked over the new problem, finally offered, “Tod Green ought to fit that bill. You’ll find him in the shoeshop end of this road. He’s particular enough for anyone. He’s downright finicky.”
“You misunderstand me,” Harrison explained. “I’m hunting a bigwig so’s I can invite him to a feed.”
Resting himself on a high stool which he overlapped by a foot all round, Jeff Baines eyed him peculiarly and said, “There’s something lopsided about this. In the first place, you’re going to use up a considerable slice of your life finding a guy who wears a wig, especially if you insist on a big one. And where’s the point of dumping an ob on him just because he uses a bean-blanket?”
“It’s plain common sense to plant an ob where it will cancel an old one out, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” Harrison let his mouth hang open while his mind moiled around the strange problem of how to plant an ob.
“So you don’t know?” Jeff Baines massaged a plump chop and sighed. He pointed at the other’s middle. “Is that a uniform you’re wearing?”
“A genuine, pukka, dyed-in-the-wool uniform?”
“Ah!” said Jeff. “That’s where you’ve fooled me—coming in by yourself, on your ownsome. If there had been a gang of you dressed identically the same, I’d have known at once it was a uniform. That’s what uniform means—all alike. Doesn’t it?”
“I suppose so,” agreed Harrison, who had never given it a thought.
“So you’re off that ship. I ought to have guessed it in the first place. I must be slow on the uptake today. But I didn’t expect to see one, just one, messing around on a pedal contraption. It goes to show, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Harrison, glancing around to make sure that no confederate had swiped his bicycle while he was detained in conversation. The machine was still there. “It goes to show.”
“All right, let’s have it—what have you come here for?”
“I’ve been trying to tell you all along. I’ve been sent to—”
“Been sent?” Jeff’s eyes widened a little. “Mean to say you actually let yourself be sent?”
Harrison gaped at him. “Of course. Why not?”
“Oh, I get it now,” said Jeff Baines, his puzzled features suddenly clearing. “You confuse me with the queer way you talk. You mean you planted an ob on someone?”
Desperately, Harrison said, “What’s an ob?”
“He doesn’t know,” commented Jeff Baines, looking prayerfully at the ceiling. “He doesn’t even know that!” He gave out a resigned sigh. “You hungry by any chance?”
“Going on that way.”
“O.K. I could tell you what an ob is, but I’ll do something better—I’ll show you.” Heaving himself off the stool, he waddled to a door at back. “Don’t know why I should bother to try to educate a uniform. It’s just that I’m bored. C’mon, follow me.”
Obediently, Harrison went behind the counter, paused to give his bicycle a reassuring nod, trailed the other through a passage and into a yard.
Jeff Baines pointed to a stack of cases. “Canned goods.” He indicated an adjacent store. “Bust ’em open and pile the stuff in there. Stack the empties outside. Please yourself whether you do it or not. That’s freedom, isn’t it?” He lumbered back into the shop.
Left by himself, Harrison scratched his ears and thought it over. Somewhere, he felt, there was an obscure sort of gag. A candidate named Harrison was being tempted to qualify for his sucker certificate. But if the play was beneficial to its organizer it might be worth learning because the trick could then be passed on. One must speculate in order to accumulate.
So he dealt with the cases as required. It took him twenty minutes of brisk work, after which he returned to the shop.
“Now,” explained Baines, “you’ve done something for me. That means you’ve planted an ob on me. I don’t thank you for what you’ve done. There’s no need to. All I have to do is get rid of the ob.”
“Obligation. Why use a long word when a short one is good enough? An obligation is an ob. I shift it this way: Seth Warburton, next door but one, has got half a dozen of my obs saddled on him. So I get rid of mine to you and relieve him of one of his to me by sending you around for a meal.” He scribbled briefly on a slip of paper. “Give him this.”
Harrison stared at it. In casual scrawl, it read, “Feed this bum. Jeff Baines.”
Slightly dazed, he wandered out, stood by the bicycle and again eyed the paper. Bum, it said. He could think of several on the ship who would have exploded with wrath over that. His attention drifted to the second shop farther along. It had a window crammed with comestibles and two big words on the sign-strip above: Seth’s Gulper.
Coming to a decision which was encouraged by his innards, he went into Seth’s still holding the paper as if it were a death warrant. Inside there was a long counter, some steam and a clatter of crockery. He chose a seat at a marble-topped table occupied by a gray-eyed brunette.
“Do you mind?” he inquired politely, as he lowered himself into a chair.
“Mind what?” She examined his ears as if they were curious phenomena. “Babies, dogs, aged relations or going out in the rain?”
“Do you mind me being here?”
“I can please myself whether or not I endure it. That’s freedom, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” said Harrison. “Sure it is.” He fidgeted in his seat, feeling somehow that he’d made a move and promptly lost a pawn. He sought around for something else to say and at that point a thin-featured man in a white coat dumped before him a plate loaded with fried chicken and three kinds of unfamiliar vegetables.
The sight unnerved him. He couldn’t remember how many years it was since he last saw fried chicken, nor how many months since he’d had vegetables in other than powder form.
“Well,” said the waiter, mistaking his fascinated gaze upon the food. “Doesn’t it suit you?”
“Yes.” Harrison handed over the slip of paper. “You bet it does.” Glancing at the note, the other called to someone semivisible in the steam at one end of the counter, “You’ve killed another of Jeff’s.” He went away, tearing the slip into small pieces.
“That was a fast pass,” commented the brunette, nodding at the loaded plate. “He dumps a feed-ob on you and you bounce it straight back, leaving all quits. I’ll have to wash dishes to get rid of mine, or kill one Seth has got on somebody else.”
“I stacked a load of canned stuff.” Harrison picked up knife and fork, his mouth watering. There were no knives and forks on the ship. They weren’t needed for powders and pills. “Don’t give you any choice here, do they? You take what you get.”
“Not if you’ve got an ob on Seth,” she informed. “In that case, he’s got to work it off best way he can. You should have put that to him instead of waiting for fate and complaining afterward.”
“I’m not complaining.”
“It’s your right. That’s freedom, isn’t it?” She mused a bit, went on, “Isn’t often I’m a plant ahead of Seth, but when I am I scream for iced pineapple and he comes running. When he’s a plant ahead, I do the running.” Her gray eyes narrowed in sudden suspicion, and she added, “You’re listening like it’s all new to you. Are you a stranger here?”
He nodded, his mouth full of chicken. A little later he managed, “I’m off that spaceship.”
“Good grief!” She froze considerably. “An Antigand! I wouldn’t have thought it. Why, you look almost human.”
“I’ve long taken pride in that similarity,” his wit rising along with his belly. He chewed, swallowed, looked around. The white-coated man came up. “What’s to drink?” Harrison asked.
“Dith, double-dith, shemak or coffee.”
“Coffee. Big and black.”
“Shemak is better,” advised the brunette as the waiter went away. “But why should I tell you?”
The coffee came in a pint-sized mug. Dumping it, the waiter said, “It’s your choice seeing Seth’s working one off. What’ll you have for after—apple pie, yimpik delice, grated tarfelsoufers or canimelon in syrup?”
“Ugh!” The other blinked at Harrison, gave the brunette an accusing stare, went away and got it.
Harrison pushed it across. “Take the plunge and enjoy yourself.”
“Couldn’t eat it if I tried.” He dug up another load of chicken, stirred his coffee, began to feel at peace with the world. “Got as much as I can manage right here.” He made an inviting motion with his fork. “G’wan, be greedy and to heck with the waistline.”
“No.” Firmly she pushed the pineapple back at him. “If I got through that, I’d be loaded with an ob.”
“I don’t let strangers plant obs on me.”
“Quite right, too. Very proper of you,” approved Harrison. “Strangers often have strange notions.”
“You’ve been around,” she agreed. “Only I don’t know what’s strange about the notions.”
“Cynic,” he translated. “One washes dishes in a cynic.” The pineapple got another pass in her direction. “If you feel I’ll be dumping an ob which you’ll have to pay off, you can do it in a seemly manner right here. All I want is some information. Just tell me where I can put my finger on the ripest cheese in the locality.”
“That’s an easy one. Go round to Alec Peters’ place, middle of Tenth Street.” With that, she dug into the dish.
“Thanks. I was beginning to think everyone was dumb or afflicted with the funnies.”
He carried on with his own meal, finished it, lay back expansively. Unaccustomed nourishment got his brain working a bit more dexterously, for after a minute an expression of deep suspicion clouded his face and he inquired, “Does this Peters run a cheese warehouse?”
“Of course.” Emitting a sigh of pleasure, she put aside her empty dish.
He groaned low down, then informed, “I’m chasing the mayor.”
“What is that?”
“Number one. The big boss. The sheriff, pohanko, or whatever you call him.”
“I’m no wiser,” she said, genuinely puzzled.
“The man who runs this town. The leading citizen.”
“Make it a little clearer,” she suggested, trying hard to help him. “Who or what should this citizen be leading?”
“You and Seth and everyone else.” He waved a hand to encompass the entire burg.
Frowning, she said, “Leading us where?”
“Wherever you’re going.”
She gave up, beaten, and signed the white-coated waiter to come to her assistance.
“Matt, are we going any place?”
“How should I know?”
“Well, ask Seth then.”
He went away, came back with, “Seth says he’s going home at six o’clock and what’s it to you?”
“Anyone leading him there?” she inquired.
“Don’t be daft,” Matt advised. “He knows his own way and he’s cold sober.”
Harrison chipped in with, “Look, I don’t see why there should be so much difficulty about this. Just tell me where I can find an official, any official!—the police chief, the city treasurer, the mortuary keeper or even a mere justice of the peace.”
“What’s an official?” asked Matt, openly puzzled.
“What’s a justice of the peace?” added the brunette.
His mind side-slipped and did a couple of spins. It took him quite a while to reassemble his thoughts and try another tack.
“Supposing,” he said to Matt, “this joint catches fire. What would you do?”
“Fan it to keep it going,” responded Matt, fed up and making no effort to conceal the fact. He returned to the counter with the air of one who has no time to waste on half-wits.
“He’d put it out,” informed the brunette. “What else would you expect him to do?”
“Supposing he couldn’t?”
“He’d call in others to help him.”
“And would they?”
“Of course,” she assured, surveying him with pity. “They’d be planting a nice crop of strong obs, wouldn’t they?”
“Yes, I guess so.” He began to feel stalled, but made a last shot at the problem. “What if the fire were too big and fast for passers-by to tackle?”
“Seth would summon the fire squad.”
Defeat receded. A touch of triumph replaced it.
“Ah, so there is a fire squad! That’s what I meant by something official. That’s what I’ve been after all along. Quick, tell me where I can find the depot.”
“Bottom end of Twelfth. You can’t miss it.”
“Thanks.” He got up in a hurry. “See you again sometime.” Going out fast, he grabbed his bicycle, shoved off from the curb.
The fire depot was a big place holding four telescopic ladders, a spray tower and two multiple pumps, all motorized on the usual array of fat rubber balls. Inside, Harrison came face to face with a small man wearing immense plus fours.
“Looking for someone?” asked the small man.
“The fire chief,” said Harrison.
By this time prepared for that sort of thing, Harrison spoke as one would to a child. “See here, mister, this is a fire-fighting outfit. Somebody bosses it. Somebody organizes the shebang, fills forms, presses buttons, recommends promotions, kicks the shiftless, takes all the credit, transfers all the blame and generally lords it around. He’s the most important guy in the bunch and everybody knows it.” His forefinger tapped the other’s chest. “And he’s the fella I’m going to talk to if it’s the last thing I do.”
“Nobody’s any more important than anyone else. How can they be? I think you’re crazy.”
“You’re welcome to think what you like, but I’m telling you that—”
A shrill bell clamored, cutting off the sentence. Twenty men appeared as if by magic, boarded a ladder and a multi-pump, roared into the street.
Squat, basin-shaped helmets were the crews’ only item of common attire. Apart from these, they plumbed the depths of sartorial iniquity. The man with the plus fours, who had gained the pump in one bold leap, was whirled out standing between a fat firefighter wearing a rainbow-hued cummerbund and a thin one sporting a canary yellow kilt. A latecomer decorated with earrings shaped like little bells hotly pursued the pump, snatched at its tailboard, missed, disconsolately watched the outfit disappear from sight. He mooched back, swinging his helmet in one hand.
“Just my lousy luck,” he informed the gaping Harrison. “The sweetest call of the year. A big brewery. The sooner they get there the bigger the obs they’ll plant on it.” He licked his lips at the thought, sat on a coil of canvas hose. “Oh, well, maybe it’s all for the good of my health.”
“Tell me something,” Harrison insisted. “How do you get a living?”
“There’s a heck of a question. You can see for yourself. I’m on the fire squad.”
“I know. What I mean is, who pays you?”
“Gives you money for all this.”
“You talk kind of peculiar. What is money?”
Harrison rubbed his cranium to assist the circulation of blood through the brain. What is money? Yeouw. He tried another angle.
“Supposing your wife needs a new coat, how does she get it?”
“Goes to a store saddled with fire-obs, of course. She kills one or two for them.”
“But what if no clothing store has had a fire?”
“You’re pretty ignorant, brother. Where in this world do you come from?” His ear bells swung as he studied the other a moment, then went on, “Almost all stores have fire-obs. If they’ve any sense, they allocate so many per month by way of insurance. They look ahead, just in case, see? They plant obs on us, in a way, so that when we rush to the rescue we’ve got to kill off a dollop of theirs before we can plant any new ones of our own. That stops us overdoing it and making hogs of ourselves. Sort of cuts down the stores’ liabilities. It makes sense, doesn’t it?”
“I get it now,” interrupted the other, narrowing his eyes. “You’re from that spaceship. You’re an Antigand.”
“I’m a Terran,” said Harrison with suitable dignity. “What’s more, all the folk who originally settled this planet were Terrans.”
“You trying to teach me history?” He gave a harsh laugh. “You’re wrong. There was a five per cent strain of Martian.”
“Even the Martians are descended from Terran settlers,” riposted Harrison.
“So what? That was a devil of a long time back. Things change, in case you haven’t heard. We’ve no Terrans or Martians on this world—except for your crowd which has come in unasked. We’re all Gands here. And you nosey pokes are Antigands.”
“We aren’t anti-anything that I know of. Where did you get that idea?”
“Myob!” said the other, suddenly determined to refuse further agreement. He tossed his helmet to one side, spat on the floor.
“You heard me. Go trundle your scooter.”
Harrison gave up and did just that. He pedaled gloomily back to the ship.
His Excellency pinned him with an authoritative optic. “So you’re back at last, mister. How many are coming and at what time?”
“None, sir,” said Harrison, feeling kind of feeble.
“None?” August eyebrows rose up. “Do you mean that they have refused my invitation?”
The ambassador waited a moment, then said, “Come out with it, mister. Don’t stand there gawking as if your push-and-puff contraption has just given birth to a roller skate. You say they haven’t refused my invitation—but nobody is coming. What am I to make of that?”
“I didn’t ask anyone.”
“So you didn’t ask!” Turning, he said to Grayder, Shelton and the others, “He didn’t ask!” His attention came back to Harrison. “You forgot all about it, I presume? Intoxicated by liberty and the power of man over machine, you flashed around the town at nothing less than eighteen miles per hour, creating consternation among the citizenry, tossing their traffic laws into the ash can, putting persons in peril of their lives, not even troubling to ring your bell or—”
“I haven’t got a bell, sir,” denied Harrison, inwardly resenting this list of enormities. “I have a whistle operated by rotation of the rear wheel.”
“There!” said the ambassador, like one abandoning all hope. He sat down, smacked his forehead several times. “Somebody’s going to get a bubble-pipe.” He pointed a tragic finger. “And he’s got a whistle.”
“I designed it myself, sir,” Harrison told him, very informatively.
“I’m sure you did. I can imagine it. I would expect it of you.” The ambassador got a fresh grip on himself. “Look, mister, tell me something in strict confidence, just between you and me.” He leaned forward, put the question in a whisper that ricocheted seven times around the room. “Why didn’t you ask anyone?”
“Couldn’t find anyone to ask, sir. I did my level best but they didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. Or they pretended they didn’t.”
“Humph!” His Excellency glanced out of the nearest port, consulted his wrist watch. “The light is fading already. Night will be upon us pretty soon. It’s getting too late for further action.” An annoyed grunt. “Another day gone to pot. Two days here and we’re still fiddling around.” His eye was jaundiced as it rested on Harrison. “All right, mister, we’re wasting time anyway so we might as well hear your story in full. Tell us what happened in complete detail. That way, we may be able to dig some sense out of it.”
Harrison told it, finishing, “It seemed to me, sir, that I could go on for weeks trying to argue it out with people whose brains are oriented east-west while mine points north-south. You can talk with them from now to doomsday, even get real friendly and enjoy the conversation—without either side knowing what the other is jawing about.”
“So it seems,” commented the ambassador, dryly. He turned to Captain Grayder. “You’ve been around a lot and seen many new worlds in your time. What do you make of all this twaddle, if anything?”
“A problem in semantics,” said Grayder, who had been compelled by circumstances to study that subject. “One comes across it on almost every world that has been long out of touch, though usually it has not developed far enough to get really tough.” He paused reminiscently. “First guy we met on Basileus said, cordially and in what he fondly imagined was perfect English, ‘Joy you unboot now!’”
“Yeah? What did that mean?”
“Come inside, put on your slippers and be happy. In other words, welcome! It wasn’t difficult to get, your excellency, especially when you expect that sort of thing.” Grayder cast a thoughtful glance at Harrison, went on, “Here, things appear to have developed to a greater extreme. The language remains fluent, retains enough surface similarities to conceal deeper changes, but meanings have been altered, concepts discarded, new ones substituted, thought-forms re-angled—and, of course, there is the inevitable impact of locally developed slang.”
“Such as ‘myob,’” offered His Excellency. “Now there’s a queer word without recognizable Earth root. I don’t like the way they use it. Sounds downright insulting. Obviously it has some sort of connection with these obs they keep batting around. It means ‘my obligation’ or something like that, but the significance beats me.”
“There is no connection, sir,” Harrison contradicted. He hesitated, saw they were waiting for him, plunged boldly on. “Coming back I met the lady who directed me to Baines’ place. She asked whether I’d found him and I said yes, thank you. We chatted a bit. I asked her what ‘myob’ meant. She said it was initial-slang.” He stopped at that point.
“Keep going,” advised the ambassador. “After some of the sulphurous comments I’ve heard coming out the Blieder-room ventilation-shaft, I can stomach anything. What does it mean?”
“M-y-o-b,” informed Harrison, blinking. “Mind your own business.”
“So!” His Excellency gained color. “So that’s what they’ve been telling me all along?”
“I’m afraid so, sir.”
“Evidently they’ve a lot to learn.” His neck swelled with sudden undiplomatic fury, he smacked a large hand on the table and said, loudly, “And they are going to learn it!”
“Yes, sir,” agreed Harrison, becoming more uneasy and wanting out. “May I go now and attend to my bicycle?”
“Get out of my sight!” shouted the ambassador. He made a couple of meaningless gestures, turned a florid face on Captain Grayder. “Bicycle! Does anyone on this vessel own a slingshot?”
“I doubt it, your excellency, but I will make inquiries, if you wish.”
“Don’t be an imbecile,” ordered His Excellency. “We have our full quota of hollow-heads already.”
Postponed until early morning, the next conference was relatively short and sweet. His Excellency took a seat, harumphed, straightened his vest, frowned around the table.
“Let’s have another look at what we’ve got. We know that this planet’s mules call themselves Gands, don’t take much interest in their Terran origin and insist on referring to us as Antigands. That implies an education and resultant outlook inimical to ourselves. They’ve been trained from childhood to take it for granted that whenever we appeared upon the scene we would prove to be against whatever they are for.”
“And we haven’t the remotest notion of what they’re for,” put in Colonel Shelton, quite unnecessarily. But it served to show that he was among those present and paying attention.
“I am grimly aware of our ignorance in that respect,” indorsed the ambassador. “They are maintaining a conspiracy of silence about their prime motivation. We’ve got to break it somehow.” He cleared his throat, continued, “They have a peculiar nonmonetary economic system which, in my opinion, manages to function only because of large surpluses. It won’t stand a day when overpopulation brings serious shortages. This economic setup appears to be based on cooperative techniques, private enterprise, a kindergarten’s honor system and plain unadorned gimme. That makes it a good deal crazier than that food-in-the-bank wackidoo they’ve got on the four outer planets of the Epsilon system.”
“But it works,” observed Grayder, pointedly.
“After a fashion. That flap-eared engineer’s bicycle works—and so does he! A motorized job would save him a lot of sweat.” Pleased with this analogy, the ambassador mused over it a few seconds. “This local scheme of economics—if you can call it a scheme—almost certainly is the end result of the haphazard development of some hick eccentricity brought in by the original settlers. It is overdue for motorizing, so to speak. They know it but don’t want it because mentally they’re three hundred years behind the times. They’re afraid of change, improvement, efficiency—like most backward peoples. Moreover, some of them have a vested interest in keeping things as they are.” He sniffed loudly to express his contempt. “They are antagonistic toward us simply because they don’t want to be disturbed.”
His authoritative stare went round the table, daring one of them to remark that this might be as good a reason as any. They were too disciplined to fall into that trap. None offered comment, so he went on.
“In due time, after we’ve got a grip on affairs, we are going to have a long and tedious task on our hands. We’ll have to overhaul their entire educational system with a view to eliminating anti-Terran prejudices and bringing them up to date on the facts of life. We’ve had to do that on several other planets, though not to anything like the same extent as will be necessary here.”
“We’ll cope,” promised someone.
Ignoring him, the ambassador finished, “However, all of that is in the future. We’ve a problem to solve in the present. It’s in our laps right now, namely, where are the reins of power and who’s holding them? We’ve got to solve that before we can make progress. How’re we going to do it?” He leaned back in his chair, added, “Get your wits working and let me have some bright suggestions.”
Captain Grayder stood up, a big, leather-bound book in his hands. “Your excellency, I don’t think we need exercise our minds over new plans for making contact and gaining essential information. It looks as if the next move is going to be imposed upon us.”
“How do you mean?”
“There are a good many old-timers in my crew. Space lawyers, every one of them.” He tapped the book. “They know official Space Regulations as well as I do. Sometimes I think they know too much.”
Grayder opened the book. “Regulation 127 says that on a hostile world a crew serves on a war-footing until back in space. On a nonhostile world, they serve on a peace-footing.”
“What of it?”
“Regulation 131A says that on a peace-footing, the crew—with the exception of a minimum number required to keep the vessel’s essential services in trim—is entitled to land-leave immediately after unloading of cargo or within seventy-two Earth hours of arrival, whichever period is the shorter.” He glanced up. “By midday the men will be all set for land-leave and itching to go. There will be ructions if they don’t get it.”
“Will there now?” said the ambassador, smiling lopsidedly. “What if I say this world is hostile? That’ll pin their ears back, won’t it?”
Impassively consulting his book, Grayder came back with, “Regulation 148 says that a hostile world is defined as any planet that systematically opposes Empire citizens by force.” He turned the next page. “For the purpose of these regulations, force is defined as any course of action calculated to inflict physical injury, whether or not said action succeeds in its intent.”
“I don’t agree.” The ambassador registered a deep frown. “A world can be psychologically hostile without resorting to force. We’ve an example right here. It isn’t a friendly world.”
“There are no friendly worlds within the meaning of Space Regulations,” Grayder informed. “Every planet falls into one of two classifications: hostile or nonhostile.” He tapped the hard leather cover. “It’s all in the book.”
“We would be prize fools to let a mere book boss us around or allow the crew to boss us, either. Throw it out of the port. Stick it into the disintegrator. Get rid of it any way you like—and forget it.”
“Begging your pardon, your excellency, but I can’t do that.” Grayder opened the tome at the beginning. “Basic regulations 1A, lB and 1C include the following: whether in space or on land, a vessel’s personnel remain under direct command of its captain or his nominee who will be guided entirely by Space Regulations and will be responsible only to the Space Committee situated upon Terra. The same applies to all troops, officials and civilian passengers aboard a space-traversing vessel, whether in flight or grounded—regardless of rank or authority they are subordinate to the captain or his nominee. A nominee is defined as a ship’s officer performing the duties of an immediate superior when the latter is incapacitated or absent.”
“All that means you are king of your castle,” said the ambassador, none too pleased. “If we don’t like it, we must get off the ship.”
“With the greatest respect to yourself, I must agree that that is the position. I cannot help it—regulations are regulations. And the men know it!” Grayder dumped the book, poked it away from him. “Ten to one the men will wait to midday, pressing their pants, creaming their hair and so forth. They will then make approach to me in proper manner to which I cannot object. They will request the first mate to submit their leave-roster for my approval.” He gave a deep sigh. “The worst I could do would be to quibble about certain names on the roster and switch a few men around—but I couldn’t refuse leave to a full quota.”
“Liberty to paint the town red might be a good thing after all,” suggested Colonel Shelton, not averse to doing some painting himself. “A dump like this wakes up when the fleet’s in port. We ought to get contacts by the dozens. That’s what we want, isn’t it?”
“We want to pin down this planet’s leaders,” the ambassador pointed out. “I can’t see them powdering their faces, putting on their best hats and rushing out to invite the yoohoo from a bunch of hungry sailors.” His plump features quirked. “We have got to find the needles in this haystack. That job won’t be done by a gang of ratings on the rampage.”
Grayder put in, “I’m inclined to agree with you, your excellency, but we’ll have to take a chance on it. If the men want to go out, the circumstances deprive me of power to prevent them. Only one thing can give me the power.”
“And what is that?”
“Evidence enabling me to define this world as hostile within the meaning of Space Regulations.”
“Well, can’t we arrange that somehow?” Without waiting for a reply, the ambassador continued, “Every crew has its incurable trouble-maker. Find yours, give him a double shot of Venusian cognac, tell him he’s being granted immediate leave—but you doubt whether he’ll enjoy it because these Gands view us as reasons why people dig up the drains. Then push him out of the lock. When he comes back with a black eye and a boastful story about the other fellow’s condition, declare this world hostile.” He waved an expressive hand. “And there you are. Physical violence. All according to the book.”
“Regulation 148A, emphasizing that opposition by force must be systematic, warns that individual brawls may not be construed as evidence of hostility.”
The ambassador turned an irate face upon the senior civil servant: “When you get back to Terra—if ever you do get back—you can tell the appropriate department how the space service is balled up, hamstrung, semiparalyzed and generally handicapped by bureaucrats who write books.”
Before the other could think up a reply complimentary to his kind without contradicting the ambassador, a knock came at the door. First Mate Morgan entered, saluted smartly, offered Captain Grayder a sheet of paper.
“First liberty roll, sir. Do you approve it?”
Four hundred twenty men hit the town in the early afternoon. They advanced upon it in the usual manner of men overdue for the bright lights, that is to say, eagerly, expectantly, in buddy-bunches of two, three, six or ten.
Gleed attached himself to Harrison. They were two odd rankers, Gleed being the only sergeant on leave, Harrison the only tenth engineer. They were also the only two fish out of water since both were in civilian clothes and Gleed missed his uniform while Harrison felt naked without his bicycle. These trifling features gave them enough in common to justify at least one day’s companionship.
“This one’s a honey,” declared Gleed with immense enthusiasm. “I’ve been on a good many liberty jaunts in my time but this one’s a honey. On all other trips the boys ran up against the same problem—what to use for money. They had to go forth like a battalion of Santa Clauses, loaded up with anything that might serve for barter. Almost always nine-tenths of it wasn’t of any use and had to be carted back again.”
“On Persephone,” informed Harrison, “a long-shanked Milk offered me a twenty-karat, blue-tinted first-water diamond for my bike.”
“Jeepers, didn’t you take it?”
“What was the good? I’d have had to go back sixteen light-years for another one.”
“You could do without a bike for a bit.”
“I can do without a diamond. I can’t ride around on a diamond.”
“Neither can you sell a bicycle for the price of a sportster Moon-boat.”
“Yes I can. I just told you this Milik offered me a rock like an egg.”
“It’s a crying shame. You’d have got two hundred to two fifty thousand credits for that blinder, if it was flawless.” Sergeant Gleed smacked his lips at the thought of so much moola stacked on the head of a barrel. “Credits and plenty of them—that’s what I love. And that’s what makes this trip a honey. Every other time we’ve gone out, Grayder has first lectured us about creating a favorable impression, behaving in a spacemanlike manner, and so forth. This time, he talks about credits.”
“The ambassador put him up to that.”
“I liked it, all the same,” said Gleed. “Ten credits, a bottle of cognac and double liberty for every man who brings back to the ship an adult Gand, male or female, who is sociable and willing to talk.”
“It won’t be easily earned.”
“One hundred credits to whoever gets the name and address of the town’s chief civic dignitary. A thousand credits for the name and accurate location of the world’s capitol city.” He whistled happily, added, “Somebody’s going to be in the dough and it won’t be Bidworthy. He didn’t come out of the hat. I know—I was holding it.”
He ceased talking, turned to watch a tall, lithe blonde striding past. Harrison pulled at his arm.
“Here’s Baines’ place that I told you about. Let’s go in.”
“Oh, all right.” Gleed followed with much reluctance, his gaze still down the street.
“Good afternoon,” said Harrison, brightly.
“It ain’t,” contradicted Jeff Baines. “Trade’s bad. There’s a semifinal being played and it’s taken half the town away. They’ll think about their bellies after I’ve closed. Probably make a rush on me tomorrow and I won’t be able to serve them fast enough.”
“How can trade be bad if you don’t take money even when it’s good?” inquired Gleed, reasonably applying what information Harrison had given him.
Jeff’s big moon eyes went over him slowly, then turned to Harrison. “So he’s another bum off your boat. What’s he talking about?”
“Money,” said Harrison. “It’s stuff we use to simplify trade. It’s printed stuff, like documentary obs of various sizes.”
“That tells me a lot,” Jeff Baines observed. “It tells me a crowd that has to make a printed record of every ob isn’t to be trusted—because they don’t even trust each other.” Waddling to his high stool, he squatted on it. His breathing was labored and wheezy. “And that confirms what our schools have always taught—that an Antigand would swindle his widowed mother.”
“Your schools have got it wrong,” assured Harrison.
“Maybe they have.” Jeff saw no need to argue the point. “But we’ll play safe until we know different.” He looked them over. “What do you two want, anyway?”
“Some advice,” shoved in Gleed, quickly. “We’re out on the spree. Where’s the best places to go for food and fun?”
“How long you got?”
“Until night fall tomorrow.”
“No use.” Jeff Baines shook his head sorrowfully. “It’d take you from now to then to plant enough obs to qualify for what’s going. Besides, lots of folk wouldn’t let any Antigand dump an ob on them. They’re kind of particular, see?”
“Look,” said Harrison. “Can’t we get so much as a square meal?”
“Well, I dunno about that.” Jeff thought it over, rubbing several chins. “You might manage so much—but I can’t help you this time. There’s nothing I want of you, so you can’t use any obs I’ve got planted.”
“Can you make any suggestions?”
“If you were local citizens, it’d be different. You could get all you want right now by taking on a load of obs to be killed sometime in the future as and when the chances come along. But I can’t see anyone giving credit to Antigands who are here today and gone tomorrow.”
“Not so much of the gone tomorrow talk,” advised Gleed. “When an Imperial Ambassador is sent it means that Terrans will be here for keeps.”
“Who says so?”
“The Empire says so. You’re part of it, aren’t you?”
“Nope,” said Jeff. “We aren’t part of anything and don’t want to be, either. What’s more, nobody’s going to make us part of anything.”
Gleed leaned on the counter and gazed absently at a large can of pork. “Seeing I’m out of uniform and not on parade, I sympathize with you though I still shouldn’t say it. I wouldn’t care to be taken over body and soul by other-world bureaucrats, myself. But you folk are going to have a tough time beating us off. That’s the way it is.”
“Not with what we’ve got,” Jeff opined. He seemed mighty self-confident.
“You ain’t got so much,” scoffed Gleed, more in friendly criticism than open contempt. He turned to Harrison. “Have they?”
“It wouldn’t appear so,” ventured Harrison.
“Don’t go by appearances,” Jeff advised. “We’ve more than you’d care to guess at.”
“Such as what?”
“Well, just for a start, we’ve got the mightiest weapon ever thought up by mind of man. We’re Gands, see? So we don’t need ships and guns and suchlike playthings. We’ve got something better. It’s effective. There’s no defense against it.”
“I’d like to see it,” Gleed challenged. Data on a new and exceptionally powerful weapon should be a good deal more valuable than the mayor’s address. Grayder might be sufficiently overcome by the importance thereof to increase the take to five thousand credits. With a touch of sarcasm, he added, “But, of course, I can’t expect you to give away secrets.”
“There’s nothing secret about it,” said Jeff, very surprisingly. “You can have it for free any time you want. Any Gand would give it you for the asking. Like to know why?”
“Because it works one way only. We can use it against you—but you can’t use it against us.”
“There’s no such thing. There’s no weapon inventable which the other guy can’t employ once he gets his hands on it and knows how to operate it.”
“Positive,” said Gleed, with no hesitation whatever. “I’ve been in the space-service troops for twenty years and you can’t fiddle around that long without learning all about weapons from string bows to H-bombs. You’re trying to kid me—and it won’t work. A one-way weapon is impossible.”
“Don’t argue with him,” Harrison suggested to Baines. “He’ll never be convinced until he’s shown.”
“I can see that.” Jeff Baines’ face creased in a slow grin. “I told you that you could have our wonder-weapon for the asking. Why don’t you ask?”
“All right, I’m asking.” Gleed put it without much enthusiasm. A weapon that would be presented on request, without even the necessity of first planting a minor ob, couldn’t be so mighty after all. His imaginary five thousand credits shrank to five, thence to none. “Hand it over and let me try it.”
Swiveling heavily on his stool, Jeff reached to the wall, removed a small, shiny plaque from its hook, passed it across the counter.
“You may keep it,” he informed. “And much good may it do you.” Gleed examined it, turning it over and over between his fingers. It was nothing more than an oblong strip of substance resembling ivory. One side was polished and bare. The other bore three letters deeply engraved in bold style: F—I. W.
Glancing up, his features puzzled, he said, “Call this a weapon?”
“Then I don’t get it.” He passed the plaque to Harrison. “Do you?”
“No.” Harrison had a good look at it, spoke to Baines. “What does this F—I. W. mean?”
“Initial-slang,” informed Baines. “Made correct by common usage. It has become a worldwide motto. You’ll see it all over the place, if you haven’t noticed it already.”
“I have spotted it here and there but attached no importance to it and thought nothing of it. I remember now I’ve seen it inscribed in several places, including Seth’s and the fire depot.”
“It was on the sides of that bus we couldn’t empty,” added Gleed. “Didn’t mean anything to me.”
“It means plenty,” said Jeff. “Freedom—I Won’t!”
“That kills me,” Gleed told him. “I’m stone dead already. I’ve dropped in my tracks.” He watched Harrison thoughtfully pocketing the plaque. “A bit of abracadabra. What a weapon!”
“Ignorance is bliss,” remarked Baines, strangely certain of himself. “Especially when you don’t know that what you’re playing with is the safety catch of something that goes bang.”
“All right,” challenged Gleed, taking him up on that. “Tell us how it works.”
“I won’t.” The grin reappeared. Baines seemed highly satisfied about something.
“That’s a fat lot of help.” Gleed felt let down, especially over those momentarily hoped-for credits. “You boast about a one-way weapon, toss across a slip of stuff with three letters on it and then go dumb. Any guy can talk out the back of his neck. How about backing up your talk?”
“I won’t,” said Baines, his grin becoming broader than ever. He favored the onlooking Harrison with a fat, significant wink.
It made something spark vividly inside Harrison’s mind. His jaw dropped, he took the plaque from his pocket, stared at it as if seeing it for the first time.
“Give it me back,” requested Baines, watching him.
Replacing it in his pocket, Harrison said very firmly, “I won’t.”
Baines chuckled. “Some folks catch on quicker than others.”
Resenting that remark, Gleed held his hand out to Harrison. “Let’s have another look at that thing.”
“I won’t,” said Harrison, meeting him eye for eye.
“Hey, that’s not the way—” Gleed’s protesting voice died out. He stood there a moment, his optics slightly glassy while his brain performed several loops. Then, in hushed tones, he said, “Good grief!”
“Precisely”, approved Baines. “Grief, and plenty of it. You were a bit slow on the uptake.”
Overcome by the flood of insubordinate ideas now pouring upon him, Gleed said hoarsely to Harrison, “Come on, let’s get out of here. I gotta think. I gotta think some place quiet.”
There was a tiny park with seats and lawns and flowers and a little fountain around which a small bunch of children were playing. Choosing a place facing a colorful carpet of exotic un-Terran blooms, they sat and brooded a while.
In due course, Gleed commented, “For one solitary guy it would be martyrdom, but for a whole world—” His voice drifted off, came back. “I’ve been taking this about as far as I can make it go and the results give me the leaping fantods.”
Harrison said nothing.
“Frinstance,” Gleed continued, “supposing when I go back to the ship that snorting rhinoceros Bidworthy gives me an order. I give him the frozen wolliker and say, ‘I won’t!’ He either drops dead or throws me in the clink.”
“That would do you a lot of good.”
“Wait a bit—I ain’t finished. I’m in the clink, but the job still needs doing. So Bidworthy picks on someone else. The victim, being a soulmate of mine, also donates the icy optic and says, ‘I won’t!’ In the clink he goes and I’ve got company. Bidworthy tries again. And again. There’s more of us warming the jug. It’ll only hold twenty. So they take over the engineer’s mess.”
“Leave our mess out of this,” Harrison requested.
“They take the mess,” Gleed insisted, thoroughly determined to penalize the engineers. “Pretty soon it’s crammed to the roof with I-won’ters. Bidworthy’s still raking ’em in as fast as he can go—if by that time he hasn’t burst a dozen blood vessels. So they take over the Blieder dormitories.”
“Why keep picking on my crowd?”
“And pile them with bodies ceiling-high,” Gleed said, getting sadistic pleasure out of the notion. “Until in the end Bidworthy has to get buckets and brushes and go down on his knees and do his own deck-scrubbing while Grayder, Shelton and the rest act as clink guards. By that time, His Loftiness the ambassador is in the galley busily cooking for you and me, assisted by a disconcerted bunch of yes-ing pen-pushers.” He had another somewhat awed look at the picture and finished, “Holy smoke!”
A colored ball rolled his way, he stooped, picked it up and held on to it. Promptly a boy of about seven ran up, eyed him gravely.
“Give me my ball, please.”
“I won’t,” said Gleed, his fingers firmly around it.
There was no protest, no anger, no tears. The child merely registered disappointment, turned to go away.
“Here you are, sonny.” He tossed the ball.
“Thanks.” Grabbing it, the other ran off.
Harrison said, “What if every living being in the Empire, all the way from Prometheus to Kaldor Four, across eighteen hundred light-years of space, gets an income-tax demand, tears it up and says, ‘I won’t!’? What happens then?”
“We’d need a second universe for a pen and a third one to provide the guards.”
“There would be chaos,” Harrison went on. He nodded toward the fountain and the children playing around it. “But it doesn’t look like chaos here. Not to my eyes. So that means they don’t overdo this blank refusal business. They apply it judiciously on some mutually recognized basis. What that basis might be beats me completely.”
An elderly man stopped near them, surveyed them hesitantly, decided to pick on a passing youth.
“Can you tell me where I can find the roller for Martinstown?”
“Other end of Eighth,” informed the youth. “One every hour. They’ll fix your manacles before they start.”
“Manacles?” The oldster raised white eyebrows. “Whatever for?”
“That route runs past the spaceship. The Antigands may try to drag you out.”
“Oh, yes, of course.” He ambled on, glanced again at Gleed and Harrison, remarked in passing, “These Antigands—such a nuisance.”
“Definitely,” indorsed Gleed. “We keep telling them to get out and they keep on saying, ‘We won’t.’”
The old gentleman missed a step, recovered, gave him a peculiar look, continued on his way.
“One or two seem to cotton on to our accents,” Harrison remarked. “Though nobody noticed mine when I was having that feed in Seth’s.”
Gleed perked up with sudden interest. “Where you’ve had one feed you can get another. C’mon, let’s try. What have we got to lose?”
“Our patience,” said Harrison. He stood up. “We’ll pick on Seth. If he won’t play, we’ll have a try at someone else. And if nobody will play, we’ll skin out fast before we starve to death.”
“Which appears to be exactly what they want us to do,” Gleed pointed out. He scowled to himself. “They’ll get their way over my dead body.”
“That’s how,” agreed Harrison. “Over your dead body.”
Matt came up with a cloth over one arm. “I’m serving no Antigands.”
“You served me last time,” Harrison told him.
“That’s as maybe. I didn’t know you were off that ship. But I know now!” He flicked the cloth across one corner of the table. “No Antigands served by me.”
“Is there any other place where we might get a meal?”
“Not unless somebody will let you plant an ob on them. They won’t do that if they’re wise to you, but there’s a chance they might make the same mistake I did.” Another flick across the corner. “I don’t make them twice.”
“You’re making another right now,” said Gleed, his voice tough and authoritative. He nudged Harrison. “Watch this!” His hand came out of a side pocket holding a tiny blaster. Pointing it at Matt’s middle, he continued, “Ordinarily, I could get into trouble for this, if those on the ship were in the mood to make trouble. But they aren’t. They’re soured up on you two-legged mules.” He motioned the weapon. “Get walking and bring us two full plates.”
“I won’t,” said Matt, firming his jaw and ignoring the gun.
Gleed thumbed the safety catch which moved with an audible click.
“It’s touchy now. It’d go off at a sneeze. Start moving.”
“I won’t,” insisted Matt.
Gleed disgustedly shoved the weapon back into his pocket. “I was only kidding you. It isn’t energized.”
“Wouldn’t have made the slightest difference if it had been,” Matt assured. “I serve no Antigands, and that’s that!”
“Suppose I’d gone haywire and blown you in half?”
“How could I have served you then?” he inquired. “A dead person is of no use to anyone. Time you Antigands learned a little logic.”
With that parting shot he went away.
“He’s got something there,” observed Harrison, patently depressed. “What can you do with a waxie one? Nothing whatever! You’d have put him clean out of your own power.”
“Don’t know so much. A couple of stiffs lying around might sharpen the others. They’d get really eager.”
“You’re thinking of them in Terran terms,” Harrison said. “It’s a mistake. They’re not Terrans, no matter where they came from originally. They’re Gands.” He mused a moment. “I’ve no notion of just what Gands are supposed to be but I reckon they’re some kind of fanatics. Terra exported one-track-minders by the millions around the time of the Great Explosion. Look at that crazy crowd they’ve got on Hygeia.”
“I was there once and I tried hard not to look,” confessed Gleed, reminiscently. “Then I couldn’t stop looking. Not so much as a fig leaf between the lot. They insisted that we were obscene because we wore clothes. So eventually we had to take them off. Know what I was wearing at the time we left?”
“A dignified poise,” Harrison suggested.
“That and an identity disk, cupro-silver, official issue, spacemen, for the use of,” Gleed informed. “Plus three wipes of grease-paint on my left arm to show I was a sergeant. I looked every inch a sergeant—like heck I did!”
“I know. I had a week in that place.”
“We’d a rear admiral on board,” Gleed went on. “As a fine physical specimen he resembled a pair of badly worn suspenders. He couldn’t overawe anyone while in his birthday suit. Those Hygeians cited his deflation as proof that they’d got real democracy, as distinct from our fake version.” He clucked his tongue. “I’m not so sure they’re wrong.”
“The creation of the Empire has created a queer proposition,” Harrison meditated. “Namely, that Terra is always right while sixteen hundred and forty-two planets are invariably wrong.”
“You’re getting kind of seditious, aren’t you?”
Harrison said nothing. Gleed glanced at him, found his attention elsewhere, followed his gaze to a brunette who had just entered.
“Nice,” approved Gleed. “Not too young, not too old. Not too fat, not too thin. Just right.”
“I know her.” Harrison waved to attract her attention.
She tripped lightly across the room, sat at their table. Harrison made the introduction.
“Friend of mine. Sergeant Gleed.”
“Arthur,” corrected Gleed, eyeing her.
“Mine’s Elissa,” she told him. “What’s a sergeant supposed to be?”
“A sort of over-above underthing,” Gleed informed. “I pass along the telling to the guys who do the doing.”
Her eyes widened. “Do you mean that people really allow themselves to be told?”
“Of course. Why not?”
“It sounds crazy to me.” Her gaze shifted to Harrison. “I’ll be ignorant of your name forever, I suppose?”
He hastened to repair the omission, adding, “But I don’t like James. I prefer Jim.”
“Then we’ll let it be Jim.” She examined the place, looking over the counter, the other tables. “Has Matt been to you two?”
“Yes. He refuses to serve us.”
She shrugged warm shoulders. “It’s his right. Everyone has the right to refuse. That’s freedom, isn’t it?”
“We call it mutiny,” said Gleed.
“Don’t be so childish,” she reproved. She stood up, moved away. “You wait here. I’ll go see Seth.”
“I don’t get this,” admitted Gleed, when she had passed out of earshot. “According to that fat fella in the delicatessen, their technique is to give us the cold shoulder until we run away in a huff. But this dame acts friendly. She’s . . . she’s—” He stopped while he sought for a suitable word, found it and said, “She’s un-Gandian.”
“Not so,” Harrison contradicted. “They’ve the right to say, ‘I won’t.’ She’s practicing it.”
“By gosh, yes! I hadn’t thought of that. They can work it any way they like, and please themselves.”
“Sure.” He dropped his voice. “Here she comes.”
Resuming her seat, she primped her hair, said, “Seth will serve us personally.”
“Another traitor,” remarked Gleed with a grin.
“On one condition,” she went on. “You two must wait and have a talk with him before you leave.”
“Cheap at the price,” Harrison decided. A thought struck him and he asked, “Does this mean you’ll have to kill several obs for all three of us?”
“Only one for myself.”
“Seth’s got ideas of his own. He doesn’t feel happy about Antigands any more than does anyone else.”
“But he’s got the missionary instinct. He doesn’t agree entirely with the idea of giving all Antigands the ghost-treatment. He thinks it should be reserved only for those too stubborn or stupid to be converted.” She smiled at Gleed, making his top hairs quiver. “Seth thinks that any intelligent Antigand is a would-be Gand.”
“What is a Gand, anyway?” asked Harrison.
“An inhabitant of this world, of course.”
“I mean, where did they dig up the name?”
“From Gandhi,” she said.
Harrison frowned in puzzlement. “Who the deuce was he?”
“An ancient Terran. The one who invented The Weapon.”
“Never heard of him.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” she remarked.
“Doesn’t it?” He felt a little irritated. “Let me tell you that these days we Terrans get as good an education as—”
“Calm down, Jim.” She made it more soothing by pronouncing it “Jeem.” “All I mean is that ten to one he’s been blanked out of your history books. He might have given you unwanted ideas, see? You couldn’t be expected to know what you’ve been deprived of the chance to learn.”
“If you mean that Terran history is censored, I don’t believe it,” he asserted.
“It’s your right to refuse to believe. That’s freedom, isn’t it?”
“Up to a point. A man has duties. He’s no right to refuse those.”
“No?” She raised tantalizing eyebrows, delicately curved. “Who defines those duties—himself, or somebody else?”
“His superiors, most times.”
“No man is superior to another. No man has the right to define another man’s duties.” She paused, eyeing him speculatively. “If anyone on Terra exercises such idiotic power, it is only because idiots permit him. They fear freedom. They prefer to be told. They like being ordered around. What men!”
“I shouldn’t listen to you,” protested Gleed, chipping in. His leathery face was flushed. “You’re as naughty as you’re pretty.”
“Afraid of your own thoughts?” she jibed, pointedly ignoring his compliment.
He went redder. “Not on your life. But I—” His voice trailed off as Seth arrived with three loaded plates and dumped them on the table.
“See you afterward,” reminded Seth. He was medium-sized, with thin features and sharp, quick-moving eyes. “Got something to say to you.”
Seth joined them shortly after the end of the meal. Taking a chair, he wiped condensed steam off his face, looked them over.
“How much do you two know?”
“Enough to argue about it,” put in Elissa. “They are bothered about duties, who defines them, and who does them.”
“With good reason,” Harrison riposted. “You can’t escape them yourselves.”
“Meaning—?” asked Seth.
“This world runs on some strange system of swapping obligations. How will any person kill an ob unless he recognizes his duty to do so?”
“Duty has nothing to do with it,” said Seth. “And if it did happen to be a matter of duty, every man would recognize it for himself. It would be outrageous impertinence for anyone else to remind him, unthinkable to anyone to order him.”
“Some guys must make an easy living,” interjected Gleed. “There’s nothing to stop them that I can see.” He studied Seth briefly before he continued, “How can you cope with a citizen who has no conscience?”
“Easy as pie.”
Elissa suggested, “Tell them the story of Idle Jack.”
“It’s a kid’s yarn,” explained Seth. “All children here know it by heart. It’s a classic fable like . . . like—” He screwed up his face. “I’ve lost track of the Terran tales the first comers brought with them.”
“Red Riding Hood,” offered Harrison.
“Yes.” Seth seized on it gratefully. “Something like that one. A nursery story.” He licked his lips, began, “This Idle Jack came from Terra as a baby, grew up in our new world, studied our economic system and thought he’d be mighty smart. He decided to become a scratcher.”
“What’s a scratcher?” inquired Gleed.
“One who lives by taking obs and does nothing about killing them or planting any of his own. One who accepts everything that’s going and gives nothing in return.”
“I get it. I’ve known one or two like that in my time.”
“Up to age sixteen, Jack got away with it. He was a kid, see. All kids tend to scratch to a certain extent. We expect it and allow for it. After sixteen, he was soon in the soup.”
“How?” urged Harrison, more interested than he was willing to show.
“He went around the town gathering obs by the armful. Meals, clothes and all sorts for the mere asking. It’s not a big town. There are no big ones on this planet. They’re just small enough for everyone to know everyone—and everyone does plenty of gabbing. Within three or four months the entire town knew Jack was a determined scratcher.”
“Go on,” said Harrison, getting impatient.
“Everything dried up,” said Seth. “Wherever Jack went, people gave him the ‘I won’t.’ That’s freedom, isn’t it? He got no meals, no clothes, no entertainment, no company, nothing! Soon he became terribly hungry, busted into someone’s larder one night, gave himself the first square meal in a week.” “What did they do about that?” “Nothing. Not a thing.” “That would encourage him some, wouldn’t it?”
“How could it?” Seth asked, with a thin smile. “It did him no good. Next day his belly was empty again. He had to repeat the performance. And the next day. And the next. People became leery, locked up their stuff, kept watch on it. It became harder and harder. It became so unbearably hard that it was soon a lot easier to leave the town and try another. So Idle Jack went away.”
“To do the same again,” Harrison suggested.
“With the same results for the same reasons,” retorted Seth. “On he went to a third town, a fourth, a fifth, a twentieth. He was stubborn enough to be witless.”
“He was getting by,” Harrison observed. “Taking all at the mere cost of moving around.”
“No he wasn’t. Our towns are small, like I said. And folk do plenty of visiting from one to another. In town number two Jack had to risk being seen and talked about by someone from town number one. As he went on it got a whole lot worse. In the twentieth he had to take a chance on gabby visitors from any of the previous nineteen.” Seth leaned forward, said with emphasis, “He never got to town number twenty-eight.”
“He lasted two weeks in number twenty-five, eight days in twenty-six, one day in twenty-seven. That was almost the end.”
“What did he do then?”
“Took to the open country, tried to live on roots and wild berries. Then he disappeared—until one day some walkers found him swinging from a tree. The body was emaciated and clad in rags. Loneliness and self-neglect had killed him. That was Idle Jack, the scratcher. He wasn’t twenty years old.”
“On Terra,” informed Gleed, “we don’t hang people merely for being lazy.”
“Neither do we,” said Seth. “We leave them free to go hang themselves.” He eyed them shrewdly, went on, “But don’t let it worry you. Nobody has been driven to such drastic measures in my lifetime, leastways, not that I’ve heard about. People honor their obs as a matter of economic necessity and not from any sense of duty. Nobody gives orders, nobody pushes anyone around, but there’s a kind of compulsion built into the circumstances of this planet’s way of living. People play square—or they suffer. Nobody enjoys suffering—not even a numbskull.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” put in Harrison, much exercised in mind.
“You bet I’m dead right!” Seth assured. “But what I wanted to talk to you two about is something more important. It’s this: What’s your real ambition in life?”
Without hesitation, Gleed said, “To ride the spaceways while remaining in one piece.”
“Same here,” Harrison contributed.
“I guessed that much. You’d not be in the space service if it wasn’t your choice. But you can’t remain in it forever. All good things come to an end. What then?”
Harrison fidgeted uneasily. “I don’t care to think of it.”
“Some day, you’ll have to,” Seth pointed out. “How much longer have you got?”
“Four and a half Earth years.”
Seth’s gaze turned to Gleed.
“Three Earth years.”
“Not long,” Seth commented. “I didn’t expect you would have much time left. It’s a safe bet that any ship penetrating this deeply into space has a crew composed mostly of old-timers getting near the end of their terms. The practiced hands get picked for the awkward jobs. By the day your boat lands again on Terra it will be the end of the trail for many of them, won’t it?”
“It will for me,” Gleed admitted, none too happy at the thought.
“Time—the older you get the faster it goes. Yet when you leave the service you’ll still be comparatively young.” He registered a faint, taunting smile. “I suppose you’ll then obtain a private space vessel and continue roaming the cosmos on your own?”
“Impossible,” declared Gleed. “The best a rich man can afford is a Moon-boat. Puttering to and fro between a satellite and its primary is no fun when you’re used to Blieder-zips across the galaxy. The smallest space-going craft is far beyond reach of the wealthiest. Only governments can afford them.”
“By ‘governments’ you mean communities?”
“In a way.”
“Well, then, what are you going to do when your space-roving days are over?”
“I’m not like Big Ears here.” Gleed jerked an indicative thumb at Harrison. “I’m a trooper and not a technician. So my choice is limited by lack of qualifications.” He rubbed his chin, looked wistful. “I was born and brought up on a farm. I still know a good deal about farming. So I’d like to get a small one of my own and settle down.”
“Think you’ll manage it?” asked Seth, watching him.
“On Falder or Hygeia or Norton’s Pink Heaven or some other undeveloped planet. But not on Terra. My savings won’t extend to that. I don’t get half enough to meet Earth costs.”
“Meaning you can’t pile up enough obs?”
“I can’t,” agreed Gleed, lugubriously. “Not even if I saved until I’d got a white beard four feet long.”
“So there’s Terra’s reward for a long spell of faithful service—forego your heart’s desire or get out?”
“I won’t,” said Seth. He leaned nearer. “Why do you think two hundred thousand Gands came to this world, Doukhobors to Hygeia, Quakers to Centauri B., and all the others to their selected haunts? Because Terra’s reward for good citizenship was the peremptory order to knuckle down or get out. So we got out.”
“It was just as well, anyway,” Elissa interjected. “According to our history books, Terra was badly overcrowded. We went away and relieved the pressure.”
“That’s beside the point,” reproved Seth. He continued with Gleed. “You want a farm. It can’t be on Terra much as you’d like it there. Terra says, ‘No! Get out!’ So it’s got to be someplace else.” He waited for that to sink in, then, “Here, you can have one for the mere taking.” He snapped his fingers. “Like that!”
“You can’t kid me,” said Gleed, wearing the expression of one eager to be kidded. “Where are the hidden strings?”
“On this planet, any plot of ground belongs to the person in possession, the one who is making use of it. Nobody disputes his claim so long as he continues to use it. All you need do is look around for a suitable piece of unused territory—of which there is plenty—and start using it. From that moment it’s yours. Immediately you cease using it and walk out, it’s anyone else’s, for the taking.”
“Zipping meteors!” Gleed was incredulous.
“Moreover, if you look around long enough and strike really lucky,” Seth continued, “you might stake first claim to a farm someone else has abandoned because of death, illness, a desire to move elsewhere, a chance at something else he liked better, or any other excellent reason. In that case, you would walk into ground already part-prepared, with farmhouse, milking shed, barns and the rest. And it would be yours, all yours.”
“What would I owe the previous occupant?” asked Gleed.
“Nothing. Not an ob. Why should you? If he isn’t buried, he has got out for the sake of something else equally free. He can’t have the benefit both ways, coming and going.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me. Somewhere there’s a snag. Somewhere I’ve got to pour out hard cash or pile up obs.”
“Of course you do. You start a farm. A handful of local folks help you build a house. They dump heavy obs on you. The carpenter wants farm produce for his family for the next couple of years. You give it, thus killing that ob. You continue giving it for a couple of extra years, thus planting an ob on him. First time you want fences mending, or some other suitable task doing, along he comes to kill that ob. And so with all the rest, including the people who supply your raw materials, your seeds and machinery, or do your trucking for you.”
“They won’t all want milk and potatoes,” Gleed pointed out.
“Don’t know what you mean by potatoes. Never heard of them.”
“How can I square up with someone who may be getting all the farm produce he wants from elsewhere?”
“Easy,” said Seth. “A tinsmith supplies you with several churns. He doesn’t want food. He’s getting all he needs from another source. His wife and three daughters are overweight and dieting. The mere thought of a load from your farm gives them the horrors.”
“But this tinsmith’s tailor, or his cobbler, have got obs on him which he hasn’t had the chance to kill. So he transfers them to you. As soon as you’re able, you give the tailor or cobbler what they need to satisfy the obs, thus doing the tinsmith’s killing along with your own.” He gave his usual half-smile, added, “And everyone is happy.”
Gleed stewed it over, frowning while he did it. “You’re tempting me. You shouldn’t ought to. It’s a criminal offense to try to divert a spaceman from his allegiance. It’s sedition. Terra is tough with sedition.”
“Tough my eye!” said Seth, sniffing contemptuously. “We’ve Gand laws here.”
“All you have to do,” suggested Elissa, sweetly persuasive, “is say to yourself that you’ve got to go back to the ship, that it’s your duty to go back, that neither the ship nor Terra can get along without you.” She tucked a curl away. “Then be a free individual and say, ‘I won’t!’”
“They’d skin me alive. Bidworthy would preside over the operation in person.”
“I don’t think so,” Seth offered. “This Bidworthy—whom I presume to be anything but a jovial character—stands with you and the rest of your crew at the same junction. The road before him splits two ways. He’s got to take one or the other and there’s no third alternative. Sooner or later he’ll be hell-bent for home, eating his top lip as he goes, or else he’ll be running around in a truck delivering your milk—because, deep inside himself, that’s what he’s always wanted to do.”
“You don’t know him like I do,” mourned Gleed. “He uses a lump of old iron for a soul.”
“Funny,” remarked Harrison, “I always thought of you that way—until today.”
“I’m off duty,” said Gleed, as though that explained everything. “I can relax and let the ego zoom around outside of business hours.” He stood up, firmed his jaw. “But I’m going back on duty. Right now!”
“You’re not due before sundown tomorrow,” Harrison protested.
“Maybe I’m not. But I’m going back all the same.”
Elissa opened her mouth, closed it as Seth nudged her. They sat in silence and watched Gleed march determinedly out.
“It’s a good sign,” commented Seth, strangely self-assured. “He’s been handed a wallop right where he’s weakest.” He chuckled low down, turned to Harrison. “What’s your ultimate ambition?”
“Thanks for the meal. It was a good one and I needed it.” Harrison stood up, manifestly embarrassed. He gestured toward the door. “I’m going to catch him up. If he’s returning to the ship, I think I’ll do likewise.”
Again Seth nudged Elissa. They said nothing as Harrison made his way out, carefully closing the door behind him.
“Sheep,” decided Elissa, disappointed for no obvious reason. “One follows another. Just like sheep.”
“Not so,” Seth contradicted. “They’re humans animated by the same thoughts, the same emotions, as were our forefathers who had nothing sheeplike about them.” Twisting round in his chair, he beckoned to Matt. “Bring us two shemaks.” Then to Elissa. “My guess is that it won’t pay that ship to hang around too long.”
The battleship’s caller-system bawled imperatively, “Fanshaw, Folsom, Fuller, Garson, Gleed, Gregory, Haines, Harrison, Hope—” and down through the alphabet.
A trickle of men flowed along the passages, catwalks and alleyways toward the fore chartroom. They gathered outside it in small clusters, chattering in undertones and sending odd scraps of conversation echoing down the corridor.
“Wouldn’t say anything to us but, ‘Myob!’ Got sick and tired of it after a while.”
“You ought to have split up, like we did. That show place on the outskirts didn’t know what a Terran looks like. I just walked in and took a seat.”
“Hear about Meakin? He mended a leaky roof, chose a bottle of double dith in payment and mopped the lot. He was dead flat when we found him. Had to be carried back.”
“Some guys have all the luck. We got the brush-off wherever we showed our faces. It gets you down.”
“You should have separated, like I said.”
“Half the mess must be still lying in the gutter. They haven’t turned up yet.”
“Grayder will be hopping mad. He’d have stopped this morning’s second quota if he’d known in time.”
Every now and again First Mate Morgan stuck his head out of the chartroom door and uttered a name already voiced on the caller. Frequently there was no response.
“Harrison!” he yelled.
With a puzzled expression, Harrison went inside. Captain Grayder was there, seated behind a desk and gazing moodily at a list lying before him. Colonel Shelton was stiff and erect to one side, with Major Flame slightly behind him. Both wore the pained expressions of those tolerating a bad smell while the plumber goes looking for the leak.
His Excellency was tramping steadily to and fro in front of the desk, muttering deep down in his chins. “Barely five days and already the rot has set in.” He turned as Harrison entered, fired off sharply, “So it’s you, mister. When did you return from leave?”
“The evening before last, sir.”
“Ahead of time, eh? That’s curious. Did you get a puncture or something?”
“No, sir. I didn’t take my bicycle with me.”
“Just as well,” approved the ambassador. “If you had done so, you’d have been a thousand miles away by now and still pushing hard.”
“Why? He asks me why! That’s precisely what I’d like to know—why?” He fumed a bit, then inquired, “Did you visit this town by yourself, or in company?”
“I went with Sergeant Gleed, sir.”
“Call him,” ordered the ambassador, looking at Morgan.
Opening the door, Morgan obediently shouted, “Gleed! Gleed!”
He tried again, without result. They put it over the caller-system again. Sergeant Gleed refused to be among those present.
“Has he booked in?”
Grayder consulted his list. “In early. Twenty-four hours ahead of time. He may have sneaked out again with the second liberty quota this morning and omitted to book it. That’s a double crime.”
“If he’s not on the ship, he’s off the ship, crime or no crime.”
“Yes, your excellency.” Captain Grayder registered slight weariness.
“GLEED!” howled Morgan, outside the door. A moment later he poked his head inside, said, “Your excellency, one of the men says Sergeant Gleed is not on board because he saw him in town quite recently.”
“Send him in.” The ambassador made an impatient gesture at Harrison. “Stay where you are and keep those confounded ears from flapping. I’ve not finished with you yet.”
A long, gangling grease-monkey came in, blinked around, a little awed by high brass.
“What do you know about Sergeant Gleed?” demanded the ambassador.
The other licked his lips, seemed sorry that he had mentioned the missing man. “It’s like this, your honor, I—”
“Call me ‘sir.’”
“Yes, sir.” More disconcerted blinking. “I went out with the second party early this morning, came back a couple of hours ago because my stomach was acting up. On the way, I saw Sergeant Gleed and spoke to him.”
“In town, sir. He was sitting in one of those big long-distance coaches. I thought it a bit queer.”
“Get down to the roots, man! What did he tell you, if anything?”
“Not much, sir. He seemed pretty chipper about something. Mentioned a young widow struggling to look after two hundred acres. Someone had told him about her and he thought he’d take a peek.” He hesitated, backed away a couple of paces, added, “He also said I’d see him in irons or never.”
“One of your men,” said the ambassador to Colonel Shelton. “A trooper, allegedly well-disciplined. One with long service, three stripes, and a pension to lose.” His attention returned to the informant. “Did he say exactly where he was going?”
“No, sir. I asked him, but he just grinned and said, ‘Myob!’ So I came back to the ship.”
“All right. You may go.” His Excellency watched the other depart, then continued with Harrison. “You were with that first quota.”
“Let me tell you something, mister. Four hundred twenty men went out. Only two hundred have returned. Forty of those were in various stages of alcoholic turpitude. Ten of them are in the clink yelling, ‘I won’t!’ in steady chorus. Doubtless they’ll go on yelling until they’ve sobered up.”
He stared at Harrison as if that worthy were personally responsible, then went on, “There’s something paradoxical about this. I can understand the drunks. There are always a few individuals who blow their tops first day on land. But of the two hundred who have condescended to come back, about half returned before time, the same as you did. Their reasons were identical—the town was unfriendly, everyone treated them like ghosts until they’d had enough.”
Harrison made no comment.
“So we have two diametrically opposed reactions,” the ambassador complained. “One gang of men say the place stinks so much that they’d rather be back on the ship. Another gang finds it so hospitable that either they get filled to the gills on some stuff called double dith, or they stay sober and desert the service. I want an explanation. There’s got to be one somewhere. You’ve been twice in this town. What can you tell us?”
Carefully, Harrison said, “It all depends on whether or not you’re spotted as a Terran. Also on whether you meet Gands who’d rather convert you than give you the brush-off.” He pondered a moment, finished, “Uniforms are a giveaway.”
“You mean they’re allergic to uniforms?”
“More or less, sir.”
“Any idea why?”
“Couldn’t say for certain, sir. I don’t know enough about them yet. As a guess, I think they may have been taught to associate uniforms with the Terran regime from which their ancestors escaped.”
“Escaped nothing!” scoffed the ambassador. “They grabbed the benefit of Terran inventions, Terran techniques and Terran manufacturing ability to go someplace where they’d have more elbow room.” He gave Harrison the sour eye. “Don’t any of them wear uniforms?”
“Not that I could recognize as such. They seem to take pleasure in expressing their individual personalities by wearing anything they fancy, from pigtails to pink boots. Oddity in attire is the norm among the Gands. Uniformity is the real oddity—they think it’s submissive and degrading.”
“You refer to them as Gands. Where did they dig up that name?” Harrison told him, thinking back to Elissa as she explained it. In his mind’s eye he could see her now. And Seth’s place with the tables set and steam rising behind the counter and mouth-watering smells oozing from the background. Now that he came to visualize the scene again, it appeared to embody an elusive but essential something that the ship had never possessed.
“And this person,” he concluded, “invented what they call The Weapon.”
“Hm-m-m! And they assert he was a Terran? What does he look like? Did you see a photograph or a statue?”
“They don’t erect statues, sir. They say no person is more important than another.”
“Bunkum!” snapped the ambassador, instinctively rejecting that viewpoint. “Did it occur to you to ask at what period in history this wonderful weapon was tried out?”
“No, sir,” Harrison confessed. “I didn’t think it important.”
“You wouldn’t. Some of you men are too slow to catch a Callistrian sloth wandering in its sleep. I don’t criticize your abilities as spacemen, but as intelligence-agents you’re a dead loss.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said Harrison.
Sorry? You louse! whispered something deep within his own mind. Why should you be sorry? He’s only a pompous fat man who couldn’t kill an ob if he tried. He’s no better than you. Those raw boys prancing around on Hygeia would maintain that he’s not as good as you because he’s got a pot belly. Yet you keep looking at his pot belly and saying, “Sir,” and, “I’m sorry.” If he tried to ride your bike, he’d fall off before he’d gone ten yards. Go spit in his eye and say, “I won’t.” You’re not scared, are you?
“No!” announced Harrison, loudly and firmly.
Captain Grayder glanced up. “If you’re going to start answering questions before they’ve been asked, you’d better see the medic. Or have we a telepath on board?”
“I was thinking,” Harrison explained.
“I approve of that,” put in His Excellency. He lugged a couple of huge tomes out of the wall-shelves, began to thumb rapidly through them. “Do plenty of thinking whenever you’ve the chance and it will become a habit. It will get easier and easier as time rolls on. In fact, a day may come when it can be done without pain.”
He shoved the books back, pulled out two more, spoke to Major Hame who happened to be at his elbow. “Don’t pose there glassy-eyed like a relic propped up in a military museum. Give me a hand with this mountain of knowledge. I want Gandhi, anywhere from three hundred to a thousand Earth-years ago.”
Hame came to life, started dragging out books. So did Colonel Shelton. Captain Grayder remained at his desk and continued to mourn the missing.
“Ah, here it is, four-seventy years back.” His Excellency ran a plump finger along the printed lines. “Gandhi, sometimes called Bapu, or Father, Citizen of Hindi. Politico-philosopher. Opposed authority by means of an ingenious system called civil disobedience. Last remnants disappeared with the Great Explosion, but may still persist on some planet out of contact.”
“Evidently it does,” commented Grayder, his voice dry.
“Civil disobedience,” repeated the ambassador, screwing up his eyes. He had the air of one trying to study something which was topsy-turvy. “They can’t make that a social basis. It just won’t work.”
“It does work,” asserted Harrison, forgetting to put in the “sir.”
“Are you contradicting me, mister?”
“I’m stating a fact.”
“Your excellency,” Grayder began, “I suggest—”
“Leave this to me.” His color deepening, the ambassador waved him off. His gaze remained angrily on Harrison. “You’re very far from being an expert on socio-economic problems. Get that into your head, mister. Anyone of your caliber can be fooled by superficial appearances.”
“It works,” persisted Harrison, wondering where his own stubbornness was coming from.
“So does your tomfool bicycle. You’ve a bicycle mentality.”
Something snapped, and a voice remarkably like his own said, “Nuts!” Astounded by this phenomenon, Harrison waggled his ears.
“What was that, mister?”
“Nuts!” he repeated, feeling that what has been done can’t be undone.
Beating the purpling ambassador to the draw, Captain Grayder stood up and exercised his own authority.
“Regardless of further leave-quotas, if any, you are confined to the ship until further notice. Now get out!”
He went out, his mind in a whirl but his soul strangely satisfied. Outside, First Mate Morgan glowered at him.
“How long d’you think it’s going to take me to work through this list of names when guys like you squat in there for a week?” He grunted with ire, cupped hands round his mouth and bellowed, “Hope! Hope!”
“Hope’s been abandoned,” remarked a wit.
“That’s funny,” sneered Morgan. “Look at me shaking all over.” He cupped again, tried the next name. “Hyland! Hyland!”
Four more days, long, tedious, dragging ones. That made nine in all since the battleship formed the rut in which it was still sitting.
There was trouble on board. The third and fourth leave-quotas, put off repeatedly, were becoming impatient, irritable.
“Morgan showed him the third roster again this morning. Same result. Grayder admitted this world can’t be defined as hostile and that we’re entitled to run free.”
“Well, why the heck doesn’t he keep to the book? The Space Commission could crucify him for disregarding it.”
“Same excuse. He says he’s not denying leave, he’s merely postponing it. That’s a crafty evasion, isn’t it? He says he’ll grant it immediately the missing men come back.”
“That might be never. Darn him, he’s using them as an excuse to gyp me out of my time.”
It was a strong and legitimate complaint. Weeks, months, years of close confinement in a constantly trembling bottle, no matter how large, demands ultimate release if only for a comparatively brief period. Men need fresh air, the good earth, the broad, clear-cut horizon, bulk-food, femininity, new faces.
“He would ram home the stopper just when we’ve learned the best way to get around. Civilian clothes and act like Gands, that’s the secret. Even the first-quota boys are ready for another try.”
“Grayder daren’t risk it. He’s lost too many already. One more quota cut in half and he won’t have enough crew to take off and get back. We’d be stuck here for keeps. How’d you like that?”
“I wouldn’t grieve.”
“He could train the bureaucrats. Time those guys did some honest work.”
“It’d take three years. That’s how long it took to train you, wasn’t it?”
Harrison came along holding a small envelope. Three of them picked on him at sight.
“Look who sassed Hizonner and got confined to ship—same as us!”
“That’s what I like about it,” Harrison observed. “Better to get fastened down for something than for nothing.”
“It won’t be long, you’ll see! We’re not going to hang around bellyaching for ever. Mighty soon we’ll do something.”
“Such as what?”
“We’re thinking it over,” evaded the other, not liking to be taken up so fast. He noticed the envelope. “What have you got there? The day’s mail?”
“Exactly that,” Harrison agreed.
“Have it your own way. I wasn’t being nosey. I thought maybe you’d got some more snafu. You engineers usually pick up that paperstuff first.”
“It is mail,” said Harrison.
“G’wan, nobody has letters in this neck of the cosmos.”
“How did you get it?”
“Worrall brought it from town an hour back. Friend of mine gave him dinner, let him bring the letter to kill the ob.” He pulled a large ear. “Influence, that’s what you boys need.”
Registering annoyance, one demanded, “What’s Worrall doing oft the boat? Is he privileged?”
“Sort of. He’s married, with three kids.”
“The ambassador figures that some people can be trusted more than others. They’re not so likely to disappear, having too much to lose. So a few have been sorted out and sent into town to seek information about the missing men.”
“They found out anything?”
“Not much. Worrall says it’s a waste of time. He found a few of our men here and there, tried to persuade them to return, but each said, ‘I won’t.’ The Gands all said, ‘Myob!’ And that’s that.”
“There must be something in it,” decided one of them, thoughtfully. “I’d like to go see for myself.”
“That’s what Grayder’s afraid of.”
“We’ll give him more than that to worry about if he doesn’t become reasonable soon. Our patience is evaporating.”
“Mutinous talk,” Harrison reproved. He shook his head, looked sad. “You shock me.”
He continued along the corridor, reached his own cabin, eyed the envelope. The writing inside might be feminine. He hoped so. He tore it open and had a look. It wasn’t.
Signed by Gleed, the missive read, “Never mind where I am or what I’m doing—this might get into the wrong hands. All I’ll tell you is that I’ll be fixed up topnotch providing I wait a decent interval to improve acquaintance. The rest of this concerns you.”
“Huh?” He leaned back on his bunk, held the letter nearer the light.
“I found a little fat guy running an empty shop. He just sits there, waiting. Next, I learn that he’s established possession by occupation. He’s doing it on behalf of a factory that makes two-ball rollers—those fan-driven cycles. They want someone to operate the place as a local roller sales and service depot. The little fat man has had four applications to date, but none with any engineering ability. The one who eventually gets this place will plant a functional-ob on the town, whatever that means. Anyway, this joint is yours for the taking. Don’t be stupid. Jump in—the water’s fine.”
“Zipping meteors!” said Harrison. His eyes traveled on to the bottom.
“P.S. Seth will give you the address. P.P.S. This burg is your brunette’s home town and she’s thinking of coming back. She wants to live near her sister—and so do I. Said sister is a honey!”
He stirred restlessly, read it through a second time, got up and paced around his tiny cabin. There were twelve hundred occupied worlds within the scope of the Empire. He’d seen about one-tenth of them. No spaceman could live long enough to get a look at the lot. The service was divided into cosmic groups, each dealing with its own sector.
Except by hearsay, of which there was plenty and most of it highly colored, he would never know what heavens or pseudo-heavens existed in other sectors. In any case, it would be a blind gamble to pick an unfamiliar world for landbound life on someone else’s recommendation. Not all think alike, or have the same tastes. One man’s meat may be another man’s poison.
The choice for retirement—which was the unlovely name for beginning another, different but vigorous life—was high-priced Terra or some more desirable planet in his own sector. There was the Epsilon group, fourteen of them, all attractive providing you could suffer the gravity and endure lumbering around like a tired elephant. There was Norton’s Pink Heaven if, for the sake of getting by in peace, you could pander to Septimus Norton’s rajah-complex and put up with his delusions of grandeur.
Up on the edge of the Milky Way was a matriarchy run by blonde Amazons, and a world of wizards, and a Pentecostal planet, and a globe where semisentient vegetables cultivated themselves under the direction of human masters; all scattered across forty light-years of space but readily accessible by Blieder-drive.
There were more than a hundred known to him by personal experience, though merely a tithe of the whole. All offered life and that company which is the essence of life. But this world, Gand, had something the others lacked. It had the quality of being present. It was part of the existing environment from which he drew data on which to build his decisions. The others were not. They lost virtue by being absent and faraway.
Unobtrusively, he made his way to the Blieder-room lockers, spent an hour cleaning and oiling his bicycle. Twilight was approaching when he returned. Taking a thin plaque from his pocket, he hung it on the wall, lay on his bunk and stared at it.
The caller-system clicked, cleared its throat, announced, “All personnel will stand by for general instructions at eight hours tomorrow.”
“I won’t,” said Harrison. He closed his eyes.
Seven-twenty in the morning, but nobody thought it early. There is little sense of earliness or lateness among space-roamers—to regain it they have to be landbound a month, watching a sun rise and set.
The chartroom was empty but there was much activity in the control cabin. Grayder was there with Shelton, Hame, Navigators Adamson, Werth and Yates and, of course, His Excellency.
“I never thought the day would come,” groused the latter, frowning at the star map over which the navigators pored. “Less than a couple of weeks, and we get out, admitting defeat.”
“With all respect, your excellency, it doesn’t look that way to me,” said Captain Grayder. “One can be defeated only by enemies. These people are not enemies. That’s precisely where they’ve got us by the short hairs. They’re not definable as hostile.”
“That may be. I still say it’s defeat. What else could you call it?”
“We’ve been outwitted by awkward relations. There’s not much we can do about it. A man doesn’t beat up his nieces and nephews merely because they won’t speak to him.”
“That’s your viewpoint as a ship’s commander. You’re confronted by a situation that requires you to go back to base and report. It’s routine. The whole service is hidebound with routine.” The ambassador again eyed the star map as if he found it offensive. “My own status is different. If I get out, it’s a diplomatic defeat, an insult to the dignity and prestige of Terra. I’m far from sure that I ought to go. It might be better if I stayed put—though that would give them the chance to offer further insults.”
“I would not presume to advise you what to do for the best,” Grayder said. “All I know is this: we carry troops and armaments for any policing or protective purposes that might be found necessary here. But I can’t use them offensively against these Gands because they’ve provided no pretext and because, in any case, our full strength isn’t enough to crush twelve millions of them. We need an armada for that. We’d be fighting at the extreme of our reach—and the reward of victory would be a useless world.”
“Don’t remind me. I’ve stewed it until I’m sick of it.”
Grayder shrugged. He was a man of action so long as it was action in space. Planetary shenanigans were not properly his pigeon. Now that the decisive moment was drawing near, when he would be back in his own attenuated element, he was becoming phlegmatic. To him, Gand was a visit among a hundred such, with plenty more to come.
“Your excellency, if you’re in serious doubt whether to remain or come with us, I’d be favored if you’d reach a decision fairly soon. Morgan has given me the tip that if I haven’t approved the third leave-quota by ten o’clock the men are going to take matters into their own hands and walk off.”
“That would get them into trouble of a really hot kind, wouldn’t it?”
“Some,” agreed Captain Grayder, “but not so hot. They intend to turn my own quibbling against me. Since I have not officially forbidden leave, a walk-out won’t be mutiny. I’ve merely been postponing leave. They could plead before the Space Commission that I’ve deliberately ignored regulations. They might get away with it if the members were in the mood to assert their authority.”
“The Commission ought to be taken on a few long flights,” opined His Excellency. “They’d discover some things they’ll never learn behind a desk.” He eyed the other in mock hopefulness. “Any chance of accidentally dropping our cargo of bureaucrats overboard on the way back? A misfortune like that might benefit the spaceways, if not humanity.”
“That idea strikes me as Gandish,” observed Grayder.
“They wouldn’t think of it. Their technique is to say no, no, a thousand times no. That’s all—but judging by what has happened here, it is enough.” The ambassador pondered his predicament, reached a decision. “I’m coming with you. It goes against the grain because it smacks of surrender. To stay would be a defiant gesture, but I’ve got to face the fact that it won’t serve any useful purpose at the present stage.”
“Very well, your excellency.” Grayder went to a port, looked through it toward the town. “I’m down about four hundred men. Some of them have deserted, for keeps. The rest will come back if I wait long enough. They’ve struck it lucky, got their legs under somebody’s table and gone A.W.O.L. and they’re likely to extend their time for as long as the fun lasts on the principle that they may as well be hung for sheep as lambs. I get that sort of trouble on every long trip. It’s not so bad on short ones.” A pause while moodily he surveyed a terrain bare of returning prodigals. “But we can’t wait for them. Not here.”
“No, I reckon not.”
“If we hang around any longer, we’re going to lose another hundred or two. There won’t be enough skilled men to take the boat up. Only way I can beat them to the draw is to give the order to prepare for take-off. They all come under flight-regulations from that moment.” He registered a lopsided smile. “That will give the space lawyers something to think about!”
“As soon as you like,” approved the ambassador. He joined the other at the port, studied the distant road, watched three Gand coaches whirl along it without stopping. He frowned, still upset by the type of mind which insists on pretending that a mountain isn’t there. His attention shifted sidewise, toward the tail-end. He stiffened and said, “What are those men doing outside?”
Shooting a swift glance in the same direction, Grayder grabbed the caller-make and rapped, “All personnel will prepare for take-off at once!” Juggling a couple of switches, he changed lines, said, “Who is that? Sergeant major Bidworthy? Look, sergeant major, there are half a dozen men beyond the midship lock. Get them in immediately—we’re lifting as soon as everything’s ready.”
The fore and aft gangways had been rolled into their stowage spaces long before. Some fast-thinking quartermaster prevented further escapes by operating the midship ladder-wind, thus trapping Bidworthy along with more would-be sinners.
Finding himself stalled, Bidworthy stood in the rim of the lock and glared at those outside. His mustache not only bristled, but quivered. Five of the offenders had been members of the first leave-quota. One of them was a trooper. That got his rag out, a trooper. The sixth was Harrison, complete with bicycle polished and shining.
Searing the lot of them, the trooper in particular, Bidworthy rasped, “Get back on board. No arguments. No funny business. We’re taking off.”
“Hear that?” asked one, nudging the nearest. “Get back on board. If you can’t jump thirty feet, you’d better flap your arms and fly.”
“No sauce from you,” roared Bidworthy. “I’ve got my orders.”
“He takes orders,” remarked the trooper. “At his age.”
“Can’t understand it,” commented another, shaking a sorrowful head.
Bidworthy scrabbled the lock’s smooth rim in vain search of something to grasp. A ridge, a knob, a projection of some sort was needed to take the strain.
“I warn you men that if you try me too—”
“Save your breath, Biddy,” interjected the trooper. “From now on, I’m a Gand.” With that, he turned and walked rapidly toward the road, four following.
Getting astride his bike, Harrison put a foot on a pedal. His back tire promptly sank with a loud whee-e-e.
“Come back!” howled Bidworthy at the retreating five. He made extravagant motions, tried to tear the ladder from its automatic grips. A siren keened thinly inside the vessel. That upped his agitation by several ergs.
“Hear that?” With vein-pulsing ire, he watched Harrison tighten the rear valve and apply his hand pump. “We’re about to lift. For the last time—”
Again the siren, this time in a quick series of shrill toots. Bidworthy jumped backward as the seal came down. The lock closed. Harrison again mounted his machine, settled a foot on a pedal but remained watching.
The metal monster shivered from nose to tall then rose slowly and in utter silence. There was stately magnificence in the ascent of such enormous bulk. It increased its rate of climb gradually, went faster, faster, became a toy, a dot and finally disappeared.
For just a moment, Harrison felt a touch of doubt, a hint of regret. It soon passed away. He glanced toward the road.
The five self-elected Gands had thumbed a coach which was picking them up. That was co-operation apparently precipitated by the ship’s disappearance. Quick on the uptake, these people. He saw it move off on huge rubber balls, bearing the five with it. A fan-cycle raced in the opposite direction, hummed into the distance.
“Your brunette,” Gleed had described her. What gave him that idea? Had she made some remark which he’d construed as complimentary because it made no reference to outsize ears?
He had a last look around. The earth to his left bore a great curved rut one mile long by twelve feet deep. Two thousand Terrans had been there.
Then about eighteen hundred.
Then sixteen hundred.
“One left—me!” he said to himself.
Giving a fatalistic shrug, he put the pressure on and rode to town.
And then there were none.