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´╗┐Title: Conquest Over Time
Author: Shaara, Michael
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Conquest Over Time" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                         Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from Fantastic Universe November 1956.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed.


[_"Now this here planet," he said cautiously, "is whacky in
   a lot of ways. First of all they call it Mert. Just plain Mert. And
   they live in houses strictly from Dickens, all carriages, no sewers,
   narrow streets, stuff like that." But that wasn't all.... Travis, in
   reaching Diomed III before any others, found himself waging a one-man
   fight against more than this; he was bucking the strangest way of life
   you have ever heard of!_]


                          conquest over time


                        by ... Michael Shaara


     What was the startling secret of Diomed III that almost
     caused Travis to lose his life? And who was Lappy?...

       *       *       *       *       *



When the radiogram came in it was 10:28 ship's time and old 29 was
exactly 3.4 light years away from Diomed III. Travis threw her wide
open and hoped for the best. By 4:10 that same afternoon, minus three
burned out generators and fronting a warped ion screen, old 29 touched
the atmosphere and began homing down. It was a very tense moment.
Somewhere down in that great blue disc below a Mapping Command ship
sat in an open field, sending up the beam which was guiding them down.
But it was not the Mapping Command that was important. The Mapping
Command was always first. What mattered now was to come in second, any
kind of second, close or wide, mile or eyelash, but second come hell
or high water.

The clouds peeled away. Travis staring anxiously down could see
nothing but mist and heavy cloud. He could not help sniffing the air
and groaning inwardly. There is no smell quite as expensive as that of
burned generators. He could hear the Old Man repeating over and over
again--as if Allspace was not one of the richest companies in
existence--"burned generators, boy, is burned _money_, and don't you
forget it!" Fat chance me forgetting it, Travis thought gloomily,
twitching his nostrils. But a moment later he did.

For Diomed III was below him.

And Diomed III was an Open Planet.

It happened less often, nowadays, that the Mapping Command ran across
intelligent life, and it was even less often that the intelligent life
was humanoid. But when it happened it was an event to remember. For
space travel had brought with it two great problems. The first was
Contact, the second was Trade. For many years Man had prohibited
contact with intelligent humanoids who did not yet have space travel,
on the grounds of the much-discussed Maturity Theory. As time went by,
however, and humanoid races were discovered which were biologically
identical with Man, and as great swarms of completely alien, often
hostile races were also discovered, the Maturity Theory went into
discard. A human being, ran the new slogan, is a Human Being, and so
came the first great Contact Law, which stated that any humanoid race,
regardless of its place on the evolutionary scale, was to be
contacted. To be accepted, "yea, welcomed," as the phrase went, into
the human community. And following this, of course, there came Trade.
For it was the businessmen who had started the whole thing in the
first place.

Hence the day of the Open Planet. A humanoid race was discovered by
the Mapping Command, the M.C. made its investigation, and then sent
out the Word. And every company in the Galaxy, be it monstrous huge or
piddling small, made a mad rush to be first on the scene. The
Government was very strict about the whole business, the idea being
that planets should make their contracts with companies rather than
the government itself, so that if any shady business arose the company
at fault could be kicked out, and there would be no chance of a
general war. Also, went the reasoning, under this system there would
be no favorites. Whichever company, no matter its resources, had a
ship closest at the time of the call, was the one to get first
bargaining rights. Under this setup it was very difficult for any one
company to grow too large, or to freeze any of the others out, and
quite often a single contract on a single planet was enough to
transform a fly-by-night outfit into a major concern.

So that was the basis of the Open Planet, but there the real story has
only begun. Winning the race did not always mean winning the contract.
It was what you found when you got down that made the job of a Contact
Man one of the most hazardous occupations in history. Each new planet
was wholly and completely new, there were no rules, and what you
learned on all the rest meant nothing. You went from a matriarchy
which refused absolutely to deal with men (the tenth ship to arrive
had a lady doctor and therefore got the contract) to a planet where
the earth was sacred and you couldn't dig a hole in it so mining was
out, to a planet which considered your visit the end of the world and
promptly committed mass suicide. The result of this was that a
successful Contact Man had to be a remarkable man to begin with: a
combined speed demon, sociologist, financier, diplomat and geologist,
all in one. It was a job in which successful men not only made
fortunes, they made legends. It was that way with Pat Travis.

Sitting at the viewscreen, watching the clouds whip by and the first
dark clots of towns beginning to shape below, Travis thought about the
legend. He was a tall, frail, remarkably undernourished looking man
with large soft brown eyes. He did not look like a legend and he knew
it, and, being a man of great pride, it bothered him. More and more,
as the years went by, his competitors blamed his success on luck. It
was not Pat Travis that was the legend, it was the luck of Pat Travis.
Over the years he had learned not to argue about it, and it was only
during these past few months, when his luck had begun to slip, that he
mentioned it at all.

Luck no more makes a legend, he knew, than raw courage makes a
fighter. But legends die quick in deep space, and his own had been
a-dying for a good long while now, while other lesser men, the luck
all theirs, plucked planet after planet from under his nose. Now at
the viewscreen he glanced dolefully across the room at his crew: the
curly-headed young Dahlinger and the profound Mr. Trippe. In contrast
to his own weary relaxation, both of the young men were tensed and
anxious, peering into the screen. They had come to learn under the
great Pat Travis, but in the last few months what they seemed to have
learned most was Luck: if you happened to be close you were lucky and
if you weren't you weren't. But if they were to get anywhere in this
business, Travis knew, they had to learn that luck, more often than
not, follows the man who burns his generators....

       *       *       *       *       *

He stopped thinking abruptly as a long yellow field came into view. He
saw silver flashing in the sun, and his heart jumped into his throat.
Old 29 settled fast. One ship or two? In the distance he could see the
gray jumbled shapes of a low-lying city. The sun was shining warmly,
it was spring on Diomed III, and across the field a blue river
sparkled, but Travis paid no attention. There was only one silver
gleam. Still he waited, not thinking. But when they were close enough
he saw that he was right. The Mapping Command ship was alone. Old 29,
burned generators and all, had won the race.

"My boys," he said gravely, turning to the crew, "Pat Travis rides
again!" But they were already around him, pounding him on the back. He
turned happily back to the screen, for the first time beginning to
admire the view. By jing, he thought, what a lovely day!

That was his first mistake.

It was not a lovely day.

It was absolutely miserable.

       *       *       *       *       *

Travis had his first pang of doubt when he stepped out of the ship.

The field was empty, not a native in sight. But Dahlinger was out
before him, standing waist high in the grass and heaving deep lungfuls
of the flower-scented air. He yelled that he could already smell the
gold.

"I say, Trav," Trippe said thoughtfully from behind him, "where's the
fatted calf?"

"In this life," Travis said warily, "one is often disappointed." A
figure climbed out of a port over at the Mapping Command ship and came
walking slowly toward them. Travis recognized him and grinned.

"Hey, Hort."

"Hey Trav," Horton replied from a distance. But he did not say
anything else. He came forward with an odd look on his face. Travis
did not understand. Ed Horton was an old buddy and Ed Horton should be
happy to see him. Travis felt his second pang. This one went deep.

"Anybody beat us here?"

"No. You're the first, Trav."

Dahlinger whooped. Travis relaxed slightly and even the glacial Trippe
could not control a silly grin.

Horton caught a whiff of air from the open lock.

"B u r n e d generators? You must've come like hell." His face showed his
respect. Between burning a generator and blowing one entirely there is
only a microscopic distance, and it takes a very steady pilot indeed
to get the absolute most out of his generators without also spreading
himself and his ship over several cubic miles of exploded space.

"Like a striped-tailed ape," Dahlinger chortled. "Man, you should see
the boss handle a ship. I thought every second we were going to
explode in technicolor."

"Well," Horton said feebly. "Burned generators. Shame."

He lowered his eyes and began toeing the ground. Travis felt suddenly
ill.

"What's the matter, Hort?"

Horton shrugged. "I hate like heck to be the one to tell you, Trav,
but seein' as I know you, they sent me--"

"Tell me what?" Now Dahlinger and Trippe both realized it and were
suddenly silent.

"Well, if only you'd taken a little more time. But not you, not old
Pat Travis. By damn, Pat, you came in here like a downhill
locomotive, it ain't my fault--"

"Hort, straighten it out. What's not your fault?"

Horton sighed.

"Listen, it's a long story. I've got a buggy over here to take you
into town. They're puttin' you up at a hotel so you can look the place
over. I'll tell you on the way in."

"The heck with that," Dahlinger said indignantly, "we want to see the
_man_."

"You're not goin' to see the man, sonny," Horton said patiently, "You
are, as a matter of fact, the last people on the planet the man wants
to see right now."

Dahlinger started to say something but Travis shut him up. He told
Trippe to stay with the ship and took Dahlinger with him. At the end
of the field was a carriage straight out of Seventeenth Century
England. And the things that drew it--if you closed your eyes--looked
reasonably similar to horses. The three men climbed aboard. There was
no driver. Horton explained that the 'horses' would head straight for
the hotel.

"Well all right," Travis said, "what's the story?"

"Don't turn those baby browns on me," Horton said gloomily, "I would
have warned you if I could, but you know the law says we can't show
favoritism...."

Travis decided the best thing to do was wait with as much patience as
possible. After a while Horton had apologized thoroughly and
completely, although what had happened was certainly not his fault,
and finally got on with the tale.

"Now this here planet," he said cautiously, "is whacky in a lot of
ways. First off they call it Mert. Mert. Fine name for a planet. Just
plain Mert. And they live in houses strictly from Dickens, all
carriages, no sewers, narrow streets, stuff like that. With technology
roughly equivalent to seventeenth century. But now--see there, see
that building over there?"

Travis followed his pointing finger through the trees. A large white
building of blinding marble was coming slowly into view. Travis' eyes
widened.

"You see? Just like the blinkin' Parthenon, or Acropolis, whichever it
is. All columns and frescoes. In the middle of a town looks just like
London. Makes no sense, but there it is. And that's not all. Their
government is Grecian too, complete with Senate and Citizens. No
slaves though. Well not exactly. You couldn't call them slaves. Or
could you? Heck of a question, that--" He paused to brood. Travis
nudged him.

"Yes. Well, all that is minor, next to the big thing. This is one of
two major countries on the planet. There's a few hill tribes but these
make up about 90 percent of the population, so you have to deal with
these. They never go to war, well maybe once in a while, but not very
often. So no trouble there. The big trouble is one you'd never guess,
not in a million years."

He stared at Travis unhappily.

"The whole planet's run on astrology."

He waited for a reaction. Travis said nothing.

"It ain't funny," Horton said. "When I say run on astrology I mean
really run. Wait'll you hear."

"I'm not laughing," Travis said. "But is that all? In this business
you learn to respect the native customs, so if all we have to do--"

"I ain't finished yet," Horton said ominously, "you don't get the
point. _Everything_ these people do is based on astrology. And that
means business too, lad, business too. Every event that happens on
this cockeyed world, from a picnic to a wedding to a company merger or
a war, it's all based on astrology. They have it down so exact they
even tell you when to sneeze. You ought to see the daily paper. Half
of it's solid astrological guidance. All the Senators not only have
astrologers, they _are_ astrologers. And get this: every man and woman
and child alive on this planet was catalogued the day he was born. His
horoscope was drawn up by the public astrologer--a highly honored
office--and his future laid out according to what the horoscope said.
If his horoscope indicates a man of stature and responsibility, he
_becomes_, by God, a man of stature and responsibility. You have to
see it to believe it. Kids with good horoscopes are sent to the best
schools, people fight to give them jobs. Well, take the courts, for
example. When they're trying a case, do they talk about evidence? They
do not. They call in a legal astrologer--there's all kinds of branches
in the profession--and this joker all by himself determines the guilt
or innocence of the accused. By checking the aspects. Take a wedding.
Boy meets girl. Boy likes girl. Does boy go see girl? No. He heads
straight for an astrologer. The girl's horoscope is on file in the
local city hall, just like everybody else. The astrologer compares the
charts and determines whether the marriage will be a good one. He is,
naturally, a marital astrologer. He gives the word. If he says no they
don't marry.

"I could go on for hours. But you really have to see it. Take the case
of people who want to have children. They want them born, naturally,
at the time of the best possible aspects, so they consult an
astrologer and he gives them a list of the best times for a baby to be
conceived. These times are not always convenient, sometimes it's 4:18
in the morning and sometimes it's 2:03 Monday afternoon. Yet this is a
legitimate excuse for getting out of work. A man goes in, tells his
boss it's breeding time, and off he goes without a penny docked. Build
a better race, they say. Of course the gestation period is variable,
and they never do hit it right on the nose, and also there are still
the natural accidents, so quite a few are born with terrible
horoscopes--"

"Holy smoke!" Travis muttered. The possibilities of it blossomed in
his mind. He began to understand what was coming.

"Now you begin to see?" Horton went on gloomily. "Look what an
Earthman represents to these people. We are the unknown, the
completely capital U Unknown. Everybody else is a certain definite
quantity, his horoscope is on file and every man on Mert has access to
all his potentialities, be they good, bad or indifferent. But not us.
They don't know when we were born, or where, and even if they did it
it wouldn't do them any good, because they haven't got any system
covering Mars and Jupiter, the planets at home. Everybody else is
catalogued, but not us."

"And just because they believe so thoroughly in their own astrology
they've gotten used to the idea that a man is what his horoscope says
he is."

"But us? What are we? They haven't the vaguest idea, and it scares
hell out of them. The only thing they can do is check with one of the
branches, what they call Horary Astrology, and make a horoscope of the
day we landed. Even if that tells them nothing about us in particular
at least it tells them, or so they believe, all about our mission to
Mert. Because the moment our ship touched the ground was the birth
date of our business here."

He paused and regarded Travis with woeful sympathy.

"With us, luckily, it was all right. The Mapping Command just happened
to hit here on a good day. But you? Trav, old buddy, for once you came
just too damn fast--"

"Oh my God," Travis breathed. "We landed on a bad day."

"Bad?" Horton sighed. "Man, it's _terrible_."

       *       *       *       *       *

"You see," Horton said as they drove into the town, "not a soul on the
streets. This is not only a bad day, this is one for the books.
To-morrow, you see, there is an eclipse. And to these people there is
nothing more frightening than an eclipse. During the entire week
preceding one they won't do a darn thing. No business, no weddings, no
anything. The height of it will be reached about tomorrow noon. Their
moon--which is a tiny little thing not much bigger than our first
space station--is called Felda. It is very important in their
astrology. And for all practical purposes the eclipse is already in
force. I knew you were riding in down the base so I checked it out. It
not only applies to you, other things cinch it."

He pulled a coarse sheet of paper from his pocket and read from it in
a wishful voice: "With Huck, planet of necessity, transiting the 12th
house of endings and things hidden, squaring Bonken, planet of gain,
in the ninth house of travellers and distant places, it is
unquestionable that the visit of these--uh--persons bodes ill for
Mert. If further proof is needed, one need only examine the position
of Diomed, which is conjunct Huck, and closely square to Lyndal, in
the third house of commerce, etc, etc. You see what I mean? On top of
this yet an eclipse. Trav, you haven't got a prayer. If only you
hadn't been so close. Two days from now would have been great. Once
the eclipse ends--"

"Well, listen," Travis said desperately, "couldn't we just see the
guy?"

"Take my advice. Don't. He has expressed alarm at the thought that you
might come near him. Also his guards are armed with blunderbusses.
They may be a riot to look at, but those boys can shoot, believe me.
Give you a contract? Trav, he wouldn't give you a broom to sweep out
his cellar."

At that moment they drew up before an enormous marble building vaguely
reminiscent of a Theban palace. It turned out to be the local hotel.
Horton stopped on the threshold and handed them two of the tiny
Langkits, the little black memory banks in which the language of Mert
had been transcribed for their use by the Mapping Command. Travis
slipped his automatically into position behind his ear, but he felt no
need to know the language. This one was going to be tough. He glanced
at Dahlinger. The kid was wearing a stunned expression, too dulled
even to notice the pantalooned customer--first Merts they'd
seen--eyeing them fearfully from behind pillars as they passed.

Smell that gold, Travis remembered wistfully. Then, smell those
generators. Oh, he thought sinkingly, smell those generators. They
went silently on up to the room.

Travis stopped at the door as a thought struck him.

"Listen," he said cautiously, taking Horton by the arm, "haven't you
thought of this? Why don't we just take off and start all over, orbit
around for a couple of days, pick a good hour, and then come back
down. That way we'll be starting all--"

But Horton was gazing at him reproachfully.

"They have a word for that, Trav," he said ominously, "they call it
_vetching_. Worst crime a man can commit. Attempt to evade his stars.
Equivalent almost to falsifying a horoscope. No siree, boy, for that
they burn you very slowly. The first horoscope stands. All your
subsequent actions, according to them, date from the original. You'll
just be bearing out the first diagnosis. You'll be a vetcher."

"Um," Travis said. "If they feel that way, why the heck do they even
let us stay?"

"Shows you the way the system works. This is a bad day for everything.
Coming as well as going. They'd never think of asking you to start a
trip on a day like this. No matter who you are."

Travis collapsed into an old, vaguely Chippendale chair. His position
was not that of a man sitting, it was that of a man dropped from a
great height.

"Well," Horton said. "So it goes. And listen, Trav, there was nothing
I could do."

"Sure, Hort."

"I just want you to know I'm sorry. I know they've been kickin' you
around lately, and don't think I don't feel I owe you something. After
all, if you hadn't--"

"Easy," Travis said, glancing at Dahlinger. But the kid's ears perked.

"Well," H o r t o n murmured, "just so's you know. Anyways I still got
faith in you. And Unico will be in the same boat. If they get here
tonight. So think about it. Let me see the old Pat Travis. Your luck
has to change sometime."

He clenched a fist, then left.

Travis sat for a long while in the chair. Dahlinger muttered something
very bitter about luck. Travis thought of telling him that it was not
luck that had put them so close to Mert, but a very grim and expensive
liaison with a ferociously ugly Mapping Command secretary at
Aldebaran. She had told him that there was a ship in this area. But
this news was not for Dahlinger's ears. And neither did he think it
wise to explain to Dahlinger the thing he had done for Horton some
years ago. Young Dolly was not yet ripe. Travis sighed and looked
around for a bed. To his amusement he noted a four poster in the
adjoining room. He went in and lay down.

Gradually the dullness began to wear off. There was a resiliency in
Travis unequalled, some said, by spring steel. He began to ponder ways
and means.

There was always a way. There had to be a way. Somewhere in the
customs of this planet there was a key--but he did not have the time.
Unico would be in tonight, others would be down before the week was
out. And the one to land in two days, on the _good_ day, would get the
contract.

He twisted on the bed. Luck, luck, the hell with luck. If you were
born with sense you were lucky and if a meteor fell on you, you were
unlucky, but most of the rest of it was even from there on out. So if
the legend was to continue....

He became gradually aware of the clock in the ceiling.

In the ceiling?

He stared at it. The symbols and the time meant nothing, but the clock
was embedded flat in the ceiling above the bed, facing directly down.

He pondered that for a moment. Then he exploded with laughter. By
jing, of course. They would have to know what time the baby was
conceived. So all over Mert, in thousands of homes, there were clocks
in the bedrooms, clocks in the ceilings, and wives peering anxiously
upward murmured sweetly in their husbands' ears: 4:17, darling, 4:17
and a half....

The roar of his mirth brought Dolly floundering in from the other
room. Travis sprang from the bed.

"Listen, son," he bellowed, "luck be damned! You get back to the ship.
Get Mapping Command to let you look at its files, find out everything
you can about Mert. There's a key somewhere, boy, there's an out in
there someplace, if we look hard enough. Luck! Hah! Work, boy, work,
there's a key!"

He shooed Dahlinger out of the room. The young man left dazedly, but
he had caught some of Travis' enthusiasm. Travis turned back to the
bed feeling unreasonably optimistic. No way out, eh? Well by jingo,
old Pat Travis would ride again, he could feel it in his bones.

A few moments later he had another feeling in his bones. This one was
much less delightful. He was pacing past a heavy drapery when
something very hard and moving very fast struck him on the head.

       *       *       *       *       *

The first thing Travis saw when he awoke was, unmistakably, the behind
of a young woman.

His head was lying flat on the floor and the girl was sitting next to
him, her back toward him very close to his face. He stared at it for a
long while without thinking. The pain in his head was enormous, and he
was not used to pain, not any kind of pain. The whiskey men drank
nowadays left no hangovers, and for a normal headache there were
instantaneously acting pills, so Travis on the floor was unused to
pain. And though he was by nature a courageous man it took him a while
to be able to think at all, much less clearly.

Eventually he realized that he was lying on a very hard floor. His
arms and legs were tightly bound. He investigated the floor. It was
brick. It was wet. The dark ceiling dripped water in the flickering
light from some source beyond the girl. The brick, the dripping water,
the girl, all combined to make it completely unbelievable. If it
wasn't for the pain he would have rolled over and gone to sleep. But
the pain. Yes the pain. He closed his eyes and lay still, hurting.

When he opened his eyes again he was better. By jing, this was
ridiculous. Not a full day yet on Mert and in addition to his other
troubles, now this. He did not feel alarmed, only downright angry.
This business of the flickering light and being tied hand and foot was
too impossible to be dangerous. He grunted feebly at the back of the
girl.

"Ho," he said. "Now what in the sweet name of Billy H. Culpepper is
this?"

The girl turned and looked down at him. She swiveled around on her
hips and a rag-bound foot kicked him unconcernedly in the side. For
the first time he saw the other two men behind her. There were two of
them. The look of them was ridiculous.

The girl said something. It was a moment before he realized she was
speaking in Mert, which he had to translate out of the Langkit behind
his ear.

"The scourge awakes," one of the men said.

"A joy. It was my thought that in the conjunction was done perhaps
murder."

"Poot. One overworries. And if death comes to this one, observe, will
the money be paid? Of a surety. But this is bizarre."

"Truly bizarre," the girl nodded. Then to make her point, "also
curious, unique, unusual. My thought: from what land he comes?"

"The cloth is rare," one of the men said, "observe with tight eyes the
object on his wrist. A many-symboled engine--"

"_My_ engine," the girl said positively. She reached down for his
watch.

Travis jerked back. "Lay off there," he bawled in English, "you
hipless--" The girl recoiled. He could not see her face but her tone
was puzzled.

"What language is this? He speaks with liquid."

The larger of the two men arose and came over to him.

"Speak again scourge. But first empty the mouth."

Travis glared at the man's feet, which were wrapped in dirty cloth and
smelt like the breezes blowing softly over fresh manure.

"Speak again? Speak again? Untie my hands, you maggoty slob, and I'll
speak your bloody--" he went on at great length, but the man ignored
him.

"Truly, he speaks as with a full mouth. But this is not Bilken talk."

"Nor is he, of clarity and also profundity, a hill man," the girl
observed.

"Poot. Pootpoot," the young man stuttered, "the light! He is of
_Them_!"

It took the other two a moment to understand what he meant, but Travis
caught on immediately. May the Saints preserve us, he thought, they
figured I was from Mert. He chuckled happily to himself. A natural
mistake. Only one Earthman on this whole blinking planet, puts up at a
good hotel, best in town, these boys put the snatch on me thinking I'm
a visiting VIP, loaded, have no idea I'm just poor common trash like
the rest of us Earthmen. Haw! His face split in a wide grin. He
gathered his words from the Langkit and began to speak in Mert.

"Exactly, friends. With clarity one sees that you have been misled. I
am not of Mert. I am from a far world, come here to deal with your
Senate in peace. Untie me, then, and let us erase this sad but
eraseable mistake with a good handshake all around, and a speedy
farewell."

It did not have the effect he desired. The girl stepped back from
him, a dark frown on her face, and the large man above him spoke
mournfully.

"Where now is the ransom?"

"And the risk," the girl said. "Was not there great risk?"

"Unhappily," the tall man observed. "One risks. One should be repaid.
It is in the nature of things that one is repaid."

"Well now, boys," Travis put in from the floor, "you see it
yourselves. I'm flat as a--" he paused. Apparently the Merts had no
word for pancake. "My pockets are--windy. No money is held therein."

"Still," the tall man mused absently, "this must have friends. On the
great ships lie things of value. Doubt?"

"Not," the girl said firmly. "But I see over the hills coming a
problem."

"How does it appear?"

"In the shape of disposal. See thee. Such as will come from the great
ships, of value though it be, can it not be clarifiably identified by
such pootian authorities as presently seek our intestines?"

"Ha!" the tall man snorted in anger. "So. Truth shapes itself."

"Will we not, then," continued the girl, "risk sunlight on our
intestines in pursuing this affair?"

"We will," the young man spoke up emphatically. "We will of
inevitability. Navel. Our risk is unpaid. So passes the cloud."

"But in freedom for this," the girl warily indicated Travis, "lies
risk in great measure. Which way lie his ribs? Can we with profit
slice his binds? He is of Them. What coils in his head? What strikes?"

They were all silent. Travis, having caught but not deciphered most of
the conversation, glanced quickly from face to face. The girl had
backed out into the light and he could see her now clearly, and his
mouth fell open. She was thickly coated with dirt but she was
absolutely beautiful. The features were perfect, lovely, the mouth was
promising and full. Under the ragged skirt and the torn sooty blouse
roamed surfaces of imaginable perfection. He had difficulty getting
back to the question at hand. All the while he was thinking other
voices inside him were whispering. "By jing, by jing, she's
absolutely...."

The two men were completely unlike. One was huge, from this angle he
was enormous. He had what looked like a dirty scarf on his head,
madonna-like, which would have been ridiculous except for the
mountainous shoulders below it and the glittering knife stuck in his
wide leather belt. The shaft of the knife flickered wickedly in the
light. It was the only clean thing about him.

The other man was young, probably still in his teens. Curly-haired and
blond and much cleaner than the other two, with a softness in his face
the others lacked. But in his belt he carried what appeared to
be--what was, a well-oiled and yawning barreled blunderbuss.

So they sat for a long moment of silence. He had time to observe that
what they were sitting in was in all likelihood a sewer. It ran off
into darkness but there was a dim light in the distance and other
voices far away, and he gathered that this was not all of
the--gang--that had abducted him. But it was beginning to penetrate,
now, as he began to understand their words, that they were unhappy
about letting him go. He was about to argue the point when the big man
stepped suddenly forward and knelt beside him. He shut out the light,
Travis could not see. The last thing he heard was the big man grunting
as he threw the blow, like a rooting pig.

       *       *       *       *       *

When he awoke this time the pain had moved over to the side of his
neck. There was no light at all and he lay wearily for a long while in
the blackness. He had no idea how much time had passed. He could tell
from the brick wet below him that he was still in the sewer, or at
least some other part of it, and, considering the last turn of the
conversation, he thought he could call himself lucky to be alive.

But as his strength returned so did his anger. He began to struggle
with his bonds. There was still the problem of the contract. He
regarded that bitterly. He could just possibly die down here, but his
main worry was still the contract. Allspace would be proud of him--but
Allspace might never know.

He did nothing with the bonds, which he discovered unhappily were raw
leather thongs. Eventually he saw a light coming down the corridor. He
saw with a thrill of real pleasure that it was the girl. The young man
was tagging along behind her but the big man was absent. The girl
knelt down by him and regarded him quizically.

"Do you possess pain?"

"Maiden, I possess and possess unto the limits of capacity."

"My thought is sorrow. But this passes. Consider: your blood remains
wet."

Travis caught her meaning. He swore feebly.

"It was very nearly let dry," the girl said. "But solutions conjoined.
It was noted at the last, even as the blade descended, that such
friends as yours could no doubt barter for Mertian coin, untraceable,
thus restoring your value."

"Clever, clever. Oh, clever," Travis said drily.

To his surprise, the girl blushed.

"Overgracious. Overkind. Speed thanks awry of this windy head, aim at
yon Lappy"--she indicated the boy who stood smiling shyly behind
her--"it was he who thought you alive, he my brother."

"Ah," Travis said. "Well, bless you, boy." He nodded at the boy, who
very nearly collapsed with embarrassment. Travis wondered about this
'brother' bit. Brother in crime? The Langkit did not clarify. But the
girl turned back on him a smile as glowing as a tiny nova. He gazed
cheerfully back.

"Tude and the others sit now composing your note. A matter of weight,
confounded in darkness." She lowered her eyes becomingly. "Few of us,"
she apologized, "have facility in letters."

"A ransom note," Travis growled. "Great Gods and Little--Tude? Who is
Tude?"

"The large man who, admittedly hastening before the horse, did plant
pain in your head."

"Ah," Travis said, smiling grimly. "We shall presently plow his
field--"

"Ho!" the girl cried, agitated. "Speak not in darkness. Tude extends
both north and south, a man of dimension as well as choler. He boasts
Fors in the tenth in good aspect to Bonken, giving prowess at combat,
and Lyndal in the fourth bespeaks a fair ending. Avoid, odd man,
foreordained disaster."

In his urge to say a great many things Travis stammered. The girl laid
a cool grimy hand lightly on his arm and tried to soothe him.

"With passivity and endurance. The night shall see you free. Tude
comes in close moment with the note. Quarrel not at the price, sign,
and there will be a conclusion to the matter. We are not retrograde
here. As we set our tongues, so lie our deeds."

"Yes, well, all right," Travis grumbled. "But there will come--all
right all right. My name shall be inscribed, let your note contain
what it will. But I would have speed. There are matters of gravity
lying heavily ahead."

The girl cocked her head oddly to one side.

"You sit on points. A rare thing. Lies your horoscope in such
confusion that you know not the drift of the coming hours?"

Travis blinked.

"Horoscope?" he said.

"Surely," the girl said, "the astrologers of your planet did preach
warning to you of the danger of this day, and whether, in the motions
of your system, lay success or failure. Or is it a question of varying
interpretations? Did one say you good while the other--"

Travis grinned broadly. Then he sobered. It would quite logically
follow that these people, primitive as they were, might not be able to
conceive of a land where astrology was not Lord over all. A human
trait. But he saw dangerous ground ahead. He began very cautiously and
diplomatically to explain himself, saying that while astrology was
practiced among his own people, it had not yet become as exact an art
as it was on Mert, and only a few had as yet learned to trust it.

The effect on the girl was startling. She seemed for a moment actually
terrified when it was finally made clear to her. She abruptly
retreated into a corner with her brother and mumbled low frantic
sounds. Travis grinned to himself but kept his face stoically calm.
But now the girl was out in the light and he could examine her clearly
for the first time, and he forgot about astrology entirely.

She was probably in her early twenties. She was dirtier than a
well-digger's shoes. She ran with a pack of cutthroats and thieves in
what was undoubtedly the lowest possible level of Mertian society. But
there was something about her, something Travis responded to very
strongly, which he could not define. Possibly something about the set
of her hair, which was dark and very long, or perhaps in the
mouth--yes the mouth, now observe the mouth--and also maybe in the
figure.... But he could not puzzle it out. A girl from the gutter.
But--perhaps that was it, there seemed to be no gutter about her.
There was real grace in her movements, a definite style in the way she
held her head, something gentle and very fine.

Now watch that, Travis boy, he told himself sharply, watch that. A
psychological thing, certainly. She probably reminds you of a long
forgotten view of your mother.

The girl arose and came back, followed this time by the young man. She
had become suddenly and intensely interested in his world--she had
apparently taken it for granted that it was exactly like hers, only
with space ships--and Travis obliged her by giving a brief sketch of
selected subjects: speeds, wonders, what women wore, and so on.
Gradually he worked the conversation back around to her, and she began
to tell him about herself.

Her name was, euphonically, Navel. This was not particularly startling
to Travis. Navel is a pretty word and the people of Mert had chosen
another, uglier sound for use when they meant 'belly button,' which
was their right. Travis accepted it, and then listened to her story.

She had not always been a criminal, run with the sewer packs. She had
come, as a matter of proud record, from an extremely well-to-do family
which featured two Senators, one Horary Astrologer, and a mercantile
tycoon--which accounted, Travis thought, for her air of breeding. The
great tragedy of her life, however, the thing that had brought her to
her present pass, was her abysmally foul horoscope. She had not been a
planned baby. Her parents felt great guilt about it, but the deed was
done and there was no help for it. She had been born with Huck
retrograde in the tenth house, opposing Fors retrograde in the fourth,
and so on, and so on, so that even the most amateur astrologer could
see right at her birth that she was born for no good, destined for
some shameful end.

She told about it with an air of resigned cheerfulness, saying that
after all her parents had really done more than could be expected of
them. Both with her and her similarly accidental brother Lappy--now
_there_, Travis thought, was a careless couple--whose horoscope, she
said dolefully, was even worse than her own. The parents had sent her
off to school up through the first few years, and had given her a
handsome dowry when they disowned her, and they did the same with
Lappy a few years later.

But Navel held no bitterness. She was a girl born inevitably for
trouble--her horoscope forecast that she would be a shame to her
parents, would spend much of her life in obscure, dangerous places,
and would reflect no credit on anyone who befriended her. So, for a
child like this, what reasonable citizen would waste time and money
and love, when it was certain beforehand that the child grown up would
be as likely as not to end up a murderess? No, the schools were
reserved for the children of promise, as were the jobs and the parties
and the respect later on. The only logical course, the habitual
custom, was for the parents to disown their evilly aspected children,
hoping only that such tragedies as lay in the future would not be too
severe, and at least would not be connected with the family name.

And Navel was not bitter. But there was only one place for her,
following her exile from her parents' home. A career in business was
of course impossible. Prospective employers took one look at your
horoscope and--zoom, the door. The only work she could find was menial
in the extreme--dish-washing, street cleaning, and so on. So she
turned, and Lappy turned, as thousands of their ill-starred kind had
turned before them for generations, to the wild gangs of the sewers.

And it was not nearly so bad as it might have seemed. The sewer gangs
were composed of thousands of people just like herself, homeless, cast
out, and they came from all levels of society to found a society of
their own. They offered each other what none of them could have found
anywhere else on Mert: appreciation, companionship, and even if life
in the sewers was filthy, it was also tolerable, and many even married
and had children--the luckiest of whom quickly disowned their parents
and were adopted by wealthy families.

But the thing which impressed Travis most of all was that none of
these people were bitter at their fate. Navel could not recall ever
hearing of any organized attempt at rebellion. Indeed, most of the
sewer people believed more strongly in the astrology of Mert than did
the business men on the outside. For each day every one of them could
look at the dirt of himself, at the disease of his surroundings, and
could see that the message of his horoscope was true: he was born to
no good end. And since it had been drummed into these people from
their earliest childhood that only the worst could be expected of
them, they gave in, quite humanly, to the predictions, and went
philosophically forth to live up to them. They watched the daily
horoscopes intently for the Bad Days, realizing that what was bad for
the normal people must be a field day for themselves, and they issued
out of the sewers periodically on binges of robbery, kidnapping, and
worse. In this way they lived up to the promise of their stars,
fulfilled themselves, and also managed to eat. And few if any ever
questioned the justice of their position.

Travis sat listening, stunned. For a long while the contract and how
to get out of here and all the rest of it was forgotten. He sat
watching the girl and her shy brother as they spoke self-consciously
to him, and began to understand what they must be feeling. Travis was
from outside the sewers, he had stayed at the grand hotel--his
horoscope, whether he believed it or not, must be very fine. And so
they did him unconscious homage, much in the manner of low caste
Hindus speaking to a Bramin. It was unnerving.

Gradually the boy Lappy began to speak also, and Travis realized with
surprise that the boy was in many ways remarkable. As Navel's
brother--Navel, Travis gathered with a twinge of deep regret, was the
big Tude's 'friend', and Tude was the leader of this particular
gang--young Lappy had a restful position. He was kept out of most of
the rough work end allowed to pursue what he shamelessly called his
'studies', and he guessed proudly that he must have stolen nearly
every book in the Consul's library. His particular hobbies, it turned
out, were math and physics. He had a startling command of both, and
some of the questions he asked Travis were embarrassing. But the boy
was leaning forward, breathlessly drinking in the answers, when Tude
came back.

The big man loomed over them suddenly on his quiet rag-bound feet,
frightening the boy and causing the girl to flinch. He made a number
of singularly impolite remarks, but Travis said nothing and bided his
time. He regarded the big man with patient joy, considering with
delight such bloodthirsty effects as judo could produce on this
one--Fors and Bonken be damned--if they ever untied his hands.

Eventually, unable to get a rise out of him, the big man shoved a
paper down before his nose and told him to sign it. He pulled out that
wickedly clean knife and freed Travis' hand just enough for him to
move his wrist. Hoping for the best, Travis signed. Tude chuckled,
said something nastily to the girl, the girl said something chilling
in return, and the big man cuffed her playfully on the shoulder. Then
he lumbered away.

Travis sat glaring after him. The contract, the need to escape flooded
back into his mind. The eclipse might be ending even now. Unico would
already be here, probably one or two others as well. And this ransom
business might take a week. He swore to himself. Pat Travis, the
terror of the skies, held captive by a bunch of third rate musical
comedy pirates while millions lay in wait in the city above. And oh my
Lord, he thought, stricken, what will people say when they hear--he
had to get out.

He glanced cautiously at the girl and the boy, who were gazing at him
ingenuously. He saw instantly that the way, if there was a way, lay
through them. But the plan had not yet formed when the boy leaned
forward and spoke.

"I have an odd thing in my head," Lappy said bashfully, "that
nevertheless radiates joy to my mind. In my reading I have seen things
leap together from many books, forming a whole, and the whole is rare.
Can you, in your wisdom, confirm or deny what I have seen? It is
this--"

He spoke a short series of sentences. Navel tried to shush him,
embarrassed, but he doggedly went on. And Travis, stricken, found
himself suddenly paying close attention.

For the words Lappy said, with minor variations, were Isaac Newton's
Laws of Motion.

       *       *       *       *       *

"There are the seven planets," Navel was saying gravely, "and the two
lights--that is, the sun and the moon. The first planet, that nearest
the sun, is called Rym. Rym is the planet of intellect, of the
ordinary mind. Second, is Lyndal, the planet of love, beauty, parties,
marriage, and things of a gentle nature. Third is Fors, planet of
action, strife. Fourth is Bonken, planet of beneficence, of gain,
money, health. Next comes Huck, orb of necessity, the Greater
Infortune, which brings men most trouble of all. Then Weepen, planet
of illusion, of dreamers and poets and, poorly aspected, liars and
cheats. And finally there is Sharb, planet of genius, of sudden
cataclysms."

"I see," Travis murmured.

"But it is not only these planets and their aspects which is
important, it is also to be considered such houses and signs as
through which these planets transit...."

She went on, but Travis was having difficulty following her. He could
not help but return to Newton's Laws. It was incredible. Here on this
backward planet, mired in an era roughly equivalent to the time of the
Renaissance, an event was taking place almost exactly at the same time
as it had happened, long ago, on Earth. It had been Isaac Newton,
then. It was, incredibly, this frail young man named Lappy now. For
unless Travis was greatly mistaken, Navel's kid brother was an
authentic genius. And such a genius as comes once in a hundred years.

So, naturally, Lappy would have to come home with Travis. The boy was
hardly college age as yet. Sent to school by Allspace, given a place
in the great Allspace laboratories at Aldebaran, young Lappy might
eventually make the loss of the contract at Mert seem puny in
comparison to the things that head of his could produce. For Lappy was
a natural resource, just as certainly as any mine on Mert, and since
the advent of Earth science meant Mert would no longer be needing him,
Lappy could go along with Travis and still leave him a clear
conscience.

But the question still remained: how? He could not even get himself
out, yet, let alone Lappy. And the girl. What about the girl?

He brooded, groping for an out. But in the meanwhile he listened while
the girl outlined Mert's system of astrology. He had realized finally
that the key to the business lay there. Astrology was these people's
most powerful motivating force. If he could somehow turn it to his
advantage--He listened to the girl. And eventually found his plan.

"Ho!" he said abruptly. Startled, the girl stared at him.

"Lightning in the brain," Travis grinned, "solutions effervesce.
Attend. Of surety, are not _places_ on Mert also ruled by the stars?
Is it not true that towns and villages do also have horoscopes?"

Navel blinked.

"Why, see thee, it is in the nature of things, odd man, that all
matter is governed by the planets. How else come explanations, for
example, of natural catastrophes, fires, plagues, which affect whole
cities and not others? And consider war, does not one country win, and
the other lose? Of a surety different aspects obtain...."

"Joy then," Travis said. "But do further observe. Is it not so, in
your astrology, that a man's horoscope may often conflict with that of
the place wherein he dwells? Is it not so that, often, a man is
promised greater success in other regions, where the ruling stars more
closely and friendlily conjoin his own?"

"Your mind leaps obstacles and homes to the truth," Navel said
approvingly. "Many times has it been made clear that a man's fortune
lies best in places ruled by his Ascendant, as witness, for example,
those who are advised to take to the sea, or to southern lands...."

"Intoxication!" Travis cried out happily, "then is our goal made
known. Consider: from your poor natal horoscope, in this city, this
land, no fortune arises. You doom yourself, with Lappy, by remaining
here. But what business is this? Seek you not better times? Could you
not go forth to another place, and so become people of gravity, of
substance, of moment?"

The girl regarded for a moment, puzzled, then caught his point and
shook her head sadly.

"Odd man, without profit. You misconstrue. Such as we, my brother and
I, are not condemned by place, but by twistings of the character. My
natal Huck, retrograde in the tenth, gives an untrustworthy,
criminous person. It would be so here, there, anywhere. My pattern is
set. Such travels as you describe are for those who conflict only with
place. I, and my brother, it is our sad fortune to conflict with
_all_."

"But this is the core," Travis insisted. "The conflict is with _Mert_!
Consider, such travail as is yours stems from the radiations of Huck,
of Weepen, of Scharb. But should you remove yourself beyond their
reach, across great vastnesses of space to where other planets
subtend--and in their alien radiation extinguish and nullify those of
Huck--what fortune comes then? What rises, what leaps in joy?"

The girl sat speechless, staring at Travis with great soft eyes. The
boy Lappy, who until that moment had been grinning happily over the
news that his laws were true, suddenly understood what Travis was
saying and let his mouth fall open.

But the girl sat without expression. Then, to Travis' dismay, a slow
dark look of disgust came over her face.

"This," she said ominously, "this smacks of _vetching_."

The word fell like a sudden fog. Lappy, who had begun to smile, cut it
sharply off. Travis, remembering what vetching meant to these people,
gathered his forces.

"Woman," he said bitingly, "you speak in offense, but with patience
and kindness I heal your insult. I control my choler, but my blood
flows hot, therefore fasten your tongue. Tell me not that I have
overvalued you, for your brain is clear, your courage thick. Wherefore
speak of vetch? What vetch is there in travel? He vetches who leaves a
certainty for another certainty, who attempts to avoid his starry
fate. But you go from a certain end to an end not certain at all, to
places of dark mystery, of grim foreboding. It may be that you perish,
or pain in the extreme, as well as gain fortune. The end is not clear.
This then is not vetching. Now retreat your words, and reply to me as
one does to a friend, a companion, one who seeks your good."

He sat tautly while the girl thought it out. Eventually she dropped
her eyes in submission and he sighed inwardly with relief. It was
accomplished. He would have to shore it up perhaps with a little
elaboration, but it was accomplished.

Ten minutes later he was standing free and unbound in the passageway.
It was just barely in time. Down the round dark tunnel two men came.

       *       *       *       *       *

Navel stopped gingerly over the bodies and gazed at Travis with
awestruck admiration.

"A rare skill," she murmured, "they did flip and gyrate as dry leaves
in the wind."

"Observe then," Travis said ominously, inspecting meanwhile the long
slash down his arm with which Tude had nearly gotten him "and learn.
And in the future receive my words with planetary respect."

"I will."

"And I," added Lappy, shaken.

"Fair. Bright. Now attend. How lies the path?"

"Through more such as these, I fear. This place in which we trouble
lies at a dead end. We must proceed through great halls where many sit
waiting, ere we arrive at the light."

"No other way? Think now."

"None."

Travis sighed.

"And they talk about luck. Well boy," he turned to Lappy, "give me
your blunderbuss. Obtain that one's knife"--he indicated the sleeping
Tude--"and let us carve our way out into the sunshine."

But as it turned out, the getting free was much easier than he had
anticipated. There was only one band, the girl's own, between them and
the opening, and these had fortunately just finished their evening
meal when Travis stalked, black, gaunt and murderous, out of the
tunnel into their large round room. Part of it was the surprise, part
of it was the sudden knowledge that big Tude and the other man had
already tried to stop him, but most of it was simply the look of him.
He was infinitely ready. They were not, had no reason to be, and they
took it automatically for granted that a man this confident must have
the stars behind him. They regarded him thoughtfully as he went on by.
No one moved. They were a philosophical people. When he had gone,
taking the boy and girl with him, they discussed it thoroughly.

Out under the sky at last it was pitch black and the stars were
shining. Travis realized that he had been in the sewer almost a full
24 hours. That meant that the eclipse was done, tomorrow would be a
good day. There was not much time.

He commandeered the first carriage to come by, routing three elegantly
dressed but unwarlike young men who fled in terror. He saw with relief
that they thought him only another sewer rat, for if word of an
Earthman robbing the local citizens ever got out there would be hell
to pay, and in addition to his other troubles he could not abide that.
He told Navel to head for the field where old 29 rested. Thoroughly
bushed and beginning now to feel a woeful hunger, he sat back to
brood.

At the ship young Trippe greeted him with haggard astonishment. He
jumped forward joyfully.

"Trav! By jig, Trav, I thought we'd lost you. Old Dolly's over at the
local police sta--" He stopped abruptly and stood slack-jawed as Navel
and Lappy clambered fearfully through the lock. Travis glanced back.
No spectators. Good.

"Now what in the sweet silly name--" Trippe began, but Travis stopped
him.

"Russ, be a good kid. See if you can get me something to eat. Haven't
had a bite in 24 hours."

"Sure, Trav, sure, only--what's with the Lower Depths here?"

"You might show them the showers," Travis grinned. "Or at least turn
on the air conditioning. But listen, anything new on the contract?"

Trippe's face fell. "Not a thing. Even worse. Let me tell you. But ho,
the food." He dashed off. Travis collapsed into a chair. A few moments
later Trippe came back bearing food, but his eyes by now had begun to
penetrate the dirt of the girl, and he stood watching her, bemused.
Then suddenly he began to look happier than he had in several days.
Travis told him briefly what had happened in the sewer, also about the
brains of Lappy. Trippe was impressed. But he continued to regard the
girl.

"Well," Travis said, munching, "fill me in on what's been going on.
The eclipse come off?"

Trippe jerked. He focussed on Travis unhappily.

"Oh boy, did it come off. Wait'll you hear. Listen, you know the way
it is now, I think they're going to kick _all_ Earthmen off this
planet. The M.C. says we may have to leave and come back a hundred
years from now. Not anybody going to get a contract now."

"What happened?"

"Well, you wouldn't believe it. You have to understand these people's
astrology. You know the little moon these people have--Felda, they
call it--it's only a tiny thing, really only a few hundred yards wide.
Well, when the Mapping Command first came by here they set down on
that Moon and set up a listening post before landing, you know, the
way they always do, to size up the situation through telescopes,
radio, all that. Mostly they just orbit but this time they landed. God
knows why. And took off again, naturally, throwing in the star drive.
So today the eclipse comes off all right, but it comes off late."

He could not help smiling.

"You see what happened. A star drive is a hell of a force. It altered
the orbit of the moon. Not enough to make any real difference, just a
few hours a year, only minutes a day, but boy, you want to hear these
people howl. And I guess you can see their point. Every movement that
damn moon makes is important to them, they know where it should be to
the inch. And now not only is it slightly off course, but so is every
ephemeris printed on Mert. And they have them printed up, I
understand, for the next thousand years. Which runs into money. We
offered to pay, of course, but paying isn't going to help. It seems
we've also messed up interpretations, predictions, the whole doggone
philosophy. Oh it's a real ding dong. But contract? Not in a million
years."

Travis sighed. That seemed to put the cap on it, all right. After
all, when you start pushing people's moons around, where will it end?
He brooded, his appetite gone. But he made a last effort.

"Did you discover anything at all we could use?"

"Nope. Not a thing. I finally figured the only thing to do was work on
the astrology end of it, you know, maybe we could argue about
interpretations. These people love to argue about interpretations. But
no soap. It's too complicated. To learn enough even to argue would
take a couple of years. And besides Unico is here, and also Randall,
and they all have the same idea. Anyway, I don't think it would work.
The eclipse is too definite. You can't argue the eclipse."

"Well," Travis said with approval, "you were on the right track. You
did what you could. At least we got _something_ out of the deal." He
indicated Lappy, who was at that moment fervidly examining the
interior of the viewscreen.

Trippe nodded, but his eyes were on Navel.

"By jing," he said suddenly, "your luck holds good, no matter what. I
never saw the beat of it--"

"Luck?" Travis fumed, "what luck?"

"Look, Trav, what else could you call it? You fall in a sewer, you
come up with Isaac Newton and a gorgeous doll. It's uncanny, that's
what it is, uncanny."

Travis lapsed into wordless musing on Navel, planets, people.

Come to think of it, he thought, it _is_ uncanny.

At that moment there was a pounding on the lock. Travis quickly shooed
Navel and Lappy into hiding, then cautiously went to the door. He
relaxed. It was Ed Horton.

"I saw you come back, Trav. Mighty glad. But I knew you'd make it. Old
Pat Travis always comes through. Aint that right, Pat?"

He tottered in the doorway. Travis caught the sweet scent of strong
brew. He stepped forward to help him but Horton stood up grandly,
waving him away. His mouth creased in an amiable grin.

"Diomed," he announced proudly, "is a nine planet system."

After which he fell backwards out of the door.

Trav ran to the door, stared down into the dark. Horton sat upright at
the foot of the ladder.

"Sall right ole buddy. Dint mean to stay. Only thought you'd like to
know natural sci-yen-tiffy fack. Diomed is nine plan' system."

He rose on wobbly but cheerful legs.

"No favoritism there, hey? Science. I just tell you a fack, you take
it from there. No favoritism tall."

He lurched away mumbling cheerily, his obligation fulfilled.

Travis stared after him, wheels turning in his brain. Fack? A nine
planet system. It jelled slowly, then broke.

Nine planets.

The key.

He turned slowly on Trippe, his eyes swivelling like twin dark cannon.

"What's he say?" Trippe said, half-smiling. "Boy, he was sure--"

"Did you know this was a nine planet system?"

"Why ... sure, Trav. But what--"

"And did you take the trouble to examine their astrology?"

"Certainly. What the heck--"

"And you call it luck." Travis sighed, then broke into a radiant grin.
"Why there's your bloomin' answer, you sad silly dreamin'--there's
your bloomin' answer!" He sailed over to a drawer, grabbed a batch of
fresh contracts, then flashed toward the door.

"Hold the fort," he bawled over his shoulder, "break out a big bottle
and small glasses! We got a contract, lad, we got a contract!"

He vanished triumphantly into the night.

       *       *       *       *       *

Old 29 was homing. Travis felt the great soft peace of deep space
close over him. All was right with the world. A clean and sparkling
Navel, well-bathed now and almost frighteningly beautiful, sat
worshipfully at his feet dressed in a pair of Dahlinger's pajamas.
Both Trippe and Dahlinger were regarding him with wonder and delight,
and as he sat gazing down at them fondly he recalled with pleasure the
outraged faces of the men from Unico, that robber outfit.

"Pat Travis," he chuckled, patting the fat contract in his pocket,
"the luckless Pat Travis rides again." He turned an eye on the staring
Trippe.

"My boy," he said paternally, "speaks me no speaks about luck, from
this day forth. All the material was in your hands, there was no luck
involved. All you had to do was use it."

"But Trav, I still don't get it. I've been thinkin' all night, all the
while you were gone...."

"The planet Pluto," Travis said evenly, "was discovered by Earthmen,
finally, in the year 1930. At that time we were approximately 300
years ahead, technologically, of the people of Mert. A similar case
exists for Neptune, which was not discovered, although adequate
telescopes had long been in use, until 1846." He paused and gazed
happily around. "Does the light dawn?"

"Holy cow!"

"Exactly. Diomed is a nine planet system. For which 'fack' thank old
Ed Horton, who returned a favor done many years ago. Luck? Only if
doing favors for people is lucky. Which I suppose you could make a
case for. But in the astrology of Diomed III--an astrology I took
great pains to understand--how many planets are considered? Let us
examine. Rym, Fors, Lyndal, Bonken, Huck, Weepen, and Sharb. And then
there are also the two 'lights,' that is, the sun and the moon. But
how many _planets_ are there? Counting Mert as one, add them up. It
comes out eight. Not nine. Eight. But Diomed is a nine planet system.
Bless Ed Horton. What happened to the missing planet?"

Dahlinger w h o o p e d. "They didn't know they had one!"

Travis grinned. "With surety. They didn't know it existed. If they had
their astrology would certainly have shown it. So it had obviously,
like our own Pluto at a similar time, never been discovered."

He paused once again while Dahlinger and Trippe regarded him with
delight.

"And you," Trippe said, "you showed them where it was."

Travis clucked. "I did not. For one thing, I didn't know where it was.
I simply told him, very regretfully, that there _was_ one, but the
situation being what it was, I couldn't allow him to use our
telescopes to plot its orbit. Unless, you see, there existed a
concrete agreement between us.

"I added that I had heard that Earthmen would shortly be leaving his
planet. Very unhappily I told him he could not expect to produce a
telescope of the necessary power within at least the next hundred
years. And even then, it would be many more years before they actually
found it. I was very sorry about the whole business, so I just thought
I'd drop by to offer my regrets."

"And he leaped at the chance."

"No. You rush to conclusions. He did not leap at the chance. He sat
very quietly thinking about it. It was a gruesome sight. I could
sympathize with him. On the one hand he had us, the unknown,
moon-moving Us, with which he wanted no traffic whatever. But on the
other side there was the knowledge of that planet moving all unwatched
out in the black, casting down its radiations, be they harmful or
good, and no way to know in what sign the thing was, or what house, or
what effect it would have on him, _was having_ on him, even as he sat
there. Oh he struggled, but I knew I had him. He signed the contract.
I think I may say, that it is among the most liberal contracts we have
ever signed."

There was a long moment of silence in the ship. The young men sat
grinning foolishly.

"So let me hear no more about luck," said Travis firmly. "In the
future, sons, put your shoulders to the wheel...."

But the attention of the two was already wandering. They were both
beginning to gaze once more upon the lovely Navel, who was quite shyly
but very womanly gazing back. He saw Trippe look at Dahlinger,
Dahlinger glare at Trippe, their hackles rising. He looked down at
Navel in alarm.

Born to cause trouble?

Oh no, he thought abruptly, seeing a whole new world beginning to open
up, oh no, oh no....

       *       *       *       *       *





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