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´╗┐Title: Round-and-Round Trip
Author: Fyfe, H. B. (Horace Bowne)
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 "Round-and-Round Trip" ***

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



                      All he wanted to do was go

                         ROUND-AND-ROUND TRIP

                    from here to there--but somehow
                     the entire Milky Way had been
                    converted into a squirrel cage.

                             By H. B. FYFE

                          Illustrated by WOOD

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                    Galaxy Magazine December 1960.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



When the passengers from Epseri II had been chauffeured from the
_Centaur Queen_ to the administration building of the spaceport,
the man whose papers identified him as Robert L. Winstead trailed
the others to the Interstellar Travel Agency counter. His taking an
unobtrusive place near the end of the line was entirely in keeping
with his unobtrusive appearance.

Of medium height but somewhat underweight, Winstead looked like a
tired clerk who had not slept well in space. The wide trousers of
his conservative maroon suit flapped about his thin shins and drew
attention to the fact that he had donned one blue and one green sock.

The processing was rapid; most of the two dozen passengers meant to
stay here on St. Andrew V. Only a few, of whom Winstead was one,
carried "ultimate destination" tickets. They remained after the locals
had been taken in charge by a guide who would see them into the
adjacent city.

Winstead finally reached a clerk, a dark, extremely brisk young man. He
presented his papers. The young man riffled through them, stamped the
date of arrival on the travel record according to both local and Terran
calendar, then turned back abruptly to the card showing Winstead's
destination. He shook his head in puzzled annoyance.

"I'm very sorry, Mr.--uh--Winstead. Is this the proper ticket you've
given me? Could you have gotten it mixed up with someone else's?"

The traveler coughed and spluttered worried, questioning noises. A look
of vague alarm spread over his undistinguished features.

His wispy gray hair had become rumpled when he had pulled off and
stuffed into a side pocket his rather sporty maroon-and-white checked
cap. This, plus the fact that he had to look up to the clerk, lent him
an air of the typical little man in the wrong queue. It did not help
that he wore old-fashioned sunglasses instead of colored contacts, and
had forgotten to remove them before peering at the ticket.

"Why--er--yes, yes, this is right," he said. "See, here's my name on
it."

       *       *       *       *       *

The clerk sighed as he looked around, but his partner was busy.
"Someone seems to have blown a nova, sir," he condescended to explain.
"It says here your ultimate destination is Altair IV."

"Quite right, quite right," said Winstead. "Going out there to see what
the sales possibilities are for--"

"And they sent you _here_ from Epseri? That can't be, sir."

"But--they told me--don't you Agency people take care of picking out
the routes?"

"Yes, sir, of course. Beyond the local Terran sphere of travel, there
are very few scheduled flights and most of them are for important
cargo. That's why your ticket simply shows your ultimate destination,
and that's why the Interstellar Travel Agency was developed--to arrange
for the traveler's progress by stages."

"Yes," said Winstead. "That is how they explained it to me."

The clerk met his worried gaze for a few moments before shaking himself
slightly. He prodded the ticket on the counter between him and Winstead
with a disdainful forefinger.

"Let me put it as simply as possible, Mr.--uh--Winstead," he said very
patiently. "Somebody at your last stop sent you in the wrong direction."

"But--but--you just said it went by stages. I realize I can't go in
a direct line. It depends on whether you can find me the right ship,
doesn't it?"

The young man glanced about once more for help, but none was available.

"We'll see what we can do," he said, examining the ticket sourly. He
thumbed a button to roll out a length of note paper from a slot in the
counter top and scribbled upon it with his lectropen. "Now, if you will
please accompany that young lady to the Agency hotel with those other
travelers, we will notify you the moment a desirable ship is scheduled
to leave."

Winstead thanked him gratefully and turned away to locate his baggage.
Under the conditions imposed by space travel, only the barest minimum
was permitted. Even so, some little time was required to find his
bag--an unlikely occurrence that the clerk accepted with a resigned air.

Finally, with the half dozen who also would be traveling onward,
Winstead was off to the hotel and a day's rest.

As a matter of fact, it was three days' rest, before he was summoned.
He was, perhaps by intent, confronted upon his arrival by a different
clerk, a solid, square-faced girl. Winstead's nervous questions were
reflected unanswered from a shield of impervious calm. He received all
the information the Agency seemed to feel was good for him and was sent
out with a personal guide.

The guide delivered him to a thick thing named the _Stellar Streak_,
clearly a workhorse freighter. Somehow, it never did become plain to
Winstead until after he had emerged from his acceleration net that the
destination was Topaz IV.

"But, Captain!" he protested. "Are you sure the people at the spaceport
have not made some mistake? That is more or less the direction I came
from."

The pilot stared impatiently at the papers thrust under his nose.

"Can't say, sir. We have our work cut out just to take the ship to
where they tell us. Only reason we carry passengers is that regulations
require cooperation with the Agency. Don't believe in it myself."

       *       *       *       *       *

Mr. Winstead sighed and returned to his quarters. At least, on this
ship, he still had a private compartment in which to float his net.
There was even a chair, equipped with a safety belt and folding table,
bolted to the deck. What he did miss was the general dining saloon of
the liner he had taken from Epseri II.

_Still_, he reflected, _travel can't always be luxurious._

He spent some time, after the ship had slipped into stellar drive, in
unpacking his one small suitcase. He found that he had to take his
shaver to the general head to plug it in, but otherwise got along
comfortably enough. One or two of the crew who shared his turn at the
galley counter, in fact, took him for an old space hopper and began to
exchange yarns.

This sort of semi-suspended living passed the four-day hop to the Topaz
system and the extra day necessary for planetary approach. When they
landed, Winstead was the only passenger, either incoming or outgoing,
to show up at the cargo shed designated as the spaceport administration
building.

Here on Topaz IV, the Agency clerk was a part-time man who had to be
called from the mines on the far side of the city. He arrived to find
Winstead dozing on a cot at the end of the shed.

"Billy Callahan," he introduced himself. "They say you're not for the
mines."

"That is correct," answered Winstead, stretching a kink out of his
back. "I have my destination here in these papers ... if you will bear
with me a moment...."

He fumbled out his identification, travel record, and ticket. Callahan,
rubbing his carroty hair with a large, freckled hand, pored over them.
A few minutes of searching through the battered desk that was his
headquarters revealed the official arrival stamp. Its inky smear was
duly added to the record.

"Now for your way outa here," grunted Callahan. "Meanwhile, how about a
cigar, Mr. Winstead?"

"Why--thanks very much."

Winstead regarded the torpedo doubtfully. He wondered upon which planet
the tobacco for it--if it was tobacco--had been grown.

"This might take a little while," said Callahan, applying to the ends
of their cigars a lighter that could have welded I-beams. "It ain't
every day we get a through traveler here. I gotta look up the Galatlas
an' the shipping notices."

He hoisted a bulky catalogue from a side table onto his desk and blew
off a cloud of dust. Winstead seized the excuse to cough out a lungful
of smoke. His host reached out for the ticket.

"Ultimate destination Fomalhaut VIII," he read off. "Say! That ain't
one I ever had to handle before!"

He leafed through the volume for some minutes, reexamined the ticket,
then dug into two or three appendices. He tapped a knobby knuckle
against his chin.

"It don't look to me, Mr. Winstead," he said thoughtfully, "like you
shoulda wound up here at all. Fomalhaut VIII! That's a hell of a way
from here!"

"The clerk at the last spaceport _did_ seem to think there had been a
mistake," Winstead volunteered cautiously.

"Somethin' sure slipped. Maybe some jet-head read his directions wrong
an' sent you so many degrees Sol north instead of Sol south. Best you
can say is you're still on the right general side of the Solar System."

"Oh, dear!" Winstead said, flustered. "What can you do about that?"

"Depends what ships, if any, are due here. If I was you, I'd take the
first one out. Get to a bigger settlement, where you'll get a better
choice of ships."

       *       *       *       *       *

He flicked ash from his cigar and inquired whether Winstead had
retained quarters aboard the _Stellar Streak_. He was undaunted by the
negative reply.

"Never mind," he said heartily. "We're too small to have an Agency
hotel here, but I'll fix you up a place to stay in town."

They left Winstead's bag under the desk and set off by dilapidated
groundcar for Topaz City. This turned out to be a crude, sprawling
village of adobe walls and corrugated plastic roofs. The varied colors
of the roofs contrasted in desperate gaiety with the dun walls. As soon
as Callahan skidded to a halt, the car was enveloped by its own dust
cloud.

"Phew!" coughed Callahan. "Some day they're gonna have to pave the
street!"

Winstead pulled out a handkerchief to mop his tear-flooded eyes. His
thin chest heaved and he spat out muddy saliva.

"I'm sorry about that," apologized Callahan. "Tell you what--we don't
have much civilization yet, but we do have a little cocktail lounge.
Come along an' I'll get you somethin' to clear your throat."

The traveler allowed himself to be helped out of the car and guided
along the "street" to a low building marked by a small parking jam.
Most of the men and women that passed them on the way shouted out a
greeting to his companion. They dressed with little distinction between
the sexes in rough shirts, boots, and pants of a narrower pattern than
Winstead's conservative suit. He was introduced to six or seven people
he never expected to lay eyes upon again.

_Frontier culture_, he deduced. _Where humans are rare, each one counts
for more._

The first thing he saw in the lounge was the girl guitarist. She was
the only woman he had yet seen who was not wearing pants. In fact, it
had hardly occurred to him that there might be someone in town who was
not connected with the mines. This girl was hardly connected to her own
brief costume.

The second thing he saw was a wall of friendly, weather-beaten faces,
turning his way in response to Callahan's cheerful whoop. The third was
a man-size drink somebody thrust at him.

After listening for quite a while to a repertoire of apparently ribald
songs, most of them too local in humor for Winstead to follow, the
traveler was led by Callahan to a sort of restaurant just down the
street.

Winstead thought later that he had eaten something there, but what it
might have been he forgot as soon as they returned to the cocktail
lounge, for a bottle-swinging brawl broke out almost immediately in a
far corner. After a form of order had been restored, there was a girl
who danced; and presently Callahan was shaking him up and down on a
spine-stiffening bed in a small, darkened room.

Winstead promptly discovered that he had, indeed, eaten. When he
recovered, he followed Callahan out on wobbly legs to seek a remedy.
It was a bright, sunny day, but he could not even guess at the local
time. A little while after they had been successful in finding the
remedy, he forgot about it.

"Take care of Bobby Winstead for me a little while, George," he heard
Callahan say to someone. "I gotta stop out at the port to check a ship
for him. Be right back."

       *       *       *       *       *

The hospitality shown him shamed Winstead into inquiring where he might
cash a traveler's check. With the proceeds, he was permitted to buy
about one round in a dozen, and to join in the singing. He was eagerly
pumped between stops along the street for the latest news of Terra. His
least little knowledge was of interest to those he encountered.

At one point, he came to himself in the midst of drawing a current
dress design on the bar for one of the girls. Callahan, whose return he
had missed, dissuaded the lady from taking his charge home with her as
a gesture of pure gratitude. He declared that Winstead had just enough
time for a nap.

Winstead's next awakening was in the echo of a terrified scream.

A light was turned on and he discovered that the man-eating vine which
had been strangling him was in reality an acceleration net. The face
that floated before him was clean-shaven and anxious.

With considerable mental effort, Winstead deduced that the face was
inquiring as to his health.

"Quite ... fine ... thank ... you," he answered with difficulty.
"Haven't we met somewhere?"

"Sure! Last week, Mr. Winstead, when we took you to Topaz IV," said the
face.

Winstead tried shaking his head. It did not hurt--very much--but he
felt that his thinking was terribly slow. Then things began to click.
He recognized the man as the second pilot of the _Stellar Queen_. It
might have been easier had the spacer not been standing upside down to
Winstead's twisted position.

He groped dizzily for a question that would not make him sound a
complete idiot. The pilot saved him.

"Callahan, back on Topaz IV," he volunteered, "asked us to tell you the
best routing he could figure was to go on with us to Queen Bess III.
It's a busy spaceport, so he thinks you can make better connections."

"Oh. I ... see," murmured Winstead.

Unzipping the opening of his net, he floated himself out gingerly.

"I hope it's all right, Mr. Winstead," said the spacer. "I know you
went in there on an Altair IV destination, but old Callahan seemed to
think he was sending you to Fomalhaut VIII. To tell the truth, I think
he was a little over-fueled."

"I ... didn't notice," said Winstead. "Tell me--how long were you down
at Topaz?"

"Three days," the spacer told him. "They sure took a liking to you
there, Mr. Winstead. A big crowd brought you out to the spaceport with
Callahan. We found your bag under his desk by ourselves, but I don't
know where you got that orange suit."

Winstead looked down at his clothing for the first time and flinched.

"But that was yesterday," continued the pilot. "You ought to be feeling
like some chow by now, eh? Hey wait--the door is down here, Mr.
Winstead!"

In six days, including one of landing maneuvers, they reached Queen
Bess III, a very Terran world that was a minor crossroads of space
travel.

Here, Winstead bade farewell to the _Stellar Queen_. His first stop
was the communications office. He left a message to be transmitted to
Callahan on Topaz IV by "fastest means"--_i. e._, by the next spaceship
headed that way. He said, simply, "Thanks for everything."

       *       *       *       *       *

He found a good many travelers wandering about the clean, beautifully
furnished waiting room of the Agency here. Winstead sank into a softly
upholstered armchair, opened his bag, and began to sort out his papers.
No sooner did he look up from this task than there appeared before him
a pleasantly smiling, gray-haired man. He was about Winstead's height,
but chunky and full of bounce.

"My name is John Aubrey," he announced. "I trust I can be of service.
Are you stopping here on Bessie?"

"No, I--I'm just passing through," said Winstead. "I assume you are the
Agency official here?"

"One of them," Aubrey said. "Ah, your papers? Thank you. We can just
step this way into my office if you like."

He threaded his way between chairs, tables, and occasional travelers
to one of a row of offices. It was the size of a large closet, but
cheerfully decorated. Aubrey gave Winstead a chair and sat himself down
behind an extremely modern desk to commit the required formalities upon
the traveler's papers. The ultimate destination ticket Winstead had
included gave him pause.

"Well, well, well!" he exclaimed. "Achernar X! Really! You must be with
the government, I suppose? Or a scientist? As I recall, Achernar is
rather blue for human use, except our research outpost there, isn't it?"

"I--er--I am engaged in a little research," said Winstead. "You did
very well to remember the place offhand."

"It _is_ a long way out. Interesting. I wonder how I can get you there.
Someone seems to have sent you--well, no matter. Just leave it to me.
You'll be staying at our hotel, of course? Might as well, since you
have paid for the service, eh? I'll have you flown over right away."

An aircar carried Winstead to the roof of a hotel overlooking a
considerable metropolis. Having left his bag in his room, he found his
way to the hotel department store and ordered another suit. He spent
the rest of the afternoon sightseeing and decided that he might just
as well have been on Terra. When he sat down to an excellent dinner
that evening, he discovered that his appetite, unfortunately, had not
recovered from his stay on Topaz IV.

He was awakened before dawn by the soft chime of his bedside screen. A
touch of the button brought on the happy features of Aubrey.

_Does he never rest?_ thought Winstead.

He pushed the audio button and answered.

"Good morning, Mr. Winstead," said the Agency man brightly. "Sorry to
call so early, but I was extremely lucky to find you a passage toward
Achernar."

"Not sure I want to go," Winstead muttered into his pillow.

Aubrey, apparently not hearing him, bubbled merrily on. There would be
an aircar on the hotel roof for Winstead in half an hour. Haste was
necessary because the ship was leaving from a spaceport fifty miles
outside the city. Indeed, Winstead could count himself fortunate to
have had the chance so quickly. Aubrey had found it only by checking
all the private spacelines. After all, Achernar was a long way off.

Winstead thanked him blearily before switching off. He then dialed
the hotel store, but got no more answer than he expected. Giving up
thoughts of his new suit, he rose and struggled into his clothes.

       *       *       *       *       *

Queen Bess had not yet poked her corona above the horizon when the
aircar delivered him to a little island spaceport south of the city.
A stocky, taciturn shadow met him. They walked silently out to a ship
that towered darkly overhead.

"No inside elevator?" asked Winstead, peering at the skeleton framework
rising beside the ship.

"Too much load."

They rode a creaking platform up through the chilly breeze until
Winstead thought they would go past the nose of the monster. Clutching
his bag in one hand and the single railing in the other, he edged
across a narrow gangway to an airlock. Inside, he followed the crewman
down a short, three-foot-diameter shaft to a square chamber, catching
his bag on the ladder no more than a few times.

In the more adequate light here, the spacer was revealed as a swarthy
man with a muscular, dark-stubbled face. He wore tight trousers and
shirt of navy blue and a knit cap that might once have been white. With
a preoccupied air, he pulled open a small door on the bulkhead at chest
level.

"Let's have your bag," he said.

Winstead handed it over. The spacer shoved it into what seemed to be a
spacious compartment in spite of the yard-square door.

"Now you," he said. "I'll give you a hand up."

"Up where?" asked Winstead innocently.

"In there. That's your acceleration compartment. Plenty of room.
Armored, air-conditioned, has its own emergency rations of air and
water."

Winstead stooped to peer into the opening. It was deeper than he had
thought, but a three-foot square was not much of a cross section. All
surfaces inside were thickly padded and springy to the touch.

"Here's the light switch," the spacer said, turning on a soft interior
light. "The rest of the facilities and instructions are on this plate
beside the hatch. Okay now, grab that handhold up there so you go in
feet first. Alley-oop!"

_As long as I don't come out that way_, thought Winstead, sliding into
the compartment with surprising ease. He twisted around and discovered
that the door had a small window.

"Make yourself comfortable," said the spacer. "Just don't forget to
close the hatch when the takeoff buzzer sounds. You'd better listen for
it."

He turned away. Winstead saw him look into several other little windows
along the bulkhead.

"Are there other passengers?" asked Winstead.

"No. Just checking to see if all my crew stayed. Always seems to be one
that slides down the pipe before takeoff. Dunno why they sign on if
they don't like the risk."

"What--what risk?"

"Didn't the Agency tell you? We've got nothing below here but tanks
of concentrated landing fuel for the station on Gelbchen II. The idea
makes some of them nervous now and then. They talk quiet, they walk
quiet, and they wouldn't wear an orange suit."

He pulled open a door and nodded in gloomy satisfaction when the
compartment proved to be empty.

"_Is_ it dangerous?" asked Winstead.

       *       *       *       *       *

The spacer gnawed upon a very short thumbnail. "What's dangerous?"
he retorted at last. "You can get killed any day under a downcoming
aircar."

Winstead considered. "Where's the captain?" he inquired.

"I'm the captain."

"But--aren't you preparing to blast off?"

"I generally let my second pilot do it," said the spacer.

"But why? I thought--"

"Why? Because I own the ship, that's why."

"What has that got to do with it?" said Winstead. "I should think you'd
want all the more to handle it yourself!"

"Listen--I sweated out years in space, saving the price of this can.
If she blows up, d'you think I want to know that I did it? There's the
buzzer. Button up!"

He pulled himself into a compartment like Winstead's and clapped the
door shut. Winstead, beginning to perspire gently, found the safety
straps, secured himself, and awaited the worst.

The _Leaky Dipper_ sped through interstellar space for five silent and
introverted days before reaching the little yellow sun named Gelbchen.
The highlight of the flight was the day one of the crew dropped his
mess tray on the deck, causing one faint, one case of palpitations, and
one fist fight, in approximately that order.

The captain spent two days groping his way into an orbit about the
second planet. When he announced that the cargo would be pumped into a
number of small local tankers that had risen from the surface to meet
them, Winstead volunteered to go down in the first one.

"Don't blame you," said the swarthy spacer. "I'd like to go too. Don't
worry--they'll be good and careful landing. The stuff's that much more
expensive now that it's been freighted out here."

"That is a--a great relief," said Winstead. "It's been very
interesting. Good-by and good luck!"

"Likewise," said the captain.

_If I ever meet Aubrey again!_ thought Winstead.

On the surface of the planet, he met with a thriving community that
lived in a peculiar milieu blended of well-being and isolation. The
spaceport was a center for refueling and repair. It was supported by
mines and mills, and by just enough agricultural organization to get
by. The standard of living was comfortably high because of the services
rendered and charged for; but some of the customs struck Winstead as
being almost too informal.

"I think you're pulling my leg!" exclaimed the slim blonde at the
Agency counter when Winstead was escorted in from the field. "Nobody
would travel on the _Leaky Dipper_ without being paid for it. You must
have real nerve!"

She leaned uninhibitedly across the counter and planted a kiss on his
cheek. He could not help noticing that she was not slim everywhere.

"I assure you, Miss--er--here are my papers."

"Oh, those! Let me see, I have a stamp somewhere in one of my drawers."

       *       *       *       *       *

She rummaged through several hiding places under the counter. Winstead
thought of the compartments on the _Leaky Dipper_. He leaned wearily on
one elbow.

"Oh, well, it's time to close up anyway," the girl decided. She swept
his papers into a drawer, after a fast glance at them. "We can fix
these up tomorrow, Bob."

"You are a very quick reader," Winstead said.

"It said 'Robert L.,' didn't it? That's all I was looking for--your
name. Mine's Carole, just to keep things straight. Now, since no more
ships are due and no passengers can leave tonight, let's get out of
here."

Winstead looked around, but the mechanic who had brought him in from
the field had long since disappeared. Other clerks went about their own
affairs in the background without showing any interest in him.

Carole hoisted herself onto the counter and twisted across in a swirl
of skirts. There was no way for Winstead to avoid catching her. He saw
that she was not really slim _anywhere_.

Grabbing his hand, she set off at a smart pace. He had just time to
hook his bag off the counter as they passed it.

"You'll be wanting a place to stay," she said. "I'll bet you never
slept well on that spaceship."

This so neatly paralleled Winstead's own opinion that he rejected a
half-formed impulse to drag his feet.

They dashed pell-mell through a wide exit from the building to a
parking lot. Carole led the way to a monstrous groundcar that looked as
if its mother had been frightened by a truck. A moment later, they were
boosting up to stellar speed along a more-or-less paved road to the
city.

"They call it 'Junction,'" Carole informed him. "You'd think they
could have picked a better name for the only real city on the planet."

They buzzed through a narrow band of suburbs, along the edge of an open
square and decelerated at a well-lighted avenue that looked like an
entertainment section. Winstead noted that most of the men and women
strolling past the taverns and theaters were dressed in work clothes.

"Just finishing their shifts, like me," Carole explained.

She slowed the monster a bit more upon entering a side street. They
came to a section of four- and five-storied buildings whose metal
curtain walls had the air of business offices. It developed immediately
that they were apartment houses.

Carole pulled into an opening in a row of parked vehicles similar to
hers. Winstead got out quickly, since his hostess seemed about to
crawl across his lap to reach the door. He stared at the groundcar
meditatively.

"Awful heap, isn't it?" said the blonde. "They have to make them that
way here, so they can be converted for trucking. The spaceships count
on Gelbchen II; everything else--including us--is what can be scraped
up to do the job. Well, come on in!"

_I really must be very tired_, Winstead thought as he meekly followed
the girl into the lobby of the building.

       *       *       *       *       *

Inside, two youths in coveralls were lounging on wooden chairs of
austere design. One leaped to his feet at the sight of Carole. As he
strode toward them, Winstead glanced over his shoulder to make sure of
the door.

Turning back, he was just in time to find the young man seizing Carole
in an enthusiastic embrace. The two melted together in a passionate
kiss. Then the young man stepped back, checked his wristwatch and
dashed for the door.

"Good night, kid," he called to her over his shoulder.

Carole waved jauntily. She took Winstead by the elbow.

"That was Wilfie," she explained. "We'll be getting married if we can
ever get our job shifts straightened out. I hope I didn't make him
late, poor boy--it was his only chance to see me until tomorrow."

Winstead was hardly aware of having been steered into an elevator. When
they reached the second floor, Carole led him a few steps along the
hall. She used a simple light-key to open an apartment door. Winstead
followed her inside wordlessly.

"Let me take your bag," she said. "In here is the bedroom. I'll bet
you didn't have that much room on the spaceship."

"Well...."

"Now let's go in the kitchen and see what we can get you for dinner. I
might as well feed you, since I figure to charge you fifty credits for
the night."

Winstead remained silent by a considerable effort.

He wondered what his expression showed. Carole did not seem to notice
anything. She prattled on about the folly of trying to find a room
in one of the few hotels boasted by the city of Junction. Most of
them, she claimed, would be full of carousing spacers. Meanwhile, she
rummaged through a frozen food unit.

Winstead agreed to something in a foil package without knowing what.
She popped it into an automatic infra-red heater. He allowed himself to
be led by the hand to a large chair in the living room.

"There's the entertainment program for the TV," she told him. "Not that
we have much here--most of it is old tapes from Terra. Make yourself
comfortable while I change."

She pattered off into the bedroom, leaving Winstead weighing the
program in a limp hand. He looked around the room. There were two doors
to rooms or exits he had not been shown. What he had seen or could
examine from where he sat was very comfortably furnished, with a
resilient carpet substitute from wall to wall and new-looking furniture
of the simple Gelbchen style. Carole seemed partial to reds and other
bright colors. Only the pastels of the walls had prevented a disaster.

_Is it worth fifty credits?_ he asked himself. _On the other hand, if
I go out looking for a hotel, will I just happen to have a hard time
getting a ship?_

He glanced indecisively at the door to the bedroom into which Carole
had vanished. It had been left slightly ajar. About the time he became
aware of this, a tinny chime began to sound from the direction of the
kitchen.

It continued until Winstead realized that he would have to investigate
for himself. He entered the kitchen to find that the automatic heater
had flipped up a small sign saying, "_Hot!_"

       *       *       *       *       *

He guessed the right button to get the door of the appliance open,
looked around until he located a tray and tongs, and removed his
dinner. Further search supplied him with cutlery. He opened the foil,
discovering that he had chosen a meal of roast beef with mashed
potatoes and two vegetables he had never seen on Terra.

Carole still had not appeared, so he carried his tray out to the dining
area, which was furnished with bronze-colored metal chairs and table.
It looked like a dinner for one, he reflected, but he was on a strange
planet. As he hesitated, the bedroom door was flung back and footsteps
sounded behind him.

"Go ahead and enjoy it," called Carole. "Wine in the sideboard there.
Then make yourself at home for the night."

Winstead turned. The girl was bending to zip the front of one shoe. She
was clad in coveralls of a yellow that made Winstead blink.

"I'm off," she announced cheerfully. "Got a second-shift job as an
ambulance driver. I tell you, it's one big rat race to meet expenses on
Gelbchen II! It helps when I can bring home guests from the spaceport,
but Wilfie wants me to cut that out when we get married."

She waved and bustled out to the elevator.

Winstead wondered whether he had said good night.

He discovered after some minutes that he was leaning on the table
with one thumb in the hot potatoes. He sat down, examining his thumb
attentively. After due consideration, he licked off the potato, found a
fork, and began to prod dubiously at the local idea of vegetables....

He awoke next morning with a start of surprise at finding himself in
neither a net nor a padded compartment. The bed was soft. It invited
him to roll over for another half hour's snooze in the faintly perfumed
room.

Perfume?

Bedroom ... _Carole!_

Winstead sat straight up as full memory returned.

Everything was quiet. He threw back the electric blanket, checked a
clock that must be set to planetary time, and decided that it was early
morning. The window filters yielded to trial-and-error manipulation,
flooding the room with cheerful sunlight not unlike that of a Terran
summer morning. Winstead walked softly to the door and opened it a
crack. The room outside remained dim and silent.

He washed in the adjoining bathroom and dressed rapidly. Feeling better
prepared for the day, he sallied out to seek breakfast. The first sight
that met his eyes was that of Carole sleeping on a couch under an
aquamarine blanket she had plugged in at the socket of a floor lamp.

The thought of fifty credits restrained the impulse to pat her blonde
head in commiseration. He thought of it a little more, thereby fighting
down a mild attack of conscience over appropriating the bed.

_After all_, he thought, _here I have to get my own breakfast. She's
probably tired out, but that's the reward of moonlighting. It's her
planet, not mine._

       *       *       *       *       *

Winstead tiptoed to the kitchen door, slipped furtively through, and
closed the door as quietly as possible behind him.

Two men eating breakfast at a small table looked up at him amiably.

"Gaagh!" said Winstead.

"Good morning," replied one man, who wore a rather feminine dressing
gown.

The other, a ruddy, farmerish individual, grunted past a mouthful of
toast.

"I beg your pardon," Winstead said.

"You must be another star traveler," said the gentleman in the dressing
gown. "We knew there must be one when we saw Carole on the couch. I
hope she gets you out of here quicker than she's finding a ship for me."

"You have been waiting for a spaceship?" Winstead asked.

"Over two weeks now," said the other. "The kid's fair enough about it,
I must admit. She can't ship me toward Epseri, so she's been giving me
a discount on my room."

"Sit down and have some eggs," invited the farmer type. "Brought 'em
into town myself, along with my other produce."

Winstead eyed the platter of fried eggs. They were entirely too large
to have come from chickens, but they looked good. He decided not to ask
any questions.

It developed after he joined them at the table that the farmer was
in the habit of boarding with Carole whenever he came to Junction on
business. The traveler, one Cecil Feigelson, excused his borrowing
Carole's robe on grounds of the scanty baggage allowed space travelers
and the fact that he had been hanging about for so long. They assured
him that he looked fine in pink.

Winstead drained his cup of coffee substitute, considered having
another.

"You know," he said thoughtfully, "it hardly seems necessary to spend
all that time finding a ship headed for Epseri. I--uh--happen to be
going that way too. I suspect that a good, close look at the schedules
down at the spaceport might show us a way."

"But Carole is the clerk in charge."

"I also happen to know a little about how it's done," said Winstead
quietly. He added, "From traveling so much you know."

"Well, if you think anything can be done, I'm all for it."

"When the kid wakes up, she could drive you down," suggested the farmer.

"That should require only a moment to arrange," said Winstead, rising
to fill a pitcher with ice water. _Fifty credits a night!_ he thought.
_Wait till I get my hands on her shipping schedules!_

Hardly five minutes later, they all spilled out of the elevator into
the lobby. Carole was still rather damp and angry. Cecil Feigelson's
suitcase zipper was only three-quarters closed. Fortunately, he was
wearing pants under the girl's dressing gown, which clashed horribly
with Winstead's rumpled orange suit.

"Hey!" someone yelped as they blazed through the lobby.

Young Wilfie catapulted from a chair where he appeared to have been
dozing.

_Doesn't he have a home?_ wondered Winstead.

       *       *       *       *       *

By the time they reached Carole's groundcar outside, the youth had
somehow inserted himself into the group in place of the farmer.
Winstead set the machine in motion while the others were scrambling for
seats.

"Do you know how to drive one of these, friend?" asked Feigelson.

"I am an expert groundcar operator," Winstead assured him.

Unfortunately, he was soon forced to admit, he was accustomed to
Terran cars that floated on cushions of air. Although bumps in the
spaceport road encouraged a good deal of floating at the speed he was
making, the Gelbchen vehicle was really designed for less intermittent
wheel-to-ground contact.

The trip seemed shorter, though, than it had the previous evening.
Winstead skidded to a halt at their destination and discovered that he
was perspiring slightly. His passengers were in a frank sweat and lost
several yards trailing him into the terminal and over to the Agency
counter.

When they arrived, still quite pale, Winstead was already up to his
elbows in shipping schedules and blank forms. A few passing clerks
glanced curiously at Feigelson's frilly pink dressing gown, but they
were used to outworld garb.

"Wait! That's my Galatlas you're tearing apart!" Carole protested
breathlessly.

"How would you know, my dear?" asked Winstead, riffling the pages
furiously. "Hah! Just as I thought--this cruise ship down here for
supplies, the _Virgo_, is listed to make New Ceres next. The Galatlas
shows that New Ceres is halfway to Epseri, Feigelson!"

"Wilfie!" wailed Carole. "Make him stop tearing the place apart like a
saloon! Look at that stack of folders spilled all over the floor!"

Wilfie bestirred himself, but he was handicapped by being on the other
side of the counter with Carole and Feigelson.

"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded truculently. "Where did
you come from, anyway?"

"I came from Terra," said Winstead, pausing in filling out a form, "and
I am more than ready to return. Combining a vacation with a business
inspection trip occasionally becomes too exciting for a man of my
years."

"Inspection trip?" echoed Carole, freezing.

"My hobby," said Winstead. "It keeps one in touch with the people
who make the Agency go. This place, now, is the most slapdash,
disorganized--Young man! You quit one of your jobs and take over this
branch of the Interstellar Travel Agency. Don't argue--of course you
can! What is your full name?"

"_Me?_" gasped Wilfie. "Wilfred Evans."

"All right, Evans, you're hired. You'll be able to get married and put
a stop to all this nonsense of renting rooms while ships go out without
our passengers."

"What authority have you to--" began Carole indignantly.

"The first test of a chief agent," said Winstead, scribbling upon a
business card, "is to know when to tell an assistant manager to button
her hatch."

Wilfie accepted the card and glanced at both print and scribbling.

"Button your hatch!" he ordered Carole over his shoulder.

       *       *       *       *       *

She stood silent, her mouth open about the same distance as
Feigelson's. Winstead looked about for a local clock, and snatched up
one of the sheets strewn about the counter. A departure time listed
upon it made him swear. He leaped to Carole's phone, switching on sound
and screen with one swipe of his thumb.

The blonde advanced a timid step, to read the card bearing Wilfie's
appointment.

"Robert Winstead Lewis, Terra ... President, Interstellar Travel
Agency...."

"Winstead" was shouting at a face on the phone screen.

"You tell them who I am!" he demanded, holding up another of his cards
to the scanner. "They'll manage to hold the ship three minutes until we
reach her!"

He switched off, mopping his forehead with the back of his hand, and
started around the counter. Carole swayed weakly against Feigelson's
supporting arm.

"Now, then!" snapped Winstead. "This branch will be checked in the near
future, Evans. I trust that you are the sort of man who can show a firm
hand, should he return home to discover a star traveler in his bedroom."

He smacked the flat of his own hand significantly upon the counter,
staring at Carole between the eyes. Wilfie nodded thoughtfully.

Robert Winstead Lewis flagged down an unwary porter driving by on an
empty baggage truck.

"Bring the bags, Feigelson!" he commanded, hopping aboard and seizing
the controls. "As far as New Ceres, anyhow, we'll be going first-class!"

Picking up speed, the baggage truck squealed around a turn and headed
for an exit to the spaceport. The porter looked back with a horrified
expression, the pink gown fluttered beside the orange suit one last
time, and they disappeared through the portal.

The air about the disorganized counter and reorganized agents continued
to vibrate for some minutes.

Finally, the distant roar of a ship lifting for space penetrated to
restore a sense of relative peace.





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