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Title: Search the Sky
Author: Kornbluth, C. M. (Cyril M.), Pohl, Frederik
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 "Search the Sky" ***

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                  By Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth


                         _THE SPACE MERCHANTS_
                            _SEARCH THE SKY_

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                               SEARCH THE
                                  SKY



                                   by
                             Frederik Pohl
                                  and
                            C. M. Kornbluth



                      BALLANTINE BOOKS · NEW YORK

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                          COPYRIGHT, 1954, BY
                   FREDERIK POHL AND C. M. KORNBLUTH
             LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGUE CARD NO. 54-6478
                PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA


                         BALLANTINE BOOKS, INC.
                  404 Fifth Avenue, New York 18, N. Y.

                  ------------------------------------

                           TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE


                   Extensive research did not uncover
                  any evidence that the U.S. copyright
                    on this publication was renewed.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                               SEARCH THE
                                  SKY



..... 1


DECAY.

Ross stood on the traders’ ramp, overlooking the Yards, and the word
kept bobbing to the top of his mind.

Decay.

About all of Halsey’s Planet there was the imperceptible reek of decay.
The clean, big, bustling, efficient spaceport only made the sensation
stronger. From where he stood on the height of the Ramp, he could see
the Yards, the spires of Halsey City ten kilometers away—and the
tumble-down gray acres of Ghost Town between.

Ross wrinkled his nose. He wasn’t a man given to brooding, but the scent
of decay had saturated his nostrils that morning. He had tossed and
turned all the night, wrestling with a decision. And he had got up
early, so early that the only thing that made sense was to walk to work.

And that meant walking through Ghost Town. He hadn’t done that in a long
time, not since childhood. Ghost Town was a wonderful place to play.
“Tag,” “Follow My Fuehrer,” “Senators and President”—all the ancient
games took on new life when you could dodge and turn among crumbling
ruins, dart down unmarked lanes, gallop through sagging shacks where you
might stir out a screeching, unexpected recluse.

But it was clear that—in the fifteen years between childhood games and a
troubled man’s walk to work—Ghost Town had grown.

Everybody knew that! Ask the right specialists, and they’d tell you how
much and how fast. An acre a year, a street a month, a block a week, the
specialists would twinkle at you, convinced that the acre, street, block
was under control, since they could measure it.

Ask the right specialists and they would tell you why it was happening.
One answer per specialist, with an ironclad guarantee that there would
be no overlapping of replies. “A purely psychological phenomenon, Mr.
Ross. A vibration of the pendulum toward greater municipal compactness,
a huddling, a mature recognition of the facts of interdependence,
basically a step forward....”

“A purely biological phenomenon, Mr. Ross. Falling birth rate due to
biochemical deficiency of trace elements processed out of our planetary
diet. Fortunately the situation has been recognized in time and my bill
before the Chamber will provide....”

“A purely technological problem, Mr. Ross. Maintenance of a sprawling
city is inevitably less efficient than that of a compact unit.
Inevitably there has been a drift back to the central areas and the
convenience of air-conditioned walkways, winterized plazas....”

Yes. It was a purely psychological-biological-technological-
educational-demographic problem, and it was basically a step forward.

Ross wondered how many Ghost Towns lay corpselike on the surface of
Halsey’s Planet. Decay, he thought. Decay.

But it had nothing to do with his problem, the problem that had kept him
awake all the night, the problem that blighted the view before him now.

The trading bell clanged. The day’s work began.

For Ross it might be his last day’s work at the Yards.

                  *       *       *       *       *

He walked slowly from the ramp to the offices of the Oldham Trading
Corporation. “Morning, Ross boy,” his breezy young boss greeted him.
Charles Oldham IV’s father had always taken a paternal attitude toward
his help, and Charles Oldham IV was not going to change anything that
Daddy had done. He shook Ross’s hand at the door of the suite and
apologized because they hadn’t been able to find a new secretary for him
yet. They’d been looking for two weeks, but the three applicants they
had been able to dredge up had all been hopeless. “It’s the damn
Chamber,” said Charles Oldham IV, winsomely gesturing with his hands to
show how helpless men of affairs were against the blundering
interference of Government. “Damn labor shortage is nothing but a damn
artificial scarcity crisis. Daddy saw it; he knew it was coming.”

Ross almost told him he was quitting, but held back. Maybe it was
because he didn’t want to spoil Oldham’s day with bad news, right on top
of the opening bell. Or maybe it was because, in spite of a sleepless
night, he still wasn’t quite sure.

The morning’s work helped him to become sure. It was the same monotonous
grind.

Three freighters had arrived at dawn from Halsey’s third moon, but none
of them was any affair of his. There was an export shipment of jewelry
and watches to be attended to, but the ship was not to take off for
another week. It scarcely classified as urgent. Ross worked on the
manifests for a couple of hours, stared through his window for an hour,
and then it was time for lunch.

Little Marconi hailed him as he passed through the traders’ lounge.

Of all the juniors on the Exchange, Marconi was the one Ross found
easiest to take. He was lean and dark where Ross was solid and fair;
worse, he stood four ranks above Ross in seniority. But, since Ross
worked for Oldham, and Marconi worked for Haarland’s, the difference
could be waived in social intercourse.

Ross suspected that, to Marconi as to him, trading was only a job—a dull
one, and not a crusade. And he knew that Marconi’s reading was not
confined to bills of lading. “Lunch?” asked Marconi. “Sure,” Ross said.
And he knew he’d probably spill his secret to the little man from
Haarland’s.

The skyroom was crowded—comparatively. All eight of the usual tables
were taken; they pushed on into the roped-off area by the windows and
found a table overlooking the Yards. Marconi blew dust off his chair.
“Been a long time since this was used,” he grumbled. “Drink?” He raised
his eyebrows when Ross nodded. It made a break; Marconi was the one
usually who had a drink with lunch, Ross never touched it.

When the drinks came, each of them said to the other in perfect
synchronism: “I’ve got something to tell you.”

They looked startled—then laughed. “Go ahead,” said Ross.

The little man didn’t even argue. Rapturously he drew a photo out of his
pocket.

God, thought Ross wearily, Lurline again! He studied the picture with a
show of interest. “New snap?” he asked brightly. “Lovely girl——” Then he
noticed the inscription: _To my fiance, with crates of love._ “Well!” he
said, “Fiance, is it? Congratulations, Marconi!”

Marconi was almost drooling on the photo. “Next month,” he said happily.
“A big, big wedding. For keeps, Ross—for keeps. With children!”

Ross made an expression of polite surprise. “You don’t say!” he said.

“It’s all down in black and white! She agrees to have two children in
the first five years—no permissive clause, a straight guarantee. Fifteen
hundred annual allowance per child. And, Ross, do you know what? Her
lawyer told her right in front of me that she ought to ask for three
thousand, and she told him, ‘No, Mr. Turek. I happen to be in love.’ How
do you like that, Ross?”

“A girl in a million,” Ross said feebly. His private thoughts were that
Marconi had been gaffed and netted like a sugar perch. Lurline was of
the Old Landowners, who didn’t own anything much but land these days,
and Marconi was an undersized nobody who happened to make a very good
living. Sure she happened to be in love. Smartest thing she could be. Of
course, promising to have children sounded pretty special; but the
papers were full of those things every day. Marconi could reliably be
counted on to hang himself. He’d promise her breakfast in bed every
third week end, or the maid that he couldn’t possibly find on the labor
market, and the courts would throw all the promises on both sides out of
the contract as a matter of simple equity. But the marriage would stick,
all right.

Marconi had himself a final moist, fatuous sigh and returned the photo
to his pocket. “And now,” he asked brightly, craning his neck for the
waiter, “what’s your news?”

Ross sipped his drink, staring out at the nuzzling freighters in their
hemispherical slips. He said abruptly, “I might be on one of those next
week. Fallon’s got a purser’s berth open.”

Marconi forgot the waiter and gaped. “Quitting?”

“I’ve got to do something!” Ross exploded. His own voice scared him;
there was a knife blade of hysteria in the sound of it. He gripped the
edge of the table and forced himself to be calm and deliberate.

Marconi said tardily, “Easy, Ross.”

“Easy! You’ve said it, Marconi: ‘Easy.’ Everything’s so damned easy and
so damned boring that I’m just about ready to blow! I’ve got to do
something,” he repeated. “I’m getting nowhere! I push papers around and
then I push them back again. You know what happens next. You get soft
and paunchy. You find yourself going by the book instead of by your
head. You’re covered, if you go by the book—no matter what happens. And
you might just as well be dead!”

“Now, Ross——”

“Now, hell!” Ross flared. “Marconi, I swear I think there’s something
wrong with me! Look, take Ghost Town for instance. Ever wonder why
nobody lives there, except a couple of crazy old hermits?”

“Why, it’s Ghost Town,” Marconi explained. “It’s deserted.”

“And why is it deserted? What happened to the people who used to live
there?”

Marconi shook his head. “You need a vacation, son,” he said
sympathetically. “That was a long time ago. Hundreds of years, maybe.”

“But where did the people go?” Ross persisted desperately. “All of the
city was inhabited hundreds of years ago—the city was twice as big as it
is now. How come?”

Marconi shrugged. “Dunno.”

Ross collapsed. “Don’t know. You don’t know, I don’t know, nobody knows.
Only thing is, I care! I’m curious. Marconi, I get—well, moody.
Depressed. I get to worrying about crazy things. Ghost Town, for one.
And why can’t they find a secretary for me? And am I really different
from everybody else or do I just think so—and doesn’t that mean that I’m
insane?”

He laughed. Marconi said warmly, “Ross, you aren’t the only one; don’t
ever think you are. I went through it myself. Found the answer, too. You
wait, Ross.”

He paused. Ross said suspiciously, “Yeah?”

Marconi tapped the breast pocket with the photo of Lurline. “She’ll come
along,” he said.

Ross managed not to sneer in his face. “No,” he said wearily. “Look, I
don’t advertise it, but I was married once. I was eighteen, it lasted
for a year and I’m the one who walked out. Flat-fee settlement; it took
me five years to pay off the loan, but I never regretted it.”

Marconi began gravely, “Sexual incompatibility——”

Ross cut him off with an impatient gesture. “In that department,” he
said, “it so happens she was a genius. But——”

“But?”

Ross shrugged. “I must have been crazy,” he said shortly. “I kept
thinking that she was half-dead, dying on the vine like the rest of
Halsey’s Planet. And I must still be crazy, because I still think so.”

The little man involuntarily felt his breast pocket. He said gently,
“Maybe you’ve been working too hard.”

“Too hard!” Ross laughed, a curious blend of true humor and
self-disgust. “Well,” he admitted, “I need a change, anyhow. I might as
well be on a longliner. At least I’d have my spree to look back on.”

“No!” Marconi said, so violently that Ross slopped the drink he was
lifting to his mouth.

Ross looked hard at the little man—hard and speculatively. “No, then,”
he said. “It was just a figure of speech, of course. But tell me
something, won’t you, Marconi?”

“Tell you what?”

“Tell me why such a violent reaction to the word ‘longliner.’ I want to
know.”

“Hell, Ross,” the little man grumbled, “you know what a longliner is.
Gutter-scrapings for crews; nothing for a man like you.”

“I want to know more,” Ross insisted. “When I ask you what a longliner
is, what the crew do with themselves for two or three centuries, you
change the subject. You always change the subject! Maybe you know
something I don’t know. I want to know what it is, and this time the
subject doesn’t get changed. You don’t get off the hook until I find
out.” He took a sip of his drink and leaned back. “Tell me about
longliners,” he said. “I’ve never seen one coming in; it’s been fifteen
years or so since that bucket from Sirius IV, hasn’t it? But you were on
the job then.”

Marconi was no longer a man in love or one of the few people whom Ross
considered to be wholly alive—like him. He was a hard-eyed little
stranger with a stubborn mouth and an ingratiating veneer. In short he
was again a trader, and a good one.

“I’ll tell you anything I know,” Marconi declared positively, and
insincerely. “Tend to that fellow first though, will you?” He pointed to
a uniformed Yards messenger whose eye had just alighted on Ross. The man
threaded his way, stumbling, through the tables and laid a sealed
envelope down in the puddle left by Ross’s drink.

“Sorry, sir,” he said crisply, wiped off the envelope with his
handkerchief and, for lagniappe, wiped the puddle off the table into
Ross’s lap.

Speechless, Ross signed for the envelope on a red-tabbed slip marked
URGENT * PRIORITY * RUSH. The messenger saluted, almost putting his own
eye out, and left, crashing into tables and chairs.

“Half-dead,” Ross muttered, following him with his eyes. “How the devil
do they stay alive at all?”

Marconi said, unsmiling, “You’re taking this kick pretty seriously,
Ross. I admit he’s a little clumsy, but——”

“But nothing,” said Ross. “Don’t try to tell me you don’t know
something’s wrong, Marconi! He’s a bumbling incompetent, and half his
generation is just like him.” He looked bitterly at the envelope and
dropped it on the table again. “More manifests,” he said. “I swear I’ll
start throwing tableware if I have to check another bill of lading.
Brighten my day, Marconi; tell me about the longliners. You’re not off
the hook yet, you know.”

Marconi signaled for another drink. “All right,” he said. “Marconi tells
all about longliners. They’re ships. They go from the planet of one star
to the planet of another star. It takes a long time, because stars are
many light-years apart and rocket ships cannot travel as fast as light.
Einstein said so—whoever he was. Do we start with the Sirius IV ship? I
was around when it came in, all right. Fifteen years ago, and Halsey’s
Planet is still enjoying the benefits of it. And so is Leverett and Sons
Trading Corporation. They did fine on flowers from seeds that bucket
brought, they did fine on sugar perch from eggs that bucket brought.
I’ve never had it myself. Raw fish for dessert! But some people swear by
it—at five shields a portion. They can have it.”

“The hook, Marconi,” Ross reminded grimly.

Trader Marconi laughed amiably. “Sorry. Well, what else? Pictures and
music, but I’m not much on them. I do read, though, and as a reader I
say, God bless that bucket from Sirius IV. We never had a novelist like
Morris Halliday on this planet—or an essayist like Jay Waring. Let’s
see, there have been eight Halliday novels off the microfilms so far,
and I think Leverett still has a couple in the vaults. Leverett must
be——”

“Marconi. I don’t want to hear about Leverett and Sons. Or Morris
Halliday, or Waring. I want to hear about longliners.”

“I’m trying to tell you,” Marconi said sullenly, the mask down.

“No, you’re not. You’re telling me that the longline ships go from one
stellar system to another with merchandise. I know that.”

“Then what do you want?”

“Don’t be difficult, Marconi. I want to know the facts. All about
longliners. The big hush-hush. The candid explanations that explain
nothing—except that a starship is a starship. I know that they’re
closed-system, multigeneration jobs; a group of people get in on Sirius
IV and their great-great-great-great-grandchildren come giggling and
stumbling out on Halsey’s Planet. I know that every couple of
generations your firm—and mine, for that matter—builds one with profits
that would be taxed off anyway and slings it out, stocked with seeds and
film and sound tape and patent designs and manufacturing specifications
for every new gimmick on the market, in the hope that it’ll be back long
after we’re dead with a similar cargo to enrich your firm’s and my
firm’s then-current owners. Sounds silly—but, as I say, it’s tax money
anyhow. I know that your firm and mine staff the ships with half a dozen
bums of each sex, who are loaded aboard with a dandy case of delirium
tremens, contracted from spending their bounty money the only way they
know how. And that’s just about all I know. Take it from there, Marconi.
And be specific.”

The little man shrugged irritably. “That gag’s beginning to wear thin,
Ross,” he complained. “What do you want me to tell you—the number of
welds in Bulkhead 47 of ‘Starship 74’? What’s the difference? As you
said, a starship is a starship is a longliner. Without them the
inhabited solar systems would have no means of contact or commerce. What
else is there to say?”

Ross looked suddenly lost. “I—don’t know,” he said. “Don’t you know,
Marconi?”

Marconi hesitated, and for a moment Ross was sure he did know—knew
something, at any rate, something that might be an answer to the doubts
and nagging inconsistencies that were bothering him. But then Marconi
shrugged and looked at his watch and ordered another drink.

But there was something wrong. Ross felt himself in the position of a
diagnostician whose patient willfully refuses to tell where it hurts.
The planet was sick—but wouldn’t admit it. Sick? Dying! Maybe he was on
the wrong track entirely. Maybe the starships had nothing to do with it.
Maybe there was nothing that Marconi knew that would fit a piece into
the puzzle and make the answer come out all clear—but Ghost Town
continued to grow acre by acre, year by year. And Oldham still hadn’t
found him a secretary capable of writing her own name.

“According to the historians, everything fits nicely into place,” Ross
said, dubiously. “They say we came here ourselves in longliners once,
Marconi. Our ancestors under some man named Halsey colonized this place,
fourteen hundred years ago. According to the longliners that come in
from other stars, their ancestors colonized wherever they came from in
starships from a place called Earth. Where is this Earth, Marconi?”

Marconi said succinctly, “Look in the star charts. It’s there.”

“Yes, but——”

“But, hell,” Marconi said in annoyance. “What in the world has got into
you, Ross? Earth is a planet like any other planet. The starship Halsey
colonized in was a starship like any other starship—only bigger. I
guess, that is—I wasn’t there. After all, what are the longliners but
colonists? They happen to be going to planets that are already
inhabited, that’s all. So a starship is nothing new or even very
interesting, and this is beginning to bore me, and you ought to read
your urgent-priority-rush message.”

Ross felt repentant—knowing that that was just how Trader Marconi wanted
him to feel. He said slowly, “I’m sorry if I’m being a nuisance,
Marconi. You know how it is when you feel stale and restless. I know all
the stories—but it’s so damned hard to believe them. The famous
colonizing ships. They must have been absolutely gigantic to take any
reasonable number of people on a closed-circuit, multigeneration ride.
We can’t build them that big now!”

“No reason to.”

“But we couldn’t if we had to. Imagine shooting those things all over
the Galaxy. How many inhabited planets in the charts—five hundred? A
thousand? Think of the technology, Marconi. What became of it?”

“We don’t need that sort of technology any more,” Marconi explained.
“That job is done. Now we concentrate on more important things. Learning
to live with each other. Developing our own planet. Increasing our
understanding of social factors and demographic——”

Ross was laughing at last. “Well, Marconi,” he said at last, “that takes
care of that! We sure have figured out how to handle the social factors,
all right. Every year there are fewer of them to handle. Pretty soon
we’ll all be dead, and then the problem can be marked ‘solved.’”

Marconi laughed too—eagerly, as if he’d been waiting for the chance. He
said, “Now that that’s settled, are you going to open your message? Are
you at least going to have some lunch?”

The Yards messenger stumbled up to their table again, this time with an
envelope for Marconi. He looked sharply at Ross’s unopened envelope and
said nothing, pointedly. Ross guiltily picked it up and tore it open.
You could act like a sulky child in front of a friend, but strangers
didn’t understand.

The message was from his office. RADAR REPORTS HIGH VELOCITY SPACECRAFT
ON AUTOCONTROLS. FIRST APPROXIMATION TRAJECTORY INDICATES INTERSTELLAR
ORIGIN. PROBABLE ETA YARDS 1500. NO RADIO MESSAGES RECEIVED. DON’T HAVE
TO TELL YOU TO GET ON THIS IMMEDIATELY AND GIVE IT YOUR BEST. OLDHAM.

Ross looked at Marconi, whose expression was perturbed. “Bet I know what
your message says,” he offered with an uneasy quaver in his voice.

Marconi said: “I’ll bet you do. Oldham’s radar setup on Sunward always
has been better than Haarland’s. Better location. Man, you are in
trouble! Let’s get out there and hope nobody’s missed you so far.”

They grabbed sandwiches from the snack bar on the way out and munched
them while the Yards jeep took them to the ready line. Skirting the
freighters in their pits, slipping past the enormous overhaul sheds,
they saw excited debates going on. Twice they were passed by Yards
vehicles heading toward the landing area. Halfway to the line they heard
the recall sirens warning everybody and everything out of the ten seared
acres surrounded by homing and Ground-Controlled Approach radars. That
was where the big ones were landed.

The ready line was jammed when they got there. Ships from one or another
of the five moons that circled Halsey’s planet were common; the moons
were the mines. Even the weekly liner and freighters from the colony on
Sunward, the planet next in from Halsey’s, were routine to the Yards
workers. But to anybody an interstellar ship was a sensation, a
once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime thrill.

Protocols were uncertain. Traders argued about the first crack at the
strangers and their goods. A dealer named Aalborg said the only fair
system would be to give every trade there an equal opportunity to do
business—in alphabetical order. Everybody agreed that under no
circumstances should the man from Leverett and Sons be allowed to
trade—everybody, except the man from Leverett and Sons. He pointed out
that his firm was the logical choice because it had more and fresher
experience in handling interstellar goods than any other....

They almost mobbed him.

It wasn’t merely money that filled the atmosphere with electric tingles.
The glamor of time-travel was on them. The crew aboard that ship were
travelers of time as well as space. The crew that had launched the ship
was dust. The crew that served it now had never seen a planet.

There was even some humility in the crowd. There were thoughtful ones
among them who reflected that it was not, after all, a very great feat
to hitch a rocket to a shell and lob it across a few million miles to a
neighboring planet. It was eclipsed by the tremendous deed whose climax
they were about to witness. The thoughtful ones shrugged and sighed as
they thought that even the starship booming down toward Halsey’s
Planet—fitted with the cleverest air replenishers and the most
miraculously efficient waste converters—was only a counter in the game
whose great rule was the mass-energy formulation of the legendary
Einstein: that there is no way to push a material object past the speed
of light.

A report swept the field that left men reeling in its wake. Radar Track
confirmed that the ship was of unfamiliar pattern. All hope that it
might be a starship launched from this very spot on the last leg of a
stupefying round trip was officially dead. The starship was foreign.

“Wonder what they have?” Marconi muttered.

“Trader!” Ross sneered ponderously. He was feeling better; the weight of
depression had been lifted for the time being, either by his confession
or the electric atmosphere. If every day were like this, he thought
vaguely....

“Let’s not kid each other,” Marconi was saying exuberantly. “This is an
event, man! Where are they from, what are they peddling? Do I get a good
cut at their wares? It could be fifty thousand shields for me in
commission alone. Lurline and I could build a tower house on Great Blue
Lake with that kind of money, with a whole floor for her parents! Ross,
you just don’t know what it is to really be in love. Everything
changes.”

A jeep roared up and slammed to a stop; Ross blinked and yelled: “Here
it comes!”

They watched the ground-controlled approach with the interest of
semiprofessionals and concealed their rising excitement with shop talk.

“Whups! There goes the high-power job into action.” Marconi pointed as a
huge dish antenna swiveled ponderously on its mast. “Seems the
medium-output dishes can’t handle her.”

“Maybe the high-power dish can’t either. She might be just plain shot.”

“Standard, sealed GCA doesn’t get shot, my young friend. Not in a
neon-atmosphere tank it doesn’t.”

“Maybe along about the fifth generation they forgot what it was and cut
it open with an acetylene torch to see what was inside.”

“Bad luck for us in that case, Ross.” The ship steadied on a due-west
course and flashed across the heavens and over the horizon.

“Somebody decided a braking ellipse or two was in order. What about line
of sight?”

“No sweat. The GCA jockey—and I’d bet it’s Delafield himself—pushes a
button that hooks him into the high-power dish at every rocket field on
Halsey’s. It’s been all thought out. There’s a potential fortune aboard
that longliner and Fields Administration wants its percentage for
servicing and accommodating.”

“Wonder what they have?”

“I already asked that one, Ross.”

“So you did.”

They lapsed into silence until the rocket boomed in again from the east,
high and slow. The big dish swiveled abruptly and began tracking again.

“He’ll try to bring her down this time. Yes! There go fore and
stabilizing jets.”

Flame jutted from the silvery speck high in the blue; its apparent speed
slowed to a crawl. It vanished for a second as steering jets turned her
slowly endwise. They caught sight of the stern jets when they blasted
for the descent.

It was uneventful—just the landing of a very, very big rocket. When a
landing is successful it is like every other successful landing ever
made.

But the action that the field whirled into immediately following the
landing was far from routine. The bullhorns roared that all traders,
wipers, rubbernecks, and visitors were to get behind the ready lines and
stay there. All Class-Three-and-higher Field personnel were to take
stations for longliner clearance. The weapons and decontamination
parties were to take their stations immediately. Captain Delafield would
issue all future orders and don’t let any of the traders talk you out of
it, men. Captain Delafield would issue all future orders.

Ross watched in considerable surprise as Field men working with drilled
precision broke out half a dozen sleek, needle-nosed guns from an
innocent-looking bay of the warehouse and manhandled them into position.
From another bay a large pressure tank was hauled and backed against the
lock of the starship. Ross could see the station medic bustlingly
supervise that, and the hosing of white gunk onto the juncture between
tank and ship.

Delafield crossed the stretch from the GCA complex to the tank, vanished
into it through a pressure-fitted door and that was that. The tank had
no windows.

Ross said to Marconi, wonderingly: “What’s all this about? There was Doc
Gibbons handling the pressure tank, there was Chunk Blaney rolling out a
God-damned cannon I never knew was there—how many more little secrets
are there that I don’t know about?”

Marconi grinned. “They have gun drill once a month, my young friend, and
they never say a word about it. Let the right rabble-rouser get hold of
the story and he might sail into office on a platform of ‘Keep the
bug-eyed monsters off of Halsey’s Planet.’ You have to have reasonable
precautions, military and medical, though—and this is the straight
goods—there’s never been any trouble of either variety.”

The conversation died and there was a long, boring hour of nothing. At
last Delafield appeared again. One of the decontamination party ran up
in a jeep with a microphone.

“What’ll it be?” Ross demanded. “Alphabetic order? Or just a rush?”

The announcement floored him. “Representative of the Haarland Trading
Corporation please report to the decontamination tank.”

The representative of the Haarland Trading Corporation was Marconi.

“Hell,” Ross said bitterly. “Good luck with them, whoever they are.”

Marconi brooded for a moment and then said gruffly, “Come on along.”

“You mean it?”

“Sure. Uh—naturally, Ross, you’ll give me your word not to make any
commercial offers or inquiries without my permission.”

“Oh. Naturally.” They started across the field and were checked through
the ready line, Marconi cheerfully presenting his identification and
vouching for Ross.

Captain Delafield, at the tank, snapped, “What are you doing here, Ross?
You’re Oldham’s man. I distinctly said——”

“My responsibility, Captain. Will that do it?” Marconi asked.

Delafield snapped, “It’ll be your fundament if Haarland hears about it.
Actually it’s the damnedest situation—they _asked_ for Haarland’s.”

Marconi looked frightened and his hand involuntarily went to his breast
pocket. He swallowed and asked, “Where are they from?”

Delafield grimaced and said, “Home.”

Marconi exploded, “Oh, no!”

“That’s all I can get out of them. I suppose their trajectory can be
analyzed, and there must be books. We haven’t been in the ship yet.
Nobody goes in until it gets sprayed, rayed, dusted, and busted down
into its component parts. Too many places for nasty little mutant
bacteria and viruses to lurk.”

“Sure, Captain. ‘Home,’ eh? They’re pretty simple?”

“Happy little morons. Fifteen of them, ranging in age from one month to
what looks like a hundred and twenty. All they know is ‘home’ and ‘we
wish to see the representative of the Haarland Trading Corporation.’
First the old woman said it. Then the next in line—he must be about a
hundred—said it. Then a pair of identical twins, fifty-year-old women,
said it in chorus. Then the rest of them on down to the month-old baby,
and I swear to God he tried to say it. Well, you’re the Haarland Trading
Corporation. Go on in.”



..... 2


THEY were all naked. Why not? There’s no weather in a space ship. All of
them laughed when Ross and Marconi came in through the lock except the
baby, who was nursing at the breast of a handsome woman. Their laughter
was what attracted Ross immediately. Cheerful—no meanness in it. The
happy yelping of puppies at play with a red rubber bone.

A stab went through him as the pleasure in their simple happiness turned
to recollection and recognition. His wife of a decade ago.... Ross
studied them with amazement, expecting to find her features in their
features, her figure in theirs. And failed. Yet they reminded him
inescapably of his miserable year with that half-a-woman, but they were
physically no kin of hers. They were just cheerful laughers who he knew
were less than human.

The cheerful laughers exposed unblemished teeth in all their mouths,
including that of the hundred-and-twenty-year-old matriarch. Why not? If
you put calcium and fluorides into a closed system, they stay there.

The old woman stopped laughing at them long enough to say to Marconi,
“We wish to see the representative of the Haarland——”

“Yes, I know. I’m the representative of the Haarland Trading
Corporation. Welcome to Halsey’s Planet. May I ask what your name is,
ma’am?”

“Ma,” she said genially.

“Pleased to meet you, Ma. My name’s Marconi.”

Ma said, bewildered, “You just said you were the representative of the
Haarland Trading——”

“Yes, Ma, but that’s all right. Let’s say that’s my other name. Two
names—understand?”

She laughed at the idea of two names, wonderingly.

Marconi pressed, “And what’s the name of this gentleman?”

“He isn’t Gentleman. He’s Sonny.”

Sonny was a hundred years old.

“Pleased to meet you, Sonny. And your name, sir?”

“Sonny,” said a redheaded man of eighty or thereabouts.

The identical-twin women were named The Kids. The baby was named Him.
The rest of the troop were named Girl, Ma, or Sonny. After introductions
Ross noticed that Him had been passed to another Ma who was placidly
suckling him. She had milk; it dribbled from the corner of the baby’s
mouth. “There isn’t another baby left in the ship, is there?” Ross asked
in alarm.

They laughed and the Ma suckling the baby said: “There was, but she
died. Mostly they do when you put them into the box after they get born.
Ma here was lucky. Her Him didn’t die.”

“Put them in the box? What box? Why?”

Marconi was nudging him fiercely in the ribs. He ignored it.

They laughed amiably at his ignorance and explained that the box was the
box, and that you put your newborn babies into it because you put your
newborn babies into it.

A beep tone sounded from the ship.

Ma said, “We have to go back now, The Representative of the Haarland
Trading Corporation Marconi.”

“What for?”

Ma said, “At regular intervals signaled by a tone of six hundred cycles
and an intermittent downward shifting of the ship lights from standard
illumination frequency to a signal frequency of 420 millimicrons, ship’s
operating personnel take up positions at the control boards for
recalibration of ship-working meters and instruments against the battery
of standard masters. We’ll be right back.”

They trooped through the hatch, leaving Ross and Marconi staring at each
other in the decontamination tank.

“Well,” Ross said slowly, “at last I know why the Longliner Departments
have their little secrets. ‘The box.’ I say it’s murder.”

“Be reasonable,” Marconi told him—but his own face was white under the
glaring germicidal lamps. “You can’t let them increase without limit or
they’d all die. And before they died there’d be cannibalism. Which do
you prefer?”

“Letting kids be born and then snuffing them out if a computer decides
they’re the wrong sex or over the quota is inhuman.”

“I didn’t say I like it, Ross. But it works.”

“So do pills!”

“Pills are a private matter. A person might privately decide not to take
hers. The box is a public matter and the group outnumbers and overrules
a mother who decides not to use it. There’s your question of
effectiveness answered, but there’s another point. Those people are
sane, Ross. Preposterously naive, but sane! Saner than childless women
or sour old bachelors we both know who never had to love anything small
and helpless, and so come to love nobody but themselves. They’re sane.
Partly because the women get a periodic biochemical shakeup called
pregnancy that their biochemical balance is designed to mesh with.
Partly because the men find tenderness and protectiveness in themselves
toward the pregnant women. Mostly, I think, because—it’s something to
do.

“Can you imagine the awful monotony of life in the ship? The work is
sheer rote and repetition. They can’t read or watch screentapes. They
were born in the ship, and the books and screentapes are meaningless
because they know nothing to compare them with. The only change they see
is each other, aging toward death. Frequent pregnancies are a Godsend to
them. They compare and discuss them; they wonder who the fathers are;
they make bets of rations; the men brag and keep score. The girls look
forward to their first and their last. The jokes they make up about
them! The way they speculate about twins! The purgative fear, even,
keeps them sane.”

“And then,” Ross said, “‘the box.’”

Staring straight ahead at the ship’s port Marconi echoed: “Yes. ‘The
box.’ If there were another way—but there isn’t.”

                  *       *       *       *       *

His breezy young boss, Charles Oldham IV, was not pleased with what Ross
had to report.

“Asked for Haarland!” he repeated unbelievingly. “Those dummies didn’t
know where they were going or where they were from, but they knew enough
to ask for Haarland.” He slammed a ruler on his desk and yelled:
“God-damn it!”

“Mr. Oldham!” Ross protested, aghast. For a superior to lose his temper
publicly was unthinkable; it covered you with embarrassment.

“Manners be God-damned too!” Oldham screamed, breaking up fast. “What do
you know about the state of our books? What do you know about the
overhead I inherited from my loving father? What the hell do you know
about the downcurve in sales?”

“These fluctuations——” Ross began soothingly.

“Fluctuations be God-damned! I know a fluctuation when I see one, and I
know a long-term downtrend when I see one. And that’s what we’re riding,
right into bankruptcy, fellow. And now these God-damned dummies blow in
from nowhere with a consignment exclusively for Haarland—I don’t know
why I don’t get to hell out of this stupid business and go live in a
shack on Great Blue Lake and let the planet go ahead and rot.”

Ross’s horror at the unseemly outburst was eclipsed by his interest at
noting how similarly he and Oldham had been thinking. “Sir,” he
ventured, “I’ve had something on my mind for a while——”

“It can wait,” Oldham growled, collecting himself with a visible effort.
So there went his chance to resign. “What about customs? I know Haarland
hasn’t got enough cash to lay out. Who has?”

Ross said glibly: “Usual arrangement, sir. They turn an estimated
twenty-five per cent of the cargo over to the port authority for
auction, the receipts to be in full discharge of their import tax. And I
suppose they enter protective bids. They aren’t wasting any
time—auction’s 2100 tonight.”

“You handle it,” Oldham muttered. “Don’t go over one hundred thousand
shields. Diversify the purchases as much as possible. And try to sneak
some advance information out of the dummies if you get a chance.”

“Yes, sir,” Ross said. As he left he saw Oldham taking a plastic bottle
from a wall cabinet.

And that, thought Ross as he rode to the Free Port, was the first crack
he had ever seen in the determined optimism of the trading firm’s top
level. They were optimists and they were idealists, at least to hear
them tell it. Interplanetary trading was a cause and a mission; the
traders kept the flame of commerce alight. Perhaps, thought Ross, they
had been able to indulge in the hypocrisy of idealism only so long as a
population upcurve assured them of an expanding market. Perhaps now that
births were flattening out—some said the dirty word “declining”—they all
would drop their optimistic creed in favor of fang-and-claw competition
for the favors of the dwindling pool of consumers.

And that, Ross thought gloomily, was the way he’d go himself if he
stayed on: junior trader, to senior trader, to master trader, growing
every year more paranoidally suspicious of his peers, less scrupulous in
the chase of the shield....

But he was getting out, of course. The purser’s berth awaited. And then,
perhaps, the awful depressions he had been enduring would lift off him.
He thought of the master traders he knew: his own man Oldham, none too
happy in the hereditary business; Leverett, still smug and fat with his
terrific windfall of the Sirius IV starship fifteen years ago; Marconi’s
boss Haarland—Haarland broke the sequence all to hell. It just wasn’t
possible to think of Haarland being driven by avarice and fear. He was
the oldest of them all, but there was more zest and drive in his
parchment body than in the rest of them combined.

In the auction hall Ross found a seat near the velvet ropes. One of the
professional bidders lounging against a wall flicked him an almost
imperceptible signal, and he answered with another. That was that; he
had his man, and a good one. They had often worked together in the
commodity pits, but not so often or so exclusively that the bidder would
be instantly known as his.

Inside the enclosure Marconi, seated at a bare table, labored over a
sheaf of papers with one of the “Sonnies” from the ship. Sonny was
wriggling in coveralls, the first clothes he had ever worn. Ross saw
they hadn’t been able to get shoes onto him.

Who else did he know? Captain Delafield was sitting somberly within the
enclosure; Win Fraley, the hottest auctioneer on the Port, was studying
a list, his lips moving. Every trading firm was represented; the heads
of the smaller firms were there in person, not daring to delegate the
bidding job. Plenty of Port personnel, just there for the excitement of
the first longliner in fifteen years, even though it was well after
close of the business day.

The goods were in sealed cases against the back wall as usual. Ross
could only tell that some of them were perforated and therefore ought to
contain living animals. Only the one Sonny from the starship crew was
there; presumably the rest were back on the ship. He wouldn’t be able to
follow Oldham’s orders to snoop out the nature of the freight from them.
Well, damn Oldham; damn even the auction, Ross thought to himself. His
mood of gloom did not lift.

The auction was a kind of letdown. All that turmoil and bustle,
concentrated in a tiny arc around the velvet ropes, contrasted
unpleasantly with the long, vacant rows of dusty seats that stretched to
the back of the hall. Maybe a couple of centuries ago Ross would have
enjoyed the auction more. But now all it made him think of was the thing
he had been brooding about for a night and a day, the slow emptying of
the planet, the....

Decay.

But, as usual, no one else seemed to notice or to care.

Captain Delafield consulted his watch and stood up. He rapped the table.
“In accordance with the rules of the Trade Commission and the
appropriate governing statutes,” he droned, “certain merchandise will
now be placed on public auction. The Haarland Trading Corporation,
consignee, agrees and consents to divest itself of merchandise from
Consignment 97-W amounting by estimate of the customs authorities to
twenty-five per cent of the total value of all merchandise in said
consignment. All receipts of this auction are to be entered as excise
duties paid by the consignee on said merchandise, said receipts to
constitute payment in full on excise on Consignment 97-W. The clerk will
record; if any person here present wishes to enter an objection let him
do so thank you.” He glanced at a slip of paper in his hand. “I am
requested to inform you that the Haarland Trading Corporation has
entered with the clerk a protective bid of five thousand shields on each
item.” There was a rustle in the hall. Five thousand shields was a lot
of money. “Your auctioneer, Win Fraley,” said Captain Delafield, and sat
down in the first row of seats.

The auctioneer took a long, slow swallow of water, his eyes gleaming
above the glass at the audience. Theatrically he tossed the glass to an
assistant, smacked his hands together and grinned. “Well,” he boomed
genially, “I don’t have to tell you gentlemen that somebody’s going to
get rich tonight. Who knows—maybe it’ll be you? But you can’t make money
without spending money, so without any further ado, let’s get started. I
have here,” he rapped out briskly, “Item Number One. Now you don’t know
and I don’t know exactly what Item Number One contains, but I can tell
you this, they wouldn’t have sent it two hundred and thirty-one lights
if they didn’t think it was worth something. Let’s get this started with
a rush, folks, and I mean with a big bid to get in the right mood. After
all, the more you spend here the less you have to pay in taxes,” he
laughed. “You ready? Here’s the dope. Item Number One——” His assistant
slapped a carton at the extreme left of the line. “——weight two hundred
and fifteen grams, net; fifteen cubic centimeters; one microfilm reel
included. Reminds me,” he reminisced, “of an item just about that size
on the Sirius IV shipment. Turned out to be Maryjane seeds, and I don’t
suppose I have to tell anybody here how much Mr. Leverett made out of
Maryjanes; I bet every one of us has been smoking them ever since. What
do you say, Mr. Leverett? You did all right last time—want to say ten
thousand as a first big bid on Item Number One? Nine thousand? Do I
hear——?”

One of the smaller traders, not working through a professional bidder,
not even decently delegating the work to a junior, bid seventy-five
hundred shields. Like the spokesmen for the other big traders, Ross sat
on his hands during the early stages. Let the small fry give themselves
a thrill and drop out. The big firms knew to a fraction of a shield how
much the small ones could afford to bid on a blind purchase, and the
easiest way to handle them was to let them spend their budgets in a
hurry. Of course the small traders knew all this, and their strategy,
when they could manage it, was to hold back as long as possible. It was
a matter of sensing emotion rather than counting costs; of recognizing
the fraction of a second in which a little fellow made up his mind to
acquire an item and bidding him up—of knowing when he’d gone his limit
and letting him have it at a ruinous price. It was an art, and Ross,
despising it, knew that he did it very, very well.

He yawned and pretended to read a magazine while the first six items
went on the block; the little traders seemed desperate enough to force
the price up without help. He bid on Item Seven partly to squeeze a runt
trader and partly to test his liaison with his professional bidder. It
was perfect; the pro caught his signal—a bored inspection of his
fingernails—while seeming to peek clumsily at the man from Leverett’s.

Ross let the next two pass and then acquired three items in rapid
succession. The fever had spread to most of the bidders by then; they
were starting at ten thousand and up. One or two of the early birds had
spent their budgets and were leaving, looking sandbagged—as indeed they
had been. Ross signaled “take five” to his professional and strolled out
for a cup of coffee.

On the way back he stopped for a moment outside the hall to look at the
stars and breathe. There were the familiar constellations—The Plowman,
the Rocket Fleet, Marilyn Monroe. He stood smoking a cigarette and
yearning toward them until somebody moved in the darkness near him.
“Nice night, Ross,” the man said gloomily.

It was Captain Delafield. “Oh, hello, sir,” Ross said, the world
descending around him again like a too-substantial curtain. “Taking a
breather?”

“Had to,” the captain growled. “Ten more minutes in that place and I
would have thrown. Damned money-grabbing traders. No offense, Ross; just
that I don’t see how you stand the life. Seems to have got worse in my
time. Much worse. You high-rollers goading the pee-wees into shooting
their wads—it didn’t use to be like that. Gallantry. Not stomping a
downed man. I don’t see how you stand it.”

“I can’t stand it,” Ross said quietly. “Captain Delafield, you don’t
know—I’m so sick to death of the life I’m leading and the work I’m doing
that I’d do anything to get away. Mr. Fallon offered me a purser’s spot
on his ship; I’ve been thinking about it very seriously.”

“Purser? A dirty job. There’s nothing to do except when you’re in port,
and then there’s so much to do that you never get to see the planet. I
don’t recommend it, Ross.”

Ross grunted, thinking. If even the purser’s berth was no way out, what
was left for him? Sixty more years of waiting for a starship and
scheming how to make a profit from its contents? Sixty more years
watching Ghost Town grow by nibbles on Halsey City, watching the traders
wax in savagery as they battled for the ever-diminishing pool of
consumers, watching obscene comedies like Lurline of the Old Landowners
graciously consenting to wed Marconi of the New Nobodies? He said
wearily: “Then what shall I do, Captain? Rot here with the rest of the
planet?”

Delafield shrugged, suprisingly gentle. “You feel it too, Ross? I’m glad
to hear it. I’m not sensitive, thank God, but I know they talk about me.
They say I quit the space-going fleet as soon as I had a chance to grab
off the port captaincy. They’re right; I did. Because I was frightened.”

“Frightened? You?” Delafield’s ribbons for a dozen heroic rescues
gleamed in the light that escaped from the hall.

“Sure, Ross.” He flicked the ribbons. “Each one of these means I and my
men pulled some people out of a jam they got into because of somebody’s
damned stupidity or slow reflexes or defective memory. No; I withdraw
that. The ‘Thetis’ got stove in because of mechanical failure, but all
the rest were human error. There got to be too many for me; I want to
enjoy my old age.

“Ready to face that if you become a purser? I can tell you that if you
don’t like it here you won’t be happy on Sunward and you won’t like the
moons. And you most especially and particularly won’t like being a
purser. It’s the same job you’re doing now, but it pays less, offers you
a six-by-eight cubicle to work and live in, and gives you nothing
resembling a future to aim at. Now if you’ll excuse me I’d better get
back inside. I’ve enjoyed our talk.”

Ross followed the captain gloomily. Nothing had changed inside; Ross
lounged in the doorway inconspicuously picking up the eye of his bidder.
Marconi was gone from the enclosure. Ross looked around hopefully and
found his friend in agitated conversation with an unrecognizable but
also agitated man at the back of the hall. Ross drifted over. Heads were
turning in the front rows. As Ross got within range he heard a couple of
phrases. “——in the ship. Mr. Haarland specially asked for you. Please,
Mr. Marconi!”

“Oh, hell,” Marconi said disgustedly. “Go on. Tell him I’ll be there.
But how he expects me to take care of things here and——” He trailed off
as he caught sight of Ross.

“Trouble?” Ross asked.

“Not exactly. The hell with it.” Marconi stared indecisively at the
auctioneer for a moment. He said obscurely, “Taking your life isn’t
enough; he wants more. And I thought I’d be able to see Lurline tonight.
Excuse me, Ross. I’ve got to get over to the ship.” He hurried out.

Ross looked wonderingly after him, caught the eye of his bidder, and
went back to work. By the time the auction was over and dawn was
breaking in the west, Oldham Trading had bought nine lots of
merchandise: three breathing, five flowering, and one a roll of
microfilm. Ross took his prizes to the office where Charles Oldham was
waiting, much the better for a few drinks and a long nap.

“How much?” demanded Oldham. Evidently they were both supposed to ignore
his hysteria of the night before.

“Fifty-seven thousand,” Ross said dully.

“For nine lots? Good man! With any kind of luck at all——” And Oldham
babbled on and on. He wanted Ross to stay and view the microfilm
projection, stand by for a report from a zoologist and a botanist on the
living acquisitions. He pleaded weariness and Oldham became conciliatory
to the wonderful young up-and-comer who had bid in the merchandise at a
whopping bargain price.

Ross dragged himself from the building, into a cab, and home. Morosely
undressing he lit a cigarette and brooded: well, that was it. What you’d
been waiting for since you were a junior apprentice. The starship came,
you had the alien prizes in your hands and you realized they were as
tawdry as the cheap gimcracks you export every week to Sunward.

He stared out the window, over Ghost Town, to the Field. The sun was
high over the surrounding mountains; he imagined he could pick out the
reflected glimmer from the starship a dozen miles away. Marconi at least
got to examine the ship. Marconi might be there now; he’d been headed
that way when Ross saw him last. And evidently not enjoying it much.
Ross wondered vaguely if anybody really enjoyed anything. He stubbed out
his cigarette.

As he fell asleep he was remembering what Delafield had told him about
the moons and the planet ports. His dreams were of the cities of other
planets, and every one of them was populated by aloof Delafields and
avaricious Oldhams.



..... 3


“WAKE up, Ross,” Marconi was saying, joggling him. “Come on, wake up.”

Ross thrust himself up on an elbow and opened his eyes. He said with a
tongue the size of his forearm in a dust-lined mouth: “Wha’ time is it?
Wha’ the hell are you doing here, for that matter?”

“It’s around noon. You’ve slept for three hours; you can get up.”

“Uh.” Ross automatically reached for a cigarette. The smoke got in his
eyes and he rubbed them; it dehydrated and seared what little healthy
tissue appeared to be left in his mouth. But it woke him up a little.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.

Marconi’s hand was involuntarily on his breast pocket again, the one in
which he carried Lurline’s picture. He said harshly: “You want a job?
Topside? Better than purser?” He wasn’t meeting Ross’s eye. His gaze
roved around the apartment and lighted on a coffee maker. He filled it
and snapped it on. “Get dressed, will you?” he demanded.

Ross sat up. “What’s this all about, Marconi? What do you want, anyway?”

Marconi, for his own reasons, became violently angry. “You’re the
damnedest question-asker I ever did meet, Ross. I’m trying to do you a
favor.”

“What favor?” Ross asked suspiciously.

“You’ll find out. You’ve been bellyaching to me long enough about how
dull your poor little life is. Well, I’m offering you a chance to do
something big and different. And what do you do? You crawfish. Are you
interested or aren’t you? I told you: It’s a space job, and a big one.
Bigger than being a purser for Fallon. Bigger than you can imagine.”

Ross began to struggle into his clothes, no more than half
comprehending, but stimulated by the magic words. He asked, puzzling
sleepily over what Marconi had said, “What are you sore about?” His
guess was that Lurline had broken a date—but it seemed to be the wrong
time of day for that.

“Nothing,” Marconi said grumpily. “Only I have my own life to live.” He
poured two cups of coffee. He wouldn’t answer questions while they
sipped the scalding stuff. But somehow Ross was not surprised when,
downstairs, Marconi headed his car along the winding road through Ghost
Town that led to the Yards.

Every muscle of Ross’s body was stiff and creaky; another six hours of
sleep would have been a wonderful thing. But as they drove through the
rutted streets of Ghost Town he began to feel alive again. He stared out
the window at the flashing ruins, piecing together the things Marconi
had said.

“Watch it!” he yelled, and Marconi swerved the car around a tumbled
wall. Ross was shaking, but Marconi only drove faster. This was crazy!
You didn’t race through Ghost Town as though you were on the pleasure
parkways around the Great Blue Lake; it wasn’t safe. The buildings had
to fall over from time to time—nobody, certainly, bothered to keep them
in repair. And nobody bothered to pick up the pieces when they fell,
either, until the infrequent road-mending teams made their rounds.

But at last they were out of Ghost Town, on the broad highway from
Halsey City to the port. The administration building and car park was
just ahead.

It was there that Marconi spoke again. “I’m assuming, Ross, that you
weren’t snowing me when you said you wanted thrills, chills, and change
galore.”

“That’s not the way I put it. But I wasn’t snowing you.”

“You’ll get them. Come on.”

He led Ross across the field to the longliner, past a gaggle of
laughing, chattering Sonnies and Mas. He ignored them.

The longliner was a giant of a ship, a blunt torpedo a hundred meters
tall. It had no ports—naturally enough; the designers of the ship
certainly didn’t find any reason for its idiot crew to look out into
space, and landings and takeoffs would be remote-controlled. Two hundred
years old it was; but its metal was as bright, its edges as sharp, as
the newest of the moon freighters at the other end of the hardstand. Two
hundred years—a long trip, but an almost unimaginably long distance that
trip covered. For the star that spawned it was undoubtedly almost as far
away as light would travel in two centuries’ time. At 186,000 miles per
second, sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour. Ross’s
imagination gave up the task. It was far.

He stared about him in fascination as they entered the ship. He gaped at
sterile, gray-walled cubicles, each of which contained the same chair
and cot—no screen or projector for longliners. Ross remembered his rash
words of the day before about shipping out on a longliner, and
shuddered.

“Here we are,” said Marconi stopping before a closed door. He knocked
and entered.

It was a cubicle like the others, but there were reels stacked on the
floor and a projector. Sitting on the cot in a just-awakened attitude
was old man Haarland himself. Beady-eyed, Ross thought. Watchful.

Haarland asked: “Ross?”

“Yes, sir,” Marconi said. There was tension in his voice and attitude.
“Do you want me to stay, sir?”

Haarland growled: “Good God, no. You can get out. Sit down, Ross.”

Ross sat down. Marconi, carefully looking neither to right or left, went
out and closed the door. Haarland stretched, scratched, and yawned. He
said: “Ross, Marconi tells me you’re quite a fellow. Sincere, competent,
a good man to give a tough job to. Namely, his.”

“Junior-Fourth Trader?” Ross asked, bewildered.

“A little more dramatic than that—but we’ll come to the details in a
minute. I’m told you were ready to quit Oldham for a purser’s berth.
That’s ethical. Would you consider it unethical to quit Oldham for
Haarland?”

“Yes—I think I would.”

“Glad to hear it! What if the work had absolutely nothing to do with
trading and never brings you into a competitive situation with Oldham?”

“Well——” Ross scratched his jaw. “Well, I think that would be all right.
But a Junior Fourth’s job, Mr. Haarland——” The floor bucked and surged
under him. He gasped, “What was that?”

“Blastoff, I imagine,” Haarland said calmly. “We’re taking off. Better
lie down.”

Ross flopped to the floor. It was no time to argue, not with the
first-stage pumps thundering and the preheaters roaring their threat of
an imminent four-G thrust.

It came like thunder, slapping Ross against the floor plates as though
he were glued to them. He felt every tiny wrinkle in every weld he lay
on, and one arm had fallen across a film reel. He heaved, and succeeded
in levering it off the reel. It thwacked to the floor as though sandbags
were stacked meters-high atop it.

Blackout came very soon.

He awoke in free fall. He was orbiting aimlessly about the cubicle.

Haarland was strapped to the cot, absorbed in manipulating the portable
projector, trying to thread a free-floating film. Ross bumped against
the old man; Haarland abstractedly shoved him off.

He careened from a bulkhead and flailed for a grip.

“Oh,” said Haarland, looking up. “Awake?”

“Yes, awake!” Ross said bitterly. “What is all this? Where are we?”

The old man said formally, “Please forgive my cavalier treatment of you.
You must not blame your friend Marconi; he had no idea that I was
planning an immediate blastoff with you. I had an assignment for him
which he—he preferred not to accept. Not to mince words, Ross, he quit.”

“Quit his job?”

The old man shook his head. “No, Ross. Quit much more than the job of
working for me. He quit on an assignment which is—I am sorry if it
sounds melodramatic—absolutely vital to the human race.” He suddenly
frowned. “I—I think,” he added weakly. “Bear with me, Ross. I’ll try to
explain as I go along. But, you see, Marconi left me in the lurch. I
needed him and he failed me. He felt that you would be glad to take it
on, and he told me something about you.” Haarland glowered at Ross and
said, with a touch of bitterness, “A recommendation from Marconi, at
this particular point, is hardly any recommendation at all. But I
haven’t much choice—and, besides, I took the liberty of calling that
pompous young fool you work for.”

“Mister Haarland!” Ross cried, outraged. “Oldham may not be any prize
but really——”

“Oh, you know he’s a fool. But he had a lot to say about you. Enough so
that, if you want the assignment, it’s yours. As to the nature of the
assignment itself——” Haarland hesitated, then said briskly, “The
assignment itself has to do with a message my organization received via
this longliner. Yes, a message. You’ll see. It has also to do with
certain facts I’ve found in its log which, if I can ever get this damned
thing working——There we are.”

He had succeeded in threading the film.

He snapped on the projector. On the screen appeared a densely packed
block of numerals, rolling up and being replaced by new lines as fast as
the eye could take them in. Haarland said, “Notice anything?”

Ross swallowed. “If that stuff is supposed to mean anything to me,” he
declared, “it doesn’t.”

Haarland frowned. “But Marconi said——Well, never mind.” He snapped off
the projector. “That was the ship’s log, Ross. It doesn’t matter if you
can’t read it; you wouldn’t, I suppose, have had much call for that sort
of thing working for Oldham. It is a mathematical description of the
routing of this ship, from the time it was space-launched until it
arrived here yesterday. It took a long time, Ross. The reason that it
took a long time is partly that it came from far away. But, even more,
there is another reason. We were not this ship’s destination! Not the
original destination. We weren’t even the first alternate—or the second
alternate. To be exact, Ross, we were the seventh choice for this ship.”

Ross let go of his stanchion, floated a yard, and flailed back to it.
“That’s ridiculous, Mr. Haarland,” he protested. “Besides, what has all
this to do with——”

“Bear with an old man,” said Haarland, with an amused gleam in his eye.

There was very little he could do but bear with him, Ross thought
sourly. “Go on,” he said.

Haarland said professorially, “It is conceivable, of course, that a
planet might be asleep at the switch. We could believe it, I suppose, if
it seemed that the first-choice planet somehow didn’t pick the ship up
when this longliner came into radar range. In that event, of course, it
would orbit once or twice on automatics, and then select for its first
alternate target—which it did. It might be a human failure in the GCA
station—once.” He nodded earnestly. “Once, Ross. Not six times. No
planet passes up a trading ship.”

“Mr. Haarland,” Ross exploded, “it seems to me that you’re contradicting
yourself all over the place. Did six planets pass this ship up or didn’t
six planets pass this ship up? Which is it? And why would anybody pass a
longliner up anyhow?”

Haarland asked, “Suppose the planets were vacant?”

“What?” Ross was shaken. “But that’s silly! I mean, even I know that the
star charts show which planets are inhabited and which aren’t.”

“And suppose the star charts are wrong. Suppose the planets have become
vacant. The people have died off, perhaps; their culture decayed.”

Decay. Death and decay.

Ross was silent for a long time. He took a deep breath. He said at last,
“Sorry. I won’t interrupt again.”

Haarland’s expression was a weft of triumph and relief. “Six planets
passed this ship up. Remember Leverett’s ship fifteen years ago? Three
planets passed that one before it came to us. Nine different planets,
all listed on the traditional star charts as inhabited, civilized,
equipped with GCA radars, and everything else needed. Nine planets out
of communication, Ross.”

Decay, thought Ross. Aloud he said, “Tell me why.”

Haarland shook his head. “No,” he said strongly, “I want you to tell me.
I’ll tell you what I can. I’ll tell you the message that this ship
brought to me. I’ll tell you all I know, all I’ve told Marconi that he
isn’t man enough to use, and the things that Marconi will never learn,
as well. But why nine planets that used to be pretty much like our own
planet are now out of communication, that you’ll have to tell me.”

Forward rockets boomed; the braking blasts hurled Ross against the
forward bulkhead. Haarland rummaged under the cot for space suits. He
flung one at Ross.

“Put it on,” he ordered. “Come to the airlock. I’ll show you what you
can use to find out the answers.” He slid into the pressure suit, dived
weightless down the corridor, Ross zooming after.

They stood in the airlock, helmets sealed. Wordlessly Haarland opened
the pet cocks, heaved on the lock door. He gestured with an arm.

Floating alongside them was a ship, a ship like none Ross had ever seen
before.



..... 4


PICTURE Leif’s longboat bobbing in the swells outside Ambrose Light,
while the twentieth-century liners steam past; a tiny, ancient thing,
related to the new giants only as the Eohippus resembles the horse.

The ship that Haarland revealed was fully as great a contrast. Ross knew
spaceships as well as any grounder could, both the lumbering interplanet
freighters and the titanic longliners. But the ship that swung around
Halsey’s Planet was a midget (fueled rocket ships must be huge); its
jets were absurdly tiny, clearly incapable of blasting away from
planetary gravity; its entire hull length was unbroken and sheer (did
the pilot dare fly blind?).

The coupling connections were being rigged between the ships. “Come
aboard,” said Haarland, spryly wriggling through the passage. Ross,
swallowing his astonishment, followed.

The ship was tiny indeed. When Ross and Haarland, clutching handholds,
were drifting weightlessly in its central control cabin, they very
nearly filled it. There was one other cabin, Ross saw; and the two
compartments accounted for a good nine-tenths of the cubage of the ship.
Where that left space for the combustion chambers and the fuel tanks,
the crew quarters, and the cargo holds, Ross could not imagine. He said:
“All right, Mr. Haarland. Talk.”

Haarland grinned toothily, his expression eerie in the flickering violet
light that issued from a gutter around the cabin’s wall.

“This is a spaceship, Ross. It’s a pretty old one—fourteen hundred
years, give or take a little. It’s not much to look at, compared with
the up-to-date models you’re used to, but it’s got a few features that
you won’t find on the new ones. For one thing, Ross, it doesn’t use
rockets.” He hesitated. “Ask me what it does use,” he admitted, “and I
can’t tell you. I know the name, because I read it: nucleophoretic
drive. What nucleophoresis is and how it works, I can’t say. They call
it the Wesley Effect, and the tech manual says something about squared
miles of acceleration. Does that mean anything to you? No. How could it?
But it works, Ross. It works well enough so that this little ship will
get you where you’re going very quickly. The stars, Ross—it will take
you to the stars. Faster than light. What the top speed is I have no
idea; but there is a ship’s log here, too. And it has a three-month
entry—three months, Ross!—in which this little ship explored the solar
systems of fourteen stars.”

Wide-eyed, Ross held motionless. Haarland paused. “Fourteen hundred
years,” he repeated. “Fourteen hundred years this ship has been floating
out here. And for all that time, the longliners have been crawling from
star to star, while little hidden ships like this one could have carried
a thousand times as much goods a million times faster. Maybe the time
has come to get the ships out of hiding. I don’t know. I want to find
out; I want you to find out for me. I’ll be specific, Ross. I need a
pilot. I’m too old, and Marconi turned it down. Someone has to go out
there——” he gestured to the blind hull and the unseen stars beyond—“and
find out why nine planets are out of communication. Will you do it?”

Ross opened his mouth to speak, and a thousand questions competed for
utterance. But what he said, barely aloud, was only: “Yes.”

The far-off stars—more than a thousand million of them in our galaxy
alone. By far the greatest number of them drifted alone through space,
or with only a stellar companion as utterly unlivable by reason of heat
and crushing gravity as themselves. Fewer than one in a million had a
family of planets, and most even of those could never become a home for
human life.

But out of a thousand million, any fraction may be a very large number,
and the number of habitable planets was in the hundreds.

Ross had seen the master charts of the inhabited universe often enough
to recognize the names as Haarland mentioned them: Tau Ceti II, Earth,
the eight inhabitable worlds of Capella. But to realize that this
ship—this ship!—had touched down on each of them, and on a hundred more,
was beyond astonishment; it was a dream thing, impossible but
unquestioned.

Through Haarland’s burning, old eyes, Ross looked back through fourteen
centuries, to the time when this ship was a scout vessel for a
colonizing colossus. The lumbering giant drove slowly through space on
its one-way trip from the planet that built it—was it semi-mythical
Earth? The records were not clear—while the tiny scout probed each star
and solar system as it drew within range. While the mother ship was
covering a few hundred million miles, the scout might flash across
parsecs to scan half a dozen worlds. And when the scout came back with
word of a planet where humans could survive, they christened it with the
name of the scout’s pilot, and the chartroom labored, and the ship’s
officers gave orders, and the giant’s nose swerved through a half a
degree and began its long, slow deceleration.

“Why slow?” Ross demanded. “Why not use the faster-than-light drive for
the big ships?”

Haarland grimaced. “I’ve got to answer that one for you sooner or
later,” he said, “but let me make it later. Anyway, that’s what this
ship was: a faster-than-light scout ship for a real longliner. What
happened to the longliner the records don’t show; my guess is the
colonists cannibalized it to get a start in constructing homes for
themselves. But the scout ship was exempted. The captain of the
expedition had it put in an orbit out here, and left alone. It’s been
used a little bit, now and then—my great-grandfather’s father went clear
to 40 Eridani when my great-grandfather was a little boy, but by and
large it has been left alone. It had to be, Ross. For one thing, it’s
dangerous to the man who pilots it. For another, it’s dangerous to—the
Galaxy.”

Haarland’s view was anthropomorphic; the danger was not to the immense
and uncaring galaxy, but to the sparse fester of life that called itself
humanity.

When the race abandoned Earth, it was a gesture of revulsion. Behind
them they left a planet that had decimated itself in wars; ahead lay a
cosmos that, in all their searches, had revealed no truly sentient life.

Earth was a crippled world, the victim of its playing with nuclear
fission and fusion. But the techniques that gave them a
faster-than-light drive gave them as well a weapon that threatened solar
systems, not cities; that could detonate a sun as readily as uranium
could destroy a building. The child with his forbidden matches was now
sitting atop a munitions dump; the danger was no longer a seared hand or
blinded eye, but annihilation.

And the decision had been made: secrecy. By what condign struggles the
secrecy had been enforced, the secrecy itself concealed. But it had
worked. Once the radiating colonizers had reached their goals, the
nucleophoretic effect had been obliterated from their records and,
except for a single man on each planet, from their minds.

Why the single man? Why not bury it entirely?

Haarland said slowly, “There was always the chance that something would
go wrong, you see. And—it has.”

Ross said hesitantly, “You mean the nine planets that have gone out of
communication?”

Haarland nodded. He hesitated. “Do you understand it now?” he asked.

Ross shook his head dizzily. “I’m trying,” he said. “This little ship—it
travels faster than light. It has been circling out here—how long?
Fourteen hundred years? And you kept it secret—you and your ancestors
before you because you were afraid it might be used in war?” He was
frowning.

“Not ‘afraid’ it would be used,” Haarland corrected gently. “We knew it
would be used.”

Ross grimaced. “Well, why tell me about it now? Do you expect me to keep
it secret all the rest of my life?”

“I think you would,” Haarland said soberly.

“But suppose I didn’t? Suppose I blabbed all over the Galaxy, and it was
used in war?”

Haarland’s face was suddenly, queerly gray. He said, almost to himself,
“It seems that there are things worse than war.” Abruptly he smiled.
“Let’s find Ma.”

They returned through the coupling and searched the longliner for the
old woman. A Sonny told them, “Ma usually hangs around the meter room.
Likes to see them blinking.” And there they found her.

“Hello, Haarland,” she smiled, flashing her superb teeth. “Did you find
what you were looking for?”

“Perfect, Ma. I want to talk to you under the seal.”

She looked at Ross. “Him?” she asked.

“I vouch for him,” Haarland said gravely. “Wesley.”

She answered, “The limiting velocity is C.”

“But C^2 is not a velocity,” Haarland said. He turned to Ross. “Sorry
to make a mystery,” he apologized. “It’s a recognition formula. It
identifies one member of what we call the Wesley families, or its
messenger, to another. And these people are messengers. They were
dispatched a couple of centuries ago by a Wesley family whose ship, for
some reason, no longer could be used. Why?—I don’t know why. Try your
luck, maybe you can figure it out. Ma, tell us the history again.”

She knitted her brows and began to chant slowly:

          “In great-grandfather’s time the target was Clyde,
          Rocketry firm and ores on the side.
          If we hadn’t of seen them direct we’d of missed ’em;
          There wasn’t a blip from the whole damn system.
              That was the first.
          Before great-grandfather’s day was done
          We cut the orbit of Cyrnus One.
          The contact there was Trader McCue,
          But the sons o’ bitches missed us too.
              That was the second.
          My grandpa lived to see the green
          Of Target Three through the high-powered screen.
          But where in hell was Builder Carruthers?
          They let us go by like all the others.
              That was the——”

“Ma,” said Haarland. “Thanks very much, but would you skip to the last
one?”

Ma grinned.

            The Haarland Trading Corp. was last
            With the fuel down low and going fast.
            I’m glad it was me who saw the day
            When they brought us down on GCA.
            I told him the message; he called it a mystery,
            But anyway this is the end of the history.
                And it’s about time!

“The message, please,” Haarland said broodingly.

Ma took a deep breath and rattled off: “L-sub-T equals L-sub-zero e to
the minus-T-over-two-N.”

Ross gaped. “That’s the message?”

“Used to be more to it,” Ma said cheerfully “That’s all there is now,
though. The darn thing doesn’t rhyme or anything. I guess that’s the
most important part. Anyway, it’s the hardest.”

“It’s not as bad as it seems,” Haarland told Ross. “I’ve asked around.
It makes a very little sense.”

“It does?”

“Well, up to a point,” Haarland qualified. “It seems to be a formula in
genetics. The notation is peculiar, but it’s all explained, of course.
It has something to do with gene loss. Now, maybe that means something
and maybe it doesn’t. But I know something that does mean something:
some member of a Wesley Family a couple of hundred years ago thought it
was important enough to want to get it across to other Wesley families.
Something’s happening. Let’s find out what it is, Ross.” The old man
suddenly buried his face in his hands. In a cracked voice he mumbled,
“Gene loss and war. Gene loss or war. God, I wish somebody would take
this right out of my hands—or that I could drop with a heart attack this
minute. You ever think of war, Ross?”

Shocked and embarrassed, Ross mumbled some kind of answer. One might
think of war, good breeding taught, but one never talked about it.

“You should,” the old man said hoarsely. “War is what this
faster-than-light secrecy and identification rigmarole is all about.
Right now war is impossible—between solar systems, anyhow, and that’s
what counts. A planet might just barely manage to fit an invading
multigeneration expedition at gigantic cost, but it never would. The
fruits of victory—loot, political domination, maybe slaves—would never
come back to the fitters of the expedition but to their remote
descendants. A firm will take a flyer on a commercial deal like that,
but no nation would accept a war on any such basis—because a conqueror
is a man, and men die. With F-T-L—faster-than-light travel—they might
invade Curnus or Azor or any of those other tempting dots on the master
maps. Why not? Take the marginal population, hop them up with patriotic
fervor and lust for booty, and ship them off to pillage and destroy.
There’s at least a fifty per cent chance of coming out ahead on the
investment, isn’t there? Much more attractive deal commercially speaking
than our present longliners.”

Ross had never seen a war. The last on Halsey’s planet had been the
Peninsular Rebellion about a century and a half ago. Some half a million
constitutional psychopathic inferiors had started themselves an ideal
society with theocratic trimmings in a remote and unfruitful corner of
the planet. Starved and frustrated by an unrealistic moral creed they
finally exploded to devastate their neighboring areas and were quickly
quarantined by a radioactive zone. They disintegrated internally,
massacred their priesthood, and were permitted to disperse. It was
regarded as a shameful episode by every dweller on the planet. It wasn’t
a subject for popular filmreels; if you wanted to find out about the
Peninsular Rebellion you went through many successive library doors and
signed your name on lists, and were sternly questioned as to your age
and scholarly qualifications and reasons for sniffing around such an
unsavory mess.

Ross therefore had not the slightest comprehension of Haarland’s
anxiety. He told him so.

“I hope you’re right,” was all the old man would say. “I hope you don’t
learn worse.”

                  *       *       *       *       *

The rest was work.

He had the Yard worker’s familiarity with conventional rocketry, which
saved him some study of the fine-maneuvering apparatus of the F-T-L
craft—but not much. For a week under Haarland’s merciless drilling he
jetted the ship about its remote area of space, far from the commerce
lanes, until the old man grudgingly pronounced himself satisfied.

There were skull-busting sessions with the Wesley drive, or rather with
a first derivative of it, an insane-looking object which you could
vaguely describe as a fan-shaped slide rule taller than a man. There
were twenty-seven main tracks, analogues of the twenty-seven main
geodesics of Wesley Space—whatever they were and whatever that was. Your
cursor settings on the main tracks depended on a thirty-two step
computation based on the apparent magnitudes of the twenty-seven nearest
celestial bodies above a certain mass which varied according to yet
another lengthy relationship. Then, having cleared the preliminaries out
of the way, you began to solve for your actual setting on the F-T-L
drive controls.

Somehow he mastered it, while Haarland, driving himself harder than he
drove the youth who was to be his exploring eyes and ears, coached him
and cursed him and—somehow!—kept his own complicated affairs going back
on Halsey’s Planet. When Ross had finally got the theory of the Wesley
Drive in some kind of order in his mind, and had learned all there was
to learn about the other worlds, and had cut his few important ties with
Halsey’s Planet, he showed up in Haarland’s planet-based office for a
final, repetitive briefing.

Marconi was there.

He had trouble meeting Ross’s eyes, but his handclasp was firm and his
voice warmly friendly—and a little envious. “The very best, Ross,” he
said. “I—I wish——” He hesitated and stammered. He said, in a flood,
“Damn it, I should be going! Do a good job, Ross—and I hope you don’t
hate me.” And he left while Ross, disturbed, went in to see old man
Haarland.

Haarland spared no time for sentiment. “You’re cleared for space
flight,” he growled. “According to the visa, you’re going to Sunward—in
case anyone asks you between here and the port. Actually, let’s hear
where you _are_ going.”

Ross said promptly, “I am going on a mission of exploration and
reconnaissance. My first proposed destination is Ragansworld; second
Gemser, third Azor. If I cannot make contact with any of these three
planets, I will select planets at random from the master charts until I
find some Wesley Drive families somewhere. The contacts for the first
three planets are: On Ragansworld, Foley Associates; on Gemser, the
Franklin Foundation; on Azor, Cavallo Machine Tool Company. F-T-L
contacts on other planets are listed in the appendix to the master
charts. The co-ordinates for Ragansworld are——”

“Skip the co-ordinates,” mumbled Haarland, rubbing his eyes. “What do
you do when you get in contact with a Wesley Drive family?”

Ross hesitated and licked his lips. “I—well, it’s a little hard——”

“Dammit,” roared Haarland, “I’ve told you a _thousand_ times——”

“Yessir, I know. All I meant was I don’t exactly understand what I’m
looking for.”

“If I knew what you were to look for,” Haarland rasped, “I wouldn’t have
to send you out looking! Can’t you get it through your thick head?
_Something_ is wrong. I don’t know what. Maybe I’m crazy for bothering
about it—heaven knows, I’ve got troubles enough right here—but we
Haarlands have a tradition of service, and maybe it’s so old that we’ve
kind of forgotten just what it’s all about. But it’s not so old that
I’ve forgotten the family tradition. If I had a son, he’d be doing this.
I counted on Marconi to be my son; now all I have left is you. And
that’s little enough, heaven knows,” he finished bitterly.

Ross, wounded, said by rote: “On landing, I will attempt at once to make
contact with the local Wesley Drive family, using the recognition codes
given me. I will report to them on all the data at hand and suggest the
need for action.”

Haarland stood up. “All right,” he said. “Sorry I snapped at you. Come
on; I’ll go up to the ship with you.”

And that was the way it happened. Ross found himself in the longliner,
then with Haarland in the tiny, ancient, faster-than-light ship which
had once been tender to the ship that colonized Halsey’s Planet. He
found himself shaking hands with a red-eyed, suddenly-old Haarland,
watching him crawl through the coupling to the longliner, watching the
longliner blast away.

He found himself setting up the F-T-L course and throwing in the drive.



..... 5


ROSS was lucky. The second listed inhabited planet was still inhabited.

He had not quite stopped shuddering from the first when the approach
radar caught him. The first planet was given in the master charts as
“Ragansworld. Pop. 900,000,000; diam. 9400 m.; mean orbit 0.8 AU,” and
its co-ordinates went on to describe it as the fourth planet of a small
G-type sun. There had been some changes made: the co-ordinates now
intersected well inside a bright and turbulent gas cloud.

It appeared that suppressing the F-T-L drive had not quite annihilated
war.

But the second planet, Gemser—there, he was sure, was a world where
nothing was seriously awry.

He left the ship mumbling a name to himself: “Franklin Foundation.” And
he was greeted by a corporal’s guard of dignified and ceremonially
dressed men; they smiled at him, welcomed him, shook his hand, and
invited him to what seemed to be the local equivalent of the
administration building. He noticed disapprovingly that they didn’t seem
to go in for the elaborate decontamination procedures of Halsey’s
Planet, but perhaps, he thought, they had bred disease-resistance into
their bloodlines. Certainly the four men in his guide party seemed hale
and well-preserved, though the youngest of them was not less than sixty.

“I would like,” he said, “to be put in touch with the Franklin
Foundation, please.”

“Come right in here,” beamed one of the four, and another said:

“Don’t worry about a thing.” They held the door for him, and he walked
into a small and sybaritically furnished room. The second man said,
“Just a few questions. Where are you from?”

Ross said simply, “Halsey’s Planet,” and waited.

Nothing happened, except that all four men nodded comprehendingly, and
the questioner made a mark on a sheet of paper. Ross amplified,
“Fifty-three light years away. You know—another star.”

“Certainly,” the man said briskly. “Your name?”

Ross told him, but with a considerable feeling of deflation. He thought
wryly of his own feelings about the longlines and the far stars; he
remembered the stir and community excitement that a starship meant back
home. Still, Ross told himself. Halsey’s Planet might be just a back
eddy in the main currents of civilization. Quite possibly on another
world—this one, for instance—travelers from the stars were a
commonplace. The field hadn’t seemed overly busy, though; and there was
nothing resembling a spaceship. Unless—he thought with a sudden sense of
shock—those rusting hulks clumped together at the edge of the field had
once been spaceships. But that was hardly likely, he reassured himself.
You just don’t let spaceships rust.

“Sex?” the man asked, and “Age?” “Education?” “Marital status?” The
questions went on for more time than Ross quite understood; and they
seemed far from relevant questions for the most part; and some of them
were hard questions to answer. “Tau quotient?” for instance; Ross
blinked and said, with an edge to his voice:

“I don’t know what a tau quotient is.”

“Put him down as zero,” one of the men advised, and the interlocutor
nodded happily.

“Working-with-others rating?” he asked, beaming.

Ross said with controlled irritation, “Look, I don’t know anything about
these ratings. Will you take me to somebody who can put me in touch with
the Franklin Foundation?”

The man who was sitting next to him patted him gently on the shoulder.
“Just answer the questions,” he said comfortably. “Everything will be
all right.”

Ross flared, “The hell everything will——”

Something with electrified spikes in it hit him on the back of the neck.

Ross yelled and ducked away; the man next to him returned a little rod
to his pocket. He smiled at Ross. “Don’t feel bad,” he said
sympathetically. “Go ahead now, answer the questions.”

Ross shook his head dazedly. The pain was already leaving his neck, but
he felt nauseated by the suddenness and sharpness of it; he could not
remember any pain quite like that in his life. He stood up waveringly
and said, “Wait a minute, now——”

This time it was the man on the other side, and the pain was about twice
as sharp. Ross found himself on the floor, looking up through a haze.
The man on his right kept the rod in his hand, and the expression on his
face, while in no way angry, was stern. “Bad boy,” he said tenderly.
“Why don’t you want to answer the questions?”

Ross gasped, “God damn it, all I want is to see somebody! Keep your
dirty hands off me, you old fools!” And that was a mistake, as he
learned in the blessedly few minutes before he passed out completely
under the little rods held by the gentle but determined men.

He answered all the questions—bound to a chair, with two of the men
behind him, when he had regained consciousness. He answered every one.
They only had to hit him twice.

When they untied him the next morning, Ross had caught on to the local
folkways quite well. The fatherly fellow who released him said, “Follow
me,” and stood back, smiling but with one hand on one of the little
rods. And Ross was careful to say:

“Yes, sir!”

They rode in a three-wheeled car, and entered a barracks-like building.
Ross was left alone next to a bed in a dormitory with half a hundred
beds. “Just wait here,” the man said, smiling. “The rest of your group
is out at their morning session now. When they come in for lunch you can
join them. They’ll show you what to do.”

Ross didn’t have too long to wait. He spent the time in conjecture as
confused as it was fruitless; he had obviously done something wrong, but
just what was it?

If he had had twice as long he would have got no farther toward an
answer than he was: nowhere. But a noise outside ended his speculations.
He glanced toward the curiously shaped door—all the doors on this planet
seemed to be rectangular. A girl of about eighteen was peering inside.

She stared at Ross and said, “Oh!” Then she disappeared. There were
footsteps and whispers, and more heads appeared and blinked at him and
were jerked back.

Ross stood up in wretched apprehension. All of a sudden he was fourteen
years old again, and entering a new school where the old hands were
giggling and whispering about the new boy. He swore sullenly to himself.

A new face appeared, halted for an inspection of Ross, and walked
confidently in. The man was a good forty years old, Ross thought;
perhaps a kind of overseer in this institution—whatever kind of
institution it was. He approached Ross at a sedate pace, and he was
followed through the door in single file by a couple score men and
women. They ranged in age, Ross thought wonderingly, from the leader’s
forty down to the late teens of the girl who had first peered in the
door, and now was at the end of the procession.

The leader said, “How old are you?”

“Why, uh——” Ross figured confusedly: this planet’s annual orbital period
was roughly forty per cent longer than his own; fourteen into his age,
multiplied by ten, making his age in their local calculations....

“Why, I’m nineteen of your years old, about. And a half.”

“Yes. And what can you do?”

“Look here, sir. I’ve been through all this once. Why don’t you go and
ask those gentlemen who brought me here? And can anybody tell me where
the Franklin Foundation is?”

The fortyish fellow, with a look of outrage, slapped Ross across the
mouth. Ross knocked him down with a roundhouse right.

A girl yelled, “Good for you, Junior!” and jumped like a wildcat onto a
slim, gray-haired lady, clawing, and slapping. The throng dissolved
immediately into a wild melee. Ross, busily fighting off the fortyish
fellow and a couple of his stocky buddies, noted only that the scrap was
youth against age, whatever it meant.

“How _dare_ you?” a voice thundered, and the rioters froze.

A decrepit wreck was standing in the doorway, surrounded by three or
four gerontological textbook cases only a little less spavined than he.
“Glory,” a girl muttered despairingly. “It would be the minister.”

“What is the meaning of this brawl?” rolled from the wreck’s shriveled
lips in a rich basso—no; rolled, Ross noted, from a flat perforated
plate on his chest. There was a small, flesh-colored mike slung before
his lips. “Who is responsible here?” asked the golden basso.

Ross’s fortyish assailant said humbly: “I am, sir. This new fellow
here——”

“Manners! Speak when you’re spoken to.”

Abjectly: “Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”

“Silly fools!” the senile wreck hectored them. “I’m going to take no
official notice of this since I’m merely passing through. Luckily for
you this is no formal inspection. But you’ve lost your lunch hour with
your asinine pranks. Now get back to your work and never let me hear of
a disgraceful incident like this again from Junior Unit Twenty-Three.”

He swept out with his retinue. Ross noted that some of the younger girls
were crying and that the older men and women were glaring at him
murderously.

“We’ll teach you manners, you pup,” the foreman-type said. “You go on
the dye vats this afternoon. Any more trouble and you’ll miss a few
meals.”

Ross told him: “Just keep your hands off me, mister.”

The foreman-type expanded into a beam of pleasure. “I thought you’d be
sensible,” he said. “Everybody to the plant, now!” He collared a pretty
girl of about Ross’s age. “Helena here is working out a bit of insolence
on the dye vats herself. She’ll show you.” The girl stood with downcast
eyes. Ross liked her face and wondered about her figure. Whatever it was
like, it was covered from neck to knee by a loose shirt. But the older
women wore fitted clothes.

The foreman-type led a grand procession through the door. Helena told
Ross: “I guess you’d better get in front of me in line. I go here——” She
slipped in deftly, and Ross understood a little more of what went on
here. The procession was in order of age.

He had determined to drift for a day or two—not that he seemed to have
much choice. The Franklin Foundation, supposedly having endured a good
many years, would last another week while he explored the baffling mores
of this place and found out how to circumvent them and find his way to
the keepers of F-T-L on this world. Nobody would go anywhere with his
own ship—not without first running up a setting for the Wesley Drive!

The line filed into a factory whose like Ross had never before seen. He
had a fair knowledge of and eye for industrial processes; it was clear
that the place was an electric-cable works. But why was the concrete
floor dangerously cracked and sloppily patched? Why was the big
enameling oven rumbling and stinking? Why were the rolling mills in a
far corner unsupplied with guards and big, easy-to-hit emergency
cutoffs? Why was the light bad and the air full of lint? Why did the
pickling tank fume and make the workers around it cough hackingly? Most
pointed of all, why did the dye vats to which Helena led him stink and
slop over?

There were grimy signs everywhere, including the isolated bay where
braiding cord was dyed the standard code colors. The signs said things
like: AGE IS A PRIVILEGE AND NOT A RIGHT. AGE MUST BE EARNED BY WORK.
GRATITUDE IS THE INDEX OF YOUR PROGRESS TO MATURITY.

Helena said girlishly as she took his arm and hooked him out of the
moving line: “Here’s Stinkville. Believe me, I’m not going to talk back
again. After all, one’s maturity is measured by one’s acceptance of
one’s environment, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” said Ross. “Listen, Helena, have you ever heard of a place
called the Franklin Foundation?”

“No,” she said. “First you climb up here—golly! I don’t even know your
name.”

“Ross.”

“All right, Ross. First you climb up here and make sure the yarn’s
running over the rollers right; sometimes it gets twisted around and
then it breaks. Then you take one of the thermometers from the wall and
you check the vat temperature. It says right on the thermometers what it
should be for the different colors. If it’s off you turn that gas tap up
or down, just a little. Then you check the wringer rolls where the yarn
comes out. Watch your fingers when you do! The yarn comes in different
thicknesses on the same thread so you have to adjust the wringer rolls
so too much dye doesn’t get squeezed out. You can tell by the color; it
shouldn’t be lighter after it goes through the rolls. But the yarn
shouldn’t come through sloppy and drip dye on the floor while it travels
to the bobbin——”

There was some more, equally uncomplicated. He took the yellow and green
vats; she took the red and blue. They had worked in the choking stench
and heat for perhaps three hours before Ross finished one temperature
check and descended to adjust a gas tap. He found Helena, spent and
gasping, on the floor, hidden from the rest of the shop by the bulky
tanks.

“Heat knock you out?” he asked briskly. “Don’t try to talk. I’ll tote
you over by the wall away from the burners. Maybe we’ll catch a little
breeze from the windows there.” She nodded weakly.

He picked her up without too much trouble, carried her three yards or so
to the wall, still isolated from the rest of the shop. She was ripely
curved under that loose shirt, he learned. He set her down easily,
crouching himself, and did not take his hands away.

It’s been a long time, he thought—and she was responding! Whether she
knew it or not, there was a drowsy smile on her face and her body moved
a little against his hands, pleasurably. She was breathing harder.

Ross did the sensible thing and kissed her.

Wildcat!

Ross reeled back from her fright and anger, his face copiously
scratched. “I’m dreadfully sorry,” he sputtered. “Please accept my
sincerest——”

The flare-up of rage ended; she was sobbing bitterly, leaning against
the wall, wailing that nobody had ever treated her like that before,
that she’d be set back three years if he told anybody, that she was a
good, self-controlled girl and he had no _right_ to treat her that way,
and what kind of degenerate was he, not yet twenty and going around
kissing girls when _everybody_ knew you went crazy from it.

He soothed her—from a distance. Her sobbing dropped to a bilious croon
as she climbed the ladder to the yellow vat, tears still on her face,
and checked its temperature.

Ross, wondering if he were already crazy from too much kissing of girls,
mechanically resumed his duties. But she had responded. And how long had
they been working? And wasn’t this shift ever going to end?

All the shifts ended in time. But there was a catch to it: There was
always another shift. After the afternoon shift on the dye vats came
dinner—porridge!—and then came the evening shift on the dye vats, and
then sleep. The foreman was lenient, though; he let Ross off the vats
after the end of the second day. Then it was kitchen orderly, and only
two shifts a day. And besides, you got plenty to eat.

But it was a long, long way, Ross thought sardonically to himself, from
the shining pictures he had painted to himself back on Halsey’s Planet.
Ross the explorer, Ross the hero, Ross the savior of humanity....

Ross, the semipermanent KP.

He had to admit it to himself: The expedition thus far had been a bust.
Not only was it perfectly clear that there no longer was a Franklin
Foundation on Gemser, but more had been lost than time and effort. For
Ross himself, he silently admitted, was as close to lost as he ever
wanted to be. He was, in effect, a prisoner, in a prison from which
there was no easy escape as long as he was cursed with youthfulness....

Of course, the implications of that were that there was a perfectly easy
escape in time. All he had to do was get old enough to matter, on this
insane planet. Ninety, maybe. And then he would be perfectly free to
totter out to the spaceport, dragoon a squad of juniors into lifting him
into the ship, and take off....

Helena was some help. But only psychologically; she was pleasant
company, but neither she nor anyone else in the roster of forty-eight to
whom he was permitted to speak had ever heard of the Franklin
Foundation, or F-T-L travel, or anything. Helena said, “Wait for
Holiday. Maybe one of the grownups will tell you then?”

“Holiday?” Ross slid back and scratched his shoulder blades against the
corner of his bed. Helena was sprawled on the floor, half watching a
projected picture on the screen at the end of the dormitory.

“Yes. You’re lucky, it’s only eight days off. That’s when Dobermann——”
she pointed to the foreman——“graduates; he’s the only one this year. And
we all move up a step, and the new classes come in, and then we all get
everything we want. Well, pretty near,” she amended. “We can’t do
anything _bad_. But you’ll see; it’s nice.”

Then the picture ended, and it was calisthenics time, and then lights
out. Forty-eight men and women on their forty-eight bunks—the honor
system appeared to work beautifully; there had been no signs of sex play
that Ross had been able to see—slept the sleep of the innocent. While
Ross, the forty-ninth, lay staring into the dark with rising hope.

In the kitchen the next morning he got more information from Helena.
Holiday seemed to be a cross between saturnalia and Boy’s Week; for one
day of the year the elders slightly relaxed their grip on the reins. On
that day alone one could Speak Before Being Spoken To, Interrupt One’s
Elders, even Leave the Room without Being Excused.

Whee, Ross thought sourly. But still....

The foreman, Dobermann, once you learned how to handle him, wasn’t
such a bad guy. Ross, studying his habits, learned the proper
approach and used it. Dobermann’s commonest complaint was of
irresponsibility—irresponsibility when some thirty-year-old junior
was caught sneaking into line ahead of his proper place,
irresponsibility when Ross forgot to make his bed before stumbling
out in the dark to his kitchen shift, one awful case of
irresponsibility when Helena thoughtlessly poured cold water into
the cooking vat while it was turned on. There was a sizzle, a
crackle, and a puff of steam, and Helena was weeping over a broken
heating element.

Dobermann came storming over, and Ross saw his chance. “That is very
irresponsible of you, Helena,” he said coldly, back to Dobermann but
entirely conscious of his presence. “If Junior Unit Twenty-Three was all
as irresponsible as you, it would reflect badly on Mr. Dobermann. You
don’t know how lucky you are that Mr. Dobermann is so kind to you.”

Helena’s weeping dried up instantly; she gave Ross one furious glance,
and lowered her eyes before Dobermann. Dobermann nodded approvingly to
Ross as he waded into Helena; it was a memorable tirade, but Ross heard
only part of it. He was looking at the cooking vat; it was a
simple-minded bit of construction, a spiral of resistance wire around a
ceramic core. The core had cracked and one end of the wire was loose; if
it could be reconnected, the cracked core shouldn’t matter much—the wire
was covered with insulation anyhow. He looked up and opened his mouth to
say something, then remembered and merely stood looking brightly
attentive.

“——looks like you want to go back to the vats,” the foreman was
finishing. “Well, Helena, if that’s what you want we can make you happy.
This time you’ll be by yourself, too; you won’t have Ross to help you
out when the going’s rough. Will she, Ross?”

“No, sir,” Ross said immediately. “Sir?”

Dobermann looked back at him, frowning. “What?”

“I think I can fix this,” Ross said modestly.

Dobermann’s eyes bulged. “Fix it?”

“Yes, sir. It’s only a loose wire. Back where I come from, we all
learned how to take care of things like that when we were still in
school. It’s just a matter of——”

“Now, hold on, Ross”; the foreman howled. “Tampering with a machine is
bad enough, but if you’re going to turn out to be a liar, too, you’re
going just too far! School, indeed! You know perfectly well, Ross, that
even I won’t be ready for school until after Holiday. Ross, I knew you
were a troublemaker, knew it the first day I set eyes on you. School!
Well, we’ll see how you like the school I’m going to send you to!”

The vats weren’t so bad the second time. Even though the porridge was
cold for two days, until somebody got around to delivering a different
though equally worn-out cooking vat.

Helena passed out from the heat three times. And when, on the third
time, Ross, goaded beyond endurance, kissed her again, there were no
hysterics.



..... 6


FROM birth to puberty you were an infant. From puberty to Dobermann’s
age, a junior. For ten years after that you went to school, learning the
things you had neither the need nor the right to know before.

And then you were Of Age.

Being Of Age meant much, much more than voting, Ross found out. For one
thing, it meant freedom to marry—after the enforced sexlessness of the
junior years and the directed breeding via artificial insemination of
the Scholars. It meant a healthy head start on seniority, which carried
with it all offices and all power.

It meant freedom.

As a bare beginning, it meant the freedom to command any number of
juniors or scholars. On Ross’s last punitive day in the dye vats, a
happy ancient commandeered the entire staff to help set shrubs in his
front lawn—a good dozen acres of careful landscaping it was, and the
prettiest sight Ross had seen on this ugly planet.

When they got back to the dye vats, the yellow and blue had boiled over,
and broken strands of yarn had fouled all the bobbins. Dobermann
raged—at the juniors.

But then Dobermann’s raging came to an end forever. It was the night
before Holiday, and there was a pretty ceremony as he packed his kit and
got ready to turn Junior Unit Twenty-three over to his successor.
Everyone was scrubbed, and though a certain amount of license in regard
to neatness was allowed between dinner and lights out, each bunk was
made and carefully smoothed free of wrinkles. After half an hour of
fidgety waiting, Dobermann called—needlessly—for attention, and the
minister came in with his ancient retinue.

The rich mechanical voice boomed out from his breastplate: “Junior
Dobermann, today you are a man!”

Dobermann stood with his head bowed, silent and content. Junior Unit
Twenty-Three chanted antiphonally: “Good-by, Junior Dobermann!”

The retinue took three steps forward, and the minister boomed, “Beauty
comes with age. Age is beauty!”

And the chorus: “Old heads are wisest!” Ross, standing as straight as
any of them, faked the words with his lips and tongue, and wondered how
many repetitions had drilled those sentiments into Junior Unit
Twenty-Three.

There were five more chants, and five responses, and then the minister
and his court of four were standing next to Dobermann. Breathing heavily
from his exertions, the minister reached behind him and took a book from
the hands of the nearest of his retinue. He said, panting, “Scholar
Dobermann, in the Book lies the words of the Fathers. Read them and
learn.”

The chorus cried thrice, “The Word of the Fathers Is Law.” And then the
minister touched Dobermann’s hand, and in solemn silence, left.

As soon as the elders had gone, the juniors flocked around Dobermann to
wish him well. There was excited laughter in the congratulations, and a
touch of apprehension too: Dobermann, with all his faults, was a known
quantity, and the members of Junior Unit Twenty-Three were beginning to
look a little fearfully at the short, redheaded youth who, from the next
day on, would be Dobermann’s successor.

Ross promised himself: He can be good or bad, a blessing or a problem.
But he won’t be _my_ problem. I’m getting out of here tomorrow!

Holiday.

“Oh, it’s fun,” Helena told him enthusiastically. “First you get up
early to get the voting out of the way——”

“Voting?”

“Sure. Don’t they vote where you come from? I thought everybody voted.
That’s democracy, like we have it here.”

He sardonically quoted one of the omnipresent wall signs: “THE HAPPINESS
OF THE MAJORITY MEANS THE HAPPINESS OF THE MINORITY.” He had often
wondered what, if anything, it meant. But Helena solemnly nodded.

They were whispering from their adjoining cots by dim, false dawn
filtering through the windows on Holiday morning. They were not the only
whisperers. Things were relaxing already.

“Ross,” Helena said.

“Yes?”

“I thought maybe you might not know. On Holiday if you, ah, want to do
that again you don’t have to wait until I faint. Ah, of course you don’t
do it right out in the open.” Overcome by her own daring she buried her
head under the coarse blanket.

Fine, thought Ross wearily. Once a year—or did Holiday come once a
year?—the kids were allowed to play “Spin The Bottle.” No doubt their
elders thought it was too cute for words: mere tots of thirty and
thirty-five childishly and innocently experimenting with sex. Of course
it would be discreetly supervised so that nobody would Get In Trouble.

He was quite sure Helena’s last two faints had been unconvincing
phonies.

                  *       *       *       *       *

The wake-up whistle blew at last. The chattering members of Junior Unit
Twenty-Three dawdled while they dressed, and the new foreman indulgently
passed out shabby, smutted ribbons which the girls tied in their hair.
They had sugar on their mush for breakfast, and Ross’s stomach came near
turning as he heard burbles of gratitude at the feast.

With pushing and a certain amount of inexpert horseplay they formed a
column of fours and hiked from the hall—from the whole factory complex,
indeed, along a rubberized highway.

Once you got out of the factory area things became pleasanter by the
mile. Hortatory roadside signs thinned out and vanished. Stinking
middens of industrial waste were left behind. And then the landscape was
rolling, sodded acres with the road pleasantly springy underfoot, the
air clean and crisp.

They oohed and aahed at houses glimpsed occasionally in the
distance—always rambling, one-story affairs that looked spanking-new.

Once a car overhauled them on the highway and slowed to a crawl. It was
a huge thing, richly upholstered within. A pair of grimlooking youths
were respectively chauffeur and footman; the passenger waved at the
troop from Junior Twenty-Three and grinned out of a fantastic landscape
of wrinkles. Ross gaped. Had he thought the visiting minister was old?
This creature, male or female, was _old_.

After the car sped on, to the cheers of the marchers, there was happy
twittering speculation. Junior Twenty-Three didn’t recognize the Citizen
who had graciously waved to them, but they thought he—or she?—was
wonderful. So dignified, so distinguished, so learned, so gracious, so
democratic!

“Wasn’t it sweet of him?” Helena burbled. “And I’m sure he must be
somebody important connected with the voting, otherwise he’d just vote
from home.”

Ross’s feet were beginning to hurt when they reached the suburban
center. To the best of his recollection, they were no more than eight or
ten kilos from the field and his starship. Backtrack on the road to the
suburban center about three kilos, take the fork to the right, and that
would be that.

Junior Twenty-Three reached a pitch of near-ecstasy marveling at the
low, spacious buildings of the center. Through sweeping, transparent
windows they saw acres of food and clothing in the shopping center; the
Drive-In Theater was an architectural miracle. The Civic Center almost
finished them off, with its statue of Equal Justice Under the Law (a
dignified beldame whose chin and nose almost met, leaning on a
gem-crusted crutch) and Civic Virtue (in a motorized wheelchair equipped
with an emergency oxygen tent, Lindbergh-Carrel auxiliary blood pump and
an artificial kidney).

Merry oldsters were everywhere in their cars and wheelchairs, gaily
waving at the kids. Only one untoward incident marred their prevoting
tour of inspection. A thick-headed young man mistakenly called out a
cheerful: “Life and wisdom, ma’am!” to a beaming oldster.

“Ma’am, is it?” the oldster roared through his throat mike and amplifier
in an unmistakable baritone. “I’ll ma’am you, you wise punk!” He spun
his wheelchair on a decishield, threw it into high and roared down on
the offender, running him over. The boy covered himself as well as he
could while the raging old man backed over him again and ran over him
again. His ordeal ended when the oldster collapsed forward in the chair,
hanging from his safety belt.

The boy got up with tire marks on him and groaned: “Oh, lord! I’ve hurt
him.” He appealed hysterically: “What’ll I do? Is he dead?”

Another Senior Citizen buzzed up and snapped: “Cut in his L-C heart, you
booby!”

The boy turned on the Lindbergh-Carrel pump, trembling. The white-faced
juniors of Twenty-Three watched as the tubes to the oldster’s left arm
throbbed and pulsed. A massive sigh went up when the old man’s eyes
opened and he sat up groggily. “What happened?”

“You died again, Sherrington,” said the other elder. “Third time this
week—good thing there was a responsible person around. Now get over to
the medical center this minute and have a complete checkup. Hear me?”

“Yes, Dad,” Sherrington said weakly. He rolled off in low gear.

His father turned to the youngster who stood vacantly rubbing the tire
marks on his face. “Since it’s Holiday,” he grated, “I’ll let this pass.
On any other day I would have seen to it that you were set back fifteen
years for your disgraceful negligence.”

Ross knew by then what that meant, and shuddered with the rest. It
amounted to a death sentence, did fifteen additional years of the
grinding toil and marginal diet of a junior.

Somewhat dampened they proceeded to the Hall of Democracy, a glittering
place replete with slogans, statues, and heroic portraits of the heroic
aged. Twenty-Three huddled together as it joined with a stream of
juniors from the area’s other factory units. Most of them were larger
than the cable works; many of them, apparently, involved more wearing
and hazardous occupations. Some groups coughed incessantly and were
red-eyed from the irritation of some chemical. Others must have been
heavy-manual-labor specialists. They were divided into the hale, whose
muscles bulged amazingly, and the dying—men and women who obviously
could not take the work but who were doing it anyway.

They seated themselves at long benches, with push buttons at each
station. Helena, next to him, explained the system to Ross. Voting was
universal and simultaneous, in all the Halls of Democracy around the
planet and from all the homes of the Senior Citizens who did not choose
to vote from a Hall. Simultaneously the votes were counted at a central
station and the results were flashed to screens in the Centers and
homes. She said a number of enthusiastic things about Democracy while
Ross studied a sheet on which the candidates and propositions were
listed.

The names meant nothing to him. He noted only that each of three
candidates for Chief of State was one hundred thirty years old, that
each of three candidates for First Assistant Chief was one hundred and
twenty-seven years old, and so on. Obviously the nominating conventions
by agreement named candidates of the same age for each office to keep it
a contest.

Proposition One read: “To dismantle seven pediatric centers and apply
the salvage value to the construction of, and the funds no longer
required for their maintenance to the maintenance of, a new wing of the
Gerontological Center, said wing to be devoted to basic research in the
extension of human life.”

Proposition Two was worse. Ross didn’t bother to read the rest of them.
He whispered hoarsely to Helena, “What next?”

“Ssh!” She pointed to a screen at the front of the Hall. “It’s
starting.”

A Senior Citizen of a very high rank (his face was entirely hidden by an
oxygen mask) was speaking from the screen. There was what seemed to be a
ritual speech of invocation, then he got down to business. “Citizens,”
he said through his throat mike, “behold Democracy in Action! I give you
three candidates for Chief of State—look them over, and make up your
minds. First, Citizen Raphael Flexner, age one century, three decades,
seven months, ten days.” Senior Citizen Flexner rolled on screen, spoke
briefly through his throat mike and rolled off. The first speaker said
again, “Behold Democracy in Action! See now Citizen Sheridan Farnsworth,
age one century, three decades, ten months, forty-two days.” Applause
boomed louder; some of the younger juniors yelled hysterically and
drummed their heels on the floor.

Helena was panting with excitement, eyes bright on the screen. “Isn’t it
_wonderful_?” she gasped ecstatically. “Oh, look at _him_!”

“Him” was the third candidate, and the first oldster Ross had seen whose
gocart was a wheeled stretcher. Prone and almost invisible through the
clusters of tubing and chromed equipment, Senior Citizen Immanuel
Appleby acknowledged his introduction—“Age one century, three decades,
eleven months and five days!” The crowd went mad; Helena broke from
Ross’s side and joined a long yelling snake dance through the corridors.

Ross yelled experimentally as protective coloration, then found himself
yelling because everybody was yelling, because he couldn’t help it. By
the time the speaker on the screen began to call for order, Ross was
standing on top of the voting bench and screaming his head off.

Helena, weeping with excitement, tugged at his leg. “Vote now, Ross,”
she begged, and all over the hall the cry was “Vote! Vote!”

Ross reached out for the voting buttons. “What do we do now?” he asked
Helena.

“Push the button marked ‘Appleby,’ of course. Hurry!”

“But why Appleby?” Ross objected. “That fellow Flexner, for instance——”

“Hush, Ross! Somebody might be listening.” There was sickening fright on
Helena’s face. “Didn’t you hear? We _have_ to vote for the best man.
‘Oldest Is Bestest,’ you know. That’s what Democracy _means_, the
freedom of choice. They read us the ages, and we choose which is oldest.
Now please, Ross, hurry before somebody starts asking questions!”

The voting was over, and the best man had won in every case. It was a
triumph for informed public opinion. The mob poured out of the hall in
happy-go-lucky order, all precedences and formalities suspended for
Holiday.

Helena grasped Ross firmly by the arm. The crowd was spreading over the
quiet acres surrounding the Center, each little cluster heedlessly
intent on a long-planned project of its own. Under the pressure of
Helena’s arm, Ross found himself swerving toward a clump of shrubbery.

He said violently, “No! That is, I mean I’m sorry, Helena, but I’ve got
something to do.”

She stared at him with shock in her eyes. “On Holiday?”

“On Holiday. Truly, Helena, I’m sorry. Look, what you said last
night—from now till tomorrow morning, I can do what I want, right?”

Sullenly, “Yes. I _thought_, Ross, that I _knew_ what——”

“Okay.” He jerked his arm away, feeling like all of the hundred possible
kinds of a skunk. “See you around,” he said over his shoulder. He did
not look back.

Three kilos back, he told himself firmly, then the right-hand fork in
the road. And not more than a dozen kilos, at the most, to the
spaceport. He could do it in a couple of hours.

One thing had been established for certain: If ever there had been a
“Franklin Foundation” on this planet, it was gone for good now.
Dismantled, no doubt, to provide building materials for an eartrumpet
plant. No doubt the little F-T-L ship that the Franklin Foundation was
supposed to cover for was still swinging in an orbit within easy range
of the spaceport; but the chance that anybody would ever find it, or use
it if found, was pretty close to zero. If they bothered to maintain a
radar watch at all—any other watch than the fully automatic one set to
respond only to highvelocity interstellar ships—and if anyone ever took
time to look at the radar plot, no doubt the F-T-L ship was charted. As
an asteroid, satellite, derelict or “body of unknown origin.” Certainly
no one of these smug oldsters would take the trouble to investigate.

The only problem to solve on this planet was how to get off it—fast.

On the road ahead of him was what appeared to be a combination sex orgy
and free-for-all. It rolled in a yelling, milling mob of half a hundred
excited juniors across the road toward him, then swerved into the fields
as a cluster of screaming women broke free and ran, and the rest of the
crowd roared after them.

Ross quickened his step. If he ever did get off this planet, it would
have to be today; he was not fool enough to think that any ordinary day
would give him the freedom to poke around the spaceport’s defenses. And
it would be just his luck, he thought bitterly, to get involved in a
gang fight on the way to the port.

There was a squeal of tires behind him, and a little vehicle screeched
to a halt. Ross threw up a defensive arm in automatic reflex.

But it was only Helena, awkwardly fumbling open the door of the car.
“Get in,” she said sourly. “You’ve spoiled _my_ Holiday. Might as well
do what _you_ want to do.”

                  *       *       *       *       *

“What’s that?”

Helena looked where he was pointing, and shrugged. “Guard box,” she
guessed. “How would I know? Nobody’s in it, anyhow.”

Ross nodded. They had abandoned the car and were standing outside a
long, seamless fence that surrounded the spaceport. The main gates were
closed and locked; a few hundred feet to the right was a smaller gate
with a sort of pillbox, but that had every appearance of being locked
too.

“All right,” said Ross. “See that shed with the boxes outside it? Over
we go.”

The shed was right up against the fence; the metal boxes gave a sort of
rough and just barely climbable foothold. Helena was easy enough to lift
to the top of the shed; Ross, grunting, managed to clamber after her.

They looked down at the ground on the other side, a dozen feet away.
“You don’t have to come along,” Ross told her.

“That’s just _like_ you!” she flared. “Cast me aside—trample on me!”

“All right, all right.” Ross looked around, but neither junior nor elder
was anywhere in sight. “Hang by your hands and then drop,” he advised
her. “Get moving before somebody shows up.”

“On Holiday?” she asked bitterly. She squirmed over the narrow top of
the fence, legs dangling, let herself down as far as she could, and let
go. Ross watched anxiously, but she got up quickly enough and moved to
one side.

Ross plopped down next to her, knocking the wind out of himself. He got
up dizzily.

His ship, in lonesome quiet, was less than a quarter of a mile away.
“Let’s go,” Ross panted, and clutched her hand. They skirted another
shed and were in the clear, running as fast as they could.

Almost in the clear.

Ross heard the whine of the little scooter before he felt the blow, but
it was too late. He sprawled on the ground, dragging Helena after him.

A Senior Citizen with a long-handled rod of the sort Ross remembered all
too well was scowling down at them. “Children,” he rumbled through his
breast-speaker in a voice of awful disgust, “is this the way to act on
Holiday?”

Helena, gibbering in terror, was beyond words. Ross croaked, “Sorry,
sir. We—we were just——”

Crash! The rod came down again, and every muscle in Ross’s body
convulsed. He rolled helplessly away, the elder following him. Crash!
“We give you Holiday,” the elder boomed, “and——” crash “——you act like
animals. Terrible! Don’t you know that freedom of play on Holiday——”
crash “——is the most sacred right of every junior——” crash “——and heaven
help you——” crash “——if you abuse it!”

The wrenching punishment and the caressing voice stopped together. Ross
lay blinking into the terrible silence that followed. He became
conscious of Helena’s weeping, and forced his head to turn to look at
her.

She was standing behind the elder’s scooter, a length of wire in her
hand. The senior lay slumped against his safety strap. “Ross!” she
moaned. “Ross, what have I done? _I turned him off!_”

He stood up, coughing and retching. No one else was in sight, only the
two of them and the silent, slack form of the old man. He grabbed her
arm. “Come on,” he said fuzzily, and started toward the starship.

She hung back, mumbling to herself, her eyes saucers. She was in a state
of grievous shock, it was clear.

Ross hesitated, rubbing his back. He knew that she might never pull out
of it. Even if she did, she was certain to be a frightful handicap. But
it was crystal-clear that she had declared herself on his side. Even if
the elder could be revived, the punishment in store for Helena would be
awful to contemplate....

Come what may, he was now responsible for Helena.

He towed her to the starship. She climbed in docilely enough, sat
staring blankly as he sealed ship and sent it blasting off the face of
the planet.

                  *       *       *       *       *

She didn’t speak until they were well into deep space. Then the blank
stare abruptly clouded and she exploded in a fit of tears. Ross said
ineffectually, “There, there.” It had no effect; until, in its own time,
the storm ended.

Helena said hoarsely, “Wh-what do I do now?”

“Why, I guess you come right along with me,” Ross said heartily, cursing
his luck.

“Where’s that?”

“Where? You mean, where?” Ross scratched his head. “Well, let’s see.
Frankly, Helena, your planet was quite a disappointment to me. I had
hoped——Well, no matter. I suppose the best thing to do is to look up the
next planet on the list.”

“What list?”

Ross hesitated, then shrugged and plunged into the explanation. All
about the longliners and the message and faster-than-light travel and
the Wesley Families—and none of it, while he was talking, seemed
convincing at all. But perhaps Helena was less critical; or perhaps
Helena simply did not care. She listened attentively and made no
comment. She only said, at the end, “What’s the name of the next
planet?”

He consulted the master charts. Haarland’s listing showed a place called
Azor, conveniently near at hand in the strange geodesics of the Wesley
Effect, where the far galaxies might be near at hand in the warped
space-lines, and the void just beyond the viewplates be infinitely
distant. The F-T-L family of Azor was named Cavallo; when last heard
from, they had been builders of machine tools.

Ross told Helena about it. She shrugged and watched curiously as he
began to set up the F-T-L problem on the huge board.



..... 7


THEY were well within detection range of Azor’s radar, if any, and yet
there had been no beeping signal that the planet’s GCA had taken over
and would pilot them down. Another blank? He studied the surface of the
world under his highest magnification and saw no signs that it had been
devastated by war. There were cities—intact, as far as he could tell,
but not very attractive. The design ran to huge, gloomy piles that
mounted toward central towers.

Azor was a big world which showed not much water and a great deal of
black rock. It was the fifth of its system and reportedly had colonized
its four adjacent neighbors and their moons.

His own search radar pinged. The signal was followed at once by a
guarded voice from his ship-to-ship communicator: “What ship are you? Do
you receive me? The band is 798.44.”

He hastily dialed the frequency on his transmitter and called, “I
receive you. We are a vessel from outside your solar system, home planet
Halsey. We want to contact a family named Cavallo of the planet Azor
believed to be engaged in building machine tools. Can you help us?”

“You are a male?” the voice asked cautiously. “In command or simply the
communicator?”

“I’m a male and I’m in command of this vessel.”

The voice said: “Then sheer off this system and go elsewhere, my
friend.”

“What is this? Who are you?”

“My name does not matter. I happen to be on watch aboard the prison
orbital station ‘Minerva.’ Get going, my friend, before the planetary
GCA picks you up.”

Prison orbital station? A very sensible idea. “Thanks for the advice,”
he parried. “Can you tell me anything about the Cavallo family?”

“I have heard of them. My friend, your time is running out. If you do
not sheer off very soon they will land you. And I judge from the tone of
your voice that it will not be long before you join the rest of us
criminals aboard ‘Minerva.’ It is not pleasant here. Good-by.”

“Wait, please!” Ross had no intention at all of committing any crimes
that would land him aboard a prison hulk, and he had every intention of
fulfilling his mission. “Tell me about the Cavallo family—and why you
expect me to get in trouble on Azor.”

“The time is running out, my friend, but—the Cavallo family of machine
tool builders is located in Novj Grad. And the crime of which all of us
aboard ‘Minerva’ were convicted is conspiracy to advocate equality of
the sexes. Now go!”

The carrier-wave hum of the communicator died, but immediately there was
another electronic noise to fill the cabin—the beep of a GCA radar
taking over the sealed landing controls of the craft.

Helena had been listening with very little comprehension. “Who was your
friend, Ross?” she asked. “Where are we?”

“I think,” Ross said, “he _was_ my friend. And I think we are—in
trouble.”

The ship began to jet tentative bursts of reaction mass, nosing toward
the big, gloomy planet.

“That’s all right,” Helena said comfortably. “At least they won’t know I
disconnected a Senior Citizen.” She thought a moment. “They won’t, will
they? I mean, the Senior Citizens here won’t know about the Senior
Citizens there, will they?”

He tried to break it to her gently as the ship picked up speed. “Helena,
it’s possible that the old people here won’t be Senior Citizens—not in
your planet’s sense. They may just be old people, with no special
authority over young people. I think, in fact, that we may find you
outranking older people who happen to be males.”

She took it as a joke. “You are funny, Ross. Old means Senior, doesn’t
it? And Senior means better, wiser, abler, and in charge, doesn’t it?”

“We’ll see,” he said thoughtfully as the main reaction drive cut in.
“We’ll see very shortly.”

                  *       *       *       *       *

The spaceport was bustling, busy, and efficient. Ross marveled at the
speed and dexterity with which the anonymous ground operator whipped his
ship into a braking orbit and set it down. And he stared enviously at
the crawling clamshells on treads, bigger than houses, that cupped
around his ship; the ship was completely and hermetically surrounded,
and bathed in a mist of germicides and prophylactic rays.

A helmeted figure riding a little platform on the inside of one of the
clamshells turned a series of knobs, climbed down, and rapped on the
ship’s entrance port.

Ross opened it diffidently, and almost strangled in the antiseptic
fumes. Helena choked and wheezed behind him as the figure threw back its
helmet and said, “Where’s the captain?”

“I am he,” said Ross meticulously. “I would like to be put in touch with
the Cavallo Machine-Tool Company of Novj Grad.”

The figure shook its long hair loose, which provided Ross with the
necessary clue: it was a woman. Not a very attractive-looking woman, for
she wore no makeup; but by the hair, by the brows and by the smoothness
of her chin, a woman all the same. She said coldly, “If you’re the
captain, who’s that?”

Helena said in a small voice, “I’m Helena, from Junior Unit
Twenty-Three.”

“Indeed.” Suddenly the woman smiled. “Well, come ashore, dear,” she
said. “You must be tired from your trip. Both of you come ashore,” she
added graciously.

She led the way out of the clamshells to a waiting closed car. Azor’s
sun had an unpleasant bluish cast to it, not a type-G at all; Ross
thought that the lighting made the woman look uglier than she really had
to be. Even Helena looked pinched and bloodless, which he knew well was
not the case at all.

All around them was activity. Whatever this planet’s faults, it was not
a stagnant home for graybeards. Ross, craning, saw nothing that was
shoddy, nothing that would have looked out of place in the best-equipped
port of Halsey’s Planet. And the reception lounge, or whatever it was,
that the woman took them to was a handsome and prettily furnished
construction. “Some lunch?” the woman asked, directing her attention to
Helena. “A cup of tribrew, maybe? Let me have the boy bring some.”
Helena looked to Ross for signals, and Ross, gritting his teeth, nodded
to her to agree. Too young the last time, too male this time; was there
ever going to be a planet where he mattered to anyone?

He said desperately, “Madam, forgive my interruption, but this lady and
myself need urgently to get in touch with the Cavallo company. Is this
Novj Grad?”

The woman’s pale brows arched. She said, with an effort, “No, it is
not.”

“Then can you tell us where Novj Grad is?” Ross persisted. “If they have
a spaceport, we can hop over there in our ship——”

The woman gasped something that sounded like, “Well!” She stood up and
said pointedly to Helena, “If you’ll excuse me, I have something to
attend to.” And swept out.

Helena stared wide-eyed at Ross. “She must’ve been a real Senior
Citizen, huh?”

“Not exactly,” said Ross despairingly. “Look, Helena, things are
different here. I need your help.”

“Help?”

“Yes, help!” he bellowed. “Get a grip on yourself, girl. Remember what I
told you about the planet I came from? It was different from yours,
remember? The old people were just like anybody else.” She giggled in
embarrassment. “They were!” he yelled. “And they are here, too. Old
people, young people, doesn’t matter. On my planet, the richest people
were—well, never mind. On this planet, women are the bosses. Get it?
Women are like elders. So you’ll have to take over, Helena.”

She was looking at him with a puzzled frown. She objected, “But if women
are——”

“They are. Never mind about that part of it now; just remember that for
the purposes of getting along here, you’re going to be my boss. You tell
me what to do. You talk to everybody. And what you have to say to them
is this: You must get to Novj Grad immediately, and talk to a
high-ranking member of the Cavallo Machine-Tool Company. Clear? Once we
get there, I’ll take over; everything will be under control then.” He
added prayerfully, “I hope.”

Helena blinked at him. “I’m going to be your boss?” she asked.

“That’s right.”

“Like an elder bosses a junior? And it’s legal?”

Ross started to repeat, “That’s right,” impatiently again. But there was
a peculiar look in Helena’s round eyes. “Helena!” he said warningly.

She was all concern. “Why, what is it, Ross?” she asked solicitously.
“You look upset. Just leave everything to me, dear.”

                  *       *       *       *       *

They got started on the way to Novj Grad—not in their ship (the woman
had said there was no spaceport in Novj Grad), and not alone, so that
Ross could not confirm his unhappy opinion of Helena’s inner thoughts.
But at least they were on their way to Novj Grad in the Azorian
equivalent of a chartered aircraft, with Helena chatting happily with
the female pilot, and Ross sitting uncomfortably on a narrow,
upholstered strip behind.

Everything he saw in Azor confirmed his first impressions. The planet
was busy and prosperous. Nobody seemed to be doing anything very
productive, he thought, but somehow everything seemed to get done.
Automatic machinery, he guessed; if women were to have any chance of
gaining the upper hand on a planet, most of the hard physical work would
have to be fairly well mechanized anyhow. And particularly on this
planet. They had been flying for six hours, at a speed he guessed to be
not much below that of sound, and fully half of the territory they
passed over was bare, black rock.

The ship began losing altitude, and the pilot, who had been curled up in
a relaxed position, totally ignoring the aircraft, glanced at her
instrument panel. “Coming in for a landing,” she warned. “Don’t distract
me right now, dear, I’ve got a thousand things to do.”

She didn’t seem to be doing any of them, Ross thought disapprovingly;
all she did was watch varicolored lights blink on and off. But no doubt
the ship landing, too, was as automatic as the piloting.

Helena turned and leaned back to Ross. “We’re coming in for a landing,”
she relayed.

Ross said sourly, “I heard.”

Helena gave him a look of reprimand and forgiveness. “I’m hungry,” she
mused.

The pilot turned from her controls. “You can get something at the
airport,” she offered eagerly. “I’ll show you.”

Helena looked at Ross. “Would you like something?”

But the pilot frowned. “I don’t believe there’s any place for men,” she
said disapprovingly. “Perhaps we can get something sent out for him if
you like. Although, really, it’s probably against the rules, you know.”

Ross started to say with great dignity, “Thank you, but that won’t be
necessary.” But he didn’t quite get it out. The ship came in for its
landing. There was an enormous jolt and a squawk of alarm bells and
flashing lights. The ship careened crazily, and stopped.

“Oh, darn,” complained the pilot mildly. “It’s always doing that. Come
on, dear, let’s get something to eat. We’ll come back for _him_ later.”

And Ross was left alone to stare apprehensively at the unceasingly
flashing lights and to listen to the strident alarms for three-quarters
of an hour.

His luck was in, though. The ship didn’t explode. And eventually a
pallid young man in a greasy apron appeared with a tray of sandwiches
and a vacuum jug.

“Up here, boy,” Ross called.

He gaped through the port. “You mean come in?”

“Sure. It’s all right.”

The young man put down the tray. Something in the way he looked at it
prompted Ross to invite him: “Have some with me? More here than I can
handle.”

“Thanks; I believe I will. I, uh, was supposed to take my break after I
brought you this stuff.” He poured steaming brew into the cup that
covered the jug, politely pushed it to Ross and swigged from the jug
himself. “You’re with the starship?” he asked, around a mouthful of
sandwich.

“Yes. I—the captain, that is—wants to contact an outfit called Cavallo
Machine-Tool. You know where they are?”

“Sure. Biggest firm on the south side. Fifteen Street; you can’t miss
them. The captain—is she the lady who was with Pilot Breuer?”

“Yes.”

The youngster’s eyes widened. “You mean you were in space—alone—with a
lady?”

Ross nodded and chewed.

“And she didn’t—uh—there wasn’t—well—any problem?”

“No,” said Ross. “You have much trouble with that kind of thing?”

The boy winced. “If I’ve asked once I’ve asked a hundred times for a
transfer. Oh, those jet pilots! I used to work in a roadside truck stop.
I know truckers are supposed to be rough and tough; maybe they are. But
you can’t tell me that deep down a trucker isn’t a lady. When you tell
them no, that’s that. But a pilot—it just eggs them on. Azor City today,
Novj Grad tomorrow—what do they care?”

Ross was fascinated and baffled. It seemed to him that they should care
and care plenty. Back where he came from, it was the woman who paid and
he couldn’t imagine any cultural setup which could alter that biological
fact. He asked cautiously: “Have you ever been—in trouble?”

The boy stiffened and looked disapproving. Then he said with a sigh: “I
might as well tell you. It’s all over the station anyway; they call me
‘Bernie the Pullover.’ Yes. Twice. Pilots both times. I can’t seem to
say no——” He took another long pull from the jug and a savage bite from
a second sandwich.

“I’m sure,” Ross said numbly, “it wasn’t your fault.”

“Try telling that to the judge,” Bernie the Pullover said bitterly. “The
pilot speaks her piece, the medic puts the blood group tests in
evidence, the doctor and crèche director depose that the child was born
and is still living. Then the judge says, without even looking up,
‘Paternity judgment to the plaintiff, defendant ordered to pay one
thousand credits annual support, let this be a warning to you, young
man, next case.’ I shouldn’t have joined you and eaten your sandwiches,
but the fact is I was hungry. I had to sell my meal voucher yesterday to
meet my payment. Miss three payments and——” He jerked his thumb
heavenward.

Ross thought and realized that the thumb must indicate the orbiting
prison hulk “Minerva.” It _was_ the man who paid here.

He demanded: “How did all this happen?”

Bernie, having admitted his hunger, had stopped stalling and seized a
third sandwich. “All what?” he asked indistinctly.

Ross thought hard and long. He realized first that he could probably
never explain what he meant to Bernie, and second that if he did they’d
probably both wind up aboard “Minerva” for conspiracy to advocate
equality. He shifted his ground. “Of course everybody agrees on the
natural superiority of women,” he said, “but people seem to differ from
planet to planet as to the reasons. What do they say here on Azor?”

“Oh—nothing special or fancy. Just the common-sense, logical thing.
They’re smaller, for one thing, and haven’t got the muscles of men, so
they’re natural supervisors. They accumulate money as a matter of course
because men die younger and women are the beneficiaries. Then, women
have a natural aptitude for all the interesting jobs. I saw a broadcast
about that just the other night. The biggest specialist on the planet in
vocational aptitude. I forget her name, but she proved it conclusively.”

He looked at the empty platter before them. “I’ve got to go now. Thanks
for everything.”

“The pleasure was mine.” Ross watched his undernourished figure head for
the station. He swore a little, and then buckled down to some hard
thinking. Helena was his key to this world. He’d have to have a long
skull-session or two with her; he couldn’t be constantly prompting her
or there would be serious trouble. She would be the front and he would
be the very inconspicuous brains of the outfit, trailing humbly behind.
But was she capable of absorbing a brand-new, rather complicated
concept? She seemed to be, he told himself uncomfortably, in love with
him. That would help considerably....

Helena and Pilot Breuer showed up, walking with a languor that suggested
a large and pleasant meal disposed of. Helena’s first words disposed
with shocking speed of Ross’s doubts that she was able to acquire a
brand-new sociological concept. They were: “Ah, there you are, my dear.
Did the boy bring you something or other to eat?”

“Yes. Thanks. Very thoughtful of you,” he said pointedly, with one eye
on Breuer’s reaction. There was none; he seemed to have struck the right
note.

“Pilot Breuer,” said Helena blandly, “thinks I’d enjoy an evening doing
the town with her and a few friends.”

“But the Cavallo people——”

“Ross,” she said gently, “don’t _nag_.”

He shut up. And thought: wait until I get her out into space. _If_ I get
her out into space. She’d be a damned fool to leave this wacked-up
culture....

Breuer was saying, with an altogether too-innocent air, “I’d better get
you two settled in a hotel for the night; then I’ll pick up Helena and a
few friends and we’ll show her what old Novj Grad has to offer in the
way of night life. Can’t have her batting around the universe saying
Azor’s sidewalks are rolled up at 2100, can we? And then she can do her
trading or whatever it is with Cavallo bright and early tomorrow, eh?”

Ross realized that he was being jollied out of an attack of the sulks.
He didn’t like it.

                  *       *       *       *       *

The hotel was small and comfortable, with a bar crowded by roistering
pilots and their dates. The glimpses Ross got of social life on Azor
added up to a damnably unfair picture. It was the man who paid. Breuer
roguishly tested the mattress in their room, nudging Helena, and then
announced, “Get settled, kids, while I visit the bar.”

When the door rolled shut behind her Ross said furiously: “Look, you!
Protective mimicry’s fine up to a point, but let’s not forget what this
mission is all about. We seem to be suckered into spending the night,
but by hell tomorrow morning bright and early we find those Cavallo
people—”

“There,” Helena said soothingly. “Don’t be angry, Ross. I promise I
won’t be out late, and she really did insist.”

“I suppose so,” he grumbled. “Just remember it’s no pleasure trip.”

“Not for you, perhaps,” she smiled sweetly.

He let it drop there, afraid to push the matter.

Breuer returned in about ten minutes with a slight glow on. “It’s all
fixed,” she told Helena. “Got a swell crowd lined up. Table at Virgin
Willie’s—oops!” She glanced at Ross. “No harm in it, of course,” she
said. “Anything you want, Ross, just dial service. It’s on my account. I
fixed it with the desk.”

“Thanks.”

They left, and Ross went grumpily to bed.

                  *       *       *       *       *

A secretive rustle in the room awoke him. “Helena?” he asked drowsily.

Pilot Breuer’s voice giggled drunkenly, “Nope. Helena’s passed out at
Virgin Willie’s, kind of the way I figured she would be on triple
antigravs. Had my eye on you since Azor City, baby. You gonna be nice to
me?”

“Get out of here!” Ross hissed furiously. “Out of here or I’ll yell like
hell.”

“So yell,” she giggled. “I got the house dick fixed. They know me here,
baby——”

He fumbled for the bedside light and snapped it on. “I’ll pitch you
right through the door,” he announced. “And if you give me any more lip
I won’t bother to open it before I do.”

She hiccupped and said, “A spirited lad. That’s the way I like ’em.”
With one hand she drew a nasty-looking little pistol. With the other she
pulled a long zipper and stepped out of her pilot’s coveralls.

Ross gulped. There were three ways to play this, the smart way, the
stupid way, and the way that all of a sudden began to look attractive.
He tried the stupid way.

He got the pistol barrel alongside his ear for his pains. “Don’t jump
me,” Pilot Breuer giggled. “The boys that’ve tried to take this gun away
from me are stretched end to end from here to Azor City. By me, baby.”

Ross blinked through a red-spotted haze. He took a deep breath and got
smart. “You’re pretty tough,” he said admiringly.

“Oh, sure.” She kicked the coveralls across the room and moved in on
him. “Baby,” she said caressingly, “if I seem to sort of forget myself
in the next couple of minutes, don’t get any ideas. I _never_ let go of
my gun. Move over.”

“Sure,” Ross said hollowly. This, he told himself disgustedly, was the
damnedest, silliest, ridiculousest....

There was a furious hiccup from the door. “So!” Helena said venomously,
pushing the door wide and almost falling to the floor. “So!”

Ross flailed out of the bed, kicking the pistol out of Pilot Breuer’s
hand in the process. He cried enthusiastically, “Helena, dear!”

“Don’t you ‘Helena-dear’ me!” she said, moving in and kicking the door
shut behind her. “I leave you alone for one little minute, and what
happens? And _you_!”

“Sorry,” Pilot Breuer muttered, climbing into her coveralls. “Wrong
room. Must’ve had one anti-grav too many.” She licked her lips
apprehensively, zipping her coveralls and sidling toward the door. With
one hand on the knob, she said diffidently, “If I could have my gun
back——? No, you’re right! I’ll get it tomorrow.” She got through the
door just ahead of a lamp.

“Hussy!” spat Helena. “And you, Ross——”

It was the last straw. As Ross lurched toward her he regretted only one
thing: that he didn’t have a hairbrush.

Pilot Breuer had been right. Nobody paid any attention to the noise.

                  *       *       *       *       *

“Yes, Ross.” Helena had hardly touched her breakfast; she sat with her
eyes downcast.

“‘Yes, Ross’,” he mimicked bitterly. “It better be ‘Yes, Ross.’ This
place may look all right to you, but it’s trouble. You don’t want to
find yourself stuck here all your life, do you? Then do what I tell
you.”

“Yes, Ross.”

He pushed the remains of his food away. “Oh, the hell with it,” he said
dispiritedly. “I wish I’d never started out on this fool’s errand. And I
double damn well wish I’d left you in the dye vats.”

“Yes, Ro——I mean, I’m glad you didn’t, Ross,” she said in a small voice.

He stood up and patted her shoulder absently. “Come on,” he said, “we’ve
got to get over to the Cavallo place. I wish you had let me talk to them
on the phone.”

She said reasonably, “But you said——”

“I know what I said. When we get there, remember that I do the talking.”

They walked through green-lit streets, filled with proud-looking women
and sad-eyed men. The Cavallo Machine-Tool Corporation was only a few
intersections away, by the map the desk clerk had drawn for Helena; they
found it without trouble. It was a smallish sort of building for a
factory, Ross thought, but perhaps that was how factories went on Azor.
Besides, it was well constructed and beautifully landscaped with the
purplish lawns these people seemed to prefer.

Helena led him through the door, as was right and proper. She said to
the busy little bald-headed man who seemed to be the receptionist,
“We’re expected. Miss Cavallo, please.”

“Certainly, Ma’am,” he said with a gap-toothed smile, and worked a
combination of rods and buttons on the desk beside him. In a moment, he
said, “Go right in. Three up and four over; can’t miss it.”

They passed through a noisy territory of machines where metal was
sliced, spun, hacked, and planed; no one seemed to be paying any
attention to them. Ross wondered who had built the machines, and had a
sudden flash of realization as to where those builders were now: On
“Minerva,” staring at the unattainable free sky.

Miss Cavallo was a motherly type with a large black cigar. “Sit right
down,” she said heartily. “You, too, young man. Tell me what we in
Cavallo Company can do for you.”

Helena opened her mouth, but Ross stopped her with a gesture. “That’s
enough,” he said quietly. “I’ll take over. Miss Cavallo,” he declaimed
from memory, “what follows is under the seal.”

“Is it indeed! What do you know,” she said.

Ross said, “Wesley.”

Miss Cavallo slapped her thigh admiringly. “Son of a gun,” she said
admiringly. “How this takes me back—those long-ago childhood days,
learning these things at my mother’s knee. Let’s see. Uh—the limiting
velocity is C.”

“But C^2 is not a velocity,” Ross finished triumphantly. And, from the
heart, “Miss Cavallo, you don’t begin to know how happy this makes me.”

Miss Cavallo reached over and pumped his hand, then Helena’s. To the
girl she said, “You’ve got a right to be a proud woman, believe me. The
way he got through it, without a single stumble! Never saw anything like
it in my life. Well, just tell me what I can do for you, now that that’s
over.”

Ross took a deep, deep breath. He said earnestly, “A great deal. I don’t
know where to begin. You see, it all goes back to Halsey’s Planet, where
I come from. This, uh, this ship came in, a longliner, and it got some
of us a little worried because, well, it seemed that some of the planets
were no longer in communication. We—uh, Miss Cavallo?” She was smiling
pleasantly enough, but Ross had the crazy feeling that he just wasn’t
getting through to her.

“Go right ahead,” she boomed. “God knows, I’ve got nothing against men
in business; that’s old-fashioned prejudice. Take your time. I won’t
bite you. Get on with your proposition, young man.”

“It isn’t exactly a proposition,” Ross said weakly. All of a sudden the
words seemed hard to find. What did you say to a potential partner in
the salvation of the human race when she just nodded and blew cigar
smoke at you?

He made an effort. “Halsey’s Planet was the seventh alternate
destination for this ship, and so we figured——That is, Miss Cavallo, it
kind of looked like there was some sort of trouble. So Mr. Haarland—he’s
the one who has the F-T-L secret on Halsey, like you do here on Azor—he
passed it on to me, of course—well, he asked me to, well, sort of take a
look around.” He stopped. The words by then were just barely audible
anyhow; and Miss Cavallo had been looking furtively at her watch.

Miss Cavallo shrugged sympathetically to Helena. “They’re all like that
under the skin, aren’t they?” she observed ambiguously. “Well, if men
could take our jobs away from us, what would we do? Stay home and mind
the kids?” She roared and poked a box of cigars at Helena.

“Now,” she said briskly, “let’s get down to cases. I really enjoyed
hearing those lines from you, young man, and I want you to know that I’m
prepared to help you in any possible way because of them. Open a line of
credit, speed up deliveries, send along some of our technical people to
help you get set up—anything. Now, what can I do for you? Turret lathes?
Grinders? Screw machines?”

“Miss Cavallo,” Ross said desperately, “don’t you know anything about
the faster-than-light secret?”

She said impatiently, “Of course I do, young man. Said the responses,
didn’t I? There’s no call for that item, though.”

“I don’t want to _buy_ one,” Ross cried. “I have one. Don’t you realize
that the human race is in danger? Populations are dying out or going out
of communication all over the galaxy. Don’t you want to do something
about it before we all go under?”

Miss Cavallo dropped all traces of a smile. Her face was like flint as
she stood up and pointed to the window. “Young man,” she said icily,
“take a look out there. That’s the Cavallo Machine-Tool Company. Does
that look as if we’re going under?”

“I know, but Clyde, Cyrnus One, Ragansworld—at least a dozen planets I
can name—are _gone_. Didn’t you ever think that you might be next?”

Miss Cavallo kept her voice level, but only with a visible effort.

She said flatly, “No. Never. Young man, I have plenty to do right here
on Azor without bothering my head about those places you’re talking
about. Seventy-five years ago there was another fellow just like you;
Flarney, some name like that; my grandmother told me about him. He came
bustling in here causing trouble, with that old silly jingle about
Wesley and C-square and so on, with some cock-and-bull story about a
planet that was starving to death, stirring up a lot of commotion. Well,
he wound up on ‘Minerva,’ because he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Watch out that you don’t do the same.”

She marched majestically to the door. “And now,” she said, “if you’ve
wasted quite enough of my time, kindly leave.”



..... 8


“STUPID old bat,” Ross muttered. They were walking aimlessly down
Fifteen Street, the nicely-landscaped machine tool works behind them.

Helena said timidly: “You really shouldn’t talk that way, Ross. She _is_
older than you, after all. Old heads are——”

“——wisest,” he wearily agreed. “Also the most conservative. Also the
most rigidly inflexible; also the most firmly closed to the reception of
new ideas. With one exception.”

She reeled under the triple blasphemy and then faintly asked: “What’s
the exception?”

Ross became aware that they were not alone. Their very manner of
walking, he a little ahead, obviously leading the way, was drawing
unfavorable attention from passers-by. Nothing organized or even
definite—just looks ranging from puzzled distaste to anger. He said,
“Somebody named Haarland. Never mind,” and in a lower voice: “Straighten
up. Step out a little ahead of me. Scowl.”

She managed it all except the scowl. The expression on her face got some
stupefied looks from other pedestrians, but nothing worse.

Helena said loudly and plaintively: “I don’t like it here after all,
Ross. Can’t we get away from all these women?”

Should the impulse seize you, placard ancient Brooklyn with twenty-four
sheets proclaiming the Dodgers to be cellar-dwelling bums. Mount a
detergent box and inform a crowd of Altairians that they are degenerate
slith-fondlers if you must. Announce in a crowded Cephean bar room that
Sadkia Revall is no better than she should be. From these situations you
have some chance of emerging intact. But never, never pronounce the word
“women” as Helena pronounced it on Fifteen Street, Novj Grad, Azor.

The mob took only seconds to form.

Ross and Helena found themselves with their backs to the glass doors of
a food store. The handful of women who had actually heard the remark
were all talking to them simultaneously, with fist-shaking. Behind them
stood as many as a dozen women who knew only that something had happened
and that there were comfortably outnumbered victims available. The noise
was deafening, and Helena began to cry. Ross first wondered if he could
bring himself to knock down a woman; then realized after studying the
hulking virago in their foreground that he might bring himself to try
but probably would not succeed.

She seemed to be accusing Helena of masquerading, of advocating
equality, of uttering obscenely antisocial statements in the public
road, to the affront of all decent-minded girls.

There was violence in the air. Ross was on the point of blocking a
roundhouse right when the glass doors opened behind them. The small
diversion distracted the imbecile collective brain of the mob.

“What’s going on here?” a suety voice demanded. “Ladies, may I please
get through?”

It was a man trying to emerge from the food shop with a double armful of
cartons. He was a great fat slob, quite hairless, and smelling
powerfully of kitchen. He wore the gravy-spotted whites of any cook
anywhere.

The virago said to him, “Keep out of this, Willie. This fellow here’s a
masquerader. The thing I heard him say——!”

“I’m not,” Helena wept. “I’m not!”

The cook stooped to look into her face and turned on the mob. “She
isn’t,” he said definitely. “She’s a lady from another system. She was
slopping up triple antigravs at my place last night with a gang of jet
pilots.”

“That doesn’t prove a thing!” the virago yelled.

“Madam,” the cook said wearily, “after her third antigrav I had to trip
her up and crown her. She was about to climb the bar and corner my
barman.”

Ross looked at her fixedly. She stopped crying and nervously cleared her
throat.

“So if you’ll just let us through,” the cook bustled, seizing the
psychological moment of doubt. His enormous belly bulldozed a lane for
them. “Beg pardon. Excuse us. Madam, will you—thank you. Beg pardon——”

The lynchers were beginning to drift away, embarrassed. The party had
collapsed. “Faster,” the cook hissed at them. “Beg pardon——” And they
were in the clear and well down the street.

“Thank you, Sir,” Helena said humbly.

“Just ‘Willie’, _if_ you please,” the fat man said.

One hand descended on Ross’s shoulder and another on Helena’s. They both
belonged to the virago. She spun them around, glaring. “_I’m_ not
satisfied with the brush-off,” she snapped. “Exactly what did you mean
by that remark you made?”

Helena wailed, “It’s just that you and all these other women here seem
so _young_.”

The virago’s granite face softened. She let go and tucked in a strand of
steel-wool hair. “Did you really think so, dear?” she asked, beaming.
“There, I’m sorry I got excited. A wee bit jealous, were you? Well,
we’re broad-minded here in Novj Grad.” She patted Helena’s arm and
walked off, smiling and jaunty.

Virgin Willie led off and they followed him. Ross’s knees were shaky.
The virago had not known that to Helena “young” meant “stupid.”

The cook absently acknowledged smiles and nods as they walked. He was,
obviously, a character. Between salutes he delivered a low-voiced,
rapid-fire reaming to Ross and Helena. “Silly stunt. Didn’t you hear
about the riots? Supposed to be arms caches somewhere here on the south
side. Everybody’s nerves absolutely ragged. Somebody gets smashed up in
traffic, they blame it on us. Don’t care _where_ you’re from. Watch it
next time.”

“We will, Willie,” Helena said contritely. “And I think you run an
awfully nice restaurant.”

“Yeah,” said Ross, looking at her.

Willie muttered, “I guess you’re clear. You still staying at that hot
pilot’s hangout? This is where we say good-by, then. You turn left.”

He waddled on down the street. Helena said instantly, “I don’t remember
a thing, Ross.”

“Okay,” he said. “You don’t remember a thing.”

She looked relieved and said brightly, “So let’s get back to the hotel.”

“Okay,” he said. Climbed the bar and tried to corner the.... Halfway to
the hotel he slowed, then stopped, and said, “I just thought of
something. Maybe we’re not staying there any more. After last night why
should Breuer carry us on her tab? I thought we’d have some money to
carry us from the Cavallos by now——”

“The ship?” she asked in a small voice.

“Across the continent. Hell! Maybe Breuer forgave and forgot. Let’s try,
anyway.”

They never got as far as the hotel. When they reached the square it
stood on, there was a breathless rush and Bernie stood before them,
panting and holding a hand over his chest. “In here,” he gasped, and
nodded at a shopfront that announced hot brew. Ross thoughtlessly
started first through the door and caught Bernie’s look of alarm. He
opened the door for Helena, who went through smiling nervously.

They settled at a small table in an empty corner in stiff silence. “I’ve
been walking around that square all morning,” Bernie said, with a cowed
look at Helena.

Ross told her: “This young man and I had a talk yesterday at the plane
while you were eating. What is it, Bernie?”

He still couldn’t believe that he was doing it, but Bernie said in a
scared whisper: “Wanted to head you off and warn you. Breuer was down at
the field cafe this morning, talking loud to the other hot-shots. She
said you—both of you—talked equality. Said she got up with a hangover
and you were gone. But she said there’d be six policewomen waiting in
your room when you got back.” He leaned forward on the table. Ross
remembered that he had been forced to sell his ration card.

“Here comes the waiter,” he said softly. “Order something for all of us.
We have a little money. And thanks, Bernie.”

Helena asked, “What do we _do_?”

“We eat,” Ross said practically. “Then we think. Shut up; let Bernie
order.”

                  *       *       *       *       *

They ate; and then they thought. Nothing much seemed to come from all
the thinking, though.

They were a long, long way from the spaceship. Ross commandeered all of
Helena’s leftover cash. It was almost, not quite, enough for one person
to get halfway back to Azor City. He and Bernie turned out their pockets
and added everything they had, including pawnable valuables. That
helped. It made the total almost enough for one person to get
three-quarters of the way back.

It didn’t help enough.

Ross said, “Bernie, what would happen if we, well, stole something?”

Bernie shrugged. “It’s against the law, of course. They probably
wouldn’t prosecute, though.”

“They wouldn’t?”

“Not if they can prove egalitarianism on you. Stealing’s against the
law; preaching equality is against the _state_. You get the maximum
penalty for that.”

Helena choked on her drink, but Ross merely nodded. “So we might as well
take a chance,” he said. “Thanks, Bernie. We won’t bother you any more.
You’ll forget you heard this, won’t you?”

“The hell I will!” Bernie squawked. “If you’re getting out of here, I
want to go with you! You aren’t leaving _me_ behind!”

“But Bernie——” Ross started. He was interrupted by the manager, a
battleship-class female with a mighty prow, who came scowling toward
them.

“Pipe down,” she ordered coarsely. “This place is for decent people; we
don’t want no disturbances here. If you can’t act decent, get out.”

“Awk,” said Helena as Ross kicked her under the table. “I mean, yes
ma’am. Sorry if we were talking too loud.” They watched the manager walk
away in silence.

As soon as she was fairly away, Ross hissed, “It’s out of the question,
Bernie. You might be jumping from the frying-pan into the fire.”

Bernie asked, startled, “The what?”

“The—never mind, it’s just an expression where I come from. It means you
might get out of this place and find yourself somewhere worse. We don’t
know where we’re going next; you might wish to God you were back here
within the next three days.”

“I’ll take that chance,” Bernie said earnestly. “Look, Ross, I played
square with you. I didn’t have to stick my neck out and warn you. How
about giving me a break too?”

Helena interrupted, “He’s right, Ross. After all, we owe him that much,
don’t we? I mean, if a person does that much for a person, a person
ought to——”

“Oh, shut up.” Ross glared at both of them. “You two seem to think this
is a game,” he said bitterly. “Let me set you straight, both of you. It
isn’t. More hangs on what happens to me than either of you realize. The
fate of the human race, for instance.”

Helena flashed a look at Bernie. “Of _course_, Ross,” she said
soothingly. “Both of us know that, don’t we, Bernie?”

Bernie stammered, “Sure—sure we do, Ross.” He rubbed his ankle. He went
on, “Honest, Ross, I want to get the hell away from Azor once and for
all. I don’t care _where_ you’re going. Anything would be better than
this place and the damned female bloodsuckers that——”

He stopped, petrified. His eyes, looking over Ross’s shoulder, were
enormous.

“Go on, sonny,” said a rich female voice from behind Ross. “Don’t let me
and the lieutenant stop you just when you’re going good.”

                  *       *       *       *       *

“It must have been that damn manager,” Bernie said for the fifteenth
time.

Ross uncrossed his legs painfully and tried lying on the floor on his
side. “What’s the difference?” he asked. “They got us; we’re in the jug.
And face it: somebody would have caught us sooner or later, and we might
have wound up in a worse jail than this one.” He shifted uncomfortably.
“If that’s possible, I mean. Why don’t they at least have beds in these
places?”

“Oh,” said Bernie immediately, “some do. The jails in Azor City and
Nuevo Reykjavik have beds; Novj Grad, Eleanor, and Milo don’t. I mean,
that’s what they tell me,” he added virtuously.

“Sure,” Ross growled. “Well, what do they tell you usually happens
next?”

Bernie spread his hands. “Different things. First there’s a hearing.
That’s all over by now. Then an indictment and trial. Maybe that’s
started already; sometimes they get it in on the same day as the
hearing, sometimes not. Then—tomorrow sometime, most likely—comes the
sentencing. We’ll know about that, though, because we’ll be there. The
law’s very strict on that—they always have you in the court for
sentencing.”

Ross cried, “You mean the trial might be going on right now without us?”

“Of course. What else? Think they’d take a chance on having the
prisoners creating a disturbance during the trial?”

Ross groaned and turned his face to the wall. For this, he thought, he
had come the better part of a hundred light years; for this he had left
a comfortable job with a brilliant future. He spent a measurable period
of time cursing the memory of old Haarland and his double-jointed,
persuasive tongue.

Back in the days of Ross’s early teens he had seen a good many
situations like this in the tri-dis, and the hero had never failed to
extricate himself by a simple exercise of superhuman strength,
intellect, and ingenuity. That, Ross told himself, was just what he
needed now. The trouble was, he didn’t have them.

All he had was the secret of faster-than-light travel. And, here on Azor
as on the planet of the graybeards, it had laid a king-sized egg. Women,
Ross thought bitterly, women were basically inward-directed and
self-seeking; trust them with the secret of F-T-L; make them, like the
Cavallos, custodians of a universe-racking truth; and see the secret
lost or embalmed in sterile custom. What, he silently demanded of
himself, did the greatest of scientific discoveries mean to a biological
baby-foundry? How could any female—no single member of which class had
ever painted a great picture, written a great book, composed a great
sonata, or discovered a great scientific truth—appreciate the ultimate
importance of the F-T-L drive? It was like entrusting a first-folio
Shakespeare to a broody hen; the shredded scraps would be made into a
nest. For the egg came first. Motherhood was all.

That explained it, of course. That, Ross told himself moodily, explained
everything except why the F-T-L secret had fallen into apparently equal
or worse desuetude on such planets as Gemsel, Clyde, Cyrnus One,
Ragansworld, Tau Ceti II, Capella’s family of eight, and perhaps a
hundred others.

Ragansworld was gone entirely, drowned in a planetary nebula.

The planet of the graybeard had gone to seed; nothing new, nothing not
hallowed by tradition had a chance in its decrepit social order.

His home, Halsey’s Planet, was rapidly, calmly, inevitably depopulating
itself.

And Azor had fallen into a rigid, self-centered matriarchal order that
only an act of God could break.

Was there a pattern? Were there any similarities?

Ross searched desperately in his mind; but without result. The image of
Helena kept intruding itself between him and his thoughts. Was he
getting sentimental about that sweet little chucklehead? Who, he hastily
added, had come near to criminally assaulting him, who had climbed
the....

He turned to the little waiter and demanded: “Will she—Helena—be on the
orbital station with us if we’re all convicted?”

“Hmm—no, I should think not. As a responsible person, she gets the
supreme penalty.”

Ross numbly asked after a long pause, “How? Nothing—painful?” It was
hard to think of Helena dangling grotesquely at a rope’s end or jolting
as she sat strapped in a large, ugly chair. But there were things he had
heard of which were horribly worse.

Bernie had been watching him. “I’m sorry,” the little man said soberly.
“It’s up to the judge. She’s a foreigner, so they may consider that an
extenuating circumstance and place some quick-acting poison aboard for
her to take. Otherwise it’s slow starvation.”

A faint, irrational hope had begun to dawn in Ross’s mind. “Aboard what?
Exactly how does it work?”

“They’ll put her aboard some hulk with the rockets disabled, fire it off
into space—and that’s that. I suppose they’ll use the ship she came
in——”

Ross was frantically searching his pockets. He had a stylus. “Got any
paper?” he briskly demanded of Bernie.

“Yes, but——?” The waiter blankly passed over an order book. Ross
sprawled on the floor and began to scribble: “Never mind how or why this
works. Do it. You saw me work the big fan-shaped computer in the center
room and you can do it too. Find the master star maps in the chart room.
Look up the co-ordinates of Halsey’s System. Set these co-ordinates on
the twenty-seven dials marked Proximate Mass. Take the readings on the
windows above the dials and set them on the cursors of the computer——”
He scribbled furiously, from time to time forcing himself deliberately
to slow down as the writing became an unreadable scrawl. He filled the
ruled fronts of the order pages and then the backs—perhaps ten thousand
closely-written words, and not one of them wasted. Haarland’s precise
instructions, mercilessly drilled into him, flowed out again.

He flung the stylus down at last and read through the book again,
ignoring the gaping Bernie. It was all there, as far as he could tell.
Grant her a lot of luck and more brains than he privately credited her
with, and she had a fighting chance of winding up within radar range of
Halsey’s Planet. GCA could take her down from there; an annoying
ship-like object hanging on the radarscopes would provoke a
reconnaissance.

She knew absolutely nothing about F-T-L or the Wesley drive, but
then—neither did he. That fact itself was no handicap.

He might rot on “Minerva,” but some word might get back to Haarland. And
so would the ship. And Helena would not perish miserably in a drifting
hulk.

Bernie saw the mysterious job was ended and dared to ask, “A letter?”

“No,” Ross said jubilantly. “By God, if things break right they won’t
get her. It’s like this——”

He happily began to explain that his F-T-L ship’s rockets were only
auxiliaries for fine maneuvering, but he counted on the court not
knowing that. If he and Helena could persuade....

As he went on the look on Bernie’s face changed very slowly from hope to
pity to politely-simulated interest. Correspondingly Ross’s accounting
became labored and faulty. The pauses became longer and at last he broke
off, filled with self-contempt at his folly. He said bitterly, “You
don’t think it’ll work.”

“Oh, no!” Bernie protested with too much heartiness. “I could see she’s
awfully mechanically-minded for a woman, even if it wouldn’t be polite
to say so. Sure it’ll work, Ross. Sure!”

The hell it would.

At least he had disposed of a few hours. And—perhaps some bungling
setting would explode the ship, or end a Wesley Jump in the heart of a
white dwarf star—sudden annihilation, whiffing Helena out of existence
before her body could realize that it had died, before the beginning of
apprehension could darken happy absorption with a task she thought would
bring her to safety.

For that reason alone he had to carry the scheme through.

                  *       *       *       *       *

The courtroom was a chintzy place bright with spring flowers. Ross and
Helena looked numbly at one another from opposite corners while the
previous order of business was cleared from the docket. A wedding.

The judge, unexpectedly sweet-faced and slender though gray, obviously
took such parts of her work seriously. “Marylyn and Kent,” she was
saying earnestly to the happy couple, “I suppose you know my reputation.
I lecture people a bit before I tie the knot. Evidently it’s not such a
bad idea because my marriages turn out well. Last week in Eleanor one of
my girls was arrested and reprimanded for gross infidelity and a couple
of years ago right here in Novj Grad one of my boys got five hundred
lashes for nonsupport. Let’s hope it did them some good, but the cases
were unusual. My people, I like to think, know their rights and
responsibilities when they walk out of my court, and I think the record
bears me out.

“Marylyn, you have chosen to share part of your life with this man. You
intend to bear his children. This should not be because your animal
appetites have overcome you and you can’t win his consent in any other
way but because you know, down deep in your womanly heart, that you can
make him happy. Never forget this. If you should thoughtlessly conceive
by some other man, don’t tell him. He would only brood. Be thrifty,
Marylyn. I have seen more marriages broken up by finances than any other
reason. If your husband earns a hundred Eleanors a week, spend only that
and no more. If he makes _fifty_ Eleanors a week spend only that and no
more. Honorable poverty is preferable to debt. And, from a practical
standpoint, if you spend more than your husband earns he will be jailed
for debt sooner or later, with resulting loss to your own pocket.

“Kent, you have accepted the proposal of this woman. I see by your
dossier that you got in just under the wire. In your income group the
antibachelor laws would have caught up with you in one more week. I must
say I don’t like the look of it, but I’ll give you the benefit of the
doubt. I want to talk to you about the meaning of marriage. Not just the
wage assignment, not just the insurance policy, not just the waiver of
paternity and copulation ‘rights’, so-called. Those, as a good citizen,
you will abide by automatically—Heaven help you if you don’t. But there
is more to marriage than that. The honor you have been done by this
woman who sees you as desirable and who wishes to make you happy over
the years is not a sterile legalism. Marriage is like a rocket, I
sometimes think. The brute, unreasoning strength of the main jets
representing the husband’s share and the delicate precise steering and
stabilizing jets the wife’s. We have all of us seen too many marriages
crash to the ground like a rocket when these roles were reversed. It is
not reasonable to expect the wife to provide the drive—that is, the
income. It is not reasonable to expect the husband to provide the
steering—that is, the direction of the personal and household
expenditures. So much for the material side of things. On the spiritual
side, I have little to say. The laws are most explicit; see that you
obey them—and if you don’t, you had better pray that you wind up in some
court other than mine. I have no patience with the obsolete doctrine
that there is such a legal entity as seduction by female, despite the
mouthings of certain so-called jurists who disgrace the bench of a
certain nearby city.

“Having heard these things, Marylyn and Kent, step forward and join
hands.”

They did. The ceremony was short and simple; the couple then walked from
the courtroom under the beaming smile of the judge.

A burly guard next to Ross pointed at the groom. “Look,” she said
sentimentally. “He’s crying. Cute!”

“I don’t blame the poor sucker,” Ross flared, and then, being a man of
conscience, wondered suddenly if that was why, on Halsey’s Planet, women
cried at weddings.

A clerk called: “Dear, let’s have those egalitarians front and center,
please. Her honor’s terribly rushed.”

Helena was escorted forward from one side, while Ross and Bernie were
jostled to the fore from the other. The judge turned from the happy
couple. As she looked down at the three of them the smile that curved
her lips turned into something quite different. Ross, quailing, suddenly
realized that he had seen just that expression once before. It was when
he was very, very young, when a friend of his mother’s had come bustling
into the kitchen where he was playing, just after she had smelled, and
just before she had seen, the long-dead rat he had fetched up from the
abandoned cellar across the street.

While the clerk was reading the orders and indictment, the judge’s stare
never wavered. And when the clerk had finished, the judge’s silent stare
remained, for a long, terrible time.

In the quietest of voices, the judge said, “So.”

Ross caught a flicker of motion out of the corner of his eye. He turned
just in time to see Bernie, knees buckling, slip white-faced and
unconscious to the floor. The guards rushed forward, but the judge
raised a peremptory hand. “Leave him alone,” she ordered soberly. “It is
kinder. Defendants, you are charged with the gravest of crimes. Have you
anything to say before sentence is passed on you?”

Ross tried to force words—any words, to protest, to plead, to
vilify—through his clogged throat. All he managed was a croaking sound;
and Helena, by his side, nudged him sharply to silence. He turned to her
sharply, and realized that this was the best chance he’d be likely to
get. He clutched at her, rolled up his eyes, slumped to the floor in as
close an imitation of Bernie’s swoon as he could manage.

The judge was visibly annoyed, and this time she didn’t stop the
attendants when they rushed in to kick him erect. But he had the
consolation of seeing a flash of understanding cross Helena’s face, and
her hand dart to a pocket with the paper he had handed her. In the
confusion no one saw.

The rest of the courtroom scene was kaleidoscopic in Ross’s
recollection. The only part he remembered clearly was the judge’s voice
as she said to him and Bernie, “——for the rest of your lives, as long as
Almighty God shall, in Her infinite wisdom, permit you the breath of
life, be banished from Azor and all of its allied worlds to the prison
hulk in ‘Orbit Minerva.’”

And they were hustled out as the judge, even more wrathful than before,
turned to pronounce sentence on Helena.



..... 9


THE guard spat disgustedly. “Fine lot of wrecks we’re getting,” she
complained. “Not like the old days. They used to send real men here.”
She glowered at Ross and Bernie, holding their commitment papers loosely
in her hand. “And for treason, too!” she added. “Used to be it took guts
to commit a crime against the state.” She shook her head, then made a
noise of distaste and scribbled initials on the commitment papers. She
handed them back to the pilot who had brought them up from Azor, who
grinned, waved, and got out of there. “All right,” said the guard, “we
have to take what we get. I’ll have to put you two on construction;
you’ll never stand up under hard work. Keep your noses clean, that’s
all. Up at 0500; breakfast till 0510; work detail till 1950; dinner and
recreation till 2005; then lights out. Miss a formation and you miss a
meal. Miss two, and you get punishment detail. Nobody misses three.”

Ross and Bernie found themselves sharing a communal cell. They had all
of five minutes to look around and get oriented; then they were out on
their first work detail.

It wasn’t so bad as it sounded. Their shiftmates were a couple of dozen
ragged-looking wrecks, half-heartedly assembling a sort of meccano-toy
wall out of sheets of perforated steel and clip-spring bolts. All the
parts seemed well worn; some of the bolts hardly closed. It took Ross
the better part of his first detail, whispering when the guards were
looking the other way, to find out why. Their half of the prisoners were
Construction; the other half was Demolition. What Construction in the
morning put up, Demolition in the evening tore down. Neither side was
anxious to set any speed records, and the guards without exception were
too bored to care.

With any kind of luck, Ross found, he could hope eventually to get a
real job—manning the “Minerva’s” radar, signal, or generating
facilities, working in the kitchens or service shops, perhaps even as an
orderly in the guard quarters. (Although Ross quite by accident chanced
to see a guard’s orderly as he passed through a corridor near the work
area, a handkerchief held daintily to his nose. And though the orderly’s
clothing was neat and his plump cheeks indicated good eating, the
haunted expression in his eyes made Ross think twice.)

The one thing he could not do, according to the testimony of every man
he spoke to, was escape.

The fifth time Ross got that answer, the guard had stepped out of the
room. Ross took the opportunity to thrash the thing through. “Why?” he
demanded. “Back where I come from we’ve got lots of prisons. I never
heard of one nobody escaped from.”

The other prisoner laughed shortly. “Now you have,” he said. “Go ahead,
try. Every one of us has tried, one time or another. There’s only one
thing stopping you—there’s no place to go. You can get past the guards
easy enough—they’re lazy, when they’re not either drunk or boy-chasing.
You can roam around ‘Minerva’ all you like. You can even get to the
spacelock, and if you want to you can walk right through it. But not in
a spacesuit, because there aren’t any on board. And not into the tender
that brings us up from Azor, because you aren’t built right.”

Ross looked puzzled. “Not built right?”

“That’s right. There’s telescreens and remote-control locks built into
that tender. The pilot brings you up, but once she couples with
‘Minerva’ the controls lock. And the only way they get unlocked is when
three women, in three different substations down on Azor, push the RC
releases. And they don’t do that until they look in their screens, and
see that everybody who has turned up in the tender has stripped down to
nothing at all, and every one of them is by-God female. Any further
questions?” He grinned wryly. “Don’t even think about plastic surgery,
if that happens to cross your mind,” he said. “We have two men here who
tried it. You don’t have much equipment here; you can’t do a neat enough
job.”

Ross gulped. “Hadn’t given it a thought,” he assured the other man. “You
can’t even hide away in a trunk or something?”

The prisoner shook his head. “Aren’t any trunks. Everything’s one
way—Azor to ‘Minerva’—except pilots and guards. No men ever go back.
When you die, you go out the lock—without a ship. Same with everything
else that they want to get rid of.”

Ross thought hard. “What if they—well, what if you’re sent up here and
all, and then some new evidence turns up and you’re found innocent?
Don’t they send you back then?”

“Found innocent?” The man looked at Ross pityingly. “Man, you _are_ new.
Hey,” he called. “Hey, Chuck! This guy wants to know what happens if
they find out back on Azor that he’s innocent!”

Chuck exploded into laughter. Wiping his eyes, he walked over to Ross.
“Thanks,” he grinned. “Haven’t had a good laugh in fifteen years.”

“I don’t see that that’s so funny,” Ross said defensively. “After all,
the judge can make a mistake, none of us is per—awk!”

“Shut up!” Chuck hissed, holding a hand over Ross’s mouth. “Do you want
to get us all in _real_ trouble? Some of these guys would rat to the
guards for an extra hunk of bread! The judges never make a mistake.” And
his lips formed the silent word: “Officially.”

He let go of Ross and stood back, but didn’t walk away. He scratched his
head. “Say,” he said, “you ask some stupid questions. Where are you
from, anyhow?”

Ross said bitterly, “What’s the use? You won’t believe me. I happen to
be from a place called Halsey’s Planet, which is a good long distance
from here. About as far as light will travel in two hundred years, if
that gives you an idea. I came here in an F-T-L—that is, a
faster-than-light ship. You don’t know what that is, of course, but I
did. It was a mistake, I admit it. But here I am.”

Somewhat to Ross’s surprise, Chuck didn’t laugh again. He looked
dubious, and he scratched his head some more, but he didn’t laugh. To
the other prisoner he said, “What do you think, Sam?”

Sam shrugged. “So maybe we were wrong,” he observed.

Ross demanded, “Wrong about what?”

“Well,” Chuck said hesitantly, “there’s a guy here named Flarney. He’s a
pretty old son-of-a-gun by now, must be at least ninety, and he’s been
here a good long time. Dunno how long. But he talks crazy, just like
you. No offense,” he added, “it’s just that we all thought he’d gone
space-happy. But maybe we’re wrong. Unless——” his eyes narrowed “unless
the two of you are both space-happy, or trying to kid us, or something.”

Ross said urgently, “I swear, Chuck, there’s no such thing. It’s true.
Who’s this Flarney? Where does he say he came from?”

“Who can make sense out of what he says? All I know is, he talked a lot
about something faster than light. That’s crazy; that’s like saying
slower than dark, or bigger than green, or something. But I don’t know,
maybe it means something.”

“Believe me, Chuck, it does! Where is this man—can I see him?”

Chuck looked uncertain. “Well, sure. That is, you can see him all right.
But it isn’t going to do you a whole hell of a lot of good, because he’s
dead. Died yesterday; they’re going to pitch him out into space sometime
today.”

Sam said, “This is when Whitker flips. One week without his old pal
Flarney and he’ll begin to look funny. Two weeks and he starts acting
funny. Three and he’s talking funny and the guards begin to crack down.
I give him a month to get shot down and heaved through the locker.”

Old pal? Ross demanded, “Who’s this Whitker? Where can I get in touch
with him?”

“Him and Flarney were both latrine orderlies. That’s where they put the
feeble old men, mopping and polishing. Number Two head, any hour of the
day or night. Old buzzard has his racket—we’re supposed to get a hank of
cellosponge per man per day, but he’s always ‘fresh out’—unless you slip
him your saccharine ration every once in a while.”

Ross asked the way to Number Two head and the routine. But it was an
hour before he could bring himself to ask the hulking guard for
permission.

“Sure, sonny,” she boomed. “I’ll show you the way. Need any help?”

“No, thanks, ma’am,” he said hastily, and she roared with laughter. So
did the members of the construction gang; it must have been an ancient
gag. He hurried on his way thinking dark and bloody thoughts.

“Whitker?” he asked a tottering ancient who nodded and drowsed amid the
facilities of the head.

The old man looked up blearily and squeaked: “Fresh out. Fresh out. You
should’ve saved some from yesterday.”

“That’s all right. I’m a new man here. I want to ask you about your
friend Flarney——”

Whitker bowed his head and began to cry noiselessly.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Whitker. I heard. But there’s something we can do about
it—maybe. Flarney was a faster-than-light man. He must have told you
that. So am I. Ross, from Halsey’s Planet.”

He hadn’t the faintest idea as to whether any of this was getting
through to the ancient.

“It seems Flarney and I were both on the same mission, finding out how
and why planets were dropping out of communication. You and he used to
talk a lot, they tell me. Did he ever tell you anything about that?”

Whitker looked up and squeaked dimly. “Oh, yes. All the time. I humored
him. He was an old man, you know. And now he’s dead.” The tears leaked
from his rheumy eyes and traced the sad furrows beside his nose.

Was he getting through? “What did he _say_, Mr. Whitker? About
faster-than-light?”

The old man said, “L-sub-T equals L-sub-zero e to the minus
T-over-two-N.”

That damned formula again! “But what does it mean, Mr. Whitker? What did
he say it meant?” Ross softly urged.

The old man looked surprised. “Genes?” he asked himself hazily.
“Generations? I don’t remember. But you go to Earth, young man. Flarney
said _they’d_ know, and know what to do about it, too, which is more
than he did. His very words, young man!”

Ross didn’t dare stay longer. Furthermore he suspected that the old
man’s attention span had been exhausted. He started from the room with a
muttered thanks, and was stopped at the door by Whitker’s hand on his
shoulder.

“You’re a good boy,” Whitker squeaked. “Here.”

Ross found himself walking down the corridor with an enormous wad of
cellosponge in his hand.

The bunks were hard, but that didn’t matter. Dormitories were the
outermost layer of the hulk, pseudogravity varies inversely as the
fourth power of the distance, and the field generator was conventionally
located near “Minerva’s” center. When your relative weight is
one-quarter normal you can sleep deliciously on a gravel driveway. This
was the dormitory’s only attractive feature. Otherwise it was too many
steel slabs, tiered and spotted too close, too many unwashed males, too
much weary snoring. The only things in short supply were headroom and
air.

Not everybody slept. Insomniacs turned and grunted; those who had given
up the struggle talked from bunk to bunk in considerately low tones.

Bernie muttered from a third-tier bunk facing Ross’s: “I wonder if she
made it.”

Ross knew what he meant. “Unlikeliest thing in the world,” he said. “But
I think she went fast and never knew what hit her.” He thought of the
formula and “They’d know on Earth—and know what to do about it too.”
Earth the enigma, from which all planetary peoples were supposed to be
derived. Earth—the dot on the traditional master charts, Earth—from
which and to which no longliners ever seemed to travel. Haarland had
told him no F-T-L ship had in recent centuries ever reported again after
setting out for Earth. Another world sunk in barbarism? But Flarney had
said—no; that was not data. That was the confused recollections of a
very old man, possibly based on the confused recollections of another
very old man. Perhaps it had got mixed up with the semilegendary origin
story.

Poor sweet Helena! He hoped it had happened fast, that she had been
thinking of some pleasant prospect on Halsey’s Planet. In her naïve way
she’d think it just around the corner, a mere matter of following
instructions....

                  *       *       *       *       *

So thought Ross, the pessimist.

In his gloom he had forgotten that this was exactly what it was. In his
snobbishness he never realized that he was guilty of the most frightful
arrogance in assuming that what he could do, she could not. In his
ignorance he was not aware that since navigation began, every new
instrument, every technique, has drawn the shuddery warnings of savants
that uneducated skippers, working by rote, could not be expected to
master these latest fruits of science—or that uneducated skippers since
navigation began have cheerfully adopted new instruments and techniques
at the drop of a hat and that never once have the shuddery warnings been
justified by the facts.

Up the aisle somebody was saying in a low, argumentative tone, “I saw
the drum myself. Naturally it was marked Dulsheen Creme, but the guards
here never did give a damn whether their noses were dull or bright
enough to flag down a freighter and I don’t think they’ve suddenly
changed. It was booze, I tell you. Fifty liters of it.”

“Gawd! The hangovers tomorrow.”

“We’ll all have to watch our steps. I hope they don’t do anything worse
than getting quietly drunk in their quarters. Those foot-kissing
orderlies’ll get a workout, but who cares what happens to an orderly?”

“They haven’t been on a real tear since I’ve been here.”

“Lucky you. Let’s hope they don’t bust loose tonight. It’s a break in
the monotony, sure—but those girls play rough. Five prisoners died last
time.”

“They beat them up?”

“One of them.”

“What about the others? Oh! Oh, Gawd—fifty liters, you said?”

Bernie began to whimper: “Not again! Not those plug-uglies! I swear I’ll
throw myself through the spacelock if they make a pass at me. Ross,
isn’t there anything we can do?”

“Seems not, Bernie. Maybe they won’t come in. Or if they do, maybe
they’ll pass you by. There certainly isn’t any place to hide.”

A raucous female voice roared through the annunciator: “Bed check five
minutes, boys. Anybody got any li’l thing to do down the hall, better do
it now. See you lay-terrr!” Hiccup and drunken giggle.

For the first time in his life Ross suddenly and spontaneously acted
like a tri-di hero, with the exception that he felt like a silly ass
through it all.

“Got an idea,” he muttered. “Get out of your bunk.” He pulled the wad of
cellosponge, old Whitker’s present, from his pocket and yanked it in
half, one for him and one for Bernie.

The Pullover said faintly: “Thanks, but I don’t have to——”

Ross didn’t bother to answer. He was carefully fluffing the stuff out to
its maximum dimensions. He unzipped his coveralls and began wadding them
with cellosponge.

“I get it,” Bernard said softly. He stepped out of his one-piece garment
and followed suit. In less than a minute they had creditable dummies
lying on their bunks.

The others watched their activity with emotions ranging between awe and
envy. One giant of a man proclaimed grimly to whoever cared to listen:
“These are a couple of smart guys. I wish them luck. And I want you guys
to know that I will personally break the back of any sneaking rat who
tips off a guard about this.”

“Sure, Ox. Sure,” came a muted chorus.

Arranged in a fetal sleeping position, face down, the dummies astonished
even their creators. It would take a lucky look in a fair light to note
that the heads were earless, fibrous globes.

“They’ll do,” Ross snapped. “Come on, Bernie.”

They walked quietly from the dormitory in their singlet underwear toward
the dormitory latrine—and past it. Into the corridor. Through a doorless
opening into a storeroom piled with crates of rations. “This’ll do,”
Ross said quietly. They ducked into a small cavern formed by sloppy
issuing of stock and hunched down.

“The dummies will fool the bed check. It’s only a sweep with a
hundred-line TV system. If the guards do raid the dormitory tonight
we’ll have to count on them ignoring the dummies or thinking they’re a
joke or being too busy with other things to care. They’ll be drunk,
after all. Then in the morning things’ll be plenty disorganized. We’ll
be able to sneak back into formation—and that’ll be that for a matter of
years. They can’t often bribe the pilots with enough to guarantee a real
ripsnorting drunk. Now try and get some sleep. There’s nothing more we
can do.”

They actually did doze off for a couple of hours, and then were awakened
by drunken war whoops.

“It’s them!” Bernie wailed.

“Shut up. They’re heading for the dormitory. We’re safe.”

“Safe!” Bernie echoed derisively. “Safe until when?”

Ross threatened him with the side of his hand and Bernie was quiet,
though his lips were mumbling soundlessly. The guards lurched giggling
past and Ross said:

“We’ll sneak into the lockroom. There won’t be anybody there tonight; at
least we’ll get a night’s sleep.”

“Big deal,” grumbled Bernie, but he followed, complaining inarticulately
to himself. Ross thought tiredly: All this work for a night’s sleep! And
saw, half-formed, the dreadful procession of days and nights and years
ahead....

They reached the lockroom and stumbled in breathlessly.

“Dearie!” Two guards, playing a card game on the floor with a ring of
empty bottles around them, looked up in drunken delight. “Dearie!”
repeated the bigger of the two. “Angela, _look_ what _we’ve_ got!”

Ross said stupidly. “But you shouldn’t be here——”

The guard made a clumsy pass at fluffing up her back hair and giggled.
“Duty comes first, dearie. Angela, just lock that door, will you?” The
other guard scrambled unevenly to her feet and weaved over to the door.
It was locked before Ross or Bernie could move.

The big guard stood up too, leering at Bernie. “Wow!” she said. “New
merchandise. Just be patient, dearie. We’ve got a little something to
attend to in a couple of minutes, but we’ll have _lots_ of time after
that.”

Then things began to happen rapidly. There was Angela the guard,
inarticulate, falling-down drunk; she waved bonelessly at a brightly
flickering light on the far side of the lockroom. There was the other
guard, reaching out for Bernie with one hand, pawing at a bottle with
the other. There was Ross, a paralyzed spectator.

And there was Bernie.

Bernie’s eyes bulged wide as the guard came toward him. He babbled
hysterically, “No! Nonononono! I said I’d kill myself and I——”

He stiff-armed the big guard and leaped for the lock door. Ross suddenly
came to life. “Bernie!” he bellowed. “Hold it! Don’t jump!”

But it was too late. The one guard sprawling, the other staggering
helplessly across the floor, Bernie was clear. He scrabbled at the
lockwheels, spun them open. Ross tensed himself for the sudden, awful
rush of expanding air; he leaped after Bernie just as Bernie flung the
lock door open and jumped.

Ross jumped after.

There was no rush of air. They were not in space. Around them was no
ripping, sucking void, no flaming backdrop of stars; around them were
six walls and a Wesley board, and Helena peering at them wide-eyed and
delighted.

“Well!” she said. “_That_ was fast!”

                  *       *       *       *       *

Ross said, “But——”

Helena, hanging from the acceleration loops, smiled maternally. “Oh, it
was nothing,” she said. “Ross don’t you think we’re far enough away
yet?”

Ross said hopelessly, “All right,” and cut the drive. The starship hung
in space in the limbo between stars. Azor, “Minerva,” and the rest were
light-years behind, far out of range of challenge.

Helena wriggled free from the loops and rubbed her arms where the
retaining straps had gripped them. “After all,” she said demurely, “you
_told_ me how to run the ship, and _really_, Ross, I’m not quite
_stupid_.”

Ross said, “But——”

“But what, Ross? It isn’t as if I were some sort of brainless little
thing that had never run a machine in her life. My goodness, Ross——” She
wrinkled her nose. “_You_ should remember. All those days in the dye
vats? Don’t you think I had to learn a little something about machines
_there_?”

Ross swore incredulously. To compare those clumsy constructs of wheels
and rollers with the subtle subelectronic flows of the Wesley force—and
to make it work! He said, unbelievingly, “And the ‘Minerva’ helped you
vector in? They gave you the co-ordinates and radared your course?”

“Certainly.” Helena turned to Bernie, who was staring dazedly around
him. “Are you all right, dear?” she asked.

Ross turned his back on them and faced the Wesley Christmas tree of
controls. Don’t question it, he told himself; take a miracle for what it
is. God wanted you out of “Minerva”—and God moves in most mysterious
ways His wonders to perform.

Anyway, they had to get going. When the court had exiled Helena in the
starship they had gone through the customary rituals; not only was
everything that looked like a weapon gone, along with all but a teacup
of fuel for the auxiliary jets, but the food locker was stripped
entirely. He put everything else out of his mind and began to calculate
a setting.

Bernie said over his shoulder, “Home, huh? That place you call Halsey’s
Planet?”

Ross shook his head. “Not this time. I got this far and I’m still alive;
maybe I can finish the job. Anyway, I’ll try. The first solid suggestion
I’ve had ever since I took off was what that half-witted old moron——” He
ignored a little gasp from Helena. “——said back on ‘Minerva.’ If Flarney
had lived, he would have gone there; we’ll go there now.” He finished
manipulating the calculator and began to set it up on the board. He
said, “The name of the place is—Earth.”



..... 10


IT took Ross a while to learn a lesson, but when he learned it, it
stuck. This time, he promised himself, _no spaceport_.

They sneaked into the solar system that held fabulous old Earth from far
outside the ecliptic, where the chance of radar detection was least;
they came to a relative dead halt millions of miles from the planet and
cautiously scanned the surrounding volume of space with their own radar.

No ships seemed to be in space. Earth’s solar system turned out to be a
trivial affair, only five planets, scarcely a half-dozen moons among
them. None of the planets except Earth itself was anything like
inhabitable.

“Hold tight,” said Ross grimly, “I’m not so good at this fine
navigation.” He cautiously applied power along a single vector; the
starship leaped and bucked. He corrected with another; and the distant
sun swelled in their view plates with frightening rapidity. The alarm
beeps bleated furiously, and the automatic cutoff restored all controls
to neutral.

Ross, sweating, picked himself up from the floor and staggered back to
the panel. Helena said carefully, “You’re doing _fine_, Ross, but if
you’d like _me_ to take over for a minute——”

Ross swallowed his pride and stood back. After one wide-eyed stare of
shock—she wasn’t even calculating!—he gripped the loops and closed his
eyes and waited for death.

There was a punishing bump and his eyes flew open. Helena was looking at
him apologetically. “You would have done it better,” she lied, “but
anyway we’re down.”

Ross lied, “Of course, but I’m glad you had the practice. Where—uh,
where are we?”

Helena silently showed him the radar plot. Earth, it seemed, had a
confusing multiplicity of continents; they were on one in the northern
hemisphere, a large one as Earth’s continents went, and smack in the
middle of it. It was night on their side of Earth just then; and, by the
plot, a largish city was only a dozen or so miles away.

“Okay,” said Ross wearily, “landing party away. Helena, you stay here
while Bernie and I——”

Helena said simply, “No.”

Ross stared at her a minute, then shrugged. “All right. Then Bernie will
stay while——”

“I will not!” said Bernie.

Clearly it was time for a showdown. Ross roared: “Who’s the captain
here, anyway?”

“You are,” Helena said promptly. “As long as I don’t have to stay here
alone.”

“Yeah,” said Bernie.

Ross said, “Oh.” He thought for a while and then said, “Well, let’s all
go.” They thought it was a wonderful idea.

Earth wasn’t a very unusual planet—lots of green sand and purple
vegetation. Either the master star chart was wrong or the gravity meter
was off; the former, strangely enough, gave Earth’s gravity as 1.000000
and the latter as 0.8952, a whopping ten per cent discrepancy. Further,
the principal inert gas in Earth’s atmosphere was, according to the
master chart’s planetary supplement, nitrogen; and according to the
ship’s instruments was indubitably neon. A terrific aurora polaris
display constantly flickering in the northern sky bore that out.

But the gap between the chart and the facts didn’t particularly worry
Ross as they swung along overland. So the chart was off, or perhaps
things had changed. This was—according to Flarney via Whitker—the place
where people knew about the formula, where his questions would be
answered. After this, he thought happily, it’s off to Halsey’s Planet
and an unspecified glorious future, revered as the savior of humanity
instead of a lousy Yards clerk pushing invoices around. And Helena, he
thought sentimentally....

He turned to smile at her and found she and Bernie were giggling.

“Listen, you two!” Captain Ross roared. “Haven’t you learned anything
yet? What’s the good of us exploring if we stroll along with our silly
heads in the clouds, not paying attention? Do you realize that this
place may be as dangerous as Azor or worse?”

“Ross——” Helena said.

“Don’t interrupt! What this outfit needs is some discipline—tightening
up. You two have got to accept your responsibilities. Keep alert! Be on
the lookout! Any single thing out of the ordinary may be a deathtrap.
Watch for——”

Helena was looking not at Ross but over his shoulder. Bernie was making
strangled noises and pointing.

Ross turned. Behind him stood a mechanical monstrosity vaguely
recognizable as a heavily-armed truck, its motor faintly humming. A man
leaned darkly from the cab and transfixed them to the ground with a
powerful spotlight. From the dazzling circle of light his voice came,
hasty and furtive. “Thought it was two women and a man, but I guess
you’re the ones. Ugh, those faces on you! Yes, you’re the ones. Get in.
Fast.”

The light blinked out. When their eyes adjusted to the dimmer
illumination of the stars and the aurora display they saw a side door in
the body of the truck standing open. Too, one of the long, slim gun
barrels with which the truck seemed copiously supplied swiveled to cover
them.

Ross stupidly read aloud a sign on the truck: “Jones Floor-Cover
Company. Finest Tile on Jones. Wall-to-Wall a Specialty. ‘Rugs Fit For a
Jones’.”

“Yeah,” the man said. “Yeah, yeah. Just don’t try to buy any. Get in,
for Jones’ sake! If I’d of known you were half-wits I wouldn’t of taken
this job for a million Joneses, cash. Get in!” His voice was hysterical
and the gun covering them moved ominously. “If this is a frame——” he
began to shrill.

“Get in,” Ross said shakily to the others. They climbed in and the door
slammed violently and automatically. Helena began to cry in a
preoccupied sort of way and Bernie began a long, mumbling inventory of
his own mental weaknesses for ever getting involved in this
crackbrained, imbecilic, feeble-minded....

There were windows in the truck body and Ross turned from one to
another. He saw the guns on the cab telescope into stubs, the stubs fold
into the mounts, the mounts smoothly descend flush with the sheet metal.
He saw the cursing driver manipulate a dozen levers as the car began to
glide across the green sand, purple-dotted with vegetation. Finally,
through the rear window, he saw three figures racing across the sand
waving their arms, rapidly being left behind. All he could make out was
that they seemed to be two women and a man.

Helena was wailing softly, “——and I am _not_ ugly and just because we’re
young and we’re strangers isn’t any reason to go around insulting
people——”

From Bernie: “——fatheaded, goggly-eyed, no-browed, slobber-lipped,
dim-witted——”

“Shut up,” Ross said softly. “Before I bang both your heads together.”

They stared.

“Thank you. We’ve got to think. What’s this spot we’re in? What can we
do about it? I don’t have any F-T-L contact name for Earth and obviously
this fellow picked us up by mistake. I saw two women and a man—remember
what he said?—just now trying to catch up with us. He seems to be some
kind of criminal. Otherwise why a disguised gun-carrier? Why floor
coverings ‘but don’t try to buy any’? And Jones seems to be the name of
the local political subdivision, the name of the local deity and the
currency. That’s important. It points to a rigid one-man
dictatorship—Jones, of course, or possibly his dynasty. What course of
action should we take? Kick it around. Helena, what do you think?”

“He shouldn’t have said we were ugly,” she pouted. “Isn’t _that_
important?”

“Women!” Ross said grimly. “If you’ll kindly forget the trivial affront
to your vanity perhaps we can figure something out.”

Helena said stubbornly: “But he _shouldn’t_. We’re not. What if they
just _think_ we are because they all look alike and we don’t look like
them?”

Ross collapsed. After a long pause during which he tried and almost
failed to control his temper he said slowly: “Thank you, Helena. You’re
wrong, of course, but it was a contribution. You see, you can’t build up
such a wild, far-fetched theory from the few facts available.” His voice
was beginning to choke with anger. “It isn’t reasonable and it isn’t
really any help. In fact it’s the God-damndest stupidest imitation of
reasoning I have ever——”

“City,” Bernard croaked, pointing. The jolting ride had become smoother,
and gliding past the windows were green tiled buildings and street
lights.

“Fine,” Ross said bitterly. “We had a few clear minutes to think and now
we find they were wasted by the crackpot dissertation of a female and my
reasonable attempt to show her the elements of logical thinking.” He put
his head in his hands and tried to ignore them, tried to reason it out.
But the truck made a couple of sharp turns and jolted to a stop.

The door opened and the voice of their driver said, again from behind a
flashlight’s dazzling circle: “Out. Walk ahead of me.”

They did, into a fair-sized, well-lighted room with eight people in it
whom they studied in amazement. Every one of the eight was exactly the
same height—six feet. Every one had straight red hair of exactly the
same shade, sprouting from an identical hairline. Every one had
precisely the same build—gangling but broad-shouldered. Their sixteen
eyes were the identical blue under sixteen identical eyebrows. Head to
toe, they were duplicates. One of them spoke—in exactly the same voice
as the truckdriver’s.

“So you want to be Joneses, do you?” he said.

“Absolutely impossible.”

“But we took their money.”

“Give it back. Reasonable changes, yes, but look at them!”

“We can’t give it back. Look what we spent already. Anyway, Sam,——” It
sounded like “Sam” to Ross. “——anyway, Sam, look at some of the work
you’ve done already. You can do it. I doubt if anybody else could, but
you can.”

Ross felt his eyes crossing, and gave up the effort of trying to tell
which Jones was speaking to which. Even the clothing was nearly
identical—purple pantaloons, scarlet jacket, black cummerbund sash,
black shoes. Then he noticed that Third-from-the-left Jones—the one who
seemed to be named Sam—wore a frilly shirt of white under the scarlet
jacket. Only a lacy edge showed at the open collar; but where his was
white, the others were all muted pastels of pink and green.

Sam said coldly, “I know nobody else can do it. Anybody else! Who else
_is_ there?”

A Jones with a frill of chartreuse pursed his lips. “Well,” he said
thoughtfully, “there’s Northside Tim Jones——”

“Northside Tim Jones,” Sam mimicked. “Eight of his jobs are in the
stockade right now! Paraffin, for Jones’s sake—he still uses paraffin to
mold a face!”

“I know, Sam, but after all, these people need help. If you won’t do it
for them, what’s left?”

Sam shrugged morosely. “Well——” he said. Then he shook his head, sighed,
and came forward to look at the three travelers. With an expression of
revulsion he said, “Strip.”

Ross hesitated. “Hold it!” he said sharply to Helena, already half out
of her coveralls. “Sir, there may have been some mistake. Would you mind
explaining just what you propose to do?”

“The usual thing,” Sam said irritably. “Fix your hair, build up your
frames, level you off at standard Jones height. The works. Though I must
say,” he added bitterly, “I never saw such unpromising specimens in my
life. How the Jones have you managed to stay out of trouble this long?
Whose garrets have you been hiding in?”

Ross licked his lips. “You mean,” he said, “you want to make us look
more like you gentlemen, is that it?”

“_I_ want!” Sam repeated in bafflement. Over his shoulder he roared,
“Ben, what kind of creeps are you saddling me with?”

Ben, looking worried, said, “Holy Jones, Sam, I don’t get it either. It
was a perfectly normal deal. This guy came up to me in Jones’s Joint and
made a pitch. He knew the setup all right, and he had the money with
him. Six hundred Joneses, cold cash; and it wasn’t funny money, either.”
His face clouded. “I did think, though,” he mentioned, “that he said two
women and one man. But Paul Jones picked them up right at the
rendezvous, so it must’ve been the right ones.”

He glowered suspiciously at Ross and the others. “Come to think of it,”
he said, “maybe not. Tell you what, Sam, you just sit tight here for
twenty minutes or so.” And he hurried out of the room.

One of the other Joneses said curtly, “Sit down.” Ross, Bernie, and
Helena found chairs lined up against a wall; they sat. A different Jones
rummaged in a stack of papers on a table; he handed something to each of
them. “Relax,” he advised. Obediently the three spacefarers opened the
magazines he gave them. When they were settled, most of the Joneses,
after a whispered conference, went out. The one that was left said, “No
talking. If we made a mistake, we’re sorry. Meanwhile, you do what
you’re told.”

Ross found that his magazine was called _By Jones_; it seemed to be a
periodical devoted to entertaining news and gossip of sports, fashion,
and culture. He stared at an article headed “Be Glad the People’s Police
Are Watching YOU!”, but the words made little sense. He tried to think;
but somehow he couldn’t find a point at which to grasp the flickering
mass of impressions that were circling through his brain. Nothing seemed
to make a great deal of sense any more; and Ross suddenly realized that
he was very, very tired.

His mind an utter blank, he sat and waited.

It was twenty minutes and a bit more. Then the door flew open and half a
dozen Joneses burst in. Even at first sight, Ross could tell that three
of them were newcomers. For one thing, two were women; and the third,
though red-haired, tall and gangling, had a nose a full centimeter
shorter than any of the others, and his hair was crisply curled.

“All right, you Peepeece!” snarled the first Jones. “You found what you
were looking for—now try to get out!”

Helena did the talking. It wasn’t Ross’s idea, but when her heel
crunched down on his instep he was too startled to object, and from then
on he didn’t get a chance to get a word in edgewise.

He had to admit that her act was getting across with the audience. Long
before she had finished reporting their meeting, their flight to Azor,
the escape from “Minerva,” and the flight here, most of the Joneses had
put their guns away, and all were showing signs of stupefaction. “——And
then,” she finished, “we saw this truck, and that very good-looking man
picked us up. And so we’re here on Earth; and, honest to goodness,
that’s the exact truth.”

There was silence while the Joneses looked at each other. Then the
plastic-surgeon-type Jones, Sam with the white shirt front, stepped
forward. “Hold still, my dear,” he ordered. Helena bravely stood rigid
while the surgeon raked searchingly through the roots of her hair,
peered into her eyes, expertly traced the configuration of her ribs.

He stepped back, shaken. “One thing is for sure,” he told the others,
“they’re not Peepeece. Not with those bones. They’d never get in.”

Ben Jones beat his forehead and moaned. “How do I get into these
things?” he demanded.

One of the female Joneses said shrilly, “We didn’t expect anything like
this. We’re honest Jones-fearing Joneses and——”

“Shut up!” Ben Jones roared. “What about the other two, Sam? They all
right too?”

“Oh, for Jones’s sake, Ben,” Sam said disgustedly, “just look at them,
will you? Do you think the police would take in a five-inch height
deviation like that one——” he pointed to Bernie——“or a half-bald
scarecrow like that?” Ross, stung, opened his mouth to object; but
swiftly closed it again. Nobody was paying much attention to him,
anyhow, except as Exhibit A.

“So what do we do?” Ben demanded.

Sam shrugged. “The first thing we do,” he said wearily, “is to take care
of our, uh, clients here. We get them out of the way, and then we decide
what to do next.” He looked around at the other Joneses. “If you three
will come this way,” he said, “we’ll finish up your job and get you back
home. I needn’t remind you, of course, that if you should happen to
mention anything you’ve seen here tonight to the Peepeece it would——”
His voice was cut off by the closing door before Ross could catch the
nature of the threat.

Ben Jones stayed behind, scowling to himself. “You people got any
Joneses?” he demanded abruptly.

“You mean money? Not any at all,” Helena said honestly. Ross could have
kicked her.

Ben Jones growled deep in his throat. “Always it happens to me!” he
complained. “I suppose we’re going to have to feed you, too.”

“Well,” Helena said diffidently, “we haven’t eaten in a long time——”

Ben Jones swore to his god, whose name was Jones, but he stepped to the
door and ordered food. When it came it was surprisingly good; each of
the three, with their diverse backgrounds, found it delicious. While
they were eating, Ben Jones sat watching them, refreshing himself from
time to time with a greenish bubbling liquid out of a jug. He offered
some to Ross; who clutched his throat as though he’d swallowed molten
steel.

Ben Jones guffawed till his eyes ran. “First taste of Jones’s Juice,
hey? Kind of gets right down inside, doesn’t it?” He wiped his eyes,
then sobered. “I guess you people are all right,” he admitted. “What I’m
going to do with you I don’t know. I can’t take you to Earth, and I
can’t keep you here, and I can’t throw you out on the street—the
Peepeece would have you in the stockade in ten minutes.”

Ross, startled, said, “Aren’t we on Earth?”

“Naw,” Ben Jones said disgustedly. “Didn’t you hear me? You’re on Jones,
halfway between Jones’s Forks and Jonesgrad. But you came pretty close,
at that. Earth’s about fifty miles out the Jones Pike past Jonesgrad,
turn right at Jonesboro Minor.”

Ross said bewilderedly, “The planet Earth is fifty miles along the
Pike?”

“Not a planet,” Ben Jones said. “It’s an old city, kind of. Nobody lives
there any more; the Peepeece don’t permit it. I’ve never been there, but
they say it’s kind of, you know, different. Some of the buildings——” he
seemed actually to be blushing——“are as much as fifteen, twenty stories
high; and the walls aren’t even all green. Excuse me,” he added, looking
at Helena.

Sam Jones returned and said to Ben, “It’s all right. All finished.
Trivial alterations. Maybe they could have gone along for the rest of
their lives on wigs and pads—but we don’t tell them that, do we? And
anyway now they won’t worry. Healy Jones, the older man, for instance.
Very bright fellow, but it seems he was working as a snathe-handler’s
apprentice. Afraid to take the master’s test, afraid to change his line
of work—might be noticed and questioned.” He heaved a tremendous sigh
and poured himself a tremendous slug of the green fluid. Ben Jones gave
Ross a cynical wink and shrug.

“Look at my hand!” the surgeon exploded. It was shaking. He gulped the
Jones Juice and poured himself another. “Nothing physical,” he said.
“Neurosis. The subconscious coldly counting up my crimes and coldly
imposing and executing sentence. I’m a surgeon, so my hand trembles.” He
drank. “Jones is not mocked,” he said broodingly. “Jones is not mocked.
Think those three are going to be happy? Think they’re going to be
folded in Jones’s bosom just because they’re Joneses externally now? No.
Watch them five years, ten years. Maybe they’ll sentence themselves to
be hateful, vitriol-tempered lice and wonder why nobody loves them.
Maybe they’ll sentence themselves to penal servitude and wonder why
everybody pushes them around, why they haven’t the guts to hit
back—Jones is not mocked,” he told the jug of green liquid, ignoring the
others, and drank again.

Ben Jones said softly to them, “Come on,” and led them into an adjoining
room furnished with sleeping pads. He said apologetically, “The doctor’s
nerves are shot tonight. Trouble is, he’s too Jones-fearing. Me, I can
take it or leave it alone.” His laugh had a little too much bravado in
it. “There’s a little bit of nonJones in the best of us, I always
say—but not to the doctor. And not when he’s hitting the Jones juice.”
He shrugged cynically and said, “What the hell? L-sub-T equals
L-sub-zero e to the minus T-over-two-N.”

Ross had him by his shirt frill. “Say that again!”

Ben Jones shoved him away. “What’s the matter with you, boy?”

“I’m sorry. Would you please repeat that formula? What you said?” he
hastily amended when the word “formula” obviously failed to register.

Ben Jones repeated the formula wonderingly.

“What does it mean?” Ross demanded. “I’ve been chasing the damned thing
across the Galaxy.” He hastily filled Ben Jones in on its previous
appearances.

“Well,” Ben Jones said, “it means what it says, of course. I mean, it’s
obvious, isn’t it?” He studied their faces and added uncertainly, “Isn’t
it?”

“What does it mean to _you_, Ben?” Ross asked softly.

“Why, what it means to anybody, pal. Right’s right, wrong’s wrong, Jones
is in his Heaven, conform or else—it means morality, man. What else
could it mean?”

Ross then proceeded to make an unmannerly nuisance of himself. He
grilled their involuntary host mercilessly, shrugging aside all
attempted diversions of the talk into what they were going to do with
the three visitors. He ignored protestations that Ben was no
Jonesologist, Jones knew, and drilled in. By the time Ben Jones
exploded, stamped out, and locked them in for the night, he had elicited
the following:

Everybody knew the formula; they were taught it at their mother’s knee.
It was recited antiphonally before and after Jones Meetings. Ben knew it
was right, of course, and some day he was going to get right with Jones
and live up to it, but not just yet, because if he didn’t make money in
the prosthesis racket somebody else would. The formula was everywhere:
on the lintels of public buildings, hanging in classrooms, and on the
bedroom walls of the most Jones-fearing old ladies where they could see
its comforting message last thing at night and first thing in the
morning.

From a book? Well yes, he guessed so; sure it was in the Book of
Joneses, but who could say whether that was where it started. Most
people thought it was just Handed Down. Way back during the war—what
war? The War of the Joneses, of course! Anyway, in the war the last of
the holdouts against the formula had been destroyed. No, he didn’t know
anything about the war. No, not his grandfather’s time or his
grandfather’s grandfather’s time. Long ago, that war was. Maybe there
were records in the old museum in Earth. The city, of course, not some
damn planet he never heard of!

After Ben Jones slammed out and the room darkened Helena and Bernie
exchanged comforting words from adjoining sleeping pads, to Ross’s
intense displeasure. They fell asleep and at last he fell asleep still
churning over the problem.

When he woke he found that evidently the doctor, Sam Jones, had stumbled
in during the night and passed out on the pad next to him. The white
frill was stiff and green with dried Jones Juice. Helena and Bernie
still slept. He tried the door.

It was locked, but there was a tantalizing hum of voices beyond it. He
put his ear to the cold steel. The fruits of his eavesdropping were
scanty but alarming.

“——cut ’em down mumble found someplace mumble.”

“——mumble never killed yet mumble prosthesis racket.”

“——Jones’s sake, it’s their lives or mumble mumble time to get scared
mumble Peepeece are you?”

And then apparently the speakers moved out of range. Ross was cold with
sweat, and there was an abnormal hollow in the pit of his stomach that
breakfast would never fill.

He spun around as a Jones voice croaked painfully: “Hear anything good,
stranger?”

The surgeon, looking very dilapidated, was sitting up and regarding him
through bloodshot eyes. “They’re talking about killing us,” he said
shortly.

“They are not really intelligent,” Sam Jones said wearily. “They were
just bright enough to entangle me to the point where I had to work for
them—and to keep me copiously supplied with that green stuff I haven’t
the intelligence to use in moderation.”

Ross said, “How’d you like to break away from this?”

Sam Jones mutely extended his hand. It trembled like a leaf. He said,
“For his own inscrutable reason, Jones grants me steadiness of hand
during an operation designed to frustrate his grand design. He then
overwhelms me with a titanic thirst for oblivion to my shame.”

“There’s no design,” Ross said. “Or if there is, luckily this planet is
a trifling part of it. I have never heard of such arrogant pip-squeakery
in my life. You flyspecks in your shabby corner of the Galaxy think your
own fouled-up mess is the pattern of universal life. You’re wrong! I’ve
seen life elsewhere and I know it isn’t.”

The doctor passed his trembling hand over his eyes. “Jones is not
mocked,” he croaked. “L-sub-T equals L-sub-zero e to the minus
T-over-two-N. You can’t fight _that_, stranger. You can’t fight that.”

Ross realized he was silently crying behind his covering hand.

He said, much more gently, “It’s nothing you have to fight. It’s
something you have to understand.” He told Sam Jones of his two previous
encounters with the formula. The doctor looked up, his eyes full of
wonder. Ross said, “How would you like to be free, doctor? Free of your
shaking hands, free of your guilt, free of these killers? How would you
like to know the truth?”

The doctor said faintly, “If I dared——”

Ross pressed, “The museum in Earth city. Get me records, facts, anything
about the War of the Joneses. If there’s any meaning to the formula
it’ll have to lie in that. It seems there was a battle about its
interpretation and we know who won. Let’s find out what the other side
said. Get me in there.” He was thinking of the disgraceful war of
fanaticism that had marred his own planet’s history. The doctor’s weak
Jones jaw was firming up, though his eyes were still haunted. “Stall
your killer friends, doctor,” Ross urged. “Tell them you can use us for
experiments that’ll cut the cost of the operations. That ought to bring
them around. And get me the facts!”

“To be free,” the doctor said wistfully. He said after a pause, “I’ll
try. But——” And rapped a code series on the steel door.



..... 11


THE doctor said with weak belligerence, “Who do you think I am? Jones? I
_had_ to leave your friends behind. I had enough trouble getting those
hoods to let me take _you_ along. After all, I’m not a miracle-worker.”

Ross said sullenly, “Okay, okay.” He glowered out of the car window and
spat out a tendril of red hair that had come loose from the fringe
surrounding his mouth. The trouble with a false beard was that it
itched, worse than the real article, worse than any torment Ross had
ever known. But at least Ross, externally and at extreme range, was
enough of a Jones to pass a casual glance.

And what would Helena and Bernie be thinking now? He hadn’t had a chance
to whisper to them; they’d been just waking when the doctor dragged him
out. Ross put that problem out of his mind; there were problems enough
right on hand.

He cautiously felt his red wig to see if it was on straight. The doctor
didn’t seem to look away from his driving, but he said: “Leave it alone.
That’s the first thing the Peepeece look for, somebody who obviously
isn’t sure if his hair is still on or not. It won’t come off.”

“Umph,” said Ross. The road was getting worse, it seemed; they had
passed no houses for several miles now. They rounded a rutted turn, and
ahead was a sign.

                                 STOP!
                         RESTRICTED AREA AHEAD
                      WARNING: THIS ROAD IS MINED
                       NO TRAFFIC ALLOWED! DETOUR
              “Trespassers beyond this point will be shot
                 without further notice.” Decree #404-5
                          People’s Commissariat of
                           Culture and Solidarity.

The doctor spat contemptuously out the window and roared past. Ross
said, “Hey!”

“Oh, relax,” said the doctor. “That’s just the Cultureniks. Nobody pays
any attention to _them_.”

Ross swallowed and sat as lightly as possible on the green leather
cushion of the car. By the time they had gone a quarter of a mile, he
began to feel a little reassured that the doctor knew what he was
talking about. Then the doctor swerved sharply to miss a rusted hulk and
almost skidded off the road. He swore and manhandled the wheel until
they were back on the straightaway.

White lipped, Ross asked, “What was that?”

“Car,” grunted the doctor. “Hit a mine. Silly fools!”

Ross squawked, “But you said——”

“Shut up,” the doctor ordered tensely. “That was weeks ago; they haven’t
had a chance to lay new mines since then.” Pause. “I hope.”

The car roared on. Ross closed his eyes, limply abandoning himself to
what was in store. But if it was bad to see what was going on, the
roaring, swerving, jolting race was ten times worse with his eyes
closed. He opened them again in time to see another sign flash past,
gone before he could read it.

“What was that?” he demanded.

“What’s the difference?” the doctor grunted. “Want to go back?”

“Well, no——” Ross thought for a moment. “Do we have to go this fast,
though?”

“If we want to get there. Crossed a Peepeece radar screen ten miles
back; they’ll be chasing us by now.”

“Oh, I see,” Ross said weakly. “Look, Doc, tell me one thing—why do they
make this place so hard to get to?”

“Tabu area,” the doctor said shortly. “Not allowed.”

“Why not allowed?”

“Because it’s not allowed. Don’t want people poking through the old
records.”

“Why not just put the old records in a safe place—or burn the damn
things up?”

“Because they didn’t, that’s why. Shut up! Expect me to tell you why the
Peepeece do anything? They don’t know themselves. It isn’t Jonesly to
destroy, I guess.”

Ross shut up. He leaned against the window, letting the air rush over
his head. They were moving through forest, purplish squatty trees with
long, rustling leaves. The sky overhead was crisp and cool looking; it
was still early morning. Ross exhaled a long breath. Back on Halsey’s
Planet he would be getting up about now, rising out of a soft, warm bed,
taking his leisurely time about breakfast, climbing into a comfortable
car to make his way to the spaceport where he was safe, respected, and
at home.... Damn Haarland!

At least, Ross thought, some sort of a pattern was beginning to shape
up. The planets were going out of communication each for its own reason;
but wasn’t there a basic reason-for-the-reasons that was the same in
each case? Wasn’t there some overall design—some explanation that
covered all the facts, pointed to a way out?

He sat up straight as they approached a string of little signs. He
scanned them worriedly as they rolled past.

                 “Workers, Peasants, Joneses all——”
                 “By these presents know ye——”
                 “If you don’t stop in spite of all——”
                 “THIS to hell will blow ye!”

“Duck!” the doctor yelled, crouching down in the seat and guiding the
careening car with one hand. Ross, startled, followed his example, but
not before he saw that “THIS” was an automatic, radar-actuated
rapid-fire gun mounted a few yards past the last sign. There was a
stuttering roar from the gun and a splatter of metal against the armored
sides of the car. The doctor sat up again as soon as the burst had hit;
evidently only one was to be feared. “Yah, yah,” he jeered at the absent
builders of the gun. “Lousy fifty-millimeters can’t punch their way
through a tin can!”

Ross, gasping, got up just in time to see the last sign in the series:

               “By order of People’s Democratic Council
                Of Arts & Sciences, Small Arms Division.”

He said wildly, “They can’t even write a poem properly. Did you notice
the first and third line rhyme-words?”

Surprisingly, the doctor glanced at him and laughed with a note of
respect. He took a hand off the wheel to pat Ross on the shoulder.
“You’ll make a Jones yet, my boy,” he promised. “Don’t worry about these
things; I told you this place was restricted. This stuff isn’t worth
bothering about.”

Ross found that he was able to smile. There was a point, he realized
with astonishment, where courage came easily; it was the only thing
left. He sat up straighter and breathed the air more deeply. Then it
happened.

They rounded another curve; the doctor slammed on the brakes. Suspended
overhead across the road was a single big sign:

                           THAT’S ALL, JONES!
                           ——PEOPLE’S POLICE

The car bucked, slewed around, and skidded. The wheels locked, but not
in time to keep it from sliding into the pit, road wide and four feet
deep, that was dug in front of them.

Ross heard the axles crack and the tires blow; but the springing of the
car was equal to the challenge. He was jarred clear in the air and
tumbled to the floor in a heap; but no bones were broken.

Painfully he pushed the door open and crawled out. The doctor limped
after and the two of them stood on the edge of the pit, looking at the
ruin of their car.

“That one,” said the doctor, “was worth bothering about.” He motioned
Ross to silence and cocked an ear. Was there a distant roaring sound,
like another car following on the road they had traveled? Ross wasn’t
sure; but the doctor’s expression convinced him. “Peepeece,” he said
briefly. “From here on it’s on foot. They won’t follow beyond here; but
let’s get out of sight. They’ll by-Jones _shoot_ beyond here if they see
us!”

Ross stared unbelievingly. “This is Earth?” he asked.

The doctor fanned himself and blew. “That’s it,” he said, looking around
curiously. “Heard a lot about it, but I’ve never been here before,” he
explained. “Funny-looking, isn’t it?” He nudged Ross, indicating a
shattered concrete structure beside them on the road. “Notice that toll
booth?” he whispered slyly. “Eight sides!”

Ross said wearily, “Yes, mighty funny! Look, Doc, why don’t you sort of
wander around by yourself for a while? That big thing up ahead is the
museum you were talking about, isn’t it?”

The doctor squinted. His eyes were unnaturally bright, and his breathing
was fast, but he was making an attempt to seem casual in the presence of
these manifold obscenities of design. He licked his lips. “_Round
pillars_,” he marveled. “Why, yes, I think that’s the museum. You go on
up there, like you say. I’ll, uh, sort of see what there is to see.
Jones, yes!” He staggered off, staring from ribald curbing to
scatological wall in an orgy of prurience.

Ross sighed and walked through the deserted, weed-grown streets to the
stone building that bore on its cracked lintel the one surviving word,
“Earth.” This was all wrong, he was almost certain; Earth _had_ to be a
planet, not a city. But still....

The museum had to have the answers.

On its moldering double doors was a large lead seal. He read: “Surplus
Information Repository. Access denied to unauthorized personnel.” But
the seal had been forced by somebody; one of the doors swung free,
creaking.

Ross invoked the forcer of the door. If _he_ could do it....

He went in and stumbled over a skeleton, presumably that of the last
entrant. The skull had been crushed by a falling beam. There was some
sort of mechanism involved—a trigger, a spring, a release hook. All had
rusted badly, and the spring had lost its tension over the years. A
century? Two? Five? Ross prayed that any similar mantraps had likewise
rusted solid, and cautiously inched through the dismal hall of the
place, ready for a backward leap at the first whisper of a concealed
mechanism in action.

It was unnecessary. The place was—dead.

Exploring room after room, he realized slowly that he was stripping off
history in successive layers. The first had been the booby-trapped road,
lackadaisically planned to ensure that mere inquisitiveness would be
discouraged. There had been no real denial of access, for there was
almost no possibility that anybody would care to visit the place.

Next, the seal and the mantraps. An earlier period. Somebody had once
said: “This episode is closed. This history is determined. We have all
reached agreement. Only a dangerous or frivolous meddler would seek to
rake over these dead ashes.”

And then, prying into the museum, Ross found the era during which
agreement had been reached, during which it still was necessary to
insist and demonstrate and cajole.

The outer rooms and open shelves were testimonials to Jones. There were
books of Jonesology—ingenious, persuasive books divided usually into
three sections. Human Jonesology would be a painstaking effort to
determine the exact physical and mental tolerances of a Jones.
Anatomical atlases minutely gave femur lengths, cranial angles, eye
color to an angstrom, hair thickness to a micron. Moral Jonesology
treated of the dangers of deviating from these physical and more elastic
mental specifications. (Here the formula appeared again, repeatedly
invoked but never explained. Already it was a truism.) And Sacred
Jonesology was a series of assertions concerning the nature of The Jones
in whose image all other Joneses were created.

Subdivisions of the open shelves held works on Geographical Jonesology
(the distribution across the planet of Joneses) and similar works.

Ross went looking for a lower layer of history and found it in a bale of
crumbling pamphlets. “Comrades, We Must Now Proceed to Consolidate Our
Victory”; “Ultra-Jonesism, An Infantile Political Disorder”; “On The
Fallacy of ‘Jonesism In One Country’.” These Ross devoured. They added
up to the tale of a savage political battle among the victors of a
greater war. Clemency was advocated and condemned; extermination of the
opposition was casually mentioned; the Cultural Faction and the
Biological Faction had obviously been long locked in a death struggle.
Across the face of each pamphlet stood a similar logotype: the formula.
It was enigmatically mentioned in one pamphlet, which almost
incomprehensibly advanced the claims of the Biological faction to
supremacy among the Joneses United: “Let us never forget, comrades, that
the initiation of the great struggle was not caused by our will or by
the will of our sincere and valiant opponents, the Culturists. The
inexorable law of nature, L_{T}=L_{O}e-^{T/2N}, was the begetter of that
holocaust from which our planet has emerged purified——”

Was it now?

The entrance to a musty, airless wing had once been bricked up. The
mortar was crumbling and a few bricks had fallen. Above the arched
doorway a sign said Military Archives. On the floor was a fallen metal
plaque whose inscription said simply Dead Storage. He kicked the loose
bricks down and stepped through.

That was it. The place was lightless, except for the daylight filtering
through the violated archway. Ross hauled maps and orders and period
newspapers and military histories and handbooks into the corridor in
armfuls and spread them on the floor. It took only minutes for him to
realize that he had his answer. He ran into the street and shouted for
the doctor.

Together they pored over the papers, occasionally reading aloud choice
bits, wonderingly.

The simplest statement of the problem they found was in the paper-backed
“Why We Fight” pamphlet issued for the enlisted men of the Provisional
North Continent Government Army.

“What is a Jones?” the pamphlet asked rhetorically. “A Jones is just a
human being, the same as you and I. Dismiss rumors that a Jones is
supernatural or unkillable with a laugh when you hear them. They arose
because of the extraordinary resemblance of one Jones to another.
Putting a bullet through one Jones in a skirmish and seeing another one
rise up and come at you with a bayonet is a chilling experience; in the
confusion of battle it may seem that the dead Jones rose and attacked.
But this is not the case. Never let the rumor pass unchallenged, and
never fail to report habitual rumor-mongers.

“How did the Joneses get that way? Many of you were too young when this
long war began to be aware of the facts. Since then, wartime disruption
of education and normal communications facilities has left you in the
dark. This is the authoritative statement in simple language that
explains why we fight.

“This planet was colonized, presumably from the quasi-legendary planet
Earth. (The famous Earth Archives Building, incidentally, is supposed to
derive its puzzling name from this fact.) It is presumed that the number
of colonists was originally small, probably in the hundreds. Though the
number of human beings on the planet increased enormously as the
generations passed, genetically the population remained small. The same
ones (heredity units) were combined and reshuffled in varying
combinations, but no new ones were added. Now, it is a law of genetics
that in small populations, variations tend to smooth out and every
member of the population tends to become like every other member.
So-called unfixed genes are lost as the generations pass; the end
product of this process would theoretically be a population in which
every member had exactly the same genes as every other member. This is a
practical impossibility, but the Joneses whom we fight are a tragic
demonstration of the fact that the process need not be pushed to its
ultimate extreme to dislocate the life of a planet and cause endless
misery to its dwellers.

“From our very earliest records there have been Joneses. It is theorized
that this gangling redheaded type was well represented aboard the
original colonizing ship, but some experts believe one Jones type and
the workings of chance would be sufficient to produce the unhappy
situation of type-dominance.

“Some twenty-five years ago Joneses were everywhere among us and not, as
now, withdrawn to South Continent and organized into a ruthless
aggressor nation. They made up about thirty per cent of the population
and had become a closely knit organization devoted to mutual help. They
held the balance of political power in every election from the municipal
to the planetary level and virtually monopolized production and finance.
There were fanatics and rabble-rousers among them who readily exploited
a rising tide of discontent over a series of curbing laws, finally
pushed through by a planetary majority, united at last in self-defense
against the rapacity and ruthless self-interest of the Joneses.

“The Joneses withdrew en masse to South Continent. Some sincerely wished
them well; others scoffed at the secession as a sulky and childish
gesture. Only a handful of citizens guessed the terrible truth, and were
laughed at for their pains. Five years after their withdrawal the
Joneses returned across the Vandemeer Peninsula and the war had begun.

“A final word. There has been much loose talk among the troops about the
slogan of the Joneses, which goes L_{T}=L_{O}e-^{T/2N}. Some uninformed
people actually believe it is an invocation which gives the Joneses
supernatural power and invulnerability. It is not. It is merely an
ancient and well-known formula in genetics which quantitatively
describes the loss of unfixed genes from a population. By mouthing this
formula, the Joneses are simply expressing in a compact way their
ruthless determination that all genes except theirs shall disappear from
the planet and the Joneses alone survive. In the formula L_{T} means the
number of genes after the lapse of T years, L_{O} means the original
number of genes, e means the base of the natural system of logarithms
and N means number of generations.”

The surgeon said slowly and with wonder: “So _that_ was my God!” He
stretched out his hands before him. The fingers were rock-steady.

Ross left him and paced the corridor uneasily. Fine. Now he knew. Lost
genes in genetically small populations. On Halsey’s Planet, some
fertility gene, no doubt. On Azor, a male-sex-linked gene that provides
men with the backbone required to come out ahead in the incessant war of
the genders? Bernie was a gutless character. Here, all too many genes
determining somatotype. On the planets that had dropped out of
communication, who knew? Scientific-thought genes? Sex-drive-determining
genes?

One thing was clear: any gene-loss was bad for the survival of a
planetary colony. Evolution had——on Earth——worked out in a billion
trial-and-error years a working mechanism, man. Man exhibited a vast
range of variation, which was why he survived almost any conceivable
catastrophe.

Reduce man to a single type and he is certain to succumb, sooner or
later, to the inevitable disaster that his one type cannot cope with.

The problem, now stated clearly, was bigger than he had dreamed. And now
he knew only the problem—not the solution.

Go to Earth.

Well, he had tried. There had been no flaw in his calculations, no
failure in setting up the Wesley panel. Yet—this was Jones, not Earth;
the city was only a city, not the planet that the star charts logged.
And the planet, beyond all other considerations, was less like Earth
than any conceivable chart error could account for. Gravitation, wrong;
atmosphere, wrong; flora and fauna, wrong.

So. Eliminate the impossible, and what remains, however unlikely, is
true. So there had been a flaw in his calculations. And the way to check
that, once and for all, was to get back to the starship.

Ross wheeled and went back into the book room. “Doc,” he called, “how do
we get out of here?”

The answer was: on their bellies. They trudged through the forest for
hours, skirting the road, hiding whenever a suspicious noise gave
warning that someone might be in the vicinity. The Peepeece knew they
were in the woods; there was no doubt of that. And as soon as they got
past the tabu area, they had to crawl.

It was well past dark before Ross and the doctor, scratched and aching,
got to the tiny hamlet of Jonesie-on-the-Pike. By the light from the one
window in the village that gave any signs of life, the doctor took a
single horrified look at Ross and shuddered. “You wait here,” he
ordered. “Hide under a bush or something—your beard rubbed off.”

Ross watched the doctor rap on the door and be admitted. He couldn’t
hear the conversation that followed, but he saw the doctor’s hand go to
his pocket, then clasp the hand of the figure in the doorway. That was
the language all the galaxy understood, Ross realized; he only hoped
that the householder was an honest man—i. e., one who would stay bribed,
instead of informing the Peepeece on them. It was beyond doubt that
their descriptions had long since been broadcast; the road must have
been lined with TV scanners on the way in.

The door opened again, and the doctor walked briskly out. He strode out
into the street, walked half a dozen paces down the road, and waited for
Ross to catch up with him. “Okay,” the doctor whispered. “They’ll pick
us up in half an hour, down the road about a quarter of a mile. Let’s
go.”

“What about the man you were talking to?” Ross asked. “Won’t he turn us
in?”

The doctor chuckled. “I gave him a drink of Jones’s Juice out of my
private stock,” he said. “No, he won’t turn anybody in, at least not
until he wakes up.”

Ross nodded invisibly in the dark. He had a thought, and suppressed it.
But it wouldn’t stay down. Cautiously he let it seep through his
subconscious again, and looked it over from every angle.

No, there wasn’t any doubt of it. Things were definitely looking up!

                  *       *       *       *       *

Ben Jones roared, “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, Doc?”

The doctor pushed Ross through the doorway and turned to face the other
Jones. He asked mildly, “What?”

“You heard me!” Ben Jones blustered. “I let you out with this one, and
maybe I made a mistake at that. But I by-Jones don’t intend to let you
get out of here with all three of them. What are you trying to get away
with anyhow?”

The doctor didn’t change his mild expression. He took a short, unhurried
step forward. _Smack._

Ben Jones reeled back from the slap, his mouth open, hand to his face.
“Hey!” he squawked.

The doctor said levelly, “I’m telling you this just one time, Ben.
_Don’t cross me._ You’ve got the guns, but I’ve got these.” He held up
his spread hands. “You can shoot me, I won’t deny that. But you can’t
make me do your dirty work for you. From now on things go my way—with
these three people, with my own life, with the bootleg plastic surgery
we do to keep you in armored cars. Or else there won’t _be_ any plastic
surgery.”

Ben Jones swallowed, and Ross could see the man fighting himself. He
said after a moment, “No reason to act sore, Doc. Haven’t we always got
along? The only thing is, maybe you don’t realize how dangerous these
three——”

“Shut up,” said the doctor. “Right, boys?”

The other two Joneses in the room shuffled and looked uncomfortable. One
of them said, “Don’t get mad, Ben, but it kind of looks as if he’s
right. We and the doc had a little talk before you got here. It figures,
you have to admit it. He does the work; we ought to let him have
something to say about it.”

The look that Ben Jones gave him was pure poison, but the man stood up
to it, and in a minute Ben Jones looked away. “Sure,” he said distantly.
“You go right ahead, Doc. We’ll talk this over again later on, when
we’ve all had a chance to cool off.”

The doctor nodded coldly and followed Ross out. Helena and Bernie,
suitably Jonesified for the occasion, were already in the car; Ross and
the doctor jumped in with them, and they drove away. Now that the strain
was relaxed a bit the doctor was panting, but there was a grin on his
lips. “Son-of-a-Jones,” he said happily, “I’ve been waiting five years
for this day!”

Ross asked, “Is it all right? They won’t chase after us?”

“No, not Ben Jones. He has his own way of handling things. Now if we
were stupid enough to go back there, after he had a chance to talk to
the others without me around, that would be something different. But we
aren’t going back.”

Ross’s eyes widened. “Not even you, Doc?”

“Especially not me.” The doctor concentrated on his driving. Presently:
“If I take you to the rendezvous, can you find your ship from there?” he
asked.

“Sure,” said Ross confidently. “And Doc—welcome to our party.”

                  *       *       *       *       *

Space had never looked better.

They hung half a million miles off Jones, and Ross fumbled irritatedly
with the Wesley panel while the other three stood around and made
helpful suggestions. He set up the integrals for Earth just as he had
set them up once before; the plot came out the same. He transferred the
computations to the controls and checked it against the record in the
log. The same. The ship should have gone straight as a five-dimensional
geodesic arrow to the planet Earth.

Instead, he found by cross-checking the star atlas, it had gone in
almost the other direction entirely, to the planet of Jones.

He threw his pencil across the room and swore. “I don’t get it,” he
complained.

“It’s probably broken, Ross,” Helena told him seriously. “You know how
machines are. They’re _always_ doing something funny just when you least
expect it.”

Ross bit down hard on his answer to that. Bernie contributed his morsel,
and even Dr. Sam Jones, whose race had lost even the memory of
spaceflight, had a suggestion. Ross swore at them all, then took time to
swear at the board, at the starship, at Haarland, at Wesley, and most of
all at himself.

Helena turned her back pointedly. She said to Bernie, “The way Ross acts
sometimes you’d honestly think he was the _only_ one who’d _ever_ run
this thing. Why, my goodness, I _know_ you can’t _rely_ on that silly
board! Didn’t I have just exactly the same experience with it myself?”

Ross gritted his teeth and doggedly started all over again with the
computations for Earth. Then he did a slow double-take.

“Helena,” he whispered. “What experience did you have?”

“Why, just the same as now! Don’t you _remember_, Ross? When you and
Bernie were in jail and I had to come rescue you?”

“What happened?” Ross shouted.

“My goodness, Ross don’t _yell_ at me! There was that silly light
flashing all the time. It was driving me out of my _mind_. Well, I knew
_perfectly_ well that I wasn’t going to get anywhere if it was going to
act like _that_, so I just——”

Ross, eyes glazed, robotlike, lifted the cover off the main Wesley unit.
Down at the socket of the alarm signal, shorting out two delicately
machined helices that were a basic part of the Wesley drive, wedged
between an eccentric vernier screw and a curious crystalline lattice,
was—the hairpin.

He picked it out and stared at it unbelievingly. He marveled, “It says
in the manual, ‘On no account should any alterations be made in any part
of the Wesley driving assembly by any technician under a C-Twelve
rating.’ She didn’t like the alarm going off. So she fixed it. With a
hairpin.”

Helena giggled and appealed to Bernie. “Doesn’t he _kill_ you?” she
asked.

Ross’s eyes were glazed and his hands worked convulsively. “Kill,” he
muttered, advancing on Helena. “Kill, kill, kill——”

“Help!” she screamed.

The two men managed to subdue Ross with the aid of a needle from Dr.
Jones’s kit-pocket.

Helena was in tears and tried to explain to the others: “Just for no
reason at _all_——”

She got only icy stares. After a while she sulkily began setting up the
Wesley board for the Earth jump.



..... 12


ROSS awoke, clearheaded and alert. Helena and Bernie were looking at him
apprehensively.

He understood and said grudgingly, “Sorry I flipped. I didn’t mean to
scare you. Everything seemed to go black——”

They smothered him with relieved protestations that they understood
perfectly and Helena wouldn’t stick hairpins into the Wesley Drive ever
again. Even if the ship hadn’t blown up. Even if she had rescued the men
from “Minerva.”

“Anyway,” she said happily, “we’re off Earth. At least, it’s _supposed_
to be Earth, according to the charts.”

He unkinked himself and studied the planet through a vision screen at
its highest magnification. The apparent distance was one mile; nothing
was hidden from him.

“Golly,” he said, impressed. “Science! Makes you realize what backward
gropers we were.”

Obviously they had it, down there on the pleasant, cloud-flecked, green
and blue planet. Science! White, towering cities whose spires were laced
by flying bridges—and inexplicably decorated with something that looked
like cooling fins. Huge superstreamlined vehicles lazily coursing the
roads and skies. Long, linked-pontoon cities slowly heaving on the
breasts of the oceans. Science!

Ross said reverently, “We’re here. Flarney was right. Helena, Bernie,
Doc—maybe this is the parent planet of us all and maybe it isn’t. But
the people who built those cities _must_ know all the answers. Helena,
will you please land us?”

“Sure, Ross. Shall I look for a spaceport?”

Ross frowned. “Of course. Do you think _these_ people are savages? We’ll
go in openly and take our problem to them. Besides, imagine the radar
setup they must have! We’d never sneak through even if we wanted to.”

Helena casually fingered the controls; there was the sickening swoop
characteristic of her ship-handling, several times repeated. As she
jerked them wildly across the planet’s orbit she explained over her
shoulder, “I had the darnedest time finding a really big spaceport on
that little radar thing—oops!—but there’s a nice-looking one near that
coastal city. Whee! That was close! There was one—sorry, Ross—on a big
lake inland, but I didn’t like——Now everybody be very quiet. This is the
hard part and I have to concentrate.”

Ross hung on.

Helena landed the ship with her usual timber-shivering crash. “Now,” she
said briskly, “we’d better allow a little time for it to cool down. This
_is_ nice, isn’t it?”

Ross dragged himself, bruised, from the floor. He had to agree. It was
nice. The landing field, rimmed by gracious, light buildings (with the
cooling fins), was dotted with great, silvery ships. They didn’t, Ross
thought with a twinge of irritation, seem to be space vessels, though;
leave it to Helena to get them down at some local airport! Still—the
ships also, he noticed, were liberally studded with the fins. He peered
at them with puzzlement and a rising sense of excitement. Certainly they
had a function, and that function could only be some sort of energy
receptor. Could it be—dared he imagine that it was the long-dreamed-of
cosmic energy tap? What a bonus that would be to bring back with him!
And what other marvels might this polished technology have to give
them....

Bernie distracted him. He said, “Hey, Ross. Here comes somebody.”

But even Bernie’s tone was awed. A magnificent vehicle was crawling
toward them across the field. It was long, low, bullet-shaped—and with
cooling fins. Multiple plates of silvery metal contrasted with a glossy
black finish. All about its periphery was a lacy pattern of intricate
crumples and crinkles of metal, as though its skirts had been crushed
and rumpled. Ross sighed and marveled: What a production problem these
people had solved, stamping those forms out between dies.

Then he saw the faces of the passengers.

He drew in his breath sharply. Godlike. Two men whose brows were cliffs
of alabaster, whose chins were strong with the firmness of steady,
flamelike wisdom. Two women whose calm, lovely features made the heart
within him melt and course.

The vehicle stopped ten yards from the open spacelock of the ship. From
its tip gushed upward a ten-foot fountain of sparks that flashed the
gamut of the rainbow. Simultaneously one of the godlike passengers
touched the wheel, and there was a sweet, piercing, imperative summons
like a hundred strings and brasses in unison.

Helena whispered, “They want us to come out. Ross—Ross—I can’t face
_them_!” She buried her face in her hands.

“Steady,” he said gravely. “They’re only human.”

Ross gripped that belief tightly; he hardly dared permit himself to
think, even for a second, that perhaps these people were no longer
merely human. Hoarsely he said, “We need their help. Maybe we should
send Doc Jones out first. He’s the oldest of us, and he’s the only one
you could call a scientist; he can talk to them. Where is he?”

A raucous Jones voice bellowed through the domed control room: “Who
wansh ol’ doc, hargh? Who wansh goo’ ol’ doc?”

Good old doc staggered into the room, obviously loaded to the gills by a
very enjoyable backslide. He began to sing:

      “In A. J. seven thirty-two a Jones from Jones’s Valley, He
      wandered into Jones’s Town to hold a Jonesist Rally. He shocked
      the gents and ladies both; his talk was most disturbing; He spoke
      of seven-sided doors and purple-colored curbing——”

Jones’s eyes focused on Helena. He flushed. “’m deeply sorry,” he
mumbled. “Unf’rgivable vulgararrity. Mom’ntarily f’rgot ladies were
present.”

Again that sweet summons sounded.

“Pull yourself together, doctor,” Ross begged. “This is Earth. The
people seem—very advanced. Don’t disgrace us. Please!”

Jones’s face went pale and perspiration broke out. “’Scuse me,” he
mumbled, and staggered out again.

Ross closed the door on him and said, “We’ll leave him. He’ll be all
right; nothing’s going to happen here.” He took a deep breath. “We’ll
all go out,” he said.

Unconsciously Ross and Helena drew closer together and joined hands.
They walked together down the unfolding ramp and approached the vehicle.

One of the coolly lovely women scrutinized them and turned to the man
beside her. She remarked melodiously, “Yuhsehtheybebems!”, and laughed a
silvery tinkle.

Panic gripped Ross for a long moment. A thing he had never considered,
but a thing which he should have realized would be inevitable. Of
course! These folk—older and incomparably more advanced than the rest of
the peoples in the universe—would have evolved out of the common
language into a speech of their own, deliberately or naturally rebuilt
to handle the speed, subtlety, and power of their thoughts.

But perhaps the older speech was merely disused and not lost.

He said formally, quaking: “People of Earth, we are strangers from
another star. We throw ourselves on your mercy and ask for your
generosity. Our problem is summed up in the genetic law L-sub-T equals
L-sub-zero e to the minus T-over-two-N. Of course——”

One of the men was laughing. Ross broke off.

The man smiled: “Wha’s that again?”

They understood! He repeated the formula, slowly, and would have
explained further, but the man cut him off.

“Math,” the man smiled. “We don’ use that stuff no more. I got a lab
assistant, maybe he uses it sometimes.”

They were beyond mathematics! They had broken through into some mode of
symbolic reasoning that must be as far beyond mathematics as math was
beyond primitive languages!

“Sir,” he said eagerly, “you must be a scientist. May I ask you to——”

“Get in,” he smiled. Gigantic doors unfolded from the vehicle.
Thought-reading? Had the problem been snatched from his brain even
before he stated it? Mutely he gestured at Helena and Bernie. Jones
would be all right where he was for several hours if Ross was any judge
of blackouts. And you don’t quibble with demigods.

The man, the scientist, did something to a glittering control panel that
was, literally, more complex than the Wesley board back on the starship.
Noise filled the vehicle—noise that Ross identified as music for a
moment. It was a starkly simple music whose skeleton was three thumps
and a crash, three thumps and a crash. Then followed an antiphonal
chant—a clear tenor demanding in a monotone: “Is this your car?” and a
tremendous chorally-shouted: “NO!”

Too deep for him, Ross thought forlornly as the car swerved around and
sped off. His eyes wandered over the control board and fixed on the
largest of its dials, where a needle crawled around from a large forty
to a large fifty and a red sixty, proportional to the velocity of the
vehicle. Unable to concentrate because of the puzzling music, unable to
converse, he wondered what the units of time and space were that gave
readings of fifty and sixty for their very low rate of speed—hardly more
than a brisk walk, when you noticed the slow passage of objects outside.
But there seemed to be a whistle of wind that suggested high
speed—perhaps an effect peculiar to the cooling-fin power system,
however it worked. He tried to shout a question at the driver, but it
didn’t get through. The driver smiled, patted his arm and returned to
his driving.

They nosed past a building—cooling fins—and Ross almost screamed when he
saw what was on the other side: a curve of highway jammed solid with
vehicles that were traveling at blinding speed. And the driver wasn’t
stopping.

Ross closed his eyes and jammed his feet against the floorboards waiting
for the crash which, somehow, didn’t come. When he opened his eyes they
were in the traffic and the needle on the speedometer quivered at 275.
He blew a great breath and thought admiringly: reflexes to match their
superb intellects, of course. There _couldn’t_ have been a crash.

Just then, across the safety island in the opposing lane, there was a
crash.

The very brief flash of vision Ross was allowed told him, incredibly,
that a vehicle had attempted to enter the lane going the wrong way, with
the consequences you’d expect. He watched, goggle-eyed, as the effects
of the crash rippled down the line of oncoming traffic. The squeal of
brakes and rending of metal was audible even above the thumping music:
“Is this your car?” “NO!”

Thereafter, as they drove, the opposing lane was motionless, but not
silent. The piercing blasts of strings and trumpets rose to the heavens
from each vehicle, as did the brilliant pyrotechnic jets. A call for
help, Ross theorized. The music was beginning to make his head ache. It
had been going on for at least ten minutes. Suddenly, blessedly, it
changed. There was a great fanfare of trombones in major thirds that
seemed to go on forever, but didn’t quite. At the end of forever, the
same tenor chanted: “You got a Roadmeister?” and the chorus roared:
“_YES!_”

Ross realized forlornly that the music must contain values and
subtleties which his coarser senses and undeveloped esthetic background
could not grasp. But he wished it would stop. It was making him miss all
the scenery. After perhaps the fifteenth repetition of the Roadmeister
motif, it ended; the driver, with a look of deep satisfaction, did
something to the control board that turned off a subsequent voice before
it could get out more than a syllable.

He turned to Ross and yelled above the suddenly-noticeable rush of air,
“Talk-talk-talk,” and gave a whimsical shrug.

During the moment his attention wandered from the road, his vehicle
rammed the one ahead, decelerated sharply and was rammed by the one
behind, accelerated and rammed the one ahead again and then fell back
into place.

Ross suddenly realized that he knew what had caused those crumples and
crinkles around the periphery of the car.

“Subtle,” the driver yelled. “Indirection. Sneak it in.”

“What?” Ross screamed.

“The commersh,” the driver yelled.

It meant nothing to Ross, and he felt miserable because it meant
nothing. He studied the roadside unhappily and almost beamed when he saw
a sign coming up. Not advertising, of course, he thought. Perhaps some
austere reminder of a whole man’s duty to the race and himself, some
noble phrase that summed up the wisdom of a great thinker....

But the sign—and it had cooling fins—declared:

                         BE SMUG! SMOKE SMOGS!

And the next one urged:

                          BEAT YOUR SISTER
                          CHEAT YOUR BROTHER
                          BUT SEND SOME SMOGS
                          TO DEAR OLD MOTHER.

It said it on four signs which, apparently alerted by radar, zinged in
succession along a roadside track even with the vehicle.

There were more. And worse. They were coming to a city.

Turmoil and magnificence! White pylons, natty belts of green, lacy
bridges, the roaring traffic, nimble-skipping pedestrians waving at the
cars and calling—greetings? It sounded like “Suvvabih! Suvvabih!
Bassa-bassa!” The shops were packed and radiant, dazzling. Ross wondered
fleetingly how one parked here, and then found out. A car pulled from
the curb and a hundred cars converged on the spot, shrilling their sweet
message and spouting their gay sparkles. Theirs too! There were a pair
of jolting crashes as it shouldered two other vehicles aside and parked,
two wheels over the curb and on the sidewalk.

“Suvvabih-bassa!” shouted drivers, and the man beside Ross gaily
repeated the cry. The vehicle’s doors opened and they climbed out into
the quick tempo of the street.

It was loud with a melodious babble from speaker horns visible
everywhere. The driver yelled cheerfully at Ross: “C’mon. Party.” He
followed, dazed and baffled, assailed by sudden doubts and
contradictions.

                  *       *       *       *       *

It was a party, all right—twenty floors up a shimmering building in a
large, handsome room whose principal decorative motif seemed to be
cooling fins.

Perhaps twenty couples were assembled; they turned and applauded as they
made their appearance.

The vehicle driver, standing grandly at the head of a short flight of
stairs leading to the room, proclaimed: “I got these rocket flyers like
on the piece of paper you guys read me. Right off the field. Twenny
points. How about that?”

A tall, graying man with a noble profile hurried up and beamed: “Good
show, Joe. I knew we could count on you to try for the high-point combo.
You was always a real sport. You got the fish?”

“Sure we got the fish.” Joe turned and said to one of the lovely ladies,
“Elna, show him the fish.”

She unwrapped a ten-pound swordfish and proudly held it up while Ross,
Bernie, and Helena stared wildly.

The profile took the fish and poked it. “Real enough, Joe. You done
great. Now if the rocket flyers here are okay you’re okay. Then you got
twenny points and the prize.

“You’re a rocket flyer, ain’t you, Buster?”

Ross realized he was being addressed. He croaked: “Men of Earth, we come
from a far-distant star in search of——”

The profile said, “Just a minute, Buster. _Just_ a minute. You ain’t
from Earth?”

“We come from a far-distant star in search of——”

“Stick to the point, Buster. You ain’t a rocket flyer from Earth? None
of you?”

“No,” Ross said. He furtively pinched himself. It hurt. Therefore he
must be awake. Or crazy.

The profile was sorrowfully addressing a downcast Joe. “You should of
asked them, Joe. You really should of. Now you don’t even get the three
points for the swordfish, because you went an’ tried for the combo. It
reely is a pity. Din’t you ask them at all?”

Joe blustered, “He did say sump’m, but I figured a rocket flyer was a
rocket flyer, and they come out of a rocket.” His lower lip was
trembling. Both of the ladies of his party were crying openly. “We
tried,” Joe said, and began to blubber. Ross moved away from him in
horrified disgust.

The profile shook its head, turned and announced: “Owing to a
unfortunate mistake, the search group of Dr. Joseph Mulcahy, Sc.D.,
Ph.D., got disqualified for the combination. They on’y got three points.
So that’s all the groups in an’ who got the highest?”

“I got fifteen! I got fifteen!” screamed a gorgeous brunette in a
transport of joy. “A manhole cover from the museum an’ a las’ month
_Lipreaders Digest_ an’ a steering wheel from a police car! I got
fifteen!”

The others clustered about her, chattering. Ross said to the profile
mechanically: “Man of Earth, we come from a far-distant star in search
of——”

“Sure, Buster,” said the profile. “Sure. Too bad. But you should of told
Joe. You don’t have to go. You an’ your friends have a drink. Mix. Have
fun. I gotta go give the prize now.” He hurried off.

A passing blonde, stacked, said to Ross: “Hel-looo, baldy. Wanna see my
operation?” He began to shake his head and felt Helena’s fingers close
like steel on his arm. The blonde sniffed and passed on.

“I’ll operate her,” Helena said, and then: “Ross, what’s _wrong_ with
everybody? They act so young, even the old people!”

“Follow me,” he said, and began to circulate through the party, trailing
Bernie and a frankly terrified Helena, button-holing and confronting and
demanding and cajoling. Nothing worked. He was greeted with amused
tolerance and invited to have a drink and asked what he thought of the
latest commersh with its tepid trumpets. Nobody gave a damn that he was
from a far-distant star except Joe, who sullenly watched them wander and
finally swaggered up to Ross.

“I figured something out,” he said grimly. “You made me lose.” He
brought up a roundhouse right, and Ross saw the stars and heard the
birdies.

                  *       *       *       *       *

Bernie and Helena brought him to on the street. He found he had been
walking for some five minutes with a blanked-out mind. They told him he
had been saying over and over again, “Men of Earth, I come from a
far-distant star.” It had got them ejected from the party.

Helena was crying with anger and frustration; she had also got a nasty
scare when one of the vehicles had swerved up onto the sidewalk and
almost crushed the three of them against the building wall.

“And,” she wailed, “I’m hungry and we don’t know where the ship is and
I’ve got to sit down and—and go someplace.”

“So do I,” Bernie said weakly.

So did Ross. He said, “Let’s just go into this restaurant. I know we
have no money—don’t nag me please, Helena. We’ll order, eat, not pay,
and get arrested.” He held up his hand at the protests. “I said, get
arrested. The smartest thing we could do. Obviously somebody’s running
this place—and it’s not the stoops we’ve seen. The quickest way I know
of to get to whoever’s in charge is to get in trouble. And once they see
us we can explain everything.”

It made sense to them. Unfortunately the first restaurant they tried was
coin-operated—from the front door on. So were the second to seventh.
Ross tried to talk Bernie into slugging a pedestrian so they could all
be jugged for disturbing the peace, but failed.

Helena noted at last that the women’s wear shops had live attendants
who, presumably, would object to trouble. They marched into one of the
gaudy places, each took a dress from a rack and methodically tore them
to pieces.

A saleslady approached them dithering and asked tremulously: “What for
did you do that? Din’t you like the dresses?”

“Well yes, very much,” Helena began apologetically. “But you see, the
fact is——”

“Shuddup!” Ross told her. He said to the saleslady: “No. We hated them.
We hate every dress here. We’re going to tear up every dress in the
place. Why don’t you call the police?”

“Oh,” she said vaguely. “All right,” and vanished into the rear of the
store. She returned after a minute and said, “He wants to know your
names.”

“Just say ‘three desperate strangers,’” Ross told her.

“Oh. Thank you.” She vanished again.

The police arrived in five minutes or so. An excited elder man with many
stripes on his arms strode up to them excitedly as they stood among the
shredded ruins of the dresses. “Where’d they go?” he demanded. “Didja
see what they looked like?”

“We’re them. We three. We tore these dresses up. You’d better take them
along for evidence.”

“Oh,” the cop said. “Okay. Go on into the wagon. And no funny business,
hear me?”

They offered no funny business. In the wagon Ross expounded on his theme
that there must be directing intelligences and that they must be at the
top. Helena was horribly depressed because she had never been arrested
before and Bernie was almost jaunty. Something about him suggested that
he felt at home in a patrol wagon.

It stopped and the elderly stripe-wearer opened the door for them. Ross
looked on the busy street for anything resembling a station house and
found none.

The cop said, “Okay, you people. Get going. An’ let’s don’t have no
trouble or I’ll run you in.”

Ross yelled in outrage, “This is a frame-up! You have no right to turn
us loose. We demand to be arrested and tried!”

“Wise guy,” sneered the cop, climbed into the wagon and drove off.

They stood forlornly as the crowd eddied and swirled around them. “There
was a plate of sandwiches at that party,” Helena recalled wistfully.
“And a ladies’ room.” She began to cry. “If only you hadn’t acted so
darn superior, Ross! I’ll bet they would have let us have all the
sandwiches we wanted.”

Bernie said unexpectedly, “She’s right. Watch me.”

He buttonholed a pedestrian and said, “Duh.”

“Yeah?” asked the pedestrian with kindly interest.

Bernie concentrated and said, “Duh. I yam losted. I yam broke. I losted
all my money. Gimme some money, mister, please?”

The pedestrian beamed and said, “That is real tough luck, buddy. If I
give you some money will you send it to me when you get some more? Here
is my name wrote on a card.”

Bernie said, “Sure, mister. I will send the money to you.”

“Then,” said the pedestrian, “I will give you some money because you
will send it back to me. Good luck, buddy.”

Bernie, with quiet pride, showed them a piece of paper that bore the
interesting legend Twenty Dollars.

“Let’s eat,” Ross said, awed.

A machine on a restaurant door changed the bill for a surprising heap of
coins and they swaggered in, making beelines for the modest twin doors
at the rear of the place. Close up the doors were not very modest, but
after the initial shock Ross realized that there must be many on this
planet who could not read at all. The washroom attendant, for instance,
who collected the “dimes” and unlocked the booths. “Dime” seemed to be
his total vocabulary.

By comparison the machines in the restaurant proper were intelligent.
The three of them ate and ate and ate. Only after coffee did they spare
a thought for Dr. Sam Jones, who should about then be awakening with a
murderous hangover aboard the starship.

Thinking about him did not mean they could think of anything to do.

“He’s in trouble,” Bernie said. “_We’re_ in trouble. First things
first.”

“What trouble?” asked Helena brightly. “You got twenty dollars by asking
for it and I suppose you can get plenty more. And I think we wouldn’t
have got thrown out of that party if—ah—_we_ hadn’t gone swaggering
around talking as if we knew everything. Maybe these people here aren’t
very bright——”

Ross snorted.

Helena went on doggedly, “——not _very_ bright, but they certainly can
tell when somebody’s brighter than they are. And naturally they don’t
like it. Would you like it? It’s like a really old person talking to a
really young person about nothing but age. But here when you’re bright
you make everybody feel bad every time you open your mouth.”

“So,” Ross said impatiently, “we can go on begging and drifting. But
that’s not what we’re here for. The answer is supposed to be on Earth.
Obviously none of the people we’ve seen could possibly know anything
about genetics. Obviously they can’t keep this machine civilization
going without guidance. There must be people of normal intelligence
around. In the government, is my guess.”

“No,” said Helena, but she wouldn’t say why. She just thought not.

The inconclusive debate ended with them on the street again. Bernie, who
seemed to enjoy it, begged a hundred dollars. Ross, who didn’t, got
eleven dollars in singles and a few threats of violence for acting like
a wise guy. Helena got no money and three indecent proposals before Ross
indignantly took her out of circulation.

They found a completely automatic hotel at nightfall. Ross tried to
inspect Helena’s room for comfort and safety, but was turned back at the
threshold by a staggering jolt of electricity. “Mechanical house dick,”
he muttered, picking himself up from the floor. “Well,” he said to her
sourly, “it’s safe. Good night.”

And later in the gents’ room, to Bernie: “You’d think the damn-fool
machine could be adjusted so that a person with perfectly innocent
intentions could visit a lady——”

“Sure,” said Bernie soothingly, “sure. Say, Ross, frankly, is this Earth
exactly what you expected it to be?”

The attendant moved creakily across the floor and said hopefully,
“Dime?”



..... 13


THEIR second day on the bum they accumulated a great deal of change and
crowded into a telephone booth. The plan was to try to locate their
starship and find out what, if anything, could be done for Sam Jones.

An automatic Central conferred with an automatic Information and decided
that they wanted the Captain of the Port, Baltimore Rocket Field.

They got the Port Captain on the wire and Ross asked after the starship.
The captain asked, “Who wan’sta know, huh?”

Ross realized he had overdone it and shoved Bernie at the phone. Bernie
snorted and guggled and finally got out that he jus’ wannit ta know. The
captain warmed up immediately and said oh, sure, the funny-lookin’ ship,
it was still there all right.

“How about the fella that’s in it?”

“You mean the funny-lookin’ fella? He went someplace.”

“He went someplace? What place?”

“Someplace. He went away, like. I din’t see him go, mister. I got plenty
to do without I should watch out for every dummy that comes along.”

“T’anks,” said Bernie hopelessly at Ross’s signal.

They walked the street, deep in thought. Helena sobbed, “Let’s _leave_
him here, Ross. I don’t like this place.”

“No.”

Bernie growled, “What’s the difference, Ross? He can get a snootful just
as easy here as anywhere else——”

“No! It isn’t the Doc, don’t you see? But this is the place we’re
looking for. All the answers we need are here; we’ve got to get them.”

Bernie stepped around two tussling men on the ground, ineffectually
thumping each other over a chocolate-covered confection. “Yeah,” he said
shortly.

                  *       *       *       *       *

Helena said: “Isn’t that a silly way to put up a big sign like that?”

Ross looked up. “My God,” he said. A gigantic metal sign with the
legend, _Buy Smogs_——_You Can SMOKE Them_, was being hoisted across the
street ahead. The street was nominally closed to traffic by cheerfully
inattentive men with red flags; a mobile boom hoist was doing the work,
and quite obviously doing it wrong. The angle of the boom arm with the
vertical was far too great for stability; the block-long sign was
tipping the too-light body of the hoisting engine on its treads....

Ross made a flash calculation: when the sign fell, as fall it inevitably
would, perhaps two hundred people who had wandered uncaringly past the
warning flags would be under it.

There was a sudden aura of blue light around the engine body.

It tipped back to stability. The boom angle decreased, and the engine
crawled forward to take up the horizontal difference.

The blue light went out.

Helena choked and coughed and babbled, “But Ross, it _couldn’t_ have
because——”

Ross said: “It’s them!”

“Who?”

Excitedly: “The people behind all this! The people who built the cities
and put up the buildings and designed the machines. The people who have
the answers! Come on, Bernie. I just seem to antagonize these people—I
want you to ask the boom operator what happened.”

The boom operator cheerfully explained that nah, it was just somep’n
that happened. Nah, nobody did nothin’ to make it happen. It was in case
if anything went wrong, like. You know?

They retired and regrouped their forces.

“Foolproof machines,” Ross said slowly. “And I mean really _fool_ proof.
Friends, I was wrong, I admit it; I thought that those buildings and
cars were something super-special, and they turned out to be just silly
gimcracks. But not this blue light thing. That boom _had_ to fall.”

Bernie shrugged rebelliously. “So what? So they’ve got some kinds of
machines you don’t have on Halsey’s Planet?”

“A different order of machines, Bernie! Believe me, that blue light was
something as far from any safety device I ever heard of as the starships
are from oxcarts. When we find the people who designed them——”

“Suppose they’re all dead?”

Ross winced. He said determinedly, “We’ll find them.” They returned to
their begging and were recognized one day by the gray-haired profile of
the party. He didn’t remember just who they were or where they were from
or where he had met them, but he enthusiastically invited them to yet
another party. He told them he was Hennery Matson, owner of an airline.

Ross asked about accidents and blue lights. Matson jovially said some o’
his pilots talked about them things but he din’t bother his head none.
Ya get these planes from the field, see, an’ they got all kinds of
gadgets on them. Come on to the party!

They went, because Hennery promised them another guest—Sanford Eisner,
who was a wealthy aircraft manufacturer. But he din’t bother his head
none either; them rockets was hard to make, you had to feed the
patterns, like, into the master jigs just so, and, boy!, if you got ’em
in backwards it was a _mess_. Wheredja get the patterns? Look, mister,
we _always_ had the patterns, an’ don’t spoil the party, will ya?

The party was a smasher. They all woke with headaches on Matson’s deep
living room rug.

“You did fine, Ross,” Helena softly assured him. “Nobody would have
guessed you were any smarter than anybody else here. There wasn’t a bit
of trouble.”

Ross seemed to have a hiatus in his memory.

The importance of the hiatus faded as time passed. There was a general
move toward the automatic dispensing bar. It seemed to be regulated by a
time clock; no matter what you dialed first thing in the morning, it
ruthlessly poured a double rye with Worcestershire and tabasco and
plopped a fair imitation of a raw egg into the concoction. It helped!

Along about noon something clicked in the bar’s innards. Guests long
since surfeited with the prairie oysters joyously dialed martinis and
manhattans and the day’s serious drinking began.

Ross fuzzily tried to trace the bar’s supply. There were nickel pipes
that led Heaven knew where. Some vast depot of fermentation tanks and
stills? Fed grain and cane by crawling harvest-monsters? Grain and cane
planted from seed the harvest-monsters carefully culled from the crop
for the plow-and-drag-and-drill-and-fertilize-and-cultivate monsters?

His head was beginning to ache again. A jovial martini-drinker who had
something to do with a bank—a _bank!_—roared, “Hey, fellas! I got a idea
what we can do! Less go on over to _my_ place!”

So they all went, and that disposed of another day.

                  *       *       *       *       *

It blended into a dream of irresponsible childhood. When your clothes
grew shabby you helped yourself to something that fit from your host of
the moment’s wardrobe. When you grew tired of one host you switched to
another. They seldom remembered you from day to day, and they never
asked questions.

Their sex was uninhibited and most of the women were more or less
pregnant most of the time. They fought and sulked and made up and
giggled and drank and ate and slept. All of the men had jobs, and all of
them, once in a while, would remember and stagger over to a phone and
make a call to an automatic receptionist to find out if everything was
going all right with their jobs. It always was. They loved their
children and tolerated anything from them, except shrewd inquisitiveness
which drew a fast bust in the teeth from the most indulgent daddy or
adoring mommy. They loved their friends and their guests, as long as
they weren’t wise guys, and tolerated anything from them—as long as they
weren’t wise guys.

Did it last a day, a week, a month?

Ross didn’t know. The only things that were really bothering Ross were,
first, nobody wouldn’t tell him nothin’ about the blue lights and,
second, that Bernie, he was actin’ like a wise guy.

There came a morning when it ended as it had begun: on somebody’s living
room rug with a headache pounding between his eyes. Helena was sobbing
softly, and that wise guy, Bernie, was tugging at him.

“Lea’ me alone,” ordered Captain Ross without opening his eyes. Wouldn’t
let a man get his rest. What did he have to bring them along for,
anyway? Should have left them where he found them, not brought them to
this place Earth where they could act like a couple of wise guys and
keep getting in his way every time he came close to the blue-light
people, the intelligent people, the people with the answers to——to——

He lay there, trying to remember what the question was.

“——_have_ to get him out of here,” said Helena’s voice with a touch of
hysteria.

“——go back and get that fellow Haarland,” said Bernie’s voice, equally
tense. Ross contemplated the fragments of conversation he had caught,
ignoring what the two were saying to him. Haarland, he thought fuzzily,
_that_ wise guy....

Bernie had him on his feet. “Leggo,” ordered Ross, but Bernie was
tenacious. He stumbled along and found himself in the men’s room of the
apartment. The tired-looking attendant appeared from nowhere and Bernie
said something to him. The attendant rummaged in his chest and found
something that Bernie put into a fizzy drink.

Ross sniffed at it suspiciously. “Wassit?” he asked.

“Please, Ross, drink it. It’ll sober you up. We’ve got to get out of
here—we’re going nuts, Helena and me. This has been going on for weeks!”

“Nope. Gotta find a blue light,” Ross said obstinately, swaying.

“But you aren’t finding it, Ross. You aren’t doing anything except get
drunk and pass out and wake up and get drunk. Come on, drink the drink.”
Ross impatiently dashed it to the floor. Bernie sighed. “All right,
Ross,” he said wearily. “Helena can run the ship; we’re taking off.”

“Go ’head.”

“Good-by, Ross. We’re going back to Halsey’s Planet, where you came
from. Maybe Haarland can tell us what to do.”

“Go ’head. _That_ wise guy!” Ross sneered.

The attendant was watching dubiously as Bernie slammed out and Ross
peered at himself in a mirror. “Dime?” the attendant asked in his tired
voice. Ross gave him one and went back to the party.

Somehow it was not much fun.

He shuffled back to the bar. The boilermaker didn’t taste too good. He
set it down and glowered around the room. The party was back in swing
already; Helena and Bernie were nowhere in sight. Let them go, then....

He drank, but only when he reminded himself to. This party had become a
costume ball; one of the men lurched out of the room and staggered back
guffawing. “Looka him!” one of the women shrieked. “He got a woman’s hat
on! Horace, you get the craziest kinda ideas!”

Ross glowered. He suddenly realized that, while he wasn’t exactly sober,
he wasn’t drunk either. Those soreheads, they had to go and spoil the
party....

He began abruptly to get less drunk yet. Back to Halsey’s Planet, they
said? Ask Haarland what to do, they said? Leave him here——?

He was cold sober.

He found a telephone. The automatic Central checked the automatic
Information and got him the Captain of the Port, Baltimore Rocket Field.
The Captain was helpful and sympathetic; caught by the tense note in
Ross’s voice when he told him who wannit to know, the Captain said,
“Gee, buddy, if I’d of known I woulda stopped them. Stoled your ship, is
that what they done? They could get arrested for that. You could call
the cops an’ maybe they could do something——”

Ross didn’t bother to explain. He hung up.

The party was no fun at all. He left it.

Ross walked along the street, hating himself. He couldn’t hate Helena
and Bernie; they had done the right thing. It had been his fault, all
the way down the line. He’d been acting like a silly child; he’d had a
job of work to do, and he let himself be sidetracked by a crazy round of
drinking and parties.

Of course, he told himself, something had been accomplished. Somebody
had built the machines—not the happy morons he had been playing with.
Somebody had invented whatever it was that flared with blue light and
repaired the idiot errors the morons made. Somebody, somewhere.

Where?

Well, he had some information. All negative. At the parties had been
soldiers and politicians and industrialists and clergy and entertainers
and, heaven save the mark, scientists. And none of them had had the wit
to do more than push the Number Three Button when the Green Light A
blinked, by rote. None of them could have given him the answer to the
question that threatened to end human domination over the cosmos; none
of them would have known what the words meant.

Maybe—Ross made himself face it—maybe there was no answer. Maybe even if
he found the intellects that lurked beneath the surface on this ancient
planet, they could not or would not tell him what he wanted to know.
Maybe the intellects didn’t exist.

Maybe he was all wrong in all of his assumptions; maybe he was wasting
his time. But, he told himself wryly, he had fixed it for himself that
time was all he had left. He might as well waste it. He might as well go
right on looking....

A migrant party was staggering down the street toward him, a score of
persons going from one host’s home to another. He crossed to avoid them.
They were singing drunkenly.

Ross looked at them with the distaste of the recently reformed. One of
the voices raised in song caught his ear:

      “——bobbed his nose and dyed it rose, and kissed his lady fair, And
      sat her down on a cushion brown in a seven-legged chair. ‘By
      Jones,’ he said, ‘my shoes are red, and so’s my overcoat, And with
      buttons nine in a zigzag line, I’ll——’”

“Doc!” Ross bellowed. “Doc Jones! For God’s sake, come over here!”

They got rid of the rest of Doctor Sam Jones’s party, and Ross sobered
the doctor up in an all-night restaurant. It wasn’t hard; the doctor had
had plenty of practice.

Ross filled him in, carefully explaining why Bernie and Helena had left
him. Doc Jones filled Ross in. He didn’t have much to tell. He had come
to in the ship, waited around until he got hungry, fallen into a
conversation with a rocket pilot on the field—and that was how _his_
round of parties had begun.

Like Ross, Doc, in his soberer moments, had come to the conclusion that
Earth was run by person or persons unseen. He had learned little that
Ross hadn’t found out or deduced. The blue lights had bothered him, too;
he’d asked the pilot about it, and found out about what Ross had—there
appeared to be some sort of built-in safety device which kept the
inevitable accidents from becoming unduly fatal. How they worked, he
didn’t know—

But he had an idea.

“It sounds a little ridiculous, I admit,” he said, embarrassed. “But I
think it might work. It’s a radio program.”

“A radio program?”

“I said it sounded ridiculous. They call it, ‘What’s Biting You,’ and
one of the fellows was telling me about it. It seems that you can appear
before the panel on the program with any sort of problem, any sort at
all, and they guarantee to solve it for you. There’s some sort of bond
posted—I don’t know much about the details, but this man assured me that
the bond was only a formality; they never failed. Of course,” Doc
finished, hearing his own proposal with a touch of doubt, “I don’t know
whether they ever had any problem like this before, but——”

“Yeah,” said Ross. “What have we got to lose?”

They got into the program. It took the techniques of a doubler on an
army chow line and a fair amount of brute strength, but they got to the
head of the queue at the studio and wedged themselves inside. Doc came
close to throttling the man who prowled through the studio audience,
selecting the lucky few who would get on stage—but they got on.

The theme music swelled majestically around them, and a chorus crooned,
“What’s Biting You—Hunh?” It was repeated three times, with crashing
cymbals under the “Hunh?”

Ross listened to the beginning of the program and cursed himself for
being persuaded into such a harebrained tactic. But, he had to admit,
the program offered the only possibility in sight. The central figure
was a huge, jovially grinning figure of papier-mâché, smoking a Smog and
billowing smoke rings at the audience. An announcer, for some obscure
reason in blackface, interviewed the disturbed derelicts who came before
Smiley Smog, the papier-mâché figure, and propounded their problems to
Smiley in a sort of doggerel. And in doggerel the answers came back.

The first person to go up before Smiley was a woman, clearly in her last
month of pregnancy. The announcer introduced her to the audience and
begged for a real loud holler of hello for this poor mizzuble li’l girl.
“Awright, honey,” he said. “You just step right up here an’ let ol’
Uncle Smiley take care of your troubles for you. Less go, now. What’s
Bitin’ You?”

“Uh,” she sobbed, “it’s like I’m gonna have a baby.”

“Hoddya like that!” the announcer screamed. “She’s gonna have a _baby!_
Whaddya say to that, folks?” The audience shrieked hysterically.
“Awright, honey,” the announcer said. “So you’re gonna have a baby, so
what’s bitin’ you about that?”

“It’s my husband,” the woman sniffled. “He don’t like kids. We got eight
already,” she explained. “Jack, he says if we have one more kid he’s
gonna take off an’ marry somebody else.”

“He’s gonna marry somebody else!” the announcer howled. “Hoddya like
that, folks?” There was a tempest of boos. “Awright, now,” the announcer
said, “you just sit there, honey, while I tell ol’ Uncle Smiley about
this. Ya ready? Listen:

               “What’s bitin’ this lady is plain to see:
                Her husband don’t want no more family!”

The huge figure’s head rotated on a concealed hinge to look down on the
woman. From a squawk-box deep in Smiley’s papier-mâché belly, a weary
voice declaimed:

               “If one more baby is your husband’s dread,
                Cross him up, lady. Have twins instead!”

The audience roared its approval. The announcer asked anxiously, “Ya get
it? When ya get inta the hospital, like, ya jus’ tell the nurse ya want
to take _two_ kids home with you. See?”

The grateful woman staggered away. Ross gave Doc a poisonous look.

“What else is there to do?” the doctor hissed. “All right, perhaps this
won’t work out—but let’s try!” He half rose, and staggered against the
man next to him, who was already starting toward the announcer. “Go on,
Ross,” Doc hissed venomously, blocking off the other man.

Ross went. What else was there to do?

“What’s biting me,” he said belligerently before the announcer could put
him through the preliminaries, “is simply this: L-sub-T equals
L-sub-zero e to the minus-T-over-two-N.”

Dead silence in the studio. The announcer quavered, “Wh-what was that
again, buddy?”

“I said,” Ross repeated firmly, “L-sub-T equals L-sub-zero e to the——”

“Now, wait a minute, buddy,” the announcer ordered. “We never had no
stuff like that on _this_ program before. Whaddya, some kind of a wise
guy?”

There might have been violence; the conditions were right for it. But
Uncle Smiley Smog saved the day.

The papier-mâché figure puffed a blinding series of smoke rings at Ross.
From its molded torso, the weary voice said:

         “If you’re looking for counsel sagacious and wise,
          The price is ten cents. It’s right under your eyes.”

They left the studio in a storm of animosity.

“Maybe we could have collected the forfeit,” Doc said hopefully.

“Maybe we could have collected some lumps,” Ross growled. “Got any more
ideas?”

The doctor sipped his coffee. “No,” he admitted. “I wonder—No, I don’t
suppose that means anything.”

“That jingle? Sure it means something, Doc. It means I should have had
my head examined for letting you talk me into that performance.”

The doctor said rebelliously, “Maybe I’m wrong, Ross, but I don’t see
that you’ve had any ideas than panned out much better.”

Ross got up. “All right,” he admitted. “I’m sorry if I gave you a hard
time. It’s all this coffee and all the liquor underneath it; I swear, if
I ever get back to a civilized planet I’m going on a solid diet for a
month.”

They headed for the room marked “Gents,” Ross sullenly quiet, Doc
thoughtfully quiet.

Doc said reflectively, “‘The price is ten cents.’ Ross, could that mean
a paper that we could buy on a newsstand, maybe?”

“Yeah,” Ross said in irritation. “Look, Doc, don’t give it another
thought. There must be some way to straighten this thing out; I’ll think
of it. Let’s just make believe that whole asinine radio program never
happened.” The attendant materialized and offered Ross a towel.

“Dime?” he said wearily.

Ross fished absently in his pocket. “The thing that bothers me, Doc,” he
said, “is that I know there are intelligent people somewhere around. I
even know what they’re doing, I bet. They’re doing exactly what I tried
to do: acted as stupid as anybody else, or stupider. I’d make a guess,”
he said, warming up, “that if we could just make a statistical analysis
of the whole planet and find the absolute stupidest-seeming people of
the lot, we’d——”

He ran out of breath all at once. His eyes bulged.

He looked at the men’s-room attendant, and at the ten-cent piece in his
own hand.

“You!” he breathed.

The attendant’s face suddenly seemed to come to life. In a voice that
was abruptly richer and deeper than before, the man said: “Yes. You had
to find us yourself, you know.”



..... 14


THERE was a home base, a gigantic island called Australia, to which they
took Ross and Doc Jones in a little car that sprouted no wings and
flashed no rockets, but flew.

They lived underground there, invisible to goggling passengers and
crewmen aboard the “rockets.” (They weren’t rockets. They were
turbo-jets. But it made the children happy to think that they had
rockets, so iron filings were added to the hot jet stream, and they
sparkled in magnificent display.)

There they were born, and there they spent strange childhoods, learning
such things as psychodynamics and teleportation. By the time they were
eight months or so old they thought it amusing to converse of Self and
the Meaning of Meaning. By eighteen months a dozen infants would chat in
_terza rima_. But by the age of two they had put such toys behind them
with a sigh of pleasant regret. They would revert to them only for such
purposes as love-making or choral funeral addresses.

They were then of an age to begin their work.

They were born there, and trained there for terrible tasks. And they
died there, at whatever risk. For that they would not surrender: their
right to die among their own.

But their lives between cradle and grave, those they gave away.

Nursemaids? What else can one call them?

They explained it patiently to Ross and the doctor.

“The pattern emerged clearly in the twentieth century. Swarming slums
abrawl with children, children, children everywhere. Walk down a Chicago
Southside street, and walk away with the dazed impression that all the
world was pregnant. Walk through pretty, pleasant Evanston, and find the
impression wrong. Those who lived in Evanston were reasonable people.
They waited and thought. Being reasonable, they saved and planned. Being
reasonable, they resorted to gadgets or chemicals or continence.

“A woman of the period had some three hundred and ninety opportunities
to conceive a child. In the slums and the hills they took advantage of
as many of them as they might. But around the universities, in the
neighborhoods of the well-educated and the well-to-do, what was the
score?

“First, education, until the age of twenty. This left two hundred and
ninety-nine opportunities. Then, for perhaps five years, shared work;
the car, the mortgage, the furniture, that two salaries would pay off
earlier than one. Two hundred and thirty-four opportunities were left.
Some of them were seized: a spate of childbearing perhaps would come
next. But subtract a good ten years more at the end of the cycle, for
the years when a child would be simply too, late—too late for fashion,
too late for companionship with the first-born. We started with three
hundred and ninety opportunities. We have, perhaps, one hundred and
forty-four left.

“Is that the roster complete? No. There is the battle of the budget: No,
not right now, not until the summer place is paid for. And more. The
visits from the mothers-in-law, the quarterly tax payments, the
country-club liaisons and the furtive knives behind the brownstone
fronts and what becomes of fertility—they have all been charted. But
these are superfluous. The ratio 390:144 points out the inevitable. As
three hundred and ninety outweighs one hundred and forty-four, so the
genes of the slovenly and heedless outweigh the thoughtful and slow to
act.

“We tampered with the inevitable.

“The planet teemed and burst. The starships went forth. The strong,
bright, quick ones went out in the ships. Two sorts were left: The
strong ones who were not bright, the bright ones who were not strong.

“We are the prisoners of the planet. We cannot leave.

“The children—the witless ones outside—can leave. But who would have
them?”

Ross peered into the shifting shadows. “But,” he said, “you are the
masters of the planet——”

“_Masters?_ We are slaves! Fully alive only here where we are born and
die. Abstracted and as witless as they when we are among _them_—well we
might be. For each of us, square miles to stand guard over. Our minds
roving across the traps we dare not ignore, ready to leap out and
straighten these children’s toppling walls of blocks, ready to warn the
child that sharp things cut and hot things burn. The blue lights—did you
think they were machines?” They were _us_!

“You’re torturing yourselves!” Ross exploded. “Let them die.”

“Let—ten—billion—children—die? We are not such monsters.”

Ross was humbled before their tragedy. Diffidently he spoke of Halsey’s
Planet, Ragansworld, Azor, Jones. He warmed to the task and was growing,
he thought, eloquent when their smiles left him standing ashamed.

“I don’t understand,” he said, almost weeping.

The voice corrected him: “You do. But you do not—yet—know that you do.
Consider the facts:

“Your planet. Sterile and slowly dying.

“The planets you have seen. One sterile because it is imprisoned by
ancients, one sterile under an in-driven matriarchal custom, one sterile
because all traces of divergence have been wiped out.

“Earth. Split into an incurable dichotomy—the sterility of brainless
health, the sterility of sick intellect.

“Humanity, then, imprisoned in a thousand sterile tubes, cut off each
from the other, dying. We feared war, and so we isolated the members
with a wall of time. We have found something worse to fear. What if the
walls are cracked?”

“Crack the walls? How? Is it too late?”

Somehow the image of Helena was before him.

“Is it too late?” they gently mocked. “Surely you know. How? Perhaps you
will ask her.”

The image of Helena was blushing.

Ross’s heart leaped. “As simple as that?”

“For you, yes. For others there will be lives spent over the lathes and
milling machines, eyes gone blind in calculating and refining
trajectories, daring ones lost screaming in the hearts of stars, or
gibbering with hunger and pain as the final madness closes down on them,
stranded between galaxies. There will be martyrs to undergo the worst
martyrdom of all—which is to say, they will never know of it. They will
be unhappy traders and stock-chasers, grinding their lives to smooth
dull blanks against the wearying routine so that the daring ones may go
forth to the stars. But for you—you have seen the answer.

“Old blood runs thin. Thin blood runs cold. Cold blood dies. Let the
walls crack.”

There was a murmuring in the shadows that Ross could not hear. Then the
voice again, saying a sort of good-by.

“We have had a great deal of experience with children, so we know that
they must not be told too much. There is nothing more you need be told.
You will go back now——”

Ross dared interrupt. “But our ship—the others have taken it away——”

Again the soundless laughter. “The ship has not been taken far. Did you
think we would leave you stranded here?”

Ross peered hard into the shadows. But only the shadows were there, and
then he and Jones were in the shadows no longer.

“Ross!” Helena was hysterical with joy. Even Bernie was stammering and
shaking his head incredulously. “Ross, dearest! We thought—And the ship
acted all _funny_, and then it landed here and there just wasn’t anybody
around, and I couldn’t make it go again——”

“It will go now,” Ross promised. It did. They sealed ship; he took the
controls; and they hung in space, looking back on a blue-green planet
with a single moon.

There were questions; but Ross put an end to questions. He said, “We’re
going back to Halsey’s Planet. Haarland wanted an answer. We’ve found
it; we’ll bring it to him. The F-T-L families have kept their secret too
well. No wars between the planets—but stagnation worse than wars. And
Haarland’s answer is this: He will be the first of the F-T-L traders.
He’ll build F-T-L ships, and he’ll carelessly let their secrets be
stolen. We’ll bridge the galaxy with F-T-L transports; and we’ll pack
the ships with a galaxy of crews! New genes for old; hybrid vigor for
dreary decay!

“Do you see it?” His voice was ringing loud; Helena’s eyes on him were
adoring. “Mate Jones to Azor, Halsey’s Planet to Earth. Smash the
smooth, declining curve! Cross the strains, and then breed them back.
Let mankind become genetically wild again instead of rabbits isolated in
their sterile hutches!”

Exultantly he set up the combinations for Halsey’s Planet on the Wesley
board.

Helena was beside him, proud and close, as he threw in the drive.



                           ABOUT THE AUTHORS


THE SPACE MERCHANTS was not only one of the best-reviewed
science-fiction novels in 1953, it was one of the most widely reviewed.
Favorable notices appeared in journals ranging from _Printer’s Ink_ to
science-fiction magazines, from _Tide_ magazine to the great national
dailies. That novel firmly established Messrs. Pohl and Kornbluth as a
team, although they had collaborated before under pen names and had
established reputations singly. Their new novel, SEARCH THE SKY, has the
same wit, the same passages of genuinely beautiful writing and—what is
most important and most characteristic—the same underlying concern for
human beings, whether they are on future Madison Avenues or in the outer
galaxies.

This is Mr. Kornbluth’s seventh published novel. Two were written in
collaboration with Judith Merril under the pen name “Cyril Judd”; one
was the notable TAKEOFF (Doubleday, 1952); one was not science fiction;
one was his last collaborative effort with Mr. Pohl; and his most recent
was THE SYNDIC (Doubleday, 1953). Mr. Kornbluth, still under thirty, now
lives in an upstate New York farmhouse with his wife and child where he
devotes himself to writing.

This is Mr. Pohl’s sixth published book. Two of them were reprint
collections which he edited and two others were the now-celebrated first
and second volumes of STAR SCIENCE FICTION STORIES, collections of new
stories published by Ballantine Books. At 34, Mr. Pohl lives in a large
old house on the Jersey shore—“five rooms for me, four for my wife and
two apiece for the children.” He has three more books forthcoming in
1953: two anthologies and his first solo novel.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                           TRANSCRIBER’S NOTE


Repeated instances of the title in the front of the book have been
reduced.

Punctuation has been normalized. Variations in hyphenation have been
retained as they were in the original publication. The following assumed
printer’s errors were corrected:

    look at the stars and breath —> breathe {Page 24}

    Halsey City to the ’port —> port {Page 29}

    were ready to quit Oldhan —> Oldham {Page 31}

    short of meccano-toy —> sort {Page 96}

    O.8952, —> 0.8952, {Page 109}

    Trouble is, he’s too Jonesfearing. —> Jones-fearing {Page 118}

Italicized phrases are presented by surrounding the text with
_underscores_.

In the mathematical formulas, superscripts and subscripts are
represented by surrounding with curly brackets; in the case of
subscripts, the leading bracket is preceded by an underscore, and in the
case of superscripts, it is preceded by a caret. In the simple case of a
single superscripted character, a caret may precede the character
without any brackets. An example is: L_{T}=L_{O}e-^{T/2N}





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