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Title: Gravy Train
Author: Galouye, Daniel F.
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 "Gravy Train" ***

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                              GRAVY TRAIN

                         By DANIEL F. GALOUYE

                    _Ever hear of evil fairies who
                    grant three wishes? McWorther's
                     was more efficient. One wish
                   was plenty to bring catastrophe!_

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
               Worlds of If Science Fiction, March 1960.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


                                   I

At one hundred and thirty, life was indeed gratifying for Titus
McWorther. But for one missing detail, it would have been perfect.

With his wife, Edna, he had planned well for retirement. His
idyllic estate consisted of a second-hand planetoid, thirty miles in
circumference, which was the only habitable piece of matter in its
system. Complete with supplementary gravity generator, a compact
atmosphere, a mantle of lush topsoil and a carefully selected biota,
McWorther's World was both his delight and his pride.

Its principal asset was, of course, its isolation.

Well away from the mainstream of galactic civilization, McWorther's
Star was smugly hidden behind a dark nebula, through which he and Edna
plunged twice a year to the fringe of the cluster--just to observe and
mock convention, if for nothing else.

It was an ideal setup.

But, after two sedentary years, Titus realized he still needed one item
to make his retirement complete. So he dispatched this tight-beamed
message to the packet order department of Rear-Sobucks and Company in
the West Cluster Federation's Hub City:

    Dear Sir:

    Please send one automatic bather with back-scrubbing attachment
    and     toy boat docks, as listed in your videolog under order
    No. 4678-25C. Charge same to credit account No. W414754-B24D.

    Sincerely yours,
    Titus McWorther, Potentate
    McWorther's World

He listed the coordinates of the star and the orbital factor of his
planetoid.

       *       *       *       *       *

Unfortunately, the hyper-spatial line between McWorther's World and
the nearest relay center was partly coincident with the link to the
politically noncommitted world of Gauyuth-VI.

This condition, together with the fact that components of a
communication are sent by separate pulse, sometimes leads to the
embarrassing phenomenon known as "message interfusion," which is
retransmission of the right text with the wrong signature.

And it so happened that as Titus McWorther's order was en route, the
system was also being burdened with this intelligence to the Ganymede
Extension of the Western Cluster's State Department:

    Dear Sir:

    This will verify our agreement and authorize implementation of
    interstellar aid arrangements as set forth in conferences with your
    ambassador. If such arrangements produce mutual satisfaction, we
    will quite readily declare concurrence, in principle at least, with
    the political aims of the Western Cluster.

    Respectfully yours,
    Ogarm Netath,
    Prime Minister
    Gauyuth-VI

Appended to the signature were the coordinates of Gauyuth and the
orbital factor of its Number Six planet.

       *       *       *       *       *

Wharton Hoverly, undersecretary of cosmic aid for the Western Cluster,
plucked at his thick, gray mustache as he reread the space-o-gram.

He punched the videobox stud. "Mallston!"

The younger and more composed face of his assistant stared from the
screen. "Yes, sir?"

"Anything yet?"

"Not a thing. We have no record of a--McWorther's World."

"What do you suppose?"

"Well, it seems authentic enough. We do know Ambassador Summerson has
been working in that general area."

"And you think Summerson signed an aid agreement with this potentate?"

"I'd say the message speaks for itself."

Again, Hoverly worried his mustache. "Did you check with Summerson?"

"He's on extended leave."

"What do you think we ought to do?"

"McWorther's World must be a critical area. And evidently we're going
to get what we want out of the deal, since the Potentate speaks of
concurrence with Western Cluster aims."

Impatiently, the undersecretary glanced out the window. Ganymede was
well out of the Jovian umbra now. If he didn't leave soon, he'd be late
for his conference with the commerce department on Farside Luna.

"All right, Mallston," he said. "Put McWorther's World on a Class A aid
schedule. That ought to hold the Potentate until Summerson gets back."

       *       *       *       *       *

In the commercial section of Hub City, Rear-Sobucks and Company
occupied a monstrous building whose emblematic tip pierced the clouds.

On the two hundredth floor, the twenty-seventh vice-president
strode through the rail gate, tossed the secretary a
"don't-bother-to-announce-me" glance and went on into the inner office
of the twenty-sixth vice-president.

"Got something I thought you'd be interested in, V.R.," he told the
limp-faced man behind the desk. "There may be a promotion angle."

"What is it?" V.R. asked, not exactly gripping his chair with
anticipation.

The other placed the space-o-gram on the desk. "It's from an Ogarm
Netath, _prime minister_ of a place called Gauyuth-Six. He wants an
automatic bather."

V.R. extended a "so what?" glare.

"Don't you see? Big shots like that don't place personal orders. But
here's one who thinks so much of a Rear-Sobucks item that he forgets
all about convention."

"And so, Wheeler, you want to capitalize on his good name in some sort
of promotion gimmick," V.R. said through taut lips.

Wheeler shrank. "But I thought--"

"Never mind what you thought. Fill his order. Send it compliments
of--let's see, Gauyuth-Six is uncommitted--compliments of the Western
Cluster."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was a fine morning on McWorther's World. Cotton-candy clouds floated
over the fields. Dreaming herons, balanced on slender legs, gave
the shallows of the lake a tufted appearance. A delightful breeze,
artificially generated at the equator, wafted flowering stalks and
rocked the air car and spaceabout at their moorings.

Titus snorted on the veranda and reached for his julep. He was a chunky
little man, with the ruddiness of good health tinting his face and
overflowing onto his partly bald pate.

"Where are you, Titus?" an anxious voice disturbed the quiet of the
house.

"Out here, Love."

Edna appeared in the doorway. Despite her age, there was still the
fascination in her timeless eyes that had snared Titus more than ninety
years ago.

"The chef burned the beans again," she said, frowning.

"Guess I'll have to fix it."

"You know it's not the cooker. It's that darned gravity."

He realized now it was a weight fluctuation that had nudged him from
his nap.

"I've got it _set_ that way, Love," he explained. "We did not get
clouds in the contract. But by varying the gravity control we can have
them for nothing. It all has to do with atmospheric pressure."

Edna cast a resigned glance skyward. "If that's the way you want
it--fleecy clouds and burnt beans--"

The guttural scream of braking jets rattled the windows and sent the
herons winging for the safety of the other hemisphere. Hesitating on
the fringe of the atmosphere, the freighter altered its approach and
landed beside the house.

Titus went out to meet the skipper and his three assistants whose arms
were filled with printed forms.

"You Potentate McWorther?" the skipper asked.

Titus smiled in embarrassment. "It's a gag. I just call myself that."

"We got your order," the other snapped. "Where do you want it?"

Titus' small eyes widened with an inner vision of the automatic
bather--a vision which went on in speculation to dispose of the crude
shower-masseur, for which he and Edna were getting a bit too old.

"If you'll put it on the veranda--" He paused and shouted back toward
the house. "Edna, get out the grapplers. We're in business."

"Fun-ny," the skipper observed with dry derision. Then he signaled to
his waiting assistants.

They came forward and, one by one, thrust their stacks of printed
forms against Titus' chest. His arms came up in a reflex to accept the
offerings. But, as the third assistant's contribution sent the stack
soaring in front of his face, he went down under the weight.

When he had extricated himself from the mound of paper, the men had
returned to their ship. And now its sides were folding down and scores
of huge crates were drifting out on repulsor beams and fluttering to
the ground.

Soon the freighter was gone and Edna was at his side.

"What _have_ you gotten us into now, Titus?"

"Honest, Love--I don't know."

Suddenly his ears were splitting with the thunderous roar of a thousand
ships plunging down to the surface as far as he could see around the
perimeter of his small world. Each pulled to a halt a few feet from the
ground, opened its sides and disgorged vast mounds of crates and sacks,
boxes and barrels, naked hills of coarse material that hissed like
gravel as it spewed from chutes, gleaming masses of machinery.

Confounded, Titus seized one of the slips of paper. It was an invoice
listing two hundred earth movers, seventy-five instant pavers, five
hundred concrete mixers.

Matching his frown, Edna read a second sheet and demanded, "What on
earth do you expect to do with a hundred thousand barrels of wheat germ
oil? Four thousand kegs of eight-penny nails? Forty-five hundred tons
of soybeans?"

       *       *       *       *       *

At his secluded villa, Prime Minister Netath was entertaining his
foreign minister, Ugaza Bataul.

Netath leaned against the terrace bar and proposed a toast. "To an era
of plenty."

Bataul smiled. "At the expense of the Western Cluster."

They gulped the drinks and Netath stared down into his empty glass.
"We're quite fortunate that the Western Cluster's aspirations are
extending to this sector."

"As long as we can be sure that there won't be any _military_
advances." Bataul added the qualification with misgiving.

"Oh, there's no danger of that. Actually, we're lucky we didn't try to
get on the Eastern Cluster's gravy train. We'd have had to make a lot
of concessions."

Heralding its own approach with a sputtering rumble, the station
'copter came in low over the trees and dropped down on the lawn. Netath
walked over as his chauffeur climbed out of the cab and used antigrav
grapples to float a large crate out of the freight compartment.

"Just picked it up at the space terminal," the man explained. "Must be
that aid shipment."

Bataul laughed. "You mean the first batch of credit certificates,
maybe."

The chauffeur pressed the "unpack" stud. The sides of the crate fell
outward.

"What _is_ it?" Netath drew back, surveying the ivory, tanklike thing
with its sparkling fixtures and flexible appendages.

Bataul bent and read the words on the inscription plate: "Deluxe
Automatic Bather--4678-25C."

By then, Netath had found the torn, soiled delivery tag. He read the
part of the writing that was still legible:

    "... _sincerely hope this expression of Western amity meets with
    your satisfaction. If we can serve you again, please don't
    hesitate._..."

Infuriated, he imparted a vindictive kick to the crate and crumpled the
paper.

"_That's_ the cosmic aid we were expecting?" Bataul sputtered.

"Capitalist Western dogs!" Netath exclaimed. "They were just trifling
with our planetary honor!"

"It's an insult against our racial character!" the foreign minister
said severely. "They _know_ we have no use for a bather, shedding our
skin as we do once a day."

Netath forced restraint into his features. "We will not lose our
diplomatic poise. There is always the chance a mistake has been made."

He drew the contacter out of his pocket and shouted into its grid,
"Miss Yalera?"

"Yes, sir?" came the instant answer.

"Take a space-o-gram to Solaria."


                                  II

When the initial error was made at the hyper-spatial relay station,
a pattern had been set. Committed categorically to the memory banks
were the false associations between the State Department's Ganymede
Extension and Potentate McWorther, between Premier Netath and
Rear-Sobucks.

Thus, it was somewhat to be expected that Undersecretary Hoverly should
find himself chewing on the under-bristles of his mustache as he read
the latest space-o-gram.

    Dear Sir:

    Needless to say, we are somewhat disappointed over the Western
    Cluster's meager response to our desperate need.

    Perhaps Ambassador Summerson misrepresented our agreement. In that
    event, we feel sure that consultation with his Excellency will set
    the record straight.

    We would appreciate prompt attention to this detail. Otherwise, in
    the interest of our people, we shall feel compelled to seek
    satisfaction elsewhere.

    Respectfully yours,
    Titus McWorther,
    Potentate

Hoverly tossed the message on his desk, punched the audio-com button
and called for his assistant. When Mallston arrived, the undersecretary
was still pacing.

"Did you take care of the McWorther World aid consignment?" he asked.

Mallston nodded. "Delivery should have been made day before yesterday.
Full Class A schedule."

"Well, it wasn't enough!" Hoverly extended a stiff finger toward the
space-o-gram. "Read that."

Looking up finally, Mallston said, "Evidently we dropped the ball."

"Indeed we did. Ambassador Summerson must have promised the Potentate
the whole works."

Hoverly resumed pacing. "I should have guessed as much. President
Roswell only last week hinted that the Western Cluster should level its
galactic commerce sights on that entire sector."

Mallston pondered the gravity of the space-o-gram. "Maybe we should lay
the McWorther development before the President."

Bristling, the undersecretary said, "And call attention to our own
incompetence? We'll straighten this matter out by doing what we should
have done in the first place--by putting the Potentate on the double-A
priority list. Full and immediate delivery under Class B through K
schedules."

Mallston started out, but paused at the door. "How about cultural
exchange?"

"We'll play it safe by assuming Summerson shot the works in that
category too. Round up every uncommitted cultural group in the cluster."

       *       *       *       *       *

Shaking his head deprecatingly, the twenty-seventh vice-president
stood before the desk of the next highest official in the Rear-Sobucks
hierarchy.

"Well, Wheeler," V.R. clipped without looking up. "What is it this
time?"

"I'm afraid Netath didn't take too kindly to our gesture."

"Netath? Netath?" V.R. milked the name for its significance.

"Ogarm Netath. The prime minister of that Gauyuth place. The automatic
bather."

"Oh, _that_ one."

Wheeler handed over the space-o-gram and V.R. muttered through the
message:

    Dear Sir:

    I'm sure you made a mistake filling my order. You've got to come
    pick up your shipment right away. We're up to our ears and it's
    shaking us to pieces.

    Yours in disappointment,
    Ogarm Netath,
    Prime Minister

Growling, V.R. dropped an effervescent pill into a glass of water. "You
can't get anywhere with these back-planet bumpkins. I doubt that this
Netath ever _had_ a bath. Send him a Supplementary Manual of Operating
Instructions."

Wheeler started for the door.

But V.R. called after him. "And bill the prime minister for that
article. It'll teach him to show a little bit of appreciation."

       *       *       *       *       *

Titus winced before the persistent tremors that came through the floor
of his cellar. He made another adjustment on the gravity control
deflecting the planetoid's center of pseudomass another few feet. The
ground beneath him finally quieted.

"Three days," he mumbled, dragging himself up the stairs.

Edna received him with hands on hips. "Three days--what?"

"Getting things balanced again."

"What are you going to do about all that stuff cluttering up our
beautiful planetoid?" She was near tears.

With Edna dogging his steps, he returned to the veranda, where his
julep was now quite thin and warm in the rays of the setting sun.

"We'll have to find out where it came from first," he said, staring
dismally over the mountains of machinery and grain, the tumbled stacks
of crates and barrels and kegs, the lesser rows of wheeled and winged
vehicles.

"Seems to me," Edna persisted, "that the invoices will show that." She
gestured at what remained of the stacks of printed forms.

The rest of the slips were strewn over the ground as far as he could
see. "Only the _first_ sheet will show the origin--_if_ we could ever
find it," Titus explained.

He went out to the air car, warmed it up and sent it churning skyward.
Near the attenuated top of the atmosphere, he was able to see exactly
how much extraneous stuff had been dumped on his world. The main area
of disposal seemed to have been within a two-mile radius of the house.

An ever-widening helical course, wending its way alternately from night
to day, eventually brought him on a great circle that sliced over both
poles. Then, with his searchlights still burning, he spiraled inward,
covering the other hemisphere. The rest of his world was in primal
order.

He started for home around the daylight side.

But even above the noise of his own rotorjets, the stridence of
descending freighters erupted in a pandemonium of sound all around him.
Great clouds of rockets, clustered in fleets, were darkening the sky
and raining down onto the surface.

He barely managed to pull out from under one of the formations before
it could pinch him against the ground. Swearing in oaths that he had
not used in years, he headed for the nearest group of ships. Before he
could close in, they had discharged their cargoes and thundered off
into space again.

He altered course for another detachment of freighters, only to meet
with the same frustrating results. By the time he had aimed his craft
at a third group, all the ships had blasted away, leaving everywhere
great, gleaming mounds and stacks and irregular rows of crates and
containers that completely obscured the surface.

Enraged, Titus gunned the craft for home. He picked his way between
several monstrous peaks of grain, some of them soaring nearly all the
way up through the six-hundred-foot-thick atmosphere, and threw on his
brakes to avoid collision with a tremendous pyramid of what looked like
corn kernels.

With stark apprehension, he envisioned his world shaking apart under
the eccentric forces. But he quelled his fears with logic: This new
addition of mass, apparently distributed evenly over all but the four
square miles that had already served as a dumping ground, would be
unbalanced only to a negligible degree.

       *       *       *       *       *

Titus flicked on his landing lights as he headed into the night. But
from over the horizon came a glare considerably stronger than the
candlepower of his own electrical system. As he pulled up to the
mooring pylon, the explanation was evident.

Scores of Pullman crafts were packed so tightly around his house that
the blunt noses of several were sticking out over the veranda.

He cut off the idling jets. The militant strains of a Venurian march,
blaring from the instruments of a hundred-piece symphony, swelled up
mightily all around him. The orchestra itself was wedged between two
residential crafts while the roof of McWorther's generating house
served as the conductor's podium.

On the veranda, a full troupe of Simalean Ballet dancers swirled and
caracoled, not seeming to mind that they were occasionally overflowing
the tiles and flouncing not so lightly through Edna's caladiums.

His wife stood helplessly by, still gripping the autobroom which
she had evidently wielded without success in an attempt to rout the
intruders.

Dismayed, Titus elbowed his way through a dedicated choral group that
was patriotically rendering the "Fayothian Anthem," sidestepped a
tumbling foursome obviously from one of the Lesser Javapa planets and
pushed aside a debating team which was having little luck making itself
heard above the general cacophony.

Edna swept out to meet him. "Titus, they just won't leave!"

"Who are they? What do they want?"

"I don't know." She was having a difficult time restraining herself.
"They asked for the ministry of something or other. Then they said they
were cooped up so long that they had to get some practice."

Titus bellowed for attention. But nobody turned an ear, except a
pirouetting ballerina who whirled to a stop nearby, glissaded over in
front of him and made a theatrical display of bending over and planting
a set of lip-prints on his forehead--a gesture that fed considerable
fuel to Edna's vexation.

"You're cute," the dancer tittered. "You got the word on this place,
Pudgy? What is it--a stopover station?"

Before he could answer, one of the tumblers shouted, "It's snowing!"

The choral group broke reverently into the ancient carol "Noel" while
the orchestra paused on an upbeat and swung into a jazzed-up "Jingle
Bells."

Perplexed, Titus stared at the dancing snowflakes. But that was
impossible! It _never_ snowed here on McWorther's World!

Then he remembered the grain peak he had skirted on the way home. It
had extended high above the infrared and ultraviolet shields--into the
naked, hot zone where restless winds had wafted the kernels eastward.

He picked up one of the "flakes."

_Popcorn!_


                                  III

Many light years away, the Emperor of the Eastern Cluster whirled
around, kicked his bejeweled train out of the way and faced his chief
adviser. "So they've opened up a new aid offensive?"

"And a most vital one." The adviser blew on his spectacles and
burnished the lenses against his sleeve. "A place called McWorther. Our
intelligence got its coordinates from their consignment documents."

"Never heard of it."

"That's what's so insidious about this whole capitalist plot. They've
kept it under their hats."

"And why is it so vital?"

The adviser directed the Emperor's attention to a space globe suspended
from the ceiling. He pressed two buttons on the wall and twin beams of
light intersected within the sphere. "That's McWorther's location."

"Why--why--" the Emperor stammered. "That outflanks us completely!"

"What concerns me is how many other undisclosed but settled worlds lie
in that same general area."

"A whole raft of them, no doubt," the Emperor said pessimistically.

"What are we going to do?"

"In this critical sector we've got to make friends--and fast! We'll
begin with the McWorther place."

"How far do you want to go?"

"All the way. Empty the surplus bins. Clear out the warehouses. Let
McWorther have every available pound of material and equipment."

"Terms?"

"Terms be damned! We let the Western Cluster steal a march on us.
We've got to recoup. Everything goes as an outright gift--with all the
cultural trimmings thrown in."

       *       *       *       *       *

Titus splashed into the cellar and struck out for the hypertransmitter.

It was a peculiar flood. Suffusing the water was a thick scum that
flashed iridescently as it caught the glint of light from the ceiling.
He stuck his finger into the dross and applied it to the tip of his
tongue.

Syrup!

He thought of the thousands of barrels that had been dumped into the
lake and surmised that the contaminated water was backing up through
the drainage system.

He altered course for the pumps.

And, like ships in convoy, a score of virtuosos invaded the cellar,
paddling in his wake.

The soprano's piercing voice assailed his ears. "In all my theatrical
experience, I have never been subjected to such indignity! I insist--"

But a violinist pushed forward, wielding his bow like a stiff finger.
"You, sir, are holding back on us. No doubt you know what our future
instructions are."

"I've never seen such fascist highhandedness," complained a diminutive
choreographer in the uniform of a Palosov Rocket Dancer. "In the name
of the ministry of culture of the Eastern Federation, I demand to see a
representative of His Imperial Highness!"

Ignoring them, Titus trudged on to the pumps and set them for maximum
drain-off.

The Simalean ballerina did a series of rapid turns and watched the
spray and the pattern of ripples that issued from her darting feet.

"Exquisite!" she exuberated. "I shall have to speak with the _maître de
ballet_ about a nymphal sequence!"

"Come on, Pop." One of the tumblers confronted Titus. "What's the
gimmick? Why are they keeping us loafing around here?"

"Why?" roared a dramatist, allowing his voice full rein in the acoustic
inadequacy of the cellar. "I'll tell you: It's a capitalist scheme to
abduct the top talent of the glorious workers' federation!"

Hands clamped over his ears, Titus finally made it to the
hypertransmitter. He jiggled its dials, beat on the cabinet, lifted a
foot from the water and gave it a couple of kicks broadside.

No results. It was obviously shorted out from the flood. And none of
the Pullman crafts was equipped with long-range communications gear.

Titus waded from the cellar, plodded through the house, leaving pools
of syrupy water in his wake, and stalked onto the veranda.

The scene was no less hectic than it had been. There were two
orchestras now. And they were waging a war of decibels to determine
whether the "East Cluster Blastoff March" or the "West Cluster Anthem"
should prevail over McWorther's World.

Two debating teams were holding forth on the comparative benefits of
proletarian solidarity and the free enterprise system. Beyond the
caladium bed, Edna, who seemed to have finally succumbed to frustrated
abandon, had struck a face-to-the-sun and wind-in-her-hair posture for
a portraitist who was drowning futility in artistic endeavor.

But there was neither wind nor sun to accommodate the pose, Titus
lamented. For, after yesterday's deliveries by the bright red cargo
ships, which had obviously been from the Eastern Cluster, there was
little left of McWorther's World that could be recognized.

The immediate area around the house had been spared in the deluge of
material. But, beyond, great sloping expanses of grain and crates,
barrels, boxes, machinery, bulging sacks and drums stretched up and
away like the inner walls of a crater.

Fortunately, disposal onto the surface of McWorther's World had
stopped. But not delivery to the system. Coruscating pinpoints
of flame, far out in space, signified the presence of thousands
upon thousands of cargo carriers that were dropping off their
freight in solar orbit. The items of merchandise themselves were
indistinguishable. But their composite existence was beginning to take
on the appearance of a great ring of fragmented particles stretching
around the sun.

And Titus supposed that it was only the reliability of the mass-fending
generators attached to each article that tentatively kept them all
separate and prevented them from plunging like a devastating hailstorm
onto the surface of his world.

He slumped to the ground and bracketed his cheeks between his palms.
For some unaccountable reason, it seemed that the productivity of the
entire universe was being showered down on his private planetoid in one
vast gravy-train effect.

Only he was drowning in the gravy.

       *       *       *       *       *

"And that's my story." Undersecretary of Cosmic Aid Hoverly laid his
hands on the conference table. "And we now have McWorther's World on a
total aid schedule."

President Roswell, an angular man with a troubled face, drummed his
fingertips together. "Gentlemen, this is most serious."

On his right, Ambassador Summerson's head bobbed in accord. The gesture
spread next to the chief of intelligence, then to Hoyerly, thus making
the circuit back to Roswell.

"To sum up, then," said the President, "you, Hoverly, authorized aid
for a McWorther's World in the 47-126 area."

The undersecretary glanced away uneasily.

"But you, Summerson," Roswell continued, "have no record of having
signed aid agreements with such a place."

"That's right," the ambassador verified. "But deciding to accommodate
McWorther's World was the most fantastic stroke of good luck
imaginable."

Hoverly squinted. "I don't follow you."

"When you sent aid to the Potentate, not only did you pick what will
undoubtedly develop into the most critical political area of the
millennium, but you also beat the Easties to the draw in a sector that
they had staked out all for themselves."

"A stroke of sheer luck," President Roswell concurred.

The roving ambassador leaned back smiling. "The chance timing was
perfect too. We beat them by less than two weeks."

But the intelligence chief's face was rigid with dejection. "We got
there 'firstest,' to use an ancient expression, but not with the
'mostest.' Our agents in Imperial City report that the amount of aid
authorized for McWorther's World is unbelievable. The entire Eastern
Cluster is going on a full austerity basis to support the program."

"That shows what value they place on McWorther's World and the sector
it opens up," Roswell offered. "When they found out we'd moved in ahead
of them, their reaction was frantic."

Summerson rose. "This, then, gentlemen, is it."

"It certainly is." Roswell's voice was heavy with despondency. "The
most God-awful aid war the cluster has ever seen."

"We can't back out," the ambassador warned. "We've got to get busy and
face up to the task."

"With every resource at our disposal. To ignore the challenge would be
to surrender this entire section of the galaxy to the Easties."

The President was silent a moment. "Gentlemen, I am herewith sounding a
call to economic arms. Cancel all other aid commitments and activity.
Throw everything we have got, everything we can ever hope to produce,
at McWorther's World."

"I think you'd better call on the Potentate personally," Summerson
proposed.

"That," said Roswell, "is exactly what I intend to do."

       *       *       *       *       *

Adjusting the drape of his robe, the Emperor sent his eyes flicking
over the report. Finally he lurched from his chair with a resounding
"Eureka!"

"So you see how it is, Your Imperial Highness," his chief adviser
offered. "By cutting in on their McWorther World operation, we have
indeed touched a sensitive Western spot."

"There's no question about that," the Emperor said lustily. He was a
portly man whose sartorial excesses made him seem even more imposing.
His eyes, recessed under thickset brows, flared with triumph as he
said, "McWorther's World must figure prominently in their planning.
From the way they cut loose with everything they had when they found
out we were stepping in too, damned if I'm not convinced this new
system will be the pivotal point of their entire future strategy."

"Then we'd better order double production quotas on every world that
flies the Eastern flag."

"_Triple_ quotas. And have my space yacht refitted by tomorrow."

"You're going somewhere, Highness?" asked the adviser.

"This Potentate McWorther is likely to be the third most important
political figure in the galaxy. I'm not going to lose any time getting
over there and pumping his hand."

       *       *       *       *       *

His face flushed with rage, Ogarm Netath tossed the space-o-gram at his
foreign minister, then snatched it back out of Bataul's hands before he
had a chance to read it.

"It's a bill!" Netath's voice quivered. "They sent us a bill for that
damned bather monstrosity!"

Bataul's brow, to all appearances, was ready for spring planting. "Let
me have another look at it."

Netath stood there trembling while the foreign minister sent his eyes
darting over the paper.

"It's from Rear-Sobucks!" Bataul exclaimed. "A retail concern that
obviously handles automatic bathers!"

"But it was our aid shipment, wasn't it?"

"Apparently not. It says here, '... for merchandise previously extended
_in behalf of_ the Western Cluster....'"

"I don't understand."

Bataul's features struggled through a gamut of expressions. "I think
I'm just beginning to. Do you remember last year when we had that
communications survey made? Between here and the nearest Western relay
station, there was that single system. I think some crackpot had laid
claim--of course. McWorther's his name. Calls himself a potentate."

Netath stiffened. "And you think--?"

"I think both we and McWorther are victims of message interfusion,"
Bataul said flatly.

"And our aid shipments--?"

"I'd bet McWorther must be wringing his hands over more loot than he'll
ever be able to count."

Netath started punching buttons on his desk. "We've got work to do."

"What kind?"

"First you're going to get off a message to this Rear-Sobucks bunch
and tell them what they can do with their bill _and_ their automatic
bather--if it'll fit. You can also explain what's happened."

"This time we'll send the message around the _right_ leg of the
cluster," Bataul assured.

"Then we're hopping over to this McWorther system and laying down the
law to that character. _That_ I want to do personally."

       *       *       *       *       *

"This," said Twenty-Seventh Vice-President Wheeler of Rear-Sobucks,
"explains it all."

"Communications interfusion?" the twenty-sixth vice-president asked.

"Absolutely, V.R. Just like Premier Netath says."

"Then there's a Rear-Sobucks customer who has been unnecessarily
inconvenienced and still hasn't been satisfied?"

With a curt nod, Wheeler confirmed the other's fear.

V.R. rose from his desk and wagged a finger at the other. "I still
don't understand it all, Wheeler. But I can't avoid the impression that
you're somehow responsible for the mess."

Wheeler cowered.

"_You're_ going to take a trip--now!" V.R. went on, gathering steam.
"_You're_ going to deliver a bather personally to this Potentate
McWorther. _You're_ going to extend the apologies of the entire
Rear-Sobucks organization!"


                                  IV

Titus poured his tenth consecutive julep--directly from the bottle,
without the benefit of ice, sugar or mint--and leaned back in his
chair. His occupancy of a corner of the veranda had been a hard-won
concession.

Almost indifferent now, he stared at the hundreds of virtuosos and
shouted, "Go home!"

But there was little zing in his voice and the words were, of course,
lost in the confused sea of sound--musical, argumentative, operatic and
otherwise. Heedless, the orchestras played, the ballet dancers whirled,
painters sketched, gymnasts tumbled, dramatists soliloquized and the
vocalists made it plain that they would give no quarter.

McWorther's World shud-shuddered. And the towering peaks of machinery
and grain, cases and crates rumbled ominously as their slopes shifted.
Titus' ears popped and he suddenly felt a giddiness that was all out of
proportion to the number of juleps he had consumed.

An all-too-brief silence fell over the multitude. Then, as stability
returned to the planetoid, they dived back into their various
activities.

They were damned fools, McWorther thought. Even if it meant risking
their lives, they would be willing to stay there and consort in their
Olympian ecstasy of artistic communion. It was a field day, old home
week, esoteric _anschluss_, a fraternal blowout--all rolled into one.

A distant explosion rent what was left of the compact atmosphere. And,
as an immediate consequence, additional hundreds of tons of grain
_hissed_ down a nearby slope and eased into the lake.

Somewhat concerned, Titus stared at the myriad points of light
coruscating deep out in space. What was happening was obvious: There
were millions, perhaps billions of articles of freight in the same
orbit--all maintaining their distances from the planetoid and from
one another by virtue of their mass-repulsion generators. And, where
that many electronic units were concerned, the breakdown factor became
a predictable quantity. McWorther's World could now expect to be the
target of a plunging chunk of cargo once every four or five minutes.

Another few hours, Titus realized, and that interval would be reduced
to four or five seconds. For he could readily see the infinite streams
of freighters that were still arriving and dropping off additional
cargo.

As a matter of fact, it was so thick out there now that only a faint,
diffused light was coming through from McWorther's Sun.

Titus poured himself another mintless, sugarless, iceless julep.

       *       *       *       *       *

The insigne of the Western Cluster emblazoned on its side, a giant ship
felt its way down through the atmosphere, sidled this way and that as
it squeezed through the barrier of anchored Pullman crafts, pulled up
and hovered over the southern edge of the veranda.

At that particular moment, Titus had been quite fascinated with the
tumblers' practice session. One of the gymnasts, preparing for a
back-flip, had taken a boost from the cupped hands of another. Only
the resulting arc through the air was executed with slow-motion rhythm
that took the performer to a height of perhaps twenty feet before he
floated back to the ground.

At the same time, Titus' ears popped again and he had the odd sensation
that the deck chair was shrinking away beneath him.

The newly arrived ship lowered an escalator to the surface and the
pilot glided down, landing only a few feet from McWorther.

"There seems to be some mistake," he said. "I was given
these coordinates and orbital factor for a--" he checked his
notebook--"McWorther's World."

"This," said Titus stiffly, "_is_ McWorther's World."

Cupping his hands, the pilot called back into the ship. "We're on the
right place."

An alarmed face poked out of the hatch.

"_This_ is it?"

Titus lurched to his feet, returning an equally startled expression.
The man coming clown the escalator was President Vance Roswell of the
Western Federation! He had seen the face on thousands of newscasts.

Roswell, sickened, stared at the mountains of supplies on the obscured
surface of the planetoid. He tilted his head back and took in the
glimmering sea of cargo out in space, the flaring trails of exhaust
jets that criss-crossed in an infinite pattern as endless streams of
ships jockeyed into position to discharge more freight. Then he dropped
to the veranda railing and buried his face hopelessly in his hands.

By then, one of the orchestra conductors, who had also recognized the
President, had abruptly brought his baton down to terminate the "Lyraen
Overture." He led his ensemble into a stirring rendition of the "West
Cluster Anthem."

Without interrupting his misery, Roswell elevated a limp hand and
signaled for quiet.

But even before the musicians tapered to silence on a jagged, perplexed
note, the other orchestra blared forth with the "East Cluster Blastoff
March," all its members standing and facing the northern edge of the
veranda.

Titus watched the impressive vessel float to the surface, its almost
invisible repulsor beams jostling the lesser Pullman ships out of its
way. Splashed across its side was the fist-clutching-galaxy symbol of
the Eastern Federation.

He was still gawking when the hatch opened, ushering onto the tiled
surface none other than the Emperor himself--an immense, brilliantly
robed man who swept like a bowling ball through his retinue of aides.

       *       *       *       *       *

There were two distant explosions, one close on the heels of the other,
and the planetoid convulsed. That time, Titus imagined, he had seen one
of the masses of cargo plunging to the surface.

The Emperor drew up before Titus. But although his lips moved, no
audible sound came from his mouth, since he was in the immediate range
of the Eastern Symphony Orchestra's bass section.

Scowling, he whirled, threw up this arms and bellowed for silence.
Quiet came as though someone had pulled a plug.

"Now," he said, propping his fists on his hips and flaring his robe
out even further, "perhaps someone will enlighten me. I'm looking for
McWorther's World. It's supposed to be here."

Titus poured a triple, undiluted julep and gulped down half of it. He
said, "You're standing on it."

"_This!_ That's impossible! What's the population?"

"Two--not counting the transients." Titus started to offer the Emperor
the rest of his julep, thought better of it and drank it himself.

Roswell withdrew from his dejection, looked up and nodded, verifying
the Emperor's stark suspicion. It was apparent that the President was
only then aware of the Emperor's identity. And the latter was obviously
no less surprised on recognizing his counterpart from the Western
Cluster.

They only stared uncertainly at each other while the hundreds of
virtuosos, sensing the propriety of demonstrating their loyalty, split
into two groups and took sides behind their respective leaders.

Roswell laughed finally. It was a high-pitched, unnatural sound that
conveyed no glee at all and grew only more ragged as his shifting stare
once again took in the completely ruined merchandise on the surface,
the practically irretrievable cargoes adrift in space. His pitiable
outburst suggested an infinity of futility over the wanton waste. It
spoke wordlessly of sterility for hundreds of productive worlds over
the years ahead--economic sterility, and its inevitable consequence of
military impotence.

The Emperor watched him for a moment, then dropped to the veranda
rail beside him. He didn't join in the almost hysterical laughter.
But his glum features reflected sympathetic appreciation of Roswell's
predicament. And in his heavy silence was the admission that the
circumstances were mutual.

McWorther's World trembled again. Titus inclined his head to one side,
jiggling a finger in his ear to stop it from popping. He could have
sworn, too, that he had seen the Emperor and the President levitate a
good several inches off the rail.

Edna stalked from the house, surveyed the new arrivals without giving
any indication she had recognized them and wagged a finger in her
husband's face.

"Titus, this has gone far enough!" she exclaimed. "If you don't--"

"Later, Love," he pacified. "Something's going wrong."

She was taken aback by his understatement. But he hadn't meant it that
way. He had merely expressed suspicion over his recurrent sensations of
lightness.

       *       *       *       *       *

Almost at the same time, two other ships dropped down at the edge of
the veranda. The hatch of the first sprang open and disgorged a thin
man in a swallow-tail coat who drew rigidly erect and announced:

"His Most August Excellency, Prime Minister Netath of Gauyuth-Six!"

Ogarm Netath, indignation branding his features, strode out. "Where's
this Potentate McWorther character?" he demanded.

A hundred extended fingers singled out Titus, who was just then pouring
a thirteenth julep.

Netath stomped over. "You, sir, have got _my_ aid consignments!"

By that time, the other ship had thrown open its hatch and a short,
stout man in a business suit emerged.

"I am Wheeler of Rear-Sobucks and Company," he disclosed, standing to
one side so that two men working with antigrav grapples could wrestle
a large crate onto the veranda. "I have an apology and an automatic
bather for Potentate McWorther."

But Titus turned his back on the man, abruptly facing his wife. "Good
God! What day is it?"

She frowned in puzzlement. "Why, Wednesday."

There was a sharp explosion nearby as another article of cargo came
hurtling down from space.

"And it's almost noon!"

She nodded, still perplexed.

"Get into the spaceabout, Love--_quick_!"

She hesitated and he gave her a shove.

But he paused and faced the others. "You got just about fifteen minutes
to climb into your contraptions and clear out--all of you! Because by
then we'll be fresh out of gravity!"

And they'd be lucky if they had _that much_ time, he realized as he
followed Edna into the small craft. He had known he would have to face
the inevitable crisis on Wednesday. But all along he had been off one
day in his calculations, such that he had been sure today was only
Tuesday.

"What is it, Titus?" his wife asked as he strapped himself in beside
her.

"The supplementary gravity generator hasn't been refueled! It's
sputtering out!"

From space, he watched the end of McWorther's World.

The atmosphere went first, _swooshing_ outward as a result of abrupt
decompression and leaving a halo of frozen water crystals in its wake.
Then the cargo that was piled on the surface recoiled from its own
cumulative pressure and shot out into space. The topsoil followed suit,
dispersing like a dust storm, while the lakes boiled in one instant and
their vapor froze in the next.

Before any of the hurtling mess could reach his spaceabout, Titus
followed the Pullman crafts, the Rear-Sobucks delivery vehicle and the
Presidential and Imperial yachts into hyperspace.

       *       *       *       *       *

Titus and Edna McWorther have given up rustic retirement. Instead they
are living out their declining years in a floating villa just off the
Jersey coast.

Life is still gratifying, with the exception of one detail.

But Titus is resolved that he and his wife will have to be content with
the shower-masseur for the rest of their lives.

At any rate, he'll be damned if he'll put in another order for an
automatic bather, with or without a back-scrubbing attachment.





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