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´╗┐Title: The Madman From Earth
Author: Laumer, Keith
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 "The Madman From Earth" ***

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                         THE MADMAN FROM EARTH

                            BY KEITH LAUMER

               You don't have to be crazy to be an earth
                 diplomat--but on Groac it sure helps!

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
               Worlds of If Science Fiction, March 1962.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


                                   I

"The Consul for the Terrestrial States," Retief said, "presents his
compliments, et cetera, to the Ministry of Culture of the Groacian
Autonomy, and with reference to the Ministry's invitation to attend a
recital of interpretive grimacing, has the honor to express regret that
he will be unable--"

"You can't turn this invitation down," Administrative Assistant Meuhl
said flatly. "I'll make that 'accepts with pleasure'."

Retief exhaled a plume of cigar smoke.

"Miss Meuhl," he said, "in the past couple of weeks I've sat through
six light-concerts, four attempts at chamber music, and god knows how
many assorted folk-art festivals. I've been tied up every off-duty
hour since I got here--"

"You can't offend the Groaci," Miss Meuhl said sharply. "Consul Whaffle
would never have been so rude."

"Whaffle left here three months ago," Retief said, "leaving me in
charge."

"Well," Miss Meuhl said, snapping off the dictyper. "I'm sure I don't
know what excuse I can give the Minister."

"Never mind the excuses," Retief said. "Just tell him I won't be
there." He stood up.

"Are you leaving the office?" Miss Meuhl adjusted her glasses. "I have
some important letters here for your signature."

"I don't recall dictating any letters today, Miss Meuhl," Retief said,
pulling on a light cape.

       *       *       *       *       *

"I wrote them for you. They're just as Consul Whaffle would have wanted
them."

"Did you write all Whaffle's letters for him, Miss Meuhl?"

"Consul Whaffle was an extremely busy man," Miss Meuhl said stiffly.
"He had complete confidence in me."

"Since I'm cutting out the culture from now on," Retief said, "I won't
be so busy."

"Well!" Miss Meuhl said. "May I ask where you'll be if something comes
up?"

"I'm going over to the Foreign Office Archives."

Miss Meuhl blinked behind thick lenses. "Whatever for?"

Retief looked thoughtfully at Miss Meuhl. "You've been here on Groac
for four years, Miss Meuhl. What was behind the coup d'etat that put
the present government in power?"

"I'm sure I haven't pried into--"

"What about that Terrestrial cruiser? The one that disappeared out this
way about ten years back?"

"Mr. Retief, those are just the sort of questions we _avoid_ with the
Groaci. I certainly hope you're not thinking of openly intruding--"

"Why?"

"The Groaci are a very sensitive race. They don't welcome outworlders
raking up things. They've been gracious enough to let us live down
the fact that Terrestrials subjected them to deep humiliation on one
occasion."

"You mean when they came looking for the cruiser?"

"I, for one, am ashamed of the high-handed tactics that were employed,
grilling these innocent people as though they were criminals. We try
never to reopen that wound, Mr. Retief."

"They never found the cruiser, did they?"

"Certainly not on Groac."

Retief nodded. "Thanks, Miss Meuhl," he said. "I'll be back before
you close the office." Miss Meuhl's face was set in lines of grim
disapproval as he closed the door.

       *       *       *       *       *

The pale-featured Groacian vibrated his throat-bladder in a distressed
bleat.

"Not to enter the Archives," he said in his faint voice. "The denial of
permission. The deep regret of the Archivist."

"The importance of my task here," Retief said, enunciating the glottal
dialect with difficulty. "My interest in local history."

"The impossibility of access to outworlders. To depart quietly."

"The necessity that I enter."

"The specific instructions of the Archivist." The Groacian's voice rose
to a whisper. "To insist no longer. To give up this idea!"

"OK, Skinny, I know when I'm licked," Retief said in Terran. "To keep
your nose clean."

Outside, Retief stood for a moment looking across at the deeply carved
windowless stucco facades lining the street, then started off in the
direction of the Terrestrial Consulate General. The few Groacians on
the street eyed him furtively, veered to avoid him as he passed. Flimsy
high-wheeled ground cars puffed silently along the resilient pavement.
The air was clean and cool.

At the office, Miss Meuhl would be waiting with another list of
complaints.

Retief studied the carving over the open doorways along the street.
An elaborate one picked out in pinkish paint seemed to indicate the
Groacian equivalent of a bar. Retief went in.

A Groacian bartender was dispensing clay pots of alcoholic drink from
the bar-pit at the center of the room. He looked at Retief and froze in
mid-motion, a metal tube poised over a waiting pot.

"To enjoy a cooling drink," Retief said in Groacian, squatting down at
the edge of the pit. "To sample a true Groacian beverage."

"To not enjoy my poor offerings," the Groacian mumbled. "A pain in the
digestive sacs; to express regret."

"To not worry," Retief said, irritated. "To pour it out and let me
decide whether I like it."

"To be grappled in by peace-keepers for poisoning of--foreigners." The
barkeep looked around for support, found none. The Groaci customers,
eyes elsewhere, were drifting away.

"To get the lead out," Retief said, placing a thick gold-piece in the
dish provided. "To shake a tentacle."

"The procuring of a cage," a thin voice called from the sidelines. "The
displaying of a freak."

       *       *       *       *       *

Retief turned. A tall Groacian vibrated his mandibles in a gesture
of contempt. From his bluish throat coloration, it was apparent the
creature was drunk.

"To choke in your upper sac," the bartender hissed, extending his eyes
toward the drunk. "To keep silent, litter-mate of drones."

"To swallow your own poison, dispenser of vileness," the drunk
whispered. "To find a proper cage for this zoo-piece." He wavered
toward Retief. "To show this one in the streets, like all freaks."

"Seen a lot of freaks like me, have you?" Retief asked, interestedly.

"To speak intelligibly, malodorous outworlder," the drunk said. The
barkeep whispered something, and two customers came up to the drunk,
took his arms and helped him to the door.

"To get a cage!" the drunk shrilled. "To keep the animals in their own
stinking place."

"I've changed my mind," Retief said to the bartender. "To be grateful
as hell, but to have to hurry off now." He followed the drunk out the
door. The other Groaci released him, hurried back inside. Retief looked
at the weaving alien.

"To begone, freak," the Groacian whispered.

"To be pals," Retief said. "To be kind to dumb animals."

"To have you hauled away to a stockyard, ill-odored foreign livestock."

"To not be angry, fragrant native," Retief said. "To permit me to chum
with you."

"To flee before I take a cane to you!"

"To have a drink together--"

"To not endure such insolence!" The Groacian advanced toward Retief.
Retief backed away.

"To hold hands," Retief said. "To be palsy-walsy--"

The Groacian reached for him, missed. A passer-by stepped around him,
head down, scuttled away. Retief backed into the opening to a narrow
crossway and offered further verbal familiarities to the drunken local,
who followed, furious. Retief backed, rounded a corner into a narrow
alley-like passage, deserted, silent ... except for the following
Groacian.

Retief stepped around him, seized his collar and yanked. The Groacian
fell on his back. Retief stood over him. The downed native half-rose;
Retief put a foot against his chest and pushed.

"To not be going anywhere for a few minutes," Retief said. "To stay
right here and have a nice long talk."


                                  II

"There you are!" Miss Meuhl said, eyeing Retief over her lenses. "There
are two gentlemen waiting to see you. Groacian gentlemen."

"Government men, I imagine. Word travels fast." Retief pulled off his
cape. "This saves me the trouble of paying another call at the Foreign
Ministry."

"What have you been doing? They seem very upset, I don't mind telling
you."

"I'm sure you don't. Come along. And bring an official recorder."

Two Groaci wearing heavy eye-shields and elaborate crest ornaments
indicative of rank rose as Retief entered the room. Neither offered a
courteous snap of the mandibles, Retief noted. They were mad, all right.

"I am Fith, of the Terrestrial Desk, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr.
Consul," the taller Groacian said, in lisping Terran. "May I present
Shluh, of the Internal Police?"

"Sit down, gentlemen," Retief said. They resumed their seats. Miss
Meuhl hovered nervously, then sat on the edge of a comfortless chair.

"Oh, it's such a pleasure--" she began.

"Never mind that," Retief said. "These gentlemen didn't come here to
sip tea today."

"So true," Fith said. "Frankly, I have had a most disturbing report,
Mr. Consul. I shall ask Shluh to recount it." He nodded to the police
chief.

"One hour ago," The Groacian said, "a Groacian national was brought
to hospital suffering from serious contusions. Questioning of this
individual revealed that he had been set upon and beaten by a
foreigner. A Terrestrial, to be precise. Investigation by my department
indicates that the description of the culprit closely matches that of
the Terrestrial Consul."

Miss Meuhl gasped audibly.

"Have you ever heard," Retief said, looking steadily at Fith, "of a
Terrestrial cruiser, the _ISV Terrific_, which dropped from sight in
this sector nine years ago?"

"Really!" Miss Meuhl exclaimed, rising. "I wash my hands--"

"Just keep that recorder going," Retief snapped.

"I'll not be a party--"

"You'll do as you're told, Miss Meuhl," Retief said quietly. "I'm
telling you to make an official sealed record of this conversation."

Miss Meuhl sat down.

Fith puffed out his throat indignantly. "You reopen an old wound,
Mr. Consul. It reminds us of certain illegal treatment at Terrestrial
hands--"

"Hogwash," Retief said. "That tune went over with my predecessors, but
it hits a sour note with me."

"All our efforts," Miss Meuhl said, "to live down that terrible
episode! And you--"

"Terrible? I understand that a Terrestrial task force stood off Groac
and sent a delegation down to ask questions. They got some funny
answers, and stayed on to dig around a little. After a week they left.
Somewhat annoying to the Groaci, maybe--at the most. If they were
innocent."

"IF!" Miss Meuhl burst out.

"If, indeed!" Fith said, his weak voice trembling. "I must protest
your--"

       *       *       *       *       *

"Save the protests, Fith. You have some explaining to do. And I don't
think your story will be good enough."

"It is for you to explain! This person who was beaten--"

"Not beaten. Just rapped a few times to loosen his memory."

"Then you admit--"

"It worked, too. He remembered lots of things, once he put his mind to
it."

Fith rose; Shluh followed suit.

"I shall ask for your immediate recall, Mr. Consul. Were it not for
your diplomatic immunity, I should do more--"

"Why did the government fall, Fith? It was just after the task force
paid its visit, and before the arrival of the first Terrestrial
diplomatic mission."

"This is an internal matter!" Fith cried, in his faint Groacian voice.
"The new regime has shown itself most amiable to you Terrestrials. It
has outdone itself--"

"--to keep the Terrestrial consul and his staff in the dark," Retief
said. "And the same goes for the few terrestrial businessmen you've
visaed. This continual round of culture; no social contacts outside the
diplomatic circle; no travel permits to visit out-lying districts, or
your satellite--"

"Enough!" Fith's mandibles quivered in distress. "I can talk no more of
this matter--"

"You'll talk to me, or there'll be a task force here in five days to do
the talking," Retief said.

"You can't!" Miss Meuhl gasped.

Retief turned a steady look on Miss Meuhl. She closed her mouth. The
Groaci sat down.

"Answer me this one," Retief said, looking at Shluh. "A few years
back--about nine, I think--there was a little parade held here. Some
curious looking creatures were captured. After being securely caged,
they were exhibited to the gentle Groaci public. Hauled through the
streets. Very educational, no doubt. A highly cultural show.

"Funny thing about these animals. They wore clothes. They seemed to
communicate with each other. Altogether it was a very amusing exhibit.

"Tell me, Shluh, what happened to those six Terrestrials after the
parade was over?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Fith made a choked noise and spoke rapidly to Shluh in Groacian. Shluh
retracted his eyes, shrank down in his chair. Miss Meuhl opened her
mouth, closed it and blinked rapidly.

"How did they die?" Retief snapped. "Did you murder them, cut their
throats, shoot them or bury them alive? What amusing end did you figure
out for them? Research, maybe? Cut them open to see what made them
yell...."

"No!" Fith gasped. "I must correct this terrible false impression at
once."

"False impression, hell," Retief said. "They were Terrans! A simple
narco-interrogation would get that out of any Groacian who saw the
parade."

"Yes," Fith said weakly. "It is true, they were Terrestrials. But there
was no killing."

"They're alive?"

"Alas, no. They ... died."

Miss Meuhl yelped faintly.

"I see," Retief said. "They died."

"We tried to keep them alive, of course. But we did not know what
foods--"

"Didn't take the trouble to find out, either, did you?"

"They fell ill," Fith said. "One by one...."

"We'll deal with that question later," Retief said. "Right now, I want
more information. Where did you get them? Where did you hide the ship?
What happened to the rest of the crew? Did they 'fall ill' before the
big parade?"

"There were no more! Absolutely, I assure you!"

"Killed in the crash landing?"

"No crash landing. The ship descended intact, east of the city. The ...
Terrestrials ... were unharmed. Naturally, we feared them. They were
strange to us. We had never before seen such beings."

"Stepped off the ship with guns blazing, did they?"

"Guns? No, no guns--"

"They raised their hands, didn't they? Asked for help. You helped them;
helped them to death."

"How could we know?" Fith moaned.

"How could you know a flotilla would show up in a few months looking
for them, you mean? That was a shock, wasn't it? I'll bet you had a
brisk time of it hiding the ship, and shutting everybody up. A close
call, eh?"

"We were afraid," Shluh said. "We are a simple people. We feared the
strange creatures from the alien craft. We did not kill them, but we
felt it was as well they ... did not survive. Then, when the warships
came, we realized our error. But we feared to speak. We purged our
guilty leaders, concealed what had happened, and ... offered our
friendship. We invited the opening of diplomatic relations. We made
a blunder, it is true, a great blunder. But we have tried to make
amends...."

"Where is the ship?"

"The ship?"

"What did you do with it? It was too big to just walk off and forget.
Where is it?"

The two Groacians exchanged looks.

"We wish to show our contrition," Fith said. "We will show you the
ship."

"Miss Meuhl," Retief said. "If I don't come back in a reasonable length
of time, transmit that recording to Regional Headquarters, sealed." He
stood, looked at the Groaci.

"Let's go," he said.

       *       *       *       *       *

Retief stooped under the heavy timbers shoring the entry to the cavern.
He peered into the gloom at the curving flank of the space-burned hull.

"Any lights in here?" he asked.

A Groacian threw a switch. A weak bluish glow sprang up.

Retief walked along the raised wooden catwalk, studying the ship. Empty
emplacements gaped below lensless scanner eyes. Littered decking was
visible within the half-open entry port. Near the bow the words 'IVS
Terrific B7 New Terra' were lettered in bright chrome duralloy.

"How did you get it in here?" Retief asked.

"It was hauled here from the landing point, some nine miles distant,"
Fith said, his voice thinner than ever. "This is a natural crevasse.
The vessel was lowered into it and roofed over."

"How did you shield it so the detectors didn't pick it up?"

"All here is high-grade iron ore," Fith said, waving a member. "Great
veins of almost pure metal."

Retief grunted. "Let's go inside."

Shluh came forward with a hand-lamp. The party entered the ship.

Retief clambered up a narrow companionway, glanced around the interior
of the control compartment. Dust was thick on the deck, the stanchions
where acceleration couches had been mounted, the empty instrument
panels, the litter of sheared bolts, scraps of wire and paper. A thin
frosting of rust dulled the exposed metal where cutting torches had
sliced away heavy shielding. There was a faint odor of stale bedding.

"The cargo compartment--" Shluh began.

"I've seen enough," Retief said.

Silently, the Groacians led the way back out through the tunnel and
into the late afternoon sunshine. As they climbed the slope to the
steam car, Fith came to Retief's side.

"Indeed, I hope that this will be the end of this unfortunate affair,"
he said. "Now that all has been fully and honestly shown--"

"You can skip all that," Retief said. "You're nine years late. The
crew was still alive when the task force called, I imagine. You killed
them--or let them die--rather than take the chance of admitting what
you'd done."

"We were at fault," Fith said abjectly. "Now we wish only friendship."

"The _Terrific_ was a heavy cruiser, about twenty thousand tons."
Retief looked grimly at the slender Foreign Office official. "Where is
she, Fith? I won't settle for a hundred-ton lifeboat."

       *       *       *       *       *

Fith erected his eye stalks so violently that one eye-shield fell off.

"I know nothing of ... of...." He stopped. His throat vibrated rapidly
as he struggled for calm.

"My government can entertain no further accusations, Mr. Consul,"
he said at last. "I have been completely candid with you, I have
overlooked your probing into matters not properly within your sphere of
responsibility. My patience is at an end."

"Where is that ship?" Retief rapped out. "You never learn, do you?
You're still convinced you can hide the whole thing and forget it. I'm
telling you you can't."

"We return to the city now," Fith said. "I can do no more."

"You can and you will, Fith," Retief said. "I intend to get to the
truth of this matter."

Fith spoke to Shluh in rapid Groacian. The police chief gestured to his
four armed constables. They moved to ring Retief in.

Retief eyed Fith. "Don't try it," he said. "You'll just get yourself in
deeper."

Fith clacked his mandibles angrily, eye stalks canted aggressively
toward the Terrestrial.

"Out of deference to your diplomatic status, Terrestrial, I shall
ignore your insulting remarks," Fith said in his reedy voice. "Let us
now return to the city."

Retief looked at the four policemen. "I see your point," he said.

Fith followed him into the car, sat rigidly at the far end of the seat.

"I advise you to remain very close to your consulate," Fith said. "I
advise you to dismiss these fancies from your mind, and to enjoy the
cultural aspects of life at Groac. Especially, I should not venture out
of the city, or appear overly curious about matters of concern only to
the Groacian government."

In the front seat, Shluh looked straight ahead. The loosely-sprung
vehicle bobbed and swayed along the narrow highway. Retief listened to
the rhythmic puffing of the motor and said nothing.


                                  III

"Miss Meuhl," Retief said, "I want you to listen carefully to what I'm
going to tell you. I have to move rapidly now, to catch the Groaci off
guard."

"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," Miss Meuhl snapped,
her eyes sharp behind the heavy lenses.

"If you'll listen, you may find out," Retief said. "I have no time
to waste, Miss Meuhl. They won't be expecting an immediate move--I
hope--and that may give me the latitude I need."

"You're still determined to make an issue of that incident!" Miss
Meuhl snorted. "I really can hardly blame the Groaci. They are not a
sophisticated race; they had never before met aliens."

"You're ready to forgive a great deal, Miss Meuhl. But it's not what
happened nine years ago I'm concerned with. It's what's happening now.
I've told you that it was only a lifeboat the Groaci have hidden out.
Don't you understand the implication? That vessel couldn't have come
far. The cruiser itself must be somewhere near by. I want to know
where!"

"The Groaci don't know. They're a very cultured, gentle people. You can
do irreparable harm to the reputation of Terrestrials if you insist--"

"That's my decision," Retief said. "I have a job to do and we're
wasting time." He crossed the room to his desk, opened a drawer and
took out a slim-barreled needler.

"This office is being watched. Not very efficiently, if I know the
Groaci. I think I can get past them all right."

"Where are you going with ... that?" Miss Meuhl stared at the needler.
"What in the world--"

"The Groaci won't waste any time destroying every piece of paper in
their files relating to this thing. I have to get what I need before
it's too late. If I wait for an official Inquiry Commission, they'll
find nothing but blank smiles."

"You're out of your mind!" Miss Meuhl stood up, quivering with
indignation. "You're like a ... a...."

"You and I are in a tight spot, Miss Meuhl. The logical next move for
the Groaci is to dispose of both of us. We're the only ones who know
what happened. Fith almost did the job this afternoon, but I bluffed
him out--for the moment."

Miss Meuhl emitted a shrill laugh. "Your fantasies are getting the
better of you," she gasped. "In danger, indeed! Disposing of me! I've
never heard anything so ridiculous."

"Stay in this office. Close and safe-lock the door. You've got food and
water in the dispenser. I suggest you stock up, before they shut the
supply down. Don't let anyone in, on any pretext whatever. I'll keep in
touch with you via hand-phone."

"What are you planning to do?"

"If I don't make it back here, transmit the sealed record of this
afternoon's conversation, along with the information I've given you.
Beam it through on a mayday priority. Then tell the Groaci what you've
done and sit tight. I think you'll be all right. It won't be easy to
blast in here and anyway, they won't make things worse by killing you.
A force can be here in a week."

"I'll do nothing of the sort! The Groaci are very fond of me! You ...
Johnny-come-lately! Roughneck! Setting out to destroy--"

"Blame it on me if it will make you feel any better," Retief said, "but
don't be fool enough to trust them." He pulled on a cape, opened the
door.

"I'll be back in a couple of hours," he said. Miss Meuhl stared after
him silently as he closed the door.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was an hour before dawn when Retief keyed the combination to the
safe-lock and stepped into the darkened consular office. He looked
tired.

Miss Meuhl, dozing in a chair, awoke with a start. She looked at
Retief, rose and snapped on a light, turned to stare.

"What in the world--Where have you been? What's happened to your
clothing?"

"I got a little dirty. Don't worry about it." Retief went to his desk,
opened a drawer and replaced the needler.

"Where have you been?" Miss Meuhl demanded. "I stayed here--"

"I'm glad you did," Retief said. "I hope you piled up a supply of food
and water from the dispenser, too. We'll be holed up here for a week,
at least." He jotted figures on a pad. "Warm up the official sender. I
have a long transmission for Regional Headquarters."

"Are you going to tell me where you've been?"

"I have a message to get off first, Miss Meuhl," Retief said sharply.
"I've been to the Foreign Ministry," he added. "I'll tell you all about
it later."

"At this hour? There's no one there...."

"Exactly."

Miss Meuhl gasped. "You mean you broke in? You burgled the Foreign
Office?"

"That's right," Retief said calmly. "Now--"

"This is absolutely the end!" Miss Meuhl said. "Thank heaven I've
already--"

"Get that sender going, woman!" Retief snapped. "This is important."

"I've already done so, Mr. Retief!" Miss Meuhl said harshly. "I've been
waiting for you to come back here...." She turned to the communicator,
flipped levers. The screen snapped aglow, and a wavering long-distance
image appeared.

"He's here now," Miss Meuhl said to the screen. She looked at Retief
triumphantly.

"That's good," Retief said. "I don't think the Groaci can knock us off
the air, but--"

"I have done my duty, Mr. Retief," Miss Meuhl said. "I made a full
report to Regional Headquarters last night, as soon as you left this
office. Any doubts I may have had as to the rightness of that decision
have been completely dispelled by what you've just told me."

Retief looked at her levelly. "You've been a busy girl, Miss Meuhl. Did
you mention the six Terrestrials who were killed here?"

"That had no bearing on the matter of your wild behavior! I must say,
in all my years in the Corps, I've never encountered a personality less
suited to diplomatic work."

       *       *       *       *       *

The screen crackled, the ten-second transmission lag having elapsed.
"Mr. Retief," the face on the screen said, "I am Counsellor Pardy,
DSO-1, Deputy Under-secretary for the region. I have received a
report on your conduct which makes it mandatory for me to relieve you
administratively, vice Miss Yolanda Meuhl, DAO-9. Pending the findings
of a Board of Inquiry, you will--"

Retief reached out and snapped off the communicator. The triumphant
look faded from Miss Meuhl's face.

"Why, what is the meaning--"

"If I'd listened any longer, I might have heard something I couldn't
ignore. I can't afford that, at this moment. Listen, Miss Meuhl,"
Retief went on earnestly, "I've found the missing cruiser."

"You heard him relieve you!"

"I heard him say he was _going_ to, Miss Meuhl. But until I've heard
and acknowledged a verbal order, it has no force. If I'm wrong, he'll
get my resignation. If I'm right, that suspension would be embarrassing
all around."

"You're defying lawful authority! I'm in charge here now." Miss Meuhl
stepped to the local communicator.

"I'm going to report this terrible thing to the Groaci at once, and
offer my profound--"

"Don't touch that screen," Retief said. "You go sit in that corner
where I can keep an eye on you. I'm going to make a sealed tape for
transmission to Headquarters, along with a call for an armed task
force. Then we'll settle down to wait."

Retief ignored Miss Meuhl's fury as he spoke into the recorder.

The local communicator chimed. Miss Meuhl jumped up, staring at it.

"Go ahead," Retief said. "Answer it."

A Groacian official appeared on the screen.

"Yolanda Meuhl," he said without preamble, "for the Foreign Minister of
the Groacian Autonomy, I herewith accredit you as Terrestrial Consul
to Groac, in accordance with the advices transmitted to my government
direct from the Terrestrial Headquarters. As consul, you are requested
to make available for questioning Mr. J. Retief, former consul, in
connection with the assault on two peace keepers and illegal entry into
the offices of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs."

"Why, why," Miss Meuhl stammered. "Yes, of course. And I do want to
express my deepest regrets--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Retief rose, went to the communicator, assisted Miss Meuhl aside.

"Listen carefully, Fith," he said. "Your bluff has been called. You
don't come in and we don't come out. Your camouflage worked for nine
years, but it's all over now. I suggest you keep your heads and resist
the temptation to make matters worse than they are."

"Miss Meuhl," Fith said, "a peace squad waits outside your consulate.
It is clear you are in the hands of a dangerous lunatic. As always, the
Groaci wish only friendship with the Terrestrials, but--"

"Don't bother," Retief said. "You know what was in those files I looked
over this morning."

Retief turned at a sound behind him. Miss Meuhl was at the door,
reaching for the safe-lock release....

"Don't!" Retief jumped--too late.

The door burst inward. A crowd of crested Groaci pressed into the room,
pushed Miss Meuhl back, aimed scatter guns at Retief. Police Chief
Shluh pushed forward.

"Attempt no violence, Terrestrial," he said. "I cannot promise to
restrain my men."

"You're violating Terrestrial territory, Shluh," Retief said steadily.
"I suggest you move back out the same way you came in."

"I invited them here," Miss Meuhl spoke up. "They are here at my
express wish."

"Are they? Are you sure you meant to go this far, Miss Meuhl? A squad
of armed Groaci in the consulate?"

"You are the consul, Miss Yolanda Meuhl," Shluh said. "Would it not be
best if we removed this deranged person to a place of safety?"

"You're making a serious mistake, Shluh," Retief said.

"Yes," Miss Meuhl said. "You're quite right, Mr. Shluh. Please escort
Mr. Retief to his quarters in this building--"

"I don't advise you to violate my diplomatic immunity, Fith," Retief
said.

"As chief of mission," Miss Meuhl said quickly, "I hereby waive
immunity in the case of Mr. Retief."

Shluh produced a hand recorder. "Kindly repeat your statement, Madam,
officially," he said. "I wish no question to arise later."

"Don't be a fool, woman," Retief said. "Don't you see what you're
letting yourself in for? This would be a hell of a good time for you to
figure out whose side you're on."

"I'm on the side of common decency!"

"You've been taken in. These people are concealing--"

"You think all women are fools, don't you, Mr. Retief?" She turned to
the police chief and spoke into the microphone he held up.

"That's an illegal waiver," Retief said. "I'm consul here, whatever
rumors you've heard. This thing's coming out into the open, whatever
you do. Don't add violation of the Consulate to the list of Groacian
atrocities."

"Take the man," Shluh said.

       *       *       *       *       *

Two tall Groaci came to Retief's side, guns aimed at his chest.

"Determined to hang yourselves, aren't you?" Retief said. "I hope you
have sense enough not to lay a hand on this poor fool here." He jerked
a thumb at Miss Meuhl. "She doesn't know anything. I hadn't had time to
tell her yet. She thinks you're a band of angels."

The cop at Retief's side swung the butt of his scatter-gun, connected
solidly with Retief's jaw. Retief staggered against a Groacian, was
caught and thrust upright, blood running down onto his shirt. Miss
Meuhl yelped. Shluh barked at the guard in shrill Groacian, then turned
to stare at Miss Meuhl.

"What has this man told you?"

"I--nothing. I refused to listen to his ravings."

"He said nothing to you of some ... alleged ... involvement?"

"I've told you!" Miss Meuhl said sharply. She looked at the blood on
Retief's shirt.

"He told me nothing," she whispered. "I swear it."

"Let it lie, boys," Retief said. "Before you spoil that good
impression."

Shluh looked at Miss Meuhl for a long moment. Then he turned.

"Let us go," he said. He turned back to Miss Meuhl. "Do not leave this
building until further advice," he said.

"But ... I am the Terrestrial consul!"

"For your safety, madam. The people are aroused at the beating of
Groacian nationals by an ... alien."

"So long, Meuhlsie," Retief said. "You played it real foxy."

"You'll ... lock him in his quarters?" Miss Meuhl said.

"What is done with him is now a Groacian affair, Miss Meuhl. You
yourself have withdrawn the protection of your government."

"I didn't mean--"

"Don't start having second thoughts," Retief said. "They can make you
miserable."

"I had no choice," Miss Meuhl said. "I had to consider the best
interest of the Service."

"My mistake, I guess," Retief said. "I was thinking of the best
interests of a Terrestrial cruiser with three hundred men aboard."

"Enough," Shluh said. "Remove this criminal." He gestured to the peace
keepers.

"Move along," he said to Retief. He turned to Miss Meuhl.

"A pleasure to deal with you, Madam."


                                  IV

Retief stood quietly in the lift, stepped out at the ground floor
and followed docilely down the corridor and across the pavement to a
waiting steam car.

One of the peace keepers rounded the vehicle to enter on the other
side. Two stooped to climb into the front seat. Shluh gestured Retief
into the back seat and got in behind him. The others moved off on foot.

The car started up and pulled away. The cop in the front seat turned to
look at Retief.

"To have some sport with it, and then to kill it," he said.

"To have a fair trial first," Shluh said. The car rocked and jounced,
rounded a corner, puffed along between ornamented pastel facades.

"To have a trial and then to have a bit of sport," the cop said.

"To suck the eggs in your own hill," Retief said. "To make another
stupid mistake."

Shluh raised his short ceremonial club and cracked Retief across the
temple. Retief shook his head, tensed--

The cop in the front seat beside the driver turned and rammed the
barrel of his scatter-gun against Retief's ribs.

"To make no move, outworlder," he said. Shluh raised his club and
carefully struck Retief again. He slumped.

The car swayed, rounded another corner. Retief slid over against the
police chief.

"To fend this animal--" Shluh began. His weak voice was cut off short
as Retief's hand shot out, took him by the throat and snapped him
down onto the floor. As the guard on Retief's left lunged, Retief
uppercut him, slamming his head against the door post. He grabbed the
scatter-gun as it fell, pushed into the mandibles of the Groacian in
the front seat.

"To put your popgun over the seat--carefully--and drop it," he said.

The driver slammed on his brakes, whirled to raise his gun. Retief
cracked the gun barrel against the head of the Groacian before him,
then swiveled to aim it at the driver.

"To keep your eyestalks on the road," he said. The driver grabbed at
the tiller and shrank against the window, watching Retief with one eye,
driving with the other.

"To gun this thing," Retief said. "To keep moving."

Shluh stirred on the floor. Retief put a foot on him, pressed him back.
The cop beside Retief moved. Retief pushed him off the seat onto the
floor.

He held the scatter-gun with one hand and mopped at the blood on his
face with the other. The car bounded over the irregular surface of the
road, puffing furiously.

"Your death will not be an easy one, Terrestrial," Shluh said in Terran.

"No easier than I can help," Retief said. "Shut up for now, I want to
think."

       *       *       *       *       *

The car passed the last of the relief-crusted mounds, sped along
between tilled fields.

"Slow down," Retief said. The driver obeyed.

"Turn down this side road."

The car bumped off onto an unpaved surface, threaded its way back among
tall stalks.

"Stop here." The car stopped. It blew off steam and sat trembling as
the hot engine idled roughly.

Retief opened the door, took his foot off Shluh.

"Sit up," he ordered. "You two in front listen carefully." Shluh sat
up, rubbing his throat.

"Three of you are getting out here," Retief said. "Good old Shluh is
going to stick around to drive for me. If I get that nervous feeling
that the cops are after me, I'll toss him out to confuse them. That
will be pretty messy, at high speed. Shluh, tell them to sit tight
until dark and forget about sounding any alarms. I'd hate to see your
carapace split and spill loveable you all over the pavement."

"To burst your throat sac, evil-smelling beast!" Shluh hissed.

"Sorry, I haven't got one." Retief put the gun under Shluh's ear. "Tell
them, Shluh. I can drive myself, in a pinch."

"To do as the foreign one says; to stay hidden until dark," Shluh said.

"Everybody out," Retief said. "And take this with you." He nudged the
unconscious Groacian. "Shluh, you get in the driver's seat. You others
stay where I can see you."

Retief watched as the Groaci silently followed instructions.

"All right, Shluh," Retief said softly. "Let's go. Take me to Groac
Spaceport by the shortest route that doesn't go through the city. And
be very careful about making any sudden movements."

       *       *       *       *       *

Forty minutes later, Shluh steered the car up to the sentry-guarded
gate in the security fence surrounding the military enclosure at Groac
Spaceport.

"Don't yield to any rash impulses," Retief whispered as a crested
Groacian soldier came up. Shluh grated his mandibles in helpless fury.

"Drone-master Shluh, Internal Security," he croaked. The guard tilted
his eyes toward Retief.

"The guest of the Autonomy," Shluh added. "To let me pass or to rot in
this spot, fool?"

"To pass, Drone-master," the sentry mumbled. He was still staring at
Retief as the car moved jerkily away.

"You are as good as pegged out on the hill in the pleasure pits now,
Terrestrial," Shluh said in Terran. "Why do you venture here?"

"Pull over there in the shadow of the tower and stop," Retief said.

Shluh complied. Retief studied the row of four slender ships parked on
the ramp, navigation lights picked out against the early dawn colors of
the sky.

"Which of those boats are ready to lift?" Retief demanded.

Shluh swiveled a choleric eye.

"All of them are shuttles; they have no range. They will not help you."

"To answer the question, Shluh, or to get another crack on the head."

"You are not like other Terrestrials! You are a mad dog!"

"We'll rough out a character sketch of me later. Are they all fueled
up? You know the procedures here. Did those shuttles just get in, or is
that the ready line?"

"Yes. All are fueled and ready for take-off."

"I hope you're right, Shluh. You and I are going to drive over and get
in one; if it doesn't lift, I'll kill you and try the next. Let's go."

"You are mad! I have told you--these boats have not more than ten
thousand ton-seconds capacity. They are useful only for satellite runs."

"Never mind the details. Let's try the first in line."

Shluh let in the clutch and the steam car clanked and heaved, rolled
off toward the line of boats.

"Not the first in line," Shluh said suddenly. "The last is the more
likely to be fueled. But--"

"Smart grasshopper," Retief said. "Pull up to the entry port, hop out
and go right up. I'll be right behind you."

"The gangway guard. The challenging of--"

"More details. Just give him a dirty look and say what's necessary. You
know the technique."

       *       *       *       *       *

The car passed under the stern of the first boat, then the second.
There was no alarm. It rounded the third and shuddered to a stop by the
open port of the last vessel.

"Out," Retief said. "To make it snappy."

Shluh stepped from the car, hesitated as the guard came to attention,
then hissed at him and mounted the steps. The guard looked wonderingly
at Retief, mandibles slack.

"An outworlder!" he said. He unlimbered his scatter-gun. "To stop here,
meat-faced one."

Shluh froze, turned.

"To snap to attention, litter-mate of drones!" Retief rasped in
Groacian. The guard jumped, waved his eye stalks and came to attention.

"About face!" Retief hissed. "Hell out of here--to march!"

The guard tramped off across the ramp. Retief took the steps two at a
time, slammed the port shut behind himself.

"I'm glad your boys have a little discipline, Shluh," Retief said.
"What did you say to him?"

"I but--"

"Never mind. We're in. Get up to the control compartment."

"What do you know of Groacian naval vessels?"

"Plenty. This is a straight copy from the lifeboat you lads hijacked. I
can run it. Get going."

Retief followed Shluh up the companionway into the cramped control room.

"Tie in, Shluh," Retief ordered.

"This is insane!" Shluh said. "We have only fuel enough for a one-way
transit to the satellite. We cannot enter orbit, nor can we land again!
To lift this boat is death--unless your destination is our moon."

"The moon is down, Shluh," Retief said. "And so are we. But not for
long. Tie in."

"Release me," Shluh gasped. "I promise you immunity."

"If I have to tie you in myself, I might bend your head in the process."

Shluh crawled onto the couch, strapped in.

"Give it up," he said. "I will see that you are reinstated--with honor!
I will guarantee a safe conduct."

"Countdown," Retief said. He threw in the autopilot.

"It is death!" Shluh screeched.

The gyros hummed; timers ticked; relays closed. Retief lay relaxed on
the acceleration pad. Shluh breathed noisily, his mandibles clicking
rapidly.

"That I had fled in time," Shluh said in a hoarse whisper. "This is not
a good death...."

"No death is a good death," Retief said. "Not for a while yet." The red
light flashed on in the center of the panel, and abruptly sound filled
the universe. The ship trembled, lifted.

Retief could hear Shluh's whimpering even through the roar of the drive.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Perihelion," Shluh said dully. "To begin now the long fall back."

"Not quite," Retief said. "I figure eighty-five seconds to go." He
scanned the instruments, frowning.

"We will not reach the surface, of course," Shluh said in Terran. "The
pips on the screen are missiles. We have a rendezvous in space, Retief.
In your madness, may you be content."

"They're fifteen minutes behind us, Shluh. Your defenses are sluggish."

"Nevermore to burrow in the gray sands of Groac," Shluh said.

Retief's eyes were fixed on a dial face.

"Any time now," he said softly. Shluh counted his eye stalks.

"What do you seek?"

Retief stiffened.

"Look at the screen," he said. Shluh looked. A glowing point,
off-center, moving rapidly across the grid....

"What--"

"Later!"

Shluh watched as Retief's eyes darted from one needle to another.

"How...."

"For your own neck's sake, Shluh," Retief said, "you'd better hope this
works." He flipped the sending key.

"2396 TR-42 G, this is the Terrestrial Consul at Groac, aboard Groac
902, vectoring on you at an MP fix of 91/54/94. Can you read me? Over."

"What forlorn gesture is this?" Shluh whispered. "You cry in the night
to emptiness!"

"Button your mandibles," Retief snapped, listening. There was a faint
hum of stellar background noise. Retief repeated his call, waited.

"Maybe they hear but can't answer," he muttered. He flipped the key.

"2396, you've got twenty seconds to lock a tractor beam on me, or I'll
be past you like a shot of rum past a sailor's bridgework...."

"To call into the void!" Shluh said. "To--"

"Look at the DV screen."

       *       *       *       *       *

Shluh twisted his head, looked. Against the background mist of stars, a
shape loomed, dark and inert.

"It is ... a ship!" Shluh said. "A monster ship!"

"That's her," Retief said. "Nine years and a few months out of New
Terra on a routine mapping mission. The missing cruiser--the IVS
_Terrific_."

"Impossible!" Shluh hissed. "The hulk swings in a deep cometary orbit."

"Right. And now it's making its close swing past Groac."

"You think to match orbits with the derelict? Without power? Our
meeting will be a violent one, if that is your intent."

"We won't hit; we'll make our pass at about five thousand yards."

"To what end, Terrestrial? You have found your lost ship. Then what? Is
this glimpse worth the death we die?"

"Maybe they're not dead," Retief said.

"Not dead?" Shluh lapsed into Groacian. "To have died in the burrow
of one's youth. To have burst my throat sac ere I embarked with a mad
alien to call up the dead."

"2396, make it snappy," Retief called. The speaker crackled heedlessly.
The dark image on the screen drifted past, dwindling now.

"Nine years, and the mad one speaking as to friends," Shluh raved.
"Nine years dead, and still to seek them."

"Another twenty seconds," Retief said softly, "and we're out of range.
Look alive, boys."

"Was this your plan, Retief?" Shluh asked in Terran. "Did you flee
Groac and risk all on this slender thread?"

"How long would I have lasted in one of your Groaci prisons?"

"Long and long, my Retief," Shluh hissed, "under the blade of an
artist."

Abruptly, the ship trembled, seemed to drag, rolling the two passengers
in their couches. Shluh hissed as the restraining harness cut into him.
The shuttle boat was pivoting heavily, upending. Crushing acceleration
forces built. Shluh gasped and cried out shrilly.

"What ... is ... it?"

"It looks," Retief said, "like we've had a little bit of luck."


                                   V

"On our second pass," the gaunt-faced officer said, "they let fly with
something. I don't know how it got past our screens. It socked home
in the stern and put the main pipe off the air. I threw full power to
the emergency shields, and broadcast our identification on a scatter
that should have hit every receiver within a parsec. Nothing. Then the
transmitter blew. I was a fool to send the boat down but I couldn't
believe, somehow...."

"In a way it's lucky you did, Captain. That was my only lead."

"They tried to finish us after that. But with full power to the
screens, nothing they had could get through. Then they called on us to
surrender."

Retief nodded. "I take it you weren't tempted?"

"More than you know. It was a long swing out on our first circuit.
Then, coming back in, we figured we'd hit. As a last resort I would
have pulled back power from the screens and tried to adjust the orbit
with the steering jets. But the bombardment was pretty heavy; I don't
think we'd have made it. Then we swung past and headed out again. We've
got a three year period. Don't think I didn't consider giving up."

"Why didn't you?"

"The information we have is important. We've got plenty of stores
aboard. Enough for another ten years, if necessary. Sooner or later, I
knew Search Command would find us."

Retief cleared his throat. "I'm glad you stuck with it, Captain. Even a
backwater world like Groac can kill a lot of people when it runs amok."

"What I didn't know," the captain went on, "was that we're not in a
stable orbit. We're going to graze atmosphere pretty deeply this pass,
and in another sixty days we'd be back to stay. I guess the Groaci
would be ready for us."

"No wonder they were sitting on this so tight," Retief said. "They were
almost in the clear."

"And you're here now," the captain said. "Nine years, and we weren't
forgotten. I knew we could count on--"

"It's over now, Captain," Retief said. "That's what counts."

"Home," the captain said. "After nine years...."

       *       *       *       *       *

"I'd like to take a look at the films you mentioned," Retief said. "The
ones showing the installations on the satellite."

The captain complied. Retief watched as the scene unrolled, showing the
bleak surface of the tiny moon as the _Terrific_ had seen it nine years
before.

In harsh black and white, row on row of identical hulls cast long
shadows across the pitted metallic surface of the satellite. Retief
whistled.

"They had quite a little surprise in store. Your visit must have
panicked them."

"They should be about ready to go, by now. Nine years...."

"Hold the picture," Retief said suddenly. "What's that ragged black
line across the plain there?"

"I think it's a fissure. The crystalline structure--"

"I've got what may be an idea," Retief said. "I had a look at some
classified files last night, at the foreign office. One was a progress
report on a fissionable stockpile. It didn't make much sense at the
time. Now I get the picture. Which is the 'north' end of that crevasse?"

"At the top of the picture."

"Unless I'm badly mistaken, that's the bomb dump. The Groaci like
to tuck things underground. I wonder what a direct hit with a fifty
mega-ton missile would do to it?"

"If that's an ordnance storage dump," the captain said, "it's an
experiment I'd like to try."

"Can you hit it?"

"I've got fifty heavy missiles aboard. If I fire them in direct
sequence, it should saturate the defenses. Yes, I can hit it."

"The range isn't too great?"

"These are the de luxe models," the captain smiled balefully. "Video
guidance. We could steer them into a bar and park 'em on a stool."

"What do you say we try it?"

"I've been wanting a solid target for a long time," the captain said.

       *       *       *       *       *

Retief waved a hand toward the screen.

"That expanding dust cloud used to be the satellite of Groac, Shluh,"
he said. "Looks like something happened to it."

The police chief stared at the picture.

"Too bad," Retief said. "But then it wasn't of any importance, was it,
Shluh?"

Shluh muttered incomprehensibly.

"Just a bare hunk of iron, Shluh. That's what the foreign office told
me when I asked for information."

"I wish you'd keep your prisoner out of sight," the captain said. "I
have a hard time keeping my hands off him."

"Shluh wants to help, Captain. He's been a bad boy and I have a feeling
he'd like to cooperate with us now. Especially in view of the imminent
arrival of a Terrestrial ship, and the dust cloud out there."

"What do you mean?"

"Captain, you can ride it out for another week, contact the ship when
it arrives, get a tow in and your troubles are over. When your films
are shown in the proper quarter, a task force will come out here.
They'll reduce Groac to a sub-technical cultural level, and set up a
monitor system to insure she doesn't get any more expansionist ideas.
Not that she can do much now, with her handy iron mine in the sky gone."

"That's right; and--"

"On the other hand," Retief said, "there's what I might call the
diplomatic approach...."

He explained at length. The captain looked at him thoughtfully.

"I'll go along," he said. "What about this fellow?"

Retief turned to Shluh. The Groacian shuddered, eye stalks retracted.

"I will do it," he said faintly.

"Right," Retief said. "Captain, if you'll have your men bring in the
transmitter from the shuttle, I'll place a call to a fellow named Fith
at the foreign office." He turned to Shluh. "And when I get him, Shluh,
you'll do everything exactly as I've told you--or have terrestrial
monitors dictating in Groac City."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Quite candidly, Retief," Counsellor Pardy said, "I'm rather
nonplussed. Mr. Fith of the foreign office seemed almost painfully
lavish in your praise. He seems most eager to please you. In the light
of some of the evidence I've turned up of highly irregular behavior on
your part, it's difficult to understand."

"Fith and I have been through a lot together," Retief said. "We
understand each other."

"You have no cause for complacency, Retief," Pardy said. "Miss Meuhl
was quite justified in reporting your case. Of course, had she known
that you were assisting Mr. Fith in his marvelous work, she would have
modified her report somewhat, no doubt. You should have confided in
her."

"Fith wanted to keep it secret, in case it didn't work out," Retief
said. "You know how it is."

"Of course. And as soon as Miss Meuhl recovers from her nervous
breakdown, there'll be a nice promotion awaiting her. The girl more
than deserves it for her years of unswerving devotion to Corps policy."

"Unswerving," Retief said. "I'll sure go along with that."

"As well you may, Retief. You've not acquitted yourself well in this
assignment. I'm arranging for a transfer. You've alienated too many of
the local people...."

"But as you said, Fith speaks highly of me...."

"Oh, true. It's the cultural intelligentsia I'm referring to. Miss
Meuhl's records show that you deliberately affronted a number of
influential groups by boycotting--"

"Tone deaf," Retief said. "To me a Groacian blowing a nose-whistle
sounds like a Groacian blowing a nose-whistle."

"You have to come to terms with local aesthetic values," Pardy
explained. "Learn to know the people as they really are. It's apparent
from some of the remarks Miss Meuhl quoted in her report that you
held the Groaci in rather low esteem. But how wrong you were! All
the while, they were working unceasingly to rescue those brave lads
marooned aboard our cruiser. They pressed on even after we ourselves
had abandoned the search. And when they discovered that it had been a
collision with their satellite which disabled the craft, they made that
magnificent gesture--unprecedented. One hundred thousand credits in
gold to each crew member, as a token of Groacian sympathy."

"A handsome gesture," Retief murmured.

       *       *       *       *       *

"I hope, Retief, that you've learned from this incident. In view of the
helpful part you played in advising Mr. Fith in matters of procedure to
assist in his search, I'm not recommending a reduction in grade. We'll
overlook the affair, give you a clean slate. But in future, I'll be
watching you closely."

"You can't win 'em all," Retief said.

"You'd better pack up. You'll be coming along with us in the morning."
Pardy shuffled his papers together.

"I'm sorry," he said, "that I can't file a more flattering report on
you. I would have liked to recommend your promotion, along with Miss
Meuhl's."

"That's okay," Retief said. "I have my memories."





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enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



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