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Title: Quest to Centaurus
Author: Smith, George O. (George Oliver)
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Quest to Centaurus" ***

                          QUEST TO CENTAURUS

                          By GEORGE O. SMITH

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                 Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1947.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

                               CHAPTER I

                           _Soft Assignment_

Captain Alfred Weston entered the room and nodded curtly to the men at
the conference table. Doctor Edwards, holding forth at the head of the
table, nodded as though he had not seen the over-polite greeting. He
waved the newcomer to an empty seat on the opposite side of the table,
and Weston went around to sit down.

Edwards had been talking on some other subject, obviously, but now he
dropped it. "Captain Weston," he said, "you are still classified as

"Rank foolishness," grumbled Weston.

"Unfortunately," smiled Edwards, "it is the Medical Corps that makes
the decision. A bit of rest does no man any harm. But, Weston, despite
the convalescent classification, we have a job that seems to be right
up your alley. Want it?"

"You're asking?" said Weston quizzically. "This is no order?"

"As an official convalescent, we cannot order you to duty."

Weston scowled. "I see no choice," he said. His tone was surly, his
whole attitude inimical.

"Nevertheless, the choice is your own," said Edwards. As psychiatrist
for the Medical Corps, Edwards was treading on thin ground. But he
knew he must force this disagreement into the open and blast it out of
Weston's mind.

It was a common enough block, but it needed elimination.

"Certainly the choice is mine," said Weston bitterly. "Hobson's Choice.
Either I take the job and do it, or I refuse to take it and gain the
disrespect of the entire Corps. I see no choice and therefore I will
take your job--sight unseen!"

"We shall offer the job," said Edwards flatly. "After which you will
make your decision."

"Very well," answered Weston sullenly.

Edwards ignored the tone of the answer. "Weston, you are a ranking
officer. This job requires a ranking officer because it demands someone
whose authority to investigate will not be questioned, scoffed at
or ignored. You are now a Captain. We intend to raise your rank to
Senior Captain--which is due you and has been withheld only until your
convalescence is complete.

"We shall offer you a roving order and a four-mark commissioned
directive which will give you authority to requisition whatever items
you may need to complete your project. Experimental Spacecraft Number
XXII will be assigned to you."

"You make it very attractive. Shall I now quote the ancient one about
'Beware of Greeks bearing gifts'?"

"There is no need for insolence, Weston. You are in excellent position
to do us a service. If you accept it will not be necessary to create
a hole in the Corps by removing some other ranking officer from his
command. This job will also give you the swing of space once again.
You've been out of space now for about a year--"

"Ever since the First Directive attack," said Weston bitterly.

"Right. But look, Weston. Regardless of what opinion the world may
have, we in this room have reason to believe that there is something
hidden behind the Jordan Green legend. We want you to get to the bottom
of it. Will you do this?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Weston grunted. He looked across the room to the door beside the blank
wall beside the doorframe. On the space above the chair-rail were the
scrawled words _Jordan Green was here_!

They were written in space-chart chalk, which Weston understood to be
the case with the uncounted thousands of such scrawlings sprinkled all
over the Solar System. It looked like a hurried scrawl at first glance,
yet it could not have been written by a man in a tearing hurry because
it was so very legible.

Weston himself had seen over a thousand of such scrawls in out of the
way places and he had joined in the hours of discussion that went on
through the Space Corps as to who Jordan Green might be, and if there
were really such a character.

Jordan Green, it seemed, was one of those legendary people that are
never seen. He had been everywhere and had apparently been there first.
It was a common joke that, if the Space Corps started to erect a lonely
outpost on some secret asteroid on Monday, Tuesday morning would find
Jordan Green's familiar scrawl beside the door on the unfinished wall.

The trouble was that Weston himself had written one or two of these
messages. And though he suspected that every officer in the Corps had
been guilty of perpetuating the gag at some time or other, not one of
them ever admitted it. It was a sort of unmentioned, no-prize contest
in the Corps just something to talk about in the long lonely times
between missions.

Every officer clamored for missions to the out of the way places
because he hoped to have a Jordan Green yarn to spin and the legendary
traveller was always reported. Weston smiled at one incident he had
heard of.

An officer he knew had found a place where there was no scrawl and had
written, _I beat Jordan Green to this spot!_ The following day there
was written beneath it, _So what? Have you looked under the wallpaper?
Jordan Green._ The officer had torn away the wallpaper and, below it on
the bare plaster, was the original scrawl.

The officer was still living down the joke.

None the less Weston thought it a waste of time to send a ranking
officer on such a wild-goose chase.

He said so. And he went on to recount the facts of the case as he knew
them. How, he wanted to know, was he to proceed when he was almost
certain that every man in the Space Corps was guilty?

Edwards listened to Weston's objections. He agreed, partially.

"It is admitted that the officers may have amused themselves by writing
it themselves. But when you consider the man-hours and the kilowatts
wasted in space-chatter the Martian War could have been finished in
three months less time.

"The problem is just this, Weston. Did it start as a joke--perhaps like
the boy who carves his initials the highest in the Old Oak Tree--or was
some agency hoping to cause enough waste to slow up our prosecution of
the late war?"

"I believe that it was started by some courier," said Weston
flatly. "Then it caught on and pyramided far beyond Jordan Green's
expectations. Have you sought the man himself?"

"We've established that any Jordan Greens in the service were not
responsible," said Edwards. "However, this possible courier of yours
probably would take a pseudonym lest fooling around with official time
and energy get him a reprimand. We want you to track down the origin of
Jordan Green! Will you do it?"

Weston shrugged. "I have no choice."

Edwards turned to the man beside him. "Commodore Atkins, will you
provide Senior Captain Weston with the necessary credentials, papers,
orders and insignia?"

Atkins smiled. "Come to my office, Weston. We'll have you fixed up in a

       *       *       *       *       *

Weston rose and followed the commodore out of the room. Then Edwards
turned to the other doctor in the conference room and took a deep
breath before he said: "Well, that much is accomplished!"

"You're the psychiatrist," said the other. "I'm just a simple surgeon.
For the life of me, I can't see it. What happens when Weston discovers
that this is just a peg-whittling job handed out to a good man who is
going stale for lack of something to do?"

"Reconsider his case from the psychiatric angle," said Edwards. "Weston
was an excellent officer. Because of his record he was one of twenty
men selected to carry the first projectors of Directive Power against
Mars. He was proud of being included in the Directive Power attack.

"His position in the task force was one that gave him the highest
statistical chance for success--yet with the usual trick of fate,
Weston was the first and only man whose ship was shot to pieces in the
counter-measure defense. He never even warmed up the secondary feeds to
the Directive Power system before he was hit.

"The rescue squadron picked him up in bad shape. He was maintained in
artificial unconsciousness while you put him together again--but by
that time the Martians had surrendered and the war was over. Weston
feels that he missed his big chance to go down in history. It's a plain
case of frustration and self-guilt."

"But how can sending him on this wild-goose chase do any good?"

"The cure for frustration is to let the subject either do that which he
has been barred from doing, or to give him something as pleasing to do
to divert his attention. The way to cure the type of self-guilt that
Weston has--an inner feeling of failure--is to give him something in
which he can succeed."


"However, we cannot start another war. Aside from our natural
reluctance, we'd have first to develop the application of Directive
Power to the space drive, which will give us interstellar flight, and
we'd have to go out in the galaxy with a chip on our shoulder to seek
such a war.

"Then Weston might be able to obtain release. He is like the chap whose
classmate turns up a Space Admiral while he himself is mustered out of
service because of Venusite malaria.

"However niggling this job may be, by the time that Weston is cured
through the work he'll be doing he will note that all of his former
friends are envious of the very lush job he has.

"All space-hopping, no fixed base, a roving commission at four-mark
level, an experimental spacecraft and, because he is chasing a will of
the wisp that may be either malignant or downright foolish, no one will
question his actions, castigate him if he fails or scorn his job.

"Remember this, Tomlinson, any man who goes out to unwind a
wildly-tangled legend to its core has a real job on his hands. There
must be reams and reams of conflicting evidence that will itself cover
up our little work-therapy until he gets interested in some outlandish
phase of it and settles down to work. Once he readjusts he won't mind a
bit. Right now, however, Weston is mingled anger and gratification."


"He is happy because of the commission and the increase in rank and the
freedom of action. He is angry, Tomlinson, because he knows that we
have confidence in him. His self-pity is blasted because we still think
he is a good bet.

"To continue in his present mental state requires that he continue
to believe himself battered by fate. In other words, to enjoy his
frustration-complex Weston must continue to be frustrated."

"Golly!" breathed Tomlinson. "Even when a man is slightly nuts he likes
himself that way!"

"Correct," laughed Edwards. "That's one of the things that makes
psychiatry difficult. It also makes Weston hate any condition which
forces him to change. Now, to space with Al Weston. I'm hungry. How
about you?"

Tomlinson grinned, nodded and beat Doctor Edwards to the door.

                              CHAPTER II

                         _No Coddling, Please_

Senior Captain Alfred Weston sat in his experimental spacecraft and
wondered about it all. He had a swamped, shut-in feeling that was
growing worse as the hours went by. He knew that he would never have
another chance as good as his first chance with the Directive Power
attack. In that he had failed.

This job was a fool project at best. Weston had come down from one of
twenty selected men to a high-priced office boy's position. Not that he
objected to regaining his position in the eyes of the world via some
honest project--but if they persisted in bringing him back along the
long hard road, it would be so very long and so very hard.

After all, he was no ensign, to rise through the ranks gaining
experience. Yet that is what he was going to do--again. There had to be
some project worthy of his ability!

There was conflict in his mind. One very small portion of his brain
kept telling him that they did not hand out four-mark commissions,
increases in rank and roving orders to ensigns, even ensigns in fact
with captain's ratings.

He scoffed at that, but was forced to recognize it anyway. In a fit of
sarcasm he went to the wall beside the spacelock, grabbed a piece of
space-chart chalk and scrawled, _Jordan Green was here, too!_ on the

Then he threw the chalk out the spacelock door in a fit of temper.

The whole assignment was far beneath his dignity. An officer of his
rank should have a large command, not a small speedster--even one
of the desirable experimental models. He felt like a President of
the Interplanetary Communications Network, forced to replace worn
patch-cords in a telephone exchange, or a President of Terra, forced
to write official letters to a number of third-class civil service

He, Alfred Weston, was being forced to forego his command in order to
snoop around trying to locate the originator of one of the craziest
space-gags in history.

Well, so it was beneath his notice--he could treat it with proper
disdain. No doubt the President of ICN might enjoy replacing worn out
patch-cords just to keep his hand in. He could do the same. He could
make whatever stupid moves were necessary, make them with an air of
superiority that made it obvious he was not extending himself. He might
appear to even be doing it for the laughs.

_Laughs!_ he thought. People will think that's all I'm to be trusted

He shrugged. He was on a roving commission, and therefore there was no
one to watch his progress. He'd put others to work and loaf.

He snapped the communicator, dialed the Department for official orders,
gave his rank and commission, issued a blanket order directed at the
commanders at all Terran Posts.

"Compile a cross-indexed list of all Jordan Green markings in your
command-posts. The listings must be complete on the following factors:
text, writing material, handwriting index and approximate location."

This, he knew, would take time. Perhaps he would be forced to follow up
the original order with a more firm request. Weston expected no results

But the mass of data that came pouring in staggered him. It mounted
high, it was complex and uncorrelated. Weston's natural dislike of the
project made him lax in his work. He went at it in desultory fashion,
which resulted in his getting far behind any schedule. The work
continued to pile up and ultimately snowed him under.

He began to hate the sight of his desk as the days went by and avoided
it diligently. It was groaning under the pile of paperwork. Instead
of using his ability and freedom to dig into the job, Weston used his
commission and his rank to enter places formerly forbidden to him.

On the pretense of seeking Jordan Green information, he entered the
ultra-secret space laboratory on Luna and watched work on highly
restricted technical developments. He was especially interested in the
work of adapting Directive Power to the space drive and, because they
knew him and of him, the scientists were quite free with information
that might have been withheld from any visitor of rank lower than
Senior Captain.

       *       *       *       *       *

This he enjoyed. It was a privilege given to all officers of senior
rank, a type of compensation, a relaxation. That he accepted the offer
without doing his job was unimportant to Weston. He felt that they owed
it to him.

By the time he returned from Luna, he had more data that he merely
tossed on the pile--and it was immediately covered by another pile of
data that had come in during his absence and was awaiting his return.
He decided he was too far behind ever to catch up, and so he loafed in
the scanning room, looking at the pile of work with a disconnected view
as though it were not his.

His loafing was not affected by the streams of favorable publicity
he received. His picture was used occasionally; he was mentioned
frequently in commendation. It was well-known that the only casualty
from the First Directive Attack was working through his convalescence
on the very complex job of uncovering the source of the Jordan Green

But Weston knew just how important his job really was, and he ignored
both it and the glowing reports of the newspapers.

Eventually friends caught up with him and demanded that he come along
on a party. He tried to wriggle out of it, but they insisted. Their
intention of making him enjoy himself was obvious. He viewed them with
a certain amount of scorn, though he said nothing about it.

If it gave them pleasure to try to lift him out of his slough of
despond he'd not stop them, but he could avoid them and their silly
prattlings. They would not be denied, however, so Al Weston went,

Obviously for his benefit, someone had scrawled _Jordan Green was
here!_ on the side of the wall in Jeanne Tarbell's home, and as he
entered the whole gang was discussing it. They turned to him for an
official opinion.

"Most of them were made the way this one was," he said scornfully.

Tony Larkin laughed. He turned to Jeanne.

"You see," he said, "a lot of us had much to do with winning the war.
I've--found several--myself."

"Scrawled several," corrected Weston sourly.

"Don't be bitter," said Larkin. "Even though you now outrank me, you
shouldn't change from boyish prank to official pomp overnight."

"Maybe you'd like to have as silly a job hung on you," snapped Weston.

"If the commish and the roving order and all went with it--I'd take to
it like a duck to water."

"Is that all you're good for?" asked Weston scornfully.

"Look, Al, I'm a plain captain in this man's Space Corps," returned
Larkin. "Anytime I want to sweep up the floor in my office I'll do
it, see? One--no one can do it better, and two--no one can say that
sweeping floors is my top position in life.

"It isn't a loss of dignity to exhibit your skill in ditch-digging or
muck-raking. It makes you more human when people know that, despite
your gold braid, you aren't afraid to get your hands as dirty as
theirs. At least they didn't plant you in the front office because
you'd make a mess of working in the machine shop."

"You'd not like to be ordered to a dirty job," snapped Weston.

"If it had to be done and I was told to do it, I'd do it and do it
quick. You can take a bath afterwards and wash off the dirt--and be the
gainer for knowing how the Other Half lives!"

Weston turned and walked out. Larkin frowned sorrowfully and apologized
to Jeanne and the rest. Tom Brandt shrugged.

"We all agree, Tony," he said. "But drumming at him will do no good.
He'll have to find himself on his own time."

       *       *       *       *       *

Jeanne nodded and went out after Weston.

"Al," she said, pleading, "come back and be the man we used to know."

"I can't," he said. He was utterly dejected.

"But you can. It's in you. Apply yourself. So this is a poor job in
your estimation. If it is beneath your ability you should be able to do
it with one hand."

"You too?" he said bitterly. "I thought you'd see things my way."

"I do, honestly. But, Al, I can't turn back the clock. I can't give you
another chance at the Directive thing. You did not fail. No one thinks
you did or they'd not trust you with a high rank and a free commission.
You were the victim of sheer chance and none of it was your fault."

"But why did it happen to me?" he cried bitterly. "Why couldn't I have
been successful?"

"Someone was bound to get it," she said simply. "You prefer your own
skin to someone else's?"

"Wouldn't you--if the chips were down?"

She nodded. "Certainly. But I don't think I'd hate everybody that was
successful if I were the unlucky one."

"Then they top it off by giving me this stupid job."

"Maybe you think that unraveling a legend is child's play. Well, Alfred
Weston, satisfying the demands or the interest of a few billion people
as to the truth of Jordan Green is no small item!

"He who satisfies the public interest is far more admired than a
captain of industry or a ruler of people. And if this job is a boy's
work why did they send a man to do it, complete with increase in rank
and a roving commission?"

"Because Jordan Green was of no importance until they needed a simple
job to use in coddling a man they consider a simpleton!" growled Weston.

"And you are the man they selected to join with the Directive Power
attack," she said, stepping back and inspecting him carefully. "Well,
suppose you complete this simple job first. Then let's see whether you
can accomplish something you consider worthy of your stature."

"You're insulting," he said shortly.

"You wouldn't be able to recognize an insult," she said scornfully.
She turned and left the place with tears in her eyes. Tony Larkin
intercepted her and dried her eyes.

"It's tough," he told her. "But until he shakes the feeling that Fate
is against him he'll be poor company. Eventually everybody will dislike
him and then he'll have nothing to do but to go ahead and work.

"Whatever initial success comes will break his interest in himself.
He'll go at it in desperation, in hatred perhaps, but he'll emerge with
a sense of humor again. Until then, Jeanne, you'll have to sit and
suffer with the rest of us."

"But was that Jordan Green job wise?"

"I can think of a thousand officers who would tackle it with shouts of
glee," he said. "Lady, what a lark! I'd be giving cryptic statements to
the press and having a daisy of a time all over the Solar System.

"Weston is one of us. When he regains his perspective he'll view it the
same way--as a lark! Right now, though," he said seriously, "it's best
that he stay out of the public eye. I'd hate to have the Space Corps
judged by his standards."

"I guess we all feel sorry for him," she said.

"Yeah, but it's sorrow for his mental state and not for the cause. Now
forget him and enjoy yourself."

                              CHAPTER III

                           _The Cold Trail_

Weston strode from the party in an angry frame of mind that left him
only as he entered his own ship. His anger simmered down to resentment
and a bulldog determination to show them all. So they had sent a man to
do a boy's work! Well, he would apply himself and ship them the answer
complete down to the last decimal place!

If he had to catalogue every Jordan Green mark as to place and location
in a long list and show proof of just which joking officer had scrawled
it there, by heaven he'd do it. And if it made every man in the Corps
a joker, that was too bad. But he would dig out the writer of each and
every scrawl in the Solar System if it took the rest of his life.

He faced the piles of data and set to work with determination born of
burning resentment. Morning came, and he was still sorting, filing,
deciding. The card-sorter clicked regularly, dropping the tiny
cards into piles that were cross-indexed and tabulated on a master
card. Reports in lengthy form, mere cards of terse data, incomplete
reports--all of them he went after and scanned carefully to make some
sort of mad pattern if he could.

He found himself weak from lack of sleep and fought it off with
hot coffee and benzedrine until he had succeeded in unraveling the
now-dusty pile of data. It was full of erroneous information and false
data. If Jordan Green existed he was well-covered by the scrawlings of
men who wanted to perpetuate the joke. But, finished, he sat back in

Of thirty thousand such scrawlings, twenty-seven thousand were written
in the same manner!

Top it--they were written with the same chalk!

Top that--they were unmistakably in the same handwriting!

"Now where in Hades did any one man get so much time?" Al Weston asked

He pored over a globe of Terra, stuck pins in it to show the location,
then studied it to see if any pattern could be made of the grand
scramble. There was apparently none, so he took a Mercator and did the
same, standing off in a dim light to see if the pin-points caused any
'lining' of the vision into some recognizable pattern.

He got a chart of Mars and studied it. He tried to make the
spatter-pattern of Mars line up to agree with the pin-pattern of
Terra. He turned it this way and that to see. He photographed both and
laid them on top of one another, and finally gave up. There was no

He went to bed and, the next morning, dropped his ship at Marsport.

"I've a four-mark commission," he said sharply to the office aide at

"I'll request an audience for you," said the office aide. He should, by
all rights, be slightly cowed by the senior captain's rank and the free
commission, but he was aide to the High Brass of conquered Mars and
larger brass than this had come and gone--unsatisfied.

"See here, I'm on a roving commission and I want aid."

"Yes sir, I'll request you an audience--"

"Blast!" snarled Weston angrily. "I'm not fooling."

"No one fools here," returned the aide.

"Are you being insolent?"

"Not if I can avoid it, sir. But you understand that I am responsible
only to Admiral Callahan. I am doing his bidding and those are his

"You've not spoken to him about them."

"I need not--which is why I'm his aide. You see, sir, I'm not trying to
tell you your business, but there is a lot of important work going on

"Will you contact him?"

"No, sir."

"I order you."

"I'd think twice, sir. I am not being personally obstinate nor am
I ignorant of your rank, Senior Captain Weston. But I know Admiral
Callahan's temperament."

"My order stands," said Weston, "I will be received."

"Yes sir. I'm sorry, sir." The aide turned and entered the office. He
emerged, shortly afterwards and motioned for Al to enter. Weston cast
a down-his-nose glance at the aide, then shut the door behind him.
Against the wall beside the door was a scrawled legend.

"_Jordan Green has been here, too!_"

       *       *       *       *       *

The style was unmistakable--as unmistakable as the wrath that greeted

"Explain, Senior Captain Weston!"

"I am on a roving commission, rank four-mark, I--"

"I'm aware of your rank, your mission and your commission. Come to the
point. I want to know why you think you are more important than anybody

"I--have not that opinion, sir."

"You must have it, or you'd not have behaved as you did! Come on,

"Well, sir, I've uncovered a rather startling bit--"

"So what? So you demand my time to discuss a space gag with me? So
they're all the same handwriting. Any idiot at Intelligence could
have told you that. They covered that phase when Jordan Green first
appeared. They were suspicious. Here!"

Admiral Callahan strode to a file cabinet and took out a thick file. He
hurled it at Al Weston.

"Read it and learn some sense, young man. Now get out of here and don't
bother coming back."

Weston took the file and left. His ears were burning and his mind was a
tangle of cross-purposes and emotions. That was a rotten way to treat a
man who'd been shot down on the first directive expedition.

He'd like to clip the so-and-so admiral's wings a bit. He'd--take
it--he guessed, sourly, hearing a slight snicker behind him. He turned
angrily but there was no one near.

That snicker? Was it real, or merely a breath of wind against the
Venetian blind?

He entered the first bar he found. "Pulga and water," he said.

The bartender winced. "Does the Terran Captain forget that this is

Weston had, but this was no time to admit a mistake.

"Not at all," he said.

"May I ask the Terran Captain to change his order?"

"I want it as I said it," snapped Weston.

"Does the Terran Captain understand that water is not plentiful? We on
Mars have not the--the--plumbing as on Terra, where you cannot live
without your water. We use but little personally and that mostly for
washing. In washing, we absorb sufficient for our own metabolism."

"I'm aware of that."

"Then the Terran Captain may also be aware of the fact that our water
is not--well--suited for internal consumption?"

"You have no bottled water?" demanded Weston angrily.

"That will be found only on the Terran Post. Please, be not angry. All
newcomers forget."

"Forget it," snapped Weston and walked out.

Even the lowly bartenders of a conquered race made a fool of him. He
entered another bar down the street and asked for pulga and vin, a
completely native Martian potable. It was served without argument and
went down right.

He had another and was halfway through it when he turned to see friends

"Al!" they called. "How's it, man?"

       *       *       *       *       *

With a weak smile he set down his drink and held out a welcoming hand.

"Hi, fellows. Haven't seen you in a year, Jack. Nor you, Bill. What's

"Nothing much. Golly, we thought you were a real goner when they hit
you that fatal day."

"I don't remember," said Weston.

"I'll bet you don't," said Bill with a smile. "You dropped back out
of formation in a flaming instant and were gone. The rest of us were
all right and won through. We hit Mars about o-three-hundred the next
afternoon and, brother, did we hit 'em.

"We hurled the directive beam right down in the middle of Kanthanappois
and laid the city flat! Then we headed North to Montharrin and singed
'em gently around the edges. You have no idea, Al boy, what a fierce
thing you can toss out of a one-seater scooter when you've got
directive power in it.

"They've never got the Fresno Beams down to a size practical for
anything smaller than an eight-man job, you know. Well, directives
make it possible to handle a four-turret from a one-man job. And a
super-craft can carry enough stuff to move Mars."

"I missed it."

"We know, and we're sorry about that. Well, we can't all win."

"Don't be patronizing," snapped Al Weston.

"Sorry. We knew you'd have given most anything to have joined in the
ruckus. Well--say, Al, I hear you've got a snap job now?"

"Well," said Al, disagreeing that it was a snap, and at the same time
trying to justify its importance, "I'm trying to dig out the truth of
this Jordan Green thing."

"You mean like over there?" grinned Jack, pointing to the legend on the

"Uh--yeah, excuse me a moment," said Weston, going over and looking at
it carefully.

"Getting to be an authority, hey, Al?" laughed Bill. "Gosh, that's a
laugh of a job. Bet you have your fun."

"I think it is slightly stupid," said Weston harshly.

"Could be. It's no more stupid than a lot of jobs in this man's space
navy, though. They sent a space admiral out once to measure the major
diameter of all spacecraft to the maximum thousandth of an inch and
didn't tell him for weeks that it had a deep purpose.

"He fumed and fretted until he discovered that it took a space admiral
to hold enough rank to be permitted to measure that stuff under the
security regulations. Later they made all external space gear universal
so that replacement quantities could be reduced. It saved about seven
billion bucks--enough to pay the admiral's salary for a couple of

Jack laughed. "It's usually some lucky bird that gets these cockeyed
commissions and has a swell time loafing all over the solar system on
the government's dough."

"I don't consider myself lucky."

"We do," chimed one of the men. "We're stuck here along with seven
million other high-brass policemen who'd rather play marbles," said
Bill. "So what does it matter what you're doing, actually, so long as
you're paying your way?"

"Well, I'd prefer something a bit more in my line."

"Who wouldn't?" responded Jack. "But what the heck? Remember the lines
from Gilbert & Sullivan--_The Private Buffoon_? 'They won't blame you
so long as you're funny'!"

"Very amusing," said Weston.

"Well, shucks, anytime you want to swap jobs--"

"I wouldn't mind," said Weston wistfully.

"Look, chum, take it easy. You wouldn't like sitting on your
unretractable landing gear eight hours a day listening to a bunch of
dirty Marties trying to talk you into slipping them a bit of a lush.
Make you damned sick.

"But it's a job we've got to do and so long as we're hung with it,
we're hung, and we'll give it our best. We know we can do most
anything, so why should we worry?"

Bill grinned and nodded. "I'll bet even the bartender wouldn't like our
job. Hey Soupy!"

"Would the Terran officers desire something?"

"Can you be honest?"

"Can anyone?" returned the barkeep. Like all barkeeps, he was about to
start walking a fence between customers.

"How would you like to have my job?"

The barkeep looked at Bill. "You want an answer?"

Bill nodded.

       *       *       *       *       *

The barkeep shook his head. "Too much trouble. I am happy as I am. I,
Terran officers, can mix the best veliqua on Mars, and no one on Terra
can mix one at all. So I cannot drive a spacer, nor build a long range
communicator. But I mix the best veliqua--observe?"

They observed as the barkeep made rapid motions with several bottles,
whirled them overhead and came in on a tangent landing with three
glasses, brimful to a bulging meniscus, without spilling a drop.

"Personally," grinned Bill, "I think we've just been
hydraulic-pressured into buying a drink."

"Smart lad, he."

"I'd not put up with that. We didn't ask for it," objected Weston.

"No? Well, so what," grinned Bill, lifting the glass.

"It's okay," said Jack "But look, Al. You still sound as though you
were enjoying life--or should be."

"I'm not."

"Well, Al, if you aren't, it's your fault."

"It wasn't my fault that I got clipped?"

"Hardly. No one is putting any blame on you for getting hung on the
wrong end of a beam. Despite popular rumor, they don't hand out them
things for cutting your hand on a can-opener," said Bill, nodding
toward the purple ribbon on Weston's breast. It was beside another
colored bit, awarded for his efforts in the initial directive attack.

"That one," said Weston, catching Bill's eye, "was a consolation prize.
I didn't earn it."

"My friend, you must learn to tell the difference between humility and
the job of fishing for compliments. Well, chum, you've had a rough
time and we gotta go back and play traffic cop. Let us know if there's
anything we can do."

Weston nodded. They left. They left him alone. Far back in his mind
something mentioned the fact that they were on duty, but he thought
they could have stayed around a bit longer.

He drank too much that long Martian afternoon and was definitely hung
over most of the next day.

Al Weston gave up at that point. Never again would he try to prove his
sorry plight to any one of his former friends. They all insisted upon
looking at the brighter side of his life and ignored his trouble as
though it did not exist.

They were glad enough to see him alive, it seemed, when he'd have
preferred death to this lack-luster existence. He wondered whether
any of them would worry about him if he disappeared. Perhaps if they
thought he were dead--

Well, he had a four-mark commission, which entitled him among other
things to commandeer anything now in the experimental field. He'd make
a show of commandeering a directive power drive and then drop out of

They'd suspect both his untimely end, and suspect the advisability of
the directive drive. Then he'd show up and prove both worthy. That
would give him his prestige again.

He'd do it at Pluto and, on the way, he'd stop at every way-station
long enough to leave a wide trail. He'd enter a post, discuss Jordan
Green at length. He'd take pictures, make tests and then head
outward--to disappear for about a year. That would fix them all.

                              CHAPTER IV

                            _Free For All_

"Pluto," said Al Weston drily. He'd come through the entrance dome of
one of the sealed cities and was standing atop the Corps Administration
building, looking out over the sprawling city. Since Pluto was utterly
cold, the sealed cities were the only habitable places on the planet
and even they were too chilly for comfort.

He had no Pluto-garb, but he did have his spaceman's suit, which was
internally heated. He, like most of the Corpsmen there, wore the
spaceman's suit with the fishbowl swung back across his shoulderblades.

Some of them had had the helmets removed entirely, though this was
troublesome around the entrance-locks because none of the men who were
without their fishbowl headgear could work outside of the inner lock.

But--this was Pluto, and from here, as soon as he could leave, Al
Weston was heading, just plain out!

In accordance with regulations he reported to the port commandant's
office. This time he had no intention of forcing entry to the Inner
Sanctum. His ears were still red from his last abortive effort. All he
intended to do was to report to the office aide and, if the Big Brass
wanted to see him, he'd eventually call.

Inside of the office was the usual scrawl--_Yes, Jordan Green has been
even here!_

It was authentic and Weston said so aloud. The office aide looked up.
"You're Senior Captain Weston?"

"I'm known?" asked he, slightly surprised.

"By reputation," grinned the clerk. "It's said that you can tell an
authentic Jordan Green by seeing it through a visiscope."

"Not quite," said Weston.

"Have you uncovered anything yet, sir?" asked the aide.

"Are you interested?"

"Everyone is interested," said the clerk. "It will make a darned
amusing yarn when you get all done."

"Uh-huh," grunted Weston. _Amusing_, he thought. Was his value to the
Space Corps only an amusement value?

"See here," he said to the clerk, "I'd like to try a directive power

"You were on the first directive power expedition against Mars, weren't
you?" mused the clerk. "According to custom and regulations, you are
entitled to any experimental equipment that you used during the war.
Seems to me, too, that you are probably using more power for space
flight than about ninety-eight percent of the corps at the present
time. We have a directive power unit here."

"Then I can have it immediately?"

The clerk nodded. "I'm merely ruminating," he said to Weston. "I'd
prefer several good reasons why you took it other than your fancy to
try it out. It'll make the Old Man less fratchy.

"It's slightly haywire, of course, since it came right from the Power
Laboratory with a boatload of long-hairs on a test mission. They left
it here and we've been tinkering with it off and on. We can get a new
one in a month or so, but you can have the haywire model if you'd
prefer not to wait."

"I'll take it."

"Okay. I'll issue orders for the engine gang to swap power in your

"Thanks," said Weston.

"Oh, and sir, I almost forgot. It's just an unfounded rumor and I've
been unable to check the truth of it, but they claim there's a Jordan
Green scrawl on Nergal, too."

"Nergal?" said Weston explosively. His mind envisioned a minute hunk
of cosmic dust not much more than a hundred miles in diameter--Pluto's
only claim to a satellite. It was better than thirteen million miles
from Pluto and its rotation was necessarily slow due to its tiny mass
and great distance.

       *       *       *       *       *

It had been and would continue to be for some years, the solar object
most distant from Sol.

It was uninhabited, airless, cold, forbidding, and completely useless.

There was not even a station on it. Science found the airless outer
surface of Pluto more to their liking. On Pluto, at least, there was
gravity to hold them down. The escape velocity of Nergal was not really
known, but it must have been minute.

"Might be sheer fancy," said the clerk apologetically.

"Better check on it," said Weston. This was an opportunity. When he
left it would be recorded that he went to Nergal. He even wished that
he'd started to write his own name under the countless Jordan Green
scrawls he'd visited. Then they could find one out there, and know he'd
been there and from there...?

In relaxation uniform, Weston sat in a small, out of the way restaurant
and finished his dinner. He was the only uniformed man in the place,
and so when the unlovely pair behind him made mention of the Corps, he
knew they were talking about him.

He did not know them by name, but after a glimpse of them immediately
labeled one of them as 'Dirty' and the other one as 'Ratty'. It was
Ratty's voice that caught his attention. He missed the statement, but
caught Dirty's answer.

"By the time all the Fancy Brass gets them, maybe we can have a couple

"The war's over," Ratty snarled. "Why does the Corps need directive

"How should I know? Ask Pretty, up there."

"He wouldn't know," snapped Ratty. "He's just taking orders."

"Must be nice to roam all over space with your feed and power free."

"Yeah, but he'd go broke if he had to live on what he's worth."

"That's why most guys get in the Corps anyway."

"That guy is spending about thirty thousand bucks just to track down a

"Maybe his myth has a sister for me?" guffawed Dirty. "Wonder where he
was hiding when the shooting was going on."

"He wouldn't say," grunted Ratty. "Mosta the dirty work was done by

"Well, now the schemozzle is over, he'll come out beating his chest and
telling how he won the war. I'll bet he piloted a office desk and got
that wound ribbon from pinching his finger in a desk drawer."

"Yeah, the Corps is rotten with slinkers."

"He's tooken months to track down this myth. Bet he makes it another
year. Then they'll hang a medal on him for it."

"Any good spaceman could run Jordan Green down in a week," grunted

"But it wouldn't be profitable to do it quick," answered Dirty with a
leer in his voice.

Weston got up and went to their table.

"Sit down!" he snarled. "You, too!" he snapped at Dirty, taking the man
by the jacket front and ramming him back in his chair with a crash.
Heads looked up, and men faded back out of the way, clearing the area.

"One," said Weston. "I was in the hospital for seven months,
unconscious from a fracas off Mars with the first directive power
attack. Remember? I was doing a job so that stinkers like you could
roam space unbothered by Martie pirates. Where were you? Hiding in a
mine somewhere?

"At the present time if I spend five years rambling all over space
looking for Jordan Green, you'll still owe me plenty. I wasn't making
money while I was fighting. How much did you make? If it hadn't been
for the Corps you'd be dead."

       *       *       *       *       *

Weston cuffed Dirty across the face with the back of his hand and spat
into Ratty's face.

They rose with a roar and Ratty hurled table and chairs out of the way.
They rushed Weston heavily.

Weston grinned.

He drove his fist into Ratty's stomach and sliced Dirty's throat with
the edge of his hand.

Here was something tangible for Weston to fight! For almost a year, he
had been railing at the wind, storming at an invisible hand of fate
that had clipped him hard. The men before him were the embodiment of
all his ill luck and he drove into them with a burning hatred to maim
and destroy.

It was a dirty fight. The space rats had no qualms about sportsmanship
and Weston had been tumble-trained on Terra to accept battle only when
it was inevitable, at which point nothing was barred.

Dirty came in, hammering at his abdomen, and got a knee in the face.
Ratty pulled a knife and rushed in with a slicing swing. Weston faded
back, hit the bar, felt its edge crease his back as the rats moved
after him.

He lashed out with a foot and drove Ratty and his knife back, turned to
roll with a roundhouse swing from Dirty and his right arm knocked over
a beer bottle. His right hand closed on the neck of the bottle, and he
rapped it sharply against the edge of the bar, knocking off the base.

He kneed Dirty and closed with Ratty. He caught the knife-wielder in
the face with the jagged bottle and thrust him back with a twisting
punch of the bottle. There was a wordless scream.

Weston caught Dirty in the ribs with a hard fist and then cracked the
man's head with what was left of the bottle. It shattered completely as
Dirty staggered back and Weston dropped the useless end. They closed
again, and wrestled viciously across the floor, tripped over a table
and went down with a crash in a tight lock.

Dirty swung his elbow free and Weston missed catching it in the throat
by a mite. Weston let go of Dirty's wrist and grabbed Dirty by the
collar. Up he lifted and down he slammed.

Dirty's head made a thudding crack against the floor.

"Rye," gasped Weston and swallowed it neat.

Then he walked out, paused at the door and said:

"Call the cops and tell 'em to pick up--"

He left with a quizzical smile. He didn't even know their names.

He didn't stop to clean up, but entered his ship immediately. The
directive power drive had been installed and he made radio contact with
the control center that opened the locks in the sealed city.

He went out with a rush and hit the high trail for Nergal.

They'd give him a stupid job, would they? Well, he'd frittered enough
on it. Now he was going to polish this off in a hurry and go back and
hurl his commission in the teeth of Big Brass and stamp out snarling. A
big strong man hunting a myth...!

       *       *       *       *       *

Nergal appeared within minutes under the directive drive. He landed and
slapped the magnets on to keep him down. If there were anything to
this rumor Jordan Green would have needed a wall or something to write
his name on.

In the scanner Weston searched every square yard of his horizon and
then moved. Four times he moved, each time searching his very limited
line of sight circle. The fifth time he came upon a sheet of metal,
fixed to a metal post, emanating out of a box.

He looped the ship into the air, caught box and post with a tractor and
pulled it into the airlock.

Drifting free, he inspected the slab of metal.

_Jordan Green has been here_, it said in bold letters.

And below, on the top of the box, there was a pointer in gimbals.
A surveyor's telescope. Gyro-stabilized it was and it pointed off
slightly below the plane of the ecliptic. Weston took it to the
observation dome and applied his eye to it as it stood. In the narrow
field he saw the stars, and the crosshairs centered on a small one.
Around the circumference of the reticule, tiny letters shone:

_Jordan Green has been there too!_

The star was Proxima Centauri.

"Oh, yeah?" growled Weston angrily. "That I have to see!"

Feeling challenged and outraged, Al Weston shoved in the Directive
Power Drive all the way and headed across interstellar space for
Proxima Centauri.

"Jordan Green!" he growled as the ship passed above the velocity of
light. "That Jordan Green!"

He forgot the incongruity of Al Weston, the first man to penetrate
interstellar space--seeking a phantom that claimed to have been on
Alpha Centauri or, more practically, on one of the star's planets.
All that Weston knew was that Jordan Green had been having fun at the
expense of the Space Corps, just as Ratty and Dirty had in riding him.

It was a private fight. He might hate the High Command's brass but let
no craven civilian criticize so much as the polish on the buttons of
the third-assistant lubrication technician's uniform!

Jordan Green indeed! Well, Senior Captain Alfred Weston would bring
this Jordan Green in by the ears.

And then they'd let Jordan Green explain his pranks.

                               CHAPTER V

                             _Trail's End_

The humiliation of his project died. He began to feel a hearty dislike
for Jordan Green. Not only had the joker caused waste of time and
money and kilowatts during the war, he was now instrumental in the
expenditure of time and money--and was keeping a qualified ranking
officer from performing a task compatible with his training.

Weston growled and swore to finish up this job in quick time. He could
then return to his rightful position and do a job that would set him up
in his friends' eyes once more.

He considered Tony Larkin--a good enough fellow. Jeanne Tarbell--well,
after all, he'd been ill and no girl could sit around all the time.
Larkin was a nice enough egg and could be trusted. But Larkin would
have to take a seat far to the rear when Weston returned!

He'd really show 'em!

The experimental spacecraft, driven by the experimental directive power
unit, bored deeper and deeper into interstellar space and its velocity
mounted high, running up an exponential scale that was calculated in
terms of multiples of the speed of light.

He calculated turnover from sheer theory and a grasp of higher
mathematics, since the heavens were an angry gray-blue outside of his
ports. Then he decelerated and began to wait for the long long hours to
pass before he could see how close his calculations were.

His clocks and chronometers went haywire and he lost track of time. He
slept at odd moments, as he had done on the acceleration-half of this
first interstellar trip.

The idea of interstellar travel came home to him. He, Al Weston, was
making the first interstellar trip. The incongruity was not considered.
He knew that he would find Jordan Green on some planet of Proxima
Centauri. He began to enjoy the idea. His friends, Tom, Bill, Jack, all
of them had considered him lucky. Well, confound Jordan Green, he was

And, regardless of what Jordan Green meant, he'd go down in history,
not as a conquerer that went out with the Solar System's most
destructive invention, but as the first peacetime user of directive
power for interstellar flight. He'd comb the Centaurian system, and
then return home with proof. He'd be his own hero!

His ship's velocity dropped below light and he set course for Proxima
IV as a guess. He checked the panoramic receiver, located one very
heavy signal coming from that planet and knew that he was right.

Not only would he be a Terran celebrity, he would also be an
ambassador--first interstellar user of directive power and first
discoverer of an extra-solar race of intelligences!

The planet was unpopulated!

Thick jungle covered it and it was full of wild life. On no hand could
he see any sign of culture. There was no evidence but the single heavy
signal, which he tracked halfway around the jungle-laden planet to land
in a clearing beside a huge, white-marble building.

[Illustration: Weston tracked halfway around the jungle-laden planet to
land in a clearing beside a huge, white-marble building.]

On the lintel above the door were the words, in letters of shimmering
jewel-like substance.

_Here lives Jordan Green!_

Weston smiled cynically. This--was it! He polished the knuckles of his
right hand in the palm of his left hand, flexed both hands, loosed the
needler in his holster and strode forward, hands at his sides, alert.

He hit the door with a hard straight-arm and sent it crashing open.

       *       *       *       *       *

He faced four people, three men and a woman.

"Well, well!" he said, one portion of his mind wondering what to do
about the woman when the shooting started. He disliked harming women
but he knew that women had no compunctions against doing a man as best
they could.

"Which of you--or how many of you--is or are Jordan Green?"

"Why?" asked the elder man mildly.

"Because I want to strangle him--or even her--slowly and painfully!
Then I'm taking him--he, she or it--back to Terra to answer some

"Why?" asked the man. "Has he harmed you?"

Weston stopped short. To be honest with himself, Jordan Green had
harmed no one, but he had been a plagued nuisance at least to Weston
personally. Jordan Green was a sort of a symbol of something that
caused him trouble.

"See here," he said. "They hung the job of locating Jordan Green on me,
thinking I needed some sort of cockeyed feather nest of a job because
I couldn't handle anything real. I didn't want it, but they've tossed
time and money into the job.

"Me--I want to take the joker back by the ears and show them that at
least I'm worth their time and money and let them figure out whether
my efforts were worth it. At least I've paid my way and done what they
wanted me to do! Now--which?"

"What do you intend to do then?" asked the man. The younger man headed
for a huge machine that stood inert, its pilot lights glimmering to
show that it was ready to perform. The older called something in a
strange tongue and the other one stopped and turned with puzzlement
written in every line of his body.

"Who are you?" gritted Weston.

"I am called Dalenger. He is Valentor, she, his sister, Jasentor. The
fourth is Desentin."

"I'm stupefied," gritted Weston. "A fine bunch of nom de plumes. Who
are you? Or do I take you all back?"

"Tell me. Why are you angry?" asked Dalenger.

Al Weston told them. He told them of his ambition and his hopes and his
own personal defeats--and though he did not know it he was extending
himself to convince a total stranger that he, Weston, was a very
unhappy man.

"And now, which of you is responsible for all the scribbling that's
been going on?" he concluded.

Dalenger smiled. "Please sit down, Senior Captain Weston. Jasey! Get
him a dollop of refreshments. I think we're about a have a talk!"

"Get to the point," snapped Weston.

"Patience, my friend. Look. Look well and see this room. We are
official observers for the Galactic Union. We--"

"The _what_?" exploded Weston.

"In the galaxy are seventy-four suns, all peopled with humanoid races,
entire stellar systems of us. We all possess what you call directive
power. Not only is directive power the key to interstellar flight, but
it is also the key to supremacy. That machine back there is an example.
If the button behind the safety door is pressed your star will become a
supernova because of our development of directive power.

"With such a means of wiping out an entire star-system, we must be
certain that any newcomers who develop directive power will not be of
a culture that is basically warlike, or filled with manifest destiny to
rule the galaxy.

"This is harsh judgment, Senior Captain Weston, but it is a matter of
being harsh or losing our lives. We are not cruel, but we are not soft
where our future is at stake.

"Ergo, our detectors cover the galaxy, a job that would be impossible
to do manually. At the first release of directive power we set up an
observation post, such as you have found here, and we provide means to
ensure a quick decision.

"When the first flight arrives we can judge the culture from the men
who come with it. If the culture is favorable to the Galactic Union
it is joined. If it is inimical or undesirable in any way, their
sun becomes a supernova, wiping out the undesirable civilization

Weston looked at Dalenger with a hard, cynical glance.

"Like to play at being God?" he asked sharply.

"We do not. But we like to live!"

"You, I gather, are responsible for that Jordan Green gag?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Dalenger smiled. "Yes. Your people have no doubt wondered how
the fellow could get around as he did. Actually, it was a
controlled-writing, using directive power from here. We have come no
closer to your sun than this. Our grasp of your language was obtained
by reading books, by listening to your radio and by other means--all
available across the light-years by directive power.

"You see," said Dalenger, "if we came as emissaries we would be shown
only that which your leaders wanted us to see. If we came as spies
there would always be suspicion in your minds. Our spying is restricted
to learning your language and setting up the means by which you will
seek us out."

"But this Jordan Green business?"

"There are a number of reasons why a race will seek the origin of
such a joke. A well-developed sense of humor and the willingness to
spend money on such is desirable. Suspicion is not bad, depending
upon whether it is sheer hatred of the alien or a desire to maintain

Weston thought for a moment. They were going to judge his race by him.
He considered and came to the conclusion that he was a sorry specimen
to grade an entire culture on.

"How can you grade a race on one specimen?" he said.

"Since the specimen is usually a competent man, highly trained, a
scientist, we normally discount him a bit. A hand-picked sample is
never representative, but represents the peak of the race."

Weston swallowed. "But look," he said. "That is not fair. I'm--"

"Senior Captain Weston, you strode in here angry. You displayed no
sense of humor. You snarled and promised us all bodily harm and accused
us of having interfered with your plans. Right?"


"Yet," said Dalenger, "you were changing. You see, Weston, you were a
sick man. There is one characteristic that is quite desirable. It is
a sense of social responsibility to the individual by the collective
government. Most undesirable is the type that claims the individual
must be immersed in the good of the state.

"In one extension this sense is called pity. In the other extension
it is called pride. You were hurt and you became ill mentally. And,
instead of casting you out, your fellow men gave you a job that
would result in your convalescence regardless of success or failure,
providing that you yourself managed to follow through--in any manner.
You did, by desperation and anger.

"We don't always judge by the mental calibre of the man who comes. We
must consider the reason why he was selected. We don't value personal
feelings in judgment of a race--we'd be inevitably wrong if we valued
the opinion of a psychoneurotic.

"The judging was finished when I called Desentin to stop. He is young
and impetuous and was about to press the button. So, Senior Captain
Alfred Weston, we welcome you and your race to the Galactic Union!"

Weston blinked. He'd fought against it. He'd been angry at something
every instant of the time between his awakening after the disaster to
the present moment--angry because there was nothing he could do to gain
real recognition. So they hung a joke-job on him to cure him!

And, by the grace of the gods and a long-handled spoon, he had walked
into a situation that might have caused the destruction of the entire
Solar System but for some deep understanding on the part of an alien

He--Al Weston, psychoneurotic--in the position of being an emissary!

He took the glass offered by Jasentor, lifted it to the four of them
and drained it with a gesture.

And for the first time in more than a year, the sound of Weston's
honest laughter filled the room.


*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Quest to Centaurus" ***

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