And Then There Were None
by Eric Frank Russell [vol XLVII no 4 Astounding Science
Fiction (Jun 1951 Street and Smith Publications; 1979
Scott Meredith Literary Agency)]
[The ambassador] went silent as the ship closed in and the
planet’s day-side face rapidly expanded. Then followed the
usual circling and photographing. A lot of villages and small
towns were to be seen, also cultivated areas of large extent. It
was obvious that this planet — while by no means fully
exploited — was in the hands of colonists who were
energetic and numerically strong.
Relieved that life was full, abundant and apparently free from
alien disease. Grayder brought the ship down onto the first
hard-standing he saw. Its enormous mass landed feather-like on a
long, low hump amid well-tended fields. Again all the ports
became filled with faces as everyone had a look at the new world.
The midway airlock opened, the gangway went down. As before, exit
was made in strict order of precedence starting with the
Ambassador and finishing with Sergeant Major Bidworthy. Grouping
near the bottom of the gangway they spent the first few moments
absorbing sunshine and fresh air.
His Excellency scuffled the thick turf under his feet, plucked a
blade of it grunting as he stooped. He was so constructed that
the effort came close to an athletic feat and gave him a crick in
‘Earth-type grass. See that, Captain? Is it just a
coincidence or did they bring seed with them?’
‘Could be either. Several grassy worlds are known. And
almost all colonists went away loaded with seeds.’
‘It’s another touch of home, anyway. I think
I’m going to like this place.’ The Ambassador gazed
into the distance, doing it with pride of ownership. ‘Looks
like there’s someone working over there. He’s using a
little motor-cultivator with a pair of fat wheels. They
can’t be very backward, it seems.
‘H’m-m-m!’ He rubbed a couple of chins.
‘Bring him here. We’ll have a talk and find out where
it’s best to make a start.’
‘Very well.’ Captain Grayder turned to Colonel
Shelton. ‘His Excellency wishes to speak to that
farmer.’ He pointed to the faraway figure.
‘That farmer,’ said Shelton to Major Hame. ‘His
Excellency wants him at once.’
‘Bring that farmer here,’ Hame ordered Lieutenant
‘Go get that farmer,’ Deacon told Sergeant Major
Bidworthy. ‘And hurry — His Excellency is
Bidworthy sought around for a lesser rank, remembered that they
were all inside, cleaning ship and not smoking, by his order. He,
it seemed, was elected.
Tramping across four fields and coming within hailing distance of
his objective, he performed a precise military halt, released a
barracks square bellow of, ‘Hi, you!’ and waved
The farmer stopped his steady trudging behind the tiny
cultivator, wiped his forehead, glanced casually around. His
indifferent manner suggested that the mountainous bulk of the
ship was a mirage such as are five a penny around these parts.
Bidworthy waved again, making it an authoritative summons. Now
suddenly aware of the sergeant major’s existence, the
farmer calmly waved back, resumed his work.
Bidworthy employed a brief but pungent expletive which —
when its flames had died out — meant, ‘Dear
me!’ and marched fifty paces nearer. He could now see that
the other was bushy-browed, leather-faced, tall and lean.
‘Hi!’ he bawled.
Stopping the cultivator again, the farmer leaned on one of its
shafts and idly picked his teeth.
Smitten by the ingenious thought that perhaps during the last few
centuries the old Terran language had been abandoned in favour of
some other lingo, Bidworthy approached to within normal talking
distance and asked, ‘Can you understand me?’
Can any person understand another?’ inquired the farmer
with clear diction.
Bidworthy found himself afflicted with a moment of confusion.
Recovering, he informed hurriedly, ‘His Excellency the
Earth Ambassador wishes to speak with you at once.’
‘Is that so?’ The other eyed him speculatively, had
another pick at his teeth. ‘And what makes him
‘He is a person of considerable importance,’ said
Bidworthy, unable to decide whether the other was trying to be
funny at this expense or alternatively was what is known as a
character. A lot of these long-isolated pioneering types liked to
think of themselves as characters.
‘Of considerable importance,’ echoed the farmer,
narrowing his eyes at the horizon. He appeared to be trying to
grasp a completely alien concept. After a while, he inquired,
‘What will happen to your home world when this person
‘Nothing,’ Bidworthy admitted.
‘It will roll on as before?’
‘Round and round the sun?’
‘Then,’ declared the farmer flatly, ‘if his
existence or nonexistence makes no difference he cannot be
important.’ with that, his little engine went chuff-chuff
and the cultivator rolled forward.
Digging his nails into the palms of his hands, Bidworthy spent
half a minute gathering oxygen before he said in hoarse tones,
‘Are you going to speak to the Ambassador or not?’
‘I cannot return without at least a message for His
‘Indeed?’ The other was incredulous. ‘What is
to stop you?’ Then, noticing the alarming increase in
Bidworthy’s colour, he added with compassion, ‘Oh,
well. you may tell him that I said’ — he paused while
he thought it over — ‘God bless you and
Sergeant Major Bidworthy was a powerful man who weighed more than
two hundred pounds, had roamed the cosmos for twenty-five years
and feared nothing. He had never been known to permit the shiver
of one hair — but he was trembling all over by the time he
got back to the base of the gangway.
His Excellency fastened a cold eye upon him and demanded,
‘He refuses to come.’ Bidworthy’s veins stood
out on his forehead. ‘And, sir, if only I could have him in
the space troops for a few months I’d straighten him up and
teach him to move at the double.’
‘I don’t doubt that, Sergeant Major,’ the
Ambassador soothed. He continued in a whispered aside to Colonel
Shelton. ‘He’s a good fellow but no diplomat. Too
abrupt and harsh-voiced. Better go yourself and fetch that
farmer. We can’t loaf around forever waiting to learn where
‘Very well, Your Excellency.’ Trudging across the
field, Shelton caught up with the farmer, smiled pleasantly and
said, ‘Good morning, my man.’
Stopping his machine, the farmer sighed as if it were one of
those days one has sometimes. His eyes were dark brown, almost
black as they regarded the newcomer.
‘What makes you think I’m your man.’
‘It is a figure of speech,’ explained Shelton. He
could see what was wrong now. Bidworthy had fallen foul of an
irascible type. They’d been like two dogs snarling at one
another. Oh, well, as a high-ranking officer he was competent to
handle anybody, the good and the bad, the sweet and the sour, the
jovial and the liverish. Shelton went on oilily, ‘I was
only trying to be courteous.’
‘It must be said,’ meditated the farmer, ‘that
that is something worth trying for — if you can make
Pinking a little, Shelton continued with determination, ‘I
am commanded to request the pleasure of your company at the
‘Really and truly commanded?’
The other appeared to wander into a momentary daydream before he
came back and asked blandly, ‘Think they’ll get any
pleasure out of my company?’
‘I’m sure of it,’ said Shelton.
‘You’re a liar,’ said the farmer.
His colour deepening, Colonel Shelton snapped, ‘I do not
permit people to call me a liar.’
‘You’ve just permitted it,’ the farmer pointed
out. Letting it pass, Shelton insisted, ‘Are you coming to
‘Myob!’ said the farmer.
‘What was that?’
‘Myob!’ he repeated. It sounded like some
sort of insult. Shelton went back, told the Ambassador,
‘That fellow is one of those too-clever types. At the
finish all I could get out of him was ‘Myob’
whatever that means.’
‘Local slang,’ chipped in Grayder. ‘An awful
lot of it develops in four centuries. I’ve come across one
or two worlds where there has been so much of it that to all
intents and purposes it formed a new language.’
‘He understood your speech?’ asked the Ambassador of
‘Yes, Your Excellency. And his own is quite good. But he
won’t leave his work.’ He reflected briefly,
suggested, ‘If it were left to me I’d bring him in by
force with an armed escort.’
‘That would encourage him to give essential
information,’ commented the Ambassador with open sarcasm.
He patted his stomach, smoothed his jacket, glanced down at his
glossy shoes. ‘Nothing for it but to go and speak to him
Shelton was shocked. ‘Your Excellency, you can’t do
‘Why can’t I?’
‘It would be undignified.’
‘I am fully aware of the fact,’ said the Ambassador
dryly. ‘What alternative do you suggest?’
‘We can send out a patrol to find someone more
‘Someone better informed, too,’ Captain Grayder
offered. ‘At best we won’t get much out of one surly
hayseed. I doubt whether he knows one quarter of what we require
‘All right.’ The Ambassador dropped the idea of doing
his own chores. ‘Organise a patrol and let’s have
‘A patrol,’ said Colonel Shelton to Major Hame.
‘Nominate one immediately.’
‘Call out a patrol,’ Hame ordered Lieutenant Deacon.
‘Parade a patrol forthwith, Sergeant Major,’ said
Bidworthy lumbered up the gangway, stuck his head into the
airlock and shouted,’ sergeant Gleed, out with your squad
and make it snappy!’ He gave a suspicious sniff and went
farther into the lock. His voice gained several more decibels.
‘Who’s been smoking? By heavens, if I catch the man
Across the fields something quietly went chuff-chuff
while fat wheels crawled along.
The patrol formed by the right in two ranks of eight men each,
turned at a barked command and marched off in the general
direction of the ship’s nose. They moved with perfect
rhythm if no great beauty of motion. Their boots thumped in
unison, their accoutrements clattered with martial noises and the
orange-coloured sun made sparkles on their metal.
Sergeant Gleed did not have to take his men far. They were one
hundred yards beyond the ship’s great snout when he noticed
a man ambling across the field to his right. Treating the ship
with utter indifference, this character was making toward the
farmer still toiling far over to the left.
‘Patrol, right wheel!’ yelled Gleed, swift to take
advantage of the situation. The patrol right-wheeled, marched
straight past the wayfarer who couldn’t be bothered even to
wave a handkerchief at them. Now Gleed ordered an about-turn and
followed it with a take-him gesture.
Speeding up its pace, the patrol opened its ranks and became a
double file of men tramping on either side of the lone
pedestrian. Ignoring his suddenly acquired escort the latter
continued to plod straight ahead like one long convinced that all
‘Left wheel!’ roared Gleed, trying to bend the whole
caboodle toward the waiting Ambassador.
Swiftly obedient, the double file headed leftward, one, two,
three, hup! It was neat, precise execution beautiful to watch.
Only one thing spoiled it: the man in the middle stubbornly
maintained his self-chosen orbit and ambled casually between
numbers four and five of the right-hand file.
That upset Gleed, especially since the patrol continued to thump
steadily ambassadorwards for lack of a further order. His
Excellency was being treated to the unmilitary spectacle of an
escort dumbly boot-beating one way while its prisoner airily
mooched another way. In due course Colonel Shelton would have
plenty to say about it and anything he forgot Bidworthy would
‘Patrol!’ hoarsed Gleed, pointing an outraged finger
at the escapee and momentarily dismissing all regulation commands
from his mind, ‘Get that mug!’
Breaking ranks, they moved at the double and surrounded the
wanderer too closely to permit further progress. Perforce he
Gleed came up and said somewhat breathlessly, ‘Look, the
Earth Ambassador wants to speak to you — that’s
The other gazed at him with mild blue eyes. He was a funny
looking sample, long overdue for a shave. He had a fringe of
ginger whiskers sticking out all around his face and bore faint
resemblance to a sunflower.
‘I should care,’ he said.
‘Are you going to talk with His Excellency?’ Gleed
‘Naw.’ The other nodded toward the farmer.
‘Going to talk to Zeke.’
‘The Ambassador first,’ retorted Gleed, wearing his
tough expression. ‘He’s a big noise.’
‘I don’t doubt that,’ remarked the sunflower,
showing what sort of a noise he had in mind.
‘Smartie Artie, eh?’ grated Gleed, pushing his face
close and making it unpleasant. He signed to his men. ‘All
right, hustle him along. We’ll show him!’
Smartie Artie chose this moment to sit down. He did it sort of
solidly, giving himself the aspect of a squatting statue anchored
for the remainder of eternity. But Gleed had handled sitters
before, the only difference being that this one was cold sober.
‘Pick him up,’ commanded Gleed, ‘and carry
So they picked him up and carried him, feet first, whiskers last.
He hung limp and unresisting in their hands, a dead weight made
as difficult as possible to bear. In this inauspicious manner he
arrived in the presence of the Ambassador where the escort
plonked him on his feet.
Promptly he set out for Zeke.
‘Hold him, darn you!’ howled Gleed.
The patrol grabbed and clung tight. The Ambassador eyed the
whiskers with well-bred concealment of distaste, coughed
delicately and spoke.
‘I am truly sorry that you had to come to me in this
‘In that case,’ suggested the prisoner, ‘you
could have saved yourself some mental anguish by not permitting
it to happen.’
‘There was no other choice. We’ve got to make contact
‘I don’t see it’ said Ginger Whiskers.
‘What’s so special about this date?’
‘The date?’ The Ambassador frowned in puzzlement.
‘What has the date got to do with it?’
‘That’s exactly what I’m asking.’
‘The point eludes me.’ The Ambassador turned to the
others. ‘Do you understand what he’s aiming
Shelton said, ‘I can hazard a guess, Your Excellency. I
think he is hinting that since we’ve left them without
contact for four hundred years there is no particular urgency
about making it today.’ He looked to the sunflower for
That worthy rallied to his support by remarking,
‘You’re doing pretty well for a halfwit.’
Regardless of Shelton’s own reaction, this was too much for
Bidworthy purpling nearby. His chest came up and his eyes caught
fire. His voice was an authoritative rasp.
‘Be more respectful while addressing high-ranking
The prisoner’s mild blue eyes turned upon him in childish
amazement, examined him slowly from feet to head and all the way
down again. The eyes drifted back inquiringly to the Ambassador.
‘Who is this preposterous person?’
Dismissing the question with an impatient wave of his hand, the
Ambassador said, ‘see here, it is not our purpose to bother
you from sheer perversity, as you seem to think. Neither do we
wish to detain you any longer than is necessary. All w —
Pulling at his face-fringe as if to accentuate its offensiveness,
the other interjected, ‘It being you, of course, who
determines the length of the necessity?’
‘On the contrary, you may decide that for yourself,’
gave back the Ambassador, displaying admirable self-control.
‘All you need do is tell us —’
‘Then I’ve decided it right now,’ the prisoner
chipped in. He tried to heave himself free of his escort.
‘Let me go talk to Zeke.’
‘All you need do,’ the Ambassador persisted,
‘is tell us where we can find a local official who can put
us into touch with your central government.’ His gaze was
stern, commanding, as he added, ‘For instance where is the
nearest police post?’
‘Myob!’ said Ginger Whiskers.
‘What was that?’
‘The same to you,’ retorted the Ambassador, his
‘That’s precisely what I’m trying to do,’
insisted the prisoner, enigmatically. ‘Only you won’t
let me do it.’
If I may make a suggestion, Your Excellency,’ but in
Shelton, ‘allow me —’
‘I require no suggestions and I won’t allow
you,’ said the Ambassador, somewhat out of temper. ‘I
have had enough of all this stupid tomfoolery. I think we have
landed at random in an area reserved for imbeciles. It would be
as well to recognize the fact and get out of it with no more
‘Now you’re talking,’ approved Ginger Whiskers.
‘And the farther the better.’
‘We have no intention of leaving this planet, if that is
what’s in your incomprehensible mind,’ asserted the
Ambassador. He stamped a proprietory foot into the turf.
‘This is part of the Terran Empire. As such it is going to
be recognized, charted and organized.’
‘Heah, heah!’ put in the senior civil servant who
aspired to honours in elocution.
His Excellency threw a frown behind, went on, ‘We’ll
move the ship to some other section where brains are
brighter.’ He turned attention to the escort. ‘Let
him go. Probably he is in a hurry to borrow a razor.’
They released their grips. Ginger Whiskers at once turned toward
the distant farmer much as if he were a magnetized needle
irresistibly drawn Zekeward. Without another word he set off at
his original slovenly pace. Disappointment and disgust showed on
the faces of Bidworthy and Gleed as they watched him depart.
‘Have the vessel shifted at once, Captain,’ the
Ambassador said to Grayder. ‘Plant it near to a likely town
— not out in the wilds where every yokel views strangers as
a bunch of crooks.’
He marched importantly up the gangway. Captain Grayder followed,
then Colonel Shelton, then the elocutionist. Next, their
successors in correct order of precedence. Lastly, Gleed and his
men. The airlock closed. The warning siren sounded. Despite its
immense bulk the ship shivered briefly from end to end and soared
without deafening uproar or spectacular display of flame.
Indeed, there was silence save for a little engine going
chuff-chuff and the murmurings of the two men walking
behind it. Neither took the trouble to look around to see what
‘Seven pounds of prime tobacco is a heck of a lot to give
for one case of brandy,’ Ginger Whiskers protested.
‘Not for my brandy,’ said Zeke. ‘It’s
stronger than a thousand Gands and smoother than an
The great ship’s next touchdown was made on a wide flat
about two miles north of a town estimated to hold twelve to
fifteen thousand people. Grayder would have preferred to survey
the place from low altitude before making his landing but one
cannot handle a huge space-going vessel as if it were an
atmospheric tug. Only two things can be done when so close to a
planetary surface — the ship is taken straight up or
brought straight down with no room for fiddling between-times.
So Grayder dumped the ship in the best spot he could find when
finding is a matter of split-second decisions. It made a rut only
ten feet deep, the ground being hard with a rock bed. The gangway
was shoved out. The procession descended in the same order as
Casting an anticipatory look toward the town, the Ambassador
registered irritation. ‘Something is badly out of kilter
here. There’s the town not so far away. Here we are in
plain view with a ship like a metal mountain. At least a thousand
people must have seen us coming down even if all the rest are
holding seances behind drawn curtains or playing poker in the
cellars. Are they interested? Are they excited?’
‘It doesn’t seem so,’ contributed Shelton,
pulling industriously at an eyelid for the sake of feeling it
‘I wasn’t asking you. I am telling you. They are not
excited. They are not surprised. They are not even interested.
One would almost think they’d had a ship here that was full
of smallpox or that swindled them out of something. what’s
wrong with them?’
‘Possibly they lack curiosity,’ Shelton ventured.
‘Either that or they’re afraid. Or maybe the entire
gang of them is more cracked than any bunch on any other world.
Practically all these planets were appropriated by dotty people
who wanted to establish a haven where their eccentricities could
run loose. And nutty notions become conventional after four
hundred years of undisturbed continuity. It is then considered
normal and proper to nurse the bats out of your
grandfather’s attic. That and generations of inbreeding can
create some queer types. But we’ll cure them before
‘Yes, Your Excellency, most certainly we will.’
‘You don’t look so well-balanced yourself, chasing
that eyelid around your face,’ reproved the Ambassador. He
pointed south-east as Shelton stuck the fidgety hand firmly into
a pocket. ‘There’s a road over there. Wide and
well-built by the looks of it. They don’t construct a
highway for the mere fun of it. Ten to one it’s an
‘That’s how it looks to me,’ Shelton agreed.
‘Put that patrol across it, Colonel. If your men
don’t bring in a willing talker within reasonable time
we’ll send the entire battalion into the town
‘A patrol,’ said Shelton to Major Hame.
‘Call out the patrol,’ Hame ordered Lieutenant
‘That patrol again, Sergeant Major,’ said Deacon.
Bidworthy raked out Gleed and his men, indicated the road, barked
a bit and shooed them on their way.
They marched, Gleed in front. Their objective was half a mile
away and angled toward the town. The left-hand file had a clear
view of the nearest suburbs, eyed the buildings wistfully, wished
Gleed in warmer regions with Bidworthy stoking the hell-fire
Hardly had they reached their goal than a customer appeared. He
came from the town’s outskirts, zooming along at fast pace
on a contraption vaguely like a motorcycle. It ran on a big pair
of rubber balls and was pulled by a caged fan. Gleed spread his
men across the road.
The oncomer’s machine suddenly gave forth a harsh,
penetrating sound that reminded everybody of Bidworthy in the
presence of dirty boots.
‘Stay put,’ warned Gleed. ‘I’ll skin the
fellow who gives way and leaves a gap.’
Again the shrill metallic warning. Nobody moved. The machine
slowed, came up to them at a crawl and stopped. Its fan continued
to spin at slow rate, the blades almost visible and giving out a
‘What’s the idea?’ demanded the rider. He was
lean-featured, in his middle thirties, wore a gold ring in his
nose and had a pigtail four feet long.
Blinking incredulously at this get-up, Gleed managed to jerk an
indicative thumb toward the metal mountain and say,
‘Well, what do you expect me to do about it? — throw
a fit of hysterics?’
‘We expect you to co-operate,’ informed Gleed, still
bemused by the pigtail. He had never seen such a thing before. It
was in no way effeminate, he decided. Rather did it lend a touch
of ferocity like that worn — according to the picture books
— by certain North American aborigines in the dim and
‘Co-operation,’ mused the rider. ‘Now there is
a beautiful word. You know exactly what it means, of
‘I’m not a dope.’
‘The precise degree of your idiocy is not under discussion
at the moment,’ the rider pointed out. His nose-ring
waggled a bit as he spoke. ‘We are talking about
co-operation. I take it you do quite a lot of it yourself?’
‘You bet I do,’ Gleed assured. ‘And so does
everyone else who knows what’s good for him.’
‘Let’s keep to the subject, shall we? Let’s not
sidetrack and go rambling all over the conversational map.’
He revved up his fan a little then let it slow down again.
‘You are given orders and you obey them?’
‘Of course. I’d have a rough time if —’
‘That is what you call co-operation?’ put in the
other. He hunched his shoulders, pursed his bottom lip.
‘Well, it’s nice to check the facts of history. The
books could be wrong.’ His fan flashed into a circle of
light and the machine surged forward. ‘Pardon me.’
The front rubber ball barged forcefully between two men, knocking
them aside without injury. With a high whine the machine shot
down the road, its fan-blast making its rider’s plaited
hairdo point horizontally backward.
‘You substandard morons!’ raged Gleed as the pair got
up and dusted themselves. ‘I told you to stand fast What
d’you mean by letting him run out on us like that?’
‘Didn’t have much choice about it, Sarge,’
answered one surlily.
‘I want none of your back-chat. You could have busted one
of his balloons if you’d had your guns ready. That would
have stopped him.’
‘You didn’t tell us to use our guns.’
‘Where was your own, anyway?’ added a sneaky voice.
Gleed whirled on the others and demanded, ‘Who said
that?’ His eyes raked a long row of impassive faces. It was
impossible to detect the culprit ‘I’ll shake you up
with the next quota of fatigues,’ he promised.
‘I’ll see to it that —’
‘The Sergeant Major’s coming,’ one of them
Bidworthy was four hundred yards away and making martial progress
towards them. Arriving in due time, he cast a cold, contemptuous
glance over the patrol.
‘Giving me a lot of lip, he was,’ complained Gleed
after providing a brief account of the incident. ‘He looked
like one of those Chickasaws with an oil-well.’
‘Did he really?’ Bidworthy surveyed him a moment,
then invited, ‘And what is a Chickasaw?’
‘I read about them somewhere once when I was a kid,’
explained Gleed, happy to bestow a modicum of learning.
‘They got rich on oil. They had long, plaited haircuts,
wore blankets and rode around in gold-plated automobiles.’
‘Sounds crazy to me,’ said Bidworthy. ‘I gave
up all that magic-carpet stuff when I was seven. I was deep in
ballistics before I was twelve and military logistics when I was
fourteen.’ He sniffed loudly and gave the other a jaundiced
eye. ‘Some guys suffer from arrested development.’
‘They actually existed,’ Gleed maintained.
‘So did fairies,’ snapped Bidworthy. ‘My mother
said so. My mother was a good woman. She didn’t tell me a
lot of goddam lies — often.’ He spat on the road.
‘Be your age!’ Then he glowered at the patrol.
‘All right, get out your guns — assuming that
you’ve got them and know where they are and which hand to
hold them in. Take orders from me. I’ll deal personally
with the next character who comes along.’
Sitting on a large rock by the roadside, be planted an expectant
gaze on the town. Gleed posed near him, slightly pained. The
patrol remained strung across the road with guns held ready. Half
an hour crawled by without anything happening.
One of the men pleaded, ‘Can we smoke, Sergeant
They fell into lugubrious silence, licking their lips from time
to time and doing plenty of thinking. They had lots about which
to think. A town — any town of human occupation — had
desirable features not to be found anywhere else in the cosmos.
Lights, company, freedom, laughter, all the makings of life. And
one can go hungry too long.
Eventually a large coach emerged from the town’s outskirts,
hit the high road and came bowling towards them. A long, shiny,
streamlined job, it rolled on twenty balls in two rows of ten,
gave forth a whine similar to but louder than that of the
motorcycle, and had no visible fans. It was loaded with people.
At a point two hundred yards from the road-block a loud-speaker
under the vehicle’s bonnet blared an urgent, ‘Make
way! Make way!’
‘This is it,’ commented Bidworthy with much
satisfaction. ‘We’ve caught a dollop of them. One of
them is going to confess or I’ll resign from the
space-service.’ He got off his rock and stood in readiness.
‘Make way! Make way!’
‘Perforate his balloons if he tries to bull his way
through,’ ordered Bidworthy.
It wasn’t necessary. The coach lost pace, stopped with its
bonnet a yard from the waiting file. Its driver peered out of the
side of his cab. Other faces snooped curiously farther back.
Composing himself and determined to try the effect of fraternal
cordiality, Bidworthy went up to the driver and said with great
difficulty, ‘Good morning!’
‘Your time-sense is shot to pot,’ responded the other
ungratefully. He had a heavy blue jowl, a broken nose,
cauliflower ears and looked the sort who usually drives with
others in hot and vengeful pursuit. ‘Can’t you afford
‘It isn’t morning. It’s late afternoon.’
‘So it is,’ admitted Bidworthy, forcing a cracked
‘I’m not so sure about that,’ mused the driver,
leaning on his steering-wheel and moodily scratching his head.
‘We get an afternoon in every day. It’s always the
same. Morning goes and what happens? You’re stuck with an
afternoon. I’ve become hardened to it. And this one is just
another nearer the grave.’
‘That may be,’ conceded Bidworthy, little struck with
this ghoulish angle, ‘but I have other things to worry
about and —’
‘Fat lot of use worrying about anything, past, present or
whatever,’ advised the driver. ‘Because there are far
bigger worries to come. Stick around long enough and you’ll
have some real stinkers in your lap.’
‘Perhaps so,’ said Bidworthy, inwardly feeling that
this was a poor time to contemplate the darker side of existence.
‘But I prefer to deal with my own troubles in my own
‘Nobody’s troubles are entirely their own, nor their
methods of coping,’ continued the tough-looking oracle.
‘Are they now?’
‘I don’t know and I don’t care,’ growled
Bidworthy, his composure thinning down as his blood-pressure
built up. He was irefully conscious of Gleed and the patrol
watching, listening and probably grinning like stupid apes behind
his back. There was also the load of gaping passengers. ‘I
think you’re talking just to stall me. You might as well
know that it won’t work. I’m here for a purpose and
that purpose is going to be served. The Terran Ambassador is
‘So are we,’ emphasised the driver.
‘He wants to speak to you,’ Bidworthy went stubbornly
on, ‘and he’s going to speak to you.’
‘I’d be the last to prevent him. We’ve got free
speech here. Let him step up and say his piece so that we can go
‘You,’ informed Bidworthy, ‘are going to
him.’ He signed to the rest of the coach. ‘The whole
lot of you.’
‘Not me,’ denied a fat man sticking his head out of a
side window. He wore thick-lensed glasses that made his eyes look
like poached eggs. Moreover, he was adorned with a tall hat
candy-striped in white and pink. ‘Not me,’ repeated
this vision with considerable firmness.
‘Me neither,’ supported the driver.
‘All right.’ Bidworthy displayed maximum menace.
‘Move this birdcage one inch backward or forward and
we’ll shoot your pot-bellied tyres to thin strips. Get out
of that cab.’
‘Ha-ha. I’m too comfortable. Try fetching me.’
Bidworthy beckoned to the nearest six men. ‘You heard him
— take him up on that.’
Tearing open the cab door, they grabbed. If they had expected the
victim to put up a futile fight against heavy odds, they were
disappointed. He made no attempt to resist. They got him, lugged
together and he yielded with good grace. His body leaned to one
side and came halfway out of the door.
That was as far as they could get him.
‘Come on,’ urged Bidworthy, showing impatience.
‘Heave him loose. You don’t have to be feeble. Show
him who’s who. He isn’t a fixture.’
One of the men climbed over the body, poked around inside the cab
and announced, ‘He is, you know.’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘He’s chained to the steering column.’
‘Nonsense. Let me see.’ He had a look and found that
it was so. A chain and a small but heavy and complicated padlock
linked the driver’s leg to his coach. ‘Where’s
‘Search me,’ invited the driver.
They did just that. The effort proved futile. No key.
‘Who’s got it?’
‘Shove him back into his seat,’ ordered Bidworthy,
looking savage. ‘We’ll take the passengers. One yap
is as good as another so far as I’m concerned.’
Striding to the doors, he jerked them open.
‘All out and make it snappy.’
Nobody budged. They studied him silently, with various
expressions not one of which did anything to help his ego. The
fat man with the candy-striped hat mooned at him sardonically.
Bidworthy decided that he did not like the fat man and that a
stiff course of military calisthenics might thin him down a bit.
‘You can come out on your feet,’ he suggested to the
passengers in general and the fat man in particular, ‘or on
your necks. Whichever you prefer. Make up your minds.’
‘If you can’t use your head you can at least use your
eyes,’ commented the fat man happily. He shifted in his
seat to the accompaniment of metallic clanking noises.
Bidworthy accepted the idea, leaning through the doors for a
better look. Then he clambered into the vehicle, went its full
length while carefully studying each passenger. His florid
features were two shades darker when he emerged and spoke to
‘They are all chained. Every one of them.’ He glared
at the driver. ‘What’s the purpose of manacling the
‘Myob!’ said the driver airily.
‘Who has the keys?’
Taking a deep breath, Bidworthy declaimed to nobody in
particular, ‘Every once in a while I hear of somebody
running amok and laying them out by the dozens. I’ve always
wondered why — but now I know.’ He gnawed his
knuckles, added to Gleed, ‘We can’t run this
contraption to the ship with that dummy blocking the controls.
Either we must find the keys or get tools and cut them
‘Or you could wave us on our way and then go take a
pill,’ offered the driver.
‘Shut up! If I’m stuck here another million years
I’ll see to it that —’
‘Here’s the Colonel,’ muttered Gleed, giving
him a nudge.
Colonel Shelton arrived, walked once slowly and officiously
around the outside of the coach, examined its construction and
weighed up its occupants. He flinched at the striped hat whose
owner leered at him through the glass. Then he came over to the
‘What’s the trouble this time, Sergeant Major?’
‘They’re as crazy as all the others, sir.
They’re full of impudence and say,
‘Myob’ and couldn’t care less about
His Excellency. They don’t want to come out and we
can’t make them because they’re chained in their
‘Chained?’ Shelton’s eyebrow lifted halfway
toward his hair. ‘What on earth for?’
‘I don’t know, sir. All I can tell you is that
they’re fastened in like a bunch of gangsters being hauled
to the pokey and —’
Shelton moved off without waiting to hear the rest. He had a look
for himself, came back.
‘You may have something there, Sergeant Major. But I
don’t think they are criminals.’
‘No.’ He threw a significant glance towards the fat
man’s colourful headgear and several other sartorial
eccentricities including a ginger-haired individual’s
foot-wide polka-dotted bow. ‘It’s more likely
they’re a consignment of lunatics being taken to an asylum.
I’ll ask the driver.’ Going to the cab, he said,
‘Do you mind telling me your destination?’
‘Yes,’ responded the other.
‘Very well, where is it?’
‘Look,’ said the driver, ‘are we talking the
‘You’ve just asked me whether I mind and I said
yes.’ He made a disparaging gesture. ‘I do
‘You refuse to tell?’
‘Your aim’s improving, Sonny.’
‘Sonny?’ put in Bidworthy, vibrant with outrage.
‘Do you realize that you are speaking to a colonel?’
‘What’s a colonel?’ asked the driver
‘By hokey, if your —’
‘Leave this to me,’ insisted Shelton, waving the
furious Bidworthy down. His expression was cold as he returned
attention to the driver. ‘On your way. I’m sorry
you’ve been detained.’
‘Think nothing of it,’ said the driver with
exaggerated politeness. ‘I’ll do as much for you some
With that enigmatic remark he let his machine roll for-ward. The
patrol parted to make room. Building up its whine to the top
note, the coach sped down the road and diminished into the dusty
‘This planet,’ swore Bidworthy, staring purple-faced
after it, ‘has more no-good bums in need of discipline than
any place this side of —’
‘Calm yourself, Sergeant Major,’ urged Shelton.
‘I feel exactly the same way as you do — but
I’m taking care of my arteries. Blowing them full of bumps
like seaweed won’t solve any problems.’
‘Maybe so, sir, but —’
‘We’re up against something mighty peculiar
here,’ Shelton went on. We’ve got to find out
precisely what it is and how best to cope with it. In all
probability it means we’ll have to devise new tactics. So
far the patrol has achieved nothing. It is wasting its time.
Obviously we’ll have to concoct a more effective method of
getting into touch with the powers-that-be. March the men back to
the ship, Sergeant Major.’
‘Very well, sir.’ Bidworthy saluted, swung around,
clicked his heels, opened a cavernous mouth.
‘Patro-o-ol ... right form —’
Aboard ship the resulting conference lasted well into the night
and halfway through the following morning. During these
argumentative hours various oddments of traffic, mostly
vehicular, passed along the road. But nothing paused to view the
monster spaceship, nobody approached for a friendly word with its
crew. The strange inhabitants of this world seemed to be
afflicted with a local form of mental blindness, unable to see a
thing until it was thrust into their faces and then surveying it
One passer-by in mid-morning was a long, low truck whining on two
dozen balls and loaded with girls wearing bright head-scarves.
The girls were tunefully singing something about one little
kiss before we part, dear. A number of troops loafing near
the gangway came eagerly to life, waved, whistled and yoohooed.
Their effort was a total waste for the singing continued without
break or pause and nobody waved back.
To add to the discomforture of the love-hungry, Bidworthy stuck
his head out of the airlock and rasped, ‘If you monkeys are
bursting with surplus energy I can find a few jobs for you to do
— nice, dirty ones.’ He seared them one at a time
before he withdrew.
Up near the ship’s nose the top brass sat around the
chart-room’s horseshoe table and debated the situation.
Most of them were content to repeat with extra emphasis what they
had said the previous evening, there being no new points to bring
‘Are you certain,’ the Ambassador asked Grayder,
‘that this planet has not been visited since the last
emigration transport dumped its final load four centuries
‘I’m quite positive, Your Excellency. Any such visit
would be on record.’
‘Yes, if made by a Terran ship. But what about others? I
feel it in my bones that at sometime or other these people have
fallen foul of one or more vessels calling unofficially and have
been leery of spaceships ever since. Perhaps somebody got tough
with them and tried to muscle in where he wasn’t wanted. Or
perhaps they’ve had to beat off a gang of pirates. Or maybe
they’ve been swindled by unscrupulous traders.’
‘Absolutely impossible, Your Excellency,’ declared
Grayder, suppressing a smile. ‘Emigration was so widely
scattered over so large a number of worlds that even today every
one of them is under-populated, under-developed and utterly
unable to build spaceships of any kind no matter how rudimentary.
Some may have the technical know-how but they lack the industrial
facilities, of which they need plenty.’
‘Yes, that is what I’ve always understood.’
Grayder went on, ‘All Blieder-drive vessels are built in
the system of Sol and registered as Terran ships. Complete track
is kept of their movements and their whereabouts are always
known. The only other spaceships in existence are eighty or
ninety antiquated rocket jobs bought at scrap price by the
Epsilon system for haulage work between its fourteen
closely-spaced planets. An old-fashioned rocket-ship
couldn’t reach this world in a hundred years.’
‘No, of course not.’
‘Unofficial boats capable of this long range just
don’t exist,’ Grayder assured. ‘Neither do
space buccaneers and for much the same reason. A Blieder-drive
ship is so costly that a would-be pirate would have to be a
billionaire to become a pirate.’
‘Then,’ said the Ambassador heavily, ‘back we
go to my original theory; that a lot of inbreeding has made them
crazier than their colonizing ancestors.’
‘There’s plenty to be said in favour of that
idea,’ put in Shelton. ‘You should have seen the
coach-load I looked over. There was a fellow like a bankrupt
mortician wearing odd shoes, one brown and one a repulsive
yellow. Also a moon-faced gump sporting a hat apparently made
from the skin of a barber’s pole, all stripy.’ With
a sad attempt at wit, he finished, ‘The only thing missing
was his bubble-pipe — and probably he’ll be given
that when he arrives.’
‘I don’t know, Your Excellency. They refused to tell
us where they were going.’
Giving him a satirical look, the Ambassador remarked, ‘
Well, that is a valuable addition to the sum total of our
knowledge. Our minds are now enriched by the thought that an
anonymous individual may be presented with a futile object for an
indefinable purpose when he reaches his unknown
Shelton subsided wishing that he had never seen the fat man or,
for that matter, the fat man’s cockeyed world.
‘Somewhere they’ve got a capital, a civic seat, a
centre of government wherein function the people who hold all the
strings,’ the Ambassador asserted. ‘We’ve got
to find that place before we can take over and reorganize on
up-to-date lines. A capital is big by the standards of its own
administrative area. It is never an ordinary, nondescript place.
It has obvious physical features giving it importance above the
average. It should be easily visible from the air. We must make a
systematic search for it — in fact that’s what we
should have done in the first place. Other planets’ capital
cities have been identified without trouble. What’s the
hoodoo on this one?’
‘See for yourself, Your Excellency.’ Grayder poked
several photographs across the table. ‘The situation is
rather similar to that on Hygeia [nb: a
planet full of nudist health freaks]. You can see the
two hemispheres quite clearly. They reveal nothing resembling a
superior city. There isn’t even a town conspicuously larger
than its fellows or possessing enough outstanding features to set
it apart from the others.’
‘I don’t put great faith in pictures especially when
taken at high speed or great altitude. The naked eye can always
see more. We’ve got four lifeboats that should be able to
search this world from pole to pole. Why don’t we use
‘Because, Your Excellency, they were not designed for such
‘Does that matter so long as they get results?’
Patiently, Grayder explained, ‘They were built to be
launched in free space and to hit up forty thousand miles an
hour. They are ordinary, old-style rocket-ships to be used only
in a grave emergency.’
‘Well, what of it?’
‘It is not possible to make efficient ground-survey with
the naked eye at any speed in excess of about four hundred miles
per hour. Keep the lifeboats down to that and you’d be
trying to fly them at landing-speed, muffling their tubes,
balling up their motors, creating a terrible waste of fuel and
inviting a crash which you’re likely to get before
‘Then,’ commented the Ambassador, ‘it is high
time we had Blieder-drive lifeboats for Blieder-drive
‘I couldn’t agree more, Your Excellency. But the
smallest Blieder apparatus has an Earth-mass of more than three
hundred tons. That’s far too much for little boats.’
Picking up the photographs, Grayder slid them into a drawer.
‘The trouble with us is that everything we’ve got
moves a heck of a lot too fast. What we really need is an
ancient, propeller-driven air-plane. It could do something that
we can’t — it could go slow.’
‘You might as well yearn for a bicycle,’ scoffed the
Ambassador, feeling thwarted.
‘We have a bicycle,’ Grayder informed. ‘Tenth
Engineer Harrison owns one.’
‘And he has actually brought it with him?’
‘It goes everywhere he goes. There’s a rumour that he
sleeps with it.’
‘A spaceman toting a bicycle!’ The Ambassador blew
his nose with a loud honk. ‘I take it that he is thrilled
by the sense of immense velocity it gives him, an ecstatic
feeling of rushing headlong through space?’
‘I wouldn’t know, Your Excellency.’
‘H’m! Bring this Harrison here. I’d like to see
him. Perhaps we can set a crackpot to catch a crackpot.’
Going to the caller-board, Grayder spoke over the ship’s
system. ‘Tenth Engineer Harrison will report to the
chart-room at once.’
Within ten minutes Harrison appeared, breathless and dishevelled.
He had walked fast three-quarters of a mile from the Blieder
room. He was thin and woebegone, expecting trouble. His ears were
large enough to cut the pedalling with the wind behind him and he
wiggled them nervously as he faced the assembled officers. The
Ambassador examined him with curiosity, much as a zoologist would
inspect a pink giraffe.
‘Mister, I understand that you possess a bicycle.’
At once on the defensive, Harrison said, ‘There’s
nothing against it in the regulations, sir, and therefore —
‘Damn the regulations,’ swore the Ambassador.
‘Can you ride the thing?’
‘Of course, sir.’
‘All right. We’re stalled in the middle of a crazy
situation and we’re turning to crazy methods to get moving.
Upon your ability and willingness to ride a bicycle the fate of
an empire may stand or fall. Do you understand me, Mister?’
‘I do, sir,’ said Harrison, unable to make head or
tail of this.
‘So I want you to do an extremely important job for me. I
want you to get out your bicycle, ride into town, find the mayor,
sheriff, grand panjandrum, supreme galootie or whatever he is
called, and tell him that he is officially invited to evening
dinner along with any other civic dignitaries he cares to bring.
That, of course, includes their wives.’
‘Very well, sir.’
‘Informal attire,’ added the Ambassador.
Harrison jerked up one ear and drooped the other. ‘What was
‘They can dress how they like.’
‘I get it. Do I go right now, sir?’
‘At once. Return as quickly as you can and bring me the
Saluting sloppily, Harrison went out. His Excellency found an
easy-chair, reposed in it at full length, smiled with
‘It’s as easy as that.’ Pulling out a long
cigar, he bit off its end. ‘If we can’t touch their
minds we’ll appeal to their bellies.’ He cocked a
knowing eye at Grayder. ‘Captain, see that there is plenty
to drink. Strong stuff. Venusian cognac or something equally
potent. Give them lots of hooch and an hour at a well-filled
table and they’ll talk all night. We won’t be able to
shut them up.’ He lit the cigar, puffed luxuriously.
‘That is the tried and trusted technique of high diplomacy
— the insidious seduction of the distended gut. It always
works. You’ll see!’
Pedalling briskly down the road, Tenth Engineer Harrison reached
the first street on either side of which were small detached
houses with neat gardens back and front. A plump, amiable looking
woman was trimming a hedge halfway along. He pulled up near to
her, politely touched his cap.
‘Scuse me, ma’am, I’m looking for the biggest
man in town.’
She part-turned, gave him no more than a casual glance, pointed
her clipping-shears southward.
‘That would be Jeff Baines. First on the right and second
on the left. It’s a small delicatessen.’
He moved on, hearing the steady snip-snip resume behind him.
First on the right. He curved around a long, low, rubber-balled
truck parked by the corner. Second on the left. Three children
pointed at him dramatically and yelled shrill warnings that his
back wheel was going round. He found the delicatessen, propped a
pedal on the curb, gave his machine a reassuring pat before he
went inside and had a look at Jeff.
There was plenty to see. Jeff had four chins, a twenty-two inch
neck, and a paunch that stuck out half a yard. An ordinary mortal
could have got into either leg of his pants without bothering to
take off his diving suit. Jeff Baines weighed at least three
hundred pounds and undoubtedly was the biggest man in town.
‘Wanting something?’ inquired Jeff, lugging it up
from far down.
‘Not exactly.’ Harrison eyed the succulent food
display and decided that anything unsold by nightfall was not
thrown out to the cats. ‘I’m looking for a certain
‘Are you now? Usually I avoid that sort — but every
man to his taste.’ He plucked a fat lip while he mused a
moment, then suggested. ‘Try Sid Wilcock over on Dane
Avenue. He’s the most certain man I know.’
‘I didn’t mean it that way,’ said Harrison.
‘I meant that I’m searching for somebody
‘Then why the blazes didn’t you say so in the first
place?’ Jeff Baines worked over the new problem, finally
offered, ‘Tod Green ought to fit that specification
topnotch. You’ll find him in the shoeshop at the end of
this road. He’s particular enough for anyone. He’s
‘You persist in misunderstanding me,’ Harrison told
him and then went on to make it plainer, ‘I’m hunting
a local bigwig so that I can invite him to a feed.’
Resting himself on a high stool which he overlapped by a foot all
round, Jeff Baines eyed him peculiarly. ‘There’s
something lopsided about this. Indeed, it seems crazy to
‘You’re going to use up a considerable slice of your
life finding a fellow who wears a wig, especially if you insist
that it’s got to be a big one. And then again,
where’s the point of dumping an ob on him merely because he
uses a bean-blanket?’
‘It’s plain horse-sense to plant an ob where it will
cancel another one out, isn’t it?’
‘Is it?’ Harrison let his mouth hang open while his
mind struggled with the strange problem of how to plant an ob.
‘So you don’t know? You’re exposing your
tonsils and looking dopey because you don’t know?’
Jeff Baines massaged a couple of his chins and sighed. He pointed
at the other’s middle. ‘Is that a uniform
‘A genuine, pukka, dyed-in-the-wool uniform?’
‘Ah, said Jeff, ‘That’s where you’ve
fooled me — coming here by yourself, on your ownsome. If
there had been a gang of you dressed identically the same
I’d have known at once that it was a uniform. That’s
what uniform means: all alike. Doesn’t it?’
‘I suppose so,’ agreed Harrison, who had never given
it a thought.
‘So you’re from that ship. I ought to have guessed it
in the beginning. I must be slow on the uptake today. But I
didn’t expect to see one, just one, messing around on a
pedal contraption. It goes to show, doesn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ said Harrison, glancing warily backward to
make sure that no opportunist had swiped his bicycle while he was
engaged in conversation. ‘It goes to show.’
‘All right, let’s have it. Why have you come here and
what do you want?’
‘I’ve been trying to tell you all along.
‘I’ve been sent to —’
‘Been sent?’ Jeff’s eyes widened a little.
‘Mean to say you actually let yourself be sent?’
Harrison gaped at him. ‘Of course. Why not?’
‘Oh, I get it now,’ said Jeff, his puzzled features
suddenly clearing. ‘You confuse me with the queer way you
talk. What you really mean is that you planted an ob on somebody,
Desperately, Harrison asked, ‘For heaven’s sake,
what’s an ob?’
‘He doesn’t know,’ commented Jeff Baines,
looking prayerfully at the ceiling. ‘He doesn’t even
know that!’ For a short while he contemplated the ignoramus
with condescending pity before he said, ‘You hungry by any
‘Going on that way.’
‘All right. I could tell you what an ob is. But I’ll
do something better — I’ll show you.’ Heaving
himself off the stool, he waddled to the door at back. ‘God
alone knows why I should bother to educate a uniform. It’s
just that I’m bored. C’mon, follow me.’
Obediently, Harrison, went behind the counter, paused to give his
bicycle a reassuring nod, trailed the other through a passage and
into a yard.
Jeff Baines pointed to a stack of cases. ‘Canned
goods.’ He indicated an adjacent store. ‘Bust them
open and pile the stuff in there. Stack the empties outside.
Please yourself whether you do it or not. That’s freedom,
isn’t it?’ He lumbered back into the shop.
Left to himself, Harrison scratched his large ears and thought it
over. Somewhere, he felt, there was an obscure sort of confidence
trick. A candidate named Harrison was being tempted to qualify
for his sucker certificate. But if the play was beneficial to its
organizer it might be worth learning because it could then be
passed on to other victims. One must speculate in order to
So he dealt with the cases as required. It cost him twenty
minutes of hard, slogging work after which he returned to the
‘Now,’ explained Baines, ‘you’ve done
something for me. That means you’ve planted an ob on me. I
don’t thank you for what you have done. There’s no
need to. All I have to do is get rid of the ob.’
‘Obligation. Why use a long word when a short one is plenty
good enough? An obligation is an ob. I shift it this way: Seth
Warburton, next door but one, has got half a dozen of my obs
saddled on him. So I get rid of mine to you and relieve him of
one of his to me by sending you around for a meal.’ He
scribbled briefly on a slip of paper. ‘Give him
Harrison stared at it. In casual scrawl it read, ‘Feed this
Slightly dazed, he wandered out, stood by his bicycle and again
examined the paper. Bum, it said. He could think of
several on the ship who’d explode with wrath at the sight
of that. Then his attention drifted to the second shop farther
along. It had a window crammed with comestibles and two big words
on the sign-strip above: Seth’s Gulper.
Coming to a decision which was encouraged by his insides, he
walked into Seth’s holding the paper as if it were a death
warrant. Beyond the door there was a long counter, some steam and
a clatter of crockery. He chose a seat at a marble-topped table
occupied by a gray-eyed brunette.
‘Do you mind?’ He inquired politely as he lowered
himself into the chair.
‘Do I mind what?’ She examined his ears as if they
were curious phenomena. ‘Rabies, dogs, aged relatives or
standing around in the rain?’
‘Do you mind me sitting here?’
‘I can please myself whether or not I endure it.
That’s freedom, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ said Harrison, ‘sure it is.’ He
fidgeted in his seat, feeling that he’d made a move and
promptly lost a pawn. He sought around for something else to say
and at that point a thin-featured man in a white coat dumped
before him a large plate loaded with fried chicken and three
kinds of unfamiliar food. The sight unnerved him. He
couldn’t remember how many years it had been since
he’d last seen fried chicken or how many months since
he’d been offered vegetables in other than powder form.
‘Well,’ demanded the waiter, mistaking his fascinated
reaction, ‘doesn’t it please you?’
‘Yes.’ Harrison handed over the slip of paper.
‘Sure it does. You bet it does.’
Glancing at the note, the other called to somebody semi-visible
at one end of the counter. ‘You’ve wiped out one of
Jeff’s.’ He strolled away, tearing the slip into
‘That was a fast pass,’ commented the brunette,
nodding at the loaded plate. ‘He dumps a heavy feed-ob on
you and you bounce it straight back, leaving all quits.
I’ll have to wash dishes to get rid of mine. Or kill one
Seth has got on somebody else.’
‘I stacked a ton of canned stuff.’ Harrison picked up
knife and fork, his mouth watering. There were no knives and
forks on the ship; they weren’t needed for powders and
pills. ‘Don’t give you much choice here, do they? You
take what you get.’
‘Not if you’ve got an ob on Seth,’ she
informed. ‘When you have, he must work it off the best way
he can. You should have put that to him instead of waiting for
fate and complaining afterward.’
‘But I’m not complaining.’
‘It’s your right. That’s freedom, isn’t
it?’ She mused a bit, went on, ‘It isn’t often
I’m an ob ahead of Seth but when I am I scream for iced
pineapple and he comes running. When he’s one ahead I do
the running.’ Her gray eyes narrowed in sudden suspicion.
‘You’re listening as if all this is new to
‘Are you a stranger here?’
He nodded, his mouth full of chicken. A little later he managed,
‘I’m off that spaceship.’
‘Good grief!’ She froze considerably. ‘An
Antigand! I wouldn’t have thought it. Why, you look almost
‘I’ve long taken pride in that similarity.’ He
chewed, swallowed, looked inquiringly around. The white-coated
man came up. ‘What’s to drink?’ Harrison asked.
‘Dith, double-dith, shemak or coffee.’
‘Coffee. Big and black.’
‘Shemak is better,’ advised the brunette as the
waiter went to get it. ‘But why should I tell you?’
The coffee came in a pint-sized mug. Putting it down, the waiter
said, ‘It’s your choice seeing that Seth is working
one off. What’ll you have for after — apple pie,
yimpik delice, grated tarfelsoufers or canimelon in syrup?’
‘Ugh!’ The other blinked at him, gave the brunette an
accusing stare, brought it and dumped it on the table.
Harrison pushed it across. ‘Take the plunge and enjoy
‘Couldn’t eat it if I tried.’ He dug up another
load of chicken, stirred his coffee, he began to feel at perfect
peace with this world. ‘Got as much as I can manage right
here.’ He made an inviting motion with his fork. ‘Go
on, be greedy and to heck with the waistline.’
‘No.’ Firmly she pushed the pineapple back at him.
‘If I ate my way through that I’d be saddled with an
‘I don’t let strangers dump obs on me.’
‘Quite right, too. Very proper of you,’ approved
Harrison. ‘Strangers often have strange notions.’
‘You’ve been around,’ she remarked.
‘Though I don’t know what’s strange about the
‘Cynic!’ The pineapple got another pass in her
direction. ‘If you feel that I’ll be burdening you
with an ob that you’ll have to pay off you can do it in a
seemly manner here and now. All I want is some
‘What is it?’
‘Just tell me where I can put my finger on the ripest
cheese in this locality.’
‘That’s easy. Go round to Alec Peters’ place,
middle of Tenth Street.’ With that she helped herself to
‘Thanks. I was beginning to think that everyone was dumb or
afflicted with the funnies.’
He carried on with his own meal, finished it, lay back
expansively. Unaccustomed nourishment persuaded his brain to work
a bit more dexterously for after a minute an expression of
chronic doubt clouded his face and he inquired, ‘Does this
Peters run a cheese warehouse?’
‘Of course.’ Emitting a sigh of pleasure, she pushed
the empty dish aside.
He groaned low down, then informed, ‘I’m chasing the
‘What is that?’
‘Number one. The big boss. The sheriff, pohanko, or
what-ever you call him.’
‘I’m still no wiser,’ she said, genuinely
‘The man who runs this town. The leading citizen.’
‘Make it a little clearer,’ she suggested, trying
hard to help him. ‘Who or what should this citizen be
‘You and Seth and everyone else.’ He waved a hand to
encompass the entire burg.
Frowning, she asked, ‘Leading us where?’
‘Wherever you’re going.’
She gave up, beaten, and signed the white-coated waiter to come
to her assistance.
‘Matt, are we going any place?’
‘How should I know?’
‘Well, ask Seth then.’
He went away, came back with, ‘Seth says he’s going
home at six o’clock and what’s it to you?’
‘Anyone leading him there?’ she inquired.
‘Don’t be daft,’ Matt advised. ‘He knows
his own way and he’s cold sober.’
Harrison chipped in. ‘Look, I don’t see why there
should be so much difficulty about all this. Just tell me where I
can find an official, any official — the police chief, the
city treasurer, the mortuary keeper or even a mere justice of the
‘What’s an official?’ asked Matt, openly
‘What’s a justice of the peace?’ added the
His mind side-slipped and did a couple of spins. It took him
quite a time to reassemble his thoughts and try another tack.
‘Let us suppose,’ he said to Matt, ‘that this
joint catches fire. What would you do?’
‘Fan it to keep it going,’ retorted Matt, fed up and
making no effort to conceal the fact. He returned to the counter
with the air of one not inclined to waste words on a congenital
‘He’d put it out,’ informed the brunette .
‘What else would you expect him to do?’
‘Suppose that he couldn’t?’
‘He’d call in others to help him.’
‘And would they?’
‘Of course.’ She surveyed him with a touch of pity.
‘They’d jump at the chance. They’d be planting
a nice, big crop of strong obs, wouldn’t they?’
‘Yes, I guess so.’ He began to feel completely
stalled, but made a last desperate shot at the problem.
‘What if the fire were much too big and fast for passers-by
‘Seth would summon the fire squad.’
Defeat receded, triumph replaced it.
‘Ah, so there is a fire squad? That’s what I mean by
some-thing official. That’s what I’ve been after all
along. Quick, tell me where I can find its headquarters.’
‘Bottom end of Twelfth Avenue. You can’t miss
‘Thanks!’ He got up in a hurry. ‘See you again
sometime.’ Going out fast, he grabbed his bicycle, shoved
off from the curb.
The fire depot proved to be a big place containing four
telescopic ladders, a spray tower and two multiple pumps, all
motorized on the usual array of fat rubber balls. Inside,
Harrison came face to face with a small man wearing immense plus
‘Looking for someone?’ asked the small man.
‘Yes, the fire chief.’
By now prepared for this sort of thing, Harrison spoke as one
would to a child. ‘See here, Mister, this is a
fire-fighting outfit. Somebody bosses it. Somebody organizes the
whole affair, fills forms, presses buttons, shouts orders,
recommends promotions, kicks the shiftless, grabs all the credit,
transfers all the blame and generally lords it around. He’s
the most important man in the bunch and everybody knows
it.’ His forefinger tapped imperatively on the
other’s chest. ‘And he is the fellow I’m going
to talk to if it’s the last thing I do.’
‘Nobody is more important than anyone else. How can he be?
I think you’re crazy.’
‘You’re welcome to think what you please but I am
telling you that —’
A shrill bell clamoured, cutting off his sentence. Twenty men
appeared as if by magic, boarded a ladder and a multiple pump,
roared into the street.
Squat, basin-shaped helmets formed the only article of attire
that the crew had in common. Apart from these, they plumbed the
depths of sartorial iniquity. The man with the plus fours, having
gained the pump in one bold leap, was whirled out standing
between a fat fire-fighter wearing a rainbow-hued cummerbund and
a thin one sporting a canary yellow kilt. A late-comer decorated
with ear-rings resembling little bells hotly pursued the pump,
snatched at its tailboard, missed, sourly watched the outfit
disappear from sight. He mooched back, swinging his helmet from
‘Just my lousy luck,’ he griped at the gaping
Harrison. ‘The sweetest, loveliest call of the year. A big
brewery. The sooner they get there the bigger the obs
they’ll plant on it.’ Licking his lips at the
thought, he sat on a coil of canvas hose. ‘Oh, well, maybe
it’s for the good of my health.’
‘Tell me something, Harrison probed, ‘How do you earn
‘There’s a dopey question. You can see for yourself.
I’m on the fire squad.’
‘I know. What I mean is, who pays you?’
‘Gives you money for all this.’
‘You talk mighty peculiar. What is money?’
Harrison rubbed his cranium to assist the circulation of blood
through the brain. What is money? Yeouw! He tried another angle.
‘If your wife needs a new coat, how does she get it?’
‘Goes to a store that’s carrying fire-obs, of course.
She knocks off one or two for them.’
‘But what if no clothing store has had a fire?’
‘You’re pretty ignorant, brother. Where in this world
do you come from?’ His ear-bells swung as he studied the
other a moment. ‘Almost all stores have fire-obs. If
they’ve any sense they allocate so many per month by way of
insurance. They look ahead, just in case, see? They plant obs on
us in advance so that when we rush to the rescue we’ve got
to wipe out a dollop of theirs before we can plant any new ones
of our own. That stops us overdoing it and making hogs of
ourselves. Sort of cuts down the stores’ liabilities. It
makes sense, doesn’t it?’
‘Maybe, but —’
‘I get it now,’ interrupted the other, narrowing his
eyes. ‘You’re from that spaceship. You’re a
‘I’m a Terran,’ informed Harrison with suitable
dignity. ‘What’s more, all the folk who originally
settled this planet were Terrans.’
‘Are you trying to teach me history?’ He gave a harsh
laugh. ‘You’re wrong. There was a five per cent
strain of Martian.’
‘Even the Martians are descended from Terran stock,’
‘So what? That was a devil of a long time ago. Things
change, in case you haven’t heard. We’ve no Terrans
or Martians on this world except for your crowd which has barged
in unasked. We’re all Gands here. And you noseypokes are
‘We aren’t anti-anything that I know of. Where did
you get that idea?’
‘Myob!’ said the other, suddenly determined
to refuse further argument. He tossed his helmet to one side,
spat on the floor.
‘You heard me. Go trundle your scooter.’
Harrison gave up and did just that. Gloomily he cycled back to
His Excellency pinned him with an authoritative optic. ‘So
you’re back at last, Mister. How many are coming and at
‘None, sir,’ said Harrison, feeling kind of feeble.
‘None?’ August eyebrows lifted querulously. ‘Do
you mean that they have refused my invitation?’
‘Come out with it. Mister,’ urged the Ambassador.
‘Don’t stand there gawping as if your push-and-puff
contraption has just given birth to a roller-skate. You say they
have not refused my invitation — but nobody is coming. What
am I supposed to make of that?’
‘I didn’t ask anyone.’
‘So you didn’t ask?’ Turning, he said to
Grayder, Shelton and the others, ‘He didn’t
ask!’ His attention came back to Harrison. ‘You
forgot all about it, I presume? Intoxicated by liberty and the
power of man over machine, you flashed around the town at nothing
less than eighteen miles per hour, creating consternation among
the citizenry, tossing their traffic laws into the ash-can,
putting children and elderly persons in peril of their lives, not
even troubling to ring your bell or —’
‘I don’t have a bell, sir,’ stated Harrison,
inwardly resenting this list of enormities. ‘I have a
whistle operated by the rotation of the rear wheel.’
‘There!’ said the Ambassador like one abandoning all
hope. He sat down and smacked his forehead several times.
‘I am reliably informed that somebody is going to get a
bubble-pipe.’ He pointed at Harrison. ‘And now I
learn that he possesses a whistle.’
‘I designed it myself, sir,’ Harrison said helpfully.
‘I’m sure you did. I can imagine it. I would expect
it of you.’ The Ambassador took a fresh grip on himself.
‘See here, Mister, I would like you to tell me something in
strict confidence, just between the two of us.’ Leaning
forward, he put the question in a whisper that ricochetted seven
times around the room. ‘Why didn’t you ask
‘I couldn’t find out who to ask, sir. I did my level
best but nobody seemed to know what I was talking about. Or they
pretended they didn’t.’
‘Humph!’ The Ambassador glanced out of the nearest
port, consulted his watch. ‘The light is fading already.
Night will be upon us pretty soon. It’s too late for
further action.’ An annoyed grunt. ‘Another day gone
to pot. Two days here and we’re still fiddling
around.’ Then he added with grim resignation. ‘All
right, Mister. We’re wasting time anyway so we might as
well hear your story in full. Tell us what happened in complete
detail. That way, we may be able to dig some sense out of
Harrison told it, finishing, ‘It seemed to me, sir, that I
could carry on for weeks trying to argue it out with people whose
brains are oriented east-west while mine points north-south. One
can talk with them from now to doomsday, become really friendly
and enjoy the conversation — without either side fully
understanding what the other is saying.’
‘So it appears,’ said the Ambassador dryly. He turned
to Grayder. ‘You’ve been around a lot and seen many
new worlds in your time. What do you make of all this twaddle, if
‘It’s a problem in semantics,’ diagnosed
Grayder, who had been compelled by circumstances to study that
subject. ‘One comes across it on many worlds that have been
long out of touch, though usually it hasn’t developed far
enough to become tough and unsolvable. For instance, the first
fellow we met on Basileus said, cordially and in what he imagined
to be perfect Terran, Joy you unboot now!’
‘Yes? And what did that mean?’
‘Come inside, put on your slippers and be happy. In other
words, welcome. It wasn’t difficult to understand, Your
Excellency, especially when one expects that sort of
thing.’ Grayder cast a thoughtful glance at Harrison and
continued, ‘Here, the problem seems to have developed to a
greater extreme. The language remains fluent and retains enough
surface similarities to conceal underlying changes, but basic
meanings have been altered, concepts discarded and new ones
substituted, thought-forms re-angled and, of course, there is the
inevitable impact of locally created slang.’
‘Such as myob,’ offered the Ambassador.
‘Now there is a queer word without recognizable Earth-root.
I don’t like the sarcastic way they use it. They make it
sound downright insulting. Obviously it has some kind of
connection with these obs they keep throwing around. It means
my obligation or something like that, but the real
significance eludes me.’
‘There is no connection, sir,’ put in Harrison. He
hesitated, saw that they were waiting for him to go on. ‘On
my way back I met the lady who had directed me to Baines’
place. She asked whether I’d found him and I told her I
had. We chatted a short while. I asked her what myob
meant. She said it was initial-slang.’ He stopped and
‘Keep going,’ urged the Ambassador. ‘After some
of the sulphurous comments I’ve heard emerging from the
Blieder-room ventilation-shaft, I can stomach anything. What does
‘M-y-o-b,’ informed Harrison, slightly
‘Ah!’ The other gained colour. ‘So that is what
they’ve been telling me all along?’
‘I’m afraid so, sir.’
‘Evidently they’ve a lot to learn.’ His neck
swelled with undiplomatic fury, he smacked a fat hand upon the
table and declaimed loudly. ‘And they’re going to
‘Yes, sir,’ agreed Harrison, becoming more uneasy and
anxious to get out. ‘May I go now and tend to my
‘Yes, you may,’ said the Ambassador in the same noisy
tones. He performed a couple of meaningless gestures, turned a
florid face on Captain Grayder. ‘Bicycle! Does anyone on
this vessel own a slingshot?’
‘I doubt it, Your Excellency, but I will make inquiries, if
‘Don’t be an imbecile,’ ordered the Ambassador.
‘We have our full quota of hollow-heads already.’
Postponed until early morning, the next conference was relatively
short and sweet. The Ambassador took a seat, harumphed
importantly, straightened his tie, frowned around the table.
‘Let us have another look at what we’ve got. We know
that this planet’s mules call themselves Gands, don’t
take any interest in their Terran origin and insist on referring
to us as Antigands. This implies an education and resultant
outlook inimical to ourselves. They’ve been trained from
childhood to take it for granted that whenever we appeared upon
the scene we would prove to be against whatever they are
‘And we haven’t the remotest notion of what they are
for,’ put in Colonel Shelton, quite unnecessarily. But it
served to show that he was among those present, paying attention,
and ready to lend the full support of his powerful intellect.
‘I am only too aware of our ignorance in that
respect,’ said the Ambassador, with a touch of acid.
‘They are maintaining a conspiracy of silence about their
prime motivation. We have got to break it somehow.’
‘That,’ offered Shelton, unabashed, ‘is the
Taking no notice, the Ambassador continued, ‘They have a
peculiar, moneyless economic system which, in my opinion, manages
to function only because it is afflicted with large surpluses. It
won’t survive a day when over-population brings serious
shortages. This economic set-up appears to be based on a mixture
of co-operative techniques, private enterprise, a
kindergarten’s honour system and plain unadorned gimme.
That makes it a good deal crazier than the food-in-the-bank
system they use on Epsilon’s four outer planets.’
‘But it works,’ observed Grayder pointedly.
‘After a fashion. That flap-eared engineer’s bicycle
works — and so does he while riding it. A motorized job
would save him a lot of sweat.’ Highly pleased with this
analogy, the Ambassador enjoyed the flavour of it for a few
seconds before he continued. ‘This local scheme of
economics — if you can call it a scheme — almost
certainly is the end-result of the haphazard development of some
hick eccentricity imported by the original settlers. It is long
overdue for motorizing, so to speak. They know it as well as we
do. But they don’t want it because mentally they’re
four hundred years behind the times. They are afraid of change,
improvement, efficiency — like many backward peoples.
Moreover, there’s little doubt that some of them have a
vested interest in keeping things exactly as they are.’ He
sniffed loudly to express his contempt. ‘They are
antagonistic toward us simply because they don’t want to be
His stare went round the table, daring one of them to remark that
this might be as good a reason as any other. They were too
disciplined to fall into that trap. None offered a comment and so
he went on.
‘In due time, after we have gained a proper grip on
affairs, we’re going to have a long and tedious task on our
hands. We’ll have to overhaul their entire educational
system with a view to eliminating anti-Terran prejudices and
bringing them up to date on the facts of life. That’s had
to be done on several other planets though not to anything like
the extent as will be necessary here.’
‘We’ll cope,’ promised someone.
Ignoring him, the Ambassador finished, ‘However, all that
is in the future. Our real problem is in the present. It is in
our laps right now, namely, where are the reins of power and who
is holding them? We must solve that before we can make genuine
progress. How are we going to do it?’ Folding hands over
his paunch, he added, ‘Get your wits to work and let us
have some bright suggestions.’
Grayder stood up, a big, leather-bound book in his hands.
‘Your Excellency, I don’t think we need exercise our
minds about new plans for making contact and gaining essential
information. The next move is likely to be imposed upon
‘What do you mean?’
‘I have a good many old-timers in my crew. There are some
among the troops as well. Space-lawyers, every one of
them.’ He tapped the book significantly. ‘They know
Space Regulations as well as I do. Sometimes I think they know
‘And so —?’
Grayder opened the book. ‘Regulation 127 says that on a
hostile world the crew serves on a war-footing until back in free
space. On a non-hostile world they serve on a
‘What of it?’
‘Regulation 131A says that on a peace-footing the crew
— with the exception of a minimum number required to keep
the vessel’s services in trim — is entitled to
liberty immediately after unloading cargo or within seventy-two
Earth-hours of arrival, whichever period is the shorter.’
He glanced up. ‘By mid-day the men will be all set for
land-leave and itching to go. There will be trouble if they are
not allowed out.’
‘Oh, will there?’ The Ambassador smiled lopsidedly.
‘What if we declare this world to be hostile? That will pin
their ears back, won’t it?’
Impassively consulting his book, Grayder said, ‘Regulation
148 says that a hostile world is defined as any planet that
systematically opposes Terran citizens by force.’ He turned
to the next page. ‘For the purpose of these regulations,
force is defined as any course of action calculated to inflict
physical injury, regardless of whether or not the said action
succeeds in its intent.’
‘I don’t agree.’ The Ambassador frowned his
strong disapproval. ‘A world can be psychologically hostile
without resorting to force. We have an example right here. It
can’t be called a friendly world.’
‘There are no friendly worlds within the meaning of Space
Regulations,’ Grayder informed. ‘Every planet falls
into one of two classifications: hostile or non-hostile.’
He tapped the bare leather cover. ‘It’s all in the
‘We’d be prize fools to let a mere book order us
around or allow the crew to boss us, either. Throw it out of the
port. Stick it into the disintegrator. Get rid of it any way you
like and forget it.’
‘Begging your pardon, Your Excellency, but I can’t do
that.’ Grayder opened the tome at its beginning.
‘Basic regulations 1A, lB and lC include the following:
whether in space or on land, a vessel’s personnel remain
under direct command of its captain or his nominee who will be
guided solely and at all times by Space Regulations and will be
responsible only to the Space Committee situated on Terra. The
same applies to all troops, officials and civilian passengers
aboard a space-traversing vessel, whether said vessel is in
flight or grounded, regardless of rank or authority they are
subordinate to the captain or his nominee. A nominee is defined
as a ship’s first, second or third officer performing the
duties of a captain when the latter is incapacitated or
‘What all that rigmarole means is that you are king of your
castle,’ remarked the Ambassador, none too pleased.
‘If we don’t like it we must get out of the
‘With the greatest respect, Your Excellency, I must agree
that that is the position. I cannot help it — regulations
are regulations. And the men know it!’ Grayder placed the
book on the table, poked it away from him. ‘It’s
highly likely that the men will wait until mid-day, pressing
their pants, creaming their hair and generally prettying
themselves up. They will then make approach to me in proper
manner to which I cannot object. They will request the first mate
to submit their leave roster for my approval.’ He gave a
deep sigh. ‘The worst I could do would be to quibble about
a few names and switch some of them around. But I cannot refuse
leave to a full quota.’
‘Liberty to paint the town red might be a good thing after
all,’ suggested Shelton, not averse to doing some painting
himself. ‘A dump like this wakes up with a vengeance when
the fleet’s in port. We should make useful contacts by the
dozens. And that’s what we want, isn’t it?’
‘We want to pin down this planet’s political
leaders,’ retorted the Ambassador. ‘I can’t see
them powdering their faces, putting on their best hats and
rushing out to give the yoohoo to a crowd of hungry
sailors.’ His plump features quirked. ‘We’ve
got to find the needles in this haystack and that job won’t
be done by ratings on the rampage.’
‘You may be right, Your Excellency,’ put in Grayder.
‘But we’ll have to take a chance on it. If the men
insist on going out I lack the power to prevent them. Only one
thing can give me the power.’
‘And what is that?’
‘Clear, indisputable evidence enabling me to define this
world as hostile within the meaning of Space Regulations.’
‘Well, can’t we arrange that somehow?’ Without
waiting for a reply, the Ambassador pursued, ‘Every crew
has its stupid and incurable trouble-maker. Find yours, give him
a double shot of Venusian cognac, tell him he’s being
granted immediate liberty — then warn him that he may not
enjoy it because these lousy Gands view us as a reason why people
dig up the drains. After that, push him out of the airlock. When
he returns with a black eye and a boastful story about the other
fellow’s condition, declare this world hostile.’ He
waved an expressive hand. ‘And there you are. Physical
violence. All according to the book.’
‘Regulation 148A,’ said Grayder, ‘emphasizing
that opposition by force must be systematic, warns that
individual brawls may not be construed as evidence of
The Ambassador turned an irate face upon the senior civil
servant. ‘When you return to Terra — if ever you do
get back — you can tell the appropriate department how the
space service is balled up, hamstrung, semi-paralysed and
generally handicapped by bureaucrats who write books.’
Before the other could think up a reply in defence of his own
kind, without contradicting the Ambassador, a knock came at the
door. First Mate Morgan entered, saluted smartly, offered Grayder
a sheet of paper.
‘First leave roster, sir. Do you approve it?’
More than four hundred men went to town in the early afternoon.
They advanced upon it in the usual manner of people long overdue
for the bright lights, that is to say, eagerly, expectantly, in
gangs of two, three, six or ten.
Gleed attached himself to Harrison. They were two odd rankers,
Gleed being the only sergeant on liberty while Harrison was the
only tenth engineer. They were also the only two fish out of
water since both were in civilian clothes and Gleed missed his
uniform, Harrison felt naked without his bicycle.
These trifling features gave them enough in common to justify at
least one day’s companionship.
‘This one’s a honey,’ declared Gleed with great
enthusiasm. ‘I’ve been on a good many liberty jaunts
in my time but this one’s a honey. On all other trips the
boys ran up against the same problem: what to use for money. They
had to go forth like a battalion of Santa Clauses, loaded up with
anything that might serve for barter. Almost always nine-tenths
of it wasn’t of any use and had to be carted back to the
‘On Persephone,’ informed Harrison, ‘a
long-shanked Milik offered me a twenty-carat, blue-tinted,
first-water diamond for my bike.’
‘Jeepers, didn’t you take it?’
‘What was the good? I’d have had to go back sixteen
light-years for another bike.’
‘But, man, you could exist without a bike for a
‘I can exist without a diamond. I can’t ride around
on a diamond.’
‘Neither can you sell a bicycle for the price of a
‘Yes, I can. I just told you this Milik offered me a rock
like an egg.’
‘It’s a crying shame. You could have got a fortune
for that blinder, if it had no flaws.’ Sergeant Gleed
smacked his lips at the thought of it. ‘Money and plenty of
it, that’s what I like. And that’s what makes this
trip a winner. Every other time we’ve gone out Grayder,
Shelton and Bidworthy have lectured us in turn about creating a
favourable impression, behaving in a spacemanlike manner and so
forth. But this time Grayder talks about money.’
‘The Ambassador put him up to it.’
‘I like it all the same,’ enthused Gleed. ‘An
extra one week’s pay, a bottle of cognac and double liberty
for any man who brings back to the ship an adult Gand, male or
female, who is sociable and willing to talk.’
‘It won’t be easily earned.’
‘One month’s extra pay for whoever gets the name and
address of the town’s chief civic dignitary. Two
months’ for the name and accurate location of the
world’s capital city.’ He whistled happily,
added,’ somebody is going to make it rich and it
won’t be Bidworthy. His name didn’t come out of the
hat. I know — I was holding it.’
Ceasing his chatter, he turned to watch a tall, lithe blonde
striding past. Harrison pulled at his arm.
‘Here’s Baines’ place that I told you about.
Let’s go in.’
‘Oh, all right.’ Gleed followed with reluctance, his
attention still directed down the street.
‘Good afternoon,’ said Harrison to Jeff Baines.
‘Which it isn’t,’ contradicted Baines.
‘Trade’s bad. There’s a semi-final being played
and it has drawn half the town away. They’ll come home and
start thinking about their bellies long after I’ve closed.
Probably they’ll make a rush on me to-morrow morning and I
won’t be able to serve them fast enough.’
‘How can trade be bad if you don’t make money even
when it’s good?’ inquired Gleed, reasonably applying
the information Harrison had given him.
Jeff’s big moon eyes went over him slowly then turned to
Harrison. ‘So he’s another bum off your boat, eh?
What’s he talking about?’
‘Money,’ explained Harrison. ‘It’s stuff
we use to simplify trade. It’s printed stuff, like
documentary obs of various sizes.’
‘That tells me a lot,’ Jeff Baines observed.
‘It tells a crowd that has to make a printed record of
every ob is not to be trusted — because they don’t
even trust each other.’ He waddled to his high stool and
squatted on it. His breathing was laboured and wheezy. ‘And
that confirms what our schools have always taught, namely, that
an Antigand would swindle his widowed mother.’
‘Your schools have got it wrong,’ assured Harrison.
‘Maybe they have.’ Jeff saw no reason to argue the
point. ‘But we’ll play safe until we know
different.’ He looked them over. ‘What do you two
‘Some advice,’ Gleed shoved in quickly.
‘We’re out on the spree. We’d like to know the
best places for food and fun.’
‘How long have you got?’
‘Until nightfall tomorrow.’
‘No use.’ Jeff Baines shook his head sorrowfully.
‘It would take you from now until then to plant enough obs
to qualify for anything worth having. Besides, plenty of people
would rather drop dead than let an Antigand dump an ob on them.
They have their pride, see?’
Harrison asked, ‘Can’t we get so much as a square
‘Well, I don’t know about that.’ Jeff thought
it over while massaging his several chins. ‘You might
manage it — but I can’t help you this time.
There’s nothing I want of you and so you can’t use
any obs I’ve got stashed around.’
‘Can you offer any suggestions?’
‘If you were local citizens it would be lots different. You
could get all you want right now by taking on a load of obs to be
wiped out sometime in the future as and when the chances come
along. But I can’t see anybody giving credit to Antigands
who are here today and gone tomorrow.’
‘Not so much of the gone tomorrow talk,’ advised
Gleed. ‘When an Imperial Ambassador arrives it means that
Terrans are here for keeps.’
‘Who says so?’
‘The Terran Empire says so. You’re part of it,
‘No,’ said Jeff positively. ‘We are not part of
anything, don’t want to be and don’t intend to be.
What’s more, nobody’s going to make us part of
Leaning on the counter, Gleed gazed absently at a large can of
pork.’ Seeing that I’m out of uniform and not on
duty, I sympathize with you though I still shouldn’t say
it. I wouldn’t care myself to be taken over body and soul
by a gang of other-world bureaucrats. But you folk are going to
have a mighty tough time beating us off. That’s the way it
‘Not with what we’ve got,’ opined Jeff
‘You haven’t got much,’ scoffed Gleed, more in
friendly criticism than open contempt. He sought confirmation
from Harrison. ‘Have they?’
‘It wouldn’t seem so,’ said Harrison.
‘Don’t go by appearances,’ warned Jeff.
‘We’ve more than you bums can handle.’
‘Such as what?’
‘Well, just for a start, we’ve got the mightiest
weapon ever thought up by the mind of man. We’re Gands,
see? So we don’t need ships and guns and similar
playthings. We’ve something better. It’s effective.
There’s no defence against it.’
‘Man, I’d like to see it,’ Gleed challenged.
Data concerning a new and exceptionally powerful weapon should be
a good deal more valuable than the mayor’s address. Grayder
might be sufficiently impressed by the importance thereof to
arrange a fabulous reward. With some sarcasm, he added,
‘But, of course, we can’t expect you to give away
‘There is nothing secret about it,’ said Jeff, very
surprisingly. ‘You can have it free, gratis and for nothing
any time you want. Any Gand would give it to you for the mere
asking. Like to know why?’
‘Because it works one way only. We can use it against you
but you can’t use it against us.’
‘Nonsense!’ declared Gleed. ‘There is no such
thing. There is no weapon inventable that the other fellow
can’t employ once he gets his hands on it and learns how to
‘Are you sure about that?’
‘I am positive. I’ve been in the space service for
twenty years and you can’t be a trooper that long without
learning all about weapons of every conceivable kind from string
bows to H-bombs. You’re trying to kid me. Nothing doing.
I’m too grey in the hair and sharp in the tooth. A one-way
weapon is impossible. And that means im-poss-ible.’
‘Don’t argue with him,’ Harrison told Baines.
‘He’ll never be convinced until he’s
‘I can see that.’ Jeff Baines’ face creased
into a massive grin. ‘I’ve told you that you can have
our wonder-weapon for the asking. Why don’t you ask?’
‘All right, I’m asking.’ Gleed put it without
any enthusiasm. A weapon that would be presented on request,
without even the necessity of first planting a minor ob,
couldn’t be so mighty after all. His imaginary large reward
shrank to a hand-full of small change and thence to nothing.
‘Hand it over and let me look at it.’
Edging ponderously around on his stool, Jeff reached to the wall,
removed a small, shiny plaque from its hook and passed it across
‘You may keep it,’ he said. ‘And much good may
it do you.’
Gleed examined it, turning it over and over between his fingers.
It was nothing more than an oblong strip of substance resembling
ivory. One side was polished and bare. The other bore three
letters deeply engraved in bold style:
F. — I.W.
Glancing up at Baines, his features puzzled, he said, ‘You
call this a weapon?’
‘Then I don’t get it.’ He passed the plaque to
Harrison. ‘Do you?’
‘No.’ Harrison examined it with care. ‘What
does this F. — I.W. mean?’
‘Initial-slang,’ informed Baines. ‘Made correct
by common usage. It has become a worldwide motto. You’ll
see it all over the place if you haven’t noticed it
‘I have seen it here and there but attached no importance
to it and thought nothing more about it. I remember now that it
was inscribed in several places including Seth’s and the
‘It was on the sides of that bus we couldn’t
empty,’ put in Gleed. ‘It didn’t mean anything
It means plenty,’ said Jeff, ‘Freedom — I
‘That kills me,’ Gleed responded. ‘I’m
stone dead already. I’ve dropped in my tracks.’ He
watched Harrison thoughtfully pocketing the plaque. ‘A
piece of abracadabra. What a weapon!’
‘Ignorance is bliss,’ asserted Baines, strangely sure
of himself. ‘Especially when you don’t know that what
you’re playing with is the safety catch of something that
‘All right,’ challenged Gleed, taking him up on that.
‘Tell us how it works.’
‘I won’t.’ Baines’ grin
reappeared. He seemed to be highly satisfied about something.
‘That’s a fat lot of help.’ Gleed felt let
down, especially over that momentary hoped-for reward. ‘You
brag and boast about a one-way weapon, toss across a slip of
stuff with three letters on it and then go dumb. Any folly will
do for braggarts and any braggart can talk through the seat of
his pants. How about backing up your talk?’
‘I won’t,’ repeated Baines, his grin
broader than ever. He gave the onlooking Harrison a fat,
It made something spark vividly within Harrison’s mind. His
jaw dropped, he dragged the plaque from his pocket and stared at
it as if seeing it for the first time.
‘Give it me back,’ requested Baines, watching him.
Replacing it in his pocket, Harrison said very firmly.
Baines chuckled.’ some people catch on quicker than
Resenting that, Gleed held his hand out to Harrison. ‘Let
me have another look at that thing.’
‘I won’t,’ said Harrison, meeting him
eye to eye.
‘Hey, don’t start being awkward with me. That’s
not the way —’ Gleed’s protesting voice petered
out. He stood there a moment, his optics slightly glassy, while
his brain performed several loops. Then in hushed tones he said,
‘Precisely,’ approved Baines. ‘Grief and plenty
of it. You were a bit slow on the uptake.’
Overcome by the flood of insubordinate ideas now pouring upon
him, Gleed said hoarsely to Harrison, ‘Come on, let’s
get out of here. I’ve got to think. I want to sit somewhere
nice and quiet while I think.’
There was a tiny park with seats and lawns and flowers and a
little fountain around which a small group of children were
playing. Choosing a place facing a colourful carpet of exotic
un-Terran blooms, they sat and brooded for quite a time.
Eventually, Gleed commented, ‘For one solitary, mulish
character it would be martyrdom, but for a whole world
—’ His voice drifted off, came back.
‘I’ve been taking this as far as I can make it go and
the results give me the leaping fantods.’
Harrison said nothing.
‘For instance,’ Gleed continued. ‘Suppose that
when I go back to the ship that snorting rhinoceros Bidworthy
gives me an order. And I give him the frozen eye and say,
‘I won’t.’ What happens? It follows as
an inviolable law of Nature that he either drops dead or throws
me in the clink.’
‘That would do you a lot of good.’
‘Wait a bit — I haven’t finished yet. I’m
in the pokey, demoted and a disgrace to the service, but the job
still needs doing. So Bidworthy picks on somebody else. The
victim, being a soul-mate of mine, also donates the icy optic and
says, ‘I won’t.’ Into the jug he goes
and I’ve got company. Bidworthy tries again. And again and
again and again. There are more of us crammed in the brig. It
will hold only twenty. So they take over the engineers’
‘Leave our mess out of this,’ requested Harrison.
‘They take over the mess,’ insisted Gleed, thoroughly
determined to penalize the engineers. ‘Pretty soon
it’s filled to the roof with I-won’ters.
Bidworthy is still raking them in as fast as he can go — if
by then he hasn’t burst a dozen blood vessels. So they take
over the Blieder dormitories.’
‘Why keep picking on my crowd?’
‘And pile them ceiling-high with bodies,’ Gleed said,
deriving sadistic pleasure from the picture. ‘Until in the
end Bidworthy has to get buckets and brushes and go down on his
knees and do his own deck-scrubbing while Grayder, Shelton and
the rest take turn for guard-duty. By that time His Loftiness the
Ambassador is in the galley busily cooking for the prisoners and
is being assisted by a disconcerted bunch of yessing
pen-pushers.’ He had another look at this mental scene.
A coloured ball rolled his way. Stooping, he picked it up, held
on to it. Promptly a boy of about seven ran near, eyed him
‘Give me my ball, please.’
‘I won’t,’ said Gleed, his fingers
firmly around it.
There was no protest, no anger, no tears. The child merely
registered disappointment and turned away.
‘Here you are, sonny.’ He tossed the ball.
‘Thanks.’ Grabbing it, the other chased off.
Harrison said, ‘What if every living being in the Terran
Empire, from Prometheus to Kaldor Four, across eighteen hundred
light-years of space, should get an income-tax demand, tear it up
and say, I won’t. What happens then?’
‘No tax. Authority does without it because it darned well
‘There would be chaos.’ Harrison nodded toward the
fountain and the children playing around it. ‘But it
doesn’t look anything like chaos here. Not to my eyes.
Evidently they don’t overdo this blank refusal business.
They apply it judiciously on some mutually recognized basis. But
what that basis might be beats me completely.’
An elderly man paused near them, surveyed them hesitantly,
decided to pick on a passing youth.
‘Can you tell me where I can find the roller for
‘Other end of Eighth,’ directed the youth. ‘One
every hour. They’ll fix your manacles before they
‘Manacles?’ The oldster raised white eyebrows.
‘That route runs past the spaceship. The Antigands may try
to drag you out.’
‘Oh, yes, of course.’ He ambled on, glanced again at
Gleed and Harrison, remarked in passing, ‘These Antigands
— such a nuisance.’
‘Definitely,’ supported Gleed. ‘We keep telling
them to clear out and they keep saying, We
The old gentleman missed a step, recovered, gave him a peculiar
look, continued on his way.
‘One or two seem to cotton on to our accent,’
Harrison said. ‘Though nobody baulked at mine when I was
having that meal in Seth’s.’
Gleed perked up with sudden interest. ‘Where you’ve
had one feed you should be able to get another. Come on,
let’s try. What have we to lose?’
‘Our patience.’ Harrison got off his seat, stretched
himself. ‘We’ll pick on Seth. If he won’t play
we’ll have a try at somebody else. And if nobody will play
we’ll scoot back to the ship before we starve to
‘Which appears to be exactly what they want us to
do,’ Gleed pointed out with some annoyance. ‘I can
tell you something here and now — they’ll get their
way over my dead body.’
‘That’s how,’ agreed Harrison. ‘Over your
Matt came up with a cloth over one arm. ‘I’m serving
‘You served me last time,’ Harrison reminded.
‘That may be. I didn’t know you were off that ship.
But I know now.’ He flicked the cloth across one corner of
the table, brushing away imaginary crumbs. ‘No Antigands
served by me.’
‘Is there any other place where we might get a meal?’
‘Not unless somebody will let you plant an ob on them. They
won’t do that if they know who you are but there’s a
chance they might make the same mistake as I did.’ Another
flick across the corner.
‘I don’t make them twice.’
‘You’re making one right now.’ announced Gleed,
his voice hard and edgy. He nudged Harrison. ‘Watch
this.’ His hand came out of a side pocket holding a tiny
gun. Pointing it at Matt’s middle, he said,
‘Ordinarily I could get into trouble for this, if those on
the ship were in the mood to make trouble. But they aren’t.
They’re more than tired of you two-legged mules.’ He
motioned with the weapon.
‘So start walking and fetch us two full plates.’
‘I won’t,’ said Matt, firming his lips
and ignoring the gun. Gleed thumbed the safety-catch which moved
with an audible click. ‘It’s touchy now. It’d
go off at a sneeze. Get moving.’
‘I won’t,’ said Matt.
With unconcealed disgust, Gleed shoved the weapon back into his
pocket. ‘I was only kidding you. It isn’t
‘Wouldn’t have made the slightest difference if it
had been,’ Matt assured. ‘I serve no Antigands and
that is that.’
‘What if I’d lost control of myself and blown several
large holes in you?’
‘How could I have served you then?’ asked Matt.
‘A dead person is of no use to anyone. It’s time You
Antigands learned a little logic.’ With which parting shot
he meandered off.
‘He’s got something there,’ offered Harrison,
patently depressed. ‘What can you do with a corpse? Nothing
whatever. A body is in nobody’s power.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. A couple of stiffs lying around
might sharpen the others. They’d become really
‘You’re thinking of them in Terran terms,’
Harrison said. ‘It’s a mistake. They are not Terrans
no matter where they came from originally. They are Gands.’
‘Well, just what are Gands supposed to be?’
‘I don’t know. It’s a safe bet they’re
some kind of fanatics. Terra exported one-track-minders by the
millions around the time of the Great Explosion. Look at that
crazy crowd on Hygeia, for instance.’
‘Ah, Hygeia. That was the only time I’ve ever
strutted around wearing nothing but a dignified pose. I was
looking forward to seeing Shelton and Bidworthy in their birthday
suits. But those two heroes both lacked the guts.’ He
chuckled to himself went on, ‘Those Hygeians think that
complete nakedness creates real democracy, as distinct from our
fake version. I’m far from sure that they’re
‘The creation of an empire has also created a cockeyed
proposition,’ meditated Harrison. ‘Namely, that Terra
is always right while more than sixteen hundred planets are
invariably wrong. Everyone is out of step but Terra.’
‘You’re becoming kind of seditious, aren’t
Harrison offered no reply. Gleed glanced at him, found his
attention diverted elsewhere, followed his gaze to a brunette who
had just entered.
‘Nice,’ approved Gleed. ‘Not too old, not too
young. Not too fat, not too thin. Just right.’
‘I know her.’ Harrison waved to attract her
She tripped lightly across the room, took a chair at their table.
Harrison made the introduction.
‘Friend of mine, Sergeant Gleed.’
‘Arthur,’ corrected Gleed, guzzling her with his
‘Mine’s Elissa,’ she told him.
‘What’s a sergeant supposed to be?’
‘A sort of over-above under-thing,’ said Gleed.
‘I pass along the telling to the fellows who do the
She viewed him with frank surprise. ‘Do you mean that
people actually allow themselves to be told?’
‘Of course. Why not?’
‘They must have been born servile.’ Her gaze shifted
to Harrison. ‘I’ll be ignorant of your name forever,
Flushing slightly, he hastened to repair the omission, adding,
‘But I don’t like James. I prefer Jim.’
‘Then we’ll let it be Jim. Has Matt tended to you two
‘He refuses to serve us.’
She shrugged soft, warm shoulders. ‘It’s his right.
That’s freedom, isn’t it?’
‘We call it mutiny,’ said Gleed.
‘Don’t be childish,’ she reproved. She stood
up, moved away. ‘You wait here. I’ll see what Seth
‘I don’t understand this,’ admitted Gleed when
she had passed out of earshot. ‘According to that fat
fellow in the delicatessen, their technique is to give us the
cold shoulder until we run away in a huff. But she’s ...
she’s —’ He stopped while he sought around for
a suitable word, found it and said, ‘She’s
‘Not so,’ Harrison contradicted. ‘They’ve
the right to say, I won’t any way they like.
She’s practising it.’
‘By gosh, yes. I hadn’t thought of that. They can
work it backward or forward, whichever way they please.’
‘That’s right.’ Harrison lowered his voice.
‘Here she comes.’ Resuming her seat, she primped her
hair and said, ‘Seth will serve us personally.’
‘Another traitor,’ remarked Gleed, grinning.
‘On one condition,’ she went on. ‘You two must
wait and have a talk with him before you leave.’
‘It’s cheap at the price,’ Harrison decided.
Another thought struck him. ‘Does this mean you’ll
have to wipe out several obs for all three of us?’
‘Only one for myself.’
‘Seth’s got ideas of his own. He doesn’t feel
happy about Antigands any more than anyone else does.’
‘But he has the missionary instinct. He doesn’t agree
entirely with the habit of giving all Antigands the
ghost-treatment. He thinks it should be reserved only for those
too stubborn or stupid to be converted.’ She smiled at
Gleed, making his top hairs quiver. ‘Seth thinks that any
really intelligent Antigand is a would-be Gand.’
‘What is a Gand, anyway?’ asked Harrison.
‘An inhabitant of this world, of course.’
‘I mean how did they get that name? From where did they dig
‘From Gandhi,’ she said.
Harrison looked blank. ‘Who the deuce was he?’
‘An ancient Terran. The one who invented The Weapon.’
‘Never heard of him.’
‘That doesn’t surprise me,’ she remarked.
‘Doesn’t it?’ He was irritated by this
confidence in his ignorance. ‘Let me tell you that in these
days we Terrans get as good as education as —’
‘Calm down, Jim,’ she advised, making it more
soothing by pronouncing it, ‘Jeem.’ She patted his
arm. ‘What I mean is that it’s highly likely that
he’s been blanked out of your history books. He might have
given you unwanted ideas, see? You couldn’t be expected to
know what you’ve never been given the chance to
‘If you’re saying that Terran history is censored, I
don’t believe it.’
‘It’s your right to refuse to believe. That’s
freedom, isn’t it?’
‘Up to a point.’
‘To what point?’
‘A man has duties. He has no right to refuse those.’
‘No?’ She raised tantalizing eyebrows, delicately
curved. ‘Who defines those duties — himself or
‘His superiors most times.’
‘Superiors,’ she scoffed with devastating scorn.
‘No man is superior to another. No man has the slightest
right to define another man’s duties. If anyone on Terra
exercises such impudent power it is only because idiots permit
him to do so. They fear freedom. They prefer to be told. They
like to be ordered around. They love their chains and kiss their
manacles. What men!’
‘I shouldn’t listen to you,’ protested Gleed,
chipping in. His leathery face was flushed. ‘You’re
as naughty as you’re pretty.’
‘Afraid of your own thoughts?’ she jibed, ignoring
his lopsided compliment.
He went redder. ‘Not on your life. But I —’ His
voice tailed off as Seth arrived with three loaded plates and
dumped them on the table.
‘See you afterward,’ reminded Seth. He was
medium-sized, with thin features and sharp, quick-moving eyes.
‘Got something to say to you.’
Seth joined them shortly after they’d finished their meal.
Taking a chair, he wiped condensed steam off his face, looked
them over calculatingly.
‘How much do you two know?’
‘Enough to fight over it,’ put in Elissa. ‘They
are bothered about duties, who defines them and who performs
‘With good reason,’ Harrison counter-attacked.
‘You can’t escape them yourselves.’
‘Is that so?’ said Seth. ‘How d’you make
‘This world runs on some strange system of swapping
obligations. How would any person cancel an ob unless he
recognized it as his duty to do so?’
‘Duty nothing,’ declared Seth. ‘Duty
hasn’t anything to do with it. And if it did happen to be a
matter of duty every man would be left to recognize it for
himself. It would be outrageous impertinence for anyone to remind
him, unthinkable that anyone should order him.’
‘Some guys must make an easy living,’ interjected
Gleed. ‘There’s nothing to stop them that I can
see.’ He studied Seth briefly before he asked, ‘How
can you cope with a citizen who has no conscience?’
‘Easy as pie.’
Elissa suggested, ‘Tell them the story of Idle Jack.’
‘It’s a kid’s yarn,’ explained Seth.
‘All children here know it by heart. It’s a classic
fable like ... like —’ He screwed up his face.
‘I’ve lost track of the Terran tales the first-comers
brought with them.’
‘Red Riding Hood,’ offered Harrison.
‘Yes.’ Seth seized upon it gratefully.
‘Something like that one. A nursery story.’ He licked
his lips, began, ‘This Idle Jack came from Terra as a baby,
grew up in our new world, gained an understanding of our economic
system and thought he’d be mighty smart. He decided to
become a scratcher.’
‘What’s a scratcher?’ asked Gleed.
‘One who lives by accepting obs but does nothing about
wiping them out or planting any of his own. One who takes
everything that’s going and gives nothing in return.’
‘We’ve still got ’em,’ said Gleed.
‘Up to age sixteen Jack got away with it all along the
line. He was only a kid, see? All kids tend to scratch to a
certain extent. We expect it and allow for it. But after sixteen
he was soon in the soup.’
‘How?’ urged Harrison, more interested than he was
willing to admit.
‘He loafed around the town gathering obs by the armful.
Meals, clothes and all sorts for the mere asking. It wasn’t
a big town. There are no big ones on this planet. They are just
small enough for everybody to know everybody — and everyone
does plenty of gabbing. Within a few months the entire town knew
that Jack was a determined and incorrigible scratcher.’
‘Go on,’ said Harrison impatiently.
‘Everything dried up,’ responded Seth.
‘Wherever Jack went people gave him the I
won’t. He got no meals, no clothes, no company, no
entertainment, nothing. He was avoided like a leper. Soon be
became terribly hungry, busted into someone’s larder one
night, treated himself to the first square meal in a week.’
‘What did they do about that?’
‘Nothing, not a thing.’
‘That must have encouraged him some, mustn’t
‘How could it?’ asked Seth with a thin smile.
‘It did him no good. Next day his belly was empty again. He
was forced to repeat the performance. And the next day. And the
next. People then became leery, locked up their stuff and kept
watch on it. Circumstances grew harder and harder. They grew so
unbearably hard that soon it was a lot easier to leave the town
and try another one. So Idle Jack went away.’
‘To do the same again,’ Harrison prompted.
‘With the same results for the same reasons,’ Seth
threw back at him. ‘On he went to a third town, a fourth, a
fifth, a twentieth. He was stubborn enough to be witless.’
‘But he was getting by,’ Harrison insisted.
‘Taking all for nothing at the cost of moving
‘Oh, no he wasn’t. Our towns are small, as I said.
And people do plenty of visiting from one to another. In the
second town Jack had to risk being seen and talked about by
visitors from the first town. In the third town he had to cope
with talkers from both the first and second ones. As he went on
it became a whole lot worse. In the twentieth he had to chance
being condemned by anyone coming from any of the previous
nineteen.’ Seth leaned forward, said with emphasis,
‘He never reached town number twenty-eight.’
‘He lasted two weeks in number twenty-five, eight days in
number twenty-six, one day in twenty-seven. That was almost the
end. He knew he’d be recognized the moment he showed his
face in number twenty-eight.’
‘What did he do then?’
‘He took to the open country, tried to live like an animal
feeding on roots and wild berries. Then he disappeared —
until one day some walkers found him swinging from a tree. His
body was emaciated and clad in rags. Loneliness, self-neglect and
his own stupidity had combined to kill him. That was Idle Jack,
the scratcher. He wasn’t twenty years old.’
‘On Terra,’ remarked Gleed virtuously, ‘we
don’t hang people merely for being shiftless and
‘Neither do we,’ said Seth. ‘We give them every
encouragement to go hang themselves. And when they do it’s
good riddance to bad rubbish.’ He eyed them shrewdly as he
went on, ‘But don’t let it worry you. Nobody has been
driven to such drastic measures in my lifetime, leastways, not
that I’ve heard about. People honour their obs as a matter
of economic necessity and not from any sense of duty. Nobody
gives orders, nobody pushes anyone around, but there’s a
kind of compulsion built into the circumstances of this
planet’s way of life. People play square — or they
suffer. Nobody enjoys suffering, not even a numbskull.’
‘Yes, I suppose you’re right,’ agreed Harrison,
much exercised in mind.
‘You bet I’m right,’ Seth assured. ‘But
what I want to talk to you about is something more important.
It’s this: what is your real ambition in life?’
Without hesitation, Gleed said, ‘To ride the spaceways
while remaining in one piece.’
‘Same here.’ Harrison contributed.
‘I guessed that much. You’d not be in the space
service if it wasn’t your choice. But you can’t stay
in it for ever. All things come to an end. What then?’
Harrison fidgeted uneasily. ‘I don’t care to think of
‘Some day you’ll have to,’ Seth pointed out.
‘How much longer have you got?’
‘Four and a half Earth-years.’
Seth’s gaze turned to Gleed.
‘Not long,’ said Seth. ‘I didn’t expect
you’d have much time left. It’s a safe bet that any
ship penetrating this deeply into space has a crew composed
mostly of experienced old-timers getting near to the end of their
terms. The practiced hands usually are chosen for the awkward
jobs. By the day your boat lands on Terra it will be the end of
the trail for many of them, won’t it?’
‘It will be for me,’ admitted Gleed, none too happy
at the thought of it.
‘Time, time, the older you get the faster it goes. Yet when
you leave the service you’ll still be comparatively
young.’ He put on a faint, taunting smile. ‘I suppose
you’ll buy yourself a private space-vessel and continue to
roam the cosmos on your own?’
‘Don’t talk silly.’ snapped Gleed. ‘A
Moon-boat is the best a very rich man could afford. Puttering to
and fro between a satellite and its primary is no fun when
you’re used to Blieder-zips across the galaxy. The smallest
space-going craft is far beyond reach of the wealthiest. Only
governments can foot the bill for them.’
‘By governments you mean communities?’
‘In a way.’
‘Well, then, what are you going to treat yourself to when
your space-roaming days are over?’
‘I’m not like Big Ears here.’ Gleed jerked an
indicative thumb at Harrison. ‘I’m a trooper and not
a technician. So my choice will be limited by my lack of
qualifications.’ He scratched his head and looked wistful.
‘I was born and brought up on a farm. I still know a good
deal about farming. So I think I’d like to get a small one
of my own and settle down.’
‘Think you’ll manage to do it?’ asked Seth,
watching him intently.
‘On Falder or Hygeia or Norton’s Pink Heaven or some
other planet. But not on Terra. My savings won’t extend to
that. I couldn’t find half enough to meet Earth
‘Meaning you can’t pile up sufficient obs?’
‘I can’t,’ agreed Gleed lugubriously.
‘Not even if I save until I’ve got a white beard four
‘So that is Terra’s reward for a long, long spell of
faithful service — forego your heart’s desire or get
‘I won’t,’ said Seth. ‘Why do
you think four million Gands came here, Doukhobors and Naturists
to Hygeia, Quakers and others to all their selected haunts?
Because Terra’s reward for good citizenship has always been
a peremptory order to knuckle down or get out. So we got
The battleship’s caller-system bawled imperatively,
‘Fanshaw, Folsom, Fuller, Carson, Gleed, Gregory, Haines,
Harrison, Hope —’ and so on down through the
A steady trickle of men flowed along the passages, catwalks and
alleyways toward the forward chartroom. They gathered outside it
in small clusters, chattering in undertones and sending odd
scraps of conversation echoing down the corridor.
‘Wouldn’t say anything to us but, Myob! We
became sick and tired of it after a while.’
‘You should have split up, like we did. That show-place on
the outskirts just doesn’t know what a Terran looks like. I
walked in and took a seat with no trouble at all.’
‘If ten of you stick together, all in the same uniform, you
must expect to be identified on sight. That and your depraved
faces is a complete giveaway.’
‘Did you hear about Meakin? He mended a leaky roof, chose a
bottle of double-dith in payment and mopped the lot. He was dead
flat when we found him. Snoring like a hog. Had to be carried
‘Some guys have all the luck. We got the brush-off wherever
we showed our faces. Man, it was wearing.’
‘You should have separated, like I said.’
‘Half the mess must still be lying in the gutter —
they haven’t turned up yet.’
‘Grayder will be hopping mad. He’d have stopped this
morning’s second quota if he’d known in time.’
‘When my turn comes the technique will be to get down that
gangway and run like hell before they’ve a chance to call
‘Sammy, you’ll be mighty lucky if you get a
turn.’ Every now and again First Mate Morgan stuck his head
out of the chartroom doorway and yelled a name already voiced on
the caller. Frequently there was no response.
‘Harrison!’ he bawled.
With a puzzled expression, Harrison went inside. Captain Grayder
was there seated behind his desk and gazing moodily at a list
lying before him. Colonel Shelton was stiff and erect to one side
with Major Hame slightly behind. Both wore the pained look of
those tolerating a bad smell while a half-witted plumber searches
in vain for the leak.
In front of the desk the Ambassador was tramping steadily to and
fro, muttering deep down in his chins. ‘Barely five days
and already the rot has set in.’ He halted as Harrison
entered, fired off sharply, ‘So it’s you, Mister.
When did you return from leave?’
‘The evening before last, sir.’
‘Ahead of time, eh? That’s curious. Did you get a
puncture or something?’
‘No sir. I didn’t take my bicycle with me.’
‘Which is just as well,’ approved the Ambassador.
‘If you had done so you’d now be a thousand miles
away and still pushing hard.’
‘Why? He asks me why! That is precisely what I want to know
— why?’ He fumed a bit, then inquired,
‘Did you visit this town by yourself or in company?’
‘I went with Sergeant Gleed, sir.’
‘Call him,’ ordered the Ambassador, looking at
Opening the door, Morgan shouted, ‘Gleed! Gleed!’
He tried again, without result. Once more they put it over the
caller-system. The name resounded all over the ship from nose to
tail. Sergeant Gleed refused to be among those present.
‘Has he signed in?’
Grayder consulted his list. ‘Yes. In early. Twenty-four
hours ahead of time. He may have sneaked out again with the
second liberty quota this morning and omitted to put it in the
book. That’s a double crime.’
‘If he’s not on the ship he’s off the ship,
crime or no crime.’
‘Yes, Your Excellency.’ Grayder registered slight
‘GLEED!’ howled Morgan outside the door. A moment
later he poked his head within and said, ‘Your Excellency,
one of the men tells me that Sergeant Gleed cannot be aboard
because he saw him in town an hour ago.’
‘Send him in.’ The Ambassador made an impatient
gesture at Harrison. ‘Stay where you are, Mister, and keep
those confounded ears from flapping. I’ve not finished with
A tall, gangling grease-monkey came in, blinked around obviously
awed by the assembly of top brass.
‘What do you know about Sergeant Gleed?’ demanded the
The other nervously licked his lips, sorry that he had mentioned
the missing man. ‘It’s like this, your honour,
‘Call me sir.’
‘Yes, your honour.’ More disconcerted blinking.
‘I went out with the second party early this morning but
came back a short time ago because my stomach was acting up. On
the way here I saw Sergeant Gleed and spoke to him.’
‘In town, your honour, sir. He was sitting in one of those
big, long-distance coaches. I thought it a bit queer.’
‘Get down to the roots of it, man! What did he tell you, if
‘Not much, sir, your honour. He seemed pretty chipper about
something. Mentioned a young widow struggling to look after two
hundred acres. Someone had told him about her and he thought
he’d take a peek.’ He hesitated, backed off warily
and finished, ‘He also said that I’d see him in irons
‘One of your men,’ said the Ambassador to Shelton.
‘A hardened space-trooper, allegedly experienced, loyal and
well-disciplined. One with long service, three stripes and a
pension to lose.’ His attention returned to the informant.
‘Did he say exactly where he was going?’
‘No, sir, your ... uh. I asked him but he grinned like an
ape and said, Myob! So I came back to the ship.’
‘All right. You may go.’ The Ambassador watched the
other depart then continued with Harrison.
‘You were one of that first quota?’
‘Let me tell you something, Mister. Over four hundred men
went out. About two hundred have returned. Forty of those were in
various stages of alcoholic turpitude. Ten of them are locked in
the brig yelling, I won’t in steady chorus.
Doubtless they’ll continue to scream it until they’ve
He stared at Harrison as if holding that worthy personally
responsible for the mess, then went on, ‘There is something
paradoxical about this situation. I can understand the drunks.
There are always a few morons who blow their tops first day on
land. But of the two hundred who have condescended to come back
about half returned before time, the same as you did. Their
reasons were identical: the town was unfriendly, everyone treated
them like ghosts until they’d had enough.’
Harrison made no comment.
‘So we have two diametrically opposed reactions,’ the
Ambassador complained. ‘One lot of men say the place stinks
so much they’d far rather be back on the ship. Another lot
finds the town so hospitable that either they get filled to the
gills with some horrible muck called double-dith or they stay
sober and desert the service. I want an explanation. There has to
be one somewhere. You’ve been twice in this town. What can
you tell us?’
Carefully, Harrison said, ‘It all depends upon whether or
not one is immediately recognizable as a Terran. Also on whether
you happen to make contact with Gands who’d rather convert
you than give you the brush-off.’ He pondered a few
seconds, added, ‘Uniforms are a bad factor. The Gands seem
to hate the sight of them.’
‘You mean they’re allergic to uniforms?’
‘Any idea why?’
‘I couldn’t say for certain, sir. I don’t know
enough about them yet. As a guess, I think they may have been
taught to associate uniforms with the Terran regime from which
their ancestors escaped.’
‘Escaped? Nonsense!’ exclaimed the Ambassador.
‘They grabbed the benefit of Terran inventions, Terran
techniques, and Terran manufacturing ability to go someplace
where they’d have more elbow-room.’ He gave Harrison
the sour eye. ‘Don’t any of them wear
‘Not that I could recognize as such. They seem to take
pleasure in expressing their individual personalities by wearing
anything from pigtails to pink boots; oddity in attire is the
norm among the Gands. To them, uniformity is the real oddity
— they think it’s submissive and degrading.’
‘You refer to them as Gands. From where did they get that
Harrison told him, thinking back to Elissa and her explanation.
In his mind’s eye he could see her now. And Seth’s
place with its inviting tables and steam rising behind the
counter and mouth-watering smells oozing from the background. Now
that he came to visualize the scene again it appeared to embody a
subtle, elusive but essential something that the ship had never
‘And this person,’ he concluded, ‘invented what
they call The Weapon.’
‘H’m-m-m! And they say he was a Terran, eh? What did
he look like? Did you see a photograph or statue?’
‘They don’t erect statues, sir. They don’t
consider that any person is more important than any other.’
‘Bunkum!’ snapped the Ambassador, instinctively
rejecting that viewpoint. ‘Did it occur to you to gather
any revealing details about him or, at least, find out at what
period in history this wonderful weapon first appeared?’
‘No, sir,’ confessed Harrison. ‘I didn’t
think it important.’
‘You wouldn’t. Some of you men are too slow to catch
a Callistrian sloth wandering in its sleep. I don’t
criticize your abilities as spacemen but as intelligence-agents
you’re a dead loss.’
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ said Harrison.
Sorry? You louse! whispered something deep within his
own mind. Why should you be sorry? He’s only a pompous
fat man who couldn’t cancel an ob if he tried. He’s
no better than you. Those raw boys prancing around on Hygeia
would maintain that he’s not as good as you because
he’s got a pot-belly. Yet you keep staring at his pot-belly
and saying, ‘Sir’ and, ‘I’m sorry.’
If he tried to ride your bike he’d fall off before
he’d gone ten yards. He’s just another Terran freak.
Go spit in his eye and say, I
won’t!’ You’re not scared, are
‘No!’ announced Harrison, loudly and emphatically.
Captain Grayder glanced up in surprise. ‘If you’re
going to start answering questions before they’ve been
asked, you’d better see the medic. Or have we a telepath on
‘I was thinking,’ Harrison said.
‘I approve of that,’ put in the Ambassador. He lugged
a couple of huge tomes off the wall-shelves, began to thumb
rapidly through them. ‘Do plenty of thinking whenever
you’ve the chance and it will become a habit. It will get
easier and easier in time until eventually a day may come when it
can be performed without great pain.’
Shoving the books back, be pulled out two more, spoke to Major
Hame who happened to be at his elbow. ‘Don’t pose
there glassy-eyed like a relic propped up in a military museum.
Lend a hand with this mountain of knowledge. I want Gandhi,
anywhere from four hundred to a thousand Earth-years ago.’
Hame came to life, started dragging out books and searching
through them. So did Colonel Shelton. Grayder remained at his
deck and continued to mourn the missing.
‘Ah, here it is, nearly six hundred years back.’ The
Ambassador ran a plump finger along the printed lines.
‘Gandhi, sometimes called Bapu, or Father. Citizen of
Hindi. Politico-philosopher. Opposed authority by means of an
ingenious system called Civil Disobedience. Last
remnants disappeared with the Great Explosion but may still
persist on some planet out of contact.’
‘Evidently it does,’ commented Grayder dryly.
‘Civil disobedience,’ repeated the
Ambassador, screwing up his eyes. He had the air of trying to
study something turned upside-down and inside-out. ‘They
can’t make that a social basis. It just won’t
‘It does work,’ asserted Harrison, forgetting to put
in the sir.
‘Are you contradicting me, Mister?’
‘I’m stating a fact.’
‘Your Excellency,’ put in Grayder, ‘I suggest
‘Leave this to me.’ His colour deepening, the
Ambassador waved him away. His gaze remained angrily on Harrison.
‘You are very far from being an expert upon socio-economic
problems. Get that into your head, Mister. Anyone of your calibre
can be fooled by superficial appearances.’
‘It works,’ persisted Harrison, finding cause to
marvel at his own stubbornness.
‘So does your damnfool bicycle. You’ve a bicycle
mentality.’ Something snapped and a voice remarkably like
his own said, ‘Nuts!’ Astounded by this phenomenon,
Harrison waggled his ears.
‘What was that, Mister?’
‘Nuts!’ he repeated, feeling that what has been done
cannot be undone.
Beating the purpling Ambassador to the draw, Grayder stood up,
his expression severe, and exercized his own authority.
‘Regardless of further leave-quotas, if any, you are
confined to the ship. Now get out!’
Harrison departed, his mind in a whirl but his soul strangely
satisfied. Outside, First Mate Morgan glowered at him.
‘How long d’you think it’s going to take me to
work through this list of names when guys like you squat in there
for a week?’ He grunted with ire, cupped hands around his
mouth and bellowed, ‘Hope! Hope!’
‘Hope’s been abandoned,’ informed Trooper
Kinvig. ‘That’s really funny,’ sneered Morgan.
‘Look at me rolling all over the deck.’ He cupped
hands again and tried the next name. ‘Hyland!
Four more days, long, tedious, dragging ones. That made nine in
all since the battleship formed the rut in which it was still
There was trouble on board. Put off repeatedly, the third and
fourth leave-quotas were becoming impatient, irritable.
‘Morgan showed him the third roster again this morning.
Same result. Grayder was forced to admit that this world cannot
be defined as hostile and that we’re legally entitled to
‘Well, why the blazes doesn’t he keep to the book?
The Space Committee could crucify him for ignoring it.’
‘Same excuse. He says he’s not denying leave,
he’s merely postponing it. That’s a crafty evasion,
isn’t it? He says he’ll allow us to go out
immediately the missing men come back.’
‘That might be never. Darn him, he’s using them as a
pretext to gyp me out of my liberty.’
It was a powerful and legitimate complaint. Weeks, months, years
of close confinement in a constantly vibrating metal bottle, no
matter how big and comfortable, demands ultimate release. Men
need fresh air, the good earth, the broad, clear-cut horizon,
bulk-food, feminine companionship, new faces.
‘He would ram home the stopper just when we’ve
learned the best way to get around. Civilian clothes and behave
like Gands, that’s the secret. Even the first-quota boys
are ready for another try.’
‘Grayder daren’t take the risk. He’s lost too
many men already. One more quota cut in half and he won’t
have sufficient crew to lift the ship and take it home.
We’d be stuck here for keeps. How’d you like that,
‘I wouldn’t grieve.’
‘He could train the bureaucrats to run the ship. It’s
high time those myopic bums did some honest work.’
‘That would take three years. Your training lasted three
years, didn’t it?’
Harrison came along holding a small envelope. Three of them
picked on him at sight.
‘Look who sauced His Loftiness and got confined to ship
— same as us.’
‘That’s what I like about it,’ observed
Harrison. ‘Better to be fastened down for something than
‘It won’t be for much longer, you’ll see!
We’re not going to hang around bellyaching for ever. Mighty
soon we’ll do something.’
‘Such as what?’
‘We’re thinking it over,’ evaded the other, not
liking to be taken up so quickly. He noticed the envelope.
‘What’s that you’ve got there? — the
‘Exactly that,’ Harrison agreed.
‘Have it your own way. I wasn’t being nosey. I
thought perhaps you’d got some more written orders. You
engineers usually pick up the paper-stuff first.’
‘It is mail,’ said Harrison.
‘Don’t be daft. Nobody receives letters in this part
of the cosmos.’
‘Well, how did you get that one?’
‘Worrall brought it in from town a few minutes ago. A
friend of mine gave him dinner and let him bring the letter to
wipe out the ob.’ He pulled a large ear and smirked at
them. ‘Influence, that’s what you boys need.’
Showing annoyance, one demanded, ‘What’s Worrall
doing off the boat? Is he privileged?’
‘In a way. He’s married and has three kids.’
‘The Ambassador figures that some people can be trusted
more than others. They’re not as likely to disappear,
having too much to lose. So a few have been sorted out and sent
into town to seek information about the missing ones.’
‘Have they found out anything?’
‘Not much. Worrall says the quest is sheer waste of time.
He traced a few of our men here and there, tried to persuade them
to return but each said, I won’t. The Gands all
said, Myob! And that was that.’
‘There must be something in this Gand business,’ said
one of them thoughtfully. ‘I’d give a lot to look
into it for myself.’
‘That’s what Grayder is afraid of.’
‘We’ll give him more than that to worry about if he
doesn’t become reasonable pretty soon. Our patience is
‘Mutinous talk,’ Harrison reproved. He shook his head
and displayed great sorrow. ‘You fellows shock me.’
Continuing along the corridor, he reached his tiny cabin,
fingered the envelope in pleased anticipation. The writing inside
might be feminine. He hoped so. Tearing it open, he had a look.
Signed by Gleed, the missive said, ‘Never mind where I am
or what I’m doing — this note might get into the
wrong hands. All I’ll tell you is that I expect to be fixed
up topnotch providing I wait a decent interval to improve
acquaintance. The rest of this directly concerns you.’
‘Huh?’ He lay back on his bunk and held the letter
nearer the light. ‘I found a little fat guy running an
empty shop. He does nothing but sit there waiting. Next, I
learned that he has established possession by occupation of the
premises. He’s doing it on behalf of a factory that makes
two-ball rollers, you know, those fan-driven motor-bikes. They
want someone to operate the place as a local roller sales and
service depot. The little fat man has had four applications to
date but none from anyone with engineering ability and
experience. The one who eventually gains this post will thereby
plant a functional ob on the town, whatever that means. Anyway,
this lovely business proposition is measured to your size.
It’s yours for the taking. Don’t be freaky, freak.
Jump in with me — the water’s fine!’
‘Zipping meteors!’ said Harrison. His eyes moved on
to the footnote at bottom.
‘P.S. Seth will give you the address. P.P.S. This place
where I am right now is your brunette’s home town and
she’s thinking of coming back. She wants to live near her
sister. So do I, man! The said sister is a honey!’
Stirring restlessly, he read it through a second time and a
third, got up and paced around the cabin.
There were sixteen hundred occupied worlds within the scope of
the Terran Empire. He’d seen less than one-twentieth of
them. No spaceman could live long enough to visit the lot. The
service was divided into cosmic groups each dealing with its own
relatively small section of the galaxy.
Except by hearsay — of which there was plenty and most of
it highly coloured — he would never know what heavens or
pseudo-heavens existed in the other sections. In any case, it
would be a blind gamble to pick on an unfamiliar world for
landbound life solely on somebody else’s recommendation.
Not all think alike or have the same tastes. One man’s meat
may be another’s poison.
The choice for retirement — which was the ugly name for
beginning another, different but vigorous life — was
high-priced Terra or some more desirable planet in his own
section. There was the Epsilon group, for instance, fourteen of
them, all attractive providing you could suffer the gravity and
endure lumbering around like a tired elephant. And there was
Norton’s Pink Paradise if, for the sake of getting by in
peace, you could pander to Septimus Norton’s rajah-complex
and put up with his delusions of grandeur.
Out near the edge of the Milky Way was a matriarchy bossed by
blonde Amazons, and a world of self-styled wizards, and a
Pentecostal planet, and a globe where semi-sentient vegetables
cultivated themselves in obedience to human masters. All these
scattered across many light-years of space but readily accessible
There were more than fifty known to him by personal experience,
though only a tithe of the whole. All offered life and that human
company which is the essence of life. But this world of the Gands
had something all the others lacked; it had the quality of being
present, in the here and now. It was part of the existing
environment from which he drew data on which to build his
decisions. The others were not. They lost virtue by being absent
and far away.
Quietly he made his way to the Blieder-room lockers, spent an
hour cleaning and oiling his bicycle. Twilight was approaching
when he returned. Taking a thin plaque from his pocket, he hung
it on the wall, lay on his bunk and contemplated it.
F. — I.W.
The caller-system clicked, cleared its throat and announced,
‘All personnel will stand by for general instructions at
eight hours tomorrow.’
‘I won’t,’ said Harrison, and closed
It was seven-twenty in the morning but nobody thought it early.
There is little sense of earliness or lateness among
space-roamers; to regain it they have to be landbound a month,
watching a sun rise and set.
The chartroom was empty but there was considerable activity in
the control-cabin. Grayder was there with Shelton and Hame, also
Chief Navigators Adamson, Werth and Yates, and, of course, His
‘I never thought the day would come,’ groused the
latter, scowling at the star-map over which the navigators pored.
‘Less than a couple of weeks and we retreat, admitting
‘With all respect, Your Excellency, it doesn’t look
like that to me,’ said Grayder. ‘One can be defeated
only by avowed enemies. These people are not enemies. That is
where, they’ve got us by the short hairs. They’re not
definable as hostile.’
‘That may be. I still say it’s defeat. What else can
you call it?’
‘We’ve been outwitted by awkward relatives.
There’s nothing we can do about it. A man doesn’t
beat up his nephews and nieces merely because they refuse to
speak to him.’
‘That is your viewpoint as a ship’s commander. You
have been confronted with a situation that requires you to return
to base and report. It’s routine. The entire space service
is hidebound with routine.’ The Ambassador again eyed the
star map as if he considered it offensive. ‘My own status
is different. If I get out without so much as leaving a consul,
it’s diplomatic defeat, an insult to the dignity and
prestige of Terra. I’m far from sure that I ought to go. It
might be better if I stayed put even though circumstances would
prevent me from functioning effectively and even though my
presence would give these Gands endless opportunities for further
‘I wouldn’t presume to advise you what to do for the
best,’ Grayder said. ‘All I know is this: we carry
troops and armaments for any protective or policing purposes that
might be necessary here. But we cannot use them offensively
against the Gands because they have provided no real excuse for
doing so, also because we cannot influence a government that
doesn’t exist, and also because our full strength
isn’t enough to crush a population numbering many millions.
We’d need an armada to make an impression upon this world.
Even then we’d be fighting at the extreme limit of our
reach and the reward of victory would be an area of destruction
not worth having.’
‘Don’t remind me. I have examined the problem from
every angle until I’m sick of it.’
Grayder shrugged. He was a man of action so long as it was action
in deep space. Planetary shenanigans were not properly his
responsibility. Now that the decisive moment was drawing near,
when he would be back in his own attenuated element, he was
becoming phlegmatic. To him, the Gand world was a visiting-place
among a big number of them. And there were plenty more to come.
‘Your Excellency, if you’re in serious doubt about
remaining here or returning with us, I’d appreciate it if
you’d reach a decision fairly soon. First Mate Morgan has
given me the tip that if I haven’t approved the third
leave-quota by ten o’clock the men intend to take matters
into their own hands and walk out.’
‘That kind of conduct would get them into trouble of a
really hot kind, wouldn’t it?’
‘I don’t know, really I just don’t know,’
‘You mean they can actually defy you and get away with
‘Their idea is to turn my own quibbling against me. Since
I’ve said repeatedly that I’m not officially
forbidding leave, a walk-out cannot be construed as mutiny. As
you know, Your Excellency, I have been postponing leave.
Therefore the men could plead before the Space Committee that I
have ignored regulations. It is quite possible that the plea
might succeed if the Space Committee happened to be in the mood
to assert its authority.’
‘The Space Committee ought to be taken on a few long
flights,’ opined the Ambassador. ‘They’d
discover a lot of things they’ll never learn behind a
desk.’ He became mockingly hopeful. ‘How about us
accidentally dropping our cargo of bureaucrats overboard on the
way home? Such a misfortune should benefit the spaceways if not
humanity in general.’
‘The suggestion strikes me as Gandish,’ said Grayder.
‘The Gands wouldn’t think of it. Their one and only
technique is to say no, no, a thousand times no.
That’s all. But to judge by what has happened here it is
more than enough.’
Morosely, the Ambassador pondered his predicament decided,
‘I’m coming with you. It goes against the grain
because it smacks of abject surrender. To stay would be a defiant
gesture but I have to face the fact that it wouldn’t serve
any useful purpose at the present stage.’
‘Would you like us to return you to Hygeia?’
‘No. The consul there is welcome to that crowd of nakes.
Besides, I think I should give Terra the benefit of my personal
report about this trip.’
‘Very well, Your Excellency.’ Going to a port,
Grayder looked through it toward the town. ‘We have lost
approximately four hundred men. Some of them have deserted for
keeps. The others will return in their own good time and if I
wait long enough. The latter have struck lucky, got their legs
under somebody’s table and are likely to extend their leave
for as long as the fun lasts. They’ll come back when it
suits them, thinking they may as well be hung for sheep as for
lambs. I have that sort of trouble on every long trip. It
isn’t so bad on the short ones.’ Moodily he surveyed
a terrain bare of returning prodigals. ‘But we dare not
wait for them. Not here.’
‘No, I reckon not.’
‘If we hang around much longer we’re going to lose
another two hundred. There won’t be enough skilled men to
take the boat up. The only way in which I can beat them to the
draw is to give the order to prepare for take-off. They’ll
all come under flight regulations from that moment.’ He put
on a pained smile. ‘That will give the space-lawyers among
them plenty to think about.’
‘All right, make the order as soon as you like,’
approved the Ambassador. He joined the other at the port, studied
the distant road, watched three Gand coaches whirl along it
without stopping. He frowned, still upset by the type of mind
which insists on pretending that a metal mountain is not there.
Then his attention turned aside toward the tail-end. ‘What
are those men doing outside?’
Shooting a swift glance in the same direction, Grayder grabbed
the caller-microphone and rapped, ‘All personnel will
prepare for take-off at once!’ Then he seized his intercom
phone and spoke on that. ‘Who’s there? Sergeant Major
Bidworthy? Look, Sergeant Major, there are half a dozen men
loafing outside the midway lock. Order them in immediately
— we’re lifting as soon as everything is
By now the fore and aft gangways had been rolled into their
stowage spaces. The midway one swiftly followed. Some
fast-thinking quartermaster prevented further escapes by
operating the midship ladder-wind, thus trapping Bidworthy along
with an unknown number of would-be sinners.
Finding himself stalled by the fifty-foot drop, Bidworthy stood
in the rim of the airlock and glared at those outside. His
moustache not only bristled, but quivered. Five of the objects of
his fierce attention had been members of the first leave-quota.
One of them was Trooper Casartelli. That got Bidworthy’s
rag out, a trooper. The sixth was Harrison, complete with bicycle
polished and shining.
Searing the lot of them, especially the trooper, Bidworthy
grated, ‘Get back on board. No funny business. We’re
about to go up.’
‘Hear that Mortimer?’ asked one, nudging the nearest.
‘Get back on board. If you can’t jump fifty feet
you’d better flap your arms and fly.’
‘No sauce from you,’ roared Bidworthy. ‘I have
‘Ye gods, he actually takes orders! At his age!’
Bidworthy scrabbled at the lock’s smooth rim in vain search
of something to grasp. A ridge, a knob, any kind of projection
was needed to help take the strain.
‘I warn you men that if you try me too —’
‘Save your breath, Rufus,’ put in Casartelli.
‘From now on I’m a Gand.’ With that, he turned
away and walked rapidly toward the road. Four followed him.
Getting astride his bike, Harrison put a foot on the pedal. His
back tyre promptly sank with a loud whee-e-e.
‘Come back!’ howled Bidworthy at the retreating five.
‘Come back!’ He made extravagant motions, tried to
tear the ladder from its automatic grips. A siren keened thinly
inside the vessel and that upped his agitation by several ergs.
‘Hear that?’ His expression murderous, he watched
Harrison calmly tighten the rear valve and apply a hand-pump.
‘We’re about to lift. For the last time
Again the siren, this time in a rapid series of shrill toots.
Bidworthy jumped backward as the airlock seal came down. The lock
closed. Harrison again mounted his machine, settled a foot on a
pedal but remained watching.
The metal monster shivered from nose to tail then arose slowly
and in complete silence. There was stately magnificence in this
ascent of such enormous bulk. The ship gradually increased its
rate of climb, went faster, faster, became a toy, a dot, and
For a brief moment Harrison felt a touch of doubt, a hint of
regret. It soon passed away. He glanced toward the road.
The five self-elected Gands had thumbed a coach which was now
picking them up. That was helpfulness apparently precipitated by
the ship’s vanishing. Quick on the uptake, these people. He
saw it move off on huge rubber balls bearing the five with it. A
fan-cycle raced in the opposite direction, hummed into the
‘Your brunette,’ was how Gleed had described her.
What had given him that idea? Had she made some remark that
he’d construed as complimentary because it had contained no
reference to outsize ears?
He had a last look around. The earth bore a great curved rut one
mile long by ten feet deep. Two thousand Terrans had been there.
Then about eighteen hundred.
Then sixteen hundred.
‘One left’, he said to himself. ‘Me.’
Giving a fatalistic shrug, he put on the pressure and rode to
And then there were none.