The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iv Part 49

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"Take a look at that!" he demanded.

Norris took the stone, glanced at it and laid it down on his desk. His face was emotionless. "I expected this sooner or later," he said. "Yes, it's Indurate all right. Is that what you want me to say?"

There was a dangerous fanatical glint in Mason's eyes now. With a sudden quick motion he pulled out his heat pistol.

"So you tricked us!" he snarled. "Why? I want to know why."

I stepped forward and seized Mason's gun hand. "Don't be a fool," I said. "It can't be that important."



Mason threw back his head and burst into an hysterical peal of laughter. "Important!" he cried. "Tell him how important it is, Norris. Tell him."

Quietly the Navigator filled and lighted his pipe. "I'm afraid Mason is right," he said. "I did trick you. Not purposely, however. And in the beginning I had no intention of telling anything but the truth. Actually we're here because of a dead man's vengeance."

Norris took his pipe from his lips and stared at it absently.

"You'll remember that Ganeth-Klae, the Martian, and I worked together to invent Indurate. But whereas I was interested in the commercial aspects of that product, Klae was absorbed only in the experimental angle of it. He had some crazy idea that it should not be given to the general public at once, but rather should be allocated for the first few years to a select group of scientific organizations. You see, Indurate was such a departure from all known materials that Ganeth-Klae feared it would be utilized for military purposes.

"I took him for a dreamer and a fool. Actually he was neither. How was I to know that his keen penetrating brain had seen through my motive to get control of all commercial marketing of Indurate? I had laid my plans carefully, and I had expected to reap a nice harvest. Klae must have been aware of my innermost thoughts, but Martian-like he said nothing."

Norris paused to wet his lips and lean against the desk. "I didn't kill Ganeth-Klae," he continued, "though I suppose in a court of law I would be judged responsible for his death. The manufacture of Indurate required some ticklish work. As you know, we produced our halves of the formula separately. Physical contact with my half over a long period of time would prove fatal, I knew, and I simply neglected to so inform Ganeth-Klae.

"But his ultimate death was a boomerang. With Klae gone, I could find no trace of his half of the formula. I was almost beside myself for a time. Then I thought of something. Klae had once said that the secret of his half of the formula lay in himself. A vague statement, to say the least. But I took the words at their face value and gambled that he meant them literally; that is, that his body itself contained the formula.

"I tried everything: X-ray, chemical a.n.a.lysis of the skin. I even removed the cranial cap and examined the brain microscopically. All without result. Meanwhile the police were beginning to direct their suspicions toward me in the matter of Klae's disappearance.

"You know the rest. It was necessary that I leave Earth at once and go beyond our system, beyond the jurisdiction of the planetary police. So I arranged this voyage with a sufficient complement of pa.s.sengers to lessen the danger and hards.h.i.+p of a new life on a new world. I was still positive, however, that Klae's secret lay in his dead body. I took that body along, encased in the Martian preservative, solidifex.

"It was my idea that I could continue my examination once we were safe on a strange planet But I had reckoned without Ganeth-Klae."

"What do you mean?" I said slowly.

"I said Klae was no fool. But I didn't know that with Martian stoicism he suspected the worst and took his own ironic means of combating it. He used the last lot of Indurate to make that booster, a device which he said would increase our take-off speed. He mounted it on the Marie Galante.

"Mason, that device was no booster. It was a time machine, so devised as to catapult the s.h.i.+p not into outer s.p.a.ce, but into the s.p.a.ce-time continuum. It was a mechanism designed to throw the Marie Galante forward into the future."

A cloud of fear began to well over me. "What do you mean?" I said again.

Navigator Norris paced around his desk. "I mean that the Marie Galante has not once left Earth, has not in fact left the spot of its moorings but has merely gone forward in time. I mean that the nine 'landings' we made were not stops on some other planets but halting stages of a journey into the future."

Had a bombsh.e.l.l burst over my head the effect could have been no greater. Cold perspiration began to ooze out on my forehead. In a flash I saw the significance of the entire situation. That was why Norris had been so insistent that we always return to the s.h.i.+p before dark. He didn't want us to see the night sky and the constellations there for fear we would guess the truth. That was why he had never permitted any of us in the bridge cuddy and why he had kept all ports and observation s.h.i.+elds closed.

"But the names of the planets ... Coulora, Stragella, and the others and their positions on the chart...?" I objected.

Norris smiled grimly. "All words created out of my imagination. Like the rest of you, I knew nothing of the true action of the booster. It was only gradually that truth dawned on me. But by the time we had made our first 'landing' I had guessed. That was why I demanded we always take organic surveyor readings. I knew we had traveled far into future time, far beyond the life period of man on Earth. But I wasn't sure how far we had gone, and I lived with the hope that Klae's booster might reverse itself and start carrying us backwards down the centuries."

For a long time I stood there in silence, a thousand mad speculations racing through my mind.

"How about that piece of Indurate?" I said at length. "It was chipped off an image in the ruins of a great building a mile or so from here."

"An image?" repeated Norris. A faint glow of interest slowly rose in his eyes. Then it died. "I don't know," he said. "It would seem to presuppose that the formula, both parts of it, was known by Klae and that he left it for posterity to discover."

All this time Mason had been standing there, eyes smouldering, lips an ugly line. Now abruptly he took a step forward.

"I've wanted to return this for a long time," he said.

He doubled back his arm and brought his fist smas.h.i.+ng onto Norris' jaw. The Navigator's head snapped backward; he gave a low groan and slumped to the floor.

And that is where, by all logic, this tale should end. But, as you may have guessed, there is an anticlimax--what story-tellers call a happy conclusion.

Mason, Brandt, and I worked, and worked alone, on the theory that the secret of the Indurate formula would be the answer to our return down the time trail. We removed the body of Ganeth-Klae from its solidifex envelope and treated it with every chemical process we knew. By sheer luck the fortieth trial worked. A paste of carbo-genethon mixed with the crushed seeds of the Martian iron-flower was spread over Klae's chest and abdomen.

And there, in easily decipherable code, was not only the formula, but the working principles of the s.h.i.+p's booster--or rather, time-catapult. After that, it was a simple matter to reverse the principle and throw us backward in the time stream.

We are heading back as I write these lines. If they reach print and you read them, it will mean our escape was successful and that we returned to our proper slot in the epilogue of human events.

There remains, however, one matter to trouble me. Navigator Norris. I like the man. I like him tremendously, in spite of his cold-blooded confession, and past record. He must be punished, of course. But I, for one, would hate to see him given the death penalty. It is a serious problem.

Contents

THE MAN WHO PLAYED TO LOSE.

By Laurence Mark Janifer

Sometimes the very best thing you can do is to lose. The cholera germ, for instance, asks nothing better than that it be swallowed alive....

When I came into the control room the Captain looked up from a set of charts at me. He stood up and gave me a salute and I returned it, not making a ceremony out of it. "Half an hour to landing, sir," he said.

That irritated me. It always irritates me. "I'm not an officer," I said. "I'm not even an enlisted man."

He nodded, too quickly. "Yes, Mr. Carboy," he said. "Sorry."

I sighed. "If you want to salute," I told him, "if it makes you happier to salute, you go right ahead. But don't call me 'Sir.' That would make me an officer, and I wouldn't like being an officer. I've met too many of them."

It didn't make him angry. He wasn't anything except subservient and awed and anxious to please. "Yes, Mr. Carboy," he said.

I searched in my pockets for a cigarette and found a cup of them and stuck one into my mouth. The Captain was right there with a light, so I took it from him. Then I offered him a cigarette. He thanked me as if it had been a full set of Crown Jewels.

What difference did it make whether or not he called me "Sir"? I was still G.o.d to him, and there wasn't much I could do about it.

"Did you want something, Mr. Carboy?" he asked me, puffing on the cigarette.

I nodded. "Now that we're getting close," I told him, "I want to know as much about the place as possible. I've had a full hypno, but a hypno's only as good as the facts in it, and the facts that reach Earth may be exaggerated, modified, distorted or even out of date."

"Yes, Mr. Carboy," he said eagerly. I wondered if, when he was through with the cigarette, he would keep the b.u.t.t as a souvenir. He might even frame it, I told myself. After all, I'd given it to him, hadn't I? The magnificent Mr. Carboy, who almost acts like an ordinary human being, had actually given a poor, respectful s.p.a.ces.h.i.+p Captain a cigarette.

It made me want to b.u.t.t holes in the bulkheads. Not that I hadn't had time to get used to the treatment; every man in my corps gets a full dose of awe and respect from the services, from Government officials and even from the United Cabinets. The only reason we don't get it from the man in the street is that the man in the street--unless he happens to be a very special man in a very unusual street--doesn't know the corps exists. Which is a definite relief, by the way; at least, off the job, I'm no more than Ephraim Carboy, citizen.

I took a puff on my cigarette, and the Captain followed suit, very respectfully. I felt like screaming at him but I kept my voice polite. "The war's definitely over, isn't it?" I said.

He shrugged. "That depends, Mr. Carboy," he said. "The armies have surrendered, and the treaty's been signed. That happened even before we left Earth--three or four weeks ago. But whether you could say the war was over ... well, Mr Carboy, that depends."

"Guerrillas," I said.

He nodded. "Wohlen's a jungle world, mostly," he said. "Sixty per cent water, of course, but outside of that there are a few cities, two s.p.a.ceports, and the rest--eighty or ninety per cent of the land area--nothing but jungle. A few roads running from city to city, but that's all."

"Of course," I said. He was being careful and accurate. I wondered what he thought I'd do if I caught him in a mistake. Make a magic pa.s.s and explode him like a bomb, probably. I took in some more smoke, wondering whether the Captain thought I had psi powers--which, of course, I didn't; no need for them in my work--and musing sourly on how long it would take before the job was done and I was on my way back home.

Then again, I told myself, there was always the chance of getting killed. And in the mood I found myself, the idea of a peaceful, unrespectful death was very pleasant.

For a second or two, anyhow.

"The Government holds the cities," the Captain was saying, "and essential trade services--s.p.a.ceports, that sort of thing. But a small band of men can last for a long time out there in the wilds."

"Living off the country," I said.

He nodded again. "Wohlen's nine-nines Earth normals," he said. "But you know that already."

"I know all of this," I said. "I'm just trying to update it a little, if I can."

"Oh," he said. "Oh, certainly, S ... uh ... Mr. Carboy."

I sighed and puffed on the cigarette and waited for him to go on. After all, what else was there to do?

For a wonder, the hypno had been just about accurate. That was helpful; if I'd heard some new and surprising facts from the Captain it would have thrown all the other information I had into doubt. Now I could be pretty sure of what I was getting into.

By the time we landed, the Captain was through and I was running over the main points in my head, for a last-minute check.

Wohlen, settled in the eighty-fifth year of the Explosion, had established a Parliamentary form of government, set up generally along the usual model: bicameral, elective and pretty slow. Trade relations with Earth and with the six other inhabited planets had been set up as rapidly as possible, and Wohlen had become a full member of the Comity within thirty years.

Matters had then rolled along with comparative smoothness for some time. But some sort of explosion was inevitable--it always happens--and, very recently, that nice Parliamentary government had blown up in everybody's face.

The setup seemed to be reminiscent of something, but it was a little while before I got it: the ancient South American states, in the pre-s.p.a.ce days, before the United Cabinets managed to unify Earth once and for all. There'd been an election on Wohlen and the loser hadn't bowed gracefully out of the picture to set up a Loyal Opposition. Instead, he'd gone back on his hind legs, accused the winner of all sorts of horrible things--some of which, for all I knew, might even be true--and had declared Wohlen's independence of the Comity. Which meant, in effect, independence from all forms of interplanetary law.

Of course, he had no right to make a proclamation of any sort. But he'd made it, and he was going to get the right to enforce it. That was how William F. Sergeant's army was formed; Sergeant, still making proclamations, gathered a good-sized group of men and marched on the capital, New Didymus. The established government countered with and army of its own, and for eight months, neither side could gain a really decisive advantage.

Then the Government forces, rallying after a minor defeat near a place known as Andrew's Farm, defeated an attacking force, captured Sergeant and two of his top generals, and just kept going from there. The treaty was signed within eight days.

Unfortunately, some of Sergeant's supporters had been hunters and woodsmen-- Ordinarily, a guerrilla movement, if it doesn't grind to a halt of its own accord, can be stopped within a few weeks. Where a world is mostly cities, small towns, and so forth, and only a little jungle, the bands can be bottled up and destroyed. And most guerrillas aren't very experienced in their work; a small band of men lost in the woods can't do much damage.

But a small group of woodsmen, on a planet that consists mostly of jungle, is another matter. Those men knew the ground, were capable of living off the country with a minimum of effort, and knew just where to strike to tie up roads and transportation, halt essential on-planet services and, in general, raise merry h.e.l.l with a planet's economy.

So the Wohlen government called Earth and the United Cabinets started hunting. Of course they came up with our corps--the troubleshooters, the unorthodox boys, the Holy Idols. And the corps fished around and came up with me.

I didn't really mind: a vacation tends to get boring after a week or two anyhow. I've got no family ties I care to keep up, and few enough close friends. Most of us are like that; I imagine it's in the nature of the job.

It was a relief to get back into action, even if it meant putting up with the kowtowing I always got.

When I stepped out onto the s.p.a.ceport grounds, as a matter of fact, I was feeling pretty good. It took just ten seconds for that to change.

The President himself was waiting, as close to the pits as he could get. He was a chubby, red-faced little man, and he beamed at me as if he were Santa Claus. "Mr. Carboy," he said in a voice that needed roughage badly. "I'm so glad you're here. I'm sure you'll be able to do something about the situation."

"I'll try," I said, feeling foolish. This was no place for a conversation--especially not with the head of the Government.

"Oh, I'm sure you'll succeed," he told me brightly. "After all, Mr. Carboy, we've heard of your ... ah ... group. Oh, yes. Your fame is ... ah ... universal."

"Sure," I said. "I'll do my best. But the less I'm seen talking to you, the better."

"Nevertheless," he said. "If we need to meet--"

"If we do," I said, "there's a set of signals in the daily papers. Your Intelligence should know all about that, Mr. President."

"Ah," he said. "Of course. Certainly. Well, Mr. Carboy, I do want to tell you how glad I am--"

"So am I," I said. "Good-by."

The trouble with the democratic process is that a group of people picked at random can elect some silly leaders. That's been happening ever since ancient Greece, I imagine, and it'll go on happening. It may not be fatal, but it's annoying.

My job, for instance, was to prop up this foolish little man. I had to work against a group of guerrillas who were even more democratic, from all I'd heard, and who seemed to have a great deal of common, ordinary brains. Of course, I wasn't doing it for the President--it was for the Comity as a whole, and it needed to be done.

But I can't honestly say that that made me feel any better about the job.

I was driven out of the city right after I'd packed up my supplies--two days' food and water in a rude knapsack, a call-radio and some other special devices I didn't think I was going to need. But, I told myself, you never know ... there was even a suicide device, just in case. I packed it away and forgot about it.

The city was an oasis in the middle of jungle, with white clean buildings and static-cleaned streets and walks. It didn't seem to have a park, but, then, it didn't need one. There was plenty of park outside.

The beautiful street became a poor one half a mile out of the city, and degenerated into a rough trail for ground vehicles soon after that. "How many people are there on this planet?" I asked my driver.

He never took his eyes from the road. "Two and a half million, last census," he said, with great respect.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iv Part 49

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