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Opis ebooka Search the Sky - Frederik Pohl

Something Was Very Wrong, Out There Among The Stars...The interstellar transport had touched down on six other colony worlds - and all six had been devoid of human life. Where was everybody? It was almost as if humankind, when separated by cosmic distances from Mother Earth, could not survive.

Opinie o ebooku Search the Sky - Frederik Pohl

Fragment ebooka Search the Sky - Frederik Pohl

SEARCH THE SKY

Frederik Pohl

JOVIAN PRESS

Thank you for reading. If you enjoy this book, please leave a review.

All rights reserved. Aside from brief quotations for media coverage and reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced or distributed in any form without the author’s permission. Thank you for supporting authors and a diverse, creative culture by purchasing this book and complying with copyright laws.

Copyright © 2016 by Frederik Pohl

Published by Jovian Press

Interior design by Pronoun

Distribution by Pronoun

ISBN: 9781537806723

TABLE OF CONTENTS

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..... 1

~

DECAY.

Ross stood on the traders’ ramp, overlooking the Yards, and the word kept bobbing to the top of his mind.

Decay.

About all of Halsey’s Planet there was the imperceptible reek of decay. The clean, big, bustling, efficient spaceport only made the sensation stronger. From where he stood on the height of the Ramp, he could see the Yards, the spires of Halsey City ten kilometers away—and the tumble-down gray acres of Ghost Town between.

Ross wrinkled his nose. He wasn’t a man given to brooding, but the scent of decay had saturated his nostrils that morning. He had tossed and turned all the night, wrestling with a decision. And he had got up early, so early that the only thing that made sense was to walk to work.

And that meant walking through Ghost Town. He hadn’t done that in a long time, not since childhood. Ghost Town was a wonderful place to play. “Tag,” “Follow My Fuehrer,” “Senators and President”—all the ancient games took on new life when you could dodge and turn among crumbling ruins, dart down unmarked lanes, gallop through sagging shacks where you might stir out a screeching, unexpected recluse.

But it was clear that—in the fifteen years between childhood games and a troubled man’s walk to work—Ghost Town had grown.

Everybody knew that! Ask the right specialists, and they’d tell you how much and how fast. An acre a year, a street a month, a block a week, the specialists would twinkle at you, convinced that the acre, street, block was under control, since they could measure it.

Ask the right specialists and they would tell you why it was happening. One answer per specialist, with an ironclad guarantee that there would be no overlapping of replies. “A purely psychological phenomenon, Mr. Ross. A vibration of the pendulum toward greater municipal compactness, a huddling, a mature recognition of the facts of interdependence, basically a step forward....”

“A purely biological phenomenon, Mr. Ross. Falling birth rate due to biochemical deficiency of trace elements processed out of our planetary diet. Fortunately the situation has been recognized in time and my bill before the Chamber will provide....”

“A purely technological problem, Mr. Ross. Maintenance of a sprawling city is inevitably less efficient than that of a compact unit. Inevitably there has been a drift back to the central areas and the convenience of air-conditioned walkways, winterized plazas....”

Yes. It was a purely psychological-biological-technological-educational-demographic problem, and it was basically a step forward.

Ross wondered how many Ghost Towns lay corpselike on the surface of Halsey’s Planet. Decay, he thought. Decay.

But it had nothing to do with his problem, the problem that had kept him awake all the night, the problem that blighted the view before him now.

The trading bell clanged. The day’s work began.

For Ross it might be his last day’s work at the Yards.

He walked slowly from the ramp to the offices of the Oldham Trading Corporation. “Morning, Ross boy,” his breezy young boss greeted him. Charles Oldham IV’s father had always taken a paternal attitude toward his help, and Charles Oldham IV was not going to change anything that Daddy had done. He shook Ross’s hand at the door of the suite and apologized because they hadn’t been able to find a new secretary for him yet. They’d been looking for two weeks, but the three applicants they had been able to dredge up had all been hopeless. “It’s the damn Chamber,” said Charles Oldham IV, winsomely gesturing with his hands to show how helpless men of affairs were against the blundering interference of Government. “Damn labor shortage is nothing but a damn artificial scarcity crisis. Daddy saw it; he knew it was coming.”

Ross almost told him he was quitting, but held back. Maybe it was because he didn’t want to spoil Oldham’s day with bad news, right on top of the opening bell. Or maybe it was because, in spite of a sleepless night, he still wasn’t quite sure.

The morning’s work helped him to become sure. It was the same monotonous grind.

Three freighters had arrived at dawn from Halsey’s third moon, but none of them was any affair of his. There was an export shipment of jewelry and watches to be attended to, but the ship was not to take off for another week. It scarcely classified as urgent. Ross worked on the manifests for a couple of hours, stared through his window for an hour, and then it was time for lunch.

Little Marconi hailed him as he passed through the traders’ lounge.

Of all the juniors on the Exchange, Marconi was the one Ross found easiest to take. He was lean and dark where Ross was solid and fair; worse, he stood four ranks above Ross in seniority. But, since Ross worked for Oldham, and Marconi worked for Haarland’s, the difference could be waived in social intercourse.

Ross suspected that, to Marconi as to him, trading was only a job—a dull one, and not a crusade. And he knew that Marconi’s reading was not confined to bills of lading. “Lunch?” asked Marconi. “Sure,” Ross said. And he knew he’d probably spill his secret to the little man from Haarland’s.

The skyroom was crowded—comparatively. All eight of the usual tables were taken; they pushed on into the roped-off area by the windows and found a table overlooking the Yards. Marconi blew dust off his chair. “Been a long time since this was used,” he grumbled. “Drink?” He raised his eyebrows when Ross nodded. It made a break; Marconi was the one usually who had a drink with lunch, Ross never touched it.

When the drinks came, each of them said to the other in perfect synchronism: “I’ve got something to tell you.”

They looked startled—then laughed. “Go ahead,” said Ross.

The little man didn’t even argue. Rapturously he drew a photo out of his pocket.

God, thought Ross wearily, Lurline again! He studied the picture with a show of interest. “New snap?” he asked brightly. “Lovely girl——” Then he noticed the inscription: To my fiance, with crates of love. “Well!” he said, “Fiance, is it? Congratulations, Marconi!”

Marconi was almost drooling on the photo. “Next month,” he said happily. “A big, big wedding. For keeps, Ross—for keeps. With children!”

Ross made an expression of polite surprise. “You don’t say!” he said.

“It’s all down in black and white! She agrees to have two children in the first five years—no permissive clause, a straight guarantee. Fifteen hundred annual allowance per child. And, Ross, do you know what? Her lawyer told her right in front of me that she ought to ask for three thousand, and she told him, ‘No, Mr. Turek. I happen to be in love.’ How do you like that, Ross?”

“A girl in a million,” Ross said feebly. His private thoughts were that Marconi had been gaffed and netted like a sugar perch. Lurline was of the Old Landowners, who didn’t own anything much but land these days, and Marconi was an undersized nobody who happened to make a very good living. Sure she happened to be in love. Smartest thing she could be. Of course, promising to have children sounded pretty special; but the papers were full of those things every day. Marconi could reliably be counted on to hang himself. He’d promise her breakfast in bed every third week end, or the maid that he couldn’t possibly find on the labor market, and the courts would throw all the promises on both sides out of the contract as a matter of simple equity. But the marriage would stick, all right.

Marconi had himself a final moist, fatuous sigh and returned the photo to his pocket. “And now,” he asked brightly, craning his neck for the waiter, “what’s your news?”

Ross sipped his drink, staring out at the nuzzling freighters in their hemispherical slips. He said abruptly, “I might be on one of those next week. Fallon’s got a purser’s berth open.”

Marconi forgot the waiter and gaped. “Quitting?”

“I’ve got to do something!” Ross exploded. His own voice scared him; there was a knife blade of hysteria in the sound of it. He gripped the edge of the table and forced himself to be calm and deliberate.

Marconi said tardily, “Easy, Ross.”

“Easy! You’ve said it, Marconi: ‘Easy.’ Everything’s so damned easy and so damned boring that I’m just about ready to blow! I’ve got to do something,” he repeated. “I’m getting nowhere! I push papers around and then I push them back again. You know what happens next. You get soft and paunchy. You find yourself going by the book instead of by your head. You’re covered, if you go by the book—no matter what happens. And you might just as well be dead!”

“Now, Ross——”

“Now, hell!” Ross flared. “Marconi, I swear I think there’s something wrong with me! Look, take Ghost Town for instance. Ever wonder why nobody lives there, except a couple of crazy old hermits?”

“Why, it’s Ghost Town,” Marconi explained. “It’s deserted.”

“And why is it deserted? What happened to the people who used to live there?”

Marconi shook his head. “You need a vacation, son,” he said sympathetically. “That was a long time ago. Hundreds of years, maybe.”

“But where did the people go?” Ross persisted desperately. “All of the city was inhabited hundreds of years ago—the city was twice as big as it is now. How come?”

Marconi shrugged. “Dunno.”

Ross collapsed. “Don’t know. You don’t know, I don’t know, nobody knows. Only thing is, I care! I’m curious. Marconi, I get—well, moody. Depressed. I get to worrying about crazy things. Ghost Town, for one. And why can’t they find a secretary for me? And am I really different from everybody else or do I just think so—and doesn’t that mean that I’m insane?”

He laughed. Marconi said warmly, “Ross, you aren’t the only one; don’t ever think you are. I went through it myself. Found the answer, too. You wait, Ross.”

He paused. Ross said suspiciously, “Yeah?”

Marconi tapped the breast pocket with the photo of Lurline. “She’ll come along,” he said.

Ross managed not to sneer in his face. “No,” he said wearily. “Look, I don’t advertise it, but I was married once. I was eighteen, it lasted for a year and I’m the one who walked out. Flat-fee settlement; it took me five years to pay off the loan, but I never regretted it.”

Marconi began gravely, “Sexual incompatibility——”

Ross cut him off with an impatient gesture. “In that department,” he said, “it so happens she was a genius. But——”

“But?”

Ross shrugged. “I must have been crazy,” he said shortly. “I kept thinking that she was half-dead, dying on the vine like the rest of Halsey’s Planet. And I must still be crazy, because I still think so.”

The little man involuntarily felt his breast pocket. He said gently, “Maybe you’ve been working too hard.”

“Too hard!” Ross laughed, a curious blend of true humor and self-disgust. “Well,” he admitted, “I need a change, anyhow. I might as well be on a longliner. At least I’d have my spree to look back on.”

“No!” Marconi said, so violently that Ross slopped the drink he was lifting to his mouth.

Ross looked hard at the little man—hard and speculatively. “No, then,” he said. “It was just a figure of speech, of course. But tell me something, won’t you, Marconi?”

“Tell you what?”

“Tell me why such a violent reaction to the word ‘longliner.’ I want to know.”

“Hell, Ross,” the little man grumbled, “you know what a longliner is. Gutter-scrapings for crews; nothing for a man like you.”

“I want to know more,” Ross insisted. “When I ask you what a longliner is, what the crew do with themselves for two or three centuries, you change the subject. You always change the subject! Maybe you know something I don’t know. I want to know what it is, and this time the subject doesn’t get changed. You don’t get off the hook until I find out.” He took a sip of his drink and leaned back. “Tell me about longliners,” he said. “I’ve never seen one coming in; it’s been fifteen years or so since that bucket from Sirius IV, hasn’t it? But you were on the job then.”

Marconi was no longer a man in love or one of the few people whom Ross considered to be wholly alive—like him. He was a hard-eyed little stranger with a stubborn mouth and an ingratiating veneer. In short he was again a trader, and a good one.

“I’ll tell you anything I know,” Marconi declared positively, and insincerely. “Tend to that fellow first though, will you?” He pointed to a uniformed Yards messenger whose eye had just alighted on Ross. The man threaded his way, stumbling, through the tables and laid a sealed envelope down in the puddle left by Ross’s drink.

“Sorry, sir,” he said crisply, wiped off the envelope with his handkerchief and, for lagniappe, wiped the puddle off the table into Ross’s lap.

Speechless, Ross signed for the envelope on a red-tabbed slip marked URGENT * PRIORITY * RUSH. The messenger saluted, almost putting his own eye out, and left, crashing into tables and chairs.

“Half-dead,” Ross muttered, following him with his eyes. “How the devil do they stay alive at all?”

Marconi said, unsmiling, “You’re taking this kick pretty seriously, Ross. I admit he’s a little clumsy, but——”

“But nothing,” said Ross. “Don’t try to tell me you don’t know something’s wrong, Marconi! He’s a bumbling incompetent, and half his generation is just like him.” He looked bitterly at the envelope and dropped it on the table again. “More manifests,” he said. “I swear I’ll start throwing tableware if I have to check another bill of lading. Brighten my day, Marconi; tell me about the longliners. You’re not off the hook yet, you know.”

Marconi signaled for another drink. “All right,” he said. “Marconi tells all about longliners. They’re ships. They go from the planet of one star to the planet of another star. It takes a long time, because stars are many light-years apart and rocket ships cannot travel as fast as light. Einstein said so—whoever he was. Do we start with the Sirius IV ship? I was around when it came in, all right. Fifteen years ago, and Halsey’s Planet is still enjoying the benefits of it. And so is Leverett and Sons Trading Corporation. They did fine on flowers from seeds that bucket brought, they did fine on sugar perch from eggs that bucket brought. I’ve never had it myself. Raw fish for dessert! But some people swear by it—at five shields a portion. They can have it.”

“The hook, Marconi,” Ross reminded grimly.

Trader Marconi laughed amiably. “Sorry. Well, what else? Pictures and music, but I’m not much on them. I do read, though, and as a reader I say, God bless that bucket from Sirius IV. We never had a novelist like Morris Halliday on this planet—or an essayist like Jay Waring. Let’s see, there have been eight Halliday novels off the microfilms so far, and I think Leverett still has a couple in the vaults. Leverett must be——”

“Marconi. I don’t want to hear about Leverett and Sons. Or Morris Halliday, or Waring. I want to hear about longliners.”

“I’m trying to tell you,” Marconi said sullenly, the mask down.

“No, you’re not. You’re telling me that the longline ships go from one stellar system to another with merchandise. I know that.”

“Then what do you want?”

“Don’t be difficult, Marconi. I want to know the facts. All about longliners. The big hush-hush. The candid explanations that explain nothing—except that a starship is a starship. I know that they’re closed-system, multigeneration jobs; a group of people get in on Sirius IV and their great-great-great-great-grandchildren come giggling and stumbling out on Halsey’s Planet. I know that every couple of generations your firm—and mine, for that matter—builds one with profits that would be taxed off anyway and slings it out, stocked with seeds and film and sound tape and patent designs and manufacturing specifications for every new gimmick on the market, in the hope that it’ll be back long after we’re dead with a similar cargo to enrich your firm’s and my firm’s then-current owners. Sounds silly—but, as I say, it’s tax money anyhow. I know that your firm and mine staff the ships with half a dozen bums of each sex, who are loaded aboard with a dandy case of delirium tremens, contracted from spending their bounty money the only way they know how. And that’s just about all I know. Take it from there, Marconi. And be specific.”

The little man shrugged irritably. “That gag’s beginning to wear thin, Ross,” he complained. “What do you want me to tell you—the number of welds in Bulkhead 47 of ‘Starship 74’? What’s the difference? As you said, a starship is a starship is a longliner. Without them the inhabited solar systems would have no means of contact or commerce. What else is there to say?”

Ross looked suddenly lost. “I—don’t know,” he said. “Don’t you know, Marconi?”

Marconi hesitated, and for a moment Ross was sure he did know—knew something, at any rate, something that might be an answer to the doubts and nagging inconsistencies that were bothering him. But then Marconi shrugged and looked at his watch and ordered another drink.

But there was something wrong. Ross felt himself in the position of a diagnostician whose patient willfully refuses to tell where it hurts. The planet was sick—but wouldn’t admit it. Sick? Dying! Maybe he was on the wrong track entirely. Maybe the starships had nothing to do with it. Maybe there was nothing that Marconi knew that would fit a piece into the puzzle and make the answer come out all clear—but Ghost Town continued to grow acre by acre, year by year. And Oldham still hadn’t found him a secretary capable of writing her own name.

“According to the historians, everything fits nicely into place,” Ross said, dubiously. “They say we came here ourselves in longliners once, Marconi. Our ancestors under some man named Halsey colonized this place, fourteen hundred years ago. According to the longliners that come in from other stars, their ancestors colonized wherever they came from in starships from a place called Earth. Where is this Earth, Marconi?”

Marconi said succinctly, “Look in the star charts. It’s there.”

“Yes, but——”

“But, hell,” Marconi said in annoyance. “What in the world has got into you, Ross? Earth is a planet like any other planet. The starship Halsey colonized in was a starship like any other starship—only bigger. I guess, that is—I wasn’t there. After all, what are the longliners but colonists? They happen to be going to planets that are already inhabited, that’s all. So a starship is nothing new or even very interesting, and this is beginning to bore me, and you ought to read your urgent-priority-rush message.”

Ross felt repentant—knowing that that was just how Trader Marconi wanted him to feel. He said slowly, “I’m sorry if I’m being a nuisance, Marconi. You know how it is when you feel stale and restless. I know all the stories—but it’s so damned hard to believe them. The famous colonizing ships. They must have been absolutely gigantic to take any reasonable number of people on a closed-circuit, multigeneration ride. We can’t build them that big now!”

“No reason to.”

“But we couldn’t if we had to. Imagine shooting those things all over the Galaxy. How many inhabited planets in the charts—five hundred? A thousand? Think of the technology, Marconi. What became of it?”

“We don’t need that sort of technology any more,” Marconi explained. “That job is done. Now we concentrate on more important things. Learning to live with each other. Developing our own planet. Increasing our understanding of social factors and demographic——”

Ross was laughing at last. “Well, Marconi,” he said at last, “that takes care of that! We sure have figured out how to handle the social factors, all right. Every year there are fewer of them to handle. Pretty soon we’ll all be dead, and then the problem can be marked ‘solved.’”

Marconi laughed too—eagerly, as if he’d been waiting for the chance. He said, “Now that that’s settled, are you going to open your message? Are you at least going to have some lunch?”

The Yards messenger stumbled up to their table again, this time with an envelope for Marconi. He looked sharply at Ross’s unopened envelope and said nothing, pointedly. Ross guiltily picked it up and tore it open. You could act like a sulky child in front of a friend, but strangers didn’t understand.

The message was from his office. RADAR REPORTS HIGH VELOCITY SPACECRAFT ON AUTOCONTROLS. FIRST APPROXIMATION TRAJECTORY INDICATES INTERSTELLAR ORIGIN. PROBABLE ETA YARDS 1500. NO RADIO MESSAGES RECEIVED. DON’T HAVE TO TELL YOU TO GET ON THIS IMMEDIATELY AND GIVE IT YOUR BEST. OLDHAM.

Ross looked at Marconi, whose expression was perturbed. “Bet I know what your message says,” he offered with an uneasy quaver in his voice.

Marconi said: “I’ll bet you do. Oldham’s radar setup on Sunward always has been better than Haarland’s. Better location. Man, you are in trouble! Let’s get out there and hope nobody’s missed you so far.”

They grabbed sandwiches from the snack bar on the way out and munched them while the Yards jeep took them to the ready line. Skirting the freighters in their pits, slipping past the enormous overhaul sheds, they saw excited debates going on. Twice they were passed by Yards vehicles heading toward the landing area. Halfway to the line they heard the recall sirens warning everybody and everything out of the ten seared acres surrounded by homing and Ground-Controlled Approach radars. That was where the big ones were landed.

The ready line was jammed when they got there. Ships from one or another of the five moons that circled Halsey’s planet were common; the moons were the mines. Even the weekly liner and freighters from the colony on Sunward, the planet next in from Halsey’s, were routine to the Yards workers. But to anybody an interstellar ship was a sensation, a once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime thrill.

Protocols were uncertain. Traders argued about the first crack at the strangers and their goods. A dealer named Aalborg said the only fair system would be to give every trade there an equal opportunity to do business—in alphabetical order. Everybody agreed that under no circumstances should the man from Leverett and Sons be allowed to trade—everybody, except the man from Leverett and Sons. He pointed out that his firm was the logical choice because it had more and fresher experience in handling interstellar goods than any other....

They almost mobbed him.

It wasn’t merely money that filled the atmosphere with electric tingles. The glamor of time-travel was on them. The crew aboard that ship were travelers of time as well as space. The crew that had launched the ship was dust. The crew that served it now had never seen a planet.

There was even some humility in the crowd. There were thoughtful ones among them who reflected that it was not, after all, a very great feat to hitch a rocket to a shell and lob it across a few million miles to a neighboring planet. It was eclipsed by the tremendous deed whose climax they were about to witness. The thoughtful ones shrugged and sighed as they thought that even the starship booming down toward Halsey’s Planet—fitted with the cleverest air replenishers and the most miraculously efficient waste converters—was only a counter in the game whose great rule was the mass-energy formulation of the legendary Einstein: that there is no way to push a material object past the speed of light.

A report swept the field that left men reeling in its wake. Radar Track confirmed that the ship was of unfamiliar pattern. All hope that it might be a starship launched from this very spot on the last leg of a stupefying round trip was officially dead. The starship was foreign.

“Wonder what they have?” Marconi muttered.

“Trader!” Ross sneered ponderously. He was feeling better; the weight of depression had been lifted for the time being, either by his confession or the electric atmosphere. If every day were like this, he thought vaguely....

“Let’s not kid each other,” Marconi was saying exuberantly. “This is an event, man! Where are they from, what are they peddling? Do I get a good cut at their wares? It could be fifty thousand shields for me in commission alone. Lurline and I could build a tower house on Great Blue Lake with that kind of money, with a whole floor for her parents! Ross, you just don’t know what it is to really be in love. Everything changes.”

A jeep roared up and slammed to a stop; Ross blinked and yelled: “Here it comes!”

They watched the ground-controlled approach with the interest of semiprofessionals and concealed their rising excitement with shop talk.

“Whups! There goes the high-power job into action.” Marconi pointed as a huge dish antenna swiveled ponderously on its mast. “Seems the medium-output dishes can’t handle her.”

“Maybe the high-power dish can’t either. She might be just plain shot.”

“Standard, sealed GCA doesn’t get shot, my young friend. Not in a neon-atmosphere tank it doesn’t.”

“Maybe along about the fifth generation they forgot what it was and cut it open with an acetylene torch to see what was inside.”

“Bad luck for us in that case, Ross.” The ship steadied on a due-west course and flashed across the heavens and over the horizon.

“Somebody decided a braking ellipse or two was in order. What about line of sight?”

“No sweat. The GCA jockey—and I’d bet it’s Delafield himself—pushes a button that hooks him into the high-power dish at every rocket field on Halsey’s. It’s been all thought out. There’s a potential fortune aboard that longliner and Fields Administration wants its percentage for servicing and accommodating.”

“Wonder what they have?”

“I already asked that one, Ross.”

“So you did.”

They lapsed into silence until the rocket boomed in again from the east, high and slow. The big dish swiveled abruptly and began tracking again.

“He’ll try to bring her down this time. Yes! There go fore and stabilizing jets.”

Flame jutted from the silvery speck high in the blue; its apparent speed slowed to a crawl. It vanished for a second as steering jets turned her slowly endwise. They caught sight of the stern jets when they blasted for the descent.

It was uneventful—just the landing of a very, very big rocket. When a landing is successful it is like every other successful landing ever made.

But the action that the field whirled into immediately following the landing was far from routine. The bullhorns roared that all traders, wipers, rubbernecks, and visitors were to get behind the ready lines and stay there. All Class-Three-and-higher Field personnel were to take stations for longliner clearance. The weapons and decontamination parties were to take their stations immediately. Captain Delafield would issue all future orders and don’t let any of the traders talk you out of it, men. Captain Delafield would issue all future orders.

Ross watched in considerable surprise as Field men working with drilled precision broke out half a dozen sleek, needle-nosed guns from an innocent-looking bay of the warehouse and manhandled them into position. From another bay a large pressure tank was hauled and backed against the lock of the starship. Ross could see the station medic bustlingly supervise that, and the hosing of white gunk onto the juncture between tank and ship.

Delafield crossed the stretch from the GCA complex to the tank, vanished into it through a pressure-fitted door and that was that. The tank had no windows.

Ross said to Marconi, wonderingly: “What’s all this about? There was Doc Gibbons handling the pressure tank, there was Chunk Blaney rolling out a God-damned cannon I never knew was there—how many more little secrets are there that I don’t know about?”

Marconi grinned. “They have gun drill once a month, my young friend, and they never say a word about it. Let the right rabble-rouser get hold of the story and he might sail into office on a platform of ‘Keep the bug-eyed monsters off of Halsey’s Planet.’ You have to have reasonable precautions, military and medical, though—and this is the straight goods—there’s never been any trouble of either variety.”

The conversation died and there was a long, boring hour of nothing. At last Delafield appeared again. One of the decontamination party ran up in a jeep with a microphone.

“What’ll it be?” Ross demanded. “Alphabetic order? Or just a rush?”

The announcement floored him. “Representative of the Haarland Trading Corporation please report to the decontamination tank.”

The representative of the Haarland Trading Corporation was Marconi.

“Hell,” Ross said bitterly. “Good luck with them, whoever they are.”

Marconi brooded for a moment and then said gruffly, “Come on along.”

“You mean it?”

“Sure. Uh—naturally, Ross, you’ll give me your word not to make any commercial offers or inquiries without my permission.”

“Oh. Naturally.” They started across the field and were checked through the ready line, Marconi cheerfully presenting his identification and vouching for Ross.

Captain Delafield, at the tank, snapped, “What are you doing here, Ross? You’re Oldham’s man. I distinctly said——”

“My responsibility, Captain. Will that do it?” Marconi asked.

Delafield snapped, “It’ll be your fundament if Haarland hears about it. Actually it’s the damnedest situation—they asked for Haarland’s.”

Marconi looked frightened and his hand involuntarily went to his breast pocket. He swallowed and asked, “Where are they from?”

Delafield grimaced and said, “Home.”

Marconi exploded, “Oh, no!”

“That’s all I can get out of them. I suppose their trajectory can be analyzed, and there must be books. We haven’t been in the ship yet. Nobody goes in until it gets sprayed, rayed, dusted, and busted down into its component parts. Too many places for nasty little mutant bacteria and viruses to lurk.”

“Sure, Captain. ‘Home,’ eh? They’re pretty simple?”

“Happy little morons. Fifteen of them, ranging in age from one month to what looks like a hundred and twenty. All they know is ‘home’ and ‘we wish to see the representative of the Haarland Trading Corporation.’ First the old woman said it. Then the next in line—he must be about a hundred—said it. Then a pair of identical twins, fifty-year-old women, said it in chorus. Then the rest of them on down to the month-old baby, and I swear to God he tried to say it. Well, you’re the Haarland Trading Corporation. Go on in.”

..... 2

~

THEY WERE ALL NAKED. WHY