THE PIRATES OF ERSATZ
BY MURRAY LEINSTER
Sometimes it seems nobody loves a benefactor ... particularly nobody on a well-heeled, self-satisfied planet. Grandpa always said Pirates were really benefactors, though....
Illustrated by Freas
It was not mere impulsive action when Bron Hoddan started for the planet Walden by stowing away on a ship that had come to his native planet to hang all his relatives. He'd planned it long before. It was a long-cherished and carefully worked out scheme. He didn't expect the hanging of his relatives, of course. He knew that they'd act grieved and innocent, and give proof that they were simple people leading blameless lives. They'd make their would-be executioners feel ashamed and apologetic for having thought evil of them, and as soon as the strangers left they'd return to their normal way of life, which was piracy. But while this was going on, Bron Hoddan stowed away on the menacing vessel. Presently he arrived at its home world. But his ambition was to reach Walden, so he set about getting there. It took a long time because he had to earn ship-passage from one solar system to another, but he held to his idea. Walden was the most civilized planet in that part of the galaxy. On Walden, Hoddan intended, in order (a) to achieve splendid things as an electronic engineer, (b) to grow satisfactorily rich, (c) to marry a delightful girl, and (d) end his life a great man. But he had to spend two years trying to arrange even the first.
On the night before the police broke in the door of his room, though, accomplishment seemed imminent. He went to bed and slept soundly. He was calmly sure that his ambitions were about to be realized. At practically any instant his brilliance would be discovered and he'd be well-to-do, his friend Derec would admire him, and even Nedda would probably decide to marry him right away. She was the delightful girl. Such prospects made for good sleeping.
And Walden was a fine world to be sleeping on. Outside the capital city its spaceport received shipments of luxuries and raw materials from halfway across the galaxy. Its landing grid reared skyward and tapped the planet's ionosphere for power with which to hoist ships to clear space and pluck down others from emptiness. There was commerce and manufacture and wealth and culture, and Walden modestly admitted that its standard of living was the highest in the Nurmi Cluster. Its citizens had no reason to worry about anything but a supply of tranquilizers to enable them to stand the boredom of their lives.
Even Hoddan was satisfied, as of the moment. On his native planet there wasn't even a landing grid. The few, battered, cobbled ships the inhabitants owned had to take off precariously on rockets. They came back blackened and sometimes more battered still, and sometimes they were accompanied by great hulls whose crews and passengers were mysteriously missing. These extra ships had to be landed on their emergency rockets, and, of course, couldn't take off again, but they always vanished quickly just the same. And the people of Zan, on which Hoddan had been born, always affected innocent indignation when embattled other spacecraft came and furiously demanded that they be produced.
There were some people who said that all the inhabitants of Zan were space pirates and ought to be hung and compared with such a planet, Walden seemed a very fine place indeed. So on a certain night Bron Hoddan went confidently to bed and slept soundly until three hours after sunrise. Then the police broke in his door.
* * * * *
They made a tremendous crash in doing it, but they were in great haste. The noise waked Hoddan, and he blinked his eyes open. Before he could stir, four uniformed men grabbed him and dragged him out of bed. They searched him frantically for anything like a weapon. Then they stood him against a wall with two stun-pistols on him, and the main body of cops began to tear his room apart, looking for something he could not guess. Then his friend Derec came hesitantly in the door and looked at him remorsefully. He wrung his hands.
"I had to do it, Bron," he said agitatedly. "I couldn't help doing it!"
Hoddan blinked at him. He was dazed. Things didn't become clearer when he saw that a cop had slit open his pillow and was sifting its contents through his fingers. Another cop was ripping the seams of his mattress to look inside. Somebody else was going carefully through a little pile of notes that Nedda had written, squinting at them as if he were afraid of seeing something he'd wish he hadn't.
"What's happened?" asked Hoddan blankly. "What's this about?"
Derec said miserably:
"You killed someone, Bron. An innocent man! You didn't mean to, but you did, and ... it's terrible!"
"Me kill somebody? That's ridiculous!" protested Hoddan.
"They found him outside the powerhouse," said Derec bitterly. "Outside the Mid-Continent station that you—"
"Mid-Continent? Oh!" Hoddan was relieved. It was amazing how much he was relieved. He'd had an unbelieving fear for a moment that somebody might have found out he'd been born and raised on Zan—which would have ruined everything. It was almost impossible to imagine, but still it was a great relief to find out he was only suspected of a murder he hadn't committed. And he was only suspected because his first great achievement as an electronic engineer had been discovered. "They found the thing at Mid-Continent, eh? But I didn't kill anybody. And there's no harm done. The thing's been running two weeks, now. I was going to the Power Board in a couple of days." He addressed the police. "I know what's up, now," he said. "Give me some clothes and let's go get this straightened out."
A cop waved a stun-pistol at him.
"One word out of line, and—pfft!"
"Don't talk, Bron!" said Derec in panic. "Just keep quiet! It's bad enough! Don't make it worse!"
A cop handed Hoddan a garment. He put it on. He became aware that the cop was scared. So was Derec. Everybody in the room was scared except himself. Hoddan found himself incredulous. People didn't act this way on super-civilized, highest-peak-of-culture Walden.
"Who'd I kill?" he demanded. "And why?"
"You wouldn't know him, Bron," said Derec mournfully. "You didn't mean to do murder. But it's only luck that you killed only him instead of everybody!"
"Everybody—" Hoddan stared.
"No more talk!" snapped the nearest cop. His teeth were chattering. "Keep quiet or else!"
Hoddan shut up. He watched—dressing the while as his clothing was inspected and then handed to him—while the cops completed the examination of his room. They were insanely thorough, though Hoddan hadn't the least idea what they might be looking for. When they began to rip up the floor and pull down the walls, the other cops led him outside.
* * * * *
There was a fleet of police trucks in the shaded street outdoors. They piled him in one, and four cops climbed after him, keeping stun-pistols trained on him during the maneuver. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Derec climbing into another truck. The entire fleet sped away together. The whole affair had been taken with enormous seriousness by the police. Traffic was detoured from their route. When they swung up on an elevated expressway, with raised-up trees on either side, there was no other vehicle in sight. They raced on downtown.
They rolled off the expressway. They rolled down a cleared avenue. Hoddan recognized the Detention Building. Its gate swung wide. The truck he rode in went inside. The gate closed. The other trucks went away—rapidly. Hoddan alighted and saw that the grim gray wall of the courtyard had a surprising number of guards mustered to sweep the open space with gunfire if anybody made a suspicious movement.
He shook his head. Nobody had mentioned Zan, so this simply didn't make sense. His conscience was wholly clear except about his native planet. This was insanity! He went curiously into the building and into the hearing room. His guards, there, surrendered him to courtroom guards and went away with almost hysterical haste. Nobody wanted to be near him.
Hoddan stared about. The courtroom was highly informal. The justice sat at an ordinary desk. There were comfortable chairs. The air was clean. The atmosphere was that of a conference room in which reasonable men could discuss differences of opinion in calm leisure. Only on a world like Walden would a prisoner brought in by police be dealt with in such surroundings.
Derec came in by another door, with a man Hoddan recognized as the attorney who'd represented Nedda's father in certain past interviews. There'd been no mention of Nedda as toying with the thought of marrying Hoddan then, of course. It had been strictly business. Nedda's father was Chairman of the Power Board, a director of the Planetary Association of Manufacturers, a committeeman of the Banker's League, and other important things. Hoddan had been thrown out of his offices several times. He now scowled ungraciously at the lawyer who had ordered him thrown out. He saw Derec wringing his hands.
An agitated man in court uniform came to his side.
"I'm the Citizen's Representative," he said uneasily. "I'm to look after your interests. Do you want a personal lawyer?"
"Why?" asked Hoddan. He felt splendidly confident.
"The charges— Do you wish a psychiatric examination—claiming no responsibility?" asked the Representative anxiously. "It might ... it might really be best—"
"I'm not crazy," said Hoddan, "though this looks like it."
The Citizen's Representative spoke to the justice.
"Sir, the accused waives psychiatric examination, without prejudice to a later claim of no responsibility."
Nedda's father's attorney watched with bland eyes. Hoddan said impatiently:
"Let's get started so this will make some sense! I know what I've done. What monstrous crime am I charged with?"
"The charges against you," said the justice politely, "are that on the night of Three Twenty-seven last, you, Bron Hoddan, entered the fenced-in grounds surrounding the Mid-Continent power receptor station. It is charged that you passed two no-admittance signs. You arrived at a door marked 'Authorized Personnel Only.' You broke the lock of that door. Inside, you smashed the power receptor taking broadcast power from the air. This power receptor converts broadcast power for industrial units by which two hundred thousand men are employed. You smashed the receptor, imperiling their employment." The justice paused. "Do you wish to challenge any of these charges as contrary to fact?"
The Citizen's Representative said hurriedly:
"You have the right to deny any of them, of course."
"Why should I?" asked Hoddan. "I did them! But what's this about me killing somebody? Why'd they tear my place apart looking for something? Who'd I kill, anyhow?"
"Don't bring that up!" pleaded the Citizen's Representative. "Please don't bring that up! You will be much, much better off if that is not mentioned!"
"But I didn't kill anybody!" insisted Hoddan.
"Nobody's said a word about it," said the Citizen's Representative, jittering. "Let's not have it in the record! The record has to be published." He turned to the justice. "Sir, the facts are conceded as stated."
"Then," said the justice to Hoddan, "do you choose to answer these charges at this time?"
"Why not?" asked Hoddan. "Of course!"
"Proceed," said the justice.
* * * * *
Hoddan drew a deep breath. He didn't understand why a man's death, charged to him, was not mentioned. He didn't like the scared way everybody looked at him. But—
"About the burglary business," he said confidently. "What did I do in the power station before I smashed the receptor?"
The justice looked at Nedda's father's attorney.
"Why," said that gentleman amiably, "speaking for the Power Board as complainant, before you smashed the standard receptor you connected a device of your own design across the power-leads. It was a receptor unit of an apparently original pattern. It appears to have been a very interesting device."
"I'd offered it to the Power Board," said Hoddan, with satisfaction, "and I was thrown out. You had me thrown out! What did it do?"
"It substituted for the receptor you smashed," said the attorney. "It continued to supply some two hundred million kilowatts for the Mid-Continent industrial area. In fact, your crime was only discovered because the original receptor—naturally—had to be set to draw peak power at all times, with the unused power wasted by burning carbon. Your device adjusted to the load and did not burn carbon. So when the attendants went to replace the supposedly burned carbon and found it unused, they discovered what you had done."
"It saved carbon, then," said Hoddan triumphantly. "That means it saved money. I saved the Power Board plenty while that was connected. They wouldn't believe I could. Now they know. I did!"
The justice said:
"Irrelevant. You have heard the charges. In legal terms, you are charged with burglary, trespass, breaking and entering, unlawful entry, malicious mischief, breach of the peace, sabotage, and endangering the employment of citizens. Discuss the charges, please!"
"I'm telling you!" protested Hoddan. "I offered the thing to the Power Board. They said they were satisfied with what they had and wouldn't listen. So I proved what they wouldn't listen to! That receptor saved them ten thousand credits worth of carbon a week! It'll save half a million credits a year in every power station that uses it! If I know the Power Board, they're going right on using it while they arrest me for putting it to work!"
The courtroom, in its entirety, visibly shivered.
"Aren't they?" demanded Hoddan belligerently.
"They are not," said the justice, tight-lipped. "It has been smashed in its turn. It has even been melted down."
"Then look at my patents!" insisted Hoddan. "It's stupid—"
"The patent records," said the justice with unnecessary vehemence, "have been destroyed. Your possessions have been searched for copies. Nobody will ever look at your drawings again—not if they are wise!"
"Wha-a-at?" demanded Hoddan incredulously. "Wha-a-at?"
"I will amend the record of this hearing before it is published," said the justice shakily. "I should not have made that comment. I ask permission of the Citizen's Representative to amend."
"Granted," said the Representative before he had finished.
The justice said quickly:
"He'd be silly if he did," grunted Hoddan.
"And-merely-wishes-security-against-repetition-of-the-offense, I-rule-that-the-defendant-may-be-released-upon-posting-suitable-bond-for -good-behavior-in-the-future. That-is, he-will-be-required-to-post-bond -which-will-be-forfeited-if-he-ever-again-enters-a-power-station -enclosure-passes-no-trespassing-signs-ignores-no-admittance-signs -and/or-smashes-apparatus-belonging-to-the-complainant."
"All right," said Hoddan indignantly. "I'll raise it somehow. If they're too stupid to save money— How much bond?"
"The-court-will-take-it-under-advisement-and-will-notify-the-defendant -within-the-customary-two-hours," said the justice at top speed. He swallowed. "The-defendant-will-be-kept-in-close-confinement-until-the -bond-is-posted. The-hearing-is-ended."
He did not look at Hoddan. Courtroom guards put stun-pistols against Hoddan's body and ushered him out.
* * * * *
Presently his friend Derec came to see him in the tool-steel cell in which he had been placed. Derec looked white and stricken.
"I'm in trouble because I'm your friend, Bron," he said miserably, "but I asked permission to explain things to you. After all, I caused your arrest. I urged you not to connect up your receptor without permission!"
"I know," growled Hoddan, "but there are some people so stupid you have to show them everything. I didn't realize that there are people so stupid you can't show them anything."
"You ... showed something you didn't intend," said Derec miserably. "Bron, I ... I have to tell you. When they went to charge the carbon bins at the power station, they ... they found a dead man, Bron!"
Hoddan sat up.
"Your machine—killed him. He was outside the building at the foot of a tree. Your receptor killed him through a stone wall! It broke his bones and killed him.... Bron—" Derec wrung his hands. "At some stage of power-drain your receptor makes deathrays!"
Hoddan had had a good many shocks today. When Derec arrived, he'd been incredulously comparing the treatment he'd received and the panic about him, with the charges made against him in court. They didn't add up. This new, previously undisclosed item left him speechless. He goggled at Derec, who fairly wept.
"Don't you see?" asked Derec pleadingly. "That's why I had to tell the police it was you. We can't have deathrays! The police can't let anybody go free who knows how to make them! This is a wonderful world, but there are lots of crackpots. They'll do anything! The police daren't let it even be suspected that deathrays can be made! That's why you weren't charged with murder. People all over the planet would start doing research, hoping to satisfy all their grudges by committing suicide for all their enemies with themselves! For the sake of civilization your secret has to be suppressed—and you with it. It's terrible for you, Bron, but there's nothing else to do!"
Hoddan said dazedly:
"But I only have to put up a bond to be released!"
"The ... the justice," said Derec tearfully, "didn't name it in court, because it would have to be published. But he's set your bond at fifty million credits! Nobody could raise that for you, Bron! And with the reason for it what it is, you'll never be able to get it reduced."
"But anybody who looks at the plans of the receptor will know it can't make deathrays!" protested Hoddan blankly.
"Nobody will look," said Derec tearfully. "Anybody who knows how to make it will have to be locked up. They checked the patent examiners. They've forgotten. Nobody dared examine the device you had working. They'd be jailed if they understood it! Nobody will ever risk learning how to make deathrays—not on a world as civilized as this, with so many people anxious to kill everybody else. You have to be locked up forever, Bron. You have to!"
Hoddan said inadequately:
"I beg your forgiveness for having you arrested," said Derec in abysmal sorrow, "but I couldn't do anything but tell—"
Hoddan stared at his cell wall. Derec went away weeping. He was an admirable, honorable, not-too-bright young man who had been Hoddan's only friend.
Hoddan stared blankly at nothing. As an event, it was preposterous, and yet it was wholly natural. When in the course of human events somebody does something that puts somebody else to the trouble of adjusting the numb routine of his life, the adjustee is resentful. The richer he is and the more satisfactory he considers his life, the more resentful he is at any change, however minute. And of all the changes which offend people, changes which require them to think are most disliked.
The high brass in the Power Board considered that everything was moving smoothly. There was no need to consider new devices. Hoddan's drawings and plans had simply never been bothered with, because there was no recognized need for them. And when he forced acknowledgment that his receptor worked, the unwelcome demonstration was highly offensive in itself. It was natural, it was inevitable, it should have been infallibly certain that any possible excuse for not thinking about the receptor would be seized upon. And a single dead man found near the operating demonstrator.... If one assumed that the demonstrator had killed him,—why one could react emotionally, feel vast indignation, frantically command that the device and its inventor be suppressed together, and go on living happily without doing any thinking or making any other change in anything at all.
Hoddan was appalled. Now that it had happened, he could see that it had to. The world of Walden was at the very peak of human culture. It had arrived at so splendid a plane of civilization that nobody could imagine any improvement—unless a better tranquilizer could be designed to make it more endurable. Nobody ever really wants anything he didn't think of for himself. Nobody can want anything he doesn't know exists—or that he can't imagine to exist. On Walden nobody wanted anything, unless it was relief from the tedium of ultra-civilized life. Hoddan's electronic device did not fill a human need; only a technical one. It had, therefore, no value that would make anybody hospitable to it.
And Hoddan would spend his life in jail for failing to recognize the fact.
He revolted, immediately. He wanted something! He wanted out. And because he was that kind of man he put his mind to work devising something he wanted, simply and directly, without trying to get it by furnishing other people with what they turned out not to want. He set about designing his escape. With his enforced change in viewpoint, he took the view that he must seem, at least, to give his captors and jailers and—as he saw it—his persecutors what they wanted.
They would be pleased to have him dead, provided their consciences were clear. He built on that as a foundation.
* * * * *
Very shortly before nightfall he performed certain cryptic actions. He unraveled threads from his shirt and put them aside. There would be a vision-lens in the ceiling of his cell, and somebody would certainly notice what he did. He made a light. He put the threads in his mouth, set fire to his mattress, and laid down calmly upon it. The mattress was of excellent quality. It would smell very badly as it smoldered.
It did. Lying flat, he kicked convulsively for a few seconds. He looked like somebody who had taken poison. Then he waited.
It was a rather long time before his jailer came down the cell corridor, dragging a fire hose. Hoddan had been correct in assuming that he was watched. His actions had been those of a man who'd anticipated a possible need to commit suicide, and who'd had poison in a part of his shirt for convenience. The jailer did not hurry, because if the inventor of a deathray committed suicide, everybody would feel better. Hoddan had been allowed a reasonable time in which to die.
He seemed impressively dead when the jailer opened his cell door, dragged him out, removed the so-far-unscorched other furniture, and set up the fire hose to make an aerosol fog which would put out the fire. He went back to the corridor to wait for the fire to be extinguished.
Hoddan crowned him with a stool, feeling an unexpected satisfaction in the act. The jailer collapsed.
He did not carry keys. The system was for him to be let out of this corridor by a guard outside. Hoddan growled and took the fire hose. He turned its nozzle back to make a stream instead of a mist. Water came out at four hundred pounds pressure. He smashed open the corridor door with it. He strolled through and bowled over a startled guard with the same stream. He took the guard's stun-pistol. He washed open another door leading to the courtyard. He marched out, washed down two guards who sighted him, and took the trouble to flush them across the pavement until they wedged in a drain opening. Then he thoughtfully reset the hose to fill the courtyard with fog, climbed into the driver's seat of the truck that had brought him here—it was probably the same one—and smashed through the gateway to the street outside. Behind him, the courtyard filled with dense white mist.
He was free, but only temporarily. Around him lay the capital city of Walden—the highest civilization in this part of the galaxy. Trees lined its ways. Towers rose splendidly toward the skies, with thousands of less ambitious structures in between. There were open squares and parkways and malls, and it did not smell like a city at all. But he wasn't loose three minutes before the communicator in the truck squawked the all-police alarm for him.
It was to be expected. All the city would shortly be one enormous man-trap, set to catch Bron Hoddan. There was only one place on the planet, in fact, where he could be safe—and he wouldn't be safe there if he'd been officially charged with murder. But since the police had tactfully failed to mention murder, he could get at least breathing-time by taking refuge in the Interstellar Embassy.
He headed for it, bowling along splendidly. The police truck hummed on its way for half a mile; three-quarters. The great open square before the Embassy became visible. The Embassy was not that of a single planet, of course. By pure necessity every human-inhabited world was independent of all others, but the Interstellar Diplomatic Service represented humanity at large upon each individual globe. Its ambassador was the only person Hoddan could even imagine as listening to him, and that because he came from off-planet, as Hoddan did. But he mainly counted upon a breathing-space in the Embassy, during which to make more plans as yet unformed and unformable. He began, though, to see some virtues in the simple, lawless, piratical world in which he had spent his childhood.
* * * * *
Another police truck rushed frantically toward him down a side street. Stun-pistols made little pinging noises against the body of his vehicle. He put on more speed, but the other truck overtook him. It ranged alongside, its occupants waving stern commands to halt. And then, just before it swerved to force him off the highway, he swung instead and drove it into a tree. It crashed thunderously. One of his own wheels collapsed. He drove on with the crumpled wheel producing an up-and-down motion that threatened to make him seasick. Then he heard yelling behind him. The cops had piled out of the truck and were in pursuit on foot.
The tall, rough-stone wall of the Embassy was visible, now, beyond the monument to the First Settlers of Walden. He leaped to the ground and ran. Stun-pistol bolts, a little beyond their effective range, stung like fire. They spurred him on.
The gate of the Embassy was closed. He bolted around the corner and swarmed up the conveniently rugged stones of the wall. He was well aloft before the cops spotted him. Then they fired at him industriously and the charges crackled all around him.
But he'd reached the top and had both arms over the parapet before a charge hit his legs and stunned them—paralyzed them. He hung fast, swearing at his bad luck.
Then hands grasped his wrists. A white-haired man appeared on the other side of the parapet. He took a good, solid grip, and heaved. He drew Hoddan over the breast-high top of the wall and let him down to the walkway inside it.
"A near thing, that!" said the white-haired man pleasantly. "I was taking a walk in the garden when I heard the excitement. I got to the wall-top just in time." He paused, and added, "I do hope you're not just a common murderer with the police after him! We can't offer asylum to such—only a breathing-space and a chance to start running again. But if you're a political offender—"
Hoddan began to try to rub sensation and usefulness back into his legs. Feeling came back, and was not pleasant.
"I'm the Interstellar Ambassador," said the white-haired man politely.
"My name," said Hoddan bitterly, "is Bron Hoddan and I'm framed for trying to save the Power Board some millions of credits a year!" Then he said more bitterly: "If you want to know, I ran away from Zan to try to be a civilized man and live a civilized life. It was a mistake! I'm to be permanently jailed for using my brains!"
The ambassador cocked his head thoughtfully to one side.
"Zan?" he said. "The name Hoddan fits to that somehow. Oh, yes! Space-piracy! People say the people of Zan capture and loot a dozen or so ships a year, only there's no way to prove it on them. And there's a man named Hoddan who's supposed to head a particularly ruffianly gang."
"My grandfather," said Hoddan defiantly. "What are you going to do about it? I'm outlawed! I've defied the planetary government! I'm disreputable by descent, and worst of all I've tried to use my brains!"
"Deplorable!" said the ambassador mildly. "I don't mean outlawry is deplorable, you understand, or defiance of the government, or being disreputable. But trying to use one's brains is bad business! A serious offense! Are your legs all right now? Then come on down with me and I'll have you given some dinner and some fresh clothing and so on. Offhand," he added amiably, "it would seem that using one's brains would be classed as a political offense rather than a criminal one on Walden. We'll see."
Hoddan gaped up at him.
"You mean there's a possibility that—"
"Of course!" said the ambassador in surprise. "You haven't phrased it that way, but you're actually a rebel. A revolutionist. You defy authority and tradition and governments and such things. Naturally the Interstellar Diplomatic Service is inclined to be on your side. What do you think it's for?"
In something under two hours Hoddan was ushered into the ambassador's office. He'd been refreshed, his torn clothing replaced by more respectable garments, and the places where stun-pistols had stung him soothed by ointments. But, more important, he'd worked out and firmly adopted a new point of view.
He'd been a misfit at home on Zan because he was not contented with the humdrum and monotonous life of a member of a space-pirate community. Piracy was a matter of dangerous take-offs in cranky rocket-ships, to be followed by weeks or months of tedious and uncomfortable boredom in highly unhealthy re-breathed air. No voyage ever contained more than ten seconds of satisfactory action—and all space-fighting took place just out of the atmosphere of a possibly embattled planet, because you couldn't intercept a ship at cruising speed between the stars. Regardless of the result of the fighting, one had to get away fast when it was over, lest overwhelming force swarm up from the nearby world. It was intolerably devoid of anything an ambitious young man would want.
Even when one had made a good prize—with the lifeboats darting frantically for ground—and after one got back to Zan with a captured ship, even then there was little satisfaction in a piratical career. Zan had not a large population. Piracy couldn't support a large number of people. Zan couldn't attempt to defend itself against even single heavily-armed ships that sometimes came in passionate resolve to avenge the disappearance of a rich freighter or a fast new liner. So the people of Zan, to avoid hanging, had to play innocent. They had to be convincingly simple, harmless folk who cultivated their fields and led quiet, blameless lives. They might loot, but they had to hide their booty where investigators would not find it. They couldn't really benefit by it. They had to build their own houses and make their own garments and grow their own food. So life on Zan was dull. Piracy was not profitable in the sense that one could live well by it. It simply wasn't a trade for a man like Hoddan.
So he'd abandoned it. He'd studied electronics in books from looted passenger-ship libraries. Within months after arrival on a law-abiding planet, he was able to earn a living in electronics as an honest trade.
And that was unsatisfactory. Law-abiding communities were no more thrilling or rewarding than piratical ones. A payday now and then didn't make up for the tedium of labor. Even when one had money there wasn't much to do with it. On Walden, to be sure, the level of civilization was so high that many people needed psychiatric treatment to stand it, and neurotics vastly outnumbered more normal folk. And on Walden electronics was only a trade like piracy, and no more fun.
He should have known it would be this way. His grandfather had often discussed this frustration in human life.
"Us humans," it was his grandfather's habit to say, "don't make sense! There's some of us that work so hard they're too tired to enjoy life. There's some that work so hard at enjoying it that they don't get no fun out of it. And the rest of us spend our lives complainin' that there ain't any fun in it anyhow. The man that over all has the best time of any is one that picks out something he hasn't got a chance to do, and spends his life raisin' hell because he's stopped from doing it. When"—and here Hoddan's grandfather tended to be emphatic—"he wouldn't think much of it if he could!"
What Hoddan craved, of course, was a sense of achievement, of doing things worth doing, and doing them well. Technically there were opportunities all around him. He'd developed one, and it would save millions of credits a year if it were adopted. But nobody wanted it. He'd tried to force its use, he was in trouble, and now he could complain justly enough, but despite his grandfather he was not the happiest man he knew.
* * * * *
The ambassador received him with a cordial wave of the hand.
"Things move fast," he said cheerfully. "You weren't here half an hour before there was a police captain at the gate. He explained that an excessively dangerous criminal had escaped jail and been seen to climb the Embassy wall. He offered very generously to bring some men in and capture you and take you away—with my permission, of course. He was shocked when I declined."
"I can understand that," said Hoddan.
"By the way," said the ambassador. "Young men like yourself— Is there a girl involved in this?"
"A girl's father," he acknowledged, "is the real complainant against me."
"Does he complain," asked the ambassador, "because you want to marry her, or because you don't?"
"Neither," Hoddan told him. "She hasn't quite decided that I'm worth defying her rich father for."
"Good!" said the ambassador. "It can't be too bad a mess while a woman is being really practical. I've checked your story. Allowing for differences of viewpoint, it agrees with the official version. I've ruled that you are a political refugee, and so entitled to sanctuary in the Embassy. And that's that."
"Thank you, sir," said Hoddan.
"There's no question about the crime," observed the ambassador, "or that it is primarily political. You proposed to improve a technical process in a society which considers itself beyond improvement. If you'd succeeded, the idea of change would have spread, people now poor would have gotten rich, people now rich would have gotten poor, and you'd have done what all governments are established to prevent. So you'll never be able to walk the streets of this planet again in safety. You've scared people."
"Yes, sir," said Hoddan. "It's been an unpleasant surprise to them, to be scared."
The ambassador put the tips of his fingers together.
"Do you realize," he asked, "that the whole purpose of civilization is to take the surprises out of life, so one can be bored to death? That a culture in which nothing unexpected ever happens is in what is called its Golden Age? That when nobody can even imagine anything happening unexpectedly, that they later fondly refer to that period as the Good Old Days?"
"I hadn't thought of it in just those words, sir—"
"It is one of the most-avoided facts of life," said the ambassador. "Government, in the local or planetary sense of the word, is an organization for the suppression of adventure. Taxes are, in part, the insurance premiums one pays for protection against the unpredictable. And you have offended against everything that is the foundation of a stable and orderly and damnably tedious way of life—against civilization, in fact."
"Yet you've granted me asylum—"
"Naturally!" said the ambassador. "The Diplomatic Service works for the welfare of humanity. That doesn't mean stuffiness. A Golden Age in any civilization is always followed by collapse. In ancient days savages came and camped outside the walls of super-civilized towns. They were unwashed, unmannerly, and unsanitary. Super-civilized people refused even to think about them! So presently the savages stormed the city walls and another civilization went up in flames."
"But now," objected Hoddan, "there are no savages."
* * * * *
"They invent themselves," the ambassador told him. "My point is that the Diplomatic Service cherishes individuals and causes which battle stuffiness and complacency and Golden Ages and monstrous things like that. Not thieves, of course. They're degradation, like body lice. But rebels and crackpots and revolutionaries who prevent hardening of the arteries of commerce and furnish wholesome exercise to the body politic—they're worth cherishing!"
"I ... think I see, sir," said Hoddan.
"I hope you do," said the ambassador. "My action on your behalf is pure diplomatic policy. To encourage the dissatisfied is to insure against universal satisfaction—which is lethal. Walden is in a bad way. You are the most encouraging thing that has happened here in a long time. And you're not a native."
"No-o-o," agreed Hoddan. "I come from Zan."
"Never mind." The ambassador turned to a stellar atlas. "Consider yourself a good symptom, and valued as such. If you could start a contagion, you'd deserve well of your fellow citizens. Savages can always invent themselves. But enough of apology from me. Let us set about your affairs." He consulted the atlas. "Where would you like to go, since you must leave Walden?"
"Not too far, sir—"
"The girl, eh?" The ambassador did not smile. He ran his finger down a page. "The nearest inhabited worlds, of course, are Krim and Darth. Krim is a place of lively commercial activity, where an electronics engineer should easily find employment. It is said to be progressive and there is much organized research—"
"I wouldn't want to be a kept engineer, sir," said Hoddan apologetically. "I'd rather ... well ... putter on my own."
"Impractical, but sensible," commented the ambassador. He turned a page. "There's Darth. Its social system is practically feudal. It's technically backward. There's a landing grid, but space exports are skins and metal ingots and practically nothing else. There is no broadcast power. Strangers find the local customs difficult. There is no town larger than twenty thousand people, and few approach that size. Most settled places are mere villages near some feudal castle, and roads are so few and bad that wheeled transport is rare."
He leaned back and said in a detached voice:
"I had a letter from there a couple of months ago. It was rather arrogant. The writer was one Don Loris, and he explained that his dignity would not let him make a commercial offer, but an electronic engineer who put himself under his protection would not be the loser. He signed himself prince of this, lord of that, baron of the other thing and claimant to the dukedom of something else. Are you interested? No kings on Darth, just feudal chiefs."
Hoddan thought it over.
"I'll go to Darth," he decided. "It's bound to be better than Zan, and it can't be worse than Walden."
The ambassador looked impassive. An Embassy servant came in and offered an indoor communicator. The ambassador put it to his ear. After a moment he said:
"Show him in." He turned to Hoddan. "You did kick up a storm! The Minister of State, no less, is here to demand your surrender. I'll counter with a formal request for an exit-permit. I'll talk to you again when he leaves."
* * * * *
Hoddan went out. He paced up and down the other room into which he was shown. Darth wouldn't be in a Golden Age! He was wiser now than he'd been this same morning. He recognized that he'd made mistakes. Now he could see rather ruefully how completely improbable it was that anybody could put across a technical device merely by proving its value, without making anybody want it. He shook his head regretfully at the blunder.
The ambassador sent for him.
"I've had a pleasant time," he told Hoddan genially. "There was a beautiful row. You've really scared people, Hoddan! You deserve well of the republic! Every government and every person needs to be thoroughly terrified occasionally. It limbers up the brain."
"Yes, sir," said Hoddan. "I've—"
"The planetary government," said the ambassador with relish, "insists that you have to be locked up with the key thrown away. Because you know how to make deathrays. I said it was nonsense, and you were a political refugee in sanctuary. The Minister of State said the Cabinet would consider removing you forcibly from the Embassy if you weren't surrendered. I said that if the Embassy was violated no ship would clear for Walden from any other civilized planet. They wouldn't like losing their off-planet trade! Then he said that the government would not give you an exit-permit, and that he would hold me personally responsible if you killed everybody on Walden, including himself and me. I said he insulted me by suggesting that I'd permit such shenanigans. He said the government would take an extremely grave view of my attitude, and I said they would be silly if they did. Then he went off with great dignity—but shaking with panic—to think up more nonsense."
"Evidently," said Hoddan in relief, "you believe me when I say that my gadget doesn't make deathrays."
The ambassador looked slightly embarrassed.
"To be honest," he admitted, "I've no doubt that you invented it independently, but they've been using such a device for half a century in the Cetis cluster. They've had no trouble."
"Did you tell the Minister that?"
"Hardly," said the ambassador. "It would have done you no good. You're in open revolt and have performed overt acts of violence against the police. But also it was impolite enough for me to suggest that the local government was stupid. It would have been most undiplomatic to prove it."
Hoddan did not feel very proud, just then.
"I'm thinking that the cops—quite unofficially—might try to kidnap me from the Embassy. They'll deny that they tried, especially if they manage it. But I think they'll try."
"Very likely," said the ambassador. "We'll take precautions."
"I'd like to make something—not lethal—just in case," said Hoddan. "If you can trust me not to make deathrays, I'd like to make a generator of odd-shaped microwaves. They're described in textbooks. They ionize the air where they strike. That's all. They make air a high-resistance conductor. Nothing more than that."
The ambassador said:
"There was an old-fashioned way to make ozone...." When Hoddan nodded, a little surprised, the ambassador said: "By all means go ahead. You should be able to get parts from your room vision-receiver. I'll have some tools given you." Then he added: "Diplomacy has to understand the things that control events. Once it was social position. For a time it was weapons. Then it was commerce. Now it's technology. But I wonder how you'll use the ionization of air to protect yourself from kidnapers! Don't tell me! I'd rather try to guess."
He waved his hand in cordial dismissal and an Embassy servant showed Hoddan to his quarters. Ten minutes later another staff man brought him tools such as would be needed for work on a vision set. He was left alone.
* * * * *
He delicately disassembled the set in his room and began to put some of the parts together in a novel but wholly rational fashion. The science of electronics, like the science of mathematics, had progressed away beyond the point where all of it had practical applications. One could spend a lifetime learning things that research had discovered in the past, and industry had never found a use for. On Zan, industriously reading pirated books, Hoddan hadn't known where utility stopped. He'd kept on learning long after a practical man would have stopped studying to get a paying job.
Any electronic engineer could have made the device he now assembled. It only needed to be wanted—and apparently he was the first person to want it. In this respect it was like the receptor that had gotten him into trouble. But as he put the small parts together, he felt a certain loneliness. A man Hoddan's age needs to have some girl admire him from time to time. If Nedda had been sitting cross-legged before him, listening raptly while he explained, Hoddan would probably have been perfectly happy. But she wasn't. It wasn't likely she ever would be. Hoddan scowled.
Inside of an hour he'd made a hand-sized, five-watt, wave-guide projector of waves of eccentric form. In the beam of that projector, air became ionized. Air became a high-resistance conductor comparable to nichrome wire, when and where the projector sent its microwaves.
He was wrapping tape about the pistol grip when a servant brought him a scribbled note. It had been handed in at the Embassy gate by a woman who fled after leaving it. It looked like Nedda's handwriting. It read like Nedda's phrasing. It appeared to have been written by somebody in a highly emotional state. But it wasn't quite—not absolutely—convincing.
He went to find the ambassador. He handed over the note. The ambassador read it and raised his eyebrows.
"It could be authentic," admitted Hoddan.
"In other words," said the ambassador, "you are not sure that it is a booby trap—an invitation to a date with the police?"
"I'm not sure," said Hoddan. "I think I'd better bite. If I have any illusions left after this morning, I'd better find it out. I thought Nedda liked me quite a lot."
"I make no comment," observed the ambassador. "Can I help you in any way?"
"I have to leave the Embassy," said Hoddan, "and there's a practically solid line of police outside the walls. Could I borrow some old clothes, a few pillows, and a length of rope?"
Half an hour later a rope uncoiled itself at the very darkest outside corner of the Embassy wall. It dangled down to the ground. This was at the rear of the Embassy enclosure. The night was bright with stars, and the city's towers glittered with many lights. But here there was almost complete blackness and that silence of a city which is sometimes so companionable.
The rope remained hanging from the wall. No light reached the ground there. The tiny crescent of Walden's farthest moon cast an insufficient glow. Nothing could be seen by it.
The rope went up, as if it had been lowered merely to make sure that it was long enough for its purpose. Then it descended again. This time a figure dangled at its end. It came down, swaying a little. It reached the blackest part of the shadow at the wall's base. It stayed there.
Nothing happened. The figure rose swiftly, hauled up in rapid pullings of the rope. Then the line came down again and again a figure descended. But this figure moved. The rope swayed and oscillated. The figure came down a good halfway to the ground. It paused, and then descended with much movement to two-thirds of the way from the top.
There something seemed to alarm it. It began to rise with violent writhings of the rope. It climbed—
There was a crackling noise. A stun-pistol. The figure seemed to climb more frantically. More cracklings. Half a dozen—a dozen sharp, snapping noises. They were stun-pistol charges and there were tiny sparks where they hit. The dangling figure seemed convulsed. It went limp, but it did not fall. More charges poured into it. It hung motionless halfway up the wall of the Embassy.
Movements began in the darkness. Men appeared, talking in low tones and straining their eyes toward the now motionless figure. They gathered underneath it. One went off at a run, carrying a message. Someone of authority arrived, panting. There was more low-toned argument. More and still more men appeared. There were forty or fifty figures at the base of the wall.
One of those figures began to climb the rope hand over hand. He reached the motionless object. He swore in a shocked voice. He was shushed from below. He let the figure drop. It made next to no sound when it landed.
Then there was a rushing, as the guards about the Embassy went furiously back to their proper posts to keep anybody from slipping out Two men remained swearing bitterly over a dummy made of old clothes and pillows. But their profanity was in vain.
* * * * *
Hoddan was then some blocks away. He suffered painful doubt about the note ostensibly from Nedda. The guards about the Embassy would have tried to catch him in any case, but it did seem very plausible that the note had been sent him to get him to try to get down the wall. On the other hand, a false descent of a palpably dummylike dummy had been plausible, too. He'd drawn all the guards to one spot by his seeming doubt and by testing out their vigilance with a dummy. The only thing improbable in his behavior had been that after testing their vigilance with a dummy, he'd made use of it.
A fair distance away, he turned sedately into a narrow lane between buildings. This paralleled another lane serving the home of a girl friend of Nedda's. The note had named the garden behind that other girl's home as a rendezvous. But Hoddan was not going to that garden. He wanted to make sure. If the cops had forged the note—
He judged his position carefully. If he climbed this tree,—hm-m-m.... Kind of the city-planners of Walden to use trees so lavishly—if he climbed this tree he could look into the garden where Nedda in theory waited in tears. He climbed it. He sat astride a thick limb in scented darkness and considered further. Presently he brought out his five-watt projector. There was deepest darkness hereabouts. Trees and shrubbery were merely blacker than their surroundings. But there was reason for suspicion.
Neither in the house of Nedda's girl friend, nor in the nearer house between, was there a single lighted window.
Hoddan adjusted the wave-guide and pressed the stud of his instrument. He pointed it carefully into the nearer garden.
A man grunted in a surprised tone. There was a stirring. A man swore startledly. The words seemed inappropriate to a citizen merely breathing the evening air.
Hoddan frowned. The note from Nedda seemed to have been a forgery. To make sure, he readjusted the wave-guide to project a thin but fan-shaped beam. He aimed again. Painstakingly, he traversed the area in which men would have been posted to jump him, in the event that the note was forged. If Nedda were there, she would feel no effect. If police lay in wait, they would notice. At once.
They did. A man howled. Two men yelled together. Somebody bellowed. Somebody squealed. Someone, in charge of the flares made ready to give light for the police, was so startled by a strange sensation that he jerked the cord. An immense, cold-white brilliance appeared. The garden where Nedda definitely was not present became bathed in incandescence. Light spilled over the wall of one garden into the next and disclosed a squirming mass of police in the nearer garden also. Some of them leaped wildly and ungracefully while clawing behind them. Some stood still and struggled desperately to accomplish something to their rear, while others gazed blankly at them until Hoddan swung his instrument their way, also.
A man tore off his pants and swarmed over the wall to get away from something intolerable. Others imitated him, save in the direction of their flight. Some removed their trousers before they fled, but others tried to get them off while fleeing. Those last did not fare too well. Mostly they stumbled and other men fell over them, when both fallen and fallen-upon uttered hoarse and profane lamentations—they howled to the high heavens.
Hoddan let the confusion mount past any unscrambling, and then slid down the tree and joined in the rush. With the glare in the air behind him, he only feigned to stumble over one figure after another. Once he grunted as he scorched his own fingers. But he came out of the lane with a dozen stun-pistols, mostly uncomfortably warm, as trophies of the ambush.
As they cooled off he stowed them away in his belt and pockets, strolling away down the tree-lined street. Behind him, cops realized their trouserless condition and appealed plaintively to householders to notify headquarters of their state.
Hoddan did not feel particularly disillusioned, somehow. It occurred to him, even, that this particular event was likely to help him get off of Walden. If he was to leave against the cops' will, he needed to have them at less than top efficiency. And men who have had their pants scorched off them are not apt to think too clearly. Hoddan felt a certain confidence increase in his mind. He'd worked the thing out very nicely. If ionization made air a high-resistance conductor, then an ionizing beam would make a high-resistance short between the power terminals of a stun-pistol. With the power a stun-pistol carried, that short would get hot. So would the pistol. It would get hot enough, in fact, to scorch cloth in contact with it. Which had happened.
If the effect had been produced in the soles of policemen's feet, Hoddan would have given every cop a hotfoot. But since they carried their stun-pistols in their hip-pockets—
The thought of Nedda diminished his satisfaction. The note could be pure forgery, or the police could have learned about it through the treachery of the servant she sent to the Embassy with it. It would be worthwhile to know. He headed toward the home of her father. If she were loyal to him—why it would complicate things considerably. But he felt it necessary to find out.
He neared the spot where Nedda lived. This was an especially desirable residential area. The houses were large and gracefully designed, and the gardens were especially lush. Presently he heard music ahead—live music. He went on. He came to a place where strolling citizens had paused under the trees of the street to listen to the melody and the sound of voices that accompanied it. And the music and the festivity was in the house in which Nedda dwelt. She was having a party, on the very night of the day in which he'd been framed for life imprisonment.
It was a shock. Then there was a rush of vehicles, and police trucks were disgorging cops before the door. They formed a cordon about the house, and some knocked and were admitted in haste. Then Hoddan nodded dourly to himself.
His escape from the Embassy was now known. No less certainly, the failure of the trap Nedda's note had baited had been reported. The police were now turning the whole city into a trap for one Bron Hoddan, and they were looking first at the most probable places, then they'd search the possible places for him to be, and by the time that had been accomplished they'd have cops from other cities pouring into the city and they'd search every square inch of it for him. And certainly and positively they'd take the most urgent and infallible precautions to make sure he didn't get back into the Embassy.
It was a situation that would have appalled Hoddan only that morning. Now, though, he only shook his head sadly. He moved on. He'd gotten into trouble by trying to make an industrial civilization accept something it didn't want—a technical improvement in a standard electronic device. He'd gotten partly out of trouble by giving his jailers what they definitely desired—the sight of him apparently a suicide in the cell in the Detention Building. He'd come out of the Embassy, again, by giving the watchers outside a view they urgently desired—a figure secretly descending the Embassy wall. He'd indulged himself at the ambuscade, but the way to get back into the Embassy....
* * * * *
It was not far from Nedda's house to a public-safety kiosk, decoratively placed on a street corner. He entered it. It was unattended, of course. It was simply an out-of-door installation where cops could be summoned or fires reported or emergencies described by citizens independently of the regular home communicators. It had occurred to Hoddan that the planetary authorities would be greatly pleased to hear of a situation, in a place, that would seem to hint at his presence. There were all sorts of public services that would be delighted to operate impressively in their own lines. There were bureaus which would rejoice in a chance to show off their efficiency.
He used his microwave generator—which at short enough range would short-circuit anything—upon the apparatus in the kiosk. It was perfectly simple, if one knew how. He worked with a sort of tender thoroughness, shorting this item, shorting that, giving this frantic emergency call, stating that baseless lie. When he went out of the kiosk he walked briskly toward an appointment he had made.
And presently the murmur of the city at night had new sounds added to it. They began as a faint, confused clamor at the edges of the city. The uproar moved centralward and grew louder as it came. There were clanging bells and sirens and beeper-horns warning all nonofficial vehicles to keep out of the way. On the raised-up expressway snorting metal monsters rushed with squealing excitement. On the fragrant lesser streets, small vehicles rushed with proportionately louder howlings. Police trucks poured out of their cubbyholes and plunged valiantly through the dark. Broadcast-units signaled emergency and cut off the air to make the placid ether waves available to authority.
All these noises and all this tumult moved toward a single point. The outer parts of the city regained their former quiet, save that there was less music. The broadcasts were off. But the sound of racing vehicles clamoring for right-of-way grew louder and louder, and more and more peremptory as it concentrated toward the large open square on which the Interstellar Embassy faced. From every street and avenue fire-fighting equipment poured into that square. In between and behind, hooting loudly for precedence, police trucks accompanied and fore-ran them. Emergency vehicles of all the civic bureaus appeared, all of them with immense conviction of their importance.
It was a very large open square, that space before the Embassy. From its edge, the monument to the First Settlers in the center looked small. But even that vast plaza filled up with trucks of every imaginable variety, from the hose towers which could throw streams of water four hundred feet straight up, to the miniature trouble-wagons of Electricity Supply. Staff cars of fire and police and sanitary services crowded each other and bumped fenders with tree-surgeon trucks prepared to move fallen trees, and with public-address trucks ready to lend stentorian tones to any voice of authority.
But there was no situation except that there was no situation. There was no fire. There was no riot. There were not even stray dogs for the pound wagons to pursue, nor broken water mains for the water department technicians to shut off and repair. There was nothing for anybody to do but ask everybody else what the hell they were doing there, and presently to swear at each other for cluttering up the way.
* * * * *
The din of arriving horns and sirens had stopped, and a mutter of profanity was developing, when a last vehicle arrived. It was an ambulance, and it came purposefully out of a side avenue and swung toward a particular place as if it knew exactly what it was about. When its way was blocked, it hooted impatiently for passage. Its lights blinked violently red, demanding clearance. A giant fire-fighting unit pulled aside. The ambulance ran past and hooted at a cluster of police trucks. They made way for it. It blared at a gathering of dismounted, irritated truck personnel. It made its way through them. It moved in a straight line for the gate of the Interstellar Embassy.
A hundred yards from that gate, its horn blatted irritably at the car of the acting head of municipal police. That car obediently made way for it.
The ambulance rolled briskly up to the very gate of the Embassy. There it stopped. A figure got down from the driver's seat and walked purposefully in the gate.
Thereafter nothing happened at all until a second figure rolled and toppled itself out on the ground from the seat beside the ambulance driver's. That figure kicked and writhed on the ground. A policeman went to find out what was the matter.
It was the ambulance driver. Not the one who'd driven the ambulance to the Embassy gate, but the one who should have. He was bound hand and foot and not too tightly gagged. When released he swore vividly while panting that he had been captured and bound by somebody who said he was Bron Hoddan and was in a hurry to get back to the Interstellar Embassy.
There was no uproar. Those to whom Hoddan's name had meaning were struck speechless with rage. The fury of the police was even too deep for tears.
But Bron Hoddan, back in the quarters assigned him in the Embassy, unloaded a dozen cooled-off stun-pistols from his pockets and sent word to the ambassador that he was back, and that the note ostensibly from Nedda had actually been a police trap.
Getting ready to retire, he reviewed his situation. In some respects it was not too bad. All but Nedda's share in trying to trap him, and having a party the same night.... He stared morosely at the wall. Then he saw, very simply, that she mightn't have known even of his arrest. She lived a highly sheltered life. Her father could have had her kept completely in ignorance....
He cheered immediately. This would be his last night on Walden, if he were lucky, but vague plans already revolved in his mind. Yes.... He'd achieve splendid things, he'd grow rich, he'd come back and marry that delightful girl, Nedda, and end as a great man. Already, today, he'd done a number of things worth doing, and on the whole he'd done them well.
When dawn broke over the capital city of Walden, the sight was appropriately glamorous. There were shining towers and curving tree-bordered ways, above which innumerable small birds flew tumultuously. The dawn, in fact, was heralded by high-pitched chirpings everywhere. During the darkness there had been a deep-toned humming sound, audible all over the city. That was the landing grid in operation out at the spaceport, letting down a twenty-thousand-ton liner from Rigel, Cetis, and the Nearer Rim. Presently it would take off for Krim, Darth, and the Coalsack Stars, and if Hoddan was lucky he would be on it. But at the earliest part of the day there was only tranquillity over the city and the square and the Interstellar Embassy.
At the gate of the Embassy enclosure, staff members piled up boxes and bales and parcels for transport to the spaceport and thence to destinations whose names were practically songs. There were dispatches to Delil, where the Interstellar Diplomatic Service had a sector headquarters, and there were packets of embassy-stamped invoices for Lohala and Tralee and Famagusta. There were boxes for Sind and Maja, and metal-bound cases for Kent. The early explorers of this part of the galaxy had christened huge suns for little villages and territories back on Earth—which less than one human being in ten thousand had ever seen.
The sound of the stacking of freight parcels was crisp and distinct in the morning hush. The dew deposited during darkness had not yet dried from the pavement of the square. Damp, unhappy figures loafed nearby. They were self-evidently secret police, as yet unrelieved after a night's vigil about the Embassy's rugged wall. They were sleepy and their clothing stuck soggily to them, and none of them had had anything warm in his stomach for many hours. They had not, either, anything to look forward to from their superiors.
Hoddan was again in sanctuary inside the Embassy they'd guarded so ineptly through the dark. He'd gotten out without their leave, and made a number of their fellows unwilling to sit down and then made all the police and municipal authorities ridiculous by the manner of his return. The police guards about the Embassy were very positively not in a cheery mood. But one of them saw an Embassy servant he knew. He'd stood the man drinks, in times past, to establish a contact that might be useful. He summoned a smile and beckoned to that man.
The Embassy servant came briskly to him, rubbing his hands after having put a moderately heavy case of documents on top of the waiting pile.
"That Hoddan," said the plainclothesman, attempting hearty ruefulness, "he certainly put it over on us last night!"
The servant nodded.
"Look," said the plainclothesman, "there could be something in it for you if you ... hm-m-m ... wanted to make a little extra money."
The servant looked regretful.
"No chance," he said, "he's leaving today."
The plainclothesman jumped.
"For Darth," said the Embassy servant. "The ambassador's shipping him off on the space liner that came in last night."
The plainclothesman dithered.
"How's he going to get to the spaceport?"
"I wouldn't know," said the servant. "They've figured out some way. I could use a little extra money, too."
He lingered, but the plainclothesman was staring at the innocent, inviolable parcels about to leave the Embassy for distant parts. He took note of sizes and descriptions. No. Not yet. But if Hoddan was leaving he had to leave the Embassy. If he left the Embassy....
* * * * *
The plainclothesman bolted. He made a breathless report by the portable communicator set up for just such use. He told what the Embassy servant had said, and the inference to be drawn from it, the suspicions to be entertained—and there he stopped short. Orders came back to him. Orders were given in all directions. Somebody was going to distinguish himself by catching Hoddan, and undercover politics worked to decide who it should be. Even the job of guard outside the Embassy became desirable. So fresh, alert plainclothesmen arrived. They were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and they took over. Weary, hungry men yielded up their posts. They went home. The man who'd gotten the infallibly certain clue went home too, disgruntled because he wasn't allowed a share in the credit for Hoddan's capture. But he was glad of it later.
Inside the Embassy, Hoddan finished his breakfast with the ambassador.
"I'm giving you," said the ambassador, "that letter to the character on Darth. I told you about him. He's some sort of nobleman and has need of an electronic engineer. On Darth they're rare to nonexistent. But his letter wasn't too specific."
"I remember," agreed Hoddan. "I'll look him up. Thanks."
"Somehow," said the ambassador, "I cherish unreasonable hopes of you, Hoddan. A psychologist would say that your group identification is low and your cyclothymia practically a minus quantity, while your ergic tension is pleasingly high. He'd mean that with reasonable good fortune you will raise more hell than most. I wish you that good fortune. And Hoddan—"
"I don't urge you to be vengeful," explained the ambassador, "but I do hope you won't be too forgiving of these characters who'd have jailed you for life. You've scared them badly. It's very good for them. Anything more you can do in that line will be really a kindness, and as such will positively not be appreciated, but it'll be well worth doing.... I say this because I like the way you plan things. And any time I can be of service—"
"Thanks," said Hoddan, "but I'd better get going for the spaceport." He'd write Nedda from Darth. "I'll get set for it."
He rose. The ambassador stood up too.
"I like the way you plan things," he repeated appreciatively. "We'll check over that box."
They left the Embassy dining room together.
* * * * *
It was well after sunrise when Hoddan finished his breakfast, and the bright and watchful new plainclothesmen were very much on the alert outside. By this time the sunshine had lost its early ruddy tint, and the trees about the city were vividly green, and the sky had become appropriately blue—as the skies on all human-occupied planets are. There was the beginning of traffic. Some was routine movement of goods and vehicles. But some was special.
For example, the trucks which came to carry the Embassy shipment to the spaceport. They were perfectly ordinary trucks, hired in a perfectly ordinary way by the ambassador's secretary. They came trundling across the square and into the Embassy gate. The ostentatiously loafing plainclothesmen could look in and see the waiting parcels loaded on them. The first truckload was quite unsuspicious. There was no package in the lot which could have held a man in even the most impossibly cramped of positions.
But the police took no chances. Ten blocks from the Embassy the cops stopped it and verified the licenses and identities of the driver and his helper. This was a moderately lengthy business. While it went on, plainclothesmen worked over the packages in the truck's body and put stethoscopes to any of more than one cubic foot capacity.
They waved the truck on. Meanwhile the second truck was loading up. And the watching, ostensible loafers saw that nearly the last item to be put on it was a large box which hadn't been visible before. It was carried with some care, and it was marked fragile, and it was put into place and wedged fast with other parcels.
The plainclothesmen looked at each other with anticipatory glee. One of them reported the last large box with almost lyric enthusiasm. When the second truck left the Embassy with the large box, a police truck came innocently out of nowhere and just happened to be going the same way. Ten blocks away, again the truck load of Embassy parcels was flagged down and its driver's license and identity was verified. A plainclothesman put a stethoscope on the questionable case. He beamed, and made a suitable signal.
The truck went on, while zestful, Machiavelian plans took effect.
Five blocks farther, an unmarked empty truck came hurtling out of a side street, sideswiped the truck from the Embassy, and went careening away down the street without stopping. The trailing police truck made no attempt at pursuit. Instead, it stopped helpfully by the truck which had been hit. A wheel was hopelessly gone. So uniformed police, with conspicuously happy expressions, cleared a space around the stalled truck and stood guard over the parcels under diplomatic seal. With eager helpfulness, they sent for other transportation for the Embassy's shipment.
A sneeze was heard from within the mass of guarded freight, and the policemen shook hands with each other. When substitute trucks came—there were two of them—they loaded one high with Embassy parcels and sent it off to the spaceport with their blessing. There remained just one, single, large-sized box to be put on the second vehicle. They bumped it on the ground, and a startled grunt came from within.
There was an atmosphere of innocent enjoyment all about as the police tenderly loaded this large box on the second truck they'd sent for, and festooned themselves about it as it trundled away. Strangely, it did not head directly for the spaceport. The police carefully explained this to each other in loud voices. Then some of them were afraid the box hadn't heard, so they knocked on it. The box coughed, and it seemed hilariously amusing to the policemen that the contents of a freight parcel should cough. They expressed deep concern and—addressing the box—explained that they were taking it to the Detention Building, where they would give it some cough medicine.
The box swore at them, despairingly. They howled with childish laughter, and assured the box that after they had opened it and given it cough medicine they would close it again very carefully—leaving the diplomatic seal unbroken—and deliver it to the spaceport so it could go on its way.
The box swore again, luridly. The truck which carried it hastened. The box teetered and bumped and jounced with the swift motion of the vehicle that carried it and all the police around it. Bitter, enraged, and highly unprintable language came from within.
The police were charmed. Even so early in the morning they seemed inclined to burst into song. When the Detention Building gate opened for it, and closed again behind it, there was a welcoming committee in the courtyard. It included a jailer with a bandaged head and a look of vengeful satisfaction on his face, and no less than three guards who had been given baths by a high-pressure hose when Bron Hoddan departed from his cell. They wore unamiable expressions.
And then, while the box swore very bitterly, somebody tenderly loosened a plank—being careful not to disturb the diplomatic seal—and pulled it away with a triumphant gesture. Then all the police could look into the box. And they did.
Then there was dead silence, except for the voice that came from a two-way communicator set inside.
"And now," said the voice from the box—and only now did anybody notice what the muffling effect of the boards had hidden, that it was a speaker-unit which had sworn and coughed and sneezed—"we take our leave of the planet Walden and its happy police force, who wave to us as our space-liner lifts toward the skies. The next sound you hear will be that of their lamentations at our departure."
But the next sound was a howl of fury. The police were very much disappointed to learn that Hoddan hadn't been in the box, but only one-half of a two-way communication pair, and that Hoddan had coughed and sneezed and sworn at them from the other instrument somewhere else. Now he signed off.
* * * * *
The space liner was not lifting off just yet. It was still solidly aground in the center of the landing grid. Hoddan had bade farewell to his audience from the floor of the ambassador's ground-car, which at that moment was safely within the extra-territorial circle about the spaceship. He turned off the set and got up and brushed himself off. He got out of the car. The ambassador followed him and shook his hand.
"You have a touch," said the ambassador sedately. "You seem inspired at times, Hoddan! You have a gift for infuriating constituted authority. You should plot at your art. You may go far!"
He shook hands again and watched Hoddan walk into the lift which should raise him—and did raise him—to the entrance port of the space liner.
Twenty minutes later the force fields of the giant landing grid lifted the liner smoothly out to space. The twenty-thousand-ton vessel went out to five planetary diameters, where its Lawlor drive could take hold of relatively unstressed space. There the ship jockeyed for line, and then there was that curious, momentary disturbance of all one's sensations which was the effect of the overdrive field going on. Then everything was normal again, except that the liner was speeding for the planet Krim at something more than thirty times the speed of light.
Normality extended through all the galaxy so far inhabited by men. There were worlds on which there was peace, and worlds on which there was tumult. There were busy, zestful young worlds, and languid, weary old ones. From the Near Rim to the farthest of occupied systems, planets circled their suns, and men lived on them, and every man took himself seriously and did not quite believe that the universe had existed before he was born or would long survive his loss.
Time passed. Comets let out vast streamers like bridal veils and swept toward and around their suns. Some of them—one in ten thousand, or twenty—were possibly seen by human eyes. The liner bearing Hoddan sped through the void.
In time it made a landfall on the Planet Krim. He went aground and observed the spaceport city. It was new and bustling with tall buildings and traffic jams and a feverish conviction that the purpose of living was to earn more money this year than last. Its spaceport was chaotically busy. Hoddan had time for swift sightseeing of one city only and an estimate of what the people of such a planet would be sure they wanted. He saw slums and gracious public buildings, and went back to the spaceport and the liner which then rose upon the landing grid's force fields until Krim was a great round ball below it. Then there was again a jockeying for line, and the liner winked out of sight and was again journeying at thirty times the speed of light.
Again time passed. In one of the remoter galaxies a super-nova flamed, and on a rocky, barren world a small living thing squirmed experimentally—and to mankind the one event was just as important as the other.
But presently the liner from Krim and Walden appeared in Darth as the tiniest of shimmering pearly specks against the blue. To the north and east and west of the spaceport, rugged mountains rose steeply. Patches of snow showed here and there, and naked rock reared boldly in spurs and precipices. But there were trees on all the lower slopes, and there was not really a timberline.
The space liner increased in size, descending toward the landing grid. The grid itself was a monstrous lattice of steel, half a mile high and enclosing a circle not less in diameter. It filled much the larger part of the level valley floor, and horned duryas and what Hoddan later learned were horses grazed in it. The animals paid no attention to the deep-toned humming noise the grid made in its operation.
The ship seemed the size of a pea. Presently it was the size of an apple. Then it was the size of a basketball, and then it swelled enormously and put out spidery metal legs with large splay metal feet on them and alighted and settled gently to the ground. The humming stopped.
* * * * *
There were shoutings. Whips cracked. Straining, horn-tossing duryas heaved and dragged something, very deliberately, out from between warehouses under the arches of the grid. There were two dozen of the duryas, and despite the shouts and whip-crackings they moved with a stubborn slowness. It took a long time for the object with the wide-tired wheels to reach a spot below the spacecraft. Then it took longer, seemingly, for brakes to be set on each wheel, and then for the draught animals to be arranged to pull as two teams against each other.
More shoutings and whip-crackings. A long, slanting, ladderlike arm arose. It teetered, and a man with a lurid purple cloak rose with it at its very end. The ship's air lock opened and a crewman threw a rope. The purple-cloaked man caught it and made it fast. From somewhere inside the ship of space the line was hauled in. The end of the landing ramp touched the sill of the air lock. Somebody made other things fast and the purple-cloaked man triumphantly entered the ship.
There was a pause. Men loaded carts with cargo to be sent to remote and unimagined planets. In the air lock, Bron Hoddan stepped to the unloading ramp and descended to the ground. He was the only passenger. He had barely reached a firm footing when objects followed him. His own ship bag—a gift from the ambassador—and then parcels, bales, boxes, and such nondescript items of freight as needed special designation. Rolls of wire. Long strings of plastic objects, strung like beads on shipping cords. Plexiskins of fluid which might be anything from wine to fuel oil in less than bulk-cargo quantities. For a mere five minutes the flow of freight continued. Darth was not an important center of trade.
Hoddan stared incredulously at the town outside one side of the grid. It was only a town—and was almost a village, at that. Its houses had steep, gabled roofs, of which some seemed to be tile and others thatch. Its buildings leaned over the narrow streets, which were unpaved. They looked like mud. And there was not a power-driven ground vehicle anywhere in sight, nor anything man made in the air.
Great carts trailed out to the unloading belt. They dumped bales of skins and ingots of metal, and more bales and more ingots. Those objects rode up to the air lock and vanished. Hoddan was ignored. He felt that without great care he might be crowded back into the reversed loading belt and be carried back into the ship.
The loading process ended. The man with the purple cloak, who'd ridden the teetering belt-beam up, reappeared and came striding grandly down to ground. Somebody cast off, above. Ropes writhed and fell and dangled. The ship's air lock door closed.
There was a vast humming sound. The ship lifted sedately. It seemed to hover momentarily over the group of duryas and humans in the center of the grid's enclosure. But it was not hovering. It shrank. It was rising in an absolutely vertical line. It dwindled to the size of a basketball and then an apple. Then to the size of a pea. And then that pea diminished until the spaceship from Krim, Walden, Cetis, Rigel and the Nearer Rim had become the size of a dust mote and then could not be seen at all. But one knew that it was going on to Lohala and Tralee and Famagusta and the Coalsack Stars.
* * * * *
Hoddan shrugged and began to trudge toward the warehouses. The durya-drawn landing ramp began to roll slowly in the same direction. Carts and wagons loaded the stuff discharged from the ship. Creaking, plodding, with the curved horns of the duryas rising and falling, the wagons overtook Hoddan and passed him. He saw his ship bag on one of the carts. It was a gift from the Interstellar Ambassador on Walden. He'd assured Hoddan that there was a fund for the assistance of political refugees, and that the bag and its contents was normal. But in addition to the gift-clothing, Hoddan had a number of stun-pistols, formerly equipment of the police department of Walden's capital city.
He followed his bag to a warehouse. Arrived there, he found the bag surrounded by a group of whiskered or mustachioed Darthian characters wearing felt pants and large sheath-knives. They had opened the bag and were in the act of ferocious dispute about who should get what of its contents. Incidentally they argued over the stun-pistols, which looked like weapons but weren't because nothing happened when one pulled the trigger. Hoddan grimaced. They'd been in store on the liner during the voyage. Normally they picked up a trickle charge from broadcast power, on Walden, but there was no broadcast power on the liner, nor any on Darth. They'd leaked their charges and were quite useless. The one in his pocket would be useless, too.
He grimaced again and swerved to the building where the landing grid controls must be. He opened the door and went in. The interior was smoky and ill-smelling, but the equipment was wholly familiar. Two unshaven men—in violently colored shirts—languidly played cards. Only one, a redhead, paid attention to the controls of the landing grid. He watched dials. As Hoddan pushed his way in, he threw a switch and yawned. The ship was five diameters out from Darth, and he'd released it from the landing grid fields. He turned and saw Hoddan.
"What the hell do you want?" he demanded sharply.
"A few kilowatts," said Hoddan. The redhead's manner was not amiable.
"Get outta here!" he barked.
The transformers and snaky cables leading to relays outside—all were clear as print to Hoddan. He moved confidently toward an especially understandable panel, pulling out his stun-pistol and briskly breaking back the butt for charging. He shoved the pistol butt to contact with two terminals devised for another purpose, and the pistol slipped for an instant and a blue spark flared.
"Quit that!" roared the red-headed man. The unshaven men pushed back from their game of cards. One of them stood up, smiling unpleasantly.
The stun-pistol clicked. Hoddan withdrew it from charging-contact, flipped the butt shut, and turned toward the three men. Two of them charged him suddenly—the redhead and the unpleasant smiler.
The stun-pistol hummed. The redhead howled. He'd been hit in the hand. His unshaven companion buckled in the middle and fell to the floor. The third man backed away in panic, automatically raising his arms in surrender.
Hoddan saw no need for further action. He nodded graciously and went out of the control building, swinging the recharged pistol in his hand. In the warehouse, argument still raged over his possessions. He went in, briskly. Nobody looked at him. The casual appropriation of unguarded property was apparently a social norm, here. The man in the purple cloak was insisting furiously that he was a Darthian gentleman and he'd have his share or else—
"Those things," said Hoddan, "are mine. Put them back."
Faces turned to him, expressing shocked surprise. A man in dirty yellow pants stood up with a suit of Hoddan's underwear and a pair of shoes. He moved with great dignity to depart.
The stun-pistol buzzed. He leaped and howled and fled. Hoddan had aimed accurately enough, but prudence suggested that if he appeared to kill anybody, the matter might become serious. So he'd fired to sting the man with a stun-pistol bolt at about the same spot where, on Walden, he'd scorched members of a party of police in ambush. It was nice shooting. But this happened to be a time and place where prudence did not pay.
There was a concerted gasp of outrage. Men leaped to their feet. Large knives came out of elaborate holsters. Figures in all the colors of the rainbow—all badly soiled—roared their indignation and charged at Hoddan. They waved knives as they came.
He held down the stun-pistol trigger and traversed the rushing men. The whining buzz of the weapon was inaudible, at first, but before he released the trigger it was plainly to be heard. Then there was silence. His attackers formed a very untidy heap on the floor. They breathed stertorously. Hoddan began to retrieve his possessions. He rolled a man over, for the purpose.
A pair of very blue, apprehensive eyes stared at him. Their owner had stumbled over one man and been stumbled over by others. He gazed up at Hoddan, speechless.
"Hand me that, please," said Hoddan. He pointed.
* * * * *
The man in the purple cloak obeyed, shaking. Hoddan completed the recovery of all his belongings. He turned. The man in the purple cloak winced and closed his eyes.
"Hm-m-m," said Hoddan. He needed information. He wasn't likely to get it from the men in the grid's control room. He would hardly be popular with any of these, either. He irritably suspected himself of a tendency to make enemies unnecessarily. But he did need directions. He said: "I have a letter of introduction to one Don Loris, prince of something-or-other, lord of this, baron of that, and claimant to the dukedom of the other thing. Would you have any idea how I could reach him?"
The man in the purple cloak gaped at Hoddan.
"He is ... my chieftain," he said, aghast. "I ... am Thal, his most trusted retainer." Then he practically wailed, "You must be the man I was sent to meet! He sent me to learn if you came on the ship! I should have fought by your side! This is disgrace!"
"It's disgraceful," agreed Hoddan grimly. But he, who had been born and raised in a space-pirate community, should not be too critical of others. "Let it go. How do I find him?"
"I should take you!" complained Thal bitterly. "But you have killed all these men. Their friends and chieftains are honor bound to cut your throat! And you shot Merk, but he ran away, and he will be summoning his friends to come and kill you now! This is shame! This is—" Then he said hopefully: "Your strange weapon! How many men can you fight? If fifty, we may live to ride away. If more, we may even reach Don Loris' castle. How many?"
"We'll see what we see," said Hoddan dourly. "But I'd better charge these other pistols. You can come with me, or wait. I haven't killed these men. They're only stunned. They'll come around presently."
He went out of the warehouse, carrying the bag which was again loaded with uncharged stun-pistols. He went back to the grid's control room. He pushed it open and entered for the second time. The red-headed man swore and rubbed at his hand. The man who'd smiled unpleasantly lay in a heap on the floor. The second unshaven man jittered visibly at sight of Hoddan.
"I'm back," said Hoddan politely, "for more kilowatts."
He put his bag conveniently close to the terminals at which his pistols could be recharged. He snapped open a pistol butt and presented it to the electric contacts.
"Quaint customs you have here," he said conversationally. "Robbing a newcomer. Resenting his need for a few watts of power that comes free from the sky." The stun-pistol clicked. He snapped the butt shut and opened another, which he placed in contact for charging. "Making him act," he said acidly, "with manners as bad as the local ones. Going at him with knives so he has to be resentful in his turn." The second stun-pistol clicked. He closed it and began to charge a third. He said severely: "Innocent tourists—relatively innocent ones, anyhow—are not likely to be favorably impressed with Darth!" He had the charging process going swiftly now. He began to charge a fourth weapon. "It's particularly bad manners," he added sternly, "to stand there grinding your teeth at me while your friend behind the desk crawls after an old-fashioned chemical gun to shoot me with."
He snapped the fourth pistol shut and went after the man who'd dropped down behind a desk. He came upon that man, hopelessly panicked, just as his hands closed on a clumsy gun that was supposed to set off a chemical explosive to propel a metal bullet.
"Don't!" said Hoddan severely. "If I have to shoot you at this range, you'll have blisters!"
He took the weapon out of the other man's hands. He went back and finished charging the rest of the pistols.
He returned most of them to his bag, though he stuck others in his belt and pockets to the point where he looked like the fiction-tape pictures of space pirates. But he knew what space pirates were actually like. He moved to the door. As a last thought, he picked up the bullet-firing weapon.
"There's only one spaceship here a month," he observed politely, "so I'll be around. If you want to get in touch with me, ask Don Loris. I'm going to visit him while I look over professional opportunities on Darth."
He went out once more. Somehow he felt more cheerful than a half-hour since, when he'd landed as the only passenger from the space liner. Then he'd felt ignored and lonely and friendless on a strange and primitive world. He still had no friends, but he had already acquired some enemies and therefore material for more or less worthwhile achievement. He surveyed the sunlit scene about him from the control-room door.