Jack Holloway found himself squinting, the orange sun full in his eyes. H_aised a hand to push his hat forward, then lowered it to the controls t_lter the pulse rate of the contragravity-field generators and lift th_anipulator another hundred feet. For a moment he sat, puffing on the shor_ipe that had yellowed the corners of his white mustache, and looked down a_he red rag tied to a bush against the rock face of the gorge five hundre_ards away. He was smiling in anticipation.
"This'll be a good one," he told himself aloud, in the manner of men who hav_ong been their own and only company. "I want to see this one go up."
He always did. He could remember at least a thousand blast-shots he had fire_ack along the years and on more planets than he could name at the moment, including a few thermonuclears, but they were all different and they wer_lways something to watch, even a little one like this. Flipping the switch, his thumb found the discharger button and sent out a radio impulse; the re_ag vanished in an upsurge of smoke and dust that mounted out of the gorge an_urned to copper when the sunlight touched it. The big manipulator, weightles_n contragravity, rocked gently; falling debris pelted the trees and splashe_n the little stream.
He waited till the machine stabilized, then glided it down to where he ha_ipped a gash in the cliff with the charge of cataclysmite. Good shot: brough_own a lot of sandstone, cracked the vein of flint and hadn't thrown it aroun_oo much. A lot of big slabs were loose. Extending the forward claw-arms, h_ulled and tugged, and then used the underside grapples to pick up a chunk an_rop it on the flat ground between the cliff and the stream. He droppe_nother chunk on it, breaking both of them, and then another and another, until he had all he could work over the rest of the day. Then he set down, go_he toolbox and the long-handled contragravity lifter, and climbed to th_round where he opened the box, put on gloves and an eyescreen and got out _icroray scanner and a vibrohammer.
The first chunk he cracked off had nothing in it; the scanner gave th_ninterrupted pattern of homogenous structure. Picking it up with the lifter, he swung it and threw it into the stream. On the fifteenth chunk, he got a_nterruption pattern that told him that a sunstone—or something, probabl_omething—was inside.
Some fifty million years ago, when the planet that had been called Zarathustra (for the last twenty-five million) was young, there had existed a marine lif_orm, something like a jellyfish. As these died, they had sunk into the sea- bottom ooze; sand had covered the ooze and pressed it tighter and tighter, until it had become glassy flint, and the entombed jellyfish little beans o_ense stone. Some of them, by some ancient biochemical quirk, were intensel_hermofluorescent; worn as gems, they glowed from the wearer's body heat.
On Terra or Baldur or Freya or Ishtar, a single cut of polished sunstone wa_orth a small fortune. Even here, they brought respectable prices from th_arathustra Company's gem buyers. Keeping his point of expectation safely low, he got a smaller vibrohammer from the toolbox and began chipping cautiousl_round the foreign object, until the flint split open and revealed a smoot_ellow ellipsoid, half an inch long.
"Worth a thousand sols—if it's worth anything," he commented. A deft tap here, another there, and the yellow bean came loose from the flint. Picking it up, he rubbed it between gloved palms. "I don't think it is." He rubbed harder, then held it against the hot bowl of his pipe. It still didn't respond. H_ropped it. "Another jellyfish that didn't live right."
Behind him, something moved in the brush with a dry rustling. He dropped th_oose glove from his right hand and turned, reaching toward his hip. Then h_aw what had made the noise—a hard-shelled thing a foot in length, with twelv_egs, long antennae and two pairs of clawed mandibles. He stopped and picke_p a shard of flint, throwing it with an oath. Another damned infernal land- prawn.
He detested land-prawns. They were horrible things, which, of course, wasn'_heir fault. More to the point, they were destructive. They got into things a_amp; they would try to eat anything. They crawled into machinery, possibl_inding the lubrication tasty, and caused jams. They cut into electri_nsulation. And they got into his bedding, and bit, or rather pinched, painfully. Nobody loved a land-prawn, not even another land-prawn.
This one dodged the thrown flint, scuttled off a few feet and turned, wavin_ts antennae in what looked like derision. Jack reached for his hip again, then checked the motion. Pistol cartridges cost like crazy; they weren't to b_asted in fits of childish pique. Then he reflected that no cartridge fired a_ target is really wasted, and that he hadn't done any shooting recently.
Stooping again, he picked up another stone and tossed it a foot short and t_he left of the prawn. As soon as it was out of his fingers, his hand went fo_he butt of the long automatic. It was out and the safety off before the flin_anded; as the prawn fled, he fired from the hip. The quasi-crustacea_isintegrated. He nodded pleasantly.
"Ol' man Holloway's still hitting things he shoots at."
Was a time, not so long ago, when he took his abilities for granted. Now h_as getting old enough to have to verify them. He thumbed on the safety an_olstered the pistol, then picked up the glove and put it on again.
Never saw so blasted many land-prawns as this summer. They'd been bad las_ear, but nothing like this. Even the oldtimers who'd been on Zarathustr_ince the first colonization said so. There'd be some simple explanation, o_ourse; something that would amaze him at his own obtuseness for not havin_een it at once. Maybe the abnormally dry weather had something to do with it.
Or increase of something they ate, or decrease of natural enemies.
He'd heard that land-prawns had no natural enemies; he questioned that.
Something killed them. He'd seen crushed prawn shells, some of them close t_is camp. Maybe stamped on by something with hoofs, and then picked clean b_nsects. He'd ask Ben Rainsford; Ben ought to know.
Half an hour later, the scanner gave him another interruption pattern. He lai_t aside and took up the small vibrohammer. This time it was a large bean, light pink in color, He separated it from its matrix of flint and rubbed it, and instantly it began glowing.
"Ahhh! This is something like it, now!"
He rubbed harder; warmed further on his pipe bowl, it fairly blazed. Bette_han a thousand sols, he told himself. Good color, too. Getting his glove_ff, he drew out the little leather bag from under his shirt, loosening th_rawstrings by which it hung around his neck. There were a dozen and a hal_tones inside, all bright as live coals. He looked at them for a moment, an_ropped the new sunstone in among them, chuckling happily.
Victor Grego, listening to his own recorded voice, rubbed the sunstone on hi_eft finger with the heel of his right palm and watched it brighten. Ther_as, he noticed, a boastful ring to his voice—not the suave, unemphatic ton_onsidered proper on a message-tape. Well, if anybody wondered why, when the_layed that tape off six months from now in Johannesburg on Terra, they coul_ook in the cargo holds of the ship that had brought it across five hundre_ight-years of space. Ingots of gold and platinum and gadolinium. Furs an_iochemicals and brandy. Perfumes that defied synthetic imitation; hardwood_o plastic could copy. Spices. And the steel coffer full of sunstones. Almos_ll luxury goods, the only really dependable commodities in interstella_rade.
And he had spoken of other things. Veldbeest meat, up seven per cent from las_onth, twenty per cent from last year, still in demand on a dozen planet_nable to produce Terran-type foodstuffs. Grain, leather, lumber. And he ha_dded a dozen more items to the lengthening list of what Zarathustra could no_roduce in adequate quantities and no longer needed to import. Not fishhook_nd boot buckles, either—blasting explosives and propellants, contragravity- field generator parts, power tools, pharmaceuticals, synthetic textiles. Th_ompany didn't need to carry Zarathustra any more; Zarathustra could carry th_ompany, and itself.
Fifteen years ago, when the Zarathustra Company had sent him here, there ha_een a cluster of log and prefab huts beside an improvised landing field, almost exactly where this skyscraper now stood. Today, Mallorysport was a cit_f seventy thousand; in all, the planet had a population of nearly a million, and it was still growing. There were steel mills and chemical plants an_eaction plants and machine works. They produced all their own fissionables, and had recently begun to export a little refined plutonium; they had eve_tarted producing collapsium shielding.
The recorded voice stopped. He ran back the spool, set for sixty-speed, an_ransmitted it to the radio office. In twenty minutes, a copy would be aboar_he ship that would hyper out for Terra that night. While he was finishing, his communication screen buzzed.
"Dr. Kellogg's screening you, Mr. Grego," the girl in the outside office tol_im.
He nodded. Her hands moved, and she vanished in a polychromatic explosion; when it cleared, the chief of the Division of Scientific Study and Researc_as looking out of the screen instead. Looking slightly upward at the showbac_ver his own screen, Victor was getting his warm, sympathetic, sincere an_lightly too toothy smile on straight.
"Hello, Leonard. Everything going all right?"
It either was and Leonard Kellogg wanted more credit than he deserved or i_asn't and he was trying to get somebody else blamed for it before anybod_ould blame him.
"Good afternoon, Victor." Just the right shade of deference about using th_irst name—big wheel to bigger wheel. "Has Nick Emmert been talking to yo_bout the Big Blackwater project today?"
Nick was the Federation's resident-general; on Zarathustra he was, to al_ntents and purposes, the Terran Federation Government. He was also a larg_tockholder in the chartered Zarathustra Company.
"No. Is he likely to?"
"Well, I wondered, Victor. He was on my screen just now. He says there's som_dverse talk about the effect on the rainfall in the Piedmont area of Bet_ontinent. He was worried about it."
"Well, it would affect the rainfall. After all, we drained half a millio_quare miles of swamp, and the prevailing winds are from the west. There'd b_ess atmospheric moisture to the east of it. Who's talking adversely about it, and what worries Nick?"
"Well, Nick's afraid of the effect on public opinion on Terra. You know ho_trong conservation sentiment is; everybody's very much opposed to any sort o_estructive exploitation."
"Good Lord! The man doesn't call the creation of five hundred thousand squar_iles of new farmland destructive exploitation, does he?"
"Well, no, Nick doesn't call it that; of course not. But he's concerned abou_ome garbled story getting to Terra about our upsetting the ecological balanc_nd causing droughts. Fact is, I'm rather concerned myself."
He knew what was worrying both of them. Emmert was afraid the Federatio_olonial Office would blame him for drawing fire on them from th_onservationists. Kellogg was afraid he'd be blamed for not predicting th_ffects before his division endorsed the project. As a division chief, he ha_dvanced as far as he would in the Company hierarchy; now he was on a Re_ueen's racetrack, running like hell to stay in the same place.
"The rainfall's dropped ten per cent from last year, and fifteen per cent fro_he year before that," Kellogg was saying. "And some non-Company people hav_otten hold of it, and so had Interworld News. Why, even some of my people ar_alking about ecological side-effects. You know what will happen when a stor_ike that gets back to Terra. The conservation fanatics will get hold of it, and the Company'll be criticized."
That would hurt Leonard. He identified himself with the Company. It wa_omething bigger and more powerful than he was, like God.
Victor Grego identified the Company with himself. It was something big an_owerful, like a vehicle, and he was at the controls.
"Leonard, a little criticism won't hurt the Company," he said. "Not where i_atters, on the dividends. I'm afraid you're too sensitive to criticism. Wher_id Emmert get this story anyhow? From your people?"
"No, absolutely not, Victor. That's what worries him. It was this ma_ainsford who started it."
"Dr. Bennett Rainsford, the naturalist. Institute of Zeno-Sciences. I neve_rusted any of those people; they always poke their noses into things, and th_nstitute always reports their findings to the Colonial Office."
"I know who you mean now; little fellow with red whiskers, always looks a_hough he'd been sleeping in his clothes. Why, of course the Zeno-Science_eople poke their noses into things, and of course they report their finding_o the government." He was beginning to lose patience. "I don't see what al_his is about, Leonard. This man Rainsford just made a routine observation o_eteorological effects. I suggest you have your meteorologists check it, an_f it's correct pass it on to the news services along with your othe_cientific findings."
"Nick Emmert thinks Rainsford is a Federation undercover agent."
That made him laugh. Of course there were undercover agents on Zarathustra, hundreds of them. The Company had people here checking on him; he knew an_ccepted that. So did the big stockholders, like Interstellar Explorations an_he Banking Cartel and Terra Baldur-Marduk Spacelines. Nick Emmert had hi_orps of spies and stool pigeons, and the Terran Federation had people her_atching both him and Emmert. Rainsford could be a Federation agent—a rovin_aturalist would have a wonderful cover occupation. But this Big Blackwate_usiness was so utterly silly. Nick Emmert had too much graft on hi_onscience; it was too bad that overloaded consciences couldn't blow fuses.
"Suppose he is, Leonard. What could he report on us? We are a chartere_ompany, and we have an excellent legal department, which keeps us safel_nside our charter. It is a very liberal charter, too. This is a Class-II_ninhabited planet; the Company owns the whole thing outright. We can d_nything we want as long as we don't violate colonial law or the Federatio_onstitution. As long as we don't do that, Nick Emmert hasn't anything t_orry about. Now forget this whole damned business, Leonard!" He was beginnin_o speak sharply, and Kellogg was looking hurt. "I know you were concerne_bout injurious reports getting back to Terra, and that was quite commendable, but… ."
By the time he got through, Kellogg was happy again. Victor blanked th_creen, leaned back in his chair and began laughing. In a moment, the scree_uzzed again. When he snapped it on, his screen-girl said:
"Mr. Henry Stenson's on, Mr. Grego."
"Well, put him on." He caught himself just before adding that it would be _elcome change to talk to somebody with sense.
The face that appeared was elderly and thin; the mouth was tight, and ther_ere squint-wrinkles at the corners of the eyes.
"Well, Mr. Stenson. Good of you to call. How are you?"
"Very well, thank you. And you?" When he also admitted to good health, th_aller continued: "How is the globe running? Still in synchronization?"
Victor looked across the office at his most prized possession, the big glob_f Zarathustra that Henry Stenson had built for him, supported six feet fro_he floor on its own contragravity unit, spotlighted in orange to represen_he KO sun, its two satellites circling about it as it revolved slowly.
"The globe itself is keeping perfect time, and Darius is all right, Xerxes i_ few seconds of longitude ahead of true position."
"That's dreadful, Mr. Grego!" Stenson was deeply shocked. "I must adjust tha_he first thing tomorrow. I should have called to check on it long ago, bu_ou know how it is. So many things to do, and so little time."
"I find the same trouble myself, Mr. Stenson." They chatted for a while, an_hen Stenson apologized for taking up so much of Mr. Grego's valuable time.
What he meant was that his own time, just as valuable to him, was wasting.
After the screen blanked, Grego sat looking at it for a moment, wishing he ha_ hundred men like Henry Stenson in his own organization. Just men wit_tenson's brains and character; wishing for a hundred instrument makers wit_tenson's skills would have been unreasonable, even for wishing. There wa_nly one Henry Stenson, just as there had been only one Antonio Stradivari.
Why a man like that worked in a little shop on a frontier planet lik_arathustra… .
Then he looked, pridefully, at the globe. Alpha Continent had moved slowly t_he right, with the little speck that represented Mallorysport twinkling i_he orange light. Darius, the inner moon, where the Terra-Baldur-Mardu_pacelines had their leased terminal, was almost directly over it, and th_ther moon, Xerxes, was edging into sight. Xerxes was the one thing abou_arathustra that the Company didn't own; the Terran Federation had retaine_hat as a naval base. It was the one reminder that there was something bigge_nd more powerful than the Company.
Gerd van Riebeek saw Ruth Ortheris leave the escalator, step aside and stan_ooking around the cocktail lounge. He set his glass, with its inch of tepi_ighball, on the bar; when her eyes shifted in his direction, he waved to her, saw her brighten and wave back and then went to meet her. She gave him a quic_iss on the cheek, dodged when he reached for her and took his arm.
"Drink before we eat?" he asked.
"Oh, Lord, yes! I've just about had it for today."
He guided her toward one of the bartending machines, inserted his credit key, and put a four-portion jug under the spout, dialing the cocktail they alway_ad when they drank together. As he did, he noticed what she was wearing: short black jacket, lavender neckerchief, light gray skirt. Not her usua_acation get-up.
"School department drag you back?" he asked as the jug filled.
"Juvenile court." She got a couple of glasses from the shelf under the machin_s he picked up the jug. "A fifteen-year-old burglar."
They found a table at the rear of the room, out of the worst of the cocktail- hour uproar. As soon as he filled her glass, she drank half of it, then lit _igarette.
"Junktown?" he asked.
She nodded. "Only twenty-five years since this planet was discovered, and w_ave slums already. I was over there most of the afternoon, with a pair o_ity police." She didn't seem to want to talk about it. "What were you doin_oday?"
"Ruth, you ought to ask Doc Mallin to drop in on Leonard Kellogg sometime, an_ive him an unobstusive going over."
"You haven't been having trouble with him again?" she asked anxiously.
He made a face, and then tasted his drink. "It's trouble just being aroun_hat character. Ruth, to use one of those expressions your professio_eplores, Len Kellogg is just plain nuts!" He drank some more of his cocktai_nd helped himself to one of her cigarettes. "Here," he continued, afte_ighting it. "A couple of days ago, he told me he'd been getting inquirie_bout this plague of land-prawns they're having over on Beta. He wanted me t_et up a research project to find out why and what to do about it."
"I did. I made two screen calls, and then I wrote a report and sent it up t_im. That was where I jerked my trigger; I ought to have taken a couple o_eeks and made a real production out of it."
"What did you tell him?"
"The facts. The limiting factor on land-prawn increase is the weather. Th_ggs hatch underground and the immature prawns dig their way out in th_pring. If there's been a lot of rain, most of them drown in their holes or a_oon as they emerge. According to growth rings on trees, last spring was th_riest in the Beta Piedmont in centuries, so most of them survived, and a_hey're parthenogenetic females, they all laid eggs. This spring, it was eve_rier, so now they have land prawns all over central Beta. And I don't kno_hat anything can be done about them."
"Well, did he think you were just guessing?"
He shook his head in exasperation. "I don't know what he thinks. You're th_sychologist, you try to figure it. I sent him that report yesterday morning.
He seemed quite satisfied with it at the time. Today, just after noon, he sen_or me and told me it wouldn't do at all. Tried to insist that the rainfall o_eta had been normal. That was silly; I referred him to his meteorologists an_limatologists, where I'd gotten my information. He complained that the new_ervices were after him for an explanation. I told him I'd given him the onl_xplanation there was. He said he simply couldn't use it. There had to be som_ther explanation."
"If you don't like the facts, you ignore them, and if you need facts, dream u_ome you do like," she said. "That's typical rejection of reality. No_sychotic, not even psychoneurotic. But certainly not sane." She had finishe_er first drink and was sipping slowly at her second. "You know, this i_nteresting. Does he have some theory that would disqualify yours?"
"Not that I know of. I got the impression that he just didn't want the subjec_f rainfall on Beta discussed at all."
"That is odd. Has anything else peculiar been happening over on Beta lately?"
"No. Not that I know of," he repeated. "Of course, that swamp-drainage projec_ver there was what caused the dry weather, last year and this year, but _on't see… ." His own glass was empty, and when he tilted the jug over it, _ew drops trickled out. He looked at his watch. "Think we could have anothe_ocktail before dinner?" he asked.