Search the Sky
ROSS was lucky. The second listed inhabited planet was still inhabited.
He had not quite stopped shuddering from the first when the approach radar caught him. The first planet was given in the master charts as “Ragansworld. Pop. 900,000,000; diam. 9400 m.; mean orbit 0.8 AU,” and its co-ordinates went on to describe it as the fourth planet of a small G-type sun. There had been some changes made: the co-ordinates now intersected well inside a bright and turbulent gas cloud.
It appeared that suppressing the F-T-L drive had not quite annihilated war.
But the second planet, Gemser—there, he was sure, was a world where nothing was seriously awry.
He left the ship mumbling a name to himself: “Franklin Foundation.” And he was greeted by a corporal’s guard of dignified and ceremonially dressed men; they smiled at him, welcomed him, shook his hand, and invited him to what seemed to be the local equivalent of the administration building. He noticed disapprovingly that they didn’t seem to go in for the elaborate decontamination procedures of Halsey’s Planet, but perhaps, he thought, they had bred disease-resistance into their bloodlines. Certainly the four men in his guide party seemed hale and well-preserved, though the youngest of them was not less than sixty.
“I would like,” he said, “to be put in touch with the Franklin Foundation, please.”
“Come right in here,” beamed one of the four, and another said:
“Don’t worry about a thing.” They held the door for him, and he walked into a small and sybaritically furnished room. The second man said, “Just a few questions. Where are you from?”
Ross said simply, “Halsey’s Planet,” and waited.
Nothing happened, except that all four men nodded comprehendingly, and the questioner made a mark on a sheet of paper. Ross amplified, “Fifty-three light years away. You know—another star.”
“Certainly,” the man said briskly. “Your name?”
Ross told him, but with a considerable feeling of deflation. He thought wryly of his own feelings about the longlines and the far stars; he remembered the stir and community excitement that a starship meant back home. Still, Ross told himself. Halsey’s Planet might be just a back eddy in the main currents of civilization. Quite possibly on another world—this one, for instance—travelers from the stars were a commonplace. The field hadn’t seemed overly busy, though; and there was nothing resembling a spaceship. Unless—he thought with a sudden sense of shock—those rusting hulks clumped together at the edge of the field had once been spaceships. But that was hardly likely, he reassured himself. You just don’t let spaceships rust.
“Sex?” the man asked, and “Age?” “Education?” “Marital status?” The questions went on for more time than Ross quite understood; and they seemed far from relevant questions for the most part; and some of them were hard questions to answer. “Tau quotient?” for instance; Ross blinked and said, with an edge to his voice:
“I don’t know what a tau quotient is.”
“Put him down as zero,” one of the men advised, and the interlocutor nodded happily.
“Working-with-others rating?” he asked, beaming.
Ross said with controlled irritation, “Look, I don’t know anything about these ratings. Will you take me to somebody who can put me in touch with the Franklin Foundation?”
The man who was sitting next to him patted him gently on the shoulder. “Just answer the questions,” he said comfortably. “Everything will be all right.”
Ross flared, “The hell everything will——”
Something with electrified spikes in it hit him on the back of the neck.
Ross yelled and ducked away; the man next to him returned a little rod to his pocket. He smiled at Ross. “Don’t feel bad,” he said sympathetically. “Go ahead now, answer the questions.”
Ross shook his head dazedly. The pain was already leaving his neck, but he felt nauseated by the suddenness and sharpness of it; he could not remember any pain quite like that in his life. He stood up waveringly and said, “Wait a minute, now——”
This time it was the man on the other side, and the pain was about twice as sharp. Ross found himself on the floor, looking up through a haze. The man on his right kept the rod in his hand, and the expression on his face, while in no way angry, was stern. “Bad boy,” he said tenderly. “Why don’t you want to answer the questions?”
Ross gasped, “God damn it, all I want is to see somebody! Keep your dirty hands off me, you old fools!” And that was a mistake, as he learned in the blessedly few minutes before he passed out completely under the little rods held by the gentle but determined men.
He answered all the questions—bound to a chair, with two of the men behind him, when he had regained consciousness. He answered every one. They only had to hit him twice.
When they untied him the next morning, Ross had caught on to the local folkways quite well. The fatherly fellow who released him said, “Follow me,” and stood back, smiling but with one hand on one of the little rods. And Ross was careful to say:
They rode in a three-wheeled car, and entered a barracks-like building. Ross was left alone next to a bed in a dormitory with half a hundred beds. “Just wait here,” the man said, smiling. “The rest of your group is out at their morning session now. When they come in for lunch you can join them. They’ll show you what to do.”
Ross didn’t have too long to wait. He spent the time in conjecture as confused as it was fruitless; he had obviously done something wrong, but just what was it?
If he had had twice as long he would have got no farther toward an answer than he was: nowhere. But a noise outside ended his speculations. He glanced toward the curiously shaped door—all the doors on this planet seemed to be rectangular. A girl of about eighteen was peering inside.
She stared at Ross and said, “Oh!” Then she disappeared. There were footsteps and whispers, and more heads appeared and blinked at him and were jerked back.
Ross stood up in wretched apprehension. All of a sudden he was fourteen years old again, and entering a new school where the old hands were giggling and whispering about the new boy. He swore sullenly to himself.
A new face appeared, halted for an inspection of Ross, and walked confidently in. The man was a good forty years old, Ross thought; perhaps a kind of overseer in this institution—whatever kind of institution it was. He approached Ross at a sedate pace, and he was followed through the door in single file by a couple score men and women. They ranged in age, Ross thought wonderingly, from the leader’s forty down to the late teens of the girl who had first peered in the door, and now was at the end of the procession.
The leader said, “How old are you?”
“Why, uh——” Ross figured confusedly: this planet’s annual orbital period was roughly forty per cent longer than his own; fourteen into his age, multiplied by ten, making his age in their local calculations...
“Why, I’m nineteen of your years old, about. And a half.”
“Yes. And what can you do?”
“Look here, sir. I’ve been through all this once. Why don’t you go and ask those gentlemen who brought me here? And can anybody tell me where the Franklin Foundation is?”
The fortyish fellow, with a look of outrage, slapped Ross across the mouth. Ross knocked him down with a roundhouse right.
A girl yelled, “Good for you, Junior!” and jumped like a wildcat onto a slim, gray-haired lady, clawing, and slapping. The throng dissolved immediately into a wild melee. Ross, busily fighting off the fortyish fellow and a couple of his stocky buddies, noted only that the scrap was youth against age, whatever it meant.
“How dare you?” a voice thundered, and the rioters froze.
A decrepit wreck was standing in the doorway, surrounded by three or four gerontological textbook cases only a little less spavined than he. “Glory,” a girl muttered despairingly. “It would be the minister.”
“What is the meaning of this brawl?” rolled from the wreck’s shriveled lips in a rich basso—no; rolled, Ross noted, from a flat perforated plate on his chest. There was a small, flesh-colored mike slung before his lips. “Who is responsible here?” asked the golden basso.
Ross’s fortyish assailant said humbly: “I am, sir. This new fellow here——”
“Manners! Speak when you’re spoken to.”
Abjectly: “Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”
“Silly fools!” the senile wreck hectored them. “I’m going to take no official notice of this since I’m merely passing through. Luckily for you this is no formal inspection. But you’ve lost your lunch hour with your asinine pranks. Now get back to your work and never let me hear of a disgraceful incident like this again from Junior Unit Twenty-Three.”
He swept out with his retinue. Ross noted that some of the younger girls were crying and that the older men and women were glaring at him murderously.
“We’ll teach you manners, you pup,” the foreman-type said. “You go on the dye vats this afternoon. Any more trouble and you’ll miss a few meals.”
Ross told him: “Just keep your hands off me, mister.”
The foreman-type expanded into a beam of pleasure. “I thought you’d be sensible,” he said. “Everybody to the plant, now!” He collared a pretty girl of about Ross’s age. “Helena here is working out a bit of insolence on the dye vats herself. She’ll show you.” The girl stood with downcast eyes. Ross liked her face and wondered about her figure. Whatever it was like, it was covered from neck to knee by a loose shirt. But the older women wore fitted clothes.
The foreman-type led a grand procession through the door. Helena told Ross: “I guess you’d better get in front of me in line. I go here——” She slipped in deftly, and Ross understood a little more of what went on here. The procession was in order of age.
He had determined to drift for a day or two—not that he seemed to have much choice. The Franklin Foundation, supposedly having endured a good many years, would last another week while he explored the baffling mores of this place and found out how to circumvent them and find his way to the keepers of F-T-L on this world. Nobody would go anywhere with his own ship—not without first running up a setting for the Wesley Drive!
The line filed into a factory whose like Ross had never before seen. He had a fair knowledge of and eye for industrial processes; it was clear that the place was an electric-cable works. But why was the concrete floor dangerously cracked and sloppily patched? Why was the big enameling oven rumbling and stinking? Why were the rolling mills in a far corner unsupplied with guards and big, easy-to-hit emergency cutoffs? Why was the light bad and the air full of lint? Why did the pickling tank fume and make the workers around it cough hackingly? Most pointed of all, why did the dye vats to which Helena led him stink and slop over?
There were grimy signs everywhere, including the isolated bay where braiding cord was dyed the standard code colors. The signs said things like: AGE IS A PRIVILEGE AND NOT A RIGHT. AGE MUST BE EARNED BY WORK. GRATITUDE IS THE INDEX OF YOUR PROGRESS TO MATURITY.
Helena said girlishly as she took his arm and hooked him out of the moving line: “Here’s Stinkville. Believe me, I’m not going to talk back again. After all, one’s maturity is measured by one’s acceptance of one’s environment, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” said Ross. “Listen, Helena, have you ever heard of a place called the Franklin Foundation?”
“No,” she said. “First you climb up here—golly! I don’t even know your name.”