It was a small world, a tiny spinning globe, placed in the universe to weather and age by itself until the end of things. But because its air was good and its earth was fertile, Daniel Loveral had placed a finger upon a map and said, “This is the planet. This is the Dream Planet.”
That was two years before, back on Earth. And now Loveral with his selected flock had shot through space, to light like chuckling geese upon the planet, to feel the effect of their dreams come true.
Loveral was sitting in his office, drumming his long fingers against his desk while the name, Atkinson, ticked through his brain like the sound of a sewing machine.
Would he be the only one, Loveral asked himself, or was he just the first? In either case, it was up to Loveral, as leader and guiding hand, to stop this thing and stop it quickly.
Loveral stood up and put on his jacket, although there was no need for it, other than the formality it gave his figure.
He stepped out of his office into a clear bright day, where the air was clean and fresh in his lungs, at once like frost and fire and sweet perfume. He walked along a winding path, which was bordered by slim-necked flowers and a short hedge whose even clipped lines were kept neat by tireless robot hands.
Trees pointed to a blue sky, rocking and fluttering their leaves in a soft breeze, and glinting metallic houses lay peacefully beyond in wooded hollows and upon slight hills.
A whole small world was before his eyes, set there upon his direction, maintained by himself with the help of a dozen complex machines which lay locked and sealed in the Maintenance Room for only his fingers to touch.
It was a busy life for Loveral, up at dawn to work until deep night, keeping his flock happy and free from spirit-killing labor. But it was a perfect plan, one which had been tested and turned in his mind for years. If he had to work hard to keep it running smoothly, that was all right. In fact, he had never been happier.
Now, however, there was this business about Atkinson. Loveral was disturbed about that.
He walked on, over the quiet path which would lead to the house where Atkinson and his wife lived. Loveral smiled, in readiness for any happy face that might appear before him, to greet him, to show with thankful eyes appreciation for his wonderful world. But that, too, brought thoughts that were a bit disturbing.
Lately there had been few such faces. Most of his flock no longer seemed to care about walking along the cultivated paths, or smiling, or nodding, or touching a leaf here or a flower there. They preferred, it appeared, to remain deep inside their houses, as though they might have become tired of the soft perfection of Dream Planet. As though they might have become weary of quiet woods and sweet bird-music or a sky which was always blue.
Loveral shook his head as he walked, puzzling out his thoughts. It was strange, but nothing to worry about certainly.
Just this business about Atkinson. That was his only worry.
He came slowly up a hill, the top of which held a low curving house, with a silver roof and wide, sweeping windows. There were yellow and blue and deep red flowers, skirting the sides of the house, and green ivy grew thickly between the glistening windows. The lawn, dotted with small leafy trees and round bushes, sloped down from the front of the house, looking like a carefully arranged painting.
Loveral pressed a button beside a shining door and waited, smiling through his pale blue kindly eyes.
Mrs. Atkinson appeared after several moments and stood blinking at him. She was a thin woman, who seemed to have gotten even thinner, Loveral noticed. She was working her fingers at the neck of her dress. She smiled but her lips wavered.
“My dear,” Loveral greeted her in his soft voice, showing the goodness in his eyes.
She nodded her recognition, opening her mouth without speaking.
“May I?” said Loveral finally, waving his long fingers toward the living room.
“Oh, yes,” said the woman. “Of course, Mr. Loveral.” And as she spoke Loveral had the impression she might suddenly begin crying.
Loveral followed the woman into the house, noticing all over again the precise way everything had been arranged. The rug was soft beneath his feet, and the light came in through the windows in such a way that it, too, became soft. The furniture, molded to hold a human body most comfortably, rested about the room in perfect efficiency.
“Your place is so lovely,” Loveral said, out of his old habit from Earth. But his words seemed to ring strangely in the quiet, because it was his own arrangement, like all the other rooms on the planet. And Mrs. Atkinson, standing thin and nervous before him, had nothing, after all, to do with it. The cleanliness was the work of his robot machines, the planning his own. It was like complimenting himself.
He cleared his throat and stood, smiling his most benevolent smile to reassure Mrs. Atkinson.
“Ah, my dear. Is George about?”
Again, the woman’s hand skittered to her throat.
“He’s not ill, surely?” Loveral asked, although this, too, was silly, because foods, selected and prepared for utmost nutrition, packed and frozen to be doled out in weekly quantities, purified air, disease-killing serums, simply written folders on exercise, and of course Loveral’s own philosophies of quiet, peaceful living--all of this guarded well the health of Dream Planet’s flock.
The woman shook her head. “No, George is fine. He’s just--sleeping, I think.”
“Rest is nature’s finest tonic,” said Loveral, and hearing his voice thought suddenly there was hardly anything he could say any more that might not sound a bit out of place in this peaceful world. Rest to the man who had nothing to do ceased to be a tonic.
“Yes, yes,” said Loveral. “May we just sit down, my dear?”
Mrs. Atkinson jerked a hand toward one of the chairs and then wound her fingers.
Loveral sat down and leaned back, smiling his most charming smile. “Perhaps George might awaken after a bit?”
“Oh, yes,” the woman said, her eyes flickering, and she sat upon the edge of one chair, like a bird perched upon a thin wire.
Loveral waited, legs crossed, leaning his head back against the silken softness of the chair. It was so good to relax these days. The business of watching and of caring for his flock was trying. When you have brought an entire community of people at great expense through space, guaranteeing to give them a life of constant comfort and ease, so that they might dream and think as they wander through the flowers and the leaves, their thoughts cleansed of worry about work and responsibility, then you have a job. Loveral was most busy, busier than his heritage of wealth ever before had allowed, seeing to all of this.
But he also was most content--with everything except Atkinson.
Mrs. Atkinson teetered on the edge of her chair, as though she might at any moment go flying across the room in a crazy gyration. There was something about her eyes, Loveral noticed, while he peacefully nodded in the chair. Fear, perhaps.
If so, he probably had been right. He tightened himself, listening. There it was again. The sound. Just as he had heard it a day before when he had passed near the house. He leaned forward quickly.
Mrs. Atkinson jumped.
Loveral smiled. “Didn’t I hear a noise of some sort, my dear?”
“Noise?” the woman said, as though her own voice were the sound of an echo.
“An odd noise,” Loveral said, his eyes searching.
The woman’s hands fluttered about her dress.
Loveral stood up. “Would you mind if I just glanced about, my dear?”