Advance Agent
Chapter 5

Public Domain

On one side of the stairs as they climbed was a statue of a man, smiling. On the other side was an urn with a bunch of carved flowers lying beside it.

A big bronze door stood open at the top. They walked through into a large chamber with massive seats in triple rows along two walls, and a single row of yet more massive seats raised along the farther wall.

A bored-looking man got up from a low desk as the Milbuns sat down in three of the massive seats.

The man asked in a dreary voice, “Have you, to the best of your knowledge, committed any wrong or illegal act or acts since your last vacation?” He picked up a whiskbroom and pan and waited for their answers.

“No,” said the three Milbuns in earnest quavering voices.

The man looked at each of them, shrugged and said boredly, “Pass through to your vacations, live law-abiding citizens.” He beckoned impatiently to Dan, turned to scowl at him, saw Dan’s cape, stiffened, looked hastily out to the statue framed by the doorway, relaxed slightly and inquired respectfully, “Is it time for you to go on vacation, Devisement?”

“It seems to be,” said Dan.

“I think you should, sir. Then you’d be still more helpful if called.”

Dan nodded noncommittally and sat down in one of the massive chairs. His glance fell on an ornamental carving above the big doorway. It was a set of scales held by a giant hand. In one pan of the scales sat a smiling man. In the other was a small heap of ashes.

“Have you,” asked the bored man, “to the best of your knowledge, committed any wrong or illegal act or acts since your last vacation?”

He readied the dustpan and whiskbroom.

The Milbuns watched anxiously at a door in the back of the room.

Uneasily, Dan thought back and remembered no wrong or illegal acts he had committed since his last vacation.

“No,” he said.

The functionary stepped back. “Pass through to your vacation, live law-abiding citizen, sir.”

Dan got up and walked toward the Milbuns. Another bored functionary came in wheeling a cartful of urns. He stopped at a massive chair with a heap of ashes on the seat, a small pile on either arm, and two small piles at the foot. The functionary swept the ashes off and dumped them in the urn.

A cold sensation went through Dan. He followed the Milbuns out into a small room.

He felt an out-of-focus sensation and realized the room was a mataform transmitter. An instant later, they were in a spaceship crowded with thoughtful-looking people.

Life on the spaceship seemed to be given over to silent, morose meditation, with an occasional groan that sounded very much like, “Oh, give me just one more chance, God.”

When they left the ship, it was again by mataform, this time to a building where they stood in a line of people. The line wound through a booth where the color of their capes was marked on their foreheads, thence past a counter where they received strong khaki-colored capes, blouses and hose, and new leather shorts and boots to replace those they were wearing. They changed in tiny private rooms, handed their own clothing in at another counter, had a number stamped on their left shoulders and on their boxes of clothing.

Then they walked out onto a strip of brilliant white sand, fronting on an inlet of sparkling blue water.

Here and there huddled little crowded knots of people, dancing from one foot to another on the hot sand and yet apparently afraid to go in the water. Dan looked to the Milbuns for some clue and saw them darting intense calculating glances at the beach and the water.

Then Mr. Milbun yelled, “Run for it!

A slavering sound reached Dan’s ear. He sprinted after the Milbuns, burst through the crowd in a headlong bolt for the cove, then swam as fast as he could to keep up with them as they raced for the opposite shore. They crawled out, strangling and gasping, and dragged themselves up on the sand. Dan lay, heaving in deep breaths, then rolled over and sat up.

The air around them was split by screams, laced through with sobs, curses and groans. On the shore opposite, a mad dog darted across the crowded beach and emptied people into the cove. In the cove, a glistening black sweep of hide separated the water for an instant, then sank below. People thrashed, fought and went under.

Dan looked up. On the wooden building beyond the cove and the beach was a broad sign:


Dan read the sign three times. If this was rejuvenation, the Porcyns could have it.

Beside Dan, Milbun stood up, still struggling for breath, and pulled his wife and Mavis to their feet.

“Come on,” he said. “We’ve got to get through the swamp ahead of the grayboas!”

The rest of the day, they pushed through slimy muck up to their knees and sometimes up to their necks. Behind them, the crowd screamingly thinned out.

That night, they washed in icy spring water, tore chunks of meat from a huge broiled creature turning on a spit and went to sleep in tents to the buzz and drone of creatures that shot their long needle noses through the walls like drillers hunting for oil.

The following day, they spent carefully easing from crevice to narrow toehold up the sheer face of a mountain. Food and shelter were at the top. Jagged rocks and hungry creatures were at the bottom. That night, Dan slept right through an urgent buzz from Kielgaard. The next night, he woke enough to hear it, but he didn’t have the strength to answer.

Where, he thought, is the rejuvenation in this?

Then he had a sudden glimmering. It was the Porcyn race that was rejuvenated. The unfit of the Porcyns died violently. It took stamina just to live from one day to the next.

Even the Milbuns were saying that this was the worst vacation ever. Trails slid out from under them. Trees fell toward them. Boulders bounded down steep slopes at them.

At first, the Milbuns tried to remember forgotten sins for which all this might be repayment. But when there was the dull boom of an explosion and they narrowly escaped a landslide, Milbun looked at the rocks across the trail with sunken red eyes. He sniffed the air and growled, “Undevised.”

That afternoon, Dan and the Milbuns passed three average-looking men hanging by their hands from the limb of a tree beside the trail. The faces of the hanging men bore a surprised expression. They hung perfectly still and motionless, except for a slight swaying caused by the wind.

Dan and the Milbuns reached a mataform station late that afternoon.

A very hard-eyed guard in an orange cape, barred across the shoulders in black, let them through and they found themselves in another spaceship, bound for Fumidor, the mining planet.

Dan sat back exhausted and fell asleep. He was awakened by a determined buzz.

Dan!“ said Kielgaard’s voice.

“Yes.” Dan sat up. “Go ahead.”

“Trans-Space is going to try to take over Porcys. There’s nothing you can do about that, but they’ve landed agents on Vacation Planet to pick you off. Look out.”

Dan told Kielgaard what had happened to the agents on Vacation Planet, such as the “undevised” explosion and being hung up by the hands.

Kielgaard whistled. “Maybe the Porcyns can take care of themselves. Trans-Space doesn’t think so.”

“How did you find out?”

The tiny voice held a note of grim satisfaction. “They ran an agent in on us and he gave himself away. He went back with an organo-transmitter inside him, and a memory bank. The bank stores up the day’s impressions. The transmitter squirts them out in one multi-frequency blast. The agent is poorly placed for an informant, but we’ve learned a lot through him.”

“How are they going to take over Porcys?”

“We don’t know. They think they’ve found the Porcyns’ weak point, but if so, we don’t know what it is.”

“Listen,” urged Dan, “maybe we ought to put a lot of agents on Porcys.”

“No,” said Kielgaard. “That’s the wrong way to play it. If we go in now, we’ll be too late to do any good. We’re still counting on you.”

“There’s not very much I can do by myself.”

“Just do your best. That’s all we can ask.”

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