Chapter 1

It was, as usual, a decision on which the question of peace or atomic war depended. The Council of the Western Defense Alliance, as usual, had made the decision. And, as usual, the WDA Coordinator had to tell the Com Ambassador that the Coms had won again. The WDA would not risk atomic war over a thirty-mile shift of a national border in southeast Asia.

“Perhaps,” said the Com Ambassador politely, “it will be easier for you personally if I admit that our Intelligence Service has reported the decision of your Council.” He paused, and added, “in detail.”

The Coordinator asked wearily, “How much detail?”

“First,” said the Ambassador, “you are to insist that no decision has been reached. You are to play for time. If I do not agree, you are to offer to compromise. If I do not agree, you are to accept the settlement we suggested. But you are to ask urgently for time in which to remove the citizens we might feel ought to be shot. This is not an absolute condition, but you are to use every possible means to persuade me to grant it.”

The Coordinator ground his teeth. But the Council wouldn’t go to war for a few thousand citizens of an Asiatic country--who would probably be killed in the war anyhow. There would be millions killed in Western countries if the war did come.

“I have much respect for you,” said the Ambassador politely, “so I agree to three days of delay during which you may evacuate disloyal citizens by helicopter. On the fourth day our troops will move up to the new border. It would be unfortunate if there were clashes on the way.”

“We can’t get them out in three days!” protested the Coordinator. “It’s impossible! We haven’t enough copters!”

“With warning to flee,” said the Ambassador, “many can reach the new border on foot.”

The Coordinator ground his teeth again. That would be a public disgrace--and not the first one--for the WDA for not protecting its friends. But the public in the Western nations did not want war. It would not allow its governments to fight over trivial matters. Its alliance could not make threats. On the other hand, the public in the Com nations had no opinions its governments had not decreed. The Com nations could threaten. They could even carry out threats, though made for trivialities. So the WDA found itself yielding upon one point after another. Eventually it would fight, and fight bravely, but too late.

The Coordinator said heavily, “You will excuse me, Mr. Ambassador. I have to see about getting as many copters as possible to southeast Asia.”

Some hundreds of light-years away, the Survey ship Lotus floated in space, a discreet number of millions of miles from the local sun. It was on a strictly scientific mission, so it would not be subject to Com suspicion of having undesirable political intentions. At least they hadn’t demanded to have an observer on board. Com intelligence reports were notoriously sound, however, and possibly spies had assured their employers that the Lotus’s mission was bona fide. Her errand was the mapping and first-examination of a series of sol-type solar systems. This was the ninth such system on the list. The third planet out from the sun, here, lay off to starboard. It was near enough to have a visible disk to the naked eye, and moderate magnification showed ice-caps and permanent surface markings that could be seas and continents. As was to be expected, it was very much like a more familiar third planet out--Earth.

The skipper gave Nolan the job of remote inspection while the gross examination of the system went on. Nolan had a knack for such work, and much of it naturally fell to him.

“Okay!” he said resignedly, “Another day, another world!”

“My private nightmare,” said the skipper, with humor, “is bug-eyed monsters. Try not to find ‘em here, Nolan. Eh?”

He’d said that eight times before on this voyage. Nolan said, “My private nightmare is getting home and finding out that while we’ve been finding new worlds for men to live on, they’ve started a war and made Earth a place to die on. Try to arrange that it doesn’t happen before we get home. Eh?”

He’d said that eight times before on this voyage, too.

“I wish us both luck. Nolan,” said the skipper. “But that ball out yonder looks plausible as a nest for bug-eyed monsters!”

He shook his head and went out. He was still being humorous. Nolan set up his instruments and went to work. As he worked, he tried to thrust away the thoughts that came to everybody on Earth every day. They were as haunting, some light-centuries from Earth, as back at home. There was the base the Coms were building on the moon. The WDA had an observatory there, but the Coms were believed to be mounting many more rockets than telescopes. And there was that unsatisfying agreement made between the Coms and WDA just before the Lotus took off. Each promised solemnly to notify the other of all space take-offs before they happened. The idea was to prevent a mistake by which a Pearl-Harbor-style attack might be inferred when it wasn’t really happening. The fact that it could be prepared against was evidence of the kind of tension back on Earth.

But the Lotus was far from home. She lay some seventy-odd millions of miles out from the sol-type star Fanuel Alpha, whose third planet Nolan was to look over.

He sent off a distance-pulse and took angular measurements of the planet’s disk. The ratio of polar to equatorial diameters was informative. The polar flattening said that the day lasted about thirty hours. Almost like Earth’s. The equatorial diameter of 8200 miles was much like Earth’s. The inclination of the axis of rotation indicated seasons--not exaggerated, but much like the seasons on the third planet of Sol. The size of the ice-caps indicated the overall planetary temperature. There were clouds. In fact, there was a cloudmass in the southern hemisphere that looked just like an Earthly tropic storm undergoing the usual changes as it went away from the equator. This was very much like Earth! And the dark masses which were seas...

Nolan frowned. Those mud-colored patches were water. Undoubtedly. A narrow-band light filter proved it. But the areas which were neither sea nor cloud mass? There were three levels of brightness to be seen on the disk outside the polar areas. One was sea-bottom. One was cloud. The other...

Nolan fretted a little. There was something wrong. The solid ground surface of the planet was too light in color. It was such items that a person with a knack for it would notice sooner than a man without the knack. Vegetation should be more nearly midway between sea-bottom and cloud mass in color.

Nolan fitted in the chlorophyll filter. On the planet of a sol-type sun, vegetation had to use chlorophyll or else. Through this filter the clouds would show, of course. They were white and reflected all colors of light. But no color that chlorophyll didn’t reflect could pass through the filter.

The cloud masses showed clearly. Nothing else appeared. The filters would have shown vegetation. It didn’t. It said there wasn’t any.

Nolan stepped up the magnification. He saw other things. He didn’t like them. He got some maximum-magnification pictures and interpreted them with increasing grimness.

He went to make his report just as the system constants began to reach the skipper. The local sun’s mass was 1.3 sols. The solar rotation period was thirty-four days. There were sunspots of perfectly familiar kinds. The Lauriac Laws about the size and distribution of planets in a sol-type system were borne out. One was small, and its sunward side was probably at a low red heat. This was like Mercury. Planet Two, like its analogue Venus in the home system, would be resolutely unoccupiable by man. Planet Four--analogous to Mars--was smaller than Three and had a very thin atmosphere. There were gas-giants in orbits six and seven. Then a novelty Lauriac’s laws predicted things about fifth planets, too, but they’d never been verified because fifth planets were unstable. They blew up. Only fragments--asteroids--had so far been noted where fifth planets of sol-type suns ought to be. But there was a fifth planet here, rolling magnificently through emptiness. It matched the Lauriac predictions. It had an atmosphere, which should contain oxygen. It was the first sol-system fifth planet ever observed.

There was a babble in the skipper’s office as the discoverers of the fifth planet told him about it.

Nolan said curtly, “I’ve something more urgent to report. Planet Three ought to be like Earth. It was. It isn’t, any longer. It’s dead!”

Nobody paid attention. There was a fifth planet! It was unparalleled! All the theories about the absence of fifth planets could now be checked!

“I’m telling you,” said Nolan sharply, “that the third planet’s dead! It was alive, and something happened to it! It has seas and clouds and ice-caps, and they’re water! But its land surface is pure desert! Where life can exist, it does. Always! Life did exist here. Now it doesn’t.” He turned to the skipper, “Maybe bug-eyed monsters killed it, skipper. It looks to me like murder!”

Then they stared at him. He spread out his pictures. He pointed out this item and that. They were conclusive. Nobody else might have realized the facts behind them quite so soon, but when put together they fitted.

“Familiar, eh?” asked Nolan sardonically. “You recognize the pictures like them before. They weren’t made with cameras, like these, but artists drew them from descriptions of what would happen. Here it’s happened! I think,” he added, looking at the skipper, “that this is more important than fifth planets. I think we’d better go over and get what information we can and take it home. Death like this implies life a lot like men. If non-human creatures can do something as human as this, we’d better get the word back home so something can be done to get ready before we find them--or they find us.”

The skipper went carefully over the pictures. On one he put his finger on a feature Nolan hadn’t mentioned. He seemed to wince.

“I think you win, Nolan,” he said painfully. “We’ll send a drone down. I doubt we can land, but this ought to be checked. Immediately. Maybe I should add--inconspicuously.”

“Confidentially,” said the Com Ambassador to the Coordinator of the WDA, “confidentially I agree that it is a trivial matter. But we are a new nation. Our people lack perspective. They rejoice in the strength and vigor of the nation of which they are citizens. They will not allow that nation to display what they consider weakness in any matter. One has to allow for a certain exuberance in the people of a nation newly freed from the tyranny of capitalists and warmongers such as still enslave the people of your countries. We cannot yield in this matter.”

The Coordinator said:

“To be confidential in my turn, we both know that what you just said simply isn’t true. Your government decides what its public shall think. It makes sure they don’t think anything it doesn’t want them to.”

The Com Ambassador shrugged his shoulders. He was very polite. He did not even pretend to resent being called a liar.

“Now, my country intends to move forward in this matter in ten days,” he observed. “And it would be deplorable if our soldiers were fired on.”

For the rest of this story, you need to Log In or Register

Story tagged with:
Science Fiction / Science / Novel-Classic /