Clarey had checked in at Classification Center so many times that he came now more out of habit than hope. He didn’t even look at the card that the test machine dropped into his hand until he was almost to the portway. And then he stopped. “Report to Room 33 for reclassification,” it said.
Ten years before, Clarey would have been ecstatic, sure that reclassification could be only in one direction. The machine had not originally given him a job commensurate with his talents; why should it suddenly recognize them? He’d known of people who had been reclassified--always downward. I’m a perfectly competent Sub-Archivist, he told himself; I’ll fight.
But he knew fighting wouldn’t help. All he had was the right to refuse any job he could claim was not in his line; the government would then be obligated to continue his existence. There were many people who did subsist on the government dole: the aged and the deficient and the defective--and creative artists who refused to trammel their spirits and chose to be ranked as Unemployables. Clarey didn’t fit into those categories.
Dispiritedly, he passed along innumerable winding corridors and up and down ramps that twisted and turned to lead into other ramps and corridors. That was the way all public buildings were designed. It was forbidden for the government to make any law-abiding individual think the way it wanted him to think. But it could move him in any direction it chose, and sometimes that served its purpose as well as the reorientation machines.
So the corridors he passed through were in constant eddying movement, with a variety of individuals bent on a variety of objectives. For the most part, they were of Low Echelon status, though occasionally an Upper Echelon flashed his peremptory way past. Even though most L-Es attempted to ape the U-E dress and manner, you could always tell the difference. You could tell the difference among the different levels of L-E, too--and there was no mistaking the Unemployables in their sober gray habits, devoid of ornament. It was, Clarey sometimes thought when guilt feelings bothered him, the most esthetic of costumes.
The machine in Room 33 extracted whatever information it was set to receive, then spewed Clarey out and sent him on his way to Rooms 34, 35, and 36, where other machines repeated the same process. Room 37 proved to be that rare thing in the hierarchy of rooms--a destination. There was a human Employment Commissioner in it, splendidly garbed in crimson silvet and alexandrites--very Upper Echelon, indeed. He wore a gold mask, a common practice with celebrities who were afraid of being overwhelmed by their admirers, an even more common practice with U-E non-celebrities who enjoyed the thrill of distinguished anonymity.
Then Clarey stopped looking at the Commissioner. There was a girl sitting next to him, on a high-backed chair like his. Clarey had never seen a U-E girl so close before. Only the Greater Archivists had direct contact with the public, and Clarey wasn’t likely to meet a U-E socially, even if he’d had a social life. The girl was too fabulous for him to think of her as a woman, a female; but he would have liked to have her in his archives, in the glass case with the rare editions.
“Good morning, Sub-Archivist Clarey,” the man said mellowly. “Good of you to come in. There’s rather an unusual position open and the machines tell us you’re the one man who can fill it. Please sit down.” He indicated a small, hard stool.
Clarey remained standing. “I’ve been a perfectly competent Sub-Archivist,” he declared. “If MacFingal has--if there have been any complaints, I should have been told first.”
“There have been no complaints. The reclassification is upward.”
“You mean I’ve made it as a Musician!” Clarey cried, sinking to the hard little stool in joyful atony.
“Well, no, not exactly a Musician. But it’s a highly artistic type of job with possible musical overtones.”
Clarey became a hollow man once more. No matter what it was, if it wasn’t as duly accredited Musician, it didn’t matter. The machine could keep him from putting his symphonies down on tape, but it couldn’t keep them from coursing in his head. That it could never take away from him. Or the resultant headache, either.
“What is the job, then?” he asked dully.
“A very important position, Sub-Archivist. In fact, the future welfare of this planet may depend on it.”
“It’s a trick to make me take a job nobody else wants,” Clarey sneered. “And it must be a pretty rotten job for you to go to so much trouble.”
The girl, whom he’d almost forgotten, gave a little laugh. Her eyes, he noticed, were hazel. There were L-E girls, he supposed, who also had hazel eyes--but a different hazel.
“Perhaps this will convince you of the job’s significance,” the interviewer said huffily. He took off his mask and looked at Clarey with anticipation. He had a sleek, ordinary, middle-aged-to-elderly face.
There was an awkward interval. “Don’t you recognize me?” he demanded.
Clarey shook his head. The girl laughed again.
“A blow to my ego, but proof that you’re the right man for this job. I’m General Spano. And this is my Mistress, Secretary Han Vollard.”
The girl inclined her head.
“At least you must know my name?” Spano said querulously.
“I’ve heard it,” Clarey admitted. “‘The Fiend of Fomalhaut, ‘ they call you,” he went on before he could catch himself and stop the words.
The girl clapped her hand over her mouth, but the laughter spilled out over and around it, pretty U-E laughter.
Spano finally laughed, too. “It’s a phrase that might be used about any military man. One carries out one’s orders to the best of one’s ability.”
“Besides,” Clarey observed in a non-Archivistic manner, “what concern have I with your military morality?”
“He’s absolutely perfect for the job, Steff!” she cried. “I didn’t think the machines were that good!”
“We mustn’t underestimate the machines, Han,” Spano said. “They’re efficient, very efficient. Someday they’ll take over from us.”
“There’re some things they’ll never be able to do,” she said. Her hazel eyes lingered on Clarey’s. “Aren’t you glad, Archivist?”
“Sub-Archivist,” he corrected her frostily. “And I hadn’t really thought about it.”
“That’s not what the machines say, Sub-Archivist,” she told him, her voice candy-sweet. “They deep-probed your mind. You don’t do anything, but you’ve thought about it a lot, haven’t you?”
Clarey felt the blood surge up. “My thoughts are my own concern. You haven’t the right to use them to taunt me.”
“But I think you’re attractive,” she protested. “Honestly I do. In a different way. Just go to a good tailor, put on a little weight, dye your hair, and--”
“And I wouldn’t be different any more,” Clarey finished. That wasn’t true; he would always be different. Not that he was deformed, just unappealing. He was below average height and his eyes and hair and skin were too light. In the past, he knew, there had been pale races and dark races on Earth. With the discovery of other intelligent life-forms to discriminate against together, the different races had fused into a swarthy unity. Of course he could hide his etiolation with dye and cosmetics, but those of really good quality cost more than he could afford, and cheap maquillage was worse than none. Besides, why should his appearance mean anything to anybody but himself? He’d had enough beating around the bush! “Would you mind telling me exactly what the job is?”
“Intelligence agent,” said Spano.
“Isn’t it exciting?” she put in. “Aren’t you thrilled?”
Clarey bounced angrily from his chair. “I won’t sit here and be ridiculed!”
“Why ridiculed?” Spano asked. “Don’t you consider yourself an intelligent man?”
“Being an intelligence agent has nothing to do with intelligence!” Clarey said furiously. “The whole thing’s silly, straight out of the tri-dis.”
“What do you have against the tri-dis, Sub-Archivist?” Spano’s voice was very quiet.
“Don’t you like any of them?” the girl said. “I just adore Sentries of the Sky!” Her enthusiasm was tinged, obscurely, with warning.
“Well, I enjoy it, too,” Clarey said, sinking back to the stool. “It’s very entertaining, but I’m sure it isn’t meant to be taken seriously.”
“Oh, but it is, Sub-Archivist Clarey,” Spano said. “Sentries of the Sky happens to be produced by my bureau. We want the public to know all about our operations--or as much as it’s good for them to know--and they find it more palatable in fictionalized form.”
“Documentaries always get low ratings,” the girl said. “And you can’t really blame the public--documentaries are dull. Myself, I like a love interest.” Her eyes rested lingeringly on Clarey’s.
They must think I’m a fool, Clarey thought; yet why would they bother to fool me? “But I am given to understand,” he said to Spano, “even by the tri-dis, that an intelligence agent needs special training, special qualifications.”
“In this case, the special qualifications outweigh the training. And you have the qualifications we need for Damorlan.”
“According to the machines, all I’m qualified for is human filing cabinet. Is that what you want?”
Spano was growing impatient. “Look, Clarey, the machines have decided that you are not a Musician. Do you want to remain a Sub-Archivist for the rest of your days or will you take this other road? Once you’re on a U-E level, you can fight the machines; tape your own music if you like.”
Clarey said nothing, but his initial hostility was ebbing slowly away.
“I wanted to be a writer,” Spano said. “The machines said no. So I became a soldier, rose to the top. Now--this is in strictest confidence--I write most of the episodes of Sentries of the Sky myself. There’s always another route for the man with guts and vision, and, above all, faith. Why don’t we continue the discussion over lunch?”
It was almost unthinkable for L-E and U-E to eat together. For Clarey this was an honor--too great an honor--and there was no way out of it. Spano and the girl put on their masks; the general touched a section of the wall and it slid back. There was a car waiting for them outside. It skimmed over the delicately wrought, immensely strong bridges that, together with the tunnels, linked the great glittering metropolis into a vast efficient whole.
Spano was not really broadminded. Although they went to the Aurora Borealis, it was through a side door, and they were served in a private dining room. Clarey was glad and nettled at the same time.
The first few mouthfuls of the food tasted ambrosial; then it cloyed and Clarey had to force it down with a thin, almost astringent pale blue liquid. In itself, the liquor had only a mild, slightly pungent taste, but it made everything else increasingly delightful--the warm, luxurious little room, the perfume that wafted from the air-conditioning ducts, Han Vollard.
“Martian mountain wine,” she warned him. “Rather overwhelming if you’re not used to it, and sometimes even if you are...” Her eyes rested on the general.
“But there are no mountains on Mars,” Clarey said, startled.
“That’s it!” Spano chortled. “When you’ve drunk it, you see mountains!” And he filled his glass again.
While they ate, he told Clarey about Damorlan--its beautiful climate, light gravity, intelligent and civilized natives. Though the planet had been known for two decades, no one from Earth had ever been there except a few selected government officials, and, of course, the regular staff posted there.
“You mean it hasn’t been colonized yet?” Clarey was relieved, because he felt he should, as an Archivist, have known more about the planet than its name and coordinates. “Why? It sounds like a splendid place for a colony.”
“The natives,” Spano said.
“There were natives on a lot of the planets we colonized. You disposed of them somehow.”
“By co-existence in most cases, Sub-Archivist,” Spano said drily. “We’ve found it best for Terrans and natives to live side by side in harmony. We dispose of a race only when it’s necessary for the greatest good. And we would especially dislike having to dispose of the Damorlanti.”
“What’s wrong with them?” Clarey asked, pushing away his half-finished crême brulée a la Betelgeuse with a sigh. “Are they excessively belligerent, then?”
“No more belligerent than any intelligent life-form which has pulled itself up by its bootstraps.”
“Rigid?” Clarey suggested. “Unadaptable? Intolerant? Indolent? Personally offensive?”
Spano smiled. He leaned back with half-shut eyes, as if this were a guessing game. “None of those.”
“Then why consider disposing of them?” Clarey asked. “They sound pretty decent for natives. Don’t wipe them out; even an ilf has a right to live.”
“Clarey,” the girl said, “you’re drunk.”
“I’m in full command of my faculties,” he assured her. “My wits are all about me, moving me to ask how you could possibly expect to use a secret agent on Damorlan if there are no colonists. What would he disguise himself as--a touring Earth official?” He laughed with modest triumph.
Spano smiled. “He could disguise himself as one of them. They’re humanoid.”
“That humanoid. So there you have the problem in a nutshell.”
But Clarey still couldn’t see that there was a problem. “I thought we--the human race, that is--were supposed to be the very apotheosis of life species.”
“So we are. And that’s the impression we’ve conveyed to such other intelligent life-forms as we’ve taken under our aegis. What we’re afraid of is that the other ilfs might become ... confused when they see the Damorlanti, think they’re the ruling race.” Leaning forward, he pounded so loudly on the table both the others jumped. “This is our galaxy and we don’t intend that anyone, humanoid or otherwise, is going to forget it!”
“You’re drunk, too, Steff,” the girl said. She had changed completely; her coquetry had dropped as if it were another mask. And it had been, Clarey thought--an advertising mask. An offer had been made, and, if he accepted it, he would get probably not Han herself but a reasonable facsimile.
He tried to sort things out in his whizzing brain. “But why should the other ilfs ever see a Damorlant?” he asked, enunciating very precisely. “I’ve never seen another life-form to speak of. I thought the others weren’t allowed off-planet--except the Baluts, and there’s no mistaking them, is there?” For the Baluts, although charming, were unmistakably non-human, being purplish, amiable, and octopoid.
“We don’t forbid the ilfs to go off-planet,” Spano proclaimed. “That would be tyrannical. We simply don’t allow them passage in our spaceships. Since they don’t have any of their own, they can’t leave.”
“Then you’re afraid the Damorlanti will develop space travel on their own,” Clarey cried. “Superior race--seeking after knowledge--spread their wings and soar to the stars.” He flapped his arms and fell off the stool.
“Really, Steff,” Han said, motioning for the servo-mechanism to pick Clarey up, “this is no way to conduct an interview.”
“I am a creative artist,” the general said thickly. “I believe in suiting the interview to the occasion. Clarey understands, for he, too, is an artist.” The general sneezed and rubbed his nose with his silver sleeve. “Listen to me, boy. The Damorlanti are a fine, creative, productive race. It isn’t generally known, but they developed the op fastener for evening wear, two of the new scents on the roster come from Damorlan, and the snettis is an adaptation of a Damorlant original. Would you want a species as artistic as that to be annihilated by an epidemic?”
“Do our germs work on them?” Clarey wanted to know.
“That hasn’t been established yet. But their germs certainly work on us.” The general sneezed again. “That’s where I got this sinus trouble, last voyage to Damorlan. But you’ll be inoculated, of course. Now we know what to watch out for, so you’ll be perfectly safe. That is, as far as disease is concerned.”
His face assumed a stern, noble aspect. “Naturally, if you’re discovered as a spy, we’ll have to repudiate you. You must know that from the tri-dis.”
“But I haven’t said I would go!” Clarey howled. “And I can’t see why you’d want me, anyway!”
“Modest,” the general said, lighting a smoke-stick. “An admirable trait in a young intelligence operative--or, indeed, anyone. Have a smoke-stick?”
Clarey hesitated. He had never tried one; he had always wanted to.
“Don’t, Clarey,” the girl advised. “You’ll be sick.”
She spoke with authority and reason. Clarey shook his head.
The general inhaled and exhaled a cloud of smoke in the shape of a bunnit. “The Damorlanti look like us, but because they look like us, that doesn’t mean they think like us. They may not have the least idea of developing space travel, simply be interested in developing thought, art, ideals, splendid cultural things like that. We don’t know enough about them; we may be making mountains out of molehills.”
“Martian molehills,” Clarey snickered.
“Precisely,” the general agreed. “Except that there are no moles on Mars either.”
“But I still can’t understand. Why me?”
The general leaned forward and said in a confidential tone, “We want to understand the true Damorlan. Our observations have been too superficial; couldn’t help being. There we come, blasting out of the skies with the devil of a noise, running all over the planet as if we owned it. You know how those skyboys throw their gravity around.”
Clarey nodded. Sentries of the Sky had kept him well informed on such matters.
“So what we want is a man who can go to Damorlan for five or ten years and become a Damorlant in everything but basic loyalties. A man who will absorb the very spirit of the culture, but in terms our machines can understand and interpret.” Spano stood erect. “You, Clarey, are that man!”
The girl applauded. “Well done, Steff! You finally got it right side up!”
“But I’ve lived twenty-eight years on this planet and I’m not a part of its culture,” Clarey protested. “I’m a lonely, friendless man--you must know that if you’ve deep-probed me--so why should I put up a front and be brave and proud about it?”
Then he gave a short, bitter laugh. “I see. That’s the reason you want me. I have no roots, no ties; I belong nowhere. Nobody loves me. Who else, you think, but a man like me would spend ten years on an alien planet as an alien?”
“A patriot, Sub-Archivist,” the general said sternly. “By God, sir, a patriot!”
“There’s nothing I’d like better than to see Terra and all its colonies go up in smoke. Mind you,” Clarey added quickly, for he was not as drunk as all that, “I’ve nothing against the government. It’s a purely personal grievance.”
The general unsteadily patted his arm. “You’re detached, m’boy. You can examine an alien planet objectively, without trying to project your own cultural identity upon it, because you have no cultural identity.”
“How about physical identity?” Clarey asked. “They can’t be ex-exactly like us. Against the laws of nature.”
“The laws of man are higher than the laws of nature,” the general said, waving his arm. A gout of smoke curled around his head and became a halo. “Very slight matter of plastic surgery. And we’ll change you back as soon as you return.” Then he sat down heavily. “How many young men in your position get an opportunity like this? Permanent U-E status, a hundred thousand credits a year and, of course, on Damorlan you’d be on an expense account; our money’s no good there. By the time you got back, there’d be about a million and a half waiting for you, with interest. You could buy all the instruments and tape all the music you wanted. And, if the Musicians’ Guild puts up a fuss, you could buy it, too. Don’t let anybody kid you about the wheel, son; money was mankind’s first significant invention.”
“But ten years. That’s a long time away from home.”
“Home is where the heart is, and you wanting to see your own planet go up in a puff of smoke--why, even an ilf wouldn’t say a thing like that!” Spano shook his head. “That’s too detached for me to understand. You’ll find the years will pass quickly on Damorlan. You’ll have stimulating work to do; every moment will be a challenge. When it’s all over, you’ll be only thirty-eight--the very prime of life. You won’t have aged even that much, because you’ll be entitled to longevity treatments at regular intervals.
“So think it over, m’boy.” He rose waveringly and clapped Clarey on the shoulder. “And take the rest of the afternoon off; I’ll fix it with Archives. We wouldn’t want you coming back from Classification intoxicated.” He winked. “Make a very bad impression on your co-workers.”
Han masked herself and escorted Clarey to the restaurant portway. “Don’t believe everything he says. But I think you’d better accept the offer.”
“I don’t have to,” Clarey said.
“No,” she agreed, “you don’t. But you’d better.”
Clarey took the cheap underground route home. His antiseptic little two-room apartment seemed even bleaker than usual. He dialed a dyspep pill from the auto-spensor; the lunch was beginning to tell on him. And that evening he couldn’t even take an interest in Sentries of the Sky, which, though he’d never have admitted it, was his favorite program. He had no friends; nobody would miss him if he left Earth or died or anything. The general’s right, he thought; I might as well be an alien on an alien planet. At least I’ll be paid better. And he wondered whether, in lighter gravity, his spirits might not get a lift.
He dragged himself to work the next day. He found someone did care after all. “Well, Sub-Archivist Clarey,” Chief Section Archivist MacFingal snarled, “I would have expected to see more sparkle in your eye, more pep in your step, after a whole day of nothing but sweet rest.”
“But--but General Spano said it would be all right if I didn’t report back in the afternoon.”
“Oh, it is all right, Sub-Archivist, no question of that. How could I dare to complain about a man who has such powerful friends? I suppose if I gave you the Sagittarius files to reorganize, you’d go running to your friend General Spano, sniveling about cruel and unfair treatment.”
So Clarey started reorganizing the Sagittarius files--a sickeningly dull task which should by rights have gone to a junior archivist. All morning he couldn’t help thinking about Damorlan--its invigorating atmosphere, its pleasant climate, its presumed absence of archives and archivists. During his lunchstop he looked up the planet in the files. There was only a small part of a tape on it. There might be more in the Classified Files. It was, of course, forbidden to view secretapes without a direct order from the Chief Archivist, but the tapes were locked by the same code as the rare editions. After all, he told himself, I have a legitimate need for the information.
So he punched for Damorlan in the secret files. He put the tape in the viewer. He saw the natives. Cold shock filled him, and then hot fury. They were humanoid all right--pallid, pale-haired creatures. Objective viewpoint, he thought furiously; detachment be damned! I was picked because I look like one of them!
He was wrenched away from the viewer. “Sub-Archivist Clarey, what is the meaning of this?” Chief Section Archivist MacFingal demanded. “You know what taking a secretape out without permission means?”
Clarey knew. The reorientation machine. “Ask General Spano,” he said in a constricted voice. “He’ll tell you it’s all right.”
General Spano said that it was, indeed, all right. “I’m so glad to hear you’ve decided to join us. Splendid career for an enterprising young man. Smoke-stick?”
Clarey refused; he no longer had any interest in trying one.
“Don’t look so grim,” Spano said jovially. “You’ll like the Damorlanti once you get to know them. Very affectionate people. Haven’t had any major wars for several generations. Currently there are just a few skirmishes at the poles and you ought to be able to keep away from those easily. And they’ll simply love you.”
“But I don’t like anyone,” Clarey said. “And I don’t see why the Damorlanti should like me,” he added fairly.
“I’ll tell you why! Because it’ll be your job to make them like you. You’ve got to be friendly and outgoing if it kills you. Anyone can develop a winning personality if he sets his mind to it. I though you said you watched the tri-dis!”
“I--I don’t always watch the commercials,” Clarey admitted.
“Oh, well, we all have our little failings.” Spano leaned forward, his voice now pitched to persuasive decibels. “Normally, of course, you wouldn’t stoop to hypocrisy to gain friends, and quite right, too--people should accept you as you are or they wouldn’t be worthy of becoming your friends. But this is different. You have to be what they want, because you want something from them. You’ll have to suffer rebuffs and humiliations and never show resentment.”
“In other words,” Clarey said, “a secret agent is supposed to forget all about such concepts as self-respect.”
“If necessary, yes. But here self-respect doesn’t enter into it. These aren’t people and they don’t really matter. You wouldn’t be humiliated, would you, if you tried to pat a dog and it snarled at you?”
“Steff, he’s got to think of them as people until he’s definitely given them a clean bill of health,” Han Vollard protested. “Otherwise, the whole thing won’t work.”
“Well,” the general temporized, “think of them as people, then, but as inferior people. Let them snoop and pry and sneer. Always, at the back of your mind, you’ll have the knowledge that this is all a sham, that someday they’ll get whatever it is they deserve. You might even think of it as a game, Clarey--no more personal than when you fail to get the gardip ball into the loop.”
“I don’t happen to play gardip, General,” Clarey reminded him coldly. Gardip was strictly a U-E pastime. And, in any case, Clarey was not a gamesman.
He was put through intensive indoctrination, given accelerated courses in the total secret agent curriculum: Self-Defense and Electronics, Decoding and Resourcefulness, Xenopsychology and Acting.
“There are eight cardinal rules of acting,” the robocoach told him. “The first is: Never Identify. You’ll never be able to become the character you’re playing, because you aren’t that character--the playwright gave birth to him, not your mother. Therefore--”
“But I’m only going to play one role,” Clarey broke in. “All I need to know is how to play that role well and convincingly. My life may depend on it.”
“I teach acting,” the robocoach said loftily. “I don’t run a charm school. If you come to me, you learn--or, at least, are exposed to--all I have to offer. I refuse to tailor my art to any occasional need. Now, the second cardinal rule...”
Clarey was glad he could absorb the languages and social structure of the planet through the impersonal hypno-tapes. He had to learn more than one language because the planet was divided into several national units, each speaking a different tongue. Inefficient as far as planetary operation went, but advantageous to him, Han Vollard pointed out, because, though he’d work in Vangtor, he would be supposed to have originated in Ventimor; hence his accent.
“Work?” Clarey asked. “I thought I was going to be an undercover agent.”
“You’ll have a cover job,” she explained wearily. “You can’t just wander around with no visible source of income, unless you’re a member of the nobility, and it would be risky to elevate you to the peerage.”
“What kind of a job will I have?” Clarey asked, brightening a little at the idea of possibly having something interesting to do.
“They call it librarian. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but Colonel Blynn--he’s our chief officer on the planet--says that after indoctrination you ought to be able to handle it.”
Clarey already knew that jobs on Damorlan weren’t officially assigned, but that employer and employee somehow managed to find each other and work out arrangements themselves. Sometimes, Han now explained, employers would advertise for employees. Colonel Blynn had answered such a job in Vangtor on his behalf from an accommodation address in Ventimor. “You were hired sight unseen, because you came cheap. So they probably won’t check your references. Let’s hope not, anyway.”
The trip to Damorlan was one long aching agony. Since luxury liners naturally didn’t touch on Damorlan, he was sent out on a service freighter, built for maximum stowage rather than comfort. Most of the time he was spacesick. The only thing that comforted him was that it would be ten years before he’d have to go back.
They landed on the Earthmen’s spaceport--the only spaceport, of course--at Barshwat, and he was hustled off to Earth Headquarters in an animal-drawn cart that made him realize there were other ailments besides spacesickness.
“Afraid you’re going to have to hole up in my suite while you’re with us,” Colonel Blynn apologized when Clarey was safely inside. “The rest of the establishment is crawling with native servants--daytimes, anyway; they sleep out--but they have orders never to come near my quarters.”
He looked interestedly at Clarey. “Amazing how the plastosurgeons got you to look exactly like a native. Those boys really know their stuff. Maybe I will have my nose fixed next time I go Earthside.”
Clarey glared venomously at the tall, handsome, dark young officer.
“Don’t worry,” Blynn soothed him. “I’m sure when you go back they’ll be able to make you look exactly the way you were before.”
He gave Clarey a general briefing and explained to him that the additional allowance he’d be receiving--since he couldn’t be expected to live on a Damorlant salary--would come from an alleged rich aunt in Barshwat.
“Where’ll you get the native currency?” Clarey asked.
“We do some restricted trading with the natives, bring materials that’re in short supply; salt, breakfast cereals, pigments, thread--stuff like that. Nothing strategic, nothing they could possibly use against us ... unless they decide to strangle us with our own string.” He guffawed ear-splittingly.
One rainy evening a couple of Earth officers hustled Clarey into a hax-cart. A little later, equipped with a native kit, an itinerary, and a ticket purchased in Ventimor, he was left a short distance from a large track-car station.
He was so numb with fright he had to force himself to move in the right direction leg by leg. He gained a little confidence when he was able to find the terminus without needing to ask directions; he even managed to find the right chain of cars and a place to sit in one of them. He didn’t realize that this was something of an achievement until he discovered that certain later arrivals had to stand. He wondered why more tickets were issued than there were seats available, then realized the answer was simple--primitives couldn’t count very accurately.
Creakily and slowly, the chain got under way. Clarey’s terror mounted. Here he was, wearing strange clothes, on a strange world, surrounded by strange creatures. They aren’t really repulsive, he told himself; they look like people; they look like me.
Some of the natives seemed to be staring at him. His heart began to beat loudly. Could they hear it? Did their hearts beat the same way? Was their hearing more acute than his? The tapes had seemed so full of information; now he saw how full of holes they’d been. Then he noticed that the natives were staring at each other. His heart quieted. Only a local custom. After a while, little conversational groups formed. No one spoke to him, for he spoke to no one. He was not yet ready to thrust himself upon them; he had enough to do to reach his destination successfully.
He tried to follow the conversations for practice and to keep his mind off his fears. The male next to him was talking to the male opposite about the weather and its effect on the sirtles. The three females on his other side were telling each other how their respective offspring were doing in school. Some voices he couldn’t identify with owners were complaining how much sagor and titulwirt cost these days. I don’t know why the government is so worried, he thought; they’re not really very human at all.
The chain had been scheduled to reach the end of its run in three hours. It took closer to five. He got off at what would have been around midnight on Earth, and the terminus where he was supposed to take the next chain was almost empty of people, completely empty of cars. Although it was still a few minutes before his car was due, he was worried. Finally, he approached a native.
“Is this--is this not where the 39:12 to Zrig is destined to appear?” he asked, conscious as he uttered Vangtort aloud for the first time that his phrasing was not entirely colloquial.
The native stared at him with small pale eyes and bit his middle finger. “Stranger, eh?” he asked in a small pale voice.
“Yes.” The native waited. “I come from Ventimor,” Clarey told him. Nosy native, he thought furiously; prying primitive.
“You don’t hafta shout,” the native said. “I’m not deef.”
Clarey realized what he hadn’t noted consciously before--the natives spoke much more softly than Earthmen. Local custom two.
“You’ll be finding things a lot different here in Vangtor,” the native told him. “Livelier, more up to date. F’rinstance, do the cars always run on time in Ventimor?”
“Yes,” Clarey said firmly.
“Well, they don’t here. Know why? That’s because we’ve got more’n one chain of ‘em.” He made a noise like a wounded turshi. He was laughing.
Clarey smiled until his gums ached. “About the 39:12? It is rather important to me, as I understand the next chain does not leave for several days.”
The native lifted a chronometer hanging around his neck. “Ought to get in around 40 or so,” he said. “Whyn’t you get yourself a female or a bite to eat?” He waved his hand toward the two trade booths that were still open for business.
Clarey was very hungry. But, as he got near the food booth, the stench and the sight of the utensils were too much for him. He went back to the carways and sat huddled on a banquette until his chain came in at 40:91.
The car he picked was empty, so he stretched out on the seat and slept until it got to Zrig, very early in the morning. When he got out, day was dawning and a food booth hadn’t had time to accumulate odors so he climbed to one of the perches and pointed to something that looked like a lopsided pie and something else that looked like coffee. Neither was what it appeared to be, but the pseudo-pie was edible and the pseudo-coffee was good. Somehow, the food seemed to diminish his fright; it made the world less strange.
“Where you going, stranger?” the native asked, resting his arms on the top of the booth.
“Katund,” Clarey said. The other looked puzzled. “It is a village near Zrig.”
“That a fact?” The native bit his little finger. “You look like a city feller to me.”
“That is correct,” Clarey said patiently. “I come from Qytet. It is a place of some size.” He waited a decent interval before collapsing his smile.
“Now, why would a smart-looking young fellow like you want to go to a place like this Katund, eh?”
Clarey started to shrug, then remembered that was not a Damorlant gesture. “I have received employment there.”
“I should think you’d be able to do better’n that.” The native nibbled at his thumb. “What did you say you worked at?”
“I didn’t. I am a librarian.”
The native turned away and began to rinse his utensils. “In that case, I guess Katund’s as good a place as any.”
Surely, Clarey thought, even a Damorlant would at this point rise up and smite the food merchant with one of his own platters. Then he forgot his anger in apprehension. What in the name of whatever gods they worshipped on this planet could a librarian possibly be?
He got up and was about to go. Then he remembered to be friendly and outgoing. “I have never tasted better food,” he told the native. “Not even in Barshwat.”
The native picked up the coin Clarey had left by way of tip and bit it. Apparently it passed the test. “Stop here next time you’re passing this way,” he advised, “and I’ll really serve you something to write home about!”
The omnibus for Katund proved to be nothing but a large cart drawn by a team of hax. Clarey waited for internal manifestations as he rode. None came. I’ve found my land legs, he thought, or, rather, my land stomach. And with the hax jogging along the quiet lanes of Vangtor, he found himself almost at peace.
Earth was completely urbanized: there were the great metropolises; there were the parks; there were the oceans. That was all. So to him the Vangtort countryside looked like a huge park, with grass and trees and flowers that were slightly unrealistic in color, but beautiful just the same--even more, perhaps. It was idyllic. There’s bound to be some catch, he thought.
The other passengers, who’d been talking together in low tones, turned toward Clarey. “You’ll be the new librarian, I take it?” the tallest observed. He was a bulky creature, wearing a rich but sober cloak that came down to his ankles.