At least he’d got far enough to wind up with a personal interview. It’s one thing doing up an application and seeing it go onto an endless tape and be fed into the maw of a machine and then to receive, in a matter of moments, a neatly printed rejection. It’s another thing to receive an appointment to be interviewed by a placement officer in the Commissariat of Interplanetary Affairs, Department of Personnel. Ronny Bronston was under no illusions. Nine out of ten men of his age annually made the same application. Almost all were annually rejected. Statistically speaking practically nobody ever got an interplanetary position. But he’d made step one along the path of a lifetime ambition.
He stood at easy attention immediately inside the door. At the desk at the far side of the room the placement officer was going through a sheaf of papers. He looked up and said, “Ronald Bronston? Sit down. You’d like an interplanetary assignment, eh? So would I.”
Ronny took the chair. For a moment he tried to appear alert, earnest, ambitious but not too ambitious, fearless, devoted to the cause, and indispensable. For a moment. Then he gave it up and looked like Ronny Bronston.
The other looked up and took him in. The personnel official saw a man of averages. In the late twenties. Average height, weight and breadth. Pleasant of face in an average sort of way, but not handsome. Less than sharp in dress, hair inclined to be on the undisciplined side. Brown of hair, dark of eye. In a crowd, inconspicuous. In short, Ronny Bronston.
The personnel officer grunted. He pushed a button, said something into his order box. A card slid into the slot and he took it out and stared gloomily at it.
“What’re your politics?” he said.
“Politics?” Ronny Bronston said. “I haven’t any politics. My father and grandfather before me have been citizens of United Planets. There hasn’t been any politics in our family for three generations.”
The other grunted and marked the card. “Racial prejudices?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Do you have any racial prejudices? Any at all.”
The personnel officer said, “Most people answer that way at first, these days, but some don’t at second. For instance, suppose you had to have a blood transfusion. Would you have any objection to it being blood donated by, say, a Negro, a Chinese, or, say, a Jew?”
Ronny ticked it off on his fingers. “One of my greatgrandfathers was a French colon who married a Moroccan girl. The Moors are a blend of Berber, Arab, Jew and Negro. Another of my greatgrandfathers was a Hawaiian. They’re largely a blend of Polynesians, Japanese, Chinese and Caucasians especially Portuguese. Another of my greatgrandfathers was Irish, English and Scotch. He married a girl who was half Latvian, half Russian.” Ronny wound it up. “Believe me, if I had a blood transfusion from just anybody at all, the blood would feel right at home.”
The interviewer snorted, even as he marked the card. “That accounts for three greatgrandfathers,” he said lightly. “You seem to have made a study of your family tree. What was the other one?”
Rocky said expressionlessly, “A Texan.”
The secretary shrugged and looked at the card again. “Religion?”
“Reformed Agnostic,” Ronny said. This one was possibly where he ran into a brick wall. Many of the planets had strong religious beliefs of one sort or another. Some of them had state religions and you either belonged or else.
“Is there any such church?” the personnel officer frowned.
“No. I’m a one-man member. I’m of the opinion that if there are any greater-powers-that-be They’re keeping the fact from us. And if that’s the way They want it, it’s Their business. If and when They want to contact me—one of Their puppets dangling from a string—then I suppose They’ll do it. Meanwhile, I’ll wait.”
The other said interestedly, “You think that if there is a Higher Power and if It ever wants to get in touch with you, It will?”
“Um-m-m. In Its own good time. Sort of a don’t call Me, thing, _I’ll call you_.”
The personnel officer said, “There have been a few revealed religions, you know.”
“So they said, so they said. None of them have made much sense to me. If a Super-Power wanted to contact man, it seems unlikely to me that it’d be all wrapped up in a lot of complicated gobbledegook. It would all be very clear indeed.”
The personnel officer sighed. He marked the card, stuck it back into the slot in his order box and it disappeared.
He looked up at Ronny Bronston. “All right, that’s all.”
Ronny came to his feet. “Well, what happened?”
The other grinned at him sourly. “Darned if I know,” he said. “By the time you get to the outer office, you’ll probably find out.” He scratched the end of his nose and said, “I sometimes wonder what I’m doing here.”
Ronny thanked him, told him good-by, and left.
In the outer office a girl looked up from a card she’d just pulled from her own order box. “Ronald Bronston?”
She handed the card to him. “You’re to go to the office of Ross Metaxa in the Octagon, Commissariat of Interplanetary Affairs, Department of Justice, Bureau of Investigation, Section G.”
In a lifetime spent in first preparing for United Planets employment and then in working for the organization, Ronny Bronston had never been in the Octagon Building. He’d seen photographs, Tri-Di broadcasts and he’d heard several thousand jokes on various levels from pun to obscenity about getting around in the building, but he’d never been there. For that matter, he’d never been in Greater Washington before, other than a long ago tourist trip. Population Statistics, his department, had its main offices in New Copenhagen.
His card was evidently all that he needed for entry.
At the sixth gate he dismissed his car and let it shoot back into the traffic mess. He went up to one of the guard-guides and presented the card.
The guide inspected it. “Section G of the Bureau of Investigation,” he muttered. “Every day, something new. I never heard of it.”
“It’s probably some outfit in charge of cleaning the heads on space liners.” Ronny said unhappily. He’d never heard of it either.
“Well, it’s no problem,” the guard-guide said. He summoned a three-wheel, fed the co-ordinates into it from Ronny’s card, handed the card back and flipped an easy salute. “You’ll soon know.”
The scooter slid into the Octagon’s hall traffic and proceeded up one corridor, down another, twice taking to ascending ramps. Ronny had read somewhere the total miles of corridors in the Octagon. He hadn’t believed the figures at the time. Now he believed them. He must have traversed several miles before they got to the Department of Justice alone. It was another quarter mile to the Bureau of Investigation.
The scooter eventually came to a halt, waited long enough for Ronny to dismount and then hurried back into the traffic.
He entered the office. A neatly uniformed reception girl with a harassed and cynical eye looked up from her desk. “Ronald Bronston?” she said.
“Where’ve you been?” She had a snappy cuteness. “The commissioner has been awaiting you. Go through that door and to your left.”
Ronny went through that door and to the left. There was another door, inconspicuously lettered Ross Metaxa, Commissioner, Section G. Ronny knocked and the door opened.
Ross Metaxa was going through a wad of papers. He looked up; a man in the middle years, sour of expression, moist of eye as though he either drank too much or slept too little.
“Sit down,” he said. “You’re Ronald Bronston, eh? What do they call you, Ronny? It says here you’ve got a sense of humor. That’s one of the first requirements in this lunatic department.”
Ronny sat down and tried to form some opinions of the other by his appearance. He was reminded of nothing so much as the stereotype city editor you saw in the historical romance Tri-Ds. All that was needed was for Metaxa to start banging on buttons and yelling something about tearing down the front page, whatever that meant.
Metaxa said, “It also says you have some queer hobbies. Judo, small weapons target shooting, mountain climbing—” He looked up from the reports. “Why does anybody climb mountains?”
Ronny said, “Nobody’s ever figured out.” That didn’t seem to be enough, especially since Ross Metaxa was staring at him, so he added, “Possibly we devotees keep doing it in hopes that someday somebody’ll find out.”
Ross Metaxa said sourly, “Not too much humor, please. You don’t act as though getting this position means much to you.”
Ronny said slowly, “I figured out some time ago that every young man on Earth yearns for a job that will send him shuttling from one planet to another. To achieve it they study, they sweat, they make all out efforts to meet and suck up to anybody they think might help. Finally, when and if they get an interview for one of the few openings, they spruce up in their best clothes, put on their best party manners, present themselves as the sincere, high I.Q., ambitious young men that they are—and then flunk their chance. I decided I might as well be what I am.”
Ross Metaxa looked at him. “O.K.,” he said finally. “We’ll give you a try.”
Ronny said blankly, “You mean I’ve got the job?”
“I’ll be damned.”
“Probably,” Metaxa said. He yawned. “Do you know what Section G handles?”
“Well no, but as for me, just so I get off Earth and see some of the galaxy.”
Metaxa had been sitting with his heels on his desk. Now he put them down and reached a hand into a drawer to emerge with a brown bottle and two glasses. “Do you drink?” he said.
“Even during working hours?” Metaxa scowled.
“When occasion calls.”
“Good,” Metaxa said. He poured two drinks. “You’ll get your fill of seeing the galaxy,” he said. “Not that there’s much to see. Man can settle only Earth-type planets and after you’ve seen a couple of hundred you’ve seen them all.”
Ronny sipped at his drink, then blinked reproachfully down into the glass.
Metaxa said, “Good, eh? A kind of tequila they make on Deneb Eight. Bunch of Mexicans settled there.”
“What,” said Ronny hoarsely, “do they make it out of?”
“Lord only knows,” Metaxa said. “To get back to Section G. We’re Interplanetary Security. In short, Department Cloak and Dagger. Would you be willing to die for the United Planets, Bronston?”
That curve had come too fast. Ronny blinked again. “Only in emergency,” he said. “Who’d want to kill me?”
Metaxa poured another drink. “Many of the people you’ll be working with,” he said.
“Well, why? What will I be doing?”
“You’ll be representing United Planets,” Metaxa explained. “Representing United Planets in cases where the local situation is such that the folks you’re working among will be teed off at the organization.”
“Well, why are they members if they don’t like the UP?”
“That’s a good question,” Metaxa said. He yawned. “I guess I’ll have to go into my speech.” He finished his drink. “Now, shut up till I give you some background. You’re probably full of a lot of nonsense you picked up in school.”
Ronny shut up. He’d expected more of an air of dedication in the Octagon and in such ethereal departments as that of Interplanetary Justice, however, he was in now and not adverse to picking up some sophistication beyond the ken of the Earth-bound employees of UP.
The other’s voice took on a far away, albeit bored tone. “It seems that most of the times man gets a really big idea, he goes off half cocked. Just one example. Remember when the ancient Hellenes exploded into the Mediterranean? A score of different City-States began sending out colonies, which in turn sprouted colonies of their own. Take Syracuse, on Sicily. Hardly was she established than, bingo, she sent off colonists to Southern Italy, and they in turn to Southern France, Corsica, the Balearics. Greeks were exploding all over the place, largely without adequate plans, without rhyme or reason. Take Alexander. Roamed off all the way to India, founding cities and colonies of Greeks all along the way.”
The older man shifted in his chair. “You wonder what I’m getting at, eh? Well, much the same thing is happening in man’s explosion into space, now that he has the ability to leave the solar system behind. Dashing off half cocked, in all directions, he’s flowing out over this section of the galaxy without plan, without rhyme or reason. I take that last back, he has reasons all right—some of the screwiest. Religious reasons, racial reasons, idealistic reasons, political reasons, altruistic reasons and mercenary reasons.
“Inadequate ships, manned by small numbers of inadequate people, setting out to find their own planets, to establish themselves on one of the numberless uninhabited worlds that offer themselves to colonization and exploitation.”
Ronny cleared his throat. “Well, isn’t that a good thing, sir?”
Ross Metaxa looked at him and grunted. “What difference does it make if it’s good or not? It’s happening. We’re spreading our race out over tens of hundreds of new worlds in the most haphazard fashion. As a result, we of United Planets now have a chaotic mishmash on our hands. How we manage to keep as many planets in the organization as we do, sometimes baffles me. I suppose most of them are afraid to drop out, conscious of the protection UP gives against each other.”
He picked up a report. “Here’s Monet, originally colonized by a bunch of painters, writers, musicians and such. They had dreams of starting a new race”—Metaxa snorted—”with everybody artists. They were all so impractical that they even managed to crash their ship on landing. For three hundred years they were uncontacted. What did they have in the way of government by that time? A military theocracy, something like the Aztecs of Pre-Conquest Mexico. A matriarchy, at that. And what’s their religion based on? That of ancient Phoenicia including plenty of human sacrifice to good old Moloch. What can United Planets do about it, now that they’ve become a member? Work away very delicately, trying to get them to at least eliminate the child sacrifice phase of their culture. Will they do it? Hell no, not if they can help it. The Head Priestess and her clique are afraid that if they don’t have the threat of sacrifice to hold over the people, they’ll be overthrown.”
Ronny was surprised. “I’d never heard of a member planet like that. Monet?”
Metaxa sighed. “No, of course not. You’ve got a lot to learn, Ronny, my lad. First of all, what’re Articles One and Two of the United Planets Charter?”
That was easy. Ronny recited. “Article One: _The United Planets organization shall take no steps to interfere with the internal political, socio-economic, or religious institutions of its member planets._ Article Two: _No member planets of United Planets shall interfere with the internal political, socioeconomic or religious institutions of any other member planet._” He looked at the department head. “But what’s that got to do with the fact that I was unfamiliar with even the existence of Monet?”
“Suppose one of the advanced planets, or even Earth itself,” Metaxa growled, “openly discussed in magazines, on newscasts, or wherever, the religious system of Monet. A howl would go up among the liberals, the progressives, the do-gooders. And the howl would be heard on the other advanced planets. Eventually, the citizen in the street on Monet would hear about it and be affected. And before you knew it, a howl would go up from Monet’s government. Why? Because the other planets would be interfering with her internal affairs, simply by discussing them.”
“So what you mean is,” Ronny said, “part of our job is to keep information about Monet’s government and religion from being discussed at all on other member planets.”
“That’s right,” Metaxa nodded. “And that’s just one of our dirty little jobs. One of many. Section G, believe me, gets them all. Which brings us to your first assignment.”
Ronny inched forward in his chair. “It takes me into space?”
“It takes you into space all right,” Metaxa snorted. “At least it will after a few months of indoctrination. I’m sending you out after a legend, Ronny. You’re fresh, possibly you’ll get some ideas older men in the game haven’t thought of.”
“I’m sending you to look for Tommy Paine. Some members of the department don’t think he exists. I do.”
“A pseudonym that somebody hung on him way back before even my memory in this Section. Did you ever hear of Thomas Paine in American history?”
“He wrote a pamphlet during the Revolutionary War, didn’t he?”
“‘Common Sense,’ “ Metaxa nodded. “But he was more than that. He was born in England but went to America as a young man and his writings probably did as much as anything to put over the revolt against the British. But that wasn’t enough. When that revolution was successful he went back to England and tried to start one there. The government almost caught him, but he escaped and got to France where he participated in the French Revolution.”
“He seemed to get around,” Ronny Bronston said.
“And so does this namesake of his. We’ve been trying to catch up with him for some twenty years. How long before that he was active, we have no way of knowing. It was some time before we became aware of the fact that half the revolts, rebellions, revolutions and such that occur in the United Planets have his dirty finger stirring around in them.”
“But you said some department members don’t believe in his existence.”
Metaxa grunted. “They’re working on the theory that no one man could do all that Tommy Paine has laid to him. Possibly it’s true that he sometimes gets the blame for accomplishments not his. Or, for that matter, possibly he’s more than one person. I don’t know.”
“Well,” Ronny said hesitantly, “what’s an example of his activity?”
Metaxa picked up another report from the confusion of his desk. “Here’s one only a month old. Dictator on the planet Megas. Kidnapped and forced to resign. There’s still confusion but it looks as though a new type of government will be formed now.”
“But how do they know it wasn’t just some dissatisfied citizens of Megas?”
“It seems as though the kidnap vehicle was an old fashioned Earth-type helicopter. There were no such on Megas. So Section G suspects it’s a possible Tommy Paine case. We could be wrong, of course. That’s why I say the man’s in the way of being a legend. Perhaps the others are right and he doesn’t even exist. I think he does, and if so, it’s our job to get him and put him out of circulation.”
Ronny said slowly, “But why would that come under our jurisdiction? It seems to me that it would be up to the police of whatever planet he was on.”
Ross Metaxa looked thoughtfully at his brown bottle, shook his head and returned it to its drawer. He looked at a desk watch. “Don’t read into the United Planets organization more than there is. It’s a fragile institution with practically no independent powers to wield. Every member planet is jealous of its prerogatives, which is understandable. It’s no mistake that Articles One and Two are the basic foundation of the Charter. No member planet wants to be interfered with by any other or by United Planets as an organization. They want to be left alone.
“Within our ranks we have planets with every religion known to man throughout the ages. Everything ranging from primitive animism to the most advanced philosophic ethic. We have every political system ever dreamed of, and every socio-economic system. It can all be blamed on the crack-pot manner in which we’re colonizing. Any minority, no matter how small—religious, political, racial, or whatever—if it can collect the funds to buy or rent a spacecraft, can dash off on its own, find a new Earth-type planet and set up in business.
“Fine. One of the prime jobs of Section G is to carry out, to enforce, Articles One and Two of the Charter. A planet with Buddhism as its state religion, doesn’t want some die-hard Baptist missionary stirring up controversy. A planet with a feudalistic socio-economic systems doesn’t want some hot-shot interplanetary businessman coming in with some big deal that would eventually cause the feudalistic nobility to be tossed onto the ash heap. A planet with a dictatorship doesn’t want subversives from some democracy trying to undermine their institutions—and vice versa.”
“And its our job to enforce all this, eh?” Ronny said.
“That’s right,” Metaxa told him sourly. “It’s not always the nicest job in the system. However, if you believe in United Planets, an organization attempting to co-ordinate in such manner as it can, the efforts of its member planets, for the betterment of all, then you must accept Section G and Interplanetary Security.”
Ronny Bronston thought about it.
Metaxa added, “That’s why one of the requirements of this job is that you yourself be a citizen of United Planets, rather than of any individual planet, have no religious affiliations, no political beliefs, and no racial prejudices. You’ve got to be able to stand aloof.”
“Yeah,” Ronny said thoughtfully.
Ross Metaxa looked at his watch again and sighed wearily. “I’ll turn you over to one of my assistants,” he said. “I’ll see you again, though, before you leave.”
“Before I leave?” Ronny said, coming to his feet. “But where do I start looking for this Tommy Paine?”
“How the hell would I know?” Ross Metaxa growled.
In the outer office, Ronny said to the receptionist, “Commissioner Metaxa said for me to get in touch with Sid Jakes.”
She said, “I’m Irene Kasansky. Are you with us?”
Ronny said, “I beg your pardon?”
She said impatiently, “Are you going to be with the Section? If you are, I’ve got to clear you with your old job. You were in statistics over in New Copenhagen, weren’t you?”
Somehow it seemed far away now, the job he’d held for more than five years. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Yes, Commissioner Metaxa has given me an appointment.”
She looked up at him. “Probably to look for Tommy Paine.”
He was taken aback. “That’s right. How did you know?”
“There was talk. This Section is pretty well integrated.” She grimaced, but on her it looked good. “One big happy family. High interdepartmental morale. That sort of jetsam.” She flicked some switches. “You’ll find Supervisor Jakes through that door, one to your left, two to your right.”
He could have asked one what to his left and two what to his right, but evidently Irene Kasansky thought he had enough information to get him to his destination. She’d gone back to her work.
It was one turn to his left and two turns to his right. The door was lettered simply Sidney Jakes. He knocked and a voice shouted happily, “It’s open. It’s always open.”
Supervisor Jakes was as informal as his superior. His attire was on the happy-go-lucky side, more suited for sports wear than a fairly high ranking job in the ultra-staid Octagon.
He couldn’t have been much older than Ronny Bronston but he had a nervous vitality about him that would have worn out the other in a few hours. He jumped up and shook hands. “You must be Bronston. Call me Sid.” He waved a hand at a typed report he’d been reading. “Now I’ve seen them all. They’ve just applied for entry to United Planets. Republic. What a name, eh?”
“What?” Ronny said.
“Sit down, sit down.” He rushed Ronny to a chair, saw him seated, returned to the desk and flicked an order box switch. “Irene,” he said, “do up a badge for Ronny, will you? You’ve got his code, haven’t you? Good. Send it over. Bronze, of course.”
Sid Jakes turned back to Ronny and grinned at him. He motioned to the report again. “What a name for a planet. Republic. Bunch of screw-balls, again. Out in the vicinity of Sirius. Based their system on Plato’s Republic. Have to go the whole way. Don’t even speak Basic. Certainly not. They speak Ancient Greek. That’s going to be a neat trick, finding interpreters. How’d you like the Old Man?”
Ronny said, dazed at the conversational barrage, “Old Man? Oh, you mean Commissioner Metaxa.”
“Sure, sure,” Sid grinned, perching himself on the edge of the desk. “Did he give you that drink of tequila during working hours routine? He’d like to poison every new agent we get. What a character.”
The grin was infectious. Ronny said carefully, “Well, I did think his method of hiring a new man was a little—cavalier.”
“Cavalier, yet,” Sid Jakes chortled. “Look, don’t get the Old Man wrong. He knows what he’s doing. He always knows what he’s doing.”
“But he took me on after only two or three minutes conversation.”
Jakes cocked his head to one side. “Oh? You think so? When did you first apply for interplanetary assignment, Ronny?”
“I don’t know, about three years ago.”
Jakes nodded. “Well, depend on it, you’ve been under observation for that length of time. At any one period, Section G is investigating possibly a thousand potential agents. We need men but qualifications are high.”
He hopped down from his position, sped around to the other side of the desk and lowered himself into his chair. “Don’t get the wrong idea, though. You’re not in. You’re on probation. Whatever the assignment the Old Man gave you, you’ve got to carry it out successfully before you’re full fledged.” He flicked the order-box switch and said, “Irene, where the devil’s Ronny’s badge?”
Ronny Bronston heard the office girl’s voice answer snappishly.
“All right, all right,” Jakes said. “I love you, too. Send it in when it comes.” He turned to Ronny. “What is your assignment?”
“He wants me to go looking for some firebrand nicknamed Tommy Paine. I’m supposed to arrest him. The commissioner said you’d give me details.”
Sid Jakes’ face went serious. He puckered up his lips. “Wow, that’ll be a neat trick to pull off,” he said. He flicked the order-box switch again. Irene’s voice snapped something before he could say anything and Sid Jakes grinned and said, “O.K., O.K., darling, but if this is the way you’re going to be I won’t marry you. Then what will the children say? Besides, that’s not what I called about. Have ballistics do up a model H gun for Ronny, will you? Be sure it’s adjusted to his code.”
He flicked off the order box and turned back to Ronny. “I understand you’re familiar with hand guns. It’s in this report on you.”
Ronny nodded. He was just beginning to adjust to this free-wheeling character. “What will I need a gun for?”
Jakes laughed. “Heavens to Betsy, you babe in the woods. Do you realize this Tommy Paine character has supposedly stirred up a couple of score wars, revolutions and revolts? Not to speak of having laid in his lap two or three dozen assassinations. He’s a quick lad with a gun. A regular Nihilist.”
Jakes chuckled. “When you’ve been in this Section for a while, you’ll be familiar with every screwball outfit man has ever dreamed up. The Nihilists were a European group, mostly Russian, back in the Nineteenth Century. They believed that by bumping off a few Grand Dukes and a Czar or so they could force the ruling class to grant reforms. Sometimes they were pretty ingenious. Blew up trains, that sort of thing.”
“Look here,” Ronny said, “what motivates this Paine fellow? What’s he get out of all this trouble he stirs up?”
“Search me. Nobody seems to know. Some think he’s a mental case. For one thing, he’s not consistent.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, he’ll go to one planet and break his back trying to overthrow, say, feudalism. Then, possibly after being successful, he goes to another planet and devotes his energies to establishing the same socio-economic system.”
Ronny assimilated that. “You’re one of those who believes he exists?”
“Oh, he exists all right, all right,” Sid Jakes said happily. “Matter of fact, I almost ran into him a few years ago.”
Ronny leaned forward. “I guess I ought to know about it. The more information I have, the better.”
“Sure, sure,” Jakes said. “This deal of mine was on one of the Aldebaran planets. A bunch of nature boys had settled there.”
“Um-m-m. Back to nature. The trouble with the human race is that it’s got too far away from nature. So a whole flock of them landed on this planet. They call it Mother, of all things. They landed and set up a primitive society. Absolute stone age. No metals. Lived by the chase and by picking berries, wild fruit, that sort of thing. Not even any agriculture. Wore skins. Bows and arrows were the nearest thing they allowed themselves in the way of mechanical devices.”
“Good grief,” Ronny said.
“It was a laugh,” Jakes told him. “I was assigned there as Section G representative with the UP organization. Picture it. We had to wear skins for clothes. We had to confine ourselves to two or three long houses. Something like the American Iroquois lived in before Columbus. Their society on Mother was based on primitive communism. The clan, the phratry, the tribe. Their religion was mostly a matter of knocking into everybody’s head that any progress was taboo. Oh, it was great.”