Over the cabin ‘phone, Ann’s voice was crisp with anger. “Mr. Lord, I must see you at once.”
“Of course, Ann.” Lord tried not to sound uncordial. It was all part of a trade agent’s job, to listen to the recommendations and complaints of the teacher. But an interview with Ann Howard was always so arduous, so stiff with unrelieved righteousness. “I should be free until--”
“Can you come down to the schoolroom, Mr. Lord?”
“If it’s necessary. But I told you yesterday, there’s nothing we can do to make them take the lessons.”
“I understand your point of view, Mr. Lord.” Her words were barely civil, brittle shafts of ice. “However, this concerns Don; he’s gone.”
“Are you sure, Ann? How long ago?”
“I rather imagined you’d be interested,” she answered with smug satisfaction. “Naturally you’ll want to see his note. I’ll be waiting for you.”
The ‘phone clicked decisively as she broke the connection. Impotent fury lashed Lord’s mind--anger at Don Howard, because the engineer was one of his key men; and, childishly, anger at Don’s sister because she was the one who had broken the news. If it had come from almost anyone else it would, somehow, have seemed less disastrous. Don’s was the fourth desertion in less than a week, and the loss of trained personnel was becoming serious aboard the Ceres. But what did Ann Howard expect Lord to do about it? This was a trading ship; he had no military authority over his crew.
As Lord stood up, his desk chair collapsed with a quiet hiss against the cabin wall, and, on greased tubes, the desk dropped out of sight beneath the bunk bed, giving Lord the luxury of an uncluttered floor space eight feet square. He had the only private quarters on the ship--the usual distinction reserved for a trade agent in command.
From a narrow wardrobe, curved to fit the projectile walls of the ship, Lord took a lightweight jacket, marked with the tooled shoulder insignia of command. He smiled a little as he put it on. He was Martin Lord, trade agent and heir to the fabulous industrial-trading empire of Hamilton Lord, Inc.; yet he was afraid to face Ann Howard without the visible trappings of authority.
He descended the spiral stairway to the midship airlock, a lead-walled chamber directly above the long power tubes of the Ceres. The lock door hung open, making an improvised landing porch fifty feet above the charred ground. Lord paused for a moment at the head of the runged landing ladder. Below him, in the clearing where the ship had come down, he saw the rows of plastic prefabs which his crew had thrown up--laboratories, sleeping quarters, a kitchen, and Ann Howard’s schoolroom.
Beyond the clearing was the edge of the magnificent forest which covered so much of this planet. Far away, in the foothills of a distant mountain range, Lord saw the houses of a village, gleaming in the scarlet blaze of the setting sun. A world at peace, uncrowded, unscarred by the feverish excavation and building of man. A world at the zenith of its native culture, about to be jerked awake by the rude din of civilization. Lord felt a twinge of the same guilt that had tormented his mind since the Ceres had first landed, and with an effort he drove it from his mind.
He descended the ladder and crossed the clearing, still blackened from the landing blast; he pushed open the sliding door of the schoolroom. It was large and pleasantly yellow-walled, crowded with projectors, view-booths, stereo-miniatures, and picture books--all the visual aids which Ann Howard would have used to teach the natives the cultural philosophy of the Galactic Federation. But the rows of seats were empty, and the gleaming machines still stood in their cases. For no one had come to Ann’s school, in spite of her extravagant offers of trade goods.
Ann sat waiting, ramrod straight, in front of a green-tinged projectoscope. She made no compromise with the heat, which had driven the men to strip to their fatigue shorts. Ann wore the full, formal uniform. A less strong-willed woman might have appeared wilted after a day’s work. Ann’s face was expressionless, a block of cold ivory. Only a faint mist of perspiration on her upper lip betrayed her acute discomfort.
“You came promptly, Mr. Lord.” There was a faint gleam of triumph in her eyes. “That was good of you.”
She unfolded her brother’s note and gave it to Lord. It was a clear, straight-forward statement of fact. Don Howard said he was deserting the mission, relinquishing his Federation citizenship. “I’m staying on this world; these people have something priceless, Ann. All my life I’ve been looking for it, dreaming of it. You wouldn’t understand how I feel, but nothing else--nothing else--matters, Ann. Go home. Leave these people alone. Don’t try to make them over.”
The last lines rang in sympathy with Lord’s own feelings, and he knew that was absurd. Changes would have to be made when the trade city was built. That was Lord’s business. Expansion and progress: the lifeblood of the Federation.
“What do you want me to do?” he demanded.
“Go after Don and bring him back.”
“And if he refuses--”
“I won’t leave him here.”
“I have no authority to force him against his will, Ann.”
“I’m sure you can get help from this--” her lip curled “--this native girl of yours. What’s her name?”
“Oh, yes; Niaga. Quaint, isn’t it?” She smiled flatly.
He felt an almost irresistible urge to smash his fist into her jaw. Straight-laced, hopelessly blind to every standard but her own--what right did Ann have to pass judgment on Niaga? It was a rhetorical question. Ann Howard represented the Federation no less than Lord did himself. By law, the teachers rode every trading ship; in the final analysis, their certification could make or break any new planetary franchise.
“Niaga has been very helpful, Ann; cooperative and--”
“Oh, I’m sure she has, Mr. Lord.”
“I could threaten to cut off Don’s bonus pay, I suppose, but it wouldn’t do much good; money has no meaning to these people and, if Don intends to stay here, it won’t mean much to him, either.”
“How you do it, Mr. Lord, is not my concern. But if Don doesn’t go home with us--” She favored him with another icy smile. “I’m afraid I’ll have to make an adverse report when you apply for the franchise.”
“You can’t, Ann!” Lord was more surprised than angry. “Only in the case of a primitive and belligerent culture--”
“I’ve seen no evidence of technology here.” She paused. “And not the slightest indication that these people have any conception of moral values.”
“Not by our standards, no; but we’ve never abandoned a planet for that reason alone.”
“I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Lord. Men like you--the traders and the businessmen and the builders--you’ve never understood a teacher’s responsibility. You make the big noise in the Federation; but we hold it together for you. I’m not particularly disturbed by the superficials I’ve seen here. The indecent dress of these people, their indolent villages, their congenital irresponsibility--all that disgusts me, but it has not affected my analysis. There’s something else here--something far more terrible and more dangerous for us. I can’t put it in words. It’s horrible and it’s deadly; it’s the reason why our men have deserted. They’ve had attractive women on other worlds--in the trade cities, anything money could buy--but they never jumped ship before.”
“A certain percentage always will, Ann.” Lord hoped he sounded reassuring, but he felt anything but reassured himself. Not because of what she said. These naive, altogether delightful people were harmless. But could the charming simplicity of their lives survive the impact of civilization? It was this world that was in danger, not by any stretch of the imagination the Federation.
As the thought occurred to him, he shrank from it with a kind of inner terror. It was heresy. The Federation represented the closest approximation of perfection mortal man would ever know: a brotherhood of countless species, a union of a thousand planets, created by the ingenuity and the energy of man. The Pax Humana; how could it be a threat to any people anywhere?
“That would be my recommendation.” Suddenly Ann’s self-assurance collapsed. She reached for his hand; her fingers were cold and trembling. “But, if you bring Don back, I--I won’t report against a franchise.”
“You’re offering to make a deal? You know the penalty--”
“Collusion between a trade agent and the teacher assigned to his ship--yes, I know the law, Mr. Lord.”
“You’re willing to violate it for Don? Why? Your brother’s a big boy now; he’s old enough to look after himself.”
Ann Howard turned away from him and her voice dropped to a whisper. “He isn’t my brother, Mr. Lord. We had to sign on that way because your company prohibits a man and wife sailing in the same crew.”
In that moment she stripped her soul bare to him. Poor, plain, conscientious Ann Howard! Fighting to hold her man; fighting the unknown odds of an alien world, the stealthy seduction of an amoral people. Lord understood Ann, then, for the first time; he saw the shadow of madness that crept across her mind; and he pitied her.
“I’ll do what I can,” he promised.
As he left the schoolroom she collapsed in a straight-backed chair--thin and unattractive, like Ann herself--and her shoulders shook with silent, bitter grief.
Martin Lord took the familiar path to Niaga’s village. The setting sun still spread its dying fire across the evening sky, but he walked slowly through the deep, quiet shadows of the forest. He came to the stream where he had met Niaga; he paused to dip his sweat-smeared face into the cool water cascading over a five foot fall.
A pleasant flood of memory crowded his mind. When he had first met Niaga, almost a week before, she had been lying on the sandy bank of the stream, idly plaiting a garland of red and blue flowers. Niaga! A copper-skinned goddess, stark naked and unashamed in the bright spot light of sun filtered through the trees. Languorous, laughing lips; long, black hair loosely caught in a net of filmy material that hung across her shoulder.
The feeling of guilt and shame had stabbed at Lord’s mind. He had come, unasked, into an Eden. He didn’t belong here. His presence meant pillage, a rifling of a sacred dream. The landing had been a mistake.
Oddly enough, the Ceres had landed here entirely by chance, the result of a boyish fling at adventure.
Martin Lord was making a routine tour of representative trade cities before assuming his vice-presidency in the central office of Hamilton Lord, Inc. It had been a family custom for centuries, ever since the first domed ports had been built on Mars and Venus.
Lord was twenty-six and, like all the family, tall, slim, yellow-haired. As the Lords had for generations, Martin had attended the Chicago University of Commerce for four years, and the Princeton Graduate School in Interstellar Engineering four more--essential preparations for the successful Federation trader. In Chicago Martin had absorbed the basic philosophy of the Federation: the union of planets and diverse peoples, created by trade, was an economy eternally prosperous and eternally growing, because the number of undiscovered and unexploited planets was infinite. The steady expansion of the trade cities kept demand always one jump ahead of supply; every merchant was assured that this year’s profits would always be larger than last. It was the financial millennium, from which depression and recession had been forever eliminated. At Princeton Lord had learned the practical physics necessary for building, servicing and piloting the standard interstellar merchant ships.
Martin Lord’s tour of the trade cities completed his education. It was his first actual contact with reality. The economy of progress, which had seemed so clear-cut in the Chicago lecture halls, was translated into a brawling, vice-ridden, frontier city. In the older trade cities, the culture of man had come to dominate the occupied worlds. No trace of what alien peoples had been or had believed survived, except as museum oddities.
This, Lord admitted to himself, was conquest, by whatever innocuous name it passed. But was it for good or evil? In the first shock of reality, Martin Lord had doubted himself and the destiny of the Federation. But only for a moment. What he saw was good--he had been taught to believe that--because the Federation was perfection.
But the doubt, like a cancer, fed and grew in the darkness of Lord’s soul.
On the home trip a mechanical defect of the calibration of the time-power carried the Ceres off its course, light years beyond the segment of the Galaxy occupied by the Federation.
“We’ve burned out a relay,” Don Howard reported.
“Have we replacements?” Lord asked.
“It’s no problem to fix. But repairs would be easier if we could set the ship down somewhere.”
Lord glanced at the unknown sun and three satellite planets which were plotted electronically on his cabin scanning screen. His pulse leaped with sudden excitement. This was his first--and last--chance for adventure, the only interstellar flight he would command in his lifetime. When he returned to earth, he would be chained for the rest of his days to a desk job, submerged in a sea of statistical tables and financial statements.
“Run an atmosphere analysis on those three worlds, Mr. Howard,” he said softly.
Driven by its auxiliary nuclear power unit, the ship moved closer to the new solar system. In half an hour Don Howard brought Lord the lab report. Two of the planets were enveloped in methane, but the third had an earth-normal atmosphere. Lord gave the order for a landing, his voice pulsing with poorly concealed, boyish pleasure.
The Ceres settled on a hilltop, its cushioning rockets burning an improvised landing area in the lush foliage. As the airlock swung open, Lord saw half a dozen golden-skinned savages standing on the edge of the clearing. As nearly as he could judge, they were men; but that was not too surprising, because a number of planets in the Federation had evolved sentient species which resembled man. The savages were unarmed and nearly naked--tall, powerfully built men; they seemed neither awed nor frightened by the ship.
Over the circle of scorched earth Lord heard the sound of their voices. For a fleeting second the words seemed to make sense--a clear, unmistakable welcome to the new world.
But communication was inconceivable. This planet was far beyond the fringe of the Federation. Lord was letting his imagination run away with him.
He flung out his arms in a universally accepted gesture of open-handed friendship. At once the talk of the natives ceased. They stood waiting silently on the burned ground while the men unwound the landing ladder.
Lord made the initial contact himself. The techniques which he had learned in the University of Commerce proved enormously successful. Within ten minutes rapport was established; in twenty the natives had agreed to submit to the linguistic machines. Lord had read accounts of other trailblazing commercial expeditions; and he knew he was establishing a record for speed of negotiation.
The savages were quite unfrightened as the electrodes were fastened to their skulls, entirely undisturbed by the whir of the machine. In less than an hour they were able to use the common language of the Federation. Another record; most species needed a week’s indoctrination.
Every new development suggested that these half-naked primitives--with no machine civilization, no cities, no form of space flight--had an intellectual potential superior to man’s. The first question asked by one of the broad-shouldered savages underscored that conclusion.
“Have you come to our world as colonists?”
No mumbo-jumbo of superstition, no awe of strangers who had suddenly descended upon them from the sky. Lord answered, “We landed in order to repair our ship, but I hope we can make a trade treaty with your government.”
For a moment the six men consulted among themselves with a silent exchange of glances. Then one of them smiled and said, “You must visit our villages and explain the idea of trade to our people.”
“Of course,” Lord agreed. “If you could serve as interpreters--”
“Our people can learn your language as rapidly as we have, if we can borrow your language machine for a time.”
Lord frowned. “It’s a rather complex device, and I’m not sure--you see, if something went wrong, you might do a great deal of harm.”
“We would use it just as you did; we saw everything you turned to make it run.” One of the golden-skinned primitives made a demonstration, turning the console of dials with the ease and familiarity of a semantic expert. Again Lord was impressed by their intelligence--and vaguely frightened.
“You could call this the first trade exchange between your world and ours,” another savage added. “Give us the machine; we’ll send you fresh food from the village.”
The argument was logical and eventually the natives had their way. Perhaps it was Ann Howard’s intervention that decided the point. She vehemently disapproved; a gift of techniques should be withheld until she had examined their cultural traditions. But Martin Lord was a trade agent, and he had no intention of allowing his mission to be wrecked by the ephemeral doubts of a teacher. Here at the onset was the time to make it clear that he was in command. He gave the natives the machine.
As the six men trudged across the burned earth carrying the heavy apparatus easily on their shoulders, Lord wondered if either he or Ann Howard had much to do with the negotiations. He had an unpleasant feeling that, from the very beginning, the natives had been in complete control of the situation.
Less than an hour after the six men had departed, a band of natives emerged from the forest bearing gifts of food--straw baskets heaped with fruit, fresh meat wrapped in grass mats, hampers of bread, enormous pottery jars filled with a sweet, cold, milky liquid. Something very close to the miraculous had occurred. Every native had learned to use the Federation language.
A kind of fiesta began in the clearing beside the Ceres. The natives built fires to cook the food. The women, scantily dressed if they were clothed at all, danced sensuously in the bright sunlight to a peculiarly exotic, minor-keyed music played on reed and percussion instruments. Laughing gaily, they enticed members of Lord’s crew to join them.
The milky drink proved mildly intoxicating--yet different from the stimulants used in the Federation. Lord drank a long draught from a mug brought him by one of the women. The effect was immediate. He felt no dulling of his reason, however; no loss of muscular control, but instead a stealthy relaxation of mental strain joined with a satisfying sense of physical well-being. A subtle shifting in prospective, in accepted values.
The savage feast, which grew steadily more boisterous, Lord would have called an orgy under other circumstances. The word did occur to him, but it seemed fantastically inapplicable. Normally the behavior of his men would have demanded the severest kind of disciplinary action. But here the old code of rules simply didn’t apply and he didn’t interfere with their enjoyment.
The afternoon sun blazed in the western sky; heat in shimmering waves hung over the clearing. Lord went into the ship and stripped off his uniform; somehow the glittering insignia, the ornamental braid, the stiff collar--designed to be impressive symbols of authority--seemed garish and out of place. Lord put on the shorts which he wore when he exercised in the capsule gym aboard ship.
Outside again, he found that most of the men had done the same thing. The sun felt warm on his skin; the air was comfortably balmy, entirely free of the swarms of flies and other insects which made other newly contacted frontier worlds so rugged.
As he stood in the shelter of the landing ladder and sipped a second mug of the white liquor, Lord became slowly aware of something else. Divested of their distinguishing uniforms, he and his crew seemed puny and ill-fed beside the natives. If physique were any index to the sophistication of a culture--but that was a ridiculous generalization!
He saw Ann Howard coming toward him through the crowd--stern-faced, hard-jawed, stiffly dignified in her uniform. The other women among the crew had put on their lightest dress, but not Ann. Lord was in no frame of mind, just then, to endure an interview with her. He knew precisely what she would say; Ann was a kind of walking encyclopedia of the conventions.
Lord slid out of sight in the shadow of the ship, but Ann had seen him. He turned blindly into the forest, running along the path toward the village.
In a fern-banked glen beside the miniature waterfall he had met Niaga.
No woman he had ever known seemed so breathtakingly beautiful. Her skin had been caressed by a lifetime’s freedom in the sun; her long, dark hair had the sheen of polished ebony; and in the firm, healthy curves of her body he saw the sensuous grace of a Venus or an Aphrodite.
[Illustration: In a fern-banked glen beside a miniature waterfall, Martin Lord first saw Niaga.]
She stood up slowly and faced him, smiling; a bright shaft of sunlight fell on the liquid bow of her lips. “I am Niaga,” she said. “You must be one of the men who came on the ship.”
“Martin Lord,” he answered huskily. “I’m the trade agent in command.”
“I am honored.” Impulsively she took the garland of flowers which she had been making and put it around his neck. When she came close, the subtle perfume of her hair was unmistakable--like the smell of pine needles on a mountain trail; new grass during a spring rain; or the crisp, winter air after a fall of snow. Perfume sharply symbolic of freedom, heady and intoxicating, numbing his mind with the ghosts of half-remembered dreams.