Ex-vector Commander Jim Channing strode purposefully to the reception desk of Planet Enterprises, Inc.
“I want,” he told the well-built blonde who was making an interested survey of his lean features, “to buy a planet.”
“Yes, sir.” Her interest evaporated. She took a card from a filing cabinet and handed it to him. “If you will just fill this out.”
It was a simple questionnaire--type, location, size--and Channing’s stylo moved rapidly over it. He hesitated only at the last, stark question, “How much are you prepared to pay?” Then he wrote neatly in the space provided “One hundred thousand credits.” That was exactly the amount of his signing-off bonus. It also represented his total finances. The unimaginative minds that calculated the pay of a red-blooded space officer didn’t take into account all the attractive ways of spending it that a rumbustious pioneer Vector provided.
He gave the blonde the card and she wrote a name on it. The smile she gave him was altogether impersonal. She liked the look of the big, gangling fellow with “Space” written all over his bronzed face and crinkled blue eyes, but...
She said, “Will you come this way, please?”
The name on the desk identified him as “Mr. Folan” and he was a tall, affable man.
“I think we can suit you, Commander--er--Mr. Channing,” he said, “though what we have in mind mightn’t be quite as large as you wish. Earth-type planets come rather high, you know. Now if you were to choose a Sirius- or a Vega-type--”
“Thank you, no,” Jim said firmly. He had heard too much about the hazards of alien-type planets.
“In that case,” Mr. Folan said busily, “let’s see what we have available.”
A month later the doors of the automatic shuttle slid across and admitted Jim Channing to the third planet of Phylox Beta. It also disgorged one spaceboat, a clutter of machinery, a thousand tons of strawberry plants and a fully equipped house. While he was still taking in the first glimpse of his future home, the massive doors slammed shut and the giant ship took off smoothly and silently. A moment later it winked into sub-space. He was in business.
The planet possessed only one sizable island--it could hardly be dignified by the name of continent.
The rest was covered by a vast ocean. Still, as Folan had explained, he couldn’t really expect anything more--not in the line of an Earth-type, anyway--for the money.
He spent a week figuring out the remote controls that operated the planting machinery. Once it clanked into operation, it worked entirely on its own. He had only to push a few buttons to send it lumbering in new directions and the big island steadily took on a resemblance to a huge strawberry patch while Channing fished and lounged in the sun.
When the galactic trade agent came, the strawberries were waiting for him, neatly piled into a mountain of gleaming cans. He was a friendly, talkative little man, glad to exercise his tongue again after the lonely months in space.
“What are you growing here?” he asked Channing.
The friendly smile disappeared. “Every planet in the Galaxy seems to be growing strawberries this year. I can’t even give them away.”
“But I thought the Ursa Major colonies--”
The little man shook his head. “So does everyone else. There’s a million tons of strawberries the colonies can’t use headed there already. Now if it was upklin seeds--”
The agent looked at him in surprise. “You mean you haven’t heard about upklin seeds?”
“No. Not a thing.”
“Well, of course, you are a newcomer. It’s this new race that’s been discovered somewhere in The Sack. They are as rich as all get-out and they have a passion for upklin seeds. Trouble is they can’t grow them on local planets and they are offering fancy prices to anybody that can supply them. I paid a thousand credits a bushel for them to your next-door neighbor on the fourth planet last week. Got a hundred bushels.”
Channing did a bit of mental arithmetic. A hundred thousand credits for one crop. Whew!
“Could I grow them here?”
The agent shook his head. “You need plenty of soft marsh and a Jupiter-type atmosphere.”
Then he had a sudden idea and he spoke long and seriously to Channing, explaining quite a few things that were new to him. Channing was still considering them, staring thoughtfully at the ground, after the little man left.
Next day Channing took off for the nearest sub-space center and a few hours later he was in Mr. Folan’s office at Planet Enterprises, gingerly balancing his cap on his knee. Mr. Folan’s sleek head nodded as Channing made his points and when he was finished the executive pressed a buzzer and called for the file.
“You realize, Mr. Channing,” he said conversationally, as he turned over the pages, “that what you are asking will be a most expensive undertaking.”
“I know that,” Channing said eagerly, “but upklin seeds are such a sure-fire proposition that I thought Planet Enterprises might be willing to do the job on a percentage basis.”
Mr. Folan wrote some figures on the margin of the folder and considered deeply. “Yes,” he said at last, “I think it would work out on a seventy-thirty split.”
Mr. Folan inclined his head graciously. “Seventy per cent for Planet Enterprises and thirty for yourself.”
Channing said slowly, “That’s a bit steep.”
In a few brisk words, Mr. Folan showed just why he was an executive of Planet Enterprises, Inc. He gave Channing the figures for transforming the planet’s characteristics to those of Jupiter; he told him what acreage of upklin seeds he could grow and the exact profit to be expected. Channing’s share should be about one hundred and fifty thousand credits per crop.
Fighting a rearguard battle, Channing said, “Your three hundred and fifty thousand won’t look so bad on the balance sheet, either.”
Folan reeled off his figures again with practiced glibness. Channing had the sudden suspicion that his proposition wasn’t entirely unexpected. But the figures sounded reasonable and he had to admit that Planet Enterprises was risking a great deal of money.
“Then there is the not inconsiderable cost of your own metamorphosis, Mr. Channing,” Folan added.
“Huh?” said Channing.
There followed the most excruciating half-hour of Channing’s life. Proposition followed explanation, counter-explanation followed counter-proposition. At the end of that time he emerged from the office with a stricken look and a small white card. The blonde receptionist read the look correctly and definitely and finally crossed him off her list.
For a jube, Ckm Dyk wasn’t at all bad-looking. His four legs growing directly from the bottom of the muscular, hairy trunk were strong and sturdy--always a mark of handsomeness in a male, for the legs had to take most of the strain of a gravitational pull several times that of Earth. He had three flexible tentacles, a thin melon slice for a mouth, but nothing resembling a nose. He didn’t need one, since he breathed through a set of gills at the sides of his head.
He remembered vaguely that he had once been Jim Channing, an Earthman, but the memory had nearly faded. He had been warned of that, that he would soon forget he had ever been anything except what he was now, but he had already forgotten the warning.
Phylox Beta III had changed, too, and in as great a degree. The wide ocean had become a turgid, soupy mush, covered by the trailing growths of the upklin flowers. The blue skies had turned an angry red and the sharp wind that rustled the hair on his squat body was almost pure methane.
He waddled down to the low disk-shaped skimmer and started the jets. As it pushed its way through the clinging masses of the upklin flowers, he surveyed his crop happily. This was his second crop and it promised to be even better than the first. He was going to be a very wealthy buk, he told himself. He could buy ... His mind floundered. He didn’t know what Jubes longed for, what they sought wealth for. He was certain at the same time that there was a flaw in his contentment, that something was missing.
What he was missing dropped from the sky a few days later. It came in a spaceboat and was his neighbor from Phylox Beta IV. Her body hair was a rich golden brown and she wore pretty bracelets, studded with basim stones, on each of her four legs. Ckm Dyk’s single eye, with its perpendicular outer eyelids and horizontal nictitating inner membranes to filter out the infra-red rays, shone with an emotion that was more than pleasure.
Her thoughts flooded his mind. There was a warm recognition of his admiration and a delicious suggestion that it wasn’t unacceptable.
“The agent told me you were upklin farming. I came to see if I could be of any help,” she told him.