When the passengers from Epseri II had been chauffeured from the Centaur Queen to the administration building of the spaceport, the man whose papers identified him as Robert L. Winstead trailed the others to the Interstellar Travel Agency counter. His taking an unobtrusive place near the end of the line was entirely in keeping with his unobtrusive appearance.
Of medium height but somewhat underweight, Winstead looked like a tired clerk who had not slept well in space. The wide trousers of his conservative maroon suit flapped about his thin shins and drew attention to the fact that he had donned one blue and one green sock.
The processing was rapid; most of the two dozen passengers meant to stay here on St. Andrew V. Only a few, of whom Winstead was one, carried “ultimate destination” tickets. They remained after the locals had been taken in charge by a guide who would see them into the adjacent city.
Winstead finally reached a clerk, a dark, extremely brisk young man. He presented his papers. The young man riffled through them, stamped the date of arrival on the travel record according to both local and Terran calendar, then turned back abruptly to the card showing Winstead’s destination. He shook his head in puzzled annoyance.
“I’m very sorry, Mr.--uh--Winstead. Is this the proper ticket you’ve given me? Could you have gotten it mixed up with someone else’s?”
The traveler coughed and spluttered worried, questioning noises. A look of vague alarm spread over his undistinguished features.
His wispy gray hair had become rumpled when he had pulled off and stuffed into a side pocket his rather sporty maroon-and-white checked cap. This, plus the fact that he had to look up to the clerk, lent him an air of the typical little man in the wrong queue. It did not help that he wore old-fashioned sunglasses instead of colored contacts, and had forgotten to remove them before peering at the ticket.
“Why--er--yes, yes, this is right,” he said. “See, here’s my name on it.”
The clerk sighed as he looked around, but his partner was busy. “Someone seems to have blown a nova, sir,” he condescended to explain. “It says here your ultimate destination is Altair IV.”
“Quite right, quite right,” said Winstead. “Going out there to see what the sales possibilities are for--”
“And they sent you here from Epseri? That can’t be, sir.”
“But--they told me--don’t you Agency people take care of picking out the routes?”
“Yes, sir, of course. Beyond the local Terran sphere of travel, there are very few scheduled flights and most of them are for important cargo. That’s why your ticket simply shows your ultimate destination, and that’s why the Interstellar Travel Agency was developed--to arrange for the traveler’s progress by stages.”
“Yes,” said Winstead. “That is how they explained it to me.”
The clerk met his worried gaze for a few moments before shaking himself slightly. He prodded the ticket on the counter between him and Winstead with a disdainful forefinger.
“Let me put it as simply as possible, Mr.--uh--Winstead,” he said very patiently. “Somebody at your last stop sent you in the wrong direction.”
“But--but--you just said it went by stages. I realize I can’t go in a direct line. It depends on whether you can find me the right ship, doesn’t it?”
The young man glanced about once more for help, but none was available.
“We’ll see what we can do,” he said, examining the ticket sourly. He thumbed a button to roll out a length of note paper from a slot in the counter top and scribbled upon it with his lectropen. “Now, if you will please accompany that young lady to the Agency hotel with those other travelers, we will notify you the moment a desirable ship is scheduled to leave.”
Winstead thanked him gratefully and turned away to locate his baggage. Under the conditions imposed by space travel, only the barest minimum was permitted. Even so, some little time was required to find his bag--an unlikely occurrence that the clerk accepted with a resigned air.
Finally, with the half dozen who also would be traveling onward, Winstead was off to the hotel and a day’s rest.
As a matter of fact, it was three days’ rest, before he was summoned. He was, perhaps by intent, confronted upon his arrival by a different clerk, a solid, square-faced girl. Winstead’s nervous questions were reflected unanswered from a shield of impervious calm. He received all the information the Agency seemed to feel was good for him and was sent out with a personal guide.
The guide delivered him to a thick thing named the Stellar Streak, clearly a workhorse freighter. Somehow, it never did become plain to Winstead until after he had emerged from his acceleration net that the destination was Topaz IV.
“But, Captain!” he protested. “Are you sure the people at the spaceport have not made some mistake? That is more or less the direction I came from.”
The pilot stared impatiently at the papers thrust under his nose.
“Can’t say, sir. We have our work cut out just to take the ship to where they tell us. Only reason we carry passengers is that regulations require cooperation with the Agency. Don’t believe in it myself.”
Mr. Winstead sighed and returned to his quarters. At least, on this ship, he still had a private compartment in which to float his net. There was even a chair, equipped with a safety belt and folding table, bolted to the deck. What he did miss was the general dining saloon of the liner he had taken from Epseri II.
Still, he reflected, travel can’t always be luxurious.
He spent some time, after the ship had slipped into stellar drive, in unpacking his one small suitcase. He found that he had to take his shaver to the general head to plug it in, but otherwise got along comfortably enough. One or two of the crew who shared his turn at the galley counter, in fact, took him for an old space hopper and began to exchange yarns.
This sort of semi-suspended living passed the four-day hop to the Topaz system and the extra day necessary for planetary approach. When they landed, Winstead was the only passenger, either incoming or outgoing, to show up at the cargo shed designated as the spaceport administration building.
Here on Topaz IV, the Agency clerk was a part-time man who had to be called from the mines on the far side of the city. He arrived to find Winstead dozing on a cot at the end of the shed.
“Billy Callahan,” he introduced himself. “They say you’re not for the mines.”
“That is correct,” answered Winstead, stretching a kink out of his back. “I have my destination here in these papers ... if you will bear with me a moment...”
He fumbled out his identification, travel record, and ticket. Callahan, rubbing his carroty hair with a large, freckled hand, pored over them. A few minutes of searching through the battered desk that was his headquarters revealed the official arrival stamp. Its inky smear was duly added to the record.
“Now for your way outa here,” grunted Callahan. “Meanwhile, how about a cigar, Mr. Winstead?”
“Why--thanks very much.”
Winstead regarded the torpedo doubtfully. He wondered upon which planet the tobacco for it--if it was tobacco--had been grown.
“This might take a little while,” said Callahan, applying to the ends of their cigars a lighter that could have welded I-beams. “It ain’t every day we get a through traveler here. I gotta look up the Galatlas an’ the shipping notices.”
He hoisted a bulky catalogue from a side table onto his desk and blew off a cloud of dust. Winstead seized the excuse to cough out a lungful of smoke. His host reached out for the ticket.
“Ultimate destination Fomalhaut VIII,” he read off. “Say! That ain’t one I ever had to handle before!”
He leafed through the volume for some minutes, reexamined the ticket, then dug into two or three appendices. He tapped a knobby knuckle against his chin.
“It don’t look to me, Mr. Winstead,” he said thoughtfully, “like you shoulda wound up here at all. Fomalhaut VIII! That’s a hell of a way from here!”
“The clerk at the last spaceport did seem to think there had been a mistake,” Winstead volunteered cautiously.
“Somethin’ sure slipped. Maybe some jet-head read his directions wrong an’ sent you so many degrees Sol north instead of Sol south. Best you can say is you’re still on the right general side of the Solar System.”
“Oh, dear!” Winstead said, flustered. “What can you do about that?”
“Depends what ships, if any, are due here. If I was you, I’d take the first one out. Get to a bigger settlement, where you’ll get a better choice of ships.”
He flicked ash from his cigar and inquired whether Winstead had retained quarters aboard the Stellar Streak. He was undaunted by the negative reply.
“Never mind,” he said heartily. “We’re too small to have an Agency hotel here, but I’ll fix you up a place to stay in town.”
They left Winstead’s bag under the desk and set off by dilapidated groundcar for Topaz City. This turned out to be a crude, sprawling village of adobe walls and corrugated plastic roofs. The varied colors of the roofs contrasted in desperate gaiety with the dun walls. As soon as Callahan skidded to a halt, the car was enveloped by its own dust cloud.
“Phew!” coughed Callahan. “Some day they’re gonna have to pave the street!”
Winstead pulled out a handkerchief to mop his tear-flooded eyes. His thin chest heaved and he spat out muddy saliva.
“I’m sorry about that,” apologized Callahan. “Tell you what--we don’t have much civilization yet, but we do have a little cocktail lounge. Come along an’ I’ll get you somethin’ to clear your throat.”
The traveler allowed himself to be helped out of the car and guided along the “street” to a low building marked by a small parking jam. Most of the men and women that passed them on the way shouted out a greeting to his companion. They dressed with little distinction between the sexes in rough shirts, boots, and pants of a narrower pattern than Winstead’s conservative suit. He was introduced to six or seven people he never expected to lay eyes upon again.
Frontier culture, he deduced. Where humans are rare, each one counts for more.
The first thing he saw in the lounge was the girl guitarist. She was the only woman he had yet seen who was not wearing pants. In fact, it had hardly occurred to him that there might be someone in town who was not connected with the mines. This girl was hardly connected to her own brief costume.
The second thing he saw was a wall of friendly, weather-beaten faces, turning his way in response to Callahan’s cheerful whoop. The third was a man-size drink somebody thrust at him.
After listening for quite a while to a repertoire of apparently ribald songs, most of them too local in humor for Winstead to follow, the traveler was led by Callahan to a sort of restaurant just down the street.
Winstead thought later that he had eaten something there, but what it might have been he forgot as soon as they returned to the cocktail lounge, for a bottle-swinging brawl broke out almost immediately in a far corner. After a form of order had been restored, there was a girl who danced; and presently Callahan was shaking him up and down on a spine-stiffening bed in a small, darkened room.
Winstead promptly discovered that he had, indeed, eaten. When he recovered, he followed Callahan out on wobbly legs to seek a remedy. It was a bright, sunny day, but he could not even guess at the local time. A little while after they had been successful in finding the remedy, he forgot about it.
“Take care of Bobby Winstead for me a little while, George,” he heard Callahan say to someone. “I gotta stop out at the port to check a ship for him. Be right back.”
The hospitality shown him shamed Winstead into inquiring where he might cash a traveler’s check. With the proceeds, he was permitted to buy about one round in a dozen, and to join in the singing. He was eagerly pumped between stops along the street for the latest news of Terra. His least little knowledge was of interest to those he encountered.
At one point, he came to himself in the midst of drawing a current dress design on the bar for one of the girls. Callahan, whose return he had missed, dissuaded the lady from taking his charge home with her as a gesture of pure gratitude. He declared that Winstead had just enough time for a nap.
Winstead’s next awakening was in the echo of a terrified scream.
A light was turned on and he discovered that the man-eating vine which had been strangling him was in reality an acceleration net. The face that floated before him was clean-shaven and anxious.
With considerable mental effort, Winstead deduced that the face was inquiring as to his health.
“Quite ... fine ... thank ... you,” he answered with difficulty. “Haven’t we met somewhere?”
“Sure! Last week, Mr. Winstead, when we took you to Topaz IV,” said the face.
Winstead tried shaking his head. It did not hurt--very much--but he felt that his thinking was terribly slow. Then things began to click. He recognized the man as the second pilot of the Stellar Queen. It might have been easier had the spacer not been standing upside down to Winstead’s twisted position.
He groped dizzily for a question that would not make him sound a complete idiot. The pilot saved him.
“Callahan, back on Topaz IV,” he volunteered, “asked us to tell you the best routing he could figure was to go on with us to Queen Bess III. It’s a busy spaceport, so he thinks you can make better connections.”
“Oh. I ... see,” murmured Winstead.
Unzipping the opening of his net, he floated himself out gingerly.
“I hope it’s all right, Mr. Winstead,” said the spacer. “I know you went in there on an Altair IV destination, but old Callahan seemed to think he was sending you to Fomalhaut VIII. To tell the truth, I think he was a little over-fueled.”
“I ... didn’t notice,” said Winstead. “Tell me--how long were you down at Topaz?”
“Three days,” the spacer told him. “They sure took a liking to you there, Mr. Winstead. A big crowd brought you out to the spaceport with Callahan. We found your bag under his desk by ourselves, but I don’t know where you got that orange suit.”
Winstead looked down at his clothing for the first time and flinched.
“But that was yesterday,” continued the pilot. “You ought to be feeling like some chow by now, eh? Hey wait--the door is down here, Mr. Winstead!”
In six days, including one of landing maneuvers, they reached Queen Bess III, a very Terran world that was a minor crossroads of space travel.
Here, Winstead bade farewell to the Stellar Queen. His first stop was the communications office. He left a message to be transmitted to Callahan on Topaz IV by “fastest means”--i. e., by the next spaceship headed that way. He said, simply, “Thanks for everything.”
He found a good many travelers wandering about the clean, beautifully furnished waiting room of the Agency here. Winstead sank into a softly upholstered armchair, opened his bag, and began to sort out his papers. No sooner did he look up from this task than there appeared before him a pleasantly smiling, gray-haired man. He was about Winstead’s height, but chunky and full of bounce.
“My name is John Aubrey,” he announced. “I trust I can be of service. Are you stopping here on Bessie?”
“No, I--I’m just passing through,” said Winstead. “I assume you are the Agency official here?”
“One of them,” Aubrey said. “Ah, your papers? Thank you. We can just step this way into my office if you like.”
He threaded his way between chairs, tables, and occasional travelers to one of a row of offices. It was the size of a large closet, but cheerfully decorated. Aubrey gave Winstead a chair and sat himself down behind an extremely modern desk to commit the required formalities upon the traveler’s papers. The ultimate destination ticket Winstead had included gave him pause.
“Well, well, well!” he exclaimed. “Achernar X! Really! You must be with the government, I suppose? Or a scientist? As I recall, Achernar is rather blue for human use, except our research outpost there, isn’t it?”
“I--er--I am engaged in a little research,” said Winstead. “You did very well to remember the place offhand.”
“It is a long way out. Interesting. I wonder how I can get you there. Someone seems to have sent you--well, no matter. Just leave it to me. You’ll be staying at our hotel, of course? Might as well, since you have paid for the service, eh? I’ll have you flown over right away.”
An aircar carried Winstead to the roof of a hotel overlooking a considerable metropolis. Having left his bag in his room, he found his way to the hotel department store and ordered another suit. He spent the rest of the afternoon sightseeing and decided that he might just as well have been on Terra. When he sat down to an excellent dinner that evening, he discovered that his appetite, unfortunately, had not recovered from his stay on Topaz IV.
He was awakened before dawn by the soft chime of his bedside screen. A touch of the button brought on the happy features of Aubrey.
Does he never rest? thought Winstead.
He pushed the audio button and answered.
“Good morning, Mr. Winstead,” said the Agency man brightly. “Sorry to call so early, but I was extremely lucky to find you a passage toward Achernar.”
“Not sure I want to go,” Winstead muttered into his pillow.
Aubrey, apparently not hearing him, bubbled merrily on. There would be an aircar on the hotel roof for Winstead in half an hour. Haste was necessary because the ship was leaving from a spaceport fifty miles outside the city. Indeed, Winstead could count himself fortunate to have had the chance so quickly. Aubrey had found it only by checking all the private spacelines. After all, Achernar was a long way off.
Winstead thanked him blearily before switching off. He then dialed the hotel store, but got no more answer than he expected. Giving up thoughts of his new suit, he rose and struggled into his clothes.
Queen Bess had not yet poked her corona above the horizon when the aircar delivered him to a little island spaceport south of the city. A stocky, taciturn shadow met him. They walked silently out to a ship that towered darkly overhead.
“No inside elevator?” asked Winstead, peering at the skeleton framework rising beside the ship.
“Too much load.”
They rode a creaking platform up through the chilly breeze until Winstead thought they would go past the nose of the monster. Clutching his bag in one hand and the single railing in the other, he edged across a narrow gangway to an airlock. Inside, he followed the crewman down a short, three-foot-diameter shaft to a square chamber, catching his bag on the ladder no more than a few times.
In the more adequate light here, the spacer was revealed as a swarthy man with a muscular, dark-stubbled face. He wore tight trousers and shirt of navy blue and a knit cap that might once have been white. With a preoccupied air, he pulled open a small door on the bulkhead at chest level.
“Let’s have your bag,” he said.
Winstead handed it over. The spacer shoved it into what seemed to be a spacious compartment in spite of the yard-square door.
“Now you,” he said. “I’ll give you a hand up.”
“Up where?” asked Winstead innocently.
“In there. That’s your acceleration compartment. Plenty of room. Armored, air-conditioned, has its own emergency rations of air and water.”
Winstead stooped to peer into the opening. It was deeper than he had thought, but a three-foot square was not much of a cross section. All surfaces inside were thickly padded and springy to the touch.
“Here’s the light switch,” the spacer said, turning on a soft interior light. “The rest of the facilities and instructions are on this plate beside the hatch. Okay now, grab that handhold up there so you go in feet first. Alley-oop!”
As long as I don’t come out that way, thought Winstead, sliding into the compartment with surprising ease. He twisted around and discovered that the door had a small window.
“Make yourself comfortable,” said the spacer. “Just don’t forget to close the hatch when the takeoff buzzer sounds. You’d better listen for it.”