The Cosmic Computer
Thirty minutes to Litchfield.
Conn Maxwell, at the armor-glass front of the observation deck, watched the landscape rush out of the horizon and vanish beneath the ship, ten thousand feet down. He thought he knew how an hourglass must feel with the sand slowly draining out.
It had been six months to Litchfield when the Mizar lifted out of La Plata Spaceport and he watched Terra dwindle away. It had been two months to Litchfield when he boarded the City of Asgard at the port of the same name on Odin. It had been two hours to Litchfield when the Countess Dorothy rose from the airship dock at Storisende. He had had all that time, and now it was gone, and he was still unprepared for what he must face at home.
Thirty minutes to Litchfield.
The words echoed in his mind as though he had spoken them aloud, and then, realizing that he never addressed himself as sir, he turned. It was the first mate.
He had a clipboard in his hand, and he was wearing a Terran Federation Space Navy uniform of forty years, or about a dozen regulation-changes, ago. Once Conn had taken that sort of thing for granted. Now it was obtruding upon him everywhere.
“Thirty minutes to Litchfield, sir,” the first officer repeated, and gave him the clipboard to check the luggage list. Valises, two; trunks, two; microbook case, one. The last item fanned a small flicker of anger, not at any person, not even at himself, but at the whole infernal situation. He nodded.
“That’s everything. Not many passengers left aboard, are there?”
“You’re the only one, first class, sir. About forty farm laborers on the lower deck.” He dismissed them as mere cargo. “Litchfield’s the end of the run.”
“I know. I was born there.”
The mate looked again at his name on the list and grinned.
“Sure; you’re Rodney Maxwell’s son. Your father’s been giving us a lot of freight lately. I guess I don’t have to tell you about Litchfield.”
“Maybe you do. I’ve been away for six years. Tell me, are they having labor trouble now?”
“Labor trouble?” The mate was surprised. “You mean with the farm-tramps? Ten of them for every job, if you call that trouble.”
“Well, I noticed you have steel gratings over the gangway heads to the lower deck, and all your crewmen are armed. Not just pistols, either.”
“Oh. That’s on account of pirates.”
“Pirates?” Conn echoed.
“Well, I guess you’d call them that. A gang’ll come aboard, dressed like farm-tramps; they’ll have tommy guns and sawed-off shotguns in their bindles. When the ship’s airborne and out of reach of help, they’ll break out their guns and take her. Usually kill all the crew and passengers. They don’t like to leave live witnesses,” the mate said. “You heard about the Harriet Barne, didn’t you?”
She was Transcontinent & Overseas, the biggest contragravity ship on the planet.
“They didn’t pirate her, did they?”
The mate nodded. “Six months ago; Blackie Perales’ gang. There was just a tag end of a radio call, that ended in a shot. Time the Air Patrol got to her estimated position it was too late. Nobody’s ever seen ship, officers, crew or passengers since.”
“Well, great Ghu; isn’t the Government doing anything about it?”
“Sure. They offered a big reward for the pirates, dead or alive. And there hasn’t been a single case of piracy inside the city limits of Storisende,” he added solemnly.
The Calder Range had grown to a sharp blue line on the horizon ahead, and he could see the late afternoon sun on granite peaks. Below, the fields were bare and brown, and the woods were autumn-tinted. They had been green with new foliage when he had last seen them, and the wine-melon fields had been in pink blossom. Must have gotten the crop in early, on this side of the mountains. Maybe they were still harvesting, over in the Gordon Valley. Or maybe this gang below was going to the wine-pressing. Now that he thought of it, he’d seen a lot of cask staves going aboard at Storisende.
Yet there seemed to be less land under cultivation now than six years ago. He could see squares of bracken and low brush that had been melon fields recently, among the new forests that had grown up in the past forty years. The few stands of original timber towered above the second growth like hills; those trees had been there when the planet had been colonized.
That had been two hundred years ago, at the beginning of the Seventh Century, Atomic Era. The name “Poictesme” told that--Surromanticist Movement, when they were rediscovering James Branch Cabell. Old Genji Gartner, the scholarly and half-piratical space-rover whose ship had been the first to enter the Trisystem, had been devoted to the romantic writers of the Pre-Atomic Era. He had named all the planets of the Alpha System from the books of Cabell, and those of Beta from Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and those of Gamma from Rabelais. Of course, the camp village at his first landing site on this one had been called Storisende.
Thirty years later, Genji Gartner had died there, after seeing Storisende grow to a metropolis and Poictesme become a Member Republic in the Terran Federation. The other planets were uninhabitable except in airtight dome cities, but they were rich in minerals. Companies had been formed to exploit them. No food could be produced on any of them except by carniculture and hydroponic farming, and it had been cheaper to produce it naturally on Poictesme. So Poictesme had concentrated on agriculture and had prospered. At least, for about a century.
Other colonial planets were developing their own industries; the manufactured goods the Gartner Trisystem produced could no longer find a profitable market. The mines and factories on Jurgen and Koshchei, on Britomart and Calidore, on Panurge and the moons of Pantagruel closed, and the factory workers went away. On Poictesme, the offices emptied, the farms contracted, forests reclaimed fields, and the wild game came back.
Coming toward the ship out of the east, now, was a vast desert of crumbling concrete--landing fields and parade grounds, empty barracks and toppling sheds, airship docks, stripped gun emplacements and missile-launching sites. These were more recent, and dated from Poictesme’s second hectic prosperity, when the Gartner Trisystem had been the advance base for the Third Fleet-Army Force, during the System States War.
It had lasted twelve years. Millions of troops were stationed on or routed through Poictesme. The mines and factories reopened for war production. The Federation spent trillions on trillions of sols, piled up mountains of supplies and equipment, left the face of the world cluttered with installations. Then, without warning, the System States Alliance collapsed, the rebellion ended, and the scourge of peace fell on Poictesme.
The Federation armies departed. They took the clothes they stood in, their personal weapons, and a few souvenirs. Everything else was abandoned. Even the most expensive equipment had been worth less than the cost of removal.
The people who had grown richest out of the War had followed, taking their riches with them. For the next forty years, those who remained had been living on leavings. On Terra, Conn had told his friends that his father was a prospector, leaving them to interpret that as one who searched, say, for uranium. Rodney Maxwell found quite a bit of uranium, but he got it by taking apart the warheads of missiles.
Now he was looking down on the granite spines of the Calder Range; ahead the misty Gordon Valley sloped and widened to the north. Twenty minutes to Litchfield, now. He still didn’t know what he was going to tell the people who would be waiting for him. No; he knew that; he just didn’t know how. The ship swept on, ten miles a minute, tearing through thin puffs of cloud. Ten minutes. The Big Bend was glistening redly in the sunlit haze, but Litchfield was still hidden inside its curve. Six. Four. The Countess Dorothy was losing speed and altitude. Now he could see it, first a blur and then distinctly. The Airlines Building, so thick as to look squat for all its height. The yellow block of the distilleries under their plume of steam. High Garden Terrace; the Mall.
Moment by moment, the stigmata of decay became more evident. Terraces empty or littered with rubbish; gardens untended and choked with wild growth; blank-staring windows, walls splotched with lichens. At first, he was horrified at what had happened to Litchfield in six years. Then he realized that the change had been in himself. He was seeing it with new eyes, as it really was.
The ship came in five hundred feet above the Mall, and he could see cracked pavements sprouting grass, statues askew on their pedestals, waterless fountains. At first he thought one of them was playing, but what he had taken for spray was dust blowing from the empty basin. There was a thing about dusty fountains, some poem he’d read at the University.
The fountains are dusty in the Graveyard of Dreams; The hinges are rusty, they swing with tiny screams.
Was Poictesme a Graveyard of Dreams? No; Junkyard of Empire. The Terran Federation had impoverished a hundred planets, devastated a score, actually depopulated at least three, to keep the System States Alliance from seceding. It hadn’t been a victory. It had only been a lesser defeat.
There was a crowd, almost a mob, on the dock; nearly everybody in topside Litchfield. He spotted old Colonel Zareff, with his white hair and plum-brown skin, and Tom Brangwyn, the town marshal, red-faced and bulking above everybody else. Kurt Fawzi, the mayor, well to the front. Then he saw his father and mother, and his sister Flora, and waved to them. They waved back, and then everybody was waving. The gangway-port opened, and the Academy band struck up, enthusiastically if inexpertly, as he descended to the dock.
His father was wearing a black suit with a long coat, cut to the same pattern as the one he had worn six years ago. Blackout curtain cloth. It was fairly new, but the coat had begun to acquire a permanent wrinkle across the right hip, over the pistol butt. His mother’s dress was new, and so was Flora’s, made for the occasion. He couldn’t be sure just which of the Federation Armed Forces had provided the material, but his father’s shirt was Med Service sterilon.
Ashamed to be noticing things like that, he clasped his father’s hand, kissed his mother, embraced his sister. There were a few, but very few, gray threads in his father’s mustache; a few more squint-wrinkles around the eyes. His mother’s hair was all gray, now, and she was heavier. She seemed shorter, but that would be because he’d grown a few inches in the last six years. For a moment, he was surprised that Flora actually looked younger. Then he realized that to seventeen, twenty-three is practically middle age, but to twenty-three, twenty-nine is almost contemporary. He noticed the glint on her left hand and caught it to look at the ring.
“Hey! Zarathustra sunstone! Nice,” he said. “Where is he, Sis?”
He’d never met her fiance; Wade Lucas hadn’t come to Litchfield to practice medicine until the year after he’d gone to Terra.
“Oh, emergency,” Flora said. “Obstetrical case; that won’t wait on anything. In Tramptown, of course. But he’ll be at the party ... Oops, I shouldn’t have said that; that’s supposed to be a surprise.”
“Don’t worry; I’ll be surprised,” he promised.
Then Kurt Fawzi was pushing forward, holding out his hand. Thinner, and grayer, but just as effusive as ever.
“Welcome home, Conn. Judge, shake hands with him and tell him how glad we all are to see him back ... Now, Franz, put away the recorder; save the interview for the Chronicle till later. Ah, Professor Kellton; one pupil Litchfield Academy can be proud of!”
He shook hands with them: Judge Ledue, Franz Veltrin, old Professor Dolf Kellton. They were all happy; how much, he wondered, because he was Conn Maxwell, Rodney Maxwell’s son, home from Terra, and how much because of what they hoped he’d tell them. Kurt Fawzi, edging him aside, was the first to speak of it.
“Conn, what did you find out?” he whispered. “Do you know where it is?”
He stammered, then saw Tom Brangwyn and Colonel Klem Zareff approaching, the older man tottering on a silver-headed cane and the younger keeping pace with him. Neither of them had been born on Poictesme. Tom Brangwyn had always been reticent about where he came from, but Hathor was a good guess. There had been political trouble on Hathor twenty years ago; the losers had had to get off-planet in a hurry to dodge firing squads. Klem Zareff never was reticent about his past. He came from Ashmodai, one of the System States planets, and he had commanded a regiment, and finally a division that had been blasted down to less than regimental strength, in the Alliance Army. He always wore a little rosette of System States black and green on his coat.
“Hello, boy,” he croaked, extending a hand. “Good to see you again.”
“It sure is, Conn,” the town marshal agreed, then lowered his voice. “Find out anything definite?”
“We didn’t have much time, Conn,” Kurt Fawzi said, “but we’ve arranged a little celebration for you. We’ll start it with a dinner at Senta’s.”
“You couldn’t have done anything I’d have liked better, Mr. Fawzi. I’d have to have a meal at Senta’s before I’d really feel at home.”
“Well, it’ll be a couple of hours. Suppose we all go up to my office, in the meantime. Give the ladies a chance to fix up for the party, and have a little drink and a talk together.”
“You want to do that, Conn?” his father asked. There was an odd undernote of anxiety, or reluctance, in his voice.
“Yes, of course. I’d like that.”
His father turned to speak to his mother and Flora. Kurt Fawzi was speaking to his wife, interrupting himself to shout instructions to some laborers who were bringing up a contragravity skid. Conn turned to Colonel Zareff.
“Good melon crop this year?” he asked.
The old Rebel cursed. “Gehenna of a big crop; we’re up to our necks in melons. This time next year we’ll be washing our feet in brandy.”
“Hold onto it and age it; you ought to see what they charge for a drink of Poictesme brandy on Terra.”
“This isn’t Terra, and we aren’t selling it by the drink,” Colonel Zareff said. “We’re selling it at Storisende Spaceport, for what the freighter captains pay us. You’ve been away too long, Conn. You’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in a poor-house.”
The cargo was coming off, now. Cask staves, and more cask staves. Zareff swore bitterly at the sight, and then they started toward the wide doors of the shipping floor, inside the Airlines Building. Outgoing cargo was beginning to come out; casks of brandy, of course, and a lot of boxes and crates, painted light blue and bearing the yellow trefoil of the Third Fleet-Army Force and the eight-pointed red star of Ordnance. Cases of rifles; square boxes of ammunition; crated auto-cannon. Conn turned to his father.
“This our stuff?” he asked. “Where did you dig it?”
Rodney Maxwell laughed. “You know the old Tenth Army Headquarters, over back of Snagtooth, in the Calders? Everybody knows that was cleaned out years ago. Well, always take a second look at these things everybody knows. Ten to one they’re not so. It always bothered me that nobody found any underground attack-shelters. I took a second look, and sure enough, I found them, right underneath, mined out of the solid rock. Conn, you’d be surprised at what I found there.”
“Where are you going to sell that stuff?” he asked, pointing at a passing skid. “There’s enough combat equipment around now to outfit a private army for every man, woman and child in Poictesme.”
“Storisende Spaceport. The freighter captains buy it, and sell it on some of the planets that were colonized right before the War and haven’t gotten industrialized yet. I’m clearing about two hundred sols a ton on it.”
The skid at which he had pointed was loaded with cases of M504 submachine guns. Even used, one was worth fifty sols. Allowing for packing weight, his father was selling those tommy guns for less than a good cafe on Terra got for one drink of Poictesme brandy.