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*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK A MATTER OF IMPORTANCE *** Produced by Greg Weeks, Bruce Albrecht, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at A MATTER OF IMPORTANCE BY MURRAY LEINSTER Illustrated by Bernklau [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Astounding Science Fiction September 1959. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

The importance of a matter is almost entirely a matter of your attitude. And whether you call something "a riot" or "a war" ... well, there is a difference, but what is it?

Nobody ever saw the message-torp. It wasn't to be expected. It came in on a course that extended backward to somewhere near the Riftโ€”where there used to be Huksโ€”and for a very, very long way it had traveled as only message-torps do travel. It hopped half a light-year in overdrive, and came back to normality long enough for its photocells to inspect the star-filled universe all about. Then it hopped another half light-year, and so on. For a long, long time it traveled in this jerky fashion.

Eventually, moving as it did in the straightest of straight lines, its photocells reported that it neared a star which had achieved first-magnitude brightness. It paused a little longer than usual while its action-circuits shifted. Then it swung to aim for the bright star, which was the sol-type sun Varenga. The torp sped toward it on a new schedule. Its overdrive hops dropped to light-month length. Its pauses in normality were longer. They lasted almost the fiftieth of a second.

When Varenga had reached a suitably greater brightness in the message-torp's estimation, it paused long enough to blast out its recorded message. It had been designed for this purpose and no other. Its overdrive hops shortened to one light-hour of distance covered. Regularly, its transmitter flung out a repetition of what it had been sent so far to say. In time it arrived within the limits of the Varenga system. Its hops diminished to light-minutes of distance only. It ceased to correct its course. It hurtled through the orbits of all the planets, uttering silently screamed duplicates of the broadcasts now left behind, to arrive later.

It did not fall into the sun, of course. The odds were infinitely against such a happening. It pounded past the sun, shrieking its news, and hurtled on out to the illimitable emptiness beyond. It was still squealing when it went out of human knowledge forever.

The state of things was routine. Sergeant Madden had the traffic desk that morning. He would reach retirement age in two more years, and it was a nagging reminder that he grew old. He didn't like it. There was another matter. His son Timmy had a girl, and she was on the way to Varenga IV on the Cerberus, and when she arrived Timmy would become a married man. Sergeant Madden contemplated this prospect. By the time his retirement came up, in the ordinary course of events he could very well be a grandfather. He was unable to imagine it. He rumbled to himself.

The telefax hummed and ejected a sheet of paper on top of other sheets in the desk's "In" cubicle. Sergeant Madden glanced absently at it. It was an operations-report sheet, to be referred to if necessary, but otherwise simply to be filed at the end of the day.

A voice crackled overhead.

"Attention Traffic," said the voice. "The following report has been received and verified as off-planet. Message follows." That voice ceased and was replaced by another, which wavered and wabbled from the electron-spurts normal to solar systems and which make for auroras on planets. "Mayday mayday mayday," said the second voice. "Call for help. Call for help. Ship Cerberus major breakdown overdrive heading Procyron III for refuge. Help urgently needed." There was a pause. "Mayday mayday mayday. Call for helpโ€”"

Sergeant Madden's face went blank. Timmy's girl was on the Cerberus. Then he growled and riffled swiftly through the operations-report sheets that had come in since his tour of duty began. He found the one he looked for. Yes. Patrolman Timothy Madden was now in overdrive in squad ship 740, delivering the monthly precinct report to Headquarters. He would be back in eight days. Maybe a trifle less, with his girl due to arrive on the Cerberus in nine and him to be married in ten. Butโ€”

Sergeant Madden swore. As a prospective bridegroom, Timmy's place was on this call for help to the Cerberus. But he wasn't available. It was in his line, because it was specifically a traffic job. The cops handled traffic, naturally, as they handled sanitary-code enforcement and delinks and mercantile offenses and murderers and swindlers and missing persons. Everything was dumped on the cops. They'd even handled the Huks in time gone byโ€”which in still earlier times would have been called a space war and put down in all the history books. It was routine for the cops to handle the disabled or partly disabled Cerberus.

Sergeant Madden pushed a button marked "Traffic Emergency" and held it down until it lighted.

"You got that Cerberus report?" he demanded of the air about him.

"Just," said a voice overhead.

"What've you got on hand?" demanded Sergeant Madden.

"The Aldeb's here," said the voice. "There's a minor overhaul going on, but we can get her going in six hours. She's slow, but you know her."

"Hm-m-m. Yeah," said Sergeant Madden. He added vexedly: "My son Timmy's girl is on board the Cerberus. He'll be wild he wasn't here. I'm going to take the ready squad ship and go on out. Passengers always fret when there's trouble and no cop around. Too bad Timmy's off on assignment."

"Yeah," said the Traffic Emergency voice. "Too bad. But we'll get the Aldeb off in six hours."

Sergeant Madden pushed another button. It lighted.

"Madden," he rumbled. "Desk. The Cerberus' had a breakdown. She's limpin' over to Procyron III for refuge to wait for help. The Aldeb'll do the job on her, but I'm going to ride the squad ship out and make up the report. Who's next on call-duty?"

"Willis," said a crisp voice. "Squad ship 390. He's up for next call. Playing squint-eye in the squad room now."

"Pull him loose," Sergeant Madden ordered, "and send somebody to take the desk. Tell Willis I'll be on the tarmac in five minutes."

"Check," said the crisp voice.

Sergeant Madden lifted his thumb. All this was standard operational procedure. A man had the desk. An emergency call came in. That man took it and somebody else took the desk. Eminently fair. No favoritism; no throwing weight around; no glory-grabbing. Not that there was much glory in being a cop. But as long as a man was a cop, he was good. Sergeant Madden reflected with satisfaction that even if he was getting on to retirement age, he was still a cop.

He made two more calls. One was to Records for the customary full information on the Cerberus and on the Procyron system. The other was to the flat where Timmy lived with him. It was going to be lonely when Timmy got married and had a home of his own. Sergeant Madden dialed for message-recording and gruffly left word for Timmy. He, Timmy's father, was going on ahead to make the report on the Cerberus. Timmy wasn't to worry. The ship might be a few days late, but Timmy'd better make the most of them. He'd be married a long time!

Sergeant Madden got up, grunting, from his chair. Somebody came in to take over the desk. Sergeant Madden nodded and waved his hand. He went out and took the slide-stair down to the tarmac where squad ship 390 waited in standard police readiness. Patrolman Willis arrived at the stubby little craft seconds after the sergeant.

"Procyron III," said Sergeant Madden, rumbling. "I figure three days. You told your wife?"

"I called," said Patrolman Willis resignedly.

They climbed into the squad ship. Police ships, naturally, had their special drive, which could lift them off without rocket aid and gave them plenty of speed, but filled up the hull with so much machinery that it was only practical for such ships. Commercial craft were satisfied with low-power drives, which meant that spaceport facilities lifted them to space and pulled them down again. They carried rockets for emergency landing, but the main thing was that they had a profitable pay load. Squad ships didn't carry anything but two men and their equipment.

Sergeant Madden dogged the door shut. The ship fell up toward the sky. The heavens became that blackness-studded-with-jewels which is space. A great yellow sun flared astern. A half-bright, half-dark globe lay below-the planet Varenga IV, on which the precinct police station for this part of the galaxy had its location.

Patrolman Willis, frowning with care, established the squad ship's direction, while Sergeant Madden observed without seeming to do so. Presently Patrolman Willis pushed a button. The squad ship went into overdrive.

It was perfectly commonplace in all its aspects.

The galaxy went about its business. Stars shone, and planets moved around them, and double stars circled each other like waltzing couples. There were also comets and meteors and calcium-clouds and high-energy free nuclei, all of which acted as was appropriate for them. On some millions of planets winds blew and various organisms practiced photosynthesis. Waves ran across seas. Clouds formed and poured down rain. On the relatively small number of worlds so far inhabited by humans, people went about their business with no thought for such things or anything not immediately affecting their lives. And the cops went about their business.

Sergeant Madden dozed most of the first day of overdrive travel. He had nothing urgent to do, as yet. This was only a routine trip. The Cerberus had had a breakdown in her overdrive. Commercial ships' drives being what they were, it meant that on her emergency drive she could only limp along at maybe eight or ten lights. Which meant years to port, with neither food nor air for the journey. But it was not even conceivable to rendezvous with a rescue ship in the emptiness between stars. So the Cerberus had sent a message-torp and was crawling to a refuge-planet, more or less surveyed a hundred years before. There she would land by emergency rockets, because her drive couldn't take the strain. Once aground, the Cerberus should wait for help. There was nothing else to be done. But everything was nicely in hand. The squad ship headed briskly for the planet Procyron III, and Sergeant Madden would take the data for a proper, official, emergency-call traffic report on the incident, and in time the Aldeb would turn up and make emergency repairs and see the Cerberus out to space again and headed for port once more.

This was absolutely all that there was to anticipate. Traffic handled such events as a matter of course. So Sergeant Madden dozed during most of the first day of overdrive. He reflected somnolently when awake that it was fitting for Timmy's father to be on the job when Timmy's girl was in difficulty, since Timmy was off somewhere else.

On the second day he conversed more or less with Patrolman Willis. Willis was a young cop, almost as young as Timmy. He took himself very seriously. When Sergeant Madden reached for the briefing-data, he found it disturbed. Willis had read up on the kind of ship the Cerberus was, and on the characteristics of Procyron III as recorded a century before. The Cerberus was a semi-freighter, Candless type. Procyron III was a water-planet with less than ten per cent of land. Which was unfortunate, because its average temperature and orbit made it highly suitable for human occupation. Had the ten per cent of solid ground been in one piece, it would doubtless have been colonized. But the ground was an archipelago.

"Hm-m-m," said Sergeant Madden, after reading. "The survey recommends this northern island for emergency landing. Eh?"

Willis nodded. "Huks used to use it. Not the island. The planet."

Sergeant Madden yawned. It seemed pathetic to him that young cops like Willis and even Timmy referred so often to Huks. There weren't any, any more. Being a cop meant carrying out purely routine tasks, nowadays. They were important tasks, of course. Without the cops, there couldn't be any civilization. But Willis and Timmy didn't think of it that way. Not yet. To them being a cop was still a matter of glamour rather than routine. They probably even regretted the absence of Huks. But when a man reached Sergeant Madden's age, glamour didn't matter. He had to remember that his job was worth doing, in itself.

"Yeah," said Sergeant Madden. "There was quite a time with those Huks."

"Did you ... did you ever see a Huk, sir?" asked Willis.

"Before my time," said Sergeant Madden. "But I've talked to men who worked on the case."


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