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*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK PREFERRED RISK *** Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
PREFERRED RISK

By EDSON McCANN

Illustrated by KOSSIN

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction June, July, August, September 1955.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Winner of the $6,500 Galaxy-Simon & Schuster novel contest,
this taut suspense story asks the challenging question: how
dangerous would it be to live in a rigidly risk-free world?

The liner from Port Lyautey was comfortable and slick, but I was leaning forward in my seat as we came in over Naples. I had been on edge all the way across the Atlantic. Now as the steward came through the compartments to pick up our Blue Plate ration coupons for the trip, I couldn't help feeling annoyed that I hadn't eaten the food they represented. For the Company wanted everyone to get the fullest possible benefit out of his policies—not only the food policies, but Blue Blanket, Blue Bolt and all the others.

We whooshed in to a landing at Carmody Field, just outside of Naples. My baggage was checked through, so I didn't expect to have any difficulty clearing past the truce-team Customs inspectors. It was only a matter of turning over my baggage checks, and boarding the rapido that would take me into Naples.

But my luck was low. The man before me was a fussbudget who insisted on carrying his own bags, and I had to stand behind him a quarter of an hour, while the truce-teams geigered his socks and pajamas.

While I fidgeted, though, I noticed that the Customs shed had, high up on one wall, a heroic-sized bust of Millen Carmody himself. Just standing there, under that benevolent smile, made me feel better. I even managed to nod politely to the traveler ahead of me as he finally got through the gate and let me step up to the uniformed Company expediter who checked my baggage tickets.

And the expediter gave me an unexpected thrill. He leafed through my papers, then stepped back and gave me a sharp military salute. "Proceed, Adjuster Wills," he said, returning my travel orders. It hadn't been like that at the transfer point at Port Lyautey—not even back at the Home Office in New York. But here we were in Naples, and the little war was not yet forgotten; we were under Company law, and I was an officer of the Company.

It was all I needed to restore my tranquility. But it didn't last.

The rapido took us through lovely Italian countryside, but it was in no hurry to do it. We were late getting into the city itself, and I found myself almost trotting out of the little train and up into the main waiting room where my driver would be standing at the Company desk.

I couldn't really blame the Neapolitans for the delay—it wasn't their fault that the Sicilians had atomized the main passenger field at Capodichino during the war, and the rapido wasn't geared to handling that volume of traffic from Carmody Field. But Mr. Gogarty would be waiting for me, and it wasn't my business to keep a Regional Director waiting.

I got as far as the exit to the train shed. There was a sudden high, shrill blast of whistles and a scurrying and, out of the confusion of persons milling about, there suddenly emerged order.

At every doorway stood three uniformed Company expediters; squads of expediters formed almost before my eyes all over the train shed; single expediters appeared and took up guard positions at every stairwell and platform head. It was a triumph of organization; in no more than ten seconds, a confused crowd was brought under instant control.

But why?

There was a babble of surprised sounds from the hurrying crowds; they were as astonished as I. It was reasonable enough that the Company's expediter command should conduct this sort of surprise raid from time to time, of course. The Company owed it to its policyholders; by insuring them against the hazards of war under the Blue Bolt complex of plans, it had taken on the responsibility of preventing war when it could. And ordinarily it could, easily enough.

How could men fight a war without weapons—and how could they buy weapons, particularly atomic weapons, when the Company owned all the sources and sold only to whom it pleased, when it pleased, as it pleased? There were still occasional outbreaks—witness the recent strife between Sicily and Naples itself—but the principle remained.... Anyway, surprise raids were well within the Company's rights.

I was mystified, though—I could not imagine what they were looking for here in the Naples railroad terminal; with geigering at Carmody Field and every other entry point to the Principality of Naples, they should have caught every fissionable atom coming in, and it simply did not seem reasonable that anyone in the principality itself could produce nuclear fuel to make a bomb.

Unless they were not looking for bombs, but for people who might want to use them. But that didn't tie in with what I had been taught as a cadet at the Home Office.

There was a crackle and an unrecognizable roar from the station's public-address system. Then the crowd noises died down as people strained to listen, and I began to understand the words: "... Where you are in an orderly fashion until this investigation is concluded. You will not be delayed more than a few minutes. Do not, repeat, do not attempt to leave until this man has been captured. Attention! Attention! All persons in this area! Under Company law, you are ordered to stop all activities and stand still at once. An investigation is being carried out in this building. All persons will stand still and remain where you are in an orderly fashion until this investigation...."

The mounting babble drowned the speaker out again, but I had heard enough.

I suppose I was wrong, but I had been taught that my duty was to serve the world, by serving the Company, in all ways at all times. I walked briskly toward the nearest squad of expediters, who were already breaking up into detachments and moving about among the halted knots of civilians, peering at faces, asking questions.

I didn't quite make it; I hadn't gone more than five yards when a heavy hand fell on my shoulder, and a harsh voice snarled in the Neapolitan dialect, "Halt, you! Didn't you hear the orders?"

I spun, staggering slightly, to face an armed expediter-officer. I stood at attention and said crisply, "Sorry. I'm Thomas Wills, Claims Adjuster. I thought I might be able to help."

The officer stared at me for a moment. His cheeks moved; I had the impression that, under other circumstances, he would have spat on the floor at my feet. "Papers!" he ordered.

I passed him my travel orders. He looked them over briefly, then returned them. Like the Customs expediter at Carmody Field, he gave me a snap salute, militarily precise and, in a way I could not quite define, contemptuous. "You should just stay here, Adjuster Wills," he advised—in a tone that made it a command. "This will be over in a moment."

He was gone, back to his post. I stood for a moment, but it was easier to listen to his orders than to obey them; the Neapolitan crowd didn't seem to take too well to discipline, and though there was no overt resistance to the search squads, there was a sort of Brownian movement of individuals in the throng that kept edging me back and away from where I had been standing. It made me a little uncomfortable; I was standing close to the edge of a platform, and a large poster announced that the Milan Express was due to arrive on that track at any moment. In fact, I could hear the thin, effeminate whistle of its Diesel locomotive just beyond the end of the platform. I tried to inch my way from the edge. I dodged around an electric baggage-cart, and trod heavily on someone's foot.

"Excuse me," I said quickly, looking at the man. He glared back at me. There was a bright spark in his eyes; I could tell little about his expression because, oddly enough in that country of clean-shaven faces, he wore a heavy, ragged, clipped beard. He wore the uniform of a porter. He mumbled something I could not quite catch, and moved as if to push me away. I suppose I put up my arm. My papers, with the Company seal bright gold upon them, were still in my hand, and the bearded man caught sight of them.

If there had been anger in his eyes before, there was now raging fury. He shrilled, "Beast! Animal!" He thrust at me blindly and leaped past me, out of the shelter of the bags; he went spinning furiously through the crowd, men and women ricocheting off him.

I heard a harsh bellow: "There he goes! Zorchi! Zorchi!" And I could hear the bearded man shrieking curses as he hurtled up the platform, up toward the oncoming train, over to the edge—and off the platform to the tracks!

He fell less than a yard in front of the slim nose of the Diesel. I don't suppose the speed of the train was even five miles an hour, but the engineer hadn't a chance in the world to stop.

While I watched, struck motionless, along with all the others on that platform, the engine passed over the huddled form. The brakes were shrieking, but it was much, much too late. Even in that moment I thought he would not be killed—not instantly, at least, unless he died of loss of blood. The trunk of his body was safely in the well between the tracks. But his legs were sprawled over a rail. And the slow click-click of the wheels didn't stop until his uniformed body was far out of sight.

It was shocking, sickening, unbelievable.

And it didn't stop there. A strange thing happened. When the man had dived into the path of the train, there was a sudden fearful hush; it had happened too suddenly for anyone to cry out. And when the hush ended, there was only a momentary, instinctive gasp of horror. Then there was a quick, astonished babble of voices—and then cheers! And applause, and ringing bravos!

I didn't understand.

The man had thrown himself deliberately under the train. I was sure of it.

Was that something to cheer?

I finally made it to where the Regional Director was waiting for me—nearly an hour late.

It was at a hotel overlooking the Bay, and the sight was thrilling enough to put the unpleasant accident I had seen out of my mind for a moment. There was nothing so beautiful in all the world, I thought, as the Bay of Naples at sunset. It was not only my own opinion; I had seen it described many times in the travel folders I had pored over, while my wife indulgently looked over my shoulder, back in those remote days of marriage. "La prima vista del mundo," the folders had called it—the most beautiful sight of the world. They had said: "See Naples, and die."

I hadn't known, of course, that Marianna would die first....

But that was all behind me. After Marianna's death, a lot of things had happened, all in a short time, and some of them very bad. But good or bad, I had laid down a law for myself: I would not dwell on them. I had started on a new life, and I was going to put the past in a locked compartment in my mind. I had to!

I was no longer an ordinary civilian, scraping together his Blue Heaven premiums for the sake of a roof over his head, budgeting his food policies, carrying on his humdrum little job. I was a servant of the human race and a member of the last surviving group of gentleman-adventurers in all the world: I was an Insurance Claims Adjuster for the Company!

All the same, I couldn't quite forget some of the bad things that had happened, as I walked into the hotel dining room to meet the Regional Director.

Regional Director Gogarty was a huge, pale balloon of a man. He was waiting for me at a table set for four. As he greeted me, his expression was sour. "Glad to meet you, Wills. Bad business, this. Bad business. He got away with it again."

I coughed. "Sir?" I asked.

"Zorchi!" he snapped.

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