- Author: Algis Budrys
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He was looking for a privacy his strange personality needed. And—never quite seemed to achieve it. All his efforts were, somehow—great triumphs of the race, and great failures for him!I.
The aging man was sweating profusely, and he darted sidelong glances at the windowless walls of the outer office. By turns, he sat stiffly in a corner chair or paced uneasily, his head swiveling constantly.
His hand was clammy when Mead shook it.
"Hello, Mr. Mead," he said in a husky, hesitant voice, his eyes never quite still, never long on Mead's face, but darting hither and yon, his glance rebounding at every turn from the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the closed outer door.
Christopher Mead, Assistant Undersecretary for External Affairs, returned the handshake, smiling. "Please come into my office," he said quickly. "It's much more spacious."
"Thank you," the aging man said gratefully and hurried into the next room. Mead rapidly opened the windows, and some of the man's nervousness left him. He sank down into the visitor's chair in front of Mead's desk, his eyes drinking in the distances beyond the windows. "Thank you," he repeated.
Mead sat down behind the desk, leaned back, and waited for the man's breathing to slow. Finally he said, "It's good to see you again, Mr. Holliday. What can I do for you?"
Martin Holliday tore his glance away from the window long enough to raise his eyes to Mead's face and then drop them to the hands he had folded too deliberately in his lap.
"I'd—" His voice husked into unintelligibility, and he had to begin again. "I'd like to take an option on a new planet," he finally said.
Mead nodded. "I don't see why not." He gestured expressively at the star chart papered over one wall of his office. "We've certainly got plenty of them. But what happened with your first one?"
"Mr. Holliday, I certainly won't be offended if you'd prefer to look out the window," Mead said quickly.
"Thank you." After a moment, he began again. "It didn't work out," he said, his glance flickering back to Mead for an instant before he had to look out the window again.
"I don't know where my figuring went wrong. It didn't go wrong. It was just ... just things. I thought I could sell enough subdivisions to cover the payments and still keep most of it for myself, but it didn't work out."
He looked quickly at Mead with a flash of groundless guilt in his eyes. "First I had to sell more than I'd intended, because I had to lower the original price. Somebody'd optioned another planet in the same system, and I hadn't counted on the competition. Then, even after I'd covered the option and posted surety on the payments, there were all kinds of expenses. Then I couldn't lease the mineral rights—" He looked at Mead again, as though he had to justify himself. "I don't know how that deal fell through. The company just ... just withdrew, all of a sudden."
"Do you think there might have been anything peculiar about that?" Mead asked. "I mean—could the company have made a deal with the colonists for a lower price after you'd been forced out?"
Holliday shook his head quickly. "Oh, no—nothing like that. The colonists and I got along fine. It wasn't as though I hadn't put the best land up for sale, or tried to make myself rich. Why, after I'd had to sell some of the remaining land, and I knew it wasn't worth staying, any more, some of them offered to lend me enough money to keep fifty thousand square miles for myself." He smiled warmly, his eyes blank while he focused on memory.
"But that wasn't it, of course," he went on. "I had my original investment back. But I couldn't tell them why I couldn't stay. It was people—even if I never saw them, it was the thought of people, with aircraft and rockets and roads—"
"I understand, Mr. Holliday," Mead said in an effort to spare him embarrassment.
Holliday looked at him helplessly. "I couldn't tell them that, could I, Mr. Mead? They were good, friendly people who wanted to help me. I couldn't tell them it was people, could I?"
He wet his dry lips and locked his eyes on the view outside the window. "All I want, Mr. Mead, is half a planet to myself," he said softly.
He shook his head. "Well, it'll work out this time. This time, I won't have to sell so much, and I'll have a place to spend what time I've got left in peace, without this ... this—" He gestured helplessly in an effort to convey his tortured consciousness of his own fear.
Mead nodded quickly as he saw his features knot convulsively. "Of course, Mr. Holliday. We'll get you an option on a new planet as quickly as we can."
"Thank you," Holliday said again. "Can we ... can we handle it today? I've had my credit transferred to a local bank."
"Certainly, Mr. Holliday. We won't keep you on Earth a moment longer than absolutely necessary." He took a standard form out of a desk drawer and passed it to Holliday for his signature.
"I'll be smarter this time," the aging man said, trying to convince himself, as he uncapped his pen. "This time, it'll work out."
"I'm sure it will, Mr. Holliday," Mead said.II.
Marlowe was obese. He sat behind his desk like a tuskless sea lion crouched behind a rock, and his cheeks merged into jowls and obliterated his neck. His desk was built specially, so that he could get his thighs under it. His office chair was heavier and wider by far than any standard size, its casters rolling on a special composition base that had been laid down over the carpeting, for Marlowe's weight would have cut any ordinary rug to shreds. His jacket stretched like pliofilm to enclose the bulk of his stooped shoulders, and his eyes surveyed his world behind the battlemented heaviness of the puffing flesh that filled their sockets.
A bulb flickered on his interphone set, and Marlowe shot a glance at the switch beneath it.
"Secretary, quite contrary," he muttered inaudibly. He flicked the switch. "Yes, Mary?" His voice rumbled out of the flabby cavern of his chest.
"Mr. Mead has just filed a report on Martin Holliday, Mr. Secretary. Would you like to see it?"
"Just give me a summary, Mary."
Under his breath he whispered, "Summary that mummery, Mary," and a thin smile fell about his lips while he listened. "Gave him Karlshaven IV, eh?" he observed when his secretary'd finished. "O.K. Thanks, Mary."
He switched off and sat thinking. Somewhere in the bowels of the Body Administrative, he knew, notations were being made and cross-filed. The addition of Karlshaven IV to the list of planets under colonization would be made, and Holliday's asking prices for land would be posted with Emigration, together with a prospectus abstracted from the General Galactic Survey.
He switched the interphone on again.
"Uh ... Mary? Supply me with a copy of the GenSurv on the entire Karlshaven system. Tell Mr. Mead I'll expect him in my office sometime this afternoon—you schedule it—and we'll go into it further."
"Yes, Mr. Secretary. Will fifteen-fifteen be all right?"
"Fifteen-fifteen's fine, uh ... Mary," Marlowe said gently.
"Yes, sir," his secretary replied, abashed. "I keep forgetting about proper nomenclature."
"So do I, Mary, so do I," Marlowe sighed. "Anything come up that wasn't scheduled for today?"
It was a routine question, born of futile hope. There was always something to spoil the carefully planned daily schedules.
"Yes and no, sir."
Marlowe cocked an eyebrow at the interphone.
"Well, that's a slight change, anyway. What is it?"
"There's a political science observer from Dovenil—that's Moore II on our maps, sir—who's requested permission to talk to you. He's here on the usual exchange program, and he's within his privileges in asking, of course. I assume it's the ordinary thing—what's our foreign policy, how do you apply it, can you give specific instances, and the like."
Precisely, Marlowe thought. For ordinary questions there were standard answers, and Mary had been his secretary for so long that she could supply them as well as he could.
Dovenil. Moore II, eh? Obviously, there was something special about the situation, and Mary was leaving the decision to him. He scanned through his memorized star catalogues, trying to find the correlation.
Marlowe grunted. "Still here. Just thinking. Isn't Dovenil that nation we just sent Harrison to?"
"Yes, sir. On the same exchange program."
Marlowe chuckled. "Well, if we've got Harrison down there, it's only fair to let their fellow learn something in exchange, isn't it? What's his name?"
"Dalish ud Klavan, sir."
Marlowe muttered to himself: "Dalish ud Klavan, Irish, corn beef and cabbage." His mind filed it away together with a primary-color picture of Jiggs and Maggie.
"All right, Mary, I'll talk to him, if you can find room in the schedule somewhere. Tell you what—let him in at fifteen-thirty. Mead and I can furnish a working example for him. Does that check all right with your book?"
"Yes, sir. There'll be time if we carry over on the Ceroii incidents."
"Ceroii's waited six years, four months, and twenty-three days. They'll wait another day. Let's do that, then, uh ... Mary."
Marlowe switched off and picked up a report which he began to read by the page-block system, his eyes almost unblinking between pages. "Harrison, eh?" he muttered once, stopping to look quizzically at his desktop. He chuckled.III.
At fifteen-fifteen, the light on his interphone blinked twice, and Marlowe hastily initialed a directive with his right hand while touching the switch with his left.
"Mr. Mead, sir."
"O.K." He switched off, pushed the directive into his OUT box, and pulled the GenSurv and the folder on Martin Holliday out of the HOLD tray. "Come in, Chris," he said as Mead knocked on the door.
"How are you today, Mr. Marlowe?" Mead asked as he sat down.
"Four ounces heavier," Marlowe answered dryly. "I presume you're not. Cigarette, Chris?"
Apparently, the use of the first name finally caught Mead's notice. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then took a cigarette and lit it. "Thanks—Dave."
"Well, I'm glad that's settled," Marlowe chuckled, his eyes almost disappearing in crinkles of flesh. "How's Mary?"
Mead grinned crookedly. "Miss Folsom is in fine fettle today, thank you."
Marlowe rumbled a laugh. Mead had once made the mistake of addressing the woman as "Mary," under the natural assumption that if Marlowe could do it, everyone could.
"Mary, I fear," Marlowe observed, "lives in more stately times than these. She'll tolerate informality from me because I'm in direct authority over her, and direct authority, of course, is Law. But you, Mead, are a young whipper-snapper."
"But that's totally unrealistic!" Mead protested. "I don't respect her less by using her first name ... it's just ... just friendliness, that's all."
"Look," Marlowe said, "it makes sense, but it ain't logical—not on her terms. Mary Folsom was raised by a big, tough, tight-lipped authoritarian of a father who believed in bringing kids up by the book. By the time she got tumbled out into the world, all big men were unquestionable authority and all young men were callow whipper-snappers. Sure, she's unhappy about it, inside. But it makes her a perfect secretary, for me, and she does her job well. We play by her rules on the little things, and by the world's rules on the big ones. Kapish?"
"Sure, Dave, but—"
Marlowe picked up the folder on Holliday and gave Mead one weighty but understanding look before he opened it.
"Your trouble, Chris, is that your viewpoint is fundamentally sane," he said. "Now, about Holliday, Martin, options 062-26-8729, 063-108-1004. I didn't get time to read the GenSurv on the Karlshaven planets, so I'll ask you to brief me."
"What's IV like?"
"Good, arable land. A little mountainous in spots, but that's good. Loaded with minerals—industrial stuff, like silver. Some tin, but not enough to depress the monetary standard. Lots of copper. Coal beds, petroleum basins, the works. Self-supporting practically from the start, a real asset to the Union in fifty-six years."
Marlowe nodded. "Good. Nice picking, Chris. Now—got a decoy?"
"Yes, sir. Karlshaven II's a False-E. I've got a dummy option on it in the works, and we'll be able to undercut Holliday's prices for his land by about twenty per cent."
"False-E, huh? How long do you figure until the colony can't stick on it any longer?"
"A fair-sized one, with lots of financial backing, might even make it permanently. But we won't be able to dig up that many loafers, and, naturally, we can't give them that big a subsidy. Eventually, we'll have to ferry them all out—in about eight years, say. But that'll give us time enough to break Holliday."
Marlowe nodded again. "Sounds good."
"Something else," Mead said. "II's mineral-poor. It's near to being solid metal. That's what makes it impossible to really live on, but I figure we can switch the mineral companies right onto it and off IV."
Marlowe grinned approvingly. "You been saving this one for Holliday?"
"Yes, sir," Mead said, nodding slowly. He looked hesitantly at Marlowe.
"What's up, Boy?"
"Well, sir—" Mead began, then stopped. "Nothing important, really."
Marlowe gave him a surprising look full of sadness and brooding understanding.
"You're thinking he's an old, frightened man, and why don't we leave him alone?"
"Why ... yes, sir."
"You're quite right. Why don't we?"
"We can't, sir. I know that. But it doesn't seem fair—"
"Exactly, Chris. It ain't right, but it's correct."
The light on Marlowe's interphone blinked once. Marlowe looked at it in momentary surprise. Then his features cleared, and he muttered "Cabbage." He reached out toward the switch.
"We've got a visitor, Chris. Follow my lead." He reviewed his information on Dovenilid titular systems while he touched the switch. "Ask ud Klavan to come in, uh ... Mary."IV.
Dalish ud Klavan was almost a twin for the pictured typical Dovenilid in Marlowe's library. Since the pictures were usually idealized, it followed that Klavan was an above-average specimen of his people. He stood a full eight