"A half hour of your time only," said Porteous.
Melinda grasped the vial firmly, settled down on the sofa with one leg tucked carefully under her.
"Okay, shoot. But nothing personal."
Porteous was delighted. He asked a multitude of questions, most of them pointless, some naive, and Melinda dug into her infinitesimal fund of knowledge and gave. The little man scribbled furiously, clucking like a gravid hen.
"You mean," he asked in amazement, "that you live in these primitive huts of your own volition?"
"It's a G.I. housing project," Melinda said, ashamed.
"Astonishing." He wrote: Feudal anachronisms and atomic power, side by side. Class Fours periodically "rough it" in back-to-nature movements.
Harry Junior chose that moment to begin screaming for his lunch. Porteous sat, trembling. "Is that a Security Alarm?"
"My son," said Melinda despondently, and went into the nursery.
Porteous followed, and watched the ululating child with some trepidation. "Newborn?"
"Eighteen months," said Melinda stiffly, changing diapers. "He's cutting teeth."
Porteous shuddered. "What a pity. Obviously atavistic. Wouldn't the creche accept him? You shouldn't have to keep him here."
"I keep after Harry to get a maid, but he says we can't afford one."
"Manifestly insecure," muttered the little man, studying Harry Junior. "Definite paranoid tendencies."
"He was two weeks premature," volunteered Melinda. "He's real sensitive."
"I know just the thing," Porteous said happily. "Here." He dipped into the glittering litter on the tray and handed Harry Junior a translucent prism. "A neural distorter. We use it to train regressives on Rigel Two. It might be of assistance."
Melinda eyed the thing doubtfully. Harry Junior was peering into the shifting crystal depths with a somewhat strained expression.
"Speeds up the neural flow," explained the little man proudly. "Helps tap the unused eighty per cent. The pre-symptomatic memory is unaffected, due to automatic cerebral lapse in case of overload. I'm afraid it won't do much more than cube his present IQ, and an intelligent idiot is still an idiot, but--"
"How dare you?" Melinda's eyes flashed. "My son is not an idiot! You get out of here this minute and take your--things with you." As she reached for the prism, Harry Junior squalled. Melinda relented. "Here," she said angrily, fumbling with her purse. "How much are they?"
"Medium of exchange?" Porteous rubbed his bald skull. "Oh, I really shouldn't--but it'll make such a wonderful addendum to the chapter on malignant primitives. What is your smallest denomination?"
"Is a dollar okay?" Melinda was hopeful.
Porteous was pleased with the picture of George Washington. He turned the bill over and over in his fingers, at last bowed low and formally, apologized for any tabu violations, and left via the front door.
"Crazy fraternities," muttered Melinda, turning on the TV set.
Kitty Kyle was dull that morning. At length Melinda used some of the liquid in the green vial on her eyelashes, was quite pleased at the results, and hid the rest in the medicine cabinet.
Harry Junior was a model of docility the rest of that day. While Melinda watched TV and munched chocolates, did and re-did her hair, Harry Junior played quietly with the crystal prism.
Toward late afternoon, he crawled over to the bookcase, wrestled down the encyclopedia and pawed through it, gurgling with delight. He definitely, Melinda decided, would make a fine lawyer someday, not a useless putterer like Big Harry, who worked all hours overtime in that damned lab. She scowled as Harry Junior, bored with the encyclopedia, began reaching for one of Big Harry's tomes on nuclear physics. One putterer in the family was enough! But when she tried to take the book away from him, Harry Junior howled so violently that she let well enough alone.
At six-thirty, Big Harry called from the lab, with the usual despondent message that he would not be home for supper. Melinda said a few resigned things about cheerless dinners eaten alone, hinted darkly what lonesome wives sometimes did for company, and Harry said he was very sorry, but this might be it, and Melinda hung up on him in a temper.
Precisely fifteen minutes later, the doorbell rang. Melinda opened the front door and gaped. This little man could have been Porteous's double, except for the black metallic tunic, the glacial gray eyes.
"Mrs. Melinda Adams?" Even the voice was frigid.
"Major Nord, Galactic Security." The little man bowed. "You were visited early this morning by one Porteous." He spoke the name with a certain disgust. "He left a neural distorter here. Correct?"
Melinda's nod was tremulous. Major Nord came quietly into the living room, shut the door behind him. "My apologies, madam, for the intrusion. Porteous mistook your world for a Class IV culture, instead of a Class VII. Here--" He handed her the crumpled dollar bill. "You may check the serial number. The distorter, please."
Melinda shrunk limply onto the sofa. "I don't understand," she said painfully. "Was he a thief?"
"He was--careless about his spatial coordinates." Major Nord's teeth showed in the faintest of smiles. "He has been corrected. Where is it?"
"Now look," said Melinda with some asperity. "That thing's kept Harry Junior quiet all day. I bought it in good faith, and it's not my fault--say, have you got a warrant?"
"Madam," said the Major with dignity, "I dislike violating local tabus, but must I explain the impact of a neural distorter on a backwater culture? What if your Neanderthal had been given atomic blasters? Where would you have been today? Swinging through trees, no doubt. What if your Hitler had force-fields?" He exhaled. "Where is your son?"
In the nursery, Harry Junior was contentedly playing with his blocks. The prism lay glinting in the corner.
Major Nord picked it up carefully, scrutinized Harry Junior. His voice was very soft.
"You said he was--playing with it?"
Some vestigial maternal instinct prompted Melinda to shake her head vigorously. The little man stared hard at Harry Junior, who began whimpering. Trembling, Melinda scooped up Harry Junior.
"Is that all you have to do--run around frightening women and children? Take your old distorter and get out. Leave decent people alone!"
Major Nord frowned. If only he could be sure. He peered stonily at Harry Junior, murmured, "Definite egomania. It doesn't seem to have affected him. Strange."
"Do you want me to scream?" Melinda demanded.
Major Nord sighed. He bowed to Melinda, went out, closed the door, touched a tiny stud on his tunic, and vanished.
"The manners of some people," Melinda said to Harry Junior. She was relieved that the Major had not asked for the green vial.
Harry Junior also looked relieved, although for quite a different reason.
Big Harry arrived home a little after eleven. There were small worry creases about his mouth and forehead, and the leaden cast of defeat in his eyes. He went into the bedroom and Melinda sleepily told him about the little man working his way through college by peddling silly goods, and about that rude cop named Nord, and Harry said that was simply astonishing and Melinda said, "Harry, you had a drink!"
"I had two drinks," Harry told her owlishly. "You married a failure, dear. Part of the experimental model vaporized, wooosh, just like that. On paper it looked so good--"
Melinda had heard it all before. She asked him to see if Harry Junior was covered, and Big Harry went unsteadily into the nursery, sat down by his son's crib.
"Poor little guy," he mused. "Your old man's a bum, a useless tinker. He thought he could send Man to the stars on a string of helium nuclei. Oh, he was smart. Thought of everything. Auxiliary jets to kick off the negative charge, bigger mercury vapor banks--a fine straight thrust of positive Alpha particles." He hiccuped, put his face in his hands.
"Didn't you ever stop to think that a few air molecules could defocus the stream? Try a vacuum, stupid."
Big Harry stood up.
"Did you say something, son?"
"Gurfle," said Harry Junior.
Big Harry reeled into the living room like a somnambulist.
He got pencil and paper, began jotting frantic formulae. Presently he called a cab and raced back to the laboratory.
Melinda was dreaming about little bald men with diamond-studded trays. They were chasing her, they kept pelting her with rubies and emeralds, all they wanted was to ask questions, but she kept running, Harry Junior clasped tightly in her arms. Now they were ringing alarm bells. The bells kept ringing and she groaned, sat up in bed, and seized the telephone.
"Darling." Big Harry's voice shook. "I've got it! More auxiliary shielding plus a vacuum. We'll be rich!"
"That's just fine," said Melinda crossly. "You woke the baby."
Harry Junior was sobbing bitterly into his pillow. He was sick with disappointment. Even the most favorable extrapolation showed it would take him nineteen years to become master of the world.
An eternity. Nineteen years!
BY EVERETT B. COLE.
There are devices a high-level culture could produce that simply don't belong in the hands of incompetents of lower cultural evolution. The finest, and most civilized of tools can be made a menace ...
Liewen Konar smiled wryly as he put a battered object on the bench. "Well, here's another piece recovered. Not worth much, I'd say, but here it is."
Obviously, it had once been a precisely fabricated piece of equipment. But its identity was almost lost. A hole was torn in the side of the metal box. Knobs were broken away from their shafts. The engraved legends were scored and worn to illegibility, and the meter was merely a black void in the panel. Whatever had been mounted at the top had been broken away, to leave ragged shards. Inside the gaping hole in the case, tiny, blackened components hung at odd angles.
Klion Meinora looked at the wreckage and shook his head.
"I know it's supposed to be what's left of a medium range communicator," he said, "but I'd never believe it." He poked a finger inside the hole in the case, pushing a few components aside. Beyond them, a corroded wheel hung loosely in what had once been precision bearings.
"Where's the power unit?"
Konar shook his head. "No trace. Not much left of the viewsphere, either."
"Well." Meinora shook his head resignedly. "It's salvage. But we got it back." He stood back to look at the communicator. "Someone's been keeping the outside clean, I see."
Konar nodded. "It was a religious relic," he said. "Found it in an abbey." He reached into the bag he had placed on the floor.
"And here's a mental amplifier-communicator, personnel, heavy duty. Slightly used and somewhat out of adjustment, but complete and repairable." He withdrew a golden circlet, held it up for a moment, and carefully laid it on the bench beside the wrecked communicator. Its metal was dented, but untarnished.
"Don't want to get rough with it," he explained. "Something might be loose inside."
He reached again into the bag. "And a body shield, protector type, model GS/NO-10C. Again, somewhat used, but repairable. Even has its nomenclature label."
"Good enough." Meinora held a hand out and accepted the heavy belt. He turned it about in his hands, examining the workmanship. Finally, he looked closely at the long, narrow case mounted on the leather.
"See they counted this unit fairly well. Must have been using it."
"Yes, sir. It's operative. The Earl wore it all the time. Guess he kept up his reputation as a fighter that way. Be pretty hard to nick anyone with a sword if he had one of these running. And almost any clumsy leatherhead could slash the other guy up if he didn't have to worry about self-protection."
"I know." Meinora nodded quickly. "Seen it done. Anything more turned up?"
"One more thing. This hand weapon came from the same abbey I got the communicator from. I'd say it was pretty hopeless, too." Konar picked a flame-scarred frame from his bag, then reached in again, to scoop up a few odd bits of metal.
"It was in pieces when we picked it up," he explained. "They kept it clean, but they couldn't get the flame pits out and reassembly was a little beyond them."
"Beyond us too, by now." Meinora looked curiously at the object. "Looks as though a couple of the boys shot it out."
"Guess they did, sir. Not once, but several times." Konar shrugged. "Malendes tells me he picked up several like this." He cocked his head to one side.
"Say, chief, how many of these things were kicking around on this unlucky planet?"
Meinora grimaced. "As far as we can determine, there were ninety-two operative sets originally issued. Each of the original native operatives was equipped with a mentacom and a body shield. Each of the eight operating teams had a communicator and three hand weapons, and the headquarters group had a flier, three communicators, a field detector set, and six hand weapons. Makes quite an equipment list."
"Any tools or maintenance equipment?"
Meinora shook his head. "Just operator manuals. And those will have deteriorated long ago. An inspection team was supposed to visit once a cycle for about fifty cycles, then once each five cycles after that. They would have taken care of maintenance. This operation was set up quite a while ago, you know. Operatives get a lot more training now--and we don't use so many of them."
"So, something went wrong." Konar looked at the equipment on the bench. "How?" he asked. "How could it have happened?"
"Oh, we've got the sequence of events pretty well figured out by now." Meinora got to his feet. "Of course, it's a virtually impossible situation--something no one would believe could happen. But it did." He looked thoughtfully at the ruined communicator.
"You know the history of the original operation on this planet?"