"The thought naturally occurs that the aliens were the rather decadent relics of a highly developed technological civilization existing on the planet in the not too distant past. Yet Miracastle offers no evidence for the existence of a prior technology--no ruins, no residual radioactivity from atomic operations. In short, the city has no apparent genesis in the past.
"The alternative arises: perhaps the natives were not natives at all, but immigrants or colonists like ourselves. Yet the age of the city contradicts this.
"Perhaps there is a simple explanation, although it does not occur to me. But I do have this feeling. The city was utilitarian. To me, it calls to mind one of those exquisite etchings of Picasso. The severe economy of line suggests simplicity. Yet, on further inspection, you see that each line contributes to a rather bewildering variety of perspectives. I strongly suspect that the city and the people of Miracastle will remain one of the great, unsolved mysteries of the universe."
Mr. Wallace was finished with his remarks.
Mr. Ryan nodded. "Perhaps I'm deficient in sensibilities, but I find that the most ... agonizing ... thing of all is not ever to be able to know what these people were like. It's almost as if some part of us had been lopped off, isn't it? What did the people of Miracastle think about? What was their philosophy of life? What was their social organization? What was their ultimate goals? When you realize how much we learned of ourselves from an examination of our own primitive cultures, the sense of loss really comes home. Think how much more we could have learned of ourselves by acquiring the perspective of a truly alien culture. It's almost as if we could really understand ourselves at last if we could only understand a totally alien culture ..."
"Well, that's gone," Mr. Tucker said. The words were brittle and discrete. They hung in memory and the listeners waited as though for an echo of something shouted into a canyon. The echo did not come.
They were silent. Grief is the final knowledge of time. When one first learns that it can never be turned backward upon itself to permit the correction of past sins and the rightings of wrongs transfixed and forever unalterable. Grief is the frantic, futile beating of hands against a barrier without substance, both obscenely unreal and yet the only reality. Grief is the knowledge that we cannot step backwards before the death of loved ones and see those precious half-forgotten dream faces once again. Grief is the knowledge that time is immutable.
Outside the Richardson Dome, the wind was changing. It could now neither support the life that was nor the life that would be, and it howled in melancholy and insensate anguish its loneliness and longing to the eternal and ever-changing pattern of the stars.
The Committee concluded their interviews with an old-line corporal. He had just short of thirty years service and had several times traveled the two-way escalator of non-commissioned rank from master sergeant to private. He was perhaps typical of many of the older soldiers. His love of the Corps was expressed by his loyalty to it; his hatred of the Corps was expressed by his inability to abide by its regulations.
"You knew Sergeant Schuster very well?" Mr. Tucker asked.
"He was a new man," the corporal said. "He got on just before lift-off. A week, two weeks, something like that. I knew him, I guess. He was one of them kind that was always thinking. And like you know, sir, thinking ain't too good for a soldier. I've known a lot of guys like that in my time. You know what I mean? They're not cut out for the Corps."
"He talked to you quite a bit?"
The corporal turned to face Mr. Ryan. "He was always talking, sir. He was a regular nut. I thought for a while he was queer. He had all those crazy ideas."
"Like what, Corporal?"
"Oh, like--well, you know." The corporal hesitated and rummaged his memory without conspicuous success. "Sunsets," he said rather emphatically. "Talked about sunsets. Talked about just anything. Called me out back on Earth to look at a sunset once, I remember."
"What did he think about killing the natives?" Mr. Wallace asked.
The question alerted the mechanism which produced the almost-Pavlovian loyalty response.
"We didn't kill no natives," the corporal said. "They just died when we changed the air. Tough."
He looked at Mr. Wallace and then into the silence around him.
"Well ... well, let's see. I guess you'd say that sort of got to him. I mean, you know, he thought it was--" the voice became distant, as though describing a fantastic event which he could not relate to anything in a rational environment--"he thought it was his fault. You know how some of these guys are. I used to have a platoon once, you know. And they say--" He twisted his mouth and changed his voice to a childish whine. "What for?" The voice reverted to normal. "They don't ask for any reason. They just ask. I say to them, I say, 'God damn it'--excuse me, sir--'I told you to do it, ain't that enough?' Well, this Schuster, sir, he worried all the time. He got so he cut himself shaving. Damnedest thing. Oh, hell, maybe for the last week, every morning, he came out a bloody mess. Patches of toilet paper all over his face. 'I can't shave,' he'd say. 'My God, I can't shave.' He wasn't nervous, either. His hands were okay. They didn't shake. It's just that he couldn't shave. Like I say, he was a nut."
No one spoke for a moment, and the corporal twisted uncomfortably.
Then Mr. Tucker said, "Well, Corporal, tell me this, please."
"What's your own personal impression of General Shorter?"
"The old man?" the corporal asked in surprise. "He's okay."
"Feel free to discuss this," Mr. Flison said. "We'd like to know, really, what your opinion is."
"Like I say, he's okay. He's got a job to do. You know, he busted me once. General Shorter personally, I mean. Hell, I don't hold it against him, though. He's got his job to do, I got mine. I wouldn't say anything against General Shorter, no, sir. He's a soldier. I mean, you know ... he's a soldier."
After the corporal was dismissed, Mr. Tucker said, "Well, gentlemen, I guess we've about wrapped it up here. I think this is enough. Anybody's mind changed? I don't think we need any more, do you?"
Mr. Wallace sighed heavily. He looked down at his hands.
General Shorter was still at his writing desk when he was notified that Mr. Tucker would like to see him first thing in the morning.
"Another day of it, eh?" the general asked the sergeant who brought the message.
"No, sir. From the other crew, I hear they're planning to leave tomorrow."
The general's face relaxed. His smile reflected weary tolerance. "Had enough in one day, have they? It's about time they let us get back to work."
After the sergeant left, the general wrote a final paragraph: "I've just been informed the 'investigation' is completed. In record time, it seems. They finished up in the mess tonight, talking to some of the men. So what did it all really accomplish? They took a long ship that could better have been used somewhere else. Half my men are down with the virus. They almost cost me my schedule. And to what end? Just another piece of paper somewhere. Put Miracastle on the scale against some nice, heavy report and see which way the scale tips."
The general closed the diary. It was late now. He was very tired.
Mr. Tucker, after breakfast, knocked on the general's door.
"Come in," General Shorter called.
The civilian entered. The general dismissed the orderly with a nod. "And I'll need some clean towels for tonight," he called. His voice was hoarse.
The door closed. The two of them were alone.
"Sit down. Excuse the cold. Got it last night. What do you say to a brandy?"
"Don't let me stop you."
"I never drink alone."
"Perhaps you'd better," Mr. Tucker said.
The general had paused just short of the cupboard. He turned slowly. "In that case, I'll make an exception, this once." He poured. "Just what did you mean by that, sir? Let's get to the point."
"General Shorter, we're going to have to ask you to come back with us."
The general bent slightly forward. His lips were partly open, as though he were listening to hear a second time.
"Why," he said, "I've too much work to do, sir. I'm afraid that's out of the question. It's just not possible at all."
Mr. Tucker waited.
General Shorter poured himself another brandy. His back was to the civilian.
"There's nothing more important, right now, than my job here," he said. He drank the brandy in a single gulp.
"I don't see how it can wait, General," Mr. Tucker said.
The general's lips were dry. He closed his eyes tightly for a moment against the alcohol and the cold. He licked his lips. "What's the formal charge?"
Mr. Tucker bent forward. His voice was soft and curious, as though the question were his final effort to understand something that puzzled him for a long time. "What do you think it is, General?"
"What could it be?" the general said sharply. "I follow orders, sir. I was sent out here to make this planet suitable for human habitation. This is exactly what I have been doing." His voice was growing progressively more angry and with an effort he curbed himself. "Put yourself in my position. I did what any field commander would have done. It was too late to stop it. I've got--It's a question of the limits of normal prudence. A matter of interpretation, sir."
The general was in the process of pouring still another drink. The slender brandy glass broke under the force of his anger. He opened his palm. Blood trickled from between his fingers.
The general looked up from the hand and fleeting annoyance came and went before he was recalled to present reality. His eyes met Mr. Tucker's.
Mr. Tucker suddenly shivered as if touched by a wind from beyond the most distant stars, a wind which whispered: The aliens are among us.
"General," Mr. Tucker said, "the formal charge is murder."
By ALAN E. NOURSE
Rejuvenation for the millions--or rejuvenation for the five hundred lucky ones, the select ones, that can be treated each year? Tough, independent Senator Dan Fowler fights a one-man battle against the clique that seeks perpetual power and perpetual youth, in this hard-hitting novel by Alan E. Nourse. Why did it have to be his personal fight? The others fumble it--they'd foul it up, Fowler protested? But why was he in the fight and what was to happen to Senator Fowler's fight against this fantastic conspiracy? Who would win?
"I can break him, split his Criterion Committee wide open now while there's still a chance, and open rejuvenation up to everybody...."
Four and one half hours after Martian sunset, the last light in the Headquarters Building finally blinked out.
Carl Golden stamped his feet nervously against the cold, cupping his cigarette in his hand to suck up the tiny spark of warmth. The night air bit his nostrils and made the smoke tasteless in the darkness. Atmosphere screens kept the oxygen in, all right--but they never kept the biting cold out. As the light disappeared he dropped the cigarette, stamping it sharply into darkness. Boredom vanished, and warm blood prickled through his shivering legs.
He slid back tight against the coarse black building front, peering across the road in the gloom.
It was the girl. He had thought so, but hadn't been sure. She swung the heavy stone door shut after her, glanced both left and right, and started down the frosty road toward the lights of the colony.
Carl Golden waited until she was gone. He glanced at his wrist-chrono, and waited ten minutes more. He didn't realize that he was trembling until he ducked swiftly across the road. Through the window of the low, one-story building he could see the lobby call-board, with the little colored studs all dark. He smiled in unpleasant satisfaction--no one was left in the building. It was routine, just like everything else in this god-forsaken hole. Utter, abysmal, trancelike routine. The girl was a little later than usual, probably because of the ship coming in tomorrow. Reports to get ready, supply requisitions, personnel recommendations-- --and the final reports on Armstrong's death. Mustn't forget that. The real story, the absolute, factual truth, without any nonsense. The reports that would go, ultimately, to Rinehart and only Rinehart, as all other important reports from the Mars Colony had been doing for so many years.
Carl skirted the long, low building, falling into the black shadows of the side wall. Halfway around he came to the supply chute, covered with a heavy moulded-stone cover.
It had taken four months here to know that he would have to do it this way. Four months of ridiculous masquerade--made idiotic by the incredible fact that everyone took him for exactly what he pretended to be, and never challenged him--not even Terry Fisher, who drunk or sober always challenged everything and everybody! But the four months had told on his nerves, in his reactions, in the hollows under his quick brown eyes. There was always the spectre of a slip-up, an aroused suspicion. And until he had the reports before his eyes, he couldn't fall back on Dan Fowler's name to save him. He had shook Dan's hand the night he had left, and Dan had said, "Remember, son--I don't know you. Hate to do it this way, but we can't risk it now--" And they couldn't, of course. Not until they knew, for certain, who had murdered Kenneth Armstrong.
They already knew why.
The utter stillness of the place reassured him; he hoisted up the chute cover, threw it high, and shinned his long body into the chute. It was a steep slide; he held on for an instant, then let go. Blackness gulped him down as the cover snapped closed behind him.
He struck hard and rolled. The chute opened into the commissary in the third deep-level of the building, and the place was black as the inside of a pocket. He tested unbroken legs with a sigh of relief, and limped across to where the door should be.
In the corridor there was some light--dim phosphorescence from the Martian night-rock lining the walls and tiling the floor. He walked swiftly, cursing the clack-clack his heels made on the ringing stone. When he reached the end of the corridor he tried the heavy door.
It gave, complaining. Good, good! It had been a quick, imperfect job of jimmying the lock, so obviously poor that it had worried him a lot--but why should they test it? There was still another door.
He stepped into the blackness again, started across the room as the door swung shut behind him.
A shoe scraped, the faintest rustle of sound. Carl froze. His own trouser leg? A trick of acoustics? He didn't move a muscle.
His pocket light flickered around the room, a small secretary's ante-room. It stopped on a pair of legs, a body, slouched down in the soft plastifoam chair--a face, ruddy and bland, with a shock of sandy hair, with quixotic eyebrows. "Terry! For Christ sake, what--"
The man leaned forward, grinning up at him. "You're late, Carl." His voice was a muddy drawl. "Should have made it sooner than this, sheems--seems to me."
Carl's light moved past the man in the chair to the floor. The bottle was standing there, still half full. "My god, you're drunk!"
"Course I'm drunk. Whadj-ya think, I'd sober up after you left me tonight? No thanks, I'd rather be drunk." Terry Fisher hiccupped loudly. "I'd always rather be drunk, around this place."
"All right, you've got to get out of here--" Carl's voice rose with bitter anger. Of all times, of all times--he wanted to scream. "How did you get in here? You've got to get out--"
"So do you. They're on to you, Carl. I don't think you know that, but they are." He leaned forward precariously. "I had a talk with Barness this morning, one of his nice 'spontaneous' chats, and he pumped the hell out of me and thought I was too drunk to know it. They're expecting you to come here tonight--"
Carl heaved at the drunken man's arm, frantically in the darkness. "Get out of here, Terry, or so help me--"
Terry clutched at him. "Didn't you hear me? They know about you. Personell supervisor! They think you're spying for the Eastern boys--they're starting a Mars colony too, you know. Barness is sure you're selling them info--" The man hiccupped again. "Barness is an ass, just like all the other Retreads running this place, but I'm not an ass, and you didn't fool me for two days--"
Carl gritted his teeth. How could Terry Fisher know? "For the last time--"