Secretary of State Blendwell stopped off at Saarkkad IV before going on to V to take charge of the conference. He was a tallish, lean man with a few strands of gray hair on the top of his otherwise bald scalp, and he wore a hearty, professional smile that didn't quite make it to his calculating eyes.
He took Malloy's hand and shook it warmly. "How are you, Mr. Ambassador?"
"Fine, Mr. Secretary. How's everything on Earth?"
"Tense. They're waiting to see what is going to happen on Five. So am I, for that matter." His eyes were curious. "You decided not to go yourself, eh?"
"I thought it better not to. I sent a good team, instead. Would you like to see the reports?"
"I certainly would."
Malloy handed them to the secretary, and as he read, Malloy watched him. Blendwell was a political appointee--a good man, Malloy had to admit, but he didn't know all the ins and outs of the Diplomatic Corps.
When Blendwell looked up from the reports at last, he said: "Amazing! They've held off the Karna at every point! They've beaten them back! They've managed to cope with and outdo the finest team of negotiators the Karna could send."
"I thought they would," said Malloy, trying to appear modest.
The secretary's eyes narrowed. "I've heard of the work you've been doing here with ... ah ... sick men. Is this one of your ... ah ... successes?"
Malloy nodded. "I think so. The Karna put us in a dilemma, so I threw a dilemma right back at them."
"How do you mean?"
"Nordon had a mental block against making decisions. If he took a girl out on a date, he'd have trouble making up his mind whether to kiss her or not until she made up his mind for him, one way or the other. He's that kind of guy. Until he's presented with one, single, clear decision which admits of no alternatives, he can't move at all.
"As you can see, the Karna tried to give us several choices on each point, and they were all rigged. Until they backed down to a single point and proved that it wasn't rigged, Nordon couldn't possibly make up his mind. I drummed into him how important this was, and the more importance there is attached to his decisions, the more incapable he becomes of making them."
The Secretary nodded slowly. "What about Braynek?"
"Paranoid," said Malloy. "He thinks everyone is plotting against him. In this case, that's all to the good because the Karna are plotting against him. No matter what they put forth, Braynek is convinced that there's a trap in it somewhere, and he digs to find out what the trap is. Even if there isn't a trap, the Karna can't satisfy Braynek, because he's convinced that there has to be--somewhere. As a result, all his advice to Nordon, and all his questioning on the wildest possibilities, just serves to keep Nordon from getting unconfused.
"These two men are honestly doing their best to win at the peace conference, and they've got the Karna reeling. The Karna can see that we're not trying to stall; our men are actually working at trying to reach a decision. But what the Karna don't see is that those men, as a team, are unbeatable because, in this situation, they're psychologically incapable of losing."
Again the Secretary of State nodded his approval, but there was still a question in his mind. "Since you know all that, couldn't you have handled it yourself?"
"Maybe, but I doubt it. They might have gotten around me someway by sneaking up on a blind spot. Nordon and Braynek have blind spots, but they're covered with armor. No, I'm glad I couldn't go; it's better this way."
The Secretary of State raised an eyebrow. "Couldn't go, Mr. Ambassador?"
Malloy looked at him. "Didn't you know? I wondered why you appointed me, in the first place. No, I couldn't go. The reason why I'm here, cooped up in this office, hiding from the Saarkkada the way a good Saarkkadic bigshot should, is because I like it that way. I suffer from agoraphobia and xenophobia.
"I have to be drugged to be put on a spaceship because I can't take all that empty space, even if I'm protected from it by a steel shell." A look of revulsion came over his face. "And I can't stand aliens!"
THE PLANET WITH NO NIGHTMARE.
By Jim Harmon
The creatures on the little planet were real bafflers. The first puzzler about them was that they died so easily. The second was that they didn't die at all.
Tension eased away as the spaceship settled down on its metallic haunches and they savored a safe planetfall.
Ekstrohm fingered loose the cinches of his deceleration couch. He sighed. An exploration camp would mean things would be simpler for him. He could hide his problem from the others more easily. Trying to keep secret what he did alone at night was very difficult under the close conditions on board a ship in space.
Ryan hefted his bulk up and supported it on one elbow. He rubbed his eyes sleepily with one huge paw. "Ekstrohm, Nogol, you guys okay?"
"Nothing wrong with me that couldn't be cured," Nogol said. He didn't say what would cure him; he had been explaining all during the trip what he needed to make him feel like himself. His small black eyes darted inside the olive oval of his face.
"Ekstrohm?" Ryan insisted.
"Well, let's take a ground-level look at the country around here."
The facsiport rolled open on the landscape. A range of bluffs hugged the horizon, the color of decaying moss. Above them, the sky was the black of space, or the almost equal black of the winter sky above Minneapolis, seen against neon-lit snow. That cold, empty sky was full of fire and light. It seemed almost a magnification of the Galaxy itself, of the Milky Way, blown up by some master photographer.
This fiery swath was actually only a belt of minor planets, almost like the asteroid belt in the original Solar System. These planets were much bigger, nearly all capable of holding an atmosphere. But to the infuriation of scientists, for no known reason not all of them did. This would be the fifth mapping expedition to the planetoids of Yancy-6 in three generations. They lay months away from the nearest Earth star by jump drive, and no one knew what they were good for, although it was felt that they would probably be good for something if it could only be discovered--much like the continent of Antarctica in ancient history.
"How can a planet with so many neighbors be so lonely?" Ryan asked. He was the captain, so he could ask questions like that.
"Some can be lonely in a crowd," Nogol said elaborately.
"What will we need outside, Ryan?" Ekstrohm asked.
"No helmets," the captain answered. "We can breathe out there, all right. It just won't be easy. This old world lost all of its helium and trace gases long ago. Nitrogen and oxygen are about it."
"Ryan, look over there," Nogol said. "Animals. Ringing the ship. Think they're intelligent, maybe hostile?"
"I think they're dead," Ekstrohm interjected quietly. "I get no readings from them at all. Sonic, electronic, galvanic--all blank. According to these needles, they're stone dead."
"Ekstrohm, you and I will have a look," Ryan said. "You hold down the fort, Nogol. Take it easy."
"Easy," Nogol confirmed. "I heard a story once about a rookie who got excited when the captain stepped outside and he couldn't get an encephalographic reading on him. Me, I know the mind of an officer works in a strange and unfathomable manner."
"I'm not worried about you mis-reading the dials, Nogol, just about a lug like you reading them at all. Remember, when the little hand is straight up that's negative. Positive results start when it goes towards the hand you use to make your mark."
"But I'm ambidextrous."
Ryan told him what he could do then.
Ekstrohm smiled, and followed the captain through the airlock with only a glance at the lapel gauge on his coverall. The strong negative field his suit set up would help to repel bacteria and insects.
Actually, the types of infection that could attack a warm-blooded mammal were not infinite, and over the course of the last few hundred years adequate defenses had been found for all basic categories. He wasn't likely to come down with hot chills and puzzling striped fever.
They ignored the ladder down to the planet surface and, with only a glance at the seismological gauge to judge surface resistance, dropped to the ground.
It was day, but in the thin atmosphere contrasts were sharp between light and shadow. They walked from midnight to noon, noon to midnight, and came to the beast sprawled on its side.
Ekstrohm nudged it with a boot. "Hey, this is pretty close to a wart-hog."
"Uh-huh," Ryan admitted. "One of the best matches I've ever found. Well, it has to happen. Statistical average and all. Still, it sometimes gives you a creepy feeling to find a rabbit or a snapping turtle on some strange world. It makes you wonder if this exploration business isn't all some big joke, and somebody has been everywhere before you even started."
The surveyor looked sidewise at the captain. The big man seldom gave out with such thoughts. Ekstrohm cleared his throat. "What shall we do with this one? Dissect it?"
Ryan nudged it with his toe, following Ekstrohm's example. "I don't know, Stormy. It sure as hell doesn't look like any dominant intelligent species to me. No hands, for one thing. Of course, that's not definite proof."
"No, it isn't," Ekstrohm said.
"I think we'd better let it lay until we get a clearer picture of the ecological setup around here. In the meantime, we might be thinking on the problem all these dead beasts represent. What killed them?"
"It looks like we did, when we made blastdown."
"But what about our landing was lethal to the creatures?"
"Radiation?" Ekstrohm suggested. "The planet is very low in radiation from mineral deposits, and the atmosphere seems to shield out most of the solar output. Any little dose of radiation might knock off these critters."
"I don't know about that. Maybe it would work the other way. Maybe because they have had virtually no radioactive exposure and don't have any R's stored up, they could take a lot without harm."
"Then maybe it was the shockwave we set up. Or maybe it's sheer xenophobia. They curl up and die at the sight of something strange and alien--like a spaceship."
"Maybe," the captain admitted. "At this stage of the game anything could be possible. But there's one possibility I particularly don't like."
"And that is?"
"Suppose it was not us that killed these aliens. Suppose it is something right on the planet, native to it. I just hope it doesn't work on Earthmen too. These critters went real sudden."
Ekstrohm lay in his bunk and thought, the camp is quiet.
The Earthmen made camp outside the spaceship. There was no reason to leave the comfortable quarters inside the ship, except that, faced with a possibility of sleeping on solid ground, they simply had to get out.
The camp was a cluster of aluminum bubbles, ringed with a spy web to alert the Earthmen to the approach of any being.
Each man had a bubble to himself, privacy after the long period of enforced intimacy on board the ship.
Ekstrohm lay in his bunk and listened to the sounds of the night on Yancy-6 138. There was a keening of wind, and a cracking of the frozen ground. Insects there were on the world, but they were frozen solid during the night, only to revive and thaw in the morning sun.
The bunk he lay on was much more uncomfortable than the acceleration couches on board. Yet he knew the others were sleeping more soundly, now that they had renewed their contact with the matter that had birthed them to send them riding high vacuum.
Ekstrohm was not asleep.
Now there could be an end to pretending.
He threw off the light blanket and swung his feet off the bunk, to the floor. Ekstrohm stood up.
There was no longer any need to hide. But what was there to do? What had changed for him?
He no longer had to lie in his bunk all night, his eyes closed, pretending to sleep. In privacy he could walk around, leave the light on, read.
It was small comfort for insomnia.
Ekstrohm never slept. Some doctors had informed him he was mistaken about this. Actually, they said, he did sleep, but so shortly and fitfully that he forgot. Others admitted he was absolutely correct--he never slept. His body processes only slowed down enough for him to dispel fatigue poisons. Occasionally he fell into a waking, gritty-eyed stupor; but he never slept.
Never at all.
Naturally, he couldn't let his shipmates know this. Insomnia would ground him from the Exploration Service, on physiological if not psychological grounds. He had to hide it.
Over the years, he had had buddies in space in whom he thought he could confide. The buddies invariably took advantage of him. Since he couldn't sleep anyway, he might as well stand their watches for them or write their reports. Where the hell did he get off threatening to report any laxness on their part to the captain? A man with insomnia had better avoid bad dreams of that kind if he knew what was good for him.
Ekstrohm had to hide his secret.
In a camp, instead of shipboard, hiding the secret was easier. But the secret itself was just as hard.
Ekstrohm picked up a lightweight no-back from the ship's library, a book by Bloch, the famous twentieth-century expert on sex. He scanned a few lines on the social repercussions of a celebrated nineteenth-century sex murderer, but he couldn't seem to concentrate on the weighty, pontifical, ponderous style.
On impulse, he flipped up the heat control on his coverall and slid back the hatch of the bubble.
Ekstrohm walked through the alien grass and looked up at the unfamiliar constellations, smelling the frozen sterility of the thin air.
Behind him, his mates stirred without waking.
Ekstrohm was startled in the morning by a banging on the hatch of his bubble. It took him a few seconds to put his thoughts in order, and then he got up from the bunk where he had been resting, sleeplessly.