They'd entered the woods. Even before that, Dr. Pine had lagged because his slippers kept falling off, and now he brought up the rear. Chet, in the lead, took a last long look at the ship before the trees and mosses cut off his view.
He went on slowed by vague reluctance. He didn't like this forest. The trees dwarfed and oppressed him. Old fears began to stir and gnaw, but at new places.
Perhaps the two men he guided would stand together against him. If so, revenge on one would cut him off from both as sharply as the forest cut him off from the ship....
Well, it was worth it! They hadn't put him on duty, hadn't accepted him as one of themselves.... He couldn't be cut off much more than he was already!
And Seymour might listen to reason. After all, he was a practical man, a leader. And Pine was yellow!
"What's Pine after, sir?" Chet asked over his shoulder. "Why take these risks you've mentioned?"
"Well, partly for safety: if we kill any Agvars, we're likely to have to kill them all, or have the survivors to contend with indefinitely. That might cost us some casualties.... And of course there's the research angle, but that's out of my line."
"What's the matter with punishment, sir--discipline? You use discipline on your crew--why not on their enemies?"
"Because the men understand the rules and the penalties. The Agvars don't."
"Kill them, sir! That they'll understand!"
"No!" Commander Seymour spoke sharply. "If they don't fight back, that's cold-blooded slaughter. If they do, it's war. I don't hold with butchery, Barfield, and I certainly won't risk casualties just to give you a cheap feeling of satisfaction!"
He couldn't escape. Commander Seymour, looking from over Chet's shoulder like a walking sneer, stuck close. But he gave the impression of following a man who smelled bad.
Was he? Chet wondered.
Wondering, he unconsciously hung his head, slowed--stopped. Dr. Pine caught up. He and Commander Seymour, faintly breathless from the trying need to regulate their respiration consciously, looked at Chet questioningly.
Again they were sizing him up. Suddenly Chet wished he could go back to that first interview in the sickbay, and change all the things he'd said.
"We can't go on!" he blurted. "You don't know what you're getting into, Doctor!"
"Oh?" said Dr. Pine agreeably. "I know more than you think, young feller." He smiled encouragingly.
"That--that I've killed a witch-doctor? That you may be taken for a murderer?"
"Sure! You--ah--you talked about it under drugs. We ... weren't spying, Chet. We just wanted you to tell your story without reliving all the agony. It wasn't intended as--ah--a trap...." He massaged his fingers apologetically.
"No...." Chet agreed. "But-I-was-trying-to-lead-you-into-one!"
Had he said that aloud? Chet couldn't be sure.
He listened for his own voice. The woods were quiet. His breathing seemed strangely loud. He held it--and heard the Agvars moving in the woods. Rustling, scraping, crackling--grunting their guttural dialog. Crashing! Threatening them!
"Let's go back!" he urged, trying to sound casual. But his trail was blocked.
"Stick around," Dr. Pine suggested easily. "You--ah--you haven't said anything we didn't know. We're going right ahead."
"But why?" Once more Chet was hotly incredulous. "To risk your life for a few stray facts? Become a casualty while trying to avoid casualties? It doesn't make sense!"
Dr. Pine stared at his own hands as if to hide his shyness in them. "As to the fact-seeking," he said slowly, "well ... it's a matter of opinion. I've lost a few classmates.... Risks in research are commonplace--and accepted as worthwhile by most people....
"And--ah--peace.... You once called it appeasement, but it isn't, always. Well, look. If we fought those Agvars, somebody'd have to take a patrol into their village and capture prisoners for our Intelligence, right?"
Chet nodded dumbly.
"Well, in a way, I--ah--am the peaceful equivalent of that patrol. The--ah--risk I run is less than if we had a war and a patrol skirmish as part of it, though. And why in the world not take for peace a risk we'd routinely accept in war?"
Why not? But why not minimize it, just the same. The Agvars, invisible but noisy, were all around them, now. At any moment the woods might rain spears.
"It would be safer with two of us," Chet said musingly. "Your knowledge of anthropology and medicine--mine of the people--"
"Barfield, you're still on the sicklist," Commander Seymour pointed out. He watched Chet's face for a long moment before adding, "Still--if you're over your sick-minded need for revenge--it's possible Dr. Pine may find you fit. It's up to him."
Chet was afraid to ask directly. He pleaded with his eyes.
Dr. Pine grinned broadly at the both. "He's ready for duty, sir," he said.
Commander Seymour stepped back and scowled. "All right, Mr. Barfield," he barked, "I'll give you just three minutes to change to the uniform of the day!"
Chet's jaw dropped. His vision, also downcast, noted the fatigues he wore, the muddy shoes. Then he looked up, saw the twinkle in his C.O.'s eyes, and understood.
In exactly three minutes he made the required change. He would enter the village as he'd left it--in the undress uniform of a Man....
By Boyd Ellanby
The door-knob turned, then rattled.
Dr. David Wong stepped out from behind the large bookcase, listening. He pressed the brass handle of the top shelf and the case silently pivoted back to become part of the wall, obliterating the dark passage behind it.
An imperative knocking began at the door; David walked softly to his desk and picked up his notebook. He tried to remain relaxed, but he could feel the tightening of his shoulder muscles. With his right hand, he shut his notebook and concealed it under a mass of papers, while his left hand pressed the desk button to release the lock of the door.
The door burst open and two men strode in, a black-uniformed Ruler followed by a watchguard. Black-visored cap still on his head, the first man marched to the desk and spoke without ceremonial greeting.
"The door was locked, Dr. Wong?"
"Correct, Dr. Lanza. The door was locked."
"I shall have to instruct the guard to report it. Have you forgotten Leader Marley's Maxim: Constructive science does not skulk behind locked doors?"
Wong leaned back in his chair and smiled at his visitors.
"The wisdom of Leader Marley is a constant help to us all, but his generosity is also a byword. Surely you remember that on the tenth anniversary of his accession, he honored me by the grant of occasional hours of Privacy, as a reward for my work on Blue Martian Fever?"
"I remember now," said Dr. Lanza.
"But what for?" asked Officer Blagun. "It's anti-social!"
"Evidently you have forgotten, Officer Blagun, another Maxim of Leader Marley: Nature has not equipped one Category to judge the needs of another; only the Leader understands all. Now, Dr. Lanza, will you tell me the reason for this visit? Since your promotion from Research to Ruler, I have rarely been honored by your attention."
"I am here with a message," said Lanza. "Leader Marley's compliments, and he requests your presence at a conference on next Wednesday at ten in the morning."
"Why did you have to deliver that in person? What's wrong with using Communications?"
"It's not my province to ask questions, Dr. Wong. I was told to come here, and I was told to wait for a reply."
"Next Wednesday at ten? Let's see, this is Friday." David Wong pressed the key of his electronic calendar, but he had no need to study the dull green and red lights that flashed on to indicate the pattern of his day. He did not delude himself that he had any real choice, but he had learned in the past fifteen years that it kept up his courage to preserve at least the forms of independence. He allowed a decent thirty seconds to ponder the coded lights, then blanked the board and looked up with an easy smile.
"Dr. Wong's compliments to Leader Marley, and he will be honored to attend a conference on Wednesday at ten."
Nodding his head, Dr. Lanza glanced briefly around the office. "Queer, old-fashioned place you have here."
"Yes. It was built many years ago by a slippery old politician who wanted to be safe from his enemies. Makes a good place for Research, don't you think?"
Lanza did not answer. He strode to the door, then paused to look back.
"You understand, Dr. Wong, that I shall have to report the locked door? I have no choice."
Officer Blagun followed his superior, leaving the door wide open behind them. Wong remained rigid in his chair until the clack of heels on marble floor had become a mere echo in his brain, then stretched out his hand to the intercom. He observed with pride that his hand did not tremble as he pressed the dial.
"Get me Dr. Karl Haslam ... Karl? Can you meet me in the lab right away? I've thought of a new approach that might help us crack the White Martian problem. Yes, I know we planned on conferring tomorrow, but it's getting later than you think."
Again he pressed the dial. "Get me Leah Hachovnik. Leah? I've got some new stuff to dictate. Be a good girl and come along right away."
Breaking the connection, he drew out his notebook and opened it.
David Wong was a big man, tall, well-muscled, compact, and he might have been handsome but for a vague something in his appearance. His lean face and upcurving mouth were those of a young man; his hair was a glossy black, too thick to be disciplined into neatness; and he was well-dressed, except for the unfashionable bulging of his jacket pocket, where he carried a bulky leather case of everfeed pens and notebooks. But it was his eyes that were disconcerting--an intense blue, brilliant and direct, they had a wisdom and a comprehension that seemed incongruous in so young a face.
A worried frown creased his forehead as he turned back to one of the first pages, studying the symbols he had recorded there, but he looked up without expression on hearing the tapping of slender heels.
"Quick work, Leah. How are you this morning?"
"As if anybody cared!" Leah Hachovnik settled down before the compact stenograph machine, her shoulders slumped, her thin mouth drooping at the corners.
"Feel like working?" said David.
"As much as I ever do, I guess. Sometimes I wonder if the traitors in the granite quarries have it any worse than I do. Sometimes I wish I'd been born into some other Category. Other people have all the luck. I don't know what it is, Dr. Wong, but I just don't seem to have the pep I used to have. Do you think it could be the climate here in New York?"
"People do grow older, Leah," he reminded her gently.
"I know. But Tanya--you remember my twin sister Tanya, the one that got so sick that time, ten years ago, when you did that experiment with Blue Martian Fever, and she had to be sent out to Arizona? Of course I haven't ever seen her since then--people in Office Category never get permission for that kind of travel--but she writes me that ever since she got well again she feels just like a kid, and works as hard as she ever did, and she still seems to enjoy life. Why, she's had three proposals of marriage this past year alone, she says, and yet she's thirty-five, just the same age as I am--being twins, you know?--and nobody's proposed to me in ages. Well, I'm certainly going to try to find out what her method is. She's coming back tomorrow."
"Coming back. BureauMed is sending her back here to the Institute to take up her old job in Intercom. Funny they haven't told you, her being an old employee and all."
Dr. Wong was gripping his notebook in stiff fingers, but he replied easily, "Oh, well, BureauMed is a complex organization. With all they have to do, it's not surprising they get things mixed up sometimes."
"Don't I know!" she sighed, and droned on in a dreary monotone. "This one institute alone would turn your hair gray before your time. I don't know how some people seem to keep so young. I was just thinking to myself this morning when I watched you walking through the office, 'Why, Dr. Wong doesn't seem to age a bit! He looks just as young as he ever did, and look at me!'"
Looking at her, David admitted to himself, was not the pleasure it had once been. Ten years ago, she and her twin sister Tanya had been plump, delectable, kittenish girls, their mental equipment no more than standard for Office Category, of course, but their physical appearance had been outstanding, almost beautiful enough for Theater Category. Creamy ivory skin, gray eyes, and soft red hair dramatized by a freakish streak of white that shot abruptly back from the center of the forehead, Tanya's swirling to the left, and Leah's to the right, one girl the mirror image of the other.
But the Leah sitting before him now was thin and tired-looking, her sallow skin was lined, and her soft voice had become vinegary with disappointments. Her red hair had faded to a commonplace brown, and the white streak in the center was yellowed. An unwanted, souring old maid. But there was only one response to make.
"You look fine to me, Leah," he said. "What time did you say your sister is coming?"
"Tomorrow evenings' Playground Jet. Why?"
"We'll have to think of a way to celebrate. But right now, I'd like to get started on my new paper. I've got to meet Dr. Haslam before long."
"I know." She raised her faded gray eyes. "That was a funny thing you said to him just now over the intercom. You said to him it was getting late. But it isn't late. It's only eleven o'clock in the morning."
David stared. "Do you mean to say you were listening to our conversation? Why did you do that?"
She fidgeted and turned away from him. "Oh, I just happened to be at Comdesk and I guess the circuit wasn't closed. Does it matter? But it seemed a funny thing for you to say."
"People in Office Category are not supposed to understand Research," he said severely. "If they were capable of Research, Leader Marley's planners would have placed them there. As for its being late, it is, as far as White Martian Fever is concerned. Which is the subject of my paper. Prepare to take dictation."
Shrugging her shoulders, she poised her bony fingers over the keys of the little machine.
"Paper for delivery at the Summer Seminar," he began.
"But, Dr. Wong, that doesn't have to be ready for three months yet!"
"Miss Hachovnik! Please remember Leader Marley's Maxim: Individuals born into Office Category are the bone and muscle of the State; Nature has designed them to act, not to think."
"Yes, Dr. Wong. I'm sorry."
"Don't worry, Leah. We're old friends, so I won't report you. All set?"
He took a pencil from his leather case and tapped it against his notebook as he ruffled the pages, wondering how to begin. It was hard to think logically when a part of his mind was in such confusion. Had Leah been listening in to all of his phone conversations? If so, it was fortunate that he had long ago devised an emergency code. Was it only idle curiosity that had prompted her or was she acting under orders? Was anyone else watching him, he wondered, listening to his talk, perhaps even checking the routine of his experimental work? There was Lanza this morning--why had he come unannounced, in person, when a Communications call would have served the purpose equally well?
Leah's voice broke in. "I'm ready, Dr. Wong."