Impact, p.1

Impact, page 1

 

Impact


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Impact


  Produced by Greg Weeks, Andrew Wainwright and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net

  IMPACT

  By IRVING E. COX, Jr.

  Illustrated by GRAYAM

  _They were languorous, anarchic, shameless in their pleasures ... were they lower than man ... or higher?_

  Over the cabin 'phone, Ann's voice was crisp with anger. "Mr. Lord, I mustsee you at once."

  "Of course, Ann." Lord tried not to sound uncordial. It was all part of atrade agent's job, to listen to the recommendations and complaints of theteacher. But an interview with Ann Howard was always so arduous, so stiffwith unrelieved righteousness. "I should be free until--"

  "Can you come down to the schoolroom, Mr. Lord?"

  "If it's necessary. But I told you yesterday, there's nothing we can do tomake them take the lessons."

  "I understand your point of view, Mr. Lord." Her words were barely civil,brittle shafts of ice. "However, this concerns Don; he's gone."

  "Gone? Where?"

  "Jumped ship."

  "Are you sure, Ann? How long ago?"

  "I rather imagined you'd be interested," she answered with smugsatisfaction. "Naturally you'll want to see his note. I'll be waiting foryou."

  The 'phone clicked decisively as she broke the connection. Impotent furylashed Lord's mind--anger at Don Howard, because the engineer was one ofhis key men; and, childishly, anger at Don's sister because she was the onewho had broken the news. If it had come from almost anyone else it would,somehow, have seemed less disastrous. Don's was the fourth desertion inless than a week, and the loss of trained personnel was becoming seriousaboard the _Ceres_. But what did Ann Howard expect Lord to do about it?This was a trading ship; he had no military authority over his crew.

  As Lord stood up, his desk chair collapsed with a quiet hiss against thecabin wall, and, on greased tubes, the desk dropped out of sight beneaththe bunk bed, giving Lord the luxury of an uncluttered floor space eightfeet square. He had the only private quarters on the ship--the usualdistinction reserved for a trade agent in command.

  From a narrow wardrobe, curved to fit the projectile walls of the ship,Lord took a lightweight jacket, marked with the tooled shoulder insignia ofcommand. He smiled a little as he put it on. He was Martin Lord, tradeagent and heir to the fabulous industrial-trading empire of Hamilton Lord,Inc.; yet he was afraid to face Ann Howard without the visible trappings ofauthority.

  * * * * *

  He descended the spiral stairway to the midship airlock, a lead-walledchamber directly above the long power tubes of the _Ceres_. The lock doorhung open, making an improvised landing porch fifty feet above the charredground. Lord paused for a moment at the head of the runged landing ladder.Below him, in the clearing where the ship had come down, he saw the rows ofplastic prefabs which his crew had thrown up--laboratories, sleepingquarters, a kitchen, and Ann Howard's schoolroom.

  Beyond the clearing was the edge of the magnificent forest which covered somuch of this planet. Far away, in the foothills of a distant mountainrange, Lord saw the houses of a village, gleaming in the scarlet blaze ofthe setting sun. A world at peace, uncrowded, unscarred by the feverishexcavation and building of man. A world at the zenith of its nativeculture, about to be jerked awake by the rude din of civilization. Lordfelt a twinge of the same guilt that had tormented his mind since the_Ceres_ had first landed, and with an effort he drove it from his mind.

  He descended the ladder and crossed the clearing, still blackened from thelanding blast; he pushed open the sliding door of the schoolroom. It waslarge and pleasantly yellow-walled, crowded with projectors, view-booths,stereo-miniatures, and picture books--all the visual aids which Ann Howardwould have used to teach the natives the cultural philosophy of theGalactic Federation. But the rows of seats were empty, and the gleamingmachines still stood in their cases. For no one had come to Ann's school,in spite of her extravagant offers of trade goods.

  Ann sat waiting, ramrod straight, in front of a green-tinged projectoscope.She made no compromise with the heat, which had driven the men to stripto their fatigue shorts. Ann wore the full, formal uniform. A lessstrong-willed woman might have appeared wilted after a day's work. Ann'sface was expressionless, a block of cold ivory. Only a faint mist ofperspiration on her upper lip betrayed her acute discomfort.

  "You came promptly, Mr. Lord." There was a faint gleam of triumph in hereyes. "That was good of you."

  She unfolded her brother's note and gave it to Lord. It was a clear,straight-forward statement of fact. Don Howard said he was deserting themission, relinquishing his Federation citizenship. "I'm staying on thisworld; these people have something priceless, Ann. All my life I've beenlooking for it, dreaming of it. You wouldn't understand how I feel, butnothing else--nothing else--matters, Ann. Go home. Leave these peoplealone. Don't try to make them over."

  The last lines rang in sympathy with Lord's own feelings, and he knew thatwas absurd. Changes would have to be made when the trade city was built.That was Lord's business. Expansion and progress: the lifeblood of theFederation.

  "What do you want me to do?" he demanded.

  "Go after Don and bring him back."

  "And if he refuses--"

  "I won't leave him here."

  "I have no authority to force him against his will, Ann."

  "I'm sure you can get help from this--" her lip curled "--this native girlof yours. What's her name?"

  "Niaga."

  "Oh, yes; Niaga. Quaint, isn't it?" She smiled flatly.

  He felt an almost irresistible urge to smash his fist into her jaw.Straight-laced, hopelessly blind to every standard but her own--what rightdid Ann have to pass judgment on Niaga? It was a rhetorical question.Ann Howard represented the Federation no less than Lord did himself. Bylaw, the teachers rode every trading ship; in the final analysis, theircertification could make or break any new planetary franchise.

  * * * * *

  "Niaga has been very helpful, Ann; cooperative and--"

  "Oh, I'm sure she has, Mr. Lord."

  "I could threaten to cut off Don's bonus pay, I suppose, but it wouldn't domuch good; money has no meaning to these people and, if Don intends to stayhere, it won't mean much to him, either."

  "How you do it, Mr. Lord, is not my concern. But if Don doesn't go homewith us--" She favored him with another icy smile. "I'm afraid I'll have tomake an adverse report when you apply for the franchise."

  "You can't, Ann!" Lord was more surprised than angry. "Only in the case ofa primitive and belligerent culture--"

  "I've seen no evidence of technology here." She paused. "And not theslightest indication that these people have any conception of moralvalues."

  "Not by our standards, no; but we've never abandoned a planet for thatreason alone."

  "I know what you're thinking, Mr. Lord. Men like you--the traders andthe businessmen and the builders--you've never understood a teacher'sresponsibility. You make the big noise in the Federation; but we hold ittogether for you. I'm not particularly disturbed by the superficials I'veseen here. The indecent dress of these people, their indolent villages,their congenital irresponsibility--all that disgusts me, but it has notaffected my analysis. There's something else here--something far moreterrible and more dangerous for us. I can't put it in words. It's horribleand it's deadly; it's the reason why our men have deserted. They've hadattractive women on other worlds--in the trade cities, anything moneycould buy--but they never jumped ship before."

  "A certain percentage always will, Ann." Lord hoped he sounded reassuring,but he felt anything but reassured himself. Not because of what she said.These na
ive, altogether delightful people were harmless. But could thecharming simplicity of their lives survive the impact of civilization? Itwas this world that was in danger, not by any stretch of the imaginationthe Federation.

  * * * * *

  As the thought occurred to him, he shrank from it with a kind of innerterror. It was heresy. The Federation represented the closest approximationof perfection mortal man would ever know: a brotherhood of countlessspecies, a union of a thousand planets, created by the ingenuity and theenergy of man. The Pax Humana; how could it be a threat to any peopleanywhere?

  "That would be my recommendation." Suddenly Ann's self-assurance collapsed.She reached for his hand; her fingers were cold and trembling. "But, if youbring Don back, I--I won't report against a franchise."

  "You're offering to make a deal? You know the penalty--"

  "Collusion between a trade agent and the teacher assigned to his ship--yes,I know the law, Mr. Lord."

  "You're willing to violate it for Don? Why? Your brother's a big boy now;he's old enough to look after himself."

  Ann Howard turned away from him and her voice dropped to a whisper. "Heisn't my brother, Mr. Lord. We had to sign on that way because your companyprohibits a man and wife sailing in the same crew."

  In that moment she stripped her soul bare to him. Poor, plain,conscientious Ann Howard! Fighting to hold her man; fighting the unknownodds of an alien world, the stealthy seduction of an amoral people. Lordunderstood Ann, then, for the first time; he saw the shadow of madnessthat crept across her mind; and he pitied her.

  "I'll do what I can," he promised.

  As he left the schoolroom she collapsed in a straight-backed chair--thinand unattractive, like Ann herself--and her shoulders shook with silent,bitter grief.

  * * * * *

  Martin Lord took the familiar path to Niaga's village. The setting sunstill spread its dying fire across the evening sky, but he walked slowlythrough the deep, quiet shadows of the forest. He came to the stream wherehe had met Niaga; he paused to dip his sweat-smeared face into the coolwater cascading over a five foot fall.

  A pleasant flood of memory crowded his mind. When he had first met Niaga,almost a week before, she had been lying on the sandy bank of the stream,idly plaiting a garland of red and blue flowers. Niaga! A copper-skinnedgoddess, stark naked and unashamed in the bright spot light of sun filteredthrough the trees. Languorous, laughing lips; long, black hair looselycaught in a net of filmy material that hung across her shoulder.

  The feeling of guilt and shame had stabbed at Lord's mind. He had come,unasked, into an Eden. He didn't belong here. His presence meant pillage, arifling of a sacred dream. The landing had been a mistake.

  Oddly enough, the _Ceres_ had landed here entirely by chance, the result ofa boyish fling at adventure.

  Martin Lord was making a routine tour of representative trade cities beforeassuming his vice-presidency in the central office of Hamilton Lord, Inc.It had been a family custom for centuries, ever since the first domed portshad been built on Mars and Venus.

  Lord was twenty-six and, like all the family, tall, slim, yellow-haired.As the Lords had for generations, Martin had attended the ChicagoUniversity of Commerce for four years, and the Princeton Graduate Schoolin Interstellar Engineering four more--essential preparations for thesuccessful Federation trader. In Chicago Martin had absorbed the basicphilosophy of the Federation: the union of planets and diverse peoples,created by trade, was an economy eternally prosperous and eternallygrowing, because the number of undiscovered and unexploited planetswas infinite. The steady expansion of the trade cities kept demandalways one jump ahead of supply; every merchant was assured that thisyear's profits would always be larger than last. It was the financialmillennium, from which depression and recession had been forevereliminated. At Princeton Lord had learned the practical physicsnecessary for building, servicing and piloting the standard interstellarmerchant ships.

  Martin Lord's tour of the trade cities completed his education. It was hisfirst actual contact with reality. The economy of progress, which hadseemed so clear-cut in the Chicago lecture halls, was translated into abrawling, vice-ridden, frontier city. In the older trade cities, theculture of man had come to dominate the occupied worlds. No trace of whatalien peoples had been or had believed survived, except as museum oddities.

  This, Lord admitted to himself, was conquest, by whatever innocuous name itpassed. But was it for good or evil? In the first shock of reality, MartinLord had doubted himself and the destiny of the Federation. But only for amoment. What he saw was good--he had been taught to believe that--becausethe Federation was perfection.

  But the doubt, like a cancer, fed and grew in the darkness of Lord's soul.

  * * * * *

  On the home trip a mechanical defect of the calibration of the time-powercarried the _Ceres_ off its course, light years beyond the segment of theGalaxy occupied by the Federation.

  "We've burned out a relay," Don Howard reported.

  "Have we replacements?" Lord asked.

  "It's no problem to fix. But repairs would be easier if we could set theship down somewhere."

  Lord glanced at the unknown sun and three satellite planets which wereplotted electronically on his cabin scanning screen. His pulse leaped withsudden excitement. This was his first--and last--chance for adventure, theonly interstellar flight he would command in his lifetime. When he returnedto earth, he would be chained for the rest of his days to a desk job,submerged in a sea of statistical tables and financial statements.

  "Run an atmosphere analysis on those three worlds, Mr. Howard," he saidsoftly.

  Driven by its auxiliary nuclear power unit, the ship moved closer to thenew solar system. In half an hour Don Howard brought Lord the lab report.Two of the planets were enveloped in methane, but the third had anearth-normal atmosphere. Lord gave the order for a landing, his voicepulsing with poorly concealed, boyish pleasure.

  The _Ceres_ settled on a hilltop, its cushioning rockets burning animprovised landing area in the lush foliage. As the airlock swung open,Lord saw half a dozen golden-skinned savages standing on the edge of theclearing. As nearly as he could judge, they were men; but that was nottoo surprising, because a number of planets in the Federation had evolvedsentient species which resembled man. The savages were unarmed and nearlynaked--tall, powerfully built men; they seemed neither awed nor frightenedby the ship.

  Over the circle of scorched earth Lord heard the sound of their voices. Fora fleeting second the words seemed to make sense--a clear, unmistakablewelcome to the new world.

  But communication was inconceivable. This planet was far beyond the fringeof the Federation. Lord was letting his imagination run away with him.

  He flung out his arms in a universally accepted gesture of open-handedfriendship. At once the talk of the natives ceased. They stood waitingsilently on the burned ground while the men unwound the landing ladder.

  * * * * *

  Lord made the initial contact himself. The techniques which he had learnedin the University of Commerce proved enormously successful. Within tenminutes rapport was established; in twenty the natives had agreed to submitto the linguistic machines. Lord had read accounts of other trailblazingcommercial expeditions; and he knew he was establishing a record for speedof negotiation.

  The savages were quite unfrightened as the electrodes were fastened totheir skulls, entirely undisturbed by the whir of the machine. In less thanan hour they were able to use the common language of the Federation.Another record; most species needed a week's indoctrination.

  Every new development suggested that these half-naked primitives--withno machine civilization, no cities, no form of space flight--had anintellectual potential superior to man's. The first question askedby one of the broad-shouldered savages underscored that conclusion.

  "Have you come to our world as colonists?"

  No
mumbo-jumbo of superstition, no awe of strangers who had suddenlydescended upon them from the sky. Lord answered, "We landed in orderto repair our ship, but I hope we can make a trade treaty with yourgovernment."

  For a moment the six men consulted among themselves with a silent exchangeof glances. Then one of them smiled and said, "You must visit our villagesand explain the idea of trade to our people."

  "Of course," Lord agreed. "If you could serve as interpreters--"

  "Our people can learn your language as rapidly as we have, if we can borrowyour language machine for a time."

  Lord frowned. "It's a rather complex device, and I'm not sure--you see, ifsomething went wrong, you might do a great deal of harm."

  "We would use it just as you did; we saw everything you turned to make itrun." One of the golden-skinned primitives made a demonstration, turningthe console of dials with the ease and familiarity of a semantic expert.Again Lord was impressed by their intelligence--and vaguely frightened.

  "You could call this the first trade exchange between your world and ours,"another savage added. "Give us the machine; we'll send you fresh food fromthe village."

  The argument was logical and eventually the natives had their way. Perhapsit was Ann Howard's intervention that decided the point. She vehementlydisapproved; a gift of techniques should be withheld until she hadexamined their cultural traditions. But Martin Lord was a trade agent, andhe had no intention of
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