Alien from ArcturusGordon R. Dickson
Alien From Arcturus
Gordon R. Dickson
START SCIENCE FICTION
An Imprint of Start Publishing LLC
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ALIEN FROM ARCTURUS © 1956 by Gordon R. Dickson. © 1984 by Gordon R. Dickson.
First Start Science Fiction edition 2013.
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The first unusual thing to happen that day—and maybe it was an accident, and maybe not—was that someone had switched belts with Malcolm Fletcher, where they hung on hooks along the wall of the Company’s downtown penthouse lunchroom. Mal put on the strange belt without noticing it and when he stepped off the edge of the rooftop to fly to Warehouse and Supply—some thirty miles away at White Bear—the power pack in the belt gave him one kick into space and quit dead, leaving him falling through thin air toward the rose-colored pavement nineteen stories below.
Luckily, the safety force shield around the building at the lower levels caught him, slowed him down and stopped him before he hit, but it gave Mal the cold shivers to think what might have happened it he hadn’t discovered his mistake before stepping off some unshielded building—say, like Laboratory Annex itself—where he had been working these past few months. Five feet eleven inches of sandy-haired young physicist would have been spread out over considerable area.
As it was, he suffered nothing worse than embarrassment. An Archaist, riding by on a white horse and in a full suit of chain mail, stopped and guffawed at the sight of a man in sedate kilt and tunic of scientist green tumbling head over heels on the resilient pavement. And even a few Neo-Taylorites, holding an impromptu prayer-discussion on the corner of the street, tittered appreciatively as Mal, scowling, got up and brushed himself off. They would have done better to keep quiet, for their giggles drew the attention of the Archaist, and he wheeled his horse toward them with ominous ponderousness, causing them to scurry for sanctuary in the Company building, their ornate yellow robes flapping like the gowns of frightened dowagers.
Seeing he had missed them, the Archaist reined up and turned to Mal.
“Down with the Aliens!” he said formally.
“Go drown yourself!” growled Mal, brushing himself off. He was in a bad humor at the thought of what the result might have been had the power-belt switch remained uncovered, or the building behind him had its shield turned off.
The Archaist’s face darkened and he reached for a mace hanging at his saddlebow. Mal put a hand on his own holstered side arm and the Archaist changed his mind. “Not my weapon,” he said, reining his horse around. “Some other time, bud.”
“Go pick on a Neo,” snapped Mal—but the Archaist, riding off down the street, his plume aflaunt from his helmet, professed not to hear him.
After a few seconds of time had allowed him to cool down, Mal found cause to be rather glad of this. He carried the gun because you had to carry something nowadays to protect you from the crackpots. But he had never actually used it on anybody and didn’t particularly want to begin now. He had reached for it in a reflex of anger, and that was all. Nor was there anything really surprising about the Archaist’s reaction either. A lot of them were a good deal less rough and tough than they professed to be—just as a lot of Neo-Taylorites occasionally slipped from being as sweet and kind as their vows of Non-Violence were supposed to make them. Not but what there weren’t plenty of fanatics in either camp. Mal felt he had got off luckily.
He stepped into a supply shop along the way and showed his power pack to the man behind the counter.
“Fused,” said the other, prying off the back lid and examining the interior. “What’d you do, take a hammer to it? Nothing left here but scrap. You’ll need a new one.”
“All right,” said Mal.
He paid for a new power pack, socked it in his belt and took off. His route led him over the hotels and downtown office buildings of Greater St. Paul. As he drifted along through the air, some eight hundred feet up, the ill humor engendered by the power-pack failure began to fade. It was a magnificent day, summery but cool, with a few stray clouds and no more, the sort of day that could make a man want to turn his power belt away from the cities and go bird-chasing over the treetops of the few forest areas that still existed on the north part of the continent. Below him the buildings were large, but toylike, somehow unreal. And the bright garments of the other power belt flyers, flitting along below him on the regular commuters’ level some two hundred feet underneath, looked like thronging scraps of bright paper eddying in some slow, invisible stream. For half a second, he was tempted to take the day off and either spend it floating around the city or actually shooting north and spending a few hours sightseeing around the lakes and forests.
He shook himself out of the mood. You’re thinking like a Neo-Taylorite, he admonished himself sternly. Sit and daydream while the world staggers by. And he grinned wryly. Whom was he kidding with thoughts of a vacation? Two hours of killing time and he’d be champing at the bit to get back to his lab. The equipment for the final work on his test drive was waiting for him at Warehouse and Supply right now, and on it hinged not only his own dreams, but the seventy-three years’ standing Company reward for whomever would be the first to come up with a faster-than-light drive. To say nothing of the hopes of the human race. No time for time off for Malcolm Fletcher.
The young man shook his head, touched the button that snapped a force bubble around him, and clicked the power belt up for speed. The city slid by at an accelerated pace below him, as he altered course slightly to head north and east toward White Bear. Beneath, the large buildings of the business sections gave way to the fantastic plastic architecture of the suburbs; the suburbs thinned out and were replaced by the garden-like tree clumps and rolling parklands of the larger estates: and Mal found himself sharing the air with nothing but clouds and an occasional distant, silent flyer.
The peace and beauty of the scene below him struck Mal very forcibly; and almost against his will reminded him of all that Alien technologies had done for the human race since the first experimental star ship, headed for Arcturus with its three generations inside, had been politely intercepted half a light-year out from the solar system and sent home again, shocking the brave young egotist that was the human race with the knowledge that it was actually very small and very weak and its future among the stars very much dependent on the good will of older, wiser neighbors who had walked the same path before it.
For the first ship to be sent outside the limits of the solar system—product of fifty years and the best in human brains and research—had been picked up and carried home, like a lost puppy wandered from its mother’s breeding box, by a titanic creation of metal, an unknowable warden of the skies who brought the explorers back and disgorged a delegation of strange beings to inform stunned humans that their time was not yet—that they were under Quarantine and would stay so until their infant science could conquer the problem of a drive unlimited by the speed of light.
Result—resentment. Born into a world aware of Alien culture for nearly a hundred years, educated in schools that taught a wider view of the universe than any human had conceived before, Mal still felt the gnawing anger, the clutching complex of inferiority
that had resulted from that strange homecoming. A belief in its own superiority was bred into the very bones of the human race. And wasn’t it just that which had driven Mal into the task and work and research that was leading now to the drive solution he thought he had?
And yet… the cool limits of his upper mind struggled to fight down the emotional reaction and take a fair view. The facts showed nothing that was not good. One Alien technology had designed the power belt that lofted him now through the high air. Another, from a different race, had taught Earth the building or altering of homes via a simple, easy blown plastic process. To make possible the terraforming of Venus other alien biological technologies had been supplied, and these were still at work to transform that planet. Land, sky and sea throughout the solar system were being tamed and brought to order by the knowledge of far-flung, star-born cultures.
But—and yet—it was all a prison. For it is what the mind considers, rather than the walls which enclose, which incarcerates the spirit. A wide and beautiful prison from Mercury to Pluto in a system touched with Alien skills. But prison still, beyond the point of denial. No wonder the Neo-Taylorite philosophers withdrew into their fragile artistic shells of the intellect. No wonder the Archaists wore antique clothing of leather and cloth and talked of a past golden age when everyone knew that former history had been full of blood and pain and sorrow. No wonder the high executives of the company warred and intrigued with each other.
Prison it was, and prison still.
With an effort, Mal shook these thoughts from his mind. When he thought about such things occasionally, he went in deep—too deep. He was a physicist, not a philosopher; and there was work to be done.
He looked ahead. White Bear was coming in below him—a resort hamlet of brilliant bubble homes around a lake and the large white buildings of Warehouse and Supply. Mal notched back the belt, snapped off the force shield and went down in a slow glide. He landed outside the low, transparent-sided building that housed the offices for this division of the Company, and went inside.
“Hello there, Mal,” said a voice, as he stepped into the shipment receiving office. He turned his head to see lounging against the counter a tall, black-haired, knife-thin man whom he recognized as Ron Thayer—a cyberneticist on some project of his own, whose working quarters were down the hall from Mal’s, back at Laboratory Annex. They hardly knew each other in spite of this closeness, and Thayer’s easy familiarity annoyed Mal.
“Hi,” he growled.
“How’s the hush-hush project coming?”
“It wouldn’t be hush-hush if I could tell you,” said Mal. He was turning toward the brown-eyed, blonde, young woman in green coveralls, behind the counter, with the intention of ending the conversation fairly before it was begun, when he noticed the belt around Ron’s waist.
“Hey—” he said. “That’s my belt you’ve got on."
“Is it?” said Ron, with nothing more than mild surprise showing on his face. “I knew I’d got somebody else’s by mistake at the lunchroom. But I didn’t know whose.”
Mal stripped off his belt and held it out.
“Trade,” he said, a trifle grimly. “And you owe me for a new power pack. Yours was smashed inside.”
“Is that a fact?” said Ron, trading. “I’ll leave you a new pack back at the lab. Lucky you found out.”
“You can say that,” said Mal. He looked at Thayer penetratingly, but the thin man’s face was bland. Mal turned away, toward the waiting attendants.
“Hi, Lucy,” said Mal. “Got that stuff for me on Order J37991?”
Lucy bit her lower lip, looking flustered.
“No—” she began.
“No?” echoed Mal, staring at her.
“It isn’t here,” she said. “I don’t know just what the trouble is, Mal. But Mr. Caswell told me to cancel it out of Philadelphia. He’s waiting to see you about it. You better go in and see him.”
With a frown on his forehead, forgetting all about his recent passage with Thayer, Mal went around the counter, pushed through the swinging gate, and went on through a further door. It opened before him politely, into an inner office, where a stocky gray-haired man sitting behind a large desk looked up nervously as he came in.
“What’s up, Joe?” asked Mal, coming up to the desk. “Lucy says my order’s been canceled.” Joe Caswell got up jerkily and came around his desk.
“Sorry, Med,” he said. “The order was canceled from the Eastern Office; and your Chiefs been trying to get you ever since you left Lab Annex. You’re to go east and report to Vanderloon, himself.”
Mal stared. “I don’t get it,” he said.
“Don’t ask me, Mal.” Caswell shrugged.
“But why would the Chairman of the Board want to see me?”
“Mal, look—” began Caswell and hesitated, “why don’t you just go east and find out? I’ve got a flyer waiting for you since it’s a long way by belt.” Mal looked closely at the older man.
“What is it, Joe?” he asked. “What’s it got to do with you? Why’re you so bothered?”
“Far as I know,” said Caswell, “nothing, Mal. It’s just that when things happen suddenly like that there’s usually something happening on the upper levels. And I don’t want to get caught between.” Mal laughed.
“All right,” he said. “Where’s your flyer?”
“Hangar nineteen,” said Caswell.
“See you,” said Mal, and left. He did not see, as he went out, the Warehouse and Supply manager reach for a private line on his desk phone that had been open all this time.
“He’s on the way,” said Caswell into the phone.
Scudding east through the sky at a hundred and thirty thousand feet with the torn thunder of his passage lost behind him, Mal puzzled over his summons. It was not merely the fact that the Chairman of the Board, an almost astronomically remote figure, should require a personal interview with such an underling as himself. It was the mode of the requiring.
Alone in the three-place cockpit with nothing but the empty sky to keep him company, he let his mind slide back and forth over the Company (as it was commonly called)—Interstellar Trading Company according to the records.
Interstellar was its official present flame. Very few people used it. Originally, back around the middle of the twentieth century, it had been the Seaways Export and Import Company, a middleman trading outfit in the days when a good share of the world’s commerce was carried over oceans. From then until the present it had had many names. Certainly too many to remember. The important thing was that in a world from which the family unit had almost disappeared, it had remained, staunchly and jealously, a family concern.
This was not to say that the original family still owned all the stock of the Company, or even a majority of it. The Company was too large nowadays to be controlled by any single individual or any group. But the family did own considerable shares, and working in and with the Company had become a family tradition, so that one of them was sure to be either the President of the Board or something close to it.
The family itself was a New York Dutch one; and its beginnings were lost in a maze of old records. The Company’s history became important with Walter Ten Drocke, who as a young man saw his opportunity in the export franchise to be awarded by the new Inner Planets government to a single exporter furnishing the troubled asteroids with freight service. By the medium of what amounted to bare-faced bribery, he had secured the franchise and the future rise of the Company had been assured. Within fifty years it had crowded out its competitors in the field of interplanetary trading. And when Alien contact opened up trade with the rest of the Galaxy, the Company had found itself the only concern with the warehouse and equipment to handle the two-way flow of goods.
So the Company had grown, strongly and steadily. Until, in the relatively short period of years since Alien contact had been made, it had come to handle the major part of the solar system’s output, where that output was for export,
to the myriad of extra-solar system markets. In the exact meaning of the word, it became a monopoly. But in the process it had at the same time become so widespread and basic, so intertwined with the lives of everyone in the solar system, that it had almost lost its character as a business and become an institution, a part of the culture.
This, to be sure, was a situation brought about not merely by Company expansion, but by the influx of—by human standards—luxuries which trade with the outer stars developed. The resultant rise in the living standard in the end made it unnecessary in a strict sense for anyone to work unless he really wanted to. And then only four or five hours a day, three days a week. The fact that most people wanted to work, and ended by chafing not at the length but the shortness of their hours, was something that came into the public awareness only slowly and belatedly. So it happened that many people found themselves searching for an occupation that would satisfy their need to be engaged in useful activity—and to many of these, the Company offered a solution.
The flyer had been making good time. By the time Mal had come out of these thoughts, he was almost at his destination. He cut power and dropped down to a thousand feet of altitude, to come out through a low-lying bank of clouds and find the estate of Peer Vanderloon lying below him, cupped like some brilliant plastic gem in the palm of a gentle valley. Abruptly his controls went dead, and a mechanical voice sounded over the flyer’s speaker.
“Automatics have taken over. You will be landed under remote control. Automatics have taken over, you will be landed under remote control—”
Mal grinned. Evidently Vanderloon was just as leery of Archaist crackpots as any of the other high Company officials. He settled back to wait while the automatics took him down and landed him. As the flyer settled to a stop, he stepped out. A polite guard in Company Police uniform of black and white was waiting for him.
“Malcolm Kenneth Fletcher?” asked the guard.