The Complete Stories (Page 186)

← Previous chap Next chap →

That left only Randolph Mullen. Stuart frankly did not have the least idea what to make of him. He was the only one of the six that had been on the Arcturian worlds for any length of time. Stuart, himself, for instance, had been there only long enough to give a series of lectures on astronautical engineering at the provincial engineering institute. Colonel Windham had been on a Cook’s tour; Porter was trying to buy concentrated alien vegetables for his canneries on Earth; and the Polyorketes brothers had attempted to establish themselves in Arcturus as truck farmers and, after two growing seasons, gave it up, had somehow unloaded at a profit, and were returning to Earth.

Randolph Mullen, however, had been in the Arcturian system for seventeen years. How did voyagers discover so much about one another so quickly? As far as Stuart knew, the little man had scarcely spoken aboard ship. He was unfailingly polite, always stepped to one side to allow another to pass, but his entire vocabulary appeared to consist only of "Thank you" and "Pardon me." Yet the word had gone around that this was his first trip to Earth in seventeen yeais.

He was a little man, very precise, almost irritatingly so. Upon awaking that morning, he had made his cot neatly, shaved, bathed and dressed. The habit of years seemed not in the least disturbed by the fact that he was a prisoner of the Kloros now. He was unobtrusive about it, it had to be admitted, and gave no impression of disapproving of the sloppiness of the others. He simply sat there, almost apologetic, trussed in his overconserva-tive clothing, and hands loosely clasped in his lap. The thin line of hair on his upper lip, far from adding character to his face, absurdly increased its primness.

He looked like someone’s idea of a caricature of a bookkeeper. And the queer thing about it all, Stuart thought, was that that was exactly what he was. He had noticed it on the registry-Randolph Fluellen Mullen; occupation, bookkeeper; employers, Prime Paper Box Co.; 27 Tobias Avenue, New Warsaw, Arcturus II.

"Mr. Stuart?"

Stuart looked up. It was Leblanc, his lower lip trembling slightly. Stuart

tried to remember how one went about being gentle. He said, "What is it, Leblanc?"

"Tell me, when will they let us go?"

"How should I know?"

"Everyone says you lived on a Kloro planet, and just now you said they were gentlemen."

"Well, yes. But even gentlemen fight wars in order to win. Probably, we’ll be interned for the duration."

"But that could be years! Margaret is waiting. She’ll think I’m dead!"

"I suppose they’ll allow messages to be sent through once we’re on their planet."

Porter’s hoarse voice sounded in agitation. "Look here, if you know so much about these devils, what will they do to us while we’re interned? What will they feed us? Where will they get oxygen for us? They’ll kill us, I tell you." And as an afterthought, "I’ve got a wife waiting for me, too," he added.

But Stuart had heard him speaking of his wife in the days before the attack. He wasn’t impressed. Porter’s nail-bitten fingers were pulling and plucking at Stuart’s sleeve. Stuart drew away in sharp revulsion. He couldn’t stand those ugly hands. It angered him to desperation that such monstrosities should be real while his own white and perfectly shaped hands were only mocking imitations grown out of an alien latex.

He said, "They won’t kill us. If they were going to, they would have done it before now. Look, we capture Kloros too, you know, and it’s just a matter of common sense to treat your prisoners decently if you want the other side to be decent to your men. They’ll do their best. The food may not be very good, but they’re better chemists than we are. It’s what they’re best at. They’ll know exactly what food factors we’ll need and how many calories. We’ll live. They’ll see to that."

Windham rumbled, "You sound more and more like a blasted greenie sympathizer, Stuart. It turns my stomach to hear an Earthman speak well of the green fellas the way you’ve been doing. Burn it, man, where’s your loyalty?"

"My loyalty’s where it belongs. With honesty and decency, regardless of the shape of the being it appears in." Stuart held up his hands. "See these? Kloros made them. I lived on one of their planets for six months. My hands were mangled in the conditioning machinery of my own quarters. I thought the oxygen supply they gave me was a little poor-it wasn’t, by the way- and I tried making the adjustments on my own. It was my fault. You should never trust yourself with the machines of another culture. By the time someone among the Kloros could put on an atmosphere suit and get to me, it was too late to save my hands.

"They grew these artiplasm things for me and operated. You know what that meant? It meant designing equipment and nutrient solutions that

would work in oxygen atmosphere. It meant that their surgeons had to perform a delicate operation while dressed in atmosphere suits. And now I’ve got hands again." He laughed harshly, and clenched them into weak fists. "Hands-"

Windham said, "And you’d sell your loyalty to Earth for that?"

"Sell my loyalty? You’re mad. For years, I hated the Kloros for this. I was a master pilot on the Trans-Galactic Spacelines before it happened. Now? Desk job. Or an occasional lecture. It took me a long time to pin the fault on myself and to realize that the only role played by the Kloros was a decent one. They have their code of ethics, and it’s as good as ours. If it weren’t for the stupidity of some of their people-and, by God, of some of ours-we wouldn’t be at war. And after it’s over-"

Polyorketes was on his feet. His thick fingers curved inward before him and his dark eyes glittered. "I don’t like what you say, mister."

"Why don’t you?"

← Previous chap Next chap →