The Complete Stories (Page 99)

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They had formed a semicircle about him and Wendell Urth stared at the moaning Kaunas with pity in his eyes.

An ambulance had come and gone. Talliaferro finally brought himself to say stiffly to Mandel, "I hope, sir, there will be no hard feelings for anything said here."

And Mandel had answered, as stiffly, "I think we had all better forget as much as possible of what has happened during the last twenty-four hours."

They were standing in the doorway, ready to leave, and Wendell Urth ducked his smiling head, and said, "There’s the question of my fee, you know."

Mandel looked startled.

"Not money," said Urth at once. "But when the first mass-transference setup for humans is established, I want a trip arranged for me."

Mandel continued to look anxious. "Now, wait. Trips through outer space are a long way off."

Urth shook his head rapidly. "Not outer space. Not at all. I would like to step across to Lower Falls, New Hampshire."

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"All right. But why?"

Urth looked up. To Talliaferro’s outright surprise, the extra-terrologist’s face wore an expression compounded of shyness and eagerness.

Urth said, "I once-quite a long time ago-knew a girl there. It’s been many years-but I sometimes wonder-"

I’m in Marsport Without Hilda

It worked itself out, to begin with, like a dream. I didn’t have to make any arrangement. I didn’t have to touch it. I just watched things work out. -Maybe that’s when I should have first smelled catastrophe.

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It began with my usual month’s layoff between assignments. A month on and a month off is the right and proper routine for the Galactic Service. I reached Marsport for the usual three-day layover before the short hop to Earth.

Ordinarily, Hilda, God bless her, as sweet a wife as any man ever had, would be there waiting for me and we’d have a nice sedate time of it-a nice little interlude for the two of us. The only trouble with that is that Marsport is the rowdiest spot in the System, and a nice little interlude isn’t exactly what fits in. Only, how do I explain that to Hilda, hey?

Well, this time, my mother-in-law, God bless her (for a change) got sick just two days before I reached Marsport, and the night before landing, I got a spacegram from Hilda saying she would stay on Earth with her mother and wouldn’t meet me this one time.

I ‘grammed back my loving regrets and my feverish anxiety concerning her mother and when I landed, there I was in Marsport without Hilda!

That was still nothing, you understand. It was the frame of the picture, the bones of the woman. Now there was the matter of the lines and coloring inside the frame; the skin and flesh outside the bones.

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So I called up Flora (Flora of certain rare episodes in the past) and for the purpose I used a video booth. -Damn the expense; full speed ahead.

I was giving myself ten to one odds she’d be out, she’d be busy with her videophone disconnected, she’d be dead, even.

But she was in, with her videophone connected, and Great Galaxy, was she anything but dead.

She looked better than ever. Age cannot wither, as somebody or other once said, nor custom stale her infinite variety.

Was she glad to see me? She squealed, "Max! It’s been years."

"I know, Flora, but this is it, if you’re available. Because guess what! I’m in Marsport without Hilda."

She squealed again, "Isn’t that nice! Then come on over."

I goggled a bit. This was too much. "You mean you are available?" You have to understand that Flora was never available without plenty of notice. Well, she was that kind of knockout.

She said, "Oh, I’ve got some quibbling little arrangement, Max, but I’ll take care of that. You come on over."

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"I’ll come," I said happily.

Flora was the kind of girl- Well, I tell you, she had her rooms under Martian gravity, 0.4 Earth-normal. The gadget to free her of Marsport’s pseudo-grav field was expensive of course, but if you’ve ever held a girl in your arms at 0.4 gees, you need no explanation. If you haven’t, explanations will do no good. I’m also sorry for you.

Talk about floating on clouds.

I closed connections, and only the prospect of seeing it all in the flesh could have made me wipe out the image with such alacrity. I stepped out of the booth.

And at that point, that precise point, that very split-instant of time, the first whiff of catastrophe nudged itself up to me.

That first whiff was the bald head of that lousy Rog Crinton of the Mars offices, gleaming over a headful of pale blue eyes, pale yellow complexion, and pale brown mustache. I didn’t bother getting on all fours and beating my forehead against the ground because my vacation had started the minute I had gotten off the ship.

So I said with only normal politeness, "What do you want and I’m in a hurry. I’ve got an appointment."

He said, "You’ve got an appointment with me. I was waiting for you at the unloading desk."

I said, "I didn’t see you-"

He said, "You didn’t see anything."

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He was right at that, for, come to think of it, if he was at the unloading desk, he must have been spinning ever since because I went past that desk like Halley’s Comet skimming the Solar Corona.

I said, "All right. What do you want?"

"I’ve got a little job for you."

I laughed. "It’s my month off, friend."

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He said, "Red emergency alert, friend."

Which meant, no vacation, just like that. I couldn’t believe it. I said, "Nuts, Rog. Have a heart. I got an emergency alert of my own."

"Nothing like this."

"Rog," I yelled, "can’t you get someone else? Anyone else?"

"You’re the only Class A agent on Mars."

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