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Chapter 2

Lieutenant Commander Cooper, the Navigating Officer of Aries, was in a bad mood, a sulky expression on his plump, swarthy face, his reedy voice petulant. "Damn it all," he was saying. "Damn it all, what am I supposed to be here for? An emergency alteration of trajectory comes up and am I called for? Oh, no, that'd be far too simple. So young Grimes has to fumble his way through the sums that I should be doing, and the first that I know is when somebody condescends to sound the acceleration alarm . . ."

"Was there anything wrong with my trajectory, sir?" asked Grimes coldly.

"No, Mr. Grimes. Nothing at all wrong, although I was brought up to adhere to the principle that interstellar dust clouds should be avoided . . ."

"With the Mannschenn Drive in operation there's no risk."

"Isn't there? A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Mr. Grimes. Inside some of these dark nebulae the Continuum is dangerously warped."

"But CCD736 can hardly be classed as a nebula . . ."

"Even so, the first principle of all navigation should be caution, and it's high time that you learned that."

Doctor Passifern, the Senior Medical Officer, broke in. "Come off it, Pilot. Young Grimes is learning, and this idea of the Old Man's that every officer in the ship should be able to take over from the specialists is a very sound one . . ."

"Ha! It might be an idea if some of us were encouraged to take over your job, Doc!"

A flush darkened Passifern's already ruddy face. He growled, "That's not the same and you know it."

"Isn't it? Oh, I know that ever since the dawn of history you pill peddlers have made a sacred mystery of your technology . . ."

Grimes got to his feet, said, "What about some more coffee?" He collected the three mugs from the table, walked to the espresso machine that stood in a corner of the comfortable wardroom. He found it rather embarrassing when his seniors quarreled—the long-standing feud between the Navigator and the Doctor was more than good-natured bickering—and thought that a pause for refreshment would bring the opportunity for a change of subject. As he filled the mugs he remarked brightly, "At least this acceleration allows us to enjoy our drinks. I hate having to sip out of a bulb."

"Do you?" asked Cooper nastily. "I'd have thought that one of your tender years would enjoy a regression to the well-remembered and well-beloved feeding bottle."

Grimes ignored this. He set the mugs down on the low table, then dropped ungracefully into his easy chair. He said to Passifern, "But what is the hurry, Doc? I know that I'm only the small boy around here and that I'm not supposed to be told anything, but would you be breaking any vows of secrecy if you told us the nature of the emergency on El Dorado?"

"I don't know myself, Grimes. All I know is that there shouldn't be one. Those filthy rich El Doradans have the finest practitioners and specialists in the known Universe in residence; and they, by this time, must be almost as filthy rich as their patients! All I know is that they knew that we were in the vicinity of their planet, and requested a second opinion on something or other . . ."

"And our Lord and Master," contributed Cooper, "decided that it was a good excuse to give the Inertial Drive a gallop. He doesn't like Free Fall." He obliged with a surprisingly good imitation of Captain Daintree's deep voice: "Too much Free Fall makes officers soft."

"He could be right," said Passifern.

Cooper ignored this. "What puzzles me," he said, "is why these outstanding practitioners and specialists should call in a humble ship's quack . . ."

"As a major vessel of the Survey Service," Passifern told him coldly, "we carry a highly qualified and expert team of physicians, surgeons and technicians. And our hospital and research facilities would be the envy of many a planet. Furthermore, we have the benefit of experience denied to any planet-bound doctor . . ."

"And wouldn't you just love to be planetbound on a world like El Dorado?" asked Cooper.

Before the Doctor could make an angry reply, Grimes turned to the Navigator. "And what is El Dorado like, sir? I was going to look it up, but the Old Man's taken the Pilot Book covering it out of the control room."

"Doing his homework," said Cooper. "Luckily it's not everybody who has to rush to the books when the necessity for an unscheduled landing crops up. We specialists, unlike the jacks-of-all-trades, tend to be reasonably expert in our own fields." He took a noisy gulp of coffee. "All right. El Dorado. An essentially Earth-type planet in orbit about a Sol-type primary. A very ordinary sort of world, you might say. But it's not. And it wasn't."

It was Passifern who broke the silence. "What's so different about it?"

"Don't you know, Doc? You were hankering for its fleshpots only a minute ago. I suppose you have some sort of idea of what it's like now, but not how it got that way. Well, to begin with, it was an extraordinary world. It was one of those planets upon which life—life-as-we-know-it or any other kind of life—had never taken hold. There it was, for millions upon millions of years, just a sterile ball of rock and mud and water.

"And then it was purchased from the Federation by the so-called El Dorado Corporation.

"Even you, young Grimes, must know something of history. Even you must know how, on world after world, the trend has been towards socialism. Some societies have gone the whole hog, preaching and practicing the Gospel According to St. Marx. Some have contented themselves with State control of the means of production and supply, with ruinous taxation of the very well-to-do thrown in. There have been levelling up processes and levelling down processes, and these have hurt the aristocracies of birth and breeding as much as they have hurt the aristocracies of Big Business and industry.

"And so the Corporation was formed. Somehow its members managed to get most of their wealth out of their home worlds, and much of it was used for the terraforming of El Dorado. Terraforming? Landscape gardening would be a better phrase. Yes, that world's no more, and no less, than a huge, beautiful park, with KEEP OFF THE GRASS signs posted insofar as the common herd is concerned."

"What about servants? Technicians?" asked Grimes.

"The answer to that problem, my boy, was automation, automation and still more automation. Automation to an extent that would not have been practical on a world where the economics of it had to be considered. And on the rare occasions that the machines do need attention there are a few El Doradans to whom mechanics, electronics and the like are amusing and quite fascinating hobbies. And there will be others, of course, who enjoy playing around at gardening, or even farming."

"A world, in fact, that's just a rich man's toy," said Grimes.

"And don't forget the rich bitches," Cooper told him.

"I don't think I'd like it," went on Grimes.

"And I don't think that the El Doradans would like you," Cooper remarked. "Or any of us. As far as they're concerned, we're just snotty-nosed ragamuffins from the wrong side of the tracks."

"Still," said Passifern smugly, "they requested my services."

"God knows why," sneered Cooper.

There was silence while the Doctor tried to think of a scathing rejoinder. It was broken by Grimes. "Ah, here's Mr. Bose. Perhaps he can tell us."

"Our commissioned teacup reader," grunted the Navigator sardonically. "Singing and dancing."

Mr. Bose, the cruiser's Psionic Radio Officer, did not look the sort of man who would ever be heard or seen indulging in such activities. He was short and fat, and the expression of his shiny, chocolate-colored face was one of unrelieved gloom. On the occasions when a shipmate would tell him, for the love of all the odd gods of the Galaxy, to cheer up, he would reply portentously, "But I know too much." What he knew of what went on in the minds of his shipmates he would never divulge; insofar as they were concerned, he always observed and respected the oath of secrecy taken by all graduates of the Rhine Institute. Now and again, however, he seemed to consider outsiders fair game and would pass on to his fellow officers what he had learned by telepathic eavesdropping.

"What cooks on El Dorado, Bosey Boy?" demanded Cooper.

"What cooks, Commander, sir? The flesh of animals. They are a godless people and partake of unclean foods."

"The same as we do, in this ship. But you know what I mean."

Surprisingly, the telepath laughed, a high-pitched giggle. "Yes, I know what you mean, Commander, sir."

"Of course you do, you damned snooper. But what cooks?"

"I . . . I cannot understand. I have tried to . . . to tune in on the thoughts of all the people. From their Psionic Radio officers I have learned nothing, nothing at all. They are experts, highly trained, with their minds impenetrably screened. But the dreams, the secret thoughts of the ordinary people are vague, confused. There is unease and there is fear, but it is not the fear of an immediate danger. But it is a very real fear . . ."

"Probably just an increasing incidence of tinea," laughed Cooper. "Right up your alley, Doc."

Passifern was not amused.

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