by E. G. von Wald
He found himself staring at her, wondering whether the dim shadows visible under her eyes were natural, or whether natural and dark shadows had been incompletely obscured. Her face was delicate and regular, as if there had been some high-class adjustments made on it by a well-paid surgeon. Her whole body, for that matter, looked thoroughly adjusted and very pleasant indeed.
Deitrich was fascinated.
As if some extrasensory link had been established, she glanced abruptly over at him; and as abruptly looked away again, with a faint coloring of her pale, blond skin. Then she walked quickly on past and was lost in the crowd.
Deitrich’s gaze moved back to the stiff, watchful immigrants that he had brought in with him. They stood in a tight knot, staring around at the glittering room, their eyes attentive and wary.
It was too noisy, with the port customs officers moving through the throng, shouting and trying to keep from losing their particular charges. The charges, however, chattered among themselves and seemed more interested in breaking away to watch the moving kaleidoscope of pictures that blossomed on all sides, heralding the wondrous marvels that might be purchased or enjoyed on this singularly fortunate planet.
His immigrants obviously were nervous and a little afraid. That was normal. To them, it seemed that only a couple of days had elapsed since they had left the quiet, restrained port of Bella III, deep in the sophisticated Cluster of Madgellan. Perhaps they were a little shocked at the confusion of this place. For these immigrants were not the government-subsidy variety; they were educated and had some money, or they would not have been allowed to come into this system.
Despite full instructions to the contrary, however, they probably still felt that if they did not like it here, they could return tomorrow to Bella III, and resume the life they had rejected. The emotional habits of a culture die slowly in the individual.
An official approached the group. He glanced at Deitrich. He studied the immigrants carefully and looked again toward Deitrich. Finally he walked over to where he stood.
“You are in charge of these people?”
Deitrich nodded, and the man consulted some records on his arm. “I do not seem to find—” he started, frowned and changed his approach. “Luggage? Equipment?” A tired officiousness labored his voice, as he asked the familiar questions he asked a hundred times every day.
“I left all that on the tender,” Deitrich explained. “I saw no point in unloading them until we have a place to send them.”
“Don’t you have a hotel inspection service in this system any more?” Deitrich asked.
“Of course.” The man peered intently at Deitrich, studying the uniform. “You… ah—” and he cleared his throat again.
“We just came in from the Home.”
“Oh.” There was a small apologetic laugh. “Of course. For a moment I was puzzled by your uniform.” He turned and pointed at the distant end of the anteroom. “You must report to the subcommissioner. He handles all extrasystemal traffic personally.”
Deitrich walked in the direction indicated, weaving his way through the undulating mass of humanity. Some of the people stared at him; others glared as he thrust his way among them. Most paid no attention, having seen often and tired of the novelty of oddly-attired strangers.
He came to a door with official-looking symbols on it. This, he decided, must be the place.
It was. It was more. He found himself suddenly faced again with the telesensitive blonde. But this time, instead of the blush, she had a cool, superior smile on her face.
“Hello,” she said. Her eyes swept up and down his uniform curiously. “You wish to see the commissioner?”
Deitrich nodded. He handed her the capsule of the squad tape, along with his personal identification capsule.
“Just one moment, sir,” she said. “I’ll decode this immediately.” She left her seat and proceeded to the rear corner of the room, glancing at the personal capsule a moment before inserting it into the machine.
“Extrasystemal, I see,” she commented. “How does it feel to be back in time again, commander?”
“Not commander,” Deitrich corrected her. “Captain.” Then he added politely, “Fine.”
The woman turned her head and smiled briefly, showing even while teeth. “I guess you’re rather tired of answering that one, captain.”
Deitrich returned the smile without comment and waited.
As she manipulated the machine, she softly hummed an obscure but vaguely familiar melody. But before Deitrich could put his finger on what about it pleased him so much, there came a smothered mutter and clacking, and out popped a little plastic coupon.
“There we are,” she murmured. She returned slowly, reading it aloud as she walked. “Captain Fritz Deitrich, XM39La Home Galaxy Fleet code—” Her voice trailed off, lips still moving as she continued silently reciting the designation of the fleet, origin and destination, and the pilot commission data. As she came to the end her eyes widened, and she looked sharply up at him.
“Terra!” she exclaimed. “Third century.”
Deitrich nodded agreeably. It was, he knew, a long ways away and a long time ago. He was used to a certain amount of surprise at this circumstance.
“B-but—” she stammered excitedly. “But that’s my time!”
Now it was his mouth that dropped open with astonishment.
“And my planet!”
He stared at her. “Where?” he asked. “When?”
“Rioessay. And I was born in 310.”
Eagerly they clasped hands. He smiled a little twisted grin as he said, “Rioessay? That was the capital once, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, yes, but way before my time.” Her eyes sparkled with hungry joy. “Our time,” she corrected.
“I knew I’d heard of it somewhere.” He paused and the grin righted itself and spread. “Well, what do you know about this.”
They still held hands. Her gaze darted from his face to his uniform and back to his face again, her eyes moist and shining. “Imagine,” she breathed, “meeting way out here. Oh-h-h.” She shook her head. “You don’t know.”
“I know,” Deitrich murmured.
She looked down again and with a little embarrassed giggle, disengaged her hand. Trying to regain her composure she said stiffly, “It’s been so… so long, you know.”
“I know,” said Deitrich quietly. “But I was beginning to think there weren’t any of us left any more.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Not too long,” she replied. “But it’s been a long time for me. It was… let’s see… almost four years now.”
“Oh.” Deitrich was surprised. But of course it could not have been very long. “Where did you spend the rest of the time since you left Terra?”
“Here and there. I went all around the Home.” Her cheeks dimpled again. “Sort of a sightseeing tour. But I spent all my money, and finally had to quit and get a job. That’s why I moved on out here. It was my last run.”
Deitrich watched her with gentle amusement. Four years was a long time in one place after all the time-jumping she mentioned. A passing sadness clouded his eyes momentarily. Then he smiled again. “You like it here?”
“About as well as any place I can go. And a good bit better than some places I’ve been.”
“Yes, I imagine so.” He hesitated and added, “Well, we’ll have to get together often while I’m here in the system.”
“Yes,” she replied, but it sounded a little uncertain. Then she repeated again, with insistence, “Four years I’ve been here. I like it very much.” “Naturally.” Deitrich picked up his identification coupon from the floor where she had dropped it. “Right now I believe I must see the commissioner.”
The man he met had never left his native system. He saw TJ pilots come in every few months, and had been doing this work for sixty years. He glanced at Deitrich’s coupon with a blasé casualness.
“Captain Deitrich,” he murmured. “You’re the Home fleet that has just taken up its orbit.”
“Fine. Make yourself comfortable there,” the man indicated a seat. “Can I get you some refreshment?”
“Thank you,” Deitrich replied politely, “but I’m a little concerned about the strangers I brought in with me. Immigrants.”
“Oh? Visitors? Immigrants?” The commissioner frowned, and his eyes almost disappeared in the flesh that surrounded them. He moved thick, soft fingers over a patch of control buttons. “See that Captain Deitrich’s passengers are cleared immediately,” he ordered. Then he looked back at Deitrich. “Is that fast enough for you, captain?”
Deitrich nodded and grinned. “Fine.”
“I’m taking your word that they fulfill the requirements for entrance into this system.”
“That was all handled back at Bella III.”
“Good. Now, captain, would you care for that drink?” At Deitrich’s nod, he asked, “What will you have, oonalyn? Betelgeuse? They’re very good.”
“Oonalyn,” Deitrich replied. “I know what effect it has.”
“Then you should try the betelgeuse, captain.”
The drink was brought by a shiny blue automaton that ran on five wheels and had nine pentadactylended tentacles. The commissioner eyed the machine proudly as it served them. “We’re not so far behind them at that, are we?”
Deitrich agreed with the man, although he knew that by this time the Home had considerably superior devices to this. But the Eighteen Planet System could not truthfully be called backward in many respects. Situated as it was, with its huge sun moving lazily alon ...