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Trial by Silk

After almost a hundred days on a space transport, we were naturally happy to land on an Earth-type planet. —Any Earth-type planet.

Our captain this trip was a burly New Venusian named Engstrom. On the big screen over the forward loudspeaker of the public address system, his image showed a discomfort hard to explain. His hemming, hawing, and fidgeting added nothing worth having, either.

Beside me, Willis murmured fervently, "I wish we had the Captain back."

When anyone on Starlight spoke the word "captain" with such reverence, he meant, not Engstrom, but our previous captain, who'd recently been transferred to one of the company's newer and faster ships.

I murmured, "Engstrom's a good man. Moreover, he's captain now, so we have to stand up for him."

As Willis and I were respectively third and second in command of the ship, there was no escaping our duty to back up the captain.

Willis growled, "He's not making it easy for us."

On the screen, Engstrom mopped his forehead, hesitated, and cleared his throat.

The crewmen were starting to make ironical comments.

"Now, men," said Engstrom. He coughed, adjusted his tie, rattled a piece of paper, and cleared his throat again.

Willis groaned. "This is pathetic."

"Shut up," I said.

"H'r'm!" said Engstrom, moving around on the screen. "Men, I—ah—It— At this point, I'd like to say a few words—"

"Damn it," muttered Willis, "say them!"

Instead, Engstrom hesitated.

The crewmen were now grinning and joking, and several of the technicians were trying to decide what the captain most resembled as he struggled on the screen. The two leading comparisons were: a) a bachelor trying to change a baby's diaper; b) a perspiring father trying to explain the facts of life to someone who already knew them.

Willis growled, "What's the matter with him, anyway?"

"I don't know. He's used the P.A. system before without all this. What's he trying to say?"

"I don't know. But I wish he'd say it and get it over with."

From Engstrom's red face and damp forehead, it was possible to make a shrewd deduction. We could only hope that wasn't it.

Engstrom cleared his throat again, "Men—ah—This is very difficult. I don't know quite how—But it's my duty to tell you, as a captain, that the—er—women—ah—on this planet—are—"

Willis pressed his palm to his forehead.

The men hooted.

Around us stood the grinning crew, tough, competent, obviously well able to take care of themselves.

"—not," said Engstrom, struggling on grimly, "quite the way they seem. I—ah—ah—speak from—ah—experience—and—"

The men burst into laughter. Willis pivoted on his heel and rested his brow against the bulkhead. The air filled with ribald comments.

"—and so," said Engstrom. "I have got to warn you . . . And let me go further. The drink here is not quite the same as the drink on other worlds. Except water. Their water is safe. And watch out for their so-called 'barbecues,' and feasts of all kinds. There isn't a pleasure on this planet, except to look at their scenery—with due care—and drink their water—that isn't in some way—ah—'funny'."

The laughter had now faded out. Everyone was listening. No one wants to get mugged, blackjacked, or rolled, and there are planets with very cute arrangements for doing these and other things.

"It's a hard thing," said Engstrom, "to get across. There is no coercion on this planet. —None at least, that an outsider might see. You won't be knocked over the head, held up, or in any other way roughly treated. There isn't a thing we can object to. There's nothing here contrary to the Interstellar Trade Association's standard Code of Conduct. This planet rates AAA in the Bluebook. But, men—" Again there was that urgent expression, like a man looking for a place to put a hot rivet—"watch out for them. Be on your best behavior. —Ah—Be careful— Whatever you do, don't enjoy yourself! —I mean—you know what I mean! —Anyway—That's it."

The captain's little talk came to an end.

The screen went blank.

The laughter of the crewmen was like ripples on a pool during a steadily-strengthening rainstorm. The whole place seemed to dissolve into laughter.

Willis and I felt our way out, to meet Schmidt coming down the corridor from the direction of the mess hall, where there was another P.A. speaker. Schmidt had the look of a man with sinus trouble, on a ship with a faulty pressure control.

The three of us huddled together in a funereal atmosphere, while laughter reached us from both directions, up and down the corridor.

Schmidt groaned, "What do we do now?"

Willis looked at me. "What do we do about this, sir?" He slightly emphasized the "sir," subtly reminding me that I had the rank and was therefore stuck with the problem.

On these civilian space transports, there's sometimes a tendency for first, second, and third officers to form a cheerful little club, devoid of outward display of rank. This happy democracy falls apart when the buck has to be passed, either down or up.

Willis and Schmidt watched me attentively. The captain's talk had us all punch-drunk, but it was now my duty to pull out of the stupor and get us moving in some direction.

Schmidt said hesitantly, "I suppose we ought to put an end to that laughter—"

"No," I said. "We'd make ourselves look like fools trying to stop them from laughing. We probably couldn't stop them. Did you ever try to stop anyone from laughing? We'd be laughing ourselves before we got through. And on top of that, the end of that little talk was the signal that the men could get off the ship. Any minute now, they'll start piling into the tender. We'd better just let them laugh. If there's anything to what the captain says, they won't be laughing on the return trip."

"What," said Schmidt, "could there be? He said himself that there's no coercion."

Willis quoted, "'You won't be knocked over the head, held up, or in any other way roughly treated.' —Just exactly what can go wrong?"

Just then a couple of crewmen, obviously on their way to the tender, walked briskly by. One grinned at us, and held up a pair of spiked shoes.

Schmidt fell for it. "What do you want track shoes for?"

"To run away from the girls with, sir." The crewman made his face very serious.

His friend added gravely, "The one that caught the captain might still be around down there, sir. We don't want to take any chances." He produced a small tear-gas gun, and looked grim.

Schmidt was speechless. Willis growled in an undertone. "What the devil did you give him an opening for?"

Now, down the corridors came more of our shining-faced crew, all capable spacemen, most of them the masters of skills and techniques that required long thought, practice, and hard discipline, but each one possessed by that ironical humor that rises spontaneously when a crewman sees an officer—theoretically wiser than the crewman—make a total unmitigated ass of himself.

One of the crewmen carried a black thread, on the end of which bobbed an imitation soft-plastic tarantula. One carried a wire cage inside of which, its many teeth bared, lurked a shreat. —That is a kind of vicious ratlike animal used in laboratory work. Another crewman had a large-fanged snake's head stuck out of his jacket pocket. Each of these crewmen earnestly reassured his friends that, yes, the planet's predatory girls were sure to be scared off by tarantula, shreat, or snake.

"I mean," said a crewman briskly carrying a small stuffed alligator under his arm, "what if some beautiful wench comes after me and this doesn't scare her off? Eh? Then what?"

A technician wearing a set of one-man rocket wings said earnestly, "You fellows are crazy to rely on psychological stuff. We may have to run."

There were plenty of suppressed snickering and gagging sounds, but it was impossible to spot a crewman who didn't have his face set in lines of honest worry.

Willis spat out a low curse as one clumped by wearing body armor and a jack-suit, and carrying across his shoulder a three hundred pound Hellwein dissipator, complete with pronged flaring tripod mount, loops of thick black cable, and power pack.

Schmidt, red-faced, obviously didn't trust himself to say anything. Willis looked away and snarled, "How did they get all this stuff together so damned fast?"

"In a situation like this," I said, "they're inspired. Ordinary human limitations don't count."

"But where did that stuffed alligator come from? What fool would waste his weight allowance on a thing like that?"

"It's made of stiff lightweight plastic with a zipper up the underside. It's got compartments on the inside for razor, socks, underwear, and so on, and the tongue reels out to snap into a socket near the left hind leg and make a carrying handle. It's an overnight bag. A thing as conspicuous as that helps in striking up a conversation on a strange planet."

"I suppose," said Willis, "that there's nothing illegal about that. But what do we do about that bird in body armor?"

Just then, half-a-dozen more men staggered by, clinging to the carrying handle of a fusion gun big enough to use in a siege.

There was no way out of it. "We'll have to stop them," I said. "We can't let anything like that go down with them."

But when we stopped them, the six crewmen with the fusion gun earnestly insisted that it was "Captain's order, sir. The captain wants us to protect ourselves against the women down there, sir."

By the time we got the fusion gun back in the heavy weapons locker, the dissipator back in the repair shop, the jack suit, rocket wings, and body armor in the suit rack, and the shreat and its cage returned to the medic's lab, we were the maddest collection of ships' officers for light-years in all directions. The crewmen, meanwhile, leaned against the walls of the corridor, red-faced, hands clasped to their mouths and sides, shaking silently.

As the last of them piled into the tender, and just before the hatch completely shut, there was one big roar of laughter that rang in our heads long after the tender was on its way down.

"Well," said Willis, "thank God that's over with."

There was a scrape and a clang up the corridor, and Engstrom stepped into view. He was a big, blond, red-faced man with, at the moment, a somewhat haggard look.

"Did they understand?" he asked. "Did I get it across to them?" He spoke in earnest tones, obviously appealing for reassurance.

Schmidt glanced at Willis, and Willis glanced at me. Schmidt then studied his shoes while Willis directed his gaze toward outer space.

Mentally damning Schmidt and Willis, I tried to somehow reconcile that last roar of laughter with the earnest appeal on Engstrom's face.

"Well, sir—ah—it seemed to me that they weren't quite clear how there could be any danger, if they aren't going to be attacked or robbed, and if force was not going to be used on them in any way."

Engstrom groaned. "I was afraid of that. But damn it, how do you tell them? If I'd had time enough to think it out—but the cancel on that load at Calfax only just came through, and then the wait-and-liberty order got to us at the last possible moment—how could I know?"

Willis said, at first exasperatedly, "Yes, but just what the—ah—I mean—Sir—Why is there likely to be danger—down there, sir?"

While Willis was speaking, Engstrom's ineffectual embarrassment had given way to a direct blue gaze that held Willis as if he were in the grip of a vice. Engstrom had clearly detected something in Willis's tone that he didn't like, and Willis was at pains to get what was objectionable out of the way before the captain found it necessary to do the job himself.

"Then," said the captain, looking flatly at Willis, "you don't consider that there is any danger on this planet?"

"Oh, no, sir," said Willis, then paused. The captain was looking straight at him and Willis started over, this time with a certain determination in his voice. "Sir, you've been there and we haven't. I can't—I can't picture the nature of the danger."

Willis' voice had started to climb toward the end, but abruptly he finished in a dead level tone.

The captain looked at him a moment, his gaze hard and intent, then suddenly smiled.

"All I can say is that this is no easy thing to describe without sounding foolish, but if you go down there, remember this: There are supposed to be certain 'trials' or 'ordeals,' as for instance the 'trial by fire.' What you will experience if you go down on that planet is what might be called the 'trial by silk.' Let me tell you, it's tougher than you think."

The captain then nodded, closing the subject, and left us.

It may be that the wisest thing for the three of us to have done would have been to stay on board and catch up on sleep and unread technical manuals.

But between our own curiosity and the captain's uncommunicativeness, we naturally got into a frame of mind that sent us down to the planet as soon as we'd made our final checks on a few items of the ship's equipment.

On the way down in the tender, Schmidt said, frowning, "What, exactly, is a 'trial by fire'?"

Willis said, "It's a—well, an ordeal."

"And what's an 'ordeal'?"

"H'm. Well, I think, in the old days back on Earth, well before space-flight, they used to decide whether a person was guilty or innocent by putting him through a 'trial by ordeal.' I suppose a trial by fire would mean you had to go through the fire and come out unhurt."

"Trial by silk—what would that be?"

"I don't know. Silk is soft, with a slick surface, and it's expensive stuff. We had some in a cargo on Quicksure one time."

We puzzled over this—without finding an answer—till we finally stepped out at the spaceport, and looked around warily, not knowing what to expect.

A pleasant blue sky looked down upon us. One or two small fluffy clouds drifted past. There were low green hills on three sides in the distance, and a mathematically straight road led from the spaceport toward the city we could see off on the horizon. The only unusual feature was a cluster of rusty space ships and tenders that formed a kind of junkyard stretching over about twenty acres of ground near the spaceport.

A groundcar, with the distinctive throb of an internal-combustion engine, pulled up beside us.

"Taxi, mates?"

"How much to the city?"

"Four-fifty for the three of you. And I'll take you anywhere in town you want to go. That is, if you all want to go to the same place."

"Fair enough." We piled in. Schmidt glanced out at the expanse of rusty ships. "Is that some kind of junkyard?"

"No. Nobody ever claimed them, so they just moved them back to get them out of the way."

Willis looked puzzled. "What do you mean, nobody ever claimed them?"

"Just like I said. They landed 'em. They left 'em. And nobody ever come back for 'em."

"Where did the crew go?"

"Into town."

The taxi was now speeding down the road.

There was a little silence, then Willis cleared his throat. "The same town we're headed for?"

"Yep." The driver shook a little white cylinder out of a rumpled pack, stuck it in his mouth, held a lighter to it, blew out a cloud of smoke, and snapped a switch on the dash. A powerful whir started up somewhere, and the smoke trailed up through a large round grille in the ceiling.

A silence had developed in the car, and it seemed to me that somebody ought to break it. "What—ah—what happened to the people who didn't come back to their ships?"

"Guess they stayed in the city."

"Why would they do that?"

The driver turned briefly to give a knowing leer. "Maybe they liked it there."

This produced another silence.

Schmidt had been eyeing the smoke whirling into the overhead grille. "What," he said, "is the purpose of this grille?"

"Why, it's the law, mate. Maybe smoke ain't your dish, see? Why should you have to take it just because I do?" He seemed amazed at the question. "Same reason you have to cap the fumes, even if you're a breather."

Schmidt opened his mouth and shut it again.

The driver seemed to have a sudden thought, and handed back his pack. "Help yourself, mate. I'm a slow one to take a hint."

We all looked at the pack, which had a white skull and crossbones against a black border that went around all sides, and on the front was a drawing of a city seen through a thick haze. In an arc over the city was the name, "SMOGS," and under that the words:


"SMOGS Specially-Treated Smokes. A blend of the finest tobaccos exquisitely flavored with a delicate tinge of sulfur, marijuana, cocaine, hashish, carbolic acid, and other ingredients listed in detail on the back."


Schmidt had started to pull out one of the whitish tubes, but let go of it as if he had a knife by the wrong end.

"Thanks a lot," he said, handing the pack back, "but I—ah—I don't feel too much like a smoke right now."

"Maybe," said the driver, "you like 'Nippers' better. They got more bite. I used to like them myself, but they loosen your teeth too much."

This comment generated another considerable silence. There were more silences on that trip to town than anything else, despite the fact that we were all curious, and eager to learn all we could about this new planet.

The next time, it was the driver who broke the silence.

"Well, mates, what's your dish? Man was made for pleasure, and we got every kind of pleasure there is, right here for the taking. You name it and I'll take you there. What'll you have? Girls? Drinks? Combos? Whips? Feasts? Sizzlers? Dreams? —Or do you like the stronger stuff? We got good recoup palaces all over the city, mates. Makes no difference there. What'll you have?"

Doubtless this was supposed to disperse the gathering air of constraint, but it took about twenty seconds before any of us could speak. By this time, Willis had tried on a set of wrought-iron knuckles that he favored for such trips as this, smashed them lightly against his palm, and slid them back into his pocket. I saw Schmidt pat the center of his chest, where under his shirt the thin flat knife hung in its sheath, suspended by a slender chain around his neck. As for myself, I have to admit to fingering with one hand the somewhat narrow thick belt I'd selected after hearing the captain's speech and later warning, while my other hand assured me that I had worn the right pair of shoes for the place we were getting into.

Schmidt cleared his throat. In a somewhat tight voice, he said, "Maybe you'd better just let us out in the shopping district. We can look around for ourselves afterward."

The driver sounded puzzled. "Why, mate, that's where I'm going to let you out. In the shopping district. But what do you want to shop for? Like I say, we got everything."

Willis' mind was apparently functioning faster than Schmidt or I could take credit for. "Did you by any chance take anyone from Starlight anywhere?"

"Why, yes, mate, I did. Three trips."

"What did they want? Where did they go?"

This could be an important thing for us to know, later on. We might have to do quite a bit of hunting to collect the crew, and it wouldn't hurt to know where to start.

"Well," said the driver, "I'm not supposed to tell, but— Wait a minute. Are you asking about individuals, or just about the bunch as a whole—the most of them?"

"Just the bunch as a whole." Willis had his eyes narrowed. "Not any particular individual."

"Well, I guess I can tell you that." He blew out a puff of thick gray smoke, which was promptly whirled up into the grille. "The most of them—I don't say 'all' and I don't say not-all, either, but the most of them I brought in were combo men."

This produced another of those generous silences that punctuated the trip.

Willis glanced at me, and I shrugged. Schmidt looked blank. We were mentally running through the list of human frailties, wondering what "combo" might be. According to the driver, most of our crew were "combo" men. Here we had shipped with them over a considerable stretch of universe and never even guessed it. It seemed to show that you might live with people, sleep and eat with them, for months and months, and never really know them. Just what was combo? Evidently they preferred it to girls, drinks, whips, feasts, dreams, and sizzlers. Somehow it didn't sound good. Schmidt and Willis became glum and silent, and I was almost afraid to speak, myself. But we had to find out.

"Ah," I said finally, "this—this 'combo' you speak of—"

"Yes, mate?" The driver sounded hopeful.

"Well—ah—What is it?"

We sat there in a state of paralyzed suspense. We had to find out what it was. Yet we were none too eager to find out, either. If you will just imagine that you and a few friends suddenly discovered that you had unsuspectingly shipped out for a long trip with almost a whole shipload of "combo-men," you will see what I mean. You would rather find out a thing like that at the beginning or the end than halfway through the trip.

The driver meanwhile stopped the car and looked back. "Are you serious, mate?"


Schmidt said tightly, "We'd like to know."

The driver stared at us, cleared his throat, and scarcely seemed to know how to approach the subject. Finally he said, "You must be real high-flyers."

Willis said sharply, "What is it?"

"Well, mate—" The driver cleared his throat again—"No need to get excited. It's just what it sounds like. A 'combo' is a—Well, it's a combo, that's what it is—A combination. Drinks and girls, with some feasts and smokes on the side, and maybe a little something extra later on. A combo is a—a combo, if you see what I mean."

Willis sighed.

Schmidt sat there with a blank expression.

Willis began to laugh.

I told the driver to take us to the same place most of our men had gone to. He nodded, and started up the car again.

The rest of the trip was one long silence. We got out, the driver accepted his pay, scratched his head, and drove off. We looked around. Willis had one hand in his pocket, and Schmidt had idly unbuttoned the third button of his shirt. As for myself, I was wishing that I'd brought along something with larger caliber than the cobra belt and persuader shoes. The three of us were now, of course, wideawake, looking around intently.

Willis said, "This place must be the worst sinkhole in this end of the universe, but it doesn't look it."

We were looking across a wide street, with a moderate amount of traffic moving in the street, with granite buildings six to ten stories high across the street, and, behind us, a park with neatly-mowed green lawn, tall flowering shrubs, an artificial lake in which a few people were swimming, and a sandy beach on which lay a host of people.

Schmidt growled, "Offhand, this place looks like some kind of utopia."

Willis nodded but stuck his hand in his pocket. "We'd better stick close together."

I happened to glance across the street. "Look there."

Gaites, one of our crewmen, was strolling blissfully along with his arm around a gorgeous blonde.

Schmidt let out a low involuntary whistle.

Willis said wonderingly, "That's one of the most beautiful girls I've ever seen."

Schmidt shook himself. "We better watch out. There's a trap around here somewhere."

Down the sidewalk from the other direction, clasping and unclasping hands with a very warm-looking brunette, came Ferralli, another crewman.

Schmidt whistled again. Willis swore in low fervent tones.

Somewhere, there was a peculiar rumble, and after glancing around futilely for the source, a shadow passed across the street, and I looked up.

A kind of metal bridge passed overhead, apparently supporting a moving walkway. Two extremely shrewd-looking men glided past, talking in low tones, and plainly oblivious to everything below.

I glanced down, and there, right in front of me, was a honey-blonde girl with a beautiful figure, wearing a knitted tan dress, and brushing back a lock of hair that fell over her forehead. She said, smiling, "You seem to be a stranger here. May I show you our city?"

Willis and Schmidt were looking on enviously.

Anyone might suppose that, after the captain's warning, the taxi driver's comments, and the suspiciously utopian look of this place, the three of us would have been on guard and well able to take care of ourselves. Yet here we were like three bugs jostling each other for the first chance to fall into the cyanide bottle.

"Ah—ah—" I said stupidly. Willis slid his knuckles back in his pocket and ran a hand over his hair. Schmidt straightened up and put a look of charm on his face. The girl kept her warm gaze focused on me, and, promptly forgetting the graveyard of rusty ships out by the spaceport, I eagerly accepted. The two of us wandered off, enveloped in a delightful haze.

As we strolled down the street, the girl, true to her word, showed me the fountains, pools, lakes, theatres, wine shops, a communal feast and barbecue center, free communal dwellings, drug shops, fume dispensaries, sizzle palaces—

"Look," I asked, "what happens in the 'sizzle palace'?" The "sizzle palace" had an exceptionally conspicuous skull and crossbones over the entrance.

She kept a gentle grip on my arm, and shivered. "It's terrible. I—I can't talk about it."

Another traveling walk carried a superior-looking individual who glanced down to favor me with a brief pitying look. I looked up at the walk.

"What's that?"

The girl glanced up, and looked embarrassed. "Some people don't know how to live. The walks are for them, to cross over this part of the city. Poor people."

"From the expressions of the ones I've seen, they seem satisfied with themselves."

"Sh-h. Of course they are. That's how we keep them happy."

"You keep them happy by letting them feel superior?"

"Yes, and then we let them do the work of running the city." She shrugged prettily. "It's their dish."

I looked around. With the solitary exception of those overhead traveling walkways, just about everything in sight seemed to be for the purpose of giving pleasure. Now I noticed something else. There were plenty of attractive people around, but the cut-off age seemed to be about thirty-five. Even on the rougher frontier planets, you see people who have managed to survive for more than thirty-five years.

"How is it everyone seems fairly young?"

"Why, when they're worn out, they take a recoup."

"A what?"

"Recoup. They get into the recuperator and it renews them."


"Oh, no. Sometime or other, they won't make it, and then the bottom drops out." She shrugged. "They never know it."

"So they only live to about thirty-five?"

"Oh, no. That's frightfully old." She giggled. "Who would want to live that long?"

I guess I must have looked blank. I'd kind of hoped to make it past that barrier myself.

"Then," I said, "the 'recoup' wears them out?"

She looked amused. "No, silly. Man was made for pleasure, and it's the pleasure that wears him out, not the recoup. But the recoup recharges him, and sometimes he's not in good enough shape to recharge. That's all."

"How long do people last?"

"Oh, twenty-five, twenty-eight, twenty-nine. Who wants to talk about that?" She looked faintly puzzled, then murmured, "I am forgetful," and removed from her small handbag a little bottle. It mustn't have been over an inch long, and possibly three-eights of an inch thick, with a tiny gold cap. She withdrew the cap, which had a slender glass rod attached, and touched the tip of the rod to her wrists, the hollow of her throat and her forehead.

There was a faint, indescribably delicious fragrance. I had a brief glimpse of a golden skull and crossbones on the bottle, and the word, "CAPTURE."

Two superior-looking men in their forties slid by overhead. One of them looked down, nudged his companion, said something, and the two of them laughed.

There's nothing to bring a man out of the fog quite like a certain kind of laughter. But it doesn't bring him out in a pleasant frame of mind. I looked at the girl and said roughly, "What's your price?"

She looked puzzled. "Price?"

"After we have our pleasant little dream together, how do I pay you?"

"Pay? You mean money? But I have an allowance! Everyone has! Why should I want money?"

"Who pays the allowance?"

"The government, of course! Oh, I keep forgetting you're a stranger."

"On any planet I've ever been on, people needed more money than they had."

"Yes, but those are backward planets. Here we understand all that. Money is only good to buy pleasure. The greatest pleasures are the pleasures of the senses. When those are available in full measure, what good is more money?"

It began to be clear just what the captain was up against trying to describe this place.

"Listen," I said doggedly, "you can't have that without paying for it some way. Here, you evidently pay by being finished off in your twenties. You lose better than half your life in the process."

"But shouldn't a life be measured by the total amount of pleasure received; not by the years it lasts?"

This stopped me for a few seconds, though there was plainly something wrong with it.

"Life," I said, groping around for the answer, "is too complicated to measure either way. Besides, what about accomplishment? How can you do anything if you're smothered in sense-pleasures all the time? And speaking of 'pleasures,' what—"

"Oh," she said angrily, "why do I waste my time with you? You belong up there with them!" She pointed up at the walkway, turned on her heel and started across the park.

The natural response, of course, was to rush off after the girl. But as she turned, for the first time I really saw the small, jeweled clip she used to hold back her long honey-blonde hair. In color, it matched her dress. Its shape was that same skull and crossbones found on bottles of poison, and across the street on the "sizzle palace."

It occurred to me that there are other girls on other worlds, and it doesn't chop thirty or forty years off a man's life to know them.

Across the park, from the direction of the building marked "Sizzle Palace" in glowing letters three yards high, came a man carrying in one hand a thing like a papier-mâché mock-up of an iron maiden, with an electric cord draped over one arm and disappearing into the battery pack he carried in his other hand.

"Hop in, pal. I'll give you a sample right here. One shot and you'll never be the same again."

"What do you get out of it?"

"Well, of course," he said defensively, "I've got my quota to fill. But that's my lookout, pal, not yours. Hop in, now."

"No, thanks."

"Come on. I've only got one more to go today."

"I said 'No'."

"I don't want any trouble with you, pal, but you're going to get in. You don't know what you're missing."

I slid off the cobra belt, and waited for his next move.

He stood eyeing that long length of narrow strap with its peculiar flexible movement and the glittering metal tongue on the end.

He licked his lips, and said, "Guess you're really not interested. Well, better luck next time." He backed off with his portable case and battery pack.

No sooner had I turned from him than a brisk little man stepped forward to thrust out a long length of tubing with a pipe-stem on one end.

"Congratulations on escaping that vulture, sir. Here, take a puff of Dreams at my expense."

A wisp of smoke was trailing out the end of the pipe-stem. The faintest hint of it drifted in my direction, creating a brief fantasy of jeweled palaces, slave girls, huge turbaned guards armed with curved swords—

"Here you are, sir."

Through an elaborately-figured bright-hued drape, I could see the smoking pipe-stem thrust forward, and had just sense enough to squeeze the grip of the cobra belt.

The belt rose up with a sinuous swaying motion, and the smoldering pipe stem retreated in a hurry. My head cleared.

"It certainly is disgraceful," said a new voice, "how these people will strain the law. Why, the way they try to force their interior pleasures on one!"

About ten feet away stood a man holding a contraption suggesting an overgrown underfed centipede standing upright on its tail. The thing was about six feet tall, with a spine like a length of iron pipe, and curving wires averaging about two feet long reaching out and forward from either side. It was evidently designed to reach around the happy victim. Just what happened next was something I wasn't anxious to find out.

"No, thanks."

"You never know till you try."

"And then it's too late."

"Ah, just a little whip won't—"

He was advancing with this happy-suicide device thrust out in front of him when the cobra belt lengthened out and thrust its metal snout in his face.

The whip salesman beat a hasty retreat. I turned with a sigh of relief, and there was a small crowd offering doped poison cigarettes, liquor doubtless made with wood alcohol, kits containing exotic drugs, syringes, instruction books, and a map to use when the veins got hard to find. None of them asked money for this stuff. All you had to do was sign up with them, and let them supply the goods in the future. On the fringes of this crew, watching sadly and looking like an angel of light by contrast, was the honey-blonde girl. She kept shaking her head to the importunities of the dope and poison salesmen around her, but the one with the pipe-stem on its long hose was now sneaking up from behind. A wisp of smoke trailed toward her.

I shouted, "Look out!" Almost simultaneously, there was the blast of a whistle.

"Watch it," came a stern voice from above. "A little more of that and I'll have you for grabhandling."

A tall, powerfully-built figure in blue uniform was looking down from the edge of the overhead walk.

The crowd muttered, grumbled, and opened up a little. I lost no time in thrusting through to the girl's side. She looked up in surprise, then gave a happy sigh, caught my arm, and clung to it tightly.

The stern voice spoke again from above.

"Did any of these split dish on you?"

"No," called the girl, looking up, "we just—got separated by accident."

"All right."

The crowd now broke up, one or two of them kicking their display cases ill-temperedly.

It was just starting to get dark. The girl hummed happily to herself, took out her little bottle, and dabbed lightly at her wrists, behind her earlobes, and to either side of her neck. This slow vaporizing rapture enveloped us in an enchanted cloud, and we wandered around for a while with our feet scarcely touching the ground. Fortunately, it wore off about an hour later, and the girl then announced she was hungry. I agreed, and we soon wound up at a public feast-site.

Now, I see no objection to a good meal. But, looking around, it was pretty obvious that what we had here was something else.

Stretched out before us were rows of tables, with slanted leather couches on one side of each row of tables. Halfway down the nearest table a crewman was stretched out on a couch with a strikingly-beautiful exotic-looking girl beside him. The table itself was laden with what looked like roast chicken, ham, piles of steaks, and big flagons that were constantly being refilled. As fast as the diners finished one dish, waiters came over with more food and drink on electric carts and replenished the supply.

I looked around. Starlight was generously represented at the feast. The crewman I'd seen first was now lying back cozily as his girl dropped delicacies in his mouth. At another table was Ferralli, the drive technician. Ferralli was working with both hands at what looked like the equivalent of about half a ham. At another table lay Meeres, the medic, his head in a dish of some kind of stuffing, eating ravenously and not bothering with the knives and forks. Across on the other side of the place, the familiar face of Grunwald, the navigator, beamed like a pink moon as he raised a two-quart goblet of some pale-yellowish drink, and with the stuff spurting out both corners of his mouth, gulped steadily as he tried to finish off the whole half-gallon in one draught.

An involuntary curse escaped me as it dawned on me just what it was going to be like to crack the crew loose from this pesthole.

About halfway down the aisle between two rows of tables, a man in a white coat bent with a stethoscope over a motionless red-faced, open-mouthed male figure clutching a steak bone in one hand. The doctor listened judiciously, nodded, then someone pried loose the steak bone, two attendants rolled the figure off onto a stretcher and threw a sheet over it, and a man in a gray coat cheerfully put a mark in a record book he was carrying, and looked around hopefully at the other tables.

To tell the truth, this planet was getting a little hard to take. Every time you turned around, someone was right there to help you kill yourself. On other planets, the inhabitants would bash you over the head, rob you, and dump the carcass off a cliff. Here they expected you to jump off yourself, and somebody earned ten credits for it if you jumped off his end of the cliff. The obvious thing for us to do was to get out of this place as fast as possible.

Beside me, the gorgeous blonde was dabbing droplets of liquid enchantment on her forehead, wrists, and behind her ears. As she turned her head, that skull-and-crossbones clasp in her hair came into view again.

Down the aisle, three of Starlight's crew staggered off toward one of the small blocky buildings that dotted the grounds. Remembering the Roman arrangements for repeated feasting, the whole business looked even worse. The only good thing about it was that a night like this was bound to be followed by a terrific hangover. During the hangover, the men would doubtless be too sick and weak to resist when we loaded them on board the tender.

To one side of me as I was thinking this, busy cooks were working over the meat as it traveled over the hot coals on revolving spits hung from an endless metal belt that moved along steadily. One of these cooks seemed to have the job of shaking on a greenish powder as the meat went past. The box had the familiar skull and crossbones symbol, with the word, "ADDICTEEN" in an arc over it.

There was no doubt at all that we had to get out of this hole, and just as soon as possible.

From one side came a familiar voice, and I turned to see a crewman, a big chunk of meat clutched in both hands.

"Hey, sir," he yelled, "the captain was all wet about this place, wasn't he?"

Before I could think what to say, he ravenously tore off a fresh chunk of meat, looked up, and shouted, "Guess what? I'm settling here! I always wanted to be a pioneer!"

I stared around. "A what?"

"Pioneer!" He beamed. The sultry brunette beside him turned down a mug of steaming drink, and sank her dainty white teeth into what looked like an oversize turkey leg. She gave a quick twist of the head as she tore off the meat, then sat back and chewed demurely.

Just then we came to the end of the line, and the cooks thrust out trays loaded with meat, gravy, and what looked like some kind of stuffing and mashed potatoes, and then we were at one of the feast tables, and an immaculately-dressed waiter was pouring out a sparkling drink that frosted the goblet as it filled it.

There was something about climbing onto the slanted leather-covered platform beside the table that finished off my appetite, but the gorgeous blonde didn't hesitate. She daintily positioned herself on this slanted couch, and eyed the feast.

"What happens," I said, "when you eat this stuff? Can you eat other food afterward?"

"You don't want to."

Before I had added up all the trouble that was going to cause us, she said, "You just can't ever get enough of this. And it's the eating of the food that's pleasurable, not the having eaten it."

"What happens when the feast is over?"

She blushed. "I shouldn't tell you, but—" She brought out, cupped in her hand, a tiny bottle, with a gold and black label reading "Ravage." There was no skull-and-crossbones on the label. The whole bottle was in the shape of a skull and crossbones. On the back was superimposed a representation of what looked like some kind of spider.

It occurred to me again, with considerable force, that there were other girls.

She said sweetly, "Is there anything else you want to know?"

"Not just now."

She tore into the nearest tray, while I meditated on what to do next. I glanced around, picked up one of several bones lying around on the table, rolled over on my back, clutching the bone in my hand, and bared my teeth.

About five minutes crept past.

"H'm," said a voice from the direction of my feet. "Here's an odd case."

I gave a long rasping inhalation, and the voice murmured, "Interesting."

A cool hand rested on my forehead and a thumb peeled back my left eyelid.

"Put this one on a stretcher, and take him into the waiting room. I'll want to examine this a little more closely."

We wound up in a dim-lit grisly place behind a screen of evergreens, with moaning bodies, covered with perspiration, strewn around on the ground.

As the doctor carried out his examination, I said, "I'm from off-planet. What's the purpose of this pleasure set up?"

"Why, to let the unfit pleasure-lovers eliminate themselves! If you let them have their own way, they will wreck any civilization ever built—unless you make allowance to get rid of them . . . Now, open your mouth, and let's see your tongue . . . H'm . . . Cough . . . That's enough. Roll over . . . Yes, you see, rot and corruption set into every civilization ever built, unless an iron discipline is imposed, or some means is provided to exterminate the hedonists who spread the corruption. The best way to get rid of them, obviously, is to provide them with exactly what they want. It is the genius of our planet that we have worked out how to do it. The expense is really very modest, as long as you let them finish themselves off fast, so their numbers don't become too great."

As he talked, he probed with his fingers, apparently feeling of this and that internal organ.

I said, "What about their—ah—souls?"

"That's not my responsibility."

"What happens," I said, "when I try to get our crew out of here?"

He frowned, peering into my eye again. "You're a ship captain?"

"First officer."

"Is your crew something of a—er—dead-end outfit—"

"They're good men."

"Then the majority of them are running wild because of deprivation, not a natural greed for compounded sensations. By tomorrow morning, they'll have had the equivalent of a two-week binge, all in one night. Sanity will reassert itself over what's left of them. All you have to do is collect them from the gutters."

"What happens when we lug them back onto the ship, and they can't eat anything without 'addicteen' in it?"

"Well— You can keep them alive on sugar-water, lemonade—things of that sort, till the desire for food returns. After about six weeks, I should say, they'll start to recover. In three or four years, they may even look back on their experience as pleasurable. In ten years, they may think it was idyllic. Twenty years from now, some of them may wonder why they didn't stay. It's hard to remember a hangover with real accuracy for twenty years." He straightened.

"Whatever your trouble is, I think it's temporary."

"Good," I said. "Thanks."

He nodded, and moved away.

One of the corpses lying nearby rolled over and spoke in Willis' voice. "Quite a planet. Now I know why the captain couldn't give us a straight warning. He was here about ten years ago."

"Whoever listed this place AAA must have been here twenty years ago."

"At least."

"Where's Schmidt?"

"The last I saw of him, he was wandering around with a terrific brunette. But he kept giving her hair-clasp a funny look, if you follow me."

"I know what you mean." I got to my feet, and looked out. He wasn't at any of the nearby tables, and I glanced at the line of people entering.

There was Schmidt, giving the cook with the "Addicteen" box a worried look. The brunette standing in line with him was enough to double a man's pulse at a hundred feet. She favored him with a sweltering look, and ran her hand lightly up and down his arm. He, in turn, darted swift glances in all directions, and suddenly spotted us.

A few minutes later, they left with trays. Shortly after that, he joined us.

"I may kick myself later, but this stuff has more voltage than I'm used to."

"Before you start kicking yourself, take a look in here."

Schmidt glanced around, and swore in low fervent tones. Then we told him what the doctor had said.

He shook his head. "We better get all the crew loose from here that we can. Otherwise, we're going to have a sweet time handling the ship."

"And what kind of a time will we have when they sober up and remember what we broke up for them."

"If they aren't nuts, they'll be grateful."

Willis shook his head.

Schmidt said, "They aren't stupid. If we can see it, why can't they?"

"It's our job to get everybody back on time. If it was their job to get us back, the situation might be different."

"Truth in that," growled Schmidt. "Well— What do we do?"

I said, "Let's circulate around, and see if anyone looks like he wants help."

Not all the crew was there, but those who were obviously did not want help. We then looked around the city, fighting off sizzle, whip, and dream salesmen, and trailed by pretty girls. None of the rest of the crew was visible anywhere. We went back to the feast grounds, and most of the crew had disappeared. We came out in none too happy a frame of mind, and abruptly Schmidt said, "What a hell of a liberty!"

Willis growled something unintelligible, and I snarled, "Let's take one more look through that hole in there."

We went back inside the grisly dim-lit place back of the trees, and moved slowly amongst the apparent bodies. One sodden swollen form groaned, and the voice of Ferralli, the drive-technicians, croaked, "My God, sir . . . Get me out of here."

No miserable ruin ever got a more fervent welcome. Here, at least, was proof we were doing some good. As the three of us were carefully lugging him toward the exit, a dim figure weakly raised its hand. The voice of Meeres, the medic, was barely recognizable.

"Help . . . don't leave me . . . drugged . . . please . . ."

We stopped.

This wasn't so good. Three men can handle one fairly easily. They may not be able to handle two at all—especially with whip and sizzle salesmen around, and sellers of dreams working to windward.

We put Ferralli beside Meeres, and searched the place carefully. We recognized one more face, and Willis said roughly, "What'll you have? Back to the ship, or more fun here?"

The voice said weakly, "Back to the ship, sir—but not yet, please . . . Don't go, sir!"

Willis had turned away. "Make up your mind."

"I want to go back—but I can't move. My insides are all floating around loose, sir."

This seemed like something in Meeres' line, and we figured we ought to get some use out of him, so we lugged him over. Then we put Ferralli down on the other side of Meeres, so if he needed medical help, he'd have it, too. We promised them we'd be around, and moved off a little distance.

Schmidt glanced back at them dubiously, "That's after the beginning of one night in this place. What's it going to be like tomorrow morning?"

"Let's not even think about it. Let's just hope no one gets into one of those 'sizzle palaces.'"

We spent most of the night alternately checking the three sick crewmen, and hunting for others outside. We didn't see another crewman, so we took turns getting some sleep, and let the patrolling lapse till around dawn, then we went out again.

There in the gutter lay a wreck with a snake's head sticking out of its pocket. Nearby lay another with one hand clutching the tail of an imitation alligator. They looked as if they had been connected up with a vacuum hose, and everything inside had been sucked out.

Our other three crewmen had now come to enough to stagger around, so we put them to work.

Around noon, we finally got the whole sorry lot ferried back up to Starlight. Engstrom piloted the tender, and helped care for the men, but he flatly refused to even set foot on the planet.

Since the ship had to be run somehow, we put everybody capable of standing back on the job. It was a demonstration of the power of pure habit and believe me, we were nervous for fear it would give way, and land us in a still worse mess.

"Well," said Engstrom soberly, "let's hope we don't go by that planet again for a while."

Even after everything that had happened, the memory of that gorgeous blonde still bothered me. Half-joking, I said, "If I'd thought of it in time, I'd have taken a memento along with me. That place shouldn't object to a little kidnapping."

Engstrom gave me a brief sharp suspicious look, then he shook his head. "It wouldn't work." He added, "If you think you've done the right thing, be grateful for that."

"Unfortunately, I don't feel that sense of achievement that should follow doing the right thing."

"Well, remember, you've just been through a trial by silk. An ordeal. You don't feel good after undergoing an ordeal."

I shrugged. "Silk is soft."

"Do you think everything soft is necessarily harmless?" He nodded toward a kind of human shambles drifting past in the corridor. "What's the difference whether an enemy disables you by attack, or by leading you to dissipate your strength?"

I frowned. "I've heard of trial by fire, trial by water, and of trial by combat. I never heard of trial by silk."

Engstrom nodded. "What they wanted in the old days was to test some individual's supposed merit, and do it fast. Naturally, they weren't interested in this method. Trial by silk applies to whole civilizations even better than to individuals, it takes a surplus of ease and luxury to carry it out, and it's usually slow.

"However," he said, "never underestimate it. Whatever method beats you, the result is the same. You're beat. And if it happens pleasantly enough, you don't even realize what's happening, so you aren't warned."

Another wreck shambled past in the corridor, there was a crash and a yell, and Meeres hurried by with a hypo-gun in one hand.

"I think I see what you mean," I said slowly.

Engstrom nodded. "Enough pleasure is like so many wet sheets wrapped around a man. He generally can't even do anything to get loose."

Then Engstrom's face reddened slightly, and he cleared his throat.

"However," he said, "this is no easy thing to explain."



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