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Able Andrews stepped out of the forest into the clearing. He set down the heavy sack of seed potatoes, and, after ten days of life-or-death vigilance, glanced with relief around the settlement that for four years had been his home on this brutal world.

Ahead of him, through the intervals in the row of cabins that lined the edge of the clearing, he could see the sunlit, partly-plowed field. He could hear, far to his left, the low rumble that meant that Bart Henderson had somehow, single-handed, fixed the dozer. Now they could plow, cultivate, haul timber and saw up firewood. A wail from a nearby cabin gave proof that his sister's eleven-month-old son had survived his absence, and that Bart had somehow managed to care for the boy while preoccupied with the dozer. And this thought brought back the memory that had been mercifully blotted out by his cat-and-mouse existence in the forest.

To Able's right, he could see part of the double row of rough crosses and stars that marked the low fresh mounds of dirt, all in line with the other older mounds of dirt that stretched across the width of the field to the far side. With sledgehammer force came mental pictures of the endless digging, carrying out of bodies, prying at rocks, chopping at roots, and shoveling back of dirt, and this all blended into one agony with the sickness, the howling wind, the deep drifting snow, and the cold that couldn't be kept out.

Able shut his eyes, then forced himself to look straight ahead at the field, and think of the summer ahead, when they had to do what they could before winter settled in again. He forced himself not to think of all they'd expected to accomplish by now, when actually they were reduced to two grown men, an infant, and a long double row of mounds of dirt.

Able picked up the sack of precious seed potatoes, and started toward the gap between two of the cabins. If they could do well enough with these potatoes and their other crops, they'd have something to offer when fall came. They could strike a bargain, and join up with another settlement where young Bobby could be raised decently—

It was then, while he struggled to patch together a new plan that, as Able's angle of vision shifted, he saw the pool of swamplike useless muck spreading out from the far edge of the clearing, reaching well out into the field to make a heavy blot where the water stood in puddles.

"Merciful God," said Able.

Another step showed him, further to the left, a glint of bluish metal where there should have been trees.

Able's dart gun, which had been slung at his shoulder, abruptly was in his hands.

Above the approaching rumble of the dozer, and the crying of the baby, came a man's unfamiliar voice, carrying a well-developed grown-up whine which Able hadn't heard since he'd left civilization. The words, sloppily formed, were spoken with a strange emphasis, so that all Able could make out was the final, "I won't!"

A shrill female voice, edged with hysteria, cried, "If you won't, I will!"

Able glanced swiftly around. For an instant, he thought he must somehow have reached the wrong settlement. But there to the right was the trail to the river, and beside it, the same greenberry bush he'd tended for years. There on the bottom log of the cabin nearby was the same light-brown, arrow-pointed slash, where his foot had slipped while he was chopping, and he'd narrowly escaped losing the foot. Overhead were the broad leaves of the staplenut tree that always lashed the roof of his cabin in a windstorm, and in the distance, over the trees straight ahead, was the familiar pale-blue summit of Carraboon Peak.

This was the settlement, all right. But these were the wrong voices.

He picked up the sack, slipped back to the edge of the clearing, and, gun partly raised, watched the weathered orange bulk of the dozer detour the soggy section, and pass by on the far side of the field.

From somewhere came a low feminine murmur, all but drowned out by the clank and rumble as the dozer, hidden by a cabin, crossed the field, then came into view again on the near side.

The worn canvas side-curtains neatly strapped up, the dozer ground past with Bart Henderson in the cab, leaning back to watch the big plows smoothly turn over the soil.

Able lowered his gun, sucked in his breath, and gave a whistle that began high, shrill, and penetrating, then wavered, and very gradually descended by eerie stages.

The dozer stopped with a clank.

There was the thud of feet hitting the ground, then silence.

Able watched alertly.

A slender figure, gun in hand, slipped around a corner of a cabin, to vanish in a clump of brush.

In a low voice, Able called, "Bart."


"Over here."

The slender figure stepped out in the open, glanced around, then, grinning, walked swiftly closer.

"Abe, you son-of-a-gun! You whistled like a wire bird?"

"I wanted to get your attention without going out in the open. Listen—"

Bart saw the sack. "What did you get?"

Able frowned, then bent to undo the thong at the neck of the sack.

"Ah," said Bart, crouching to look over the seed potatoes. "You did well."

From somewhere, Able could hear a murmur of voices.

Bart stood up and grinned. "That's better than grinding up staplenut meats and filtering the meal a dozen times to get the sting out. Or guarding the cornfield day and night to keep away the pests. Boy, I'm glad you made it! I was afraid you were finished."

"Yeah," said Able, frowning. "But, listen—"

"How were things at Six?"

Able blinked. "Not good." He pinched the right sleeve of his leather shirt, to show two small punctures that fit over each other as if a thin, very sharp nail had been driven through. "There was enough poison on the end of that dart to finish a dozen settlements. All they had to do was come an inch closer."

Bart swore. "They shot at you?"

Able nodded. "They think any stranger must be a carrier of the sickness. They haven't had that yet."

"But then, where'd you get the seed potatoes?" Bart asked.

"I went another twenty miles to West Seven."

"All that way through the forest?"

"I don't know any other way to get there."

"How were they there?"

Able shook his head. "They're in a mess. They were down to twelve couples last summer. And the fools had left a belt of wire trees on three sides of the clearing. They claimed it kept the carraboons out of the crops. Well, a hunting party was late getting back a few weeks ago, a thick fog came down, the men lost the trail, and wire trees polished off four of them. Last winter, the sickness had carried off four of the women."

Bart shook his head. "Well, that leaves them eight couples. And they're immune, now, so—"

"They're immune to the sickness. But they don't have eight couples."

"They were down to twelve last summer. They've lost four men and four women. Four from twelve leaves eight."

The four men the wire trees got weren't the husbands of the women the sickness killed. They were other men. That makes eight unattached men and women."


"Sally," said Able dryly, "has a yen for Bill. Bill likes Greta. Greta's trying to get Mike's eye. Mike always did like Bernice. Bernice is mourning for Dave. Meanwhile, Edna—"

Bart shut his eyes.

Able said, "If I looked at any one of those women for more than about ten seconds, someone started loading his gun. There were eight women there, and one of them made it a point to be friendly. I tell you, I made the trade and cleared out fast."

Bart grinned. "Why didn't you bring one back? The friendly one?"

"What, loaded down with a sack of potatoes? In strange country, with eight of their men to one of me? And forty miles of wire trees between me and home?"

Bart laughed. "Well, you could have—"

The unfamiliar male voice, that had startled Able earlier, again rose over the clearing, the words slurred so that it took an instant to make out the meaning:

"But, Lennie, the doctor told me to get a change of scene! My nerves are gone, absolutely gone, I tell you! A man's system can stand just so much! Really, we've hardly gotten here, and now she wants to go back. How am I supposed to—"

Able glanced around, his gun ready.

Bart shook his head wearily. "I forgot. Step over here a little further to the right."

Able picked up the sack and followed Bart to a spot where they could look out at an angle between the two end cabins. Across the clearing to their left was a glittering metallic structure, shining in shades of blue, pink, and violet, with a dazzling strip of yellow, that Able for a moment couldn't get into focus. Then the thing resolved into a variety of shapes he could recognize, and involuntarily, he swore.

Like a forty-foot-square chunk of luxury vacation resort, sat a raised swimming pool with diving board, a fifteen foot strip of dazzling sand, a screened-in porch that jutted out at an angle part way over the pool, and, visible on a sort of outthrust metal terrace beside the pool, several beach chairs, a chaise lounge, a round table with big candy-stripped umbrella, and a stand bearing a frosted carafe and three full glasses.

"Where in hell—" said Able, and then bit off the rest as he saw in the background, with multicolored pennants fluttering in the breeze, the space yacht out of which this collapsible paradise must have everted itself.

"How long has this been here?"

"It came down the day after you left. A man's voice called, 'O.K. if we set up here?' and I said 'Sure.' I was glad to hear a human voice. There was a kind of grunt, and that was all they had to say. A set of slits appeared in the side of the space yacht, the side opened out, and then the damnedest collection of rods, metal plates, screens, tubes, and loops of wire, pushed out from inside, thrust into various positions, there was a series of loud clicks and snaps, and a continuous sliding noise, with more stuff pushing out from inside, and in about twenty minutes, there it sat, just as you see it now."

Able studied the yacht.

"What potentate could afford a thing like that?"

"Oh," said Bart dryly, "the guy's a circuit element."

"A what?"

"On the left side of his head, and in one or two other places, there are half-inch circular spots where the hair doesn't grow, with two or three small, dead-white dots, forming regular patterns in the centers of these half-inch spots."

Able frowned, trying to pin down an elusive memory.

Bart said, "When we were shipping out, they were advertising for volunteers to test for 'brain-circuit characteristics,' remember?"


"The idea was that certain characteristics of the human brain were useful in computer construction, but very expensive to duplicate artificially. So they were trying what I think they called a 'hybrid linkage.' If the characteristics of a volunteer's brain happened to be right, he signed a waiver, they in effect plugged him into the circuit, and then they used him until either his contract ran out, his brain characteristics slid out of adjustment, or their needs changed. In return, he got a huge payment, and a pension for life."

Able studied the space-yacht as the meaning of this sank in.

Bart said, "Naturally, they didn't pick those people for intelligence, any more than you select a transistor or a vacuum tube because the thing is smart."

Able looked at the soggy muck spreading out from the base of the pool.

Bart said, "This boob has a yacht equipped with nuclear reactors, forcescreens, heat-rays, and heaven only knows what other little necessities of life, that he can misuse at our expense any time. Look there!"

Able saw a little blue-and-white skimmer, its slender legs holding its gliding-membrane taut, streak almost horizontally toward the roof of the porch that jutted out at an angle over the pool.

There was a dazzling flash, the skimmer's fur burst into flame, and its forward motion slowed so rapidly that it dropped almost vertically, to splash into a marshlike puddle.

"Now," said Bart, "brace yourself."

There was a metallic rattle, then a recorded voice boomed across the field:

"Your attention please. This vessel is fully protected by appropriate devices of the Advanced Synodic Products Corporation. It will retaliate automatically against any aggressive or hostile action."

Able stared at the remains of the little skimmer lying in a puddle of water.

Atop the nose of the towering space-yacht, a variable-beam energy-cannon retracted into its housing.

Able glanced around wonderingly, and for the first time saw around the yacht's pool and porch, the thin long and thick short rods of a noise-suppressor. Whatever happened out here, it wouldn't disturb their sleep in there. A mirage-like, white fluffy cloud, drifting apparently between the yacht and the trees behind it, told of another device that created, at the owner's pleasure, the illusion of a different outside scene.

Able glanced at the dead skimmer. "What's next?"

"I don't know. This business has happened dozens of times, but it's never gone any further."

Able's attention was caught by a blur of blue and white.

A second skimmer, this one gliding considerably higher, streaked across the clearing.

There was a dazzling flash.

The skimmer's fur burst into flame, and so, too, did a chunk of knobby, irregular, pale-blue tree trunk in the line of fire, across the clearing.

"Watch out," said Bart. "If that seed-knot cooks off—"

By the edge of the pool, a flabbily-built man wearing purple shorts, sun-glasses, a green sport shirt with violet pattern, knee-length socks and bedroom slippers, walked out onto the outthrust terrace, and flopped down in a beach chair.

Bart murmured, "If only it could have hit any tree but a dead bitchwood."

Following the man, face flushed and angry, came a woman with the build of a starved model, wearing a two-piece bathing suit.

The man waved his hand at her as if brushing away gnats, and picked up a glass.

The woman leaned forward to say something.

"New," said the man loudly, apparently meaning "No." He looked away.

She said, "Won't you let me—"

"I won't."

"At least listen—"



"Go away! Shut up!"

She straightened angrily. "You can go to hell!"

The man's body remained in the same position, but his head turned around. He threw the glass in her face.

The yacht's loud-speaker gave its metallic rattle.

The energy cannon loomed out of its housing.

The burning tree hissed, and a plume of white vapor spurted out from a pineapple-size bump faced toward the space-yacht.

Bart swore. "Sure as rats and blizzards, that seed-knot is going to blow."

"Your attention," said a loud, recorded voice. "Any further provocation—"

A menacing hiss came from the section of burning tree. The flames climbed higher up the trunk, reaching for new bumps and protrusions.

"Grab that sack," said Bart. "Get further back in the woods!"

"The baby—"

There was a loud bang from the tree. A shotgun-like blast of nut-size seeds sprayed across the clearing.

The cannon swiveled in a blur of motion. There were a dozen bright flashes.

"No time!" yelled Bart. "He's safe inside. Once those other knots cook off—"

Able swiftly measured the distance with his eyes. He shook his head, grabbed the sack and ran at an angle away from the burning tree.


A shaft of pink radiance lit the burning tree and a dozen others around it. A moment later, they were all on fire.

The recorded voice went on " . . . If this molestation does not cease within three minutes, strong measures will be . . ."

Bang! Another seed-knot cooked off. Bang! Bang!

Small, hard, nut-sized objects whizzed and droned overhead, hit tree trunks with a sharp cracking noise, and bounced and ricocheted in all directions.

Able landed hard and rolled behind a big tree. It was by far the best cover in sight, and Bart was already there.


Flaming branches dropped all around them.

A machine gun banging and hammering opened up as fresh bitchwood trees caught fire and put their emergency reproductive method into action.

Somewhere near, there was a hissing, sizzling, noise

"That does it," said Bart. "They've got a staplenut on fire."

Able peered cautiously around, and sniffed. "Which way is the wind?"

"Straight for us. Once that green sap starts to boil—"

Able glanced behind him, where the seeds flashed through the air, tearing up the leaves and dirt when they hit.

"We can't go back there—"

A pale-green foglike cloud drifted forward, the first faint wisps charged with a stinging odor that brought white flashes and a flood of tears to the eyes, a searing sensation to mouth and nose, a hot tight thickness to the lungs, and a general sense of being trapped in a constricted hole, unable to move or breathe or—

Able was running headlong, flying objects whizzing around him. Something rapped the back of his head like a hammer. He lost his balance, plunged down a steep slope, barely missing slamming head-first into a tree trunk, then something twisted crosswise under his feet, and he threw himself forward with every ounce of strength he had.

There was a singing, creaking noise. The air filled with a cloud of dead leaves and dust, and there was a multiple crack like the lash of a dozen whips.

Able sucked in a ragged breath. "Wire tree! Look out! Wire tree!"

A peculiar shrill high-pitched whistle sounded overhead, carried over the hiss, bang, and whoom from behind them, wavered, and descended by slow eerie stages.

Able wiped his eyes and looked up.

Some forty feet away, the veined green bole of a wire tree rose from the forest floor, its many tiny leaflets casting a pattern of flickering hypnotic shadows on the ground. Around the trunk was a wide circle where the dirt boiled, and small pebbles danced in the air. Overhead a large bird with big claws and curving red beak dropped from limb to limb, head turned sidewise to peer hopefully into the blur of the thrashing trap roots.

"That was close," said Bart, clinging to a nearby tree trunk and gasping for breath.

"Don't move," said Able. "Look behind you."

Thirty feet away in the other direction stood a veined green trunk, flickering shadows moving hypnotically over the ground nearby.

Bart looked, turned and said suddenly, "Where are the seed potatoes?"

Able looked at him. "If you think you could have carried them through that—"

"It isn't that. Listen."

Above the sizzling and banging, and the boom of a loud-speaker back at the clearing, came the chortle of a skimmer calling its fellows to a feast.

Able stared at the interlacing streaks, and the black objects bouncing over the edge of the slope. To go up there now would be suicide.

He shook his head. "I left the sack by the big tree. I couldn't have carried it through that."

"It isn't your fault, Abe. I should have helped carry it."

"You couldn't have. It would have been too slow. We'd have been pelted to death in the first twenty seconds."

Bart stared up the hill.

Able, thinking back, could think of nothing he might have done differently. Taking the one choice open to him at each turn, he was inevitably led into this mess.

From up the hill, apparently in the shelter of the big tree, came the chatter and chortle of a horde of feasting skimmers.

Bart said, "If I can run fast enough—"

"Look at that haze blowing past up there. The skimmers evolved in this place. That boiling sap just makes their eyes water a little. If either of us goes up there, we'll strangle on the first breath."

"That's true," said Bart. A moment later, he said tensely, "But, do we have to just stand here while we lose our last chance—"

A distant, carrying voice boomed. "Any future hostile action on your part will be crushed with a severity equal to that you have just experienced. Let this warning be sufficient."

Able shut his eyes. He took a slow quiet breath. When he looked around again, the trap roots were burying themselves in the dirt for the next try.

From the direction of the clearing came the wail of a terrified baby.

Able said, "I've got to try to get back. Maybe I can work around the worst of this. When that smoke and seeds let up—if you could get back to that tree—"

Bart nodded. "Be careful. Some of those wire trees we finished off after we landed are sprouting from the stump. Sometimes you don't see them till you're on top of them. The trap roots are only thick as threads, but they're ugly to get free of."

"I'll be careful."

"Good luck."

Five hours later, Able and Bart stood amongst the bare clay-mortared stone chimneys, their faces red from the heat of the glowing coals and smoking ends of logs that had been cabins. Nearby, plastered with steaming mud, stood the one remaining building, the thick-walled and heavy-roofed storage cabin. On three sides of the clearing stood the charred sticks of bitchwood trees, and here and there a smoldering staplenut spat green foam that boiled away in clouds.

Able glanced at the dozer, its paint seared off on top and side, the roof of the cab melted down, and the metal mud-shield on one side welded to the track.

Behind them, the baby was crying. Able had gotten him out just before the tree fell on the burning cabin roof.

Bart said, "What a mess. We've got only a few potatoes. The dozer won't go anywhere till we fix the track. We don't have the equipment to do that right, so whatever we grow, we'll have to raise it by hand. But there's only two of us to cultivate and guard the crop, so we won't have enough, even if everything works out, to join up with another settlement. We've got nothing to offer except three hungry mouths."

Able was studying the space-yacht, noting the late afternoon sun slanting on the fluttering sunshade. On the diving board stood a shapely girl in a two-piece swimsuit and white bathing cap. Her intelligent features showed a slight wrinkling of the nose as she posed on the board.

"The wind," said Bart, "let up just then."

Able glanced at the curving line of dead animals in the muddy water outside the base of the pool.

"Where," said Able, "does that water come from?"

"The pool. The first few days, the water was recirculated, but apparently a filter gave out. The boob there . . ."

Able noticed the man in the chaise lounge, making expansive gestures as the thin woman nodded hasty agreement.

" . . . The boob there," said Bart, "threw a fit, and blamed the woman, but the girl said maybe they could drain off some of the water to keep it clean. She set the mechanism so a trickle came off. The boob reset it so a flood came out."

"There are just the three of them?"

"That's all I've seen."

"What relation are they?"

"The thin woman is the cretin's wife. The girl is the wife's kid sister. They had a sisterly talk one night, and it sounded as though life was never any bed of roses for them, but since Mort—the husband—made his windfall, they've been loaded with money, and the husband has been threatening to go nuts. He's got all kinds of luxuries, doesn't have to lift a finger, isn't happy, and just naturally blames the wife."

Able studied the two. "Is the wife sick?"

"I don't think so," said Bart. "Why?"

"She's so thin."

"What would your digestion be like if you were a woman married to that?"

Able nodded. Across the way, an argument had sprung up, making him wish the focused compression-waves of the noise-suppressors worked on outgoing as well as incoming sounds.

The girl, scowling, climbed out of the pool, and said, "Lana—"

Trembling, the woman looked at her. "What is it, Helen?"

The man, frowning, glanced at the girl. His bad humor evaporated. "What's the trouble, Lennie?"

"Did you notice that smell?"

The woman shook her head.

"Yeah," said the man. "I got a whiff of it. Something dead."

The girl frowned. "Do you suppose we'd better take a look?"

Able glanced at Bart. "Can they see anything at all out here?"

Bart shrugged. "I yelled my head off when the water started pouring out. I was as close as I could get without getting cooked by that cannon. They didn't hear me or see me, even though they looked through me half-a-dozen times."

On the terrace, the man was saying, "Why bother? It's just the gobbies. They don't live very sanitary, you know."

Able said, "'Gobbies.' What's that?"

"His name for 'mud-footed settlers'."

The girl said stubbornly, "They might need help."

The woman glanced at her husband.

The man stiffened. "Nuts to that. What am I, a settler's aid fund? If they want to lay around in their own filth, that's their look-out."

The woman said, "Please, Helen—"

"They may need help."

The man's voice rose in pitch. "For Pete's sake, Lennie, can't a guy relax? So what if they butchered a dog and they're too lazy to bury the guts. Most of these gobbies are criminals and defectives, anyway. You want to load all that on me? I say it is none of our business."

Bart passed a hand over his face.

Able was studying the energy-cannon in its housing atop the nose of the ship. He looked down at the big doors where the porch and pool thrust out of the yacht, looked hard at the fluttering sunshade and the long shadows cast on the side of the ship, then studied the dozer.

"Please, Helen," the woman was saying, "Don't . . . Don't make him . . ."

The man shouted, "Don't make me what?"

The girl frowned and sniffed. That the air now seemed fresh to her appeared likely, since the stench was now blowing full in the faces of Bart and Able, the wind carrying it away from the ship.

Able glanced at Bart. "Did you notice that the rear power take-off on that dozer is clear of the wreckage, and the big flat metal plate over the converter housing is undamaged? What's to prevent us from connecting the grinder attachment to the take-off, and reaching in through that shambles to work the control-lever?"

"What's the use? We can't go anywhere till we fix the track."

"I was thinking we could fix it if we had that ship. And by simple right of self-defense—"

Bart stared at him. "But how? We can't touch that yacht. We could have a dozen rocket-launchers and an old-style army division here. It wouldn't do more than set off a red light on a board somewhere, which the boob would ignore. The only thing that could get past that force-screen and the energy-cannon would be another energy-cannon. Assuming, that is, they don't have a beam deflector, in which case we'd get the whole works right back in our faces."

"If they had a deflector," said Able, "would they use a shade to keep the sun off?"

Bart frowned at the sunshade. "What are you driving at?"

"The yacht has the advantage in weapons, but a pure-routine computer is running them. It strikes me intelligence still ought to count for something."

"Maybe. But what?"

"Help me bolt on that fine grinder, take the hatch off, find some kind of straight edge and improvise a protractor—and we'll find out."


Both moons—the little distant one, and the big Earth-style one—were up that night, and the big one was full, which helped the work.

They worked most of the night, got a few hours sleep, were up by early dawn, and late afternoon of the next day found them in a deep narrow trench, the baby squalling under cover of a flat rock laid across one end of the trench and heaped with dirt. Two long poles stretched up to a frame of charred wood between two charred trees. The frame held the big metal plate from the dozer, polished mirror-bright and pivoted to turn when Able pulled one of the poles. Two carefully-positioned wooden rests determined the extreme angle the metal plate could turn to. Upright in front of the plate was a dry billet of bitchwood, its explosive seed-knot aimed toward the space-yacht. The second pole held a briskly-burning torch.

"O.K." said Bart. "The women are safe in the pool. He's inside."

Able moved the torch over, setting the seed-knot ablaze. "O.K. Fire the gun."

Bart bent at a dart gun already armed, wedged in place, and heaped over with dirt. He squeezed the trigger, worked the loading mechanism, squeezed the trigger, again, worked the loading mechanism—

The loud-speaker boomed. "Your attention. This is the only warning you will receive. This vessel is fully protected by—"

Bart squeezed the trigger and worked the loading mechanism.

Able eased farther down behind the thick bank of earth.


The air lit up pinkly. The bank of earth steamed, particles of dirt at the top jumped like popcorn.


The knot let fly its seeds.

The radiance lifted, to shine on the polished metal plate. The charred wood frame caught fire but held its shape.

Able counted seconds.

From across the field came a male yell.

Able pulled back the pole. The plate pivoted.

A choking and coughing drifted across the field.

Able counted slowly, then picked up a long stick lying nearby and knocked loose the smoking rest that held the plate from turning farther. The metal, pivoted slightly off-balance, swung around under its own weight, presenting its narrow edge to the energy beam.

The burning frame began to sag.

Able said, "Quick! Get under cover. When that plate catches the beam and reflects it at random—"

From across the field came choking, gagging, male curses and female screams.

"Shut everything off!" cried the girl's voice. "We've got to get out!"

Abruptly the radiance was gone.

The blazing frame crashed to the ground.

The choking and coughing grew worse.

Bart said, "We must have had the angle right. It sounds like we hit that staplenut dead on."

"Just pray the wind doesn't shift." Able peered out cautiously.

Across the field, a big staplenut tree was on fire, clouds of greenish fumes boiling off to wreathe the yacht. The nearest of the yacht's big cargo doors, where the porch and pool had been thrust out, was discolored, and so buckled as to jam it open. Through the opening, choking fumes swirled in, the gap incidentally posing air-loss problems if the yacht tried to leave the planet.

Stumbling across the field came the woman, then the girl carrying a kind of light-weight rifle, then the man, apparently unarmed.

"O.K.," said Able, picking up little Bobby. "Don't show yourself, but keep him in your sights."

"I still think you need a gun."

"Honey's better than vinegar." Able cradled the baby in his arms, and walked slowly out into the field. The baby let out a scream of discontent.

The girl, her eyes streaming, raised the gun.

Able turned the baby so that it gave a piercing wail that carried across the field.

The woman cried, "Don't shoot, Helen! It's a baby!"

The girl wiped her eyes and stared. She lowered the gun.

Able tried to look friendly, and took pains to keep the baby prominently in view

The baby kicked and squalled.

The two women came closer, as if drawn despite themselves by some powerful magnet.

Able, his male incompetence glaringly obvious, shifted the baby around as if looking for some handle to get hold of it by.

The baby swung wildly with both fists.

The women, reassured by all this obvious helplessness, came straight for the baby. The girl took the baby, handing the rifle to the thin woman, cuddled the baby and talked to him. The baby stared at her. The thin woman looked longingly at the baby, and shifted the gun around in a way that made Able's back hair tingle.

Able said in a humble, bashful voice, "If you want, ma'am, I'll hold that while you look at the baby."

"Yes," she said, brightening, and Able had the gun.

He recognized it as a Model XX Superlight, firing explosive pellets charged with quick-acting poison. The selector lever was set at "A" for "automatic," and Able promptly thumbed it back to "S" for "safe."

Across the field, the man from the yacht was wiping his eyes. He saw Able, patted all his pockets in rapid succession, then suddenly jerked a flat oblong thing from a small belt case.

To Able, this thing had the appearance of a hand-communicator. It had a speaker, a telescoping antenna, and he could see a switch at the side. Then, too late, he realized it was too big for a communicator, and might well double as a hand-launcher for acorn grenades.

The man had the telescoping antenna aimed at Able. A sudden realization kept Able from trying to use the gun.

The girl cried, "Why does he have the gun? What's Mort—"

She screamed.

Across the field, there was a dazzling bluish flash that left a hideous after image.

"Did he shoot Mort?" cried the woman.

Able kept the gun down.

The girl said, "Mort shot himself with the hand-launcher, Lana! I saw him!"

"Oh!" said the woman, and began very quietly to sob.

Bart walked up, carrying the dart-gun inconspicuously, barrel down and stock out of sight under his arm.

Able glanced at the distraught woman. "Don't hurt the baby."

"Oh, yes, the baby." The woman cuddled it. "I'm sorry, honey, I'm sorry. Oh, Helen, Mort was so unhappy."

Able said, "There's staplenut milk over there in the cabin, if the baby is hungry." He glanced at the girl, who was studying him curiously. "But," he said, "whatever you do, don't go in the forest. There are trees on this planet that have contractile false roots that can whip and squeeze you to death, and crush you into fertilizer in no time."

The girl put her hand out for the gun.

Able held the gun out to her. "Keep it on 'Safe.' It won't hurt the trees, and we're the only people left in this settlement."

She smiled and let her hand drop. "Keep it. I guess you know what you're doing."

Able blinked. The two women went toward the cabin, carrying the baby, which was making gurgling noises instead of the usual screams.

Bart and Able cautiously approached the space-yacht. Able tossed a rock, which landed, unharmed, near the base of the pool.

Bart said, "I would never have expected him to shoot himself. I fired at him, and missed. I thought he was going to shoot you, and incidentally blow up the women and the baby."

"He was," said Able. "He forgot the launcher was dual purpose, the top part all communicator. He aimed the wrong end."

Bart shut his eyes.

"Look," said Able, "the wind's veered around. We can go up that ramp without getting gassed."

An hour later, they'd explored the ship, locked the control board, stopped the flood of water pouring out on the field, and were standing on the terrace by the edge of the pool. Around them they saw, not the clearing, but a moonlit beach scene, with couples lying on blankets, bonfires in the distance, radios playing softly, and white foam swirling far up a long smooth beach. Able, studying the console that stood under the porch, finally spotted a lighted button marked "Local." He pushed it, the beach scene disappeared, and there was the clearing.

Bart said softly, "Look at that water. What's to prevent our taking a swim?"

"Nothing I can think of."

"Look, there's a shower. Over there, in the corner under the porch."

"I see it."

"Ye gods, think of it—the ship has a machine-shop, three or four book-viewers, dozens of library cubes, soft beds with real sheets, a kitchen, enough food concentrates, staples, and luxuries to last years, medicines of all kinds, electricity, hot and cold running water, plus all this out here—and he wasn't happy!"

Able nodded.

Bart said, "How could anyone have all this and not be happy?"

"I suppose happiness doesn't come in one piece, like a rock. It has parts—like an axe, with a head and a handle. And generally either part alone isn't enough."

"What are the parts?"

"Well, look how miserable we were, for lack of material things. And look how miserable he was, for lack of self-control."

"Hm-m-m," said Bart, staring off across the field where a soft glow showed that the women had discovered the lamp. "I never thought of that. But, say material advantages make up the head of the axe, and self-control is the handle. There's still something missing. What about that little wedge that's driven in to keep the head of the axe from coming loose?"

"Well, that's clear enough," said Able, glancing at the lighted cabin. "Life is full of these little tricks. What happens when somebody does get happiness? As likely as not, the handle of self-control shrinks up, the head of material goods flies off and sinks itself in his foot, he lets out a yell, throws the handle fifty feet, and there's the end of it.

"But take the people who have found happiness and seem to keep it. How do they do it? It appears that, regardless of their means, they think and work hard. The thought and work, in turn, generate hunger—a need for food, rest, comfort. I'd say the little wedge that holds happiness together is hunger. Without that, the biggest feast is just so much grease and indigestion."

Bart thought it over, then nodded. "Back home," he said, "they're always talking about 'abolishing hunger.' They might think about it some more."

Bart and Able took another glance at the pool, the terrace, and the treasure-laden ship, then started back across the field.

"Thanksgiving dinner," said Bart thoughtfully, "isn't worth much unless you work up an appetite."

"True enough," said Able. Then his mind abruptly descended to details. "Watch it. We don't want to land in that crater where the acorn-grenade went off."

They veered sharply to one side. "Glad you remembered that," said Bart.

Able glanced at the softly-lighted cabin ahead, and considered another little detail. He and Bart were two men, and, in the cabin there, were two women. He remembered the mess at West Seven, and winced. Philosophy, such as he and Bart had been talking about, was strong stuff—but if there was anything to turn it inside out, it was women.

Still, he told himself, there were only two of them.

Maybe they'd get through this alive yet.

Able and Bart crossed the field, and gently—warily—rapped on the cabin door.



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