Hal Clement


ICEWORLD originally appeared In ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION magazin

October, 1951


Sallman Ken had never been really sure of the wisdom he had shown in acceding to Rade’s request. He was no policeman and knew it. He had no particular liking for physical danger. He had always believed, of course, that he could stand his share of discomfort, but the view he was now getting through the Karella’s port was making him doubt even that.

Rade had been fair enough, he had to admit. The narcotics chief had told him, apparently, everything he himself knew; enough so that Ken, had he used his imagination sufficiently, might even have foreseen something like this.

“There has never been much of it,” Rade had said. “We don’t even know what the peddlers call it — it’s just a ‘sniff’ to them. It’s been around for quite a few years now; we got interested when it first appeared, and then took most of our attention from it when it never seemed to amount to much.”

“But what’s so dangerous about it, then?” Ken had asked.

“Well, of course any habit-forming drug is dangerous — you could hardly be a teacher of science without knowing that. The special menace of this stuff seems to lie in the fact that it is a gas, and can therefore be administered easily without the victim’s consent; and it seems to be so potent that a single dose will insure addiction. You can see what a public danger that could be.” Ken had seen, clearly.

“I should say so. I’m surprised we haven’t all been overcome already. A generator in a building’s ventilation system — on board a ship — anything like that could make hundreds of customers for whoever has the stuff to sell. Why hasn’t it spread?” Rade had smiled for the first time.

“There seems to be two reasons for that, also. There are production difficulties, if the very vague stories we hear have anything in them; and the stuff doesn’t keep at normal temperature. It has to be held under extreme refrigeration; when exposed to normal conditions it breaks down in a few seconds. I believe that the active principle is actually one of the breakdown products, but no one had obtained a sample to prove it.”

“But where do I come in? If you don’t have any of it I can’t analyze it for you. I probably couldn’t anyway — I’m a school teacher, not a professional chemist. What else can I do?”

“It’s because you’re a teacher — a sort of jack-of-all-trades in scientific matters, without being an expert at any of them — that we think you can help us. I mentioned that there seemed to be production troubles with the drug.

“Certainly the producers would like to increase volume. They would like, of course, to get a first-rate production engineer. You know as well as I that they could never do it; no such person could be involved secretly in such a matter. Every competent engineer is well employed since Velio was discovered, and it would be too easy for us to trace one who was approached for such a purpose.

“You, however, are a comparatively inconspicuous person; you are on vacation, and will be for another year; no one will miss you — we expect these people to think. That’s why we took such extreme precautions in arranging this interview.”

“But you’ll have to publicize me some way, or they would never know I existed, either,” Ken pointed out.

“That can be done — in fact, has already started. I trust you’ll forgive us for that; but the job is important. The whisper has already started in criminal circles that you are the manufacturer of the bomb that wrecked the Storm plant. We can give you quite a reputation—”

“Which will prevent my ever getting an honest job again.”

“Which will never be heard of by your present employers, or by any respectable person not associated with the police.”

Ken was not yet sure why he had accepted. Maybe the occupation of policeman still carried a little subconscious glamour, though certainly it was now mostly laboratory work. This looked like an exception — or did it? He had as Rade expected been hired by an extremely short-spoken individual, who claimed to represent a trading concern. The understanding had been that his knowledge was to be placed at the disposal of his employers. Perhaps they would simply stick him in a lab with the outline or a production problem, and tell him to solve it. In that case, he would be out of a job very quickly, and if he were lucky might be able to offer his apologies to Rade.

For he certainly had learned nothing so far. Even the narcotics man had admitted that his people knew no one at all certainly connected with the ring, and it was very possible that he might be hired by comparatively respectable people — compared, of course, to drug-runners. For all Ken could tell at the moment, that might have happened. He had been shepherded aboard the Karella at the North Island spaceport, and for twenty-two days had seen nothing at all.

He knew, of course, that the drug came from off the planet. Rade had become sufficiently specific to admit that the original rush had been checked by examining incoming refrigeration apparatus. He did not know, however, that it came from outside the Sarrian planetary system. Twenty-two days was a long journey — if it had been made in a straight line.

Certainly the world that hung now beyond the port did not look as though it could produce anything. Only a thin crescent of it was visible, for it lay nearly between the ship and a remarkably feeble sun. The dark remainder of the sphere blotted out the Milky Way in a fashion that showed the planet to be airless. It was mountainous, inhospitable, and cold. Ken knew that last fact because of the appearance of the sun. It was dim enough to view directly without protection to the eyes; to Ken’s color sense, reddish in shade and shrunken in aspect. No world this far from such a star could be anything but cold.

Of course, Rade’s drug needed low temperature — well, if it were made here, Ken was going to resign, regardless. Merely looking at the planet made him shiver.

He wished someone would tell him what was going on. There was a speaker over the door of his room, but so far the only times it had been used was to tell him that there was food outside his room and the door was unlocked for the moment.

For he had not been allowed to leave his room. That suggested illegal proceedings of some sort; unfortunately it did not limit them to the sort he was seeking. With the trading regulations what they were, a mercantile explorer who found an inhabited system more often than not kept the find strictly for his own exploitation. The precaution of concealing its whereabouts from a new employee was natural.

At a venture, he spoke aloud. After all, the fact that they were hanging so long beside this world must mean something.

“Is this where I’m expected to work? You’ll pardon my saying that it looks extremely unpleasant.” A little to his surprise there was an answer, in a voice different from the one that had announced his meals.

“I agree. I have never landed there myself, but it certainly looks bad. As far as we know at present, your job will not require you to visit that world.”

“Just what is my job? Or don’t you want to tell me yet?”

“There is no harm in telling you more, anyway, since we have arrived at the proper planetary system.” Ken cast an uneasy eye at the feeble sun as he heard these words, but continued to listen without comment.

“You will find the door unlocked. Turn to your right in the corridor outside, and proceed for about forty yards — as far as you can. That will take you to the control room, where I am. It will be more comfortable to talk face to face.” The speaker’s rumble ceased, and Ken did as he was told. The Karella seemed to be a fairly common type of interstellar flyer, somewhere between one hundred fifty and two hundred feet in length, and about one third that diameter. It would be shaped like a cylinder with slightly rounded ends. Plenty of

Вы читаете Iceworld
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату