Scanned by Highroller. Proofed by the best elf proofer. Made prettier by use of EBook Design Group Stylesheet. The Stork Factor by Zach Hughes CHAPTER ONE Just four years previously Richard Skeerzy had taken the Funland, Ltd., tour around the moon. The tour ship didn't land on the moon, of course. No one went to the moon any more, just around it. The moon was a dead globe of space debris from which the last iota of scientific value had been extracted during the decades before and after the turn of the twenty-first century. Viewed from the tinted ports of a ship such as the Nebulous, the moon was a cold, empty wasteland. However, Skeerzy considered his trip into space to be the apogee of an otherwise ordinary life. Not that Richard Skeerzy wasn't satisfied with his lot. As he had told LaVerne many times, the glory of being one of His creatures in His magnificent universe was reward enough. If, to the pleasure of mere existence, he added the smug knowledge that he, as a relatively young member of the ruling Christian Party, was a Brother on the way up, then that made life only slightly more satisfying. The tourist ship Nebulous started final deceleration thirty minutes out of the Funland Gate, North America. There was no warning. LaVerne, not prepared for the gentle force of it, emitted a surprised squeak as she drifted slowly from her couch. Richard, laughing with the air of an experienced space traveler, engaged his wife and retrieved her as if she were a helium balloon. He placed her on the couch and helped her strap in, smiling on her with a great and doting pride. She was a particularly lovable child and she had learned a lesson. Richard had been engaged in a lecture on the wonders of His creation and how one should endeavor to see at least a small portion of that creation. It was Richard's way of rationalizing away the extravagance of a honeymoon which impoverished his new marriage. Space travel, that is, the quick trip up to the North American Gate, the transfer to the Nebulous, the single orbit of the moon, was a frightfully expensive way to spend a week. Space travel was so expensive and so relatively unrewarding in material worth that it had almost bankrupted the First Republic before the long-suffering silent majority rose up and, under the leadership of the Brothers, returned the country to the area of sanity. The Nebulous had been built with private funds and the North American Station, the one great achievement of the governmental space effort, was leased to Funland, Ltd., which lost money on the operation, but maintained it for prestige purposes and, perhaps, as a tax dodge. «Now we are returning, slowly but surely, to the good green Earth,» Richard preached. «It is an experience of a lifetime.» For a moment he would not remind LaVerne that he had experienced the great moment once before. In his love and kindness, Richard did not want to make his wife feel inferior. «We must see and learn and never forget that He created this with a sweep of His hand.» «Yes, Richard,» LaVerne said, as a huge globe went swimming slowly across the viewport. LaVerne was numb. Space was big. The ship was small and crowded. The compartments closed in on her. Even the main lounge with the viewports was a tiny, metal and stale-air cubbyhole which gave her claustrophobia.

«If you like, dear,» Richard said, «I'll explain the technique of landing at the Gate.» «Yes, dear,» LaVerne said, killing a guilty urge to tell him she was fed up with his eternal explanations. «The captain of the ship on which I took my first cruise was kind enough to tell me all about it,» Skeerzy said. La Verne sighed. A short while ago he had seemed to be such a wonderful catch. He was handsome. He was of medium height with dark, curly hair which ducked out at the nape of his neck. He had nice features, a solid chin, good nose, brown, serious eyes. He was a member of the Brothers, and thus eligible for advancement. His position as spiritual adviser to the famous Colonel Ed Baxley at University One, The Brothers, provided a more than adequate income, at least in the eyes of a girl from East City who, before her lucky meeting with one of the all-powerful Brothers, could only look forward to twenty working years in an office and retirement to a community building in the depths of the continent. He had wooed her and she had let herself be won without love, true, but she could have loved him easily if only he would have let her. «Do you understand, dear?» he was asking in that preaching voice of his. «I'm beginning to,» LaVerne sighed. The Nebulous glided slowly through the locks into the artificial atmosphere of the Gate. Below, there was a flurry of activity. The ground crew shuffled forward on magnetic shoes to guide the big ship into her berth. Cameramen, in an attempt to pry more dollars loose from the tourists, ground out rolls of instantly processed video-sound to be offered as positive evidence to the folks back home that one had actually been aboard the Nebulous coming into the North American Gate from the moon. The walkways were lined by vendors offering bits of space debris and scale models of the Nebulous. Stern retainers were snapped into place. The ship's forward movement was halted with a slight jerk. Floating sixty feet above the ramp, the

Nebulous was a fantastic sight, all angles, a ship built for space, every inch of available room utilized. Machinery hummed. Lines snaked up, were attached, began to pull the ship slowly down. «Why, there's Ronnie,» Skeerzy said, with mixed interest and disapproval in his voice. «The colonel must be here.» Richard pointed. A small figure floated at the end of a retaining line

directly in front of the viewport. In relation to the surface of the ramp, the boy was hanging upside down. Skeerzy watched with a sort of fond interest as the boy, his six-year-old frame distorted by baggy overalls, fumbled inside his clothing. «Isn't that cute,» La Verne said, as the boy's hand became filled with a realistic toy weapon. «He's playing space pirate or something.» Skeerzy snorted. «If his father sees fit to let him play with martial toys when the world had been a peace for thirty years there's nothing I can do, although God knows I've tried.» Skeerzy was prepared to say much more. He started to say it but the small boy, whose blond locks pointed downward to the surface, stopped him. The boy aimed his toy pistol at the nose plates of the Nebulous and, with a studied scowl right out of an old adventure film, squeezed the trigger. The Nebulous burned slowly. The chemical fire, once started, was inexorable. Skeerzy saw death creeping slowly toward the viewport along the surface of the ship. There was screaming. With a start, Skeerzy realized that the sound was, shamefully, coming from LaVerne. He put a protective arm around her and watched the fire crawl closer. There was a calmness in his mind. He was about to pass on to a better place. There was no need to mourn. If he deemed it fitting that His servant die in a spaceship drifting loosely above the metal surface of the North American Gate, then who was going to question Him? But just before the drive went, taking most of the North American Gate with it, Skeerzy heard more screaming and knew that it was coming from his throat. Fuel stores inside the Gate went in a drastic, secondary explosion. The last foothold in space tore, ripped, twisted, turned, went deeper into space, fell, burned in atmosphere. An SST en route London to Bangkok reported sighting falling debris. A Siberian farm worker watched in awed silence as a forest burned, ignited by a blazing, thunderous object falling from the sky. Propelled by the explosions, scraps of the nuclear pile were thrown out of Earth orbit and started falling into the sun. So vast was the spew of wreckage that one antique rocket, in eternal orbit around the Earth, lonely, forgotten, was knocked into a new path with atmospheric terminus. It burned, but other pieces of space debris wheeled around the

Earth, close in, far, far below the daring flights of the past century, flights which put men on the moon, men around Venus, men on Mars. Now, with the foothold gone, the old rockets wheeled around and around, useless, jettisoned scrap. The moon was, once again, alone, unreachable. And out beyond Pluto, where man had never gone, a melon-sized instrument was activated by the activity just outside the Earth's atmosphere. Powered by an isotope with a half life far beyond any known particle, the instrument had recorded activity on the Third Planet in the past, activity such as the eruption of Krakatoa in what was, to the instrument, recent time,

explosions of natural origin prior to that, the release of primitive nuclear power in the atmosphere only moments ago, all activity which was recorded, but ignored, since it represented no danger. But now there was a new radiation in space with its origin on or near the Third Planet. The instrument turned, made inner current, measured. A tiny computer sent electronic impulses over a simple circuit. And the beacon flashed into light, activated by the single discharge of a chemical fire gun, the weapon which Richard Skeerzy and La Verne, in the last moments of their life, had thought was cute. A signal flashed, faster than light, at a speed which could not even be compared with the slowness of light, a signal transmitted on a new plane cutting across galactic distance to be received by more instruments operating in endless vigil. The response was automatic, instantaneous, and was set in motion without the immediate knowledge of anything living. CHAPTER TWO It was getting harder to get a permit to hold a simple healing service in the park. The amount of red tape and graft was unbelievable. By the time he got through paying off the good Brothers in charge of permits in East City, Old Town, a man didn't have enough left over for a good bottle of Soul Lifter. And the marks were getting more and more difficult to impress. A man cures cancer and heart trouble and the common cold and they want more. They want him to regenerate an amputated leg. Hell, he wasn't Jesus Christ, after all. «I am poor Brother Luke Parker, by your leave,» he said, standing on the base of what must have once been a statue or something equally as

sinful. «I will cure your lameness, heal your sickness, provide balm for your soul in His name. Gather around me, brothers, sisters. Listen to the Word. Have faith and ye shall be free.» Actually, he was only an Apprentice Brother, Third Class, but he didn't see any Brotherfuzz in the park and sometimes the marks responded better when they thought they were being touched by a full Brother. Full Brothers didn't go around laying hands on people, but

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