The giant frowned. “Job? What job?”
“Why, fencing in the stars. Populating the galaxy.” The big man stared at him in horrified amazement. “Well,” the scholar insisted, “you did it, you know. Who populates the galaxy now?”
“People like you.”
The impact of the scaring words brought a sick gasp from the small professor. He was a long moment in realizing their full significance. He wilted. He sank lower in the chair.
The nomad’s laughter suddenly rocked the room. He turned away from his victim and helped himself to a tumbler of liqueur. He downed it at a gulp and grinned at the professor. He tucked the professor’s liqueur under his arm, waved a jaunty farewell, and lumbered out into the night.
“My decanter,” protested the professor in a whisper.
He went to bed and lay whimpering slightly in drowsiness. He was afraid of the tomorrows that lay ahead.
The nomads settled on the planet for lack of fuel. They complained of the climate and steadfastly refused to believe that it was Earth. They were a troublesome, boisterous lot, and frequently needed psychoanalysis for their various crimes. A provisional government was set up to deal with the problem. The natives had forgotten about governments, and they called it a “welfare commission.”
The nomads who were single kidnapped native wives. Sometimes they kidnapped several, being a prolific lot. They begot many children, and a third-generation hybrid became the first dictator of a northern continent.
I am rusting in the rain. I shall never serve my priest here on Earth again. Nuclear fuels are scarce. They are needed for the atomic warheads now zipping back and forth across the North Pole. A poet—one of the hybrids—has written immortal lines deploring war; and the lines were inscribed on the post-humour medal they gave his widow.
Three dumpy idealists built a spaceship, but they were caught and hung for treason. The eight-foot lawyer who defended them was also hung.
The world wears a long face; and the stars twinkle invitingly. But few men look upward now. Things are probably just as bad on the next inhabited planet.
I am the spider who walked around space. I, Harpist for a pale proud Master, have seen the big hunger, have tasted its red glow reflected in my circuits. Still I cannot understand.
But I feel there are some who understand. I have seen the pride in their faces. They walk like kings.
HE KNEW there was no use hanging around after breakfast, but he could not bear leaving her like this. He put on his coat in the kitchen, stood uncertainly in the doorway, and twisted his hat in his hands. His wife still sat at the table, fingered the handle of an empty cup, stared fixedly out the window at the kennels behind the house, and pointedly ignored his small coughings and scrapings. He watched the set of her jaw for a moment, then cleared his throat.
“I can’t stand seeing you like this.”
“Then go away.”
“Can’t I do anything—?”
“I told you what to do.”
Her voice was a monotone, full of hurt. He could neither endure the hurt nor remove it. He gingerly crossed the room to stand behind her, hoping she’d look up at him and let her face go soft, maybe even cry a little. But she kept gazing at the window in accusing silence. He chuckled suddenly and touched her silk-clad shoulder. The shoulder shivered away. Her dark hair quivered as she shuddered, and her arms were suddenly locked tightly about her breasts as if she were cold. He pulled his hand back, and his big pliant face went slack. He gulped forlornly.
“Honeymoon’s over, huh?”
He backed a step away, paused again. “Hey, Baby, you knew before you married me,” he reminded her gently.
“I did not.”
“You knew I was a District Inspector for the F.B.A. You knew I had charge of a pound.”
“I didn’t know you killed them!” she snapped, whirling.
“I don’t have to kill many,” he offered.
“That’s like saying you don’t kill them very dead.”
“Look, honey, they’re only animals.”
“Intelligent as a human imbecile, maybe.”
“A baby is an imbecile. Would you kill a baby?— Of course you would! You do! That’s what they are: babies. I hate you.” He withered, groped desperately for a new approach, tried a semantic tack. “Look, ‘intelligence’ is a word applicable only to humans. It’s the name of a human function, and…”
“And that makes them human!” she finished. “Murderer!”
“Don’t call me baby! Call them baby!”
He made a miserable noise in his throat, backed a few steps toward the door, and beat down his better judgment to speak again: “Anne, honey, look! Think of the good things about the job. Sure—everything has its ugly angles. But just think: we get this house rent-free; I’ve got my own district with no local bosses to hound me; I make my own hours; you’ll meet lots of people that stop in at the pound. It’s a fine job, honey!”
Her face was a mask again. She sipped her coffee and seemed to be listening. He blundered hopefully on.
“And what can I do about it? I can’t help my aptitudes. Placement Division checked them, sent me to Bio-Authority. Period. Okay, so I don’t have to work where they send me. I could ignore the aptitudes and pick common labor, but that’s all the law allows, and common laborers don’t have families. So I go where they need my aptitudes.”
“You’ve got aptitudes for killing kids?” she asked sweetly. He groaned, clenched his eyes closed, shook his head fiercely as if to clear it of a sudden ache. His voice went desperately patient. “They assigned me to the job because I like babies. And because I have a degree in biology and an aptitude for dealing with people. Understand? Destroying unclaimed units is the smallest part of it. Honey, before the evolvotron, before anybody ever heard of Anthropos Incorporated, people used to elect animal catchers. Dogcatchers, they called them. Didn’t have mutant dogs, of course. But just think of it that way—I’m a dogcatcher.”
Ice-green eyes turned slowly to meet his gaze. Her face was delicately cut from cold marble. One corner of her mouth twitched contempt at him. Her head turned casually away again to stare out the window toward the kennels again.
He backed to the door, plucked nervously at a splinter on the woodwork, watched her hopefully for a moment.
“Well, gotta go. Work to do.”
She looked at him again as if he were a specimen. “Do you need to be kissed?”
He ripped the splinter loose, gulped, “See you tonight,” and stumbled toward the front of the house. The honeymoon indeed was done for District Inspector Norris of the Federal Biological Authority.
Anne heard his footsteps on the porch, heard the sudden grumble of the kennel-truck’s turbines, choked on a sob and darted for the door, but the truck had backed into the street, lurched suddenly away with angry acceleration toward the highway that lay to the east. She stood blinking into the red morning sunlight, shoulders slumped. Things were wrong with the world, she decided.
A bell rang somewhere, rang again. She started slightly, shook herself, went to answer the telephone. A carefully enunciated voice that sounded chubby and professional called for Inspector Norris. She told it disconsolately that he was gone.
“Gone? Oh, you mean to work. Heh heh. Can this be the new Mrs. Norris?” The voice was too hearty and greasy, she thought, muttered affirmatively.