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Advance Agent

15th September 2017
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Title: Advance Agent
Author: Christopher Anvil
Summary: Raveling Porcy’s systematized enigma, Dan found himself with a spy’s worst break—he
was saddled with the guise of a famed man!

Word count:  11077
Public Domain Mark (PDM)

Image: Galaxy Science fiction February 1957 ( Cover )

 

I

Dan Redman stooped to look in the mirror before going to see the director of A Section. The face that looked back wasn’t bad, if he had expected strong cheekbones, copper skin and a high-arched nose. But Dan wasn’t used to it yet.

He straightened and his coat drew tight across chest and shoulders. The sleeves pulled up above hands that felt average, but that the mirror showed to be huge and broad. Dan turned to go out in the hall and had to duck to avoid banging his head on the door frame. On the way down the hall, he wondered just what sort of job he had drawn this time.

Dan stopped at a door lettered:

A SECTION

  1. KIELGAARD

DIRECTOR

A pretty receptionist goggled at him and said to go in. Dan opened the inner door.

Kielgaard—big, stocky, expensively dressed—looked up and studied Dan as he came in. Apparently satisfied, he offered a chair, then took out a small plastic cartridge and held it in one hand.

 

“Dan,” he said, “what do you know about subspace and null-points?”

“Practically nothing,” admitted Dan honestly.

Kielgaard laughed. “Then I’ll fill you in with the layman’s analogy, which is all I know. Suppose you have a newspaper with an ant on the middle of the front page. To get to the middle of page two, the ant has to walk to the edge of the paper, then walk back on the inside. Now suppose the ant could go through the page. The middle of page two is just a short distance away from the middle of page one. That going through, instead of around, is like travel in subspace. And a null-point is a place just a short distance away, going through subspace. The middle of page two, for instance, is a null-point for the middle of page one.”

“Yes,” said Dan patiently, waiting for the point of the interview.

Kielgaard pushed the plastic cartridge he’d been holding through a slot in his desk. A globe to one side lighted up a cottony white, with faint streaks of blue. “This,” he said, “is Porcys.”

Dan studied the globe. “Under that cloud blanket, it looks as if it might be a water world.”

“It is. Except for a small continent, the planet is covered with water. And the water is full of seafood—edible seafood.”

Dan frowned, still waiting.

“Galactic Enterprises,” said Kielgaard, “has discovered a region in subspace which has Porcys for one null-point and Earth for another.”

“Oh,” said Dan, beginning to get the point. “And Earth’s hungry, of course. Galactic can ship the seafood straight through subspace at a big profit.”

“That’s the idea. But there’s one trouble.” Kielgaard touched a button, and on the globe, the white layer vanished. The globe was a brilliant blue, with a small area of mingled green and grayish-brown. “The land area of the planet is inhabited. Galactic must have the permission of the inhabitants to fish the ocean. And Galactic needs to close the deal fast, or some other outfit, like Trans-Space, may get wind of things and move in.”

Kielgaard looked at the globe thoughtfully. “All we know about the Porcyns could be put on one side of a postage stamp. They’re physically strong. They have a few large cities. They have an abundant supply of seafood. They have spaceships and mataform transceivers. This much we know from long-distance observation or from the one Porcyn we anesthetized and brain-spied. We also know from observation that the Porcyns have two other habitable planets in their solar system—Fumidor, a hot inner planet, and an Earthlike outer planet called Vacation Planet.”

Kielgaard drummed his fingers softly. “Granting the usual course of events, Dan, what can we expect to happen? The Porcyns have an abundance of food, a small living area, space travel and two nearby habitable planets. What will they do?”

“Colonize the nearby planets,” said Dan.

“Right,” said Kielgaard. “Only they aren’t doing it. We’ve spied both planets till we can’t see straight. Fumidor has a mine entrance and a mataform center. Vacation Planet has a mataform center and one or two big buildings. And that’s it. There’s no emigration from Porcys to the other two planets. Instead, there’s a sort of cycling flow from Porcys to Vacation Planet to Fumidor to Porcys. Why?

“The Porcyn we brain-spied,” he went on, “associated Vacation Planet with ‘rejuvenation.’ What does that mean we’re up against? Galactic wants to make a contract, but not till they know what they’re dealing with. There are some races it’s best to leave alone. This ‘rejuvenation’ might be worth more than the seafood, sure, but it could also be a sackful of trouble.”

Dan waited, realizing that Kielgaard had come to the crux of the matter.

Kielgaard said, “Galactic wants us to find the answers to three problems. One, how do the Porcyns keep the size of their population down? Two, what is the connection between rejuvenation and ‘Vacation Planet’? And three, do the Porcyns have a proper mercantile attitude? Are they likely to make an agreement? Will they keep one they do make?”

Kielgaard looked intently at Dan. “The only way we’re likely to find the answers in a reasonable time is to send someone in. You’re elected.”

“Just me?” asked Dan in surprise. “All your eggs in one basket?”

“In a situation like this,” said Kielgaard, “one good man is worth several gross of dubs. We’re relying on you to keep your eyes open and your mind on what you’re doing.”

“And suppose I don’t come back?”

“Galactic probably loses the jump it’s got on Trans-Space and you miss out on a big bonus.”

“When do I leave?”

“Tomorrow morning. But today you’d better go down and pick up a set of Porcyn clothes we’ve had made for you and some of their money. It’d be a good idea to spend the evening getting used to things. We’ve implanted in your brain the Porcyn language patterns we brain-spied and we’ve installed in your body cavity a simple organo-transmitter you can use during periods of calm. Because the Porcyns are physically strong and possibly worship strength, we’ve had your body rebuilt to one of the most powerful human physique patterns—that of an American Indian—that we have on record.”

They shook hands and Dan went to his room. He practiced the Porcyn tongue till he had some conscious familiarity with it. Then he tried his strength to make sure he wouldn’t accidentally use more force than he intended. Then, while the evening was still young, he went to bed and fell asleep.

It was Dan’s experience that everything possible went wrong the first few days on a new planet and he wanted to be wide-awake enough to live through it.

II

The next day, Dan left in a spacetug that Galactic was sending on a practice trip through subspace to Porcys. From the tug, he went by mataform to the lab ship in the Porcyn sea. Here he learned that he had only twenty minutes during which conditions would be right to make the next mataform jump to a trawler close to the mainland.

Dan had wanted to talk to the men on the lab ship and learn all they could tell him about the planet. This being impossible, he determined to question the trawler crew to the limit of their patience.

When Dan reached the trawler, it was dancing like a blown leaf in a high wind. He became miserably seasick. That evening, there was a violent electrical storm which lasted into the early morning.

Dan spent the whole night nauseously gripping the edge of his bunk, his legs braced against the violent heave and lurch of the trawler.

Before dawn of the next day, aching in every muscle, his insides sore and tender, his mind fuzzy from lack of sleep, Dan was set ashore on a dark, quiet and foggy strip of beach. He stood for a moment in the soft sand, feeling it seem to dip underfoot.

This, he thought, was undoubtedly the worst start he had ever made on any planet anywhere.

From around him in the impenetrable fog came distant croakings, whistlings and hisses. The sounds were an unpleasant suggestion that something else had gone wrong. Between bouts of sickness, Dan had tried to arrange with the crew to land him near the outskirts of a Porcyn city. But the sounds were those of the open country.

What Dan wanted was to go through the outskirts of the city before many people were moving around. He could learn a great deal from their homes, their means of transportation and the actions of a few early risers. He could learn from the things he expected to see, or from the lack of them, if he was there to see them.

Dan moved slowly inland, crossed a ditch and came to what seemed to be a macadam road. He checked his directions and started to walk. He forced the pace so his breath came hard, and hoped it would pump some life into his dulled brain and muscles.

As his senses gradually began to waken, Dan became aware of an odd swish-swish, swish-swish, like a broom dusting lightly over the pavement behind him. The sound drew steadily closer.

Dan halted abruptly.

The sound stopped, too.

He walked on.

Swish-swish.

He whirled.

Silence.

Dan listened carefully. The sound could be that of whatever on Porcys corresponded to a playful puppy—or to a rattlesnake.

He stepped sharply forward.

Swish-swish. It was behind him.

He whirled.

There was a feeling of innumerable hairy spiders running over him from head to foot. The vague shape of a net formed and vanished in the gloom before him. He lashed out and hit the dark and the fog.

Swish-swish. It was moving away.

He stood still while the sound faded to a whisper and was gone. Then he started to walk. He was sure that what had just happened meant something, but what it meant was a different question. At least, he thought ruefully, he was wider awake now.

He walked on as the sky grew lighter. Then the fog shifted to show a solid mass of low blocky buildings across the road ahead. The road itself disappeared into a tunnel under one of the buildings. To one side, a waist-high metal rail closed off the end of one of the city’s streets. Dan walked off the road toward the rail. His eye was caught by the building ahead. Each was exactly the same height, about two to three Earth stories high. They were laid out along a geometrically straight border with no transition between city and farmland.

There was a faint hum. Then a long, low streak, its front end rounded like a horseshoe crab, shot out of the tunnel under the building beside him and vanished along the road where he’d just been walking.

Now Dan saw a small modest sign beside the road.

Care

High-Speed

Vehicles Only

Swept

Dan crossed the rail at the end of the street with great caution.

The Porcyn clothing he was wearing consisted of low leather boots, long green hose, leather shorts, a bright purple blouse and a sky-blue cape. Dan bunched the cape in his hand and thrust it ahead of him as he crossed the rail, for some races were finicky about their exits and entrances. The straight, sharp boundary between city and farmland, and the identical buildings, suggested to Dan that here was a race controlled by strict rules and forms, and he was making an obviously unauthorized entrance.

It was with relief that he stood on the opposite side, within the city. He glanced back at the sign and wondered what “Swept” meant. Then he gave his attention to the buildings ahead of him.

Low at first, the buildings rose regularly to a greater height, as far as the fog would let him see. Dan remembered the storm of the night before and wondered if the progressive heightening of the buildings was designed to break the force of the wind. The buildings themselves were massive, with few and narrow windows, and wide heavy doors opening on the street.

Dan walked farther into the city and found that the street took right-angle bends at regular intervals, probably also to break the wind. There was no one in sight, and no vehicles.

Dan decided he was probably in a warehouse district.

He paused to look at a partly erected new building, built on the pattern of the rest. Then he heard from up the street a grunting, straining sound interspersed with whistling puffs. There was a stamping noise, a thud and the clash of metal.

Dan ran as quietly as he could up the street, stopped, glanced around one of the right-angle bends. He was sure the sound had come from there.

The street was empty.

Dan walked closer and studied a large brass plate set in the base of a building. It looked about twenty inches high by thirty wide with a rough finish. In the center of the plate was a single word:

SWEEPER

Dan looked at this for a moment. Then, frowning, he strode on. In his mind’s eye, he was seeing the sign by the road:

Care

High-Speed

Vehicles Only

Swept

Dan couldn’t decide whether the word “Swept” was part of the warning or just an afterthought. In any case, he had plainly heard a struggle here and now there was nothing to be seen. Alert for more brass plates, he wound his way through the streets until he came out on a broad avenue. On the opposite side were a number of tall, many-windowed buildings like apartment houses. On the sidewalks and small lawns in front, crowds of children were playing. They were wearing low boots, leather shorts or skirts, brightly colored blouses and hose, and yellow capes. Walking quietly among them was a tawny animal with the look and lordly manner of a lion.

It was a lion.

As far as the rapidly dispersing fog let him see, the avenue ran straight in one direction. In the other, it ended a block or so away. Apparently the crooked, wind-breaking streets were only on the edge of the city.

Dan thought of the questions Kielgaard wanted him to answer:

1, how do the Porcyns keep the size of their population down?

2, what is the connection between rejuvenation and Vacation Planet?

3, do the Porcyns have a proper mercantile attitude? Are they likely to make an agreement? Will they keep one they do make?

To find the answers, Dan intended to work his way carefully through the city. If nothing went wrong, he should be able to see enough to eliminate most of the possibilities. Already he had seen enough to make Porcyns look unpromising. The rigid city boundary, the strict uniformity of the buildings and the uniform pattern of the clothing suggested a case-hardened, ingrown way of living.

Across the street, a low door to one side of the apartment building’s main entrance came open. The lion walked out.

It was carrying a squirming little boy by his bunched-up cape. The big creature flopped down, pinned the struggling boy with a huge paw and methodically started to clean him. The rasp of the animal’s tongue could be heard clearly across the street.

The boy yelled.

A healthy-looking girl of about twelve, wearing a cape diagonally striped in yellow and red, ran over and rescued the boy. The lion rolled over on its back to have its belly scratched.

Dan scowled and walked toward the near end of the street. On less advanced planets, where the danger of detection was not so great, agents often went in with complex, surgically inserted organo-transmitters in their body cavities. Unlike the simple communicator Dan had, these were fitted with special taps on the optic and auditory nerves, and the transmitter continuously broadcast all that the agent saw and heard. Experts back home went over the data and made their own conclusions.

The method was useful, but it had led to some dangerous mistakes. Sight and sound got across, but often the atmosphere of the place didn’t. Dan thought it might be the same here.

The feeling that the city gave him didn’t match what his reasoning told him.

He crossed a street, passed an inscription on a building:

Freedom

Devisement

Fraternity

Then he was back in a twisting maze of streets. He walked till the wind from the sea blew in his face.

The street dipped to a massive wall and the sea, where a few brightly colored, slow-moving trawlers were going out. Dan turned in another street and wound back and forth till he came out along the ocean front. On one side of the street was the ocean, a broad strip of sand, and the sea wall. On the other side was a row of small shops, brightly awninged, with displays just being set in place out in front.

In the harbor, a ship was being unloaded. Flat-bottomed boats were running back and forth from several long wharves. On the street ahead, a number of heavy wagons, drawn by six-legged animals with heads like eels, bumped and rattled toward the wharves. Behind them ran a crowd of boys in yellow capes, a big tawny lioness trotting among them. On the sidewalk nearby strode a few powerfully built old men, their capes of various colors.

Dan glanced at the displays in front of the shops. Some were cases of fish on ice. Others were piles of odd vegetables in racks. Dan paused to look at a stack of things like purple carrots.

A man immediately came forward from the rear of the store, wiping his hands on his apron. Dan moved on.

The next shop had the universal low boots, shorts, skirts, blouses and hose, in assorted sizes and colors, but no capes. Dan slowed to glance at the display and saw the proprietor coming briskly from the dark interior, rubbing his hands. Dan speeded up and got away before the proprietor came out.

The Porcyns, he thought, seemed at least to have a proper mercantile attitude.

III

Dan passed another fish market, then came to a big, brightly polished window. Inside was a huge, chromium-plated bar-bell on a purple velvet cloth. Behind it were arranged displays of hand-grips, exercise cables, dumb-bells and skipping ropes. The inside of the store was indirectly lighted and expensively simple. The place had an air that was quiet, lavish and discreet. It reminded Dan of a well-to-do funeral establishment. In one corner of the window was a small, edge-lighted sign:

You Never Know What the

Next Life Will Be Like.

In the other corner of the window was a polished black plate with a dimly glowing bulb in the center. Around the bulb were the words:

Your Corrected Charge—

Courtesy of Save-Your-Life Co.

A tall, heavily muscled man in a dark-blue cape stepped outside.

“Good morning, Devisement,” he said affably. “I see you’re a stranger in town. I thought I might mention that our birth rate’s rather high just now.” He coughed deferentially. “You set an example, you know. Our main store is on 122 Center Street, so if you—”

He was cut off by a childish scream.

Down the street, a little boy struggled and thrashed near an oblong hole at the base of a building, caught in a tangle of the mysterious ropes.

“A kid!” cried the man. He sucked in his breath and shouted, “Dog! Here, Dog! Dog!

On the end of a wharf, a crowd of children was watching the unloading. From their midst, a lioness burst.

Here, Dog!” shouted the man. “A sweeper! A sweeper! Run, Dog!”

The lioness burst into a blur of long bounds, shot down the wharf, sprang into the street and glanced around with glaring yellow eyes.

The little boy was partway inside the hole, clinging to the edge with both hands. “Doggie,” he sobbed.

The lioness crouched, sprang into the hole. A crash, a bellow and a thin scream came from within. The lioness reappeared, its eyes glittering and its fur on end. It gripped the little boy by the cape and trotted off, growling.

“Good dog!” cried the man.

Men in the shops’ doorways echoed his shout.

“A kid,” said the man. “They have to learn sometime, I know, but—” He cut himself short. “Well, all’s well that ends well.” He glanced respectfully at Dan. “If you’re here any length of time, sir, we’d certainly appreciate your looking into this. And if you’re planning to stay long—well, as you see, our sweepers are hungry—our main store is on 122 Center Street. Our vacation advisor might be of some service to you.”

“Thank you,” said Dan, his throat dry.

“Not at all, Devisement.” The man went inside, muttering, “A kid.”

Dan passed several more shops without seeing very much. He turned the corner. Across the street, where the boy had been, was a dented brass plate at the base of the building. On Dan’s side of the street, trotting toward him, was a big, tawny-maned lion. Dan hesitated, then started up the street.

There was a faint clash of metal.

Swish-swish.

A net seemed to form in the air and close around him. There was a feel of innumerable hairy spiders running over him from head to foot. The net vanished. Something wrapped around his ankle and yanked.

The lion growled.

There was a loud clang and Dan’s foot was free. He looked down and saw a brass plate labeled SWEEPER.

Dan decided it might be a good idea to see the Save-Your-Life Co.’s vacation advisor. He started out to locate 122 Center Street and gave all brass plates a wide berth on the way.

He strode through a briskly moving crowd of powerfully built men and women in capes of various colors, noticing uneasily that they were making way for him. He studied them as they passed, and saw capes of red, green, dark blue, brown, purple, and other shades and combinations of colors. But the only sky-blue cape he had seen so far was his own.

A sign on the corner of a building told Dan he was at Center Street. He crossed and the people continued to draw back for him.

It began to dawn on Dan that he had had the ultimate bad luck for a spy in an unknown country: He was marked out on sight as some sort of notable.

Just how bad his luck had been wasn’t clear to him till he came to a small grassy square with an iron fence around it and a man-sized statue in the center. The granite base of the statue was inscribed:

I DEVISE

The statue itself was of bronze, showing a powerful man, his foot crushing down a mass of snapping monsters. In his right hand, he held together a large circle of metal, his fingers squeezing shut a cut in the metal, which would break the circle if he let go. His left hand made a partially open fist, into which a wrench had been fitted. The statue itself, protected by some clear finish from the weather, was plain brown in color.

 

But the statue’s cape was enameled sky-blue.

Dan stared at the statue for a moment, then looked around. In the street beside it, a crowd of people was forming, their backs toward him and their heads raised. Dan looked up. Far up, near the tops of the buildings, he could make out a long cable stretched from one building to another across the street. Just on the other side of the crowd was the entrance to the main store of the Save-Your-Life Co.

Dan crossed the street and saw a very average-looking man, wearing an orange cape, come to a stop at the corner and look shrewdly around.

Dan blinked and looked again. The man in orange was no Porcyn.

The man’s glance fell on the statue and his lips twisted in an amused smile. He looked up toward the rope, then down at the crowd, and then studied the backs of the crowd and the fronts of the stores around him, the lids of his eyes half-closed in a calculating look.

A brass plate nearby popped open, a net of delicate hairy tendrils ran over him, and something like a length of tarred one-inch rope snaked out and wrapped around his legs. An outraged expression crossed his face. His hand came up. The rope yanked. He fell on the sidewalk. The rope hauled him into the hole. The brass plate snapped shut. From inside came a muffled report.

It occurred to Dan that Galactic was not the only organization interested in Porcys.

Dan looked thoughtfully at the brass plate for a moment, then walked toward the entrance of the Save-Your-Life Co., past display windows showing weights, cables, parallel bars, trapezes and giant springs with handles on each end.

He tried the door. It didn’t move.

A clerk immediately opened the door and took Dan along a cool, chaste hallway to an office marked “Vacation Advisor.” Here a suave-looking man made an offhand remark about the birth rate, took a sudden look at Dan’s cape, blinked, stiffened, glanced at Dan’s midsection and relaxed. He went through his files and gave Dan a big photograph showing a smiling, healthy, middle-aged couple and a lovely girl about nineteen.

“These are the Milbuns, sir. Mr. Milbun is a merchant at present. Quite well-to-do, I understand. Mrs. Milbun is a housewife right now. The daughter, Mavis, is with a midtown firm at the moment. The mother became ill at an awkward time. The family put their vacation off for her, and as a result their charge has run very low. If you can get to their apartment without being—ah—swept, I feel sure they will welcome you, sir.” He scribbled a rough map on a piece of paper, drew an arrow and wrote “6140 Runfast Boulevard, Apartment 6B,” and stamped the paper “Courtesy of Save-Your-Life Co.”

Then he wished Dan a healthy vacation and walked with him to hold open the outer door.

Dan thanked him and went outside, where the crowd was now almost blocking the sidewalk. He forced his way free, saw someone point, and glanced at the statue.

The wrench in the statue’s left hand had been replaced by what looked like a magnifying glass.

Dan had gone a few steps when there was a thundering cheer, then a terrified scream high in the air behind him. He turned around and saw a man come plummeting down. Dan gaped higher and saw a line of tiny figures going across high up on the rope. One of the figures slipped. There was another cheer.

Dan hurriedly turned away.

He had already convinced himself that the Porcyns had a “proper mercantile attitude.” And he thought he was beginning to get an idea as to how they kept their population down.

IV

Carefully avoiding brass plates, Dan made his way along an avenue of shops devoted to exercise and physical fitness. He came to Runfast Blvd. and located 6140, which looked like the apartment houses he had seen earlier.

He tried the outer door; it was locked. When someone came out, Dan caught the door and stepped in. As the door shut, he tried it and found it was locked again. He stood for a moment trying to understand it, but his sleeplessness of the night before was catching up with him. He gave up and went inside.

There were no elevators on the ground floor. Dan had his choice of six ropes, two ladders and a circular staircase. He went up the staircase to the third floor, where he saw a single elevator. He rode it up to the sixth, got off and found that there was a bank of four elevators on this floor.

He looked at the elevators a minute, felt himself getting dizzy, and walked off to locate apartment 6B.

A powerfully built gray-haired man of middle height answered his knock. Dan introduced himself and explained why he had come.

Mr. Milbun beamed and his right hand shot forward. Dan felt like a man with his hand caught in an airlock.

“Lerna!” called Milbun. “Lerna! Mavis! We have a guest for vacation!”

Dan became aware of a rhythmical clinking somewhere in the back of the apartment. Then a big, strong-looking woman, obviously fresh from the kitchen, hurried in, smiling. If she had been ill, she was clearly recovered now.

“Ah, how are you?” she cried. “We’re so happy to have you!” She gripped his hand and called, “Mavis!

The clinking stopped. A beautifully proportioned girl came in, wearing a sweatshirt and shorts. “Mother, I simply have to get off another pound or so—Oh!” She stared at Dan.

“Mavis,” said Mr. Milbun, “this is Mr. Dan Redman. Devisement, my daughter Mavis.”

“You’re going with us!” she said happily. “How wonderful!”

“Now,” said Mr. Milbun, “I imagine his Devisement wants to get a little rest before he goes down to the gym.” He glanced at Dan. “We have a splendid gym here.”

“Oh,” said Mavis eagerly, “and you can use my weights.”

“Thanks,” said Dan.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Milbun told him. “The birth rate’s still rising here, and last night the charge correction went up again. A little more and it’ll take two of us to get a door open. It won’t inconvenience you to leave tomorrow?”

“Not at all,” said Dan.

“Splendid.” Milbun turned to his wife. “Lerna, perhaps our guest would like a little something to eat.”

The food was plain, good and plentiful. Afterward, Mavis showed Dan to his room. He sank down gratefully on a firm, comfortable bed. He closed his eyes….

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