TRADERS--... and constantly in advance of the political hegemony of the Foundation were the Traders, reaching out tenuous fingerholds through the tremendous distances of the Periphery. Months or years might pass between landings on Terminus; their ships were often nothing more than patchquilts of home-made repairs and improvisations; their honesty was none of the highest; their daring...
Through it all they forged an empire more enduring than the pseudo-religious despotism of the Four Kingdoms...
Tales without end are told of these massive, lonely figures who bore half-seriously, half-mockingly a motto adopted from one of Salvor Hardin’s epigrams, “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!” It is difficult now to tell which tales are real and which apocryphal. There are none probably that have not suffered some exaggeration....
Limmar Ponyets was completely a-lather when the call reached his receiver -- which proves that the old bromide about telemessages and the shower holds true even in the dark, hard space of the Galactic Periphery.
Luckily that part of a free-lance trade ship which is not given over to miscellaneous merchandise is extremely snug. So much so, that the shower, hot water included, is located in a two-by-four cubby, ten feet from the control panels. Ponyets heard the staccato rattle of the receiver quite plainly.
Dripping suds and a growl, he stepped out to adjust the vocal, and three hours later a second trade ship was alongside, and a grinning youngster entered through the air tube between the ships.
Ponyets rattled his best chair forward and perched himself on the pilot-swivel.
“What’ve you been doing, Gorm?” he asked, darkly. “Chasing me all the way from the Foundation?”
Les Gorm broke out a cigarette, and shook his head definitely, “Me? Not a chance. I’m just a sucker who happened to land on Glyptal IV the day after the mail. So they sent me out after you with this.”
The tiny, gleaming sphere changed hands, and Gorm added, “It’s confidential. Super-secret. Can’t be trusted to the sub-ether and all that. Or so I gather. At least, it’s a Personal Capsule, and won’t open for anyone but you.”
Ponyets regarded the capsule distastefully, “I can see that. And I never knew one of these to hold good news, either.”
It opened in his hand and the thin, transparent tape unrolled stiffly. His eyes swept the message quickly, for when the last of the tape had emerged, the first was already brown and crinkled. In a minute and a half it had turned black and, molecule by molecule, fallen apart.
Ponyets grunted hollowly, “Oh, Galaxy!”
Les Gorm said quietly, “Can I help somehow? Or is it too secret?”
“It will bear telling, since you’re of the Guild. I’ve got to go to Askone.”
“That place? How come?”
“They’ve imprisoned a trader. But keep it to yourself.’’
Gorm’s expression jolted into anger, “Imprisoned! That’s against the Convention.”
“So is the interference with local politics.”
“Oh! Is that what he did?” Gorm meditated. “Who’s the trader’? Anyone I know?”
“No!” said Ponyets sharply, and Gorm accepted the implication and asked no further questions.
Ponyets was up and staring darkly out the visiplate. He mumbled strong expressions at that part of the misty lens-form that was the body of the Galaxy, then said loudly, “Damnedest mess! I’m way behind quota.”
Light broke on Gorm’s intellect, “Hey, friend, Askone is a closed area.”
“That’s right. You can’t sell as much as a penknife on Askone. They won’t buy nuclear gadgets of any sort. With my quota dead on its feet, it’s murder to go there.”
“Can’t get out of it?”
Ponyets shook his head absently, A know the fellow involved. Can’t walk out on a friend. What of it? I am in the hands of the Galactic Spirit and walk cheerfully in the way he points out.”
Gorm said blankly, “Huh?”
Ponyets looked at him, and laughed shortly, “I forgot. You never read the ‘Bood of the Spirit,’ did you?”
“Never heard of it,” said Gorm, curtly.
“Well, you would if you’d had a religious training.”
“Religious training? For the priesthood?” Gorm was profoundly shocked.
“Afraid so. It’s my dark shame and secret. I was too much for the Reverend Fathers, though, They expelled me, for reasons sufficient to promote me to a secular education under the Foundation. Well, look, I’d better push off. How’s your quota this year?”
Gorm crushed out his cigarette and adjusted his cap, “I’ve got my last cargo going now. I’ll make it.”
“Lucky fellow,” gloomed Ponyets, and for many minutes after Les Gorm left, he sat in motionless reverie.
So Eskel Gorov was on Askone -- and in prison as well!
That was bad! In fact, considerably worse than it might appear. It was one thing to tell a curious youngster a diluted version of the business to throw him off and send him about his own. It was a thing of a different sort to face the truth.
For Limmar Ponyets was one of the few people who happened to know that Master Trader Eskel Gorov was not a trader at all; but that entirely different thing, an agent of the Foundation!
Two weeks gone! Two weeks wasted.
One week to reach Askone, at the extreme borders of which the vigilant warships speared out to meet him in converging numbers. Whatever their detection system was, it worked -- and well.
They sidled him in slowly, without a signal, maintaining their cold distance, and pointing him harshly towards the central sun of Askone.
Ponyets could have handled them at a pinch. Those ships were holdovers from the dead-and-gone Galactic Empire -- but they were sports cruisers, not warships; and without nuclear weapons, they were so many picturesque and impotent ellipsoids. But Eskel Gorov was a prisoner in their hands, and Gorov was not a hostage to lose. The Askonians must know that.
And then another week -- a week to wind a weary way through the clouds of minor officials that formed the buffer between the Grand Master and the outer world. Each little sub-secretary required soothing and conciliation. Each required careful and nauseating milking for the flourishing signature that was the pathway to the next official one higher up.
For the first time, Ponyets found his trader’s identification papers useless.
I Now, at last, the Grand Master was on the other side of the Guard-flanked gilded door -- and two weeks had gone.
Gorov was still a prisoner and Ponyets’ cargo rotted useless in the holds of his ship.
The Grand Master was a small man; a small man with a balding head and very wrinkled face, whose body seemed weighed down to motionlessness by the huge, glossy fur collar about his neck.
His fingers moved on either side, and the line of armed men backed away to for a passage, along which Ponyets strode to the foot of the Chair of State.
“Don’t speak,” snapped the Grand Master, and Ponyets’ opening lips closed tightly.
“That’s right,” the Askonian ruler relaxed visibly, “I can’t endure useless chatter. You cannot threaten and I won’t abide flattery. Nor is there room for injured complaints. I have lost count of the times you wanderers have been warned that your devil’s machines are not wanted anywhere in Askone.”
“Sir,” said Ponyets, quietly, “there is no attempt to justify the trader in question. It is not the policy of traders to intrude where they are not wanted. But the Galaxy is great, and it has happened before that a boundary has been trespassed unwittingly. It was a deplorable mistake.”
“Deplorable, certainly,” squeaked the Grand Master. “But mistake? Your people on Glyptal IV have been bombarding me with pleas for negotiation since two hours after the sacrilegious wretch was seized. I have been warned by them of your own coming many times over. It seems a well-organized rescue campaign. Much seems to have been anticipated -- a little too much for mistakes, deplorable or otherwise.”
The Askonian’s black eyes were scornful. He raced on, “And are you traders, flitting from world to world like mad little butterflies, so mad in your own right that you can land on Askone’s largest world, in the center of its system, and consider it an unwitting boundary mixup? Come, surely not.”
Ponyets winced without showing it. He said, doggedly, “If the attempt to trade was deliberate, your Veneration, it was most injudicious and contrary to the strictest regulations of our Guild.”
“Injudicious, yes,” said the Askonian, curtly. “So much so, that your comrade is likely to lose life in payment.”
Ponyets’ stomach knotted. There was no irresolution there. He said, “Death, your Veneration, is so absolute and irrevocable a phenomenon that certainly there must be some alternative.”
There was a pause before the guarded answer came, “I have heard that the Foundation is rich.”
“Rich? Certainly. But our riches are that which you refuse to take. Our nuclear goods are worth--”
“Your goods are worthless in that they lack the ancestral blessing. Your goods are wicked and accursed in that they lie under the ancestral interdict.” The sentences were intoned; the recitation of a formula.
The Grand Master’s eyelids dropped, and he said with meaning, “You have nothing else of value?”
The meaning was lost on the trader, “I don’t understand. What is it you want?”
The Askonian’s hands spread apart, “You ask me to trade places with you, and make known to you my wants. I think not. Your colleague, it seems, must suffer the punishment set for sacrilege by the Askonian code. Death by gas. We are a just people. The poorest peasant, in like case, would suffer no more. I, myself, would suffer no less.”
Ponyets mumbled hopelessly, “Your Veneration, would it be permitted that I speak to the prisoner?”
“Askonian law,” said the Grand Master coldly, “allows no communication with a condemned man.”
Mentally, Ponyets held his breath, “Your Veneration, I ask you to be merciful towards a man’s soul, in the hour when his body stands forfeit. He has been separated from spiritual consolation in all the time that his life has been in danger. Even now, he faces the prospect of going unprepared to the bosom of the Spirit that rules all.”
The Grand Master said slowly and suspiciously, “You are a Tender of the Soul?”
Ponyets dropped a humble head, “I have been so trained. In the empty expanses of space, the wandering traders need men like myself to care for the spiritual side of a life so given over to commerce and worldly pursuits.”
The Askonian ruler sucked thoughtfully at his lower lip. “Every man should prepare his soul for his journey to his ancestral spirits. Yet I had never thought you traders to be believers.”
Eskel Gorov stirred on his couch and opened one eye as Limmar Ponyets entered the heavily reinforced door. It boomed shut behind him. Gorov sputtered and came to his feet.
“Ponyets! They sent you?”
“Pure chance,” said Ponyets, bitterly, “or the work of my own personal malevolent demon. Item one, you get into a mess on Askone. Item two, my sales route, as known to the Board of Trade, carries me within fifty parsecs of the system at just the time of item one. Item three, we’ve worked together before and the Board knows it. Isn’t that a sweet, inevitable set-up? The answer just pops out of a slot.”
“Be careful,” said Gorov, tautly. “There’ll be someone listening. Are you wearing a Field Distorter?”
Ponyets indicated the ornamented bracelet that hugged his wrist and Gorov relaxed.
Ponyets looked about him. The cell was bare, but large. It was well-lit and it lacked offensive odors. He said, “Not bad. They’re treating you with kid gloves.”
Gorov brushed the remark aside, “Listen, how did you get down here? I’ve been in strict solitary for almost two weeks.”
“Ever since I came, huh? Well, it seems the old bird who’s boss here has his weak points. He leans toward pious speeches, so I took a chance that worked. I’m here in the capacity of your spiritual adviser. There’s something about a pious man such as he. He will cheerfully cut your throat if it suits him, but he will hesitate to endanger the welfare of your immaterial and problematical soul. It’s just a piece of empirical psychology. A trader has to know a little of everything.”
Gorov’s smile was sardonic, “And you’ve been to theological school as well. You’re all right, Ponyets. I’m glad they sent you. But the Grand Master doesn’t love my soul exclusively. Has he mentioned a ransom?”
The trader’s eyes narrowed, “He hinted -- barely. And he also threatened death by gas. I played safe, and dodged; it might easily have been a trap. So it’s extortion, is it? What is it he wants?”
“Gold!” Ponyets frowned. “The metal itself? What for?”
“It’s their medium of exchange.”
“Is it? And where do I get gold from?”
“Wherever you can. Listen to me; this is important. Nothing will happen to me as long as the Grand Master has the scent of gold in his nose. Promise it to him; as much as he asks for. Then go back to the Foundation, if necessary, to get it. When I’m free, we’ll be escorted out of the system, and then we part company.”
Ponyets stared disapprovingly, “And then you’ll come back and try again.”
“It’s my assignment to sell nucleics to Askone.”
“They’ll get you before you’ve gone a parsec in space. You know that, I suppose.”
“I don’t,” said Gorov. “And if I did, it wouldn’t affect things.”
“They’ll kill you the second time.”
Ponyets said quietly, “If I’m going to negotiate with the Grand Master again, I want to know the whole story. So far, I’ve been working it too blind. As it was, the few mild remarks I did make almost threw his Veneration into fits.”
“It’s simple enough,” said Gorov. “The only way we can increase the security of the Foundation here in the Periphery is to form a religion-controlled commercial empire. We’re still too weak to be able to force political control. It’s all we can do to hold the Four Kingdoms.”
Ponyets was nodding. “This I realize. And any system that doesn’t accept nuclear gadgets can never be placed under our religious control--”
“And can therefore become a focal point for independence and hostility. Yes.”
“All right, then,” said Ponyets, “so much for theory. Now what exactly prevents the sale. Religion? The Grand Master implied as much.”
“It’s a form of ancestor worship. Their traditions tell of an evil past from which they were saved by the simple and virtuous heroes of the past generations. It amounts to a distortion of the anarchic period a century ago, when the imperial troops were driven out and an independent government was set up. Advanced science and nuclear power in particular became identified with the old imperial regime they remember with horror.”
“That so? But they have nice little ships which spotted me very handily two parsecs away. That smells of nucleics to me.”
Gorov shrugged. “Those ships are holdovers of the Empire, no doubt. Probably with nuclear drive. What they have, they keep. The point is that they will not innovate and their internal economy is entirely non-nuclear. That is what we must change.”
“How were you going to do it?”
“By breaking the resistance at one point. To put it simply, if I could sell a penknife with a force-field blade to a nobleman, it would be to his interest to force laws that would allow him to use it. Put that baldly, it sounds silly, but it is sound, psychologically. To make strategic sales, at strategic points, would be to create a pro-nucleics faction at court.”
“And they send you for that purpose, while I’m only here to ransom you and leave, while you keep on trying? Isn’t that sort of tail-backward?”
“In what way?” said Gorov, guardedly.
“Listen,” Ponyets was suddenly exasperated, “you’re a diplomat, not a trader, and calling you a trader won’t make you one. This case is for one who’s made a business of selling -- and I’m here with a full cargo stinking into uselessness, and a quota that won’t ever be met, it looks like.”
“You mean you’re going to risk your life on something that isn’t your business?” Gorov smiled thinly.
Ponyets said, “You mean that this is a matter of patriotism and traders aren’t patriotic?”
“Notoriously not. Pioneers never are.”
“All right. I’ll grant that. I don’t scoot about space to save the Foundation or anything like that. But I’m out to make money, and this is my chance. If it helps the Foundation at the same time, all the better. And I’ve risked my life on slimmer chances.”
Ponyets rose, and Gorov rose with him, “What are you going to do?”
The trader smiled, “Gorov, I don’t know -- not yet. But if the crux of the matter is to make a sale, then I’m your man. I’m not a boaster as a general thing, but there’s one thing I’ll always back up. I’ve never ended up below quota yet.”
The door to the cell opened almost instantly when he knocked, and two guards fell in on either side.
“A show!” said the Grand Master, grimly. He settled himself well into his furs, and one thin hand grasped the iron cudgel he used as a cane.
“And gold, your Veneration.”
“And gold,” agreed the Grand Master, carelessly.
Ponyets set the box down and opened it with as fine an appearance of confidence as he could manage. He felt alone in the face of universal hostility; the way he had felt out in space his first year. The semicircle of bearded councilors who faced him down, stared unpleasantly. Among them was Pherl, the thin-faced favorite who sat next to the Grand Master in stiff hostility. Ponyets had met him once already and marked him immediately as prime enemy, and, as a consequence, prime victim.
Outside the hall, a small army awaited events. Ponyets was effectively isolated from his ship; he lacked any weapon, but his attempted bribe; and Gorov was still a hostage.
He made the final adjustments on the clumsy monstrosity that had cost him a week of ingenuity, and prayed once again that the lead-lined quartz would stand the strain.
“What is it?” asked the Grand Master.
“This,” said Ponyets, stepping back, “is a small device I have constructed myself.”
“That is obvious, but it is not the information I want. Is it one of the black-magic abominations of your world?”
“It is nuclear in nature, admitted Ponyets, gravely, “but none of you need touch it, or have anything to do with it. It is for myself alone, and if it contains abominations, I take the foulness of it upon myself.”
The Grand Master had raised his iron cane at the machine in a threatening gesture and his lips moved rapidly and silently in a purifying invocation. The thin-faced councilor at his right leaned towards him and his straggled red mustache approached the Grand Master’s ear. The ancient Askonian petulantly shrugged himself free.
“And what is the connection of your instrument of evil and the gold that may save your countryman’s life?”
“With this machine,” began Ponyets, as his hand dropped softly onto the central chamber and caressed its hard, round flanks, “I can turn the iron you discard into gold of the finest quality. It is the only device known to man that will take iron -- the ugly iron, your Veneration, that props up the chair you sit in and the walls of this building -- and change it to shining, heavy, yellow gold.”
Ponyets felt himself botching it. His usual sales talk was smooth, facile and plausible; but this limped like a shot-up space wagon. But it was the content, not the form, that interested the Grand Master.
“So? Transmutation? Men have been fools who have claimed the ability. They have paid for their prying sacrilege.”
“Had they succeeded?”
“No.” The Grand Master seemed coldly amused. “Success at producing gold would have been a crime that carried its own antidote. It is the attempt plus the failure that is fatal. Here, what can you do with my staff?” He pounded the floor with it.
“Your Veneration will excuse me. My device is a small model, prepared by myself, and your staff is too long.”
The Grand Master’s small shining eye wandered and stopped, “Randel, your buckles. Come, man, they shall be replaced double if need be.”
The buckles passed down the line, hand to hand. The Grand Master weighed them thoughtfully.
“Here,” he said, and threw them to the floor.
Ponyets picked them up. He tugged hard before the cylinder opened, and his eyes blinked and squinted with effort as he centered the buckles carefully on the anode screen. Later, it would be easier but there must be no failures the first time.
The homemade transmuter crackled malevolently for ten minutes while the odor of ozone became faintly present. The Askonians backed away, muttering, and again Pherl whispered urgently into his ruler’s ear. The Grand Master’s expression was stony. He did not budge.
And the buckles were gold.
Ponyets held them out to the Grand Master with a murmured, “Your Veneration!” but the old man hesitated, then gestured them away. His stare lingered upon the transmuter.
Ponyets said rapidly, “Gentlemen, this is pure gold. Gold through and through. You may subject it to every known physical and chemical test, if you wish to prove the point. It cannot be identified from naturally-occurring gold in any way. Any iron can be so treated. Rust will not interfere, not will a moderate amount of alloying metals--”
But Ponyets spoke only to fill a vacuum. He let the buckles remain in his outstretched hand, and it was the gold that argued for him.
The Grand Master stretched out a slow hand at last, and the thin-faced Pherl was roused to open speech. “Your Veneration, the gold is from a poisoned source.”
And Ponyets countered, “A rose can grow from the mud, your Veneration. In your dealings with your neighbors, you buy material of all imaginable variety, without inquiring as to where they get it, whether from an orthodox machine blessed by your benign ancestors or from some space-spawned outrage. Come, I don’t offer the machine. I offer the gold.”
“Your Veneration,” said Pherl, “you are not responsible for the sins of foreigners who work neither with your consent nor knowledge. But to accept this strange pseudo-gold made sinfully from iron in your presence and with your consent is an affront to the living spirits of our holy ancestors.”
“Yet gold is gold,” said the Grand Master, doubtfully, “and is but an exchange for the heathen person of a convicted felon. Pherl, you are too critical.” But he withdrew his hand.
Ponyets said, “You are wisdom, itself, your Veneration. Consider -- to give up a heathen is to lose nothing for your ancestors, whereas with the gold you get in exchange you can ornament the shrines of their holy spirits. And surely, were gold evil in itself, if such, a thing could be, the evil would depart of necessity once the metal were put to such pious use.”
“Now by the bones of my grandfather,” said the Grand Master with surprising vehemence. His lips separated in a shrill laugh, “Pherl, what do you say of this young man? The statement is valid. It is as valid as the words of my ancestors.”
Pherl said gloomily, “So it would seem. Grant that the validity does not turn out to be a device of the Malignant Spirit.”
“I’ll make it even better,” said Ponyets, suddenly. “Hold the gold in hostage. Place it on the altars of your ancestors as an offering and hold me for thirty days. If at the end of that time, there is no evidence of displeasure -- if no disasters occur -- surely, it would be proof that the offering was accepted. What more can be offered?”
And when the Grand Master rose to his feet to search out disapproval, not a man in the council failed to signal his agreement. Even Pherl chewed the ragged end of his mustache and nodded curtly.
Ponyets smiled and meditated on the uses of a religious education.
Another week rubbed away before the meeting with Pherl was arranged. Ponyets felt the tension, but he was used to the feeling of physical helplessness now. He had left city limits under guard. He was in Pherl’s suburban villa under guard. There was nothing to do but accept it without even looking over his shoulder.
Pherl was taller and younger outside the circle of Elders. In nonformal costume, he seemed no Elder at all.
He said abruptly, “You’re a peculiar man.” His close-set eyes seemed to quiver. “You’ve done nothing this last week, and particularly these last two hours, but imply that I need gold. It seems useless labor, for who does not? Why not advance one step?”
“It is not simply gold,” said Ponyets, discreetly. “Not simply gold. Not merely a coin or two. It is rather all that lies behind gold.”
“Now what can lie behind gold?” prodded Pherl, with a down-curved smile. “Certainly this is not the preliminary of another clumsy demonstration.”
“Clumsy?” Ponyets frowned slightly.
“Oh, definitely.” Pherl folded his hands and nudged them gently with his chin. “I don’t criticize you. The clumsiness was on purpose, I am sure. I might have warned his Veneration of that, had I been certain of the motive. Now had I been you, I would have produced the gold upon my ship, and offered it alone. The show you offered us and the antagonism you aroused would have been dispensed with.”
“True,” Ponyets admitted, “but since I was myself, I accepted the antagonism for the sake of attracting your attention.”
“Is that it? Simply that?” Pherl made no effort to hide his contemptuous amusement. “And I imagine you suggested the thirty-day purification period that you might assure yourself time to turn the attraction into something a bit more substantial. But what if the gold turns out to be impure?”
Ponyets allowed himself a dark humor in return, “When the judgement of that impurity depends upon those who are most interested in finding it pure?”
Pherl lifted his eyes and stared narrowly at the trader. He seemed at once surprised and satisfied.
“A sensible point. Now tell me why you wished to attract me.”
“This I will do. In the short time I have been here, I have observed useful facts that concern you and interest me. For instance, you are young-very young for a member of the council, and even of a relatively young family.”
“You criticize my family?”
“Not at all. Your ancestors are great and holy; all will admit that. But there are those that say you are not a member of one of the Five Tribes.”
Pherl leaned back, “With all respect to those involved,” and he did not hide his venom, “the Five Tribes have impoverished loins and thin blood. Not fifty members of the Tribes are alive.”
“Yet there are those who say the nation would not be willing to see any man outside the Tribes as Grand Master. And so young and newly-advanced a favorite of the Grand Master is bound to make powerful enemies among the great ones of the State -- it is said. His Veneration is aging and his protection will not last past his death, when it is an enemy of yours who will undoubtedly be the one to interpret the words of his Spirit.”
Pherl scowled, “For a foreigner you hear much. Such ears are made for cropping.”
“That may be decided later.”
“Let me anticipate.” Pherl stirred impatiently in his seat. “You’re going to offer me wealth and power in terms of those evil little machines you carry in your ship. Well?”
“Suppose it so. What would be your objection? Simply your standard of good and evil?”
Pherl shook his head. “Not at all. Look, my Outlander, your opinion of us in your heathen agnosticism is what it is -- but I am not the entire slave of our mythology, though I may appear so. I am an educated man, sir, and, I hope, an enlightened one. The full depth of our religious customs, in the ritualistic rather than the ethical sense, is for the masses.”
“Your objection, then?” pressed Ponyets, gently.
“Just that. The masses. I might be willing to deal with you, but your little machines must be used to be useful. How might riches come to me, if I had to use -- what is it you sell?-- well, a razor, for instance, only in the strictest, trembling secrecy. Even if my chin were more simply and more cleanly shaven, how would I become rich? And how would I avoid death by gas chamber or mob frightfulness if I were ever once caught using it?”
Ponyets shrugged, “You are correct. I might point out that the remedy would be to educate your own people into the use of nucleics for their convenience and your own substantial profit. It would be a gigantic piece of work; I don’t deny it; but the returns would be still more gigantic. Still that is your concern, and, at the moment, not mine at all. For I offer neither razor, knife, nor mechanical garbage disposer.”
“What do you offer?”
“Gold itself. Directly. You may have the machine I demonstrated last week.”
And now Pherl stiffened and the skin on his forehead moved jerkily. “The transmuter?”
“Exactly. Your supply of gold will equal your supply of iron. That, I imagine, is sufficient for all needs. Sufficient for the Grand Mastership itself, despite youth and enemies. And it is safe.”
“In what way?”
“In that secrecy is the essence of its use; that same secrecy you described as the only safety with regard to nucleics. You may bury the transmuter in the deepest dungeon of the strongest fortress on your furthest estate, and it will still bring you instant wealth. It is the gold you buy, not the machine, and that gold bears no trace of its manufacture, for it cannot be told from the natural creation.”
“And who is to operate the machine?”
“Yourself. Five minutes teaching is all you will require. I’ll set it up for you wherever you wish.”
“And in return?”
“Well,” Ponyets grew cautious. “I ask a price and a handsome one. It is my living. Let us say,-- for it its a valuable machine -- the equivalent of a cubic foot of gold in wrought iron.”
Pherl laughed, and Ponyets grew red. “I point out, sir,” he added, stiffly, “that you can get your price back in two hours.”
“True, and in one hour, you might be gone, and my machine might suddenly turn out to be useless. I’ll need a guarantee.”
“You have my word.”
“A very good one,” Pherl bowed sardonically, “but your presence would be an even better assurance. I’ll give you my word to pay you one week after delivery in working order.”
“Impossible? When you’ve already incurred the death penalty very handily by even offering to sell me anything. The only alternative is my word that you’ll get the gas chamber tomorrow otherwise.”
Ponyet’s face was expressionless, but his eyes might have flickered. He said, “It is an unfair advantage. You will at least put your promise in writing?”
“And also become liable for execution? No, sir!” Pherl smiled a broad satisfaction. “No, sir! Only one of us is a fool.”
The trader said in a small voice, “It is agreed, then.”
Gorov was released on the thirtieth day, and five hundred pounds of the yellowest gold took his place. And with him was released the quarantined and untouched abomination that was his ship.
Then, as on the journey into the Askonian system, so on the journey out, the cylinder of sleek little ships ushered them on their way.
Ponyets watched the dimly sun-lit speck that was Gorov’s ship while Gorov’s voice pierced through to him, clear and thin on the tight, distortion-bounded ether-beam.
He was saying, “But it isn’t what’s wanted, Ponyets. A transmuter won’t do. Where did you get one, anyway?”
“I didn’t,” Ponyets answer was patient. “I juiced it up out of a food irradiation chamber. It isn’t any good, really. The power consumption is prohibitive on any large scale or the Foundation would use transmutation instead of chasing all over the Galaxy for heavy metals. It’s one of the standard tricks every trader uses, except that I never saw an iron-to-gold one before. But it’s impressive, and it works -- very temporarily.”
“All right. But that particular trick is no good.”
“It got you out of a nasty spot.”
“That is very far from the point. Especially since I’ve got to go back, once we shake our solicitous escort.”
“You yourself explained it to this politician of yours,” Gorov’s voice was on edge. “Your entire sales-point rested on the fact that the transmuter was a means to an end, but of no value in itself--, that he was buying the gold, not the machine. It was good psychology, since it worked, but--”
“But?” Ponyets urged blandly and obtusely.
The voice from the receiver grew shriller, “But we want to sell them a machine of value in itself, something they would want to use openly; something that would tend to force them out in favor of nuclear techniques as a matter of self-interest.”
“I understand all that,” said Ponyets, gently. “You once explained it. But look at what follows from my sale, will you? As long as that transmuter lasts, Pherl will coin gold; and it will last long enough to buy him the next election. The present Grand Master won’t last long.”
“You count on gratitude?” asked Gorov, coldly.
“No -- on intelligent self-interest. The transmuter gets him an election; other mechanisms--”
“No! No! Your premise is twisted. It’s not the transmuter, he’ll credit -- it’ll be the good, old-fashioned gold. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
Ponyets grinned and shifted into a more comfortable position. All right. He’d baited the poor fellow sufficiently. Gorov was beginning to sound wild.
The trader said, “Not so fast, Gorov. I haven’t finished. There are other gadgets already involved.”
There was a short silence. Then, Gorov’s voice sounded cautiously, “What other gadgets?”
Ponyets gestured automatically and uselessly, “You see that escort?”
“I do,” said Gorov shortly. “Tell me about those gadgets.”
“I will, --if you’ll listen. That’s Pherl’s private navy escorting us; a special honor to him from the Grand Master. He managed to squeeze that out.”
“And where do you think he’s taking us? To his mining estates on the outskirts of Askone, that’s where. Listen!” Ponyets was suddenly fiery, “I told you I was in this to make money, not to save worlds. All right. I sold that transmuter for nothing. Nothing except the risk of the gas chamber and that doesn’t count towards the quota.”
“Get back to the mining estates, Ponyets. Where do they come in?”
“With the profits. We’re stacking up on tin, Gorov. Tin to fill every last cubic foot this old scow can scrape up, and then some more for yours. I’m going down with Pherl to collect, old man, and you’re going to cover me from upstairs with every gun you’ve got -- just in case Pherl isn’t as sporting about the matter as he lets on to be. That tin’s my profit.”
“For the transmuter?”
“For my entire cargo of nucleics. At double price, plus a bonus.” He shrugged, almost apologetically. “I admit I gouged him, but I’ve got to make quota, don’t I?”
Gorov was evidently lost. He said, weakly, “Do you mind explaining’?”
“What’s there to explain? It’s obvious, Gorov. Look, the clever dog thought he had me in a foolproof trap, because his word was worth more than mine to the Grand Master. He took the transmuter. That was a capital crime in Askone. But at any time he could say that he had lured me on into a trap with the purest of patriotic motives, and denounce me as a seller of forbidden things.”
“That was obvious.”
“Sure, but word against simple word wasn’t all there was to it. You see, Pherl had never heard nor conceived of a microfilm-recorder.”
Gorov laughed suddenly.
“That’s right,” said Ponyets. “He had the upper hand. I was properly chastened. But when I set up the transmuter for him in my whipped-dog fashion, I incorporated the recorder into the device and removed it in the next day’s overhaul. I had a perfect record of his sanctum sanctorum, his holy-of-holies, with he himself, poor Pherl, operating the transmuter for all the ergs it had and crowing over his first piece of gold as if it were an egg he had just laid.”
“You showed him the results?”
“Two days later. The poor sap had never seen three-dimensional color-sound images in his life. He claims he isn’t superstitious, but if I ever saw an adult look as scared as he did then, call me rookie. When I told him I had a recorder planted in the city square, set to go off at midday with a million fanatical Askonians to watch, and to tear him to pieces subsequently, he was gibbering at my knees in half a second. He was ready to make any deal I wanted.”
“Did you?” Gorov’s voice was suppressing laughter. “I mean, have one planted in the city square.”
“No, but that didn’t matter. He made the deal. He bought every gadget I had, and every one you had for as much tin as we could carry. At that moment, he believed me capable of anything. The agreement is in writing and you’ll have a copy before I go down with him, just as another precaution.”
“But you’ve damaged his ego,” said Gorov. “Will he use the gadgets?”
“Why not? It’s his only way of recouping his losses, and if he makes money out of it, he’ll salve his pride. And he will be the next Grand Master -- and the best man we could have in our favor.”
“Yes,” said Gorov, “it was a good sale. Yet you’ve certainly got an uncomfortable sales technique. No wonder you were kicked out of a seminary. Have you no sense of morals?”
“What are the odds?” said Ponyets, indifferently. “You know what Salvor Hardin said about a sense of morals.”