Citadel can be found in




ISFDB.org Magazine Entry



Astounding Science FictionFebruary 1955.

Citadel

by Alan Budrys

I

The aging man was sweating profusely, and he darted sidelong glances at the windowless walls of the outer office. By turns, he sat stiffly in a corner chair or paced uneasily, his head swiveling constantly.

His hand was clammy when Mead shook it.

"Hello, Mr. Mead," he said in a husky, hesitant voice, his eyes never quite still, never long on Mead's face, but darting hither and yon, his glance rebounding at every turn from the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the closed outer door.

Christopher Mead, Assistant Undersecretary for External Affairs, returned the handshake, smiling. "Please come into my office," he said quickly. "It's much more spacious."

"Thank you," the aging man said gratefully and hurried into the next room. Mead rapidly opened the windows, and some of the man's nervousness left him. He sank down into the visitor's chair in front of Mead's desk, his eyes drinking in the distances beyond the windows. "Thank you," he repeated.

Mead sat down behind the desk, leaned back, and waited for the man's breathing to slow. Finally he said, "It's good to see you again, Mr. Holliday. What can I do for you?"

Martin Holliday tore his glance away from the window long enough to raise his eyes to Mead's face and then drop them to the hands he had folded too deliberately in his lap.

"I'd—" His voice husked into unintelligibility, and he had to begin again. "I'd like to take an option on a new planet," he finally said.

Mead nodded. "I don't see why not." He gestured expressively at the star chart papered over one wall of his office. "We've certainly got plenty of them. But what happened with your first one?"

"It d-d-duh—"

"Mr. Holliday, I certainly won't be offended if you'd prefer to look out the window," Mead said quickly.

"Thank you." After a moment, he began again. "It didn't work out," he said, his glance flickering back to Mead for an instant before he had to look out the window again.

"I don't know where my figuring went wrong. It didn't go wrong. It was just... just things. I thought I could sell enough subdivisions to cover the payments and still keep most of it for myself, but it didn't work out."

He looked quickly at Mead with a flash of groundless guilt in his eyes. "First I had to sell more than I'd intended, because I had to lower the original price. Somebody'd optioned another planet in the same system, and I hadn't counted on the competition. Then, even after I'd covered the option and posted surety on the payments, there were all kinds of expenses. Then I couldn't lease the mineral rights—" He looked at Mead again, as though he had to justify himself. "I don't know how that deal fell through. The company just... just withdrew, all of a sudden."

"Do you think there might have been anything peculiar about that?" Mead asked. "I mean—could the company have made a deal with the colonists for a lower price after you'd been forced out?"

Holliday shook his head quickly. "Oh, no—nothing like that. The colonists and I got along fine. It wasn't as though I hadn't put the best land up for sale, or tried to make myself rich. Why, after I'd had to sell some of the remaining land, and I knew it wasn't worth staying, any more, some of them offered to lend me enough money to keep fifty thousand square miles for myself." He smiled warmly, his eyes blank while he focused on memory.

"But that wasn't it, of course," he went on. "I had my original investment back. But I couldn't tell them why I couldn't stay. It waspeople—even if I never saw them, it was the thought of people, with aircraft and rockets and roads—"

"I understand, Mr. Holliday," Mead said in an effort to spare him embarrassment.

Holliday looked at him helplessly. "I couldn't tell them that, could I, Mr. Mead? They were good, friendly people who wanted to help me. I couldn't tell them it was people, could I?"

He wet his dry lips and locked his eyes on the view outside the window. "All I want, Mr. Mead, is half a planet to myself," he said softly.

He shook his head. "Well, it'll work out this time. This time, I won't have to sell so much, and I'll have a place to spend what time I've got left in peace, without this... this—" He gestured helplessly in an effort to convey his tortured consciousness of his own fear.

Mead nodded quickly as he saw his features knot convulsively. "Of course, Mr. Holliday. We'll get you an option on a new planet as quickly as we can."

"Thank you," Holliday said again. "Can we... can we handle it today? I've had my credit transferred to a local bank."

"Certainly, Mr. Holliday. We won't keep you on Earth a moment longer than absolutely necessary." He took a standard form out of a desk drawer and passed it to Holliday for his signature.

"I'll be smarter this time," the aging man said, trying to convince himself, as he uncapped his pen. "This time, it'll work out."

"I'm sure it will, Mr. Holliday," Mead said.

II

Marlowe was obese. He sat behind his desk like a tuskless sea lion crouched behind a rock, and his cheeks merged into jowls and obliterated his neck. His desk was built specially, so that he could get his thighs under it. His office chair was heavier and wider by far than any standard size, its casters rolling on a special composition base that had been laid down over the carpeting, for Marlowe's weight would have cut any ordinary rug to shreds. His jacket stretched like pliofilm to enclose the bulk of his stooped shoulders, and his eyes surveyed his world behind the battlemented heaviness of the puffing flesh that filled their sockets.

A bulb flickered on his interphone set, and Marlowe shot a glance at the switch beneath it.

"Secretary, quite contrary," he muttered inaudibly. He flicked the switch. "Yes, Mary?" His voice rumbled out of the flabby cavern of his chest.

"Mr. Mead has just filed a report on Martin Holliday, Mr. Secretary. Would you like to see it?"

"Just give me a summary, Mary."

Under his breath he whispered, "Summary that mummery, Mary," and a thin smile fell about his lips while he listened. "Gave him Karlshaven IV, eh?" he observed when his secretary'd finished. "O.K. Thanks, Mary."

He switched off and sat thinking. Somewhere in the bowels of the Body Administrative, he knew, notations were being made and cross-filed. The addition of Karlshaven IV to the list of planets under colonization would be made, and Holliday's asking prices for land would be posted with Emigration, together with a prospectus abstracted from the General Galactic Survey.

He switched the interphone on again.

"Uh... Mary? Supply me with a copy of the GenSurv on the entire Karlshaven system. Tell Mr. Mead I'll expect him in my office sometime this afternoon—you schedule it—and we'll go into it further."

"Yes, Mr. Secretary. Will fifteen-fifteen be all right?"

"Fifteen-fifteen's fine, uh... Mary," Marlowe said gently.

"Yes, sir," his secretary replied, abashed. "I keep forgetting about proper nomenclature."

"So do I, Mary, so do I," Marlowe sighed. "Anything come up that wasn't scheduled for today?"

It was a routine question, born of futile hope. There was always something to spoil the carefully planned daily schedules.

"Yes and no, sir."

Marlowe cocked an eyebrow at the interphone.

"Well, that's a slight change, anyway. What is it?"

"There's a political science observer from Dovenil—that's Moore II on our maps, sir—who's requested permission to talk to you. He's here on the usual exchange program, and he's within his privileges in asking, of course. I assume it's the ordinary thing—what's our foreign policy, how do you apply it, can you give specific instances, and the like."

Precisely, Marlowe thought. ...

This is only a preview of this story. The site administrator is evaluating methods to bring it to you.