Chapter 1: EssChad
"Hey, Riley! Didn'tcha hear the whistle? It's time for chow!"
Pete slithered backward out of the partially dismantled helicopter and glanced warily toward the edge of the swamp, muttering a curse as he bumped his head on a brace. He'd been on EssChad for almost six weeks, but he still wasn't quite used to its lighter gravity. He did seem to be getting more used to the ruddy sunlight and the strange smells, though.
"Charley Burke, you old sonofagun! Long time no see. What are you doing here, and where's Ernie?" He looked around, but the burly guard assigned to protect him was nowhere in sight.
"His lunch time was about an hour ago, so they gave me this here elephant gun and sent me out to take his place." The massive rifle looked far too heavy for his slight frame as he rested the butt on the ground by one booted foot, but he handled it with practiced ease, giving the impression of wiry strength in spite of his years and gray hair. "Hey, are there really dinosaurs out there? They asked me, did I know how to shoot this thing, and I told them I sure did. I can, too."
"Yeah I believe it, and there really are things that look like dinosaurs out in the swamp, but what I meant was, how come you're here on EssChad, instead of back on Earth?"
"Aw, I got tired of hanging around them New York bars, so I finally signed up as a cook's helper. I just didn't realize that cook's helpers toted guns around here. At least on this project I don't hafta keep checking in at the O.M.M. office. Anyhow, it's still time for lunch."
"Right now, I don't give a damn what time it is." Pete shrugged his shoulders. "If I don't get this chopper back together, old man Johnson will chew me out for sure. Hey, if you really want to be helpful, you can rustle me up a sandwich and a cuppa coffee while I work on this pile of junk."
"Fair enough, if you'll clue me in on a few things. I'd better watch it, though. You might even get me into the habit of workin', if you keep on finding things for me to do," Charley warned, chuckling, as he turned toward the mess hall. "Hey, you're sure you'll be all right out here by yourself?"
"No problem, really. Nothing's likely to come charging out of the swamps at me in the next few minutes. Just leave me the rifle, is all."
Pete burrowed partway back into the helicopter, muttering a few choice words describing the habits and ancestry of the team of engineers who had designed its fuel system. It was kind of nice to run into a familiar face this far from home, at that. He and Charley had met back on Earth, the day after he'd arrived in New York...
The lettering on the door read:
O. M. M.
OFFICE OF MANPOWER MOBILIZATION
Department of Health, Education and Welfare
Open Monday Friday 9:00 AM 4:30 PM
Pete pushed the door open, revealing a vast expanse of floor space mostly occupied by row after row of empty chairs. The room's walls were halfhidden by posters and bulletin boards in three or four languages. He studied the confused bustle of swarming clerks who ministered to lines of stolidly waiting citizens. Picking a line that seemed to be moving fractionally faster than the others, he prepared to await his turn. The scrawny oldster ahead of him glanced back, then up at his face.
"Hey, buddy," he muttered, too softly to be easily overheard. "How come a big healthy fellow like you ain't been snapped up already by one of the big outfits?"
"Just hit town," he answered cheerfully, brushing longish red hair back from his forehead. "Don't tell me the manpower shortage is that bad!"
"That bad? It's worse! Where've you been, anyhow? The word goin' around is that if it wasn't for the O.M.M., them big outfits would be fighting each other for the scraps. Even us rejects has to come in and get our cards stamped every other week, just so's they can be sure none of them wants us. When they learned how to open up them gates to other worlds, it really made things boom. If you can do anything at all, there's a job for you. Two jobs. Maybe even ten or fifteen!"
"Yeah? Sounds great. I've been down in Central America, pushing a copter. My outfit was attached to the U.N., 'observing' a brushfire war. We'd heard rumors about all this, but we were too busy to pay much attention. About then my chopper got knocked down and I had to walk back out of the mountains. I made it all right, but it took me six weeks or so and by then the fighting was all over. My outfit had already been pulled back to the States. They checked me over at the base hospital, gave me another set of shots and flew me back here. A couple more weeks of the usual red tape, and they finally shoved my discharge papers at me and told me to get lost. Which suited me just fine, except that I got cleaned out in a poker game so I need to find a job." He grinned again. "The desk clerk at the fleabag of a hotel about had a catfit, last night, when I didn't have an O.M.M. card. Almost called the cops on me, until I waved my discharge papers at him. Hey, though! If this has been going on for months, and they want men so bad, how come this place is so busy? Aren't all the good men taken by now?"
"Purty much, but you should of seen this place a couple of months ago. Most of what you see is oldtimers like me, what nobody don't want, and a few bums what can't keep a job. Then, there's a few like you what trickles in once in a while. These clerks tries to look busy, so's nobody'll put them to work at a real job."
"Just like the Army," Pete laughed aloud, making heads turn. "Making out that their job's real important. That way, they don't get sent out where the real fighting is."
They were at the head of the line. The pudgy clerk boredly stamped the oldtimer's card, and reached for Pete's. He came to life when he found that this husky redhead with the tropical tan wasn't holding a card out to him.
"All right, fellow. Give me your card."
"Don't have one." Pete had to grin at the clerk's expression.
"Come on, quit the clowning. You're holding up the line."
"But I don't. I just got in from overseas, and I haven't been given any card."
The clerk grumbled to himself as he checked Pete's papers, but finally decided that everything was in order. He pulled a mass of forms from a drawer and thrust them across the counter.
"Take these over there, and fill them out. Bring them back to this window when you're done. You don't have to wait in line again."
Muttering to himself about 'more red tape', Pete dutifully filled out the forms and brought them back to the clerk.
"Okay, now this here's a temporary card." The clerk leaned forward, creasing his stomach against the edge of the counter and lowering his voice as though imparting some important secret. "If you change your address, you got to notify us. If somebody wants to hire you, we send you a letter. If more than one outfit wants you, we send you to the one what makes you the best offer."
"What if I don't like the offer, or want to choose for myself between them? What if I want to find my own job?"
"No way, this's how the system works. Oh, you can turn down a job if it don't sound right. Just don't turn down too many, or you don't get no unemployment checks. This setup is so's the odds is the same for everybody, and there's no playin' favorites."
Pete grunted, pocketing his card as he turned away.
"Psst! Hey, buddy!" It was the man he'd talked to in line. "What'd he tell you?"
"Come on, I'll buy you a beer. I think I need to know a little more about this setup. You sound like you might know more of the angles than most."
Alerted by a sound that didn't come from his own efforts, Pete raised his head to scan the edge of the swamp. Behind the trees, he could just make out the movement of a huge, gray bulk. He watched as it moved deeper into the swampy jungle, then turned back to his work. As he'd suspected, Charley had turned out to be a regular mine of information...
With a cold beer inside of him, and another on the table in front of him, the oldtimer was more than willing to talk.
"Charleton Burke's the name, but call me Charley. Everybody does. All that talk about getting you the best deal is a lot of horsepuckey. Mostly, they send you to whatever outfit treats them the nicest. Oh, I'm not saying they take bribes, or anything like that. Of course, I'm not saying it don't happen, neither. Guys from those big outfits will take them clerks out to dinner, or tip them off to good deals, or just act like he was their longlost buddy. Most of those guys in the O.M.M. office are too dumb to know what's going on, anyway. After all, what can you expect from someone who's willing to work for Uncle Sam when really goodpaying jobs are going begging?"
He stopped for a long cool swig of his beer, and Pete took the opportunity to get in a few words.
"You talk a lot better with some beer inside of you, Charley. But I'll agree with you about anyone who works for the government. Sounds like the O.M.M. is just about running things any more. How'd they get all that power? Another thing I want to know, is, what can I do about it if I don't like where they send me?"
"Aw, I had an education, once. I try not to let it hold me back, is all. How'd it get started? I dunno why you went into the military, but if you was like most people it was because there'd been one recession after another and you couldn't get a decent job any place else. The O.M.M. was set up kinda like the old C.C.C. my dad told me about, to give people some kind of job they could work at. Then, when this business of the transdimensional portals came up, and companies started crying for workers, they was all set up and ready. What can you do about it? Not a damned thing! Oh, you could have buddied up to that clerk, but chances are it's too late by now. He'll have called up some 'friend' of his, at one of the big companies. You'll have a job notice in tomorrow morning's mail, or the next day for sure."
"Well, if I'm going to go to work tomorrow, I want to enjoy myself today. Drink up the rest of your beer, and then you can show a poor stranger the sights of New York!"
Pete smiled to himself as he finished working on the helicopter's fuel system, but he still kept one eye on the edge of the swampy jungle as he worked. His memories of the rest of that day were a mélange of monuments, parks, famous buildings, and an incredible array of taverns.
"Here's your sandwich." Charley handed him a neatly bagged lunch and a plastic mug of coffee. His head snapped around and he picked up his rifle from where it was leaned against the side of the helicopter. "Hey, quick! Look over there! Ain't that one of them dinosaurs?"
Pete looked where he pointed. On the edge of the clearing stood what at first glance looked like a small bipedal dinosaur.
"Nah, put your gun down. That's just one of the kids from the local village. He's been coming over for the last two or three weeks, learning everything he can about us and our ways. He's even picked up a fair knowledge of how our machines operate. He'd spend all of his time here if his tribe would let him."
"You're a wonder, Pete. I don't even like being around him. You sure he won't bite?"
"Aw, KeeBar's a good kid, and plenty sharp. He's been teaching me his language, and doing an even better job of learning to speak English. Hey, it's all right, KeeBar. Come on over."
The youth, his scales glistening greenishblue in the ruddy sunlight, approached diffidently.
"Hello, ManPete. It is permitted I watch?"
"Sure, go ahead and watch all you want. KeeBar, this is a friend of mine, Charley Burke."
"Hello, ManCharleyBurke." He formed the words carefully, having some difficulty with the consonants. "You know ManPete long time?"
"Hello, KeeBar. No, not very long. I met him in New York, a couple of days before he came here."
At this, KeeBar's large, slitpupiled eyes brightened.
"ManPete showed me pictures. New York much big."
Pete had to grin to himself as KeeBar asked questions that had Charley struggling to find simple ways of explaining what life on Earth was like. He finished his sandwich and coffee, then called, "Okay, KeeBar. Time to see if this thing'll run. Come on and climb in while I try firing it up."
KeeBar's reptilian features made it difficult to read his feelings, but his eyes glowed at Pete's words.
"I thank ManPete. Then make chopter fly?"
"Not this time. Mr. Johnson wants me to fly him out to your village this evening, for the council meeting." The copter had become the post's main means of transportation since they'd found that some of the larger swamplizards had a bad habit of charging moving swamp buggies on sight.
KeeBar squatted happily in the aisle between the copter's seats while Pete ran down his check list. His hands gripped the arm rests ecstatically when the turbine fired up, and when Pete lifted the skids clear of the ground to swing the machine around sideways, his happiness was complete.
Pete decided once again that this job compared very favorably with his last tour of duty, back there in Central America. Good food, not too much responsibility, comfortable quarters, and a reasonable percentage of women on the project. Nobody was shooting at him here, either, though you did have to watch out for the local wildlife. Charley had been right, the notice to report had been waiting for him at the hotel desk when he came down to breakfast the next morning.
The address in the letter led him to a suite of offices in midtown Manhattan. Behind a door labeled 'General Trade Corporation', an attractive receptionist had taken his name and asked him to wait. He had no more than gotten settled in a comfortable chair when she asked him to step into the next room, saying, "Mr. Johnson will see you now."
The man who greeted him was in his midforties. He was dressed in a conservative business suit, but looked like he would be more at home ramroding a construction crew than holding down a desk job.
"Pete Riley? Sam Johnson." He held out a calloused hand. "Have a seat. Your record looks pretty good; shows that you flew a copter over some pretty dense jungle. Did you ever have to walk home from a mission?"
"A few times. More than I like to remember. I had just started an unplanned hike when they decided to call off the local war. As soon as they could get me back to the States, they paid me off and turned me loose."
"Yes, the announcement of the 'gates' made a lot of those little wars seem pretty useless. Who wants to fight, when they can have whole worlds of their own to play around with?"
"Just what are these gates, anyway? Like I said, I missed the first announcements, and I've never gotten caught up. All I got was a lot of doubletalk about probability lines, and vectors, and such."
"The gates have nothing to do with probability lines, so don't pay any attention to what's been printed in the Sunday Supplements. What the gates do, is, they reach out into completely separate and distinct universes. Each one of these universes is addressed by a unique combination of factors." Pete listened intently, although the explanation had the sound of something that Sam Johnson had learned by rote. "Things like the speed of light, the gravitational constant, the capacitance of a condenser in a vacuum. Even the rate of passage of elapsed time can vary, and each one of these factors is part of the 'address' of its universe."
"Then, the number of possible universes must be just about infinite!"
"They've checked billions, and still haven't found an end to them, at least not that I've heard. Not that it matters, as far as we're concerned, since things get too weird for us in the fartherout ones. The trouble is, most of the universes don't have any planets that we can reach. Our gates just open out into interstellar, or even intergalactic, space. Even a small percentage of live ones is good enough for us, though, since there are so many of them. Just try to imagine what it would be worth to our company to have all the resources of two or more civilized worlds funneling back and forth through our gates!"
"Is that what this project would do?"
"Probably not. I just wish that it would. We don't get to pick and choose; we just have to take whatever worlds we are assigned by the Trade Board's lottery. Oh, this world we've drawn is inhabited all right, but its people are about at the level of the Native Americans when the Pilgrims landed. We're just setting up a research post there for now, looking for whatever we can find. It's a whole world, remember. We don't know what it holds in the way of raw materials, drugs, or even art objects. One world I heard about is bringing a company in a nice enough return, just from recordings of its music. Anyway, we need men who don't mind primitive surroundings. The pay is good... ," he mentioned a figure that made Pete's jaw drop, remembering what he'd been getting before going in the service. "We're looking for a skilled helicopter pilot. He should be good with languages, so he can act as contact man with the natives. They call their world 'EssChad'. Of course, that simply means 'world' in their language. There's no danger of disease, by the way. Not in either direction. The biochemical basis of life there is a lot different from ours." He reached into a desk drawer, and brought out a stack of eight by ten glossies, handing them to Pete.
"Here's what they look like."
Expecting to see some odd breed of human, Pete almost dropped the pictures. The nearest thing he could think of was a slender, almost erect dinosaur. It stood on only slightly bent legs with birdlike webbed and clawed feet, the forwardleaning body balanced by a thin whip of a tail. The domed head displayed a spiny crest that continued down the back of the neck to the rounded shoulders. Its face was vaguely human, but with catlike eyes. The nose was flattened almost to nonexistence, and the jaws protruded in the suggestion of a muzzle. Fringed ears were set high on the sides of the head. Heavy scales on its back and stomach shaded off into a granular texture on its hands and face. A spear and a bone knife were its only visible claims to civilization. He thumbed quickly through the rest of the pictures, gaining only an impression of swamps and lakes steaming under a purplish sky.
"Reptilian people? And why does everything look purple?"
"They don't have any seasons. No axial tilt to their planet, so there was no pressure on them to become warm blooded. They just stayed reptiles. Their sun is much cooler than ours, though enough larger to give them a warm climate. A lower gravitational constant in that universe, or so I understand. Puts all of the stars lower on the main sequence than they would be here, and skews the distribution of the elements. You'll learn more details before we send you there. That is, if you agree to take the job."
"Take it? You bet I will!"
That was how he'd ended up here on EssChad, and right now, he figured that he'd better be earning some of that nice salary they were paying him.
"You said the other day that your father, the Chief, wouldn't give us permission to trade with your people right away." Pete relaxed in the shade of the helicopter, while KeeBar basked in the warmth of the afternoon sun. "Why is that?"
"Chief not say, 'no trade'. Not say 'trade'. All depend on 'Chrewk'." KeeBar used a word from his own language. "How you say, rule of truth from above. Chief send warrior to ask 'Givers of Truth'. They say to trade, or say not trade, or say trade only some things, not others."
"Who are these 'Givers of Truth'? Do they live near here?"
"Not know for sure. Warrior go, come back soon with new rule or answer. Take four hands of days." He held up his fourfingered hand. "Warrior not say how they look. Just most wise, know all things. Sometimes say, most old."
"Maybe he meant that they were very big." Pete knew that KeeBar's people, like most Earth lizards, continued to grow slowly all of their lives.
"This may be true." Pete thought that KeeBar seemed reluctant to say any more. "What ManJohnson want for to trade?"
"That's one of the things he'll want to talk to your council about. Your people want metal and tools, but we need to know what you can give in return. We may want animal skins, or certain kinds of plants or rocks."
"Is good you talk to council. I go now." With a glance at the sun, KeeBar rose and loped off into the jungle.
"Took off in kind of a hurry, didn't he?" Charley watched as the youth disappeared behind a clump of fern trees.
"That's his way." Pete glanced at his watch, whose control chip had been programmed for EssChad's thirtytwo hour day. "He never misses by more than twenty minutes. He knows just how long it takes him to get home from here."
"I guess I'm still not used to talkin' lizards," Charley grumbled. "And I never did like snakes, neither."
"You're just lonesome for that good old New York night life. Just think of all the fun you can have there with your back pay when this job is over."
"That's what you think. New York is no place to live! I'm gonna take my money and put a down payment on a little place out west somewhere. Raise me a flock of chickens. Nice White Leghorns, or Rhode Island Reds."
"Charley, you disappoint me. First, you say that you don't like snakes and lizards, and then you say you're going to raise chickens. Don't you know that birds of any kind are practically second cousins to lizards?"
"Aw, quit your kidding. They ain't nothing alike."
"Sure, they are. A bird is just a lizard that learned to grow feathers and a beak. Don't they both lay eggs? And, if you pluck a chicken, doesn't it look kind of like a little dinosaur?"
"Well, mebby, but you ain't convinced me. A bird and a lizard just ain't the same thing!"
"That's right, Charley. Stick to your guns. But KeeBar and his people are as human as anyone you'd want to meet. He reminds me of Miguelito, a youngster I knew in Central America. Smart as a whip, and wanted to know everything about everything."
"Yeah? What happened to him?"
"I'll probably never know. He wasn't around when I got back from that last mission. I didn't have time to hunt him up before they shipped me out, but I'm sure he'll do all right. Probably wind up being the local mayor, if he doesn't run off to the big city."
"Riley!" It was the camp's PA system. "Pete Riley, report to Mr. Johnson's office."
"Wonder what he wants." Pete stood up and stretched, wiping his hands on a greasy rag. "We won't be leaving for KeeBar's village for another hour or so."
"Maybe, if you go to his office, he'll tell you."
"Okay, okay. I'm going. You know, if you don't look out, you really could get to be a good company man."