Marley's Chain, p.1Alan Edward Nourse
Produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Greg Weeks, and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net
This etext was produced from If Worlds of Science Fiction September 1952. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
By Alan E. Nourse
_Tam's problem was simple. He lived in a world that belonged to someone else._
* * * * *
They saw Tam's shabby clothing and the small, weather-beaten bag hecarried, and they ordered him aside from the flow of passengers, andchecked his packet of passports and visas with extreme care. Then theyordered him to wait. Tam waited, a chilly apprehension rising in histhroat. For fifteen minutes he watched them, helplessly.
Finally, the Spaceport was empty, and the huge liner from the outerAsteroid Rings was being lifted and rolled by the giant hooks andcranes back into its berth for drydock and repair, her curved,meteor-dented hull gleaming dully in the harsh arc lights. Tam watchedthe creaking cranes, and shivered in the cold night air, feelinghunger and dread gnawing at his stomach. There was none of the elationleft, none of the great, expansive, soothing joy at returning to Earthafter eight long years of hard work and bitterness. Only the cold,corroding uncertainty, the growing apprehension. Times had changedsince that night back in '87--just how much he hardly dared to guess.All he knew was the rumors he had heard, the whispered tales, thefrightened eyes and the scarred backs and faces. Tam hadn't believedthem then, so remote from Earth. He had just laughed and told himselfthat the stories weren't true. And now they all welled back into hismind, tightening his throat and making him tremble--
"Hey, Sharkie. Come here."
Tam turned and walked slowly over to the customs official who held hispapers. "Everything's in order," he said, half defiantly, looking upat the officer's impassive face. "There isn't any mistake."
"What were you doing in the Rings, Sharkie?" The officer's voice wassharp.
"Indenture. Working off my fare back home."
The officer peered into Tam's face, incredulously. "And you come backhere?" He shook his head and turned to the other officer. "I knewthese Sharkies were dumb, but I didn't think they were that dumb." Heturned back to Tam, his eyes suspicious. "What do you think you'regoing to do now?"
Tam shrugged, uneasily. "Get a job," he said. "A man's got to eat."
The officers exchanged glances. "How long you been on the Rings?"
"Eight years." Tam looked up at him, anxiously. "Can I have my papersnow?"
A cruel grin played over the officer's lips. "Sure," he said, handingback the packet of papers. "Happy job-hunting," he added sardonically."But remember--the ship's going back to the Rings in a week. You canalways sign yourself over for fare--"
"I know," said Tam, turning away sharply. "I know all about how thatworks." He tucked the papers carefully into a tattered breast pocket,hefted the bag wearily, and began trudging slowly across the coldconcrete of the Port toward the street and the Underground. A wave ofloneliness, almost overpowering in intensity, swept over him, afeeling of emptiness, bleak and hopeless. A chilly night wind sweptthrough his unkempt blond hair as the automatics let him out into thestreet, and he saw the large dirty "New Denver Underground" sign withthe arrow at the far side of the road. Off to the right, several milesacross the high mountain plateau, the great capitol city loomed up,shining like a thousand twinkling stars in the clear cold air. Tamjingled his last few coins listlessly, and started for the downwardramp. Somewhere, down there, he could find a darkened corner, maybeeven a bench, where the police wouldn't bother him for a couple ofhours. Maybe after a little sleep, he'd find some courage, hidden awaysomewhere. Just enough to walk into an office and ask for a job.
That, he reflected wearily as he shuffled into the tunnel, would takea lot of courage--
* * * * *
The girl at the desk glanced up at him, indifferent, and turned hereyes back to the letter she was typing. Tam Peters continued to stand,awkwardly, his blond hair rumpled, little crow's-feet of wearinesscreeping from the corners of his eyes. Slowly he looked around theneat office, feeling a pang of shame at his shabby clothes. He shouldat least have found some way to shave, he thought, some way to takesome of the rumple from his trouser legs. He looked back at thereceptionist, and coughed, lightly.
She finished her letter at a leisurely pace, and finally looked up athim, her eyes cold. "Well?"
"I read your ad. I'm looking for a job. I'd like to speak to Mr.Randall."
The girl's eyes narrowed, and she took him in in a rapid, sweepingglance, his high, pale forehead, the shock of mud-blond hair, thethin, sensitive face with the exaggerated lines of approaching middleage, the slightly misty blue eyes. It seemed to Tam that she staredfor a full minute, and he shifted uneasily, trying to meet the coldinspection, and failing, finally settling his eyes on her prim, neatlymanicured fingers. Her lip curled very slightly. "Mr. Randall can'tsee you today. He's busy. Try again tomorrow." She turned back totyping.
A flat wave of defeat sprang up in his chest. "The ad said to applytoday. The earlier the better."
She sniffed indifferently, and pulled a long white sheet from thedesk. "Have you filled out an application?"
"You can't see Mr. Randall without filling out an application." Shepointed to a small table across the room, and he felt her eyes on hisback as he shuffled over and sat down.
He began filling out the application with great care, making theprinting as neat as he could with the old-style vacuum pen provided.Name, age, sex, race, nationality, planet where born, pre-Revoltexperience, post-Revolt experience, preference--try as he would, Tamcouldn't keep the ancient pen from leaking, making an unsightly blotnear the center of the form. Finally he finished, and handed the paperback to the girl at the desk. Then he sat back and waited.
Another man came in, filled out a form, and waited, too, shooting Tama black look across the room. In a few moments the girl turned to theman. "Robert Stover?"
"Yuh," said the man, lumbering to his feet. "That's me."
"Mr. Randall will see you now."
The man walked heavily across the room, disappeared into the backoffice. Tam eyed the clock uneasily, still waiting.
A garish picture on the wall caught his eyes, a large, very poor oilportrait of a very stout, graying man dressed in a ridiculous greensuit with a little white turban-like affair on the top of his head.Underneath was a little brass plaque with words Tam could barely makeout:
Abraham L. Ferrel
Founder and First President Marsport Mines, Incorporated
"Unto such men as these, we look to leadership."
Tam stared at the picture, his lip curling slightly. He glancedanxiously at the clock as another man was admitted to the small backoffice.
Then another man. Anger began creeping into Tam's face, and he foughtto keep the scowl away, to keep from showing his concern. The hands ofthe clock crept around, then around again. It was almost noon. Not avery new dodge, Tam thought coldly. Not very new at all. Finally thesmall cold flame of anger got the better of him, and he rose andwalked over to the desk. "I'm still here," he said patiently. "I'dlike to see Mr. Randall."
The girl stared at him indignantly, and flipped an intercom switch."That Peters application is still out here," she said brittlely. "Doyou want to see him, or not?"
There was a moment of silence. Then the voice on the intercom grated,"Yes, I guess so. Send him in."
"Now, then, what are you after?" asked the man, settling his bulk downbehind the desk, his eyes guarded, revealing a trace of boredom.
* * * * *
Tam was suddenly bitterly ashamed of his shabby appearance, thetwo-day stubble on his chin. He felt a dampness on his forehead, andtried to muster some of the old power and determination into hisvoice. "I need a job," he said. "I've had plenty of experience
Marley's Chain by Alan Edward Nourse / Science Fiction have rating 2.8 out of 5 / Based on17 votes