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Impact
by [?]

They were languorous, anarchic, shameless

in their pleasures … were they lower

than man … or higher?

Over the cabin ‘phone, Ann’s voice was crisp with anger. “Mr. Lord, I must see you at once.”

“Of course, Ann.” Lord tried not to sound uncordial. It was all part of a trade agent’s job, to listen to the recommendations and complaints of the teacher. But an interview with Ann Howard was always so arduous, so stiff with unrelieved righteousness. “I should be free until–“

“Can you come down to the schoolroom, Mr. Lord?”

“If it’s necessary. But I told you yesterday, there’s nothing we can do to make them take the lessons.”

“I understand your point of view, Mr. Lord.” Her words were barely civil, brittle shafts of ice. “However, this concerns Don; he’s gone.”

“Gone? Where?”

“Jumped ship.”

“Are you sure, Ann? How long ago?”

“I rather imagined you’d be interested,” she answered with smug satisfaction. “Naturally you’ll want to see his note. I’ll be waiting for you.”

The ‘phone clicked decisively as she broke the connection. Impotent fury lashed Lord’s mind–anger at Don Howard, because the engineer was one of his key men; and, childishly, anger at Don’s sister because she was the one who had broken the news. If it had come from almost anyone else it would, somehow, have seemed less disastrous. Don’s was the fourth desertion in less than a week, and the loss of trained personnel was becoming serious aboard the Ceres. But what did Ann Howard expect Lord to do about it? This was a trading ship; he had no military authority over his crew.

As Lord stood up, his desk chair collapsed with a quiet hiss against the cabin wall, and, on greased tubes, the desk dropped out of sight beneath the bunk bed, giving Lord the luxury of an uncluttered floor space eight feet square. He had the only private quarters on the ship–the usual distinction reserved for a trade agent in command.

From a narrow wardrobe, curved to fit the projectile walls of the ship, Lord took a lightweight jacket, marked with the tooled shoulder insignia of command. He smiled a little as he put it on. He was Martin Lord, trade agent and heir to the fabulous industrial-trading empire of Hamilton Lord, Inc.; yet he was afraid to face Ann Howard without the visible trappings of authority.

* * * * *

He descended the spiral stairway to the midship airlock, a lead-walled chamber directly above the long power tubes of the Ceres. The lock door hung open, making an improvised landing porch fifty feet above the charred ground. Lord paused for a moment at the head of the runged landing ladder. Below him, in the clearing where the ship had come down, he saw the rows of plastic prefabs which his crew had thrown up–laboratories, sleeping quarters, a kitchen, and Ann Howard’s schoolroom.

Beyond the clearing was the edge of the magnificent forest which covered so much of this planet. Far away, in the foothills of a distant mountain range, Lord saw the houses of a village, gleaming in the scarlet blaze of the setting sun. A world at peace, uncrowded, unscarred by the feverish excavation and building of man. A world at the zenith of its native culture, about to be jerked awake by the rude din of civilization. Lord felt a twinge of the same guilt that had tormented his mind since the Ceres had first landed, and with an effort he drove it from his mind.

He descended the ladder and crossed the clearing, still blackened from the landing blast; he pushed open the sliding door of the schoolroom. It was large and pleasantly yellow-walled, crowded with projectors, view-booths, stereo-miniatures, and picture books–all the visual aids which Ann Howard would have used to teach the natives the cultural philosophy of the Galactic Federation. But the rows of seats were empty, and the gleaming machines still stood in their cases. For no one had come to Ann’s school, in spite of her extravagant offers of trade goods.