The Pirates of Ersatz-Fourty-Seven
Hoddan found himself sick with honest fury. The population of one-third of a planet, packed into spaceships for two years and more, would be appropriate subjects for sympathy at the best of times. But it was only accident that had kept these people from landing on Thetis by rocket–since none of their ships would be expected ever to rise again–and from having their men go out and joyfully hack at an alien jungle to make room for their machines to land–and then find out they’d brought scrap metal for some thousands of light-years to no purpose.
They’d have starved outright. In fact, they were in not much better case right now. Because there was nowhere else that they could go! There was no new colony which could absorb so many people, with only their bare hands for equipment to live by. There was no civilized, settled world which could admit so many paupers without starving its own population. There was nowhere for these people to go!
Hoddan’s anger took on the feeling of guilt. He could do nothing, and something had to be done.”Why … why did you come to Darth?” he asked. “What can you gain by orbiting here? You can’t expect–“
The old man faced him.
“We are beggars,” he said with bitter dignity. “We stopped here to ask for charity–for the old and worn-out machines the people of Darth can spare us. We will be grateful for even a single rusty plow. Because we have to go on. We can do nothing else. We will land on Thetis. And one plow can mean that a few of us will live who otherwise would die with … with the most of us.”
Hoddan ran his hands through his hair. This was not his trouble, but he could not thrust it from him.
“But again–why Darth?” he asked helplessly. “Why not stop at a world with riches to spare? Darth’s a poor place–“
“Because it is the poor who are generous,” said the bearded man evenly. “The rich might give us what they could spare. But simple, not-rich people, close to the soil, will give us what they need themselves. They will share what they have, and accept a share of our need.”
Hoddan paced up and down the ancient flooring of this compartment in an ancient ship. Presently he said jerkily:
“With all the good will in the world…. Darth is poverty-stricken. It has no industries. It has no technology. It has not even roads! It is a planet of little villages and tiny towns. A ship from elsewhere stops here only once a month. Ground communications are almost nonexistent. To spread the word of your need over Darth would require months. But to collect what might be given, without roads or even wheeled vehicles– No. It’s impossible! And I have the only space vessel on the planet, and it’s not fit for a journey between suns.”The bearded man waited with a sort of implacable despair.
“But,” said Hoddan grimly, “I have an idea. I … ah … have contacts on Walden. The government of Walden does not regard charity with favor. The need for charity seems a … ah … a criticism of the Waldenian standard of living.”
The bearded man said coldly:
“I can understand that. The hearts of the rich are hardened. The existence of the poor is a reproach to them.”
But Hoddan began suddenly to see real possibilities. This was not a direct move toward the realization of his personal ambitions. But on the other hand, it wasn’t a movement away from them. Hoddan suddenly remembered an oration he’d heard his grandfather give many, many times in the past.
“Straight thinkin’,” the old man had said obstinately, “is a delusion. You think things out clear and simple, and you can see yourself ruined and your family starving any day! But real things ain’t simple! They ain’t clear! Any time you try to figure things out so they’re simple and straightforward, you’re goin’ against nature and you’re going to get ’em mixed up! So when something happens and you’re in a straightforward, hopeless fix–why, you go along with nature! Make it as complicated as you can, and the people who want you in trouble will get hopeless confused and you can get out!”
Hoddan adverted to his grandfather’s wisdom–not making it the reason for doing what he could, but accepting that it not impossibly might apply. He saw one possibility right away. It looked fairly good. After a minute’s examination it looked better. It was astonishing how plausible–“Hm-m-m,” he said. “I have planned work of my own, as you may have guessed. I am here because of … ah … people on Walden. If I could make a quick trip to Walden my … hm-m-m … present position might let me help you. I cannot promise very much, but if I can borrow even the smallest of your ships for the journey my spaceboat can’t make … why…. I may be able to do something. Much more than can be done on Darth!”
The bearded man looked at his companions.
“He seems frank,” he said forbiddingly, “and we can lose nothing. We have stopped our journey and are in orbit. We can wait. But … our people should not go to Walden. Fleshpots–“
“I can find a crew,” said Hoddan cheerfully. Inwardly he was tremendously relieved. “If you say the word, I’ll go down to ground and come back with them. Er … I’ll want a very small ship!”
“It will be,” said the old man. “We thank you–“
“Get it inboard, here,” suggested Hoddan, “so I can come inside as before, transfer my crew without spacesuits, and leave my boat in your care until I come back.”
“It shall be done,” said the old man firmly. He added gravely: “You must have had an excellent upbringing, young man, to be willing to live among the poverty-stricken people you describe, and to be willing to go so far to help strangers like ourselves.”
“Eh?” Then Hoddan said enigmatically, “What lessons I shall apply to your affairs, I learned at the knee of my beloved grandfather.”