Authors: Clifford D. Simak
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Science Fiction - General
Clifford D. Simak
The Cemetery stretched away in the morning light, a thing of breathless beauty. The rows of gleaming monuments swept across the valley and covered all the slopes and hills. The grass, mowed and clipped with precise devotion, was an emerald blanket that gave no hint of the rawness of the soil into which it thrust its roots. The stately pines, planted in the aisles that ran between the rows of graves, made soft and moaning music.
“It gets you,” said the captain of the funeral ship.
He thumped his chest to show me exactly where it got him. He was an oaf, this captain.
“You remember Mother Earth,” he told me, “all the days you’re gone, all the years in space and on the other planets. You call up in your mind exactly what it’s like. Then you land and open up the port and walk out on its surface and it hits you, suddenly, that you’ve remembered only half of it, Mother Earth is too big and beautiful to hold it all in mind.”
Behind us, on its pad, the funeral ship still sizzled with the heat it had picked up in making planetfall. But the crew was not waiting for the heat to dissipate. Far up its black sides ports were swinging open and cranes were cranking out, with the clank and clatter of the running chains, for the unloading of the cargo. From a long, low building which I took to be a staging shed, vehicles were scuttling across the field to receive the caskets.
The captain paid no attention to what was going on. He stood staring at the Cemetery. He seemed fascinated with it. He made an all-inclusive gesture at it.
“Miles and miles of it,” he said. “Not only here in North America, but in other places. This is just a corner of it.”
He wasn’t telling me anything that I didn’t know. I had read all there was to read of Earth. I had viewed and listened to every scrap of tape bearing on the planet that I could lay my hands upon. I had dreamed of Earth for years and studied it for years and finally was here and this great clown of a captain was making a silly sideshow of it. As if he, personally, might own it. Although that, perhaps, was understandable, for he was Cemetery.
He was right, of course, about this being but one small corner of it. The monuments and the velvet carpeting of grass and that stately marching of the pines swept on for miles and miles. Here in ancient North America and in the olden isle of Britain and the continent of Europe, in northern Africa and China.
“And every foot of it,” the captain said, “as well-kept and tended, as beautiful and peaceful, and as solemn as this small corner of it.”
“And what about the rest of it?” I asked.
The captain swung angrily toward me. “The rest of it?” he asked.
“The rest of Earth. It’s not all Cemetery.”
“It seems to me,” the captain said, somewhat sharply, “that you’ve asked that before. You seem obsessed with it. The thing to understand is that the Cemetery is the only part of it that counts.”
And that was it, of course. In all the recent literature of Earth—recent being the last thousand years or so—there was seldom any mention, anywhere, of the rest of Earth. The Earth was Cemetery, if one excepted those few places of historic or cultural interest that were so highly advertised and promoted by the Pilgrim Tours, and even in the case of the Pilgrim attractions one gained the impression that they were set aside and preserved for future generations by Cemetery generosity. Aside from that, there was no mention, or only fleeting mention, of any other Earth—as if all the rest of Earth were no more than ground waiting to become a part of Cemetery, as if it were no more than lonely, empty terrain so long untenanted that even the memories of ancient times had long since been erased.
The captain continued to be severe with me. “We shall unload your freight,” he told me, “and store it in the shed. Where you can reach it easily. I’ll ask the men to be sure not to mix it with the caskets.”
“That is kind of you,” I said. I was disenchanted with this captain. I had seen too much of him—on the third day out I’d seen too much of him. I had done my best to keep away from him, but that is hard to do when you’re aboard a funeral ship and are technically the captain’s guest—although I had paid rather handsomely to become his guest.
“I hope,” he said, still speaking in a slightly outraged tone, “that your freight does not contain anything of seditious nature.”
“I was not aware,” I told him, “that the status of Mother Earth, Inc., was such as to allow sedition.”
“I did not ask you,” he said, “I did not inquire too closely. I had taken you to be a man of honor.”
“Honor did not enter into our arrangement,” I said. “It was of a purely monetary nature.”
Perhaps, I told myself, I should not have made any mention of the rest of Earth. We had talked of it before, of course, and I could see, even from the first, that it was a very touchy subject. I could have suspected that much from all that I had read and I should have kept my mouth shut. But it was a thing that was very close to me, the conviction that Old Earth, even in ten thousand years, could not have become an entirely faceless planet. One who went to look, I was convinced, still would find old scars, old triumphs, ancient memories written in the dust and stone.
The captain had turned to walk away, but I asked another question. “This man,” I said. “The manager. The one I am to see.”
“His name,” said the captain, stiffly, “is Maxwell Peter Bell. You’ll find him over there, in the administration building.”
He pointed toward the gleaming massiveness of a great white building at the far end of the field. A road ran out to reach it. It would be a fairly long hike, but I would enjoy walking, I told myself. There was no means of transportation in sight. All the cars that had come out from the staging shed were lined up waiting for the caskets from the ship.
“That other building over there,” the captain said, pointing once again, “is the hotel operated by the Pilgrim Tours. You probably will be able to find accommodations there.”
Then, having done his duty for me, the captain went stalking off.
The hotel, a ground-hugging structure not more than three stories high, was a great deal farther off than the administration building. Other than the two buildings and the ship standing on the pad, the entire place was empty. There were no other ships upon the field and, other than the cars waiting by the ships, no traffic.
I started for the building. It would be pleasant, I thought, to stretch my legs, good to feel solid ground underneath my feet, good to breathe pure air again after months in space. And good to be on Earth. There had been many times I had despaired of ever getting there.
Elmer, more than likely, would have his nose all out of joint at my failing to uncrate him as soon as we made planetfall. It would have made good sense to do so, for if he were uncrated he could be setting up the Bronco while I was seeing Bell. But I would have had to wait around until the crates had been unloaded and taken to the shed and I was anxious to be doing something, anxious to get started.
I wondered, as I walked along, just why I should be calling on this Maxwell Peter Bell. A courtesy call, the captain had told me, but that didn’t quite hold water. There had been damn little courtesy connected with this trip; there had, rather, been hard cash, the last of Elmer’s lifelong savings. It was, I thought, as if Cemetery were some sort of government, entitled to diplomatic courtesy from everyone who might come visiting. But it was no such thing at all. It was a simple business, coldly cynical in nature. For a long, long time, in my study of Old Earth, my regard for Mother Earth, Inc., had been very, very low.
Maxwell Peter Bell, manager of Mother Earth, Inc., North American division, was a pudgy man who wanted to be liked. He sat in his worn, stodgy, well-upholstered chair behind the heavy, shining desk in the penthouse office atop the administration building. He rubbed his hands together and smiled almost tenderly at me, and I would not have been surprised if the round, soft brownness of his eyes had begun to melt and run down his cheeks, leaving chocolate stains.
“You had a pleasant trip?” he asked. “Captain Anderson made you comfortable?”
I nodded. “As comfortable as possible. I am grateful, of course. I did not have the money to buy passage on a Pilgrim ship.”
“You must not think of gratitude,” he insisted gently. “It is we who should be glad. There are few persons of the arts who evince an interest in this Mother Earth of ours.”
In his nice, slick way he was laying it on just a trifle thick, for over the years there had been many, as he called them, persons of the arts who had paid attention to the Earth, and in every case under the very polished and maternal auspices of Mother Earth itself. Even if one had not known of the patronage, it could have been suspected. Most of their work read, looked, or sounded like something a highly paid press relations outfit would have fabricated to advertise the Cemetery.
“It is pleasant here,” I said, more to be making conversation than for any other reason.
I didn’t know that I was asking for it, but I was. He settled down comfortably in his chair, like a brooding hen ruffling out her feathers over a clutch of eggs.
“You heard the pines, of course,” he said. “There’s a song to them. Even from up here, when a window happens to be open, you can hear them singing. Even after thirty years of hearing them, I listen by the hour. It is the song of an eternal peace that can be achieved in its totality nowhere else but Earth. At times it seems to me that it is not the song of pines and wind alone, nor yet alone the sound of Earth. Rather, it is the song of scattered Man gathered home at last.”
“I hadn’t heard all that,” I said. “Perhaps in time I may. After I have listened a little longer. That is what I’m here for.”
I might just as well have kept quiet. He wasn’t even listening. He didn’t want to listen. He had his piece to speak, his snow-job to be done, and he was intent on that and nothing else.
“For more than thirty years,” he said, “I have bent every thinking moment to the great ideals of the Last Homecoming. It is not a job that can be accepted lightly. There have been many men before me, many other managers sitting in this chair, very many of them, and every one of them a man of honor and of sensitivity. It has been my job to carry on their work, but not their work alone. I must, as well, uphold the great traditions that have been fostered through the entire history of this Mother Earth.”
He slumped back in his chair and his brown eyes became softer, if possible, and slightly watery.
“At times,” he told me, “it is no easy matter. There are so many circumstances against which a man must need contend. There are the insinuations and the whispered rumors and the charges that are hinted, but never brought out in the open so that one might cope with them. I suppose that you have heard them.”
“Some of them,” I said.
“And believed them?”
“Some of them,” I said.
“Let’s not beat about the bush,” he said a little gruffly. ”Leave us lay it out. Let us say immediately that Mother Earth, Incorporated, is a cemetery association and Earth a cemetery. But it is not a money-making fraud nor a pious imposition nor a high-pressure sales promotion scheme to retail at tremendous profit large pieces of worthless real estate. Naturally, we operate along accepted business lines. It is the only way to do. It is the only way we can offer our services to the human galaxy. All this calls for an organization that is vaster than one can easily imagine. Because it is so vast, it is necessarily loose. There is no such thing as maintaining tight control over the entire operation. There always exists the chance that we, here in administration, are unaware of a lot of actions we would not willingly condone.
“We employ a large corps of public relations specialists to promote our enterprise. We necessarily must advertise to the far corners of the areas peopled by humanity. We cheerfully concede that we have sales representatives on all planets occupied by humans. But all of this can be considered as no more than normal business practice. And you must consider this—that in pushing our business so forcefully we are conferring a great benefit upon the human race on at least two levels.”
“Two levels,” I said, astonished—astonished by the man rather than by his flow of words. “I had thought …”
“The personal level,” he said. “That was the one you thought of. And it, of course, is the prime consideration. Believe me, there is a world of comfort in knowing that one’s loved ones have been committed, once life is done, to the sacred keeping of the soil of Mother Earth. There is a deep satisfaction in knowing that one’s self, when the time shall finally come, also will be laid to rest amid the hills of this lovely planet where mankind first arose.”
I stirred uneasily in my chair. I was ashamed for him. He made me uncomfortable and I resented him as well. He must, I thought, consider me an utter fool if he thought that this flow of flowery, syrupy words would lay at rest any doubts I might have of Mother Earth, Inc., and convert me to Cemetery.