Day Of Burning
For who knows how long, the star had orbited quietly in the wilderness between Betelgeuse and Rigel. It was rather more massive than average-about half again as much as Sol-and shone with corresponding intensity, white-hot, corona and prominences a terrible glory. But there are no few like it. A ship of the first Grand Survey noted its existence. However, the crew were more interested in a neighbor sun which had planets, and could not linger long in that system either. The galaxy is too big; their purpose was to get some hint about this spiral arm which we inhabit. Thus certain spectroscopic omens escaped their notice.
No one returned thither for a pair of centuries. Technic civilization had more than it could handle, let alone comprehend, in the millions of stars closer to home. So the fact remained unsuspected that this one was older than normal for its type in its region, must indeed have wandered in from other parts. Not that it was very ancient, astronomically speaking. But the great childless suns evolve fast and strangely.
By chance, though, a scout from the Polesotechnic League, exploring far in search of new markets, was passing within a lightyear when the star exploded.
Say instead (insofar as simultaneity has any meaning across interstellar distances) that the death agony had occurred some months before. Ever more fierce, thermonuclear reaction had burned up the last hydrogen at the center. Unbalanced by radiation pressure, the outer layers collapsed beneath their own weight. Forces were released which triggered a wholly different order of atomic fusions. New elements came into being, not only those which may be found in the planets but also the short-lived transuranics; for a while, technetiurn itself dominated that anarchy. Neutrons and neutrinos flooded forth, carrying with them the last balancing energy. cornpression turned into catastrophe. At the brief peak, the supernova was as radiant as its entire galaxy.
So close, the ship’s personnel would have died had she not been in hyperdrive. They did not remain there. A dangerous amount of radiation was still touching them between quantum microjumps. And they were not equipped to study the phenomenon. This was the first chance in our history to observe a new supernova. Earth was too remote to help. But the scientific colony on Catawrayannis could be reached fairly soon. It could dispatch laboratory craft.
Now to track in detail what was going to happen, considerable resources were demanded. Among these were a place where men could live and instruments be made to order as the need for them arose. Such things could not well be sent from the usual factories. By the time they arrived, the wave front carrying information about rapidly progressing events would have traveled so far that inversesquare enfeeblement would create maddening inaccuracies.
But a little beyond one parsec from the star-an excellent distance for observation over a period of years-was a G-type sun. One of its planets was terrestroid to numerous points of classification, both physically and biochemically. Survey records showed that the most advanced culture on it was at the verge of an industrial-scientific revolution. Ideal!
Except, to be sure, that Survey’s information was less than sketchy, and two centuries out of date.
Master Merchant David Falkayn stepped backward in startlement. The four nearest guards clutched at their pistols. Peripherally and profanely, Falkayn wondered what canon he had violated now. “Beg, uh, beg pardon?” he fumbled.
Morruchan Long-Ax, the Hand of the Vach Dathyr, leaned forward on his dais. He was big even for a Merseian, which meant that he overtopped Falkayn’s rangy height by a good fifteen centimeters. Long, .shoulder-flared orange robes and horned miter made his bulk almost overwhelming. Beneath them, he was approximately anthropoid, save for a slanting posture counterbalanced by the tail which, with his booted feet, made a tripod for him to sit on. The skin was green, faintly scaled, totally hairless. A spiky ridge ran from the top of his skull to the end of that tail. Instead of earflaps, he had deep convolutions in his head. Rut the face was manlike, in a heavyboned fashion, and the physiology was essentially mammalian.
How familiar the mind was, behind those jet eyes, Falkayn did not know.
The harsh basso said: “You shall not take the rule of this world. If we surrendered the right and freehold they won, the God would cast back the souls of our ancestors to shriek at us.”
Falkayn’s glance flickered around. He had seldom felt so alone. The audience chamber of Castle Afon stretched high and gaunt, proportioned like nothing men had ever built. Curiously woven tapestries on the stone walls, between windows arched at both top and bottom, and battle banners hung from the rafters, did little to stop echoes. The troopers lining the hall, down to a hearth whose fire could have roasted an elephant, wore armor and helmets with demon masks. The guns which they added to curved swords and barbed pikes did not seem out of place. Rather, what appeared unattainably far was a glimpse of ice-blue sky outside.
The air was chill with winter. Gravity was little higher than Terrestrial, but Falkayn felt it dragging at him.
He straightened. He had his own sidearm, no chemical slugthrower but an energy weapon. Adzel, abroad in. the city, and Chee Lan aboard the ship, were listening in via the transceiver on his wrist. And the ship had power to level all Ardaig. Morruchan must realize as much.
But he had to be made to cooperate.
Falkayn picked his words with care: “I pray forgiveness, Hand, if perchance in mine ignorance I misuse thy ... uh ... your tongue. Naught was intended save friendliness. Hither bring I news of peril impending, for the which ye must busk yourselves betimes lest ye lose everything ye possess. My folk would fain show your folk what to do. So vast is the striving needed, and so scant the time, that perforce ye must take our counsel. Else can we be of no avail. But never will we act as conquerors. ’Twere not simply an evil deed, but ’twould boot us naught, whose trafficking is with many worlds. Nay, we would be brothers, come to help in a day of sore need.” Morruchan scowled and rubbed his chin. “Say on, then,” he replied. “Frankly, I am dubious. You claim Valenderay is about to become a supernova—”
“Nay, Hand, I declare it hath already done so. The light therefrom will smite this planet in less than three years.”
The time unit Falkayn actually used was Merseian, a trifle greater than Earth’s. He sweated and swore to himself at the language problem. The Survey xenologists had gotten a fair grasp of Eriau in the several months they spent here, and Falkayn and his shipmates had acquired it by synapse transform while en route. But now it turned out that, two hundred years back, Eriau had been in a state of linguistic overturn. He wasn’t even pronouncing the vowels right. He tried to update his grammar. “Would ye, uh, I mean if your desire is ... if you want confirmation, we can take you or a trusty member of your household so near in our vessel that the starburst is beheld with living eyes.”
“No doubt the scientists and poets will duel for a berth on that trip,” Morruchan said in a dry voice. “But I believe you already. You yourself, your ship and companions, are proof.” His tone sharpened. “At the same time, I am no Believer, imagining you half-divine because you come from outside. Your civilization has a technological head start on mine, nothing else. A careful reading of the records from that other brief period when aliens dwelt among us shows they had no reason more noble than professional curiosity. And that was fitful; they left, and none ever returned. Until now.
“So: what do you want from us?”
Falkayn relaxed a bit. Morruchan seemed to be his own kind despite everything, not awestruck, not idealistic, not driven by some incomprehensible nonhuman motivation, but a shrewd and skeptical politician of a pragmatically oriented culture.
Seems to be, the man cautioned himself. what do I really know about Merseia?
Judging by observation made in orbit, radio monitoring, initial radio contact, and the ride here in an electric groundcar, this planet still held a jumble of societies, dominated by the one which surrounded the Wilwidh Ocean. Two centuries ago, local rule had been divided among aristocratic clans. He supposed that a degree of continental unification had since been achieved, for his request for an interview with the highest authority had gotten him to Ardaig and a confrontation with this individual. But could Morruchan speak for his entire species? Falkayn doubted it.
Nevertheless, you had to start somewhere.
“I shall be honest, Hand,” he said. “My crew and I are come as naught but preparers of the way. Can we succeed, we will be rewarded with a share in whatever gain ensueth. For our scientists wish to use Merseia and its moons as bases wherefrom to observe the supernova through the next dozen years. Best for them would be if your folk could provide them with most of their needs, not alone food but such instruments as they tell you how to fashion. For this they will pay fairly; and in addition, ye will acquire knowledge. “Yet first must we assure that there remaineth a Merseian civilization. To do that, we must wreak huge works. And ye will pay us for our toil and goods supplied to that end. The price will not be usurious, but it will allow us a profit. Out of it, we will buy whatever Merseian wares can be sold at home for further profit.” He smiled. “Thus all may win and none need fear. The Polesotechnic League compriseth nor conquerors nor bandits, naught save merchant adventurers who seek to make their”—more or less—“honest living.”
“Htinh!” Morruchan growled. “Now we bite down to the bone. When you first communicated and spoke about a supernova, my colleagues and I consulted the astronomers. We are not altogether savages here; we have at least gone as far as atomic power and interplanetary travel. Well, our astronomers said that such a star reaches a peak output about fifteen billion times as great as Korych. Is this right?”
“Close enough, Hand, if Korych be your own sun.”
“The only nearby one which might burst in this manner is
Valenderay. From your description, the brightest in the southern sky, you must be thinking of it too.”
Falkayn nodded, realized he wasn’t sure if this gesture meant the same thing on Merseia, remembered it did, and said: “Aye, Hand.”
“It sounded terrifying,” Morruchan said, “until they pointed out that Valenderay is three and a half light-years distant. And this is a reach so enormous that no mind can swallow it. The radiation, when it gets to us, will equal a mere one-third of what comes daily from Korych. And in some fifty-five days” (Terrestrial) “it will have dwindled to half ... and so on, until before long we see little except a bright nebula at night.
“True, we can expect troublesome weather, storms, torrential rains, perhaps some flooding if sufficient of the south polar ice cap melts. But that will pass. In any case, the center of civilization is here, in the northern hemisphere. It is also true that, at peak, there will be a dangerous amount of ultraviolet and X radiation. But Merseia’s atmosphere will block it.
“Thus.” Morruchan leaned back on his tail and bridged the fingers of his oddly humanlike hands. “The peril you speak of scarcely exists. What do you really want?”
Falkayn’s boyhood training, as a nobleman’s son on Hermes, rallied within him. He squared his shoulders. He was not unimpressive, a tall, fair-haired young man with blue eyes bright in a lean, highcheekboned face. “Hand,” he said gravely, “I perceive you have not yet had time to consult your folk who are wise in matters—” And then he broke down. He didn’t know the word for
Morruchan refrained from taking advantage. Instead, the Merseian became quite helpful. Falkyan’s rejoinder was halting, often interrupted while he and the other worked out what a phrase must be. But, in essence and in current language, what he said was: “The Hand is correct as far as he goes. But consider what will follow. The eruption of a supernova is violent beyond imagining. Nuclear processes are involved, so complex that we ourselves don’t yet understand them in detail. That’s why we want to study them. But this much we do know, and your physicists will confirm it. “As nuclei and electrons recombine in that supernal fireball, they generate asymmetrical magnetic pulses. Surely you know what this does when it happens in the detonation of an atomic weapon. Now think of it on a stellar scale. When those forces hit, they will blast straight through Merseia’s own magnetic field, down to the very surface. Unshielded electric motors, generators, transmission lines ... °h, yes, no doubt you have surge arrestors, but your circuit breakers will be tripped, intolerable voltages will be induced, the entire system will be wrecked. Likewise telecommunications lines. And computers. If you use transistors-ah, you do-the flipflop between p and n type conduction will wipe every memory bank, stop every operation in its tracks.
“Electrons, riding that magnetic pulse, will not be long in arriving. As they spiral in the planet’s field, their synchrotron radiation will completely blanket whatever electronic apparatus you may have salvaged. Protons should be slower, pushed to about half the speed of light. Then come the alpha particles, then the heavier matter: year after year after year of cosmic fallout, most of it radioactive, to a total greater by orders of magnitude than any war could create before civilization was destroyed. Your planetary magnetism is no real shield. The majority of ions are energetic enough to get through. Nor is your atmosphere any good defense. Heavy nuclei, sleeting through it, will produce secondary radiation that does reach the ground.
“I do not say this planet will be wiped clean of life. But I do say that, without ample advance preparation, it will suffer ecological disaster. Your species might or might not survive; but if you do, it will be as a few starveling primitives. The early breakdown of the electric systems on which your civilization is now dependent will have seen to that. Just imagine. Suddenly no more food moves into the cities. The dwellers go forth as a ravening horde. But if most of your farmers are as specialized as I suppose, they won’t even be able to support themselves. Once fighting and famine have become general, no more medical service will be possible, and the pestilences will start. It will be like the aftermath of an all-out nuclear strike against a country with no civil defense. I gather you’ve avoided that on Merseia. But you certainly have theoretical studies of the subject, and-I have seen planets where it did happen.
“Long before the end, your colonies throughout this system will have been destroyed by the destruction of the apparatus that keeps the colonists alive. And for many years, no spaceship will be able to move.
“Unless you accept our help. We know how to generate force screens, small ones for machines, gigantic ones which can give an entire planet some protection. Not enough-but we also know how to insulate against the energies that get through. We know how to build engines and communications lines which are not affected. We know how to sow substances which protect life against hard radiation. We know how to restore mutated genes. In short, we have the knowledge you need for survival.
“The effect will be enormous. Most of it you must carry out yourselves. Our available personnel are too few, our lines of interstellar transportation too long. But we can supply engineers and organizers.
“To be blunt, Hand, you are very lucky that we learned of this in time, barely in time. Don’t fear us. We have no ambitions toward Merseia. If nothing else, it lies far beyond our normal sphere of operation, and we have millions of more profitable planets much closer to home. We want to save you, because you are sentient beings. But it’ll be expensive, and a lot of the work will have to be done by outfits like mine, which exist to make a profit. So, besides a scientific base, we want a reasonable economic return.
“Eventually, though, we’ll depart. What you do then is your own affair. But you’ll still have your civilization. You’ll also have a great deal of new equipment and new knowledge. I think you’re getting a bargain.”
Falkayn stopped. For a while, silence dwelt in that long dim hall. He grew aware of odors which had never been on Earth or Hermes. Morruchan said at last, slowly: “This must be thought on. I shall have to confer with my colleagues, and others. There are so many complications. For example, I see no good reason to do anything for the colony on Ronruad, and many excellent reasons for letting it die.”
“What?” Falkayn’s teeth clicked together. “Meaneth the Hand the next outward planet? But meseems faring goeth on apace throughout this system.”
“Indeed, indeed,” Morruchan said impatiently. “We depend on the other planets for a number of raw materials, like fissionables, or complex gases from the outer worlds. Ronruad, though, is of use only to the Gethfennu.”
He spoke that word with such distaste that Falkayn postponed asking for a definition. “What recommendations I make in my report will draw heavily upon the Hand’s wisdom,” the human said. “Your courtesy is appreciated,” Morruchan replied: with how much irony, Falkayn wasn’t sure. He was taking the news more coolly than expected. But then, he was of a different race from men, and a soldierly tradition as well. “I hope that, for now, you will honor the Vach Dathyr by guesting us.”
“Well—” Falkayn hesitated. He had planned on returning to his But he might do better on the spot. The Survey crew had found Merscian food nourishing to men, in fact tasty. One report had waxed ecstatic about the ale.
“I thank the Hand.”
“Good. I suggest you go to the chambers already prepared, to rest and refresh yourself. With your leave, a messenger will come presently to ask what he should bring you from your vessel. Unless you wish to move it here?”
“Uh, best not ... policy—” Falkayn didn’t care to take chances. The Merseians were not so far behind the League that they couldn’t spring a nasty surprise if they wanted to.
Morruchan raised the skin above his brow ridges but made no comment. “You will dine with me and my councillors at sunset,” he said. They parted ceremoniously.
A pair of guards conducted Falkayn out, through a series of corridors and up a sweeping staircase whose bannister was carved into the form of a snake. At the end, he was ushered into a suite. The rooms were spacious, their comfort-making gadgetry not greatly below Technic standards. Reptile-skin carpets and animal skulls mounted on the crimson-draped walls were a little disquieting, but what the hell. A balcony gave on a view of the palace gardens, whose austere good taste was reminiscent of Original Japanese, and on the city.
Ardaig was sizeable, must hold two or three million souls. This quarter was ancient, with buildings of gray stone fantastically turreted and battlemented. The hills which ringed it were checkered by the estates of the wealthy. Snow lay white and blue-shadowed between. Ramparted with tall modern structures, the bay shone like gunmetal. Cargo ships moved in and out, i delta-wing jet whistled overhead. But he heard little traffic noise; nonessential vehicles were banned in the sacred Old Quarter.
“Wedhi is my name, Protector,” said the short Merseian in the black tunic who had been awaiting him. “May he consider me his liegeman, to do as he commands.” Tail slapped ankles in salute. “My thanks,” Falkayn said. “Thou mayest show me how one maketh use of facilities.” He couldn’t wait to see a bathroom designed for these people. “And then, mayhap, a tankard of beer, a textbook on political geography, and privacy for some hours.”
“The Protector has spoken. If he will follow me?”
The two of them entered the adjoining chamber, which was furnished for sleeping. As if by accident, Wedhi’s tail brushed the door. It wasn’t automatic, merely hinged, and closed under the impact. Wedhi seized Falkayn’s hand and pressed something into the palm. Simultaneously, he caught his lips between his teeth. A signal for silence?
With a tingle along his spine, Falkayn nodded and stuffed the bit of paper into a pocket.
When he was alone, he opened the note, hunched over in case of spy eyes. The alphabet hadn’t changed.
Be wary, star dweller. Morruchan Long-Ax is no friend. If you can arrange for one of your company to come tonight in secret to the house at the corner of Triau’s Street and Victory Way which is marked by twined fylfots over the door, the truth shall be explained. As darkness fell, the moon Neihevin rose full, Luna size and copper color, above eastward hills whose forests glistened with frost. Lythyr was already up, a small pale crescent. Rigel blazed in the heart of that constellation named the Spear Bearer.
Chee Lan turned from the viewscreen with a shiver and an unladylike phrase. “But I am not equipped to do that,” said the ship’s computer.
“The suggestion was addressed to my gods,” Chee answered. She sat for a while, brooding on her wrongs. Ta-chih-chien-pih-C>2 Eridani A II or Cynthia to humans-felt even more distant than it was, warm ruddy sunlight and rustling leaves around treetop homes lost in time as well as space. Not only the cold outside daunted her. Those Merseians were so bloody big!
She herself was no larger than a medium-sized dog, though the bush of her tail added a good deal. Her arms, almost as long as her legs, ended in delicate six-fingered hands. White fur fluffed about her, save where it made a bluish mask across the green eyes and round, blunt-muzzled face. Seeing her for the first time, human females were apt to call her darling.
She bristled. Ears, whiskers, and hair stood erect. What was shedescendant of carnivores who chased their prey in five-meter leaps from branch to branch, xenobiologist by training, trade pioneer by choice, and pistol champion because she liked to shoot guns-what was she doing, feeling so much as respect for a gaggle of slewfooted bald barbarians? Mainly she was irritated. While standing by aboard the ship, she’d hoped to complete her latest piece of sculpture. Instead, she must hustle into that pustulent excuse for weather, and skulk through a stone garbage dump that its perpetrators called a city, and hear some yokel drone on for hours about some squabble between drunken cockroaches which he thought was politics ... and pretend to take the whole farce seriously!
A narcotic cigarette soothed her, however ferocious the puffs in which she consumed it. “I guess the matter is important, at that,” she murmured. “Fat commissions for me if the project succeeds.”
“My programming is to the effect that our primary objective is humanitarian,” said the computer. “Though I cannot find that concept in my data storage.”
“Never mind, Muddlehead,” Chee replied. Her mood had turned benign. “If you want to know, it relates to those constraints you have filed under Law and Ethics. But no concern of ours, this trip. Oh, the bleeding hearts do quack about Rescuing a Promising Civilization, as if the galaxy didn’t have too chaos many civilizations already. Well, if they want to foot the bill, it’s their taxes. They’ll have to work with the League, because the League has most of the ships, which it won’t hire out for nothing. And the League has to start with us, because trade pioneers are supposed to be experts in making first contacts and we happened to be the sole such crew in reach. Which is our good luck, I suppose.”
She stubbed out her cigarette and busied herself with preparations. There was, for a fact, no alternative. She’d had to admit that, after a three-way radio conversation with her partners. (They didn’t worry about eavesdroppers, when not a Merseian knew a word of Anglic.) Falkayn was stuck in what’s-his-name’s palace. Adzel was loose in the city, but he’d be the last one you’d pick for an undercover mission. Which left Chee Lan.
“Maintain contact with all three of us,” she ordered the ship. “Record everything coming in tonight over my two-way. Don’t stir without orders-in a galactic language-and don’t respond to any native attempts at communication. Tell us at once whatever unusual you observe. If you haven’t heard from any of us for twenty-four hours at a stretch, return to Catawrayannis and report.”
No answer being indicated, the computer made none.
Chee buckled on a gravity harness, a tool kit, and two guns, a stunner and a blaster. Over them she threw a black mantle, less for warmth than concealment. Dousing the lights, she had the personnel lock open just long enough to let her through, jumped, and took to the air.
It bit her with chill. Flowing past, it felt liquid. An enormous silence dwelt beneath heaven; the hum of her grav was lost. Passing above the troopers who surrounded Muddlin’ Tlirough with armor and artillery-a sensible precaution from the native standpoint, she had to agree, sensibly labelled an honor guard-she saw the forlorn twinkle of campfires and heard a snatch of hoarse song. Then a hovercraft whirred near, big and black athwart the Milky Way, and she must change course to avoid being seen.
For a while she flew above snow-clad wilderness. On an unknown planet, you didn’t land downtown if you could help it. Hills and woods gave way at length to a cultivated plain where the lights of villages huddled around tower-jagged castles. Merseia-this continent, at least-appeared to have retained feudalism even as it swung into an industrial age. Or had it?
Perhaps tonight she would find out.
The seacoast hove in view, and Ardaig. That city did not gleam with illumination and brawl with traffic as most Technic communities did. Yellow windows strewed its night, like fireflies trapped in a web of phosphorescent paving. The River Oiss gleamed dull where it poured through town and into the bay, on which there shone a double moonglade. No, triple; Wythna was rising now. A murmur of machines lifted skyward.
Chee dodged another aircraft and streaked down for the darkling Old Quarter. She landed behind a shuttered bazaar and sought the nearest alley. Crouched there, she peered forth. In this section, the streets were decked with a hardy turf which ice had blanketed, and lit by widely spaced lamps. A Merseian went past, riding a horned gwydh. His tail was draped back across the animal’s nimp; his cloak fluttered behind him to reveal a quilted jacket reinforced with glittering metal discs, and a rifle slanted over his shoulder. No guardsman, surely; Chee had seen what the military wore, and Falkayn had transmitted pictures of Morruchan’s household troops to her via a hand scanner. He had also passed on the information that those latter doubled as police. So why was a civilian going armed? It bespoke a degree of lawlessness that fitted ill with a technological society ... unless that society was in more trouble than Morruchan had admitted. Chee made certain her own guns were loose in the holsters.
The clop-clop of hooves faded away. Chee stuck her head out of the alley and took bearings from street signs. Instead of words, they used colorful heraldic emblems. But the Survey people had compiled a good map of Ardaig, which Falkayn’s gang had memorized. The Old Quarter ought not to have changed much. She loped off, seeking cover whenever she heard a rider or pedestrian approach. There weren’t many.
This comer! Squinting through murk, she identified the symbol carved in the lintel of a lean gray house. Quickly, she ran up the stairs and rapped on the door. Her free hand rested on the stunner. The door creaked open. Light streamed through. A Merseian stood silhouetted against it. He carried a pistol himself. His head moved back and forth, peering into the night. “Here I am, thou idiot,” Chee muttered.
He looked down. A jerk went through his body. “Hu-ya! You are from the star ship?”
“Nay,” Chee sneered, “I am come to inspect the plumbing.” She darted past him, into a wainscoted corridor. “If thou wouldst preserve this chickling secrecy of thine, might one suggest that thou close yon portal?”
The Merseian did. He stood a moment, regarding her in the glow of an incandescent bulb overhead. “I thought you would be ... different.”
“They were Terrans who first visited this world, but surely thou didst not think every race in the cosmos is formed to those ridiculous specifications. Now I’ve scant time to spare for whatever griping ye have here to do, so lead me to thine acher.”
The Merseian obeyed. His garments were about like ordinary street clothes, belted tunic and baggy trousers, but a certain precision in their cut-as well as blue-and-gold stripes and the double fylfot embroidered on the sleeves-indicated they were a livery. Or a uniform? Chee felt the second guess confirmed when she noted two others, similarly attired, standing armed in front of a door. They saluted her and let her through.
The room beyond was baronial. Radiant heating had been installed, but a fire also roared on the hearth. Chee paid scant attention to rich draperies and carven pillars. Her gaze went to the two who sat awaiting her.
One was scarfaced, athletic, his tailtip restlessly aflicker. His robe was blue and gold, and he carried a short ceremonial spear. At sight of her, he drew a quick breath. The Cynthian decided she’d better be polite. “I hight Chee Lan, worthies, come from the interstellar expedition in response to your kind invitation.”
“Khraich.” The aristocrat recovered his poise and touched finger to brow. “Be welcome. I am Dagla, called Quick-to-Anger, the Hand of the Vach Hallen. And my comrade: Olgor hu Freylin, his rank Warmaster in the Republic of Lafdigu, here in Ardaig as agent for his country.”
That being was middle-aged, plump, with skin more dark and features more flat than was common around the Wilwidh Ocean. His garb was foreign too, a sort of toga with metal threads woven into the purple cloth. And he was soft-spoken, imperturbable, quite without the harshness of these lands. He crossed his arms-gesture of greeting?-and said in accented Eriau:
“Great is the honor. Since the last visitors from your high civilization were confined largely to this region, perhaps you have no knowledge of mine. May I therefore say that Lafdigu lies in the southern hemisphere, occupying a goodly part of its continent. In those days we were unindustrialized, but now, one hopes, the situation has altered.”
“Nay, Warmaster, be sure our folk heard much about Lafdigu’s venerable culture and regretted they had no time to learn therefrom.” Chee got more tactful the bigger the lies she told. Inwardly, she groaned: Oh, no! We haven’t troubles enough, there has to be international politicking too!
A servant appeared with a cut-crystal decanter and goblets. “I trust that your race, like the Terran, can partake of Merseian refreshment?” Dagla said.
‘Indeed,” Chee replied. “’Tis necessary that they who voyage together use the same stuffs. I thank the Hand.”
“But we had not looked for, hurgh, a guest your size,” Olgor said. Perhaps a smaller glass? The wine is potent.”
“This is excellent.” Chee hopped onto a low table, squatted, and raised her goblet two-handed. “Galactic custom is that we drink to the health of friends. To yours, then, worthies.” She took a long draught. The fact that alcohol does not affect the Cynthian brain was one she had often found it advantageous to keep silent about. Dagla tossed off a yet larger amount, took a turn around the room, and growled: “Enough formalities, by your leave, Shipmaster.” She discarded her cloak. “Shipmistress?” He gulped. His society had a kitchen-church-and-kids attitude toward females. “We—kh-li-h-we’ve grave matters to discuss.”
“The Hand is too abrupt with our noble guest,” Olgor chided. “Nay, time is short,” Chee said. “And clearly the business hath great weight, sith ye went to the length of suborning a servant in Morruchan’s very stronghold.”
Dagla grinned. “I planted Wedhi there eight years ago. He’s a good voice-tube.”
“No doubt the Hand of the Vach Hallen hath surety of all his own servitors?” Chee purred.
Dagla frowned. Olgor’s lips twitched upward.
“Chances must be taken.” Dagla made a chopping gesture. “All we know is what was learned from your first radio communications, which said little. Morruchan was quick to isolate you. His hope is plainly to let you hear no more of the truth than he wants. To use you! Here, in this house, we may speak frankly with each other.” As frankly as you two Wongs choose, Chee thought. “I listen with care,” she said.
Piece by piece, between Dagla and Olgor, the story emerged. It sounded reasonable, as far as it went.
When the Survey team arrived, the Wilwidh culture stood on the brink of a machine age. The scientific method had been invented. There was a heliocentric astronomy, a post-Newtonian, pre-Maxwellian physics, a dawning chemistry, a well-developed taxonomy, some speculations about evolution. Steam engines were at work on the first railroads. But political power was fragmented among the Vachs. The scientists, the engineers, the teachers were each under the patronage of one or another Hand.
The visitors from space had too much sense of responsibility to pass on significant practical information. It wouldn’t have done a great deal of good anyway. How do you make transistors, for instance, before you can refine ultrapure semimetals? And why should you want to, when you don’t yet have electronics? But the humans had given theoretical and experimental science a boost by what they related-above all, by the simple and tremendous fact of their presence.
And then they left.
A fierce, proud people had their noses rubbed in their own insignificance. Chee guessed that here lay the root of most of the social upheaval which followed. And belike a more urgent motive than curiosity or profit began to drive the scientists: the desire, the need to catch up, to bring Merseia in one leap onto the galactic scene.
The Vachs had shrewdly ridden the wave. Piecemeal they shelved their quarrels, formed a loose confederation, met the new problems well enough that no movement arose to strip them of their privileges. But rivalry persisted, and cross purposes, and often a reactionary spirit, a harking back to olden days when the young were properly respectful of the God and their elders.
And meanwhile modernization spread across the planet. A country which did not keep pace soon found itself under foreign domination. Lafdigu had succeeded best. Chee got a distinct impression that the Republic was actually a hobnail-booted dictatorship. Its own imperial ambitions clashed with those of the Hands. Nuclear war was averted on the ground, but space battles had erupted from time to time, horribly and inconclusively.
“So here we are,” Dagla said. “Largest, most powerful, the Vach Dathyr speak loudest in this realm. But others press upon them, Hallen, Ynvory, Rueth, yes, even landless Urdiolch. You can see what it would mean if any one of them obtained your exclusive services.” Olgor nodded. “Among other things,” he said, “Morrtichan LongAx would like to contrive that my country is ignored. We are in the southern hemisphere. We will get the worst of the supernova blast. If unprotected, we will be removed from his equations.”
“In whole truth, Shipmistress,” Dagla added, “I don’t believe Morruchan wants your help. Khraich, yes, a minimum, to forestall utter collapse. But he has long ranted against the modern world and its ways. He’d not be sorry to see industrial civilization reduced so small that full-plumed feudalism returns.”
How shall he prevent us from doing our work?” Chee asked. “Surely he is not fool enough to kill us. Others will follow.” He’ll bet the knucklebones as they fall,” Dagla said. “At the very least, he’ll try to keep his position-that you work through him and get most of your information from his sources-and use it to increase his power. At the expense of every other party!”
“We could predict it even in Lafdigu, when first we heard of your coming,” Olgor said. “The Strategic College dispatched me here to make what alliances I can. Several Hands are not unwilling to see my country continue as a force in the world, as the price for our help in diminishing their closer neighbors.”
Chee said slowly: “Meseems ye make no few assumptions about us, on scant knowledge.”
“Shipmistress,” said Olgor, “civilized Merseia has had two centuries to study each word, each picture, each legend about your people. Some believe you akin to gods-or demons-yes, whole cults have flowered from the expectation of your return, and I do not venture to guess what they will do now that you are come. But there have also been cooler minds; and that first expedition was honest in what it told, was it not?
“Hence: the most reasonable postulate is that none of the starfaring races have mental powers we do not. They simply have longer histories. And as we came to know how many the stars are, we saw how thinly your civilization must be spread among them. You will not expend any enormous effort on us, in terms of your own economy. You cannot. You have too much else to do. Nor have you time to learn everything about Merseia and decide every detail of what you will effect. The supernova will flame in our skies in less than three years. You must cooperate with whatever authorities you find, and take their words for what the crucial things are to save and what others must be abandoned. Is this not truth?”
Chee weighed her answer. “To a certain degree,” she said carefully, “ye have right.”
“Morruchan knows this,” Dagla said. “He’ll use the knowledge as best he can.” He leaned forward, towering above her. “For our part, we will not tolerate it. Better the world go down in ruin, to be rebuilt by us, than that the Vach Dathyr engulf what our ancestors wrought. No planetwide effort can succeed without the help of a majority. Unless we get a full voice in what decisions are made, we’ll fight.”
“Hand, Hand,” reproved Olgor.
“Nay, I take no offense,” Chee said. “Rather, I give thanks for so plain a warning. Ye will understand, we bear ill will toward none on Merseia, and have no partisanship—” in your wretched little jockeyings. “If ye have prepared a document stating your position, gladly will we ponder on the same.”
Olgor opened a casket and took out a sheaf of papers bound in something like snakeskin. “This was hastily written,” he apologized. “At another date we would like to give you a fuller account.”
“ Twill serve for the nonce.” Chee wondered if she should stay a while. No doubt she could learn something further. But chaos, how much propaganda she’d have to strain out of what she heard! Also, she’d now been diplomatic as long as anyone could expect. Hadn’t she?
They could call the ship directly, she told them. If Morruchan tried to jam the airwaves, she’d jam him, into an unlikely posture. Olgor looked shocked. Dagla objected to communication which could be monitored. Chee sighed. “Well, then, invite us hither for a private talk,” she said. “Will Morruchan attack you for that?”
“No ... I suppose not ... but he’ll get some idea of what we know and what we’re doing.”
“My belief was,” said Chee in her smoothest voice, “that the Hand of the Vach Hallen wished naught save an end to these intrigues and selfishnesses, an openness in which Merseians might strive together for the common welfare.”
She had never cherished any such silly notion, but Dagla couldn’t very well admit that his chief concern was to get his own relatives on top of everybody else. He made wistful noises about a transmitter which could not be detected by Merseian equipment. Surely the galactics had one? They did, but Chee wasn’t about to pass on stuff with that kind of potentialities. She expressed regrets-nothing had been brought along-so sorry-goodnight, Hand, goodnight, Warmaster. The guard who had let her in escorted her to the front door. She Wondered why her hosts didn’t. Caution, or just a different set of mores? Well, no matter. Back to the ship. She ran down the frosty street, looking for an alley from which her takeoff wouldn’t be noticed. Someone might get trigger happy.
An entrance gaped between two houses. She darted into darkness. A body fell upon her. Other arms clasped tight, pinioning. She yelled. A light gleamed briefly, a sack was thrust over her head, she inhaled a sweet-sick odor and whirled from her senses.
Adzel still wasn’t sure what was happening to him, or how it had begun. There he’d been, minding his own business, and suddenly he was the featured speaker at a prayer meeting. If that was what it was.
He cleared his throat. “My friends,” he said.
A roar went through the hall. Faces and faces and faces stared at the rostrum which he filled with his four and a half meters of length. A thousand Mersians must be present: clients, commoners, city proletariat, drably clad for the most part. Many were female; the lower classes didn’t segregate sexes as rigidly as the upper. Their odors made the air thick and musky. Being in a new part of Ardaig, the hall was built plain. But its proportions, the contrasting hues of paneling, the symbols painted in scarlet across the walls, reminded Adzel he was on a foreign planet.
He took advantage of the interruption to lift the transceiver hung around his neck up to his snout and mutter plaintively, “David, what shall I tell them?”
“Be benevolent and noncommittal,” Falkayn’s voice advised. “I don’t think mine host likes this one bit.”
The Wodenite glanced over the seething crowd, to the entrance. Three of Morruchan’s household guards stood by the door and glowered.
He didn’t worry about physical attack. Quite apart from having the ship for a backup, he was too formidable himself: a thousand-kilo centauroid, his natural armorplate shining green above and gold below, his spine more impressively ridged than any Merseian’s. His ears were not soft cartilage but bony, a similar shelf protected his eyes, his rather crocodilian face opened on an alarming array of fangs. Thus he had been the logical member of the team to wander around the city today, gathering impressions. Morruchan’s arguments against this had been politely overruled. “Fear no trouble, Hand,” Falkayn said truthfully. “Adzel never seeketh any out. He is a Buddhist, a lover of peace who can well afford tolerance anent the behavior of others.”
By the same token, though, he had not been able to refuse the importunities of the crowd which finally cornered him.
“Have you got word from Chee?” he asked.
“Nothing yet,” Falkayn said. “Muddlehead’s monitoring, of course. I imagine she’ll contact us tomorrow. Now don’t you interrupt me either, I’m in the middle of an interminable official banquet.” Ad/el raised his arms for silence, but here that gesture was an encouragement for more shouts. He changed position, his hooves clattering on the platform, and his tail knocked over a floor candelabrum. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he exclaimed. A red-robed Merseian named Gryf, the chief nut of this organization-Star Believers, was that what they called themselves?-picked the thing up and managed to silence the house.
“My friends,” Adzel tried again. “Er ... my friends. I am, er, deeply appreciative of the honor ye do me in asking for some few words.” He tried to remember the political speeches he had heard while a student on Earth. “In the great fraternity of intelligent races throughout the universe, surely Merseia hath a. majestic part to fulfill.”
“Show us-show us the way!” howled from the floor. “The way, the tnith, the long road futureward!”
“Ah ... yes. With pleasure.” Adzel turned to Gryf. “But perchance first your, er, glorious leader should explain to me the purposes of this-this—” What was the word for “club?” Or did he want
Mainly he wanted information.
“Why, the noble galactic jests,” Gryf said in ecstasy. “You know we are those who have waited, living by the precepts the galactics taught, in loyal expectation of their return which they promised us. We are your chosen instrument for the deliverance of Merseia from its ills. Use us!”
Adzel was a planetologist by profession, but his large bump of curiosity had led him to study in other fields. His mind shuffled through books he had read, societies he had visited ... yes, he identified the pattern. These were cultists, who’d attached a quasireligious significance to what had actually been quite a casual stopover. Oh, the jewel in the lotus! What kind of mess had ensued? He had to find out.
“That’s, ah, very fine,” he said. “Very fine indeed. Ah ... how many do ye number?”
“More than two million, Protector, in twenty different nations. Some high ones are among us, yes, the Heir of the Vach Isthyr. But most belong to the virtuous poor. Had they all known the Protector was to walk forth this day-Well, they’ll come as fast as may be, to hear your bidding.”
An influx like that could make the pot boil over, Adzel foresaw. Ardaig had been restless enough as he quested through its streets. And what little had been learned about basic Merseian instincts, by the Survey psychologists, suggested they were a combative species. Mass hysteria could take ugly forms.
“No!” the Wodenite cried. The volume nearly blew Gryf off the podium. Adzel moderated his tone. “Let them stay home. Calm, patience, carrying out one’s daily round of duties, those are the galactic virtues.”
Try telling that to a merchant adventurer! Adzel checked himself. “I fear we have no miracles to offer.”
He was about to say that the word he carried was of blood, sweat, and tears. But no. When you dealt with a people whose reactions you couldn’t predict, such news must be released with care. Falkayn’s first radio communications had been guarded, on precisely that account.
“This is clear,” Gryf said. He was not stupid, or even crazy, except in his beliefs. “We must ourselves release ourselves from our oppressors. Tell us how to begin.”
Adzel saw Morruchan’s troopers grip their rifles tight. We’re expected to start some kind of social revolution? he thought wildly. But we can’t! It’s not our business. Our business is to save your lives, and for that we must not weaken but strengthen whatever authority can work with us, and any revolution icill be slow to mature, a consequence of technology-Dare I tell them this tonight?
Pedantry might soothe them, if only by boring them to sleep. “Among those sophonts who need a government,” Adzel said, “the basic requirement for a government which is to function well is that it be legitimate, and the basic problem of any political innovator is how to continue, or else establish anew, a sound basis for that legitimacy. Thus newcomers like mineself cannot—”
He was interrupted (later he was tempted to say “rescued”) by a noise outside. It grew louder, a harsh chant, the clatter of feet on pavement. Females in the audience wailed. Males snarled and moved toward the door. Gryf sprang from the platform, down to what Adzel identified as a telecom, and activated the scanner. It showed the street, and an armed mob. High over them, against snow-laden roofs and night sky, flapped a yellow banner.
“Demonists!” Gryf groaned. “I was afraid of this.”
Adzel joined him. “Who be they?”
“A lunatic sect. They imagine you galactics mean, have meant from the first, to corrupt us to our destruction .... I was prepared, though. See.” From alleys and doorways moved close-ranked knots of husky males. They carried weapons.
A trooper snapped words into the microphone of a walkie-talkie. Sending for help, no doubt, to quell the oncoming riot. Adzel returned to the rostrum and filled the hall with his pleas that everyone remain inside.
He might have succeeded, by reverberation if not reason. But his own transceiver awoke with Falkayn’s voice: “Get here at once! Chee’s been nabbed!”
“What? Who did it? Why?” The racket around became of scant importance.
“I don’t know. Muddlehead just alerted me. She’d left this place she was at. Muddlehead received a yell, sounds of scuffling, then no more from her. I’m sending him aloft, to try and track her by the carrier wave. He says the source is moving. You move too, back to Afon.”
Adzel did. He took part of the wall with him.
Korych rose through winter mists that turned gold as they smoked past city towers and above the river. Kettledrums rolled their ritual from Eidh Hill. Shutters came down off windows and doors, market circles began to fill, noise lifted out of a hundred small workshops. Distantly, but deeper and more portentous, sounded the buzz of traffic and power from the new quarters, hoot of ships on the bay, whine of jets overhead, thunder of rockets as a craft left the spaceport for the moon Seith.
Morruchan Long-Ax switched off the lights in his confidence chamber. Dawnglow streamed pale through glass, picking out the haggardness of faces. “I am weary,” he said, “and we are on a barren trail.”
“Hand,” said Falkayn, “it had better not be. Here we stay until we have reached some decision.”
Morruchan and Dagla glared. Olgor grew expressionless. They were none of them accustomed to being addressed thus. Falkayn gave them stare for stare, and Ad^el lifted his head from where he lay coiled on the floor. The Merseians slumped back onto their tails. “Your whole world may be at stake, worthies,” Falkayn said. “My people will not wish to spend time and treasure, aye, some lives, if they look for such ungrateful treatment.”
He picked up the harness and kit which lay on Morruchan’s desk and hefted them. Guided by Muddlehead, searchers from this household had found the apparatus in a ditch outside town and brought it here several hours ago. Clearly Ghee’s kidnappers had suspected a signal was being emitted. The things felt pitifully light in his hand.
“What more can be said?” Olgor argued. “We have each voiced a suspicion that one of the others engineered the deed to gain a lever for himself. Or yet a different Vach, or another nation, may have done it; or the Demonists; or even the Star Believers, for some twisted reason.” He turned to Dagla. “Are you certain you have no inkling who that servant of yours may have been working for?”
“I told you before, no,” said the Hallen chief. “It’s not our way in this country to pry into lives. I know only that Dwyr entered my service a few years ago, and gave satisfaction, and now has also vanished. So I presume he was a spy for someone else, and told his masters of a chance to seize a galactic. A telecom call would be easy to make, and they needed only to cover the few possible routes she could take on leaving me.”
“In sum,” Mornichan declared, “he acted just like your spy who betrayed my doings to you.”
“Enough, worthies,” Falkayn sighed. “Too stinking often this night have we tracked the same ground. Perchance investigation will give some clues to this Dwyr, whence he came and so forth. But such taketh time. We must needs look into every possibility at once. Including your very selves. Best ye perform a mutual checking.”
“And who shall do the like for you?” Morruchan asked.
“What meaneth the Hand?”
“This might be a trick of your own.”
Falkayn clutched his hair. “For what conceivable reason?” He wanted to say more, but relations were strained already.
“How should I know?” Morruchan retorted. “You are unknowns. You say you have no imperial designs here, but your agents have met with rivals of mine, with a cult whose main hope is to upset the order of things-and with how many else? The Gethfennu?”
“Would the Hand be so gracious as to explain to me who those are?” said Adzel in an oil-on-the-waves voice.
“We described them already,” Dagla answered.
“Then ’twas whilst I was out, Hand, directing our ship in its search and subsequent return to base. Indulge a humble fool’s request, I beg you.”
The idea of someone equipped like Adzel calling himself a humble fool took the Merseians so much aback that they forgot to stay angry. Falkayn added: “I’d not mind hearing about them again. Never suspected I their existence erenow.”
“They are the criminal syndicate, spread across the world and on into space,” Morruchan said. “Thieves, assassins, harlots, tricksters, corrupters of all good.”
He went on, while Falkayn analyzed his words. No doubt the Gethfennu were a bad influence. But Morruchan was too prejudiced, and had too little historical sense, to see why they flourished. The industrial revolution had shaken foundation stones loose from society. Workers flocking to the cities found themselves cut off from the old feudal restrictions ... and securities. Cultural and material impoverishment bred lawlessness. Yet the baronial tradition survived, in a distorted form; gangs were soon gathered into a network which offered members protection and purpose as well as loot.
The underground kingdom of the Gethfennu could not be destroyed by Vachs and nations divided against each other. It fought back too effectively, with money and influence more often than with violence. And, to be sure, it provided some safety valve. A commoner who went to one of its gambling dens or joyhouses might get fleeced, but he would not plot insurrection.
So a tacit compromise was reached, the kind that many planets nave known, Earth not least among them. Racketeering and vice were held to a tolerable level, confined to certain areas and certain classes, by the gang lords. Murder, robbery, and shakedown did not touch the aristocratic palace or the high financial office. Bribery did, in some countries, and thereby the Gethfennu was strengthened. Of late, its tentacles had stretched beyond these skies. It bought into established interplanetary enterprises. And then there was Ronruad, the next planet out. Except for scientific research, it had scant intrinsic value, but bases upon it were of so great strategic importance that they had occasioned wars. Hence the last general peace treaty had neutralized it, placed it outside any jurisdiction. Soon afterward, the Gethfennu took advantage of this by building a colony there, where anything went. A spaceship line, under the syndicate’s open-secret control, offered passenger service. Luridor became the foremost town for respectable Merseians to go in search of unrestrained, if expensive fun. It also became a hatchery of trouble, and Falkayn could understand why Morruchan didn’t want it protected against the supernova.
Neither, he found, did Dagla. Probably few if any Hands did. Olgor was less emphatic, but agreed that, at best, Ronruad should get a very low priority.
“The Gethfennu may, then, have seized Chee Lan for ransom?” Adzel said.
“Perhaps,” Dagla said. “Though the ransom may be that you galactics help them. If they’ve infiltrated Hand Morruehan’s service too, they could know what the situation is.”
“In that case,” Falkayn objected, “they are scarcely so naive as to think—”
“I will investigate,” Morruchan promised. “I may make direct inquiry. But channels of communication with the Gethfennu masters are devious, therefore slow.”
“In any event,” Falkayn said bleakly, “Adzel and I do not propose to leave our partner in the grip of criminals-for years, after which they may cut her throat.”
“You do not know they have her,” Olgor reminded him.
“True. Yet may we prowl somewhat through space, out toward their colony. For little can we do on Merseia, where our knowledge is scant. Here must ye search, worthies, and contrive that all others search with you.”
The command seemed to break Morruehan’s thin-stretched pa—tience. “Do you imagine we’ve nothing better to do than hunt for one creature? We, who steer millions?”
Falkayn lost his temper likewise. “If ye wish to keep on doing thus, best ye make the finding of Chee Lan your foremost concern!”
“Gently, gently,” Olgor said. “We are so tired that we are turning on allies. And that is not well.” He laid a hand on Falkayn’s shoulder. “Galactic,” he said, “surely you can understand that organizing a systemwide hunt, in a world as diverse as ours, is a greater task than the hunt itself. Why, no few leaders of nations, tribes, clans, factions will not believe the truth if they are told. Proving it to them will require diplomatic skill. Then there are others whose main interest will be to see if they cannot somehow maneuver this affair to give them an advantage over us. And yet others hope you do go away and never return; I do not speak merely of the Demonists.”
“If Chee be not returned safely,” Falkayn said, “those last may well get their wish.”
Olgor smiled. The expression went no deeper than his lips. “Galactic,” he murmured, “let us not play word games. Your scientists stand to win knowledge and prestige here, your merchants a profit. They will not allow an unfortunate incident, caused by a few Merseians and affecting only one of their fold ... they will not let that come between them and their objectives. Will they?”
Falkayn looked into the ebony eyes. His own were the first to drop. Nausea caught at his gullet. The Warmaster of Lafdigu had identified his bluff and called it.
Oh, no doubt these who confronted him would mount some kind of search. If nothing else, they’d be anxious to learn what outfit had infiltrated agents onto their staffs, and to what extent. No doubt, also, various other Merseians would cooperate. But the investigation would be ill-coordinated and lackadaisical. It would hardly succeed against beings as wily as those who captured Chee Lan.
These three here-nigh the whole of Merseia-just didn’t give a damn about her.
She awoke in a cell.
It was less than three meters long, half that in width and height: windowless, doorless, comfortless. A coat of paint did not hide the construction, which was of large blocks. Their unresponsiveness to her fist-pounding suggested a high density. Bracket* were bolted into the walls, to hold equipment of different sorts in place. Despite non-Technic design, Chee recognized a glowlamp, a thermostated air renewer, a waste unit, an acceleration couch ... space gear, by Cosmos!
No sound, no vibration other than the faint whirr of the air unit’s fan, reached her. The walls were altogether blank. After a while, they seemed to move closer. She chattered obscenities at them. But she came near weeping with relief when one block slid aside. A Merseian face looked in. Behind was polished metal. Rumble, clangor, shouted commands resounded through what must be a spaceship’s hull, from what must be a spaceport outside.
“Are you well?” asked the Merseian. He looked still tougher than average, but he was trying for courtesy, and he wore a neat tunic with insignia of rank.
Chee debated whether to make a jump, claw his eyes out, and bolt for freedom. No, not a chance. But neither was she going to embrace him. “Quite well, I thank thee,” she snarled, “if thou’lt set aside trifles such as that thy heart-rotten varlets have beaten and gassed me, and I am athirst and anhungered. For this outrage, methinks I’ll summon my mates to blow thy pesthole of a planet from the universe it defileth.”
The Merseian laughed. “You can’t be too sick, with that kind of spirit. Here are food and water.” He passed her some containers. “We blast off soon for a voyage of a few days. If I can supply you with anything safe, I will.”
“Where are we bound? Who art thou? What meaneth—”
“Hurh, little one, I’m not going to leave this smugglehole open very long, for any spillmouth to notice. Tell me this instant what you want, so I can try to have it sent from the city.”
Later Chee swore at herself, more picturesquely than she had ever cursed even Adzel. Had she specified the right things, they might have been a clue for her partners. But she was too foggy in the head, too dazed by events. Automatically, she asked for books and films which might help her understand the Merseian situation better. And a grammar text, she added in haste. She was tired of sounding like a local Shakespeare. The Merseian nodded and pushed the block back in place. She heard a faint click. Doubtless a tongue-and-groove lock, operated by a magnetic key.
The rations were revivifying. Befoie long, Chee felt in shape to make deductions. She was evidently in a secret compartment, built into the wall of a uidiation shelter.
Merseian inteiplanetary vessels lan on a. theimonuclear-poweied ion drive. Those which made landings-ferries tending the big ships, or special jobs such as this presumably was-set down in deep silos and departed from them, so that electromagnetic fields could contain the blast and neutralize it before it poisoned the neighborhood. And each craft carried a blockhouse for crew and passengers to huddle in, should they get caught by a solar storm. Altogether, the engineering was superb. Too bad it would go by the board as soon as giavity drive and force screens became available.
A few days, at one Merseian gee: hm, that meant an adjacent planet. Not recalling the present positions, Chee wasn’t sure which. A lot of space traffic moved in the Koiychan System, as instruments had shown while Muddlin Through appicached. From a distance, in magniscreens, she had observed some of the fleet, capacious cargo vessels and sleek naval units.
Her captor returned with the materials she had requested and a warning to strap in for blastoff. He introduced himself genially as Iriad the Wayfarer, in charge of this dispatch boat.
“Who are thon woiking for?” Chee demanded.
He hesitated, then shrugged. “The Gethfennu.” The block glided back to imprison her.
Lift was nothing like the easy upward floating of a galactic ship. Acceleration rammed Chee down into her couch and sat on her chest. Thunder shuddered through the very blockhouse. Eternal minutes passed before the pressure slacked off and the boat fell into steady running.
After that, for a timeless time, Chee had nothing to do but study. The officers brought her rations. They were a mixed lot, from every part of Merseia; some did not speak Eriau, and none had much to say to her. She considered tinkering her life support apparatus into a weapon, but without tools the prospect was hopeless. So for amusement she elaborated the things she would like to do to Iriad, come the day. Her partners would have flinched.
Once her stomach, the only clock she had, told her she was far overdue for a meal. When finally her cell was opened, she leaped forward in a whirlwind of abuse. Iriad stepped back and raised a pistol. Ghee stopped and said: “Well, what happened? Hadn’t my swill gotten moldly enough?”
Triad looked shaken. “We were boarded,” he said low.
“How’s that?” Acceleration had never varied.
“By ... your people. They laid alongside, matching our vector as easily as one runner might pace another. I did not know what armament they had, so-He who came aboard was a dragon.”
Ghee beat her fists on the shelter deck. Oh, no, no, no! Adzel had passed within meters of her, and never suspected ... the big, ugly, vacuum-skulled bumblemaker!
Iriad straightened. “But Haguan warned me it might happen,” he said with a return of self-confidence. “We know somewhat about smuggling. And you are not gods, you galactics.”
“Where did they go?”
“Away. To inspect other vessels. Let them.”
“Do you seriously hope to keep me hidden for long?”
“Ronruad is full of Haguan’s boltholes.” Iriad gave her her lunch, collected the empty containers, and departed.
He came back several meals later, to supervise her transferral from the cell to a packing crate. Under guns, Chee obeyed his instructions. She was strapped into padding, alongside an air unit, and left in darkness. There followed hours of maneuver, landing, waiting, being unloaded and trucked to some destination.
Finally the box was opened. Chee emerged slowly. Weight was less than half a standard gee, but her muscles were cramped. A pair of workers bore the crate away. Guards stayed behind, with a Merseian who claimed to be a medic. The checkup he gave her was expert and sophisticated enough to bear him out. He said she should rest a while, and they left her alone.
Her suite was interior but luxurious. The food brought her was excellent. She curled in bed and told herself to sleep.
Eventually she was taken down a long, panelled corridor and up a spiral ramp to meet him who had ordered her caught.
He squatted behind a desk of dark, polished wood that looked a hectare in area. Thick white fur carpeted the room and muffled footsteps. Pictures glowed, music sighed, incense sweetened the air. Windows gave a view outside; this part of the warren projected aboveground. Chee saw ruddy sand, strange wild shrubbery, a dust storm walking across a gaunt range of hills and crowned with ice crystals. Korych stood near the honzon, shrunken, but fierce through the tenuous atmosphere A few stars also shone in that purple sky. Chee recognized Valendeiay, and shivered a little So bright and steady it looked, and yet, at this moment, death was riding from it on the wings of light.
“Greeting, galactic.” The Enau was accented differently from Olgor’s. “I am Haguan Eluatz. Your name, I gather, is Chee Lan.” She arched her back, bottled her tail, and spat. But she felt very helpless. The Merseian was huge, with a belly that bulged forward his embioidered robe He was not of the Wilwidh stock, his skin was shiny black and heavily scaled, his eyes almond-shaped, his nose a scimitar.
One ring-glittenng hand made a gesture. Chee’s guards slapped tails to ankles and left. The dooi closed behind them. But a pistol lay on Haguan’s desk, next to an intercom.
He smiled. “Be not afiaid. No harm is intended you. We regret the indignities you have suffered and will tiy to make amends. Sheer necessity forced us to act.”
“The necessity for suicide?” Chee snorted.
“For survival. Now why don’t you make youiself comfortable on yonder couch? We have talk to forge, we two. I can send for whatever refreshment you desne. Some aithbeiry wine, peihaps?” Chee shook her head, but did jump onto the seat “Suppose you explain your abominable behavior,” she said.
“Gladly.” Haguan shifted the weight on his tail. “You may not know what the Gethfennu is. It came into being after the first galactics had departed. But by now—” He continued for a while. When he spoke of a systemwide syndicate, controlling millions of lives and uncounted wealth, strong enough to build its own city on this planet and clever enough to play its enemies off against each other so that none dared attack that colony, he was scaicely lying. Everything that Chee had seen confnmed it.
‘Are we in this town of youis now?” she asked
“No. Elsewhere on Ronuiad. Best I not be specific I have too much respect for your cleveiness.”
And I have none for yours.”
‘Khraidi? You must. I think we operated quite smoothly, and on such short notice. Of course, an oigam/ation like ouis must always be Prepared for anything And we have been on special aleit ever since your arrival. What little we have learned—” Haguan’s gaze went to the white point of Valenderay and lingered. “That star, it is going to explode. True?”
“Yes. Your civilization will be scrubbed out unless—”
“I know, I know. We have scientists in our pay.” Haguan leaned forward. “The assorted governments on Merseia see this as a millennial chance to rid themselves of the troublesome Cethfennn. We need only be denied help in saving our colony, our shipping, our properties on the home planet and elsewhere. Then we are finished. I expect you galactics would agree to this. Since not everything can be shielded in time, why not include us in that which is to be abandoned? You stand for some kind of law and order too, I suppose.”
Chee nodded. In their mask of dark fur, her eyes smoldered emerald. Haguan had guessed shrewdly. The League didn’t much care who it dealt with, but the solid citizens whose taxes were to finance the majority of the rescue operations did.
“So to win our friendship, you take me by force,” she sneered halfheartedly. “What had we to lose? We might have conferred with you, pleaded our cause, but would that have wrought good for us?”
“Suppose my partners recommend that no help be given your whole coprophagous Merseian race.”
“Why, then the collapse comes,” Haguan said with chilling calm, “and the Gethfennu has a better chance than most organizations of improving its relative position. But I doubt that any such recommendation will be made, or that your overlords would heed it if it were. “So we need a coin to buy technical assistance. You.”
Chee’s whiskers twitched in a smile of sorts. “I’m scarcely that big a hostage.”
“Probably not,” Haguan agreed. “But you are a source of information.” The Cynthian’s fur stood on end with alarm. “Do you have some skewbrained notion that I can tell you how to do everything for yourself? I’m not even an engineer!”
“Understood. But surely you know your way about in your own civilization. You know what the engineers can and cannot do. More important, you know the planets, the different races and cultures upon them, the mores, the laws, the needs. You can tell us what to expect. You can help us get interstellar ships-hijacking under your advice should succeed, being unlocked for-and show us how to pilot them, and put us in touch with someone who, for pay, will come to our aid.”
“If you suppose for a moment that the Polesotechnic League would tolerate—”
Teeth flashed white in Haguan’s face. “Perhaps it won’t, perhaps it will. With so many stars, the diversity of peoples and interests is surely inconceivable. The Gethfennu is skilled in stirring up competition among others. What information you supply will tell us how, in this particular case. I don’t really visualize your League, whatever it is, fighting a war-at a time when every resource must be devoted to saving Merseia-to prevent someone else rescuing us.”
He spread his hands. “Or possibly we’ll find a different approach,” he finished. “It depends on what you tell and suggest.”
“How do you know you can trust me?”
Haguan said like iron: “We judge the soil by what crops it bears. If we fail, if we see the Gethfennu doomed, we can still enforce our policy regarding traitors. Would you care to visit my punishment facilities? They are quite extensive. Even though you are of a new species, I think we could keep you alive and aware for many days.” Silence dwelt a while in that room. Korych slipped under the horizon. Instantly the sky was black, strewn with the legions of the stars, beautiful and uncaring.
Haguan switched on a light, to drive away that too enormous vision. “If you save us, however,” he said, “you will go free with a very good reward.”
“But—” Chee looked sickly into sterile years ahead of her. And the betrayal of friends, and scorn if ever she returned, a lifetime’s exile. “You’ll keep me till then?”
No success. No ghost of a clue. She was gone into an emptiness less fathomable than the spaces which gaped around their ship. They had striven, Falkayn and Adzel. They had walked into Luridor itself, the sin-bright city on Ronruad, while the ship hovered overhead and showed with a single, rock-fusing flash of energy guns what power menaced the world. They had ransacked, threatened, bribed, beseeched. Sometimes terror met them, sometimes the inborn arrogance of Merseia’s lords. But nowhere and never had anyone so much as hinted he knew who held Chee Lan or where.
Falkayn ran a hand through uncombed yellow locks. His eyes stood bloodshot in a sunken countenance. “I still think we should’ve taken that casino boss aboard and worked him over.”
“No,” said Adzel. “Apart from the morality of the matter, I feel sure that everyone who has any information is hidden away. That precaution is elementary. We’re not even certain the outlaw regime is responsible.”
“Yeh. Could be Morruchan, Dagla, Olgor, or colleagues of theirs acting unbeknownst to them, or any of a hundred other governments, or some gang of fanatics, or-Oh, JudasF’
Falkayn looked at the after viewscreen. Ronruad’s tawny-red crescent was dwindling swiftly among the constellations, as the ship drove at full acceleration back toward Merseia. It was a dwarf planet, an ocherous pebble that would not make a decent splash if it fell into one of the gas giants. But the least of planets is still a world: mountains, plains, valleys, arroyos, caves, waters, square kilometers by the millions, too vast and varied for any mind to grasp. And Merseia was bigger yet; and there were others, and moons, asteroids, space itself.
Ghee’s captors need but move her around occasionally, and the odds against a fleetful of League detectives finding her would climb tor infinity.
ine Merseians themselves are bound to have some notion where to .ook, what to do, who to put pressure on,” he mumbled for the hundredth time. “We don’t know the ins and outs. Nobody from our cultures ever will-five billion years of planetary existence to catch up with! We’ve got to get the Merseians busy. I mean really busy.”
“They have their own work to do,” Adzel said.
Falkayn expressed himself at pungent length on the value of their work. “How about those enthusiasts?” he wondered when he had calmed down a trifle. “The outfit you were talking to.”
“Yes, the Star Believers should be loyal allies,” Adzel said. “But most of them are poor and, ah, unrealistic. I hardly expect them to be of help. Indeed, I fear they will complicate our problem by starting pitched battles with the Demonists.”
“You mean the antigalactics?” Falkayn rubbed his chin. The bristles made a scratchy noise, in the ceaseless gentle thrum that filled the cabin. He inhaled the sour smell of his own weariness. “Maybe they did this.”
“I doubt that. They must be investigated, naturally-a major undertaking in itself-but they do not appear sufficiently well organized.”
“Damnation, if we don’t get her back I’m going to push for letting this whole race stew!”
“You will not succeed. And in any event, it would be unjust to let millions die for the crime of a few.”
“The millions jolly well ought to be tracking down the few. It’s possible. There have to be some leads somewhere. If every single one is followed—”
The detector panel flickered. Muddlehead announced: “Ship observed. A chemical carrier, I believe, from the outer system. Range—”
“Oh, dry up,” Falkayn said, “and blow away.”
“I am not equipped to—”
Falkayn stabbed the voice cutoff button.
He sat for a while, then, staring into the stars. His pipe went out unnoticed between his fingers. Adzel sighed and laid his head down on the deck.
“Poor little Chee,” Falkayn whispered at last. “She came a long way to die.”
“Most likely she lives,” Adzel said.
“I hope so. But she used to go flying through trees, in an endless forest. Being caged will kill her.”
“Or unbalance her mind. She is so easily infuriated. If anger can find no object, it turns to feed on itself.”
“Well ... you were always squabbling with her.”
“It meant nothing. Afterward she would cook me a special dinner. Once I admired a painting of hers, and she thrust it into my hands and said, ‘Take the silly thing, then,’ like a cub that is too shy to say it loves you.”
The cutoff button popped up. “Course adjustment required,” Muddlehead stated, “in order to avoid dangerously close passage by ore carrier.”
Well, do it,” Falkayn rasped, “and I wish those bastards joy of their ores. Destruction, but they’ve got a lot of space traffic!” Well, we are in the ecliptic plane, and as yet near Ronruad,” Adzel said. “The coincidence is not great.”
Falkayn clenched his hands. The pipestem snapped. “Suppose we strafe the ground,” he said in a cold strange voice. “Not kill anyone. Burn up a few expensive installations, though, and promise more of the same if they don’t get off their duffs and start a real search for her.”
“No. We have considerable discretion, but not that much.”
“We could argue with the board of inquiry later.”
“Such a deed would produce confusion and antagonism, and weaken the basis of the rescue effort. It might actually make rescue impossible. You have observed how basic pride is to the dominant Merseian cultures. An attempt to browbeat them, with no face-saving formula possible, might compel them to refuse galactic assistance. We would be personally, criminally responsible. I cannot permit it, David.”
“So we can’t do anything, not anything, to—”
Falkayn’s words chopped off. He smashed a fist down on the arm of his pilot chair and surged to his feet. Adzel rose also, sinews drawn taut. He knew his partner.
Merseia hung immense, shining with oceans, blazoned with clouds and continents, rimmed with dawn and sunset and the deep sapphire of her sky. Her four small moons made a diadem. Korych flamed in plumage of zodiacal light.
Space cruiser Yonnar, United Fleet of the Great Vachs, swung close in polar orbit. Officially she was on patrol to stand by for possible aid to distressed civilian vessels. In fact she was there to keep an eye on the warcraft of Lafdigu, Wolder, the Nersan Alliance, any whom her masters mistrusted. And, yes, on the new-come galactics, if they returned hither. The God alone knew what they intended. One must tread warily and keep weapons close to hand. On his command bridge, Captain Tryntaf Fangryf-Tamer gazed into the simulacrum tank and tried to imagine what laired among those myriad suns. He had grown up knowing that others flitted freely between them while his people were bound to this one system, and hating that knowledge. Now they were here once again ... why? Too many rumors flew about. But most of them centered on the ominous spark called Valenderay.
Help; collaboration; were the Vach Isthyr to become mere clients of some outworld grotesque?
A signal fluted. The intercom said: “Radar Central to captain. Object detected on an intercept path.” The figures which followed were unbelievable. No meteoroid, surely, despite an absence of jet radiation. Therefore, the galactics! His black uniform tunic grew taut around Tryntafs shoulders as he hunched forward and issued orders. Battle stations: not that he was looking for trouble, but he was prudent. And if trouble came, he’d much like to see how well the alien could withstand laser blasts and nuclear rockets.
She grew in his screens, a stubby truncated raindrop, ridiculously tiny against the sea-beast hulk of Yonnar. She matched orbit so fast that Tryntaf heard the air suck in through his lips. Doom and death, why wasn’t that hull broken apart and the crew smeared into a red layer? Some kind of counterfield .... The vessel hung a few kilometers off and Tryntaf sought to calm himself. They would no doubt call him, and he must remain steady of nerve, cold of brain. For his sealed orders mentioned that the galactics had left Merseia in anger, because the whole planet would not devote itself to a certain task. The Hands had striven for moderation; of course they would do what they reasonably could to oblige their guests from the stars, but they had other concerns too. The galactics seemed unable to agree that the business of entire worlds was more important than their private wishes. Of necessity, such an attitude was met with haughtiness, lest the name of the Vachs, of all the nations, be lowered.
Thus, when his outercom screen gave him an image, Tryntaf kept one finger on the combat button. He had some difficulty hiding his revulsion. Those thin features, shock of hair, tailless body, fuzzed brown skin, were like a dirty cariacature of Merseiankind. He would rather have spoken to the companion, whom he could see in the background. That creature was honestly weird.
Nonetheless, Tryntaf got through the usual courtesies and asked the galactic’s business in a level tone.
Falkayn had pretty well mastered modern language by now.
Captain,” he said, “I regret this and apologize, but you’ll have to return to base.”
Tryntafs heart slammed. Only his harness prevented him from jerking backward, to drift across the bridge in the dreamlike flight of zero gravity. He swallowed and managed to keep his speech calm. “What is the reason?”
‘We have communicated it to different leaders,” said Falkayn, “but since they don’t accept the idea, I’ll also explain to you personally.
“Someone, we don’t know who, has kidnapped a crew member of ours. I’m sure that you, Captain, will understand that honor requires we get her back.”
“I do,” Tryntaf said, “and honor demands that we assist you. But what has this to do with my ship?”
“Let me go on, please. I want to prove that no offense is intended. We have little time to make ready for the coining disaster, and few personnel to employ. The contribution of each is vital. In particular, the specialized knowledge of our vanished teammate cannot be dispensed with. So her return is of the utmost importance to all Merseians.”
Tryntaf grunted. He knew the argument was specious, meant to provide nothing but an acceptable way for his people to capitulate to the strangers’ will.
“The search for her looks hopeless when she can be moved about in space,” Falkayn said. “Accordingly, while she is missing, interplanetary traffic must be halted.”
Tryntaf rapped an oath. “Impossible.”
“Contrariwise,” Falkayn said. “We hope for your cooperation, but if your duty forbids this, we too can enforce the decree,” Tryntaf was astonished to hear himself, through a tide of fury, say just: “I have no such orders.”
“That is regrettable,” Falkayn said. “I know your superiors will issue them, but that takes time and the emergency will not wait. Be so good as to return to base.”
Tryntafs finger poised over the button. “And if I don’t?”
“Captain, we shouldn’t risk damage to your fine ship—”
Tryntaf gave the signal.
His gunners had the range. Beams and rockets vomited forth. Not one missile hit. The enemy flitted aside, letting them pass, as if they were thrown pebbles. A full-power ray struck: but not her hull. Energy sparked and showered blindingly off some invisible barrier. The little vessel curved about like an aircraft. One beam licked briefly from her snout. Alarms resounded. Damage Control cried, near hysteria, that armorplate had been sliced off as a knife might cut soft wood. No great harm done; but if the shot had been directed at the reaction-mass tanks—
“How very distressing, Captain,” Falkayn said. “But accidents will happen when weapons systems are overly automated, don’t you agree? For the sake of your crew, for the sake of your country whose ship is your responsibility, I do urge you to reconsider.”
“Hold fire,” Tryntaf gasped.
“You will return planetside, then?” Falkayn asked.
“I curse you, yes,” Tryntaf said with a parched mouth.
“Good. You are a wise male, Captain. I salute you. Ah ... you may wish to notify your fellow commanders elsewhere, so they can take steps to assure there will be no further accidents. Meanwhile, though, please commence re-entry.”
Jets stabbed into space. Yonuar, pride of the Vachs, began her inward spiral.
And aboard Muddlin’ Tlirough, Falkayn wiped his brow and grinned shakily at Adzel. “For a minute,” he said, “I was afraid that moron was going to slug it out.”
“We could have disabled his command with no casualties,” Adzel said, “and I believe they have lifecraft.”
“Yes, but think of the waste; and the grudge.” Falkayn shook himself. “Come on, let’s get started. We’ve a lot of others to round «p.”
“Can we-a lone civilian craft-blockade an entire globe?” Adzel wondered. “I do not recall that it has ever been done.”
“No, I don’t imagine it has. But that’s because the opposition has also had things like grav drive. These Merseian rowboats are something else again. And we need only watch this one planet. Everything funnels through it.” Falkayn stuffed tobacco into a pipe. “Uh, Adzel, suppose you compose our broadcast to the public. You’re more tactful than I am.”
“What shall I say?” the Wodenite asked.
“Oh, the same guff as I just forked out, but dressed up and tied with a pink ribbon.”
“Do you really expect this to work, David?”
“I’ve pretty high hopes. Look, all we’ll call for is that Chee be left some safe place and we be notified where. We’ll disavow every intention of punishing anybody, and we can make that plausible by pointing out that the galactics have to prove they’re as good as their word if their mission is to have any chance of succeeding. If the wdnappers don’t oblige-Well, first, they’ll have the entire population out on a full-time hunt after them. And second, they themselves will be suffering badly from the blockade meanwhile. Whoever they are. Because you wouldn’t have as much interplanetary shipping as you do, if it weren’t basic to the economy.”
Adzel shifted in unease. “We must not cause anyone to starve.”
“We won’t. Food isn’t sent across space, except gourmet items; too costly. How often do I have to explain to you, old thickhead? What we will cause i.s that everybody loses money. Megacredits per diem. And Very Important Merseians will be stranded in places like Luridor, and they’ll burn up the inaser beams ordering their subordinates to remedy that state of affairs. And factories will shut down, spaceports lie idle, investments crumble, political and military balances get upset .... You can fill in the details.”
Falkayn lit his pipe and puffed a blue cloud. “I don’t expect matters will go that far, actually,” he went on. “The Merseians are as able as us to foresee the consequences. Not a hypothetical disaster three years hence, but money and power eroding away right now. So they’ll put it first on their agenda to find those kidnappers and take out resentment on them. The kidnappers will know this and will also, I trust, be hit in their personal breadbasket. I bet in a few days they’ll offer to swap Ghee for an amnesty.”
“Which I trust we will honor,” Adzel said.
“I told you we’ll have to. Wish we didn’t.”
“Please don’t be so cynical, David. I hate to see you lose merit.” Falkayn chuckled. “But I make profits. Come on, Muddlehead, get busy and find us another ship.”
The teleconference room in Castle Afon could handle a sealed circuit that embraced the world. On this day it did.
Falkayn sat in a chair he had brought, looking across a table scarred by the daggers of ancestral warriors, to the mosaic of screens which filled the opposite wall. A hundred or more Merseian visages lowered back at him. On that scale, they had no individuality. Save one: a black countenance ringed by empty frames. No lord would let his image stand next to that of Ilaguan Eluatz.
Beside the human, Morruchan, Hand of the Vach Dathyr, rose and said with frigid ceremoniousness: “In the name of the God and the blood, we are met. May we be well met. May wisdom and honor stand shield to shield—” Falkayn listened with half an ear. He was busy rehearsing his speech. At best, he was in for a cobalt bomb’s worth of trouble.
No danger, of course. Mitddlin’ TJiroiigh hung plain in sight above Ardaig. Television carrried that picture around Merseia. And it linked him to Adzel and Chee Lan, who waited at the guns. He was protected.
But what he had to say could provoke a wrath so great that his mission was wrecked. He must say it with infinite care, and then he must hope.
“—obligation to a guest demands we hear him out,” Morruchan finished brusquely.
Falkayn stood up. He knew that in those eyes he was a monster, whose motivations were not understandable and who had proven himself dangerous. So he had dressed in his plainest gray zipsuit, and was unarmed, and spoke in soft words.
“Worthies,” he said, “forgive me that I do not use your titles, for you are of many ranks and nations. But you are those who decide for your whole race. I hope you will feel free to talk as frankly as I shall. This is a secret and informal conference, intended to explore what is best for Merseia.
“Let me first express my heartfelt gratitude for your selfless and successful labors to get my teammate returned unharmed. And let me also thank you for indulging my wish that the, uh, chieftain Haguan Eluatz participate in this honorable assembly, albeit he has no right under law to do so. The reason shall soon be explained. Let me, finally, once again express my regret at the necessity of stopping your space commerce, for however brief a period, and my thanks for your cooperation in this emergency measure. I hope that you will consider any losses made good, when my people arrive to help you rescue your civilization.
“Now, then, it is time we put away whatever is past and look to the future. Our duty is to organize that great task. And the problem is, how shall it be organized? The galactic technologists do not wish to usurp any Merseian authority. In fact, they could not. They will be too few, too foreign, and too busy. If they are to do their work in the short time available, they must accept the guidance of the powers that be. They must make heavy use of existing facilities. That, of course, must be authorized by those who control the facilities. I need not elaborate. Experienced leaders like yourselves, worthies, can easily grasp what is entailed.”
He cleared his throat. “A major question, obviously, is: with whom shall our people work most closely? They have no desire to discriminate. Everyone will be consulted, within the sphere of his time-honored prerogatives. Everyone will be aided, as far as possible. Yet, plain to see, a committee of the whole would be impossibly large and diverse. For setting overall policy, our people require a small, unified Merseian council, whom they can get to know really well and with whom they can develop effective decision-making procedures.
“Furthermore, the resources of this entire system must be used in a coordinated way. For example, Country One cannot be allowed to hoard minerals which Country Two needs. Shipping must be free to go from any point to any other. And all available shipping must be pressed into service. We can furnish radiation screens for your vessels, but we cannot furnish the vessels themselves in the numbers that are needed. Yet at the same time, a certain amount of ordinary activity must continue. People will still have to eat, for instance. Sohow do we make a fair allocation of resources and establish a fair system of priorities?
“I think these considerations make it obvious to you, worthies, that an international organization is absolutely essential, one which can impartially supply information, advice, and coordination. If it has facilities and workers of its own, so much the better.
“Would that such an organization had legal existence! But it does not, and I doubt there is time to form one. If you will pardon me for saying so, worthies, Merseia is burdened with too many old hatreds and jealousies to join overnight in brotherhood. In fact, the international group must be watched carefully, lest it try to aggrandize itself or diminish others. We galactics can do this with one organization. We cannot with a hundred.
“So.” Falkayn longed for his pipe. Sweat prickled his skin. “I have no plenipotentiary writ. My team is merely supposed to make recommendations. But the matter is so urgent that whatever scheme we propose will likely be adopted, for the sake of getting on with the job. And we have found one group which transcends the rest. It pays no attention to barriers between people and people. It is large, powerful, rich, disciplined, efficient. It is not exactly what my civilization would prefer as its chief instrument for the deliverance of Merseia. We would honestly rather it went down the drain, instead of becoming yet more firmly entrenched. But we have a saying that necessity knows no law.”
He could feel the tension gather, like a thunderstorm boiling up; he heard the first rageful retorts; he said fast, before the explosion came: “I refer to the Gethfennu.”
What followed was indescribable.
But he was, after all, only warning of what his report would be. He could point out that he bore a grudge of his own, and was setting it aside for the common good. He could even, with considerable enjoyment, throw some imaginative remarks about ancestry and habits in the direction of Haguan-who grinned and looked smug. In the end, hours later, the assembly agreed to take the proposal under advisement. Falkayn knew what the upshot would be. Merseia had no choice.
The screens blanked.
Wet, shaking, exhausted, he looked across a stillness into the face of Morruchan Long-Ax. The Hand loomed over him. Fingers twitched longingly near a pistol butt. Morruchan said, biting off each word: “I trust you realize what you are doing. You’re not just perpetuating that gang. You’re conferring legitimacy on them. They will be able to claim they are now a part of recognized society.”
“Won’t they, then, have to conform to its laws?” Falkayn’s larynx hurt, his voice was husky.
“Not them!” Morruchan stood brooding a moment. “But a reckoning will come. The Vachs will prepare one, if nobody else does. And afterward-Are you going to teach us how to build stargoing ships?”
“Not if I have any say in the matter,” Falkayn replied.
“Another score. Not important in the long run. We’re bound to learn a great deal else, and on that basis ... well, galactic, our grandchildren will see.”
Is ordinary gratitude beneath your dignity?”
“No. There’ll be enough soft-souled dreambuilders, also among my race, for an orgy of sentimentalism. But then you’ll go home again. I will abide.”
Falkayn was too tired to argue. He made his formal farewells and called the ship to come get him.
Later, hurtling through the interstellar night, he listened to Chee’s tirade: “—I still have to get back at those greasepaws. They’ll be sorry they ever touched me.”
“You don’t aim to return, do you?” Falkayn asked.
“Pox, no!” she said. “But the engineers on Merseia will need recreation. The Gethfennu will supply some of it, gambling especially, I imagine. Now if I suggest our lads carry certain miniaturized gadgets which can, for instance, control a wheel—”
Adzel sighed. “In this splendid and terrible cosmos,” he said, “why must we living creatures be forever perverse?”
A smile tugged at Falkayn’s mouth. “We wouldn’t have so much fun otherwise,” he said.
Men and not-men were still at work when the supernova wavefront reached Merseia.
Suddenly the star filled the southern night, a third as brilliant as Korych, too savage for the naked eye to look at. Blue-white radiance flooded the land, shadows were etched sharp, trees and hills stood as if illuminated by lightning. Wings beat upward from forests, animals cried through the troubled air, drums pulsed and prayers lifted in villages which once had feared the dark for which they now longed. The day that followed was lurid and furious.
Over the months, the star faded, until it became a knife-keen point and scarcely visible when the sun was aloft. But it waxed in beauty, for its radiance excited the gas around it, so that it gleamed amidst a whiteness which deepened at the edge to blue-violet and a nebular lacework which shone with a hundred faerie hues. Thence also, in Merseia’s heaven, streamed huge shuddering banners of aurora, whose whisper was heard even on the ground. An odor of storm was blown on every wind.
Then the nuclear rain began. And nothing was funny any longer.
Also in the records left on Hermes was information about an episode which had long been concealed: how Nicholas van Rijn came to the world which today we know as Mirkheim. The reasons for secrecy at the time are self-evident. Later they did not obtain. However, it is well known that Falkayn was always reluctant to mention his part in the origins of the Supermetals enterprise, and curt-spoken whenever the subject was forced upon him. Given all else there was to strive with in the beginning upon Avalon, it is no flaw of wind that folk did not press their leaders about this, and that the matter dropped from general awareness. Even before then, he had done what he could to suppress details.
Of course, the alatan facts are in every biography of the Founder. Yet this one affair is new to us. It helps explain much which followed, especially his reserve, rare in an otherwise cheerful and outgoing person. In truth, it gives us a firmer grip than we had before upon the reality of him.
The records contain only the ship’s log for that voyage, plus some taped conversations, data lists, and the like. However, these make meaningful certain hitherto cryptic references in surviving letters Written by Coya to her husband. Furthermore, with the identity of vessel and captain known, it became possible to enlist the aid of the Wryficlds Clioth on Ylliri. Stirrok, its Wyvan, was most helpful in finding Hirharouk’s private journal, while his descendants kindly agreed to waive strict Tightness and allow it to be read. From these sources, Hloch and Arinnian have composed the narrative which follows.