Short Fiction

By Poul Anderson.

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Star Ship

I

With sunset, there was rain. When Dougald Anson brought his boat in to Krakenau harbor, there was only a vast wet darkness around him.

He swore in a sulfurous mixture of Krakenaui, Volgazani, and half a dozen other languages, including some spaceman’s Terrestrial, and let down the sail. The canvas was heavy and awkward in the drenching rain; it was all he could do to lash it around the boom. Then he picked up the long wooden sweep and began sculling his boat in toward the dock.

Lightning flared bluely through the rain, and he saw the great bay in one livid flash, filled with galleys at anchor and the little schooners of the fishing fleet. Beyond the wharfs, the land climbed steeply toward the sky, and he saw the dark mass of the town reaching up to the citadel on the hilltop. Dark⁠—dark! Hardly a light showed in the gloom.

What in the name of Shantuzik was up? The waterfront, at least, should have been alive with torches and music and bawdy merriment. And the newly installed street lights should have been twinkling along the main avenues leading up to the castle. Instead Krakenau lay crouched in night, and⁠—

He scowled, and drove the light vessel shoreward with rhythmic sweeps of the long oar. Uneasiness prickled along his spine. It wasn’t right. He’d only been gone a few days. What had happened in the meantime?

When he reached the pier, he made fast with a quietness unusual to him. Maybe he was being overcautious. Maybe it was only that the king had died or some other reason for restrained conduct had arisen. But a man didn’t spend years warring among the pirates of the outer islands and the neighboring kingdoms around Krakenau without learning to be careful.

He ducked under the awning in the bows which was the boat’s only shelter, and got a towel from the sea chest and rubbed his rain-wet body dry. He’d only been wearing a tattered pair of breeches, and the water ran along his ribs and down his flanks. Then he shrugged on a tunic, and a coat of ring-mail over that. A flat-bladed sword at his side and a helmet over his long yellow hair completed his outfit. He felt secure now, and jumped up to the pier.

For a moment he stood in thought. The steady rain washed down over his leather cape, blurring vision a few meters away, and only the intermittent flicker of lightning broke the darkness. Where to go? His father’s house was the logical place, perhaps. But the Masefield dwelling was a little closer to here, and Ellen⁠—

He grinned and set out at a long stride. Masefield’s be it.

The street onto which he turned opened before him like a tunnel of night. The high steep-roofed houses lay dark on either side, walling it in, and the fluoroglobes were unlit. When the lightning blinked, the wet cobblestones gleamed; otherwise there was only darkness and rain.

He passed one of the twisting alleys, and glanced at it with automatic caution. The next instant he had thrown himself to the ground, and the javelin whipped through the place where his belly had been.

He rolled over and bounded to his feet, crouched low, the sword whining out of its scabbard into his hand. Four Khazaki sprang from the alley and darted at him.

Dougald Anson grunted, backed up against a wall. The natives were armed and mailed, they were warriors, and they had all the unhuman swiftness of their species. Four of them⁠—!

The leading attacker met his sword in a clang of steel. Dougald let him come lunging in, took the cut on his mailed ribs, and swept his own weapon murderously out. Faster than a man could think, the Khazaki had his own blade up to parry the sweeping blow. But he wasn’t quite fast enough; he met it at an awkward angle and the Terrestrial’s sheer power sent the sword spinning from his hand. The hand went too, a fractional second later, and he screamed and fell back and away.

The others were upon Anson. For moments it was parry and slash, three against one, with no time to feel afraid or notice the cuts in his arms and legs. A remote part of his brain told him bleakly: This is all. You’re finished. No lone Earthling ever stood up long to more than two Khazaki. But he hardly noticed.

Suddenly there were only two in front of him. He darted forth from the wall, his sword crashing down with all the power of his huge body behind it. The warrior tried to skip aside⁠—too late. The tremendous blow smashed his own parry down and sang in his skull-bones.

And the last of the attackers died. He tumbled over beside the second, and each of them had a feathered shaft between his ribs.

The bowman came loping through the rain. He paused, in typical Khazak fashion, to slit the throat of the wounded being, and then came up to where Dougald Anson stood panting.

The human strained through the rainy dark. Lightning glimmered in the sky, and he recognized the newcomer. “Janazik!”

“And Anson,” nodded the Khazaki. His sharp white teeth gleamed in his shadowed face. “You seem to have met a warm welcome.”

“Too warm. But⁠—thanks!” Anson bent over the nearest of the corpses, and only now did the realization penetrate his brain. They all wore black mail of a certain pattern, spiked helmets, red cloaks⁠—Gods of Gorzak! They were all royal guardsmen!


He looked up to the dark form of Janazik, and his lean face was suddenly tight. “What is this?” he asked slowly. “I thought maybe bandits or some enemy state had managed to enter the city⁠—”

“That would be hard to do, now that we have the guns,” said Janazik. “No, these are within our own walls. If you’ll look closely, you’ll see they wear a gold-colored brassard.”

“Prince Volakech⁠—but he⁠—”

“There’s more to this than Volakech, and more than a question of the throne,” said Janazik. Then suddenly, urgently: “But we can’t stay here to talk. They’re patrolling the streets, it’s dangerous to be abroad. Let’s get to shelter.”

“What’s happened?” Anson got up, towering over the native by a good quarter meter, his voice suddenly rough. “What happened? How is everyone?”

“Not well. Come on, now.”

“Ellen? Masefield Ellen?”

“I don’t know. Nobody knows. Now come on!”

They slipped into the alley. Anson was blind in the gloom, and Janazik’s slim six-fingered hand took his to guide him. The Khazaki were smaller than Terrestrials and lacked the sheer strength and endurance which Earth’s higher gravity gave; but they could move like the wind, they had an utter grace and balance beside which humans were clumsy cattle, and they saw in the dark.

Dougald Anson’s mind whirred in desperate speculation. If Volakech had gotten enough guardsmen and soldiers on his side to swing a palace revolution, it was bad. But matters looked worse than that. Why should Volakech’s men have assaulted a human? Why should Janazik have to sneak him into a hiding place? How had the revolutionists gotten control in the first place, against King Aligan’s new weapons? What powers did they have now?

What had become of the human community in Krakenau? What of his father, his brother and sisters, his friends? What of Masefield Ellen? What of Ellen?

He grew aware that Janazik had halted. They were in an evil-smelling, refuse-littered courtyard, surrounded by tumble-down structures, dark and silent as the rest of the city. Anson realized that all Krakenau was blacked out. In such times of danger, the old Khazaki clandom reasserted itself. Families barricaded themselves in their dwellings, prepared to fight all comers till the danger was past. The city was awake, yes⁠—it was crouched in breathless tension all around him⁠—but not a light showed, not a hand stirred, not a voice spoke. They were all waiting.

Janazik crouched at the base of one of the old buildings and lifted a trapdoor. Light gleamed dimly up from a cellar. He dropped lightly down and Anson followed, closing the door behind him.

There was only one smoky lamp in the dank gloom. Shadows were thick and huge around the guttering wick. The red flame picked out faces, shimmered off cold steel, and lost itself in darkness.

Anson’s eyes scanned the faces. Half a dozen humans: Chiang Chung-Chen, DuFrere Marie, Gonzales Alonzo and his wife Nora who was Anson’s sister, Dougald Joan, Masefield Philip⁠—No sign of Ellen.

“Anse! Anse!” The voices almost sobbed out of the dim-lit hollowness. Joan and Nora sprang forward as if to touch their brother, make sure he was alive and no vision of the night, but Janazik waved them back with his sword.

“No noise,” hissed the Khazaki’s fierce whisper. “No noise, by all the thirteen hells! Volakech’s burats are all over the city. If a patrol finds us⁠—”

“Ellen!” Anson’s blue eyes searched for Masefield Philip, crouched near the lamp. “Where’s your sister, Phil?”

“I don’t know,” whispered the boy. “We’re all who seem to’ve escaped. They may have caught her⁠—I don’t know⁠—”

“Father.” Joan’s voice caught with a dry sob. “Anse, Father and Jamie are dead. The rebels killed them.”

For a moment, Anson couldn’t grasp the reality of that. It just wasn’t possible that his big laughing father and young Jamie-the-brat should be killed⁠—no!

But⁠—

He looked up, and then looked away. When he turned back to face them, his visage had gone hard and expressionless, and only the white-knuckled grip on his sword showed he was not a stranger.

“All right,” he said slowly, very slowly and steadily. “All right. Give me the story. What is it? What’s happened in Krakenau?”

II

Janazik padded around to stand before him. He was not the only Khazaki in the cellar; there were a good dozen others. Mostly they were young males, and Anse recognized them. Bolazan, Pragakech, Slavatozik⁠—he’d played with them as a child, he’d fared out with them as a youth and a man to the wars, to storm the high citadel of Zarganau and smite the warriors of Volgazan and pirate the commerce of the outer islands. They were good comrades, yes. But Father and Jamie were dead. Ellen, Ellen was vanished. Only a fragment of the human community remained; his world had suddenly come down in ruin about him.

Well⁠—his old bleak resolution came back to him, and he met the yellow slit-pupilled gaze of Janazik with a challenging stare.

They were a strange contrast, these two, for all that they had fought shoulder to shoulder halfway round the planet, had sung and played and roistered from Krakenau to Gorgazan. Comrades in arms, blood brothers maybe, but neither was human from the viewpoint of the other.

Dougald Anson was big even for a Terrestrial; his tawny head rode at full two meters and his wide shoulders strained the chain mail he wore. He was young, but his face had had the youth burned out of it by strange suns and wild winds around the world, was lean and brown and marked with an old scar across the forehead. His eyes were almost intolerably bright and direct in their blue stare, the eyes of a bird of prey.

The Khazaki was humanoid, to be sure⁠—shorter than the Terrestrial average, but slim and lithe. Soft golden fur covered his sinewy body, and a slender tail switched restlessly against his legs. His head was the least human part of him, with its sloping forehead, narrow chin, and blunt-muzzled face. The long whiskers around his mouth and above the amber cat-eyes twitched continuously, sensitive to minute shifts in air currents and temperature. Along the top of his skull, the fur grew up in a cockatoo plume that swept back down his neck, a secondary sexual characteristic that females lacked.

Janazik was something of a dandy, and even now he wore the baggy silk-like trousers, long red sash, and elaborately embroidered blouse and vest of a Krakenaui noble. It was woefully muddy, but he managed to retain an air of fastidious elegance. The bow and quiver across his back, the sword and dirk at his side, somehow looked purely ornamental when he wore them.

He was almost dwarfed by Anse’s huge-thewed height. But old Chiang Chung-Chen noticed, not for the first time, that the human wore clothing and carried weapons of Khazaki pattern, and that the harsh syllables of Krakenaui came more easily to his lips than the Terrestrial of his fathers. And the old man nodded, gravely and a little wearily.

Janazik spoke rapidly: “Volakech must have been plotting his return from exile a long time. He managed to raise a small army of pirates, mercenaries, and outlawed Krakenaui, and he made bargains with groups within the city. Two days ago, certain of the guards seized the new guns and let Volakech and his men in. Others revolted within the town. I think King Aligan was killed; at least I’ve seen or heard nothing of him since. There’s been some fighting between rebels and loyalists but the rebels got all the Earth-weapons when they captured the royal arsenal and since then they’ve just about crushed resistance. Loyalists who could, fled the city. The rest are in hiding. Volakech is king.”

“But⁠—why us? The Terrestrials⁠—what have we to do with⁠—”

Janazik’s yellow eyes blazed at him. “You aren’t stupid, blood-brother. Think!”

After a moment Anse nodded bleakly. “The Star Ship⁠—

“Of course! Volakech has seized the rocket boat. No Terrestrial in his right mind would show him how to use it, so he had to capture someone who understood its operation and force them to take him out to the Star Ship. Old Masefield Henry was killed resisting arrest⁠—you know how bloody guardsmen are, in spite of orders to take someone alive. Volakech ordered the arrest of all Terrestrials then. A few surrendered to him, a few were killed resisting, most were captured by force. As far as we know, this group is all which escaped.”

“Then Ellen⁠—?”

“That’s the weird thing. I don’t believe she has been caught. Volakech’s men are still scouring the city for ‘an Earthling woman’ as the orders read. And who could it be but Ellen? No other woman represents any danger or any desirable capture to Volakech.”

“Ellen understands astrogation,” said Anse slowly. “She learned it from her grandfather.”

“Yes. And now that he is dead, she is the only human⁠—the only being on this planet⁠—who can get that rocket up to the Star Ship. And Masefield Carson knows it.”

“Carson? Ellen’s older brother? What⁠—”

Janazik’s voice was cold as Winter: “Masefield Carson was with Volakech. He led the rebels inside the city. Now he’s the new king’s lieutenant.”

“Carson! No!”

“Carson⁠—yes!” Janazik’s smile was without mirth or pity. His eyes sought out Philip, huddled miserably beside the lamp. “Isn’t that the truth?”


The boy nodded, too choked with his own unhappiness to cry. “Carse always was a friend of Volakech, before King Aligan outlawed him,” he mumbled. “And he always said how it was a shame, and how Volakech would know better what to do with the Star Ship than anyone now. Then⁠—that night⁠—” His voice trailed off, he sat dumbly staring into the flame.

“Carson led the rebel guardsmen in their seizure of the city guns,” said Janazik. “He also rode to the Masefield house at the head of a troop of them and called on his people to surrender on promise of good treatment. Joe and the mother did, and I suppose they’re held somewhere in the citadel now. Phil and Ellen happened to be out at the time. When Phil heard of the uprising, he was afraid to give himself up, in spite of the heralds that went about promising safety to those who did. He heard how the rebels had been killing his friends. He went to Slavatozik here, whom he could trust, and later they got in touch with me. I’d used this hiding place before, and gathered all the fugitives I could find here.” Janazik shrugged, a sinuous unhuman gesture. “Since then I’ve seen Carse, at a distance, riding around like a prince of the blood, with a troop of his own personal guardsmen. I suspect he really runs things now. Volakech wants power, but only Carse can show him how to get it.”

“And Ellen⁠—?”

“No sign of her. But as I said, I think she’s in hiding somewhere, or the guards wouldn’t be out looking for a woman. She wouldn’t give herself up.”

“Not Ellen.” A grim pride lifted Anse’s head.

“Remains the problem of finding her before they do,” said Gonzales Alonzo. “If they catch her and make her plot an orbit for the rocket, they’ll have the Star Ship⁠—which means power over the whole planet.”

“Not that I care who’s king,” growled Pragakech. “But you know that Masefield Carson never did want to use the ship to get out to the stars. And I want to see those other worlds before I die.”

“To the thirteenth hell with the other worlds,” snarled Bolazan. “Aligan was my king, and it’s for me to avenge him and put his rightful heir on the throne.”

“We all have our motives for wanting the blood of Volakech and Carson,” said Janazik. “Never mind that now; the important thing is how to get at their livers. We’re few, Anse. Here are all the free humans we know of, except Masefield Ellen. There can’t be more than two or three at large, and perhaps ten dead. That means the enemy holds almost a hundred humans captive. Discounting children and others who are ignorant of Terrestrial science, it still means they’ll be able to operate the guns, the steel mill, the atomic-power plant⁠—all the new machines except the rocket boat, and they only need Ellen for that.”

Anse nodded, slowly. “What is our strength?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Not much. I know where about a hundred Khazaki warriors are hiding, ready to follow us whenever we call on them, and there will be many more sitting at home now who’ll rise if someone else takes the lead. But the enemy has all the guns. It would be suicide.”

“What about the Khazaki who fled?” Usually, in one of the planet’s violent changes of governments, the refugees were powerful nobles who would be slain as a safety measure if they stayed at home but who could, in exile, raise strong forces for a comeback. Such a one had Volakech himself been, barely escaping with his life after his disastrous attempt to seize the throne a few years back.

“Don’t be more stupid than you can help,” snorted Janazik. “By the time they can have rallied enough to do any good, Volakech and Carson will have the Star Ship, one way or another, and then the whole world is at their mercy.”

“That means we have to strike back somehow⁠—quickly!” Anse stood for a moment in thought.

The habits of his warring, wandering years were coming back to him. He had faced death and despair before, and with strength and cunning and bluff and sheer luck had come through alive. This was another problem, more desperate and more urgent, but still another problem.

No⁠—there was more to it than that.


His face grew bleak, and it was as if a coldness touched his heart. Carson was Ellen’s older brother, and even if they had quarreled from time to time he knew she had always felt deeply bound to him. Carse is everything I never was. He stayed in Krakenau and studied and became an educated man and a skilled engineer while I went hallooing over the world. He’s brave and a good fighter⁠—so am I⁠—but he’s so much more than that. I imagine it was his example that made Ellen learn the astrogation only her grandfather knew.

And now I’m back from roaming and roving with Janazik, and I’m trying hard to settle down and learn something so that I won’t be just a barbarian, a wild Khazaki in human skin, when we go out to the civilization of the stars. So that I won’t be too utterly ashamed to ask Ellen to marry me. And it was all going pretty well until now.

But now⁠—I’m fighting her brother⁠—

Well⁠—he pushed the thought out of his brain. After all, apparently she was in opposition to Carse’s plans too.

“I wonder why they tried to kill me?” he asked aloud, more to fill in the time while he thought than out of curiosity.

“You’d be of no use to Carson, having no technical education,” said Janazik, “while your knowledge of fighting and your connections with warlike groups make you dangerous to him. Also, I don’t think he ever liked your paying attention to Ellen.”

“No⁠—he always said I was a waster. Called me a⁠—an absorbed Khazaki. I’d’ve split his skull if he hadn’t been Ellen’s brother⁠—No matter now. We’ve more important things to talk over.”

Have we, now? he thought sickly. Carson must know Ellen well, better than I do. If he thinks he can have me killed without making her hate him, then⁠—maybe I never had any chance with her then⁠—

“How’d you happen by?” he asked tonelessly.

“I’ve been out from time to time, looking for Ellen and killing guardsmen whenever I could catch them alone.” Janazik’s white fangs gleamed in a carnivore’s smile. “And, of course, I expected you back from your fishing trip about this time, and watched for you lest you blunder into their hands.”

Anse began to pace the floor, back and forth, his head bent to avoid the basement rafters. If Carson was in control, and out to kill him.⁠ ⁠… There was more to it than that, of course. The whole future of the planet Khazak, perhaps of the fabulous Galactic civilization itself, was balanced on the edge of a sword. If Volakech or a descendant of his took the warlike race out among the stars, with a high level of industry to back a scheme of conquest⁠—

But it didn’t matter. All the universe didn’t matter. There was only Ellen, and his own dead kin, and himself.

A man’s heart can only hold so much.

Janazik stood quietly back, watching his friend’s restless prowling. He had seen that pacing before, and he knew that some scheme would come out of it, crazy and reckless and desperate, with his own cool unhuman intelligence to temper it and make it workable. He and Anse made a good team. They made the best damned fighting team Khazak had ever seen.

Presently the human lifted his head. There was silence in the hiding place, thick and taut, so that they could hear their own breathing and the steady drum of rain on the trapdoor.

“I have an idea,” said Anse.

III

The long night wore on. Janazik had sent most of his Khazaki out to alert the other loyalists in their hiding places, but only they had a chance of slipping unobserved past the enemy patrols. Humans, obviously alien, slow-footed and clumsy beside the flitting shadows of Khazak, would never get far. They had to wait.

Anse was glad of the opportunity for conference with Janazik, planning the assault on the citadel. Neither of them was very familiar with the layout, but Alonzo, as an engineer on the rocket building project, and old Chiang had been there often enough to know it intimately.

It was impossible that a few hundred warriors armed with the primitive weapons of Khazak could take the stronghold. Its walls were manned by more fighters than that, and there were the terrible Earth-type guns as well. Alonzo had a blaster with a couple of charges, but otherwise there was nothing modern in the loyalist force.

But still that futile assault was necessary⁠—

“It’s taking a desperate chance,” said Dougald Joan. She was young yet, hardly out of girlhood, but her voice had an indomitable ring. The true warriors among the five Earthling families were all Dougald thought Janazik. “Suppose Ellen doesn’t come out of hiding? Suppose she’s dead or⁠—or captured already, in spite of what we think.”

“We’ll just have to try and destroy the rocket then,” said Alonzo. “Certainly we can’t let Volakech get to the Star Ship.” He sighed, heavily. “And the labor of another generation will be gone.”

“It wouldn’t take us long to build another boat,” said his wife. “We know how, now, and we have the industry to do it.”

“There are only a few who really know how to handle and build the Terrestrial machines, and most of them are in the enemy’s hands,” reminded old Chiang. “I’m sure I couldn’t tell you much about atomic engines, even though I was on the Star Ship herself once. If those few are killed, we may never be able to duplicate our efforts. What Terrestrials survive will sink back into barbarism, become simply another part of Khazaki culture.”

“I don’t know⁠—” said Nora.

“I know, because I’ve seen it happen,” insisted Chiang. “In the fifty years since we were marooned here, two generations have been born on Khazak. They’ve grown up among Khazaki, played with native children, worked and fought with Khazaki natives, adopted the dress and speech and whole outlook of Krakenau. Only a few in this third generation have consciously tried to remain⁠—Terrestrial. I must admit that Masefield Carson is one such. Ellen is another. But few others.”

“Would you have us wall ourselves out from the world?” asked Anse with a bridling anger.

“No. I don’t see how the situation could be helped. We are a minority in an alien culture with which we’ve had to cooperate. It’s only natural that we’d be more assimilated than assimilating. Even at that, we’ve wrought immense changes.”


Janazik nodded. The stranded Terrestrials had found themselves in an early Iron Age civilization of city-states, among a race naturally violent and predatory. For their own survival, they had had to league forces with the state in which they found themselves⁠—Krakenau, as it happened. Before they could build the industry they needed, they had to have some security⁠—which meant that they must teach the Krakenaui military principles and means of making new weapons which would make them superior to their neighbors. After that⁠—well, it took an immense technology to build even a small spaceship. The superalloys which could stand the combustion of rocket fuel required unheard-of elements such as manganese and chromium, which required means of mining and refining them, which required a considerable chemical plant, which required⁠—How far down do you have to start? And there were a hundred or a thousand other requirements of equal importance and difficulty.

Besides, the Terrestrials had had to learn much from scratch themselves. None of them had ever built a rocketship, had ever seen one in action even. It was centuries obsolete in Galactic civilization. But gravity drives were out of the question. So⁠—they’d had to design the ship from the ground up. Which meant years of painstaking research⁠ ⁠… and only a few interested humans and Khazaki to do it. The rest were too busy with their own affairs in the brawling barbaric culture.

Ten years ago, the first spaceboat had blasted off toward the Star Ship⁠—and exploded in mid-acceleration. More designing, more testing, more slow building⁠—and now the second one lay ready. Perhaps it could reach the Star Ship.

The Star Ship⁠—faster than light, weightless when it chose to be for all its enormous mass, armed with atomic guns that could blast a city to superheated vapor. Whoever controlled that ship could get to Galactic stars in a matter of weeks. Or could rule all Khazaki if he chose.

No wonder Carson and Volakech had struck now, before the rocket boat was launched. When they had the ship⁠—

But only Ellen knew the figures of its orbit and the complicated calculations by which the boat would plot a course to get there. A bold warrior might make a try at reaching the ship by seat-of-the-pants piloting, but he wouldn’t have much chance of making it. So Ellen, and the rocket boat, were the fulcrum of the future.

“Strange,” mused Chiang. “Strange that we should have had that accident.⁠ ⁠…”

They had heard the story a hundred times before, but they gathered around to listen; there was nothing else to do while the slow hours dragged on.

“We were ten, all told, five men and their wives. Exploratory expeditions are often out for years at a time, so the Service makes it a policy to man the ships with married couples. It’s hard for a Khazaki to appreciate the absolute equality between the sexes which human civilization has achieved. It’s due to the advanced technology, of course, and we’re losing it as we go back to barbarism⁠—”

Anse felt a small hand laid on his arm. He looked down into the dark eyes of DuFrere Marie. She was a pretty girl, a little younger than he, and until he’d really noticed Ellen he’d been paying her some attention.

“I don’t care about equality,” she whispered. “A woman shouldn’t try to be a man. I’d want only to cook and keep house for my man, and bear his children.”

It was, Anse realized, a typical Khazaki attitude. But⁠—he remembered with a sudden pity that Carson had been courting Marie. “This is pretty tough on you,” he muttered. “I’ll try to see that Carse is saved.⁠ ⁠… If we win,” he added wryly.

“Him? I don’t care about that Masefield. Let them hang him. But Anse⁠—be careful⁠—”


He looked away, his face hot in the gloom, realizing suddenly why Masefield Carson hated him. Briefly, he wished he hadn’t had such consistent luck with women. But the accident that there was a preponderance of females in the second and third generations of Khazaki humans had made it more or less inevitable, and he⁠—well, he was only human. There’d been Earthling girls; and not a few Khazaki women had been intrigued by the big Terrestrial. Yes, I was lucky, he thought bitterly. Lucky in all except the one that mattered.

“⁠—we’d been a few weeks out of Avandar⁠—it was an obscure outpost then, though I imagine it’s grown since⁠—when we detected this Sol-type sun. Seeing that there was an Earth-like planet, we decided to investigate. And since we were all tired of being cooped in the ship, and telescopes showed that any natives which might exist would be too primitive to endanger us, we all went down in the lifeboat.

“And the one-in-a-billion chance happened⁠ ⁠… the atomic converters went out of control and we barely escaped from the boat before it was utterly consumed. We were stranded on an alien planet, with nothing but our clothes and a few hand weapons⁠—and with our ship that would go faster than light circling in its orbit not ten thousand kilometers above us!

“No chance of rescue. There are just too many suns for the Galactic Coordinators to hope to find a ship that doesn’t come back. Expansion into this region of space wasn’t scheduled for another two centuries. So there we were, and until we could build a boat which would take us back to our ship⁠—there we stayed!

“And it’s taken us fifty years so far.⁠ ⁠…”

Pragakech came in with the rain glistening on his fur and running in small puddles about his padding feet. “We’re ready,” he said. “Every warrior whose hiding place we knew has been contacted.”

“Then we might as well go.” Janazik got up and stretched luxuriously. His eyes were like molten gold in the murky light.

“So soon?” Marie held Anse back with anxious hands. “This same night?”

“The sooner the better,” Anse said grimly. “Every day that goes by, more of our friends will be found out and killed, more places will be searched for Ellen, Volakech’s grip on the city will grow stronger.” He put the spiked helmet back on his head, and buckled the sword about his mailed waist. “Come on, Janazik. The rest stay here and wait for word. If we’re utterly defeated, such of us as survive will manage to get back and lead you out of Krakenau⁠—somehow.”

Marie started to say something, then shook her head as if the words hurt her throat and drew Anse’s face down to hers. “Goodbye, then,” she whispered. “Goodbye, and the gods be with you.”

He kissed her more awkwardly than was his wont, feeling himself a thorough scoundrel. Then he followed Pragakech and Janazik out the trapdoor.

IV

The courtyard was filled with Khazaki warriors, standing silently in the slow heavy rain. It was the darkness of early morning, and only an occasional wan lightning flash, gleaming on spears and axes, broke the chill gloom. Anse was aware of softly-moving supple bodies pressing around him, of night-seeing eyes watching him with an impassive stare. It was he and Janazik who had the plan, and who had the most experience in warfare, and the rest looked to them for leadership. It was not easy to stand under that cool, judging scrutiny, and Anse strode forth into the street with a feeling of relief at the prospect of action.

As they moved toward the castle, along the narrow cobbled lanes winding up the hills, their army grew. Warriors came loping from alleys, came slipping out of the dark barricaded houses, seemed to rise out of the rainy night around them. All Krakenau was abroad, it seemed, but quietly, quietly.

And throughout the town other such forces were on the move, gathering under the lead of anyone who could be trusted, converging on the citadel and the rocketship it guarded.

Tonight⁠—victory, or destruction of the boat and a drawn battle⁠ ⁠… or repulsion and ultimate shattering defeat. The gods are abroad tonight.

Somewhere, faint and far through the dull washing of rain, a trumpet blew a harsh challenge, once and again. After it came a distance-muted shouting of voices and a clattering of swords.

“One of our bands has come across a patrol,” said Janazik unnecessarily. “Now all hell will be loose in Krakenau. Come on!”

They broke into a trot up the hill. Rounding a sharp turn in the street, they saw a close-ranked mass of warriors with spears aloft.

Guardsmen!

The two forces let out a simultaneous yell and charged at each other in the disorderly Khazaki fashion. It was beginning to lighten just a little; Anse could make out enough for purposes of battle. Hai-ah⁠—here we go!

He smashed into a leading guard, who stabbed at him with his long pike. The edge grazed off Anse’s heavy chain mail as the Earthling chopped out with his sword. He knocked the shaft aside and thrust in, hewing at the Khazaki’s neck. The guard intercepted the blow with his shield, and suddenly rammed it forward. The murderous spike on its boss thudded against the Terrestrial’s broad chest and the linked rings gave under that blow⁠—just a little, just enough to draw blood. Anse roared and chopped down across the other’s right arm. The Khazaki howled his pain and stumbled back.

Another was on the Earthling like a spitting cat. Swords hummed and clashed together. Leaping and dodging, the Khazaki lashed out with a blade like a flickering flame, and none of Anse’s blows could land on him.

The Khazaki leaped in suddenly, his edge reaching for the human’s unprotected throat. Anse parried with his sword, while his left fist shot out like an iron cannonball. It hit the native full in the face, with a crunch of splintering bones. The guard’s head snapped back and he fell to the blood-running street.

Janazik was fighting two at once, his sword never resting. He leaped and danced like the shadow of a flame in the wind, and he was laughing⁠—laughing! Anse hewed out, and one of the foemen’s heads sprang from its neck. Janazik darted in, there was a blur of steel, and the other guardsman toppled.

Axe and sword! Spear and dagger and flying arrows! The fight rolled back and forth between the darkling walls of houses. It grew with time; Volakech’s patrols were drawn by the noise, loyalists crouched in hiding heard of the attack and sped to join it. Anse and Janazik fought side by side, human brawn and Khazaki swiftness, and the corpses were heaped where they went.

A pike raked Anse’s hand. He dropped his sword and the enemy leaped in with drawn knife. Anse did not reach for his own dirk⁠—no human had a chance in a knife fight with a Khazaki⁠—but his arms snaked out, his hands closed on the native’s waist, and he lifted the enemy up and hurled him against another. They both went down in a crash of denting armor and snapping bones. Anse roared his war-cry and picked up his sword again.


Janazik leaped and darted and fenced, grinning as he fought, demon-lights in his yellow eyes. A spear was hurled at him. He picked it out of the air, one-handed, and threw it back, even as he fought another guardsman. The rebel took advantage of it to get in under Janazik’s guard. Swifter than thought, the warrior’s dagger was in his left hand⁠—and into the rebel’s throat.

Back and forth the battle swayed, roaring, trampling, and the rain mingled with blood between the cobblestones. Thunder of weapons, shrieking of wounded, shouting of challenges⁠—lightning dancing overhead!

Suddenly it was over.

Anse looked up from his last victim and saw that the confusion no longer snarled around him. The street was heaped with dead and wounded, and a few individual battles were still going on. But the surviving guardsmen were in full flight, and the victorious warriors were shouting their triumph.

“That was a fight!” panted Janazik. He quivered with feral eagerness. “Now on to the castle!”

“I think,” said Slavatozik thoughtfully, “that this was the decisive struggle as far as the city is concerned. Look at how many were involved. Almost all the patrols must have come here⁠—and now they’re beaten. We hold the city!”

“Not much good to us while Volakech is in the castle,” said Anse. “He need only sally forth with the Earth-weapons⁠—” He leaned on his sword, gasping great lungfuls of the cool wet air into him. “But where’s Ellen?”

“We’ve had heralds out shouting for her, as you suggested,” said Slavatozik. “Now that the city is in our control, she should come out. If not⁠—”

“⁠—then I know how to blow up the boat,” said Gonzales Alonzo bleakly. “If we can get inside the citadel to it.”

The loyalists were reassembling their forces. Warriors moved over the scene of battle, plundering dead guardsmen, cutting the throats of wounded enemies and badly mutilated friends. It was a small army that was crowding around Anse’s tall form.

His worried eyes probed into the dull gray light of the rainy dawn. Of a sudden, he stiffened and peered more closely. Someone was coming down the street, thrusting through the assembled warriors. Someone⁠—someone⁠—he knew that bright bronze hair.⁠ ⁠…

Ellen.

He stood waiting, letting her come up to him, and his eyes were hungry. She was tall and full-bodied and supple, graceful almost as a Khazaki, and her wide-set eyes were calm and gray under a broad clear forehead and there was a dusting of freckles over her straight nose and her mouth was wide and strong and generous and⁠—

“Ellen,” he said wonderingly. “Ellen.”

“What are you doing?” she asked. “What have you planned?”

No question of how he was, no look at the blood trickling along his sides and splashed over his face and arms⁠—well⁠—“Where were you?” he asked, and cursed himself for not being able to think of a better greeting.

“I hid with the family of Azakhagar,” she said. “I lay in their loft when the patrolmen came searching for me. Then I heard your heralds going through the streets, calling on me to come out in your name. So I came.”

“How did you know it wasn’t a trick of Volakech’s?” asked someone.

“I told the heralds to use my name and add after it⁠—well⁠—something that only she and I knew,” said Anse uncomfortably.


Janazik remained impassive, but he recalled that the phrase had been “Dougald Anson, who once told you something on a sunny day down by Zamanaui River.” He could guess what the something had been. Well, it seemed to happen to all Earthmen sooner or later, and it meant the end of the old unregenerate days. He sighed, a little wistfully.

“But what did you want me for?” asked Ellen. She stood before Anse in her short, close-fitting tunic, the raindrops glittering in her heavy coppery hair, and he thought wryly that the question was in one sense superfluous. But in another sense, and with time so desperately short⁠—

“You’re the only one of us who can plot a course for the rocket,” he said. “Alonzo here, or almost anyone, should be able to pilot it, but you’re the only one who can take it to the Star Ship. So that, of course, is why Carson and Volakech were after you, and why we had to have you too. If we can get into the citadel, capture the rocket and get up to the Star Ship, it’ll be easy to overthrow Volakech. But if he gets there first, all Khazak couldn’t win against him.”

She nodded, slowly and wearily. Her gray eyes were haunted. “I wonder if it matters who gets there,” she said. “I wonder why we’re fighting and killing each other. Over who shall sit on the throne of an obscure city-state on an insignificant planet? Over the exact disposition to be made of one little spaceship? It isn’t worth it.” She looked around at the sprawled corpses, lying on the bloody cobblestones with rain falling in their gaping mouths, and shuddered. “It isn’t worth that.”

“There’s more to it than that,” said Janazik bleakly. “Masefield Carson and his friend⁠—his puppet, I think⁠—Volakech would use the ship to bring all the world under their rule. Then they would mold it into a pattern suited for conquering a small empire among the neighboring stars.”

“Volakech always talked that way, before his first revolution,” said Ellen. “And Carse used to say⁠—but that can’t be right! He can’t have meant it. And even if he did⁠—what of it? Is it worth enough for brothers to slay each other over?”

“Yes.” Janazik’s voice was pitiless. “Shall the freemen of Khazak become the regimented hordes of a tyrant? Let all this world be blown asunder first!”

“Shall the innocent folk of the other stars become his victims?” urged Alonzo. “Shall Khazak become a menace to the Galaxy, one which must be destroyed⁠—or must itself destroy? Shall there be war with⁠—Earth herself?”

“To Shantuzik with that,” growled Anse. “These are our enemies, to be fought and beaten. Out there is the great civilization of the Galaxy, and they would keep us from it for generations yet, and make it in the end our foe. And Volakech is a murderer with no right to the throne of Krakenau. I say let’s get at his liver!”

“Well⁠—” Ellen looked away. When she turned back, there was torment in her eyes, but her voice was low and steady: “I’m with you in whatever you plan. But on one condition. Carse is not to be harmed.”

“Not harmed!” exploded Janazik. “Why, that dirty traitor deserves⁠—”

“He is still my brother,” said Ellen. “When Volakech is beaten, he will not be able to do any more harm, and he will see that he was wrong.” Her eyes flashed coldly. “Whoever hurts Carse will have me for blood-enemy!”

“As you will,” shrugged Anse, trying to hide the pain in his heart. “But now.⁠ ⁠… Our plan is to storm the citadel. We can’t hope to take it, but we’ll keep the garrison busy. Meanwhile a few of us break in, get the rocket, and take it back out here, where you will have an orbit plotted⁠—”

“I can’t make one that quickly. And who can pilot it well enough to land it here without cracking it up?”


They looked at each other, and then eyes turned to Gonzales Alonzo. He smiled mirthlessly. “I can try,” he said. “But I’m only an engineer; I never imagined I’d have to fly the thing. Chiang Ching-Wei was supposed to be the pilot, but he’s a prisoner now.”

“If we smash the rocket⁠—well, then we smash it,” said Anse heavily. “It’ll mean a long and hard war against Volakech from outside, and he’ll have all the advantages of the new weapons. We may never overthrow him before he gets another boat built. Still⁠—we’ll just have to try.”

Ellen said quietly: “I can pilot it.”

“You!”

“Of course. I’ve been working on the second boat from the beginning. I know it as well as anyone, every seam and rivet and wiring diagram. I was aboard when Chiang took her on a practice run only a few days ago. I’ll fly it for you!”

“You can’t⁠—we have to fight our way into the castle itself, the very heart of Volakech’s power⁠—you’d be killed!”

“It’s the best chance. If you think we can get in at all, I stand as good a chance of living through it as anyone else.”

“She’s right,” said Janazik. “And while we waste time here arguing, the citadel is getting ready. Come on!”

Automatically, Anse broke into movement, trotting along beside Janazik, and the army formed its ranks and followed them.

He had time for a few hurried words with Ellen, whispered as they went up the hill: “Stay close by me. There’ll be a small group of us getting in, picked fighters, and we’ll make a ring about you.”

“Of course,” she nodded. Her gray eyes shone, and she was breathing quickly. “I begin to see why you were a rover all those years, Anse. It’s mad and desperate and terrible⁠—but before Cosmos, we’re alive!”

“Most recruits are frightened green before their first battle,” he said. “You have a warrior’s heart, Ellen⁠—” He broke off, hearing the banality of his own words.

“Listen, my dearest,” he said then, quickly. “We may not come alive through all this. But remember what I did say, down by the river that day. I love you.”

She was silent. He went on, fumbling for words: “You wouldn’t answer me then⁠—”

“I thought it was just your usual talk to women.”

“It may have been⁠—then,” he admitted. “But it hasn’t been since, and it isn’t now.” His sword-calloused hand found hers. “Don’t forget, Ellen. I love you. I will always love you.”

“Anse⁠—” She turned toward him, and he saw her eyes alight. “Anse⁠—”

A bugle shrilled through the rain, high and harsh ahead of them. Dimly, they made out the monstrous bulk of the castle, looming through the misty gray light, its towers lost in the vague sky. Janazik’s sword flashed from its sheath.

“The battle begins,” said a voice out of the blurring rain.

Anse drew Ellen over against a wall and kissed her. Her lips were cool and firm under his, wet with rain; he would never forget that kiss while life was in him.

They looked at each other for a moment of wonder, and then broke apart and followed Janazik.

V

The loyalists charged in a living wave that roared as it surfed against the castle walls and spattered a foam of blood and steel. From three sides they came, weaving in and out of the hailing arrows, lifting shields above them, leaving their dead behind them.

The blaster cannon mounted on the walls spouted flame and thunder. Warriors were mowed down before that whirling white fury, armor melted when the lightning-like discharges played over it, but still the assault went on with all the grim bitter courage of the Khazaki race.

Old siege engines were appearing, dragged out of storehouses and hiding places where they had been kept against such a day of need. Now the great catapults and ballistae were mounted; stones and fireballs and iron-headed bolts were raking the walls. A testudo moved awkwardly forth up the steep hill toward the gates. It was blasted to flaming molten ruin, but another got underneath the walls and the crash of a battering ram came from under its roof.

Shadowlike in the blinding rain, the warriors flitted up toward the walls. No spot of cover was too small for one of those ghostly shapes; they seemed to carry their own invisibility with them. Under the walls⁠—scaling ladders appearing as if out of nowhere⁠—up the walls and into the castle!

The ladders were hurled down. The warriors who gained the walls were blasted by cannon, cut down by superior numbers, lost in a swirl of battle and death. Boiling water rained down over the walls on those below, spears and arrows and the roaring blaster bolts. But still they came. Still the howling, screeching demons of Krakenau came, and died, and came again.

Anse cursed, softly, luridly, pain croaking in his voice: “We can’t be with them. They’re being slaughtered and we can’t be with them.”

“We’re needed worse here,” said Janazik curtly. “If only Pragakech can maintain the assault for an hour⁠—”

He and Anse loped in the forefront. Behind them came Gonzales, Ellen, and a dozen picked young Khazaki. They wove through a maze of alleys and streets and deserted market squares, working around behind the castle. The roar of battle came to them out of the gray mist of rain; otherwise there was only the padding and splashing of their own feet, the breath rasping harsh in their lungs, the faint clank and jingle of their harness. All Krakenau not at the storming of the citadel had withdrawn into the mysterious shells of the houses, lay watching and waiting and whetting knives in the dark.

The paths dipped steeply downward, until, when they came around behind the citadel and stood peering out of a tunnel-like alley, there was a sheer cliff-face before them. On this side the castle was impregnable. The only approach was a knife-edged trail winding up the cliff, barely wide enough for one man at a time. At its top, flush with the precipice edge, the wall was built. Against this wall, commanding the trail, there had in the old days been an archer post, but lately a cannon had been mounted there.

Yet that very security, thought Anse, might be a weakness. Except for that gun, the approach wouldn’t be watched, especially with the fight going on elsewhere. So⁠—

“Give me your weapon, Alonzo,” said Janazik.

“Here.” Gonzales handed him the blaster pistol. “But it only has two charges left in it.”

“That may be enough.” Janazik slipped it under his cloak. Then he wound a gold brassard about his arm and started up the trail. A couple of his Khazaki came behind them, then Anse, Ellen, and Alonzo, and finally the rest of the warriors.


The trail was steep and slippery, water swirling down it, loose rocks moving uneasily beneath the feet⁠—and it was a dizzying drop off the sheer edge to the ground below. They wound upward slowly, panting, cursing, wondering how much of a chance their desperate scheme really had.

Ellen slipped a little. Anse reached back and caught her hand. He smiled lopsidedly. “Now I don’t want to let go,” he said.

“I wonder⁠—” Ellen looked away, then back to him, and her eyes were wide and puzzled. “I wonder if I want you to, Anse.”

His heart seemed to jump up into his throat, but he let her go and said wryly: “I’m afraid I have to right now. But wait till later.”

Up and up⁠—Later! Will there ever be a later?

And if there is, what then? I’m still more than half a Khazaki. Can we live together in the great civilization I hardly comprehend?

It was simpler when Janazik and I were warring over the planet⁠ ⁠… Janazik! I wonder if two beings of the same race could ever know as close a friendship as that between us two aliens. We’ve fought and laughed and sung together, we’ve saved each other’s lives, sweated and suffered and been afraid, together. We know each other as we will never know any other being.

Well, it passes. We’ll always remain close friends, I suppose. But the old comradeship⁠—I’ll have to give that up.

But Ellen⁠—

Up and up⁠—

Janazik whistled, long and loud, and called: “Hail Volakech! Friends!”

He could dimly see the looming bulk of the blaster cannon, crouched behind its iron shield. Above it the walls of the castle were high and dark and⁠—empty.

The voice came from ahead of him, taut with nervousness: “Who goes there?”

“A friend. I have a message for His Highness.” Janazik moved forward almost casually. His eyes gleamed with mirth. It tickled his heart, this dicing with death. Someday he’d overreach himself and that would be the end, but until then he was having fun.

“Advance.⁠ ⁠… No, no one else. Just you alone.”

Janazik sauntered forward until he stood only a meter from the blunt ugly muzzle. He had his left arm out of his cloak, so that the golden brassard shone in plain view. Underneath, his right hand thumbed the catch of Alonzo’s pistol.

“Who are you?” challenged the voice from behind the shield.

“A messenger for His Highness from his allies in Volgazan,” said Janazik. “Seeing that there was still fighting going on, I and my men decided to come in the back way.”

“Well⁠—I suppose I can let you in, under guard. But your men, will have to stay out here.”

“Very well.” Janazik strolled over behind the shield.

There were three warriors crouched there, in front of a small door in the wall. One of them was about to blow his trumpet for a guard detail. The other two poised their spears near Janazik’s throat. None of them thought that anyone outside the citadel might possess an Earth-weapon.


Janazik shot right through his cloak. In that narrow space, the ravenous discharge blinded and blistered him, stung his face with flying particles of molten iron. The hammerblow of concussion sent him reeling back against the wall. His cloak caught afire; he ripped it off and flung it down on the three blackened corpses before him.

Vision returned to his dazzled eyes. These Earth-weapons were hideous things, he thought; they made nothing of courage or strength or even cunning. He wondered what changes Galactic civilization would bring to old Khazak, and didn’t think he’d like most of them. Maybe Volakech was right.

But Anse was his comrade and Aligan had been his king. He whistled, and the others came running up.

“Quick,” rasped Janazik. “The noise may draw somebody⁠—quick, inside!”

“Can’t we swing this lightning thrower around and blast them?” wondered a Khazaki.

“No, it’s fixed in place.” Anse threw his brawny shoulders against the solid mass of the door. It swung ponderously back and they dashed through the tunnel in the thick wall⁠—out into the open courtyard of the castle!

The noises of the fight rose high from here, but there were only a few warriors in sight, scurrying back and forth on their errands without noticing the newcomers⁠—a fact which did not surprise Anse or Janazik, who knew what vast confusion a battle was. The human remembered the layout now⁠—the rocket would be over by the machine shops, near the donjon keep⁠—“This way!”

They trotted across the court, around the gray stone bulk of the citadel’s buildings and towers, toward the long wooden shed which housed the new machine shop. The rain was beginning to slacken now, and the sun was up behind its gray veil, so that there was light shining through slanting silver. Against the dark walls, the lean torpedo shape of the rocket boat gleamed like a polished spearhead.

“Now⁠—ahead!” Janazik broke into a run toward the boat, and they followed him in a close ring about Ellen.

A band of fighters came around the corner of the machine shop, in front of the rocket. The wet light shone off their brassards. Janazik swore bitterly, and his hand dropped to his sword.

One of the enemy warriors let out a yell. “Earthlings⁠—two⁠—three of them! Not ours⁠—”

The blaster crashed in Janazik’s hand, and five dropped their charred bodies on the ground. With a spine-shivering yell, Janazik bounded forward, and after him came Anse, Alonzo, and a round dozen of the fiercest fighters in Krakenau. The blaster was exhausted now⁠—but they had their swords!

The leader of the enemy band was a huge Khazaki, dark-furred and green-eyed. His men were scattering in panic, but he roared a bull-voiced command and they rallied about him and stood before the rocket.

Volakech. By all the thirteen hells, Volakech!

He must have been leading reinforcements to a threatened point on the wall, thought Anse in a fleeting moment, and his sharp mind had instantly deduced that the invaders were after the rocket⁠—and that they could have no more blaster charges, or they would be using them. And Volakech’s band was still larger than theirs, and he had all the forces of the citadel behind him if he could summon them!


The two bands crashed together and steel began to fly. Anse stood before Ellen and lashed out at a spitting Khazaki who reached for his belly with a sword. The enemy dodged past his guard, drilled in close. Ellen shouted and kicked at the native’s ankles. He stumbled, dropping his defense, and Anse clove his skull.

Volakech roared. He swung a huge battle axe, and its shock and thunder rose high over the swaying tide of battle. Two of Janazik’s men leaped at him. He swept the axe in a terrible arc and the spike cracked one pate and the edge split the other’s face open. Alonzo sprang at him with furious courage, wielding a sword. Volakech knocked it spinning from his hand, but, before he could kill the engineer, Anse was on him.

They traded blows in a clamor of steel. Axe and sword clashed together, sheared along chain mail and rang on helmets. It was a blur of rake and slash and parry, with Volakech grinning at him behind a network of whirling steel.

Anse gathered his strength and pressed forward with reckless fury. His sword hummed and whistled and roared against Volakech’s hard-held guard. He laid open arms, legs, cheek; he probed and lunged for the rebel king’s trunk. Volakech snarled, but step by step he was driven back.

Warriors fell, but it was on the bodies of foemen and even dying they stabbed upward at the enemy. Bitter, bloody, utterly ruthless, the struggle swayed about the rocketship. It was old Khazak that fought, the planet of warriors, and, even as he hewed and danced and slew, Janazik thought bleakly that he was trying to end the gory magnificence of that age; he was bringing civilization and with it the doom of his own kind. Khazak of the future would not be the same world.

If they won⁠—if they won!

“To me!” he yelled. “To me, men of Aligan! Hai, Aligan! Krakenau! Dougald!”

They heard and rallied round him, the last gasping survivors of his band. But there were few of Volakech’s men left, few.

“Volakech! Aid the king! To me, men of Volakech!” The rebel shouted at the top of his lungs. And Anse lunged in at him, beating against the swift armor of the axe.

“Anse!” Janazik’s urgent shout cut through the clangor of battle. “Anse, here! We’re blasting free!”

The human hardly heard him. He forced his way closer in against Volakech, his sword whistling about the usurper’s helmeted head.

“Anse!” shouted Janazik. “Anse⁠—Ellen needs you⁠—”

With a tiger snarl, Anse broke free from his opponent and whirled about. A rebel stood before him. There was an instant of violence too swift to be followed, and Anse leaped over the ripped body and up to Janazik.

The Khazaki stood by the airlock. There was a ring of corpses before him; his sword ran blood.

“Ellen?” gasped Anse. “Ellen?”

“Inside,” rasped Janazik. “She’s inside. We have to get out of here⁠—only way to get your attention⁠—Come on!

Anse saw the armed band swarming at them from one of the outer towers, defenders who had finally noticed the battle at the rocket and were coming to aid their king. Not a chance against them⁠—except the boat!

Man and Khazaki stepped back into the airlock. A storm of arrows and javelins broke loose. Anse saw two of his men fall⁠—then Janazik had slammed the heavy outer valve and dogged it shut.

“Ellen!” he gasped. “Ellen⁠—take the boat up before they dynamite it!”

The girl nodded. She was strapping herself into the pilot’s seat before the gleaming control panel. Only Alonzo was there with her, bleeding but still on his feet. Four of them survived⁠—only four⁠—but they had the boat!

Through the viewport, Anse saw the attackers surging around the hull. They’d use ballistae to crush it, dynamite to blow it up, blaster cannon to fry them alive inside the metal shell⁠—unless they got it into the sky first.

“Take the engines, Alonzo,” said Ellen.

Gonzales Alonzo nodded. “You help me, Janazik,” he said. “I’m not sure I⁠—can stay conscious⁠—”


The pilot room was in the bows. Behind it, bulkheaded off, lay the air plant and the other mechanisms for maintaining life aboard⁠—not very extensive, for the boat wouldn’t be in space long. Amidships were the control gyros, and behind still another bulkhead the engine controls. Rather than install an elaborate automatic feed system, the builders had relied on manual controls acting on light signals flashed by the pilot. It was less efficient, but it had shortened the labor of constructing the vessel and was good enough for the mere hop it had to make.

“I don’t know anything about it,” said Janazik doubtfully.

“I’ll tell you what to do⁠—Help me⁠—” Leaning on the Khazaki’s arm, Alonzo stumbled toward the stern.

Anse strapped his big body into the chair beside Ellen’s. “I can’t help much, I’m afraid,” he said.

“No⁠—except by being here,” she smiled.

Looking out, he saw that the assault on the castle was almost over⁠—beaten off. It had provided the diversion they needed⁠—but at what cost, at what cost?

“We might as well take off for the Star Ship right away,” he said.

“Of course. And that will end the war. Volakech can either surrender or sit in the castle till he rots.”

“Or we can use the ship to blast the citadel.”

“No⁠—oh, Cosmos, no!” Her eyes were filled with sudden horror.

“Why not?” he argued angrily. “Only way we can rescue our people if he won’t give them up of his own will.”

“We might kill Carse,” she whispered.

It was on his tongue to snap “good riddance,” but he choked down the impulse. “Why do you care for him that much?”

“He’s my brother,” she said simply, and he realized that in spite of her civilized protestations Ellen was sufficiently Khazaki to feel the primitive unreasoning clan loyalty of the planet. She added slowly: “And when Father died, years ago, Carse took his place, he’s been both father and big brother to me. He may have some wrong ideas, but he’s always been so⁠—good⁠—”

A child’s worship of the talented, handsome, genial elder brother, and she had never really outgrown it. Well⁠—it didn’t matter. Once they had the Star Ship, Carse didn’t matter. “He’ll be as safe as anyone can be in these days,” said Anse. “I⁠—I’ll protect him myself if need be.”

Her hand slid into his, and she kissed him, there in the little boat while it rocked and roared under the furious assaults from without. “Anyone who hurts Carse is my blood foe,” she breathed. “But anyone who helps him helps me, and⁠—and⁠—”

Anse smiled, dreamily. The engines began to stutter, warming up, and Volakech’s men scattered in dismay. They had seen the fire that spurted from the rocket tubes.

And in the engine room, Masefield Carson held his blaster leveled on Alonzo and Janazik. “Go ahead,” he smiled. “Go ahead⁠—take the ship up.”

VI

The Khazaki swore lividly. His sword seemed almost to leap halfway out of the scabbard. Carse swung the blaster warningly, and he clashed the weapon back. Useless, useless, when white flame could destroy him before he got moving.

“How did you get here?” he snarled.

The tall, bronze-haired man smiled again. “I wasn’t in the fight,” he said. “Volakech wanted to save my knowledge and told me to stay out of the battle. I wasn’t really needed. But it occurred to me that your assault was obviously a futile gesture unless you hoped in some way to capture the boat. So I hid in here to guard it⁠—just in case. And now⁠—we’ll take her up. We may just as well do so. Once I have the Star Ship⁠—” He gestured at Alonzo. “Start the engines. And no tricks. I understand them as well as you do.”

Gonzales strapped himself in place and stood swaying with weakness while he manipulated the controls. “I can’t⁠—reach that wheel⁠—” he gasped.

“Turn it, Janazik,” said Carse. “About a quarter turn⁠—that’s enough.”

The impassive faces of meters wavered and blurred before Alonzo’s swimming eyes. He had been pretty badly hurt. But the engines were warming up.

“Strap yourself in, Janazik,” said Carse.

The Khazaki obeyed, sickly. He didn’t really need the anti-acceleration webbing⁠—Carse himself was content to hang on to a stanchion with one hand⁠—but it would hamper his movements, he would have no way of making a sudden leap. Between them, he and Alonzo could handle the engines readily enough, Carse giving them their orders. Then once they were at the Star Ship he could blast them down, go out to capture Anse and Ellen⁠—and the old books said one man could handle the ship if necessary⁠—

How to warn the two in the pilot room? How to get help? The warrior’s brain began to turn over, cool and steady now, swift as chilled lightning.

The boat spouted flame, stood on its tail and climbed for the sky. Acceleration dragged at Carse, but it wasn’t too great for a strong man to resist. Carse tightened his grip on the stanchion. His blaster was steady on them.

Ellen’s signal lights blinked and blinked on the control panels. More on the No. 3 jet, ease to port, full ahead, cut No. 2.⁠ ⁠… Alonzo handled most of it, occasionally gasping a command to Janazik. The bellow of the rockets filled the engine room.

And in the bows, Dougald Anson saw the world reel and fall behind, saw the rainy sky open up in a sudden magnificence of sun, saw it slowly darken and the stars come awesomely out. Gods, gods, was this space? Open space? No wonder the old people had longed to get away!


How to get help, how to warn Anse⁠—Janazik’s mind spun like an unloaded engine, spewing forth plan after unusable plan. Quickly, now, by Shantuzik’s hells!

No way out⁠—and the minutes were fleeing, the rocket was reaching for the sky, he knew they were nearing the Star Ship and still he lay in his harness like a sheep and obeyed Carse’s gunpoint orders!

The disgrace of it! He snarled his anger, and at Alonzo’s gasped command swung the wheel with unnecessary savagery. The ship lurched as a rocket tube overfired. Carse nearly lost his hold, and for an instant Janazik’s hands were at the acceleration webbing, ready to fling it off and leap at him.

The man recovered, and his blaster came to the ready again. He had to shout to be heard above the thundering jets: “Don’t try that⁠—either of you! I can shoot you down and handle it myself if I must!”

He laughed then, a tall and splendid figure standing strained against the brutal, clawing acceleration. Ellen’s brother⁠—aye! And one could see why she wanted him spared. Janazik’s lip curled back from his teeth in a snarl of hate.


The rocket must be very near escape velocity now. Presently Ellen would signal for the jets to be turned off and they would rush weightless through space while she took her readings and plotted the orbit that would get them to the Star Ship. And if then Carse emerged with his blaster⁠—

Anse had only a sword.

But⁠—Anse is Anse, thought Janazik. If there is any faintest glimmer of a chance Anse will find it. And if not, we’re really no worse off than now. I’ll have to warn Anse and leave the rest up to him.

The Khazaki nodded bleakly to himself. It would probably mean his own death before Carse’s blaster flame⁠—and damn it, damn it, he liked living. Even if the old Khazak he knew were doomed, there had been many new worlds of the Galactic frontier. He and Anse had often dreamed of roving over them⁠—

However⁠—

A red light blinked on the panel. Ellen’s signal to cut the rockets. They were at escape velocity.

Wearily, his hand shaking, Alonzo threw the master switch. The sudden silence was like a thunderclap.

And Janazik screeched the old Krakenaui danger call from his fullest lungs.

Carse turned around with a curse, awkward in the sickening zero-gravity of free fall. “It won’t do you any good,” he yelled thickly. “I’ll kill him too⁠—”

Alonzo threw the master switch up! With a coughing roar, the rockets burst back into life. No longer holding the stanchion, Carse was hurled to the floor.

Janazik clawed at his webbing to get free. Carse leveled his blaster on Alonzo. The engineer threw another switch at random, and the direction of acceleration shifted with sudden violence, slamming Carse against the farther wall.

His blaster raved, and Alonzo had no time to scream before the flame licked about him.

And in the control room, Anse heard Janazik’s high ululating yell. The reflexes of the wandering years came back to galvanize him. His sword seemed to leap into his hand, he flung himself out of his chair webbing with a shout.⁠ ⁠…

“Anse!” Ellen’s voice came dimly to his ears, hardly noticed. “Anse⁠—what is it⁠—”

He drifted weightless in midair, cursing, trying to swim. And then the rockets woke up again and threw him against the floor. He twisted with Khazaki agility, landed crouched, and bounded for the stern.

Ellen looked after him, gasping, for an instant yet unaware of the catastrophe, thinking how little she knew that yellow-maned savage after all, and how she would like to learn, and⁠—

The rocket veered, crazily. Anse caught himself as he fell, adjusted to the new direction of gravity, and continued his plunging run. The crash of a blaster came from ahead of him.

He burst into the control room and saw it in one blinding instant. Alonzo’s charred body sagging in its harness, Janazik half out of his, Carse staggering to his feet⁠—the blaster turned on Janazik, Janazik, the finger tightening⁠—


Tiger-like, Anse sprang. Carse glimpsed him, turned, the blaster half swung about⁠ ⁠… and the murderous fighting machine which was Dougald Anson had reached him. Carse saw the sword shrieking against his face; it was the last thing he ever saw.⁠ ⁠…

Anse lurched back against the control panel. “Turn it off!” yelled Janazik. “Throw that big switch there!”

Mechanically, the human obeyed, and there was silence again, a deep ringing silence in which they floated free. It felt like an endless falling.

Falling, falling⁠—Anse looked numbly down at his bloody sword. Falling, falling, falling⁠—but that couldn’t be right, he thought dully. He had already fallen. He had killed Ellen’s brother.

“And I love her,” he whispered.

Janazik drifted over, slowly in the silent room. His eyes were a deep gold, searching now. If Ellen won’t have him, he and I will go out together, out to the stars and the great new frontier. But if she will, I’ll have to go alone, I’ll always be alone⁠—

Unless she would come too. She’s a good kid.⁠ ⁠… I’d like to have her along. Maybe take a mate of my own too.⁠ ⁠… But that can never be, now. She won’t come near her brother’s slayer.

“You might not have had to kill him,” said Janazik. “Maybe you could have disarmed him.”

“Not before he got one of us⁠—probably you,” said Anse tonelessly. “Anyway, he needed killing. He shot Alonzo.”

He added, after a moment: “A man has to stand by his comrades.”

Janazik nodded, very slowly. “Give me your sword,” he said.

“Eh?” Anse looked at him. The blue eyes were unseeing, blind with pain, but he handed over the red weapon. Janazik slipped his own glaive into the human’s fingers.

Then he laid a hand on Anse’s shoulder and smiled at him, and then looked away.

We Khazaki don’t know love. There is comradeship, deeper than any Earthling knows. When it happens between male and female, they are mates. When it is between male and male, they are blood-brothers. And a man must stand by his comrades.

Ellen came in, pulling her way along the walls by the handholds, and Anse looked at her without saying a word, just looking.

“What happened?” she said. “What is the⁠—Oh!

Carse’s body floated in midair, turning over and over in air currents like a drowned man in the sea.

“Carse⁠—Carse⁠—”

Ellen pushed from the wall, over to the dead man. She looked at his still face, and stroked his blood-matted hair, and smiled through a mist of tears.

“You were always good to me, Carse,” she whispered. “You were⁠ ⁠… goodnight, brother. Goodnight.”

Then turning to Anse and Janazik, with something cold and terrible in her voice: “Who killed him?”

Anse looked at her, dumbly.

“I did,” said Janazik.

He held forth the dripping sword. “He stowed away⁠—was going to take over the ship. Alonzo threw him off balance by turning the rockets back on. He killed Alonzo. Then I killed him. He needed it. He was a traitor and a murderer, Ellen.”

“He was my brother,” she whispered. And suddenly she was sobbing in Anse’s arms, great racking sobs that seemed to tear her slender body apart.

But she’d get over it.

Anse looked at Janazik over her shoulder, and while he ruffled her shining hair his eyes locked with the Khazaki’s. This is the end. Once we land, we can never see each other, not ever again. And we were comrades in the old days.⁠ ⁠…

Farewell, my brother.


When the star ship landed outside Krakenau’s surrendered citadel, it was still raining a little. Janazik looked out at the wet gray world and shivered. Then, wordlessly, he stepped from the airlock and walked slowly down the hill toward the sea. He did not look back, and Anse did not look after him.

Tiger by the Tail

I

Captain Flandry opened his eyes and saw a metal ceiling. Simultaneously, he grew aware of the thrum and quiver which meant he was aboard a spaceship running on ultra-drive.

He sat up with a violence that sent the dregs of alcohol swirling through his head. He’d gone to sleep in a room somewhere in the stews of Catawrayannis, with no prospect or intention of leaving the city for an indefinite time⁠—let alone the planet! Now⁠—

The chilling realization came that he was not aboard a human ship. Humanoid, yes, from the size and design of things, but no vessel ever built within the borders of the Empire, and no foreign make that he knew of.

Even from looking at this one small cabin, he could tell. There were bunks, into one of which he had fitted pretty well, but the sheets and blankets weren’t of plastic weave. They seemed⁠—he looked more closely⁠—the sheets seemed to be of some vegetable fiber, the blankets of long bluish-gray hair. There were a couple of chairs and a table in the middle of the room, wooden, and they must have seen better days for they were elaborately hand-carved, and in an intricate interwoven design new to Flandry⁠—and planetary art-forms were a hobby of his. The way and manner in which the metal plating had been laid was another indication, and⁠—


He sat down again, buried his whirling head in his hands, and tried to think. There was a thumping in his head and a vile taste in his mouth which liquor didn’t ordinarily leave⁠—at least not the stuff he’d been drinking⁠—and now that he remembered, he’d gotten sleepy much earlier than one would have expected when the girl was so good-looking⁠—

Drugged⁠—oh, no! Tell me I’m not as stupid as a stereofilm hero! Anything but that!

But who’d have thought it, who’d have looked for it? Certainly the people and beings on whom he’d been trying to get a lead would never try anything like that. Besides, none of them had been around, he was sure of it. He’d simply been out building part of the elaborate structure of demimonde acquaintances and information which would eventually, by exceedingly indirect routes, lead him to those he was seeking. He’d simply been out having a good time⁠—quite a good time, in fact⁠—and⁠—

And now someone from outside the Empire had him. And now what?

He got up, a little unsteadily, and looked around for his clothes. No sign of them. And he’d paid three hundred credits for that outfit, too. He stamped savagely over to the door. It didn’t have a photocell attachment; he jerked it open and found himself looking down the muzzle of a blaster.

It was of different design from any he knew, but it was quite unmistakable. Captain Flandry sighed, relaxed his taut muscles, and looked more closely at the guard who held it.

He was humanoid to a high degree, perhaps somewhat stockier than Terrestrial average⁠—and come to think of it, the artificial gravity was a little higher than one gee⁠—and with very white skin, long tawny hair and beard, and oblique violet eyes. His ears were pointed and two small horns grew above his heavy eyebrow ridges, but otherwise he was manlike enough. With civilized clothes and a hooded cloak he could easily pass himself off for human.

Not in the getup he wore, of course, which consisted of a kilt and tunic, shining beryllium-copper cuirass and helmet, buskins over bare legs, and a murderous-looking dirk. As well as a couple of scalps hanging at his belt.

He gestured the prisoner back, and blew a long hollow blast on a horn slung at his side. The wild echoes chased each other down the long corridor, hooting and howling with a primitive clamor that tingled faintly along Captain Flandry’s spine.

He thought slowly, while he waited: No intercom, apparently not even speaking tubes laid the whole length of the ship. And household articles of wood and animal and vegetable fibres, and that archaic costume there⁠—They were barbarians, all right. But no tribe that he knew about.

That wasn’t too surprising, since the Terrestrial Empire and the half-dozen other civilized states in the known Galaxy ruled over several thousands of intelligent races and had some contact with nobody knew how many thousands more. Many of the others were, of course, still planet-bound, but quite a few tribes along the Imperial borders had mastered a lot of human technology without changing their fundamental outlook on things. Which is what comes of hiring barbarian mercenaries.

The peripheral tribes were still raiders, menaces to the border planets and merely nuisances to the Empire as a whole. Periodically they were bought off, or played off against each other⁠—or the Empire might even send a punitive expedition out. But if one day a strong barbarian race under a strong leader should form a reliable coalition⁠—then vae victis!


A party of Flandry’s captors, apparently officers, guardsmen, and a few slaves, came down the corridor. Their leader was tall and powerfully built, with a cold arrogance in his pale-blue eyes that did not hide a calculating intelligence. There was a golden coronet about his head, and the robes that swirled around his big body were rainbow-gorgeous. Flandry recognized some items as having been manufactured within the Empire. Looted, probably.

They came to a halt before him and the leader looked him up and down with a deliberately insulting gaze. To be thus surveyed in the nude could have been badly disconcerting, but Flandry was immune to embarrassment and his answering stare was bland.

The leader spoke at last, in strongly accented but fluent Anglic: “You may as well accept the fact that you are a prisoner, Captain Flandry.”

They’d have gone through his pockets, of course. He asked levelly, “Just to satisfy my own curiosity, was that girl in your pay?”

“Of course. I assure you that the Scothani are not the brainless barbarians of popular Terrestrial superstition, though⁠—” a bleak smile⁠—“it is useful to be thought so.”

“The Scothani? I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure⁠—”

“You have probably not heard of us, though we have had some contact with the Empire. We have found it convenient to remain in obscurity, as far as Terra is concerned, until the time is ripe. But⁠—what do you think caused the Alarri to invade you, fifteen years ago?”

Flandry thought back. He had been a boy then, but he had, of course, avidly followed the news accounts of the terrible fleets that swept in over the marches and attacked Vega itself. Only the hardest fighting at the Battle of Mirzan had broken the Alarri. Yet it turned out that they’d been fleeing still another tribe, a wild and mighty race who had invaded their own system with fire and ruin. It was a common enough occurrence in the turbulent barbarian stars; this one incident had come to the Empire’s notice only because the refugees had tried to conquer it in turn. A political upheaval within the Terrestrial domain had prevented closer investigation before the matter had been all but forgotten.

“So you were driving the Alarri before you?” asked Flandry with as close an approximation to the right note of polite interest as he could manage in his present condition.

“Aye. And others. The Scothani have quite a little empire now, out there in the wilderness of the Galaxy. But, since we were never originally contacted by Terrestrials, we have, as I say, remained little known to them.”

So⁠—the Scothani had learned their technology from some other race, possibly other barbarians. It was a familiar pattern, Flandry could trace it out in his mind. Spaceships landed on the primitive world, the initial awe of the natives gave way to the realization that the skymen weren’t so very different after all⁠—they could be killed like anyone else; traders, students, laborers, mercenary warriors visited the more advanced worlds, brought back knowledge of their science and technology; factories were built, machines produced, and some tribal king used the new power to impose his rule on all his planet; and then, to unite his restless subjects, he had to turn their faces outward, promise plunder and glory if they followed him out to the stars⁠—

Only the Scothani had carried it farther than most. And lying as far from the Imperial border as they did, they could build up a terrible power without the complacent, politics-ridden Empire being more than dimly aware of the fact⁠—until the day when⁠—

Vae victis!

II

“Let us have a clear understanding,” said the barbarian chief. “You are a prisoner on a warship already light-years from Llynathawr, well into the Imperial marches and bound for Scotha itself. You have no chance of rescue, and mercy depends entirely on your own conduct. Adjust it accordingly.”

“May I ask why you picked me up?” Flandry’s tone was mild.

“You are of noble blood, and a high-ranking officer in the Imperial intelligence service. You may be worth something as a hostage. But primarily we want information.”

“But I⁠—”

“I know.” The reply was disgusted. “You’re very typical of your miserable kind. I’ve studied the Empire and its decadence long enough to know that. You’re just another worthless younger son, given a high-paying sinecure so you can wear a fancy uniform and play soldier. You don’t amount to anything.”

Flandry let an angry flush go up his cheek. “Look here⁠—”

“It’s perfectly obvious,” said the barbarian. “You come to Llynathawr to track down certain dangerous conspirators. So you register yourself in the biggest hotel in Catawrayannis as Captain Dominic Flandry of the Imperial Intelligence Service, you strut around in your expensive uniform dropping dark hints about your leads and your activities⁠—and these consist of drinking and gambling and wenching the whole night and sleeping the whole day!” A cold humor gleamed in the blue eyes. “Unless it is your intention that the Empire’s enemies shall laugh themselves to death at the spectacle.”

“If that’s so,” began Flandry thinly, “then why⁠—”

“You will know something. You can’t help picking up a lot of miscellaneous information in your circles, no matter how hard you try not to. Certainly you know specific things about the organization and activities of your own corps which we would find useful information. We’ll squeeze all you know out of you! Then there will be other services you can perform, people within the Empire you can contact, documents you can translate for us, perhaps various liaisons you can make⁠—eventually, you may even earn your freedom.” The barbarian lifted one big fist. “And in case you wish to hold anything back, remember that the torturers of Scotha know their trade.”

“You needn’t make melodramatic threats,” said Flandry sullenly.

The fist shot out, and Flandry fell to the floor with darkness whirling and roaring through his head. He crawled to hands and knees, blood dripping from his face, and vaguely he heard the voice: “From here on, little man, you are to address me as befits a slave speaking to a crown prince of Scotha.”

The Terrestrial staggered to his feet. For a moment his fists clenched. The prince smiled grimly and knocked him down again. Looking up, Flandry saw brawny hands resting on blaster butts⁠—not a chance, not a chance.

Besides, the prince was hardly a sadist. Such brutality was the normal order among the barbarians⁠—and come to think of it, slaves within the Empire could be treated similarly.

And there was the problem of staying alive⁠—

“Yes, sir,” he mumbled.

The prince turned on his heel and walked away.


They gave him back his clothes, though someone had stripped the gold braid and the medals away. Flandry looked at the soiled, ripped garments and sighed. Tailor-made⁠—!

He surveyed himself in the mirror as he washed and shaved. The face that looked back was wide across the cheekbones, straight-nosed and square-jawed, with carefully waved reddish-brown hair and a mustache trimmed with equal attention. Probably too handsome, he reflected, wiping the blood from under his nose, but he’d been young when he had the plasticosmetician work on him. Maybe when he got out of this mess he should have the face made over to a slightly more rugged pattern to fit his years. He was in his thirties now, after all⁠—getting to be a big boy, Dominic.

The fundamental bone structure of head and face was his own, however, and so were the eyes⁠—large and bright, with a hint of obliquity, the iris of that curious gray which can seem any color, blue or green or black or gold. And the trim, medium-tall body was genuine too. He hated exercises, but went through a dutiful daily ritual since he needed sinews and coordination for his work⁠—and, too, a man in condition was something to look at among the usually flabby nobles of Terra; he’d found his figure no end of help in making his home leaves pleasant.

Well, can’t stand here admiring yourself all day, old fellow. He slipped blouse, pants, and jacket over his silkite undergarments, pulled on the sheening boots, tilted his officer’s cap at an angle of well-gauged rakishness, and walked out to meet his new owners.

The Scothani weren’t such bad fellows, he soon learned. They were big brawling lusty barbarians, out for adventure and loot and fame as warriors; they had courage and loyalty and a wild streak of sentiment that he liked. But they could also fly into deadly rages, they were casually cruel to anyone that stood in their way, and Flandry acquired a not too high respect for their brains. It would have helped if they’d washed oftener, too.

This warship was one of a dozen which Cerdic, the crown prince, had taken out on a plundering cruise. They’d sacked a good many towns, even some on nominally Imperial planets, and on the way back had sent down a man in a lifeboat to contact Cerdic’s agents on Llynathawr, which was notoriously the listening post of this sector of the Empire. In learning that there was something going on which a special agent from Terra had been investigating, Cerdic had ordered him picked up. And that was that.

Now they were homeward bound, their holds stuffed with loot and their heads stuffed with plans for further inroads. It might not have meant much, but⁠—well⁠—Cerdic and his father Penda didn’t seem to be just ordinary barbarian chiefs, nor Scothania an ordinary barbarian nation.

Could it be that somewhere out there among the many stars someone had finally organized a might that could break the Empire? Could the Long Night really be at hand?

Flandry shoved the thought aside. He had too much to do right now. Even his own job at Llynathawr, important as it was, could and would be handled by someone else⁠—though not, he thought a little sadly, with the Flandry touch⁠—and his own immediate worry was here and now. He had to find out the extent of power and ambition of the Scothani; he had to learn their plans and get the information to Terra, and somehow spike them even a little. After that there might be time to save his own hide.


Cerdic had him brought to the captain’s cabin. The place was a typical barbarian chief’s den, with the heads of wild beasts on the walls and their hides on the floors, old shields and swords hung up in places of honor, a magnificent golden vase stolen from some planet of artists shining in a corner. But there were incongruous modern touches, a microprint reader and many bookrolls from the Empire, astrographic tables and computer, a vodograph. The prince sat in a massive carven chair, a silkite robe flung carelessly over his broad shoulders. He nodded with a certain affability.

“Your first task will be to learn Scothanian,” he said without preliminary. “As yet almost none of our people, even nobles, speak Anglic, and there are many who will want to talk to you.”

“Yes, sir,” said Flandry. It was what he would most have desired.

“You had better also start organizing all you know so you can present it coherently,” said the prince. “And I, who have lived in the Empire, will be able to check enough of your statements to tell whether you are likely speaking the truth.” He smiled mirthlessly. “If there is reason to suspect you are lying, you will be put to the torture. And one of our Sensitives will then get at the truth.”

So they had Sensitives, too. Telepaths who could tell whether a being was lying when pain had sufficiently disorganized his mind were as bad as the Empire’s hypnoprobes.

“I’ll tell the truth, sir,” he said.

“I suppose so. If you cooperate, you’ll find us not an ungrateful people. There will be more wealth than was ever dreamed of when we go into the Empire. There will also be considerable power for such humans as are our liaison with their race.”

“Sir,” began Flandry, in a tone of weak self-righteousness, “I couldn’t think of⁠—”

“Oh, yes, you could,” said Cerdic glumly. “I know you humans. I traveled incognito throughout your whole Empire, I was on Terra itself. I posed as one of you, or when convenient as just another of the subject races. I know the Empire⁠—its utter decadence, its self-seeking politicians and pleasure-loving mobs, corruption and intrigue everywhere you go, collapse of morals and duty-sense, decline of art into craft and science into stagnancy⁠—you were a great race once, you humans, you were the first to aspire to the stars and we owe you something for that, I suppose. But you’re not the race you once were.”

The viewpoint was biased, but enough truth lay in it to make Flandry wince. Cerdic went on, his voice rising: “There is a new power growing out beyond your borders, young peoples with the strength and courage and hopefulness of youth, and they’ll sweep the rotten fragments of the Empire before them and build something new and better.”

Only, thought Flandry, only first comes the Long Night, darkness and death and the end of civilization, the howling peoples in the ruins of our temples and a myriad petty tyrants holding their dreary courts in the shards of the Empire. To say nothing of the decline of good music and good cuisine, taste in clothes and taste in women and conversation as a fine art.

“We’ve one thing you’ve lost,” said Cerdic, “and I think ultimately that will be the deciding factor. Honestly. Flandry, the Scothani are a race of honest warriors.”

“No doubt, sir,” said Flandry.

“Oh, we have our evil characters, but they are few and the custom of private challenges soon eliminates them,” said Cerdic. “And even their evil is an open and clean thing, greed or lawlessness or something like that; it isn’t the bribery and conspiracy and betrayal of your rotten politicians. And most of us live by our code. It wouldn’t occur to a true Scothani to do a dishonorable thing, to break an oath or desert a comrade or lie on his word of honor. Our women aren’t running loose making eyes at every man they come across; they’re kept properly at home till time for marriage and then they know their place as mothers and houseguiders. Our boys are raised to respect the gods and the king, to fight, and to speak truth. Death is a little thing, Flandry, it comes to everyone in his time and he cannot stay it, but honor lives forever.

“We don’t corrupt ourselves. We keep honor at home and root out disgrace with death and torture. We live our code. And that is really why we will win.”

Battleships help, thought Flandry. And then, looking into the cold bright eyes: He’s a fanatic. But a hell of a smart one. And that kind makes the most dangerous enemy.

Aloud he asked, humbly: “Isn’t any stratagem a lie, sir? Your own disguised travels within the Empire⁠—”

“Naturally, certain maneuvers are necessary,” said the prince stiffly. “Nor does it matter what one does with regard to alien races. Especially when they have as little honor as Terrestrials.”

The good old race-superiority complex, too. Oh, well.

“I tell you this,” said Cerdic earnestly, “in the hope that you may think it over and see our cause is just and be with us. We will need many foreigners, especially humans, for liaison and intelligence and other services. You may still accomplish something in a hitherto wasted life.”

“I’ll think about it, sir,” said Flandry.

“Then go.”

Flandry got.


The ship was a good three weeks en route to Scotha. It took Flandry about two of them to acquire an excellent working knowledge of the language, but he preferred to simulate difficulty and complained that he got lost when talk was too rapid. It was surprising how much odd information you picked up when you were thought not to understand what was being said. Not anything of great military significance, of course, but general background, stray bits of personal history, attitudes and beliefs⁠—it all went into the neat filing system which was Flandry’s memory, to be correlated with whatever else he knew or learned into an astonishingly complete picture.

The Scothani themselves were quite friendly, eager to hear about the fabulous Imperial civilization and to brag of their own wonderful past and future exploits. Since there was obviously nothing he could do, Flandry was under the loosest guard and had virtually the freedom of the ship. He slept and messed with the warriors, swapped bawdy songs and dirty jokes, joined their rough-and-tumble wrestling matches to win surprised respect for his skill, and even became the close friend and confidant of some of the younger males.

The race was addicted to gambling. Flandry learned their games, taught them some of the Empire’s, and before the trip’s end had won back his stolen finery plus several other outfits and a pleasantly jingling purse. It was⁠—well⁠—he almost hated to take his winnings from these overgrown babies. It just never occurred to them that dice and cards could be made to do tricks.

The picture grew. The barbarian tribes of Scotha were firmly united under the leadership of the Frithian kings, had been for several generations. Theoretically it was an absolute monarchy, though actually all classes except the slaves were free. They had conquered at least a hundred systems outright, contenting themselves with exacting tribute and levies from most of these, and dominated all others within reach. Under Penda’s leadership, a dozen similar, smaller barbarian states had already formed a coalition with the avowed purpose of invading the Empire, capturing Terra, destroying the Imperial military forces, and making themselves masters. Few of them thought beyond the plunder to be had, though apparently some of them, like Cerdic, dreamed of maintaining and extending the Imperial domain under their own rule.

They had a formidable fleet⁠—Flandry couldn’t find out its exact size⁠—and its organization and technology seemed far superior to that of most barbarian forces. They had a great industry, mostly slave-manned with the Scothan overlords supervising. They had shrewd leaders, who would wait till one of the Empire’s recurring political crises had reduced its fighting strength, and who were extremely well informed about their enemy. It looked⁠—bad!

Especially since they couldn’t wait too long. Despite the unequalled prosperity created by industry, tribute, and piracy, all Scotha was straining at the leash, nobles and warriors in the whole coalition foaming to be at the Empire’s throat; a whole Galactic sector had been seized by the same savage dream. When they came roaring in⁠—well, you never could tell. The Empire’s fighting strength was undoubtedly greater, but could it be mobilized in time? Wouldn’t Penda get gleeful help from two or three rival imperia? Couldn’t a gang of utterly fearless fanatics plow through the mass of self-seeking officers and indifferent mercenaries that made up most of the Imperial power today?

Might not the Long Night really be at hand?

III

Scotha was not unlike Terra⁠—a little larger, a little farther from its sun, the seas made turbulent by three small close moons. Flandry had a chance to observe it telescopically⁠—the ship didn’t have magniscreens⁠—and as they swept in, he saw the mighty disc roll grandly against the Galactic star-blaze and studied the continents with more care than he showed.

The planet was still relatively thinly populated, with great forests and plains standing empty, archaic cities and villages huddling about the steep-walled castles of the nobles. Most of its industry was on other worlds, though the huge military bases were all on Scotha and its moons. There couldn’t be more than a billion Scothani all told, estimated Flandry, probably less, and many of them would live elsewhere as overlords of the interstellar domain. Which didn’t make them less formidable. The witless hordes of humankind were more hindrance than help to the Empire.

Cerdic’s fleet broke up, the captains bound for their estates. He took his own vessel to the capital, Iuthagaar, and brought it down in the great yards. After the usual pomp and ceremony of homecoming, he sent for Flandry.

“What is your attitude toward us now?” he asked.

“You are a very likeable people, sir,” said the Terrestrial, “and it is as you say⁠—you are a strong and honest race.”

“Then you have decided to help us actively?” The voice was cold.

“I really have little choice, sir,” shrugged Flandry. “I’ll be a prisoner in any case, unless I get to the point of being trusted. The only way to achieve that is to give you my willing assistance.”

“And what of your own nation?”

“A man must stay alive, sir. These are turbulent times.”

Contempt curled Cerdic’s lip. “Somehow I thought better of you,” he said. “But you’re a human. You could only be expected to betray your oaths for your own gain.”

Surprise shook Flandry’s voice. “Wasn’t this what you wanted, sir?”

“Oh, yes, I suppose so. Now come along. But not too close⁠—you make me feel a little sick.”

They went up to the great gray castle which lifted its windy spires over the city, and presently Flandry found himself granted an audience with the King of Scothania.

It was a huge and dim-lit hall, hung with the banners and shields of old wars and chill despite the fires that blazed along its length. Penda sat at one end, wrapped in furs against the cold, his big body dwarfed by the dragon-carved throne. He had his eldest son’s stern manner and bleak eyes, without the prince’s bitter intensity⁠—a strong man, thought Flandry, hard and ruthless and able⁠—but perhaps not too bright.

Cerdic had mounted to a seat on his father’s right. The queen stood on his left, shivering a little in the damp draft, and down either wall reached a row of guardsmen. The fire shimmered on their breastplates and helmets and halberds; they seemed figures of legend, but Flandry noticed that each warrior carried a blaster too.

There were others in evidence, several of the younger sons of Penda, grizzled generals and councillors, nobles come for a visit. A few of the latter were of non-Scothan race and did not seem to be meeting exceptional politeness. Then there were the hangers-on, bards and dancers and the rest, and slaves scurrying about. Except for its size⁠—and its menace⁠—it was a typical barbarian court.


Flandry bowed the knee as required, but thereafter stood erect and met the king’s eye. His position was anomalous, officially Cerdic’s captured slave, actually⁠—well, what was he? Or what could he become in time?

Penda asked a few of the more obvious questions, then said slowly: “You will confer with General Nartheof here, head of our intelligence section, and tell him what you know. You may also make suggestions if you like, but remember that false intentions will soon be discovered and punished.”

“I will be honest, your majesty.”

“Is any Terrestrial honest?” snapped Cerdic.

“I am,” said Flandry cheerfully. “As long as I’m paid, I serve faithfully. Since I’m no longer in the Empire’s pay, I must perforce look about for a new master.”

“I doubt you can be much use,” said Penda.

“I think I can, your majesty,” answered Flandry boldly. “Even in little things. For instance, this admirably decorated hall is so cold one must wear furs within it, and still the hands are numb. I could easily show a few technicians how to install a radiant heating unit that would make it like summer in here.”

Penda lifted his bushy brows. Cerdic fairly snarled: “A Terrestrial trick, that. Shall we become as soft and luxurious as the Imperials, we who hunt vorgari on ski?”

Flandry’s eyes, flitting around the room, caught dissatisfied expressions on many faces. Inside, he grinned. The prince’s austere ideals weren’t very popular with these noble savages. If they only had the nerve to⁠—

It was the queen who spoke. Her soft voice was timid: “Sire, is there any harm in being warm? I⁠—I am always cold these days.”

Flandry gave her an appreciative look. He’d already picked up the background of Queen Gunli. She was young, Penda’s third wife, and she came from more southerly Scothan lands than Iuthagaar; her folk were somewhat more civilized than the dominant Frithians. She was certainly a knockout, with that dark rippling hair and those huge violet eyes in her pert face. And that figure too⁠—there was a suppressed liveliness in her; he wondered if she had ever cursed the fate that gave her noble blood and thus a political marriage.

For just an instant their eyes crossed.

“Be still,” said Cerdic.

Gunli’s hand fell lightly on Penda’s. The king flushed. “Speak not to your queen thus, Cerdic,” he said. “In truth this Imperial trick is but a better form of fire, which no one calls unmanly. We will let the Terrestrial make one.”

Flandry bowed his most ironical bow. Cocking an eye up at the queen, he caught a twinkle. She knew.


Nartheof made a great show of blustering honesty, but there was a shrewd brain behind the hard little eyes that glittered in his hairy face. He leaned back and folded his hands behind his head and gave Flandry a quizzical stare.

“If it is as you say⁠—” he began.

“It is,” said the Terrestrial.

“Quite probably. Your statements so far check with what we already know, and we can soon verify much of the rest. If, then, you speak truth, the Imperial organization is fantastically good.” He smiled. “As it should be⁠—it conquered the stars, in the old days. But it’s no better than the beings who man it, and everyone knows how venial and cowardly the Imperials are today.”

Flandry said nothing, but he remembered the gallantry of the Sirian units at Garrapoli and the dogged courage of the Valatian Legion and⁠—well, why go on? The haughty Scothani just didn’t seem able to realize that a state as absolutely decadent as they imagined the Empire to be wouldn’t have endured long enough to be their own enemy.

“We’ll have to reorganize everything,” said Nartheof. “I don’t care whether what you say is true or not, it makes good sense. Our whole setup is outmoded. It’s ridiculous, for instance, to give commands according to nobility and blind courage instead of proven intelligence.”

“And you assume that the best enlisted man will make the best officer,” said Flandry. “It doesn’t necessarily follow. A strong and hardy warrior may expect more of his men than they can give. You can’t all be supermen.”

“Another good point. And we should eliminate swordplay as a requirement; swords are useless today. And we have to train mathematicians to compute trajectories and everything else.” Nartheof grimaced. “I hate to think what would have happened if we’d invaded three years ago, as many hotheads wanted to do. We would have inflicted great damage, but that’s all.”

“You should wait at least another ten or twenty years and really get prepared.”

“Can’t. The great nobles wouldn’t stand for it. Who wants to be duke of a planet when he could be viceroy of a sector? But we have a year or two yet.” Nartheof scowled. “I can get my own service whipped into shape, with your help and advice. I have most of the bright lads. But as for some of the other forces⁠—gods, the dunderheads they have in command! I’ve argued myself hoarse with Nornagast, to no use. The fool just isn’t able to see that a space fleet the size of ours must have a special coordinating division equipped with semantic calculators and⁠—The worst of it is, he’s a cousin to the king, he ranks me. Not much I can do.”

“An accident could happen to Nornagast,” murmured Flandry.

“Eh?” Nartheof gasped. “What do you mean?”


“Nothing,” said Flandry lightly. “But just for argument’s sake, suppose⁠—well, suppose some good swordsman should pick a quarrel with Nornagast. I don’t doubt he has many enemies. If he should unfortunately be killed in the duel, you might be able to get to his majesty immediately after, before anyone else, and persuade him to appoint a more reasonable successor. Of course, you’d have to know in advance that there’d be a duel.”

“Of all the treacherous, underhanded⁠—!”

“I haven’t done anything but speculate,” said Flandry mildly. “However, I might remind you of your own remarks. It’s hardly fair that a fool should have command and honor and riches instead of better men who simply happen to be of lower degree. Nor, as you yourself said, is it good for Scothania as a whole.”

“I won’t hear of any such Terrestrial vileness.”

“Of course not. I was just⁠—well, speculating. I can’t help it. All Terrestrials have dirty minds. But we did conquer the stars once.”

“A man might go far, if only⁠—no!” Nartheof shook himself. “A warrior doesn’t bury his hands in muck.”

“No. But he might use a pitchfork. Tools don’t mind dirt. The man who wields them doesn’t even have to know the details⁠—But let’s get back to business.” Flandry relaxed even more lazily. “Here’s a nice little bit of information which only highly placed Imperials know. The Empire has a lot of arsenals and munitions dumps which are guarded by nothing but secrecy. The Emperor doesn’t dare trust certain units to guard such sources of power, and he can’t spare enough reliable legions to watch them all. So obscure, uninhabited planets are used.” Nartheof’s eyes were utterly intent now. “I know of only one, but it’s a good prospect. An uninhabited, barren system not many parsecs inside the border, the second planet honeycombed with underground works that are crammed with spaceships, atomic bombs, fuel⁠—power enough to wreck a world. A small, swift fleet could get there, take most of the stores, and destroy the rest before the nearest garrison could ever arrive in defense.”

“Is that⁠—true?”

“You can easily find out. If I’m lying, it’ll cost you that small unit, that’s all⁠—and I assure you I’ve no desire to be tortured to death.”

“Holy gods!” Nartheof quivered. “I’ve got to tell Cerdic now, right away⁠—”

“You could. Or you might simply go there yourself without telling anyone. If Cerdic knows, he’ll be the one to lead the raid. If you went, you’d get the honor⁠—and the power⁠—”

“Cerdic would⁠—not like it.”

“Too late then. He could hardly challenge you for so bold and successful a stroke.”

“And he is getting too proud of himself⁠—he could stand a little taking down.” Nartheof chuckled, a deep vibration in his shaggy breast. “Aye, by Valtam’s beard, I’ll do it! Give me the figures now⁠—”

Presently the general looked up from the papers and gave Flandry a puzzled stare. “If this is the case, and I believe it is,” he said slowly, “it’ll be a first-rate catastrophe for the Empire. Why are you with us, human?”

“Maybe I’ve decided I like your cause a little better,” shrugged Flandry. “Maybe I simply want to make the best of my own situation. We Terrestrials are adaptable beasts. But I have enemies here, Nartheof, and I expect to make a few more. I’ll need a powerful friend.”

“You have one,” promised the barbarian. “You’re much too useful to me to be killed. And⁠—and⁠—damn it, human, somehow I can’t help liking you.”

IV

The dice rattled down onto the table and came to a halt. Prince Torric swore good-naturedly and shoved the pile of coins toward Flandry. “I just can’t win,” he laughed. “You have the gods with you, human.”

For a slave, I’m not doing so badly, thought Flandry. In fact, I’m getting rich. “Fortune favors the weak, highness,” he smiled. “The strong don’t need luck.”

“To Theudagaar with titles,” said the young warrior. He was drunk; wine flushed his open face and spread in puddles on the table before him. “We’re too good friends by now, Dominic. Ever since you got my affairs in order⁠—”

“I have a head for figures, and of course Terrestrial education helps⁠—Torric. But you need money.”

“There’ll be enough for all when we hold the Empire. I’ll have a whole system to rule, you know.”

Flandry pretended surprise. “Only a system? After all, a son of King Penda⁠—”

“Cerdic’s doing,” Torric scowled blackly. “The dirty avagar persuaded Father that only one⁠—himself, of course⁠—should succeed to the throne. He said no kingdom ever lasted when the sons divided power equally.”

“It seems very unfair. And how does he know he’s the best?”

“He’s the oldest. That’s what counts. And he’s conceited enough to be sure of it.” Torric gulped another beakerful.

“The Empire has a better arrangement. Succession is by ability alone, among many in a whole group of families.”

“Well⁠—the old ways⁠—what can I do?”

“That’s hardly warrior’s talk, Torric. Admitting defeat so soon⁠—I thought better of you!”

“But what to do⁠—?”

“There are ways. Cerdic’s power, like that of all chiefs, rests on his many supporters and his own household troops. He isn’t well liked. It wouldn’t be hard to get many of his friends to give allegiance elsewhere.”

“But⁠—treachery⁠—would you make a brother-slayer of me?”

“Who said anything about killing? Just⁠—dislodging, let us say. He could always have a system or two to rule, just as he meant to give you.”

“But⁠—look, I don’t know anything about your sneaking Terrestrial ways. I suppose you mean to dish⁠—disaffect his allies, promise them more than he gives.⁠ ⁠… What’s that word⁠—bribery?⁠—I don’t know a thing about it, Dominic. I couldn’t do it.”

“You wouldn’t have to do it,” murmured Flandry. “I could help. What’s a man for, if not to help his friends?”


Earl Morgaar, who held the conquered Zanthudian planets in fief, was a noble of power and influence beyond his station. He was also notoriously greedy.

He said to Captain Flandry: “Terrestrial, your suggestions about farming out tax-gathering have more than doubled my income. But now the natives are rising in revolt against me, murdering my troops wherever they get a chance and burning their farms rather than pay the levies. What do they do about that in the Empire?”

“Surely, sir, you could crush the rebels with little effort,” said Flandry.

“Oh, aye, but dead men don’t pay tribute either. Isn’t there a better way? My whole domain is falling into chaos.”

“Several ways, sir.” Flandry sketched a few of them⁠—puppet native committees, propaganda shifting the blame onto some scapegoat, and the rest of it. He did not add that these methods work only when skillfully administered.

“It is well,” rumbled the earl at last. His hard gaze searched Flandry’s impassively smiling face. “You’ve made yourself useful to many a Scothanian leader since coming here, haven’t you? There’s that matter of Nartheof⁠—he’s a great man now because he captured that Imperial arsenal. And there are others. But it seems much of this gain is at the expense of other Scothani, rather than of the Empire. I still wonder about Nornagast’s death⁠—”

“History shows that the prospect of great gain always stirs up internal strife, sir,” said Flandry. “It behooves the strong warrior to seize a dominant share of power for himself and so reunite his people against their common enemy. Thus did the early Terrestrial emperors end the civil wars and become the rulers of the then accessible universe.”

“Ummm⁠—yes. Gain⁠—power⁠—wealth⁠—aye, some good warrior⁠—”

“Since we are alone, sir,” said Flandry, “perhaps I may remark that Scotha itself has seen many changes of dynasty.”

“Yes⁠—of course, I took an oath to the king. But suppose, just suppose the best interests of Scothania were served by a newer and stronger family⁠—”

They were into details of the matter within an hour. Flandry suggested that Prince Kortan would be a valuable ally⁠—but beware of Torric, who had ambitions of his own⁠—


There was a great feast given at the winter solstice. The town and the palace blazed with light and shouted with music and drunken laughter. Warriors and nobles swirled their finest robes about them and boasted of the ruin they would wreak in the Empire. It was to be noted that the number of alcoholic quarrels leading to bloodshed was unusually high this year, especially among the upper classes.

There were enough dark corners, though. Flandry stood in one, a niche leading to a great open window, and looked over the glittering town lights to the huge white hills that lay silent beyond, under the hurtling moons. Above were the stars, bright with the frosty twinkle of winter; they seemed so near that one could reach a hand up and pluck them from the sky. A cold breeze wandered in from outside. Flandry wrapped his cloak more tightly about him.

A light footfall sounded on the floor. He looked about and saw Gunli the queen. Her tall young form was vague in the shadow, but a shaft of moonlight lit her face with an unearthly radiance. She might have been a lovely girl of Terra, save for the little horns and⁠—well⁠—

These people aren’t really human. They look human, but no people of Terra were ever so⁠—simple-minded! Then with an inward grin: But you don’t expect a talent for intrigue in women, Terrestrial or Scothan. So the females of this particular species are quite human enough for anyone’s taste.

The cynical mirth faded into an indefinable sadness. He⁠—damn it, he liked Gunli. They had laughed together often in the last few months, and she was honest and warmhearted and⁠—well, no matter, no matter.

“Why are you here all alone, Dominic?” she asked. Her voice was very quiet, and her eyes seemed huge in the cold pale moonlight.

“It would hardly be prudent for me to join the party,” he answered wryly. “I’d cause too many fights. Half of them out there hate my insides.”

“And the other half can’t do without you,” she smiled. “Well, I’m as glad not to be there myself. These Frithians are savages. At home⁠—” She looked out the window and there were suddenly tears glittering in her eyes.

“Don’t weep, Gunli,” said Flandry softly. “Not tonight. This is the night the sun turns, remember. There is always new hope in a new year.”

“I can’t forget the old years,” she said with a bitterness that shocked him.

Understanding came. He asked quietly: “There was someone else, wasn’t there?”

“Aye. A young knight. But he was of low degree, so they married me off to Penda, who is old and chill. And Jomana was killed in one of Cerdic’s raids⁠—” She turned her head to look at him, and a pathetic attempt at a smile quivered on her lips. “It isn’t Jomana, Dominic. He was very dear to me, but even the deepest wounds heal with time. But I think of all the other young men, and their sweethearts⁠—”

“It’s what the men want themselves.”

“But not what the women want. Not to wait and wait and wait till the ships come back, never knowing whether there will only be his shield aboard. Not to rock her baby in her arms and know that in a few years he will be a stiffened corpse on the shores of some unknown planet. Not⁠—well⁠—” She straightened her slim shoulders. “Little I can do about it.”

“You are a very brave and lovely woman, Gunli,” said Flandry. “Your kind has changed history ere this.” And he sang softly a verse he had made in the Scothan bardic form:

“So I see you standing,
sorrowful in darkness.
But the moonlight’s broken
by your eyes tear-shining⁠—
moonlight in the maiden’s
magic net of tresses.
Gods gave many gifts, but,
Gunli, yours was greatest.”

Suddenly she was in his arms.⁠ ⁠…


Sviffash of Sithafar was angry. He paced up and down the secret chamber, his tail lashing about his bowed legs, his fanged jaws snapping on the accented Scothanian words that poured out.

“Like a craieex they treat me!” he hissed. “I, king of a planet and an intelligent species, must bow before the dirty barbarian Penda. Our ships have the worst positions in the fighting line and the last chance at loot. The swaggering Scothani on Sithafar treat my people as if they were conquered peasants, not warrior allies. It is not to be endured!”

Flandry remained respectfully silent. He had carefully nursed the reptile king’s smoldering resentment along ever since the being had come to Iuthagaar for conference, but he wanted Sviffash to think it was all his own idea.

“By the Dark God, if I had a chance I think I’d go over to the Terran side!” exploded Sviffash. “You say they treat their subjects decently?”

“Aye, we’ve learned it doesn’t pay to be prejudiced about race, your majesty. In fact, many nonhumans hold Terrestrial citizenship. And of course a vassal of the Empire remains free within his own domain, except in certain matters of trade and military force where we must have uniformity. And he has the immeasurable power and wealth of the Empire behind and with him.”

“My own nobles would follow gladly enough,” said Sviffash. “They’d sooner loot Scothanian than Terrestrial planets, if they didn’t fear Penda’s revenge.”

“Many other of Scotha’s allies feel likewise, your majesty. And still more would join an uprising just for the sake of the readily available plunder, if only they were sure the revolt would succeed. It is a matter of getting them all together and agreeing⁠—”

“And you have contacts everywhere, Terrestrial. You’re like a spinner weaving its web. Of course, if you’re caught I shall certainly insist I never had anything to do with you.”

“Of course, your majesty.”

“But if it works⁠—hah!” The lidless black eyes glittered and a forked tongue flickered out between the horny lips. “Hah, the sack of Scotha!”

“No, your majesty. It is necessary that Scotha be spared. There will be enough wealth to be had on her province planets.”

“Why?” The question was cold, emotionless.

“Because you see, your majesty, we will have Scothan allies who will cooperate only on that condition. Some of the power-seeking nobles⁠ ⁠… and then there is a southern nationalist movement which wishes separation from the Frithian north⁠ ⁠… and I may say that it has the secret leadership of the queen herself.⁠ ⁠…”


Flandry’s eyes were as chill as his voice: “It will do you no good to kill me, Duke Asdagaar. I have left all the evidence with a reliable person who, if I do not return alive, or if I am killed later, will take it directly to the king and the people.”

The Scothan’s hands clenched white about the arms of his chair. Impotent rage shivered in his voice: “You devil! You crawling worm!”

“Name-calling is rather silly coming from one of your history,” said Flandry. “A parricide, a betrayer of comrades, a breaker of oaths, a mocker of the gods⁠—I have all the evidence, Duke Asdagaar. Some of it is on paper, some is nothing but the names of scattered witnesses and accomplices each of whom knows a little of your career. And a man without honor, on Scotha, is better dead. In fact, he soon will be.”

“But how did you learn⁠—?” Hopelessness was coming into the duke’s tone; he was beginning to tremble a little.

“I have my ways. For instance, I learned quite a bit by cultivating the acquaintance of your slaves and servants. You highborn forget that the lower classes have eyes and ears, and that they talk among themselves.”

“Well⁠—” The words were almost strangled. “What do you want?”

“Help for certain others. You have powerful forces at your disposal⁠—”


Spring winds blew softly through the garden and stirred the trees to rustling. There was a deep smell of green life about them; a bird was singing somewhere in the twilight, and the ancient promise of summer stirred in the blood.

Flandry tried to relax in the fragrant evening, but he was too tense⁠—his nerves were drawn into quivering wires and he had grown thin and hollow-eyed. So too had Gunli, but it seemed only to heighten her loveliness; it had more than a hint of the utterly alien and remote now.

“Well, the spaceship is off,” said the man. His voice was weary. “Aethagir shouldn’t have any trouble getting to Ifri, and he’s a clever lad⁠—he’ll find a way to deliver my letter to Admiral Walton.” He scowled, and a nervous tic began over his left eye. “But the timing is so desperately close. If our forces strike too soon, or too late, it can be ruinous.”

“I don’t worry about that, Dominic,” said Gunli. “You know how to arrange these things.”

“I’ve never handled an empire before, my beautiful. The next several days will be touch and go. And that’s why I want you to leave Scotha now. Take a ship and some trusty guards and go to Alagan or Gimli or some other out-of-the-way planet.” He smiled with one corner of his mouth. “It would be a bitter victory if you died in it, Gunli.”

Her voice was haunted. “I should die. I’ve betrayed my lord⁠—I am dishonored⁠—”

“You’ve saved your people⁠—your own southerners, and ultimately all Scotha.”

“But the broken oaths⁠—” She began to weep, quietly and hopelessly.

“An oath is only a means to an end. Don’t let the means override the end.”

“An oath is an oath. But Dominic⁠—it was a choice of standing by Penda or by⁠—you⁠—”

He comforted her as well as he could. And he reflected grimly that he had never before felt himself so thoroughly a skunk.

V

The battle in space was, to the naked eye, hardly visible⁠—brief flashes of radiation among the swarming stars, occasionally the dark form of a ship slipping by and occulting a wisp of the Milky Way. But Admiral Walton smiled with cold satisfaction at the totality of reports given him by the semantic integrator.

“We’re mopping them up,” he said. “Our task force has twice their strength, and they’re disorganized and demoralized anyway.”

“Whom are we fighting?” wondered Chang, the executive officer.

“Don’t know for sure. They’ve split into so many factions you can never tell who it is. But from Flandry’s report, I’d say it was⁠—what was that outlandish name now?⁠—Duke Markagrav’s fleet. He holds this sector, and is a royalist. But it might be Kelry, who’s also anti-Terrestrial⁠—but at war with Markagrav and in revolt against the king.”

“Suns and comets and little green asteroids!” breathed Chang. “This Scothanian hegemony seems just to have disintegrated. Chaos! Everybody at war with everybody else, and hell take the hindmost! How’d he do it?”

“I don’t know.” Walton grinned. “But Flandry’s the Empire’s ace secret service officer. He works miracles before breakfast. Why, before these barbarians snatched him he was handling the Llynathawr trouble all by himself. And you know how he was doing it? He went there with everything but a big brass band, did a perfect imitation of a political appointee using the case as an excuse to do some high-powered roistering, and worked his way up toward the conspirators through the underworld characters he met in the course of it. They never dreamed he was any kind of danger⁠—as we found out after a whole squad of men had worked for six months to crack the case of his disappearance.”

“Then the Scothanians have been holding the equivalent of a whole army⁠—and didn’t know it!”

“That’s right,” nodded Walton. “The biggest mistake they ever made was to kidnap Captain Flandry. They should have played safe and kept some nice harmless cobras for pets!”


Iuthagaar was burning. Mobs rioted in the streets and howled with fear and rage and the madness of catastrophe. The remnants of Penda’s army had abandoned the town and were fleeing northward before the advancing southern rebels. They would be harried by Torric’s guerrillas, who in turn were the fragments of a force smashed by Earl Morgaar after Penda was slain by Kortan’s assassins. Morgaar himself was dead and his rebels broken by Nartheof⁠—the earl’s own band had been riddled by corruption and greed and had fallen apart before the royalists’ counterblow.

But Nartheof was dead too, at the hands of Nornagast’s vengeful relatives. His own seizure of supreme power and attempt at reorganization had created little but confusion, which grew worse when he was gone. Now the royalists were a beaten force somewhere out in space, savagely attacked by their erstwhile allies, driven off the revolting conquered planets, and swept away before the remorselessly advancing Terrestrial fleet.

The Scothanian empire had fallen into a hundred shards, snapping at each other and trying desperately to retrieve their own with no thought for the whole. Lost in an incomprehensibly complex network of intrigue and betrayal, the great leaders fell, or pulled out of the mess and made hasty peace with Terra. War and anarchy flamed between the stars⁠—but limited war, a petty struggle really. The resources and organization for real war and its attendant destruction just weren’t there any more.

A few guards still held the almost-deserted palace, waiting for the Terrestrials to come and end the strife. There was nothing they could do but wait.

Captain Flandry stood at a window and looked over the city. He felt no great elation. Nor was he safe yet. Cerdic was loose somewhere on the planet, and Cerdic had undoubtedly guessed who was responsible.

Gunli came to the human. She was very pale. She hadn’t expected Penda’s death and it had hurt her. But there was nothing to do now but go through with the business.

“Who would have thought it?” she whispered. “Who would have dreamed we would ever come to this? That mighty Scotha would lie at the conqueror’s feet?”

“I would,” said Flandry tonelessly. “Such jerry-built empires as yours never last. Barbarians just don’t have the talent and the knowledge to run them. Being only out for plunder, they don’t really build.

“Of course, Scotha was especially susceptible to this kind of sabotage. Your much-vaunted honesty was your own undoing. By carefully avoiding any hint of dishonorable actions, you became completely ignorant of the techniques and the preventive measures. Your honor was never more than a latent ability for dishonor. All I had to do, essentially, was to point out to your key men the rewards of betrayal. If they’d been really honest, I’d have died at the first suggestion. Instead⁠—they grabbed at the chance. So it was easy to set them against each other until no one knew whom he could trust⁠—” He smiled humorlessly. “Not many Scothani objected to bribery or murder or treachery when it was shown to be to their advantage. I assure you, most Terrestrials would have thought further, been able to see beyond their own noses and realized the ultimate disaster it would bring.”

“Still⁠—honor is honor, and I have lost mine and so have all my people.” Gunli looked at him with a strange light in her eyes. “Dominic, disgrace can only be wiped out in blood.”

He felt a sudden tightening of his nerves and muscles, an awareness of something deadly rising before him. “What do you mean?”

She had lifted the blaster from his holster and skipped out of reach before he could move. “No⁠—stay there!” Her voice was shrill. “Dominic, you are a cunning man. But are you a brave one?”


He stood still before the menace of the weapon. “I think⁠—” He groped for words. No, she wasn’t crazy. But she wasn’t really human, and she had the barbarian’s fanatical code in her as well. Easy, easy⁠—or death would spit at him⁠—“I think I took a few chances, Gunli.”

“Aye. But you never fought. You haven’t stood up man to man and battled as a warrior should.” Pain racked her thin lovely face. She was breathing hard now. “It’s for you as well as him, Dominic. He has to have his chance to avenge his father⁠—himself⁠—fallen Scotha⁠—and you have to have a chance too. If you can win, then you are the stronger and have the right⁠—”

Might makes right. It was, after all, the one unbreakable law of Scotha. The old trial by combat, here on a foreign planet many light-years from green Terra⁠—

Cerdic came in. He had a sword in either hand, and there was a savage glee in his bloodshot eyes.

“I let him in, Dominic,” said Gunli. She was crying now. “I had to. Penda was my lord⁠—but kill him, kill him!”

With a convulsive movement, she threw the blaster out of the window. Cerdic gave her an inquiring look. Her voice was almost inaudible: “I might not be able to stand it. I might shoot you, Cerdic.”

“Thanks!” He ripped the word out, savagely. “I’ll deal with you later, traitress. Meanwhile⁠—” A terrible laughter bubbled in his throat⁠—“I’ll carve your⁠—friend⁠—into many small pieces. Because who, among the so-civilized Terrestrials, can handle a sword?”

Gunli seemed to collapse. “O gods, O almighty gods⁠—I didn’t think of that⁠—”

Suddenly she flung herself on Cerdic, tooth and nail and horns, snatching at his dagger. “Get him, Dominic!” she screamed. “Get him!

The prince swept one brawny arm out. There was a dull smack and Gunli fell heavily to the floor.

“Now,” grinned Cerdic, “choose your weapon!”

Flandry came forward and took one of the slender broadswords. Oddly, he was thinking mostly about the queen, huddled there on the floor. Poor kid, poor kid, she’d been under a greater strain than flesh and nerves were meant to bear. But give her a chance and she’d be all right.

Cerdic’s eyes were almost dreamy now. He smiled as he crossed blades. “This will make up for a lot,” he said. “Before you die, Terrestrial, you will no longer be a man⁠—”

Steel rang in the great hall. Flandry parried the murderous slash and raked the prince’s cheek. Cerdic roared and plunged at him, his blade weaving a net of death before him. Flandry skipped back, sword ringing on sword, shoulders against the wall.

They stood for an instant, straining blade against blade, sweat rivering off them, and bit by bit the Scothan’s greater strength bent Flandry’s arm aside. Suddenly the Terrestrial let go, striking out almost in the same moment, and the prince’s steel hissed by his face.

He ran back and Cerdic rushed him again. The Scothan was wide open for the simplest stop thrust, but Flandry didn’t want to kill him. They closed once more, blades clashing, and the human waited for his chance.

It came, an awkward move, and then one supremely skillful twist⁠—Cerdic’s sword went spinning out of his hand and across the room and the prince stood disarmed with Flandry’s point at his throat.

For a moment he gaped in utter stupefaction. Flandry laughed harshly and said: “My dear friend, you forget that deliberate archaism is one characteristic of a decadent society. There’s hardly a noble in the Empire who hasn’t studied scientific fencing.”

Defeat was heavy in the prince’s defiant voice: “Kill me, then. Be done with it.”

“There’s been too much killing, and you can be too useful.” Flandry threw his own weapon aside and cocked his fists. “But there’s one thing I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time.”

Despite the Scothan’s powerful but clumsy defense, Flandry proceeded to beat the living hell out of him.

“We’ve saved scotha, all Scotha,” said Flandry. “Think, girl. What would have happened if you’d gone on into the Empire? Even if you’d won⁠—and that was always doubtful, for Terra is mightier than you thought⁠—you’d only have fallen into civil war. You just didn’t have the capacity to run an empire⁠—as witness the fact that your own allies and conquests turned on you the first chance they got. You’d have fought each other over the spoils, greater powers would have moved in, Scotha would have been ripe for sacking⁠—eventually you’d have gone down into Galactic oblivion. The present conflict was really quite small⁠—it took far fewer lives than even a successful invasion of the Empire would have done. And now Terra will bring the peace you longed for, Gunli.”

“Aye,” she whispered. “Aye, we deserve to be conquered.”

“But you aren’t,” he said. “The southerners hold Scotha now, and Terra will recognize them as the legal government⁠—with you the queen, Gunli. You’ll be another vassal state of the Empire, yes, but with all your freedoms except the liberty to rob and kill other races. And trade with the rest of the Empire will bring you a greater and more enduring prosperity than war ever would.

“I suppose that the Empire is decadent. But there’s no reason why it can’t someday have a renaissance. When the vigorous new peoples such as yours are guided by the ancient wisdom of Terra, the Galaxy may see its greatest glory.”

She smiled at him. It was still a wan smile, but something of her old spirit was returning to her. “I don’t think the Empire is so far gone, Dominic,” she said. “Not when it has men like you.” She took his hands. “And what will you be doing now?”

He met her eyes, and there was a sudden loneliness within him. She⁠—was very beautiful⁠—

But it could never work out. Best to leave now, before a bright memory grew tarnished with the day-to-day clashing of personalities utterly foreign to each other. She would forget him in time, find someone else, and he⁠—well⁠—“I have my work,” he said.

They looked up to the bright sky. Far above them, the first of the descending Imperial ships glittered in the sunlight like a falling star.

Witch of the Demon Seas

I

Khroman the Conqueror, Thalassocrat of Achaera, stood watching his guards bring up the captured pirates. He was a huge man, his hair and square-cut beard jet-black despite middle age, the strength of his warlike youth still in his powerful limbs. He wore a plain white tunic and purple-trimmed cloak; the only sign of kingship was the golden chaplet on his head and the signet ring on one finger. In the gaudy crowd of slender, chattering courtiers, he stood out with a brutal contrast.

“So they’ve finally captured him,” he rumbled. “So we’re finally rid of Corun and his seagoing bandits. Maybe now the land will have some peace.”

“What will you do with them, sire?” asked Shorzon the Sorcerer.

Khroman shrugged heavy shoulders. “I don’t know. Pirates are usually fed to the erinyes at the games, I suppose, but Corun deserves something special.”

“Public torture, perhaps, sire? It could be stretched over many days.”

“No, you fool! Corun was the bravest enemy Achaera ever had. He deserves an honorable death and a decent tomb. Not that it matters much, but⁠—”

Shorzon exchanged a glance with Chryseis, then looked back toward the approaching procession.


The city Tauros was built around a semicircular bay, a huge expanse of clear green water on whose surface floated ships from halfway round the world⁠—the greatest harbor for none knew how many empty sea-leagues, capital of Achaera which, with its trade and its empire of entire archipelagoes, was the mightiest of the thalassocracies. Beyond the fortified sea walls at the end of the bay, the ocean swelled mightily to the clouded horizon, gray and green and amber. Within, the hulls and sails of ships were a bright confusion up to the stone docks.

The land ran upward from the bay, and Tauros was built on the hills, a tangle of streets between houses that ranged from the clay huts of the poor to the marble villas of the great. Beyond the city walls on the landward side, the island of Achaera lifted still more steeply, a gaunt rocky country with a few scattered farms and herds. Her power came all from the sea.

A broad straight road lined with sphinxes ran straight from the harbor up to the palace, which stood on the highest hill in the city. At its end, wide marble stairs lifted toward the fragrant imperial gardens in which the court stood.

Folk swarmed about the street, mobs straining to see the soldiers as they led their captives toward the palace. The word that Corun of Conahur, the most dangerous of the pirates, had finally been taken had driven merchants to ecstasy and brought insurance rates tumbling down. There was laughter in the throng, jeers for the prisoners, shouts for the king.

Not entirely so, however. Most of the crowd were, of course, Achaerans, a slim dark-haired folk clad generally in a light tunic and sandals, proud of their ancient might and culture. They were loudest in shouting at the robbers. But there were others who stood silent and glum-faced, not daring to voice their thoughts but making them plain enough. Tall, fair men from Conahur itself, galled by Achaeran rule; fur-clad barbarians from Norriki, blue-skinned savages from Umlotu, with a high professional regard for their fellow pirate; slaves from a hundred islands, who had not ceased dreaming of home and remembered that Corun had been in the habit of freeing slaves when he captured a ship or a town. Others might be neutral, coming from too far away to care, for Corun had only attacked Achaeran galleys; the black men from misty Orzaban, the copper-colored Chilatzis, the yellow wizards from mysterious Hiung-nu.

The soldiers marched their prisoners rapidly up the street. They were mercenaries, blue Umlotuans in the shining corselets, greaves, and helmets of the Achaeran forces, armed with the short sword and square shield of Achaera as well as the long halberds which were their special weapon. When the mob came too close, they swung the butts out with bone-snapping force.

The captive pirates were mostly from Conahur, though there were a number of other lands represented. They stumbled wearily along, clad in a few rags, weighted down hand and foot by their chains. Only one of them, the man in the lead, walked erect, but he strode along with the arrogance of a conqueror.

“That must be Corun himself, there in the front of them,” said Chryseis.

“It is,” nodded Shorzon.


They moved forward for a better look. Imperceptibly, the court shrank from them. Khroman’s advisor and daughter were feared in Tauros.

Shorzon was tall and lean and dry, as if the Heaven-Fire beyond the eternal clouds had fallen on him and seared all moisture out of the gaunt body. He had the noble features of the old Achaeran aristocracy, but his eyes were dark and sunken and smoldering with strange fires. Even in the warmth of midday, he wore a black robe falling to his feet, and his white beard streamed over it. Folk knew that he had learned sorcery in Hiung-nu, and it was whispered that for all Khroman’s brawling strength it was Shorzon who really dominated the realm.

Khroman had married Shorzon’s daughter⁠—none knew who her mother had been, though it was thought she was a witch from Hiung-nu. She had not lived long after giving birth to Chryseis, whose grandfather thus came to have much of her upbringing in his hands. Rumor had it that she was as much a witch as he a warlock.

Certainly she could be cruel and ungovernable. But she had a strange dark beauty over her that haunted men; there were more who would die for her than one could readily count⁠ ⁠… and, it was said, had died after a night or two.

She was tall and lithe, with night-black hair that streamed to her waist when unbound. Her eyes were huge and dark in a face of coldly chiseled loveliness, and the full red mouth denied the austere, goddess-like fineness of her countenance. Today she had not affected the heavy gold and jewels of the court; a white robe hung in dazzling folds about her⁠—and there might as well not have been another woman present.

The prisoners came through the palace gates, which clashed shut behind them. Up the stairs they went and into the fragrance of green trees and bushes, blooming plants, and leaping fountains that was the garden. There they halted, and the court buzzed about them like flies around a dead animal.

Khroman stepped up to Corun. “Greeting,” he said, and there was no mockery in his voice.

“Greeting,” replied the pirate in the same even tones.

They measured each other, the look of two strong men who understood what they were about. Corun was as big as Khroman, a fair-skinned giant of a man in chains and rags. Weather-bleached yellow hair hung to his shoulders from a haughtily lifted head, and his fire-blue eyes were unwavering on the king’s. His face was lean, long-jawed, curve-nosed, hardened by bitterness and suffering and desperate unending battle. A chained erinye could not have looked more fiercely on his captors.

“It’s taken a long time to catch you, Corun,” said Khroman. “You’ve led us a merry chase. Once I almost had the pleasure of meeting you myself. It was when you raided Serapolis⁠—remember? I happened to be there, and gave chase in one of the war-galleys. But we never did catch you.”

“One of the ships did.” Corun’s voice was strangely soft for so big a man. “It didn’t come back, as you may recall.”

“How did they finally catch you?” asked Khroman.


Corun shrugged, and the chains about his wrists rattled. “You already know as much as I care to talk about,” he said wearily. “We sailed into Iliontis Bay and found a whole fleet waiting for us. Someone must finally have spied out our stronghold.” Khroman nodded, and Corun shrugged a shoulder: “They blocked off our retreat, so we just fought till everyone was dead or captured. These half-hundred men are all who live. Unfortunately, I was knocked out during the battle and woke up to find myself a prisoner. Otherwise⁠—” his blue gaze raked the court with a lashing contempt⁠—“I could be peacefully feeding fish now, instead of your witless fish-eyes.”

“I won’t drag out the business for you, Corun,” said Khroman. “Your men will have to be given to the games, of course, but you can be decently and privately beheaded.”

“Thanks,” said the pirate, “but I’ll stay with my men.”

Khroman stared at him in puzzlement. “But why did you ever do it?” he asked finally. “With your strength and skill and cunning, you could have gone far in Achaera. We take mercenaries from conquered provinces, you know. You could have gotten Achaeran citizenship in time.”

“I was a prince of Conahur,” said Corun slowly. “I saw my land invaded and my folk taken off as slaves. I saw my brothers hacked down at the battle of Lyrr, my sister taken as concubine by your admiral, my father hanged, my mother burned alive when they fired the old castle. They offered me amnesty because I was young and they wanted a figurehead. So I swore an oath of fealty to Achaera, and broke it the first chance I got. It was the only oath I ever broke, and still I am proud of it. I sailed with pirates until I was big enough to master my own ships. That is enough of an answer.”

“It may be,” said Khroman slowly. “You realize, of course, that the conquest of Conahur took place before I came to the throne? And that I certainly couldn’t negate it, in view of the Thalassocrat’s duty to his own country, and had to punish its incessant rebelliousness?”

“I don’t hold anything against you yourself, Khroman,” said Corun with a tired smile. “But I’d give my soul to the nether fires for the chance to pull your damned palace down around your ears!”

“I’m sorry it has to end this way,” said the king. “You were a brave man. I’d like to drain many beakers of wine with you on the other side of death.” He signed to the guards. “Take him away.”

“One moment, sire,” said Shorzon. “Is it your intention to lock all these pirates in the same dungeon cell?”

“Why⁠—I suppose so. Why not?”

“I do not trust their captain. Chained and imprisoned, he is still a menace. I think he has certain magical techniques⁠—”

“That’s a lie!” spat Corun. “I never needed your stinking woman’s tricks to flatten the likes of Achaera!”

“I would not leave him with his men,” advised Shorzon imperturbably. “Best he be given his own cell, alone. I know a place.”

“Well⁠—well, let it be so.” Khroman waved a hand in dismissal.

As Shorzon turned to lead the guards off, he traded a long glance with Chryseis. Her eyes remained hooded as she looked after the departing captives.

II

The cell was no longer than a man’s height, a dripping cave hewed out of the rock under the palace foundations. Corun crouched on the streaming floor in utter darkness. The chains which they had locked to ringbolts in the wall clashed when he stirred.

And this was how it ended, he thought bitterly. The wild career of the exiled conqueror, the heave and surge of ships under the running waves, the laughter of comrades and the clamor of swords and the thrum of wind in the rigging, had come to this⁠—one man hunched in a loneliness and darkness like a colder womb, waiting in timeless murk for the day when they would drag him out to be torn by beasts for the amusement of fools.

They fed him at intervals, a slave bringing a bowl of prison swill while a spear-armed guard stood well out of reach and watched. Otherwise he was alone. He could not even hear the voices of other captives; there was only the slow dripping of water and the harsh tones of iron links. The cell must lie below even the regular dungeons, far down in the very bowels of the island.

Vague images floated across his mind⁠—the high cliffs about Iliontis Bay, the great flowers blooming with sullen fires in the jungle beyond the beach, the slim black corsair galleys at anchor. He remembered the open sky, the eternally clouded sky under which blew the long wet winds, out of which spilled rain and lightning and grew the eerie blue of dusk. He had often wondered what lay beyond those upper clouds.

Now and then, he remembered, one could see the vague disc of the Heaven-Fire, and he had heard of times when incredibly violent storms opened a brief rift in the high cloud layers to let through a shaft of searing brilliance at whose touch water boiled and the earth burst into flame. It made him think of the speculations of Conahur’s philosophers, that the world was really a globe around which the Heaven-Fire swung, bringing day and night. Some had gone so far as to imagine that it was the world which did the moving, that the Heaven-Fire was a ball of flame in the middle of creation about which all other things revolved.

But Conahur was in chains now, he remembered, its folk bowed to the will of Achaera’s greedy proconsuls, its art and philosophy the idle playthings of the conquerors. The younger generation was growing up with an idea that it might be best to yield, to become absorbed into the thalassocracy and so eventually gain equal status with the Achaerans.

But Corun could not forget the great flames flapping against a wind-torn night sky, the struggling forms at ropes’ ends swaying from trees, the long lines of chained people stumbling hopelessly to the slave galleys under Achaeran lashes. Perhaps he had carried the grudge too long⁠—no, by Breannach Brannor! There had been a family which was no longer. That was grudge enough for a lifetime.

A lifetime, he thought sardonically, which wouldn’t be very much protracted now.


He sighed wearily in the stinking gloom of the cell. There were too many memories crowding in. The outlaw years had been hard and desperate, but they’d been good ones too. There had been song and laughter and comradeship and gigantic deeds over an endless waste of waters⁠—the long blue hush of twilight, the soft black nights, the gray days with a sea running gray and green and gold under squalls of rain, the storms roaring and raging, the eager leap of a ship⁠—frenzy of battle at the taking of town or galley, death so close one could almost hear the beat of black wings, orgy of loot and vengeance⁠—the pirate town, grass huts under jungle trees, stuffed with treasure, full of brawling bawdy life, the scar-faced swaggering men and the lusty insolent women, ruddy firelight hammering back the night while the surf thundered endlessly along the beach⁠—

Well, all things came to a close. And while he would have wished a different sort of death for himself, he didn’t have long to wait in this misery.

Something stirred, far down the narrow corridor, and he caught the flickering glow of a torch. Scowling, he stood up, stooped under the low ceiling. Who in all the hells was this? It was too soon for feeding, unless his time sense had gone completely awry, and he didn’t think the games could have been prepared in the few days since his arrival.

They came up to the entrance of the cell and stood looking in by the guttering red torchlight. A snarl twisted Corun’s lips. Shorzon and Chryseis⁠—“Of all the scum of Achaera,” he growled, “I had to be inflicted with you.”

“This is no time for insolence,” said the sorcerer coldly. He lifted the torch higher. The red light threw his face into blood-splashed shadow. His eyes were pits of darkness in which smoldered two embers. His black robe blended with the surrounding shadow, his face and hands seemed to float disembodied in the dank air.

Corun’s eyes traveled to Chryseis, and in spite of the hate that burned in him he had to admit she was perhaps the loveliest woman he had ever seen. Tall and slim and lithe, moving with the soundless grace of a Sanduvian pherax, the dark hair sheening down past the chill sculptured beauty of her marble-white face, she returned his blue stare with eyes of dark flame. She was dressed as if for action⁠—a brief tunic that left arms and legs bare, a short black cloak, and high buskins⁠—but jewels still blazed at throat and wrists.

Behind her padded a lean shadow at sight of which Corun stiffened. He had heard of Chryseis’ tame erinye. Folk said the devil-beast had found a harder heart in the witch’s breast and yielded to her; some said less mentionable things.

The slitted green eyes flared at Corun and the cruel muzzle opened in a fanged yawn. “Back, Perias,” said Chryseis evenly.

Her voice was low and sweet, almost a caress. It seemed strange that such a voice had spoken the rituals of black sorcery and ordered the flaying alive of a thousand helpless Issarian prisoners and counseled some of the darkest intrigues in Achaera’s bloody history.

She said to Corun: “This is a fine end for all your noble thoughts, man of Conahur.”

“At least,” he answered, “you credit me with having had them. Which is more than I’d say for you.”


The red lips curved in a cynical smile. “Human purposes have a habit of ending this way. The mighty warrior, the scourge of the seas, ends in a foul prison cell waiting for an unimaginative death. The old epics lied, didn’t they? Life isn’t quite the glorious adventure that fools think it to be.”

“It could be, if it weren’t for your sort.” Wearily: “Go away, won’t you? If you won’t even let me talk with my old comrades, you can at least spare me your own company.”

“We are here with a definite purpose,” said Shorzon. “We offer you life, freedom⁠—and the liberation of Conahur!”

He shook his tawny head. “It isn’t even funny.”

“No, no, I mean it,” said Chryseis earnestly. “Shorzon had you put in here alone not out of malice, but simply to make this private talk possible. You can help us with a project so immeasurably greater than your petty quarrels that anything you can ask in return will be as nothing. And you are the one man who can do so.

“I tell you this so that, realizing you have some kind of bargaining position, you will meet as us as equal to equal, not as prisoner to captor. If you agree to aid us, you will be released this instant.”

With a sudden flame within him, Corun tautened his huge body. O gods⁠—O almighty gods beyond the clouds⁠—if it were true⁠—!

His voice shook: “What do you want?”

“Your help in a desperate venture,” said Chryseis. “I tell you frankly that we may well all die in it. But at least you will die as a free man⁠—and if we succeed, all the world may be ours.”

“What is it?” he asked hoarsely.

“I cannot tell you everything now,” said Shorzon. “But the story has long been current that you once sailed to the lairs of the Xanthi, the Sea Demons, and returned alive. Is it true?”

“Aye.” Corun stiffened, with sudden alarm trembling in his nerves. “Aye, by great good luck I came back. But they are not a race for humans to traffic with.”

“I think the powers I can summon will match theirs,” said Shorzon. “We want you to guide us to their dwellings and teach us the language on the way, as well as whatever else you know about them. When we return, you may go where you choose. And if we get their help, we will be able to set Conahur free soon afterward.”

Corun shook his head. “It’s nothing good that you plan,” he said slowly. “No one would approach the Xanthi for any good purpose.”

“You did, didn’t you?” chuckled the wizard dryly. “If you want the truth, we are after their help in seizing the government of Achaera, as well as certain knowledge they have.”

“If you succeeded,” argued Corun stubbornly, “why should you then let Conahur go?”

“Because power over Achaera is only a step to something too far beyond the petty goals of empire for you to imagine,” said Shorzon bleakly. “You must decide now, man. If you refuse, you die.”

Chryseis moved one slim hand and the erinye padded forward on razor-clawed feet. The leathery wings were folded back against the long black body, the barbed tail lashed hungrily and a snarl vibrated in the lean throat. “If you say no,” came the woman’s sweet voice, “Perias will rip your guts out. That will at least afford us an amusing spectacle for our trouble.” Then she smiled, the dazzling smile which had driven men to their doom ere this. “But if you say yes,” she whispered, “a destiny waits for you that kings would envy. You are a strong man, Corun. I like strong men⁠—”

The corsair looked into the warm dark light of her eyes, and back to the icy glare of the devil-beast. No unarmed man had ever survived the onslaught of an erinye⁠—and he was chained.

At thought of returning to the dark home of the Xanthi, he shuddered. But life was still wondrous sweet, and⁠—once free to move about, he might still have some chance of escape or even of overpowering them.

Or⁠—who knew? He wondered, with a brief giddiness, if the dark witch before him could be as evil as her enemies said. Strong and ruthless, yes⁠—but so was he. When he learned the full truth about her soaring plans, he might even decide they were right.

In any case⁠—to live! To die, if he must, under the sky!

“I’ll go,” he said hoarsely. “I’ll go with you.”

The low exultant laughter of Chryseis sang in the flare-lit gloom.

Shorzon came up and took a key from his belt. For a bare moment, the thought of snapping that skinny neck raged through Corun’s mind.

The magician smiled grimly. “Don’t try it,” he said. “As a small proof of what we can do⁠—”

Suddenly he was not there. It was a monster from the jungles of Umlotu standing in the cell with Corun, a scaled beast that hissed at him with grinning jaws and spewed poison on the floor.


Sorcery! Corun shrank back, a chill of fear striking even his steely heart. Shorzon resumed human shape and wordlessly unlocked the chains. They fell away and Corun stumbled out into the corridor.

The erinye snarled and slipped closer. Chryseis laid a hand on the beast’s head, checking that gliding rush as if with a leash. Her smile and the faint sweet scent of her hair were dizzying.

“Come,” she said. One hand slipped between his own fingers and the cool touch seemed to burn him.

Shorzon led the way, down a long sloping tunnel where only the streaming torch-flames had life. Their footsteps echoed hollowly in the wet black length of it.

“We go at once,” he said. “When Khroman learns of your escape, all Tauros will be after us. But it will be too late then. We sail swiftly tonight.”

Sail⁠—whither?

“What of my men?” asked Corun.

“They’re lost, I’m afraid, unless Khroman spares them until we get back,” said Chryseis. “But we saved you. I’m glad of that.”

A faint smell of fresh salty air blew up the tunnel. It must open on the sea, thought Corun. He wondered how many passages riddled the depth under Tauros.

They came out, finally, on a narrow beach under the looming western cliffs. The precipices climbed into the utter dark of night, reaching into the unseen sky. Before them lay open sea, swirling with phosphorescence. Corun drew deep lungfulls of air. Salt and seaweed and wet wild wind⁠—sand under his feet, sky overhead, a woman beside him⁠—by the gods, it was good to be alive!

A galley was moored against a tiny pier. By the light of bobbing torches, Corun’s mariner’s eye surveyed her. She was built along the same lines as his own ship, a lean black vessel with one square sail; open-decked save at stem and stern, rower’s benches lining the sides with a catwalk running between. There would be quarters for the men under the poop and forecastle decks, supplies in the hold beneath. A cabin was erected near the waist, apparently for officers, and there was a ballista mounted in the bows⁠—otherwise no superstructure. A carved sea monster reared up for figurehead, and the sternpost curved back to make its tail. He read the name on the bows: Briseia. Strange that that dark vessel should bear a girl’s name.

About a fifty-man capacity, he judged. And she would be fast.

The crew were getting aboard⁠—they must have come down the cliffs along some narrow trail. They were all Umlotuan blues, he noticed, a cutthroat gang if ever he saw one but silent and well disciplined. It was shrewd to take only the mercenary warriors along; they had no patriotic interest in what happened to Achaera, and their reckless courage was legendary.

A burly one-eyed officer came up and saluted. “All set, sir,” he reported.

“Good,” nodded Shorzon. “Captain Imazu, this is our guide, Captain Corun.”

“The raider, eh?” Imazu chuckled and shook hands in the manner of the barbarians. “Well, we could hardly have a better one, I’m sure. Glad to know you, Corun.”

The pirate murmured polite phrases. But he decided that Imazu was a likeable chap, and wondered what had led him to take service under anyone with Shorzon’s reputation.

They went aboard. “The Sea of Demons lies due north,” said Shorzon. “Is that the right way to sail?”

“For the time being,” nodded Corun. “When we get closer, I’ll be able to tell you more exactly.”

“Then you may as well wash and rest,” said Chryseis. “You need both.” Her smile was soft in the flickering red light.

Corun entered the cabin. It was divided into three compartments⁠—apparently Imazu slept with his men, or perhaps on deck as many men preferred. His own tiny room was clean, sparsely furnished with a bunk and a washbowl. He cleaned himself eagerly and put on the fresh tunic laid out for him.

When he came back on deck the ship was already under way. A strong south wind was blowing, filling the dark sail, and the Briseia surged forward under its thrust. The phosphorescence shone around her hull and out on the rolling waters. Behind, the land faded into the night.

He’d certainly been given no chance to escape, he thought. Barring miracles, he had to go through with it now⁠—at least until they reached the Sea of Demons, after which anything might happen.

He shivered a little, wondering darkly whether he had done right, wondering what their mission was and what the world’s fate was to be as a result of it.

Chryseis slipped quietly up to stand beside him. The erinye crouched down nearby, his baleful eyes never leaving the man.

“Outward bound,” she said, and laughter was gay in her voice.

He said nothing, but stared ahead into the night.

“You’d better sleep, Corun,” she said. “You’re tired now, and you’ll need all your strength later.” She laid a hand on his arm, and laughed aloud. “It will be an interesting voyage, to say the least.”

Rather! he thought with wry humor. It occurred to him that the trip might even have its pleasant aspects.

“Goodnight, Corun,” she said, and left him.

Presently he went back to his room. Sleep was long in coming, and uneasy when it did arrive.

III

When he came out on deck in the early morning, there was only a gray emptiness of waters out to the gray horizon. They must have left the whole Achaeran archipelago well behind them and be somewhere in the Zurian Sea now.

There was a smell of rain in the air, and the ship ran swiftly before a keening wind over long white-maned rollers. Corun let the tang of salt and moisture and kelp, the huge restless vista of bounding waves, the creak and thrum of the ship and the thundering surge of the ocean, swell luxuriously up within him, the simple animal joy of being at home. The sea was his home now, he realized vaguely; he had been on it so long that it was his natural environment⁠—his, as much as that of the laridae wheeling on white wings in the cloud-flying heavens.

He looked over the watch. It seemed to be well handled⁠—the sailors knew their business. There were armored guards at bow and stern, and the rest⁠—clad in the plain loincloth of ordinary seamen the world over⁠—were standing by the sail, swabbing the decks, making minor repairs and otherwise occupying themselves. Those off duty were lounging or sleeping well out of the watch’s way. The helmsman kept his eye on the compass and held the tiller with a practiced hand⁠—good, good.

Captain Imazu padded up to him on bare feet. The Umlotuan wore helmet and corselet, had a sword at his side, and carried the whip of authority in one gnarled blue hand. His scarred, one-eyed face cracked in a smile. “Good morning to you, Captain Corun,” he said politely.

The Conahurian nodded with an amiability he had not felt for a long time. “The ship is well handled,” he said.

“Thanks. I’m about the only Umlotuan who’s ever skippered anything bigger than a war-canoe, I suppose, but I was in the Achaeran fleet for a long time.” Again the hideous but disarming smile. “I nearly met you professionally once or twice before, but you always showed us a clean pair of heels. Judging from what happened to ships that did have the misfortune to overhaul you, I’m just as glad of it.” He gestured to the tiny galley below the poop deck. “How about some breakfast?”


Over food which was better than most to be had aboard ship, they fell into professional talk. Like all captains, Imazu was profoundly interested in the old and seemingly insoluble problem of finding an accurate position. “Dead reckoning just won’t do,” he complained. “Men’s estimates always differ, no matter how good they may be. There isn’t even a decent map to be had anywhere.”

Corun mentioned the efforts of theorists in Achaera, Conahur, and other civilized states to use the Heaven-Fire’s altitude to determine position north and south of a given line. Imazu was aware of their work, but regarded it as of little practical value. “You just don’t see it often enough,” he objected. “And most of the crew would consider it the worst sort of impiety to go aiming an instrument at it. That’s one reason, I suppose, why Shorzon shipped only Umlotuans. We don’t worship the Heaven-Fire⁠—our gods all live below the clouds.” He cut himself a huge quid of liangzi and stuffed it into his capacious mouth. “Anyway, it doesn’t give you east and west position.”

“The philosophers who think the world is round say we could solve that problem by making an accurate timepiece,” said Corun.

“I know. But it’s a lot of gas, if you ask me. A sandglass or a water-clock can only tell time so close and no closer, and those mechanical gadgets they’ve built are worse yet. I knew an old skipper from Norriki once who kept a joss in his cabin and got his position in dreams from it. Only had one wreck in his life.” Imazu grinned. “Of course, he drowned then.”

“Look,” said Corun suddenly, “do you know where the hell we’re going, and why?”

“To the Sea of Demons is all they told me. No reason given.” Imazu studied Corun with his sharp black eye. “You don’t know either, eh? I’ve a notion that most of us won’t live to find out.”

“I’m surprised that any crew could be made to go there without a mutiny.”

“This gang of bully boys is only frightened of Shorzon and his witch granddaughter. They⁠—” Imazu shut up. Looking around, Corun saw the two approaching.

In the morning light, Chryseis did not seem the luring devil-woman of the night. She moved with easy grace across the rolling deck, the wind blowing her tunic and her long black hair in careless billows, and there was a girlish joy and eagerness in her. The pirate’s heart stumbled and began to race.

She chattered gaily of nothing while she and the old man ate. Shorzon remained silent until he was through, then said curtly to the two men: “Come into the cabin with us.”

They filled Corun’s tiny room, sitting on bunk and floor. Shorzon said slowly, “We may as well begin now to learn what you know, Corun. What is the truth about your voyage to the Xanthi?”

“It was several seasons ago,” replied the corsair. “I got the thought you seem to have had, that possibly I could enlist their help against my enemies.” He smiled mirthlessly. “I learned better.”

“What do we know of them, exactly?” said Shorzon methodically. He ticked the points off on his lean fingers. “They are an amphibious nonhuman race dwelling in the Sea of Demons, which is said to grow grass so that ships become tangled there and never escape.”

“Not so,” said Corun. “There’s kelp on the surface, but you can sail right through it. I think the Sea is just a dead region of water around which the great ocean currents move.”

“I know,” said Shorzon impatiently, and resumed his summary: “Generations ago, the Xanthi, of whose presence men had only been vaguely aware before, fell upon all the islands in their sea and slew the people living there. They had great numbers, as well as tamed sea monsters and unknown powers of sorcery, so that no one could stand against them. Since then, they have not gone beyond their borders, but they ruthlessly destroy all human vessels venturing inside. King Phidion III of Achaera sent a great fleet to drive the Xanthi from their stolen territory. Not one ship returned. Men now shun the whole region as one accursed.”

Imazu nodded. “There’s a sailor’s legend that the souls of the damned go to the Xanthi,” he offered.

Shorzon gave him an exasperated look. “I’m only interested in facts,” he said coldly. “What do you know, Corun?”

“I know what you just said, as who doesn’t?” answered the Conahurian. “But I think they must have limits to their powers, and be reasonable creatures⁠—but the limits are far beyond man’s, and their reason is not as ours.

“I didn’t try an invasion, of course. I took one small fast boat manned with picked volunteers and waited outside the Sea for a storm that would blow me into it. When that came, we ran before it⁠—fast! In the rain and wind and waves, I figured we could get undetected far into their borders. So, it seemed, we could, and in fact we made it almost to the largest island inside. Then they came at us.

“They were riding cetaraea, and driving sea serpents before them. They had spears and bows and swords, and there were hundreds of them. Any one of the snakes could have smashed our boat. We ran for land and barely made it.

“We hadn’t come to fight, so we held up our hands as the Xanthi leaped ashore and wondered if they’d just hack us down. But, as I’d hoped, they wanted to know what we were there for. So they took us to the black castle on the island.”


Momentarily Corun was cold as the memory of that wet dark place of evil shuddered through his mind. “I can’t tell you much about it. They have great powers of sorcery, and the place seemed somehow unreal, never the same⁠—always wrong, always with something horrible just beyond vision in the shadows. I remember the whole time as if it were a dream. There were treasures beyond counting. I saw gold and jewels from the sea bottom, mixed in with human skulls and the figureheads of drowned ships. The light was dim and blue, and there was always fog, and noises for which we had no name hooting out in the gloom. It stank, with the vile fishy smell they have. And the walls seemed to have a watery unreality, as I said, shifting and fading like smoke. You could smell sorcery in the very air of that place.

“They kept us there for many ten-days. We’d brought rich gifts, of course, which they accepted ungraciously, and they housed us in a dungeon under guard. They didn’t feed us so badly, if you like a steady fish diet. And they taught us their language.”

“How does it sound?” asked Chryseis.

“I can’t make it come out right. No human throat can. Something like this⁠—” They stiffened at the chill hissing that slithered from Corun’s lips. “It has words for things I never did understand, and it lacks many of the commonest human words⁠—fear, joy, hope, adventure⁠—” His glance slid to Chryseis⁠—“love⁠—”

“Do they have a word for hate?” asked Shorzon.

“Oh, yes,” Corun grinned without humor. After a moment he went on: “They wanted to know more of the outside world. That was why they spared our lives. When we knew the language well enough, they began to question us. How they questioned us! It got to be torture, those unending days of answering the things that hissed and gabbled at us in those shadowy rooms. It was like a nightmare, where mad happenings go on without ever ending. Politics, science, philosophy, art, geography⁠—they wanted to know it all. They pumped us dry of knowledge. When we came to something they didn’t understand, such as⁠—love, say⁠—they went back and forth over the same ground, over and over again, until we thought we’d go crazy. And at last they’d give up in bafflement. I think they believe humans to be mad.

“I made my offer, of course: the loot of Achaera in exchange for the freedom of Conahur. They⁠—I might almost say they laughed. Finally they answered in scorn that they could take whatever they wanted, the whole world if need be, without my help.”

Shorzon’s eyes glittered. “Did you find out anything of their powers?” he asked eagerly.

“A little. They put any human magician to shame, of course. I saw them charm sea monsters to death just to eat them. I saw them working on a new building on the island⁠—they planted a little package somewhere, and set fire to it, and great stones leaped into the air with a bang like thunder. I saw their cetaraea cavalry, their tamed war-snakes⁠—oh, yes, they have more powers than I could name. And their numbers must be immense. They live on the sea bottom, you know⁠—that is, their commoners do. The leaders have strongholds on land as well. They farm both sea and land, and have great smithies on the islands.

“Well, in the end they let us go. They were going to put us to death for our trespass, I think, but I did some fast talking. I told them that we could carry word of their strength back to humans and overawe our race with it, so that if they ever wanted to collect tribute or something of the sort, they’d never have to fight for it. Probably that carried less weight than the fact that we had, after all, done no harm and been of some use. They had no logical reason to kill us⁠—so they didn’t.” Corun smiled grimly. “We were a pretty tough crew, prepared to take a few Xanthi to death with us even if we were disarmed. Their killing-charms seem to work only on animals. That was another reason to spare us.

“One of their wizards was for having me, at least, slain. He said he’d had a prevision of my return with ruin in my wake. But the others⁠—laughed?⁠—at him, at the very thought of a human’s being dangerous to them. Moreover, they pointed out, if that was to be the case then there was nothing they could do about it; they seem to believe in a fixed destiny. But the idea amused them so much that it was still another reason for letting us go.” Corun shrugged. “So we sailed away. That’s all. And never till now did I have any smallest thought of returning.”

He added bleakly after a moment when silence had been heavy: “They have all they want to know from my visit. There will be no reason for them to spare us this time.”

“I think there will,” said Chryseis.

“There’d better be,” muttered Imazu.

“You can start teaching us their language,” said Shorzon. “It might not be a bad idea for you to learn too, Imazu. The more who can talk to them, the better.”

The Umlotuan made a wry face. “Another tongue to learn! By the topknot of Mwanzi, why can’t the world settle on one and end this babble!”

“The poor interpreters would starve to death,” smiled Chryseis.

She took Corun’s arm. “Come, my buccaneer, let’s go up on deck for a while. There’s always time to learn words.”


They found a quiet spot on the forecastle deck, and sat down against the rail. The erinye settled his long body beside Chryseis and watched Corun with sleepy malevolence, but he was hardly aware of the devil-beast. It was Chryseis, Chryseis, dark sweet hair and dark lambent eyes, utter loveliness of face and form, singing golden voice and light warm touch and⁠—

“You are a strange man, Corun,” she said softly. “What are you thinking now?”

“Oh⁠—nothing.” He smiled crookedly. “Nothing.”

“I don’t believe that. You have too many memories.”

Almost without knowing it, he found himself telling her of his life, the long terrible struggle against overwhelming power, the bitterness and loneliness, the death of comrades one by one⁠—and the laughter and triumphs and wild exultance of it, the faring into unknown seas and the dicing with fate and the strong, close bonds of men against the world. He mused wistfully about a girl who was gone⁠—but her bright image was strangely fading in his heart now, for it was Chryseis who was beside him.

“It has been a hard life,” she said at the end. “It took a giant of a man to endure it.” She smiled, a small closed smile that made her look strangely young. “I wonder what you must think of this⁠—sailing with your sworn foes to the end of the world on an unknown mission.”

“You’re not my foe!” he blurted.

“No⁠—never your enemy, Corun!” she exclaimed. “We have been on opposite sides before⁠—let it not be thus from this moment. I tell you that the purpose of this voyage, which you shall soon know, is⁠—good. Great and good as the savagery of man has never known before. You know the old legend⁠—that someday the Heaven-Fire will shine through opening clouds not as a destroying flame but as the giver of life⁠—that men will see light in the sky even at night⁠—that there will be peace and justice for all mankind? I think that day may be dawning, Corun.”

He sat dumbly, bewildered. She was not evil⁠—she was not evil⁠—It was all he knew, but it sang within him.

Suddenly she laughed and sprang to her feet. “Come on!” she cried. “I’ll race you around the ship!”

IV

Rain and wind came, a lightning-shot squall in which the Briseia wallowed and bucked and men strained at oars and pumps. Toward evening it was over, the sea stilled and the lower clouds faded so that they saw the great dull-red disc of the Heaven-Fire through the upper clouds, sinking into the western sea. There was almost a flat calm, the glassy water was ruffled only by a faint breeze which half filled the sail and sent the galley sliding slowly and noiselessly northward.

“Man the oars,” directed Shorzon.

“Give the men a chance to rest tonight, sir,” begged Imazu. “They’ve all worked hard today. We can row all the faster tomorrow if we must.”

“No time to spare,” snapped the wizard.

“Yes, there is,” said Corun flatly. “Let the men rest, Imazu.”

Shorzon gave him a baleful glance. “You forget your position aboard.”

Corun bristled. “I think I’m just beginning to remember it,” he answered with metal in his voice.

Chryseis laid a hand on her grandfather’s arm. “He’s right,” she said. “So is Imazu. It would be needless cruelty to make the sailors work tonight, and they will be better fitted by a night’s rest.”

“Very well,” said Shorzon sullenly. He went into his room and slammed the door. Presently Chryseis bade the men goodnight and went to her quarters with the erinye trotting after.

Corun’s eyes followed her through the deepening blue dusk. In that mystic light, the ship was a shadowy half-real background, a dimness beyond which the sea swirled in streamers of cold white radiance.

“She’s a strange woman,” said Imazu. “I don’t understand her.”

“Nor I,” admitted Corun. “But I know now her enemies have foully lied about her.”

“I’m not so sure about that⁠—” As the Conahurian turned with a dark frown, Imazu added quickly, “Oh, well, I’m probably wrong. I never had much sight of her, you know.”

They wandered up on the poop deck in search of a place to sit. It was deserted save for the helmsman by the dimly glowing binnacle, a deeper shadow in the thick blue twilight. Sitting back against the taffrail, they could look forward to the lean waist of the ship and the vague outline of the listlessly bellying sail. Beyond the hull, the sea was an arabesque of luminescence, delicate traceries of shifting white light out to the glowing horizon. The cold fire streamed from the ship’s bows and whirled in her wake, the hull dripped liquid flame.

The night was very quiet. The faint hiss and smack of cloven water, creak of planks and tackle, distant splashing of waves and invisible sea beasts⁠—otherwise there was only the enormous silence under the high clouds. The breeze was cool on their cheeks.

“How long till we get to the Sea of Demons?” asked Imazu. His voice was oddly hushed in the huge stillness.

“With ordinary sailing weather, I’d say about three ten-days⁠—maybe four,” answered Corun indifferently.

“It’s a strange mission we’re on, aye, that it is.” Imazu’s head wagged, barely visible in the dark. “I like it not, Corun. I have evil feelings about it, and the omens I took before leaving weren’t good.”

“Why then did you sail? You’re a free man, aren’t you?”

“So they say!” Sudden bitterness rose in the Umlotuan’s voice. “Free as any of Shorzon’s followers, which is to say less free than a slave, who can at least run away.”

“Why, doesn’t he pay well?”

“Oh, aye, he is lavish in that regard. But he has his ways of binding servants to him so that they must do his bidding above that of the very gods. He put his geas on most of these sailors, for instance. They were simple folk, and thought he was only magicking them a good-luck charm.”

“You mean they are bound? He has their souls?”

“Aye. He put them to sleep in some sorcerous way and impressed his command on them. No matter what happens now, they must obey him. The geas is stronger than their own wills.”

Corun shivered. “Are you⁠—Pardon. It’s no concern of mine.”

“No, no, that’s all right. He put no such binding on me⁠—I knew better than to accept his offer of a luck-bringing spell. But he has other ways. He lent me a slave-girl from Umlotu for my pleasure⁠—but she is lovely, wonderful, kind, all that a woman should be. She has borne me sons, and made homecoming ever a joy. But you see, she is still Shorzon’s and he will not sell her to me or free her⁠—moreover, he did put his geas on her. If ever I rebelled, she would suffer for it.” Imazu spat over the rail. “So I am Shorzon’s creature too.”

“It must be a strange service.”

“It is. Mostly all I have to do is captain his bodyguard. But I’ve seen and helped in some dark things. He’s a fiend from the lowest hell, Shorzon is. And his granddaughter⁠—” Imazu stopped.

“Yes?” asked Corun roughly. His hand closed bruisingly on the other’s arm. “Go on. What of her?”

“Nothing. Nothing. I really have had little to do with her.” Imazu’s face was lost in the gloom, but Corun felt the one eye hard on him. “Only⁠—be careful, pirate. Don’t let her lay her own sort of geas on you. You’ve been a free man till now. Don’t become anyone’s blind slave.”

“I’ve no such intention,” said Corun frostily.

“Then no more need be said.” Imazu sighed heavily and got up. “I think I’ll go to bed, then. What of you?”

“Not yet. I’m not sleepy. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”


Corun sat back alone. He could barely discern the helmsman⁠—beyond lay only glowing darkness and the whispering of the night. He felt loneliness like a cold hollow within his breast.

Father and mother, his tall brothers and his laughing lovely sister, the comrades of youth, the hard wild stouthearted pirates with whom he had sailed for such a long and bloody time⁠—where were they now? Where in all the blowing night were they?

Where was he and on what mission, sailing alone through a pit of darkness on a ship of strangers? What meaning and hope in all the cruel insanity of the world?

Suddenly he wanted his mother, he wanted to lay his head on her lap and cry in desolation and hear her gentle voice⁠—no, by the gods, it wasn’t her image he saw, it was a lithe and dark-haired witch who was crooning to him and stroking his hair⁠—

He cursed tonelessly and got up. Best to go to bed and try to sleep his fancies away. He was becoming childish.

He went down the catwalk toward the cabin. As he neared it, he saw a figure by the rail darkly etched against a shimmering patch of phosphorescence. His heart sprang into his throat.

She turned as he came near. “Corun,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep. Come over here and talk to me. Isn’t the night beautiful?”

He leaned on the rail, not daring to look at the haunting face pale-lit by the swirling sea-fire. “It’s nice,” he said clumsily.

“But it’s lonely,” she whispered. “I never felt so sad and alone before.”

“Why⁠—why, that’s how I felt!” he blurted.

“Corun⁠—”

She came to him and he took her with a sudden madness of yearning.

Perias the erinye snarled as they thrust him out of her cabin. He padded up and down the deck for a while. A sailor who stood watch near the forecastle followed him with frightened eyes and muttered prayers to the amulet about his neck.

Presently the devil-beast curled up before the cabin. The lids drooped over his green eyes, but they remained unwinkingly fixed on the door.

V

Under a hot sullen sky, the windless sea swelled in long slow waves that rocked the tangled kelp and ocean-grass up and down, heavenward and hellward. To starboard, the dark cliffs of a small jungled island rose from an angry muttering surf, but there were no birds flying above it.

Corun pointed to the shore. “That’s the first of the archipelago,” he said. “From here on, we can look for the Xanthi to come at any time.”

“We should get as far into their territory as possible, even to the black palace,” said Shorzon. “I will put a spell of invisibility on the ship.”

“Their sorcerers can break that,” said Chryseis.

“Aye, so. But when they come to know our powers, I think they will treat with us.”

“They’d better!” smiled Imazu grimly.

“Steer on toward the island of the castle,” said Shorzon to the pirate. “I go to lay the spell.”

He went into his cabin. Corun had a glimpse of its dark interior before the door was closed⁠—draped in black and filled with the apparatus of magic.

“He will have to be in a trance, physically, to maintain the enchantment,” said Chryseis. She smiled at Corun, and his pulses raced. “Come, my dearest, it is cooler on the afterdeck.”

The sailors rowed steadily, sweat glistening on their bare blue hides. Imazu paced up and down the catwalk, flicking idlers with his whip. Corun stood where he could keep an eye on the steersman and see that the right course was followed.

It had been utter wonder till now, he thought, unending days when they plowed through seas of magic, nights of joy such as he had never known. There had never been another woman such as Chryseis, he thought, never in all the world, and he was the luckiest of men. Though he died today, he had been more fortunate than any man ever dared dream.

Chryseis, Chryseis, loveliest and wisest and most valiant of women⁠—and she was his, before all the jealous gods, she loved him!

“There has only been one thing wrong,” he said. “You are going into danger now. The world would go dark if aught befell you.”

“And I should sit at home while you were away, and never know what had happened, never know if you lived or died⁠—no, no, Corun!”

He laid a hand on the sword at his waist. They had given him arms and armor again after she had come to him. Logical enough, he thought without resentment⁠—he could be trusted now, as much as if he were one of Shorzon’s ensorcelled warriors.

But if this were a spell too, the gods deliver him from ever being freed of it!

He blinked. There was a sudden breath of chill on him, and his eyes were blurring⁠—no, no, it was the ship that wavered, ship and men fading⁠—He clutched at Chryseis. She laughed softly and slipped an arm around his waist.

“It is only Shorzon’s spell,” she said. “It affects us too, to some extent. And it makes the ship invisible to anyone within seeing range.”

Ghost ship, ghost crew, slipping over the slowly heaving waters. There was only the foggiest outline to be seen, shadow of mast and rigging against the sky, glimpses of water through the gray smoke of the hull, blobs of darkness that were the crewmen. Sound was still clear; he heard the mutter of superstitious awe, the crack of the whip, and Imazu’s oaths that sent the oars creaking and splashing again. Corun’s hand was a misty blur before his eyes. Chryseis was a shadow beside him.

She laughed once more, a low exultant throb, and pulled his lips down to hers. He ruffled the streaming fragrant hair and felt a return of courage. It was only a spell.

But what were the spells? he wondered for the thousandth time. He did not hold with the simple theory that wizards were in league with gods or demons. They had powers, yes, but he was sure that somehow these powers came only from within themselves. Chryseis had always evaded his questions about it. There must be some simple answer to the problem, some real process, as real as that of making a fire, behind the performances of the sorcerers⁠—but it baffled him to think what it might be.

Blast it all, it just wasn’t reasonable that Shorzon, for instance, should have been able actually to change himself into a jungle monster many times his size. Yet he, Corun, had seen the thing, had felt its wet scales and smelled its reptile stink. How?


The ship plowed slowly on. Now and then Corun looked at the compass, straining his eyes to discern the blurred needle. Otherwise they could only wait.

But waiting with Chryseis was remarkably pleasant.

It was at the end of a timeless time, perhaps half a day, that he saw the Xanthian patrol. “Look,” he pointed. “There they come.”

Chryseis stared boldly over the sea. The hand beneath his was steady as her voice: “So I see. They’re⁠—beautiful, aren’t they?”

The cetaraea came leaping across the waves, big graceful beasts with the shapes of fish, their smooth black hides shining and the water white behind their threshing tails. Astride each was a great golden form bearing a lance. They quartered across the horizon and were lost to sight.

The crew mumbled in fear, shaken to their hardy souls by the terrible unhuman grace of the Xanthi. Imazu cursed them back to work. The ship went on.

Islands slipped by, empty of man-sign. They had glimpses of Xanthian works, spires and walls rearing above the jungle. These were not the white colonnaded buildings of Tauros or the timbered halls of Conahur⁠—of black stone they were, with pointed towers climbing crazily skyward. Once a great sea serpent reared its head, spouted water, and writhed away. All creatures save man could sense the presence of wizardry and refused to go near it.

Night fell, an abyss of night broken only by faint glimmers of sea-fire under the carpeting weed. Men stood uneasy watch in full armor, peering blindly into the somber immensity. It was hot, hot and silent.

Near midnight the lookout shouted from the masthead: “Xanthi to larboard!”

“Silence, you fool!” called Imazu. “Want them to hear us?”

The patrol was a faint swirl and streaking of phosphorescence, blacker shadows against the night. It was coming nearer.

“Have they spotted us?” wondered Corun.

“No,” breathed Chryseis. “But they’re close enough for their mounts⁠—”

There was a great snorting and splashing out in the murk. The cetaraea were refusing to go into the circle of Shorzon’s spell. Voices lifted, an unhuman croaking. The erinye, the only animal who did not seem to mind witchcraft, snarled in saw-edged tones, eyes a green blaze against the night.

Presently the squad turned and slipped away. “They know something is wrong, and they’ve gone for help,” said Corun. “We’ll have a fight on our hands before long.”

He stretched his big body, suddenly eager for action. This waiting was more than he could stand.

The ship drove on. Corun and Chryseis napped on the deck; it was too stiflingly hot below. The long night wore away.

In the misty gray of morning, they saw a dark mass advancing from the west. Corun’s sword rasped out of the sheath. It was a long, double-edged blade such as they used in Conahur, and it was thirsty.

“Get inside, Chryseis,” he said tightly.

“Get inside yourself,” she answered. There was a lilt in her voice like a little girl’s. He felt her quiver with joyous expectation.

The ghostly outlines of the ship wavered, thickened, faded again, flickered back toward solidity. Suddenly they had sight; the vessel lay real around them; they saw each other in helm and corselet, face looking into tautened face.

“They have a wizard along⁠—he broke Shorzon’s spell,” said the Conahurian.

“We looked for that,” answered Chryseis evenly. “But as long as Shorzon keeps fighting him, there will be a roiling of magic around us such that none of their beasts will approach.”

She stood beside him, slim and boyish in polished cuirass and plumed helmet, shortsword belted to her waist and a bow in one hand. Her nostrils quivered, her eyes shone, and she laughed aloud. “We’ll drive them off,” she said. “We’ll send them home like beaten iaganaths.”

Imazu blew the war-horn, wild brazen echoes screaming over the sea. His men drew in the oars, pulled on their armor, and stood along the rails, waiting.

“But did we come here to fight them?” asked Corun.

“No,” said Chryseis. “But we’ve known all along that we’d have to give them a taste of our might before they’d talk to us.”

The Xanthian lancers were milling about half a league away, as if in conference. Suddenly someone blew a harsh-toned horn and Corun saw half the troop slide from the saddle into the water. “So⁠—they’ll swim at us,” he muttered.


The attack came from all sides, converging on the ship in a rush of foam. As the Xanthi neared, Corun saw their remembered lineaments and felt the old clutch of panic. They weren’t human.

With the fluked tail, one of them had twice the length of a man. The webbed hind feet, on which they walked ashore, were held close to the body; the strangely human hands carried weapons. They swam half under water, the dorsal fins rising over. Their necks were long, with gills near the blunt-snouted heads; their grinning mouths showed gleaming fangs. The eyes were big, dark, alive with cold intelligence. They bore no armor, but scales the color of beaten gold covered back and sides and tail. They came in at furious speed, churning the sea behind them.

Chryseis’ voice rose to a wild shriek. “Perias! Perias⁠—kill!”

The erinye howled and unfolded his leather-webbed wings. Like a hurled spear he streaked into the air, rushed down on the nearest Xanthian like a thunderbolt⁠—claws, teeth, barbed tail, a blinding fury of blood and death, ripping flesh as if it were parchment.

The ship’s ballista chunked and balls of the ever-burning Achaeran fire were hurled out to fall blazing among the enemy. Chryseis’ bow hummed beside Corun, a Xanthian went under with an arrow in his throat⁠—the air was thick with shafts as the crew fired.

Still the Xanthi rushed on, ducking up and down, near impossible to hit. The first of them came up to the hull and sank their clawed fingers into the wood. The sailors thrust downward with pikes, howling in fear-maddened rage.

The man near Corun went down with a hurled javelin through him. At once a huge golden form was slithering over the rail, onto the deck. The sword in his hand flashed, another Umlotuan’s weapon was knocked spinning from his hand and the reptile hewed him down.

Corun sprang to do battle. The swords clashed together with a shock that jarred the man backward. Corun spread his feet and smote out. His blade whirled down to strike the shoulder, gash the chest, and drive the hissing monster back.

With a rising cold fury, Corun followed it up. That for the long inquisition⁠—that for being a horror out of the sea bottom⁠—that for threatening Chryseis! The Xanthian writhed with a belly ripped open. Still he wouldn’t die⁠—he flopped and struck from the deck. Corun evaded the sweeping tail and cut off the creature’s head.

They were pouring onto the ship through gaps in the line. Chryseis stood on the foredeck in a line of defending men, her bow singing death. Battle snarled about the mast, men against monsters, sword and halberd and ax belling in cloven bone.

A giant’s blow bowled Corun off his feet, the tail of a Xanthian. He rolled over and thrust upward as the Sea Demon sprang on him. The sword went through the heart. Hissing and snapping, his foe toppled on him. He heaved the struggling body away and sprang back to his stance.

“To me!” bellowed Imazu. “To me, men!”

He stood wielding a huge battle ax by the mast, striking at the beasts that raged around him, lopping heads and arms and tails like a woodman. The scattered humans rallied and began to fight their way toward him, step by bloody step.

Perias the erinye was everywhere, a flying fury, ripping and biting and smashing with wing-blows. Corun loomed huge over the men who fought beside him, the sword shrieking and thundering in his hands. Imazu stood stolidly against the mast, smashing at all comers. A rush of Xanthi broke past him and surged against the foredeck. The defenders beat them off, Chryseis thrusting as savagely with her sword as any man, and they reeled back against the masthead warriors to be cut down.

A Xanthian sprang at Corun, wielding a long-shafted ax that shivered the sword in his hand. The Conahurian struck back, his blade darting past the monster’s guard to stab through the throat. The Xanthian staggered. Corun wrenched the blade loose and brought it down again to sing in the reptile skull.

Before he could pull it loose, another was on him. Corun ducked under the spear he carried and closed his hands around the slippery sides. The clawed feet raked his legs. He lifted the thing and hurled it into another with bone-shattering force. One of them threshed wildly, neck broken⁠—the other bounded at Corun. The man yanked his sword free and it whistled against the golden head.


Back and forth the struggle swayed, crashing of metal and howling of warriors. And the Xanthi were driven to the rails⁠—they could not stand against the rallying human line in the narrow confines of the ship.

“Kill them!” roared Imazu. “Kill the misbegotten snakes!”

Suddenly the Xanthi were slipping overboard, swimming for their mounts beyond the zone of magic. Perias followed, harrying them, pulling them half out of the water to rip their throats out.

The ship was wet, streaming with human red and reptile yellow blood. Dead and wounded littered the decks. Corun saw the Xanthi cavalry retreating out of sight.

“We’ve won,” he gasped. “We’ve won⁠—”

“No⁠—wait⁠—” Chryseis inclined her head sharply, seeming to listen, then darted past him to open a hatch. Light streamed down into the hold. It was filling⁠—the bilge was rising. “I thought so,” she said grimly. “They’re below us, chopping into the hull.”

“We’ll see about that,” said Corun, and unbuckled his cuirass. “All who can swim, after me!”

“No⁠—no, they’ll kill you⁠—”

“Come on!” rapped Imazu, letting his own breastplate clang to the deck.

Corun sprang overboard. He was wearing nothing but a kilt now, and had a spear in one hand and a dirk in his teeth. Fear was gone, washed out by the red tides of battle. There was only a bleak, terrible triumph in him. Men had beaten the Sea Demons!

Underwater, it was green and dim. He swam down, down, brushing the hull, pulling himself along the length of the keel. There were half a dozen shapes clustered near the waist, working with axes.

He pushed against the keel and darted at them, holding the spear like a lance. The keen point stabbed into the belly of one monster. The others turned, their eyes terrible in the gloom. Corun took the dirk in his hand, got a grip on the next nearest, and stabbed.

Claws ripped his flanks and back. His lungs were bursting, there was a roaring in his head and darkness before his eyes. He stabbed blindly, furiously.

Suddenly the struggling form let go. Corun broke the surface and gasped in a lungful of air. A Sea Demon leaped up beside him. At once the erinye was on him. The Xanthian screamed as he was torn apart.

Corun dove back under water. The other seamen were down there, fighting for their lives. They outnumbered the Xanthi, but the monsters were in their native element. Blood streaked the water, blinding them all. It was a strange, horrible battle for survival.

In the end, Corun and Imazu and the others⁠—except for four⁠—were hauled back aboard. “We drove them off,” said the pirate wearily.

“Oh, my dear⁠—my dearest dear⁠—” Chryseis, who had laughed in battle, was sobbing on his breast.

Shorzon was on deck, looking over the scene. “We did well,” he said. “We stood them off, killed about thirty, and only lost fifteen men.”

“At that rate,” said Corun, “it won’t take them long to clear our decks.”

“I don’t think they will try again,” said Shorzon.

He went over to a captured Xanthian. The Sea Demon had had a foot chopped off in the battle and been pinned to the deck by a pike, but he still lived and rasped defiance at them. If allowed to live, he would grow new members⁠—the monsters were tougher than they had a right to be.

“Hark, you,” said Shorzon in the Xanthian tongue, which he had learned with astonishing ease. “We come on a mission of peace, with an offer that your king will be pleased to hear. You have seen only a small part of our powers. It is not beyond us to sail to your palace and bring it crumbling to earth.”

Corun wondered how much was bluff. The old sorcerer might really be able to do it. In any case⁠—he had nerve!

“What can you things offer us?” asked the Xanthian.

“That is only for the king to hear,” said Shorzon coldly. “He will not thank you for molesting us. Now we will let you go to bear word back to your rulers. Tell them we are coming whether they will or no, but that we come in friendship if they will but show it. After all, if they wish to kill us it can be just as easily done⁠—if at all⁠—after they have heard us out. Now go!”

Imazu pulled the pike loose and the yellow-bleeding Xanthian writhed overboard.

“I do not think we will be bothered again,” said Shorzon calmly. “Not before we get to the black palace.”

“You may be right,” admitted Corun. “You gave them a good argument by their standards.”

“Friends?” muttered Imazu. “Friends with those things? As soon expect the erinye to lie down by the bovan, I think.”

“Come,” said Chryseis impatiently. “We have to repair the leak and clean the decks and get under way again. It is a long trip yet to the black palace.”

She turned to Corun and her eyes were dark flames. “How you fought!” she whispered. “How you fought, beloved!”

VI

The castle stood atop one of the high gray cliffs which walled in a little bay. Beyond the shore, the island climbed steeply toward a gaunt mountain bare of jungle. The sea rolled sullenly against the rocks under a low gloomy sky thickening with the approach of night.

The Briseia rowed slowly into the bay, twenty men at the oars and the rest standing nervous guard by the rails. On either side, the Xanthi cavalry hemmed them in, lancers astride the swimming cetaraea with eyes watchful on the humans, and behind them three great sea snakes under direction of their sorcerers followed ominously.

Imazu shivered. “If they came at us now,” he muttered, “we wouldn’t last long.”

“We’d give them a fight!” said Corun.

“They will receive us,” declared Shorzon.

The ship grounded on the shallows near the beach. The sailors hesitated. To pull her ashore would be to expose themselves almost helplessly to attack. “Go on, jump to it!” snapped Imazu, and the men shipped their oars and sheathed their weapons, waded into the bay and dragged the vessel up on the strand.

The chiefs of the Xanthi stood waiting for them. There were perhaps fifty of the reptiles, huge golden forms wrapped in dark flowing robes on which glittered ropes of jewels. A few wore tall miters and carried hooked staffs of office. Like statues they stood, waiting, and the sailors shivered.

Shorzon, Chryseis, Corun, and Imazu walked up toward them with all the slow dignity they could summon. The Conahurian’s eyes sought the huge wrinkled form of Tsathu, king of the Xanthi. The monster’s gaze brightened on him and the fanged mouth opened in a bass croak:

“So you have returned to us. You may not leave this time.”

“Your majesty’s hospitality overwhelms me,” said Corun ironically.

A stooped old Xanthian beside the king plucked his sleeve and hissed rapidly: “I told you, sire, I told you he would come back with the ruin of worlds in his train. Cut them all down now, before the fates strike. Kill them while there is time!”

“There will be time,” said Tsathu.

His unblinking eyes locked with Shorzon’s and suddenly the twilight shimmered and trembled, the nerves of men shook and out in the water the sea-beasts snorted with panic. For a long moment that silent duel of wizardry quivered in the air, and then it faded and the unreality receded into the background of dusk.

Slowly the Xanthian monarch nodded, as if satisfied to find an opponent he could not overcome.

“I am Shorzon of Achaera,” said the man, “and I would speak with the chiefs of the Xanthi.”

“You may do so,” replied the reptile. “Come up to the castle and we will quarter your folk.”

At Imazu’s order, the sailors began unloading the gifts that had been brought: weapons, vessels and ornaments of precious metals set with jewels, rare tapestries and incenses. Tsathu hardly glanced at them. “Follow me,” he said curtly. “All your people.”

“I’d hoped at least to leave a guard on the ship,” murmured Imazu to Corun.

“Would have done little good if they really wanted to seize her,” whispered the Conahurian.

It did not seem as if Tsathu could have heard them, but he turned and his bass boom rolled over the mumbling surf: “That is right. You may as well relax your petty precautions. They will avail nothing.”


In a long file, they went up a narrow trail toward the black palace. The Xanthian rulers went first, with deliberately paced dignity, thereafter the human captains, their men, and a silent troop of armed reptile soldiery. Hemmed in, thought Corun grimly. If they want to start shooting⁠—

Chryseis’ hand clasped his, a warm grip in the misty gloom. He responded gratefully. She came right behind him, her other hand on the nervous and growling erinye.

The castle loomed ahead, blacker than the night that was gathering, the gigantic walls climbing sheer toward the sky, the spear-like towers half lost in the swirling fog. There was always fog here, Corun remembered, mist and rain and shadow; it was never full day on the island. He sniffed the dank sea-smell that blew from the gaping portals and bristled in recollection.

They entered the cavernous doorway and went down a high narrow corridor which seemed to stretch on forever. Its bare stone walls were wet and green-slimed, tendrils of mist drifted under the invisibly high ceiling, and he heard the hooting and muttering of unknown voices somewhere in the murk. The only light was a dim bluish radiance from fungoid balls growing on the walls, a cold unhealthy shadowless illumination in which the white humans looked like drowned corpses. Looking behind, Corun could barely make out the frightened faces of the Umlotuans, huddled close together and gripping their weapons with futile strength.

The Xanthi glided noiselessly through the mumbling gloom, tall spectral forms with faint golden light streaming from their damp scales. It seemed as if there were other presences in the castle too, things flitting just beyond sight, hiding in lightless corners and fluttering between the streamers of fog. Always, it seemed, there were watching eyes, watching and waiting in the dark.

They came into a cavernous antechamber whose walls were lost in the dripping twilight. Tsathu’s voice boomed hollowly between the chill immensities of it: “Follow those who will show you to your quarters.”

Silent Xanthi slipped between the human ranks, herding them with spears⁠—the sailors one way, their chiefs another. “Where are you taking the men?” asked Imazu with an anger sharpened by fear. “Where are you keeping them?” The echoes flew from wall to wall, jeering him⁠—keeping them, keeping them, them, them⁠—

“They go below the castle,” said a Xanthian. “You will have more suitable rooms.”

Our men down in the old dungeons⁠—Corun’s hand whitened on the hilt of his sword. But it was useless to protest, unless they wanted to start a battle now.

The four human leaders were taken down another whispering, echoing tunnel of a corridor, up a long ramp that seemed to wind inside one of the towers, and into a circular room in whose walls were six doors. There the guards left them, fading back down the impenetrable night of the ramp.


The rooms were furnished with grotesque ornateness⁠—huge hideously carved beds and tables, scaled tapestries and rugs, shells and jewels set in the mold-covered walls. Narrow slits of windows opened on the wet night. Darkness and mist hid Corun’s view of the ground, but the faintness of the surf told them they must be dizzyingly high up.

“Ill is this,” he said. “A few guards on that ramp can bottle us up here forever. And they need only lock the dungeon gates to have our men imprisoned below.”

“We will treat with them. Before long they will be our allies,” said Shorzon. His hooded eyes were on Chryseis. It was with a sudden shock that Corun remembered. Days and nights of bliss, and then the violence of battle and the tension of approach, had driven from his mind the fact that he had never been told what the witch-pair was really here for. It was their voyage, not his, and what real good could have brought them to this place of evil?

He shoved his big body forward, a tawny giant in the foggy chill of the central room. “It is near time I was told something of what you intend,” he said. “I have guided you and taught you and battled at your side, and I’ll not be kept blindfolded any longer.”

“You will be told what I tell you⁠—no more,” said Shorzon haughtily. “You have me to thank for your miserable life⁠—let that be enough.”

“You can thank me that you’re not being eaten by fish at the bottom of the sea right now,” snapped Corun. “By Breannach Brannor, I’ve had enough of this!”

He stood with his back against the wall, sweeping them with ice-blue eyes. Shorzon stood black and ominous, wrath in the smoldering, sunken eyes. Chryseis shrank back a little from both of them, but Perias the erinye growled and flattened his belly to the floor and stared greenly at Corun. Imazu shifted from foot to foot, his wide blue face twisted with indecision.

“I can strike you dead where you stand,” warned Shorzon. “I can become a monster that will rip you to rags.”

“Try it!” snarled Corun. “Just try it!”

Chryseis slipped between them and the huge dark eyes were bright with tears. “Are we not in enough danger now, four humans against a land of walking beasts, without falling at each other’s throats? I think it is the witchcraft of Tsathu working on us, dividing us⁠—fight him!”

She swayed against the Conahurian. “Corun,” she breathed. “Corun, my dearest of all⁠—you shall know, you shall be told everything as soon as we dare. But don’t you see⁠—you haven’t the skill to protect yourself and your knowledge against the Xanthian magic?”

Or against your magic, beloved.

She laughed softly and drew him after her, into one of the rooms. “Come, Corun. We are all weary now, it is time to rest. Come, my dear. Tomorrow⁠—”

VII

Day crept past in a blindness of rain. Twice Xanthians brought them food, and once Corun and Imazu ventured down the ramp to find their way barred by spear-bearing reptiles. For the rest they were alone.

It ate at the nerves like an acid. Shorzon sat stiff, unmoving on a couch, eyes clouded with thought; his gaunt body could have been that of a Khemrian mummy. Imazu squatted unhappily, carving one of the intricate trinkets with whose making sailors pass dreamy hours. Corun paced like a caged beast, throttled rage mounting in him. Even Perias grew restless and took to padding up and down the antechamber, passing Corun on the way. The man could not help a half smile. He was growing almost fond of the erinye and his honest malevolence, after the intriguing of humans and Xanthi.

Only Chryseis remained calm. She lay curled on her bed like a big beautiful animal, the long silken hair tumbling darkly past her shoulders, a veiled smile on her red lips. And so the day wore on.

It was toward evening that they heard slow footfalls and looked out to see a party of Xanthi coming up the ramp. It was an awesome sight, the huge golden forms moving with deliberation and pride under the shimmering robes that flowed about them. Some were warriors, with saw-edged pikes flashing in their hands, but the one who spoke was plainly a palace official.

“Greeting from Tsathu, king of the Demon Sea, to Shorzon of Achaera,” the voice boomed. “You are to feast with the lords of the Xanthi tonight.”

“I am honored,” bowed the sorcerer. “The woman Chryseis will come with me, for she is equal with me.”

“That is permitted,” said the Xanthian gravely.

“And we, I suppose, wait here,” muttered Corun rebelliously.

“It won’t be for long,” smiled Chryseis softly. “After tonight, I think it will be safe to tell you what you wish to know.”

She had donned banqueting dress carried up with her from the ship, a clinging robe of the light-rippling silk of Hiung-nu, a scarlet cloak that was like a rush of flame from her slim bare shoulders, barbarically massive bracelets and necklaces, a single fire-ruby burning at her white throat. Pearls and silver glittered like dewdrops in her night-black hair. The loveliness of her caught at Corun’s throat. He could only stare with dumb longing as she went after Shorzon and the Xanthi.

She turned to wave at him. Her whisper twined around his heart: “Goodnight, beloved.”

When they were gone, the erinye padding after them, Imazu gave Corun a rueful look and said, “So now we are out of the story.”

“Not yet,” answered the Conahurian, still a little dazed.

“Oh, yes, oh, yes. Surely you do not think that we plain sailormen will be asked for our opinions? No, Corun, we are only pieces on Shorzon’s board. We’ve done our part, and now he will put us back in the box.”

“Chryseis said⁠—”

Imazu shook his scarred bald head sadly. “Surely you don’t believe a word that black witch utters?”

Corun half drew his sword. “I told you before that I’d hear no word against Chryseis,” he said thinly.

“As you will. It doesn’t matter, anyway. But be honest, Corun. Strike me down if you will, it doesn’t matter now, but try to think. I’ve known Chryseis longer than you, and I’ve never known anyone to change their habits overnight⁠—for anyone.”

“She said⁠—”

“Oh, I think she likes you, in her own way. You make as handsome and useful a pet as that erinye of hers. But whatever else she is after, it is something for which she would give more than the world and not have a second thought about it.”

Corun paced unhappily. “I don’t trust Shorzon,” he admitted. “I trust him as I would a mad pherax. And anything Tsathu plans is⁠—evil.” He glared down the cavernous mouth of the ramp. “If I could only hear what they say!”

“What chance of that? We’re under guard, you know.”

“Aye, so. But⁠—” Struck with a sudden thought, Corun went over to the window. The rain had ceased outside, but a solid wall of fog and night barred vision. It was breathlessly hot, and he heard the low muttering of thunder in the hidden sky.


There were vines growing on the wall, tendrils as thick as a man’s leg. The broad leaves hung down over the sill, wet with rain and fog. “I remember the layout of the castle,” he said slowly. “It’s a warren of tunnels and corridors, but I could find my way to the feasting hall.”

“If they caught you, it would be death,” said Imazu uneasily.

Corun’s grin was bleak. “It will most likely be death anyway,” he said. “I think I’ll try.”

“I’m not as spry as I once was, but⁠—”

“No, no, Imazu, you had best wait here. Then if anyone comes prying and sees you, he’ll think we’re both here⁠—maybe.”

Corun slipped off tunic and sandals, leaving only his kilt. He hung his sword across his back, put a knife in his belt, and turned toward the window.

“It may be all wrong,” he said. “I should trust Chryseis⁠—and I do, Imazu, but they might easily overpower her. And anything is better than this waiting like beasts in a trap.”

“The gods be with you, then,” said Imazu huskily. He shook a horny fist. “To hell with Shorzon! I’ve been his thrall too long. I’m with you, friend.”

“Thanks.” Corun swung out the window. “Good luck to both⁠—to all of us, Imazu.”

The fog wrapped around his eyes like a hood. He could barely see the shadowy wall, and he groped with fingers and toes for the vines. One slip, one break, and he would be spattered to red ruin in the courtyard below.

Down and down and down⁠—Twigs clawed at him. The branches were slick in his hands, buried under a smother of leaves. His muscles began to ache with the strain. Several times he slipped and saved himself with a desperate clawing grip.

Something moaned in the night, under the deepening growl of thunder.

He clung to the wall and strained his eyes down. A breath of wind parted the fog briefly into ragged streamers through which winked the savage light of a bolt of lightning, high in the murky sky. Down below was the courtyard. He saw the metallic gleam of scales, guards pacing between the walls.

Slowly, he edged his way across the outjutting tower to the main wall of the castle. Slantwise, he crept over its surface until a slit of blackness loomed before him, another window. He had to squeeze to get through, the stone scraping his skin.

For a moment he stood inside, breathing heavily, the drawn sword in his hand. There was a corridor stretching beyond this room, on into a darkness lit by the ghostly blue fungus-glow. He saw and heard nothing of the Xanthi, but something scuttled across the floor and crouched in a shadowed corner, watching him.

On noiseless bare feet, he ran down the hall. Fog eddied and curled in the tenebrous length of it, he heard the dripping of water and once a shuddering scream ripped the dank air. He thought he remembered where he was in that labyrinth⁠—left here, and there would be another ramp going down⁠—

A huge golden form loomed around the corner. Before the jaws could open to shout, Corun’s sword hissed in a vicious arc and the Xanthian’s head leaped from his shoulders. He kicked the flopping body behind a door and sped on his way, panting.

Halfway down the ramp, a narrow entrance gaped, one of the tunnels that riddled the building through its massive walls. Corun slithered down its lightless wet length. It should open on the great chamber and⁠—

Black against the dim blue light of the exit, a motionless form was squatting. Corun groaned inwardly. They had a guard against intruders, then. Best to go back now⁠—no! He snarled soundlessly and bounded forward, clutching the sword in one hand and reaching out with the other.

Fingers rasping across the scaly hide, he hooked the thing’s neck into the crook of his elbow and yanked the heavy body back into the tunnel with one enormous wrench. Blind in the darkness, he stabbed into the mouth, driving the point of his sword through flesh and bone into the brain.

The dying monster’s claws raked him as he crouched over the body. He reflected grimly that no matter how benevolent the Xanthi might be, he would die for murder if they ever caught him. But he had no great fear of their suddenly becoming tender toward mankind. The bulk of the reptile race was peaceable, actually, but their rulers were relentless.

The tunnel opened on a small balcony halfway up the rearing chamber wall. Corun lay on his belly, peering down over the edge.


They sat at a long table, the lords of the Demon Sea, and he felt a dim surprise at seeing that they were almost through eating. Had his nightmare journey taken that long? They were talking, and the sound drifted up to his ears.

At the head of the table, Tsathu and his councillors sat on a long ornate couch ablaze with beaten gold. Shorzon and Chryseis were reclining nearby, sipping the bitter yellow wine of the Xanthi. It was strange to hear the hideous hissing and croaking of the reptile language coming from Chryseis’ lovely throat.

“⁠—interesting, I am sure,” said the king.

“More than that⁠—more than that!” It seemed to Corun that he could almost see the terrible fire in Shorzon’s eyes. The wizard leaned forward, shaking with intensity. “You can do it. The Xanthi can conquer Achaera with ease. Your sea cavalry and serpents can smash their ships, your devil-powder can burst their walls into the air, your legions can overrun their land, your wizardry blind and craze them. And the terror you will inspire will force the people to do our bidding.”

“Possibly you overrate us,” said Tsathu. “It is true that we have great numbers and a strong army, but do not forget that the Xanthi are actually a more peaceful race than man. Your kind is hard and savage, murdering even each other, making war simply for loot or glory or no real reason at all. Until the king-race arose, the Xanthi dwelt quietly on the sea bottom and a few small islands, without wish to harm anyone.

“They have not even the natural capacity for magic possessed, however undeveloped, by all humans. As a result they are much more susceptible to it than men. Thus, when the king-race was born with such powers, they were soon able to control all their people and make themselves the absolute masters of the Xanthi. But we, kings and wizards and lords of the Demon Sea, are all one interbred clan. Without us, the Xanthi power would collapse; they would go back to what they were.

“Even Xanthi science is all of our making. We, the king-race, developed the devil-powder and all that we have ever made is stored in the dungeons of this very building⁠—enough to blow it into the sky.”


Tsathu made a grimace which might have been a sardonic smile. “Do not read weakness into that admission,” he said. “Even though all the lords who make Xanthian might are gathered in this one room, that power is still immeasurably greater than you can imagine. To show you how helpless you are⁠—your men are locked into the dungeons and your geas has been lifted from their minds.”

“Impossible!” gasped Shorzon. “A geas cannot be lifted⁠—”

“But it can. What is it but a compulsion implanted in the brain, so deeply as to supersede all other habits? One mind cannot erase that imposed pattern, but several minds working in concert can do so, and that I and my councillors have done. As of today, your folk are free in soul, hating you for what you made them. You are alone.”

The great scaled forms edged closer, menacingly. Corun’s fist clenched about his sword. If they harmed Chryseis⁠—

But she said cooly: “It does not matter. Our men were simply to bring us here, nothing else. We can dispense with them. What matters is our plan to impose magic control over Achaera.”

“And I cannot yet see what benefit the Xanthi would get of it,” said Tsathu impatiently. “Our powers of darkness are so much greater than yours already that⁠—”

“Let us not use words meant to impress the ignorant among ourselves,” said Chryseis scornfully. “Every sorcerer knows there is nothing of heaven or hell about magic. It is but the imposition of a pattern on other minds. It creates, by control of the senses, illusions of lycanthropy or whatever else is desired, or it binds the subject by the unbreakable compulsion of a geas. But it is no more than that⁠—one mind reaching through space to create what impressions it wills on another mind. Your devil-powder, or an ordinary sword or ax or fist, is more dangerous⁠—if the fools only knew.”

Corun’s breath hissed between his teeth. If⁠—if that⁠—O gods, if that was the secret of the magicians⁠—!

“As you will,” said Tsathu indifferently. “What matters is that there are more of our minds than your two, and thus we can beat down any attempt you may make against us. So it comes back to the question, why should we help you seize and hold Achaera? What will we gain?”

“I should say nothing of its great wealth,” said Shorzon. “But it is true, as you say, that many minds working together are immeasurably more powerful than one⁠—more powerful, even, than the sum of all those minds working separately. I have worked with as many as a dozen slaves, having them concentrate with me, so that I could draw their mind-force through my own brain and use it as my own, and the results have amazed me. Now if the entire population of Achaera were forced to help us, all at one time⁠—”

The Xanthi’s eyes glittered and a low murmur rose among them. Shorzon went on, rapidly: “It would be power over the world. Nothing could stand before that massed mental force. With us, skilled sorcerers, to direct, and the soldiers of Xanthi to compel obedience, we could lay a geas on whole nations without even having to be near them. We could span immeasurable gulfs of space and contact minds on those other worlds which philosophers think exist beyond the upper clouds. We could, by thus heightening our own mental powers, think out the very problems of existence, find the deepest secrets of nature, forces beside which your devil-powder would be a spark. Drawing life-energy from other bodies, we would never grow old, we would live forever.

“Tsathu⁠—lords of Xanthi⁠—I offer you a chance to become gods!”


The stillness was broken only by the muttering and whispering of the Xanthi among themselves. Mist drifted through the raw wet night of the hall. The walls seemed to waver, shift and blur like smoke.

“Why could we not do this in our own nation?” asked Tsathu.

“Because, as you yourself said, the Xanthi do not have the latent mental powers of humans⁠—save for you few who are the masters. It must be mankind who is controlled, with the commoners of your race as overseers.”

“And why could we not kill you and do this ourselves?”

“Because you do not understand humans. The differences are too great. You could never control human thoughts as Chryseis or I could.”

Another Xanthian spoke: “But do you realize what this will do to the human race? Your Achaerans will become mindless machines under such control. Drained of life-energy, they will age and die like animals. I doubt that any will live ten seasons.”

“What of that?” shrugged Chryseis. “There are other nations nearby to draw on⁠—Conahur, Norriki, Khemri, ultimately the world. We will have centuries, remember⁠—we will never die!”

“And you do not care for your own race at all?”

“It will no longer be our race,” said Shorzon. “We will be gods, thinking and living and wielding such powers as they⁠—as we ourselves right now⁠—could never dream. Why, do what you will with our men here, to start. What does it matter?”

“But do not harm the yellow-haired man from Conahur,” said Chryseis sharply. “He’s mine⁠—forever.”

Tsathu sat thinking, like the statue of a Khemrian beast-god cast in shining gold. Slowly, at last, he nodded, and an eerie sigh ran down the long table as the lords of the Xanthi hissed agreement.

“It will be done,” said Tsathu.

Corun stumbled back down the tunnel, reckless of discovery, blind and deaf with madness that roared in his skull. Chryseis⁠—Chryseis⁠—Chryseis⁠—

It was not the horror of the scheme, the ruin that it would bring even if it failed, the revelation of how immeasurably powerful were the forces leagued against man. He could have stood that, and braced himself to fight it as long as there was breath in his lungs. But Chryseis⁠—

She had been part of it. She had helped plan it, had coldly condemned her whole race to oblivion. She had lied to him, cheated him, betrayed him, used him, and now she wanted him for a toy, an immortal puppet⁠—Witch! Witch! Witch!

Less human than the erinye at her feet, than the Xanthi themselves, mad with a cold madness such as he had never thought could be⁠—Chryseis, Chryseis, Chryseis, I loved you. With all my heart, I loved you.

There was no hope in him, no longing for anything but the fullest revenge he could take before they hewed him to the ground. Had the old Xanthian wizard foretold he would bring death? Aye, by the mad cruel gods who ruled men’s destinies, he would!

He reached the corridor and began to run.

VIII

Down a long curving ramp that led into a pit of blackness⁠—the dungeons could not be far, they lay this way⁠—

He hugged himself into the shadows as a troop of guards went by. They were talking in their hoarse croaking language, and did not peer into the corners of the labyrinth. When they were past, Corun sped on his way.

The stone walls became rough damp tunnels, hewed out of the living rock under the castle. He groped through a blackness relieved only by the occasional dull glow of fungi. The darkness hissed and rustled with movements; he caught the glimmer of three red eyes watching, and something slithered over his bare feet. A far faint scream quivered down the hollow length of passages. It had shaken him when he was here before, but now⁠—

What mattered? What was important, save to kill as many of the monsters as he could before they overwhelmed him?

The tunnel opened on a great cave whose floor was a pool of oily black water. As he skirted its rim along a narrow slippery ledge, something stirred, a misshapen giant thing darker than the night. It roared hollowly and swam toward him. A wave of foul odor came with it, catching Corun’s throat in a sick dizziness.

He swayed on the edge of the pool and the swimmer began to crawl out of it toward him. Corun saw its teeth gleam wetly in the vague blue light, but there were no eyes⁠—it was blind. He retreated along the ledge toward the farther exit. The ground trembled under the bulk of the creature.

Its jaws clashed shut behind him as he leaped free. Racing down the tunnel, he heard the bellowing of it like dull thunder through the reeking gloom. It wouldn’t follow far, but that way of return would be barred to him.

No matter, no matter. He burst out into another open space. It was lit by a dim flickering fire over which crouched three armed Xanthi. Beyond, the red light glimmered on an iron-barred doorway, and behind that there were figures stirring. Men!

Corun bounded across the floor, the sword shrieking in his hand. It whirled down to crash through the skull-bones of one guard. Before he could free it, the other two were on him.

He ducked a murderous pike thrust and slipped close to the wielder, stabbing upward with his dagger. The Xanthian screamed and hugged Corun close to himself, fastening his jaws in the man’s shoulder. Corun slashed wildly, ripping open the throat. They tumbled to the ground, locked in each other’s arms, raging like beasts. Corun’s knife glanced off the Xanthian’s ribs and he felt the steel snap over. He got both hands into the clamped jaws, heedless of the fangs, and wrenched. The jawbone cracked as he forced the reptile’s mouth open.

He rolled from beneath the still feebly struggling creature and glared around for the third. That one lay in a hacked ruin against the cell; he had backed up too close to the bars, and the men inside still had their weapons.


Gasping, Corun climbed to his feet. An eager baying of fierce voices rolled out from the cell; men gripped the bars and howled in maddened glee.

“Corun⁠—Captain Corun⁠—get us out of here⁠—let us out to rip Shorzon’s guts loose⁠—Aaarrrgh!”

The Conahurian lurched over to a dead Xanthian at whose waist hung a bundle of keys. His hands shook as he tried them in the lock. When he got the door open, the men were out in a single tide.

He leaned heavily on an Umlotuan’s arm. “What happened to you?” he asked.

“The devils led us down here and then closed the door on us,” snarled the blue man. “Later a group of them in rich dress came down⁠—and suddenly we saw what a slavery we’d been in to Shorzon, suddenly it no longer seemed that obedience to him was the only possible thing⁠—Mwanzi, let me at his throat!”

“You may have that chance,” said the pirate. He felt strength returning; he stood erect and faced them in the flickering firelight. Their eyes gleamed back at him out of the shadows, fierce as the metal of their weapons.

“Listen,” he said. “We might be able to fight our way out of here, but we’d never escape across the Demon Sea. But I know a way to destroy this whole cursed house and every being in it. If you’ll follow me⁠—”

“Aye!” The shout filled the cavern with savage thunder. They shook their weapons in the air, gleam of red-lit steel out of trembling darkness. “Aye!”

Corun picked up his sword and trotted down the nearest passageway. He was bleeding, he saw vaguely, but he felt little pain from it⁠—he was beyond that now. The thing was to find the devil-powder. Tsathu had said it was somewhere down here.

They went along tunnel after winding tunnel, losing all sense of direction in the wet hollow dark. Corun had a sudden nightmare feeling that they might wander down here forever, blundering from cave to empty cave while eternity grayed.

“Where are we going?” asked someone impatiently. “Where are Xanthi to fight?”

“I don’t know,” snapped Corun.

They came suddenly into another broad cavern, beyond which was another barred door. Four Xanthi stood guard in front of it. They never had a chance⁠—the air was suddenly full of hurled weapons, and they were buried under a pile of edged steel.

Corun searched the bodies but found no keys. In the murk beyond, he could dimly see boxes and barrels reaching into fathomless distances, but the door was held fast. Of course⁠—Tsathu would never trust his men-at-arms with entrance to the devil-powder.

The corsair snarled and grabbed a bar with both hands. “Pull, men of Umlotu!” he shouted. “Pull!”

They swarmed close, thirty-odd big blue men with the strength of hate in them, clutching the cell bars, grabbing each other’s waists, heaving with a force that shrieked through the iron. “Pull!”

The lock burst and they staggered back as the door swung wide. Instantly Corun was inside, ripping open a box and laughing aloud to see the black grains that filled it.

For a wild moment he thought of plunging a brand into the powder and going up in flame and thunder with the castle. Coldness returned⁠—he checked himself and looked around for fuses. His followers would not have permitted him to commit a suicide that involved them. And after all⁠—the longer he lived, the more enemies he’d have a chance to cut down personally.

“I’ve heard talk of this stuff,” said one of the men nervously. “Is it true that setting fire to it releases a demon?”

“Aye.” Corun found the long rope-like fuses coiled in a box. He knotted several together and put one end into the powder. The ignition of one container would quickly set off the rest⁠—and the cavern was huge, and filled with many shiploads of sleeping hell.

“If we can fight our way to our ship, and get clear before the fire reaches the powder⁠—” began the Umlotuan.

“We can try that, I suppose,” said Corun.

He estimated the burning time of his fuse from memories of the use he’d seen the Xanthi make of the devil-powder. Yes, there would be a fair allowance for escape, though he doubted that they would ever reach the strand alive.

He touched a stick from the fire to the end of the fuse. It began to sputter, a red spark creeping along it toward the open box. “Let’s go!” shouted Corun.

They pounded along the tunnel, heedless of direction. There should be an upward-leading ramp somewhere⁠—ah! There it was!

Up its length they raced, past levels of the dungeons toward the main floor of the castle. At the end, there was a brighter blue light than they had seen below. Up⁠—up!

Up⁠—and out!


The chamber was enormous, a pillared immensity reaching to a ceiling hidden in sheer height; rugs and tapestries of the scaled Xanthian weave were strewn about, and their heavy, intricately carved furniture filled it. At the far end stood a towering canopied throne, on which sat a huge golden form. Other shapes stood around it, and there were pikemen lining the walls at rigid attention.

Through the haze of mist and twilight, Corun saw the black robe of Shorzon and the flame-colored cloak of Chryseis. He shrieked an oath and plunged for them.

A horn screamed and the guards sprang from the walls to form a line before the throne. The humans shocked against the Xanthi with a fury that clamored through the building.

Swords and axes began to fly. Corun hewed at the nearest grinning reptile face, felt the sword sink in and roared the war-cry of Conahur. He spitted the monster on his blade, lifted it, and pitchforked it into the ranks of the guards.

Tsathu bellowed and rose to meet him. Suddenly the Xanthian king was not there; it was a tentacled thing from the sea bottom that filled the room, a thing whose bloated dark body reared to the ceiling. Someone screamed⁠—fear locked the battlers into motionlessness.

“Magic!” It was a sneering rattle in Corun’s throat. He sprang into the very body of the sea creature.

He felt the shock of striking its solid form, the rasp of its hide against him, the overwhelming poisonous stench of it. One tentacle closed around him. He felt his ribs snapping and the air popping from his burst lungs.

It wasn’t real, his mind gasped through the whirling agony. It wasn’t real! He plowed grimly ahead, blind in the illusion that swirled around him, striking, striking.

Dimly, through the roaring in his nerves, he felt his blade hit something solid. He bellowed in savage glee and smote again, again, and again. The smashing pressure lifted. He sobbed air into himself and looked with streaming eyes as the giant form dissolved into smoke, into mist, into empty air. It was Tsathu writhing in pain at his feet, Tsathu with his head nearly chopped off. It was only another dying Xanthian.

Corun leaped up onto the throne and looked over the room. The guards and the sailors were still standing in shaken silence. “Kill them!” roared the pirate. “Strike them down!”

Battle closed again with a snarl and a clang of steel. Corun glared around after other Xanthi of the sorcerer breed. There were none in sight; they must prudently have fled into another part of the castle. Well⁠—let them!

But other Xanthi were swarming into the chamber, battle horns were hooting and the guttural reptile voices crying a summons. If the humans were not to be broken by sheer numbers, they’d have to fight their way out soon.⁠ ⁠…

And down in the dungeons a single red spark was eating its way toward a box of black powder.

Corun jumped down again to the floor. His sword leaped sideways, cut a Xanthian spine across, bit the tail from another. “To me!” he bawled. “Over here, men of Umlotu!”

The blues heard him and rallied, gathering into compact knots that slashed their way toward where his dripping sword whined and thundered. He never stopped striking; he drove the reptiles before him until they edged away from his advance.

The men formed into one group and Corun led it across the floor in a dash for the looming doorway. A red thought flashed across his brain: Where were Shorzon and Chryseis?

The Xanthi scattered before the desperate human rush. The men came out into a remembered hallway⁠—it led to the outside, Corun recalled. By Breannach Brannor, they might escape yet!

“Corun! Corun, you sea-devil! I knew it was your doing!”

The Conahurian turned to see Imazu bounding toward him with a bloody ax in one hand. Imazu⁠—thank all the gods, Imazu was free!

“I heard a noise of fighting, and the tower guards went off toward it,” gasped the Umlotuan captain. “So I came too. On the way I met Shorzon and Chryseis.”

“What of them?” breathed Corun.

The blue warrior smiled savagely and flung a red thing down at Corun’s feet. “There’s Shorzon’s scheming head. My woman is free!”

“Chryseis⁠—”

Imazu leaned on his ax, panting.

“She launched her erinye at me. I ducked into a room and slammed the door in its face, then came here through another entrance.”

Chryseis was loose⁠—“We’ve got to get clear,” said Corun. “The devil-powder is going to go off any time now.”

The Xanthi were rallying. They came at the humans in another rush. Corun and Imazu and their best men filled the corridor with a haze of steel, backing down toward the outer portal.

It was a crazy blur of struggle, hewing at faces that wavered out of night, slapping down thrusts and reaching for the life of the enemy. Men fell, and others took their places in the line. Down the corridor they retreated, fighting to get free, and they left a trail of dead.

The end of the passage loomed ahead. And the monstrous iron door was swinging shut.

Chryseis stood in the entrance. A wild storm-wind outside sent her cloak flapping about her, red wings beating in the lightning-shot darkness about the devil’s rage of the goddess face.

“Stay here!” she screamed. “Stay here and be cut down, you triple traitor!”

The nearest Umlotuan sprang at her. The door clashed shut in his face⁠—they heard the great bolt slam down outside. They were boxed in the end of the hall, and the Xanthi need only shoot them down with arrows.

Down in the dungeons, the fuse burned to its end. A sheet of flame sprang up in the opened box of powder, reaching for the stacks around it.

IX

The first explosion came as a muffled roar. Corun felt the floor tremble under his feet. Men and Xanthi stood motionless, looking at each other with widening eyes in which a common doom arose.

So it ended. Shorzon and Tsathu and their wizard cohorts would be gone, but Chryseis, mad, lovely Chryseis, was loose, and the gods knew what hell she could brew among the leaderless Xanthi.

The walls groaned as another boom echoed down their length.

Well, death came to every man, and he had not done so badly. Corun began to realize how weary he was; he was bleeding from wounds and breath was raw in his lungs.

The Umlotuans hammered on the door in panic. But the twenty or fewer survivors could never break it down.

The devil-powder roared. The floor heaved sickeningly under Corun’s feet. He heard the crash of collapsing masonry.

Wait⁠—wait⁠—one chance! One chance, by the gods!

“Be ready to run out when the walls topple,” he shouted. “We’ll have a little time⁠—”

The Xanthi were fleeing in terror. The humans stood alone, waiting while the explosions rolled and banged around them. Cracks zigzagged across the walls, dust choked the dank air.

Crash!

Corun saw the nearer wall swaying, toppling. The floor lifted and buckled and he fell to the lurching ground. All the world was an insanity of racket and ruin.

The lintel caved in, the portal sagged. Corun leaped for the opening like a pouncing erinye. The men swarmed with it, out through the widening hole while the roof came down behind them.

Someone screamed, a faint lost sound in the grinding fury of sundering stone. Rocks were flying⁠—Corun saw one of them crack a man’s head like a melon. Wildly he ran as the outer façade came down.

There was a madness of storm outside, wind screaming to fill the sky, driving solid sheets of rain and hail before it. The incessant blinding lightning glared in a cold shadowless brilliance, the bawling thunder drowned the roar of exploding devil-powder. They fought out through the courtyard, past the deserted outer gate.

There came a blast which seemed to crack the sky. Corun was knocked down as by a giant’s fist. He lay in the mud and saw a pillar of flame lift toward the heavens with the castle fountaining up on its wings. Thunder roared over the earth, shouting to the storm that raged in the heavens.

Corun picked himself up and leaned dizzily against a tree stripped clean by the blast. Rain slanted across the ground, churning the mud beneath his feet, the livid lightning-glare blazing above. Vaguely, through ringing, deafened ears, he heard the wild clamor of the sea. Looking down the cataract which the upward trail had become, he saw the Briseia rocking in the wind where she lay on the beach.

He gestured to Imazu, who staggered up to join him. His voice was barely audible over the shouting wind: “Take the men down there. We can’t sail in this storm, but make the ship fast, stand guard over her. If I’m not back when the storm is done, start for home.”

“Where are you going?” cried the Umlotuan.

“I’ll be back⁠—maybe. Stay with the ship!”

Corun turned and slogged across the ground toward the jungle.


Weariness was gone. He was like a machine running without thought or pain until it burned out. Chryseis would have fled toward high ground, he thought dully.

Behind him, Imazu started forward, then checked himself. Something of the ultimate loneliness that was in Corun must have come to the Umlotuan. It was not a mission on which any other man might go. And they had to save the ship. He gestured to his few remaining men and they began the slow climb down to the beach.

The castle was a heap of shattered rock, still moving convulsively as the last few boxes of devil-powder exploded. The rain boiled down over it, churning through the fragments. Lightning flamed in the berserk heavens.

Corun pushed through underbrush that clutched at his feet and clawed at his skin. The sword was still hanging loosely in one hand, nicked and blunted with battle. He went on mechanically, scarcely noticing the wind-whipped trees that barred his way.

It came to him that he was fighting for Khroman, the thalassocrat of Achaera, ruler by right of conquest over Conahur. But there were worse things than foreign rule, if it was human, and one of the greater evils had fled toward the mountain.

Presently he came out on the bare rocks above the fringe of jungle growth. The rain hammered at him, driven by a wind that screamed like a maddened beast. Thunder boomed and rolled overhead, a roar of doom answering the thud of his heart. The water rushed over his ankles, foaming down toward the sea.

She stood waiting for him atop a high bare hill. Her cloak was drawn tightly about her slender body, but the wind caught at it, whipped and tore it. Her rain-wet hair blew wild.

“Corun,” she called under the gale. “Corun.”

“I am coming,” he said, not caring if she heard him or not. He struggled up to where she stood limned against the sheeted fire in heaven. They faced each other while the storm raged around them.

“Corun⁠—”

She read death in his eyes as he lifted the sword. Her form blurred, the outlines of a monster grew to his eyes.

He laughed bitterly. “I know what your magic is,” he said. “You saw me kill Tsathu.”

She was human again, human and lovely, a light-footed spirit of the hurricane. Her face was etched white in the lightning-glare.

“Perias!” she screamed.

The erinye crept forth, belly to the ground, tail lashing. Hell glared out of the ice-green eyes. Corun braced himself, sword in hand.

Perias sprang⁠—not straight at the man, but into the air. His wings caught the wind, whirling him aloft. Twisting in mid-flight, he arrowed down. Corun struck at him. The erinye dodged the blow and one buffeting wingtip caught the man’s wrist. The sword fell from Corun’s hand. At once the erinye was on him.

Corun fell under that smashing attack. The erinye’s fangs gleamed above his throat, the claws sank into his muscles. He flung up an arm and the teeth crunched on it, grinding at the bone.

Corun wrapped his legs in a scissor-lock around the gaunt body, pressing himself too close for the clawed hind feet to disembowel him. His free hand reached out, gouging⁠—he felt an eyeball tear loose, and the erinye opened his mouth in a thin scream. Corun pulled his torn arm free. He struck with a balled fist at the devil-beast and felt his knuckles break under the impact. But bone snapped. Perias’ jaw hung suddenly loose.

The erinye sprang back and Corun lurched to hands and knees. Perias edged closer, stiff-legged. Corun stumbled erect and Perias charged. One great wing smashed out, brought the man toppling back to earth. Perias leaped for his exposed belly.

Corun lashed out with both feet. The thud was dull and hollow under the racketing thunder. Perias tumbled back and Corun sprang on him. The barbed tail slashed, laying Corun’s thigh open. He fell atop the struggling beast and got his free hand on the throat.

The mighty wings threshed, half lifting man and erinye. Corun pulled himself over on the writhing back. He locked legs around the body, arms around the neck, and heaved.

The erinye yowled. His wings clashed together with skull-cracking force, barely missing the head of the man who hugged his back. His tail raked against Corun’s back, seeking the vitals. Corun gave another yank. He felt the supple spine bending. Heave!

Perias lifted a brassy scream. The strange dry sound of snapping vertebrae crackled out. Corun rolled away from the threshing form.

Perias gasped, lifted his broken head, and looked with filming green eyes at Chryseis where she stood unmoving against the white fire of the sky. Slowly, painfully, he dragged himself toward her. Breath rattled in and out of his blood-filled lungs.

“Perias⁠—” Chryseis bent over to touch the great head. The erinye sighed. His rough tongue licked her feet. Then he shuddered and lay still.

“Perias.”

Corun climbed to his feet and stood shaking. There was no strength left in him⁠—it was running out through a dozen yawning wounds. The ground whirled and tilted crazily about him. He saw her standing against the sky and slowly, slowly, he came toward her.

Chryseis picked up a stone and threw it. It seemed to take an immense time, arcing toward him. Some dim corner of his buckling consciousness realized that it would knock him out, that she could then kill him with the sword and escape into the hills.

It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.

The stone crashed against his skull and the world exploded into darkness.

X

He woke up, slowly and painfully, and lay for a long time in a state of half-awareness, remembering only confused fragments of battle and despair.

When he opened his eyes, he saw that the storm was dying. Lightning was wan in the sky, and thunder mumbled farewell. The wind had fallen, the rain fell slow and heavy down on him.

He saw her bending over him. The long wet hair tumbled past her face to fall on his breast. He was wrapped in her cloak, and she had ripped bandages from her robe for his hurts.

He tried to move, and could only stir feebly. She laid a hand on his cheek. “Don’t,” she whispered. “Just lie there, Corun.”

His head was on her lap, he realized dimly. His eyes questioned her. She laughed, softly under the falling rain.

“Don’t you see?” she said. “Didn’t you think of it? Shorzon’s geas was put on me as a child. I was always under his will. Even when he was dead, it was strong enough to drive me along his road.

“But I love you, Corun. I will always love you. My love warred with Shorzon’s will even as I tried to kill you. And when I saw you lying there helpless, after such a fight as no man has ever waged since the gods walked the earth⁠—

“I tried to stab you. And I couldn’t. Shorzon’s geas was broken.”

Her hands stroked his hair. “You aren’t too badly hurt, Corun. I’ll get you down to the ship. With my witch’s powers, we can win through any Xanthi who try to stop us⁠—not that I think they will, with their leaders destroyed. We can get safely to Achaera.”

She sighed. “I will see that you escape my father’s power, Corun. If you will return to the pirate life, I will follow you.”

He shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “No, I will take service under Khroman, if he will have me.”

“He will,” she vowed softly. “He needs strong men. And someday you can be thalassocrat of the empire⁠—”

It wasn’t so bad, thought Corun drowsily. Khroman was a good sort. A highly placed Conahurian could gradually ease the burdens of his people until they had full equality with Achaera in a united and peaceful domain.

The menace of the Xanthi was ended. To be on the safe side, Achaera had better make them tributary; an expedition which he, Corun, could lead. After that, there would be enough to keep a man busy. As well as the loveliest and best of women for wife.

He slept. He did not waken when Imazu led a squad up in search of him. Chryseis laid a finger on her lips and a flash of understanding passed between her and the captain. He nodded, smiling, and clasped her hand with sudden warmth.

They bore the sleeping warrior back through the rain, down to the waiting ship.

World of the Mad

He walked slowly through the curling purple mists, feeling the ground roll and quiver under his feet, hearing the deep-voiced rumble of shifting strata far underground. There were voices in the fog, singing in high unhuman tones, and no man had ever learned what it was that sang⁠—for could the wind utter sounds so elfishly sweet, almost words that haunted you with half understanding of something you had forgotten and needed desperately to remember?

A face floated through the swirling mist. It was not human, but it was very beautiful, and it was blind. He looked away as it mouthed voiceless murmurs at him.

Somewhere a crystal tree was chiming, a delicate pizzicato of glass-like leaves vibrating against each other. The man listened to it and to the low muttering of the earth, for those at least were real and he was not at all sure whether the other things were there or not.

Even after two hundred years, he wasn’t sure.

He went on through the mist. Flowers grew up around him, great fragile laceries of shining crystalline petals that budded and bloomed and died even as he walked by. Some of them reached hungrily for him, but he sidestepped their groping mouths with the unthinking ease of long habit.

Compasses didn’t work on Tanith, and only a few men could even operate a radio direction finder, but Langdon knew his way and walked steadily ahead. His sense of direction kept rotating crazily; it insisted he was going the wrong way, no, now the house lay over to the right⁠—no, the left, and a few paces straight up.⁠ ⁠… But by now he had compensated for that; he didn’t need eyes or kinesthetic sense to find his way home.

There was a new singing in the violet air. Langdon checked his stride with a sudden eerie prickling along his spine. The mist eddied about him, thick and blinding, but now the city was growing out of it; he saw the towers and streets and thronging airways come raggedly into being.

Suddenly he stood in the middle of the city. It was complete this time, not the few fragmentary glimpses he ordinarily had. The mist flowed through the ghostly spires and pylons but somehow he could see anyway, the city lay for kilometers around.


It was not a human city. It lay under three hurtling moons, lit only by their brilliant silver. But it lived, it pulsed with life about him; the shining dwellers soared past and seemed to leave a trail of little sparks luminous against the night. They were not men, the old folk of Tanith, but they were beautiful.

There was no sound. Langdon stood in a well of silence while the city lay around him, and he thought that perhaps he was the ghost, alone and excommunicated on a world which lay beyond even the dreams of man.

But that was nonsense, he thought, angry with himself. It was simply that temporal mirages transmitted only light, not sound. He was here, now, alive, and the city was dust these many million years.

Two dwellers flew past him, male and female with arms linked, laughing soundlessly into each other’s golden eyes. The male’s great glowing wings brushed through Langdon’s body. He stood briefly in a shower of whirling light-motes⁠—and they didn’t heed him, they didn’t know he was there. They were only for each other, those two, and he was a ghost out of an unreal and unthinkably remote future.

The mirage faded. Slowly, in bits and patches, it dissolved back into the purple fog. He was alone again.

He shivered, and hastened his steps homeward.

The mist began to break, raggedly, as he came out of the forest. He went by a lake of life with only a passing glance at the strangeness of the new shapes that seethed and bubbled, rose out of its slime and took shifting form and sank back into chemical disintegration. There was always something new, grotesque and horrible and sometimes eerily lovely, to be seen at such a place, but spontaneous generation was an old story to Langdon by now. And Eileen was waiting.

He came out on the brow of a steep hill that slanted down into the little cuplike valley where he had his dwelling. The hills were blue around it, blue with grass that tomorrow might be gold or green or gray, and the sky was currently blood-red. A grove of feather-like trees hid the house, swaying where there was no wind and murmuring to each other in their own language, and a few winged things hovered darkly overhead. For a moment Langdon paused there, savoring the richness of it. This was his home.

His land. Back on Terra they had forgotten the fullness that came with belonging to the earth, but the men who colonized among the stars remembered. Looking back, Langdon thought that the real instability and alienness was in the Solar System. Men had no roots there, and it was a secret woe in them and made them feverish and restless, eager to taste from all cups but shuddering away from draining any one.

On Tanith, thought Langdon with a quiet sort of exultation, a man drank his cup to the bottom, and there were many cups⁠—or, if only one, it was never the same and could never be emptied.

For a man on Tanith did not grow old.


Suddenly he stiffened, and a psyche-feeder swooped low to absorb his furiously radiated nervous energy. The reaction of it eddied in his mind as a chilling fear. Angrily, without having to think about it, he drove the creature off with a jaggedly pulsed mental vibration and remained standing and listening.

Someone had screamed.

It came again, distorted by the wavering air, hardly recognizable to one who had not had time to adjust to Tanith, and it was Eileen’s voice. “Joe, Joe, Joe⁠—help⁠—”

He ran, scrambling down the unstable hillside with his mist-wet cloak flapping behind him. A sword-plant slashed at him with its steely leaves. He swerved and went on down into the valley, running, leaping, a bounding black shadow against the burning sky.

Static electricity discharged in crackling blue sheets as he tore through the grove, hissing against his insulating clothes and stinging his face and hands. Something floated through the dark air, long and supple and dripping slime, grimacing at him with its horrible wet mouth. Another illusion or mirage, he thought somewhere in the back of his mind. They no longer bothered him⁠—in fact, he’d have missed them if they never showed up again⁠—but⁠—Eileen⁠—

The cottage nestled under the tall whispering trees, a peak-roofed stone building in the ancient style that Langdon had thought most appropriate to the enchanted planet. There was little of Terra about it after its century and a half of existence; it was covered with fire-vines over which danced the seeming of little flames; luminous flying creatures nestled against the doorway, and he had never found the cause of the dim sweet singing he could always hear around it.

The door stood ajar, and Eileen was sobbing inside. Langdon came in and found her huddled on a couch before the fireplace, trembling so that it seemed her body must be shaken apart, and crying, crying.

He sat down and put his arms about her and let her cry herself out. Then he remained for a while stroking her hair and saying nothing.

She bit her lip to keep it steady. Her voice was like a small child’s, high and toneless and frightened. “It bit,” she said.

“It was an illusion,” he murmured.

“No. It bit at me. And its eyes were dead. It came out of the floor there, and it was all in rags.”

“You had an illusion frighten you,” he said. “A psyche-feeder flying nearby caught your increased nervous output, drew on it, and that of course frightened you still more⁠ ⁠… they’re easy to drive away, Eileen. They don’t like certain pulse patterns⁠—you just think at them the way I showed you⁠—”

“It was real,” she insisted, quietly, with something of a child’s puzzlement that anything should have wanted to hurt her. “It was black, but there were grays and browns and red too, and it was ragged.”


He went over to the cupboard and got out a darkly glowing bottle and poured two full glasses. “This’ll help,” he said, trying hard to smile at her. “Prosit.

“I shouldn’t,” said Eileen, still shakily but with some return of saneness. “Junior⁠—”

“Junior won’t take harm from a glass of wine,” said Langdon. He sat down beside her again and they clinked goblets and drank. The fire wavered ruddily before them, filling the room with warm restless light and with dancing shadows from which Eileen looked away.

“I’ll get an electronic range installed soon,” said Langdon, trying to fill the silence with trivia. “It can’t be convenient for you cooking on an ancient-style stove.”

“I thought they didn’t work on Tanith⁠—electronics, I mean,” she answered with the same effort of ordinariness.

“Not at first, with the different laws prevailing here. In the first few decades, we were forced back to the old chemical techniques like fires. That’s one reason so few colonists ever came, or stayed long if they did come. But bit by bit, little by little, we’re learning the scientific laws and applying them. They’ve had all the standard household equipment available here for a century, I guess, but by that time I’d already built this place and liked my own things, fires and stoves and all the rest, too well to change. But now that I’ve got a wife to do my housekeeping, I ought to provide her with conveniences. In fact, I should have done so right away.”

“It isn’t that, Joe,” she said. “I’d have squawked long ago if those little things made any difference. I like handling things myself rather than turning them over to some robot. It’s fun to cook and get wood, but Joe, it’s no fun when a thing rises out of the steam and screams at you. It’s no fun when electric sparks jump over the house and all of a sudden there’s only fear, the whole place is choked with fear⁠—” She shuddered closer against him.

“This planet is haunted,” she whispered.

“The laws of nature are a little different,” he answered as calmly as he could. “But they are still laws. Tanith seems like a chaos, governed by living spirits and most of them malignant, only because you don’t see the regularity. Its pattern is too different from what you’re used to. Terra herself must have seemed that way to primitive man, before he discovered order in nature.

“Our scientists here are slowly finding out the answers. Talk to old Chang sometime, he can tell you more about it than I. But I can see the order now, a little of it, and it’s a richer and deeper thing than the rest of the universe.

“And you live forever.” He gripped her shoulders and looked into her wide eyes. He had to expel the demons of terror from her. A woman five months pregnant couldn’t go on this way. He was suddenly shocked by how thin she had grown, and she never stopped shivering under his hands.

“You won’t grow old,” he said slowly. “We’ll be together forever, Eileen. And our children won’t die either.”

She looked away from him, and sudden bitterness twisted her mouth. “I wonder,” she said thinly, “whether immortality is worth having⁠—on this planet.”

Suddenly she stiffened, and her lips opened to scream again. Langdon forgot the hurt of her words and looked wildly about the room. But there was only the furniture and the firelight and the weaving shadows. Inside the blood-red windows, the room was sane and real and human.

Eileen shrank against him. “It’s over there,” she gasped. “Over there in that corner, creeping closer⁠—”

Langdon’s face grew bleak, and there was a desolation rising in him. Illusions of one sort or another were part of daily life on Tanith, but they had reality in that they were produced by physical processes and more than one person could perceive them. But hallucinations were another story.

He thought back over two hundred years to the first attempts to colonize. Of an initial three hundred or so, over two-thirds had left within the first three years. And many of them had been insane when the ships took them home.

Men came to Tanith and stayed if they could endure it. But if they couldn’t, and tried to stay anyway, they soon fled from the unendurable madness of its reality to a safer and more orderly madness of their own.

From what he had heard, few of them were cured again, even back on Terra.


“I’ve got to see Chang,” he said.

The colonists on Tanith tended to live well apart from each other, and unless they owned the new televisors designed especially for the planet their only contact was physical. Once a month or so he would go to the planet’s one town for supplies and a mild spree, and somewhat oftener he would spend a while at another house or have guests himself. But most of the time he had been alone.

And as a man grew older, without loss of physical and mental faculties, he found more and more within himself, an unfolding inward richness which none of the short-lived would ever appreciate or even comprehend. He had less need of other men to prop him up. Or perhaps it was simply that the wisdom, the fullness which came with immortality, made a little of the other colonists’ company go a long ways.

There was no denying it, Eileen’s twenty-three years of life could not compare with Langdon’s two hundred or more. She was like a child, thoughtless, mentally and physically timid, ignorant, essentially shallow.

But I love her. And I can afford to wait. In fifty or a hundred years she’ll begin to grow up. In two hundred or so we’ll begin to understand each other. As our ages increase, the absolute difference between them will become proportionately insignificant.

An immortal learns patience. I can wait⁠—and meanwhile I love her very dearly.

“What do you have to see him about?” asked Eileen.

“Us,” he answered bluntly. “Our situation. It isn’t good.”

“No,” she whispered.

“Can’t you learn that there’s nothing to fear on Tanith?” he asked. “Death itself, the greatest dread of all, is gone. We’ve eliminated all actually dangerous life in the neighborhood of our settlements. There are things that can be annoying⁠—the sword-plants, the psyche-feeders, the static discharges⁠—but it’s no trick to learn how to avoid them. Nothing here can hurt you, Eileen.”

“I know,” she said hopelessly. “But I’m still afraid. Day and night, I’m afraid. There are worse things than death. Joe.”

“But afraid of what?”

“I don’t know. Fear itself, maybe. How do I know something won’t suddenly be deadly? But I’m not afraid of death. Even with the baby, I wouldn’t be afraid of wild beasts or plague or⁠—anything that I could understand.” She shook her shining head, slowly. “That’s just it, Joe. I don’t understand this planet. Nobody does. You don’t.⁠ ⁠… You admit it yourself.”

“Someday I’ll know it.”

“When? A thousand years from now? A thousand years of horror.⁠ ⁠… Joe, some of those things are so hideous I think I’ll go mad when they appear.”

“A deep-sea fish on Terra is hideous.”

“Not this way. These things aren’t right. They can’t exist, but still there they are, and I can’t forget them, and I never know when they’ll appear next or what they’ll be this time⁠—” She checked herself, gulping.

“This is a very beautiful world,” he said stubbornly. “The colors, the forms, the sounds⁠—”

“None of them are right. Grass may look just as well when it’s red or blue or yellow⁠—but it shouldn’t be all of them at different times. The sky is wrong, the trees are wrong. Those hideous lakes of life and the things in them, obscene⁠—those voices singing out in the mists, nobody knows what they are⁠—those images of things a hundred million years dead⁠—and the faces, and the whisperings, and there’s always something watching and waiting and moving just a little outside the corner of your eye.⁠ ⁠… Oh, Joe, Joe, this planet is haunted!”


She sobbed in his arms with a rising note of hysteria that she couldn’t quite suppress. He looked grimly over her shoulder. A swirling, chiming mist of color formed on one corner of the room, amorphous stirrings within it, a sudden shining birth that laughed and jeered and slipped out through the wall.

He remembered that he had been frightened and repelled when he first came here. But not to this degree, and he soon got over it. Now, even while Eileen wept, he admired the shifting pulse of colors and his heart quickened to the elfin bells. Terran music sounded wrong to him after two hundred years of the sounds of Tanith.

He thought that all those voices and whisperings and singings, sliding up and down an inhuman scale, and the dreams and the visions, had a pattern, an overall immensity which some day he would grasp. And that would be a moment of revelation, he would see and know the wholeness of Tanith and there would be meaning in it. Not the chaotic jumble of random events which made up the rest of the universe⁠—death-doomed universe tumbling blindly toward a wreck of level entropy and ashen suns⁠—but a glimpse of that ultimate purposefulness which some men called God.

Briefly, a temporal mirage showed beyond the window, a fragmentary glimpse of a tower reaching for the sky. And it was no work of man, nor could it ever be, but it was of a heartbreaking loveliness.

He wondered about the ancient natives. Had they simply become extinct, reached a point of declining evolutionary efficiency such as seemed fated for all species and gone into limbo some millions of years previously? Or had they, perhaps, finally seen the allness of the world and gone⁠—elsewhere? Privately, Langdon rather thought it was the latter. World without end⁠—

But Eileen was crying in his arms.

He kissed her, and tasted salt on her lips that trembled under his. Poor kid, poor kid, and with a baby on the way.⁠ ⁠…


Something of the magic of their first days together came back to him. It was a disappointment in love which had sent him to Tanith in the first place, and for all his time here he had lived without that sort of affection. The women of the town served the casual needs of sex, which seemed to become less and less frequently manifest as his own undying personality grew in fullness and self-sufficiency, and that was all.

Still, a single man was incomplete. And a year ago one of the few colony ships landed, and Eileen had been aboard, and a forgotten springtime stirred within him.

Now⁠ ⁠… well.⁠ ⁠…

She released herself, smiling with unsteady lips. “I’ll be all right now, dear,” she said. “Let’s go.”

I have to talk this matter over privately with Chang. His wife can take care of Eileen. Certainly I can’t leave her here alone.

But sooner or later he would have to. It wasn’t only that he had to go out and oversee some of the fields on which grew the native plants whose secretions, needed by Terran chemistry, gave them their livelihood. Solitude and long walks through the misty forests and over the whispering hills had become virtual necessities to him. He had to get away and think, the mighty thoughts of an immortal which no Terran could ever comprehend in his pathetic lifetime were being gestated in his brain. Slowly, piece by piece, the coherent philosophy which is necessary for sanity was coalescing within him, and he was gathering into himself the essence of Tanith. Someday, perhaps a thousand years hence, he would know what it was that haunted him now.

He could not suppress a feeling of annoyance, however. Eileen had had over a year to adjust now, and she was getting worse instead of better. A brief sojourn in utter alienness might be merely pleasing and interesting, but over a longer time one either got used to it or⁠—She’d have to learn, have to accept the sanity of Tanith and know it for a deeper and more real one than the sanity of Terra.

Others had done it, why couldn’t she?


Chang Simon and his wife lived several hundred kilometers away, an hour’s flight by airjet. Their spacious house lay amid lawns and trees sloping down to a broad river; it held a serenity and graciousness which Terra had forgotten. Langdon was always glad to be there, and even Eileen seemed to be soothed. She had screamed once on the flight over, when the sky had suddenly seethed with hell-blue flame, and she was still trembling when they arrived. Their hostess took her off for one of those mysterious private conferences between women which no merely male creature will ever understand, and Langdon and Chang sat out on the veranda and talked.

The Chinese had been in his fifties when he came, one of the first load of colonists, and Tanith could not restore lost youth. But a healthy middle age had its own advantages, it conferred a peace and depth of mind more rapidly than an endlessly young body would permit. In the Solar System, Chang had been a synthesist, taking all knowledge and its correlation as his field of work, and he had come to Tanith in some of Langdon’s mood of abandonment⁠—futile to attempt the knowing and understanding of all things, when life had flickered out in a hundred years. But as an immortal synthesist.

The two men sat in the long twilight, saying little at first. It was good just to sit, thought Langdon, to let a glass of wine and a cigar relax tensed muscles while the dusk deepened toward night. At such times he felt more than ever drawn into the secret whole which was Tanith⁠—almost, it seemed, he was on the verge of that revelation, of seeing the manifold aspects of reality gather themselves into one overwhelming entity of which he would be an integral part. The philosophers and mystics of Terra had sought such identification, and the scientists were still striving to build a unified picture of the cosmic whole. Here, in this environment and with all the ages before him, a man had a chance to reach that ancient goal, intellectual understanding and emotional integration⁠—someday, someday.

The twilight was deep and blue and full of flitting ghostly lights. The feathery trees murmured to each other in a language of their own, and down under the long slope of dew-shining grass the river gleamed with shifting phosphorescence. Something was singing in the night, an eerie wavering scale that woke faint longings and dreads in men and set them straining after something they had once known and forgotten.


Overhead the million thronging stars of Galactic center winked and blazed through the flickering aurora. One of the moons rose, trailing golden light through the sky. A wind blew through drifting clouds, and it seemed as if the wind had language too and spoke to the men, if they could but understand it.

Chang said at last, slowly and heavily: “I don’t know how she got past the psychologists on Terra.”

“Eileen?” asked Langdon unnecessarily.

“Of course.” The older man was a shadow in the dusk, but the red tip of his cigar waxed and waned as he drew on it for comfort. “Somebody blundered. Or⁠—wait⁠—perhaps it was only that, while she was fundamentally stable, the otherness of Tanith touched some deep-seated psychological flaw in her, something that would never appear under any other environment.”

“I don’t quite know the system,” said Langdon. “What do they do, back at Sol?”

“The first attempts at colonization showed that only the most stable personalities could adapt to⁠—or even survive⁠—the apparent instability of this planet. There aren’t many who want to come here at all, of course, but our planetary government maintains a psychological staff in the more important worlds of the Galaxy to check those who do apply. They’re supposed to weed out all who couldn’t take the strangeness, and so far it’s been very successful. Eileen is the first failure I know of.”

Something cold seemed to close around Langdon. And then, he realized wryly, he was skirting the main issue⁠—afraid to face it.

“I wonder if we really have the right to keep secret the fact that there is no death here,” he said.

“It was a hard decision to make,” answered Chang, “but leaving the morals of it aside, it was the only practicable way. Suppose it were generally known that this one place, in all the known universe, has no age. Imagine all who would want to come here! The planet couldn’t hold a fraction of them. Even as it is, we have to space births very carefully lest in a few centuries we crowd ourselves off the world. Furthermore, the unstable social environment produced by such an influx of colonists, most of whom couldn’t stand the place anyway, would delay, perhaps ruin, the research by which we hope to find out why life does not grow old here. When we have that answer, and can apply it outside this region of space, all the Galaxy will have immortality. But until then, we must wait.” He shrugged, a dim movement in the shining night. “And immortals know how to wait.”

“So instead, we simply accept colonists who agree to stay here for life⁠—and then once they get here they’re told how long that life will be.”


“Yes. Actually, the miracle is that the first colonists stayed at all, after most had fled or gone insane. After all, it was ten or twenty years before we even suspected the truth. A world as alien as this was settled only because planets habitable to man and without aborigines are hard to find. Since then, many more such worlds⁠—normal ones⁠—have been discovered, and few people care to risk madness by coming here. Tanith is an obscure dominion of the Galactic Union, having a certain scientific interest because of its unique natural laws⁠—but not too great even there, when science has so many other things to investigate just now. And we’re quite content to remain in the shadow.”

“Of course.” Langdon looked up to the swarming stars. A sheet of blue auroral flame covered them for a moment.

He asked presently: “How much further have our scientists gotten in explaining the phenomenon?”

“We’ve come quite a ways, but progress has been mostly in highly technical fields of mathematical physics. You’ll have to take a decade or two off soon, Joseph, and learn that subject. Briefly, we do know that this is a region of warped space, similar to those in the neighborhood of massive bodies but of a different character. As you know, natural constants are different in such regions from free space, phenomena such as gravitation and the bending of light appear. This is another sort of geometric distortion, but basically the same. It produces differences in⁠—well, in optics, in thermodynamics, in psi functions, in almost everything. The very laws of probabilities are different here. As a result, the curious phenomena we know appear. Many of them, of course, are simply illusions produced by complex refractions of light and sound waves: others are very real. The time axis itself is subject to certain transformations which produce the temporal mirages. And so it goes.”

“Yes, yes, I know all that. But what causes the warp itself?”

“We’re not sure yet, but we think it’s an effect of our being near the Galactic center of mass, together with⁠—no, it would take me a week to write out the equations, let alone explain them.”

There was a comfort in impersonal discourse, but it was a retreat from more immediate problems. Langdon fairly rapped out the question: “How close are you to understanding why we are immortal?”

“Not at all close in detail,” said Chang. “We think that it’s due to the difference in thermodynamic properties of matter I mentioned just now, producing a balance of colloidal entropy. Well, elsewhere life is metastable and can only endure so long. Here it is the natural tendency of things, so much so indeed that life is generated spontaneously from the proper chemical mixtures such as occur in many of the lakes and pools hereabouts. In our own bodies, there is none of that tendency toward chemical and colloidal degradation which I think lies at the root of aging and death.

“But that’s just my guess, you know, and biological phenomena are so extraordinarily complex that it will probably take us centuries to work it out. After all, we haven’t even settled all the laws of Tanith’s physics yet!”

“Several centuries.⁠ ⁠… And there is no other planet where this might also happen?”


“None have been found, and on the basis of our theory I’m inclined to believe that Tanith is unique in the Galaxy⁠—perhaps in the universe.” Langdon was aware of Chang’s speculative gaze on him. “And if there were others, they’d be just as foreign to Terra.”

“I see⁠—” Langdon looked away, down to the streaming silver gleam of the river. There was a ring of little lights dancing on the lawn; he could hear the tinkle of elfland bells and he thought he could see glowing wings and lithe light forms that were not human⁠—but very lovely.

“You were thinking of moving away?” asked the synthesist at last.

“Yes. I hated the thought, but Eileen⁠—well⁠—you saw her. And you remember those first colonists.”

“I do. She is exhibiting all their symptoms. She can’t stand the unpredictability of her environment, and she can’t adjust her scale of values enough to see the beauty in what to her is wrong and horrible.” In the vague golden light, Langdon thought he glimpsed a grim smile on the other man’s face. “Perhaps she is right, Joseph. Perhaps it takes someone not quite sane by the rest of the Galaxy’s standards to adjust to Tanith.”

“But⁠—can’t she see⁠—I’ve told her⁠—”

“Intellectual understanding of a problem never solves it, though it may help. Eileen takes your word for these being purely natural phenomena. She’s not superstitious. It might help if she were! Because explaining the horror doesn’t lessen it to her. Man is not a rational animal, Joseph, though he likes to pretend he is.”

“Can’t she be helped? Psychology?”

“No.” The old voice held pity, but it did not waver. “I’ve studied such cases. If you keep her here much longer, she’ll have a miscarriage and go insane. The insanity might be curable, back at Sol, or it might not, but as soon as she returned it would come again. Not that she could ever stand to come back.

“She is inherently unable to adapt herself to an utterly foreign environment. You’ll have to send her home, Joseph. Soon.”

“But⁠—she’s my wife.⁠ ⁠…”

Chang said nothing. A shining golden head swooped past in the darkness, laughing at them, and the laughter was visible as red pulses in the night.

There came a step on the veranda. Langdon turned and saw Chang’s wife coming out with Eileen. The girl walked more steadily now. In the dim radiance from the window, her face was calmer than it had been for some time, and for an instant there was a flood of love and joy and relief within Langdon.

Chang was wrong. Eileen would learn. She was already starting to learn. Tonight was the turning point. Tanith would take her to itself and they would be together forever.

“Eileen,” he said, very softly, and got up and walked toward her. “Eileen, darling.”

The atmosphere trembled between them. She saw the flesh run from his bones, it was a skull that grinned at her, shining evilly green against the dark, and the sounds that rasped from it were the mouthings of nightmare.

Somewhere, far back in the depths of her mind, a little cool voice told her that there was nothing to be afraid of, that it was a brief variation in optical and sonic constants which would pass away and then Joe would be there. But the voice was drowned in her own screaming, she was screaming for her mother to come and get her, it was a nightmare and she couldn’t wake up⁠—

Langdon ran toward her, with the rags of flesh hanging from his phosphorescent bones, until Chang grabbed him back with a violence he had never known to be possible in the old man.


There was a storm outside; the cottage shook to a fury of wind and was filled with its noise and power. They had a fire going, and its restless glow played over the room and beat against the calm white light of fluorotubes, but it could not drive out the luminousness beyond the window.

“Pull the shades,” asked Eileen. “Please, Joe.”

He looked away from the window where he stood staring out at the storm. Fire sleeted across the landscape, whirling heatless flames that hissed and crackled around the wind-tossed trees, red and blue and yellow and icy white. The wind roared and boomed, with a hollow voice that seemed to shout words in some unknown tongue, and from behind the curtain of flaming rain there was the crimson glow of an open furnace. As if, thought Langdon, as if the gates of Hell stood open just beyond the hills.

“It won’t hurt us,” he said. “It’s only a matter of phosphorescence and static discharges.”

“Please, Joe.” Her voice was very small in the racket of wind.

He shrugged, and covered the wild scene. He used to like to go out in firestorms, he remembered, their blinding berserk fury woke something elemental in him and he would go striding through them like a god shouting back at the wind.

Well, it wouldn’t be long now. The Betelgeuse Queen was due in a couple of days on the intragalactic orbit that would take her back to Sol. Eileen didn’t have long to wait.

He took a moody turn about the room. His wife had been very quiet since her collapse of a week ago. Too quiet. He didn’t like it.

She looked wistfully up at his tall form. He thought that she looked pathetically small and alone, curled up⁠—almost crouched⁠—in the big armchair. Like a very beautiful child, too thin and hollow-eyed now but beautiful.

A child.

She has to go. She can’t live here. And I⁠—well⁠—if she goes, it will be like a death within me. I love her.

“I remember winter storms on Terra,” said Eileen softly. “It would be cold and dark, with a big wind driving snow against the house. We’d come inside, cold but warm underneath with being out in it, and we’d sit in front of a fire and have hot cocoa and cheese sandwiches. If it was around Christmas time, we’d be singing the old songs⁠—”


The wind yammered, banging on the door. A stealthy shape of light and shadow wavered halfway between existence and nonexistence over in a corner of the room. Eileen’s voice trailed off and her eyes widened and there was a small dry rattle in her throat. She gripped the arms of her chair with an unnatural tension.

Langdon saw it and came over to sit beside her on one arm of the chair. Her hand closed tightly around his and she looked away from the weaving shape in the corner.

“You were always good to me, Joe,” she murmured.

“How could I be anything else?” he asked tonelessly. There was a new voice in the storm now, a great belling organ was crying to him to come out, Tanith was dancing in a sleet of fire just beyond the door.

“I’ll miss you,” she said. “I’ll miss you very much.”

“Why should you? I’ll be along.”

“Will you. Joe? I wonder. I can’t ask it of you. I can’t ask you to trade a thousand years of life, or ten thousand or a million, for the little sixty or seventy you’ll have left out there. I can’t ask you to leave your world for mine. You’ll never be at home on Terra.”

He smiled, without much mirth. “It’s a trite phrase,” he said, “but you know I’d die for you.”

“I don’t doubt that. Joe. But would you⁠—live for me?”

He kissed her to avoid answering. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.

It isn’t so much a question of losing immortality, though God knows that means a lot. It means more than any mortal will ever know. It’s that I’d be losing⁠—Tanith.

He thought of Sol, Sirius, Antares, the great suns and planets of the Galaxy, and could not keep from shuddering. Drabness, deadness, colorlessness, meaninglessness! Life was a brief blind spasm of accident and catastrophe, walled in by its own shortness and the barren environment of a death-doomed cosmos. Too small to achieve any purpose, too limited even to imagine a goal, it flickered and went out into an utter dark.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty place from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.⁠ ⁠…

The storm sang outside, and he heard music and lure and enchantment. It was not a discord, after two centuries he could hear some of the tremendous harmony⁠—after another while, he might begin to understand the song.

If he stayed, if he stayed.

Eileen.

His face twisted. She saw it, and pain bit at her, but there was nothing she could say.

He began pacing, and his mind took up the weary track of the past week. Logic⁠—think it out like a rational being.


Eileen had to go. But he could stay, and she would understand insofar as any mortal could. Somewhere else, back in the Solar system or on some other of man’s many planets, she would find another husband who could give her all his heart. Which I could never do, because I love Tanith. She would come to think of me as dead, she would hold him dear for the brief span of their lives. She’d be happy. And maybe someday she’d send the child back to me.

As for himself⁠—well, the initial pain of separation would be hard to take, but he had an immortal’s endurance. Sooner or later, the longing would die. And there would be another woman someday on one of the colony ships whom he could love and take to wife forever. He could wait, he had all time before him.⁠ ⁠…

And he would be on Tanith.⁠ ⁠…

And there would be his friends. He thought of the utter loneliness that waited for him in the Galaxy. Two hundred years was a sizeable draft of eternity; he had acquired enough of the immortal’s viewpoint and personality to find the short-lived completely alien. He could never know more than the most superficial comradeship with even the oldest of those who were younger than he. He could never be close to his wife; she would occupy only the smallest part of the emptiness within him. Because before she had grown enough to match him, they would both be dead.

We’ll die, go down in the futility of the universe, and Tanith will go on. I might have been a god, but I’ll go down in dust and nothingness. No one will have gotten any good of me. Unless I stay.

The wind called and called.

Eileen was right. I’m not afraid to die. But I am afraid to live, in the way she must. Horribly afraid.

But I love her.

Fifty years hence there’ll be another woman.

But I love Eileen now!

Round and round, a crazy roaring whirlpool swinging and crashing toward madness. His thoughts were running in a meaningless circle, the familiar landmarks flickered by with ghastly speed in that devil’s race, the room wavered before him.

He snarled with sudden inarticulate rage and grabbed his insulating cloak and rushed out the door.


Eileen shrank back in her chair. He was gone. She was alone now and all the powers of Tanith were rising up against her. The wind hooted and whistled, piping down the chimney and skirling under the eaves. The blind lifted to an invisible force and she saw the red flames of Hell blazing outside. The fluoroglobes flickered toward extinction, darkness closed down; but it was full of dancing light and glimmering shapes that gibed and jeered and spun closer to her. The room began to whirl, faster and faster, a tipping tilting saraband on the edge of madness.

All the old forgotten powers of night and dark and Hell were abroad, whirling on the wind and slamming against the door and banging their heels on the roof. They rose out of the floor and seeped from the walls and the air. Fire danced around them, and they neared her, crying something that she knew would drive her mad when she understood it.

Joe, Joe, Joe⁠—Mother⁠—God⁠—Joe was gone out into the storm. Mother was dead these many years. God had forgotten. And the powers closed in laughing at her and mocking and whispering what she could not stand to hear and there and around and around and around and around and around down, down, down, down, down into darkness⁠—


Langdon did not hear her scream the first time. He stood in the living torrent of light. Fire streamed about him and dripped from his hands; his hair crackled with static electricity and the wind sang to him. It filled him, the song of the wind, the song of Tanith. He was lost in it, whirled up in a great singing joyous laughter. He knew⁠—in another moment he would know, he would be part of the allness and have peace within him.

Fire, wind, the slender graceful trees laughing as the flames leaped around them, a great exultant chant from the living forests and the dancing hills, a glimpse of an ancient Tanithian across many million years, flying in the storm with the red and gold and blue and bronze rushing off his wings, Tanith, Tanith, Tanith.

Tanith, I love you, I am part of you. I can never go. This is the thing other men do not know. More than immortality, more than all the mighty dreams you give us, there is yourself. A day on Tanith is more than a lifetime on Terra, but they will never know that because they have never felt it. The strong love of a man for his home⁠—but this is passion, it is the whole of life, and Tanith gives it back. Here, and here alone, is meaning and beauty and an unending splendid horizon. Here alone a man can belong.

See, see that bird with wings like molten silver!

The second scream was wordless and crazy and horrible, but the dying fragment of his own name went through him like a knife. For the barest instant he stood there while the storm roared about him and the fire rushed over the world. Then, quite simply, he ran back into the house.

The blood and pain and screeching horror of the abortion left him physically ill, but he managed to get her to bed and even, after a long while, to sleep. Then he walked over to the window and drew the blind. His shoulders sagged with the defeat and death and ruin that was here.⁠ ⁠…


The captain of the Betelgeuse Queen did not like Tanith and said as much to his mate as they relaxed on the promenade deck.

“The place gives you the blue willies,” he declared. “Everything’s wrong there. Praise the powers it’s so backward and obscure we only have to stop there once a year or so.”

“The colonists seem to like it,” said the mate.

“They would,” snorted the captain. “Worst bunch of clannish provincials I ever saw. Why, they hardly ever leave the planet, except maybe for a year or so at a time on essential business, and they won’t be friendly with anybody. Takes a crazy man to stand that world in the first place.”

He pointed to a tall man who was half leading, half supporting a young woman along the deck. She would have been beautiful had she not been badly underweight. She smiled at the man, but her eyes were haunted, and his answering smile was faraway. It went no deeper than his lips.

“That fellow Langdon is the only longtime colonist I ever heard of who left Tanith for good,” said the captain. “He must have been there for years. Maybe he was born there, but he’s coming back to Sol now. His wife couldn’t take the place.”

“I think I remember her from a year or so ago,” nodded the mate. “Didn’t we carry her out with a few other colonists? Pretty as a picture then, and full of life and fun⁠—now look at her. Tanith did that to her.”

“Uh-huh,” agreed the captain. “I heard a little of the story down by the spaceport. She nearly went crazy⁠—finally had a miscarriage. It was all they could do to save her life and sanity. Only then would that Langdon take her back. He let her go on that way for months.” The captain’s mouth twisted with contempt. “Holy sunspots, what a cold-blooded devil!”

Duel on Syrtis

The night whispered the message. Over the many miles of loneliness it was borne, carried on the wind, rustled by the half-sentient lichens and the dwarfed trees, murmured from one to another of the little creatures that huddled under crags, in caves, by shadowy dunes. In no words, but in a dim pulsing of dread which echoed through Kreega’s brain, the warning ran⁠—

They are hunting again.

Kreega shuddered in a sudden blast of wind. The night was enormous around him, above him, from the iron bitterness of the hills to the wheeling, glittering constellations light-years over his head. He reached out with his trembling perceptions, tuning himself to the brush and the wind and the small burrowing things underfoot, letting the night speak to him.

Alone, alone. There was not another Martian for a hundred miles of emptiness. There were only the tiny animals and the shivering brush and the thin, sad blowing of the wind.

The voiceless scream of dying traveled through the brush, from plant to plant, echoed by the fear-pulses of the animals and the ringingly reflecting cliffs. They were curling, shriveling and blackening as the rocket poured the glowing death down on them, and the withering veins and nerves cried to the stars.

Kreega huddled against a tall gaunt crag. His eyes were like yellow moons in the darkness, cold with terror and hate and a slowly gathering resolution. Grimly, he estimated that the death was being sprayed in a circle some ten miles across. And he was trapped in it, and soon the hunter would come after him.

He looked up to the indifferent glitter of stars, and a shudder went along his body. Then he sat down and began to think.


It had started a few days before, in the private office of the trader Wisby.

“I came to Mars,” said Riordan, “to get me an owlie.”

Wisby had learned the value of a poker face. He peered across the rim of his glass at the other man, estimating him.

Even in Godforsaken holes like Port Armstrong one had heard of Riordan. Heir to a million-dollar shipping firm which he himself had pyramided into a System-wide monster, he was equally well known as a big game hunter. From the firedrakes of Mercury to the ice crawlers of Pluto, he’d bagged them all. Except, of course, a Martian. That particular game was forbidden now.

He sprawled in his chair, big and strong and ruthless, still a young man. He dwarfed the unkempt room with his size and the hard-held dynamo strength in him, and his cold green gaze dominated the trader.

“It’s illegal, you know,” said Wisby. “It’s a twenty-year sentence if you’re caught at it.”

“Bah! The Martian Commissioner is at Ares, halfway round the planet. If we go at it right, who’s ever to know?” Riordan gulped at his drink. “I’m well aware that in another year or so they’ll have tightened up enough to make it impossible. This is the last chance for any man to get an owlie. That’s why I’m here.”

Wisby hesitated, looking out the window. Port Armstrong was no more than a dusty huddle of domes, interconnected by tunnels, in a red waste of sand stretching to the near horizon. An Earthman in airsuit and transparent helmet was walking down the street and a couple of Martians were lounging against a wall. Otherwise nothing⁠—a silent, deadly monotony brooding under the shrunken sun. Life on Mars was not especially pleasant for a human.

“You’re not falling into this owlie-loving that’s corrupted all Earth?” demanded Riordan contemptuously.

“Oh, no,” said Wisby. “I keep them in their place around my post. But times are changing. It can’t be helped.”

“There was a time when they were slaves,” said Riordan. “Now those old women on Earth want to give ’em the vote.” He snorted.

“Well, times are changing,” repeated Wisby mildly. “When the first humans landed on Mars a hundred years ago, Earth had just gone through the Hemispheric Wars. The worst wars man had ever known. They damned near wrecked the old ideas of liberty and equality. People were suspicious and tough⁠—they’d had to be, to survive. They weren’t able to⁠—to empathize the Martians, or whatever you call it. Not able to think of them as anything but intelligent animals. And Martians made such useful slaves⁠—they need so little food or heat or oxygen, they can even live fifteen minutes or so without breathing at all. And the wild Martians made fine sport⁠—intelligent game, that could get away as often as not, or even manage to kill the hunter.”

“I know,” said Riordan. “That’s why I want to hunt one. It’s no fun if the game doesn’t have a chance.”

“It’s different now,” went on Wisby. “Earth has been at peace for a long time. The liberals have gotten the upper hand. Naturally, one of their first reforms was to end Martian slavery.”

Riordan swore. The forced repatriation of Martians working on his spaceships had cost him plenty. “I haven’t time for your philosophizing,” he said. “If you can arrange for me to get a Martian, I’ll make it worth your while.”

“How much worth it?” asked Wisby.


They haggled for a while before settling on a figure. Riordan had brought guns and a small rocketboat, but Wisby would have to supply radioactive material, a “hawk,” and a rockhound. Then he had to be paid for the risk of legal action, though that was small. The final price came high.

“Now, where do I get my Martian?” inquired Riordan. He gestured at the two in the street. “Catch one of them and release him in the desert?”

It was Wisby’s turn to be contemptuous. “One of them? Hah! Town loungers! A city dweller from Earth would give you a better fight.”

The Martians didn’t look impressive. They stood only some four feet high on skinny, claw-footed legs, and the arms, ending in bony four-fingered hands, were stringy. The chests were broad and deep, but the waists were ridiculously narrow. They were viviparous, warm-blooded, and suckled their young, but gray feathers covered their hides. The round, hook-beaked heads, with huge amber eyes and tufted feather ears, showed the origin of the name “owlie.” They wore only pouched belts and carried sheath knives; even the liberals of Earth weren’t ready to allow the natives modern tools and weapons. There were too many old grudges.

“The Martians always were good fighters,” said Riordan. “They wiped out quite a few Earth settlements in the old days.”

“The wild ones,” agreed Wisby. “But not these. They’re just stupid laborers, as dependent on our civilization as we are. You want a real old timer, and I know where one’s to be found.”

He spread a map on the desk. “See, here in the Hraefnian Hills, about a hundred miles from here. These Martians live a long time, maybe two centuries, and this fellow Kreega has been around since the first Earthmen came. He led a lot of Martian raids in the early days, but since the general amnesty and peace he’s lived all alone up there, in one of the old ruined towers. A real old-time warrior who hates Earthmen’s guts. He comes here once in a while with furs and minerals to trade, so I know a little about him.” Wisby’s eyes gleamed savagely. “You’ll be doing us all a favor by shooting the arrogant bastard. He struts around here as if the place belonged to him. And he’ll give you a run for your money.”

Riordan’s massive dark head nodded in satisfaction.


The man had a bird and a rockhound. That was bad. Without them, Kreega could lose himself in the labyrinth of caves and canyons and scrubby thickets⁠—but the hound could follow his scent and the bird could spot him from above.

To make matters worse, the man had landed near Kreega’s tower. The weapons were all there⁠—now he was cut off, unarmed and alone save for what feeble help the desert life could give. Unless he could double back to the place somehow⁠—but meanwhile he had to survive.

He sat in a cave, looking down past a tortured wilderness of sand and bush and wind-carved rock, miles in the thin clear air to the glitter of metal where the rocket lay. The man was a tiny speck in the huge barren landscape, a lonely insect crawling under the deep-blue sky. Even by day, the stars glistened in the tenuous atmosphere. Weak pallid sunlight spilled over rocks tawny and ocherous and rust-red, over the low dusty thorn-bushes and the gnarled little trees and the sand that blew faintly between them. Equatorial Mars!

Lonely or not, the man had a gun that could spang death clear to the horizon, and he had his beasts, and there would be a radio in the rocketboat for calling his fellows. And the glowing death ringed them in, a charmed circle which Kreega could not cross without bringing a worse death on himself than the rifle would give⁠—

Or was there a worse death than that⁠—to be shot by a monster and have his stuffed hide carried back as a trophy for fools to gape at? The old iron pride of his race rose in Kreega, hard and bitter and unrelenting. He didn’t ask much of life these days⁠—solitude in his tower to think the long thoughts of a Martian and create the small exquisite artworks which he loved; the company of his kind at the Gathering Season, grave ancient ceremony and acrid merriment and the chance to beget and rear sons; an occasional trip to the Earthling settling for the metal goods and the wine which were the only valuable things they had brought to Mars; a vague dream of raising his folk to a place where they could stand as equals before all the universe. No more. And now they would take even this from him!

He rasped a curse on the human and resumed his patient work, chipping a spearhead for what puny help it could give him. The brush rustled dryly in alarm, tiny hidden animals squeaked their terror, the desert shouted to him of the monster that strode toward his cave. But he didn’t have to flee right away.


Riordan sprayed the heavy-metal isotope in a ten-mile circle around the old tower. He did that by night, just in case patrol craft might be snooping around. But once he had landed, he was safe⁠—he could always claim to be peacefully exploring, hunting leapers or some such thing.

The radioactive had a half-life of about four days, which meant that it would be unsafe to approach for some three weeks⁠—two at the minimum. That was time enough, when the Martian was boxed in so small an area.

There was no danger that he would try to cross it. The owlies had learned what radioactivity meant, back when they fought the humans. And their vision, extending well into the ultraviolet, made it directly visible to them through its fluorescence⁠—to say nothing of the wholly unhuman extra senses they had. No, Kreega would try to hide, and perhaps to fight, and eventually he’d be cornered.

Still, there was no use taking chances. Riordan set a timer on the boat’s radio. If he didn’t come back within two weeks to turn it off, it would emit a signal which Wisby would hear, and he’d be rescued.

He checked his other equipment. He had an airsuit designed for Martian conditions, with a small pump operated by a power-beam from the boat to compress the atmosphere sufficiently for him to breathe it. The same unit recovered enough water from his breath so that the weight of supplies for several days was, in Martian gravity, not too great for him to bear. He had a .45 rifle built to shoot in Martian air, that was heavy enough for his purposes. And, of course, compass and binoculars and sleeping bag. Pretty light equipment, but he preferred a minimum anyway.

For ultimate emergencies there was the little tank of suspensine. By turning a valve, he could release it into his air system. The gas didn’t exactly induce suspended animation, but it paralyzed efferent nerves and slowed the overall metabolism to a point where a man could live for weeks on one lungful of air. It was useful in surgery, and had saved the life of more than one interplanetary explorer whose oxygen system went awry. But Riordan didn’t expect to have to use it. He certainly hoped he wouldn’t. It would be tedious to lie fully conscious for days waiting for the automatic signal to call Wisby.

He stepped out of the boat and locked it. No danger that the owlie would break in if he should double back; it would take tordenite to crack that hull.

He whistled to his animals. They were native beasts, long ago domesticated by the Martians and later by man. The rockhound was like a gaunt wolf, but huge-breasted and feathered, a tracker as good as any Terrestrial bloodhound. The “hawk” had less resemblance to its counterpart of Earth: it was a bird of prey, but in the tenuous atmosphere it needed a six-foot wingspread to lift its small body. Riordan was pleased with their training.

The hound bayed, a low quavering note which would have been muffled almost to inaudibility by the thin air and the man’s plastic helmet had the suit not included microphones and amplifiers. It circled, sniffing, while the hawk rose into the alien sky.

Riordan did not look closely at the tower. It was a crumbling stump atop a rusty hill, unhuman and grotesque. Once, perhaps ten thousand years ago, the Martians had had a civilization of sorts, cities and agriculture and a neolithic technology. But according to their own traditions they had achieved a union or symbiosis with the wild life of the planet and had abandoned such mechanical aids as unnecessary. Riordan snorted.

The hound bayed again. The noise seemed to hang eerily in the still, cold air; to shiver from cliff and crag and die reluctantly under the enormous silence. But it was a bugle call, a haughty challenge to a world grown old⁠—stand aside, make way, here comes the conqueror!

The animal suddenly loped forward. He had a scent. Riordan swung into a long, easy low-gravity stride. His eyes gleamed like green ice. The hunt was begun!


Breath sobbed in Kreega’s lungs, hard and quick and raw. His legs felt weak and heavy, and the thudding of his heart seemed to shake his whole body.

Still he ran, while the frightful clamor rose behind him and the padding of feet grew ever nearer. Leaping, twisting, bounding from crag to crag, sliding down shaly ravines and slipping through clumps of trees, Kreega fled.

The hound was behind him and the hawk soaring overhead. In a day and a night they had driven him to this, running like a crazed leaper with death baying at his heels⁠—he had not imagined a human could move so fast or with such endurance.

The desert fought for him; the plants with their queer blind life that no Earthling would ever understand were on his side. Their thorny branches twisted away as he darted through and then came back to rake the flanks of the hound, slow him⁠—but they could not stop his brutal rush. He ripped past their strengthless clutching fingers and yammered on the trail of the Martian.

The human was toiling a good mile behind, but showed no sign of tiring. Still Kreega ran. He had to reach the cliff edge before the hunter saw him through his rifle sights⁠—had to, had to, and the hound was snarling a yard behind now.

Up the long slope he went. The hawk fluttered, striking at him, seeking to lay beak and talons in his head. He batted at the creature with his spear and dodged around a tree. The tree snaked out a branch from which the hound rebounded, yelling till the rocks rang.

The Martian burst onto the edge of the cliff. It fell sheer to the canyon floor, five hundred feet of iron-streaked rock tumbling into windy depths. Beyond, the lowering sun glared in his eyes. He paused only an instant, etched black against the sky, a perfect shot if the human should come into view, and then he sprang over the edge.

He had hoped the rockhound would go shooting past, but the animal braked itself barely in time. Kreega went down the cliff face, clawing into every tiny crevice, shuddering as the age-worn rock crumbled under his fingers. The hawk swept close, hacking at him and screaming for its master. He couldn’t fight it, not with every finger and toe needed to hang against shattering death, but⁠—

He slid along the face of the precipice into a gray-green clump of vines, and his nerves thrilled forth the appeal of the ancient symbiosis. The hawk swooped again and he lay unmoving, rigid as if dead, until it cried in shrill triumph and settled on his shoulder to pluck out his eyes.

Then the vines stirred. They weren’t strong, but their thorns sank into the flesh and it couldn’t pull loose. Kreega toiled on down into the canyon while the vines pulled the hawk apart.

Riordan loomed hugely against the darkening sky. He fired, once, twice, the bullets humming wickedly close, but as shadows swept up from the depths the Martian was covered.

The man turned up his speech amplifier and his voice rolled and boomed monstrously through the gathering night, thunder such as dry Mars had not heard for millennia: “Score one for you! But it isn’t enough! I’ll find you!”

The sun slipped below the horizon and night came down like a falling curtain. Through the darkness Kreega heard the man laughing. The old rocks trembled with his laughter.


Riordan was tired with the long chase and the niggling insufficiency of his oxygen supply. He wanted a smoke and hot food, and neither was to be had. Oh, well, he’d appreciate the luxuries of life all the more when he got home⁠—with the Martian’s skin.

He grinned as he made camp. The little fellow was a worthwhile quarry, that was for damn sure. He’d held out for two days now, in a little ten-mile circle of ground, and he’d even killed the hawk. But Riordan was close enough to him now so that the hound could follow his spoor, for Mars had no watercourses to break a trail. So it didn’t matter.

He lay watching the splendid night of stars. It would get cold before long, unmercifully cold, but his sleeping bag was a good-enough insulator to keep him warm with the help of solar energy stored during the day by its Gergen cells. Mars was dark at night, its moons of little help⁠—Phobos a hurtling speck, Deimos merely a bright star. Dark and cold and empty. The rockhound had burrowed into the loose sand nearby, but it would raise the alarm if the Martian should come sneaking near the camp. Not that that was likely⁠—he’d have to find shelter somewhere too, if he didn’t want to freeze.

The bushes and the trees and the little furtive animals whispered a word he could not hear, chattered and gossiped on the wind about the Martian who kept himself warm with work. But he didn’t understand that language which was no language.

Drowsily, Riordan thought of past hunts. The big game of Earth, lion and tiger and elephant and buffalo and sheep on the high sun-blazing peaks of the Rockies. Rain forests of Venus and the coughing roar of a many-legged swamp monster crashing through the trees to the place where he stood waiting. Primitive throb of drums in a hot wet night, chant of beaters dancing around a fire⁠—scramble along the hell-plains of Mercury with a swollen sun licking against his puny insulating suit⁠—the grandeur and desolation of Neptune’s liquid-gas swamps and the huge blind thing that screamed and blundered after him⁠—

But this was the loneliest and strangest and perhaps most dangerous hunt of all, and on that account the best. He had no malice toward the Martian; he respected the little being’s courage as he respected the bravery of the other animals he had fought. Whatever trophy he brought home from this chase would be well earned.

The fact that his success would have to be treated discreetly didn’t matter. He hunted less for the glory of it⁠—though he had to admit he didn’t mind the publicity⁠—than for love. His ancestors had fought under one name or another⁠—viking, Crusader, mercenary, rebel, patriot, whatever was fashionable at the moment. Struggle was in his blood, and in these degenerate days there was little to struggle against save what he hunted.

Well⁠—tomorrow⁠—he drifted off to sleep.


He woke in the short gray dawn, made a quick breakfast, and whistled his hound to heel. His nostrils dilated with excitement, a high keen drunkenness that sang wonderfully within him. Today⁠—maybe today!

They had to take a roundabout way down into the canyon and the hound cast about for an hour before he picked up the scent. Then the deep-voiced cry rose again and they were off⁠—more slowly now, for it was a cruel stony trail.

The sun climbed high as they worked along the ancient riverbed. Its pale chill light washed needle-sharp crags and fantastically painted cliffs, shale and sand and the wreck of geological ages. The low harsh brush crunched under the man’s feet, writhing and crackling its impotent protest. Otherwise it was still, a deep and taut and somehow waiting stillness.

The hound shattered the quiet with an eager yelp and plunged forward. Hot scent! Riordan dashed after him, trampling through dense bush, panting and swearing and grinning with excitement.

Suddenly the brush opened underfoot. With a howl of dismay, the hound slid down the sloping wall of the pit it had covered. Riordan flung himself forward with tigerish swiftness, flat down on his belly with one hand barely catching the animal’s tail. The shock almost pulled him into the hole too. He wrapped one arm around a bush that clawed at his helmet and pulled the hound back.

Shaking, he peered into the trap. It had been well made⁠—about twenty feet deep, with walls as straight and narrow as the sand would allow, and skillfully covered with brush. Planted in the bottom were three wicked-looking flint spears. Had he been a shade less quick in his reactions, he would have lost the hound and perhaps himself.

He skinned his teeth in a wolf-grin and looked around. The owlie must have worked all night on it. Then he couldn’t be far away⁠—and he’d be very tired⁠—

As if to answer his thoughts, a boulder crashed down from the nearer cliff wall. It was a monster, but a falling object on Mars has less than half the acceleration it does on Earth. Riordan scrambled aside as it boomed onto the place where he had been lying.

“Come on!” he yelled, and plunged toward the cliff.

For an instant a gray form loomed over the edge, hurled a spear at him. Riordan snapped a shot at it, and it vanished. The spear glanced off the tough fabric of his suit and he scrambled up a narrow ledge to the top of the precipice.

The Martian was nowhere in sight, but a faint red trail led into the rugged hill country. Winged him, by God! The hound was slower in negotiating the shale-covered trail; his own feet were bleeding when he came up. Riordan cursed him and they set out again.

They followed the trail for a mile or two and then it ended. Riordan looked around the wilderness of trees and needles which blocked view in any direction. Obviously the owlie had backtracked and climbed up one of those rocks, from which he could take a flying leap to some other point. But which one?

Sweat which he couldn’t wipe off ran down the man’s face and body. He itched intolerably, and his lungs were raw from gasping at his dole of air. But still he laughed in gusty delight. What a chase! What a chase!


Kreega lay in the shadow of a tall rock and shuddered with weariness. Beyond the shade, the sunlight danced in what to him was a blinding, intolerable dazzle, hot and cruel and life-hungry, hard and bright as the metal of the conquerors.

It had been a mistake to spend priceless hours when he might have been resting working on that trap. It hadn’t worked, and he might have known that it wouldn’t. And now he was hungry, and thirst was like a wild beast in his mouth and throat, and still they followed him.

They weren’t far behind now. All this day they had been dogging him; he had never been more than half an hour ahead. No rest, no rest, a devil’s hunt through a tormented wilderness of stone and sand, and now he could only wait for the battle with an iron burden of exhaustion laid on him.

The wound in his side burned. It wasn’t deep, but it had cost him blood and pain and the few minutes of catnapping he might have snatched.

For a moment, the warrior Kreega was gone and a lonely, frightened infant sobbed in the desert silence. Why can’t they let me alone?

A low, dusty-green bush rustled. A sandrunner piped in one of the ravines. They were getting close.

Wearily, Kreega scrambled up on top of the rock and crouched low. He had backtracked to it; they should by rights go past him toward his tower.

He could see it from here, a low yellow ruin worn by the winds of millennia. There had only been time to dart in, snatch a bow and a few arrows and an axe. Pitiful weapons⁠—the arrows could not penetrate the Earthman’s suit when there was only a Martian’s thin grasp to draw the bow, and even with a steel head the axe was a small and feeble thing. But it was all he had, he and his few little allies of a desert which fought only to keep its solitude.

Repatriated slaves had told him of the Earthlings’ power. Their roaring machines filled the silence of their own deserts, gouged the quiet face of their own moon, shook the planets with a senseless fury of meaningless energy. They were the conquerors, and it never occurred to them that an ancient peace and stillness could be worth preserving.

Well⁠—he fitted an arrow to the string and crouched in the silent, flimmering sunlight, waiting.

The hound came first, yelping and howling. Kreega drew the bow as far as he could. But the human had to come near first⁠—

There he came, running and bounding over the rocks, rifle in hand and restless eyes shining with taut green light, closing in for the death. Kreega swung softly around. The beast was beyond the rock now, the Earthman almost below it.

The bow twanged. With a savage thrill, Kreega saw the arrow go through the hound, saw the creature leap in the air and then roll over and over, howling and biting at the thing in its breast.

Like a gray thunderbolt, the Martian launched himself off the rock, down at the human. If his axe could shatter that helmet⁠—

He struck the man and they went down together. Wildly, the Martian hewed. The axe glanced off the plastic⁠—he hadn’t had room for a swing. Riordan roared and lashed out with a fist. Retching, Kreega rolled backward.

Riordan snapped a shot at him. Kreega turned and fled. The man got to one knee, sighting carefully on the gray form that streaked up the nearest slope.

A little sandsnake darted up the man’s leg and wrapped about his wrist. Its small strength was just enough to pull the gun aside. The bullet screamed past Kreega’s ear as he vanished into a cleft.

He felt the thin death-agony of the snake as the man pulled it loose and crushed it underfoot. Somewhat later, he heard a dull boom echoing between the hills. The man had gotten explosives from his boat and blown up the tower.

He had lost axe and bow. Now he was utterly weaponless, without even a place to retire for a last stand. And the hunter would not give up. Even without his animals, he would follow, more slowly but as relentlessly as before.

Kreega collapsed on a shelf of rock. Dry sobbing racked his thin body, and the sunset wind cried with him.

Presently he looked up, across a red and yellow immensity to the low sun. Long shadows were creeping over the land, peace and stillness for a brief moment before the iron cold of night closed down. Somewhere the soft trill of a sandrunner echoed between low wind-worn cliffs, and the brush began to speak, whispering back and forth in its ancient wordless tongue.

The desert, the planet and its wind and sand under the high cold stars, the clean open land of silence and loneliness and a destiny which was not man’s, spoke to him. The enormous oneness of life on Mars, drawn together against the cruel environment, stirred in his blood. As the sun went down and the stars blossomed forth in awesome frosty glory, Kreega began to think again.

He did not hate his persecutor, but the grimness of Mars was in him. He fought the war of all which was old and primitive and lost in its own dreams against the alien and the desecrator. It was as ancient and pitiless as life, that war, and each battle won or lost meant something even if no one ever heard of it.

You do not fight alone, whispered the desert. You fight for all Mars, and we are with you.

Something moved in the darkness, a tiny warm form running across his hand, a little feathered mouse-like thing that burrowed under the sand and lived its small fugitive life and was glad in its own way of living. But it was a part of a world, and Mars has no pity in its voice.

Still, a tenderness was within Kreega’s heart, and he whispered gently in the language that was not a language, You will do this for us? You will do it, little brother?


Riordan was too tired to sleep well. He had lain awake for a long time, thinking, and that is not good for a man alone in the Martian hills.

So now the rockhound was dead too. It didn’t matter, the owlie wouldn’t escape. But somehow the incident brought home to him the immensity and the age and the loneliness of the desert.

It whispered to him. The brush rustled and something wailed in darkness and the wind blew with a wild mournful sound over faintly starlit cliffs, and it was as if they all somehow had voice, as if the whole world muttered and threatened him in the night. Dimly, he wondered if man would ever subdue Mars, if the human race had not finally run across something bigger than itself.

But that was nonsense. Mars was old and worn-out and barren, dreaming itself into slow death. The tramp of human feet, shouts of men and roar of sky-storming rockets, were waking it, but to a new destiny, to man’s. When Ares lifted its hard spires above the hills of Syrtis, where then were the ancient gods of Mars?

It was cold, and the cold deepened as the night wore on. The stars were fire and ice, glittering diamonds in the deep crystal dark. Now and then he could hear a faint snapping borne through the earth as rock or tree split open. The wind laid itself to rest, sound froze to death, there was only the hard clear starlight falling through space to shatter on the ground.

Once something stirred. He woke from a restless sleep and saw a small thing skittering toward him. He groped for the rifle beside his sleeping bag, then laughed harshly. It was only a sandmouse. But it proved that the Martian had no chance of sneaking up on him while he rested.

He didn’t laugh again. The sound had echoed too hollowly in his helmet.

With the clear bitter dawn he was up. He wanted to get the hunt over with. He was dirty and unshaven inside the unit, sick of iron rations pushed through the airlock, stiff and sore with exertion. Lacking the hound, which he’d had to shoot, tracking would be slow, but he didn’t want to go back to Port Armstrong for another. No, hell take that Martian, he’d have the devil’s skin soon!

Breakfast and a little moving made him feel better. He looked with a practiced eye for the Martian’s trail. There was sand and brush over everything, even the rocks had a thin coating of their own erosion. The owlie couldn’t cover his tracks perfectly⁠—if he tried, it would slow him too much. Riordan fell into a steady jog.

Noon found him on higher ground, rough hills with gaunt needles of rock reaching yards into the sky. He kept going, confident of his own ability to wear down the quarry. He’d run deer to earth back home, day after day until the animal’s heart broke and it waited quivering for him to come.

The trail looked clear and fresh now. He tensed with the knowledge that the Martian couldn’t be far away.

Too clear! Could this be bait for another trap? He hefted the rifle and proceeded more warily. But no, there wouldn’t have been time⁠—

He mounted a high ridge and looked over the grim, fantastic landscape. Near the horizon he saw a blackened strip, the border of his radioactive barrier. The Martian couldn’t go further, and if he doubled back Riordan would have an excellent chance of spotting him.

He tuned up his speaker and let his voice roar into the stillness: “Come out, owlie! I’m going to get you, you might as well come out now and be done with it!”

The echoes took it up, flying back and forth between the naked crags, trembling and shivering under the brassy arch of sky. Come out, come out, come out⁠—

The Martian seemed to appear from thin air, a gray ghost rising out of the jumbled stones and standing poised not twenty feet away. For an instant, the shock of it was too much; Riordan gaped in disbelief. Kreega waited, quivering ever so faintly as if he were a mirage.

Then the man shouted and lifted his rifle. Still the Martian stood there as if carved in gray stone, and with a shock of disappointment Riordan thought that he had, after all, decided to give himself to an inevitable death.

Well, it had been a good hunt. “So long,” whispered Riordan, and squeezed the trigger.

Since the sandmouse had crawled into the barrel, the gun exploded.


Riordan heard the roar and saw the barrel peel open like a rotten banana. He wasn’t hurt, but as he staggered back from the shock Kreega lunged at him.

The Martian was four feet tall, and skinny and weaponless, but he hit the Earthling like a small tornado. His legs wrapped around the man’s waist and his hands got to work on the airhose.

Riordan went down under the impact. He snarled, tigerishly, and fastened his hands on the Martian’s narrow throat. Kreega snapped futilely at him with his beak. They rolled over in a cloud of dust. The brush began to chatter excitedly.

Riordan tried to break Kreega’s neck⁠—the Martian twisted away, bored in again.

With a shock of horror, the man heard the hiss of escaping air as Kreega’s beak and fingers finally worried the airhose loose. An automatic valve clamped shut, but there was no connection with the pump now⁠—

Riordan cursed, and got his hands about the Martian’s throat again. Then he simply lay there, squeezing, and not all Kreega’s writhing and twistings could break that grip.

Riordan smiled sleepily and held his hands in place. After five minutes or so Kreega was still. Riordan kept right on throttling him for another five minutes, just to make sure. Then he let go and fumbled at his back, trying to reach the pump.

The air in his suit was hot and foul. He couldn’t quite reach around to connect the hose to the pump⁠—

Poor design, he thought vaguely. But then, these airsuits weren’t meant for battle armor.

He looked at the slight, silent form of the Martian. A faint breeze ruffled the gray feathers. What a fighter the little guy had been! He’d be the pride of the trophy room, back on Earth.

Let’s see now⁠—He unrolled his sleeping bag and spread it carefully out. He’d never make it to the rocket with what air he had, so it was necessary to let the suspensine into his suit. But he’d have to get inside the bag, lest the nights freeze his blood solid.

He crawled in, fastening the flaps carefully, and opened the valve on the suspensine tank. Lucky he had it⁠—but then, a good hunter thinks of everything. He’d get awfully bored, lying here till Wisby caught the signal in ten days or so and came to find him, but he’d last. It would be an experience to remember. In this dry air, the Martian’s skin would keep perfectly well.

He felt the paralysis creep up on him, the waning of heartbeat and lung action. His senses and mind were still alive, and he grew aware that complete relaxation has its unpleasant aspects. Oh, well⁠—he’d won. He’d killed the wiliest game with his own hands.

Presently Kreega sat up. He felt himself gingerly. There seemed to be a rib broken⁠—well, that could be fixed. He was still alive. He’d been choked for a good ten minutes, but a Martian can last fifteen without air.

He opened the sleeping bag and got Riordan’s keys. Then he limped slowly back to the rocket. A day or two of experimentation taught him how to fly it. He’d go to his kinsmen near Syrtis. Now that they had an Earthly machine, and Earthly weapons to copy⁠—

But there was other business first. He didn’t hate Riordan, but Mars is a hard world. He went back and dragged the Earthling into a cave and hid him beyond all possibility of human search parties finding him.

For a while he looked into the man’s eyes. Horror stared dumbly back at him. He spoke slowly, in halting English: “For those you killed, and for being a stranger on a world that does not want you, and against the day when Mars is free, I leave you.”

Before departing, he got several oxygen tanks from the boat and hooked them into the man’s air supply. That was quite a bit of air for one in suspended animation. Enough to keep him alive for a thousand years.

Inside Earth

I

The biotechnicians had been very thorough. I was already a little undersized, which meant that my height and build were suitable⁠—I could pass for a big Earthling. And of course my face and hands and so on were all right, the Earthlings being a remarkably humanoid race. But the technicians had had to remodel my ears, blunting the tips and grafting on lobes and cutting the muscles that move them. My crest had to go and a scalp covered with revolting hair was now on the top of my skull.

Finally, and most difficult, there had been the matter of skin color. It just wasn’t possible to eliminate my natural coppery pigmentation. So they had injected a substance akin to melanin, together with a virus which would manufacture it in my body, the result being a leathery brown. I could pass for a member of the so-called “white” subspecies, one who had spent most of his life in the open.

The mimicry was perfect. I hardly recognized the creature that looked out of the mirror. My lean, square, blunt-nosed face, gray eyes, and big hands were the same or nearly so. But my black crest had been replaced with a shock of blond hair, my ears were small and immobile, my skin a dull bronze, and several of Earth’s languages were hypnotically implanted in my brain⁠—together with a set of habits and reflexes making up a pseudo-personality which should be immune to any tests that the rebels could think of.

I was Earthling! And the disguise was self-perpetuating: the hair grew and the skin color was kept permanent by the artificial “disease.” The biotechnicians had told me that if I kept the disguise long enough, till I began to age⁠—say, in a century or so⁠—the hair would actually thin and turn white as it did with the natives.

It was reassuring to think that once my job was over, I could be restored to normal. It would need another series of operations and as much time as the original transformation, but it would be as complete and scarless. I’d be human again.

I put on the clothes they had furnished me, typical Earthly garments⁠—rough trousers and shirt of bleached plant fibers, jacket and heavy shoes of animal skin, a battered old hat of matted fur known as felt. There were objects in my pockets, the usual money and papers, a claspknife, the pipe and tobacco I had trained myself to smoke and even to like. It all fitted into my character of a wandering, outdoors sort of man, an educated atavist.

I went out of the hospital with the long swinging stride of one accustomed to walking great distances.


The Center was busy around me. Behind me, the hospital and laboratories occupied a fairly small building, some eighty stories of stone and steel and plastic. On either side loomed the great warehouses, military barracks, officers’ apartments, civilian concessions, filled with the vigorous life of the starways. Behind the monstrous wall, a mile to my right, was the spaceport, and I knew that a troopship had just lately dropped gravs from Valgolia herself.

The Center swarmed with young recruits off duty, gaping at the sights, swaggering in their new uniforms. Their skins shone like polished copper in the blistering sunlight, and their crests were beginning to wilt a little. All Earth is not the tropical jungle most Valgolians think it is⁠—northern Europe is very pleasant, and Greenland is even a little on the cold side⁠—but it gets hot enough at North America Center in midsummer to fry a shilast.

A cosmopolitan throng filled the walkways. Soldiers predominated⁠—huge, shy Dacors, little slant-eyed Yangtusans, brawling Gorrads, all the manhood of Valgolia. Then there were other races, blue-skinned Vegans, furry Proximans, completely non-humanoid Sirians and Antarians. They were here as traders, observers, tourists, whatever else of a nonmilitary nature one can imagine.

I made an absentminded way through the crowds. A sudden crack on the side of my head, nearly bowling me over, brought me to awareness. I looked up into the arrogant face of one of the new recruits and heard him rasp, “Watch where you’re going, Terrie!”

The young blood in the Valgolian military is deliberately trained to harshness, even brutality, for our militarism must impress such backward colonies as Earth. It goes against our grain, but it is necessary. At another time this might have annoyed me. I could have pulled rank on him. Not only was I an officer, but such treatment must be used with intellectual deliberation. The occasional young garrison trooper who comes here with the idea that the natives are an inferior breed to be kicked around misses the whole point of Empire. If, indeed, Earth’s millions were an inferior breed, I wouldn’t have been here at all. Valgol needs an economic empire, but if all we had in mind was serfdom we’d be perfectly content with the plodding animal life of Deneb VII or a hundred other worlds.

I cringed appropriately, as if I didn’t understand Valgolian Universal, and slunk past him. But it griped me to be taken for a Terrie. If I was to become an Earthling, I would at least be a self-respecting one.


There were plenty of Terries⁠—Terrestrials⁠—around, of course, moving with their odd combination of slavish deference toward Valgolians and arrogant superiority toward mere Earthlings. They have adopted the habits and customs of civilization, entered the Imperial service, speak Valgolian even with their families. Many of them shave their heads save for a scalp lock, in imitation of the crest, and wear white robes suggesting those of civil functionaries at home.

I’ve always felt a little sorry for the class. They work, and study, and toady to us, and try so hard to be like us. It’s frustrating, because that’s exactly what we don’t want. Valgolians are Valgolians and Earthlings are men of Earth. Well, Terries are important to the ultimate aims of the Empire, but not in the way they think they are. They serve as another symbol of Valgolian conquest for Earth to hate.

I entered the Administration Building. They expected me there and took me at once to the office of General Vorka, who’s a general only as far as this solar system is concerned. Had there been any Earthlings around, I would have saluted to conform to the show of militarism, but General Vorka sat alone behind his desk, and I merely said, “Hello, Coordinator.”

The sleeves of his tunic rolled up, the heat of North America beading his forehead with sweat, the big man looked up at me. “Ah, yes. I’m glad you’re finally prepared. The sooner we get this thing started⁠—” He extended a silver galla-dust box. “Sniff? Have a seat, Conru.”

I inhaled gratefully and relaxed. The Coordinator picked up a sheaf of papers on his desk and leafed through them. “Umm-mm, only fifty-two years old and a captain already. Remarkably able, a young man like you. And your work hitherto has been outstanding. That Vegan business.⁠ ⁠…”

I said yes, I knew, but could he please get down to business. You couldn’t blame me for being a bit anxious to begin. Disguised as I was as an Earthman, I felt uncomfortable, embarrassed, almost, at being with my ex-countrymen.

The Coordinator shrugged. “Well, if you can carry this business off⁠—fine. If you fail, you may die quite unpleasantly. That’s their trouble, Conru: you wouldn’t be regarded as an individual, but as a Valgolian. Did you know that they even make such distinctions among themselves? I mean races and sub-races and social castes and the like; it’s keeping them divided and impotent, Conru. It’s also keeping them out of the Empire. A shame.”


I knew all that, of course, but I merely nodded. Coordinator Vorka was a wonderful man in his field, and if he tended to be on the garrulous side, what could I do? I said, “I know that, sir. I also know I was picked for a dangerous job because you thought I could fill the role. But I still don’t know exactly what the job is.”

Coordinator Vorka smiled. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you much more than you must already have guessed,” he said. “The anarch movement here⁠—the rebels, that is⁠—is getting no place, primarily because of internal difficulties. When members of the same group spit epithets at each other referring to what they consider racial or national distinctions which determine superiority or inferiority, the group is bound to be an insecure one. Such insecurity just does not make for a strong rebellion, Conru. They try, and we goad them⁠—but dissention splits them constantly and their revolutions fizzle out.

“They just can’t unite against us, can’t unite at all. Conru, you know how we’ve tried to educate them. It’s worked, too, to some extent. But you can’t educate three billion people who have a whole cultural pattern behind them.”

I winced. “Three billion?”

“Certainly. Earth is a rich planet, Conru, and a fairly crowded one at the same time. Bickering is inevitable. It’s a part of their culture, as much as cooperation has been a part of ours.”

I nodded. “We learned the hard way. The old Valgol was a poor planet and we had to unite to conquer space or we could not have survived.”

The Coordinator sniffed again at his silver box. “Of course. And we’re trying to help these people unite. They don’t have to make the same mistakes we did, long ago. They don’t have to at all. Get them to hate us enough, get them to hate us until all their own clannish hatreds don’t count at all.⁠ ⁠… Well, you know what happened on Samtrak.”

I knew. The Samtraks are now the entrepreneurs of the Empire, really ingenious traders, but within the memory of some of our older men they were a sore-spot. They didn’t understand the meaning of Empire any more than Earth does, and they never did understand it until we goaded them into open rebellion. The very reverse of divide and rule, you might say, and it worked. We withdrew trading privileges one by one, until they revolted successfully, thus educating themselves sociologically in only a few generations.


Vorka said, “The problem of Earth is not quite that simple.” He leaned back, made a bridge of his fingers, and peered across them at me. “Do you know precisely what a provocateur job is, Conru?”

I said that I did, but only in a hazy way, because until now my work had been pretty much restricted to social relations on the more advanced Empire planets. However, I told him that I did know the idea was to provoke discontent and, ultimately, rebellion.

The Coordinator smiled. “Well, that’s just the starter, Conru. It’s a lot more complex than that. Each planet has its own special problems. The Samtraks, for example, had a whole background of cutthroat competition. That was easy: we eliminated that by showing them what real cutthroat competition could be like. But Earth is different. Look at it this way. They fight among themselves. Because of their mythical distinctions, not realizing that there are no inferior races, only more or less advanced ones, and that individuals must be judged as individuals, not as members of groups, nations or races. A planet like Earth can be immensely valuable to the Empire, but not if it has to be garrisoned. Its contribution must be voluntary and wholehearted.”

“A difficult problem,” I said. “My opinion is that we should treat all exactly alike⁠—force them to abandon their unrealistic differences.”

“Exactly!” The Coordinator seemed pleased, but, actually, this was pretty elementary stuff. “We’re never too rough on the eager lads who come here from Valgol and kick the natives around a bit. We even encourage it when the spirit of rebelliousness dies down.”

I told him I had met one.

“Irritating, wasn’t it, Conru? Humiliating. Of course, these lads will be reconditioned to civilization when they finish their military service and prepare for more specialized work. Yes, treating all Earthlings alike is the solution. We put restrictions on these colonials; they can’t hold top jobs, and so on. And we encourage wild stories about brutality on our part. Not enough to make everybody mad at us, or even a majority⁠—the rumored tyranny has always happened to someone else. But there’s a certain class of beings who’ll get fighting mad, and that’s the class we want.”

“The leaders,” I chimed in. “The idealists. Brave, intelligent, patriotic. The kind who probably wouldn’t be a part of this racial bickering, anyway.”

“Right,” said the Coordinator. “We’ll give them the ammunition for their propaganda. We’ve been doing it. Result: the leaders get mad. Races, religions, nationalities, they hate us worse than they hate each other.”


The way he painted it, I was hardly needed at all. I told him that.

“Ideally, that would be the situation, Conru. Only it doesn’t work that way.” He took out a soft cloth and wiped his forehead. “Even the leaders are too involved in this myth of differences and they can’t concentrate all their efforts. Luron, of course, would be the other alternative⁠—”

That was a very logical statement, but sometimes logic has a way of making you laugh, and I was laughing now. Luron considered itself our arch-enemy. With a few dozen allies on a path of conquest, Luron thought it could wrest Empire from our hands. Well, we let them play. And each time Luron swooped down on one of the more primitive planets, we let them, for Luron would serve as well as ourselves in goading backward peoples to unite and advance. Perhaps Luron, as a social entity, grew wiser each time. Certainly the primitive colonials did. Luron had started a chain reaction which threatened to overthrow the tyranny of superstition on a hundred planets. Good old Luron, our arch-enemy, would see the light itself some day.

The Coordinator shook his head. “Can’t use Luron here. Technologies are entirely too similar. It might shatter both planets, and we wouldn’t want that.”

“So what do we use?”

“You, Conru. You get in with the revolutionaries, you make sure that they want to fight, you⁠—”

“I see,” I told him. “Then I try to stop it at the last minute. Not so soon that the rebellion doesn’t help at all⁠—”

The Coordinator put his hand down flat. “Nothing of the sort. They must fight. And they must be defeated, again and again, if necessary, until they are ready to succeed. That will be, of course, when they are totally against us.”

I stood up. “I understand.”

He waved me back into the chair. “You’ll be lucky to understand it by the time you’re finished with this assignment and transferred to another⁠ ⁠… that is, if you come out of this one alive.”

I smiled a bit sheepishly and told him to go ahead.

“We have some influence in the underground movement, as you might logically expect. The leader is a man we worked very hard to have elected.”

“A member of one of the despised races?” I guessed.

“The best we could do at this point was to help elect someone from a minority subgroup of the dominant white race. The leader’s name is Levinsohn. He is of the white subgroup known as Jews.”


“How well is this Levinsohn accepted by the movement?”

“Considerable resistance and hostility,” the Coordinator said. “That’s to be expected. However, we’ve made sure that there is no other organization the minority-haters can join, so they have to follow him or quit. He’s able, all right; one of the most able men they have, which helps our aims. Even those who discriminate against Jews reluctantly admire him. He’s moved the headquarters of the movement out into space, and the man’s so brilliant that we don’t even know where. We’ll find out, mainly through you, I hope, but that isn’t the important thing.”

“What is?” I asked, baffled.

“To report on the unification of Earth. It’s possible that the anarch movement can achieve it under Levinsohn. In that case, we’ll make sure they win, or think they win, and will gladly sign a treaty giving Earth equal planetary status in the Empire.”

“And if unity hasn’t been achieved?”

“We simply crush this rebellion and make them start all over again. They’ll have learned some degree of unity from this revolt and so the next one will be more successful.” He stood up and I got out of my chair to face him. “That’s for the future, though. We’ll work out our plans from the results of this campaign.”

“But isn’t there a lot of danger in the policy of fomenting rebellion against us?” I asked.

He lifted his shoulders. “Evolution is always painful, forced evolution even more so. Yes, there are great dangers, but advance information from you and other agents can reduce the risk. It’s a chance we must take, Conru.”

“Conrad,” I corrected him, smiling. “Plain Mr. Conrad Haugen⁠ ⁠… of Earth.”

II

A few days later, I left North America Center, and in spite of the ominous need to hurry, my eastward journey was a ramble. The anarchs would be sure to check my movements as far back as they could, and my story had better ring true. For the present, I must be my role, a vagabond.

The city was soon behind me. It was far from other settlement⁠—it is good policy to keep the Centers rather isolated, and we could always contact our garrisons in native towns quickly enough. Before long I was alone in the mountains.

I liked that part of the trip. The Rockies are huge and serene, a fresh cold wind blows from their peaks and roars in the pines, brawling rivers foam through their dales and canyons⁠—it is a big landscape, clean and strong and lonely. It speaks with silence.

I hitched a ride for some hundreds of miles with one of the great truck-trains that dominate the western highways. The driver was Earthling, and though he complained much about the Valgolian tyranny he looked well-fed, healthy, secure. I thought of the wars which had been laying the planet waste, the social ruin and economic collapse which the Empire had mended, and wondered if Terra would ever be fit to rule itself.

I came out of the enormous mountainlands into the sage plains of Nevada. For a few days I worked at a native ranch, listening to the talk and keeping my mouth shut. Yes, there was discontent!

“Their taxes are killing me,” said the owner. “What the hell incentive do I have to produce if they take it away from me?” I nodded, but thought: Your kind was paying more taxes in the old days, and had less to show for it. Here you get your money back in public works and universal security. No one on Earth is cold or hungry. Can you only produce for your own private gain, Earthling?

“The labor draft got my kid the other day,” said the foreman. “He’ll spend two good years of his life working for them, and prob’ly come back hopheaded about the good o’ the Empire.”

There was a time, I thought, when millions of Earthlings clamored for work, or spent years fighting their wars, gave their youth to a god of battle who only clamored for more blood. And how can we have a stable society without educating its members to respect it?

“I want another kid,” said the female cook. “Two ain’t really enough. They’re good boys, but I want a girl too. Only the Eridanian law says if I go over my quota, if I have one more, they’ll sterilize me! And they’d do it, the meddling devils.”

A billion Earthlings are all the Solar System can hold under decent standards of living without exhausting what natural resources their own culture left us, I thought. We aren’t ready to permit emigration; our own people must come first. But these beings can live well here. Only now that we’ve eliminated famine, plague, and war, they’d breed beyond reason, breed till all the old evils came back to throttle them, if we didn’t have strict population control.


“Yeah,” said her husband bitterly. “They never even let my cousin have kids. Sterilized him damn near right after he was born.”

Then he’s a moron, or carries hemophilia, or has some other hereditary taint, I thought. Can’t they see we’re doing it for their own good? It costs us fantastically in money and trouble, but the goal is a level of health and sanity such as this race never in its history dreamed possible.

“They’re stranglin’ faith,” muttered someone else.

Anyone in the Empire may worship as he chooses, but should permission be granted to preach demonstrable falsehoods, archaic superstitions, or antisocial nonsense? The old “free” Earth was not noted for liberalism.

“We want to be free.”

Free? Free for what? To loose the thousand Earthly races and creeds and nationalisms on each other⁠—and on the Galaxy⁠—to wallow in barbarism and slaughter and misery as before we came? To let our works and culture be thrown in the dust, the labor of a century be demolished, not because it is good or bad but simply because it is Valgolian? Epsilon Eridanian!

“We’ll be free. Not too long to wait, either⁠—”

That’s up to nobody else but you!

I couldn’t get much specific information, but then I hadn’t expected to. I collected my pay and drifted on eastward, talking to people of all classes⁠—farmers, mechanics, shopowners, tramps, and such data as I gathered tallied with those of Intelligence.

About twenty-five percent of the population, in North America at least⁠—it was higher in the Orient and Africa⁠—was satisfied with the Imperium, felt they were better off than they would have been in the old days. “The Eridanians are pretty decent, on the whole. Some of ’em come in here and act nice and human as you please.”

Some fifty percent was vaguely dissatisfied, wanted “freedom” without troubling to define the term, didn’t like the taxes or the labor draft or the enforced disarmament or the legal and social superiority of Valgolians or some such thing, had perhaps suffered in the reconquest. But this group constituted no real threat. It would tend to be passive whatever happened. Its greatest contribution would be sporadic rioting.

The remaining twenty-five percent was bitter, waiting its chance, muttering of a day of revenge⁠—and some portion of this segment was spreading propaganda, secretly manufacturing and distributing weapons, engaging in clandestine military drill, and maintaining contact with the shadowy Legion of Freedom.

Childish, melodramatic name! But it had been well chosen to appeal to a certain type of mind. The real, organized core of the anarch movement was highly efficient. In those months I spent wandering and waiting, its activities mounted almost daily.


The illegal radio carried unending programs, propaganda, fabricated stories of Valgolian brutality. I knew from personal experience that some were false, and I knew the whole Imperial system well enough to spot most of the rest at least partly invented. I realized we couldn’t trace such a well-organized setup of mobile and coordinated units, and jamming would have been poor tactics, but even so⁠—

The day is coming.⁠ ⁠… Earthmen, free men, be ready to throw off your shackles.⁠ ⁠… Stand by for freedom!

I stuck to my role. When autumn came, I drifted into one of the native cities, New Chicago, a warren of buildings near the remains of the old settlement, the same gigantic slum that its predecessor had been. I got a room in a cheap hotel and a job in a steel mill.

I was Conrad Haugen, Norwegian-American, assigned to a spaceship by the labor draft and liking it well enough to re-enlist when my term was up. I had wandered through much of the Empire and had had a great deal of contact with Eridanians, but was most emphatically not a Terrie. In fact, I thought it would be well if the redskin yoke could be thrown off, both because of liberty and the good pickings to be had in the Galaxy if the Empire should collapse. I had risen to second mate on an interstellar tramp, but could get no further because of the law that the two highest officers must be Valgolian. That had embittered me and I returned to Earth, footloose and looking for trouble.


I found it. With officer’s training and the strength due to a home planet with a gravity half again that of Earth, I had no difficulty at all becoming a foreman. There was a big fellow named Mike Riley who thought he was entitled to the job. We settled it behind a shed, with the workmen looking on, and I beat him unconscious as fast as possible. The raw, sweating savagery of it made me feel ill inside. They’d let this loose among the stars!

After that I was one of the boys and Riley was my best friend. We went out together, wenching and drinking, raising hell in the cold dirty canyons of steel and stone which the natives called streets. Valgolia, Valgolia, the clean bare windswept heights of your mountains, soughing trees and thunderous waters and Maara waiting for me to come home! Riley often proposed that we find an Eridanian and beat him to death, and I would agree, hiccupping, because I knew they didn’t go alone into native quarters any more. I sat in the smoky reek of the bars, half deafened by the clatter and raucousness called music, trying not to think of a certain low-ceilinged, quiet tavern amid the gardens of Kalariho, and sobbed the bitterness of Conrad Haugen into my beer.

“Dirty redskins,” I muttered. “Dirty, stinking, bald-headed, sons of bitches. Them and their goddamn Empire. Why, y’know, if ’t hadn’ been f’ their laws I’d be skipper o’ my own ship now. I knew more’n that slob o’ a captain. But he was born Eridanian⁠—God, to get my hands on his throat!”

Riley nodded. Through the haze of smoke I saw that his eyes were narrowed. He wasn’t drunk when he didn’t want to be, and at times like this he was suddenly as sober as I was, and that in spite of not having a Valgolian liver.

I bided my time, not too obviously anxious to contact the Legion. I just thought they were swell fellows, the only brave men left in the rotten, stinking Empire; I’d sure be on their side when the day came. I worked in the mill, and when out with the boys lamented the fact that we were really producing for the damned Eridanians, we couldn’t even keep the products of our own sweat. I wasn’t obtrusive about it, of course. Most of the time we were just boozing. But when the talk came to the Empire, I made it clear just where I stood.


The winter went. I continued the dreary round of days, wondering how long it would take, wondering how much time was left. If the Legion was at all interested, they would be checking my background right now. Let them. There wouldn’t be much to check, but what there was had been carefully manufactured by the experts of the Intelligence Service.

Riley came into my room one evening. His face was tight, and he plunged to business. “Con, do you really mean all you’ve said about the Empire?”

“Why, of course. I⁠—” I glanced out the window, as if expecting to see a spy. If there were any, I knew he would be native. The Empire just doesn’t have enough men for a secret police, even if we wanted to indulge in that sort of historically ineffective control.

“You’d like to fight them? Like really to help the Legion of Freedom when they strike?”

“You bet your obscenity life!” I snarled. “When they land on Earth, I’ll get a gun somewhere and be right there in the middle of the battle with them!”

“Yeah.” Riley puffed a cigarette for a while. Then he said, “Look, I can’t tell you much. I’m taking a chance just telling you this. It could mean my life if you passed it on to the Eridanians.”

“I won’t.”

His eyes were bleak. “You damn well better not. If you’re caught at that⁠—”

He drew a finger sharply across his throat.

“Quit talking like a B-class stereo,” I bristled. “If you’ve got something to tell me, let’s have it. Otherwise get out.”

“Yeah, sure. We checked up on you, Con, and we think you’re as good a prospect as we ever came across. If you want to fight the Eridanians now⁠—join the Legion now⁠—here’s your chance.”

“My God, you know I do! But who⁠—”

“I can’t tell you a thing. But if you really want to join, memorize this.” Riley gave me a small card on which was written a name and address. “Destroy it, thoroughly. Then quit at the mill and drift to this other place, as if you’d gotten tired of your work and wanted to hit the road again. Take your time, don’t make a beeline for it. When you do arrive, they’ll take care of you.”

I nodded, grimly. “I’ll do it, Mike. And thanks!”

“Just my job.” He smiled, relaxing, and pulled a flask from his overcoat. “Okay, Con, that’s that. We’d better not go out to drink, after this, but nothing’s to stop us from getting stinko here.”

III

Spring had come and almost gone when I wandered into the little Maine town which was my destination. It lay out of the way, with forested hills behind it and the sea at its foot. Most of the houses were old, solidly built, almost like parts of the land, and the inhabitants were slow-spoken, steady folk, fishermen and artisans and the like, settled here and at home with the darkling woods and the restless sea and the high windy sky. I walked down a narrow street with a cool salt breeze ruffling my hair and decided that I liked Portsboro. It reminded me of my own home, twenty light-years away on the wide beaches of Kealvigh.

I made my way to Nat Hawkins’ store and asked for work like any drifter. But when we were alone in the back room, I told him, “I’m Conrad Haugen. Mike Riley said you’d be looking for me.”

He nodded calmly. “I’ve been expecting you. You can work here a few days, sleep at my house, and we’ll run the tests after dark.”

He was old for an Earthling, well over sixty, with white hair and lined leathery face. But his blue eyes were as keen and steady, his gnarled hands as strong and sure as those of any young man. He spoke softly and steadily, around the pipe which rarely left his mouth, and there was a serenity in him which I could hardly associate with anarch fanaticism. But the first night he led me into his cellar, and through a well-hidden trapdoor to a room below, and there he had a complete psychological laboratory.

I gaped at the gleaming apparatus. “How off Earth⁠—”

“It came piece by piece, much of it from Epsilon Eridani itself,” he smiled. “There is, after all, no ban on humans owning such material. But to play safe, we spread the purchases over several years, and made them in the names of many people.”

“But you⁠—”

“I took a degree in psychiatry once. I can handle this.”

He could. He put me through the mill in the next few nights⁠—intelligence tests, psychometry, encephalography, narcosis, psycho-probing, everything his machines and his skill could cover. He did not find out anything we hadn’t meant to be found out. The Service had ways of guarding its agents with counter-blocks. But he got a very thorough picture of Conrad Haugen.

In the end he said, still calmly, “This is amazing. You have an I.Q. well over the borderline of genius, an astonishing variety of assorted knowledge about the Empire and about technical subjects, and an implacable hatred of Eridanian rule⁠—based on personal pique and containing self-seeking elements, but no less firm for that. You’re out for yourself, but you’ll stand by your comrades and your cause. We’d never hoped for more recruits of your caliber.”

“When do I start?” I asked impatiently.

“Easy, easy,” he smiled. “There’s time. We’ve waited fifty years; we can wait a while longer.” He riffled through the dossier. “Actually, the difficulty is where to assign you. A man who knows astrogation, the use of weapons and machines, and the Empire, who is physically strong as a bull, can lead men, and has a dozen other accomplishments, really seems wasted on any single job. I’m not sure, but I think you’ll do best as a roving agent, operating between Main Base and the planets where we have cells, and helping with the work at the base when you’re there.”


My heart fairly leaped into my throat. This was more than I had dared hope for!

“I think,” said Nat Hawkins, “you’d better just drop out of sight now. Go to Hood Island and stay there till the spaceship comes next time. You can spend the interval profitably, resting and getting a little fattened up; you look half starved. And Barbara can tell you about the Legion.” His leather face smiled itself into a mesh of fine wrinkles. “I think you deserve that, Conrad. And so does Barbara.”

Mentally, I shrugged. My stay in New Chicago had pretty well convinced me that all Earthling females were sluts. And what of it?

The following night, Hawkins and I rowed out to Hood Island. It lay about a mile offshore, a wooded, rocky piece of land on which a moon-whitened surf boomed and rattled. The place had belonged to the Hood family since the first settlements here, but Barbara was the last of them.

Hawkins’ voice came softly to me above the crash of surf, the surge of waves and windy roar of trees as we neared the dock. “She has more reason than most to hate the Eridanians. The Hoods used to be great people around here. They were just about ruined when the redskins first came a-conquering, space bombardment wiped out their holdings, but they made a new start. Then her grandfather and all his brothers were killed in the revolt. Ten years ago, her father was caught while trying to hijack a jetload of guns, and her mother didn’t live long after that. Then her brother was drafted into a road crew and reported killed in an accident. Since then she hasn’t lived for much except the Legion.”

“I don’t blame her,” I said. My voice was a little tight, for indeed I didn’t. But somebody has to suffer; civilization has a heavy price. I couldn’t help adding, “But the Empire’s lately begun paying pensions to cases like that.”

“I know. She draws hers, too, and uses it for the Legion.”

That, of course, was the reason for the pensions.

The boat bumped against the dock. Hawkins threw the painter up to the man who suddenly emerged from the shadow. I saw the cold silver moonlight gleam off the rifle in his hand. “You know me, Eb,” said Hawkins. “This here’s Con Haugen. I slipped you the word about him.”

“Glad to know you, Con.” Eb’s horny palm clasped mine. I liked his looks, as I did those of most of the higher-up Legionnaires. They were altogether different from the low-caste barbarians who were all the rebels I’d seen before. They had a great load of ignorance to drag with them.

We went up a garden path to a rambling stone house. Inside, it was long and low and filled with the memoirs of more gracious days, art and fine furniture, books lining the walls, a fire crackling ruddily in the living room.

“Barbara Hood⁠—Conrad Haugen.”


Almost, I gaped at her. I had expected some gaunt, dowdy fanatic, a little mad perhaps. But she was⁠—well, she was tall and supple and clad in a long dark-blue evening gown that shimmered against her white skin. She was not conventionally pretty, her face was too strong for all of its fine lines, but she had huge blue eyes and a wide soft mouth and a stubborn chin. The light glowed gold on the hair that tumbled to her shoulders.

I blurted something out and she smiled, with a curious little twist that somehow caught in me, and said merely, “Hello, Conrad.”

“Glad to be here,” I mumbled.

“The spaceship should arrive in a month or so,” she went on. “I’ll teach you as much as I can in that time. And you’d better get your own special knowledge onto a record wire, just in case. I understand you’ve been in the Vegan System, for instance, which nobody else in the Legion knows very much about.”

Her tone was cool and businesslike, but with an underlying warmth. It was like the sea wind which blew over the islands, and as reviving. I recovered myself and helped mix some drinks. The rest of the evening passed very pleasantly.

Later a servant showed me to my room, a big one overlooking the water. I lay for a while listening to the waves, thinking drowsily how rebellion, when its motives were honest, drew in the best natives of any world, and presently I fell asleep.

The month passed all too quickly and agreeably. I learned things which Intelligence had spent the last three years trying to find out, and dared not attempt to transmit the information. That was maddening, though I knew there was time. But otherwise⁠—

I puttered about the place. There were only three servants, old family retainers who had also joined the anarchs. They had little modern machinery, and of course Earthlings weren’t allowed robots, so there was need for an extra man or two. I cut wood and repaired the roof and painted the boathouse, spaded the garden and cleared out brush and set up a new picket fence. It was good to use my hands and muscles again.

And then Barbara was around to help with most of what I did. In jeans and jersey, the sun ablaze on her hair, laughing at my clumsy jokes or frowning over some tough bit of work, she was another being than the cool, lovely woman who talked books and music and history with me in the evenings, or the crisp bitter anarch who spat facts and figures at me like an angry machine. And yet they were all her. I remembered Ydis, who was dead, and the old pain stirred again. But Barbara was alive.

She was more alive to me than most of Valgolia.

I make no apologies for my feelings. I had been away from anything resembling home for some two years now. But I was careful to remain merely friendly with Barbara.


She didn’t know a great deal about the rebel movement⁠—no one agent on Earth did⁠—but her knowledge was still considerable. There was a fortified base somewhere out in space, built up over a period of four years with the help of certain unnamed elements or planets outside the Empire. I suspected several rival states of that!

Weapons of all kinds were manufactured there in quantities sufficient to arm the million or so rebels of the “regular” force, the twenty million or so in the Solar System and elsewhere who held secret drills and conducted terrorist activities, and the many millions more who were expected to rise spontaneously when the rebel fleet struck.

There was close coordination and a central command at Main Base for the undergrounds of all dissatisfied planets⁠—a new and formidable feature which had not been present in the earlier uprisings. There were rumors of a new and terrible weapon being developed.

In any case, the plan was to assault Epsilon Eridani itself simultaneously with the uprisings in the colonies, so that the Imperial fleet would be recalled to defend the mother world. The anarchs hoped to blast Valgolia to ruin in a few swift blows, and expected that the Empire’s jealous neighbors would sweep in to complete the wreckage.

This gentle girl spoke of the smashing of worlds, the blasting of helpless humans, and the destruction of a culture as if it were a matter of insect extermination.

“Have you ever thought,” I asked casually once, “that the Juranians and the Slighs and our other hypothetical allies may not respect the integrity of Sol any more than the Eridanians do?”

“We can handle them,” she answered confidently. “Oh, it won’t be easy, that time of transition. But we’ll be free.”

“And what then?” I went on. “I don’t want to be defeatist, Barbara, but you know as well as I do that the Eridanians didn’t conquer all mankind at a single swoop. When they invented the interstellar engine and arrived here, man was tearing the Solar System apart in a war between super-nations that was rapidly reducing him to barbarism. The redskins traded for a while, sold arms, some of their adventurers took sides in the conflict, the government stepped in to protect Eridanian citizens and investments⁠—the side which the Eridanians helped won the war, then found its allies were running things and tried to revolt against the protectorate⁠—and without really meaning to, the strangers were conquering and ruling Earth.

“But the different factions of man still hate each other’s guts. There are still capitalists and communists, blacks, whites and Browns, Hindus and Muslims, Germans and Frenchmen, city people and country people⁠—a million petty divisions. There’ll be civil war as soon as the Eridanians are gone.”

“Some, perhaps,” she agreed. “But I think it can be handled. If we have to have civil wars, well, let’s get them over with and live as free men.”

Personally, I could see nothing in the sort of military dictatorship that would inevitably arise which was preferable to an alien, firm, but just rule that insured stability and a reasonable degree of individual liberty.

But I didn’t say that aloud.


Another time we talked of the de-industrialization of Earth. Barbara was, of course, venomous about it. “We were rich once,” she said. “All Earth was. We have one of the richest planets in the Galaxy. But because their own world is poor, the redskins have to take the natural resources of their conquests. Earth is a granary and a lumberyard for Valgolia, and the iron of Mars and the petrolite of Venus go back to their industry. What few factories they allow us, they take their fat percentage of the product.”

“Certainly they’ve made us economically dependent,” I said, “and their standard of living is undoubtedly higher than ours. But ours has, on the whole, gone up since the conquest. We eat better, we’re healthier, we aren’t burdened with the cost of past and present and future wars. Our natural resources aren’t being squandered. The forests and watersheds and farmlands we ruined are coming back under Eridanian supervision.”

She gave me an odd look. “I thought you didn’t like the Empire.”

“I don’t,” I growled. “I don’t want to be held back just because I’m white-skinned. But I’ve known enough reddies personally so that I try to be fair.”

“It’s all right with me,” she said. “I can see your point, intellectually, though I can’t really feel it. But not many of the people will out at Main Base.”

“Free men,” I muttered sardonically.

We went fishing, and swam in the tumbling surf, and stretched lazily on the beach with the sun pouring over us. Or we might go tramping off into the woods on a picnic, to run laughing back when a sudden rain rushed out of the sky, and afterward sit with beer and cheese sandwiches listening to a wire of Beethoven or Mozart or Tchaikovsky⁠—the old Earthlings could write music, if they did nothing else!⁠—and to the rain shouting on the roof. We might have a little highly illegal target practice, or a game of chess, or long conversations which wandered off every which way. I began to have a sneaking hope that the spaceship would be delayed.

We went out one day in Barbara’s little catboat. The waves danced around us, chuckling against the hull, glittering with sunlight, and the sail was like a snow mountain against the sky. For a while we chatted dreamily, ate our lunch, threw the scraps to the hovering gulls. Then Barbara fell silent.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing. Touch of Weltschmerz, maybe.” She smiled at me. “You know, Con, you don’t really belong in the Legion.”

“How so?” I raised my eyebrows.

“You⁠—well, you’re so darned honest, so really decent under that carefully rough surface, so⁠—reasonable. You’ll never make a good fanatic.”

Honest! I looked away from her. The bright day seemed suddenly to darken.

IV

Spaceships from Main Base had little trouble coming to Earth with their cargoes of guns, propaganda, instructors, and whatever else the rebels on the planet needed. They would take up an orbit just beyond the atmosphere and send boats to the surface after dark. There was little danger of their being detected if they took the usual precautions; a world is simply too big to blockade completely.

Ours dropped on noiseless gravitic beams into the nighted island woods. We had been watching for it the last few days, and now Eb came running to tell us it was here. The pilot followed after him.

“Harry Kane, Conrad Haugen,” Barbara introduced us.

I shook hands, sizing him up. He was tall for an Earthling, almost as big as I, dark-haired, with good-looking young features. He wore some approximation of a uniform, dark-blue tunic and breeches, peaked cap, captain’s insignia, which gave him a rather dashing look. It shouldn’t have made any difference to me, of course, but I didn’t like the way he smiled at Barbara.

She explained my presence, and he nodded eagerly. “Glad to have you, Haugen. We need good men, and badly.” Then to her: “Get Hawkins. You and he are recalled to Main Base.”

“What? But⁠—”

A dark exultation lit his face. “The time for action is near⁠—very near! We’re pulling all our best agents off the planets. They can work more effectively with the fleet now.”

I tried to look as savagely gleeful as they, but inwardly I groaned. How in all the hells was I going to contact Vorka? If I were stranded out in space when the fleet got under way⁠—no, they must have an ultrabeam. I’d manage somehow to call on that even if they caught me at it.

We sent Eb in a boat to get Hawkins while Barbara and I packed a few necessities. Kane paced back and forth, spilling out the news from Main Base, word of mighty forces gathering, rumors of help promised from outside, it was like the thunder which mutters just before a gale.

Presently Hawkins arrived. The old man’s calm was undisturbed: he puffed his pipe and said quietly, “I called up my housekeeper, told her my sister in California was suddenly taken sick and I was leaving at once for the transcontinental jetport. Just to account for disappearing, you know. There aren’t any Eridanians or Terries hereabouts, but we desperate characters⁠—” he grinned, briefly⁠—“can’t be too careful. Brought my equipment along, of course. I suppose they want me to do psychometry on fleet personnel?”

“Something on that order. I don’t know.”

We made our way through a fine drizzle of rain to the little torpedo of the spaceboat. I looked around into the misty dark and breathed a deep lungful of the cool wet wind. And I saw that Barbara was doing the same.


She smiled up at me through the night and the thin sad rain. “Earth is a beautiful world, Con,” she whispered. “I wonder if we’ll ever see it again.”

I squeezed her hand, silently, and we crowded into the boat.

Kane made a smooth takeoff. In minutes we were beyond the atmosphere, Earth was a great glowing shield of cloudy blue behind us, and the stars were bitter bright against darkness. We sent a coded call signal and got a directional beam from the ship. Before long we were approaching it.

I studied the lean black cruiser. She seemed to be of about the same design as the old Solarian interplanetary ships, modified somewhat to accommodate the star drive. Apparently, she was one of those built at Main Base. Her bow guns were dark shadows against the clotted cold silver of the Milky Way. I thought of the death and the ruin which could flame from them, I thought of the hell she and her kind bore⁠—atomic bombs, radiodust bombs, chemical bombs, disease bombs, gravity snatchers, needle beams, disintegrative shells, darkness and doom and the new barbarism⁠—and felt a stiffening within me. Fostering this murderousness was a frightful risk. The main defense against it was Intelligence, and that depended on agents like myself. Perhaps only myself.

The crew was rather small, no battles being anticipated. But they were well disciplined, uniformed and trained, a new Solarian army built up from the fragments of the old. The captain was a stiff gray German who had been a leader in the earlier revolt and since fled to space, but most of the officers, such as Kane, were young and violent in their eagerness.

We orbited around the planet for another day or so till all the boats had returned. There was tension in the ship⁠—if the Imperial navy should happen to spot us, we were done. Off duty, we would sit around talking, smoking, playing games with little concentration.

Kane spent most of his free hours with Barbara. They had much to talk about. I swallowed a certain irrational jealousy and wandered around cautiously pumping as many men as I could.

We got under way at last. By this time I had learned that Main Base was a planet, but no more. Only the highest leadership of the Legion knew its location, and they were pledged to swallow the poison they always carried if there seemed to be any danger of capture.

For several days by the clocks we ran outward, roughly toward Draco. Our velocity was not revealed, and the slow shift in the outside view didn’t help much. I guess that we had come perhaps ten parsecs, but that was only a guess.

Approaching Main Base. Stand by.


When the call rang hollowly down the ship’s passageways, I could feel the weariness and tautness easing, I could see homecoming in the faces around me. I stole a glance at Barbara. Her eyes were wide and her lips parted, she looked ahead as if to stare through the metal walls. She had never been here either, here where all her dreams came home.

So we landed, we slipped down out of the dark and the cold and the void, and I heard the rattle and groan of metal easing into place. When the ship’s interior grav-field was turned off, I felt a sudden heaviness; this world had almost a quarter again the pull of Earth. But people got used to that quickly enough. It was the landscape which was hard to bear.

They had told us that even though Boreas had a breathable atmosphere and a temperature not always fatally low, it was a bleak place. But to one who had never been far from the lovely lands of Earth, its impact was like a blow in the face. Barbara shuddered close to me as we came out of the airlock, and I put an arm about her waist, knowing the sudden feeling of loneliness which rose in her.


Save for the spaceport and other installations, Main Base was underground. There was no city to relieve the grimness of the scene. We were in a narrow valley between sheer, ragged cliffs that soared crazily into a murky sky. The sun was low, a smouldering disc of dull red like curdling blood; its sullen light glimmered on the undying snow and ice and seemed only to make the land darker. Stars glittered here and there in the dusky heavens, hard and bright and cruel, almost, as in space.

Dark sky, dark land, dark world, with the sheer terrible mountains climbing gauntly for the upper gloom, crags and glaciers like fangs against the dizzy cliffs, with the great shadows marching across the bloody snow toward us, with a crazed wind muttering and whining and chewing at our flesh. It was cold. The cold was like a knife. Pain stung with every breath and eyes watered with tears that froze on suddenly numb cheeks. A great shudder ripped through us and we ran toward the entrance to the city. The snow crunched dry and old under our boots, the cold ate up through the soles, and the wind whistled its scorn.

Even when an elevator had taken us a mile down into the warmth and light of the base, we could not forget. It was a city for a million men and other beings and more than a few women and children, a city of long streets and small neat apartments, hydroponic farms and food synthesizers, schools, shops and amusement places, factories, military barracks and arsenals, even an occasional little flower garden. Its people could live here almost indefinitely, working and waiting for their day of rising.

There was little formality in the civilian areas. Everyone who had come this far was trusted. A man came up to us new arrivals from Earth, asked about conditions there, and then said he would show us to our quarters. Later we would be told to whom we should report for duty.

“Let’s go, then, Con,” said Barbara, and slipped a cool little hand into mine. I could not refrain from casting a smug backward glance at the somewhat chapfallen Kane.

V

We slipped quickly into the routine of the place. It was a taut-nerved, hardworking daily round. I could feel the savage expectancy building up like a physical force, but intelligent life is adaptable and we got used to it. There was work to do.

Hawkins was second in command of the psychological service, testing and screening and treating personnel, working on training and indoctrination, and with a voice in the general staff where problems of unit coordination and psychological warfare were concerned. Barbara worked under him, secretary and records keeper and general troubleshooter. Those were high posts, but both were allowed to retain the nominally civilian status which they preferred.

Their influence and my own test scores got me appointed assistant supervisor of the shipyards. That suited me very well⁠—I was reasonably free from direct orders and discipline, with authority to come and go pretty much as I pleased. They kept me busy; sometimes I worked the clock around, and I did my best to further production of the weapons which might destroy my planet. For whatever I did would make little difference at this late date.

A good deal of my time also went to drill with the armed forces of which, like every able-bodied younger man, I was a reserve member. They put me in an engineer unit and I soon had command of it. I did my best here too, whipping my grim young charges into a sapper group comparable to the Empire’s, for I had to be above all suspicion, even of incompetence.

We worked at our learning. We went topside and shivered and manned our guns, set our mines and threw up our bridges, in the racking cold of Boreas. Over ancient snow and ice we trotted, lost in the jumbled wilderness of cruel peaks and railing wind, peeling the skin from our fingers when we touched metal, camped under scornful stars and a lash of drifting ice-dust⁠—but we learned!

My own, more private education went on apace. I found where we were. It was a forgotten red dwarf star out near the shadowy border of the Empire, listed in the catalogues as having one Class III planet of no interest or value. That was a good choice; no spaceship would ever happen into this system by accident or exploration. The anarchs had built their hopes on the one lonely planet, and had named it Boreas after the god of the north wind in one of their mythologies. My company called it less complimentary things.

The base, including the attached city, was under military command which ultimately led up to the general staff of the Legion. This was a council of officers from half a score of rebellious planets, though Earthlings predominated and, of course, Simon Levinsohn held the supreme authority. I met him a few times, a gaunt, lonely man, enormously able, ridden by his cause as by a nightmare, but not unkindly on a personal level. With just that indomitable heart, the Maccabees had faced Rome’s iron legions⁠—Valgolia was greatly interested in the ancient history of a conquered province, knowing how often it held the key to current problems.

There was also a liaison officer from Luron sitting at staff meetings. Luron!


When I first saw him, this Colonel Wergil, I stood stiff and cold and felt the bristling along my spine. He looked as humanoid as most of the races at the base. Hairless, faintly scaled greenish-yellow skin, six fingers to a hand, and flat chinless face don’t make that breed hideous to me; I have reckoned Ganolons and Mergri among my friends. But Luron⁠—the old and deadly rival, the lesser empire watching its chance to pounce on us, hating us for the check we are on the ambitions of their militarists, Luron.

I have no race prejudices and am willing to take the word of our comparative psychologists that there is no more inherent evil in the Luronians than in any other stock, that the peculiar cold viciousness of their civilization is a matter of unfortunate cultural rather than biological evolution and could be changed in time. But none of this alters the fact that at present they are what they are, brilliant, greedy, heartless, and a menace to the peace of the Galaxy. I have been too long engaged in the struggle between my nation and theirs to think otherwise.

Other states had sent some clandestine help to the Legion, weapons and money and vague promises. Luron, I soon found, had said it would attack us in full strength if the uprising showed a good chance of success, and meanwhile, they gave assistance, credits and materiel and the still more important machine tools, and Wergil’s military advice was useful.

I know now, as I suspected even then, that Levinsohn and his associates were not fooled as to Luron’s ultimate intentions. Indeed, they planned to make common cause with what remained of Valgolia, as well as certain other traditional foes of their present ally, as soon as they had gained their objectives of independence, and stop any threat of aggression from Luron. It was shrewdly planned, but such a shaky coalition, still bleeding with the hurts and hatreds of a struggle just ended, would be weaker than the Empire, and Luron almost certainly would have sowed further dissension in it and waited for its decay before striking.

The Earthlings have a proverb to the effect that he who sups with the Devil must use a long spoon. But they seemed to have forgotten it now.

The attack, I learned, was scheduled for about four months from the time the agents were recalled. The rebels were counting on the Valgolian power being spread too thinly over the Empire to stand off their massed assault on a few key points. Then, with the home planet a radioactive ruin, with revolt in a score of planetary systems and the ensuing chaos and communications breakdown, and with the Luronians invading, the Imperial fleet and military would have to make terms with the anarchs.


It would work. I knew with a dark chill that it would work. Unless somehow I could get a warning out. That had to be done for more than the protection of Epsilon Eridani, which, even in a surprise attack could defend itself better than these conspirators realized. But all bloodshed should be spared, if possible⁠—and the rebellion did not yet deserve to succeed, for the unity achieved thus far had been the unity of a snake pit against a temporary enemy.

Did it all rest on me? God of space, had the whole burden of history suddenly fallen on my shoulders?

I didn’t dare think about it. I forced the consequences of failure out of my forebrain, back down into the unconscious, the breeding ground of nightmares, and lived from one day to the next. I worked, and waited, learned what I could and watched for my chance.

But it was not all grimness and concentration. It couldn’t be; intelligent life just isn’t built that way. We had our social activities, small gatherings or big parties, we relaxed and played. At first I found that gratifying, for it gave me a chance to pump the others. Then I found it maddening, because it kept me from snooping and laying plans. Finally it began to hurt⁠—I was coming to know the anarchs.

They lived and laughed and loved even as humans do. They were basically as decent and reasonable as any similar group of Valgolians. Many were as tormented as I by the thought of the slaughter they readied. There were embittered ones, who had lost all they held dear, and I realized that, while civilization has its price, you can’t be objective about it when you are the one who must pay. There were others who had been well off and had chucked all their hopes to join a desperate cause in which they happened to believe. There were children⁠—and what had they done to deserve having their parents gambling away life?

In spite of their appearance, to which I was now accustomed, they were human. When I had laughed and talked and sung and drunk beer and danced and arranged entertainments with them, they were my friends.

Moodily, I began to see that I would be one of the price-payers.

I saw most of Hawkins and Barbara, and after them⁠—because of her⁠—Kane. The old psychologist and I got along famously. He would drop into my room for a smoke and a cup of coffee and a drawled conversation whenever he had the chance. His slow gentle voice, his trenchancy, the way the little crinkles appeared around his eyes when he smiled, reminded me of my father. I often wish those two could have met. They would have enjoyed each other.

Then Barbara would stop by on her way from work, or, better yet, she would ask me over to her apartment for a home-cooked dinner. Yes, she could cook too. We would sometimes take long walks down the corridors of the city, we even went up once in a while to the surface for a breath of cold air and loneliness, and it was the most natural thing in the world for us to go hand in hand.

There was no sunlight underground. But when the fluorotube glow shone on her hair, I thought of sunlight on Earth, the high keen light of the Colorado plateaus, the morning light stealing through the trees of Hood Island.

Ydis, Ydis, I said, once your violet eyes were like the skies over Kalariho, over Kealvigh, our home, pasture land of winds. But it has been so long. It has been ten years since you died⁠—

I fought. May all the gods bear witness that I fought myself. And I thought I was winning.

VI

I will never forget one certain evening.

Hawkins and I had come over to Barbara’s for supper, and the three of us were sitting now, talking. Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto cried its sorrow, muted in the background, and the serene home she had made of the bare little functional apartment folded itself around us. Then Kane dropped in as he often did, with a casualness that fooled nobody, and sat with all his soul in his eyes, looking at Barbara. He was a nice kid. I didn’t know why he should annoy me so.

The talk shifted to Valgolia. I found myself taking the side of my race. It wasn’t that I hoped to convert anyone, but⁠—well, it was wrong that we should be monsters in the sight of these friends.

“Brutes,” said Kane. “Two-legged animals. Damned bald-headed, copper-skinned giants. Wouldn’t be quite so bad if they were octopi or insects, but they’re just enough different from us to be a caricature. It’s obscene.”

“Sartons look like a dirty joke on mankind,” I said. “Why don’t you object to them?”

“They’re in the same boat as us.”

“Then why mix political and esthetic prejudices? And have you ever thought that you look just as funny to an Eridanian?”

“No race should look odd to another,” said Nat Hawkins. He puffed blue clouds. “Even by our standards, the redskins are handsome, in a more spectacular way than humans, maybe.”

“And Barbara,” I smiled, with a curious little pang inside me, “would look good to any humanoid.”

“I should think so,” said Kane sulkily. “The redskins took enough of our women.”

“Well,” I said, “their original conquistadores were young and healthy, very far from home, and had just finished a hard campaign where they lost many friends. At least there were no half-breeds afterward. And since the reconquest none of their soldiers has been permitted to have anything to do with an Earthwoman against her consent. It’s not their fault if the consent is forthcoming oftener than you idealists think.”

“That sort of thing was more or less standard procedure at home with them, wasn’t it?” asked Hawkins.


I nodded. “The harshness of their native world forced them to develop their technology faster than on Earth, so they kept a lot of barbarian customs well into the industrial age. For instance, the rulers of the state that finally conquered all the others and unified the planet took the title Waelsing, Emperor, and it’s still a monarchy in theory. But a limited monarchy these days, with parliamentary democracy and even local self-government of the town-meeting sort. They’re highly civilized now.”

“I wouldn’t call that spree of conquest they went on exactly civilized.”

“Well, just for argument’s sake, let’s try to look at it from their side,” I answered. “Here their explorers arrived at Sol, found a system richer than they could well imagine⁠—and all the wealth being burned up in fratricidal war. Their technical power was sufficiently beyond ours so that any band of adventurers could do pretty much as it wanted in the Solar System, and all native states were begging for their help. It was inevitable that they’d mix in.

“Sure, the Eridanians have been exploiting Solarian resources, though perhaps more wisely than we did. Sure, they garrison unwilling planets. But from their point of view, they’re slowly civilizing a race of atomic-powered savages, and taking no more than their just reward for it. Sure, they’ve done hideous things, or were supposed to have, but there’ve been plenty of reforms in their policy since our last revolt. They’ve adopted the⁠—the red man’s burden.”

“Could be. But Sol wasn’t their only conquest.”

“Oh, well, of course they had their time of all-out imperialism. There are still plenty of the old school around, starward the course of empire, keep the lesser breeds in their place, and so on. That’s one reason why the highest posts are still reserved for members of their own race, another being that even the liberal ones don’t trust us that far, yet.

“Their first fifty years or so saw plenty of aggression. But then they stabilized. They had as much as they could manage. To put it baldly, the Empire is glutted. And now, without actually admitting they ever did wrong, they’re trying to make up what they did to many of their victims.”

“They could do that easily enough. Just let us go free.”


“I’ve already told you why they don’t dare. Apart from fearing us, they’re economically and militarily dependent on their colonies. You’re an American, Nat. Why didn’t our nation let the South go its own way when it wanted to secede? Why don’t we all go back to Europe and let the Indians have our country?

“And, of course, Epsilon Eridani honestly thinks it has a great civilizing mission, and is much better for the natives than any lesser independence could ever be. In some cases, you’ve got to admit they’re right. Have you ever seen a real simon-pure native king in action? Or read the history of nations like Germany and Russia? And why do we have to segregate races and minorities even in our own organization to prevent clashes?”

“We’re getting there,” said Nat Hawkins. “It’s not easy, but we’ll make it.”

Only you’re not there yet, I thought, and for that reason you must be stopped.

“You claim they’re sated,” said Barbara. “But they’ve kept on conquering here and there, to this very day.”

“Believe it or not, but with rare exceptions that’s been done reluctantly. Peripheral systems have learned how to build star ships, become nuisances or outright menaces, and the Empire has had to swallow them. Modern technology is simply too deadly for anarchy. A full-scale war can sterilize whole planets. That’s another function of empire, so the Eridanians claim⁠—just to keep civilization going till something better can be worked out.”

“Such as what?”

“Well, several worlds already have donagangor status⁠—self-government under the Emperor, representatives in the Imperial Council, and no restrictions on personal advancement of their citizens. Virtual equality with the Valgolians. And their policy is to grant such status to any colony they think is ready for it.”

Hawkins shook his head. “Won’t do, Con. It sounds nice, but old Tom Jefferson had the right idea. ‘If men must wait in slavery until they are ready for freedom, they will wait long indeed.’ ”

“Who said we were slaves⁠—” I began.

“You talk like a damned reddie yourself,” said Kane. “You seem to think pretty highly of the Empire.”


I gave him a cold look. “What do you think I’m doing here?” I snapped.

“Yeah. Yeah, sorry. I’m kind of tired. Maybe I’d better go now.” Before long Kane made some rather moody good nights and went out.

Nat Hawkins twinkled at me. “I’m a little bushed myself,” he said. “Guess I’ll hit the bunk too.”

When he was gone, I sat smoking and trying to gather up the will to leave. There was a darkness in me. What, after all, was I doing here? Gods, I believed I was in the right, but why is right so pitiless?

On Earth they represent the goddess of justice as blind. On Valgolia she has fangs.

Barbara came over and sat on the arm of my chair. “What’s the matter, Con?” she asked. “You look pretty grim these days.”

“My work’s developing some complications,” I said tonelessly. My mind added: It sure is. No way to call headquarters, the rebellion gathering enormous momentum, and on a basis of treachery and racial hatred.

Barbara’s fingers rumpled my hair, the grafted hair which by now felt more a part of me than my own lost crest. “You’re an odd fellow,” she said quietly. “On the surface so frank and friendly and cheerful, and down underneath you’re hiding yourself and your private unhappiness.”

“Why,” I looked up at her, astonished, “even the psychologists⁠—”

“They’re limited, Con. They can measure, but they can’t feel. Not the way⁠—”

She stopped, and the light glowed in her hair and her eyes were wide and serious on mine and one small hand stole over to touch my fingers. Blindly, I wrenched my face away.

Her voice was low. “It’s some other woman, isn’t it?”

“Other⁠—? Well, no. There was one, but she’s dead now. She died ten years ago.”

Ydis, Ydis!

“Your wife?”

I nodded. “We were only married for three years. My daughter is still alive; she’s going on twelve now. But I haven’t seen her for over two years. She’s not on Earth. I wonder if she even thinks of me.”

“Con,” said Barbara, very softly and gravely, “you can’t go on mourning a woman forever.”

“I’m not. Forget it. I shouldn’t have spoken about it.”

“You needed to. That’s all right.”

“My girl ought to have a mother⁠—” The words came of themselves. What followed thereafter seemed also to happen without my willing it.

Presently Barbara stood back from me. She was laughing, low and sweet and joyous. “Con, you old sourpuss, cheer up! It isn’t that bad, you know!”

I managed a wry grin, though it seemed to need all the energies left in me. “You look so happy your fool self that I have to counterbalance it.”

“Con, if you knew how I’d been hoping!”

We talked for a long time, but she did most of it⁠—the plans, the hopes, the trip we were going to take and the house we were going to build down by the seashore⁠—“Mary,” my daughter, was going to have a home, along with the dozen brothers and sisters she’d have in due course⁠—after the war.

After the war.

I left, finally, stumbling like a blind man toward my quarters. Oh, yes, I loved her and she loved me and we were going to have a home and a sailboat and a dozen children, after the war, when Earth was free. What more could a man ask for?

It had been many years since I’d needed autohypnosis to put myself to sleep, but I used it now.

VII

The delay was partly due to the slowness with which I had to work, even after a plan had been laid. I could only do a little at a time, and the times had to be well separated. Each day brought the moment of onslaught closer, but I dared not hurry myself. If they caught me at my work, there would be an end of all things.

But I cannot swear that my own mind did not prompt me to an unnatural slowness and caution. I was only human, and every day was one more memory.

They had all been very good to us; our friends had a party to celebrate our engagement and we were universally congratulated and all the rest of it. Yes, Kane was there too, shaking my hand and wishing me all the luck in the world. Afterward he went back to his work and his pilot’s practice with a strange fierceness.

If at times I fell into glum abstraction, well, I had always been a little moody and Barbara could tease me out of it. Most of the times I was with her, I didn’t think about the future at all.

There had been a certain deep inward coldness to her. She had carried the old wound of her losses with bitter dignity. But as the days went on, I saw less and less of it. She would even admit that individual Valgolians might be fine fellows and that the Empire had done a few constructive things for Earth. But it was more than a change of attitude. She was thawing after a long winter, she laughed more, she was wholly human now.

Human⁠—

We sat one evening, she and I, in one of the big lounges the base had for its personnel. There were only one or two muted lights in the long quiet room, a breathing of music, snatches of whispering like our own. She sat close against me, and my lips kept straying down to brush her hair and her cheek.

“When we’re married⁠—” she said dreamily. Then all at once: “Con, what are we waiting for?”


I looked at her in some surprise.

“Con, why do we assume we can’t get married before the war’s over?” Her voice was low and hurried, shaking just a little. “The base here has chaplains. It’s less than a month now till the business starts. God knows what’ll happen then. Either of us might be killed.” I heard her gulp. “Con, if they killed you⁠—”

“They won’t,” I said. “I’m kill-proof.”

“No, no. We have so little time, and it may be all we’ll ever have. Marry me now, darling, dearest, and at least there’ll be something to remember. Whatever comes, we’ll have had that while.”

“I tell you,” I insisted, with a sudden hideous dismay, “there’s nothing to worry about. Forget it.”

“Oh, I’m not asking for pity. I’ve more happiness now than is right. Maybe that’s why I’m afraid. But, Con, they killed my father and they killed my mother and they killed Jimmy, and if they take you too, it’ll be more than I can stand.”

The savage woe of an old Earthly poet lanced through my brain:

The time is out of joint
O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born
To set it right!

And then, for just a moment, there came the notion of yielding. You love the girl, Conru. You love her so much it’s a pain in you. Well, take her! Marry her!

No. I was not excessively tender of heart or conscience, but neither was I that kind of scoundrel.

I kissed her words away. Afterward, alone in the darkness of my room, I realized that Conrad Haugen had no good reason to hang back. It was true, all she said was true, and no other couple was waiting for an uncertain future.

It was the time for action.


I had been ready for days now, postponing the moment. And those days were marching to the time of war, the rebels were quivering to go, a scant few weeks at most lay between me and the ruin of Valgolian plans and work and hope.

In my steadily expanding official capacity, I could go anywhere and do almost anything in an engineering line. So, bit by bit, I had tinkered with the base’s general alarm system.

We had scoutships posted, of course, but by the very nature of things they had to be close to the planet or an approaching enemy would slip between them without detection. And the substantial vibrations of a ship traveling faster than light do not arrive much ahead of the ship itself. Whatever warning we had of a hypothetical assault would be very short. It would be signaled to all of us by a siren on the intercommunications system, and after that it would be battle stations, naval units to their ships and all others to such ground defenses as we had.

But modern warfare is all to the offense. There is no way of stopping an attack from space except by meeting it and annihilating it before it gets to its destination. The rebels were counting on that fact to aid them when they struck, but it would, of course, work against them if their enemy should happen to hit first. Everyone was understandably nervous about the chance of our being discovered and assailed.

Working a little at a time, I had put a special switch in the general alarm circuit. It showed up merely as one of many on a sector call board near my room; no one was likely to notice it. And my quarters were not those originally given me. I had moved to a smaller place farther from Barbara, ostensibly to be near my work at the shipyards, actually to be near the base’s ultrabeam shack.

Now it was time to act.

I needed an excuse for not going to the gun turret where I was assigned. That involved faking a serious fever, but like all Intelligence men, I had been trained to full psychosomatic integration. The same neural forces that in hysteria produce paralysis, stigmata, and other real symptoms were under my conscious control. I thought myself sick. By morning I was half delirious and my veins were on fire.

The surgeon general came to see me. “What the hell’s the trouble?” he wondered. “This place is supposed to be sterile.”

“Maybe it’s too damn sterile,” I murmured with a perfectly genuine weakness. Then, fighting the lightheadedness that hummed and buzzed in me: “Tsitbu fever, Doc. I’m sure that’s what it is.”

“Can’t say I’ve ever heard of it.”

“You’ll find it in your medical books.” He would, too. “It’s found on the planet Sirius V, where I once visited. Filter-passing virus, transmitted by airborne spores. Not contagious here. In humans it becomes chronic; no ill effects except a few days’ fever like this every few years. Now go ’way and lemme die in peace.” I closed my eyes on the distorted and unreal world of sickness.


Later Barbara came in, pale and with her hair like a rumpled halo. I had to assure her many times that I was all right and would be on my feet in two or three days. Then she smiled and sat down on the bunk and passed a cool palm over my forehead.

“Poor Con,” she said. “Poor squarehead.”

“I feel fine as long as you’re here,” I whispered.

“Don’t talk,” she said. “Just go to sleep.” She kissed me and sat quiet. Hers was the rare gift of being a definite personality even when silent and motionless. I clasped her hand and pretended to fall into uneasy sleep. After a while she kissed me again, very softly, and went out.

I told my body to recover. It took time, hours of time, while the stubborn cells retreated to a normal level of activity. I lay there thinking of many things, most of them unpleasant.

It was well into the night, the logical time to act even if the factories did go on a twenty-four hour basis.

I got up, still swaying a little with weakness, the dregs of the fever ringing in my head. After I had vomited and swallowed a stimulant tablet, I felt better. I put on my uniform, but substituted a plain service jacket without insignia of rank for the tunic. That should make me fairly inconspicuous in the confusion.

Strength came. I glanced cautiously along the dim-lit corridor, and it was empty and silent. I stole out and hurried toward the ultrabeam shack. My hidden switch was on the way; I threw it and ran on with lowered head.

The siren screamed behind me, before me, around me, the howling of all the devils in hell⁠—Hoo! hoo! Battle stations! Strange ships approaching! Battle stations! All hands to battle stations! Hoo-oo!

I could imagine the pandemonium that erupted, men boiling out of factories and rooms, cursing and yelling and dashing frantically for their posts⁠—children screaming in terror, women white-faced with sudden numbness⁠—weapons manned, instruments sweeping the skies, spaceships roaring heavenward, incoherent yelling on the intercoms to find out who had given that signal. With luck, I would have fifteen minutes or half an hour of safe insanity.

A few men raced by me, on their way to the nearest missile rack. They paid me no heed, and I hurried along my own path.

The winding stair leading up to the ultrabeam shack loomed before me. I went its length, three steps at a time, bounding and gasping with my haste, up to the transmitter.

It was the tenuous link binding together a score of rebel planets, the only communication with the stars that glittered so coldly overhead. The ultrabeam does not have an infinite velocity, but it does have an unlimited speed, one depending solely on the frequency of the generating equipment, and since it only goes to such receivers as are tuned to its pattern⁠—there must be at least one such tuned unit for the generator to work⁠—it has a virtually infinite range. So men can talk between the stars, but are their words the wiser for that?


Up and up and up, round and round, up and up, metal clanging underfoot and always the demon screech of the siren⁠—up!

I sprang from the head of the stairs and crossed the areaway in one leap to the open door of the shack. There was only one operator on duty, a slim boyish figure before the glittering panel. He didn’t hear me as I came behind him. I knocked him out with a calculated blow to the base of the skull. He’d be unconscious for at least fifteen minutes and that was time enough. I heaved his body out of the chair and sat down.

The unit was set for the complicated secret scrambler pattern of the Legion, one which was changed periodically just in case. I twirled the dials, adjusting for the pattern of the set I knew was kept tuned for me at Vorka’s headquarters.

The set hummed, warming up. I lifted my eyes and stared into the naked face of Boreas. The shack was above ground, itself dominated by the skeletal tower of the transmitter, and a broad port revealed land and sky.

Overhead the stars were glittering, bright and hard and cruel, flashing and flashing out of the crystal dark. The peaks rose on every side, soaring dizziness of cliffs and ragged snarl of crags, hemming us in with our tiny works and struggles. It was bitterly, ringingly cold out there; the snow screamed when you walked on it; the snapping thunder of frost-split rock woke the dull roar of avalanches, and there was the wind, the old immortal wind, moaning and blowing and wandering under the stars. I saw them running, little antlike men spilling from their nest and racing across the snow before they froze. I saw the ships rise one after the other and rush darkly skyward. The base had come alive and was reaching up to defy the haughty stars.

The set buzzed and whistled, warming up, muttering with the cosmic interference whose source nobody knows. I began to speak into the microphone, softly and urgently: “Calling Intelligence H.Q., Sol III, North America Center. Captain Halgan Conru calling North America Center. Come in, Center, come in.”


The receiver rustled with the thin dry voice of the stars. Dimly, I could hear the wind outside, snarling around the walls.

“Come in, Center. Come in, Center.”

“Captain Halgan!” The voice rattled into the waiting stillness of the shack. “Captain Halgan, is it really you?”

“Get General Vorka at once,” I said. “Meanwhile, are you recording? All right, be sure you get this.”

I told them everything I knew. I told them what planet this was, and where we were on its surface, and what our strength and plans were. I gave them the disposition of the scoutship pickets, as far as those were known to me, and the standard Legion recognition signals. I finished with an account of the savage differences still existing between Earthman and Earthman, and Earth and its treacherous allies. And all the time I was talking to a recording machine. Nobody was listening.

When I was through, I waited a minute, not feeling any particular emotion. I was too tired. I sat there, listening to the wind and the interstellar whistling, till Vorka spoke to me.

“Halgan! Halgan, you’ve done it!”

“Shut up,” I said. “What’s coming now?”

“I checked the Fleet units. We have a Supernova with escort at Bramgar, about fifteen light-years from where you are. You are at their base, aren’t you? Can you hold out for two days more?”

“I think so.”

“Better get into the hills. We may have to bombard.”

“Go to hell.” I turned off the set.

Now to get back. They must already know it was a trick; they must be scouring the base for the saboteur. As soon as all loyal men were back, the hunt would really be on.

I had, of course, worn gloves. There would be no fingerprints. And the operator wouldn’t know who had attacked him.

I changed the scrambler setting to one picked at random. And in a corner, as if it had fallen there by accident, I dropped a handkerchief stolen from Wergil of Luron. The tiny fragments of tissue which adhere to such a thing could easily be proven to be from him or one of his associates, for the basic Luronian life-molecules are all levorotatory. It might help.

I slipped back down the stairs, quickly and quietly. It was over. The base was as good as taken. But there was more to be done. Apart from the saving of my own life, there was still a desperate need for secrecy. For if the rebels knew what was coming, they might choose to stand and fight, or they might flee into the roadless wildernesses of space. Whichever it was, all our work and sacrifice would have gone for little.


The provocateur policy is the boldest and most farsighted enterprise ever undertaken. It is the first attempt to make history as we choose, to control the great social forces we are only dimly beginning to understand, so that intelligence may ultimately be its own master.

Sure. Very fine and idealistic, and no doubt fairly true as well. But there is death and treachery in it, loneliness and heartbreak, and the bitterness of the betrayed. Have we the right to set ourselves up as God? Can we really say, in our omniscience, that everyone but us is wrong? There were sane, decent, intelligent folk here on Boreas, the ones we needed so desperately for all civilization. Did we have to make them our enemies, so that their grandchildren might be our friends?

I didn’t know. Wherever I turned, there were treason and injustice. However hard I tried to do right, I had to wrong somebody.

I ran on, back to my cabin. I peeled off my clothes and dived into bed, and by the time they looked in on me I had worked back most of my fever.

Don’t think, Conru. Don’t think of this new victory and the safety of the Empire. And, perhaps, a step closer to the harshly won unity of Earth. Don’t think of the way the light catches in Barbara’s hair and gets turned into molten gold. You’ve got a fever to create, man. You’ve got to think yourself sick again. That ought to be easy.

VIII

Barbara came in. She was white and still, and presently she leaned her head against my breast and cried quietly, for a long time.

“There is a spy here,” she told me.

“I heard about it.” I stroked her hair and held her to me, clumsily. “Do you know who it was?”

“I don’t know. Somehow, they seem to think the Luronians may be guilty, but they aren’t sure. They arrested them, and two were killed resisting. Colonel Wergil is in the brig now, while they decide if Luron can still be trusted.”

“It can’t,” I said. “Earth must win alone.”

“We’ll win,” she said dauntlessly. “With Luron or without it, we’ll win.” Then, like a little frightened girl, creeping close to me: “But we needed that help so much.”

I kissed her and remained silent.

The next day I got on my feet again, weak but recovered. I wandered aimlessly around the base, waiting for Barbara to get through work, listening to people talk. It was ugly, the fear and tension and wolfish watchfulness. Whom can we trust? Who is the enemy?

Mostly, they thought the Luronians were guilty. After all, those were the only beings on the planet who had not had to pass a rigorous investigation and psychological examination. But nobody was sure.

Levinsohn spoke over the televisor. His gaunt, lined face had grown very tired, yet there was metal in his voice. The new situation necessitated a change of plans, but the time of assault would, if anything, be moved ahead. “Be of good heart. Stand by your comrades. We’ll still be free!”

I went to Barbara’s apartment and we sat up very late. But even in this private record I do not wish to say what we talked about.


And the next day the Empire came.

There was one Supernova ship with light escort, but that was enough. Such vessels have the mass of a large asteroid, and one of them can sterilize a planet; two or three can take it apart. Theoretically, a task force comprising twenty Nova-class battleships with escorts can reduce one of those monsters if it is willing to lose most of its units. But nothing less can even do significant damage, and the rebel base did not have that much. Nor could they get even what they had into full action.

The ships rushed out of interstellar space, flashing the recognition signals I had given. Before the picket vessels suspected what was wrong, the Valgolians were on them. One managed to bleat a call to base and the alarm screamed again, men rushed to battle stations. Then the Imperials blanketed all communications with a snarl of interference through which nothing the rebels had could drive.

So naturally they were thought to have been annihilated in a few swift blazes of fire and steel, a quick clean death and forgetfulness of defeat. But only the drivers were crippled, and then the Supernova yanked the vessels to its titan flanks and held them in unbreakable gravity beams. The crews would be taken later, with narcotic gas or paralyzer beams⁠—alive.

For the Empire needs its rebels.

I knew the uselessness of going to battle stations, so I hung behind, seeking out Barbara, whose place was with the missile computer bank. I met her and Kane in the hallway. The boy’s face was white, and there were tears running down his cheeks.

“This is the end,” he said. “They’ve found us out, and there’s nothing left but to die. Good by, Barbara.” He kissed her, wildly, and ran for his ship. Moodily, I watched him go. He expected death, and he would get only capture, and afterward⁠—

“What are you doing here, Con?” asked Barbara.

“I’m too shaky to be any good in the artillery. Let me go with you, I can punch a computer.”

She nodded silently, and we went off together.


The floor shook under us, and a crash of rock roared down the halls. The heavy weapons on the Supernova were bloodlessly reducing our ground installations and our ships not yet in action to smashed rubble. They would kill not a single one of us, except by uncontrollable accident, and save many Valgolian and Earth lives that way, but it wasn’t pleasant to be slugged. The girl and I staggered ahead. When the lights went out, I stopped and held her.

“It’s no use,” I said. “They’ve got us.”

“Let me go!” she cried.

I hung on, and suddenly she collapsed against me, crying and shaking. We stood there with the city rumbling and shivering around us, waiting.

Presently the Valgolian commander released the interference and contacted Levinsohn, offering terms of surrender. It seemed to Levinsohn, and it was meant to seem, that further resistance would be useless butchery. His ships were gone and his foes need only bombard him to ruin. He capitulated, and one by one we laid down our arms and filed to meet the victors.

The terms, as announced by messengers⁠—the intercom was out of action⁠—were generous. Leading rebels and those judged potentially “dangerous” would go to penal colonies on various Earth-like planets. Except that they weren’t penal colonies at all, but, of course, the Earthlings wouldn’t know this. They were indoctrination centers, and, with all my bitterness, I still longed to observe a man like Levinsohn after five years in one of the centers. He’d see things in a different perspective. He’d see the Empire for what it was⁠—even if I sometimes had a little trouble seeing that now⁠—and he’d be a better rebel for it.

Someday Levinsohn and his kind would be back on Earth, the new leaders ready to lead the way to a new tomorrow. And I would be with them.

I’d be back with Levinsohn and the rest, and with Barbara, too, and we’d try to pave the way to the peace and friendship. But meanwhile there’d be other revolutions⁠—striving and hoping and breaking their hearts daring what they thought would be death to win what they called freedom and what we hoped would be evolution.

It was the fire to temper a new civilization.

We walked down the hall, Barbara and I, hand in hand, alone in spite of all the people who were shuffling the same way. Most of them were weeping. But Barbara’s head was high now.

“What will happen to us?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But, Barbara, whatever happens after this, remember that I love you. Remember that I’ll always love you.”

“I love you too,” she smiled, and kissed me. “We’ll be together, Con. That’s all that matters. We’ll be together.”

That was important⁠—and it made me feel good. Yes, we’d be together; I’d see to that. But for a while Barbara would hate me through all the long years of the indoctrination. Someday, perhaps, she would understand⁠ ⁠… the indoctrination could do it, and I could help. But by the gods of space, how would it be to take that hate all that while?


We came out into the central chamber where the prisoners were gathering to be herded up to the ships. Armed Valgolian guards stood under the glare of improvised lights. Other Imperials were going through the city, flushing out those who might be hiding and removing whatever our armed forces could use. The equipment would do no one any good here, and Boreas would be left to its darkness.

It was cold in the vast shadowy room. The heating plant had broken down and the ancient cold of Boreas was seeping in. Barbara shivered and I held her close to me. Nat Hawkins moved over to join us, wordlessly.

I was questioned in a locked room by one of the big Valgolian officers. He looked at a stereograph in his hand and he took me aside, but it was not unusual. Many of the starbound prisoners were being questioned by their guards, and I was merely one of them.

“Colonel Halgan?” the officer asked with an eagerness close to hero-worship. He was obviously fresh from school and military terminology came from his lips as if it really meant something to a Valgolian. The colonel, of course, meant that in a titular sense I had been elevated for my work. Funny, if you use the language enough, you get to believe it yourself.

“Sir,” the young officer continued, “this is one of the greatest pieces of work I’ve ever seen. I am to extend the official congratulations of⁠—”

I let him talk for a while and then I raised my hand peremptorily and I told him that the girl with the Earthling Hawkins was to go along for indoctrination, despite the fact that her name did not appear on his lists. He nodded, and I went back to Barbara, but half a dozen men had come between us.

Levinsohn and five guards. The man’s carriage was still erect, the old unbreakable pride and courage were still in him. Someone among the prisoners broke loose and rushed at him, cursing, till the Valgolians thrust him back into line.

“Levinsohn!” screamed the man. “Levinsohn, you dirty Jew, you sold us out!”

There you see why this rebellion had to be crushed. Earth still had a long way to go. The Levinsohns, the Barbaras, the more promising of the anarchs would be educated and returned and the civilizing process would go on. Earth’s best and bravest would unite and fight us, and with each defeat they would learn something of what we had to teach them, that all races, however divergent, must respect each other and work together, learn it with an intensity which the merely intellectual teaching of schools and propaganda could not achieve alone⁠—or, at any rate, soon enough.

Valgolia is the great and lonely enemy, the self-appointed Devil since none of us can be angels. It is the source of challenge and adversity such as has always driven intelligence onward and upward, in spite of itself.

Sooner or later, generations hence, perhaps, all the subject worlds will have attained internal unity, forgetting their very species in a common bond of intelligence. And on that day Valgolia’s work will be done. She and her few friends, her donagangors, will seemingly capitulate without a fight and become simply part of a union of free and truly civilized planets.

And such a union will be firmer and more enduring than all the tyrant empires of the past. It will have the strength of a thousand or more races, working together in the harmony which they achieved in struggling against us.


That is the goal, but it is a long way ahead; there may be centuries needed, and meanwhile Valgolia is alone.

Barbara would understand. In time she would understand what she as yet did not even know. But first would be the hatred, the cold stark hatred that must come of knowing who and what I really am. I could only wait for that hatred to come after she learned, and then wait for it to go, slowly, slowly.⁠ ⁠…

Lines of the Earthlings were filing forward, and, with Nat Hawkins, Barbara waited for me. I walked to her and took her hand. Her head was high, as high as Levinsohn’s. She expected all of us to die, but she’d meet the relatives and friends she thought were dead.

It would be a great, a crushing humiliation, to know one’s martyrs were alive and being well treated and intensively educated by the foe, who was supporting and encouraging one’s supposedly dangerous revolution.

“It won’t be so bad as long as we’re together, darling,” I said.

She smiled, misunderstanding, and kissed me defiantly before our Valgolian guards.

The Virgin of Valkarion

I

The sun was low in the west and a thin chill wind was blowing along the hills when Alfric saw Valkarion below him. He reined in his hengist and sat for a moment scouting the terrain with the hard-learned caution of many wandering years.

Save for himself, the broad highway that flung its time-raddled length down the rock slope was empty. On either hand, the harsh gullied hills stretched away to the dusky horizon, wind whispering in gray scrub and low twisted trees. Here and there, evening fires glimmered red from peasants’ huts, or the broken columns of temples in ruins these many thousand years loomed against the darkening greenish-blue. Behind him, the land faded toward the raw naked desert from which he had come. A falkh hovered on silent wings far above him, watching for a movement that might mean prey⁠—otherwise he was alone.

Still⁠—he felt uneasy. A prickling not due to the gathering cold tingled along his spine, and he had spent too much of his life in the nearness of death to ignore such warnings.


He looked ahead, down the great road. It twisted and swooped between the fantastically wind-carven crags, a dim white ribbon in the deepening twilight. The smooth stone blocks were cracked apart by ages so long that the thought made his head reel, and in places the harsh wiry vegetation had grown through and over it, but still the old Imperial Way was there. The ancients had built mightily.

Halfway down the huge slope of hillside, the road ran into Valkarion city. Below that level, the cliffs dropped sharply, white with old salt-streaks, to the dead sea-bottoms⁠—a vast depression, sand and salt and thin bitter plant-growth, reaching out to the sunset horizon.

Lights were winking on in the city. It was not far, and Alfric had no wish to sleep in the open or under some peasant’s stinking roof. So⁠—why not go ahead? The city, his goal, was there, and naught to hold him from it save⁠—

The hengist whickered and stamped its broad cloven hoofs. Its eyes rolled uneasily, and Alfric’s hand slid to his sword hilt. If the beast also sensed a watchfulness⁠—

He caught the stir in the thick brush-clump out of the corner of one eye. Only a hunter would have noticed it; only a rover at once, without stopping to think, would have struck spurs into his mount. The hengist leaped, and the dart whispered past Alfric’s face.

One scratch from the poisoned missile of the southern blowguns was enough to kill a man. Alfric yelled, and flung his hengist at the brush. The sword whined from its scabbard, flamed in his hand.

Two men slipped from the thicket as he crashed into it. They were of a race foreign even to these southlands, small and lithe and amber-skinned. They wore only loincloths; all hair had been shaved from their heads and bodies, and the iron slave-collars were about their necks. Vaguely, Alfric was aware of the brands on their foreheads, but at the moment he was only concerned with their weapons.

One skipped aside, raising the blowgun to his lips. Alfric yanked the javelin from its holster by his saddle and launched it left-handed⁠—through the slave’s belly and out his back.

Steel hissed beside him as the other swung with a scimitar. The hengist screamed as the blade cut its sleek gray hide. The forehoofs lashed out, the great hooked beak snapped, and the slave lay a bloody ruin on the Imperial Way.

Alfric reined in his prancing mount and looked around, breathing hard. An ambush⁠—by the bear of Ruho, they’d meant to kill him!

But⁠—why?

A poor solitary wanderer was no worthwhile quarry for footpads⁠—anyway, these weren’t outlaws but slaves; they must have been set here with orders to destroy some specific person. But no one in Valkarion knew Alfric⁠—he was a stranger without friend or enemy.

Had they mistaken him for someone else? That would be hard to do even in this dim light; he was too plainly a barbarian outlander. It made no sense. By Luigur, it made no sense!

He leaned over, studying the dead men. They were secretive even in the sprawled puppet-like helplessness of death; he could learn nothing. Except⁠—hold, what was that owner’s brand⁠—

A double crescent.

The double crescent!

The knowledge shocked home like a spear-thrust, and Alfric sat silent for a long moment with the wind ruffling his night-black hair. The double crescent⁠—the sign of the Two Moons⁠—that meant the slaves were Temple property. They’d been under orders of the priesthood of the Moons, which was the old Imperial faith and still the state religion of Valkarion.

But if the Temple sent out assassins⁠—


Alfric’s eyes traveled up to Amaris, the farther moon, high in the darkening heavens. The nearer one, Dannos, had not yet risen⁠—out of the west, as was its strange wont⁠—but its rocket-like speed would carry it up to and beyond the farther before dawn.

Aye⁠—aye, now he remembered that tonight the moons would mate. On such nights the Temple no doubt had great ceremonies afoot; perhaps this matter of the assassination was involved in some religious proceeding.

Whispered legend and the moldering history books alike agreed that the turning points of the old Empire’s fate had come on nights when the moons mated. No doubt that still held good for the withered remnant of territory which Valkarion still ruled.

The moons were not important in the religion of the Aslakan barbarians, whose chief gods were the wind and the stars and nameless powers of winter and death. But a tingle of fear ran along Alfric’s spine at the thought of what might be abroad that night.

To Luigur with it! His lean face twisted in a snarl, and he snapped sword and javelin back in place and rode trotting on toward Valkarion. Come ambush or priesthood or the Moons themselves, he meant to sleep in the city tonight.

Behind him, the hovering falkh wheeled down toward the two still forms sprawled on the highway.

The sun slipped into the dead sea-bottom, and night came with a silent rush. Amaris rode high in a froth of stars, painting the hills with a dim eerie silver in which monstrous shadows lurked. The wind blew stronger, colder, with a faint smell of salt like the ghost of the long-dried ocean. Alfric wrapped his worn cloak tighter about him against its searching chill. Save for the vast echoing howl of the wind, the hiss of sand and rustle of leaves, he was alone in the dark. He heard the creak and jingle of his harness, the rapid clop-clop of the hengist’s hoofs, against a background of hooting night.

The crumbling city walls loomed darkly before him, rearing enormously against the myriad brilliant, unwinking stars. He had half expected to find the gates closed, but instead a fire blazed in the tunnel which the gateway made through the walls. A dozen city guards stood about it.

They sprang to alertness as he rode up, a sudden wall of spears leaning forth in front of him. Behind that shining steel, the light picked out helmets and corselets and faces drawn tight with strain.

“Who goes?” called one. His voice shook a little.

“A stranger, but a friend,” said Alfric in his north-accented Valkariona.

He rode into the circle of firelight and sat in a watchful quiet as their eyes raked him. Plainly he was an outland barbarian⁠—taller by a head than most of the southerners, his hard-thewed body clad in the plain leather and ring-mail of a northern warrior, his sword a double-edged claymore rather than the scimitar or shortsword of the south. His skin was a sunburned leathery brown where theirs was tawny, his long slant eyes a brilliant green where theirs were dark, and there were jeweled rings in his pointed ears. He went cleanshaven in accordance with southern custom, but the high cheekbones, thin straight nose, and long jaw were not theirs.

“Who are you, stranger,” demanded the guard captain, “and what is your errand?”

“I am Alfric, Beodan’s son, of Aslak,” he answered truthfully enough, “and am simply wandering about in search of employment. Perhaps Valkarion could use another sword-arm, or some merchant may want a good warrior to help guard his caravan, or⁠—” he spread his calloused hands in a general gesture. No need to add that perhaps some highwayman was in town recruiting or some would-be rebel was in search of an experienced war-captain who would help for the loot. In his years of adventuring, Alfric had held most jobs, lawful or otherwise.

The guards seemed more taut and wary than the occasion warranted. Surely they had passed stranger and more dubious visitors than a single barbarian. Perhaps they wanted a bribe to let him by, or⁠—

The captain nodded stiffly. “You may enter, since you are alone,” he said; and then, with a friendliness not quite natural: “If you wish good cheap lodging, and a place where men come who might want to hire a fighter, try the Falkh and Firedrake. First turn to your right, three streets down, one to your left. Good luck, stranger.”

Alfric scowled. For a moment he paused, tensing. There was something here⁠—To Luigur with it. His nerves were still on edge from the fight. If something was supposed to happen, let it.

“Thanks,” he said, and rode into the city.


It was like most of the old Imperial towns⁠—somewhat larger and busier than the rest, no more. On either side of the broad paved street rose the ancient, columned façades of the Empire, proud building even now when their treasures were long gone and their corners worn smooth by the winds of millennia. There were lamps lighting the main ways, their yellow glow splashing on a milling throng of folk.

Most were native Valkarionas⁠—merchants in their flowing cloaks and fur-trimmed silken robes, workers and artisans in tunics of blue or gray, peasants in clumsy homespun garments and fur caps, swaggering young soldiers in red tunics and polished metal, painted harlots, ragged beggars, near-naked slaves, the others of a city where life still pulsed strong though the days of glory were more thousands of years behind than it was pleasant to count. But there were strangers⁠—robed traders from Tsungchi and Begh Sarrah riding their humped dromads, black-skinned men of Suda and Astrak, coppery feather-cloaked mercenaries from Tollaciuatl, fair-haired barbarians from Valmannstad and the Marskan hills⁠—all the world seemed met at Valkarion, in a babble of tongues and a swirl of colors.

There were many of the tonsured priests of the Moons abroad in long red and black robes with the double crescent hanging from a silver chain about the neck. After each shaven-pate padded one or more of the yellow slaves, silent and watchful, hand on knife or blowgun. Alfric scowled, and decided he had best find lodging before venturing out into such company. A trading center like Valkarion necessarily tolerated all creeds⁠—still, someone had tried to kill him⁠—

He edged out of the throng and followed the captain’s directions. They brought him into an unsavory part of town, where moldering blank-walled houses crowded a winding labyrinth of narrow, unlighted streets and stinking alleys. Men of dubious aspect moved furtively through the shadowy maze, or brawled drunkenly before the tawdry inns and bawdy houses. Strange place for a city guardsman to direct him to⁠—

But no priests or soldiers were in sight, which was recommendation enough. Alfric rode on until he saw the sign of the Falkh and Firedrake creaking in the chill gusty wind above a gloomy doorway.

He dismounted and knocked, one hand on his dagger. The door groaned open a crack and a thin scar-faced man looked out, his own hand on a knife.

“I want lodging for myself and my hengist,” said Alfric.

The landlord’s hooded eyes slid up and down the barbarian’s tall form. An indrawn breath hissed through his lips. “Are you from the northlands?” he asked.

“Aye.” Alfric flung open the door and stepped into the taproom.

It was dim and dirty and low-ceiled, a few smoky torches throwing a guttering light on the hard-faced men who sat at the tables drinking the sour yellow wine of the south. They were all armed, all wary⁠—the place was plainly a hangout of thieves and murderers.

Alfric shrugged broad shoulders. He’d stayed in such places often enough. “How much do you want?” he asked.

“Ah⁠—” The landlord licked his lips, nervously. “Two chrysterces for supper now and breakfast tomorrow, one soldar room and girl.”

The rate was so low that Alfric’s eyes narrowed and his ears cocked forward in an instinctive gesture of suspicion. These southerners all named several times the price they expected to get, but he had never haggled one down as far as this fellow’s asking price.

“Done,” he said at last. “But if the food is bad or the bed lousy or the woman diseased, I’ll throw you in your own pot and cut my breakfast off your ribs.”

“ ’Twill not be needful, noble sir,” whined the landlord. He waved a thin little slave boy over. “Take care of the gentleman’s hengist.”


Alfric sat down at a corner table and ate his meal alone. The food was greasy, but not bad. From the shadows he watched his fellow guests, sizing up their possibilities. That big spade-bearded fellow⁠—he might be the head of a gang which would find an expert sword-swinger useful. And the little wizened man in the gray cloak might be a charlatan in need of a bodyguard⁠—

He grew slowly aware of their own unease. There were too many sharp glances thrown in his own direction, entirely too many⁠—too much whispering behind hands, too much furtive loosening of sheathed daggers. There was something infernally strange going on in Valkarion.

Alfric bristled like an angry jaccur, but throttled impatience and got up. Time enough to find all that out tomorrow⁠—he was tired now from his long ride; he would sleep and then in the morning look the city over.

He mounted the stairs, conscious of the glances following him, and opened the door the boy showed to him. There he paused, and his hard jaw fell.

The room was just a room, small, lit by one stump of candle, no furniture save a bed. Its window looked out on an alley which was like a river of darkness.

It was the woman who held Alfric’s eyes.

She was clad only in the usual gaudy silken shift, and she sat plucking thin chords from the usual one-stringed harp. Her rings and bracelets were ordinary cheap gewgaws. But she was no common tavern bawd⁠—not she!

Tall and lithe and tawny-skinned, she rose to face him. Her shining blue-black hair tumbled silkily to her slim waist, framing a face as finely and proudly chiseled as a piece of ancient sculpture⁠—broad clear forehead, delicately arched nose, full mobile mouth, stubborn chin, long smooth throat running down toward her high firm breasts. Her eyes were wide-set, dark and starry brilliant as the desert nights; her lips were like red flame.

When she spoke, it was music purring under the wind that whimpered outside and rattled the window sash.

“Welcome, stranger.”

Alfric gulped, licked his lips, and slowly recovered his voice: “Thank you, my lovely.” He moved closer to her. “I had not⁠—not thought to find one like you⁠—here.”

“But now that you have⁠—” She came closer, and her smile blinded him⁠—“now that you have, what will you do?”

“What do you think?” he laughed.

She bent over and blew out the candle.

II

Alfric lost desire for sleep, the girl being as skilled in the arts of love as she was beautiful. But later they fell to talking.

A dim shaft of moonlight streamed through the window and etched her face against the dark, a faint mysterious rippling of light and shadow and loveliness. He drew her closer, kissed the smooth cheek, and murmured puzzledly: “Who are you? Why are you working in a place like this, when you could be the greatest courtesan in the world? Kings would be your slaves, and armies would go to battle with your name on their lips⁠—if they only knew you.”

She shrugged. “Fortune does strange things sometimes,” she said. “I am Freha, and I am here because I must be.” Her slim fingers ruffled his harsh black hair. “But tonight,” she breathed, “I am glad of it, since you came. And who are you, stranger?”

“I am Alfric, called the Wanderer, son of Beodan the Bold, son of Asgar the Tall, from the hills and lakes of Aslak.”

“And why did you leave your home, Alfric?”

“I was restless.” For a bleak moment, he wondered why, indeed, he had ever longed to get away from the wind-whispering trees and the cool blue hills and the small, salty, sun-glinting lakes of home⁠—from his father’s great hall and farmstead, from the brawling lusty warriors who were his comrades, from the tall sweet girls and joys of the hunt and feast⁠—Well, it was past now, many years past.

“You must have come far,” said Freha.

“Far indeed. Over most of the world, I imagine.” From Aslak, pasture lands of hengists, to the acrid red deserts of Begh Sarrah, the scrub forests of Astrak and Tollaciuatl, the towered cities of Tsungchi⁠—along the great canals which the ancient Empire had built in its last days, still bringing a trickle of water from the polar snows to the starved southlands⁠—through ruins, always ruins, the crumbling sand-filled bones of cities which had been like jewels a hundred thousand years ago and more⁠—

Her cool hands passed over his face, pausing at the long dull-white scar which slashed across his forehead and left cheek. “You have fought,” she said. “How you have fought!”

“Aye. All my life. That scar⁠—? I got it at Altaris, when I led the Bonsonian spears at the storming of the gates. I have been war-captain, sitting beside kings, and I have been hunted outlaw with the garms baying at my heels. I have drunk the wine of warlords and eaten the gruel of peasants and stalked my own game through the rime-white highlands of Larkin. I have pulled down cities, and been flung into the meanest jails. One king put a price on my head, another wanted me to take over his throne, and a third went down the streets before me, ringing a bell and crying that I was a god. But enough.” Alfric stirred restlessly. Somehow, he felt again uneasy, as if⁠—

Freha pulled his face to hers, and the kiss lasted a long time. Presently she murmured, “We have heard some rumors of great deeds and clashing swords, here in Valkarion. The story of the fall of Altaris is told in the marketplaces, and folk listen till far into the night. But why did you not stay with your kings and warlords and captured cities? You could have been a king yourself.”

“I grew weary of it,” he answered shortly.

“Weary⁠—of kingly power?”

“Why not? Those courts are nothing⁠—a barbarian ruling over one or two cities, and calling himself a king and trying drearily to hold a court worthy of the title. The same, always the same endless squabbling, carrion birds quarreling among the bones of the Empire. I went on the next war, or to see the next part of the world, and erelong I learned never to stay too long in one place lest the newness of it wear off.”

“Valkarion is ever new, Alfric. A man could live his life here and never see all there was.”

“Perhaps. So they told me. And it was, after all, the old seat of the Empire, and its shrunken remnant of territory is still greater than any other domain. So I came here to see for myself.” Alfric grinned, a wolfish gleam of teeth in the night. “Also, I heard tales⁠—restlessness, a struggle for power between Temple and Imperium, with the Emperor an old man and the last of his line, unable to get a child on his young queen Hildaborg. It seemed opportune.”

“How so?” He thought she breathed faster, lying there beside him.


He chuckled, a harsh iron sound in his corded throat. “How should I know? Except that when such a hell’s broth is bubbling, a fighting man can always scoop up loot or power or⁠—at the very least⁠—adventure. If nothing else, there might be the Empress. They say she’s a half barbarian herself, a princess of Choredon, and a lusty wench giving hospitality to every visiting noble or knight.” He felt Freha stiffen a little, and added: “But that doesn’t interest me now, when I’ve found you. Freha, leave this place with me tomorrow and you’ll wear the crown jewels of Valkarion.”

“Or else see your head on a pike above the walls,” she said.

Faintly through the window and the whining night-wind, they heard the crash of a great gong.

“Dannos is rising,” whispered Freha. “Tonight he mates with Mother Amaris. It is said that the Fates walk through the streets of Valkarion on such nights.” She shivered. “Indeed they do on this eve.”

“Perhaps,” said Alfric, though the hackles rose on his neck. “But how do you know?”

“Have you not heard?” Her voice shuddered, seeming to blend with the moan of wind and steady, slow boom of gong. “Have you not heard? The Emperor Aureon is dying. He is not expected to last till dawn. The Thirty-Ninth Dynasty dies with him, and⁠—and there is no successor!”

The wind mumbled under the eaves, rattling the window frame and flowing darkly through the alley.

“Ha!” Alfric laughed harshly, exultantly. “A chance⁠—by Ruho, what a chance!”

Of a sudden he stiffened, and the voice of danger was a great shout in his head. He sat up, cocking his ears, and heard the faint scratch and scrape⁠—aye, under the window, coming close⁠—

He slid from the covers and drew his sword where it lay on the floor. The boards felt cold under his bare feet, the night air fingered his skin with icy hands. “What is it?” whispered Freha. She sat up, the dark hair tumbling past her frightened face. “What is it, Alfric?”

He made no answer, but padded over to the window. Flattened against the wall, he stood waiting as a hand raised the sash from outside.

The pale cold light of Amaris fell on the hand that now gripped the sill. A body lifted itself, one-handed, the other clutching a knife. For an instant Alfric saw the flat hairless face in the moonlight, the double crescent brand livid against its horrible blankness. Then in one rippling motion the slave was inside the room.

Alfric thrust, slicing his heart. As the man fell, another swarmed up behind him. He and Alfric faced each other, tableau for one instant of rivering moonlight and whining wind and remotely beating gong. Then the barbarian’s long arm shot out, yanked the slave in, and twisted him in an unbreakable wrestler’s grip.

“Talk!” he hissed into the ear of the writhing creature. “Talk, or I’ll break you bone by bone. Why are you here?”

“He can’t,” said Freha. She came up to them, white in the moonlight, her long hair blowing loose about her shoulders. “The Temple breeds these slaves, raises them from birth to utter, fanatical obedience. And⁠—see⁠—” She pointed to the dead man gaping under the window.

Stooping over, Alfric saw that he had no tongue.


The northerner shuddered. With a convulsive movement, he broke the neck of his prisoner and flung the body aside. “What do they want?” he panted. “Why are they after me?”

“There is a prophecy⁠—but quick, there will be others. Out, down to the taproom⁠—we must have protection⁠—”

“The assassins would hardly be so stupid as to leave us a way out,” grunted Alfric. “Any down there who might help us are probably dead or made prisoner now. No doubt these men have friends on guard, just outside the door⁠—men who’ll come in pretty soon when these don’t come out⁠—”

“Aye⁠—that would be the way of the Temple⁠—but where, then, where?”

Alfric flung on his kilt, dagger belt, and baldric. “Out the window!” He whipped the girl to him, held her supple body against his, kissed her hard and swift as the swoop of a hunting falkh. “Goodbye, Freha, you have been a wonderful companion. I’ll see you again⁠—if I live.”

“But⁠—you can’t leave me!” she gasped. “The slaves will burst through⁠—”

“Why should they harm you? They’re after me.”

“They will.” He felt her shaking against him. “They will, that’s their way⁠—oh!”

The door shuddered as a heavy weight was flung against it. “That’s they,” snarled Alfric. “And the bolt won’t hold very long. I’d like to stay and fight, but⁠—Come!” He grabbed his cloak off the floor and buckled it across Freha’s slim naked shoulders. “I’ll go first⁠—then you jump.”

He balanced on the windowsill, then leaped. Even as he fell, he wondered at the agility of the slaves who had crawled up the wall. It was of roughset stones, but even so⁠—

He hit the muck and cobblestones of the alley with the silent poise of a jaccur, and turned up to the window. It was just above the pit-black shadows, a square of darkness in the moon-whitened wall. “Come!” he called softly.

Freha’s body gleamed briefly in the moonlight as she sprang. He caught her in his arms, set her down, and drew his sword. “Let’s go,” he growled. Then suddenly: “But where? Will the city guards protect us?”

“Some might,” she answered shakily, “but most are controlled by fear of the Temple’s curse. Best we go toward the palace. The Emperor’s Household troops are loyal to him and hate the priesthood which seeks to usurp his power.”

“We can head that way,” he nodded, “meanwhile looking for a place to hide.” He took her hand and they trotted through the thick darkness toward the dim light marking the end of the alley.

Other feet padded in the gloom. Alfric snarled soundlessly and pulled himself and the girl against a wall. He was almost blind in the dark, but he strained his ears, pointing them this way and that in search of the enemy.

The others had also stopped moving. They would be waiting for him to stir, and their own motionlessness could surely outlast the girl’s⁠—anyway, the pursuit from the room would be after him in another moment, when the door gave way⁠—

“Run!” he snapped.


He felt a dart blow by the spot where he had spoken, and lengthened his frantic stride. A form rose before him, vague in the night. He chopped down with his sword, and felt a grim joy at the ripping of flesh and sundering of bone.

Now⁠—out of the alley, into a street not much wider or lighter, and down its shadowy length. The slaves would be behind, but⁠—

There was a one-story house ahead, of the usual flat-roofed construction. “Up!” gasped Alfric, and made a stirrup of his hands. He fairly flung the girl onto the roof. She gave him a hand up, bracing her feet against the parapet, and they fell down together behind it.

Alfric heard the slaves’ bare feet trotting below him, but dared not risk a glance. Snakelike, he and Freha slithered across the housetop. Only a narrow space separated them from the next; they jumped that and crossed over to another and higher roof. From this, Alfric peered into the street beyond.

A couple of city guards were walking down it, spears at the ready. Alfric wondered whether he should join them⁠—no, they would be no shield against a blowgun dart sent from an alley⁠—anyway, they might be priest-loyal.

He put his mouth to Freha’s ear, even then aware of the dark silky hair tickling his lips, and whispered: “What next?”

“I don’t know.” She looked ahead over the nighted roofs to the great central forum, still ruddy-bright with torches. Beyond it, the city climbed toward a double hill, on either crest of which was a building. One must be the palace, thought Alfric⁠—it was in the graceful colonnaded style of the later Empire, white marble under Amaris. Nearly all its windows were dark; but he thought, puzzledly, that it was surrounded by a ring of fires.

The other building was a great gray pile, sprawling its grim massiveness in a red blaze of light. From it came the steady gong-beat and a rising chant⁠—the Temple of the Two Moons, holding vigil at their wedding.

The night was huge above them, a vault of infinite crystal black in which the stars glittered in their frosty myriads and the Milky Way tumbled its bright mysterious cataract between the constellations. The pale disc of Amaris rode high, painting the city and the hills and the dead sea-floor with its cold ghostly light. And now Dannos was swinging rapidly out of the west, brightening the dark and casting weird double shadows that slowly writhed with its changing position.

It was bitter chill. The wind blew and blew, hooting down the streets, banging signs and driving dead leaves and sand and bits of parchment before it. Alfric shivered, wishing for the rest of his clothes. In the waxing moonlight, he could see sand-devils whirling on the sea-bottom, a witches’ dance⁠—and on such a night, trolls and ghosts and the Fates themselves might well be abroad.

He set his teeth against chattering and tried to fix his mind on real and desperately urgent problems. “The priests seemed able to trace us,” he said. “At least, they knew where I went for lodging. Best we work toward the palace as you say, but look for a ruined house or some such place to hide in till morning.”

III

The street below was deserted now. They jumped down to it and darted into the shadows on the other side. Slipping along the walls of buildings they followed its twisting length for some time. An occasional cloaked form passed silently by; otherwise there was only the bitter wind echoing hollowly along the tunnel-like streets.

Of a sudden Alfric stiffened. He heard the measured tramp of feet⁠—a city patrol approaching, just around the next corner. Whirling, he led the way into an alley black as a cave mouth. It was blind, but there was a door at the end, from behind which came the twanging of harps and the thin evil whine of desert flutes. A tavern⁠—shelter, of a sort⁠—

Moonlight glistened on steel as the half-dozen guardsmen passed the alley⁠—passed, stopped, and turned back. “They may be here,” Alfric heard a voice.

Cursing under his breath, the northerner opened the door and stepped through, into a room barely lit by a few tapers, thick with smoke and the smell of unwashed bodies. Alfric’s nostrils quivered at the heavy sweet odor of shivash, and he noticed the floor covered with stupefied smokers. A little yellow man scurried back and forth, filling the pipes. At the farther end, with music and girls, were wine-drinkers, ragged men of ill aspect who looked up with hands on knives.

Freha slammed the bolt down behind them, and Alfric brandished his great sword and said to them all: “Show us a way out.”

A fist beat on the door, a voice shouted: “Open, in the name of the Holy Temple!”

“No way out,” gasped the landlord.

“There is always an exit to these dens,” snapped Freha. “Show us, or we split your skull.”

A man’s knife-hand moved with blurring speed. Alfric stopped the thrown dagger with his sword-blade in a clang of steel, caught it in midair, and hurled it back. The man screamed as it thunked into his belly.

“Out!” snarled the barbarian, and his glaive sang about the landlord’s ears.

“Here,” cried the little man, running toward the end of the room.

The door groaned as the guardsmen hurled themselves against it.

The landlord opened a concealed trapdoor. Only darkness was visible below. Alfric snatched a torch from the wall and saw a tunnel of dark stone. “Down!” he rapped, and Freha jumped. He followed, bolting the trap behind him. It was of heavy iron⁠—the soldiers would have to work to break through it.

The tunnel stretched hollowly away on either side. Freha broke into a run and Alfric loped beside her, the torch streaming in one hand and the sword agleam in the other. Their footfalls echoed through the cold moist dark.

“What is this?” he asked.

“Old sewers⁠—not used now when water is scarce⁠—a warren under the city⁠—” gasped Freha.

“We can hide here, then,” he panted.

“No⁠—only the Temple knows all the passages⁠—they’ll have slaves guarding every exit⁠—we’ll be trapped unless we get out soon⁠—”

Dim sky showed ahead, a hole with a rusted iron ladder leading up into it. Alfric doused his torch and swung noiselessly up the rungs to peer out.

The manhole opened into one of the ruinous abandoned districts, crumbling structures and shards of stone half buried by the drifting sand. Three guardsmen stood watching, spears at the ready. Otherwise there were only the moons and the wind and the silently watching stars.

Alfric’s lip twisted in a snarl. So⁠—the holes were already plugged! But⁠—wait, all egresses could not be guarded yet; best to go on in search of another⁠—no, by the time the fugitives got there it might be watched too. Here there was as least an absence of people to interfere.


He sprang out and rushed at the three, so swiftly that they were hardly aware of him before his blade was shrieking about them. One man tumbled with his head nearly sheared off. Another yelled, leaping back to thrust with his spear. Alfric dodged the jab, grabbed the shaft in one hand and pulled. The guardsman stumbled forward and Alfric’s sword rang on his helmet. He dropped, stunned by the fury of the blow.

The third was on Alfric like an angry jaccur. His spear-thrust furrowed along the barbarian’s ribs. Alfric closed in, grinning savagely in the cold white moonlight, and thrust with his sword. The guard parried the blow with his small buckler, dropped his spear, and drew his shortsword. Bending low, he rushed in, probing for Alfric’s guts, and the northerner skipped aside barely in time. The broadsword chopped down, through the guard’s left leg. Blood spurted, the man crashed to earth, and Alfric stabbed him through the face before he could scream.

The second was climbing dizzily to his feet. Alfric knocked the sword from a nerveless hand and brought his own blade against the guardsman’s throat. “Hold,” he said. “One word, one movement, and you’ll roll in the gutter with your comrades.”

Freha came up, the cloak blowing about her wonderful naked body in the wild wind. She was a fay sight under the moons, and the prisoner groaned as he saw her. “Lady⁠—lady, forgive⁠—”

“Forgive a traitor?” she asked, wrath sparking in her voice.

“Why are the priests after me?” rapped Alfric.

The guard stared. “Surely⁠—surely you know⁠—”

“I know nothing. Speak, if you want to remain a man.”

“The prophecy⁠—the priests warned us about you, that you were the heathen conqueror of the prophecy.⁠ ⁠… Later they said that⁠—” the guard’s desperate eyes turned to Freha. “They said you, your majesty⁠—” His voice trailed off.

“Say on,” she snapped. “Give me the priests’ own words. By Dannos, they’ll all swing for this! I am still Empress of Valkarion!”

Alfric looked at her in sudden shock, as if he had been clubbed. Empress⁠—the Empress of Valkarion⁠—

“But⁠—they said you were not, your majesty⁠ ⁠… the Emperor is dead, he died soon after sundown⁠—”

“As soon as I was gone, eh? A priest’s work, I am thinking. Someone will answer for that. Go on!”

“The High Priest sent word over the city. He told of the prophecy⁠—we all knew of that, but he told it anew. But he said the heathen king could still be slain, and offered a thousand gildars to the man who did it.” The guard gulped. “Then he said you⁠—forgive me, lady, you asked for his words⁠—he said since the Dynasty was now dead, the Temple would rule till further arrangements could be made. But the Empress Hildaborg, half barbarian, idolatrous witch⁠—those were his words, your majesty⁠—she lay under the Temple’s ban. He said she was to be killed, or better captured, with the heathen stranger, with whom she would probably join forces. He put the most solemn curse of the Two Moons on anyone who should aid you and the man, or even fail to help hunt for you⁠—” The guardsman sank to his knees, shaking. “Lady, forgive me! I have a family, I was afraid to refuse⁠—”

“What of my Household troops?” she snapped.

“The priests sent a detachment of the city guards against them⁠—a dreadful battle. The Household repelled the attack, but now they are besieged in the palace⁠—”

“Little help there, then.” Hildaborg laughed mirthlessly. “All the city against us, and our only friends bottled in a ring of spears. You chose an unlucky time to enter Valkarion, Alfric.”

The barbarian’s head was spinning. “You are⁠—the Empress,” he gasped, “and there’s some nonsense about me.⁠ ⁠… What is this prophecy? Why did you⁠—” his voice, helpless with bewilderment, faded off into the moaning wind.

“No time now, someone may be along any moment.⁠ ⁠… Where to hide, where to hide?”


Alfric’s eyes traveled down to the two bodies sprawled on the street. Suddenly he laughed, a harsh metallic bark. “Why, in the very lair of the foe!” he said. “As good citizens, it behooves us to join the hunt for the outlaws. Here is suitable clothing for us.”

She nodded, and fell at once to stripping the corpses. Alfric looked narrowly at the prisoner. “If you betray us⁠—” he murmured.

“I won’t⁠—by the Moons, I swear I won’t⁠—”

“Indeed you won’t,” said Alfric, and lifted sword to cut him down.

Hildaborg sprang up and grabbed his arm. “That’s a barbarous trick,” she exclaimed angrily. “You need only bind and gag him, and hide him in one of these ruins.”

“Why worry about the life of a guardsman?” he asked contemptuously.

Her dark head lifted in pride. “I am Empress of the guardsmen too,” she said.

“As you like,” shrugged Alfric.

The captive turned a face of utter worship to the woman. “You must secure me,” he said, his voice shaking. “But when I am released, my body and soul are yours forever, my lady.”

Hildaborg smiled, and proceeded to cut strips of cloth and dispose of the guard as she had said. Then she turned to Alfric. “You are hard of heart,” she murmured, “but perhaps Valkarion needs one like you, strong and ruthless.” Her deep eyes glowed. “How you fought, Alfric! How you fought!”

The barbarian squatted down and began wiping blood off the looted armor. “I’ve had enough,” he growled. “I’ve been hoodwinked and hounded over the whole damned city, I’ve been thrown into a broil I never heard of, and now I want some truth. What is this prophecy? Why are you here? What does everyone want⁠—” he laughed humorlessly⁠—“besides our heads?”

“The prophecy⁠—it is in the Book of the Sibyl, Alfric. It was made I know not how many thousands or tens of thousands of years ago, at the time of the Empire’s greatest glory. There was a half-mad priestess who chanted songs of ruin and desolation, which few believed⁠—what could harm the Empire? But the songs were handed down through many generations by a few who had some faith, and slowly it was seen that the songs spoke truth. One thing came to pass after another, just as it was foretold. Then the songs were collected by the priesthood, who use the book to guide their policies.”

“Hmmmm⁠—I wonder. I’ve no great faith in spaedom myself.”

“These prophecies are true, Alfric! Now and again they have erred, but I think that is simply because the songs had become garbled in the long time they were handed down without much belief. All too often, the future history in the Book has been written anew by time’s own pen.” Hildaborg slipped a guardsman’s tunic over her slim form. Her eyes were half-shut, dreaming. “They say the Sibyl was loved by Dannos, who gave her the gift of prophecy, and that Amaris jealously decreed she should foretell evil oftener than good. But a wise man at court, who had read much of the almost forgotten science of the ancients, told me he thought the prophecies could be explained rationally. He said sometimes the mind can slip forward along the⁠—the world line, he called it, the body’s path through a space and time that are one space-time. Sometimes, he said, one can ‘remember’ the future. He said the Sibyl’s mind could have followed the world lines of her descendants too, thus traveling many ages ahead⁠ ⁠… but be that as it may, she spaed truly, and her prophecy of tonight is of⁠—you!”

The warrior shook his dark head, feeling a sudden eerie weight of destiny. “What was the tale?” he whispered. The wind whipped the words from his mouth and whirled them down the empty street.


Hildaborg stood while he buckled the corselet on her, and her voice rose in a weird chant that sang raggedly across the ruined buildings, under the stars and the two flying moons. Even Alfric’s hardy soul was shaken by the ominous words, his hands trembling ever so faintly as he worked.

Woe, woe to Dannos and to Amaris and to those who serve them, cry woe on Valkarion and the world! The Thirty-Ninth Dynasty shall end on the night when Dannos weds again with Amaris; winds shall howl in the streets and bear away his soul. Childless shall the Emperor die, the Imperial line shall die with him, and a stranger shall sit in the high throne of Valkarion.

He shall come riding alone and friendless, riding a gray hengist into Valkarion on the evening of that night. A heathen from the north is he, a worshipper of the wind and the stars, a storm which shall blow out the last guttering candles of the Empire. From the boundless wastes of the desert shall he ride, ruin and darkness in his train, and the last long night of the Empire will fall when he comes.

Woe, Dannos, your temple will stand in flames when the heathen king is come! Woe, Mother Amaris, he will defile your holy altars and break them down! Gods themselves must die, their dust will whirl, on the breath of his wind-god, the last blood of the Empire will be swallowed by the thirsty desert.

Woe, for the heathen night which falls! Woe, for the bitter gray dawn which follows! The Moons of the Empire have set, and an alien sun rides baleful over Valkarion.

There was silence after that, save for the hooting of wind and the thin dry whisper of blowing sand. Dannos swung higher, a pale cold eye in the frosty heavens. Alfric clamped his teeth together and finished the disguise.

The armor and clothing were strained on his tall form, ill-fitting, but with the cloak draped over, and the helmet shadowing his face, he should pass muster. Under the cloak, across his back, he had his broadsword⁠—these short southern stabbers were no good.

Hildaborg was better fitted. Slim and boyish in the shining steel, her long hair tucked under the crested helm, spear carried proudly erect, she seemed a young goddess of war. Alfric thought dizzily that no such woman had ever crossed even his dreams.

He hid the corpses in the ruins and they started down the street together. “We’ll try to work through the line of siege, into the palace,” he said. “Once we’re with your troops, something may still be done.”

“I doubt it. They are brave men, but few⁠—few.” Her voice was bitter.

“If we can⁠—” Alfric sank into thought for a while. Then suddenly he said: “Now I know why the priests are after me. But what of you? Where do you come into this picture?”

“I knew about the prophecy,” she replied. “Also, I knew what my fate was likely to be when Aureon died. The Temple and the Imperium, ostensibly the two pillars of the Empire, have long been struggling for power. Each side has its warriors and spies, its adherents among the nobles and commons⁠—oh, the last several generations have been a weary tale of intrigue, murder, corruption, with first one side and now another on top. The Temple wants a figurehead Emperor, the Imperium wants a subservient priesthood⁠—well, you know the story.”

“Aye. A sorry one. It should be ended with the sword. Wipe both miserable factions out and start anew.”


She looked curiously at him. “So the Sibyl was not wrong,” she murmured. “The heathen come out of the north with destruction alike for the Empire and the gods.”

“Luigur take it, I don’t care about Valkarion! Not even enough to destroy it. I only want to save my own neck.” His hand stroked her arm, softly. “And yours. But go on.”

“The Thirty-Ninth Dynasty was the last family with any pretensions to even a trace of the legendary Imperial blood, the line of Dannos himself. And Aureon was the last of them⁠—his sons slain in war, himself an old man without relatives. The Imperial line had been weakening and dying for generations⁠—inbred, enfeebled, degenerate, the blood of Dannos running thinner in each new birth. Aureon had sense enough to take a second wife of different stock⁠—myself, princess of Choredon. Thereby he gained a valuable ally for Valkarion⁠—but no children, and now he is dead.” Hildaborg sighed. “So the Imperium is gone, the Temple is the sole power, and a strong and unscrupling High Priest rules Valkarion. I think the Priest, Therokos, intends to proclaim Valkarion a theocracy with himself as the head. But first, for reasons of politics and personal hatred, he must get rid of me.”

“Why should he hate you?”

Hildaborg smiled twistedly. “He disapproves of barbarians, and my mother was from Valmannstad. He disapproves of my laxness in religious matters. He knows I stand between him and absolute power. I gave Aureon strength to oppose him and thwarted many of his measures. The commons think well of me, I have done what I could to improve their lot, and he hates any hold on Valkarion’s soul other than his own.

“I knew that with Aureon dead and no heir of the blood, Therokos would feel free to strike. I could not hope to match him for long, especially since the law is that no woman may rule in Valkarion. My one chance seemed to lie in the new conqueror who was to come. Yet I could not approach him openly⁠—the Temple spies were everywhere, and anyway the prophecy was that he would be a destroying fury, worse perhaps than the priests. I had to sound him out first, and secretly.

“So I put a trustworthy guards-captain in charge of the gate today, with instructions to direct the stranger to the Falkh and Firedrake. The landlord there was paid to make sure you would stay, and would take the room where I was in my guise of tavern girl.

“So you came. But now it seems the priests were ware to my plan. They have acted swifter than I thought, striking instantly at my men⁠—I expected at least a few days of truce. And I played into their hands by thus cutting myself off from all help. Now they need only hunt us down and kill us.”

“ ’Twill take some doing,” growled Alfric. “Ha, we may yet pull their cursed temple down about their shaven skulls!”

“And so the prophecy would be fulfilled⁠—you would blow out the last dim flicker of light⁠—” She stopped, staring at him, and her voice came slowly: “Valkarion, the last citadel of civilization, the last hope of the dying world, to be wasted by a heathen bandit⁠—perhaps the priests are right, Alfric of Aslak. Perhaps you should die.”

“Luigur take your damned prophecy!” he snarled.


They stood tautly facing each other in the thin chill moonlight. The wind blew and blew, whining between the empty ruins of houses, blowing the dust of their erosion along the empty street.

“I know your old Imperial towns,” said Alfric savagely. “I’ve seen them, moldering shells, half the place deserted because the population has shrunk so far⁠—wearily dreaming of a dead past, grubbing up the old works and sitting with noses buried in the old books, while robbers howl in the deserts and thieving politicians loot the treasury. Year by year, the towns crumble, bridges fall, canals dry up, people grow fewer⁠—and nobody cares. A world is blowing away in red dust, and nobody stirs to help. By the winds of Ruho, it’s about time someone pulled down that tottering wreck you call Imperial civilization! It’s about time we forgot the past and started thinking⁠—and doing⁠—something about the present. The man who burns Valkarion will be doing the world a service!”

Silence, under the wind and the stars and the two moons marching toward their union. Hildaborg hefted her spear until the point gleamed near Alfric’s throat.

He sneered, out of bitterness and despair and a sudden longing for her lips. “Don’t try to stick me with that toy. You saw what happened to the guards.”

“And you would kill me?” Her voice was all at once desolate; she dropped the spearhead to the ground.

“No. But I would leave you⁠—no, by the Holy Well, I wouldn’t. But I’d leave the damned city.” He stepped forward, laying his hands on her mailed shoulders, and his voice rang with sudden earnestness. “Hildaborg, that is your answer. No need to stay in this place of death. We can steal hengists and bluff our way past the gates and be in the hills ere dawn. If you fear for Valkarion at my hands, leave it⁠—leave it to rot and come with me.”

“Come⁠—where?”

“Home, back to Aslak. Back to the blue hills and the windy trees and the little lakes dancing in the sun⁠—to an open heaven and a wide land and free folk who look you honestly in the eye. Luigur take the Empire, as he will whatever we do.” He laughed, a joyous sound echoing in the night. “We’ll build our own stead and live as freefolk and raise a dozen tall sons. Hildaborg, let’s go!”

For a moment she stood silent. When she spoke, her voice trembled a little, and the moonlight glinted off tears in her eyes.

“I love you for it, Alfric, and gladly would go. But Therokos is besieging the palace⁠—he is gathering in all who ever spoke well of me⁠ ⁠… shall my friends be hanged and burned and hacked to bits, and I safe in Aslak?”

“You’re a fool. What could you do for them?”

“Die. But this is no quarrel of yours, Alfric. If you wish, go, and I shall not think of the less of you. Go⁠—my dearest⁠—”

He laughed again, and kissed her for a very long moment. “You are a fool and a madwoman, and I love you for that,” he said. “Come⁠—we can still show these priests the color of steel!”

IV

They trotted rapidly along the ways, their mail clanking. Erelong they were out of the deserted district and approaching the central forum.

It seethed with people. All Valkarion seemed to be out tonight, moving slowly, aimlessly, under the compulsion of a nameless fear. The town buzzed with voices, low, secretive, and the shuffle of thousands of feet under the lamps and the bobbing torches. High over the muted tumult, blown on the harrying wind, chant and gong-beat came from the Temple.

Alfric and Hildaborg pushed their way through the milling, murmuring tide. The unease, the rising wave of fear, was like a tangible force; the northerner’s skin prickled with it. Eyes, thousands of eyes, shifting and staring out of pale faces⁠—the city was full of eyes.

He heard a voice as he came to the edge of the great plaza. Thrusting forward, the tall barbarian looked over the heads of the crowd. There was a rostrum, surrounded by a tight ring of Temple guards, and from atop it a robed priest was haranguing the throng.

“⁠—the Dynasty is dead, and the wrath of the Moons lies heavy over Valkarion. Woe to the world, for the heathen fiend, the scourge of Dannos, is loose!

“Yet I bring hope⁠—aye, from all-merciful Mother Amaris I bring cheer in this darkest hour. There is time, still time to seize the barbarian ere his power grows. There is still time, too, to seize and disown the half-caste witch Hildaborg. There is time to submit to the wise rule of the Temple, that the High Priest may intercede with All-Father Dannos. Repent and be forgiven⁠—destroy the evilworkers who brought this trouble on you, and the Mating of the Moons will yet bring forth a new birth of hope!”

Alfric grew aware of the muttering about him⁠—the commons of Valkarion, laborer, artisan, merchant, peasant, turning thought over and growling it to his neighbor.

“⁠—an ill choice, to see the city ruined or bow to the shavepates.”

“I am afraid. The Moons are high and bitter bright now, they are looking down on us. I am afraid.”

“ ’Twas Hildaborg who lowered the taxes. ’Twas Hildaborg, and not dotard Aureon or thieving Therokos, who whipped the army into shape and beat off the Savonnian invaders. What has the Temple ever done for us, save milk us for our tithes and frighten our babes with stories of godly wrath?”

“Hush! The Moons are watching!”

“Hildaborg is beautiful, she is like a goddess as she rides through the streets and smiles on us. Amaris herself is not more beautiful.”

“The Temple is holy.”

“The priests burned my brother for sorcery. He had one of the old books, that is all; he tried to build the machine it told of⁠—and they burned him.”

“They have enough old books themselves. They sit on all the wisdom of the ancients, and none of us can so much as read.”

“The Fates are abroad tonight. I am afraid.”

“My son is in the Household. They’re after his skin⁠—he’ll hang if he isn’t dead already⁠—unless⁠—”

“Aye, my son is in the city guards. They told him to go hunt down the stranger and the Empress⁠—the Empress!⁠—and off he went.” A grim chuckle. “But I think he is sitting quietly in some corner, waiting.”

“There is an old battle ax at home. My grandfather bore it in the Rurian war. I think I could still swing it if need be.”

“I am afraid⁠—”


Alfric smiled, a steely grimace in the shadow of his visor, and led the way onward.

But he was not to pass easily. He thrust aside a burly peasant, who turned on him with a snarl. “Mind your manners, guardsman! Is’t not enough you should be traitor to the Empress?”

“Aye, the city guards have sat about drinking and gaming and making the streets unsafe for our daughters,” said another man harshly. “They didn’t get off their fat butts till this chance came to go yapping after Hildaborg.”

Alfric tried to shoulder past the ring of angry folk who gathered. “Aside!” he called. “Aside, or I use my spear!”

“Mind your manners, guardsman,” grinned the peasant. He came closer, and Alfric smelled the wine on his breath. “What say we have a little fun with these priest-lovers, comrades? Will they squeal when we pummel ’em?”

Alfric’s fist shot out like a ball of iron. There was a dull smack, and the peasant flew back against the man behind. The barbarian flailed out with his spear butt, and the crowd gave way.

“Through!” he muttered to Hildaborg. “Quick, we have to get away.”

“They’re our friends,” she whispered frantically. “Can’t we reveal⁠—”

“And bring the guard down on this unarmed mob? We wouldn’t last a moment. Come!”

A stone clanged against the girl’s helmet. She staggered, half collapsing into Alfric’s arms. The crowd growled, beast-like, and shoved in closer.

“Aside!” shouted Alfric. “Make way, or the curse of the Moons is on you!”

“You talk like a priest,” said a laborer thickly. He lifted a heavy billet of wood. “On them, boys! Kill them!”

Alfric laid the half-stunned girl on the ground, stood over her, and drew his broadsword. “An outlander!” shouted someone, back in the sea of shadowy, torch-lit, hating faces. “A mercenary, hunting our empress!”

The mob surged against him. He thrust around with the sword, striking to disable but not to kill⁠—though he’d slay if he had to, he thought desperately.

Stones were flying. One hit him on the cheek. Pain knifed through his head. “Hai, Ruho!” he roared, and banged a skull. The mob edged away a little. Eyes and teeth gleamed white in the bloody torchlight.

A trumpet-blast sounded, harsh and arrogant over the rising voices. Someone screamed. Alfric saw spears aloft, steel gleaming red⁠—a squad of guardsmen to the rescue.

The rescue! He groaned, lifted Hildaborg, and sought to retreat through the crowd.

Too late. The guards were hacking a bloody way through the mob; it scattered in panic and the squad was there.

“Just in time,” panted its chief. “The folk are ugly. They’ve killed a dozen guardsmen already, to my knowledge, a couple of priests, I don’t know how many Temple slaves⁠—Dannos smite the blasphemers!”

“Thanks.” Alfric set the reviving girl on her feet. “Now I have to go⁠—special mission, urgent⁠—”

The chief looked sharply at him. “You have a barbarous accent,” he said slowly, “and you’re no Valkariona. Who⁠—”

Hildaborg groaned, stirring back to consciousness. “Alfric⁠—”

“A boy⁠—no⁠—” The officer stepped forth. Hildaborg’s lovely face turned toward the light, and he gasped. “She⁠—


Alfric picked up his spear and hurled it through the chief’s throat. Then he lifted his dripping sword and stood by Hildaborg, waiting for the end.

“The Empress⁠—the Empress, and the heathen⁠—We’ve found them⁠—

The crowd had withdrawn, milling around the edges of the forum, too frightened and confused to help. The priest and his guards were coming on the double, yelling for help. Other armed men seemed to be springing from the ground.

“Alive!” shrilled the priest. “Take them alive if you can! A thousand gildars!”

The guards were well disciplined. They locked shields in a ring about Alfric and closed in. Man for man, he could have laughed at them⁠—but this way⁠—

Hildaborg swayed on her feet beside him. “So this is the end?” she whispered. “I love you, Alfric⁠—”

He howled his rage, and sprang forward. The sword blurred in his hands, ringing on shields and helmets. A guard fell, shrieking, his right arm sheared off. Alfric stabbed another in the neck, kicked a third in the groin, and roared.

They surged around him, hemming him in with their shields. Clubbed spears thudded against his helmet, and it rang like a brazen gong. He staggered, shouted, struck out again⁠—the sword fell from his hands⁠—he toppled into a clamoring darkness⁠—

Dimly, he was aware of being stripped of armor, chained hand and foot, hauled roughly to his feet. He lurched mechanically along, and slowly his head cleared. Through a mist of throbbing pain, he saw that Hildaborg walked beside him. Spears pricked their backs, the chains rattled on ankles and wrists. They were in the middle of a tight triple ring of guards, marching up the hill toward the Temple.

The villas of the mighty lay around them, white in the moonlight, fragrant with gardens. Alfric saw fountains splashing, and even then thought of the parched land beyond the walls, land that might flower again if it had that water.

But that would never be. He would swing high above the city, the falkhs would pick out his eyes⁠—Hildaborg would die, and the grip of the Temple would be locked on Valkarion till its last stones were dust on the wind.

Strength came back, a bleak resolve not to go down without one more fight. His brain began whirring, the old cold craftiness of his turbulent lifetime surged forward⁠ ⁠… hopeless. They were caught, they were done; all his struggles were the vain writhings of a beast in a cage.

“So this ends it.” Hildaborg’s voice was weary. Then she smiled a little. “But we made a good try, Alfric.” And warmly: “And we have loved each other. That is enough.”

“It is not,” he answered. “But it is something.”

“Silence!” commanded the priest.

Now they were on the hillcrest, the mighty walls of the Temple looming before them. Alfric saw it aswarm with slaves and guards and priests of all degrees. The gong-beat was a steady, tremendous crashing⁠—it seemed to fill the world with its brazen clamor. High rose the chant of the Moon Wedding.

The warrior glanced aside, over to the palace. There was a bridge spanning the gully between the two hillcrests, and guards were on it. Other guards, city and Temple, were besieging the palace; he saw their fires in a ring about it. They were setting up a great ballista whose stones, he knew, would bring the walls down in ruin.

From the hilltop he could see over the moon-whitened desert and the vast reach of the old sea-bottom. Once it had been blue and alive, glittering with sunlight, the long waves rolling in to crash in foam and thunder on a dazzling beach. The harbor of Valkarion had been crowded with ships from all the world, a forest of tall masts, a wild perfumery of salt and tar and the spices of the south. And beyond, the land had been green, and white clouds had sailed through a soft blue summer sky.


Well, it was gone⁠—the world was dried into desert and scrubby forest and harsh meadowland, sand blew in the ancient beds of rivers and seas, the air was thin and chill and held a bitter tang of rust. The cities were in ruins, the Empire was a shadow, and man was gone back to a few wretched remnants, sinking into barbarism and death.

Alfric looked up to the cold, splendid night sky. There was a tradition from the wise ancients, he had once been told, that those swarming bright star-hosts were other worlds and suns, happier, maybe, than this. It was some consolation.

The Moons were near their mating now. Bright Dannos was sweeping triumphantly down on pale Mother Amaris; he would cover her and then pass on, and out of that wedding would come the fate of the world. Cold fate, dark destiny⁠—night and famine and death, the moons hurtling over a world sunk into final oblivion.

Well, men died, sometime or other, and all they could do about it was to meet the end bravely. Alfric squared his shoulders and marched into the Temple.

There was a long corridor, at the end of which he saw a vast room flashing in gold and silver and fiery jewels, draped with the costliest ancient tapestries. Even then, Alfric’s eyes gleamed greenly. To loot that room!

They turned off along another hall, and then down a stone-cut flight of steps into the Temple dungeons. Alfric had been in enough jails before not to find the damp, rough-hewn rock tunnels strange, but Hildaborg shuddered and pressed closer to him.

A scream echoed down the corridor, rose and fell and died raggedly into the echoes. The priest smirked. “A heretic is being shown the error of his ways,” he said unctuously. “He blasphemed against the Moons and swore he would abide by the Empress.”

“Then the gods abide by him,” said Hildaborg defiantly.

The guards thrust them into a cell, little more than a cave chipped out of the hill’s heart, and locked their chains to staples in the walls. They were held barely able to move, facing each other with a few scant inches between⁠—miles between, a world between, thought Alfric wearily⁠—he would never kiss her again⁠—

The guards clanged the door shut and left them in utter darkness. Hildaborg’s voice trembled, but she spoke bravely: “What can we do?”

“Nothing, now.” The barbarian strained against his chains, felt their solidity, and relaxed. “Wait for a chance, maybe. Otherwise⁠—die.”

“I don’t want to die, Alfric. I want to live, I want to see the sky and feel the wind and bear your sons.”

“I don’t enjoy the thought of death either, dearest. If we had fled to Aslak⁠—”

“But we didn’t, and for myself I am still glad. Though that you should die too⁠—” Her voice broke, and he heard her quiet sobbing in the dark.

He tried to find words, but they were awkward. So he fell into silence.

Presently the door opened again. A man came in with only two torch-bearing Temple slaves accompanying. Alfric looked at his magnificent robes and knew him for Therokos the High Priest.


He was tall, stoop-shouldered, a little on the fat side but well muscled underneath. His face was wide and heavy, sallow under the high shaven forehead, the mouth hard and thin, the eyes small and black and glittering-cold. When he spoke, his voice was wondrous, a deep organ which he played like a master musician.

“So we meet again, your majesty,” he said, and bowed. There was little mockery in his tones; he seemed straightforward and businesslike.

Hildaborg did not answer. She stood with her beauteous form in its ragged soldier’s tunic pressed against the wall. Her sweat-dampened black hair clung to her forehead, fell down her shoulders in a shining wave. In the restless torchlight, her face was white and drawn, streaked with blood and dirt and the tracks of tears, but she gave the High Priest glance for glance and her lips were steady.

Therokos looked Alfric’s tall form up and down. “And so you are the conqueror of the prophecy,” he murmured. “A mighty man⁠—but just how did you think you could do it? Who are your allies in the city? What was your plan?”

“I am Alfric of Aslak, and I came here without friends or plan, knowing nothing of any prophecy,” answered the barbarian coldly. “And you are a misbegotten son of a she-garm, with whose head I will yet play football.”

“Come now,” said Therokos softly, “surely you do not expect me to believe you are here by mere chance? Your cause is lost, you are doomed, but you can save yourself the inquisition and die easily if you will tell us what you know.”

“I know nothing, you jerrad!”

“You may know more after the inquisitioners have worked on you awhile,” said Therokos coldly. Then turning to Hildaborg, his voice suddenly rich and warm, throbbing with love and pity: “My lady, my lady, you do not know how I regret this. That the Empress of Valkarion should, even for dire necessity, be thus humiliated is the greatest sorrow of my life.”

Hildaborg’s lip curled. “I see you weeping,” she said coldly.

“But I do, my lady⁠—my heart is ashes within me. Only need drove me to this⁠—and it is not yet too late to repent, your majesty. What the Moons have taken, the Moons can restore.

“Surely, my lady,” said Therokos reasonably, “you can see the absolute necessity of my actions. Under the law, you could not rule, and there was no Imperial heir. Without a strong hand, leaderless Valkarion would have split under the quarreling of the nobles and the lawlessness of the commons, easy prey for barbarian enemies such as this man⁠—and the Sibyl’s warning would have come true. With the Imperium gone, the Temple, sole remaining pillar of Valkarion, must bear the burden of state.”

“In other words,” said Hildaborg coldly, “you will have yourself anointed Theocrat.”

“The Moons have seen fit thus to honor my unworthiness,” said Therokos. “But it would still be well if we should unite our forces. You have many loyal friends, my lady, myself not the least of them. If you will but wed me, we can together unite the factions in the city and build the Empire anew.”

She smiled, almost a sneer. “Yours was a strange courtship.”

“I have told you how the necessity grieved me,” said the priest. Suddenly his voice came hard as steel, cold as winter and death: “It is now my duty to offer you a choice. Call on your troops to surrender, your followers in the city to desist from their treasonous activities, and wed me this night, or⁠—” he paused⁠—“burn at the stake for blasphemy and witchcraft. But first you will be tied down and every slave in the Temple have his way with you.”

“That might not be worse than leading my men into your hands,” she flared. But her face was suddenly bloodless.

“You will be surprised how much worse it will be⁠—especially since your men will die anyway. But I will offer you this, too: if you call on them to surrender, those who do may go into exile.”

She stood a moment in silence, and Alfric knew what a horror must be clawing her heart. Then she nodded toward him: “What of my protector here?”

“The heathen bandit must die in any case, that the city may know itself safe from him and the prophecy,” said Therokos. “He still has his choice of easy hanging or slow torture. But if you refuse me, Hildaborg, he will no longer have the choice; he will go to hell by inches, cursing you for it.”

The lovely dark head bowed. It was as if a flame had gone out. Alfric felt ill at seeing her thus broken, given over to a lifetime’s prisoning⁠—golden chains they would be, but no less heavy and galling. “Goodbye, my dear,” he whispered. “Goodbye, I will always love you.”

She made no reply, but said to Therokos, tonelessly: “I yield me, lord.”

V

The high priest’s face lit, and Alfric realized dully that Therokos, too, loved the queen⁠—in his own cold way. “You do well, beautiful one,” he said shakily. He came over and kissed her and fondled her stiff body. “You have never done better, black witch. Now come⁠—to your wedding.”

He signed to the two slaves, who sconced their torches and took a key from their master. They unlocked Hildaborg’s chains, and she almost fell into Therokos’ arms.

He caressed her, murmuring softly. “There, dear, easy⁠—you will wash and eat and rest, you will wear the robes of honor⁠—be at ease, you are safe now, you are mine forever.”

“Aye⁠—” She braced herself, every muscle tautened under the silken skin, and suddenly she hurled the priest from her⁠—sent him staggering against Alfric. “Kill!” she screamed.

The barbarian snarled, wild with a sudden murderous glory, and his manacled hands shot out. One gripped Therokos over the mouth, and the other sank steely fingers into the wattled throat.

The two slaves sprang at him like wild garms. Knives flashed in the bloody light. Hildaborg snatched a torch and swept its flaming end across the eyes of one. He screamed wordlessly, rolling over and over, clawing at his face. Hildaborg snatched up his dagger and lunged at the other.

Alfric groaned. What chance did she have against the deadly experience of a Temple assassin?⁠—Therokos had gone limp. Alfric flung the heavy body crashing into the slave. They went down together. Hildaborg leaped in, her knife rising and falling and rising again, streaming red.

Then she was in his arms, shaken by wild sobbing. He held her close, kissed her, stroked her hair, and had time for a dim wondering amazement that such a woman should have lain in his⁠—his⁠—fate.

There was no time to lose. “Unlock me,” he said. “Unlock me and let’s get out of this den of Luigur.”

She searched Therokos’ robes for the key, found it, and cast the chains rattling aside. Alfric snatched up a knife, with an uneasy glance at the door. But the noise had drawn no guards. They must be used to screams in this part of the Temple.

Therokos stirred, groaning. Alfric’s big brown form stooped over him, dagger against throat. “Up with you, fat jerrad,” hissed the northerner. “Up, and not a word, or you’ll be spilling guts over the floor.”

The High Priest climbed unsteadily to his feet. “Now lead us out by a secret way,” rasped Alfric.

“There is none⁠—” groaned Therokos.

Alfric slapped him with savage fury. “Shut up! I know there is. You priests are like all burrowing snakes, you’ve more than one exit to your holes. March! And if we meet guards, you’ll die first.”

Therokos flung him a glance of utter hate, but stumbled obediently ahead. The empty corridor echoed dully to their footfalls. Near its end, Therokos pressed a camouflaged stud, and a section of the rock wall swung aside on noiseless hinges.

Hildaborg took a torch from the wall and closed the door behind them. They went down a long sloping tunnel, so low that Alfric had to stoop. “You cannot hope to escape,” said Therokos, his voice again under his wondrous control. “Best you give up peaceably, saving trouble and lives on both sides. In exchange, I will offer better terms than before.”

“What?” asked Alfric skeptically.

“Weapons, money, and hengists⁠—then you can leave the city for the hell that awaits you.”

“And my men?” insisted Hildaborg.

“Exile, with you.”


Alfric pondered the proposal. If they could get free, with men at their back, they could always raise an army for a new attempt. But surely Therokos was aware of that. So if he had some trick⁠—and it would be strange if he did not⁠—

“How do we know you’ll keep the bargain?” he asked coldly.

“You have the honor of the High Priest,” answered Therokos loftily. Alfric sneered, and Therokos added: “Also, I assume you keep me prisoner until you are safe.”

“It does not sound ill⁠—” mused Hildaborg.

Nor did it to Alfric. But he shook his head, stubbornly. “I mistrust him. Moreover, a new war, after he had time to get ready, would take time and lives, and might fail. If tonight is indeed the night of destiny, we can still strike.”

“With what?” jeered Therokos.

Alfric was not quite sure himself, but prodded the captive ungently onward. They came to another hinged rock, and Therokos opened that door for them. Alfric’s spine crawled with the thought of what might lie beyond; he kept the dagger against Therokos’ back as they stepped out.

They were in the shadows of a ruined portico, in a deserted section near the bottom of the hill. White and serene, the ancient columns lifted toward the two moons. The gracious remnants of elder days stretched on either side, half buried by drifting sand. Black against the sky, the Temple loomed on the hillcrest, but Alfric saw no movement.

Hildaborg slipped against him. “Now what shall we do?” she whispered.

He laughed softly, the old grim battle joy flowing up in him. Weariness and despair fell off like an outworn cloak⁠—there was new strength in his thews and a goal in his mind.

“I heard, down there, how Valkarion really hates the priests,” he said. “The city is seething with revolt which wants only a leader. Could the common folk rise, I think nigh all the city guards, impressed into priest service by fear, would come over to their side. And you⁠—they love you, Hildaborg. Could you go to sure friends?”

“Aye⁠—there is old Bronnes the merchant and Captain Hassalon of the guard, and⁠—many.”

“Then go. Slip down to them, give them word and tell them to pass it on, to shout it over the city. You, the Empress, the divinely appointed lady of Valkarion, tell the folk to rise against the Temple. Let them storm the citadel, and they may have the looting of it!” He chuckled. “That should bring in the laggards.”

“But⁠—untrained mobs, against the guards⁠—”

“There will be other guardsmen on your side. And⁠—this is my part⁠—your Household will also be there.”

“But⁠—they’re besieged⁠—”

“I’ll get them out.” Alfric stripped off Therokos’ gold-braided cloak, and slung it over her shoulders. “This will cover you well enough so you can get to your friends unharmed. Now go, Hildaborg, and Ruho go with you.”

He kissed her, with a wild hunger that dissolved into tenderness. “Stay out of danger,” he whispered. “Stay in a safe place till I come for you⁠—Hildaborg⁠—”

Therokos scuttled aside. “Oh, no!” snarled Alfric, and stabbed. The priest tumbled, with blood rivering from his stomach, choking his screams. Alfric took Hildaborg again in his arms. “Goodbye, my dearest dear⁠—”

She slipped into the shadows. Alfric sighed, wondering with a brief heaviness if he would ever see her again. He knew full well how desperate his gamble was.

Well, there was work to be done. He turned and ran crouched along the hillside, weaving in and out of darkness. The Moons were almost at their mating now, flooding the city with chill silver radiance.

He grinned up at them. And what did they think of this ruination of their ancient godhead? He could hardly imagine them caring about it. Surely Dannos, the swift warrior, and bright Mother Amaris had more use for an honest fighting man and his warmhearted love than for a bunch of sniveling shavepates. All honor to the Moons, but not to tyrants and murderers in their name.

He was in the gully now, between Temple and palace. Snakelike, he crawled under the shadow of the bridge to its farther end, where he peered cautiously around an abutment.

The trampled gardens were full of city and Temple guards, whose watchfires ringed the palace. He saw the light agleam on spears and swords and armor, and had time to wonder if he would ever make it past them.

But he had to try. He drew a deep breath, tightened his muscles, and ran.


Like a flying arrow he ran, noiseless on bare feet, and none saw him before he was hugged against a low thorn-tree near one of the fires. Up it he went, wincing as the thorns raked him, and slipped along a branch almost overhanging the blaze.

He caught a snatch of muttered conversation. “⁠—when they finish those siege engines, down the palace goes. But the Household will be out like a swarm of stinger asts. I don’t relish fighting the best swords in Valkarion.”

“No, but we outnumber them.”

“My cousin is in there. I hate to think of⁠—”

Alfric sprang! He soared from his perch and crashed into the chest of the man he had picked. The guard went down in a clang of armor and dry snap of breaking ribs. Alfric snatched his spear and jabbed it through the groin of another. Through that gap, then, he raced, low and zigzag among the bushes.

The siege line roared. The air was suddenly thick with spears and arrows. Alfric felt one rake his leg, and cursed between gasps. To the palace!

“Open!” he howled. “Open, let me by, in the name of the Empress!”

If the garrison took this for a ruse and shot him, it was all over. He plunged up the long staircase, past the crouching craven sphinxes of the Empire. The doors had been broken down in the first assault, but the Imperials had put up a barricade. He saw steel flash as he neared it.

“Hildaborg!” he bawled. “Live the Empress!”

They held their fire. He fell under the barricade while their arrows hummed overhead. The disorderly Temple pursuit broke into retreat, back out of bowshot.

Alfric climbed over the barricade into the great palace antechamber. Its golden glory was gutted by fighting, splashed with dry blood, the tapestries in rags and the furniture splintered. Dead men and wounded lay side by side against the walls, under the ancient murals of the Empire’s greatness. A dozen tall cuirassiers in gold and purple uniforms⁠—now torn and bloodstained⁠—stood waiting for him. Their spears and swords, axes and bows were at the ready, their haggard faces bleak with suspicion.

“Who are you?” demanded the captain. “What is this?”

“I am Alfric of Aslak⁠—” panted the newcomer.

A barbarian⁠—the barbarian⁠—the outlander of the prophecy⁠—” They hefted their weapons, eyes narrowing, mouths drawing into taut lines.

“I am with Hildaborg, against the Temple,” said Alfric. “ ’Twas with my help she escaped their net. Now she leads all of us to overthrow her foes.”

“How do we know you speak truth?” snapped the captain.

“You’ll know it when I lead you out against the Temple!”

“Out⁠—to be cut down by thrice our number? Go to!”

“They’ll have more to worry about than us,” said Alfric. In hard brief words, he told them the plan.

At the end of it, the tall captain clapped his shoulder and said in a voice suddenly warm: “That is a tale whose truth we can see for ourselves, when the Empress’ folk come up against the Temple. So I’ll believe it, for one. I am Ganimos of the Imperial Household. Welcome, Alfric of Aslak!”

The barbarian nodded, too weary for speechmaking. “Give me some water and wine and a little to eat,” he said. “I’ll wash, refresh myself, and be ready to go with you at the time of the uprising. If we hit the Temple from the side then, it will fall.”

But he had scarcely gotten clean, donned a guardsman’s armor, and stretched himself on a couch for a moment’s nap, when he heard the blare of trumpets. Ganimos burst into the room where he lay, shouting: “The Temple’s men are storming us again in full force, and no help from the city in sight. Up⁠—up and die!”

VI

Alfric swung to his feet, suddenly raging. “Therokos!” he growled. “I thought the devil was left dying, but someone must have found him. He knows the plan, means to thwart it by taking us before Hildaborg’s force can be raised. Without us to attack from the flank, the Temple may well drive off her assault.”

Ganimos fingered his shortsword with an ominous side glance. “Unless this be some treachery of yours, barbarian⁠—” he murmured.

“What difference has my coming made in your actions so far?” snapped Alfric. “Were I of the enemy camp, would I have come here to fight on your side when they attacked?”

“Aye⁠—truth, truth. But come!” Ganimos smiled twistedly. “If this is your night of destiny as they say, Alfric, the Fates have their work cut out for them!”

A roar of battle rose as they came out into the antechamber. Ganimos groaned. “There are too many ways into this damned building⁠—we have to guard them all and we lost a quarter of our men the first time. If the Temple men assault one point in strength, they’ll be inside!”

“Let them!” blazed Alfric. His eyes were like green fire under the swaying crystal candelabra. “Send messengers to all entrances, Ganimos⁠—tell the men there to retreat, firing the palace to hinder pursuit. We’ll gather all our forces here⁠—”

“Burn the palace?” cried the guardsman. “I swore to defend it!”

“You swore to defend the Imperial family too, didn’t you? If we can’t get outside to help the Empress, you’ll be a hell of a use to her! Now go!”

There was no gainsaying the wild power which blazed in the northerner. Ganimos went, shouting. Alfric swung joyously to the barricade, lifting the battle ax he had taken in preference to a shortsword.

The archers and spearmen were sending forth a deadly hail, but they could not halt the enemy charge. Alfric saw that there was cavalry coming against the main entrance, with foot soldiers behind. If they got over or through the flimsy barrier⁠—

“Spears!” he roared. “Spearmen, hold firm!”

He led the way to the barricade top and ranked his guardsmen⁠—they were his now, he was again master of war and equal of kings⁠—in a tight line, with spears braced outward. “Now hold!” he shouted. “Hold, for the sake of Ruho!”

The hengists thundered up the stairs, across the portico, against and up the sides of the barricade in a living wave. For a moment battle raged. The heap of wood and stone chunks broke some of the speed of the charge, but still it shocked against the spear line with a fury that trembled in the walls. Metal clanged, men shouted, hengists screamed in a boiling tide of struggle. Alfric saw a spearman fall, spitted on a lance. He snatched the shaft and thrust it into the throat of the hengist breaking through⁠—with all his straining force he rammed it home, and steed and rider tumbled back.

The cavalry broke, hengists bucking, refusing to hit that gleaming line again. The Temple infantry line scattered as the maddened animals trampled into it. Householders were streaming into the antechamber, and Alfric’s nostrils quivered to the first acrid whiffs of smoke. With a burning palace behind them, the Imperials need have less fear of an attack from the rear.

“The infantry will be up against us in a moment,” panted Ganimos.

“Aye, we’d better charge out while they’re still disorganized,” said Alfric. “We’ll assault the Temple itself. And pray your Moons help comes ere we’re cut down!”

“We’ll die like men, anyway,” said Ganimos, “not like beasts in a trap. Thank you for that, stranger.”

“Then⁠—hai, Hildaborg!” Alfric plunged over the barricade.

The Household guards followed, a wave that formed into a wedge and plunged across the gardens. The finest warriors of Valkarion hit the wavering Temple forces like a spear going home.


Ax and sword! Spear and arrow! Clang and roar of metal, whirring weapons, rushing blood⁠—shouts and curses, screams, deep-throated oaths⁠—death unchained in the gardens of Valkarion!

Alfric led the way at the point of the wedge, smiting, smiting. No man could stand before his raging fury⁠—his ax was a dazzle and thunder before him. Hewing, hewing, he led the Household forth.

Hildaborg! Hai, Hildaborg!” The war cry shouted over the hills, rang in echoes with the clamor of metal and shock of combat. “Hildaborg!

These Householders fought like demons, thought Alfric dimly as he struck at the faces and bodies which loomed briefly out of night and shadow into the red dance of fire. How they fought! But⁠—Ruho, if he only had a levy of Aslakan axmen behind him now!

They won through to the bridge⁠—through and over, in a dash that drove the few guards before it like dry leaves before a gale. Alfric turned gasping to Ganimos. “Hold the bridge,” he said. “As soon as we’re all over, hold the bridge. That’ll protect our rear from cavalry⁠—hengists can’t go through that steep gully. And when the foot soldiers have gathered enough wits to come after us that way, you can throw spears down on top of them.”

“Aye, your majesty.” The title came without thought to the soldier’s lips, as he saluted and turned to hail a squad to stay with him.

Alfric led the assault of the rest on the Temple. There were fewer guards on this side of the gully. He hewed at one and felt the shock of the splitting skull through his arms and shoulders, rattling his teeth. Howling, he yanked the weapon free and brought it up to knock aside a sword-thrust and beat the foeman to earth.

Back the Household drove the guards, back to the scowling walls of the Temple. Weird battle, in darkness and cold, with the moons and the great rising flames for fitful illumination. Strange, to trade blows with men who were only red highlights against the roaring night. For a timeless interval, it was all clamor and death and flying steel.

But the Household was being carved away⁠—man after man fell⁠—and now the palace besiegers were streaming through the gully, Ganimos and his squad cut off on the bridge⁠—hai, Hildaborg, it had been a lovely fight but it was nearing its end.

Alfric looked up at the mighty sky, and he saw the majestic shield of Dannos slip over Amaris. Her light was cut off, the hilltop grew dimmer⁠—the Moons were mated.

“O Hildaborg, if only⁠—”

He looked along the wall, against which he now had his back, and saw the torches which swept up the hill, saw the dark mass of humanity and heard its beast cry for blood. And his heart leaped into his throat, and he laughed aloud under Dannos, for here was life again.

Hai, Hildaborg!” he roared.

The remaining troopers heard him and lifted their weary heads to see. They answered his cry, then, and hewed a way to where he stood. And now the dismayed Temple forces were breaking⁠—the Household swept along the walls toward the Temple gates.

Battle raged there, as the rebel guards and the blood-howling mob bore down on the garrison. Fire was already licking at the rafters where flame arrows had struck; the Temple would soon stand aflame even as the palace was burning, as the Empire was burning and sundering. The two pillars of Valkarion were crashing to earth, and what would be left when they were gone?

By the leaping fire-blaze, Alfric saw the torn and trampled bodies of priests and slaves. He recognized one battered face and stooped over for a closer look. Therokos lay dead. His wound somehow bandaged and braced, his body cased in armor, he lay where he had fallen.

Well, the High Priest had been a brave man in his way⁠—Alfric gave him warrior’s salute and passed on to join the fight.

An armored figure astride a great war-hengist was leading the charge. Even without hearing that lovely voice crying its challenge, Alfric would have known her. He sprang forward, crying out, and seized the bridle, pulling her aside just as the gate defense broke and the attackers burst into the Temple.

“I told you to stay in a safe place!” he raged. Huge and bloodsmeared, his lean face painted red by the rising fires, his eyes like green ice in the moonlight, he stood looking up at her.

Hildaborg laughed. “You’re still a poor fool, Alfric,” she said. “Could I stay at home while you were fighting for me?”

She took off her helmet. Her dark hair streamed down over his face as she leaned forward to kiss him.

In the sky, Dannos swept past Amaris and swung eastward toward the horizon.


Dawn came, chill and gray, full of weariness and the sobbing of women. Alfric stood leaning on a spear, atop the flat roof of Bronnes the merchant, and looked out over the city. A leather cloak hung from his broad shoulders against the thin bitter dawn-wind. His face was drawn into bleak lines.

To him came Hildaborg, lovely in the cold colorless light, her unbound locks floating in the breeze. He looked at her in a vague wonder as to how many women she really was. The passionate lover of the tavern, the haughty queen who had faced the captive guard and the captor priest, the wild war-goddess of the battle⁠—and now this girl, slim and fair and mysterious, with wind-cooled cheeks and a secret laughter behind her eyes⁠—which was the real one? Or were they all Hildaborg? And would he ever know?

She touched his arm. “We’ve won,” she whispered.

“Aye⁠—won,” said Alfric tiredly. “Won what? The Temple is down, but so is the palace, and there’s still riot and looting in the city.”

“It will pass. Victory was dearly bought, but now it is ours. And you, Alfric, are ruler of Valkarion.”

“I⁠—a heathen outlander?”

“After last night, the Household and the guards will follow you to hell and back. And the rest⁠—” she smiled shyly⁠—“will follow me, who follow you myself.”

“A big task. Too big, perhaps, for the son of an Aslakan peasant.” Alfric smiled crookedly down at Hildaborg. “ ’Tis more for you, who are born a queen. Best I continue my travels.”

“The queen,” she said firmly, “needs a king. You have come to the end of your wandering, Alfric.” She laughed, a clear beautiful sound in the quiet morning. “You have no choice, my dear. The Sibyl grudgingly admits that the Fortieth Dynasty, ‘sons of the heathen,’ will be among the greatest. But how can you have sons without⁠—”

Alfric grinned. “I surrender,” he said. “Who am I to challenge the Fates?”

Down in the street a hengist, escaped from his owner in the rioting, whinnied his greeting to the early sun.

Lord of a Thousand Suns

“Yes, you’ll find almost anything man has ever imagined, somewhere out in the Galaxy,” I said. “There are so damned many millions of planets, and such a fantastic variety of surface conditions and of life evolving to meet them, and of intelligence and civilization appearing in that life. Why, I’ve been on worlds with fire-breathing dragons, and on worlds where dwarfs fought things that could pass for the goblins our mothers used to scare us with, and on a planet where a race of witches lived⁠—telepathic pseudohypnosis, you know⁠—oh, I’ll bet there’s not a tall story or fairy tale ever told which doesn’t have some kind of counterpart somewhere in the universe.”

Laird nodded. “Uh-huh,” he answered, in that oddly slow and soft voice of his. “I once let a genie out of a bottle.”

“Eh? What happened?”

“It killed me.”

I opened my mouth to laugh, and then took a second glance at him and shut it again. He was just too deadpan serious about it. Not poker-faced, the way a good actor can be when he’s slipping over a tall one⁠—no, there was a sudden misery behind his eyes, and somehow it was mixed with the damnedest cold humor.

I didn’t know Laird very well. Nobody did. He was out most of the time on Galactic Survey, prowling a thousand eldritch planets never meant for human eyes. He came back to the Solar System more rarely and for briefer visits than anyone else in his job, and had less to say about what he had found.

A huge man, six-and-a-half feet tall, with dark aquiline features and curiously brilliant greenish-grey eyes, middle-aged now though it didn’t show except at the temples. He was courteous enough to everyone, but shortspoken and slow to laugh. Old friends, who had known him thirty years before when he was the gayest and most reckless officer in the Solar Navy, thought something during the Revolt had changed him more than any psychologist would admit was possible. But he had never said anything about it, merely resigning his commission after the war and going into Survey.

We were sitting alone in a corner of the lounge. The Lunar branch of the Explorers’ Club maintains its building outside the main dome of Selene Center, and we were sitting beside one of the great windows, drinking Centaurian sidecars and swapping the inevitable shop-talk. Even Laird indulged in that, though I suspected more because of the information he could get than for any desire of companionship.

Behind us, the long quiet room was almost empty. Before us, the window opened on the raw magnificence of moonscape, a sweep of crags and cliffs down the crater wall to the riven black plains, washed in the eerie blue of Earth’s light. Space blazed above us, utter black and a million sparks of frozen flame.

“Come again?” I said.


He laughed, without much humor. “I might as well tell you,” he said. “You won’t believe it, and even if you did it’d make no difference. Sometimes I tell the story⁠—alcohol makes me feel like it⁠—I start remembering old times.⁠ ⁠…”

He settled farther back in his chair. “Maybe it wasn’t a real genie,” he went on. “More of a ghost, perhaps. That was a haunted planet. They were great a million years before man existed on Earth. They spanned the stars and they knew things the present civilization hasn’t even guessed at. And then they died. Their own weapons swept them away in one burst of fire, and only broken ruins were left⁠—ruins and desert, and the ghost who lay waiting in that bottle.”

I signalled for another round of drinks, wondering what he meant, wondering just how sane that big man with the worn rocky face was. Still⁠—you never know. I’ve seen things out beyond that veil of stars which your maddest dreams never hinted at. I’ve seen men carried home mumbling and empty-eyed, the hollow cold of space filling their brains where something had broken the thin taut wall of their reason. They say spacemen are a credulous breed. Before Heaven, they have to be!

“You don’t mean New Egypt?” I asked.

“Stupid name. Just because there are remnants of a great dead culture, they have to name it after an insignificant valley of ephemeral peasants. I tell you, the men of Vwyrdda were like gods, and when they were destroyed whole suns were darkened by the forces they used. Why, they killed off Earth’s dinosaurs in a day, millions of years ago, and only used one ship to do it.”

“How in hell do you know that? I didn’t think the archeologists had deciphered their records.”

“They haven’t. All our archeologists will ever know is that the Vwyrddans were a race of remarkably humanoid appearance, with a highly advanced interstellar culture wiped out about a million Earth-years ago. Matter of fact, I don’t really know that they did it to Earth, but I do know that they had a regular policy of exterminating the great reptiles of terrestroid planets with an eye to later colonization, and I know that they got this far, so I suppose our planet got the treatment too.” Laird accepted his fresh drink and raised the glass to me. “Thanks. But now do be a good fellow and let me ramble on in my own way.

“It was⁠—let me see⁠—thirty-three years ago now, when I was a bright young lieutenant with bright young ideas. The Revolt was in full swing then, and the Janyards held all that region of space, out Sagittari way you know. Things looked bad for Sol then⁠—I don’t think it’s ever been appreciated how close we were to defeat. They were poised to drive right through our lines with their battle-fleets, slash past our frontiers, and hit Earth itself with the rain of hell that had already sterilized a score of planets. We were fighting on the defensive, spread over several million cubic light-years, spread horribly thin. Oh, bad!

“Vwyrdda⁠—New Egypt⁠—had been discovered and some excavation done shortly before the war began. We knew about as much then as we do now. Especially, we knew that the so-called Valley of the Gods held more relics than any other spot on the surface. I’d been quite interested in the work, visited the planet myself, even worked with the crew that found and restored that gravitomagnetic generator⁠—the one which taught us half of what we know now about g-m fields.

“It was my young and fanciful notion that there might be more to be found, somewhere in that labyrinth⁠—and from study of the reports I even thought I knew about what and where it would be. One of the weapons that had novaed suns, a million years ago⁠—

“The planet was far behind the Janyard lines, but militarily valueless. They wouldn’t garrison it, and I was sure that such semi-barbarians wouldn’t have my idea, especially with victory so close. A one-man sneakboat could get in readily enough⁠—it just isn’t possible to blockade a region of space; too damned inhumanly big. We had nothing to lose but me, and maybe a lot to gain, so in I went.

“I made the planet without trouble and landed in the Valley of the Gods and began work. And that’s where the fun started.”

Laird laughed again, with no more mirth than before.


There was a moon hanging low over the hills, a great scarred shield thrice the size of Earth’s, and its chill white radiance filled the Valley with colorless light and long shadows. Overhead flamed the incredible sky of the Sagittarian regions, thousands upon thousands of great blazing suns swarming in strings and clusters and constellations strange to human eyes, blinking and glittering in the thin cold air. It was so bright that Laird could see the fine patterns of his skin, loops and whorls on the numbed fingers that groped against the pyramid. He shivered in the wind that streamed past him, blowing dust devils with a dry whisper, searching under his clothes to sheathe his flesh in cold. His breath was ghostly white before him, the bitter air felt liquid when he breathed.

Around him loomed the fragments of what must have been a city, now reduced to a few columns and crumbling walls held up by the lava which had flowed. The stones reared high in the unreal moonlight, seeming almost to move as the shadows and the drifting sand passed them. Ghost city. Ghost planet. He was the last life that stirred on its bleak surface.

But somewhere above that surface⁠—

What was it, that descending hum high in the sky, sweeping closer out of stars and moon and wind? Minutes ago the needle on his gravitomagnetic detector had wavered down in the depths of the pyramid. He had hurried up and now stood looking and listening and feeling his heart turn stiff.

No, no, no⁠—not a Janyard ship, not now⁠—it was the end of everything if they came.

Laird cursed with a hopeless fury. The wind caught his mouthings and blew them away with the scudding sand, buried them under the everlasting silence of the valley. His eyes traveled to his sneakboat. It was invisible against the great pyramid⁠—he’d taken that much precaution, shoveling a low grave of sand over it⁠—but, if they used metal detectors that was valueless. He was fast, yes, but almost unarmed; they could easily follow his trail down into the labyrinth and locate the vault.

Lord if he had led them here⁠—if his planning and striving had only resulted in giving the enemy the weapon which would destroy Earth⁠—

His hand closed about the butt of his blaster. Silly weapon, stupid popgun⁠—what could he do?

Decision came. With a curse, he whirled and ran back into the pyramid.

His flash lit the endless downward passages with a dim bobbing radiance, and the shadows swept above and behind and marched beside, the shadows of a million years closing in to smother him. His boots slammed against the stone floor, thud-thud-thud⁠—the echoes caught the rhythm and rolled it boomingly ahead of him. A primitive terror rose to drown his dismay; he was going down into the grave of a thousand millennia, the grave of the gods, and it took all the nerve he had to keep running and never look back. He didn’t dare look back.

Down and down and down, past this winding tunnel, along this ramp, through this passageway into the guts of the planet. A man could get lost here. A man could wander in the cold and the dark and the echoes till he died. It had taken him weeks to find his way into the great vault, and only the clues given by Murchison’s reports had made it possible at all. Now⁠—


He burst into a narrow antechamber. The door he had blasted open leaned drunkenly against a well of night. It was fifty feet high, that door. He fled past it like an ant and came into the pyramid storehouse.

His flash gleamed off metal, glass, substances he could not identify that had lain sealed against a million years till he came to wake the machines. What they were, he did not know. He had energized some of the units, and they had hummed and flickered, but he had not dared experiment. His idea had been to rig an antigrav unit which would enable him to haul the entire mass of it up to his boat. Once he was home, the scientists could take over. But now⁠—

He skinned his teeth in a wolfish grin and switched on the big lamp he had installed. White light flooded the tomb, shining darkly back from the monstrous bulks of things he could not use, the wisdom and techniques of a race which had spanned the stars and moved planets and endured for fifty million years. Maybe he could puzzle out the use of something before the enemy came. Maybe he could wipe them out in one demoniac sweep⁠—just like a stereofilm hero, jeered his mind⁠—or maybe he could simply destroy it all, keep it from Janyard hands.

He should have provided against this. He should have rigged a bomb, to blow the whole pyramid to hell⁠—

With an effort, he stopped the frantic racing of his mind and looked around. There were paintings on the walls, dim with age but still legible, pictographs, meant perhaps for the one who finally found this treasure. The men of New Egypt were shown, hardly distinguishable from humans⁠—dark of skin and hair, keen of feature, tall and stately and robed in living light. He had paid special attention to one representation. It showed a series of actions, like an old time comic-strip⁠—a man taking up a glassy object, fitting it over his head, throwing a small switch. He had been tempted to try it, but⁠—gods, what would it do?

He found the helmet and slipped it gingerly over his skull. It might be some kind of last-ditch chance for him. The thing was cold and smooth and hard, it settled on his head with a slow massiveness that was strangely⁠—living. He shuddered and turned back to the machines.

This thing now with the long coil-wrapped barrel⁠—an energy projector of some sort? How did you activate it? Hellfire, which was the muzzle end?

He heard the faint banging of feet, winding closer down the endless passageways. Gods, his mind groaned. They didn’t waste any time, did they?

But they hadn’t needed to⁠ ⁠… a metal detector would have located his boat, told them that he was in this pyramid rather than one of the dozen others scattered through the valley. And energy tracers would spot him down here.⁠ ⁠…

He doused the light and crouched in darkness behind one of the machines. The blaster was heavy in his hand.

A voice hailed him from outside the door. “It’s useless, Solman. Come out of there!”

He bit back a reply and lay waiting.

A woman’s voice took up the refrain. It was a good voice, he thought irrelevantly, low and well modulated, but it had an iron ring to it. They were hard, these Janyards, even their women led troops and piloted ships and killed men.

“You may as well surrender, Solman. All you have done has been to accomplish our work for us. We suspected such an attempt might be made. Lacking the archeological records, we couldn’t hope for much success ourselves, but since my force was stationed near this sun I had a boat lie in an orbit around the planet with detectors wide open. We trailed you down, and let you work, and now we are here to get what you have found.”

“Go back,” he bluffed desperately. “I planted a bomb. Go back or I’ll set it off.”

The laugh was hard with scorn. “Do you think we wouldn’t know it if you had? You haven’t even a spacesuit on. Come out with your hands up or we’ll flood the vault with gas.”

Laird’s teeth flashed in a snarling grin. “All right,” he shouted, only half aware of what he was saying. “All right, you asked for it!”

He threw the switch on his helmet.


It was like a burst of fire in his brain, a soundless roar of splintering darkness. He screamed, half crazy with the fury that poured into him, feeling the hideous thrumming along every nerve and sinew, feeling his muscles cave in and his body hit the floor. The shadows closed in, roaring and rolling, night and death and the wreck of the universe, and high above it all he heard⁠—laughter.

He lay sprawled behind the machine, twitching and whimpering. They had heard him, out in the tunnels, and with slow caution they entered and stood over him and watched his spasms jerk toward stillness.

They were tall and well-formed, the Janyard rebels⁠—Earth had sent her best out to colonize the Sagittarian worlds, three hundred years ago. But the long cruel struggle, conquering and building and adapting to planets that never were and never could be Earth, had changed them, hardened their metal and frozen something in their souls.

Ostensibly it was a quarrel over tariff and trade rights which had led to their revolt against the Empire; actually, it was a new culture yelling to life, a thing born of fire and loneliness and the great empty reaches between the stars, the savage rebellion of a mutant child. They stood impassively watching the body until it lay quiet. Then one of them stooped over and removed the shining glassy helmet.

“He must have taken it for something he could use against us,” said the Janyard, turning the helmet in his hands; “but it wasn’t adapted to his sort of life. The old dwellers here looked human, but I don’t think it went any deeper than their skins.”

The woman commander looked down with a certain pity. “He was a brave man,” she said.

“Wait⁠—he’s still alive, ma’m⁠—he’s sitting up⁠—”

Daryesh forced the shaking body to hands and knees. He felt its sickness, wretched and cold in throat and nerves and muscles, and he felt the roiling of fear and urgency in the brain. These were enemies. There was death for a world and a civilization here. Most of all, he felt the horrible numbness of the nervous system, deaf and dumb and blind, cut off in its house of bone and peering out through five weak senses.⁠ ⁠…

Vwyrdda, Vwyrdda, he was a prisoner in a brain without a telepathy transceiver lobe. He was a ghost reincarnated in a thing that was half a corpse!

Strong arms helped him to his feet. “That was a foolish thing to try,” said the woman’s cool voice.

Daryesh felt strength flowing back as the nervous and muscular and endocrine systems found a new balance, as his mind took over and fought down the gibbering madness which had been Laird. He drew a shuddering breath. Air in his nostrils after⁠—how long? How long had he been dead?

His eyes focused on the woman. She was tall and handsome. Ruddy hair spilled from under a peaked cap, wide-set blue eyes regarded him frankly out of a face sculptured in clean lines and strong curves and fresh young coloring. For a moment he thought of Ilorna, and the old sickness rose⁠—then he throttled it and looked again at the woman and smiled.

It was an insolent grin, and she stiffened angrily. “Who are you, Solman?” she asked.

The meaning was dear enough to Daryesh, who had his⁠—host’s⁠—memory patterns and linguistic habits as well as those of Vwyrdda. He replied steadily, “Lieutenant John Laird of the Imperial Solar Navy, at your service. And your name?”

“You are exceeding yourself,” she replied with frost in her voice. “But since I will wish to question you at length⁠ ⁠… I am Captain Joana Rostov of the Janyard Fleet. Conduct yourself accordingly.”

Daryesh looked around him. This wasn’t good. He hadn’t the chance now to search Laird’s memories in detail, but it was clear enough that this was a force of enemies. The rights and wrongs of a quarrel ages after the death of all that had been Vwyrdda meant nothing to him, but he had to learn more of the situation, and be free to act as he chose. Especially since Laird would presently be reviving and start to resist.

The familiar sight of the machines was at once steadying and unnerving. There were powers here which could smash planets! It looked barbaric, this successor culture, and in any event the decision as to the use of this leashed hell had to be his. His head lifted in unconscious arrogance. His! For he was the last man of Vwyrdda, and they had wrought the machines, and the heritage was his.

He had to escape.


Joana Rostov was looking at him with an odd blend of hard suspicion and half-frightened puzzlement. “There’s something wrong about you, Lieutenant,” she said. “You don’t behave like a man whose project has just gone to smash. What was that helmet for?”

Daryesh shrugged. “Part of a control device,” he said easily. “In my excitement I failed to adjust it properly. No matter. There are plenty of other machines here.”

“What use to you?”

“Oh⁠—all sorts of uses. For instance, that one over there is a nucleonic disintegrator, and this is a shield projector, and⁠—”

“You’re lying. You can’t know any more about this than we do.”

“Shall I prove it?”

“Certainly not. Come back from there!”

Coldly, Daryesh estimated distances. He had all the superb psychosomatic coordination of his race, the training evolved through millions of years, but the sub-cellular components would be lacking in this body. Still⁠—he had to take the chance.

He launched himself against the Janyard who stood beside him. One hand chopped into the man’s larynx, the other grabbed him by the tunic and threw him into the man beyond. In the same movement, Daryesh stepped over the falling bodies, picked up the machine rifle which one had dropped, and slammed over the switch of the magnetic shield projector with its long barrel.

Guns blazed in the dimness. Bullets exploded into molten spray as they hit that fantastic magnetic field. Daryesh, behind it, raced through the door and out the tunnel.

They’d be after him in seconds, but this was a strong long-legged body and he was getting the feel of it. He ran easily, breathing in coordination with every movement, conserving his strength. He couldn’t master control of the involuntary functions yet, the nervous system was too different, but he could last for a long while at this pace.

He ducked into a remembered side passage. A rifle spewed a rain of slugs after him as someone came through the magnetic field. He chuckled in the dark. Unless they had mapped every labyrinthine twist and turn of the tunnels, or had life-energy detectors, they’d never dare trail him. They’d get lost and wander in here till they starved.

Still, that woman had a brain. She’d guess he was making for the surface and the boats, and try to cut him off. It would be a near thing. He settled down to running.

It was long and black and hollow here, cold with age. The air was dry and dusty, little moisture could be left on Vwyrdda. How long has it been? How long has it been?


John Laird stirred back toward consciousness, stunned neurons lapsing into familiar pathways of synapse, the pattern which was personality fighting to restore itself. Daryesh stumbled as the groping mind flashed a random command to his muscles, cursed, and willed the other self back to blankness. Hold on, Daryesh, hold on, a few minutes only⁠—

He burst out of a small side entrance and stood in the tumbled desolation of the valley. The keen tenuous air raked his sobbing lungs as he looked wildly around at sand and stone and the alien stars. New constellations⁠—Gods, it had been a long time! The moon was larger than he remembered, flooding the dead landscape with a frosty argence. It must have spiraled close in all those uncounted ages.

The boat! Hellblaze, where was the boat?

He saw the Janyard ship not far away, a long lean torpedo resting on the dunes, but it would be guarded⁠—no use trying to steal it. Where was this Laird’s vessel, then?

Tumbling through a confusion of alien memories, he recalled burying it on the west side.⁠ ⁠… No, it wasn’t he who had done that but Laird. Damnation, he had to work fast. He plunged around the monstrous eroded shape of the pyramid, found the long mound, saw the moongleam where the wind had blown sand off the metal. What a clumsy pup this Laird was.

He shoveled the sand away from the airlock, scooping with his hands, the breath raw in throat and lungs. Any second now they’d be on him, any instant, and now that they really believed he understood the machines⁠—

The lock shone dully before him, cold under his hands. He spun the outer dog, swearing with a frantic emotion foreign to old Vwyrdda, but that was the habit of his host, untrained psychosomatically, unevolved⁠—There they came!

Scooping up the stolen rifle, Daryesh fired a chattering burst at the group that swarmed around the edge of the pyramid. They tumbled like jointed dolls, screaming in the death-white moonlight. Bullets howled around him and ricocheted off the boat-hull.

He got the lock open as they retreated for another charge. For an instant his teeth flashed under the moon, the cold grin of Daryesh the warrior who had ruled a thousand suns in his day and led the fleets of Vwyrdda.

“Farewell, my lovelies,” he murmured, and the remembered syllables of the old planet were soft on his tongue.

Slamming the lock behind him, he ran to the control room, letting John Laird’s almost unconscious habits carry him along. He got off to a clumsy start⁠—but then he was climbing for the sky, free and away⁠—

A fist slammed into his back, tossed him in his pilot chair to the screaming roar of sundered metal. Gods, O gods, the Janyards had fired a heavy ship’s gun, they’d scored a direct hit on his engines and the boat was whistling groundward again.

Grimly, he estimated that the initial impetus had given him a good trajectory, that he’d come down in the hills about a hundred miles north of the valley. But then he’d have to run for it, they’d be after him like beasts of prey in their ship⁠—and John Laird would not be denied, muscles were twitching and sinews tightening and throat mumbling insanity as the resurgent personality fought to regain itself. That was one battle he’d have to have out soon!

Well⁠—mentally, Daryesh shrugged. At worst, he could surrender to the Janyards, make common cause with them. It really didn’t matter who won this idiotic little war. He had other things to do.


Nightmare. John Laird crouched in a wind-worn cave and looked out over hills lit by icy moonlight. Through a stranger’s eyes, he saw the Janyard ship landing near the down-glided wreck of his boat, saw the glitter of steel as they poured out and started hunting. Hunting him.

Or was it him any longer, was he more than a prisoner in his own skull? He thought back to memories that were not his, memories of himself thinking thoughts that were not his own, himself escaping from the enemy while he, Laird, whirled in a black abyss of half-conscious madness. Beyond that, he recalled his own life, and he recalled another life which had endured a thousand years before it died. He looked out on the wilderness of rock and sand and blowing dust, and remembered it as it had been, green and fair, and remembered that he was Daryesh of Tollogh, who had ruled over whole planetary systems in the Empire of Vwyrdda. And at the same time he was John Laird of Earth, and two streams of thought flowed through the brain, listening to each other, shouting at each other in the darkness of his skull.

A million years! Horror and loneliness and a wrenching sorrow were in the mind of Daryesh as he looked upon the ruin of Vwyrdda. A million years ago!

Who are you? cried Laird. What have you done to me? And even as he asked, memories which were his own now rose to answer him.

It had been the Erai who rebelled, the Erai whose fathers came from Vwyrdda the fair but who had been strangely altered by centuries of environment. They had revolted against the static rule of the Immortals, and in a century of warfare they had overrun half the Empire and rallied its populations under them. And the Immortals had unleashed their most terrible powers, the sun-smashing ultimate weapons which had lain forbidden in the vaults of Vwyrdda for ten million years. Only⁠—the Erai had known about it. And they had had the weapons too.

In the end, Vwyrdda went under, her fleets broken and her armies reeling in retreat over ten thousand scorched planets. The triumphant Erai had roared in to make an end of the mother world, and nothing in all the mighty Imperial arsenals could stop them now.

Theirs was an unstable culture, it could not endure as that of Vwyrdda had. In ten thousand years or so, they would be gone, and the Galaxy would not have even a memory of that which had been. Which was small help to us, thought Laird grimly, and realized with an icy shock that it had been the thought of Daryesh.

The Vwyrddan’s mental tone was, suddenly, almost conversational, and Laird realized what an immensity of trained effort it must have taken to overcome that loneliness of a million years. “See here, Laird, we are apparently doomed to occupy the same body till one of us gets rid of the other, and it is a body which the Janyards seem to want. Rather than fight each other, which would leave the body helpless, we’d better cooperate.”

“But⁠—Lord, man! What do you think I am? Do you think I want a vampire like you up there in my brain?”

The answer was fierce and cold. “What of me, Laird? I, who was Daryesh of Tollogh, lord of a thousand suns and lover of Ilorna the Fair, immortalized noble of the greatest empire the universe has ever seen⁠—I am now trapped in the half-evolved body of a hunted alien, a million years after the death of all which mattered. Better be glad I’m here, Laird. I can handle those weapons, you know.”

The eyes looked out over the bleak windy hillscape, and the double mind watched distance-dwarfed forms clambering in the rocks, searching for a trail. “A hell of a lot of good that does us now,” said Laird. “Besides, I can hear you thinking, you know, and I can remember your own past thoughts. Sol or Janya, it’s the same to you. How do I know you’ll play ball with me?”

The answer was instant, but dark with an unpleasant laughter. “Why⁠—read my mind, Laird! It’s your mind too, isn’t it?” Then, more soberly: “Apparently history is repeating itself in the revolt of the barbarians against the mother planet, though on a smaller scale and with a less developed science. I do not expect the result to be any happier for civilization than before. So perhaps I may take a more effective hand than I did before.”

It was ghostly, lying here in the wind-grieved remnants of a world, watching the hunters move through a bitter haze of moonlight, and having thoughts which were not one’s own, thoughts over which there was no control. Laird clenched his fists, fighting for stability.

“That’s better,” said Daryesh’s sardonic mind. “But relax. Breathe slowly and deeply, concentrate only on the breathing for a while⁠—and then search my mind which is also yours.”

“Shut up! Shut up!”

“I am afraid that is impossible. We’re in the same brain, you know, and we’ll have to get used to each other’s streams of consciousness. Relax, man, lie still; think over the thing which has happened to you and know it for the wonder it is.”

Man, they say, is a time-binding animal. But only the mighty will and yearning of Vwyrdda had ever leaped across the borders of death itself, waited a million years that that which was a world might not die out of all history.

What is the personality? It is not a thing, discrete and material, it is a pattern and a process. The body starts with a certain genetic inheritance and meets all the manifold complexities of environment. The whole organism is a set of reactions between the two. The primarily mental component, sometimes called the ego, is not separable from the body but can in some ways be studied apart.

The scientists had found a way to save something of that which was Daryesh. While the enemy was blazing and thundering at the gates of Vwyrdda, while all the planet waited for the last battle and the ultimate night, quiet men in laboratories had perfected the molecular scanner so that the pattern of synapses which made up all memory, habit, reflex, instinct, the continuity of the ego, could be recorded upon the electronic structure of certain crystals. They took the pattern of Daryesh and of none other, for only he of the remaining Immortals was willing. Who else would want a pattern to be repeated, ages after he himself was dead, ages after all the world and all history and meaning were lost? But Daryesh had always been reckless, and Ilorna was dead, and he didn’t care much for what happened.

Ilorna, Ilorna! Laird saw the unforgotten image rise in his memory, golden-eyed and laughing, the long dark hair flowing around the lovely suppleness of her. He remembered the sound of her voice and the sweetness of her lips, and he loved her. A million years, and she was dust blowing on the night wind, and he loved her with that part of him which was Daryesh and with more than a little of John Laird.⁠ ⁠… O Ilorna.⁠ ⁠…

And Daryesh the man had gone to die with his planet, but the crystal pattern which reproduced the ego of Daryesh lay in the vault they had made, surrounded by all the mightiest works of Vwyrdda. Sooner or later, sometime in the infinite future of the universe, someone would come; someone or something would put the helmet on his head and activate it. And the pattern would be reproduced on the neurons, the mind of Daryesh would live again, and he would speak for dead Vwyrdda and seek to renew the tradition of fifty million years. It would be the will of Vwyrdda, reaching across time⁠—But Vwyrdda is dead, thought Laird frantically. Vwyrdda is gone⁠—this is a new history⁠—you’ve got no business telling us what to do!

The reply was cold with arrogance. “I shall do as I see fit. Meanwhile, I advise that you lie passive and do not attempt to interfere with me.”

“Cram it, Daryesh!” Laird’s mouth drew back in a snarl. “I won’t be dictated to by anyone, let alone a ghost.”

Persuasively, the answer came, “At the moment, neither of us has much choice. We are hunted, and if they have energy trackers⁠—yes, I see they do⁠—they’ll find us by this body’s thermal radiation alone. Best we surrender peaceably. Once aboard the ship, loaded with all the might of Vwyrdda, our chance should come.”

Laird lay quietly, watching the hunters move closer, and the sense of defeat came down on him like a falling world. What else could he do? What other chance was there?

“All right,” he said at last, audibly. “All right. But I’ll be watching your every thought, understand? I don’t think you can stop me from committing suicide if I must.”

“I think I can. But opposing signals to the body will only neutralize each other, leave it helplessly fighting itself. Relax, Laird, lie back and let me handle this. I am Daryesh the warrior, and I have come through harder battles than this.”

They rose and began walking down the hillside with arms lifted. Daryesh’s thought ran on, “Besides⁠—that’s a nice-looking wench in command. It could be interesting!”

His laughter rang out under the moon, and it was not the laughter of a human being.


“I can’t understand you, John Laird,” said Joana.

“Sometimes,” replied Daryesh lightly, “I don’t understand myself very well⁠—or you, my dear.”

She stiffened a little. “That will do, Lieutenant. Remember your position here.”

“Oh, the devil with our ranks and countries. Let’s be live entities for a change.”

Her glance was quizzical. “That’s an odd way for a Solman to phrase it.”

Mentally, Daryesh swore. Damn this body, anyway! The strength, the fineness of coordination and perception, half the senses he had known, were missing from it. The gross brain structure couldn’t hold the reasoning powers he had once had. His thinking was dull and sluggish. He made blunders the old Daryesh would never have committed. And this young woman was quick to see them, and he was a prisoner of John Laird’s deadly enemies, and the mind of Laird himself was tangled in thought and will and memory, ready to fight him if he gave the least sign of⁠—

The Solarian’s ego chuckled nastily. Easy, Daryesh, easy!

Shut up! his mind snapped back, and he knew drearily that his own trained nervous system would not have been guilty of such a childishly emotional response.

“I may as well tell you the truth, Captain Rostov,” he said aloud. “I am not Laird at all. Not any more.”

She made no response, merely drooped the lids over her eyes and leaned back in her chair. He noticed abstractedly how long her lashes were⁠—or was that Laird’s appreciative mind, unhindered by too much remembrance of Ilorna?

They sat alone, the two of them, in her small cabin aboard the Janyard cruiser. A guard stood outside the door, but it was closed. From time to time they would hear a dull thump or clang as the heavy machines of Vwyrdda were dragged aboard⁠—otherwise they might have been the last two alive on the scarred old planet.

The room was austerely furnished, but there were touches of the feminine here and there⁠—curtains, a small pot of flowers, a formal dress hung in a half-open closet. And the woman who sat across the desk from him was very beautiful, with the loosened ruddy hair streaming to her shoulders and the brilliant eyes never wavering from his. But one slender hand rested on a pistol.

She had told him frankly, “I want to talk privately with you. There is something I don’t understand⁠ ⁠… but I’ll be ready to shoot at the first suspicion of a false move. And even if you should somehow overpower me, I’d be no good as a hostage. We’re Janyards here, and the ship is more than the life of any one of us.”

Now she waited for him to go on talking.

He took a cigarette from the box on her desk⁠—Laird’s habits again⁠—and lit it and took a slow drag of smoke into his lungs. All right, Daryesh, go ahead. I suppose your idea is the best, if anything can be made to work at all. But I’m listening, remember.

“I am all that is left of this planet,” he said tonelessly. “This is the ego of Daryesh of Tollogh, Immortal of Vwyrdda, and in one sense I died a million years ago.”

She remained quiet, but he saw how her hands clenched and he heard the sharp small hiss of breath sucked between the teeth.

Briefly, then, he explained how his mental pattern had been preserved, and how it had entered the brain of John Laird.

“You don’t expect me to believe that story,” she said contemptuously.

“Do you have a lie detector aboard?”

“I have one in this cabin, and I can operate it myself.” She got up and fetched the machine from a cabinet. He watched her, noticing the grace of her movements. You died long ago, Ilorna⁠—you died and the universe will never know another like you. But I go on, and she reminds me somehow of you.


It was a small black thing that hummed and glowed on the desk between them. He put the metal cap on his head, and took the knobs in his hands, and waited while she adjusted the controls. From Laird’s memories, he recalled the principle of the thing, the measurement of activity in separate brain-centers, the precise detection of the slight extra energy needed in the higher cerebral cortex to invent a falsehood.

“I have to calibrate,” she said, “Make up something I know to be a lie.”

“New Egypt has rings,” he smiled, “which are made of Limburger cheese. However, the main body of the planet is a delicious Camembert⁠—”

“That will do. Now repeat your previous statements.”

Relax, Laird, damn it⁠—blank yourself! I can’t control this thing with you interfering.

He told his story again in a firm voice, and meanwhile he was working within the brain of Laird, getting the feel of it, applying the lessons of nerve control which had been part of his Vwyrddan education. It should certainly be possible to fool a simple electronic gadget, to heighten activity in all centers to such an extent that the added effort of his creative cells could not be spotted.

He went on without hesitation, wondering if the flickering needles would betray him and if her gun would spit death into his heart in the next moment: “Naturally, Laird’s personality was completely lost, its fixed patterns obliterated by the superimposition of my own. I have his memories, but otherwise I am Daryesh of Vwyrdda, at your service.”

She bit her lip. “What service! You shot four of my men.”

“Consider my situation, woman. I came into instantaneous existence. I remember sitting in the laboratory under the scanner, a slight dizziness, and then immediately I was in an alien body. Its nervous system was stunned by the shock of my entry, I couldn’t think clearly. All I had to go on was Laird’s remembered conviction that these were deadly foes surrounding me, murderous creatures bent on killing me and wiping out my planet. I acted half-instinctively. Also, I wanted, in my own personality, to be a free agent, to get away and think this out for myself. So I did. I regret the death of your men, but I think they will be amply compensated for.”

“H’m⁠—you surrendered when we all but had you anyway.”

“Yes, of course, but I had about decided to do so in all events.” Her eyes never lifted from the dials that wavered life or death. “I was, after all, in your territory, with little or no hope of getting clear, and you were the winning side of this war, which meant nothing to me emotionally. Insofar as I have any convictions in this matter, it is that the human race will best be served by a Janyard victory. History has shown that when the frontier cultures⁠—which the old empire calls barbaric but which are actually new and better adapted civilizations⁠—when they win out over the older and more conservative nations, the result is a synthesis and a period of unusual achievement.”

He saw her visibly relaxing, and inwardly he smiled. It was so easy, so easy. They were such children in this later age. All he had to do was hand her a smooth lie which fitted in with the propaganda that had been her mental environment from birth, and she could not seriously think of him as an enemy.

The blue gaze lifted to his, and the lips were parted. “You will help us?” she whispered.

Daryesh nodded. “I know the principles and construction and use of those engines, and in truth there is in them the force that molds planets. Your scientists would never work out the half of all that there is to be found. I will show you the proper operation of them all.” He shrugged. “Naturally, I will expect commensurate rewards. But even altruistically speaking, this is the best thing I can do. Those energies should remain under the direction of one who understands them, and not be misused in ignorance. That could lead to unimaginable catastrophes.”

Suddenly she picked up her gun and shoved it back into its holster. She stood up, smiling, and held out her hand.

He shook it vigorously, and then bent over and kissed it. When he looked up, she stood uncertain, half afraid and half glad.

It’s not fair! protested Laird. The poor girl has never known anything of this sort. She’s never heard of coquetry. To her love isn’t a game, it’s something mysterious and earnest and decent⁠—

I told you to shut up, answered Daryesh coldly. Look, man, even if we do have an official safe-conduct, this is still a ship full of watchful hostility. We have to consolidate our position by every means at hand. Now relax and enjoy this.


He walked around the desk and took her hands again. “You know,” he said, and the crooked smile on his mouth reminded him that this was more than half a truth, “you make me think of the woman I loved, a million years ago on Vwyrdda.”

She shrank back a little. “I can’t get over it,” she whispered. “You⁠—you’re old, and you don’t belong to this cycle of time at all, and what you must think and know makes me feel like a child⁠—Daryesh, it frightens me.”

“Don’t let it, Joana,” he said gently. “My mind is young, and very lonely.” He put a wistfulness in his voice. “Joana, I need someone to talk to. You can’t imagine what it is to wake up a million years after all your world is dead, more alone than⁠—oh, let me come in once in awhile and talk to you, as one friend to another. Let’s forget time and death and loneliness. I need someone like you.”

She lowered her eyes, and said with a stubborn honesty, “I think that would be good too, Daryesh. A ship’s captain doesn’t have friends, you know. They put me in this service because I had the aptitude, and that’s really all I’ve ever had. Oh, comets!” She forced a laugh. “To space with all that self-pity. Certainly you may come in whenever you like. I hope it’ll be often.”

They talked for quite a while longer, and when he kissed her goodnight it was the most natural thing in the universe. He walked to his bunk⁠—transferred from the brig to a tiny unused compartment⁠—with his mind in pleasant haze.

Lying in the dark, he began the silent argument with Laird anew. “Now what?” demanded the Solarian.

“We play it slow and easy,” said Daryesh patiently⁠—as if the fool couldn’t read it directly in their common brain. “We watch our chance, but don’t act for a while yet. Under the pretext of rigging the energy projectors for action, we’ll arrange a setup which can destroy the ship at the flick of a switch. They won’t know it. They haven’t an inkling about subspatial flows. Then, when an opportunity to escape offers itself, we throw that switch and get away and try to return to Sol. With my knowledge of Vwyrddan science, we can turn the tide of the war. It’s risky⁠—sure⁠—but it’s the only chance I see. And for Heaven’s sake let me handle matters. You’re supposed to be dead.”

“And what happens when we finally settle this business? How can I get rid of you?”

“Frankly, I don’t see any way to do it. Our patterns have become too entangled. The scanners necessarily work on the whole nervous system. We’ll just have to learn to live together.” Persuasively: “It will be to your own advantage. Think, man! We can do as we choose with Sol. With the Galaxy. And I’ll set up a life-tank and make us a new body to which we’ll transfer the pattern, a body with all the intelligence and abilities of a Vwyrddan, and I’ll immortalize it. Man, you’ll never die!”

It wasn’t too happy a prospect, thought Laird skeptically. His own chances of dominating that combination were small. In time, his own personality might be completely absorbed by Daryesh’s greater one.

Of course⁠—a psychiatrist⁠—narcosis, hypnosis⁠—

“No, you don’t!” said Daryesh grimly. “I’m just as fond of my own individuality as you are.”

The mouth which was theirs twisted wryly in the dark. “Guess we’ll just have to learn to love each other,” thought Laird.

The body dropped into slumber. Presently Laird’s cells were asleep, his personality faded into a shadowland of dreams. Daryesh remained awake a while longer. Sleep⁠—waste of time⁠—the Immortals had never been plagued by fatigue⁠—

He chuckled to himself. What a web of lies and counterlies he had woven. If Joana and Laird both knew⁠—


The mind is an intricate thing. It can conceal facts from itself, make itself forget that which is painful to remember, persuade its own higher components of whatever the subconscious deems right. Rationalization, schizophrenia, autohypnosis, they are but pale indications of the self-deception which the brain practices. And the training of the Immortals included full neural coordination; they could consciously utilize the powers latent in themselves. They could by an act of conscious will stop the heart, or block off pain, or split their own personalities.

Daryesh had known his ego would be fighting whatever host it found, and he had made preparations before he was scanned. Only a part of his mind was in full contact with Laird’s. Another section, split off from the main stream of consciousness by deliberate and controlled schizophrenia, was thinking its own thoughts and making its own plans. Self-hypnotized, he automatically reunited his ego at such times as Laird was not aware, otherwise there was only subconscious contact. In effect a private compartment of his mind, inaccessible to the Solarian, was making its own plans.

That destructive switch would have to be installed to satisfy Laird’s waking personality, he thought. But it would never be thrown. For he had been telling Joana that much of the truth⁠—his own advantage lay with the Janyards, and he meant to see them through to final victory.

It would be simple enough to get rid of Laird temporarily. Persuade him that for some reason it was advisable to get dead drunk. Daryesh’s more controlled ego would remain conscious after Laird’s had passed out. Then he could make all arrangements with Joana, who by that time should be ready to do whatever he wanted.

Psychiatry⁠—yes, Laird’s brief idea had been the right one. The methods of treating schizophrenia could, with some modifications, be applied to suppressing Daryesh’s extra personality. He’d blank out that Solarian⁠ ⁠… permanently.

And after that would come his undying new body, and centuries and millennia in which he could do what he wanted with this young civilization.

The demon exorcising the man⁠—He grinned drowsily. Presently he slept.


The ship drove through a night of stars and distance. Time was meaningless, was the position of the hands on a clock, was the succession of sleeps and meals, was the slow shift in the constellations as they gulped the light-years.

On and on, the mighty drone of the second-order drive filling their bones and their days, the round of work and food and sleep and Joana. Laird wondered if it would ever end. He wondered if he might not be the Flying Dutchman, outward bound for eternity, locked in his own skull with the thing that had possessed him. At such times the only comfort was in Joana’s arms. He drew of the wild young strength of her, and he and Daryesh were one. But afterward⁠—

We’re going to join the Grand Fleet. You heard her, Daryesh. She’s making a triumphal pilgrimage to the gathered power of Janya, bringing the invincible weapons of Vwyrdda to her admiral.

Why not? She’s young and ambitious, she wants glory as much as you do. What of it?

We have to escape before she gets there. We have to steal a lifeboat and destroy this ship and all in it soon.

All in it? Joana Rostov, too?

Damn it, we’ll kidnap her or something. You know I’m in love with the girl, you devil. But it’s a matter of all Earth. This one cruiser has enough stuff in it now to wreck a planet. I have parents, brothers, friends⁠—a civilization. We’ve got to act!

All right, all right, Laird. But take it easy. We have to get the energy devices installed first. We’ll have to give them enough of a demonstration to allay their suspicions. Joana’s the only one aboard here who trusts us. None of her officers do.

The body and the double mind labored as the slow days passed, directing Janyard technicians who could not understand what it was they built. Laird, drawing on Daryesh’s memories, knew what a giant slept in those coils and tubes and invisible energy-fields. Here were forces to trigger the great creative powers of the universe and turn them to destruction⁠—distorted space-time, atoms dissolving into pure energy, vibrations to upset the stability of force-fields which maintained order in the cosmos. Laird remembered the ruin of Vwyrdda, and shuddered.

They got a projector mounted and operating, and Daryesh suggested that the cruiser halt somewhere that he could prove his words. They picked a barren planet in an uninhabited system and lay in an orbit fifty thousand miles out. In an hour Daryesh had turned the facing hemisphere into a sea of lava.

“If the dis-fields were going,” he said absentmindedly, “I’d pull the planet into chunks for you.”

Laird saw the pale taut faces around him. Sweat was shining on foreheads, and a couple of men looked sick. Joana forgot her position enough to come shivering into his arms.

But the visage she lifted in a minute was exultant and eager, with the thoughtless cruelty of a swooping hawk. “There’s an end of Earth, gentlemen!”

“Nothing they have can stop us,” murmured her exec dazedly. “Why, this one ship, protected by one of those spacewarp screens you spoke of, sir⁠—this one little ship could sail in and lay the Solar System waste.”


Daryesh nodded. It was entirely possible. Not much energy was required, since the generators of Vwyrdda served only as catalysts releasing fantastically greater forces. And Sol had none of the defensive science which had enabled his world to hold out for a while. Yes, it could be done.

He stiffened with the sudden furious thought of Laird: That’s it, Daryesh! That’s the answer.

The thought-stream was his own too, flowing through the same brain, and indeed it was simple. They could have the whole ship armed and armored beyond the touch of Janya. And since none of the technicians aboard understood the machines, and since they were now wholly trusted, they could install robot-controls without anyone’s knowing.

Then⁠—the massed Grand Fleet of Janya⁠—a flick of the main switch⁠—man-killing energies would flood the cruiser’s interior, and only corpses would remain aboard. Dead men and the robots that would open fire on the Fleet. This one ship could ruin all the barbarian hopes in a few bursts of incredible flame. And the robots could then be set to destroy her as well, lest by some chance the remaining Janyards manage to board her.

And we⁠—we can escape in the initial confusion, Daryesh. We can give orders to the robot to spare the captain’s gig, and we can get Joana aboard and head for Sol! There’ll be no one left to pursue!

Slowly, the Vwyrddan’s thought made reply: A good plan. Yes, a bold stroke. We’ll do it!

“What’s the matter, Daryesh?” Joana’s voice was suddenly anxious. “You look⁠—”

“Just thinking, that’s all. Never think, Captain Rostov. Bad for the brain.”

Later, as he kissed her, Laird felt ill at thought of the treachery he planned. Her friends, her world, her cause⁠—wiped out in a single shattering blow, and he would have struck it. He wondered if she would speak to him ever again, once it was over.

Daryesh, the heartless devil, seemed only to find a sardonic amusement in the situation.

And later, when Laird slept, Daryesh thought that the young man’s scheme was good. Certainly he’d fall in with it. It would keep Laird busy till they were at the Grand Fleet rendezvous. And after that it would be too late. The Janyard victory would be sealed. All he, Daryesh, had to do when the time came was keep away from that master switch. If Laird tried to reach it their opposed wills would only result in nullity⁠—which was victory for Janya.

He liked this new civilization. It had a freshness, a vigor and hopefulness which he could not find in Laird’s memories of Earth. It had a tough-minded purposefulness that would get it far. And being young and fluid, it would be amenable to such pressures of psychology and force as he chose to apply.

Vwyrdda, his mind whispered. Vwyrdda, we’ll make them over in your image. You’ll live again!


Grand Fleet!

A million capital ships and their auxiliaries lay marshaled at a dim red dwarf of a sun, massed together and spinning in the same mighty orbit. Against the incandescent whiteness of stars and the blackness of the old deeps, armored flanks gleamed like flame as far as eyes could see, rank after rank, tier upon tier, of titanic sharks swimming through space⁠—guns and armor and torpedoes and bombs and men to smash a planet and end a civilization. The sight was too big, imagination could not make the leap, and the human mind had only a dazed impression of vastness beyond vision.

This was the great spearhead of Janya, a shining lance poised to drive through Sol’s thin defense lines and roar out of the sky to rain hell on the seat of empire. They can’t really be human any more, thought Laird sickly. Space and strangeness have changed them too much. No human being could think of destroying Man’s home. Then, fiercely: All right Daryesh. This is our chance!

Not yet, Laird. Wait a while. Wait till we have a legitimate excuse for leaving the ship.

Well⁠—come up to the control room with me. I want to stay near that switch. Lord, Lord, everything that is Man and me depends on us now!

Daryesh agreed with a certain reluctance that faintly puzzled the part of his mind open to Laird. The other half, crouched deep in his subconscious, knew the reason: It was waiting the posthypnotic signal, the key event which would trigger its emergence into the higher brain-centers.

The ship bore a tangled and unfinished look. All its conventional armament had been ripped out and the machines of Vwyrdda installed in its place. A robot brain, half-alive in its complexity, was gunner and pilot and ruling intelligence of the vessel now, and only the double mind of one man knew what orders had really been given it. When the main switch is thrown, you will flood the ship with ten units of disrupting radiation. Then, when the captain’s gig is well away, you will destroy this fleet, sparing only that one boat. When no more ships in operative condition are in range, you will activate the disintegrators and dissolve this whole vessel and all its contents to basic energy.

With a certain morbid fascination, Laird looked at that switch. An ordinary double-throw knife type⁠—Lord of space, could it be possible, was it logical that all history should depend on the angle it made with the control panel? He pulled his eyes away, stared out at the swarming ships and the greater host of the stars, lit a cigaret with shaking hands, paced and sweated and waited.

Joana came to him, a couple of crewmen marching solemnly behind. Her eyes shone and her cheeks were flushed and the turret light was like molten copper in her hair. No woman, thought Laird, had ever been so lovely, and he was going to destroy that to which she had given her life.

“Daryesh!” Laughter danced in her voice. “Daryesh, the high admiral wants to see us in his flagship. He’ll probably ask for a demonstration, and then I think the fleet will start for Sol at once with us in the van. Daryesh⁠—oh, Daryesh, the war is almost over!”

Now! blazed the thought of Laird, and his hand reached for the main switch. Now⁠—easily, causally, with a remark about letting the generators warm up⁠—and then go with her, overpower those guardsmen in their surprise and head for home!

And Daryesh’s mind reunited itself at that signal, and the hand froze.⁠ ⁠…

No!

What? But⁠—

The memory of the suppressed half of Daryesh’s mind was open to Laird, and the triumph of the whole of it, and Laird knew that his defeat was here.


So simple, so cruelly simple⁠—Daryesh could stop him, lock the body in a conflict of wills, and that would be enough. For while Laird slept, while Daryesh’s own major ego was unconscious, the trained subconscious of the Vwyrddan had taken over. It had written, in its self-created somnambulism, a letter to Joana explaining the whole truth, and had put it where it would easily be found once they started looking through his effects in search of an explanation for his paralysis. And the letter directed, among other things, that Daryesh’s body should be kept under restraint until certain specified methods known to Vwyrddan psychiatry⁠—drugs, electric waves, hypnosis⁠—had been applied to eradicate the Laird half of his mind.

Janyard victory was near.

“Daryesh!” Joana’s voice seemed to come from immensely far away; her face swam in a haze and a roar of fainting consciousness. “Daryesh, what’s the matter? Oh, my dear, what’s wrong?”

Grimly, the Vwyrddan thought: Give up, Laird. Surrender to me, and you can keep your ego. I’ll destroy that letter. See, my whole mind is open to you now⁠—you can see that I mean it honestly this time. I’d rather avoid treatment if possible, and I do owe you something. But surrender now, or be wiped out of your own brain.

Defeat and ruin⁠—and nothing but slow distorting death as reward for resistance. Laird’s will caved in, his mind too chaotic for clear thought. Only one dull impulse came: I give up. You win, Daryesh.

The collapsed body picked itself off the floor. Joana was bending anxiously over him. “Oh, what is it, what’s wrong?”

Daryesh collected himself and smiled shakily. “Excitement will do this to me, now and then. I haven’t fully mastered this alien nervous system yet. I’m all right now. Let’s go.”

Laird’s hand reached out and pulled the switch over.

Daryesh shouted, an animal roar from the throat, and tried to recover it, and the body toppled again in a stasis of locked wills.

It was like a deliverance from hell, and still it was but the inevitable logic of events, as Laird’s own self reunited. Half of him still shaking with defeat, half realizing its own victory, he thought savagely:

None of them noticed me do that. They were paying too much attention to my face. Or if they did, we’ve proved to them before that it’s only a harmless regulating switch. And⁠—the lethal radiations are already flooding us! If you don’t cooperate now, Daryesh, I’ll hold us here till we’re both dead!

So simple, so simple. Because, sharing Daryesh’s memory, Laird had shared his knowledge of self-deception techniques. He had anticipated, with the buried half of his mind, that the Vwyrddan might pull some such trick, and had installed a posthypnotic command of his own. In a situation like this, when everything looked hopeless, his conscious mind was to surrender, and then his subconscious would order that the switch be thrown.

Cooperate, Daryesh! You’re as fond of living as I. Cooperate, and let’s get the hell out of here!

Grudgingly, wryly: You win, Laird.

The body rose again, and leaned on Joana’s arm, and made its slow way toward the boat blisters. The undetectable rays of death poured through them, piling up their cumulative effects. In three minutes, a nervous system would be ruined.

Too slow, too slow. “Come on, Joana. Run!”

“Why⁠—” She stopped, and a hard suspicion came into the faces of the two men behind her. “Daryesh⁠—what do you mean? What’s come over you?”

“Ma’m.⁠ ⁠…” One of the crewmen stepped forward. “Ma’m, I wonder⁠ ⁠… I saw him pull down the main switch. And now he’s in a hurry to leave the ship. And none of us really know how all that machinery ticks.”

Laird pulled the gun out of Joana’s holster and shot him. The other gasped, reaching for his own side arm, and Laird’s weapon blazed again.

His fist leaped out, striking Joana on the angle of the jaw, and she sagged. He caught her up and started to run.

A pair of crewmen stood in the corridor leading to the boats. “What’s the matter, sir?” one asked.

“Collapsed⁠—radiation from the machines⁠—got to get her to a hospital ship,” gasped Daryesh.

They stood aside, wonderingly, and he spun the dogs of the blister valve and stepped into the gig. “Shall we come, sir?” asked one of the men.

“No!” Laird felt a little dizzy. The radiation was streaming through him, and death was coming with giant strides. “No⁠—” He smashed a fist into the insistent face, slammed the valve back, and vaulted to the pilot’s chair.

The engines hummed, warming up. Fists and feet battered on the valve. The sickness made him retch.

O Joana, if this kills you⁠—

He threw the main-drive switch. Acceleration jammed him back as the gig leaped free.

Staring out the ports, he saw fire blossom in space as the great guns of Vwyrdda opened up.


My glass was empty. I signalled for a refill and sat wondering just how much of the yarn one could believe.

“I’ve read the histories,” I said slowly. “I do know that some mysterious catastrophe annihilated the massed fleet of Janya and turned the balance of the war. Sol speared in and won inside of a year. And you mean that you did it?”

“In a way. Or Daryesh did. We were acting as one personality, you know. He was a thoroughgoing realist, and the moment he saw his defeat he switched wholeheartedly to the other side.”

“But⁠—Lord, man! Why’ve we never heard anything about this? You mean you never told anyone, never rebuilt any of those machines, never did anything?”

Laird’s dark, worn face twisted in a bleak smile. “Certainly. This civilization isn’t ready for such things. Even Vwyrdda wasn’t, and it’ll take us millions of years to reach their stage. Besides, it was part of the bargain.”

“Bargain?”

“Just as certainly. Daryesh and I still had to live together, you know. Life under suspicion of mutual trickery, never trusting your own brain, would have been intolerable. We reached an agreement during that long voyage back to Sol, and used Vwyrddan methods of autohypnosis to assure that it could not be broken.”

He looked somberly out at the lunar night. “That’s why I said the genie in the bottle killed me. Inevitably, the two personalities merged, became one. And that one was, of course, mostly Daryesh, with overtones of Laird.

“Oh, it isn’t so horrible. We retain the memories of our separate existences, and the continuity which is the most basic attribute of the ego. In fact, Laird’s life was so limited, so blind to all the possibilities and wonder of the universe, that I don’t regret him very often. Once in a while I still get nostalgic moments and have to talk to a human. But I always pick one who won’t know whether or not to believe me, and won’t be able to do much of anything about it if he should.”

“And why did you go into Survey?” I asked, very softly.

“I want to get a good look at the universe before the change. Daryesh wants to orient himself, gather enough data for a sound basis of decision. When we⁠—I⁠—switch over to the new immortal body, there’ll be work to do, a galaxy to remake in a newer and better pattern by Vwyrddan standards! It’ll take millennia, but we’ve got all time before us. Or I do⁠—what do I mean, anyway?” He ran a hand through his gray-streaked hair.

“But Laird’s part of the bargain was that there should be as nearly normal a human life as possible until this body gets inconveniently old. So⁠—” He shrugged. “So that’s how it worked out.”

We sat for a while longer, saying little, and then he got up. “Excuse me,” he said. “There’s my wife. Thanks for the talk.”

I saw him walk over to greet a tall, handsome red-haired woman. His voice drifted back: “Hello, Joana⁠—”

They walked out of the room together in perfectly ordinary and human fashion.

I wonder what history has in store for us.

Swordsman of Lost Terra

The third book of the Story of the Men of Killorn. How Red Bram fought the Ganasthi from the lands of darkness, and Kery son of Rhiach was angered, and the pipe of the gods spoke once more.

I

Now it must be told of those who fared forth south under Bram the Red. This was the smallest of the parties that left Killorn, being from three clans only⁠—Broina, Dagh, and Heorran. That made some thousand warriors, mostly men with some women archers and slingers. But the pipe of the gods had always been with Clan Broina, and so it followed the Broina on this trek. He was Rhiach son of Glyndwyrr, and his son was Kery.

Bram was a Heorran, a man huge of height and thew, with eyes like blue ice and hair and beard like a torch. He was curt of speech and had no close friends, but men agreed that his brain and his spirit made him the best leader for a journey like this, though some thought that he paid too little respect to the gods and their priests.

For some five years these men of Killorn marched south. They went over strange hills and windy moors, through ice-blinking clefts in gaunt-cragged mountains and over brawling rivers chill with the cold of the Dark Lands.

They hunted and robbed to live, or reaped the grain of foreigners, and cheerfully cut down any who sought to gainsay them. Now and again Bram dickered with the chiefs of some or other city and hired himself and his wild men out to fight against another town. Then there would be hard battle and rich booty and flames red against the twilight sky.

Men died and some grew weary of roving and fighting. There was a sick hunger within them for rest and a hearthfire and the eternal sunset over the Lake of Killorn. These took a house and a woman and stayed by the road. In such ways did Bram’s army shrink. On the other hand most of his warriors finally took some or other woman along on the march and she would demand more for herself and the babies than a roof of clouds and wind. So there came to be tents and wagons, with children playing between the turning wheels. Bram grumbled about this, it made his army slower and clumsier, but there was little he could do to prevent it.

Those who were boys when the trek began became men with the years and the battles and the many miles. Among these was the Kery of whom we speak. He grew tall and lithe and slender, with the fair skin and slant blue eyes and long ash-blond hair of the Broina, broad of forehead and cheekbones, straight-nosed, beardless like most of his clan.

He was swift and deadly with sword, spear, or bow, merry with his comrades over ale and campfire, clever to play harp or pipe and make verses⁠—not much different from the others, save that he came of the Broina and would one day carry the pipe of the gods. And while the legends of Killorn said that all men are the offspring of a goddess whom a warrior devil once bore off to his lair, it was held that the Broina had a little more demon blood in them than most.

Always Kery bore within his heart a dream. He was still a stripling when they wandered from home. He had reached young manhood among hoofs and wheels and dusty roads, battle and roaming and the glimmer of campfires, but he never forgot Killorn of the purple hills and the far thundering sea and the lake where it was forever sunset. For there had been a girl of the Dagh sept, and she had stayed behind.

But then the warriors came to Ryvan and their doom.


It was a broad fair country into which they had come. Trending south and east, away from the sun, they were on the darker edge of the Twilight Lands and the day was no longer visible at all. Only the deep silver-blue dusk lay around them and above, with black night and glittering stars to the east and a few high clouds lit by unseen sunbeams to the west. But it was still light enough for Twilight Landers’ eyes to reach the horizon⁠—to see fields and woods and rolling hills and the far metal gleam of a river. They were well into the territory of Ryvan city.

Rumor ran before them on frightened feet, and peasants often fled as they advanced. But never had they met such emptiness as now. They had passed deserted houses, gutted farmsteads, and the bones of the newly slain, and had shifted their course eastward to get into wilder country where there should at least be game. But such talk as they had heard of the invaders of Ryvan made them march warily. And when one of their scouts galloped back to tell of an army advancing out of the darkness against them, the great horns screamed and the wagons were drawn together.

For a while there was chaos, running and yelling men, crying children, bawling cattle, and tramping hests. Then the carts were drawn into a defensive ring atop a high steep ridge and the warriors waited outside. They made a brave sight, the men of Killorn, tall barbarians in the colorful kilts of their septs with plundered ornaments shining around corded throat or sinewy arm.

Most of them still bore the equipment of their homeland⁠—horned helmets, gleaming ring-byrnies, round shields, ax and bow and spear and broadsword, worn and dusty with use but ready for more. The greater number went afoot, though some rode the small shaggy hests of the north. Their women and children crouched behind the wagons, with bows and slings ready and the old battle banners of Killorn floating overhead.

Kery came running to the place where the chiefs stood. He wore only a helmet and a light leather corselet, and carried sword and spear and a bow slung over his shoulders. “Father,” he called. “Father, who are they?”

Rhiach of Broina stood near Bram with the great bagpipes of the gods under one arm⁠—old beyond memory, those pipes, worn and battered, but terror and death and the avenging furies crouched in them, power so great that only one man could ever know the secret of their use. A light breeze stirred the warlock’s long gray hair about his gaunt face, and his eyes brooded on the eastern darkness.

The scout who had brought word turned to greet Kery. He was panting with the weariness of his hard ride. An arrow had wounded him, and he shivered as the cold wind from the Dark Lands brushed his sweat-streaked body. “A horde,” he said. “An army marching out of the east toward us, not Ryvan but such a folk as I never knew of. Their outriders saw me and barely did I get away. Most likely they will move against us, and swiftly.”

“A host at least as great as ours,” added Bram. “It must be a part of the invading Dark Landers who are laying Ryvan waste. It will be a hard fight, though I doubt not that with our good sword-arms and the pipe of the gods we will throw them back.”

“I know not.” Rhiach spoke slowly. His deep eyes were somber on Kery. “I have had ill dreams of late. If I fell in this battle, before we won⁠ ⁠… I did wrong, son. I should have told you how to use the pipe.”

“The law says you can only do that when you are so old that you are ready to give up your chiefship to your first born,” said Bram. “It is a good law. A whole clan knowing how to wield such power would soon be at odds with all Killorn.”

“But we are not in Killorn now,” said Rhiach. “We have come far from home, among alien and enemy peoples, and the lake where it is forever sunset is a ghost to us.” His hard face softened. “If I fall, Kery, my own spirit, I think, will wander back thither. I will wait for you at the border of the lake, I will be on the windy heaths and by the high tarns, they will hear me piping in the night and know I have come home⁠ ⁠… but seek your place, son, and all the gods be with you.”


Kery gulped and wrung his father’s hand. The warlock had ever been a stranger to him. His mother was dead these many years and Rhiach had grown grim and silent. And yet the old warlock was dearer to him than any save Morna who waited for his return.

He turned and sped to his own post, with the tyrs.

The cows of the great horned tyrs from Killorn were for meat and milk and leather, and trudged meekly enough behind the wagons. But the huge black bulls were wicked and had gored more than one man to death. Still Kery had gotten the idea of using them in battle. He had made iron plates for their chests and shoulders. He had polished their cruel horns and taught them to charge when he gave the word. No other man in the army dared go near them, but Kery could guide them with a whistle. For the men of Broina were warlocks.

They snorted in the twilight as he neared them, stamping restlessly and shaking their mighty heads. He laughed in a sudden reckless drunkenness of power and moved up to his big lovely Gorwain and scratched the bull behind the ears.

“Softly, softly,” he whispered, standing in the dusk among the crowding black bulks. “Patient, my beauty, wait but a little and I’ll slip you, O wait, my Gorwain.”

Spears blinked in the shadowy light and voices rumbled quietly. The bulls and the hests snorted, stamping and shivering in the thin chill wind flowing from the lands of night. They waited.

Presently they heard, faint and far, the skirling of war pipes. But it was not the wild joyous music of Killorn, it was a thin shrill note which ran along the nerves, jagged as a saw, and the thump of drums and the clangor of gongs came with it. Kery sprang up on the broad shoulders of Gorwain the tyr and strained into the gloom to see.

Over the rolling land came marching the invaders. It was an army of a thousand or so, he guessed with a shiver of tension, moving in closer ranks and with tighter discipline than the barbarians. He had seen many armies, from the naked yelling savages of the upper Norlan hills to the armored files of civilized towns, yet never one like this.

Dark Landers, he thought bleakly. Out of the cold and the night that never ends, out of the mystery and the frightened legends of a thousand years, here at last are the men of the Dark Lands, spilling into the Twilight like their own icy winds, and have we anything that can stand against them?

They were tall, as tall as the northerners, but gaunt, with a stringy toughness born of hardship and suffering and bitter chill. Their skins were white, not with the ruddy whiteness of the northern Twilight Landers but dead-white, blank and bare, and the long hair and beards were the color of silver.

Their eyes were the least human thing about them, huge and round and golden, the eyes of a bird of prey, deep sunken in the narrow skulls. Their faces seemed strangely immobile, as if the muscles for laughter and weeping were alike frozen. As they moved up, the only sound was the tramp of their feet and the demon whine of their pipes and the clash of drum and gong.

They were well equipped, Kery judged, they wore close-fitting garments of fur-trimmed leather, trousers and boots and hooded tunics. Underneath he glimpsed mail, helmets, shields, and they carried all the weapons he knew⁠—no cavalry, but they marched with a sure tread. Overhead floated a strange banner, a black standard with a jagged golden streak across it.

Kery’s muscles and nerves tightened to thrumming alertness. He crouched by his lead bull, one hand gripping the hump and the other white-knuckled around his spearshaft. And there was a great hush on the ranks of Killorn as they waited.

Closer came the strangers, until they were in bowshot. Kery heard the snap of tautening strings. Will Bram never give the signal? Gods, is he waiting for them to walk up and kiss us?

A trumpet brayed from the enemy ranks, and Kery saw the cloud of arrows rise whistling against the sky. At the same time Bram winded his horn and the air grew loud with war shouts and the roar of arrow flocks.

Then the strangers locked shields and charged.

II

The men of Killorn stood their ground, shoulder to shoulder, pikes braced and swords aloft. They had the advantage of high ground and meant to use it. From behind their ranks came a steady hail of arrows and stones, whistling through the air to crack among the enemy ranks and tumble men to earth⁠—yet still the Dark Landers came, leaping and bounding and running with strange precision. They did not yell, and their faces were blank as white stone, but behind them the rapid thud of their drums rose to a pulse-shaking roar.

Hai-ah!” bellowed Red Bram. “Sunder them!”

The great long-shafted ax shrieked in his hands, belled on an enemy helmet and crashed through into skull and brain and shattering jawbone. Again he smote, sideways, and a head leaped from its shoulders.

A Dark Land warrior thrust for his belly. He kicked one booted foot out and sent the man lurching back into his own ranks. Whirling, he hewed down one who engaged the Killorner beside him. A foeman sprang against him as he turned, chopping at his leg. With a roar that lifted over the clashing racket of battle, Bram turned, the ax already flying in his hands, and cut the stranger down.

His red beard blazed like a torch over the struggle as it swayed back and forth. His streaming ax was a lightning bolt that rose and fell and rose again, and the thunder of metal on breaking metal rolled between the hills.

Kery stood by his tyrs, bow in hand, shooting and shooting into the masses that roiled about him. None came too close, and he could not leave his post lest the unchained bulls stampede. He shuddered with the black fury of battle. When would Bram call the charge. How long? Zip, zip, gray-feathered death winging into the tide that rolled up to the wagons and fell back and resurged over its corpses.

The men of Killorn were yelling and cursing as they fought, but the Dark Landers made never a sound save for the hoarse gasping of breath and the muted groans of the wounded. It was like fighting demons, yellow-eyed and silver-bearded and with no soul in their bony faces. The northerners shivered and trembled and hewed with a desperate fury of loathing.

Back and forth the battle swayed, roar of axes and whine of arrows and harsh iron laughter of swords. Kery stood firing and firing, the need to fight was a bitter catch in his throat. How long to wait, how long, how long?

Why didn’t Rhiach blow the skirl of death on the pipes? Why not fling them back with the horror of disintegration in their bones, and then rush out to finish them?

Kery knew well that the war-song of the gods was only to be played in time of direst need, for it hurt friend almost as much as foe⁠—but even so, even so! A few shaking bars, to drive the enemy back in death and panic, and then the sortie to end them!

Of a sudden he saw a dozen Dark Landers break from the main battle by the wagons and approach the spot where he stood. He shot two swift arrows, threw his spear, and pulled out his sword with a savage laughter in his heart, the demoniac battle joy of the Broina. Ha, let them come!

The first sprang with downward-whistling blade. Kery twisted aside, letting speed and skill be his shield, his long glaive flickered out and the enemy screamed as it took off his arm. Whirling, Kery spitted the second through the throat. The third was on him before he could withdraw his blade, and a fourth from the other side, raking for his vitals. He sprang back.

“Gorwain!” he shouted. “Gorwain!

The huge black bull heard. His fellows snorted and shivered, but stayed at their place⁠—Kery didn’t know how long they would wait, he prayed they would stay a moment more. The lead tyr ran up beside his master, and the ground trembled under his cloven hoofs.

The white foemen shrank back, still dead of face but with fear plain in their bodies. Gorwain snorted, an explosion of thunder, and charged them.

There was an instant of flying bodies, tattered flesh ripped by the horns, and ribs snapping underfoot. The Dark Landers thrust with their spears, the points glanced off the armor plating and Gorwain turned and slew them.

“Here!” cried Kery sharply. “Back, Gorwain! Here!”

The tyr snorted and circled, rolling his eyes. The killing madness was coming over him, if he were not stopped now he might charge friend or foe.

“Gorwain!” screamed Kery.

Slowly, trembling under his shining black hide, the bull returned.


And now Rhiach the warlock stood up behind the ranks of Killorn. Tall and steely gray, he went out between them, the pipes in his arms and the mouthpieces at his lips. For an instant the Dark Landers wavered, hesitating to shoot at him, and then he blew.

It was like the snarling music of any bagpipe, and yet there was more in it. There was a boiling tide of horror riding the notes, men’s hearts faltered and weakness turned their muscles watery. Higher rose the music, and stronger and louder, screaming in the dales, and before men’s eyes the world grew unreal, shivering beneath them, the rocks faded to mist and the trees groaned and the sky shook. They fell toward the ground, holding their ears, half blind with unreasoning fear and with the pain of the giant hand that gripped their bones and shook them, shook them.

The Dark Landers reeled back, falling, staggering, and many of those who toppled were dead before they hit the earth. Others milled in panic, the army was becoming a mob. The world groaned and trembled and tried to dance to the demon-music.

Rhiach stopped. Bram shook his bull head to clear the ringing and the fog in it. “At them!” he roared. “Charge!

Sanity came back. The land was real and solid again, and men who were used to the terrible drone of the pipes could force strength back into shuddering bodies. With a great shout, the warriors of Killorn formed ranks and moved forward.

Kery leaped up on the back of Gorwain, straddling the armored chine and gripping his knees into the mighty flanks. His sword blazed in the air. “Now kill them, my beauties!” he howled.

In a great wedge, with Gorwain at their lead, the tyrs rushed out on the foe. Earth shook under the rolling thunder of their feet. Their bellowing filled the land and clamored at the gates of the sky. They poured like a black tide down on the Dark Land host and hit it.

“Hoo-ah!” cried Kery.

He felt the shock of running into that mass of men and he clung tighter, holding on with one hand while his sword whistled in the other. Bodies fountained before the rush of the bulls, horns tossed men into the heavens and hoofs pounded them into the earth. Kery swung at dimly glimpsed heads, the hits shivered along his arm but he could not see if he killed anyone, there wasn’t time.

Through and through the Dark Land army the bulls plowed, goring a lane down its middle while the Killorners fell on it from the front. Blood and thunder and erupting violence, death reaping the foe, and Kery rode onward.

“Oh, my beauties, my black sweethearts, horn them, stamp them into the ground. Oh, lovely, lovely, push them on, my Gorwain, knock them down to hell, best of bulls!”

The tyrs came out on the other side of the broken host and thundered on down the ridge. Kery fought to stop them. He yelled and whistled, but he knew such a charge could not expend itself in a moment.

As they rushed on, he heard the high brazen call of a trumpet, and then another and another, and a new war-cry rising behind him. What was that? What had happened?

They were down in a rocky swale before he had halted the charge. The bulls stood shivering then, foam and blood streaked their heaving sides. Slowly, with many curses and blows, he got them turned, but they would only walk back up the long hill.

As he neared the battle again he saw that another force had attacked the Dark Landers from behind. It must have come through the long ravine to the west, which would have concealed its approach from those fighting Southern Twilight Landers, Kery saw, well trained and equipped though they seemed to fight wearily. But between men of north and south, the easterners were being cut down in swathes. Before he could get back, the remnants of their host was in full flight. Bram was too busy with the newcomers to pursue and they soon were lost in the eastern darkness.


Kery dismounted and led his bulls to the wagons to tie them up. They went through a field of corpses, heaped and piled on the blood-soaked earth, but most of the dead were enemies. Here and there the wounded cried out in the twilight, and the women of Killorn were going about succoring their own hurt. Carrion birds hovered above on darkling wings.

“Who are those others?” asked Kery of Bram’s wife Eiyla. She was a big rawboned woman, somewhat of a scold but stouthearted and the mother of tall sons. She stood leaning on an unstrung bow and looking over the suddenly hushed landscape.

“Ryvanians, I think,” she replied absently. Then, “Kery⁠—Kery, I have ill news for you.”

His heart stumbled and there was a sudden coldness within him. Mutely, he waited.

“Rhiach is dead, Kery,” she said gently. “An arrow took him in the throat even as the Dark Landers fled.”

His voice seemed thick and clumsy. “Where is he?”

She led him inside the laager of wagons. A fire had been lit to boil water, and its red glow danced over the white faces of women and children and wounded men where they lay. To one side the dead had been stretched, and white-headed Lochly of Dagh stood above them with his bagpipes couched in his arms.

Kery knelt over Rhiach. The warlock’s bleak features had softened a little in death, he seemed gentle now. But quiet, so pale and quiet. And soon the earth will open to receive you, you will be laid to rest here in an alien land where the life slipped from your hands, and the high windy tarns of Killorn will not know you ever again, O Rhiach the Piper.

Farewell, farewell, my father. Sleep well, goodnight, goodnight!

Slowly, Kery brushed the gray hair back from Rhiach’s forehead, and knelt and kissed him on the brow. They had laid the god-pipe beside him, and he took this up and stood numbly, wondering what he would do with this thing in his hands.

Old Lochly gave him a somber stare. His voice came so soft you could scarce hear it over the thin whispering wind.

“Now you are the Broina, Kery, and thus the Piper of Killorn.”

“I know,” he said dully.

“But you know not how to blow the pipes, do you? No, no man does that. Since Broina himself had them from Llugan Longsword in heaven, there has been one who knew their use, and he was the shield of all Killorn. But now that is ended, and we are alone among strangers and enemies.”

“It is not good. But we must do what we can.”

“Oh, aye. ’Tis scarcely your fault, Kery. But I fear none of us will ever drink the still waters of the lake where it is forever sunset again.”

Lochly put his own pipes to his lips and the wild despair of the old coronach wailed forth over the hushed camp.

Kery slung the god-pipes over his back and wandered out of the laager toward Bram and the Ryvanians.

III

The southern folk were more civilized, with cities and books and strange arts, though the northerners thought it spiritless of them to knuckle under to their kings as abjectly as they did. Hereabouts the people were dark of hair and eyes, though still light of skin like all Twilight Landers, and shorter and stockier than in the north. These soldiers made a brave showing with polished cuirass and plumed helmet and oblong shields, and they had a strong cavalry mounted on tall hests, and trumpeters and standard bearers and engineers. They outnumbered the Killorners by a good three to one, and stood in close, suspicious ranks.

Approaching them, Kery thought that his people were, after all, invaders of Ryvan themselves. If this new army decided to fall on the tired and disorganized barbarians, whose strongest weapon had just been taken from them, it could be slaughter. He stiffened himself, thrusting thought of Rhiach far back into his mind, and strode boldly forward.

As he neared he saw that however well armed and trained the Ryvanians were they were also weary and dusty, and they had many hurt among them. Beneath their taut bearing was a hollowness. They had the look of beaten men.

Bram and the Dagh, tall gray Nessa, were parleying with the Ryvanian general, who had ridden forward and sat looking coldly down on them. The Heorran carried his huge ax over one mailed shoulder, but had the other hand lifted in sign of peace. At Kery’s approach, he turned briefly and nodded.

“Well you came,” he said. “This is a matter for the heads of all three clans, and you are the Broina now. I grieve for Rhiach, and still more do I grieve for poor Killorn, but we must put a bold face on it lest they fall on us.”

Kery nodded, gravely as fitted an elder. The incongruity of it was like a blow. Why, he was a boy⁠—there were men of Broina in the train twice and thrice his age⁠—and he held leadership over them!

But Rhiach was dead, and Kery was the last living of his sons. Hunger and war and the coughing sickness had taken all the others, and so now he spoke for his clan.

He turned a blue gaze up toward the Ryvanian general. This was a tall man, big as a northerner but quiet and graceful in his movements, and the inbred haughtiness of generations was stiff within him. A torn purple cloak and a gilt helmet were his only special signs of rank, otherwise he wore the plain armor of a mounted man, but he wore it like a king. His face was dark for a Twilight Lander, lean and strong and deeply lined, with a proud high-bridged nose and a long hard jaw and close-cropped black hair finely streaked with gray. He alone in that army seemed utterly undaunted by whatever it was that had broken their spirits.

“This is Kery son of Rhiach, chief of the third of our clans,” Bram introduced him. He used the widespread Aluardian language of the southlands, which was also the tongue of Ryvan and which most of the Killorners had picked up in the course of their wanderings. “And Kery, he says he is Jonan, commander under Queen Sathi of the army of Ryvan, and that this is a force sent out from the city which became aware of the battle we were having and took the opportunity of killing a few more Dark Landers.”

Nessa of Dagh looked keenly at the southerners. “Methinks there’s more to it than that,” he said, half to his fellows and half to Jonan. “You’ve been in a stiff battle and come off second best, if looks tell aught. Were I to make a further venture, it would be that while you fought clear of the army that beat you and are well ahead of pursuit, it’s still on your tail and you have to reach the city fast.”

“That will do,” snapped Jonan. “We have heard of you plundering bandits from the north, and have no intention of permitting you on Ryvanian soil. If you turn back at once, you may go in peace, but otherwise.⁠ ⁠…”

Casting a glance behind him, Bram saw that his men were swiftly reforming their own lines. They sensed the uneasiness in the air. If the worst came to the worst, they’d give a fearsome account of themselves. And it was plain that Jonan knew it.

“We are wanderers, yes,” said the chief steadily, “but we are not highwaymen save when necessity drives us to it. It would better fit you to let us, who have just broken a fair-sized host of your deadly enemies, proceed in peace. We do not wish to fight you, but if we must it will be all the worse for you.”

“Ill-armed barbarians, a third of our number, threatening us?” asked Jonan scornfully.

“Well, now, suppose you can overcome us,” said Nessa with a glacial cheerfulness. “I doubt it, but just suppose so. We will not account for less than one man apiece of yours, you know, and you can hardly spare so many with Dark Landers ravaging all your country. Furthermore, a battle with us could well last so long that those who follow you will catch up, and there is an end of all of us.”


Kery took a breath and added flatly, “You must have felt the piping we can muster at need. Well for you that we only played it a short while. If we chose to play you a good long dirge.⁠ ⁠…”

Bram cast him an approving glance, nodded, and said stiffly, “So you see, General Jonan, we mean to go on our way, and it would best suit you to bid us a friendly goodbye.”

The Ryvanian scowled blackly and sat for a moment in thought. The wind stirred his hest’s mane and tail and the scarlet plume on his helmet. Finally he asked them in a bitter voice, “What do you want here, anyway? Why did you come south?”

“It is a long story, and this is no place to talk,” said Bram. “Suffice it that we seek land. Not much land, nor for too many years, but a place to live in peace till we can return to Killorn.”

“Hm.” Jonan frowned again. “It is a hard position for me. I cannot simply let a band famous for robbery go loose. Yet it is true enough that I would not welcome a long and difficult fight just now. What shall I do with you?”

“You will just have to let us go,” grinned Nessa.

“No! I think you have lied to me on several counts, barbarians. Half of what you say is bluff, and I could wipe you out if I had to.”

“Methinks somewhat more than half of your words are bluff,” murmured Kery.

Jonan gave him an angry look, then suddenly whirled on Bram. “Look here. Neither of us can well afford a battle, yet neither trusts the other out of its sight. There is only one answer. We must proceed together to Ryvan city.”

“Eh? Are you crazy, man? Why, as soon as we were in sight of your town, you could summon all its garrison out against us.”

“You must simply trust me not to do that. If you have heard anything about Queen Sathi, you will know that she would never permit it. Nor can we spare too many forces. Frankly, the city is going to be under siege very soon.”

“Is it that bad?” asked Bram.

“Worse,” said Jonan gloomily.

Nessa nodded his shrewd gray head. “I’ve heard some tales of Sathi,” he agreed. “They do say she’s honorable.”

“And I have heard that you people have served as mercenaries before now,” said Jonan quickly, “and we need warriors so cruelly that I am sure some arrangement can be made here. It could even include the land you want, if we are victorious, for the Ganasthi have wasted whole territories. So this is my proposal⁠—march with us to Ryvan, in peace, and there discuss terms with her majesty for taking service under her flag.” His harsh dark features grew suddenly cold. “Or, if you refuse, bearing in mind that Ryvan has very little to lose after all, I will fall on you this instant.”

Bram scratched his red beard, and looked over the southern ranks and especially the engines. Flame-throwing ballistae could make ruin of the laager. Jonan galled him, and yet⁠—well⁠—however they might bluff about it, the fact remained that they had very little choice.

And anyway, the suggestion about payment in land sounded good. And if these⁠—Ganasthi⁠—had really overrun the Ryvanian empire, then there was little chance in any case of the Killorners getting much further south.

“Well,” said Bram mildly, “we can at least talk about it⁠—at the city.”


Now the wagons, which the barbarians would not abandon in spite of Jonan’s threats, were swiftly hitched again and the long train started its creaking way over the hills. Erelong they came on one of the paved imperial roads, a broad empty way that ran straight as a spearshaft southwestward to Ryvan city. Then they made rapid progress.

In truth, thought Kery, they went through a wasted land. Broad fields were blackened with fire, corpses sprawled in the embers of farmsteads, villages were deserted and gutted⁠—everywhere folk had fled before the hordes of Ryvan. Twice they saw red glows on the southern horizon and white-lipped soldiers told Kery that those were burning cities.

As they marched west the sky lightened before them until at last a clear white glow betokened that the sun was just below the curve of the world. It was a fair land of rolling plains and low hills, fields and groves and villages, but empty⁠—empty. Now and again a few homeless peasants stared with frightened eyes at their passage, or trailed along in their wake, but otherwise there was only the wind and the rain and the hollow thudding of their feet.

Slowly Kery got the tale of Ryvan. The city had spread itself far in earlier days, conquering many others, but its rule was just. The conquered became citizens themselves and the strong armies protected all. The young queen Sathi was nearly worshipped by her folk. But then the Ganasthi came.

“About a year ago it was,” said one man. “They came out of the darkness in the east, a horde of them, twice as many as we could muster. We’ve always had some trouble with Dark Landers on our eastern border, you know, miserable barbarians making forays which we beat off without too much trouble. And most of them told of pressure from some powerful nation, Ganasth, driving them from their own homes and forcing them to fall on us. But we never thought too much of it. Not before it was too late.

“We don’t know much about Ganasth. It seems to be a fairly civilized state, somewhere out there in the cold and the dark. How they ever became civilized with nothing but howling savages around them I’ll never imagine. But they’ve built up a power like Ryvan’s, only bigger. It seems to include conscripts from many Dark Land tribes who’re only too glad to leave their miserable frozen wastes and move into our territory. Their armies are as well trained and equipped as our own, and they fight like demons. Those war-gongs, and those dead faces.⁠ ⁠…”

He shuddered.

“The prisoners we’ve taken say they aim to take over all the Twilight Lands. They’re starting with Ryvan⁠—it’s the strongest state, and once they’ve knocked us over the rest will be easy. We’ve appealed for help to other nations but they’re all too afraid, too busy raising their own silly defenses, to do anything. So for the past year the war’s been raging up and down our empire.” He waved a hand, wearily, at the blasted landscape. “You see what that’s meant. Famine and plague are starting to hit us now⁠—”

“And you could never stand before them?” asked Kery.

“Oh, yes, we had our victories and they had theirs. But when we won a battle they’d just retreat and sack some other area. They’ve been living off the country⁠—our country⁠—the devils!” The soldier’s face twisted. “My own little sister was in Aquilaea when they took that. When I think of those white-haired fiends⁠—

“Well about a month ago, the great battle was fought. Jonan led the massed forces of Ryvan out and caught the main body of Ganasthi at Seven Rivers, in the Donam Hills. I was there. The fight lasted, oh, four sleeps maybe, and nobody gave quarter or asked it. We outnumbered them a little, but they finally won. They slaughtered us like driven cattle. Jonan was lucky to pull half his forces out of there. The rest left their bones at Seven Rivers. Since then we’ve been a broken nation.

“We’re pulling all we have left back toward Ryvan in the hope of holding it till a miracle happens. Do you have any miracles for sale, Northman?” The soldier laughed bitterly.

“What about this army here?” asked Kery.

“We still make sorties, you know. This one went out from Ryvan city a few sleeps past to the relief of Tusca, which our scouts said the Ganasthi were besieging with only a small force. But an enemy army intercepted us on the way. We cut our way out and shook them, but they’re on our tail in all likelihood. When we chanced to hear the noise of your fight with the invaders we took the opportunity⁠ ⁠… Almighty Dyuus, it was good to hack them down and see them run!”

The soldier shrugged. “But what good did it do, really? What chance have we got? That was a good magic you had at the fight. I thought my heart was going to stop when that demon-music started. But can you pipe your way out of hell, barbarian? Can you?”

IV

Ryvan was a fair city, with terraced gardens and high shining towers to be seen over the white walls, and it lay among wide fields not yet ravaged by the enemy. But around it, under its walls, spilling out over the land, huddled the miserable shacks and tents of those who had fled hither and could find no room within the town till the foe came over the horizon⁠—the broken folk, the ragged horror-ridden peasants who stared mutely at the defeated army as it streamed through the gates.

The men of Killorn made camp under one wall and soon their fires smudged the deep silver-blue sky and their warriors stood guard against the Ryvanians. They did not trust even these comrades in woe, for they came of the fat southlands and the wide highways and the iron legions, and not of Killorn and its harsh windy loneliness.

Before long word came that the barbarian leaders were expected at the palace. So Bram, Nessa, and Kery put on their polished byrnies, and over them tunics and cloaks of their best plunder. They slung their swords over their shoulders and mounted their hests and rode between two squads of Ryvanian guardsmen through the gates and into the city.

It was packed and roiling with those who had fled. Crowds surged aimlessly around the broad avenues and spilled into the colonnaded temples and the looming apartments and even the gardens and villas of the nobility.

There was the dusty, bearded peasant, clinging to his wife and his children and looking on the world with frightened eyes. Gaily decked noble, riding through the mob with patrician hauteur and fear underneath it. Fat merchant and shaven priest, glowering at the refugees who came in penniless to throng the city and must, by the queen’s orders, be fed and housed. Patrolling soldiers, striving to keep order in the mindless whirlpool of man, their young faces drawn and their shoulders stooped beneath their mail. Jugglers, mountebanks, thieves, harlots, tavern-keepers, plying their trades in the feverish gaiety of doom; a human storm foaming off into strange half-glimpsed faces in darkened alleys and eddying crowds, the unaccountable aliens who flit through all great cities⁠—the world seemed gathered at Ryvan, and huddling before the wrath that came.

Fear rode the city, Kery could feel it, he breathed and the air was dank with terror, he bristled animal-like and laid a hand to his sword. For an instant he remembered Killorn, the wide lake rose before him and he stood at its edge, watching the breeze ruffle it and hearing the whisper of reeds and the chuckle of water on a pebbled shore. Miles about lay the hills and the moors, the clean strong smell of ling was a drunkenness in his nostrils. It was silent save for the small cool wind that ruffled Morna’s hair. And in the west it was sunset, the mighty sun-disc lay just below the horizon and a shifting, drifting riot of colors, flame of red and green and molten gold, burned in the twilit heavens.

He shook his head, feeling his longing as a sharp clear pain, and urged his hest through the crowds. Presently they reached the palace.

It was long and low and gracious, crowded now since all the nobles and their households had moved into it and, under protest, turned their own villas over to the homeless. Dismounting, the northerners walked between files of guardsmen, through fragrant gardens and up the broad marble steps of the building⁠—through long corridors and richly furnished rooms, and finally into the audience chamber of Queen Sathi.

It was like a chalice of white stone, wrought in loveliness and brimming with twilight and stillness. That deep blue dusk lay cool and mysterious between the high slim pillars, and somewhere came the rippling of a harp and the singing of birds and fountains. Kery felt suddenly aware of his uncouth garments and manners and accent. His tongue thickened and he did not know what to do with his hands. Awkwardly he took off his helmet.

“Lord Bram of Killorn, your majesty,” said the chamberlain.

“Greeting, and welcome,” said Sathi.


Word had spread far about Ryvan’s young queen but Kery thought dazedly that the gossips had spoken less of her than was truth. She was tall and lithe and sweetly formed, with strength slumbering deep under the wide soft mouth and the lovely curves of cheeks and forehead. Blood of the Sun Lands darkened her hair to a glowing blue-black and tinted her skin with gold, there was fire from the sun within her. Like other southern women, she dressed more boldly than the girls of Killorn, a sheer gown falling from waist to ankles, a thin veil over the shoulders, little jewelry. She needed no ornament.

She could not be very much older than he, if at all, thought Kery. He caught her great dark eyes on him and felt a slow hot flush go up his face. With an effort he checked himself and stood very straight, with his strange blue eyes like cold flames.

Beside Sathi sat the general, Jonan, and there were a couple of older men who seemed to be official advisors. But it soon was clear that only the queen and the soldier had much to say in this court.

Bram’s voice boomed out, shattering the peace of the blue dusk. For all his great size and ruddy beard he seemed lost in the ancient grace of the chamber. He spoke too loudly. He stood too stiff. “Thank you, my lady. But I am no lord, I simply head this group of the men of Killorn.” He waved clumsily at his fellows. “These are Nessa of Dagh and Kery of Broina.”

“Be seated, then, and welcome again.” Sathi’s voice was low and musical. She signaled her servants to bring wine.

“We have heard of great wanderings in the north,” she went on, when they had drunk. “But those lands are little known to us. What brought you so far from home?”

Nessa, who had the readiest tongue, answered. “There was famine in the land, your majesty. For three years drought and cold lay like iron over Killorn. We hungered and the coughing sickness came over many of us. Not all our magics and sacrifices availed to end our misery, they seemed only to raise great storms that destroyed what little we had kept.

“Then the weather smiled again, but as often happens the gray blight came in the wake of the hard years. It reaped our grain before we could, the stalks withered and crumbled before our eyes, and wild beasts came in hunger-driven swarms to raid our dwindling flocks. There was scarce food enough for a quarter of our starving folk. We knew, from what had happened in other lands, that the gray blight will waste a country for years, five or ten, leaving only perhaps a third part of the crop alive at each harvest. Then it passes away and does not come again. But meanwhile the land will not bear many folk.

“So in the end the clans decided that most must move away leaving only the few who could keep alive through the niggard years to hold the country for us. Hearts broke in twain, your majesty, for the hills and the moors and the lake where it is forever sunset were part of us. We are of that land and if we die away from it our ghosts will wander home. But go we must, lest all die.”

“Yes, go on,” said Jonan impatiently when he paused.

Bram gave him an angry look and took up the story. “Four hosts were to wander out of the land and see what would befall. If they found a place to stay they would abide there till the evil time was over. Otherwise they would live however they could. It lay with the gods, my lady, and we have traveled far from the realms of our gods.

“One host went eastward, into the great forests of Norla. One got ships and sailed west, out into the Day Lands where some of our adventurers had already explored a little way. One followed the coast southwestward, through country beyond our ken. And ours marched due south. And so we have wandered for five years.”

“Homeless,” whispered Sathi, and Kery thought her eyes grew bright with tears.

“Barbarian robbers!” snapped Jonan. “I know of the havoc they have wrought on their way.”

“And what would you have done,” growled Bram. Jonan gave him a stiff glare, but he rushed on. “Your majesty, we have taken only what we needed.⁠ ⁠…”

And whatever else struck our fancy, thought Kery in a moment’s wryness.

“⁠—and much of our fighting has been done for honest pay. We want only a place to live a few years, land to farm as free yeomen, and we will defend the country which shelters us as long as we are in it. We are too few to take that land and hold it against a whole nation⁠—that is why we have not settled down ere this⁠—but on the march we will scatter any army in the world or leave our corpses for carrion birds. The men of Killorn keep faith with friends and foes alike, help to the one and harm to the other.

“Now we saw many fair fields in Ryvan where we could be at home. The Ganasthi have cleared off the owners for us. So we offer you this⁠—give us the land we need and we will fight for you against these Ganasthi or any other foes while blood runs through our hearts. Refuse us and we may be able to make friends with the Dark Landers instead. For friends we must have.”

“You see?” snarled Jonan. “He threatens banditry.”

“No, no, you are too hasty,” replied Sathi. “He is simply telling the honest truth. And the gods know we need warriors.”

“This general was anxious enough for our help out there in the eastern marches,” said Kery suddenly.

“Enough, barbarian,” said Jonan with ice in his tones.

Color flared in Sathi’s cheeks. “Enough of you, Jonan. These are brave and honest men, and our guests, and our sorely needed allies. We will draw up the treaty at once.”

The general shrugged, insolently. Kery was puzzled. There was anger here, crackling under a hard-held surface, but it seemed new and strange. Why?

They haggled for a while over terms, Nessa doing most of the talking for Killorn. He and Bram would not agree that clansmen should owe fealty or even respect to any noble of Ryvan save the queen herself. Also they should have the right to go home whenever they heard the famine was over. Sathi was willing enough to concede it but Jonan had to be almost beaten down. Finally he gave grudging assent and the queen had her scribes draw the treaty up on parchment.

“That is not how we do it in Killorn,” said Bram. “A tyr must be sacrificed and vows made on the ring of Llugan and the pipes of the gods.”

Sathi smiled. “Very well, Red One,” she nodded. “We will make the pledge thusly too, if you wish.” With a sudden flame of bitterness, “What difference does it make? What difference does anything make now?”

V

Now the armies of Ganasth moved against Ryvan city itself. From all the plundered empire they streamed in, to ring the town in a living wall and hem the defenders within a fence of spears. And when the whole host was gathered, which took about ten sleeps from the time the Killorners arrived, they stormed the city.

Up the long slope of the hills on which Ryvan stood they came, running, bounding, holding up shields against the steady hail of missiles from the walls. Forward, silent and blank-faced, no noise in them save the crashing of thousands of feet and the high demon-music of their warmaking⁠—dying, strewing the ground with their corpses, but leaping over the fallen and raging against the walls.

Up ladders! Rams thundering at the gates! Men springing to the top of walls and toppling before the defenders and more of them snarling behind!

Back and forth the battle raged, now the Ryvanians driven back to the streets and rooftops, now the Dark Landers pressed to the edge of the walls and pitchforked over. Houses began to burn, here and there, and it was Sathi who made fire brigades out of those who could not fight. Kery had a glimpse of her from afar, as he battled on the outer parapets, a swift and golden loveliness against the leaping red.

After long and vicious fighting the northern gate went down. But Bram had foreseen this. He had pulled most of his barbarians thither, with Kery’s bulls in their lead. He planted them well back and had a small stout troop on either side of the great buckling doors. When the barrier sagged on its hinges, the Ganasthi roared in unopposed, streaming through the entrance and down the broad bloody avenue.

Then the Killorners thrust from the side, pinching off the several hundred who had entered. They threw great jars of oil on the broken gates and set them ablaze, a barrier of flame which none could cross. And then Kery rode his bulls against the enemy, and behind him came the might of Killorn.

It was raw slaughter. Erelong they were hunting the foe up and down the streets and spearing them like wild animals. Meanwhile Bram got some engineers from Jonan’s force who put up a temporary barricade in the now open gateway and stood guard over it.

The storm faded, grumbled away in surges of blood and whistling arrows. Shaken by their heavy losses, the Dark Landers pulled back out of missile range, ringed the city with their watchfires, and prepared to lay siege.

There was jubilation in Ryvan. Men shouted and beat their dented shields with nicked and blunted swords. They tossed their javelins in the air, emptied wineskins, and kissed the first and best girl who came to hand. Weary, bleeding, reft of many good comrades, and given at best a reprieve, the folk still snatched at what laughter remained.

Bram came striding to meet the queen. He was a huge and terrible figure stiff with dried blood, the ax blinking on his shoulder and the other hairy paw clamped on the neck of a tall Dark Lander whom he helped along with an occasional kick. Yet Sathi’s dark eyes trailed to the slim form of Kery, following in the chief’s wake and too exhausted to say much.

“I caught this fellow in the streets, my lady,” said Bram merrily, “and since he seemed to be a leader I thought I’d better hang on to him for a while.”

The invader stood motionless, regarding them with a chill yellow stare in which there lay an iron pride. He was tall and well-built, his black mail silver-trimmed, a silver star on the battered black helmet. The snowy hair and beard stirred faintly in the breeze.

“An aristocrat, I would say,” nodded Sathi. She herself seemed almost too tired to stand. She was smudged with smoke and her dress was torn and her small hands bleeding from their recent burdens. But she pulled herself erect and fought to speak steadily. “Yes, he may well be of value to us. That was good work. Aye, you men of Killorn fought nobly, without you we might well have lost the city. It was a good month when you came.”

“It was no way to fight,” snapped Jonan. He was tired and wounded himself, but there was no comradeship in the look he gave the northerners. “The risk of it⁠—why, if you hadn’t been able to seal the gate behind them, Ryvan would have fallen then and there.”

“I did not see you doing much of anything when the gate was splintering before them,” answered Bram curtly. “As it is, my lady, we’ve inflicted such heavy losses on them that I doubt they’ll consider another attempt at storming. Which gives us, at least, time to try something else.” He yawned mightily. “Time to sleep!”


Jonan stepped up close to the prisoner and they exchanged a long look. There was no way to read the Dark Lander’s thoughts but Kery thought he saw a tension under the general’s hard-held features.

“I don’t know what value a food-eating prisoner is to us when he can’t even speak our language,” said the Ryvanian. “However, I can take him in charge if you wish.”

“Do,” she nodded dully.

“Odd if he couldn’t talk any Aluardian at all,” said Kery. “Wanderers through alien lands almost have to learn. The leaders of invading armies ought to know the tongue of their enemy, or at least have interpreters.” He grinned with the cold savagery of the Broina. “Let the women of Killorn, the ones who’ve lost husbands today, have him for a while. I daresay he’ll soon discover he knows your speech⁠—whatever is left of him.”

“No,” said Jonan flatly. He signalled to a squad of his men. “Take this fellow down to the palace dungeons and give him something to eat. I’ll be along later.”

Kery started to protest but Sathi laid a hand on his arm. He felt how it was still bleeding a little and grew silent.

“Let Jonan take care of it,” she said, her voice flat with weariness. “We all need rest now⁠—O gods, to sleep!”

The Killorners had moved their wagons into the great forum and camped there, much to the disgust of the aristocrats and to the pleasure of whatever tavern-keepers and unattached young women lived nearby. But Sathi had insisted that their three chiefs should be honored guests at the palace and it pleased them well enough to have private chambers and plenty of servants and the best of wine.

Kery woke in his bed and lay for a long while, drowsing and thinking the wanderous thoughts of half-asleep. When he got up he groaned for he was stiff with his wounds and the long fury of battle. A slave came in and rubbed him with oil and brought him a barbarian-sized meal, after which he felt better.

But now he was restless. He felt the letdown which is the aftermath of high striving. It was hard to fight back the misery and loneliness that rose in him. He prowled the room unhappily, pacing under the glowing cressets, flinging himself on a couch and then springing to his feet again. The walls were a cage.

The city was a cage, a trap, he was caught like a snared beast and never again would he walk the moors of Killorn. Sharply as a knife thrust, he remembered hunting once out in the heath. He had gone alone, with spear and bow and a shaggy half-wild cynor loping at his heels, out after antlered prey somewhere beyond the little village. Long had they roamed, he and his beast, until they were far from sight of man and only the great gray and purple and gold of the moors were around them.

The carpet under his bare feet seemed again to be the springy, pungent ling of Killorn. It was as if he smelled the sharp wild fragrance of it and felt the leaves brushing his ankles. It had been gray and windy, clouds rushed out of the west on a mounting gale. There was rain in the air and high overhead a single bird of prey had wheeled and looped on lonely wings. O almighty gods, how the wind had sung and cried to him, chilled his body with raw wet gusts and skirled in the dales and roared beneath the darkening heavens! And he had come down a long rocky slope into a wooded glen, a waterfall rushed and foamed along his path, white and green and angry black. He had sheltered in a mossy cave, lain and listened to the wind and the rain and the crystal, ringing waterfall, and when the weather cleared he had gotten up and gone home. There had been no quarry, but by Morna of Dagh, that failure meant more to him than all his victories since!

He picked up the pipe of the gods, where it lay with his armor, and turned it over and over in his hands. Old it was, dark with age, the pipes were of some nameless ironlike wood and the bag of a leather such as was never seen now. It was worn with the uncounted generations of Broinas who had had it, men made hard and stern by their frightful trust.

It had scattered the legions of the southerners who came conquering a hundred years ago and it had quelled the raiding savages from Norla and it had gone with one-eyed Alrigh and shouted down the walls of a city. And more than once, on this last dreadful march, it had saved the men of Killorn.

Now it was dead. The Piper of Killorn had fallen and the secret had perished with him and the folk it had warded were trapped like animals to die of hunger and pestilence in a strange land⁠—O Rhiach, Rhiach my father, come back from the dead, come back and put the pipe to your cold lips and play the war-song of Killorn!

Kery blew in it for the hundredth time and only a hollow whistling sounded in the belly of the instrument. Not even a decent tune, he thought bitterly.

He couldn’t stay indoors, he had to get out under the sky again or go mad. Slinging the pipe over his shoulder he went out the door and up a long stairway to the palace roof gardens.

They slept all around him, sleep and silence were heavy in the long corridors, it was as if he were the last man alive and walked alone through the ruins of the world. He came out on the roof and went over to the parapet and stood looking out.

The moon was near the zenith which meant, at this longitude, that it was somewhat less than half full and would dwindle as it sank westward. It rode serene in the dusky sky adding its pale glow to the diffused light which filled all the Twilight Lands and to the white pyre of the hidden sun. The city lay dark and silent under the sky, sleeping heavily, only the muted tramp of sentries and their ringing calls drifted up to Kery. Beyond the town burned the ominous red circle of the Ganasthi fires and he could see their tents and the black forms of their warriors.

They were settling down to a patient death watch. All the land had become silent waiting for Ryvan to die. It did not seem right that he should stand here among fragrant gardens and feel the warm western breeze on his face, not when steadfast Lluwynn and Boroda the Strong and gay young Kormak his comrade were ashen corpses with the women of Killorn keening over them. O Killorn, Killorn, and the lake of sunset, have their ghosts gone home to you? Greet Morna for me, Kormak, whisper in the wind that I love her, tell her not to grieve.


He grew aware that someone else was approaching, and turned with annoyance. But his mood lightened when he saw that it was Sathi. She was very fair as she walked toward him, young and lithe and beautiful, with the dark unbound hair floating about her.

“Are you up, Kery?” she asked, sitting down on the parapet beside him.

“Of course, my lady, or else you are dreaming,” he smiled with a tired humor.

“Stupid question wasn’t it?” She smiled back with a curving of closed lips that was lovely to behold. “But I am not feeling very bright just now.”

“None of us are, my lady.”

“Oh, forget that sort of address, Kery. I am too lonely as it is, sitting on a throne above all the world. Call me by my name, at least.”

“You are very kind⁠—Sathi.”

“That is better.” She smiled again, wistfully. “How you fought today! How you reaped them! What sort of a warrior are you, Kery, to ride wild bulls as if they were hests?”

“We of clan Broina have tricks. We feel things that other men do not seem to.” Kery sat down beside her feeling the frozenness within him ease a little. “Aye, it can be lonely to wield power and you wonder if you are fit for it, not so? My father died in our first battle with the Ganasthi, and now I am the Broina, but who am I to lead my clan? I cannot even perform the first duty of my post.”

“And what is that?” she asked.

He told her about the god-pipe. He showed it to her and gave her the tales of its singing. “You feel your flesh shiver and your bones begin to crumble, rocks dance and mountains groan and the gates of hell open before you but now the pipes are forever silent, Sathi. No man knows how to play them.”

“I heard of your music at that battle,” she nodded gravely, “and wondered why it was not sounded again this time.” Awe and fear were in her eyes, the hand that touched the scarred sack trembled a little. “And this is the pipe of Killorn! You cannot play it again? You cannot find out how? It would be the saving of Ryvan and of your own folk and perhaps of all the Twilight Lands, Kery.”

“I know. But what can I do? Who can understand the powers of heaven or unlock the doors of hell save Llugan Longsword himself?”

“I do not know. But Kery⁠—I wonder. This pipe.⁠ ⁠… Do you really think that gods and not men wrought it?”

“Who but a god could make such a thing, Sathi?”

“I do not know, I say. And yet⁠—Tell me, have you any idea of what the world is like in Killorn? Do you think it a flat plain with the sun hanging above, forever fixed in one spot?”

“Why I suppose so. Though we have met men in the southlands who claimed the world was a round ball and went about the sun in such a manner as always to turn the same face to it.”

“Yes, the wise men of Ryvan tell us that that must be the case. They have learned it by studying the fixed stars and those which wander. Those others are worlds like our own, they say, and the fixed stars are suns a very long ways off. And we have a very dim legend of a time once, long and long and long ago, when this world did not eternally face the sun either. It spun like a top so that each side of it had light and dark alternately.”

Kery knitted his brows trying to see that for himself. At last he nodded. “Well, it may have been. What of it?”

“The barbarians all think the world was born in flame and thunder many ages ago. But some of our thinkers believe that this creation was a catastrophe which destroyed that older world I speak of. There are dim legends and here and there we find very ancient ruins, cities greater than any we know today but buried and broken so long ago that even their building stones are almost weathered away. These thinkers believe that man grew mighty on this forgotten world which spun about itself, that his powers were like those we today call divine.

“Then something happened. We cannot imagine what, though a wise man once told me he believed all things attract each other⁠—that is the reason why they fall to the ground he said⁠—and that another world swept so close to ours that its pull stopped the spinning and yanked the moon closer than it had been.”

Kery clenched his fists. “It could be,” he murmured. “It could well be. For what happens to an unskillful rider when his hest stops all at once? He goes flying over its head, right? Even so, this braking of the world would have brought earthquakes greater than we can imagine, quakes that levelled everything!”

“You have a quick wit. That is what this man told me. At any rate, only a very few people and animals lived and nothing remained of their great works save legends. In the course of many ages, man and beasts alike changed, the beasts more than man who can make his own surroundings to suit. Life spread from the Day Lands through the Twilight Zone. Plants got so they could use what little light we have here. Finally even the Dark Lands were invaded by the pallid growths which can live there. Animals followed and man came after the animals until today things are as you see.”

She turned wide and serious eyes on him. “Could not this pipe have been made in the early days by a man who knew some few of the ancient secrets? No god but a man even as you, Kery. And what one man can make another can understand!”


Hope rose in him and sagged again. “How?” he asked dully. And then, seeing the tears glimmer in her eyes: “Oh, it may all be true. I will try my best. But I do not even know where to begin.”

“Try,” she whispered. “Try!”

“But do not tell anyone that the pipe is silent, Sathi. Perhaps I should not even have told you.”

“Why not? I am your friend and the friend of your folk. I would we had all the tribes of Killorn here.”

“Jonan is not,” he said grimly.

“Jonan⁠—he is a harsh man, yes. But.⁠ ⁠…”

“He does not like us. I do not know why but he doesn’t.”

“He is a strange one,” she admitted. “He is not even of Ryvanian birth, he is from Guria, a city which we conquered long ago, though of course its people have long been full citizens of the empire. He wants to marry me, did you know?” She smiled. “I could not help laughing for he is so stiff. One would as soon wed an iron cuirass.”

“Aye⁠—wed⁠—” Kery fell silent, and there was a dream in his gaze as he looked over the hills.

“What are you thinking of?” she asked after a while.

“Oh⁠—home,” he said. “I was wondering if I would ever see Killorn again.”

She leaned over closer to him. One long black lock brushed his hand and he caught the faint fragrance of her. “Is it so fair a land?” she asked softly.

“No,” he said. “It is harsh and gray and lonely. Storm winds sweep in and the sea roars on rocky beaches and men grow gnarled with wresting life from the stubborn soil. But there is space and sky and freedom, there are the little huts and the great halls, the chase and the games and the old songs around leaping fires, and⁠—well⁠—” His voice trailed off.

“You left a woman behind, didn’t you?” she murmured gently.

He nodded. “Morna of Dagh, she of the sun-bright tresses and the fair young form and the laughter that was like rain showering on thirsty ground. We were very much in love.”

“But she did not come too?”

“No. So many wanted to come that the unwed had to draw lots and she lost. Nor could I stay behind for I was heir to the Broina and the god-pipes would be mine someday.” He laughed, a harsh sound like breaking iron. “You see how much good that has done me!”

“But even so⁠—you could have married her before leaving?”

“No. Such hasty marriage is against clan law and Morna would not break it.” Kery shrugged. “So we wandered out of the land, and I have not seen her since. But she will wait for me and I for her. We’ll wait till⁠—till⁠—” He had half raised his hand but as he saw again the camp of the besiegers it fell helplessly to his lap.

“And you would not stay?” Sathi’s tones were so low he had to bend his head close to hear. “Even if somehow Ryvan threw back its foes and valiant men were badly needed and could rise to the highest honors of the empire, you would not stay here?”

For a moment Kery sat motionless, wrapping himself about his innermost being. He had some knowledge of women. There had been enough of them along the dusty way, brief encounters and a fading memory.

His soul had room only for the bright image of one unforgotten girl. It was plain enough what this woman, who was young and beautiful and a queen, was saying and he would not ordinarily have hung back.

Especially when the folk of Killorn were still strangers in a camp of allies who did not trust them very far, when Killorn needed every friend it could find. And the Broina were an elvish clan who had never let overly many scruples hold them.

Only⁠—only he liked Sathi as a human being. She was brave and generous and wise and she was, really, so pitiably young. She had had so little chance to learn the hard truths of living in the loneliness of the imperium and only a scoundrel would hurt her.

She sighed, ever so faintly, and moved back a little. Kery thought he saw her stiffening. One does not reject the offer of a queen.

“Sathi,” he said, “for you, perhaps, even a man of Killorn might forget his home.”

She half turned to him, hesitating, unsure of herself and him. He took her in his arms and kissed her.

“Kery, Kery, Kery⁠—” she whispered, and her lips stole back toward his.

He felt rather than heard a footfall and turned with the animal alertness of the barbarian. Jonan stood watching them.

“Pardon me,” said the general harshly. His countenance was strained. Then suddenly, “Your majesty! This savage mauling you.⁠ ⁠…”

Sathi lifted a proud dark head. “This is the prince consort of Imperial Ryvan,” she said haughtily. “Conduct yourself accordingly. You may go.”

Jonan snarled and lifted an arm. Kery saw the armed men step from behind the tall flowering hedges and his sword came out with a rasp of steel.

“Guards!” screamed Sathi.

The men closed in. Kery’s blade whistled against one shield. Another came from each side. Pikeshafts thudded against his bare head⁠—

He fell, toppling into a roaring darkness while they clubbed him again. Down and down and down, whirling into a chasm of night. Dimly, just before blankness came, he saw the white beard and the mask-like face of the prince from Ganasth.

VI

It was a long and hard ride before they stopped and Kery almost fell from the hest to which they had bound him.

“I should have thought that you would soon awake,” said the man from Ganasth. He had a soft voice and spoke Aluardian well enough. “I am sorry. It is no way to treat a man, carrying him like a sack of meal. Here.⁠ ⁠…” He poured a glass of wine and handed it to the barbarian. “From now on you shall ride erect.”

Kery gulped thirstily and felt a measure of strength flowing back. He looked around him.

They had gone steadily eastward and were now camped near a ruined farmhouse. A fire was crackling and one of the score or so of enemy warriors was roasting a haunch of meat over it. The rest stood leaning on their weapons and their cold amber eyes never left the two prisoners.

Sathi stood near bleak-faced Jonan and her great dark eyes never left Kery. He smiled at her shakily and with a little sob she took a step toward him. Jonan pulled her back roughly.

“Kery,” she whispered. “Kery, are you well?”

“As well as could be expected,” he said wryly. Then to the Ganasthian prince, “What is this, anyway? I woke up to find myself joggling eastward and that is all I know. What is your purpose?”

“We have several,” answered the alien. He sat down near the fire pulling his cloak around him against the chill that blew out of the glooming east. His impassive face watched the dance of flames as if they told him something.

Kery sat down as well, stretching his long legs easily. He might as well relax he thought. They had taken his sword and his pipes and they were watching him like hungry beasts. There was never a chance to fight.

“Come, Sathi,” he waved to the girl. “Come over here by me.”

“No!” snapped Jonan.

“Yes, if she wants to,” said the Ganasthian mildly.

“By that filthy barbarian.⁠ ⁠…”

“None of us have washed recently.” The gentle tones were suddenly like steel. “Do not forget, General, that I am Mongku of Ganasth and heir apparent to the throne.”

“And I rescued you from the city,” snapped the man. “If it weren’t for me you might well be dead at the hands of that red savage.”

“That will do,” said Mongku. “Come over here and sit by us, Sathi.”

His guardsmen stirred, unacquainted with the Ryvanian tongue but sensing the clash of wills. Jonan shrugged sullenly and stalked over to sit opposite them. Sathi fled to Kery and huddled against him. He comforted her awkwardly. Over her shoulder he directed a questioning look at Mongku.

“I suppose you deserve some explanation,” said the Dark Lander. “Certainly Sathi must know the facts.” He leaned back on one elbow and began to speak in an almost dreamy tone.

“When Ryvan conquered Guria, many generations ago, some of its leaders were proscribed. They fled eastward and so eventually wandered into the Dark Lands and came to Ganasth. It was then merely a barbarian town but the Gurians became advisors to the king and began teaching the people all the arts of civilization. It was their hope one day to lead the hosts of Ganasth against Ryvan, partly for revenge and partly for the wealth and easier living to be found in the Twilight Lands. Life is hard and bitter in the eternal night, Sathi. It is ever a struggle merely to keep alive. Can you wonder so very much that we are spilling into your gentler climate and your richer soil?

“Descendants of the Gurians have remained aristocrats in Ganasth. But Jonan’s father conceived the idea of moving back with a few of his friends to work from within against the day of conquest. At that time we were bringing our neighbors under our heel and looked already to the time when we should move against the Twilight Lands. At any rate he did this and nobody suspected that he was aught but a newcomer from another part of Ryvan’s empire. His son, Jonan, entered the army and, being shrewd and strong and able, finally reached the high post which you yourself bestowed on him, Sathi.”

“Oh, no⁠—Jonan⁠—” She shuddered against Kery.

“Naturally when we invaded at last he had to fight against us, and for fear of prisoners revealing his purpose very few Ganasthians know who he really is. A risk was involved, yes. But it is convenient to have a general of the enemy on your side! Jonan is one of the major reasons for our success.

“Now we come to myself, a story which is very simply told. I was captured and it was Jonan’s duty as a citizen of Ganasth to rescue his prince⁠—quite apart from the fact that I do know his identity and torture might have loosened my tongue. He might have effected my escape easily enough without attracting notice, but other factors intervened. For one thing, there was this barbarian alliance, and especially that very dangerous new weapon they had which he had observed in use. We clearly could not risk its being turned on us. Indeed we almost had to capture it. Then, too, Jonan is desirous of marrying you, Sathi, and I must say that it seems a good idea. With you as a hostage Ryvan will be more amenable. Later you can return as nominal ruler of your city, a vassal of Ganasth, and that will make our conquest easier to administer. Though not too easy, I fear. The Twilight Landers will not much like being transported into the Dark Lands to make room for us.”

Sathi began to cry, softly and hopelessly. Kery stroked her hair and said nothing.

Mongku sat up and reached for the chunk of meat his soldier handed him. “So Jonan and his few trusty men let me out of prison and we went up to the palace roof after you, who had been seen going that way shortly before. Listening a little while to your conversation we saw that we had had the good luck to get that hell-pipe of the north, too. So we took you. Jonan was for killing you, Kery my friend, but I pointed out that you could be useful in many ways such as a means for making Sathi listen to reason. Threats against you will move her more than against herself, I think.”

“You crawling louse,” said Kery tonelessly.

Mongku shrugged. “I’m not such a bad sort but war is war and I have seen the folk of Ganasth hungering too long to have much sympathy for a bunch of fat Twilight Landers.

“At any rate, we slipped out of the city unobserved. Jonan could not remain for when the queen and I were both missing, and he responsible for both, it would be plain to many whom to accuse. Moreover, Sathi’s future husband is too valuable to lose in a fight. And I myself would like to report to my father the king as to how well the war has gone.

“So we are bound for Ganasth.”

There was a long silence while the fire leaped and crackled and the stars blinked far overhead. Finally Sathi shook herself and sat erect and said in a small hard voice, “Jonan, I swear you will die if you wed me. I promise you that.”

The officer did not reply. He sat brooding into the dusk with a look of frozen contempt and weariness on his face.

Sathi huddled back against Kery’s side and soon she slept.


On and on.

They were out of the Twilight Lands altogether now. Night had fallen on them and still they rode eastward. They were tough, these Ganasthi, they stopped only for sleep and quickly gulped food and a change of mounts and the miles reeled away behind them.

Little was said on the trail. They were too tired at the halts and seemingly in too much of a hurry while riding. With Sathi there could only be a brief exchange of looks, a squeeze of hands, and a few whispered words with the glowing-eyed men of Ganasth looking on. She was a gallant girl, thought Kery. The cruel trek told heavily on her but she rode without complaint⁠—she was still queen of Ryvan!

Ryvan, Ryvan, how long could it hold out now in the despair of its loss? Kery thought that Red Bram might be able to seize the mastery and whip the city into fighting pitch but warfare by starvation was not to the barbarians’ stomachs. They could not endure a long siege.

But what lay ahead for him and her and the captured weapon of the gods?

Never had he been in so grim a country. It was dark, eternally dark, night and cold and the brilliant frosty stars lay over the land, shadows and snow and a whining wind that ate and ate and gnawed its way through furs and flesh down to the bone. The moon got fuller here than it ever did over the Twilight Belt, its chill white radiance spilled on reaching snowfields and glittered like a million pinpoint stars fallen frozen to earth.

He saw icy plains and tumbled black chasms and fanged crags sheathed in glaciers. The ground rang with cold. Cramped and shuddering in his sleeping bag, he heard the thunder of frost-split rocks, the sullen boom and rumble of avalanches, now and again the faint far despairing howl of prowling wild beasts of prey.

“How can anyone live here?” he asked Mongku once. “The land is dead. It froze to death ten thousand years ago.”

“It is a little warmer in the region of Ganasth,” said the prince. “Volcanos and hot springs. And there is a great sea which has never frozen over. It has fish, and animals that live off them, and men that live off the animals. But in truth only the broken and hunted of man can ever have come here. We are the disinherited and we are claiming no more than our rightful share of life in returning to the Twilight Lands.”

He added thoughtfully: “I have been looking at that weapon of yours, Kery. I think I know the principle of its working. Sound does many strange things and there are even sounds too low or too high for the human ear to catch. A singer who holds the right note long enough can make a wine glass vibrate in sympathy until it shatters. We built a bridge once, over Thunder Gorge near Ganasth, but the wind blowing between the rock walls seemed to make it shake in a certain rhythm that finally broke it. Oh, yes, if the proper sympathetic notes can be found much may be done.

“I don’t know what hell’s music that pipe is supposed to sound. But I found that the reeds can be tautened or loosened and that the shape of the bag can be subtly altered by holding it in the right way. Find the proper combination and I can well believe that even the small noise made with one man’s breath can kill and break and crumble.”

He nodded his gaunt half-human face in the ruddy blaze of fire. “Aye, I’ll find the notes, Kery, and then the pipe will play for Ganasth.”

The barbarian shuddered with more than the cold, searching wind. Gods, gods, if he did⁠—if the pipes should sound the final dirge of Killorn!


For a moment he had a wild desire to fling himself on Mongku, rip out the prince’s throat and kill the score of enemy soldiers with his hands. But no⁠—no⁠—it wouldn’t do. He would die before he had well started and Sathi would be alone in the Dark Lands.

He looked at her, sitting very quiet near the fire. The wavering light seemed to wash her fair young form in blood. She gave him a tired and hopeless smile.

Brave girl, brave girl, wife for a warrior in all truth. But there was the pipe and there was Killorn and there was Morna waiting for him to come home.

They were nearing Ganasth, he knew. They had ridden past springs that seethed and bubbled in the snow, seen the red glare of volcanos on the jagged horizon, passed fields of white fungus-growths which the Dark Landers cultivated. Soon the iron gates would clash shut on him and what hope would there be then?

He lay back in his sleeping bag trying to think. He had to escape. Somehow he must escape with the pipe of the gods. But if he tried and went down with a dozen spears in him there was an end of all hope.

The wind blew, drifting snow across the sleepers. Two men stood guard and their strangely glowing eyes never left the captives. They could see in this realm of shadows where he was half blind. They could hunt him down like an animal.

What to do? What to do?

On the road he went with his hands tied behind him, his ankles lashed to the stirrups, and his hest’s bridle tied to the pommel of another man’s saddle. No chance of escape there. But one must get up after sleep.

He rolled close to Sathi’s quiet form as if he were merely turning over in slumber. His lips brushed against the leather bag and he wished it were her face.

“Sathi,” he whispered as quietly as he could. “Sathi, don’t move, but listen to me.”

“Aye,” her voice drifted back under the wind and the cold. “Aye, darling.”

“I am going to make a break for it when we get up. Help me if you can but don’t risk getting hurt. I don’t think we can both get away but wait for me in Ganasth!”

She lay silent for a long while. Then, “As you will, Kery. And whatever comes, I love you.”

He should have replied but the words stuck in his throat. He rolled back and, quite simply, went to sleep.

A spear butt prodding his side awoke him. He yawned mightily and sat up, loosening his bag around him, tensing every muscle in his body.

“The end of this ride will see us in the city,” Mongku said.

Kery rose slowly, gauging distances. A guardsman stood beside him, spear loose in one hand. The rest were scattered around the camp or huddled close to the fire. The hests were a darker shadow bunched on the fringes.

Kery wrenched the spear of the nearest man loose, swinging one booted foot into his belly. He brought the weapon around in a smashing arc, cracking the heavy butt into another’s jaw and rammed the head into the throat of a third. Even as he stabbed he was plunging into motion.

A Ganasthian yelled and thrust at him. Sathi threw herself on the shaft, pulling it down. Kery leaped for the hests.

There were two men on guard there. One drew a sword and hewed at the northerner. The keen blade slashed through heavy tunic and undergarments, cutting his shoulder⁠—but not too badly. He came under the fellow’s guard and smashed a fist into his jaw. Seizing the weapon he whirled and hacked at the other Dark Lander beating down the soldier’s ax and cutting him across the face.

The rest of the camp was charging at him. Kery bent and cut the hobbles of the hest beside him. A shower of flung spears rained about him as he sprang to the saddleless back. Twisting his left hand into the long mane he kicked the frightened beast in the flanks and plunged free.

Two Ganasthi quartered across his trail. He bent low over the hest’s back, spurring the mount with the point of his sword. As he rode down on them he hewed at one and saw him fall with a scream. The other stumbled out of the path of his reckless charge.

Hai-ah!” shouted Kery.

He clattered away over the stony icy fields toward the shelter of the dark hills looming to the north. Spears and arrows whistled on his trail and he heard, dimly, the shouts of men and the thud of pursuing hoofs.

He was alone in a land of foes, a land of freezing cold where he could scarce see half a mile before him, a land of hunger and swords. They were after him and it would take all the hunter’s skill he had learned in Killorn and all the warrior’s craftiness taught by the march to evade them. And after that⁠—Ganasth!

VII

The city loomed dark before him reaching with stony fingers for the ever-glittering stars. Of black stone it was, mountainous walls ringing in the narrow streets and the high gaunt houses. A city of night, city of darkness. Kery shivered.

Behind the city rose a mountain, a deeper shadow against the frosty dark of heaven. It was a volcano and from its mouth a red flame flapped in the keening wind. Sparks and smoke streamed over Ganasth. There was a hot smell of sulphur in the bitter air. The fire added a faint blood-like tinge to the cold glitter of moonlight and starlight on the snowfields.

There was a highway leading through the great main gates and the glowing-eyed people of the Dark Lands were trafficking along it. Kery strode directly on his way, through the crowds and ever closer to the city.

He wore the ordinary fur and leather dress of the country that he had stolen from an outlying house. The parka hood was drawn low to shadow his alien features. He went armed, as most men did, sword belted to his waist, and because he went quietly and steadily nobody paid any attention to him.

But if he were discovered and the hue and cry went up that would be the end of his quest.

A dozen sleeps of running and hiding in the wild hills, shivering with cold and hunger, hunting animals which could see where he was blind, and ever the men of Ganasth on his trail⁠—it would all go for naught. He would die and Sathi would be bound to a hateful pledge and Killorn would in time be the home of strangers.

He must finally have shaken off pursuit, he thought. Ranging through the hills he had found no sign of the warriors who had scoured them before. So he had proceeded toward the city on his wild and hopeless mission.

To find a woman and a weapon in the innermost citadel of a foe whose language even was unknown to him⁠—truly the gods must be laughing!

He was close to the gates now. They loomed over him like giants, and the passage through the city wall was a tunnel. Soldiers stood on guard and Kery lowered his head.

Traffic streamed through. No one gave him any heed. But it was black as hell in the tunnel and only a Ganasthian could find his way. Blindly Kery walked ahead, bumping into people, praying that none of the angry glances he got would unmask his pretense.

When he came out into the street the breath was sobbing in his lungs. He pushed on down its shadowy length feeling the wind that howled between the buildings cold on his cheeks.

But where to go now, where to go?

Blindly he struck out toward the heart of town. Most rulers preferred to live at the center.

The Ganasthi were a silent folk. Men stole past in the gloom, noiseless save for the thin snow scrunching under their feet. Crowds eddied dumbly through the great market squares, buying and selling with a gesture or a whispered syllable. City of half-seen ghosts⁠ ⁠… Kery felt more than half a ghost himself, shade of a madman flitting hopelessly to the citadel of the king of hell.

He found the place at last, more by blind blundering through the narrow twisting streets than anything else. Drawing himself into the shadow of a building across the way he stood looking at it, weighing his chances.

There was a high wall around the palace. He could only see its roof but it seemed to be set well back. He spied a gate not too far off, apparently a secondary entrance for it was small and only one sentry guarded it.

Now! By all the gods, now!

For a moment his courage failed him, and he stood sweating and shivering and licking dry lips. It wasn’t fear of death. He had lived too long with the dark gods as comrade⁠—he had but little hope of escaping alive from these nighted hills. But he thought of the task before him, and the immensity of it and the ruin that lay in his failure, and his heartbeat nearly broke through his ribs.

What, after all, could he hope to do? What was his plan, anyway? He had come to Ganasth on a wild and hopeless journey, scarcely thinking one sleep ahead of his death-dogged passage. Only now⁠—now he must reach a decision, and he couldn’t.

With a snarl, Kery started across the street.


No one else was in sight, there was little traffic in this part of town, but at any moment someone might round either of the corners about which the way twisted and see what he was doing. He had to be fast.

He walked up to the sentry who gave him a haughty glance. There was little suspicion in it for what had anyone to fear in the hearth of Ganasth the mighty?

Kery drew his sword and lunged.

The sentry yelled and brought down his pike. Kery batted the shaft aside even as he went by it. His sword flashed, stabbing for the other man’s throat. With a dreadful gurgling the guard stumbled and went clattering to earth.

Now quickly!

Kery took the man’s helmet and put it on. His own long locks were fair enough to pass for Ganasthian at a casual glance, and the visor would hide his eyes. Shedding his parka he slipped on the bloodstained tunic and the cloak over that. Taking the pike in hand he went through the gate.

Someone cried out and feet clattered in the street and along the garden paths before him. The noise had been heard. Kery looked wildly around at the pale bushes of fungus that grew here under the moon. He crawled between the fleshy fronds of the nearest big one and crouched behind it.

Guardsmen ran down the path. The moonlight blinked like cold silver on their spearheads. Kery wriggled on his stomach through the garden of fungus, away from the trail but toward the black palace.

Lying under a growth at the edge of a frost-silvered expanse of open ground he scouted the place he must next attack. The building was long and rambling, seemingly four stories high, built of polished black marble. There were two guards in sight, standing warily near a door. The rest must have run off to investigate the alarm.

Two⁠—

Kery rose, catching his stride even as he did, and dashed from the garden toward them. The familiar helmet and tunic might assure them for the instant he needed but he had to run lest they notice.

Vashtung!” shouted one of the men.

His meaning was plain enough. Kery launched his pike at the other who still looked a bit uncertain. It was an awkward throwing weapon. It brought him down wounded in a clatter of metal. The other roared and stepped forth to meet the assault.

Kery’s sword was out and whirring. He chopped at the pikeshaft that jabbed at him, caught his blade in the tough wood and pushed the weapon aside. As he came up face to face he kneed the Ganasthian with savage precision.

The other man reached up and grabbed his ankle and pulled him down. Kery snarled, the rage of battle rising in him. It was as if the pipes of Broina skirled in his head. Fear and indecision were gone. He got his hands on the soldier’s neck and wrenched. Even as the spine snapped he was rising again to his feet.

He picked up sword and pike and ran up the stairs and through the door. Now⁠—Sathi! He had one ally in this house of hell.

A long and silent corridor, lit by dim red cressets, stretched before him. He raced down it and his boots woke hollow echoes that paced him through its black length.

Two men in the dress of servants stood in the room into which he burst. They stared wildly at him. He stabbed one but the other fled screaming. He’d give the alarm but there was no time to chase. No time!

A staircase wound up toward the second story and Kery took it, flying up three steps at a time. Dimly, below him, he heard the frantic tattoo of a giant gong, the alarm signal, but the demon fury was fire and ice in his blood.

Another servant gaped at him. Kery seized him with a rough hand and held the sword at his throat.

“Sathi,” he snarled. “Sathi⁠—Ryvan⁠—Sathi!”

The Ganasthian gibbered in a panic that seemed weird with his frozen face. Kery grinned viciously and pinked him with the blade. “Sathi!” he said urgently. “Sathi of Ryvan!”

Shaking, the servant led the way, Kery urging him ungently to greater speed. They went up another flight of stairs and down a hallway richly hung with furs and tapestries. Passing lackeys gaped at them and some ran. Gods, they’d bring all Ganasth down on his neck!

Before a closed door stood a guardsman. Kery slugged the servant when he pointed at that entrance and ran to meet this next barrier. The guard yelled and threw up his pike.

Kery’s own long-shafted weapon clashed forth. They stabbed at each other, seeking the vitals. The guardsman had a cuirass and Kery’s point grazed off the metal. He took a ripping slash in his left arm. The Ganasthian bored in, wielding his pike with skill, beating aside Kery’s guard.

VIII

The Twilight Lander dropped his own weapon, seized the other haft in both hands, and wrenched. Grimly the Ganasthian hung on. Kery worked his way in closer. Suddenly he released the shaft, almost fell against his enemy, and drew the Dark Lander’s sword. The short blade flashed and the sentry fell.

The door was barred. He beat on it frantically, hearing the clatter of feet coming up the stairs, knowing that a thunderstorm of hurled weapons was on its way. “Sathi!” he cried. “Sathi, it is Kery, let me in!”

The first soldiers appeared down at the end of the corridor. Kery threw himself against the door. It opened, and he plunged through and slammed down the bolt.

Sathi stood there and wonder was in her eyes. “Oh, Kery,” she breathed, “Kery, you came.⁠ ⁠…”

“No time,” he rasped. “Where is the pipe of Killorn?”

She fought for calmness. “Mongku has it,” she said. “His chambers are on the next floor, above these⁠—”

The door banged and groaned as men threw their weight against it.

Sathi took his hand and led him into the next room. A fire burned low in the hearth. “I thought it out, against the time you might come,” she said. “The only way out is up that chimney. It should take us to the roof and thence we can go down again.”

“Oh, well done, lass!” With a sweep of the poker Kery scattered the logs and coals out on the carpet while Sathi barred the door into the next room. Drawing a deep breath the Killorner went into the fireplace, braced feet and back against the sides of the flue and began to climb up.

Smoke swirled in the chimney. He gasped for breath and his lungs seemed on fire. Night in here, utter dark and choking of fouled air. His heart roared and his strength ebbed from him. Up and up and up, hitch yourself still further up.

“Kery.” Her voice came low, broken with coughing. “Kery⁠—I can’t. I’m slipping⁠—”

“Hang on!” he gasped. “Here. Reach up. My belt⁠—”

He felt the dragging weight catch at him, there in the smoke-thickened dark, and drew a grim breath and edged himself further, up and up and up.

And out!

He crawled from the chimney and fell to the roof with the world reeling about him and a rushing of darkness in his head. His tormented lungs sucked the bitter air. He sobbed and the tears washed the soot from his eyes. He stood up and helped Sathi to her feet.

She leaned against him, shuddering with strain and with the wind that cried up here under the flickering stars. He looked about, seeking a way down again. Yes, over there, a doorway opening on a small terrace. Quickly now.

They crawled over the slanting, ice-slippery roof, helping each other where they could, fighting a way to the battlement until Kery’s grasping fingers closed on its edge and he heaved both of them up onto it.

“Come on!” he snapped. “They’ll be behind us any moment now.”

“What to do?” she murmured. “What to do?”

“Get the pipes!” he growled, and the demon blood of Broina began to boil in him again. “Get the pipes and destroy them if we can do nothing else.”

They went through the door and down a narrow staircase and came to the fourth floor of the palace.

Sathi looked up and down the long empty hallway. “I have been up here before,” she said with a coolness that was good to hear. “Let me see⁠—yes, this way, I think⁠—” As they trotted down the hollow length of corridor she said further: “They treated me fairly well here, indeed with honor though I was a prisoner. But oh, Kery, it was like sunlight to see you again!”

He stooped and kissed her, briefly, wondering if he would ever have a chance to do it properly. Most likely not but she would be a good companion on hell-road.

They came into a great antechamber. Kery had his sword out, the only weapon left to him, but no one was in sight. All the royal guards must be out hunting him. He grinned wolfishly and stepped to the farther door.

“Kery⁠—” Sathi huddled close against him. “Kery, do we dare? It may be death⁠—”

“It will be like that anyway,” he said curtly and swung the door open.


A great, richly furnished suite of chambers, dark and still, lay before him. He padded through the first, looking right and left like a questing animal, and into the next.

Two men stood there, talking⁠—Jonan and Mongku.

They saw him and froze for he was a terrible sight, bloody, black with smoke, fury cold and bitter-blue in his eyes. He grinned, a white flash of teeth in his sooted face, and drew his sword and stalked forward.

“So you have come,” said Mongku quietly.

“Aye,” said Kery. “Where is the pipe of Killorn?”

Jonan thrust forward, drawing the sword at his belt. “I will hold him, prince,” he said. “I will carve him into very bits for you.”

Kery met his advance in a clash of steel. They circled, stiff-legged and wary, looking for an opening. There was death here. Sathi knew starkly that only one of those two would leave this room.

Jonan lunged in, stabbing, and Kery skipped back. The officer was better in handling these shortswords than he who was used to the longer blades of the north. He brought his own weapon down sharply, deflecting the thrust. Jonan parried, and then it was bang and crash, thrust and leap and hack with steel clamoring and sparking. The glaives hissed and screamed, the fighters breathed hoarsely and there was murder in their eyes.

Jonan ripped off his cloak with his free hand and flapped it in Kery’s face. The northerner hacked out, blinded, and Jonan whipped the cloth around to tangle his blade. Then he rushed in, stabbing. Kery fell to one knee and took the thrust on his helmet, letting it glide off. Reaching up he got Jonan around the waist and pulled the man down on him.

They rolled over, growling and biting and gouging. Jonan clung to his sword and Kery to that wrist. They crashed into a wall and struggled there.

Kery got one leg around Jonan’s waist and pulled himself up on the man’s chest. He got a two-handed grasp on the enemy’s sword arm, slipped the crook of one elbow around, and broke the bone.

Jonan screamed. Kery reached over. He took the sword from his loosening fingers and buried it in Jonan’s breast.

He stood up then, trembling with fury, and looked at the pipes of Killorn.

It was almost as if Mongku’s expressionless face smiled. The Ganasthian held the weapon cradled in his arms, the mouthpiece near his lips. He nodded. “I got it to working,” he said. “In truth it is a terrible thing. Who holds it might well hold the world someday.”

Kery stood waiting, the sword hanging limp in one hand.

“Yes,” said Mongku. “I am going to play it.”

Kery started across the floor⁠—and Mongku blew.


The sound roared forth, wild, cruel, seizing him and shaking him, ripping at nerve and sinew. Bone danced in his skull and night shouted in his brain. He fell to the ground, feeling the horrible jerking of his muscles, seeing the world swim and blur before him.

The pipes screamed. Goodnight, Kery, goodnight, goodnight! It is the dirge of the world he is playing, the coronach of Killorn, it is the end of all things skirling in your body⁠—

Sathi crept forth. She was behind the player, the hell-tune did not strike her so deeply, but even as his senses blurred toward death Kery saw how she fought for every step, how the bronze lamp almost fell from her hand. Mongku had forgotten her. He was playing doom, watching Kery die and noting how the music worked.

Sathi struck him from behind. He fell, dropping the pipes, and turned dazed eyes up to her. She struck him again and again.

Then she fled over to Kery and cradled his head in her arms and sobbed with the horror of it and with the need for haste. “Oh, quickly, quickly, beloved, we have to flee, they will be here now⁠—I hear them in the hallway, come⁠—”

Kery sat up. His head was ringing and thumping, his muscles burned and weakness was like an iron hand on him. But there was that which had to be done and it gave him strength from some forgotten wellspring. He rose on shaky legs and went over and picked up the bagpipe of the gods.

“No,” he said.

“Kery.⁠ ⁠…”

“We will not flee,” he said. “I have a song to play.”

She saw the cold remote mask of his face. He was not Kery now of the ready laugh and the reckless bravery and the wistful memories of a lost homestead. He had become something else with the pipe in his hands, something which stood stern and somber and apart from man. There seemed to be ghosts in the vast shadowy room, the blood of his fathers who had been Pipers of Killorn, and he was the guardian now. She shrank against him for protection. There was a small charmed circle which the music did not enter but it was a stranger she stood beside.

Carefully Kery lifted the mouthpiece to his lips and blew. He felt the vibration tremble under his feet. The walls wavered before his eyes as unheard notes shivered the air. He himself heard no more than the barbarian screaming of the war-music he had always known but he saw death riding out.

A troop of guardsmen burst through the door⁠—halted, stared at the tall piper, and then howled in terror and pain.

Kery played. And as he played Killorn rose before him. He saw the reach of gray windswept moors, light glimmering on high cold tarns, birds winging in a sky of riven clouds. Space and loneliness and freedom, a hard open land of stern and bitter beauty, the rocks which had shaped his bones and the soil which had nourished his flesh. He stood by the great lake of sunset, storms swept in over it, rain and lightning, the waves dashed themselves to angry death on a beach of grinding stones.

He strode forward, playing, and the soldiers of Ganasth died before him. The walls of the palace trembled, hangings fell to the shuddering floor, the building groaned as the demon-music sought and found resonance.

He played them a song of the chase, the long wild hunt over the heath, breath gasping in hot lungs and blood shouting in the ears, running drunk with wind after the prey that fled and soared. He played them fire and comradeship and the little huts crouched low under the mighty sky. And the walls cracked around him. Pillars trembled and broke. The roof began to cave in and everywhere they died about him.

He played war, the skirl of pipes and the shout of men, clamor of metal, tramp of feet and hoofs, and the fierce blink of light on weapons. He sang them up an army that rode over the rim of the world with swords aflame and arrows like rain and the whole building tumbled to rubble even as he walked out of it.

Tenderly, dreamily, he played of Morna the fair, Morna who had stood with him on the edge of the lake where it is forever sunset, listening to the chuckle of small wavelets and looking west to the pyre of red and gold and dusky purple, the eyes and the lips and the hair of Morna and what she and he had whispered to each other on that quiet shore. But there was death in that song.

The ground began to shake under Ganasth. There is but little strength in the lungs of one man and yet when that strikes just the right notes, and those small pushes touch off something else far down in the depths of the earth, the world will tremble. The Dark Landers rioted in a more than human fear, in the blind panic which the pipes sang to them.

The gates were closed before him, but Kery played them down. Then he turned and faced the city and played it a song of the wrath of the gods. He played them up rain and cold and scouring wind, glaciers marching from the north in a blind whirl of snow, lightning aflame in the heavens and cities ground to dust. He played them a world gone crazy, sundering continents and tidal waves marching over the shores and mountains flaming into a sky of rain and fire. He played them whirlwinds and dust storms and the relentless sleety blast from the north. He sang them ruin and death and the sun burning out to darkness.

When he ceased, and he and Sathi left the half-shattered city, none stirred to follow. None dared who were still alive. It seemed to the two of them, as they struck out over the snowy plains, that the volcano behind was beginning to grumble and throw its flames a little higher.

IX

He stood alone in the gardens of Ryvan’s palace looking out over the city. Perhaps he thought of the hard journey back from the Dark Lands. Perhaps he thought of the triumphant day when they had sneaked back into the fastness and then gone out again, the Piper of Killorn and Red Bram roaring in his wake to smash the siege and scatter the armies of Ganasth and send the broken remnants fleeing homeward. Perhaps he thought of the future⁠—who knew? Sathi approached him quietly, wondering what to say.

He turned and smiled at her, the old merry smile she knew but with something else behind it. He had been the war-god of Killorn and that left its mark on a man.

“So it all turned out well,” he said.

“Thanks to you, Kery,” she answered softly.

“Oh, not so well at that,” he decided. “There were too many good men who fell, too much laid waste. It will take a hundred years before all this misery is forgotten.”

“But we reached what we strove for,” she said. “Ryvan is safe, all the Twilight Lands are. You folk of Killorn have the land you needed. Isn’t that enough to achieve?”

“I suppose so.” Kery stirred restlessly. “I wonder how it stands in Killorn now?”

“And you still want to return?” She tried to hold back the tears. “This is a fair land, and you are great in it, all you people from the north. You would go back to⁠—that?”

“Indeed,” he said. “All you say is true. We would be fools to return.” He scowled. “It may well be that in the time we yet have to wait most of us will find life better here and decide to stay. But not I, Sathi. I am just that kind of fool.”

“This land needs you, Kery. I do.”

He tilted her chin, smiling half sorrowfully into her eyes. “Best you forget, dear,” he said. “I will not stay here once the chance comes to return.”

She shook her head blindly, drew a deep breath, and said with a catch in her voice, “Then stay as long as you can, Kery.”

“Do you really mean that?” he asked slowly.

She nodded.

“You are a fool too,” he said. “But a very lovely fool.”

He took her in his arms.

Presently she laughed a little and said, not without hope, “I’ll have a while to change your mind, Kery. And I’ll try to do it. I’ll try!”

Sargasso of Lost Starships

I

Basil Donovan was drunk again. He sat near the open door of the Golden Planet, boots on the table, chair tilted back, one arm resting on the broad shoulder of Wocha, who sprawled on the floor beside him, the other hand clutching a tankard of ale. The tunic was open above his stained gray shirt, the battered cap was askew on his close-cropped blond hair, and his insignia⁠—the stars of a captain and the silver leaves of an earl on Ansa⁠—were tarnished. There was a deepening flush over his pale gaunt cheeks, and his eyes smoldered with an old rage.

Looking out across the cobbled street, he could see one of the tall, half-timbered houses of Lanstead. It had somehow survived the space bombardment, though its neighbors were rubble, but the tile roof was clumsily patched and there was oiled paper across the broken plastic of the windows. An anachronism, looming over the great bulldozer which was clearing the wreckage next door. The workmen there were mostly Ansans, big men in ragged clothes, but a well-dressed Terran was bossing the job. Donovan cursed wearily and lifted his tankard again.

The long, smoky-raftered taproom was full⁠—stolid burgers and peasants of Lanstead, discharged spacemen still in their worn uniforms, a couple of tailed greenies from the neighbor planet Shalmu. Talk was low and spiritless, and the smoke which drifted from pipes and cigarettes was bitter, cheap tobacco and dried bark. The smell of defeat was thick in the tavern.

“May I sit here, sir? The other places are full.”

Donovan glanced up. It was a young fellow, peasant written over his sunburned face in spite of the gray uniform and the empty sleeve. Olman⁠—yes, Sam Olman, whose family had been under Donovan fief these two hundred years. “Sure, make yourself at home.”

“Thank you, sir. I came in to get some supplies, thought I’d have a beer too. But you can’t get anything these days. Not to be had.”

Sam’s face looked vaguely hopeful as he eyed the noble. “We do need a gas engine bad, sir, for the tractor. Now that the central powercaster is gone, we got to have our own engines. I don’t want to presume, sir, but⁠—”

Donovan lifted one corner of his mouth in a tired smile. “I’m sorry,” he said. “If I could get one machine for the whole community I’d be satisfied. Can’t be done. We’re trying to start a small factory of our own up at the manor, but it’s slow work.”

“I’m sure if anyone can do anything it’s you, sir.”

Donovan looked quizzically at the open countenance across the table. “Sam,” he asked, “why do you people keep turning to the Family? We led you, and it was to defeat. Why do you want anything more to do with nobles? We’re not even that, any longer. We’ve been stripped of our titles. We’re just plain citizens of the Empire now like you, and the new rulers are Terran. Why do you still think of us as your leaders?”

“But you are, sir! You’ve always been. It wasn’t the king’s fault, or his men’s, that Terra had so much more’n we did. We gave ’em a fight they won’t forget in a hurry!”

“You were in my squadron, weren’t you?”

“Yes, sir. C.P.O. on the Ansa Lancer. I was with you at the Battle of Luga.” The deep-set eyes glowed. “We hit ’em there, didn’t we, sir?”

“So we did.” Donovan couldn’t suppress the sudden fierce memory. Outnumbered, outgunned, half its ships shot to pieces and half the crews down with Sirius fever, the Royal Lansteaders had still made naval history and sent the Imperial Fleet kiyoodling back to Sol. Naval historians would be scratching their heads over that battle for the next five centuries. Before God, they’d fought!


He began to sing the old war-song, softly at first, louder as Sam joined him⁠—

“Comrades, hear the battle tiding,
hear the ships that rise and yell
faring outward, starward riding⁠—
Kick the Terrans back to hell!”

The others were listening, men raised weary heads, an old light burned in their eyes and tankards clashed together. They stood up to roar out the chorus till the walls shook.

“Lift your glasses high,
kiss the girls goodbye,
for we’re riding,
for we’re riding,
for we’re riding out to Terran sky! Terran sky! Terran sky!
We have shaken loose our thunder
where the planets have their way,
and the starry deeps of wonder
saw the Impies in dismay.
Lift your glasses high,
kiss the girls goodbye⁠—”

The workmen in the street heard it and stopped where they were. Some began to sing. The Imperial superintendent yelled, and an Ansan turned to flash him a wolfish grin. A squad of blue-uniformed Solarian marines coming toward the inn went on the double.

“Oh, the Emp’ror sent his battle
ships against us in a mass,
but we shook them like a rattle
and we crammed them⁠—”

“Hi, there! Stop that!”

The song died, slowly and stubbornly, the men stood where they were and hands clenched into hard-knuckled fists. Someone shouted an obscenity.

The Terran sergeant was very young, and he felt unsure before those steady, hating eyes. He lifted his voice all the louder: “That will be enough of that. Any more and I’ll run you all in for lèse majesté. Haven’t you drunken bums anything better to do than sit around swilling beer?”

A big Ansan smith laughed with calculated raucousness.

The sergeant looked around, trying to ignore him. “I’m here for Captain Donovan⁠—Earl Basil, if you prefer. They said he’d be here. I’ve got an Imperial summons for him.”

The noble stretched out a hand. “This is he. Let’s have that paper.”

“It’s just the formal order,” said the sergeant. “You’re to come at once.”

“Commoners,” said Donovan mildly, “address me as ‘sir.’ ”

“You’re a commoner with the rest of ’em now.” The sergeant’s voice wavered just a little.

“I really must demand a little respect,” said Donovan with drunken precision. There was an unholy gleam in his eyes. “It’s a mere formality, I know, but after all my family can trace itself farther back than the Empire, whereas you couldn’t name your father.”

Sam Olman snickered.

“Well, sir⁠—” The sergeant tried elaborate sarcasm. “If you, sir, will please be so good as to pick your high-bred tail off that chair, sir, I’m sure the Imperium would be mostly deeply grateful to you, sir.”

“I’ll have to do without its gratitude, I’m afraid.” Donovan folded the summons without looking at it and put it in his tunic pocket. “But thanks for the paper. I’ll keep it in my bathroom.”

“You’re under arrest!”

Donovan stood slowly up, unfolding his sheer two meters of slender, wiry height. “All right, Wocha,” he said. “Let’s show them that Ansa hasn’t surrendered yet.”

He threw the tankard into the sergeant’s face, followed it with the table against the two marines beside him, and vaulted over the sudden ruckus to drive a fist into the jaw of the man beyond.

Wocha rose and his booming cry trembled in the walls. He’d been a slave of Donovan’s since he was a cub and the man a child, and if someone had liberated him he wouldn’t have known what to do. As batman and irregular groundtrooper he’d followed his master to the wars, and the prospect of new skull-breaking lit his eyes with glee.

For an instant there was tableau, Terrans and Ansans rigid, staring at the monster which suddenly stood behind the earl. The natives of Donarr have the not uncommon centauroid form, but their bodies are more like that of a rhinoceros than of a horse, hairless and slaty blue and enormously massive. The gorilla-armed torso ended in a round, muzzled, apelike face, long-eared, heavy-jawed, with canine tusks hanging over the great gash of a mouth. A chair splintered under his feet, and he grinned.

“Paraguns⁠—” cried the sergeant.

All hell let out for noon. Some of the customers huddled back into the corners, but the rest smashed the ends off bottles and threw themselves against the Terrans. Sam Olman’s remaining arm yanked a marine to him and bashed his face against the wall. Donovan’s fist traveled a jolting arc to the nearest belly and he snatched a rifle loose and crunched it against the man’s jaw. A marine seized him from behind, he twisted in the grip and kicked savagely, whirled around and drove the rifle butt into the larynx.

“Kill the bluebellies! Kill the Impies! Hail, Ansa!”

Wocha charged into the squad, grabbed a hapless Terran in his four-fingered hands, and swung the man like a club. Someone drew his bayonet to stab the slave, it glanced off the thick skin and Wocha roared and sent him reeling. The riot blazed around the room, trampling men underfoot, shouting and cursing and swinging.

“Donovan, Donovan!” shouted Sam Olman. He charged the nearest Impy and got a bayonet in the stomach. He fell down, holding his hand to his wound, screaming.

The door was suddenly full of Terrans, marines arriving to help their comrades. Paraguns began to sizzle, men fell stunned before the supersonic beams and the fight broke up. Wocha charged the rescuers and a barrage sent his giant form crashing to the floor.

They herded the Ansans toward the city jail. Donovan, stirring on the ground as consciousness returned, felt handcuffs snap on his wrists.


Imperial summons being what they were, he was bundled into a groundcar and taken under heavy guard toward the ordered place. He leaned wearily back, watching the streets blur past. Once a group of children threw stones at the vehicle.

“How about a cigarette?” he said.

“Shut up.”

To his mild surprise, they did not halt at the military government headquarters⁠—the old Hall of Justice where the Donovans had presided before the war⁠—but went on toward the suburbs. The spaceport being still radioactive. They must be going to the emergency field outside the city. Hm. He tried to relax. His head ached from the stun-beam.

A light cruiser had come in a couple of days before, H.M. Ganymede. It loomed enormous over the green rolling fields and the distance-blued hills and forests, a lance of bright metal and energy pointed into the clear sky of Ansa, blinding in the sun. A couple of spacemen on sentry at the gangway halted as the car stopped before them.

“This man is going to Commander Jansky.”

“Aye, aye. Proceed.”

Through the massive airlock, down the mirror-polished companionway, into an elevator and up toward the bridge⁠—Donovan looked about him with a professional eye. The Impies kept a clean, tight ship, he had to admit.

He wondered if he would be shot or merely imprisoned. He doubted if he’d committed an enslaving offense. Well, it had been fun, and there hadn’t been a hell of a lot to live for anyway. Maybe his friends could spring him, if and when they got some kind of underground organized.

He was ushered into the captain’s cabin. The ensign with him saluted. “Donovan as per orders, ma’m.”

“Very good. But why is he in irons?”

“Resisted orders, ma’m. Started a riot. Bloody business.”

“I⁠—see.” She nodded her dark head. “Losses?”

“I don’t know, ma’m, but we had several wounded at least. A couple of Ansans were killed, I think.”

“Well, leave him here. You may go.”

“But⁠—ma’m, he’s dangerous!”

“I have a gun, and there’s a man just outside the door. You may go, ensign.”

Donovan swayed a little on his feet, trying to pull himself erect, wishing he weren’t so dirty and bloody and generally messed up. You look like a tramp, man, he thought. Keep up appearances. Don’t let them outdo us, even in spit and polish.

“Sit down, Captain Donovan,” said the woman.

He lowered himself to a chair, raking her with deliberately insolent eyes. She was young to be wearing a commander’s twin planets⁠—young and trim and nice looking. Tall body, sturdy but graceful, well filled out in the blue uniform and red cloak; raven-black hair falling to her shoulders; strong blunt-fingered hands, one of them resting close to her sidearm. Her face was interesting, broad and cleanly molded, high cheekbones, wide full mouth, stubborn chin, snub nose, storm-gray eyes set far apart under heavy dark brows. A superior peasant type, he decided, and felt more at ease in the armor of his inbred haughtiness. He leaned back and crossed his legs.

“I am Helena Jansky, in command of this vessel,” she said. Her voice was low and resonant, the note of strength in it. “I need you for a certain purpose. Why did you resist the Imperial summons?”

Donovan shrugged. “Let’s say that I’m used to giving orders, not receiving them.”

“Ah⁠—yes.” She ruffled the papers on her desk. “You were the Earl of Lanstead, weren’t you?”

“After my father and older brother were killed in the war, yes.” He lifted his head. “I am still the Earl.”

She studied him with a dispassionate gaze that he found strangely uncomfortable. “I must say that you are a curious sort of leader,” she murmured. “One who spends his time in a tavern getting drunk, and who on a whim provokes a disorder in which many of his innocent followers are hurt or killed, in which property difficult to replace is smashed⁠—yes, I think it was about time that Ansa had a change of leadership.”

Donovan’s face was hot. Hell take it, what right had she to tell him what to do? What right had the whole damned Empire to come barging in where it wasn’t wanted? “The Families, under the king, have governed Ansa since it was colonized,” he said stiffly. “If it had been such a misrule as you seem to think, would the commons have fought for us as they did?”

II

Again that thoughtful stare. She saw a tall young man, badly disarrayed, blood and dirt streaking his long, thin-carved, curve-nosed features, an old scar jagging across his high narrow forehead. The hair was yellow, the eyes were blue, the whole look that of an old and settled aristocracy. His bitter voice lashed at her: “We ruled Ansa well because we were part of it, we grew up with the planet and we understood our folk and men were free under us. That’s something which no upstart Solar Empire can have, not for centuries, not ever to judge by the stock they use for nobility. When peasants command spaceships⁠—”

Her face grew a little pale, but she smiled and replied evenly, “I am the Lady Jansky of Torgandale on Valor⁠—Sirius A IV⁠—and you are now a commoner. Please remember that.”

“All the papers in the Galaxy won’t change the fact that your grandfather was a dirt farmer on Valor.”

“He was an atomjack, and I’m proud of it. I suggest further that an aristocrat who has nothing to trade on but his pedigree is very ragged indeed. Now, enough of that.” Her crisp tones snapped forth. “You’ve committed a serious offense, especially since this is still occupied territory. If you wish to cooperate with me, I can arrange for a pardon⁠—also for your brawling friends. If not, the whole bunch of you can go to the mines.”

Donovan shook his head, trying to clear it of alcohol and weariness and the ringing left by the parabeam. “Go on,” he said, a little thickly. “I’ll listen, anyway.”

“What do you know of the Black Nebula?”

She must have seen his muscles jerk. For an instant he sat fighting himself, grasping at rigidity with all the strength that was in him, and the memory was a blaze and a shout and a stab of pure fear.

Valduma, Valduma!

The sudden thudding of his heart was loud in his ears, and he could feel the fine beads of sweat starting forth on his skin. He made a wrenching effort and pulled his mouth into a lopsided grin, but his voice wavered: “Which black nebula? There are a lot of them.”

“Don’t try to bait me.” Her eyes were narrowed on him, and the fingers of one hand drummed the desktop. “You know I mean the Black Nebula. Nobody in this Galactic sector speaks of any other.”

“Why⁠—well⁠—” Donovan lowered his face to hide it till he could stiffen the mask, rubbing his temples with manacled hands. “It’s just a nebula. A roughly spherical dustcloud, maybe a light-year in diameter, about ten parsecs from Ansa toward Sagittari. A few colonized stars on its fringes, nothing inside it as far as anyone knows. It has a bad name for some reason. The superstitious say it’s haunted, and you hear stories of ships disappearing⁠—Well, it gets a pretty wide berth. Not much out there anyway.”

His mind was racing, he thought he could almost hear it click and whirr as it spewed forth idea after idea, memory after memory. Valduma and the blackness and they who laughed. The Nebula is pure poison, and now the Empire is getting interested. By God, it might poison them! Only would it stop there? This time they might decide to go on, to come out of the blackness.

Jansky’s voice seemed to come from very far away: “You know more than that, Donovan. Intelligence has been sifting Ansan records. You were the farthest-ranging space raider your planet had, and you had a base on Heim, at the very edge of the Nebula. Among your reports, there is an account of your men’s unease, of the disappearance of small ships which cut through the Nebula on their missions, of ghostly things seen aboard other vessels and men who went mad. Your last report on the subject says that you investigated personally, that most of your crew went more or less crazy while in the Nebula, and that you barely got free. You recommend the abandonment of Heim and the suspension of operations in that territory. This was done, the region being of no great strategic importance anyway.

“Very well.” The voice held a whipcrack undertone. “What do you know about the Black Nebula?”

Donovan had fought his way back to impassivity. “You have about the whole story already,” he said. “There were all sorts of illusions as we penetrated, whisperings and glimpses of impossible things and so on. It didn’t affect me much, but it drove many toward insanity and some died. There was also very real and unexplainable trouble⁠—engines, lights, and so on. My guess is that there’s some sort of radiation in the Nebula which makes atoms and electrons misbehave; that’d affect the human nervous system too, of course. If you’re thinking of entering it yourself, my only advice is⁠—don’t.”

“Hm.” She cupped her chin in one hand and looked down at the papers. “Frankly, we know very little about this Galactic sector. Very few Terrans were ever here before the war, and previous intercourse on your part with Sol was even slighter. However, Intelligence has learned that the natives of almost every inhabited planet on the fringes of the Nebula worship it or at least regard it as the home of the gods.”

“Well, it is a conspicuous object in their skies,” said Donovan. He added truthfully enough: “I only know about Heim, where the native religion in the area of our base was a sort of devil-worship centered around the Nebula. They made big sacrifices⁠—foodstuffs, furs, tools, every conceivable item of use or luxury⁠—which they claimed the devil-gods came and took. Some of the colonists thought there was something behind the legends, but I have my doubts.” He shrugged. “Will that do?”

“For the time being.” Jansky smiled with a certain bleak humor. “You can write a detailed report later on, and I strongly advise you not to mislead me. Because you’re going there with us.”

Donovan accepted the news coldly, but he thought the knocking of his heart must shake his whole body. His hands felt chilly and wet. “As you wish. Though what I can do⁠—”

“You’ve been there before and know what to expect. Furthermore, you know the astrogation of that region; our charts are worse than sketchy, and even the Ansan tables have too many blank spots.”

“Well⁠—” Donovan got the words out slowly. “If I don’t have to enlist. I will not take an oath to your Emperor.”

“You needn’t. Your status will be that of a civilian under Imperial command, directly responsible to me. You will have a cabin of your own, but no compensation except the abandonment of criminal proceedings against you.” Jansky relaxed and her voice grew gentler. “However, if you serve well I’ll see what I can do about pay. I daresay you could use some extra money.”

“Thank you,” said Donovan formally. He entered the first phase of the inchoate plan which was taking cloudy shape in his hammering brain: “May I have my personal slave with me? He’s nonhuman, but he can eat Terran food.”

Jansky smiled. There was sudden warmth in that smile, it made her human and beautiful. “As you wish if he doesn’t have fleas. I’ll write you an order for his embarkation.”

She’d hit the ceiling when she found what kind of passenger she’d agreed to, thought Donovan. But by then it would be too late. And, with Wocha to help me, and the ship blundering blind into the Nebula⁠—Valduma, Valduma, I’m coming back! And this time will you kiss me or kill me?


The Ganymede lifted gravs and put the Ansa sun behind her. Much farther behind was Sol, an insignificant mote fifty light-years away, lost in the thronging glory of stars. Ahead lay Sagittari, Galactic center and the Black Nebula.

Space burned and blazed with a million bitter-bright suns, keen cold unwinking flames strewn across the utter dark of space, flashing and flashing over the hollow gulf of the leagues and the years. The Milky Way foamed in curdled silver around that enormous night, a shining girdle jeweled with the constellations. Far and far away wheeled the mysterious green and blue-white of the other galaxies, sparks of a guttering fire with a reeling immensity between. Looking toward the bows, one saw the great star-clusters of Sagittari, the thronging host of suns burning and thundering at the heart of the Galaxy. And what have we done? thought Basil Donovan. What is man and all his proud achievements? Our home star is a dwarf on the lonely fringe of the Galaxy, out where the stars thin away toward the great emptiness. We’ve ranged maybe two hundred light-years from it in all directions and it’s thirty thousand to the Center! Night and mystery and nameless immensities around us, our day of glory the briefest flicker on the edge of nowhere, then oblivion forever⁠—and we won’t be forgotten, because we’ll never have been noticed. The Black Nebula is only the least and outermost of the great clouds which thicken toward the Center and hide its ultimate heart from us, it is nothing even as we, and yet it holds a power older than the human race and a terror that may whelm it.

He felt again the old quailing funk, fear crawled along his spine and will drained out of his soul. He wanted to run, escape, huddle under the sky of Ansa to hide from the naked blaze of the universe, live out his day and forget that he had seen the scornful face of God. But there was no turning back, not now, the ship was already outpacing light on her secondary drive and he was half a prisoner aboard. He squared his shoulders and walked away from the viewplate, back toward his cabin.

Wocha was sprawled on a heap of blankets, covering the floor with his bulk. He was turning the brightly colored pages of a child’s picture book. “Boss,” he asked, “when do we kill ’em?”

“The Impies? Not yet, Wocha. Maybe not at all.” Donovan stepped over the monster and lay down on his bunk, hands behind his head. He could feel the thrum of the driving engines, quivering in the ship and his bones. “The Nebula may do that for us.”

“We go back there?” Wocha stirred uneasily. “I don’t like, boss. It’s toombar. Bad.”

“Yeah, so it is.”

“Better we stay home. Manor needs repair. Peasants need our help. I need beer.”

“So do I. I’ll see if we can’t promote some from the quartermaster. Old John can look after the estate while we’re away, and the peasants will just have to look after themselves. Maybe it’s time they learned how.” At a knock on the door: “Come in.”

Tetsuo Takahashi, the ship’s exec, brought his small sturdy form around Wocha and sat down on the edge of the bunk. “Your slave has the Old Lady hopping mad,” he grinned. “He’ll eat six times a man’s ration.”

“And drink it.” Donovan smiled back; he couldn’t help liking the cocky little Terran. Then, with a sudden renewed bitterness: “And he’s worth it. I couldn’t be without him. He may not be so terribly bright, but he’s my only proof that loyalty and decency aren’t extinct.”

Takahashi gave him a puzzled look. “Why do you hate us so much?” he asked.

“You came in where you weren’t asked. Ansa was free, and now it’s just another province of your damned Empire.”

“Maybe so. But you were a backwater, an underpopulated agricultural planet which nobody had ever heard of, exposed to barbarian raids and perhaps to nonhuman conquest. You’re safe now, and you’re part of a great social-economic system which can do more than all those squabbling little kingdoms and republics and theocracies and God knows what else put together could ever dream of.”

“Who said we wanted to be safe? Our ancestors came to Ansa to be free. We fought Shalmu when the greenies wanted to take what we’d built, and then we made friends with them. We had elbow room and a way of life that was our own. Now you’ll bring in your surplus population to fill our green lands with yelling cities and squalling people. You’ll tear down the culture we evolved so painfully and make us just another bunch of kowtowing Imperial citizens.”

“Frankly, Donovan, I don’t think it was much of a culture. It sat in its comfortable rut and admired the achievements of its ancestors. What did your precious Families do but hunt and loaf and throw big parties? Maybe they did fulfill a magisterial function⁠—so what? Any elected yut could do the same in that simple a society.” Takahashi fixed his eyes on Donovan’s. “But rights and wrongs aside, the Empire had to annex Ansa, and when you wouldn’t come in peaceably you had to be dragged in.”

“Yeah. A dumping ground for people who were too stupid not to control their own breeding.”

“Your Ansan peasants, my friend, have about twice the Terran birth rate. It’s merely that there are more Terrans to start with⁠—and Sirians and Centaurians and all the old settled planets. No, it was more than that. It was a question of military necessity.”

“Uh-huh. Sure.”

“Read your history sometime. When the Commonwealth broke up in civil wars two hundred years ago it was hell between the stars. Half savage peoples who never should have left their planets had learned how to build spaceships and were going out to raid and conquer. A dozen would-be overlords scorched whole worlds with their battles. You can’t have anarchy on an interstellar scale. Too many people suffer. Old Manuel I had the guts to proclaim himself Emperor of Sol⁠—no pretty euphemisms for him, an empire was needed and an empire was what he built. He kicked the barbarians out of the Solar System and went on to conquer their home territories and civilize them. That meant he had to subjugate stars closer to home, to protect his lines of communication. This led to further trouble elsewhere. Oh, yes, a lot of it was greed, but the planets which were conquered for their wealth would have been sucked in anyway by sheer economics. The second Argolid carried on, and now his son, Manuel II, is finishing the job. We’ve very nearly attained what we must have⁠—an empire large enough to be socioeconomically self-sufficient and defend itself against all comers, of which there are many, without being too large for control. You should visit the inner Empire sometime, Donovan, and see how many social evils it’s been possible to wipe out because of security and central power. But we need this sector to protect our Sagittarian flank, so we’re taking it. Fifty years from now you’ll be glad we did.”


Donovan looked sourly up at him. “Why are you feeding me that?” he asked. “I’ve heard it before.”

“We’re going to survey a dangerous region, and you’re our guide. The captain and I think there’s more than a new radiation in the Black Nebula. I’d like to think we could trust you.”

“Think so if you wish.”

“We could use a hypnoprobe on you, you know. We’d squeeze your skull dry of everything it contained. But we’d rather spare you that indignity.”

“And you might need me when you get there, and I’d still be only half conscious. Quit playing the great altruist, Takahashi.”

The exec shook his head. “There’s something wrong inside you, Donovan,” he murmured. “You aren’t the man who licked us at Luga.”

“Luga!” Donovan’s eyes flashed. “Were you there?”

“Sure. Destroyer North Africa, just come back from the Zarune front⁠—Cigarette?”

They fell to yarning and passed a pleasant hour. Donovan could not suppress a vague regret when Takahashi left. They aren’t such bad fellows, those Impies. They were brave and honorable enemies, and they’ve been lenient conquerors as such things go. But when we hit the Black Nebula⁠—

He shuddered. “Wocha, get that whiskey out of my trunk.”

“You not going to get drunk again, boss?” The Donarrian’s voice rumbled disappointment.

“I am. And I’m going to try to stay drunk the whole damn voyage. You just don’t know what we’re heading for, Wocha.”

Stranger, go back.

Spaceman, go home. Turn back, adventurer.

It is death. Return, human.

The darkness whispered. Voices ran down the length of the ship, blending with the unending murmur of the drive, urging, commanding, whispering so low that it seemed to be within men’s skulls.

Basil Donovan lay in darkness. His mouth tasted foul, and there was a throb in his temples and a wretchedness in his throat. He lay and listened to the voice which had wakened him.

Go home, wanderer. You will die, your ship will plunge through the hollow dark till the stars grow cold. Turn home, human.

“Boss. I hear them, boss. I’m scared.”

“How long have we been underway? When did we leave Ansa?”

“A week ago, boss, maybe more. You been drunk. Wake up, boss, turn on the light. They’re whispering in the dark, and I’m scared.”

“We must be getting close.”

Return. Go home. First comes madness and then comes death and then comes the spinning outward forever. Turn back, spaceman.

Bodiless whisper out of the thick thrumming dark, sourceless all-pervading susurration, and it mocked, there was the cruel cynical scorn of the outer vastness running up and down the laughing voice. It murmured, it jeered, it ran along nerves with little icy feet and flowed through the brain, it called and gibed and hungered. It warned them to go back, and it knew they wouldn’t and railed its mockery at them for it. Demon whisper, there in the huge cold loneliness, sneering and grinning and waiting.

Donovan sat up and groped for the light switch. “We’re close enough,” he said tonelessly. “We’re in their range now.”

Footsteps racketed in the corridor outside. A sharp rap on his door. “Come in. Come in and enjoy yourself.”

III

Donovan hadn’t found the switch before the door was open and light spilled in from the hallway fluorotubes. Cold white light, a shaft of it picking out Wocha’s monstrous form and throwing grotesque shadows on the walls. Commander Jansky was there, in full uniform, and Ensign Jeanne Scoresby, her aide. The younger girl’s face was white, her eyes enormous, but Jansky wore grimness like an armor.

“All right, Donovan,” she said. “You’ve had your binge, and now the trouble is starting. You didn’t say they were voices.”

“They could be anything,” he answered, climbing out of the bunk and steadying himself with one hand. His head swam a little. The corners of the room were thick with shadow.

Back, spaceman. Turn home, human.

“Delusions?” The man laughed unpleasantly. His face was pale and gaunt, unshaven in the bleak radiance. “When you start going crazy, I imagine you always hear voices.”

There was contempt in the gray eyes that raked him. “Donovan, I put a technician to work on it when the noises began a few hours ago. He recorded them. They’re very faint, and they seem to originate just outside the ear of anyone who hears them, but they’re real enough. Radiations don’t speak in human Anglic with an accent such as I never heard before. Not unless they’re carrier waves for a message. Donovan, who or what is inside the Black Nebula?”

The Ansan’s laugh jarred out again. “Who or what is inside this ship?” he challenged. “Our great human science has no way of making the air vibrate by itself. Maybe there are ghosts, standing invisible just beside us and whispering in our ears.”

“We could detect nothing, no radiations, no energy-fields, nothing but the sounds themselves. I refuse to believe that matter can be set in motion without some kind of physical force being applied.” Jansky clapped a hand to her sidearm. “You know what is waiting for us. You know how they do it.”

“Go ahead. Hypnoprobe me. Lay me out helpless for a week. Or shoot me if you like. You’ll be just as dead whatever you do.”

Her tones were cold and sharp. “Get on your clothes and come up to the bridge.”

He shrugged, picked up his uniform, and began to shuck his pajamas. The women looked away.

Human, go back. You will go mad and die.

Valduma, he thought, with a wrenching deep inside him. Valduma, I’ve returned.

He stepped over to the mirror. The Ansan uniform was a gesture of defiance, and it occurred to him that he should shave if he wore it in front of these Terrans. He ran the electric razor over cheeks and chin, pulled his tunic straight, and turned back. “All right.”

They went out into the hallway. A spaceman went by on some errand. His eyes were strained wide, staring at blankness, and his lips moved. The voices were speaking to him.

“It’s demoralizing the crew,” said Jansky. “It has to stop.”

“Go ahead and stop it,” jeered Donovan. “Aren’t you the representative of the almighty Empire of Sol? Command them in the name of His Majesty to stop.”

“The crew, I mean,” she said impatiently. “They’ve got no business being frightened by a local phenomenon.”

“Any human would be,” answered Donovan. “You are, though you won’t admit it. I am. We can’t help ourselves. It’s instinct.”

“Instinct?” Her clear eyes were a little surprised.

“Sure.” Donovan halted before a viewscreen. Space blazed and roiled against the reaching darkness. “Just look out there. It’s the primeval night, it’s the blind unknown where unimaginable inhuman Powers are abroad. We’re still the old half-ape, crouched over his fire and trembling while the night roars around us. Our lighted, heated, metal-armored ship is still the lonely cave-fire, the hearth with steel and stone laid at the door to keep out the gods. When the Wild Hunt breaks through and shouts at us, we must be frightened, it’s the primitive fear of the dark. It’s part of us.”

She swept on, her cloak a scarlet wing flapping behind her. They took the elevator to the bridge.

Donovan had not watched the Black Nebula grow over the days, swell to a monstrous thing that blotted out half the sky, lightlessness fringed with the cold glory of the stars. Now that the ship was entering its tenuous outer fringes, the heavens on either side were blurring and dimming, and the blackness yawned before. Even the densest nebula is a hard vacuum; but tons upon incredible tons of cosmic dust and gas, reaching planetary and interstellar distances on every hand, will blot out the sky. It was like rushing into an endless, bottomless hole, the ship was falling and falling into the pit of Hell.

“I noticed you never looked bow-wards on the trip,” said Jansky. There was steel in her voice. “Why did you lock yourself in your cabin and drink like a sponge?”

“I was bored,” he replied sullenly.

“You were afraid!” she snapped contemptuously. “You didn’t dare watch the Nebula growing. Something happened the last time you were here which sucked the guts out of you.”

“Didn’t your Intelligence talk to the men who were with me?”

“Yes, of course. None of them would say more than you’ve said. They all wanted us to come here, but blind and unprepared. Well, Mister Donovan, we’re going in!”

The floorplates shook under Wocha’s tread. “You not talk to boss that way,” he rumbled.

“Let be, Wocha,” said Donovan. “It doesn’t matter how she talks.”

He looked ahead, and the old yearning came alive in him, the fear and the memory, but he had not thought that it would shiver with such a strange gladness.

And⁠—who knew? A bargain⁠—

Valduma, come back to me!

Jansky’s gaze on him narrowed, but her voice was suddenly low and puzzled. “You’re smiling,” she whispered.

He turned from the viewscreen and his laugh was ragged. “Maybe I’m looking forward to this visit, Helena.”

“My name,” she said stiffly, “is Commander Jansky.”

“Out there, maybe. But in here there is no rank, no Empire, no mission. We’re all humans, frightened little humans huddling together against the dark.” Donovan’s smile softened. “You know, Helena, you have very beautiful eyes.”

The slow flush crept up her high smooth cheeks. “I want a full report of what happened to you last time,” she said. “Now. Or you go under the probe.”

Wanderer, it is a long way home. Spaceman, spaceman, your sun is very far away.

“Why, certainly.” Donovan leaned against the wall and grinned at her. “Glad to. Only you won’t believe me.”

She made no reply, but folded her arms and waited. The ship trembled with its forward thrust. Sweat beaded the forehead of the watch officer and he glared around him.

“We’re entering the home of all lawlessness,” said Donovan. “The realm of magic, the outlaw world of werebeasts and nightgangers. Can’t you hear the wings outside? These ghosts are only the first sign. We’ll have a plague of witches soon.”

“Get out!” she said.

He shrugged. “All right, Helena. I told you you wouldn’t believe me.” He turned and walked slowly from the bridge.


Outside was starless, lightless, infinite black. The ship crept forward, straining her detectors, groping into the blind dark while her crew went mad.

Spaceman, it is too late. You will never find your way home again. You are dead men on a ghost ship, and you will fall forever into the Night.

“I saw him, Wong, I saw him down in Section Three, tall and thin and black. He laughed at me, and then there wasn’t anything there.”

Sound of great wings beating somewhere outside the hull.

Mother, can I have him? Can I have his skull to play with?

Not yet, child. Soon. Soon.

Wicked rain of laughter and the sound of clawed feet running.

No one went alone. Spacemen First Class Gottfried and Martinez went down a starboard companionway and saw the hooded black form waiting for them. Gottfried pulled out his blaster and fired. The ravening beam sprang backward and consumed him. Martinez lay mumbling in psychobay.

The lights went out. After an hour they flickered back on again, but men had rioted and killed each other in the dark.

Commander Jansky recalled all personal weapons on the grounds that the crew could no longer be trusted with them. The men drew up a petition to get them back. When it was refused, there was muttering of revolt.

Spacemen, you have wandered too far. You have wandered beyond the edge of creation, and now there is only death.

The hours dragged into days. When the ship’s timepieces started disagreeing, time ceased to have meaning.

Basil Donovan sat in his cabin. There was a bottle in his hand, but he tried to go slow. He was waiting.

When the knock came, he leaped from his seat and every nerve tightened up and screamed. He swore at himself. They wouldn’t knock when they came for him. “Go on, enter⁠—” His voice wavered.

Helena Jansky stepped inside, closing the door after her. She had thinned, and there was darkness in her eyes, but she still bore herself erect. Donovan had to salute the stubborn courage that was in her. The unimaginative peasant blood⁠—no, it was more than that, she was as intelligent as he, but there was a deep strength in that tall form, a quiet vitality which had perhaps been bred out of the Families of Ansa. “Sit down,” he invited.

She sighed and ran a hand through her dark hair. “Thanks.”

“Drink?”

“No. Not on duty.”

“And the captain is always on duty. Well, let it go.” Donovan lowered himself to the bunk beside her, resting his feet on Wocha’s columnar leg. The Donarrian muttered and whimpered in his sleep. “What can I do for you?”

Her gaze was steady and grave. “You can tell me the truth.”

“About the Nebula? Why should I? Give me one good reason why an Ansan should care what happens to a Solarian ship.”

“Perhaps only that we’re all human beings here, that those boys have earth and rain and sunlight and wives waiting for them.”

And Valduma⁠—no, she isn’t human. Fire and ice and storming madness, but not human. Too beautiful to be flesh.

“This trip was your idea,” he said defensively.

“Donovan, you wouldn’t have played such a foul trick and made such a weak, self-righteous excuse in the old days.”

He looked away, feeling his cheeks hot. “Well,” he mumbled, “why not turn around, get out of the Nebula if you can, and maybe come back later with a task force?”

“And lead them all into this trap? Our subtronics are out, you know. We can’t send information back, so we’ll just go on and learn a little more and then try to fight our way home.”

His smile was crooked. “I may have been baiting you, Helena. But if I told you everything I know, it wouldn’t help. There isn’t enough.”

Her hand fell strong and urgent on his. “Tell me, then! Tell me anyway.”

“But there is so little. There’s a planet somewhere in the Nebula, and it has inhabitants with powers I don’t begin to understand. But among other things, they can project themselves hyperwise, just like a spaceship, without needing engines to do it. And they have a certain control over matter and energy.”

“The fringe stars⁠—these beings in the Nebula really have been their ‘gods’?”

“Yes. They’ve projected themselves, terrorized the natives for centuries, and carry home the sacrificial materials for their own use. They’re doubtless responsible for all the ships around here that never came home. They don’t like visitors.” Donovan saw her smile, and his own lips twitched. “But they did, I suppose, take some prisoners, to learn our language and anything else they could about us.”

She nodded. “I’d conjectured as much. If you don’t accept theories involving the supernatural, and I don’t, it follows almost necessarily. If a few of them projected themselves aboard and hid somewhere, they could manipulate air molecules from a distance so as to produce the whisperings⁠—” She smiled afresh, but the hollowness was still in her. “When you call it a new sort of ventriloquism, it doesn’t sound nearly so bad, does it?”

Fiercely, the woman turned on him. “And what have you had to do with them? How are you so sure?”

“I⁠—talked with one of them,” he replied slowly. “You might say we struck up a friendship of sorts. But I learned nothing, and the only benefit I got was escaping. I’ve no useful information.” His voice sharpened. “And that’s all I have to say.”

“Well, we’re going on!” Her head lifted pridefully.

Donovan’s smile was a crooked grimace. He took her hand, and it lay unresisting between his fingers. “Helena,” he said, “you’ve been trying to psychoanalyze me this whole trip. Maybe it’s my turn now. You’re not so hard as you tell yourself.”

“I am an officer of the Imperial Navy.” Her haughtiness didn’t quite come off.

“Sure, sure. A hard-shelled career girl. Only you’re also a healthy human being. Down underneath, you want a home and kids and quiet green hills. Don’t lie to yourself, that wouldn’t be fitting to the Lady Jansky of Torgandale, would it? You went into service because it was the thing to do. And you’re just a scared kid, my dear.” Donovan shook his head. “But a very nice-looking kid.”

Tears glimmered on her lashes. “Stop it,” she whispered desperately. “Don’t say it.”

He kissed her, a long slow kiss with her mouth trembling under his and her body shivering ever so faintly. The second time she responded, shy as a child, hardly aware of the sudden hunger.


She pulled free then, sat with eyes wide and wild, one hand lifted to her mouth. “No,” she said, so quietly he could scarce hear. “No, not now⁠—”

Suddenly she got up and almost fled. Donovan sighed.

Why did I do that? To stop her inquiring too closely? Or just because she’s honest and human, and Valduma isn’t? Or⁠—

Darkness swirled before his eyes. Wocha came awake and shrank against the farther wall, terror rattling in his throat. “Boss⁠—boss, she’s here again⁠—”

Donovan sat unstirring, elbows on knees, hands hanging empty, and looked at the two who had come. “Hello, Valduma,” he said.

“Basil⁠—” Her voice sang against him, rippling, lilting, the unending sharp laughter beneath its surprise. “Basil, you have come back.”

“Uh-huh.” He nodded at the other. “You’re Morzach, aren’t you? Sit down. Have a drink. Old home week.”

The creature from Arzun remained erect. He looked human on the outside, tall and gaunt in a black cape which glistened with tiny points of starlight, the hood thrown back so that his red hair fell free to his shoulders. The face was long and thin, chiseled to an ultimate refinement of classical beauty, white and cold. Cold as space-tempered steel, in spite of the smile on the pale lips, in spite of the dark mirth in the slant green eyes. One hand rested on the jeweled hilt of a sword.

Valduma stood beside Morzach for an instant, and Donovan watched her with the old sick wildness rising and clamoring in him.

You are the fairest thing which ever was between the stars, you are ice and flame and living fury, stronger and weaker than man, cruel and sweet as a child a thousand years old, and I love you. But you are not human, Valduma.

She was tall, and her grace was a lithe rippling flow, wind and fire and music made flesh, a burning glory of hair rushing past her black-caped shoulders, hands slim and beautiful, the strange clean-molded face white as polished ivory, the mouth red and laughing, the eyes long and oblique and gold-flecked green. When she spoke, it was like singing in Heaven and laughter in Hell. Donovan looked at her, not moving.

“Basil, you came back to me?”

“He came because he had to.” Morzach of Arzun folded his arms, eyes smoldering in anger. “Best we kill him now.”

“Later, perhaps later, but not now.” Valduma laughed aloud.

Suddenly she was in Donovan’s arms. Her kisses were a rain of fire. There was thunder and darkness and dancing stars. He was aware of nothing else, not for a long, long time.

She leaned back in his grasp, smiling up at him, stroking his hair with one slender hand.

His cheek was bloody where she had scratched him. He looked back into her eyes⁠—they were cat’s eyes, split-pupiled, all gold and emerald without the human white. She laughed very softly. “Shall I kill you now?” she whispered. “Or drive you mad first? Or let you go again? What would be most amusing, Basil?”

“This is no time for your pranks,” said Morzach sharply. “We have to deal with this ship. It’s getting dangerously close to Arzun, and we’ve been unable yet to break the morale and discipline of the crew. I think the only way is to wreck the ship.”

“Wreck it on Arzun, yes!” Valduma’s laughter pulsed and throbbed. “Bring them to their goal. Help them along, even. Oh, yes, Morzach, it is a good thought!”

“We’ll need your help,” said the creature-man to Donovan. “I take it that you’re guiding them. You must encourage them to offer no resistance when we take over the controls. Our powers won’t stand too long against atomic energy.”

“Why should I help you?” Donovan’s tones were hoarse. “What can you give me?”

“If you live,” said Valduma, “and can make your way to Drogobych, I might give you much.” She laughed again, maniac laughter which did not lose its music. “That would be diverting!”

“I don’t know,” he groaned. “I don’t know⁠—I thought a bargain could be made, but now I wonder.”

“I leave him to you,” said Morzach sardonically, and vanished.

“Basil,” whispered Valduma. “Basil, I have⁠—sometimes⁠—missed you.”

“Get out, Wocha,” said Donovan.

“Boss⁠—she’s toombar⁠—”

“Get out!”

Wocha lumbered slowly from the cabin. There were tears in his eyes.

IV

The Ganymede’s engines rose to full power and the pilot controls spun over without a hand on them.

“Engine room! Engine room! Stop that nonsense down there!”

“We can’t⁠—they’re frozen⁠—the converter has gone into full without us⁠—”

“Sir, I can’t budge this stick. It’s locked somehow.”

The lights went out. Men screamed.

“Get me a flashlight!” snapped Takahashi in the dark. “I’ll take this damned panel apart myself.”

The beam etched his features against night. “Who goes?” he cried.

“It’s I.” Jansky appeared in the dim reflected glow. “Never mind, Takahashi. Let the ship have her way.”

“But ma’m, we could crash⁠—”

“I’ve finally gotten Donovan to talk. He says we’re in the grip of some kind of power-beam. They’ll pull us to one of their space stations and then maybe we can negotiate⁠—or fight. Come on, we’ve got to quiet the men.”

The flashlight went out. Takahashi’s laugh was shrill. “Better quiet me first, Captain.”

Her hand was on his arm, steadying, strengthening. “Don’t fail me, Tetsuo. You’re the last one I’ve got. I just had to paralyze Scoresby.”

“Thanks⁠—thanks, chief. I’m all right now. Let’s go.”

They fumbled through blindness. The engines roared, full speed ahead with a ghost on the bridge. Men were stumbling and cursing and screaming in the dark. Someone switched on the battle-stations siren, and its howl was the last voice of insanity.

Struggle in the dark, wrestling, paralyzing the berserk, calling on all the iron will which had lifted humankind to the stars⁠—slow restoration of order, men creeping to general quarters, breathing heavily in the guttering light of paper torches.

The engines cut off and the ship snapped into normal matter state. Helena Jansky saw blood-red sunlight through the viewport. There was no time to sound the alarm before the ship crashed.


“A hundred men. No more than a hundred men alive.”

She wrapped her cloak tight about her against the wind and stood looking across the camp. The streaming firelight touched her face with red, limning it against the utter dark of the night heavens, sheening faintly in the hair that blew wildly around her strong bitter countenance. Beyond, other fires danced and flickered in the gloom, men huddled around them while the cold seeped slowly to their bones. Here and there an injured human moaned.

Across the ragged spine of bare black hills they could still see the molten glow of the wreck. When it hit, the atomic converters had run wild and begun devouring the hull. There had barely been time for the survivors to drag themselves and some of the cripples free, and to put the rocky barrier between them and the mounting radioactivity. During the slow red sunset, they had gathered wood, hewing with knives at the distorted scrub trees reaching above the shale and snow of the valley. Now they sat waiting out the night.

Takahashi shuddered. “God, it’s cold!”

“It’ll get colder,” said Donovan tonelessly. “This is an old planet of an old red dwarf sun. Its rotation has slowed. The nights are long.”

“How do you know?” Lieutenant Elijah Cohen glared at him out of a crudely bandaged face. The firelight made his eyes gleam red. “How do you know unless you’re in with them? Unless you arranged this yourself?”

Wocha reached forth a massive fist. “You shut up,” he rumbled.

“Never mind,” said Donovan. “I just thought some things would be obvious. You saw the star, so you should know it’s the type of a burned-out dwarf. Since planets are formed at an early stage of a star’s evolution, this world must be old too. Look at these rocks⁠—citrified, back when the stellar energy output got really high just before the final collapse; and nevertheless eroded down to bare snags. That takes millions of years.”

He reflected that his reasoning, while sound enough, was based on foreknown conclusions. Cohen’s right. I have betrayed them. It was Valduma, watching over me, who brought Wocha and myself unhurt through the crash. I saw, Valduma, I saw you with your hair flying in the chaos, riding witch-like through sundering ruin, and you were laughing. Laughing! He felt ill.

“Nevertheless, the planet has a thin but breathable atmosphere, frozen water, and vegetable life,” said Takahashi. “Such things don’t survive the final hot stage of a sun without artificial help. This planet has natives. Since we were deliberately crashed here, I daresay the natives are our earlier friends.” He turned dark accusing eyes on the Ansan. “How about it, Donovan?”

“I suppose you’re right,” he answered. “I knew there was a planet in the Nebula, the natives had told me that in my previous trip. This star lies near the center, in a ‘hollow’ region where there isn’t enough dust to force the planet into its primary, and shares a common velocity with the Nebula. It stays here, in other words.”

“You told me⁠—” Helena Jansky bit her lip, then slowly forced the words out: “You told me, and I believed you, that there was nothing immediately to fear when the Nebulites took over our controls. So we didn’t fight them; we didn’t try to overcome their forces with our own engines. And it cost us the ship and over half her crew.”

“I told you what happened to me last time,” he lied steadfastly. “I can’t help it if things were different this trip.”

She turned her back. The wind blew a thin hissing veil of dry snow across her ankles. A wounded man suddenly screamed out there in the dark.

How does it feel, Donovan? You made her trust you and then betrayed her for a thing that isn’t even human. How does it feel to be a Judas?


“Never mind recriminations,” said Takahashi. “This isn’t the time to hold trials. We’ve got to decide what to do.”

“They have a city on this planet,” said Donovan. “Drogobych, they call it, and the planet’s name is Arzun. It lies somewhere near the equator, they told me once. If they meant us to make our own way to it⁠—and it would be like them⁠—then it may well lie due south. We can march that way, assuming that the sun set in the west.”

“Nothing to lose,” shrugged the Terran. “But we haven’t many weapons, a few assorted sidearms is all, and they aren’t much use against these creatures anyway.”

Something howled out in the darkness. The ground quivered, ever so faintly, to the pounding of heavy feet.

“Wild animals yet!” Cohen grinned humorlessly. “Better sound battle stations, Captain.”

“Yes, yes, I suppose so.” She blew her whistle, a thin shrilling in the windy dark. As she turned around, Donovan saw a gleam running along her cheek. Tears?

The noise came closer. They heard the rattle of claws on stone. The Terrans moved together, guns in front, clubs and rocks and bare hands behind. They have guts, thought Donovan. God, but they have guts!

“Food would be scarce on a barren planet like this,” said Ensign Chundra Dass. “We seem to be elected.”

The hollow roar sounded, echoing between the hills and caught up by the thin harrying wind. “Hold fire,” said Helena. Her voice was clear and steady. “Don’t waste charges. Wait⁠—”

The thing leaped out of darkness, a ten-meter length of gaunt scaled body and steel-hard claws and whipping tail, soaring through the snow-streaked air and caught in the vague uneasy firelight. Helena’s blaster crashed, a lightning bolt sizzled against the armored head.

The monster screamed. Its body tumbled shatteringly among the humans, it seized a man in its jaws and shook him and trampled another underfoot. Takahashi stepped forward and shot again at its dripping wound. The blaster bolt zigzagged wildly off the muzzle of his gun.

Even the animals can do it⁠—!

“I’ll get him, boss!” Wocha reared on his hind legs, came down again with a thud, and charged. Stones flew from beneath his feet. The monster’s tail swept out, a man tumbled before it with his ribs caved in, and Wocha staggered as he caught the blow. Still he rushed in, clutching the barbed end of the tail to his breast. The monster writhed, bellowing. Another blaster bolt hit it from the rear. It turned, and a shot at its eyes veered away.

Wocha hit it with all the furious momentum he had. He rammed its spear-like tail down the open jaws and blood spurted. “Ho, Donovan!” he shouted. As the thing screamed and snapped at him, he caught its jaws in his hands.

“Wocha!” yelled Donovan. “Wocha!” He ran wildly toward the fight.

The Donarrian’s great back arched with strain. It was as if they could hear his muscles crack. Slowly, slowly, he forced the jaws wider. The monster lashed its body, pulling him to his knees, dragging him over the ground, and still he fought.

“Damn you,” he roared in the whirling dust and snow, “hold still!”

The jaws broke. And the monster screamed once more, and then it wasn’t there. Wocha tumbled over.

Donovan fell across him, sobbing, laughing, cursing. Wocha picked him up. “You all right, boss?” he asked. “You well?”

“Yes⁠—yes⁠—oh, you blind bloody fool! You stupid, blundering ass!” Donovan hugged him.

“Gone,” said Helena. “It vanished.”

They picked up their dead and wounded and returned to the fires. The cold bit deep. Something else hooted out in the night.

It was a long time before Takahashi spoke. “You might expect it,” he said. “These parapsychical powers don’t come from nowhere. The intelligent race, our enemies of Drogobych, simply have them highly developed; the animals do to a lesser extent. I think it’s a matter of life being linked to the primary atomic probabilities, the psi functions which give the continuous-field distribution of matter-energy in space-time. In a word, control of external matter and energy by conscious will acting through the unified field which is space-time. Telekinesis.”

“Uh-huh,” said Dass wearily. “Even some humans have a slight para power. Control dice or electron beams or what have you. But why aren’t the⁠—what did you call them?⁠—Arzunians overrunning the Galaxy?”

“They can only operate over a certain range, which happens to be about the distance to the fringe stars,” said Donovan. “Beyond that distance, dispersion limits them, plus the fact that differences of potential energy must be made up from their own metabolism. The animals, of course, have very limited range, a few kilometers perhaps. The Arzunians use telekinesis to control matter and energy, and the same subspatial principles as our ships to go faster than light. Only since they aren’t lugging around a lot of hull and passengers and assorted machinery⁠—just themselves and a little air and maybe an armful of sacrificial goods from a fringe planet. They don’t need atomic engines.

“They aren’t interested in conquering the Galaxy. Why should they be? They can get all their needs and luxuries from the peoples to whom they are gods. An old race, very old, decadent if you will. But they don’t like interference.”

Takahashi looked at him sharply. “I glimpsed one of them on the ship,” he said. “He carried a spear.”

“Yeah. Another reason why they aren’t conquerors. They have no sense for mechanics at all. Never had any reason to evolve one when they could manipulate matter directly without more than the simplest tools. They’re probably more intelligent than humans in an all-around way, but they don’t have the type of brain and the concentration needed to learn physics and chemistry. Aren’t interested, either.”

“So, swords against guns⁠—We may have a chance!”

“They can turn your missiles, remember. Guns are little use, you have to distract them so they don’t notice your shot till too late. But they can’t control you. They aren’t telepaths and their type of matter-control is heterodyned by living nerve currents. You could kill one of them with a sword where a gun would most likely kill you.”

“I⁠—see⁠—” Helena looked strangely at him. “You’re becoming very vocal all of a sudden.”

Donovan rubbed his eyes and shivered in the cold. “What of it? You wanted the truth. You’re getting it.”

Why am I telling them? Why am I not just leading them to the slaughter as Valduma wanted? Is it that I can’t stand the thought of Helena being hunted like a beast?

Whose side am I on? he thought wildly.

Takahashi gestured and his voice came eager. “That’s it. That’s it! The ship scattered assorted metal and plastic over twenty hectares as she fell. Safe for us to gather up tomorrow. We can use our blaster flames to shape weapons. Swords, axes, spears. By the Galaxy, we’ll arm ourselves and then we’ll march on Drogobych!”

V

It was a strange little army, thought Donovan, as strange as any the Galaxy had ever seen.

He looked back. The old ruined highway went down a narrow valley between sheer cliffs of eroded black stone reaching up toward the deep purplish heaven. The sun was wheeling westerly, a dull red ember throwing light like clotted blood on the dreariness of rock and ice and gaunt gray trees; a few snowflakes, borne on a thin chill wind, drifted across the path of march. A lonely bird, cruel-beaked and watchful, hovered on great black wings far overhead, waiting for them to die.

The men of the Imperial Solar Navy walked close together. They were haggard and dirty and bearded, clad in such ragged articles as they had been able to salvage, armed with the crudely forged weapons of a vanished age, carrying their sick and wounded on rude litters. Ghost world, ghost army, marching through an echoing windy solitude to its unknown weird⁠—but men’s faces were still brave, and one of them was singing. The sunburst banner of the Empire flapped above them, the one splash of color in the great murky landscape.

Luck had been with them, of a sort. Game animals had appeared in more abundance than one would have thought the region could support, deer-like things which they shot for meat to supplement their iron rations. They had stumbled on the old highway and followed its arrow-straight course southward. Many days and many tumbled hollow ruins of great cities lay behind them, and still they trudged on.

Luck? wondered Donovan. I think it was intentional. I think the Arzunians want us to reach Drogobych.

He heard the scrape of boots on the slanting hillside behind him, and turned around to face Helena. He stopped and smiled. There had been a slow unspoken intimacy growing between them as they worked and struggled together. Not many words, but the eyes of each would often stray to the other, and a hand would brush over a hand as if by accident. Tired and hungry and road-stained, cap set askew on tangled hair, skin reddened by wind and blued with cold, she was still good to look on.

“Why are you walking so far from the road?” she asked.

“Oh serving as outrider, maybe,” he said, resuming his stride. She fell into step beside him. “Up here you get a wider view.”

“Do you think we have much further to go, Basil?”

He shrugged.

“We’d never have come this far without you,” she said, looking down at her scuffed boots. “You and Wocha and Takahashi.”

“Maybe the Empire will send a rescue mission when we don’t come back,” he suggested.

“No doubt they will. But they can’t find one little star in this immensity. Even thermocouples won’t help, the Nebula diffuses radiation too much. And they’d be blundering into the same trap as we.” Helena looked up. “No, Basil, we’ve got to fight our way clear alone.”

There was a long stretch of thicket growing on the hillside. Donovan went along the right of it, cutting off view of the army. “You know,” he said, “you and those boys down there make me feel a lot kinder toward the Empire.”

“Thank you. Thank you. We⁠—” She took his arm. “It’s a question of unifying the human race, ultimately this whole region of stars, and⁠—Oh!

The beasts were suddenly there in front of them, lean black things which snarled with mouths of hunger. One of them circled toward the humans’ flank, the other crouched. Donovan yanked his sword clear.

“Get behind me,” he snapped, turning to face the approaching hunter.

“No⁠—back to back⁠—” Helena’s own blade rasped from its sheath. She lifted a shout for help.

The nearest animal sprang for her throat. She hacked wildly, the blade twisted in her hand and scraped the muzzled face. Jaws clamped on the edged steel and let go with a bloody howl. Donovan swung at the other beast, the blow shuddered home and it screamed and writhed and snapped at his ankles.

Whirling, he turned on the thing which had launched itself at Helena. He hewed, and the animal wasn’t there, his blade rang on naked stone. A weight crashed against his back, he went down and the teeth clamped on his shoulder.

Helena swung. The carnivore raised its head to snarl at her, and she gripped the sword in both hands and stabbed. It threshed wildly, dying, spewing blood over the hillside. The other wounded creature disappeared.

Helena bent over Donovan, held him close, her eyes wild. “Are you hurt? Basil. Oh Basil, are you hurt?”

“No,” he muttered. “The teeth didn’t have time to work through this heavy jacket.” He pulled her head down against his.

“Basil, Basil!”

He rose, still holding her to him. Her arms locked about his neck, and there were tears and laughter in her voice. “Oh, Basil, my darling.”

“Helena,” he murmured. “I love you, Helena.”

“When we get home⁠—I’m due for furlough, I’ll retire instead⁠—your house on Ansa⁠—Oh, Basil, I never thought I could be so glad!”

The massive thunder of feet brought them apart. Wocha burst around the thicket, swinging his giant ax in both hands. “Are you all right, boss?” he roared.

“Yes, yes, we’re all right. A couple of those damned wolf-like things which’ve been plaguing us the whole march. Go on back, Wocha, we’ll join you soon.”

The Donarrian’s ape-face split in a vast grin. “So you take a female, boss?” he cried. “Good, good, we need lots of little Donovans at home!”

“Get on back, you old busybody, and keep that gossiping mouth shut!”

Hours later, Helena returned to the army where it was making camp. Donovan stayed where he was, looking down at the men where they moved about gathering wood and digging fire-pits. The blazes were a note of cheer in the thickening murk.

Helena, he thought. Helena. She’s a fine girl, wonderful girl, she’s what the thinning Family blood and I, myself, need. But why did I do it? Why did I talk that way to her? Just then, in the strain and fear and loneliness, it seemed as if I cared. But I don’t. She’s just another woman. She’s not Valduma.


The Twilight murmured, and he saw the dim sheen of metal beside him. The men of Drogobych were gathering.

They stood tall and godlike in helmet and ring-mail and night-black cloaks, leaning on swords and spears, death-white faces cold with an ancient scorn as they looked down on the human camp. Their eyes were phosphorescent green in the dark.

Donovan nodded, without fear or surprise or anything but a sudden great weariness. He remembered some of them from the days when he had been alone in the bows of the ship with the invaders while his men cowered and rioted and went crazy in the stern sectors. “Hello, Morzach, Uboda, Zegoian, Korstuzan, Davleka,” he said. “Welcome back again.”

Valduma walked out of the blood-hued twilight, and he took her in his arms and held her for a long fierce time. Her kiss was as cruel as a swooping hawk. She bit his lips and he tasted blood warm and salt where she had been. Afterward she turned in the circle of his arm and they faced the silent men of Drogobych.

“You are getting near the city,” said Morzach. His tones were deep, with the chill ringing of struck steel in them. “It is time for the next stage.”

“I thought you saved some of us deliberately,” said Donovan.

Us?” Valduma’s lips caressed his cheek. “Them, Basil, them. You don’t belong there, you are with Arzun and me.”

“You must have projected that game where we could spot it,” went on Donovan, shakily. “You’ve kept us⁠—them⁠—alive and enabled us to march on your city⁠—on the last inhabited city left to your race. You could have hunted them down as you did all the others, made sport of them with wild animals and falling rocks and missiles shooting out of nowhere, but instead you want them for something else. What is it?”

“You should have guessed,” said Morzach. “We want to leave Arzun.”

“Leave it? You can do so any time, by yourselves. You’ve done it for millennia.”

“We can only go to the barbarian fringe stars. Beyond them it is a greater distance to the next suns than we can cross unaided. Yet though we have captured many spaceships and have them intact at Drogobych, we cannot operate them. The principles learned from the humans don’t make sense! When we have tried to pilot them, it has only brought disaster.”

“But why do you want to leave?”

“It is a recent decision, precipitated by your arrival, but it has been considered for a long while. This sun is old, this planet exhausted, and the lives of we few remnants of a great race flicker in a hideous circumscribed drabness. Sooner or later, the humans will fight their way here in strength too great for us. Before then we must be gone.”

“So⁠—” Donovan spoke softly, and the wind whimpered under his voice. “So your plan is to capture this group of spacemen and make them your slaves, to carry you⁠—where?”

“Out. Away.” Valduma’s clear lovely laughter rang in the night. “To seize another planet and build our strength afresh.” She gripped his waist and he saw the white gleam of her teeth out of shadow. “To build a great army of obedient spacegoing warriors⁠—and then out to hunt between the stars!”

“Hunt⁠—”

“Look here.” Morzach edged closer, his eyes a green glow, the vague sheen of naked steel in his hand. “I’ve been polite long enough. You have your chance, to rise above the human scum that spawned you and be one of us. Help us now and you can be with us till you die. Otherwise, we’ll take that crew anyway, and you’ll be hounded across the face of this planet.”

Aye⁠—aye⁠—welcome back, Basil Donovan, welcome back to the old king-race.⁠ ⁠… Come with us, come with us, lead the humans into our ambush and be the lord of stars.⁠ ⁠…

They circled about him, tall and mailed and beautiful in the shadow-light, luring whispering voices, ripple of dark laughter, the hunters playing with their quarry and taming it. Donovan remembered them, remembered the days when he had talked and smiled and drunk and sung with them, the Lucifer-like intoxication of their dancing darting minds, a wildness of magic and mystery and reckless wizard sport, a glory which had taken something from his soul and left an emptiness within him. Morzach, Marovech, Uboda, Zegoian, for a time he had been the consort of the gods.

“Basil.” Valduma laid sharp-nailed fingers in his hair and pulled his lips to hers. “Basil, I want you back.”

He held her close, feeling the lithe savage strength of her, recalling the flame-like beauty and the nights of love such as no human could ever give. His whisper was thick: “You got bored last time and sent me back. How long will I last now?”

“As long as you wish, Basil. Forever and forever.” He knew she lied, and he didn’t care.

“This is what you must do, Donovan,” said Morzach.

He listened with half his mind. It was a question of guiding the army into a narrow cul-de-sac where the Arzunians could perform the delicate short-range work of causing chains to bind around them. For the rest, he was thinking.

They hunt. They intrigue, and they whittle down their last few remnants with fighting among themselves, and they prey on the fringe stars, and they capture living humans to hunt down for sport. They haven’t done anything new for ten thousand years, creativeness has withered from them, and all they will do if they escape the Nebula is carry ruin between the stars. They’re mad.

Yes⁠—a whole society of psychopaths, gone crazy with the long racial dying. That’s the real reason they can’t handle machines, that’s why they don’t think of friendship but only of war, that’s why they carry doom within them.

But I love you, I love you, I love you, O Valduma the fair.

He drew her to him, kissed her with a terrible intensity, and she laughed in the dark. Looking up, he faced the blaze that was Morzach.

“All right,” he said. “I understand. Tomorrow.”

“Aye⁠—good, good, well done!”

“Oh, Basil, Basil!” whispered Valduma. “Come, come away with me, now.”

“No. They’d suspect. I have to go down to them or they’ll come looking for me.”

“Good night, Basil, my darling, my vorza. Until tomorrow!”

He went slowly down the hillside, drawing his shoulders together against the cold, not looking back. Helena rose when he approached her campfire, and the flimmering light made her seem pale and unreal.

“Where have you been, Basil? You look so tired.”

“Just walking around. I’m all right.” He spread his couch of stiff and stinking animal hides. “We’d better turn in, eh?”

But he slept little.

VI

The Highway curved between great looming walls of cragged old rock, a shadow tunnel with the wind yowling far overhead and the sun a disc of blood. Men’s footfalls echoed from the cracked paving blocks to boom hollowly off time-gnawed cliffs and ring faintly in the ice. It was cold, their breath smoked from them and they shivered and cursed and stamped their feet.

Donovan walked beside Helena, who was riding Wocha. His eyes narrowed against the searching wind, looking ahead and around, looking for the side track where the ambush waited. Drogobych was very near.

Something moved up on the ridge, a flapping black thing which was instantly lost to sight. The Arzunians were watching.

There⁠—up ahead⁠—the solitary tree they had spoken of, growing out between age-crumbled fragments of the road. The highway swung west around a pinnacle of rock, but here there was a branch road running straight south into a narrow ravine. All I have to do is suggest we take it. They won’t know till too late that it leads up a blind canyon.

Helena leaned over toward him, so that the long wind-whipped hair blew against his cheek. “Which way should we go?” she asked. One hand rested on his shoulder.

He didn’t slacken his stride, but his voice was low under the whine of bitter air: “To the right, Helena, and on the double. The Arzunians are waiting up the other road, but Drogobych is just beyond that crag.”

“Basil! How do you know⁠—”

Wocha’s long hairy ears cocked attentively, and the little eyes under the heavy bone ridges were suddenly sharp on his master.

“They wanted me to mislead you. I didn’t say anything before for fear they’d be listening, somehow.”

Because I hadn’t decided, he thought grayly. Because Valduma is mad, and I love her.

Helena turned and lifted her arm, voice ringing out to rattle in jeering echoes: “Column right! Forward⁠—charge!”

Wocha broke into a trot, the ground booming and shivering under his huge feet. Donovan paced beside, drawing his sword and swinging it naked in one hand, his eyes turned to the canyon and the rocks above it. The humans fell into a jogging run.

They swept past the ambush road, and suddenly Valduma was on the ridge above them, tall and slim and beautiful, the hair like a blowing flame under her helmet. “Basil!” she screamed. “Basil, you triple traitor⁠—”

The others were there with her, men of Drogobych standing on the heights and howling their fury. They had chains in their hands, and suddenly the air was thick with flying links.

One of them smashed against Donovan and curled itself snakelike around his waist. He dropped his sword and tugged at the cold iron, feeling the breath strained out of him, cursing with the pain of it. Wocha reached down a hand and peeled the chain off, snapping it in two and hurling it back at the Arzunians. It whipped in the air, lashing itself across his face, and he bellowed.

The men of Sol were weltering in a fight with the flying chains, beating them off, stamping the writhing lengths underfoot, yelling as the things cracked against their heads. “Forward!” cried Helena. “Charge⁠—get out of here⁠—forward, Empire!”

A chain whistled viciously for her face. She struck at it with her sword, tangling it on the blade, metal clashing on metal. Takahashi had his blaster out, its few remaining charges thundering to fuse the missiles. Other flames roared at the Arzunians, driving them back, forcing them to drop control of the chains to defend their lives.

“Run! Forward!”

The column shouted and plunged down the highway. Valduma was suddenly before them, her face distorted in fury, stabbing a spear at Donovan’s breast. The man parried the thrust and hewed at her⁠—she was gone, and the Terrans rushed ahead.

The rocks groaned. Donovan saw them shuddering above him, saw the first hail of gravel and heard the huge grinding of strata. “They’re trying to bury us!” he yelled. “We’ve got to get clear!”

Wocha stooped, snatched him up under one arm, and galloped. A boulder whizzed by his head, smashing against the farther wall and spraying him with hot chips of stone. Now the boom of the landslide filled their world, rolling and roaring between the high cliffs. Cracks zigzagged across the worn black heights, the crags shivered and toppled, dust boiled across the road.

“Basil!”

Donovan saw Valduma again, dancing and leaping between the boulders, raising a scream of wrath and laughter. Morzach was there, standing on a jut of rock, watching the hillside fall.

Wocha burst around the sentinel peak. A line of Arzunians stood barring the way to Drogobych, the sunlight flaming off their metal. Wocha dropped Donovan, hefted his ax in both hands, and charged them.

Donovan picked himself up and scrambled in the wake of his slave. Behind him, the Terrans were streaming from the collapsing dale, out over open ground to strike the enemy. The rocks bounded and howled, a man screamed as he was pinned, there were a dozen buried under the landslide.

Wocha hit the Arzunian line. His ax blazed, shearing off an arm, whirling up again to crumple a helmet and cleave the skull beneath. Rearing, he knocked down two of them and trampled them underfoot. A warrior smote at his flank. Helena, gripping one mighty shoulder, engaged him with her free hand, her blade whistling around his ears. They fell away from that pair, and the Terrans attacked them.


Donovan crossed swords with one he knew⁠—Marovech, the laughing half-devil whose words he had so much enjoyed in earlier days. The Arzunian grinned at him across a web of flying steel. His blade stabbed in, past the Ansan’s awkward guard, reaching for his guts. Donovan retreated, abandoning the science he didn’t know for a wild whirling and hacking, his iron battering at the bright weapon before him. Clash and clang of edged metal, leaping and dancing, Marovech’s red hair wild in the rising wind and his eyes alight with laughter.

Donovan felt his backward step halted, he was against the high stone pillar and could not run. He braced his feet and hewed out, a scream of cloven air and outraged steel. Marovech’s sword went spinning from his hand.

It hit the ground and bounced up toward the Arzunian’s clutch. Donovan smote again, and the shock of iron in flesh jarred him where he stood. Marovech fell in a rush of blood.

For an instant Donovan stood swaying over the Arzunian, looking stupidly at the blood on his own hands, hearing the clamor of his heartbeat and sucking a dry gasp into his lungs. Then he picked up the fallen being’s glaive. It was a better weapon.

Turning, he saw that the fight had become a riot, knots of men and un-men snarling and hacking in a craziness of death. No room or time here for wizard stunts, it was blood and bone and nerve against its kind. The Terrans fought without much skill in the use of their archaic equipment but they had the cold courage blended of training and desperation. And they knew better how to cooperate. They battled a way to each other and stood back to back against all comers.

Wocha raged and trampled, smashing with ax and fist and feet and hurled stones, his war-cry bellowing and shuddering in the hills. An Arzunian vanished from in front of him and appeared behind with spear poised. The Donarrian suddenly backed up, catching the assailant and smashing him under his hind feet while he dueled another from the front. Helena’s arm never rested, she swung to right and left, guarding his flanks yelling as her blade drove home.

Donovan shook himself and trotted warily over to where a tide of Arzunians raged about a closely-drawn ring of Impies. The humans were standing firm, driving each charge back in a rush of blood, heaping the dead before them. But now spears were beginning to fall out of the sky, driven by no hand but stabbing for the throats and eyes and bellies of men. Donovan loped for the sharp edge of the hills, where they toppled to the open country in which the fight went on.

He scrambled up a rubbled slope and gripped a thin pinnacle to swing himself higher. She was there.

She stood on a ledge, the heap of spears at her feet, looking down over the battle and chanting as she sent forth the flying death. He noticed even then how her hair was a red glory about the fine white loveliness of her head.

“Valduma,” he whispered, as he struck at her.

She was not there, she sat on a higher ledge and jeered at him. “Come and get me, Basil, darling, darling. Come up here and talk to me!”

He looked at her as Lucifer must have looked back to Heaven. “Let us go,” he said. “Give us a ship and send us home.”

“And have you bring our overlords back in?” She laughed aloud.

“They aren’t so bad, Valduma. The Empire means peace and justice for all races.”

“Who speaks?” Her scorn flamed at him. “You don’t believe that.”

He stood there for a moment. “No,” he whispered. “No, I don’t.”

Stooping, he picked up the sheaf of spears and began to crawl back down the rocks. Valduma cursed him from the heights.

There was a break in the combat around the hard-pressed Terran ring as the Arzunians drew back to pant and glare. Donovan ran through and flung his load clashing at the feet of Takahashi.

“Good work,” said the officer. “We need these things. Here, get into the formation. Here we go again!”

The Arzunians charged in a wedge to gather momentum. Donovan braced himself and lifted his sword. The Terrans in the inner ring slanted their spears between the men of the outer defense. For a very long half minute, they stood waiting.

The enemy hit! Donovan hewed at the nearest, drove the probing sword back and hammered against the guard. Then the whirl of battle swept his antagonist away, someone else was there, he traded blows and the howl of men and metal lifted skyward.

The Terrans had staggered a little from the massive assault, but it spitted itself on the inner pikes and then swords and axes went to work. Ha, clang, through the skull and give it to ’em! Hai, Empire! Ansa, Ansa! Clatter and yell and deep-throated roar, the Arzunians boiling around the Solar line, leaping and howling and whipping out of sight⁠—a habit which saved their lives but blunted their attack, thought Donovan in a moment’s pause.

Wocha smashed the last few who had been standing before him, looked around to the major struggle, and pawed the ground. “Ready, lady?” he rumbled.

“Aye, ready, Wocha. Let’s go!”

The Donarrian backed up to get a long running space. “Hang on tight,” he warned. “Never mind fighting, lady. All right!”

He broke into a trot, a canter, and then a full gallop. The earth trembled under his mass. “Hoooo!” he screamed. “Here we come!”

Helena threw both arms around his corded neck. When they hit it was like a nuclear bomb going off.

In a few seconds of murder, Wocha had strewn the ground with smashed corpses, whirled, and begun cutting his way into the disordered main group of the Arzunians. They didn’t stand before him. Suddenly they were gone, all of them, except for the dead.

Donovan looked over the field. The dead were thick, thick. He estimated that half the little Terran force was slain or out of action. But they must have taken three or four times their number of Arzunians to the Black Planet with them. The stony ground was pooled and steaming with blood. Carrion birds stooped low, screaming.

Helena fell from Wocha’s back into Donovan’s arms. He comforted her wild sobbing, holding her to him and murmuring in her ear and kissing the wet cheeks and lips. “It’s over, dear, it’s over for now. We drove them away.”

She recovered herself in a while and stood up, straightening her torn disarray, the mask of command clamping back over her face. To Takahashi: “How are our casualties?”

He reported. It was much as Donovan had guessed. “But we gave ’em hell for it, didn’t we?”

“How is that?” wondered Cohen. He leaned against Wocha, not showing the pain that jagged through him as they bandaged his wounded foot except by an occasional sharp breath. “They’re more at home with this cutlery than we, and they have those damned parapsych talents too.”

“They’re not quite sane,” replied Donovan tonelessly. “Whether you call it a cultural trait or a madness which has spread to the whole population, they’re a wild bloodthirsty crew, two-legged weasels, and with a superiority complex which wouldn’t have let them be very careful in dealing with us. No discipline, no real plan of action.” He looked south over the rolling moorland. “Those things count. They may know better next time.”

“Next time? Fifty or sixty men can’t defeat a planet, Donovan,” said Takahashi.

“No. Though this is an old dying race, their whole population in the city ahead, and most of it will flee in panic and take no part in any fighting. They aren’t used to victims that fight back. If we can slug our way through to the spaceships they have there⁠—”

Spaceships!” The eyes stared at him, wild with a sudden blaze of hope, men crowding close and leaning on their reddened weapons and raising a babble of voices. “Spaceships, spaceships⁠—home!

“Yeah.” Donovan ran a hand through his yellow hair. The fingers trembled just a bit. “Some ships, the first ones, they merely destroyed by causing the engines to run loose; but others they brought here, I suppose, by inducing the crew to land and parley. Only they killed the crews and can’t handle the machines themselves.”

“If they captured ships,” said Helena slowly, “then they captured weapons too, and even they can squeeze a trigger.”

“Sure. But you didn’t see them shooting at us just now, did you? They used all the charges to hunt or duel. So if we can break through and escape⁠—”

“They could still follow us and wreck our engines,” said Takahashi.

“Not if we take a small ship, as we’d have to anyway, and mount guard over the vital spots. An Arzunian would have to be close at hand and using all his energies to misdirect atomic flows. He could be killed before any mischief was done. I doubt if they’d even try.

“Besides,” went on Donovan, his voice dry and toneless as a lecturing professor’s, “they can only do so much at a time. I don’t know where they get the power for some of their feats, such as leaving this planet’s gravitational well. It can’t be from their own metabolisms, it must be some unknown cosmic energy source. They don’t know how it works themselves, it’s an instinctive ability. But it takes a lot of nervous energy to direct that flow, and I found last time I was here that they have to rest quite a while after some strenuous deed. So if we can get them tired enough⁠—and the fight is likely to wear both sides down⁠—they won’t be able to chase us till we’re out of their range.”

Takahashi looked oddly at him. “You know a lot,” he murmured.

“Yeah, maybe I do.”

“Well, if the city is close as you say, we’d better march right away before our wounds stiffen, and before the natives get a chance to organize.”

“Rig up carrying devices for those too badly hurt to move,” said Helena. “The walking wounded can tote them, and the rest of us form a protective square.”

“Won’t that slow us and handicap us?” asked Donovan.

Her head lifted, the dark hair blowing about her proud features in the thin whimpering wind. “As long as it’s humanly possible we’re going to look after our men. What’s the Imperium for if it can’t protect its own?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I suppose so.”

Donovan slouched off to join the salvaging party that was stripping the fallen Arzunians of arms and armor for Terran use. He rolled over a corpse to unbuckle the helmet and looked at the blood-masked face of Korstuzan who had been his friend once, very long ago. He closed the staring eyes, and his own were blind with tears.

Wocha came to join him. The Donarrian didn’t seem to notice the gashes in his hide, but he was equipped with a shield now and had a couple of extra swords slung from his shoulders. “You got a good lady, boss,” he said. “She fights hard. She will bear you strong sons.”

“Uh-huh.”

Valduma could never bear my children. Different species can’t breed. And she is the outlaw darkness, the last despairing return to primeval chaos, she is the enemy of all which is honest and good. But she is very fair.

Slowly, the humans reformed their army, a tight ring about their wounded, and set off down the road. The dim sun wheeled horizonward.

VII

Drogobych lay before them.

The city stood on the open gray moor, and it had once been large. But its outer structures were long crumbled to ruin, heaps and shards of stone riven by ages of frost, fallen and coveted by the creeping dust. Here and there a squared monolith remained like the last snag in a rotted jaw, dark against the windy sky. It was quiet. Nothing stirred in all the sweeping immensity of hill and moor and ruin and loneliness.

Helena pointed from her seat on Wocha, and a lilt of hope was eager in the tired voice: “See⁠—a ship⁠—ahead there!”

They stared, and someone raised a ragged cheer. Over the black square-built houses of the inner city they could make out the metal nose of a freighter. Takahashi squinted. “It’s Denebian, I think,” he said. “Looks as if man isn’t the only race which has suffered from these scum.”

“All right, boys,” said Helena. “Let’s go in and get it.”

They went down a long empty avenue which ran spear-straight for the center. The porticoed houses gaped with wells of blackness at their passage, looming in cracked and crazily leaning massiveness on either side, throwing back the hollow slam of their boots. Donovan heard the uneasy mutter of voices to his rear: “Don’t like this place.⁠ ⁠… Haunted.⁠ ⁠… They could be waiting anywhere for us.⁠ ⁠…

The wind blew a whirl of snow across their path.

Basil. Basil, my dear.

Donovan’s head jerked around, and he felt his throat tighten. Nothing. No movement, no sound, emptiness.

Basil, I am calling you. No one else can hear.

Why are you with these creatures, Basil? Why are you marching with the oppressors of your planet? We could free Ansa, Basil, given time to raise our armies. We could sweep the Terrans before us and hound them down the ways of night. And yet you march against us.

“Valduma,” he whispered.

Basil, you were very dear to me. You were something new and strong and of the future, come to our weary old world, and I think I loved you.

I could still love you, Basil. I could hold you forever, if you would let me.

“Valduma⁠—have done!”

A mocking ripple of laughter, sweet as rain in springtime, the gallantry of a race which was old and sick and doomed and could still know mirth. Donovan shook his head and stared rigidly before him. It was as if he had laid hands on that piece of his soul which had been lost, and she was trying to wrench it from him again. Only he wanted her to win.

Go home, Basil. Go home with this female of yours. Breed your cubs, fill the house with brats, and try to think your little round of days means something. Strut about under the blue skies, growing fat and gray, bragging of what a great fellow you used to be and disapproving of the younger generation. As you like, Basil. But don’t go out to space again. Don’t look at the naked stars. You won’t dare.

“No,” he whispered.

She laughed, a harsh bell of mockery ringing in his brain. You could have been a god⁠—or a devil. But you would rather be a potbellied Imperial magistrate. Go home, Basil Donovan, take your female home, and when you are wakened at night by her⁠—shall we say her breathing?⁠—do not remember me.

The Terrans slogged on down the street, filthy with dust and grease and blood, uncouth shamblers, apes in the somber ruin of the gods. Donovan thought he had a glimpse of Valduma standing on a rooftop, the clean lithe fire of her, silken flame of her hair and the green unhuman eyes which had lighted in the dark at his side. She had been a living blaze, an unending trumpet and challenge, and when she broke with him it had been quick and clean, no soddenness of age and custom and⁠—and, damn it, all the little things which made humanness.

All right, Valduma. We’re monkeys. We’re noisy and self-important, compromisers and trimmers and petty cheats, we huddle away from the greatness we could have, our edifices are laid brick by brick with endless futile squabbling over each one⁠—and yet, Valduma, there is something in man which you don’t have. There’s something by which these men have fought their way through everything you could loose on them, helping each other, going forward under a ridiculous rag of colored cloth and singing as they went.

Fine words, added his mind. Too bad you don’t really believe them.

He grew aware of Helena’s anxious eyes on him. “What’s the matter, darling?” she asked gently. “You look ill.”

“Tired,” he said. “But we can’t have so very far to go now⁠—”

Look out!

Whirling, he saw the pillars of the house to the right buckle, saw the huge stone slabs of the roof come thundering over the top and streetward. For a blinding instant he saw Valduma, riding the slab down, yelling and laughing, and then she was gone and the stone struck.

They were already running, dropping their burden of the hurt and fleeing for safety. Another house groaned and rumbled. The ground shook, flying shards stung Donovan’s back, echoes rolled down the ways of Drogobych. Someone was screaming, far and faint under the grinding racket.

“Forward. Forward!” Helena’s voice whipped back to him, she led the rush while the city thundered about her. Then a veil of rising dust blotted her out, he groped ahead, stumbling over fallen pillars and cornices, hearing the boom around him, running and running.

Valduma laughed, a red flame through the whirling dust. Her spear gleamed for his breast, he grabbed it with one hand and hacked at her with his sword. She was gone, and he raced ahead, not stopping to think, not daring.

They came out on a great open plaza. Once there had been a park here, and carved fountains, but nothing remained save a few leafless trees and broken pieces. And the spaceships.


The spaceships, a loom of metal against the dark stone beyond, half a dozen standing there and waiting⁠—spaceships, spaceships, the most beautiful sight in the cosmos! Helena and Wocha were halted near a small fast Comet-class scoutboat. The surviving Terrans ran toward them. Few, thought Donovan sickly, few⁠—perhaps a score left, bleeding from the cuts of flying stone, gray with dust and fear. The city had been a trap.

“Come on!” yelled the woman. “Over here and off this planet!”

The men of Drogobych were suddenly there, a ring about the ship and another about the whole plaza, crouched with their weapons and their cat’s eyes aflame. A score of hurt starvelings and half a thousand un-men.

A trumpet blew its high note into the dusking heavens. The Arzunians rested arms, expressionless. Donovan and the other humans continued their pace, forming a battle square.

Morzach stood forth in front of the scoutship. “You have no further chance to escape,” he called. “But we want your services, not your lives, and the service will be well rewarded. Lay down your weapons.”

Wocha’s arm straightened. His ax flew like a thunderbolt, and Morzach’s head burst open. The Donarrian roared and went against the enemy line.

They edged away, fearfully, and the Terrans followed him in a trotting wedge. Donovan moved up on Wocha’s right side, sword hammering at the thrusts for his ribs.

An Arzunian yelled an order which must have meant “Stop them!” Donovan saw the outer line break into a run, converging on the knot of struggle. No flying spears this time, he reflected in a moment’s bleak satisfaction⁠—tearing down those walls must have exhausted most of their directing energies.

A native rushed at him, sword whistling from behind a black shield. Donovan caught the blow on his own plundered scute, feeling it ring in the bones of his arm, and hewed back. His blade screamed close to the white teeth-bared face, and he called a panting salutation: “Try again, Davleka!”

“I will!”

The blows rained on his shield, sang viciously low to cut at his legs, clattering and clanging, whistle of air and howl of iron under the westering sun. He backed up against Wocha’s side, where the Donarrian and the woman smote against the airlock’s defenders, and braced himself and struck out.

Davleka snarled and hacked at Donovan’s spread leg. The Ansan’s glaive snaked forth against his unshielded neck. Davleka’s sword clashed to earth and he sprawled against the human. Raising his bloody face, he drew a knife, lifted it, and tried to thrust upward. Donovan, already crossing blades with Uboda, stamped on his hand. Davleka grinned, a rueful crooked grin through the streaming blood, and died.

Uboda pressed close, working up against Donovan’s shield. He had none himself, but there was a dirk in his left hand. His sword locked with Donovan’s, strained it aside, and his knife clattered swiftly for an opening.

Helena turned about and struck from her seat. Uboda’s head rolled against Donovan’s shield and left a red splash down it. The man retched.

Wocha, swinging one of his swords, pushed ahead into the Arzunians, crowding them aside by his sheer mass, beating down a guard and the helmet or armor beyond it. “Clear!” he bellowed. “I got the way clear, lady!”

Helena sprang to the ground and into the lock. “Takahashi, Cohen, Basil, Wang-ki, come in and help me start the engines. The rest of you hold them off. Don’t give them time to exert what collective para power they have left and ruin something. Make them think!”

“Think about their lives, huh?” Wocha squared off in front of the airlock and raised his sword. “All right, boys, here they come. Let ’em have what they want.”

Donovan halted in the airlock. Valduma was there, her fiery head whirling in the rush of black-clad warriors. He leaned over and grabbed a spaceman’s arm. “Ben Ali, go in and help start this crate. I have to stay here.”

“But⁠—”

Donovan shoved him in, stood beside Takahashi, and braced himself to meet the Arzunian charge.

They rushed in, knowing that they had to kill the humans before there was an escape, swinging their weapons and howling. The shock of the assault threw men back, pressed them to the ship and jammed weapons close to breasts. The Terrans cursed and began to use fists and feet, clearing a space to fight in.

Donovan’s sword clashed against a shield, drove off another blade, stabbed for a face, and then it was all lost in the crazed maelstrom, hack and thrust and take the blows they give, hew, sword, hew!

They raged against Wocha, careless now of their lives, thundering blows against his shield, slashing and stabbing and using their last wizard strength to fill the air with blades. He roared and stood his ground, the sword leaped in his hand, metal clove in thunder. The shield was crumpled, falling apart⁠—he tossed it with rib-cracking force against the nearest Arzunian. His nicked and blunted sword burst against a helmet, and he drew the other.

The ship trembled, thutter of engines warming up, the eager promise of sky and stars and green Terra again. “Get in!” bawled Donovan. “Get in! We’ll hold them!”

He stood by Wocha as the last crewmen entered, stood barring the airlock with a wall of blood and iron. Through a blurring vision, he saw Valduma approach.

She smiled at him, one slim hand running through the copper hair, the other held out in sign of peace. Tall and gracious and lovely beyond his knowing, she moved up toward Donovan, and her clear voice rang in his darkening mind.

Basil⁠—you, at least, could stay. You could guide us out to the stars.

“You go away,” groaned Wocha.

The devil’s rage flamed in her face. She yelled, and a lance whistled from the sky and buried itself in the great breast.

“Wocha!” yelled Donovan.

The Donarrian snarled and snapped off the shaft that stood between his ribs. He whirled it over his head, and Valduma’s green eyes widened in fear.

“Donovan!” roared Wocha, and let it fly.

It smashed home, and the Ansan dropped his sword and swayed on his feet. He couldn’t look on the broken thing which had been Valduma.

“Boss, you go home now.”

Wocha laid him in the airlock and slammed the outer valve shut. Turning, he faced the Arzunians. He couldn’t see very well⁠—one eye was gone, and there was a ragged darkness before the other. The sword felt heavy in his hand. But⁠—

“Hooo!” he roared and charged them.

He spitted one and trampled another and tossed a third into the air. Whirling, he clove a head and smashed a rib-case with his fist and chopped another across. His sword broke, and he grabbed two Arzunians and cracked their skulls together.

They ran, then, turned and fled from him. And he stood watching them go and laughed. His laughter filled the city, rolling from its walls, drowning the whistle of the ship’s takeoff and bringing blood to his lips. He wiped his mouth with the back of one hand, spat, and lay down.

“We’re clear, Basil.” Helena clung to him, shivering in his arms, and he didn’t know if it was a laugh or a sob in her throat. “We’re away, safe, we’ll carry word back to Sol and they’ll clear the Black Nebula for good.”

“Yeah.” He rubbed his eyes. “Though I doubt the Navy will find anything. If those Arzunians have any sense, they’ll project to various fringe planets, scatter, and try to pass as harmless humanoids. But it doesn’t matter, I suppose. Their power is broken.”

“And we’ll go back to your home, Basil, and bring Ansa and Terra together and have a dozen children and⁠—”

He nodded. “Sure. Sure.”

But he wouldn’t forget. In the winter nights, when the stars were sharp and cold in a sky of ringing crystal black, he would⁠—go out and watch them? Or pull his roof over him and wait for dawn? He didn’t know yet.

Still⁠—even if this was a long ways from being the best of all possible universes, it had enough in it to make a man glad of his day.

He whistled softly, feeling the words run through his head:

Lift your glasses high,
kiss the girls goodbye,
(Live well, my friend, live well, live you well)
for we’re riding,
for we’re riding
for we’re riding out to Terran sky! Terran sky! Terran sky!

The thought came all at once that it could be a song of comradeship, too.

Captive of the Centaurianess

The hero is the child of his times, in that his milieu furnishes him with motives and means, and yet the hero seizes the time and shapes it as he will. And he remains an enigma to his contemporaries and to the future.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the strange story of the three whose discoveries and achievements determined the whole course of history. The driving idealism and bold military genius of Dyann Korlas; the mighty wisdom, profound and benign, of Urushkidan; above all, perhaps, the transcendent clarity of mind and inspired leadership of Ballantyne⁠—these molded our century and all centuries to come, and yet we will never understand them, they are too far beyond us and their essential selves must be forever a mystery.

Vallabbhai Rasmussen, History of the Twenty-Third Century, v. 1

I

The tender loomed above the crowd of passengers and leave-takers, a great shining bullet caught in floodlights against the dark, and Ray Ballantyne quickened his steps. By Heaven, he’d made it! The flight from San Francisco to Quito, the nail-biting dawdle as he waited for the airbus, then the flight out to Ecuador Spaceport, the last walk through the vast echoing hollowness of the terminal, out onto the field⁠—and there it was, there the little darling lay, waiting to carry him from Earth up to the Jovian Queen and safety.

He kissed his fingers at the tender and shoved rudely through the swarm of people and Martians. He’d already missed the first trip up to the liner, and the thought of waiting for the third was beyond endurance.

“Hey, chum.”

As the heavy hand fell on his arm, Ballantyne whirled, his heart slamming against his teeth and his spine dropping out. The thickset man compared his thin sharp features with the photograph in the other paw, nodded, and said, “All right, Ballantyne, come along.”

Se llama Garcia!” gibbered the engineer. “No hablo Inglés.

“I said come along,” said the detective wearily. “I thought you’d try to leave Earth. This way.”

Ballantyne’s free hand reached up and crammed the fellow’s hat down over his eyes. Wrenching loose, he turned and ran for the gangway, upsetting a corpulent Latin woman en route and pursued by a volley of imprecations. He shoved aside the passenger before him and ran into the solid wall of an impassive Jovian ship’s officer.

The Jovian, a tall muscular blond in a dazzling crispness of white uniform, looked at him with the thinly veiled contempt of a proper Confed for the lesser breeds of humanity. “Ticket and passport, please,” he said stonily.

Ballantyne shoved them at him, glancing shakily back to the detective who had become entangled with the indignant woman and was being slapped with a handbag and volubly cursed. With maddening deliberation the Jovian scanned the engineer’s papers, compared them with a list in his hand, and waved him on.

The detective caromed against the same immovable barrier. “Let me by!” he gasped.

“Your ticket and passport, please,” said the Jovian.

“That man is under arrest. Let me by.”

“Your ticket and passport, please.”

“I tell you I’m an officer of the law and I have a warrant for that man. Let me by.”

“Proper authorization may be obtained at the main office,” said the Jovian coldly.

The detective tried to rush, encountered a bit of expert judo, and tumbled back into the crowd. Every able-bodied Jovian was a well-trained military reservist.

“Proper authorization may be obtained at the main office,” repeated the immovable barrier. To the next man, “Your ticket and passport, please.”

Ray Ballantyne dashed the sweat off his brow and permitted himself a nasty chuckle. By the time the hapless detective had gone through all that red tape, the tender would be well on its way.

Before one of his country’s secret police the Jovian would have quailed and said nothing. But this was Earth, and the Confeds loved to bait Terrestrials, and there was no better way than by demanding the endless papers which their file-clerk mentalities had devised.

The engineer went on into the tender, found a seat, and strapped himself in. He was clear. Before Heaven, he was away!

Even the long Vanbrugh arm did not reach to Jupiter. Ballantyne’s alleged crimes weren’t enough for the Earth government to ask his extradition. He could stay on Ganymede till the whole business had blown over, and then⁠—well⁠—

He sighed, relaxing⁠—a medium-sized young man, slender and wiry, with close-cropped yellow hair and features a little too sharp to be handsome. His thin deft fingers rearranged his overly colorful tie and straightened his sports jacket. Always wanted to see the Jovian System, anyway, he rationalized.

The tender’s airlock sighed shut and a stewardess went down the aisle handing out anti-acceleration pills. She had the full-bodied, pure-blooded good looks of the ideal Jovian together with their faintly repellent air of hard, purposeful efficiency. The rockets began to throb, warming up, and a siren hooted.

Ballantyne turned to the man beside him, obsessed with the idiotic desire for conversation found in all recent escapees from the law or the dentist. “Going home, I see,” he remarked.

The man was a tall specimen in the gray Jovian army uniform, with colonel’s planets on his shoulders and a chestful of ribbons and medals⁠—about forty, closely shaven head, iron jaw, ramrod spine. He fixed the Earthling with a chill pale eye and said, “And you, I see, are leaving home. Two scintillating deductions.”

“Ummm⁠—uh⁠—well.” Ballantyne looked away, his ears ablaze. The Jovian clutched his heavy portfolio tighter to his side.

The tender shook itself, howled, and jumped into the sky. Ballantyne leaned back in the cushioned seat, staring out the port at the fire-starred unfolding of space. The Jovian colonel sat rigid as before, not deigning to yield to the pressure.

They came up to the Jovian Queen, where the great liner held her orbit about Earth, and Ballantyne glimpsed her long metal shape, blinding in the raw sunlight, as the tender swung in for contact. When the airlocks joined there was a steady one-gravity as the spaceship rotated on her axis. Whatever you could say against the Jovians⁠—and that was quite a bit⁠—they did maintain the best transport in the Solar System. Earth’s heavy passenger and freight haulers were in tight financial straits competing with the state-subsidized lines of Jupiter.

An expressionless uniformed steward took charge of the passengers as they entered the ship, herding them to their respective destinations. Ballantyne lugged his valise toward third-class section. He’d have to share his cabin with two others⁠—how had the mighty fallen! Thinking over the decline and fall of the Ballantyne pocketbook, he sighed, and the suitcase seemed to drag at him. He’d hit Ganymede pretty broke, unless.⁠ ⁠…

He opened his assigned door.

“Put⁠—me⁠—down!”

Ballantyne dropped his suitcase and his jaw. Within the narrow cabin a Martian was struggling in the clutch of a six-foot armored woman.

“Put⁠—me⁠—down!” he spluttered. He coiled his limbs snakelike around the woman’s brawny arms, and a Martian’s four thick, rubbery walking-tentacles have formidable strength. She didn’t seem to notice. She laughed and shook him a bit.

“I⁠—beg your pardon⁠—” gasped Ballantyne, backing away.

“You are forgiven,” said the woman. Her voice was a husky contralto, burdened with a rippling, slurring accent he couldn’t place. She shot out one Martian-encumbered arm, grabbed him by the coat, and hauled him inside. “You be the yudge, my friend. Is it not yustice that I have the lower berth?”

“It is noting of te sort!” screamed the Martian, fixing Ballantyne with round, bulging, and indignant yellow eyes. “My position, my eminence, clearly entitle me to ebery consideration, and ten tis hulking monster⁠—”

The Earthling let his gaze travel up and down the woman’s smooth-muscled form and said in an awed whisper, “I think you’d better accept the lady’s generous offer. But⁠—uh⁠—I seem to have the wrong cabin⁠—”

“Are you Ray Ballantyne of Earth?” asked the woman.

He pleaded guilty.

“Then you belon vith us. I have looked at the passenyer lists. You may have the cot.”

“Th-thanks,” shivered Ballantyne, sitting down on it.

The Martian seemed to give the fight up as a bad job and allowed himself to be placed on the upper bunk. “To tink of it,” he squeaked. “Tat I, te great Urushkidan of Ummunashektaru, should be manhandled by a sabage who does not know a logaritm from an exponent!”

Urushkidan. Ballantyne knew the name of the Martian mathematician, the latter-day Gauss or Einstein, and stared as if this were the first Martian he had seen in his life. Urushkidan looked like any other of his race, at least to the inexperienced eye. A great gray-skinned cupola of a body balanced four feet high on the walking-tentacles, with the two slim, three-fingered arm-tentacles writhing from either side of a wide lipless mouth set beneath that torse. Big unwinking eyes behind horn-rimmed spectacles, flat nose, elephantine ears⁠—“Not the Urushkidan?” he gasped.

“Tere is only one Urushkidan,” said the Martian.


The amazon sat down on her own bunk and laughed, a Homeric shout of laughter ringing between the metal walls and shivering the furniture. “Velcome, little Earthman,” she cried. “You are cute, I think I vill like you. I am Dyann Korlas of Kathantuma.” She grabbed his hand in a bone-cracking grip.

“One of the Centaurians,” said Ballantyne feebly.

“Yes, so you call us.” She opened her trunk and began unpacking. Ballantyne watched her with appreciation and some curiosity. He’d only seen the Alpha Centaurian visitors on television before now.

She looked human enough externally, aside from a somewhat different convolution of the ears. Internally there were plenty of peculiarities, among them a skeletal and tissue structure considerably harder and denser than that of Homo Solis. Alpha Centauri III⁠—or Varann, as its more advanced nation had decided to call it after learning from the terrestrial explorers that it was a planet⁠—was Earth-like enough in a cool and bracing way, but it had half again the surface gravity.

Sexual differentiation also varied a bit from the Solar norm. The Centaurian men were somewhat smaller and weaker than the women. They stayed at home and did the housework while their wives conducted the business. In the warlike culture of Kathantuma and its neighbor states that meant going out, cutting the other army into hamburger, and stealing everything which wasn’t bolted down.

This⁠—Dyann Korlas⁠—was something to write home about as far as looks went. Her size and the broadsword at her waist were intimidating, but her build was magnificent in a statuesque, tiger-lithe way. She looked young, her skin smooth, and faintly golden, a heavy mass of shining bronze hair coiled about the haughtily lifted head. Her face was close to the ideal of an ancient Hellenic sculptor, clean straight lines, firm jaw, brilliant gray eyes under heavy brows. She wore a light cuirass over her tunic, sandals, a bat-winged helmet on her head.

“It⁠—ah⁠—it’s strange they’d put you in the same cabin with me,” said Ballantyne hesitantly.

“Oh, you are safe enough,” she grinned.

He flushed, reflecting that the ladies from Centauri were in little danger from any Solar man. Very likely it was the other way around. Then he recalled that their native titles translated into things like warrior, district-ruler, chief, and so on. With their arrogant indifference to mere exploration and ethnology, the Jovians had probably assumed that Dyann Korlas was male. Well, he wasn’t going to enlighten them.

He looked up to Urushkidan, who was morosely stuffing a big-bowled pipe. “Ah, I know of your work, of course,” he said hesitantly. “I am⁠—was⁠—a nuclear engineer, so maybe I even have some appreciation of what it’s about.”

The Martian preened. “Doubtless you have grasped it bery well,” he said generously. “As well as any Eartman could, which is, of course, saying bery little.”

“But, if I may ask, sir, what are you doing here?”

“Oh, I have an inbitation from te Jobian Academy of Science to lecture. Tey are commendably interested and seem to realise my fundamental importance. I will be glad to get off Eart. Te air pressure, te gravity, pfui!”

“But a man, uh, Martian of your distinction⁠—traveling third class⁠—”

“Oh, they sent me a first-class ticket, of course. But I turned it in, bought a tird class, and banked te difference.” He scowled darkly at Dyann Korlas. “Tough if I must be treated so⁠—Well.” He shrugged. A Martian shrugging is quite a sight. “It is of no matter. We of Uttu⁠—Mars as you insist on calling it⁠—are so incomparably far advanced in te philosophic virtues of serenity, generosity, and modesty tat I can accept wit equanimity.”

“Oh,” said Ballantyne. To the Centaurian, “And may I ask why you are going to Jupiter⁠—ah⁠—Miss Korlas?”

“You may call me Dyann,” she said sweetly, “and I vill call you Ray, so? I vish only to see Yupiter, though I doubt it vill be as glamorous as Earth.” Her eyes glowed. “You live in a fable. The flyin and travelin machines, auto⁠—automatic kitchens, television, clocks an vatches, exotic dress. Aah, it vas vorth ten years travelin yust to see them.”


Ballantyne reflected on what he knew of Alpha Centauri. Even the fantastically fast new exploratory ships took ten years to cross the interstellar gulf to its wild planets, and there had only been three expeditions so far. The third had brought back a group of curious natives who were to report to their queen what the strangers’ homeland was like.

He imagined that the spacemen had had quite a time, with that score of turbulent barbarians crammed into a narrow hull though of course they’d passed almost the whole voyage in suspended animation. The visitors had spent about a year now on Earth and Luna, staring, asking endless questions, wondering what their hosts did with themselves now that the U.N. had brought the nations together and ended war. There hadn’t been much trouble. Occasionally one of them would get mad and break somebody’s jaw, and then there’d been the one who was invited to speak at a women’s club.⁠ ⁠… He chuckled to himself.

“Are these Yovians humans like you?” asked Dyann.

“Uh-huh,” he nodded. “The moons were colonized from Earth about a hundred and twenty-five years ago. They declared their independence about sixty years past, and nobody thought it was worth the trouble to fight about it. Though maybe we should have.”

“Vy that?”

“Oh well, the colonists were misfits originally, remnants of the old Eurasian militarisms. They did do heroic work in settling and developing the Jovian System, but they live under a dictatorship and make no bones about despising Earth and considering themselves the destined rulers of all the planets. Last year they grabbed the Saturnian colonies on the thinnest of pretexts, and Earth was too chicken-livered to do more than give them a reproachful look. Not that the U.N. has much of a navy these days, compared to theirs.”

Dyann shrugged and went on unpacking. She hung an extra sword on the wall, unshipped her armor and put it up, and slipped into a loose fur-trimmed robe. Urushkidan slithered to the floor and opened his own trunk, pulling out a score of fat books which he placed on the shelf over his bunk and expropriated the little table for his papers, pencils, and humidor.

“You know⁠—ah⁠—Dr. Urushkidan⁠—” said Ballantyne uneasily, “I wish you weren’t going to Jupiter.”

“And why not?” asked the Martian belligerently.

“Well, doesn’t your reformulation of general relativity indicate a way to build a ship which can go faster than light?”

“Among oter tings, yes.” Urushkidan blew a malodorous cloud of smoke.

“Well, I don’t think the Jovians are interested in science for its own sake. I think they want to get you and your knowledge so they can build such ships themselves which would be the last thing they need to take over the Solar System.”

“A Martian,” said Urushkidan condescendingly, “is not concerned wit te squabblings of te lower animals. Noting personal, of course.”

Dyann pulled an idol from her trunk and put it on her shelf. It was a small wooden image, gaudily painted and fiercely tusked, each of its six arms holding some weapon. One, Ballantyne noticed, was a carved Terrestrial tommy-gun. “Qviet, please,” she said, raising one arm. “I am about to pray to Ormun the Terrible.”

“Barbarian,” guffawed Urushkidan.

Dyann took a pillow and stuffed it in his mouth. “Qviet, please, I said.” She smiled gently and prostrated herself before the god.

After a while she got up. Urushkidan was still speechless with rage. She turned to Ballantyne and asked, “Do the ships here carry live animals? I vould like to make a small sacrifice too.”

II

The bulletin board said that in the present orbital positions of the planets, the Jovian Queen would make her voyage at one Earth-gravity acceleration in six days, forty-three minutes, and twelve seconds, plus or minus ten seconds. That might be pure braggadocio, though Ballantyne wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it was sober truth. He hoped the time was overestimated. His cabin mates were a little wearing on the nerves. Urushkidan filling the room with smoke, sitting up till all hours covering paper with mathematical symbols and screaming at any interruption. Dyann was nice-looking but rather overwhelming. In some ways she was reminiscent of Catherine Vanbrugh. The Engineer shuddered.

He slouched moodily into the bar and ordered a martini he could ill afford. The place was quiet, discreetly lit, not very full. His eyes fell on the stiff-laced Jovian colonel, still clutching his portfolio like grim death, but talking with unusual animation to a stunning Terrestrial redhead. It was clear that ideas about the purity of the Jovian stock⁠—“hardened in the fire and ice of outer space, tempered and beaten into the new and dominant mankind”⁠—had been temporarily shelved.

If I had some money, thought Ballantyne gloomily, I could detach her from him and enjoy this trip.

The bartender informed him, with some awe, that the man was Colonel Ivan Hosea Domenico Roshevsky-Feldkamp, late military attaché of Jupiter’s Terrestrial embassy and an officer who had served with distinction in suppressing the Ionian revolt and in asserting Jupiter’s rightful claims to Saturn. Ray was more interested in the girl’s name and antecedents. Just as he’d thought, an heiress on a pleasure trip. Expensive.

A couple of genial Earthmen moved up and began talking to him. Before long they suggested a friendly game of poker.

Oh-ho! thought Ray, who knew that sort. “Sure,” he said.

They played most of the time for a couple of days. Luck went back and forth but in general Ray won, and toward the end he was a couple of thousand U.N. credits to the good. He let his eyes glitter with febrile cupidity, and the sharks⁠—there were three of them all told⁠—almost licked their lips.

“Excuse me a minute,” said Ray, pocketing his winnings. “I’ll be back, and then we’ll play for real stakes.”

“You bet,” said the sharks. They sat back, lit anticipatory cigars, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Ray found the redhead remarkably easy to pry from the colonel.

The girl thought it would be just too much fun to go slumming and have the captain’s dinner with him in the third-class saloon. He led her down the thrumming corridor, thinking wistfully that before he knew it he’d be in Ganymede City and as broke as he’d been to start with.

Urushkidan crawled slowly by, waving an idle tentacle at him. The Martian walking system was awkward under Earth gravity and, their table manners being worse than atrocious, they ate in a separate section. It was Dyann who really started the trouble. She strode up behind Ray and clapped a heavy hand on his shoulder.

“Vere have you been?” she asked reproachfully. “You have not been in our cabin for two days and nights now.”

The redhead blushed.

“Oh hullo, Dyann,” said Ray, annoyed. “I’ll see you later.”

“Of course you vill.” She smiled. “Ah, you dashin’ glamorous Earthmen, you make me feel so small and veak.” She topped him by a good two inches.

They came into the doorway of the saloon and three familiar figures barred Ray’s passage.

“What the hell became of you, Ballantyne?” demanded one. His geniality was quite gone. “You was going to play some more with us.”

“I forgot,” said Ray huskily. The three men looked bigger than they had, somehow.

“It’s not sporting to quit when you’re so far ahead,” said another.

“Yeah,” said a third. “You ought at least to give us our money back.”

“I haven’t got it,” said Ray.

“Look, pal, things happen to people that ain’t good sports. They ain’t very pop-u-lar, and things happen to them. Where’s that money?”

They crowded in, hemming him against the wall. Beyond them, he could see Colonel Roshevsky-Feldkamp staring coldly at the tableau. Ray wondered if he hadn’t put the players up to this. They wouldn’t have dared start trouble without some kind of sub rosa official hint.


“Come on back to our cabin and we’ll talk this over, pal.”

The redhead squeaked and shrank aside. A meaty hand closed on Ray’s arm and dragged him half off his feet. Dyann bristled, one hand clapped to her sword. “Are these men annoyin’ you, Ray?” she asked.

“No, we just want a quiet little private talk with our friend,” said one of them. “Just come along easy, Ballantyne.”

“Dyann, I think they are annoying me,” said the engineer, the words rattling in a suddenly dry and tightened throat.

“Oh, vell, in that case⁠—” She smiled, reached out, and grabbed a collar.

There was a minor explosion. The man catapulted into the air, hit the ceiling, caromed off a wall, and bounced on the floor. Sheer reflex sent knives flying into the hands of the other two.

“Ormun is good!” shouted Dyann joyously. She gave the nearest gambler a fistful of knuckles, tossed him into the air, clutched his ankles as he came down, and whirled him against the wall.

The third was stabbing at her back. Blindly, Ray grabbed his arm and pulled him away. He snarled and lunged at the engineer, who tumbled backward clutching after the nearest weapon. It happened to be Colonel Roshevsky-Feldkamp’s massive briefcase. He grabbed it free and brought it down on the gambler’s head. It hit with a dull thwack and the fellow lurched. Ray hit him again. The briefcase burst open and papers snowed through the air. Then Dyann got the enemy from behind and proceeded to tie him in knots.

The redhead had already departed, screaming. Ray sank to one shaky knee and looked up into the colonel’s livid face.

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” he gasped. “Here, let me help⁠—”

He began stuffing papers back into the briefcase. A polished boot hit him where it would do the most good and he skidded through the disorderly mass. “You unutterable fool!” raged the voice above him.

“You vould kick my friend, huh?” asked Dyann indignantly.

A revolver clanked from the colonel’s belt. “That will do,” he snapped. “Consider yourself under arrest.”

Dyann’s broad smooth shoulders sagged a little. “I am so sorry,” she said meekly. “Let me help yust a litle.” She stooped and picked up one of the unconscious men.

“March!” rapped the colonel.

“Yes, sir,” whispered Dyann abjectly. Then, being almost next to him, she rammed her burden into his belly. He sat down with a thunderous oof and Dyann kicked him behind the ear.

“That vas fun,” she grinned, picking up the revolver and sticking it into her belt. “Vat shall ve do now?”


“You,” said Urushkidan acidly, “are a typical human.”

Ray looked despairingly out of the brig at him. “What else could I do?” he asked wildly. “I couldn’t fight a shipful of Jovians. It was all I could do to talk Dyann into surrendering.”

“I mean in fighting in te first place,” said Urushkidan. “I hear it started over a female. Why don’t you lower animals habe a regular rutting season as we do on Uttu? Ten you could spend time tinking of someting else too, someting constructive.”

“Well⁠—” Ray couldn’t suppress a wry smile, “those are constructive thoughts, of a sort. But what happened to Dyann?”

“Oh, tey questioned her, found she couldn’t read, and let her go. But tey won’t let her see you.”

“I suppose Earth would raise more of a stink over her being arrested than it’s worth to the Jovians. But what’s her literacy got to do with it?”

“Te colonel’s papers, you idiot. Tey are bery secret. Doubtless tey are information about Eart’s defenses, obtained by his spies and to be brought home by him in person.”

“But I didn’t read them either!”

“You saw tem. Tey are implanted in your subconscious memories and a hypnotreatment could extract tem. An illiterate like Dyann lacks te word-gestalts, she would not remember eben subconsciously, but you⁠—Well, tat is luck. Maybe Eart can sabe you.”

“Oh, no!” Ray clutched his head. “They won’t bother. They don’t give a damn. I’m wanted back there, and old Vanbrugh will be only too pleased to see me get the works.”

“Banbrugh⁠—te Nort American Councillor?”

“Uh-huh.” Ray leaned gloomily against the door. “I was just a plain ordinary engineer till Uncle Hosmer left me a million credits. Damn him, I hope he fries in hell.”

“A man left you money and you don’t like it?” Urushkidan’s eyes bugged so they seemed in some danger of falling out. “Shalmuannusar, what did you do wit it?”

“I spent it. I spent damn near every millo in a year.”

“On what?”

“Oh, wine, women, song⁠—the usual.”

Urushkidan clapped his tentacles to his eyes and groaned. “A million credits!”

“It got me into high society,” went on Ray. “I made out as if I had more than I did. I met Catherine Vanbrugh⁠—that’s the Councillor’s daughter⁠—and she got ideas that I might make a good fifth husband, or would it be the sixth? Well, she wasn’t a bad-looking wench, and I⁠—uh⁠—well⁠—about the time my money gave out and I went into debt, she was really after me. It was somewhat urgent. I skipped, of course. Old Vanbrugh got the cops after me. I barely escaped. He’s got enough influence to⁠—well, it boils down to the fact that the Jovians can do anything to me their little hearts desire.”

He strained against the bars. “Can’t you do anything, sir? Your fame is so illustrious. Can’t you slip the word to somebody?”

The Martian puffed out his chest above his eyes and simpered. Then he said with mild regret, “No, I cannot entangle myself in te empirical. My domain is te beauty and purity of matematics alone. I adbise you to accept your fate wit philosophy. Perhaps I can lend you Ekbannutil’s Treatise on te Unimportance of Temporal Sorrows. It has many consoling toughts.”

He waved affably and waddled off. Ray sank to the bunk.

Presently a squad of soldiers arrived to escort him to the tender which would take him down to Ganymede. Colonel Roshevsky-Feldkamp was there, as stiff as ever, though the bandage behind his ear set his cap somewhat askew.

“Where am I going?” asked Ray.

“To Camp Muellenhoff, outside the city,” said the Jovian with a hard satisfaction. “It is where we keep spies until we get ready to question and shoot them.”

III

It took Dyann Korlas about two Earth-days to decide that she didn’t like Ganymede.

The Jovians had been very courteous, apologized in a stiff way for the unfortunate misunderstanding aboard ship, and assigned her a brawny young sergeant as guide. Their armament was much more in evidence and much more interesting than Earth’s but granting that spaceships and atomic bombs and guided missiles were more effective than swords and bows and mounted lancers, they took all the fun out of war and left nothing to plunder. She missed the brawling mirth of the war-camps of Varann among these bleak-faced and endlessly marching men in their drab uniforms.

The civilians were almost as depressingly clad, and even more orderly and obedient than those of Earth. Only the arrogant, bemedaled officer caste had any touch of dash or glamor about it. The Terrestrial concept of sexual equality had been interesting, even exciting in a way, but these Jovians had inverted the natural order of things to a repulsive extent.

She had seen the sights, and those were impressive enough⁠—the grim rocky face of Ganymede, with mighty Jupiter eternally high in the dusky heavens; the bustling, crowded, machine-crammed underground cities, level after level of apartments, farms, factories, shops, barracks⁠—but Earth could show more. Her guide promised to take her to the other moons of the Jovian Confederacy but she felt as bored by the thought as he seemed to be.

She got the impression that she was hurried along, from sight to sight and speech to speech, without ever a chance to talk to anyone and find out what really was dreamed and striven for on this land. To be sure, the Jovians all talked endlessly about a superior way of life and their right to return to the green vales of Earth whence their forefathers had been cruelly made to flee. But if they were going to fight why didn’t they just hop in their ships and go there?

The dictator’s face seemed to be framed wherever she turned, a small and puffy-eyed man in an elaborate uniform. Martin Wilder the Great. Her guide the sergeant, one Robert Hamand, said in an awed tone that she might be introduced to the dictator. He looked hurt when she yawned.

And what had become of Ray? Hamand knew nothing and seemed to care less. The secret police officer had said he would be held for a short time as a lesson and then released but surely he’d look her up if he were free. She contrasted the Earthling’s liveliness with the quiet men of Varann and thought that he would be an ornament to anyone’s harem even if there couldn’t be issue between the two species.

On the third day, as she got up, she decided to ask counsel of Ormun. She washed, singing a cheerful song of clattering swords and sundering skulls, stowed away a breakfast that would have sufficed two humans, and walked into the sitting room of the apartment assigned her.

Hamand was waiting, very straight and correct in his uniform. “Good day,” he said, bowing from the waist. “Today we will go topside again and visit the Devil’s Garden. Then at eleven forty-five proceed to Robinsburg where we will lunch until thirteen hundred and then go on to⁠—”

“I must take an omen first,” said Dyann.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You need not do so, you have done no wrong.” Dyann prostrated herself before the god. Then, struck with a sudden thought, gestured at Hamand. “You too.”

“What?” cried the sergeant.

“You too. She might be offended if you do not pray.”

“Madam,” said Hamand, stiff with indignation, “I am a Jovian of the machine age, not a savage groveling before superstition.”


Dyann got up, knocked him to the floor, and rubbed his nose in the carpet before Ormun. “You vill please to grovel,” she said urbanely. “It is good manners.” She laid herself prone again, keeping one hand on the sergeant’s head, and repeated several magic formulas. Then she rose to her knees, fished three Centaurian dice from her pocketed kilt, and tossed them.

“Ah-hah,” she said. “The omen says⁠—hm, let me see now, I am not a marya. I think they say go to Urushkidan.” She bowed deeply before Ormun. “Thank you, my lady. Now come, we go find Urushkidan.”

“You can’t!” gibbered Hamand. “He’s doing important work. He’s at the Academy⁠—”

Dyann strolled out and he trailed futilely in her wake, still protesting. She inquired her way along the many tunnels and corridors and ramps to the Academy of Science. There were no slideways. Everyone walked. The Jovian leaders, with their concern over physical fitness, insisted that there be as much assorted exercises as possible to compensate for Ganymede’s low gravity. To Dyann, weight was feathery. She bounded twenty or thirty feet at a time when the crowd thinned enough.

The Academy, a combined college and technical research institute, had a good-sized sector to itself. There was a broad open space covered with turf and the uniformed students and professors went from one to another of the doors which opened on the grass. Dyann loomed over an undersized academician who gibbered in answer to her that Dr. Urushkidan was in that sector and then scuttled away.

There was an armed sentry in front of the door. Seeing none elsewhere, Dyann concluded shrewdly that he was posted because of the potential military applications of Urushkidan’s work. He slanted his rifle across her path. “Halt!”

“I must see the Martian,” said Dyann mildly. “Please to let me by.”

“No one sees him without a pass,” said the guard.

Dyann shoved him aside and opened the door. He yelled and grabbed her arm. That was his big mistake.

“A man,” said the Varannian reprovingly, “should have respect for women.” She yanked the rifle from him and hit him in the stomach with the butt. He flew across the plaza, retching, rolled to one elbow, and snatched at his sidearm. Dyann leaped, landing on his face with a crunch of bone and a small explosion of blood and teeth.

She turned back, hefting the rifle appreciatively. The Earthlings on Varann had been regrettably stingy about giving modern weapons to the natives. Assorted people, including Hamand, fled in all directions as she entered the doorway.

Down a long hall, peering into the rooms on either side, up a staircase⁠—another sentry before a frosted-glass door gaped at her. She smiled reassuringly, moved close to him, and got her hands on his throat. Shortly thereafter she had his rifle and revolver.

Loud voices drifted through the door and Dyann, who was not at all stupid, listened with interest. One was⁠—yes, that was Urushkidan himself, bubbling like an indignant teakettle.

“I will not, sir, do you hear me? I will not. And I demand a return passage from tis foul satellite at once!”

“Come now, Dr. Urushkidan, be reasonable.” Was that the voice of Roshevsky-Feldkamp? “After all, can you complain of your treatment? You have Mars-conditioned quarters, servants, high pay, every consideration.”

“I came here to lecture and complete my mathematical research. Now I find you habe arranged no lectures for me and expect me to⁠—to superbise an⁠—an engineering project! As if⁠—as if I were a mere⁠—empiricist!”

“But Dr. Urushkidan⁠—after all, science advances by checking its theory against the facts. If with your help we create the first faster-than-light ship, it will be a triumphant confirmation of⁠—”

“My teories need no confirmation. Tey are a debelopment of certain relatibity postulates, a piece of pure matematics in all its elegance and beauty. If tey agree or disagree wit te facts, tat is of no interest to any proper natibe of Uttu. Te matematics is enough, and I will habe noting to do wit applied physics. And furtermore⁠—” The squeaky voice rose even higher⁠—“you want only te military applications, you would habe me stoop to such bulgarity. You do not appreciate me, and I am going back to Uttu!”

“I am afraid,” said the man slowly, “that that is impossible.”

Dyann entered. “Are they annoyin you?” she asked.


Urushkidan whirled about. The room was thick with the fumes of his pipe, and one of the two Jovians with him⁠—a bald man in the black uniform of the secret police⁠—was holding a handkerchief to his nose. The other one was Roshevsky-Feldkamp, who started to his feet with an oath and grabbed for his revolver.

Dyann held her own stolen gun on his midriff. “No,” she said.

“What are you doing here?” gasped the officer.

“Vere is Ray Ballantyne?”

“Get out! Guards⁠—”

Dyann took one long leap across the office, seized Roshevsky-Feldkamp by the neck and hammered his forehead against the desk. Her free hand covered the secret policeman. “Vere is Ray Ballantyne?” she repeated.

“I am glad you came,” said Urushkidan. “Shall we leabe tis uncibilised place?”

Two armed soldiers appeared in the doorway. Dyann brought her gun around. The silenced weapon hissed. One of the men tumbled with a hole drilled in his forehead. She was rather proud of herself, she’d never had much chance for target practice.

There wasn’t much time for self-praise, though. The other man already had his rifle up. Dyann dropped behind the desk, and the stream of slugs ripped through the wood after her. She bunched her muscles and threw the desk. There was a crash of splintering wood as it knocked down the Jovian.

The secret police officer had his gun out and trained on her. Urushkidan snaked forth a tentacle and pulled him off his feet. Dyann stopped to slug Roshevsky-Feldkamp before she got her hands about the policeman’s throat.

“Vere is Ray Ballantyne?” she growled.

“Come on, come on, we habe to get out of here!” wailed the Martian.

“Vich is the vay out?”

“I’ll show you⁠—come along, quick⁠—tis way.”

Dyann frogmarched the Jovian cop toward a rear door. Booted feet were thudding up the stairs toward the office. Urushkidan held a pistol in each hand, gingerly as if he feared they would blow up. He led the way into a hall and down a long, echoing ramp.

“Hurry, hurry,” he gasped. “Shalmuannusar, we habe te whole Jobian Confederacy after us!”

A voice bellowed atop the ramp and a slug whanged after them. Dyann whirled and fired back, using the helplessly pinioned captive as a shield. They retreated slowly, rounding a corner and going on down a long slope to a heavy steel door.

Urushkidan opened it, slamming it frantically as they went through. They were in a hangar where several small spaceships rested on their rail-mouthed cradles. Mechanics stared at the trio.

“Quick!” snapped the Martian. “Te laboratory ships!”

The prisoner opened his mouth. Dyann laid a friendly hand on the back of his neck and squeezed a little.

“Yes, yes, the laboratory ship⁠—practice maneuvers⁠—hurry!” the man said.

“Aye, sir! At once!” A life time’s training in blind obedience spoke there, behind the puzzled faces.

A teardrop-shaped rocket was trundled forth. Dyann looked nervously back at the door. Pursuit was most likely playing it safe, posting men outside while others went around to block all remaining exits. Once that was done they’d close in.

“I’ll warm up the engine for you, sir,” said one of the mechanics.

“Ve’ll take it now,” said Dyann.

“But you can’t! You’ll carbon the tubes⁠—be likely to crash⁠—”

“I said now.” Dyann propelled her captive ahead of her through the airlock and Urushkidan crawled after. The valves clanged shut after them.

“I hope you can fly vun of these thins,” said Dyann, lashing the secret policeman to a recoil chair.

“I hope so too,” said Urushkidan.

Dyann stood over her prisoner. “Vere is Ray Ballantyne?” she asked. “The Earthman who vas arrested off the liner a few days ago.”

“I don’t know,” he gasped.

Dyann drew her knife, smiling nastily.

“Camp Muellenhoff, you savage! Outside the city, to the north. You’ll never make it. You’ll kill us all.”

The cradle rumbled forward to the hangar airlock. Urushkidan took the pilot chair and strapped himself in and relit his pipe with nervous boneless fingers. Dyann whistled tunelessly between her teeth. It was dark in the airlock chamber as the pumps evacuated it.

“Why bother wit tis Ballantyne?” asked the Martian. “What claim has he on us? It will need all our luck and my genius for us to escape with our own lives.”

“We need his luck too, maybe,” said Dyann shortly.


The outer valve swung open and they trundled over the rails to the surface of Ganymede. Behind them, the dome covering the city rose against a background of saw-toothed mountains and dark, faintly starlit sky. A dwarfed sun lit the spaceport field with pale cold luminance. There were not many vessels in sight, no liner or freighter was in and the military ports were elsewhere. One lean black patrol ship stood not far off.

“They vill be out after us soon,” said Dyann. “Vat can you do about that boat there, huh?”

“We will see,” said Urushkidan. He touched studs, levers, and buttons. The engines thuttered and the little vessel shook.

“Let’s go!”

The rocket stood on her tail and climbed for the sky. Urushkidan brought her around, the gyros screaming at his clumsy management, and lowered her on her jets directly above the patrol ship. An atom-driven ion-blast is not good for a patrol ship.

“Now,” said Dyann as they took off again, “you, my policeman friend, vill call this Camp Muellenhoff and tell them to release Ballantyne to us. If you do that, ve vill set you down somevere. If not⁠—vell⁠—” She tested the edge of her knife on his ear. “You may still be a police, but you vill not be very alive.”

“You can’t escape,” said the Jovian with a certain hollow lack of conviction. “You’d better throw yourself on the Leader’s mercy.”

Dyann knocked a few teeth loose.

“You savage!” he gasped. “You cruel, murdering⁠—”

“I tought you Jobians were always talking about te glories of war and te rutless superman,” snickered Urushkidan. “Also destiny and tings. Better call te camp as she says.”

A few minutes later the ship lowered into the walled enclosure of Camp Muellenhoff. It was a dreary place, metal barracks lying harsh under the guns of the watchtowers, spacesuited prisoners clumping to work through the thin chill air of Ganymede. A detail hurried up and shoved an unarmed, suited form into the airlock.

Their leader’s voice rattled over his helmet radio of the ship’s telereceiver, “Major, sir, are you sure they want this man in the city now? We just got an alert to look out for a couple of escaped desperadoes.”

Dyann slammed the outer valve in his face by the remote-control lever and the little ship stood on her tail again and flamed skyward.

A somewhat battered Ray Ballantyne crawled out of his suit and blinked at them. It had been a rough two or three days, though they hadn’t gone very far with him. The truth drugs must have satisfied them that he was not an intentional spy, and thereafter they had simply held him until orders for his execution should come. He swayed into Dyann’s arms.

“Oh, my poor Ray,” she murmured. “My poor, poor little Earthlin’.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” he began weakly.

“Just lie still, I will take care of you.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of. Lemme go!”

They sat down again on a remote mountaintop, gave the policeman a spacesuit, and kicked him out of the ship. He was still wailing about barbarous and inhuman treatment. He said something too about wild beasts.

“And now,” said Dyann, “let us get back to Earth before the Yovians find us.”

“This crate’ll never make Earth,” said Ray. “I’ve flown ’em⁠—let me at those controls, Urushkidan.”

They heard it as well, the ominous sizzling and knocking from the engine-room shields, and felt the ship tremble with it.

“Is tat te carboning te man was talking about?” asked the Martian innocently.

“I’m⁠—afraid⁠—so.” Ray shook his head. “We’ll have to land somewhere before the rockets quit altogether. Then it’ll take a week for the radioactivity to get low enough so we can go back there and clean them out.”

“And all the Yovian army, navy, police, and fire department out chasin us by now,” said Dyann. Her clear brow wrinkled. “I fear that Ormun is offended because I left her amon’ the heathen back there. I am afraid our luck is runnin’ low.”

“And,” said Ray bleakly, “how!”

IV

They used the last sputter of flame to sit down in the wildest and remotest valley they could find. Looking out the port, Ray wondered if they hadn’t perhaps overdone it.

Beyond the little ship there was a stretch of seamed and gullied stone, a rough craggy waste sloping up toward the fang-peaked razorback ridge of the hills, weird flickering play of shadows between the looming boulders as the thin wind blew a veil of snow across the deep greenish-blue sky. Jupiter was an amber scimitar low on the northern horizon. They were near the south pole with a sprawling panorama of sharp stars around it fading out near the tiny sun. Snow lay heaped in drifts beyond the wind-scoured rocks, and the far green blink of glaciers reflected the pale heatless sunlight from the hills.

Snow⁠—well, yes, thought Ray, it was snow of a sort. All the water on Ganymede was of course solid ice. So were the carbon dioxide and ammonia. But the temperature often dropped low enough to precipitate methane or nitrogen. The moon’s atmosphere what there was of it, consisted mostly of argon, nitrogen, methane, and vapors of the frozen substances⁠—not especially breathable.

The colonists used the standard green-plant air-renewal system, obtaining extra oxygen from its compounds and water from the ice-strata, and heated their dwellings from the central atomic-energy units. Ray hoped the ship’s equipment was in working order.

There was native life out there, a few scrubby gray-leaved thickets, a frightened leaper bounding kangaroo-like into the hills. The biochemistry of Ganymede was a weird and wonderful thing which human scientists were still a long way from understanding, but it involved substances capable of absorbing heat energy directly and releasing it as needed. The carnivores lacked the secretions, obtaining them from their prey, and had given the colonists a lot of trouble because of their fondness for the generous supply of heat a human necessarily carried around with him.

“And now what do we do?” asked Ray.

Dyann’s eyes lit with a hopeful gleam. “Hunt monsters?” she suggested.

“Bah!” Urushkidan snaked his way to the small desk bolted to the cabin floor and extracted paper and pencil from the drawers. “I shall debelop an interesting aspect of unified field teory. Do not disturb me.”

Ray looked around the ship. Behind the forward cabin, which held bunks and a little cooking outfit as well as the controls, there was a larger space cluttered with assorted physical apparatus. Beyond that, he supposed, were the gyros, airplant, and misbehaving engines. “Is this a laboratory boat?” he inquired.

“Yes,” said the Martian. “I chose it because tey are always kept ready to go out for gibing field tests to new apparatus. Get me a table of elliptic integrals, please.”

“Look,” said Ray, “we’ve got to do something. The Jovians will be combing this damned moon for us, and it’s not so big that we have much chance of their not finding us before we can clean out those tubes. We’ve got to prepare an escape.”

“How?” Urushkidan fixed him with a bespectacled stare.

“Well⁠—uh⁠—well⁠—maybe get ready to flee into the hills.”

“How long would we last out tere?” The Martian turned back to his work and blew a cloud of smoke. “No, I will debote myself to te beauties of pure matematics.”

“But if they catch us, they’ll kill us!”

“Tey won’t kill me,” said Urushkidan smugly. “I am too baluable.”

“Come on, Ray,” said Dyann. “Let’s go monster-huntin.”

“Waaah!” The Earthman blew up, jumping with rage. In the low gravity, his leap cracked his head against the ceiling.

“Oh, my poor Ray!” Dyann folded him in a bear’s embrace.

“Let me go! Damn it, I want to live if you don’t!”

“Be serene,” advised Urushkidan. “Look at it from te aspect of eternity. You are one of te lower animals and your life is of no importance.”

“You octopus! You conceited windbag! If I needed any proof that Martians are inferior, you’d be it.”

“Temper, temper!” Urushkidan wagged a flexible finger at Ray. “Be objective, my friend, and if your philosophy is so deficient tat it will not prove a priori tat Martians are always right⁠—by definition⁠—ten consider te facts. Martians are beautiful. Martians habe an old and peaceful cibilisation. Eben physically, we are superior⁠—we can libe under Earth conditions but I dare you to go out on Mars witout a spacesuit. I double-dog dare you.”

“Martians,” gritted Ray, “didn’t come to Earth. Earthmen came to Mars.”

“Certainly. We had no reason to bisit Earth, but you, of course, came to Mars to admire our beauty and wisdom. Now please fetch me tat table of integrals.”

“There is nothin ve can do to help ourselves,” said Dyann, “so ve might as well go huntin. Afterward ve can make love.”

“Oh, no!” Ray grunted. “If I had that damn interstellar drive I’d get out of this hole so fast that⁠—that⁠—that⁠—”

“Yes?” asked Dyann.


“Gods of Pluto!” whispered the man. “That’s it. That’s it!

“Get me tat table!” screamed Urushkidan.

“The drive⁠—the faster-than-light drive⁠—” Ray did a jig, bouncing from floor to wall to ceiling. “We’ve got a shipful of equipment, we’ve got the System’s only authority on the subject, we’ll build ourselves a faster-than-light engine!”

Urushkidan grumbled his way back into the lab. “I’ll get it myself, ten,” he muttered. “See if I care.”

“The engine⁠—the engine⁠—Dyann, we can escape!” Ray grabbed her by the arms and tried to shake her. “We can go home!”

Her eyes filled with tears. “You vant to leave me,” she accused. “You vant to get rid of me.”

“No, no, no, I want to save all our lives. Come on, give me a hand, we’ve got some heavy stuff to move around.”

Dyann shook her head, pouting. “No,” she said. “You don’t love me. I won’t help you.”

“Oh, Lord! Look, Dyann, I love you, I adore you, I worship at your feet. But give me a hand.”

Dyann brightened considerably, but said only, “Prove it.”

Ray kissed her. She kissed back and he yelled as his ribs began to give way.

“Yowp! Some other time, honey. I want only to save your life, don’t you see?”

“Some other time,” said Dyann firmly, “is not now. Come here, you.”

“Stop tat noise!” yelled Urushkidan, and slammed the laboratory door.

“Ve will honeymoon on Varann,” sighed Dyann happily. “You shall ride to battle at my side.”

Much later the aroma of coffee drew Urushkidan back into the forward cabin. A disheveled and weary-looking Ray Ballantyne was puttering around the hotplate while Dyann sat polishing her sword and humming to herself.

“Now,” said Ray, turning with what seemed like relief to the Martian, “just how does this new drive of yours work?”

“It is not a dribe and it does not work⁠—it is a structure of pure matematics,” said Urushkidan. “Anyway, te teory is beyond te comprehension of anybody but myself. Gibe me some coffee.”

“But you must have an idea how it would work in practice.”

“Oh, no doubt if I wanted to take te time I could debise someting. But I am engaged in debeloping a new teory of cosmic origins.” Urushkidan slurped coffee into himself.

“We’ve got to build it and escape.”

“I told you you are of neiter beauty nor importance. Why should I take time wit you?”

“But look, if the Jovians capture you they’ll force you to build it for them. They have ways. And then they’ll overrun Mars along with all the other planets. The only thing that’s held them back so far is the difficulty of interplanetary logistics. But when you have ships that can cross the orbit of Pluto in a matter of hours or minutes that isn’t a problem any longer.”

“Tat would be unfortunate, yes. But I am in te midst of a bery new and important train of tought. It would be more unfortunate if tat were lost tan if a few ephemeral Jobians conquered te System. Tey wouldn’t last a tousand years, but a genius like me is born once in a million.”

Dyann hefted her sword. “Do as Ray says,” she advised.

“You dare not hurt me,” said Urushkidan with a smug expression, “or you will neber get away.”

He went over to the desk and began investigating the drawers again. “Where do tey keep teir tobacco? I cannot work witout my pipe.”

“Jovians,” said Ray glumly, “don’t smoke. They consider it a degenerate habit.”

“What?” The Martian’s howl rattled the coffeepot on the hotplate. “No tobacco?”

“Only your own supply, back in Ganymede City, and I daresay the Jovians have confiscated and destroyed it by now. That puts the nearest cigar store somewhere in the Asteroid Belt.”

“Oh, no! Te new cosmology ruined by tobacco shortage.” Urushkidan stood thinking a moment, then came to a sudden decision. “Tere is no help for it. If te nearest tobacco is millions of miles away we must build te faster-tan-light engine at once.”


Ray made no attempt to follow the Martian’s long-winded equations in detail. What he was interested in was making use of them, and he proceeded with slashing approximations that brought screams of almost physical agony from Urushkidan.

Essentially, though, he recognized that the scientist’s achievement lay in making what seemed to be a final correlation of relativity and wave mechanics, something which even the Goldfarb-Olson formulas had not fully reached.

Relativity deals with solid bodies moving at definite velocities which cannot exceed that of light, but in wave mechanics the particle becomes a weird and shadowy psi function and is only probably where it is. In the latter theory, point-to-point transitions are not velocities but shifts in the node of a complex wave. It turned out that the electronic wave velocity⁠—which, unlike the group velocity, is not limited by the speed of light⁠—could be imparted to matter under the right conditions, so that the most probable position of the electron went from point to point at a bewildering rate. The trick was to create the right conditions.

“A field of nuclear space-strain is set up by the circuit, and the ship, reacting against the entire mass of the universe, moves without need of rockets⁠—right?” asked the Earthman.

“Wrong,” said Urushkidan.

“Well, we’ll build it anyway,” said Ray. “Here, Dyann, bring that generator over this way, will you?”

“I vant to go monster-huntin,” she sulked.

“Bring⁠—it⁠—over, you lummox!”

Dyann glared, but stooped over the massive machine and, between Ganymedean gravity and Varannian muscles, staggered across the floor with it. Ray was checking circuits on the oscilloscope. Urushkidan sat grumbling about heat and humidity and fanning himself with his ears. The lab was a mess of tubes, condensers, rheostats, and tangled wire.

“I’m stuck,” wailed Ray. “I need a resistor having so-and-so many ohms along with such-and-such a capacitance. Find me one, quick.”

“If you would specify your units more precisely⁠—” began Urushkidan huffily.

Ray pawed through the litter on the floor, putting one object after another into his testing circuit, glancing at the meters, and throwing it across the room. “It’s vital,” he said.

“Vill this do, maybe?” asked Dyann innocently, holding out the ship’s one and only frying pan.

“Get out!” screamed Ray.

“I go monster-huntin,” she pouted.

Absentmindedly, Ray tested the frying pan. It was nearly right. By Luna, if he sawed off the handle⁠—

“Hey!” yelped Urushkidan.

“I don’t like the thought of eating cold beans, cold canned meat, and raw eggs any better than you,” said Ray. “But damn it, we’ve got to get out of here.” He soldered the emasculated pan into his circuit. “Starward the course of human empire,” he muttered viciously.

“Martian empire,” corrected Urushkidan.

“It’ll be Jovian empire if we don’t clear out of here. Okay, big brain, what comes next?”

“How should I know? How can you expect me to tink in tis foul tick air, and witout tobacco?” Urushkidan turned his back. Dyann clumped in, spacesuited, sword in one hand and rifle in the other. “I saw monsters out there,” she said. “I’m goin out to kill them.”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” muttered Ray without looking up from his slide rule. “Urushkidan, you’ve got to calculate the resonant psi function for me.”

“Won’t,” said the Martian.

“By Heaven, you snake-legged bagpipe, I’m the captain here and you’ll do as I say.”

“Up your rectifier.” Urushkidan was emptying his ash tray in search of tobacco shreds.

The airlock clanged behind Dyann. “I’ll be damned,” murmured Ray. “She really is going out after them.”

“It is a good idea,” said Urushkidan, a trifle more amiably. “Tey habe sensed te radiations of our ship and are probably coming to crack it open.”

“Oh, well, if that’s all⁠—Huh?” Ray sprang to the nearest port and looked out.

“Gannydragons,” he groaned. “I thought they’d been exterminated.”

“Tose two don’t seem to know it,” said Urushkidan uneasily. “All right, I’ll calculate your function for you.”


There were two of the monsters moving toward the boat. They looked like thirty feet of long-legged alligator, but the claws and beaks had ripped metal in earlier days of colonization. Dyann lifted her rifle and fired.

A dragon screamed, thin and faint in the wispy atmosphere, and turned his head and snapped. Dyann laughed and bounded closer. Another shot and another.⁠ ⁠…

Something hit her and the gun flew from her hand. The dragon’s tail smote again and Dyann soared skyward. As she hit the ground the two monsters leaped for her.

“Ha, Ormun!” she yelled, shaking her ringing head till the ruddy hair flew within the helmet. She crouched low and then sprang.

Up⁠—over the fanged head⁠—striking down with her sword as she went by. The monster whirled after her, greenish blood streaming from the cut and freezing.

Dyann backed against a looming rock, spread her feet and lifted the sword. The first dragon struck at her, mouth agape. Dyann hewed out again, the sword a leaping blaze of steel, the blow smashing home and exploding its force back into her own muscles. The dragon’s head sprang from the neck. She rolled under the lashing claws and tail to get free. The headless body struck the other dragon which promptly began to fight it.

Dyann circled warily about the struggle, breathing hard. The live dragon trampled its opponent underfoot, looked around, and charged her. The ground shuddered under its galloping mass. Dyann turned and fled.

The dragon roared hollowly as she went up the long slope of the nearest hill. She saw a high crag and scrambled to its top, the dragon rampaging below her.

“Nyaaah!” She thumbed her faceplate. “Come and get me.”

The monster’s dim brain finally decided that the ship was bigger and easier prey. Turning, it lumbered down the hillside. Dyann launched herself into the air and landed astride its neck.

The dragon hooted and snapped after her. She climbed higher, grabbed its horn with one gauntleted hand, and hung on for her life. The steed began to run.

Hoo, bang, away over the hills with the moonscape blurring in speed. Wind shrieked thinly about Dyann’s helmet. She bounced off her seat and came down again, a landslide rumbled behind her. The dragon zoomed up the ridge, leaped from a bluff, and started across the cratered plain beyond. Dyann dragged at the horn, turning its head, fighting the monster into a circular stampede. “Ha, Ormun!” she yelled. “Ha, Kathantuma!”

In an hour or so the dragon stopped and stood gasping. Dyann slid stiffly to the ground, whirled her sword over her head, and decapitated the monster. Then she skipped home, laughing.

“Dyann!” cried Ray as she came through the airlock. “Dyann, we thought you were dead⁠—”

“Oh, it vas fun,” she grinned. “Fix me a sandvich.” She sat down, got up rather quickly, and opened her arms to Ray. He retreated nervously toward the lab. Urushkidan snickered and slammed the door in his face.

V

The eighty-six hour day of Ganymede drew to a close. Jupiter was at the half now, a banded amber giant in a sky of thronging wintry stars. Ray wiped his grimy hands and sighed.

“Done,” he said, looking fondly at the haywired mess filling half the lab and reaching back toward the engines. “We’ve done it⁠—we’ve conquered the stars.”

“My little Earthlin’ is so clever,” simpered Dyann.

“I am horribly afraid,” said Urushkidan, “tat tis minor achievement of mine will eclipse my true accomplishments in te popular mind. Oh, well.” He shrugged. “I can always use te money.”

“Umm, yeah, I never thought of that,” said Ray. “I’m safe enough from Vanbrugh now⁠—you don’t arrest the man who’s given Earth the Galaxy⁠—but by gosh, there’s a fortune in this little gadget too.”

“For me, of course, when I have patented it,” said Urushkidan.

“What?” yelped Ray. “You⁠—”

“Certainly. I inbented it, didn’t I? I shall patent it too. Tell me, should I charge an exorbitant royalty or would tere be more money in mass sales at small price?”

“Look here,” snarled Ray, “I happen to know how this thing is put together too.”

“Do you?” grinned Urushkidan nastily.

“Uh⁠—” Ray looked at the jungle of apparatus and gulped. He had only a few fragmentary drawings. By Einstein, he had no idea how the damned thing worked.

“But we helped you,” he protested feebly.

“When you pay your mules and cows, I may consider gibing you a small percentage,” said Urushkidan loftily.

“You’ve already got more money than you know what to do with, you bloated capitalist. I happen to know you invested your Nobel Prize in mortgages and then foreclosed.”

“And why not? When te royalties on tis engine start coming in, and I get my second Nobel Prise, maybe ten I can afford an occasional cigar. You Earthlings neber reward genius. All tese years I’be had to smoke tat foul pipe⁠—And tat reminds me, we habe to test tis machine. Where is te nearest tobaco store?”

Ray sighed and gave up. Martians had replaced Scotchmen in the lexicon of thrift, but Urushkidan set some kind of new record.

He sat down in the pilot chair and started the atomic generator on high level conversion. “I hope it works,” he muttered nervously. His fingers moved over the improvised control panel for the star drive. “Hang on, folks, here goes nothing.”

“Nothin,” said Dyann after a long silence, “is correct.”

“Oh, lord! What’s the matter now?” Ray went back to the new engine. Its circuits were alive, tubes glowed and indicators blinked, but the boat sat stolidly where it was.

“I told you not to use tose approximations,” said Urushkidan.

Ray fiddled with the main-drive settings. “It’s like any other gadget,” he complained. “You sweat yourself dry designing it from theory, and then you have to tinker till it works.”

He began changing the positions of resistors and condensers, cutting sections out of the circuit to work on them. Urushkidan shredded a piece of paper, wetted it, and tried to smoke it.

“Ray!” Dyann’s voice came sharp and urgent from the forward cabin. “I saw a rocket flare.”

“Oh, no!” He sprang back to her and peered into the night sky. A long trail of flame arced across it. And another, and another⁠—

“The Jovians,” he groaned. “They’ve found us.”

“They may not see us,” said Dyann hopefully.

“They have metal detectors. We’re done for.”

“Vell, ve can only die vunce. Kiss me, sveetheart.” Dyann folded Ray in one arm while the other reached for her sword.

The patrol rockets went over the horizon, braking, and swam back. Blast-flames spattered off the valley floor and frozen-gas vapors boiled furiously up toward mighty Jupiter.

The boat telescreen blinked its indicator light. Numbly, Ray tuned it in. The lean hard face of Colonel Roshevsky-Feldkamp sprang into its frame.

“Ah, there you are,” said the Jovian.

“If we surrender,” said Ray, “will you give us safe conduct back to Earth?”

“Certainly not. But you may be allowed to live.”

Urushkidan spoke from the lab. “Ballantyne, I tink te trouble lies in tis square-wave generator. If we doubled te boltage⁠—”


The first patrol ship sizzled to a landing. Roshevsky-Feldkamp leaned forward till his face seemed to project from the screen and Ray had a wild desire to punch its nose. “So you’ve been working on our project.” He said, “Well, so much the more labor spared us.”

Dyann cut loose with a short-range blaster she had located somewhere on the lab ship.

“Urushkidan will die before he surrenders to you,” said Ray belligerently.

“I will do noting of te sort,” said the Martian. Experimentally, he cut the square-wave generator back into the circuit and turned a dial.

The boat lifted off the ground.

“Hey, there,” roared the colonel. “You can’t do that!”

The Jovian soldiers who had been pouring from the grounded ship looked stupidly upward.

“Shell them!” snapped the colonel.

Ray slammed the main star drive switch clear over.

There was no feeling of acceleration. They were suddenly floating weightless and Jupiter whizzed past the forward port.

“Stop!” howled the Jovian.

The engine throbbed and sang, energy pulsing in great waves through its shuddering substance. The stars crawled eerily across the ports. “Aberration,” gasped Ray. “We’re approaching the speed of light.”

Space swam and blazed with a million million suns. They bunched near the forward port, thinning out toward the rear, as the ship added its fantastic velocity vector to their light-rays. A distorted pale-green globe grew rapidly before the vessel.

“Vat planet is that up ahead?” pointed Dyann.

“I think⁠—” muttered Ray. He looked out the rearward port. “I think it was Neptune.”

“Triumph!” chortled Urushkidan, rubbing his tentacles together. “My teory is confirmed. Not tat it needs confirmation, but now even an Eartman can see tat I am always right. And oh, how tey’ll habe to pay!”

The colors of the stars shifted toward blue in front and red behind. Doppler effect, thought Ray wildly. He was probably seeing by radio waves and gamma rays now. How fast were they going, anyway? He should have thought to install some kind of speed gauge. Several times the velocity of light at least.

“Ha, this is fun,” laughed Dyann.

“Hmmm⁠—we better stop while we can still see the Solar System,” said Ray, and cut the main drive.

The ship kept on going.

“Hey!” screamed the Earthling. “Stop! Whoa!”

“We can’t stop,” said Urushkidan coolly. “We’re in a certain pseudobelocity-state now. Te engine merely accelerates us.”

“Well, how in hell do you brake?” groaned Ray.

“I don’t know. We’ll habe to figure tat out. I tought you knew tis would happen.”

“Now I do.” Ray floated free of his chair, beating his forehead with his fists. “I hope to heaven we can do it before the food runs out.”

Dyann looked at Urushkidan speculatively. “If vorst comes to vorst,” she murmured, “roast Martian⁠—”

“Let’s get busy,” gasped Urushkidan.


It took a week to improvise a braking system. By that time they were no longer very sure where they were.

“This is all my fault,” said Dyann contritely. “If I had brought Ormun along she vould have looked after us.”

“One thing that worries me,” said Ray, “is the Jovians. They aren’t fools, and they won’t be sitting on their hands waiting for us to come back and give the star drive to Earth.”

“First,” said Urushkidan snappishly, “tere is te problem of finding our sun.”

Ray looked out the port. The ship was braked and, in the normal space-time state of matter, was floating amidst a wilderness of unfamiliar constellations. “It shouldn’t be too hard,” he said thoughtfully. “Look, there are the Magellanic Clouds, I think, and we should be able to locate Rigel or some other bright star. That way we can get a fix and locate ourselves relative to Sol.”

“Tere are no astronomical tables aboard ship,” pointed out Urushkidan, “and I certainly don’t clutter my brain wit mere numerical data.”

“Vich star is Rigel?” asked Dyann.

“Why⁠—uh⁠—well⁠—that one⁠—no, it might be that one over there⁠—or perhaps⁠—how should I know?” growled Ray.

“We will simply habe to go back te way we came, as nearly as we can judge it,” said Urushkidan.

“Maybe ve can find somevun who knows,” suggested Dyann.

Ray thought of landing on a planet and asking a winged, three-headed monster, “Pardon me, do you know which way Sol is?” To which the monster would doubtless reply, “Sorry, I’m a stranger here myself.” He chuckled wryly. They’d encountered a difficulty which all the brave futuristic stories about exploring the Galaxy seemed to have overlooked.

They had headed out in the ecliptic plane, very nearly on a line joining the momentary positions of Jupiter and Neptune. That didn’t help much, though, in a boat never meant for interplanetary flight and thus carrying only the ephemerides of the Jovian System. Presumably they had gone in a straight line, so that one of the zodiacal constellations was at their back and should still be recognizable, but the high-velocity distortions of the outside view had precluded anyone’s noticing which stars had been where.

Ray floated over to the port and looked out at the eerie magnificence of unknown space. “If I’d been a Boy Scout,” he lamented, “I might know the constellations. The thing to do is to head back toward any one which looks halfway familiar, since that must be the one which was at our stern. But I only know Orion and the Big Dipper.” He looked at Urushkidan with accusing eyes. “You’re the great astrophysicist. Can’t you tell one star from another?”

“Certainly not,” said the Martian huffily. “No astrophysicist eber looks at de stars if he can help it.”

“Oh, you want a con⁠—con⁠—star-picture?” asked Dyann innocently.

Ray said, “I mean one we know, as we see the stars from Sol, or from Centauri. You’re nice to look at, honey, but right now I can’t help wishing you Varannians were a little more intellectual.”

“Oh, I know the stars,” said Dyann. “Every noble learns them. Let me see⁠—” She floated around the chamber, from port to port, staring out and muttering to herself. “Oh, yes. There is Kunatha the Hunter-threatened-by-woman-devourin-monster. Not changed much.”

“Huh?” Ray and Urushkidan pushed themselves over beside her. “By gosh,” said the Earthling, “it does look like Virgo, I think, or one of ’em. Dyann, I love you to pieces.”

“Let’s get home qvick, then,” she beamed. “I vant to be on a planet.” During the outward flight she had been somewhat discomforted by discovering the erotic importance of gravity.

You steer us home?” screeched Urushkidan. “How in Nebukadashatbu do you know te stars?”

“I had to learn them,” she said. “Every noble on Varann has to know⁠—vat you call it?⁠—astroloyee. How else could ve plan our battles visely?”

“Astrology?” screamed the Martian. “You are an⁠—an⁠—astrologer?”

“Vy, of course. I thought you vere too, but it seems like you Solarians are more backvard than I supposed. Shall I cast your horoscope?”

“Astrology,” groaned Urushkidan. He looked ill.

“Well,” said Ray helplessly, “I guess it’s up to you to pilot us back, Dyann.”

“Vy, sure.” She jumped into the pilot seat. “Anchors aveigh.”

“Brought home by an astrologer,” groaned Urushkidan. “Te ignominy of it all.”


Ray started the new engine. They could accelerate all the way back and use the brake to stop almost instantly⁠—it shouldn’t take long. “All set,” he called, and the rising note of power thrummed behind his words.

“Giddap!” yelled Dyann. She swung the ship around and slammed the main drive switch home.

Ray looked out at the weirdly distorted heavens. “There should be some way to compensate for that aberration,” he murmured. “A viewplate using photocells, with the electron beam control-fields hooked into the drive circuit⁠—sure. Simple.” He floated back to the lab and began assembling scattered apparatus. In a few hours he emerged with a gadget as uncouth as the engine itself but there was a set of three telescreens which gave clear views in three directions. Dyann smiled and pointed to one of them. “See, now Avalla⁠—the Victorious-warrior-returnin-from-battle-vith-captive-man-slung-across-her-saddle-bow⁠—is taking shape,” she said.

“That,” said Ray, “is Ursa Major. You Varannians have a fantastic imagination.”

A blue-white giant of a sun flamed ahead, prominences seething millions of miles into space. Dyann’s eyes sparkled and she applied a sideways vector to the star drive. “Yippee!” she howled.

“Hey!” screamed the Earthman.

They whizzed past the star, playing tag with the reaching flames while Dyann roared out a Centaurian battle chant. Ray’s subconscious mind spewed forth every prayer he had even known.

“Okay, ve are past it,” said Dyann.

“Don’t do such things!” he said weakly.

“Darlin,” said the girl, “I think we should spend our honeymoon flyin’ through space like this.”

The stars blurred past. The Galaxy’s conquerors looked at the splendor of open space and ate cold beans out of a can.

“I think,” said Dyann thoughtfully, “ve should go first to Varann.”

“Alpha Centauri?” asked Urushkidan. “Nonsense. We are going back at once to Uttu and cibilised society.”

“Ve may need help at Sol,” said the girl. “Ve have been gone⁠—how long⁠—about two veeks? Much could have happened in that time.”

“But⁠—but⁠—it’s not practical,” objected Ray.

Dyann grinned cheerfully. “And how vill you stop me?”

“Varann⁠—oh, well, I’ve always wanted to see it anyway.”

The Centaurian began casting about, steering by the aspect of the sky. Before many hours, she was slanting in toward a double star with a dim red dwarf in the background. “This is it,” she said. “This is it.”

“Okay,” answered Ray. “Now tell me how you find a planet.”

“Hmmm⁠—vell⁠—” Dyann scratched her ruddy head.

Ray began to figure it aloud.

“The planets⁠—let me see, now⁠—yeah, they’re in the plane of the two stars. They’d have to be. So if you go out to a point in that plane where Alpha A, your sun, seems of about the right size, and then swing in a circle of that radius, you should come pretty close to Varann. It has a good-sized moon, doesn’t it, and its color is greenish-blue? Yes, we should be able to spot it.”

“You are so clever,” sighed Dyann.

“Hah!” sneered Urushkidan.

At a mere fraction of the velocity of light⁠—Ray thought of the consequences of hitting a planet when going faster than light, and wished he hadn’t⁠—the spaceboat moved around Alpha A. It seemed only minutes before Dyann pointed and cried joyously, “There ve are. There is home. After many years⁠—home!”

“I would still like to know what we are going to do when we get there,” said Urushkidan.

He was not answered. Dyann and Ray were too busy bringing the vessel down into the atmosphere and across the wild surface.

“Kathantuma!” cried the girl. “There is my homeland. See, there is the mountain, old Mother Hastan. There is the city Mayta. Hold on, ve’re goin down!”

VI

Mayta was a huddle of thatch-roofed wooden buildings at the foot of a fantastically spired gray castle, sitting amid the broad fields and forests and rivers of Kathantuma with the mountains shining in the far distance. Dyann set the ship down just outside the town, stood up, and stretched her tigress body with an exultant laugh.

“Home!” she cried. “Gravity!”

“Uh⁠—yeah.” Ray tried to lift his feet. It went slowly, with some strain⁠—half again the pull of Earth. Urushkidan groaned and wheezed his painful way to a chair and collapsed all over it.

“Let’s go!” Dyann snatched up her sword, set the helmet rakishly on her bronze curls, and opened the airlock. When Ray hesitated she reached and yanked him out.

The air was cool and windy, pungent with a million scents of earth and growing things, tall clouds sailing over a high blue heaven, and even the engineer was grateful for it after the stuffiness of the boat. He looked around him. Not far off was a charming rustic cottage. It was like a scene from some forgotten idyll of Earth’s old past.

“Looks good,” he said.

A four-foot arrow hummed past his ear and rang like a gong on the ship’s hull.

“Yowp!” Ray dove for shelter. Another arrow zipped in front of him. He whirled at a storm of contralto curses.

There were half a dozen women pouring from the charming rustic cottage, a battle-scarred older one and five tall young daughters, waving swords and axes and spears. A couple of men peered nervously from the door.

“Ha, Ormun!” yelled Dyann. She lifted her sword and dashed to meet the onslaught. The oldest woman caught the amazon’s blow on a raised shield and her ax clanged off Dyann’s helmet. Dyann staggered, shook her head, and struck out afresh. The others closed in, yelling and jabbing.

Dyann’s sword met the nearest ax halfway and broke across. She stooped, picked the woman off her feet, and whirled her over her head. With a shout, she threw the old she-warrior into two of her nearest daughters, and the trio went down in a roar of metal.

Centaurian hospitality, thought Ray.

A backhanded blow sent him reeling. He looked up to see a yellow-haired girl looming over him. Before he could do more than mutter she had slugged him again and thrown him over one brawny shoulder.

Hoofs clattered down the narrow dirt road. A squad of armored women riding animals reminiscent of Percherons, but horned and red of hide, were charging from the town. They swept into the fight, wielding clubbed lances with fine impartiality, and it broke up in a sullen wave of red-splashed femininity. Nobody, Ray saw from his upside-down position, had been killed, but there were plenty of slashes and the intent had certainly been there.

The harsh barking language of Kathantuma rose on either side. Finally an understanding seemed to be reached. One of the riders pointed a mailed hand at Ray’s captor and snapped an order. The girl protested, was overruled, and tossed him pettishly to the ground. He recovered consciousness in a minute or two.

Dyann picked him up, tenderly. “Poor Ray,” she murmured. “Ve play too rough for you here, huh?”

“What was it all about?” he mumbled.

“Oh, these people vere mad because ve landed in their field, but the qveen’s riders stopped the fight in time. It is only lawful to kill people on the regular duellin’ grounds, inside the city limits. Ve must have law and order, you know.”

“I see,” said Ray faintly.


It was a large and turbulent crowd which gathered at sunset to hear Dyann speak. She and her companions were on a raised stand in the market square, together with the scarred, arrogant queen and her troop of pikewomen and cavalry. In the guttering red flare of torches, Ray looked down on a surging lake of women, the soldier-peasants of Kathantuma gathered from all the hinterland, brandishing their weapons and beating clangorous shields in lieu of applause. Here and there public entertainers circulated, thinly clad men with flowers twined into their hair and beards, strumming harps and watching with great liquid eyes.

Ray was still not quite sure what the girl’s plan was, and by now didn’t much care. A combination of the dragging Varannian gravity and the potent Varannian wine made him so sleepy that he could barely focus on the milling crowd. Urushkidan slept the sleep of the just, snoring hideously.

Dyann ended her harangue and the racket of metal and voices shook the surrounding walls. After that there were long-winded arguments which sometimes degenerated into fistfights, until Ray himself dropped off to sleep.

He was shaken awake by Dyann and looked blearily around him. Dawn was streaking the horizon with cold colorless light, and the mob was slowly and noisily dispersing. He groaned as he stretched his stiffened body and tried to brush the dew off his clothes.

“The natural life⁠—Hah!” he said miserably, and sneezed.

“It has been decided,” cried the girl. She was still as fresh as the morning, her cheeks were flushed and her eyes ablaze. “They agreed at last, and now the var-vord goes over the land and envoys are bound for Almarro and Kurin to get allies. How soon can ve leave, Ray?”

“Leave?” he asked stupidly. “Leave for where?”

“Vy, for Yupiter, of course!”

“Huh?”

“You are tired, my little bird. Come vith me, and ve shall rest in the castle.”

Ray groaned again.


How do you equip an army of barbarians still in the early Iron Age to cross four and a third light-years of space?

A preliminary question, perhaps is, Do you want to?

Ray emphatically didn’t, but he had very little choice in the matter. He was soon given forcibly to understand that men kept their place and did as they were commanded.

He went to Urushkidan and poured out his sorrows. The Martian, after an abortive attempt to steal the spaceship and sneak home, had been given a room in one of the castle towers and was covering large sheets of local parchment with equations. This place, thought Ray, has octopuses in the belfry.

“They want to go to Jupiter and fight the Jovians,” he said.

“What of it?” asked Urushkidan, lighting his pipe. He had found that dried bark could be smoked. “Tey may eben succeed. Primitibes habe often obercome more adbanced and better armed hosts. Read te history of Eart sometime.”

“But they’ll take us along.”

“Oh. Oh-oh! Tat is different.” The Martian riffled through his papers. “Let me see, I tink Equations 549 trough 627 indicate⁠—yes, here we are. It is possible to project te same type of dribing beam as we use in te faster-tan-light engine so as to impart a desired belocity bector to external objects. Toward or away from you. Or⁠—look here, differentiation of tis equation shows it would be equally simple to break intranuclear bonds by trowing only a certain type of particle into te pseudo-condition. Te atom would ten feed on its own energy.”

Ray looked at him in awe. “You,” he whispered, “have just invented the tractor beam, the pressor beam, the disintegrator, and the all-purpose, all-fuel atomic motor.”

“I habe? Is tere money in tem?”

Ray went to work.

The three expeditions from Sol had left a good deal of assorted supplies and equipment behind for the use of later arrivals. Most of this had been stored in a local temple, and sacrifices were made yearly to the digital computer. It took an involved theological argument to obtain the stuff⁠—the point that Ormun had to be rescued was conceded to be a good one, but it wasn’t till the high priestess suddenly disappeared that the material was forthcoming.

The Ballantyne-Urushkidan circuits were simple things, once you knew how to make them. With the help of a few tolerably skilled smiths, Ray hammered out enough of the new-type atomic generators to lift the fleet off Varann and across to Sol. He built the drive-circuits carefully, designing them to burn out after landing again on Varann. The prospect of the amazon planet’s people flitting whither they pleased in the Galaxy was not one any sane man could cheerfully contemplate.

The spaceships were mere hulks of varnished and greased hardwood, equipped with airlocks and slapped together by the carpenters of Mayta in a few weeks. The crossing would be made so rapidly that heating and air plants wouldn’t be needed. Once the haywired star drives were installed, a pilot sketchily trained for each vessel, and every hull crammed with a couple of hundred yelling warriors, the fleet was ready to go.

They poured in, ten times as many as the thirty ships could hold, riding and hiking from the farthest of the continent’s little kingdoms to be in on the most glorious piracy of their dreams. Only Dyann cared much about Ormun, who was after all merely her personal joss, and only Ray gave a good damn about the menace of Jupiter. The rest came to fight and steal and see new countries. They were especially eager to kidnap husbands⁠—the polyandrous system of Varann worked undue hardships on many women, and Dyann shrewdly gave preference to the unmarried in choosing her followers.

As to the practicability of the whole insane idea⁠—Ray didn’t dare think about it.

Three hectic months after his arrival at Centauri, the barbarian fleet left for Sol.


Jupiter swam enormously in the forward ports, diademed with the bitter glory of open space, growing and growing as the ship rushed closer. Ray pushed his way through the restless crowd of armed women that jammed the boat. “Dyann,” he pleaded, “couldn’t I at least call up Earth and find out what’s happened?”

“Vy, I suppose so,” she said, not taking her eyes off the swelling giant before them. “But be qvick, please.”

The human fiddled with the telescreen. Three months ago the notion of calling over nearly half a billion miles with that undersized thing would have been merely ridiculous. But that was another byproduct of Urushkidan’s theory. You used an electron wave with unlimited velocity as a carrier beam for your radio photons. It induced a similar effect in the other transmitter. No distance diminution. No time lag. Anyway, not within the limits of anything so small as the Solar System. Ray got the standard wavelength of the U.N. public relations office, the only one which he could call freely without going through a lot of red tape.

A blurred face looked out at him. He hadn’t refined his circuits to the point of eliminating distortion, and the U.N. official resembled something seen through ten feet of rippled water⁠—at least, his image did. But the voice was clear enough. “Who is this, please?”

“Ray Ballantyne, returning from Alpha Centauri on the first faster-than-light spaceship. Calling from the vicinity of Jupiter.”

“This is no time for joking. Who the devil are you and what do you want? Please report.”

“I want to give the U.N. Patrol the secret of faster-than-light travel. Stand by to record.”

“Hey!” screamed Urushkidan. “I neber said I’d gibe⁠—”


Dyann put her foot on his head and pushed him against the floor.

“Oh, well,” he said. “Trough te incredible generosity of myself, ten, te secret is made freely abailable⁠—”

“Ready to record?” asked Ray tightly.

“I said your humor is in very bad taste,” said the official, and switched off with an ugly scowl.

Ray blinked weakly at the set for a while. Then he tuned in on Earth broadcasts until he caught a news program. Jupiter had declared war a month ago, defeated the U.N. navy in a running battle off Mars, seized bases on Luna, and was threatening atomic bombardment of Earth unless terms were met. “Oh, gosh,” said Ray.

“Such an inbasion could only be launched on a shoestring,” said Urushkidan. “Te U.N. still has bases closer to home, it can cut Jobian supply lines⁠—”

“And meanwhile poor old Earth is reduced to radioactive rubbish,” said Ray gloomily. “And those gruntbrains in charge won’t believe I’ve got the decisive weapon to save them.”

“Would you beliebe such a claim?”

“No, but this is different, damn it.”

“Ganymede dead ahead,” shouted Dyann. “Stand by for action! Get ready to make a landing.”

VII

The flagship-spaceboat slanted into the moon’s atmosphere with a whoop and a holler, blazed across the ragged surface, and lowered outside the great dome of Ganymede City. The clumsy hulks behind her wallowed after at a more leisurely pace.

Lacking spacesuits, the amazons were faced with a certain problem of entry. Dyann hovered over the spaceport and opened her disintegrators full blast. The port disappeared in a sudden tornado of boiling rock and leaping blue fires. When she had sunk a fifty-foot pit, she went down into it, hung before the side of it facing the city, and narrowed the dis-beam to a drill. In moments she had cut a tunnel through to the lower levels of the city.

Air began streaming out, ghost-white with freezing water vapor, but it would take quite a few minutes for the pressure within to fall dangerously low. Meanwhile Dyann sailed blithely through her tunnel, disintegrated various walls and bulkheads to clear a landing space, and set down amid the ruins of the city’s factory level.

“All out!” she cried. “Hai, Kathantuma!”

Ray buckled on his helmet with shaking fingers, drew his sword, and followed her out the airlock, more because of the press of bodies behind than from any desire for glory. In fact, he admitted to himself, he was scared witless. Only Urushkidan stayed behind⁠—the lucky devil.

The rest of the barbarian fleet streamed in one by one, landing clumsily and discharging their clamorous hordes. When the clear area was filled, they landed on top of each other and the armored warriors jumped down in a flash of edged metal. After they were all in, Urushkidan projected a beam and melted the passageway shut against the escape of air and heat. Also, thought Ray sickly, against a quick retreat.

“Hoo, hah!” Dyann’s sword shrieked in the air above the helmeted heads of her milling army. She started down the nearest corridor, running and bounding and whooping. The amazons were hard on her heels, and the racket of clashing armor and girlish voices was shattering.

Up a long staircase, five steps at a time, into the hall beyond that, spilling out over a broad plaza⁠—

A machine gun raved and Ray saw three Centaurians tumble to the floor. As he dove for it himself, he looked across the square and into the muzzle of the thing where it sat in one of the branch corridors. There might be only a skeleton garrison left in the city but it had reacted with terrifying swiftness. Ray tried to dig through the metal floorplates.

The air was suddenly thick and whistling. A solid rain of spears and arrows loosed. It didn’t leave much of the machine gun crew. One of the amazon officers⁠—they had some notion of firearms⁠—picked up the .50 caliber under one arm. When a squad of Jovian soldiers appeared down the hallway, she held it against her knee and used it tommy-gun style. It worked.

Ray was carried along by the tide. In this weird struggle, modern firearms weren’t of decisive use. Boiling through the miles of gloomy hallways and narrow apartments, the fight was almost entirely hand-to-hand, and that was exactly what the Varannians loved.

Dyann vaulted over a row of bodies and hit a Jovian squad with all her mass and momentum. She trampled two men underfoot while her sword howled in a shearing arc around her. A Jovian grenadier hurled his pineapple in her direction. She snatched it out of the air and tossed it back. Wildly, he caught it and threw it again. Dyann laughed and pitched it once more⁠—very shortly before it went off. Turning, she skewered one Jovian, kicked another in the belly, used her sword’s guard as a knuckle-duster against a third, and cut down a fourth in almost the same motion. The squad broke up.

Ray saw an inviting door and scurried for it. There was a bed to hide under. Two Jovian soldiers came in at that moment, fleeing the barbarians.

Ray’s helmet and cuirass were as good as a uniform, or he would have shouted “Hail, Wilder!” As it was, the nearest man lunged at him with a bayonet. Ray’s sword clattered against the weapon, driving it briefly aside. The Jovian snarled and probed inward, but a bayonet is clumsy compared to a well-handled blade and Ray had done a little fencing. He beat the assault back and thrust under the fellow’s guard.

The other man had been circling, trying to get in on the fun. Now he charged. Ray whirled to meet him and tripped on his scabbard. He clanged to the floor and the rushing Jovian tripped on him. Ray got on the man’s back, pulled off his helmet, and beat his head against the floor.

Rising, he checked the two rifles. Empty⁠—the Jovians must have used all their clips in an attempt to stem the Centaurian thrust, which explained their choice of cold steel against him. But they had full cartridge belts. Ray reloaded one of the guns and felt better.

Peering carefully out the door, he saw that the fight had moved somewhere else. He started back toward the ships, the safest place he could think of.


As he rounded a corner a tommy-gun blast nearly took his head off. He yelled, dropped to the floor just in time, and let the gun fall from his hands.

A hard boot slammed against his ribs. “Get up!”

He lurched to his feet and stared into the faces of a Jovian detachment, the black-clad elite guard of the dictator himself. Martin Wilder the Great huddled in their midst. Colonel Roshevsky-Feldkamp was at their head, in charge of Jupiter’s home defense, Ray thought wildly, and tried to stretch his arms higher.

“Ballantyne!” The Jovian officer glared at him for a long moment. “So you are responsible.”

“I had nothing to do with it, so help me I didn’t,” protested Ray between the clattering of his teeth.

“You brought these savages in, you and your damned faster-than-light engine. If it weren’t for your hostage value, I’d shoot you now. As it is, I’ll wait till later. March!”

They went carefully down the glutted hall-street. The Centaurians had been picking up souvenirs from every shop and apartment they passed. “Don’t think this will accomplish anything,” said Wilder pompously. “You may have driven us from our capital, but we have already called for help from the other cities⁠—from the whole Jovian System. The fleet is on its way.”

So the amazons had taken Ganymede City. And now they’d be too busy looting to think about counterattacks from outside. Ray groaned.

“We have to get out of here, sir,” said Roshevsky-Feldkamp. “We don’t want you to be caught in the fighting.”

“No, no, that would never do,” said Wilder quickly.

“There is a military airlock this way, with spacesuits. We can get out on the surface.”

“I will strike a new medal,” chattered the dictator. “The Defense of the Homeland Medal.”

“And afterward we will take those ships.” Roshevsky-Feldkamp’s hard face lit with a terrible glee. “And then the stars are ours.”

“Hoo-ah!”

The shout rang down the hallway. Ray saw a Centaurian band, staggering under armloads of assorted plunder, emerge from a side passage. The Jovians brought their rifles up.

Something like an atomic bomb hit the group from the rear. Dyann’s war-cry shrieked above the sudden din. She hadn’t been altogether a fool.

Ray was shoved back against the wall by the sudden whirlpool of struggling bodies. He ducked as a Varannian sword whistled overhead. Dyann was wading in among the Jovians, kicking, striking, hewing like a maniac. She split one enemy apart, pitched another into a third, turned around and chopped loose. Her warriors got to work at her side.

A panting Jovian backed up close to Ray, lifting his rifle anew to shoot down the bronze-haired girl. The Earthmen thoughtfully removed the soldier’s pistol from its holster and shot him.

“My little hero!” cried Dyann happily. “I love you so much!” She beat down another man’s gun and broke his head.

The fight ended. Most of the Jovians had simply been knocked galley-west and submitted in a stunned way to being bound and hoisted to Varannian shoulders. Ray had a glimpse of Martin Wilder the Great and Colonel Roshevsky-Feldkamp being dragged off by a squat and muscular amazon with a silly smirk on her sword-scarred face. They were destined for her harem, and he couldn’t think of two people he’d rather have it happen to.

Only there were those Jovian ships⁠—

Ray had no way, just then, of knowing that Urushkidan had prudently taken the spaceboat outside again and was using its long-range beams to disintegrate the fleet as it came down. He hummed an old Martian work song to himself as he did. There are times when even a philosopher must take measures.


Official banquets are notoriously dull affairs, and the present celebration was no different. That the Luna-based invaders had capitulated on hearing of the disaster at home, that a democratic government with U.N. membership had been set up for a permanently disarmed Jupiter, and that the stars were open to mankind, seemed to call forth only bigger and better platitudes.

Ray Ballantyne, drowsy with food and cocktails, nearly snowblind with white tablecloth, would have fallen asleep except for the fact that his shoes pinched him. So he listened with some surprise to the president of his alma mater telling what an outstanding student he had been. As a matter of fact, he recalled, he’d damn near been expelled.

Urushkidan, crammed into a Martian-designed tuxedo, smoked a thoughtful pipe at his right and made calculations on the tablecloth. Dyann Korlas, her shining hair braided around a stolen Jovian tiara, looked stunning in a low-cut evening gown on his left. The dagger at her waist was to set a new fashion on Earth, but there had been some confusion when she insisted on having Ormun the Terrible placed in front of her and grace said to the idol. Oh, well.

“⁠—and this dauntless genius of science, whom his university is pleased to honor with a doctorate of law⁠—”

She leaned over and whispered in his ear⁠—it could only be heard for three yards around⁠—“Ray, vat vill you do now?”

“I dunno,” he murmured back. “I want to get a patent on that damn interstellar drive before Urushkidan does, but after that⁠—well⁠—”

“It vas a lot of fun vile it lasted, vasn’t it?” Dyann’s smile was wistful. “But I have been thinking, Ray. I am goin’ back to Varann and carve me out a throne. You⁠—vell, Ray, you are too fine and beautiful for such rough vork. You belon’ here, in the glamor and bright lights, not out vith a lot of coarse unruly vomen who might hurt you.”

“You know,” he said, “I think you’ve got something there.”

“I vill alvays remember you,” she said sentimentally. “Maybe some day ven ve are old, ve can meet again and bore the youth vith talk of our great days.” She looked around. “If only ve could sneak out of here now and have a farevell party of our own⁠—I know a bar⁠—”

“Hmmm.” Ray stroked his chin. “This calls for tactics. If we could sort of slump down in our chairs, as if we were tired⁠—and Lord, I am!⁠—and gradually sink out of sight, we could crawl under the table and through that door⁠—”

As he crept from the hall, Ray heard Urushkidan, called on for a speech, begin the detailed exposition of his latest theory.

Security

It had been a tough day at the lab, one of those days when nothing seems able to go right. And, of course, it had been precisely the day Hammond, the Efficiency inspector, would choose to stick his nose in. Another mark in his little notebook⁠—and enough marks like that meant a derating, and Control had a habit of sending derated labmen to Venus. That wasn’t a criminal punishment, but it amounted to the same thing. Allen Lancaster had no fear of it for himself; the sector chief of a Project was under direct Control jurisdiction rather than Efficiency, and Control was friendly to him. But he’d hate to see young Rogers get it⁠—the boy had been married only a week now.

To top the day off, a report had come to Lancaster’s desk from Sector Seven of the Project. Security had finally cleared it for general transmission to sector chiefs⁠—and it was the complete design of an electronic valve on which some of the best men in Lancaster’s own division, Sector Thirteen, had been sweating for six months. There went half a year’s work down the drain, all for nothing, and Lancaster would have that much less to show at the next Project reckoning.

He had cursed for several minutes straight, drawing the admiring glances of his assistants. It was safe enough for a high-ranking labman to gripe about Security⁠—in fact, it was more or less expected. Scientists had their privileges.

One of these was a private three-room apartment. Another was an extra liquor ration. Tonight, as he came home, Lancaster decided to make a dent in the latter. He’d eaten at the commissary, as usual, but hadn’t stayed to talk. All the way home in the tube, he’d been thinking of that whiskey and soda.

Now it sparkled gently in his glass and he sighed, letting a smile crease his lean homely face. He was a tall man, a little stooped, his clothes⁠—uniform and mufti alike⁠—perpetually rumpled. Solitary by nature, he was still unmarried in spite of the bachelor tax and had only one son. The boy was ten years old now, must be in the Youth Guard; Lancaster wasn’t sure, never having seen him.

It was dark outside his windows, but a glow above the walls across the skyway told of the city pulsing and murmuring beyond. He liked the quiet of his evenings alone and had withstood a good deal of personal and official pressure to serve in various patriotic organizations. “Damn it,” he had explained, “I’m not doing routine work. I’m on a Project, and I need relaxation of my own choosing.”

He selected a tape from his library. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik lilted joyously about him as he found a chair and sat down. Control hadn’t gotten around to making approved lists of music yet, though you’d surely never hear Mozart in a public place. Lancaster got a cigar from the humidor and collapsed his long gaunt body across chair and hassock. Smoke, whiskey, good music⁠—they washed his mind clean of worry and frustration; he drifted off in a mist of unformed dreams. Yes, it wasn’t such a bad world.


The mail-tube went ping! and he opened his eyes, swearing. For a moment he was tempted to let the pneumo-roll lie where it fell, but habit was too strong. He grumbled his way over to the basket and took it out.

The stamp across it jerked his mind to wakefulness. OfiSal, sEkret, fOr adresE OnlE⁠—and a Security seal!

After a moment he swallowed his thumping heart. It couldn’t be serious, not as far as he personally was concerned anyway. If that had been the case, a squad of monitors would have been at the door. Not this message tube.⁠ ⁠… He broke the seal and unfolded the flimsy with elaborate care. Slowly, he scanned it. Underneath the official letterhead, the words were curt. “Dis iz A matr uv urjensE and iz top sEkret. destrY Dis letr and Du tUb kontAniN it. tUmOrO, 15 jUn, at 2130 ourz, U wil gO tU Du obzurvatOrE, A nIt klub at 5730 viktOrE strEt, and ask Du hedwAtr fOr A mistr Berg. U wil asUm Dat hE iz an Old frend uv yOrz and Dat Dis iz A sOSal EveniN. Du UZUal penaltEz ar invOkt fOr fAlUr tU komplI.”

There was no signature. Lancaster stood for a moment, trying to imagine what this might be. There was a brief chill of sweat on his skin. Then he suppressed his emotions. He had nothing to fear. His record was clean and he wasn’t being arrested.

His mind wandered rebelliously off on something that had occurred to him before. Admittedly the new phonetic orthography was more efficient than the old, if less esthetic; but since little of the earlier literature was being reissued in modern spelling not too many books had actually been condemned as subversive⁠—only a few works on history, politics, philosophy, and the like, together with some scientific texts restricted for security reasons; but one by one, the great old writings were sent to forgetfulness.

Well, these were critical times. There wasn’t material and energy to spare for irrelevant details. No doubt when complete peace was achieved there would be a renaissance. Meanwhile he, Lancaster, had his Euripides and Goethe and whatever else he liked, or knew where to borrow it.

As for this message, they must want him for something big, maybe something really interesting.

Nevertheless, his evening was ruined.


The Observatory was like most approved recreation spots⁠—large and raucous, selling unrationed food and drink and amusement at uncontrolled prices of which the government took its usual lion’s share. The angle in this place was astronomy. The ceiling was a blue haze aglitter with slowly wheeling constellations, and the strippers began with make-believe spacesuits. There were some rather good murals on the walls depicting various stages of the conquest of space. Lancaster was amused at one of them. When he’d been here three years ago, the first landing on Ganymede had shown a group of men unfurling a German flag. It had stuck in his mind, because he happened to know that the first expedition there had actually been Russian. That was all right then, seeing that Germany was an ally at the time. But now that Europe was growing increasingly cold to the idea of an American-dominated world, the Ganymedean pioneers were holding a good safe Stars and Stripes.

Oh, well. You had to keep the masses happy. They couldn’t see that their sacrifices and the occasional short wars were necessary to prevent another real smashup like the one seventy-five years ago. Lancaster’s annoyance was directed at the sullen foreign powers and the traitors within his own land. It was because of them that science had to be strait-jacketed by Security regulations.

The headwaiter bowed before him. “I’m looking for a friend,” said Lancaster. “A Mr. Berg.”

“Yes, sir. This way, please.”

Lancaster slouched after him. He’d worn the dress uniform of a Project officer, but he felt that all eyes were on its deplorable sloppiness. The headwaiter conducted him between tables of half-crocked customers⁠—burly black-uniformed Space Guardsmen, army and air officers, richly clad industrialists and union bosses, civilian leaders, their wives and mistresses. The waiters were all Martian slaves, he noticed, their phosphorescent owl-eyes smoldering in the dim blue light.

He was ushered into a curtained booth. There was an auto-dispenser so that those using it need not be interrupted by servants, and an ultrasonic globe on the table was already vibrating to soundproof the region. Lancaster’s gaze went to the man sitting there. In spite of being short, he was broad-shouldered and compact in plain gray evening pajamas. His face was round and freckled, almost cherubic, under a shock of sandy hair, but there were merry little devils in his eyes.


“Good evening, Dr. Lancaster,” he said. “Please sit down. What’ll you have?”

“Thanks, I’ll have Scotch and soda.” Might as well make this expensive, if the government was footing the bill. And if this⁠—Berg⁠—thought him un-American for drinking an imported beverage, what of it? The scientist lowered himself into the seat opposite his host.

“I’m having the same, as a matter of fact,” said Berg mildly. He twirled the dial and slipped a couple of five-dollar coins into the dispenser slot. When the tray was ejected, he sipped his drink appreciatively and looked across the rim of the glass at the other man.

“You’re a high-ranking physicist on the Arizona Project, aren’t you, Dr. Lancaster?” he asked.

That much was safe to admit. Lancaster nodded.

“What is your work, precisely?”

“You know I can’t tell you anything like that.”

“It’s all right. Here are my credentials.” Berg extended a wallet. Lancaster scanned the cards and handed them back.

“Okay, so you’re in Security,” he said. “I still can’t tell you anything, not without proper clearance.”

Berg chuckled amiably. “Good. I’m glad to see you’re discreet. Too many labmen don’t understand the necessity of secrecy, even between different branches of the same organization.” With a sudden whip-like sharpness: “You didn’t tell anyone about this meeting, did you?”

“No, of course not.” Despite himself, Lancaster was rattled. “That is, a friend asked if I’d care to go out with her tonight, but I said I was meeting someone else.”

“That’s right.” Berg relaxed, smiling. “All right, we may as well get down to business. You’re getting quite an honor, Dr. Lancaster. You’ve been tapped for one of the most important jobs in the Solar System.”

“Eh?” Lancaster’s eyes widened behind the contact lenses. “But no one else has informed me⁠—”

“No one of your acquaintance knows of this. Nor shall they. But tell me, you’ve done work on dielectrics, haven’t you?”

“Yes. It’s been a sort of specialty of mine, in fact. I wrote my thesis on the theory of dielectric polarization and since then⁠—no, that’s classified.”

“M-hm.” Berg took another sip of his drink. “And right now you’re just a cog in a computer-development Project. You see, I do know a few things about you. However, we’ve decided⁠—higher up, you know, in fact on the very top level⁠—to take you off it for the time being and put you on this other job, one concerning your specialty. Furthermore, you won’t be part of a great organizational machine, but very much on your own. The fewer who know of this, the better.”

Lancaster wasn’t sure he liked that. Once the job was done⁠—if he were possessed of all information on it⁠—he might be incarcerated or even shot as a Security risk. Things like that had happened. But there wasn’t much he could do about it.

“Have no fears.” Berg seemed to read his thoughts. “Your reward may be a little delayed for Security reasons, but it will come in due time.” He leaned forward, earnestly. “I repeat, this project is top secret. It’s a vital link in something much bigger than you can imagine, and few men below the President even know of it. Therefore, the very fact that you’ve worked on it⁠—that you’ve done any outside work at all⁠—must remain unknown, even to the chiefs of your Project.”

“Good stunt if you can do it,” shrugged Lancaster. “But I’m hot. Security keeps tabs on everything I do.”

“This is how we’ll work it. You have a furlough coming up in two weeks, don’t you⁠—a three months’ furlough? Where were you going?”

“I thought I’d visit the Southwest. Get in some mountain climbing, see the canyons and Indian ruins and⁠—”

“Yes, yes. Very well. You’ll get your ticket as usual and a reservation at the Tycho Hotel in Phoenix. You’ll go there and, on your first evening, retire early. Alone, I need hardly add. We’ll be waiting for you in your room. There’ll be a very carefully prepared duplicate⁠—surgical disguise, plastic fingerprinting tips, fully educated in your habits, tastes, and mannerisms. He’ll stay behind and carry out your vacation while we smuggle you away. A similar exchange will be affected when you return, you’ll be told exactly how your double spent the summer, and you’ll resume your ordinary life.”

“Ummm⁠—well⁠—” It was too sudden. Lancaster had to hedge. “But look⁠—I’ll be supposedly coming back from an outdoor vacation, with a suntan and well rested. Somebody’s going to get suspicious.”

“There’ll be sun lamps where you’re going, my friend. And I think the chance to work independently on something that really interests you will prove every bit as restful to your nerves as a summer’s travel. I know the scientific mentality.” Berg chuckled. “Yes, indeed.”


The exchange went off so smoothly that it was robbed of all melodrama, though Lancaster had an unexpectedly eerie moment when he confronted his double. It was his own face that looked at him, there in the impersonal hotel room, himself framed against blowing curtains and darkness of night. Then Berg gestured him to follow and they went down a cord ladder hanging from the window sill. A car waited in the alley below and slid into easy motion the instant they had gotten inside.

There was a driver and another man in the front seat, both shadows against the moving blur of street lamps and night. Berg and Lancaster sat in the rear, and the secret agent chatted all the way. But he said nothing of informational content.

When the highway had taken them well into the loneliness of the desert, the car turned off it, bumped along a miserable dirt track until it had crossed a ridge, and slowed before a giant transcontinental dieselectric truck. A man emerged from its cab, waving an unhurried arm, and the car swung around to the rear of the van. There was a tailgate lowered, forming a ramp; above it, the huge double doors opened on a cavern of blackness. The car slid up the ramp, and the man outside pushed it in after them and closed the doors. Presently the truck got into motion.

“This is really secret!” whistled Lancaster. He felt awed and helpless.

“Quite so. Security doesn’t like the government’s right hand to know what its left is doing.” Berg smiled, a dim flash of teeth in his shadowy face. Then he was serious. “It’s necessary, Lancaster. You don’t know how strong and well-organized the subversives are.”

“They⁠—” The physicist closed his mouth. It was true⁠—he hadn’t the faintest notion, really. He followed the news, but in a cursory fashion, without troubling to analyze the meaning of it. Damn it all, he had enough else to think about. Just as well that elections had been suspended and bade fair to continue indefinitely in abeyance. If he, a member of the intelligentsia, wasn’t sufficiently acquainted with the political and military facts of life to make rational decisions, it certainly behooved the ill-educated masses to obey.

“We might as well stretch ourselves,” said the driver. “Long way to go yet.” He climbed out and switched on an overhead light.


The interior of the van was roomy, even allowing for the car. There were bunks, a table and chairs, a small refrigerator and cookstove. The driver, a lean saturnine man who seemed to be forever chewing gum, began to prepare coffee. The other sat down, whistling tunelessly. He was young and powerfully built, but his right arm ended in a prosthetic claw. All of them were dressed in inconspicuous civilian garb.

“Take us about ten hours, maybe,” said Berg. “The spaceship’s way over in Colorado.”

He caught Lancaster’s blank stare, and grinned. “Yes, my friend, your lab is out in space. Surprised?”

“Mmm⁠—yeah. I’ve never been off Earth.”

“Sokay. We run at acceleration, you won’t be spacesick.” Berg drew up a chair, sat down, and tilted it back against a wall. The steady rumble of engines pulsed under his words:

“It’s interesting, really, to consider the relationship between government and military technology. The powerful, authoritarian governments have always arisen in such times as the evolution of warfare made a successful fighting machine something elaborate, expensive, and maintainable by professionals only. Like in the Roman Empire. It took years to train a legionnaire and a lot of money to equip an army and keep it in the field. So Rome became autarchic. However, it was not so expensive a proposition that a rebellious general couldn’t put some troops up for a while⁠—or he could pay them with plunder. So you did get civil wars. Later, when the Empire had broken up and warfare relied largely on the individual barbarian who brought his own weapons with him, government loosened. It had to⁠—any ruler who got to throwing his weight around too much would have insurrection on his hands. Then as war again became an art⁠—well, you see how it goes. There are other factors, of course, like religion⁠—ideology in general. But by and large, it’s worked out the way I explained it. Because there are always people willing to fight when government encroaches on what they consider their liberties, and governments are always going to try to encroach. So the balance struck depends on comparative strength. The American colonists back in 1776 relied on citizen levies and weapons were so cheap and simple that almost anyone could obtain them. Therefore government stayed loose for a long time. But nowadays, who except a government can make atomic bombs and space rockets? So we get absolute states.”


Lancaster looked around, feeling the loneliness close in on him. The driver was still clattering the coffee pot. The one-armed man was utterly blank and expressionless. And Berg sat there, smiling, pouring out those damnable cynicisms. Was it some kind of test? Were they probing his loyalty? What kind of reply was expected?

“We’re a democratic nation and you know it,” he said. It came out more feebly than he had thought.

“Oh, well, sure. This is just a state of emergency which has lasted unusually long, seventy-two years to be exact. If we hadn’t lost World War III, and needed a powerful remilitarization to overthrow the Soviet world⁠—but we did.” Berg took out a pack of cigarettes. “Smoke? I was just trying to explain to you why the subversives are so dangerous. They have to be, or they wouldn’t stand any kind of chance. When you set out to upset something as big as the United States government, it’s an all or nothing proposition. They’ve had a long time now to organize, and there’s a huge percentage of malcontents to help them out.”

“Malcontents? Well, look, Berg⁠—I mean, you’re the expert and of course you know your business, but a natural human grumble at conditions doesn’t mean revolutionary sentiments. These aren’t such bad times. People have work, and their needs are supplied. They aren’t hankering to have the Hemispheric Wars back again.”

“The standard revolutionary argument,” said Berg patiently, “is that the rebels aren’t trying to overthrow the nation at all, but simply to restore constitutional and libertarian government. It’s common knowledge that they have help and some subsidies from outside, but it’s contended that these are merely countries tired of a world dominated by an American dictatorship and, being small Latin-American and European states, couldn’t possibly think of conquering us. Surely you’ve seen subversive literature.”

“Well, yes. Can’t help finding their pamphlets. All over the place. And⁠—” Lancaster closed his mouth. No, damned if he was going to admit that he knew three co-workers who listened to rebel propaganda broadcasts. Those were silly, harmless kids⁠—why get them in trouble, maybe get them sent to camp?


“You probably don’t appreciate the hold that kind of argument has on all too many intellectuals⁠—and a lot of the common herd, too,” said Berg. “Naturally you wouldn’t⁠—if your attitude has always been unsympathetic, these people aren’t going to confide their thoughts to you. And then there are bought men, and spies smuggled in, and⁠—oh, I needn’t elaborate. It’s enough to say that we’ve been thoroughly infiltrated, and that most of their agents have absolutely impeccable dossiers. We can’t give neoscop to everybody, you know⁠—Security has to rely on spot checks and the testing of key personnel. Only when organizations get as big as they are today, there’s apt to be no real key man, and a few spies strategically placed in the lower echelons can pickup a hell of a lot of information. Then there are the colonists out on the planets⁠—our hold on them has always necessarily been loose, because of transportation and communication difficulties if nothing else. And, as I say, foreign powers. A little country like Switzerland or Denmark or Venezuela can’t do much by itself, but an undercover international pooling of resources.⁠ ⁠… Anyway, we have reason to believe in the existence of a large, well financed, well organized underground, with trained fighting men, big secret weapons dumps, and saboteurs ready for the word ‘g