Captives of the Flame
Clea Koshar had been installed in her government office for three days. The notebook in which she had been doing her own work in inverse sub-trigonometric functions had been put away in her desk for exactly fifty-four seconds when she made the first discovery that gave her a permanent place in the history of Toromon’s wars as its first military hero. Suddenly she pounded her fist on the computer keys, flung her pencil across the room, muttered, “What the hell is this!” and dialed the military ministry.
It took ten minutes to get Tomar. His red-haired face came in on the visiphone, recognized her, and smiled. “Hi,” he said.
“Hi, yourself,” she said. “I just got out those figures you people sent us about the data from the radiation barrier, and those old readings from the time Telphar was destroyed. Tomar, I didn’t even have to feed them to the computer. I just looked at them. That radiation was artificially created. Its increment is completely steady. At least on the second derivative. Its build-up pattern is such that there couldn’t be more than two simple generators, or one complexed on...”
“Slow down,” Tomar said. “What do you mean, generators?”
“The radiation barrier, or at least most of it, is artificially maintained. And there are not more than two generators, and possibly one, maintaining it.”
“How do you generate radiation?” Tomar asked.
“I don’t know,” Clea said. “But somebody has been doing it.”
“I don’t want to knock your genius, but how come nobody else figured it out?”
“I just guess nobody thought it was a possibility, or thought of gratuitously taking the second derivative, or bothered to look at them before they fed them into the computers. In twenty minutes I can figure out the location for you.”
“You do that,” he said, “and I’ll get the information to whomever it’s supposed to get to. You know, this is the first piece of information of import that we’ve gotten from this whole battery of slide-rule slippers up there. I should have figured it would have probably come from you. Thanks, if we can use it.”
She blew him a kiss as his face winked out. Then she got out her notebook again. Then minutes later the visiphone crackled at her. She turned to it and tried to get the operator. The operator was not to be gotten. She reached into her desk and got out a small pocket tool kit and was about to attack the housing of the frequency-filterer when the crackling increased and she heard a voice. She put the screw driver down and put the instrument back on the desk. A face flickered onto the screen and then flickered off. The face had dark hair, seemed perhaps familiar. But it was gone before she was sure she had made it out.
Crossed signals from another line, she figured. Maybe a short in the dialing mechanism. She glanced down at her notebook and took up her pencil when the picture flashed onto the screen again. This time it was clear and there was no static. The familiarity, she did not realize, was the familiarity of her own face on a man.
“Hello,” he said. “Hello, Hello, Clea?”
“Who is this?” she asked.
“Clea, this is Jon.”
She sat very still, trying to pull two halves of something back together (as in a forest, a prince had felt the same things disengage). Clea succeeded. “You’re supposed to be ... dead. I mean I thought you were. Where are you, Jon?”
“Clea,” he said. “Clea--I have to talk to you.”
There was a five-second silence.
“Jon, Jon, how are you?”
“Fine,” he said. “I really am. I’m not in prison any more. I’ve been out a long time, and I’ve done a lot of things. But Clea, I need your help.”
“Of course,” she said. “Tell me how? What do you want me to do?”
“Do you want to know where I am?” he said. “What I’ve been doing? I’m in Telphar, and I’m trying to stop the war.”
“There’s something behind that famed radiation barrier, and it’s a more or less civilized race. I’m about to break through the rest of the barrier and see what can be done. But I need some help at home. I’ve been monitoring phone calls in Toron. There’s an awful lot of equipment here that’s more or less mine if I can figure out how to use it. And I’ve got a friend here who knows more in that line than I gave him credit for. I’ve overheard some closed circuit conference calls, and I’m talking to you by the same method. I know you’ve got the ear of Major Tomar and I know he’s one of the few trustworthy people in that whole military hodge-podge. Clea, there is something hostile to Toromon behind that radiation barrier, but a war is not the answer. The thing that’s making the war is the unrest in Toromon. And the war isn’t going to remedy that. The emigration situation, the food situation, the excess man power, the deflation: that’s what’s causing your war. If that can be stopped, then the thing behind the barrier can be dealt with quickly and peacefully. There in Toron you don’t even know what the enemy is. They wouldn’t let you know even if they knew themselves.”
“Do you know?” Clea asked.
Jon paused. Then he said, “No, but whatever it is, it’s people with something wrong among them. And warring on them won’t exorcise it.”
“Can you exorcise it?” Clea asked.
Jon paused again. “Yes. I can’t tell you how; but let’s say what’s troubling them is a lot simpler than what’s troubling us in Toromon.”
“Jon,” Clea asked suddenly, “what’s it like in Telphar? You know I’ll help you if I can, but tell me.”
The face on the visiphone was still. Then it drew a deep breath. “Clea, it’s like an open air tomb. The city is very unlike Toron. It was planned, all the streets are regular, there’s no Devil’s Pot, nor could there ever be one. Roadways wind above ground among the taller buildings. I’m in the Palace of the Stars right now. It was a magnificent building.” The face looked right and left. “It still is. They had amazing laboratories, lots of equipment, great silvered meeting halls under an immense ceiling that reproduced the stars on the ceiling. The electric plants still work. Most houses you can walk right in and turn on a light switch. Half the plumbing in the city is out, though. But everything in the palace still works. It must have been a beautiful place to live in. When they were evacuating during the radiation rise, very little marauding took place...”