Captives of the Flame
Chapter 12

Public Domain

In the laboratory tower of Toron, the transparent bubble above the receiving stage brightened. In shimmering haze on the platform, the transparent figures solidified. Then Alter and Tel slipped beneath the rail on the stage and dropped down to the floor (Alter still wore the hospital robe and the cast on her left arm) while Arkor, Jon, and Petra used the metal stairway to descend. A battery of relays snapped somewhere and the scarlet heads of forty-nine switches by the window snapped to off. The globe faded.

“A bit more explanation,” Petra was saying. “Hey, kids, keep quiet.”

“Well, as far as the Lord of the Flames goes, on Earth anyway, it’s more or less trivial and irrelevant,” said Arkor. “You’re still right. This war is in Toromon, not outside it.”

“My curiosity is still peaked,” Jon said. “So give.”

“From what I gathered while I saw scanning the minds of those two who came out of the generator building with the Lord of the Flames (I should say the host of the Lord of the Flames), there’s a tribe behind the barrier which resembles more or less what man might have been forty or fifty thousand years ago. Physically they’re squat, thick-boned, and have the elements of a social system. Mentally they’re pretty thick and squat too. The Lord of the Flames got into one of them just about when he was at age four. Then he gave the kid about sixty thousand years worth of technical information. So he began building all sorts of goodies, forcing his people to help him, using some equipment from a ruined city that dates from pre-Great Fire times behind the barrier. That’s how the generators and the anti-aircraft guns got constructed.”

“Our war is still going on,” Jon said.

“Well, the Lord of the Flames is no longer with us,” said Petra. “We’ve chased it to the other end of the universe. Now that we’ve removed what external reason there was for the war, we’ve got to think about the internal ones.”

“What are you going to do immediately about the kids?” Jon asked.

“I think the best thing for them to do is to go off to my estate for a little while,” Petra said.

“It’s on an island, isn’t it?” Tel asked.

“That’s right,” Petra said.

“Gee, Alter. Now I can teach you how to fish, and we’ll be right by the sea.”

“What about Uske?” Arkor asked. “You can either walk into his room and interrupt an obscene dream he’s having, and present your case and be arrested for treason, or you can leave well enough alone at this point and wait till the opportunity comes to do something constructive.”

Suddenly Jon grinned. “Hey, you say he’s asleep?” He turned and bounded for the door.

“What are you going to do?” Petra called.

Jon looked at Arkor. “Read my mind,” he said.

Then Arkor laughed.

In his bedroom, Uske rolled over through a silken rustle, opened one eye, and thought he heard a sound.

“Hey, stupid,” someone whispered.

Uske reached out of bed and pressed the night light. A dim orange glow did not quite fill half the room.

“Now don’t get panicky,” continued the voice. “You’re dreaming.”

“Huh?” Uske leaned on one elbow, blinked, and scratched his head with his other hand.

A shadow approached him, then stopped, naked, faceless, transparent, half in and half out of the light. “See,” came the voice. “A figment of your imagination.”

“Oh, I remember you,” Uske said.

“Fine,” said the shadow. “Do you know what I’ve been doing since the last time you saw me?”

“I couldn’t be less interested,” Uske said, turning over and looking the other way.

“I’ve been trying to stop the war. Do you believe me?”

“Look, figment, it’s three o’clock in the morning. I’ll believe it, but what’s it to you.”

“Just that I think I’ve succeeded.”

“I’ll give you two minutes before I pinch myself and wake up.” Uske turned back over.

“Look, what do you think is behind the radiation barrier?”

“I think very little about it, figgy. It doesn’t have very much to do with me.”

“It’s a primitive race that can’t possibly harm us, especially now that its--its generators have been knocked out. All of its artillery it got from a source that is now defunct. Look, Uske, I’m your guilty conscience. Wouldn’t it be fun to really be king for a while and stop the war? You declared war. Now declare peace. Then start examining the country and doing something about it.”

“Mother would never hear of it. Neither would Chargill. Besides, all this information is only a dream.”

“Exactly, Uske. You’re dreaming about what you really want. So how does this sound: make a deal with me as your guilty conscience and representative of yourself; if this dream turns out to be correct, then you declare peace. It’s the only logical thing. Come on, stand up for yourself, be a king. You’ll go down in history as having started a war. Wouldn’t you like to go down as having stopped it too?”

“You don’t understand...”

“Yes, I know. A war is a bigger thing that the desires of one man, even if he is a king. But if you get things started on the right foot, you’ll have history on your side.”

“Your two minutes have been cut down to one; and it’s up.”

“I’m going; I’m going. But think about it, Uske.”

Uske switched off the light and the ghost went out. A few minutes later Jon crawled through the laboratory tower window, buttoning his shirt. Arkor shook his head, smiling. “Well,” he said. “Good try. Here’s hoping it does some good.”

Jon shrugged.

In the morning, Rara got up early to sweep off the front steps of the inn (windows boarded, kitchen raided, but deserted now save for her; and she had the key); she swept to the left, looking right, then swept to the right, looked left, and said, “Dear Lord, you can’t stay there like that. Come on, now. Get on, be on your way.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“For pity’s sake, woman, you can’t go around cluttering up the steps of an honest woman’s boarding house. We’re re-opening this week, soon as we get the broken windows repaired. Vandals didn’t leave a one, after the old owner died. Just got my license, so it’s all legal. Soon as we get the window, so you just move on.”

“I just got here, this morning ... They didn’t tell us where to go, they just turned us off the ship. And it was so dark, and I was tired ... I didn’t know the City was so big. I’m looking for my son--not so big! We used to be fishermen back on the mainland. I did a little weaving.”

“And your son ran off to the City and you ran off after him. Good luck in the New Land; welcome to the island of Opportunity. But just get up and move on.”

“But my son...”

“There are more fishermen’s sons down here in the Devil’s Pot than you can shake a stick at--fishermen’s sons, farmers’ sons, blacksmiths’ sons, sons’ sons. And all of their mothers were weavers or water carriers, or chicken raisers. I must have talked to all of them at one time or another. I won’t even tell you to go down to the launch where they take the workers out to the aquariums and the hydroponic’s gardens. That’s what most of the young people do when they get here ... if they can get a job. I won’t even tell you to go there, because there’re so many people that work there, you might miss him a dozen days running.”

“But the war--I thought he might have joined...”

“Somewhere in this ridiculous mess,” interrupted Rara, her birthmark deepening in color, “I have misplaced a niece who was as close to me as any daughter or son ever was to any mother or father. All reports say that she’s dead. So you just be happy that you don’t know about yours. You be very happy, do you hear me!”

The woman was standing up now. “You say the launches to the factory? Which way are they?”

“I’m telling you not to go. They’re that way, down two streets, and to your left until you hit the docks. Don’t go.”

“Thank you,” the woman was saying, already off down the street. “Thank you.” As she reached the middle of the block, someone rounded the corner a moment later, sprinting. He brushed past the woman and ran toward the door of the inn.

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