When the Investigation & Adjustment scout cruiser landed on Marak it carried a man the doctors had no hope of saving. He was alive only because he was in a womblike creche pod that had taken over most of his vital functions.
The man’s name was Lewis Orne. He had been a blocky, heavy-muscled redhead with slightly off-center features and the hard flesh of a heavy planet native. Even in the placid repose of near death there was something clownish about his appearance. His burned, ungent-covered face looked made up for some bizarre show.
Marak is the League capital, and the I-A medical center there is probably the best in the galaxy, but it accepted the creche pod and Orne more as a curiosity than anything else. The man had lost one eye, three fingers of his left hand and part of his hair, suffered a broken jaw and various internal injuries. He had been in terminal shock for more than ninety hours.
Umbo Stetson, Orne’s section chief, went back into his cruiser’s “office” after a hospital flitter took pod and patient. There was an added droop to Stetson’s shoulders that accentuated his usual slouching stance. His overlarge features were drawn into ridges of sorrow. A general straggling, trampish look about him was not helped by patched blue fatigues.
The doctor’s words still rang in Stetson’s ears: “This patient’s vital tone is too low to permit operative replacement of damaged organs. He’ll live for a while because of the pod, but--” And the doctor had shrugged.
Stetson slumped into his desk chair, looked out the open port beside him. Some four hundred meters below, the scurrying beetlelike activity of the I-A’s main field sent up discordant roaring and clattering. Two rows of other scout cruisers were parked in line with Stetson’s port--gleaming red and black needles. He stared at them without really seeing them.
It always happens on some “routine” assignment, he thought. Nothing but a slight suspicion about Heleb: the fact that only women held high office. One simple, unexplained fact ... and I lose my best agent!
He sighed, turned to his desk, began composing the report:
“The militant core on the Planet Heleb has been eliminated. Occupation force on the ground. No further danger to Galactic peace expected from this source. Reason for operation: Rediscovery & Re-education--after two years on the planet--failed to detect signs of militancy. The major indications were: 1) a ruling caste restricted to women, and 2) disparity between numbers of males and females far beyond the Lutig norm! Senior Field Agent Lewis Orne found that the ruling caste was controlling the sex of offspring at conception (see attached details), and had raised a male slave army to maintain its rule. The R&R agent had been drained of information, then killed. Arms constructed on the basis of that information caused critical injuries to Senior Field Agent Orne. He is not expected to live. I am hereby urging that he receive the Galaxy Medal, and that his name be added to the Roll of Honor.”
Stetson pushed the page aside. That was enough for ComGO, who never read anything but the first page anyway. Details were for his aides to chew and digest. They could wait. Stetson punched his desk callbox for Orne’s service record, set himself to the task he most detested: notifying next of kin. He read, pursing his lips:
“Home Planet: Chargon. Notify in case of accident or death: Mrs. Victoria Orne, mother.”
He leafed through the pages, reluctant to send the hated message. Orne had enlisted in the Marak Marines at age seventeen--a runaway from home--and his mother had given post-enlistment consent. Two years later: scholarship transfer to Uni-Galacta, the R&R school here on Marak. Five years of school and one R&R field assignment under his belt, and he had been drafted into the I-A for brilliant detection of militancy on Hammel. And two years later--kaput!
Abruptly, Stetson hurled the service record at the gray metal wall across from him; then he got up, brought the record back to his desk, smoothing the pages. There were tears in his eyes. He flipped a switch on his desk, dictated the notification to Central Secretarial, ordered it sent out priority. Then he went groundside and got drunk on Hochar Brandy, Orne’s favorite drink.
The next morning there was a reply from Chargon: “Lewis Orne’s mother too ill to travel. Sisters being notified. Please ask Mrs. Ipscott Bullone of Marak, wife of the High Commissioner, to take over for family.” It was signed: “Madrena Orne Standish, sister.”
With some misgivings, Stetson called the residence of Ipscott Bullone, leader of the majority party in the Marak Assembly. Mrs. Bullone took the call with blank screen. There was a sound of running water in the background. Stetson stared at the grayness swimming in his desk visor. He always disliked a blank screen. A baritone husk of a voice slid: “This is Polly Bullone.”
Stetson introduced himself, relayed the Chargon message.
“Victoria’s boy dying? Here? Oh, the poor thing! And Madrena’s back on Chargon ... the election. Oh, yes, of course. I’ll get right over to the hospital!”
Stetson signed off, broke the contact.
The High Commissioner’s wife yet! he thought. Then, because he had to do it, he walled off his sorrow, got to work.
At the medical center, the oval creche containing Orne hung from ceiling hooks in a private room. There were humming sounds in the dim, watery greenness of the room, rhythmic chuggings, sighings. Occasionally, a door opened almost soundlessly, and a white-clad figure would check the graph tapes on the creche’s meters.
Orne was lingering. He became the major conversation piece at the internes’ coffee breaks: “That agent who was hurt on Heleb, he’s still with us. Man, they must build those guys different from the rest of us! ... Yeah! Understand he’s got only about an eighth of his insides ... liver, kidneys, stomach--all gone ... Lay you odds he doesn’t last out the month ... Look what old sure-thing McTavish wants to bet on!”
On the morning of his eighty-eighth day in the creche, the day nurse came into Orne’s room, lifted the inspection hood, looked down at him. The day nurse was a tall, lean-faced professional who had learned to meet miracles and failures with equal lack of expression. However, this routine with the dying I-A operative had lulled her into a state of psychological unpreparedness. Any day now, poor guy, she thought. And she gasped as she opened his sole remaining eye, said:
“Did they clobber those dames on Heleb?”
“Yes, sir!” she blurted. “They really did, sir!”
Orne closed his eye. His breathing deepened.
The nurse rang frantically for the doctors.
It had been an indeterminate period in a blank fog for Orne, then a time of pain and the gradual realization that he was in a creche. Had to be. He could remember his sudden exposure on Heleb, the explosion--then nothing. Good old creche. It made him feel safe now, shielded from all danger.
Orne began to show minute but steady signs of improvement. In another month, the doctors ventured an intestinal graft that gave him a new spurt of energy. Two months later, they replaced missing eye and fingers, restored his scalp line, worked artistic surgery on his burn scars.
Fourteen months, eleven days, five hours and two minutes after he had been picked up “as good as dead,” Orne walked out of the hospital under his own power, accompanied by a strangely silent Umbo Stetson.
Under the dark blue I-A field cape, Orne’s coverall uniform fitted his once muscular frame like a deflated bag. But the pixie light had returned to his eyes--even to the eye he had received from a nameless and long dead donor. Except for the loss of weight, he looked to be the same Lewis Orne. If he was different--beyond the “spare parts”--it was something he only suspected, something that made the idea, “twice-born,” not a joke.
Outside the hospital, clouds obscured Marak’s green sun. It was midmorning. A cold spring wind bent the pile lawn, tugged fitfully at the border plantings of exotic flowers around the hospital’s landing pad.
Orne paused on the steps above the pad, breathed deeply of the chill air. “Beautiful day,” he said.
Stetson reached out a hand to help Orne down the steps, hesitated, put the hand back in his pocket. Beneath the section chief’s look of weary superciliousness there was a note of anxiety. His big features were set in a frown. The drooping eyelids failed to conceal a sharp, measuring stare.
Orne glanced at the sky to the southwest. “The flitter ought to be here any minute.” A gust of wind tugged at his cape. He staggered, caught his balance. “I feel good.”
“You look like something left over from a funeral,” growled Stetson.
“Sure--my funeral,” said Orne. He grinned. “Anyway, I was getting tired of that walk-around-type morgue. All my nurses were married.”
“I’d almost stake my life that I could trust you,” muttered Stetson.
Orne looked at him. “No, no, Stet ... stake my life. I’m used to it.”
Stetson shook his head. “No, dammit! I trust you, but you deserve a peaceful convalescence. We’ve no right to saddle you with--”
“Stet?” Orne’s voice was low, amused.
“Huh?” Stetson looked up.
“Let’s save the noble act for someone who doesn’t know you,” said Orne. “You’ve a job for me. O.K. You’ve made the gesture for your conscience.”
Stetson produced a wolfish grin. “All right. So we’re desperate, and we haven’t much time. In a nutshell, since you’re going to be a house guest at the Bullones’--we suspect Ipscott Bullone of being the head of a conspiracy to take over the government.”
“What do you mean--take over the government?” demanded Orne. “The Galactic High Commissioner is the government--subject to the Constitution and the Assemblymen who elected him.”
“We’ve a situation that could explode into another Rim War, and we think he’s at the heart of it,” said Stetson. “We’ve eighty-one touchy planets, all of them old-line steadies that have been in the League for years. And on every one of them we have reason to believe there’s a clan of traitors sworn to overthrow the League. Even on your home planet--Chargon.”
“You want me to go home for my convalescence?” asked Orne. “Haven’t been there since I was seventeen. I’m not sure that--”
“No, dammit! We want you as the Bullones’ house guest! And speaking of that, would you mind explaining how they were chosen to ride herd on you?”
“There’s an odd thing,” said Orne. “All those gags in the I-A about old Upshook Ipscott Bullone ... and then I find that his wife went to school with my mother.”
“Have you met Himself?”
“He brought his wife to the hospital a couple of times.”
Again, Stetson looked to the southwest, then back to Orne. A pensive look came over his face. “Every schoolkid knows how the Nathians and the Marakian League fought it out in the Rim War--how the old civilization fell apart--and it all seems kind of distant,” he said.
“Five hundred standard years,” said Orne.
“And maybe no farther away than yesterday,” murmured Stetson. He cleared his throat.
And Orne wondered why Stetson was moving so cautiously. Something deep troubling him. A sudden thought struck Orne. He said: “You spoke of trust. Has this conspiracy involved the I-A?”
“We think so,” said Stetson. “About a year ago, an R&R archeological team was nosing around some ruins on Dabih. The place was all but vitrified in the Rim War, but a whole bank of records from a Nathian outpost escaped.” He glanced sidelong at Orne. “The Rah&Rah boys couldn’t make sense out of the records. No surprise. They called in an I-A crypt-analyst. He broke a complicated substitution cipher. When the stuff started making sense he pushed the panic button.”
“For something the Nathians wrote five hundred years ago?”
Stetson’s drooping eyelids lifted. There was a cold quality to his stare. “This was a routing station for key Nathian families,” he said. “Trained refugees. An old dodge ... been used as long as there’ve been--”
“But five hundred years, Stet!”
“I don’t care if it was five thousand years!” barked Stetson. “We’ve intercepted some scraps since then that were written in the same code. The bland confidence of that! Wouldn’t that gall you?” He shook his head. “And every scrap we’ve intercepted deals with the coming elections.”
“But the election’s only a couple of days off!” protested Orne.
Stetson glanced at his wristchrono. “Forty-two hours to be exact,” he said. “Some deadline!”
“Any names in these old records?” asked Orne.
Stetson nodded. “Names of planets, yes. People, no. Some code names, but no cover names. Code name on Chargon was Winner. That ring any bells with you?”
Orne shook his head. “No. What’s the code name here?”
“The Head,” said Stetson. “But what good does that do us? They’re sure to’ve changed those by now.”
“They didn’t change their communications code,” said Orne.
“No ... they didn’t.”
“We must have something on them, some leads,” said Orne. He felt that Stetson was holding back something vital.
“Sure,” said Stetson. “We have history books. They say the Nathians were top drawer in political mechanics. We know for a fact they chose landing sites for their refugees with diabolical care. Each family was told to dig in, grow up with the adopted culture, develop the weak spots, build an underground, train their descendants to take over. They set out to bore from within, to make victory out of defeat. The Nathians were long on patience. They came originally from nomad stock on Nathia II. Their mythology calls them Arbs or Ayrbs. Go review your seventh grade history. You’ll know almost as much as we do!”
“Like looking for the traditional needle in the haystack,” muttered Orne. “How come you suspect High Commissioner Upshook?”
Stetson wet his lips with his tongue. “One of the Bullones’ seven daughters is currently at home,” he said. “Name’s Diana. A field leader in the I-A women. One of the Nathian code messages we intercepted had her name as addressee.”
“Who sent the message?” asked Orne. “What was it all about?”
Stetson coughed. “You know, Lew, we cross-check everything. This message was signed M.O.S. The only M.O.S. that came out of the comparison was on a routine next-of-kin reply. We followed it down to the original copy, and the handwriting checked. Name of Madrena Orne Standish.”
“Maddie?” Orne froze, turned slowly to face Stetson. “So that’s what’s troubling you!”
“We know you haven’t been home since you were seventeen,” said Stetson. “Your record with us is clean. The question is--”
“Permit me,” said Orne. “The question is: Will I turn in my own sister if it falls that way?”
Stetson remained silent, staring at him.
“O.K.,” said Orne. “My job is seeing that we don’t have another Rim War. Just answer me one question: How’s Maddie mixed up in this? My family isn’t one of these traitor clans.”
“This whole thing is all tangled up with politics,” said Stetson. “We think it’s because of her husband.”
“Ahhhh, the member for Chargon,” said Orne. “I’ve never met him.” He looked to the southwest where a flitter was growing larger as it approached. “Who’s my cover contact?”
“That mini-transceiver we planted in your neck for the Gienah job,” said Stetson. “It’s still there and functioning. Anything happens around you, we hear it.”
Orne touched the subvocal stud at his neck, moved his speaking muscles without opening his mouth. A surf-hissing voice filled the matching transceiver in Stetson’s neck:
“You pay attention while I’m making a play for this Diana Bullone, you hear? Then you’ll know how an expert works.”
“Don’t get so interested in your work that you forget why you’re out there,” growled Stetson.
Mrs. Bullone was a fat little mouse of a woman. She stood almost in the center of the guest room of her home, hands clasped across the paunch of a long, dull silver gown. She had demure gray eyes, grandmotherly gray hair combed straight back in a jeweled net--and that shocking baritone husk of a voice issuing from a small mouth. Her figure sloped out from several chins to a matronly bosom, then dropped straight like a barrel. The top of her head came just above Orne’s dress epaulets.
“We want you to feel at home here, Lewis,” she husked. “You’re to consider yourself one of the family.”
Orne looked around at the Bullone guest room: low key furnishings with an old-fashioned selectacol for change of decor. A polawindow looked out onto an oval swimming pool, the glass muted to dark blue. It gave the outside a moonlight appearance. There was a contour bed against one wall, several built-ins, and a door partly open to reveal bathroom tiles. Everything traditional and comfortable.
“I already do feel at home,” he said. “You know, your house is very like our place on Chargon. I was surprised when I saw it from the air. Except for the setting, it looks almost identical.”
“I guess your mother and I shared ideas when we were in school,” said Polly. “We were very close friends.”
“You must’ve been to do all this for me,” said Orne. “I don’t know how I’m ever going to--”
“Ah! Here we are!” A deep masculine voice boomed from the open door behind Orne. He turned, saw Ipscott Bullone, High Commissioner of the Marakian League. Bullone was tall, had a face of harsh angles and deep lines, dark eyes under heavy brows, black hair trained in receding waves. There was a look of ungainly clumsiness about him.
He doesn’t strike me as the dictator type, thought Orne. But that’s obviously what Stet suspects.
“Glad you made it out all right, son,” boomed Bullone. He advanced into the room, glanced around. “Hope everything’s to your taste here.”
“Lewis was just telling me that our place is very like his mother’s home on Chargon,” said Polly.
“It’s old fashioned, but we like it,” said Bullone. “Just a great big tetragon on a central pivot. We can turn any room we want to the sun, the shade or the breeze, but we usually leave the main salon pointing northeast. View of the capital, you know.”
“We have a sea breeze on Chargon that we treat the same way,” said Orne.
“I’m sure Lewis would like to be left alone for a while now,” said Polly. “This is his first day out of the hospital. We mustn’t tire him.” She crossed to the polawindow, adjusted it to neutral gray, turned the selectacol, and the room’s color dominance shifted to green. “There, that’s more restful,” she said. “Now, if there’s anything you need you just ring the bell there by your bed. The autobutle will know where to find us.”
The Bullones left, and Orne crossed to the window, looked out at the pool. The young woman hadn’t come back. When the chauffeur-driven limousine flitter had dropped down to the house’s landing pad, Orne had seen a parasol and sunhat nodding to each other on the blue tiles beside the pool. The parasol had shielded Polly Bullone. The sunhat had been worn by a shapely young woman in swimming tights, who had rushed off into the house.
She was no taller than Polly, but slender and with golden red hair caught under the sunhat in a swimmer’s chignon. She was not beautiful--face too narrow with suggestions of Bullone’s cragginess, and the eyes overlarge. But her mouth was full-lipped, chin strong, and there had been an air of exquisite assurance about her. The total effect had been one of striking elegance--extremely feminine.
Orne looked beyond the pool: wooded hills and, dimly on the horizon, a broken line of mountains. The Bullones lived in expensive isolation. Around them stretched miles of wilderness, rugged with planned neglect.
Time to report in, he thought. Orne pressed the neck stud on his transceiver, got Stetson, told him what had happened to this point.
“All right,” said Stetson. “Go find the daughter. She fits the description of the gal you saw by the pool.”
“That’s what I was hoping,” said Orne.
He changed into light-blue fatigues, went to the door of his room, let himself out into a hall. A glance at his wristchrono showed that it was shortly before noon--time for a bit of scouting before they called lunch. He knew from his brief tour of the house and its similarity to the home of his childhood that the hall let into the main living salon. The public rooms and men’s quarters were in the outside ring. Secluded family apartments and women’s quarters occupied the inner section.
Orne made his way to the salon. It was long, built around two sections of the tetragon, and with low divans beneath the view windows. The floor was thick pile rugs pushed one against another in a crazy patchwork of reds and browns. At the far end of the room, someone in blue fatigues like his own was bent over a stand of some sort. The figure straightened at the same time a tinkle of music filled the room. He recognized the red-gold hair of the young woman he had seen beside the pool. She was wielding two mallets to play a stringed instrument that lay on its side supported by a carved-wood stand.
He moved up behind her, his footsteps muffled by the carpeting. The music had a curious rhythm that suggested figures dancing wildly around firelight. She struck a final chord, muted the strings.
“That makes me homesick,” said Orne.
“Oh!” She whirled, gasped, then smiled. “You startled me. I thought I was alone.”
“Sorry. I was enjoying the music.”
“I’m Diana Bullone,” she said. “You’re Mr. Orne.”
“Lew to all of the Bullone family, I hope,” he said.
“Of course ... Lew.” She gestured at the musical instrument. “This is very old. Most find its music ... well, rather weird. It’s been handed down for generations in mother’s family.”
“The kaithra,” said Orne. “My sisters play it. Been a long time since I’ve heard one.”
“Oh, of course,” she said. “Your mother’s--” She stopped, looked confused. “I’ve got to get used to the fact that you’re ... I mean that we have a strange man around the house who isn’t exactly strange.”
Orne grinned. In spite of the blue I-A fatigues and a rather severe pulled-back hairdo, this was a handsome woman. He found himself liking her, and this caused him a feeling near self-loathing. She was a suspect. He couldn’t afford to like her. But the Bullones were being so decent, taking him in like this. And how was their hospitality being repaid? By spying and prying. Yet, his first loyalty belonged to the I-A, to the peace it represented.
He said rather lamely: “I hope you get over the feeling that I’m strange.”
“I’m over it already,” she said. She linked arms with him, said: “If you feel up to it, I’ll take you on the deluxe guided tour.”
By nightfall, Orne was in a state of confusion. He had found Diana fascinating, and yet the most comfortable woman to be around that he had ever met. She liked swimming, paloika hunting, ditar apples-- She had a “poo-poo” attitude toward the older generation that she said she’d never before revealed to anyone. They had laughed like fools over utter nonsense.
Orne went back to his room to change for dinner, stopped before the polawindow. The quick darkness of these low latitudes had pulled an ebon blanket over the landscape. There was city-glow off to the left, and an orange halo to the peaks where Marak’s three moons would rise. Am I falling in love with this woman? he asked himself. He felt like calling Stetson, not to report but just to talk the situation out. And this made him acutely aware that Stetson or an aide had heard everything said between them that afternoon.