Priestess of the Flame

by Sewell Peaslee Wright

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Commander John Hanson recounts the extraordinary story of Liane, Priestess of the Flame.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

I have been rather amused by the protests which have come to me regarding the “disparaging” comments I have made, in previous tales of the Special Patrol Service, regarding women. The rather surprising thing about it is that the larger proportion of these have come from men. Young men, of course.

Now, as a matter of fact, a careful search has failed to reveal to me any very uncomplimentary remarks. I have suggested, I believe, that women have, in my experience, shown a sad lack of ability to understand mechanical contrivances. Perhaps I have pictured some few of them as frivolous and shallow. If I have been unfair, I wish now to make humble apology.

I am not, as some of my correspondents have indicated, a bitter old man, who cannot remember his youth. I remember it very well indeed, else these tales would not be forthcoming. And women have their great and proper place, even in a man’s universe.

Some day, perhaps, the mood will seize me to write of my own love affair. That surprises you? You smile to think that old John Hanson, lately a commander of the Special Patrol Service, now retired, should have had a love affair? Well, ‘twas many years ago, before these eyes lost their fire, and before these brown, skinny hands wearied as quickly as they weary now...

But I have known many women--good women and bad; great women and women of small souls; kindly women, and women fierce as wild bears are fierce. Divinity has dealt lavishly with women; has given them an emotional range far greater than man’s. They can sink to depths unknown to masculinity; they can rise to heights of love and sacrifice before which man can only stand with reverently bowed head and marvel.

This is a story of a woman--one of those no man could know and not remember. I make no apologies for her; I pay her no homage. I record only a not inaccurate account of an adventure of my youth, in which she played a part; I leave to you the task of judging her.

We were some three days out from Base, as I recall it, on a mission which promised a welcome interlude in a monotonous sequence of routine patrols. I was commander then of the Ertak, one of the crack ships of the Service, and assisted by the finest group of officers, I believe, that any man ever had under him.

I was standing a watch in the navigating room with Hendricks, my junior officer, when Correy brought us the amazing news.

Correy was my first officer, a square-jawed fighting man if one ever breathed, a man of action, such as these effete times do not produce. His eyes were fairly blazing as he came into the room, and his generous mouth was narrowed into a grim line.

“What’s up, Mr. Correy?” I asked apprehensively. “Trouble aboard?”

“Plenty of it, sir!” he snapped. “A stowaway!”

“A stowaway?” I repeated wonderingly. A new experience, but hardly cause for Correy’s obvious anger. “Well, send him below, and tell Miro to put him to work--the hardest work he can find. We’ll make him--”

Him?“ blurted Correy. “If it were a him it wouldn’t be so bad, sir. But it’s a she!”

To understand the full effect of the statement, you’d have to be steeped in the traditions of the Service. Women are seldom permitted on board a ship of the Service; despite their many admirable qualities, women play the very devil with discipline. And here were we, three days out from Base on a tour of duty which promised more than a little excitement, with a female stowaway on board!

I felt my own mouth set grimly.

“Where is she, Mr. Correy?” I asked quietly.

“In my quarters, under guard. It was my watch below, as you know, sir. I entered my stateroom, figuring on catching forty winks, and there she was, seated in my big chair, smiling at me.

“Well, for a second I couldn’t speak. I just stared at her, and she kept smiling back at me. ‘What are you doing here?’ I managed to ask her, at last. ‘Do you know where you are?’

“‘I’ll talk to your commanding officer, ‘ she told me, cool as you please. ‘Will you bring him, please?’

“‘You’ll see him plenty soon enough, ‘ I snapped at her, getting over my surprise somewhat by that time. I called in a couple of men to keep her from getting into mischief, and reported to you. What are your orders, sir?”

I hesitated a second, wondering. From Correy’s account, she must be a rather remarkable person.

“Bring her up here, if you will, Mr. Correy. I’d like to see her before we put her in the brig.” The brig, I might explain, was a small room well forward, where members of the crew were confined for discipline.

“Right, sir!” It seemed to me that there was a peculiar twinkle in Correy’s eyes as he went out, and I wondered about it while we waited for him to return with the prisoner.

“What an infernal nuisance, sir!” complained Hendricks, looking up from his glowing charts. “We’ll be the laughing-stock of the Service if this leaks out!”

When it leaks out,” I corrected him glumly. I’d already thought of the unpleasant outcome he mentioned. “I’ll have to report it, of course, and the whole Service will know about it. We’ll just have to grin and make the most of it, I guess.” There was still another possibility which I didn’t mention: the silver-sleeves at Base would very likely call me on the carpet for permitting such a thing to happen. A commander was supposed to be responsible for everything that happened; no excuses available in the Service as it was in those days.

I scowled forbiddingly as I heard Correy open the door; at least I could make her very sorry she had selected the Ertak for her adventure. I am afraid, however, that it was a startled, rather than a scowling face to which she lifted her eyes.

“This is the stowaway, sir,” said Correy briskly, closing the door. He was watching my face, and I saw, now, the reason for the twinkle in his eye when I mentioned placing the stowaway in the brig.

The woman was startlingly beautiful; one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, and I have roamed the outer limits of space, and seen the women of many worlds. Hendricks, standing behind me, gasped audibly as his eyes fell upon her.

The stowaway was regally tall and exquisitely modeled. Her hair was the color of pale morning sunlight on Earth; her eyes an amazing blue, the equal of which I have never seen.

She was beautiful, but not coldly so. Despite her imperious bearing, there was something seductive about the soft curves of her beautiful body; something to rouse the pulses of a man in the langour of her intensely blue eyes, and the full, sensuous lips, scarlet as a smear of fresh blood.

“So this is the stowaway,” I said, trying to keep my voice coolly indifferent. “What is your name?”

“I should prefer,” she replied, speaking the universal language with a sibilant accent that was very fascinating, “to speak with you privately.”

“You will speak with me,” I informed her crisply, “in the presence of these officers. I repeat: what is your name?”

She smiled faintly, her eyes compelling mine.

“I am called Liane,” she said. “Chief Priestess of the Flame. Mother of Life. Giver of Death. I believe my name and position are not unknown to you, Commander Hanson?”

Known to me? If Base was not in error--and for all their faults, the silver-sleeves are seldom wrong in matters of this sort--this woman was the reason for our present mission.

“They are known to me,” I admitted. “They do not explain, however, your presence here.”

“And yet they should,” protested Liane gently. “I was taken from my own people by those who had no right to command me. I was subjected to the indignity of questioning by many men. I have merely taken the simplest and quickest way of returning to my own people.”

“You know, then, our destination?”

“I was informed of that by those who questioned me,” nodded Liane. “Then, since I had been assured I was an honored guest, and no prisoner, I secreted myself aboard the ship, hiding in a small room nearly filled with what I took to be spare parts. I had provisions, and a few personal belongings. When I felt sufficient time had elapsed to make a return improbable, I donned attire more fitting than the masculine workman’s guise in which I had secreted myself, and--I believe you are acquainted with the remaining facts.”

“I am. I will consider your case and advise you later. Mr. Correy, will you conduct the stowaway to my quarters and place her under guard? Return when you have attended to this matter, and ask Mr. Kincaide to do likewise.”

“To your quarters, you said, sir?” asked Correy, his eyes very serious, but not sufficiently so to entirely disguise the twinkle in their depths. “Not to the brig?”

I could cheerfully have kicked him.

“To my quarters,” I repeated severely, “and under guard.”

“Right, sir,” said Correy.

While we were awaiting Correy and Kincaide, I briefly considered the rather remarkable story which had been told me at Base.

“Commander Hanson,” the Chief of Command had said, “we’re turning over to you a very delicate mission. You’ve proved yourself adept at handling matters of this kind, and we have every confidence you’ll bring this one to a highly successful conclusion.”

“Thank you, sir; we’ll do our best,” I had told him.

“I know that; the assurance isn’t necessary, although I appreciate it. Briefly, here’s what we’re confronted with:

“Lakos, as you know, is the principal source of temite for the universe. And without temite, modern space travel would be impossible; we would have to resort to earlier and infinitely more crude devices. You realize that, of course.

“Now, for some time, those in charge of operations on Lakos have complained of a growing unrest, increasing insubordination on the part of the Lakonians, and an alarming decrease in production.

“It has been extremely difficult--indeed, impossible--to determine the reasons for this, for, as you are perhaps aware, the atmosphere of Lakos is permeated with certain mineral fumes which, while not directly harmful to those of other worlds, do serve to effectively block the passage of those rays of the sun which are essential to the health of beings like ourselves. Those in charge of operations there are supplied artificially with these rays, as you are in your ship, by means of emanations from ethon tubes, but they have to be transferred at frequent periods to other fields of activity. The constant shifting about produces a state of disorder which makes the necessary investigation impossible. Too, operations are carried on with an insufficient personnel, because it is extremely difficult to induce desirable types of volunteer for such disagreeable service.

“We have, however, determined a few very important facts. This unrest has been caused by the activities of a secret organization or order known as the Worshipers of the Flame. That’s as close a translation as I can give you. It sounds harmless enough, but from what we gather, it is a sinister and rather terrible organization, with a fanatical belief amounting, at times, to a veritable frenzy. These Lakonians are a physically powerful but mentally inadequate people, as perhaps you are aware.

“The leader of this order or cult call it what you will--seems to be a woman: a very fascinating creature, infinitely superior to her people as a whole; what biologists call a ‘sport, ‘ I believe--a radical departure from the general racial trend.

“This leader calls herself Liane, Chief Priestess of the Flame, Mother of Life, Giver of Death, and a few other high-sounding things. We have called her here to Base for questioning, and while she has been here some time, we have so far learned next to nothing from her. She is very intelligent, very alluring, very feminine--but reveals nothing she does not wish to reveal.

“Our purpose in having her brought here was two-fold: first, to gain what information we could from her, and if possible, prevail upon her to cease her activities; second, to deprive her cult of her leadership while you conducted your investigation.

“Your orders, then, are simple: you will proceed at once to Lakos, and inquire into the activities of this order. Somehow, it must be crushed; the means I shall leave to you. You will have complete coöperation of those in charge of operations on Lakos; they are Zenians and natives of Earth, and you may depend upon them implicitly. Do not, however, place any faith in any Lakonians; the entire native populace may well be suspected of participation in the rites of this cult, and they are a treacherous and ruthless people at best. Have you any questions, Commander?”

“None,” I had told him. “I have full authority to take any action I see fit?”

“Yes, at your discretion. Of course,” he had added rather hastily, “you appreciate the importance of our supply of temite. Only Lakonians can gather it in commercial quantities, under the existing conditions on Lakos, and our reserve supply is not large. We naturally wish to increase production there, rather than endanger it. It’s a delicate mission, but I’m trusting you and your men to handle it for us. I know you will.”

He had arisen then, smilingly, and offered his hand to me in that gesture which marks a son of Earth throughout the universe, thus bringing the interview to a close.

IN talking the things over with my officers, we had decided the mission promised to be an interesting one, but full of difficulties. The Ertak had set down on Lakos more than once, and we all had unpleasant memories of the place.

The sunlight on Lakos, such as it was, was pale green and thin, lacking in warmth and vitality. The vegetation was flaccid and nearly colorless, more like a mushroom growth than anything else; and the inhabitants were suspicious and unfriendly.

Remembering the typical Lakonians, it was all the more surprising that a gracious creature like Liane could have sprung from their midst. They were a beetle-browed, dark race, with gnarled muscles and huge, knotted joints, speaking a guttural language all their own. Few spoke the universal language.

But Liane, Chief Priestess of the Flame! The image of her kept drifting back to my mind. There was a woman to turn any man’s head! And such a turning would be dangerous, for Liane had no soft woman’s soul, if I had read her brilliant blue eyes aright.

“Rather a beauty, isn’t she, sir?” commented Hendricks as I paused in my restless pacing, and glanced at the two-dimensional charts.

“The stowaway? Rather,” I agreed shortly. “And chief instigator of the trouble we’ve been sent to eliminate.”

“That seems almost--almost unbelievable, doesn’t it?”

“Why, Mr. Hendricks?”

Correy and Kincaide entered before my junior officer could reply. I think he was rather glad of the excuse for not presenting his reasons.

“Well, sir, she’s under guard,” reported Correy. “And now what’s to be done about her?”

“That,” I admitted, “is a question. After all, she’s an important personage at home. She was brought to Base as a guest, probably something of a guest of honor, of the Council, I gather. And, considering the work that’s cut out for us, it would seem like a poor move to antagonize her unduly. What do you gentlemen think?”

“I think you’re right, sir,” said Hendricks quickly. “I believe she should be given every consideration.”

Kincaide, my level-headed second officer, glanced curiously at Hendricks. “I see she’s made one friend, anyway,” he said. “Don’t let yourself slip, my boy; I’ve run across her kind before. They’re dangerous.”

“Thanks, but the warning’s not necessary, Mr. Kincaide,” replied Hendricks stiffly, an angry flush mounting to his checks. “I merely expressed a requested opinion.”

“We’ll let that phase of it drop, gentlemen,” I cut in sharply, as I saw Kincaide’s eyes flash. Trust a woman to stir up strife and ill-feeling! “What shall we do with her?”

“I believe, sir,” said Correy, “that we’d be nice to her. Treat her as an honored guest; make the best of a bad situation. If she’s what the Chief thought she is, the boss of this outfit we’ve got to lick, then there’s no need of stroking her the wrong way, as I see it.”

“And you, Mr. Kincaid?”

“I see no other way out of it. Under the circumstances, we can’t treat her like a common culprit; both her position and her sex would prevent.”

“Very well, then; we seem to be agreed. We’ll find suitable quarters for her--”

“I’ll give her mine,” put in Hendricks. “Correy will let me double up with him, I imagine.”

“Sure,” nodded Correy.

Kincaide glanced sharply at Hendricks, but said nothing. I knew, however, that he was thinking just what I was: that my young third officer was in for a bad, bad time of it.

Just how bad, I think neither of us guessed.

Liane became a member of the officers’ mess on the Ertak. She occupied Hendricks’ stateroom, and, I must confess, with uncommon good judgment for a woman, remained there most of the time.

She knew the reason for our mission, but this was one subject we never discussed. Nor did we mention the sect of which, according to the Chief of Command, she was the head. We did talk freely, when brought together at the table, on every other general topic.

Liane was an exceedingly intelligent conversationalist. Her voice was fascinating, and her remarks were always to the point. And she was a very good listener; she paid flattering attention to the most casual remark.

It seemed to me she was particularly gracious to Hendricks. Her strangely arresting blue eyes seldom left his face when he was speaking, and the greater portion of her remarks seemed addressed to him. Naturally, Hendricks responded as a flower responds to the warming rays of the sun.

“We’ll do well, sir, to keep a weather eye on the youngster,” opined Correy one morning. (I think I have previously explained that even in the unchanging darkness of space, we divided time arbitrarily into days and nights). “Unless I’m badly mistaken, Hendricks is falling victim to a pair of blue eyes.”

“He’s young,” I shrugged. “We’ll be there in two more days, and then we’ll be rid of her.”

“Yes,” nodded Correy, “we’ll be there in a couple of days. And we’ll be rid of her, I hope. But--suppose it should be serious, sir?”

“What do you mean?” I asked sharply. I had been thinking, rather vaguely, along much the same lines, but to hear it put into words came as rather a shock.

“I hope I’m wrong,” said Correy very gravely. “But this Liane is an unusual woman. When I was his age, I could have slipped rather badly myself. Her eyes--that slow smile--they do things to a man.

“At the same time, Liane is supposed to be the head of the thing we’re to stamp out; you might say the enemy’s leader. And it wouldn’t be a good thing, sir, to have a--a friend of the enemy on board the Ertak, would it?”

A rebuke rose to my lips, but I checked it. After all, Correy had no more than put into words some fears which had been harassing me.

A traitor--in the Service? Perhaps you won’t be able to understand just what that thought meant to those of us who wore the Blue and Silver in those days. But a traitor was something we had never had. It was almost unbelievable that such a thing would ever happen; that it could ever happen. And yet older men than Hendricks had thrown honor aside at the insistence of women less fascinating than Liane.

I had felt the lure of her personality; there was not one of us on board the Ertak who had not. And she had not exercised her wiles on any of us save Hendricks; with the shrewdness which had made her the leader she was, she had elected to fascinate the youngest, the weakest, the most impressionable.

“I’ll have a talk with him, Mr. Correy,” I said quietly. “Probably it isn’t necessary; I trust him implicitly, as I am sure you do, and the rest of us.”

“Certainly, sir,” Correy replied hastily, evidently relieved by the manner in which I had taken his remarks. “Only, he’s very young, sir, and Liane is a very fascinating creature.”

I kept my promise to Correy the next time Hendricks was on watch.

“We’ll be setting down in a couple of days,” I commented casually. “It’ll be good to stretch our legs again, won’t it?”

“It certainly will, sir.”

“And I imagine that’s the last we’ll see of our fair stowaway,” I said, watching him closely.

Hendricks’ face flushed and then drained white. With the tip of his forefinger he traced meaningless geometrical patterns on the surface of the instrument table.

“I imagine so, sir,” he replied in a choked voice. And then, suddenly, in a voice which shook with released emotion. “Oh, I know what you’re thinking!” he added. “What you’ve all been thinking; you, sir, and Correy and Kincaide. Probably the men, too, for that matter.

“But it’s not so! I want you to believe that, sir. I may be impressionable, and certainly she is beautiful and--and terribly fascinating; but I’m not quite a fool. I realize she’s on the other side; that I can’t, that I must not, permit myself to care. You--you do believe that, sir?”

“Of course, lad!” I put my hand reassuringly on his shoulder; his whole body was shaking. “Forget it; forget her as soon as you can. None of us have doubted you for an instant; we just--wondered.”

“I could see that; I could feel it. And it hurt,” said my junior officer with shame-faced hesitancy. “But I’ll forget her--after she’s gone.”

I let it go at that. After all, it was a rather painful subject for us both. The next day it did seem that he treated her with less attention; and she noticed it, for I saw the faint shadow of a frown form between her perfect brows, and her glance traveled meditatively from Hendricks’ flushed face to my own.

The next morning, after the first meal of the day, she walked down the passage with me, one slim white hand placed gently within the curve of my arm.

“Mr. Hendricks,” she commented softly, “seems rather distraught the last day or so.”

“Yes?” I said, smiling to myself, and wondering what was coming next.

“Yes, Commander Hanson.” There was just the faintest suggestion of steeliness in her voice now. “I fancy you’ve been giving him good advice, and painting me in lurid colors. Do you really think so badly of me?” Her hand pressed my arm with warm friendliness; her great blue eyes were watching me with beseeching interest.

“I think, Liane,” I replied, “that Mr. Hendricks is a very young man.”

“And that I am a dangerous woman?” She laughed softly.

“That, at least,” I told her, “your interests and ours are not identical.”

“True,” she said coolly, pausing before the door of her stateroom. Her hand dropped from my arm, and she drew herself up regally. In the bright flow of the ethon tubes overhead she was almost irresistibly beautiful. “Our interests are not identical, Commander Hanson. They are widely divergent, directly opposed to each other, as a matter of fact. And--may I be so bold as to offer you a bit of advice?”

I bowed, saying nothing.

“Then, don’t attempt to meddle with things which are more powerful, than you and the forces you control. And--don’t waste breath on Mr. Hendricks. Fair warning!”

Before I could ask for more complete explanation, she had slipped inside her stateroom and firmly closed the door.

We set down on Lakos late that afternoon, close to the city--town, rather--of Gio, where those in charge of operations made their headquarters. With Liane and Correy, leaving the ship in charge of Kincaide, I made my way quickly toward the headquarters building.

We had gone but a few steps when Liane was surrounded by a shouting throng of her fellow Lakonians, and with a little mocking wave of a white hand, she stepped into a sort of litter which had been rushed to the scene, and was carried away.

“For one,” commented Correy with a sigh of relief, “I’m glad she’s out of sight. If I never see her again, it’ll be too soon. When do we start something?”

“Not until we’ve talked with Fetter, who’s in command here. I have a letter for him from the Chief. We’ll see what he has to say.”

One thing was certain; we could look for no assistance of any kind from the natives. They regarded us with bleak scowls, from beneath shaggy, lowering brows, our uniforms of blue, with the silver ornaments of our service and rank, identifying us clearly.

In the greenish Lakonian twilight, they were sinister figures indeed, clothed all alike in short, sleeveless tunics, belted loosely at the waist, feet and legs encased in leather buskins reaching nearly to the knees, their brown, gnarled limbs and stoop-shouldered postures giving them a half-bestial resemblance which was disturbing. Their walk was a sort of slow shuffle, which made their long arms dangle, swinging disjointedly.

We entered the administration building of gray, dull stone, and were ushered immediately into the office of the head of operations.

“Hanson?” he greeted me. “Mighty glad to see you. You too, Correy. Terrible hole, this; hope you’re not here for long. Sorry I couldn’t meet you at the ship; got your radio, but couldn’t make it. Everything’s in a jam. Getting worse all the time. And we’re shorthanded; not half enough men here. Sit down, sit down. Seem good to feel firm ground under your feet?”

“Not particularly; your air here isn’t as good as the Ertak’s.” Correy and I seated ourselves across the desk from the garrulous Fetter. “I’ve a letter here from the Chief; I believe it explains why we’re here.”

“I can guess, I can guess. And none too soon. Things are in terrible shape. Terrible.” Fetter ripped open the letter and glanced through it with harried eyes.

“Right,” he nodded. “I’m to help you all I can. Place myself at your disposal. What can I do?”

“Tell us what’s up,” I suggested.

“That would be a long story. I suppose you know something about the situation already. Several reports have gone in to Base. What did the Chief tell you, Hanson?”

Briefly, I sketched the Chief’s report, Fetter nodding every few words. When I had finished, he rubbed his long, thin fingers together nervously, and stared down, frowning at the littered top of his desk.

“Right as far as he went,” he said. “But he didn’t go far enough. Wanted you to find out for yourself, I suppose.

“Well, there is a secret society working against us here. Sect, I’d call it. Undermined the whole inhabited portion of Lakos--which isn’t a great area, as you know.”

“The Chief Priestess is Liane. I believe you said she stowed away on the Ertak with you?”

I nodded.

“You’re keeping her under guard?” asked Fetter.

“No; under the circumstances, we couldn’t. We had no authority, you see. A crowd of natives bore her away in triumph.”

“Then your work’s cut out for you,” groaned Fetter. “She’s a devil incarnate. Beautiful, irresistible, and evil as corruption itself. If she’s back, I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done. We’ve been sitting on a volcano ever since she left. Pressure growing greater every instant, it seemed. She’s just what’s needed to set it off.”

“We’ll have to take our chances,” I commented. “And now; just what is the set-up?”

“The Worshipers of the Flame, they call themselves. The membership takes in about every male being on Lakos. They meet in the great caverns which honeycomb the continent. Ghastly places; I’ve seen some of the smaller ones. Continent was thrust up from the sea in a molten state, some scientific chap told me once; these caverns were made by great belches of escaping steam or gas. You’ll see them.

“She--Liane--and her priests rule solely by terror. The Lakonians are naturally just horses” (a draft animal of ancient Earth, now extinct), “content to work without thinking. Liane and her crew have made them think--just enough to be dangerous. Just what she tells them to think, and no more. Disobedient ones are punished by death. Rather a terrible death, I gather.

“Well, her chief aim is to stop the production of temite. She wishes to bargain with the Council--at her own terms.”

“What’s her price?” I asked. “What does she want, wealth?”

“No. Power!“ Fetter leaned forward across the desk, hammering it with both fists to emphasize the word, his eyes gleaming from their deep sockets. “Power, Hanson, that’s what she craves. She’s insane on the subject. Utterly mad. She lusts after it. You asked her price; it’s this: a seat in the Council!”

I gasped audibly. A seat in the Council! The Council, composed of the wisest heads of the universe, and ruling the universe with absolute authority!

“She is mad,” I said.

“Crazy,” grunted Correy. “Plain crazy. A woman--in the Council!”

Fetter nodded solemnly.

“Mad--crazy--use your own terms,” he said. “But that’s her price. The Chief didn’t tell you that, did he? Well, perhaps he didn’t know. I learned it in a very roundabout way. She’ll make the formal demand when the time is ripe, never fear. And what’s more, unless these Worshipers of the Flame are stamped out--_she’ll get what she demands!_”

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