Howard Frayberg, Production Director of Know Your Universe!, was a man of sudden unpredictable moods; and Sam Catlin, the show’s Continuity Editor, had learned to expect the worst.
“Sam,” said Frayberg, “regarding the show last night...” He paused to seek the proper words, and Catlin relaxed. Frayberg’s frame of mind was merely critical. “Sam, we’re in a rut. What’s worse, the show’s dull!”
Sam Catlin shrugged, not committing himself.
“Seaweed Processors of Alphard IX--who cares about seaweed?”
“It’s factual stuff,” said Sam, defensive but not wanting to go too far out on a limb. “We bring ‘em everything--color, fact, romance, sight, sound, smell ... Next week, it’s the Ball Expedition to the Mixtup Mountains on Gropus.”
Frayberg leaned forward. “Sam, we’re working the wrong slant on this stuff ... We’ve got to loosen up, sock ‘em! Shift our ground! Give ‘em the old human angle--glamor, mystery, thrills!”
Sam Catlin curled his lips. “I got just what you want.”
“Yeah? Show me.”
Catlin reached into his waste basket. “I filed this just ten minutes ago...” He smoothed out the pages. “‘Sequence idea, by Wilbur Murphy. Investigate “Horseman of Space,” the man who rides up to meet incoming space-ships.’”
Frayberg tilted his head to the side. “Rides up on a horse?”
“That’s what Wilbur Murphy says.”
“How far up?”
“Does it make any difference?”
“No--I guess not.”
“Well, for your information, it’s up ten thousand, twenty thousand miles. He waves to the pilot, takes off his hat to the passengers, then rides back down.”
“And where does all this take place?”
“On--on--” Catlin frowned. “I can write it, but I can’t pronounce it.” He printed on his scratch-screen: CIRGAMESÇ.
“Sirgamesk,” read Frayberg.
Catlin shook his head. “That’s what it looks like--but those consonants are all aspirated gutturals. It’s more like ‘Hrrghameshgrrh’.”
“Where did Murphy get this tip?”
“I didn’t bother to ask.”
“Well,” mused Frayberg, “we could always do a show on strange superstitions. Is Murphy around?”
“He’s explaining his expense account to Shifkin.”
“Get him in here; let’s talk to him.”
Wilbur Murphy had a blond crew-cut, a broad freckled nose, and a serious sidelong squint. He looked from his crumpled sequence idea to Catlin and Frayberg. “Didn’t like it, eh?”
“We thought the emphasis should be a little different,” explained Catlin. “Instead of ‘The Space Horseman, ‘ we’d give it the working title, ‘Odd Superstitions of Hrrghameshgrrh’.”
“Oh, hell!” said Frayberg. “Call it Sirgamesk.”
“Anyway,” said Catlin, “that’s the angle.”
“But it’s not superstition,” said Murphy.
“Oh, come, Wilbur...”
“I got this for sheer sober-sided fact. A man rides a horse up to meet the incoming ships!”
“Where did you get this wild fable?”
“My brother-in-law is purser on the Celestial Traveller. At Riker’s Planet they make connection with the feeder line out of Cirgamesç.”
“Wait a minute,” said Catlin. “How did you pronounce that?”
“Cirgamesç. The steward on the shuttle-ship gave out this story, and my brother-in-law passed it along to me.”
“Somebody’s pulling somebody’s leg.”
“My brother-in-law wasn’t, and the steward was cold sober.”
“They’ve been eating bhang. Sirgamesk is a Javanese planet, isn’t it?”
“Javanese, Arab, Malay.”
“Then they took a bhang supply with them, and hashish, chat, and a few other sociable herbs.”
“Well, this horseman isn’t any drug-dream.”
“No? What is it?”
“So far as I know it’s a man on a horse.”
“Ten thousand miles up? In a vacuum?”
“That’s the story.”
Catlin and Frayberg looked at each other.
“Well, Wilbur,” Catlin began.
Frayberg interrupted. “What we can use, Wilbur, is a sequence on Sirgamesk superstition. Emphasis on voodoo or witchcraft--naked girls dancing--stuff with roots in Earth, but now typically Sirgamesk. Lots of color. Secret rite stuff...”
“Not much room on Cirgamesç for secret rites.”
“It’s a big planet, isn’t it?”
“Not quite as big as Mars. There’s no atmosphere. The settlers live in mountain valleys, with air-tight lids over ‘em.”
Catlin flipped the pages of _Thumbnail Sketches of the Inhabited Worlds_. “Says here there’s ancient ruins millions of years old. When the atmosphere went, the population went with it.”
Frayberg became animated. “There’s lots of material out there! Go get it, Wilbur! Life! Sex! Excitement! Mystery!”
“Okay,” said Wilbur Murphy.
“But lay off this horseman-in-space. There is a limit to public credulity, and don’t you let anyone tell you different.”
Cirgamesç hung outside the port, twenty thousand miles ahead. The steward leaned over Wilbur Murphy’s shoulder and pointed a long brown finger. “It was right out there, sir. He came riding up--”
“What kind of a man was it? Strange-looking?”
“No. He was Cirgameski.”
“Oh. You saw him with your own eyes, eh?”
The steward bowed, and his loose white mantle fell forward. “Exactly, sir.”
“No helmet, no space-suit?”
“He wore a short Singhalût vest and pantaloons and a yellow Hadrasi hat. No more.”
“And the horse?”
“Ah, the horse! There’s a different matter.”
“I can’t describe the horse. I was intent on the man.”
“Did you recognize him?”
“By the brow of Lord Allah, it’s well not to look too closely when such matters occur.”
“Then--you did recognize him!”
“I must be at my task, sir.”
Murphy frowned in vexation at the steward’s retreating back, then bent over his camera to check the tape-feed. If anything appeared now, and his eyes could see it, the two-hundred million audience of _Know Your Universe!_ could see it with him.
When he looked up, Murphy made a frantic grab for the stanchion, then relaxed. Cirgamesç had taken the Great Twitch. It was an illusion, a psychological quirk. One instant the planet lay ahead; then a man winked or turned away, and when he looked back, “ahead” had become “below”; the planet had swung an astonishing ninety degrees across the sky, and they were falling!
Murphy leaned against the stanchion. “‘The Great Twitch’,” he muttered to himself, “I’d like to get that on two hundred million screens!”
Several hours passed. Cirgamesç grew. The Sampan Range rose up like a dark scab; the valley sultanates of Singhalût, Hadra, New Batavia, and Boeng-Bohôt showed like glistening chicken-tracks; the Great Rift Colony of Sundaman stretched down through the foothills like the trail of a slug.
A loudspeaker voice rattled the ship. “Attention passengers for Singhalût and other points on Cirgamesç! Kindly prepare your luggage for disembarkation. Customs at Singhalût are extremely thorough. Passengers are warned to take no weapons, drugs or explosives ashore. This is important!”
The warning turned out to be an understatement. Murphy was plied with questions. He suffered search of an intimate nature. He was three-dimensionally X-rayed with a range of frequencies calculated to excite fluorescence in whatever object he might have secreted in his stomach, in a hollow bone, or under a layer of flesh.
His luggage was explored with similar minute attention, and Murphy rescued his cameras with difficulty. “What’re you so damn anxious about? I don’t have drugs; I don’t have contraband...”
“It’s guns, your excellency. Guns, weapons, explosives...”
“I don’t have any guns.”
“But these objects here?”
“They’re cameras. They record pictures and sounds and smells.”
The inspector seized the cases with a glittering smile of triumph. “They resemble no cameras of my experience; I fear I shall have to impound...”
A young man in loose white pantaloons, a pink vest, pale green cravat and a complex black turban strolled up. The inspector made a swift obeisance, with arms spread wide. “Excellency.”
The young man raised two fingers. “You may find it possible to spare Mr. Murphy any unnecessary formality.”
“As your Excellency recommends...” The inspector nimbly repacked Murphy’s belongings, while the young man looked on benignly.
Murphy covertly inspected his face. The skin was smooth, the color of the rising moon; the eyes were narrow, dark, superficially placid. The effect was of silken punctilio with hot ruby blood close beneath.
Satisfied with the inspector’s zeal, he turned to Murphy. “Allow me to introduce myself, Tuan Murphy. I am Ali-Tomás, of the House of Singhalût, and my father the Sultan begs you to accept our poor hospitality.”
“Why, thank you,” said Murphy. “This is a very pleasant surprise.”
“If you will allow me to conduct you...” He turned to the inspector. “Mr. Murphy’s luggage to the palace.”
Murphy accompanied Ali-Tomás into the outside light, fitting his own quick step to the prince’s feline saunter. This is coming it pretty soft, he said to himself. I’ll have a magnificent suite, with bowls of fruit and gin pahits, not to mention two or three silken girls with skin like rich cream bringing me towels in the shower ... Well, well, well, it’s not so bad working for Know Your Universe! after all! I suppose I ought to unlimber my camera...
Prince Ali-Tomás watched him with interest. “And what is the audience of Know Your Universe!?”
“We call ‘em ‘participants’.”
“Expressive. And how many participants do you serve?”
“Oh, the Bowdler Index rises and falls. We’ve got about two hundred million screens, with five hundred million participants.”
“Fascinating! And tell me--how do you record smells?”
Murphy displayed the odor recorder on the side of the camera, with its gelatinous track which fixed the molecular design.
“And the odors recreated--they are like the originals?”
“Pretty close. Never exact, but none of the participants knows the difference. Sometimes the synthetic odor is an improvement.”
“Astounding!” murmured the prince.
“And sometimes ... Well, Carson Tenlake went out to get the myrrh-blossoms on Venus. It was a hot day--as days usually are on Venus--and a long climb. When the show was run off, there was more smell of Carson than of flowers.”
Prince Ali-Tomás laughed politely. “We turn through here.”
They came out into a compound paved with red, green and white tiles. Beneath the valley roof was a sinuous trough, full of haze and warmth and golden light. As far in either direction as the eye could reach, the hillsides were terraced, barred in various shades of green. Spattering the valley floor were tall canvas pavilions, tents, booths, shelters.
“Naturally,” said Prince Ali-Tomás, “we hope that you and your participants will enjoy Singhalût. It is a truism that, in order to import, we must export; we wish to encourage a pleasurable response to the ‘Made in Singhalût’ tag on our batiks, carvings, lacquers.”
They rolled quietly across the square in a surface-car displaying the House emblem. Murphy rested against deep, cool cushions. “Your inspectors are pretty careful about weapons.”
Ali-Tomás smiled complacently. “Our existence is ordered and peaceful. You may be familiar with the concept of adak?”
“I don’t think so.”
“A word, an idea from old Earth. Every living act is ordered by ritual. But our heritage is passionate--and when unyielding adak stands in the way of an irresistible emotion, there is turbulence, sometimes even killing.”
“Exactly. It is as well that the amok has no weapons other than his knife. Otherwise he would kill twenty where now he kills one.”
The car rolled along a narrow avenue, scattering pedestrians to either side like the bow of a boat spreading foam. The men wore loose white pantaloons and a short open vest; the women wore only the pantaloons.
“Handsome set of people,” remarked Murphy.
Ali-Tomás again smiled complacently. “I’m sure Singhalût will present an inspiring and beautiful spectacle for your program.”
Murphy remembered the keynote to Howard Frayberg’s instructions: “Excitement! Sex! Mystery!“ Frayberg cared little for inspiration or beauty. “I imagine,” he said casually, “that you celebrate a number of interesting festivals? Colorful dancing? Unique customs?”
Ali-Tomás shook his head. “To the contrary. We left our superstitions and ancestor-worship back on Earth. We are quiet Mohammedans and indulge in very little festivity. Perhaps here is the reason for amoks and sjambaks.”
“We are not proud of them. You will hear sly rumor, and it is better that I arm you beforehand with truth.”
“What is a sjambak?”
“They are bandits, flouters of authority. I will show you one presently.”
“I heard,” said Murphy, “of a man riding a horse up to meet the space-ships. What would account for a story like that?”
“It can have no possible basis,” said Prince Ali-Tomás. “We have no horses on Cirgamesç. None whatever.”
“The veriest idle talk. Such nonsense will have no interest for your intelligent participants.”
The car rolled into a square a hundred yards on a side, lined with luxuriant banana palms. Opposite was an enormous pavilion of gold and violet silk, with a dozen peaked gables casting various changing sheens. In the center of the square a twenty-foot pole supported a cage about two feet wide, three feet long, and four feet high.
Inside this cage crouched a naked man.
The car rolled past. Prince Ali-Tomás waved an idle hand. The caged man glared down from bloodshot eyes. “That,” said Ali-Tomás, “is a sjambak. As you see,” a faint note of apology entered his voice, “we attempt to discourage them.”
“What’s that metal object on his chest?”
“The mark of his trade. By that you may know all sjambak. In these unsettled times only we of the House may cover our chests--all others must show themselves and declare themselves true Singhalûsi.”
Murphy said tentatively, “I must come back here and photograph that cage.”
Ali-Tomás smilingly shook his head. “I will show you our farms, our vines and orchards. Your participants will enjoy these; they have no interest in the dolor of an ignoble sjambak.”
“Well,” said Murphy, “our aim is a well-rounded production. We want to show the farmers at work, the members of the great House at their responsibilities, as well as the deserved fate of wrongdoers.”
“Exactly. For every sjambak there are ten thousand industrious Singhalûsi. It follows then that only one ten-thousandth part of your film should be devoted to this infamous minority.”
“About three-tenths of a second, eh?”
“No more than they deserve.”
“You don’t know my Production Director. His name is Howard Frayberg, and...”
Howard Frayberg was deep in conference with Sam Catlin, under the influence of what Catlin called his philosophic kick. It was the phase which Catlin feared most.
“Sam,” said Frayberg, “do you know the danger of this business?”
“Ulcers,” Catlin replied promptly.
Frayberg shook his head. “We’ve got an occupational disease to fight--progressive mental myopia.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Catlin.
“Consider. We sit in this office. We think we know what kind of show we want. We send out our staff to get it. We’re signing the checks, so back it comes the way we asked for it. We look at it, hear it, smell it--and pretty soon we believe it: our version of the universe, full-blown from our brains like Minerva stepping out of Zeus. You see what I mean?”
“I understand the words.”
“We’ve got our own picture of what’s going on. We ask for it, we get it. It builds up and up--and finally we’re like mice in a trap built of our own ideas. We cannibalize our own brains.”
“Nobody’ll ever accuse you of being stingy with a metaphor.”
“Sam, let’s have the truth. How many times have you been off Earth?”
“I went to Mars once. And I spent a couple of weeks at Aristillus Resort on the Moon.”
Frayberg leaned back in his chair as if shocked. “And we’re supposed to be a couple of learned planetologists!”
Catlin made grumbling noise in his throat. “I haven’t been around the zodiac, so what? You sneezed a few minutes ago and I said gesundheit, but I don’t have any doctor’s degree.”
“There comes a time in a man’s life,” said Frayberg, “when he wants to take stock, get a new perspective.”
“Relax, Howard, relax.”
“In our case it means taking out our preconceived ideas, looking at them, checking our illusions against reality.”
“Are you serious about this?”
“Another thing,” said Frayberg, “I want to check up a little. Shifkin says the expense accounts are frightful. But he can’t fight it. When Keeler says he paid ten munits for a loaf of bread on Nekkar IV, who’s gonna call him on it?”
“Hell, let him eat bread! That’s cheaper than making a safari around the cluster, spot-checking the super-markets.”
Frayberg paid no heed. He touched a button; a three-foot sphere full of glistening motes appeared. Earth was at the center, with thin red lines, the scheduled space-ship routes, radiating out in all directions.
“Let’s see what kind of circle we can make,” said Frayberg. “Gower’s here at Canopus, Keeler’s over here at Blue Moon, Wilbur Murphy’s at Sirgamesk...”
“Don’t forget,” muttered Catlin, “we got a show to put on.”
“We’ve got material for a year,” scoffed Frayberg. “Get hold of Space-Lines. We’ll start with Sirgamesk, and see what Wilbur Murphy’s up to.”
Wilbur Murphy was being presented to the Sultan of Singhalût by the Prince Ali-Tomás. The Sultan, a small mild man of seventy, sat crosslegged on an enormous pink and green air-cushion. “Be at your ease, Mr. Murphy. We dispense with as much protocol here as practicable.” The Sultan had a dry clipped voice and the air of a rather harassed corporation executive. “I understand you represent Earth-Central Home Screen Network?”
“I’m a staff photographer for the Know Your Universe! show.”
“We export a great deal to Earth,” mused the Sultan, “but not as much as we’d like. We’re very pleased with your interest in us, and naturally we want to help you in every way possible. Tomorrow the Keeper of the Archives will present a series of charts analyzing our economy. Ali-Tomás shall personally conduct you through the fish-hatcheries. We want you to know we’re doing a great job out here on Singhalût.”
“I’m sure you are,” said Murphy uncomfortably. “However, that isn’t quite the stuff I want.”
“No? Just where do your desires lie?”
Ali-Tomás said delicately. “Mr. Murphy took a rather profound interest in the sjambak displayed in the square.”
“Oh. And you explained that these renegades could hold no interest for serious students of our planet?”
Murphy started to explain that clustered around two hundred million screens tuned to Know Your Universe! were four or five hundred million participants, the greater part of them neither serious nor students. The Sultan cut in decisively. “I will now impart something truly interesting. We Singhalûsi are making preparations to reclaim four more valleys, with an added area of six hundred thousand acres! I shall put my physiographic models at your disposal; you may use them to the fullest extent!”
“I’ll be pleased for the opportunity,” declared Murphy. “But tomorrow I’d like to prowl around the valley, meet your people, observe their customs, religious rites, courtships, funerals...”
The Sultan pulled a sour face. “We are ditch-water dull. Festivals are celebrated quietly in the home; there is small religious fervor; courtships are consummated by family contract. I fear you will find little sensational material here in Singhalût.”
“You have no temple dances?” asked Murphy. “No fire-walkers, snake-charmers--voodoo?”
The Sultan smiled patronizingly. “We came out here to Cirgamesç to escape the ancient superstitions. Our lives are calm, orderly. Even the amoks have practically disappeared.”
“But the sjambaks--”
“Well,” said Murphy, “I’d like to visit some of these ancient cities.”
“I advise against it,” declared the Sultan. “They are shards, weathered stone. There are no inscriptions, no art. There is no stimulation in dead stone. Now. Tomorrow I will hear a report on hybrid soybean plantings in the Upper Kam District. You will want to be present.”
Murphy’s suite matched or even excelled his expectation. He had four rooms and a private garden enclosed by a thicket of bamboo. His bathroom walls were slabs of glossy actinolite, inlaid with cinnabar, jade, galena, pyrite and blue malachite, in representations of fantastic birds. His bedroom was a tent thirty feet high. Two walls were dark green fabric; a third was golden rust; the fourth opened upon the private garden.
Murphy’s bed was a pink and yellow creation ten feet square, soft as cobweb, smelling of rose sandalwood. Carved black lacquer tubs held fruit; two dozen wines, liquors, syrups, essences flowed at a touch from as many ebony spigots.
The garden centered on a pool of cool water, very pleasant in the hothouse climate of Singhalût. The only shortcoming was the lack of the lovely young servitors Murphy had envisioned. He took it upon himself to repair this lack, and in a shady wine-house behind the palace, called the Barangipan, he made the acquaintance of a girl-musician named Soek Panjoebang. He found her enticing tones of quavering sweetness from the gamelan, an instrument well-loved in Old Bali. Soek Panjoebang had the delicate features and transparent skin of Sumatra, the supple long limbs of Arabia and in a pair of wide and golden eyes a heritage from somewhere in Celtic Europe. Murphy bought her a goblet of frozen shavings, each a different perfume, while he himself drank white rice-beer. Soek Panjoebang displayed an intense interest in the ways of Earth, and Murphy found it hard to guide the conversation. “Weelbrrr,” she said. “Such a funny name, Weelbrrr. Do you think I could play the gamelan in the great cities, the great palaces of Earth?”
“Sure. There’s no law against gamelans.”
“You talk so funny, Weelbrrr. I like to hear you talk.”
“I suppose you get kinda bored here in Singhalût?”
She shrugged. “Life is pleasant, but it concerns with little things. We have no great adventures. We grow flowers, we play the gamelan.” She eyed him archly sidelong. “We love ... We sleep...”
Murphy grinned. “You run amok.”
“No, no, no. That is no more.”
“Not since the sjambaks, eh?”
“The sjambaks are bad. But better than amok. When a man feels the knot forming around his chest, he no longer takes his kris and runs down the street--he becomes sjambak.”
This was getting interesting. “Where does he go? What does he do?”
“Who does he rob? What does he do with his loot?”
She leaned toward him. “It is not well to talk of them.”
“The Sultan does not wish it. Everywhere are listeners. When one talks sjambak, the Sultan’s ears rise, like the points on a cat.”
“Suppose they do--what’s the difference? I’ve got a legitimate interest. I saw one of them in that cage out there. That’s torture. I want to know about it.”
“He is very bad. He opened the monorail car and the air rushed out. Forty-two Singhalûsi and Hadrasi bloated and blew up.”
“And what happened to the sjambak?”
“He took all the gold and money and jewels and ran away.”
“Out across Great Pharasang Plain. But he was a fool. He came back to Singhalût for his wife; he was caught and set up for all people to look at, so they might tell each other, ‘thus it is for sjambaks.’”
“Where do the sjambaks hide out?”
“Oh,” she looked vaguely around the room, “out on the plains. In the mountains.”
“They must have some shelter--an air-dome.”
“No. The Sultan would send out his patrol-boat and destroy them. They roam quietly. They hide among the rocks and tend their oxygen stills. Sometimes they visit the old cities.”
“I wonder,” said Murphy, staring into his beer, “could it be sjambaks who ride horses up to meet the space-ship?”
Soek Panjoebang knit her black eyebrows, as if preoccupied.
“That’s what brought me out here,” Murphy went on. “This story of a man riding a horse out in space.”
“Ridiculous; we have no horses in Cirgamesç.”
“All right, the steward won’t swear to the horse. Suppose the man was up there on foot or riding a bicycle. But the steward recognized the man.”
“Who was this man, pray?”
“The steward clammed up ... The name would have been just noise to me, anyway.”
“I might recognize the name...”
“Ask him yourself. The ship’s still out at the field.”
She shook her head slowly, holding her golden eyes on his face. “I do not care to attract the attention of either steward, sjambak--or Sultan.”
Murphy said impatiently. “In any event, it’s not who--but how. How does the man breathe? Vacuum sucks a man’s lungs up out of his mouth, bursts his stomach, his ears...”
“We have excellent doctors,” said Soek Panjoebang shuddering, “but alas! I am not one of them.”
Murphy looked at her sharply. Her voice held the plangent sweetness of her instrument, with additional overtones of mockery. “There must be some kind of invisible dome around him, holding in air,” said Murphy.
“And what if there is?”
“It’s something new, and if it is, I want to find out about it.”
Soek smiled languidly. “You are so typical an old-lander--worried, frowning, dynamic. You should relax, cultivate napaû, enjoy life as we do here in Singhalût.”
“It’s our philosophy, where we find meaning and life and beauty in every aspect of the world.”
“That sjambak in the cage could do with a little less napaû right now.”
“No doubt he is unhappy,” she agreed.
“Unhappy! He’s being tortured!”
“He broke the Sultan’s law. His life is no longer his own. It belongs to Singhalût. If the Sultan wishes to use it to warn other wrongdoers, the fact that the man suffers is of small interest.”
“If they all wear that metal ornament, how can they hope to hide out?” He glanced at her own bare bosom.
“They appear by night--slip through the streets like ghosts...” She looked in turn at Murphy’s loose shirt. “You will notice persons brushing up against you, feeling you,” she laid her hand along his breast, “and when this happens you will know they are agents of the Sultan, because only strangers and the House may wear shirts. But now, let me sing to you--a song from the Old Land, old Java. You will not understand the tongue, but no other words so join the voice of the gamelan.”
“This is the gravy-train,” said Murphy. “Instead of a garden suite with a private pool, I usually sleep in a bubble-tent, with nothing to eat but condensed food.”
Soek Panjoebang flung the water out of her sleek black hair. “Perhaps, Weelbrrr, you will regret leaving Cirgamesç?”
“Well,” he looked up to the transparent roof, barely visible where the sunlight collected and refracted, “I don’t particularly like being shut up like a bird in an aviary ... Mildly claustrophobic, I guess.”
After breakfast, drinking thick coffee from tiny silver cups, Murphy looked long and reflectively at Soek Panjoebang.
“What are you thinking, Weelbrrr?”
Murphy drained his coffee. “I’m thinking that I’d better be getting to work.”
“And what do you do?”
“First I’m going to shoot the palace, and you sitting here in the garden playing your gamelan.”
“But Weelbrrr--not me!”
“You’re a part of the universe, rather an interesting part. Then I’ll take the square...”
“And the sjambak?”
A quiet voice spoke from behind. “A visitor, Tuan Murphy.”
Murphy turned his head. “Bring him in.” He looked back to Soek Panjoebang. She was on her feet.
“It is necessary that I go.”
“When will I see you?”
“Tonight--at the Barangipan.”
The quiet voice said, “Mr. Rube Trimmer, Tuan.”
Trimmer was small and middle-aged, with thin shoulders and a paunch. He carried himself with a hell-raising swagger, left over from a time twenty years gone. His skin had the waxy look of lost floridity, his tuft of white hair was coarse and thin, his eyelids hung in the off-side droop that amateur physiognomists like to associate with guile.
“I’m Resident Director of the Import-Export Bank,” said Trimmer. “Heard you were here and thought I’d pay my respects.”
“I suppose you don’t see many strangers.”
“Not too many--there’s nothing much to bring ‘em. Cirgamesç isn’t a comfortable tourist planet. Too confined, shut in. A man with a sensitive psyche goes nuts pretty easy here.”
“Yeah,” said Murphy. “I was thinking the same thing this morning. That dome begins to give a man the willies. How do the natives stand it? Or do they?”
Trimmer pulled out a cigar case. Murphy refused the offer.
“Local tobacco,” said Trimmer. “Very good.” He lit up thoughtfully. “Well, you might say that the Cirgameski are schizophrenic. They’ve got the docile Javanese blood, plus the Arabian élan. The Javanese part is on top, but every once in a while you see a flash of arrogance ... You never know. I’ve been out here nine years and I’m still a stranger.” He puffed on his cigar, studied Murphy with his careful eyes. “You work for Know Your Universe!, I hear.”
“Yeah. I’m one of the leg men.”
“Must be a great job.”
“A man sees a lot of the galaxy, and he runs into queer tales, like this sjambak stuff.”
Trimmer nodded without surprise. “My advice to you, Murphy, is lay off the sjambaks. They’re not healthy around here.”
Murphy was startled by the bluntness. “What’s the big mystery about these sjambaks?”
Trimmer looked around the room. “This place is bugged.”
“I found two pick-ups and plugged ‘em,” said Murphy.
Trimmer laughed. “Those were just plants. They hide ‘em where a man might just barely spot ‘em. You can’t catch the real ones. They’re woven into the cloth--pressure-sensitive wires.”
Murphy looked critically at the cloth walls.
“Don’t let it worry you,” said Trimmer. “They listen more out of habit than anything else. If you’re fussy we’ll go for a walk.”
The road led past the palace into the country. Murphy and Trimmer sauntered along a placid river, overgrown with lily pads, swarming with large white ducks.
“This sjambak business,” said Murphy. “Everybody talks around it. You can’t pin anybody down.”
“Including me,” said Trimmer. “I’m more or less privileged around here. The Sultan finances his reclamation through the bank, on the basis of my reports. But there’s more to Singhalût than the Sultan.”
Trimmer waved his cigar waggishly. “Now we’re getting in where I don’t like to talk. I’ll give you a hint. Prince Ali thinks roofing-in more valleys is a waste of money, when there’s Hadra and New Batavia and Sundaman so close.”
“You mean--armed conquest?”
Trimmer laughed. “You said it, not me.”
“They can’t carry on much of a war--unless the soldiers commute by monorail.”
“Maybe Prince Ali thinks he’s got the answer.”
“I didn’t say it,” said Trimmer blandly.
Murphy grinned. After a moment he said. “I picked up with a girl named Soek Panjoebang who plays the gamelan. I suppose she’s working for either the Sultan or Prince Ali. Do you know which?”
Trimmer’s eyes sparkled. He shook his head. “Might be either one. There’s a way to find out.”
“Get her off where you’re sure there’s no spy-cells. Tell her two things--one for Ali, the other for the Sultan. Whichever one reacts you know you’ve got her tagged.”
“Well, for instance she learns that you can rig up a hypnotic ray from a flashlight battery, a piece of bamboo, and a few lengths of wire. That’ll get Ali in an awful sweat. He can’t get weapons. None at all. And for the Sultan,” Trimmer was warming up to his intrigue, chewing on his cigar with gusto, “tell her you’re on to a catalyst that turns clay into aluminum and oxygen in the presence of sunlight. The Sultan would sell his right leg for something like that. He tries hard for Singhalût and Cirgamesç.”
Trimmer hesitated. “I never said what I’m gonna say. Don’t forget--I never said it.”
“Okay, you never said it.”
“Ever hear of a jehad?”
“Mohammedan holy wars.”
“Believe it or not, Ali wants a jehad.”
“Sounds kinda fantastic.”
“Sure it’s fantastic. Don’t forget, I never said anything about it. But suppose someone--strictly unofficial, of course--let the idea percolate around the Peace Office back home.”
“Ah,” said Murphy. “That’s why you came to see me.”
Trimmer turned a look of injured innocence. “Now, Murphy, you’re a little unfair. I’m a friendly guy. Of course I don’t like to see the bank lose what we’ve got tied up in the Sultan.”
“Why don’t you send in a report yourself?”
“I have! But when they hear the same thing from you, a _Know Your Universe!_ man, they might make a move.”
“Well, we understand each other,” said Trimmer heartily, “and everything’s clear.”
“Not entirely. How’s Ali going to launch a jehad when he doesn’t have any weapons, no warships, no supplies?”
“Now,” said Trimmer, “we’re getting into the realm of supposition.” He paused, looked behind him. A farmer pushing a rotary tiller, bowed politely, trundled ahead. Behind was a young man in a black turban, gold earrings, a black and red vest, white pantaloons, black curl-toed slippers. He bowed, started past. Trimmer held up his hand. “Don’t waste your time up there; we’re going back in a few minutes.”
“Thank you, Tuan.”
“Who are you reporting to? The Sultan or Prince Ali?”
“The Tuan is sure to pierce the veil of my evasions. I shall not dissemble. I am the Sultan’s man.”
Trimmer nodded. “Now, if you’ll kindly remove to about a hundred yards, where your whisper pick-up won’t work.”
“By your leave, I go.” He retreated without haste.
“He’s almost certainly working for Ali,” said Trimmer.
“Not a very subtle lie.”
“Oh, yes--third level. He figured I’d take it second level.”
“How’s that again?”
“Naturally I wouldn’t believe him. He knew I knew that he knew it. So when he said ‘Sultan’, I’d think he wouldn’t lie simply, but that he’d lie double--that he actually was working for the Sultan.”
Murphy laughed. “Suppose he told you a fourth-level lie?”
“It starts to be a toss-up pretty soon,” Trimmer admitted. “I don’t think he gives me credit for that much subtlety ... What are you doing the rest of the day?”
“Taking footage. Do you know where I can find some picturesque rites? Mystical dances, human sacrifice? I’ve got to work up some glamor and exotic lore.”
“There’s this sjambak in the cage. That’s about as close to the medieval as you’ll find anywhere in Earth Commonwealth.”
“Speaking of sjambaks...”
“No time,” said Trimmer. “Got to get back. Drop in at my office--right down the square from the palace.”
Murphy returned to his suite. The shadowy figure of his room servant said, “His Highness the Sultan desires the Tuan’s attendance in the Cascade Garden.”
“Thank you,” said Murphy. “As soon as I load my camera.”
The Cascade Room was an open patio in front of an artificial waterfall. The Sultan was pacing back and forth, wearing dusty khaki puttees, brown plastic boots, a yellow polo shirt. He carried a twig which he used as a riding crop, slapping his boots as he walked. He turned his head as Murphy appeared, pointed his twig at a wicker bench.
“I pray you sit down, Mr. Murphy.” He paced once up and back. “How is your suite? You find it to your liking?”
“Very much so.”
“Excellent,” said the Sultan. “You do me honor with your presence.”
Murphy waited patiently.
“I understand that you had a visitor this morning,” said the Sultan.
“Yes. Mr. Trimmer.”
“May I inquire the nature of the conversation?”
“It was of a personal nature,” said Murphy, rather more shortly than he meant.