Last Enemy

by H. Beam Piper

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The last enemy was the toughest of all--and conquering him was in itself almost as dangerous as not conquering. For a strange pattern of beliefs can make assassination an honorable profession!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Along the U-shaped table, the subdued clatter of dinnerware and the buzz of conversation was dying out; the soft music that drifted down from the overhead sound outlets seemed louder as the competing noises diminished. The feast was drawing to a close, and Dallona of Hadron fidgeted nervously with the stem of her wineglass as last-moment doubts assailed her.

The old man at whose right she sat noticed, and reached out to lay his hand on hers.

“My dear, you’re worried,” he said softly. “You, of all people, shouldn’t be, you know.”

“The theory isn’t complete,” she replied. “And I could wish for more positive verification. I’d hate to think I’d got you into this--”

Garnon of Roxor laughed. “No, no!” he assured her. “I’d decided upon this long before you announced the results of your experiments. Ask

Girzon; he’ll bear me out.”

“That’s true,” the young man who sat at Garnon’s left said, leaning forward. “Father has meant to take this step for a long time. He was waiting until after the election, and then he decided to do it now, to give you an opportunity to make experimental use of it.”

The man on Dallona’s right added his voice. Like the others at the table, he was of medium stature, brown-skinned and dark-eyed, with a wide mouth, prominent cheekbones and a short, square jaw. Unlike the others, he was armed, with a knife and pistol on his belt, and on the breast of his black tunic he wore a scarlet oval patch on which a pair of black wings, with a tapering silver object between them had been superimposed.

“Yes, Lady Dallona; the Lord Garnon and I discussed this, oh, two years ago at the least. Really, I’m surprised that you seem to shrink from it, now. Of course, you’re Venus-born, and customs there may be different, but with your scientific knowledge--”

“That may be the trouble, Dirzed,” Dallona told him. “A scientist gets in the way of doubting, and one doubts one’s own theories most of all.”

“That’s the scientific attitude, I’m told,” Dirzed replied, smiling.

“But somehow, I cannot think of you as a scientist.” His eyes traveled over her in a way that would have made most women, scientists or otherwise, blush. It gave Dallona of Hadron a feeling of pleasure. Men often looked at her that way, especially here at Darsh. Novelty had something to do with it--her skin was considerably lighter than usual, and there was a pleasing oddness about the structure of her face. Her alleged Venusian origin was probably accepted as the explanation of that, as of so many other things.

As she was about to reply, a man in dark gray, one of the upper-servants who were accepted as social equals by the Akor-Neb nobles, approached the table. He nodded respectfully to Garnon of


“I hate to seem to hurry things, sir, but the boy’s ready. He’s in a trance-state now,” he reported, pointing to the pair of visiplates at the end of the room.

Both of the ten-foot-square plates were activated. One was a solid luminous white; on the other was the image of a boy of twelve or fourteen, seated at a big writing machine. Even allowing for the fact that the boy was in a hypnotic trance, there was an expression of idiocy on his loose-lipped, slack-jawed face, a pervading dullness.

“One of our best sensitives,” a man with a beard, several places down the table on Dallona’s right, said. “You remember him, Dallona; he produced that communication from the discarnate Assassin, Sirzim.

Normally, he’s a low-grade imbecile, but in trance-state he’s wonderful. And there can be no argument that the communications he produces originates in his own mind; he doesn’t have mind enough, of his own, to operate that machine.”

Garnon of Roxor rose to his feet, the others rising with him. He unfastened a jewel from the front of his tunic and handed it to


“Here, my dear Lady Dallona; I want you to have this,” he said. “It’s been in the family of Roxor for six generations, but I know that you will appreciate and cherish it.” He twisted a heavy ring from his left hand and gave it to his son. He unstrapped his wrist watch and passed it across the table to the gray-clad upper-servant. He gave a pocket case, containing writing tools, slide rule and magnifier, to the bearded man on the other side of Dallona. “Something you can use, Dr.

Harnosh,” he said. Then he took a belt, with a knife and holstered pistol, from a servant who had brought it to him, and gave it to the man with the red badge. “And something for you, Dirzed. The pistol’s by Farnor of Yand, and the knife was forged and tempered on Luna.”

The man with the winged-bullet badge took the weapons, exclaiming in appreciation. Then he removed his own belt and buckled on the gift.

“The pistol’s fully loaded,” Garnon told him.

Dirzed drew it and checked--a man of his craft took no statement about weapons without verification--then slipped it back into the holster.

“Shall I use it?” he asked.

“By all means; I’d had that in mind when I selected it for you.”

Another man, to the left of Girzon, received a cigarette case and lighter. He and Garnon hooked fingers and clapped shoulders.

“Our views haven’t been the same, Garnon,” he said, “but I’ve always valued your friendship. I’m sorry you’re doing this, now; I believe you’ll be disappointed.”

Garnon chuckled. “Would you care to make a small wager on that,

Nirzav?” he asked. “You know what I’m putting up. If I’m proven right, will you accept the Volitionalist theory as verified?”

Nirzav chewed his mustache for a moment. “Yes, Garnon, I will.” He pointed toward the blankly white screen. “If we get anything conclusive on that, I’ll have no other choice.”

“All right, friends,” Garnon said to those around him. “Will you walk with me to the end of the room?”

Servants removed a section from the table in front of him, to allow him and a few others to pass through; the rest of the guests remained standing at the table, facing toward the inside of the room. Garnon’s son, Girzon, and the gray-mustached Nirzav of Shonna, walked on his left; Dallona of Hadron and Dr. Harnosh of Hosh on his right. The gray-clad upper-servant, and two or three ladies, and a nobleman with a small chin-beard, and several others, joined them; of those who had sat close to Garnon, only the man in the black tunic with the scarlet badge hung back. He stood still, by the break in the table, watching

Garnon of Roxor walk away from him. Then Dirzed the Assassin drew the pistol he had lately received as a gift, hefted it in his hand, thumbed off the safety, and aimed at the back of Garnon’s head.

They had nearly reached the end of the room when the pistol cracked.

Dallona of Hadron started, almost as though the bullet had crashed into her own body, then caught herself and kept on walking. She closed her eyes and laid a hand on Dr. Harnosh’s arm for guidance, concentrating her mind upon a single question. The others went on as though Garnon of Roxor were still walking among them.

“Look!” Harnosh of Hosh cried, pointing to the image in the visiplate ahead. “He’s under control!”

They all stopped short, and Dirzed, holstering his pistol, hurried forward to join them. Behind, a couple of servants had approached with a stretcher and were gathering up the crumpled figure that had, a moment ago, been Garnon.

A change had come over the boy at the writing machine. His eyes were still glazed with the stupor of the hypnotic trance, but the slack jaw had stiffened, and the loose mouth was compressed in a purposeful line. As they watched, his hands went out to the keyboard in front of him and began to move over it, and as they did, letters appeared on the white screen on the left.

Garnon of Roxor, discarnate, communicating, they read. The machine stopped for a moment, then began again. _To Dallona of Hadron: The question you asked, after I discarnated, was: What was the last book I read, before the feast? While waiting for my valet to prepare my bath,

I read the first ten verses of the fourth Canto of “Splendor of

Space,” by Larnov of Horka, in my bedroom. When the bath was ready, I marked the page with a strip of message tape, containing a message from the bailiff of my estate on the Shevva River, concerning a breakdown at the power plant, and laid the book on the ivory-inlaid table beside the big red chair._

Harnosh of Hosh looked at Dallona inquiringly; she nodded.

“I rejected the question I had in my mind, and substituted that one, after the shot,” she said.

He turned quickly to the upper-servant. “Check on that, right away,

Kirzon,” he directed.

As the upper-servant hurried out, the writing machine started again.

_And to my son, Girzon: I will not use your son, Garnon, as a reincarnation-vehicle; I will remain discarnate until he is grown and has a son of his own; if he has no male child, I will reincarnate in the first available male child of the family of Roxor, or of some family allied to us by marriage. In any case, I will communicate before reincarnating._

_To Nirzav of Shonna: Ten days ago, when I dined at your home, I took a small knife and cut three notches, two close together and one a little apart from the others, on the under side of the table. As I remember, I sat two places down on the left. If you find them, you will know that I have won that wager that I spoke of a few minutes ago._

“I’ll have my butler check on that, right away,” Nirzav said. His eyes were wide with amazement, and he had begun to sweat; a man does not casually watch the beliefs of a lifetime invalidated in a few moments.

To Dirzed the Assassin: the machine continued. _You have served me faithfully, in the last ten years, never more so than with the last shot you fired in my service. After you fired, the thought was in your mind that you would like to take service with the Lady Dallona of

Hadron, whom you believe will need the protection of a member of the

Society of Assassins. I advise you to do so, and I advise her to accept your offer. Her work, since she has come to Darsh, has not made her popular in some quarters. No doubt Nirzav of Shonna can bear me out on that._

“I won’t betray things told me in confidence, or said at the Councils of the Statisticalists, but he’s right,” Nirzav said. “You need a good

Assassin, and there are few better than Dirzed.”

I see that this sensitive is growing weary, the letters on the screen spelled out. _His body is not strong enough for prolonged communication. I bid you all farewell, for the time; I will communicate again. Good evening, my friends, and I thank you for your presence at the feast._

The boy, on the other screen, slumped back in his chair, his face relaxing into its customary expression of vacancy.

“Will you accept my offer of service, Lady Dallona?” Dirzed asked.

“It’s as Garnon said; you’ve made enemies.”

Dallona smiled at him. “I’ve not been too deep in my work to know that. I’m glad to accept your offer, Dirzed.”

Nirzav of Shonna had already turned away from the group and was hurrying from the room, to call his home for confirmation on the notches made on the underside of his dining table. As he went out the door, he almost collided with the upper-servant, who was rushing in with a book in his hand.

“Here it is,” the latter exclaimed, holding up the book. “Larnov’s

‘Splendor of Space, ‘ just where he said it would be. I had a couple of servants with me as witnesses; I can call them in now, if you wish.”

He handed the book to Harnosh of Hosh. “See, a strip of message tape in it, at the tenth verse of the Fourth Canto.”

Nirzav of Shonna re-entered the room; he was chewing his mustache and muttering to himself. As he rejoined the group in front of the now dark visiplates, he raised his voice, addressing them all generally.

“My butler found the notches, just as the communication described,” he said. “This settles it! Garnon, if you’re where you can hear me, you’ve won. I can’t believe in the Statisticalist doctrines after this, or in the political program based upon them. I’ll announce my change of attitude at the next meeting of the Executive Council, and resign my seat. I was elected by Statisticalist votes, and I cannot hold office as a Volitionalist.”

“You’ll need a couple of Assassins, too,” the nobleman with the chin-beard told him. “Your former colleagues and fellow-party-members are regrettably given to the forcible discarnation of those who differ with them.”

“I’ve never employed personal Assassins before,” Nirzav replied, “but

I think you’re right. As soon as I get home, I’ll call Assassins’ Hall and make the necessary arrangements.”

“Better do it now,” Girzon of Roxor told him, lowering his voice.

“There are over a hundred guests here, and I can’t vouch for all of them. The Statisticalists would be sure to have a spy planted among them. My father was one of their most dangerous opponents, when he was on the Council; they’ve always been afraid he’d come out of retirement and stand for re-election. They’d want to make sure he was really discarnate. And if that’s the case, you can be sure your change of attitude is known to old Mirzark of Bashad by this time. He won’t dare allow you to make a public renunciation of Statisticalism.” He turned to the other nobleman. “Prince Jirzyn, why don’t you call the

Volitionist headquarters and have a couple of our Assassins sent here to escort Lord Nirzav home?”

“I’ll do that immediately,” Jirzyn of Starpha said. “It’s as Lord

Girzon says; we can be pretty sure there was a spy among the guests, and now that you’ve come over to our way of thinking, we’re responsible for your safety.”

He left the room to make the necessary visiphone call. Dallona, accompanied by Dirzed, returned to her place at the table, where she was joined by Harnosh of Hosh and some of the others.

“There’s no question about the results,” Harnosh was exulting. “I’ll grant that the boy might have picked up some of that stuff telepathically from the carnate minds present here; even from the mind of Garnon, before he was discarnated. But he could not have picked up enough data, in that way, to make a connected and coherent communication. It takes a sensitive with a powerful mind of his own to practice telesthesia, and that boy’s almost an idiot.” He turned to

Dallona. “You asked a question, mentally, after Garnon was discarnate, and got an answer that could have been contained only in

Garnon’s mind. I think it’s conclusive proof that the discarnate

Garnon was fully conscious and communicating.”

“Dirzed also asked a question, mentally, after the discarnation, and got an answer. Dr. Harnosh, we can state positively that the surviving individuality is fully conscious in the discarnate state, is telepathically sensitive, and is capable of telepathic communication with other minds,” Dallona agreed. “And in view of our earlier work with memory-recalls, we’re justified in stating positively that the individual is capable of exercising choice in reincarnation vehicles.”

“My father had been considering voluntary discarnation for a long time,” Girzon of Roxor said. “Ever since the discarnation of my mother. He deferred that step because he was unwilling to deprive the

Volitionalist Party of his support. Now it would seem that he has done more to combat Statisticalism by discarnating than he ever did in his carnate existence.”

“I don’t know, Girzon,” Jirzyn of Starpha said, as he joined the group. “The Statisticalists will denounce the whole thing as a prearranged fraud. And if they can discarnate the Lady Dallona before she can record her testimony under truth hypnosis or on a lie detector, we’re no better off than we were before. Dirzed, you have a great responsibility in guarding the Lady Dallona; some extraordinary security precautions will be needed.”

In his office, in the First Level city of Dhergabar, Tortha Karf,

Chief of Paratime Police, leaned forward in his chair to hold his lighter for his special assistant, Verkan Vall, then lit his own cigarette. He was a man of middle age--his three hundredth birthday was only a decade or so off--and he had begun to acquire a double chin and a bulge at his waistline. His hair, once black, had turned a uniform iron-gray and was beginning to thin in front.

“What do you know about the Second Level Akor-Neb Sector, Vall?” he inquired. “Ever work in that paratime-area?”

Verkan Vall’s handsome features became even more immobile than usual as he mentally pronounced the verbal trigger symbols which should bring hypnotically-acquired knowledge into his conscious mind. Then he shook his head.

“Must be a singularly well-behaved sector, sir,” he said. “Or else we’ve been lucky, so far. I never was on an Akor-Neb operation; don’t even have a hypno-mech for that sector. All I know is from general reading.

“Like all the Second Level, its time-lines descend from the probability of one or more shiploads of colonists having come to Terra from Mars about seventy-five to a hundred thousand years ago, and then having been cut off from the home planet and forced to develop a civilization of their own here. The Akor-Neb civilization is of a fairly high culture-order, even for Second Level. An atomic-power, interplanetary culture; gravity-counteraction, direct conversion of nuclear energy to electrical power, that sort of thing. We buy fine synthetic plastics and fabrics from them.” He fingered the material of his smartly-cut green police uniform. “I think this cloth is Akor-Neb.

We sell a lot of Venusian zerfa-leaf; they smoke it, straight and mixed with tobacco. They have a single System-wide government, a single race, and a universal language. They’re a dark-brown race, which evolved in its present form about fifty thousand years ago; the present civilization is about ten thousand years old, developed out of the wreckage of several earlier civilizations which decayed or fell through wars, exhaustion of resources, et cetera. They have legends, maybe historical records, of their extraterrestrial origin.”

Tortha Karf nodded. “Pretty good, for consciously acquired knowledge,” he commented. “Well, our luck’s run out, on that sector; we have troubles there, now. I want you to go iron them out. I know, you’ve been going pretty hard, lately--that nighthound business, on the

Fourth Level Europo-American Sector, wasn’t any picnic. But the fact is that a lot of my ordinary and deputy assistants have a little too much regard for the alleged sanctity of human life, and this is something that may need some pretty drastic action.”

“Some of our people getting out of line?” Verkan Vall asked.

“Well, the data isn’t too complete, but one of our people has run into trouble on that sector, and needs rescuing--a psychic-science researcher, a young lady named Hadron Dalla. I believe you know her, don’t you?” Tortha Karf asked innocently.

“Slightly,” Verkan Vall deadpanned. “I enjoyed a brief but rather hectic companionate-marriage with her, about twenty years ago. What sort of a jam’s little Dalla got herself into, now?”

“Well, frankly, we don’t know. I hope she’s still alive, but I’m not unduly optimistic. It seems that about a year ago, Dr. Hadron transposed to the Second Level, to study alleged proof of reincarnation which the Akor-Neb people were reported to possess. She went to Gindrabar, on Venus, and transposed to the Second Paratime

Level, to a station maintained by Outtime Import & Export Trading

Corporation--a zerfa plantation just east of the High Ridge country.

There she assumed an identity as the daughter of a planter, and took the name of Dallona of Hadron. Parenthetically, all Akor-Neb family-names are prepositional; family-names were originally place names. I believe that ancient Akor-Neb marital relations were too complicated to permit exact establishment of paternity. And all

Akor-Neb men’s personal names have -irz- or -arn- inserted in the middle, and women’s names end in -itra- or -ona. You could call yourself Virzal of Verkan, for instance.

“Anyhow, she made the Second Level Venus-Terra trip on a regular passenger liner, and landed at the Akor-Neb city of Ghamma, on the upper Nile. There she established contact with the Outtime Trading

Corporation representative, Zortan Brend, locally known as Brarnend of

Zorda. He couldn’t call himself Brarnend of Zortan--in the Akor-Neb language, zortan is a particularly nasty dirty-word. Hadron Dalla spent a few weeks at his residence, briefing herself on local conditions. Then she went to the capital city, Darsh, in eastern

Europe, and enrolled as a student at something called the Independent

Institute for Reincarnation Research, having secured a letter of introduction to its director, a Dr. Harnosh of Hosh.

“Almost at once, she began sending in reports to her home organization, the Rhogom Memorial Foundation of Psychic Science, here at Dhergabar, through Zortan Brend. The people there were wildly enthusiastic. I don’t have more than the average intelligent--I hope--layman’s knowledge of psychics, but Dr. Volzar Darv, the director of Rhogom Foundation, tells me that even in the present incomplete form, her reports have opened whole new horizons in the science. It seems that these Akor-Neb people have actually demonstrated, as a scientific fact, that the human individuality reincarnates after physical death--that your personality, and mine, have existed, as such, for ages, and will exist for ages to come.

More, they have means of recovering, from almost anybody, memories of past reincarnations.

[Illustration: ]

“Well, after about a month, the people at this Reincarnation Institute realized that this Dallona of Hadron wasn’t any ordinary student. She probably had trouble keeping down to the local level of psychic knowledge. So, as soon as she’d learned their techniques, she was allowed to undertake experimental work of her own. I imagine she let herself out on that; as soon as she’d mastered the standard Akor-Neb methods of recovering memories of past reincarnations, she began refining and developing them more than the local yokels had been able to do in the past thousand years. I can’t tell you just what she did, because I don’t know the subject, but she must have lit things up properly. She got quite a lot of local publicity; not only scientific journals, but general newscasts.

“Then, four days ago, she disappeared, and her disappearance seems to have been coincident with an unsuccessful attempt on her life. We don’t know as much about this as we should; all we have is Zortan

Brend’s account.

“It seems that on the evening of her disappearance, she had been attending the voluntary discarnation feast--suicide party--of a prominent nobleman named Garnon of Roxor. Evidently when the Akor-Neb people get tired of their current reincarnation they invite in their friends, throw a big party, and then do themselves in in an atmosphere of general conviviality. Frequently they take poison or inhale lethal gas; this fellow had his personal trigger man shoot him through the head. Dalla was one of the guests of honor, along with this Harnosh of

Hosh. They’d made rather elaborate preparations, and after the shooting they got a detailed and apparently authentic spirit-communication from the late Garnon. The voluntary discarnation was just a routine social event, it seems, but the communication caused quite an uproar, and rated top place on the System-wide newscasts, and started a storm of controversy.

“After the shooting and the communication, Dalla took the officiating gun artist, one Dirzed, into her own service. This Dirzed was spoken of as a generally respected member of something called the Society of

Assassins, and that’ll give you an idea of what things are like on that sector, and why I don’t want to send anybody who might develop trigger-finger cramp at the wrong moment. She and Dirzed left the home of the gentleman who had just had himself discarnated, presumably for

Dalla’s apartment, about a hundred miles away. That’s the last that’s been heard of either of them.

“This attempt on Dalla’s life occurred while the pre-mortem revels were still going on. She lived in a six-room apartment, with three servants, on one of the upper floors of a three-thousand-foot tower--Akor-Neb cities are built vertically, with considerable interval between units--and while she was at this feast, a package was delivered at the apartment, ostensibly from the Reincarnation

Institute and made up to look as though it contained record tapes. One of the servants accepted it from a service employee of the apartments.

The next morning, a little before noon, Dr. Harnosh of Hosh called her on the visiphone and got no answer; he then called the apartment manager, who entered the apartment. He found all three of the servants dead, from a lethal-gas bomb which had exploded when one of them had opened this package. However, Hadron Dalla had never returned to the apartment, the night before.”

Verkan Vall was sitting motionless, his face expressionless as he ran

Tortha Karf’s narrative through the intricate semantic and psychological processes of the First Level mentality. The fact that

Hadron Dalla had been a former wife of his had been relegated to one corner of his consciousness and contained there; it was not a fact that would, at the moment, contribute to the problem or to his treatment of it.

“The package was delivered while she was at this suicide party,” he considered. “It must, therefore, have been sent by somebody who either did not know she would be out of the apartment, or who did not expect it to function until after her return. On the other hand, if her disappearance was due to hostile action, it was the work of somebody who knew she was at the feast and did not want her to reach her apartment again. This would seem to exclude the sender of the package bomb.”

Tortha Karf nodded. He had reached that conclusion, himself.

“Thus,” Verkan Vall continued, “if her disappearance was the work of an enemy, she must have two enemies, each working in ignorance of the other’s plans.”

“What do you think she did to provoke such enmity?”

“Well, of course, it just might be that Dalla’s normally complicated love-life had got a little more complicated than usual and short-circuited on her,” Verkan Vall said, out of the fullness of personal knowledge, “but I doubt that, at the moment. I would think that this affair has political implications.”

“So?” Tortha Karf had not thought of politics as an explanation. He waited for Verkan Vall to elaborate.

“Don’t you see, chief?” the special assistant asked. “We find a belief in reincarnation on many time-lines, as a religious doctrine, but these people accept it as a scientific fact. Such acceptance would carry much more conviction; it would influence a people’s entire thinking. We see it reflected in their disregard for death--suicide as a social function, this Society of Assassins, and the like. It would naturally color their political thinking, because politics is nothing but common action to secure more favorable living conditions, and to these people, the term ‘living conditions’ includes not only the present life, but also an indefinite number of future lives as well. I find this title, ‘Independent’ Institute, suggestive. Independent of what? Possibly of partisan affiliation.”

“But wouldn’t these people be grateful to her for her new discoveries, which would enable them to plan their future reincarnations more intelligently?” Tortha Karf asked.

“Oh, chief!” Verkan Vall reproached. “You know better than that! How many times have our people got in trouble on other time-lines because they divulged some useful scientific fact that conflicted with the locally revered nonsense? You show me ten men who cherish some religious doctrine or political ideology, and I’ll show you nine men whose minds are utterly impervious to any factual evidence which contradicts their beliefs, and who regard the producer of such evidence as a criminal who ought to be suppressed. For instance, on the Fourth Level Europo-American Sector, where I was just working, there is a political sect, the Communists, who, in the territory under their control, forbid the teaching of certain well-established facts of genetics and heredity, because those facts do not fit the world-picture demanded by their political doctrines. And on the same sector, a religious sect recently tried, in some sections successfully, to outlaw the teaching of evolution by natural selection.”

Tortha Karf nodded. “I remember some stories my grandfather told me, about his narrow escapes from an organization called the Holy

Inquisition, when he was a paratime trader on the Fourth Level, about four hundred years ago. I believe that thing’s still operating, on the

Europo-American Sector, under the name of the NKVD. So you think Dalla may have proven something that conflicted with local reincarnation theories, and somebody who had a vested interest in maintaining those theories is trying to stop her?”

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