We humans are a strange breed, unique in the Universe. Of all the races met among the stars, only homo sapiens thrives on deliberate self-delusion. Perhaps this is the secret of our greatness, for we are great. In power, if not in supernal wisdom.
Legends, I think, are our strength. If one day a man stands on the rim of the Galaxy and looks out across the gulfs toward the seetee suns of Andromeda, it will be legends that drove him there.
They are odd things, these legends, peopled with unreal creatures, magnificent heroes and despicable villains. We stand for no nonsense where our mythology is concerned. A man becoming part of our folklore becomes a fey, one-dimensional, shadow-image of reality.
Jaq Merril--the Jaq Merril of the history books--is such an image. History, folklore’s jade, has daubed Merril with the rouge of myth, and it does not become him.
The Peacemaker, the chronicles have named him, and that at least, is accurate in point of fact. But it was not through choice that he became the Peacemaker; and when his Peace descended over the worlds of space, Merril, the man, was finished. This I know, for I rode with him--his lieutenant in a dozen and more bloody fights that earned him his ironically pacific laurels.
Not many now living will remember the Wall Decade. History, ever pliable, is rewritten often, and facts are forgotten. When it was gone, the Wall Decade was remembered with shame and so was expunged from the record of time. But I remember it well. It was an era compounded of stupidity and grandeur, of brilliant discovery and grimy political maneuver. We, the greedy men of space--and that includes Jaq Merril--saw it end with sorrow in our hearts, knowing that we had killed it.
If you will think back to the years immediately preceding the Age of Space, you may remember the Iron Curtain. Among the nations of the Earth a great schism had arisen, and a wall of ideas was built between east and west. Hydrogen bombs were stockpiled and armies marched and countermarched threateningly. Men lived with fear and hatred and distrust.
Then, suddenly, came the years of spaceflight and the expanding frontiers. Luna was passed. Mars and Venus and the Jovian Moons felt the tread of living beings for the first time since the dawn of time. The larger asteroids were taken and even the cold moonlets of Saturn and Uranus trembled under the blast of Terran rockets. But the Iron Curtain still existed. It was extended out into the gulf of space, an intangible wall of fear and suspicion. Thus was born the Wall Decade.
Jaq Merril was made for that epoch. Ever in human history there are those who profit from the stupidity of their fellows. Jaq Merril so profited. He dredged up the riches of space and took them for his own. And his weapon was man’s fear of his brothers.
It was in Yakki, down-canal from the Terran settlement at Canalopolis, that Merril’s plan was born. His ship, the Arrow, stood on the red sands of Syrtis Major, waiting for a payload to the Outer System. It stood among a good many like it: the Moonmaid, the Gay Lady, the Argonaut, and my own vessel, the Starhound.
We, the captains, had gathered in the Spaceman’s Rest--a tinkling gin-mill peopled with human wrecks and hungry-eyed, dusty-skinned women who had come out to Mars hoping for riches and had found only the same squalor they had left behind. I remember the look in Merril’s eyes as he spoke of the treasures of space that would never be ours, of the gold and sapphires, the rubies and unearthly gems of fragile beauty and great price. All the riches of the worlds of space, passing through our hands and into the vaults of the stay-at-homes who owned our ships and our very lives. It seemed to me that Merril suffered as though from physical pain as he spoke of riches. He was nothing if not rapacious. Greedy, venal, ruthless. All of that.
“Five of us,” he said in a hard voice, “Captains all--with ships and men. We carry the riches of the universe and let it slip through our fingers. What greater fools could there be?”
Oh, he was right enough. We had the power to command in our hands without the sense to grasp it firmly and take what we chose.
“And mark you, my friends,” Merril said, “A wall has been built around Mars. A wall that weakens rather than strengthens. A wonderful, stupid, wall...” He laughed and glanced around the table at our faces, flushed with wine and greed. “With all space full of walls,” he said softly, “Who could unite against us?”
The question struck home. I thought of the five ships standing out there on the rusty desert across the silted canal. Five tall ships--against the stars. We felt no kinship to those at home who clung to creature comforts while we bucketed among the stars risking our lives and more. We, the spacemen, had become a race apart from that of the home planet. And Merril saw this in our faces that night so long ago, and he knew that he had spoken our thoughts.
Thus was born the Compact.
Gods of space, but I must laugh when I read what history has recorded of the Compact.
“_Merril, filled with the wonder of his great dream, spoke his mind
to the Captains. He told them of the sorrow in his heart for his
divided fellow men, and his face grew stern when he urged them to
put aside ideology and prejudice and join with him in the Compact._”
So speaks Quintus Bland, historian of the Age of Space. I imagine that I hear Merril’s laughter even as I write. Oh, we put aside ideology and prejudice, all right! That night in Yakki the five Captains clasped hands over the formation of the first and only compact of space-piracy in history!
It was an all or nothing venture. Our crews were told nothing, but their pockets were emptied and their pittances joined with ours. We loaded the five ships with supplies and thundered off into the cobalt Martian sky to seek a stronghold. We found one readily enough. The chronicles do not record it accurately. They say that the fleet of the Compact based itself on Eros. This is incorrect. We wanted no Base that would bring us so close to the home planet every year. The asteroid we chose was nameless, and remained so. We spoke of it seldom aspace, but it was ever in our minds. There was no space wall, there to divide us one from the other. It was a fortress against the rest of mankind, and in it we were brothers.
When we struck for the first time, it was not at a Russian missile post as the histories say. It was at the Queen of Heaven, an undefended and unsuspecting merchantman. The records of Earth say the Queen was lost in space between Uranus and Mars, and this is so. But she was listed lost only because no Russian or American patrol found her gutted hulk. I imagine that at this very moment she hangs out beyond Pluto, rounding the bend of the long ellipse we sent her on that day we stripped her bones.
She carried gold and precious stones--and more important yet, women being furloughed home after forced labor in the mines of Soviet Umbriel. The Starhound and the Arrow bracketed her a million miles above the plane of the ecliptic near Saturn’s orbit, and killed her. We drew abreast of her and forced her valves. We boarded her and took what we chose. Then we slaughtered her men and sent them on their long voyage. That was the beginning.
The attack against Corfu was our next move. This is the battle that Celia Witmar Day has described in verse. Very bad verse.
“_Corfu slumbered, gorged and proud--
While Arrow, Hound and Maid marshalled
Freedom’s might above the tyrant’s ground,
And rained down death--_”
There is much more, of course. Brave phrases of emotion and fanciful unreality written by one who never saw the night of space agleam with stars.
There was no talk of tyranny or liberty aboard the Hound that day we leveled with the Maid and the Arrow a thousand miles over the Russian Base of Corfu. There was talk of the bullion stored under the fortress’ turrets.
Merril’s face appeared in my visor screen, superimposed on the image of the grimy little asteroid floating darkly against the starfields.
“Their radar has picked us up by now, and they’re wondering who we are,” he said, “Take the Hound out on tangent left and join the Maid. Cover my attack and stand by to put a landing party aground.”
I watched the image of the Arrow--a sliver of darkness against the crescent of Corfu--lancing down at the fortress. Her forward tubes were glowing with the familiar pre-discharge emanation.
Below us, confusion reigned. For the first time in memory an asteroid Base was under attack. Merril brought the Arrow in to within fifty miles and then unleashed the fury of his forward tubes. Hellfire coruscated over the steel turrets and stone walls of Corfu. It splashed like a liquid flame over men and metal and twisted the towers and buttresses into spidery tendrils of glowing thread. Corfu died without firing a shot.
We put a party from the Hound aground ten hours later. Even then, we had to wear insulated suits to walk in that still molten inferno. Charred bodies had become one with the stuff of the fortress, and nothing living was left within the keep. We looted Corfu’s treasure and lifted into space heavy with gold.
Time passed in an orgy of looting for the men of the Compact. We grew rich and arrogant, for in space we were kings. Torn by suspicion of one another, America and Russia could do nothing against us. They had built an Iron Curtain in space, and it kept them divided and weak.
Endymion felt our blasts, and Clio. Then came Tethys, Rhea, Iapetus. We cared nothing for the flag these Bases flew. They were the gathering points for all the gold and treasure of space and we of the Compact took what we wished of it, leaving a trail of blood and rapine behind us. No nation claimed our loyalty; space was our mother and lust our father.
Thus, the Peacemakers.
For five full years--the long years of the Outer Belt--the Arrow, the Starhound, the Moonmaid, the Lady and the Argonaut were the scourges of the spacelanes. No patrol could find us, and no defense could contain us. I recall how we laughed at the angry sputtering of Earth’s radio. Vast sums were spent in searches and new weapons to protect the meek and the mutually distrustful from Merril and the men of the Compact. Budgets, already strained to the breaking point by generations of the cold war, creaked and groaned as Russians and Americans spent furiously to build up their defenses against our depredations. But though we were few and they many--space was large and it hid us well.
And then one darkling day, Jaq Merril and I stood on the thin methane snow that carpeted our Base’s landing ramp, waiting under our own blue-black sky for the return of the Argonaut. Merril had sent her sunward to strike at the mines of Loki, an asteroid where Russian komisars rolled in mountains of blood-red rubies.
We waited through the day and into the sable night, but the Argonaut did not return. For the first time since the formation of the Compact, we had lost a ship, and something like unease crept into our hearts. The carousal that night had no gaiety, and there was the sound of bereaved women weeping.
Merril could learn nothing of the Argonaut’s fate. It was as though she had dropped through a hole in the fabric of space itself and vanished from the ken of men. To me he said: “I fear a new weapon.” But to the rest, he kept his peace and let the work of the Compact continue. There was nothing else to be done. Our Wall Decade was waning, and when a man or a Compact outlives the age that gave him or it birth, there is nothing to do but go forward and meet the new day dawning.
So it was with the Compact. We lived on as we had lived before: looting and killing and draining the wealth of space into our coffers. But in the back of our minds a shadow was lurking.
On the next raid, the Lady was lost. I saw it happen, as did Merril. There was nothing we could do to help her, and she died, spilling men into the void as she ruptured in her last agony.
It was off Hyperion, whence we had come to loot the trove built there by the prospectors of the Saturnian Moons. And it was a trap.
The Arrow, the Hound and the Lady circled the moonlet, swinging inward to the attack. It was the Lady who was to put aground the raiding party, and her valves hung open while men readied the assault-boats. Our radar screens showed nothing of danger. There was only the bloated giant in the sky, a ringed monster of yellow gold against the starry velvet of space.
The Lady dropped her boats, the Hound and the Arrow hovering by to watch over their sister. And suddenly, the jagged moonscape below erupted--belching streaks of fire that sought us like probing fingers. I knew in one single instant of terror that this was the new weapon that had killed the Argonaut, for it sliced into the Lady’s flanks as though the steelite hull were cheese.
She bulged, glowing like an ember. There was a sudden nimbus of snow about her as her air escaped and froze, and then she rolled into her death-dance, open from bow to stern, spilling scorched corpses into the void.
The Arrow and the Hound drove off into space like furies leaving the spinning body of their sister ship behind, not waiting to watch her crash down onto the rocky face of Hyperion. And now the five of the Compact were only three, and again there was the sound of weeping among our women.
Two months after that engagement, a single assault-boat returned to Base. It was the lone survivor of the Lady’s landing party. By some miracle, the three men aboard had escaped the holocaust. They had landed and been captured and then they had fought their way free and into the void once more. They were half-dead from starvation and exposure, but they had brought word to Merril that the wall that had so long protected us was crumbling.
Merril sought me out, his lean hard face grim and set.
“There was a Russian among the Americans on Hyperion,” he said.
“A prisoner?” It was my hope that spoke so, not my sure knowledge of what was to come.