Don Michaels twisted about uneasily for a moment, then looked toward the doors of the darkened auditorium. He shook his head, then returned his attention to the stage. Of course, he’d joined in the applause--a guy felt sort of idiotic, just sitting there while everyone else in the place made loud noises--but that comedy act had been pretty smelly. They should have groaned instead of applauding.
Oh, sure, he thought, the drama students had to have experience on the stage. And they really needed an audience--if they were going to have any realism in their performances. Sure, that part of it was all right, but why did the professionals have to join the party? Why did they have to have ‘casts like that last thing--especially at a school Aud Call? It seemed anything but educational, and he’d had to skip a good class for this one. He shrugged. Of course, everyone else had skipped one class or another, he knew. So why should he be an exception? Too, some of the students would welcome and applaud anything that gave them a break from their studies. And the schedule probably took account of this sort of thing anyway. But...
A fanfare interrupted his thoughts. From the backstage speakers came the smooth rhythm of a band playing a march trio. He sat back.
The screen glowed and became a large rectangle of blue, dotted with fleecy clouds. In the distance, the towers of Oreladar poked up from a carpet of green trees.
Swiftly, the camera approached the city, to center for a moment on a large sports stadium. Players dashed across the turf, then the camera swung away. Briefly, it paused to record various city scenes, then it crossed the walls of the Palace and came to ground level on the parade grounds of the Royal Guards.
A review was underway. For a few seconds, the camera held on the massed troops, then it centered on the reviewing stand. The band modulated smoothly into a brilliant quickstep and a column of guards marched to center screen, the colors of their dress uniforms contrasting with the green of the perfectly kept field.
Now, the field of view narrowed, centering the view first on the color guard, then on the colors alone. The camera moved down till the gold and blue of Oredan’s royal colors stood out against the blue sky.
The band music faded, to be over-ridden then replaced by a smooth baritone voice.
“This is your news reporter,” it said, “Merle Boyce, bringing you the latest happenings of the day.”
The colors receded, their background blurring then coming into focus again. Now, they stood before a large window. Again, the camera receded and a man appeared in the foreground. For a moment he sat at his plain desk, gazing directly out of the screen and seeming to look searchingly into Don’s face. Then he smiled engagingly and nodded.
“As every citizen of Oredan knows,” he said, “this nation has been swept by a wave of terrorism during the few days past. Indeed, the now notorious Waern affair became so serious that our Prime Minister found it necessary to take personal command of the Enforcement Corps and direct the search for the terrorists himself. Now, he is present, to bring to you, the people, his report of the conclusion of this terrible affair.” He paused, drawing a breath.
“Citizen of Oredan,” he declaimed slowly, “the Prime Minister, Daniel Stern, Prince Regent.”
He faced away from the camera and faded from view. Again, the gold and blue of Oredan filled the screen.
There was a brief blare of trumpets. Then drums rolled and the heavy banner swept aside to reveal a tall, slender man, who approached the camera deliberately. He glanced aside for a moment, then pinned his audience with an intense stare.
“This has been a terrible experience for many of our people,” he began. “And it has been a harrowing time for your public officials. One of our own--a one-time police commissioner--a man sworn to uphold law and order, has suddenly revealed himself as a prime enemy of the realm and of our people. This in itself is a bad thing. But this was not enough for Harle Waern.” He held out a hand, his face growing stern.
“No, Waern was unwilling to abide by the results of a lawful trial, knowing the outcome of any full investigation into his activities, he chose to lash out further at authority and to burn his way out of detention. He killed some of his guards. He released other criminals. He formed them into a gang, enlisting their aid in cutting and burning his way across our land in an obvious effort to reach the hills and possibly stir some of the mountain clans to rebellion. And as he went, he left destruction and death.” He nodded his head sadly.
“Yes, it is painful to report, but it must be admitted that no less than twenty innocent people have lost their lives as a result of Waern’s actions. And many more have been injured or have suffered property loss. It has been a savage affair--one we’ll be long in forgetting. And it is with considerable relief that we can report its final conclusion.” He stepped back, then faded from view.
The screen brightened again to show a rambling white house which nestled in a grove of shade trees. Behind it, rose a small hill which acted as a mere step toward the peaks of high mountains beyond. Before it was a broad lawn, dotted with lounging furniture. Reflected in its windows was the glow of the rising sun, which flood-lit the entire scene. From the speakers came muted sounds. An insect chirped. Hurrying footsteps crunched on gravel. There were soft rattles and bangs, and somewhere a motor rumbled briefly, then coughed to silence.
“We are now,” said a voice, “a few miles outside of the city of Riandar, where Harle Waern had this summer estate built for him.”
As the announcer spoke, the camera moved about to pick out details of the estate. It showed a swimming pool back of the house. It swung briefly about landscaped gardens, scanning across cultivated fields and orchards. It flicked across a winding, tree-lined road, then came back to a rough area before the smooth lawn.
Partially concealed from the house by waving grass and field weeds, men were moving cautiously about the fields. Near a small hummock, a loudspeaker rose from its stand, to face the house. A man lay not too far from the base of the stand. Microphone in hand, he looked intently through the grass, to study the windows of the house. Then he glanced back to note the positions of the others.
The camera’s viewpoint raised, to take in the entire scene beyond the field. The sky blurred, then seemed to open, to show Daniel Stern’s long, thin face. He cast his eyes down for a moment, seeming to take in the details of the scene, then stared straight at the audience, his deep-set eyes glowing hypnotically.
“Here then,” he said slowly, “is one of the properties which Harle Waern bought while acting as Police Commissioner of Riandar. Here is a mere sample of the gains he enjoyed for a time as the price of his defections from his oath of office. And here is the stage he chose for the final act, his last struggle against the nation he had betrayed.”
His face faded from view, the deep-set eyes shining from the sky for a time after the rest of the face had faded from view.
Then the camera swung again, to show a low-slung weapons carrier which had pulled up a few dozen meters back of the man with the microphone. About it, the air shimmered a little, as though a filmy screen lay between vehicle and camera. It softened the harsh lines of the carrier and its weapon, lending them an almost mystical appearance.
The crew chief was clearly visible, however. He was making adjustments on one of the instruments on the projector mount. One of the crew members stood by on the charge rack, busying himself with adjustments on the charge activators. None of the crew looked toward the camera.
The loud-speaker clicked and rasped into life.
“Harle Waern, this is the Enforcement Corps. We know you are in there. You were seen to go into that house with your friends. You have one minute to throw out your weapons and come out with your hands in the air. This is your last chance.”
There was another click from the loud-speaker. Then the scene was quiet.
Someone cleared his throat. The man with the microphone shifted his position and lay stretched out. He had sought cover behind the hummock near the speaker stand and now he raised his head cautiously, to watch the silent windows of the house. Other men lay in similar positions, their attention on the windows, their weapons ready. The windows stared blankly back.
The camera shifted back to the weapons carrier. A low voice spoke.
“Let’s have a look at that scope, Walton.”
A man’s back moved aside and the light and dark pattern of the range detector showed on the screen. The low voice spoke again.
“Four of them,” it said. “Looks as though they’ve got a small arsenal in there with ‘em. See those bright pips?”
“Khroal?” queried another voice.
“A couple of those, yeah,” the first voice said. “But that isn’t too bad. Those are just antipersonnel. They’ve got a pair of rippers, too. Good thing we’ve got screens up. And there’s a firebug. They could give those guys on the ground a real hard time.” A finger appeared in front of the detector.
“See that haze with the lines in it?”
“Them the charges?”
“That’s right. They show up like that on both scopes, see? You can always spot heat-ray charges. They look like nothing else. Only trouble is, they louse up the range scale. You can’t tell----”
Don looked critically at the carrier.
There was, he thought, evidence of carelessness. No deflector screens were set up. A Moreku tribesman could put a stone from a sling in there, and really mess them up--if he could sneak in close enough. He grinned inwardly.
“Of course, if he hit the right spot, he’d go up with ‘em,” he told himself. “Be quite a blast.”
He continued to study the weapons carrier arrangements, noting that the chargers were hot, ready for instant activation. Even the gun current was on. He could see the faint iridescence around the beam-forming elements. He shook his head.
“Hit that lens system against something right now,” he muttered inaudibly, “or get something in the field, and that would be the end.”
The loud-speaker clicked again and the camera swung to center the house in its field of view.
“Your time is running out, Waern.” The amplified roar of the voice reverberated from the hills. “You have twenty seconds left.”
Abruptly, the speaker became a blaze of almost intolerable light. The man near it rolled away hurriedly, dropping his microphone. Another man quickly picked up a handset and spoke briefly into it.
Again, the camera picked up the weapons carrier. The crew chief had his hand on his microphone switch. He nodded curtly and adjusted a dial. The lens barrel of the projector swung toward the house, stopped, swung back a trifle, and held steady.
The pointer, sitting in front of the crew chief, moved a hand and flicked a switch.
The crew chief glanced over the man’s shoulder, reached out to put his hand on a polished lever, and pressed. Mechanism at the rear of the long projector clicked. The faint glow over the beam formers became a blaze. A charge case dropped out and rolled into a chute. Another charge slid in to replace it and for a brief instant, a coruscating stream of almost solid light formed a bridge between house and carrier.
Then the busy click of mechanism was drowned by the crash of an explosion. A ragged mass of flame shot from the house, boiled skyward, then darkened, to be replaced by a confused blur of smoke and flying debris. The crew chief took his hand from the lever and waited.
At last, the drumroll of echoes faded to silence--the debris fell back to ground--the smoke drifted down the valley with the light breeze. And the rising sun again flooded its light over the estate.
The rambling white house, shaded by its miniature grove of trees, had gone. Charred timbers reached toward the sky from a blackened scar in the grass. On the carefully kept lawn, little red flowers bloomed, their black beds expanding as the flaming blossoms grew.
Near the charred skeleton of the house, one tree remained stubbornly upright, its bare branches hanging brokenly. About it, bright flames danced on the shattered bits of its companions.
In the fields about the house, men were getting to their feet, to stretch cramped muscles and exercise chilled limbs. A few of them started toward the ruins and the man by the speaker got to his feet to wave them back.
“Too hot to approach yet,” he shouted. “We’ll let a clean-up crew go over it later.”
The scene faded. For an instant, the royal colors of Oredan filled the screen, then the banner folded back and Daniel Stern faced his audience, his gaze seeming to search the thoughts of those before him.
“And so,” he said, “Harle Waern came to bay and elected to shoot it out with the Enforcement Corps.” He moved his head from side to side.
“And with the armament he had gathered, he and his companions might even have succeeded in burning their way to the mountains, despite the cordon of officers surrounding their hide-out. He thought he could do that. But precautions had been taken. Reinforcements were called in. And such force as was needed was called into play.” He sighed.
“So there’s an end. An end to one case. An end to a false official, who thought he was too big for the law he had sworn to uphold.” He held out a hand.
“But there still remain those who hired this man--those who paid him the price of those estates and those good things Waern enjoyed for a time. Your Enforcement Corps is searching for those men. And they will be found. Wherever they are--whoever they are--your Enforcement Corps will not rest so long as one of them remains at liberty.” He stared penetratingly at the camera for a moment, then nodded and turned away.
The musical salute to the ruler sounded from the speakers as the scene faded. Once again, the green grass of the Royal Guard parade field came into view. As the color guard stood at attention, the band modulated into the “Song of the Talu.”
Don Michaels got out of his seat. The Aud Call would be over in a few minutes, he knew, and he’d have to be at his post when the crowd streamed out. He moved back toward the doors, opened one a trifle, and slid through.
Some others had already come out into the hall. A few more slid out to join them, until a small group stood outside the auditorium. They examined each other casually, then scattered.
Unhurriedly, Don walked through the empty corridors, turning at a stairwell.
How, he wondered, did a man like Harle Waern get started on the wrong track? The man had been a member of one of the oldest of the noble families--had always had plenty of money--plenty of prestige. What was it that made someone like that become a criminal?
“Should’ve known he’d get caught sooner or later,” he told himself, “even if he had no honesty about him. I don’t get it.”
He got to the bottom of the stairs and walked into the boy’s locker room.
Between a couple of rows of lockers, a youth sat in an inconspicuously placed chair. Don went up to him.
“Hi, Darrin,” he said. “About ready to pack it up?”
The other gathered his books.
“Yeah. Guess so. Nothing going on down here. Wonder why they have us hanging around this place anyway?”
Don grinned. “Guess somebody broke into a locker once and they want a witness next time. Got to have something for us Guardians to do, don’t they?”
“Suppose so. But when you get almost through with your pre-professional ... hey, Michaels, how did you make out on the last exam? Looked to me as though Masterson threw us a few curves. Or did you get the same exam? Like that business about rehabilitation? It ain’t in the book.”
“Oh, that.” Don shrugged. “He gave us the low-down on that during class last week. Suppose your group got the same lecture. You should’ve checked your notes.”
Darrin shrugged and stood up. “Always somebody don’t get the news,” he grumbled. “This time, it’s me. I was out for a few days. Oh, well. How was the Aud?”
Don spread his hands. “About like usual, I’d say. Oh, they had a run on the end of the Waern affair. Really fixed that bird for keeps. Otherwise?”
He waved his hands in a flapping motion.
The other grinned, then turned as a bell clanged.
There was a rumbling series of crashes, followed by a roar which echoed through the corridors. Darrin turned quickly.
“I’d better get going,” he said, “before I get caught in the stampede. Should be able to sneak up the back stairs right now. See you later.” He strode away.
Michaels nodded and sat down, opening a notebook.
Students commenced rushing into the locker room and the roar in the hall was almost drowned out by the continuous clash and slam of locker doors. Don paid little attention, concentrating on his notes.
At last, the noise died down and Don looked up. Except for one slender figure, crouched by an open locker, the room was empty.
Don looked at the boy curiously. He was a typical Khlorisana--olive skinned, slightly built, somewhat shorter than the average galactic. Don looked with a touch of envy at the smooth hairline, wondering why it was that the natives of this planet always seemed to have a perfect growth of head fur which never needed the attention of a barber. He rubbed his own unruly hair, then shrugged.
“Hate to change places with Pete Waern now, though,” he told himself. “Wonder where he stands in this business.”
Hurrying footsteps sounded in the corridor and three latecomers rushed in. As Waern straightened to close his locker door, the leader of the group crashed into him.
“Hey,” he demanded, “what’s the idea trying to trip me?” He paused, looking at the boy closely. “Oh, you again! Still trying to be a big man, huh?” He placed a hand on Waern’s chest, pushing violently.
“Out of our way, trash.”
Pete Waern staggered back, dropping his books. A notebook landed on its back and sprang open, to scatter paper over the floor. He looked at the mess for an instant.
One of the three laughed.
“That’s how you show ‘em, Gerry.”
Pete stared angrily at his attacker.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
The three advanced purposefully. One seized Pete by an arm, swinging him about violently. Another joined him and between them, they held the smaller lad firmly.
Gerry swung an open hand jarringly against Pete’s face.
“Guess you’re going to have to have a little lesson in how to talk to your betters,” he snarled. He drew back a fist.
Don Michaels had come out of his chair. He strode over to the group, to face the attacker.
“Just exactly what do you think you’re doing?” he demanded icily.
“Who do you think you are?”
Don touched a small bronze button in his lapel. “I’m one of the guys that’s supposed to keep order around this place,” he said. “We’ve got self-government in this school, remember?” He swung about to confront the two who still held Waern.
“Now, suppose you turn this guy loose and start explaining yourselves.”
Gerry placed a large hand on Don’s shoulder, kneading at the muscles suggestively.
“Look, little man,” he said patronizingly, “you’ll be a lot better off if you just mind your own business. Like watching those lockers over there so they don’t fly away or something. We’ll take----”
Michaels swung around slowly, then put knuckles on hips and stared at the other sternly.
“Take that hand away,” he said softly. “Now get over there, and start picking up those books. Get them nice and neat.” His voice rose a trifle.
“Now, I said!” He stabbed a finger out.
The boy before him hesitated, his face contorted with effort. He forced a hand part way up.
Don continued to stare at him.
The other drew a sobbing breath, then turned away and knelt by the scattered books and papers.
Don wheeled to confront the other two.
“Get over by those lockers,” he ordered. “Now, let’s hear it. What’s your excuse for this row?”
“Aw, you saw it. You saw that little gersal trip Gerry there.” The two had backed away, but now one of them started forward again.
“Come to think of it, you don’t look so big to me.” He half turned.
“Come on, Walt, let’s----”
“Be quiet!” Michaels’ gaze speared out at the speaker.
“Now, get over to those lockers. Move!” He swiveled his head to examine the boy who had picked up the books.
“Put them down there by the locker,” he said coldly. “Then get yourself over there with your pals.” He took a pad and pencil from his pocket, then pointed.
“All right. What’s your name?”
“Walt ... Walter Kelton.”
“Three oh one.” The boy looked worried. “Hey, what you----”
“I’ll tell you all about it--later.” Don scribbled on the top sheet of the pad, then tore it off. He pointed again.
“What’s your name?”
“Aw, now, look. We----”
“Aw ... Gerald Kelton.”
“Aw, same as his. We’re brothers.”
“What’s the number of your class group?”
“Aw ... well, it’s three oh one. Like I said----”
“Later! Now you. What’s your name and class group?”
“Maurie VanSickle. I’m in three oh one, too.”
Don finished writing, then snapped three shots of paper toward the three.
“All right. Here are your copies of the report slips. You’re charged with group assault. You’ll report at the self-government office before noon tomorrow. Know where it is?”
“Yeah. Yeah, we know where it is, all right,” grumbled Gerry Kelton. He pointed at Pete Waern.
“How about him?”
“Never mind about that. Just get your stuff and get to your classes. And you better make it fast. Late bell’s about to ring. Now get going.” Don turned toward Pete Waern.
“Close your locker, fella, and come over here.”
He glanced at the three retreating backs, then turned and went back to his chair. Pete hesitated an instant, then picked up his books and locked the door of his locker. Again, he hesitated, and went slowly over to stand in front of Michaels.
Don looked at him curiously.
“You ever have any trouble with those three before now?”
Pete shook his head. “Not really,” he said. “Oh, one of the Keltons ... Gerry ... sneaked off the grounds a few weeks ago. I wrote him up.” He grinned.
“Pushed on past me when I was on noon guard. I trailed him to his class group later and got his name.”
Don nodded. “He ever say anything to you about it?”
“No. I’ve seen him in the halls a few times since then. He always avoided me--up to now.”
“I see.” Don nodded. “But today, he suddenly went for you--with reinforcements.”
Pete grinned wanly. “I guess I’ll have to get used to things like that,” he said. “Ever since Uncle Harle was----” He clasped his hands together, then turned suddenly aside.
For an instant, he stood, head averted, then he ran over to lean against a row of lockers, facing away from Michaels.
“Uncle Harle didn’t---- Oh, why don’t you just leave me alone?”
Don considered him for a moment, then walked over, to place a hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, hold up a minute, Chum,” he said. “I’m not trying to give you a bad time. Now suppose you calm down a little. Doesn’t do you a bit of good to tear yourself apart. You’re not responsible for whatever your uncle got into, you know.”
Pete faced him, his back braced against the lockers.
“That’s what you say here,” he said bitterly. “Sure, we’ve been in the same classes. You know me, so you try to be decent. But what do you really think? And how about everyone else? You think they’re being all nice and understanding about this?” He snorted.
“Know why I’m not in class now? Got no class to go to. I was in Civics Four this period. They threw me out. Faculty advisor said I’d do better in ... in some Shop Study.”
Don frowned. “Funny,” he said. “You always got good grades. No trouble that way?”
“Of course not.” Pete spread his hands. “I----”
A low snicker interrupted the words and Don looked around, to see Gerry Kelton close by. Behind him were his brother and Maurie. Gerry laughed derisively.
“Go ahead,” he commented, “let him talk. You might learn something from the little----”
Don motioned impatiently with his head.
“Get going, you three,” he said sharply. “You’ve got less than a minute before late bell.”
“Sure we have,” Gerry told him. “We might even be late to class. Now wouldn’t that be awful? Some jerk wants to write up a bunch of lousy report slips, make him look good, we’re----”
“Move!” Michaels’ voice rose sharply. “Don’t try that one on me. It’s been tried before. Doesn’t work.”
Gerry paused in mid-stride, then seemed to deflate. He turned away.
“Come on, guys,” he said. “Let’s get out of here. We’ll take care of this later.”
As the three disappeared down the hall, Don turned back. Pete was staring at him curiously.
“How do you do that?”
“Oh, you know what I mean.” Pete shook his head impatiently. “Make people do things. There’s only one of you and three of them. And they’re all bigger than you are. Why did they just do what you told them without making a lot of trouble?”
Don shrugged, then touched the button in his lapel.
“They were in the wrong and they knew it. They’ve got enough trouble now. Why should they look for more?”
Pete shook his head again. “They didn’t have to give their names,” he said. “All you did was tell them to.”
“What else could they do? After all, you know who Gerry is. So he had no out.”
Pete laughed wryly. “Who’d take my word? Besides, Gerry’s shoved guardians around before. He’s got friends all over school. Ever hear of the ‘Hunters’?”
“Who hasn’t? Supposed to be some sort of gang, but I’ve never talked to anyone that knew much about who they are, or what they do.” Don was thoughtful. “Supposed to be all galactic kids. I’ve heard the police are trying to break them up. Those three part of that bunch?”
Pete nodded wordlessly.
Don’s eyebrows rose a little. “Prove that,” he remarked, “and it won’t just be the school that’ll be giving them trouble. The police would probably give a lot to really get their hands on some of them.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Pete told him. “It was my uncle who was interested in the Hunters. Now, it’s different. Maybe the guy that went and got the proof of their membership would be the one who’d have the trouble. Real, final type trouble.”
“Look, I just told you. Among other things, my uncle was interested in the Hunters.” Pete bent his knees and took a squatting position. His elbows rested on his knees and he relaxed, resting his chin on folded hands and looking up at Don.
“Seems as though some other people didn’t like to have him asking too many questions around.” He paused.
“You think my uncle was getting a lot of money from the gamblers and some smuggling combine. That right?”
“Well----” Don hesitated.
“Sure you do. So does everybody else. The galactics are telling each other about why don’t they get somebody in authority besides some stupid Khlorisana. And the Khlorisanu talk about the old nobility--how they can’t stop robbing the people. It all goes along with what the papers have been saying. There’s been more, too, but those bribery charges are what they’ve really worked on. They keep telling you some of the same stuff on the newscasts. And everybody believes them. But it isn’t true. My uncle was an honest policeman. They got him out of the way because he wouldn’t deal with them--and maybe for...” He held out a hand.
“Figure it out. Why didn’t they just give him a trial and put him into prison if he were guilty? Or, if they were going to have an execution, why not make it legal--over in Hikoran?” He paused, then waved the hand as Don started to speak.
“They didn’t dare have a trial. It would be too public, and there was no real evidence. So they say he escaped. They say he slugged a guard--took his weapons. And he’s supposed to have shot his way out of Khor Fortress, after releasing some other prisoners. They say he forced his way clear from Hikoran to the Doer valley.” He laughed bitterly.
“Did you ever see Khor Fortress?
“And you should have seen my uncle. He was a little, old man. He’d stand less chance of beating up some guard and taking his weapons than I would have of knocking out all three of those fellows a few minutes ago.” Again, he paused, looking at Don searchingly.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, unless maybe I better tell someone while I’m still around to talk,” he added.
“Now wait.” Don shook his head. “Aren’t you making----”
“A great, big thing? No.” Pete shook his head decidedly. “I’ve talked to my uncle. I’ve heard my uncle and father talk about things. And ... well, maybe I’ve gotten mixed up in things a little, too. Maybe I’m really mixed up in things, and maybe----” He stopped talking suddenly and got to his feet.