It was quiet in the underground office of the director, except for the faint sound of Flannery’s arms sliding across each other in an unconscious massaging motion. He caught himself at it, and leaned back, his tired facial muscles twitching into a faint smile.
Strange things happened to a man when he grew old. His hair turned gray, he thought more of the past, and prosthetic limbs began to feel tired, as if the nerves were remembering also. And the work that had once seemed vitally important in every detail winnowed itself down to a few things, with the rest only bothersome routine.
He pulled a thermos of coffee from under the desk and turned back to the confusion of red-coded memoranda on his desk. Then the sound of the elevator coming down caught his attention, and he waited until the door opened.
“Hello, Harding,” he said without turning around. Only one man beside himself had the key to the private entrance. “Coffee?”
Harding took a seat beside him, and accepted the plastic cup. “Thanks. I tried to call you, but your phone was shut off. Heard the good word?”
Flannery shook his head. With the matter of the strange ship that had been reported and the problem of what to do with the telepaths both coming to a head, he’d had no time for casual calls. There was no question now that the telepaths had plucked the knowledge of how to build an interstellar drive from the observers’ minds, in spite of all precautions. And once they broke out into the rest of the galaxy--
“Var died of a heart attack in the middle of a battle,” Harding announced. “And Cathay and Kloomiria sent each other surrender notices the minute word was official! The damnedest thing I ever heard of. Edmonds came with me, and he’s upstairs now, planning a big victory celebration as soon as we can let the word out. It should finish his reorientation.”
“I’ll probably get word on it by the time someone has it all organized into a nice, official memo,” Flannery said. “Back him up on that celebration. It’s worth a celebration to find out both worlds are that close to maturity. Coming over for bridge tonight?”
Harding shook his head. “I’ll be up to my elbows in bills for the relief of Cathay and Kloomiria. It’s a mess, even if it could be worse. Maybe tomorrow.”
He dropped the cup onto the desk and turned to the elevator, while Flannery hunted through the memoranda. As he expected, he found a recent one announcing Var’s death. He rubbed his arms together as he read it, but there was no new information in it.
Then, reluctantly, he picked up his phone and started to call. Scanning for information, just as another bundle of memos came through a small door in the panel. At the sight of the top photo, he put the phone back on its cradle. His face tautened and his arms lay limp as he read through it.
The picture was that of one of the half-disk Allr ships. The rumors of the strange ship were true enough. One of the Allr races had crossed the gulf between the two expanding cultures, and had touched several worlds briefly, to land in the biggest city on Ptek, the trading center for a whole sector. It had been there two days already, before being reported to Earth!
To make matters worse, it had come because its home world had been visited by a foreign ship--from the description, apparently from Sugfarth; there was no longer any chance of cutting off the news, since it would be circulating busily through both cultures. And with it must be going a thousand wild schemes by trading adventurers for exploration!
He’d expected it to happen some day, maybe in fifty years, after he was out of the office. By then enough of the worlds should have reached maturity to offer some hope of peaceful interpenetration. But now--
Victory, he thought bitterly. A small victory, and then this. Or maybe two small victories, if O’Neill worked out as well on Throm as he seemed to be doing, and if he realized he’d never be satisfied until he could return to Earth to face the problems he now knew existed. Flannery had almost hoped that it would be O’Neill who would handle the problem of cultural interpenetration. The man had ability.
But all that was in the past now, along with all the other victories. And in the present, as always, there were larger and larger problems, while full maturity lay forever a little farther on.
Then he smiled slowly at himself. There were problems behind him, too--ones whose solutions made these problems possible. And there would always be victory enough.
What was victory, after all, but the chance to face bigger and bigger problems without fear?
Flannery picked up the phone, and his arms were no longer tired.