“We’re almost there, my boy.” The big, gray-haired man who would be Lieutenant Dale Hunter’s superior--Strategic Service’s Special Agent, George Rockford--opened another can of beer, his fifth. “There will be intrigue already under way when this helicopter sets down with us. Attempted homicide will soon follow. The former will be meat for me. You will be meat for the latter.”
Rockford was smiling as he spoke; the genial, engaging smile of a fond old father. But the eyes, surrounded by laughter crinkles, were as unreadable as two disks of gray slate. They were the eyes of a poker player--or master con man.
“I don’t understand, sir,” Hunter said.
“Of course not,” Rockford agreed. “It’s a hundred light-years back to Earth. Here on Vesta, to make sure there is an Earth in the future, you’re going to do things never dreamed of by your Terran Space Patrol instructors there. You’ll be amazed, my boy.”
Hunter said nothing but he felt a growing dislike for the condescending Rockford. Only a few weeks ago President Diskar, himself, had said: For more than a century these truly valiant men of the Space Patrol have been our unwavering outer guard; have fought and died by legions, that Earth and the other worlds of the Terran Republic might remain free--
“I suppose you know,” Rockford said, “that there will be no more than four days in which to stop the Verdam oligarchy from achieving its long-time ambition of becoming big enough to swallow the Terran Republic.”
“I know,” Hunter answered.
Jardeen, Vesta’s companion world, was the key. Jardeen was large and powerful, with a space navy unsurpassed by that of any other single world. A large group of now-neutral worlds would follow Jardeen’s lead and Jardeen’s alliance with the Verdam People’s Worlds would mean the quick end for the Terran Republic. But, if Jardeen could be persuaded to ally with the Terran Republic, the spreading, grasping arms of the Verdam octopus would begin to wither away--
Rockford spoke again:
“Val Boran, Jardeen’s Secretary of Foreign Relations, is the man who will really make Jardeen’s decision. I know him slightly. Since my public role is that of Acting Ambassador, he agreed--reluctantly--to come to Vesta so that the talks could be on a neutral world. With him will be Verdam’s Special Envoy Sonig; a wily little man who has been working on Boran for several weeks. He seems to be succeeding quite well--here’s a message I received from Earth early this morning.”
Rockford handed him a sheet of the green Hyperspace Communications paper. The message was in code, with Rockford’s scribbled translation beneath:
Intelligence reports Verdam forces already massed for attack in Sector A-13, in full expectation of Jardeen’s alliance. Anti-Terran propaganda, stressing the New Jardeen Incident, being used in preparation for what will be their claim of “defensive action to protect innocent worlds from Terran aggression.” Terran forces will be outnumbered five to one. The urgent necessity of immediate and conclusive counter measures by you on Vesta is obvious.
Hunter handed the paper back, thinking, It’s worse than any of us thought, and wondering how Supreme Command could ever have entrusted such an important task to a beer-guzzling old man from Strategic Service--a branch so unknown that he had never even heard of it until his briefing the day before he left Earth.
He saw that they had left the desert behind and were going up the long slope of a mountain. “The meeting will be on this mountain?” he asked.
Rockford nodded. “The rustic Royal Retreat. Princess Lyla will be our hostess. Her mother and father were killed in an airplane accident a year ago and she was the only child. You will also get to meet Lord Narf of the Sea Islands, her husband-by-proxy, who regards himself as a rare combination of irresistible woman-killer and rugged man-among-men.”
“Husband-by-proxy?” Hunter asked.
“The king worshiped his daughter and his dying request to her was that she promise to marry Lord Narf. Narf’s father had been the king’s closest friend and the king was sure that his old friend’s son would always love and care for Lyla. Lyla dutifully, at once, married Narf by proxy, which is like a legally binding formal engagement under Vestan law. Four days from now the time limit is up and they’ll be formally married. Unless she should do the unprecedented thing of renouncing the proxy marriage.”
Rockford drained the last of the beer from the can. “Those are the characters involved in our play. I have a plan. That’s why I told Space Patrol to send me a brand-new second lieutenant--young, strong, fairly handsome--and expendable. I hope you can be philosophical about the latter.”
“Sir,” Hunter said, unable to keep a touch of stiffness out of his tone, “it is not exactly unknown in the Space Patrol for a man to die in the line of duty.”
“Ah ... yes.” Rockford was regarding him with disturbing amusement. “You are thinking, of course, of dying dramatically behind a pair of blazing blasters. But you will soon learn, my boy, that a soldier’s duty is to protect the worlds he represents by whatever actions will produce the best results, no matter how unheroic those actions may be.”
“Attention, please.” It was the voice of the pilot. “We are now going to land.”
Hunter preceded Rockford out of the helicopter and onto the green grass of a small valley, across which tall, red-trunked cloud trees were scattered. Pale gray ghost trees, with knobby, twisted limbs, grew thickly among the cloud trees. There was a group of rustic cabins, connected by gravel paths, and a much larger building which he assumed would be a meeting hall.
He turned, and looked into the brown eyes of a girl. Her green skirt and orange blouse made a gay splash of color, her red-brown hair was wind-tumbled and carefree about her shoulders, in her hand was a bouquet of bright spring flowers.
But there was no smile of spring in the dark eyes and the snub-nosed little face was solemn and old beyond its years.
“You’re Lieutenant Hunter, aren’t you?” she asked in the same low, quiet voice.
“Princess Lyla!” There seemed to be genuine delight in Rockford’s greeting as he hurried over. “You’re looking more like a queen every day!”
Her face lighted with a smile, making it suddenly young and beautiful. “I’m so glad to see you again, George--”
“Ah ... good afternoon.”
The voice was loud, unpleasantly gravelly. They turned, and Hunter saw a tall, angular man of perhaps forty whose pseudogenial smile was not compatible with his sour, square-jawed face and calculating little eyes.
He spoke to Rockford. “You’re Ambassador Rockford, here to represent the Terran Republic, I believe.” He jerked his head toward Princess Lyla, who was no longer smiling. “My wife, Princess Lyla.”
“Oh, she and I have been friends since she was ten, Lord Narf.”
“And this young man”--Narf glanced at Hunter--”is your aide, I presume. Lyla, did you think to send anyone after their luggage?”
A servant was already carrying their luggage--and cases of Rockford’s beer--out of the helicopter. Hunter followed the other toward the cabins. Narf, in the lead, was saying:
“ ... Ridiculously primitive here, now, but I’m having some decent furniture and well-trained servants sent up from my Sea Island estates...”
The cabin was large and very comfortable, as Rockford mentioned to Princess Lyla.
“I’m glad you like it,” she said. “Val Boran and Envoy Sonig are already here and we’ll meet for dinner in the central hall. I thought that if we all got acquainted in a friendly atmosphere like that, it might help a lot to...”
“That reminds me”--Narf glanced at his watch--”I promised this Boran he could have a discussion with me--Vesta-Jardeen tariff policies. I suppose he’s already waiting. Come on, Lyla--it will do you no harm to listen and learn a bit about interplanetary business.”
For a long moment she looked at Narf silently, her eyes thoughtful, then she said to Rockford, “If you will excuse us, please. And be prepared for Alonzo to come bounding in the minute he learns you’re here.”
She walked beside Narf to the door and out it, the top of her dark hair coming just even with his shoulder.
“And that,” Rockford said as he settled down in the largest, softest chair, “was king-to-be Narf, whose business ability is such that all his inherited Sea Island estates are gone but the one Lyla saved for him and who owes a total of ten million monetary units, to everyone from call girls to yacht builders.”
“And she is going to marry him?” Hunter asked. “Marry that jackass and let him bankrupt her kingdom?”
Rockford shrugged. “You may have noticed that she doesn’t look the least bit happy about it--but she is a very conscientious young lady who regards it as her most solemn duty to keep the promise she made to her father. For her, there is no escape.”
“Your first duty will be to cultivate a friendship with her. I’m going to use her, and you, to get what I want.”
“Yes. One of the most rigid requirements of a Strategic Service man’s character is that he be completely without one.”
Rockford was asleep in his chair an hour later, three empty beer cans beside him. Hunter watched him, his doubt of Rockford’s competence growing into a conviction. Rockford had spoken knowingly of his plan--and had done nothing but drink more beer. Now he was asleep while time--so limited and precious--went by. He hadn’t even bothered to reply to Hunter’s suggestion that perhaps he should call on Val Boran and counteract some of Envoy Sonig’s anti-Terran propaganda.
Hunter came to a decision. If Rockford was still doing nothing when morning came, he would send an urgent message to Supreme Command.
He went outside, to find a servant and learn how mail was handled.
Gravel flew as overgrown feet tried to stop, and something like a huge black dog lunged headlong around the corner and into his legs. He went to the ground head first over the animal, acutely aware as he went down of the fascinated interest on the face of a not-so-distant servant.
“I sorry, Rootenant.”
He got up, to look down at the doglike animal. There was a concerned expression in its brown eyes and an apologetic grin on its face. He recognized it as one of the natives of the grim starvation world of Altair Four. The Altairians had emigrated to all sections of the galaxy, to earn a living in whatever humble capacity they could fill. Many were empathic.
“I run too fast to meet, Mr. Rockford, I guess. Are you hurt, Rootenant?”
He pulled a cloud tree needle out of his hand and looked grimly down into the furry face. “In the future, try to look where you’re going.”
“Oh, I rook, awr right. I just not see. My name is Aronzo, Rootenant, and I stay here awr the time and guard everything for Princess Ryra. I prease to meet you and I wirr run errands for you, and do things rike mair your retters, for candy or cookies, which I are not supposed to eat much of, but Princess Ryra say not too many wirr hurt me--”
“Mail letters?” Hunter’s animosity vanished. “I’m sorry I was rude, Alonzo--all my fault. I may write a letter to my dear old mother tonight, and if you would mail it for me in the morning--”
Rockford left ahead of Hunter and it was a minute past the appointed time when Hunter reached the meeting hall. He heard Narf’s loud voice inside:
“ ... Boran must have stopped to watch the sunset. Told him I wanted everyone here on time--”
The low voice of Lyla said something and Narf said, “Not necessary for you to defend him, my dear. I made it plain to him.”
A new voice spoke from behind Hunter:
“It seems I have annoyed Lord Narf.”
He was a tall, black-eyed man, with the dark, saturnine face of an Indian. There was a strange, indefinable air of sadness about him which reminded Hunter of the sombre little Princess Lyla.
“You’re Val Boran, sir?” he said. “I’m Lieutenant Hunter--”
Inside, Narf sat at the head of the table. On his left was Lyla, then Rockford. On his right was a spidery little man of about fifty, his slick-back hair so tight against his skull that it gave his head the appearance of a weasel’s. His lips were paper-thin under a long nose, like those of a dry and selfish old maid, but the round little eyes darting behind thick glasses were cold and shrewd and missed nothing. He would be Verdam’s Special Envoy Sonig. Hunter appraised him as a man very dangerous in his own deceptive way.
A servant showed them to their places at the table. Rockford and Val Boran exchanged greetings. The moment everyone was seated, Narf said, “Dinner tonight will--”
“Excuse me,” Lyla said, “but Mr. Sonig hasn’t yet met--”
“Oh ... the young fellow there--” Narf gestured with his hand. “Rockford’s aide. Now, ring the chime, Lyla. Those forest stag steaks are already getting cold. I killed the beast myself, gentlemen, just this morning; a long-range running shot that required a bit more than luck...”
The dinner was excellent, but no one seemed to notice. Narf was absorbed in the story of his swift rise to eminence in the Vestan Space Guard. There were humorous incidents:
“ ... Can’t understand why, but I seem to attract women like a magnet. I’m strictly the masculine type of male and I approve of this but it can be a blasted nuisance when you’re an ensign going up fast and your commander finds one of your blondes stowed away in your compartment...”
And there were scenes of tense drama:
“ ... Made a boyhood vow that I’d never settle for anything less than to always be a man among men. Seem to have succeeded rather well. When I saw the crew was almost to the snapping point from battle tension I knew that as commander I’d have to set the example that would inspire.”
Hunter recalled Rockford’s words of a few hours before: “Narf got to be commander, finally, but only because he was the son of the king’s best friend. His record is very mediocre.“
Princess Lyla tried three times to start a conversation of general interest and was drowned out by Narf each time. Sonig’s pretense of being spellbound by Narf’s stories was belied by the way his eyes kept darting from Rockford to Val Boran. Val’s own attention kept shifting from Narf to the silent Lyla, whose downcast eyes betrayed her discouragement. She watched Val from under her eyelashes, to look away whenever their eyes met, and Hunter wondered if she was ashamed because Narf had given Sonig the seat of honor that should have belonged to Val.
Of course, Narf’s own position at the head of the table was actually Lyla’s.
“ ... So there’s no substitute for competent, unwavering leadership,” Narf was saying. “Received a citation for that one.”
Sonig nodded appreciatively. “Your military record well illustrates the fact that the tensions of danger and battle can bring forth in a competent leader the highest kind of courage. But it seems to me that these same circumstances, if the leader is frightened or incompetent, can easily produce hysterical actions with disastrous consequences. Is this true, your lordship?”
Rockford was watching Sonig intently and Hunter saw that there was an eager anticipation in Sonig’s manner.
“You are quite right,” Narf answered. “I’ve always had the ability to remain cool in any crisis. Very important. Let a commander get rattled and he may give any kind of an order. Like the New Jardeen Incident.”
A frozen silence followed the last five words. Hunter thought, So that’s what the little weasel was fishing for...
Rockford quietly laid down his fork. Val’s face turned grim. Lyla looked up in quick alarm and said to Narf:
“Don’t misunderstand me, gentlemen,” Narf’s loud voice went on. “I believe the commander of the Terran cruiser wouldn’t have ordered it to fire upon the Verdam cruiser over a neutral world such as New Jardeen if he had been his rational self. Cold-war battle nerves. So he shot down the Verdam cruiser and its nuclear converters exploded when it fell in the center of Colony City. Force of a hydrogen bomb--forty thousand innocent people gone in a microsecond. Not the commander’s fault, really--fault of the military system that failed to screen out its unstable officers.”
“Yes, your lordship. But is it possible”--Sonig spoke very thoughtfully--”for a political power, which is of such a nature that it must have a huge military force to maintain its existence, to thoroughly screen all its officers? So many officers are required--Can there ever be any assurance that such tragedies won’t occur again and again, until a majority of worlds combine in demanding an end to aggression and war?”
Rockford spoke to the grim Val:
“I know, sir, that your sister was among the lost in Colony City. I am sorry. For the benefit of Mr. Sonig and Lord Narf, I would like to mention that the Verdam cruiser fired upon the Terran cruiser over neutral New Jardeen in open violation of Galactic Rule. An atmospheric feedback of the Verdam cruiser’s own space blasters tore out its side and caused it to fall. The Terran cruiser never fired.”
“But Mr. Rockford--” Sonig spoke very courteously. “Isn’t it true that certain safety devices prevent atmospheric feedback?”
“They do--unless accidentally or purposely disconnected.”
Sonig raised his eyebrows. “You imply a created incident, sir?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Val Boran said. His tone was as grim as his face and it was obvious he did not believe Rockford’s explanation. “Colony City is a field of fused glass, now, its people are gone, and no amount of debating can ever bring them back.”
The dismal dinner was finally over. Rockford stopped outside the door of their cabin to fill and light his pipe.
“It was a profitable evening,” he said to Hunter. “I can start planning in detail now--after a little beer, that is.”
He’ll go to sleep after he drinks his beer, Hunter thought, and there will never be any plan unless I--
Soft footsteps came up the path behind them. It was Princess Lyla.
“I want to apologize,” she said, “I just told Val ... Mr. Boran the same thing.”
Her face was a pale oval in the starlight, her eyes dark shadows. “I’m sorry my husband mentioned the New Jardeen incident.”
“That’s all right, Lyla,” Rockford said. “No harm was done.”
“He’s an ex-military man, and I guess it’s his nature to be more forthright than tactful.”
“You certainly can’t condemn him for that,” Rockford said. “In fact, he’s an extraordinary teller of entertaining stories. It was a most enjoyable evening.”
“And, in a way, it was,” Rockford said when she was gone and they were in the cabin. He was seated in the softest chair, a can of beer in his hand, as usual.
Hunter thought of the way she had looked in the starlight and said, “Why did she let that windbag sit at the head of the table and ruin the meeting that she had arranged?”
“He’ll soon be her husband--I suppose she feels she should be loyal to him.”
“Nothing. It’s none of my business.”
“Oh?” Rockford smiled in a way Hunter did not like. “You think so, eh?”
Hunter changed the subject. “Are you going to start talking to Boran to undo the damage Narf and Sonig have done?”
“It would be a waste of time, my boy. Val Boran’s mind is already made up.”
“Then what are you going to do?”
“Drink six cans of beer and go to sleep.”
“I thought you had a plan.”
“I have, a most excellent plan.”
“What is it?”
“You’d scream like a banshee if you knew. You’ll learn--if you manage to live that long.”
Rockford was sound asleep an hour later, snoring gently. Hunter sat thinking, hearing the steady murmur of a voice coming from Val Boran’s cabin. Sonig’s voice--using every means of persuasion he could think of, at the moment capitalizing on the New Jardeen incident and Boran’s withheld grief over the sister he had lost.
And the Terran Republic’s representative was sprawled fat and mindless in a fog of beer fumes.
Hunter hesitated no longer. The fate of Earth and the Terran Republic hung in the balance and time was desperately limited--if there was now any time at all.
He took paper and pen and began the urgent message to Supreme Command, headed, TOP EMERGENCY. It would be sent via Hyperspace Communications from the city and would span the hundred light-years within seconds.
He was up before Rockford the next morning, and went out into the bright sunlight. He looked hopefully for Alonzo, not wanting to be seen mailing the letter in person. Rockford, despite his drunken stupors, could be shrewdly observant and he might deduce the contents of the letter before Supreme Command ever received it.
He was some distance from the cabin when he heard the pound of padded feet behind him.
“Rootenant,” Alonzo had the grin of a genial canine idiot. “Do you want me to mair your retter to your dear ore mother?”
“Yes, I have the letter right here.”
“O.K. I got to hurry, because the mair hericopter reaves right away. I charge six fig cookies or three candy bars or--”
“Here--take it and run--and try not to slobber all over it.”
They were served breakfast in the cabin. Afterward, Rockford went for a brief talk with Princess Lyla. He came back and settled down in the easy-chair, his pipe in his hand.
“Your morning’s duty won’t be at all unpleasant,” he said. “The obnoxious and repulsive things will begin to happen to you later. Maybe this afternoon.”
“What do you mean?”
“This morning you will go for a walk with Princess Lyla and discuss changing the Vestan Space Guard into a force along Terran Space Patrol lines. Narf is still in bed, by the way.”
Rockford added, “I’ll give you a bit of sage advice, for your own good--try not to fall in love with her.”
Hunter and Princess Lyla sat together on the high hill, their backs against the red trunk of a cloud tree. On the mountain’s slope to their right lay the dark and junglelike Tiger Forest--he wondered if it was true that the savage tree tigers never left its borders--while the toylike cabins of the camp were below them. The mountain’s slope dropped on down to the deserts, beyond which were other mountains, far away and translucent azure.
“It was George who suggested we come up here,” she said. “He knows I do that often when the responsibilities of being queen of a world--I’m such an ordinary and untalented person--become too much for me. I always feel better when I sit up here and look down on the mountains and deserts.”
“Yes,” he said politely.
“A ruling princess can be so alone,” she said. “That’s why I appreciate George’s friendship so much--it’s never because of any ulterior motive but because he likes me.”
I’m going to use her, and you, to get what I want.
He looked at her, at the lines of sadness on the face that was too old for its years, felt the way she was so grateful to Rockford for what was only a cold-blooded pretense of friendship, and the dislike for Rockford increased. He could not force himself to speak civilly of Rockford so he changed the subject:
“I understand you wanted to talk to me about the Space Guard?”
“Yes. Even a neutral world can’t feel safe these days and George suggested that.”
“I’ll be glad to help all I can. Of course, the change will require time.”
“I can understand that. They say you Space Patrol officers begin training at sixteen, after passing almost impossible qualification tests.”
“The tests can seem extremely difficult to a farm boy from Kansas. I--”
“Kansas?” Her eyes lighted with interest. “My grandmother was from Kansas! She used to tell me about the green plains of grain in the spring, and how different they were from the deserts of Vesta...”
It was almost noon when he took her hand and helped her to her feet, realizing guiltily that they had talked all morning without ever getting back to the cold, dry facts of military efficiency.
“It was nice to talk up here this morning,” she said. She looked down at the cabins and the shadow fell again across her face. “But nothing down there has been changed by it, has it?”
He held to her hand longer than was necessary as they went down the steep part of the hill. She did not seem to mind.
When they reached her cabin she said, “It’s still a little while until lunch--time enough for you to give me a rough outline of the Space Guard change.”
Everything inside the cabin was feminine. None of Narf’s possessions were visible. There was a heavy door leading into Narf’s half of the cabin, with a massive lock. Hunter wondered if it was left unlocked at night, thought of Narf’s sour face and leering little eyes, and found the thought repulsive.
The answer to his conjecture came with the entrance of a servant as they seated themselves.
“By your leave, your highness,” the servant said, bowing, “I came to make Lord Narf a key for that inner door.”
“A key?” There was alarm in her tone. “But we’re not married--not yet!”
A puzzled expression came to the man’s face. “Lord Narf told me, your highness, that you had ordered the duplicate key made and given to him before evening. I found I could not do this without first borrowing your key for a pattern.”
There was a frightened look in her eyes as they went to the door and back to the servant. “No ... don’t try to make a key!”
“Yes, your highness.” The servant bowed and turned away.
A familiar gravelly voice spoke from behind them:
“Ah ... an unscheduled little meeting, I see!”
It was Narf, anger on his face, already within the doorway as the servant went out it.
“We were going to talk about the Space Guard,” Lyla said in an emotionless tone. “Lieutenant Hunter has promised to show how Space Patrol methods will improve it and--”
“By a coincidence, Sonig and I were discussing military matters only a few minutes ago,” Narf said. He looked at Hunter. “I’m afraid that Sonig and I agree that the Terran Space Guard is quite out of date, now. The fighting force of the galaxy is the Verdam’s Peoples Guards.”
Narf spoke to Lyla, “You may go ahead and talk with this lieutenant if you wish to, but it’s a waste of time. I’m arranging to have Sonig send Peoples Guards officers here to supervise the rebuilding of the Space Guard.
“And now”--there was insinuation in Narf’s tone as he spoke to Hunter--”I have to give Sonig a demonstration of my skill with weapons. He insists on it--he has heard of several of my modest feats.”
Narf left the door open behind him so that by turning his head as he walked, he could see the two inside.
“I suppose I might as well go,” Hunter said.
Lyla did not answer. She sat motionless, staring unseeingly before her, and he wondered if she was thinking of how very soon Narf would be king and his authority as great as hers.
She did not notice when he quietly left the room.
Rockford was waiting in the cabin, still in the easy-chair.
“Well,” Rockford said, “what do you think of her?”
Hunter tried to keep the personal dislike out of his coldly formal reply:
“If you refer to your suggestion that I not make love to her, sir, I can assure you that such a suggestion was never necessary. I happen to have a code of ethics.”
“I didn’t say ‘make love’. I said, ‘fall in love’. That’s quite ethical. Did you complete your discussion with her?”
“Well ... no.”
“You must do that this afternoon, then. Can’t let anything as important as that be delayed.”
Hunter stared at him, trying to find one small grain of sanity in Rockford’s actions. The Verdam empire already had Jardeen within its grasp, and Vesta, and the end for Earth was inevitable. And Rockford slept, and drank beer, and regarded it as very important that the Vestan Space Guard discussions--of a change that Narf would never permit--be continued without delay.
He walked slowly into his own room. In the nightmare situation of frustration there was one single sane and stable conviction for his mind to cling to: Supreme Command would by now have received his message and shot back the reply that would relieve Rockford of his command. Perhaps it wasn’t yet too late--
Then his mind reeled as a new conviction struck it.
There was a sheet of paper on his bed--a message.
... SITUATION EXTREMELY CRITICAL ... VAL BORAN ALREADY CONVINCED BY SONIG’S PROPAGANDA ... MUST REPORT ROCKFORD IS UTTERLY INCOMPETENT, HIS MIND AND WILL DESTROYED BY ALCOHOL ... REPEAT: ROCKFORD IS DOING NOTHING, HIS MIND DESTROYED BY ALCOHOL...
The words screamed up at him and he felt the sickness of one who sees the last faint hope shattered and gone. All was lost, now...
He went outside, feeling a savage desire for violence rising above the sickness.