In the spring the cherry blossoms are heavy in the air over the campus of Solarian Institute of Science and Humanities. On a small slope that rims the park area, Cameron Wilder lay on his back squinting through the cloud of pink-white petals to the sky beyond. Beside him, Joyce Farquhar drew her jacket closer with an irritated gesture. It was still too cold to be sitting on the grass, but Cameron didn’t seem to notice it--or anything else, Joyce thought.
“If you don’t submit a subject for your thesis now,” she said, “you’ll take another full six months getting your doctorate. Sometimes I think you don’t really want it!”
Cameron stirred. He shifted his squinting gaze from the sky to Joyce and finally sat up. But he was staring ahead through the trees again as he took his pipe from his pocket and began filling it slowly.
“I don’t want it if it’s not going to mean anything after I get it,” he said belligerently. “I’m not going to do an investigation of some silly subject like The Transience of Venusian Immigrants in Relation to the Martian Polar Ice Cap Cycle. Solarian sociologists are the butt of enough ridicule now. Do something like that and for the rest of your life you get knocking of the knees whenever anybody inquires about the specialty you worked in and threatens to read your thesis.”
“Nobody’s asking you to do anything you don’t want to. But you picked the field of sociology to work in. Now I don’t see why you have to act such a purist that it takes months to find a research project for your degree. Pick something--anything!--I don’t care what it is. But if you don’t get a degree and an appointment out of the next session I don’t think we’ll ever get married--not ever.”
Cameron removed his pipe from his mouth with a precise grip and considered it intently as it cupped in his hands. “I’m glad you mentioned marriage,” he said. “I was just about to speak of it myself.”
“Well, don’t!” said Joyce. “After three years--Three years!”
He turned to face her and smiled for the first time. He liked to lead her along occasionally just to watch her explode, but he was not always sure when he had gone too far. Joyce had a mind like a snapping, random matching calculator while he operated more on a slow, carefully shaping analogue basis, knowing things were never quite what they seemed but trying to get as close an approximation of the true picture as possible.
“Will you marry me now?” he said.
The question did not seem to startle her. “No degree, no appointment--and no chance of getting one--we couldn’t even get a license. I hope you aren’t suggesting we try to get along without one, or on a forgery!”
Cameron shook his head. “No, darling, this is a perfectly bona fide proposal, complete with license, appointment, the works--what do you say?”
“I say this spring sun is too much for you.” She touched the dark mass of his hair, warmed by the sun’s rays, and put her head on his shoulder. She started to cry. “Don’t tease me like that, Cameron. It seems like we’ve been waiting forever--and there’s still forever ahead of us. You can’t do anything you want to--”
Cameron put his arms about her, not caring if the whole Institute faculty leaned out the windows to watch. “That’s why you should appreciate being about to marry such a resourceful fellow,” he said more gently. And now he dropped all banter. “I’ve been thinking about how long it’s been, too. That’s why I decided to try to kill a couple of sparrows with one pebble.”
Joyce sat up. “You aren’t serious--?”
Cameron sucked on his pipe once more. “Ever hear of the Markovian Nucleus?” he said thoughtfully.
Joyce slowly nodded her head. “Oh, I think I’ve heard the name mentioned,” she murmured, “but nothing more than that.”
“I’ve asked for that as my research project.”
“But that’s clear out of the galaxy--in Transpace!”
“Yes, and obviously out of bounds for the ordinary graduate researcher. But because of the scholarship record I’ve been able to rack up here I took a chance on applying to the Corning Foundation for a grant. And they decided to take a chance on me after considerable and not entirely painless investigation. That’s why you were followed around like a suspected Disloyalist for a month. My application included a provision for you to go along as my wife. Professor Fothergill notified me this morning that the grant had been awarded.”
“Cam--” Joyce’s voice was brittle now. “You aren’t fooling me?”
He gathered her in his arms again. “You think I would fool about something like that, darling? In a week you’ll be Mrs. C. Wilder, and as soon as school is out, on your way to the Markovian Nucleus. And besides, it took me almost as much work preparing the research prospectus as the average guy spends on his whole project!”
Sometimes Joyce Farquhar wished Cameron were a good deal different than he was. But then he wouldn’t have been Cameron, and she wouldn’t want to marry him, she supposed. And somehow, while he fell behind on the mid-stretch, he always managed to come in at the end with the rest of the field. Or just a little bit ahead of it.
Or a good deal ahead of it. As now. It took her a few moments to realize the magnitude of the coup he had actually pulled off. For weeks she had been depressed because he refused to use some trivial, breeze research to get his degree. He could have started it as much as a year ago, and they could have been married now if he’d set himself up a real cinch.
But now they were getting married anyway--and Cameron was getting the kind of research deal that would satisfy his frantic desire for integrity in a world where it counted for little, and his wish to contribute something genuine to the sociological understanding of sentient creatures.
Their marriage, as was customary, would be a cut and dried affair. A call to the license bureau, receipt of formal sanction in the mail--she supposed Cameron had already made application--and a little party with a few of their closest friends on the campus. She wished she had lived in the days when getting married was much easier to do, and something to make a fuss about.
She stirred and sat up, loosening the jacket as the sun came from behind a puff of cloud. “You could have told me about this a long time ago, couldn’t you?” she said accusingly.
Cameron nodded. “I could have. But I didn’t want to get false hopes aroused. I didn’t have much hope the deal would actually go through, myself. I think Fothergill is pretty much responsible for it.”
“Transpace--” Joyce said dreamily. “Tell me about the Markovian Nucleus. Why is it important enough for a big research study, anyway?”
“It’s a case of a leopard who changed his spots,” said Cameron. “And nobody knows how or why. The full title of the project is A Study of the Metamorphosis of the Markovian Nucleus.”
“What happened? How are they any different from the way they used to be?”
“A hundred and fifty years ago the Markovians were the meanest, nastiest, orneriest specimens in the entire Council of Galactic Associates. The groups of worlds in one corner of their galaxy, which make up the Nucleus, controlled a military force that outweighed anything the Council could possibly bring to bear against them.
“With complete disregard of any scheme of interplanetary rules or order they harassed and attacked peaceful shipping and inoffensive cultures throughout a wide territory. They were something demanding the Council’s military action. But the Council lacked the strength.
“For years the Council dragged on, debating and threatening ineffectively. But nothing was ever done. And then, so gradually it was hardly noticed, the harassments began to die down. The warlike posturing was abandoned by the Markovians. Within a period of about seventy or eighty years there was a complete about-face. They wound up as good Indians, peaceful, coöperative and intelligent members of the Council.”
“Didn’t anybody ever find out why?” asked Joyce.
“No. Nobody wanted to find out. In the early years the worlds of the Council were hiding behind their collective hands hoping with all their might that the threat might go away if they kept their eyes closed long enough. And by some miracle of all miracles, when they parted their fingers for a scared glimpse, the threat had disappeared.
“When they could breathe a little more easily it seemed a foolish thing to bring out this old skeleton from the closet again, so a perpetual state of hush was established. Finally, the whole thing was practically forgotten except for a short paragraph in an occasional history text. But no politician or historian has ever dared publicly to question the mysterious why of the Markovian’s about-face.”
“Sociologists should have done it long ago,” said Joyce.
“There was always the political pressure, of course,” said Cameron. “But the real reason was simply our preoccupation with making bibliographies of each others’ papers. It’s going to take a lot of leg work, something in which our formal courses don’t give us any basic training. Fothergill understands that--it’s why he pushed me so hard with the Foundation. And Riley up there is capable of seeing it, too.
“I showed him that here was a complex of at least a hundred and ten major planets, inhabited by a fairly homogenous, civilized people, speaking from a technological point of view at least. And almost overnight some force changed the entire cultural posture. I made him see that identification of that force is of no small interest to us right now. If it operated once, it could operate again--and would its results be as happy a second time?
“Riley got the Foundation to kick through enough for you and me to make a start. A preliminary survey is about all it will amount to, actually, but if we show evidence of something tangible I’ll get my degree, you’ll get your basic certification--and we’ll both return in charge of a full-scale inquiry with a staff big enough to really dig into things next year.
“Now--about this matter of marriage which you didn’t want me to speak of--”
“Keep talking, Cam--you’re doing wonderfully!”
They got married at once, even though there were several weeks of school which had to be finished before they could leave. Among their friends on the campus there were a good many whispered remarks about the insanity of Joyce and Cameron in planning such a fantastic excursion, but Joyce was certain there was as much envy as criticism in the eyes of her associates. It might be true when they asserted that every conceivable sociological factor or combination of factors could be found and analyzed right here in the Solar System, but a husband who could finagle a way to combine a honeymoon trip halfway across space with his graduate research thesis was a rare specimen. Joyce played her advantage for all it was worth.
Two weeks before departure time, however, Cameron was called to the office of Professor Fothergill. As he entered he found a third man present, wearing a uniform he recognized at once as belonging to the Council Secretariat.
“I’ll wait outside,” he said abruptly as Fothergill turned. “I got your message and came right over. I didn’t know--”
“Sit down,” said Fothergill. “Cameron, this is Mr. Ebbing, whose position you no doubt recognize. Mr. Ebbing, Mr. Wilder.”
The men shook hands and took seats across from each other. Fothergill sat between them at the polished table. “The Council, it seems, has developed an interest in your proposed research among the Markovians,” he said. “I’ll let Mr. Ebbing tell you about it.”
Cameron felt a sinking anticipation within him as he turned to the secretary. Surely the Council wasn’t going to actively oppose the investigation after so long a time!
The secretary coughed and shuffled the papers he drew from his case. “It’s not actually the Council’s interest,” he said, and Cameron was immediately relieved. “But I have been asked by the Markovian Nucleus, through their representative, to suggest that they would like to save you the long and unnecessary trip. He offers to co-operate to the fullest degree by causing all necessary materials to be transferred to your site of study right here. He feels that this is the least they can do since so much interest appears to exist in the Nucleus.”
Cameron stared at the secretary, trying to discern what the man’s own attitude might be, but Ebbing gave no sign of playing it any way but straight.
“It sounds like a polite invitation to stay home and mind our own business,” said Cameron finally. “They don’t want company.”
The secretary’s expression changed to acknowledgment of the correct appraisal. “They don’t want any investigation into the Metamorphosis of the Markovian Nucleus. There is no such thing. It is entirely a myth.”
“Says the Markovians--!”
Ebbing nodded. “Says the Markovians. Other worlds, both within and without the Council have persisted in spreading tales and rumors about the Markovians for a long time. They don’t like it. They are willing to co-operate in having a correct analysis of their culture published, but they don’t want any more of these infamous rumors circulated.”
“Then why aren’t they willing to promote such an investigation? This would be their big chance--if their ridiculous position were true!”
“They are willing. I’ve told you the representative has offered to send you all needed material showing the status of their culture.”
Cameron looked at the secretary for a long time before speaking again. “What’s your position?” he asked finally. “Are we being ordered off the investigation?”
“The Markovian representative doesn’t want to go to quite that extreme. He knows that, too, would react unfavorably towards his people. Here’s his point: So far, he’s blocked news of your proposed research getting to his home worlds. But he knows that if you do carry it out in the manner you propose it is going to make a lot of the home folks mighty unhappy and they’ll demand to know why he didn’t stop it. So he’s trying to satisfy both sides at once.”
“Why will the people in the Nucleus be made unhappy by our coming?”
“Because you’ll go there trying to track down the basis for the rumors that defame the Markovian character. You’ll bring forcibly to their attention the fact that the rest of the Universe believes the Markovians are basically a bunch of pirates.”
“And the Markovians don’t like to hear these things?”
“So you tell me the research is not being forbidden, but that the Markovians won’t like it. Suppose I tell you, then, I’m not going to give up short of an order from the Council itself. But I am willing to camouflage the investigation if necessary. I’ll make no open mention of what outside opinion says of the Markovians. I’ll simply make a study of their history and character as it becomes available to me.”
Ebbing nodded slowly, his eyes fixed on Cameron’s face. “I would say that would be eminently satisfactory,” he said. “I will inform the representative of your decision.”
Then his face became more severe. “The Council will be pleased to learn of your willingness to be discreet. I wonder if you understand that the Foundation came to us upon receipt of your application, for official clearance of the project. It coincided quite fortuitously with the plans of the Council itself. For a long time we have been concerned with the lack of information regarding the Markovian situation and have been at a loss as to how to improve our situation.
“Your proposed investigation seemed the answer, but we anticipated the Markovian objection and had to make certain you would co-operate to his satisfaction. I believe this will do it.”
“Why is the Council concerned?” said Cameron. “Have the Markovians changed their attitude in any way?”
“No--but the rest of us remember, even though we don’t speak of it, that the Nucleus was never punished for its depredations, nor was it ever defeated. Its strength is as great as ever in proportion to the other Council worlds.
“What are the chances and potentialities of the Nucleus worlds ever again becoming the marauders they once were? That is the question which we feel must be answered. Without knowing, we are sitting on a powder keg in which the fuse may or may not be lighted. Will you bring us back the answer we need?”
Cameron felt a sudden grimness which had not been present before. “I’ll do all I can,” he said soberly. “If the information is there I’ll bring it back.”
After the secretary had gone and Fothergill turned from the door to rejoin him Cameron sat in faintly shocked consideration of the Council’s unexpected support. It took his research out of the realm of the purely sociological and projected it into politics and diplomacy. He was pleased by their confidence, but not cheered by the added responsibility.
“That’s a lucky break,” said Fothergill enthusiastically, “and I’m beginning to suspect you may be rather badly in need of all the breaks you can get once you land among the Markovians. Don’t forget for a single minute that you are dealing with the sons and grandsons of genuine pirates.”
The professor sat down again. “There’s one other little item of interest I turned up the other day. You should know about it before you leave. The Markovian Nucleus is somewhat of a hotbed of Ids.”
“Ids--you mean the Idealists--?”
Fothergill nodded. “Know anything about them?”
“Not much, except that they are a sort of parasitic group, living usually in a servant relationship to other races on terran-type worlds. As I recall, even they claim that they do not know the planet or even the galaxy of their origin, because they have been wanderers for so many generations among alien races. Perhaps it would be a good idea to make a study of them, too--I don’t know that a thorough one has ever been made.”
“That’s what I wanted to warn you about,” said Fothergill, smiling. “Stick to one subject at a time. The Ids would make a nice research project in themselves, and maybe you can get around to it eventually. But leave them alone for the present and don’t become distracted from your basic project among the Markovians. The policy of the Corning Foundation is to demand something very definite in return for the money they lay on the line. You won’t get to go back next year unless you produce. That’s why I don’t want you to get sidetracked in any way.”
Cameron admitted to himself that he was getting more edgy as the day of departure approached, but he tried to keep Joyce from seeing it. He was worried about the possible development of further opposition now that the Markovian had expressed his displeasure, and he was worried about their reception once they reached the Nucleus. He wondered why they had not seen in advance that it would be an obvious blunder to let the Markovians be aware of their real purpose. It didn’t even require a pirate ancestry to make groups unappreciative about resurrection of their family skeletons.
But no other hindrance appeared, and on the evening before their departure Fothergill called that word had been received from Ebbing stating the Markovian representative had approved the visit now that Cameron had expressed a change in his objectives. Their coming had been announced to the Markovian people and the way prepared for an official welcome.
Cameron was pleased by the change of attitude. He was hit for the first time, however, by the full force of the fact that he was taking his bride to a pirate center which the Council had never overthrown and which was active only moments ago, culturally speaking.
If any kind of trouble should develop the Council would be almost impotent in offering them assistance. On the face of it, there was no reason to expect trouble. But the peculiarly oblique opposition of the Markovian delegate in the Council continued to make him uneasy.
His tentative suggestion that he would feel better if he knew she were safe on Earth brought a blistering response from Joyce, which left him with no doubts about carrying out his original plans.
And then, as the last of their packing was completed and they were ready to call it a day, the phone buzzed. Cameron hesitated, determined to let it go unanswered, then punched the button irritably on audio only.
Instead of the caller, he heard the voice of the operator. “One moment please. Interstellar, Transpace, printed. Please connect visio.”
It was like a shock, he thought afterwards. There was no one he knew who could be making such a call to him. But automatically he did as directed. Joyce had come up and was peering over his shoulder now. The screen fluttered for a moment with polychrome colors and cleared. The message, printed for English translation, stood out sharply. Joyce and Cameron exclaimed simultaneously at the titling. It was from Premier Jargla, Executive Head of the Markovian Government.
“To Wilder, Cameron and Joyce,” it read, “greetings and appreciation for your proposed visit to the Markovian Nucleus for study of our history and customs. We have not been before so honored. We feel, however, that it is an imposition on your Foundation and on you personally to require that you make the long journey to the Nucleus for this purpose alone. While we would be honored to entertain you--”
It was the same proposition as Ebbing had reported the delegate offered. Only this time it was from the head of the Markovian government himself.
They sat up nearly all the rest of the night considering this new development. “Maybe you shouldn’t go, after all,” said Joyce once. “Maybe this is something that needs bigger handling than we can possibly give it.”
Cameron shook his head. “I’ve got to go. They haven’t closed the door and said we can’t come. If I backed out before they did, I’d be known the rest of my life as the guy who was going to crack the Markovian problem. But I’d much rather you--”
“No! If you’re going, so am I.”
They consulted again with Fothergill and finally drafted as polite a reply as possible, explaining they were newly married, desired to make the trip a honeymoon excursion primarily and conduct an investigation into Markovian culture to prevent the waste of the wonderful opportunity their visit would afford them.
An hour before takeoff a polite acknowledgment came back from the Nucleus assuring them a warm welcome and congratulating them on their marriage. They went at once to the spaceport and took over their stateroom. “Before anything else happens to try to pull us off this investigation,” Cameron said.
The trip would be a long one, involving more than two months subjective time, because no express runs moved any distance at all in the direction of the Nucleus. It was necessary to transfer three times, with days of waiting between ships on planets whose surface conditions permitted exploration only in cumbersome suits that could not be worn for more than short periods. Most of the waiting time was spent in the visitors’ chambers at the landing fields.
These seemed to grow progressively worse. The last one could not maintain a gravity below 2G, and the minimum temperature available was 104 degrees. There was a three-day wait here and Joyce spent most of it lying on the bed, under the breeze of a fan which seemed to have required a special dispensation of the governing body to obtain.
Cameron, however, was unwilling to spend his time this way in spite of the discomfort imposed by any kind of activity. Humidity was a physical factor which seemed to have gone undiscovered by the inhabitants of the planet they were on. He was sure it was constantly maintained within a fractional per cent of one hundred as he donned a clean pair of trunks and staggered miserably along the corridor toward a window that gave a limited view of the city about them.
That was when he discovered that they were to be accompanied on the remainder of the journey by a Markovian citizen and his Id servant.
The visitors’ chamber in which these semi-terran conditions were supplied consisted of only three suites. The other two had been empty when Cameron and Joyce arrived the night before. Now a Markovian Id occupied a seat by the window. He glanced up with warm friendliness and invited Cameron to join him.
Cameron hesitated, undecided for a moment whether to return to his suite for the portable semantic translator used in his profession at times like this. He always felt there was something decidedly unprofessional about resorting to their use and had spent many hours trying to master Markovian before leaving. He understood the Id well enough and decided to see if he could get along without the translator.
“Thanks,” he said, taking a seat. “I don’t suppose there’s much else to do except look at the scenery here.”
The Id showed obvious surprise that Cameron spoke the language without use of an instrument. His look of pleasure increased. “It is not often we find one of your race who has taken the trouble to make himself communicable with us. You must be expecting to make a long stay?”
Cameron’s sense of caution returned as he remembered the previous results of indiscreet announcement of his purpose. He wiped the stream of sweat from his face and neck and took a good look at the Id.
The Idealists were of an anthropomorphic race, dark-skinned like the terran Indian. Very few of them had ever appeared on Earth, however, and this was actually Cameron’s first view of one in the flesh. He knew something of their reputation and characteristics from very brief study at the Institute--but no one really knew very much of the Ids as far as Earthmen were concerned. The warning of Fothergill to keep to the main line of his research sank to the bottom of his mind as he leaned toward the stranger with a fresh sense of excitement inside him.
“I have never felt you could understand another man unless you spoke his language,” he said in his not too stumbling Markovian.
The Id, like himself, was dressed in the briefest of garments and perspiration poured from the dark skin as he nodded. “You speak sounder wisdom than one usually meets in a stranger,” he said. “May I introduce myself: Sal Karone, servant of the Master Dalls Ret Marthasa?”
Cameron introduced himself and cautiously explained that he and Joyce were on their honeymoon, but had a side interest in the history and customs of the Markovian Nucleus. “My people know so little about you,” he said, “it would be a great privilege to be able to take back information that would increase our mutual understanding.”
“All that the Idealists have belongs to every man and every race,” said Sal Karone solemnly. “What we can give you may be had for the asking. But I would give you a word of warning about my Masters.”
Cameron felt the flesh of his back tingle with sudden chill as the eyes of the Id turned full upon him.
“Do not try to find out the hidden things of the Masters. That is what you have come for, is it not, Cameron Wilder? That is why you have taken so much trouble to learn the language which we speak. I say do not inquire of the things about which they do not wish to speak. My Masters are a people who cannot yet be understood by the men of other worlds. In time there will be understanding, but that time is not yet. You will only bring disaster and disappointment upon us and yourselves by attempting to hasten that time.”
“I assure you I have no intention of prying,” said Cameron haltingly. He fumbled for the right Markovian words. “You have misunderstood--We come only in friendship and with no intention of disturbing--”
The Id nodded sagely. “So many crises are originated by good intentions. But I am sure that now you understand the feelings of my Masters in these things that you will be concerned only with your own enjoyment while in the Nucleus. And do come to the centers of the Idealists, for there is much we can show you, and our willingness has no limits.”
For a moment it was impossible for Cameron to remember that he was dealing with a mere servant of the Markovians. The Id’s words were so incisive and his manner so commanding that it seemed he must be speaking in his own right.
And then his manner changed. His boldness vanished and he spoke obsequiously. “You will forgive me,” he said, “but this is a matter concerning which there is much feeling.”
Cameron Wilder was more than willing to agree with this sentiment. As he returned to his own quarters he debated telling Joyce of his encounter with the Id, deciding finally that he’d have to mention it since they’d all be traveling together, but omitting the Id’s repetition of the previous warnings.
He did not meet the Markovian, nor did he encounter the Id again in the waiting quarters. It was not until they had embarked on the last leg of the journey and had been aboard the vessel for half a day that they met a second time.
The ship was not a Markovian or a terran-type vessel of any kind. Another week’s wait would have been required for one of those. As it was, their quarters were not too uncomfortable although very limited. The bulk of the vessel was designed for crew and passengers very much unlike Terran or Markovian, and only a few suites were provided for accommodation of such races.