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Larry Thomas bought a cuckoo clock for his wife—without knowing the price he would have to pay.
That night at the dinner table he brought it out and set it down beside her plate. Doris stared at it, her hand to her mouth. “My God, what is it?” She looked up at him, bright-eyed.
“Well, open it.”
Doris tore the ribbon and paper from the square package with her sharp nails, her bosom rising and falling. Larry stood watching her as she lifted the lid. He lit a cigarette and leaned against the wall.
“A cuckoo clock!” Doris cried. “A real old cuckoo clock like my mother had.” She turned the clock over and over. “Just like my mother had, when Pete was still alive.” Her eyes sparkled with tears.
“It’s made in Germany,” Larry said. After a moment he added, “Carl got it for me wholesale. He knows some guy in the clock business. Otherwise I wouldn’t have—” He stopped.
Doris made a funny little sound.
“I mean, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford it.” He scowled. “What’s the matter with you? You’ve got your clock, haven’t you? Isn’t that what you want?”
Doris sat holding onto the clock, her fingers pressed against the brown wood.
“Well,” Larry said, “what’s the matter?”
He watched in amazement as she leaped up and ran from the room, still clutching the clock. He shook his head. “Never satisfied. They’re all that way. Never get enough.”
He sat down at the table and finished his meal.
The cuckoo clock was not very large. It was hand-made, however, and there were countless frets on it, little indentations and ornaments scored in the soft wood. Doris sat on the bed drying her eyes and winding the clock. She set the hands by her wristwatch. Presently she carefully moved the hands to two minutes of ten. She carried the clock over to the dresser and propped it up.
Then she sat waiting, her hands twisted together in her lap—waiting for the cuckoo to come out, for the hour to strike.
As she sat she thought about Larry and what he had said. And what she had said, too, for that matter—not that she could be blamed for any of it. After all, she couldn’t keep listening to him forever without defending herself; you had to blow your own trumpet in the world.
She touched her handkerchief to her eyes suddenly. Why did he have to say that, about getting it wholesale? Why did he have to spoil it all? If he felt that way he needn’t have got it in the first place. She clenched her fists. He was so mean, so damn mean.
But she was glad of the little clock sitting there ticking to itself, with its funny grilled edges and the door. Inside the door was the cuckoo, waiting to come out. Was he listening, his head cocked on one side, listening to hear the clock strike so that he would know to come out?
Did he sleep between hours? Well, she would soon see him: she could ask him. And she would show the clock to Bob. He would love it; Bob loved old things, even old stamps and buttons. He liked to go with her to the stores. Of course, it was a little awkward, but Larry had been staying at the office so much, and that helped. If only Larry didn’t call up sometimes to—
There was a whirr. The clock shuddered and all at once the door opened. The cuckoo came out, sliding swiftly. He paused and looked around solemnly, scrutinizing her, the room, the furniture.
It was the first time he had seen her, she realized, smiling to herself in pleasure. She stood up, coming toward him shyly. “Go on,” she said. “I’m waiting.”
The cuckoo opened his bill. He whirred and chirped, quickly, rhythmically. Then, after a moment of contemplation, he retired. And the door snapped shut.
She was delighted. She clapped her hands and spun in a little circle. He was marvelous, perfect! And the way he had looked around, studying her, sizing her up. He liked her; she was certain of it. And she, of course, loved him at once, completely. He was just what she had hoped would come out of the little door.
Doris went to the clock. She bent over the little door, her lips close to the wood. “Do you hear me?” she whispered. “I think you’re the most wonderful cuckoo in the world.” She paused, embarrassed. “I hope you’ll like it here.”
Then she went downstairs again, slowly, her head high.
Larry and the cuckoo clock really never got along well from the start. Doris said it was because he didn’t wind it right, and it didn’t like being only half-wound all the time. Larry turned the job of winding over to her; the cuckoo came out every quarter hour and ran the spring down without remorse, and someone had to be ever after it, winding it up again.
Doris did her best, but she forgot a good deal of the time. Then Larry would throw his newspaper down with an elaborate weary motion and stand up. He would go into the dining-room where the clock was mounted on the wall over the fireplace. He would take the clock down and making sure that he had his thumb over the little door, he would wind it up.
“Why do you put your thumb over the door?” Doris asked once.
“You’re supposed to.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure? I wonder if it isn’t that you don’t want him to come out while you’re standing so close.”
“Maybe you’re afraid of him.”
Larry laughed. He put the clock back on the wall and gingerly removed his thumb. When Doris wasn’t looking he examined his thumb.
There was still a trace of the nick cut out of the soft part of it. Who—or what—had pecked at him?
One Saturday morning, when Larry was down at the office working over some important special accounts, Bob Chambers came to the front porch and rang the bell.
Doris was taking a quick shower. She dried herself and slipped into her robe. When she opened the door Bob stepped inside, grinning.
“Hi,” he said, looking around.
“It’s all right. Larry’s at the office.”
“Fine.” Bob gazed at her slim legs below the hem of the robe. “How nice you look today.”
She laughed. “Be careful! Maybe I shouldn’t let you in after all.”
They looked at one another, half amused half frightened. Presently Bob said, “If you want, I’ll—”
“No, for God’s sake.” She caught hold of his sleeve. “Just get out of the doorway so I can close it. Mrs. Peters across the street, you know.”
She closed the door. “And I want to show you something,” she said. “You haven’t seen it.”
He was interested. “An antique? Or what?”
She took his arm, leading him toward the dining-room. “You’ll love it, Bobby.” She stopped, wide-eyed. “I hope you will. You must; you must love it. It means so much to me—he means so much.”
“He?” Bob frowned. “Who is he?”
Doris laughed. “You’re jealous! Come on.” A moment later they stood before the clock, looking up at it. “He’ll come out in a few minutes. Wait until you see him. I know you two will get along just fine.”
“What does Larry think of him?”
“They don’t like each other. Sometimes when Larry’s here he won’t come out. Larry gets mad if he doesn’t come out on time. He says—”
Doris looked down. “He always says he’s been robbed, even if he did get it wholesale.” She brightened. “But I know he won’t come out because he doesn’t like Larry. When I’m here alone he comes right out for me, every fifteen minutes, even though he really only has to come out on the hour.”
She gazed up at the clock. “He comes out for me because he wants to. We talk; I tell him things. Of course, I’d like to have him upstairs in my room, but it wouldn’t be right.”
There was the sound of footsteps on the front porch. They looked at each other, horrified.
Larry pushed the front door open, grunting. He set his briefcase down and took off his hat. Then he saw Bob for the first time.
“Chambers. I’ll be damned.” His eyes narrowed. “What are you doing here?” He came into the dining-room. Doris drew her robe about her helplessly, backing away.
“I—” Bob began. “That is, we—” He broke off, glancing at Doris. Suddenly the clock began to whirr. The cuckoo came rushing out, bursting into sound. Larry moved toward him.
“Shut that din off,” he said. He raised his fist toward the clock. The cuckoo snapped into silence and retreated. The door closed. “That’s better.” Larry studied Doris and Bob, standing mutely together.
“I came over to look at the clock,” Bob said. “Doris told me that it’s a rare antique and that—”
“Nuts. I bought it myself.” Larry walked up to him. “Get out of here.” He turned to Doris. “You too. And take that damn clock with you.”
He paused, rubbing his chin. “No. Leave the clock here. It’s mine; I bought it and paid for it.”
In the weeks that followed after Doris left, Larry and the cuckoo clock got along even worse than before. For one thing, the cuckoo stayed inside most of the time, sometimes even at twelve o’clock when he should have been busiest. And if he did come out at all he usually spoke only once or twice, never the correct number of times. And there was a sullen, uncooperative note in his voice, a jarring sound that made Larry uneasy and a little angry.
But he kept the clock wound, because the house was very still and quiet and it got on his nerves not to hear someone running around, talking and dropping things. And even the whirring of a clock sounded good to him.
But he didn’t like the cuckoo at all. And sometimes he spoke to him.
“Listen,” he said late one night to the closed little door. “I know you can hear me. I ought to give you back to the Germans—back to the Black Forest.” He paced back and forth. “I wonder what they’re doing now, the two of them. That young punk with his books and his antiques. A man shouldn’t be interested in antiques; that’s for women.”
He set his jaw. “Isn’t that right?”
The clock said nothing. Larry walked up in front of it. “Isn’t that right?” he demanded. “Don’t you have anything to say?”
He looked at the face of the clock. It was almost eleven, just a few seconds before the hour. “All right. I’ll wait until eleven. Then I want to hear what you have to say. You’ve been pretty quiet the last few weeks since she left.”
He grinned wryly. “Maybe you don’t like it here since she’s gone.” He scowled. “Well, I paid for you, and you’re coming out whether you like it or not. You hear me?”
Eleven o’clock came. Far off, at the end of town, the great tower clock boomed sleepily to itself. But the little door remained shut. Nothing moved. The minute hand passed on and the cuckoo did not stir. He was someplace inside the clock, beyond the door, silent and remote.
“All right, if that’s the way you feel,” Larry murmured, his lips twisting. “But it isn’t fair. It’s your job to come out. We all have to do things we don’t like.”
He went unhappily into the kitchen and opened the great gleaming refrigerator. As he poured himself a drink he thought about the clock.
There was no doubt about it—the cuckoo should come out, Doris or no Doris. He had always liked her, from the very start. They had got along well, the two of them. Probably he liked Bob too—probably he had seen enough of Bob to get to know him. They would be quite happy together, Bob and Doris and the cuckoo.
Larry finished his drink. He opened the drawer at the sink and took out the hammer. He carried it carefully into the dining-room. The clock was ticking gently to itself on the wall.
“Look,” he said, waving the hammer. “You know what I have here? You know what I’m going to do with it? I’m going to start on you—first.” He smiled. “Birds of a feather, that’s what you are—the three of you.”
The room was silent.
“Are you coming out? Or do I have to come in and get you?”
The clock whirred a little.
“I hear you in there. You’ve got a lot of talking to do, enough for the last three weeks. As I figure it, you owe me—”
The door opened. The cuckoo came out fast, straight at him. Larry was looking down, his brow wrinkled in thought. He glanced up, and the cuckoo caught him squarely in the eye.
Down he went, hammer and chair and everything, hitting the floor with a tremendous crash. For a moment the cuckoo paused, its small body poised rigidly. Then it went back inside its house. The door snapped tight-shut after it.
The man lay on the floor, stretched out grotesquely, his head bent over to one side. Nothing moved or stirred. The room was completely silent, except, of course, for the ticking of the clock.
“I see,” Doris said, her face tight. Bob put his arm around her, steadying her.
“Doctor,” Bob said, “can I ask you something?”
“Of course,” the doctor said.
“Is it very easy to break your neck, falling from so low a chair? It wasn’t very far to fall. I wonder if it might not have been an accident. Is there any chance it might have been—”
“Suicide?” the doctor rubbed his jaw. “I never heard of anyone committing suicide that way. It was an accident; I’m positive.”
“I don’t mean suicide,” Bob murmured under his breath, looking up at the clock on the wall. “I meant something else.”
Dulaq rode the slide to the upper pedestrian level, stepped off and walked over to the railing. The city stretched out all around him—broad avenues thronged with busy people, pedestrian walks, vehicle thoroughfares, aircars gliding between the gleaming, towering buildings.
And somewhere in this vast city was the man he must kill. The man who would kill him, perhaps.
It all seemed so real! The noise of the streets, the odors of the perfumed trees lining the walks, even the warmth of the reddish sun on his back as he scanned the scene before him.
It is an illusion, Dulaq reminded himself, a clever man-made hallucination. A figment of my own imagination amplified by a machine.
But it seemed so very real.
Real or not, he had to find Odal before the sun set. Find him and kill him. Those were the terms of the duel. He fingered the stubby cylinderical stat-wind in his tunic pocket. That was the weapon he had chosen, his weapon, his own invention. And this was the environment he had picked: his city, busy, noisy, crowded, the metropolis Dulaq had known and loved since childhood.
Dulaq turned and glanced at the sun. It was halfway down toward the horizon, he judged. He had about three hours to find Odal. When he did—kill or be killed.
Of course no one is actually hurt. That is the beauty of the machine. It allows one to settle a score, to work out aggressive feelings, without either mental or physical harm.
Dulaq shrugged. He was a roundish figure, moon-faced, slightly stooped shoulders. He had work to do. Unpleasant work for a civilized man, but the future of the Acquataine Cluster and the entire alliance of neighboring star systems could well depend on the outcome of this electronically synthesized dream.
He turned and walked down the elevated avenue, marveling at the sharp sensation of hardness that met each footstep on the paving. Children dashed by and rushed up to a toyshop window. Men of commerce strode along purposefully, but without missing a chance to eye the girls sauntering by.
I must have a marvelous imagination, Dulaq thought smiling to himself.
Then he thought of Odal, the blond, icy professional he was pitted against. Odal was an expert at all the weapons, a man of strength and cool precision, an emotionless tool in the hands of a ruthless politician. But how expert could he be with a stat-wand, when the first time he saw one was the moment before the duel began? And how well acquainted could he be with the metropolis, when he had spent most of his life in the military camps on the dreary planets of Kerak, sixty light-years from Acquatainia?
No, Odal would be lost and helpless in this situation. He would attempt to hide among the throngs of people. All Dulaq had to do was to find him.
The terms of the duel restricted both men to the pedestrian walks of the commercial quarter of the city. Dulaq knew the area intimately, and he began a methodical hunt through the crowds for the tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed Odal.
And he saw him! After only a few minutes of walking down the major thoroughfare, he spotted his opponent, strolling calmly along a crosswalk, at the level below.
Dulaq hurried down the next ramp, worked his way through the crowd, and saw the man again. Tall and blond, unmistakable. Dulaq edged along behind him quietly, easily. No disturbance. No pushing. Plenty of time. They walked along the street for a quarter hour while the distance between them slowly shrank from fifty feet to five.
Finally Dulaq was directly behind him, within arm’s reach. He grasped the stat-wand and pulled it from his tunic. With one quick motion he touched it to the base of the man’s skull and started to thumb the button that would release the killing bolt of energy …
The man turned suddenly. It wasn’t Odal!
Dulaq jerked back in surprise. It couldn’t be. He had seen his face. It was Odal—and yet this man was definitely a stranger.
He stared at Dulaq as the duelist backed away a few steps, then turned and walked quickly from the place.
A mistake, Dulaq told himself. You were overanxious. A good thing this is an hallucination, or else the auto-police would be taking you in by now.
And yet … he had been so certain that it was Odal. A chill shuddered through him. He looked up, and there was his antagonist, on the thoroughfare above, at the precise spot where he himself had been a few minutes earlier. Their eyes met, and Odal’s lips parted in a cold smile.
Dulaq hurried up the ramp. Odal was gone by the time he reached the upper level. He could not have gotten far, Dulaq reasoned. Slowly, but very surely, Dulaq’s hallucination turned into a nightmare. He spotted Odal in the crowd, only to have him melt away. He saw him again, lolling in a small park, but when he got closer, the man turned out to be another stranger. He felt the chill of the duelist’s ice-blue eyes on him again and again, but when he turned to find his antagonist, no one was there but the impersonal crowd.
Odal’s face appeared again and again. Dulaq struggled through the throngs to find his opponent, only to have him vanish. The crowd seemed to be filled with tall, blond men crisscrossing before Dulaq’s dismayed eyes.
The shadows lengthened. The sun was setting. Dulaq could feel his heart pounding within him and perspiration pouring from every square inch of his skin.
There he is! Definitely, positively him! Dulaq pushed through the homeward-bound crowds toward the figure of a tall, blond man leaning against the safety railing of the city’s main thoroughfare. It was Odal, the damned smiling confident Odal.
Dulaq pulled the wand from his tunic and battled across the surging crowd to the spot where Odal stood motionless, hands in pockets, watching him.
Dulaq came within arm’s reach …
“TIME, GENTLEMEN. TIME IS UP, THE DUEL IS ENDED.”
High above the floor of the antiseptic-white chamber that housed the dueling machine was a narrow gallery. Before the machine had been installed, the chamber had been a lecture hall in Acquatainia’s largest university. Now the rows of students’ seats, the lecturer’s dais and rostrum were gone. The chamber held only the machine, the grotesque collection of consoles, control desks, power units, association circuits, and booths where the two antagonists sat.
In the gallery—empty during ordinary duels—sat a privileged handful of newsmen.
“Time limit is up,” one of them said. “Dulaq didn’t get him.”
“Yes, but he didn’t get Dulaq, either.”
The first one shrugged. “The important thing is that now Dulaq has to fight Odal on his terms. Dulaq couldn’t win with his own choice of weapons and situation, so—”
“Wait, they’re coming out.”
Down on the floor below, Dulaq and his opponent emerged from their enclosed booths.
One of the newsmen whistled softly. “Look at Dulaq’s face … it’s positively gray.”
“I’ve never seen the Prime Minister so shaken.”
“And take a look at Kanus’ hired assassin.” The newsmen turned toward Odal, who stood before his booth, quietly chatting with his seconds.
“Hm-m-m. There’s a bucket of frozen ammonia for you.”
“He’s enjoying this.”
One of the newsmen stood up. “I’ve got a deadline to meet. Save my seat.”
He made his way past the guarded door, down the rampway circling the outer walls of the building, to the portable tri-di transmitting unit that the Acquatainian government had permitted for the newsmen on the campus grounds outside the former lecture hall.
The newsman huddled with his technicians for a few minutes, then stepped before the transmitter.
“Emile Dulaq, Prime Minister of the Acquataine Cluster and acknowledged leader of the coalition against Chancellor Kanus of the Kerak Worlds, has failed in the first part of his psychonic duel against Major Par Odal of Kerak. The two antagonists are now undergoing the routine medical and psychological checks before renewing their duel.”
By the time the newsman returned to his gallery seat, the duel was almost ready to begin again.
Dulaq stood in the midst of a group of advisors before the looming impersonality of the machine.
“You need not go through with the next phase of the duel immediately,” his Minister of Defense was saying. “Wait until tomorrow. Rest and calm yourself.”
Dulaq’s round face puckered into a frown. He cocked an eye at the chief meditech, hovering at the edge of the little group.
The meditech, one of the staff that ran the dueling machine, pointed out, “The Prime Minister has passed the examinations. He is capable, within the agreed-upon rules of the contest, of resuming.”
“But he has the option of retiring for the day, does he not?”
“If Major Odal agrees.”
Dulaq shook his head impatiently. “No. I shall go through with it. Now.”
The prime minister’s face suddenly hardened; his advisors lapsed into a respectful silence. The chief meditech ushered Dulaq back into his booth. On the other side of the room, Odal glanced at the Acquatainians, grinned humorlessly, and strode to his own booth.
Dulaq sat and tried to blank out his mind while the meditechs adjusted the neurocontacts to his head and torso. They finished at last and withdrew. He was alone in the booth now, looking at the dead-white walls, completely bare except for the viewscreen before his eyes. The screen finally began to glow slightly, then brightened into a series of shifting colors. The colors merged and changed, swirled across his field of view. Dulaq felt himself being drawn into them gradually, compellingly, completely immersed in them.
The mists slowly vanished, and Dulaq found himself standing on an immense and totally barren plain. Not a tree, not a blade of grass; nothing but bare, rocky ground stretching in all directions to the horizon and disturbingly harsh yellow sky. He looked down and at his feet saw the weapon that Odal had chosen.
A primitive club.
With a sense of dread, Dulaq picked up the club and hefted it in his hand. He scanned the plain. Nothing. No hills or trees or bushes to hide in. No place to run to.
And off on the horizon he could see a tall, lithe figure holding a similar club walking slowly and deliberately toward him.
The press gallery was practically empty. The duel had more than an hour to run, and most of the newsmen were outside, broadcasting their hastily-drawn guesses about Dulaq’s failure to win with his own choice of weapon and environment.
Then a curious thing happened.
On the master control panel of the dueling machine, a single light flashed red. The meditech blinked at it in surprise, then pressed a series of buttons on his board. More red lights appeared. The chief meditech rushed to the board and flipped a single switch.
One of the newsmen turned to his partner. “What’s going on down there?”
“I think it’s all over…. Yes, look, they’re opening up the booths. Somebody must’ve scored a victory.”
They watched intently while the other newsmen quickly filed back into the gallery.
“There’s Odal. He looks happy.”
“Guess that means—”
“Good Lord! Look at Dulaq!”
Dr. Leoh was lecturing at the Carinae Regional University when the news of Dulaq’s duel reached him. An assistant professor perpetrated the unthinkable breach of interrupting the lecture to whisper the news in his ear.
Leoh nodded grimly, hurriedly finished his lecture, and them accompanied the assistant professor to the University president’s office. They stood in silence as the slideway whisked them through the strolling students and blossoming greenery of the quietly-busy campus.
Leoh remained wrapped in his thoughts as they entered the administration building and rode the lift tube. Finally, as they stepped through the president’s doorway, Leoh asked the assistant professor:
“You say he was in a state of catatonic shock when they removed him from the machine?”
“He still is,” the president answered from his desk. “Completely withdrawn from the real world. Cannot speak, hear, or even see—a living vegetable.”
Leoh plopped down in the nearest chair and ran a hand across his fleshy face. He was balding and jowly, but his face was creased from a smile that was almost habitual, and his eyes were active and alert.
“I don’t understand it,” he admitted. “Nothing like this has ever happened in a dueling machine before.”
The university president shrugged. “I don’t understand it either. But, this is your business.” He put a slight emphasis on the last word, unconsciously perhaps.
“Well, at least this will not reflect on the university. That is why I formed Psychonics as a separate business enterprise.” Then he added, with a grin, “The money was, of course, only a secondary consideration.”
The president managed a smile. “Of course.”
“I suppose the Acquatainians want to see me?” Leoh asked academically.
“They’re on the tri-di now, waiting for you.”
“They’re holding a transmission frequency open over eight hundred parsecs?” Leoh looked impressed. “I must be an important man.”
“You’re the inventor of the dueling machine and the head of Psychonics, Inc. You’re the only man who can tell them what went wrong.”
“Well, I suppose I shouldn’t keep them waiting.”
“You can take the call here,” the president said, starting to get up from his chair.
“No, no, stay there at your desk,” Leoh insisted. “There’s no reason for you to leave. Or you either,” he said to the assistant professor.
The president touched a button on his desk communicator. The far wall of the office glowed momentarily, then seemed to dissolve. They were looking into another office, this one on Acquatainia. It was crowded with nervous-looking men in business clothes and military uniforms.
“Gentlemen,” Dr. Leoh said.
Several of the Acquatainians tried to answer him at once. After a few seconds of talking together, they all looked toward one of their members—a tall, purposeful, shrewd-faced civilian who bore a neatly-trimmed black beard.
“I am Fernd Massan, the Acting Prime Minister of Acquatainia. You realize, of course, the crisis that has been precipitated in my Government because of this duel?”
Leoh blinked. “I realize that apparently there has been some difficulty with the dueling machine installed on the governing planet of your star cluster. Political crises are not in my field.”
“But your dueling machine has incapacitated the Prime Minister,” one of the generals bellowed.
“And at this particular moment,” the defense minister added, “in the midst of our difficulties with the Kerak Worlds.”
“If the Prime Minister is not—”
“Gentlemen!” Leoh objected. “I cannot make sense of your story if you all speak at once.”
Massan gestured them to silence.
“The dueling machine,” Leoh said, adopting a slightly professorial tone, “is nothing more than a psychonic device for alleviating human aggressions and hostilities. It allows for two men to share a dream world created by one of them. There is a nearly-complete feedback between the two. Within certain limits, two men can do anything they wish within their dream world. This allows men to settle grievances with violence—in the safety of their own imaginations. If the machine is operated properly, no physical or mental harm can be done to the participants. They can alleviate their tensions safely—without damage of any sort to anyone, and without hurting society.
“Your own Government tested one of the machines and approved its use on Acquatainia more than three years ago. I see several of you who were among those to whom I personally demonstrated the device. Duelling machines are in use through wide portions of the galaxy, and I am certain that many of you have used the machine. You have, general, I’m sure.”
The general blustered. “That has nothing to do with the matter at hand!”
“Admittedly,” Leoh conceded. “But I do not understand how a therapeutic machine can possibly become entangled in a political crisis.”
Massan said: “Allow me to explain. Our Government has been conducting extremely delicate negotiations with the stellar governments of our neighboring territories. These negotiations concern the rearmaments of the Kerak Worlds. You have heard of Kanus of Kerak?”
“I recall the name vaguely,” Leoh said. “He’s a political leader of some sort.”
“Of the worst sort. He has acquired complete dictatorship of the Kerak Worlds, and is now attempting to rearm them for war. This is in direct countervention of the Treaty of Acquatainia, signed only thirty Terran years ago.”
“I see. The treaty was signed at the end of the Acquataine-Kerak war, wasn’t it?”
“A war that we won,” the general pointed out.
“And now the Kerak Worlds want to rearm and try again,” Leoh said.
Leoh shrugged. “Why not call in the Star Watch? This is their type of police activity. And what has all this to do with the dueling machine?”
Massan explained patiently, “The Acquataine Cluster has never become a full-fledged member of the Terran Commonwealth. Our neighboring territories are likewise unaffiliated. Therefore the Star Watch can intervene only if all parties concerned agree to intervention. Unless, of course, there is an actual military emergency. The Kerak Worlds, of course, are completely isolationist—unbound by any laws except those of force.”
Leoh shook his head.
“As for the dueling machine,” Massan went on, “Kanus of Kerak has turned it into a political weapon—”
“But that’s impossible. Your government passed strict laws concerning the use of the machine; I recommended them and I was in your Council chambers when the laws were passed. The machine may be used only for personal grievances. It is strictly outside the realm of politics.”
Massan shook his head sadly. “Sir, laws are one thing—people are another. And politics consists of people, not words on paper.”
“I don’t understand,” Leoh said.
Massan explained, “A little more than one Terran year ago, Kanus picked a quarrel with a neighboring star-group—the Safad Federation. He wanted an especially favorable trade agreement with them. Their minister of trade objected most strenuously. One of the Kerak negotiators—a certain Major Odal—got into a personal argument with the minister. Before anyone knew what had happened, they had challenged each other to a duel. Odal won the duel, and the minister resigned his post. He said that he could no longer effectively fight against the will of Odal and his group … he was psychologically incapable of it. Two weeks later he was dead—apparently a suicide, although I have doubts.”
“That’s … extremely interesting,” Leoh said.
“Three days ago,” Massan continued, “the same Major Odal engaged Prime Minister Dulaq in a bitter personal argument. Odal is now a military attaché of the Kerak Embassy here. He accused the Prime Minister of cowardice, before a large group of an Embassy party. The Prime Minister had no alternative but to challenge him. And now—”
“And now Dulaq is in a state of shock, and your government is tottering.”
Massan’s back stiffened. “Our Government shall not fall, nor shall the Acquataine Cluster acquiesce to the rearmament of the Kerak Worlds. But”—his voice lowered—”without Dulaq, I fear that our neighboring governments will give in to Kanus’ demands and allow him to rearm. Alone, we are powerless to stop him.”
“Rearmament itself might not be so bad,” Leoh mused, “if you can keep the Kerak Worlds from using their weapons. Perhaps the Star Watch might—”
“Kanus could strike a blow and conquer a star system before the Star Watch could be summoned and arrive to stop him. Once Kerak is armed, this entire area of the galaxy is in peril. In fact, the entire galaxy is endangered.”
“And he’s using the dueling machine to further his ambitions,” Leoh said. “Well, gentlemen, it seems I have no alternative but to travel to the Acquataine Cluster. The dueling machine is my responsibility, and if there is something wrong with it, or the use of it, I will do my best to correct the situation.”
“That is all we ask,” Massan said. “Thank you.”
The Acquatainian scene faded away, and the three men in the university president’s office found themselves looking at a solid wall once again.
“Well,” Dr. Leoh said, turning to the president, “it seems that I must request an indefinite leave of absence.”
The president frowned. “And it seems that I must grant your request—even though the year is only half-finished.”
“I regret the necessity,” Leoh said; then, with a broad grin, he added, “My assistant professor, here, can handle my courses for the remainder of the year very easily. Perhaps he will even be able to deliver his lectures without being interrupted.”
The assistant professor turned red.
“Now then,” Leoh muttered, mostly to himself, “who is this Kanus, and why is he trying to turn the Kerak Worlds into an arsenal?”
Chancellor Kanus, the supreme leader of the Kerak Worlds, stood at the edge of the balcony and looked across the wild, tumbling gorge to the rugged mountains beyond.
“These are the forces that mold men’s actions,” he said to his small audience of officials and advisors, “the howling winds, the mighty mountains, the open sky and the dark powers of the clouds.”
The men nodded and made murmurs of agreement.
“Just as the mountains thrust up from the pettiness of the lands below, so shall we rise above the common walk of men,” Kanus said. “Just as a thunderstorm terrifies them, we will make them bend to our will!”
“We will destroy the past,” said one of the ministers.
“And avenge the memory of defeat,” Kanus added. He turned and looked at the little group of men. Kanus was the smallest man on the balcony: short, spare, sallow-faced; but he possessed piercing dark eyes and a strong voice that commanded attention.
He walked through the knot of men and stopped before a tall, lean, blond youth in light-blue military uniform. “And you, Major Odal, will be a primary instrument in the first steps of conquest.”
Odal bowed stiffly. “I only hope to serve my leader and my worlds.”
“You shall. And you already have,” Kanus said, beaming. “Already the Acquatainians are thrashing about like a snake whose head has been cut off. Without Dulaq, they have no head, no brain to direct them. For your part in this triumph”—Kanus snapped his fingers, and one of his advisors quickly stepped to his side and handed him a small ebony box—”I present you with this token of the esteem of the Kerak Worlds, and of my personal high regard.”
He handed the box to Odal, who opened it and took out a small jeweled pin.
“The Star of Kerak,” Kanus announced. “This is the first time it has been awarded to anyone except a warrior on the battlefield. But then, we have turned their so-called civilized machine into our own battlefield, eh?”
Odal grinned. “Yes, sir, we have. Thank you very much sir. This is the supreme moment of my life.”
“To date, major. Only to date. There will be other moments, even higher ones. Come, let’s go inside. We have many plans to discuss … more duels … more triumphs.”
They all filed in to Kanus’ huge, elaborate office. The leader walked across the plushly ornate room and sat at the elevated desk, while his followers arranged themselves in the chairs and couches placed about the floor. Odal remained standing, near the doorway.
Kanus let his fingers flick across a small control board set into his..
Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss are teaming up to create a trilogy of Star Wars movies. The duo successfully adapted George R.R. Martin’s sprawling fantasy epic to the screen, so many are eager to see what they do with another George’s epic saga. However, will the style of Game of Thrones mesh with Star Wars?
To answer this question, we need to understand what both sagas are really about. Star Wars is a swash-buckling space opera about battles, sci-fi wizards, and the cycle of heroism throughout generations. Game of Thrones is a deconstruction of the idealized historical and fantasy epics of yesteryear, presenting a gritty, cruel world without mercy or heroism.
Both are fantastic.
But are the compatible?
Rian Johnson’s recent entry in the Star Wars saga, The Last Jedi, left a lot of people bitter-sweet. While some fans adored its deconstructive approach to lore, others found it a little off-putting. It presented a world where the legendary heroes of the original trilogy were flawed. Mistakes were common, and led to terrible consequences. Fans did not care for many of Johnson’s creative choices, even though, in many respects, it was inevitable.
Most creative genres go through cycles. The early stages present a genre in its infancy. Later writers develop the ideas and expand upon them, until the tropes become stale. Then, deconstruction kicks in, where writers analyze and break down an otherwise stale genre. After awhile, the deconstructed tropes become stale themselves, leading to even newer writers returning to the early stages, and what made the genre so fascinating in the first place.
A good demonstration of this is with fantasy itself. The father of modern-day fantasy is J.R.R. Tolkein (there are older writers who wrote in the genre, and, if you stretch it, you can argue that the Grimm Brothers or John Milton wrote fantasy before him, but go with this). After he codified the high fantasy genre, you got writers to continue in his vein, such as Terry Brooks (Shannara), Ursula K Le Guin (Earthsea), and Anne McCaffrey (Dragonriders of Pern). However, after awhile, the cliches became too predictable (I blame R.A. Salvatore personally, even though I really, REALLY have a soft spot for Drizzt). This led to a dark revision of the fantasy genre, as seen with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
Star Wars has reached the same point in its lifespan the fantasy genre reached when George R.R. Martin started his epic saga.
The time is right for deconstruction.
But do we need a Game of Thrones-esque deconstruction of the genre? Is this the right direction for the series to take? Do we need a saga with multiple characters scheming plots within plots, with epic fights, with grey morality, and all that lot?
Yes. Yes, we really, really do.
For awhile now, the Galaxy Far, Far Away has been home to epic battles of good and evil, but it can be so much more. The galaxy is full of potential stories to tell, and, if the series is to survive past the end of this trilogy, the conflicts and stories need to diversify. We can’t be stuck with the stories surrounding one family. There is a universe of stories worth telling with centuries of events worth discussing. We have a thousand generations where the Jedi Order maintained peace, but we also have untold generations before that where chaos reigned. All that time is ripe for story mining.
If Star Wars does not evolve, it will die from stagnation
Somehow, in the unsettled wilderness of this small planet, he had become separated from the rest of his party. This was no doubt equally satisfying for them as it was for him.
He stopped where a rocky substrate emerged and created a natural clearing in the thick shrubbery. The Greater Sun was a little below its zenith, and the inter-seasonal day which had started out so chilly had warmed considerably. He took off his jacket, folded it with the PPS and body camera inside, and laid it on the ground.
He fixed his eyes on the pale sky, turned his mind inward, slowed his metabolism, and cooled his body temperature. By the time the Sun had declined half a hands-breadth, he had become invisible to the landing pod’s sensors.
This much was well-practiced to the point it was not difficult. What came next would not be so easy, but he welcomed the opportunity to practice this skill, too. He would attempt to maintain that inner focus and self-control while diligently exploring this small section of the planet. His duty was to find anything of note, any scientific curiosities, and especially any resources to exploit.
To an Outlier, life on the Mothership – constantly monitored and measured and regimented – was a life of tension and even fear. His wilful absconding on terrestrial expeditions kept him tethered to sanity. Ship’s Command tolerated it because of his exceptional record of discoveries. Behind his back, they called him ‘Captain Cook’. Not much that is said behind your back in a confined space remains unknown to you.
He turned to the scene in front of him, woody vegetation, for the most part, ranging in height from barely above his knees to well over his head. Softer, leafier plants were scattered through, and the whole was pleasing to him, the foliage a range of greens, yellows, and greys, varying in form and texture.
He maintained his body’s cool, resting state as he tested the air for scents and sounds. A quietened body sharpened his senses, making him a better servant of the expedition. His nose twitched at odours of soil and decay and mould, of sap and leaf litter, of rock, warmed by sunlight. There was movement, too, as a breeze set the leaves shivering and bending. But animal life? He wondered.
The terrain seemed, from what he had already seen, to be gently hilly. He had not seen any surface water, and the ship’s sensors had detected none. That was the first resource to search for, so he headed down the slope, moving easily through the vegetation. He hoped his passage might disturb any animals if they existed, and he was not disappointed.
He held up his catching station, and within a short time, several small flying creatures that had taken to the air at his approach were sucked into its individual compartments. He studied them briefly through the clear cover. They were more or less as he expected from his experience on other planets. Parallel evolution had been an established principle for generations of scientists before he was even born.
Nevertheless, there were new forms and colours in these creatures, adaptations that caused him to narrow his eyes with interest. A new planet was never without its rewards. But was there larger zoological life – on the ground, or under it? In the air, or in water, if indeed surface water existed?
He paused on the hillside, stilling his heart rate, his breathing, and every other function, dropping his body temperature further, attempting, as he often had in the past, to simply sense animal life nearby.
And he felt it. For the first time, in all his attempts on a dozen worlds, he sensed life nearby that as yet he had not seen or heard or smelled. And missed by the Mothership’s sensitive instruments! It was harder, suddenly, to calm his body, keep his heart rate slow. He waited, quietly, until his body obeyed his mind, and he had fixed the direction of this unseen life. Was it large, or small? One, or many? Dangerous, or benign? How did it move? Swiftly or slowly? Did it move at all, or was it rooted in place like some undersea animals were reputed to live on the planet Earth?
Slowly he approached the source of this mental energy, checking the sensitive research instrument in his hand, but relying more on his mind’s awareness. Both led him towards a large field of rounded boulders at the foot of the gentle slope. Iridescence seemed to flicker amidst the dull, light brown of the rocks. Or were they rocks? He was prepared for them to be the life he had sensed.
But now neither his mind nor the hand-held instrument detected anything. He assumed that his approach was the cause of the animal shutting down its brain’s electrical activity. He must be patient, and quiet.
The Greater Sun had declined a full hands-breadth before he again detected the animal, but not through his eyes or ears. Yet it was close, very close. He was intrigued, and pleased, by the puzzle. He did not move, except for his fingers tapping and swiping the instrument, and his eyes alternately searching its display, and searching among the boulders.
Then he saw it! A small creature launched itself from a crevice, airborne on wings and brilliant filaments, then joined by another and another. He felt pure joy as he watched them twist and tumble in the air, emitting high-pitched chuckles, then dart to the ground, feed, and fly to them to the top of the highest light brown rock to briefly rest.
The iridescence he had seen from a distance seemed to be membranes stretched in the spaces between boulders. If he were to examine it closely, he must quieten his mind and body to keep the creatures calm.
He approached slowly and squatted on his boot heels. The nearest membrane connected the upper surfaces of several rocks, creating a protected space on the ground between them. Small, lush green plants and varicoloured fungus grew there, and an army of many-legged tiny creatures seemed to tend them.
But how was the membrane formed? His slow approach had not disturbed the tiny plant carers, and he stood and searched with his eyes until he saw a membrane that was incomplete. A number of fat, soft creatures the size of one of his finger joints crawled on the surface, secreting a substance from their bodies.
Did they feed on the plants living under the membrane? He squatted again to examine the miniature garden. Yes! Two of the membrane-makers were in there, feeding. But his excitement immediately froze activity into a tableau, and with great effort, he calmed his mind.
The many-legged life-form fed on smaller species that attacked the plants. With their fearsome mandibles, they also collected the dung granules dropped by the flyers he had first seen and dug them in around the plants. The farming activity, in turn, attracted small crawling and airborne life on which the flyers depended for food.
He understood, now, why his mind had detected animal life before his eyes or ears were aware of it. There was a rudimentary community mind here, a hive mind. The cooperative was no doubt infinitely more complex than the simple pattern he had traced. He had no knowledge of what was taking place under the ground, or on a microscopic level. What symbiosis must exist between green plant and fungus?
Those matters could engage researchers for a lifetime, for he had discovered something extraordinary, with untold commercial value. The membrane alone … who knew what properties it had? How could its creators be bred on an industrial scale, in a lab, on other planets? What uses could be found for the garden plants? The microbes? The gardeners? Would the flyers breed in captivity?
First, the Mothership must set up a research base in this valley, and institute a regime of supply ships.
All the activity in front of him froze and then shimmered as a collective shudder reached out from the hive and into his mind. He felt their fear and it weighed heavily on him. He slowly exhaled, erasing from his mind the vision of the Mothership and the changes it would bring. As he did, the hive relaxed and resumed its intricate pattern of activity.
He continued to watch, with a tenderness growing to affection for this tiny, complex world. The flyers tumbled and chuckled and fed in the air around him, and the patient fat creatures turned and began another trek across a shimmering unfinished membrane. The many-legged gardeners fed on the pests and hurried past his boots with more loads of dung.
The Greater Sun was almost to the horizon, and the Lesser Sun was growing visible in the north. He must walk back to where he had left his jacket and PPS, and allow the landing pod to know his location and send him coordinates to home in on it.
‘What did you find this time?’ they would ask knowingly. It was always ‘James Cook’ who made the discovery everyone else missed.
‘Nothing,’ he would tell them. ‘On this planet, I found nothing to report.’
Kalli faces death when she becomes trapped by rocks along the shoreline .
Stuck. (Graphic content)
By Michael Barrett
right hand was pinned in the small opening in the pile of rocks near the
shoreline. Regardless of how much she
struggled, Kalli could not pull her hand free. She looked up and down the beach
searching for someone – anyone – who might be there this morning. The beach was
for help was of no use. She was half a morning’s walk from the village and no
one would hear her. Her long, raven hair was a tangled mess of perspiration and
sea mist. She pushed it off her face with her left hand.
morning had begun like any other. She walked the path to the sea to gather the
crackfish that lived in the rocks along the shore. Breaking them open with a
rock revealed a soft, pinkish flesh which tasted wonderful. She had six in her
woven basket that sat on the light green sand only a few feet away.
she could pry herself loose with her longknife. She reached across her body to
her belt. And she remembered. The knife was in the basket. She could see the
polished, brown wooden handle above the lip. She groaned. It was on her right
side and more than an arm’s length away. Kalli turned to her left, toward the
basket. The movement sent a sharp pain up her right arm. She could turn far
enough to reach for the basket with her left hand. She tried to sit on the sand
but her trapped arm would not bend that way. A wave lapped at her feet. The
tide was turning. If she couldn’t free herself in soon, she would drown. The
pile of rocks that held her tight was well below the tide line.
turned to her right carefully, trying not to put any more pressure on her right
arm. She stretched her right foot toward the fish basket and caught the lip of
the basket with her right toe. Pulling her foot toward her, she turned the
basket on its side. The gooey mass of crackfish slid onto the beach and the
longknife with it. Using her prehensile toes like fingers, she grasped the
knife by the blade and pulled it close to her. The wave of relief that passed
over her was so strong she almost cried.
down her face, stinging her eyes. The perspiration glistened on her brown skin
from the rising sun on her light brown skin. The day would be hot, humid and
almost unbearable without any respite of shade. But finding shade was of no
consequence if she could free herself. The waves were now above her ankles.
pushed the sharp blade under a slit in the rock atop the pile that held her
prisoner. She pushed down on the knife handle, lightly. She increased the
pressure and the rock moved. Not much, but it moved! She applied more force and
the rock moved again. There was a loud metallic ping, almost like a bell
ringing, and the blade snapped. The rock dropped back into place.
stared at the knife – surprised, angry, and with growing fear. The blade was half of the original length and
jagged at the end. The water around her was getting deeper. She would be
submerged in a few minutes.
arrived at her decision with surprising calm. There was only one way she could
get free. Why did it have to be her right hand? Kalli raised the broken knife
high above her and brought it down with all her strength.
pain was so intense it caused her to lose consciousness. A wave struck her in
the face and she came to. The pain in her right arm was indescribable.
Horrendous. Her arm was still stuck and her first attempt had only gone halfway
through her forearm. Blood poured freely from the injury. She would have to try
again. But she had dropped the knife. She groped around in the churning water
and her left hand found the broken knife. She tried again. Each swing crushing
bone and severing veins. And, she was free. Blood squirted in bright arcs into
Kalli stood and removed her dress, tore a strip from it with her teeth and left hand. She looped the strip around her arm above the elbow, pulling it tight. The squirting slowed to an ooze. She looked toward the hill that separated her village from the coast and started walking up the path.
He fixed things—clocks, refrigerators, vidsenders and destinies. But he had no business in the future, where the calculators could not handle him. He was Earth’s only hope—and its sure failure!
Security Commissioner Reinhart rapidly climbed the front steps and entered the Council building. Council guards stepped quickly aside and he entered the familiar place of great whirring machines. His thin face rapt, eyes alight with emotion, Reinhart gazed intently up at the central SRB computer, studying its reading.
“Straight gain for the last quarter,” observed Kaplan, the lab organizer. He grinned proudly, as if personally responsible. “Not bad, Commissioner.”
“We’re catching up to them,” Reinhart retorted. “But too damn slowly. We must finally go over—and soon.”
Kaplan was in a talkative mood. “We design new offensive weapons, they counter with improved defenses. And nothing is actually made! Continual improvement, but neither we nor Centaurus can stop designing long enough to stabilize for production.”
“It will end,” Reinhart stated coldly, “as soon as Terra turns out a weapon for which Centaurus can build no defense.”
“Every weapon has a defense. Design and discord. Immediate obsolescence. Nothing lasts long enough to—”
“What we count on is the lag,” Reinhart broke in, annoyed. His hard gray eyes bored into the lab organizer and Kaplan slunk back. “The time lag between our offensive design and their counter development. The lag varies.” He waved impatiently toward the massed banks of SRB machines. “As you well know.”
At this moment, 9:30 AM, May 7, 2136, the statistical ratio on the SRB machines stood at 21-17 on the Centauran side of the ledger. All facts considered, the odds favored a successful repulsion by Proxima Centaurus of a Terran military attack. The ratio was based on the total information known to the SRB machines, on a gestalt of the vast flow of data that poured in endlessly from all sectors of the Sol and Centaurus systems.
21-17 on the Centauran side. But a month ago it had been 24-18 in the enemy’s favor. Things were improving, slowly but steadily. Centaurus, older and less virile than Terra, was unable to match Terra’s rate of technocratic advance. Terra was pulling ahead.
“If we went to war now,” Reinhart said thoughtfully, “we would lose. We’re not far enough along to risk an overt attack.” A harsh, ruthless glow twisted across his handsome features, distorting them into a stern mask. “But the odds are moving in our favor. Our offensive designs are gradually gaining on their defenses.”
“Let’s hope the war comes soon,” Kaplan agreed. “We’re all on edge. This damn waiting….”
The war would come soon. Reinhart knew it intuitively. The air was full of tension, the elan. He left the SRB rooms and hurried down the corridor to his own elaborately guarded office in the Security wing. It wouldn’t be long. He could practically feel the hot breath of destiny on his neck—for him a pleasant feeling. His thin lips set in a humorless smile, showing an even line of white teeth against his tanned skin. It made him feel good, all right. He’d been working at it a long time.
First contact, a hundred years earlier, had ignited instant conflict between Proxima Centauran outposts and exploring Terran raiders. Flash fights, sudden eruptions of fire and energy beams.
And then the long, dreary years of inaction between enemies where contact required years of travel, even at nearly the speed of light. The two systems were evenly matched. Screen against screen. Warship against power station. The Centauran Empire surrounded Terra, an iron ring that couldn’t be broken, rusty and corroded as it was. Radical new weapons had to be conceived, if Terra was to break out.
Through the windows of his office, Reinhart could see endless buildings and streets, Terrans hurrying back and forth. Bright specks that were commute ships, little eggs that carried businessmen and white-collar workers around. The huge transport tubes that shot masses of workmen to factories and labor camps from their housing units. All these people, waiting to break out. Waiting for the day.
Reinhart snapped on his vidscreen, the confidential channel. “Give me Military Designs,” he ordered sharply.
He sat tense, his wiry body taut, as the vidscreen warmed into life. Abruptly he was facing the hulking image of Peter Sherikov, director of the vast network of labs under the Ural Mountains.
Sherikov’s great bearded features hardened as he recognized Reinhart. His bushy black eyebrows pulled up in a sullen line. “What do you want? You know I’m busy. We have too much work to do, as it is. Without being bothered by—politicians.”
“I’m dropping over your way,” Reinhart answered lazily. He adjusted the cuff of his immaculate gray cloak. “I want a full description of your work and whatever progress you’ve made.”
“You’ll find a regular departmental report plate filed in the usual way, around your office someplace. If you’ll refer to that you’ll know exactly what we—”
“I’m not interested in that. I want to see what you’re doing. And I expect you to be prepared to describe your work fully. I’ll be there shortly. Half an hour.”
Reinhart cut the circuit. Sherikov’s heavy features dwindled and faded. Reinhart relaxed, letting his breath out. Too bad he had to work with Sherikov. He had never liked the man. The big Polish scientist was an individualist, refusing to integrate himself with society. Independent, atomistic in outlook. He held concepts of the individual as an end, diametrically contrary to the accepted organic state Weltansicht.
But Sherikov was the leading research scientist, in charge of the Military Designs Department. And on Designs the whole future of Terra depended. Victory over Centaurus—or more waiting, bottled up in the Sol System, surrounded by a rotting, hostile Empire, now sinking into ruin and decay, yet still strong.
Reinhart got quickly to his feet and left the office. He hurried down the hall and out of the Council building.
A few minutes later he was heading across the mid-morning sky in his highspeed cruiser, toward the Asiatic land-mass, the vast Ural mountain range. Toward the Military Designs labs.
Sherikov met him at the entrance. “Look here, Reinhart. Don’t think you’re going to order me around. I’m not going to—”
“Take it easy.” Reinhart fell into step beside the bigger man. They passed through the check and into the auxiliary labs. “No immediate coercion will be exerted over you or your staff. You’re free to continue your work as you see fit—for the present. Let’s get this straight. My concern is to integrate your work with our total social needs. As long as your work is sufficiently productive—”
Reinhart stopped in his tracks.
“Pretty, isn’t he?” Sherikov said ironically.
“What the hell is it?
“Icarus, we call him. Remember the Greek myth? The legend of Icarus. Icarus flew…. This Icarus is going to fly, one of these days.” Sherikov shrugged. “You can examine him, if you want. I suppose this is what you came here to see.”
Reinhart advanced slowly. “This is the weapon you’ve been working on?”
“How does he look?”
Rising up in the center of the chamber was a squat metal cylinder, a great ugly cone of dark gray. Technicians circled around it, wiring up the exposed relay banks. Reinhart caught a glimpse of endless tubes and filaments, a maze of wires and terminals and parts criss-crossing each other, layer on layer.
“What is it?” Reinhart perched on the edge of a workbench, leaning his big shoulders against the wall. “An idea of Jamison Hedge—the same man who developed our instantaneous interstellar vidcasts forty years ago. He was trying to find a method of faster than light travel when he was killed, destroyed along with most of his work. After that ftl research was abandoned. It looked as if there were no future in it.”
“Wasn’t it shown that nothing could travel faster than light?”
“The interstellar vidcasts do! No, Hedge developed a valid ftl drive. He managed to propel an object at fifty times the speed of light. But as the object gained speed, its length began to diminish and its mass increased. This was in line with familiar twentieth-century concepts of mass-energy transformation. We conjectured that as Hedge’s object gained velocity it would continue to lose length and gain mass until its length became nil and its mass infinite. Nobody can imagine such an object.”
“But what actually occurred is this. Hedge’s object continued to lose length and gain mass until it reached the theoretical limit of velocity, the speed of light. At that point the object, still gaining speed, simply ceased to exist. Having no length, it ceased to occupy space. It disappeared. However, the object had not been destroyed. It continued on its way, gaining momentum each moment, moving in an arc across the galaxy, away from the Sol system. Hedge’s object entered some other realm of being, beyond our powers of conception. The next phase of Hedge’s experiment consisted in a search for some way to slow the ftl object down, back to a sub-ftl speed, hence back into our universe. This counterprinciple was eventually worked out.”
“With what result?”
“The death of Hedge and destruction of most of his equipment. His experimental object, in re-entering the space-time universe, came into being in space already occupied by matter. Possessing an incredible mass, just below infinity level, Hedge’s object exploded in a titanic cataclysm. It was obvious that no space travel was possible with such a drive. Virtually all space contains some matter. To re-enter space would bring automatic destruction. Hedge had found his ftl drive and his counterprinciple, but no one before this has been able to put them to any use.”
Reinhart walked over toward the great metal cylinder. Sherikov jumped down and followed him. “I don’t get it,” Reinhart said. “You said the principle is no good for space travel.”
“What’s this for, then? If the ship explodes as soon as it returns to our universe—”
“This is not a ship.” Sherikov grinned slyly. “Icarus is the first practical application of Hedge’s principles. Icarus is a bomb.”
“So this is our weapon,” Reinhart said. “A bomb. An immense bomb.”
“A bomb, moving at a velocity greater than light. A bomb which will not exist in our universe. The Centaurans won’t be able to detect or stop it. How could they? As soon as it passes the speed of light it will cease to exist—beyond all detection.”
“Icarus will be launched outside the lab, on the surface. He will align himself with Proxima Centaurus, gaining speed rapidly. By the time he reaches his destination he will be traveling at ftl-100. Icarus will be brought back to this universe within Centaurus itself. The explosion should destroy the star and wash away most of its planets—including their central hub-planet, Armun. There is no way they can halt Icarus, once he has been launched. No defense is possible. Nothing can stop him. It is a real fact.”
“When will he be ready?”
Sherikov’s eyes flickered. “Soon.”
“Exactly how soon?”
The big Pole hesitated. “As a matter of fact, there’s only one thing holding us back.”
Sherikov led Reinhart around to the other side of the lab. He pushed a lab guard out of the way.
“See this?” He tapped a round globe, open at one end, the size of a grapefruit. “This is holding us up.”
“What is it?”
“The central control turret. This thing brings Icarus back to sub-ftl flight at the correct moment. It must be absolutely accurate. Icarus will be within the star only a matter of a microsecond. If the turret does not function exactly, Icarus will pass out the other side and shoot beyond the Centauran system.”
“How near completed is this turret?”
Sherikov hedged uncertainly, spreading out his big hands. “Who can say? It must be wired with infinitely minute equipment—microscope grapples and wires invisible to the naked eye.”
“Can you name any completion date?”
Sherikov reached into his coat and brought out a manila folder. “I’ve drawn up the data for the SRB machines, giving a date of completion. You can go ahead and feed it. I entered ten days as the maximum period. The machines can work from that.”
Reinhart accepted the folder cautiously. “You’re sure about the date? I’m not convinced I can trust you, Sherikov.”
Sherikov’s features darkened. “You’ll have to take a chance, Commissioner. I don’t trust you any more than you trust me. I know how much you’d like an excuse to get me out of here and one of your puppets in.”
Reinhart studied the huge scientist thoughtfully. Sherikov was going to be a hard nut to crack. Designs was responsible to Security, not the Council. Sherikov was losing ground—but he was still a potential danger. Stubborn, individualistic, refusing to subordinate his welfare to the general good.
“All right.” Reinhart put the folder slowly away in his coat. “I’ll feed it. But you better be able to come through. There can’t be any slip-ups. Too much hangs on the next few days.”
“If the odds change in our favor are you going to give the mobilization order?”
“Yes,” Reinhart stated. “I’ll give the order the moment I see the odds change.”
Standing in front of the machines, Reinhart waited nervously for the results. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. The day was warm, a pleasant May afternoon. Outside the building the daily life of the planet went on as usual.
As usual? Not exactly. The feeling was in the air, an expanding excitement growing every day. Terra had waited a long time. The attack on Proxima Centaurus had to come—and the sooner the better. The ancient Centauran Empire hemmed in Terra, bottled the human race up in its one system. A vast, suffocating net draped across the heavens, cutting Terra off from the bright diamonds beyond…. And it had to end.
The SRB machines whirred, the visible combination disappearing. For a time no ratio showed. Reinhart tensed, his body rigid. He waited.
The new ratio appeared.
Reinhart gasped. 7-6. Toward Terra!
Within five minutes the emergency mobilization alert had been flashed to all Government departments. The Council and President Duffe had been called to immediate session. Everything was happening fast.
But there was no doubt. 7-6. In Terra’s favor. Reinhart hurried frantically to get his papers in order, in time for the Council session.
At histo-research the message plate was quickly pulled from the confidential slot and rushed across the central lab to the chief official.
“Look at this!” Fredman dropped the plate on his superior’s desk. “Look at it!”
Harper picked up the plate, scanning it rapidly. “Sounds like the real thing. I didn’t think we’d live to see it.”
Fredman left the room, hurrying down the hall. He entered the time bubble office. “Where’s the bubble?” he demanded, looking around.
One of the technicians looked slowly up. “Back about two hundred years. We’re coming up with interesting data on the War of 1914. According to material the bubble has already brought up—”
“Cut it. We’re through with routine work. Get the bubble back to the present. From now on all equipment has to be free for Military work.”
“But—the bubble is regulated automatically.”
“You can bring it back manually.”
“It’s risky.” The technician hedged. “If the emergency requires it, I suppose we could take a chance and cut the automatic.”
“The emergency requires everything,” Fredman said feelingly.
“But the odds might change back,” Margaret Duffe, President of the Council, said nervously. “Any minute they can revert.”
“This is our chance!” Reinhart snapped, his temper rising. “What the hell’s the matter with you? We’ve waited years for this.”
The Council buzzed with excitement. Margaret Duffe hesitated uncertainly, her blue eyes clouded with worry. “I realize the opportunity is here. At least, statistically. But the new odds have just appeared. How do we know they’ll last? They stand on the basis of a single weapon.”
“You’re wrong. You don’t grasp the situation.” Reinhart held himself in check with great effort. “Sherikov’s weapon tipped the ratio in our favor. But the odds have been moving in our direction for months. It was only a question of time. The new balance was inevitable, sooner or later. It’s not just Sherikov. He’s only one factor in this. It’s all nine planets of the Sol System—not a single man.”
One of the Councilmen stood up. “The President must be aware the entire planet is eager to end this waiting. All our activities for the past eighty years have been directed toward—”
Reinhart moved close to the slender President of the Council. “If you don’t approve the war, there probably will be mass rioting. Public reaction will be strong. Damn strong. And you know it.”
Margaret Duffe shot him a cold glance. “You sent out the emergency order to force my hand. You were fully aware of what you were doing. You knew once the order was out there’d be no stopping things.”
A murmur rushed through the Council, gaining volume. “We have to approve the war!… We’re committed!… It’s too late to turn back!”
Shouts, angry voices, insistent waves of sound lapped around Margaret Duffe. “I’m as much for the war as anybody,” she said sharply. “I’m only urging moderation. An inter-system war is a big thing. We’re going to war because a machine says we have a statistical chance of winning.”
“There’s no use starting the war unless we can win it,” Reinhart said. “The SRB machines tell us whether we can win.”
“They tell us our chance of winning. They don’t guarantee anything.”
“What more can we ask, beside a good chance of winning?”
Margaret Duffe clamped her jaw together tightly. “All right. I hear all the clamor. I won’t stand in the way of Council approval. The vote can go ahead.” Her cold, alert eyes appraised Reinhart. “Especially since the emergency order has already been sent out to all Government departments.”
“Good.” Reinhart stepped away with relief. “Then it’s settled. We can finally go ahead with full mobilization.”
Mobilization proceeded rapidly. The next forty-eight hours were alive with activity.
Reinhart attended a policy-level Military briefing in the Council rooms, conducted by Fleet Commander Carleton.
“You can see our strategy,” Carleton said. He traced a diagram on the blackboard with a wave of his hand. “Sherikov states it’ll take eight more days to complete the ftl bomb. During that time the fleet we have near the Centauran system will take up positions. As the bomb goes off the fleet will begin operations against the remaining Centauran ships. Many will no doubt survive the blast, but with Armun gone we should be able to handle them.”
Reinhart took Commander Carleton’s place. “I can report on the economic situation. Every factory on Terra is converted to arms production. With Armun out of the way we should be able to promote mass insurrection among the Centauran colonies. An inter-system Empire is hard to maintain, even with ships that approach light speed. Local war-lords should pop up all over the place. We want to have weapons available for them and ships starting now to reach them in time. Eventually we hope to provide a unifying principle around which the colonies can all collect. Our interest is more economic than political. They can have any kind of government they want, as long as they act as supply areas for us. As our eight system planets act now.”
Carleton resumed his report. “Once the Centauran fleet has been scattered we can begin the crucial stage of the war. The landing of men and supplies from the ships we have waiting in all key areas throughout the Centauran system. In this stage—”
Reinhart moved away. It was hard to believe only two days had passed since the mobilization order had been sent out. The whole system was alive, functioning with feverish activity. Countless problems were being solved—but much remained.
He entered the lift and ascended to the SRB room, curious to see if there had been any change in the machines’ reading. He found it the same. So far so good. Did the Centaurans know about Icarus? No doubt; but there wasn’t anything they could do about it. At least, not in eight days.
Kaplan came over to Reinhart, sorting a new batch of data that had come in. The lab organizer searched through his data. “An amusing item came in. It might interest you.” He handed a message plate to Reinhart.
It was from histo-research:
May 9, 2136
This is to report that in bringing the research time bubble up to the present the manual return was used for the first time. Therefore a clean break was not made, and a quantity of material from the past was brought forward. This material included an individual from the early twentieth century who escaped from the lab immediately. He has not yet been taken into protective custody. Histo-research regrets this incident, but attributes it to the emergency.
Reinhart handed the plate back to Kaplan. “Interesting. A man from the past—hauled into the middle of the biggest war the universe has seen.”
“Strange things happen. I wonder what the machines will think.”
“Hard to say. Probably nothing.” Reinhart left the room and hurried along the corridor to his own office.
As soon as he was inside he called Sherikov on the vidscreen, using the confidential line.
The Pole’s heavy features appeared. “Good day, Commissioner. How’s the war effort?”
“Fine. How’s the turret wiring proceeding?”
A faint frown flickered across Sherikov’s face. “As a matter of fact, Commissioner—”
“What’s the matter?” Reinhart said sharply.
Sherikov floundered. “You know how these things are. I’ve taken my crew off it and tried robot workers. They have greater dexterity, but they can’t make decisions. This calls for more than mere dexterity. This calls for—” He searched for the word. “—for an artist.”
Reinhart’s face hardened. “Listen, Sherikov. You have eight days left to complete the bomb. The data given to the SRB machines contained that information. The 7-6 ratio is based on that estimate. If you don’t come through—”
Sherikov twisted in embarrassment. “Don’t get excited, Commissioner. We’ll complete it.”
“I hope so. Call me as soon as it’s done.” Reinhart snapped off the connection. If Sherikov let them down he’d have him taken out and shot. The whole war depended on the ftl bomb.
The vidscreen glowed again. Reinhart snapped it on. Kaplan’s face formed on it. The lab organizer’s face was pale and frozen. “Commissioner, you better come up to the SRB office. Something’s happened.”
“What is it?”
“I’ll show you.”
Alarmed, Reinhart hurried out of his office and down the corridor. He found Kaplan standing in front of the SRB machines. “What’s the story?” Reinhart demanded. He glanced down at the reading. It was unchanged.
Kaplan held up a message plate nervously. “A moment ago I fed this into the machines. After I saw the results I quickly removed it. It’s that item I showed you. From histo-research. About the man from the past.”
“What happened when you fed it?”
Kaplan swallowed unhappily. “I’ll show you. I’ll do it again. Exactly as before.” He fed the plate into a moving intake belt. “Watch the visible figures,” Kaplan muttered.
Reinhart watched, tense and rigid. For a moment nothing happened. 7-6 continued to show. Then—
The figures disappeared. The machines faltered. New..
Little Wolf stood beside his father, Three Fingers, and listened as he spoke. Everyone was dressed for the ceremony that was about to begin. Every warrior had plaited eagle feathers into their hair and had painted their family colors on their high cheekbones. All carried a weapon. Some held knives, others bows, while still other had spears tipped with sharp flint heads.
“Today, my son, Little Wolf is seeing his fourteenth summer and is now ready to join the warriors. Our feast of buffalo and maize and bread is prepared, Talks To The Wind has danced the spirit dance, and the great light sinks into the earth. Tonight, Little Wolf will become Stalking Wolf.” Three Fingers raised his own spear towards the darkening sky and the warriors joined in, chanting encouragement and stomping their feet.
Talks To The Wind brought a small stool from one of the teepees and told Little Wolf to follow. Little Wolf saluted his father and the warriors and turned on trembling legs to follow the spirit leader.
They walked about 100 steps into the woods and the spirit leader placed the stool in a small clearing. He pointed, indicating that Little Wolf was to sit. The boy did as he was expected, assuming a rigid posture, staring into the trees. He swallowed hard as Talks To The Wind came behind and tied a leather band over his eyes. He could see nothing.
“Little Wolf,” Talks To The Wind said. “You must remain here through the night. You may not leave the stool at any time. If you do, you will fail and you will be shamed by the tribe. Your father will disown you and you will be banished.
“You will hear many things; feel many things but you must not give in to fear. The Great Spirit watches over you and The Spirit Wolf will be near. Be brave, Little Wolf, and tomorrow, you will be a man.”
Little Wolf nodded and struggled to swallow once again. He heard Talks To The Wind quietly walk out of the clearing and back to the village.
Little Wolf had no idea how long he had been sitting when he felt the cool skin of a snake crawl across his feet. He almost jumped but remembered the snake could strike as well in the dark as in the day. He forced his nerves to be calm. He pictured an eagle flying over their valley, its piercing scream echoing off the hills as it passed overhead. He began to relax. The snake wrapped itself around both of his legs and squeezed. Little Wolf silently called on The Spirit Wolf to kill the snake and the snake began to relax its grip on the boy’s legs. Little Wolf felt it uncoil and then heard it slither away through the dead leaves.
Time passed and Little Wolf thought he could just hear the rustle of leaves from behind him. He cocked his head trying to listen. He heard a low growl, like that of dog warning off a would-be attacker. The sound was deep, guttural, and frightening. It came closer and he felt fur brush against his bare leg. Whatever it was pressed against him and yipped.
Coyote! Little Wolf thought. Then he heard the sounds of many more coyotes entering the clearing. They yipped and yapped, creating a cacophony that was almost deafening. He felt the teeth of one on his hand and he winced. The coyote clamped down on his unprotected hand and Little Wolf felt something warm and wet drip onto his leg.
Again, he called on The Great Spirit Wolf. The coyote let go of his hand and he heard the pack heading back into the thicket behind him. He endured yet another immeasurable passage of time.
Sweat was trickling down his forehead and his neck, and small beads worked their way under the leather blindfold and ran into his eyes. He clamped them shut and gritted his teeth. He swiped away the sweat from his forehead with the back of his uninjured hand. And felt something crawling up his left leg. It was slow, methodical, and light. It felt like…a spider!
Now, he could feel many spiders crawling up his legs. They were large. There were hundreds and they were making their way up his body. He felt as if he was wearing a living robe and hat. The spiders covered completely. Little Wolf trembled with fear and every wave of the tremors sent a ripple through the mass of spiders. He was near the breaking point but he directed his thoughts toward his father. He could see Three Fingers standing before him in front of the whole tribe.
“You are banished, coward. You will never carry the name of Stalking Wolf,” his father shouted. “You will be known as Yellow Bird, the coward. GO!”
The vision snapped him back and Little Wolf called on The Spirit Wolf. At once, the spiders crawled off of him. His breathing steadied and he sat up straighter.
“Another battle won,” he said proudly. “I am Stalking Wolf!”
Again, time passed and Little Wolf heard the snuffles and grunts of a bear. He could hear it crashing about in the brush, searching for food. Then he heard it approaching him and he tensed. The bear snuffled and came closer. Little Wolf could feel the hot breath on his face and smelled the stench of its mouth. It smelled of dead fish and rotten fruit.
He did not know if The Spirit Wolf could defeat the bear so he called on the Great Spirit.
“Oh Great Spirit, I call upon you for protection. You are the Wise and Great Spirit, maker of all things and I know you set the paths of all creation. Please allow me to defeat this bear so that I may show my father that I am ready to be a warrior.”
The bear panted in his face and he heard a voice behind him.
“Stand, one who was called Little Wolf. Stand, Stalking Wolf!” It was his father’s voice.
He stood on trembling legs and still felt the hot breath of the bear on his face. It was rising, as well. He waited for the raking claws that would disembowel him. He set his face and clenched his jaws.
Suddenly, there was a blinding light and the voices of many warriors hooted. He blinked several times, adjusting to the bright light of a new day.
Before him stood Talks To The Wind, holding a dead fish and grinning at him. He blew across the fish and Little Wolf, now Stalking Wolf, smelled the hot breath of the bear. A warrior yapped like a coyote and showed Stalking Wolf the jawbone of dog. He pressed it against the boy’s hand and grinned. Two warriors held a robe of duck feathers and drug it across his arm. It felt like many spiders. Another warrior held a rope that had a snakeskin on it. He shook it at Stalking Wolf and pulled it, snake-like, through the leaf-strewn ground.
Three Fingers came to him and handed him a newly fashioned tomahawk, decorated with eagle feathers. Stalking Wolf could not contain his grin. Today he was a man!