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´╗┐Title: The starmen
Author: Brackett, Leigh
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The starmen" ***


                              THE STARMEN

                            Leigh Brackett

                       GNOME PRESS, _Inc._
                            _New York_

                _Copyright 1952 by Leigh Brackett_

                             FIRST EDITION

             _All rights reserved. Editors and reviewers
                 may use short passages from the book
               without written permission. Short version
            copyright 1951 by Better Publications, Inc._

                PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

 [Transcriber's Note: Extensive research did not uncover any evidence
       that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



                              THE STARMEN



                                  ONE


Michael Trehearne was to remember that evening as the end of the
world, for him. The end of his familiar life in a familiar Earth, and
the first glimmering vision of the incredible. It began with the man
who spoke to him on the heights behind St. Malo, by the light of the
Midsummer Fires.

There was a great crowd of tourists there, come to watch the old Breton
festival of the sacred bonfire. Trehearne was among them, but not of
them. He stood alone. He was always alone. He was thinking that the
ritual being performed in the wide space of stony turf was just too
quaint to be endured and wondering why he had bothered with it, when
someone said to him with casual intimacy,

"In four days we shall be through with all this, going home. A good
thought, isn't it?"

Trehearne turned his head, and looked into a face so like his own that
he was startled.

The resemblance was that of a strong racial stamp, rather than any
blood kinship. If two Mohawks were to meet unexpectedly in the hills of
Afghanistan they would recognize each other, and it was the same with
Trehearne and the stranger. There was the same arrogant bone-structure,
the odd and striking beauty of form and color that seemed to have no
root in any race of Earth, the long yellow eyes, slightly tilted and
flecked with sparks of greenish light. And there was the same pride.
In Trehearne it was a lonely, bitter thing. The stranger bore his like
a banner.

During the moment in which Trehearne stared, amazed, the stranger
remarked, "I don't remember seeing you on the last ship. How long have
you been here?"

"Since yesterday," answered Trehearne, and knew as he formed the words
that they were not the ones expected of him. A wild throb of excitement
ran through him. He said impulsively, "Look here, you've mistaken me
for someone else, but I'm glad you did!" In his eagerness he all but
clutched the man's arm. "I must talk to you."

Something in the stranger's expression had altered. His eyes were now
both wary and startled. "Upon what subject?"

"Your family--my family. Forgive me if I seem impertinent, but it's
important to me. I've come a long way, from America to Cornwall and now
to Brittany, trying to trace down my own line...." He paused, looking
again into that remarkable face that watched him, darkly handsome,
darkly mocking in the firelight. "Will you tell me your name?"

"Kerrel," said the man slowly. "I beg your pardon, Monsieur. The
resemblance is indeed striking. I mistook you for one of my kin."

Trehearne was frowning. "Kerrel?" he repeated, and shook his head. "My
people were called Cahusac, before they went into Cornwall."

"There was doubtless a connection," said Kerrel easily. He pointed
abruptly to the open space beyond. "Look--they begin the final ritual."

The great bonfire had burned low. The peasants and the fisherfolk,
some hundreds of them, were gathered in a circle around the windy glow
of the flames. A white-bearded old man began to pray, in the craggy
Breton Gaelic.

Trehearne barely turned his head. His mind was full of the stranger,
and of all the things that had oppressed and worried and driven him
since childhood, the nagging little mysteries about himself to which
now, perhaps, he would find the key.

He glanced away only a second, following the gesture of Kerrel's arm.
But when he looked back, Kerrel was gone.

Trehearne took half a dozen aimless steps, searching for the man, but
he had melted away into the darkness and the crowd, and Trehearne
stopped, feeling sold and furious.

His temper, long the bane of a rather luckless existence, reared up and
bared its claws. He had always been childishly sensitive to insults. If
he could have got his hands on the contemptuous Kerrel he would have
thrashed him. He turned again to the festival, controlling himself as
he had learned painfully to do, realizing that he was being ridiculous.
But his face, so like that of the vanished stranger, had a very ugly
look around the mouth.

The Bretons had begun the procession around the waning fire. Short,
burly men in bright jackets and broad-brimmed hats, sturdy women in
aprons and long skirts, their improbable starched coifs fluttering
with ribbons and lace. Sabots clumped heavily on the stony ground.
They would march three times sunward, circling the embers, and then
solemnly, each one, pick up a pebble and as solemnly cast it into the
coals. Then they would scramble for the charred brands and bear them
home to be charms against fever and lightning and the murrain until the
next Midsummer Eve.

It struck Trehearne that most of them, except the very old, looked
painfully self-conscious about it all. In a thoroughly bad humor, he
was on the point of leaving. And then he saw the girl.

She was standing some ten feet away from him, in the forefront of the
crowd, which had shaped itself into a semi-circle. She had wanted him
to see her. She was swinging a white hand-bag like a lazy pendulum on
a long strap, and her gaze was fixed on him. She was smiling, and the
smile was an open challenge.

In the reflection of the great bed of glowing embers, Trehearne saw
that she was another of Kerrel's breed--and his own, whatever it might
be. But it was not that recognition that made his heart leap up. It was
herself.

The red-gold light danced over her, and perhaps it was only that faery
glow that made her seem more than a handsome girl in a white dress.
Only a trick of wind and starlight, perhaps, that made Trehearne see
in her a changeling, bright, beautiful, wicked, and wise, and no more
human than Lilith.

She beckoned to him, with a small imperious movement of her head.
He had forgotten his anger for the moment, but now it returned. He
began to walk toward her, across the front of the crowd, a tall man,
splendidly built and strong, bearing in his own face the stamp of that
strange, wicked beauty, his eyes yellow as the fire and as hot. She saw
that he was angry, and she laughed.

Whether it was the sound of her laughter that drew the attention of the
Bretons, or merely a chance look, Trehearne never knew. He came up to
her, and she said,

"I am a Kerrel, also. Will you talk to me?"

He was about to answer, when he realized that the noise of the sabots
had broken rhythm, and that the crowd of tourists was staring at him
and the girl and then past them at the Bretons. He heard an uneasy
muttering of questions in French and English, and behind him a great
silence.

He turned. The ritual circle was broken. The old man who had prayed was
coming toward them, and with him were other men and women, drawn as
though by some compulsion from the ranks of the marchers. They were all
old, their faces weathered and seamed by the passing of many winters,
and in their eyes he saw the spark of an ancient hatred, the shadow of
an ancient fear.

He had seen that same look among the older country folk of
Cornwall--directed at himself.

The old man raised his hand. He stopped only a few feet away, and the
others with him. There was something infinitely threatening in the
squat monolithic bulk of that little crowd, a survival from an older
world. The girl flung up her head and laughed, but Trehearne did not
feel like laughing.

The old man cursed them.

Trehearne had not one word of Gaelic, but he did not need a knowledge
of the tongue. Nor did he need to have explained to him the gesture of
angry dismissal. The Bretons had already picked up their stones from
the fire. In another minute, they would use them, on himself and the
girl.

He caught her rather roughly by the arm, but she pulled away and
shouted something at the old man, still laughing, still mocking, and
he thought again that she was changeling and no ordinary girl. The
words she spoke might have been Gaelic, but they had a different sound.
Whatever they were, they held no kindness. Trehearne thrust his way
through the sightseers, who parted readily to let him through, and in a
minute the girl came after him. The voice of the old man followed them
down the slope of the hill, and the curious tourists stared after them
until they were out of sight.

The girl said, "Are you still angry?"

"What's the matter with them?" demanded Trehearne.

"The peasant folks have long memories. They don't understand what it is
they remember, only that evil things once happened to them, because of
us."

"What sort of evil things?"

"Have there been any new ones since the beginning?" Her voice held a
dry humor. Trehearne had to admit there hadn't been. From the stealing
away of maidens to witchcraft, family legends tended to a wearying
sameness.

"However," he added, "the Kerrels and the Cahusacs both must have been
outstanding in their field, judging from the reception they gave us
back there."

He stopped. They were far from the crowd now. The walled island city
bulked huge and dark, a medieval shadow against the night and the sea.
The girl was a white wraith in the gloom, all astir with the salt
wind that tumbled her hair and set her skirts to rippling. He did not
speak to her, but stood there silently, trying to see her face in the
starlight. After a while she asked him,

"What is in your mind?"

"I am waiting to see if you will vanish like the other Kerrel."

She laughed. "Kerrel is a rude man. I have offered myself to make
amends. Surely you can't be angry now!"

It was his turn to laugh. "No. In fact, I'm thankful for your--by the
way, what relation is he to you?"

"None."

"But you said--"

"It was a small lie, and it served its purpose."

"Well, anyway, I'm thankful for Kerrel's rudeness. I'd much rather
talk to you!" His ill-humor was quite gone. He took her hand, and was
amazed to find how strong it was. The girl seemed to radiate an immense
vitality, an aliveness that made all the other women of his knowing
appear like half-awakened clods.

"What do they call you," he asked, "who are _not_ a Kerrel?"

"Shairn."

"That doesn't sound Breton."

"Doesn't it? My other name is even more unusual. It's unpronounceable,
and means _of the Silver Tower_."

Her eyes were very bright in the starshine. He thought that in some
secret way she was mocking him, but he did not care. He said, "I'll
stick to Shairn." They had started down the path again. He told her his
own name, and she asked,

"You are American?"

"Fourth generation."

"From Brittany to Cornwall to America," she murmured, as though
to herself. "The years, the generations, the mingling of other
strains--and still the Vardda blood breeds true! Michael, you're
wonderful!"

He repeated the word _Vardda_, wonderingly.

"A tribal name. You've never heard it." She laughed with pure delight.
"You're incredible. No wonder Kerrel made a mistake! Listen, Michael.
You wonder about your family, your race. Oh, yes, I heard all that.
Well, perhaps I'll tell you--or again, perhaps I won't! There's
a little cove beyond the lighthouse. I'll meet you there, in the
morning."



                                  TWO


Morning is an indeterminate time for an appointment. Trehearne made it
early, clambering over the spray-wet rocks. The sun was warm, and the
sea was very blue, flecked with white foam. A high excitement burned in
him. He had not slept, thinking of the girl Shairn and the man Kerrel,
trying to analyze the strangeness that clung about them and touched
some buried chord within himself. He had not succeeded.

There was something almost fierce in the way he moved. He was oppressed
by a fear that Shairn would not come. He felt that she was playing some
game of her own with him, though for what purpose he could not guess.
But having started the game, he was going to see to it that she played
it out. If she did not come he would find her, if he had to take the
stones of St. Malo apart to do it.

He found the cove. It was deserted. Reason told him that he was
impatient, but he was disappointed and angry all the same. Then,
looking closer, he saw footprints in the sand, small naked ones leading
to the water. A beach robe and a pair of sandals were tucked into a
crevice in the rocks.

He searched the waves that rolled idly in between two grey, tumbled
shoulders. There was no sign of her. Trehearne's eyes took on a hard,
bright glint. He stripped off his shirt and slacks and plunged into the
cold surf.

He was an excellent swimmer. In his college days he had gone through
a phase of being a star athlete, until he was stopped by a vague
conviction that his physique had been designed for something more
important than leaping over bars and running arbitrary distances
on a cinder track. He had never found the important thing, but the
conviction remained with him. It was part of that pride which was the
mainspring of his character--a meaningless pride, he was forced to
admit, which had served only to make trouble between himself and the
world.

He made the circuit of the cove twice before he found her, hiding among
the broken rocks of the north wall, half veiled in glistening weed,
laughing at him. He reached for her and she went under him like a
dolphin, breaking water ten feet away to splash and dive again.

He chased her down into the rustling blue-green depths and up again to
the sunlight and the foam, and her body was the color of silver, fleet
and lithe and wondrously strong. He might have caught her, but he did
not, only touching her with his fingers to show her that he could. Her
hair was unbound, a streaming darkness around her head, and her mouth
was red, and her eyes were two green dancing motes of the sea itself,
unknowable, taunting, fickle as the waves.

At last she rolled over on her back to float, breathless, pleased with
herself and him.

"Let us rest!" she said, and he floated near her, watching the motion
of her white arms in the water. The lines of an old poem came unbidden
to his tongue.

    "'What bright babes had Lilith and Adam--
    'Shapes that coiled in the woods and waters,
    'Radiant sons and glittering daughters....'"

"The man who wrote that knew only half the truth," said Shairn. "Let's
go in."

They found a sheltered spot where the sun was warm. Absently, Shairn
smoothed a patch of sand with her palm, and rumpled it again. After a
while she said,

"What sort of a man are you, Michael? What do you do? How do you live?"

He looked at her keenly. "Do you really want to know? All right, I'll
tell you. I'm a man who has never been satisfied. I've never had a job
I could stay with very long. I'm a flier by trade, but even that seems
a dull and rather childish business. And why? Because I'm too good for
any of it."

He laughed, not without a certain cruel humor. "Don't ask me in what
way I'm too good. I seem to be unusually healthy, but that's only
important to me. My brain-power has never set the world on fire. I
have no tendency to genius. In fact, a suspicion creeps upon me that
I'm just not good enough. Whichever way it is, there has always been
something lacking, either in me or the world."

Shairn nodded, and again he was conscious of a queer wisdom in her that
did not fit with her youth. She smiled, a small thing full of secrets.

"And you thought that if you learned the origin of your blood you would
understand yourself."

"Perhaps. My father was a weedy little man with red hair. He swore I
was none of his. I didn't look like my mother's side, either. I've
never looked like anybody, until I met you and Kerrel. Oddness becomes
very wearing, especially when you don't know why you should be odd." He
added, "The villagers in Cornwall called me changeling. I had the same
thought when I saw you."

"So we are of one race. Could you stay with me, Michael?"

"You're not a woman, you're a witch. I've never met a witch before."

She laughed outright at that. "Nonsense. Witch, changeling--those are
words for fools and peasants."

"Who are the Vardda, Shairn?"

She shook her head. "I told you last night. It is a tribal name. You
were saying to Kerrel that you had come to Brittany to trace down your
family. Do you know where to start?"

"I learned in Cornwall that they came from a place called Keregnac."

He thought she started a little at that name, but she said nothing, and
he asked, "Do you know the town?"

"It's not a town," she answered slowly. "Only a tiny village, lying on
the edge of a great moor. Yes, I know Keregnac." She picked up a bit of
driftwood and began to draw idle patterns in the sand. "I don't think
you will learn much there. The village is very old, and is now almost
dead."

"But," he said, "I don't have to worry about that now, do I?"

"How do you mean?"

"You, Shairn. You know about my family, my race. I don't have to depend
on Keregnac. You'll tell me."

She flung down the bit of driftwood. "Will I?"

"You said last night--"

"I don't remember what I said. And anyway, one says many things at
night that sound foolish in the daytime." She stood up. "Perhaps Kerrel
was right."

"About what?"

"About you. He made quite a scene when I joined him again. He said a
number of things, and some of them were true."

"Such as what?" asked Trehearne evenly.

"Such as that heredity has played a rather cruel trick on you, and that
you're better off to know nothing about your ancestry. Get me my robe,
Michael, I must go."

But he had reached out and caught her wrist, and his grip was not
gentle. "You can't do that," he said. "You can't refuse to tell me now."

"Oh," she said softly, "but I can. And I do."

"Listen," said Trehearne. "I've come a long way, and I've been through
a lot. You're a beautiful woman, and I suppose you have a right to your
whims, but not about this."

She looked down at his hand that was locked so tight around her wrist,
and then up at him again, and her eyes were bright and very hot. "Is
that your idea of persuasion?"

"Are you going to tell me?"

"No." She showed him her teeth, silently, in a catlike smile. "Kerrel
is waiting for me."

"Let him wait."

"But he won't. We're leaving St. Malo today, and I assure you he won't
go without me." He dropped her wrist.

"I'll follow you."

Her eyes were blazing. "That will be a long way."

"Brittany is not so large."

"Did I say I live in Brittany?" She caught up the robe and flung it
around her shoulders, and then she said, "All right, Michael, follow
me. I'd like that. Follow me as far as you can!"

She left him, going swiftly over the tumbled rocks. Trehearne watched
her until she was out of sight, not moving from where he stood. After a
long while his gaze was drawn to the sand and the patterns that Shairn
had traced there. Amid the aimless, rambling lines a word stood out in
large clear letters.

KEREGNAC.



                                 THREE


A hired car and driver took Trehearne, for an exorbitant price, to
Keregnac. On the first day they had roads, and made excellent time. On
the second the tiny Fiat labored in agony along rutted cart tracks. The
sea was far behind them, and the driver complained incessantly of the
mad desires of Americans. Why should anyone wish to go to Keregnac, a
place that even the Bretons had forgotten?

Trehearne was in a strange and savage mood. The sound of Shairn's name
was in his ears, and all the things that she had said and done went
round and round in his head, and the more he thought of them the more
he hated her, and the more he wanted her. And the more he hated Kerrel,
who had her, and who was part of whatever secret life she lived. But
Shairn and her affairs were only part of it. He had come close to the
end of his quest. He had almost grasped it, only to be denied at the
last by a woman's fickle impulse. He would not be denied any longer.
Shairn had started something that could not be stopped, no matter where
it led.

The driver lost his way among the ruts and the stony hamlets. When he
begged directions, the peasants regarded Trehearne in dour silence
and could not be compelled to answer. It was impossible even to learn
whether others had gone this way before them.

Trehearne had foreseen this possibility. He had had enough such
difficulties in Cornwall. He had got a map and directions in St. Malo,
and he forced the luckless driver on by dead reckoning. It was night
before they came wallowing into a muddy square half paved with ancient
stones and saw the lights of half a dozen dwellings clustered around it.

"Go there, to the largest house," said Trehearne. "Ask if this is
Keregnac, and tell the master we'll pay well for lodging."

The driver, himself in a thoroughly foul humor by now, did as he was
bid, and in a few moments Trehearne found himself in a three-room house
of crumbling stone, the walls blackened with smoke and age. A meagre
fire burned on the hearth, and two home-made candles furnished all the
light.

It was enough to show Trehearne's face.

Oddly enough, the squat, hard-handed peasant who was master of the
house showed neither fear nor hatred. Nor was he surprised. A certain
slyness crept into his sullen expression, but that was all.

"You shall have the best bed, Monsieur," he said, in vile French and
pointed to a gigantic carved _lit-clos_. "I have also one good horse.
The others have gone ahead into the _landes_. You will wish to overtake
them."

Trehearne tried to conceal his excitement. "Monsieur Kerrel and
Mademoiselle Shairn?"

The peasant shrugged. "You know better than I what their names might
be. I am not a curious man. I enjoy good health, and am content."

He called sharply in the Breton tongue, and a woman came to prepare
food. She had a heavy, stupid face. She glanced once, sidelong, at
Trehearne and after that was careful neither to look at nor speak to
him. As soon as the simple meal was on the table, she hid herself in
the adjoining room.

The ancient crone who sat knitting by the fire was not so cowed. As
though age had placed her above necessity, she kept her bright little
eyes fixed upon Trehearne with a mixture of hostility and interest.

"What are you thinking, _ma vielle_?" he asked her, smiling.

She answered, in French that was almost unintelligible to him, "I am
thinking, Monsieur, that Keregnac is greatly honored by the Devil!"

The man snarled at her in Gaelic, bidding her be silent, but Trehearne
shook his head.

"Don't be afraid, _grandmere_. Why do you say that?"

"From time to time he sends his sons and daughters to us. They eat our
food, borrow our horses, and pay us well. Oh, very well! We could not
live, if it were not for them." Her white coif bobbed emphatically.
"But it is still the devil's money!"

Trehearne laughed. "And do I appear like the devil's son?"

"You are the very breed."

Trehearne bent closer to her and said, "Once my family lived here.
Their name was Cahusac."

"Cahusac," she said slowly, and between her gnarled fingers the
clicking needles stopped. "Eh, that was long and long ago, and Keregnac
has forgotten the Cahusacs. They were driven out...."

"Why?"

"They had an only child, a daughter, who married one of these handsome
sons of the Evil One, and...." She paused and looked at him wisely.
"But forgive me, my old tongue has not yet learned caution."

Trehearne dropped to one knee beside her, so that he might see her
face more clearly. His heart was hammering. "No, no, _grandmere_!
Don't stop--it was to hear these things that I came all the way from
America. This daughter of the Cahusacs--she had a child?"

"And the villagers would have stoned her to death, and the babe too.
But she knew, and fled away." She straightened up and her eyes had
grown bleak and stern. "We take their silver, and that is sin enough.
And I have spoken too much, and will speak no more."

"No, please!" Trehearne said. "Who are these strangers--these Vardda?
You must know. You must tell me!"

But she sat like an image carved from dark wood, her head bent forward
over the pale wool spread in her lap. Trehearne stood up, mastering a
desire to shake her until the words came, and then he went outside.
He walked the few paces to the end of the muddy street and looked out
upon a moor that stretched still and desolate under the stars. He stood
there for a long time, staring out across the empty heath, his eyes
narrowed and intense with thought.

Into these wastes, the _landes_, Shairn had gone with Kerrel. Why, for
what purpose, he could not guess, any more than he could guess the
answers to all the other riddles, and he knew better than to ask his
host. The silence mocked him, full of secrets.

He had made some progress. He had traced his family back to Keregnac,
and he knew now the reason for their leaving. A Vardda hybrid snatched
from death at the hands of an irate peasantry--a romantic story, but
unrevealing. The answer to the riddle of his birthright lay still
farther on.

How much farther, he did not dream.

At dawn he paid off his driver and his host, mounted the horse that
was ready for him, and struck out into the moor. He had no idea what
direction he should take. However, the moor could not be endless in
extent, and if he searched long enough he was almost bound to find
what he was looking for. If Kerrel and Shairn and other "sons and
daughters of the devil" came into the _landes_, they must have shelter
of some kind.

But all that day he rode, across marshland and stony soil, through
gorse and bramble and stunted trees, without seeing a cottage or a
solitary sheep or even a distant smoke to mark a human habitation.
Only here and there a lonely tor stood like a druid sentinel against a
lowering sky.

It drew on to dusk. The wind blew, and it began to rain, a fine soaking
drizzle that showed promise of going on all night. And still the heath
stretched on all sides of him, featureless, without comfort or hope.

There was nothing to do but go on. He let the horse find its own way,
sitting hunched in the saddle, wet and wolfishly hungry and at odds
with the world.

His mood grew blacker as the light failed. The horse continued to plod
on through pitch darkness. The land rolled a good bit, and Trehearne
knew from the cant of the saddle when his mount slid down into the
hollow of a fold and then scrambled out again up the other side,
slipping and stumbling in the mud and wet gorse. It was from the crest
of one such low rise that he caught a glimmer of light, ahead and to
the left.

He said aloud, "There is a cotter's hut," and would not allow himself
to hope for anything else. But he spurred the horse on recklessly. Even
so, it seemed hours before he reached the light.

He was close onto the place before he could make out its size and shape
in the thick darkness. Then he reined in, completely baffled. This was
no cotter's hut, nor was it a manor, nor any normal sort of dwelling.
He saw a broken shaft of stone that had once been a squat crenellated
tower, and around its foot was a ruin of walls and outbuildings. It
was very old, Trehearne thought--probably medieval, and probably the
onetime stronghold of a robber baron.

A ruin, lost in the wasteland. And yet it was inhabited. Yellow
lamplight poured from the embrasures of the keep. There were horses
in the courtyard. There was a sound of voices, and in the rickety
outbuildings that leaned against the wall there were lanterns and
noises and activity. Trehearne sat still for a time, trying to make
some sort of sense out of what he saw, and failing. Then he dismounted
and let his weary animal join its fellows, going himself toward the
outbuildings and the men who were working there. He carried a small
automatic in his pocket. He was not afraid, but he was glad he had it.
There was an unsettling queerness about the place, about its situation
and whatever reason it had for being.

The wooden structures were not nearly so tumbledown as they seemed at
first look. In fact, Trehearne had a ridiculous idea that they had
been built that way deliberately. They were crammed now with crates
and packing cases, not wooden ones, Trehearne noticed, but light,
strong plastic, marked with unfamiliar symbols. Others were being
fetched up through openings in the stone that led apparently into the
cellars beneath the keep. The men who handled them, with a good deal
of laughter and loud talk, were mostly young, and all of the Vardda
stock, and their dress was as strange as their language. Trehearne
could think of no national costume that included quite that kind of a
tunic belted over loose trousers, nor that particular type of sandal.
A little shiver slid over him and he stopped just beyond the edge of
the lantern-light. The men had not seen him yet, and he was suddenly
not sure that he wanted them to. The strangeness began to come through
to him, no longer in the mass, but in small casual detail that made it
real, and now he began to be afraid, not with his body but with his
mind.

From out of the rain and the shadows close by him, someone said, "You
must be Trehearne."

The sheer reflex of tight-strung nerves closed Trehearne's grip on the
automatic and brought him whirling around. The speaker must have seen
the gesture, for he said quietly, "You won't need that. Come back a
way, I want to talk to you."

"Who--?"

"Keep your voice down! Come on."

Trehearne followed the blurred figure of a man in a yellow tunic and
dark trousers. Even in the gloom he could see that the belt around the
man's waist was studded with gems, and the fastenings of his sandals
glinted like fireflies in the wet grass. The small shiver twitched
again at Trehearne's nerves, and he kept his hand in his pocket, over
the comforting prosaic weight of the gun. He had thought at first that
the man was Kerrel, but he was too short, and the voice was different.
Neither spoke again until they had reached a blank corner of the keep
well out of sight of the sheds. Then the man stopped and turned, and
Trehearne said, "How did you know me?"

Faint light from an embrasure high above fell on the stranger's face.
It was a Vardda face, but it was not beautiful. It was ugly, and kind,
with very shrewd eyes and a merry mouth that was not really merry at
all, even when it smiled. It was smiling now.

"Your fame has come ahead of you." He nodded toward the wall and what
was beyond it. "Kerrel says you won't come, Shairn says you will.
They're all betting on you in there." He examined Trehearne closely in
the dim light, and shook his head. "I wouldn't have believed it if I
hadn't seen it. You really are remarkable."

"I've been told that before," said Trehearne sourly, and glanced at the
stone wall, remembering what Shairn had said to him at the cove. An
angry glint came into his eyes, "She's sure of herself."

"Shairn is sure of everything, and herself most of all." The man
had been drinking, but he was not even slightly drunk. His tone was
serious. "Now listen to me, my friend. I've stood around a long while
in the rain watching for you when I should have been attending to my
business, and I'm breaking a very important law right now. No one
else has seen you. Take your horse and ride like hell away from here,
and I'll forget that I have." He laid an urgent hand on Trehearne's
shoulder. "This may be hard for you to believe, but I'm offering you
your life."

The voices of the men rang down the wind, and Trehearne thought of the
crates and cases they were bringing up from below as though preparing
them for loading, and suddenly an answer came to him.

"Smuggling," he said. "You could land planes out here, and nobody would
ever know it."

"Smuggling is precisely it. Now will you go? I haven't any right to do
this, but I hate to see a man die just for a woman's amusement."

"Why are you so sure I'll die?"

"Because you're not true Vardda, and more than that I can't tell you.
Just please for God's sake go!"

Trehearne thought, He's sincere, he means it, and smuggling isn't all
the answer, these aren't common criminals. Something strange, very
strange, and maybe he's right.... The fear that he had had before rose
up in him and it was of the body now as well as the mind, a chill
premonition of the unnatural. He hesitated, and the ugly man said
softly, "Good! I'll get your horse."

There was a creak and a bang and a burst of sound as the great oaken
door of the keep swung open. The stranger pressed Trehearne flat
against the wall. The doorway was just out of sight, but Trehearne
could hear the voices clearly. They were speaking their own unfamiliar
tongue, so that what they said was lost to him, but he knew they were
talking about him. He heard his name, and the voice that spoke it was
Shairn's. Then she laughed. She didn't need to laugh. The sound of
her voice would have been enough. Trehearne flung off the stranger's
restraining arm and stood away from the wall.

"You fool!" whispered the stranger furiously, and caught at him, but
Trehearne was remembering things, words, looks, and the anger in him
burned away the fear. He walked out into the light that spilled across
the courtyard from the open door. Kerrel and a number of others, mostly
women, were standing there, but the only one he saw was Shairn, girdled
with jewels and wearing a tunic the color of flame, holding in her hand
a goblet of wine. A silence fell, and Shairn's gaze was fixed on his.
Even so, he could not read it.

She smiled and said, "Thank you, Michael. I've won my bet."



                                 FOUR


A hand fell upon Trehearne's shoulder from behind. It was the man in
the yellow tunic, and he had become, in the last few seconds, quite
jovially drunk. He gave Trehearne a friendly shove toward the door and
called out to the people who stood there, "I found him out here looking
for a way in--and I swear the man's a Vardda!" Under his breath he said
rapidly in Trehearne's ear, "Keep your mouth shut, or we'll both be in
trouble!"

They went together into the keep. The men stared closely at Trehearne,
and the women chattered about him in their own tongue. And Kerrel said
to Shairn, "Are you satisfied, now you've got him here?"

"_I_ didn't get him here," she said. "He was going to Keregnac anyway,
and nothing could have kept him back then." She turned away, toward a
table where there were bottles and various foods, and poured wine into
a goblet. "Besides, he's a grown man. He knows what he wants to do.
Isn't that so, Michael?"

She handed him the goblet. He took it and said, "Oh yes, that's so.
You'd better collect your bet."

"I think," she answered, "I'll let it ride." She raised her goblet to
sip the wine, doing it in such a way that her sleeve fell back and
showed him the dark bruised ring his fingers had left around her wrist.

The man in the yellow tunic said something in his own language, and her
eyes narrowed. But she turned to Kerrel and said mildly, "Edri doesn't
approve of me."

"I don't think any of us do right now," said Kerrel. "You should have
let the man alone."

"Michael doesn't think so--do you, Michael? I didn't tempt him to
follow me. That was his idea."

"Well, he followed you," said Edri, and there was a deep anger in his
voice.

"But not all the way," murmured Shairn, and smiled into Trehearne's
eyes. "Only the first step, Michael. You were annoyed with me when I
wouldn't tell you about the Vardda, very much annoyed. So now you're
going to find out." She reached up her fingers and drew them slowly
across his cheek. "You look like a Vardda, you bear yourself like one,
you even think like one. But _are_ you one?"

Kerrel said irritably, "That's impossible, and you know it." He began
to speak to Edri and the other men, in that language that Trehearne had
never heard before. They seemed disturbed and ill at ease, men beset
by a problem to which there was no good solution. Their attitude, and
the particular way in which the women looked at him, took away the fine
edge of Trehearne's excitement. "They act," he said to Shairn, "as
though they're planning where to bury me."

She shrugged. "Oh, they're discussing all sorts of alternatives, but
there's only one possible answer." She sat down on the edge of the
table, watching him in the catlike way that she had. "Nervous?"

"Cold. The rain was very wet." That was only half the truth, but he was
damned if he was going to admit it to her. "And I'm curious. Where do
you people come from? What are you doing here? What's all the mystery
about?"

"Don't be impatient, Michael. It can't all be told at once." She had
been listening intently to what the men were saying, and now she rose
again. "I think it's time I took a hand in this. Men always talk in
circles."

She joined the group. Trehearne finished off his wine and poured more
from a queer stone bottle. It was good, but he couldn't place it on any
list of vintages. There was beginning to be a nightmare quality about
this culmination of his long search. Everything was too business-like,
too solemn--and too insane. He wished they would stop talking about
him. He wished somebody would explain to him what was going on out
here. The voices went on and on, and suddenly he realized that Shairn
had shifted into a language he could understand.

"You see?" she was saying to Kerrel. "I can quote the law as well as
you. And you know I'm right."

Kerrel muttered, "It seems to me a choice of evils." And he added
furiously, "You should have let the man alone!"

"He has a right to his chance," Shairn said. "He came a long way to get
it."

"Do I detect a note of malice there?" inquired Edri.

"Detect what you like. Anyway, there is no other course--unless one of
you feels up to killing him right here, in cold blood."

Trehearne's wine-glass came down with a clatter on the table, and he
thrust his hand into his pocket so that the automatic bulged it very
plainly. He said, "You wouldn't find that so easy."

Edri gave a wry sort of shudder and made gestures at him to relax.
"We're not violent people," he said. "It's only that you've faced us
with a damnably involved problem, and one we've never had to meet
before. You see, there are certain laws."

"Laws?"

"Yes." Edri poured himself wine and drank it thirstily, as though to
get the taste of something out of his mouth. "Persons above a certain
culture level, possessing sufficient I.Q. or influence to be dangerous,
are to be permanently silenced if they discover too much about us. Too
big an investment, you understand, in Vardda lives as well as money,
to be risked--and there are historical reasons for this precaution.
But we're extremely careful, and the situation simply hasn't come up
before, at least in my time." He sat down, sighing. "And of course,
with you there's the added question. Are you or are you not a Vardda?
I thought we might appoint you an honorary one, so to speak, and let
you work for us here, but that was too big a transgression for Kerrel
to swallow." Edri glanced at the tall man--entirely without love,
Trehearne thought. "He's an agent of the Council, which means the long
arm of the law. So I guess it's settled, Trehearne."

Trehearne's mouth was dry, and the words didn't want to come out of it,
but there was a dangerous light in his eyes. "_What_ is settled?"

Shairn came before him, her face uplifted, smiling, sweet. "You're
coming with us, Michael. That's what you wanted. Aren't you happy?"

"Coming with you--_where_?"

"To Llyrdis."

He did not like her smile. He did not like the wisdom in it, the
mockery, the knowledge of things beyond his ken. She bore him malice,
and somehow she had got her revenge, and he didn't understand how.
All the little details joined together in his mind, the language,
the dress, the physical appearance, the taste of a purple wine that
came from no familiar vineyard, and they pressed down on him like an
avalanche, crowned with the echo of an unknown name, and he was cold
deep inside himself, cold with a dread that even yet had no clear shape
to it.

He repeated, "Llyrdis?"

"Oh, Christ, don't torture the man," said Edri wearily to Shairn. Then
he looked at Trehearne and said, "Llyrdis is our home world, the fourth
planet of the star you call Aldebaran."

That was all he said. No one else spoke, there was not a sound inside
the ancient room of stone, and even outside all noise had ceased, and
the word _Aldebaran_ tolled in that silence like a far-off bell. A
curious weakness came over Trehearne. Shairn's face grew misty and
indistinct. The solid ground, the Earth on which he stood, slipped out
from under him and vast yawning windows opened on all sides, windows
into space, into darkness and wild light....

He said to Edri, quite reasonably, "But that isn't possible."

Somebody put a wine-cup in a hand that didn't belong to him any more,
and Edri's voice spoke to him from miles away. "But it is. Drink up,
Trehearne. Sovereign remedy for practically everything. Take in the
idea slowly, with the wine. We come from another world, another sun. It
seems incredible to you. To us, it's only a familiar fact."

Trehearne sat down. The wine burned in his throat, and his head spun
round. Everything had turned unreal. "Another world, another sun."
He stared down at himself, turning his hands over and back again and
staring at them as though he had never seen them before. "My own blood.
That's why...." He shook his head, stumbling over his own words, and
then he shivered, a muscular reaction that shook him right down to his
heels. He repeated carefully, "I am going with you."

"Very soon now," said Edri, in such a sombre tone that Trehearne was
startled partly out of his daze, enough to see that Edri looked at him
with pity, as one looks at a man about to die. A new alarm took hold of
Trehearne, and he cried out,

"What's the matter? What are you hiding from me?"

"An ordeal." Once more Shairn stood before him, and her eyes were
searching into him, and she had ceased to smile. "You've been given
what you wanted, a chance to learn the truth about yourself."

He rose and put his hands on her as he had once before, and not in
tenderness. "Go on."

Her red mouth parted a little to show him the edges of her teeth. "Only
a true Vardda can endure the velocities of starflight. Are you afraid,
Michael?"

"Yes," he said. "I am." He stood for a long moment, with the blood
pounding in his temples and everything, herself, the world, all the
years of his own life that had gone before, lost and vague beyond a
blinding mist, and then he said slowly, "But you're right, I've got
what I wanted."

Outside the keep a man's voice shouted. Someone said, "The ship!" More
voices shouted, and the door was flung open. Something dark and cruel
came into Trehearne's face. He looked at Shairn and said. "I'll live
to thank you." He let her go. People were moving toward the door. He
moved with them, as in a dream, but knowing that he would not wake. He
lost track of individuals. There were only shadows around him, sounds,
motion, without meaning. The walls were gone, and the light. Wet, cold,
dark, the outside, the moor, the wind and the naked sky. It had stopped
raining. There was a wide rift in the clouds, a valley of stars, and in
the valley was a presence, solemn, silent, huge and strange. He watched
it, and it settled down, gently as a drift of the night itself, and it
sang as it came, a quiet humming that filled all the space between the
horizons with a quivering echo more felt than heard. Power. Immensity,
and strength. Trehearne drew in a deep unsteady breath. His heartbeats
rocked him as he stood. Instinctively his hands moved, a flier's hands,
remembering the might of pistons and of jets, groping toward a greater
thing. He was not conscious of the motion. He was cold, and the wind
flowed through his bones. The great dim bulk dropped down and lay quiet
on the moor. Its hull was scored and pitted by the atmospheres of
unnamed worlds. Its ports had looked upon infinities where the stars
were swallowed up like clouds of fireflies. Trehearne began to walk
toward it. If there were others with him, he did not know it. His eyes
were on the ship.

A lock-door opened high in the looming flank. White light blazed from
it. A folding metal stair came down, and then people descended it and
mingled with those that were on the ground. A larger hatch clanged
open, lower down. More light blazed out. Machinery began to clatter,
and men went back and forth and shouted. The things that were made
ready in the sheds began their transfer to the ship. Trehearne reached
the foot of the ladder.

He looked up. The vast alien bulk of the ship was above him. It hung
over him like the end of the world. It had come out from the darkness
between the stars, and it would return there, and he was going with
it. There were voices all around him, and some of them were speaking
to him, but he did not hear them. He saw no faces. He saw nothing but
the curved immensity of the hull that had made such voyages. There were
tears in his eyes. They were not of fear, nor of self-pity. They were
of exaltation. Men had done this thing. Men had reached out and taken
the stars in their hands. They were not men of Earth, but they were of
his own race. And they had done it.

He began to climb the ladder, and the treads rang hollow beneath his
feet.

High. High up in the cold wind, with the smell of the wet moor heavy on
it. A round lock chamber opened before him. He stepped into it, on a
metal deck worn bright by the passing of many feet. Others came behind
him and pressed him on, down a long transverse corridor faced in metal.
The scars of time and hard use were on it. Now and again through a
bulkhead door he glimpsed a cabin or an orderly room. They were real.
Men lived and worked in them. Someone--Edri--made him turn aside and
into a lounge with deep chairs bolted to the deck. "Sit down," said
Edri, and he sat obediently. And Edri said, "You have a chance, but
you'll have to fight for it. The first time is hard even for...." He
stopped, and Trehearne finished for him.

"Even for a true Vardda."

"Even," said Edri gently, "for a Vardda. Trehearne, we're alone in
the galaxy. Generations ago our race was founded by a man named
Orthis, whose system of controlled mutation made us what we are, the
Vardda--the Starmen. It's a difference, a condition of the flesh. With
us there is no doubt. With you--your blood is mixed. But you're a
throwback in every other way. The mutation may have bred true, also."

His voice carried hope, but no conviction. Trehearne frowned, trying
to grasp the sense of what he said. It was hard to think, hard to
believe with his mind, in spite of what his senses told him. Things
had happened too fast. Too fast, and too big. He caught a glimpse of
Shairn's face. It was white, and he realized that all at once she was
beginning to be afraid.

"Fight," said Edri. "That's the thing to remember."

All through the ship, the bells rang sharply.

Trehearne took hold of the arms of the chair in which he sat. For a
brief moment of panic he wanted to get up and run, but he could hear
the sonorous clang of the lock-doors closing and he knew it was no use.
Everyone was seated now. The bells rang again. He braced himself, and
fixed his gaze on Shairn.

Swift, smooth and awesome as the hand of God, acceleration pressed
down upon him. Muttering an all but silent thunder, the ship rushed
upward into the sky, and for the first time in history, Earth-born ears
listened to the banshee scream of atmosphere past a cleaving hull.



                                 FIVE


The wailing shriek rose to a crescendo, and then it died. Earth was
gone. They had stepped away from it. Even its sky was behind them. A
weight like to the weight of mountains lay on Trehearne, and he was
horribly afraid.

He waited for the pressure to ease. His temples were bursting, it was
an agony to breathe, and he thought, It can't go on like this, it's got
to let up! But it did not. There was a change in the pitch of the motor
vibration. He listened to it climb, higher and higher, until it slipped
over the threshhold of hearing, and as it climbed, the pressure grew.
The bones of his chest crushed in upon his lungs. Everything around him
began to waver and grow vague, to recede slowly into a reddish twilight.

And still the pressure grew.

Something was happening to him. Something unearthly and strange. He was
a flier, a test-pilot. He had known pressure before. He had taken all
the gravs a power-diving plane could bear and he had never come near
blacking out. But this was different. He felt it in the fibres, the
very atoms of his being. This was velocity beside which the velocities
of the fastest jets was as nothing. This was the speed of interstellar
flight. And he could feel it tearing at the separate cells of his
flesh, riving them apart, rending the tissues of physical existence. _A
difference, a condition of the flesh. With us there is no doubt, but
you...._

Anguish became terror, terror turned into blind panic. His body was
shredding apart, dissolving toward a tattered ruin, a heap of bloody
rags. This body he had been so proud of, this star-born self that was
only a mockery, a sham. The mutation hadn't bred true. He was going to
die, to cease utterly from being. He was....

Far, far away, a voice, Shairn's voice, crying, "I've killed him. Poor
Michael, I didn't mean for him to die!"

Poor Michael. A mongrel, a walking deceit. Proud Michael, who thought
he was so damned good, and wasn't anything. Idiot Michael, who had run
after a witch. And she hadn't meant for him to die. She hadn't really
been that angry because he had treated her like an equal--not nicely,
perhaps, but like an equal, which he wasn't. That was kind of her, not
really to want him killed. He began to be able to see her face again.
He wasn't sure whether it was true sight, or only the memory of how
she had looked before he began to die. But he could see her, pale,
distorted. He was glad he could see her. She was sitting in front of
him, and she wasn't far away. Somehow, pressure or no pressure, he was
going to get to her. He was going to put his hands around her white
throat, and then they could forget about starflight together, and it
wouldn't matter that he was a mongrel and she was not. He began to
fight against the pressure.

He wanted so little. Only to get up, to move the short distance
and lock his fingers at the back of her neck, with his two thumbs
lying over the great pulses. So little. He was filled with a raging
determination to have it. He fought. He had nothing to fight with but
will-power and the instinctive desire of the organism to claw onto life
as long as there was a flicker of it left. He wanted to get up, and
he fought, an inner struggle without sound or motion, a blind battle
to regain control of his own flesh. His face contorted, like the face
of a man who lifts something far too heavy, and the sweat ran on it.
Slowly, slowly, his hands moved on the chair arms, contracted, became
fists. The muscles of his arms tightened, and then the great muscles of
the chest and belly, and they labored, and the breath came painfully
into his lungs--came, and went, and came again, and his flagging heart
stumbled, steadied, and began to beat more evenly. The red mist that
wrapped him cleared away a bit and he could see Shairn more distinctly.
She was staring at him. Her mouth and eyes were wide open, ludicrous,
startled. Then Edri's head came between them and blotted her out, and
he was shouting, but the blood was pounding so loud in Trehearne's
ears that he could not hear what he said. He raised a hand and tried
to thrust Edri away. He did not want to lose sight of Shairn. There
was a tremendous exaltation on him. He was winning. He was going to
get up and do the thing he wanted to do. The sinews coiled and tensed
along his thighs. The pressure didn't hurt so much, and the terrible
vibrations of speed were not tearing at him quite so hard. He leaned
forward a little, breathing in deep harsh gasps, and his body strained
and tightened....

"_He's going to live, he's made it. Michael...._"

Shairn's voice, thin and shrill through the tumult in his ears. For
a moment the meaning didn't penetrate. Then slowly it dawned on him
what she had said. And then, more slowly still, he realized that
it was true. He could feel the life flowing back into him. He was
getting the hang of it now, a simple matter of tensing the muscles in
a certain way, and the agony of the vibration lessened, the atoms of
his body stopped their ghastly dissolution. It was only a matter of
strength--not the kind that can move great weights, but a more subtle
kind, a tensile strength that knit the fabric of the flesh together and
made it impervious as steel. In an infantile way he had been using it
for years without knowing it, in his testing of fast planes. That was
why he had never blacked out, why he had never been tortured as other
men were by the spectre of inertia waiting for them at the end of a
dive. Now he had found at last the purpose his body was made for. He
forgot about Shairn. She didn't matter any more. He had won, he was
alive, he was going to live, and he was not a sham nor a mockery, he
was not even a mongrel. The mutation had bred true. His vision was
clearing fast. He raised his head and looked around, and they were all
staring at him, the Vardda, the Starmen, who had been so sure he was
going to die. They were talking back and forth in excited voices, they
were getting up and coming toward him, and Edri was pounding him on the
shoulder. He thrust them all away and stood up.

"I'm one of you now," he said. "I passed your test." He was suddenly
exhausted and shaken, but he would not show it. He stood erect and
faced them.

Shairn took him in her arms and kissed him. Trehearne said, "You're
glad I didn't die."

"Yes. Oh, yes!"

"You would have felt just a little guilty, wouldn't you?" He held her
off and looked at her. She was very beautiful. Her throat was warm and
white. He studied it, thinking what he had wanted to do only a short
few minutes ago, and then he shook his head. He said slowly, "I owe you
something, Shairn. I won't forget it."

She did not like his tone, and her brows drew into a dark line. She
turned away, and over her shoulder Trehearne saw Kerrel looking at him
in such an intent, strange way that he challenged it. "You don't look
very happy, Kerrel. Does my survival upset you?"

Kerrel shook his head. "I don't enjoy condemning a man, particularly
when I have nothing against him. But it brings up other problems. You
have no conception of them now, Trehearne, but the thing you have just
done brings you automatically into conflict with the most basic tenet
of Vardda law, and how the Council will decide the question I don't
know." He shifted his gaze to Edri and said in a curiously soft tone,
"It could have the most dangerous consequences."

If it was bait, Edri refused to take it. He laughed and said,
"This is no time to worry about consequences. I'm going to find
Trehearne a cabin and me a bottle, and put the two together for a
small celebration. A man doesn't become a Vardda every day." He took
Trehearne's elbow and started him toward the door. "Come on."

Trehearne's new-found strength had not deserted him--it was,
apparently, automatic when it was once started, like the
heart-beat--but the ordinary kind was running out of him like water
from a sieve. He made it out into the passageway without staggering,
but a few steps farther on he clung to the bolt-heads in the wall and
said unhappily, "I think I'm going to fall over."

"Reaction," said Edri. "Don't let it bother you. We all get it, first
time out. Here, hang on."

The passage seemed a mile long, but eventually there was a cabin,
small, compact, and functional, and there was a bunk, and Trehearne
sat down on it. Edri went away somewhere, and came back again after a
minute with a bottle. The stuff, whatever it was, went down like white
fire, and Trehearne felt better. He set the cup aside and then began to
look at his hands, turning them over as though he had never seen them
before.

"They seem like everybody else's," he said.

"They're not. You're not. As Kerrel told you, you have no idea yet of
what you've done, but as time goes by you will."

"It's quite true, then--about the mutation?"

"Oh, yes, quite. The form and structure of your body cells, and
mine, are different from other people's. Due to that altered form
and structure, your tissues, and mine, possess a tensile strength in
their cell-walls that can withstand incredible acceleration pressure
without collapse. And I hope you never know how lucky you were that
the mutation was a recessive that finally bred true in you." He filled
the glasses again, slowly, withdrawn for a moment into some brooding
thought of his own. Then he added sombrely, "Some day I'll tell you
the story of Orthis, who found the secret of the mutation. And a grand
proud story it is, but with a shameful ending. He.... No. Forget it.
The less you know about that, the better. Besides, we're celebrating.
Drink up."

Trehearne drank. His head was swimming, and he felt hollow inside. The
glass was heavy in his hands. He said, "There'll be trouble when I get
to--to Llyrdis?"

"Sufficient unto the day, Trehearne. Worry about that when you come to
it."

But he had already ceased to worry. Llyrdis. He said the name again,
and it felt strange on his tongue. Llyrdis. A name and a world he had
never heard of until a few short hours ago, and now.... The hollow
spaces inside him were filled suddenly with homesickness, with a
longing, with something akin to horror. He stared at the iron walls
that closed him in, and he knew where he was, in an impossible ship
with alien people, flying faster than light across nothingness to an
alien star.... His stomach contracted, sending up a bitter fluid to
burn his throat, and his hands were cold as a dead man's. Earth was
gone. His Earth, sky, mountains, sunrise, city streets, country roads,
the faces and voices of people, the men he had worked with, the women
he had had or wanted to have, all the familiar things--the currency,
the bars, the names of nations, books, pictures, shirtmakers,
history--what was the use now of all the history he had learned, where
did Caesar rank among the stars? Earth was gone, and even the sun had
gone with it, and it was in a way as though he had died--and how do
you start life again afterward, a stranger? There was this cabin, and
outside its walls there was no world, no sunlight, nothing. Nothing.

_Nothing...._

Edri led him swiftly to a tiny adjoining cubicle and left him alone
with his misery while he used the intercom by the cabin door. Presently
the ship's doctor joined him. They got Trehearne back into the bunk,
and a needle glittered briefly in the light, sending him to a place
where there were not even any dreams.

On Number Four screen in the ship's control room, the pinpoint fleck
that represented an isolated yellow sun flickered, faded, and went out.



                                  SIX


Trehearne looked up from the bunk and asked, "How long have I slept?"

"Nearly twenty-four hours by Earth reckoning," Edri answered. "You
needed it." He leaned over and offered Trehearne a prosaic pack of
American cigarettes. "Smoke?"

Trehearne took one and sat up. He smoked for some time in silence,
remembering. Finally he said, "It all happened, didn't it?"

Edri nodded.

"I know it must have, but I don't believe it." Trehearne shook his
head. "Of all the incredible.... What were you doing there, Edri? How
can you come and go on Earth without anyone knowing? What are the
Vardda, besides--well, mutants?"

"Traders. Merchants. The most commercial race in the galaxy." Edri
lifted the cover off a tray on a small table by the bunk. "I brought
your breakfast. Go ahead and eat while I gabble. How we come and
go is fairly simple. We land at odd intervals, here and there in
the waste spaces of which Earth has a number. We do our business,
and after a while are picked up again. As I told you before, we're
exceedingly careful, and the fact that hardly anyone on Earth would
believe the truth if they were told it is a protection. Of course,
trading in secret that way, we're limited in what we can take, and
Earth exports--the genuine articles and not mere copies--command very
high prices. You'd be amazed at the value of French perfumes, Scotch
whiskey, and American films on planets you never heard of."

"Do you trade with them all in secret?"

"Good Lord, no! Most worlds, even the very primitive ones, we can deal
with quite openly. They might not like us, but they benefit enormously
from our commerce."

"Then why not Earth?"

"Well," said Edri, "I don't like to offend your sensibilities as a
native of the place, but Earth is a crazy planet. Oh, it's not the
only one. There's a number of them scattered about, and we avoid open
contact with all of them. You see, Trehearne, most worlds develop,
or remain undeveloped, more or less homogeneously in the matter of
civilization. I don't mean they're entirely peaceful, because they're
not, but in the long run their populations are more predictable, more
stable than on the Earth-type worlds that have grown up all out of
joint. You know what I mean--on one side of the world atomic power,
on the other the wooden plough and the blowgun. Too big a gap, and
it makes trouble all down the line. Now, a primitive society regards
war as a sport and takes an honest pleasure in it. A society in a
high state of culture regards it as something outgrown and obsolete
as hunting game for food. Everybody knows where they are. But when
you get a world with great big overlapping mobs of population, every
one of them in a different stage of cultural development and every
one of them subject to a constant bombardment of outside stimuli
they can't assimilate, you have got a mixture that keeps exploding
in all directions. We have a healthy desire not to get blown up, and
besides, it's impossible to establish any profitable trade with a world
continually torn by wars. So--does that answer your question?"

"I take it," Trehearne said sourly, "that the Vardda don't think much
of Earth."

"It's a good world. It'll settle down some day. Nobody can fight
forever. They either knock themselves back into barbarism again, or
they grow up."

Trehearne put down the fork on the empty plate, and looked at Edri,
rather angrily. "Don't the Vardda ever fight?" he demanded. "I gather
there's a vast commercial empire. There must be trade wars, battles
over markets and rights. No empire was ever built without them."

"No other empire was ever built," said Edri quietly, "without any
competition. I think you still don't quite understand. We have an
absolute, complete, and unbreakable monopoly on interstellar flight.
Only the Vardda ships go between the stars, and only the Vardda men can
fly them. You know the reason, you proved it in yourself. We don't have
to fight."

Trehearne let go a long, low whistle. "And we thought we had monopolies
on Earth! But I don't see why, if you could mutate, others couldn't do
it, too. How do you hold them down?"

"We don't hold anybody down. We don't rule, influence, or interfere
with any world but our own. We learned long ago that it was bad
business. As to the mutation, it's impossible. The secret of the
process was lost with Orthis, some thousand years ago." He rose
abruptly from the chair where he had been sitting, and pointed to some
garments in the locker. "I think those will fit you. Get dressed, and
I'll show you around."

Trehearne looked doubtfully at the clothes, a tunic of dark green silk,
dark trousers, a modestly jewelled belt, and sandals. Edri grinned.

"You'll get used to them. And you won't feel half as peculiar as you
would look going about in those ridiculous tweeds."

Trehearne shrugged, and put them on. He had to admit they were
comfortable. There was a mirror set inside the locker door, and he
studied himself in it. He was startled to see how changed he was in the
Vardda dress. The last vestige of Earth was gone.

Still looking into the mirror, he said, "Edri...."

"Yes?"

"I am a Vardda now. I've proved it. What can they do to me, on Llyrdis?"

"I wish I could tell you. Actually, you are a true Vardda, a complete
atavism. But legally--that's another thing. That basic tenet of Vardda
law that Kerrel referred to is a prohibition against admitting into
our race non-Vardda strains of any kind. Keeping the Vardda blood pure
isn't just pride, it's an economic necessity, and the one unbreakable
tabu. The solution of that puzzle will be up to the Council, and my
advice is to forget it until then. Come on, and I'll give you something
else to think about."

Trehearne was glad enough to go. The lost, sick, nightmarish feeling
was creeping back on him again, and he was glad of any diversion. They
went out into the corridor, and he followed Edri forward. He became
aware of a deep inner vibration of power that filled the ship, a sort
of humming drone that seemed to challenge the whole universe to make it
stop. It sang in his ears, in his blood and his quivering nerve-ends,
and the excitement he had felt when he first saw the ship returned to
him full force. This was the ultimate. All his life he had been playing
with children's toys, but here, under his feet and all around him, was
the highest dream of men.

"What's the motive power? What's the principle? And how can you go
faster than light? The limiting speed, contraction, mass...."

Edri laughed. "One at a time, please. And such simple little
questions, too! It took centuries to evolve a technology capable of
answering them, and you want me to explain it all in a few words.
Well, a few words is all I know about it. I'm a drinker by profession,
not a scientist. Anyway, a really functional ship, whether it plies
water, air, or space, must get its motive power by reacting against
the element it travels in. And so, right now, the big atomic-powered
generators in the stern are producing fifth-order rays which react
against the fabric of space itself. And space, not wishing to be torn
apart, obligingly thrusts us onward. Very simple, I believe, once you
know the trick."

Trehearne grunted.

"As to limiting speeds," said Edri, "the Vardda scientists used to
believe in them too--until they got to playing around with cosmotrons.
One day a particle they were experimenting with upset them horribly
by going much faster than light, and that's how they discovered the
fifth-order rays. They found out, as your scientists will find, that
the theoretical absolutes you set up from limited knowledge will prove
illusory when your knowledge expands. I could explain all that to you
if I knew continuum-mechanics better than I do!"

"I couldn't understand it anyway," said Trehearne, "so it's just as
well."

They had reached the forward end of the corridor. There was a narrow
circular stairway leading up. Edri stood back and motioned Trehearne
to climb it. He did, fighting down another attack of the shakes on the
way--you couldn't take it all in, you couldn't get used to it all at
once, the strangeness, the utter separation from everything that had
been, the headlong plunge into alien horizons, for a long time you were
going to get panicky when you thought about it. He emerged into a round
observation dome of immensely heavy quartz. He didn't know what he had
expected to see, but he was disappointed. There was nothing to be seen
at all but darkness, streaked with creeping lines of light.

"Those are stars," said Edri, who had come up behind him. "Or rather,
the radiation patterns of stars. At our present velocity we're
overtaking the lines of luminous energy they have left behind them.
Star-tracks, we call them."

He closed a switch, and the thick quartzite became suffused with a
pallid, milky glow. Edri consulted a master dial, and made adjustments.

"Watch the dome," he said. "It's triple thickness, of a special
molecular composition, each plane laid at a different oblique angle.
I've switched high-frequency electronic current into hair-line grids
between the three planes and all sorts of interesting and complicated
things are happening in the molecular structure of the quartzite."

Trehearne watched. His heart was beating hard.

"Behold," said Edri, "the light-impulses of the star-tracks are caught,
stepped up, wrenched about, and finally held on the inner lens."

Trehearne beheld, and beholding, he forgot Edri and the ship and
himself. He forgot Earth, the past, and the future. He forgot almost to
breathe.

Edri's voice came to him softly. "You may see this often, Trehearne,
but never again for the first time."

Trehearne barely heard him. The ship had fallen away beneath him,
leaving him suspended in the plunging gulfs that lie between the island
stars, and he looked awestruck into the dark and splendid loneliness of
space.

Through the magic of that quartzite dome he saw the great suns march in
flame and thunder on their way around the ouroboros curve of infinity.
Some were solitary hunters, others were joined together in companies
of stars. He saw their cosmic pageant of life and death, the young suns
blazing with a blue-white strength, the golden suns, the old red suns,
the dead suns black with funeral ash. He saw the far-off galaxies, the
coiling fires of the nebulae, the wonderful terrifying nations of the
Milky Way streaming along the rim of creation. And as he looked the
last of thought and feeling went from him and he was like a child still
dazed from birthing.

Some of the stars, perhaps, he recognized--Algol beating like a bloody
heart, the splintered glory of Sirius. Orion strode gigantic across the
gulfs, girded with suns, and dead ahead, tipping the far-flung Hyades,
Aldebaran burned in sullen splendor.

Aldebaran. Another sun. Other worlds, other peoples, other ways of
life. He was going there, a stranger.

A deep tremor shook him. Time went by, but he took no notice of it. He
was a man lost, sunk and drowned in infinity. Edri watched him, with a
certain sadness. After a while he pulled the switch again, and the dome
went blank, showing only the flat darkness and the crawling streaks of
light. Trehearne sighed, but he did not move. Edri smiled, and shook
him. Trehearne turned slowly, and when Edri led the way back down the
stair he followed, but without knowing where he was going or why.

The passageway was empty. Edri stopped and waited until Trehearne's
eyes focussed on him with some semblance of understanding.

"I'm going," he said, "to break a life-long habit and say something
important. Are you listening?"

Trehearne nodded.

"You'll be spending a lot of time with the others, which will
inevitably mean with Shairn. Keep away from her, Trehearne. No matter
whether you love her or hate her, stay away."

Trehearne smiled. His head was ringing with stars, his vision was
dazzled by the blaze of nebulae.

"Shairn doesn't look to me like much of a permanent deal for anybody."

"That's the trouble. Kerrel talked her into this flying jaunt around
with him to break up the games she was playing with somebody else on
Llyrdis. He's put up with an awful lot from her, and he's not the type
at all--which makes people wonder."

"What?"

"Well, Kerrel's an agent of the Council, highly respected, got a lot
of influence and so on, but we Vardda count our wealth in ships, and
Kerrel's poor. Shairn inherited thirty, the fourth largest fleet in
space. In other words, he's got more than Shairn to lose."

"He can keep her," Trehearne said. "And her ships."

"You don't know the lady. I do. And I can tell you that staying away
from her is no easy job when she doesn't want to be stayed away from."

"Oh, the heck with her," said Trehearne impatiently. It was a long way
down from the stars to petty gossip, and it annoyed him. "I don't see
what it's got to do with me, anyway."

"I told you, I know the lady. And I know Kerrel. He's your enemy
already--"

Trehearne was amazed. "Why?"

"Because it's his duty to be. Because the whole structure of the Vardda
society, which he is sworn to protect, is based on a few ironclad
rules, and you're liable to break every one of them. Oh, it isn't just
you. There are larger issues involved--I'll explain them, but that'll
take time--and you're sort of automatically mixed up with them. Kerrel
is a just man as he sees it, but his justice is not tempered with
mercy. I've seen him in action too often, Trehearne. You'll have
trouble enough. Don't give him a personal motive, too."

Edri's manner was so serious that Trehearne began to feel uneasy. A
great blank wall rose up before him, behind which lay the life and
complexities, the politics and philosophies and contentions of the
Vardda state, and he couldn't see through it or over it. He said, "I've
got an awful lot to learn. It scares me, how much. You and Kerrel don't
exactly love each other, do you?"

Edri shrugged. "He suspects me of harboring ideas not in agreement with
his own. On Llyrdis as it is on Earth, Trehearne, beware of a man with
a belief." Suddenly he laughed. "Well, that's enough of that. As you
just remarked, you have a lot to learn. We might as well get started."

Trehearne followed him obediently, to begin his re-education as a
Vardda.



                                 SEVEN


It was amazing how quickly Earth, with all its habits and memories,
slipped away from Trehearne. The pangs and wrenchings of homesickness
still came to him now and then, mostly when he lay alone in his bunk,
just before sleep. But they were less and less violent. He began
to have for his native world the nostalgic affection one has for a
foster-parent far less than perfect, but all the same a part of one's
life--a part done with now, but with its bright and kindly interludes
to look back upon. He was not sorry that he had left it. By a freak of
genetics he had been born an alien, and he had never fitted there. Now,
rapidly and easily, he was finding himself.

At first there were periods when he felt that he was dreaming, that the
ship and all within it would disappear and he would waken. But as his
mind readjusted itself, shaking free from the narrow horizons where it
had been prisoned, ancestral pride and ancestral longing began to stir.
And with that stirring came an insatiable hunger for knowledge.

Edri was his chief teacher. For some reason, the ugly man with the
unhappy eyes and unfailing cheerfulness of speech had taken a liking
to him, and Trehearne was glad of it. He needed friends. But there
were others, too. Men and women, mostly young, healthy and full of
themselves, loving the life they lived and enjoying to the hilt his own
wide-eyed reactions to it. For a while they regarded him very much as
he would have regarded an animal that had suddenly learned to talk and
do sums, but they got used to him, and there was never any malice in
their conduct. He liked them. They were his kind of people. They _were_
his people.

Kerrel remained civil, but aloof. Shairn spoke to him when she felt
like it, as casually as though they had known each other all their
lives and nothing of interest had ever happened between them. But
sometimes he thought she looked at him in a way that was not casual at
all, and he could not tell what she was thinking. He played along. It
was hard, when he got to remembering things. But he did it. And he had
enough to do to keep his mind off women. There weren't hours enough in
the ship's day to supply him.

He learned the Vardda tongue. He learned the rudiments of Vardda
history and the outlines of their social structure. But most of all,
with an inborn sureness, he learned the Vardda mind, the Vardda point
of view, and his own character expanded, having found a meaning for
itself. He was a Vardda, and they were the Starmen--Galactic Man, as
Edri had put it once, a unique species, specialized and fitted for the
most splendid work of all, the conquest of the stars.

The power, the magnificence of that voyaging! No wonder the little
ships and little skies of Earth had seemed so futile. This was his
heritage, the freedom of the stars, the long, long roads of outer
space, the swift ships plying between the island continents of suns,
the windless, timeless, boundless gulf that washed the shores of a
galaxy.

He haunted the ship's bridge, studying the intricate controls and
cracking his brain over the staggering complexities of astrogation.
In the generator rooms he learned by heart the pulse of the ship,
listening to the silence of free flight after acceleration was
complete. He deviled the engineers, the pilots, the technicians, with
questions, understanding less than half of what they told him but
always avid for more. He learned much, and yet it was nothing, and he
was mad for learning, mad to hold under his own hands one of these
proud giants of the starways.

The Vardda understood him. His hunger was their own, but they had not
been barred from satisfaction. They accepted him. They loved to talk,
and Trehearne had no lack of language teachers. His head spun to the
tales they told him, of travels around the galaxy, of foreign worlds
and happenings in far-off clusters of suns, of dead stars wheeling
forever dark through darkness with their frozen worlds, of the sudden
dreadful flaring of the novae, of what happens when a ship collides
with a rogue star at many times the speed of light.

Trehearne was happy. He was living again as a child lives, in a world
of wonders, where everything was new and bright and as yet untarnished.
But one dark cloud hung over him--the threat of Vardda law and the
Council. They might still take away from him all he had found. That
threat got bigger and blacker the closer he came to the end of the
voyage, and by the time the ship actually went into deceleration it had
grown until it blotted out the whole horizon.

He had learned more now. He understood how the whole vast structure
of Vardda economy rested on the unassailable position of the Starmen
themselves and their unique ability to endure interstellar velocities.
In this case, the blood, the race, was everything. There could not be
any compromises, there could not be any challenges of that superiority.
And here was he, Earth-born of Earth stock, with only a set of bastard
genes to link him with the Vardda, a compromise and a challenge in
himself.

"But damn it," he said furiously to Edri, "they can't refuse me now!
And why, when you come right down to it, would one Vardda more or less
make that much difference? The mutation process has been lost anyway,
I certainly can't infect anybody else with it, and I don't see what
they're afraid of."

Edri gave him a sombre look. "Listen, Trehearne, I haven't helped
myself any by being friendly to you, as it is, and I'm not going to
make matters worse for both of us by talking treason into the bargain.
If you want the full, official answer to that question, go ask Kerrel."

"I will."

He found Kerrel in the lounge, engaged with Shairn and several other
people in the complicated game that seemed to serve the Vardda in the
place of bridge. Inside a gigantic crystal globe were suspended a
number of little solar systems. Activated by magnetic currents, the
tiny suns wheeled along and their planets spun in orbits around them,
and it was a dizzying thing to look at. Within this microcosm were a
dozen or so tiny ships, operated by the players by remote control, and
for hazards there were miniature nebulae, dark clouds, and tiny comets.
The object was to move the ships about without losing any, one team
racing the opposing team's fleet to a selected destination. Trehearne
had played a few times, but with no success whatever.

"I want to talk to you," he said, and Kerrel motioned him to wait. Very
rapidly and skillfully he pressed a series of buttons on the control
board in front of him. Inside the globe a ship depressed its arc,
allowing a sparkling comet to pass safely above it, skirted the edge of
a dark nebula, shifted course thirty-five degrees and made a perfect
landing on a flying worldlet no larger than a pebble. At the top of
Kerrel's panel a signal light glowed green.

Beside him Shairn lost two ships in collision and got two red lights
for her pains, the "wrecks" being automatically retired out of play.
Shairn wasn't watching the globe. She was watching Trehearne, and her
eyes were very bright.

Kerrel turned over his place to another man and stood up. "The
library's quiet," he said. "We can talk there." He went away with
Trehearne. Behind them, Shairn gave up her board and followed.

The ship's library was small, with microbooks racked on the walls. They
were mostly technical books, and Trehearne hadn't been able to get much
out of them. He had struggled with a few on the theory and practical
operation of starships, but it was a hopeless job and he hadn't pursued
it. His vocabulary was still limited, and even if it hadn't been the
technology involved was miles over his head.

Now he faced Kerrel and said, "I asked Edri a question, and he referred
me to you. So I'll ask it again. Why would the Vardda Council be afraid
to accept me?"

Kerrel put his hands on the back of a chair and thought a minute. "You
understand the Vardda position among all the other races of the galaxy."

"Yes. And I don't see how I could possibly alter it."

"Then your understanding isn't complete. There are many worlds in
space, Trehearne. Countless millions of people live on them. Do you
know how they feel about us?"

"I hadn't thought."

"They hate us. They envy us. It's natural enough. They're prisoned in
their own solar systems, forced to watch strangers carry on all their
commerce with other stars. But natural or not, it's a factor we have to
reckon with."

Trehearne said impatiently, "What can they do about it? They can't
mutate, and they can't even try to force you to share the process with
them. The thing was lost a thousand years ago. You're safe."

"There are still Orthists."

"Who are they?"

Kerrel looked mildly surprised. "I thought Edri would have told you.
No? But you have, of course, heard of Orthis, the discoverer of
the mutational process. He was a great man, Trehearne. A brilliant
man, a genius, the founder of our race. But he was not a practical
man. He lived alone too much in space, worked alone too long in his
laboratory ship. He didn't know human beings, he didn't understand the
hard grimy necessities of life, the law of self-preservation. He wanted
to give the mutation--and the freedom of the stars--to everyone."

He paused, as though he were waiting for Trehearne to speak. But
Trehearne, though he was thinking hard, kept his mouth shut.

"Orthis," Kerrel said, "was not able to see what, fortunately, others
did see--that giving the mutation to all the races of the galaxy would
mean wars and conflicts of such staggering dimensions that whole
solar systems, including ours, might very well be destroyed. He clung
stubbornly to his views and eventually fled from Llyrdis in defiance
of the government, determined to have his own way. He was pursued, of
course, and driven away from his objective, so that his attempt failed,
but he was never captured. He vanished far out on the rim of the
galaxy, and the process went with him. And that's where the trouble is,
Trehearne. Some time later Orthis sent back a certain message, which
gave his adherents hope that his ship had not been destroyed, that it
was, in fact, waiting somewhere to be found again, and the process with
it. Now, after a thousand years, they still hope."

Trehearne shook his head. "I certainly can't tell them where the ship
is. So how does it affect me?"

"Don't you see how you could be used? An alien, a mongrel, but able to
fly the stars--the effect on the Orthist movement would be tremendous,
and not only on Llyrdis. People all over the galaxy, wanting what
we have, would take you up as a symbol of what they consider their
emancipation. I have a lively imagination, but it balks at trying to
conceive all the trouble that could breed out of that situation."

A cold sensation was creeping over Trehearne, centering in the pit of
his stomach. What Kerrel said made sense. He hated to admit it, but it
made sense. He said harshly, "All right, but there must be a way around
it. Around me, I mean. I take it that the Vardda Council is made up of
politicians, and a politician can get around anything he wants to."

"They can," said Shairn from the doorway. "Particularly when the right
people convince them they should."

Both men swung around, surprised. She strolled in, smiling at them
impartially. Trehearne made nothing out of it but a smile, but Kerrel's
face went suddenly hard.

"I don't know," she said to Trehearne, "whether anyone has mentioned
it, but I'm quite an influential person on Llyrdis."

Kerrel said, "Would you mind very much leaving us alone?"

"Yes. You see, Kerrel, I feel rather possessive about him. It's my
fault in a way he's here, and I'm going to look out for him, whether he
likes it or not."

"That's fine," Trehearne said. "That puts me right in the middle."

"You're there anyway. Isn't he, Kerrel?"

"Shairn, I don't wish to quarrel with you here--"

"I'm not going to quarrel. I'm only stating a fact. Michael has
developed into a very proper Vardda, and I don't intend to have him
tucked away on Thuvis until he's done something to warrant it."

Kerrel said, as though it were a statement and not a question, "You're
going to make an issue of this."

"I'm going to fight you for him. You need to be fought with, Kerrel.
You're getting too sure of practically everything."

He moved until he stood in front of her. Trehearne had never seen
anyone so angry, and so thoroughly under control. In that moment he
began to understand that Kerrel was a dangerous man. Shairn drew a deep
breath and threw her head back, and Trehearne knew that she had thought
about this for a long time, planning it, working it out, waiting for
the chance, and that she was happy about it. It wasn't himself and
whether he lived or died. He was only the convenient peg. This was
Kerrel and Shairn and a long situation.

Kerrel said, "I've taken a great deal from you, Shairn, but there's a
limit. I've reached it."

"I hoped you'd feel that way."

He stood looking at her, and she did not speak, meeting his gaze
steadily and with a queer kind of amusement. Finally Kerrel said, "I
wish you hadn't done it this way. Not for him. Not for a--"

"But Kerrel," she told him gently, "it had to be something like this,
or you wouldn't take no for an answer. I know. I've been trying for the
longest time."

Kerrel turned and went out. He said nothing more, and he did not even
glance at Trehearne as he passed him. Trehearne looked after him and
shivered.

"You've been a great help to me," he said bitterly to Shairn. "The
first time you didn't quite get me killed, but I believe now you're
going to make it."

"Kerrel isn't that important. All he can do is recommend, and he'd have
recommended Thuvis anyway." She laughed. "I feel wonderful. He was
really beginning to weigh on me."

"Congratulations. And what is Thuvis?"

"I'll show you." She searched along the wall racks until she found
the spool she wanted and clipped it into a viewer. "This is the
astro-manual for a sector of space that is fortunately very little
used. Here, have a look."

Trehearne bent over the magnilens. Equations were gliding slowly across
it to the whirring of the unwinding spool, coordinates of a position in
space.

"We have no capital punishment on Llyrdis," she said. "Matter of
fact, we have very few criminals. But such as there are are sent into
permanent exile, here."

She pressed a stud, and the whirring stopped. On the lens was the
picture of a dim red sun lost in a dark wilderness, with hardly a
distant star to break the desolation. Around it circled one lonely
planet, grey, forlorn, and hopeless.

After a long while Trehearne said, "But I'm not a criminal. They
couldn't--"

"They could judge you a danger to society, as they judge the Orthists.
Kerrel will do his best to put you there--as a matter of principle."

Dying star, and dying world, alone on the edge of nothing. Trehearne
looked at it. "What do they do there?"

"Nothing. They just wait."

"For what?"

He knew the answer before she told him. No more ships, no more
voyaging, nothing to look forward to but the only release there was.
Trehearne drew back from the viewer. Shairn smiled.

"Afraid?"

"Yes."

"I'm on your side."

"Are you? Or are you just using me to punish Kerrel, because he bores
you?"

"Don't you trust me?"

"No!"

"But there isn't much you can do about it, is there?"

"I guess not."

"Then you might as well make the best of it."



                                 EIGHT


The long arc of deceleration was completed. The starship was cruising
now at planetary speed. Aldebaran had grown from a remote point of fire
to a giant sun, terrifyingly near at hand. The small companion was
visible only as a faint disc above the upper limb, its bluish light
drowned out in the flooding ruddy blaze of the larger star.

The Vardda had crowded up into the observation dome, eager for the
first glimpse of home. A heavy shield now covered the dome to sunward
and in its shadow the returning travellers pressed and chattered.
Trehearne stood among them, listening to their excitement and feeling
at a loss in it. Their talk was the talk of strangers, full of names
and references that were meaningless to him, strident with a joy he
could not share. They were coming home, and he was homeless, the
loneliest man in the galaxy. Before him loomed the imagined faces of
the Vardda Council, passing judgment, and beyond them in the desolate
wastes of space the dying world of Thuvis waited.

Shairn tugged at his sleeve. "There!" she cried. "There it is, Michael.
Llyrdis!"

He followed her pointing hand, squinting against the tawny glare, and
saw a golden planet wheeling toward them, bright and beautiful, with
a trio of circling moons. Suddenly the majesty and splendor of this
landing out of space swept over him, and drove away his fears. It was
an awesome, a godlike thing, to come into a solar system from outside,
drenched in the naked blazing of a foreign sun, and see the planets
from far off, no bigger than a child's ball, circling the parent star
in their slow eternal orbits. He became as excited as the Vardda, but
for a different reason. Presently he would stand on the soil of a
strange world, in the light of an alien sun, and the winds that blew
would come from far peaks nameless to him, and off of unknown oceans.
He watched with the others, as tensely as they.

Edri looked at his face, and smiled. "Mirris is on the other side of
the sun, but if you'll look hard off there to your right you'll see
Suumis, the outer one of our two immediate neighbors."

Suumis appeared against the farther reaches of space like a little red
apple, accompanied by a throng of sparkling motes that Trehearne knew
must be moons. He stared at it, trying to realize that the little red
apple was a world as big as Earth, gave it up, and turned back again to
Llyrdis. It had grown. It fairly leaped toward them as the ship swept
in upon it, and Trehearne began to make out misty continents and the
shadow-forms of oceans, wrapped in a cloud-shot atmosphere that burned
a reddish gold in Aldebaran's light. Then it was closer still, it
filled the sky, it spread out monstrously and began to fall....

Edri laughed. "Optical illusion. But a striking one, isn't it?"

Trehearne braced his knees and said it was. His heart was in his
throat, the rest of his insides had fallen away somewhere, and the
ship was plunging at a terrible speed to meet the toppling planet. It
touched the atmosphere, and went into it as into a bath of fire. Down
it went, rushing, tearing down with a long triumphant scream, and in
the lower air the clouds rolled and whipped in golden fury where the
dark hull clove them. Trehearne shut his eyes. When he opened them
again the ship was sweeping low over an ocean the color of hammered
brass, and at length he saw ahead a low shore, and beyond it a rolling
plain girdled with tall mountains. On that plain he made out the
gleaming vastness of a city that made New York a village.

"There it is," said Edri. "The hub and center of the galaxy."

Trehearne only shook his head. By this time he had no words. He
watched the boundaries of the city widen, he watched the towers of its
buildings lift and rise until they seemed to bear the sky upon them,
and he was silent. Still dropping, but slowly now in a soundless glide,
the ship bore to the southward. Here for miles the spaceport ran, the
great docks that cradled the giants of the stars. Here was an ordered,
ceaseless, swarming chaos of men and machines, seen from Trehearne's
position now as a sort of yeasty ferment lapping around and over the
apparently endless rows of titanic docks. The sheer size of it was
crushing.

The warning bells rang. Trehearne came partly out of his daze and went
below with the others to await the landing. Seconds ticked by, and
the blood was hammering in his temples, and his muscles twitched with
a nervous excitement. Landing. Landing on a strange world, under a
strange new sun....

Smoothly, softly, the great keel touched down, home again from the
edges of the universe.

Trehearne stood up. The others were already moving, pouring into the
corridor, laughing, talking, eager for the opened lock and home.
Trehearne would have followed them, but Edri's hand was on him, and
Kerrel was in front of him.

"You'll wait," said Kerrel. "Edri, you're responsible for him. See that
he doesn't leave the ship."

He went out, and suddenly, for Trehearne, that keen fine edge of wonder
was all gone. Shairn came up and gave him a reassuring smile. "Don't
worry, Michael. Old Joris is a friend of mine." She went out, too, and
Trehearne said to Edri, "Who is Joris?"

"The Coordinator of the Port. In his younger days he flew for Shairn's
father." Edri sank down into a chair again. "Might as well take it
easy. Kerrel's gone to make his report to Joris in person. This isn't
the sort of thing you want too widely broadcast."

"Why Joris? I thought Kerrel worked for the Council."

"He does. But everything that goes in or out of this port has to clear
through the Coordinator's office. Sit down, Trehearne, you make me
nervous."

"Do you think she'll be able to do anything?"

"I hope so. Damn it, sit down!"

He sat. There were noises in the ship, but they were unfamiliar ones,
the impersonal clangings and boomings of freight hatches, machinery,
the invading boots and unknown voices of dockside men. The sounds of
the port outside came to him muffled and subdued, like the ceaseless
roll of thunder a long way off. There was a feeling of cessation.
The voyage was over. Out there a new sun was shining, there was air
unbreathed by any man of Earth and a whole wide world waiting, a Vardda
world, his as much as theirs, but he was barred from it, he was kept
under hatches like a criminal, unable even to speak while strangers
decided his fate. It scared him, and it angered him, and the more he
felt trapped and helpless the more furious he got. His body would
not stay still. He sprang up and began to stride the floor, and Edri
watched him speculatively.

"Get good and mad," he said. "You can't fight unless you're mad."

"I'll fight."

"You know the line to take. Don't be afraid to let 'em have it."

"I won't."

Time passed. Edri sat and smoked. Trehearne paced, sat down, and paced
again. A year went by, and then another, and then a young man, very
brisk, very efficient, very self-assured, came in and looked at them.

"You're to come to the Coordinator's office," he said, and stared with
frank curiosity at Trehearne. Then he turned to Edri. "He _looks_ all
right. Is this story really true?"

"Never mind," said Edri. "Come on, Trehearne."

He followed them, down the long corridor and into the lock chamber,
leaving the ship as he had first entered it so long ago, so far away.
He stepped out onto the open dock, and the full roaring, thundering
impact of the biggest spaceport in the galaxy hit him like an explosion.

Row upon row, and on all sides, the towering docks stretched to the
end of his seeing and beyond. Ships lay in most of them, recumbent
monsters taking their ease, while men and machines in vast numbers
and great complexity waited on their needs. The ringing air was heavy
with smells, strange spices and subtle unidentifiable things mingling
with the reek of oil and hot metal, cargoes of unimagined riches from
unimaginable worlds. Trehearne stood, feeling the tremendous pulse beat
through him, hardly aware for the moment that Edri was trying to steer
him to a kiosk at the end of the dock, or that the young Vardda was
amused at his wide-eyed astonishment.

In endless hordes, men swarmed upon the looming hulls and went busily
along the docks, testing, checking, guiding and managing the machines.
They were not Vardda men. They were men from the other worlds, who
could not fly the stars. A lot of them--and here Trehearne's eyes
opened even wider, because even though he had been told, seeing is
another thing--were not at all what he would have called human. But in
spite of their strangeness, they seemed familiar. They were like any
of the cheerful, hard-handed, competent men to be seen around any port
of Earth, serving the ships and the planes. The incessant noise was
deafening. Gigantic cranes moved ponderously on their tracks, shifting
cargoes between strings of carriers and the gaping holds. Small trams
weaved in and out of the confusion. At intervals between the docks
were lines of shops, where atomic-powered forges shaped new parts, new
plates and housings. Here a crew worked on a hull with flaring welders,
and there a great bow section was lowered slowly into place with an
ear-shattering clang.

Edri's voice reached him, thin and faint. "Big business, Trehearne. The
biggest in the galaxy. Impressive, isn't it?"

He urged Trehearne along, toward the kiosk that was still some way
ahead. They walked in a railed-off path, and in a moment Trehearne
saw coming toward them on the other side of the rail a large and very
involved piece of machinery that seemed to be walking slowly the length
of the ship's hull, guided by one small human attendant and bearing
in its belly another one who sat surrounded by dials and counters and
little screens.

"That's an X-ray scanner," Edri told him. "They get first crack
at every ship that lands. These ultra-speeds have effects on
metals in time. The scanners test the structure of the metals for
crystallization, or any abnormal molecular shift. The ships become
unsafe after a certain period of service--usually a fairly long
one--and they're watched very closely. It's no fun having a hull fall
apart on you in the middle of nowhere."

He pushed Trehearne on, into the kiosk. The young Vardda was still
amused. Edri said, "There's a lift here. We go down."

Trehearne stepped in, and turned. Just before the door closed smoothly
in his face, he caught a glimpse of a tall white pylon in the distance,
dominating the whole field, and knew without being told that it housed
Port Administration and his immediate destiny. Once more the sense of
wonder was stripped away. The lift dropped and his heart dropped with
it, swiftly down.

The trip was short. The lift set them in a passageway far underground,
and the passageway led to a tube, all very quiet after the roaring of
the port. A small monorail car took them in a handful of minutes to the
levels underneath the pylon, and then there was another lift, a private
one this time, going up. There was a bitter taste in Trehearne's mouth,
and the palms of his hands were sweating.

He thought the lift would never stop, but it did, on the highest level.
The brisk young man motioned them out, and there was an office, bare
and spacious, with window walls that looked on all sides across the
spaceport. Trehearne thought fleetingly that it was less like an office
than the bridge of a starship, pathetically shackled to the soil.

Shairn was there, and Kerrel, standing far apart and very stiff,
their faces set and stubborn. Kerrel did not turn, but Shairn came to
Trehearne and took his hand defiantly. Off at one side a second brisk
young man presided over some sort of a recording device. There seemed
to be a good deal of silence in the place, brought on, perhaps, by the
arrival of the lift, for no one was in a silent mood--least of all the
man who faced them from the other side of a massive table. Trehearne
saw a grizzled, heavy-shouldered giant who was never designed to occupy
an office. The walls cramped him, even such walls as these, because
they were bounded by horizons. His large scarred hands rested uneasily
on the polished wood, impatient of the papers that were stacked there,
and his eyes seemed better used to watching stars than men. Those eyes,
pale blue as winter ice, sought out Trehearne and did not waver until
they had cut from him every bit of knowledge to be had.

"I didn't believe it," Joris said, "but I can see now why you didn't
like the idea of killing him. Too much like one of us. But damn
it!--Kerrel, you of all people should have remembered the law. No
non-Vardda personnel under any circumstances to board any craft
designed for interstellar flight. What got into you?"

Before Kerrel could answer, Shairn spoke for him. "A certain
squeamishness," she said, "and a doubt. I think he regrets them both,
now. You see, Joris, there was a legal doubt. Looking at Trehearne,
could you tell he was non-Vardda?"

"But you knew it...."

"Oh no," said Edri pointedly, "we didn't. We didn't know at all until
he survived the take-off, and then he couldn't very well be classified
as non-Vardda--could he, Joris?"

Joris moved his huge bulk uncomfortably. "A freak," he said. "A
mongrel. You didn't do him any kindness to bring him here. Shairn, I
get a feeling that you had a hand in this. In fact, knowing you...."

Shairn snapped, "What I do is my own business. And as for Michael, he's
as good a Vardda as you are. You haven't answered my question yet. Will
you let him stay in my custody until the Council meets?"

"No! And that's final."

"But Joris...."

"You're a trouble-maker, Shairn. You have been since the day you were
born. But I'm damned if you'll make trouble for me!"

"And I thought you were my friend. Joris, you ought to remember...."

"I took orders from your father when I flew his ships, but you're not
the man he was! And furthermore, I'm not working for you now, I'm
working for the government. Is that clear?"

"Perfectly." She added, in a tone of admiration, "Anyway, you haven't
forgotten how to roar."

Surprisingly, Joris laughed. "No," he said, "no more than you've
learned manners." He glanced from Shairn to the stony-faced Kerrel, who
was still standing like a ramrod and saying nothing--Trehearne gathered
that he had already said everything he considered necessary--and then
back to Edri and the Earthman. "I'll admit this is one hell of a queer
mess, and I'm glad I don't have to decide the final outcome. As I see
it, my duty now is to keep him in custody like any other undesirable,
until the Council takes him off my hands." He looked hard at Shairn.
"That's the law, and that's the way it's going to be."

Kerrel spoke at last. "Good. That's what I wanted to be sure of."

Joris glowered at him. "I'm considered fairly reliable in the
performance of my office." He nodded to the brisk young man who had
brought Trehearne and Edri from the ship. "Make out the usual interim
commitment form for suspected persons under the Port Authority Code,
Section C...."

Trehearne said, "Just a minute." He stepped forward until he was
facing Joris across the table. "You have no authority to imprison me."

Joris stared at him. Then he shook his head irritably as though he
thought his ears must be playing him tricks, and stared again. His
jowls took on a tinge of red. Trehearne went on. The time had come to
let his temper go, and he turned it loose of all restraint.

"Unless he is formally accused of a crime, no Vardda may be detained by
anyone against his will. I have committed no crime, and I have not been
accused of any."

It took Joris some time to recover his voice. When he did, it fairly
rattled the windows. "You are _not_ a Vardda!"

"No? Think a minute. What is the one distinguishing quality of a Vardda
that marks him as different from all other men?"

"All right, I'll answer that! By some freak or other you managed to
survive the flight. But that doesn't change the fact that you're an
Earthman, born and bred, and therefore not a Vardda!"

Trehearne's eyes had acquired a hard glitter. "Then suppose," he said,
"that you imprison me--an Earthman who has crossed the galaxy from Sol
to Aldebaran, and lived. That'll make quite an uproar, won't it? All
the non-Vardda peoples will be much interested. So will the Orthist
party. I don't doubt they'll spread the news all over the galaxy--_the
Vardda have admitted that they're not the only ones who can fly
interstellar space_!"

Shairn said, "That's it, Michael! Go it!" Edri had drawn back a little.
His eyes were sober and intent. Kerrel spoke, and his voice was sharp.
"You've had bad advice, Trehearne. That kind of talk won't help you."

Joris motioned him to silence. To Trehearne he said, "What do you know
about the Orthist party?"

"Enough to know that they could make a great deal of trouble. Either
I'm Vardda or I'm not. And if I'm not, I could be the start of a whole
new movement. The first non-Vardda to fly the stars, the first crack in
the monopoly."

Joris shook his head. "You can be put away so quickly and quietly that
no one will ever hear of you."

"Good," said Trehearne. "Put me away. Put away all the officers of the
ship. Put away all the passengers. Put away all the crew. That's a lot
of people to keep quiet."

Shairn broke in triumphantly. "Yes, Joris! How are you going to silence
me?"

"And," said Edri, "me."

Joris looked from one to the other and back again, his brows drawn
angrily together. But he said nothing. Kerrel leaned over the table.

"Joris," he said, "do you understand? The man is trying to blackmail
you with an open threat of treason."

"Yes," said Trehearne, "I am." His voice was suddenly very quiet, and
he spoke straight to Joris. "When I made that flight and lived I won my
right to the freedom of the stars. I won my right to fly deep space,
and I will use any weapons I can get my hands on against any man who
tries to keep me from it."

Then, for quite a long while, no one spoke.

"By God," said Joris slowly, "I take it back. There can't be any
mongrel blood in you. Only a Vardda could have that kind of insolence."
He got up and came round the table. "You, Shairn. In spite of your
political views, you'll back him up in this?"

"I will. And it's probably the only real accomplishment the Orthists
will ever make."

"And you, Edri?"

"All the way."

Kerrel swore. It was the first time Trehearne had ever heard him do it,
and it was aimed directly at Shairn. "For God's sake, watch what you're
saying! Joris, she doesn't mean it, and she won't do it. I know her
feelings on the subject too well for that."

Shairn said, "Try me."

Joris had become very thoughtful. "You know," he said to Kerrel,
"whether she does or not, there's a great deal of truth in what the
Earthman says. Far too much, I'm afraid, to be overlooked."

"Bluff," said Kerrel. "Look here, Joris, if you turn this man loose,
I'll have to report...."

"Oh, report and be damned! The law says I have to shut him up, and shut
him up I will, and there my duty ends. And I don't need you to tell me
my business." He went to the recorder, took out the spool, dropped it
on the floor and crushed it under his boot. "Now clear out, all of you.
Dismissed. And I'd advise you all to keep your mouths shut. Especially
_you_," he said to the two very young men. "You have enough work to
keep you busy. Go and do it. You stay here, Trehearne."

Trehearne stayed, and there was a bitter thought in him that he had
failed. The faces of the others, as they left, were full of doubt.
Presently he was alone with Joris in the sweep of golden light from the
windows. From the eastern quadrant of the port Trehearne saw a great
ship rise and clear away for distant suns.

Joris walked the floor, and said nothing. The silence was heavy, an
oppressive thing. It was not touched by the sounds of the port, so
far below. They were outside it, and the face of Joris was a heavy,
sombre mask. Trehearne looked out at the alien sky, where the clouds
burned like little nebulae, and then down again at the ships. From this
vantage he could see the sector where the planetary craft came in, the
slow freighters from the non-Vardda worlds of Aldebaran, and it came to
him suddenly how the poor bastards that flew them must feel, watching
the starships come and go and knowing they could never follow. Beyond
the port the towers of the city rose, and Trehearne wondered if he
would ever see it.

Joris stopped his pacing and said, "Come here."

Trehearne obeyed. The pale eyes, harsh and keen as an old eagle's,
probed into him, weighing, judging. Trehearne stood and waited. He said
nothing. There was nothing more to say.

"Vardda blood," Joris muttered to himself. "Unmistakable. And he wants
to fly the stars." He asked abruptly, "Were you a foundling?"

"No," said Trehearne. And then he added slowly, "But I might just as
well have been."

Joris turned away, his brows drawn and brooding, his head and shoulders
massive against the background of burning sky. "How old are you?"

"Thirty-three, in Earth years."

Still with his back to Trehearne, Joris spoke. "I think I see a way.
Whether it will work or not, I don't know. The Council convenes again
in five days, at which time I'll be required to make my report on you,
and I'll do what I can. Meanwhile, you'll have to go where I tell you
and stay there without any fuss. Is that clear?"

"Yes." The pulse of hope had begun to beat again.

"Good. And Trehearne--"

"Yes?"

"If things turn out all right, you _will_ fly the stars!"

It was a threat as much as a promise.

Thirty minutes later, after a journey under guard in a sublevel tubecar
that left him in complete ignorance of his whereabouts, Trehearne was
conducted into a square neat cubicle, comfortable in all respects but
none the less a prison cell. The magnetic lock clicked behind him and
he was alone.

There were no windows. He did not even know whether he was above or
below ground. There was neither day nor night nor time. He paced the
narrow floor and ate the unfamiliar food delivered to him automatically
through a slot in the wall, and tried to sleep. He smoked the last of
his hoarded cigarettes and thought of Earth and the distances between
the suns. He hoped and hope became gradually a grim despair.

No one came. Shairn had forgotten him. Edri's friendship had turned
feeble at the last. The trap that Joris had set for him became more
obvious with each passing hour. He hated them all. He raged and waited
and remembered the old man's words--_You can be put away so quickly and
quietly that no one will ever hear of you._

This was his landing on Llyrdis, the fruit of his journey across the
star-shot universe. This was the end of his dream.

He ceased to rage.

There came a time when he awoke sharply from uneasy sleep to hear the
low click of the lock and a soft slurred step on the floor, coming
toward him. He sprang up, and saw that it was Shairn. She cried out,
"_Michael!_" and her words came to him with a sound of unreality, like
the voices heard through fever.

"It's all over, Michael--and you're free!"



                                 NINE


An hour had gone by and he still could not quite believe it. He had
left the cell behind him and the five eternal days of waiting. He stood
on a terrace high above the city. It was night, and the burning moons
were brilliant in the sky. The wind from the sea had the clean sting
of wine, but it was not like the sea winds he remembered, it was new
and strange, intensely thrilling. Around him the tall slim towers rose
upward toward the moons, and far below the shining web of streets was a
pattern of sensual beauty, many-colored, sounding, alive.

Shairn said softly, "Look at it, Michael. It's all yours."

He looked. His hands were tight on the terrace rail, and there was a
fulness in him that made it hard to breathe.

"I had something to do with it, Michael. Aren't you going to thank me?"

He turned. She had put on a flowing thing of white, cunningly draped
and spangled over with a diamond frost, and there were strange jewels
caught in the dark masses of her hair. He started to speak and then
forgot the words, when sounds from inside the apartment--it was
Edri's--announced the arrival of Joris.

"Come now and hear how the miracle was done."

From the terrace they passed through sliding doors of glass, open now
to the warm breeze, into a low, broad, spacious room of the utmost
simplicity and comfort. A millionaire's room, Trehearne would have
said, and yet Edri was a poor man by Vardda standards, owning no ships
and working for those who did. The window walls looked out over the
city, a mighty panorama of light and color that was without garishness,
and inside there was quiet and homeliness, made personal by the small
things Edri had brought home from his voyages. Robots of various sorts
did all the cleaning automatically when he was away, and there was no
kitchen. Meals arrived by pressure tube, fresh, hot, and to order,
from a service center. Remembering his own bachelor quarters on Earth,
Trehearne was overcome with envy.

Joris came toward him, holding out a huge hard hand. Trehearne shook
it, and Joris said, "What were you thinking, those five days in the
cell?"

Trehearne shook his head. "I won't tell you, since none of it was true."

Joris laughed. Edri said, "We haven't told him anything. We left that
for you." He found glasses and poured wine. Joris settled heavily into
a chair, full of an honest pride in his own cleverness, beaming with
it. Shairn curled up near him on a wide couch and sipped her wine. "Go
on," she said. "We're waiting."

"It took a lot of juggling," Joris said, "and more than a little
downright forgery, but it worked. You see, Trehearne, a full record
of all voyages is kept at Port Administration. I went back between
thirty and forty years and managed to supply you with a pretty good
background." He leaned forward. "You get this into your head, and
keep it there. You were born on Earth thirty-four years ago of Vardda
parents then engaged in trading activities on that planet. Your mother
died in childbirth and your father was forced to abandon you, since
even a Vardda infant cannot endure interstellar flight. The people who
brought you up, and whom you had assumed to be your parents, merely
fostered you." He paused, searching through his trouser pockets until
he found a slip of paper, which he handed to Trehearne. "Here are the
names of your real parents. Memorize them. Your father has since been
killed in a wreck off Orion Nebula and you have no brothers or sisters.
Incidentally, you have no inheritance either, since according to law
your father's estate was divided upon his death. From now on, this is
your only history. Don't forget it. And don't talk about any of it more
than you're forced to."

Trehearne stared at the paper and the two names that were written
there. "I didn't think it could be done--But what did Kerrel say about
this? He surely didn't believe the story."

"He couldn't prove it wasn't so. And I produced such convincing records
that the evidence was overwhelming." He laughed. "Matter of fact, I cut
the ground right out from under him."

"He didn't like it," Shairn said. "But there was nothing he could
do, and there never will be anything he can do. Joris and I managed
to persuade the Council not to have you appear for questioning,
Michael--on the very good grounds that the less said about it the
better. The hearing was closed, with the news-services barred out.
Joris' records, and your Vardda characteristics were sufficiently
convincing. They passed their resolution in less than thirty minutes,
and then followed it by another to tighten the laws against Vardda
children being born on any world but Llyrdis!"

Trehearne put the piece of paper in his pocket. "There's a lot of
things I want to say, but--" He broke off, and Edri shoved a glass
in his hand. "Don't try," he said. "Just tell us honestly that we're
wonderful, and we'll be satisfied. Incidentally, don't ever make me out
a liar. I reported the most interesting statements from you concerning
your unhappy childhood as a foundling."

Trehearne grinned. He looked from one to the other, and finally his
gaze centered on Joris. "There's one thing I don't understand. Why did
you do this for me?"

"Don't ever question a man's reasons, as long as they're good,
Trehearne. And now you're a Vardda, stamped and sealed, you've got
another problem ahead of you. You have to make a living. Do you still
want to fly the stars?" He saw the look on Trehearne's face, and
smiled. "I need a supercargo on my ship _Saarga_, outbound in two weeks
for trade in the Hercules Cluster. Officers and crew fly on shares and
it's a rich voyage. Even a supercargo should do well."

Edri said, "I ought to warn you, Trehearne. The Hercules run is one of
the toughest in the galaxy."

"That's why it pays so well," said Joris. "Well?"

Before Trehearne could answer, Shairn laid her hand lazily on his
shoulder and said, "Nonsense, Joris. He doesn't have to take on
anything like that. I can find a better opening in my fleet and he
won't starve until I do."

Trehearne's face tightened. He said quietly, "I seem to have heard,
Shairn, that you're quite well off."

"Oh, quite! Thirty ships to Joris' two. My father was smart, and I was
lucky enough to be his only heir. Oh, the devil with it--who wants to
talk business! Come on, Michael, we'll show you the city."

"In a minute." Joris was looking at him with an odd expression, and
Trehearne's mouth tightened another notch. He said, "When shall I
report aboard the _Saarga_?"

Edri leaned over Shairn's shoulder and whispered, "I think you've got
our Michael angry."

Joris looked at Shairn and roared. "Missed your guess, didn't you?" He
got up. "All right, Trehearne, I'll let you know. And now let's see
what we can do in the way of a celebration!"

They went. But for the next hour or so Shairn was inclined to be sulky,
and was all the more so because Trehearne seemed to have forgotten her
existence.

Resplendent in black and silver supplied for him out of Edri's
wardrobe, free, accepted, and with a future ahead, Trehearne walked the
streets of the city, drunk with color and sound and movement, dazed
with the incredible size and the utter strangeness of the greatest
metropolis in the galaxy. It surged magnificently, crowded, thriving,
beautiful, drenched in the wealth and inventiveness of a thousand
far-flung cultures, Mecca for all the peoples of Aldebaran's seven
inhabited planets. And its beauty was honest. There were no dark and
evil places hidden behind the splendid buildings, no slums, no poverty,
no ugliness. The Vardda had travelled widely, and seen much, and they
had learned from others. From a vantage point given to no other people
in history, they had studied and compared the inceptions, growths, and
collapses of more empires, races, and cultures than a man could count
in a year, and the work still went on under the direction of their
best minds, correlating and compiling, examining causes and evolving
from the mass of evidence ways and means to keep the Vardda empire
healthy. They had managed well for a thousand years, and Trehearne
felt a tremendous admiration for them, laboring as they did under the
extra handicap of an essentially inbred society. Their government was
elective, and they kept it clean. Their laws were relatively few and
simple, and they were obeyed. They oppressed nobody, and saw to it that
their non-Vardda neighbors benefited heavily from the Vardda trade.

"It's not at all," Edri had told him once, "that we're so much more
bloody noble than anybody else. Matter of fact, we're probably
unrivalled in our basic selfishness. It's good business, you see.
Keep everybody as happy as possible, deal as fairly as you can, make
'em all rich, and you don't have trouble, which is bad for trade. The
non-Vardda races may not love us, but they're not inclined to try
getting along without us. As for domestic politics and administration,
it's simple self-preservation to keep them sound. We're not Utopians,
to use one of your favorite Earthly terms, we just try to make sense."

Looking at the city, Trehearne thought they had done a remarkably
good job. Actually, few of the Vardda were urbanites. Llyrdis was
essentially a world of estates and small communities. The Vardda
sociologists had not been blind to that final corrosive stage of
civilization that Spengler called Megalopolis. The city was not a place
in which great mobs of people spent their lives. It was a clearing
house, a warehouse, an office, a factory, devoted entirely to business.
The population was chiefly non-Vardda, and they only stayed there
during their employment. Their homes were on their own worlds. They
inhabited the city without being trapped in it.

As for Trehearne, it seemed to him that night that he could spend a
lifetime there and never tire of it. The little ships that tramped
the narrow planetary roads set down beside the scornful giants of the
star-trails and poured into the metropolis a never-ending tide of
visitors, come to touch the fringes of a glory they could never grasp
themselves, to revel in alien pleasures and barter for the gems and
spices and the spider-woven silks of worlds that they would never see.
Most of them were human or nearly so, their skins a variety of tints,
their costumes outlandish or sober according to their native custom.
Some were not human at all, except in intelligence and pride of bearing.

"See those black-skinned, hawk-nosed chaps with the bronze wings?"
Edri's hand guided Trehearne's wondering gaze. "They're from Suumis.
And the three silvery ones over there with the bright crests and the
crimson robes. They're the dominant race on the second world sunward,
and proud as Lucifer for all they've got scales instead of skin. That
little bluish fellow is a merchant-prince from Zaard, the outermost
planet. See his diamond caste-mark?"

Trehearne saw. He mazed his brain with seeing, with hearing and
feeling--the pulse and rush of the city, the kaleidoscopic multitudes,
the companies of lordly Vardda like peacocks in their jewels and
brilliant tunics, the babel of outworld tongues, the drifting sound of
music, strange and sweet. From place to place the four of them drifted,
in no hurry, wandering as the mood took them, drinking the dark wine
of Antares, the pungent snow-white brew of Fomalhaut, endless wines of
many colors from the worlds of many stars. Shairn forgot to sulk. To
Trehearne she seemed to float in moonlight and laughter, bewitching
and unattainable as a creature seen in dreams. The wine mounted to his
head. The excitement, the strangeness, the wild joy of release put
a kind of fever in him, and his surroundings lost reality, whirling
ever faster and in brighter colors round him, visions painted on a
blowing mist. Faces, human, half-human, unhuman, beautiful, grotesque,
ludicrous. Carnival masks, reeling, dancing. Vardda women lovely as
sin, dressed in a thousand fashions from a thousand worlds, smiling
with red mouths. Music throbbing, beating, wailing, unknown melodies
plucked from unknown strings, passionate, soft, mingling with the
smell of wine and perfume and the sharp sea-wind. Dancing girls with
emerald skins, outlandish beasts that capered with an eerie cleverness,
a spinning whirl of pleasure-palaces, terraces, gardens, parks and
squares, nameless trees blowing under the triple moons, Shairn's
laughing face, Joris flushed and jovial, a grey-polled ox on holiday,
Edri....

There was something wrong with Edri. Perhaps the wine had given
Trehearne a sharper insight, or perhaps it was only that the outside
stimuli had grown so bewildering that he fled from them at last,
unconsciously, by turning to the familiar as personified by his
friends. At any rate, he emerged a little from his daze and realized
that while he and Shairn and Joris had been growing gayer Edri had
grown steadily more solemn and withdrawn. Sobriety was not habitual
with him, but Trehearne had never seen him really drunk. He was drunk
now, and he was continuing to drink as though there was not enough wine
on Llyrdis to fill him, sitting silently, his eyes fixed on some inner
distance, a brooding look on his ugly face. Trehearne spoke to him,
and he answered, but it was only a mechanical reflex, a sound without
meaning.

They were in a place of trees and crystal columns, with bowers drowned
in bloom and the open sky above. Trehearne looked at the others. They
were happy, without a care in the world. Then he saw Edri's face again,
bleak and sad and seeing nothing, and he frowned. He was fond of Edri.
It came over him in a rush how fond he was of him. He leaned forward
and said, "What is it, Edri? What's wrong?"

"He's sober," Joris said. "He needs more wine." He reached over and
poured a ruby liquid into Edri's glass. Abruptly Edri shook his head
and pushed the goblet away. He was looking now at something behind
Trehearne. "No," he said. "I'm going home."

"There's no hurry, Edri. Stay a while." It was Kerrel's voice.
Startled, Trehearne turned his head and saw him standing there, as
though he had been standing for a long time. Now he came forward and
sat down with them. Trehearne could not tell what he was thinking. He
did not like a man whose thoughts he could not even guess at.

"Congratulations," Kerrel said. "I don't believe a word of it, of
course, but that history of Trehearne was a fine piece of strategy."

Joris laughed. "The Council believed it. Furthermore, I believe it,
Shairn believes it--even Trehearne believes it, don't you, Trehearne?"

"Of course."

"Well, it's done now," Kerrel said, as though it had ceased to matter.

Shairn picked up one of the musky flowers and tossed it into Kerrel's
lap. "Have you forgotten me?" she asked him, with a curious edged
sweetness. "I know you. You're a bad loser, and it's no use pretending
you're not. Besides, I've seen you this way before. Just what are you
meditating in your little mind?"

"Nothing at all, but the usual broad speculations on life. Curious what
twists and turns it has. Take today. One man escapes banishment and
another, a respected member of our community, incurs it."

"Who?" said Joris, peering sharply at Kerrel as through a fog.

"Arrin."

There was a small silence. Then Shairn said, "But I met him once. He's
nice. You can't send him to Thuvis."

"I'm afraid there's no doubt about it. He's one of the Orthist
leaders--you didn't know that, did you?" His question was addressed to
no one in particular. "We've suspected him for some time, and today he
was caught. Odd thing, though. They couldn't find any of his papers."
He turned casually to Edri. "Arrin's a friend of yours, isn't he?"

"I know him."

"Oh, come now! You've known him for years."

Edri said nastily, "I've known you for a long time too. Don't
cat-and-mouse with me, Kerrel. If you have something to say, say it."

Kerrel shrugged. "I was only thinking that a man can have too many
unfortunate friendships."

"Does that include me?" said Trehearne, getting up.

"Oh, the hell with him," said Edri. He lurched to his feet, giving
Kerrel one smouldering look, but it was Trehearne he spoke to. "He's a
tireless and worthy investigator, a good cop as you would say on Earth.
But he enjoys his work too much. I'm leaving."

He walked away, staggering a bit but holding himself rigidly erect.
Trehearne watched the solitary figure moving down an avenue of trees,
splashed with shadows and golden light. He hesitated, and then followed.

Edri stopped when he felt Trehearne's hand touch him. He looked at
him in a curious way, almost as though he had never seen him before.
And now that he was here, Trehearne did not know what to say. Rather
awkwardly, he asked, "Can I do anything?"

"No. Thanks."

"I'm sorry about your friend."

"Why should you be? He's an Orthist, a traitor. He deserves to be sent
to Thuvis."

Remembering the desolate picture he had seen of that world at the
end of the galaxy, and his own so narrow escape from it, Trehearne
shivered. "I don't care. It doesn't seem right to send anybody to rot
forever in that boneyard. Besides, I can't see that the Orthists are so
bad."

Edri reached out and took hold of Trehearne's shoulders. "Hate them,"
he said earnestly. "Hate them with everything you've got."

He turned away, and Trehearne said with a certain exasperation, "Hate
'em or not, I don't see why they're such a danger."

"There was a message, Trehearne. Long after Orthis disappeared, one of
the life-skiffs of his ship was picked up in space. There was nothing
in it but a message, painted in big letters on the walls. It was
addressed to his enemies, and it said, 'You have not destroyed me. The
peoples of the Galaxy will yet be given the freedom of the stars.' You
understand? There was still hope, from the Orthist point of view."

He went on, a drunken man, not talking to Trehearne now but to himself,
to the wind and the casual moons and a world that had turned bitter
around him. "Arrin worked. All his life he worked, like a lot of men
before him. He searched the records, the closed files that nobody is
allowed to look at, and then they caught him. He never found what he
was looking for, but he might have. A little more time, and he might
have!" He looked up into the sky, the empty sky that stretched away to
the rim of the universe. "Somewhere out there Orthis sits in his ship
and waits--waits to be found again. But where? That's it, the question
no one has answered in a thousand years. Where?"

He turned aside and was abruptly, violently sick. Trehearne waited.
After Edri muttered, "It's curious, the things a man will say when he's
drunk."

"I don't know," Trehearne said. "I didn't hear anything."

"Don't ever hear anything, for your sake as well as mine." He managed a
smile. "Thanks. I'm all right now. I'm going on home."

He walked away slowly, and Trehearne went back to the others. He had
sobered up a bit himself, and some of the magic had gone out of the
evening. He was worried about Edri.

Shairn looked up at him, heavy-eyed. "You were gone so long, Michael."

"Holding Edri's head." Kerrel was still there. A sour mood seemed to
have come over everyone. Joris sat with his head hanging forward. His
eyes were open, staring moodily into the spilled wine, but he was
obviously on the verge of passing out. Shairn had torn to bits the pale
flowers in her lap, scattering them on the grass. No one was talking.
Kerrel had not touched the wine. He was looking at Shairn, just sitting
still and looking at her. Trehearne said to him, "You haven't given up,
have you?"

"No."

"He only thinks he hasn't," Shairn said angrily. She rose and stood in
front of Kerrel. "What is it you just can't bear to give up--me, or my
thirty ships?"

Kerrel got up. He lifted his hand and slapped her hard across the
cheek. There was a second when no one moved, when Shairn's eyes blazed
wider and wider, and then Trehearne thrust her aside and moved in.
Kerrel was stony sober and his reflexes were fast. The next thing
Trehearne saw, through a ringing haze, was Kerrel walking away, leaving
small sharp scars in the turf where his heels had cut in.

"No," said Shairn. "Not this time, Michael. Let him go."

His head hurt. The wine was turning on him, and he felt ashamed. He
wanted to kill Kerrel, and he couldn't.

Shairn said uneasily, "I'm not mad. That's funny, Michael. I'm not mad
at all, I'm scared."

"Why?"

"Him." She nodded after the dark figure receding among the trees.

"He'd never hurt you."

"Not directly. It's you I'm thinking of. He won't let you go. He was
warning me. He can't let you go, and it isn't only because of me,
or his pride. I've left him before, but this is different. You're
different. He knows we lied to the Council."

"What can he do?"

"You saw him go after Edri. I don't know, Michael, but be careful.
Don't give him even the hint of a chance at you." She shook her head.
"I've changed my mind. I'm glad you're going voyaging. And meanwhile,
you'd better not see much of Edri."

"You love me, Shairn?"

"I should think I'd done enough to prove it!"

"Don't get your back up. I was only wondering. Would you really have
gone to the Orthists to help me?"

She laughed. "It was a safe threat to make. I knew Joris would never
call it."

As though the sound of his name had decided him, Joris fell quietly
sideways and began to snore. Trehearne bent over him, and he thought he
saw in the moonlight a curious thing. He thought he saw tears on the
old man's cheeks. He decided he must be very drunk indeed.

Shairn touched his arm. "Come, Michael."

"Where?"

"The home of my family, the Silver Tower. There's so little time to be
happy in, before you go."

Two weeks later, dressed in the black and scarlet of the Vardda
spacemen, Trehearne left Llyrdis behind him for the starship _Saarga_,
outbound for Hercules.



                                  TEN


The _Saarga_ was not like the ship that had brought Trehearne from
Earth. She was older and shabbier and clumsier, a great lumbering
beldame of a ship, with enormous capacity for cargo and no space at
all for passengers. Officers and crew were cramped into quarters
functionally reduced to the absolute minimum, and there were no such
luxuries as lounges and observation domes. But to Trehearne she was
a thing of beauty, of miracle and wonder. Every dent and scar on her
unlovely bulk-heads recorded a voyage to a nameless sun. The crammed
and odorous vaults of her belly were storehouses of exotic riches. She
was outbound for Hercules, and he was part of her. He was no longer
merely a hungry onlooker. He belonged. He worshipped her.

He saw her first lying hugely in the dock, her scored and pitted
hull-plates giving back a dull glint from the sun. He looked up at
her, and then around him at the tremendous clamor of the port, and
then he strode down along the walkway feeling ten feet high and happy
as a kid at a carnival. He reported aboard, was duly checked in and
assigned to quarters in a very small cabin with four very narrow bunks,
where he good-naturedly allowed himself to be elbowed into the least
desirable upper. His cabin-mates were all younger than he, but they
were veterans, and he was forced to admit that this was his first
professional voyage.

"Trehearne," said the dark-haired youngster in Lower Two, turning the
name over on his tongue and frowning. "Funny sort of name--I've heard
it somewhere."

The copper-haired youngster--the youngest--in Upper One, said, "I know.
My uncle was talking about him. He's the fellow they found on Earth.
Aren't you, Trehearne?"

"Yes."

The dark-haired youngster whistled. "Were you in luck! It was a
million-to-one chance you'd ever even meet another Vardda. What's it
like on Earth? I've never been there."

"It's all right," Trehearne said, "for Earthmen."

The first of the warning bells rang for take-off. They settled
themselves in the padded bunks, and the long, lean, cheerful-looking
man in Lower One, whose youth was already overlaid with many kinds of
experience, glanced up at Trehearne and said, "You're not used to this,
are you?"

"No." Trehearne's belly had contracted suddenly into a hard knot,
and his skin was cold with a clammy sweat. The agonies of that first
take-off returned to him full force. He knew this one would not be as
bad. Once the adjustment was made, you were all right. Everybody said
so. It didn't make any difference. He was scared.

The man in Lower One said quietly, "Just take it easy. By the way, my
name is Yann. Radar crew."

"Hello."

The second warning sounded. Trehearne's teeth shut together with a snap
and his jaw muscles stood out in ridges.

Red-head in Upper One said, "I'm Perri. Low man in the generator room."

Trehearne grunted.

The voice of Lower Two, directly beneath him, said, "If you fall
through, I'll catch you. I'm Astrogation-Computer Technician, Second
Class. A big mouth-filling title, but all I do is punch keys. They call
me Rohan."

Trehearne said painfully, "On Earth there was a Cardinal...."

Third warning. Silence. A drawing-in, a throb, a quiver, and then a
leap....

"Trehearne? Trehearne, are you still there?"

"Yes--" _Crushed, weighted, stupefied, but it isn't so bad, it isn't
nearly so bad, not much worse than pulling out of a dive. And she's
going up, oh God she's going up!_

The air-shriek died. The soundlessness of space was wrapped around the
hull outside, and within there was the soft and mighty beating of that
pulse that Trehearne remembered, going faster, going higher. A sigh
escaped him, and his body relaxed. He smiled. He was where he wanted to
be.

The long haul out to Hercules was uneventful, and the others found it
dull. But for Trehearne, every minute of it was charged with magic. He
was called up once before the skipper, who looked hard at him and said,
"Joris told me to see that you worked. There's more to being a starman
than lounging around in your bunk, and you'll be wanting to take
examinations for some kind of a rating sooner or later. Here, study
these. And in your spare time, learn all you can about the ship."

"These" proved to be texts on the Vardda Trade Laws, manuals on the
rules and regulations governing relations with other races, and a
history in many microvolumes of the trans-galactic expansion of the
Vardda race in its thousand years of existence. He knew that Joris must
have supplied the books and he was glad to get them. The trade codes,
like laws anywhere, were pretty dull stuff and interesting only because
of the fantastically broad field they dealt with. The manuals were
better, because they were full of references to alien and frequently
non-human races, with fascinating glimpses, into the damndest customs
and psychologies Trehearne had ever heard of. But the history held him
spellbound.

It began with a foreword on what the Vardda had been like in the
millenniums before Orthis, when they were simply the people of Llyrdis.
It seemed to Trehearne that they were not too different from the people
of Earth. They had had their ages of barbarism and change and growth,
and their homogeneity had not been achieved without pain. However, they
had achieved it, and at an earlier period in their world-culture than
that in which his native planet now was. He thought perhaps the task
had been easier for the Llyrdians because there were fewer geographic
barriers to the free mingling of peoples in their nomadic phase.
The oceans were land-locked and the mountain ranges were broken by
traversable passes. No primitive tribe had grown to statehood in even
partial isolation, and the cultural streams had flowed strongly in
all directions, losing their narrow intensity and broadening out into
what eventually became one universal lake. It made for dulness in the
world picture, perhaps, because of a sameness in dress and language and
custom, but it was steady, and it led to a conception of the individual
as a world-citizen instead of a nationalist, which cut down rapidly
on wars. Scientific progress seemed to have gone on with only normal
hitches, without any Dark Ages to set it back, and at a time when the
people of Earth were sunk in their blackest pit of ignorance since the
Stone Age, Llyrdis had atomic power, an established commerce with her
neighbor planets, and was building and launching the first starship,
which brought the history to its initial chapter, and Orthis.

"_It is difficult for us now to realize what that first epic flight of
man between the suns was like._..."

Not as it was now, swift and easy, far outrunning the velocity of
light. Science had the techniques even then to build and power the fast
ships, but they were useless. Man could not survive the ultra-speeds.
They had to go as they went between the planets, slowly. Four
generations lived and died within the close confines of that first
feeble forerunner of the Vardda fleets, men and women dedicated in
themselves and their children to the conquest of the greatest barrier
humanity had ever crossed. And they crossed it. Slowly, painfully,
exposed to all the dangers of unknown radiations and unexplored,
uncharted wilderness in its most ultimate sense, exposed to the most
terrible loneliness and isolation that living beings had ever endured,
they toiled their way to a landing on the world of another star and
then--and this, to Trehearne, seemed the most incredible bravery of
all--they took off again for Llyrdis, which to this intermediate
generation was only a name and a tradition, and which they knew they
would never live to see. Orthis was born during this return voyage,
twenty-two years out from the planet he was taught to regard as home,
though he had no knowledge of planets, nor of any life except that of
the ship that moved apparently forever through the night of deep space.
His ears must have been attuned only to that outer silence, his sight
to the darkness and the far-off stars. To wind and rain, to sunlight
and warm grass, to beasts and birds and the faces of many people, he
was a stranger.

And a stranger he remained. "He could not endure to be planet-bound,
after living all his life in space. He built his laboratory ship and
worked in it, cruising where he wished and almost alone, for another
fifteen years. Then, when he was thirty-seven, he announced his
discovery--the birth of Galactic Man, the inception of the Vardda.

"Orthis refused to give to anyone the whole secret of his mutational
process, believing that it was too dangerous in inexpert hands. He
himself constructed the apparatus and used it, sowing with his own
hands the seed of the Vardda race that would flower in the next
generation. And at that time, he was revered by the people of Llyrdis
almost as a demigod. But within the next year the troubles arose that
almost split the Llyrdian State, and brought Orthis eventually into
disgrace. He had given his discovery first to his own people, and
now...."

Trehearne read with the most intense interest, trying to pry between
the stiff factual lines for whatever force it was that made men
like Edri fly in the face of their own best interests. Orthis had
no intention of limiting the Vardda race to his own world. He would
share his mutational process with the other planets of Aldebaran, and
eventually with the star-worlds the original expedition had visited,
and which were highly civilized. He wished them all to share in the
great new future of star-travel--they and all races that might be
discovered in the galaxy with sufficiently high culture-levels to be
worthy of it. But when this became known to the embryo Starmen it
started a most violent reaction. All sorts of objections were raised,
ranging from the selfish but, to Trehearne, quite sensible argument
that the Llyrdians had the best right to the mutation, having taken all
the chances and done all the work, and therefore they should keep it,
at least for a while, to the solemn threat of war on a galactic scale.
"Remember," said the President of the Council, "how we helped the more
backward worlds of our own solar system to achieve interplanetary
flight, and how they repaid us. Remember the wars we have already
fought! Let us take thought before we scatter this great power
broadcast among the stars."

They took thought, and in spite of the impassioned arguments of Orthis
and his followers they would not be hurried into a decision. The
situation became so tense that Orthis' laboratory ship was sealed and
impounded, and Orthis himself placed under virtual arrest. The battle
in the Council Hall dragged on for years, and from the accounts it
seemed to Trehearne that those fathers of the Vardda-to-be had not
acted entirely from a selfish desire to hang on to a good thing. They
were faced with a tremendous problem for which there was no precedent,
nothing to go on but their own thoughts and feelings. Some of the
Council members--the Llyrdian Congressmen--were obviously motivated
by sheer hard-headed self-interest. But there were others who tried
honestly to be just, and justice to their own people came first. They
were afraid to share the mutation, and the control of it, with anyone.
They were afraid to throw open all the unknown doors of space onto
Aldebaran. The Orthists were defeated.

Then came the end, the dramatic fireworks. The Orthist party arranged
an escape for their leader. They helped him get his ship away. They
saw him off into the dark void beyond the sky, and they thought that
after all he would be victorious. But by this time the new Vardda race
had begun to flourish, and some of them were old enough, just barely,
to fly. They went out after Orthis, believing intensely in their own
right, as he believed in his. Orthis himself was undoubtedly able to
endure ultra-speeds, for it was a long and bitter chase. The new young
Vardda partially disabled his ship, but even so he managed to elude
them. There was no ultra-wave radar or radio in those days, and after
all, the old man had cut his teeth on the stars. They lost him, and
that was the end, of Orthis and his ship--all except the message in the
drifting life-skiff that was picked up more than a century later. And
Trehearne thought, "Whether he was right or not, Orthis was the hell
and all of a man!"

He could understand why Orthis had hung on stubbornly all these
centuries. Certainly a more noble dream had never been dreamed. For
himself, though, he was rather glad it was only a dream. He liked being
a Vardda. He liked things the way they were. It had worked pretty well
for everybody, and looking back, he could think of an awful lot of
people he would have hated to see entrusted with the power to get at
their neighbors on other stars. Orthis, that solitary, space-born man,
had seen only the ideal, the abstraction. The Council had extrapolated
a reality.

He did not discuss the question with anybody. That night in the
pleasure-garden had impressed upon him the fact that the whole subject
was unhealthy, and especially for him. The thought of Kerrel arose
sometimes like a dark shadow in his mind, and linked with it was a
gnawing anxiety about Edri, whom he had not seen before he left--not
for any reasons of caution, which he would have been ashamed of, but
because Edri had gone away somewhere and was not to be reached. He had
sent Trehearne a brief message wishing him luck, and that was all.

About Shairn he thought as little as possible. He didn't want to know
what she was doing. He preferred to remember the two weeks he had spent
at the Silver Tower as ending against a blank wall.

He read on in the thundering saga of Vardda exploration, opening the
starways. He studied his laws and codes. And he studied the ship.
His bunkmates were more than willing to show off their knowledge to
a greenhorn, particularly one older than themselves. Perri explained
to him the inner workings of the purring metal giants that drove the
ships--adaptations of the cosmotron for use as a generator, with
centrifuges keyed to ultra-speeds that created the fifth-order
rays. Rohan let him punch keys on the computers that did astral
mathematics--he was not much interested in those--and Yann taught
him how to read the radar screens that functioned not by slow
electro-magnetic waves but by rays akin to those that powered the ship,
moving far faster than light. He listened in Communications to Vardda
ships talking across the galaxy in thin ghostly converse by those same
super-swift rays. The Skipper unbent briefly and allowed him--and this
was like realizing an impossible dream--to hold the controls of the
_Saarga_ in his hands.

Yann did a good bit of tolerant jeering. "You're just starting out, and
it's still fun. Wait till you're as old in the game as I am." He was
twenty-eight. "I've made nine voyages into the Cluster, and I'm tired
of it. All I want is my own ship, which I will let somebody else fly
while I sit comfortably on Llyrdis and catch up on my wine and women."

"Have you any chance of getting one?" asked Trehearne.

"This trip will do it."

Rohan let out a loud laugh. "Hark at him! Don't let him kid you,
Trehearne. We do well, but not that well."

Yann said seriously, "I mean it."

"Would you mind telling me how?"

"I saved my money," Yann told him virtuously. Then he grinned.
"Besides, you're forgetting that I spent almost a year on the ground,
filling in for some damned Vardda factor that died. I didn't waste my
time." He turned to Trehearne. "Wait until we hit that system. I'll
show you things you never saw before. Real barbarism. Good people,
though. I got along with 'em fine."

"I guess," said Trehearne, "that there are all kinds of worlds in the
Cluster."

"Just wait," said Rohan sourly. "You'll have a bellyful before you're
through. There are beautiful ones, and picturesque ones, and very
quaint ones, all right, and some are even civilized. But there's a
hell of a lot that are just plain godawful. You must have guessed that
there's a reason for the high pay on this run."

The great Cluster of Hercules grew from a patch of hazy brilliance lost
in the blaze and crash and thunder of the universe, to a monstrous
star-swarm, blinding even through a darkened port--a swirling hive of
suns, white, red, yellow, peacock blue and vivid green, booming across
the eternal void with the rush and roar of a cosmic avalanche toward
some unknown destination, guided by the evil blinking eyes of the
Cepheid variables. The _Saarga_ plunged in at last among the edges of
the swarm, and Trehearne discovered at least one reason why Edri had
warned him about the Hercules run.

"All the globular clusters are bad," Yann told him cheerfully. "Omega
Centauri--there's another one to break a starman's heart. A strong
ship, a strong captain, and no imagination--that's what it takes for a
voyage like this."

Trehearne was introduced to gravity tides and for the first time in his
life he knew what real fear was. The generators throbbed incessantly.
The _Saarga_ groaned and shrieked in all her iron bones, moving in
erratic bursts of speed and sudden brakings, pitching and swerving
as she felt her way in through shoals of suns, fighting the complex,
ever-shifting gravitational fields. Trehearne got the feeling that
he was trapped inside a giant football being battered back and forth
between the stars.

Yann grinned. "It gets worse as you go farther in."

It did. Trehearne thought it was impossible for any ship to live in
those mighty cross-currents of gravitation as the suns thickened like
swarming bees. Forty times a day he was convinced that his end had
come, and his only comfort was that the Hercules Cluster was a more
noble place to die in than any he had seen on Earth. He wore out his
emotional potential until he had no more to give and merely suffered
the noises and the violent pitchings as the _Saarga_ rolled doggedly
on her way. He had an idea that they must be deep into the heart of
the cluster, and was somewhat daunted to learn, when the ship made her
first landing, that they were still only on the fringe. He was too far
gone to care much. All he wanted then was solid ground under his feet.

He emerged from the airlock into the light of a waning star,
inexpressibly dim and sad, and looked out over a shadowy plain that
glimmered even at midday with the distant glories of other suns,
burning unconcerned. The plain was barren, scoured to the underlying
rock by the winds that blew across it, dry and withering and cold.
But there was a town there, very neat and gay with colors. It made
Trehearne think of too-bright cosmetics on the face of a corpse. The
_Saarga_ discharged food and ores and many small luxuries, receiving
payment in gems of royal purple mined out of the grey rock by little
men with sorrowful eyes. The place began to get on Trehearne's nerves.
His duties kept him by the ship, checking bills of lading, but he
watched the people who came out from the town. They were healthy,
well-fed, well-dressed. But their bodies were stunted, and even the
children's faces held a sadness that seemed as much a part of them as
their skin, seeping into them from the dying sunlight and the dying
soil. He saw the way they looked at the great ship and the men who
flew in her, and how they glanced then at the hot flaming suns that
were beyond their reach. They did not talk much. They only stood and
looked. But once a group of children crept close to him and a small boy
asked, in the _lingua franca_ of the trade worlds, "What is it like to
fly the stars?"

The _Saarga_ did not stay there long, and Trehearne was glad. "Christ!"
he said to Yann. "Those poor kids would break your heart. Couldn't they
be moved or something? They're just dying slowly with their world."

Yann shook his head. "It's been tried, but it doesn't work. At
planetary velocities, even a relatively short hop between stars takes
years, and most people just can't take it psychologically. They crack
up in all directions, or else they sort of wither and die. Besides, I
suppose there's a sort of interstellar ecology. Old worlds die, and new
ones are born, and if you started upsetting the normal balance you'd
have every livable planet overrun with more population than it could
support."

Thinking of the children, Trehearne said, "Ecology, hell. They're human
beings."

Young Perri shrugged. "We all take our chances. You'll get used to it.
Anybody know where we touch next?"

"It's on the board," Yann said. "A lovely place. Trehearne will like
it. There aren't any people there at all."

Trehearne's education into the rights, privileges, and duties of a
Vardda were only beginning. The _Saarga_ slowed again close to a
cumulid variable of the most evil aspect and picked up a planet that
turned out to be a worthy child of its parent. "Here's where we earn
our money," Yann said. "Radiation suits, Trehearne. Full kit. Only the
Old Man is exempt from this."

"What do we do?" Trehearne wanted to know.

"We pick fungus," Rohan told him not joyfully. "It makes a particularly
fine antibiotic when it's been treated, but meanwhile don't get it on
you. It's poisonous as hell. And be sure your oxygen lines are clear.
The air is full of methane."

"He doesn't care," said Yann. "He's still full of the wonder of new
worlds."

"Jeer away," Trehearne said equably. "I am."



                                ELEVEN


Trehearne trailed out with the rest of them, almost the whole ship's
company, to gather the weird harvest. The radiation-suit he wore
was not too heavy in weight--it couldn't be, for men who had to do
hard work--a simple coverall of flexible metallic fabric, with a
phone-equipped helmet and a separate knapsack oxygen-pack that could be
quickly replaced when its oxygen was worked out.

The world he stood on was like something out of nightmare. Fungi higher
than his head grew thickly, like a gruesome travesty of a forest, and
in colors ranging from black to crimson and a yellow like spilled
brains. The giant star--a sick, mad star, Trehearne thought, like all
the short-period true variables--brooded in the poisonous sky, past the
maximum peak of its brilliance now but still pouring out its febrile
energies in a purplish glare. Trehearne grimaced, and shook his head.
"This," he said, "is a planet only Weizsacker could love."

Perri's voice came over the helmet phone, curiously thin but so close
at hand that Trehearne started. "Who's Weizsacker?"

"An Earthman with a theory. He advanced the idea that most stars have
planets."

Rohan said incredulously, "You mean that anyone ever doubted it?"

"Oh, yes. Matter of fact, the general belief still is that Sol is
unique in possessing planets, and that Sol Three, otherwise Earth, is
unique in possessing life, particularly intelligent life."

Rohan swore, and then he laughed. "I never heard of such conceit.
I thought you said Earthmen were civilized. Only savages have that
wonderful conception of their own importance."

Armed with curved knives and big sacks of a thin plasticoid substance
as flexible as cloth but air tight when it was sealed, the men spread
out through the fungoid jungle. They kept more or less together in
small groups. Trehearne could hear them talking, a confusion of voices
over the helmet phone. He talked a lot himself, not about anything in
particular, just talking for the sake of hearing something human. There
was a strange and increasingly unpleasant feeling of isolation, locked
up in his armor, breathing artificial air, unable to see much because
of the helmet that restricted his field of vision. He moved with
difficulty over spongy dust that sucked him down almost to the knees
at every step. The light was lurid and hard on the eyes, and the ugly
growths grew uglier by the minute, their vivid colors more revolting.
It was hard to tell who was near him, with everyone masked out of human
semblance by the shapeless suits. He tried to keep close to Yann and
the two youngsters, checking them by voice.

"Don't bother with the big ones," Yann told him. "They aren't any good.
Here, see the little pretties just coming up? Those are what we want."

Trehearne looked doubtfully at the size of his sack, and then at the
nasty little mushroom-like heads thrusting up from the ground. "It'll
take a long time to fill this thing."

"Hours. Might as well dig in."

Trehearne began patiently to work, bent over double or squattering
clumsily along on his knees. The uncleanness of the place began to get
on his nerves. Unavoidably he broke the adult growths from time to time
and was showered with sooty black, or liverish pink, or ugly red and
yellow dust, or was enveloped in clouds of spores. He tried to watch
the others, but he lost track of them now and then. Sometimes they did
not answer when he called them. A slow claustrophobia grew on him and
had to be fought down. He sweated heavily inside his armor. His muscles
tired, and still the huge sack was not filled.

The light of the cumulid star began visibly to fade.

Trehearne looked around. A wall of leprous color closed him in. There
was no one in sight. "Yann?" he called. "Perri?"

"Hoi!" That was Perri. "Dull work, isn't it?"

"Disgusting. Where's Yann?"

"I don't know. Yann?"

"Here, damn it. If you'd pick more and talk less we'd be out of this
pleasure garden sooner."

Trehearne could not place their positions. They sounded alike, all
as though they spoke inside his own helmet. He worked on, hoping to
catch sight of someone. The sick sun had worn out its burst of energy
and was sinking into exhaustion, dimmer, redder, with the effect of
an abnormal sunset. A kind of shadowy dusk crept between the feet of
the tall distorted growths. Trehearne began to feel uneasy. He knew it
was only the cumulative effect of the surroundings and the prisoning
armor. He refused to pay attention to it. But it would not go away.
It came in waves, with a prickling of nerve-ends and a lifting of the
hair. He continued doggedly to throw the small fungi into his sack. He
wanted to talk now more than ever, but he was afraid to, afraid that
his unreasoning fear would show in his voice and disgrace him. He began
to make long swings back and forth, trying to find somebody, but he
could not, though he knew they must be close by. He was very hot, but
his back turned cold and trickles of icy moisture ran down it. The
unhealthy dusk grew thicker, and the shadows were red. He began to see
movement out of the tail of his eye, as though something or someone
walked stealthily just out of sight behind the screening growths.

"Yann?"

"What?" The bodiless, distanceless voice, speaking thinly in his ear.

"There's no life here, is there? I mean, outside of these stinking
mushrooms."

"Not that anyone knows about. Why?"

"Nothing. It was only a trick of the shadows, I guess."

"Getting nervy, little Earthling?"

"Listen, the hell with you and your smart cracks."

"Think nothing of it," Yann said unabashed. "We all get nervy. I'm
almost finished. How about you?"

"Pretty soon."

"Well, hurry up."

Silence. An occasional burst of voices over the helmet phones,
confusing, jumbled. The men weren't talking so much now. They were
tired, and the place oppressed them. Their spirits were going down
like the light of the sun, sprawling hugely over half the sky with the
red light running out of it like blood. Trehearne watched the shadows
constantly, turning uneasily round and about with a blind feeling
at his back. His nerves still pricked and rippled, and would not be
quieted.

His sack was nearly full. He thought about the ship, about lights and
familiar faces and getting off the suffocating armor. There was a
monstrous fan-shaped growth glaring crimson in the sinking glow. It
was flanked on one side by a bloated puffball colored black, and on
the other by a crinkled, convoluted monster blotched with brown and
yellow. It had at its feet a brood of little ones, enough to fill the
remaining space in Trehearne's sack. He walked toward it, brushing by
the blotched and convoluted thing. He felt at his back a sudden tug and
a snapping. He turned, floundering in the soft mould with his heavy
boots. He turned as fast as he could but there was no one, nothing,
and then it dawned on him what had happened. His oxygen line had been
ripped loose.

He began to shout. He didn't mind using his breath. He had very little
left to use. He shouted in wild panic and began to run, nowhere in
particular, butting and stumbling into the fungi, searching desperately
for someone to help him before he died. "Where are you?" the voices
were clamoring in his helmet. "Where are you?" And he kept screaming,
"Here!" as though the word had any meaning, as though they could tell
from the sound of his voice whether he was ten feet or half a mile
away. The automatic valve-seal had closed at once to prevent the escape
of what air there was in the armor, but it was getting hard to breathe.
His lungs would exhaust the last of the oxygen in a minute or two, and
then he could either suffocate in his armor, or rip off his helmet and
burn his insides out with the methanated poison this world used for
atmosphere. It was a lousy way to die and he didn't like it, and he
couldn't figure out how it had happened. He must have fouled his line
on some part of the fungus, that nasty one that looked like a monstrous
brain. He must have passed too close to it and got hooked on some tough
projection.... It was getting dark and he was sick at his stomach and
his lungs were pumping, laboring, achieving nothing.

He tried to yell again, and couldn't make it. His knees caved under
him and he fell, almost into the arms of a shapeless but human figure
that was saying a lot of things he couldn't understand. He felt himself
rolled over. There was a moment when the darkness closed down almost
completely and then a stream of oxygen, pure and fresh, poured into his
helmet. The mechanism that had so nearly stopped began to work again,
not smoothly, with a good deal of gagging and choking, but working.
Somebody's voice penetrated to him, telling him for God's sake not to
get sick in his helmet, and he managed to sit up and look around.

Two men were bending over him, and a third stood behind them. He could
recognize them through their face-plates. None were his bunkmates.
There was somebody else behind him, holding him up. Voices were still
clattering inside his helmet, demanding to be answered. He thought he
heard Rohan and Perri, but he wasn't sure. "Who's that behind me?" he
asked. His own voice came out as though there were hooks on it. His
throat hurt. "Who's there?"

"Me. Yann. Welcome back, Trehearne. I thought for a minute you'd gone
over the edge."

"Damn near it." His tongue felt like a feather bolster. "I don't know
what happened...."

"Your air-line got snagged," said one of the men helpfully, telling
Trehearne no news. He grunted and said,

"But how? I thought I must have hooked it on one of these ugly brutes,
but they break so easily...."

"They toughen up as they age. Look here." The man reached out and took
a horny protuberance in his hand. "Plenty of resistance, especially if
your coupling was not properly tightened."

He didn't remember any such protuberances, and the blotched
brain-shaped thing had looked bright and youthful. But he let it drop.
He didn't know quite what other answer there could be, and right now
he didn't want to think about it any more. Everything was lost in an
overpowering desire to get back to the ship. He started to flounder up
onto his feet, and Yann's powerful arm helped him. "Anyway," he said to
the men in front of him, "thanks for saving my neck."

"Thank Yann. He had your air-line recoupled by the time we came. You
were running right toward us, but you might not have made it if he
hadn't found you first."

Trehearne turned round to face Yann. "Thanks."

"No trouble at all. I don't say I'd save you out from under the claws
of something or other at the risk of my own skin, Trehearne, but since
this was a simple task, think nothing of it. I was just lucky to find
you. And next time don't stray so far away." He grinned and shoved
Trehearne forward. "You aren't finished yet. You still have to explain
to the Old Man why you lost your sack."

"Oh God," Trehearne muttered. But he didn't turn back. If the Skipper
wanted that sack he could go and look for it. For the time being,
Trehearne was through.

The _Saarga_ creaked and groaned and lurched her way deeper and deeper
into the Cluster, touching like a tramp freighter at this port and
that one, wherever there was trading to do and cargo to be had. Only
her ports were planets, and her seas were the nighted gulfs between
them. The memory of what had happened on the world of the variable star
faded out of Trehearne's conscious mind, though he sometimes started
awake in his bunk with the ghastly feeling of suffocation strong on him
from a dream. But the succession of places and peoples, ever-shifting,
ever-new, gave him too much to think about to waste his time brooding
over something that was over and done. Insensibly, through habit and
association, he was losing all sense of personal strangeness, becoming
as thoroughly a Vardda as though he had been born on Llyrdis. Some of
the first fine childlike glow of wonder wore off. It began to seem the
most natural thing in life to go between the stars as between islands.
The interest remained, but the feeling of awe departed.

They touched at systems that had a high degree of civilization, where
Trehearne first saw the Vardda factories, vast walled compounds held
under treaty, and crammed with warehouses full of goods from all over
the galaxy. The system of the compound, the separate landing field, and
the Vardda factory were universal wherever there was trade enough to
warrant them, even on barbarian planets. "That's where the fortunes are
made," Yann told him, and grinned. "I know. A few years in a factory,
and you can retire."

Trehearne made a mental note of that, though he had no wish to be a
factor. The _Saarga_ moved on. They traded with scaly humanoids under
the glare of a blue-white sun. They stripped the worlds of a red
giant, leaving cheap gilded trinkets in exchange for rare radioactive
minerals, and the small wild people felt themselves enriched. Trehearne
had been amazed at the persistent recurrence of the humanoid form even
when the root-stock from which a particular race had evolved was not
even remotely human, and Yann had explained to him what every Vardda
school-child was taught in General Biology, that the development of
the humanoid form (i.e., possessing a recognizable head, carried in
a vertical or erect posture, two lower limbs used for purposes of
locomotion, and two upper limbs used for manual tasks) rested simply
upon the necessity of a species that intended to progress beyond the
animal level of intelligence to evolve hands, or a workable substitute,
and free them for use.

But human or humanoid, furred, scaled, feathered, or normally
integumented, of whatever color or size or state of social development,
one thing was common to all the races of all the worlds. They hated the
Vardda. It was a hatred based purely on envy, and Trehearne became
so used to it that he hardly thought about it any more, except to
notice its variation according to cultures--the aboriginals who mixed
with it a worshipful, superstitious fear of the Vardda starlords, the
barbarians who would have killed them except that they were greedy for
the luxuries of trade, the civilized folk who treated them with cold
respect and ate their hearts out with jealous longing. The only thing
that really bothered Trehearne was the children, especially the young
boys, who followed the Vardda up and down the streets and as near as
they were allowed to the ship, asking over and over the same eternal
question--"What is it like to fly among the stars?"

He had almost forgotten Earth. And then they swung in toward the world
of a yellow sun, a green world that tore his heart quite suddenly with
a rush of memories. He stared out the port at distant fields and trees,
and at a city that might have been an Earthly city, shorn of its dirt
and slums and spreading along the bank of a mighty river, and he was
astonished that he could still feel homesick.

Yann looked at him sourly. He was brushing and sprucing up his uniform,
and Rohan and Perri were brushing theirs, and none of them looked happy.

"Looks pretty, doesn't it?" said Yann.

Trehearne nodded. He was looking at the river and thinking of the
Mississippi. His mind was a long way off.

"Well, it is pretty," Yann muttered. "The climate's fine, the people
are civilized, the women are handsome, and I'll bet even the food is
good. But we're not allowed to enjoy them. We aren't even--"

The buzzing signal of the ship's intercom interrupted him, and the
captain's face appeared on the small tele-screen.

"This is a warning, and a reminder. Here is where we do our trading
with our hats in our hands and a humble look. Have you got that, all
of you? You are to remain within the trading compound. You are not to
fraternize with the natives. You are to show all deference to such
members of the Hedarin as you may have contact with. And you are _not_,
under any circumstances, to take offence at anything that may be said
by them. In other words, keep your mouths shut until you're forced to
open them, and then sing small. Those are orders, and I'll discipline
any man that breaks them!"

The screen went dark. Trehearne looked at the others. "What kind of a
place is this?"

"You heard the Old Man. It's a place where the Vardda apologize for
living."

"Who are the Hedarin?"

"The lawgivers. The wise men. The speakers of the last word."

Young Perri gave his shoulders an expressive twist. "Creepy beggars,"
he said. "They're parapsychs."



                                TWELVE


The compound was large and chiefly empty, except for an open-sided
building like a fair pavilion at one end of it. There was no factory,
only the compound adjoining a landing field, outside the city. Large
crowds were gathered beyond the low walls, much like any crowd on
Earth, laughing, pushing, pointing at the ship, sending up an incessant
gabble of talk. But the compound had only a few dozen men in it. They
were inside the pavilion, waiting, and Trehearne was treated to the
unusual spectacle of the Vardda captain and his officers marching
humbly forward to ask permission to trade.

"Come a little closer," Yann whispered to him. "See those two tall men
in the dun-colored robes, sitting at the back? They're Hedarin. Watch."

The Vardda officers spoke to the two men, and received a brief answer.
"They give us two days," said Rohan. "Generous of them." Trehearne
looked longingly over the compound wall. There were clumps of trees out
there, and it must be coming on to fall, for the leaves were turning.
The sky was intensely blue, with a soft haze low on the horizon, and
the air was crisp. If you didn't look too closely it might be Ohio in
October, and he wanted to go somewhere and walk alone, remembering. He
didn't know why. Earth was behind him, and he did not regret it. But he
wanted to go and walk among the turning trees.

Instead he got out lists and manifests and stood by, while the trading
began. Goods and samples of goods, from trinkets to medicines and light
machinery were brought out of the ship, and the bringing was done by
the Vardda themselves. Trehearne helped, and all the cursing that was
done was done quietly. "Too goddam proud to supply porters," somebody
said. "The people wouldn't mind, but the Hedarin think it's debasing.
Not the physical labor, you understand, but even the appearance of
working for us. Me, I'd let 'em rot before I'd trade with them."

"The Old Man doesn't feel that way, so tail on, will you? This crate is
heavy."

In the pavilion, the business went briskly. Only the Hedarin, sitting
aloof, seemed unfriendly. Their faces gave Trehearne a peculiar
feeling. Rather too small for their massive heads, though not so much
as to be deformed, their features had a sort of iron strength that was
almost chilling, as though the mind behind them had overswayed all
the weaknesses of the flesh. Their eyes, deep set and light in color,
seemed to look inward, not in the usual foggy contemplative way of
people pondering over their thoughts, but as down a bright, clear vista
where nothing was dark or doubtful, where no trivia could exist, no
stirrings of emotion, no wayward impulse. They were splendid looking
men. He had to admire them. But there was no thought of liking them.
They watched the trading, and Trehearne began to notice that every item
was offered for their approval before any bargain was struck. Most
often it was granted, but now and then there would be a shake of the
head and the article was rejected. The merchants might look regretful,
but they did not protest.

"They swing an awful lot of weight," Trehearne said under his breath to
Yann.

The First Officer, a slightly greying man who knew the Cluster like his
own flower garden, was standing near and heard him. "So would you," he
said, "if you could look inside a man's head and see all his thoughts,
and into his body and trace the course of every gut, simply by using
the power of your own mind."

"Uncomfortable people to have for rulers."

"They don't rule, in that sense. They're the physicians, the judges,
the scientists--purely intellectual, a separate caste. They wouldn't
stoop to anything as physical as ruling. They live entirely in and for
the mind. In temporal matters they merely advise."

Remembering a certain Dr. Rhine, Trehearne asked, "Can they do
everything? I mean, teleportation, telekinesis, telepathy, all the
tricks?"

"They never discussed it with me, but I should think they could do all
that, and more."

"Insolent bastards," said young Perri, scowling. His Vardda pride was
hurt. Rohan kicked him. "Keep it to yourself. And don't even think too
loud." Trehearne fidgeted. For the moment there was nothing to do, and
he was standing with the others, six or seven of them, waiting. Finally
he whispered, "What do we get here that makes it worth while?"

"Gem-stones," said Yann. "Fabulous. And their lapidaries rank as
just about the best in the galaxy." He bent his head very close to
Trehearne's and whispered, "All the same, I agree with Perri. Look at
those merchants. Damned if I'd let anybody tell me what I could buy,
and what I couldn't."

The Hedarin were out of earshot, and no whisper could possibly have
carried to them over the buzz and chatter of the trading that was going
on in front of them. Yet all at once they turned their heads, and
Trehearne found himself looking straight into the glare of those clear
light eyes. He felt Yann start involuntarily, and then something passed
like a cold wind through his mind, touching every hidden corner of it
with a casual ease that horrified him, and dropping it immediately
after with an unmistakable contempt that enraged him. He shook his
head in a futile but instinctive attempt to clear it of the invading
presence and started forward in a blind temper, forgetting orders
completely. The First Officer grabbed him and whispered fiercely, "Shut
up!", though he hadn't said anything yet. The cold something winked out
of his mind like a light going off. Out of the corner of his eye he
saw the disturbed, astonished faces of his comrades, and he knew that
the same thing had happened to them. And then a sudden glance passed
between the Hedarin. They rose. One held up his arm and said, "The
trading is ended."

All sound ceased at once. The merchants stood, disappointed and
surprised, looking at the Hedarin, and then out of the uncomfortable
silence came the voice of the Vardda captain, held rigidly under
control. "But you gave us two days!"

"It is ended. Take up what is yours, and go."

The captain's voice was not now as polite. "I wish to know why. We've
kept all the conventions...."

"We gave permission. Now we revoke it."

They gestured to the merchants, busy middle-aged men who looked like
all the businessmen Trehearne had ever seen. Reluctant, but obedient,
they turned away and began to walk out of the pavilion. Somebody--it
sounded like the captain--said, "Of all the goddamned high-handed...."
And then some other Vardda voice shouted to the merchants, "What are
you, a bunch of children to be ordered around? Why don't you trade if
you want to?"

One of the merchants answered, "The Hedarin are wise."

"Maybe," said Trehearne angrily. "Or maybe they just like to show off."
He demanded of the men in the dun-colored robes, "What have you got
against us?"

They did not answer, and Rohan said, laughing, "The same thing all the
non-Vardda have against us. Also, we're crass, crude traders. We don't
think."

"You think," said the Hedarin quietly. "And we do not want your
thoughts. Among you there is more than baseness. There is murder."

Again there was a silence, and this time it had a quality of shock. The
Vardda looked at one another, and suddenly Trehearne's spine turned
cold. Shadows under a waning star, an ugly forest tight around him like
a leprous wall, a tug, a snap, and death, unseen and unexplained but
very capable, closing on him like a great dark fist.

Murder?

Voices, Vardda voices, aroused, indignant, challenging. The merchants
were leaving, and the Hedarin had stepped down. The Vardda were
demanding proof.

It couldn't be. No one aboard the _Saarga_ had anything against him. It
must have been an accident. There was no reason to think it wasn't.

"Who is it?" roared the captain. "You can't make an accusation like
that and then walk out...."

"We have no part in your affairs. You demanded a reason, and it was
given. That is all."

Murder. It was an ugly word. Trehearne wished they hadn't said it. He
wished the episode of the air-line hadn't happened. It opened the way
for so much speculation. It made him apply the threat to himself, when
after all, every member of the crew probably had at least one enemy
he wouldn't mind killing. Everybody thought about it at one time or
another. He had thought himself about killing Kerrel, but thinking was
one thing, and doing it another.

Kerrel. Could he have hired somebody, to see that a certain Earthman
did not come back from the Hercules Cluster?

Say he did. Who? Rohan? Perri? Yann? No, Yann had saved his life, and
he couldn't see either of the youngsters in the role of a killer.
Somebody else, then. He looked around at the familiar faces, angry now,
resentful. Who? He could not pick one out. He knew them all. They were
his shipmates. They might do a lot of things, but--murder?

The First Officer said a skatological word. "You could probe into any
man's subconscious mind and find a wish to kill. It doesn't take a
parapsych to know that. They just wanted an excuse."

"Yeah," said Yann. "The hell with 'em. Well, let's pick up our traps
and go."

Trehearne thought the First Officer was probably right. It was the most
comforting explanation. He clung to it. It seemed that if anyone had
really wanted to kill, and had tried once, he would have tried again.
They'd been to a lot of worlds and done a lot of things. There had been
plenty of other chances.

Or had there? Who knew what might appeal to a murderer as a good
chance? And he couldn't just kill. He had to make it look like an
accident. That wouldn't be so easy.

Oh, hell, forget it. It _was_ an accident.

He did forget it, deliberately, as much as he could. But a certain
uneasiness stayed with him, and he dreamed more often of the fungoid
forest and the ghastly sensation of breathing without air. He began to
want a change. He wouldn't have believed it a few months before, but
he was getting sick of the ship, the confinement, the close quarters,
the manufactured air and the palatable but synthetic food. He was not
the only one. The most hardened veterans aboard were suffering from
the ennui of a long voyage. They looked forward more and more to the
landings, even on unpleasant worlds, and grumbled because they were so
brief. By the time the _Saarga_ reached the system of the green star,
the terminal point whence she would start the equally long return
voyage, Trehearne was so hungry for land that even that lurking unease
was thrust out of his mind by the sheer joy of making worldfall.

Yann was full of excitement. "This is the system I told you about,
Trehearne--the one where I was factor so long. I got to know the
natives like a brother." He laughed and clapped Trehearne on the
shoulder. "We make a good stop here, and when our work's done I'll show
you some things!"

The _Saarga_ set down on a world of emerald heat. Besides the starship
the landing field contained half a dozen battered interplanetary craft,
brought out piecemeal by the Vardda and operated by them between the
wild planets of the system. The great stockaded factory was one of the
largest Trehearne had seen and the strangest.

The "logs" that formed the stockade and made the walls of the
warehouses were of crystal, cut from the crystalline forests that
covered much of the land. Trehearne thought of them as trees and
forests, simply because they had stems and branches, but they were
inorganic, the glittering proliferation of sublimated alien chemicals.
They glowed and flashed under the fierce green sun, showing glints of
weird color where a prism formation broke the light. And also, in their
shining branches, they netted the many-colored rays of the brighter
stars that burned even in the daylight sky.

There was a town beyond the factory. It too was built of the crystal
logs over foundations of black rock sunk in the ooze. Thick vines
clambered everywhere, bearing bulbous fruit. Undergrowth, green almost
to blackness, stood between the trees. There was a smell of fragrant
rottenness, cloying, sweet.

Trehearne worked his long shifts, moving and sweating through a bath
of molten jade. It was a large world and heavy. The gravity dragged at
him. The letters of the freight lists swam under his eyes. When his own
job was finally finished, he found Rohan and Perri still hard at it,
but Yann was through and waiting for him.

"Come on with me now," said Yann, and smacked his lips. "Wine, cooled
in deep wells. Make a new man of you."

"A hell of a world," said Trehearne.

"You should see the others of this system. This is the pick of the lot."

They walked through the outer compound, a sort of caravanserai
crowded with folk from the other planets, brought in for the trading.
Cold-blooded creatures with crimson eyes, ophidian princes of the inner
worlds, wrapped in golden mantles against the chill. Slim, furred kings
of the outer planets, capped and girdled with precious stones, still
and panting in the heat. These and others watched the two tall Vardda,
thinking their own thoughts.

They passed through the gate out of the factory, wading in soggy mud.
The sun was setting in a welter of lurid green, tinged with peacock
hues. Trehearne looked at the town ahead, the straggling lanes, the
crystal huts that crouched in sordid beauty, the encircling forest of
ungodly trees. Doubt assailed him.

"Perhaps we should stay in the factory. There'll be plenty of wine and
more comfort."

Yann cursed him good-naturedly. "I told you I know these people better
than I know my own children! Come on, Trehearne, there's nothing to do
in the factory. Don't you want to see something new?"

Trehearne did. He was sick of the factory, after those long shifts of
sweating labor. He shrugged, and made sure of the prismed shock-tube
in his belt. It was customary, when the Vardda went abroad on strange
worlds, for them to carry a weapon. They were sometimes needed. Yann
noticed the gesture and grinned. His own belt-holster was empty.

"I'd feel safer with one myself," he said, "but these people we're
going to see are my friends. They'd be mortally offended if I came
armed--a sign I didn't trust them, you see, and then look out!" He led
the way down the muddy road, and Trehearne followed.

Night came. The glorious sky of the Cluster crashed down on them,
sown to bursting with stars as bright as moons. The crystalline trees
took on opaline fires. The hut walls glittered. Around the two Vardda
gathered a crowd of sloe-eyed children, silent and solemn, with hides
of dusky green. Women watched them from the doorways. Human enough and
pretty enough too, the younger ones, sleek and olive-colored, wearing
bright silks from Llyrdis about their hips and baubles in their hair.

Yann chattered happily as they went along the winding lanes, telling of
his multifarious sins and adventurings and the clever ways in which he
had cheated the factory. The hostile curious eyes of the women followed
them and now and again a man spat expressively into the mud behind them.

They came at last to a hut on the outskirts of the town. Beside it were
chained four pairs of beasts the size of harriers, milk-white with
dark muzzles and feet, the undulating bodies built light and long for
speed. They made shrill barking sounds and leaped at the strangers,
showing hungry fangs. Trehearne thought they looked like gigantic
weasels--and quite as friendly.

"Hounds," said Yann. "Kurat is a hunter. I had a private arrangement
with him for skins." He winked hugely and lifted up his voice, shouting
in the native tongue an obvious demand for Kurat to come out and
welcome his brother.

A lean, hard-muscled man emerged. He wore a loin-cloth of brilliant
blue silk, not very clean, and a necklet of hammered metal. He greeted
Yann with glad cries. Trehearne smiled inwardly. They were two of a
kind, the Vardda and the hunter, a brace of happy scoundrels. Kurat
welcomed him in the _lingua franca_ of the factory towns. A brother of
Yann, it seemed, was his brother also. He swept Trehearne before him
into the hut.

There was a numerous family inside. A very old man and woman sat in a
corner, doing nothing. Babes and children cluttered the floor. Kurat's
hulking wife waded imperturbably among them. A handsome younger woman
brought in a great sweating jug and poured from it into Trehearne's
cup. The wine was cold and bitter. Trehearne, draining it, began to
forget the heat and his weariness. Then, as he looked up into the young
woman's face, he was startled by the hatred in her watching eyes.

He said suddenly, "Why do you hate us so?"

She laughed metallically. "Is there any world where the Vardda are
loved?"

"Because we are able to fly the stars and you aren't?"

"Because we too could have had the stars and you Vardda kept us from
it!"

Trehearne stared at her, disconcerted by her sudden passion. "But the
secret was lost...."

"Oh, yes! And even on this far world we know how it was lost! All the
universe has heard of Orthis and of how the Vardda drove him into the
depths of space and destroyed him because he would have shared his
knowledge. And so you are free and I am chained, and my children after
me forever."

She turned abruptly away from him. He looked after her, depressed by
this new proof of what bitter depths of hostility lay behind the faces
of the non-Vardda.

But Yann shook his shoulder. "Kurat has made a kill today--a rare skin.
Come outside and look at it. It could be worth a lot of money."

Less from interest than to escape his own oppression, Trehearne rose.
They went out a back way. There was a shed some distance away, where
Kurat said the hide was drying. Yann and he chatted in the unfamiliar
jargon. Trehearne was not much interested in the whole business.

It was dark inside the shed. Yann said, "Wait a minute while I make a
light."

Trehearne waited but not long. The light exploded inside his own skull.
He heard Kurat grunt behind him with the exertion of the blow, then
laugh. Yann was laughing too.

Trehearne knew a moment of murderous fury and then the world of the
green star slipped away from under him.

When it returned again into his ken, he was sprawled on his face in
mud, stripped of his tunic, his jewelled belt, his shocker and his
sandals. The hut of Kurat had vanished, the town with it. He was in the
forest, encircled by trees whose crystal branches glittered under the
savage stars. His head hurt violently.

He got unsteadily to his feet with only one thought in his mind--the
determination to get his hands on his good friend Yann. He took three
steps in no particular direction--and then stopped, bathed in a sudden
icy sweat.

In the distance and not too far away he heard the high-pitched cry of
Kurat's strange hounds.



                               THIRTEEN


Trehearne's mind cleared with an almost physical wrench. The fumes of
the wine left it, and the thick obscurity put there by the blow. The
pain stayed, but he could think. He could remember. The world of the
cumulid star. The man in the dun-colored robe saying, Murder.

Murder. Yann.

_Don't thank me, it was Yann that saved you. He had your air-line
recoupled...._

Crazy. It couldn't be Yann.

It was. He had followed him meekly into a trap and sat there meekly
drinking while Yann and Kurat talked jovially over his head, arranging
the details.

The cry of the pack was nearer.

They would not want his body in the hut or in the town. They would not
want it to seem like murder. They would carry him into the forest, and
then set the hounds after him, leaving the beasts to do the final work.
Who could be blamed if a drunken Vardda wandered off where he had no
business to be and was pulled down by a pack of hounds? He wondered if
Yann and Kurat were following the hunt. He wondered why Yann wanted him
dead.

Yann. The dirty treacherous son of a bitch....

Trehearne began to run.

The ropy vines that crept and clambered among the crystal trees were
like nooses set to catch his feet. He fell, and rose, and ran again,
and the spongy ground gave softly under his feet like sand. It was very
hot, and he was heavy, heavy with the drag of a heavy world.

Behind him, clear and shrill, came the _yap-yap-yaahhh!_ of Kurat's
weasel hounds, racing over a fresh scent. The crystal branches gleamed
and sparkled, tipped with star-fire, sharp-tipped like spears.
Trehearne stopped and tried to break one and it was like trying to
break a bar of steel with his bare hands. He gave it up and fled
onward, not knowing where he was or where he was going, only wanting
to stay away as long as he could from the lithe white demons that
were hunting him. There was a little river, black and warm. He waded
upstream in it, splashing to his waist, swimming in the deeper pools.
The bitter wine had left him thirsty, and he drank. The water tasted
foully of pitch and slime and he spat it out again, gasping. He heard
the voice of the pack change to a querulous whining as they checked
by the bank of the stream where he had entered it. He sank down to
rest and listened to them casting back and forth. He thought he heard
a man's voice shouting but he could not be sure. He went on again,
striking away from the river and into the forest. The great stars were
pounding against his head and his body was leaden with many extra
pounds of weight by gravitation.

He prayed for a fallen branch, but there was none. He prayed to
find the town and that too was denied him. He ran heavily under the
glittering trees and behind him the hounds burst suddenly into full
cry, more distant now but as chilling to the blood. It would not be
long before they overtook him.

He measured the trees with an eye to climbing one for refuge. They were
glassy and badly shaped, and they were low. He remembered the long
whipcord bodies of the weasel-like beasts. He thought they could leap
as high as they needed to pull him down. He staggered on, and every
time he fell it was harder to get up again. A terrible rage was on him,
rage against Yann. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair to make a man run for
his life on a world where he couldn't run. The cry of the pack came
closer.

Abruptly, from somewhere ahead of him, rose the challenging voices of
other hounds.

Trehearne stopped. He was caught now, between two fires. There was no
use in going on. He choked on the acrid gorge of fear that filled his
throat and cast about for a weapon, something, anything, to hold in his
hands, to kill with, at least a little before he was torn apart.

It came to him that the yelping of the beasts ahead was stationary.
It was irritable. They were not hunting. They were chained. Trehearne
sobbed. He began to run again.

There was a clearing. He saw it ahead dimly through the starshine and
the trees. He strove to reach it, and the pack-cry clamored at his
heels. He tripped and pitched headlong and was almost happy, because
he had fallen over a tangle of branches left from the breaking and
clearing of the crystal trees. He caught one up. It was not long but
it was sharp and heavy. It was better than nothing. He plunged forward
with it into the edge of the open space, and there the hounds of Kurat
bayed him.

Swift and undulant, white as frost in the starlight, they came leaping
beautifully between the glistening trees. They cried out once, all
together, and then they were still, still as arrows in mid-flight,
arching toward him through the air. He set his back against a glassy
trunk and swung his broken crystal branch. He struck some of them. But
there were fangs set like hot irons in his flesh.

There was a hut in the center of the clearing. Four of the
hunting-beasts were leashed beside it. They were the ones that had
answered Kurat's pack. Now they snarled and screamed and fought their
leashes. A man, a woman, and a tall boy came out of the hut. The boy
started to run toward Trehearne, shouting. The man caught him. He spoke
to the boy and made him be still. They stood there, watching.

Trehearne killed one of the hounds with his crystal club, and one he
crippled. The remaining six boiled around him, a liquid tangle of
bodies leaping, flowing, slashing with the white knives of their teeth.
The blood ran on Trehearne's body. He swung and swung again, and yelled
for help to the man and woman who watched stolidly.

They did not move. The boy tried to, and the man cuffed him.

Trehearne uttered a hoarse sound and dropped the branch. One of the
brutes had fastened on his wrist. Its weight dragged him to his knees
and he knew that this was the finish, the last of his voyaging amidst
the stars. He tore the strong jaws out of his flesh and swung the brute
as a flail in the faces of its mates and then he could hold it no
longer and the pack closed in.

The boy had slunk back into the shadows by the hut wall. Now, suddenly,
he reached and slipped the thongs from around the necks of the tethered
hounds.

They tore across the clearing over the jagged stumps and flung
themselves upon the pack of Kurat.

For a moment the beasts forgot Trehearne. He scrambled free of the
snarling tangle and went toward the hut. The man rushed by him,
howling. He picked up a branch and began to beat the battling hounds,
struggling to separate them. The woman wailed and ran to help him. The
boy came to Trehearne.

He was not much above sixteen, tall and well made. He put his arm
around Trehearne's waist and took him into the hut and sat him down.
Trehearne was glad to sit. The room reeled and darkened around him.
When his sight cleared the boy had brought cloths and a pungent salve
and was binding his cuts.

"What is your name?" asked Trehearne in the _lingua franca_.

"Torin."

"You saved my life, Torin. I will not forget it."

"I would do anything for the Vardda." Instead of hate there was
hero-worship in this non-Vardda face. It was obvious that in the boy's
eyes Trehearne was a figure of glory. Trehearne was touched.

Torin stared at him, his task forgotten. And he asked the question, the
old unchanging question that was always on the lips of boys. "What is
it like--what is it really like, to fly between the stars?"

Trehearne put his hand on the lean young shoulder and lied. "It is long
and hard and not nearly as adventurous as hunting. I'll wager that
you're as good a hunter as your father."

"Not yet," said Torin. "Some day...." He bent to his work again. His
fingers moved over Trehearne's flesh, touching the muscles, spreading
the wounds, gentle with the thick salve. He scowled, brooding over some
question of his own. "It feels like mine," he said. "It bleeds like
mine and here is an old scar and there will be new ones. It is not a
different flesh, made of iron or some other thing."

He sprang up. "Look!" he cried. "I am strong, very strong. See, my
flesh is hard like yours. Surely it is not true that only the Vardda
can fly in the great ships! Surely I am strong enough to go out and see
the stars!"

Trehearne could not meet his eager eyes. He said, "It takes a
different kind of strength." He tried to explain and gave it up. He
could only say, "I'm sorry."

He got up. "Will you guide me to the compound, Torin? And think what
you would like out of all the things that are there. I can't take my
life from you without giving something back--a little gift between
friends."

Torin whispered, "I want to see the ship."

Trehearne frowned and in the interval of silence he heard the noises
from the clearing--the whining growl of hounds and the sudden lifting
of human voices.

"Your parents?"

"No," said Torin. "They are still trying to catch our beasts in the
forest."

"Look out and see who has come, Torin."

He flattened himself in the corner behind the door. The boy opened it
and peered.

"Two men," he whispered. "A hunter whose name is Kurat--and a Vardda."
He drew back and looked at Trehearne. "They were hunting you?"

Trehearne nodded. His face had tightened and grown cruel. "Give me a
knife."

Torin handed him a skinning blade of crystal chipped to a razor edge.
Trehearne said, "Go and tell them I am dead from the hounds' tearing.
Tell the Vardda to come and help you carry out my body."

Torin hesitated, then he went. Trehearne heard him calling across the
clearing. The gabble of voices increased and Yann's familiar laughter
sounded. The boy was talking, telling the details of Trehearne's dying.

Yann strode into the hut.

He came confidently. He had nothing to fear. And then Trehearne's arm
was around his throat and the point of the knife was biting in under
the angle of the jaw.

"Don't move," said Trehearne. And again, "Don't move!"

Yann stood still. Blood was running down the side of his neck. "You'll
cut the vein," he whispered. "No deeper, please, no deeper."

He had not picked up any weapons on the way. There was none in his
belt, none in his hands. Trehearne took the point of the knife out of
Yann's throat and then he hit him. Yann fell sprawling on the floor. He
started to complain, and Trehearne kicked him, as hard as he could with
his bare foot, twice in the ribs, wanting to hear bone break. Yann's
breath came out with a rush. Over his shoulder Trehearne said to Torin,
wide-eyed in the doorway, "Keep watch, and tell me if anyone comes."

"They are busy with the hounds and with talking," the boy said. And
then, "Will you kill him?"

"I'd enjoy it." Trehearne touched Yann again with his foot. "You tried
it that other time, too, didn't you? God damn it, answer me! Didn't
you?"

Coughing, his face against the floor, Yann muttered, "Yes."

"You crept up behind me, between those growths. You pulled my air-line
loose and ducked before I could turn around. You went to a lot of
trouble. Why did you save my life?"

Yann groaned and retched. "I'm sick."

"You'll be sicker." Trehearne got him by the hair of the head, standing
carefully and watching for any sudden move, and dragged him half erect.
"Sit up and talk like a man. Why did you undo all your good work? You
could have let me die right there."

Yann shook his head. "You were blundering straight into the others.
Somebody was going to save you, and I figured it might as well be me.
If you had any suspicions you'd switch them to someone else. Make it
easier next time." His mouth twisted into a parody of a grin. "It did."

Trehearne said, "You're a hell of a nice guy." His hand moved and
light flickered on the crystal knife. Yann's eyes were drawn to it.

"This wasn't my idea," he said. "I was only doing a job. You don't have
to kill me." He put an emphasis on the pronoun.

"I don't have to. It's whether I want to or not. Whose idea was it,
Yann?"

"He was going to give me a ship," Yann muttered. "A ship of my own. Any
man would do it for a price like that. You'd do it yourself, Trehearne.
That's just common sense."

Trehearne said, "Who offered you the ship?"

"Kerrel. You go fight it out with him. I've got nothing against you,
Trehearne. Kerrel explained to me that it wasn't murder to put you out
of the way, but a service to the whole Vardda community, and this was
the only way he could do it. But I'm not interested in politics. This
was just a business deal for me. One life, one ship."

"Kerrel isn't rich. Where was he going to get hold of a ship to give
away?"

"I guess he had a deal in mind. Maybe that depended, too, on your not
coming back. I don't know. Anyway, I can prove it was Kerrel. Here,
I've got the whole business in writing. I'm no fool. Agent of the
Council or not, a man's a man...." Still talking, still scowling, Yann
dug into his tunic pocket. An instant later, an instant too late,
Trehearne realized that by no possibility would Kerrel ever put such
things in writing. He moved, fast.

The shocker came out of Yann's pocket, the weapon he wouldn't carry
openly because Kurat would be offended, the weapon he had not left
behind in the compound. Trehearne hit him just before the business end,
the prism, cleared the silk cloth of Yann's tunic. He hit him with both
hands, and he hadn't exactly forgotten the hunting knife with the razor
edge, but he didn't care now, he didn't want to be laid out stunned
and senseless by the shock-beam so that Yann could have his ship and
Kerrel could have Shairn and the hounds could have their bellies full
of meat. He hit him hard and rolled him over and rolled over with him.
The shocker went skittering away, hitting the wall with a sharp click.
Trehearne scrambled frantically to get to his feet first, but he didn't
need to hurry. Yann was not going to get up any more. The shining haft
of the knife was standing out of Yann's chest. It rose and fell a
couple of times, and then it stopped. There was not much blood around
it.

Torin broke the silence. "Will you kill the other one, too?" He jerked
his head toward the door. Beyond it in the clearing Kurat was bawling
at his yapping hounds.

Trehearne thought. He thought rapidly and clearly, and that was odd
because there was a sickness in his belly, and a kind of shaking on
him. After a moment he said, "No. There's a better way."

He went and picked up the shocker that had belonged to Yann. Then
he leaned over and took the slack of Yann's collar in his free hand
and dragged him outside. He was very heavy, and his head lolled back
against Trehearne's wrist.

Kurat turned and came toward the hut. There was a happy look on his
face. He was a happy man. He had done a good job, for good pay. And
then he saw Trehearne, and the shocker, and Yann lying on the ground
where Trehearne had dropped him. Something queer and ludicrous happened
to the face of Kurat.

Trehearne pointed. "There's a native hunter's knife in his heart. You
killed him, Kurat. I saw you do it."

Kurat made a sound like something that has stepped into a snare and
feels it closing. "I didn't. You lie, you know I...."

"You killed a Vardda," Trehearne said. "You were quarrelling over the
wine, and you put the knife into him, so. That was wrong of you, Kurat.
I don't think the other Vardda will like it. I would go away, if I were
you. I would take my hounds and my family and go a long way off into
the forest."

Kurat stared for a moment into Trehearne's eyes. Then he looked at
Yann. Then he turned and shouted up his bleeding hounds, saying no word
but shouting with a curious raw edge to his voice, and went with them
into the forest, running.

He was, Trehearne thought, no fool. He knew what Vardda vengeance could
be, and he knew what his word would be worth against a Vardda. He did
not think the factory would see Kurat again for many years. And he was
glad. Kurat's disappearance would save Trehearne many explanations. He
did not want to tell to anyone now the truth of how and why Yann had
died.

He did not want to talk about it except to one man.



                               FOURTEEN


Torin's parents came back into the clearing a few minutes later. The
woman had three hounds leashed, all of them bleeding and one going
on three legs. In his hand, by its loose scruff, the man carried the
fourth one, dead. He flung it down at Torin's feet.

"There's your work," he said. "Two of the others will not hunt for
days. We will go hungry because my son is a fool."

Then he saw Yann's body, and started back, looking swiftly at Trehearne.

"Kurat killed him," said Trehearne. "I'll take his body back to the
ship. There will not be any trouble."

"I will help you," Torin said.

The man said nothing. He stood running his hard hands nervously up
and down on his bare belly, a man oppressed by fate. The woman turned
silently away to tie the hounds again. Trehearne took off his belt and
pried two of the jewel stones out of it. They were not of the best, but
to these people they were riches. He would have given them Yann's belt,
which was more valuable, but he was afraid it would make them trouble
when they tried to barter it. He put the two stones in the man's palm.

"Those will pay for your hounds. I'll leave word with the factor that
they were not stolen. Just don't do anything till after the ship is
gone." He lifted up Yann's body and laid it over his shoulder. "Come
on, my friend Torin. Let's go."

He walked out across the clearing, and Torin came with him, pointing
out the path. When they were out of hearing, he said to Trehearne, "I
would like it if you could forgive my parents. To me they are good and
kind, but they do not understand the Vardda."

"Perhaps they do," Trehearne said. "Better than you know."

It was morning when they reached the compound, a green morning
oppressed with heat. Trehearne was ready to drop, and even the boy was
weary. Yann had been a heavy burden, shared between them. But all the
way he had talked of the great ship. He would accept no other gift but
that, to see the ship, and he pleaded so that Trehearne had not the
heart to refuse him. After all, it was little enough reward for what
the boy had done.

"You will have to wait, though, perhaps a long while. I will have to do
much talking, about _him_."

"I will wait," said Torin, smiling. "I have waited all my life."

It was the last great day of the trading and all the Vardda were inside
the compound except one man who guarded the _Saarga_. The hatches were
closed. Only the airlock port was open and the guard sat in front of
it, yawning in the heat. He quit yawning when he saw Yann's body.

Things were a little confused for Trehearne for a while. He talked,
and then he patiently endured the tongue-lashing the skipper gave him.
It was a rough one, such as a man deserved who would go drinking with
a comrade and pass out and let his comrade be killed by natives. But
when it was over there was nothing to do but order Yann buried and go
on with the last trading. Trehearne was glad that Rohan and Perri were
too busy right now to ask questions. When it was all finished he found
Torin and went with him to the airlock port and spoke to the guard.

"He helped me out there. Maybe he saved my life. I promised him a look
around."

The guard looked doubtful. "It's against the rules. The Old Man would
have my head if he found out."

"How can he find out? He's busy. Don't worry, I'll see the boy gets
clear of the ship. You can look the other way."

The guard could not withstand Torin's hungry gaze. He was a family man,
with sons of his own. "Well--all right. Only be sure you get the kid
out again--fast!"

Trehearne saw to it. He showed Torin what he could, from the bridge
to the generator rooms, and the boy trod softly as though he were in
a holy place, touching, sighing, wondering. Trehearne was sorry he
had brought him. It was pitiful to see all that longing that could
never be fulfilled. He pressed upon Torin what few trinkets from other
star-worlds he had in his own possession and then led him out from the
ship and stood with the guard, watching the boy go slowly away across
the field, looking back, always back, until he was lost behind the
compound wall.

"Poor little beggar," said the guard. "Star-crazy, like all the rest of
them. Well, he'll get over it."

"I suppose so," said Trehearne, and was glad that he would not see
Torin again.

He found the doctor and had himself patched up, and after that he
was busy checking lading. He was dead for sleep, and it seemed an
eternity until, toward midnight, the cargo was all aboard and the
hatches locked. The _Saarga_ lifted into the star-shot sky, and the
acceleration built and built to the thrust of the humming generators.

Trehearne told Rohan and Perri that he was too played out to talk about
what had happened, and tumbled into his bunk. He was almost instantly
asleep--and almost as instantly awake again.

There was a screaming in the ship....

They found Torin lying beside the well that led up from the hold.
He had made it that far. His skin was already darkened with the
subcutaneous hemorrhage, his body twisted and writhing, his face almost
unrecognizable. And he screamed and would not stop.

Trehearne held him and watched him die.

It seemed to take a long, long time. It was not a clean death. It was
dissolution. Trehearne remembered his own torment and there was nothing
he could do. The others watched also with sick white faces. In the end
it was the guard who went to fetch a cloth to wrap the body in, and
there were tears on his cheeks.

Trehearne laid Torin on the sheet. His flesh was not hard any more. He
was no longer straight and well made. He was not even a dead boy. He
was a rag, a shapelessness, an obscenity. It crossed Trehearne's mind
how nearly he had come to dying that same death.

He got up. He returned to his cabin, stripped and scrubbed himself in
a kind of frenzy. He kicked his sodden garments into the corridor for
someone else to deal with. He could not touch them again. And all the
time he heard Torin's voice crying, "Surely I am strong enough to go
out and see the stars!"

They came a little later and told Trehearne that they had found where
Torin had hidden himself under the wrappings of a bale, to be carried
aboard with the cargo.

"It wasn't your fault," they told him. "There was no way you could have
seen the boy."

Trehearne was not comforted.

They buried Torin in deep space, to drift forever among the Suns of
Hercules. And Trehearne thought of a hut, of a man and a woman who were
waiting for their son to come home. He wished that Torin had listened
to the wisdom of his father.

The _Saarga_ tramped her way onward among the worlds of the Cluster.
Time and events gave Trehearne other things to think about. He
was a starman now, tested and hardened, a functioning part of his
environment. His horizons were boundless and the stars had not lost
their lustre. But somehow, even so, the first fine flush of glory was
gone.

He remembered the bitterness of the woman who had said, "You are free
and I am chained and my children after me forever." He remembered
the countless young men who hungered, the eyes of children wide with
dreams. Each time he saw the new-healed scars on his body he remembered
the boy who had dressed those wounds and found the Vardda flesh no
different from his own--a treachery too subtle for his understanding.

Over and over, when he slept, he held Torin in his arms and watched him
die.

He told himself that it was all wasted pity. Whatever had been done to
Orthis long ago was not his doing. Things were as they were and there
was no help for it. He was one of the lucky ones and he should be
content with that. Most of the time he was content. But now and again
there would come the small sharp doubts, the creeping sense of guilt.

If only Torin had not come aboard the ship to die!

He needed to talk to Edri. He needed to ease his mind, to get things
straight with himself, and he knew that Edri would understand.

He was glad when they started the long haul back to Llyrdis. He
discovered that much as he wanted to see Edri, he wanted even more to
see Shairn. He wondered if she had forgotten him by now or if she would
be waiting when he landed.

The _Saarga_ made her worldfall at last under the tawny-red glare of
Aldebaran. Trehearne watched the golden planet rush and grow toward the
ship. He cheered with the others at the first sight of home and did
not think it odd that he should strain as eagerly as they to see the
familiar towers of the city rising out of the mountain-girdled plain.

When the freighter found her dock and wallowed into it, Joris was
on hand to watch his ship come in. He had been in contact with the
_Saarga_ by ultra-wave radio and now he boarded her before the ports
were fairly open. The skipper had given him good news of the venture
and he was in jovial spirits, clapping shoulders all around, peering
at manifests, firing questions, demanding to know how Trehearne had
acquitted himself.

"A good voyage, eh?" he cried. "Too bad about Yann, but any voyage
through the Cluster is a good one if only one gets killed!"

Trehearne said bitterly, "Someone else did."

Joris stared at him, uncomprehending.

"Oh, not one of the crew. A native boy, crazy to fly the stars. He
stowed away."

All the light went out of Joris' face, leaving it bleak. It was a long
time before he spoke and then it was only to make a routine statement
about the ship. He seemed to have lost all his joy in it. Trehearne was
surprised at the impact that those few words about a nameless boy had
had on the old man.

Joris left soon after. He told Trehearne, "I'll see you in a day or
so. Meanwhile I think Shairn is waiting for you at the sector gate."
He spoke as though his mind were not really on what he was saying.
He turned away, then hesitated, and asked, "How old was that boy,
Trehearne?"

"About sixteen."

Joris nodded. He walked away across the apron as though he carried
on his massive shoulders some heavy burden that weighed them down.
Trehearne signed over his manifests to the port official in charge of
unloading and went in search of Shairn.

She stood outside the great barred gate, watching for him. She was just
as beautiful as he remembered.

He said, "You haven't forgotten me then?"

"No. Did you expect me to?"

"I wouldn't have been surprised."

She laughed--the sweet familiar laughter spiced with mockery. "You're a
wise man." She cocked her head back and studied him. "You've changed.
You've got so brown and hard and--older. I think I like you even better
now. But I'll have to learn to know you all over again." She pulled
him toward the long, sleek vehicle that waited. "It will be nice," she
said, "this getting acquainted again!"

The broad road took them northward along the coast, away from the
clamoring spaceport and the city. The cliffs rose from the golden sea,
wild and forbidding.

She asked suddenly, "Where did you get that?"

His sleeve had fallen back and she was looking at the scars on his
wrist.

"Someone set the hounds on me," Trehearne answered indifferently. Then,
"By the way, how is Kerrel?"

"I haven't seen him." She glanced at the scars again. "How did he work
it?"

"How did who work what?"

"Oh, stop trying to be subtle! I had a feeling that Kerrel might
arrange something for that voyage. He's not a man who takes his defeats
lightly."

Trehearne told her briefly the story of Yann and the hounds. He
finished, "I want to see Kerrel."

"You will!" Shairn's eyes sparkled. "And I want to be there when you
do!"

The car swung around a curve and there on its great crag loomed the
Silver Tower--Shairn's ancestral home, built by generations of Vardda
men and women who had reached out with strong hands to grasp the stars.

For a time, with Shairn, he forgot about Kerrel and Torin and all the
things that preyed upon his mind. He only knew that it was very good to
be here. It was evening when he was again reminded of them. They were
sitting in the gallery, sipping the sharp, cold wines, and Shairn said,
"Are you happy, Michael?"

He remembered another time when she had asked that question--the night
that Edri had walked away alone down the avenue of trees. He remembered
Edri crying out in the dark against injustice, and instantly the old
restlessness was back upon him.

"Yes," he said. "Yes, I'm happy." He turned the wine-glass in his
hands, brooding. "Shairn, could you get Edri out here? I'd like to see
him."

He felt her stiffen and draw away and he thought that she was angry
with him. He went on, "I didn't mean now. Tomorrow's time enough. But
I--well, I want to talk to him."

"You're fond of Edri, aren't you?"

"He was a good friend to me."

"Yes--and to me." She was silent for a moment and then she turned
around. "You might as well know now as later. Edri was arrested a month
ago."

Trehearne sprang up. "Arrested?"

"Yes. They sentenced him yesterday. Exile to Thuvis--for the rest of
his natural life."



                                FIFTEEN


For a moment Trehearne stood still like a man stunned. _Thuvis--for the
rest of his natural life!_

He remembered that dark, inexpressibly lonely world of a dying sun that
Shairn had shown him in the microfilm viewer, on the way from Earth.

"No," he said. "Not Edri. There must be some mistake."

Shairn shook her head. "I wish there were but there isn't. Edri is an
Orthist, caught, confessed and convicted. He was unable even to offer a
defense."

She turned away from him. "I don't like it either. But Edri knew what
he was doing. He brought this on himself."

Trehearne asked, "What happened?"

"You remember that night in the wine garden when Kerrel spoke of a man
named Arrin who had been arrested?"

"Yes. He was a friend of Edri's."

"Well, they couldn't find Arrin's papers. They wanted them very badly.
It seemed that Arrin had found some clue to the course of Orthis' ship,
on that last voyage when it was lost, and had been making calculations."

She paused, then added grimly, "Kerrel got the idea that Edri had those
papers."

Trehearne's yellow eyes took on a peculiarly evil glint. "Then Kerrel
was at the bottom of this?"

"Yes. It was his duty as agent of the Council to investigate, and he
did, and very cleverly. Well, Edri had the papers all right, and more
of his own."

Trehearne groaned. "The idealistic fool! Why wasn't he satisfied to be
a Vardda himself, without worrying about the rest of the galaxy!"

Shairn seemed relieved. Then, "That's what _I_ said! But knowing your
friendship for Edri, I was afraid you'd lose your head when you heard."

She went on quickly. "I know you'll have a reckoning with Kerrel over
this and your own score. But you'll have to be careful since he's a
Council agent. I can help you--"

But Shairn's voice faded out of Trehearne's hearing except for that one
phrase.

"--_knowing your friendship for Edri_--"

Yes, Edri had been his friend. He was sorry for Edri. But should he
let friendship be a chain to drag him back down from all that he had
dreamed and desired and finally achieved?

No! He would not let himself be trapped by friendship and by pity! He
had been merely indulging in emotionalism, to sympathize as he had with
the non-Vardda peoples' hunger for star-freedom, to remember as he had
the hopeless longing in their eyes, to brood as he had over the dying
of Torin.

A sick fatal foreboding grew in Trehearne as he realized the decision
shaping in his mind. He knew that it was shaped by emotion, not by
reason, and he felt a savage contempt for his own weakness.

He spoke, interrupting Shairn. "I'm sorry, Shairn, I was thinking. And
I think I've got to try to help Edri."

She stopped, looking at him with wide steady eyes. Then, rapidly,
"Michael! Don't be a fool!"

He smiled mirthlessly. "You've told me that before. I'm telling myself
now. But it doesn't work. It seems that I'm determined to be a fool."

"You're taking it too tragically! After all, Edri's not going to be
executed."

Remembering Edri's words about the fate of Arrin, Trehearne answered,
"I think he'd almost prefer that. Exiled to a remote star, never to fly
again, nothing to do but sit and wait for death--"

"But there's nothing you can do, Michael! He's convicted, sentenced.
They're taking him off tonight. So there's an end to it."

Trehearne rose to his feet. "I'm going back to the city, Shairn."

"For what?"

"I'm going to see if I can get him away."

She understood then the full depth and danger of his thinking. She
caught him fiercely by the arm.

"Are you going to throw away everything you've worked so hard to get
for nothing? Remember, Edri's a traitor. No matter how good a friend he
was to both of us he's a traitor and deserves his punishment."

"That's how you feel, is it?"

"Is there any other way I could feel? You know what the Orthists are as
well as I do."

He said quietly, "I'm not sure I do. Perhaps you'd better tell me."

"They're destroyers. They want to ruin Llyrdis, the Vardda empire,
everything as it is now." Her passionate voice took in the star-trails,
the swift ships flying, the Vardda pride of race and achievement.

"Orthis had his laboratory in his ship. The secret of the Vardda
mutation is there. They want to find that ship. They want to find the
secret in it and spread it all across the Galaxy."

"Would it be so terrible," asked Trehearne, "if others should have the
ability to fly the stars?"

She looked at him as though he had spoken blasphemy. He added, "Except,
of course, that it would wreck the Vardda monopoly."

"That sounds very strange, coming from you," she said bitterly. "You,
the outsider, who fought so hard to be a part of the monopoly. It
looked pretty good to you then after thirty-three years of crawling in
the mud of Earth!"

"I've seen more of it now. I've seen a boy die because of it. I don't
think I like it any longer."

"You don't like it?" Her voice was low and passionate. "_You?_ And
what do you know about it? _We_ earned the right to what we have.
We were the first--first of all the races of the Galaxy to go into
interstellar space. And we did it without mutation, without anything!
Four generations that first voyage took. Four generations of children
born in deep space, in a little ship crawling between the stars! No
one else ever did that. No one else ever dared! And as for our wicked
monopoly--it keeps the peace of the Galaxy. It keeps worlds alive that
would have died. It brings wealth and comfort where they never were
before. But _you_ don't like it and so it must be destroyed!"

She stopped for breath and then she whispered, "Kerrel was right about
letting an outsider in. And I'm ashamed that I have loved you!"

She turned from him and went swiftly along the gallery. There was
a purpose about the way she did it that made Trehearne uneasy. He
followed her and found her at the visiphone. The screen was already
brightening.

She looked at him with blazing eyes. "I fought once to get you into
Llyrdis. Now I'll undo that mistake!"

He struck her away from the instrument and closed the switch. She was
on him then like a cat, clawing him, calling him mongrel and freak and
worse names, raging at his ingratitude. She was hard to hold but he
held her and she could reach neither the visiphone nor the bell to call
her servants.

He held her, and she laughed her mocking laugh at him. "All right. Go
on, then. Go and make a fool of yourself, trying to free Edri. See how
far you get. And remember that it's bad enough for a Vardda born to
betray his people but for you--"

He held her a moment longer, swallowing his own rage, thinking. He
could not let her go. The moment he left she would send out the alarm,
denounce him to the Council, put an end both to his own freedom and to
any remote hope he might have of helping Edri.

It took him only a few seconds to decide. In the mood he was in, it was
not difficult to strike the necessary, carefully-calculated blow.

He carried her out to the car in his arms. If any of the servants saw
them it would look very sweet, very romantic, her dark head on his
shoulder, her arms around his neck. They would not be able to see that
her wrists were tied.

He put her down gently in the padded seat. She did not stir. There was
the shadow of a bruise already forming on her chin. He got in beside
her and sent the car humming down the wide road that led to the city.

When he was far enough away from the tower he stopped. He bound Shairn
securely with strips torn from her own garments, taking especial care
with the gag. He arranged her on the floor as comfortably as he could,
out of sight. Then he drove on and did not stop again until he reached
the spaceport.

The lights were still on in the office of Joris. Probably he would stay
late tonight, to oversee the business of taking Edri away in the prison
ship. Trehearne felt guilty about Joris, almost as though he were
betraying his own father. The old man had been good to him.

Shairn seemed to be safely unconscious. Trehearne left the car where
it would be least likely to attract attention, and went into the
Administration Building. He had only the vague beginnings of a plan in
his mind but whatever he did it would have to start here.

The roar and bustle of the spaceport were not diminished by darkness.
Some of the Vardda officers he knew. They hailed him as he passed
them in the corridors, congratulating him on his voyage, asking him
when he was going out again. Trehearne almost faltered then, thinking
what a fool he was to give up all this for an idle hope. And then he
remembered Edri and went on. Edri had done his best for him when he
needed it, whether it was foolish or not. It seemed that he could not
do less for Edri.

The lift took him up to the high room that was like the bridge of a
starship that would never fly. Joris was there. He was quite alone. He
had been drinking for some time but he was not drunk. He looked up when
Trehearne came in and his eyes were heavy and rimmed with red.

"What do you want?" he said.

"A favor."

"Another time, Trehearne. Get out. Get the hell out."

"Another time won't do." Trehearne leaned over the table. "They're
taking Edri out for Thuvis tonight. I want to say good-bye to him,
Joris. That's all, just a word before he goes. Tell me what ship it is
and where--or if you can't do that tell me what sector and I'll see him
outside the gate."

"That's right," said Joris. "You're a friend of Edri's." He reached for
the wine bottle. There was an empty one beside it and another on the
floor. "How good a friend, Trehearne? That's what I'd like to know.
How _good_ a friend?"

His bloodshot gaze was sharp and very shrewd.

Trehearne said angrily, "You know I'm not mixed up with him. You know
where I've been."

"Yes, I know. You've been watching a young boy die in space. What did
you think when you saw that, Trehearne? How did you feel?"

"Let's not talk about that," said Trehearne harshly. "Tell me where I
can see Edri and when. That isn't much to ask, Joris, just a minute to
say good-bye."

"A boy sixteen," whispered Joris, "full of hope, full of longing, proud
of his strength.... I ought to hate you, Trehearne. You're not even
half Vardda in the ordinary way and yet you can fly the stars."

He filled his glass again and emptied it. His hands were steady. He
was neither drunk nor maudlin. And yet there were tears in his eyes.
Trehearne saw them and was somehow shocked. It did not seem possible
that Joris could weep.

"Joris," he said gently, "forget about the boy. Let me see Edri."

Again the red-rimmed leaden gaze locked with his, weighing, measuring.
"I like you, Trehearne. So I'll tell you again. Get out. Go away.
Forget you ever came here."

Trehearne did not move. Abruptly Joris picked up the empty bottle and
flung it, not at him but near him. "Get out, you fool! I'm giving you a
chance to go!"

There was nothing to do but obey. Trehearne moved toward the door,
thinking angrily that he would have to risk the sector map in
Operations. He stretched out his hand to the latch and the door opened
under it fast and he was looking straight into the prism lens of a
shock tube, held by a tall spaceport guard. Shairn was beside the
guard.

The guard said, "Back up."

Trehearne backed. He looked at Shairn. "I should have clipped you again
to make sure."

"You should. I got my feet loose quite easily. This silk is pretty
flimsy stuff." She walked past him toward Joris. The guard came in and
closed the door, setting his back against it.

Joris demanded, "What's all this about?"

"I found her out by the gate," the guard said. "She was gagged and her
hands were tied."

"Trehearne," said Shairn to Joris. "He's an Orthist. He came here to
help Edri escape."

"Did he!" said Joris. "Did he now!" He looked at Trehearne. "You stand
where you are. Don't try anything." He reached into a drawer of the
table and covered him with the lens of another tube.

"An Orthist, eh?" he said softly. He began to laugh.



                                SIXTEEN


Shairn sat down on the edge of Joris' table. She smiled at Trehearne
and in this moment he hated her. He looked from Joris to the guard and
back again and did nothing. There was nothing then that he could do.

"Would you have believed it of him, Joris?" said Shairn. "Would you
have thought that he could turn on us after all we did for him?"

Joris leaned back in his chair. "Shairn," he said, "I'm sorry it had to
be this way."

"Yes," she answered, and then added bitterly, "Kerrel was right about
him, after all."

Joris said, "That isn't what I mean."

Something in his tone made Shairn turn and look at him. He went on.
"I'm sorry you got yourself into this. You're only doing what you
believe to be right. But so is Trehearne. _So am I._"

He dropped his bombshell so quietly that for a moment neither Shairn
nor Trehearne could quite believe that they had understood him.

Shairn got up off the edge of the table. She backed away, her eyes
fixed on Joris in horrified incredulity. "You, Joris! You an Orthist!"
Her tone made the words a denial.

But Joris nodded and said, "Yes."

Abruptly, Trehearne laughed. Shairn swung around. "You heard?" she said
to the guard. "Arrest Joris!"

The guard shook his head and smiled. "Hardly. I'm Joris' man."

It was Shairn's turn now to stand like a trapped thing, searching for
escape and not finding it.

Trehearne said, "May I move now?" His voice was a bit shaky with relief.

Joris grinned. "I didn't want you throwing yourself around. Somebody
might have got hurt. Yes, you can move."

Shairn burst out. "I can't understand this, Joris! You, of all
people--it's insane!"

"Perhaps. But I think Trehearne would understand." He scowled at his
own hands, brooding, and then he said, "It doesn't matter who knows
now. I did the forbidden thing. I married a woman of another world, a
non-Vardda. I had a son. He wanted to fly the stars. He used to beg me
to take him aboard my ship. After all, he was my son, half-Vardda. He
thought he could do it. He hid himself away in my cabin and--the Vardda
blood had not bred true in him." He glanced briefly at Trehearne. "He
was not quite eighteen. I never flew another voyage after that."

He got up, kicking the empty bottle away. "I guess that was why I first
gave Trehearne his chance. It seemed to make up in a way for--"

He broke off abruptly. "Well, that's over and done with. We have other
things to think about and not much time to do them in. Trehearne,
you've upset my plans rather badly by fetching in Miss Spitfire here."

"It wasn't intentional." He went to Joris. "Is it true then? You're
going to get Edri free?"

"I'm going to try. You see, this is a thing I could only do once. I've
had to sit here for years, watching more than one good man go out to
Thuvis, waiting--waiting for the time when I could make my action
really count. Now it's here." He turned and glowered at Shairn. "The
main question is--what are we going to do with you?"

She answered him angrily and without fear. "Whatever you do you'll live
to regret it!"

"H'm," said Joris. "Tie her up again, Trehearne."

He did so with immense pleasure. This time he used stouter bonds and
took extra pains with the knots.

Joris paced up and down, thinking hard. "I hate to say this but there's
only one place I know of where there's no danger of her being found
before we're gone. And that's aboard the ship."

The guard said, "There won't be any time to get her off again."

"I know it," said Joris grimly. "So it looks as though we'll have an
extra passenger."

Trehearne had finished with the gag. He looked at Shairn. Her eyes
burned and her face was white above the cloth.

Joris threw his cloak over her. "Take her down in my private lift," he
told the guard. "The sector has already been cleared, so you won't have
any trouble there. Get her aboard and make damned sure she's locked in."

The guard nodded. He picked up the cloak-wrapped bundle and put it
over his shoulder. The buzzer of the visiphone made a sudden jarring
sound. Joris motioned the man to hurry, waited until he was gone before
answering. Trehearne pressed himself back against the wall, out of
range of the screen.

Kerrel's voice said, "Joris--we're bringing Edri down in exactly
fifteen minutes. Is everything ready?"

Joris nodded. "The sector is cleared, the guards are posted and the
ship is ready for take-off."

"Good. There's a good bit of feeling about this business and we don't
want any trouble."

"I've seen to it," Joris told him.

The screen went dark. "The swine!" said Joris. "He's only doing what
he believes is right but he's so bloody smug about it. Agent of the
Council! Bah!"

Unexpectedly he caught Trehearne's shoulders in a bearlike grip that
nearly broke them.

"I'm glad you're with us. Are you armed?"

"Yes."

"Come on, then. This is the end of my waiting. I'm going back to space,
Trehearne! I'm going to do the things I knew I'd have to do some day
after I watched my son die. Come on then--move!"

They went down in the tiny private lift and out of the building to a
guarded sector where the lights burned brightly over silent ships,
where there were no swarming mobs of non-Vardda workmen, no clatter of
machinery and whizzing of busy trams, only the deserted aprons of the
great docks and the empty spaces between them.

As they went Joris told Trehearne what he had to do. "Only the guards
at the gate, and the four who will pick up Kerrel's men when they come
through belong to me. The others, we hope, will be too far away to
interfere. But we'll have no time to linger."

"Where is the prison ship?"

"I spotted that at the far end of the sector. And they'll find its
generators shot when they try to follow us. The Orthists are strong
among the non-Vardda. The mechanics were glad to do that little job for
me!"

Joris spoke briefly to the guards about Trehearne. They nodded a
welcome. "In about ten minutes," Joris said. "Is the girl aboard?"

"All secure, sir."

"Good. Come along, Trehearne." He led the way past two of the towering
docks. By the time they reached the third they were out of sight and
hearing of the gate. In this third dock was a long rakish starship,
lightless and silent, all hatches closed except the port.

"The _Mirzim_, the ship we're taking," said Joris. "A long-distance
light trader, built for speed. Well, we'll need that. It belongs,
by the way, to a good friend of mine. He'll have to collect from
the two good cargo ships I'm leaving behind." He added, "The crew's
waiting inside now. Only a half-crew really--not many navigators and
technicians are dependable Orthists."

He stationed Trehearne in the shadows under the corner of the apron.
"We'll jump them right here. Try not to kill anyone. As soon as Edri is
free make for the _Mirzim_."

"Right." Trehearne settled back into the patch of darkness, hidden from
anyone walking past in the areaway. He held his shock-tube ready in his
hand. Joris was already gone, heading back to the gate.

Trehearne listened to the sounds of the spaceport. The sharp smell of
the sea was in the wind, and in the distance he could see the shining
towers of the city. He thought that this was probably the last time he
would ever see Llyrdis. He knew a stabbing pang of regret. And then,
coming from the direction of the gate, he heard the rhythmic tramp of
perhaps a dozen men, moving at a brisk pace toward him. He was glad
that the wait was no longer.

He did not move but his body quivered, settling itself.

There was Joris, walking first with Kerrel. There were four men without
uniforms. There was a fifth man and beside him Edri, with his right
wrist linked to the man's left. There were four more men without
uniforms, then four of Joris' guards.

The head of the little column passed the corner of the third dock. The
four guards broke rank and pulled out their shock tubes, aiming the
pallid beams at an angle to avoid hitting Edri.

Trehearne sprang out and joined them.

Three of Kerrel's men went down on that first assault. Two were
unconscious but one could still use his shocker. Joris had caught
Kerrel unawares and knocked him down with nothing more than his great
hammer of a fist. He pulled out his own weapon then and waded in.

A vicious dogfight began, swirling around with Edri as its center. Edri
grappled with his guard and they fell, both struggling, both hampered
by the fetters.

Both sides quit using the shockers. The fighting was too close for
that, a small blundering nasty melee of fists and feet, men stumbling
over each other, hitting the wrong people in their haste, going down,
getting up again, shouting for help, swearing, astonished, furious.

Trehearne, trying to get to Edri, smashed one man solidly in the face
and sent another staggering. Then he was tripped and was kicked as he
went down. He found himself sprawling on top of Edri, who grunted and
struck at him, then said, "Oh, it's you. The key is in his belt."

Trehearne chopped down with his fist. The man's head rang on the
concrete. He lay still and Trehearne found the key. Then a heavy weight
descended on him from behind, grinding his face into the cement. The
hand that held the key was pinioned in an iron grip. He thrashed about,
trying to unseat his attacker, and in the meantime Edri had grabbed his
hand as well, wrenching and clawing with a single-minded determination
to have the key.

He got it. Trehearne managed to get his knees under him and roll. He
saw Kerrel's face close to his. In a second the two men had each other
by the throat. They strained together, breast to breast, like two
lovers, kicked and tramped by the feet of other men, oblivious. Edri
got free and rose. He would have struck Kerrel but Trehearne gasped,
"No! I'll handle him!"

Kerrel smiled, an anguished baring of the teeth. His thumbs bit hard
into Trehearne's neck. Trehearne let go of Kerrel's throat. He bunched
his two fists together and struck upward. Kerrel's head snapped back.
His hands loosened. Trehearne tore them away. He threw himself on top
of Kerrel. He hit him hard in the face until Kerrel's head rolled like
the head of a dead man.

Hands grasped him and tried to drag him away. He shook them off. Kerrel
moaned and turned on his side. Trehearne kicked him with his sandalled
feet. "That's for Yann," he grunted. "That's for the hounds and for
Torin."

A voice roared at him. "Leave it, damn you! Leave it!" A very strong
arm thrust him aside. He recognized Joris. There were distant sounds of
shouting, coming closer. Kerrel's men were down or scattered. Their own
men were running for the _Mirzim_, dragging with them several who were
stunned or partly paralyzed. Edri, with a bleeding face, was capering
joyously and yelling at him to hurry.

Trehearne shook his head to clear it. He ran beside Joris, stumbling
up the metal stair to the apron. He was the last one through the
port. Joris hauled down a lever and the port closed and locked itself
automatically with a squeal of compressed air.

Instantly the lights went on. The great generators jarred to life.
Joris strode heavily down the long corridor to the bridge with
Trehearne at his heels. There was another man sitting there but Joris
took over the pilot chair.

Trehearne waited tensely but Joris did not touch the controls. He
merely sat there, inspecting his bruised fists.

"What the hell are you waiting for?" Trehearne cried. "We've only got a
few moments at most!"

Joris looked at him stolidly. "We've only got one life too. We can
throw it away by starting at the wrong moment and colliding with
incoming ships. I know the dispatch-schedules. Wait."

Trehearne waited. He could not hear inside the ship but he knew that
by now alarms must be shrilling all over the spaceport. It was mad
to wait. It was craven surrender. Better to run any risk of suicidal
collision than to wait....

And still Joris waited, an eye cocked on the chronometers, until
through the window Trehearne saw lights flashing up outside and men
running. And then he glimpsed the loom of a great ship slanting down
out of the sky, over and past them.

Joris grunted, suddenly punched the controls. "Hang on!"

The _Mirzim_ went up in a screaming arc that crumpled Trehearne to the
deck. He clung to a stanchion and prayed that Joris had not lost his
skill.

He had not. Even the Vardda flesh had limits. So did metal and the
bones of ships. Joris knew to the fraction exactly how much they
could stand. The course had already been calculated. He cleared the
system, found his coordinates, then hammered the signal relays to the
generator rooms. The whine of the generators rose and the needle on the
acceleration master dial rose with it. Trehearne watched with bulging
eyes, gasping under the pressure, barely restraining an impulse to
scream. The second officer was clutching his chair, his face white.

Joris watched the dial. At the precise instant he punched the relay
bars again. The needle ceased to blur in its frantic ascent, climbing
now with a decent deliberation.

Joris turned around. He looked at his companions and shook with
laughter. He had, for the first time since Trehearne had known him, the
face of a completely happy man.

Trehearne staggered up. He got out a handkerchief and wiped his face.
There was blood on it as well as sweat. "Well," he said, "we're off.
But if you don't mind telling me now, Joris--where the devil are we off
to?"

"H'm," said Joris. "This may seem a little peculiar to you in view of
all the circumstances--"

He roared again with hearty mirth.

"I'll tell you, Trehearne. We're off to Thuvis."



                               SEVENTEEN


Trehearne stared at Joris. A small trickle of blood ran from his nose
down over his lip. He forgot to wipe it away.

"You're joking," he said.

"Not at all." It was Edri who answered. He had come into the bridge
behind Trehearne. He cried good-naturedly, "Blast you, Joris, what are
you trying to do--kill us all before we get started?"

"They'll be after us soon enough," said Joris. "We need all the edge we
can get."

Trehearne demanded, "Why are we going to Thuvis?"

"Partly," said Edri soberly, "to rescue the men who are rotting away
out there. But chiefly because we must have Arrin. You see, Trehearne,
he was arrested before he could finish his calculations. When I tried
to carry on I added a good bit of my own material--but the missing
factor isn't there. Arrin knows it. He must or he couldn't have gone
as far as he did. Now if we put our knowledge together--" Edri sighed.
"It's been a long, long fight. A thousand years of piecing together lie
and legend and hearsay, of hunting down scraps of letters and secret
reports, of dredging through tons of irrelevant nonsense in search of
one little bit of truth. The Vardda authorities of that day suppressed
or destroyed all evidence connected with that last voyage of Orthis.
They did their work well. Until now no one has even known in what
general sector of the Galaxy that last pursuit took place."

He brooded. "Yes, a long fight. And if we're wrong it means the end of
hope in our generation. Others will have to begin the search all over
again."

It seemed a cruel question to ask but Trehearne could not keep from it.

"Is there any proof that Orthis' ship still exists at all?"

"No. We only know that it was not destroyed at the time that Orthis
outran his pursuers and disappeared. For as I told you, long afterward
one of the life-skiffs of his ship was picked up in space, with his
defiant last message to the Galaxy in it."

Edri paused, then added, "Do you wonder that we venerate such a man?"

"I think," said Trehearne slowly, "that you have his kind of courage."

"Maybe." Edri laughed. "I do know that I have a most colossal thirst.
You didn't forget the wine stores, Joris?"

"The gods forbid!"

"Let's go and drink." Edri took Trehearne's arm. "And you can tell me a
story--where you came from and what in hell you're doing here!"

"No," said Trehearne, without relish. "I think I'd better see about
Shairn."

Edri's jaw dropped. "Shairn?"

"Yes, unfortunately--Shairn." He explained rapidly how the unwilling
extra passenger had come aboard.

Edri said some low, hard words. "That isn't going to help matters
one little bit. We can hardly leave her on Thuvis and we can't stop
anywhere else."

"It couldn't be helped," growled Joris.

"No. Well, I think I'll go with you, Trehearne. I don't believe you'd
be safe alone!"

They found her, locked in an officer's cabin for which, on this
short-handed trip, there was no officer. She was still bound and
gagged. From the look she gave them Trehearne thought she would have
killed them both if she had the power.

He freed her. She sat up on the bunk, rubbing her wrists. Two red marks
ran from the corners of her mouth across her white cheeks where the gag
had rubbed. It gave her a comical expression, like the mask of a clown.
There was nothing comical about her eyes.

She did not speak.

Trehearne said awkwardly, "Shairn, I'm sorry about all this. But you
might as well make the best of it now you're here."

Still she did not speak. She only sat and looked at him.

Edri said, "Come on, Shairn. A glass of wine will do you good."

She ignored him. Silence and the green deadly eyes, fixed on Trehearne.

He went to her and put his hand on her shoulder. "Be reasonable,
Shairn. I know how you feel but none of it was done with intent. And
we're all your friends, whether you agree with us or not."

He jerked back but not quite in time. Her claws raked his cheek. He
stepped away. She sat motionless and said not one word.

Trehearne swung on his heel and went out. Edri came after him and
locked the door. "Perhaps Joris can talk to her," he said. His tone did
not hold much hope.

"Oh, she'll come out of it," said Trehearne. "Nobody can stay that mad
forever."

Edri shook his head. "I've known her longer than you have. I wouldn't
count on it."

The intercom boomed over their heads--Joris calling from the bridge.

"Edri--will you and Trehearne step up here? The bad news is starting to
come in."

Communications was just abaft the bridge. Joris had relinquished the
controls to the Second and was standing in the cramped space behind the
operator, listening intently to the thin metallic voice that came from
the ultra-wave receiver.

"_Channel One--Alert. All ships in Sector M29 ... request radar
confirmation on ship believed on course as follows._..."

"Port radar base would have got our coordinates at take-off, of
course," said Joris. "They're just making sure."

"Listen," said Edri.

The metallic voice finished repeating the coordinates. It went on,
"_All ships will identify immediately when challenged. All ships will
identify._..."

"Cruisers," said Edri.

Joris frowned. "They could man at least one in a hurry. I told you we'd
need a head start."

He returned to the bridge to inspect the dials and order the generators
stepped up.

"We'll have to reach acceleration peak in half the normal time or we
might as well have stayed on Llyrdis. I'm going to see what radar has
turned up."

Trehearne followed along, brooding on the subject of cruisers. The
Vardda had no warships, being in the enviable position of having no use
for them. But the Council maintained a small fleet of armed craft with
maximum velocities considerably above those of the slower cargo ships,
for the purpose of keeping down occasional outbursts of illegal trading
among the Vardda themselves, and for protection of their factors on
dangerously barbaric worlds.

The three-dimensional radar screens showed the normal number of tiny
red sparks--the faster-than-light energy impulses of ships' generators.
Joris scanned them with a practised eye.

"Nothing to bother us yet. Too early to tell--the sector immediately
behind us is too crowded with shipping from the port." He turned to
Quorn, the Communications officer. "Keep a damn sharp lookout astern.
Call me the minute you see anything unusual. We can spell you a bit but
you're going to get blasted little relief."

Relief was a problem on that voyage. No one got much of it. They had
slightly over half the number of men required for a full crew under
normal circumstances and some of them were not trained technicians.
Trehearne found himself doing one eight-hour trick on the bridge,
calling out dial readings, and another in Communications. Since,
obviously, there was no sending to be done, he could handle the
receiver well enough to get by.

Channel One, which was the official, top-priority voice of the Vardda
Council, continued to request--and get--confirmation of their course.

It was not long before Quorn reported that radar showed a red spark
astern that seemed to be following their course.

Calculating distance by intensity it was possible to judge the rate of
approach. Joris demanded more thrust from the generators, ignoring the
shuddering agony of the hull and the equally painful reactions of his
men.

"Until we pick up Arrin," he said, "it's got to be cut and run. Thuvis
is the first place they'll block off, and anything but a direct course
on our part will give them time to do it."

They reached their acceleration peak--maximum stress for the fabric of
the ship. Joris pushed it over. They prayed.

The observation port began to show a thinning star-field ahead. Wider
and wider the areas of darkness spread and the colonies of suns were
fewer and more scattered. The red sparks on the radar screens dwindled
and faded until only two or three were left--lonely traders, outbound
to these isolated systems. Those--and the single spark that brightened
always astern.

The hours became a lagging monotony of constant watching, constant
strain. Numb from lack of sleep, Trehearne went mechanically through
his duties, forgot even to worry about what was going to happen.
Yesterday was an eon ago, tomorrow was lost in nothingness. There was
only today and he was tired.

It was the same with all of them. Joris seemed neither more nor less
exhausted than the rest and Trehearne marvelled at the old man's
strength.

Shairn remained locked in her cabin. She would not speak to anyone,
except the youngster who brought her food, then only to voice a curt
thanks.

Ahead the darkness deepened. The main axis of the Milky Way plane
was "below" them. Beyond the isolated systems they could glimpse the
lightless gulf of utter emptiness. Its black blankness afflicted
Trehearne with a creeping horror. It was like seeing the primal Chaos
before creation.

At last a dim red sun was centered in the field. It began to grow. The
radar screens were empty, save for the one grim following spark that
had become almost a flame, ominously bright.

Joris made his calculations and again they prayed.

They completed deceleration in a little less than half the normal time.
That was the period during which no one ate and only those who had to
remained erect.

Thuvis hung in the sky before them, an idiot sun, devouring the last
of its strength and peering with a dull red eye at the cosmic face of
death. It was circled by a single world.

"We'll have to make it fast," said Joris harshly. "You be ready, Edri."

The _Mirzim_ landed on an arid tableland swept by bitter winds. Quorn
stayed to maintain his tense vigil at the radar screens but the rest of
them went out, glad of solid ground if only for a few minutes.

The wind-driven dust tore at Trehearne, cutting into his flesh like
tiny cold daggers. The sky was dusky at midday but there were few
stars. Even at night there would be few stars here. The sullen glare of
Thuvis washed the dusty desert world with red and where a deep ravine
cleft the tableland the shadows clung like clotted blood. Trehearne
could not think of a place that more resembled hell.

Edri had hastened to the lip of the ravine. Trehearne followed and
looked down. Below the steep sides, below the ugly screes, was a tangle
of pallid vegetation, stunted trees and leprous shrubbery, clustered
around warm springs that smoked like little fumaroles in the chill air.
There was a settlement here, three or four small plastic structures
surrounded by a wall, and outside the wall a pathetic expanse of tilled
land.

"They're coming!" cried Edri. "They saw the ship...."

A narrow path led steeply up from the ravine. Men were already toiling
along it. Trehearne counted them. Eight, ten, eleven--eleven men, the
total population of this world of ultimate exile.

Edri was shouting. His voice echoed back and forth in the ravine with
a hollow booming sound. Other shouts answered him. The men on the path
began to run. They slipped and staggered in their haste, clawing their
way upward. Trehearne could see their white faces strained toward him.

He watched them come--gaunt wind-bitten hopeless men with the greyness
of living death upon them, striving up from that deep red-lit prison,
answering the call of Edri's voice. He saw their eyes, the eyes of men
called back suddenly from that terrible numbing of the mind that is
worse than clean destruction.

Edri threw his arms around the man who came first over the rim. He had
not been there as long as the others and the stamp was not so deep on
him. He turned and shouted at his mates to hurry. His beard and his
unkempt hair blew in the wind and his voice was wild.

Edri cried to him, "No time for talk now, Arrin! Is that all of you?"

It was. The line of bearded scarecrows hastened toward the _Mirzim_.
Ready hands helped them in.

The voice of Quorn yelled over the intercom, "They're right on top of
us! Hurry it up!"

Joris had thrust his way forward to the bridge. He was at his station
and waiting before the port was closed.

"Ready for take-off! Watch yourselves!"

His hand reached out for the signal relays. And then Trehearne saw it
hesitate and fall back.

From the opening door of the Communications room another voice spoke,
perfectly audible at that short distance--the metallic voice of the
receiver.

"_We have your range. Do not attempt to take off. We have your range.
Do not attempt._..."

Over Joris' suddenly shrunken shoulders, through the bridge port,
Trehearne saw the long slim shape of a cruiser sweep in toward a
landing close beside them.



                               EIGHTEEN


Kerrel's face appeared on the small screen. There was no need now for
the ultra-wave and the ordinary visiphone unit had been cut in. Edri
and Joris confronted him. Trehearne stood in the doorway, listening.
Behind him were the rescued exiles, and black despair was on them all.

Kerrel regarded Edri and Joris with a weary hatred. He seemed to have
learned that being an agent of the Council had its rough side. But
there was no slightest hint of leniency in his tone.

"The gun crew has orders to open fire in exactly fifteen minutes," he
said. "You have that long to clear your ship, bringing with you neither
weapons nor personal gear of any sort." He repeated, "Fifteen minutes
precisely."

Joris looked at him with red and sunken eyes. Twenty years of age had
come upon him in the last few minutes. He could not seem to bring
himself to speak. Edri's hands were clenched so tightly that the
fingers were bone white. They moved back and forth, seeking something
to strike and not finding it. He too had become old.

"Fourteen minutes," said Kerrel, without emotion. "You're wasting time."

Edri turned abruptly and thrust his way blindly past Trehearne, who
caught and held him in the doorway.

"Let go," said Edri viciously and cursed him. "That ravine is deep. I
can step off into it now as well as later. I won't be taken back."

"Hold on," said Trehearne. A sudden wild hope had come to him. He
lifted his voice. "Kerrel! Kerrel, can you hear me?" He was out of
visual range of the screen.

"Yes, Trehearne, I hear you."

"Then listen! Tell your men to hold their fire. We have Shairn aboard!"

Joris' head came up sharply. Edri stopped fighting. And in the screen
Kerrel's mirrored face went through the shadings of surprise, shock,
then understanding and a wry mirth.

"You have a quick mind, Trehearne," he said. "But it won't do. Thirteen
minutes."

"Go and get her, Edri," said Trehearne. His mouth was dry, his body
drenched with cold sweat.

Edri plunged away into the corridor. Trehearne went and stood where
Kerrel could see him. He smiled and wondered if Kerrel could hear
the knocking of his heart against his ribs. Joris stood motionless,
waiting. Kerrel counted off the minutes, and at each count his voice
became more strained, his eyes less certain.

There were six minutes left when Edri came back with Shairn and thrust
her in front of the screen.

"You see?" said Trehearne. "I wasn't lying."

Kerrel forgot to count. He stared at the girl, the strong lines of
his face crumbling into indecision. He said her name once. Suddenly
he turned and was gone from the screen. They could hear him shouting
somewhere beyond, "Hold your fire! Hold your fire! They have a prisoner
aboard."

Trehearne knew then that he had not misjudged the depth of the other's
passion. And strangely that knowledge was bitter to him.

Kerrel came into view again, and Shairn cried out, "Kerrel, they're
after something more than these Orthist exiles! I think they're--"

Trehearne put his hand over her mouth. "It doesn't matter what she
thinks. The important thing is her life. How much is it worth to you,
Kerrel?"

Kerrel ran his hand nervously over his face and did not answer at once.
Trehearne kept his palm firmly on Shairn's mouth.

Kerrel shook his head. "You wouldn't kill her, Trehearne."

"No, I wouldn't," Trehearne answered. "But I'm only one and there are
others aboard. Eleven men of Thuvis, who feel that one life is very
little to pay for escape from this hell-hole. Come on, Kerrel, how much
is Shairn worth to you? You can have her--free, clear and alive."

Kerrel asked, "What do you want?"

"A head start."

"It won't do you any good. You can't outrun a cruiser."

Joris said, "We'll take that chance!"

Again Kerrel hesitated. "What are your terms?"

Trehearne said, "You will allow us to take off and we'll guarantee to
land Shairn safely on the other side of this planet. You will keep your
ship here until you receive our message that that has been done. We
will both be able to check each other's actions by radar and if your
generators are started before our second take-off we'll know it."

Kerrel thought, and then asked sullenly, "What assurance have I that
you will actually release her?"

"You can take my word for that," Trehearne told him. "Either that or
blow her to bits with the rest of us."

There was another long tense moment of silence. And then Kerrel said,
"All right." He spoke the words as though they had a taste of vitriol
on his tongue.

Joris was out of Communications in one long stride. Kerrel looked at
Shairn and cried, "Wait! You must radio your position when you set her
down."

"We will."

Trehearne flipped the switch. The screen went blank. The throbbing
generators took the ship and lifted it and whirled it away and no gun
spoke from the cruiser. Trehearne released his grip on Shairn. Reaction
and relief had turned his knees to water, so that it was difficult to
stand against the lurching of the ship.

Shairn turned and looked at him. "You're a fool, Michael," she said,
"but I'll give you this. You're not a coward."

He had her locked in her cabin again and went back to the bridge. Joris
was scowling at the projection of the microfilm chart of the planet.

"There," he said, and pointed to a huge emptiness. "She'll be safe
there until they pick her up--there's no predatory life in these
deserts." He glanced up at Trehearne. "Good man," he said. "Me, I was
beaten."

Trehearne gave him a wry smile. "Me, I bluffed. From here on, Joris,
it's all yours. Where's Edri?"

"Shut in his cabin with Arrin. They know the general sector, clear out
at the Galaxy's edge. Now they're trying to figure out the true course
together." And Joris snorted. "Course! If I can keep one jump ahead of
that cruiser I'll be satisfied."

The _Mirzim_ skimmed over the darkling world of Thuvis into the
starless night. Trehearne sat and brooded, thinking of Shairn, thinking
of the two men who were bent over the final calculations of a dream
that had balked men for a thousand years. He thought of what a dream
can do to a man, of how far it can lead him away from the good safe
life of common sense to the ultimate voids of creation. He hoped that
Edri and Arrin would find what they wanted. He hoped they would live
to find it.

"Coming down," said Joris. "Better get Shairn a coverall. It's cold
down there."

Trehearne found a warm coverall in the equipment locker and took it to
Shairn's cabin. She put it on, and he saw how her face was shadowed
with weariness and strain.

She said quietly, "Do you still love me, Michael?"

Her question took him by surprise, and the answer came of itself.
"Yes," he said. "Yes, I do."

"Then we must stop behaving like two angry children and not throw away
the life we can have together."

He bent his head. "I'm sorry you got caught in this."

"It's as much my fault as yours. I was too quick to lose my temper. I
should have stopped to think that the Vardda world was so new to you
that you had little to judge it by."

She was not now the mocking Shairn of old. Her voice was full of a
sombre passion, a pleading for him to understand.

"Michael, your motives were good--loyalty to a friend, reaction against
what seemed to you injustice. But surely now you must see how hopeless
this all is. I know you're hunting Orthis' ship. You'll never reach it.
Kerrel will run you down. It'll all have been for nothing."

It seemed to Trehearne that what she said was very likely true. But he
only answered, "It's too late to think about that now."

"No, Michael! You can still save yourself!" She caught him by the
shoulders, her hands urgent on his flesh. "Leave the ship with me! Let
Kerrel pick us both up!"

Trehearne smiled mirthlessly. "Kerrel would like that--taking me back
to a prison."

"It doesn't have to be prison!" Shairn exclaimed. "You can say you
pretended to join Joris and Edri only to save me. I'll back you up and
not Kerrel nor anyone else can disprove it. You'll walk out free on
Llyrdis."

It crossed his mind that he could do that. It would all fit. It was an
out.

"You won't be letting your friends down, either," Shairn insisted.
"They'll go on without you. You've done all you can for them."

She clung to him. Her mouth begged him with a silent language of its
own. He took her arms slowly from around him and thrust her back and
she caught her breath at the pain of his grip.

"No," he said. And again, "No, Shairn."

She stood back and looked at him steadily. "You could go back to the
Silver Tower with me but you won't--and for what? So that peoples
you've never met on worlds you'll never see can someday fly the stars?"

"There was a man named Trehearne on the world Earth who got his chance
to fly the stars," he said. "I thought that others should have their
chance too. I have to play it out now."

She was silent and then the dropping speed of the ship told them that
it was almost over. Trehearne took her down to the airlock chamber.
They stood there together, not finding anything more to say, and all
that had been between them came silently and mocked them with the pain
of vanished days.

The _Mirzim_ scraped her keel softly on a yielding surface and was
still. Trehearne opened the port, looking out on the dark windy desert.

Shairn spoke then. "A strange beginning for us, Michael, and now an
even stranger ending."

He held out his hand to help her down and the pressure of her fingers
was like something tearing at his heart. She looked up at him, a small
lonely figure in the vast dark. He thought her lips moved but the wind
came between them and took the words away and he had none of his own
for answer.

The warning bell jarred harshly in his ears. He closed the port and she
was gone.

Joris' voice roared from the bridge, through the intercom. "Flatten
out, all! This is the only start we'll get on Kerrel and I've got to
pile it on!"

The cruel hand of acceleration crushed Trehearne down. He lay on the
scored plates of the deck and that last vision of Shairn's white face
remained with him to remind him of all that he had had and lost.

He said her name over and over in the silence of the empty lock and his
mouth was filled with the bitter taste of dust. The _Mirzim_ leaped
through space like a wild thing, driving toward the sector that was the
goal of a thousand-year hope and quest, toward the Galaxy edge and the
shores of outer night.



                               NINETEEN


They had stepped clear out to the edge of the galaxy, where the
fringing stars were lost in the outer void and the dead suns swept
forever through the entombing dark, where even the memory of creation
was gone, blotted out by unimaginable time. No delimited frontier was
here, but a border region between the swarming star-sparks and the
black abyss beyond.

Trehearne tried to remember how long it had been since they had taken
off from Thuvis. He couldn't. Time seemed oddly elastic when you lost
all the familiar frames of reference. He gave it up. It didn't matter.
He peered with aching bloodshot eyes into the lightless seas that lie
beyond the island universes and tried to remember why he had come here.
And that too was dim in his mind.

Edri was bent over a table that had been set up in the bridge. He no
longer looked like Edri. He seemed to have been working for a million
years. Arrin sat near him. He held his head between his bony hands, a
bearded mummy embalmed upright, hardly retaining the semblance of life.
There were charts under Edri's hands, endless sheets of calculations
and graphs, endless miles of figures. Joris studied them, bending
beside Edri. His broad jowls hung down now over his wrinkled collar.
His eyes had sunk deep under ridges of bone, peering out as from two
shadowed caves.

Edri was talking in a voice that came from far away. The words reached
Trehearne in droning snatches from beyond the fog of weariness.

"--so our only way to locate Orthis' ship was to triangulate its
position from two separate bearings on it. One bearing was the course
of that life-skiff Orthis sent in with his last message, allowing for
aberrations caused by the gravitational field of stars. The other
bearing was Orthis' course in his last flight. We couldn't get that
till I found the part of the Lankar manuscript that Arrin didn't have."

Trehearne heard someone ask, "Who was Lankar?"

"One of Orthis' last pursuers, who left a secret log of the pursuit to
ease his guilty conscience. Enough of it survived--"

Joris said, "The hell with Lankar. Get on with it."

"We had to push the star-maps back in time--galactic motion, star
streaming, a million complicated problems of relative motion and proper
motion, back five hundred years and then another five hundred, and then
correlate them. Handling an almost unlimited number of variables like
that, it could only be done on the biggest math-machines and electronic
computers at Llyrdis. And that meant it all had to be done secretly,
bit by bit. That work's been going on for a long, long time."

Edri drew a long breath that was coupled with a racking yawn.

"The resultant charts indicate an unnamed dark star following an orbit
here, outside the main stream of the Galaxy." He traced a line with
his finger. "These charts for the fringing stars are incomplete, as
you know. There's nothing to draw anyone out to these godforsaken
regions and they've never been properly explored. But according to our
calculations, that dark star was in the right place a thousand years
ago and Orthis' life-skiff was launched from there. Now the wheel of
the Galaxy has turned so, taking the dark star with it...."

He laid his hand on the crossing of two marked lines on the chart, and
looked at them.

"That's our destination, Joris. If we're right, the ship of Orthis is
there. If we're wrong--well, somebody else will have to try again in
another thousand years."

He remained standing, silent, his hands braced on the table, too tired
to move. Joris rubbed his bleary eyes and began to read the coordinates
aloud from the chart. Mechanically the Second Officer set up the
combination on the finder.

Joris moved heavily back to the pilot chair. When the finder clicked
off the new course, he set the Mirzim on it. Then he spoke over the
intercom to Radar. "What's the position of that cruiser?"

A croaking voice answered him. He listened, and then turned to the
others. "Closer," he said. "Always closer."

Trehearne's mind turned back to its constant half-waking nightmare.
The cruiser, following, hanging on, dogged, persistent, relentless. He
lived over painfully every maneuver, every trick by which Joris had
managed to delay their pursuer, to grasp a little more time, a little
more distance.

He remembered the last-minute plunge into a dark nebula when the
cruiser was almost close enough to range them. He remembered the
turning and twisting and doubling inside the blackness of the cloud,
where the absorptive cosmic dust fogged the radar. They had lost the
cruiser there. They had got clear away and for a time they had hoped.
They had made it to this fringe sector--and then the red spark showed
again on the screen, coming closer, always closer.

There were times when Trehearne forgot the physical fact of the
cruiser, a ship of ordinary metal officered and manned by ordinary
Vardda spacemen. At such times it seemed to him that the _Mirzim_
was pursued by a demoniac nemesis striding naked across the plunging
gulfs--a nemesis wearing Kerrel's face with Kerrel's hands outstretched
to grasp them.

Sometimes Shairn's face was there beside Kerrel's, white, unreadable, a
misty cloud that blotted out the stars.

The hoarse voice of the radar man croaked at intervals. The ship fled
on toward the dark star.

Joris finally turned around. The table had been taken out, the charts
and the toilsome calculations rolled up and shoved away. Arrin lay on
the deck against the after bulkhead, sleeping. He would not leave the
bridge until he knew whether or not his life and work had gone for
nothing. Edri sat beside him. He was not asleep.

Joris said flatly, "It isn't going to work."

Edri said nothing. He waited.

Joris went on, as though he hated what he was saying, but had to say
it. "Look at it. As soon as I start deceleration the cruiser will begin
to cut our lead to nothing. And they're stressed for less deceleration
time than I can make without tearing the _Mirzim_ to pieces. What'll
happen? They'll be down on us before we can even begin our search."

Edri nodded. He leaned back against the bulkhead and closed his eyes.
He said, "They know now what we're after. What do you suppose Kerrel
would do if he found the ship of Orthis?"

Nobody answered that. There was no need to answer. A heavy silence
followed, during which Trehearne thought of the messages that had gone
out across the Galaxy from the cruiser's ultra-wave--guarded messages
that betrayed by their very spareness the desperate nature of this
mission, urgent requests for other Council cruisers to close up with
all speed. But those others were still too far away to matter. Whatever
happened would have happened before they could come up. Kerrel was
going to finish this alone.

Edri said, "What are we going to do?"

Joris rubbed his big hand over his stubbled face and blinked and said,
"Our only chance, if Orthis' ship and secret are really there, is to
get the ultra-wave equipment to it in time for what we planned." He
went on slowly, "I think our life-skiff could carry that equipment.
If we drop the skiff it could travel on constant velocity for a while
before it would have to decelerate. Meanwhile I could swing the
_Mirzim_ on another course, running back along the rim of the Galaxy,
away from the dark star. The cruiser would follow me. Chances are, with
their radar concentrated on me to catch my lateral-impulse pattern,
they wouldn't notice the skiff at all when she started deceleration."

He sighed. "They'd catch us, of course. But the _Mirzim_ isn't going to
keep on forever after the beating she's taken. The generators are in
bad shape. But we could keep going long enough to give you time."

Edri thought it over. "I don't like it," he said. "But it looks as
though it's that or nothing."

Joris was muttering under his breath about maximum loads and capacity.
"The main ultra-wave equipment," he said, "and three men. The skiff
would keep that. We'd keep the auxiliary ultra-wave set here, of
course."

"Who can you spare? You'll need all your flight-technicians."

"He can spare me," said Trehearne. "I'm the most non-essential. And I
can still stand up if I have to."

Joris nodded. "Yes. Quorn has to go to handle the ultra-wave, of
course--and he can handle the skiff all right."

"Who else?"

"You," said Joris.

Edri looked at the sleeping Arrin. "He ought to go instead of me. He's
worked for it longer than I have." It was obvious that Arrin was unable
to go anywhere, and Edri sighed. He pulled himself erect. "All right,
then. Come on, Trehearne. We'll start loading."

The skiff was contained in a cell of its own, sunk in the side of the
_Mirzim_--a miniature starship with a flight range long enough to give
the crew of a disabled ship a chance to reach safety. But there was no
use trying to think of safety any longer.

Trehearne routed out every man that was off-station and could stand
erect. Following Edri's orders he stripped the skiff of everything they
wouldn't need. Quorn oversaw the removal of the heavy ultra-wave radio
equipment from the _Mirzim_ and its loading into the skiff. He seemed
unnecessarily particular about it. Trehearne swore and sweated but got
it done. Then he went back to the bridge with Edri and Quorn. Joris
studied his instruments.

"Pretty soon," he said. He gave Quorn his flight instructions.
"Trehearne is still a lubber," he remarked, "but he knows enough by now
to give you a hand when you need it."

Edri said, "Surrender as soon as you're challenged, Joris."

Joris laughed, a pallid ghost of his old loud roar. "I will. Right now,
I'm too tired to die." He glanced again at the instruments. "Time to
go."

They looked at each other, these fatigue-drunken red-eyed men whom a
dream had dragged to the edge of the universe, and could find nothing
to say in this moment of their parting.

"Good luck," muttered Edri then and turned away.

"You're the ones who're going to need it," Joris called after them.

Trehearne went through after Quorn and Edri into the skiff. They
sealed off and then Quorn took the controls and waited, watching his
chronometer. His hand grasped loosely about a red switch marked RELEASE.

He closed the switch.

There was a squeal and grind of machinery, a sense of super-swift
forces at work as the complicated releasing-gear did its work, an
instant of extreme pressure, and the skiff had left the _Mirzim_.
They could see nothing but they knew that skiff and ship had already
diverged far apart at their unthinkable speeds.

Quorn watched his instruments while Trehearne and Edri sat looking at
nothing, afraid to sleep lest they should not be able to wake again.
They sat, and swayed, and waited, until presently Quorn started his
forward generator and began deceleration.

Trehearne lost track of things. Part of the following time he was
unconscious, or nearly so. The rest of it he observed as in a confused
dream. He thought of how he had once been wildly eager for starflight.
But he managed to do the things that Quorn required of him.

The port cleared. It had no adapter and functioned as a port only at
visual speeds. Now, ahead of them, Trehearne could see a huge bulk of
darkness against the outer dark, illumined only faintly by the galactic
light.

"There it is," said Edri. "The dark star." His voice shook a little.

They swept closer, still slowing down. "It has a planet," said Quorn.
"There, catching the starshine--"

"Two," said Trehearne. "I see two."

Two dimly gleaming bodies, dead worlds clinging to a long dead sun
out here at Galaxy edge. The glow of the Milky Way touched them, the
ghostly glow of candles at a wake, and only emphasized their drear
darksomeness and lonesomeness.

Edri whispered, "Well try the outer planet first. Give me a hand,
Trehearne."

They crawled aft between the crowded banks of equipment to a detector
that had come from the _Mirzim's_ hold. Edri fumbled at it.

"In Orthis' day they used radioactive fuel, of course," Edri mumbled.
"We calculated its half-life. Even supposing his bunkers were nearly
empty there should be enough left to register on this counter. A
teacupful would do it."

Trehearne helped Edri adjust the shielding apparatus on the mechanism
until the needle was still.

"What about natural radioactive deposits on the planets themselves?" he
asked.

"We get a break there. Too old. The last radioactive element will have
practically died out millions of years ago." He raised his voice. "Keep
the skiff as low as you dare, Quorn. The counter has a wide sweep. Take
it slow."

He crouched over the telltale needle. Trehearne moved forward again.

The planet was small, less than two thousand miles in diameter. Between
the intense gloom and the motion of the skiff he could see nothing but
a black featureless desolation, rifted here and there with white that
he took to be the frozen remains of an atmosphere. He thought what it
would be like to land there and shivered.

They quartered and swept the planet carefully. The telltale needle of
the counter remained motionless. Edri said, heavily, "We'll go on. Pray
we find it on the other planet. Pray Orthis didn't come down on the
dark star. It would take forever to find him there."

Quorn fed in power and cleared away. The port dimmed again, and Edri
moaned.

"He's about out," Quorn said. "Looks like whatever is done, we'll have
to do the most of it."

The second world was larger than the first by three times or more. It
was not content to be featureless. It thrust up gnawed and shattered
ranges, stripped bones of mountains sheathed in frozen gases. It showed
forth dreary plains coated white with congealed air, glistening faintly
in the light of the great galactic wheel. It turned toward the watchers
the naked beds of its vanished oceans, sucked dry to the deepest gulf.
It displayed the scars of its long dying, the brutal wounds of internal
explosion, the riven gashes of a shrinking crust. A hideous world that
seemed to remember beauty still and to resent the cruelty of death.

Edri whispered, "Pray--pray that the damned thing moves." Instead of
doing so, he cursed the needle that it did not stir.

"Keep going," said Trehearne.

They kept going.

The needle quivered.

Edri let out a hoarse cry. "Easy! _Easy!_" Tears began to run down his
cheeks. He sobbed. The needle was still again.

"Circle!" Trehearne shouted to Quorn. "Circle till we get it centered."

He ran his tongue over his lips and tasted salt, and wondered how it
got there.

Quorn swung the skiff around in a tightening spiral until Edri said,
"Now! Let her down."

He scrambled forward, thrusting his face against the port, trying to
see. Quorn switched on a landing-light. The blue-white blaze lit up a
circular area below, the light intensely bright, the shadows intensely
black. Its beam went sharply down.

They followed it. It was as though the skiff were poised on that pillar
of light, sinking downward. They were above a planetary surface racked
and tortured by final diastrophism. Towering miles high, loomed a
mighty cliff of riven rock. In front of it a chasm yawned, and beyond
the chasm a drear and tumbled landscape stretched dim under the great
sword of the Galaxy.

They started down along the face of the titanic cliff. Looking at the
chasm at its base Trehearne began to get uneasy.

"There's no ship here," he said. "The counter must have picked up some
last radiation from deep down in that chasm."

Quorn agreed with him. But Edri said, "No, keep going." Trehearne could
feel him tremble.

They went on down the face of the giant, looming wall. Trehearne
pointed suddenly. "Isn't that a ledge?"

The hard bright edge of the beam cut across a shelf of rock that jutted
out halfway down the cliff. Quorn swung the skiff in closer. Something
on the ledge glistened dully under the light. Quorn let the skiff drop
with a sickening rush. Detail sprang clear--shattered rock, ancient
magma, puddles of frozen air in the hollows. And among them an ovoid
shape, symmetrical, smooth, giving back a metallic glint.

Edri said the name of Orthis, as though it were a prayer.



                                TWENTY


Quorn had set the skiff down on the ledge. They had scrambled
into pressure suits. They had forgotten that they were already
three-quarters dead. Awkward in the clumsy armor, stumbling on the
jagged rock, slipping on the patches of frozen air, they clawed their
way toward the goal they had crossed a Galaxy and gambled their
lives to find. Above them the ghastly cliff leaned outward against
nothingness, below them the abyss plunged down into the dead heart of a
world. Beyond them was a spreading desolation, and in the black sky the
awful rim of the Galaxy lay like a blazing sword of light.

Trehearne was aware of the silence. He had never been on an airless
world before. He felt the impact as his metal boot struck against a
shard of rock, but it made no sound. All he could hear was the harsh
breathing of Quorn and Edri, transmitted to him by the helmet audio.

The ship of Orthis loomed before them, lightless, lifeless, cradled in
the ashes of destruction. It had a look of patience. It had lain here
for a thousand years, untouched by time or rust, entombed in silence
and the endless night, eternal as the dead suns that rove forever in
uncorrupting space. It seemed that it could wait until the end of the
universe, cherishing its trust. Awe came upon Trehearne, and with it a
kind of fear.

They found the lock port. It stood wide open, the valves still clean
and shining. There could be no corrosion here, with every atom of air
and moisture frozen in the purifying cold. The light of Trehearne's
belt-lamp showed him, on the floor of the lock chamber, the scored
marks of a man's boot. They might have been made only yesterday.

The three men paused outside that open port. They looked at each other
through the glassite plates of their helmets, and their faces were
strange. Then Trehearne stepped aside, and Quorn also. Edri bent his
head. He moved forward to the port. Slowly, without sound, he clambered
into the ship of Orthis.

The others were close behind him. Their belt lamps cut hard slashes of
light across the airless dark. They passed through the lock chamber
and came into a corridor running fore and aft. It was utterly still.
The heavy drag of their boots on the metal deck made not the slightest
sound. It was like walking in a fever-dream, and the deadness of the
ship, the black, inert, unstirring deadness, was more oppressive than
the desolation in which it lay. The rocks and cliffs had never moved,
they had never been built by the hands of men, no thought or hope had
ever entered into them. Trehearne's skin crept in little waves of
cold. He could hear the beating of his own blood in his ears, the dull
throbbing of his own heart. He moved with the others, lonely figures in
a tomb, and he started like a child at every shape the light picked out.

The whole after section of the ship was a laboratory. Much of the
delicate equipment was shattered, either by speed-vibration or a hard
landing. Trehearne could make nothing of the tortured mass of metal
and splintered crystal, but Quorn said, very softly, "He was studying
interstellar radiation. Most of that stuff is beyond me, but I can see
that much."

One section of the laboratory contained a complicated mass of coils
and prisms and intricate banks of reflectors arranged around what must
have been a great central tube. There was a small platform at the
focal point of the mechanism, fitted with straps. Along one bulkhead
was a stack of metal cages for experimental animals. Several of the
little creatures were still there. They had died, the quick death of
airlessness and cold, but their bodies were still perfect. They had,
then, survived the voyage. The ultra-speeds of interstellar flight had
not harmed them.

The men searched for a time among the wreckage, and then Edri said,
"There's nothing for us here. No good trying to figure out the
apparatus. They couldn't do that in all the years they had the ship
impounded, when it was all in shape. Most of it Orthis designed and
built himself."

Trehearne looked again at the small furry bodies in the cages, lying
as though in sleep. Somehow they made the betrayal of Orthis doubly
cruel--that even beasts could be given the freedom of the stars, that
so many generations of the races of so many worlds had been denied.

They went into the corridor, retracing their steps, and passed
on forward. They found the living quarters, small and spare and
monastically neat. The coverings of the bunk were rumpled and the
pillow still retained the hollow where a man's head had lain. Trehearne
shivered. Presently they went on, to the bridge.

Trehearne realized then what an act of heroism it had been to push this
antique ship to the limits of the Galaxy and beyond. The instruments
were so few and rudimentary, the system of controls so crude. There was
a locking device, a primitive Iron Mike that could keep the ship on its
course without human attention, and he thought that only that had made
Orthis' lonely flight possible. But the science of star-craft had come
a long way since then.

Quorn's voice, held to a whisper as one speaks in a church, reached him
on the helmet phone. "It's incredible. This ship wasn't even built for
voyaging, it was a spatial laboratory. It's a wonder it survived at
all."

Edri drew a long breath, with a quiver in it like a sob. "We still
haven't found what we're looking for. Do you suppose it isn't here? Do
you suppose that after all...." He didn't finish.

They began to search again. It was Trehearne who found the door in the
after bulkhead of the bridge. He pushed it open and looked through into
the cabin beyond. The beam of his belt-lamp speared brightly into the
immemorial dark.

Involuntarily, he screamed.

Quorn and Edri ran to him. He was clinging to the bulkhead. Cold sweat
poured down his face, and his eyes were wide and wild. They looked past
him, over his shoulder.

The cabin was small. It was fitted as a library, crammed with metal
cases of books, some of them micro-tape volumes of an ancient type,
some of them thick ragged notebooks. The knife-sharp light-beams picked
them out, in brilliant highlight and black shadow. There was a great
table, bolted down, and on the table was a metal box. A man's hand
rested there, the fingers open, curled slightly over the edge of the
box, protectively, possessively, as though it were something loved and
precious.

"Oh God," whispered Quorn, "look at him...."

He sat in a metal chair behind the table. His head was lifted, looking
toward the port in the outer wall that showed the black sky slashed
across with the mighty fires of the Galaxy. The hard light showed him
clearly. He was an old man. The years of his life had been many and
unkind. They had shaped his face as though from iron, gouging the
lines deep, hammering the ridges hard, driving out all traces of youth
and hope and whatever laughter there might have been to forge a mask
of bitter anger, and reproach, and in the end, despair. It seemed to
Trehearne that he could read a whole life history in that face, caught
forever in the moment of death, when surely the man was crying out upon
whatever gods he worshipped, demanding _Why?_

Edri began suddenly to laugh. "Orthis. It's Orthis. He's been here
waiting for us to come in...."

Quorn raised a hand in its heavy gauntlet and struck Edri's helmet so
that Trehearne could hear the ringing in his own audio. "Shut up. Damn
you, Edri. Shut up." Edri stopped laughing. After a moment he said,
"For a moment I thought...."

Trehearne muttered, "So did I." Here in the airless utter cold, death
held no decay, no change. But there was more to it than the lack of
physical corruption. The fire in this man had burned so deep that even
death could not erase its scars. Where the lamp-beams caught them, his
open eyes seemed still to glow with the unforgotten embers.

For a long time the three men stood, not moving, grouped in the
doorway. Trehearne said once, "I think he wanted whoever found him to
look inside that box, there under his hand." Orthis' life-work, the
future of the Galaxy, held in a little box. They knew it. But still
they were not quite ready to go in and take away from Orthis the thing
that he had kept so long. And it was strange, Trehearne thought, that
in this moment when their emotions ought to be at the highest pitch,
when they should be feeling most poignantly the weight of all the
centuries of sacrifice and struggle that had led them here, and what
it was all going to mean, they were too tired to feel anything very
much, only the edges of awe and an instinctive reluctance to approach
the dead. He wanted to get away from this funeral ship. Finally he
wanted it so much that he went in and tried to move Orthis' hand from
off the box. The arm was frozen rigid as a steel bar, and he gave it
up, working the box carefully out from under the icy fingers, in horror
lest they break.

The others had come slowly in beside him. The box was not locked. He
lifted up the lid, and the lamplight showed a notebook bound in cloth.
On top of it lay a loose sheet of paper with a few angular lines of
writing. Edri picked it up, very clumsily in his armored hands, and
held it to the light, reading aloud in a queer flat voice. "I have
clung to life this much longer...."

Edri stopped, and coughed, and started over, and Trehearne thought that
Orthis listened.

"I have clung to life this much longer to write down for the first time
all my formulae, complete and simplified so that they can be understood
and used. In them lies the freedom of the stars. I, the first of the
star-born, was rejected by the greed and fear of the planet-born. But
it will not always be so.

"I shall not see what comes. My ship has already flown too far, I have
little fuel, and I am old. Therefore I have set the airlock control and
in a few minutes it will open. A swift death, and better than a slow
one as the air-pumps fail. After that, I shall wait. What I dreamed
will never be forgotten. Some day there will come others who believe as
I have always believed, that the stars are for all men."

Edri fell silent. And Quorn said, "He watched the Galaxy for a thousand
years, and waited."

Trehearne forced himself to move, to break the spell. "Unless we hurry,
it will not have done him any good." He reached out and took the box
and shut it, and thrust it into Edri's hands. "Come on. Edri, do you
hear me? Come on! We haven't got much time."

Edri looked at the box, and then at Orthis, who had had a thousand
years of time. Then he turned and went out, and Quorn went after him,
and Trehearne, down the dark corridor and out of the silent ship.
Trehearne looked up at the flaming river of stars in the sky and
thought what a mighty dream the first of the star-born men had carried
with him into the long night.

A sudden panic of haste came over him. Orthis had given them this trust
literally with his own hand. If they failed now because they were too
slow, too worn out now, at the last, to do what needed to be done....
He began to run toward the skiff, shouting at the others, urging them
on, harrying them until they ran too, staggering over the blasted rock.
He pushed them inside, a little crazy now himself, talking incessantly
about the need for haste. Quorn took off from the ledge. They did not
want to be near the ship of Orthis when they did what they were going
to do. He sent the light craft racing across the dead world, searching
for a place to land.

"Hurry," said Trehearne. "Got to hurry!"

Quorn cursed him savagely. "I'm doing all I can. Shut up and listen.
Both of you. Keep your pressure suits on and your helmets ready."

Trehearne stopped talking. He sat, holding his hands tight between his
knees, shaking all over. Edri was bent over the notebook from the metal
box, reading.

"It's all here," he said. His voice was hoarse with weariness, with
emotion he was too numb to feel. "The equations, the formulae, the
instructions for constructing the equipment, the instructions for using
it. I don't understand them, but others will." He looked at Trehearne
with red-rimmed eyes. "Orthis has a foreword here. He was the first
of the star-born. The mutation began spontaneously on that first long
voyage. The constant vibration of speed, not speed as we know it
now but more than the human body was used to, speed approaching the
velocity of light, and the impact of interstellar radiation on the
living cell. That's what did it. Orthis was the end-product of four
generations of breeding under those conditions. He was nature's first
attempt to create Galactic Man, to readjust the human body to meet
new needs. And the thing he labored on so long was the reduction of
that long natural process to a workable formula that could accomplish
the change in one generation instead of four. God, I'm so tired I'm
repeating this stuff like a parrot from Orthis' own words. What you do,
of course, is alter the germ plasm of both parents before conception
takes place, and ... anyway, it's all here."

Quorn said suddenly, "This place looks as good as any. At least it'll
give us a little more cover."

He took the skiff down carefully toward the flat bed of an ancient
watercourse. The channel was filled now with frozen air, but in bygone
ages it had gouged a deep canyon in the rock, leaving eroded holes and
overhangs. Quorn worked the skiff into one of these washed-out places,
under the canyon wall.

Edri was going over his book again, making sure, dazed with the
hypnosis of exhaustion and the need to be right. He did not dare to
fumble or read a single figure wrong. There wouldn't be any time for
corrections or recheckings. The weight of the responsibility was so
heavy on him that he seemed to be physically shrinking under it. His
lips moved constantly. Trehearne did not envy him his job.

Quorn grunted at him and they went aft together to struggle with the
ultra-wave equipment. Trehearne was possessed by a demon of urgency,
and he had not the slightest idea what he was doing. Quorn gave orders
and he obeyed them blindly, sometimes right, sometimes wrong. Nerve and
temper were worn to the last frayed edge and beyond, and before they
were through they were snarling at each other like dogs. Hooking the
power leads to the skiff's generators was the hardest task of all, but
somehow they finished. They lifted Edri to his feet and sat him down
again, still clutching his book, in front of the transmitter. Quorn
bent over the control switches. The generators hummed, feeding in the
power. Edri was still staring at the book. Trehearne shook him. "Go
on," he said. "Talk."

Edri blinked and frowned, looking up at them as though he had forgotten
entirely what he had to do. Quorn took Edri's face between his hands
and spoke to him, slapping his cheeks gently one after the other as
he talked. "Listen, I've got it on the emergency band, covering all
channels. Every ultra-wave receiver within its range will pick it up,
including non-Vardda communication centers. Edri, do you understand me?
The minute Kerrel picks it up he'll be able to center us and come in on
our beam. So you've got to make it fast. Fast!"

Edri blinked again, and shivered. "All right. I'll try." He glanced
nervously at Trehearne. Quorn made the last dial setting, and then he
spoke into the transmitter.

"G-One! G-One! Emergency. Request clearance all channels. Use your
recorders! Use your recorders! G-One, clear all channels...."

He motioned violently, and Edri leaned forward. "I may not have time to
repeat. We have found the ship of Orthis. Here follow the formulae for
the Vardda mutation."



                              TWENTY-ONE


Edri had begun to read from the notebook. He was going fast, but taking
desperate pains to make each syllable clear. Quorn hung tensely over
his dials. Trehearne sat motionless, except that his muscles quivered.
Sweat ran in his eyes. He was tired. He was so tired that Quorn, three
feet away, looked as blurred and indistinct as though he were lost in
the haze of distance. Edri's voice went on, and on, and on.

Quorn said hoarsely, "The cruiser has picked us up. They're already
trying to jam us. Hurry up."

Edri's face became that of a hunted thing. His voice rose shrill,
racing desperately. He turned the last page. He finished it, and then
he went back to the beginning and started to repeat. Quorn stood up.

"It isn't any use, we're blanked out. That means the cruiser's close,
close enough to...."

He didn't have time to get the rest of the words out. The skiff
was shaken suddenly as by a giant hand. Quorn was flung against a
bulkhead, and Trehearne lay on the floor. Only Edri, hanging on to the
transmitter, still talked.

"Shell burst," Quorn said, getting up again. "They're ranging us down
the canyon." He reached for his helmet. The skiff shuddered a second
time, harder. Trehearne scrambled painfully to his feet. He tried to
jam Edri's helmet down over his head, but Edri fought him, clinging
to the transmitter. Quorn laid hold of him and yelled, "You're not
getting through any more! Come on!" He closed the master switch.
Between them they got Edri's hands loose and the helmet on him. The
skiff was racked again, and something broke with a crackle of exploding
glass. Trehearne locked his own helmet. Through the audio he could hear
Quorn shouting something about the airlock and getting clear before the
skiff was blasted flat with them inside it. Half dragging Edri between
them, they began to run. Some of the deck plates were already buckled,
and there was an ominous shrill whistle of escaping air. They reached
the lock and got it open.

Out on the canyon floor a great light blossomed and died. Chunks of
rock struck silently against the skiff. The deck leaped under their
feet, and the airlock spewed them out as the hull rocked over. They hit
the ground hard, too hard. For the space of several seconds they lay
where they were, and there were no more shell bursts. Trehearne groaned
and sat up. "I guess that was the last one. Quorn? Edri? Somebody
answer me."

Edri was silent, but Quorn said thickly, "They know we quit sending.
Damn it, I've cut my mouth on the helmet rim and it's bleeding all over
me." Trehearne could hear him spitting. He crawled over and shook Edri.
Presently Edri said, "Where's the notebook?"

"Still in the skiff."

"We've got to get it...."

"What for?"

"I guess you're right. Did we do it, Quorn? Did we put it through?"

"I don't know, I don't know! They came in on us so fast...."

He got up off the ground, looking at something, and then he pointed, up
into the black sky. "Are we going to run," he asked, "or wait?"

Trehearne looked up and down the river bed that was clogged with air,
frozen, and then along the cruel, cold line of the cliffs above. "We
could breathe for a few hours, all right, till our oxygen gave out. But
it hardly seems worth it."

Quorn sat down again. "I guess we wait."

They waited, and the cruiser dropped down silently out of the sky. It
was dark in the canyon, where the cliffs cut off the galactic light,
but the cruiser's ports shone brightly. Trehearne was almost glad to
see them. They were human. They were comforting, after all the night
and desolation of a dead world. The airlock opened and a vivid shaft
of brilliance shot out of it, going straight on with no air to diffuse
it, until it hit the opposite wall of the canyon, near the skiff. Men
in pressure suits began to come out of the lock. Trehearne rose. He
stepped into the bright beam and walked slowly toward the men. Edri
came after him, and Quorn.

A voice he did not know spoke over the helmet phone. "Identify
yourselves."

They gave their names, and Trehearne added, "We're unarmed. We're
through." There was a certain relief in being through. Whatever
happened from here on was out of their hands. They could sit passively
and rest, and let it happen. He looked at the ship and thought of
warmth and light and food and comfort, and most of all he thought of
sleep. Shairn and Kerrel could come later.

The men from the cruiser carried weapons, a type of shock-rifle more
deadly than the little tubes that only stunned. They came out a short
distance, toward the three bulky shapes that shuffled down the beam of
light. The first voice that had spoken gave an order, and the two men
went off toward the skiff to search it, their belt lamps bobbing. Then
it spoke again to Trehearne and the others. "Keep your hands as high as
you can. All right, that's far enough."

Trehearne said, "I told you, we're unarmed."

"Precaution. Stand where you are."

They stood, and were searched.

"Very well," said the officer's voice. "Come aboard."

"No."

One short word, spoken quietly in a voice that Trehearne knew. A
voice he had not heard for a long, long time, but that he remembered.
Kerrel's voice. Some of the exhaustion in him stirred and drew back,
and anger took his place. The men stood in the beam of light, but with
their backs toward it, facing their prisoners. The undiffused glare
passed around them, leaving their faces in darkness, invisible behind
the helmet plates. Trehearne tried to identify Kerrel, but he could not.

The officer said, rather irritably, "But there's no point in standing
out here any longer." The case had been long and hard for him, too. "We
take off as soon as the search detail comes back."

"Yes," said Kerrel. "But not them. They stay here."

The suited shapes, the faceless and unhuman shapes that had stood
together drew apart a little and turned toward each other, as though
they tried to pierce the darkness with their peering helmet plates.
There was a silence of astonishment, and then Edri said, "That's
murder."

The voice of the officer, rising on a note of anger, demanded, "Kerrel,
what the hell--Have you gone clean crazy?"

"Is justice a crazy thing?" There was something strange about Kerrel's
voice. It was flat and toneless and devoid of passion, the voice
of a man with too much inside himself to bear, too much to find
escape through any normal channels. "They may have succeeded. Do you
understand that? They may, just possibly, have done what they set out
to do. Do you know what that would mean?"

"As well as you do. And don't worry about justice, they'll get it. But
they'll get it from the Council on Llyrdis, according to law."

"Law," said Kerrel softly. "Once Trehearne received the benefit of our
law. I told them then that they were wrong to give it to him. The law
is good, I've served it all my life. But there are times when one has
to go beyond the law if one is to go on serving it. Leave them here."

Trehearne spoke, for the first time. "It wouldn't do for me to go back
to Llyrdis, would it, Kerrel? Not to stand up in open Council and tell
exactly how and why Yann died."

Kerrel's voice answered him, and he could not tell which of the
helmeted shapes was speaking, the shapes with the shadowed faces. It
was maddening not to know.

"And was I wrong, Trehearne? Could you stand up in open Council and say
that I was wrong to try it?"

"Listen," said the officer. "I'm not judge and I'm not jury. I was sent
out by the Council to bring these men in, and I'm going to do it. For
God's sake, Kerrel, stop trying to carry the weight of the universe on
your shoulders. No man is that big. Come on, you three--into the ship."

"No."

One figure detached itself. One figure drew away from the rest of the
group and stood between them and the ship, with a shock-rifle in its
hands.

"You're not thinking far enough ahead. Suppose they've failed. Should
they be put on trial--under a law and a system that they've risked
their lives to tear down--should they be allowed to talk to the whole
Galaxy about what they've done, to become heroes and martyrs, a focal
point of trouble for all time to come?"

"There have been Orthist trials before." The officer was moving toward
Kerrel. "I think you'd better give me that rifle, before you get
carried away."

The muzzle of the shock-gun lifted, and Kerrel said, "Wait, I'm not
finished yet." The officer took another step and then he hesitated, and
an uneasiness seemed to come over him and the rest of the cruiser's
men. Trehearne's belly contracted with a sick impotent fury and his
hands moved forward in a grasping motion, futile, hungry. Quorn was
cursing in a monotone, so low that it only formed a background for the
voices speaking over it.

Kerrel said, "These men are different. They found the ship, the shrine.
They've been inside it, handled the notebooks, for all I know they've
seen the body of Orthis himself. They proved it could be done. Will
that ever be forgotten?"

"I don't give a damn," the officer said. "No one is going to kill
prisoners. Give me the gun."

Kerrel stepped back, just a little, a step or two. The group of men
began to widen out, slowly, leaving one by one the beam of light until
only three were left, a small screen between Kerrel and the prisoners.
Trehearne's legs bent and flexed. He watched the gun.

Kerrel said, "Suppose they didn't fail. Suppose it's all over, the
thousand years of Vardda life. Should they be allowed to enjoy the
thing they've done?"

"Fine talk," Trehearne said. The darkness was deep and close, outside
the beam. "Noble talk. Maybe I even believe it. But you've got another
reason, too."

"I admit it. But in this, it doesn't matter. No woman ever born was
important enough to matter in this." He asked quietly of the officer,
"Will you leave them here?"

"Will you put that gun down!"

Back another step. "You three men there, in front of the prisoners.
Move aside."

"All right," said the officer. "_Jump him!_"

Trehearne sprang for the darkness. He saw the three men in front of him
melt away. The rifle cracked and flared, not aimed at anyone just yet,
a warning. And then the night was full of motion.

Lying on the black rock, on the iron ridges of frozen air that flowed
between, Trehearne watched the clumsy dance of men in shapeless
pressure suits and round blank helmets, in and out of the sharp bright
beam that was empty now except for themselves. They had moved around
Kerrel in the blackness and the silence and come upon him from the
back, but their hands were hampered by the gauntlets and the bulging
fabric of Kerrel's suit was hard to hold. They lost him, and then he
was part of the group again and they did not know which one, and their
voices rose in an angry babble. Only Kerrel did not speak. Trehearne
crept on his belly, farther away from the beam, and the shadows that
were Quorn and Edri followed him. Suddenly Edri tapped his helmet, and
then pointed, and Trehearne saw the solitary figure of a man walking
in the darkness outside the beam, but from this angle showing black
against it, toward the place where the prisoners had been.

Trehearne said aloud, "This is Trehearne speaking. He's coming our way,
to your right and just outside the beam."

The men began to run, spreading out. And then the shock-rifle flared
and flared again, steady, systematic, raking all the ground where the
prisoners should be, the blue bolts cracking in the helmet phones like
heavy static. Trehearne and the others fled farther away, floundering
over the bitter ground, and the blue bolts haunted them, and then two
men flung themselves at Kerrel from behind. He fell, dropping the rifle.

The two men got up after a moment, rather slowly. Someone came with a
belt lamp, and then others, and then all of them, with Trehearne and
Quorn and Edri. They all stood looking down at the figure that still
lay where it had fallen and did not move. There was a ridge of rock
with sharp teeth edging it, sticking up from the frozen air.

"He hit hard," said one of the men, "right on his face-plate, and it
broke."

The officer swore, viciously. "What a stinking mess! Why did he have to
do it? He must have been crazy."

"I don't know," Trehearne said slowly. "Where do you draw the line
between lunacy and belief? If there'd been more like him, we couldn't
have done what we did."

They picked Kerrel up and carried him to the cruiser, and Trehearne
plodded on where he was told. Inside the ship he and the others were
stripped of their pressure suits and searched again for weapons. Then
guards took them down a corridor, tired bitter men who had been too
long on a grinding job. One of them said, "We overhauled the _Mirzim_.
All your friends are here." And then he added, "It's a pity that we
have to save the lives of men like you."

They came to a heavy door and stopped, and Shairn was standing there.
She looked thin, and her eyes were shadowed, and there were lines
around her mouth that had not been there before. She was not the old
Shairn. She was someone new. There was no joy in that meeting. She
looked at Trehearne and said, "Michael, what have you done?"

He shook his head and answered, "That's the hell of it. We may not have
done anything at all."



                              TWENTY-TWO


The voyage was ending. They had known from the long period of
deceleration that it was ending, and now the last pressures, and the
small, grinding shocks as the cruiser settled into its dock, told them
that they were again on Llyrdis. The bells rang, and the throb of the
generators gave way to an unfamiliar silence.

They waited, then. And nothing happened. The hours went by and nothing
happened.

Trehearne said finally, "They're not even going to remove us from the
cruiser. They'll take us off to wherever we're bound for without even
hearing us."

Edri shook his head. "No. Vardda law sentences no man without formal
trial."

They could see nothing, hear nothing. Until, at last, the door was
unlocked. There were officers and guards--many guards, all of them
armed. Their faces told nothing.

"You will come with us," said the young captain of guards soberly.

"Where?" demanded Joris. "To Llyrdis prison or--"

"All communication with the prisoners forbidden," clipped the young
captain. "You will come with us."

It seemed strange to Trehearne to walk again on unmoving floors,
corridors, decks--on a planet. The tawny glare of Aldebaran was
dazzling when they filed out of the cruiser. The air seemed
unnaturally damp, heavy with the tang of the sea.

He and Joris and Edri, the first to emerge, looked around with a throb
of eagerness, of half-hope. They could not see much. The cruiser had
landed in a closed-off sector and there were other guards waiting out
here beside a number of the sleek cars.

But Trehearne could hear. He could hear all the usual hum and din and
clangor of the vast spaceport, the grind of cranes and rumble of trams,
the scream of a fast planet-flyer coming in. And then the _whoosh_ of a
great bulk hurtling upward, a starship outbound for distant suns. And
in the distance the shining towers of Llyrdis city still magnificently
challenged the heavens.

Trehearne felt a sick sense of futility. All this vast ordered turmoil
of routine and activity, all the Galaxy-wide trade that centered here,
the thousand-year solidity of Vardda commercial monopoly--how could he
have dreamed that a pitifully faint and aborted radio call could ever
shake it? The faces of his friends showed him how their last hope had
begun to wane.

"The cars," said the young captain. "You four will go in the first one."

Edri found his voice. "What about Arrin?"

"I am permitted to tell you that your comrade has been removed to
hospital and is in good condition."

Joris said nothing. Trehearne saw his sunken eyes looking across the
spaceport and thought how it must be for him to come back thus to this
place where for years he had sat with his hands guiding the Vardda
ships that came and went. Then the car took them out of the spaceport,
fast. Trehearne saw that other cars, with guards alone in them, ran
unobtrusively along ahead of and behind them.

And nothing was changed in Llyrdis. The peacock city preened itself
beneath the sun, iridescent, splendid, its streets thronged with the
smiling Vardda and the other stranger races--echoing with music,
brilliant with color. They passed a Vardda man and girl who stood,
laughing as they talked. And it was then that Trehearne ceased
altogether to hope.

"We're going to the Council Hall," Edri said presently.

Joris nodded somberly. "I could have told you that. As a Council
member, I have to be formally impeached and removed before charges
against me can be pressed." He added grimly, "Old Ristin, the chairman,
won't weep over that. We tangled pretty often, in the past."

The Council Hall sat amid a crowded nexus of governmental buildings.
It dominated Llyrdis, not by size, but by age. It was a grey old
pile, without beauty but with the massiveness and solidity of eternal
things. Its courts and corridors and staring officials Trehearne saw
only vaguely. They slid over his vision, and nothing seemed entirely
tangible until, in an anteroom, Shairn's face leaped real to his eyes.

She had been waiting to see him pass, he knew. Her face was white
and strained, and she said nothing, but her eyes said, "_Michael!
Michael!_" He looked back at her as they went on and he wondered what
she read in his own eyes. And then they had entered the deliberative
chamber itself.

It was not large and not crowded, a half-moon-shaped hall with
something more than a hundred Vardda in its chairs. Of the blur of
faces turned toward him, most were grave, some curious, some open in
their hatred.

Ristin, the chairman, was a magnificent white-haired old Lucifer who
disdained the petty vanity of pretending that this was a routine matter.

"This Council is not a judicial body," he informed the four. "The
criminal charges against you--piracy, resisting of authority--will
be handled by the regular courts. We are here investigating a matter
urgent to the state."

Joris got up, thrusting his gray head forward like an old mastiff's. He
growled, "Since this is an investigation, you can't legally carry it
out without hearing us."

Ristin said grimly, "The Coordinator of the Port was always good at
making himself heard here. But you will have to wait this time, Joris."
He looked up at the watching Vardda faces as he added, "The problem of
your personal offense is not foremost. What concerns us most urgently
is the general policy to be adopted by the Council."

Trehearne hardly heard. That glimpse of Shairn had done things to him
and his mind was far away. He wondered vaguely why Edri, who had sat
sagging heavily beside him, suddenly stiffened, why Edri convulsively
grasped his wrist.

Ristin was continuing, "Therefore I emphasize again that we of the
Council must not let any emotion of resentment sway our judgment. We
are elected to serve the best interests of the Vardda as a whole and we
must let no lesser considerations in any way affect our decision."

Then Joris laughed. His head came up, and his bellowing laughter echoed
and re-echoed from the vaulted roof. He swung around to Trehearne and
Edri and Quorn, and his eyes were blazing now. "_By God, you did it
after all!_"

Trehearne, still only half understanding, felt a white-hot thrill. Edri
had begun to tremble violently.

Ristin's cool voice cut in. "Believe me, your exultation is premature.
Nevertheless there is no purpose in concealing the fact that your
actions have presented us with an unprecedentedly grave problem."

Quorn said hoarsely to Trehearne, "Don't you get it? Our message got
through!"

Trehearne understood then. The gravity of the watching faces, the
bitter hatred in some of them, the strong leadership the old chairman
was wielding to conquer the crisis--all these belied the everyday
appearance of Llyrdis that had been the death-knell of his hopes. He
knew, now. He knew that through them, after a thousand years, the voice
of Orthis had spoken to the Galaxy. And it had been heard--somewhere it
had been heard.

Ristin was saying, "So far only vague rumor and hearsay is abroad.
Every operator who might have heard the broadcast has been warned not
to repeat it but there are bound to be Orthists among them. The fact
that non-Vardda worlds possess ultra-wave receivers for use in their
commerce with us is an even more serious matter. It stands thus--that
in spite of the news-services' co-operation with us on the matter, it
is slowly becoming public knowledge that Orthis' secret was found and
broadcast. At least three recordings of it have been found, and two
written records. We can assume that there are more."

Joris said grimly, "In other words--the secret is out and everyone will
soon know that--and what are you going to do about it?"

"The Coordinator of the Port has summed it up," Ristin agreed, coolly.
"What shall we do about it?"

A tall Vardda leaped up and cried, "I suggest that the first thing we
do is to execute these traitors!"

There was a fierce chorus of agreement from a few dozen voices. Ristin
called sharply for order.

"I have reminded you that our paramount consideration at this moment
must be the ultimate best interests of our people! Let us have no more
such outbreaks."

An older Vardda man rose in the tiers and said quietly, "Before I
advance my suggestion I should admit that I have always had secret
Orthist sympathies. I don't think that I am the only one here who can
say that. You must allow for that." He went on. "I would have liked
long ago to see this unnatural monopoly ended. Now our hand has been
forced. I suggest that our best and wisest course is to act at once--to
declare publicly that we Vardda are going to _give_ the secret to the
whole Galaxy."

He paused, to emphasize his point. "The secret is out anyway. But
by acting quickly we can take credit for that. We can aver that the
broadcast was made with our consent. Remember, whether we like it or
not, in a few generations other worlds will be flying the stars--and we
do not want them cherishing a legacy of hatred for us then."

Trehearne, listening, smiled grimly. "Politics don't change much across
the Galaxy."

"But it's all we hoped for," Edri whispered. "It would work, too!"

Discussion, angry debate, had sprung up. It went on and on, passionate
voices accusing and denying, Ristin sternly maintaining order, bringing
back the argument to the main issue time after time. Finally, in a lull
of the disputing voices, Joris swung around and faced the Council.

"Now listen to me," the old man roared. "You'd think the way some of
you talk that this meant the end of the Vardda, the end of Llyrdis,
the end of everything. That's utter asininity. In the first place,
mutations don't take place overnight. It will be a generation or
two before the other races start going out between the stars in any
numbers."

Trehearne saw that sink home. The Vardda Council, being human, could
not worry too deeply for long about a future they wouldn't see.

"And furthermore," Joris bellowed, "when every half-baked folk in the
Galaxy does take to starflight, does that mean the great Vardda trade
is ruined forever? Listen! We Vardda were the first to go out to the
stars. _The first!_ Do you think all the lubberly races of the Galaxy
can compete with us out there? Do you think so?"

He caught them with that, with the Vardda pride, the Vardda glory.
Trehearne saw the strained faces changing. Not all of them, but many.

Joris paused before he said his final word. "Do you think there will
ever be a time when we Vardda can't hold our own?"

There was not much talk after that. There were questions, protests,
doubts, but little more argument. All the arguments had been spoken.

"We have to decide this now or never," Ristin told them. "If we delay
longer, there will not be a choice."

Trehearne heard the resolution read, and the voting and the result.
Not easily could the Vardda yield! Forty-three voted against the
resolution. But seventy-nine for it.

Ristin said, "It will be announced by general broadcast tonight that,
in view of the advance of civilization on many star-worlds, the Vardda
deem the time ripe to share the secret of mutation with other selected
races."

Quorn said, "It's done. Trehearne, it's done."

Trehearne still could not quite grasp that that simple statement marked
a change forever in the Galaxy, that with it all human races began the
great change toward Galactic Man.

"And these criminals who forced us to do the thing?" demanded a Vardda
recalcitrant, glaring at Trehearne and his fellows.

"We have no choice there," Ristin said dryly. "To punish them for what
they did would belie our own announcement. The ordinary charges against
them can be dismissed."

"So that for their crime they go unpunished?"

Ristin sighed regretfully. "The interests of the state demand it. Yes."

Trehearne's comrades were breaking down, half stunned, half incredulous
of the victory they had thought beyond them. But strangely Trehearne
was not thinking of what they had won for the Galaxy races. He was
feeling a pride that Joris' phrase, "We Vardda," had kindled in him.

"_We Vardda_--"

And he was one of them. He was one of the starlords, the first, the
oldest, the greatest of the starmen.

Edri was thinking of something else. He had stepped forward amid the
general clamor to speak to Ristin. "There is one more thing. Orthis--"

"A cruiser has been sent to guard his ship," said Ristin.

Edri nodded painfully. "But Orthis was not ever child of a planet. He
was star-born, dwelling always between the stars. He has sat long on
that far world. If his ship could take space again...."

Ristin said musingly, "A good thought. By putting that ship into an
orbit around our system we'll create a monument that will remind all
the Galaxy that it was a Vardda who gave them starflight."

Edri turned to Trehearne and Joris. He had tears in his eyes. He said,
"Orthis is going home."

       *       *       *       *       *

The message left for Trehearne had told him simply that Shairn would be
at the Silver Tower. It was handed him when they finally emerged from
the Council Hall. Joris got him a car and driver. Trehearne hesitated,
suddenly hating to part from the old man. Edri, and Quorn and the
others had their eager plans. But Joris took no joy in their victory.

"Had it been done a generation ago my son would be a star-captain
now," he muttered, in answer to Trehearne's awkward words. "Well--"

The car took him out of the city, smooth and fast, and the great flare
of Aldebaran sank toward the sea and dusk came on. The stars burgeoned
and Trehearne looked up at them. He looked at the far faint spark of
little Sol, and thought of Earth and of a changeling born there who had
by a miracle won his way home.

That green and distant Earth knew nothing yet of the battle fought and
won beyond the edges of the Galaxy. But it had been Earth's battle too
and she would know of it in time. Even to Earth, when a generation
had passed, the starships would begin to go openly. And with their
internecine conflicts past, Earth's young men too would go out among
the stars to join the great march of Galactic Man. Who could say
where that march might not lead them? To other galaxies, other island
continents of suns....

Trehearne's thoughts came back from the immensities of the future when
he saw the Silver Tower glimmering in the starlight. He left the car
and walked toward it, and then he saw the pale figure on the shadowy
beach beside the slow wash of the sea, and he went down to it.

He put out his arms to her, but she held him off. She spoke to him,
her voice clear, her face a white blur in the darkness. "I won't have
hidden things between us, Michael. I want you to know. I hate you for
what you've done to the Vardda. I'll always hate you for it."

He stepped back and let his arms fall. "In that case," he said, "I'd
better go."

"No, wait." She came to him and put her hands on either side of his
face, very gently, and she said, "I love you, in spite of everything.
I don't know why. My mind keeps telling me all the reasons why I
shouldn't, but--it's a queer thing, Michael. I've never been in love
before. Will you have me on those grounds?"

He held her this time, tight against him, and his lips brushed over
hers as he answered, "Life with you won't be any haven of peace, I'm
sure. But I knew that when I found you."

Standing with her in the gloom, the sea-wind rumpling her white robe
and tumbling her hair, memory tricked him back to that night on the
Breton beach, centuries ago. So far and far he had come since then, and
yet of it all that was almost his clearest memory.

He knew now, with a wisdom that he had not had before, that it would
always be so with a man--that it was not the conflicts and the pain
and the triumph, not the empires and the stars and the struggles that
the memory clung to the longest. It was the little things, the sound
of a girl's laughter, the cry of birds on the sea-wind, the flare of
a long-ago sunset, that a man held, that he would always hold, when
everything else was gone.



*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The starmen" ***




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