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Title: —And Devious the Line of Duty
Author: Godwin, Tom, 1915-1980
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.

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                            --And Devious
                            the Line of Duty

              Sometimes the most diligent and loyal thing
                      an old man can do is fumble,
          drink beer, and let a young man get into trouble....

                             by Tom Godwin

                        Illustrated by Schelling


"We're almost there, my boy." The big, gray-haired man who would be
Lieutenant Dale Hunter's superior--Strategic Service's Special Agent,
George Rockford--opened another can of beer, his fifth. "There will be
intrigue already under way when this helicopter sets down with us.
Attempted homicide will soon follow. The former will be meat for me. You
will be meat for the latter."

Rockford was smiling as he spoke; the genial, engaging smile of a fond
old father. But the eyes, surrounded by laughter crinkles, were as
unreadable as two disks of gray slate. They were the eyes of a poker
player--or master con man.

"I don't understand, sir," Hunter said.

"Of course not," Rockford agreed. "It's a hundred light-years back to
Earth. Here on Vesta, to make sure there _is_ an Earth in the future,
you're going to do things never dreamed of by your Terran Space Patrol
instructors there. You'll be amazed, my boy."

[Illustration]

Hunter said nothing but he felt a growing dislike for the condescending
Rockford. Only a few weeks ago President Diskar, himself, had said: _For
more than a century these truly valiant men of the Space Patrol have
been our unwavering outer guard; have fought and died by legions, that
Earth and the other worlds of the Terran Republic might remain free--_

"I suppose you know," Rockford said, "that there will be no more than
four days in which to stop the Verdam oligarchy from achieving its
long-time ambition of becoming big enough to swallow the Terran
Republic."

"I know," Hunter answered.

Jardeen, Vesta's companion world, was the key. Jardeen was large and
powerful, with a space navy unsurpassed by that of any other single
world. A large group of now-neutral worlds would follow Jardeen's lead
and Jardeen's alliance with the Verdam People's Worlds would mean the
quick end for the Terran Republic. But, if Jardeen could be persuaded to
ally with the Terran Republic, the spreading, grasping arms of the
Verdam octopus would begin to wither away--

Rockford spoke again:

"Val Boran, Jardeen's Secretary of Foreign Relations, is the man who
will really make Jardeen's decision. I know him slightly. Since my
public role is that of Acting Ambassador, he agreed--reluctantly--to
come to Vesta so that the talks could be on a neutral world. With him
will be Verdam's Special Envoy Sonig; a wily little man who has been
working on Boran for several weeks. He seems to be succeeding quite
well--here's a message I received from Earth early this morning."

Rockford handed him a sheet of the green Hyperspace Communications
paper. The message was in code, with Rockford's scribbled translation
beneath:

_Intelligence reports Verdam forces already massed for attack in Sector
A-13, in full expectation of Jardeen's alliance. Anti-Terran propaganda,
stressing the New Jardeen Incident, being used in preparation for what
will be their claim of "defensive action to protect innocent worlds from
Terran aggression." Terran forces will be outnumbered five to one. The
urgent necessity of immediate and conclusive counter measures by you on
Vesta is obvious._

Hunter handed the paper back, thinking, _It's worse than any of us
thought_, and wondering how Supreme Command could ever have entrusted
such an important task to a beer-guzzling old man from Strategic
Service--a branch so unknown that he had never even heard of it until
his briefing the day before he left Earth.

He saw that they had left the desert behind and were going up the long
slope of a mountain. "The meeting will be on this mountain?" he asked.

Rockford nodded. "The rustic Royal Retreat. Princess Lyla will be our
hostess. Her mother and father were killed in an airplane accident a
year ago and she was the only child. You will also get to meet Lord Narf
of the Sea Islands, her husband-by-proxy, who regards himself as a rare
combination of irresistible woman-killer and rugged man-among-men."

"Husband-by-proxy?" Hunter asked.

"The king worshiped his daughter and his dying request to her was that
she promise to marry Lord Narf. Narf's father had been the king's
closest friend and the king was sure that his old friend's son would
always love and care for Lyla. Lyla dutifully, at once, married Narf by
proxy, which is like a legally binding formal engagement under Vestan
law. Four days from now the time limit is up and they'll be formally
married. Unless she should do the unprecedented thing of renouncing the
proxy marriage."

Rockford drained the last of the beer from the can. "Those are the
characters involved in our play. I have a plan. That's why I told Space
Patrol to send me a brand-new second lieutenant--young, strong, fairly
handsome--and expendable. I hope you can be philosophical about the
latter."

"Sir," Hunter said, unable to keep a touch of stiffness out of his tone,
"it is not exactly unknown in the Space Patrol for a man to die in the
line of duty."

"Ah ... yes." Rockford was regarding him with disturbing amusement. "You
are thinking, of course, of dying dramatically behind a pair of blazing
blasters. But you will soon learn, my boy, that a soldier's duty is to
protect the worlds he represents by whatever actions will produce the
best results, no matter how unheroic those actions may be."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Attention, please." It was the voice of the pilot. "We are now going to
land."

Hunter preceded Rockford out of the helicopter and onto the green grass
of a small valley, across which tall, red-trunked cloud trees were
scattered. Pale gray ghost trees, with knobby, twisted limbs, grew
thickly among the cloud trees. There was a group of rustic cabins,
connected by gravel paths, and a much larger building which he assumed
would be a meeting hall.

"Hello."

He turned, and looked into the brown eyes of a girl. Her green skirt and
orange blouse made a gay splash of color, her red-brown hair was
wind-tumbled and carefree about her shoulders, in her hand was a bouquet
of bright spring flowers.

But there was no smile of spring in the dark eyes and the snub-nosed
little face was solemn and old beyond its years.

"You're Lieutenant Hunter, aren't you?" she asked in the same low, quiet
voice.

"Princess Lyla!" There seemed to be genuine delight in Rockford's
greeting as he hurried over. "You're looking more like a queen every
day!"

Her face lighted with a smile, making it suddenly young and beautiful.
"I'm so glad to see you again, George--"

"Ah ... good afternoon."

The voice was loud, unpleasantly gravelly. They turned, and Hunter saw a
tall, angular man of perhaps forty whose pseudogenial smile was not
compatible with his sour, square-jawed face and calculating little eyes.

He spoke to Rockford. "You're Ambassador Rockford, here to represent the
Terran Republic, I believe." He jerked his head toward Princess Lyla,
who was no longer smiling. "My wife, Princess Lyla."

"Oh, she and I have been friends since she was ten, Lord Narf."

"And this young man"--Narf glanced at Hunter--"is your aide, I presume.
Lyla, did you think to send anyone after their luggage?"

A servant was already carrying their luggage--and cases of Rockford's
beer--out of the helicopter. Hunter followed the other toward the
cabins. Narf, in the lead, was saying:

"... Ridiculously primitive here, now, but I'm having some decent
furniture and well-trained servants sent up from my Sea Island
estates...."

       *       *       *       *       *

The cabin was large and very comfortable, as Rockford mentioned to
Princess Lyla.

"I'm glad you like it," she said. "Val Boran and Envoy Sonig are already
here and we'll meet for dinner in the central hall. I thought that if we
all got acquainted in a friendly atmosphere like that, it might help a
lot to...."

"That reminds me"--Narf glanced at his watch--"I promised this Boran he
could have a discussion with me--Vesta-Jardeen tariff policies. I
suppose he's already waiting. Come on, Lyla--it will do you no harm to
listen and learn a bit about interplanetary business."

For a long moment she looked at Narf silently, her eyes thoughtful, then
she said to Rockford, "If you will excuse us, please. And be prepared
for Alonzo to come bounding in the minute he learns you're here."

She walked beside Narf to the door and out it, the top of her dark hair
coming just even with his shoulder.

"And that," Rockford said as he settled down in the largest, softest
chair, "was king-to-be Narf, whose business ability is such that all his
inherited Sea Island estates are gone but the one Lyla saved for him and
who owes a total of ten million monetary units, to everyone from call
girls to yacht builders."

"And she is going to marry him?" Hunter asked. "Marry that jackass and
let him bankrupt her kingdom?"

Rockford shrugged. "You may have noticed that she doesn't look the least
bit happy about it--but she is a very conscientious young lady who
regards it as her most solemn duty to keep the promise she made to her
father. For her, there is no escape."

"But--"

"Your first duty will be to cultivate a friendship with her. I'm going
to use her, and you, to get what I want."

"_Use_ us?"

"Yes. One of the most rigid requirements of a Strategic Service man's
character is that he be completely without one."

       *       *       *       *       *
           *       *       *       *

Rockford was asleep in his chair an hour later, three empty beer cans
beside him. Hunter watched him, his doubt of Rockford's competence
growing into a conviction. Rockford had spoken knowingly of his
plan--and had done nothing but drink more beer. Now he was asleep while
time--so limited and precious--went by. He hadn't even bothered to reply
to Hunter's suggestion that perhaps he should call on Val Boran and
counteract some of Envoy Sonig's anti-Terran propaganda.

Hunter came to a decision. If Rockford was still doing nothing when
morning came, he would send an urgent message to Supreme Command.

He went outside, to find a servant and learn how mail was handled.

       *       *       *       *       *

"_Rook out!_"

Gravel flew as overgrown feet tried to stop, and something like a huge
black dog lunged headlong around the corner and into his legs. He went
to the ground head first over the animal, acutely aware as he went down
of the fascinated interest on the face of a not-so-distant servant.

"I sorry, Rootenant."

He got up, to look down at the doglike animal. There was a concerned
expression in its brown eyes and an apologetic grin on its face. He
recognized it as one of the natives of the grim starvation world of
Altair Four. The Altairians had emigrated to all sections of the galaxy,
to earn a living in whatever humble capacity they could fill. Many were
empathic.

"I run too fast to meet, Mr. Rockford, I guess. Are you hurt,
Rootenant?"

He pulled a cloud tree needle out of his hand and looked grimly down
into the furry face. "In the future, try to look where you're going."

"Oh, I rook, awr right. I just not see. My name is Aronzo, Rootenant,
and I stay here awr the time and guard everything for Princess Ryra. I
prease to meet you and I wirr run errands for you, and do things rike
mair your retters, for candy or cookies, which I are not supposed to eat
much of, but Princess Ryra say not too many wirr hurt me--"

"Mail letters?" Hunter's animosity vanished. "I'm sorry I was rude,
Alonzo--all my fault. I may write a letter to my dear old mother
tonight, and if you would mail it for me in the morning--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Rockford left ahead of Hunter and it was a minute past the appointed
time when Hunter reached the meeting hall. He heard Narf's loud voice
inside:

"... Boran must have stopped to watch the sunset. Told him I wanted
everyone here on time--"

The low voice of Lyla said something and Narf said, "Not necessary for
you to defend him, my dear. I made it plain to him."

A new voice spoke from behind Hunter:

"It seems I have annoyed Lord Narf."

He was a tall, black-eyed man, with the dark, saturnine face of an
Indian. There was a strange, indefinable air of sadness about him which
reminded Hunter of the sombre little Princess Lyla.

"You're Val Boran, sir?" he said. "I'm Lieutenant Hunter--"

Inside, Narf sat at the head of the table. On his left was Lyla, then
Rockford. On his right was a spidery little man of about fifty, his
slick-back hair so tight against his skull that it gave his head the
appearance of a weasel's. His lips were paper-thin under a long nose,
like those of a dry and selfish old maid, but the round little eyes
darting behind thick glasses were cold and shrewd and missed nothing. He
would be Verdam's Special Envoy Sonig. Hunter appraised him as a man
very dangerous in his own deceptive way.

A servant showed them to their places at the table. Rockford and Val
Boran exchanged greetings. The moment everyone was seated, Narf said,
"Dinner tonight will--"

"Excuse me," Lyla said, "but Mr. Sonig hasn't yet met--"

"Oh ... the young fellow there--" Narf gestured with his hand.
"Rockford's aide. Now, ring the chime, Lyla. Those forest stag steaks
are already getting cold. I killed the beast myself, gentlemen, just
this morning; a long-range running shot that required a bit more than
luck...."

The dinner was excellent, but no one seemed to notice. Narf was absorbed
in the story of his swift rise to eminence in the Vestan Space Guard.
There were humorous incidents:

"... Can't understand why, but I seem to attract women like a magnet.
I'm strictly the masculine type of male and I approve of this but it can
be a blasted nuisance when you're an ensign going up fast and your
commander finds one of your blondes stowed away in your compartment...."

And there were scenes of tense drama:

"... Made a boyhood vow that I'd never settle for anything less than to
always be a man among men. Seem to have succeeded rather well. When I
saw the crew was almost to the snapping point from battle tension I knew
that as commander I'd have to set the example that would inspire."

Hunter recalled Rockford's words of a few hours before: "_Narf got to be
commander, finally, but only because he was the son of the king's best
friend. His record is very mediocre._"

Princess Lyla tried three times to start a conversation of general
interest and was drowned out by Narf each time. Sonig's pretense of
being spellbound by Narf's stories was belied by the way his eyes kept
darting from Rockford to Val Boran. Val's own attention kept shifting
from Narf to the silent Lyla, whose downcast eyes betrayed her
discouragement. She watched Val from under her eyelashes, to look away
whenever their eyes met, and Hunter wondered if she was ashamed because
Narf had given Sonig the seat of honor that should have belonged to Val.

Of course, Narf's own position at the head of the table was actually
Lyla's.

[Illustration]

"... So there's no substitute for competent, unwavering leadership,"
Narf was saying. "Received a citation for that one."

Sonig nodded appreciatively. "Your military record well illustrates the
fact that the tensions of danger and battle can bring forth in a
competent leader the highest kind of courage. But it seems to me that
these same circumstances, if the leader is frightened or incompetent,
can easily produce hysterical actions with disastrous consequences. Is
this true, your lordship?"

Rockford was watching Sonig intently and Hunter saw that there was an
eager anticipation in Sonig's manner.

"You are quite right," Narf answered. "I've always had the ability to
remain cool in any crisis. Very important. Let a commander get rattled
and he may give any kind of an order. Like the New Jardeen Incident."

A frozen silence followed the last five words. Hunter thought, _So
that's what the little weasel was fishing for...._

Rockford quietly laid down his fork. Val's face turned grim. Lyla looked
up in quick alarm and said to Narf:

"Let's not--"

"Don't misunderstand me, gentlemen," Narf's loud voice went on. "_I_
believe the commander of the Terran cruiser wouldn't have ordered it to
fire upon the Verdam cruiser over a neutral world such as New Jardeen
if he had been his rational self. Cold-war battle nerves. So he shot
down the Verdam cruiser and its nuclear converters exploded when it fell
in the center of Colony City. Force of a hydrogen bomb--forty thousand
innocent people gone in a microsecond. Not the commander's fault,
really--fault of the military system that failed to screen out its
unstable officers."

"Yes, your lordship. But is it possible"--Sonig spoke very
thoughtfully--"for a political power, which is of such a nature that it
must have a huge military force to maintain its existence, to thoroughly
screen all its officers? So many officers are required--Can there ever
be any assurance that such tragedies won't occur again and again, until
a majority of worlds combine in demanding an end to aggression and war?"

Rockford spoke to the grim Val:

"I know, sir, that your sister was among the lost in Colony City. I am
sorry. For the benefit of Mr. Sonig and Lord Narf, I would like to
mention that the Verdam cruiser fired upon the Terran cruiser over
neutral New Jardeen in open violation of Galactic Rule. An atmospheric
feedback of the Verdam cruiser's own space blasters tore out its side
and caused it to fall. The Terran cruiser never fired."

"But Mr. Rockford--" Sonig spoke very courteously. "Isn't it true that
certain safety devices prevent atmospheric feedback?"

"They do--unless accidentally or purposely disconnected."

Sonig raised his eyebrows. "You imply a created incident, sir?"

"It doesn't matter," Val Boran said. His tone was as grim as his face
and it was obvious he did not believe Rockford's explanation. "Colony
City is a field of fused glass, now, its people are gone, and no amount
of debating can ever bring them back."

       *       *       *       *       *
           *       *       *       *

The dismal dinner was finally over. Rockford stopped outside the door of
their cabin to fill and light his pipe.

"It was a profitable evening," he said to Hunter. "I can start planning
in detail now--after a little beer, that is."

_He'll go to sleep after he drinks his beer_, Hunter thought, _and there
will never be any plan unless I--_

Soft footsteps came up the path behind them. It was Princess Lyla.

"I want to apologize," she said, "I just told Val ... Mr. Boran the same
thing."

Her face was a pale oval in the starlight, her eyes dark shadows. "I'm
sorry my husband mentioned the New Jardeen incident."

"That's all right, Lyla," Rockford said. "No harm was done."

"He's an ex-military man, and I guess it's his nature to be more
forthright than tactful."

"You certainly can't condemn him for that," Rockford said. "In fact,
he's an extraordinary teller of entertaining stories. It was a most
enjoyable evening."

       *       *       *       *       *

"And, in a way, it was," Rockford said when she was gone and they were
in the cabin. He was seated in the softest chair, a can of beer in his
hand, as usual.

Hunter thought of the way she had looked in the starlight and said, "Why
did she let that windbag sit at the head of the table and ruin the
meeting that she had arranged?"

"He'll soon be her husband--I suppose she feels she should be loyal to
him."

"But--"

"But what?"

"Nothing. It's none of my business."

"Oh?" Rockford smiled in a way Hunter did not like. "You think so, eh?"

Hunter changed the subject. "Are you going to start talking to Boran to
undo the damage Narf and Sonig have done?"

"It would be a waste of time, my boy. Val Boran's mind is already made
up."

"Then what are you going to do?"

"Drink six cans of beer and go to sleep."

"I thought you had a plan."

"I have, a most excellent plan."

"What is it?"

"You'd scream like a banshee if you knew. You'll learn--if you manage to
live that long."

Rockford was sound asleep an hour later, snoring gently. Hunter sat
thinking, hearing the steady murmur of a voice coming from Val Boran's
cabin. Sonig's voice--using every means of persuasion he could think of,
at the moment capitalizing on the New Jardeen incident and Boran's
withheld grief over the sister he had lost.

And the Terran Republic's representative was sprawled fat and mindless
in a fog of beer fumes.

Hunter hesitated no longer. The fate of Earth and the Terran Republic
hung in the balance and time was desperately limited--if there was now
any time at all.

He took paper and pen and began the urgent message to Supreme Command,
headed, TOP EMERGENCY. It would be sent via Hyperspace Communications
from the city and would span the hundred light-years within seconds.

       *       *       *       *       *

He was up before Rockford the next morning, and went out into the bright
sunlight. He looked hopefully for Alonzo, not wanting to be seen mailing
the letter in person. Rockford, despite his drunken stupors, could be
shrewdly observant and he might deduce the contents of the letter before
Supreme Command ever received it.

He was some distance from the cabin when he heard the pound of padded
feet behind him.

"Rootenant," Alonzo had the grin of a genial canine idiot. "Do you want
me to mair your retter to your dear ore mother?"

"Yes, I have the letter right here."

"O.K. I got to hurry, because the mair hericopter reaves right away. I
charge six fig cookies or three candy bars or--"

"Here--take it and run--and try not to slobber all over it."

       *       *       *       *       *

They were served breakfast in the cabin. Afterward, Rockford went for a
brief talk with Princess Lyla. He came back and settled down in the
easy-chair, his pipe in his hand.

"Your morning's duty won't be at all unpleasant," he said. "The
obnoxious and repulsive things will begin to happen to you later. Maybe
this afternoon."

"What do you mean?"

"This morning you will go for a walk with Princess Lyla and discuss
changing the Vestan Space Guard into a force along Terran Space Patrol
lines. Narf is still in bed, by the way."

Rockford added, "I'll give you a bit of sage advice, for your own
good--try not to fall in love with her."

       *       *       *       *       *
           *       *       *       *

Hunter and Princess Lyla sat together on the high hill, their backs
against the red trunk of a cloud tree. On the mountain's slope to their
right lay the dark and junglelike Tiger Forest--he wondered if it was
true that the savage tree tigers never left its borders--while the
toylike cabins of the camp were below them. The mountain's slope dropped
on down to the deserts, beyond which were other mountains, far away and
translucent azure.

"It was George who suggested we come up here," she said. "He knows I do
that often when the responsibilities of being queen of a world--I'm such
an ordinary and untalented person--become too much for me. I always feel
better when I sit up here and look down on the mountains and deserts."

"Yes," he said politely.

"A ruling princess can be so alone," she said. "That's why I appreciate
George's friendship so much--it's never because of any ulterior motive
but because he likes me."

_I'm going to use her, and you, to get what I want._

He looked at her, at the lines of sadness on the face that was too old
for its years, felt the way she was so grateful to Rockford for what was
only a cold-blooded pretense of friendship, and the dislike for Rockford
increased. He could not force himself to speak civilly of Rockford so he
changed the subject:

"I understand you wanted to talk to me about the Space Guard?"

"Yes. Even a neutral world can't feel safe these days and George
suggested that."

"I'll be glad to help all I can. Of course, the change will require
time."

"I can understand that. They say you Space Patrol officers begin
training at sixteen, after passing almost impossible qualification
tests."

"The tests can seem extremely difficult to a farm boy from Kansas. I--"

"Kansas?" Her eyes lighted with interest. "My grandmother was from
Kansas! She used to tell me about the green plains of grain in the
spring, and how different they were from the deserts of Vesta...."

It was almost noon when he took her hand and helped her to her feet,
realizing guiltily that they had talked all morning without ever getting
back to the cold, dry facts of military efficiency.

"It was nice to talk up here this morning," she said. She looked down at
the cabins and the shadow fell again across her face. "But nothing down
there has been changed by it, has it?"

He held to her hand longer than was necessary as they went down the
steep part of the hill. She did not seem to mind.

When they reached her cabin she said, "It's still a little while until
lunch--time enough for you to give me a rough outline of the Space Guard
change."

Everything inside the cabin was feminine. None of Narf's possessions
were visible. There was a heavy door leading into Narf's half of the
cabin, with a massive lock. Hunter wondered if it was left unlocked at
night, thought of Narf's sour face and leering little eyes, and found
the thought repulsive.

The answer to his conjecture came with the entrance of a servant as they
seated themselves.

"By your leave, your highness," the servant said, bowing, "I came to
make Lord Narf a key for that inner door."

"A key?" There was alarm in her tone. "But we're not married--not yet!"

A puzzled expression came to the man's face. "Lord Narf told me, your
highness, that you had ordered the duplicate key made and given to him
before evening. I found I could not do this without first borrowing your
key for a pattern."

There was a frightened look in her eyes as they went to the door and
back to the servant. "_No_ ... don't try to make a key!"

"Yes, your highness." The servant bowed and turned away.

A familiar gravelly voice spoke from behind them:

"Ah ... an unscheduled little meeting, I see!"

It was Narf, anger on his face, already within the doorway as the
servant went out it.

"We were going to talk about the Space Guard," Lyla said in an
emotionless tone. "Lieutenant Hunter has promised to show how Space
Patrol methods will improve it and--"

"By a coincidence, Sonig and I were discussing military matters only a
few minutes ago," Narf said. He looked at Hunter. "I'm afraid that Sonig
and I agree that the Terran Space Guard is quite out of date, now.
_The_ fighting force of the galaxy is the Verdam's Peoples Guards."

Narf spoke to Lyla, "You may go ahead and talk with this lieutenant if
you wish to, but it's a waste of time. I'm arranging to have Sonig send
Peoples Guards officers here to supervise the rebuilding of the Space
Guard.

"And now"--there was insinuation in Narf's tone as he spoke to
Hunter--"I have to give Sonig a demonstration of my skill with weapons.
He insists on it--he has heard of several of my modest feats."

Narf left the door open behind him so that by turning his head as he
walked, he could see the two inside.

"I suppose I might as well go," Hunter said.

Lyla did not answer. She sat motionless, staring unseeingly before her,
and he wondered if she was thinking of how very soon Narf would be king
and his authority as great as hers.

She did not notice when he quietly left the room.

       *       *       *       *       *
           *       *       *       *

Rockford was waiting in the cabin, still in the easy-chair.

"Well," Rockford said, "what do you think of her?"

Hunter tried to keep the personal dislike out of his coldly formal
reply:

"If you refer to your suggestion that I not make love to her, sir, I can
assure you that such a suggestion was never necessary. I happen to have
a code of ethics."

"I didn't say 'make love'. I said, 'fall in love'. That's quite ethical.
Did you complete your discussion with her?"

"Well ... no."

"You must do that this afternoon, then. Can't let anything as important
as that be delayed."

Hunter stared at him, trying to find one small grain of sanity in
Rockford's actions. The Verdam empire already had Jardeen within its
grasp, and Vesta, and the end for Earth was inevitable. And Rockford
slept, and drank beer, and regarded it as very important that the Vestan
Space Guard discussions--of a change that Narf would never permit--be
continued without delay.

He walked slowly into his own room. In the nightmare situation of
frustration there was one single sane and stable conviction for his mind
to cling to: Supreme Command would by now have received his message and
shot back the reply that would relieve Rockford of his command. Perhaps
it wasn't yet too late--

Then his mind reeled as a new conviction struck it.

There was a sheet of paper on his bed--a message.

_His_ message!

... SITUATION EXTREMELY CRITICAL ... VAL BORAN ALREADY CONVINCED BY
SONIG'S PROPAGANDA ... MUST REPORT ROCKFORD IS UTTERLY INCOMPETENT, HIS
MIND AND WILL DESTROYED BY ALCOHOL ... REPEAT: ROCKFORD IS DOING
NOTHING, HIS MIND DESTROYED BY ALCOHOL....

The words screamed up at him and he felt the sickness of one who sees
the last faint hope shattered and gone. All was lost, now....

He went outside, feeling a savage desire for violence rising above the
sickness.

"Rootenant!" Alonzo came bounding to meet him and slid to a halt with
his saucer feet scattering gravel and the idiotic grin on his face. "I
mair your retter and you owe me six fig cook--"

It occurred to Hunter that it was not Alonzo that should be punished.
He, Hunter, was the one who deserved execution for ever entrusting
anything so important as the message to an imbecilic animal.

He said with cold distinctness:

"The ... letter ... is ... inside."

"Oh?" Alonzo blinked. "I sure mair something, awr right. After Mr.
Rockford correct it."

"_Correct it?_"

"Oh, sure. Mr. Rockford, he up rong before you this morning to find me
and say you are writing a retter rast night and I must bring it by for
him to make awr your mistakes over again."

_So Rockford was watching all the time, pretending to be in a drunken
sleep...._

"Rootenant--" Alonzo shifted his big feet impatiently. "You stirr owe me
six fig--"

Hunter swung around and strode away, afraid he might decide to choke the
animal after all. A culture of twenty worlds was the same as already
destroyed, and he was held in a maddening quagmire of helplessness by a
crafty alcoholic and a dog with the mind of a small child.

"Ah ... my boy!" Rockford came out of the cabin, beaming as though
nothing had ever happened. "Look to your left, among those ghost
trees--Narf is demonstrating his quick-draw skill to Sonig. Narf is
supposed to be a very dangerous man, you know."

Hunter looked, and saw Narf whipping up the blunt, ugly spread-beam
blaster--known to soldiers as the Coward's Special, because at short
range it could not miss and would always cripple and blind a man for
life even though it would not always kill him. Sonig was standing by,
nodding his weasel head and smiling in open admiration.

"Of course," Rockford said, "Sonig isn't mentioning the needle gun all
Verdam envoys carry up their sleeve. He's flattering Narf's ego for a
reason--he intends to have Vesta, as well as Jardeen, sewed up for the
Verdam empire when he leaves here."

"And so far as I can see," Hunter said coldly, "Sonig never is going
to have anything vaguely resembling intelligent resistance to his
plans."

[Illustration]

"Ah, yes ... so far as you can see," Rockford agreed amiably. "But you
obey my order to take Lyla for another walk and everything will turn out
all right. In fact, I'll speak to her about that right now."

Hunter stared after Rockford as he walked away. There could be no
possible shred of doubt--Rockford was insane!

The breeze shifted and the voice of Narf came:

"... Certainly no weapon for a timid man, this spread-beam blaster. Have
to meet the enemy man-to-man at close range."

"In that respect, too," Sonig said, "you remind me of our great General
Paluk. His skill in hand-to-hand combat was something that--"

"Rootenant--"

Hunter quivered and steeled himself.

"Rootenant--" Alonzo came to a flopping halt beside him. "I terr
Princess Ryra and she say I are bad to be mad at you. So I not mad, even
if you didn't give me my pay."

"Thank you," Hunter said acidly. "I was deeply disturbed by your
resentment."

"Oh, I know, you don't rike me. But I think you not as mean as you act.
But Rord Narf--he is. I terr you, he awready mad enough to kirr you."

"What? Lord Narf wants to kill me?"

"Oh, he know you hord Princess Ryra's hand awrmost awr the way down the
hirr this morning. Mr. Sonig, he see you, and he run and terr Rord Narf
and Mr. Boran, too."

"But I was only helping her down the hill."

"Rord Narf, he are going to say mean things about it to Princess Ryra,
too. I know. He are awrways saying mean things to my Princess Ryra."

Alonzo sighed, a sound strangely humanlike in its sadness.

"Who wirr watch over my Princess Ryra after she marry Rord Narf? He
said, 'The first thing to go around here wirr be that stupid
brabber-mouth animar that are not worth what it costs to feed it.' I
think maybe he are afraid that if he ever hit my Princess Ryra, I wirr
kirr him." The brown eyes looked up at Hunter, and suddenly they were
unlike he had ever seen them; cold with deliberate decision. "I wirr,
too."

       *       *       *       *       *
           *       *       *       *

Hunter was still standing by the cabin, thinking of what Alonzo had
said, when Rockford returned.

"I also stopped by to see Val Boran," Rockford said. "While you're off
with Lyla, we'll go to the city. Lyla is giving us free access to the
Royal Library and the records of a neutral world carry more weight than
anything I could say. Not that it's going to change his mind any--but
it will give me a chance to work on him in another way."

Rockford went into the cabin as Val Boran came up the path, Princess
Lyla walking beside him. She was saying, "... And anything we have in
the library is yours for the asking."

They were close enough for Hunter to see her expression as she looked up
at Val and added with what seemed a touch of wistfulness, "I'll be glad
to go in with you and Mr. Rockford and do what I can to help if you want
me to."

"Lyla"--it was the grating voice of Narf who seemed to have the ability
to materialize anywhere--"I'm sure the man knows his business. Besides,
I want to talk to you about something as soon as I have finished my
discussion with Mr. Sonig."

With that, Narf started on toward his cabin. Sonig, close behind him,
paused long enough to bow to Lyla and say with the meaningless smile,
"Good afternoon, Princess Lyla. Your husband was just demonstrating his
marvelous skill with weapons. I would very much dislike"--the little
eyes darted to Hunter and back again--"being the man who aroused his
lordship's wrath."

Then Sonig followed Narf, with one last flickering glance at Hunter to
see how the remark had fallen.

Rockford came out of the cabin with his brief case and said to Val, "Are
we ready to go?"

"I just told Val"--Lyla spoke quickly--"that I would be glad to go along
and help any way I can." The words were addressed to Rockford but her
eyes were on Val, with the same wistful expression. "Do you want me to?"

Val answered her with cool, formal courtesy: "The librarian can find all
the records we will need, Princess Lyla, without our interrupting your
schedule for the day or your discussion with your husband. Thank you
very much."

For an instant Lyla's face had the hurt expression of a child rebuffed
without reason. Then she looked away and Val turned to Rockford and
said, "I'm ready when you are, sir."

Lyla watched them walk away and she was still watching when the
helicopter had lifted into the air and faded from sight.

Hunter hesitated, then spoke to her:

"I understand you want to talk more about the Space Guard, Princess
Lyla?"

"_Princess_ Lyla!" Her lips curled as she turned to face him and she
seemed to spit the words at him in sudden, unexpected resentment. "I
love the meaningless sound of my official figurehead title! It's so much
better than being regarded as a living person with feelings that can be
hurt!"

"But Princ ... I mean--" He floundered, not quite sure what had caused
her reaction.

She made a visible effort to compose herself. "I'm sorry," she said. "I
suppose my ... husband ... is quite right; an immature female has no
business trying to rule a world and the sooner the marriage is
confirmed, the sooner a competent man can take over the job."

"No," he said. "I think--"

He decided that what he thought had better be left unsaid.

"I'll"--she looked toward the cabin she shared with Narf--"let you know
when we can talk."

She went back toward the cabin, walking slowly. From inside Narf's half
of it came the sound of Narf's voice as he spoke to Sonig:

"... Of course, this collection of heads is nothing compared with what I
have in the Sea Islands ... but some interesting stories here ... take
that snow fox there...."

Hunter sighed, and saw that Lyla had stopped before her door, as though
dreading to enter. Narf's voice droned on:

"... Only wounded, so I finished it with a knife. Even with its heart
half cut out, it still wanted to live ... beautiful pelt ... coat for
Janalee, the strip-tease queen ... always had a way with women--Lyla
could tell you that ... had my pick of hundreds but I'm letting her be
my choice...."

He saw Lyla half lift her hand, as in some mute gesture of protest, then
she turned and walked swiftly away; up the path that led into the ghost
trees, and out of sight.

He waited, but she did not come back. He went into his cabin and moved
about restlessly, hearing again Narf's sadism-and-sex boasting and
seeing again how she turned and almost ran from it--

       *       *       *       *       *

"_Rootenant!_"

Alonzo was panting, a look of frantic appeal in his eyes.

"Prease herp me ... Princess Ryra ... she wirr die!"

He felt his heart lurch. "She's hurt?" he demanded, and was already on
his way to the door.

"She are about to cry and she are going to where the tree tigers riv.
They wirr kirr her--prease come with me!"

He asked no more questions but went out the door and up the path, Alonzo
running ahead of him.

The ghost trees grew thinner as they went up the mountain's slope, and
the blue-green fernlike trees of the tiger forest began to appear. They
grew thicker and thicker, until the ground was black with their shadows
and the midday sunlight was filtered out by the foliage overhead. Alonzo
was trailing her, his nose to the ground, and Hunter hurried close
behind him, watching for the red-and-white of the clothes she was
wearing and hoping they would not find her too late.

They were deep in the forest when they found her.

She was standing motionless in the center of a clearing, facing away
from him and looking as small and alone as a lost child. She seemed to
be waiting....

He realized for the first time how alone she really was, with only a
doglike alien, Alonzo, to love her or care what might happen to her, and
with a future she could not bear to face. But Rockford had been wrong
when he had said, _For her, there is no escape_.

There was escape for her. She had only to wait, as she was waiting now,
and it would come in the windlike whisper of a tiger's rush through the
grass behind her....

He hurried to her. She turned, and he saw the stains of tears now dry on
her face and in her eyes the darkness of utter defeat.

"I was afraid you might get hurt, Lyla--"

Then, seemingly without volition on his part, he put his arms around her
and she was clinging to him and crying in muffled sobs and trying to say
something about, "_I didn't think anybody cared...._"

It was some time later, when her crying was finished, that he was
reminded of the tigers by Alonzo:

"Rootenant ... awr the time, some tigers are coming croser and croser.
We better get her out of here, Rootenant, before they find us."

Lyla looked down at Alonzo. "Thank you, Alonzo, for watching over me and
... and--" Her voice caught and she dropped to her knees and hugged the
shaggy head tight against her.

Hunter watched ahead, Lyla beside him as they went through the dense
trees. Alonzo walked soft-footed behind them, watching the rear. When
they came to the first ghost trees and the dwindling of the tiger trees,
Hunter thought it safe to walk slower and talk to her.

"I saw you go," he said. "I didn't know where until Alonzo came running
to tell me."

"I heard him bragging about killing, and about his women--I was weak,
wasn't I?"

"Weak?"

"I was afraid to face the future, just because it isn't to be exactly
like I thought I wanted."

"What was the kind you wanted, Lyla?"

"Oh ... I guess I wanted a husband who could see me only, and children,
and evenings together in the flower garden, and ... well, all the silly,
sentimental little things that mean so much to a woman."

He thought, _Even with its heart half cut out, it still wanted to live
... Coat for Janalee ... the strip-tease queen...._

They passed through the last of the tiger trees and she said, "We're
safe, now. The tigers never attack anyone outside their forest."

She was walking slowly and he said, "We should get on back before you're
missed, shouldn't we?"

"Who would miss me?" she asked. "So long as I remain physically intact
for the marriage night, who cares where or why I went away?"

There was the cold bleakness of winter in her eyes as she spoke, and in
her voice the first undertone of brass. He saw that this was already the
beginning of the change that Narf would make in her; the transformation
of a girl young and wanting to love and be loved into a hard and cynical
woman.

He put his arm around her shoulder, thinking that he should tell her
that _he_ cared and that she must never let Narf change her.

"Lyla, I--"

He realized how futile and foolish the words would sound. She would
marry Narf, he would return to Earth, and they would never meet again.
There were no words for him to speak on this last walk together, no way
to tell her that he wanted to help her, to protect and care for her. No
way to express the feeling inside him....

He did what seemed as natural under the circumstances as it had been for
him to put his arm around her in the clearing. He tilted up her face and
bent his head to kiss her.

And walked with jarring impact into the knobby elbow of a ghost tree
limb.

       *       *       *       *       *
           *       *       *       *

The sun was down and dusk was darkening the camp when they arrived back
at her cabin.

"Thank you, Dale," she said. Her hand squeezed his arm. "I didn't know I
had a friend ... but now we'll have to be strangers because--"

[Illustration]

Gravel crunched loudly on one of the paths in the ghost trees and they
looked back, to see Narf and Sonig coming, walking swiftly. Even at the
distance, there was anger like a red aura about Narf.

"Well," Lyla said softly, "here comes my medicine."

Sonig stopped at his own cabin, to stand just within the doorway,
watching. Narf strode on and stopped before Hunter and Lyla, his face
twisted with savage hatred as he looked at Hunter. He spoke to Lyla with
grating vehemence:

"You've done an excellent job of making an ass of yourself--and of
me--haven't you? Come on in the cabin!"

Narf seized her by the arm, towering over her as he jerked her around
toward the door. Hunter stepped quickly forward, feeling the hot flash
of his own anger, but there was the paleness of Lyla's face as she
looked back, an appeal on it that said, _No!_ He stopped, realizing that
Narf would not physically harm the woman who would make him king of
Vesta, and that any interference on his part would only make everything
the harder for her.

He watched the two go into the cabin--into Lyla's half--and Narf slammed
the door shut behind them. There followed the quick bang of windows
being closed, and then Narf's muffled tirade began: "_... May think I'm
a fool ... I'm going to tell you a few things...._"

Sonig was still standing within his doorway. Hunter knew, without seeing
it, that the thin-lipped smile would be on Sonig's face.

He turned and walked back to his own cabin. There was nothing he could
do but withdraw--and listen from a distance and be ready to act if it
seemed she was in danger.

He sat on his doorstep in the darkness, hearing occasional phrases in
Narf's unrelenting abuse. One was: "_So prim you had to countermand my
order for a key to that lock--then you went out to play with that second
lieutenant...._"

Alonzo materialized out of the darkness, coming as silently as a shadow.
He was no longer the bumbling clown. The idiotic grin was gone and his
eyes were green fire, slanted and catlike, his teeth flashing white in a
snarl as he looked back toward the sound of Narf's voice.

"She are _my_ Princess Ryra," Alonzo said. "He are cursing her. If he
ever hurt her, I wirr tear out his throat and his river."

"He won't hurt her, Alonzo," Hunter said, wishing he could be sure.
"He'll only use words on her."

"He never ask her _why_ she run away--he onry curse her and threaten her
because she embarrass him."

"Embarrass him?"

"He and Sonig, they see you coming out of the forest with your arm
around her. They watch with high-power grasses."

"But there was nothing wrong in that--"

"That are what Princess Ryra say. She say you onry put your arm around
her because she are stirr scared of the tigers. And then he say, what
about the other? And he cawr her awrful bad names."

"What other?"

"Oh, when you are bending down to kiss Princess Ryra and are wawrking
into tree."

He gulped. "_They saw that?_"

"Oh, sure. Rord Narf are so mad he want to kirr you right then but Sonig
say, 'Wait, I have a pran.' Then Sonig say, 'It are too bad we don't
have a camera--we could have made that rootenant the raffing stock of
forty worlds.'"

The thought made Hunter gulp again.

"What was Sonig's plan that Narf told Lyla about?" He asked.

"Oh, he not terr _her_. I hear Sonig terr Rord Narf when I spy. Sonig
say, 'Tomorrow we be friendry and we ret those two go for another wawrk
in the woods. And we have cameras with terescope rens and when they kiss
and hug we take moving pictures.'"

"Why, the gutter-bred rat--"

"And Rord Narf say, 'That is what we wirr do. And then I wirr kirr him
as soon as we have the pictures and she wirr have to toe the mark from
then on because if I pubricry show the pictures of what she did, she
wirr be ashamed to show her face anywhere on Vesta.'"

"Why, the--" He could not think of a suitable expression.

"And then Sonig say, 'To make sure she go out tomorrow, you bawr her out
good so she wirr want to cry on the rootenant's shourder again.' And
Rord Narf say, 'I wirr be very grad to terr the two-timing hussy what I
think of her, don't worry.'"

"Why, she was only a scared girl and that rat thinks she--"

       *       *       *       *       *

"_... Your promise to your dying father_," Narf's voice came in
accusation. "_He's gone, now, and you can betray him, too! Why don't you
go all the way in your deceptions ... your father will never know...._"

Alonzo said, "I think I go back and stay croser to her cabin,
Rootenant."

It was an hour later, and Narf's voice had settled to a low, steady
growling, when Hunter heard a helicopter settle down near the camp. A
minute later, Val Boran was outlined momentarily in the doorway of the
cabin he shared with Sonig. There followed the exchange of a few
words--interrogation in Val's tone--and then the sound of Sonig's voice
alone, which continued for minute after minute.

_Sonig is telling him all about it_, Hunter thought, _including my
walking into that tree. But there won't be one word in sympathy with
Lyla._

Sonig's story ended and Hunter saw Val leave the cabin. He came straight
up the path toward Hunter, looming tall in the darkness as he stopped
before him. There was the pale gleam of metal in Val's belt--a blaster.
His voice came cold and flat:

"I want to talk to you, Lieutenant."

Hunter sighed, thinking, _I suppose he wants to kill me, too_.

He got up and said, "We'll go inside. Shut the door behind you--I don't
want your friend straining his ears to hear us."

Val sat tall even in the chair, his face like a carving in a dark
granite and his eyes as bright and hard.

"I understand that you took Princess Lyla into the tiger forest today."
Val's hand was very near the blaster. "I understand you then played the
role of affectionate rescuer."

"Do you believe that story?" Hunter asked.

"Do you have a different one?"

"You might ask Lyla. Or Alonzo. Alonzo is the one who came to me for
help when he saw she was going out to die."

"To die?" A startled expression came into the black eyes. "She _wanted_
to die?"

"I'll tell you what happened," Hunter said, and told him the story,
omitting only the embarrassing kissing incident and knowing that Sonig
had not.

Val was silent for a while after Hunter finished speaking, then he said,
"It isn't for me to comment upon Lord Narf's character or actions. She
is his wife by her own choice. But the thought of someone else taking
her out and--"

"I know. It wasn't so." Then Hunter added, "You think a great deal of
her, don't you?"

Val's face hardened and Hunter thought he would not answer. Then he
smiled a little, even though without humor, and said:

"Since I came here to kill you if I thought you deserved it, I suppose I
am obligated to answer your question. My regard for Princess Lyla is the
respectful one that any civilized man would have for another man's
wife."

There was an unintended implication in the statement and Hunter made a
conjecture:

"You and Princess Lyla were engaged--how long ago?"

There was surprise on Val's face, and something like pain quickly
masked. "So she's already making it public information?"

"No. I learned of it from ... other sources. I don't know, of course,
why you persuaded her to break the engagement--that's none of my
business, anyway."

"No," Val said. "It's none of your business. I'll tell you this: _I_
didn't ask her to break the engagement. But so long as that was what she
wanted, I certainly wasn't going to beg her to change her mind."

Val stood up to go. "If you don't mind, I would rather you said nothing
to Princess Lyla about this visit tonight. I'm afraid my misplaced surge
of chivalry would make me look like a fool to her."

Then, as an afterthought, Val added, "Mr. Rockford had further business
in the city."

       *       *       *       *       *
           *       *       *       *

It was late when Narf finally left Lyla's part of the cabin. He went to
the cabin occupied by Val and Sonig, aroused Sonig, and the two of them
went to the helicopter field. Hunter heard the helicopter leaving for
the city a few minutes later. Val's cabin remained dark and after a
while, the light in Lyla's cabin went out.

He went to bed, but not to sleep. Over and over, a lonely little
Princess Lyla clung to him for comfort, crying, while he held her close.
He twisted and turned restlessly as he thought of the hours she had sat
alone and unloved while Narf poured out his hatred and fury on her.

There was a yearning for her, a desire to hold her and always protect
her, that would not let him sleep. And he realized the reason why.

He thought miserably, _I'm in love with her_!

       *       *       *       *       *

Rockford was in bed, snoring loudly, with six empty beer cans on the
floor beside him, when Hunter got up. He went outside and found Alonzo
waiting for him.

"They got it awr pranned to kirr you for sure today, Rootenant."

"How?" he asked.

"Rast night, Rord Narf and Sonig go to the city and Rord Narf, he hire
four bad-rooking men with brasters, and Sonig hire four more that are
his countrymen, and they bring these men back and now they are hiding in
the woods. And they awrso bring back movie cameras with terescope
renses. And Rord Narf raff and say he wirr marry Princess Ryra today
before your dead body is even coor."

"Oh?" Hunter said. He thought of the snoring Rockford and his words of
two days before: _If you manage to live that long._ How, he wondered,
could the lazy old drunkard have made such an accurate guess?

"And then," Alonzo said, "Rord Narf wake up Princess Ryra--onry I know
she wasn't asreep--and he terr her he ruv her and have awready made awr
the arrangement for them to get married today, right after runch. And he
terr her she is right about the Space Guard and she wirr have until
runch to tawrk to you about it."

There was the sound of Narf's door opening and closing and Alonzo said,
"I go now--Rord Narf might guess that I are terring you things."

A few minutes later Narf and Sonig came down the path toward Hunter.
Both carried packsacks--the cameras, of course--and both carried
long-range rifle blasters.

"Good morning, lieutenant!" Narf was smiling and pseudogenial again.
"About last night--sometimes a man has to be stern with his wife to
impress her. Very foolish thing she did--might have been killed. I'm
afraid I was so badly shaken with worry over her that I didn't even
thank you for bringing her back."

"A beautiful morning, lieutenant!" Sonig was smiling, coming as close to
beaming as the nature of his face would permit. "Lord Narf is going to
take me stag hunting this morning--I'll get some lessons from a master.
Did you ever see his lordship's collection of heads? Amazing!"

"But it seems a sportsman's collection is never quite complete," Narf
said. He was still smiling but the hatred was burning like a fire in his
eyes as he looked at Hunter. "There's one more head I must have--I
intend to get it this morning."

Narf and Sonig were gone when Lyla came out of her cabin, her face pale
and drawn. Val came out of his cabin and the two spoke to each other in
greeting. There was a silence, in which neither seemed to know what to
say.

Finally, awkwardly, Val said, "I heard about yesterday, Lyla. Why did
you go into the tiger forest?"

"Oh ... I was just walking, I guess, and didn't notice where."

"You went there to die, didn't you?"

"I ... when you have nothing left--" Then she lifted her head in a proud
gesture and said, "Should it matter to you?"

For a moment Val had the look of a man struck. Then it was gone and he
said in an emotionless voice:

"No. I was asking about something that is only your husband's business.
I won't do it again."

He turned away, back to his cabin.

"Val--" She took a quick step after him, the proud air gone and her arms
outstretched. "I didn't mean--"

He turned back, his tone politely questioning.

"Yes?"

"I only wanted--" Then her arms dropped and the life went out of her
voice. "What does it matter ... what does anything matter?"

She hurried into her cabin and the door closed behind her.

       *       *       *       *       *

Rockford spoke from the doorway behind Hunter:

"Well, my boy, are you ready for your day's duties?"

He followed Rockford inside, where Rockford settled down in the
easy-chair and yawned.

"I had a rather busy night," he said. "Certain events occurred yesterday
afternoon which forced me to change my own plans to some extent. Or to
set them ahead a day, I should say."

He made an effort to put the vision of Lyla from his mind and asked,
"Did you make any progress with Val Boran?"

"No, I'm afraid not. Of course, I didn't expect to." Rockford yawned
again. "There was another message from Supreme Command. The situation
is getting worse. Which reminds me of your Duty For The Day and the fact
that if you can live through it, you will have it made."

_He's my superior_, Hunter thought. _He's supposed to outrank a Space
Patrol General--and he's amused by the situation he's here to remedy._

"Right now," Rockford said, "Lyla faces a grim future and feels like she
doesn't have a friend in the world. She needs a shoulder to cry on. You
will take her for a walk and supply that shoulder."

Somehow, even though the order had nothing to do with the Terran-Verdam
crisis, he did not have the heart to object. She had been crying before
she even reached her door. Later, after he had comforted her, he would
demand that Rockford get down to determined effort on the Verdam
problem. No more than an hour would be lost by that....

"Yes, sir," he said. "But in the interests of Princess Lyla's safety, I
had better talk to her in her cabin. Alonzo saw Narf and Sonig bring
back eight--"

"Professional killers, to dispose of you," Rockford finished. "I know
all about it, and I know that Narf took time last night to spend an hour
with his favorite girl friend and brag even to her that he was going to
marry Lyla today before your dead body had time to get cool.

"But you just take Lyla for another walk and you will cause the
beginning of the end for the Verdam Peoples Worlds. You will go down in
history, my boy, as the man who saved the Terran Republic."

Hunter went out the door, again feeling a feverish sense of unreality.
He was to go forth and get blasted into hamburger and by some mysterious
process known only to Rockford, the Verdam empire would contritely start
collapsing....

He did not knock on her door. He did not think of it as a violation of
her privacy. She would be feeling too alone and unwanted to care.

She was not crying as he had thought she would be. She was standing by
the window, staring down at the gray, distant desert, her eyes as
bleakly empty as it.

"Hello, Lyla," he said.

"Hello, Dale. I was just thinking; this is the day that I, as a woman,
should always have dreamed about"--she tried to smile, and failed, and
the brass came into her voice--"my wedding day!"

"Alonzo told me about it."

It seemed to him he should add something, such as to wish her
happiness--but such words would be meaningless and farcical and they
would both know it.

But there was no reason why he should endanger her by obeying Rockford's
insane order. He would not do it--

"Ah ... good morning, Lyla!" Rockford loomed in the doorway, jovial as a
Santa Claus. "Did you know Dale wants to go for a walk in the woods
with you this bright spring morning--and he's no doubt too bashful to
tell you so? Do you good to get away from camp"--there was the
suggestion of a pause--"while you're still free."

He turned a beaming smile on Hunter. "Don't stand there like a dummy,
boy--take her by the arm and let her have a last walk with someone who
cares what happens to her."

There was one thing about Rockford not compatible with his air of fond
fatherliness: his eyes were hard, gray slate as they looked into
Hunter's and there was no mistaking their expression. Rockford had not
made a fatherly suggestion for his own amusement. He had given an order
that he intended to be obeyed.

       *       *       *       *       *
           *       *       *       *

Hunter and Lyla walked on through the thickets of ghost trees and arrow
brush, each with little to say, Hunter feeling more and more like a
ridiculous fool. They had no destination, no purpose in their walk,
other than to abide by Rockford's desire that a total of ten assassins
get a chance to slaughter a certain expendable second lieutenant.

He did not put his arm around Lyla as they walked. If they killed him,
it would have to be without their having the satisfaction of the
pictures they wanted with which to blackmail her.

They came to a tiny clearing, where a cloud tree log made an inviting
seat in the shade, and Lyla said:

"No matter how far we walk, I'll have to go back to face it. Let's stop
here, and rest a while."

He saw that the clearing was fairly well screened, but certainly not
completely so. It would have to do.

[Illustration]

He sat down on the log several feet away from her, not wanting to take
the chance of her getting hit by accident.

_Not that I'm enthusiastic about getting hit by intent, myself_, he
thought. _What a way for a Space Guard officer to die._

He wondered if Rockford would ever inform Headquarters that Lieutenant
Dale Hunter had died in the line of duty--by whatever twisted logic this
insane episode could be called duty--and he wondered how the
Commemoration Roll would read for him.... _Displaying courage above and
beyond the call of duty, Lieutenant Hunter sat conspicuously on top of a
hill and calmly waited for ten assassins to slaughter him...._

"It's peaceful and quiet here, isn't it?" Lyla said.

He had been trying to watch four different directions at once and he
realized that the constant swiveling of his neck was causing his stiff
blouse collar to slowly cut his throat. And he saw that it was--for the
moment, anyway--peaceful and quiet where they sat. The sun was warm and
golden before them, bright flowers sweetly scented the air, and giant
rainbow moths were fluttering over them, their tiny voices like the
piping of a thousand fairy flutes.

"I wish I had been born a country girl," Lyla said. "I'd like to have a
life like this, and not--what mine will be."

He asked the question to which he had to have the answer:

"Once you were going to marry Val and live on Jardeen, weren't you?"

"I ... so my foolishness is no longer a secret?"

"Foolishness?" he asked.

"We met two years ago when I was attending the Fine Arts university on
Jardeen. I was younger and a lot more naïve then than I am now. I
thought we were desperately in love and would get married as soon as I
finished school and would live happily ever after, and all that."

"And it didn't turn out that way?"

"I had to make that promise to Daddy and when I wrote to Val about it,
he seemed to approve. He didn't suggest I renounce the proxy marriage
when the time was up, or anything. He just wrote that I knew what I
wanted to do. He seemed relieved to be free to go ahead with his
political career."

"I see," he said, and then, "you don't feel bad about it, do you, Lyla?"

"Feel bad? I wouldn't marry Val Boran if he was the last man on Vesta!
Even Lord Narf isn't as self-centered as _he_ is!"

"You don't have to marry Narf either," he said. "You know that."

She looked down at the ground and said in a dead voice, "I made a
promise."

"Rockford told me that your father never really knew Narf--that on the
few times they met, Narf put on the act of being a refined gentleman,
very respectful toward the king's daughter."

She did not answer and he said, "Is that the way it was?"

"Yes. That's the way it was. But how could I tell Daddy, as he lay
dying?"

"You couldn't, Lyla. But if your father could be here today and know
what you know about Narf, do you think he would want you to marry him?"

"No ... I guess not. But Lord Narf loves me in his own way, I think--and
that's more than anyone else does."

Then her tone changed and she said, "I'm so glad that you're here today,
Dale--I'm glad that there is someone who cares at least a little about
what happens to me."

On her face was a poignant longing for someone to love and comfort her.
It seemed to him, now beyond any doubt, that there could never be
anything for him in his career but loneliness. How different the warm
love of Lyla would be from the cold austerity of the military and its
endless succession of weapons and killing--

       *       *       *       *       *

He moved, to sit beside her and put his arm around her shoulders.
"Lyla," he said, "I want to tell you--"

"_Dale...._" The word was a despairing sob as her composure broke and
she held tightly to him, crying, her voice coming muffled as she pressed
her face against his chest. "Help me, Dale! How can I marry that
sadistic beast when it's someone else I can't live without--and he
doesn't even know I love him!"

"But he does!" He hugged her closer, "He does know, and he loves you
even more than you love him."

"Are you sure?" She raised a tear-stained face, hope like sunshine
through clouds on it. "Are you really sure Val loves me, after all?"

"_Val?_"

The revelation was like the stunning concussion shock of a blaster beam
passing two inches overhead. His vision blurred and there was a hideous
roaring in his ears. She was still holding to him for comfort and it
seemed to him that was wrong--he should be clinging to her for
support....

"_Dale_ ... what's the matter?"

"But I thought--" He swallowed with difficulty. "I thought you meant
that I was the--"

Something struck the top of his head; this time, for certain, the
concussion shock of a blaster beam passing close above it. There was a
vicious crack as the beam split the tree beyond, then a crash and
explosion of wood fragments as a second beam followed the first.

He rolled from the log; taking Lyla with him. The arrow bushes shielded
them briefly, long enough for them to reach the temporary safety of a
small swale.

"Dale!" Her dark eyes were wide with puzzled surprise and one small foot
was bare from the loss of a sandal. "Someone shot at us!"

He thought, _So Narf got his pictures, after all_.

"Rootenant!" Alonzo came running. "They are _that_ way--awr spread out
to be sure to kirr you."

Alonzo motioned with his nose, a movement that seemed to cover all the
high ground beyond them. At least, the enemy was not between them and
camp. Not yet.

A distant shout came, an order from Narf to his men:

"_All of you--down that ridge! Get between Hunter and camp!_"

"_It's him!_" Her fingers gripped his arm. "He wants them to kill you!"

They had fired from a distance too great for his own blaster. He could
not defy them from where he now stood.

"I'll have to try to get within range of them," he said. "I'll go
back--"

"_No!_" Her grip on his arm tightened. "Don't leave me, Dale--don't let
him find me here."

He looked down the length of the swale. At its lower end the ghost tree
forest began, dense and concealing--but all down the length of the swale
the snarevines lay in thick, viciously barbed entanglements, overlying a
bed of sharp rocks and boulders. She could never get to the safety of
the ghost trees in time.

Narf had his pictures, now. What would he do to her in the insanity of
his hatred and triumph when he reached her?

"All right, Lyla," he said. "I'll see that you get to the trees--"

       *       *       *       *       *
           *       *       *       *

There was a crashing of explosions and debris leaped skyward behind them
and along both sides of the swale. The firing continued, scattered but
very effectively consistent, and he said as he drew his blaster, "I
guess they don't want us to go away."

He set the regulator of the blaster at lowest intensity so that the beam
would not clip dangerous flying fragments from the boulders. The green,
tough vines disintegrated reluctantly while the precious minutes sped
by; while the unhindered assassins would be hurrying to the point where
the entire swale would be visible to them and under their fire.

Alonzo was following along near the top of the swale's side, ignoring
the danger as he watched the progress of the enemy and reported it to
Hunter: "Now they are halfway, Rootenant, hurrying faster--"

They reached the lower end of the swale. The last of the vines
disintegrated and the ghost tree forest lay before them.

He touched her cheek in farewell. "Get on to camp, as fast as you can
run."

The firing abruptly ceased as he spoke. There was an ominous silence.
Alonzo came running, his tone almost a yelp in its urgency:

"They are awrmost where they can see us! We got to get her out of here,
Rootenant--awrfur quick!"

       *       *       *       *       *

"_Lyla!_"

It was the voice of Val, sharp with concern for her. He came running out
of the ghost trees, all his cold impassiveness gone. "Are you hurt,
Honey--are you hurt?"

"_You came for me!_" She whispered the words, her face radiant. Then she
ran to meet him, her arms outstretched, crying, "_Val ... oh, Val...._"

Their arms went around each other.

Then the woods erupted as ten blasters laid down a barrage to block any
escape to camp.

"I'll try to give you a chance to get through," Hunter said quickly.
"Be ready for it when it comes."

He ran toward the firing line, taking advantage of the concealment
afforded by the first fringe of ghost trees. They should be almost
within range of his own weapon, now--

Again, the firing abruptly ceased, as though by some signal. There came
the furious raving of Narf:

"_It's that Boran she wants! Kill him, too!_"

Sonig cursed with bitter rage. "_Jardeen is lost to Verdam if any
witness escapes--and we'll all hang, besides._"

There was a second of silence, and then Narf's command:

"_Kill the woman, too!_"

There was a roar like thunder as the firing began. The ground trembled
and debris filled the air with flying fragments. Hunter, still running
toward the enemy under cover of the trees, saw Val trying to get Lyla to
safety and saw them both hurled to the ground as a tree exploded in
front of them. They would never live to rise and run again--

       *       *       *       *       *

He saw Rockford's plan, at last, and what his own duty would now have to
be. He knew why Rockford had said of this day, "_If you can live through
it, you will have it made._"

And he had a cold feeling inside him that he was not going to have it
made.

He took a deep breath and ran toward the enemy, out of the concealment
of the ghost trees and in the open where they could not fail to see him,
his blaster firing a continuous beam that fell only a little short of
the enemy, that showed them he would be close enough to kill them within
seconds if he was not stopped.

The fire concentrated upon him, giving Lyla and Val their chance for
escape. He ran through an inferno of crashing explosions, twisting and
dodging on ground that trembled and heaved under his feet, while
razor-sharp rock shrapnel filled the air with shrill, deadly screaming
sounds.

Something ripped through his shoulder, to spin him around and send him
rolling. He scrambled up, firing as he did so, and ran drunkenly on.

Something struck the side of his head and he went down again. He tried
to rise and fell back, a blackness sweeping over him that he could not
hold away despite his efforts to do so.

It seemed to him that the firing had suddenly stopped, that in its place
was the hoarse buzz of a police stun-beam. It seemed he saw helicopters
overhead, bearing the bright blue insignia of the Royal Guard and then
there was nothing but the blackness.

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a brief, dreamlike return to consciousness. He was in a Royal
Guard helicopter and Alonzo was beside him, grinning, and saying, "You
be O.K.--I grad! And my Princess Ryra--rook at her now, Rootenant!"

He saw Lyla, her hand in Val's, and her face was glowing and beautiful
in its new-found happiness. Then she was bending down, kissing him, and
saying, "Dale ... Dale ... how can we ever thank you for what you did?"

       *       *       *       *       *

When the blackness lifted the second time he was lying, bandaged, on a
cot in the meeting hall and the voice of Rockford was saying, "... Ready
to go in just a minute."

The hall was filled with members of the royal court who had come for the
wedding. He saw the white robes of Church of Vesta dignitaries who had
come to officiate at the wedding. Then he saw the seven grim old men
seated at the far end of the table.

The Royal Council--with the judicial power to give even death sentences
in crimes committed against royalty.

Sonig, his face white and staring, was being half led, half carried,
away from them.

Narf, in the grip of another Guardsman, was standing before the Council
and saying in a tone both incredulous and sneering:

"Is that my sentence?"

"There is a qualification to it," one of the Council said. "It seems
only just, in view of your crime, that you be tortured until death--"

The rest of the words were lost as the blackness swept back. But before
unconsciousness was complete, when all else in the hall was gone from
him, he heard Narf's cry; an animal-like bawl of protest, raw and hoarse
with anguish....

       *       *       *       *       *

"Ah ... you're coming out of it, my boy."

Rockford was standing over him. "They gave you a Restoration shot on
Vesta forty-eight hours ago. It will be wearing off in a minute and your
head will clear."

He sat up, and the dizziness faded swiftly away. He saw that he was in
the compartment of an interstellar ship and he knew that it was
Earthbound.

And that Vesta, and brown-eyed Lyla, were now part of the past....

"Don't look so sad, my boy," Rockford said. "You'll get due credit and
promotion for the invaluable part you played in my plan."

"But--"

"I know. But she was never yours. You'll find life is full of
heartbreaks like that, son.

"And we accomplished our mission. Narf's crime neatly invalidated the
proxy marriage. Then Lyla set a new precedent by marrying Val that very
day. Earth has never had two such loyal and grateful friends as Val and
Lyla."

"You knew all about them, didn't you?" he asked.

"Strategic Service has to know everything. And I knew they were still
in love even though each was too proud to admit it. That's why I had to
insist on Val coming to Vesta. After that, it was only a matter of using
you to awaken Val to the fact that she did _not_ love Narf. And of
taking care of various little details, such as faking an official
request for the helicopters to come out two hours ahead of time, getting
Val off to find her at the proper time, and so on."

Rockford smiled at him, "And you learned that an old man's mind can be
mightier than the space fleets of the Verdam empire--and that the line
of duty that produces the best results can sometimes be very devious."

He thought of the white-faced Sonig, and the anguished bawl he had heard
from Narf.

"I suppose they were going to hang Narf and Sonig at once."

"The Council would have, no doubt. But Lyla was so happy that she begged
the Council to give them very light sentences--or just let them go free.
So I suggested a compromise. The Royal Council regarded it as very
fitting."

"What was it?"

"For Sonig, no punishment. The murder attempt, being news of public
interest, will be broadcast upon Vesta and other worlds, including a
factual, unbiased account of Sonig's participation in it. Shortly
afterward, Sonig will be taken to Verdam and turned over to his own
benevolent government. Vesta will file no charges."

"But Sonig lost Jardeen for his government. They'll execute him for
that!"

"Yes. I'm afraid so. Shall we call it poetic justice?"

"What about Narf?"

"His sentence was life-long exile on his Sea Island estate. He will be
provided with all the luxuries to which he has been accustomed,
including a full staff of servants. He will continue to enjoy all his
possessions there, including his gallery of nude paintings, his risqué
films, his pornographic library, and so on. In fact, since he is so
fascinated by pornography and such a collector thereof, any pornographic
material which might become available on Vesta in the future will be
sent to him."

"That's not right ... I mean, they were going to torture him to death."

"Not 'to death'. It was 'until death'. There's a difference."

"But that bawling noise he made--"

"Ah ... that was due to the one restrictive qualification to the benign
terms of his exile. Every woman on his estate was to be removed before
he reached there, leaving men servants only. Patrol boats will see to it
that for so long as he lives no woman shall ever set foot on the Sea
Islands."

Rockford smiled again. "Lord Narf succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in
keeping his boyhood vow of being always a man among men."



Transcriber's Note

This etext was produced from _Analog Science Fact and Fiction_ December
1962. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
typographical errors have been corrected without note.





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