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´╗┐Title: Last Enemy
Author: Piper, H. Beam, 1904-1964
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 "Last Enemy" ***

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Transcriber's Note:

      This etext was produced from Astounding Science Fiction,
      August, 1950. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence
      that the copyright on this publication was renewed.



LAST ENEMY

by

H. BEAM PIPER

Illustrated by Miller



    _The last enemy was the toughest of all--and conquering him
    was in itself almost as dangerous as not conquering. For a
    strange pattern of beliefs can make assassination an
    honorable profession!_



[Illustration: ]



Along the U-shaped table, the subdued clatter of dinnerware and the
buzz of conversation was dying out; the soft music that drifted down
from the overhead sound outlets seemed louder as the competing noises
diminished. The feast was drawing to a close, and Dallona of Hadron
fidgeted nervously with the stem of her wineglass as last-moment
doubts assailed her.

The old man at whose right she sat noticed, and reached out to lay his
hand on hers.

"My dear, you're worried," he said softly. "You, of all people,
shouldn't be, you know."

"The theory isn't complete," she replied. "And I could wish for more
positive verification. I'd hate to think I'd got you into this--"

Garnon of Roxor laughed. "No, no!" he assured her. "I'd decided upon
this long before you announced the results of your experiments. Ask
Girzon; he'll bear me out."

"That's true," the young man who sat at Garnon's left said, leaning
forward. "Father has meant to take this step for a long time. He was
waiting until after the election, and then he decided to do it now, to
give you an opportunity to make experimental use of it."

The man on Dallona's right added his voice. Like the others at the
table, he was of medium stature, brown-skinned and dark-eyed, with a
wide mouth, prominent cheekbones and a short, square jaw. Unlike the
others, he was armed, with a knife and pistol on his belt, and on the
breast of his black tunic he wore a scarlet oval patch on which a pair
of black wings, with a tapering silver object between them had been
superimposed.

"Yes, Lady Dallona; the Lord Garnon and I discussed this, oh, two
years ago at the least. Really, I'm surprised that you seem to shrink
from it, now. Of course, you're Venus-born, and customs there may be
different, but with your scientific knowledge--"

"That may be the trouble, Dirzed," Dallona told him. "A scientist gets
in the way of doubting, and one doubts one's own theories most of
all."

"That's the scientific attitude, I'm told," Dirzed replied, smiling.
"But somehow, I cannot think of you as a scientist." His eyes traveled
over her in a way that would have made most women, scientists or
otherwise, blush. It gave Dallona of Hadron a feeling of pleasure. Men
often looked at her that way, especially here at Darsh. Novelty had
something to do with it--her skin was considerably lighter than usual,
and there was a pleasing oddness about the structure of her face. Her
alleged Venusian origin was probably accepted as the explanation of
that, as of so many other things.

As she was about to reply, a man in dark gray, one of the
upper-servants who were accepted as social equals by the Akor-Neb
nobles, approached the table. He nodded respectfully to Garnon of
Roxor.

"I hate to seem to hurry things, sir, but the boy's ready. He's in a
trance-state now," he reported, pointing to the pair of visiplates at
the end of the room.

Both of the ten-foot-square plates were activated. One was a solid
luminous white; on the other was the image of a boy of twelve or
fourteen, seated at a big writing machine. Even allowing for the fact
that the boy was in a hypnotic trance, there was an expression of
idiocy on his loose-lipped, slack-jawed face, a pervading dullness.

"One of our best sensitives," a man with a beard, several places down
the table on Dallona's right, said. "You remember him, Dallona; he
produced that communication from the discarnate Assassin, Sirzim.
Normally, he's a low-grade imbecile, but in trance-state he's
wonderful. And there can be no argument that the communications he
produces originates in his own mind; he doesn't have mind enough, of
his own, to operate that machine."

Garnon of Roxor rose to his feet, the others rising with him. He
unfastened a jewel from the front of his tunic and handed it to
Dallona.

"Here, my dear Lady Dallona; I want you to have this," he said. "It's
been in the family of Roxor for six generations, but I know that you
will appreciate and cherish it." He twisted a heavy ring from his left
hand and gave it to his son. He unstrapped his wrist watch and passed
it across the table to the gray-clad upper-servant. He gave a pocket
case, containing writing tools, slide rule and magnifier, to the
bearded man on the other side of Dallona. "Something you can use, Dr.
Harnosh," he said. Then he took a belt, with a knife and holstered
pistol, from a servant who had brought it to him, and gave it to the
man with the red badge. "And something for you, Dirzed. The pistol's
by Farnor of Yand, and the knife was forged and tempered on Luna."

The man with the winged-bullet badge took the weapons, exclaiming in
appreciation. Then he removed his own belt and buckled on the gift.

"The pistol's fully loaded," Garnon told him.

Dirzed drew it and checked--a man of his craft took no statement about
weapons without verification--then slipped it back into the holster.

"Shall I use it?" he asked.

"By all means; I'd had that in mind when I selected it for you."

Another man, to the left of Girzon, received a cigarette case and
lighter. He and Garnon hooked fingers and clapped shoulders.

"Our views haven't been the same, Garnon," he said, "but I've always
valued your friendship. I'm sorry you're doing this, now; I believe
you'll be disappointed."

Garnon chuckled. "Would you care to make a small wager on that,
Nirzav?" he asked. "You know what I'm putting up. If I'm proven right,
will you accept the Volitionalist theory as verified?"

Nirzav chewed his mustache for a moment. "Yes, Garnon, I will." He
pointed toward the blankly white screen. "If we get anything
conclusive on that, I'll have no other choice."

"All right, friends," Garnon said to those around him. "Will you walk
with me to the end of the room?"

Servants removed a section from the table in front of him, to allow
him and a few others to pass through; the rest of the guests remained
standing at the table, facing toward the inside of the room. Garnon's
son, Girzon, and the gray-mustached Nirzav of Shonna, walked on his
left; Dallona of Hadron and Dr. Harnosh of Hosh on his right. The
gray-clad upper-servant, and two or three ladies, and a nobleman with
a small chin-beard, and several others, joined them; of those who had
sat close to Garnon, only the man in the black tunic with the scarlet
badge hung back. He stood still, by the break in the table, watching
Garnon of Roxor walk away from him. Then Dirzed the Assassin drew the
pistol he had lately received as a gift, hefted it in his hand,
thumbed off the safety, and aimed at the back of Garnon's head.

They had nearly reached the end of the room when the pistol cracked.
Dallona of Hadron started, almost as though the bullet had crashed
into her own body, then caught herself and kept on walking. She closed
her eyes and laid a hand on Dr. Harnosh's arm for guidance,
concentrating her mind upon a single question. The others went on as
though Garnon of Roxor were still walking among them.

"Look!" Harnosh of Hosh cried, pointing to the image in the visiplate
ahead. "He's under control!"

They all stopped short, and Dirzed, holstering his pistol, hurried
forward to join them. Behind, a couple of servants had approached with
a stretcher and were gathering up the crumpled figure that had, a
moment ago, been Garnon.

A change had come over the boy at the writing machine. His eyes were
still glazed with the stupor of the hypnotic trance, but the slack jaw
had stiffened, and the loose mouth was compressed in a purposeful
line. As they watched, his hands went out to the keyboard in front of
him and began to move over it, and as they did, letters appeared on
the white screen on the left.

_Garnon of Roxor, discarnate, communicating_, they read. The machine
stopped for a moment, then began again. _To Dallona of Hadron: The
question you asked, after I discarnated, was: What was the last book I
read, before the feast? While waiting for my valet to prepare my bath,
I read the first ten verses of the fourth Canto of "Splendor of
Space," by Larnov of Horka, in my bedroom. When the bath was ready, I
marked the page with a strip of message tape, containing a message
from the bailiff of my estate on the Shevva River, concerning a
breakdown at the power plant, and laid the book on the ivory-inlaid
table beside the big red chair._

Harnosh of Hosh looked at Dallona inquiringly; she nodded.

"I rejected the question I had in my mind, and substituted that one,
after the shot," she said.

He turned quickly to the upper-servant. "Check on that, right away,
Kirzon," he directed.

As the upper-servant hurried out, the writing machine started again.

_And to my son, Girzon: I will not use your son, Garnon, as a
reincarnation-vehicle; I will remain discarnate until he is grown and
has a son of his own; if he has no male child, I will reincarnate in
the first available male child of the family of Roxor, or of some
family allied to us by marriage. In any case, I will communicate
before reincarnating._

_To Nirzav of Shonna: Ten days ago, when I dined at your home, I took
a small knife and cut three notches, two close together and one a
little apart from the others, on the under side of the table. As I
remember, I sat two places down on the left. If you find them, you
will know that I have won that wager that I spoke of a few minutes
ago._

"I'll have my butler check on that, right away," Nirzav said. His eyes
were wide with amazement, and he had begun to sweat; a man does not
casually watch the beliefs of a lifetime invalidated in a few moments.

_To Dirzed the Assassin_: the machine continued. _You have served me
faithfully, in the last ten years, never more so than with the last
shot you fired in my service. After you fired, the thought was in your
mind that you would like to take service with the Lady Dallona of
Hadron, whom you believe will need the protection of a member of the
Society of Assassins. I advise you to do so, and I advise her to
accept your offer. Her work, since she has come to Darsh, has not made
her popular in some quarters. No doubt Nirzav of Shonna can bear me
out on that._

"I won't betray things told me in confidence, or said at the Councils
of the Statisticalists, but he's right," Nirzav said. "You need a good
Assassin, and there are few better than Dirzed."

_I see that this sensitive is growing weary_, the letters on the
screen spelled out. _His body is not strong enough for prolonged
communication. I bid you all farewell, for the time; I will
communicate again. Good evening, my friends, and I thank you for your
presence at the feast._

The boy, on the other screen, slumped back in his chair, his face
relaxing into its customary expression of vacancy.

"Will you accept my offer of service, Lady Dallona?" Dirzed asked.
"It's as Garnon said; you've made enemies."

Dallona smiled at him. "I've not been too deep in my work to know
that. I'm glad to accept your offer, Dirzed."

       *       *       *       *       *

Nirzav of Shonna had already turned away from the group and was
hurrying from the room, to call his home for confirmation on the
notches made on the underside of his dining table. As he went out the
door, he almost collided with the upper-servant, who was rushing in
with a book in his hand.

"Here it is," the latter exclaimed, holding up the book. "Larnov's
'Splendor of Space,' just where he said it would be. I had a couple of
servants with me as witnesses; I can call them in now, if you wish."
He handed the book to Harnosh of Hosh. "See, a strip of message tape
in it, at the tenth verse of the Fourth Canto."

Nirzav of Shonna re-entered the room; he was chewing his mustache and
muttering to himself. As he rejoined the group in front of the now
dark visiplates, he raised his voice, addressing them all generally.

"My butler found the notches, just as the communication described," he
said. "This settles it! Garnon, if you're where you can hear me,
you've won. I can't believe in the Statisticalist doctrines after
this, or in the political program based upon them. I'll announce my
change of attitude at the next meeting of the Executive Council, and
resign my seat. I was elected by Statisticalist votes, and I cannot
hold office as a Volitionalist."

"You'll need a couple of Assassins, too," the nobleman with the
chin-beard told him. "Your former colleagues and fellow-party-members
are regrettably given to the forcible discarnation of those who differ
with them."

"I've never employed personal Assassins before," Nirzav replied, "but
I think you're right. As soon as I get home, I'll call Assassins' Hall
and make the necessary arrangements."

"Better do it now," Girzon of Roxor told him, lowering his voice.
"There are over a hundred guests here, and I can't vouch for all of
them. The Statisticalists would be sure to have a spy planted among
them. My father was one of their most dangerous opponents, when he was
on the Council; they've always been afraid he'd come out of retirement
and stand for re-election. They'd want to make sure he was really
discarnate. And if that's the case, you can be sure your change of
attitude is known to old Mirzark of Bashad by this time. He won't dare
allow you to make a public renunciation of Statisticalism." He turned
to the other nobleman. "Prince Jirzyn, why don't you call the
Volitionist headquarters and have a couple of our Assassins sent here
to escort Lord Nirzav home?"

"I'll do that immediately," Jirzyn of Starpha said. "It's as Lord
Girzon says; we can be pretty sure there was a spy among the guests,
and now that you've come over to our way of thinking, we're
responsible for your safety."

He left the room to make the necessary visiphone call. Dallona,
accompanied by Dirzed, returned to her place at the table, where she
was joined by Harnosh of Hosh and some of the others.

"There's no question about the results," Harnosh was exulting. "I'll
grant that the boy might have picked up some of that stuff
telepathically from the carnate minds present here; even from the mind
of Garnon, before he was discarnated. But he could not have picked up
enough data, in that way, to make a connected and coherent
communication. It takes a sensitive with a powerful mind of his own to
practice telesthesia, and that boy's almost an idiot." He turned to
Dallona. "You asked a question, mentally, after Garnon was
discarnate, and got an answer that could have been contained only in
Garnon's mind. I think it's conclusive proof that the discarnate
Garnon was fully conscious and communicating."

"Dirzed also asked a question, mentally, after the discarnation, and
got an answer. Dr. Harnosh, we can state positively that the surviving
individuality is fully conscious in the discarnate state, is
telepathically sensitive, and is capable of telepathic communication
with other minds," Dallona agreed. "And in view of our earlier work
with memory-recalls, we're justified in stating positively that the
individual is capable of exercising choice in reincarnation vehicles."

"My father had been considering voluntary discarnation for a long
time," Girzon of Roxor said. "Ever since the discarnation of my
mother. He deferred that step because he was unwilling to deprive the
Volitionalist Party of his support. Now it would seem that he has done
more to combat Statisticalism by discarnating than he ever did in his
carnate existence."

"I don't know, Girzon," Jirzyn of Starpha said, as he joined the
group. "The Statisticalists will denounce the whole thing as a
prearranged fraud. And if they can discarnate the Lady Dallona before
she can record her testimony under truth hypnosis or on a lie
detector, we're no better off than we were before. Dirzed, you have a
great responsibility in guarding the Lady Dallona; some extraordinary
security precautions will be needed."

       *       *       *       *       *

In his office, in the First Level city of Dhergabar, Tortha Karf,
Chief of Paratime Police, leaned forward in his chair to hold his
lighter for his special assistant, Verkan Vall, then lit his own
cigarette. He was a man of middle age--his three hundredth birthday
was only a decade or so off--and he had begun to acquire a double chin
and a bulge at his waistline. His hair, once black, had turned a
uniform iron-gray and was beginning to thin in front.

"What do you know about the Second Level Akor-Neb Sector, Vall?" he
inquired. "Ever work in that paratime-area?"

Verkan Vall's handsome features became even more immobile than usual
as he mentally pronounced the verbal trigger symbols which should
bring hypnotically-acquired knowledge into his conscious mind. Then he
shook his head.

"Must be a singularly well-behaved sector, sir," he said. "Or else
we've been lucky, so far. I never was on an Akor-Neb operation; don't
even have a hypno-mech for that sector. All I know is from general
reading.

"Like all the Second Level, its time-lines descend from the
probability of one or more shiploads of colonists having come to Terra
from Mars about seventy-five to a hundred thousand years ago, and then
having been cut off from the home planet and forced to develop a
civilization of their own here. The Akor-Neb civilization is of a
fairly high culture-order, even for Second Level. An atomic-power,
interplanetary culture; gravity-counteraction, direct conversion of
nuclear energy to electrical power, that sort of thing. We buy fine
synthetic plastics and fabrics from them." He fingered the material of
his smartly-cut green police uniform. "I think this cloth is Akor-Neb.
We sell a lot of Venusian _zerfa_-leaf; they smoke it, straight and
mixed with tobacco. They have a single System-wide government, a
single race, and a universal language. They're a dark-brown race,
which evolved in its present form about fifty thousand years ago; the
present civilization is about ten thousand years old, developed out of
the wreckage of several earlier civilizations which decayed or fell
through wars, exhaustion of resources, et cetera. They have legends,
maybe historical records, of their extraterrestrial origin."

Tortha Karf nodded. "Pretty good, for consciously acquired knowledge,"
he commented. "Well, our luck's run out, on that sector; we have
troubles there, now. I want you to go iron them out. I know, you've
been going pretty hard, lately--that nighthound business, on the
Fourth Level Europo-American Sector, wasn't any picnic. But the fact
is that a lot of my ordinary and deputy assistants have a little too
much regard for the alleged sanctity of human life, and this is
something that may need some pretty drastic action."

"Some of our people getting out of line?" Verkan Vall asked.

"Well, the data isn't too complete, but one of our people has run into
trouble on that sector, and needs rescuing--a psychic-science
researcher, a young lady named Hadron Dalla. I believe you know her,
don't you?" Tortha Karf asked innocently.

"Slightly," Verkan Vall deadpanned. "I enjoyed a brief but rather
hectic companionate-marriage with her, about twenty years ago. What
sort of a jam's little Dalla got herself into, now?"

"Well, frankly, we don't know. I hope she's still alive, but I'm not
unduly optimistic. It seems that about a year ago, Dr. Hadron
transposed to the Second Level, to study alleged proof of
reincarnation which the Akor-Neb people were reported to possess. She
went to Gindrabar, on Venus, and transposed to the Second Paratime
Level, to a station maintained by Outtime Import & Export Trading
Corporation--a _zerfa_ plantation just east of the High Ridge country.
There she assumed an identity as the daughter of a planter, and took
the name of Dallona of Hadron. Parenthetically, all Akor-Neb
family-names are prepositional; family-names were originally place
names. I believe that ancient Akor-Neb marital relations were too
complicated to permit exact establishment of paternity. And all
Akor-Neb men's personal names have -_irz_- or -_arn_- inserted in the
middle, and women's names end in -_itra_- or -_ona_. You could call
yourself Virzal of Verkan, for instance.

"Anyhow, she made the Second Level Venus-Terra trip on a regular
passenger liner, and landed at the Akor-Neb city of Ghamma, on the
upper Nile. There she established contact with the Outtime Trading
Corporation representative, Zortan Brend, locally known as Brarnend of
Zorda. He couldn't call himself Brarnend of Zortan--in the Akor-Neb
language, _zortan_ is a particularly nasty dirty-word. Hadron Dalla
spent a few weeks at his residence, briefing herself on local
conditions. Then she went to the capital city, Darsh, in eastern
Europe, and enrolled as a student at something called the Independent
Institute for Reincarnation Research, having secured a letter of
introduction to its director, a Dr. Harnosh of Hosh.

"Almost at once, she began sending in reports to her home
organization, the Rhogom Memorial Foundation of Psychic Science, here
at Dhergabar, through Zortan Brend. The people there were wildly
enthusiastic. I don't have more than the average intelligent--I
hope--layman's knowledge of psychics, but Dr. Volzar Darv, the
director of Rhogom Foundation, tells me that even in the present
incomplete form, her reports have opened whole new horizons in the
science. It seems that these Akor-Neb people have actually
demonstrated, as a scientific fact, that the human individuality
reincarnates after physical death--that your personality, and mine,
have existed, as such, for ages, and will exist for ages to come.
More, they have means of recovering, from almost anybody, memories of
past reincarnations.

[Illustration: ]

"Well, after about a month, the people at this Reincarnation Institute
realized that this Dallona of Hadron wasn't any ordinary student. She
probably had trouble keeping down to the local level of psychic
knowledge. So, as soon as she'd learned their techniques, she was
allowed to undertake experimental work of her own. I imagine she let
herself out on that; as soon as she'd mastered the standard Akor-Neb
methods of recovering memories of past reincarnations, she began
refining and developing them more than the local yokels had been able
to do in the past thousand years. I can't tell you just what she did,
because I don't know the subject, but she must have lit things up
properly. She got quite a lot of local publicity; not only scientific
journals, but general newscasts.

"Then, four days ago, she disappeared, and her disappearance seems to
have been coincident with an unsuccessful attempt on her life. We
don't know as much about this as we should; all we have is Zortan
Brend's account.

"It seems that on the evening of her disappearance, she had been
attending the voluntary discarnation feast--suicide party--of a
prominent nobleman named Garnon of Roxor. Evidently when the Akor-Neb
people get tired of their current reincarnation they invite in their
friends, throw a big party, and then do themselves in in an atmosphere
of general conviviality. Frequently they take poison or inhale lethal
gas; this fellow had his personal trigger man shoot him through the
head. Dalla was one of the guests of honor, along with this Harnosh of
Hosh. They'd made rather elaborate preparations, and after the shooting
they got a detailed and apparently authentic spirit-communication from
the late Garnon. The voluntary discarnation was just a routine social
event, it seems, but the communication caused quite an uproar, and rated
top place on the System-wide newscasts, and started a storm of
controversy.

"After the shooting and the communication, Dalla took the officiating
gun artist, one Dirzed, into her own service. This Dirzed was spoken
of as a generally respected member of something called the Society of
Assassins, and that'll give you an idea of what things are like on
that sector, and why I don't want to send anybody who might develop
trigger-finger cramp at the wrong moment. She and Dirzed left the home
of the gentleman who had just had himself discarnated, presumably for
Dalla's apartment, about a hundred miles away. That's the last that's
been heard of either of them.

"This attempt on Dalla's life occurred while the pre-mortem revels
were still going on. She lived in a six-room apartment, with three
servants, on one of the upper floors of a three-thousand-foot
tower--Akor-Neb cities are built vertically, with considerable
interval between units--and while she was at this feast, a package was
delivered at the apartment, ostensibly from the Reincarnation
Institute and made up to look as though it contained record tapes. One
of the servants accepted it from a service employee of the apartments.
The next morning, a little before noon, Dr. Harnosh of Hosh called her
on the visiphone and got no answer; he then called the apartment
manager, who entered the apartment. He found all three of the servants
dead, from a lethal-gas bomb which had exploded when one of them had
opened this package. However, Hadron Dalla had never returned to the
apartment, the night before."

       *       *       *       *       *

Verkan Vall was sitting motionless, his face expressionless as he ran
Tortha Karf's narrative through the intricate semantic and
psychological processes of the First Level mentality. The fact that
Hadron Dalla had been a former wife of his had been relegated to one
corner of his consciousness and contained there; it was not a fact
that would, at the moment, contribute to the problem or to his
treatment of it.

"The package was delivered while she was at this suicide party," he
considered. "It must, therefore, have been sent by somebody who either
did not know she would be out of the apartment, or who did not expect
it to function until after her return. On the other hand, if her
disappearance was due to hostile action, it was the work of somebody
who knew she was at the feast and did not want her to reach her
apartment again. This would seem to exclude the sender of the package
bomb."

Tortha Karf nodded. He had reached that conclusion, himself.

"Thus," Verkan Vall continued, "if her disappearance was the work of
an enemy, she must have two enemies, each working in ignorance of the
other's plans."

"What do you think she did to provoke such enmity?"

"Well, of course, it just might be that Dalla's normally complicated
love-life had got a little more complicated than usual and
short-circuited on her," Verkan Vall said, out of the fullness of
personal knowledge, "but I doubt that, at the moment. I would think
that this affair has political implications."

"So?" Tortha Karf had not thought of politics as an explanation. He
waited for Verkan Vall to elaborate.

"Don't you see, chief?" the special assistant asked. "We find a belief
in reincarnation on many time-lines, as a religious doctrine, but
these people accept it as a scientific fact. Such acceptance would
carry much more conviction; it would influence a people's entire
thinking. We see it reflected in their disregard for death--suicide as
a social function, this Society of Assassins, and the like. It would
naturally color their political thinking, because politics is nothing
but common action to secure more favorable living conditions, and to
these people, the term 'living conditions' includes not only the
present life, but also an indefinite number of future lives as well. I
find this title, 'Independent' Institute, suggestive. Independent of
what? Possibly of partisan affiliation."

"But wouldn't these people be grateful to her for her new discoveries,
which would enable them to plan their future reincarnations more
intelligently?" Tortha Karf asked.

"Oh, chief!" Verkan Vall reproached. "You know better than that! How
many times have our people got in trouble on other time-lines because
they divulged some useful scientific fact that conflicted with the
locally revered nonsense? You show me ten men who cherish some
religious doctrine or political ideology, and I'll show you nine men
whose minds are utterly impervious to any factual evidence which
contradicts their beliefs, and who regard the producer of such
evidence as a criminal who ought to be suppressed. For instance, on
the Fourth Level Europo-American Sector, where I was just working,
there is a political sect, the Communists, who, in the territory under
their control, forbid the teaching of certain well-established facts
of genetics and heredity, because those facts do not fit the
world-picture demanded by their political doctrines. And on the same
sector, a religious sect recently tried, in some sections
successfully, to outlaw the teaching of evolution by natural
selection."

Tortha Karf nodded. "I remember some stories my grandfather told me,
about his narrow escapes from an organization called the Holy
Inquisition, when he was a paratime trader on the Fourth Level, about
four hundred years ago. I believe that thing's still operating, on the
Europo-American Sector, under the name of the NKVD. So you think Dalla
may have proven something that conflicted with local reincarnation
theories, and somebody who had a vested interest in maintaining those
theories is trying to stop her?"

"You spoke of a controversy over the communication alleged to have
originated with this voluntarily discarnated nobleman. That would
suggest a difference of opinion on the manner of nature of
reincarnation or the discarnate state. This difference may mark the
dividing line between the different political parties. Now, to get to
this Darsh place, do I have to go to Venus, as Dalla did?"

"No. The Outtime Trading Corporation has transposition facilities at
Ravvanan, on the Nile, which is spatially co-existent with the city of
Ghamma on the Akor-Neb Sector, where Zortan Brend is. You transpose
through there, and Zortan Brend will furnish you transportation to
Darsh. It'll take you about two days, here, getting your hypno-mech
indoctrinations and having your skin pigmented, and your hair turned
black. I'll notify Zortan Brend at once that you're coming through.
Is there anything special you'll want?"

"Why, I'll want an abstract of the reports Dalla sent back to Rhogom
Foundation. It's likely that there is some clue among them as to whom
her discoveries may have antagonized. I'm going to be a Venusian
_zerfa_-planter, a friend of her father's; I'll want full hypno-mech
indoctrination to enable me to play that part. And I'll want to
familiarize myself with Akor-Neb weapons and combat techniques. I
think that will be all, chief."

       *       *       *       *       *

The last of the tall city-units of Ghamma were sliding out of sight as
the ship passed over them--shaft-like buildings that rose two or three
thousand feet above the ground in clumps of three or four or six, one
at each corner of the landing stages set in series between them. Each
of these units stood in the middle of a wooded park some five miles
square; no unit was much more or less than twenty miles from its
nearest neighbor, and the land between was the uniform golden-brown of
ripening grain, crisscrossed with the threads of irrigation canals and
dotted here and there with sturdy farm-village buildings and tall,
stacklike granaries. There were a few other ships in the air at the
fifty-thousand-foot level, and below, swarms of small airboats darted
back and forth on different levels, depending upon speed and
direction. Far ahead, to the northeast, was the shimmer of the Red Sea
and the hazy bulk of Asia Minor beyond.

Verkan Vall--the Lord Virzal of Verkan, temporarily--stood at the
glass front of the observation deck, looking down. He was a different
Verkan Vall from the man who had talked with Tortha Karf in the
latter's office, two days before. The First Level cosmeticists had
worked miracles upon him with their art. His skin was a soft
chocolate-brown, now; his hair was jet-black, and so were his eyes.
And in his subconscious mind, instantly available to consciousness,
was a vast body of knowledge about conditions on the Akor-Neb sector,
as well as a complete command of the local language, all hypnotically
acquired.

He knew that he was looking down upon one of the minor provincial
cities of a very respectably advanced civilization. A civilization
which built its cities vertically, since it had learned to counteract
gravitation. A civilization which still depended upon natural cereals
for food, but one which had learned to make the most efficient use of
its soil. The network of dams and irrigation canals which he saw was
as good as anything on his own paratime level. The wide dispersal of
buildings, he knew, was a heritage of a series of disastrous atomic
wars of several thousand years before; the Akor-Neb people had come to
love the wide inter-vistas of open country and forest, and had
continued to scatter their buildings, even after the necessity had
passed. But the slim, towering buildings could only have been reared
by a people who had banished nationalism and, with it, the threat of
total war. He contrasted them with the ground-hugging dome cities of
the Khiftan civilization, only a few thousand parayears distant.

Three men came out of the lounge behind him and joined him. One was,
like himself, a disguised paratimer from the First Level--the Outtime
Export and Import man, Zortan Brend, here known as Brarnend of Zorda.
The other two were Akor-Neb people, and both wore the black tunics and
the winged-bullet badges of the Society of Assassins. Unlike Verkan
Vall and Zortan Brend, who wore shoulder holsters under their short
tunics, the Assassins openly displayed pistols and knives on their
belts.

"We heard that you were coming two days ago, Lord Virzal," Zortan
Brend said. "We delayed the take-off of this ship, so that you could
travel to Darsh as inconspicuously as possible. I also booked a suite
for you at the Solar Hotel, at Darsh. And these are your
Assassins--Olirzon, and Marnik."

Verkan Vall hooked fingers and clapped shoulders with them.

"Virzal of Verkan," he identified himself. "I am satisfied to intrust
myself to you."

"We'll do our best for you, Lord Virzal," the older of the pair,
Olirzon, said. He hesitated for a moment, then continued: "Understand,
Lord Virzal, I only ask for information useful in serving and
protecting you. But is this of the Lady Dallona a political matter?"

"Not from our side," Verkan Vall told him. "The Lady Dallona is a
scientist, entirely nonpolitical. The Honorable Brarnend is a business
man; he doesn't meddle with politics as long as the politicians leave
him alone. And I'm a planter on Venus; I have enough troubles, with
the natives, and the weather, and blue-rot in the _zerfa_ plants, and
poison roaches, and javelin bugs, without getting into politics. But
psychic science is inextricably mixed with politics, and the Lady
Dallona's work had evidently tended to discredit the theory of
Statistical Reincarnation."

"Do you often make understatements like that, Lord Virzal?" Olirzon
grinned. "In the last six months, she's knocked Statistical
Reincarnation to splinters."

"Well, I'm not a psychic scientist, and as I said, I don't know much
about Terran politics," Verkan Vall replied. "I know that the
Statisticalists favor complete socialization and political control of
the whole economy, because they want everybody to have the same
opportunities in every reincarnation. And the Volitionalists believe
that everybody reincarnates as he pleases, and so they favor
continuance of the present system of private ownership of wealth and
private profit under a system of free competition. And that's about
all I do know. Naturally, as a land-owner and the holder of a title of
nobility, I'm a Volitionalist in politics, but the socialization
issue isn't important on Venus. There is still too much unseated land
there, and too many personal opportunities, to make socialism
attractive to anybody."

"Well, that's about it," Zortan Brend told him. "I'm not enough of a
psychicist to know what the Lady Dallona's been doing, but she's
knocked the theoretical basis from under Statistical Reincarnation,
and that's the basis, in turn, of Statistical Socialism. I think we'll
find that the Statisticalist Party is responsible for whatever
happened to her."

Marnik, the younger of the two Assassins, hesitated for a moment, then
addressed Verkan Vall:

"Lord Virzal, I know none of the personalities involved in this
matter, and I speak without wishing to give offense, but is it not
possible that the Lady Dallona and the Assassin Dirzed may have gone
somewhere together voluntarily? I have met Dirzed, and he has many
qualities which women find attractive, and he is by no means
indifferent to the opposite sex. You understand, Lord Virzal--"

"I understand all too perfectly, Marnik," Verkan Vall replied, out of
the fullness of experience. "The Lady Dallona has had affairs with a
number of men, myself among them. But under the circumstances, I find
that explanation unthinkable."

Marnik looked at him in open skepticism. Evidently, in his book, where
an attractive man and a beautiful woman were concerned, that
explanation was never unthinkable.

"The Lady Dallona is a scientist," Verkan Vall elaborated. "She is not
above diverting herself with love affairs, but that's all they are--a
not too important form of diversion. And, if you recall, she had just
participated in a most significant experiment: you can be sure that
she had other things on her mind at the time than pleasure jaunts with
good-looking Assassins."

       *       *       *       *       *

The ship was passing around the Caucasus Mountains, with the Caspian
Sea in sight ahead, when several of the crew appeared on the
observation deck and began preparing the shielding to protect the deck
from gunfire. Zortan Brend inquired of the petty officer in charge of
the work as to the necessity.

"We've been getting reports of trouble at Darsh, sir," the man said.
"Newscast bulletins every couple of minutes: rioting in different
parts of the city. Started yesterday afternoon, when a couple of
Statisticalist members of the Executive Council resigned and went over
to the Volitionalists. Lord Nirzav of Shonna, the only nobleman of any
importance in the Statisticalist Party, was one of them; he was shot
immediately afterward, while leaving the Council Chambers, along with
a couple of Assassins who were with him. Some people in an airboat
sprayed them with a machine rifle as they came out onto the landing
stage."

The two Assassins exclaimed in horrified anger over this.

"That wasn't the work of members of the Society of Assassins!" Olirzon
declared. "Even after he'd resigned, the Lord Nirzav was still immune
till he left the Government Building. There's too blasted much illegal
assassination going on!"

"What happened next?" Verkan Vall wanted to know.

"About what you'd expect, sir. The Volitionalists weren't going to
take that quietly. In the past eighteen hours, four prominent
Statisticalists were forcibly discarnated, and there was even a fight
in Mirzark of Bashad's house, when Volitionalist Assassins broke in;
three of them and four of Mirzark's Assassins were discarnated."

"You know, something is going to have to be done about that, too,"
Olirzon said to Marnik. "It's getting to a point where these political
faction fights are being carried on entirely between members of the
Society. In Ghamma alone, last year, thirty or forty of our members
were discarnated that way."

"Plug in a newscast visiplate, Karnil," Zortan Brend told the petty
officer. "Let's see what's going on in Darsh now."

In Darsh, it seemed, an uneasy peace was being established. Verkan
Vall watched heavily-armed airboats and light combat ships patrolling
among the high towers of the city. He saw a couple of minor riots
being broken up by the blue-uniformed Constabulary, with considerable
shooting and a ruthless disregard for who might get shot. It wasn't
exactly the sort of policing that would have been tolerated in the
First Level Civil Order Section, but it seemed to suit Akor-Neb
conditions. And he listened to a series of angry recriminations and
contradictory statements by different politicians, all of whom blamed
the disorders on their opponents. The Volitionalists spoke of the
Statisticalists as "insane criminals" and "underminers of social
stability," and the Statisticalists called the Volitionalists
"reactionary criminals" and "enemies of social progress." Politicians,
he had observed, differed little in their vocabularies from one
time-line to another.

This kept up all the while the ship was passing over the Caspian Sea;
as they were turning up the Volga valley, one of the ship's officers
came down from the control deck, above.

"We're coming into Darsh, now," he said, and as Verkan Vall turned
from the visiplate to the forward windows, he could see the white and
pastel-tinted towers of the city rising above the hardwood forests
that covered the whole Volga basin on this sector. "Your luggage has
been put into the airboat, Lord Virzal and Honorable Assassins, and
it's ready for launching whenever you are." The officer glanced at his
watch. "We dock at Commercial Center in twenty minutes; we'll be
passing the Solar Hotel in ten."

They all rose, and Verkan Vall hooked fingers and clapped shoulders
with Zortan Brend.

"Good luck, Lord Virzal," the latter said. "I hope you find the Lady
Dallona safe and carnate. If you need help, I'll be at Mercantile
House for the next day or so; if you get back to Ghamma before I do,
you know who to ask for there."

       *       *       *       *       *

A number of assassins loitered in the hallways and offices of the
Independent Institute of Reincarnation Research when Verkan Vall,
accompanied by Marnik, called there that afternoon. Some of them
carried submachine-guns or sleep-gas projectors, and they were
stopping people and questioning them. Marnik needed only to give them
a quick gesture and the words, "Assassins' Truce," and he and his
client were allowed to pass. They entered a lifter tube and floated up
to the office of Dr. Harnosh of Hosh, with whom Verkan Vall had made
an appointment.

"I'm sorry, Lord Virzal," the director of the Institute told him, "but
I have no idea what has befallen the Lady Dallona, or even if she is
still carnate. I am quite worried; I admired her extremely, both as an
individual and as a scientist. I do hope she hasn't been discarnated;
that would be a serious blow to science. It is fortunate that she
accomplished as much as she did, while she was with us."

"You think she is no longer carnate, then?"

"I'm afraid so. The political effects of her discoveries--" Harnosh of
Hosh shrugged sadly. "She was devoted, to a rare degree, to her work.
I am sure that nothing but her discarnation could have taken her away
from us, at this time, with so many important experiments still
uncompleted."

Marnik nodded to Verkan Vall, as much as to say: "You were right."

"Well, I intend acting upon the assumption that she is still carnate
and in need of help, until I am positive to the contrary," Verkan Vall
said. "And in the latter case, I intend finding out who discarnated
her, and send him to apologize for it in person. People don't forcibly
discarnate my friends with impunity."

"Sound attitude," Dr. Harnosh commented. "There's certainly no
positive evidence that she isn't still carnate. I'll gladly give you
all the assistance I can, if you'll only tell me what you want."

"Well, in the first place," Verkan Vall began, "just what sort of work
was she doing?" He already knew the answer to that, from the reports
she had sent back to the First Level, but he wanted to hear Dr.
Harnosh's version. "And what, exactly, are the political effects you
mentioned? Understand, Dr. Harnosh, I am really quite ignorant of any
scientific subject unrelated to _zerfa_ culture, and equally so of
Terran politics. Politics, on Venus, is mainly a question of who gets
how much graft out of what."

Dr. Harnosh smiled; evidently he had heard about Venusian politics.
"Ah, yes, of course. But you are familiar with the main differences
between Statistical and Volitional reincarnation theories?"

[Illustration: ]

"In a general way. The Volitionalists hold that the discarnate
individuality is fully conscious, and is capable of something
analogous to sense-perception, and is also capable of exercising
choice in the matter of reincarnation vehicles, and can reincarnate or
remain in the discarnate state as it chooses. They also believe that
discarnate individualities can communicate with one another, and with
at least some carnate individualities, by telepathy," he said. "The
Statisticalists deny all this; their opinion is that the discarnate
individuality is in a more or less somnambulistic state, that it is
drawn by a process akin to tropism to the nearest available
reincarnation vehicle, and that it must reincarnate in and only in
that vehicle. They are labeled Statisticalists because they believe
that the process of reincarnation is purely at random, or governed by
unknown and uncontrollable causes, and is unpredictable except as to
aggregates."

"That's a fairly good generalized summary," Dr. Harnosh of Hosh
grudged, unwilling to give a mere layman too much credit. He dipped a
spoon into a tobacco humidor, dusted the tobacco lightly with dried
_zerfa_, and rammed it into his pipe. "You must understand that our
modern Statisticalists are the intellectual heirs of those ancient
materialistic thinkers who denied the possibility of any discarnate
existence, or of any extraphysical mind, or even of extrasensory
perception. Since all these things have been demonstrated to be facts,
the materialistic dogma has been broadened to include them, but always
strictly within the frame of materialism.

"We have proven, for instance, that the human individuality can exist
in a discarnate state, and that it reincarnates into the body of an
infant, shortly after birth. But the Statisticalists cannot accept the
idea of discarnate consciousness, since they conceive of consciousness
purely as a function of the physical brain. So they postulate an
unconscious discarnate personality, or, as you put it, one in a
somnambulistic state. They have to concede memory to this discarnate
personality, since it was by recovery of memories of previous
reincarnations that discarnate existence and reincarnation were proven
to be facts. So they picture the discarnate individuality as a
material object, or physical event, of negligible but actual mass, in
which an indefinite number of memories can be stored as electronic
charges. And they picture it as being drawn irresistibly to the body
of the nearest non-incarnated infant. Curiously enough, the
reincarnation vehicle chosen is almost always of the same sex as the
vehicle of the previous reincarnation, the exceptions being cases of
persons who had a previous history of psychological sex-inversion."

Dr. Harnosh remembered the unlighted pipe in his hand, thrust it into
his mouth, and lit it. For a moment, he sat with it jutting out of his
black beard, until it was drawing to his satisfaction. "This belief in
immediate reincarnation leads the Statisticalists, when they fight
duels or perform voluntary discarnation, to do so in the neighborhood
of maternity hospitals," he added. "I know, personally, of one
reincarnation memory-recall, in which the subject, a Statisticalist,
voluntarily discarnated by lethal-gas inhaler in a private room at one
of our local maternity hospitals, and reincarnated twenty years later
in the city of Jeddul, three thousand miles away." The square black
beard jiggled as the scientist laughed.

"Now, as to the political implications of these contradictory
theories: Since the Statisticalists believe that they will reincarnate
entirely at random, their aim is to create an utterly classless social
and economic order, in which, theoretically, each individuality will
reincarnate into a condition of equality with everybody else. Their
political program, therefore, is one of complete socialization of all
means of production and distribution, abolition of hereditary titles
and inherited wealth--eventually, all private wealth--and total
government control of all economic, social and cultural activities. Of
course," Dr. Harnosh apologized, "politics isn't my subject; I
wouldn't presume to judge how that would function in practice."

"I would," Verkan Vall said shortly, thinking of all the different
time-lines on which he had seen systems like that in operation. "You
wouldn't like it, doctor. And the Volitionalists?"

"Well, since they believe that they are able to choose the
circumstances of their next reincarnations for themselves, they are
the party of the _status quo_. Naturally, almost all the nobles,
almost all the wealthy trading and manufacturing families, and almost
all professional people, are Volitionalists; most of the workers and
peasants are Statisticalists. Or, at least, they were, for the most
part, before we began announcing the results of the Lady Dallona's
experimental work."

"Ah; now we come to it," Verkan Vall said as the story clarified.

"Yes. In somewhat oversimplified form, the situation is rather like
this," Dr. Harnosh of Hosh said. "The Lady Dallona introduced a number
of refinements and some outright innovations into our technique of
recovering memories of past reincarnations. Previously, it was
necessary to keep the subject in an hypnotic trance, during which he
or she would narrate what was remembered of past reincarnations, and
this would be recorded. On emerging from the trance, the subject would
remember nothing; the tape-recording would be all that would be left.
But the Lady Dallona devised a technique by which these memories would
remain in what might be called the fore part of the subject's
subconscious mind, so that they could be brought to the level of
consciousness at will. More, she was able to recover memories of past
discarnate existences, something we had never been able to do
heretofore." Dr. Harnosh shook his head. "And to think, when I first
met her, I thought that she was just another sensation-seeking young
lady of wealth, and was almost about to refuse her enrollment!"

He wasn't the only one whom little Dalla had surprised, Verkan Vall
thought. At least, he had been pleasantly surprised.

"You see, this entirely disproves the Statistical Theory of
Reincarnation. For example, we got a fine set of memory-recalls from one
subject, for four previous reincarnations and four intercarnations. In
the first of these, the subject had been a peasant on the estate of a
wealthy noble. Unlike most of his fellows, who reincarnated into other
peasant families almost immediately after discarnation, this man waited
for fifty years in the discarnate state for an opportunity to
reincarnate as the son of an over-servant. In his next reincarnation, he
was the son of a technician, and received a technical education; he
became a physics researcher. For his next reincarnation, he chose the
son of a nobleman by a concubine as his vehicle; in his present
reincarnation, he is a member of a wealthy manufacturing family, and
married into a family of the nobility. In five reincarnations, he has
climbed from the lowest to the next-to-highest rung of the social
ladder. Few individuals of the class from whence he began this ascent
possess so much persistence or determination. Then, of course, there was
the case of Lord Garnon of Roxor."

He went on to describe the last experiment in which Hadron Dalla had
participated.

"Well, that all sounds pretty conclusive," Verkan Vall commented. "I
take it the leaders of the Volitionalist Party here are pleased with
the result of the Lady Dallona's work?"

"Pleased? My dear Lord Virzal, they're fairly bursting with glee over
it!" Harnosh of Hosh declared. "As I pointed out, the Statisticalist
program of socialization is based entirely on the proposition that no
one can choose the circumstances of his next reincarnation, and that's
been demonstrated to be utter nonsense. Until the Lady Dallona's
discoveries were announced, they were the dominant party, controlling
a majority of the seats in Parliament and on the Executive Council.
Only the Constitution kept them from enacting their entire
socialization program long ago, and they were about to legislate
constitutional changes which would remove that barrier. They had
expected to be able to do so after the forthcoming general elections.
But now, social inequality has become desirable: it gives people
something to look forward to in the next reincarnation. Instead of
wanting to abolish wealth and privilege and nobility, the proletariat
want to reincarnate into them." Harnosh of Hosh laughed happily. "So
you can see how furious the Statisticalist Party organization is!"

"There's a catch to this, somewhere," Marnik the Assassin, speaking
for the first time, declared. "They can't all reincarnate as princes,
there aren't enough vacancies to go 'round. And no noble is going to
reincarnate as a tractor driver to make room for a tractor driver who
wants to reincarnate as a noble."

"That's correct," Dr. Harnosh replied. "There is a catch to it; a
catch most people would never admit, even to themselves. Very few
individuals possess the will power, the intelligence or the capacity
for mental effort displayed by the subject of the case I just quoted.
The average man's interests are almost entirely on the physical side;
he actually finds mental effort painful, and makes as little of it as
possible. And that is the only sort of effort a discarnate
individuality can exert. So, unable to endure the fifty or so years
needed to make a really good reincarnation, he reincarnates in a year
or so, out of pure boredom, into the first vehicle he can find,
usually one nobody else wants." Dr. Harnosh dug out the heel of his
pipe and blew through the stem. "But nobody will admit his own mental
inferiority, even to himself. Now, every machine operator and field
hand on the planet thinks he can reincarnate as a prince or a
millionaire. Politics isn't my subject, but I'm willing to bet that
since Statistical Reincarnation is an exploded psychic theory,
Statisticalist Socialism has been caught in the blast area and
destroyed along with it."

       *       *       *       *       *

Olirzon was in the drawing room of the hotel suite when they returned,
sitting on the middle of his spinal column in a reclining chair,
smoking a pipe, dressing the edge of his knife with a pocket-hone, and
gazing lecherously at a young woman in the visiplate. She was an
extremely well-designed young woman, in a rather fragmentary costume,
and she was heaving her bosom at the invisible audience in anger,
sorrow, scorn, entreaty, and numerous other emotions.

"... this revolting crime," she was declaiming, in a husky contralto,
as Verkan Vall and Marnik entered, "foul even for the criminal beasts
who conceived and perpetrated it!" She pointed an accusing finger.
"This murder of the beautiful Lady Dallona of Hadron!"

Verkan Vall stopped short, considering the possibility of something
having been discovered lately of which he was ignorant. Olirzon must
have guessed his thought; he grinned reassuringly.

"Think nothing of it, Lord Virzal," he said, waving his knife at the
visiplate. "Just political propaganda; strictly for the sparrows. Nice
propagandist, though."

"And now," the woman with the magnificent natural resources lowered
her voice reverently, "we bring you the last image of the Lady
Dallona, and of Dirzed, her faithful Assassin, taken just before they
vanished, never to be seen again."

The plate darkened, and there were strains of slow, dirgelike music;
then it lighted again, presenting a view of a broad hallway, thronged
with men and women in bright varicolored costumes. In the foreground,
wearing a tight skirt of deep blue and a short red jacket, was Hadron
Dalla, just as she had looked in the solidographs taken in Dhergabar
after her alteration by the First Level cosmeticians to conform to the
appearance of the Malayoid Akor-Neb people. She was holding the arm of
a man who wore the black tunic and red badge of an Assassin, a
handsome specimen of the Akor-Neb race. Trust little Dalla for that,
Verkan Vall thought. The figures were moving with exaggerated
slowness, as though a very fleeting picture were being stretched out
as far as possible. Having already memorized his former wife's changed
appearance, Verkan Vall concentrated on the man beside her until the
picture faded.

"All right, Olirzon; what did you get?" he asked.

"Well, first of all, at Assassins' Hall," Olirzon said, rolling up his
left sleeve, holding his bare forearm to the light, and shaving a few
fine hairs from it to test the edge of his knife. "Of course, they
never tell one Assassin anything about the client of another Assassin;
that's standard practice. But I was in the Lodge Secretary's office,
where nobody but Assassins are ever admitted. They have a big panel in
there, with the names of all the Lodge members on it in light-letters;
that's standard in all Lodges. If an Assassin is unattached and free
to accept a client, his name's in white light. If he has a client, the
light's changed to blue, and the name of the client goes up under his.
If his whereabouts are unknown, the light's changed to amber. If he is
discarnated, his name's removed entirely, unless the circumstances of
his discarnation are such as to constitute an injury to the Society.
In that case, the name's in red light until he's been properly
avenged, or, as we say, till his blood's been mopped up. Well, the
name of Dirzed is up in blue light, with the name of Dallona of Hadron
under it. I found out that the light had been amber for two days after
the disappearance, and then had been changed back to blue. Get it,
Lord Virzal?"

Verkan Vall nodded. "I think so. I'd been considering that as a
possibility from the first. Then what?"

"Then I was about and around for a couple of hours, buying drinks for
people--unattached Assassins, Constabulary detectives, political
workers, newscast people. You owe me fifteen System Monetary Units for
that, Lord Virzal. What I got, when it's all sorted out--I taped it in
detail, as soon as I got back--reduces to this: The Volitionalists are
moving mountains to find out who was the spy at Garnon of Roxor's
discarnation feast, but are doing nothing but nothing at all to find
the Lady Dallona or Dirzed. The Statisticalists are making all sorts
of secret efforts to find out what happened to her. The Constabulary
blame the Statistos for the package-bomb: they're interested in that
because of the discarnation of the three servants by an illegal weapon
of indiscriminate effect. They claim that the disappearance of Dirzed
and the Lady Dallona was a publicity hoax. The Volitionalists are
preparing a line of publicity to deny this."

Verkan Vall nodded. "That ties in with what you learned at Assassins'
Hall," he said. "They're hiding out somewhere. Is there any chance of
reaching Dirzed through the Society of Assassins?"

Olirzon shook his head. "If you're right--and that's the way it looks
to me, too--he's probably just called in and notified the Society that
he's still carnate and so is the Lady Dallona, and called off any
search the Society might be making for him."

"And I've got to find the Lady Dallona as soon as I can. Well, if I
can't reach her, maybe I can get her to send word to me," Verkan Vall
said. "That's going to take some doing, too."

"What did you find out, Lord Virzal?" Olirzon asked. He had a piece of
soft leather, now, and was polishing his blade lovingly.

"The Reincarnation Research people don't know anything," Verkan Vall
replied. "Dr. Harnosh of Hosh thinks she's discarnate. I did find out
that the experimental work she's done, so far, has absolutely
disproved the theory of Statistical Reincarnation. The Volitionalists'
theory is solidly established."

"Yes, what do you think, Olirzon?" Marnik added. "They have a case on
record of a man who worked up from field hand to millionaire in five
reincarnations. Deliberately, that is." He went on to repeat what
Harnosh of Hosh had said; he must have possessed an almost eidetic
memory, for he gave the bearded psychicist's words verbatim, and threw
in the gestures and voice-inflections.

Olirzon grinned. "You know, there's a chance for the easy-money boys,"
he considered. "'You, too, can Reincarnate as a millionaire! Let Dr.
Nirzutz of Futzbutz Help You! Only 49.98 System Monetary Units for the
Secret, Infallible, Autosuggestive Formula.' And would it sell!" He
put away the hone and the bit of leather and slipped his knife back
into its sheath. "If I weren't a respectable Assassin, I'd give it a
try, myself."

Verkan Vall looked at his watch. "We'd better get something to eat,"
he said. "We'll go down to the main dining room; the Martian Room, I
think they call it. I've got to think of some way to let the Lady
Dallona know I'm looking for her."

       *       *       *       *       *

The Martian Room, fifteen stories down, was a big place, occupying
almost half of the floor space of one corner tower. It had been fitted
to resemble one of the ruined buildings of the ancient and vanished
race of Mars who were the ancestors of Terran humanity. One whole side
of the room was a gigantic cine-solidograph screen, on which the
gullied desolation of a Martian landscape was projected; in the course
of about two hours, the scene changed from sunrise through daylight
and night to sunrise again.

It was high noon when they entered and found a table; by the time they
had finished their dinner, the night was ending and the first glow of
dawn was tinting the distant hills. They sat for a while, watching the
light grow stronger, then got up and left the table.

There were five men at a table near them; they had come in before the
stars had grown dim, and the waiters were just bringing their first
dishes. Two were Assassins, and the other three were of a breed Verkan
Vall had learned to recognize on any time-line--the arrogant,
cocksure, ambitious, leftist politician, who knows what is best for
everybody better than anybody else does, and who is convinced that he
is inescapably right and that whoever differs with him is not only an
ignoramus but a venal scoundrel as well. One was a beefy man in a
gold-laced cream-colored dress tunic; he had thick lips and a
too-ready laugh. Another was a rather monkish-looking young man who
spoke earnestly and rolled his eyes upward, as though at some
celestial vision. The third had the faint powdering of gray in his
black hair which was, among the Akor-Neb people, almost the only
indication of advanced age.

"Of course it is; the whole thing is a fraud," the monkish young man
was saying angrily. "But we can't prove it."

"Oh, Sirzob, here, can prove anything, if you give him time," the
beefy one laughed. "The trouble is, there isn't too much time. We know
that that communication was a fake, prearranged by the Volitionalists,
with Dr. Harnosh and this Dallona of Hadron as their tools. They fed
the whole thing to that idiot boy hypnotically, in advance, and then,
on a signal, he began typing out this spurious communication. And
then, of course, Dallona and this Assassin of hers ran off somewhere
together, so that we'd be blamed with discarnating or abducting them,
and so that they wouldn't be made to testify about the communication
on a lie detector."

A sudden happy smile touched Verkan Vall's eyes. He caught each of his
Assassins by an arm.

"Marnik, cover my back," he ordered. "Olirzon, cover everybody at the
table. Come on!"

Then he stepped forward, halting between the chairs of the young man
and the man with the gray hair and facing the beefy man in the light
tunic.

"You!" he barked. "I mean YOU."

The beefy man stopped laughing and stared at him; then sprang to his
feet. His hand, streaking toward his left armpit, stopped and dropped
to his side as Olirzon aimed a pistol at him. The others sat
motionless.

"You," Verkan Vall continued, "are a complete, deliberate, malicious,
and unmitigated liar. The Lady Dallona of Hadron is a scientist of
integrity, incapable of falsifying her experimental work. What's more,
her father is one of my best friends; in his name, and in hers, I
demand a full retraction of the slanderous statements you have just
made."

"Do you know who I am?" the beefy one shouted.

"I know _what_ you are," Verkan Vall shouted back. Like most ancient
languages, the Akor-Neb speech included an elaborate, delicately-shaded,
and utterly vile vocabulary of abuse; Verkan Vall culled from it
judiciously and at length. "And if I don't make myself understood verbally,
we'll go down to the object level," he added, snatching a bowl of soup from
in front of the monkish-looking young man and throwing it across the table.

The soup was a dark brown, almost black. It contained bits of meat,
and mushrooms, and slices of hard-boiled egg, and yellow Martian rock
lichen. It produced, on the light tunic, a most spectacular effect.

For a moment, Verkan Vall was afraid the fellow would have an
apoplectic stroke, or an epileptic fit. Mastering himself, however, he
bowed jerkily.

"Marnark of Bashad," he identified himself. "When and where can my
friends consult yours?"

"Lord Virzal of Verkan," the paratimer bowed back. "Your friends can
negotiate with mine here and now. I am represented by these
Gentlemen-Assassins."

"I won't submit my friends to the indignity of negotiating with them,"
Marnark retorted. "I insist that you be represented by persons of your
own quality and mine."

"Oh, you do?" Olirzon broke in. "Well, is your objection personal to
me, or to Assassins as a class? In the first case, I'll remember to
make a private project of you, as soon as I'm through with my present
employment; if it's the latter, I'll report your attitude to the
Society. I'll see what Klarnood, our President-General, thinks of your
views."

A crowd had begun to accumulate around the table. Some of them were
persons in evening dress, some were Assassins on the hotel payroll,
and some were unattached Assassins.

"Well, you won't have far to look for him," one of the latter said,
pushing through the crowd to the table.

He was a man of middle age, inclined to stoutness; he made Verkan Vall
think of a chocolate figure of Tortha Karf. The red badge on his
breast was surrounded with gold lace, and, instead of black wings and
a silver bullet, it bore silver wings and a golden dagger. He bowed
contemptuously at Marnark of Bashad.

"Klarnood, President-General of the Society of Assassins," he
announced. "Marnark of Bashad, did I hear you say that you considered
members of the Society as unworthy to negotiate an affair of honor
with your friends, on behalf of this nobleman who has been courteous
enough to accept your challenge?" he demanded.

Marnark of Bashad's arrogance suffered considerable evaporation-loss.
His tone became almost servile.

"Not at all, Honorable Assassin-President," he protested. "But as I
was going to ask these gentlemen to represent me, I thought it would
be more fitting for the other gentleman to be represented by personal
friends, also. In that way--"

"Sorry, Marnark," the gray-haired man at the table said. "I can't
second you; I have a quarrel with the Lord Virzal, too." He rose and
bowed. "Sirzob of Abo. Inasmuch as the Honorable Marnark is a guest at
my table, an affront to him is an affront to me. In my quality as his
host, I must demand satisfaction from you, Lord Virzal."

"Why, gladly, Honorable Sirzob," Verkan Vall replied. This was getting
better and better every moment. "Of course, your friend, the Honorable
Marnark, enjoys priority of challenge; I'll take care of you as soon
as I have, shall we say, satisfied, him."

The earnest and rather consecrated-looking young man rose also, bowing
to Verkan Vall.

"Yirzol of Narva. I, too, have a quarrel with you, Lord Virzal; I
cannot submit to the indignity of having my food snatched from in
front of me, as you just did. I also demand satisfaction."

"And quite rightly, Honorable Yirzol," Verkan Vall approved. "It looks
like such good soup, too," he sorrowed, inspecting the front of
Marnark's tunic. "My seconds will negotiate with yours immediately;
your satisfaction, of course, must come after that of Honorable
Sirzob."

"If I may intrude," Klarnood put in smoothly, "may I suggest that as
the Lord Virzal is represented by his Assassins, yours can represent
all three of you at the same time. I will gladly offer my own good
offices as impartial supervisor."

Verkan Vall turned and bowed as to royalty. "An honor,
Assassin-President: I am sure no one could act in that capacity more
satisfactorily."

"Well, when would it be most convenient to arrange the details?"
Klarnood inquired. "I am completely at your disposal, gentlemen."

"Why, here and now, while we're all together," Verkan Vall replied.

"I object to that!" Marnark of Bashad vociferated. "We can't make
arrangements here; why, all these hotel people, from the manager down,
are nothing but tipsters for the newscast services!"

"Well, what's wrong with that?" Verkan Vall demanded. "You knew that
when you slandered the Lady Dallona in their hearing."

"The Lord Virzal of Verkan is correct," Klarnood ruled. "And the
offenses for which you have challenged him were also committed in
public. By all means, let's discuss the arrangements now." He turned
to Verkan Vall. "As the challenged party, you have the choice of
weapons; your opponents, then, have the right to name the conditions
under which they are to be used."

Marnark of Bashad raised another outcry over that. The assault upon
him by the Lord Virzal of Verkan was deliberately provocative, and
therefore tantamount to a challenge; he, himself, had the right to
name the weapons. Klarnood upheld him.

"Do the other gentlemen make the same claim?" Verkan Vall wanted to
know.

"If they do, I won't allow it," Klarnood replied. "You deliberately
provoked Honorable Marnark, but the offenses of provoking him at
Honorable Sirzob's table, and of throwing Honorable Yirzol's soup at
him, were not given with intent to provoke. These gentlemen have a
right to challenge, but not to consider themselves provoked."

"Well, I choose knives, then," Marnark hastened to say.

Verkan Vall smiled thinly. He had learned knife-play among the
greatest masters of that art in all paratime, the Third Level Khanga
pirates of the Caribbean Islands.

"And we fight barefoot, stripped to the waist, and without any
parrying weapon in the left hand," Verkan Vall stipulated.

The beefy Marnark fairly licked his chops in anticipation. He
outweighed Verkan Vall by forty pounds; he saw an easy victory ahead.
Verkan Vall's own confidence increased at these signs of his
opponent's assurance.

"And as for Honorable Sirzob and Honorable Yirzol, I chose pistols,"
he added.

Sirzob and Yirzol held a hasty whispered conference.

"Speaking both for Honorable Yirzol and for myself," Sirzob announced,
"we stipulate that the distance shall be twenty meters, that the
pistols shall be fully loaded, and that fire shall be at will after
the command."

"Twenty rounds, fire at will, at twenty meters!" Olirzon hooted. "You
must think our principal's as bad a shot as you are!"

The four Assassins stepped aside and held a long discussion about
something, with considerable argument and gesticulation. Klarnood,
observing Verkan Vall's impatience, leaned close to him and whispered:

"This is highly irregular; we must pretend ignorance and be patient.
They're laying bets on the outcome. You must do your best, Lord
Virzal; you don't want your supporters to lose money."

He said it quite seriously, as though the outcome were otherwise a
matter of indifference to Verkan Vall.

Marnark wanted to discuss time and place, and proposed that all three
duels be fought at dawn, on the fourth landing stage of Darsh Central
Hospital; that was closest to the maternity wards, and statistics
showed that most births occurred just before that hour.

"Certainly not," Verkan Vall vetoed. "We'll fight here and now; I
don't propose going a couple of hundred miles to meet you at any such
unholy hour. We'll fight in the nearest hallway that provides twenty
meters' shooting distance."

Marnark, Sirzob and Yirzol all clamored in protest. Verkan Vall
shouted them down, drawing on his hypnotically acquired knowledge of
Akor-Neb duelling customs. "The code explicitly states that
satisfaction shall be rendered as promptly as possible, and I insist
on a literal interpretation. I'm not going to inconvenience myself and
Assassin-President Klarnood and these four Gentlemen-Assassins just to
humor Statisticalist superstitions."

The manager of the hotel, drawn to the Martian Room by the uproar,
offered a hallway connecting the kitchens with the refrigerator rooms;
it was fifty meters long by five in width, was well-lighted and
soundproof, and had a bay in which the seconds and other could stand
during the firing.

They repaired thither in a body, Klarnood gathering up several hotel
servants on the way through the kitchen. Verkan Vall stripped to the
waist, pulled off his ankle boots, and examined Olirzon's knife. Its
tapering eight-inch blade was double-edged at the point, and its
handle was covered with black velvet to afford a good grip, and wound
with gold wire. He nodded approvingly, gripped it with his index
finger crooked around the cross-guard, and advanced to meet Marnark of
Bashad.

As he had expected, the burly politician was depending upon his
greater brawn to overpower his antagonist. He advanced with a sidling,
spread-legged gait, his knife hand against his right hip and his left
hand extended in front. Verkan Vall nodded with pleased satisfaction;
a wrist-grabber. Then he blinked. Why, the fellow was actually holding
his knife reversed, his little finger to the guard and his thumb on
the pommel!

Verkan Vall went briskly to meet him, made a feint at his knife hand
with his own left, and then side-stepped quickly to the right. As
Marnark's left hand grabbed at his right wrist, his left hand brushed
against it and closed into a fist, with Marnark's left thumb inside of
it, He gave a quick downward twist with his wrist, pulling Marnark off
balance.

Caught by surprise, Marnark stumbled, his knife flailing wildly away
from Verkan Vall. As he stumbled forward, Verkan Vall pivoted on his
left heel and drove the point of his knife into the back of Marnark's
neck, twisting it as he jerked it free. At the same time, he released
Marnark's thumb. The politician continued his stumble and fell forward
on his face, blood spurting from his neck. He gave a twitch or so, and
was still.

Verkan Vall stooped and wiped the knife on the dead man's
clothes--another Khanga pirate gesture--and then returned it to
Olirzon.

"Nice weapon, Olirzon," he said. "It fitted my hand as though I'd been
born holding it."

"You used it as though you had, Lord Virzal," the Assassin replied.
"Only eight seconds from the time you closed with him."

[Illustration: ]

The function of the hotel servants whom Klarnood had gathered up now
became apparent; they advanced, took the body of Marnark by the
heels, and dragged it out of the way. The others watched this removal
with mixed emotions. The two remaining principals were impassive and
frozen-faced. Their two Assassins, who had probably bet heavily on
Marnark, were chagrined. And Klarnood was looking at Verkan Vall with
a considerable accretion of respect. Verkan Vall pulled on his boots
and resumed his clothing.

There followed some argument about the pistols; it was finally decided
that each combatant should use his own shoulder-holster weapon. All
three were nearly enough alike--small weapons, rather heavier than
they looked, firing a tiny ten-grain bullet at ten thousand
foot-seconds. On impact, such a bullet would almost disintegrate; a
man hit anywhere in the body with one would be killed instantly, his
nervous system paralyzed and his heart stopped by internal pressure.
Each of the pistols carried twenty rounds in the magazine.

Verkan Vall and Sirzob of Abo took their places, their pistols lowered
at their sides, facing each other across a measured twenty meters.

"Are you ready, gentlemen?" Klarnood asked. "You will not raise your
pistols until the command to fire; you may fire at will after it.
Ready. _Fire!_"

[Illustration: ]

Both pistols swung up to level. Verkan Vall found Sirzob's head in his
sights and squeezed; the pistol kicked back in his hand, and he saw a
lance of blue flame jump from the muzzle of Sirzob's. Both weapons
barked together, and with the double report came the whip-cracking
sound of Sirzob's bullet passing Verkan Vall's head. Then Sirzob's
face altered its appearance unpleasantly, and he pitched forward.
Verkan Vall thumbed on his safety and stood motionless, while the
servants advanced, took Sirzob's body by the heels, and dragged it
over beside Marnark's.

"All right; Honorable Yirzol, you're next," Verkan Vall called out.

"The Lord Virzal has fired one shot," one of the opposing seconds
objected, "and Honorable Yirzol has a full magazine. The Lord Virzal
should put in another magazine."

"I grant him the advantage; let's get on with it," Verkan Vall said.

Yirzol of Narva advanced to the firing point. He was not afraid of
death--none of the Akor-Neb people were; their language contained no
word to express the concept of total and final extinction--and
discarnation by gunshot was almost entirely painless. But he was
beginning to suspect that he had made a fool of himself by getting
into this affair, he had work in his present reincarnation which he
wanted to finish, and his political party would suffer loss, both of
his services and of prestige.

"Are you ready, gentlemen?" Klarnood intoned ritualistically. "You
will not raise your pistols until the command to fire; you may fire at
will after it. Ready, _Fire!_"

Verkan Vall shot Yirzol of Narva through the head before the latter
had his pistol half raised. Yirzol fell forward on the splash of blood
Sirzob had made, and the servants came forward and dragged his body
over with the others. It reminded Verkan Vail of some sort of
industrial assembly-line operation. He replaced the two expended
rounds in his magazine with fresh ones and slid the pistol back into
its holster. The two Assassins whose principals had been so
expeditiously massacred were beginning to count up their losses and
pay off the winners.

Klarnood, the President-General of the Society of Assassins, came
over, hooking fingers and clapping shoulders with Verkan Vall.

"Lord Virzal, I've seen quite a few duels, but nothing quite like
that," he said. "You should have been an Assassin!"

That was a considerable compliment. Verkan Vall thanked him modestly.

"I'd like to talk to you privately," the Assassin-President continued.
"I think it'll be worth your while if we have a few words together."

Verkan Vall nodded. "My suite is on the fifteenth floor above; will
that be all right?" He waited until the losers had finished settling
their bets, then motioned to his own pair of Assassins.

       *       *       *       *       *

As they emerged into the Martian Room again, the manager was waiting;
he looked as though he were about to demand that Verkan Vall vacate
his suite. However, when he saw the arm of the President-General of
the Society of Assassins draped amicably over his guest's shoulder, he
came forward bowing and smiling.

"Larnorm, I want you to put five of your best Assassins to guarding
the approaches to the Lord Virzal's suite," Klarnood told him. "I'll
send five more from Assassins' Hall to replace them at their ordinary
duties. And I'll hold you responsible with your carnate existence for
the Lord Virzal's safety in this hotel. Understand?"

"Oh, yes, Honorable Assassin-President; you may trust me. The Lord
Virzal will be perfectly safe."

In Verkan Vall's suite, above, Klarnood sat down and got out his pipe,
filling it with tobacco lightly mixed with _zerfa_. To his surprise,
he saw his host light a plain tobacco cigarette.

"Don't you use _zerfa_?" he asked.

"Very little," Verkan Vall replied. "I grow it. If you'd see the bums
who hang around our drying sheds, on Venus, cadging rejected leaves
and smoking themselves into a stupor, you'd be frugal in using it,
too."

Klarnood nodded. "You know, most men would want a pipe of fifty
percent, or a straight _zerfa_ cigarette, after what you've been
through," he said.

"I'd need something like that, to deaden my conscience, if I had one
to deaden," Verkan Vall said. "As it is, I feel like a murderer of
babes. That overgrown fool, Marnark, handled his knife like a
cow-butcher. The young fellow couldn't handle a pistol at all. I
suppose the old fellow, Sirzob, was a fair shot, but dropping him
wasn't any great feat of arms, either."

Klarnood looked at him curiously for a moment. "You know," he said, at
length, "I believe you actually mean that. Well, until he met you,
Marnark of Bashad was rated as the best knife-fighter in Darsh. Sirzob
had ten dueling victories to his credit, and young Yirzol four." He
puffed slowly on his pipe. "I like you, Lord Virzal; a great Assassin
was lost when you decided to reincarnate as a Venusian land-owner. I'd
hate to see you discarnated without proper warning. I take it you're
ignorant of the intricacies of Terran politics?"

"To a large extent, yes."

"Well, do you know who those three men were?" When Verkan Vall shook
his head, Klarnood continued: "Marnark was the son and right-hand
associate of old Mirzark of Bashad, the Statisticalist Party leader.
Sirzob of Abo was their propaganda director. And Yirzol of Narva was
their leading socio-economic theorist, and their candidate for
Executive Chairman. In six minutes, with one knife thrust and two
shots, you did the Statisticalist Party an injury second only to that
done them by the young lady in whose name you were fighting. In two
weeks, there will be a planet-wide general election. As it stands, the
Statisticalists have a majority of the seats in Parliament and on the
Executive Council. As a result of your work and the Lady Dallona's,
they'll lose that majority, and more, when the votes are tallied."

"Is that another reason why you like me?" Verkan Vall asked.

"Unofficially, yes. As President-General of the Society of Assassins,
I must be nonpolitical. The Society is rigidly so; if we let ourselves
become involved, as an organization, in politics, we could control the
System Government inside of five years, and we'd be wiped out of
existence in fifty years by the very forces we sought to control,"
Klarnood said. "But personally, I would like to see the Statisticalist
Party destroyed. If they succeed in their program of socialization,
the Society would be finished. A socialist state is, in its final
development, an absolute, total, state; no total state can tolerate
extra-legal and para-governmental organizations. So we have adopted
the policy of giving a little inconspicuous aid, here and there, to
people who are dangerous to the Statisticalists. The Lady Dallona of
Hadron, and Dr. Harnosh of Hosh, are such persons. You appear to be
another. That's why I ordered that fellow, Larnorm, to make sure you
were safe in his hotel."

"Where is the Lady Dallona?" Verkan Vall asked. "From your use of the
present tense, I assume you believe her to be still carnate."

Klarnood looked at Verkan Vall keenly. "That's a pretty blunt
question, Lord Virzal," he said. "I wish I knew a little more about
you. When you and your Assassins started inquiring about the Lady
Dallona, I tried to check up on you. I found out that you had come to
Darsh from Ghamma on a ship of the family of Zorda, accompanied by
Brarnend of Zorda himself. And that's all I could find out. You claim
to be a Venusian planter, and you might be. Any Terran who can handle
weapons as you can would have come to my notice long ago. But you have
no more ascertainable history than if you'd stepped out of another
dimension."

That was getting uncomfortably close to the truth. In fact, it _was_
the truth. Verkan Vall laughed.

"Well, confidentially," he said, "I'm from the Arcturus System. I
followed the Lady Dallona here from our home planet, and when I have
rescued her from among you Solarians, I shall, according to our
customs, receive her hand in marriage. As she is the daughter of the
Emperor of Arcturus, that'll be quite a good thing for me."

Klarnood chuckled. "You know, you'd only have to tell me that about
three or four times and I'd start believing it," he said. "And Dr.
Harnosh of Hosh would believe it the first time; he's been talking to
himself ever since the Lady Dallona started her experimental work
here. Lord Virzal, I'm going to take a chance on you. The Lady Dallona
is still carnate, or was four days ago, and the same for Dirzed. They
both went into hiding after the discarnation feast of Garnon of Roxor,
to escape the enmity of the Statisticalists. Two days after they
disappeared, Dirzed called Assassins' Hall and reported this, but told
us nothing more. I suppose, in about three or four days, I could
re-establish contact with him. We want the public to think that the
Statisticalists made away with the Lady Dallona, at least until the
election's over."

Verkan Vall nodded. "I was pretty sure that was the situation," he
said. "It may be that they will get in touch with me; if they don't,
I'll need your help in reaching them."

"Why do you think the Lady Dallona will try to reach you?"

"She needs all the help she can get. She knows she can get plenty from
me. Why do you think I interrupted my search for her, and risked my
carnate existence, to fight those people over a matter of verbalisms
and political propaganda?" Verkan Vall went to the newscast visiplate
and snapped it on. "We'll see if I'm getting results, yet."

The plate lighted, and a handsome young man in a gold-laced green suit
was speaking out of it:

"... where he is heavily guarded by Assassins. However, in an
exclusive interview with representatives of this service, the Assassin
Hirzif, one of the two who seconded the men the Lord Virzal fought,
said that in his opinion all of the three were so outclassed as to
have had no chance whatever, and that he had already refused an offer
of ten thousand System Monetary Units to discarnate the Lord Virzal
for the Statisticalist Party. 'When I want to discarnate,' Hirzif the
Assassin said, 'I'll invite in my friends and do it properly; until I
do, I wouldn't go up against the Lord Virzal of Verkan for ten million
S.M.U.'"

Verkan Vall snapped off the visiplate. "See what I mean?" he asked. "I
fought those politicians just for the advertising. If Dallona and
Dirzed are anywhere near a visiplate, they'll know how to reach me."

"Hirzif shouldn't have talked about refusing that retainer," Klarnood
frowned. "That isn't good Assassin ethics. Why, yes, Lord Virzal; that
was cleverly planned. It ought to get results. But I wish you'd get
the Lady Dallona out of Darsh, and preferably off Terra, as soon as
you can. We've benefited by this, so far, but I shouldn't like to see
things go much further. A real civil war could develop out of this
situation, and I don't want that. Call on me for help; I'll give you a
code word to use at Assassins' Hall."

       *       *       *       *       *

A real civil war was developing even as Klarnood spoke; by mid-morning
of the next day, the fighting that had been partially suppressed by
the Constabulary had broken out anew. The Assassins employed by the
Solar Hotel--heavily re-enforced during the night--had fought a
pitched battle with Statisticalist partisans on the landing-stage
above Verkan Vall's suite, and now several Constabulary airboats were
patrolling around the building. The rule on Constabulary interference
seemed to be that while individuals had an unquestionable right to
shoot out their differences among themselves, any fighting likely to
endanger nonparticipants was taboo.

Just how successful in enforcing this rule the Constabulary were was
open to some doubt. Ever since arising, Verkan Vall had heard the
crash of small arms and the hammering of automatic weapons in other
parts of the towering city-unit. There hadn't been a civil war on the
Akor-Neb Sector for over five centuries, he knew, but then, Hadron
Dalla, Doctor of Psychic Science, and intertemporal trouble-carrier
extraordinary, had only been on this sector for a little under a year.
If anything, he was surprised that the explosion had taken so long to
occur.

One of the servants furnished to him by the hotel management
approached him in the drawing room, holding a four-inch-square wafer
of white plastic.

"Lord Virzal, there is a masked Assassin in the hallway who brought
this under Assassins' Truce," he said.

Verkan Vall took the wafer and pared off three of the four edges,
which showed black where they had been fused. Unfolding it, he found,
as he had expected, that the pyrographed message within was in the
alphabet and language of the First Paratime Level:

    Vall, darling:

    Am I glad you got here; this time I really _am_ in the
    middle, but good! The Assassin, Dirzed, who brings this, is
    in my service. You can trust him implicitly; he's about the
    only person in Darsh you can trust. He'll bring you to where I
    am.

                                                        Dalla

    P.S. I hope you're not still angry about that musician. I
    told you, at the time, that he was just helping me with an
    experiment in telepathy.

                                                        D.

Verkan Vall grinned at the postscript. That had been twenty years ago,
when he'd been eighty and she'd been seventy. He supposed she'd expect
him to take up his old relationship with her again. It probably
wouldn't last any longer than it had, the other time; he recalled a
Fourth Level proverb about the leopard and his spots. It certainly
wouldn't be boring, though.

"Tell the Assassin to come in," he directed. Then he tossed the
message down on a table. Outside of himself, nobody in Darsh could
read it but the woman who had sent it; if, as he thought highly
probable, the Statisticalists had spies among the hotel staff, it
might serve to reduce some cryptanalyst to gibbering insanity.

The Assassin entered, drawing off a cowllike mask. He was the man
whose arm Dalla had been holding in the visiplate picture; Verkan Vall
even recognized the extremely ornate pistol and knife on his belt.

"Dirzed the Assassin," he named himself. "If you wish, we can
visiphone Assassins' Hall for verification of my identity."

"Lord Virzal of Verkan. And my Assassins, Marnik and Olirzon." They
all hooked fingers and clapped shoulders with the newcomer. "That
won't be needed," Verkan Vall told Dirzed. "I know you from seeing you
with the Lady Dallona, on the visiplate; you're 'Dirzed, her faithful
Assassin.'"

Dirzed's face, normally the color of a good walnut gunstock, turned
almost black. He used shockingly bad language.

"And that's why I have to wear this abomination," he finished,
displaying the mask. "The Lady Dallona and I can't show our faces
anywhere; if we did, every Statisticalist and his six-year-old brat
would know us, and we'd be fighting off an army of them in five
minutes."

"Where's the Lady Dallona, now?"

"In hiding, Lord Virzal, at a private dwelling dome in the forest;
she's most anxious to see you. I'm to take you to her, and I would
strongly advise that you bring your Assassins along. There are other
people at this dome, and they are not personally loyal to the Lady
Dallona. I've no reason to suspect them of secret enmity, but their
friendship is based entirely on political expediency."

"And political expediency is subject to change without notice," Verkan
Vall finished for him. "Have you an airboat?"

"On the landing stage below. Shall we go now, Lord Virzal?"

"Yes." Verkan Vall made a two-handed gesture to his Assassins, as
though gripping a submachine-gun; they nodded, went into another room,
and returned carrying light automatic weapons in their hands and
pouches of spare drums slung over their shoulders. "And may I suggest,
Dirzed, that one of my Assassins drives the airboat? I want you on the
back seat with me, to explain the situation as we go."

Dirzed's teeth flashed white against his brown skin as he gave Verkan
Vall a quick smile.

"By all means, Lord Virzal; I would much rather be distrusted than to
find that my client's friends were not discreet."

There were a couple of hotel Assassins guarding Dirzed's airboat, on
the landing stage. Marnik climbed in under the controls, with Olirzon
beside him; Verkan Vall and Dirzed entered the rear seat. Dirzed gave
Marnik the co-ordinate reference for their destination.

"Now, what sort of a place is this, where we're going?" Verkan Vall
asked. "And who's there whom we may or may not trust?"

"Well, it's a dome house belonging to the family of Starpha; they own
a five-mile radius around it, oak and beech forest and underbrush,
stocked with deer and boar. A hunting lodge. Prince Jirzyn of Starpha,
Lord Girzon of Roxor, and a few other top-level Volitionalists, know
that the Lady Dallona's hiding there. They're keeping her out of sight
till after the election, for propaganda purposes. We've been hiding
there since immediately after the discarnation feast of the Lord
Garnon of Roxor."

"What happened, after the feast?" Verkan Vall wanted to know.

"Well, you know how the Lady Dallona and Dr. Harnosh of Hosh had this
telepathic-sensitive there, in a trance and drugged with a
_zerfa_-derivative alkaloid the Lady Dallona had developed. I was Lord
Garnon's Assassin; I discarnated him, myself. Why, I hadn't even put
my pistol away before he was in control of this sensitive, in a room
five stories above the banquet hall; he began communicating at once.
We had visiplates to show us what was going on.

"Right away, Nirzav of Shonna, one of the Statisticalist leaders who
was a personal friend of Lord Garnon's in spite of his politics,
renounced Statisticalism and went over to the Volitionalists, on the
strength of this communication. Prince Jirzyn, and Lord Girzon, the
new family-head of Roxor, decided that there would be trouble in the
next few days, so they advised the Lady Dallona to come to this
hunting lodge for safety. She and I came here in her airboat, directly
from the feast. A good thing we did, too; if we'd gone to her
apartment, we'd have walked in before that lethal gas had time to
clear.

"There are four Assassins of the family of Starpha, and six
menservants, and an upper-servant named Tarnod, the gamekeeper. The
Starpha Assassins and I have been keeping the rest under observation.
I left one of the Starpha Assassins guarding the Lady Dallona when I
came for you, under brotherly oath to protect her in my name till I
returned."

The airboat was skimming rapidly above the treetops, toward the
northern part of the city.

"What's known about that package bomb?" Verkan Vall asked. "Who sent
it?"

Dirzed shrugged. "The Statisticalists, of course. The wrapper was
stolen from the Reincarnation Research Institute; so was the case. The
Constabulary are working on it." Dirzed shrugged again.

The dome, about a hundred and fifty feet in width and some fifty in
height, stood among the trees ahead. It was almost invisible from any
distance; the concrete dome was of mottled green and gray concrete,
trees grew so close as to brush it with their branches, and the little
pavilion on the flattened top was roofed with translucent green
plastic. As the airboat came in, a couple of men in Assassins' garb
emerged from the pavilion to meet them.

"Marnik, stay at the controls," Verkan Vall directed. "I'll send
Olirzon up for you if I want you. If there's any trouble, take off for
Assassins' Hall and give the code word, then come back with twice as
many men as you think you'll need."

Dirzed raised his eyebrows over this. "I hadn't known the
Assassin-President had given you a code word, Lord Virzal," he
commented. "That doesn't happen very often."

"The Assassin-President has honored me with his friendship," Verkan
Vall replied noncommittally, as he, Dirzed and Olirzon climbed out of
the airboat. Marnik was holding it an unobtrusive inch or so above the
flat top of the dome, away from the edge of the pavilion roof.

The two Assassins greeted him, and a man in upper-servants' garb and
wearing a hunting knife and a long hunting pistol approached.

"Lord Virzal of Verkan? Welcome to Starpha Dome. The Lady Dallona
awaits you below."

Verkan Vall had never been in an Akor-Neb dwelling dome, but a
description of such structures had been included in his hypno-mech
indoctrination. Originally, they had been the standard structure for
all purposes; about two thousand elapsed years ago, when nationalism
had still existed on the Akor-Neb Sector, the cities had been almost
entirely under ground, as protection from air attack. Even now, the
design had been retained by those who wished to live apart from the
towering city units, to preserve the natural appearance of the
landscape. The Starpha hunting lodge was typical of such domes. Under
it was a circular well, eighty feet in depth and fifty in width, with
a fountain and a shallow circular pool at the bottom. The storerooms,
kitchens and servants' quarters were at the top, the living quarters
at the bottom, in segments of a wide circle around the well, back of
balconies.

"Tarnod, the gamekeeper," Dirzed performed the introductions. "And
Erarno and Kirzol, Assassins."

Verkan Vall hooked fingers and clapped shoulders with them. Tarnod
accompanied them to the lifter tubes--two percent positive gravitation
for descent and two percent negative for ascent--and they all floated
down the former, like air-filled balloons, to the bottom level.

"The Lady Dallona is in the gun room," Tarnod informed Verkan Vall,
making as though to guide him.

"Thanks, Tarnod; we know the way," Dirzed told him shortly, turning
his back on the upper-servant and walking toward a closed door on the
other side of the fountain. Verkan Vall and Olirzon followed; for a
moment, Tarnod stood looking after them, then he followed the other
two Assassins into the ascent tube.

"I don't relish that fellow," Dirzed explained. "The family of Starpha
use him for work they couldn't hire an Assassin to do at any price.
I've been here often, when I was with the Lord Garnon; I've always
thought he had something on Prince Jirzyn."

He knocked sharply on the closed door with the butt of his pistol. In
a moment, it slid open, and a young Assassin with a narrow mustache
and a tuft of chin beard looked out.

"Ah, Dirzed." He stepped outside. "The Lady Dallona is within; I
return her to your care."

Verkan Vall entered, followed by Dirzed and Olirzon. The big room was
fitted with reclining chairs and couches and low tables; its walls
were hung with the heads of deer and boar and wolves, and with racks
holding rifles and hunting pistols and fowling pieces. It was filled
with the soft glow of indirect cold light. At the far side of the
room, a young woman was seated at a desk, speaking softly into a sound
transcriber. As they entered, she snapped it off and rose.

Hadron Dalla wore the same costume Verkan Vall had seen on the
visiplate: he recognized her instantly. It took her a second or two to
perceive Verkan Vall under the brown skin and black hair of the Lord
Virzal of Verkan. Then her face lighted with a happy smile.

"Why, Va-a-a-ll!" she whooped, running across the room and tossing
herself into his not particularly reluctant arms. After all, it had
been twenty years--"I didn't know you, at first!"

"You mean, in these clothes?" he asked, seeing that she had forgotten,
for the moment, the presence of the two Assassins. She had even
called him by his First Level name, but that was unimportant--the
Akor-Neb affectionate diminutive was formed by omitting the -_irz_- or
-_arn_-. "Well, they're not exactly what I generally wear on the
plantation." He kissed her again, then turned to his companions. "Your
pardon, Gentlemen-Assassins; it's been something over a year since
we've seen each other."

Olirzon was smiling at the affectionate reunion; Dirzed wore a look of
amused resignation, as though he might have expected something like
this to happen. Verkan Vall and Dalla sat down on a couch near the
desk.

"That was really sweet of you, Vall, fighting those men for talking
about me," she began. "You took an awful chance, though. But if you
hadn't, I'd never have known you were in Darsh--Oh-oh! That was why
you did it, wasn't it?"

"Well, I had to do something. Everybody either didn't know or weren't
saying where you were. I assumed, from the circumstances, that you
were hiding somewhere. Tell me, Dalla; do you really have scientific
proof of reincarnation? I mean, as an established fact?"

"Oh, yes; these people on this sector have had that for over ten
centuries. They have hypnotic techniques for getting back into a part
of the subconscious mind that we've never been able to reach. And
after I found out how they did it, I was able to adapt some of our
hypno-epistemological techniques to it, and--"

"All right; that's what I wanted to know," he cut her off. "We're
getting out of here, right away."

"But where?"

"Ghamma, in an airboat I have outside, and then back to the First
Level. Unless there's a paratime-transposition conveyor somewhere
nearer."

"But why, Vall? I'm not ready to go back; I have a lot of work to do here,
yet. They're getting ready to set up a series of control-experiments at the
Institute, and then, I'm in the middle of an experiment, a
two-hundred-subject memory-recall experiment. See, I distributed two
hundred sets of equipment for my new technique--injection-ampoules of this
_zerfa_-derivative drug, and sound records of the hypnotic suggestion
formula, which can be played on an ordinary reproducer. It's just a crude
variant of our hypno-mech process, except that instead of implanting
information in the subconscious mind, to be brought at will to the level of
consciousness, it works the other way, and draws into conscious knowledge
information already in the subconscious mind. The way these people have
always done has been to put the subject in an hypnotic trance and then
record verbal statements made in the trance state; when the subject comes
out of the trance, the record is all there is, because the memories of past
reincarnations have never been in the conscious mind. But with my process,
the subject can consciously remember everything about his last
reincarnation, and as many reincarnations before that as he wishes to. I
haven't heard from any of the people who received these auto-recall kits,
and I really must--"

"Dalla, I don't want to have to pull Paratime Police authority on you,
but, so help me, if you don't come back voluntarily with me, I will.
Security of the secret of paratime transposition."

"Oh, my eye!" Dalla exclaimed. "Don't give me that, Vall!"

"Look, Dalla. Suppose you get discarnated here," Verkan Vall said.
"You say reincarnation is a scientific fact. Well, you'd reincarnate
on this sector, and then you'd take a memory-recall, under hypnosis.
And when you did, the paratime secret wouldn't be a secret any more."

"Oh!" Dalla's hand went to her mouth in consternation. Like every
paratimer, she was conditioned to shrink with all her being from the
mere thought of revealing to any out-time dweller the secret ability
of her race to pass to other time-lines, or even the existence of
alternate lines of probability. "And if I took one of the
old-fashioned trance-recalls, I'd blat out everything; I wouldn't be
able to keep a thing back. And I even know the principles of
transposition!" She looked at him, aghast.

"When I get back, I'm going to put a recommendation through department
channels that this whole sector be declared out of bounds for all
paratime-transposition, until you people at Rhogom Foundation work
out the problem of discarnate return to the First Level," he told her.
"Now, have you any notes or anything you want to take back with you?"

She rose. "Yes; just what's on the desk. Find me something to put the
tape spools and notebooks in, while I'm getting them in order."

He secured a large game bag from under a rack of fowling pieces, and
held it while she sorted the material rapidly, stuffing spools of
record tape and notebooks into it. They had barely begun when the door
slid open and Olirzon, who had gone outside, sprang into the room, his
pistol drawn, swearing vilely.

"They've double-crossed us!" he cried. "The servants of Starpha have
turned on us." He holstered his pistol and snatched up his
submachine-gun, taking cover behind the edge of the door and letting
go with a burst in the direction of the lifter tubes. "Got that one!"
he grunted.

"What happened, Olirzon?" Verkan Vall asked, dropping the game bag on
the table and hurrying across the room.

"I went up to see how Marnik was making out. As I came out of the
lifter tube, one of the obscenities took a shot at me with a hunting
pistol. He missed me; I didn't miss him. Then a couple more of them
were coming up, with fowling pieces; I shot one of them before they
could fire, and jumped into the descent tube and came down heels over
ears. I don't know what's happened to Marnik." He fired another burst,
and swore. "Missed him!"

"Assassins' Truce! Assassins' Truce!" a voice howled out of the
descent tube. "Hold your fire, we want to parley."

"Who is it?" Dirzed shouted, over Olirzon's shoulder. "You, Sarnax?
Come on out; we won't shoot."

The young Assassin with the mustache and chin beard emerged from the
descent tube, his weapons sheathed and his clasped hands extended in
front of him in a peculiarly ecclesiastical-looking manner. Dirzed and
Olirzon stepped out of the gun room, followed by Verkan Vall and
Hadron Dalla. Olirzon had left his submachine-gun behind. They met the
other Assassin by the rim of the fountain pool.

"Lady Dallona of Hadron," the Starpha Assassin began. "I and my
colleagues, in the employ of the family of Starpha, have received
orders from our clients to withdraw our protection from you, and to
discarnate you, and all with you who undertake to protect or support
you." That much sounded like a recitation of some established formula;
then his voice became more conversational. "I and my colleagues,
Erarno and Kirzol and Harnif, offer our apologies for the barbarity of
the servants of the family of Starpha, in attacking without
declaration of cessation of friendship. Was anybody hurt or
discarnated?"

"None of us," Olirzon said. "How about Marnik?"

"He was warned before hostilities were begun against him," Sarnax
replied. "We will allow five minutes until--"

Olirzon, who had been looking up the well, suddenly sprang at Dalla,
knocking her flat, and at the same time jerking out his pistol. Before
he could raise it, a shot banged from above and he fell on his face.
Dirzed, Verkan Vall, and Sarnax, all drew their pistols, but whoever
had fired the shot had vanished. There was an outburst of shouting
above.

"Get to cover," Sarnax told the others. "We'll let you know when we're
ready to attack; we'll have to deal with whoever fired that shot,
first." He looked at the dead body on the floor, exclaimed angrily,
and hurried to the ascent tube, springing upward.

Verkan Vall replaced the small pistol in his shoulder holster and took
Olirzon's belt, with his knife and heavier pistol.

"Well, there you see," Dirzed said, as they went back to the gun room.
"So much for political expediency."

"I think I understand why your picture and the Lady Dallona's were
exhibited so widely," Verkan Vall said. "Now, anybody would recognize
your bodies, and blame the Statisticalists for discarnating you."

"That thought had occurred to me, Lord Virzal," Dirzed said. "I
suppose our bodies will be atrociously but not unidentifiably
mutilated, to further enrage the public," he added placidly. "If I get
out of this carnate, I'm going to pay somebody off for it."

After a few minutes, there was more shouting of: "Assassins' Truce!"
from the descent tube. The two Assassins, Erarno and Kirzol, emerged,
dragging the gamekeeper, Tarnod, between them. The upper-servant's
face was bloody, and his jaw seemed to be broken. Sarnax followed,
carrying a long hunting pistol in his hand.

"Here he is!" he announced. "He fired during Assassins' Truce; he's
subject to Assassins' Justice!"

He nodded to the others. They threw the gamekeeper forward on the
floor, and Sarnax shot him through the head, then tossed the pistol
down beside him. "Any more of these people who violate the decencies
will be treated similarly," he promised.

"Thank you, Sarnax," Dirzed spoke up. "But we lost an Assassin:
discarnating this lackey won't equalize that. We think you should
retire one of your number."

"That at least, Dirzed; wait a moment."

The three Assassins conferred at some length. Then Sarnax hooked
fingers and clapped shoulders with his companions.

"See you in the next reincarnation, brothers," he told them, walking
toward the gun-room door, where Verkan Vall, Dalla and Dirzed stood.
"I'm joining you people. You had two Assassins when the parley began,
you'll have two when the shooting starts."

Verkan Vall looked at Dirzed in some surprise. Hadron Dalla's Assassin
nodded.

"He's entitled to do that, Lord Virzal; the Assassins' code provides
for such changes of allegiance."

"Welcome, Sarnax," Verkan Vall said, hooking fingers with him. "I hope
we'll all be together when this is over."

"We will be," Sarnax assured him cheerfully. "Discarnate. We won't get
out of this in the body, Lord Virzal."

A submachine-gun hammered from above, the bullets lashing the fountain
pool; the water actually steamed, so great was their velocity.

"All right!" a voice called down. "Assassins' Truce is over!"

Another burst of automatic fire smashed out the lights at the bottom
of the ascent tube. Dirzed and Dalla struggled across the room,
pushing a heavy steel cabinet between them; Verkan Vall, who was
holding Olirzon's submachine-gun, moved aside to allow them to drop it
on edge in the open doorway, then wedged the door half-shut against
it. Sarnax came over, bringing rifles, hunting pistols, and
ammunition.

"What's the situation, up there?" Verkan Vall asked him. "What force
have they, and why did they turn against us?"

"Lord Virzal!" Dirzed objected, scandalized. "You have no right to ask
Sarnax to betray confidences!"

Sarnax spat against the door. "In the face of Jirzyn of Starpha!" he
said. "And in the face of his _zortan_ mother, and of his father,
whoever he was! Dirzed, do not talk foolishly; one does not speak of
betraying betrayers." He turned to Verkan Vall. "They have three
menservants of the family of Starpha; your Assassin, Olirzon,
discarnated the other three. There is one of Prince Jirzyn's poor
relations, named Girzad. There are three other men, Volitionalist
precinct workers, who came with Girzad, and four Assassins, the three
who were here, and one who came with Girzad. Eleven, against the three
of us."

"The four of us, Sarnax," Dalla corrected. She had buckled on a
hunting pistol, and had a light deer rifle under her arm.

Something moved at the bottom of the descent tube. Verkan Vall gave it
a short burst, though it was probably only a dummy, dropped to draw
fire.

"The four of us, Lady Dallona," Sarnax agreed. "As to your other
Assassin, the one who stayed in the airboat, I don't know how he
fared. You see, about twenty minutes ago, this Girzad arrived in an
airboat, with an Assassin and these three Volitionalist workers.
Erarno and I were at the top of the dome when he came in. He told us
that he had orders from Prince Jirzyn to discarnate the Lady Dallona
and Dirzed at once. Tarnod, the gamekeeper"--Sarnax spat ceremoniously
against the door again--"told him you were here, and that Marnik was
one of your men. He was going to shoot Marnik at once, but Erarno and
I and his Assassin stopped him. We warned Marnik about the change in
the situation, according to the code, expecting Marnik to go down here
and join you. Instead, he lifted the airboat, zoomed over Girzad's
boat, and let go a rocket blast, setting Girzad's boat on fire. Well,
that was a hostile act, so we all fired after him. We must have hit
something, because the boat went down, trailing smoke, about ten miles
away. Girzad got another airboat out of the hangar and he and his
Assassin started after your man. About that time, your Assassin,
Olirzon--happy reincarnation to him--came up, and the Starpha servants
fired at him, and he fired back and discarnated two of them, and then
jumped down the descent tube. One of the servants jumped after him; I
found his body at the bottom when I came down to warn you formally.
You know what happened after that."

"But why did Prince Jirzyn order our discarnation?" Dalla wanted to
know. "Was it to blame the Statisticalists with it?"

Sarnax, about to answer, broke off suddenly and began firing at the
opening of the ascent tube with a hunting pistol.

"I got him," he said, in a pleased tone. "That was Erarno; he was
always playing tricks with the tubes, climbing down against negative
gravity and up against positive gravity. His body will float up to the
top--Why, Lady Dallona, that was only part of it. You didn't hear
about the big scandal, on the newscast, then?"

"We didn't have it on. What scandal?"

Sarnax laughed. "Oh, the very father and family-head of all scandals!
You ought to know about it, because you started it; that's why Prince
Jirzyn wants you out of the body--You devised a process by which
people could give themselves memory-recalls of previous
reincarnations, didn't you? And distributed apparatus to do it with?
And gave one set to young Tarnov, the son of Lord Tirzov of Fastor?"

Dalla nodded. Sarnax continued:

"Well, last evening, Tarnox of Fastor used his recall outfit, and what
do you think? It seems that thirty years ago, in his last
reincarnation, he was Jirzid of Starpha, Jirzyn's older brother.
Jirzid was betrothed to the Lady Annitra of Zabna. Well, his younger
brother was carrying on a clandestine affair with the Lady Annitra,
and he also wanted the title of Prince and family-head of Starpha. So
he bribed this fellow Tarnod, whom I had the pleasure of discarnating,
and who was an underservant here at the hunting lodge. Between them,
they shot Jirzid during a boar hunt. An accident, of course. So Jirzyn
married the Lady Annitra, and when old Prince Jarnid, his father,
discarnated a year later, he succeeded to the title. And immediately,
Tarnod was made head gamekeeper here."

"What did I tell you, Lord Virzal? I knew that son of a _zortan_ had
something on Jirzyn of Starpha!" Dirzed exclaimed. "A nice family,
this of Starpha!"

"Well, that's not the end of it," Sarnax continued. "This morning,
Tarnov of Fastor, late Jirzid of Starpha, went before the High Court
of Estates and entered suit to change his name to Jirzid of Starpha
and laid claim to the title of Starpha family-head. The case has just
been entered, so there's been no hearing, but there's the blazes of an
argument among all the nobles about it--some are claiming that the
individuality doesn't change from one reincarnation to the next, and
others claiming that property and titles should pass along the line of
physical descent, no matter what individuality has reincarnated into
what body. They're the ones who want the Lady Dallona discarnated and
her discoveries suppressed. And there's talk about revising the entire
system of estate-ownership and estate-inheritance. Oh, it's an utter
obscenity of a business!"

"This," Verkan Vall told Dalla, "is something we will not emphasize
when we get home." That was as close as he dared come to it, but she
caught his meaning. The working of major changes in out-time social
structures was not viewed with approval by the Paratime Commission on
the First Level. "_If_ we get home," he added. Then an idea occurred
to him.

"Dirzed, Sarnax; this place must have been used by the leaders of the
Volitionalists for top-level conferences. Is there a secret passage
anywhere?"

Sarnax shook his head. "Not from here. There is one, on the floor
above, but they control it. And even if there were one down here, they
would be guarding the outlet."

"That's what I was counting on. I'd hoped to simulate an escape that
way, and then make a rush up the regular tubes." Verkan Vall shrugged.
"I suppose Marnik's our only chance. I hope he got away safely."

"He was going for help? I was surprised that an Assassin would desert
his client; I should have thought of that," Sarnax said. "Well, even
if he got down carnate, and if Girzad didn't catch him, he'd still be
afoot ten miles from the nearest city unit. That gives us a little
chance--about one in a thousand."

"Is there any way they can get at us, except by those tubes?" Dalla
asked.

"They could cut a hole in the floor, or burn one through," Sarnax
replied. "They have plenty of thermite. They could detonate a charge
of explosives over our heads, or clear out of the dome and drop one
down the well. They could use lethal gas or radiodust, but their
Assassins wouldn't permit such illegal methods. Or they could shoot
sleep-gas down at us, and then come down and cut our throats at their
leisure."

"We'll have to get out of this room, then," Verkan Vall decided. "They
know we've barricaded ourselves in here; this is where they'll
attack. So we'll patrol the perimeter of the well; we'll be out of
danger from above if we keep close to the wall. And we'll inspect all
the rooms on this floor for evidence of cutting through from above."

Sarnax nodded. "That's sense, Lord Virzal. How about the lifter
tubes?"

"We'll have to barricade them. Sarnax, you and Dirzed know the layout
of this place better than the Lady Dallona or I; suppose you two check
the rooms, while we cover the tubes and the well," Verkan Vall
directed. "Come on, now."

       *       *       *       *       *

They pushed the door wide-open and went out past the cabinet. Hugging
the wall, they began a slow circuit of the well, Verkan Vall in the
lead with the submachine-gun, then Sarnax and Dirzed, the former with
a heavy boar-rifle and the latter with a hunting pistol in each hand,
and Hadron Dalla brought up in the rear with her rifle. It was she who
noticed a movement along the rim of the balcony above and snapped a
shot at it; there was a crash above, and a shower of glass and plastic
and metal fragments rattled on the pavement of the court. Somebody had
been trying to lower a scanner or a visiplate-pickup, or something of
the sort; the exact nature of the instrument was not evident from the
wreckage Dalla's bullet had made of it.

The rooms Dirzed and Sarnax entered were all quiet; nobody seemed to
be attempting to cut through the ceiling, fifteen feet above. They
dragged furniture from a couple of rooms, blocking the openings of the
lifter tubes, and continued around the well until they had reached the
gun room again.

Dirzed suggested that they move some of the weapons and ammunition
stored there to Prince Jirzyn's private apartment, halfway around to
the lifter tubes, so that another place of refuge would be stocked
with munitions in event of their being driven from the gun room.

Leaving him on guard outside, Verkan Vall, Dalla and Sarnax entered
the gun room and began gathering weapons and boxes of ammunition.
Dalla finished packing her game bag with the recorded data and notes
of her experiments. Verkan Vall selected four more of the heavy
hunting pistols, more accurate than his shoulder-holster weapon or the
dead Olirzon's belt arm, and capable of either full or semi-automatic
fire. Sarnax chose a couple more boar rifles. Dalla slung her bag of
recorded notes, and another bag of ammunition, and secured another
deer rifle. They carried this accumulation of munitions to the private
apartments of Prince Jirzyn, dumping everything in the middle of the
drawing room, except the bag of notes, from which Dalla refused to
separate herself.

"Maybe we'd better put some stuff over in one of the rooms on the
other side of the well," Dirzed suggested. "They haven't really begun
to come after us; when they do, we'll probably be attacked from two
or three directions at once."

They returned to the gun room, casting anxious glances at the edge of
the balcony above and at the barricade they had erected across the
openings to the lifter tubes. Verkan Vall was not satisfied with this
last; it looked to him as though they had provided a breastwork for
somebody to fire on them from, more than anything else.

He was about to step around the cabinet which partially blocked the
gun-room door when he glanced up, and saw a six-foot circle on the
ceiling turning slowly brown. There was a smell of scorched plastic.
He grabbed Sarnax by the arm and pointed.

"Thermite," the Assassin whispered. "The ceiling's got six inches of
spaceship-insulation between it and the floor above; it'll take them a
few minutes to burn through it." He stooped and pushed on the
barricade, shoving it into the room. "Keep back; they'll probably drop
a grenade or so through, first, before they jump down. If we're quick,
we can get a couple of them."

Dirzed and Sarnax crouched, one at either side of the door, with
weapons ready. Verkan Vall and Dalla had been ordered, rather
peremptorily, to stay behind them; in a place of danger, an Assassin
was obliged to shield his client. Verkan Vall, unable to see what was
going on inside the room, kept his eyes and his gun muzzle on the
barricade across the openings to the lifter tubes, the erection of
which he was now regretting as a major tactical error.

Inside the gun room, there was a sudden crash, as the circle of
thermite burned through and a section of ceiling dropped out and hit
the floor. Instantly, Dirzed flung himself back against Verkan Vall,
and there was a tremendous explosion inside, followed by another and
another. A second or so passed, then Dirzed, leaning around the corner
of the door, began firing rapidly into the room. From the other side
of the door, Sarnax began blazing away with his rifle. Verkan Vall
kept his position, covering the lifter tubes.

Suddenly, from behind the barricade, a blue-white gun flash leaped
into being, and a pistol banged. He sprayed the opening between a
couch and a section of bookcase from whence it had come, releasing his
trigger as the gun rose with the recoil, squeezing and releasing and
squeezing again. Then he jumped to his feet.

"Come on, the other place; hurry!" he ordered.

Sarnax swore in exasperation. "Help me with her, Dirzed!" he implored.

Verkan Vall turned his head, to see the two Assassins drag Dalla to
her feet and hustle her away from the gun room; she was quite
senseless, and they had to drag her between them. Verkan Vall gave a
quick glance into the gun room; two of the Starpha servants and a man
in rather flashy civil dress were lying on the floor, where they had
been shot as they had jumped down from above. He saw a movement at the
edge of the irregular, smoking, hole in the ceiling, and gave it a
short burst, then fired another at the exit from the descent tube.
Then he took to his heels and followed the Assassins and Hadron Dalla
into Prince Jirzyn's apartment.

As he ran through the open door, the Assassins were letting Dalla down
into a chair; they instantly threw themselves into the work of
barricading the doorway so as to provide cover and at the same time
allow them to fire out into the central well.

[Illustration: ]

For an instant, as he bent over her, he thought Dalla had been killed,
an assumption justified by his knowledge of the deadliness of Akor-Neb
bullets. Then he saw her eye-lids flicker. A moment later, he had the
explanation of her escape. The bullet had hit the game bag at her
side; it was full of spools of metal tape, in metal cases, and notes
in written form, pyrographed upon sheets of plastic ring fastened into
metal binders. Because of their extreme velocity, Akor-Neb bullets
were sure killers when they struck animal tissue, but for the same
reason, they had very poor penetration on hard objects. The
alloy-steel tape, and the steel spools and spool cases, and the
notebook binders, had been enough to shatter the little bullet into
splinters of magnesium-nickel alloy, and the stout leather back of the
game bag had stopped all of these. But the impact, even distributed as
it had been through the contents of the bag, had been enough to knock
the girl unconscious.

He found a bottle of some sort of brandy and a glass on a serving
table nearby and poured her a drink, holding it to her lips. She
spluttered over the first mouthful, then took the glass from him and
sipped the rest.

"What happened?" she asked. "I thought those bullets were sure death."

"Your notes. The bullet hit the bag. Are you all right, now?"

She finished the brandy. "I think so." She put a hand into the game
bag and brought out a snarled and tangled mess of steel tape. "Oh,
_blast_! That stuff was important; all the records on the preliminary
auto-recall experiments." She shrugged. "Well, it wouldn't have been
worth much more if I'd stopped that bullet, myself." She slipped the
strap over her shoulder and started to rise.

As she did, a bedlam of firing broke out, both from the two Assassins
at the door and from outside. They both hit the floor and crawled out
of line of the partly-open door; Verkan Vall recovered his
submachine-gun, which he had set down beside Dalla's chair. Sarnax was
firing with his rifle at some target in the direction of the lifter
tubes; Dirzed lay slumped over the barricade, and one glance at his
crumpled figure was enough to tell Verkan Vall that he was dead.

"You fill magazines for us," he told Dalla, then crawled to Dirzed's
place at the door. "What happened, Sarnax?"

"They shoved over the barricade at the lifter tubes and came out into
the well. I got a couple, they got Dirzed, and now they're holed up in
rooms all around the circle. They--Aah!" He fired three shots,
quickly, around the edge of the door. "That stopped that." The
Assassin crouched to insert a fresh magazine into his rifle.

[Illustration: ]

Verkan Vall risked one eye around the corner of the doorway, and as he
did, there was a red flash and a dull roar, unlike the blue flashes
and sharp cracking reports of the pistols and rifles, from the doorway
of the gun room. He wondered, for a split second, if it might be one
of the fowling pieces he had seen there, and then something whizzed
past his head and exploded with a soft _plop_ behind him. Turning, he
saw a pool of gray vapor beginning to spread in the middle of the
room. Dalla must have got a breath of it, for she was slumped over the
chair from which she had just risen.

Dropping the submachine-gun and gulping a lungful of fresh air from
outside, Verkan Vall rushed to her, caught her by the heels, and
dragged her into Prince Jirzyn's bedroom, beyond. Leaving her in the
middle of the floor, he took another deep breath and returned to the
drawing room, where Sarnax was already overcome by the sleep-gas.

He saw the serving table from which he had got the brandy, and dragged
it over to the bedroom door, overturning it and laying it across the
doorway, its legs in the air. Like most Akor-Neb serving tables, it
had a gravity-counteraction unit under it; he set this for double
minus-gravitation and snapped it on. As it was now above the inverted
table, the table did not rise, but a tendril, of sleep-gas, curling
toward it, bent upward and drifted away from the doorway. Satisfied
that he had made a temporary barrier against the sleep-gas, Verkan
Vall secured Dalla's hunting pistol and spare magazines and lay down
at the bedroom door.

For some time, there was silence outside. Then the besiegers evidently
decided that the sleep-gas attack had been a success. An Assassin,
wearing a gas mask and carrying a submachine-gun, appeared in the
doorway, and behind him came a tall man in a tan tunic, similarly
masked. They stepped into the room and looked around.

Knowing that he would be shooting over a two hundred percent negative
gravitation-field, Verkan Vall aimed for the Assassin's belt-buckle
and squeezed. The bullet caught him in the throat. Evidently the
bullet had not only been lifted in the negative gravitation, but
lifted point-first and deflected upward. He held his front sight just
above the other man's knee, and hit him in the chest.

As he fired, he saw a wisp of gas come sliding around the edge of the
inverted table. There was silence outside, and for an instant, he was
tempted to abandon his post and go to the bathroom, back of the
bedroom, for wet towels to improvise a mask. Then, when he tried to
crawl backward, he could not. There was an impression of distant
shouting which turned to a roaring sound in his head. He tried to lift
his pistol, but it slipped from his fingers.

       *       *       *       *       *

When consciousness returned, he was lying on his back, and something
cold and rubbery was pressing into his face. He raised his arms to
fight off whatever it was, and opened his eyes, to find that he was
staring directly at the red oval and winged bullet of the Society of
Assassins. A hand caught his wrist as he reached for the small pistol
under his arm. The pressure on his face eased.

"It's all right, Lord Virzal," a voice came to him. "Assassins'
Truce!"

He nodded stupidly and repeated the words. "Assassins' Truce; I won't
shoot. What happened?"

Then he sat up and looked around. Prince Jirzyn's bedchamber was full
of Assassins. Dalla, recovering from her touch of sleep-gas, was
sitting groggily in a chair, while five or six of them fussed around
her, getting in each others' way, handing her drinks, chaffing her
wrists, holding damp cloths on her brow. That was standard procedure,
when any group of males thought Dalla needed any help. Another
Assassin, beside the bed, was putting away an oxygen-mask outfit, and
the Assassin who had prevented Verkan Vall from drawing his pistol was
his own follower, Marnik. And Klarnood, the Assassin-President, was
sitting on the foot of the bed, smoking one of Prince Jirzyn's
monogrammed and crested cigarettes critically.

Verkan Vall looked at Marnik, and then at Klarnood, and back to
Marnik.

"You got through," he said. "Good work, Marnik; I thought they'd
downed you."

"They did; I had to crash-land in the woods. I went about a mile on
foot, and then I found a man and woman and two children, hiding in one
of these little log rain shelters. They had an airboat, a good one. It
seemed that rioting had broken out in the city unit where they lived,
and they'd taken to the woods till things quieted down again. I
offered them Assassins' protection if they'd take me to Assassins'
Hall, and they did."

"By luck, I was in when Marnik arrived," Klarnood took over. "We
brought three boatloads of men, and came here at once. Just as we got
here, two boatloads of Starpha dependents arrived; they tried to give
us an argument, and we discarnated the lot of them. Then we came down
here, crying Assassins' Truce. One of the Starpha Assassins, Kirzol,
was still carnate; he told us what had been going on." The
President-General's face-became grim. "You know, I take a rather poor
view of Prince Jirzyn's procedure in this matter, not to mention that
of his underlings. I'll have to speak to him about this. Now, how
about you and the Lady Dallona? What do you intend doing?"

"We're getting out of here," Verkan Vall said. "I'd like air transport
and protection as far as Ghamma, to the establishment of the family of
Zorda. Brarnend of Zorda has a private space yacht; he'll get us to
Venus."

Klarnood gave a sigh of obvious relief. "I'll have you and the Lady
Dallona airborne and off for Ghamma as soon as you wish," he promised.
"I will, frankly, be delighted to see the last of both of you. The
Lady Dallona has started a fire here at Darsh that won't burn out in a
half-century, and who knows what it may consume." He was interrupted
by a heaving shock that made the underground dome dwelling shake like
a light airboat in turbulence. Even eighty feet under the ground, they
could hear a continued crashing roar. It was an appreciable interval
before the sound and the shock ceased.

For an instant, there was silence, and then an excited bedlam of
shouting broke from the Assassins in the room: Klarnood's face was
frozen in horror.

"That was a fission bomb!" he exclaimed. "The first one that has been
exploded on this planet in hostility in a thousand years!" He turned
to Verkan Vall. "If you feel well enough to walk, Lord Virzal, come
with us. I must see what's happened."

They hurried from the room and went streaming up the ascent tube to
the top of the dome. About forty miles away, to the south, Verkan Vall
saw the sinister thing that he had seen on so many other time-lines,
in so many other paratime sectors--a great pillar of varicolored
fire-shot smoke, rising to a mushroom head fifty thousand feet above.

"Well, that's it," Klarnood said sadly. "That is civil war."

"May I make a suggestion, Assassin-President?" Verkan Vall asked. "I
understand that Assassins' Truce is binding even upon non-Assassins;
is that correct?"

"Well, not exactly; it's generally kept by such non-Assassins as want
to remain in their present reincarnations, though."

"That's what I meant. Well, suppose you declare a general, planet-wide
Assassins' Truce in this political war, and make the leaders of both
parties responsible for keeping it. Publish lists of the top two or
three thousand Statisticalists and Volitionalists, starting with
Mirzark of Bashad and Prince Jirzyn of Starpha, and inform them that
they will be assassinated, in order, if the fighting doesn't cease."

"Well!" A smile grew on Klarnood's face. "Lord Virzal, my thanks; a
good suggestion. I'll try it. And furthermore, I'll withdraw all
Assassin protection permanently from anybody involved in political
activity, and forbid any Assassin to accept any retainer connected
with political factionalism. It's about time our members stopped
discarnating each other in these political squabbles." He pointed to
the three airboats drawn up on the top of the dome; speedy black
craft, bearing the red oval and winged bullet. "Take your choice, Lord
Virzal. I'll lend you a couple of my men, and you'll be in Ghamma in
three hours." He hooked fingers and clapped shoulders with Verkan
Vall, bent over Dalla's hand. "I still like you, Lord Virzal, and I
have seldom met a more charming lady than you, Lady Dallona. But I
sincerely hope I never see either of you again."

       *       *       *       *       *

The ship for Dhergabar was driving north and west; at seventy thousand
feet, it was still daylight, but the world below was wrapping itself
in darkness. In the big visiscreens, which served in lieu of the
windows which could never have withstood the pressure and friction
heat of the ship's speed, the sun was sliding out of sight over the
horizon to port. Verkan Vall and Dalla sat together, watching the
blazing western sky--the sky of their own First Level time-line.

"I blame myself terribly, Vall," Dalla was saying. "And I didn't mean
any of them the least harm. All I was interested in was learning the
facts. I know, that sounds like 'I didn't know it was loaded,' but--"

"It sounds to me like those Fourth Level Europo-American Sector
physicists who are giving themselves guilt-complexes because they
designed an atomic bomb," Verkan Vall replied. "All you were
interested in was learning the facts. Well, as a scientist, that's all
you're supposed to be interested in. You don't have to worry about any
social or political implications. People have to learn to live with
newly-discovered facts; if they don't, they die of them."

"But, Vall; that sounds dreadfully irresponsible--"

"Does it? You're worrying about the results of your reincarnation
memory-recall discoveries, the shootings and riotings and the bombing
we saw." He touched the pommel of Olirzon's knife, which he still
wore. "You're no more guilty of that than the man who forged this
blade is guilty of the death of Marnark of Bashad; if he'd never
lived, I'd have killed Marnark with some other knife somebody else
made. And what's more, you can't know the results of your discoveries.
All you can see is a thin film of events on the surface of an
immediate situation, so you can't say whether the long-term results
will be beneficial or calamitous.

"Take this Fourth Level Europo-American atomic bomb, for example. I
choose that because we both know that sector, but I could think of a
hundred other examples in other paratime areas. Those people, because
of deforestation, bad agricultural methods and general mismanagement,
are eroding away their arable soil at an alarming rate. At the same
time, they are breeding like rabbits. In other words, each successive
generation has less and less food to divide among more and more
people, and, for inherited traditional and superstitious reasons, they
refuse to adopt any rational program of birth-control and
population-limitation.

"But, fortunately, they now have the atomic bomb, and they are
developing radioactive poisons, weapons of mass-effect. And their
racial, nationalistic and ideological conflicts are rapidly reaching
the explosion point. A series of all-out atomic wars is just what that
sector needs, to bring their population down to their world's carrying
capacity; in a century or so, the inventors of the atomic bomb will be
hailed as the saviors of their species."

"But how about my work on the Akor-Neb Sector?" Dalla asked. "It seems
that my memory-recall technique is more explosive than any fission
bomb. I've laid the train for a century-long reign of anarchy!"

"I doubt that; I think Klarnood will take hold, now that he has
committed himself to it. You know, in spite of his sanguinary
profession, he's the nearest thing to a real man of good will I've
found on that sector. And here's something else you haven't
considered. Our own First Level life expectancy is from four to five
hundred years. That's the main reason why we've accomplished as much
as we have. We have, individually, time to accomplish things. On the
Akor-Neb Sector, a scientist or artist or scholar or statesman will
grow senile and die before he's as old as either of us. But now, a
young student of twenty or so can take one of your auto-recall
treatments and immediately have available all the knowledge and
experience gained in four or five previous lives. He can start where
he left off in his last reincarnation. In other words, you've made
those people time-binders, individually as well as racially. Isn't
that worth the temporary discarnation of a lot of ward-heelers and
plug-uglies, or even a few decent types like Dirzed and Olirzon? If it
isn't, I don't know what scales of values you're using."

"Vall!" Dalla's eyes glowed with enthusiasm. "I never thought of that!
And you said, 'temporary discarnation.' That's just what it is. Dirzed
and Olirzon and the others aren't dead; they're just waiting,
discarnate, between physical lives. You know, in the sacred writings
of one of the Fourth Level peoples it is stated: 'Death is the last
enemy.' By proving that death is just a cyclic condition of continued
individual existence, these people have conquered their last enemy."

"Last enemy but one," Verkan Vall corrected. "They still have one
enemy to go, an enemy within themselves. Call it semantic confusion,
or illogic, or incomprehension, or just plain stupidity. Like
Klarnood, stymied by verbal objections to something labeled 'political
intervention.' He'd never have consented to use the power of his
Society if he hadn't been shocked out of his inhibitions by that
nuclear bomb. Or the Statisticalists, trying to create a classless
order of society through a political program which would only result
in universal servitude to an omnipotent government. Or the
Volitionalist nobles, trying to preserve their hereditary feudal
privileges, and now they can't even agree on a definition of the term
'hereditary.' Might they not recover all the silly prejudices of their
past lives, along with the knowledge and wisdom?"

"But ... I thought you said--" Dalla was puzzled, a little hurt.

Verkan Vall's arm squeezed around her waist, and he laughed
comfortingly.

"You see? Any sort of result is possible, good or bad. So don't blame
yourself in advance for something you can't possibly estimate." An
idea occurred to him, and he straightened in the seat. "Tell you what;
if you people at Rhogom Foundation get the problem of discarnate
paratime transposition licked by then, let's you and I go back to the
Akor-Neb Sector in about a hundred years and see what sort of a mess
those people have made of things."

"A hundred years: that would be Year Twenty-Two of the next
millennium. It's a date, Vall; we'll do it."

They bent to light their cigarettes together at his lighter. When
they raised their heads again and got the flame glare out of their
eyes, the sky was purple-black, dusted with stars, and dead ahead,
spilling up over the horizon, was a golden glow--the lights of
Dhergabar and home.





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