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

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

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                            THE BARBARIANS

                             BY TOM GODWIN

          _The execution violated the basic laws of Tharnar.
          But the danger was too great--The Terrans couldn't
           be permitted to live under any circumstances...._

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
             Worlds of If Science Fiction, December 1955.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


Tal-Karanth, Supreme Executive of Tharnar, signed the paper and dropped
it in to the out-going slot of the message dispatch tube. It was an act
that would terminate one hundred and eighty days of studying the tapes
and records on the Terran ship and would set the final hearing of the
Terran man and woman for that day.

And, since the Terrans were guilty, their execution would take place
before the sun rose again on Tharnar.

He went to the wide windows which had automatically opened with the
coming of the day's warmth and looked out across the City. The City had
a name, to be found in the books and tapes of history, but for fifty
thousand years it had been known as the City. It was the city of all
cities, the center and soul of Tharnarian civilization. It was a city
of architectural beauty, of flowered gardens and landscaped parks, a
city of five hundred centuries of learning, a city of eternal peace.

The gentle summer breeze brought the sweet scent of the flowering
_lana_ trees through the window and the familiar sound of the City as
it went about its day's routine; a sound soft and unhurried, like a
slow whisper. Peace for fifty thousand years; peace and the unhurried
quiet. It would always be so for the City. The Supreme Executives of
the past had been chosen for their ability to insure the safety of the
City and so had he.

He turned away from the window and back to his desk, to brush his hand
across the gleaming metal top of it. No faintest scratch marred the
eternalloy surface, although the desk had been there for more than
thirty thousand years. It was permanent and never-changing, like the
robot-operated fleet that guarded Tharnar, like the white and massive
Executive Building, like the way of life on Tharnar.

The Terrans would have to die, lest the peace and the way of life on
Tharnar be destroyed. They were of a young race; a race so young that
his desk had already been in place for fifteen thousand years when
they began emerging from their caves. They were a dangerously immature
race; it had been only three hundred years since their last war with
themselves. Three hundred years--three normal Tharnarian lifetimes. And
the Tharnarians had not known war for six hundred lifetimes.

A race so young could not possess a civilized culture. The Terrans
were--he searched for a suitable description--barbarians in spaceships.
They lacked the refinement and wisdom of the Tharnarians; they were a
dangerous and unpredictable race. It could be seen in their history;
could be seen in the way the two Terrans had reacted to their capture.

He pressed one of the many buttons along the edge of his desk and a
three-dimensional projection appeared; the scene that had taken place
one hundred and eighty days before when the Terrans were brought to
Tharnar.

The ship of the Terrans stood bright silver in the sunlight, slim and
graceful against the bulk of the Executive Building behind it. The
Terrans descended the boarding ramp, the left wrist of the man chained
to the right wrist of the girl. Two armed robots walked behind them,
their faces metallically impassive, and four armed Tharnarian guards
waited at the bottom of the ramp to help take the Terrans to their
place of imprisonment.

The Terrans approached the guards with a watchfulness that reminded
him of the old films of the coast wolves that had once lived on
Vendal. They did not walk with the studied, practiced, leisure of
the Tharnarians but as though they held some unknown vitality barely
in check. The face of the man was lean and hard, the black eyes
inscrutable as flint. The girl looked at the guards with a bold
nonchalance, as though they were really not formidable at all. Somehow,
by contrast with the Terrans, the guards appeared to be not grimly
vigilant but only colorless.

There seemed to be a menace in the way the man watched the guards;
there was the impression that he would overpower them and sieze their
weapons if given a shadow of a chance. And the girl--what would she do,
then? Would she flash in beside him to help him, as the female coast
wolves always helped their mates?

He switched off the projection, feeling a little repugnance at the
thought of executing the Terrans. They were living, sentient beings,
and intelligent, for all their lack of civilization. It would have been
better if they had been of some repulsive and alien physical form,
such as bloated, many-legged giant insects. But they were not at all
repulsive; they were exactly like the Tharnarians.

Exactly?

He shook his head. Not exactly. The similarity was only to the eye--and
not even to the eye when one looked closely, as he had looked at the
images. There was a potential violence about them, lurking close
beneath their deceptively Tharnarian physical appearance. The Terrans
were not like the Tharnarians. There was a difference of fifty thousand
years between them; the difference between savage barbarianism and a
great and peaceful civilization.

He looked again across the City, listening to its softly murmuring
voice. In hundreds of centuries the City had known no strife or
violence. But what if the barbarians should come, not two of them, but
thousands? What would they do?

He was sure he knew what they would do to the gentle, peaceful City and
the faint twinge of remorse at the thought of executing the Terran man
and girl paled into insignificance.

Under no circumstance could they be permitted to live and tell the
others of Tharnar and the City.

       *       *       *       *       *

Bob Randall shifted his position a little in the wide seat and the
chain that linked his wrist with Virginia's rattled metallically,
sounding unduly loud in the quiet of the room.

Virginia's black hair brushed his cheek as she turned her face up to
him, to ask in a whisper so low it could not be heard by the four
guards who stood beside and behind them:

"It's almost over, isn't it?"

He nodded and she turned her attention back to the five judges seated
at the row of five desks before them. The gray-haired one at the center
desk, Bob knew, was the one in charge of the proceedings and his name
was Vor-Dergal. He had gained the knowledge by watching and listening
and it was the only information he had acquired. He did not know the
names of the other four judges, nor even for sure that they were judges
and that it was a trial. There had been no introductions by the
Tharnarians, no volunteering of information.

Vor-Dergal spoke to them:

"In brief, the facts are these: You claim that your mission was of a
scientific nature, that the two of you were sent from Earth to try to
reach the center of the galaxy where you hoped to find data concerning
the creation of the galaxy. Your ship carried only the two of you and
is one of several such ships sent out on such missions. Since the
voyages of these small exploration ships were expected to require an
indefinite number of years and since the occupants would have to endure
each other's company for those years, your government thought it more
feasable to let the crew of each ship consist of a man and a woman,
rather than two men."

He saw Virginia's cheek quiver at the words, but she managed to
restrain the smile.

"Our system was reached in your journey," Vor-Dergal continued, "and
you swung aside to investigate our sister planet, Vendal. You were met
by a guard ship before reaching Vendal and it fired upon you. Instead
of turning back, you destroyed it with a tight-beam adaptation of your
meteor disintegrator."

Vor-Dergal waited questioningly and Bob said:

"Our instruments showed us that the guard ship was robot-operated. They
could discern nothing organic in the ship, nothing alive. The same
instruments showed us that this planet, Vendal, possessed operating
mines and factories and no organic life other than small animals. We
knew that machines neither voluntarily build factories nor reproduce
other machines, yet the mines and factories were operating. We thought
it might be a world where the inhabitants had all died for some reason
and the robots were still following the production orders given them
when the race lived."

"And so you wilfully destroyed the guard ship that would have turned
you back?"

"We did. It was a machine, operated by machines. And so far as we knew,
it was protecting a race that had died a thousand years before. It was
all a mystery and we wanted to find the answer to it."

Vor-Dergal and the others accepted the explanation without change of
expression. Vor-Dergal resumed:

"Three more guard ships appeared when you were near Vendal. In the
battle that followed, you severely damaged one of them. And when your
ship was finally caught in the guard cruiser's tractor beams, you
resisted the robots. When they boarded your ship, you destroyed several
of them and were subdued only when the compartments of your ship were
flooded with a disabling gas."

"That's true," Bob said.

"In summary: You deliberately invaded Tharnarian territory,
deliberately damaged and destroyed Tharnarian ships, and would have
landed on Vendal had the guard ships not prevented it.

"Your guilt is both evident and admitted. Are there any extenuating
circumstances that have not been presented at this hearing?"

"No," Bob said.

None had been presented all day for the good reason that there was
not a single factor of the circumstances that the Tharnarians would
consider extenuating.

"Your guilt was evident from the beginning," Vor-Dergal said. "We have
spent the past one hundred and eighty days in studying the books and
tapes in your ship. What we learned of your history and your form of
civilization leaves us no alternative in the sentence we must pass upon
you."

The chain clinked faintly as Virginia lifted her hand to lay it on his
arm and she gave him a quick glance that said, "_Here it comes!_"

Vor-Dergal pronounced sentence upon them:

"Tomorrow morning, at thirty-three twelve time, you will both be put
to death by a robot firing squad."

Virginia's breath stopped for a moment and her hand gripped his arm
with sudden pressure but she gave no other indication of emotion and
her eyes did not waver from Vor-Dergal's face.

Vor-Dergal looked past her to the guards. "Return them to their cell."

The guards produced another chain, to link their free arms together
behind their backs, and they were marched across the room and out the
door.

Outside, the sun was setting, already invisible behind a low-lying
cloud. Bob calculated the designated time of their execution in
relation to the Terran time as given by his watch and found that
thirty-three twelve would be about halfway between daylight and
sunrise.

       *       *       *       *       *

Tal-Karanth stood by the open windows and watched the guards return the
Terrans to their cell. Extra guards, both robot and Tharnarian, had
been posted inside and outside the prison building for the night to
prevent any possibility of an escape. Other robots stood guard around
the Terran ship, although it was inconceivable that the Terrans could
ever overpower the prison guards and reach their ship.

But it had been inconceivable that a ship as small as the Terran
ship could ever destroy a Tharnarian guard cruiser. The tight-beam
adaptation circuit of the meteor disintegrators was very ingenious.

Why had the Tharnarian cruisers not had the same weapon? They possessed
the same general type of meteor disintegrators; the same adaptation
circuit would transform a Tharnarian cruiser's meteor disintegrators
into terrible weapons. Why had no one ever thought of doing such a
thing? Why had it been taken for granted for fifty thousand years that
the cruiser's blasters were the ultimate in weapons?

What other weapons did the Terrans on Earth possess? How invincible
would their cruisers be if a small exploration ship could destroy a
Tharnarian cruiser?

The captive Terrans could not be permitted to return to Earth and tell
the others of Tharnar. Neither could they be permitted to live out
their lives in prison on Tharnar. Someday, somehow, they might escape
and return to Earth, or send a message to Earth. The robot fleet of
Tharnar could never withstand an attack by a Terran fleet; the fate of
Tharnar and the quiet and gentle City would be written in blood and
dust and ashes.

There was the sound of rubber-padded metal feet in the distance and he
saw six more robots marching out to add their numbers to the robots
already guarding the Terran ship. The ship, itself, was not far from
the Executive Building; close enough that his eyes, still sharp despite
his seventy years, could make out the name on it: _The Cat_.

_The Cat._ And a cat was--he recalled the definition to be found among
the Terran books--_any of various species of carnivorous and predatory
animals, noted for their stealth and quickness, and their ferocity when
angered_.

       *       *       *       *       *

The robot shoved the plastic food tray under the cell door and went
back down the corridor. Virginia turned away from the single window,
where _The Cat_ could be seen as a silhouette merging into the darkness.

"Last supper, Bob," she said. "Let's eat, drink, and be merry."

He went to the door to get the tray and noticed the three robots and
two Tharnarian guards down the left hand stretch of corridor and the
same number down the right. Virginia came up beside and said, "They're
not taking any chances we won't be here in the morning, are they?"

"No," he said, picking up the tray. "None to speak of."

He carried the tray to the little table in the center of the room and
Virginia seated herself across from him as she had done each meal for
the past six months. But she toyed with the plastic spoon and did not
begin to eat at once.

"I wonder why they made it a firing squad?" she asked. "You'd think
they would have used something ultra-civilized and refined, such as
some painless and flower-scented gas."

"Spies were executed with firing squads during the last Terran war,
three hundred years ago," he said. He smiled thinly. "I suppose they
consider us spies and want us to feel at home in the morning."

"I'm glad they do. I don't want it to be shut up in a room--I would
rather be out under the open sky." She poked at the rim of her tray
again. "They never did tell us why, Bob. They didn't tell us anything,
only that they had no alternative. We didn't hurt any Tharnarians; we
only destroyed one of their ships and some of their robots."

"We upset their sense of security and showed them they're not secure at
all. I suppose they're afraid of an attack from Earth."

"They didn't tell us anything," she said again. "They act as though we
were animals."

"No," he said, "they don't seem to have a very high opinion of our low
position on the social evolution scale."

He began to eat in the manner of one who knows the body needs
nourishment to take advantage of any opportunity for escape, even
though the mind may be darkly certain that no such opportunity shall
arise.

"You ought to eat a little, Ginny," he said.

She tried, and gave up after a few bites.

"I guess I'm just not hungry--not now," she said. She glanced at the
darkened window where _The Cat_ had become invisible. "How long until
daylight again, Bob?"

He looked at his watch. "Seven hours."

"Seven hours?" A touch of wistfulness came into her voice. "I never
noticed, before, how short the nights are."

       *       *       *       *       *

The robot laid the material Tal-Karanth had requested on his desk,
the records and tapes from the Terran ship, and withdrew. Tal-Karanth
sighed wearily as he inserted the first tape in the projector,
wondering again why he felt the vague dissatisfaction and wondering why
he hoped to find an answer among the material from the Terran ship. It
would be an all night task--and he could hardly expect to find more
than he already knew. Tharnar was not safe and secure from discovery by
Terrans in the years to come and faith in the robot fleet had been an
illusion.

Before setting the projector in operation he put through a call to his
daughter.

Thralna's image appeared before him, reclining on a couch while two
robots worked at caring for her finger nails. She raised up a little as
his image appeared before her and the robots stepped back.

"Yes, Father?" she asked.

She waited for him to speak, her wide gray eyes on his image and her
jet-black curls framing her young and delicately beautiful face. For a
moment she reminded him of someone; someone more mature and stronger--

With something of a shock he realized it was the Terran girl his
daughter reminded him of; that the Terran girl seemed the more mature
of the two although Thralna was twenty-eight and the Terran girl was
twenty-one. They had the same gray eyes and black curls, the same curve
to the jaw, the same chin and full lips....

But the similarity was only incidental. There was a grace and a
gentleness to Thralna's beauty; a grace and gentleness that was the
result of fifty thousand years of civilization. Beneath the superficial
beauty of the barbarian girl lay only an animal-like vitality and
potential violence....

"Yes, Father?" Thralna asked again in her carefully modulated voice.

"Are you going to the theatre tonight, Thralna?"

"Yes. Tonight's play was written by D'ret-Thon and it's supposed to be
almost as good as one of the classics. Why do you ask, Father?"

"I called to tell you that I have to work late tonight. I may not be
home until morning."

"Couldn't you let a robot do it?"

"No. I have to do it, myself."

"Does it have to do with those two aliens?"

"Yes."

A little frown of worry appeared and as quickly disappeared. Her slim
fingers touched her forehead for a moment, to smooth away any vestige
of a wrinkle, then she said, "It will be such a relief when they're
finally disposed of. Whenever I think of how they might escape and get
into the City, it frightens me. Are you sure they can't escape, Father?"

"There is no possibility of their escaping," he said. "You go ahead
with your plans for the evening. Will you come home when the show is
over?"

"Not for a while. Kin is taking me dancing, afterward."

"Where you went last time--the place where they were reviving the old
dances?"

"No. Nobody goes there anymore. Those old dances were rather fun but
they were so--so tiring. Our modern dances are much slower and more
graceful, you know."

"All right, Thralna," he said in dismissal. "Enjoy yourself."

"Yes, Father."

She was reclining on the couch again, her eyes closed, when he switched
off the image. He sat for a little while before turning on the tape
projector, recalling his conversation with her and a feeling growing
within him that he was almost on the verge of discovering still another
menace to Tharnar.

       *       *       *       *       *

Virginia held her hands to her face to shade her eyes as she looked
out the window. "What you can see of the city from here is all bright
with lights," she said, "but there's no one on the streets. Only some
robots. Everyone in the city must be in bed."

"That's the way it's been every night," he said. "Early to bed and
late to rise--they're an odd race. I've wondered what they do to pass
away the time. But what they're doing now is something you should be
doing--resting."

She turned away from the window. "I'm not sleepy. I keep thinking of
_The Cat_ out there waiting for us and how we might get to it if we
could only get hold of a blaster."

"Which we can't try to do until they come for us in the morning. Some
rest now might mean a lot then."

"All right, Bob." She went to him and sat beside him on his cot. "What
is it now--how much more time?"

"About three hours."

She leaned her head against him and he put his arm around her. "I guess
I am a little tired," she said. "But don't let me go to sleep."

"All right, Ginny."

"It's only three hours and never any more, if we aren't lucky in the
morning. And if we aren't lucky, I don't want to have wasted our last
three hours."

       *       *       *       *       *

Tal-Karanth stood before the window again and watched the City as
it slept in the pre-dawn darkness. How many slept in the City? Once
there had been three million in the City but each census found the
population to be less. Five years before there had been less than a
million--two-thirds of the City was a beautiful shell that housed only
the robots that cared for it.

What was wrong? And why had it never occurred to him before that there
was something wrong?

He went back to his desk, where the material from the Terran ship
littered the eternalloy top of it, and sat down again. He was tired,
and frustrated. A menace faced Tharnar, and no one seemed to realize
it. The coming of the barbarians had awakened him to the fallacy of
trusting the robot fleet, but there was still another danger. And the
robot fleet would be more helpless before the newly discovered danger
than it would be before the Terran ships.

He pressed a button and music filled the room; music that had always
before been soothing and restful to hear. But it sounded flat and
meaningless compared with the throbbing barbarian music he had heard
that night and he switched it off again.

What was wrong? It was one of the latest compositions; one that had
been acclaimed as almost as good as one of the classics.

Almost as good.... Like the play Thralna had attended, like the art
exhibits, the athletic records, the scientific discoveries, like
everything in the City and on Tharnar. Almost as good--but never quite
as good as they had been fifty thousand years before.

Was that part of the answer?

No--not part of the answer. Part of the problem, part of the danger
greater than a barbarian invasion. There was no answer that he could
see. Something had been lost by the Tharnarians fifty thousand years
before and he was neither sure what it was nor how to give it back to
them.

He pressed the button that would connect him with Security Officer
Ten-Quoth. Of the two problems, it was only within his power to
handle the immediate phase of the first problem; to make the final
authorization of the execution of the Terrans.

       *       *       *       *       *

Bob looked again at the window which had lightened to a pale gray
square. It was already daylight outside; it would not be long until the
guards came for them. Virginia had fallen asleep at last, more tired
than she had thought, and she still slept with her head against his
shoulder and with his arm around her to support her. He straightened
his legs slowly, not wanting them to be numb from lack of circulation
when the guards came and not wanting to awaken Virginia to grim reality
any sooner than he had to.

But the slight movement was enough. She opened her eyes drowsily,
then the sleepiness gave way to the hard jolt of remembrance and
realization. She looked at the gray window and asked, "How much longer?"

"Within a few minutes."

"I wish you hadn't let me sleep."

"You were tired."

"I didn't want to sleep--I didn't think I would." Then she changed
the subject, as though to keep it from going into the sentimental. "I
see the robot never did come back for the tray. We'll be leaving a
messy room, won't we? I wonder if they'll disinfect it to make sure
it's clean when we're gone? You know"--she smiled a little--"fleas and
things."

She lifted her face to kiss him on the cheek, then she rose and moved
to the window.

"It's cloudy," she said. "There's a mist of rain falling and it's
cloudy outside. I guess it's already later than we thought."

He went over to stand beside her and saw that the morning was alight
with near-sunrise behind the gray clouds.

"It's out there waiting for us--_The Cat_," she said.

He saw it, standing silver-white in the gray morning, gleaming in the
rain and with its slim, dynamic lines making it look as though it might
at any moment hurl itself roaring into the sky.

"It's a beautiful ship," she said. "I wonder what they will do with it
when they--"

A sound came from the far end of the corridor; a snapped command in
Tharnarian. The command was followed at once by the sound of footsteps
approaching their cell; the heavy tread of robots and the lighter,
softer steps of the guards.

Virginia turned away from the window and they faced the cell door as
they waited.

"This is it," she said.

"Are you afraid, Ginny?"

"Afraid?" She laughed up at him, a laugh that came only a little too
quickly. "It's like a play, set a long time ago on Earth. Coffee and
pistols at dawn. Only I don't think they're bringing us any coffee and
if we get a pistol, it will have to be one of theirs."

"It isn't over with till the end--and maybe we can change the ending of
this play for them."

"I'll be watching you, Bob, so I can help you the moment you make the
try."

The Tharnarian guards stopped outside the door, their blasters in their
hands. One of them unlocked the door and two robots entered, guards
locking the big door behind the robots the moment they were inside. The
robots carried no blasters, nothing but three lengths of chain.

The Tharnarian leader outside the door rasped a command:

"You will both turn to face the window, with your hands behind you."

Bob did not obey at once, but appraised the situation. The robots were
massive things--more than six hundred pounds in weight, their metal
bodies invulnerable to any attack he could make with his bare hands.
But there was one chance in ten thousand: if he could catch the first
robot by surprise and send it toppling into the cell door, its weight
might be enough to break the lock of the door.

He struck it with his shoulder, all his weight and strength behind the
attack, and Virginia's small body struck it a moment later.

But it was like shoving against a stone wall. The robot rocked for the
briefest instant, then it threw out a foot to regain its balance. The
other robot snapped a chain around his wrists while Virginia fought it.

"Don't, Ginny," he said, ceasing his own struggles. "It's no use,
honey."

She stopped, then, and the robot jerked her arms around behind her
back, to lock the second chain around her wrists.

She smiled up into his dark and sombre face. "We tried, Bob. They were
just too big for us."

A third chain, longer than the first two, was produced. He felt the
cool metal of it encircle his neck and heard the lock snap shut. The
other end of it was locked around Virginia's neck.

The cell door was opened and the guard leader commanded, "Step forward.
The robots will guide you."

They stepped forward, the robots beside them, gripping their arms with
steel fingers. The chain around their necks rattled from the movement
of walking, linking them together like a pair of captive wild animals.
Bob wondered if the chain had been solely as another precaution to
prevent their escape or if it had been a deliberate act of contempt.
The Tharnarians feared them and, because they feared them, they hated
them. Did it bolster the morale of the Tharnarians to deliberately
treat them as though they were animals?

They stepped out into the cool dawn, into a small courtyard with a
black stone wall at its farther side. The sky was bleakly gray and
the rain was falling as a cold mist, dampening Virginia's face as she
looked up at him.

"The last mile, Bob."

"Walk it straight and steady, Ginny. They're watching."

"How else would we walk it?" she asked calmly.

They came to the wall, where a metal ring had been set in the stone.
There was a chain fastened to the ring and when the robots had swung
them around with their backs to the wall, the free end of the chain was
locked to the center of the chain around their necks.

Again, it could be an added precaution. Or it could be the final
attempt to let their execution be like the killing of a pair of
dangerous animals. It did not really matter, of course....

Two of the armed robots who had walked with the guards took up a
position twenty feet in front of them, blasters in their metal hands.
The robots who had chained them stepped to one side, away from the line
of fire. The leader of the guards lifted his arm to look at his watch
and said something to the robots. The robots lifted their blasters at
the words and leveled them, one aimed at Virginia's heart and one at
Bob's.

But the expected blast did not come. The guard leader continued to
observe his watch. Apparently the first command had meant only: "Aim."
The "Fire" command would come when the hands of the watch reached the
thirty-three twelve mark.

Virginia's shoulder was warm against his arm. But her hand, when it
found his behind their backs, was cold.

"They cheated us," she said. "We were supposed to have a whole firing
squad."

The guard leader gave another command and there was a double click
as the robots pressed the buttons that would ready their blasters for
firing. Virginia swayed a little for the first time, a movement too
small for the Tharnarians to see and one from which she recovered
almost at once.

"It's--I'm all right," she said. "I'm not afraid, Bob."

"Of course you're not, Ginny--of course you're not."

The guard leader had returned his attention to his watch and the
seconds went by; long seconds in which the only sound was the almost
inaudible whisper of the rain against the stone wall behind them.
Virginia looked up at him for the last time, the cold mist wet on her
face.

"We've had a lot of fun together, Bob. We never expected it to end so
soon, but we knew all the time that it might. We'll go together and
that's the way we always wanted it to be, wherever and whenever it
might happen."

Then she faced forward again and they waited, the rain whispering on
the wall behind them and forming in crystal drops on the chain around
their necks. She did not waver again as she stood beside him and he
knew she would not when the end came.

The guard leader dropped his arm, as though he no longer needed to
refer to his watch. He glanced at them very briefly then turned to the
robots, his face revealing the command he was going to give.

Virginia's hand tightened on his own in farewell and he could feel the
pulse of her wrist racing hard and fast. But she stood very straight
as she looked into the blaster and they heard the final command to
their robot-executioners:

"_Dorend thendar!_"

       *       *       *       *       *

_Thirty-three one._

Tal-Karanth looked again at the timepiece on the wall. Thirty-three
one. At the end of eleven more small fractions of time, the Terrans
would no longer exist.

What was life? What was the purpose behind it all? In fifty thousand
years the Tharnarians were no nearer the answer than their ancestors
had been. Why should there be life at all? Why not the suns and
planets, created by chance, and devoid of life? And why even the
suns and planets, the millions of galaxies racing outward across the
illimitable expanse of space and time? Why the universe and why the
life it contained? Why not just--nothing?

The barbarians had set out to find the answer within a hundred years
after the building of their first interstellar ship. And Tharnar's
interstellar ships had not been outside the system for fifty thousand
years; no Tharnarian had been as far as Vendal for fifteen thousand
years.

Why had the Tharnarians lost their curiosity; the curiosity and desire
to learn that had created the past glory of Tharnar?

He thought again of what he had discovered that night; of one of
the reasons why the Terrans had named their ship _The Cat_. It was
not because a cat was a dangerous animal, as he and the others had
thought. It was because the mission of _The Cat_ would be to explore
in unknown territory, because of an old Terran proverb: _Curiosity
killed a cat_. He did not yet understand the second reason behind the
name, but the first reason showed that the Terrans were not without a
sense of humor. How long had it been since he had heard a Tharnarian
laugh at himself, at his own failings or possibility of failure? Never.

Yet--wasn't that pride? What was wrong with the high-headed pride that
admitted no inferiority, no failure? Wasn't fifty thousand years of
civilization something of which to be extremely proud?

_Thirty-three five._

He went to the window and pressed the button that would open it against
the mechanical will of the automatic health-guard equipment. It slid
open and he breathed the cool, moist air that smelled of wet earth and
grass and the odor of the _lana_ tree flowers; flowers that were closed
against the rain and would not open until the sun came out.

The City was quiet in the gray of the morning. He could see one
pedestrian and three moving vehicles in the entire visible portion of
the City. The City, like the flowers of the _lana_ trees, would not
open into life until the storm was over and the sun was shining again.

_Thirty-three nine._

The City, like the flowers of the _lana_ trees. The beauty and
perfection of them both was the result of fifty thousand years of
breeding to bring about that perfection. The City, like the flowers of
the _lana_ trees....

But flowers were without purpose; were only--vegetation.

And what was the purpose of the City?

He did not know. He was the Supreme Executive of Tharnar, and he did
not know.

_Thirty-three ten._

He went back to his desk and switched on the three-dimensional
projection of the scene that would be taking place in the courtyard
behind the prison.

The man and girl stood chained to the wall and the robots were waiting
for the third and last command from the guard leader, the blasters in
their hands as steady as though held in vises and their metal faces
impassive. He increased the magnification of the scene, drawing the
images of the man and girl closer to him. There was no reading the
man's face, other than the hardness and lack of fear. But on the face
of the girl was a defiance that seemed to shine like a radiance about
her. He was reminded of the physical similarity between the barbarian
girl and his daughter. But now the similarity had faded to a shadow.
There was something vital and alive about the barbarian girl, there was
a beauty to her in the way she waited for death that was strange and
wild by Tharnarian standards.

What had Thralna said the night before? "... _Whenever I think of how
they might escape and get into the City, it frightens me._"

--_it frightens me_--

What if it was Thralna who stood before the robots? Would she have her
Tharnarian pride as she looked into the black muzzle of the blaster
and knew she had only a few more heart beats of life left? Would she
stand with the bold defiance of the barbarian girl? Or would she drop
to the ground and plead for her life?

He knew the answer. But it was not Thralna's fault that she was as she
was. She was only like all the others of Tharnar.

_Thirty-three eleven._

How different they were, the two barbarians and the men and women of
Tharnar. Yet the difference would cease to exist within a few moments.
When the man and girl were dead, when all the life and restless drive
were gone from them and they lay still on the cold, wet ground, they
would look the same as Tharnarians.

How did it feel to die in the cold dawn, on an alien world a thousand
lightyears from your own? But they had known such a thing might happen
to them. They had named their ship _The Cat_ because of that. Because
of that, and something else....

Suddenly, clearly, he understood the second reason for the name of
their ship.

_Thirty-three twelve._

       *       *       *       *       *

The guard leader dropped his arm, to give the last command to the
robots. Tal-Karanth's mind raced and he saw two things with vivid
clarity:

He saw the inexorable decline of Tharnar and the City continuing down
the centuries until the little spark that was left smouldered its last
and was gone. And he saw the way death would obliterate the wild and
savage beauty of the barbarian girl, knew that it would go when the
life went from her, to leave her with a beauty that would be colorless
by contrast, that would be like the beauty of a _lana_ blossom--or a
Tharnarian woman.

And he thought he could see the answer to the menace that faced Tharnar
and the City.

"_Dorend_--"

The guard leader's first word of command came. Tal-Karanth's finger
stabbed at one of the buttons along his desk. He shoved it down, to
deactivate the robot-executioners, and they were frozen in immobility
when the final word came:

"--_thendar!_"

He snapped the switch which connected him with the office of Security
Officer Ten-Quoth and said:

"Have the chains taken from the Terrans and see that they are given
comfortable and unguarded quarters. Tell them they have been pardoned
by the Supreme Executive and that they are free to leave Tharnar
whenever they wish."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was mid-morning of the next day, bright and warm with a few fleecy
white clouds drifting across the blue sky. Tal-Karanth stood before the
window again, Vor-Dergal beside him, and watched the City come to life;
slowly and leisurely, as it had come to life each mid-morning for the
past fifty thousand years.

Vor-Dergal looked toward _The Cat_, where the boarding ramps had
already been withdrawn and the airlocks closed.

"They're ready to go," he said. "I hope you haven't made a mistake in
what you did. The other Terrans will learn of us now, and when they
come...." He let the sentence trail off, unfinished.

"We have a great deal to gain by the coming of the Terrans,"
Tal-Karanth said, "and little to lose."

"Little to lose?" Vor-Dergal asked. "We have Tharnar and the City to
lose; we have our lives and our civilization to lose."

"Yes, our civilization," Tal-Karanth said. "Our god that we
worshipped--our civilization. Look, Vor--listen to what I have to say:

"I did some thinking the night the Terrans were waiting to be executed.
I'm afraid it was probably one of the few times for thousands of years
that a Tharnarian ever tried to critically examine the Tharnarian way
of life. I started from the beginning, more than fifty thousand years
ago, when the interstellar ships of Tharnar were actually interstellar
and were manned by men instead of robots.

"It was a good start we made in interstellar exploration, but it didn't
last very long. We wanted to associate with our cultural peers, and
there weren't any. We didn't attempt to make any contact with the
primitive races we found. We felt that there would be no point in doing
so. Tharnar possessed the highest--and the only--civilization in all
the explored regions of the galaxy and younger races had nothing to
offer us.

"The time came when no more exploration ships were sent out. We
retired to Tharnar and Vendal and surrounded them with a robot-operated
fleet, to keep out the inferior races when they finally did learn
how to build spaceships. We devoted ourselves to our social culture
and became imbued with self-satisfaction, with the assurance that we
of Tharnar possessed the full flowering of culture and progress. We
withdrew into a shell of complacency and each generation lived out its
life with comfortable, methodical, sameness. And our robot-operated
fleet was on guard to prevent any other race from annoying us, from
disturbing us in the wisdom and serenity of our way of life.

"Fifteen thousand years ago, the last of us on Vendal returned to the
more ideal world of Tharnar. And there was plenty of room for them on
Tharnar by then. The population had been decreasing for thousands of
years--it's decreasing right now. Women don't want to have children
anymore--it's an inconvenience for them. They want comfort; the full
stomach, the soft couch, the attention of their robots. And men are the
same.

"There is no longer any incentive for living on Tharnar other than to
duplicate the lives of our ancestors. There is nothing new, nothing
to be done that has not already been done better. So we lapse into an
existence of placid satisfaction with the status quo--we vegetate.
We're like plants that have been seeded in the same field for so many
centuries that the fertility of the soil is exhausted. This barren
field in which we grow is our own form of culture.

"Do you see what the ultimate end will have to be, Vor?"

He had thought old Vor-Dergal would reply with a heated defense of
Tharnarian civilization, but he did not. Instead, he said, "If the
present trend continues, there will come a time when there will be more
robots in the guard ships than there will be Tharnarians for them to
guard. But is the other better, the destruction at the hands of the
barbarians?"

"Destruction? It's within their power to destroy us, but why should
they? It will be unpleasant for many Tharnarians to contemplate, but
an unbiased study of the Terrans shows that they would not want the
things we have on Tharnar and in the City; that they would not consider
Tharnar and the City worth the trouble of conquest."

"A conjecture," Vor-Dergal said. "And, even if you are right and the
Terrans never come to destroy us--what have we to gain by taking this
risk?"

"New life. We've been too long in the barren field of our own culture.
We've lost our curiosity, our desire to learn, our sense of humor that
would permit us to make honest self-evaluations, our pride and courage.
And in losing these things, we lost our racial urge to survive.

"Look at the City this morning, Vor. See how slowly it moves; listen to
how still it is for a city that contains almost a million people. Do
you know what this day is for the City? It's one more act, to be added
to all the thousands of acts in the past, in the City's rehearsal for
extinction.

"The Terrans have what we lost. They're a young race with a vitality
that's like a fire where our own is like a dying spark. That's why
I let those two go; why I want the others of their kind to know of
Tharnar and come here. It's not too late for us; not yet too late for
contact with these Terrans to give back to us all these things we lost."

       *       *       *       *       *

In the pause following his words the quiet of the City was suddenly
shattered by the thunder of _The Cat's_ drives. It lifted, shining
and slender and graceful, and hurled itself up into the blue sky.
Tal-Karanth watched it until it was a bright star, far away and going
out into the universe beyond, until the sound of its drives had faded
and gone.

He looked away from the sky and back to the slowly moving, softly
whispering City; the City that was dying and did not know it. He felt
the stirring of an uneasiness within him; a strange non-physical desire
for something. It was the first time in his life he had ever felt such
a sensation; it was something so long gone from the Tharnarians that
the Tharnarian word for it was obsolete and forgotten. But the Terran
word for it was _wanderlust_.

"I almost wish I could have gone with them, Vor," he said. "They're
going to try to reach the heart of the galaxy and see if they can find
the answer to Creation. And we on Tharnar spend our lives sipping sweet
drinks as we discuss trifles and wait for the sun to shine warm enough
for us to emerge from our air-conditioned houses."

"If you're right in thinking that Terrans won't come to plunder Tharnar
and the City," Vor-Dergal said, "then it would be interesting to know
what those two find when they reach the center of the galaxy. If they
don't get killed long before they reach it."

"I think any hostile forms of life they encounter will find them hard
to kill," Tal-Karanth said. "We paid a high price for their capture,
remember? There were two Terran proverbs behind the name of their ship.
It took me quite a while to understand the second one but when I did, I
realized the true extent of Terran determination and self-confidence.

"Their mission was to explore across the unknown regions of space.
They knew it would be dangerous, very dangerous. So they named their
ship '_The Cat_' partly because of an old Terran proverb: '_Curiosity
killed a cat_.' But that was only half the reason behind the name. They
intended to reach the center of the galaxy and they didn't intend to
let anything stop them. So there was a second meaning behind the naming
of their ship:

"'_A cat has nine lives._'"





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