/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space / Series: CoDominium

The Mote in God's Eye

Larry Niven

In the year 3016, the Second Empire of Man spans hundreds of star systems, thanks to the faster-than-light Alderson Drive. No other intelligent beings have ever been encountered, not until a light sail probe enters a human system carrying a dead alien. The probe is traced to the Mote, an isolated star in a thick dust cloud, and an expedition is dispatched. In the Mote the humans find an ancient civilization—at least one million years old—that has always been bottled up in their cloistered solar system for lack of a star drive. The Moties are welcoming and kind, yet rather evasive about certain aspects of their society. It seems the Moties have a dark problem, one they’ve been unable to solve in over a million years. This is the first collaboration between Niven and Pournelle, two masters of hard science fiction, and it combines Pournelle’s interest in the military and sociology with Niven’s talent for creating interesting, believable aliens. The novel meticulously examines every aspect of First Contact, from the Moties’ biology, society, and art, to the effects of the meeting on humanity’s economics, politics, and religions. And all the while suspense builds as we watch the humans struggle toward the truth.

The Mote in God’s Eye

by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye,but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

MATTHEW 7:3

To Marilyn and Roberta, who put up with us while we wrote this;

and to Lurton and Ginny, who made us do this job over again.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Roderick Harold, Lord Blaine, Commander, Imperial Space Navy.

Arkley Kelley, Gunner, Imperial Marines, and Blaine family retainer.

Admiral Sir Vladimir Richard George Plekhanov, Vice Admiral Commanding Imperial Navy Forces, New Chicago, and Acting Governor General, New Chicago.

Captain Bruno Cziller, Imperial Space Navy, Master of INSS MacArthur.

Commander John Cargill, ISN, Chief Engineer of MacArthur.

Commander Jock (Sandy) Sinclair, ISN, Chief Engineer of MacArthur.

Midshipman Hosrt Staley, ISN, senior midshipman aboard INSS MacArthur.

Midshipman Jonathon Whitbread, ISN.

Kevin Renner, Sailing Master Lieutenant, Imperial Space Navy Reserve.

Lady Sandra Liddell Leonovna Bright Fowler, B.A., M.s., doctoral candidate in anthropology, Imperial University of Sparta.

His Excellency Horace Hussein Bury, Trader and Magnate; Chairman of the Board, Imperial Autonetics Company, Ltd.

Midshipman Gavin Potter, ISN.

Fleet Admiral Howland Cranston, Commander-in-Chief, His Majesty’s Forces Beyond the Coal Sack.

His Imperial Highness Richard Stefan Merrill, Viceroy for His Majesty’s Dominions beyond the Coal Sack.

Dr. Anthony Horvat, Minister of Science for Trans-Coalsack Sector.

Dr. Jacob Buckman, Astrophysicist.

Father David Hardy, Chaplain-Captain, Imperial Space Navy Reserve.

Admiral Lavrenty Kutuzov, Vice Admiral Commanding His Majesty’s Expedition Beyond Murcheson’s Eye.

Senator Benjamin Bright Fowler, Majority Leader and Member of Privy Council.

Dr. Sigmund Horowitz, Proffessor of Xenobiology, University pf New Scotland.

Herbert Colvin, onetime Captain of Space Forces of the Republic of Union, and onetime master of Union cruiser Defiant.

Chronology

1969—Neil Armstrong sets foot on Earth’s moon.

1990—Series of treaties between United States and Soviet Union creates the CoDominium.

2008—First successful interstellar drive tested. Alderson Drive perfected.

2020—First interstellar colonies. Beginning of Great Exodus.

2040—CoDominium Bureau of Relocation begins mass out-system shipment of convicts. Colonization of Sparta and St. Ekaterina.

2079—Sergei Lermontov becomes Grand Admiral of CoDominium Space Navy.

2103—Great Patriotic Wars. End of the CoDominium. Exodus of the Fleet.

2110—Coronation of Lysander I of Sparta. Fleet swears loyalty to the Spartan throne. Marriage of dynasties produces union between Sparta and St. Ekaterina.

2111—Formation Wars begin.

2250—Leonidas I proclaims Empire of Man.

2250–2600—Empire of Man enforces interstellar peace.

2450—Jasper Murcheson explores region beyond the Coal Sack. Terraforming of New Scotland.

2603—Secession Wars begin. Growth of Sauron supermen. St. Ekaterina nearly destroyed.

2640—Secession Wars continue. Dark Ages in many systems. Effective termination of First Empire. Sauron supermen exterminated.

2800—Interstellar trade ceases. Piracy and brigandage. Dark Ages.

2862—Coherent light from the Mote reaches New Scotland.

2870—Effective end of Secession Wars.

2882—Howard Grote Littlemead founds Church of Him on New Scotland.

2903—Coherent light from Mote ends abruptly.

2903—Leonidas IV of Sparta proclaims the Second Empire of Man. The Oath of Reunion is sworn.

3016—Revolt of New Chicago.

3017—FIRST CONTACT.

Prologue

“Throughout the past thousand years of history it has been traditional to regard the Alderson Drive as an unmixed blessing. Without the faster than light travel Alderson’s discoveries made possible, humanity would have been trapped in the tiny prison of the Solar System when the Great Patriotic Wars destroyed the CoDominium on Earth. Instead, we had already settled more than two hundred worlds.

“A blessing, yes. We might now be extinct were it not for the Alderson Drive. But unmixed? Consider. The same tramline effect that colonized the stars, the same interstellar contacts that allowed the formation of the First Empire, allowed interstellar war. The worlds wrecked in two hundred years of Secession Wars were both settled and destroyed by ships using the Alderson Drive.

“Because of the Alderson Drive we need never consider the space between the stars. Because we can shunt between stellar systems in zero time, our ships and ships’ drives need cover only interplanetary distances. We say that the Second Empire of Man rules two hundred worlds and all the space between, over fifteen million cubic parsecs…

“Consider the true picture. Think of myriads of tiny bubbles, very sparsely scattered, rising through a vast black sea. We rule some of the bubbles. Of the waters we know nothing…”

—from a speech delivered by Dr. Anthony Horvath at the Blaine Institute, A.D. 3029.

PART ONE

The Crazy Eddie Probe

1. Command

A.D. 3017

“Admiral’s compliments, and you’re to come to his office right away,” Midshipman Staley announced.

Commander Roderick Blaine looked frantically around the bridge, where his officers were directing repairs with low and urgent voices, surgeons assisting at a difficult operation. The gray steel compartment was a confusion of activities, each orderly by itself, but the overall impression was of chaos. Screens above one helmsman’s station showed the planet below and the other ships in orbit near MacArthur, but everywhere else the panel covers had been removed from consoles, test instruments were clipped into their insides, and technicians stood by with color-coded electronic assemblies to replace everything that seemed doubtful. Thumps and whines sounded through the ship as somewhere aft the engineering crew worked on the hull.

The scars of battle showed everywhere, ugly burns where the ship’s protective Langston Field had overloaded momentarily. An irregular hole larger than a man’s fist was burned completely through one console, and now two technicians seemed permanently installed in the system by a web of cables. Rod Blaine looked at the black stains that had spread across his battle dress. A whiff of metal vapor and burned meat was still in his nostrils, or in his brain, and again he saw fire and molten metal erupt from the hull and wash across his left side. His left arm was still bound across his chest by an elastic bandage, and he could follow most of the previous week’s activities by the stains it carried.

And I’ve only been aboard an hour! he thought. With the Captain ashore, and everything a mess, I can’t leave now! He turned to the midshipman. “Right away?”

“Yes, sir. The signal’s marked urgent.”

Nothing for it, then, and Rod would catch hell when the Captain came back aboard. First Lieutenant Cargill and Engineer Sinclair were competent men, but Rod was Exec and damage control was his responsibility, even if he’d been away from MacArthur when she took most of the hits.

Rod’s Marine orderly coughed discreetly and pointed to the stained uniform. “Sir, we’ve time to get you more decent?”

“Good thinking.” Rod glanced at the status board to be sure. Yes, he had half an hour before he could take a boat down to the planet’s surface. Leaving sooner wouldn’t get him to the Admiral’s office any quicker. It would be a relief to get out of these coveralls. He hadn’t undressed since he was wounded.

They had to send for a surgeon’s mate to undress him. The medic snipped at the armor cloth embedded in his left arm and muttered. “Hold still, sir. That arm’s cooked good.” His voice was disapproving. “You should have been in sick bay a week ago.”

“Hardly possible,” Rod answered. A week before, MacArthur had been in battle with a rebel warship, who’d scored more hits than she ought to have before surrendering. After the victory Rod was prize master in the enemy vessel, and there weren’t facilities for proper treatment there. As the armor came away he smelled something worse than week-old sweat. Touch of gangrene, maybe.

“Yessir.” A few more threads were cut away. The synthetic was as tough as steel. “Now it’s gonna take surgery, Commander. Got to cut all that away before the regeneration stimulators can work. While we got you in sick bay we can fix that nose.”

“I like my nose,” Rod told him coldly. He fingered the slightly crooked appendage and recalled the battle when it was broken. Rod thought it made him look older, no bad thing at twenty-four standard years; and it was the badge of an earned, not inherited, success. Rod was proud of his family background, but there were times when the Blaine reputation was a bit hard to live up to.

Eventually the armor was cut loose and his arm smeared with Numbitol. The stewards helped him into a powder blue uniform, red sash, gold braid, epaulettes; all wrinkled and crushed, but better than monofiber coveralls. The stiff jacket hurt his arm despite the anesthetic until he found that he could rest his forearm on the pistol butt.

When he was dressed he boarded the landing gig from MacArthur’s hangar deck, and the coxswain let the boat drop through the big flight elevator doors without having the spin taken off the ship. It was a dangerous maneuver, but it saved time. Retros fired, and the little winged flyer plunged into atmosphere.

NEW CHICAGO: Inhabited world, Trans-Coalsack Sector, approximately 20 parsecs from Sector Capital. The primary is an F9 yellow star commonly referred to as Beta Hortensis.

The atmosphere is very nearly Earth-normal and breathable without aids or filters. Gravity is 1.08 standard. The planetary radius is 1.05, and mass is 1.21 Earth-standard, indicating a planet of greater than normal density. New Chicago is inclined at 41 degrees with a semi-major axis of 1.06 AU, moderately eccentric. The resulting variations in seasonal temperatures have confined the inhabited areas to a relatively narrow band in the south temperate zone.

There is one moon at normal distance, commonly called Evanston. The origin of the name is obscure.

New Chicago is 70 percent seas. Land area is mostly mountainous with continuing volcanic activity. The extensive metal industries of the First Empire period were nearly all destroyed in the Succession Wars; reconstruction of an industrial base has proceeded satisfactorily since New Chicago was admitted to the Second Empire in AD. 2940. Most inhabitants reside in a single city which bears the same name as the planet. Other population centers are widely scattered, with none having a population over 45,000. Total planet population was reported as 6.7 million in the census of 2990. There are iron mining and smelting towns in the mountains, and extensive agricultural settlements. The planet is self-sufficient in foodstuffs.

New Chicago possesses a growing merchant fleet, and is located at a convenient point to serve as a center of TransCoalsack interstellar trade. It is governed by a governor general and a council appointed by the Viceroy of TransCoalsack Sector, there is an elected assembly, and two delegates have been admitted to the Imperial Parliament.

Rod Blaine scowled at the words flowing across the screen of his pocket computer. The physical data were current, but everything else was obsolete. The rebels had changed even the name of their world, from New Chicago to Dame Liberty. Her government would have to be built all over again. Certainly she’d lose her delegates; she might even lose the right to an elected assembly.

He put the instrument away and looked down. They were over mountainous country, and he saw no signs of war. There hadn’t been any area bombardments, thank God.

It happened sometimes: a city fortress would hold out with the aid of satellite-based planetary defenses. The Navy had no time for prolonged sieges. Imperial policy was to finish rebellions at the lowest possible cost in lives—but to finish them. A holdout rebel planet might be reduced to glittering lava fields, with nothing surviving but a few cities lidded by the black domes of Langston Fields; and what then? There weren’t enough ships to transport food across interstellar distances. Plague and famine would follow.

Yet, he thought, it was the only possible way. He had sworn the Oath on taking the Imperial commission. Humanity must be reunited into one government, by persuasion or by force, so that the hundreds of years of Secession Wars could never happen again. Every Imperial officer had seen what horrors those wars brought; that was why the academies were located on Earth instead of at the Capital.

As they neared the city he saw the first signs of battle. A ring of blasted lands, mined outlying fortresses, broken concrete rails of the transportation system; then the almost untouched city which had been secure within the perfect circle of its Langston Field. The city had taken minor damage, but once the Field was off, effective resistance had ceased. Only fanatics fought on against the Imperial Marines.

They passed over the ruins of a tall building crumpled over by a falling landing boat. Someone must have fired on the Marines and the pilot hadn’t wanted his death to be for nothing…

They circled the city, slowing to allow them to approach the landing docks without breaking out all the windows. The buildings were old, most built by hydrocarbon technology, Rod guessed, with strips torn out and replaced by more modem structures. Nothing remained of the First Empire city which had stood here.

When they dropped onto the port on top of Government House, Rod saw that slowing hadn’t been required. Most city windows were smashed already. Mobs milled in the streets, and the only moving vehicles were military convoys. Some people stood idly, others ran in and out of shops. Gray-coated Imperial Marines stood guard behind electrified riot fences around Government House. The flyer landed.

Blaine was rushed down the elevator to the Governor General’s floor. There wasn’t a woman in the building, although Imperial government offices usually bristled with them, and Rod missed the girls. He’d been in space a long time. He gave his name to the ramrod-straight Marine at the receptionist’s desk and waited.

He wasn’t looking forward to the coming interview, and spent the time glaring at blank walls. All the decorative paintings, the three-d star map with Imperial banners floating above the provinces, all the standard equipment of a governor general’s office on a Class One planet, were gone, leaving ugly places on the walls.

The guard motioned him into the office. Admiral Sir Vladimir Richard George Plekhanov, Vice Admiral of the Black, Knight of St. Michael and St. George, was seated at the Governor General’s desk. There was no sign of His Excellency Mr. Haruna, and for a moment Rod thought the Admiral was alone. Then he noticed Captain Cziller, his immediate superior as master of MacArthur, standing by the window. All the transparencies had been knocked out, and there were deep scratches in the paneled walls. The displays and furniture were gone. Even the Great Seal—crown and spaceship, eagle, sickle and hammer—was missing from above the duralplast desk. There had never in Rod’s memory been a duralplast desk in a governor general’s office.

“Commander Blaine reporting as ordered, sir.”

Plekhanov absently returned the salute. Cziller didn’t look around from the window. Rod stood at stiff attention while the Admiral regarded him with an unchanging expression. Finally: “Good morning, Commander.”

“Good morning, sir.”

“Not really. I suppose I haven’t seen you since I last visited Crucis Court. How is the Marquis?”

“Well when I was last home, sir.”

The Admiral nodded and continued to regard Blaine with a critical look. He hasn’t changed, Rod thought. An enormously competent man, who fought a tendency to fat by exercising in high gravity. The Navy sent Plekhanov when hard fighting was expected. He’s never been known to excuse an incompetent officer, and there was a gunroom rumor that he’d had the Crown Prince—now Emperor—stretched over a mess table and whacked with a spatball paddle back when His Highness was serving as a midshipman in Plataea.

“I have your report here, Blaine. You had to fight your way to the rebel Field generator. You lost a company of Imperial Marines.”

“Yes, sir.” Fanatic rebel guardsmen had defended the generator station, and the battle had been fierce.

“And just what the devil were you doing in a ground action?” the Admiral demanded. “Cziller gave you that captured cruiser to escort our assault carrier. Did you have orders to go down with the boats?”

“No, sir.”

“I suppose you think the aristocracy isn’t subject to Navy discipline?”

“Of course I don’t think that, sir.”

Plekhanov ignored him. “Then there’s this deal you made with a rebel leader. What was his name?” Plekhanov glanced at the papers. “Stone. Jonas Stone. Immunity from arrest. Restoration of property. Damn you, do you imagine that every naval officer has authority to make deals with subjects in rebellion? Or do you hold some diplomatic commission I’m not aware of, Commander?”

“No, sir.” Rod’s lips were pressed tightly against his teeth. He wanted to shout, but he didn’t. To hell with Navy tradition, he thought. I won the damned war.

“But you do have an explanation?” the Admiral demanded.

“Yes, sir.”

“Well?”

Rod spoke through tightening throat muscles. “Sir. While commanding the prize Defiant, I received a signal from the rebel city. At that time the city’s Langston Field was intact, Captain Cziller aboard MacArthur was fully engaged with the satellite planetary defenses, and the main body of the fleet was in general engagement with rebel forces. The message was signed by a rebel leader. Mr. Stone promised to admit Imperial forces into the city on condition that he obtain full immunity from prosecution and restoration of his personal property. He gave a time limit of one hour, and insisted on a member of the aristocracy as guarantor. If there were anything to his offer, the war would end once the Marines entered the city’s Field generator house. There being no possibility of consultation with higher authority, I took the landing force down myself and gave Mr. Stone my personal word of honor.”

Plekhanov frowned. “Your word. As Lord Blaine. Not as a Navy officer.”

“It was the only way he’d discuss it, Admiral.”

“I see.” Plekhanov was thoughtful now. If he disavowed Blaine’s word, Rod would be through, in the Navy, in government, everywhere. On the other hand, Admiral Piekhanov would have to explain to the House of Peers. “What made you think this offer was genuine?”

“Sir, it was in Imperial code and countersigned by a Navy intelligence officer.”

“So you risked your ship—”

“Against the chance of ending the war without destroying the planet. Yes, sir. I might point out that Mr. Stone’s message described the city prison camp where they were keeping the Imperial officers and citizens.”

“I see.” Plekhanov’s hands moved in a sudden angry gesture. “All right. I’ve no use for traitors, even one who helps us. But I’ll honor your bargain, and that means I have to give official approval to your going down with the landing boats. I don’t have to like it, Blaine, and I don’t. It was a damn fool stunt.”

One that worked, Rod thought. He continued to stand at attention, but he felt the knot in his guts loosen.

The Admiral grunted. “Your father takes stupid chances. Almost got us both killed on Tanith. It’s a bloody wonder your family’s survived through eleven marquises, and it’ll be a bigger one if you live to be twelfth. All right, sit down.”

“Thank you, sir.” Rod said stiffly, his voice coldly polite.’

The Admiral’s face relaxed slightly. “Did I ever tell you your father was my commanding officer on Tanith?” Plekhanov asked conversationally.

“No, sir. He did.” There was still no warmth in Rod’s voice.

“He was also the best friend I ever had in the Navy, Commander. His influence put me in this seat, and he asked to have you under my command.”

“Yes, sir.” I knew that. Now I wonder why.

“You’d like to ask me what I expected you to do, wouldn’t you, Commander?”

Rod twitched in surprise. “Yes, sir.”

“What would have happened if that offer hadn’t been genuine? If it had been a trap?”

“The rebels might have destroyed my command.”

“Yes.” Plekhanov’s voice was steely calm. “But you thought it worth the risk because you had a chance to end the war with few casualties on either side. Right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And if the Marines were killed, just what would my fleet have been able to do?” The Admiral slammed both fists against the desk. “I’d have had no choices at all!” he roared. “Every week I keep this fleet here is another chance for outies to hit one of our planets! There’d have been no time to send for another assault carrier and more Marines. If you’d lost your command, I’d have blasted this planet into the stone age, Blaine. Aristocrat or no, don’t you ever put anyone in that position again! Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir”. He’s right. But—What good would the Marines have been with the city’s Field intact? Rod’s shoulders slumped. Something. He’d have done something. But what?

“It turned out well,” Plekhanov said coldly. “Maybe you were right. Maybe you weren’t. You do another stunt like that and I’ll have your sword. Is that understood?” He lifted a printout of Rod’s service career. “Is MacArthur ready for space?”

“Sir?” The question was asked in the same tone as the threat, and it took Rod a moment to shift mental gears. “For space, sir. Not a battle. And I wouldn’t want to see her go far without a refit.” In the frantic hour he’d spent aboard, Rod had carried out a thorough inspection, which was one reason he needed a shave. Now he sat uncomfortably and wondered. MacArthur’s captain stood at the window, obviously listening, but he hadn’t said a word. Why didn’t the Admiral ask him?

As Blaine wondered, Plekhanov made up his mind. “Well? Bruno, you’re Fleet Captain. Make your recommendation.”

Bruno Cziller turned from the window. Rod was startled: Cziller no longer wore the little silver replica of MacArthur that showed him to be her master. Instead the comet and sunburst of the Naval Staff shone on his breast, and Cziller wore the broad stripes of a brevet admiral.

“How are you, Commander?” Cziller asked formally. Then grinned. That twisted lopsided grin was famous through MacArthur. “You’re looking all right. At least from the right profile you do. Well, you were aboard an hour. What damage did you find?”

Confused, Rod reported the present condition of MacArthur as he’d found her, and the repairs he’d ordered. Cziller nodded and asked questions. Finally: “And you conclude she’s ready for space, but not war. Is that it?”

“Yes, sir. Not against a capital ship, anyway.”

“It’s true, too. Admiral, my recommendation. Commander Blaine is ready for promotion and we can give him MacArthur to take for refit to New Scotland, then on to the Capital. He can take Senator Fowler’s niece with him.”

Give him MacArthur? Rod heard him dimly, wonderingly. He was afraid to believe it, but here was the chance to show Plekhanov and everyone else.

“He’s young. Never be allowed to keep that ship as a first command,” Plekhanov said. “Still and all, it’s probably the best way. He can’t get in too much trouble going to Sparta by way of New Caledonia. She’s yours, Captain.” When Rod said nothing, Plekhanov barked at him. “You. Blaine. You’re promoted to captain and command of MacArthur. My writer will have your orders in half an hour.”

Cziller grinned one-sided. “Say something,” he suggested.

“Thank you, sir. I— I thought you didn’t approve of me.”

“Not sure I do,” Plekhanov said. “If I had any choice you’d be somebody’s exec. You’ll probably make a good marquis, but you don’t have the Navy temperament. I don’t suppose it matters, the Navy’s not your career anyway.”

“Not any more, sir,” Rod said carefully.

It still hurt inside. Big George, who filled a room with barbells when he was twelve and was built like a wedge before he was sixteen—his brother George was dead in a battle halfway across the Empire. Rod would be planning his future, or thinking wistfully about home, and the memory would come as if someone had pricked his soul with a needle. Dead. George?

George should have inherited the estates and titles. Rod had wanted nothing more than a Navy career and the chance to become Grand Admiral someday. Now less than ten years and he’d have to take his place in Parliament.

“You’ll have two passengers,” Cziller said. “One you’ve met. You do know Lady Sandra Bright Fowler, don’t you? Senator Fowler’s niece.”

“Yes, sir. I hadn’t seen her for years, but her uncle dines at Crucis Court quite often… then I found her in the prison camp. How is she?”

“Not very good,” Cziller said. His grin vanished. “We’re packing her home, and I don’t have to tell you to handle with care. She’ll be with you as far as New Scotland, and all the way to the Capital if she wants. That’s up to her. Your other passenger, though, that’s a different matter.”

Rod looked up attentively. Cziller looked to Plekhanov, got a nod, and continued, “His Excellency, Trader Horace Hussein Bury, Magnate, Chairman of the Board of Imperial Autonetics, and something big in the Imperial Traders Association. He stays with you all the way to Sparta, and I mean he stays aboard your ship, do you understand?”

“Well, not exactly, sir,” Rod answered.

Plekhanov sniffed. “Cziller made it clear enough. We think Bury was behind this rebellion, but there’s not enough evidence to put him in preventive detention. He’d appeal to the Emperor. All right, we’ll send him to Sparta to make his appeal. As the Navy’s guest. But who do I send him with, Blaine? He’s worth millions. More. How many men would turn down a whole planet for a bribe? Bury could offer one.”

“I—yes, sir,” Rod said.

“And don’t look so damned shocked,” Plekhanov barked. “I haven’t accused any of my officers of corruption. But the fact is, you’re richer than Bury. He can’t even tempt you. It’s my main reason for giving you command of MacArthur, so I don’t have to worry about our wealthy friend.”

“I see. Thank you anyway, sir.” And I will show you it was no mistake.

Plekhanov nodded as if reading Blaine’s thoughts. “You might make a good Navy officer. Here’s your chance. I need Cziller to help govern this planet. The rebels killed the Governor General.”

“Killed Mr. Haruna?” Rod was stunned. He remembered the wrinkled old gentleman; well over a hundred when he came to Rod’s home— “He’s an old friend of my father’s.”

“He wasn’t the only one they killed. They had the heads strung up on pikes outside Government House. Somebody thought that’d make the people fight on longer. Make ‘em afraid to surrender to us. Well, they have reason to be afraid now. Your deal with Stone. Any other conditions?”

“Yes, sir. It’s off if he refuses to cooperate with Intelligence. He has to name all the conspirators.”

Plekhanov looked significantly at Cziller. “Get your men on that, Bruno. It’s a start. All right, Blaine, get your ship fixed up and scoot.” The Admiral stood; the interview was over. “You’ll have a lot to do, Captain. Get to it.”

2. The Passengers

Horace Hussein Chamoun al Shamlan Bury pointed out the last of the articles he would take with him and dismissed the servants. He knew they would wait just outside his suite, ready to divide the wealth he was leaving behind, but it amused him to make them wait. They would be all the happier for the thrill of stealing.

When the room was empty he poured a large glass of wine. It was poor quality stuff brought in after the blockade, but he hardly noticed. Wine was officially forbidden on Levant, which meant that the hordes of wine sellers foisted off anything alcoholic on their customers, even wealthy ones like the Bury family. Horace Bury had never developed any real appreciation for expensive liquors. He bought them to show his wealth, and for entertaining; but for himself anything would do. Coffees were a different matter.

He was a small man, as were most of the people of Levant, with dark features and a prominent nose, dark, burning eyes and sharp features, quick gestures, and a violent temper that only his intimate associates suspected. Alone now, he permitted himself a scowl. There was a printout from Admiral Plekhanov’s writers on the desk, and he easily translated the formally polite phrases inviting him to leave New Chicago and regretting that no civilian passage would be available. The Navy was suspicious, and he felt a cold knot of rage threaten to engulf him despite the wine. He was outwardly calm, though, as he sat at the desk and ticked off points on his fingers.

What had the Navy on him? There were the suspicions of Naval Intelligence, but no evidence. There was the usual hatred of the Navy for Imperial Traders, compounded, he thought, because some of the Navy staff were Jews, and all Jews hated Levantines. But the Navy could have no real evidence or he wouldn’t be going aboard MacArthur as a guest. He’d be in irons. That meant Jonas Stone still kept his silence.

He ought to keep silence. Bury had paid him a hundred thousand crowns with a promise of more. But he had no confidence in Stone: two nights before, Bury had seen certain men on lower Kosciusko Street and paid them fifty thousand crowns, and it shouldn’t be long until Stone was silent forever. Let him whisper secrets in his grave.

Was there anything else undone? he wondered. No. What would come would come, glory be to Allah… He grimaced. That kind of thinking came naturally, and he despised himself for a superstitious fool. Let his father praise Allah for his accomplishments; fortune came to the man who left nothing to chance; as he had left few things undone in his ninety standard years.

The Empire had come to Levant ten years after Horace was born, and at first its influence was small. In those days Imperial policies were different and the planet came into the Empire with a standing nearly equal to more advanced worlds. Horace Bury’s father soon realized Imperialism could be made to pay. By becoming one of those the Imperials used to govern the planet, he had amassed immense wealth: he’d sold audiences with the governor, and hawked justice like cabbages in the market place, but always carefully, always leaving others to face the wrath of the hardnosed men of the Imperial service.

His father was careful with investments, and he’d used his influence to have Horace Hussein educated on Sparta. He’d even given him a name suggested by an Imperial Navy officer; only later did they learn that Horace was hardly common in the Empire and was a name to be laughed at.

Bury drowned the memory of early days in the Capital schools with another beaker of wine. He’d learned! And now he’d invested his father’s money, and his own. Horace Bury wasn’t someone to laugh at. It had taken thirty years, but his agents had located the officer who’d given him that name. The stereographs of his agony were hidden in Bury’s home on Levant. He’d had the last laugh.

Now he bought and sold men who laughed at him, as he bought votes in Parliament, bought ships, and had almost bought this planet of New Chicago. And by the Prophet—blast!—by damn he’d own it yet. Control of New Chicago would give his family influence here beyond the Coal Sack, here where the Empire was weak and new planets were found monthly. A man might look to—to anything!

The reverie had helped. Now he summoned his agents, the man who’d guard his interests here, and Nabil, who would accompany him as a servant on the warship. Nabil, a small man, much smaller than Horace, younger than he looked, with a ferret face that could be disguised many ways, and skills with dagger and poison learned on ten planets. Horace Hussein Bury smiled. So the Imperials would keep him prisoner aboard their warships? So long as there were no ships for Levant, let them. But when they were at a busy port, they might find it harder to do.

For three days Rod worked on MacArthur. Leaking tankage, burned-out components, all had to be replaced. There were few spares, and MacArthur’s crew spent hours in space cannibalizing the Union war fleet hulks in orbit around New Chicago.

Slowly MacArthur was put back into battle worthy condition. Blaine worked with Jack Cargill, First Lieutenant and now Exec, and Commander Jock Sinclair, the Chief Engineer. Like many engineering officers, Sinclair was from New Scotland. His heavy accent was common among Scots throughout space. Somehow they had preserved it as a badge of pride during the Secession Wars, even on planets where Gaelic was a forgotten language. Rod privately suspected that the Scots studied their speech off duty so they’d be unintelligible to the rest of humanity.

Hull plates were welded on, enormous patches of armor stripped from Union warships and sweated into place. Sinclair worked wonders adapting New Chicago equipment for use in MacArthur, until he had built a patchwork of components and spares that hardly matched the ship’s original blueprints. The bridge officers worked through the nights trying to explain and describe the changes to the ship’s master computer.

Cargill and Sinclair nearly came to blows over some of the adaptations, Sinclair maintaining that the important thing was to have the ship ready for space, while the First Lieutenant insisted that he’d never be able to direct combat repairs because God Himself didn’t know what had been done to the ship.

“I dinna care to hear such blasphemy,” Sinclair was saying as Rod came into range. “And is it nae enough that I ken wha’ we hae done to her?”

“Not unless you want to be cook too, you maniac tinkerer! This morning the wardroom cook couldn’t operate the coffeepot! One of your artificers took the microwave heater. Now by God you’ll bring that back…”

“Aye, we’ll strip it oot o’ number-three tank, just as soon as you find me parts for the pump it replaces. Can you no be happy, man? The ship can fight again. Or is coffee more important?”

Cargill took a deep breath, then started over. “The ship can fight,” he said in what amounted to baby talk, “until somebody makes a hole in her. Then she has to be fixed. Now suppose I had to repair this,” he said, laying a hand on something Rod was almost sure was an air adsorber-converter. “The damned thing looks half-melted now. How would I know what was damaged? Or if it were damaged at all? Suppose…”

“Man, you wouldna’ hae troubles if you did nae fash yoursel’ wi…”

“Will you stop that? You talk like everybody else when you get excited!”

That’s a damn lie!

But at that point Rod thought it better to step into view. He sent the Chief Engineer to his end of the ship and Cargill forward. There would be no settling their dispute until MacArthur could be thoroughly refitted in New Scotland’s Yards.

Blaine spent a night in sickbay under orders from the surgeon lieutenant. He came out with his arm immobile in a tremendous padded cast like a pillow grafted on him. He felt mean and preternaturally alert for the next few days; but nobody actually laughed out loud in his hearing.

On the third day after taking command Blaine held ship’s inspection. All work was stopped and the ship given spin. Then Blaine and Cargill went over her.

Rod was tempted to take advantage of his recent experience as MacArthur’s Exec. He knew all the places where a lazy executive officer might skimp on the work. But it was his first inspection, the ship only just under repair from battle damage, and Cargill was too good an officer to let something pass that he could possibly have corrected. Blaine took a leisurely tour, checking the important gear but otherwise letting Cargill guide him. As he did, he mentally resolved not to let this be a precedent. When there was more time, he’d go over the ship and find out everything.

A full company of Marines guarded the New Chicago spaceport. Since the city’s Langston Field generator had fallen there had been no resurgence of hostilities. Indeed, most of the populace seemed to welcome the Imperial forces with an exhausted relief more convincing than parades and cheering. But the New Chicago revolt had reached the Empire as a stunning surprise; resurgence would be no surprise at all.

So Marines patrolled the spaceport and guarded the Imperial boats, and Sally Fowler felt their eyes as she walked with her servants through hot sunlight toward a boat-shaped lifting body. They didn’t bother her. She was Senator Fowler’s niece; she was used to being stared at.

Lovely, one of the guards was thinking. But no expression. You’d think she’d be happy to be out of that stinking prison camp, but she doesn’t look it. Perspiration dripped steadily down his ribs, and he thought, She doesn’t sweat. She was carved from ice by the finest sculptor that ever lived.

The boat was big, and two-thirds empty. Sally’s eyes took in two small dark men—Bury and his servant, and no doubt about which was which—and four younger men showing fear, anticipation, and awe. The mark of New Chicago’s outback was on them. New recruits, she guessed.

She took one of the last seats at the back. She was not in a conversational mood. Adam and Annie looked at her with worried expressions, then took seats across the aisle. They knew.

“It’s good to be leaving,” said Annie.

Sally didn’t respond. She felt nothing at all.

She’d been like this ever since the Marines had burst into the prison camp. There had been good food, and a hot bath, and clean clothes, and the deference of those about her… and none of it had reached her. She’d felt nothing. Those months in the prison camp had burned something out of her. Perhaps permanently, she thought. It bothered her remotely.

When Sally Fowler left the Imperial University at Sparta with her master’s degree in anthropology she had persuaded her uncle that instead of graduate school she should travel through the Empire, observe newly conquered provinces, and study primitive cultures first hand. She would even write a book.

“After all,” she had insisted, “what can I learn here? It’s out there beyond the Coal Sack that I’m needed.”

She had a mental image of her triumphant return, publications and scholarly articles, winning a place for herself in her profession rather than passively waiting to be married off to some young aristocrat. Sally fully intended to marry, but not until she could start with more than her inheritances. She wanted to be something in her own right, to serve the realm in ways other than bearing it sons to be killed in warships.

Surprisingly, her uncle had agreed. If Sally had known more of people instead of academic psychology she might have realized why. Benjamin Bright Fowler, her father’s younger brother, had inherited nothing, had won his place a leader of the Senate by sheer guts and ability. With no children of his own, he thought of his brother’s only surviving child as his daughter, and he had seen enough young girls whose only importance was their relatives and their money. Sally and a classmate had left Sparta with Sally’s servants, Adam and Annie, headed for the provinces and the study of primitive human cultures that the Navy was forever finding. Some planets had not been visited by starships for three hundred years and more, and the wars had so reduced their populations that savagery returned.

They were on their way to a primitive colony world, with a stopover at New Chicago to change ships, when the revolution broke out. Sally’s friend Dorothy had been outside the city that day, and had never been found. The Union Guards of the Committee of Public Safety had dragged Sally from her hotel suite, stripped her of her valuables, and thrown her into the camp.

In the first days the camp was orderly. Imperial nobility, civil servants, and former Imperial soldiers made the camp safer than the streets of New Chicago. But day after day the aristocrats and government officials were taken from the camp and never seen again, while common criminals were added to the mixture. Adam and Annie found her somehow, and the other inhabitants of her tent were Imperial citizens, not criminals. She had survived first days, then weeks, finally months of imprisonment beneath the endless black night of the city’s Langston Field.

At first it had been an adventure, frightening, unpleasant, but no worse. Then the rations had been reduced, and reduced again, and the prisoners began to starve. Near the end the last signs of order had disappeared. Sanitary regulations were not enforced. Emaciated corpses lay stacked by the gates for days before the death squads came for them.

It had become an unending nightmare. Her name was posted at the gate: the Committee of Public Safety wanted her. The other camp inmates swore that Sally Fowler was dead, and since the guards seldom entered the compound she was saved from whatever fate had overtaken other members of governing families.

As conditions became worse, Sally found a new inner strength. She tried to set an example for others in her tent. They looked to her as their leader, with Adam as her prime minister. When she cried, everyone was afraid. And so, at age twenty-two standard years, her dark hair a tangled mess, her clothes filthy and torn and her hands coarse and dirty, Sally could not even throw herself into a corner and weep. All she could do was endure the nightmare.

Into the nightmare had come rumors of Imperial battleships in the sky above the black dome—and rumors that the prisoners would be slaughtered before the ships could break through. She had smiled and pretended not to believe it could happen. Pretended? A nightmare was not real.

Then the marines had crashed through, led by a big blood-covered man with the manners of the Court and one arm in a sling. The nightmare had ended then, and Sally waited to wake up. They’d cleaned her, fed her, clothed her—why didn’t she wake up? Her soul felt wrapped in cotton.

Acceleration was heavy on her chest. The shadows in the cabin were sharp as razors. The New Chicago recruits crowded at the windows, chattering. They must be in space. But Adam and Annie watched her with worried eyes. They’d been fat when first they saw New Chicago. Now the skin of their faces hung in folds. She knew they’d given her too much of their own food. Yet they seemed to have survived better than she.

I wish I could cry, she thought. I ought to cry. For Dorothy. I kept waiting for them to tell me Dorothy had been found. Nothing. She disappeared from the dream. A recorded voice said something she didn’t try to catch. Then the weight lifted from her and she was floating.

Floating. Were they actually going to let her go?’

She turned abruptly to the window. New Chicago glowed like any Earthlike world, its distinctive patterns unreadable. Bright seas and lands, all the shades of blue smeared with the white frosting of cloud. Dwindling. As it shrank, she stared out, hiding her face. Nobody should see that feral snarl. In that moment she could have ordered New Chicago burned down to bedrock.

After inspection, Rod conducted Divine Worship on the hangar deck. They had only just finished the last hymn when the midshipman of the watch announced that the passengers were coming aboard. Blaine watched the crew scurry back to work. There would be no free Sundays while his ship wasn’t in fighting trim, no matter what service traditions might say about Sundays in orbit. Blaine listened as the men went past, alert for signs of resentment. Instead he heard idle chatter, and no more than the expected grumbling.

“All right, I know what a mote is,” Stoker Jackson was saying to his partner. “I can understand getting a mote in me eye. But how in God’s Name can I get a beam there? You tell me that, now, how can a beam get in a man’s eye and him not know it? Ain’t reason.”

“You’re absolutely right. What’s a beam?”

“What’s a beam? Oh ho, you’re from Tabletop, aren’t you? Well, a beam is sawn wood-wood. It comes from a tree. A tree, that’s a great, big…”

The voices faded out. Blaine made his way quickly back to the bridge. If Sally Fowler had been the only passenger he would have been happy to meet her at the hangar deck, but he wanted this Bury to understand their relationship immediately. It wouldn’t do for him to think the captain of one of His Majesty’s warships would go out of his way to greet a Trader.

From the bridge Rod watched the screens as the wedge-shaped craft matched orbit and was winched aboard, drifting into MacArthur between the great rectangular wings of the hangar doors. His hand hovered near the intercom switches. Such operations were tricky.

Midshipman Whitbread met the passengers. Bury was first, followed by a small dark man the Trader didn’t bother to introduce. Both wore clothing reasonable for space, balloon trousers with tight ankle bands, tunics belted into place, all pockets zipped or velcroed closed. Bury seemed angry. He cursed his servant, and Whitbread thoughtfully recorded the man’s comments, intending to run them through the ship’s brain later. The midshipman sent the Trader forward with a petty officer, but waited for Miss Fowler himself. He’d seen pictures of her.

They put Bury in the Chaplain’s quarters, Sally in the First Lieutenant’s cabin. The ostensible reason she got the largest quarters was that Annie, her servant, would have to share her cabin. The menservants could be bunked down with the crew, but a woman, even one as old as Annie, couldn’t mingle with the men. Spacers off-planet long enough develop new standards of beauty. They’d never bother a senator’s niece, but a housekeeper would be something else. It all made sense, and if the First Lieutenant’s cabin was next to Captain Blaine’s quarters, while the Chaplain’s stateroom was a level down and three bulkheads aft, nobody was going to complain.

“Passengers aboard, sir,” Midshipman Whitbread reported.

“Good. Everyone comfortable?”

“Well, Miss Fowler is, sir. Petty Officer Allot showed the Trader to his cabin…”

“Reasonable.” Blaine settled into his command seat. Lady Sandra—no, she preferred Sally, he remembered—hadn’t looked too good in the brief moments he’d seen her in the prison camp. The way Whitbread talked, she’d recovered a bit. Rod had wanted to hide when he first recognized her striding out of a tent in the prison camp. He’d been covered with blood and dirt—and then she’d come closer. She’d walked like a lady of the Court, but she was gaunt, half-starved, and great dark circles showed under her eyes. And those eyes. Blank. Well, she’d had two weeks to come back to life, and she was free of New Chicago forever.

“I presume you’ll demonstrate acceleration stations for Miss Fowler?” Rod asked.

“Yes, sir,” Whitbread replied. And null gee practice too, he thought.

Blaine regarded his midshipman with amusement. He had no trouble reading his thoughts. Well, let him hope, but rank hath its privileges. Besides, he knew the girl; he’d met her when she was ten years old.

“Signal from Government House,” the watch reported.

Cziller’s cheerful, careless voice reached him. “Hello, Blaine! Ready to cast off?” The fleet Captain was slouched bonelessly in a desk chair, puffing on an enormous and disreputable pipe.

“Yes, sir.” Rod started to say something else, but choked it off.

“Passengers settled in all right?” Rod could have sworn his former captain was laughing at him.

“Yes, sir.”

“And your crew? No complaints?”

“You know damned well— We’ll manage, sir.” Blaine choked back his anger. It was difficult to be angry with Cziller; after all he’d given him his ship, but blast the man! “We’re not overcrowded, but she’ll space.”

“Listen, Blaine, I didn’t strip you for fun. We just don’t have the men to govern here, and you’ll get crew before any get to us. I’ve sent you twenty recruits, young locals who think they’ll like it in space. Hell, maybe they will. I did.”

Green men who knew nothing and would have to be shown every job, but the petty officers could take care of that. Twenty men would help. Rod felt a little better.

Cziller fussed with papers. “And I’ll give you back a couple squads of your Marines, though I doubt if you’ll find enemies to fight in New Scotland.”

“Aye aye, sir. Thank you for leaving me Whitbread and Staley.” Except for those two, Cziller and Plekhanov had stripped off every midshipman aboard, and many of the better petty officers as well. But they had left the very best men. There were enough for continuity. The ship lived, although some berths looked as if she’d lost a battle.

“You’re welcome. She’s a good ship, Blaine. Odds are the Admiralty won’t let you keep her, but you may get lucky. I’ve got to govern a planet with my bare hands. There’s not even money! Only Republic scrip! The rebels took all the Imperial crowns and gave out printed paper. How the blazes are we going to get real money in circulation?”

“Yes, sir.” As a full captain, Rod was in theory equal in rank to Cziller. A brevet appointment to admiral was for courtesy only, so that captains senior to Cziller could take orders from him as fleet Captain without embarrassment. But a naval promotion board had yet to pass on Blaine’s admission to post rank, and he was young enough to worry about the coming ordeal. Perhaps in six weeks time he would be a commander again.

“One point,” said Cziller. “I just said there’s no money on the planet, but it’s not quite true. We have some very rich men here. One of them is Jonas Stone, the man who let your Marines into the city. He says he was able to hide his money from the rebels. Well, why not? He was one of them. But we’ve found an ordinary miner dead drunk with a fortune in Imperial crowns. He won’t say where he got the money, but we think it was from Bury.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So watch His Excellency. OK, your dispatches and new crewmen will be aboard within the hour,” Cziller glanced at his computer. “Make that forty-three minutes. You can boost out as soon as they’re aboard.” Cziller pocketed the computer and began tamping his pipe. “Give my regards to MacPherson at the Yards, and keep one thing in mind: if the work on the ship drags, and it will, don’t send memos to the Admiral. It only gets MacPherson mad. Which figures. Instead, bring Jamie aboard and drink scotch with him. You can’t put away as much as he can, but trying to do it’ll get you more work than a memo.”

“Yes, sir,” Rod said hesitantly. He suddenly realized just how unready he was to command MacArthur. He knew the technical stuff, probably better than Cziller, but the dozens of little tricks that you could learn only through experience…

Cziller must have been reading his mind. It was an ability every officer under him had suspected. “Relax, Captain. They won’t replace you before you get to the Capital, and you’ll have had a lot of time aboard Old Mac by then. And don’t spend your time boning the board exams, either. It won’t do you a bit of good.” Cziller puffed at the huge pipe and let a thick stream of smoke pour from his mouth. “You’ve work to do, I won’t keep you. But when you get to New Scotland, make a point of looking at the Coal Sack. There are few sights in the galaxy to equal it. The Face of God, some call it.” Cziller’s image faded, his lopsided smile seeming to remain on the screen like the Cheshire cat’s.

3. Dinner Party

MacArthur accelerated away from New Chicago at one standard gravity. All over the ship crewmen worked to change over from the down-is-outboard orientation of orbit when spin furnished the gravity to the up-is-forward of powered flight. Unlike merchant ships, which often coast long distances from inner planets to the Alderson Jump points, warships usually accelerate continuously.

Two days out from New Chicago, Blaine held a dinner party.

The crew brought out linens and candelabra, heavy silver plate and etched crystal, products of skilled craftsmen on half a dozen worlds; a treasure trove belonging, not to Blaine, but to MacArthur herself. The furniture was all in place, taken from its spin position around the outer bulkheads and remounted on the after bulkheads—except for the big spin table, which was recessed into what was now the cylindrical wardroom wall.

That curved dining table had bothered Sally Fowler. She had seen it two days ago, when MacArthur was still under spin and the outer bulkhead was a deck, likewise curved. Now Blaine noted her moment of relief as she entered via the stairwell.

He remarked its absence in Bury, who was affable, very much at ease, and clearly enjoying himself. He had spent time in space, Blaine decided. Possibly more time than Rod.

It was Blaine’s first opportunity to meet the passengers formally. As he sat in his place at the head of the table, watching the stewards in spotless dress white bring in the first course, Blaine suppressed a smile. MacArthur had everything except food.

“I’m much afraid the dinner’s not up to the furnishings,” he told Sally. “But we’ll see what we find.” Kelley and the stewards had conferred with the chief petty officer cook all afternoon, but Rod didn’t expect much.

There was plenty to eat, of course. Ship’s fodder: bioplast, yeast steaks, New Washington corn plant; but Blaine had had no chance to lay in cabin stores for himself on New Chicago, and his own supplies had been destroyed in the battle with the rebel planetary defenses. Captain Cziller had of course removed his own personal goods. He’d also managed to take the leading cook and the number-three turret gunner who’d served as captain’s cook.

The first dish was brought in, an enormous platter with a heavy cover that looked like beaten gold. Golden dragons chased each other around the perimeter, while the good fortune hexagrams of the I Ching floated benignly above them. Fashioned on Xanadu, the dish and cover were worth the price of one of MacArthur’s gigs. Gunner Kelley stood behind Blaine, imperious in dress whites and scarlet sash, the perfect major-domo. It was difficult to recognize him as the man who could make new recruits faint from his chewing out, the sergeant who had led MacArthur’s Marines in battle against the Union Guard. Kelley lifted the cover with a practiced flourish.

“Magnificent!” Sally exclaimed. If she was only being polite, she carried it off well, and Kelley beamed. A pastry replica of MacArthur and the black-domed fortress she had fought, every detail sculpted more carefully than an art treasure in the Imperial Palace, lay revealed on the platter. The other dishes were the same, so that if they hid yeast cake and other drab fare, the effect was of a banquet. Rod managed to forget his concern and enjoy the dinner.

“And what will you be doing now, my lady?” Sinclair asked. “Hae you been to New Scotland before?”

“No, I was supposed to be traveling professionally, Commander Sinclair. It wouldn’t be flattering to your homeland for me to have visited there, would it?” She smiled, but there were light-years of blank space behind her eyes.

“And why would nae we be flattered from a visit by you? There’s nae place in the Empire that would no think itself honored.”

“Thank you—but I’m an anthropologist specializing in primitive cultures. New Scotland is hardly that,” she assured him. The accent sparked professional interest. Do they really talk that way in New Scotland? The man sounds like something from a pre-Empire novel. But she thought that very carefully, not looking at Sinclair as she did. She could sense the engineer’s desperate pride.

“Well said,” Bury applauded. “I seem to have met a number of anthropologists lately. Is it a new specialty?”

“Yes. Pity there weren’t more of us earlier. We’ve destroyed all that was good in so many places we’ve taken into the Empire. We hope never to make those mistakes again.”

“I suppose it must be something of a shock,” said Blaine, “to be brought into the Empire, like it or not, without warning—even if there weren’t any other problems. Perhaps you should have stayed on New Chicago. Captain Cziller said he was having trouble governing the place.”

“I couldn’t.” She looked moodily down at her plate, then glanced up with a forced smile. “Our first rule is that we must be sympathetic toward the people we study. And I hate that place,” she added with venomous sincerity. The emotion felt good. Even hatred was better than emptiness.

“Aye,” Sinclair agreed. “Anyone would, being kept in prison camp for months.”

“Worse than that, Commander. Dorothy disappeared. She was the girl I came with. She just—vanished.” There was a long silence, and Sally was embarrassed. “Please, don’t let me spoil our party.”

Blaine was searching for something to say when Whitbread gave him his opportunity. At first Blaine saw only that the junior midshipman was doing something under the edge of the table—but what? Tugging at the tablecloth, testing its tensile strength. And earlier he’d been looking at the crystal. “Yes, Mr. Whitbread,” Rod said. “It’s very strong.”

Whitbread looked up, flushing, but Blaine didn’t intend to embarrass the boy. “Tablecloth, silverware, plates, platters, crystal, all have to be fairly durable,” he told the company at large. “Mere glassware wouldn’t last the first battle. Our crystal is something else. It was cut from the windscreen of a wrecked First Empire reentry vehicle. Or go I was told. It’s certain we can’t make such materials any longer. The linen isn’t really linen, either; it’s an artificial fiber, also First Empire. The covers on the platter are crystal-iron electroplated onto beaten gold.”

“It was the crystal I noticed first,” Whitbread said diffidently.

“So did I, some years ago.” Blaine smiled at the middies. They were officers, but they were also teenage boys, and Rod could remember his days in the gunroom. More courses were brought, to meet with shoptalk scaled down for laymen, as Kelley orchestrated the dinner. Finally the table was clear except for coffee and wines.

“Mr. Vice,” Blaine said formally.

Whitbread, junior to Staley by three weeks, raised his glass. “Captain, my lady. His Imperial Majesty.” The officers lifted their glasses to their sovereign, as Navy men had done for two thousand years.

“You’ll let me show you around my homeland,” Sinclair asked anxiously.

“Certainly. Thank you, but I don’t know how long we’ll be there.” Sally looked expectantly to Blaine.

“Nor I. We’re to put in for a refit, and how long that takes is up to the Yard.”

“Well, if it’s not too long, I’ll stay with you. Tell me, Commander, is there much traffic from New Scotland to the Capital?”

“More than from most worlds this side of the Coal Sack, though that’s nae saying a lot. Few ships with decent facilities for carrying passengers. Perhaps Mr. Bury can say more; his liners put into New Scotland.”

“But, as you say, not to carry passengers. Our business is to disrupt interstellar trade, you know.” Bury saw quizzical looks. He continued, “Imperial Autonetics is the business of transporting robotic factories. Whenever we can make something on a planet cheaper than others can ship it in, we set up plants. Our main competition’s the merchant carriers.”

Bury poured himself another glass of wine, carefully selecting one that Blaine had said was in short supply. (It must be a good one; otherwise the scarcity wouldn’t have bothered the Captain.) “That’s why I was on New Chicago when the rebellion broke out.”

Nods of acceptance from Sinclair and Sally Fowler; Blaine with his posture too still and face too blank; Whitbread nudging Staley—Wait’ll I tell you—gave Bury most of what he wanted to know. Suspicions, but nothing confirmed, nothing official. “You have a fascinating vocation,” he told Sally before the silence could stretch. “Tell us more, won’t you? Have you seen many primitive worlds?”

“None at all,” she said ruefully. “I know about them only from books. We would have gone on to visit Harlequin, but the rebellion—” She stopped.

“I was on Makassar once,” said Blaine.

She brightened instantly. “There was a whole chapter on that one. Very primitive, wasn’t it?”

“It still is. There wasn’t a big colony there to begin with. The whole industrial complex was smashed down to bedrock in the Secession Wars, and nobody visited the place for four hundred years. They had an Iron Age culture by the time we got there. Swords. Mail armor. Wooden seagoing sailing ships.”

“But what were the people like?” Sally asked eagerly. “How did they live?”

Rod shrugged, embarrassed. “I was only there a few days. Hardly time enough to get the feel of a world. Years ago, when I was Staley’s age. I remember mostly looking for a good tavern.” After all, he wanted to add, I’m not an anthropologist.

The conversation drifted on. Rod felt tired, and looked for a polite opportunity to bring the dinner to a close. The others seemed rooted to their seats.

“Ye study cultural evolution,” Sinclair was saying earnestly, “and perhaps that’s wise. But could we nae have physical evolution as well? The First Empire was verra large and sparsely spread, with room enough for almost anything. May we no find somewhere, off in some neglected corner of the old Empire, a planet full o’ supermen?”

Both midshipmen looked suddenly alert. Bury asked,

“What would physical evolution of humans bring, my lady?”

“They used to teach us that evolution of intelligent beings wasn’t possible,” she said. “Societies protect their weaker members. Civilizations tend to make wheel chairs and spectacles and hearing aids as soon as they have the tools for them. When a society makes war, the men generally have to pass a fitness test before they’re allowed to risk their lives. I suppose it helps win the war.” She smiled. “But it leaves precious little room for the survival of the fittest.”

“But suppose,” Whitbread suggested, “suppose a culture were knocked even further back than Makassar? All the way to complete savagery: clubs and fire. There’d be evolution then, wouldn’t there?”

Three glasses of wine had overcome Sally’s black mood, and she was eager to talk of professional matters. Her uncle often told her she talked too much for a lady, and she tried to watch herself, but wine always did it to her—wine and a ready audience. It felt good, after weeks of nothingness.

“Certainly,” she said. “Until a society evolved. You’d have natural selection until enough humans got together to protect each other from the environment. But it isn’t long enough. Mr. Whitbread, there is a world where they practice ritual infanticide. The elders examine children and kill the ones who don’t conform to their standards of perfection. It’s not evolution, exactly, but you might get some results that way—except that it hasn’t been long enough.”

“People breed horses. And dogs,” Rod observed.

“Yes. But they haven’t got a new species. Ever. And societies can’t keep constant rules long enough to make any real changes in the human race. Come again in a million years— Of course there were the deliberate attempts to breed supermen. Like Sauron System.”

Sinclair grunted. “Those beasties,” he spat. “ ’Twas they started the Secession Wars and nearly killed the lot o’ us.” He stopped suddenly as Midshipman Whitbread cleared his throat.

Sally jumped into the lull. “That’s another system I can’t be sympathetic with. Although they’re Empire loyalists now.” She looked around. Everyone had a strange look, and Sinclair was trying to hide his face behind a tilted wineglass. Midshipman Horst Staley’s angular face might have been carved from stone. “What’s the matter?” she asked.

There was a long silence. Finally Whitbread spoke. “Mr. Staley is from Sauron System, my lady.”

“I—I’m sorry,” Sally blurted. “I guess I really put my foot in it, didn’t I? Really, Mr. Staley, I’m…”

“If my young gentlemen can’t take that much pressure, I don’t need them in my ship,” Rod said. “And you weren’t the only one to put your foot in it.” He looked significantly at Sinclair. “We don’t judge men by what their home worlds did hundreds of years ago.” Damn. That sounds stilted. “You were saying about evolution?”

“It—it ought to be pretty well closed off for an intelligent species,” she said. “Species evolve to meet the environment. An intelligent species changes the environment to suit itself. As soon as a species becomes intelligent, it should stop evolving.”

“A pity we don’t have any others for comparison,” Bury said easily. “Only a few fancied ones.” He told a long story about an improbably intelligent octopoid meeting a centaur, and everyone laughed. “Well, Captain, it was a fine dinner,” Bury ended.

“Yes.” Rod stood and offered Sally his arm, and the others scrambled to their feet. She was quiet again as he escorted her through the corridor to her cabin, and only polite as they parted. Rod went back to the bridge. More repairs had to be recorded into the ship’s brain.

4. Priority OC

Hyperspace travel can be strange and frustrating.

It takes an immeasurably short time to travel between stars: but as the line of travel, or tramline, exists only along one critical path between each pair of stars (never quite a straight line, but close enough to visualize it so) and the end points of the paths are far from the distortions in space caused by stars and large planetary masses, it follows that a ship spends most of its time crawling from one end point to another.

Worse than that, not every pair of stars is joined by tramlines. Pathways are generated along lines of equipotential thermonuclear flux, and the presence of others stars in the geometric pattern can prevent the pathway from existing at all. Of those links that do exist, not all have been mapped. They are difficult to find.

MacArthur’s passengers found that travel aboard an Imperial warship was akin to imprisonment. The crew had duties to perform and repairs to make even when off watch. The passengers had each other’s company, and what social life Navy routine would permit. There was no place for the entertainment facilities that luxury liners would carry.

It was boring. By the time MacArthur was ready for her last Jump, the passengers saw their arrival in New Caledonia as a release from jail.

NEW CALEDONIA: Star system behind the Coal Sack with F8 primary star catalogued as Murcheson A. The distant binary, Murcheson B, is not part of the New Caledonia system. Murcheson A has six planets in five orbits, with four inner planets, a relatively wide gap containing the debris of an unformed planet, and two outer planets in a Trojan relationship. The four inner planets are named Conchobar, New Ireland, New Scotland, and Fomor, in their order from the sun which is known locally as Cal, or Old Cal, or the Sun. The middle two planets are Inhabited, both terraformed by First Empire scientists after Jasper Murcheson, who was related to Alexander IV, persuaded the Council that the New Caledonian system would be the proper place to establish an Imperial university. It is now known that Murcheson was primarily interested in having an inhabited planet near the red super giant known as Murcheson’s Eye, and as he was not satisfied with the climate of New Ireland demanded the terraforming of New Scotland as well.

Fomor is a relatively small planet with almost no atmosphere and few interesting features. It does, however, possess several fungi which are biologically related to other fungi found in the Trans-Coalsack Sector, and their manner of transmission to Fomor has stimulated an endless controversy in the Journal of the Imperial Society of Xenobiologists, since no other life forms native to New Caledonia exist.

The two outer planets occupy the same orbit and are named Dagda and Mider in keeping with the system’s Celtic mythological nomenclature. Dagda is a gas giant, and the Empire maintains fuel stations on the planet’s two moons, Angus and Brigit. Merchant ships are cautioned that Brigit is a Navy base and may not be approached without permission.

Mider is a cold metal ball, extensively mined, and troublesome to cosmologists because its manner of formation does not appear to conform to either of the two major contending theories of planetary origin.

New Scotland and New Ireland, the only inhabited planets of the system, had extensive atmospheres of water vapor and methane when discovered, but no free oxygen. Biological packages in massive quantities transformed them into inhabitable worlds at considerable cost; toward the end of the project Murcheson lost his influence in the Council but by then the investment was so high that the project was carried on to completion. In less than a hundred years of intensive effort the domed colonies became open colonies, one of the most triumphant accomplishments of the First Empire.

Both worlds were partially depopulated during the Secession Wars, with New Ireland joining the rebel forces while New Scotland remained staunchly loyalist. After interstellar travel was lost in the Trans-Coalsack Sector, New Scotland continued the struggle until its rediscovery by the Second Empire. As a consequence, New Scotland is the Trans-Coalsack Sector Capital.

MacArthur shuddered and dropped into existence beyond the orbit of Dagda. For long moments her crew sat at their hyperspace transition stations, disoriented, fighting to overcome the confusion that always follows instantaneous travel.

Why? One branch of physics at the Imperial University on Sigismund contends that hyperspace travel requires, not zero time, but transfinite time, and that this produces the characteristic confusion of both men and computer equipment. Other theories suggest that the Jump produces stretching or shrinking of local space, affecting nerves and computer elements alike; or that not all parts of the ship appear at the same time; or that inertia and mass vary on a subatomic level after transition. No one knows, but the effect is real.

“Helmsman,” Blaine said thickly. His eyes slowly focused on the bridge displays. “Aye aye, sir.” The voice was numbed and uncomprehending, but the crewman automatically responded.

“Set a course for Dagda. Get her moving.”

“Aye aye.” In the early days of hyperspace travel, ship’s computers had tried to accelerate immediately after popout. It didn’t take long to find out that computers were even more confused than men. Now all automatic equipment was turned off for transition. Lights flashed on Blaine’s displays as crewmen slowly reactivated MacArthur and checked out their systems.

“We’ll put her down on Brigit, Mr. Renner,” Blaine continued. “Make your velocity match. Mr. Staley, you will assist the Sailing Master.”

“Aye aye, sir.” The bridge came back to life. Crewmen stirred and returned to duties. Stewards brought coffee after acceleration and gravity returned. Men left hyperspace stations to return to patrol duties, while MacArthur’s artificial eyes scanned space for enemies. The trouble board flashed green as each station reported successful transition.

Blaine nodded in satisfaction as he sipped his coffee. It was always like this, and after hundreds of transitions he still felt it. There was something basically wrong with instantaneous travel, something that outraged the senses, something the mind wouldn’t accept at a level below thought. The habits of the Service carried men through; these too were ingrained at a level more basic than intellectual functions.

“Mr. Whitbread, my compliments to the Chief Yeoman of Signals and please report us in to Fleet Headquarters on New Scotland. Get our course and speed from Staley, and you can signal the fuel station on Brigit that we’re coming in. Inform Fleet of our destination.”

“Aye aye, sir. Signal in ten minutes, sir?”

“Yes.”

Whitbread unbuckled from his command seat behind the Captain and walked drunkenly to the helm station. “I’ll need full engine power for a signal in ten minutes, Horst.” He made his way from the bridge, recovering rapidly. Young men usually did, which was one reason for having young officers in command of the ships.

“NOW HEAR THIS,” Staley announced. The call sounded through the ship. “NOW HEAR THIS. END OF ACCELERATION IN TEN MINUTES. BRIEF PERIOD OF FREE FALL IN TEN MINUTES.”

“But why?” Blaine heard. He looked up to see Sally Fowler at the bridge entranceway. His invitation to the passengers to come to the bridge when there was no emergency had worked out fine: Bury hardly ever made use of the privilege. “Why free fall so soon?” she asked.

“Need the power to make a signal,” Blaine answered. “At this distance it’ll use up a significant part of our engine power to produce the maser beam. We could overload the engines if we had to, but it’s standard to coast for messages if there’s no real hurry.”

“Oh.” She sat in Whitbread’s abandoned chair. Rod swiveled his command seat to face her, wishing again that someone would design a free fall outfit for girls that didn’t cover so much of their legs, or that brief shorts would come back into fashion. Right now skirts were down to calves on Sparta, and the provinces copied the Capital. For shipboard wear the designers produced pantaloon things, comfortable enough, but baggy…

“When do we get to New Scotland?” she asked.

“Depends on how long we stay off Dagda. Sinclair wants to do some outside work while we’re dirtside.” He took out his pocket computer and wrote quickly with the attached stylus. “Let’s see, we’re about one and a half billion kilometers from New Scotland, that’s—uh, make it a hundred hours to turnover. About two hundred hours’ travel time, plus what we spend on Dagda. And the time it takes to get to Dagda, of course. That’s not so far, about twenty hours from here.”

“So we’ll still be a couple of weeks at least,” she said. “I thought once we got here we’d—” She broke off, laughing. “It’s silly. Why can’t you invent something that lets you Jump around in interplanetary space? There’s something faintly ridiculous about it, we went five light years in no time at all, now it takes weeks to get to New Scotland.”

“Tired of us so soon? It’s worse than that, really. It takes an insignificant part of our hydrogen to make a Jump— Well, it isn’t trivial, but it’s not a lot compared to what it’ll take getting to New Scotland. I don’t have enough fuel aboard to go direct, in fact not in less than a year, but there’s more than enough to make a Jump. All that takes is enough energy to get into hyperspace.”

Sally snared a cup of coffee from the steward. She was learning to drink Navy coffee, which wasn’t like anything else in the Galaxy. “So we just have to put up with it,” she said.

“Afraid so. I’ve been on trips where it was faster to drive over to another Alderson point, make a Jump, move around in the new system, Jump somewhere else, keep doing that until you come back to the original system at a different place—do all that and it would still be faster than merely to sail across the original system in normal space. But not this time, the geometry isn’t right.”

“Pity,” she laughed. “We’d see more of the universe for the same price.” She didn’t say she was bored; but Rod thought she was, and there wasn’t much he could do about it. He had little time to spend with her, and there weren’t many sights to see.

“NOW HEAR THIS. STAND BY FOR FREE FALL.” She barely had time to strap herself in before the drive cut out.

Chief Yeoman of Signals Lud Shattuck squinted into his aiming sight, his knobby fingers making incredibly fine adjustments for such clumsy appendages. Outside MacArthur’s hull, a telescope hunted under Shattuck’s guidance until it found a tiny dot of light. It hunted again until the dot was perfectly centered. Shattuck grunted in satisfaction and touched a switch. A maser antenna slaved itself to the telescope while the ship’s computer decided where the dot of light would be when the message arrived. A coded message wound off its tape reel, while aft MacArthur’s engines fused hydrogen to helium. Energy rode out through the antenna, energy modulated by the thin tape in Shattuck’s cubicle, reaching toward New Scotland.

Rod was at dinner alone in his cabin when the reply arrived. A duty yeoman looked at the heading and shouted for Chief Shattuck. Four minutes later Midshipman Whitbread knocked at his captain’s door.

“Yes,” Rod answered irritably.

“Message from Fleet Admiral Cranston, sir.”

Rod looked up in irritation. He hadn’t wanted to eat alone, but the wardroom had invited Sally Fowler to dinner—it was their turn, after all—and if Blaine had invited himself to dine with his officers, Mr. Bury would have come too. Now even this miserable dinner was interrupted. “Can’t it wait?”

“It’s priority OC, sir.”

“A hot flash for us? OC?” Blaine stood abruptly, the protein aspic forgotten. “Read it to me, Mr. Whitbread.”

“Yes, sir. MACARTHUR FROM IMPFLEETNEW SCOT. OC OC 8175—”

“You may omit the authentication codes, Midshipman. I assume you checked them out.”

“Yes, sir. Uh, anyway, sir, date, code… MESSAGE BEGINS YOU WILL PROCEED WITH ALL POSSIBLE SPEED REPEAT ALL POSSIBLE SPEED TO BRIGIT FOR REFUELING WITH PRIORITY DOUBLE A ONE STOP YOU WILL REFUEL IN MINIMUM POSSIBLE TIME STOP PARAGRAPH

MACARTHUR WILL THEN PROCEED TO—uh, sir, it gives some coordinate points in the New Cal system—OR ANY OTHER VECTOR YOUR CHOICE TO INTERCEPT AND INVESTIGATE MYSTERIOUS OBJECT ENTERING NEW CALEDONIA SYSTEM FROM NORMAL SPACE REPEAT NORMAL SPACE STOP OBJECT PROCEEDS ALONG GALACTIC VECTOR—uh, it gives a course from the general direction of the Coal Sack; sir—AT A SPEED OF APPROXIMATELY SEVEN PERCENT VELOCITY OF LIGHT STOP OBJECT IS DECELERATING RAPIDLY STOP IMPERIAL UNIVERSITY ASTRONOMERS SAY SPECTRUM OF INTRUDER IS SPECTRUM OF NEW CAL SUN BLUE SHIFTED STOP OBVIOUS CONCLUSION THAT INTRUDER IS POWERED BY LIGHT SAIL STOP PARAGRAPH

“IMPERIAL UNIVERSITY ASTRONOMERS CERTAIN OBJECT IS ARTIFACT CONSTRUCTED BY INTELLIGENT BEINGS STOP FYI NO KNOWN HUMAN COLONIES AT APPARENT ORIGIN OF INTRUDER STOP PARAGRAPH

“CRUISER LERMONTOV DISPATCHED TO ASSIST BUT CANNOT ARRIVE TO MATCH VELOCITY WITH INTRUDER UNTIL SEVENTY ONE HOURS AFTER MINIMUM TIME MACARTHUR VELOCITY MATCH WITH OBJECT STOP PROCEED WITH CAUTION STOP YOU ARE TO ASSUME INTRUDER IS HOSTILE UNTIL OTHERWISE ASSURED STOP YOU ARE ORDERED TO USE CAUTION BUT DO NOT INITIATE HOSTILITIES REPEAT DO NOT INITIATE HOSTILITIES STOP

“BREAK BREAK GO GET IT CZILLER STOP WISH I WAS OUT THERE STOP GODSPEED STOP CRANSTON BREAK MESSAGE ENDS AUTHENTICATION—uh, that’s it, sir.” Whitbread was breathless.

“That’s it. That’s quite a lot of it, Mr. Whitbread,” Blaine fingered the intercom switch. “Wardroom.”

“Wardroom aye aye, Captain,” Midshipman Staley answered.

“Get me Cargill.”

The First Lieutenant sounded resentful when he came on. Blaine was intruding on his dinner party. Rod felt an inner satisfaction for doing it. “Jack, get to the bridge. I want this bird moving. I’ll have a minimum time course to land us on Brigit, and I mean minimum. You can run the tanks, but get us there fast.”

“Aye aye, sir. Passengers aren’t going to like it.”

“Rape the— Uh, my compliments to the passengers, and this is a Fleet emergency. Too bad about your dinner party, Jack, but get your passengers into hydraulic beds and move this ship. I’ll be on the bridge in a minute.”

“Yes, sir.” The intercom went Silent for a moment, then Staley’s voice hooted through the ship. “NOW HEAR THIS. NOW HEAR THIS. STAND BY FOR PROLONGED ACCELERATION ABOVE TWO GRAVITIES. DEPARTMENT HEADS SIGNAL WHEN SECURED FOR INCREASED ACCELERATION.”

“OK,” Blaine said. He turned to Whitbread. “Punch that damned vector designation into the computer and let’s see where the hell that intruder comes from.” He realized he was swearing and made an effort to calm down. Intruders—aliens? Good God, what a break! To be in command of the first ship to make contact with aliens.

“Let’s just see where they’re from, shall we?”

Whitbread moved to the input console next to Blaine’s desk. The screen swam violently, then flashed numbers.

“Blast your eyes, Whitbread, I’m not a mathematician! Put it on a graph!”

“Sorry, sir.” Whitbread fiddled with the input controls again. The screen became a black volume filled with blobs and lines of colored light. Big blobs were stars colored for type, velocity vectors were narrow green lines, acceleration vectors were lavender, projected paths were dimly lit red curves. The long green line— Blaine looked at the screen in disbelief, then laid his finger along the knot in his nose. “From the Mote. Well, I will be go to hell. From the Mote, in normal space.” There was no known tramline to the intruder’s Star. It hung in isolation, a yellow fleck near the super giant Murcheson’s Eye. Visions of octopoids danced in his head.

Suppose they were hostile? he thought suddenly. If Old Mac had to fight an alien ship, she’d need more work. Work they’d put off because it ought to be done in orbit, or dirtside, and now they’d have to do it at two plus gee.

But it was MacArthur’s baby—and his. Somehow they’d do it.

5. The Face of God

Blaine made his way quickly to the bridge and strapped himself into the command chair. As soon as he was settled he reached for the intercom unit. A startled Midshipman Whitbread looked out of the screen from the Captain’s cabin.

Blaine gambled. “Read it to me, Mister.”

“Uh—sir?”

“You have the regs open to the standing orders on alien contact, don’t you? Read them to me, please.” Blaine remembered looking them up, long ago, for fun and curiosity. Most cadets did.

“Yes, sir.” Visibly, Whitbread wondered if the Captain had been reading his mind, then decided that it was the Captain’s prerogative. This incident would start legends. “ ‘Section 4500: First contact with nonhuman sentient beings. Note: Sentient beings are defined as creatures which employ tools and communication in purposeful behavior. Subnote: Officers are cautioned to use judgment in applying this definition. The hive rat of Makassar, as an example, employs tools and communication to maintain its nest, but is not Sentient.

“ ‘Section One: Upon encounter with sentient nonhuman beings, officers will communicate the existence of such aliens to nearest Fleet command. All other objectives will be considered secondary to this accomplishment.

“ ‘Section Two: After the objective described in section one is assured, officers will attempt to establish communication with the aliens, provided however that in so doing they are not authorized to risk their command unless so ordered by higher authority. Although officers will not initiate hostilities it must be assumed that nonhuman sentient creatures may be hostile. Section Three—’ ”

Whitbread was cut off by the final acceleration warning.

Blaine nodded acknowledgment to the middle and settled back in his couch. The regulations weren’t likely to be much use anyway. They mostly dealt with initial contact without prior warning, and here Fleet command pretty well knew MacArthur was going out to intercept an alien vessel.

Ship’s gravity edged upward, slowly enough to give the crew time to adjust, a full minute to rise to three gravities.

Blaine felt two hundred sixty kilos settling into his acceleration couch. Throughout the ship men would be moving with the wary attention one gives to lifting weights, but it was not a crippling acceleration. Not for a young man. For Bury it would be rough, but the Trader would be all right if he stayed in his gee bed.

Blaine felt very much at ease in his contoured armchair. It had headrest and fingertip controls, lapboard, power swiveling so that the entire bridge was in view without effort, even a personal relief tube. Warships are designed for long periods of high gravity.

Blaine fiddled with his screen controls to produce a 3-d graph overhead. He cut in the privacy switch to hide his doodles from the rest of the crew. Around him the bridge officers attended to their duties, Cargill and Sailing Master Renner huddled together near the astrogation station, Midshipman Staley settled next to the helmsman ready to assist if needed but mostly there to learn how to handle the ship. Blaine’s long fingers moved over the screen controls.

A long green velocity line, a short lavender vector pointing in the opposite direction—with a small white ball between. So. The intruder had come straight from the direction of the Mote and was decelerating directly into the New Cal system… and it was somewhat bigger than Earth’s Moon. A ship-sized object would have been a dimensionless point.

A good thing Whitbread hadn’t noticed that. There’d be gossip, tales to the crew, panic among the new hands… Blaine felt the metallic taste of fear himself. My God, it was big.

“But they’d have to have something that big,” Rod muttered. Thirty-five light years, through normal space! There never had been a human civilization that could manage such a thing. Still—how did the Admiralty expect him to “investigate” it? Much less “intercept” it? Land on it with Marines?

What in Hannigan’s Hell was a light sail?

“Course to Brigit, sir,” Sailing Master Renner announced.

Blaine snapped up from his reverie and touched his screen controls again. The ship’s course appeared on his screen as a pictorial diagram below tables of figures. Rod spoke with effort. “Approved.” Then he went back to the impossibly large object on his view screen. Suddenly he took out his pocket computer and scribbled madly across its face. Words and numbers flowed across the surface, and he nodded.

Of course light pressure could be used for propulsion.

In fact MacArthur did exactly that, using hydrogen fusion to generate photons and emitting them in an enormous spreading cone of light. A reflecting mirror could use outside light as propulsion and get twice the efficiency. Naturally the mirror should be as large as possible, and as light, and ideally it should reflect all the light that fell on it.

Blaine grinned to himself. He had been nerving himself to attack a space-going planet with his half-repaired battle cruiser! Naturally the computer had pictured an object that size as a globe. In reality it was probably a sheet of silvered fabric thousands of kilometers across, attached by adjustable shrouds to the mass that would be the ship proper.

In fact, with an albedo of one— Blaine sketched rapidly.

The light sail would need about eight million square kilometers of area. If circular, it would be about three thousand klicks across.

It was using light for thrust, so… Blaine called up the intruder’s deceleration, matched it to the total reflected light, divided… so. Sail and payload together massed about 450 thousand kilograms.

That didn’t sound dangerous.

In fact, it didn’t sound like a working spacecraft, not one that could cross thirty-five light years in normal space. The alien pilots would go mad with so little room—unless they were tiny, or liked enclosed spaces, or had spent the past several hundred years living in inflated balloons with filmy, lightweight walls… no. There was too little known and too much room for speculation. Still, there was nothing better to do. He fingered the knot on his nose.

Blaine was about to clear the screens, then thought again and increased the magnification. He stared at the result for a long time, then swore softly.

The intruder was heading straight into the sun.

MacArthur decelerated at nearly three gravities directly into orbit around Brigit; then she descended into the protective Langston Field of the base on the moonlet, a small black dart sinking toward a tremendous black pillow, the two joined by a thread of intense white. Without the Field to absorb the energy of thrust, the main drive would have burned enormous craters into the snowball moon.

The fueling station crew rushed to their tasks. Liquid hydrogen, electrolized from the mushy ice of Brigit and distilled after liquefaction, poured into MacArthur’s tankage complexes. At the same time Sinclair drove his men outside. Crewmen swarmed across the ship to take advantage of low gravity with the ship dirtside. Boatswains screamed at supply masters as Brigit was stripped of spare parts.

“Commander Frenzi requests permission to come aboard, sir,” the watch officer called. Rod grimaced. “Send him up.” He turned back to Sally Fowler, seated demurely in the watch midshipman’s seat.

“But don’t you understand, we’ll be accelerating at high gees all the way to intercept. You know what that feels like now. Besides, it’s a dangerous mission!”

“Pooh. Your orders were to take me to New Scotland,” she huffed. “They said nothing about stranding me on a snowball.”

“Those were general orders. If Cziller’s known we’d have to fight, he’d never have let you aboard. As captain of this ship, it’s my decision, and I say I’m not about to take Senator Fowler’s niece out to a possible battle.”

“Oh.” She thought for a moment. The direct approach hadn’t worked. “Rod. Listen. Please. You see this as a tremendous adventure, don’t you? How do you think I feel? Whether those are aliens or just lost colonists trying to find the Empire again, this is my field. It’s what I was trained for, and I’m the only anthropologist aboard. You need me.”

“We can do without. It’s too dangerous.”

“You’re letting Mr. Bury stay aboard.”

“Not letting. The Admiralty specifically ordered me to keep him in my ship. I don’t have discretion about him, but I do about you and your servants—”

“If it’s Adam and Annie you’re worried about, we’ll leave them here. They couldn’t take the acceleration anyway. But I can take anything you can, Captain My Lord Roderick Blaine. I’ve seen you after a hyperspace Jump, dazed, staring around, not knowing what to do, and I was able to leave my cabin and walk up here to the bridge! So don’t tell me how helpless I am! Now, are you going to let me stay here, or…”

“Or what?”

“Or nothing, of course. I know I can’t threaten you. Please, Rod?” She tried everything, including batting her eyes, and that was too much, because Rod burst out laughing.

“Commander Frenzi, sir,” the Marine sentry outside the bridge companionway announced.

“Come in, Romeo, come in,” Rod said more heartily than he felt. Frenzi was thirty-five, a good ten years older than Blaine, and Rod had served under him for three months of the most miserable duty he could ever recall. The man was a good administrator but a horrible ship’s officer.

Frenzi peered around the bridge, his jaw thrust forward. “Ah. Blaine. Where’s Captain Cziller?”

“On New Chicago,” Rod said pleasantly. “I’m master of MacArthur now.” He swiveled so that Frenzi could see the four rings on each sleeve.

Frenzi’s face became more craggy. His lips drooped.

“Congratulations.” Long pause. “Sir.”

“Thanks, Romeo. Still takes getting used to myself.”

“Well, I’ll go out and tell the troops not to hurry about the fueling, shall I?” Frenzi said. He turned to go.

“What the hell do you mean, not to hurry? I’ve got a double-A-one priority. Want to see the message?”

“I’ve seen it. They relayed a copy through my station, Blaine—uh, Captain. But the message makes it clear that Admiral Cranston thinks Cziller is still in command of MacArthur. I respectfully suggest, sir, that he would not have sent this ship to intercept a possible alien if he knew that her master was—was a young officer with his first command. Sir.”

Before Blaine could answer, Sally spoke. “I’ve seen the message, Commander, and it was addressed to MacArthur, not Cziller. And it gives the ship refueling priority…”

Frenzi regarded her coldly. “Lermontov will be quite adequate for this intercept, I think. If you’ll excuse me, Captain, I must get back to my station.” He glared at Sally again. “I didn’t know they were taking females out of uniform as midshipmen.”

“I happen to be Senator Fowler’s niece and aboard this ship under Admiralty orders, Commander,” she told him sternly. “I am astonished at your lack of manners. My family is not accustomed to such treatment, and I am certain my friends at Court will be shocked to find that an Imperial officer could be so rude.”

Frenzi blushed and looked around wildly. “My apologies, my lady. No insult intended, I assure you… I was merely surprised we don’t very often see girls aboard warships certainly not young ladies as attractive as you I beg your pardon…” His voice trailed off, still without punctuation, as he withdrew from the bridge.

“Now why couldn’t you react like that?” Sally wondered aloud.

Rod grinned at her, then jumped from his seat. “He’ll signal Cranston that I’m in command here! We have what, about an hour for a message to get to New Scotland, another for it to get back.” Rod stabbed at the intercom controls. “ALL HANDS. THIS IS THE CAPTAIN. LIFT-OFF IN ONE HUNDRED TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES. LIFT-OFF IN ONE HUNDRED TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES. IF YOU’RE NOT ABOARD WE’LL LEAVE YOU BEHIND.”

“That’s the way,” Sally shouted as encouragement. “Let him send his messages.” While Blaine turned to hurry his crew along, she left the bridge to go hide in her cabin.

Rod made another call. “Commander Sinclair. Let me know if there’s any delay out there.” If Frenzi slowed him down, Blaine just might be able to get him shot. He’d certainly try… long ago he’d daydreamed of having Frenzi shot.

The reports came in. Cargill came onto the bridge with a sheaf of transfer orders and a satisfied look. MacArthur’s boatswains, copies of the priority message in hand, had gone looking for the best men on Brigit.

New crew and old hands swarmed around the ship, yanking out damaged equipment and hurriedly thrusting in spares from Brigit’s supply depot, running checkout procedures and rushing to the next job. Other replacement parts were stored as they arrived. Later they could be used to replace Sinclair’s melted-looking jury rigs… if anyone could figure out how. It was difficult enough telling what was inside one of those standardized black boxes. Rod spotted a microwave heater and routed it to the wardroom; Cargill would like that.

When the fueling was nearly finished, Rod donned his pressure suit and went outside. His inspection wasn’t needed, but it helped crew morale to know that the Old Man was looking over everyone’s shoulder. While he was out there, Rod looked for the intruder.

The Face of God stared at him across space.

The Coal Sack was a nebular mass of dust and gas, small as such things go—twenty-four to thirty light years thick—but dense, and close enough to New Caledonia to block off a quarter of the sky. Earth and the Imperial Capital, Sparta, were forever invisible on its other side. The spreading blackness hid most of the Empire, but it made a fine velvet backdrop for two close, brilliant stars.

Even without that backdrop, Murcheson’s Eye was the brightest star in the sky—a great red giant thirty-five light years distant. The white fleck at one edge was a yellow dwarf companion star, smaller and dimmer and less interesting: the Mote. Here the Coal Sack had the shape of a hooded man, head and shoulders; and the off-centered red supergiant became a watchful, malevolent eye.

The Face of God. It was a famous sight throughout the Empire, this extraordinary view of the Coal Sack from New Cal. But standing here in the cold of space it was different. In a picture it looked like the Coal Sack. Here it was real.

And something he couldn’t see was coming at him out of the Mote in God’s Eye.

6. The Light Sail

One gravity only—with queasy sensations as MacArthur lined up on her proper interception course. Elastic webbing held him in the acceleration chair during these few moments of changing but normal gravity—minutes, Rod suspected, that he’d soon look back on with wistful longing.

Kevin Renner had been mate of an interstellar trading vessel before joining MacArthur as her sailing master. He was a lean man with a narrow face, and he was ten years older than Blaine. As Rod steered his acceleration chair up behind him, Renner was matching curves in a view screen; and his self-satisfied grin was not the expression of a Navy man.

“Got our course, Lieutenant Renner?”

“Yes, sir,” Kevin Renner said with relish. “Right into the sun at four gees!”

Blaine gave in to the desire to call his bluff. “Move her.”

The warning alarms sounded and MacArthur accelerated. Crew and passengers felt their weight settle gradually deeper into beds and chairs and couches, and they nerved themselves for several days of weighing far too much.

“You were joking, weren’t you?” Blaine asked.

The Sailing Master looked at him quizzically. “You knew we were dealing with a light-sail propulsion system, sir?”

“Naturally.”

“Then look here.” Renner’s nimble fingers made a green curve on the view screen, a parabola rising sharply at the right. “Sunlight per square centimeter falling on a light-sail decreases as the square of the distance from the star. Acceleration varies directly as the sunlight reflected from the sail.”

“Of course, Mr. Renner. Make your point.”

Renner made another parabola, very like the first, but in blue. “The stellar wind can also propel a light sail. Thrust varies about the same way. The important difference is that the stellar wind is atomic nuclei. They stick where they hit the sail. The momentum is transferred directly—and it’s all radial to the sun.”

“You can’t tack against it,” Blaine realized suddenly. “You can tack against the light by tilting the sail, but the stellar wind always thrusts you straight away from the sun.”

“Right. So, Captain, suppose you were coming into a system at 7 percent of the speed of light, God forbid, and you wanted to stop. What would you do?”

“Drop all the weight I could,” Blaine mused. “Hmm. I don’t see how it’d be a problem. They must have launched the same way.”

“I don’t think they did. They’re moving too fast. But pass that for a minute. What counts is they’re moving too fast to stop unless they get very close to the sun, very close indeed. The intruder is in fact diving right into the sun. Probably it will tack hard after the sunlight has decelerated it enough… provided the vessel hasn’t melted and the shrouds haven’t parted or the sail ripped. But it is such a close thing that they simply have to skydive; they have no choice.”

“Ah,” said Blaine.

“One need hardly mention,” Renner added, “that when we match course with them, we too will be moving straight toward the sun…

“At 7 percent of the speed of light?”

“At 6. The intruder will have slowed somewhat by then. It will take us one hundred twenty-five hours, doing four gees most of the way, slowing somewhat near the end.”

“That’s going to be hard on everybody,” Blaine said. And suddenly he wondered, belatedly, if Sally Fowler had in fact gotten off. “Especially the passengers. Couldn’t you give me an easier course?”

“Yes, sir,” Renner said instantly. “I can pull alongside in one hundred and seventy-hours without ever going over two and a half gees—and save some fuel too, because the probe will have more time to slow down. The course we’re on now gets us to New Ireland with dry tanks, assuming we take the intruder under tow.”

“Dry tanks. But you liked this course better.” Rod was learning to dislike the Sailing Master and his grin that constantly implied that the Captain had forgotten something crucial and obvious. “Tell me why,” he suggested.

“It occurred to me the intruder might be hostile.”

“Yes. So?”

“If we were to match courses with him and he disabled the engines…”

“We’d be falling into the sun at 6 percent of light speed. Right. So you match us up as far from Cal as possible, to leave time to do something about it.”

“Yessir. Exactly.”

“Right. You’re enjoying this, aren’t you, Mr. Renner?”

“I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, sir. What about you?”

“Carry on, Mr. Renner.” Blaine guided his acceleration chair to another screen and began checking the Sailing Master’s course. Presently he pointed out that the Sailing Master could give them nearly an hour at one gee just before intercept, thereby giving everyone a chance to recuperate. Renner agreed with idiot enthusiasm and went to work on the change.

“I can use friends aboard my ship,” Captain Cziller used to tell his midshipmen, “but I’d sell them all for a competent sailing master.” Renner was competent. Renner was also a smartass; but that was a good bargain. Rod would settle for a competent smartass.

At four gravities nobody walked; nobody lifted anything. The black box replacements in the hold stayed there while MacArthur ran on Sinclair’s makeshifts. Most of the crew worked from their cots, or from mobile chairs, or didn’t work at all.

In crew sections they played elaborate word games, or speculated on the coming encounter, or told stories. Half the screens on the ship showed the same thing: a disc like the sun, with Murcheson’s Eye behind it and the Coal Sack as background.

The telltales in Sally’s cabin showed oxygen consumption. Rod said words of potent and evil magic under his breath. He almost called her then, but postponed it. He called Bury instead.

Bury was in the gee bath: a film of highly elastic mylar over liquid. Only his face and hands showed above the curved surface. His face looked old—it almost showed his true age.

“Captain, you chose not to put me off on Brigit. Instead, you are taking a civilian into possible combat. Might I ask why?”

“Of course, Mr. Bury. I supposed it would be most inconvenient for you to be stranded on a ball of ice with no assured transportation. Perhaps I was mistaken.”

Bury smiled—or tried to. Every man aboard looked twice his age, with four times gravity pulling down on the skin of his face. Bury’s smile was like weight lifting. “No, Captain, you were not mistaken. I saw your orders in the wardroom. So. We are on our way to meet a nonhuman spacecraft.”

“It certainly looks that way.”

“Perhaps they will have things to trade. Especially if they come from a nonterrestrial world. We can hope. Captain, would you keep me posted on what is happening?’

“I will probably not have the time,” Blaine said, choosing the most civil of several answers that occurred to him.

“Yes, of course, I didn’t mean personally. I only want access to information on our progress. At my age I dare not move from this rubber bathtub for the duration of our voyage. How long will we be under four gees?”

“One hundred and twenty-five hours. One twenty-four, now.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Bury vanished from the Screen.

Rod rubbed thoughtfully at the knot on his nose. Did Bury know his status aboard MacArthur? It couldn’t be important. He called Sally’s cabin.

She looked as if she hadn’t slept in a week or smiled in years. Blaine said, “Hello, Sally. Sorry you came?”

“I told you I can take anything you can take,” Sally said calmly. She gripped the arms of her chair and stood up. She let go and spread her arms to show how capable she was.

“Be careful,” Blaine said, trying to keep his voice steady. “No sudden moves. Keep your knees straight. You can break your back just sitting down. Now stay erect, but reach behind you. Get both the chair arms in your hands before you try to bend at the waist—”

She didn’t believe it was dangerous, not until she started to sit down. Then the muscles in her arms knotted, panic flared in her eyes, and she sat much too abruptly, as if MacArthur’s gravity had sucked her down.

“Are you hurt?”

“No,” she said. “Only my pride.”

“Then you stay in that chair, damn your eyes! Do you see me standing up? You do not. And you won’t!”

“All right.” She turned her head from side to side. She was obviously dizzy from the jolt.

“Did you get your servants off?”

“Yes. I had to trick them—they wouldn’t have gone without my baggage.” She laughed an old woman’s laugh. “I’m wearing everything I own until we get to New Caledonia.”

“Tricked them, did you? The way you tricked me. I should have had Kelley put you off.” Rod’s voice was bitter. He knew he looked twice his age, a cripple in a wheel chair. “All right, you’re aboard. I can’t put you off now.”

“But I may be able to help. I am an anthropologist.” She winced at the thought of trying to get up again. “Can I get you on the intercom?”

“You’ll get the middie of the watch. Tell him if you really need to talk to me. But, Sally—this is a warship. Those aliens may not be friendly. For God’s sake remember that; my watch officers haven’t time for scientific discussion in the middle of a battle!”

“I know that. You might give me credit for a little sense.” She tried to laugh. “Even if I don’t know better than to stand up at four gees.”

“Yeah. Now do me another favor. Get into your gee bath.”

“Do I have to take my clothes off to use it?”

Blaine couldn’t blush; there wasn’t enough blood flowing to his head. “It’s a good idea, especially if you’ve got buckles. Turn off the vision pickup on the phone.”

“Right.”

“And be careful. I could send one of the married ratings to help—”

“No, thank you.”

“Then wait. We’ll have a few minutes of lower gee at intervals. Don’t get out of that chair alone in high gee!”

She didn’t even look tempted. One experience was enough.

Lermontov’s calling again,” Whitbread announced.

“Forget it. Don’t acknowledge.”

“Aye aye, sir. Do not acknowledge.”

Rod could guess what the cruiser wanted. Lermontov wanted first crack at the intruder—but MacArthur’s sister ship wouldn’t even get close to the aliens before the approach to the sun was just too close. Better to intercept out where there was some room.

At least that’s what Rod told himself. He could trust Whitbread and the communications people; Lermontov’s signals wouldn’t be in the log.

Three and a half days. Two minutes of 1.5 gee every four hours to change the watch, grab forgotten articles, shift positions; then the warning horns sounded, the jolt meters swung over, and too much weight returned.

At first MacArthur’s bow had pointed sixty degrees askew of Cal. They had to line up with the intruder’s course. With that accomplished, MacArthur turned again. Her bow pointed at the brightest star in the heavens.

Cal began to grow. He also changed color, but minutely. No one would notice that blue shift with the naked eye. What the men did see in the screens was that the brightest star had become a disc and was growing hourly.

It didn’t grow brighter because the screens kept it constant; but the tiny sun disc grew ominously larger, and it lay directly ahead. Behind them was another disc of the same color, the white of an F8 star. It, too, grew hourly larger. MacArthur was sandwiched between two colliding suns.

On the second day Staley brought a new midshipman up to the bridge, both moving in traveling acceleration chairs. Except for a brief interview on Brigit, Rod hadn’t met him: Gavin Potter, a sixteen-year-old boy from New Scotland. Potter was tall for his age; he seemed to hunch in upon himself, as if afraid to be noticed.

Blaine thought Potter was merely being shown about the ship; a good idea, since if the intruder turned out hostile, the boy might have to move about MacArthur with total familiarity—possibly in darkness and variable gravity.

Staley obviously had more in mind. Blaine realized they were trying to get his attention. “Yes, Mr. Staley?”

“This is Midshipman Gavin Potter, sir,” Staley said. “He’s told me something I think you ought to hear.”

“All right, go ahead.” Any diversion from high gravity was welcome.

“There was a church in our street, sir. In a farm town on New Scotland.” Potter’s voice was soft and low, and he spoke carefully so that he blotted out all but a ghostly remnant of the brogue that made Sinclair’s speech so distinctive.

“A church,” Blaine said encouragingly. “Not an orthodox church, I take it—”

“No, sir. A Church of Him. There aren’t many members. A friend and I snuck inside once, for a joke.”

“Did you get caught?”

“I know I’m telling this badly, sir. The thing is— There was a big blowup of an old holo of Murcheson’s Eye against the Coal Sack. The Face of God, just like on postcards. Only, only it was different in this picture. The Eye was very much brighter than now, and it was blue green, not red. With a red dot at one edge.”

“It could have been a portrait,” Blaine suggested. He took out his pocket computer and scrawled “Church of Him” across its face, then punched for information. The box Linked with the ship’s library, and information began to roll across its face. “It says the Church of Him believes that the Coal Sack, with that one red eye showing, really is the Face of God. Couldn’t they have retouched it to make the eye more impressive?” Rod continued to sound interested; time enough to say something about wasting his time when the middies were through. If they were wasting time…

“But—” said Potter.

“Sir—” said Staley, leaning too far forward in his chair.

“One at a time. Mr. Staley?”

“I didn’t just ask Potter, sir. I checked with Commander Sinclair. He says his grandfather told him the Mote was once brighter than Murcheson’s Eye, and bright green. And the way Gavin’s describing that holo—well, sir, stars don’t radiate all one color. So—”

“All the more reason to think the holo was retouched. But it is funny, with that intruder coming straight out of the Mote…”

“Light,” Potter said firmly.

“Light sail!” Rod shouted in sudden realization. “Good thinking.” The whole bridge crew turned to look at the Captain. “Renner! Did you say the intruder is moving faster than it ought to be?”

“Yes, sir,” Renner answered from his station across the bridge. “If it was launched from a habitable world circling the Mote.”

“Could it have used a battery of laser cannon?”

“Sure, why not?” Renner wheeled over. “In fact, you could launch with a small battery, then add more cannon as the vehicle got farther and farther away. You get a terrific advantage that way. If one of the cannon breaks down you’ve got it right there in your system to repair it.”

“Like leaving your motor home,” Potter cried, “and you still able to use it.”

“Well, there are efficiency problems. Depending on how tight the beam can be held,” Renner answered. “Pity you couldn’t use it for braking, too. Have you any reason to believe—”

Rod left them telling the Sailing Master about the variations in the Mote. For himself, he didn’t particularly care. His problem was, what would the intruder do now?

It was twenty hours to rendezvous when Renner came to Blaine’s post and asked to use the Captain’s screens. The man apparently could not talk without a view screen connected to a computer. He would be mute with only his voice.

“Captain, look,” he said, and threw a plot of the local stellar region on the screen. “The intruder came from here. Whoever launched it fired a laser cannon, or a set of laser cannon—probably a whole mess of them on asteroids, with mirrors to focus them—for about forty-five years, so the intruder would have a beam to travel on. The beam and the intruder both came straight in from the Mote.”

“But there’d be records,” Blaine said. “Somebody would have seen that the Mote was putting out coherent light.”

Renner shrugged. “How good are New Scotland’s records?”

“Let’s just see.” It took only moments to learn that astronomical data from New Scotland were suspect, and no such records were carried in MacArthur’s library because of that. “Oh, well. Let’s assume you’re right.”

“But that’s the point: it’s not right, Captain,” Renner protested. “You see, it is possible to turn in interstellar space. What they should have done—”

The new path left the Mote at a slight angle to the first. “Again they coast most of the way. At this point”—where the intruder would have been well past New Cal—”we charge the ship up to ten million volts. The background magnetic field of the Galaxy gives the ship a half turn, and it’s coming toward the New Caledonia system from behind. Meanwhile, whoever is operating the beam has turned it off for a hundred and fifty years. Now he turns it on again. The probe uses the beam for braking.

“You sure that magnetic effect would work?”

“It’s high school physics! And the interstellar magnetic fields have been well mapped, Captain.”

“Well, then, why didn’t they use it?”

“I don’t know,” Renner cried in frustration. “Maybe they just didn’t think of it. Maybe they were afraid the lasers wouldn’t last. Maybe they didn’t trust whoever they left behind to run them. Captain, we just don’t know enough about them.”

I know that, Renner. Why get in such a sweat about it? If our luck holds, we’ll just damn well ask them.”

A slow, reluctant smile broke across Renner’s face. “But that’s cheating.”

“Oh, go get some sleep.”

Rod woke to the sound of the speakers: “GRAVITY SHIFT IN TEN MINUTES. STAND BY FOR CHANGE TO ONE STANDARD GRAVITY IN TEN MINUTES.”

Blaine smiled—one gravity!—and felt the smile tighten. One hour to match velocities with the intruder. He activated his watch screens, to see a blaze of light fore and aft. MacArthur was sandwiched between two suns. Now Cal was as large as Sol seen from Venus, but brighter.

Cal was a hotter star. The intruder was a smaller disc, but brighter still. The sail was concave.

It was effort merely to use the intercom. “Sinclair.”

“Engineering, aye aye, Captain.”

Rod was pleased to see that Sinclair was in a hydraulic bed. “How’s the Field holding, Sandy?”

“Verra well, Captain. Temperature steady.”

“Thank you.” Rod was pleased. The Langston Field absorbed energy; that was its basic function. It absorbed even the kinetic energy of exploding gas or radiation particles, with an efficiency proportional to the cube of the incoming velocities. In battle, the hellish fury of hydrogen torpedoes, and the concentrated photon energies of lasers, would strike the Field and be dispersed, absorbed, contained. As the energy levels increased, the Field would begin to glow, its absolute black becoming red, orange, yellow, climbing up the spectrum toward the violet.

That was the basic problem of the Langston Field. The energy had to be radiated away; if the Field overloaded, it would release all the stored energy in a blinding white flash, radiating inward, as well as outward. It took ship’s power to prevent that—and that power was added to the Field’s stored energies as well. When the Field grew too hot, ships died. Quickly.

Normally a warship could get hellishly near a sun without being in mortal danger, her Field never growing hotter than the temperature of the star plus the amounts added to maintain control of the Field. Now, with a sun before and another behind, the Field could radiate only to the sides—and that had to be controlled or MacArthur would experience lateral accelerations. The sides were getting narrower and the suns bigger and the Field hotter. A tinge of red showed on Rod’s screens. It wasn’t an impending disaster, but it had to be watched.

Normal gravity returned. Rod moved quickly to the bridge and nodded to the watch midshipman. “General quarters. Battle stations.”

Alarms hooted through the ship.

For 124 hours the intruder had shown no awareness of MacArthur’s approach. It showed none now; and it drew steadily closer.

The light sail was a vast expanse of uniform white across the aft screens, until Renner found a small black dot. He played with it until he had a large black dot, sharp edged, whose radar shadow showed it four thousand kilometers closer to MacArthur than the sail behind it.

“That’s our target, sir,” Renner announced. “They probably put everything in one pod, everything that wasn’t part of the tail. One weight at the end of the shrouds to hold the sail steady.”

“Right. Get us alongside it, Mr. Renner. Mr. Whitbread! My compliments to the Yeoman of Signals, and I want to send messages in clear. As many bands as he can cover, low power.”

“Yes, sir. Recording.”

“Hello, light-sail vessel. This is Imperial Ship MacArthur. Give our recognition signals. Welcome to New Caledonia and the Empire of Man. We wish to come alongside. Please acknowledge. Send that in Anglic, Russian, French, Chinese, and anything else you can think of. If they’re human there’s no telling where they’re from.” Fifteen minutes to match. Ship’s gravity changed, changed again as Renner began to match velocities and positions with the intruder’s cargo pod instead of the sail.

Rod took a moment to answer Sally’s call. “Make it fast, Sally. If you please. We’re under battle conditions.”

“Yes, Rod, I know. May I come to the bridge?”

“Afraid not. All seats occupied.”

“I’m not surprised. Rod, I just wanted to remind you of something. Don’t expect them to be simple.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Just because they don’t use Alderson Drive, you’ll expect them to be primitive. Don’t. And even if they were primitive, primitive doesn’t mean simple. Their techniques and ways of thought may be very complex.”

“I’ll keep it in mind. Anything else? OK, hang on, Sally. Whitbread, when you’ve got no other duties, let Miss Fowler know what’s going on,” He closed the intercom from his mind and looked at the stern screen even as Staley shouted.

The intruder’s light sail was rippling. Reflected light ran across it in great, ponderous, wavy lines. Rod blinked but it didn’t help; it is very difficult to see the shape of a distorted mirror. “That could be our signal,” Rod said. “They’re using the mirror to flash—”

The glare became blinding, and all the screens on that side went dead.

The forward scanners were operative and recording. They showed a wide white disc, the star New Caledonia, very close, and approaching very fast, 6 percent of the velocity of light; and they showed it with most of the light filtered away.

For a moment they also showed several odd black silhouettes against that white background. Nobody noticed, in that terrible moment when MacArthur was burned blind; and in the next moment the images were gone.

Kevin Renner spoke into the stunned silence: “They didn’t have to shout,” he complained.

“Thank you, Mr. Renner,” Rod said icily. “Have you other, perhaps more concrete suggestions?”

MacArthur was moving in erratic jolts, but the light sail followed her perfectly. “Yes, sir,” Renner said. “We’d do well to leave focus of that mirror.”

“Damage control, Captain,” Cargill reported from his station aft. “We’re getting a lot of energy into the Field. Too much and damned fast, with none of it going anywhere. If it were concentrated it would burn holes in us, but the way it washes across, we can hold maybe ten minutes.”

“Captain, I’ll steer around behind the sail,” Renner said. “At least we’ve got sun-side scanners, and I can remember where the pod was—”

“Never mind that. Take us through the sail,” Rod ordered.

“But we don’t know—”

“That was an order, Mr. Renner. And you’re in a Navy ship.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

The Field was brick red and growing brighter; but red wasn’t dangerous. Not for a while.

As Renner worked the ship, Rod said casually, “You may be assuming the aliens are using unreasonably strong materials. Are you?”

“It’s a possibility, sir.” MacArthur jolted; she was committed now. Renner seemed to be bracing himself for a shock.

“But the stronger the materials are, Mr. Renner, the thinner they will spread them, so as to pick up the maximum amount of sunlight for the weight. If they have very strong thread they will weave it thin to get more square kilometers per kilo, right? Even if meteors later get a few square km of sail, well, they still made a profit, didn’t they? So they’ll make it just strong enough.”

“Yes, sir,” Renner sang. He was driving at four gees, keeping Cal directly astern; he was grinning like a thief, and he was no longer bracing himself for the crash.

Well, I convinced him, Rod thought; and braced himself for the crash.

The Langston Field was yellow with heat.

Then, suddenly, the sunward scanners showed black except for the green-hot edge of MacArthur’s own Field, and a ragged blazing silhouette of white where MacArthur had ripped through the intruder’s sail.

“Hell, we never felt it!” Rod laughed. “Mr. Renner. How long before we impact the sun?”

“Forty-five minutes, sir. Unless we do something about it.”

“First things first, Mr. Renner. You keep us matched up with the sail, and right here.” Rod activated another circuit to reach the Gunnery Officer. “Crawford! Put some light on that sail and see if you can find the shroud connections. I want you to cut the pod off that parachute before they fire on us again!”

“Aye aye, sir.” Crawford seemed happy at the prospect. There were thirty-two shrouds in all: twenty-four around the edge of the circular fabric mirror and a ring of eight nearer the center. Conical distortions in the fabric told where they were. The back of the sail was black; it flashed to vapor under the pinpoint attack of the forward laser batteries.

Then the sail was loose, billowing and rippling as it floated toward MacArthur. Again the ship swept through, as if the light sail were so many square kilometers of tissue paper.

And the intruder’s pod was falling loose toward an F8 sun.

“Thirty-five minutes to impact,” Renner said without being asked.

“Thank you, Mr. Renner. Commander Cargill, take the con. You will take that pod in tow.”

And Rod felt a wild internal glee at Renner’s astonishment.

7. The Crazy Eddie Probe

“But—” said Renner and pointed at Cal’s growing image on the bridge screens. Before he could say anything else MacArthur leaped ahead at six gees, no smooth transition this time. Jolt meters swung wildly as the ship hurtled straight toward the looming sun.

“Captain?” Through the roaring blood in his ears Blaine heard his exec call from the after bridge. “Captain, how much damage can we sustain?”

It was an effort to speak. “Anything that’ll get us home,” Rod gasped.

“Roger.” Cargill’s orders sounded through the intercom. “Mr. Potter! Is hangar deck clear to vacuum? All shuttles stowed?”

“Yes, sir.” The question was irrelevant under battle conditions, but Cargill was a careful man.

“Open the hangar doors,” Cargill ordered. “Captain, we might lose the hangar deck hatches.”

“Rape ‘em.”

“I’m bringing the pod aboard fast, no time to match velocities. We’ll take damage—”

“You have the con, Commander. Carry out your orders.” There was a red haze on the bridge. Rod blinked, but it was still there, not in the air but in his retinas. Six gravities was too much for sustained effort. If anyone fainted—well, they’d miss all the excitement.

“Kelley!” Rod barked. “When we turn ship, take the Marines aft and stand by to intercept anything coming out of that pod! And you’d better move fast. Cargill won’t hold acceleration.”

“Aye aye, sir.” Six gravities and Kelley’s gravel rasp was the same as ever.

The pod was three thousand kilometers ahead, invisible even to the clearest vision, but growing steadily on the bridge screens, steadily but slowly, much too slowly, even as Cal seemed to grow too fast.

Four minutes at six gravities. Four minutes of agony, then the alarms hooted. There was a moment of blessed relief. Kelley’s Marines clattered through the ship, diving in the low, shifting gravity as MacArthur turned end for end. There wouldn’t be acceleration couches back there where the Marines would cover hangar deck. Webbing straps to suspend the men in corridors, others in the hangar space itself hung like flies in a spider web, weapons ready—ready for what?

The alarms sounded, and jolt meters swung again as MacArthur braked toward the pod. Rod turned his screen controls with an effort. There was hangar deck, cold and dark, the fuzzy outline of the inner surface of the ship’s defensive field an impossible black. Good, he thought. No significant heat storage. Plenty of capacity to take up the rotational energy of the pod if it had any, slow down the impact to something that MacArthur might be able to handle.

Eight minutes at six gees, the maximum the crew would be able to stand. Then the intruder was no longer ahead as MacArthur turned and fell toward it sidewise. The crushing acceleration ended, then there was low side thrust as Cargill fired the port batteries to slow their headlong rush to the pod.

It was cylindrical, with one rounded end, tumbling through space. As it turned Rod saw that the other end was jagged with a myriad of projections—thirty-two projections? But there should have been shrouds trailing from those knobs, and there was nothing.

It was moving up to MacArthur far too fast, and it was too big to fit in the hangar deck. The thing was massive, too damn massive! And there was nothing to brake with to the sides but the port batteries!

It was here. Hangar deck camera showed the rounded end of the intruder, dull and metallic, pushing through the Langston Field, slowing, the rotation stopping, but still it moved relative to MacArthur. The battle cruiser surged sidewise, terribly, throwing the crew against their harness straps, while the rounded end of the pod grew and grew and—CRUNCH!

Rod shook his head to clear it of the red mist which had formed again. “Get us out of here. Mr. Renner, take the con!”

Jolt meters swung before the acceleration alarms; Renner must have set up the course in advance and slapped the keys the instant he was given control. Blaine peered at the dials through the crimson mist. Good, Renner wasn’t trying anything fancy; just blast lateral to MacArthur’s course and let the sun whip her around. Were they accelerating in the plane of Cal’s planets? Be tricky to rendezvous with Lermontov for hydrogen. If they couldn’t bring Mac in on this pass, she’d have dry tanks… fuzzily Blaine touched display controls and watched as the main computer showed a course plot. Yes. Renner had set it up properly, and fast work too.

Let him do it, Rod thought. Renner’s competent, better astrogator than I am. Time to inspect the ship. What happened to her when we took that thing aboard? But all the screens covering that area were blank, cameras burned off or smashed. Outside it wasn’t much better. “Fly her blind, Mr. Renner,” Blaine ordered. “Cameras would just boil off anyway. Wait until we’re moving away from Cal.”

“Damage report, Skipper.”

“Go ahead, Commander Cargill.”

“We’ve got the intruder clamped in with the hangar doors. It’s jammed in solid, I don’t think we can rattle it around with normal acceleration. I don’t have a full report, but that hangar deck will never be the same, sir.”

“Anything major, Number One?”

“No, sir. I could give you the whole list—minor problems, things jarred loose, equipment failed under impact stress—but it boils down to this: if we don’t have to fight, we’re in good shape.”

“Fine. Now see what you can get me from the Marines. The com lines to Kelley’s station seem to be out.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Somebody would have to move around at six gees to carry out that order, Blaine thought. Hope to God he can do it in a travel chair. A man might just slither along under that strain, but he wouldn’t be good for much afterwards. Was it worth it? For probably negative information? But suppose it wasn’t negative…

“Marine Corporal Pietrov reporting to Captain, sir.” Thick accent of St. Ekaterina. “No activity from intruder, sir.”

“Cargill here, Captain,” another voice added.

“Yes.”

“Do you need Kelley? Mr. Potter was able to get a line to Pietrov without leaving his scooter, but there’s a problem if he has to go further.”

“Pietrov’s fine, Number One. Good work, Potter. Corporal, can you see Mr. Kelley? Is he all right?”

“The Gunner’s waved at me, sir. He is on duty in number-two air lock.”

“Good. Report any activity by intruder immediately, Corporal.” Blaine switched off as the warning horns sounded again. Fifty kilos lifted from his chest as the ship’s acceleration cased. Tricky thing, this, he thought. Got to balance between getting too close to Cal and cooking the crew, and just killing everybody from the gee stress.

At his station forward, one of the helmsmen leaned against the padding of his couch. His partner leaned against him to touch helmets. For an instant they cut their mikes while Quartermaster’s Mate First Class Orontez spoke to his partner. “My brother wanted me to help him with his wet-ranch on Aphrodite and I thought it was too goddamn dangerous. So I joined the flipping Navy.”

“Commander Sinclair, have we enough energy for a report to Fleet?”

“Aye, Skipper, the engines hold verra well indeed. Yon object is nae so massive as we thought, and we’ve hydrogen to spare.”

“Good.” Blaine called the communications room to send out his report. Intruder aboard. Cylinder, ratio of axes four to one. Uniform metallic in appearance but close inspection impossible until acceleration eases off. Suggest Lermontov attempt to recover the sail, which would decelerate rapidly with no pod ahead of it. Estimated time of arrival, New Scotland… suggest MacArthur put into orbit around uninhabited moon of New Scotland. No evidence of life or activity aboard alien, but…

It was a very large “but,” Rod thought. Just what was that thing? Had it fired on him deliberately? Was it under command, or what kind of robot could pilot it across light years of normal space? What would it, whoever or whatever was commanding it, think of being stuffed into the hangar deck of a battle cruiser, cut loose from its shrouds.

Hell of an undignified end to thirty-five light years of travel.

And there was nothing he could do to find out. Nothing at all. MacArthur’s situation wasn’t so critical, Renner had her well under control; but neither Blaine nor Cargill could leave his station, and he wasn’t about to send junior officers to investigate that thing.

“Is it over?” Sally’s voice was plaintive. “Is everything all right?”

“Yes.” Rod shuddered involuntarily as he thought of what might have happened. “Yes, it’s aboard and we’ve seen nothing about it other than its size. It won’t answer signals.” Now why did he feel a little twinge of satisfaction because she’d just have to wait like the rest of them?

MacArthur plunged on, whipping around Cal so close that there was a measurable drag from the corona; but Renner’s astrogation was perfect and the Field held nicely.

They waited.

At two gravities Rod could leave the bridge. He stood with an effort, transferred to a scooter, and started aft. The elevators let him “down” as he moved through the ship, and he stopped at each deck to note the alert crewmen still at their posts despite being at general quarters too long. MacArthur had to be the best ship in the Navy… and he’d keep her that way!

When he reached Kelley’s position at the air lock to hangar deck, there was still nothing new.

“You can see there’s hatches or something there, sir,”

Kelley said. He pointed with a flash. As the light flicked up the alien craft Rod saw the ruins of his boats crushed against the steel decks.

“And it’s done nothing?”

“Not one thing, Captain. It come in, whapped against the decks—like to threw me into a bulkhead; that thing didn’t come in fast but she come down hard. Then, nothing. My files, me, the middies who keep swarming around here, none of us seen a thing, Cap’n,”

“Just as well,” Rod muttered. He took out his own light and played it on the enormous cylinder. The upper half vanished into the uniform black of the Field.

His light swept across a row of conical knobs; each a meter in diameter and three times that in length. He searched, but there was nothing there—no tag ends of the shrouds which ought to be hanging from them, no visible opening in the knob through which the shroud could have been reeled. Nothing.

“Keep watching it, Kelley. I want continuous surveillance.” Captain Rod Blaine went back to the bridge with no more information than he’d had before and sat staring at his screens. Unconsciously his hand moved to rub the bridge of his nose.

Just what in God’s name had he caught?

8. The Alien

Blaine stood rigidly at attention before the massive desk. Fleet Admiral Howland Cranston, Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s forces beyond the Coal Sack, glared across a rose-teak desk whose exquisite carvings would have fascinated Rod if he’d been at liberty to examine them. The Admiral fingered a thick sheaf of papers.

“Know what these are, Captain?”

“No, sir.”

“Requests that you be dismissed from the Service. Half the faculty at Imperial University. Couple of padres from the Church and one Bishop. Secretary of the Humanity League. Every bleeding heart this side of the Coal Sack wants your scalp.”

“Yes, sir.” There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. Rod stood at stiff attention, waiting for it to be over. What would his father think? Would anyone understand?

Cranston glared again. There was no expression in his eyes at all. His undress uniform was shapeless. Miniatures of a dozen decorations told the story of a commander who’d ruthlessly driven himself and his subordinates beyond any hope of survival.

“The man who fired on the first alien contact the human race ever made,” Cranston said coldly. “Crippled their probe. You know we only found one passenger, and he’s dead? Life-system failure, maybe,” Cranston fingered the sheaf of papers and viciously thrust them away. “Damned civilians, they always end up influencing the Navy. They leave me no choice.

“All right. Captain Blaine, as Fleet Admiral of this Sector I hereby confirm your promotion to captain and assign you to command of His Majesty’s battle cruiser MacArthur. Now sit down.” As Rod dazedly looked for a chair, Cranston grunted. “That’ll show the bastards. Try to tell me how to run my command, will they? Blaine, you’re the luckiest officer in the Service. A board would have confirmed your promotion anyway, but without this you’d never have kept that ship.”

“Yes. Sir.” It was true enough, but that couldn’t keep the note of pride out of Rod’s voice. And MacArthur was his— “Sir? Have they found out anything about the probe? Since we left the probe in orbit I’ve been busy in the Yards getting MacArthur refitted.”

“We’ve opened it, Captain. I’m not sure I believe what we found, but we’ve got inside the thing. We found this.” He produced an enlarged photograph.

The creature was stretched out on a laboratory table. The scale beside it showed that it was small, 1.24 meters from top of head to what Rod at first thought were shoes, then decided were its feet. There were no toes, although a ridge of what might have been horn covered the forward edges.

The rest was a scrambled nightmare. There were two slender right arms ending in delicate hands, four fingers and two opposed thumbs on each. On the left side was a single massive arm, virtually a club of flesh, easily bigger than both right arms combined. Its hand was three thick fingers closed like a vise.

Cripple? Mutation? The creature was symmetrical below where its waist would have been; from the waist up it was—different.

The torso was lumpy. The musculature was more complex than that of men. Rod could not discern the basic bone structure beneath.

The arms—well, they made a weird kind of sense. The elbows of the right arms fitted too well, like nested plastic cups. Evolution had done that. The creature was not a cripple.

The head was the worst.

There was no neck. The massive muscles of the left shoulder sloped smoothly up to the top of the alien’s head. The left side of the skull blended into the left shoulder and was much larger than the right. There was no left ear and no room for one. A great membranous goblin’s ear decorated the right side, above a narrow shoulder that would have been almost human except that there was a similar shoulder below and slightly behind the first.

The face was like nothing he had ever seen. On such a head it should not even have been a face. But there were two symmetrical slanted eyes, wide open in death, very human, somehow oriental. There was a mouth, expressionless, with the lips slightly parted to show points of teeth.

“Well, how do you like him?”

Rod answered, “I’m sorry it’s dead. I can think of a million questions to ask it— There was only this one?”

“Yes. Only him, inside the ship. Now look at this.”

Cranston touched a corner of his desk to reveal a recessed control panel. Curtains on the wall to Rod’s left parted and the room lights dimmed. A screen lighted uniformly white.

Shadows suddenly shot in from the edges, dwindled as they converged toward the center, and were gone, all in a few seconds.

“We took that off your sun-side cameras, the ones that weren’t burned off. Now I’ll slow it down.”

Shadows moved jerkily inward on a white background. There were half a dozen showing when the Admiral stopped the film.

“Well?”

“They look like—like that,” said Rod.

“Glad you think so. Now watch.” The projector started again. The odd shapes dwindled, converged, and disappeared, not as if they had dwindled to infinity, but as if they had evaporated.

“But that shows passengers being ejected from the probe and burned up by the light sail. What sense does that make?”

“It doesn’t. And you can find forty explanations out at the university. Picture’s not too clear anyway. Notice how distorted they were? Different sizes, different shapes. No way to tell if they were alive. One of the anthropologist types thinks they were statues of gods thrown out to protect them from profanation. He’s about sold that theory to the rest of ‘em, except for those who say the pictures were flawed film, or mirages from the Langston Field, or fakes.”

“Yes, sir.” That didn’t need comment, and Blaine made none. He returned to his seat and examined the photograph again. A million questions… if only the pilot were not dead.

After a long time the Admiral grunted, “Yeah. Here’s a copy of the report on what we found in the probe. Take it somewhere and study it, you’ve got an appointment with the Viceroy tomorrow afternoon and he’ll expect you to know something. Your anthropologist helped write that report, you can discuss it with her if you want. Later on you can go look at the probe, we’re bringing it down today.” Cranston chuckled at Blaine’s surprised look. “Curious about why you’re getting this stuff? You’ll find out. His Highness has plans and you’re going to be part of them. We’ll let you know.”

Rod saluted and left in bewilderment, the TOP SECRET report clutched under his arm.

The report was mostly questions.

Most of the probe’s internal equipment was junk, fused and melted clutters of plastic blocks, remains of integrated circuitry, odd strips of conducting and semi conducting materials jumbled together in no rational order. There was no trace of the shroud lines, no gear for reeling them in, no apertures in the thirty-two projections at one end of the probe. If the shrouds were all one molecule it might explain why they were missing; they would have come apart, changed chemically, when Blaine’s cannon cut them. But how had they controlled the sail? Could the shrouds somehow be made to contract and relax, like a muscle?

An odd idea, but some of the intact mechanisms were just as odd. There was no standardization of parts in the probe. Two widgets intended to do almost the same job could be subtly different or wildly different. Braces and mountings seemed hand carved. The probe was as much a sculpture as a machine.

Blaine read that, shook his head, and called Sally. Presently she joined him in his cabin.

“Yes, I wrote that,” she said. “It seems to be true. Every nut and bolt in that probe was designed separately. It’s less surprising if you think of the probe as having a religious purpose. But that’s not all. You know how redundancy works?”

“In machines? Two gilkickies to do one job. In case one fails.”

“Well, it seems that the Moties work it both ways.”

“Moties?”

She shrugged. “We had to call them something. The Mote engineers made two widgets do one job, all right, but the second widget does two other jobs, and some of the supports are also bimetallic thermostats and thermoelectric generators all in one. Rod, I barely understand the words. Modules: human engineers work in modules, don’t they?”

“For a complicated job, of course they do.”

“The Moties don’t. It’s all one piece, everything working on everything else. Rod, there’s a fair chance the Moties are brighter than we are.”

Rod whistled. “That’s… frightening. Now, wait a minute. They’d have the Alderson Drive, wouldn’t they?”

“I wouldn’t know about that. But they have some things we don’t. There are biotemperature superconductors,” she said, rolling it as if she’d memorized the phrase, “painted on in strips.”

“Then there’s this.” She reached past him to turn pages. “Here, look at this photo. And the little pebbly meteor holes.”

“Micrometeorites. It figures.”

“Well, nothing larger than four thousand microns got through the meteor defense. Only nobody ever found a meteor defense. They don’t have the Langston Field or anything like it.”

“But—”

“It must have been the sail. You see what that means? The autopilot attacked us because it thought MacArthur was a meteor.”

“What about the pilot? Why didn’t—”

“No. The alien was in frozen sleep, as near as we can tell. The life-support systems went wrong about the time we took it aboard. We killed it.”

“That’s definite?”

Sally nodded.

“Hell. All that way it came. The Humanity League wants my head on a platter with an apple in my mouth, and I don’t blame them. Aghhhh…” A sound of pain.

“Stop it,” Sally said softly.

“Sorry. Where do we go from here?”

“The autopsy. It fills half the report.” She turned pages and Rod winced. Sally Fowler had a stronger stomach than most ladies of the Court.

The meat of the Motie was pale; its blood was pink, like a mixture of tree sap and human blood. The surgeons had cut deep into its back, exposing the bones from the back of the skull to where the coccyx would have been on a man.

“I don’t understand. Where’s the spine?”

“There is none,” Sally told him. “Evolution doesn’t seem to have invented vertebrae on Mote Prime,”

There were three bones in the back, each as solid as a leg bone. The uppermost was an extension of the skull, as if the skull had a twenty-cm handle. The joint at its lower end was at shoulder level; it would nod the head but would not turn it.

The main backbone was longer and thicker. It ended in a bulky, elaborate joining, partly ball-and-socket, at about the small of the back. The lower backbone flared into hips and sockets for the thighs.

There was a spinal cord, a major nervous connective line, but it ran ventral to the backbones, not through them.

“It can’t turn its head,” Rod said aloud. “It has to turn at the waist. That’s why the big joint is so elaborate. Right?”

“That’s right I watched them test that joint. It’ll turn the torso to face straight backward. Impressed?”

Rod nodded and turned the page. In that picture the surgeons had exposed the skull.

Small wonder the head was lopsided. Not only was the left side of the brain larger, to control the sensitive, complexly innervated right arms; but the massive tendons of the left shoulder connected to knobs on the left side of the skull for greater leverage.

“All designed around the arms,” Sally said. “Think of the Motie as a toolmaker and you’ll see the point. The right arms are for the fine work such as fixing a watch. The left arm lifts and holds. He could probably lift one end of an air car with the left hand and use the right arms to tinker with the motors. And that idiot Horowitz thought it was a mutation!” She turned more pages. “Look.”

“Right, I noticed that myself. The arms fit too well.” The photographs showed the right arms in various positions, and they could not be made to get in each other’s way. The arms were about the same length when extended; but the bottom arm had a long forearm and short humerus, whereas in the top arm the forearm and humerus were about the same length. With the arms at the alien’s side, the fingertips of the top arm hung just below the bottom arm’s wrist.

He read on. The alien’s chemistry was subtly different from the human but not wildly so, as anyone might have expected from previous extraterrestrial biology. All known life was sufficiently similar that some theorists held to spore dispersion through interstellar space as the origin of life everywhere. The theory was not widely held, but it was defensible, and the alien would not settle the matter.

Long after Sally left, Rod was still studying the report. When he was finished, three facts stuck in his mind:

The Motie was an intelligent toolmaker.

It had traveled across thirty-five light years to find human civilization.

And Rod Blaine had killed it.

9. His Highness Has Decided

The Viceregal Palace dominated New Scotland’s only major city. Sally stared in admiration at the huge structure and excitedly pointed out the ripple of colors that changed with each motion of the flyer.

“How did it get that effect?” she asked. “It doesn’t seem like an oil film.”

“Cut from good New Scot rock,” Sinclair answered. “You’ve nae seen rock like this before. There was nae life here until the First Empire seeded the planet; yon palace is rock wi’ all the colors just as it boiled out of the interior,”

“It’s beautiful,” she told him. The Palace was the only building with open space around it. New Scotland huddled in small warrens, and from the air it was easy to see circular patterns like growth rings of a tree circle making the construction of larger field generators for protection of the city. Sally asked, “Wouldn’t it be simpler to make a city plan using right angles now?”

“Simpler, aye,” Sinclair answered. “But we’ve been through two hundred years of war, lass. Few care to live wi’ nae Field for protection—not that we do no trust the Navy and Empire,” he added hastily. “But ‘tis no easy to break habits that old. We’d rather stay crowded and ken we can fight.”

The flyer circled in to rest on the scarred lava roof of the Palace. The streets below were a bustle of color, tartans and plaids, everyone jostling his neighbor in the narrow streets. Sally was surprised to see just how small the Imperial Sector Capital was.

Rod left Sally and his officers in a comfortable lounge and followed starched Marine guides. The Council Chamber was a mixture of simplicity and splendor, walls of unadorned rock contrasting with patterned wool carpets and tapestries. Battle banners hung from high rafters.

The Marines showed Rod to a seat. Immediately in front of him was a raised dais for the Council and its attendants, and above that the viceregal throne dominated the entire chamber; yet even the throne was overshadowed by an immense solido of His Most Royal and Imperial Highness and Majesty, Leonidas IX, by Grace of God Emperor of Humanity. When there was a message from the Throne world the image would come alive, but now it showed a man no more than forty dressed in the midnight black of an Admiral of the Fleet, unadorned by decorations or medals. Dark eyes stared at and through each person in the chamber.

The chamber filled rapidly. There were Sector Parliament members, military and naval officers, scurrying civilians attended by harried clerks. Rod had no idea what to expect, but he noted jealous glances from those behind him. He was by far the most junior officer in the front row of the guest seats, Admiral Cranston took a seat two places to Blaine’s left and nodded crisply to his subordinate.

A gong sounded. The Palace major-domo, coal black, symbolic whip thrust into his belted white uniform, came onto the platform above them and struck the stage with his staff of office. A line of men filed into the room to take their places on the dais. The Imperial Councilors were less impressive than their titles, Rod decided. Mostly they seemed to be harried men—but many of them had the same look as the Emperor’s portrait, the ability to look beyond those in the chamber to something that could only be guessed at. They sat impassively until the gong was struck again.

The major-domo took a pose and struck the stage three times with his staff. “HIS MOST EXCELLENT HIGHNESS STEFAN YURI ALEXANDROVITCH MERRILL, VICEROY TO HIS IMPERIAL MAJESTY FOR THE REALM BEYOND THE COAL SACK. MAY GOD GRANT WISDOM TO HIS MAJESTY AND HIS HIGHNESS.”

Everyone scrambled to his feet. As Rod stood he thought of what was happening. It would be easy to be cynical. After all, Merrill was only a man; His Imperial Majesty was only a man. They put their trousers on one leg at a time. But they held responsibility for the destiny of the human race. The Council could advise them. The Senate could debate. The Assembly could shout and demand. Yet when all the conflicting demands were heard, when all the advice was pondered, someone had to act in the name of mankind… No, the ceremonial entrance wasn’t exaggerated. Men who had that kind of power should be reminded of it.

His Highness was a tall, lanky man with bushy eyebrows. He wore the dress uniform of the Navy, sunbursts and comets on his breast, decorations earned in years of service to the Realm. When he reached his throne, he turned to the solido above it and bowed. The major-domo led the pledge of allegiance to the Crown before Merrill took his seat and nodded to the Council.

Duke Bonin, the elderly Lord President of the Council, stood at his place at the center of the big table. “My lords and gentlemen. By order of His Highness the Council meets to consider the matter of the alien vessel from the Mote. This may be a long session,” he added with no trace of sarcasm.

“You all have before you the reports of our investigation of the alien ship. I can summarize them in two significant points: the aliens have neither the Alderson Drive nor the Langston Field. On the other hand, they appear to have other technologies considerably in advance of anything the Empire has ever had—and I include in that the First Empire.”

There were gasps in the chamber. The First Empire was held in almost mystical reverence by many Imperial governors and most subjects. Bonin nodded significantly. “We now consider what we must do. His Excellency Sir Traffin Geary, Sector Minister for External Affairs.”

Sir Traffin was nearly as tall as the Viceroy, but the resemblance ended there. Instead of His Highness’ trim, athletic figure, Sir Traffin was shaped like a barrel. “Your Highness, my lords and gentlemen. We have sent a courier to Sparta and another will be dispatched within the week. This probe was slower than light, and launched well over a hundred years ago. We need do nothing about it for a few months. I propose that we make preparations here for an expedition to the Mote, but otherwise wait for instructions from His Majesty.” Geary jutted his under lip truculently as he looked around the Council Chamber. “I suspect this comes as a surprise to many of you who know my temperament, but I think it wise to give this matter extended thought. Our decision may affect the destiny of the human race.”

There were murmurs of approval. The President nodded to the man at his left. “My Lord Richard MacDonald Armstrong, Sector Minister of War.”

In contrast to the bulk of Sir Traffin, the War Minister was almost diminutive, his features small to match his body, not finely chiseled, so that there was an impression of softness in the face. Only the eyes were hard, with a look to match those of the portrait above him.

“I full well understand the views of Sir Traffin,” Armstrong began. “I do not care for this responsibility. It is great comfort to us to know that on Sparta the wisest men of the race will backstop our failures and mistakes.”

Not much New Scot to his accent, Rod thought. Only a trace, but the man was obviously a native. Wonder if they can all talk like the rest of us when they have to?

“But we may not have the time,” Armstrong said softly. “Consider. One hundred and thirteen years ago, as best our records show, the Mote glowed so brightly that it outshone Murcheson’s Eye. Then one day it went out. That would no doubt be when the probe was ready to turn end for end and begin deceleration into our system. The lasers that launched that thing had been on a long time. The builders have had a hundred and fifty years at least to develop new technology. Think of that, my lords. In a hundred and fifty years, men on Earth went from windpowered warships to a landing on Earth’s Moon. From gunpowder to hydrogen fusion. To a level of technology which might have built that probe—and in no more than a hundred and fifty years after that, had the Alderson Drive, the Field, ten interstellar colonies, and the CoDominium. Fifty years later the fleet left Earth to found the First Empire. That is what a hundred and fifty years can be to a growing race, my lords. And that’s what we’re faced with, else they’d have been here before.

“I say we can’t afford to wait!” The old man’s voice lashed out to fill the chamber. “Wait for word from Sparta? With all respect to His Majesty’s advisers, what can they tell us that we won’t know better than they? By the time they can reply we’ll have sent more reports. Perhaps things will have changed here and their instructions will make no sense. God’s teeth, it’s better to make our own mistakes!”

“Your recommendation?” the Council President asked dryly.

“I have already ordered Admiral Cranston to assemble all the warships we can spare from occupation and patrol duties. I have sent to His Majesty a most urgent request that additional forces be assigned to this sector. Now I propose that a naval expedition go to the Mote and find out what’s happening there while the Yards convert enough vessels to be sure that we can destroy the alien home worlds if necessary.”

There were gasps in the chamber. One of the Council members rose hurriedly to demand recognition.

“Dr. Anthony Horvath, Minister of Science,” the President announced.

“Your Highness, my lords, I am speechless,” Horvath began.

“Would to God you were,” Admiral Cranston muttered at his seat to Rod’s left.

Horvath was an elderly, carefully dressed man with precise gestures and every word spoken just so, as if he intended to say just that and no more. He spoke quietly but every word carried through the room perfectly. “My lords, there is nothing threatening about this probe. It carried only one passenger, and it has had no opportunity to report to those who sent it.” Horvath looked significantly at Admiral Cranston. “We have seen absolutely no signs that the aliens have faster-than-light technology, nor the slightest hint of danger, yet My Lord Armstrong speaks of assembling the Fleet. He acts as if all humanity were threatened by one dead alien and a light sail! Now I ask you, is this reasonable?”

“What is your proposal, Dr. Horvath?” the President asked.

“Send an expedition, yes. I agree with Minister Armstrong that it would be pointless to expect the Throne to issue detailed instructions from that great distance in time. Send a Navy ship if it makes everyone more comfortable. But staff it with scientists, foreign office personnel, representatives of the merchant class. Go in peace as they came in peace, don’t treat these aliens as if they were outie pirates! There won’t ever be an opportunity like this again, my lords. The first contact between humans and intelligent aliens. Oh, we’ll find other sentient species, but we’ll never find a first one again. What we do here will be in our history forever. Do not make a blot on that page!”

“Thank you, Dr. Horvath,” the President said. “Are there other comments?”

There were. Everyone spoke at once until order was established at last. “Gentlemen, we must have a decision,” Duke Bonin said. “What is the advice you wish to offer His Highness? Do we send an expedition to the Mote or no?”

That was settled quickly. The military and science groups easily outnumbered Sir Traffin’s supporters. Ships would be sent as soon as feasible.

“Excellent.” Bonin nodded. “And perhaps the character of the expedition? Shall it be naval or civil?”

The major-domo struck the stage with his staff. Every head turned toward the high throne where Merrill had sat impassively through the debate. “I thank the Council, but I shall need no advice concerning this final matter,” the Viceroy said. “Since the question concerns the safety of the Realm there can be no problem of sector prerogatives involved.” The stately address was spoiled as Merrill ran his fingers through his hair. He dropped his hand hurriedly to his lap as he realized what he was doing. A thin smile came to his face. “Although I suspect the Council’s advice might be the same as my own. Sir Traffin, would your group favor a purely scientific expedition?”

“No, Your Highness.”

“And I think we need not ask My Lord Minister of War for his opinion. Dr. Horvath’s group would be outvoted in any event. As planning an expedition of this nature requires something less than the full Council, I will see Dr. Horvath, Sir Traffin, My Lord Armstrong, and Admiral Cranston in my office immediately. Admiral, is the officer you spoke of here?”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“Bring him with you.” Merrill stood and strode from the throne so quickly that the major-domo had no chance to do his ceremonial office. Belatedly he struck the stage with his staff and faced the Imperial portrait. “IT IS HIS HIGHNESS’ PLEASURE THAT THIS COUNCIL BE DISMISSED. MAY GOD GRANT WISDOM TO HIS HIGHNESS. GOD SAVE THE EMPEROR.”

As the others left the Chamber, Admiral Cranston took Rod’s arm and led him through a small door by the stage. “What’d you think of all this?” Cranston asked.

“Orderly. I’ve been in Council meetings on Sparta where I thought they’d come to blows. Old Bonin knows how to run a meeting.”

“Yeah. You understand this political crap, don’t you? Better’n I do, anyway. You may be a better choice than I thought.”

“Choice for what, sir?”

“Isn’t it pretty obvious, Captain? His Nibs and I decided last night. You’re going to take MacArthur to the Mote.”

10. The Planet Killer

Viceroy Merrill had two offices. One was large, ornately furnished, decorated with gifts and tributes from a score of worlds. A solido of the Emperor dominated the wall behind a desk of Samualite teak inlaid with ivory and gold, flowering carpets of living grasses from Tabletop provided soft footing and alr purification, and tri-v cameras were invisibly recessed into New Scot rock walls for the convenience of newsmen covering ceremonial events.

Rod had only a brief glance at His Highness’ place of splendor before he was led through it to a much smaller room of almost monastic simplicity. The Viceroy sat at a huge duroplast desk, His hair was a tangled mess. He had opened the collar of his uniform tunic and his dress boots stood against the wail.

“Ah. Come in, Admiral. See you brought young Blaine. How are you, boy? You won’t remember me. Only time we met you were, what, two years old? Three? Damned if I can remember. How’s the Marquis?”

“Very well, Your Highness. I’m sure he would send—”

“Course, of course. Good man, your father. Bar’s right over there.” Merrill picked up a sheaf of papers and glanced quickly through the pages, turning them so rapidly they were a blur. “About what I thought.” He scrawled a signature on the last page; the out basket coughed and the papers vanished.

“Perhaps I should introduce Captain Blaine to…” Admiral Cranston began.

“Course, of course. Careless of me. Dr. Horvath, Minister Armstrong, Sir Traffin, Captain Blaine, MacArthur. Marquis of Crucis’ boy, you know.”

MacArthur.” Dr. Horvath said it contemptuously. “I see. If Your Highness will excuse me, I can’t think why you’d want him here.”

“Can’t, eh?” Merrill asked. “Use some logic, Doctor. You know what the meeting’s about, right?”

“I can’t say I care for the conclusion I get, Your Highness. And I still see no reason why this—militaristic fanatic should be part of planning an expedition of such vast importance.”

“Is this a complaint against one of my officers, sir?” Admiral Cranston snapped. “If so, may I ask you—”

“That will do,” Merrill drawled. He tossed another thick packet of papers into the out basket and thoughtfully watched it vanish. “Dr. Horvath, suppose you state your objections and be done with it.” It was impossible to tell whom Merrill intended his thin smile for.

“My objections are obvious enough. This young man may have engaged the human race in war with the first intelligent aliens we’ve ever found. The Admiralty has not seen fit to cashier him, but I will strenuously object to his having any further contact with the aliens. Sir, don’t you appreciate the enormity of what he’s done?”

“No, sir, I dinna see the point,” War Minister Armstrong interjected.

“But that ship came thirty-five light years. Through normal space. Over a hundred and fifty years in flight! An achievement that the First Empire couldn’t match. And for what? To be crippled at its destination, fired on, stuffed into the hold of a battleship and ferried to—” The Science Minister ran out of breath.

“Blaine, did you fire on the probe?” Merrill asked.

“No, Your Highness. It fired on us. My orders were to intercept and inspect. After the alien vessel attacked my ship, I cut it loose from the light sail it was using as a weapon.”

“Leaving you no choice but to take it aboard or let it burn up,” Sir Traffin added. “Good work, that.”

“But unnecessary if the probe hadn’t been crippled,” Horvath insisted. “When it fired on you why didn’t you have the good sense to get behind the sail and follow it? Use the sail as a shield! You didn’t need to kill it.”

“That thing fired on an Imperial warship,” Cranston exploded. “And you think one of my officers would—”

Merrill held up his hand. “I’m curious, Captain. Why didn’t you do what Dr. Horvath suggested?”

“I—” Blaine sat rigidly for a moment, his thoughts whirling. “Well, sir, we were low on fuel and pretty close to Cal. If I’d kept pace with the probe I’d have ended up out of control and unable to keep station on it at all, assuming that MacArthur’s Drive didn’t burn up the sail anyway. We needed the velocity to get back out of Cal’s gravity well… and my orders were to intercept.” He stopped for a moment to finger his broken nose.

Merrill nodded. “One more question, Blaine. What did you think when you were assigned to investigate an alien ship?”

“I was excited at the chance of meeting them, sir.”

“Gentlemen, he doesn’t sound like an unreasoning xenophobe to me. But when his ship was attacked, he defended her. Dr. Horvath, had he actually fired on the probe itself—which was surely the easiest way to see that it didn’t damage his ship—I would personally see that he was dismissed as unfit to serve His Majesty in any capacity whatsoever. Instead he carefully cut the probe loose from its weapon and at great risk to his own ship took it aboard. I like that combination, gentlemen.” He turned to Armstrong. “Dickie, will you tell them what we’ve decided about the expedition?”

“Yes, Your Highness.” The War Minister cleared his throat. “Two ships. The Imperial battleship Lenin and the battle cruiser MacArthur. MacArthur will be modified to suit Dr. Horvath’s requirements and will carry the civilian personnel of this expedition. That is to include scientists, merchants, Foreign Office people, and the missionary contingent His Reverence demands, in addition to a naval crew. All contact with the alien civilization will be conducted by MacArthur.”

Merrill nodded in emphasis. “Under no circumstances will Lenin take aliens aboard or place herself in danger of capture. I want to be sure we get some information back from this expedition.”

“Bit extreme, isn’t it?” Horvath asked.

“No, sir.” Sir Traffin was emphatic. “Richard is primarily concerned that the aliens have no opportunity to obtain either the Langston Field or the Alderson Drive from us, and I am in full agreement.”

“But if they—suppose they capture MacArthur?” Horvath asked.

Admiral Cranston exhaled a stream of blue pipe smoke. “Then Lenin will blast MacArthur out of space.”

Blaine nodded. He’d already figured that out.

“Take a good man to make that decision,” Sir Traffin observed. “Who are you sending in Lenin?”

“Admiral Lavrenti Kutuzov. We sent a courier ship for him yesterday.”

“The Butcher!” Horvath set his drink on the table and turned in fury to the Viceroy. “Your Highness, I protest! Of all the men in the Empire there’s not a worse choice! You must know that Kutuzov was the man who—who sterilized Istvan. Of all the paranoid creatures in the—Sir, I beg you to reconsider. A man like that could— Don’t you understand? These are intelligent aliens! This could be the greatest moment in all history, and you want to send off an expedition commanded by a subhuman who thinks with his reflexes! It’s insane.”

“It would be more insane to send an expedition commanded by the likes of yourself,” Armstrong replied. “I dinna mean it as an insult, Doctor, but you see aliens as friends, you look to the opportunities. You dinna see the dangers. Perhaps my friends and I see too many o’ them, but I’d rather be wrong my way than yours.”

“The Council…” Horvath protested feebly.

“Not a matter for the Council,” Merrill stated. “Matter of Imperial Defense. Safety of the Realm and all that, you know. Be a neat question just how much the Imperial Parliament on Sparta has to say about it. As His Majesty’s representative in this sector, I’ve already decided.”

“I see.” Horvath sat in dejection for a moment, then brightened. “But you said that MacArthur would be modified to suit the scientific requirements. That we can have a full scientific expedition.”

Merrill nodded. “Yes. Hope we won’t have anything for Kutuzov to do. Up to your people to see to it he doesn’t have to take action. Just there as a precaution.”

Blaine cleared his throat carefully.

“Speak up, laddie,” Armstrong said.

“I was wondering about my passengers, sir.”

“Course, of course,” Merrill answered. “Senator Powler’s niece and that Trader fellow. Think they’d want to go along?”

“I know Sally—Miss Fowler will,” Rod answered. “She’s turned down two chances to get to Sparta, and she’s been going to Admiralty headquarters every day.”

“Anthropology student,” Merrill murmured. “If she wants to go, let her. Won’t do any harm to show the Humanity League we aren’t sending a punitive expedition, and I can’t think of a better way to make that obvious. Good politics. What about this Bury fellow?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“See if he wants to go,” Merrill said. “Admiral, you haven’t got a suitable ship headed for the Capital, have you?”

“Nothing I’d want to trust that man in,” Cranston answered. “You saw Plekhanov’s report.”

“Yes. Well, Dr. Horvath wanted to take Traders. I’d think His Excellency would welcome the opportunity to be there… just tell him one of his competitors could be invited. Ought to do it, eh? Never saw a merchant yet who wouldn’t go through hell to get an edge on the competition.”

“When will we leave, sir?” Rod asked.

Merrill shrugged. “Up to Horvath’s people. Lot of work to do, I expect. Lenin ought to be here in a month. It’ll pick up Kutuzov on the way. Don’t see why you can’t go as soon after that as you think MacArthur is ready.”

11. The Church of Him

At a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour the monorail car moved with a subdued hissing sound. The Saturday crowd of passengers seemed to be enjoying themselves in a quiet way. They did little talking. In one clump near the back a man was sharing a flask around. Even this group wasn’t noisy; they only smiled more. A few well-behaved children at window seats craned their necks to see out, pointed, and asked questions in incomprehensible dialect.

Kevin Renner behaved in much the same fashion. He leaned sideways with his head against the clear plastic window, the better to see an alien world. His lean face bore an uncomplicated smile.

Staley was on the aisle, apparently sitting at attention. Potter sat between them.

The three were not on leave; they were off duty and could be recalled via their pocket computers. Artificers at the New Scotland Yards were busy scraping the boats off the walls of MacArthur’s hangar deck and making other, more extensive repairs under Sinclair’s supervision. Sinclair might need Potter, in particular, at any moment; and Potter was their native guide. Perhaps Staley was remembering this; but his rigid posture was no sign of discomfort. He was enjoying himself. He always sat that way.

Potter was doing most of the talking and all the pointing. “Those twin volcanoes; d’ye see them, Mr. Renner? D’ye see yon boxlike structures near the peak of each one? They’re atmosphere control. When yon volcanoes belch gas, the maintenance posts fire jets of tailored algae into the air steam. Without them our atmosphere would soon be foul again.”

“Um. You couldn’t have kept them going during the Secession Wars. How did you manage?”

“Badly.”

The landscape was marked by queer sharp lines. Here there was the green patchwork quilt of cultivated fields, there a lifeless landscape, almost lunar but for the softening of erosion. It was strange to see a broad river meandering unconcerned from cultivation to desert. There were no weeds. Nothing grew wild. The forest grove they were passing now had the same sharp borders and orderly arrangement as the broad strips of flower beds they had passed earlier.

“You’ve been on New Scotland for three hundred years,” said Renner. “Why is it still like this? I’d think there’d be topsoil by now, and scattered seeds. Some of the land would have gone wild.”

“How often does it happen that cultivated land turns to wild life on a colony world? For aye our history the people hae spread faster than the topsoil.” Potter suddenly sat up straight. “Look ahead. We’re coming into Quentin’s Patch.”

The car slowed smoothly. Doors swung up and a handful of passengers filtered out. The Navy men moved away with Potter in the lead. Potter was almost skipping. This was his home town.

Renner stopped suddenly. “Look, you can see Murcheson’s Eye in daylight!”

It was true. The star was high in the east, a red spark just visible against blue sky.

“Can’t make out the Face of God, though.”

Heads turned to look at the Navy men. Potter spoke softly. “Mr. Renner, you must not call it the Face of God on this world.”

“Huh? Why not?”

“A Himmist would call it the Face of Him. They do not refer directly to their God. A good Church member does not believe that it is anything but the Coal Sack.”

“They call it the Face of God everywhere else. Good Church member or not.”

“Elsewhere in the Empire there are no Himmists. If ye walk this way, we should reach the Church of Him before dark.”

Quentin’s Patch was a small village surrounded by wheat fields. The walkway was a broad stream of basalt with a ripple to its surface, as if it were a convenient lava flow. Renner guessed that a ship’s drive had hovered here long ago, marking out the walkways before any buildings were erected. The surface bore a myriad of spreading cracks. With the two- and three-story houses now lining both sides, the walk could hardly be repaired in the same manner.

Renner asked, “How did the Himmists get started?”

“Legend has it,” Potter said, and stopped. “Aye, it may not be all legend. What the Himmists say is that one day the Face of God awoke.”

“Um?”

“He opened His single eye.”

“That would figure, if the Moties were actually using laser cannon to propel a light sail. Any dates on that?”

“Aye.” Potter thought. “It happened during the Secession Wars. The war did us great damage, you know. New Scotland remained loyal to the Empire, but New Ireland did not. We were evenly matched. For fifty years or thereabouts we fought each other, until there were nae interstellar ships left and nae contact with the stars at all. Then, in 2870, a ship fell into the system. ‘Twas the Ley Crater, a trading ship converted for war, with a working Langston Field and a hold full of torpedoes. Damaged as she was, she was the most powerful ship in New Caledonia System; we had sunk that low. With her aid we destroyed the New Irish traitors.”

“That was a hundred and fifty years ago. You told it like you lived through it.”

Potter smiled. “We take our history verra personally here.”

“Of course,” said Staley.

“Ye asked for dates,” said Potter. “The university records do no say. Some o’ the computer records were scrambled by war damage, ye know. Something happened to the Eye, that’s sure, but it must have happened late in the war. It would not have made that big an impression, ye ken.”

“Why not? The Face of—the eye is the biggest, brightest thing in your sky.”

Potter smiled without mirth. “Not during the war. I hae read diaries. People hid under the university Langston Field. When they came out they saw the sky as a battlefield, alive with strange lights and the radiations from exploding ships. It was only after the war ended that people began to look at the sky. Then the astronomers tried to study what had happened to the Eye. And then it was that Howard Grote Littlemead was stricken with divine inspiration.”

“He decided that the Face of God was just what it looked like.”

“Aye, that he did. And he convinced many people. Here we are, gentlemen.”

The Church of Him was both imposing and shabby, It was built of quarried stone to withstand the ages, and it had done so; but the stone was worn, sandblasted by storms; there were cracks in the lintel and cornices and elsewhere; initials and obscenities had been carved into the walls with lasers and other tools.

The priest was a tall, round man with a soft, beaten look to him. But he was unexpectedly firm in his refusal to let them in. It did no good when Potter revealed himself as a fellow townsman. The Church of Him and its priests had suffered much at the hands of townsmen.

“Come, let us reason together,” Renner said to him. “You don’t really think we mean to profane anything, do you?”

“Ye are nae believers. What business hae ye here?”

“We only want to see the picture of the Co—of the Face of Him in its glory. Having seen this, we depart. If you won’t let us in, we may be able to force you by going through channels. This is Navy business.”

The priest looked scorn. “This is New Scotland, not one o’ yer primitive colonies wi’ nae government but blasphemin’ Marines. ‘Twould take the Viceroy’s orders to force yer way here. And ye’re but tourists.”

“Have you heard of the alien probe?”

The priest lost some of his assurance. “Aye.”

“We believe it was launched by laser cannon. From the Mote.”

The priest was nonplussed. Then he laughed long and loud. Still laughing, he ushered them in. He would say no word to them, but he led them over the chipped tiles through an entry hail and into the main sanctuary. Then he stood aside to watch their faces.

The Face of Him occupied half the wall. It looked like a huge holograph. The stars around the edge were slightly blurred, as would be the case with a very old holograph. And there was the holograph sense of looking into infinity.

The Eye in that Face blazed pure green, with terrifying intensity. Pure green with a red fleck in it.

“My God!” Staley said, and hastily added, “I don’t mean it the way it sounds. But—the power! It’d take the industrial might of an advanced world to put out that much light from thirty-five light years away!”

“I thought I had remembered it bigger than it was,” Potter whispered.

“Ye see!” the priest crowed. “And ye think that could hae been a natural phenomenon! Well, hae ye seen enough?”

“Yah,” said Renner, and they left.

They stopped outside in the failing sunlight. Renner was shaking his head. “I don’t blame Littlemead a damn bit,” he said. “The wonder is he didn’t convince everyone on the planet.”

“We’re a stubborn lot,” said Potter. “Yon squinting silhouette in the night sky may hae been too obvious, too…”

“Here I am, stupid!” Renner suggested.

“Aye. New Scots dinna like being treated as dullards, not even by Him.”

Remembering the decayed building with its shabby interior, Renner said, “The Church of Him seems to have fallen on evil days since Littlemead saw the light.”

“Aye. In 2902 the light went out. One hundred and fifteen years ago. That event was verra well documented. ‘Twas the end o’ astronomy here until the Empire returned.”

“Did the Mote go out suddenly?”

Potter shrugged. “None know. It must hae happened around the other side o’ the world, you see. Ye must hae noticed that civilization here is but a spreading patch on a barren world. Mr. Renner. When the Coal Sack rose that night it rose like a blinded man. To the Hinimists it must hae seemed that God had gone to sleep again.”

“Rough on them?”

“Howard Grote Littlemead took an overdose of sieeping pills. The Himmists say he hastened to meet his God.”

“Possibly to demand an explanation,” said Renner. “You’re very quiet, Mr. Staley.”

Horst looked up grim-faced. “They can build laser cannon that fill the sky. And we’re taking a military expedition there.”

12. Descent into Hell

It was just possible to assemble everyone on hangar deck. The closed launching hatch doors—repaired, but obviously so—were the only open space large enough for the ship’s company and the scientific personnel to gather, and it was crowded even there. The hangar compartment was stuffed with gear: extra landing craft, the longboat and the cutter, crated scientific equipment, ship’s stores, and other crates whose purpose even Blaine didn’t know. Dr. Horvath’s people insisted on carrying nearly every scientific instrument used in their specialties on the chance that it might be useful; the Navy could hardly argue with them, since there were no precedents for an expedition of this kind.

Now the huge space was packed to overflowing. Viceroy Merrill, Minister Armstrong, Admiral Cranston, Cardinal Randolph, and a host of lesser officials stood confusedly about while Rod hoped that his officers had been able to complete preparations for the ship’s departure. The last days had been a blur of unavoidable activities, mostly social, with little time for the important work of preparing his ship. Now, waiting for the final ceremonies, Rod wished he’d got out of Capital social life and stayed aboard his ship like a hermit. For the next year or so he’d be under the command of Admiral Kutuzov, and he suspected that the Admiral was not wholly pleased with his subordinate ship commander. The Russian was conspicuously absent from the ceremonies on MacArthur’s hangar doors.

No one had missed him. Kutuzov was a massive, burly man with a heavy sense of humor. He looked like something out of a textbook of Russian history and talked the same way. This was partially due to his upbringing on St. Ekaterina, but mostly through his own choice. Kutuzov spent hours studying ancient Russian customs and adopted many of them as part of the image he projected. His flagship bridge was decorated with icons, a samovar of tea bubbled in his cabin, and his Marines were trained in what Kutuzov hoped were fair imitations of Cossack dances.

Navy opinion on the man was universal: highly competent, rigidly faithful to any orders given him, and so lacking in human compassion that everyone felt uncomfortable around him. Because the Navy and Parliament officially approved of Kutuzov’s action in ordering the destruction of a rebel planet—the Imperial Council had determined that the drastic measure had prevented the revolt of an entire sector—Kutuzov was invited to all social functions; but no one was disappointed when he refused his invitations.

“The main problem is yon loony Russian customs,” Sinclair had offered when MacArthur’s officers were discussing their new admiral.

“No different from the Scots,” First Lieutenant Cargill had observed. “At least he doesn’t try to make us all understand Russian. He speaks Anglic well enough.”

“Is that meant to say we Scots dinna speak Anglic?” Sinclair demanded.

“I’ll let you guess.” But then Cargill thought better of it. “Of course not, Sandy. Sometimes when you get excited I can’t understand you, but… here, have a drink.”

That, thought Rod, had been something to see, Cargill trying his best to be friendly with Sinclair. Of course the reason was obvious. With the ship in New Scotland’s Yards under the attention of Yardmaster MacPherson’s crews, Cargill was at pains not to irritate the Chief Engineer. He might end up with his cabin removed—or worse.

Viceroy Merrill was saying something. Rod snapped out of his reverie and strained to listen in the confused babble of sounds.

“I said, I really don’t see the point to all this, Captain. Could have had all this ceremony on the ground—except for your blessing, Your Reverence.”

“Ships have left New Scotland without my attentions before,” the Cardinal mused. “Not, perhaps, on a mission quite so perplexing to the Church as this one. Well, that will be young Hardy’s problem now.” He indicated the expedition chaplain. David Hardy was nearly twice Blaine’s age, and his nominal equal in rank, so that the Cardinal’s reference had to be relative.

“Well, are we ready?”

“Yes, Your Eminence.” Blaine nodded to Kelley. “SHIP’S COMPANY, ATTEN—SHUT!” The babble stilled, trailing off rather than being cut off as it would if there weren’t civilians aboard.

The Cardinal took a thin stole from his pocket, kissed the hem, and placed it over his neck. Chaplain Hardy handed him the silver pail and asperger, a wand with a hollow ball at the end. Cardinal Randolph dipped the wand in the pail and shook water toward the assembled officers and crew. “Thou shalt purge me, and I shall be clean. Thou shalt wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

“As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, worlds without end, amen.” Rod found himself responding automatically. Did he believe in all that? Or was it only good for discipline? He couldn’t decide, but he was glad the Cardinal had come. MacArthur might need all the benefits she could get…

The official party boarded an atmosphere flyer as warning horns sounded. MacArthur’s crew scrambled to leave hangar deck, and Rod stepped into an air-lock chamber. Pumps whined to empty the hangar space of air, then the great double doors opened. Meanwhile, MacArthur lost her spin as the central flywheels whirred. With only naval people aboard, an atmosphere craft might be launched through the doors under spin, dropping in the curved—relative to MacArthur—trajectory induced by the Coriolis effect, but with the Viceroy and the Cardinal lifting out that was out of the question. The landing craft lifted gently at 150 cm/sec until it was clear of the hangar doors.

“Close and seal,” Rod ordered crisply. “Stand by for acceleration.” He turned and launched himself in null gravity toward his bridge. Behind him telescoping braces opened across the hangar deck space—guy wires and struts, braces of all kinds—until the hollow was partly filled. The design of a warship’s hangar space is an intricate specialty, since spotting boats may have to be launched at a moment’s notice, yet the vast empty space needs to be braced against possible disaster. Now with the extra boats of Horvath’s scientists in addition to the full complement of MacArthur’s own, the hangar deck was a maze of ships, braces, and crates.

The rest of the ship was as crowded. In place of the usual orderly activity brought on by acceleration warning, MacArthur’s corridors were boiling with personnel. Some of the scientists were half in battle armour, having confused acceleration warning with battle stations. Others stood in critical passageways blocking traffic and unable to decide where to go. Petty officers screamed at them, unable to curse the civilians and also unable to do anything else.

Rod finally arrived at the bridge, while behind him officers and boatswains shamefacedly worked to clear the passageways and report ready for acceleration. Privately Blaine couldn’t blame his crew for being unable to control the scientists, but he could hardly ignore the situation. Moreover, if he excused his staff, they would have no control over the civilians. He couldn’t really threaten a Science Minister and his people with anything, but if he were hard enough on his own crew, the scientists might cooperate in order to spare the spacers… It was a theory worth trying, he thought. As he glanced at a tv monitor showing two Marines and four civilian lab technicians in a tangle against the after messroom bulkhead, Rod silently cursed and hoped it would work. Something had to.

“Signal from flag, sir. Keep station on Redpines.”

“Acknowledge, Mr. Potter. Mr. Renner, take the con and follow the number-three tanker.”

“Aye aye, sir.” Renner grinned. “And so we’re off. Pity the regulations don’t provide for champagne at a time like this.”

“I’d think you’d have your hands full, Mr. Renner. Admiral Kutuzov insists we keep what he calls a proper formation.”

“Yes, sir. I discussed that with Lenin’s Sailing Master last night.”

“Oh.” Rod settled back in his command chair. It would be a difficult trip, he thought. All those scientists aboard. Dr. Horvath had insisted on coming himself, and he was going to be a problem. The ship was so swarming with civilians that most of MacArthur’s officers were doubled up in cabins already too small; junior lieutenants slung hammocks in the gun room with midshipmen; Marines were packed into recreation quarters so that their barracks rooms could be stuffed with scientific gear. Rod was beginning to wish that Horvath had won his argument with Cranston. The scientist had wanted to take an assault carrier with its enormous bunk spaces.

The Admiralty had put a stop to that. The expedition would consist of ships able to defend themselves and those only. The tankers would accompany the fleet to Murcheson’s Eye, but they weren’t coming to the Mote.

In deference to the civilians, the trip was at 1.2 gee.

Rod suffered through innumerable dinner parties, mediated arguments between scientists and crew, and fended off attempts by Dr. Buckman the astrophysicist to monopolize Sally’s time.

First Jump was routine. The transfer point to Murcheson’s Eye was well located. New Caledonia was a magnificent white point source in the moment before MacArthur Jumped. Then Murcheson’s Eye was a wide red glare the size of a baseball held at arm’s length.

The fleet moved inward.

Gavin Potter had traded hammocks with Horst Staley.

It had cost him a week’s labor doing two men’s laundry, but it had been worth it. Staley’s hammock had a view port.

Naturally the port was beneath the hammock, in the cylindrical spin floor of the gun room. Potter lay face down in the hammock to look through the webbing, a gentle smile on his long face.

Whitbread was face up in his own hammock directly across the spin floor from Potter. He had been watching Potter for several minutes before he spoke.

“Mr. Potter.”

The New Scot turned only his head. “Yes, Mr. Whitbread?”

Whitbread continued to watch him, contemplatively, with his arms folded behind his head. He was quite aware that Potter’s infatuation with Murcheson’s Eye was none of his damned business. Incomprehensible, Potter remained polite. How much needling would he take?

Entertaining things were happening aboard MacArthur, but there was no way for midshipmen to get to them. An off-duty middie must make his own entertainment.

“Potter, I seem to remember you were transferred aboard Old Mac on Dagda, just before we went to pick up the probe.” Whitbread’s voice was a carrying one. Horst Staley, who was also off duty, turned over in what had been Potter’s bunk and gave them his attention. Whitbread noticed without seeming to.

Potter turned and blinked. “Yes, Mr. Whitbread. That’s right.”

“Well, somebody has to tell you, and I don’t suppose anyone else has thought of it. Your first shipboard mission involved diving right into an F8 sun. I hope it hasn’t given you a bad impression of the Service.”

“Not at all. I found it exciting,” Potter said courteously.

“The point is, diving straight into a sun is a rare thing in the Service. It doesn’t happen every trip. I thought someone ought to tell you.”

“But, Mr. Whitbread, are we no about to do exactly that?”

“Hah?” Whitbread hadn’t expected that.

“No ship of the First Empire ever found a transfer point from Murcheson’s Eye to the Mote. They may no have wanted it badly, but we can assume they tried somewhat,” Potter said seriously. “Now, I have had verra little experience in space, but I am not uneducated, Mr. Whitbread. Murcheson’s Eye is a red supergiant, a big, empty star, as big as the orbit of Saturn in Sol System. It seems reasonable that the Alderson Point to the Mote is within yon star if it exists. Does it not?”

Horst Staley rose up on an elbow. “I think he’s right. It would explain why nobody ever plotted the transfer point. They all knew where it was—”

“But nobody wanted to go look. Yes, of course he’s right,” Whitbread said in disgust. “And that’s just where we’re going. Whee! Here we go again.”

“Exactly,” said Potter; and smiling gently, he turned on his face again.

“It’s most unusual,” Whitbread protested. “Doubt me if you must, but I assure you we don’t go diving into stars more than two out of three trips.” He paused. “And even that’s too many.”

The fleet slowed to a halt at the fuzzy edge of Murcheson’s Eye. There was no question of orbits. At this distance the supergiant’s gravity was so feeble that have taken years for a ship to fall into it.

The tankers linked up and began to transfer fuel.

An odd, tenuous friendship had grown between Horace Bury and Buckman, the astrophysicist. Bury had sometimes wondered about it. What did Buckman want with Bury?

Buckman was a lean, knobby, bird-boned man. From the look of him he sometimes forgot to eat for days at a time. Buckman seemed to care for nobody and nothing in what Bury considered the real universe. People, time, power, money, were only the means Buckman used to explore the inner workings of the stars. Why would he seek the company of a merchant?

But Buckman liked to talk, and Bury at least had the time to listen. MacArthur was a beehive these days, frantically busy and crowded as hell. And there was room to pace in Bury’s cabin.

Or, Bury speculated cynically, he might like Bury’s coffee. Bury had almost a dozen varieties of coffee beans, his own grinder, and filter cones to make it. He was quite aware of how his coffee compared with that in the huge percolators about the ship.

Nabil served them coffee while they watched the fuel transfer on Bury’s screen. The tanker fueling MacArthur was hidden, but Lenin and the other tanker showed as two space-black elongated eggs, linked by a silver umbilicus, silhouetted against a backdrop of fuzzy scarlet.

“It should not be that dangerous,” said Dr. Buckman. “You’re thinking of it as a descent into a sun, Bury. Which it is, technically. But that whole vast volume isn’t all that much more massive than Cal or any other yellow dwarf. Think of it as a red-hot vacuum. Except for the core, of course; that’s probably tiny and very dense.

“We’ll learn a great deal going in,” he said. His eyes were alight, focused on infinity. Bury, watching him sidewise, found the expression fascinating. He had seen it before, but rarely. It marked men who could not be bought in any coin available to Horace Bury.

Bury had no more practical use for Buckman than Buckman had for Bury. Bury could relax with Buckman, as much as he could relax with anybody. He liked the feeling.

He said, “I thought you would already know everything about the Eye.”

“You mean Murcheson’s explorations? Too many records have been lost, and some of the others aren’t trustworthy. I’ve had my instruments going since the Jump. Bury, the proportion of heavy particles in the solar wind is amazingly high. And helium—tremendous. But Murcheson’s ships never went into the Eye itself, as far as we know. That’s when we’ll really learn things.” Buckman frowned. “I hope our instruments can stand up to it. They have to poke through the Langston Field, of course. We’re likely to be down in that red-hot fog for some considerable time, Bury. If the Field collapses it’ll ruin everything.”

Bury stared, then laughed. “Yes, Doctor, it certainly would!”

Buckman looked puzzled. Then, “Ah. I see what you mean. It would kill us too, wouldn’t it? I hadn’t thought of that.”

Acceleration warnings sounded. MacArthur was moving into the Eye.

Sinclair’s thick burr sounded in Rod’s ear. “Engineering report, Captain. All systems green. Field holding verra well, ‘tis nae so warm as we feared.”

“Good,” Blaine replied. “Thanks, Sandy.” Rod watched the tankers receding against the stars. Already they were thousands of kilometers away, visible only through the telescopes as bright as points of light.

The next screen showed a white splotch within a red fog: Lenin leading into the universal red glare. Lenin’s crew would search for the Alderson point—if there were such a point.

“Still, ‘tis certain the Field will leak inward sooner or later,” Sinclair’s voice continued. “There’s no place for the heat to go, it must be stored. ‘Tis no like a space battle, Captain. But we can hold wi’ no place to radiate the accumulated energy for at least seventy-two hours. After that—we hae no data. No one has tried this loony stunt before.”

“Yes.”

“Somebody should have,” Renner said cheerfully. He had been listening from his post on the bridge. MacArthur was holding at one gee, but it took attention: the thin photosphere was presenting more resistance than expected. “You’d think Murcheson would have tried it. The First Empire had better ships than ours.”

“Maybe he did,” Rod said absently. He watched Lenin move away, breaking trail for MacArthur, and felt an unreasonable irritation. MacArthur should have gone first…

The senior officers slept at their duty stations. There wasn’t much anyone could do if the Field soaked up too much energy, but Rod felt better in his command seat. Finally it was obvious that he wasn’t needed.

A signal came from Lenin and MacArthur cut her engines. Warning horns sounded, and she came under spin until other hoots signaled the end of unpleasant changes in gravity. Crew and passengers climbed out of safety rigglng.

“Dismiss the watch below,” Rod ordered. Renner stood and stretched elaborately. “That’s that, Captain. Of course we’ll have to slow down as the photosphere gets thicker, but that’s all right. The friction slows us down anyway.” He looked at his screens and asked questions with swiftly moving fingers. “It’s not as thick as, say, an atmosphere out there, but it’s a lot thicker than a solar wind.”

Blaine could see that for himself. Lenin was still ahead, at the outer limit of detection, and her engines were off. She was a black splinter in the screens, her outlines blurred by four thousand kilometers of red-hot fog.

The Eye thickened around them.

Rod stayed on the bridge another hour, then persuaded himself that he was being unfair. “Mr. Renner.”

“Yes, sir?”

“You can go off watch now. Let Mr. Crawford take her.”

“Aye aye, sir.” Renner headed for his cabin. He’d reached the conclusion that he wasn’t needed on the bridge fifty-eight minutes before. Now for a hot shower, and some sleep in his bunk instead of the conning chair.

The companionway to his cabin was jammed, as usual. Kevin Renner was pushing his way through with singleminded determination when someone lurched hard against him.

“Dammit! Excuse me,” he snarled. He watched the miscreant regain his feet by hanging onto the lapels of Renner’s uniform. “Dr. Horvath, isn’t it?”

“My apologies.” The Science Minister stepped back and brushed at himself ineffectually. “I haven’t gotten used to spin gravity yet. None of us have. It’s the Coriolis effect that throws us off.”

“No. It’s the elbows,” Renner said. He regained his habitual grin. “There are six times as many elbows as people aboard this ship, Doctor. I’ve been counting.”

“Very funny, Mr. Renner, isn’t it? Sailing Master Renner. Renner, this crowding bothers my personnel as much as yours. If we could stay out of your way, we would. But we can’t. The data on the Eye have to be collected. We may never have such a chance again.”

“I know, Doctor, and I sympathize. Now if you’ll—” Visions of hot water and clean bedding receded as Horvath clutched at his lapels again.

“Just a moment, please.” Horvath seemed to be making up his mind about something. “Mr. Renner, you were aboard MacArthur when she captured the alien probe, weren’t you?”

“Hoo Boy, I sure was.”

“I’d like to talk to you.”

“Now? But, Doctor, the ship may need my attention at any moment—”

“I consider it urgent.”

“But we’re cruising through the photosphere of a star, as you may have noticed.” And I haven’t had a hot shower in three days. as you may also have noticed… Renner took a second look at Horvath’s expression and gave up. “All right, Doctor. Only let’s get out of the passageway.”

Horvath’s cabin was as cramped as anything on board, except that it had walls. More than half of MacArthur’s crew would have considered those walls an undeserved luxury. Horvath apparently did not, from the look of disgust and the muttered apologies as they entered the cabin.

He lifted the bunk into the bulkhead and dropped two chairs from the opposite wall. “Sit down, Renner. There are things about that interception that have been bothering me. I hope I can get an unbiased view from you. You’re not a regular Navy man.”

The Sailing Master did not bother to deny it. He had been mate on a merchant ship before, and would skipper one when he left the Navy with his increased experience; and he could hardly wait to return to the merchant service.

“So,” said Horvath, and sat down on the very edge of the foldout chair. “Renner, was it absolutely necessary to attack the probe?”

Renner started to laugh.

Horvath took it, though he looked as if he had eaten a bad oyster.

“All right,” said Renner. “I shouldn’t have laughed. You weren’t there. Did you know the probe was diving into Cal for maximum deceleration?”

“Certainly, and I appreciate that you were too. But was it really that dangerous?”

“Dr. Horvath, the Captain surprised me twice. Utterly. When the probe attacked, I was trying to take us around the edge of the sail before we were cooked. Maybe I’d have got us away in time and maybe not. But the Captain took us through the sail. It was brilliant, it was something I should have thought of, and I happen to think the man’s a genius. He’s also a suicidal maniac.”

“What?”

On Renner’s face was retrospective dread. “He should never have tried to pick up the probe. We’d lost too much time. We were about to ram a star. I wouldn’t have believed we could pick up the damned thing so fast…”

“Blaine did that himself?”

“No. He gave the job to Cargill. Who’s better at tight high-gravity maneuvers than anybody else aboard. That’s the point, Doctor. The Captain picked the best man for the job and got out of the way.”

“And you would have run for it?”

“Forthrightly and without embarrassment.”

“But he picked it up. Well.” Horvath seemed to taste something bad. “But he also fired on it. The first—”

“It shot first.”

“That was a meteor defense!”

“So what?”

Horvath clamped his lips.

“All right, Doctor, try this. Suppose you left your car on a hill with the brakes off and the wheels turned the wrong way, and suppose it rolled down the hill and killed four people. What’s your ethical position?”

“Terrible. Make your point, Renner.”

“The Moties are at least as intelligent as we are. Granted? OK. They built a meteor defense. They had an obligation to see to it that it did not fire on neutral space craft.”

Horvath sat there for what seemed a long time, while Kevin Renner thought about the limited capacity of the hot-water tanks in officers’ country. That bad-taste expression was natural to Horvath, Renner saw; the lines in his face fell into it naturally and readily. Finally the Science Minister said, “Thank you, Mr. Renner.”

“You’re welcome.” Renner stood.

An alarm sounded.

“Oh, Lord. That’s me.” Renner dashed for the bridge.

They were deep within the Eye: deep enough that the thin starstuff around them showed yellow. The Field indicators showed yellow too, but with a tinge of green.

All this Renner saw as he glanced around at half a dozen screens on the bridge. He looked at the plots on his own screens; and he did not see the battleship. “Lenin’s Jumped?”

“Right,” Midshipman Whitbread said. “We’re next, sir.” The red-haired middie’s grin seemed to meet at the back of his head.

Blaine sailed into the bridge without touching the companionway sides. “Take the con, Mr. Renner. The pilot ought to be at your station now.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Renner turned to Whitbread. “I relieve you.” His fingers danced across the input keys, then he hit a line of buttons even as the new data flowed onto his screen. Alarms went off in rapid succession: JUMP STATIONS, BATTLE STATIONS, HEAVY ACCELERATION WARNING.

MacArthur prepared herself for the unknown.

PART TWO

The Crazy Eddie Point

13. Look Around You

She was the first to find the intruders.

She had been exploring a shapeless mass of stony asteroid that turned out to be mostly empty space. Some earlier culture had carved out rooms and nooks and tankages and storage chambers, then fused the detritus into more rooms and chambers, until the mass was a stone beehive. It had all happened very long ago, but that was of no interest to her.

In later ages meteoroids had made dozens of holes through the construct. Thick walls had been gradually thinned so that air might be chemically extracted from the stone. There was no air now. There was no metal anywhere. Dry mummies, and stone, stone, little else and nothing at all for an Engineer.

She left via a meteoroid puncture; for all the air locks had been fused shut by vacuum welding. A long time after that someone had removed their metal working parts.

After she was outside, she saw them, very far away, a tiny glimmer of golden light against the Coal Sack. It was worth a look. Anything was worth a look.

The Engineer returned to her ship.

Telescope and spectrometer failed her at first. There were two of the golden slivers, and some bulk inside each of them, but something was shutting out her view of the masses inside. Patiently the Engineer went to work on her instruments, redesigning, recalibrating, rebuilding, her hands working at blinding speed guided by a thousand Cycles of instincts.

There were force fields to be penetrated. Presently she had something that would do that. Not well, but she could see large objects.

She looked again.

Metal. Endless, endless metal.

She took off immediately. The call of treasure was not to be ignored. There was little of free will in an Engineer.

Blaine watched a flurry of activity through a red fog as he fought to regain control of his traitor body after return to normal space. An all-clear signal flashed from Lenin, and Rod breathed more easily. Nothing threatened, and he could enjoy the view.

It was the Eye he saw first. Murcheson’s Eye was a tremendous ruby, brighter than a hundred full moons, all alone on the black velvet of the Coal Sack.

On the other side of the sky, the Mote was the brightest of a sea of stars. All systems looked this way at breakout: a lot of stars, and one distant sun. To starboard was a splinter of light, Lenin, her Langston Field radiating the overload picked up in the Eye.

Admiral Kutuzov made one final check and signaled Blaine again. Until something threatened, the scientists aboard MacArthur were in charge. Rod ordered coffee and waited for information.

At first there was maddeningly little that he hadn’t already known. The Mote was only thirty-five light years from New Scotland, and there had been a number of observations, some dating back to Jasper Murcheson himself. A G2 star, less energetic than Sol, cooler, smaller and a bit less massive. It showed almost no sunspot activity at the moment, and the astrophysicists found it dull.

Rod had known about the gas giant before they started. Early astronomers had deduced it from perturbations in the Mote’s orbit around the Eye. They knew the gas giant planet’s mass and they found it almost where they expected, seventy degrees around from them. Heavier than Jupiter, but smaller, much denser, with a degenerate matter core. While the scientists worked, the Navy men plotted courses to the gas giant, in case one or the other warship should need to refuel. Scooping up hydrogen by ramming through a gas giant’s atmosphere on a hyperbolic orbit was hard on ships and crew but a lot better than being stranded in an alien system.

“We’re searching out the Trojan points now, Captain,” Buckman told Rod two hours after breakout.

“Any sign of the Mote planet?”

“Not yet.” Buckman hung up.

Why was Buckman concerned with Trojan points? Sixty degrees ahead of the giant planet in its orbit, and sixty degrees behind, would be two points of stable equilibrium, called Trojan points after the Trojan asteroids that occupy similar points in Jupiter’s orbit. Over millions of years they ought to have collected dust clouds and clusters of asteroids. But why would Buckman bother with these?

Buckman called again when he found the Trojans. “They’re packed!” Buckman gloated. “Either this whole system is cluttered with asteroids from edge to edge or there’s a new principle at work. There’s more junk in Mote Beta’s Trojans than has ever been reported in another system. It’s a wonder they haven’t all collected to form a pair of moons—”

“Have you found the habitable planet yet?”

“Not yet,” said Buckman, and faded off the screen. That was three hours after breakout.

He called back half an hour later. “Those Trojan point asteroids have very high albedos, Captain. They must be thick with dust. That might explain how so many of the larger particles were captured. The dust clouds slow them down, then polish them smooth—”

“Dr. Buckman! There is an inhabited world in this system and it is vital that we find it. These are the first intelligent aliens—”

“Dammit Captain, we’re looking! We’re looking!” Buckman glanced to one side, then withdrew. The screen was blank for a moment, showing only a badly focused shot of a technician in the background.

Blaine found himself confronting Science Minister Horvath, who said, “Please excuse the interruption, Captain. Do I understand you are not satisfied with our search methods?”

“Dr. Horvath, I have no wish to intrude on your prerogatives. But you’ve taken over all my instruments, and I keep hearing about asteroids. I wonder if we’re all looking for the same thing?”

Horvath’s reply was mild. “This is not a space battle, Captain.” He paused. “In a war operation, you would know your target. You would probably know the ephemeris of the planets in any system of interest—”

“Hell, survey teams find planets.”

“Ever been on one, Captain?”

“No.”

“Well, think about the problem we face. Until we located the gas giant and the Trojan asteroids we weren’t precise about the plane of the system. From the probe’s instruments we have deduced the temperature the Moties find comfortable, and from that we deduce how far from their sun their planet should be—and we still must search out a toroid a hundred and twenty million kilometers in radius. Do you follow me?”

Blaine nodded.

“We’re going to have to search that entire region. We know the planet isn’t hidden behind the sun because we’re above the plane of the system. But when we finish photographing the system we have to examine this enormous star field for the one dot of light we want.”

“Perhaps I was expecting too much.”

“Perhaps. We’re all waiting as fast as we can.” He smiled—a spasm that lifted his whole face for a split second—and vanished.

Six hours after breakout Horvath reported again. There was no sign of Buckman. “No, Captain, we haven’t found the inhabited planet. But Dr. Buckman’s time-wasting observations have identified a Motie civilization. In the Trojan points.”

“They’re inhabited?”

“Definitely. Both Trojan points are seething with microwave frequencies. We should have guessed from the high albedos of the larger bodies. Polished surfaces are a natural product of civilization—I’m afraid Dr. Buckman’s people think too much in terms of a dead universe.”

“Thank you, Doctor. Is any of that message traffic for us?”

“I don’t think so, Captain. But the nearest Trojan point is below us in this system’s plane—about three million kilometers away. I suggest we go there. From the apparent density of civilization in the Trojan points it may be that the inhabited planet is not the real nexus of Motie civilization. Perhaps it is like Earth. Or worse.”

Rod was shocked. He had found Earth herself shocking, not all that many years ago. New Annapolis was kept on Manhome so that Imperial officers would know just how vital was the great task of the Empire.

And if men had not had the Alderson Drive before Earth’s last battles, and the nearest star had been thirty-five light years away instead of four— “That’s a horrible thought.”

“I agree. It’s also only a guess, Captain. But in any event there is a viable civilization nearby, and I think we should go to it.”

“I—just a moment.” Chief Yeoman Lud Shattuck was at the bridge companionway gesturing frantically at Rod’s number-four screen.

“We used the message-sending locator scopes, Skipper,” Shattuck shouted across the bridge. “Look, sir.”

The screen showed black space with pinhole dots of stars and a blue-green point circled by an indicator lightring. As Rod watched, the point blinked, twice.

“We’ve found the inhabited planet,” Rod said with satisfaction. He couldn’t resist. “We beat you to it, Doctor.”

After all the waiting, it was as if everything broke at once.The light was first. There might have been an Earthlike world behind it; there probably was, for it was in the doughnut locus Horvath was searching. But the light hid whatever was behind it, and it wasn’t surprising that the communications people had found it first. Watching for signals was their job.

Cargill and Horvath’s team worked together to answer the pulses. One, two, three, four blinked the light, and Cargill used the forward batteries to send five, six, seven. Twenty minutes later the light sent three one eight four eleven, repeated, and the ship’s brain ground out: Pi, base twelve. Cargill used the computer to find e to the same base and replied with that.

But the true message was, We want to talk to you. And MacArthur’s answer was, Fine. Elaborations would have to wait.

And the second development was already in.

“Fusion light,” said Sailing Master Renner. He bent close over his screen. His fingers played strange, silent music on his control board. “No Langston Field. Naturally. They’re just enclosing the hydrogen, fusing it and blasting it out. A plasma bottle. It’s not as hot as our drives, which means lower efficiency. Red shift, if I’m reading the impurities right… it must be aimed away from us.”

“You think it’s a ship coming to meet us?”

“Yessir. A small one. Give us a few minutes and I’ll tell you its acceleration. Meanwhile, we assume an acceleration of one gee…” Renner’s fingers had been tapping all the while “…and get a mass of thirty tons. Later we’ll readjust that.”

“Too big to be a missile,” Blaine said thoughtfully. “Should we meet him halfway, Mr. Renner?”

Renner frowned. “There’s a problem. He’s aiming at where we are now. We don’t know how much fuel he’s got, or how bright he is.”

“Let’s ask, anyway. Eyes! Get me Admiral Kutuzov.”

The Admiral was on his bridge. Blurs out of focus behind him showed activity aboard Lenin. “I’ve seen it, Captain,” Kutuzov said. “What do you want to do about it?”

“I want to go meet that ship. But in case it can’t change course or we can’t catch it, it will come here, sir. Lenin could wait for it.”

“And do what, Captain? My instructions are clear, Lenin is to have nothing to do with aliens.”

“But you could send out a boat, sir. A gig, which we’ll pick up with your men. Sir.”

“How many boats do you think I have, Blaine? Let me repeat my instructions. Lenin is here to protect secret of Alderson Drive and Langston Field. To accomplish task we will not only not communicate with aliens, we will not communicate with you when message might be intercepted.”

“Yes, sir.” Blaine stared at the burly man on the screen. Didn’t he have a shred of curiosity? Nobody could be that much of a machine… or could he? “We’ll go to the alien ship, sir. Dr. Horvath wants to anyway.”

“Very good, Captain. Carry on.”

“Yes, sir.” Rod cut off the screen with relief, then tuned to Renner. “Let’s go make first contact with an alien, Mr. Renner.”

“I think you just did that,” said Renner. He glanced nervously at the screens to be sure the Admiral was gone.

Horace Bury was just leaving his cabin—on the theory that he might be less bored somewhere else—when Buckman’s head popped out of a companionway.

Bury changed his mind at once. “Dr. Buckman! May I offer you coffee?”

Protuberant eyes turned, blinked, focused. “What? Oh. Yes, thank you, Bury. It might wake me. There’s been so much to do—I can only stay a moment—”

Buckman dropped into Bury’s guest chair, limp as a physician’s display skeleton. His eyes were red; his eyelids drooped at half-mast. His breathing was too loud. The stringy muscle tissue along his bare arm drooped. Bury wondered what an autopsy would show if Buckman were to die at this moment: exhaustion, malnutrition, or both?

Bury made a difficult decision. “Nabil, some coffee. With cream, sugar, and brandy for Dr. Buckman.”

“Now, Bury, I’m afraid that during working hours— Oh, well. Thank you, Nabil.” Buckman sipped, then gulped. “Ah! That’s good. Thank you, Bury, that ought to wake me.”

“You seemed to need it. Normally I would never adulterate good coffee with distilled spirits. Dr. Buckman, have you been eating?”

“I don’t remember.”

“You haven’t. Nabil, food for our guest. Quickly.”

“Bury, we’re so busy, I really haven’t time. There’s a whole solar system to explore, not to mention the jobs for the Navy—tracing neutrino emissions, tracking that damned light—”

“Doctor, if you were to die at this moment, many of your notes would never be written down, would they?”

Buckman smiled. “So theatrical, Bury. But I suppose I can spare a few minutes. All we’re doing now is waiting for that signal light to go off.”

“A signal from the Mote planet?”

“From Mote Prime, yes, at least it came from the right place. But we can’t see the planet until they turn off the laser, and they won’t. They talk and talk, and for what? What can they tell us if we don’t speak a common language?”

“After all, Doctor, how can they tell us anything until they teach us their language? I presume that’s what they’re trying to do now. Isn’t anyone working on that?”

Buckman gave a feral snarl. “Horvath has all the instruments feeding information to Hardy and the linguists. Can’t get any decent observations of the Coal Sack—and no one’s ever been this close to it before!” His look softened. “But we can study the Trojan asteroids.”

Buckman’s eye took on that look, the focus on infinity. “There are too many of them. And not enough dust. I was wrong, Bury; there’s not enough dust to capture so many rocks, or to polish them either. The Moties probably did the polishing, they must be all through those rocks, the neutrino emissions are fantastic. But how did so many rocks get captured?”

“Neutrino emissions. That means a fusion technology.”

Buckman smiled. “One of a high order. Thinking of trade possibilities?”

“Of course. Why else would I be here?” And I would be here even if the Navy had not made it clear that the alternative was a formal arrest… but Buckman wouldn’t know that. Only Blaine did. “The higher their civilization, the more they’ll have to trade.” And the harder they’d be to cheat; but Buckman wouldn’t be interested in such things.

Buckman complained, “We could move so much faster if the Navy didn’t use our telescopes. And Horvath lets them! Ah, good.” Nabil entered, pushing a tray.

Buckman ate like a starved rat. Between mouthfuls he said, “Not that all the Navy’s projects are totally without interest. The alien ship—”

“Ship?”

“There’s a ship coming to meet us. Didn’t you know?”

“No.”

“Well, its point of departure is a large, stony asteroid well outside the main cluster. The point is, it’s very light. It must have a very odd shape, unless there are gas bubbles all through the rock, which would mean—”

Bury laughed outright. “Doctor, surely an alien space craft is more interesting than a stony meteorite!”

Buckman looked startled. “Why?”

The slivers turned red, then black. Clearly the things were cooling; but how had they become hot in the first place?

The Engineer had stopped wondering about that when one of the slivers came toward her. There were power sources inside the metal bulks.

And they were self-motivated. What were they? Engineers, or Masters, or senseless machinery? A Mediator on some incomprehensible task? She resented the Mediators, who could so easily and so unreasonably interfere with important work.

Perhaps the slivers were Watchmakers; but more likely they contained a Master. The Engineer considered running, but the approaching bulk was too powerful. It accelerated at 1.14 gravities, nearly the limit of her ship. There was nothing for an Engineer to do but meet it.

Besides… all that metal! In useful form, as far as she could tell. The Clusters were full of metal artifacts, but in alloys too tough to convert.

All that metal.

But it must meet her, not the other way around. She had not the fuel or the acceleration. She worked out turnover points in her head. The other would do the same, of course. Luckily the solution was unique, assuming constant acceleration. There would be no need for communication.

Engineers were not good at communication.

14. The Engineer

The alien ship was a compact bulk, irregular of shape and dull gray in color, like modeling clay molded in cupped hands. Extrusions sprouted at seeming random: a ring of hooks around what Whitbread took for the aft end; a thread of bright silver girdling its waist; transparent bulges fore and aft; antennae in highly imaginative curves; and dead aft, a kind of stinger: a spine many times the length of the hull, very long and straight and narrow.

Whitbread coasted slowly inward. He rode a space-to-space taxi, the cabin a polarized plastic bubble, the short hull studded with “thruster clusters”—arrays of attitude jets. Whitbread had trained for space in such a vehicle. Its field of view was enormous; it was childishly easy to steer; it was cheap, weaponless, and expendable.

And the alien could see him inside. We come in peace, with nothing hidden—assuming its alien eyes could see through clear battle plastic.

“That spine generates the plasma fields for the drive,” his communicator was saying. There was no screen, but the voice was Cargill’s. “We watched it during deceleration. That spiggot device beneath the spine probably feeds hydrogen into the fields.”

“I’d better stay out of its way,” said Mr. Whitbread.

“Right. The field intensity would probably wreck your instruments. It might affect your nervous systems too.”

The alien ship was very close now. Whitbread fired bursts to slow himself. The attitude jets sounded like popcorn popping.

“See any signs of an air lock?”

“No, sir.”

“Open your own air lock. Maybe that will get the idea across.”

“Aye aye, sir.” Whitbread could see the alien through the forward bubble. It was motionless, watching him, and it looked very like the photographs he had seen of the dead one in the probe. Jonathon Whitbread saw a neckless, lopsided head, smooth brown fur, a heavy left arm gripping something, two slender right arms moving frantically fast, doing things out of his field of vision.

Whitbread opened his air lock. And waited.

At least the Motie hadn’t started shooting yet.

The Engineer was captivated. She hardly noticed the tiny vehicle nearby. There were no new principles embodied there. But the big ship!

It had a strange field around it, something the Engineer had never believed possible. It registered on half a dozen of the Engineer’s instruments. To others the force envelope was partly transparent. The Engineer knew enough about the warship already to scare the wits out of Captain Blaine if he’d known. But it was not enough to satisfy an Engineer.

All that gadgetry! And metal!

The small vehicle’s curved door was opening and closing now. It flashed lights on and off. Patterns of elect electromagnetic force radiated from both vehicles. The signals meant nothing to an Engineer.

It was the ship’s gadgetry that held her attention. The Field itself, its properties intriguing and puzzling, its underlying principles a matter of guesswork. The Engineer was ready to spend the rest of her life trying. For one look at the generator she would have died. The big ship’s motive force was different from any fusion plant the Engineer had ever heard of; and its workings seemed to use the properties of that mysterious force envelope.

How to get aboard? How to get through that envelope? The intuition that came was rare for an Engineer. The small craft… was it trying to talk to her? It had come from the large craft. Then…

The small craft was a link to the larger ship, to the force envelope and its technology and the mystery of its sudden appearance.

She had forgotten danger. She had forgotten everything in the burning urge to know more about that field. The Engineer opened her air-lock door and waited to see what would happen.

“Mister Whitbread, your alien is trying to use probes on MacArthur,” Captain Blaine was saying, “Commander Cargill says he has them blocked. If that makes the alien suspicious, it can’t be helped. Has he tried any kind of probe on you?”

“No, sir.”

Rod frowned and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You’re sure?”

“I’ve been watching the instruments, sir.”

“That’s funny. You’re smaller, but you’re close. You’d think he—”

“The air lock!” Whitbread snapped. “Sir, the Motie’s opened his air lock.”

“I see it. A mouth opened in the hull. Is that what you mean?”

“Yessir. Nothing coming out. I can see the whole cabin through that opening. The Motie’s in his control cabin—permission to enter, sir?”

“Hmm. OK. Watch yourself. Stay in communication. And good luck, Whitbread.”

Jonathon sat a moment, nerving himself. He had half hoped the Captain would forbid it as too dangerous. But of course midshipmen are expendable… Whitbread braced himself in the open air lock. The alien ship was very close. With the entire ship watching him, he launched himself into space.

Part of the alien’s hull had stretched like skin, to open into a kind of funnel. A strange way to build an air lock, thought Whitbread. He used backpack jets to slow himself as he drifted straight into the funnel, straight toward the Motie, who stood waiting to receive him.

The alien wore only its soft brown fur and four thick pads of black hair, one in each armpit and one at the groin. “No sign of what’s holding the air in, but there’s got to be air in there,” Whitbread told the mike. A moment later he knew. He had run into invisible honey.

The air lock closed against his back.

He almost panicked. Caught like a fly in amber, no forward, no retreat. He was in a cell 130 cm high, the height of the alien. It stood before him on the other side of the invisible wall, blank-faced, looking him over.

The Motie. It was shorter than the other, the dead one in the probe. Its color was different: there were no white markings through the brown fur. There was another, subtler, more elusive difference… perhaps the difference between the quick and the dead, perhaps something else.

The Motie was not frightening. Its smooth fur was like one of the Doberman pinschers Whitbread’s mother used to raise, but there was nothing vicious or powerful looking about the alien. Whitbread would have liked to stroke its fur.

The face was no more than a sketch, without expression, except for a gentle upward curve of the lipless mouth, a sardonic half-smile. Small, flat-footed, smooth-furred, almost featureless— It looks like a cartoon, Whitbread thought. How could he be afraid of a cartoon?

But Jonathon Whitbread was crouched in a space much too small for him, and the alien was doing nothing about it.

The cabin was a crowded patchwork of panels and dark crevasses, and tiny faces peered at him from the shadows.

Vermin! The ship was infested with vermin. Rats? Foodsupply? The Motie did not seem disturbed as one flashed into the open, then another, more dancing from cover to cover, crowding close to see the intruder.

They were big things. Much bigger than rats, much smaller than men. They peered from the corners, curious but timid. One dodged close and Whitbread got a good look. What he saw made him gasp. It was a tiny Motie!

It was a difficult time for the Engineer. The intruder’s entry should have answered questions, but it only raised more.

What was it? Big, big-headed, symmetrical as an animal, but equipped with its own vehicle like an Engineer or a Master. There had never been a class like this. Would it obey or command? Could the hands be as clumsy as they looked? Mutation, monster, sport? What was it for?

Its mouth was moving now. It must be speaking into a communications device. That was no help. Even Messengers used Language.

Engineers were not equipped to make such decisions; but one could always wait for more data.

Engineers had endless patience.

“There’s air,” Whitbread reported. He watched the telltales that showed in a mirror just above his eye level. “Did I mention that? I wouldn’t want to try breathing it. Normal pressure, oxygen around 18 percent, CO2 about 2 percent, enough helium to register, and—”

“Helium? That’s odd. Just how much?”

Whitbread switched over to a more sensitive scale and waited for the analyzer to work. “Around 1 percent. Just under.”

“Anything else?”

“Poisons. SO2, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, ketones, alcohols, and some other stuff that doesn’t read out with this suit. The light blinks yellow.”

“Wouldn’t kill you fast, then. You could breathe it a while and still get help in time to save your lungs.”

“That’s what I thought,” Whitbread said uneasily. He began loosening the dogs holding down his faceplate.

“What does that mean, Whitbread?”

“Nothing, sir.” Jonathon had been doubled over far too long. Every joint and muscle screamed for surcease. He had run out of things to describe in the alien cabin. And the thrice-damned Motie just stood there in its sandals and its faint smile, watching, watching…

“Whitbread?”

Whitbread took a deep breath and held it. He lifted the faceplate against slight pressure, looked the alien in the eye, and screamed all in one breath, “Will you for God’s sake turn off that damned force field!” and snapped the faceplate down.

The alien turned to his control board and moved something. The soft barrier in front of Whitbread vanished.

Whitbread took two steps forward. He straightened up a half-inch at a time, feeling the pain and hearing the cracking of unused joints. He had been crouched in that cramped space for an hour and a half, examined by half a dozen twisted Brownies and one bland, patient alien. He hurt!

He had trapped cabin air under his faceplate. The stink caught at his throat, so that he stopped breathing; then self-consciously he sniffed at it in case anyone wanted to know what it was.

He smelled animais and machines, ozone, gasoline, hot oil, halitosis, old sweat socks, burning, glue, and things he had never smelled before. It was unbelievably rich—and his suit was removing it, thank God.

He asked, “Did you hear me yell?”

“Yes, and so did everyone in this ship,” said Cargill’s voice. “I don’t think there’s a man aboard who isn’t following you, unless it’s Buckman. Any result?”

“He turned off the force field. Right away. He was just waiting for me to remind him.

“And I’m in the cabin now. I told you about the repairs? It’s all repairs, all hand made, even the control panels. But it’s all well done, nothing actually in the way, for a Motie, that is. Me, I’m too big. I don’t dare move.

“The little ones have all disappeared. No, there’s one peeping out of a corner… the big one is waiting to see what I do. I wish he’d stop that.”

“See if he’ll come back to the ship with you—”

“I’ll try, sir.”

The alien had understood him before, or seemed to, but it did not understand him now. Whitbread thought furiously. Sign language? His eye fell on something that had to be a Motie pressure suit.

He pulled it from its rack, noting its lightness: no weaponry, no armor. He handed it to the alien, then pointed to MacArthur beyond the bubble.

The alien began dressing at once. In literally seconds it was in full gear, in a suit that, inflated, looked like ten beach balls glued together. Only the gauntlets were more than simple inflated spheres.

It took a transparent plastic sack from the wall and reached suddenly to capture one of the 1/2-meter-high miniatures. He stuffed it into the sack headfirst while the miniature wriggled, then turned to Whitbread and rushed at the middie with lightning speed. It had reached behind Whitbread with two right hands and was already moving away when Whitbread reacted: a violent and involuntary yip!

“Whitbread? What’s happening? Answer me!” Another voice in the background of Whitbread’s suit said crisply, “Marines, stand by.”

“Nothing, Commander Cargill. It’s all right. No attack, I mean, I think the alien’s ready to go—no, it isn’t. It’s got two of the parasites in a plastic sack, and it’s inflating the sack from an air spiggot. One of the little beasts was on my back. I never felt it.

“Now the alien’s making something. I don’t understand what’s keeping it. It knows we want to go to MacArthur—it put on a pressure suit.”

“What’s it doing?”

“It’s got the cover off the control panel. It’s rewiring things. A moment ago it was squeezing sliver toothpaste in a ribbon along the printed circuitry. I’m only telling you what it looks like, of course. YIPE!”

“Whitbread?”

The midshipman was caught in a hurricane. Arms and legs flailing, he snatched frantically for something, anything solid. He was scraped along the side of the air lock, reached and found nothing to grasp. Then night and stars whirled past him.

“The Motie opened the air lock,” he reported. “No warning. I’m outside, in space.” His hands used attitude jets to stop his tumbling. “I think he let all the breathing air out. There’s a great fog of ice crystals around me, and— Oh, Lord, it’s the Motie! No, it isn’t, it’s not wearing a pressure suit. There goes another one.

“They must be the little ones,” Cargill said.

“Right. He’s killed all the parasites. He probably has to do it every so often, to clear them out. He doesn’t know how long he’ll be aboard MacArthur and he doesn’t want them running wild. So he’s evacuated the ship.”

“He should have warned you.”

“Damn right he should! Excuse me, sir.”

“Are you all right, Whitbread?” A new voice. The Captain’s.

“Yessir. I’m approaching the alien’s ship. Ah, here he comes now. He’s jumping for the taxi.” Whitbread stopped his approach and turned to watch the Motie. The alien sailed through space like a cluster of beach balls, but graceful, graceful. Within a transparent balloon fixed to its torso, two small, spidery figures gestured wildly. The alien paid them no attention.

“A perfect jump,” Whithread muttered. “Unless—he’s cutting it a bit fine. Jesus!” The alien was still decelerating as it flew through the taxi door, dead centered, so that it never touched the edges. “He must be awfully sure of his balance.”

“Whitbread, is that alien inside your vehicle? Without you?”

Whitbread winced at the bite in the Captain’s voice. “Yes, sir. I’m going after him.”

“See you do, Mister.”

The alien was at the pilot’s station, studying the controls intensely. Suddenly it reached out and began to turn the quick fasteners at the panel’s edge. Whitbread yelped and rushed up to grab the alien’s shoulder. It paid no attention. Whitbread put his helmet against the alien’s. “Leave that to hell alone!” he shouted. Then he gestured to the passenger’s saddle. The alien rose slowly, turned, and straddled the saddle. It didn’t fit there. Whitbread took the controls gratefully and began to maneuver the taxi toward MacArthur.

He brought the taxi to a stop just beyond the neat hole Sinclair had opened in MacArthur’s Field. The alien ship was out of sight around the bulk of the warship. Hangar deck was below, and the midshipman yearned to take the gig through under her own power, to demonstrate his ability to the watching alien, but he knew better. They waited.

Suited spacers came up from the hangar deck. Cables trailed behind them. The spacers waved. Whitbread waved back, and seconds later Sinclair started the winches to tug the gig down into MacArthur. As they passed the hangar doors more cables were made fast to the top side of the gig. These pulled taut, slowing the taxi, as the great hangar doors began to close.

The Motie was watching, its entire body swiveling from side to side, reminding Whitbread of an owl he had once seen in a zoo on Sparta. Amazingly, the tiny creatures in the alien’s bag were also watching; they aped the larger alien. Finally they were at rest, and Whitbread gestured toward tha air lock. Through the thick glass he could see Gunner Kelley and a dozen armed Marines.

There were twenty screens in a curved array in front of Rod Blaine and consequently every scientist aboard MacArthur wanted to sit near him. As the only possible way to settle the squabbling Rod ordered the ship to battle stations and the bridge cleared of all civilian personnel. Now he watched as Whitbread climbed aboard the gig.

Through the camera eye mounted on Whitbread’s helmet Blaine could see the alien seated in the pilot’s chair, its image seemng to grow as the middie rushed toward it. Blaine turned to Renner. “Did you see what it did?”

“Yah. Sir. The alien was— Captain, I’d swear it was trying to take the gig’s controls apart.”

“So would I.” They watched in frustration as Whitbread piloted the gig toward MacArthur. Blaine couldn’t blame the boy for not looking around at his passenger while trying to steer the boat, but… best leave him alone. They waited while the cables were made fast to the gig and it was winched down into MacArthur.

“Captain!” It was Staley, midshipman of the watch, but Rod could see it too. Several screens and a couple of minor batteries were trained on the gig, but the heavy stuff was all aimed at the alien ship; and it had come to life.

A streamer of blue light glowed at the stem of the alien craft. The color of Cherenkov radiation, it flowed parallel to the slender silver spine at the tail. Suddenly there was a line of intense white light beside it.

“Yon ship’s under way, Captain,” Sinclair reported.

“God damn it to hell!” His own screens showed the same thing, also that the ship’s batteries were tracking the alien craft.

“Permission to fire?” the gunnery officer asked.

“No!” But what was the thing up to? Rod wondered. Time enough when Whitbread got aboard, he supposed. The alien ship couldn’t escape. And neither would the alien.

“Kelley!”

“Sir!”

“Squad to the air lock. Escort Whitbread and that thing to the reception room. Politely, Gunner. Politely, but make sure it doesn’t go anywhere else.”

“Aye aye, Captain.”

“Number One?” Blaine called.

“Yes, sir,” Cargill answered.

“You were monitoring Whitbread’s helmet camera the entire time he was in that ship?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Any chance there was another alien aboard?”

“No, sir. There wasn’t room. Right, Sandy?”

“Aye, Captain,” Sinclair answered. Blaine had activated a com circuit to both the after bridge and the engine room. “Not if that beastie were to carry fuel too. And we saw nae doors.”

“There wasn’t any air-lock door either, until it opened,” Rod reminded him. “Was there anything that might have been a bathroom?”

“Captain, did we nae see the w.c.? I took the object on port side near the air lock to be such.”

“Yeah. Then that thing’s on autopilot, would you both agree? But we didn’t see him program it.”

“We saw him practically rebuild the controls, Captain,” Cargill said. “My Lord! Do you think that’s how they control…”

“Seems verra inefficient, but the beastie did nae else that could hae been the programming of an autopilot,” Sinclair mused. “And ‘twas bloody quick about it, sir. Captain, do ye think it built an autopilot?”

There was a glare on one of Rod’s screens. “Catch that? A blue flare in the alien ship’s air lock. Now what was that for?”

“To kill yon vermin?” Sinclair asked.

“Hardly. The vacuum would have done,” Cargill answered.

Whitbread came onto the bridge and stood stiffly in front of Blaine’s command chair. “Reporting to Captain, sir.”

“Well done, Mr. Whitbread,” Rod said. “Uh—have you any ideas about those two vermin he brought abroad? Such as why they’re here?”

“No, sir—courtesy? We might want to dissect one?”

“Possibly. If we knew what they were. Now take a look at that.” Blaine pointed at his screens.

The alien ship was turning, the white light of its drive drawing an arc on the sky. It seemed to be heading back to the Trojan points.

And Jonathon Whitbread was the only man alive who had ever been inside. As Blaine released the crew from action stations, the red-haired midshipman was probably thinking that the ordeal was over.

15. Work

The Engineer’s mouth was wide and lipless, turned up at the corners. It looked like a half-smile of gentle happiness, but it was not. It was a permanent fixture of her cartoon face.

Nonetheless, the Engineer was happy.

Her joy had grown and grown. Coming through the Langston Field had been a new experience, like penetrating a black bubble of retarded time. Even without instruments, that told her something about the Field. She was more eager than ever to see that generator.

The ship within the bubble seemed unnecessarily crude, and it was rich, rich! There were parts in the hangar deck that seemed unattached to anything else, mechanisms so plentiful that they didn’t have to be used! And many things she could not understand at a glance.

Some would be structural adaptations to the Field, or to the mysterious drive that worked from the Field. Others must be genuinely new inventions to do familiar things, new circuits, at least new to an unsophisticated Engineer miner. She recognized weapons, weapons on the big ship, weapons on the boats in the hangar space, personal weapons carried by the aliens clustered around the other side of the air lock.

This did not surprise her. She had known this new class were givers of orders, not takers of orders. Naturally they would have weapons. They might even have Warriors.

The double-door air lock was too complex, too easy to jam, primitive, and wasteful of metals and materials. She was needed here, she could see that. The new class must have come here to get her, there couldn’t be any Engineers aboard the ship if they used things like this. She started to take the mechanism apart, but the stranger pulled at her arm and she abandoned the idea. She didn’t have the tools anyway, and she didn’t know what it would be lawful to use to make the tools. There would be time for all that…

A lot of others, much like the first one, clustered around her. They wore strange coverings, most of it alike, and carried weapons, but they didn’t give orders. The stranger kept trying to talk to her.

Couldn’t they see she wasn’t a Mediator? They were not too bright, this primitive new class. But they were givers of orders. The first one had shouted a clear command.

And they couldn’t speak Language.

The situation was remarkably free of decisions. An Engineer need only go where she was led, repair and redesign where the opportunity arose, and wait for a Mediator. Or a Master. And there was so much to do, so much to do…

The petty officers’ lounge had been converted into a reception room for alien visitors. The petty officers had to take over one of the Marine messes, doubling the joeys into the other. All over the ship adjustments had to be made to accommodate the swarms of civilians and their needs.

As a laboratory the lounge might lack something, but it was secure, and had plenty of running water, wall plugs, hot plates, and refreshment facilities. At least there was nothing to smack of the dissection table.

After some argument it had been decided not to attempt to build furniture to fit the aliens. Anything they built would only accommodate the passenger aboard the probe, and that seemed absurd.

There were plenty of tv pickups, so that although only a few key personnel were allowed in the lounge, nearly everyone aboard the ship could watch. Sally Fowler waited with the scientists, and she was determined to win the Motie’s trust. She didn’t care who was watching or what it would take to do that.

As it turned out, the Motie’s trust was easy to come by. She was as trustful as a child. Her first move on coming out of the air lock was to tear open the plastic sack containing the miniatures, and give it to the first hand that reached for it. She never bothered about them again.

She went where she was led, walking between the Marines until Sally took her by the hand at the reception room door, and everywhere she went she looked about, her body swiveling like an owl’s head. When Sally let go, the Motie simply stood and waited for further instructions, watching everyone with that same gentle smile.

She did not seem to understand gestures. Sally and Horvath and others tried to talk to the Motie, with no result. Dr. Hardy, the Chaplain linguist, drew mathematical diagrams and nothing happened. The Motie did not understand and was not interested.

She was interested in tools, though. As soon as she was inside she reached for Gunner Kelley’s sidearm. At a command from Dr. Horvath the Marine reluctantly unloaded the weapon and let her handle one of the cartridges before surrendering the gun. The Motie took it completely apart, to Kelley’s annoyance and everyone else’s amusement, then put it back together again, correctly, to Kelly’s amazement. She examined the Marine’s hand, bending the fingers to the limit and working them in their joints, using her own fingers to probe the muscles and the complex bones of the wrist. She examined Sally Fowler’s hand in the same way for comparison.

The Motie took tools from her belt and began to work on the grip of the pistol, building it up with plastic squeezed from a tube.

“The little ones are female,” one of the biologists announced. “Like the big one.”

“A female asteroid miner,” Sally said. Her eyes took on a faraway look. “If they use females in a hazardous job like that, they’re going to have a culture a lot different from the Empire’s.” She regarded the Motie speculatively. The alien smiled back.

“We would be better occupied in learning what it eats,” Horvath mused. “It doesn’t seem to have brought a food supply, and Captain Blaine informs me that its ship has departed for parts unknown.” He glanced at the miniature Moties, who were moving about on the big table originally used for spatball. “Unless those are a food supply.”

“We’d best not try cooking them just yet,” Renner announced from near the door. “They could be children. Immature Moties.”

Sally turned suddenly and half gasped before regaining her scientific detachment. Not that she’d be part of cooking anything before she knew what it was.

Horvath spoke. “Mr. Renner, why is MacArthur’s Sailing Master concerning himself with an investigation of extraterrestrial anatomy?”

“The ship’s at rest, the Captain secured from general quarters, and I’m off duty,” Renner said. He conveniently neglected to mention the Captain’s standing orders about crew getting in the scientists’ way. “Are you ordering me out?”

Horvath thought about it. On the bridge, so did Rod Blaine, but he didn’t like Horvath much anyway. The Science Minister shook his head. “No. But I think your suggestion about the small aliens was frivolous.”

“Not at all. They could lose the second left arm the way we lose our baby teeth.” One of the biologists nodded agreement. “What other differences are there? Size?”

“Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” someone said. Someone else said, “Oh, shut up.”

The alien gave Kelley back his sidearm and looked around. Renner was the only naval officer in the room, and the alien went up to him and reached for his pistol. Renner unloaded the weapon and handed it over, then submitted to the same ridiculous examination of his hand. This time the Motie worked much faster, its hands moving with almost blinding speed.

“Me, I think they’re monkeys,” Renner said. “Ancestors to the intelligent Moties. Which could mean you were right, too. There are people who eat monkey meat on a dozen planets. But we can hardly risk it yet.”

The Motie worked on Renner’s weapon, then laid it on the table. Renner picked it up. He frowned, for the flat butt had been built up into curving ridges which were now as hard as the original plastic. Even the trigger had been built up. Renner shifted the piece in his hand, and suddenly it was perfect. Like part of his hand, and it aimed itself.

He savored it for a moment, and noted that Kelley had already reloaded and holstered his own sidearm after a puzzled look. The pistol was perfect, and Renner would hate to lose it; no wonder the Marine hadn’t spoken. The Sailing Master handed the piece to Horvath.

The elderly Science Minister took the pistol. “Our visitor seems to know tools,” he said. “I don’t know guns, of course, but the weapon seems well tailored to the human hand.”

Renner took it back. Something nagged him about Horvath’s comment. It lacked enthusiasm. Could the gun have fit his own hand better than Horvath’s?

The Motie looked around the lounge, swiveling at the torso, staring at each of the scientists, then at other equipment, looking and waiting, waiting.

One of the miniatures sat cross-legged in front of Renner, also watching and waiting. It seemed totally unafraid. Renner reached to scratch it behind the ear, the right ear. Like the big Motie, it had no left ear; shoulder muscles for the upper left arm depended from the top of the head. But it seemed to enjoy the scratching. Renner carefully avoided the ear itself, which was large and fragile.

Sally watched, wondering what to do next, and wondering also what bothered her about Renner’s performance. Not the incongruity of a ship’s officer scratching the ear of what seemed to be an alien monkey, but something else, something about the ear itself…

16. Idiot Savant

Dr. Buckman was on duty in the observation room when the blinding laser signal from the inner system went out.

There was a planet there all right, about the size of Earth, with a distorting fringe of transparent atmosphere. He nodded in satisfaction; that was a lot of detail to see at this distance. The Navy had good equipment and they used it well. Some of the petty officers would make good astronomical assistants; pity they were wasted here.

What was left of his astronomy section went to work analyzing data from observations of the planet, and Buckman called Captain Blaine.

“I wish you’d get me back some of my men,” he complained. “They’re all standing around the lounge watching the Motie.”

Blaine shrugged. He could hardly order the scientists around. Buckman’s management of his department was his own affair. “Do the best you can, Doctor. Everyone’s curious about the alien. Even my Sailing Master, who’s got no business down there at all. What have you got so far? Is it a terrestrial planet?”

“In a manner of speaking. A touch smaller than Earth, with a water-oxygen atmosphere. But there are traces in the spectrum that have me intrigued. The helium line is very strong, far too strong. I suspect the data.”

“A strong helium line? One percent or thereabouts?”

“It would be if the reading were correct, but frankly— Why did you say that?”

“The breathing air in the Motie ship was 1 percent helium, with some rather odd components; I think your reading is accurate.”

“But, Captain, there’s no way a terrestrial planet could hold that much helium! It has to be spurious. Some of the other lines are even worse.”

“Ketones? Hydrocarbon complexes?”

“Yes!”

“Dr. Buckman, I think you’d better have a look at Mr. Whitbread’s report on the atmosphere in the Mote ship. You’ll find it in the computer. And take a neutrino reading, please.”

“That won’t be convenient, Captain.”

“Take it anyway,” Rod told the stubborn, bony face on the intercom screen. “We need to know the state of their industry.”

Buckman snapped, “Are you trying to make war on them?”

“Not yet,” Blaine answered; and let it go at that. “While you’ve got the instrumention set up, take a neutrino reading on the asteroid the Motie ship came from. It’s quite a way outside the Trojan point cluster, so you won’t have a problem with background emissions.”

“Captain, this will interfere with my work!”

“I’ll send you an officer to help out.” Rod thought rapidly. “Potter. I’ll give you Mr. Potter as an assistant.” Potter should like that. “This work is necessary, Dr. Buckman. The more we know about them, the more easily we can talk to them. The sooner we can talk to them, the sooner we can interpret their own astronomical observations.” That ought to get him.

Buckman frowned. “Why, that’s true. I hadn’t thought of that at all.”

“Fine, Doctor.” Rod clicked off before Buckman could voice a further protest. Then he turned to Midshipman Whitbread in the doorway. “Come in and sit down, Mr. Whitbread.”

“Thank you, sir.” Whitbread sat. The chairs in the Captain’s watch cabin were netting on a steel frame, lightweight but comfortable. Whitbread perched on the very edge of one. Cargill handed him a coffee cup, which he held in both hands. He looked painfully alert.

Cargill said, “Relax, boy.”

Nothing happened.

Rod said, “Whitbread, let me tell you something. Everyone on this ship wants to pick your brain, not later, but now. I get first crack because I’m Captain. When we’re finished, I’ll turn you over to Horvath and his people. When they’re finished with you, if ever, you’ll go off watch. You’ll think then that you’re about to get some sleep, but no. The gun room will want the whole story. They’ll be coming off watch at staggered intervals, so you’ll have to repeat everything half a dozen times. Are you getting the picture?”

Whitbread was dismayed—as he ought to have been.

“Right, then. Set your coffee down on the niche. Good. Now slide back until your spine touches the chair back. Now relax, dammit! Close your eyes.”

For a wonder, Whitbread did. After a moment he smiled blissfully.

“I’ve got the recorder off,” Blaine told him—which wasn’t true. “We’ll get your formal report later. What I want now is facts, impressions, anything you want to say. My immediate problem is whether to stop that Mote ship.”

“Can we? Still? Sir?”

Blaine glanced at Cargill. The First Lieutenant nodded. “It’s only half an hour away. We could stop it any time in the next couple of days. No protective Field, remember? And the hull looked to be flimsy enough through your helmet camera. Two minutes from the forward batteries would vaporize the whole ship, no sweat.”

“Or,” Blaine said, “we could catch up with it, knock out its drive, and take it in tow. The Chief Engineer would give a year’s salary to take that electromagnetic fusion system apart. So would the Imperial Traders’ Association; that thing’s perfect for asteroid mining.”

“I’d vote against that,” Whitbread said with his eyes closed. “If this were a democracy. Sir.”

“It isn’t, and the Admiral’s inclined to grab that Mote ship. So are some of the scientists, but Horvath’s against it. Why are you?”

“It would be the first hostile act, sir. I’d avoid that right up until the Moties tried to destroy MacArthur.” Whitbread opened his eyes. “Even then, wouldn’t the Field scare them off? We’re in their home system, Captain, and we did come to see if we could get along with them—at least I think we did, sir.”

Cargill chuckled. “Sounds just like Dr. Horvath, doesn’t he, Skipper?”

“Besides, sir, what is the Motie ship doing that might interfere with us?”

“Going home alone, probably with a message.”

“I don’t think there was a message, sir, He didn’t do anything that might have been writing, and he didn’t talk at all.”

“She,” Blaine told him. “The biologists say the Motie is female. Both of the little ones are too, and one is pregnant.”

“Pregnant. Should I have noticed that, sir?”

Blaine grinned. “What would you have looked for? And where? You didn’t even notice that all the little ones have four arms each.”

Four—?”

“Never mind that, Mr. Whitbread. You saw no messages, but then you didn’t know the Motie was programming—or building—an autopilot until the ship took off. And an empty ship is a message all by itself. We ready for visitors, Jack?”

Cargill nodded. “And if we’re not, you can bet Lenin is.”

“Don’t count on too much help from Lenin, Number One. Kutuzov thinks it might be interesting to see what kind of account of herself MacArthur could give against the Moties. He might not do anything but watch, then run for home.”

“Is that—that doesn’t sound much like the Admiral, sir,” Cargill protested.

“It sounds like him if you’d overheard the fight he had with Dr. Horvath. Our Minister of Science keeps telling the Admiral to keep out of the way, and Kutuzov is about to take him at his word.” Blaine turned to his midshipman. “You don’t have to spread this around the gun room either, Whitbread.”

“No, sir.”

“Now, while we’ve got the time, let’s see what you can remember about that Motie ship.” Blaine touched controls and several views of the alien craft appeared on his wall screens. “This is what the computer knows so far,” Rod explained. “We’ve mapped some of the interior already. There was no shielding from our probes, nothing to hide, but that doesn’t make it all that easy to understand.”

Blaine took up a light pointer. “These areas held liquid hydrogen. Now there was heavy machinery here; did you see any of it?”

“No, sir, but that back panel looked as if it would roll up.”

“Good.” Blake nodded and Cargill sketched it in with the screen stylus.

“Like that?” the First Lieutenant asked. “Fine.” He touched the record button. “Now, we know there was quite a lot of hydrogen fuel hidden away. And that drive of theirs ionizes, heats, and enriches the hydrogen with hot carbon vapor. It takes a lot of machinery to do that. Where was it?”

“Sir, shouldn’t the Chief Engineer be here?”

“He should be here, Mr. Whitbread. Unfortunately there are about ten things happening at once on this ship, and Commander Sinclair is needed elsewhere. He’ll get his chance at you soon enough— Jack, let’s not forget the Mote design philosophy. We keep looking for separate mechanisms to do each job, but on that probe, everything did four or five overlapping things at once, so to speak. It could be we’re looking for too much machinery.”

“Yes, sir—but, Captain, no matter how you slice it, that ship had to perform a minimum number of functions. Had to. And we can’t find equipment enough for half of them.”

“Not with our technology, anyway,” Blaine said thoughtfully. Then he grinned, a young man’s broad and impertinent grin. “We may be looking for a combination microwave oven, fuel ionizer, and sauna. OK, now the alien herself. Your impressions, Whitbread. Is it that intelligent?”

“She didn’t understand anything I said. Except that one time, when I screamed ‘Turn off the force field!’ She understood that right away. Otherwise nothing.”

“You’ve edited that a bit, lad,” Cargill said. “But never mind. What do you think, boy? Does the alien understand Anglic? Is she faking?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t even understand my gestures, except once. That was when I handed her her own suit—and that’s a pretty pointed hint, sir.”

“She may simply be stupid,” Rod said.

“She’s an asteroid miner, Captain,” Cargill said slowly. “That’s fairly certain. At least that’s an asteroid miner’s ship. The hooks and clamps at the stern have to be for hanging on durable cargo, like ore and air-bearing rock.”

“So?” Blaine prompted.

“I’ve known some asteroid miners, Skipper. They tend to be stubborn, independent, self-reliant to the point of eccentricity, and close-mouthed. They’ll trust each other with their lives, but not with their women or property. And they forget how to talk out there; at least it seems that way.”

They both looked hopefully at Whitbread, who said, “I don’t know, sir. I just don’t know. She’s not stupid. You should have seen her hands moving around in the guts of the instrument panel, rewiring, making new circuits, recalibrating half a dozen things at once, it looked like. Maybe—maybe our sign language just doesn’t work. I don’t know why.”

Rod pushed a finger along the knot in his nose. “It might be surprising if it did work,” he said thoughtfully. “And this is one example of a completely alien race. If we were aliens and picked up an asteroid miner, what conclusions would we draw about the Empire?” Blaine filled his coffee cup, then Whitbread’s. “Well, Horvath’s team is more likely to come up with something than we are, they have the Motie to work with.”

Sally Fowler watched the Motie with a feeling of deep frustration. “I can’t decide whether she’s stupid or I am. Did you see what happened when I drew her a diagram of the Pythagorean Theorem?”

“Uh huh.” Renner’s grin was no help at all. “She took your pocket computer apart and put it back together again. She didn’t draw anything. She’s stupid in some ways, though,” he said more seriously. “Meaning no insult to our eminently trustworthy selves, she’s too damned trusting. Maybe she’s low on survival instincts.”

Sally nodded and watched the Motie at work.

“She’s a genius at building things,” Renner said. “But she doesn’t understand language, gestures, or pictures. Could the bloody alien be a genius and a moron at the same time?”

“Idiot savant,” Sally murmured. “It happens with humans, but it’s quite rare. Imbecile children with the ability to extract cube roots and do logarithms in their heads. Mathematical whizzes who can’t buckle their shoes.”

“It’s a difference in perceptions.” Horvath had been engaged in a more thorough study of the small Moties. “One has to learn that a picture is a picture. Your drawings— Good God, what’s it doing now?”

Someone screamed in the companionway.

Ostensibly Cargill was delivering Whitbread to the scientists. Actually, he had no doubt that Whitbread could have found his way to the wardroom where they had brought the Moties while artificers built a cage for the miniatures in the petty officers’ lounge. But Jack Cargill was curious.

Halfway through the companionway he caught his first sight of the alien. It was disassembling the wardroom coffee maker—an act of malice made all the more diabolical by the innocence of her smile.

She cringed away at Cargill’s yell—and the First Lieutenant saw that it was too late. Tiny screws and parts were scattered across the table. The alien had broken the percolator tube, possibly to analyze the soldering technique. Bits of the timing mechanism were neatly arrayed. The Motie had pulled the cylindrical shell open along its welded seam.

Cargill found that the Science Minister had him by the arm. “You’re frightening the alien,” Horvath said in a low voice. “Go away, please.”

“Doctor, have the goodness to tell me—”

“Elsewhere.” Horvath propelled him to the other end of the room. Cargill glimpsed the miniature aliens squatting on the games table, surrounded by members of the life sciences group and by samples from the galley: grain, bread, carrots and celery, defrosted raw and cooked meat. “Now,” said Horvath. “What do you mean by barging into—”

“That monster ruined the wardroom coffee maker!”

“We’re lucky,” Midshipman Whitbread said irreverently. “She was trying to take apart the number-four air lock mechanism until I stopped her.”

“All she’s interested in is tools.” Horvath was pointedly ignoring Cargill’s agitation. “For once I even agree with Admiral Kutuzov. The alien must not be allowed to see the Alderson Drive or the Field generators. She seems able to deduce what a thing is for and how it works almost without touching it.”

“Never mind that!” Cargill said. “Couldn’t you have given the Motie something else to play with? That coffee maker is half repairs anyway. Nobody could figure out how it’s made since Sandy Sinclair finished with it. And the Motie’s broken some of the parts.”

“If they were that easy to break, they can probably be fixed,” Horvath said soothingly. “Look, we can give you one of the urns from the labs, or have one of our techs— Ah, Miss Fowler, has the alien calmed down? Now, Mr Whitbread? We’re glad you’re here; we’ve been waiting for you, as the only man to have actually communicated with the alien. Here, Commander Cargill, please stay away from the Motie—”

But Cargill was halfway across the room. The alien cringed a bit, but Cargill stayed well out of her reach. He glowered at her as he considered his coffee maker. It had been reassembled.

The Motie pulled away from Sally Fowler. She found a conical plastic container, filled it with tap water, and used it to fill the coffee maker. One of the wardroom stewards sniggered.

The Motie poured in two containers of water, inserted the grounds basket, and waited.

The amused steward looked to Cargill, who nodded. The messboy dug out the tin of ground coffee, used the measuring spoon, and started the urn. The alien watched closely all the while. So did one of the miniatures, despite the distraction of a biologist waving a carrot in her face. “It did that before, watched me make the coffee, sir,” the steward said. “Thought it might want some, but the scientists didn’t offer it none.”

“We may have a godawful mess here in a minute, Ernie. Stand by to clean up.” Cargill turned to Sally. “How good is that monster at putting things together again?”

“Quite good,” Sally told him. “She fixed my pocket computer.”

The percolator bubbled, and the water in the indicator tube turned brown. Cargill hesitantly poured a cup and tasted. “Why, that’s all right,” he said. He handed the cup to the Motie.

She tasted the black, bitter brew, squawled, and threw the cup at the bulkhead.

Sally led Whitbread into the wardroom pantry. “You made the Motie understand you. How?”

“It was only that once,” Whitbread said. “I’ve been wondering if I made a mistake. Could she have decided to let me loose about the time I opened my helmet and screamed?”

Sally scowled. “She just stands there. She doesn’t even seem to know we’re trying to talk to her. And she never tries to talk back…” She dropped her voice, muttering mostly to herself. “It is a basic characteristic of intelligent species that they attempt to communicate. Whitbread, what’s your first name?”

Whitbread was startled. “Jonathon, my lady.”

“All right, Jonathon, I’m Sally. As man to woman, Jonathon, what in blazes am I doing wrong? Why won’t she try to talk to me?”

“Well, Sally,” Whitbread said tentatively. He liked the taste of the name. And she wasn’t more than a couple of years older than he was— “Sally, I could think of half a dozen reasons. Maybe she reads minds.”

“What would that have to do with—”

“She wouldn’t know about language, would she? What you’re trying to teach wouldn’t make sense. Maybe she can only read our minds when we’re screaming mad, like I was.”

“Or Commander Cargill was—” Sally said thoughtfully. “She did move away from the coffee maker. But not for long. No, I don’t believe it.”

“Neither do I. I think she’s lying.”

“Lying?”

“Playing dumb. She doesn’t know what to tell us, so she tells us nothing. Plays for time. She is interested in our machinery. This gives her time to learn about it.”

Sally nodded slowly. “One of the biologists had the same idea. That she’s waiting for instructions, and learning as much as she can until they come— Jonathon, how would we catch her at it?”

“I don’t think we do,” Whitbread said slowly. “How would you catch an intelligent mouse playing dumb, if you’d never seen a mouse and neither had anyone else?”

“Blazes. Well, we’ll just have to keep on trying.” She frowned, thinking of the Motie’s performance with the coffee maker, then gave Whitbread a long, thoughtful look. “You’re exhausted. Go get some sleep, there’s nothing you need to tell us right away, is there?”

“No.” Whitbread yawned. There was a scampering sound behind him and they both turned quickly, but there was nothing there. “Speaking of mice,” Whitbread said.

“How can they live on a steel ship?” Sally asked.

Whitbread shrugged. “They come aboard with the food supplies, even in personal gear. Once in a while we evacuate portions of the ship, move the crew around, and open up to space, to control them, but we never get them all. This trip, with all the extra personnel aboard, we haven’t even been able to do that.”

“Interesting.” Sally nodded. “Mice can live almost anywhere humans can—you know, there are probably as many mice in the galaxy as people? We’ve carried them to nearly every planet. Jonathon, are the miniatures mice?”

Whitbread shrugged. “She certainly didn’t care about them. Killed all but two—but why bring two aboard? And a randomly selected two at that.”

Sally nodded again. “We watched her catch them.” She laughed suddenly. “And Mr. Renner was wondering if they were baby Moties! Get to sleep, Jonathon. We’ll see you in ten hours or so.”

17. Mr. Crawford’s Eviction

Midshipman Jonathon Whitbread reached his hammock much sooner than he had expected. He sagged blissfully into the netting and closed his eyes… and opened one, feeling other eyes upon him.

“Yes, Mr. Potter,” he sighed.

“Mr. Whitbread, I would be obliged if you would talk to Mr. Staley.”

It was not what he expected. Whitbread opened his other eye. “Uh?”

“Something’s upset him. You know how he is, he won’t complain, he’d rather die. But he walks around like a robot, hardly speaks to anyone except politely. He eats alone… you’ve known him longer than I have, I thought you might find out why.”

“All right, Potter. I’ll try. When I wake up.” He closed his eyes. Potter was still there. “In eight hours, Potter. It can’t be that urgent.”

In another part of MacArthur Sailing Master Renner tossed fitfully in a stateroom not much larger than his bunk. It was the Third Lieutenant’s berth, but two scientists had Renner’s cabin, and the Third had moved in with a Marine officer.

Renner sat up suddenly in the darkness, his mind hunting for something that might have been a dream. Then he turned on the light and fumbled with the unfamiliar intercom panel. The rating who answered showed remarkable self-control: he didn’t scream or anything. “Get me Miss Sally Fowler,” Renner said.

The rating did, without comment. Must be a robot, Renner thought. He knew how he looked.

Sally was not asleep. She and Dr. Horvath had just finished installing the Motie in the Gunnery Officer’s cabin. Her face and voice as she said “Yes, Mr. Renner?” somehow informed Renner that he looked like a cross between a man and a mole—a remarkable feat of nonverbal communication.

Renner skipped it. “I remembered something. Have you got your pocket computer?”

“Certainly.” She took it out to show him.

“Please test it for me.”

Her face a puzzled mask, Sally drew letters on the face of the flat box, wiped them, scrawled a simple problem, then a complex one that would require the ship’s computer to help. Then she called up an arbitrary personal data file from ship’s memory. “It works all right.”

Renner’s voice was thick with sleep. “Am I crazy, or did we watch the Motie take that thing apart and put it back together again?”

“Certainly. She did the same with your gun.”

“But a pocket computer?” Renner stared. “You know that’s impossible, don’t you?”

She thought it was a joke. “No, I didn’t.”

“Well, it is. Ask Dr. Horvath.” Renner hung up and went back to sleep.

Sally caught up with Dr. Horvath as he was turning into his cabin. She told him about the computer.

“But those things are one big integrated circuit. We don’t even try to repair them…” Horvath muttered other things to himself.

While Renner slept, Horvath and Sally woke the physical sciences staff. None of them got much sleep that night.

“Morning” on a warship is a relative thing. The morning watch is from 0400 to 0800, a time when the human species would normally sleep; but space knows nothing of this. A full crew is needed on the bridge and in the engine rooms no matter what the time. As a watchkeeping officer, Whitbread stood one watch in three, but MacArthur’s orderly quarter bill was confused beyond repair. He had both the morning and forenoon watches off, eight glorious hours of sleep; yet, somehow, he found himself awake and in the warrant officers’ mess at 0900.

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” Horst Staley protested. “I don’t know where you got that idea. Forget it.”

“OK, Whitbread said easily. He chose juice and cereal and put them on his tray. He was just behind Staley in the cafeteria line, which was natural enough since he had followed Staley in.

“Though I appreciate your concern,” Staley told him. There was no trace of emotion in the voice.

Whitbread nodded agreeably. He picked up his tray and followed Staley’s unnaturally straight back. Predictably, Staley chose an empty table. Whitbread joined him.

In the Empire were numerous worlds where the dominant races were white caucasian. On such worlds the pictures on Navy enlistment posters always looked like Horst Staley. His jaw was square, his eyes icy blue. His face was all planes and angles, bilaterally symmetrical, and without expression. His back was straight, his shoulders broad, his belly was flat and hard and ridged with muscle. He contrasted sharply with Whitbread, who would fight a weight problem all his life, and was at least slightly rounded everywhere.

They ate in silence, a long breakfast. Finally, too casually, Staley asked, as if he had to ask, “How went your mission?”

Whitbread was ready. “Rugged. The worst hour and a half the Motie spent staring at me. Look.” Whitbread stood. He twisted his head sideways and let his knees sag and shoulders slump, to fit him into an invisible coffin 130 cm high. “Like this, for an hour and a half.” He sat down again. “Torture, I tell you. I kept wishing they’d picked you.”

Staley flushed. “I did volunteer.”

Bull’s-eye. “It was my turn. You were the one who accepted Defiant’s surrender, back off New Chicago.”

“And let that maniac steal my bomb!”

Whitbread put his fork down. “Oh?”

“You didn’t know?”

“Of course not. Think Blaine would spread it all over the ship? You did come back a bit shaken after that mission. We wondered why.”

“Now you know. Some jackass tried to renege. Defiant’s captain wouldn’t let him, but he might have.” Staley rubbed his hands together, painfully hard. “He snatched the bomb away from me. And I let him! I’d have given anything for the chance to—” Staley stood up suddenly, but Whitbread was quick enough to catch him by the arm.

“Sit down,” he said. “I can tell you why you weren’t picked.”

“I suppose you can read the Captain’s mind?” They kept their voices low by tacit consent. MacArthur’s interior partitions were all sound-absorbent anyway, and their voices were very clear, if soft.

“Second-guessing officers is good practice for a middie,” said Whitbread.

“Why, then? Was it because of the bomb?”

“Indirectly. You’d have been tempted to prove yourself. But even without that, you’re too much the hero, Horst. Perfect physical shape, good lungs—ever meet an admiral with a soft voice?—utter dedication, and no sense of humor.”

“I do too have a sense of humor.”

“No, you don’t.”

“I don’t?”

“Not a trace. The situation didn’t call for a hero, Horst. It called for someone who didn’t mind being made ridiculous in a good cause.”

“You’re kidding. Damn, I never know when you’re kidding’

“Now would be a poor time. I’m not making fun of you, Horst. Listen, I shouldn’t have to explain this. You watched it all, didn’t you? Sally told me I was on all the intercom screens, live, in color and 3D.”

“You were.” Staley smiled briefly. “We should have had a view of your face. Especially when you started swearing. We got no warning at all. The view jumped a bit, then you screamed at the alien, and everybody cracked up.”

“What would you have done?”

“Not that. I don’t know. Followed orders, I guess.” The icy eyes narrowed. “I wouldn’t have tried to shoot my way out, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Maybe a second of cutting laser into the control panel? To kill the force field?”

“Not without orders.”

“What about the sign language? I spent some time making gestures, hoping the alien would understand me, but it never did.”

“We couldn’t see that. What about it?”

“I told you,” Whitbread said. “The mission took someone willing to make a fool of himself in a good cause. Think about how often you heard people laugh at me while I was bringing back the Motie.”

Staley nodded.

“Now forget them and think about the Motie. What about her sense of humor? Would you like a Motie laughing at you, Horst? You might never be sure if she was or wasn’t; you don’t know what it looks like or sounds like—”

“You’re being ridiculous.”

“All anyone knew was that the situation called for someone to find out whether the aliens were willing to talk to us. It didn’t need someone to uphold the Imperial honor. Plenty of time for that after we know what we’re facing. There’ll be room for heroes, Horst. There always is.”

“That’s reassuring,” said Staley. He had finished breakfast. Now he stood and walked out fast, with his back very straight, leaving Whitbread wondering.

Oh, well, Whitbread thought. I tried. And just maybe…

Luxury in a warship is relative.

Gunnery Officer Crawford’s stateroom was the size of his bed. When the bed was up, he had room to change clothes and a small sink to brush his teeth. To lower the bed for sleeping he had first to step into the corridor; and being tall for a Navy man, Crawford had learned to sleep curled up.

A bed and a door with a lock on it, instead of a hammock or one tier of many bunks: luxury. He would have fought to keep it; but he had lost the toss. Now he bunked in MacArthur’s cutter while an alien monster occupied his quarters.

“She’s only a little more than a meter tall, of course she fits,” Sally Fowler said judiciously. “Still, it’s only a tiny room. Do you think she can stand it? Otherwise we’ll have to keep her in the lounge.”

“I saw the cabin of her ship. It wasn’t any bigger. She can stand it,” Whitbread said. It was too late to try sleeping in the gun room, and he was supposed to tell the scientists everything he knew: at least that ought to work if Cargill asked why he’d been pestering Sally. “I suppose you’ve got someone watching her through the intercom?”

She nodded. Whitbread followed her into the scientists’ lounge. Part of the room had been screened off with wire netting and the two miniatures were in there. One was nibbling at a head of cabbage, using four arms to hold it to her chest. The other, her abdomen swollen with pregnancy, was playing with a flashlight.

Just like a monkey, Whitbread thought. It was the first chance he’d had to look at the miniatures. Their fur was thicker, and mottled brown and yellow where the large one was uniformly soft brown. The four arms were nearly alike, five fingers on the left hands and six on the rights; but the arms and fingers were identically slender, identically jointed. Yet the muscles of the upper left shoulder were anchored to the top of the skull. Why, if not for greater strength and leverage?

He was delighted when Sally led him to a small corner table away from where the biosciences people were scratching their heads and arguing loudly. He got coffee for both of them and asked her about the strange musculature of the miniatures; it wasn’t what he’d really like to talk to her about, but it was a start…

“We think it’s vestigial,” she said. “They obviously don’t need it; the left arms aren’t sized for heavy work anyway.”

“Then the little ones aren’t monkeys! They’re an offshoot of the big ones.”

“Or they’re both an offshoot of something else. Jonathon, we’ve got more than two classifications already. Look.” She turned to the intercom screen and a view of the Motie’s room appeared.

“She seems happy enough,” said Whitbread. He grinned at what the Motie had been doing. “Mr. Crawford isn’t going to like what she’s done to his bunk.”

“Dr. Horvath didn’t want to stop her. She can fiddle with anything she likes as long as it isn’t the intercom.

Crawford’s bunk had been shortened and contoured. The contours were exceedingly strange, not only because of the complex joints in the Motie’s back, but also because she apparently slept on her side. The mattress had been cut and sewn, the underlying steel bent and twisted. Now there were grooves for two right arms and a pit for a projecting hipbone and a high ridge to serve as a pillow— “Why would she sleep only on her right side?” Whitbread asked.

“Maybe she’d rather defend herself with her left, if she happened to be surprised in her sleep. The left is so much stronger.”

“Could be. Poor Crawford. Maybe she’s expecting him to try and cut her throat some night.” He watched the alien at work on the overhead lamp. “She does have one-track mind, doesn’t she? We could get some good out of this. She might improve something.”

“Perhaps. Jonathon, did you study sketches of the dissected alien?”

She sounded like a schoolmistress. She was old enough to be one, too; but much too pretty, Whitbread thought. He said, “Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you see any differences?”

“The color of the fur is different. But that’s nothing. The other one was in suspended animation for hundred of years.”

“Anything else?”

“The other one was taller, I think. I wouldn’t swear.”

“Look at her head.”

Whitbread frowned. “I don’t see it.”

Sally used her pocket computer. It hummed slightly, indicating that it was in communication with the main ship’s memory. Somewhere in MacArthur a laser moved across holographic lines. The ship’s memory held everything humanity knew of Moties—such as it was. It found the information Sally asked for and sent it to her pocket computer; a sketch appeared on the face of the flat box.

Whitbread studied the sketch, then looked to the screen and the Motie. “Her forehead. It slopes!”

“That’s what we thought, Dr. Horvath and I.”

“It’s not easy to see. The Motie’s head is so flunking lopsided anyway!’

“I know. But it’s there. We think there’s a difference in the hands, too, but it’s very small.” Sally frowned and three short grooves appeared between brown eyes. She’d cut her hair short for space, and the frown and short hair made her look very efficient. Whitbread didn’t like it. “That gives us three different kinds of Motie,” she said. “And only four Moties. That’s a high mutation rate, wouldn’t you say?”

“I… wouldn’t be surprised.” Whitbread remembered the history lessons Chaplain Hardy had held for the midshipmen during the trip out. “They’re trapped in this system. Bottled up. If they had an atomic war, they’d have to live with it afterwards, wouldn’t they?” He thought of Earth and shuddered.

“We haven’t seen any evidence of atomic wars.”

“Except the mutation rate.”

Sally laughed. “You’re arguing in circles. Anyway, it doesn’t hold up. None of these three types is a cripple, Jonathon. They’re all very well adapted, all healthy—except the dead one, of course, and she hardly counts. They wouldn’t choose a cripple to pilot the probe.”

“No. So what’s the answer?”

“You saw them first, Jonathon. Call the one in the probe Type A. What was the relationship between Types B and C?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you saw them together.”

“It didn’t make sense. The little ones stayed out of the big one’s way, at first, and the big one let them alone. Then I signaled the big one that I wanted her to go with me to MacArthur. She forthwith picked the first two little ones that came to hand, made sure they were safe, and killed the rest without warning!”

Whitbread paused, thinking of the whirlwind that had blown him out the Motie ship air lock. “So you tell me. What are the little ones? Pets? Children? But she killed them. Vermin? Why save two of them? Food animals? Have you tried that?”

Sally grimaced. It was almost a snarl, remarkable on her pretty face, an expression she would never have worn any social occasion. “Tried what? Fricassee one of the little beasts and offer it to the big one? Be reasonable.”

The alien in Crawford’s room poured a handful of some kind of seed—and ate it. “Popcorn,” said Sally. “We tried it on the little ones first. Maybe that’s what they were for, food testers.”

“Maybe.”

“She eats cabbage too. Well, she won’t starve, but she may die of vitamin deficiencies. All we can do is watch and wait— I suppose we’ll go to the alien’s home planet pretty soon. In the meantime, Jonathon, you’re the only man who’s seen the Motie ship. Was the pilot’s seat contoured? I only got a glimpse of it through your helmet camera.”

“It was contoured. In fact, it fitted her like a glove. I noticed something else. The control board ran along the right side of the seat. For right hands only…”

He remembered a great deal about the mining ship, it turned out. It kept him in Lady Sally’s enjoyable company until he had to go on watch. But none of it was particularly useful.

Whitbread had no sooner taken his station on the bridge than Dr. Buckman called for the Captain.

“A ship, Blaine,” Buckman said. “From the inhabited world, Mote Prime. We didn’t find it because it was hidden by that damned laser signal.”

Blaine nodded. His own screens had shown the Motie ship nine minutes before; Chief Shattuck’s crew wasn’t about to let civilians keep a better watch than the Navy.

“It will reach us in about eighty-one hours,” Buckman said. “It’s accelerating at point eight seven gees, which is the surface gravity of Mote Prime by some odd coincidence. It’s spitting neutrinos. In general it behaves like the first ship, except that it’s far more massive. I’ll let you know if we get anything else.”

“Fine. Keep an eye on it, Doctor.” Blaine nodded and Whitbread cut the circuit. The Captain turned to his exec. “Let’s compare what we know with Buckman’s file, Number One.”

“Aye aye, sir.” Cargill toyed with the computer controls for a few minutes. “Captain?”

“Yes?”

“Look at the starting time. That alien ship got under way in not much more than an hour after we broke out.”

Blaine whistled to himself. “Are you sure? That gives ten minutes to detect us, another ten for us to dee them, and forty minutes to get ready and launch. Jack, what kind of ship launches in forty minutes?”

Cargill frowned. “None I ever heard of. The Navy could do it, keep a ship with a full crew on ready alert…”

“Precisely. I think that’s a warship coming at us, Number One. You’d better tell the Admiral, then Horvath. Whitbread, get me Buckman.”

“Yes?” The astrophysicist looked harried.

“Doctor, I need everything your people can get about that Motie ship. Now. And would you give some thought to their rather strange acceleration?”

Buckman studied the numbers Blaine sent down to his screen. “This seems straightforward enough. They launched from Mote Prime or a closely orbiting moon forty minutes after we arrived. What’s the problem?”

“If they launched that fast, it’s almost certainly a warship. We’d like to believe otherwise.”

Buckman was annoyed. “Believe what you like, but you’ll ruin the math, Captain. Either they launched in forty minutes, or… well, you could start the Motie vehicle something over two million kilometers this side of Mote Prime; that would give them more time… but I don’t believe it.”

“No more do I. I want you to satisfy yourself about this, Dr. Buckman. What could we assume that would give them more time to launch?”

“Let me see… I’m not used to thinking in terms of rocketry, you know. Gravitational accelerations are more my field, if you’ll pardon the pun. Hmmm.” Buckman’s eyes went curiously blank. For a moment he looked like an idiot. “You’d have to assume a period of coasting. And a much higher acceleration in the launching mechanism. Much higher.”

“How long to coast?”

“Several hours for every hour you want to give them make up their minds. Captain, I don’t understand your problem. Why can’t they have launched a scientific survey ship in forty minutes? Why assume a warship? After all, MacArthur is both, and it took you an unreasonably long time to launch. I was ready days early.”

Blaine turned him off. I’ll break his scrawny neck, he told himself. They’ll court-martial me, but I’ll claim justifiable homicide. I’ll subpoena everyone who knew him. They’re bound to let me off. He touched keys. “Number One, what have you got?”

“They launched that ship in forty minutes.”

“Which makes it a warship.”

“So the Admiral thinks, sir. Dr. Horvath wasn’t convinced.”

“Neither am I, but we’ll want to be ready for them. And we’ll want to know more about Moties than Horvath’s people are learning from our passenger. Number One, I want you to take the cutter and get over to that asteroid the Motie came from. There’s no sign of activity there, it should be safe enough—and I want to know just what the Motie was doing there. It might give us a clue.”

18. The Stone Beehive

Horace Bury watched the foot-high Moties playing behind the wire screen. “Do they bite?” he asked.

“They haven’t yet,” Horvath answered. “Not even when the biotechs took blood samples.” Bury puzzled him. Science Minister Horvath considered himself a good judge of people—once he’d left science and gone into politics he’d had to learn fast—but he couldn’t fathom Bury’s thought processes. The Trader’s easy smile was only a public face; behind it, remote and emotionless, he watched the Moties like God judging a dubious creation.

Bury was thinking, My but they’re ugly. What a shame. They’d be useless as house pets, unless— He checked himself and stepped forward to reach through a gap in the netting large enough for an arm but not a Motie.

“Behind the ear,” Horvath suggested.

“Thank you.” Bury wondered if one would come to investigate his hand. The thin one came, and Bury scratched her behind the ear, carefully, for the ear looked fragile and delicate. But she seemed to enjoy it.

They’d make terrible pets, Bury thought, but they’d sell for thousands each. For a while. Before the novelty wore off. Best to hit every planet simultaneously. If they breed in captivity, and if we can keep them fed, and if I sell out before people stop buying— “Allah be—! She took my watch!”

“They love tools. You may have noticed that flashlight we gave them?”

“Never mind that, Horvath. How do I get my watch back? In Allah’s— How did the catch come unfastened?”

“Reach in and take it. Or let me.” Horvath tried. The enclosure was too big, and the Motie didn’t want to give up the watch. Horvath dithered. “I don’t want to disturb them too much.”

“Horvath, that watch is worth eight hundred crowns! It not only tells the time and the date, but—” Bury paused. “Come to that, it’s also shockproof. We advertise that a shock that will stop a Chronos will also kill the owner. She probably can’t hurt it much.”

The Motie was examining the wrist watch in a sober, studious manner. Bury wondered if others would find the manner captivating. No house pet behaved like that, even cats.

“You have cameras on them?”

“Of course,” said Horvath.

“My firm may want to buy this sequence. For advertising purposes.” That’s one thing, Bury thought. Now there was a Motie ship coming here, and Cargill taking the cutter somewhere. He’d never get anywhere pumping Cargill, but Buckman was going. There might be returns from the coffee the astrophysicist drank after all.

The thought saddened him obscurely.

The cutter was the largest of the vehicles in hanger deck. She was a lifting body, with a flat upper surface that fitted flat against one wall of hangar deck. She had her own access hatches, to join the cutter’s air locks to the habitable regions of MacArthur because hangar deck was usually in vacuum.

There was no Langston Field generator aboard the cutter, and no Alderson Drive. But her drive was efficient and powerful, and her fuel capacity was considerable even without strap-on tanks. The ablative shielding along her nose was good for one (1) reentry into a terrestrial atmosphere at up to 20 km/sec, or many reentries if things could be taken more slowly. She was designed for a crew of six, but would carry more. She could go from planet to planet, but not between stars. History had been made again and again by spacecraft smaller than MacArthur’s cutter.

There were half a dozen men bunking in her now. One had been kicked out to make room for Crawford when Crawford was kicked out of his own stateroom by a three armed alien.

Cargill smiled when he saw that. “I’ll take Crawford,” he decided. “Be a shame to move him again. Lafferty coxswain. Three Marines…” He bent over his crew list. “Staley as midshipman.” He’d welcome a chance to prove himself, and was steady enough under orders.

The cutter’s interior was clean and polished, but there was evidence of Sinclair’s oddball repairs along the port wall where Defiant’s lasers had flashed through the ablative shielding; even at the long distances from which the cutter engaged, the damage had been severe.

Cargill spread his things out in the only enclosed cabin space and reviewed his flight plan options. Over that distance they could go at three gees all the way. In practice, it might be one gee over and five back. Just because the rock didn’t have a fusion plant didn’t mean it was uninhabited.

Jack Cargill remembered the speed with which the Motie had rebuilt his big percolator. Without even knowing what coffee was supposed to taste like! Could they be beyond fusion? He left his gear and put on a pressure suit, a skintight woven garment that was just porous enough to allow sweat to pass; it was a self-regulating temperature control, and with the tightly woven fabric to assist, his own skin was able to stand up to space. The helmet attached to a seal at the collar. In combat heavy armor would go over the whole mess, but this was good enough for inspections.

From the outside there was no evidence of damage or repair. Part of the heat shield hung below the cutter’s nose like a great shovel blade, exposing the control room blister, windows, and the snout of the cutter’s main armament: a laser cannon.

In battle the cutter’s first duty was to make observations and reports. Sometimes she’d try to sneak in on a torpedo run on a blinded enemy warship. Against Motie ships with no Field, that cannon would be more than enough.

Cargill inspected the cutter’s weapons with more than usual thoroughness. Already he feared the Moties. In this he was almost alone; but he would not be so forever.

The second alien ship was larger than the first, but estimates of its mass had a high finagle factor, depending on the acceleration (known), fuel consumption (deduced from drive temperature), operating temperature (deduced from the radiation spectrum, whose peak was in the soft x-ray region) and efficiency (pure guesswork). When it was all folded together the mass seemed much too small: about right for a three-man ship.

“But they aren’t men,” Renner pointed out. “Four Moties weigh as much as two men, but they don’t need as much room. We don’t know what they’re carrying for equipment, or armament, or shielding. Thin walls don’t seem to scare them, and that lets them build bigger cabins—”

“All right.” Rod cut him off. “If you don’t know, just say so.”

“I don’t know.”

“Thank you,” Rod said patiently. “Is there anything you are sure of?”

“Oddly enough, there is, sir. Acceleration. It’s been constant to three significant figures since we spotted the ship. Now that’s odd,” Renner said. “Normally you fool with the drive to keep it running at peak, you correct minor errors in course… and if you leave it alone, there’s still variation. To keep the acceleration that constant they must be constantly fiddling with it.”

Rod rubbed the bridge of his nose. “It’s a signal. They’re telling us exactly where they’re going.”

“Yes, sir. Right here. They’re saying to wait for them.” Renner wore that strange, fierce grin. “Oh, we know something else, Captain. The ship’s cross-sectional profile has decreased since we sighted it. Probably they’ve ditched some fuel tanks.”

“How did you get that? Don’t you have to have the target transit the sun?”

“Usually, yes. Here it blocks the Coal Sack. There’s enough light bouncing off the Coal Sack to give us a good estimate of that ship’s cross-sectional area. Haven’t you noticed the colors in the Coal Sack, Captain?”

“No.” Blaine rubbed at his nose again. “Throwaway fuel tanks doesn’t make them sound like a warship, does it? But it’s no guarantee. All it really tells us is that they’re in a hurry.”

Staley and Buckman occupied the rear seats in the cutter’s triangular control cabin. As the cutter pulled away at one gee, Staley watched MacArthur’s Field close behind them. Against the black of the Coal Sack the battle cruiser seemed to go invisible. There was nothing to look at but the sky.

Half that sky was Coal Sack, starless except for a hot pink point several degrees in from the edge. It was as if the universe ended here. Like a wall, Horst thought.

“Look at it,” said Buckman, and Horst jumped. “There are people on New Scotland who call it the Face of God. Superstitious idiots!”

“Right,” said Horst. Superstitions were silly.

“From here it doesn’t look at all like a man, and it’s ten times as magnificent! I wish my sister’s husband could see it. He belongs to the Church of Him.”

Horst nodded in the semidarkness.

From any of the known human worlds, the Coal Sack was a black hole in the sky. One would expect it to be black here. But now that Horst’s eyes were adjusting, he saw traces of red glowing within the Coal Sack. Now the nebular material showed like layer after layer of gauzy curtains, or like blood spreading in water. The longer he looked, the deeper he could see into it. Eddies and whorls and flow patterns showed light years deep in the vacuum-thin dust and gas.

“Imagine, me stuck with a Himmist for a brother-in-law! I’ve tried to educate the fool,” Buckman said energetically, “but he just won’t listen.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful sky. Dr. Buckman, is all that light coming from Murcheson’s Eye?”

“Doesn’t seem possible, does it? We’ve tried to find other sources, fluorescence, UV stars deep in the dust, like that. If there were masses in there we’d have found them with mass indicators. Staley, it’s not that unlikely. The Eye isn’t that far from the Coal Sack.”

“A couple of light years.”

“Well, what of it? Light travels farther than that, giver a free path!” Buckman’s teeth glowed in the faint multi-colored light of the control panel. “Murcheson lost a golden opportunity by not studying the Coal Sack when he had the chance. Of course he was on the wrong side of the Eye, and he probably didn’t venture very far from the breakout point… and it’s our luck, Staley! There’s never been an opportunity like this! A thick interstellar mass, and a red supergiant right at the edge for illumination! Look, look along my arm, Staley, to where the currents flow toward that eddy. Like a whirlpool, isn’t it? If your captain would stop twiddling his thumbs and give me access to the ship’s computer, I could prove that that eddy is a protostar in the process of condensation! Or that it isn’t.”

Buckman had a temporary rank higher than Staley’s, but he was a civilian. In any case, he shouldn’t be talking about the Captain that way. “We do use the computer for other things, Dr. Buckman.”

Buckman let go of Staley’s arm. “Too damned many.’ His eyes seemed lost; his soul was lost in that enormous veil of red-lit darkness. “We may not need it, though. The Moties must have been observing the Coal Sack for at their history; hundreds of years, maybe thousands. Especially if they’ve developed some such pseudoscience as astrology. If we can talk to them…” He trailed off.

Staley said, “We wondered why you were so eager to come along.”

“What? Do you mean jaunting off with you to see that rock? Staley, I don’t care what the Motie was using it for, I want to know why the Trojan points are so crowded.”

“You think there’ll be clues?”

“Maybe, in the composition of the rock. We can hope so.”

“I may be able to help you there,” Staley said slowly. “Sauron—my home—has an asteroid belt and mining industries. I learned something about rock mining from my uncles. Thought I might be a miner myself, once.” He stopped abruptly, expecting Buckman to bring up an unpleasant subject.

Buckman said, “I wonder what the Captain expects to find there?”

“He told me that. We know just one thing about that rock,” said Staley. “A Motie was interested in it. When we know why, we’ll know something about Moties.”

“Not very much,” Buckman growled.

Staley relaxed. Either Buckman didn’t know why Sauron was infamous, or… no. Tactful? Buckman? Not hardly.

The Motie pup was born five hours after MacArthur’s cutter left for the asteroid. The birth was remarkably doglike, considering the mother’s distant relationship to dogs; and there was only the one pup, about the size of a rat.

The lounge was very popular that day, as crew and officers and scientists and even the Chaplain found an excuse to drop by.

“Look how much smaller the lower left arm is,” said Sally. “We were right, Jonathan. The little ones are derived from the big Moties.”

Someone thought of leading the large Motie down to the lounge. She did not seem the least interested in the new miniature Motie; but she did make sounds at the others. One of them dug Horace Bury’s watch out from under a pillow and gave it to her.

Rod watched the activities around the Motie pup when. he could. It seemed very highly developed for a newborn; within hours of its birth it was nibbling at cabbages, and it seemed able to walk, although the mother usually carried it with one set of arms. She moved rapidly and was hardly hampered by it at all.

Meanwhile, the Motie ship drew nearer; and if there was any change in its acceleration, it was too small for MacArthur to detect.

“They’ll be here in seventy hours,” Rod told Cargill via laser message. “I want you back in sixty. Don’t let Buckman start anything he can’t finish within the time limit. If you contact aliens, tell me fast—and don’t try to talk them unless there’s no way out.”

“Aye aye, Skipper.”

“Not my orders, Jack. Kutuzov’s. He’s not happy about this excursion. Just look that rock over and get back.”

The rock was thirty million kilometers distant from MacArthur, about a twenty-five-hour trip each way at one gee. Four gravities would cut that in half. Not enough, Staley thought, to make it worthwhile putting up with four gees.

“But we could go at 1.5 gee, sir,” he suggested to Cargill. “Not only would the trip be faster, but we’d get there faster. We wouldn’t move around so much. The cutter wouldn’t seem so crowded.”

“That’s brilliant,” Cargill said warmly. “A brilliant suggestion, Mr. Staley.”

“Then we’ll do it?”

“We will not.”

“But—why not, sir?”

“Because I don’t like plus gees. Because it uses fuel and if we use too much MacArthur may have to dive into the gas giant to get us home. Never waste fuel, Mr. Staley. You may want it someday. And besides, it’s nitwit idea.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Nitwit ideas are for emergencies. You use them when you’ve got nothing else to try. If they work, they go in the Book. Otherwise you follow the Book, which is largely a collection of nitwit ideas that worked.” Cargill smiled at Staley’s puzzled look. “Let me tell you about the one I got in the Book…”

For a midshipman it was always school time. Staley would hold higher ranks than this one, if he had the ability, and if he lived.

Cargill finished his story and looked at the time. “Get some sleep, Staley. You’ll have the con after turnover.”

From a distance the asteroid looked dark, rough, and porous. It rotated once in thirty-one hours; oddly slow, according to Buckman. There was no sign of activity: no motion, no radiation, no anomalous neutrino flux. Horst Staley searched for temperature variations but there were none.

“I think that confirms it,” he reported. “The place must be empty. A life form that evolved on Mote Prime would need heat, wouldn’t it, sir?”

“Yes.”

The cutter moved in. Stippling which had made the rock look porous at a distance became pocks, then gaping holes of random size. Meteors, obviously. But so many?

“I told you the Trojan points were crowded,” Buckman said happily. “Probably the asteroid passes through the thick of the Trojan cluster regularly… only, give me a close-up of that big pock there, Cargill.”

Two powers higher, and the screen was half filled by a black pit. Smaller pits showed around it.

“No sign of a crater rim,” Cargill said.

“Noticed that, did you? Damn thing’s hollow. That’s why the density is so low. Well, it’s not inhabited now, but it must have been once. They even went to the trouble of giving it a comfortable rotation.” Buckman turned. “Cargill, we’ll want to search through that thing.”

“Yes, but not you. A Navy crew will board the rock.”

“This is my field of competence, damn it!”

“Your safety’s mine, Doctor. Lafferty, take us around the rock.”

The back of the asteroid was one enormous cup-shaped crater.

“Pocked with little craters… but they are craters. Not holes,” said Cargill. “Doctor, what do you make of that?”

“I can’t imagine. Not if it’s a natural formation—”

“It was moved!” Staley exclaimed.

“Oddly enough, just what I was thinking,” Cargill said. “The asteroid was moved using thermonuclear devices, exploding the bombs progressively in the same crater to channel the blast. It’s been done before. Get me a radiation reading, Midshipman.”

“Aye aye, sir.” He left, and returned in a minute. “Nothing, sir. It’s cold.”

“Really?” Cargill went to check that for himself. When he finished he looked at his instruments and frowned. “Cold as a pirate’s heart. If they used bombs, they must have been goddamn clean. That shouldn’t surprise me.”

The cutter circled farther around the flying mountain.

“That could be an air lock. There.” Staley pointed at a raised cap of stone surrounded by an archery target in faded orange paint.

“Right, but I doubt if we’d get it open. We’ll go in through one of the meteor holes. Still… we’ll look it over. Lafferty, take us in.”

In their reports they called it Beehive Asteroid. The rock was all many-sided chambers without floors linked by channels too small for men, all choked with dried asymmetrical mummies. Whatever miracles the builders had made, artificial gravity was not one of them. The corridors went in all directions; the larger chambers and storage rooms were studded everywhere with knobs for hand holds, anchor points for lines, storage niches.

The mummies floated everywhere, thin and dried, with gaping mouths. They varied from a meter to a meter and a half in height. Staley chose several and sent them back to the cutter.

There was machinery too, all incomprehensible to Staley and his men, all frozen fast by vacuum cementing. Staley had one of the smaller machines torn from the wall. He chose it for strangeness, not potential use; none of the machines was complete. “No metal,” Staley reported. “Stone flywheels and things that look like they might be integrated circuits—ceramics with impurities, that kind of thing. But very little metal, sir.”

They moved on at random. Eventually they reached a central chamber. It was gigantic, and so was the machine that dominated it. Cables that might have been power superconductors led from the wreck, convincing Staley that this was the asteroid’s power source; but it showed no trace of radiation.

They worked through narrow passages between incomprehensible blocks of stone, and found a large metallic box.

“Cut into that,” Staley ordered.

Lafferty used his cutting laser. They stool around watching the narrow green beam do nothing to the silvery casing. Staley wondered: where was the energy going? Could they be pumping power into it, somehow? Warmth on his face hinted at the answer.

He took a thermometer reading. The casing was just less than red-hot, all over. When Lafferty turned off the laser the casing cooled rapidly; but it maintained the same temperature at every point.

A superconductor of heat. Staley whistled into his suit mike and wondered if he could find a smaller sample. Then he tried using pliers on the casing—and it bent like tin. A strip came away in the pliers. They tore sheets off with their gauntleted hands.

It was impossible to map the Beehive with its tight, curving corridors. It was hard to tell where they were; but they marked their paths as they went, and used proton beam instruments to measure distances through walls.

The corridor walls were eggshell thin throughout the interior. They were not much thicker outside. Beehive Asteroid could not have been a safe place to live.

But the wall beneath the crater was many meters thick. Radiation, Staley thought. There must have been residual radiation. Otherwise they would have carved this wall out the way they did all the others, to make room for themselves.

There must have been a wild population explosion here.

And then something killed them all off.

And now there was no radiation at all. How long ago did it all happen? The place was covered with small meteor holes; scores of holes in the walls. How long?

Staley looked speculatively at the small, heavy Motie artifact Lafferty and Sohl were manhandling through the corridor. Vacuum cementing—and the wandering of elementary particles across an interface. That might tell MacArthur’s civilian scientists just how long Beehive Asteroid had been abandoned; but already he knew one thing. It was old.

19. Channel Two’s Popularity

Chaplain David Hardy watched the miniatures only through the intercom because that way he wasn’t involved in the endless speculations on what Moties were. It was a question of scientific interest to Horvath and his people; but to Chaplain Hardy there was more than intellectual curiosity at stake. It was his job to determine if Moties were human. Horvath’s scientists only wondered if they were intelligent.

The one question preceded the other, of course. It was unlikely that God had created beings with souls and no intelligence; but it was quite possible that He had created intelligent beings with no souls, or beings whose salvation was brought about by ways entirely different from those of mankind. They might even be a form of angel, although an unlikelier-looking set of angels would be hard to imagine. Hardy grinned at the thought and went back to his study of the miniatures. The big Motie was asleep.

The miniatures weren’t doing anything interesting at the moment either. It wasn’t necessary for Hardy to watch them continuously. Everything was holographed anyway, and as MacArthur’s linguist, Hardy would be informed if anything happened. He was already certain the miniatures were neither intelligent nor human.

He sighed deeply. What is man that Thou art mindful of him, O Lord? And why is it my problem to know what place Moties have in Thy plan? Well, that at least was straightforward. Second-guessing God is an old, old game. On paper he was the best man for the job, certainly the best man in Trans-Coalsack Sector.

Hardy had been fifteen years a priest and twelve years a Navy chaplain, but he was only beginning to think of it as his profession. At age thirty-five he had been a full professor at the Imperial University on Sparta, an expert in ancient and modern human languages and the esoteric art called linguistic archeology. Dr. David Hardy had been happy enough tracing the origins of recently discovered colonies lost for centuries. By studying their languages and their words for common objects he could tell what part of space the original colonists had come from. Usually he could pinpoint the planet and even the city.

He liked everything about the university except the students. He had not been particularly religious until his wife was killed in a landing boat crash; then, and he was not sure even yet how it happened, the Bishop had come to see him, and Hardy had looked long and searchingly at his life—and entered a seminary. His first assignment after ordination had been a disastrous tour as chaplain to students. It hadn’t worked, and he could see that he was not cut out for a parish priest. The Navy needed chaplains, and could always use linguists…

Now, at age fifty-two, he sat in front of an intercom screen watching four-armed monsters playing with cabbages. A Latin crossword puzzle lay on the desk at his left hand, and Hardy played idly with it. Domine, non sum…

Dignis, of course.” Hardy chuckled to himself. Precisely what he had said when the Cardinal gave him the assignment of accompanying the Mote expedition. “Lord, I am not worthy…”

“None of us is, Hardy,” the Cardinal had said. “But then we’re not worthy of the priesthood either, and that’s more presumption than going out to look at aliens.”

“Yes, my lord.” He looked at the crossword puzzle again. It was more interesting than the aliens at the moment.

Rod Blaine would not have agreed, but then the Captain didn’t get as many chances to watch the playful little creatures as the Chaplain did. There was work to do but for now it could be neglected. His cabin intercom buzzed insistently, and the miniatures vanished to be replaced by the smooth round face of his clerk. “Dr. Horvath insists on speaking with you.”

“Put him on,” said Rod.

As usual, Horvath’s manner was a study in formal cordiality. Horvath must be getting used to getting along with men he could not allow himself to dislike. “Good morning, Captain. We have our first pictures of the alien ship. I thought you’d like to know.”

“Thank you, Doctor. What coding?”

“They’re not filed yet. I have them right here.” The image split, Horvath’s face on one half, and a blurred shadow on the other. It was long and narrow, with one end wider than the other, and it seemed to be translucent. The narrow end terminated in a needle spine.

“We caught this picture when the alien made mid-course turnover. Enlargement and noise eliminators gave us this and we won’t have better until it’s alongside.” Naturally, Rod thought. The alien ship would now have its drive pointed toward MacArthur.

“The spine is probably the Motie fusion drive.” An arrow of light sprang into the picture. “And these formations at the front end— Well, let me show you a density pattern.”

The density pattern showed a pencil-shaped shadow circled by a row of much wider, almost invisible toroids. “See? An inner core, rigid, used for launching. We can guess what’s in there: the fusion motor, the air and water regeneration chamber for the crew. We’ve assumed that this section was launched via linear accelerator at high thrust.”

“And the rings?”

“Inflatable fuel tanks, we think. Some, of them are empty now, as you can see. They may have been kept as living space. Others were undoubtedly ditched.”

“Uh huh.” Rod studied the silhouette while Horvath watched him from the other side of the screen. Finally Rod said, “Doctor, these tanks couldn’t have been on the ship when it was launched.”

“No. They may have been launched to meet the core section. Without passengers, they could have been given a much higher thrust.”

“In a linear accelerator? The tanks don’t look metallic.”

“Er—no. They don’t seem to be metallic.”

“The fuel has to be hydrogen, right? So how could those have been launched?”

“We… don’t know.” Horvath hesitated again. “There may have been a metal core. Also ditched.”

“Um. All right. Thank you.”

After some thought, Rod put the pictures on the intercom. Nearly everything went on the intercom, which served as library, amusement center, and communications for MacArthur. In intervals between alerts, or during a battle, one channel of the intercom might show anything. Canned entertainments. Chess tournaments. Spatball games between the champions of each watch. A play, if the crew had that much time on their hands—and they did, sometimes, on blockade duty.

The alien ship was naturally the main topic of conversation in the wardroom.

“There are shadows in yon hollow doughnuts,” Sinclair stated. “And they move.”

“Passengers. Or furniture,” Renner said. “Which means that at least these first four sections are being used as living space. That could be a lot of Moties.”

“Especially,” Rod said as he entered, “if they’re as crowded as that mining ship was. Sit down, gentlemen. Carry on.” He signaled to a steward for coffee.

“One for every man aboard MacArthur,” Renner said. “Good thing we’ve got all this extra room, isn’t it?”

Blaine winced. Sinclair looked as if the next intercom event might star the Chief Engineer and the Sailing Master, fifteen rounds…

“Sandy, what do you think of Horvath’s idea?” Renner asked. “I don’t care much for his theory of launching the fuel balloons with a metal core. Wouldn’t metal shells around the tanks be better? More structural support. Unless…”

“Aye?” Sinclair prompted. Renner said nothing.

“What is it, Renner?’ Blaine demanded.

“Never mind, sir. It was a real blue-sky thought. I should learn to discipline my mind.”

“Spill it, Mr. Renner.”

Renner was new to the Navy, but he was learning to recognize that tone. “Yessir. It occurred to me that hydrogen is metallic at the right temperature and pressure. If those tanks were really pressurized, the hydrogen would carry a current—but it would take the kind of pressures you find at the core of a gas giant planet.”

“Renner, you don’t really think—”

“No, of course not, Captain. It was just a thought.”

Renner’s oddball idea bothered Sandy Sinclair well into the next watch. Engineer officers normally stand no watches on the bridge, but Sinclair’s artificers had just finished an overhaul of the bridge life-support systems and Sinclair wanted to test them. Rather than keep another watch officer in armor while the bridge was exposed to vacuum, Sandy took the watch himself.

His repairs worked perfectly, as they always did. Now, his armor stripped off, Sinclair relaxed in the command chair watching the Moties. The Motie program had tremendous popularity throughout the ship, with attention divided between the big Motie in Crawford’s stateroom and the miniatures. The big Motie had just finished rebuilding the lamp in her quarters. Now it gave a redder, more diffused light, and she was cutting away at the length of Crawford’s bunk to give herself nearly a square meter of working space. Sinclair admired the Motie’s work; she was deft, as sure of herself as anyone Sinclair had ever seen. Let the scientists debate, Sandy thought; that beastie was intelligent.

On Channel Two, the miniatures played. People watched them even more than the big Motie; and Bury, watching everyone watch the little Moties, smiled to himself.

Channel Two caught Sinclair’s eye and he looked away from the big Motie, then suddenly sat bolt upright. The miniatures were having sexual intercourse. “Get that off the intercom!” Sinclair ordered. The signal rating looked pained, but switched the screen so that Channel Two went blank. Moments later, Renner came onto the bridge.

“What’s the matter with the intercom, Sandy?” he asked.

“There is nothing wrong with the intercom,” Sinclair said stiffly.

“There is too. Channel Two is blank.”

“Aye, Mr. Renner. ’Tis blank at my orders.” Sinclair looked uncomfortable.

Renner grinned. “And who did you think would object to the—ah, program?” he asked.

“Mon, we will nae show dirty pictures aboard this ship—and with a chaplain aboard! Not to mention the lady.”

The lady in question had been watching Channel Two also, and when it faded Sally Fowler put down her fork and left the mess room. Beyond that point she practically ran, ignoring the looks of those she passed. She was puffing when she reached the lounge,where the miniature Moties were still in flagrante delicto. She stood beside the cage and watched them for almost a minute. Then she said, not to anyone in particular, “The last time anyone looked, those two were both female.”

Nobody said anything.

“They change sex!” she exclaimed. “I’ll bet it’s pregnancy that triggers it. Dr. Horvath, what do you think?”

“It seems likely enough,” Horvath said slowly. “In fact I’m almost sure the one on top was the mother of the little one.” He seemed to be fighting off a stutter. Definitely he was blushing.

“Oh, good heavens,” said Sally.

It had only just occurred to her what she must have looked like. Hurrying out of the mess room the moment the scene went off the intercom. Arriving out of breath. The Trans-Coalsack cultures had almost universally developed intense prudery within their cultures.

And she was an Imperial lady, hurrying to see two aliens make love, so to speak.

She wanted to shout, to explain. It’s important! This change of sex, it must hold for all the Moties. It will affect their life styles, their personalities, their history. It shows that young Moties become nearly independent at fantastically low ages… Was the pup weaned already, or did the “mother,” now male, secrete milk even after the sex change? This will affect everything about Moties, everything. It’s crucial. That’s why I hurried—

Instead, she left. Abruptly.

20. Night Watch

For a wonder the gun room was quiet. With three junior lieutenants crammed in among six middies, it was usually a scene of chaos. Potter sighed thankfully to see that everyone was asleep except Jonathon Whitbread. Despite his banter, Whitbread was one of Potter’s friends aboard MacArthur.

“How’s astronomy?” Whitbread asked softly. The older midshipman was sprawled in his hammock. “Hand me a bulb of beer, will you, Gavin?”

Potter got one for himself too. “It’s a madhouse down there, Jonathon. I thought it would be better once they found Mote Prime, but it isn’t.”

“Hm. Mapping a planet’s no more than routine for the Navy,” Whitbread told him.

“It might be routine for the Navy, but this is my first deep space cruise. They have me doing most of the work while they discuss new theories I can’t understand. I suppose you’d say it’s good training?”

“It’s good training.”

“Thank you.” Potter gulped beer.

“It doesn’t get any more fun, either. What have you got so far?”

“Quite a bit. There is one moon, you know, so getting the mass was straightforward. Surface gravity about 870 cm/sec square.”

“Point 87 standard. Just what the Motie probe’s accelerating. No surprises there.”

“But they are in the atmosphere,” Potter said eagerly. “And we’ve mapped the civilization centers. Neutrinos, roiled air columns above fusion plants, electromagnetics—they’re everywhere, on every continent and even out into the seas. That planet’s crowded.” Potter said it in awe. He was used to the sparseness of New Scotland. “We’ve got a map, too. They were just finishing the globe when I left. Would you like to see it?”

“Sure.” Whitbread unstraped from his web hammock. They climbed down two decks to scientist country. Most of the civilians worked in the relatively high gravity areas near the outer surface of MacArthur, but bunked nearer the ship’s core.

The 120-cm globe was set up in a small lounge used by the astronomy section. During action stations the compartment would be occupied by damage-control parties and used for emergency-repair assemblies. Now it was empty. A chime announced three bells in the last watch.

The planet was mapped completely except for the south pole, and the globe indicated the planet’s axial tilt. MacArthur’s light-amplifying telescopes had given a picture much like any Earth-type planet: deep and varied blues smeared with white frosting, red deserts, and white tips of mountains. The films had been taken at various times and many wave lengths so that the cloud covers didn’t obscure too much of the surface. Industrial centers marked in gold dotted the planet.

Whitbread studied it carefully while Potter poured coffee from Dr. Buckman’s Dewar flask. Buckman, for some reason, always had the best coffee in the ship—at least the best that middies had access to.

“Mr. Potter, why do I get the feeling that it looks like Mars?”

“I wouldn’t know, Mr. Whitbread. What’s a Mars?”

“Sol Four. Haven’t you ever been to New Annapolis?”

“I’m Trans-Coalsack, remember.”

Whitbread nodded. “You’ll get there, though. But I guess they skip part of the training for colonial recruits. It’s a pity. Maybe the Captain can arrange it for you. The fun thing is that last training mission, when they make you calculate an emergency minimum fuel landing on Mars, and then do it with sealed tanks. You have to use the atmosphere to brake, and since there isn’t very damned much of it, you almost have to graze the ground to get any benefit.”

“That sounds like fun, Mr. Whitbread. A pity I have dentist appointment that day—”

Whitbread continued to stare at the globe while he sipped coffee. “It bothers me, Gavin. It really does. Let’s go ask somebody.”

“Commander Cargill’s still out at the Beehive.” As First Lieutenant, Cargill was officially in charge of midshipman training. He was also patient with the youngsters, when many other officers were not.

“Maybe somebody will still be up,” Whitbread suggested. They went forward toward the bridge, and saw Renner with flecks of soap on his chin. They did not hear him cursing because he now had to share a head with nine other officers.

Whitbread explained his problem. “And it looks like Mars, Mr. Renner. But I don’t know why.”

“Beats me,” Renner said. “I’ve never been anywhere near Sol.” There was no reason for merchant ships to go closer to Sol than the orbit of Neptune, although as the original home of humanity Sol was centrally located as transfer point to other and more valuable systems. “Never heard anything good about Mars, either. Why is it important?”

“I don’t know. It probably isn’t.”

“But you seem to think it is.”

Whithread didn’t answer.

“There’s something peculiar about Mote Prime, though. It looks like any random world in the Empire, except— Or is it just because I know it’s covered with alien monsters? Tell you what, I’m due for a glass of wine with the Captain in five minutes. Just let me get my tunic and you come along. We’ll ask him.”

Renner darted into his stateroom before Whitbread and Potter could protest. Potter looked at his companion accusingly. Now what kind of trouble had he got them into?

Renner led them down the ladders into the high-gravity tower where the Captain’s patrol cabin was. A bored Marine sat at the desk outside Blaine’s quarters. Whitbread recognized him—reputedly, Sergeant Maloney’s vacuum still, located somewhere forward of the port torpedo room, made the best Irish Mist in the fleet. Maloney strove for quality, not quantity.

“Sure, bring the middies in,” Blaine said. “There’s not much to do until the cutter gets back. Come in, gentlemen. Wine, coffee, or something stronger?”

Whitbread and Potter settled for sherry, although Potter would have preferred Scotch. He had been drinking it since he was eleven. They sat in small folding chairs which fitted into dogs scattered around the deck of Blaine’s patrol cabin. The observation ports were open and the ship’s Field off, so MacArthur’s bulk hovered above them. Blaine noted the middies’ nervous glances and smiled. It got to everybody at first.

“What’s the problem?” Blaine asked. Whitbtead explained.

“I see. Mr. Potter, would you get that globe on my intercom? Thank you.” Rod studied the image on the screen. “Hm. Normal-looking world. The colors are off, somehow. Clouds look—well, dirty. Not surprising. There’s all kinds of crud in the atmosphere. You’d know that, Mr. Whitbread.”

“Yes, sir.” Whitbread wrinkled his nose. “Filthy stuff.”

“Right. But it’s the helium that’s driving Buckman up the bulkhead. I wonder if he’s figured it out yet? He’s had several days… Dammit, Whitbread, it does look like Mars. But why?”

Whitbread shrugged. By now he was sorry he’d raised the subject.

“It’s hard to see the contours. It always is.” Absently Rod carried his coffee and Irish Mist over to the intercom screen. Officially he didn’t know where the Irish Mist came from. Kelley and his Marines always saw that the Captain had plenty, though. Cziller had liked slivovitz, and that had strained Maloney’s ingenuity to the breaking point.

Blaine traced the outline of a small sea. “You can’t tell land from sea, but the clouds always look like permanent formations…” He traced it again. “That sea’s almost a circle.”

“Yah. So’s this one.” Renner traced a faint ring of islands, much larger than the sea Blaine had studied. “And this—you can only see part of the arc.” This was on land, an arc of low hills.

“They’re all circles,” Blaine announced. “Just like Mars. That’s it. Mars has been circling through Sol’s asteroid belt for four billion years. But there aren’t that many asteroids in this system, and they’re all in the Trojan points.”

“Sir, aren’t most of the circles a bit small for that?” Potter asked.

“So they are, Mr. Potter. So they are.”

“But what would it mean?” Whitbread said aloud. He meant it mostly for himself.

“Another mystery for Buckman,” Blaine said. “He’ll love it. Now, let’s use the time more constructively. I’m glad you brought the young gentlemen, Mr. Renner. I don’t suppose you both play bridge?”

They did, as it happened, but Whitbread had a string of bad luck. He lost nearly a full day’s pay.

The game was ended by the return of the cutter. Cargill came immediately to the Captain’s quarters to tell about the expedition. He had brought information, a pair of incomprehensible Motie mechanisms now being offloaded in hangar deck, and a torn sheet of gold-metallic stuff which he carried himself with thick gloves. Blaine thanked Renner and the middies for the game and they took the thinly veiled hint, although Whitbread would have liked to stay.

“I’m for my bunk,” Potter announced. “Unless—”

“Yes?” Whitbread prompted.

“Would it nae be a bonny sight if Mr. Crawford were to see his stateroom now?” Potter asked mischievously.

A slow grin spread across Jonathon Whitbread’s plump features. “It would indeed, Mr. Potter. It would indeed. Let’s hurry!”

It was worth it. The midshipmen weren’t alone in the debriefing rooms off hangar deck when a signal rating, prompted by Whitbread, tuned in the stateroom.

Crawford didn’t disappoint them. He would have committed xenocide, the first such crime in human history, if he hadn’t been restrained by his friends. He raved so much that the Captain heard about it, and as a result Crawford went directly from patrol to standing the next watch.

Buckman collected Potter and scurried to the astronomy lab, sure that the young middie had created chaos. He was pleasantly surprised at the work accomplished. He was also pleased with the coffee waiting for him. That flask was always full, and Buckman had come to expect it. He knew that it was somehow the work of Horace Bury.

Within half an hour of the cutter’s arrival, Bury knew of the sheet of golden metal. Now that was something odd—and potentially quite valuable. The ancient-looking Motie machines might be equally so— If he could only get access to the cutter’s computer! But Nabil’s skills didn’t include that one.

Ultimately there would be coffee and conversation with Buckman, but that could wait, that could wait. And tomorrow the Motie ship would arrive. No question about it, this was going to be a very valuable expedition—and the Navy thought they were punishing him by keeping him away from his business! True, there would be no growth without Bury to supervise it and drive his underlings on, but it wouldn’t suffer much either; and now, with what he would learn here, Imperial Autonetics might become the most powerful firm in the Imperial Traders’ Association. If the Navy thought the ITA made trouble for them now, wait until it was controlled by Horace Bury! He smiled slyly to himself. Nabil, seeing his master’s smile, hunched nervously and tried to be inconspicuous.

Below in hangar deck Whitbread was put to work along with everyone else who had wandered there. Cargill had brought back a number of items from the Stone Beehive, and they had to be uncrated. Whitbread was ingenious enough to volunteer to assist Sally before Cargill gave him another job.

They unloaded skeletons and mummies for the anthropology lab. There were doll-sized miniatures, very fragile, that matched the live miniatures in the petty officers’ lounge. Other skeletons, which Staley said were very numerous in the Beehive, matched the Motie miner now bunked in Crawford’s stateroom.

“Hah!” cried Sally. They were unpacking still another mummy.

“Uh?” Wlhitbread asked.

“This one, Jonathon. It matches the one in the Motie probe. Or does it? The forehead slope is wrong… but of course they’d pick the most intelligent person they could find as emissary to New Caledonia. This is a first contact with aliens for them too.”

There was a small, small-headed mummy, only a meter long, with large, fragile hands. The long fingers on all three hands were broken. There was a dry hand which Cargill had found floating free, different from anything yet found: the bones strong and straight and thick, the joints large. “Arthritis?” Sally wondered. They packed it carefully away and went on to the next box, the remains of a foot which had also been floating free. It had a small, sharp thorn on the heel, and the front of the foot was as hard as a horse’s hoof, quite sharp and pointed, unlike the other Motie foot structures.

“Mutations?” Sally said. She turned to Midshipman Staley, who had also been drafted for striking the cargo below. “You say the radiation was all gone?”

“It was dead cold, uh—Sally,” said Staley. “But it must have been a hell of radiation at one time.”

Sally shivered. “I wonder just now much time we’re talking about. Thousands of years? It would depend on how clean those bombs they used to propel the asteroid were.”

“There was no way of telling,” Staley answered. “But that place felt old, Sally. Old, old. The most ancient thing I can compare it to is the Great Pyramid on Earth. It felt older than that.”

“Um,” she said. “But that’s no evidence, Horst.”

“No. But that place was old. I know it.”

Analysis of the finds would have to wait. Just unloading and storing took them well into the first watch, and everyone was tired. It was 0130, three bells in the first watch, when Sally went to her cabin and Staley to the gun room. Jonathon Whitbread was left alone.

He had drunk too much coffee in the Captain’s cabin and he was not tired. He could sleep later. In fact he would have to, since the Motie ship would pull alongside MacArthur during the forenoon watch, but that was nine hours away, and Whitbread was young.

MacArthur’s corridors glowed with half the lights of the ship’s day. They were nearly empty, with the stateroom doors all closed. The ever present human voices that drifted in every corridor during MacArthur’s day, interfering with each other until no single voice could be heard, had given way to—silence.

The tension of the day remained, though. MacArthur would never be at rest while in the alien system. And out there, invisible, her screens up and her crew standing double watches, was the great cylindrical bulk of Lenin. Whitbread thought of the huge laser cannon on the battleship: many would be trained on MacArthur right now.

Whitbread loved night watches. There was room to breathe, and room to be alone. There was company too, crewmen on watch, late-working scientists—only this time everyone seemed to be asleep. Oh, well, he could watch the miniatures on the intercom, have a final drink, read a little, and go to sleep. The nice thing about the first watch was that there would be unoccupied labs to sit in.

The intercom screen was blank when he dialed the Moties. Whitbread scowled for a second—then grinned and strolled off toward the petty officers’ lounge.

Be it admitted: Whitbread was expecting to find two miniature Moties engaged in sexual congress. A midshipman must find his own entertainment, after all.

He opened the door—and something shot between his feet and out, a flash of yellow and brown. Whitbread’s family had owned dogs. It gave him certain trained reflexes. He jumped back, fast, slammed the door to keep anything else from getting out, then looked down the corridor.

He saw it quite clearly in the instant before it dodged into the crew galley area. One of the miniature Moties; and the shape above its shoulders had to be the pup.

The other adult must still be in the petty officers’ lounge. For a moment Whitbread hesitated. He had caught dogs by moving after them immediately. It was in the galley—but it didn’t know him, wasn’t trained to his voice—and damn it, it wasn’t a dog. Whitbread scowled. This would be no fun at all. He went to an intercom and called the watch officer.

“Jee Zuss Christ,” said Crawford. “All right, you say one of the goddamn things is still in the lounge? Are you sure?”

“No, sir. I haven’t actually looked in there, but I only spotted one.”

Don’t look in there,” Crawford ordered. “Stay by the door and don’t let anyone in there. I’ll have to call the Captain.” Crawford. scowled. The Captain might well bite his head off, being called out of bed because a pet had got loose, but the standing orders said any activities by aliens must be reported to the Captain immediately.

Blaine was one of those fortunate people who can come awake instantly without transition. He listened to Crawford’s report.

“All right, Crawford, get a couple of Marines to relieve Whitbread and tell the midshipman to stand by. I’ll want his story. Turn out another squad of Marines and wake up the cooks. Have them search the galley.” He closed his eyes to think. “Keep the lounge sealed until Dr. Horvath gets down there.” He switched off the intercom. Have to call Horvath, Rod thought.

And have to call the Admiral. Best to postpone that until he knew what had happened. But it couldn’t be put off long. He pulled on his tunic before calling the Science Minister.

“They got loose? How?” Horvath demanded. The Science Minister was not one of those fortunate people. His eyes were wounds. His thin hair went in all directions at once. He worked his mouth, clearly not satisfied with the taste.

“We don’t know,” Rod explained patiently. “The camera was off. One of my officers went to investigate.” That’ll do for the scientists, anyway. Damned if I’m going to let a bunch of civilians roast the kid. If he’s got lumps coming, I’ll give ‘em myself. “Doctor, we’ll save time if you’ll come down to the lounge area immediately.”

The corridor outside the lounge was crowded. Horvath in a rumpled red-silk dressing gown; four Marines, Leyton, the junior officer of the watch, Whitbread, Sally Fowler dressed in a bulky housecoat but with her face well scrubbed and her hair in a bandana. Two cooks and a petty officer cook, all muttering as they rattled pans in the galley, were searching for the Motie while more Marines looked around helplessly.

Whitbread was saying, “I slammed the door and looked down the corridor. The other one could have gone the other way—”

“But you think he’s still in there.”

“Yessir.”

“All right, let’s see if we can get in there without letting him out.”

“Uh—do they bite, Cap’n?” a Marine corporal asked. “We could issue the men some gauntlets.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Horvath assured them. “They have never bitten anyone.”

“Yessir,” the corporal said. One of his men muttered, “They said that about hive rats, too,” but no one paid any attention. Six men and a woman formed a semicircle around Horvath as he prepared to open the door. They were tense, grim, the armed Marines ready for anything. For the first time Rod felt a wild urge to laugh. He choked it down. But that poor, tiny beast— Horvath went through the door quickly. Nothing came out.

They waited.

“All right,” the Science Minister called. “I can see it. Come on in, one at a time. It’s under the table.”

The miniature watched them slide through the door, one by one, and surround it. If it were waiting for an opening, it never saw one. When the door was shut and seven men and a woman ringed its refuge, it surrendered. Sally cradled it in her arms.

“Poor little thing,” she crooned. The Motie looked around, obviously frightened.

Whitbread examined what was left of the camera. It had shorted out, somehow. The short had maintained itself long enough for metal and plastic to fuse and drip, leaving a stench not yet removed by MacArthur’s air plant. The wire netting just behind the camera had melted too, leaving a large hole. Blaine came over to examine the wreckage.

“Sally,” Rod asked. “Could they have been intelligent enough to plan this?”

“No!” said Sally and Horvath, forcefully, in chorous. “The brain’s too small,” Dr. Horvath amplified.

“Ah,” Whitbread said to himself. But he did not forget that the camera had been inside the netting.

Two communications division artificers were summoned to patch the hole. They welded new netting over it, and Sally put the miniature back in its cage. The artificers brought in another video camera, which they mounted outside the netting. No one made any comment.

The search went on through the watch. No one found the female and the pup. They tried getting the big Motie to help, but she obviously didn’t understand or wasn’t interested. Finally, Blaine went back to his cabin to sleep for a couple of hours. When he woke the miniatures were still missing.

“We could set the ferrets after them,” Cargill suggested at breakfast in the wardroom. A leading torpedoman kept a pair of the cat-sized rodents and used them to keep the forecastle clear of mice and rats. The ferrets were extremely efficient at that.

“They’d kill the Moties,” Sally protested. “They aren’t dangerous. Certainly no more dangerous than rats. We can’t kill them!”

“If we don’t find them pretty soon, the Admiral’s going to kill me,” Rod growled, but he gave in. The search continued and Blaine went to the bridge.

“Get me the Admiral,” he told Staley.

“Aye aye, sir.” The midshipman spoke into the com circuit.

A few moments later Admiral Kutuzov’s craggy bearded features came onto the screen. The Admiral was on his bridge, drinking tea from a glass. Now that Rod thought of it, he had never spoken to Kutuzov when he wasn’t on the bridge. When did he sleep? Blaine reported the missing Moties.

“You still have no idea what these miniatures are, Captain?” Kutuzov demanded.

“No, sir. There are several theories. The most popular is that they’re related to the Moties the same way that monkeys are related to humanity.”

“That is interesting, Captain. And I suppose these theories explain why there are monkeys on asteroid mining ship? And why this miner brought two monkeys aboard your war vessel? I have not noticed that we carry monkeys, Captain Blaine.”

“No, sir.”

“The Motie probe arrives in three hours,” Kutuzov muttered. “And the miniatures escaped last night. This timing is interesting, Captain. I think those miniatures are spies.”

“Spies, sir?”

“Spies. You are told they are not intelligent. Perhaps true, but could they memorize? That does not seem to me impossible. You have told me of mechanical abilities of large alien. It ordered miniatures to return that Trader’s watch. Captain, under no circumstances may adult alien be allowed contact with miniatures which have escaped. Nor may any large alien do so. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You want reason?” the Admiral demanded. “If there is any chance at all that those beasts could learn secrets of Drive and Field, Captain…”

“Yes, sir. I’ll see to it.”

“See that you do, Captain.”

Blaine sat for a moment staring at the blank screen, then glanced across at Cargill. “Jack, you shipped with the Admiral once, didn’t you? What’s he really like under all that legendary image?”

Cargill took a seat near Blaine’s command chair. “I was only a middie when he was Captain, Skipper. Not too close a relationship. One thing, we all respected him. He’s the toughest officer in the service and he doesn’t excuse anyone, especially not himself. But if there are battles to be fought, you’ve got a better chance of coming back alive with the Tsar in command.”

“So I’ve heard. He’s won more general fleet actions than any officer in the service, but Jesus, what a tough bastard.”

“Yes, sir.” Cargill studied his captain closely. They had been lieutenants together not long before, and it was easier to talk to Blaine than it would be with an older CO. “You’ve never been on St. Ekaterina, have you, Skipper?”

“No.”

“But we’ve got several crewmen from there. Lenin has more, of course. There’s an unholy high percentage of Katerinas in the Navy, Skipper. You know why?”

“Only vaguely.”

“They were settled by the Russian elements of the old CoDominium fleet,” Cargill said. “When the CD fleet pulled out of Sol System, the Russkis put their women and children on Ekaterina. In the Formation Wars they got hit bad. Then the Secession Wars started when Sauron hit St. Ekaterina without warning. It stayed loyal, but…”

“Like New Scotland,” Rod said.

Cargill nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, sir. Imperial loyalist fanatics. With good reason, given their history. The only peace they’ve ever seen has been when the Empire’s strong.”

Rod nodded judiciously, then turned back to his screens. There was one way to make the Admiral happy. “Staley,” Blaine snapped. “Have Gunner Kelley order all Marines to search for the escaped Moties. They are to shoot on sight. Shoot to disable, if possible, but shoot. And have those ferrets turned loose in the galley area.”

21. The Ambassadors

As the Motie ship made its final approach, all details of its construction remained hidden by the flaring drive. MacArthur watched with screens up and charged. A hundred kilometers away, Lenin watched too.

“Battle stations, Mr. Staley,” Blaine ordered softly.

Staley grasped the large red handle which now pointed to Condition Two and moved it all the way clockwise. Alarms trilled, then a recorded trumpet sang “To Arms!,” rapid notes echoing through steel corridors.

“NOW HEAR THIS. NOW HEAR THIS. BATTLE STATIONS, BATTLE STATIONS. CONDITION RED ONE.”

Officers and crew rushed to action stations—gun crews, talkers, torpedomen, Marines. Shipfitters and cooks and storekeepers became damage-control men. Surgeon’s mates manned emergency aid stations throughout the ship—all quickly, all silently. Rod felt a burst of pride. Cziller had given him a taut ship, and by God they still were taut.

“COM ROOM REPORTS CONDITION RED ONE,” the bridge talker announced. The quartermaster’s mate third class said words given him by someone else, and all over the ship men rushed to obey, but he gave no orders of his own. He parroted words that would send MacArthur leaping across space, fire laser cannon and launch torpedoes, attack or withdraw, and he reported results that Blaine probably already knew from his screens and instruments. He took no initiative and never would, but through him the ship was commanded. He was an all-powerful mindless robot.

“GUNNERY STATIONS REPORT CONDITION RED ONE.”

“MARINE COMMANDER REPORTS CONDITION RED ONE.”

“Staley, have the Marines not on sentry duty continue the search for those missing aliens,” Blaine ordered.

“Aye aye, sir.”

“DAMAGE CONTROL REPORTS CONDITION RED ONE.”

The Motie ship decelerated toward MacArthur, the fusion flame of its drive a blaze on the battle cruiser’s screens. Rod watched nervously. “Sandy, how much of that drive could we take?”

“It’s nae too hot, Captain,” Sinclair reported through the intercom. “The Field can handle all of that for twenty minutes or more. And ‘tis nae focused, Skipper, there’d be nae hot spots.”

Blaine nodded. He’d reached the same conclusion, but it was wise to check when possible. He watched the light grow steadily.

“Peaceful enough,” Rod told Renner. “Even if it is a warship.”

“I’m not so sure it is one, Captain.” Renner seemed very much at ease. Even if the Motie should attack he’d be more a spectator than a participant. “At least they’ve aimed their drive flame to miss. Courtesy counts.”

“The hell it does. That flames spreads. Some of it is spilling onto our Langston Field, and they can observe what it does to us.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

“MARINES REPORT CIVILIANS IN CORRIDORS, B DECK BULKHEAD TWENTY.”

“God damn it!” Blaine shouted. “That’s astronomy. Get those corridors cleared!”

“It’ll be Buckman,” Renner grinned. “And they’ll have their troubles getting him to his stateroom…”

“Yeah. Mr. Staley, tell the Marines to put Buckman in his cabin even if they have to frogmarch him there.”

Whitbread grinned to himself. MacArthur was in free fall, all her spin gone. Now how would the Marines frogmarch the astrophysicist in that?

“TORPEDO ROOMS REPORT CONDITION RED ONE. TORPEDOES ARMED AND READY.”

“One of the leading cooks thinks he saw a miniature,” Staley said. “The Marines are on the way.”

The alien ship drew closer, her drive a steady white blaze. She was cutting it very fine, Blaine thought. The deceleration hadn’t changed at all. They obviously trusted everything—their drives, their computers, sensors…

“ENGINE ROOM REPORTS CONDITION RED ONE. FIELD AT MAXIMUM STRENGTH.”

“The Marines have Dr. Buckman in his stateroom,” Staley said. “Dr. Horvath is on the intercom. He wants to complain.”

“Listen to him, Staley. But not for long.”

“GUNNERY REPORTS ALL BATTERIES LOCKED ONTO ALIEN CRAFT. LOCKED ON AND TRACKING.”

MacArthur was at full alert. All through the ship her crew waited at action stations. All nonessential equipment located near the ship’s hull had been sent below.

The tower containing Blaine’s patrol cabin stuck out of the battle cruiser’s hull like an afterthought. For spin gravity it was conveniently far from the ship’s axis, but in a battle it would be the first thing shot off. Blaine’s cabin was an empty shell now, his desk and the more important gear long since automatically raised into one of the nullgravity recreation areas.

Every idle compartment at the ship’s core was jammed, while the outer decks were empty, cleared to make way for damage-control parties.

And the Motie ship was approaching fast. She was still no more than a brightening light, a fusion jet fanning out to splash MacArthur’s Langston Field.

“GUNNERY REPORTS ALIEN SHIP DECELERATING AT POINT EIGHT SEVEN ZERO GRAVITIES.”

“No surprises,” said Renner sotto voce.

The light expanded to fill the screen—and then dimmed. Next moment the alien ship was sliding precisely alongside the battle cruiser, and its drive flame was already off.

It was as if the vessel had entered an invisible dock predetermined six days ago. The thing was at rest relative to MacArthur. Rod saw shadows moving within the inflated rings at its fore end.

Renner snarled, an ugly sound. His face contorted. “Goddamn show-offs!”

“Mr. Renner, control yourself.”

“Sorry, sir. That’s the most astounding feat of astrogation I’ve ever heard of. If anyone tried to tell me about it, I’d call him a liar. Who do they think they are?” Renner was genuinely angry. “Any astrogator-in-training that tried a stunt like that would be out on his tail, if he lived through the crash.”

Blaine nodded. The Motie pilot had left no margin of error at all. And— “I was wrong. That couldn’t possibly be a warship. Look at it.”

“Yah. It’s as fragile as a butterfly. I could crush it in my hand.”

Rod mused a moment, then gave orders. “Ask for volunteers. To make first contact with that ship, alone, using an unarmed taxi. And… keep Condition Red One.”

There were a good many volunteers.

Naturally Mr. Midshipman Wbitbread was one of them. And Whitbread had done it before.

Now he waited in the taxi. He watched the hangar doors unfolding through his polarized plastic faceplate.

He had done this before. The Motie miner hadn’t killed him, had she? The black rippled. Sudden stars showed through a gap in the Langston Field.

“That’s big enough,” Cargill’s voice said in his right ear. “You may launch, Mr. Whitbread. On your way—and Godspeed.”

Whitbread fired thruster clusters. The taxi rose, floated through the opening into starry space and the distant glare of Murcheson’s Eye. Behind him the Langston Field closed. Whitbread was sealed outside.

MacArthur was a sharply bounded region of supernatural blackness. Whitbread circled it at leisure. The Mote flashed bright over the black rim, followed by the alien ship.

Whitbread took his time. The ship grew slowly. Its core was as slender as a spear. Functional marking showed along its sides: hatch covers, instrument ports, antennae, no way to tell. A single black square fin jutted from near the midpoint: possibly a radiator surface.

Within the broad translucent doughnuts that circled the fore end he could see moving shapes. They showed clearly enough to arouse horror: vaguely human shadows twisted out of true.

Four toroids, and shadows within them all. Whitbread reported, “They’re using all their fuel tanks for living space. They can’t expect to get home without our help.”

The Captain’s voice: “You’re sure?”

“Yes, sir. There could be an inboard tank, but it wouldn’t be very large.”

He had nearly reached the alien craft. Whitbread slowed to a smooth stop just alongside the inhabited fuel tanks. He opened his air-lock door.

A door opened immediately near the fore end of the metal core. A Motie stood in the oval opening; it wore a transparent envelope. The alien waited.

Whitbread said, “Permission to leave the—”

“Granted. Report whenever convenient. Otherwise, use your own judgment. The Marines are standing by, Whitbread, so don’t yell for help unless you mean it. They’ll come fast. Now good luck.”

As Cargill’s voice faded, the Captain came on again. “Don’t take any serious risks, Whitbread. Remember, we want you back to report.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

The Motie stepped gracefully out of his way as Whitbread approached the air lock. It left the Motie standing comically on vacuum, its big left hand gripping a ring that jutted out from the hull. “There’s stuff poking out all over,” Whitbread said into his mike. “This thing couldn’t have been launched from inside an atmosphere.”

He stopped himself in the oval opening and nodded at the gently smiling alien. He was only half sardonic as he asked formally, “Permission to come aboard?”

The alien bowed from the waist—or perhaps it was an exaggerated nod? The joint in its back was below the shoulders. It gestured toward the ship with the two right arms.

The air lock was Motie-sized, cramped. Whitbread found three recessed buttons in a web of silver streamers. Circuitry. The Motie watched his hesitation, then reached past him to push first one, then another.

The lock closed behind him.

The Mediator stood on emptiness, waiting for the lock to cycle. She wondered at the intruder’s queer structure, the symmetry and the odd articulation of its bones. Clearly the thing was not related to known life. And its home ship had appeared in what the Mediator thought of as the Crazy Eddie point.

She was far more puzzled at its failure to work out the lock circuitry without help.

It must be here in the capacity of a Mediator. It had to be intelligent. Didn’t it? Or would they send an animal first? No, certainly not. They couldn’t be that alien; it would be a deadly insult in any culture.

The lock opened. She stepped in and set it cycling. The intruder was waiting in the corridor, filling it like a cork in a bottle. The Mediator took time to strip off her pressure envelope, leaving her naked. Alien as it was, the thing might easily assume she was a Warrior. She must convince the creature that she was unarmed.

She led the way toward the roomier inflated sections. The big, clumsy creature had trouble moving. It did not adapt well to free fall. It stopped to peer through window panels into sections of the ship, and examined mechanisms the Browns had installed in the corridor… why would an intelligent being do that?

The Mediator would have liked to tow the creature, but it might take that as an attack. She must avoid that at all costs.

For the present, she would treat it as a Master.

There was an acceleration chamber: twenty-six twisted bunks stacked in three columns, all similar in appearance to Crawford’s transformed bunk; yet they were not quite identical, either. The Motie moved ahead of him, graceful as a dolphin. Its short pelt was a random pattern curved brown and white stripes, punctuated by four patches of thick white fur at the groin and armpits. Whibread found it beautiful. Now it had stopped to wait for him—impatiently, Whitbread thought.

He tried not to think about how thoroughly he was trapped. The corridor was unlighted and claustrophobically narrow. He looked into a line of tanks connected by pumps, possibly a cooling system for hydrogen fuel. It would connect to that single black fin outside.

Light flashed on the Motie.

It was a big opening, big enough even for Whitbread. Beyond: dim sunlight, like the light beneath a thunderstorm. Whitbread followed the Motie into what had to be one of the toroids. He was immediately surrounded by aliens.

They were all identical. That seemingly random pattern of brown and white was repeated on every one of them. At least a dozen smiling lopsided faces ringed him at a polite distance. They chattered to each other in quick squeaky voices.

The chattering stopped suddenly. One of the Moties approached Whitbread and spoke several short sentences that might have been in different languages, though to Whitbread they were all meaningless.

Whitbread shrugged, theatrically, palms forward.

The Motie repeated the gesture, instantly, with incredible accuracy. Whitbread cracked up. He sprawled helplessly in free fall, arms folded around his middle, cackling like a chicken.

Blaine spoke in his ear, his voice sober and metallic. “All right, Whitbread, everyone else is laughing too. The question is—”

“Oh, no! Sir, am I on the intercom again?”

“The question is, what do the Moties think you’re doing?”

“Yessir. It was the third arm that did it.” Whitbread had sobered. “It’s time for my strip-tease act, Captain. Please take me off that intercom…”

The telltale at his chin was yellow, of course. Slow poison; but this time he wasn’t going to breath it. He took a deep breath, undogged, and lifted his helmet. Still holding his breath, he took SCUBA gear from an outside patch of his suit and fitted the mouthpiece between his teeth. He turned on the air; it worked fine.

Leisurely he began to strip. First came the baggy coverall that contained the suit electronics and support gear. Then he unsnapped the cover, strips that shielded the zippers, and opened the tight fabric of the pressure suit itself. The zippers ran along each limb and up the chest; without them it would take hours to get in and out of suit, which looked like a body stocking or a leotard. The elastic fibers conformed to every curve of his musculature, as they had to, to keep him from exploding in vacuum; with their support, his own skin was in a sense his pressure suit, and his sweat glands were the temperature regulating system.

The tanks floated free in front of him as he struggled out of the suit. The Moties moved slowly, and one—a Brown, no stripes, identical to the miner aboard MacArthur—came over to help.

He used the all-purpose goop in his tool kit to stick his helmet to the translucent plastic wall. Surprisingly it did not work. The brown Motie recognized his difficulty instantly. He (she, it) produced a tube of something and dabbed it on Whitbread’s helmet; now it stuck. Jonathon faced the camera toward him, and stuck the rest of his suit next to it.

Humans would have aligned themselves with their head at the same end, as if they must define an up direction before they could talk comfortably. The Moties were at all angles. They clearly didn’t give a damn. They waited, smiling.

Whitbread wriggled the rest of the way out of his suit until he wore nothing at all.

The Moties moved in to examine him.

The Brown was startling among all the brown-and-white patterns. It was shorter than the others, with slightly bigger hands and an odd look to the head, as far as Whitbread could tell, it was identical to the miner. The others looked like the dead one in the Motie light-sail probe.

The brown one was examining his suit, and seemed to be doing things to the tool kit; but the others were prodding at him, seeking the musculature and articulations of his body, looking for places where prodding would produce reflex twitching and jumping.

Two examined his teeth, which were clenched. Others traced his bones with their fingers: his ribs, his spine, the shape of his head, his pelvis, the bones of his feet. They palpated his hands and moved the fingers in ways they were not meant to go. Although they were gentle enough, it was all thoroughly unpleasant.

The chattering rose to a crescendo. Some of the sounds were so shrill they were nearly inaudible shrieks and whistles, but behind them were melodious mid-range tones. One phrase seemed to be repeated constantly in high tenor. Then they were all behind him, showing each other his spine. They were very excited about Whitbread’s spine. A Motie signaled him by catching his eye and then hunching back and forth. The joints jutted as if its back were broken in two places. Whitbread felt queasy watching it, but he got the idea. He curled into fetal position, straightened, then curled up again. A dozen small alien hands probed his back.

Presently they backed away. One approached and seemed to invite Whitbread to explore his (her, its) anatomy. Whitbread shook his head and deliberately looked away. That was for the scientists.

He received his helmet and spoke into the mike. “Ready to report, sir. I’m not sure what to do next. Shall I try to get of them to come back to MacArthur with me?”

Captain Blaine’s voice sounded strained. “Definitely not. Can you get outside their ship?”

“Yes, sir, if I have to.”

“We’d rather you did. Report on a secure line, Whitbread.”

“Uh—yes, sir.” Jonathon signaled the Moties, pointed to his helmet and then to the air lock. The one who had been conducting him around nodded. He climbed back into his suit with help from the brown Motie, dogged the fastenings and attached his helmet. A Brown-and-white led him to the air lock.

There was no convenient place outside to attach the safety line, but after a glance his Motie escort glued a hook onto the ship’s surface. It did not look substantial, that hook. Jonathon worried about it briefly. Then frowned. Where was the ring the Motie had held when Whitbread first approached? It was gone. Why?

Oh, well. MacArthur was close. If the hook broke they would come get him. Gingerly he pushed away from the Motie ship until he hung in empty space. He used helmet sights to line up exactly with the antenna protruding from MacArthur’s totally black surface. Then he touched the SECURITY stud with his tongue.

A thin beam of coherent light stabbed out from his helmet. Another came in from MacArthur, following his own into a tiny receptacle set into the helmet. A ring around that receptacle stayed in darkness; if there were any spillover the tracking system on MacArthur would correct it or, if the spill touched still a third ring around Whitbread’s receiving antenna, cut off communication entirely.

“Secure, sir,” he reported. He let an irritated but puzzled note creep into his voice. After all, he thought, I’m entitled to a little expression of opinion. Aren’t I?

Blaine answered immediately. “Mr. Whitbread, the reason for this security is not merely to make you uncomfortable. The Moties do not understand our language now, but they can make recordings; and later they will understand Anglic. Do you follow me?”

“Why—yes sir.” Ye gods, the Old Man was really thinking ahead.

“Now, Mr. Whitbread, we cannot allow any Motie aboard MacArthur until we have disposed of the problem of the miniatures, and we will do nothing to let the Moties know we have such a problem. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Excellent. I’m sending a boatload of scientists your way—now that you’ve broken the ground, so to speak. By the way, well done. Before I send the others, have you further comments?”

“Um. Yes, sir. First, there are two children aboard. I saw them clinging to the backs of adults. They’re bigger than miniatures, and colored like the adults.”

“More evidence of peaceful intent,” Blaine said. “What else?”

“Well, I didn’t get a chance to count them, but it looks like twenty-three Brown-and-whites and two brown asteroid-miner types. Both of the children were with the Browns. I’ve been wondering why.”

“Eventually we’ll be able to ask them. All right, Whitbread, we’ll send over the scientists. They’ll have the cutter. Renner, you on?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Work out a course. I want MacArthur fifty kilometers from the Motie ship. I don’t know what the Moties will do when we move, but the cutter’ll be over there first.”

“You’re moving the ship, sir?” Renner asked incredulously. Whitbread wanted to cheer but restrained himself.

“Yes.”

Nobody said anything for a long moment.

“All right,” Blaine capitulated. “I’ll explain. The Admiral is very concerned about the miniatures. He thinks they might be able to talk about the ship. We’ve orders to see that the escaped miniatures have no chance to communicate with an adult Motie, and one klick is just a bit close.”

There was more silence.

“That’s all, gentlemen. Thank you, Mr. Whitbread,” Rod said. “Mr. Staley, inform Dr. Hardy that he can get aboard the cutter any time.”

“Well, you’re on,” Chaplain Hardy thought to himself. He was a round, vague man, with dreamy eyes and red hair just beginning to turn gray. Except for conducting the Sunday worship services he had deliberately stayed in his cabin during most of the expedition.

David Hardy was not unfriendly. Anyone could come to his cabin for coffee, a drink, a game of chess, or a long talk, and many did. He merely disliked people in large numbers. He could not get to know them in a crowd.

He also retained his professional inclination not to discuss his work with amateurs and not to publish results until enough evidence was in. That, he told himself, would be impossible now. And what were the aliens? Certainly they were intelligent. Certainly they were sentient. And certainly they had a place in the divine scheme of the universe. But what?

Crewmen moved Hardy’s equipment aboard the cutter. A tape library, several stacks of children’s books, reference works (not many; the cutter’s computer would be able draw on the ship’s library; but David still liked books, impractical as they were). There was other equipment: two display screens with sound transducers, pitch reference electronic filters to shape speech sounds, raise or low pitch, change timbre and phase. He had tried to stow the gear himself, but First Lieutenant Cargill had talked him out of it. Marines were expert at the task, and Hardy’s worries about damage were nothing compared to theirs; if anything broke they’d have Kelley to contend with.

Hardy met Sally in the air lock. She was not traveling light either. Left to herself, she’d have taken everything, even the bones and mummies from the Stone Beehive; but the Captain would only allow her holographs, and even those were hidden until she could learn the Moties attitude toward grave robbers. From Cargill’s description of the Beehive, the Moties had no burial customs, but that was absurd. Everyone had burial customs, even the most primitive humans.

She could not take the Motie miner, either, or the remaining miniature, which had become female again. And the ferrets and Marines were searching for the other miniature and the pup (and why had it run away with the other miniature, not its mother?). She wondered if the fuss she had made about Rod’s orders to the Marines might be responsible for the ease with which she won her place on the cutter. She knew she wasn’t really being fair to Rod. He had his orders from the Admiral. But it was wrong. The miniatures weren’t going to hurt anyone. It took a paranoid to fear them.

She followed Chaplain Hardy into the cutter’s lounge. Dr. Horvath was already there. The three of them would be the first scientists aboard the alien ship, and she felt a surge of excitement. There was so much to learn!

An anthropologist—she thought of herself as fully qualified now, and certainly there was no one to dispute it—a linguist, and Horvath, who had been a competent physicist before going into administration. Horvath was the only useless one in the group, but with his rank he was entitled to the seat if he demanded it. She did not think the same description applied to herself, although half the scientists aboard MacArthur did.

Three scientists, a coxswain, two able spacers, and Jonathon Whitbread. No Marines, and no weapons aboard. Almost, the excitement was enough to cover the fear that welled up from somewhere in her insides. They had to be unarmed, of course; but she would have felt better, all the same, if Rod Blaine had been aboard. And that was impossible.

Later there would be more people on the cutter. Buckman with a million questions once Hardy cracked the communications problem. The biologists would come in force. A Navy officer, probably Crawford, to study the Motie weapons. An engineering officer. Anyone, but not the Captain. It was unlikely that Kutuzov would allow Rod Blaine to leave his ship no matter how peaceful they might find the Moties.

She was suddenly homesick. On Sparta she had a home, Charing Close, and within minutes was the Capital. Sparta was the center of civilization—but she seemed to be living in a series of space craft of diminishing sizes, with the prison camp thrown in for variety. When she graduated from the university she had made a decision: she would be a person, not an ornament to some man’s career. Right now, though, there was much to be said for being an ornament, especially for the right man, only—No. She must be her own woman.

There was a crash couch and a curved instrument board at one end of the cutter’s lounge. It was the fire-control bridge—some lounge! But there were also couches and recessed tables for games and dining.

“Have you been through this boat?” Horvath was asking her.

“I beg your pardon?” Sally answered.

“I said, ‘Have you been through this boat?’ It has gun emplacements all over it. They took out the works, but they left enough to show there were guns. Same with the torpedoes. They’re gone, but the launch ports are still there. What kind of embassy ship is this?”

Hardy looked up from a private reverie. “What would you have done in the Captain’s place?”

“I’d have used an unarmed boat.”

“There aren’t any,” Hardy replied softly. “None you could live on, as you’d know if you spent any time on hangar deck.” Chapel was held on hangar deck, and Horvath had not attended. That was his business, but no harm in reminding him.

“But it’s so obviously a disarmed warship!”

Hardy nodded. “The Moties were bound to discover our terrible secret sooner or later. We are a warlike species, Anthony. It’s part of our nature. Even so, we arrive in a completely disarmed fighting vessel. Don’t you think that’s a significant message for the Moties?”

“But this is so important to the Empire!”

David Hardy nodded assent. The Science Minister was right, although the Chaplain suspected he had the wrong reasons.

There was a slight lurch, and the cutter was on her way. Rod watched on the bridge screens and felt helpless frustration. From the moment the cutter came alongside the Motie vessel, one of Crawford’s batteries would be locked onto her—and Sally Fowler was aboard the frail, disarmed ship.

The original plan had the Moties coming aboard MacArthur, but until the miniatures were found that was impossible. Rod was glad that his ship would not be host to the aliens. I’m learning to think paranoid, he told himself. Like the Admiral.

Meanwhile, there was no sign of the miniatures, Sally wasn’t speaking to him, and everyone else was edgy.

“Ready to take over, Captain,” Renner said. “I relieve you, sir.”

“Right. Carry on, Sailing Master.”

Acceleration alarms rang, and MacArthur moved smoothly away from the alien vessel—and away from the cutter, and Sally.

22. Word Games

The shower: a plastic bag of soapy water with a young man in it, the neck of the bag sealed tight around the man’s neck. Whitbread used a long-handled brush to scratch himself everywhere he itched, which was everywhere. There was pleasure in the pulling and stretching of muscles. It was so finking small in the Motie ship! So claustrophobic-cramped!

When he was clean he joined the others in the lounge. The Chaplain and Horvath and Sally Fowler, all wearing sticky-bottomed falling slippers, all aligned in the up direction. Whitbread would never have noticed such a thing before. He said, “Science Minister Horvath, I am to place myself under your orders for the time being.”

“Very well, Mr.… Whitbread.” Horvath trailed off. He seemed worried and preoccupied. They all did.

The Chaplain spoke with effort. “You see, none of us really knows what to do next. We’ve never contacted aliens before.”

“They’re friendly. They wanted to talk,” said Whitbread.

“Good. Good, but it leaves me entirely on the hook.” The Chaplain’s laugh was all nerves. “What was it like, Whitbread?”

He tried to tell them. Cramped, until you got to the plastic toroids… fragile… no point in trying to tell the Moties apart except the Browns were somehow different from the Brown-and-whites… “They’re unarmed,” he told them. “I spent three hours exploring that ship. There’s no place aboard that they could be hiding big weapons.”

“Did you get the impression they were guiding you away from anything?”

“No-oo.”

“You don’t sound very certain,” Horvath said sharply.

“Oh it isn’t that, sir. I was just remembering the tool room. We wound up in a room that was all tools, wall and floor and ceiling. A couple of walls had simple thing on them: hand drills, ripsaws with odd handles, screw and a screwdriver. Things I could recognize. I saw nail and what I think was a hammer with a big flat head. It all looked like a hobby shop in somebody’s basement. But there were some really complex things in there too, things I couldn’t figure at all.”

The alien ship floated just outside the forward window. Inhuman shadows moved within it. Sally was watching them too… but Horvath said dryly, “You were saying that the aliens were not herding you.”

“I don’t think they led me away from anything. I’m sure I was led to that tool room. I don’t know why, but I think it was an intelligence test. If it was, I flunked.”

Chaplain Hardy said, “The only Motie we’ve questioned so far doesn’t understand the simplest gestures. Now you tell me that these Moties have been giving you intelligence tests—”

“And interpreting gestures. Amazingly quick to understand them, in fact. Yes, sir. They’re different. You saw the pictures.”

Hardy wound a strand of his thinning red hair around a knobby finger and tugged gently. “From your helmet camera? Yes, Jonathon. I think we’re dealing with two kinds of Moties. One is an idiot savant and doesn’t talk. The other… talks,” he finished lamely. He caught himself playing with his hair and smoothed it back into place. “I hope I can learn to talk back.”

They’re all dreading it, Whitbread realized. Especially Sally. And even Chaplain Hardy, who never gets upset about anything. All dreading that first move. Horvath said, “Any other impressions?”

“I keep thinking that ship was designed for free fall. There are sticky strips all over. Inflated furniture likewise. And there are short passages joining the toroids, as wide as the toroids themselves. Under acceleration they’d be like open trap doors with no way around them.”

“That’s strange,” Horvath mused. “The ship was under acceleration until four hours ago.”

“Exactly, sir. The joins must be new.” The thought hit Whitbread suddenly. Those joins must be new.

“But that tells us even more,” Chaplain Hardy said quietly. “And you say the furniture is at all angles. We all saw that the Moties didn’t care how they were oriented when they spoke to you. As if they were peculiarly adapted to free fall. As if they evolved there…”

“But that’s impossible,” Sally protested. “Impossible but—you’re right, Dr. Hardy! Humans always orient themselves. Even the old Marines who’ve been in space all their lives! But nobody can evolve in free fall.”

“An old enough race could,” Hardy said. “And there are the non-symmetric arms. Evolutionary advancement? It would be well to keep the theory in mind when we talk to the Moties.” If we can talk to them, he added to himself.

“They went crazy over my backbone,” Whitbread said. “As if they’d never seen one.” He stopped. “I don’t know whether you were told. I stripped for them. It seemed only fair that they… know what they’re dealing with.” He couldn’t look at Sally.

“I’m not laughing,” she said. “I’m going to have to do the same thing.”

Whitbread’s head snapped up. “What?

Sally chose her words with care; remember provincial mores, she told herself. She did not look up from the deck. “Whatever Captain Blaine and Admiral Kutuzov choose to hide from the Moties, the existence of two human sexes isn’t one of them. They’re entitled to know how we’re made, and I’m the only woman aboard MacArthur.”

“But you’re Senator Fowler’s niece!”

She did smile at that. “We won’t tell them.” She stood up immediately. “Coxswain Lafferty, we’ll be going now.” She turned back, very much the Imperial lady, even to her stance, which gave no sign that she was in free fall. “Jonathon, thank you for your concern. Chaplain, you may join me as soon as I call.” And she went.

A long time later Whitbread said, “I wondered what was making everyone so nervous.”

And Horvath, looking straight ahead, said, “She insisted.”

Sally called the cutter when she arrived. The same Motie who had greeted Whitbread, or an identical one, bowed her aboard in a courtly fashion. A camera on the taxi picked that up and caused the Chaplain to lean forward sharply. “That half-nod is very like you, Whitbread. He’s an excellent mimic.”

Sally called again minutes later, by voice alone. She was in one of the toroids. “There are Moties all around me. A lot of them are carrying instruments. Hand-sized. Jonathon, did—”

“Most of them didn’t have anything in their hands. These instruments, what do they look like?”

“Well, one looks like a camera that’s been half taken apart, and, another has a screen like an oscilloscope screen.” Pause. “Well, here goes. Fowler out.” Click.

For twenty minutes they knew nothing of Sally Fowler. Three men fidgeted, their eyes riveted to a blank intercom screen.

When she finally called, her voice was brisk. “All right, gentlemen, you may come over now.”

“I’m on.” Hardy unstrapped and floated in a slow arc to the cutter air lock. His voice, too, was brisk with relief. The waiting was ended.

There was the usual bustle of bridge activities around Rod, scientists looking at the main view screens, quartermasters securing from MacArthur’s fifty-kilometer move. To keep occupied Rod was having Midshipman Staley run through a simulated Marine assault on the Motie ship. All purely theoretical, of course; but it did help keep Rod from brooding about what was happening aboard the alien vessel. The call from Horvath was a welcome distraction, and Rod was ebulliently cordial as he answered.

“Hello, Doctor! How are things going?”

Horvath was almost smiling. “Very well, thank you, Captain. Dr. Hardy is on his way to join Lady Sally. I sent your man Whitbread along.”

“Good.” Rod felt tension pain where it had settled above and between his shoulder blades. So Sally had got through that…

“Captain, Mr. Whitbread mentioned a tool room aboard the alien ship. He believes that he was being tested for his tool-using ability. It strikes me that the Moties may be judging us all on that ability.”

“Well they might. Making and using tools is a basic—”

“Yes, yes, Captain, but none of us are toolmakers! We have a linguist, an anthropologist, an administrator—me—and some Navy warriors. The joke is on us, Captain. We spent too much consideration on learning about Moties. None on impressing them with our intelligence.”

Blaine considered that. “There are the ships themselves… but you have a point, Doctor. I’ll send you someone. We’re bound to have someone aboard who can do well on such a test.”

When Horvath was off the screen, Rod touched the intercom controls again. “Kelley, you can take half your Marines off alert now.”

“Aye aye, Captain.” The Gunner’s face showed no signs of emotion, but Rod knew just how uncomfortable battle armor was. The entire Marine force of MacArthur was wearing it on full alert in hangar deck.

Then, thoughtfully, Blaine called Sinclair. “It’s an unusual problem, Sandy. We need someone who’s generally good with tools and willing to go aboard the Motie ship. If you’ll pick me some men, I’ll ask for volunteers.”

“Never mind, Captain. I’ll go myself.”

Blaine was shocked. “You, Sandy?”

“Aye and why not, Captain? Am I no skilled with tools? Can I no fix anything that ever worked in the first place? My laddies can handle aye that could go wrong wi’ MacArthur. I’ve trained them well. Ye will no miss me…”

“Hold on a minute, Sandy.”

“Aye, Captain?”

“OK. Anybody who’d do well in a test will know the Field and Drive. Even so, maybe the Admiral won’t let you go.”

“There’s nae another aboard who’ll find out everything about yon beasties’ ship, Captain.”

“Yeah—OK, get the surgeon’s approval. And give me a name. Whom shall I send if you can’t go?”

“Send Jacks, then. Or Leigh Battson, or any of my lads but Thumbs Menchikov.”

“Menchikov. Isn’t he the artificer who saved six men trapped in the after torpedo room during the battle with Defiant?”

“Aye, Captain. He’s also the laddie who fixed your shower two weeks before that battle.”

“Oh. Well, thanks, Sandy.” He rang off and looked around the bridge. There was really very little for him to do. The screens showed the Motie ship in the center of MacArthur’s main battery fire pattern; his ship was safe enough from anything the alien vessel could do, but now Sally would be joined by Hardy and Whitbread… He turned to Staley. “That last was very good. Now work out a rescue plan assuming that only half the Marines are on ready alert.”

Sally heard the activity as Hardy and Whitbread were conducted aboard the Motie ship, but she barely glanced around when they appeared. She had taken the time to dress properly, but grudged the necessity, and in the dim and filtered Motelight she was running her hands over the body of a Brown-and-white, bending its (her) elbow and shoulder joints and tracing the muscles, all the while dictating a running monologue into her throat mike.

“I conclude they are another subspecies, but closely related to the Browns, perhaps closely enough to breed true. This must be determined by genetic coding, when we take samples back to New Scotland where there is proper equipment. Perhaps the Moties know, but we should be careful about what we ask until we determine what taboos exist among Moties.

“There is obviously no sex discrimination such as exists in the Empire; in fact the predominance of females is remarkable. One Brown is male and cares for both pups. The pups are weaned, or at least there is no obvious sign of a nursing female—or male—aboard.

“My hypothesis is that, unlike humanity after the Secession Wars, there is no shortage of mothers or child bearers, and thus there is no cultural mechanism of overprotectiveness such as survives within the Empire. I have no theory of why there are no pups among the Brown-and-whites, although it is possible that the immature Moties I observe are the issue of Brown-and-whites and the Browns serve as child trainers. There is certainly a tendency to have the Browns do all the technical work.

“The difference in the two types is definite if not dramatic. The hands are larger and better developed in the Brown, and the forehead of the Brown slopes back more sharply. The Brown is smaller. Question: Which is better evolved as a tool user? The Brown-and-white has a slightly larger brain capacity, the Brown has better hands. So far every Brown-and-white I have seen is female, and there is one of each sex of Brown: is this accident, a clue to their culture, or something biological? Transcript ends. Welcome aboard, gentlemen.”

Whitbread said, “Any trouble?”

Her head was in a plastic hood that sealed around her neck like a Navy shower bag; she was obviously not used to nasal respirators. The bag blurred her voice slightly. “None at all. I certainly learned as much as they did from the um, er, orgy. What’s next?”

Language lessons.

There was a word: Fyunch(click). When the Chaplain pointed at himself and said “David,” the Motie he was looking at twisted her lower right arm around into the same position and said “Fyunch(click),” making the click with her tongue.”

Fine. But Sally said, “My Motie had the same name I think.”

“Do you mean you picked the same alien?”

“No, I don’t think so. And I know Fyunch(click)”—she said it carefully, making the click with her tongue then ruined the effect by giggling—”isn’t the word for Motie. I’ve tried that.”

The Chaplain frowned. “Perhaps all proper names sound alike to us. Or we may have the word for arm,” he said seriously. There was a classic story about that, so old that it probably came from preatomic days. He turned to another Motie, pointed at himself, and said, “Fyunch(click)?” His accent was nearly perfect, and he didn’t giggle.

The Motie said, “No.”

“They picked that up quickly,” said Sally.

Whitbread tried it. He swam among the Moties, pointing to himself and saying “Fyunch(click)?” He obtained four perfectly articulated No’s before an inverted Motie tapped him on the kneecap and said, “Fyunch(click) Yes.”

So: there were three Moties who would say “Fyunch(click)” to a human. Each to a different human, and not to the others. So?

“It may mean something like ‘I am assigned to you,’ ” Whitbread suggested.

“Certainly one hypothesis,” Hardy agreed. A rather good one, but there were insufficient data—had the boy made a lucky guess?

Moties crawled around them. Some of the instruments they carried might have been cameras or recorders. Some instruments made noises when the humans spoke; others extruded tape, or made wiggly orange lines on small screens. The Moties gave some attention to Hardy’s instruments, especially the male Brown mute, who disasembled Hardy’s oscilioscope and put it back together again before his eyes. The images on it seemed brighter and the persistence control worked much better, he thought. Interesting. And only the Browns did things like that.

The language lessons had become a group effort. It was a game now, this teaching of Anglic to Moties. Point and say the word, and the Moties would generally remember it. David Hardy gave thanks.

The Moties kept fiddling with the insides of their instruments, tuning them, or sometimes handing them to a Brown with a flurry of bird whistles. The range of their own voices was astonishing. Speaking Mote, they ranged from bass to treble in instants. The pitch was part of the code, Hardy guessed.

He was aware of time passing. His belly was a vast emptiness whose complaints he ignored with absentminded contempt. Chafe spots developed around his nose where the respirator fitted. His eyes smarted from Motie atmosphere that got under his goggles, and he wished he’d opted for either a helmet or a plastic sack like Sally’s. The Mote itself was a diffused bright point that moved slowly across the curved translucent wall. Dry breathing air was slowly dehydrating him.

These things he felt as passing time, and ignored. A kind of joy was in him. David Hardy was fulfilling his mission in life.

Despite the uniqueness of the situation, Hardy decided to stick to traditional linguistics. There were unprecedented problems with hand, face, ears, fingers. It developed that the dozen fingers of the right hands had one collective name, the three thick fingers of the left another. The ear had one name flat and another erect. There was no name for face, although they picked up the Anglic word immediately, and seemed to think it a worthwhile innovation.

He had thought that his muscles had adjusted to free fall; but now they bothered him. He did not put it down to exhaustion. He did not know where Sally had disappeared to, and the fact did not bother him. This was a measure of his acceptance of both Sally and the Moties as colleagues; but it was also a measure of how tired he was. Hardy considered himself enlightened, but what Sally would have called “overprotectiveness of women” was deeply ingrained in the Imperial culture—especially so in the monastic Navy.

It was only when his air gave out that the others could persuade Hardy to go back to the cutter.

Their supper was plain, and they hurried through it compare notes. Mercifully the others left him alone until he’d eaten, Horvath taking the lead in shushing everyone although he was obviously the most curious of the lot. Even though the utensils were designed for free-fall conditions, none of the others were used to long periods zero gravity, and eating took new habits that could be learned only through concentration. Finally Hardy let one of the crewmen remove his lap tray and looked up. Three eager faces telepathically beamed a million questions at him.

“They learn Anglic well enough,” David said. “I wish I could say the same for my own progress.”

“They work at it,” Whitbread wondered. “When you give them a word, they keep using it, over and over, trying it out in sentences, trying it out on everything around whatever you showed them—I never saw anything like it.”

“That’s because you didn’t watch Dr. Hardy very long,” Sally said. “We were taught that technique in school, but I’m not very good at it.”

“Young people seldom are.” Hardy stretched out to relax. That void had been filled. But it was embarrassing—the Moties were better at his job than he was. “Young people usually haven’t the patience for linguistics. In this case, though, your eagerness helps, since the Moties are directing your efforts quite professionally. By the way Jonathon, where did you go?”

“I took my Fyunch(click) outside and showed him around the taxi. We ran out of things to show the Motic in their own ship and I didn’t want to bring them here. Can we do that?”

“Certainly.” Horvath smiled. “I’ve spoken to Captain Blaine and he leaves it to our judgment. As he says there’s nothing secret on the cutter. However, I’d like there to be something a little special—some ceremony, wouldn’t you think? After all, except for the asteroid miner the Moties have never visited a human ship.”

Hardy shrugged. “They make little enough of our coming aboard their craft. You want to remember, though, unless the whole Motie race is fantastically gifted at languages—a hypothesis I reject—they’ve had their special ceremony before they lifted off their planet. They’ve put language specialists aboard. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that our Fyunch(click)s are the Motie equivalent of full professors.”

Whitbread shook his head. The others looked at him, and finally he spoke. He was rather proud of having worked out a technique to let a junior officer interrupt the others. “Sir, that ship left the Mote planet only hours—maybe less than one hour—after MacArthur appeared in their system. How would they have time to gather specialists?”

“I hadn’t known that,” Hardy said slowly. “But these must be specialists of some kind. What use would such fantastic linguistic abilities be among the general population? And fantastic is not too strong a word. Still and all, we’ve managed to puzzle them slightly, or did the rest of you notice?”

“The tool room?” Sally asked. “I guess that’s what you’d call it, although I don’t think I’d have figured it out if Jonathon hadn’t given me the clue first. They took me there just after I left you, Dr. Hardy, and they didn’t seem puzzled to me. I noticed you stayed a lot longer than I did, though.”

“What did you do there?” David asked.

“Why—nothing. I looked at all the gadgetry. The whole place was covered with junk—by the way, those wall clamps weren’t substantial enough to take real gravity, I’m sure of that. They must have built that room after they got here. But anyway, since there wasn’t anything I could understand I didn’t pay much attention to the place.”

Hardy folded his hands in an attitude of prayer, then looked up embarrassed. He’d got into that habit long before he entered the priesthood, and somehow could never break himself of it; but it indicated concentration not reverence. “You did nothing, and they were not curious about it.” He thought furiously for long seconds. “Yet I asked the names of the equipment, and spent quite long time there, and my Fyunch(click) seemed very surprised. I could be misinterpreting the emotion, but I really think my interest in the tools unsettled them.”‘

“Did you try to use any of the gadgets?” Whitbread asked.

“No. Did you?”

“Well, I played around with some of the stuff…”

“And were they surprised or curious about that?”

Jonathon shrugged. “They were all watching me all the time. I didn’t notice anything different.”

“Yes.” Hardy folded his hands again, but this time didn’t notice he was doing it. “I think there is something odd about that room and the interest they showed in our interest in it. But I doubt that we’ll know why until Captain Blaine sends over his expert. Do you know who’s coming?”

Horvath nodded. “He’s sending Chief Engineer Sinclair.”

“Hmmm.” The sound was involuntary. The others looked at Jonathon Whitbread, who grinned slowly. “If the Moties were puzzled by you, sir, just think what’ll go through their heads when they hear Commander Sinclair talk.”

On a Navy warship men do not maintain an average weight. During the long idle periods those who like to eat amuse themselves by eating. They grow fat. But men who can dedicate their lives to a cause—including a good percentage of those who will remain in the Navy—tend to forget about eating. Food cannot hold their attention.

Sandy Sinclair looked straight ahead of himself as he sat rigid on the edge of the examining table. It was this way with Sinclair: he could not look a man in the eye while he was naked. He was big and lean, and his stringy muscles were much stronger than they looked. He might have been an average man given a skeleton three sizes too large.

A third of his surface area was pink scar tissue. Sharp metal flying out of an explosion had left that pink ridge across his short ribs. Most of the rest had been burned into him by puffs of flame or droplets of metal. A space battle left burns, if it left a man alive at all.

The doctor was twenty-three, and cheerful. “Twenty four years in service, eh? Ever been in a battle?”

Sinclair snapped, “You’ll hae your own share o’ scars if ye stay wi’ the Navy long enough.”

“I believe you, somehow. Well, Commander, you’re in admirable shape for a man in his forties. You could handle a month of free fall, I think, but we’ll play safe and drag you back to MacArthur twice a week. I don’t suppose I have to tell you to keep up on the free-fall exercises.”

Rod Blaine called the cutter several times the next day, but it was evening before he could get anyone besides the pilot. Even Horvath had gone aboard the Motie ship.

Chaplain Hardy was exhausted and jubilant, with a smile spread across his face and great dark circles under his eyes. “I’m taking it as a lesson in humility, Captain. They’re far better at my job—well, at linguistics, anyway—than I am. I’ve decided that the fastest way to learn their language will be to teach them Anglic. No human throat will ever speak their language—languages?—without computer assistance.”

“Agreed. It would take a full orchestra. I’ve heard some of your tapes. In fact, Chaplain, there wasn’t much else to do.”

Hardy smiled. “Sorry. We’ll try to arrange more frequent reporting. By the way, Dr. Horvath is showing a party of Moties through the cutter now. They seem particularly interested in the drive. The brown one wants to take things apart, but the pilot won’t let him. You did say there were no secrets on this boat.”

“Certainly I said that, but it might be a bit premature to let them fool with your power source. What did Sinclair say about it?”

“I don’t know, Captain.” Hardy looked puzzled. “They’ve had him in that tool room all day. He’s still there.”

Blaine fingered the knot on his nose. He was getting the information he needed, but Chaplain Hardy hadn’t been exactly whom he wanted to talk to. “Uh, how many Moties are there aboard your ship?”

“Four. One for each of us: myself, Dr. Horvath, Lady Sally, and Mr. Whitbread. They seem to be assigned mutual guides.”

“Four of them.” Rod was trying to get used to the idea. The cutter wasn’t a commissioned vessel, but it was one of His Majesty’s warships, and somehow having a bunch aliens aboard was—nuts. Horvath knew the risks he was taking. “Only four? Doesn’t Sinclair have a guide?”

“Oddly enough, no. A number of them are watching him work in the tool room, but there was no special one assigned to him.”

“And none for the coxswain or the spacers on the cutter?”

“No.” Hardy thought a moment. “That is odd, isn’t it? As if they class Commander Sinclair with the unimportant crewmen.”

“Maybe they just don’t like the Navy.”

David Hardy shrugged. Then, carefully, he said, “Captain, sooner or later we’ll have to invite them aboard MacArthur.”

“I’m afraid that’s out of the question.”

Hardy sighed. “Well, that’s why I brought it up now, that we could thrash it out. They’ve shown that they trust us, Captain. There’s not a cubic centimeter of their embassy ship that we haven’t seen, or at least probed with instruments. Whitbread will testify that there’s no sign of weaponry aboard. Eventually they’re going to wonder what guilty secrets we’re hiding aboard.”

“I’m going to tell you. Are there Moties within earshot?”

“No. And they haven’t learned Anglic that well anyway.”

“Don’t forget they will learn, and don’t forget recorders. Now, Chaplain, you’ve got a problem—about Moties and Creation. The Empire has another. For a long time we’ve talked about the Great Galactic Wizards showing up and deciding whether to let the humans join, right? Only it’s the other way around, isn’t it? We’ve got to decide whether to let the Moties out of their system, and until that’s decided we don’t want them to see the Langston Field generators, the Alderson Drive, our weapons… not even just how much of MacArthur is living space, Chaplain. It would give away too much about our capabilities. We’ve a lot to hide, and we’ll hide it.”

“You’re treating them as enemies,” David Hardy said gently.

“And that’s neither your decision nor mine, Doctor. Besides, I’ve got some questions I want answered before I decide that the Moties are nothing more than steadfast friends.” Rod let his gaze go past the Chaplain, and his eyes focused a long way off. I’m not sorry it’s not my decision, he thought. But ultimately they’re going to ask me. As future Marquis of Crucis, if nothing else.

He had known the subject would come up, and would again, and he was ready. “First, why did they send us a ship from Mote Prime? Why not from the Trojan cluster? It’s much closer.”

“I’ll ask them when I can.”

“Second, why four Moties? It may not be important, but I’d like to know why they assigned one to each of you scientists, one to Whitbread, and none to any of the crew.”

“They were right, weren’t they? They set guides on the four people most interested in teaching them—”

“Exactly. How did they know? Just for example, how could they have known Dr. Horvath would be aboard? And the third question is, what are they building now?”

“All right, Captain.” Hardy looked unhappy, not angry. He was and would be harder to refuse than Horvath… partly because he was Rod’s confessor. And the subject would come up again. Rod was sure of that.

23. Eliza Crossing the Ice

During the weeks that followed MacArthur was a bustle of activity. Every scientist worked overtime after each data transmission from the cutter, and every one of them wanted Navy assistance immediately. There was also the problem of the escaped miniatures, but this had settled to a game, with MacArthur losing. In the mess room it was even money that they were both dead, but no bodies were found. It worried Rod Blaine, but there was nothing he could do.

He also allowed the Marines to stand watches in normal uniform. There were no threats to the cutter, and it was ridiculous to keep a dozen men uncomfortable in battle armor. Instead he doubled the watch keeping surveillance around MacArthur, but no one—or no thing—tried to approach, escape, or send messages. Meanwhile the biologists went wild over clues to Motie psychology and physiology, the astronomy section continued to map Mote Prime, Buckman dithered whenever anyone else used the astronomical gear, and Blaine tried to keep his overcrowded ship’ running smoothly. His appreciation of Horvath grew every time he had to mediate a dispute between scientists.

There was more activity aboard the cutter. Commander Sinclair had gone aboard and been immediately taken to the Motie ship. Three days passed before a Brown-and-white began following Sinclair around, and it was a peculiarly quiet Motie. It did seem interested in the cutter’s machinery, unlike the others who had assigned themselves to a human. Sinclair and his Fyunch(click) spent long hours aboard the alien ship, poking into corners, examining everything.

“The lad was right about the tool room,” Sinclair told Blaine during one of his daily reports. “It’s like the nonverbal intelligence tests BuPers worked up for new recruits. There are things wrong wi’ some o’ the tools, and ‘tis my task to put them right.”

“Wrong how?”

Sinclair chuckled, remembering. He had some difficulty explaining the joke to Blaine. The hammer with the big, flat head would hit a thumb every time. It needed to be trimmed. The laser heated too fast… and that was a tricky one. It had generated the wrong frequency of light. Sinclair fixed it by doubling the frequency—somehow. He also learned more about compact lasers than he’d ever known before. There were other tests like that. “They’re good, Captain. It took ingenuity to come up wi’ some of the testing gadgets wi’out giving away more than they did. But they canna keep me from learning about their ship… Captain, I already ken enough to redesign the ship’s boats to be more efficient. Or make millions o’ crowns designing miner ships.”

“Retiring when we go back, Sandy?” Rod asked; but he grinned widely to show he didn’t mean it.

In the second week, Rod Blaine also acquired a Fyunch(click).

He was both dismayed and flattered. The Motie looked like all the others: brown-and-white markings, a gentle smile in a lopsided face just high enough above the deck that Rod could have patted her on the head—if he’d ever seen the Motie face to face, which he never would.

Each time he called the cutter she was there, always eager to see Blaine and talk to him. Each time he called, her Anglic was better. They would exchange a few words, and that was that. He didn’t have time for a Fyunch(click), or a need for one either. Learning Motie language wasn’t his job—from the progress made, it wasn’t anyone’s job—and he only saw her through a phone link. What use was a guide he would never meet?

“They seem to think you’re important,” was Hardy’s dead-pan answer.

It was something to think about while he presided over his madhouse of a ship. And the alien didn’t complain at all.

The month’s flurry of activity hardly affected Horace Bury. He received no news at all from the cutter, and had nothing to contribute to the scientific work on the ship. Alert to rumors, which were always helpful, he waited for news to filter down through the grapevine; but not very much did. Communications with the cutter seemed to stop with the bridge, and he had no real friends among the scientists other than Buckman. Blaine had given up putting everything on the intercom. For the first time since he left New Chicago, Bury felt imprisoned.

It bothered him more than it should have, although he was introspective enough to know why. All his life he had tried to control his environment as far as he could reach: around a world, across light years of space and decades of time—or throughout a Navy battle cruiser. The crew treated him as a guest, but not as a master; and anywhere he was not master, he was a prisoner.

He was losing money, too. Somewhere in the restricted sections of MacArthur, beyond the reach of all but the highest-ranking scientists, physicists were studying the golden stuff from the Stone Beehive. It took weeks of effort to pick up the rumor that it was a superconductor of heat.

That would be priceless stuff, and he knew he must obtain a sample. He even knew how it might be done, but forced himself to idleness. Not yet! The time to steal his sample would be just before MacArthur docked in New Scotland. Ships would be waiting there despite the cost, not only a ship openly acknowledging him as owner, but at least one other. Meanwhile, listen, find out, know what else he should have when he left MacArthur.

He had several reports on the Stone Beehive to crosscheck against each other. He even tried to gain information from Buckman; but the results were more amusing than profitable.

“Oh, forget the Stone Beehive,” Buckman had exclaimed. “It was moved into place. It’s no damned use at all. The Beehive’s got nothing to do with the formation of the Trojan point clusters, and the Moties have messed up the internal structure to the point where you can’t tell anything about the original rock…”

So. The Moties could and did make superconductors of heat. And there were always the little Moties. He enjoyed the search for the escaped miniatures. Naturally most of the Navy personnel were silently rooting for the underdog, the fleeing miniature and the child, Eliza crossing the ice. And the miniature was winning. Food disappeared from odd places: staterooms, lounges, everywhere but the kitchen itself. The ferrets could find no scent. How could the miniatures have made truce with the ferrets? Bury wondered. Certainly the aliens were… alien, yet the ferrets had had no trouble scenting them the first night.

Bury enjoyed the hunt, but… He took the lesson: a miniature was harder to catch than to keep. If he expected to sell many as pets he had better sell them in foolproof cages. Then there was the matter of acquiring a breeding pair. The longer the miniatures remained free, the less grew Bury’s chances of persuading the Navy that they were harmless, friendly pets.

But it was fun seeing the Navy look foolish. Bury rooted for both sides, and practiced patience; and the weeks went on.

While six Fyunch(click)s bunked aboard the cutter, the rest of the Moties worked. The interior of the alien ship changed like dreams; it was different every time anyone went aboard. Sinclair and Whitbread made a point of touring it periodically to see that no weapons were built; perhaps they would have known and perhaps not.

One day Hardy and Horvath stopped by the Captain’s watch cabin after an hour in MacArthur’s exercise rooms.

“The Moties have a fuel tank coming,” Horvath told Rod. “It was launched at about the same time as their own ship, by linear accelerator, but in a fuel-saving orbit. It should arrive in two weeks.”

“So that’s what it is.” Blaine and his officers had worried about that silent object coasting at leisure toward their position.

“You knew about it? You might have mentioned it to us.”

“They’ll need to retrieve it,” Blaine speculated. “Hmm. I wonder if one of my boats might get it for them. Would they let us do that?”

“I see no reason why not. We’ll ask,” said David Hardy. “One more thing, Captain.”

Rod knew something tricky was coming. Horvath had Dr. Hardy ask for all the things Rod might refuse.

“The Moties want to build an air-lock bridge between the cutter and the embassy ship,” Hardy finished.

“It’s only a temporary structure and we need it.” Horvath paused. “It’s only a hypothesis, you understand, but, Captain, we now think that every structure is only temporary to them. They must have had high-gee couches at takeoff, but they’re gone now. They arrived with no fuel to take them home. They almost certainly redesigned their life-support system for free fall in the three hours following their arrival.”

“ ‘And this too shall pass away,’ ” Hardy added helpfully. “But the idea doesn’t bother them. They seem to like it.”

“It’s a major departure from human psychology,” Horvath said earnestly. “Perhaps a Motie would never try to design anything permanent at all. There will be no sphinx, no pyramids, no Washington Monument, no Lenin’s Tomb.”

“Doctor, I don’t like the idea of joining the two ships.”

“But, Captain, we need something like this. People and Moties are constantly passing back and forth, and they have to use the taxi every time. Besides, the Moties have already started work—”

“May I point out that if they join those two ships, you and everyone aboard will thenceforth be hostage to the Moties’ good will?”

Horvath was ruffled. “I’m sure the aliens can be trusted, Captain. We’re making very good progress with them.”

“Besides,” Chaplain Hardy added equably, “we’re hostage now. There was never a way to avoid the situation. MacArthur and Lenin are our protection, if we need protection. If two battleships don’t scare them—well, we knew the situation when we boarded the cutter.”

Blaine ground his teeth. If the cutter was expendable, the cutter’s personnel were not. Sinclair, Sally Fowler, Dr. Horvath, the Chaplain—MacArthur’s most valuable people were living aboard the cutter. Yet the Chaplain was clearly right. They were all subject to murder at any moment, save for the risk of MacArthur’s vengeance.

“Tell them to go ahead,” Rod said. The air-lock bridge would not increase the danger at all.

The lock was begun as soon as Rod gave permission. A tube of thin metal, flexibly jointed, jutting from the hull of the Motie ship, it snaked toward them like a living creature. Moties swarmed around it in fragile-seeming suits. As seen from the cutter’s main port, they might almost have been men—almost.

Sally’s eyes blurred as she watched. The lighting was strange—dim Mote light and space-black shadows, and occasional flares of artificial light, everything reflected from the bright, curved metal surface. The perspective was all wrong, and it gave her a headache.

“I keep wondering where they’re getting the metal,” said Whitbread. He sat near her, as he usually did when they were both between jobs. “There wasn’t any spare mass aboard the ship, not the first time I went through it and not now. They must be tearing their ship apart.”

“That would fit,” said Horvath.

They had gathered around the main window after dinner, with tea and coffee bulbs in their hands. The Moties had become tea and chocolate fanciers; they could not stomach coffee. Human, Motie, human, Motie, they circled the window on the horseshoe-shaped free-fall bench. The Fyunch(click)s had learned the human trick of aligning themselves all in the same direction.

“Look how fast they work,” Sally said. “The bridge seems to grow before your very eyes.” Again her eyes tried to cross. It was as if many of the Moties were working farther back, well behind the others. “The one marked with the orange strips must be a Brown. She seems to be in charge, don’t you think?”

“She’s also doing most of the work,” said Sinclair.

“That makes an odd kind of sense,” said Hardy. “If she knows enough to give the orders, she must be able to do the work better than any of the others, too, wouldn’t you think?” He rubbed his eyes. “Am I out of my mind, or are some of those Moties smaller than others?”

“It does look that way,” said Sally.

Whitbread stared at the bridge builders. Many of the Moties seemed to be working a long way behind the embassy ship—until three of them passed in front of it. Carefully he said, “Has anyone tried watching this through the scope? Lafferty, get it on for us, will you?”

In the telescope screen it was shockingly clear. Some of the Motie workmen were tiny, small enough to crawl into any crevice. And they had four arms each.

“Do—do you often use those creatures as workmen?” Sally asked her Fyunch(click).

“Yes. We find them very useful. Are there not—equal creatures—in your ships?” The alien seemed surprised. Of all the Moties, Sally’s gave the impression of being most often surprised at the humans. “Do you think Rod will be worried?”

“But what are they?” Sally demanded. She ignored the question the Motie had asked.

“They are—workers,” the Motie answered. “Useful animals. You are surprised because they are small? Yours are large, then?”

“Uh, yes,” Sally answered absently. She looked to the others. “I think I’d like to go see these—animals—close up. Anyone want to come along?” But Whitbread was already getting into his suit, and so were the others.

“Fyunch(click),” said the alien.

“God Almighty!” Blaine exploded. “Have they got you answering the phones now?”

The alien spoke slowly, with care for enunciation. Her grammar was not perfect, but her grasp of idiom and inflection was freshly amazing every time she spoke. “Why not? I talk well enough. I can remember a message. I can use the recorder. I have little to do when you are not available.”

“I can’t help that.”

“I know.” With a touch of complacence the alien added, “I startled a rating.”

“God’s teeth, you startled me. Who’s around?”

“Coxswain Lafferty. All the other humans are absent. They have gone to look at the tunnel. When it is finished the ratings will not have to go with them when they wish to visit the other ship. Can I pass on a message?”

“No, thanks, I’ll call back.”

“Sally should be back soon,” said Blaine’s Motie. “How are you? How goes the ship?”

“Well enough.”

“You always sound so cautious when you speak of the ship. Am I stepping on Navy secrets? It-ss not the ship that concerns me, Rod. I’m Fyunch(click) to you. It means considerably more than just guide.” The Motie gestured oddly. Rod had seen her do that before, when she was upset or annoyed.

“Just what does Fyunch(click) mean?”

“I am assigned to you. You are a project, a masterwork. I am to learn as much about you as there is to know. I am to become an expert on you, My Lord Roderick Blaine, and you are to become a field of study to me. It-ss not your gigantic, rigid, badly designed ship that interest-ss me, it-ss your attitudes toward that ship and the humans aboard, your degree of control over them, your interess-t in their welfare, et cetera.”

How would Kutuzov handle this? Break contact? Hell. “Nobody likes being watched. Anyone would feel a bit uncomfortable being studied like that.”

“We guessed you would take it that way. But, Rod, you’re here to study us, are-unt you? Surely we are entitled to study you back.”

“You have that right.” Rod’s voice was stiff despite himself. “But if someone becomes embarrassed while you’re talking to him, that’s probably the reason.”

“God damn it to hell,” said Blaine’s Motie. “You are the first intelligent beings we’ve ever met who are-unt relatives. Why should you expect to be comfortable with us?” She rubbed the flat center of her face with her upper right forefinger, then dropped her hand as if embarrassed. It was the same gesture she’d used a moment before.

There were noises off screen. Blaine’s Motie said, “Hang on a moment. Okay, it-ss Sally and Whitbread.” Her voice rose. “Sally? The Captain’s on screen.” She slid out of the chair. Sally Fowler slid in. Her smile seemed forced as she said, “Hello, Captain. What’s new?”

“Business as usual. How goes it at your end?”

“Rod, you look flustered. It’s a strange experience, isn’t it? Don’t worry, she can’t hear us now.”

“Good. I’m not sure I like an alien reading my mind that way. I don’t suppose they really read minds.”

“They say not. And they guess wrong sometimes.” She ran a hand through her hair, which was in disarray, perhaps because she had just doffed a pressure suit helmet. “Wildly wrong. Commander Sinclair’s Fyunch(click) wouldn’t talk to him at first. They thought he was a Brown; you know, an idiot carpenter type. How are you doing with the miniatures?”

That was a subject they’d both learned to avoid. Rod wondered why she’d brought it up. “The loose ones are still loose. No sign of them. They might even have died somewhere we wouldn’t find them. We’ve still got the one that stayed behind. I think you’d better have a look at her, Sally, next time you’re over. She may be sick.”

Sally nodded. “I’ll come over tomorrow. Rod, have you been watching the alien work party?”

“Not particularly. The air lock seems almost finished already.”

“Yes… Rod, they’ve been using trained miniatures to do part of the work.”

Rod stared stupidly.

Sally’s eyes shifted uneasily. “Trained miniatures. In pressure suits. We didn’t know there were any aboard. I suppose they must be shy; they must hide when humans are aboard. But they’re only animals, after all. We asked.”

“Animals.” Oh my God. What would Kutuzov say?

“Sally, this is important. Can you come over tonight and brief me? You and anyone else who knows anything about this.”

“All right. Commander Sinclair is watching them now. Rod, it’s really fantastic how well the little beasts are trained. And they can get into places where you’d have to use jointed tools and spy eyes.”

“I can imagine. Sally, tell me the truth. Is there the slightest chance the miniatures are intelligent?”

“No. They’re just trained.”

“Just trained.” And if there were any alive aboard MacArthur they’d have explored the ship from stem to stern. “Sally, is there the slightest chance that any of the aliens can hear me now?”

“No. I’m using the earphone, and we haven’t allowed them to work on our equipment.”

“So far as you know. Now listen carefully, then. I want to talk privately to everyone else on that cutter, one at a time. Has anyone said anything—anything at all—about there being miniatures loose aboard MacArthur?”

“No-oo. You told us not to, remember? Rod, what’s wrong?”

What’s wrong? “For God’s sake, don’t say anything about the loose miniatures. I’ll tell the others as you put them on. And I want to see all of you, everyone except the cutter’s regular crew, tonight. It’s time we pooled our knowledge about Moties, because I’m going to have to report to the Admiral tomorrow morning.” He looked almost pale. “I guess I can wait that long.”

“Well, of course you can,” she said. She smiled enchantingly, but it didn’t come off very well. She didn’t think she’d ever seen Rod so concerned, and it upset her. “We’ll be over in an hour. Now here’s Mr. Whitbread, and please, Rod, stop worrying.”

24. Brownies

MacArthur’s wardroom was crowded. All the seats at the main table were taken by officers and scientists and there were others around the periphery. At one bulkhead the communications people had installed a large screen while the mess stewards got in the artificers’ way as they delivered coffee to the assembled company. Everyone chattered, carefree, except Sally. She remembered Rod Blaine’s worried face, and she couldn’t join in the happy reunion.

Officers and ratings stood as Rod came into the wardroom. Some of the civilians stood likewise; others pretended not to see the Captain; and a few looked at him, then looked away, exploiting their civilian status. As Rod took his place at the head of the table he muttered, “At ease,” then sat carefully. Sally thought he looked even more worried than before.

“Kelley.”

“Sir!”

“Is this room secure?”

“As near as we can make it, sir. Four files outside and I looked into the duct works.”

“What is this?” Horvath demanded. “Just who do you think you are guarding against?”

“Everyone—and every thing—not here, Doctor.” Rod looked at the Science Minister with eyes that showed both command and pleading. “I must tell you that everything discussed here will be classified Top Secret. Do each and all of you waive the reading of the Imperial Regulations on disclosure of classified information?”

There was muttered assent. The cheery mood of the group had suddenly vanished.

“Any dissents? Let the record show there were none. Dr. Horvath, I am given to understand that three hours ago you discovered that the miniatures are highly trained animals capable of technical work performed under command. Is that correct?”

“Yes. Certainly. It was quite a surprise, I can tell you! The implications are enormous—if we can learn to direct them, they would be fabulous additions to our capabilities.”

Rod nodded absently. “Is there any chance that we could have known that earlier? Did anyone know it? Anyone at all?”

There was a confused babble but no one answered. Rod said, carefully and clearly, “Let the record show there was no one.”

“What is this record you keep speaking of?” Horvath demanded. “And why are you concerned about it?”

“Dr. Horvath, this conversation will be recorded and duly witnessed because it may be evidence in a court martial. Quite possibly mine. Is that clear enough?”

“What— Good heavens!” Sally gasped. “Court-martial? You? Why?”

“The charge would be high treason,” Rod said. “I see most of my officers aren’t surprised. My lady, gentlemen, we have strict orders from the Viceroy himself to do nothing to compromise any Imperial military technology, and in particular to protect the Langston Field and Alderson Drive from Motie inspection. In the past weeks animals capable of learning that technology and quite possibly of passing it on to other Moties have roamed my ship at will. Now do you understand?”

“I see.” Horvath showed no signs of alarm, but his face grew thoughtful. “And you have secured this room— Do you really believe the miniatures can understand what we say?”

Rod shrugged. “I think it possible they can memorize conversations and repeat them. But are the miniatures still alive? Kelley?”

“Sir, there haven’t been any signs of them for weeks. No raids on food stores. Ferrets haven’t turned up a thing but a bloody lot of mice. I think the beasties are dead, Captain.”

Blaine rubbed his nose, then quickly drew his hand away. “Gunner, have you ever heard of ‘Brownies’ aboard this ship?”

Kelley’s face showed no surprise. In fact it showed nothing. “Brownies, Captain?”

“Rod, have you lost your mind?” Sally blurted. Everyone was looking at her, and some of them didn’t seem friendly. Oh boy, she thought, I’ve stuck my foot in it. Some of them know what he’s talking about. Oh boy.

“I said Brownies, Gunner. Have you ever heard of them?”

“Well, not officially, Captain. I will say some of the spacers seem lately to believe in the Little People. Couldn’t see any harm in it meself.” But Kelley looked confused. He had heard of this and he hadn’t reported it, and now the Captain, his Captain, might be in trouble over it.

“Anyone else?” Rod demanded.

“Uh—sir?”

Rod had to strain to see who was speaking. Midshipman Potter was near the far wall, almost hidden by two biologists. “Yes, Mr. Potter?”

“Some of the men in my watch section, Captain—they say that if ye leave some food-grain, cereals, mess leftovers, anything at all—in the corridors or under your bunk along with something that needs fixing, it gets fixed.” Potter looked uncomfortable. It was obvious he thought he was reporting nonsense. “One of the men called them ‘Brownies.’ I thought it a joke.”

Once Potter had spoken there were a dozen others, even some of the scientists. Microscopes with smoother focusing operations than the best things ever made by Leica Optical. A handmade lamp in the biology section. Boots and shoes customized to individual feet. Rod looked up at that one.

“Kelley. How many of your troops have sidearms individualized like yours and Mr. Renner’s?”

“Uh—I don’t know, sir.”

“I can see one from here. You, man, Polizawsky, how did you come by that weapon?”

The Marine stammered. He wasn’t used to speaking to officers, certainly not the Captain, and most certainly not the Captain in an ugly mood. “Uh, well, sir, I leaves my weapon and a bag o’ popcorn by my bunk and next morning it’s done, sir. Like the others said, Captain.”

“And you didn’t think this unusual enough to report to Gunner Kelley?”

“Uh—sir—uh, some of the others, we thought maybe, uh, well, the Surgeon’s been talking about hallucinations in space, Captain, and we, uh—”

“Besides, if you reported it I might stop the whole thing,” Rod finished for him. Oh, God damn it to hell! How was he going to explain all this? Busy, too busy arbitrating squabbles with the scientists— But the fact stood out. He’d neglected his naval duties, and with what outcome?

“Aren’t you taking all this too seriously?” Horvath asked. “After all, Captain, the Viceroy’s orders were given before we knew much about Moties. Now, surely, we can see they aren’t dangerous, and they certainly aren’t hostile.”

“Are you suggesting, Doctor, that we put ourselves in the position of countermanding an Imperial Directive?”

Horvath looked amused. His grin spread slowly across his face. “Oh no,” he said. “I don’t even imply, it. I only suggest that if and when—when, really, it’s inevitable—that policy is changed, all this will seem a trifle silly, Captain Blaine. Childish in fact.”

“Be damned to you!” Sinclair exploded. “That’s nae way to talk to the Captain, mon!”

“Gently, Sandy,” First Lieutenant Cargill interjected. “Dr. Horvath, I take it you’ve never been involved in military intelligence? No, of course not. But you see, in intelligence work we have to go by capabilities, not by intentions. If a potential enemy can do something to you, you have to prepare for it, without regard to what you think he wants to do.”

“Exactly,” Rod said. He was glad of the interruptions. Sinclair was still fuming at his end of the table, and it wouldn’t take much to make him explode again. “So first we have to find out what the potential of the miniatures is. From what I’ve seen of the air-lock construction, plus what we gather about the ‘Brownies,’ that’s quite high.”

“But they’re only animals,” Sally insisted. She looked at the fuming Sinclair, the sardonically smiling Horvath and Rod’s worried face. “You don’t understand. This business with tools—well, yes, they’re good with tools, but it’s not intelligence. Their heads are too small. The more brain tissue they use for this instinct to make tools work, the more they have to give up. They’ve virtually no sense of smell or taste. They’re very nearsighted. They’ve less sense of language than a chimpanzee. Their space perception is good, and they can be trained, but they don’t make tools, they only fix or change things. Intelligence!” She exploded. “What intelligent being would have custom formed the grip on Mr. Battson’s toothbrush?

“As for spying on us, how could they? Nobody could have trained them for it. They were randomly selected the first place.” She looked around at their faces, trying to judge if she was getting through.

“You’re really sure the escaped miniatures are alive?” The voice was hearty, tinged with New Scot accent. Rod looked across to Dr. Blevins, a colonial veterinarian drafted into the expedition. “My own miniature is dying, Captain. Nothing I can do about it. Internal poisoning, glandular deterioration—the symptoms seem to be similar to old age.”

Blaine shook his head slowly. “I wish I could think so Doc, but there are too many Brownie stories in this ship. Before this meeting I talked to some of the other chiefs and it’s the same on the lower decks. Nobody wanted report it because first, we’d think they were crazy, and second, the Brownies were too useful to risk losing. No, for all of Gunner Kelley’s Irish folk tales, there have never been any Little People on Navy ships—it has to be the miniatures.”

There was a long silence. “What harm are they doing anyway?” Horvath asked. “I’d think some Brownies would be an asset, Captain.”

“Hah.” That didn’t need comment in Rod’s opinion. “Harm or good, immediately after this meeting we will sterilize this ship. Sinclair, have you arranged to evacuate hangar deck?”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Then do it. Open it to space, and see all the compartments in there are opened to space. I want that hangar deck dead. Commander Cargill, see that the essential watch crew are in battle armor. Alone in their battle armor, Number One. The rest of you give some thought to whatever equipment you have that can’t stand hard vacuum. When hangar deck’s done, Kelley’s Marines will help you get that into hangar deck; then we depressurize the rest of the ship. We’re going to put an end to Brownies once and for all.”

“But” — ”Hey, that’s silly” — ”My cultures will die” — “Goddamn regular Navy bastards are always” — ”Can he do that?” — ”Aye aye, Captain” — ”What the hell does he think he’s—”

“Tenn-shut!” Kelley’s roar cut through the babble.

“Captain, do you really have to be so vicious about it?” Sally asked.

He shrugged. “I think they’re cute too. So what? If I don’t order it done, the Admiral will anyway. Now, are we all agreed that the miniatures aren’t spies?”

“Not deliberate ones,” Renner said. “But, Captain, do you know about the incident with the pocket computer?”

“No.”

“The big Motie took Miss Fowler’s pocket computer apart. And put it back together again. It works.”

“Uh.” Rod made a sour face. “But that was the big brown Motie.”

“Which can talk to the little Moties. It made the miniatures give Mr. Bury his watch back,” Renner said.

“I’ve got the crew alerted, Captain,” Cargill reported. He was standing by the wardroom intercom. “I didn’t tell anyone anything. The crew thinks it’s a drill.”

“Good thinking, Jack. Seriously, everyone, what’s the objection to killing off these vermin? The big Motie did the same thing, and if, as you say, they’re only animals, there must be plenty more of them. We won’t be upsetting the big Moties one whit. Will we?”

“Well, no-oo,” said Sally. “But—”

Rod shook his head decisively. “There are plenty of reasons for killing them, and I haven’t heard any for keeping them around. We can take that as settled, then.”

Horvath shook his head. “But it’s all so drastic, Captain. Just what do we think we’re protecting?”

“The Alderson Drive, directly. Indirectly, the whole Empire, but mainly the Drive,” Cargill said seriously. “And don’t ask me why I think the Empire needs protecting from Moties. I don’t know, but—I think it does.”

“You won’t save the Drive. They’ve already got that,” Renner announced. He gave them all a lopsided smile as everyone in the room swiveled toward him.

“What?!” Rod demanded. “How?”

“Who’s the bloody traitor?” Sinclair demanded. “Name the scum!”

“Whoa! Hold it! Stop already!” Renner insisted. “They already had the Drive, Captain. I only learned an hour ago. It’s all recorded, let me show you.” He stood and went to the big screen. Images flashed across it until Renner found the place he wanted. He turned to the watchful group.

“It’s nice to be the center of attention—” Renner cut off at the sight of Rod’s glare. “This is a conversation between, uh, my Motie and myself. I’ll use split screens to show you both sides of it.” He touched the controls and the screen sprang to life: Renner on MacArthur’s bridge, his Fyunch(click) in the Motie embassy ship. Renner ran it at high speed until he found precisely what he wanted.

“You might have come from anywhere,” said Renner’s Motie. “Though it seems more likely that you came from a nearby star, such as—well, I can point to it.” Stellar images showed on a screen behind the Motie; screen within screens. She pointed with the upper right arm. The star was New Caledonia. “We know that you have an instantaneous drive, because of where you appeared.”

Renner’s image sat forward. “Where we appeared?”

“Yes. You appeared precisely in the…” Renner’s Motie seemed to search for a word. Visibly, she gave up. “Renner, I must tell you of a creature of legend.”

“Say on.” Renner’s image dialed for coffee. Coffee and stories, they went together.

“We will call him Crazy Eddie, if you like. He is a… he is like me, sometimes, and he is a Brown, an idiot savant tinker, sometimes. Always he does the wrong things for excellent reasons. He does the same things over and over, and they always bring disaster, and he never learns.”

There were small sounds of whispering in MacArthur’s wardroom. Renner’s image said, “For instance?”

Renner’s Motie’s image paused to think. It said, “When a city has grown so overlarge and crowded that it is in immediate danger of collapse… when food and clean water flow into the city at a rate just sufficient to feed every mouth, and every hand must work constantly to keep it that way… when all transportation is involved in moving vital supplies, and none is left over to move people out of the city should the need arise… then it is that Crazy Eddie leads the movers of garbage out on strike for better working conditions.”

There was considerable laughter in the wardroom. Renner’s image grinned and said, “I think I know the gentleman. Go on.”

“There is the Crazy Eddie Drive. It makes ships vanish.”

“Great.”

“Theoretically, it should be an instantaneous drive, a key to throw the universe wide open. In practice it makes ships vanish forever. The drive has been discovered and built and tested many times, and always it makes ships vanish forever with everyone aboard, but only if you use it right, mind. The ship must be in just the right place, a place difficult to locate exactly, with the machinery doing just what the theoreticians postulate it must, or nothing will happen at all.”

Both Renners were laughing now. “I see. And we appeared in this point, the Crazy Eddie point. From which you deduce that we have solved the secret of the Crazy Eddie Drive.”

“You got it.”

“And what does that make us?”

The alien parted its lips in a smile disturbingly shark-like, disturbingly human… Renner gave them a good look at that smile before he turned it off.

There was a long silence, then Sinclair spoke. “Well, that’s plain enough, is it not? They ken the Alderson Drive but not the Langston Field.”

“Why do you say that, Commander Sinclair?” Horvath asked. Everyone tried to explain it to him at once, but the Chief Engineer’s burr easily carried through the babble.

“Yon beasties’ ships vanish, but only at the correct place, aye? So they ken the Drive. But they never see the ships back home, because they coom into normal space in yon red star. ‘Tis plain as a pikestaff.”

“Oh.” Horvath nodded sadly. “With nothing to protect them— After all, it is the inside of a star, isn’t it?”

Sally shuddered. “And your Motie said they’d tried it often.” She shuddered again. Then: “But, Mr. Renner—none of the other Moties ever talk about astrogation or anything like that. Mine told me about ‘Crazy Eddie’ as if he were around only in primitive times—a lost legend.”

“And mine spoke of Crazy Eddie as an engineer always using tomorrow’s capital to fix today’s problems,” Sinclair blurted.

“Anyone else?” Rod prompted.

“Well—” Chaplain David Hardy looked embarrassed. His plump face was almost beet-red. “My Motie says Crazy Eddie founds religions. Weird, very logical, and singularly inappropriate religions.”

“Enough,” Rod protested. “I seem to be the only one whose Motie has never mentioned Crazy Eddie.” He looked thoughtful. “We can all agree that the Moties do have the Drive, but not the Field?”

They all nodded. Horvath scratched his ear for a moment, then said, “Now that I remember the history of Langston’s discovery, it’s no surprise that the Moties don’t have the Field. I’m amazed they have the Drive itself, although its principles can be deduced from astrophysical research. The Field, though, was a purely accidental invention.”

“Given that they know it exists, then what?” Rod asked.

“Then— I don’t know,” Horvath said.

There was complete silence in the room. An ominous silence. Finally the bubble burst. Sally was laughing.

“You all look so deadly serious,” she protested. “Suppose they have both Drive and Field? There’s only the one planet full of Moties. They aren’t hostile, but even if they were, do you really think they would be a threat to the Empire? Captain, what could Lenin do to the Mote planet right now, all by itself, if Admiral Kutuzov gave the order?”

The tension broke. Everyone smiled. She was right, of course. The Moties didn’t even have warships. They didn’t have the Field, and if they invented it, how would they learn space-war tactics? Poor peaceful Moties, what challenge could they be to the Empire of Man?

Everyone except Cargill. He wasn’t smiling at all as he said, quite seriously, “I just don’t know, my lady. And I really wish I did.”

Horace Bury was not invited to the conference, although he knew of it. Now, while it was still going on, a Marine guard came to his cabin and politely, but very firmly, ushered him out of it. The guard would not say where he was taking Bury, and after a while it was obvious he did not know.

“The Gunner, he says to stay with you and be ready to take you to where the rest of them is, Mr. Bury.”

Bury slyly examined the man. What would this one do for a hundred thousand crowns? But then, it wasn’t necessary. Not at the moment. Surely Blaine wasn’t going to have him shot. For a moment Bury was frightened. Could they have made Stone talk, back on New Chicago?

By Allah, no one was safe. Absurd. Even if Stone had told everything, there were and could be no messages to MacArthur from the Empire. They were as effectively sealed off as the Moties.

“You are to stay with me. Does your officer say where I am to go?”

“Not right now, Mr. Bury.”

“Then take me to Dr. Buckman’s laboratory. Why not? We will both be more comfortable.”

The private thought about, it. “OK, come on.”

Bury found his friend in an ugly mood. “Pack everything that can’t stand hard vacuum,” Buckman was muttering. “Get everything that can ready for it. No reason. Just do it.” He poked at gadgetry. He had already packed a good deal in boxes and big plastic bags.

Bury’s own tension may have showed. Senseless orders, a guard outside the door… he was feeling like a prisoner again. It took him quite a while to calm Buckman down. Finally the astrophysicist slumped into a chair and lifted a cup of coffee. “Haven’t seen you much,” he said. “Been busy?”

“There is really very little for me to do in this ship. Few tell me anything,” Bury said equably—and that took self-control. “Why must you be ready for hard vacuum here?”

“Hah! I don’t know. Just do it. Try to call the Captain, he’s in conference. Try to complain to Horvath, and he’s in conference. If they aren’t available when you need them, just what use are they, anyway?”

Sounds came through from the corridor outside: heavy things were being moved. What could it be about? Sometimes they evacuated ships to get rid of rats…

That was it! They were killing off the miniatures! Allah be praised, he had acted in time. Bury smiled widely in relief. He had a better idea of the value of the miniatures since the night he had left a box of bhaklavah next to the open faceplate of his personal pressure suit. He’d almost lost it all.

To Buckman he said, “How did you make out in the Trojan point asteroids?”

Buckman looked startled. Then he laughed. “Bury, I haven’t thought about that problem in a month. We’ve been studying the Coal Sack. We’ve found a mass in there… probably a protostar. And an infrared source. The flow patterns in the Coal Sack are fantastic. As if the gas and dust were viscous. Of course it’s the magnetic fields that make it act like that. We’re learning wonderful things about the dynamics of a dust cloud. When I think of the time I wasted on those Trojan point rocks… when the whole problem was so trivial!”

“Well, go on, Buckman. Don’t leave me hanging.”

“Uh? Oh, I’ll show you.” Buckman went to the intercom and read out a string of numbers.

Nothing happened.

“That’s funny. Some idiot must have put a RESTRICTED on it.” Buckman closed his eyes, recited another string of numbers. Photographs appeared on the screen. “Ah. There!”

Asteroids tumbled on the screen, the pictures blurred and jumpy. Some were lopsided, some almost spherical, many marked with craters.

“Sorry about the quality. The near Trojans are a good distance away… but all it took was time and MacArthur’s telescopes. Do you see what we found?”

“Not really. Unless…” All of them had craters. At least one crater. Three long, narrow asteroids in succession, and each had a deep crater at one end. One rock twisted almost into a cashew shape; and the crater was at the inside of the curve. Each asteroid in the sequence had a big deep crater in it; and always a line through the center would have gone through the rock’s center of mass.

Bury felt fear and laughter rising in him. “Yes, I see. You found that every one of those asteroids had been moved into place artificially. Therefore you lost interest.”

“Naturally. When I think that I was expecting to find some new cosmic principle—” Buckman shrugged. He swallowed some coffee.

“I don’t suppose you told anyone?”

“I told Dr. Horvath. Why, do you suppose he put the RESTRICTED designation on it?”

“It may be. Buckman, how much energy do you think it would take to move such a mass of rocks around?”

“Why, I don’t know. A good deal, I think. In fact…” Buckman’s eyes glowed. “An interesting problem. I’ll let you know after this idiocy is over.” He turned back to his gear.

Bury sat where he was, staring at nothing. Presently he began to shiver.

25. The Captain’s Motie

“I appreciate your concern for the safety of the Empire, Admiral,” Horvath said. He nodded sagely at the glowering figure on MacArthur’s bridge screen. “Indeed I do. The fact remains, however, that we either accept the Moties’ invitation or we might as well go home. There’s nothing more to learn out here.”

“You, Blaine. You agree with that?” Admiral Kutuzov’s expression was unchanged.

Rod shrugged. “Sir, I have to take the advice of the scientists. They say that we’ve got about all we’re going to get from this distance.”

“You want to take MacArthur into orbit around the Mote planet, then? That is what you recommend? For the record?”

“Yes, sir. Either that or go home, and I don’t think we know enough about the Moties simply to leave.”

Kutuzov took a long, slow breath. His lips tightened.

“Admiral, you have your job, I have mine,” Horvath reminded him. “It’s all very well to protect the Empire against whatever improbable threat the Moties pose, but I must exploit what we can learn from Motie science and technology. That, I assure you, isn’t trivial. They’re so far advanced, in some respects that I—well, I haven’t any words to describe it, that’s all.”

“Exactly.” Kutuzov emphasized the word by pounding the arm of the command chair with his closed fists. “They have technology, beyond ours. They speak our language and you say we will never speak theirs. They know the Alderson effect, and now they know Langston Fields exist. Perhaps, Dr. Horvath, we should go home. Now.”

“But—” Horvath began.

“And yet,” Kutuzov continued. “I would not like to fight war with these Moties without knowing more about them. What are planetary defenses? Who governs Moties? I notice for all your work you cannot answer that question. You do not even know who is commanding that ship of theirs.”

“True.” Horvath nodded vigorously. “It’s a very strange situation. Sometimes I honestly think they don’t have a commander, but on the other hand they do seem to refer back to their ship for instructions sometimes… and then there’s the sex matter.”

“You play games with me, Doctor?”

“No, no,” Horvath said with irritation. “It’s quite straightforward. All of the Brown-and-whites have been female since their arrival. In addition, the brown female has become pregnant and has given birth to a brown-and-white pup. Now it’s a male.”

“I know of sex changes in aliens. Perhaps one Brown-and-white was male until shortly before embassy ship arrived?”

“We thought of that. But it seems more likely that the Brown-and-whites haven’t been breeding because of population pressure. They all stay female—they may even be mules, since a Brown is mother of one. Crossbreed between the Brown and something else? That would point to a something else aboard the embassy ship.”

“They got an admiral aboard their ship,” Kutuzov said positively. “Just as we do. I knew it. What do you tell them when they ask of me?”

Rod heard a snort behind him and guessed that Kevin Renner was strangling. “As little as possible, sir,” Rod said. “Only that we’re subject to orders from Lenin. I don’t think they know your name, or if there’s one man or a council aboard.”

“Just so.” The Admiral almost smiled. “Just what you know about their command, da? You watch, they got an admiral aboard that ship, and he’s decided he wants you closer to their planet. Now my problem is, do I learn more by letting you go than he learns by getting you there?”

Horvath turned away from the screen and sent a pleading look to Heaven, Its Wonders, and All the Saints. How could he deal with a man like that, the look asked.

“Any sign of little Moties?” Kutuzov asked. “Have you still Brownies aboard His Imperial Majesty’s General Class battle cruiser MacArthur?”

Rod shuddered at the heavy sarcasm. “No, sir. I’ve evacuated the hangar deck and opened everything in it space. Then I put all MacArthur’s passengers and crew into hangar deck and opened up the ship. We fumigated the plant rooms with ciphogene, poured carbon monoxide through all the vents, opened to space again, and after we came back from hangar deck we did the same thing there. The miniatures are dead, Admiral. We have the bodies. Twenty-four of them, to be exact, although we didn’t find one of them until yesterday. It was pretty ripe after three weeks…”

“And there are no signs of Brownies? Or of mice?”

“No, sir. Rats, mice, and Moties—all dead. The other miniature, the one we had caged—it’s dead too, sir. The vet thinks it was old age.”

Kutuzov nodded. “So that problem is solved. What of adult alien you have aboard?”

“It’s sick,” Blaine said. “Same symptoms as the miniature had.”

“Yes, that’s another thing,” Horvath said quickly. “I want to ask the Moties what to do for the sick miner, but Blaine won’t let me without your permission.”

The Admiral reached somewhere off screen. When he faced them again he held a glass of tea, which he blew on noisily. “The others know you have this miner aboard?”

“Yes,” Horvath said. When Kutuzov glared, the Science Minister continued quickly, “They seem to have always known it. None of us told them, I’m sure of that.”

“So they know. Have they asked for the miner? Or to see it?”

“No.” Horvath frowned deeply again. His voice was incredulous. “No, they haven’t. In fact, they haven’t shown the least concern about the miner; no more than they might have for the miniatures—you’ll have seen the pictures of the Moties evacuating their ship, Admiral? They have to kill off the little beasts too. The things must breed like hive rats.” Horvath paused, his brow wrinkled even more deeply. Then, abruptly, “Anyway, I want to ask the others what to do for the sick miner. We can’t just let it die.”

“That might be best for all,” Kutuzov mused. “Oh, very well, Doctor. Ask them. It is hardly admitting anything important about Empire to tell them we do not know proper diet for Moties. But if you ask and they insist on seeing that miner, Blaine, you will refuse. If necessary, miner will die—tragically and suddenly, by accident, but die. Is that clearly understood? It will not talk to other Moties, not now and not ever.”

“Aye aye, sir.” Rod sat impassively in his command chair. Now, do I agree with that? he thought. I should be shocked, but—

“Do you still wish to ask under those circumstances, Doctor?” Kutuzov asked.

“Yes. I expected nothing else from you anyway.” Horvath’s lips were pressed tightly against his teeth. “We now have the main question: the Moties have invited us to take orbit around their planet. Why they have done so is a matter for interpretation. I think it is because they genuinely want to develop trade and diplomatic relations with us, and this is the logical way we should go about it. There is no evidence for any other view. You, of course, have your own theories…”

Kutuzov laughed. It was a deep, hearty laugh. “Actually, Doctor, I may believe same as you. What has that to do with anything? Is my task to keep Empire safe. What I believe has no importance.” The Admiral stared coldly into the screens. “Very well. Captain, I give you discretion to act in this situation. However, you will first arm torpedo-destruct systems for your ship. You understand that MacArthur cannot be allowed to fall into Motie hands?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well. You may go, Captain. We will follow in Lenin. You will transmit records of all information you obtain every hour—and you understand that if there is threat to your ship, I will not attempt to rescue you if there is any possibility of danger to Lenin? That my first duty is to return with information including, if this is so, how you were killed?” The Admiral turned so that he gazed directly at Horvath. “Well, Doctor, do you still want to go to Mote Prime?”

“Of course.”

Kutuzov shrugged. “Carry on, Captain Blaine. Carry on.”

MacArthur’s towboats had retrieved an oil-drum-shape cylinder half the size of the Motie embassy ship. It was very simple: a hard, thick shell of some foamed material heavy with liquid hydrogen, spinning slowly, with a bleeder valve at the axis. Now it was strapped to the embassy ship aft the toroidal living spaces. The slender spine meant to guide the plasma flow for the fusion drive had been altered too, bent far to the side to direct the thrust through the new center of mass. The embassy ship was tilted far back on her drive, like a smaller but very pregnant woman trying to walk.

Moties—Brown-and-whites, guided by one of the Browns—were at work disassembling the air-lock bridge, melting it down, and reshaping the material into ring shaped support platforms for the fragile toroids. Others worked within the ship, and three small brown-and-white shapes played among them. Again the interior changed like dreams. Free-fall furniture was reshaped. Floors were slanted, vertical to the new line of thrust.

There were no Moties aboard the cutter now; they were all at work; but contact was maintained. Some of the midshipmen took their turns doing simple muscle work aboard the embassy ship.

Whitbread and Potter were working in the acceleration chamber, moving the bunks to leave room for three smaller bunks. It was a simple rewelding job, but it took muscle. Perspiration collected in beads inside their filter helmets, and soaked their armpits.

Potter said, “I wonder what a man smells like to a Motie? Dinna answer if you find the question offensive,” he added.

“ ’Tis a bit hard to say,” Potter’s Motie answered. “My duty it is, Mr. Potter, to understand everything about my Fyunch(click). Perhaps I fit the part too well. The smell of clean sweat wouldna offend me even if ye had nae been working in our own interest. What is it ye find funny, Mr. Whitbread?”

“Sorry. It’s the accent.”

“What accent is that?” Potter wondered.

Whitbread and Whitbread’s Motie burst out laughing. “Well, it is funny,” said Whitbread’s Motie. “You used to have trouble telling us apart.”

“Now it’s the other way around,” Jonathon Whitbread said. “I have to keep counting hands to know if I’m talking to Renner or Renner’s Motie. Give me a hand here, will you, Gavin?… And Captain Blaine’s Motie. I have to keep shaking myself out of the Attention position, and then she’ll say something and I’ll snap right back into it. She’ll give orders like she’s master of the cutter, and we’ll obey, and then she’ll say, ‘Just a minute, Mister,’ and order us to forgive her. It’s confusing.”

“Even so,” said Whitbread’s Motie, “I wonder sometimes whether we’ve really got you figured out. Just because I can imitate you doesn’t mean I can understand you…”

“ ’Tis our standard technique, as old as the hills, as old as some mountain ranges. It works. What else can we do, Jonathan Whitbread’s Fyunch(click)?”

“I wondered, that’s all. These people are so versatile. We can’t match all of your abilities, Whitbread. You find it easy to command and easy to obey; how can you do both? You’re good with tools—”

“So are you,” said Whitbread, knowing it was an understatement.

“But we tire easily. You’re ready to go on working, aren’t you? We’re not.”

“And we aren’t good at fighting… Well, enough of that. We play your part in order to understand you, but you each seem to play a thousand parts. It makes things difficult for an honest, hardworking bug-eyed monster.”

“Who told you about bug-eyed monsters?” Whitbread exclaimed.

“Mr. Renner, who else? I took it as a compliment—that he would trust my sense of humor, that is.”

“Dr. Horvath would kill him. We’re supposed to be tippy-toe careful in our relationship with aliens. Don’t offend taboos, and all that.”

“Dr. Horvath,” Potter said. “I am reminded that Dr. Horvath wanted us to ask you something. Ye’ know that we have a Brown aboard MacArthur.”

“Sure. A miner. Her ship visited MacArthur, then came home empty. It was pretty obvious she’d stayed with you.”

“She’s sick,” Potter said. “She has been growing worse. Dr. Blevins says it has the marks of a dietary disease, but he has nae been able to help her. Hae you any idea what it is that she might lack?”

Whitbread thought he knew why Horvath had not asked his Motie about the Brown; if the Moties demanded to see the miner, they must be refused on orders from the Admiral himself. Dr. Horvath thought the order was stupid; he would never be able to defend it. Whitbread and Potter were not called upon to try. Orders were orders.

When the Moties did not answer at once, Jonathon said, “Between them the biologists have tried a lot of things. New foods, analysis of the Brown’s digestive fluids, x-rays for tumor. They even changed the atmosphere in her cabin to match the Mote Prime atmosphere. Nothing works. She’s unhappy, she whines, she doesn’t move around much. She’s getting thin. Her hair is coming out.

Whitbread’s Motie spoke in a voice gone oddly flat. “You haven’t any idea what might be wrong with her?”

“No,” said Whitbread.

It was strange and uncomfortable, the way the Moties were looking at them. They seemed identical now, floating half-crouched, anchored by hand holds: identical pose, identical markings, identical faint smiles. Their individual identities didn’t show now. Perhaps it was all a pose—

“We’ll get you some food,” Potter’s Motie said suddenly. “You may hae guessed right. It may be her diet.”

Both Moties left. Presently Whitbread’s Motie returned with a pressure bag that contained grain and plum-sized fruits and a chunk of red meat. “Boil the meat, soak the grain, and give her the fruit raw,” she said. “And test the ionization in her cabin air.” She ushered them out.

The boys boarded an open scooter to return to the cutter. Presently Potter said, “They behaved verra strangely. I canna but think that something important happened a minute ago.”

“Yah.”

“Then what was it?”

“Maybe they think we’ve been mistreating the Brown. Maybe they wonder why we won’t bring her here. Maybe the other way around: they’re shocked that we take so much trouble for a mere Brown.”

“And perhaps they were tired and we imagined it.” Potter fired thruster clusters to slow the scooter.

“Gavin. Look behind us.”

“Not now. I must see to the safety o’ my command.” Potter took his time docking the scooter, then looked around.

More than a dozen Moties had been working outside the ship. The bracing for the toroids was conspicuously unfinished… but the Moties were all streaming into the airlock.

The Mediators came streaming into the toroid, bouncing gently from the walls in their haste to get out of each other’s way. Most of them showed in one way or another that they were Fyunch(click) to aliens. They tended to underuse their lower right arms. They wanted to line themselves with their heads pointing all in the same direction.

The Master was white. The tufts at her armpits and groin were long and silky, like the fur of an Angora cat. When they were all there, the Master turned to Whitbread’s Motie and said, “Speak.”

Whitbread’s Motie told of the incident with the midshipmen. “I’m certain they meant it all,” she concluded.

To Potter’s Motie the Master said, “Do you agree?”

“Yes, completely.”

There was a panicky undercurrent of whispers, some Motie tongues, some in Anglic. It cut off when the Master said, “What did you tell them?”

“We told them the disease might well be a diet deficiency—”

There was shocked human-sounding laughter amoung the Mediators, none at all among the few who had not been assigned Fyunch(click)s.

“—and gave them food for the Engineer. It will not help, of course.”

“Were they fooled?”

“Difficult to tell. We are not good at lying directly. It is not our specialty,” said Potter’s Motie.

A buzz of talk rose in the toroid. The Master allowed it for a time. Presently she spoke. “What can it mean? Speak of this.”

One answered. “They cannot be so different from us. They fight wars. We have heard hints of whole planets rendered uninhabitable.”

Another interrupted. There was something gracefully human—feminine, in the way she moved. It seemed grotesque to the Master. “We think we know what causes humans to fight. Most animals on our world and theirs have a surrender reflex that prevents one member of a species from killing another. Humans use weapons instinctively. It makes the surrender reflex too slow.”

“But it was the same with us, once,” said a third. “Evolution of the Mediator mules put an end to that. Do you say that humans do not have Mediators?”

Sally Fowler’s Motie said, “They have nothing that bred for the task of communicating and negotiating between potential enemies. They are amateurs at everything, second-best at everything they do. Amateurs do their negotiating. When negotiations break down, they fight.”

“They are amateurs at playing Master, too,” one said. Nervously she stroked the center of her face. “They take turns at playing Master. In their warships they station Marines between fore and aft, in case the aft section should wish to become masters of the ship. Yet, when Lenin speaks, Captain Blaine obeys like a Brown. It is,” she said, “difficult to be Fyunch(click) to a part-time Master.”

“Agreed,” said Whitbread’s Motie. “Mine is not a Master, but will be someday.”

Another said, “Our Engineer has found much that needs improvement in their tools. There is now no class to fit Dr. Hardy—”

“Stop this,” said the Master, and the noise stopped. “Our concern is more specific. What have you learned of their mating habits?”

“They do not speak of this to us. Learning will be difficult. There seems to be only one female aboard.”

“ONE female?”

“To the best that we can learn.”

“Are the rest neuters, or are most neuters?”

“It would seem that they are not. Yet the female is not pregnant, has not been pregnant at any time since our arrival.”

“We must learn,” said the Master. “But you must also conceal. A casual question. It must be asked very carefully, to reveal as little as possible. If what we suspect is true—can it be true?”

One said, “All of evolution is against it. Individuals that survive to breed must carry the genes for the next generation. How, then—?”

“They are alien. Remember, they are alien,” said Whitbread’s Motie.

“We must find out. Select one among you, and formulate your question, and select the human you will ask. The rest of you must avoid the subject unless the aliens introduce it.”

“I think we must conceal nothing.” One stroked the center of her face as if for reassurance. “They are alien. They may be the best hope we have ever had. With their help we may break the ancient pattern of the Cycles.”

The Master showed her surprise. “You will conceal the crucial difference between Man and ourselves. They will not learn of it.”

“I say we must not!” cried the other. “Listen to me! They have their own ways—they solve problems, always—” The others converged on her. “No, listen! You must listen!”

“Crazy Eddie,” the Master said wonderingly. “Confine her in comfort. We will need her knowledge. No other must be assigned to her Fyunch(click), since the strain has driven her mad.”

Blaine let the cutter lead MacArthur to Mote Prime at .780 gee. He was acutely aware that MacArthur was an alien warship capable of devastating half the Motie planet, and did not like to think of what weaponry might be trained on her by uneasy Moties. He wanted the embassy ship to arrive first—not that it would really help, but it might.

The cutter was almost empty now. The scientific personnel were living and working aboard MacArthur, reading endless data into the computer banks, cross-checking and codifying, and reporting their findings to the Captain for transmission to Lenin. They could have reported directly, of course, but there are many privileges to rank. MacArthur’s dinner parties and bridge games tended to become discussion groups.

Everyone was concerned about the brown miner. She became steadily worse, eating as little of the food provided by the Moties as she had of MacArthur’s provisions. It was frustrating, and Dr. Blevins tried endless tests with no results. The miniatures had waxed fat and fecund while loose aboard MacArthur, and Blevins wondered if they had been eating something unexpected, like missile propellant, or the insulation from cables. He offered her a variety of unlikely substances, but the Brown’s eyesight grew dim, her fur came out in patches, and she howled. One day she stopped eating. The next she was dead.

Horvath was beside himself with fury.

Blaine thought it fitting to call the embassy ship. The gently smiling Brown-and-white that answered could only be Horvath’s Motie, although Blaine would have been hard-pressed to say how he knew. “Is my Fyunch(click) available?” Rod asked. Horvath’s Motie made him uncomfortable.

“I’m afraid not, Captain.”

“All right. I called to report that the Brown we had aboard this ship is dead. I don’t know how much it means to you, but we did our best. The entire scientific staff of MacArthur tried to cure her.”

“I’m sure of that, Captain. It doesn’t matter. May we have the body?”

Rod considered it a moment. “I’m afraid not.” He couldn’t guess what the Moties could learn from the corpse of an alien that had never communicated when alive; but perhaps he was learning from Kutuzov. Could there have been microtattooing below the fur…? And why weren’t the Moties more concerned about the Brown? That was something he certainly couldn’t ask. Best to be thankful they weren’t upset. “Give my regards to my Fyunch(click).”

“I have bad news also,” said Horvath’s Motie. “Captain, you no longer have a Fyunch(click). She has gone mad.”

“What?” Rod was more shocked than he would have believed. “Mad? Why? How?”

“Captain, I don’t imagine you can grasp what a strain it has been for her. There are Moties who give orders and there are Moties who make and fix tools. We are neither: we communicate. We can identify with a giver of orders and it is no strain, but an alien giver of orders? It was too much. She— How shall I put it? Mutiny. Your word is mutiny. We have none. She is safe and under confinement, but it is best for her that she does not speak with aliens again.”

“Thank you,” Rod said. He watched the gently smiling image fade from the screen and did nothing more for five minutes. Finally he sighed and began dictating reports for Lenin. He worked alone and it was as if he had lost a part of himself and was waiting for it to come back.

PART THREE

Meet Crazy Eddie

26. Mote Prime

MOTE PRIME: Marginally habitable world in the Trans-Coalsack Sector. Primary: G2 yellow dwarf star approximately ten parsecs from the Trans-Coalsack Sector Capital New Caledonia. Generally referred to as the Mote in Murcheson’s Eye (q.v.) or the Mote. Mass 0.91 Sol; luminosity 0.78 Sol.

Mote Prime has a poisonous atmosphere breathable with the aid of commercial or standard Navy issue filters. Contraindicated for heart patients or where emphysema problems exist. Oxygen: 16 percent. Nitrogen: 79.4 cent. CO2: 2.9 percent. Helium: 1 percent. Complex hydrocarbons including ketones: 0.7 percent.

Gravity: 0.780 standard. The planetary radius is 0.84 and mass is 0.57 Earth standard; a planet of normal density. Period: 0.937 standard years, or 8,750.005 hours. The planet is inclined at 18 degrees with semimajor of 0.93 AU (137 million kilometers). Temperatures cool, poles uninhabitable and covered with ice. Equatorial and tropical regions are temperate to hot. The local day is 27.33 hours.

There is one moon, small and close. It is asteroidal in origin and the back side bears the characteristic indented crater typical of planetoids in the Mote system. The moon-based fusion generator and power-beaming station are critical sources for the Mote Prime civilization.

Topography: 50 percent ocean, not including extensive ice caps. Terrain is flat over most of the land area. Mountain ranges are low and heavily eroded. There are few forests. Arable lands are extensively cultivated.

The most obvious features are circular formations which are visible everywhere. The smallest are eroded to the limits of detection, while the largest can be seen only from orbit.

Although the physical features of Mote Prime are of some interest, particularly to ecologists concerned with the effects of intelligent life on planetography, the primary interest in the Mote centers on its inhabitants.

Two scooters converged at the cutter and suited figures climbed aboard. When both humans and Moties had checked over the ship, the Navy ratings who had brought her to orbit gratefully turned her over to the midshipmen and returned to MacArthur. The middies eagerly took their places in the control cabin and examined the landscape below.

“We’re to tell you that all contact with you will be through this ship,” Whitbread told his Motie. “Sorry, but we can’t invite you aboard MacArthur.”

Whitbread’s Motie gave a very human shrug to express her opinion of orders. Obedience posed no strain on either her or her human. “What will you do with the cutter when you leave?”

“It’s a gift,” Whitbread told her. “Maybe you’ll want it for a museum. There are things the Captain wants you to know about us—”

“And things he wants to conceal. Certainly.”

From orbit the planet was all circles: seas, lakes, an arc of a mountain range, the line of a river, a bay. There was one, eroded and masked by a forest. It would have been undetectable had it not fallen exactly across a line of mountains, breaking the backbone of a continent as a man’s foot breaks a snake. Beyond, a sea the size of the Black Sea showed a flattish island in the exact center.

“The magma must have welled up where the asteroid tore the crust open,” said Whitbread. “Can you imagine the sound it must have made?”

Whitbread’s Motie nodded.

“No wonder you moved all the asteroids out to the Trojan points. That was the reason, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know. Our records are-unt complete from that long ago. I imagine the asteroids must have been easier to mine, easier to make a civilization from, once they were lumped together like that.”

Whitbread remembered that the Beehive had been stone cold without a trace of radiation. “Just how long ago did all this happen?”

“Oh, at least ten thousand years. Whitbread, how old are your oldest records?”

“I don’t know. I could ask someone.” The midshipman looked down. They were crossing the Terminator—which was a series of arcs. The night side blazed with a galaxy of cities. Earth might have looked this way during the CoDominium; but the Empire’s worlds had never been so heavily populated.

“Look ahead.” Whitbread’s Motie pointed to a fleck of flame at the world’s rim. “That’s the transfer ship. Now we can show you our world.”

“I think your civilization must be a lot older than ours,” said Whitbread.

Sally’s equipment and personal effects were packed and ready in the cutter’s lounge, and her minuscule cabin seemed bare and empty now. She stood at the view port and watched the silver arrowhead approach MacArthur. Her Motie was not watching.

“I, um, I have a rather indelicate question,” Sally’s Fyunch(click) said.

Sally turned from the view port. Outside, the Motie ship had come alongside and a small boat was approaching from MacArthur. “Go ahead.”

“What do you do if you don’t want children yet?”

“Oh, dear,” said Sally, and she laughed a little. She was the only woman among nearly a thousand men—and in a male-oriented society. She had known all this before she came, but still she missed what she thought of as girl talk. Marriage and babies and housekeeping and scandals: they were part of civilized life. She hadn’t known how big a part until the New Chicago revolt caught her up, and she missed it even more now. Sometimes in desperation she had talked recipes with MacArthur’s cooks as a poor substitute, but the only other feminine-oriented mind within light years was—her Fyunch(click).

“Fyunch(click),” the alien reminded her. “I wouldn’t raise the subject but I think I ought to know—do you have children aboard MacArthur?”

“Me? No!” Sally laughed again. “I’m not even married.”

“Married?”

Sally told the Motie about marriage. She tried not to skip any basic assumptions. It was sometimes hard to remember that the Motie was an alien. “This must sound a bit weird,” she finished.

“ ‘Come, I will conceal nothing from you,’ as Mr. Renner would say.” The mimicry was perfect, including gestures. “I think your customs are strange. I doubt that we’ll adopt many of them, given the differences in physiology.”

“Well—yes.”

“But you marry to raise children. Who raises children born without marriage?”

“There are charities,” Sally said grimly. Her distaste was impossible to disguise.

“I take it you’ve never…” The Motie paused delicately.

“No, of course not.”

“How not? I don’t mean why not, I mean how?”

“Well—you know that men and women have to have sexual relations to make a baby, the same as you—I’ve examined you pretty thoroughly.”

“So that if you aren’t married you just don’t—get together?”

“That’s right. Of course, there are pills a woman can take if she likes men but doesn’t want to take the consequences.”

“Pills? How do they work? Hormones?” The Motie seemed interested, if somewhat detached.

“That’s right.” They had discussed hormones. Motie physiology employed chemical triggers also, but the chemicals were quite different.

“But a proper woman doesn’t use them,” Sally’s Motie suggested.

“No.”

“When will you get married?”

“When I find the right man.” She thought for a moment, hesitated, and added, “I may have found him already.” And the damn fool may already be married to his ship, she added to herself.

“Then why don’t you marry him?”

Sally laughed. “I don’t want to jump into anything. ‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure.’ I can get married any time.” Her trained objectivity made her add, “Well, any time within the next five years. I’ll be something of a spinster if I’m not married by then.”

“Spinster?”

“People would think it odd.” Curious now, she asked, “What if a Motie doesn’t want children?”

“We don’t have sexual relations,” Sally’s Motie said primly.

There was an almost inaudible clunk as the ground-to-orbit ship secured alongside.

The landing boat was a blunt arrowhead coated with ablative material. The pilot’s cabin was a large wrap-around transparency, and there were no other windows. When Sally and her Motie arrived at the entryway, she was startled to see Horace Bury just ahead of her.

“You’re going down to the Mote, Your Excellency?” Sally asked.

“Yes, my lady.” Bury seemed as surprised as Sally. He entered the connecting tube to find that the Moties had employed an old Navy trick—the tube was pressurize with a lower pressure at the receiving end, so that the passengers were wafted along. The interior was surprisingly large, with room for all: Renner, Sally Fowler, Chaplain Hardy—Bury wondered if they would ship him back up to MacArthur every Sunday—Dr. Horvath, Midshipmen Whitbread and Staley, two ratings Bury did not recognize—and alien counterparts for all but three of the humans. He noted the seating arrangements with an amusement that only partly covered his fears: four abreast, with a Motie seat beside each of the human seats. As they strapped in he was further amused. They were one short.

But Dr. Horvath moved forward into the control cabin and took a seat next to the brown pilot. Bury settled into the front row, where seats were only two abreast—and a Motie took the other. Fear surged into his throat. Allah is merciful, I witness that Allah is One— No! There was nothing to fear and he had done nothing dangerous.

And yet—he was here, and the alien was beside him, while behind him on MacArthur, any accident might bring the ship’s officers to discover what he had done to his pressure suit.

A pressure suit is the most identity-locked artifact a man of space can own. It is far more personal than a pipe or a toothbrush. Yet others had exposed their suits to the ministrations of the unseen Brownies. During the long voyage to Mote Prime, Commander Sinclair had examined the modifications the Brownies had made.

Bury had waited. Presently he learned through Nabil that the Brownies had doubled the efficiency of the recycling systems. Sinclair had returned the pressure suits to their owners—and begun modifying the officers’ suits in a similar fashion.

One of the air tanks on Bury’s suit was now a dummy. It held half a liter of pressurized air and two miniatures in suspended animation. The risks were great. He might be caught. The miniatures might die from the frozen-sleep drugs. Someday he might need air that was not there. Bury had always been willing to take risks for sufficient profit.

When the call came, he had been certain he was discovered. A Navy rating had appeared on his room screen, said, “Call for you, Mr. Bury,” smiled evilly, and switched over. Before he could wonder Bury found himself facing an alien.

“Fyunch(click),” said the alien. It cocked its head and shoulders at him. “You seem confused. Surely you know the term.”

Bury had recovered quickly. “Of course. I was not aware that any Motie was studying me.” He did not like the idea at all.

“No, Mr. Bury, I have only just been assigned. Mr. Bury, have you thought of coming to Mote Prime?”

“No, I doubt that I would be allowed to leave the ship.”

“Captain Blaine has given permission, if you-urr willing. Mr. Bury, we would deeply appreciate your comments regarding the possibilities for trade between the Mote and the Empire. It seems likely we would both profit.”

Yes! Beard of the Prophet, an opportunity like that— Bury had agreed quickly. Nabil could guard the hidden Brownies.

But now, as he sat aboard the landing boat, it was difficult to control his fears. He looked at the alien beside him.

“I am Dr. Horvath’s Fyunch(click),” the Motie said. “You should relax. These boats are well designed.”

“Ah,” said Bury, and he relaxed. The worst was hours away. Nabil had by now safely removed the dummy tank into MacArthur’s main air lock with hundreds of others, and it would be safe. The alien ship was undoubtedly superior to similar human craft, if for no other reason than the Moties’ desire to avoid risk to the human ambassadors. But it was not the trip down that kept fear creeping into his throat until it tasted bright and sharp like new copper—there was a slight lurch. The descent had begun.

To everyone’s surprise it was dull. There were occasional shifts in gravity but no turbulence. Three separate times they felt almost subliminal clunks, as of landing gear coming down—and then there was a rolling sensation. The ship had come to rest.

They filed out into a pressurized chamber. The air was good but scentless, and there was nothing to see but the big inflated structure around them. They looked back at the ship and stared unashamedly.

It was gull-winged now, built like a glider. The edges of the crazy arrowhead had sprouted a bewildering variety of wings and flaps.

“That was quite a ride,” Horvath said jovially as he came to join them. “The whole vehicle changes shape. There aren’t any hinges on the wings—the flaps come out as if they were alive! The jet scoops open and closes like mouths! You really should have seen it. If Commander Sinclair ever comes down we’ll have to give him the window seat,” he chortled. He did not notice the glares.

An inflated air lock opened at the far end of the building, and three brown-and-white Moties entered. Fear rose in Bury’s throat again as they separated, one joining each of the Navy ratings, while the other came directly to Bury.

“Fyunch(click),” it said.

Bury’s mouth was very dry.

“Don’t be afraid,” said the Motie. “I can’t read your mind.”

It was definitely the wrong thing to say if the Motie wanted Bury at ease. “I’m told that is your profession.”

The Motie laughed. “It’s my profession, but I can’t do it. All I will ever know is what you show me.” It didn’t sound at all as Bury sounded to himself. It must have studied humans in general; only that.

“You’re male,” he noticed.

“I am young. The others were female by the time they reached MacArthur. Mr. Bury, we have vehicles outside and a place of residence for you nearby. Come and see our city, and then we can discuss business.” It took his arm in two small right arms, and the touch was very strange. Bury let himself be led to the air lock.

“Don’t be afraid. I can’t read your mind,” it had said, reading his mind. On many rediscovered worlds of the First Empire there were rumors of mind readers, but none had ever been found, praise the mercy of Allah. This thing claimed that it was not; and it was very alien. The touch was not abhorrent, although people of Bury’s culture hated to be touched. He had been among far too many strange customs and peoples to worry about his childhood prejudices. But this Motie was reassuringly strange—and Bury had never heard of anybody’s Fyunch(click) acting that way. Was it trying to reassure him?

Nothing could have lured him but the hope of profit—profit without ceiling, without limit, profit from merely looking around. Even the terraforming of the New Caladonia worlds by the First Empire had not shown the industrial power that must have moved the asteroids to Mote Beta’s Trojan points.

“A good commercial product,” the Motie was saying, “should not be bulky or massive. We should be able to find items scarce here and plentiful in the Empire, or vice versa. I anticipate great profit from your visit…”

They joined the others in the air lock. Large windows showed the airfield. “Blasted show-offs,” Renner muttered to Bury. When the Trader looked at him quizzically Renner pointed. “There’s city all around, and the airport’s got not one meter of extra space.”

Bury nodded. Around the tiny field were skyscrapers, tall and square-built, jammed close together, with only single belt of green running out of the city to the east. If there were a plane crash it would be a disaster—but the Moties didn’t build planes to crash.

There were three ground cars, limousines, two for passengers and one for luggage, and the human seats took up two-thirds of the room in each. Bury nodded reflectively. Moties didn’t mind being crowded together. As soon as they took their seats the drivers, who were Browns, whipped the cars away. The vehicles ran soundlessly, with a smooth feeling of power, and there was no jolt at all. The motors were in the hubs of the tall balloon tires, much like those of cars on Empire worlds.

Tall, ugly buildings loomed above them to shoulder out the sky. The black streets were wide but very crowded and the Moties drove like maniacs. Tiny vehicles passed each other in intricate curved paths with centimeters of clearance. The traffic was not quite silent. There was a steady low hum that might have been all the hundreds of motors sounding together, and sometimes a stream of high-pitched gibberish that might have been cursing.

Once the humans were able to stop wincing away from each potential collision, they noticed that all the other drivers were Browns, too. Most of the cars earned a passenger, sometimes a Brown-and-white, often a pure White. These Whites were larger than the Brown-and-whites, and their fur was very clean and silky—and they were doing all the cursing as their drivers continued in silence.

Science Minister Horvath turned back to the humans in the seats behind him. “I had a look at the buildings as we came down—roof gardens on every one of them. Well, Mr. Renner, are you glad you came? We were expecting a Navy officer, but hardly you.”

“It seemed most reasonable to send me,” Kevin Renner said. “I was the most thoroughly available officer aboard, as the Captain put it. I won’t be needed to chart courses for a while.”

“And that’s why they sent you?” Sally asked.

“No, I think what really convinced the Captain was the way I screamed and cried and threatened to hold my breath. Somehow he got the idea I really wanted to come. And I did.” The way the navigating officer leaned forward in his seat reminded Sally of a dog sticking its head out of a car window into the wind.

They had only just noticed the walkways that ran one floor up along the edges of the buildings, and they could not see the pedestrians well at all. There were more Whites, and Brown-and-whites, and… others.

Something tall and symmetrical came walking like a giant among the Whites. Three meters tall it must have been, with a small, earless head that seemed submerged beneath the sloping muscles of the shoulders. It carried a massive-looking box of some kind under each of two arms. It walked like a juggernaut, steady and unstoppable.

“What’s that?” Renner asked.

“Worker,” Sally’s Motie replied. “Porter. Not very intelligent.”

There was something else Renner strained to see, for its fur was rust-red, as if it had been dipped in blood. It was the size of his own Motie, but with a smaller head, and as it raised and flexed its right hands it showed fingers so long and delicate that Renner thought of Amazon spiders. He touched his Fyunch(click)’s shoulder and pointed. “And that?”

“Physician. Emm Dee,” Renner’s Motie said. “We’re a differentiated species, as you may have gathered by now. They’re all relatives, so to speak.”

“Yah. And the Whites?”

“Givers of orders. There was one aboard ship, as I’m sure you know.”

“Yah, we guessed that.” The Tsar had, anyway. What else was he right about?

“What do you think of our architecture?”

“Ugly. Industrial hideous,” said Renner. “I knew your ideas of beauty would be different from ours, but—on your honor. Do you have a standard of beauty?”

“Come, I will conceal nothing from you. We do, but it doesn’t resemble yours. And I still don’t know what you people see in arches and pillars—”

“Freudian symbolism,” Renner said firmly. Sally snorted.

“That’s what Horvath’s Motie keeps saying, but I’ve never heard a coherent explanation,” Renner’s Motie said. “Meanwhile, what do you think of your vehicles?”

The limousines were radically different from the two-seaters that zipped past them. No two of the two-seaters were alike either—the Moties did not seem to have discovered the advantages of standardization. But all the other vehicles they had seen were tiny, like a pair of motorcycles, while the humans rode in low-slung stream-lined vehicles with soft curves bright with polish.

“They’re beautiful,” said Sally. “Did you design them just for us?”

“Yes,” her Motie replied. “Did we guess well?”

“Perfectly. We’re most flattered,” Sally said. “You must have put considerable expense into… this…” She trailed off. Renner turned to see where she was looking, and gasped.

There had been castles like this in the Tyrolean Alps of Earth. They were still there, never bombed, but Renner had only seen copies on other worlds. Now a fairy-tale castle, graceful with tall spires, stood among the square buildings of the Motie city. At one corner a reaching minaret was circled by a thin balcony.

“What is that place?” Renner asked.

Sally’s Motie answered. “You will stay there. It is pressurized and self-enclosed, with a garage and cars for your convenience.”

Horace Bury spoke into the admiring silence. “You are most impressive hosts.”

From the first they called it the Castle. Beyond question it had been designed and built entirely for them. It was large enough for perhaps thirty people. Its beauty and luxury were in the tradition of Sparta—with a few jarring notes.

Whitbread, Staley, Sally, Drs. Hardy and Horvath—they knew their manners. They kept firm rein on their laughter as their Fyunch(click) s showed them about their respective rooms. Able Spacers Jackson and Weiss were awed to silence and wary of saying something foolish. Horace Bury’s people had rigid traditions of hospitality; aside from that, he found all customs strange except on Levant.

But Renner’s people respected candor; and candor, he had found, made life easier for everyone. Except in the Navy. In the Navy he had learned to keep his mouth shut. Fortunately his Fyunch(click) held views similar to his own.

He looked about the apartment assigned him. Double bed, dresser, large closet, a couch and coffee table, all vaguely reminiscent of the travelogues he had shown the Moties. It was five times the size of his cabin aboard MacArthur.

“Elbow room,” he said with great satisfaction. He sniffed. There was no smell at all. “You do a great job of filtering the planet’s air.”

“Thanks. As for the elbow room—” Renner’s Motie wiggled all her elbows. “We should need more than you, but we don’t.”

The picture window ran from floor to ceiling, wall to wall. The city towered over him; most of the buildings in view were taller than the Castle. Renner found that he was looking straight down a city street toward a magnificent sunset that was all the shades of red. The pedestrian level showed a hurrying horde of colored blobs, mostly Reds and Browns, but also many Whites. He watched for a time, then turned back.

There was an alcove near the head of his bed. He looked into it. It held a dresser and two odd-looking pieces of furniture that Renner recognized. They resembled what the Brown had done to the bed in Crawford’s stateroom.

He asked, “Two?”

“We will be assigned a Brown.”

“I’m going to teach you a new word. It’s called ‘privacy.’ It refers to the human need—”

“We know about privacy.” The Motie did a double take. “You aren’t suggesting it should apply between a man and his Fyunch(click)!”

Renner nodded solemnly.

“But… but… Renner, do you have any respect for tradition?”

“Do I?”

“No. Dammit. All right, Renner. We’ll sling a door there. With a lock?”

“Yah. I might add that the rest probably feel the same way, whether they say so or not.”

The bed, the couch, the table showed none of the familiar Motie innovations. The mattress was a bit too firm, but what the hell. Renner glanced into the bathroom and burst out laughing. The toilet was a free-fall toilet, somewhat changed from those in the cutter; it had a gold flush, carved into the semblance of a dog’s head. The bathtub was… strange.

“I’ve got to try that bathtub,” said Renner.

“Let me know what you think. We saw some pictures of bathtubs in your travelogues, but they looked ridiculous, given your anatomy.”

“Right. Nobody’s ever designed a decent bathtub. There weren’t any toilets in those pictures, were there?”

“Oddly enough, there weren’t.”

“Mmm.” Renner began sketching. When he had finished, his Motie said, “Just how much water do these use?”

“Quite a lot. Too much for space craft.”

“Well, we’ll see what we can do.”

“Oh, and you’d better hang another door between the bathroom and the living room.”

More privacy?”

“Yah.”

Dinner that night was like a formal dinner in Sally’s old home on Sparta, but weirdly changed. The servants—silent, attentive, deferential, guided by the host who in deference to rank was Dr. Horvath’s Motie—were Laborers a meter and a half tall. The food was from MacArthur’s stores—except for an appetizer, which was a melon-like fruit sweetened with a yellow sauce. “We guarantee it nonpoisonous,” said Renner’s Motie. “We’ve found a few foods we can guarantee, and we’re looking for more. But you’ll have to take your chances on the taste.” The sauce killed the melon’s sour taste and made it delicious.

“We can use this as a trade item,” said Bury. “We would rather ship the seeds, not the melon itself. Is it hard to grow?”

“Not at all, but it requires cultivation,” said Bury’s Motie. “We’ll give you the opportunity to test the soil. Have you found other things that might be worth trading?”

Bury frowned, and looked down at his plate. Nobody had remarked on those plates… they were gold: plates, silverware, even the wine goblets, though they were shaped like fine crystal. Yet they couldn’t be gold, because they didn’t conduct heat; and they were simple copies of the plastic free-fall utensils aboard MacArthur’s cutter, even to the trademarks stamped on the edges.

Everyone was waiting for his answer. Trade possibilities would profoundly affect the relationship between Mote and Empire. “On our route to the Castle I looked for signs of luxuries among you. I saw none but those designed specifically for human beings. Perhaps I did not recognize them.”

“I know the word, but we deal very little in luxuries. We—I speak for the givers of orders, of course—we put more emphasis on power, territory, the maintenance of a household and a dynasty. We concern ourselves with providing a proper station in life for our children.”

Bury filed the information: “We speak for the givers of orders.” He was dealing with a servant. No. An agent. He must keep that in mind, and wonder how binding were his Fyunch(click)’s promises. He smiled and said, “A pity. Luxuries travel well. You will understand my problem in finding trade goods when I tell you that it would hardly be profitable to buy gold from you.”

“I thought as much. We must see if we can find something more valuable.”

“Works of art, perhaps?”

“Art?”

“Let me,” said Renner’s Motie. She switched to a high-pitched, warbling language, talked very fast for perhaps twenty seconds, then looked about at the assembled company. “Sorry, but it was quicker that way.”

Bury’s Motie said, “Quite so. I take it you would want the originals?”

“If possible.”

“Of course. To us a copy is as good as the original. We have many museums; I’ll arrange some tours.”

It developed that everyone wanted to go along.

When they returned from dinner, Whitbread almost laughed when he saw there was now a door on the bathroom. His Motie caught it and said, “Mr. Renner had words to say about privacy.” She jerked a thumb at the door that now closed off her alcove.

“Oh, that one wasn’t necessary,” said Whitbread. He was not used to sleeping alone. If he woke in the middle of the night, who would he talk to until he fell asleep again?

Someone knocked on the door. Able Spacer Weiss—from Tabletop, Whitbread recalled. “Sir, may I speak with you privately?”

“Right,” said Whitbread’s Motie, and she withdrew to the alcove. The Moties had caught on to privacy fast. Whitbread ushered Weiss into the room.

“Sir, we’ve got sort of a problem,” Weiss said. “Me and Jackson, that is. We came down to help out, you know, carrying luggage and cleaning up and like that.”

“Right. You won’t be doing any of that. We’ve each been assigned an Engineer type.”

“Yes, sir, but it’s more than that. Jackson and me, we’ve been assigned a Brown each too. And, and—”

“Fyunch(click)’s.”

“Right.”

“Well, there are certain things you can’t talk about.” Both ratings were stationed in hangar deck and wouldn’t know much about Field technology anyway.

“Yes, sir, we know that. No war stories, nothing about ship’s weapons or drive.”

“All right. Aside from that, you’re on vacation. You’re traveling first class, with a servant and a native guide. Enjoy it. Don’t say anything the Tsar would hang you for, don’t bother to ask about the local red-light district, and don’t worry about the expense. Have a ball, and hope they don’t send you up on the next boat.”

“Aye aye, sir.” Weiss grinned suddenly. “You know? This is why I joined the Navy. Strange worlds. This is what the enlistment men promised us.”

“ ‘Golden cities far…’ Me too.”

Afterwards Whitbread stood by the picture window. The city glowed with a million lights. Most of the tiny cars had disappeared, but the streets were alive with huge silent trucks. The pedestrians had slacked off somewhat. Whitbread spotted something tall and spindly that ran among the Whites as if they were stationary objects. It dodged around a huge Porter type and was gone.

27. The Guided Tour

Renner was up before dawn. The Moties chose and set out clothing for him while he was bathing in the remarkable tub. He let their choice stand. He would indulge them; they might be the last nonmilitary servants he would ever have. His sidearm was discreetly laid out with his clothing, and after a lot of thought, Renner buckled it under a civilian jacket woven from some marvelous shining fibers. He didn’t want the weapon, but regulations were regulations.

The others were all at breakfast, watching the dawn through the big picture window. It came on like sunset, in all the shades of red. Mote Prime’s day was a few hours too long. At night they would stay up longer; they would sleep longer in the mornings and still be up at dawn.

Breakfast featured large, remarkably egg-shaped boiled eggs. Inside the shell it was as if the egg came prescrambled, with a maraschino cherry buried off-center. Renner was told that the cherry thing was not worth eating, and he didn’t try.

“The Museum is only a few blocks from here.” Dr. Horvath’s Motie rubbed her right hands briskly together. “Let’s walk. You’ll want warm clothes, I think.”

The Moties all had that problem: which pair of hands to use to imitate human gestures? Renner expected Jackson’s Motie to go psychotic. Jackson was left-handed.

They walked. A cold breeze whipped them from around corners. The sun was big and dim; you could look directly at it this early in the day. Tiny cars swanned six feet below them. The smell of Mote Prime air seeped faintly through the filter helmets, and so did the quiet hum of cars and the fast jabber of Motie voices.

The group of humans moved among crowds of Moties of all colors—and were ignored. Then a group of white furred pedestrians turned a corner and lingered to examine them. They chattered in musical tones and stared curiously.

Bury seemed uncomfortable; he stayed within the group as much as he could. He doesn’t want eye tracks all over him, Renner decided. The Sailing Master found himself being examined by a very pregnant White, the bulge of her child high up above the complexities of the major joint in her back. Renner smiled at her, squatted on his heels, and turned his back to her. His Fyunch(click) sang in low tones, and the White moved closer, then half a dozen white Moties were running a dozen small hands over his vertebrae.

“Right! A little lower,” said Renner. “OK, scratch right there. Ahh.” When the Whites had moved on, Renner stretched his long legs to catch up with the tour. His Motie trotted alongside.

“I trust I will not learn your irreverence,” his Fyunch(click) said.

“Why not?” Renner asked seriously.

“When you are gone there will be other work for us. No, do not be alarmed. If you are capable of satisfying the Navy, I can have no more trouble keeping the givers of orders happy.” There was an almost wistful tone, Renner thought—but he wasn’t sure. If Moties had facial expressions, Renner hadn’t learned them.

The Museum was a good distance ahead of them. Like other buildings it was square-built, but its face was glass or something like it. “We have many places that fit your word ‘museum,’ ” Horvath’s Motie was saying, “in this and other cities. This one was closest and specializes in painting and sculpture.”

A juggernaut loomed over them, three meters tall, and another meter beyond that because of the cargo on its head. It—she, Renner noted from the long, shallow bulge of pregnancy high on her abdomen. The eyes were soft animal eyes, without awareness, and she caught up with them and passed, never slowing.

“Carrying a child doesn’t seem to slow a Motie down,” Renner observed.

Brown-and-white shoulders and heads turned toward him. Renner’s Motie said, “No, of course not. Why should it?”

Sally Fowler took up the task. She tried carefully to explain just how useless pregnant human females were. “It’s one reason we tend to develop male-oriented societies. And—” She was still lecturing on childbirth problems when they reached the Museum.

The doorway would have caught Renner across the bridge of his nose. The ceilings were higher; they brushed his hair. Dr. Horvath had to bend his head.

And the lighting was a bit too yellow.

And the paintings were placed too low.

Conditions for viewing were not ideal. Aside from that, the colors in the paints themselves were off. Dr. Horvath and his Motie conversed with animation following his revelation that blue plus yellow equals green to a human eye. The Motie eye was designed like a human eye, or an octopus eye, for that matter: a globe, an adaptable lens, receptor nerves along the back. But the receptors were different.

Yet the paintings had impact. In the main hall—which had three-meter ceilings and was lined with larger paintings—the tour stopped before a street scene. Here a Brown-and-white had climbed on a car and was apparently haranguing a swarm of Browns and Brown-and-whites, while behind him the sky burned sunset-red. The expressions were all the same flat smile, but Renner sensed violence and looked closer. Many of the crowd carried tools, always in their left hands, and some were broken. The city itself was on fire.

“It’s called ‘Return to Your Tasks.’ You’ll find that the Crazy Eddie theme recurs constantly,” said Sally’s Motie. She moved on before she could be asked to explain further.

The next painting in line showed a quasi-Motie, tall and thin, small-headed, long-legged. It was running out of a forest, at the viewer. Its breath trailed smoky-white behind it. “The Message Carrier,” Hardy’s Motie called it.

The next was another outdoor scene: a score of Browns and Whites eating around a blazing campfire. Animal eyes gleamed red around them. The whole landscape was dark red; and overhead Murcheson’s Eye gleamed against the Coal Sack.

“You can’t tell what they’re thinking and feeling from looking at them, can you? We were afraid of that,” said Horvath’s Motie. “Nonverbal communication. The signals are different with us.”

“I suppose so,” said Bury. “These paintings would all be salable, but none especially so. They would be only curiosities… though quite valuable as such, because of the huge potential market and the limited source. But they do not communicate. Who painted them?”

“This one is quite old. You can see that it was painted on the wall of the building itself, and—”

“But what kind of Motie? Brown-and-whites?”

There was impolite laughter among the Moties. Bury’s Motie said, “You will never see a work of art that was not made by a Brown-and-white. Communication is our specialty. Art is communication.”

“Does a White never have anything to say?”

“Of course. He has a Mediator say it for him. We translate, we communicate. Many of these paintings are arguments, visually expressed.”

Weiss had been trailing along, saying nothing. Renner noticed. Keeping his voice down, he asked the man, “Any comments?”

Weiss scratched his jaw. “Sir, I haven’t been in a museum since grade school… but aren’t some paintings made just to be pretty?”

“Umm.”

There were only two portraits in all the halls of paintings. Brown-and-whites both, they both showed from the waist up. Expression in the Moties must show in body language, not faces. These portraits were oddly lighted and their arms were oddly distorted. Renner thought them evil.

“Evil? No!” said Renner’s Motie. “That one caused the Crazy Eddie probe to be built. And this was the designer of a universal language, long ago.”

“Is it still used?”

“After a fashion. But it fragmented, of course. Languages do that. Sinclair and Potter and Bury don’t speak the same language you do. Sometimes the sounds are similar, but the nonverbal signals are very different.”

Renner caught up with Weiss as they were about to enter the hall of sculpture. “You were right. In the Empire there are paintings that are just supposed to be pretty. Here, no. Did you notice the difference? No landscape without Moties doing something in it. Almost no portraits, and those two were slanted pictures. In fact, everything’s slanted.” He turned to appeal to his Motie. “Right? Those pictures you pointed out, done before your civilization invented the camera. They weren’t straight representations.”

“Renner, do you know how much work goes into a painting?”

“I’ve never tried. I can guess.”

“Then can you imagine anyone going to that much trouble if he doesn’t have something to say?”

“How about ‘mountains are pretty’?” Weiss suggested.

Renner’s Motie shrugged.

The statues were better than the paintings. Differences in pigment and lighting did not intrude. Most did show Moties; but they were more than portraits. A chain of Moties of diminishing size, Porter to three Whites to nine Browns to twenty-seven miniatures? No, they were all done in white marble and had the shape of decision makers. Bury regarded them without expression and said, “It occurs to me that I will need interpretations of any of these before I could sell them anywhere. Or even give them as gifts.”

“Inevitably so,” said Bury’s Motie. “This, for instance, illustrates a religion of the last century. The soul of the parent divides to become the children, and again to become the grandchildren, ad infinitum.”

Another showed a number of Moties in red sandstone. They had long, slender fingers, too many on the left hand, and the left arm was comparatively small. Physicians? They were being killed by a thread of green glass that swept among them like a scythe: a laser weapon, held by something offstage. The Moties were reluctant to talk about it. “An unpleasant event in history,” said Bury’s Motie, and that was that.

Another showed fighting among a few marble Whites and a score of an unrecognizable type done in red sandstone. The red ones were lean and menacing, armed with more than their share of teeth and claws. Some weird machine occupied the center of the melee. “Now that one is interesting,” said Renner’s Motie. “By tradition, a Mediator—one of our own type—may requisition any kind of transportation he needs, from any decision maker. Long ago, a Mediator used his authority to order a time machine built. I can show you the machine, if you will travel to it; it is on the other side of this continent.”

“A working time machine?”

“Not working, Jonathon. It was never completed. His Master went broke trying to finish it.”

“Oh.” Whitbread showed his disappointment.

“It was never tested,” said the Motie. “The basic theory may be flawed.”

The machine looked like a small cyclotron with a cabin inside. It almost made sense, like a Langston Field generator.

“You interest me strangely,” Renner said to his Motie. “You can requisition any transportation, any time?”

“That’s right. Our talent is communication, but our major task is stopping fights. Sally has lectured us on your, let’s say, your racial problems involving weapons and the surrender reflex. We Mediators evolved out of that. We can explain one being’s viewpoint to another. Noncommunication can assume dangerous proportions sometimes—usually just before a war, by one of those statistical flukes that make you believe in coincidence. If one of us can always get to transportation—or even to telephones or radios—war becomes unlikely.”

There were awed expressions among the humans, “Vee-erry nice,” said Renner. Then, “I was wondering whether you could requisition MacArthur.”

“By law and tradition, yes. In practice, don’t be a fool.”

“OK. These things fighting around the time machine—”

“Legendary demons,” Bury’s Motie explained. “They defend the structure of reality.”

Renner remembered ancient Spanish paintings dating from the time of the Black Plague in Europe, paintings of living men and women being attacked by the revived and malevolent dead. Next to the white Moties these red sandstone things had that impossibly lean, bony look, and a malevolence that was almost tangible.

“And why the time machine?”

“The Mediator felt that a certain incident in history had happened because of a lack of communication. He decided to correct it.” Renner’s Motie shrugged with her arms; a Motie couldn’t lift her shoulders. “Crazy Eddie. The Crazy Eddie probe was like that. A little more workable, maybe. A watcher of the sky—a meteorologist, plus some other fields—found evidence that there was life on a world of a nearby star. Right away this Crazy Eddie Mediator wanted to contact them. He tied up enormous amounts of capital and industrial power, enough to affect most of civilization. He got his probe built, powered by a light sail and a battery of laser cannon for—”

“This all sounds familiar.”

“Right. The Crazy Eddie probe was in fact launched toward New Caledonia, much later, and with a different pilot. We’ve been assuming you followed it home.”

“So it worked. Unfortunately the crew was dead, but it reached us. So why are you still calling it the Crazy Eddie probe? Oh, never mind,” said Renner. His Motie was chortling.

Two limousines were waiting for them outside the Museum and stairs had been erected leading down to street level. Tiny two-seater cars zipped around the obstruction without slowing down, and without collisions.

Staley stopped at the bottom. “Mr. Renner! Look!”

Renner looked. A car had stopped alongside a great blank building; for there were no curbs. The brown chauffeur and his white-furred passenger disembarked, and the White walked briskly around the corner. The Brown disengaged two hidden levers at the front, then heaved against the side of the car. It collapsed like an accordian, into something half a meter wide. The Brown turned and followed the white Motie.

“They fold up!” Staley exclaimed.

“Sure they do,” said Renner’s Motie. “Can you imagine the traffic jam if they didn’t? Come on, get in the cars.”

They did. Renner said, “I wouldn’t ride in one of those little death traps for Bury’s own petty-cash fund.”

“Oh, they’re safe. That is,” said Renner’s Motie, “it isn’t the car that’s safe, it’s the driver. Browns don’t have much territorial instinct, for one thing. For another, they’re always fiddling with the car, so nothing’s ever going to fail.”

The limousine started off. Browns appeared behind them and began removing the stairs.

The buildings around them were always square blocks, the streets a rectangular grid. To Horvath the city was clearly a made city, not something that had grown naturally. Someone had laid it out and ordered it built from scratch. Were they all like this? It showed none of the Browns’ compulsion to innovate.

And yet, he decided, it did. Not in basics, but in such things as street lighting. In places there were broad electro luminescent strips along the buildings. In others there were things like floating balloons, but the wind did not move them. Elsewhere, tubes ran along the sides of the streets, or down the center; or there was nothing at all that showed in the daytime.

And those boxlike cars—each was subtly different, in the design of the lights or the signs of repairs or the way the parked cars folded into themselves.

The limousines stopped. “We’re here,” Horvath’s Motie announced. “The zoo. The Life Forms Preserve, to be more exact. You’ll find that it is arranged more for the convenience of the inhabitants than for the spectators.”

Horvath and the rest looked about, puzzled. Tall rectangular buildings surrounded them. There was no open space anywhere.

“On our left. The building, gentlemen, the building! Is there some law against putting a zoo inside a building?”

The zoo, as it developed, was six stories tall, with ceilings uncommonly high for Moties. It was difficult to tell just how high the ceilings were. They looked like sky. On the first floor it was open blue sky, with drifting clouds and a sun that stood just past noon.

They strolled through a steamy jungle whose character changed as they moved. The animals could not reach them, but it was difficult to see why not. They did not seem aware of being penned up.

There was a tree like a huge bullwhip, its handle planted deep in the earth, its lash sprouting clusters of round leaves where it coiled around the trunk. An animal like a giant Motie stood flat-footed beneath it, staring at Whitbread. There were sharp, raking talons on its two right hands, and tusks showed between its lips. “It was a variant of the Porter type,” said Horvath’s Motie, “but never successfully domesticated. You can see why.”

“These artificial environments are astounding!” Horvath exclaimed. “I’ve never seen better. But why not build part of the zoo in the open? Why make an environment when the real environment is already there?”

“I’m not sure why it was done. But it seems to work out.”

The second floor was a desert of dry sand. The air was dry and balmy, the sky baby blue, darkening to yellow brown at the horizon. Fleshy plants with no thorns grew through the sand. Some were the shape of thick lily pads. Many bore the marks of nibbling teeth. They found the beast that had made the tooth marks, a thing like a nude white beaver with square protruding teeth. It watched them tamely as they passed.

On the third floor it was raining steadily. Lightning flashed, illusory miles away. The humans declined to enter, for they had no rain gear. The Moties were half angry, half apologetic. It had not occurred to them that rain would bother humans; they liked it.

“It’s going to keep happening, too,” Whitbread’s Motie predicted. “We study you, but we don’t know you. You’re missing some of the most interesting plant forms too. Perhaps another day when they have the rain turned off…”

The fourth floor was not wild at all. There were even small round houses on distant illusory hills. Small, umbrella-shaped trees grew red and lavender fruits beneath a flat green disc of foliage. A pair of proto-Moties stood beneath one of these. They were small, round, and pudgy, and their right arms seemed to have shrunk. They looked at the tour group with sad eyes, then one reached up for a lavender fruit. Its left arm was just long enough.

“Another unworkable member of our species,” said Horvath’s Motie. “Extinct now except in life forms preserves.” He seemed to want to hurry them on. They found another pair in a patch of melons—the same breed of melon the humans had eaten for dinner, as Hardy pointed out.

In a wide, grassy field a family of things with hooves and shaggy coats grazed placidly—except for one that stood guard, turning constantly to face the visitors.

A voice behind Whitbread said, “You’re disappointed. Why?”

Whitbread looked back in surprise. “Disappointed? No! It’s fascinating.”

“My mistake,” said Whitbread’s Motie. “I think I’d like a word with Mr. Renner. Care to trail along?”

The party was somewhat spread out. Here there was no chance of getting lost, and they all enjoyed the feel of grass beneath their feet: long, coiled green blades, springier than an ordinary lawn, much like the living carpets in houses of the aristocracy and the wealthier traders.

Renner looked amiably about when he felt eyes on him. “Yes?”

“Mr. Renner, it strikes me that you’re a bit disappointed in our zoo.”

Whitbread winced. Renner frowned. “Yah, and I’ve been trying to figure it out. I shouldn’t feel this way. It’s a whole alien world, all compacted for our benefit. Whitbread, you feel it too?”

Whitbread nodded reluctantly.

“Hah! That’s it. It’s an alien world, all compacted for our benefit, right? How many zoos have you seen on how many worlds?”

Whitbread counted in his head. “Six, including Earth.”

“And they were all like this one, except that the illusion is better. We were expecting something a whole order of magnitude different. It isn’t. It’s just another alien world, except for the intelligent Moties.”

“Makes sense,” said Whitbread’s Motie. Perhaps her voice was a little wistful, and the humans remembered that the Moties had never seen an alien world. “Too bad, though,” the Motie said. “Staley’s having a ball. So are Sally and Dr. Hardy, but they’re professionals.”

But the next floor was a shock.

Dr. Horvath was first out of the elevator. He stopped dead. He was in a city street. “I think we have the wrong door…” He trailed off. For a moment he felt that his mind was going.

The city was deserted. There were a few cars in the streets, but they were wrecks, and some showed signs of fire. Several buildings had collapsed, filling the street with mountains of rubble. A moving mass of black chittered at him and moved away in a swarm, away and into dark holes in a slope of broken masonry, until there were none left.

Horvath’s skin crawled. When an alien hand touched his elbow he jumped and gasped.

“What’s the matter, Doctor? Surely you have animals evolved for cities.”

“No,” said Horvath.

“Rats,” said Sally Fowler. “And there’s a breed of lice that lives only on human beings. But I think that’s all.”

“We have a good many,” said Horvath’s Motie. “Perhaps we can show you a few… though they’re shy.”

At a distance the small black beasts were indistinguishable from rats. Hardy snapped a picture of a swarm that was scrambling for cover. He hoped to develop a blowup later. There was a large, flattish beast, almost invisible until they were right in front of it. It was the color and pattern of the brick it was clinging to.

“Like a chameleon,” Sally said. Then she had to explain chameleons.

“There’s another,” Sally’s Motie said. She pointed out a concrete-colored animal clinging to a gray wall. “Don’t try to disturb it. It has teeth.”

“Where do they get their food?”

“Roof gardens. Though they can eat meat. And there’s an insectivore…” She led them to a “rooftop” two meters above street level. There were grain and fruit trees gone riot, and a small, armless biped that fired a coiled tongue over a meter long. It looked as if it had a mouthful of walnuts.

Bitter cold met them on the sixth floor. The sky was leaden gray. Snow blew in flurries across an infinity of icy tundra. Hardy wanted to stay, for there was considerable life in that cold hell; bushes and tiny trees growing through the ice, a large, placid thing that ignored them, a furry, hopping snowshoe rabbit with dish-shaped ears and no front legs. They almost had to use force to get Hardy out; but he would have frozen in there.

Dinner was waiting for them at the Castle: ship’s stores, and slices of a flat green Motie cactus 75 cm across and 3 thick. The red jelly inside tasted almost meaty. Renner liked it, but the others couldn’t eat it at all. The rest they ate like starved men, talking animatedly between mouthfuls. It must have been the extra-long day that made them so hungry.

Renner’s Motie said, “We have some idea what a tourist wants to see in a strange city, at least we know what you show in your travel films. Museums. The place of government. Monuments. Unique architecture. Perhaps the shops and night clubs. Above all, the way of life of the native.” She gestured deprecatingly. “We’ve had to omit some of this. We don’t have any night clubs. Too little alcohol doesn’t do anything to us. Too much kills. You’ll get a chance to hear our music, but frankly, you won’t like it.”

“Government is Mediators meeting to talk. It might be anywhere. The decision makers live where they like, and they generally consider themselves bound by the agreements of their Mediators. You’ll see some of our monuments. As for our way of life, you’ve been studying that for some time.”

“What about the way of life of a White?” Hardy asked. Then his mouth opened in a bone-cracking yawn.

“He’s right,” Hardy’s Motie broke in. “We should be able to see a giver of orders’ family residence at work. It may be that we can get permission—” The alien broke into a high gabble.

The Moties considered. Sally’s Motie said, “It should be possible. We’ll see. In the meantime, let’s call it a day.”

For the time change had caught the humans. Doctors Horvath and Hardy yawned, blinked, looked surprised, made their excuses, and departed. Bury was still going strong. Renner wondered what rotation his planet had. He himself had had enough spacegoing training to adapt to any schedule.

But the party was breaking up. Sally said her good nights and went upstairs, swaying noticeably. Renner suggested folk singing, got no response, and quit.

A spiral stair ran up the tower. Renner turned off into a corridor, following his curiosity. When he reached an air lock he realized that it must lead to the balcony, the flat ring that circled the tower. He did not care to try the Mote Prime air. He wondered if the balcony was meant to be used at all… and then thought of a ring encircling a slender tower, and wondered if the Moties were playing games with Freudian symbolism.

Probably they were. He continued to his room.

Renner thought at first he was in the wrong room. The color scheme was striking: orange and black, quite different from the muted pale browns of this morning. But the pressure suit on the wall was his, his design and rank markings on the chest. He looked about him, trying to decide whether he liked the change.

It was the only change—no, the room was warmer. It had been too cold last night. On a hunch, he crossed the room and checked the Moties’ sleeping alcove. Yes, it was chilly in there.

Renner’s Motie leaned against the doorjamb, watching him with the usual slight smile. Renner grinned shamefacedly. Then he continued his inspection.

The bathroom—the toilet was different. Just as he had sketched it. Wrong; there wasn’t any water in it. And no flush.

What the hell, there was only one way to test a toilet.

When he looked, the bowl was sparkling clean. He poured a glass of water into it and watched it run away without leaving a drop. The bowl was a frictionless surface.

Have to mention this to Bury, he thought. There were bases on airless moons, and worlds where water, or energy for recycling it, was scarce. Tomorrow. He was too sleepy now.

The rotation period of Levant was 28 hours, 40.2 minutes. Bury had adjusted well enough to MacArthur’s standard day, but it is always easier to adjust to a longer day than to a shorter.

He waited while his Fyunch(click) sent their Brown for coffee. It made him miss Nabil… and wonder if the Brown had more of Nabil’s skills. He had already seriously underestimated the power of the Brown-and-whites. Apparently his Motie could commandeer any vehicle on Mote Prime, whether or not it had been built yet; even so, he was an agent for someone Bury had never seen. The situation was complex.

The Brown returned with coffee and another pot, something that poured pale brown and did not steam. “Poisonous? Very likely,” his Fyunch(click) said. “The pollutants might harm you, or the bacteria. It’s water, from outside.”

It was not Bury’s habit to come too quickly to business. An overeager businessman, he felt, was easily gulled. He was not aware of the thousands of years of tradition behind his opinion. Accordingly he and his Motie liaison talked of many things… “ ‘Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings,’ ” he quoted, and he identified all of these, to his Motie’s evident interest. The Motie was particularly interested in the various forms of human government.

“But I don’t think I should read this Lewis Carroll,” he said, “until I know considerably more of human culture.”

Eventually Bury raised the subject of luxuries again.

“Luxuries. Yes, I agree, in principle,” said Bury’s Motie. “If a luxury travels well, it can pay for itself merely in diminished fuel costs. That must be true even with your Crazy Eddie Drive. But in practice there are restrictions between us.”

Bury had already thought of a few. He said, “Tell me of them.”

“Coffee. Teas. Wines. I presume you deal in wines also?”

“Wine is forbidden to my religion.” Bury dealt indirectly in the transfer of wines from world to world, but he could not believe the Moties would want to deal in wines.

“It doesn’t matter. We could not tolerate alcohol, and we do not like the taste of coffee. The same would probably apply to your other luxury foods, though they may be worth a try.”

“And you do not yourselves deal in luxuries?”

“No. In power over others, in safety, in durability of customs and dynasties… as usual, I speak for the givers of orders. We deal in these, for their benefit, but we also deal in diplomacy. We trade durable goods and necessities, skills— What do you think of our works of art?”

“They would sell at good prices, until they became common. But I think our trade will be more in ideas, and designs.”

“Ah?”

“The frictionless toilet, and the principle behind it. Various superconductors, which you fabricate more efficiently than we. We found a sample in an asteroid. Can you duplicate it?”

“I’m sure the Browns will find a way.” The Motie waved a languid hand. “There will be no problem here. You certainly have much to offer. Land for instance. We will want to buy land for our embassies.”

Probably that would be offered gratis, Bury thought. But to this race land would be literally priceless; without the humans they could never have more than they had at the moment. And they would want land for settlements. This world was crowded. Bury had seen the city lights from orbit, a field of light around dark oceans. “Land,” he agreed, “and grain. There are grains that grow beneath suns like yours. We know that you can eat some of them. Might they grow here more efficiently than yours? Bulk food would never be shipped at a profit, but seeds may be.”

“You may also have ideas to sell us.”

“I wonder, your inventiveness is enormous and admirable.”

The Motie waved a hand. “I thank you. But we have not made everything there is to make. We have our own Crazy Eddie Drive, for example, but the force field generator that protects—”

“If I should be shot, you would lose the only merchant in this system.”

“Allah’s— I mean to say, are your authorities really so determined to guard their secrets?”

“Perhaps they will change their minds when they know you better. Besides, I’m not a physicist,” Bury said blandly.

“Ah. Bury, we have not exhausted the subject of art. Our artists have a free hand and ready access to materials, and very little supervision. In principle the exchange of art between Mote and Empire would facilitate communication. We have never yet tried to aim our art at an alien mind.”

“Dr. Hardy’s books and education tapes contain many such works of art.”

“We must study them.” Bury’s Motie sipped contemplatively at his dirty water. “We spoke of coffees and wines. My associates have noticed—how shall I put it?—a strong cultural set toward wines, among your scientists and Navy officers.”

“Yes. Place of origin, dates, labels, ability to travel in free fall, what wines go with what foods.” Bury grimaced. “I have listened, but I know nothing of this. I find it annoying and expensive that some of my ships must move under constant acceleration merely to protect a wine bottle from its own sediments. Why can they not simply be centrifuged on arrival?”

“And coffees? They all drink coffee. Coffee varies according to its genetics, soil, climate, method of roasting. I know this is so. I have seen your stores.”

“I have much greater variety aboard MacArthur. Yes, and there is variety among coffee drinkers. Cultural differences. On an American-descended world like Tabletop they would not touch the oily brew preferred in New Paris, and they find the brew of Levant much too sweet and strong.”

“Ah.”

“Have you heard of Jamaica Blue Mountain? It grows on Earth itself, on a large island; the island was never bombed, and the mutations were weeded out in the centuries following the collapse of the CoDominium. It cannot be bought. Navy ships carry it to the Imperial Palace on Sparta.”

“How does it taste?”

“As I told you, it is reserved for the Royal—” Bury hesitated. “Very well. You know me that well. I would not pay such a price again, but I do not regret it.”

“The Navy misjudges your worth because you lack knowledge of wines.” Bury’s Motie did not seem to be smiling. Its bland expression was a Trader’s: it matched Bury’s own. “Quite foolish of them, of course. If they knew how much there was to learn about coffee—”

“What are you suggesting?”

“You have stores aboard. Teach them about coffee. Use your own stores for the purpose.”

“My stores would not last a week among the officers of a battle cruiser!”

“You would show them a similarity between your culture and theirs. Or do you dislike that idea? No, Bury, I am not reading your mind. You dislike the Navy; you tend to exaggerate the differences between them and you. Perhaps they think the same way?”

“I am not reading your mind.” Bury suppressed the fury building in him—and at that moment he saw it. He knew why the alien kept repeating that phrase. It was to keep him off balance. In a trading situation.

Bury smiled broadly. “A week’s worth of good will. Well, I will try your suggestion when we are back in orbit and I dine aboard MacArthur. Allah knows they have much to learn about coffee. Perhaps I can even teach them how to use their percolators correctly.”

28. Kaffee Klatsch

Rod and Sally sat alone in the Captain’s patrol cabin. The intercom screens were off, and the status board above Rod’s desk showed a neat pattern of green lights. Rod stretched his long legs out and sipped at his drink. “You know, this is about the first time we’ve had alone together since we left New Caledonia. It’s nice.”

She smiled uncertainly. “But we don’t have very long—the Moties are expecting us to come back, and I’ve got dictating to do… How much longer can we stay in the Mote system, Rod?”

Blaine shrugged. “Up to the Admiral. Viceroy Merrill wanted us back as soon as possible, but Dr. Horvath wants to learn more. So do I. Sally, we still don’t have anything significant to report! We don’t know whether the Moties are a threat to the Empire or not.”

“Rod Blaine, will you stop acting like a Regular Navy officer and be yourself? There is not one shred of evidence that the Moties are hostile. We haven’t seen any signs of weapons, or wars, or anything like that—”

“I know,” Rod said sourly. “And that worries me. Sally, have you ever heard of a human civilization that didn’t have soldiers?”

“No, but Moties aren’t human.”

“Neither are ants, but they’ve got soldiers— Maybe you’re right, I’m catching it from Kutuzov. Speaking of which, he wants more frequent reports. You know that every scrap of data gets transmitted raw to Lenin inside an hour? We’ve even sent over samples of Motie artifacts, and some of the modified stuff the Brownies worked on…”

Sally laughed. Rod looked pained for a moment, then joined her. “I’m sorry, Rod. I know it must have been painful to have to tell the Tsar that you had Brownies on your ship—but it was funny!”

“Yeah. Funny. Anyway, we send everything we can to Lenin—and you think I’m paranoid? Kutuzov has everything inspected in space, then sealed into containers filled with ciphogene and parked outside his ship! I think he’s afraid of contamination.” The intercom buzzed. “Oh, damn.” Rod tuned to the screen. “Captain here.”

“Chaplain Hardy to see you, Captain,” the Marine sentry announced. “With Mr. Renner and the scientists.”

Rod sighed and gave Sally a helpless look. “Send them in and send in my steward. I imagine they’ll all want a drink.”

They did. Eventually everyone was seated, and his cabin was crowded. Rod greeted the Mote expedition personnel, then took a sheaf of papers from his desk. “First question: Do you need Navy ratings with you? I understand they’ve nothing to do.”

“Well, there’s no harm in their being there,” Dr. Horvath said. “But they do take up room the scientific staff could use.”

“In other words, no,” Rod said. “Fine. I’ll let you decide which of your people to replace them with, Dr. Horvath. Next point: Do you need Marines?”

“Good heavens, no,” Sally protested. She looked quickly to Horvath, who nodded. “Captain, the Moties are so far from being hostile, they’ve built the Castle for us. It’s magnificent! Why can’t you come down and see it?”

Rod laughed bitterly. “Admiral’s orders. For that matter, I can’t let any officer who knows how to construct a Langston Field go down.” He nodded to himself. “The Admiral and I agree on one point: If you do need help, two Marines won’t be any use—and giving the Moties a chance to work that Fyunch(click) thing on a pair of warriors doesn’t seem like a good idea. That brings up the next point. Dr. Horvath, is Mr. Renner satisfactory to you? Perhaps I should ask him to leave the room while you reply.”

“Nonsense. Mr. Renner has been very helpful. Captain, does your restriction apply to my people? Am I forbidden to take, say, a physicist to Mote Prime?”

“Yes.”

“But Dr. Buckman is counting on going. The Moties have been studying Murcheson’s Eye and the Coal Sack for a long time… how long, Mr. Potter?”

The midshipman squirmed uncomfortably before answering. “Thousands of years, sir,” he said finally. “Only…”

“Only what, Mister?” Rod prompted. Potter was a bit shy, and he’d have to outgrow that. “Speak up.”

“Yes, sir. There are gaps in their observations, Captain. The Moties hae never mentioned the fact, but Dr. Buckman says it is obvious. I would hae said they sometimes lose interest in astronomy, but Dr. Buckman can nae understand that.”

“He wouldn’t,” Rod laughed. “Just how important are those observations, Mr. Potter?”

“For astrophysics, perhaps verra important, Captain. They hae been watching yon supergiant for aye their history as it passed across the Coal Sack. ‘Twill go supernova and then become a black hole—and the Moties say they know when.”

Midshipman Whitbread laughed. Everyone turned to stare at him. Whitbread could hardly control his features. “Sorry, sir—but I was there when Gavin told Buckman about that. The Eye will explode in A.D. 2,774,020 on April 27 between four and four-thirty in the morning, they say. I thought Dr. Buckman was going to strangle himself. Then he started doing his own checking. It took him thirty hours—”

Sally grinned. “And he almost killed the Fyunch(click) doing it,” she added. “Had Dr. Horvath’s Motie translating for him when his own came apart.”

“Yes, but he found out they were right,” Whitbread told them. The midshipman cleared his throat and mimicked Buckman’s dry voice. “Damned close, Mr. Potter. I’ve got the mathematics and observations to prove it.”

“You’re developing a talent for acting, Mr. Whitbread,” First Lieutenant Cargill said. “Pity your work in astrogation doesn’t show a similar improvement. Captain, it seems to me that Dr. Buckman can get everything he needs here. There’s no reason for him to go to the Motie planet.”

“Agreed. Dr. Horvath, the answer is no. Besides—do you really want to spend a week cooped up with Buckman? You needn’t answer that,” he added quickly. “Whom will you take?”

Horvath frowned for a moment. “De Vandalia, I suppose.”

“Yes, please,” Sally said quickly. “We need a geologist. I’ve tried digging for rock samples, and I didn’t learn a thing about the make-up of Mote Prime. There’s nothing but ruins made up of older ruins.”

“You mean they don’t have rocks?” Cargill asked.

“They have rocks, Commander,” she answered. “Granite and lava and basalts, but they aren’t where whatever formed this planet put them. They’ve all been used, for walls, or tiles, or roofs. I did find cores in a museum, but I can’t make much sense out of them.”

“Now wait a minute,” said Rod. “You mean you go out and dig at random, and wherever you dig you find what’s left of a city? Even out in the farm lands?”

“Well, there wasn’t time for many digs. But where I did dig, there was always something else underneath. I never knew when to stop! Captain, there was a city like A.D. 2000 New York under a cluster of adobe huts without plumbing. I think they had a civilization that collapsed, perhaps two thousand years ago.”

“That would explain the observation lapses,” Rod said. “But—they seem brighter than that. Why would they let a civilization collapse?” He looked to Horvath, who shrugged.

“I have an idea,” Sally said. “The contaminants in the air—wasn’t there a problem with pollution from internal combustion engines on Earth sometime during the CoDominium? Suppose the Moties had a civilization based on fossil fuels and ran out? Mightn’t they have dropped back into an Iron Age before they developed fusion power and plasma physics again? They seem to be awfully short on radioactive ores.”

Rod shrugged. “A geologist could help a lot, then—and he has far more need to be on the spot than Dr. Buckman does. I take it that’s settled, Dr. Horvath?”

The Science Minister nodded sourly. “But I still don’t like this Navy interference with our work. You tell him, Dr. Hardy. This must stop.”

The Chaplain linguist looked surprised. He had sat at the back of the room, saying nothing but listening attentively. “Well, I have to agree that a geologist will be more useful on the surface than an astrophysicist, Anthony. And—Captain, I find myself in a unique position. As a scientist I cannot approve of all these restrictions placed on our contact with the Moties. As a representative of the Church I have an impossible task. And as a Navy officer—I think I have to agree with the Admiral.”

Everyone turned toward the portly Chaplain in surprise. “I am astonished, Dr. Hardy,” Horvath said. “Have you seen the smallest evidence of warlike activities on Mote Prime?”

Hardy folded his hands carefully and spoke across the tops of his fingertips. “No. And that, Anthony, is what concerns me. We know the Moties do have wars: the Mediator class was evolved, possibly consciously evolved, to stop them. I do not think they always succeed. So why are the Moties hiding their armaments from us? For the same reason we conceal ours, is the obvious answer, but consider: we do not conceal the fact that we have weapons, or even what their general nature is. Why do they?”

“Probably ashamed of them,” Sally answered. She winced at the look on Rod’s face. “I didn’t really mean it that way—but they have been civilized longer than we have, and they might be embarrassed by their violent past.”

“Possibly,” Hardy admitted. He sniffed his brandy speculatively. “And