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A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows by Poul Anderson. Chapter 17, 18, 19, 20

XVII

—-

Just before their car set down, Flandry protested to Kossara, “God damn

it, why does your parliament have to meet in person? You’ve got holocom

systems. Your politicians could send and receive images … and we

could’ve rigged untraceable methods to call them and give them the facts

last night.”

“Hush, darling.” She laid a hand across his fist. “You know why.

Electronics will do for ornamental relics. The Skupshtina is alive, it

debates and decides real things, the members need intimacies,

subtleties, surprises.”

“But you, you have to go among murderers to reach them.”

“And I fear for you,” she said quietly. “We should both stop.”

He looked long at her, and she at him, in the seat they shared. Beryl

eyes under wide brow and bronze hair, strong fair features though her

smile quivered the least bit, height, ranginess, fullness, the warmth of

her clasp and the summery fragrance of herself: had she ever been more

beautiful? The vitality that surged in her, the serenity beneath, were

no work of a drug; it had simply let her put aside shock, exhaustion,

grief for this while and be altogether Kossara.

“If there is danger today,” she said, “I thank God He lets me be in it

with you.”

He prevented himself from telling her he felt no gratitude. They kissed,

very briefly and lightly because the car was crammed with ychans.

It landed in a parking lot at the edge of Zorkagrad,

None farther in could have accommodated the swarm of battered vehicles

which was arriving. Besides, a sudden appearance downtown might have

provoked alarm and a quick reaction by the enemy. A march ought to have

a calming effect. Flandry and Kossara donned cowled cloaks, which should

hide their species from a cursory glance when they were surrounded by

hemianthropoid xenos, and stepped outside.

A west wind skirled against the sun, whose blaze seemed paled in a pale

heaven. Clouds were brighter; they scudded in flocks, blinding white,

their shadows sweeping chill across the world, off, on, off, on. Winged

animals wheeled and thinly cried. Trees around the lot and along the

street that ran from it–mostly Terran, oak, elm, beech, maple–cast

their outer branches about, creaked, soughed Delphic utterances though

tongue after fire-tongue ripped loose to scrittle off over the pavement.

Rainpuddles wandered and wandered. All nature was saying farewell.

The ychans closed in around the humans. They numbered a good four

hundred, chosen by their steadcaptains as bold, cool-headed, skilled

with the knives, tridents, harpoons, and firearms they bore. Ywodh of

Nanteiwon, appointed their leader by Kyrwedhin before the

parliamentarian returned here, put them in battle-ready order. They

spoke little and showed scant outward excitement, at least to human eyes

or nostrils; such was the way of the Obala. They did not know the ins

and outs of what had happened, nor greatly care. It was enough that

their Gospodar had been betrayed by the enemy of their forefathers, that

his niece had come home to speak truth, and that they were her soldiers.

The wind snapped two standards in their van, star white on blue of Yovan

Matavuly, ax red on gold of Gwyth.

“All set,” Ywodh reported. A shout: “Forward!” He took the lead. Flandry

and Kossara would fain have clasped hands as they walked, but even

surrounded must clutch their cloaks tight against this tricksy air. The

thud of their boots was lost amidst digitigrade slither and click.

At first it was predictable they would encounter nobody. Here was a new

district of private homes and clustered condominium units, beyond the

scope of forcefield generators that offered the inner city some

protection. Residents had sought safer quarters. An occasional militia

squad, on patrol to prevent looting, observed the procession from a

distance but did not interfere.

Farther on, buildings were older, higher, close-packed on streets which

had narrowed and went snakily uphill: red tile roofs, stucco walls of

time-faded gaudiness, signs and emblems hung above doorways, tenements,

offices, midget factories, restaurants, taverns, amusements, a

bulbous-domed parish church, a few big stores and tiny eccentric shops

by the score, the kind of place that ought to have pulsed with traffic

of vehicles and foot, been lively with movement, colors, gestures broad

or sly, words, laughter, whistling, song, sorrow, an accordion or a

fiddle somewhere, pungencies of roast corn and nuts for sale to keep the

passerby warm, oddments in display windows, city men, landmen,

offworlders, vagabonds, students, soldiers, children, grannies, the

unforgettably gorgeous woman whom you know you will never glimpse again

… A few walkers stepped aside, a few standers poised in doorways or

leaned on upper-story sills, warily staring. Now and then a groundcar

detoured. A civilian policeman in brown uniform and high-crowned hat

joined Ywodh; they talked; he consulted his superiors via minicom,

stayed till an aircar had made inspection from above, and departed.

“This is downright creepy,” Flandry murmured to Kossara. “Has everybody

evacuated, or what?”

She passed the question on. Untrained humans could not have conveyed

information accurately in that wise; but soon she told Flandry from

Ywodh: “Early this morning–the organizers must have worked the whole

night–an ispravka started against Imperial personnel. That’s when

ordinary citizens take direct action. Not a riot or lynching. The people

move under discipline, often in their regular Voyska units; remember,

every able-bodied adult is a reservist. Such affairs seldom get out of

control, and may have no violence at all. Offenders may simply be

expelled from an area. Or they may be held prisoner while spokesmen of

the people demand the authorities take steps to punish them. A few

ispravkai have brought down governments. In this case, what’s happened

is that Terrans and others who serve the Imperium were rounded up into

certain buildings: hostages for the Gospodar’s release and the good

behavior of their Navy ships. The Zamok denounced the action as illegal

and bound to increase tension, demanded the crowds disperse, and sent

police. The people stand fast around those buildings. The police haven’t

charged them; no shots have yet been fired on either side.”

“I’ve heard of worse customs,” Flandry said.

Puzzled, she asked, “Shouldn’t the plotters be pleased?”

Flandry shrugged. “I daresay they are. Still, don’t forget the vast

majority of your officials must be patriotic, and whether or not they

prefer independence, consider civil war to be the final recourse. The

top man among them issued that cease-and-desist order.” He frowned.

“But, um, you know, this nails down a lot of our possible helpers, both

citizens and police. The enemy isn’t expecting us. However, if too many

parliament members refuse to board the secession railroad, he’ll have a

clear field for attempting a coup d’etat. Maybe the firebrand who

instigated that, uh, ispravka is a Merseian himself, in human skin.”

The wind boomed between walls.

A minor commotion occurred on the fringes of the troop. Word flew back

and forth. “Chives!” Kossara gasped.

The ychans let him through. He also went cloaked to muffle the fact of

his race from any quick glance. Emerald features were eroded from spare

to gaunt; eyes were more fallow than amber; but when Flandry whooped and

took him by the shoulders, Chives said crisply, “Thank you, sir. Donna

Vymezal, will you allow me the liberty of expressing my sympathy at your

loss?”

“Oh, you dear clown!” She hugged him. Her lashes gleamed wet. Chives

suffered the gesture in embarrassed silence. Flandry sensed within him a

deeper trouble.

They continued through hollow streets. A fighter craft passed low above

chimneys. Air whined and snarled in its wake. “What’ve you been doing?”

Flandry asked. “How’d you find us?”

“If you have no immediate statement or directive for me, sir,” the

precise voice replied, “I will report chronologically. Pursuant to

instructions, I landed at the spaceport and submitted to inspection. My

cover story was approved and I given license, under police registry, to

remain here for a stated period as per my declared business. Interested

in exotics, many townspeople conversed with me while I circulated among

them in the next few planetary days. By pretending to less familiarity

with Homo sapiens than is the case, I gathered impressions of their

individual feelings as respects the present imbroglio. At a more

convenient time, sir, if you wish, I will give you the statistical

breakdown.

“I must confess it was a complete surprise when a Naval patrol entered

my lodgings and declared an intention to take me in custody. Under the

circumstances, sir, I felt conformity would be imprudent. I endeavored

not to damage irreparably men who wore his Majesty’s uniform, and in due

course will return the borrowed blaster you observe me wearing.

Thereupon I took refuge with a gentleman I suspected of vehement

anti-Terran sentiments. May I respectfully request his name and the

names of his associates be omitted from your official cognizance?

Besides their hospitality and helpfulness toward me, they exhibited no

more than a misguided zeal for the welfare of this planet, and indeed I

was the occasion of their first overt unlawful act. They sheltered me

only after I had convinced them I was a revolutionary for my own

society, and that my public designation as a Merseian agent was a

calumny which the Imperialists could be expected to employ against their

kind too. They were persuaded rather easily; I would not recommend them

for the Intelligence Corps. I got from them clothes, disguise materials,

equipment convertible to surveillance purposes, and went about

collecting data for myself.

“They do possess a rudimentary organization. Through this, via a phone

call, my host learned that a large delegation of zmays was moving on the

Capitol. Recalling Donna Vymezal’s accounts of her background, and

trusting she and you had not perished after all, I thought you might be

here. To have this deduction confirmed was … most gratifying, sir.”

Flandry chewed his lip for a while before he said,

“Those were Imperials who came to arrest you? Not Dennitzans?”

“No, sir, not Dennitzans. There could be no mistake.” Chives spoke

mutedly. His thin green fingers hauled the cowl closer around his face.

“You went unmolested for days, and then in a blink–” Flandry’s speech

chopped off. They were at their goal.

Well into Old Town, the party passed between two many-balconied

mansions, out onto a plateau of Royal Hill. Constitution Square opened

before them, broad, slate-flagged, benches, flowerbeds, trees–empty,

empty. In the middle was a big fountain, granite catchbasin, Toman

Obilich and Vladimir locked in bronze combat, water dancing white but

its sound and spray borne off by the wind. Westward buildings stood well

apart, giving a view down across roofs to Lake Stoyan, metal-bright

shimmer and shiver beyond the curve of the world. Directly across the

square was the Capitol, a sprawling, porticoed marble mass beneath a

gilt dome whose point upheld an argent star. A pair of kilometers

further on, a rock lifted nearly sheer, helmeted with the battlements

and banners of the Zamok.

Flandry’s gaze flickered. He identified a large hotel, office buildings,

cafes, fashionable stores, everything antiquated but dignified, the gray

stones wearing well; how many Constitution Squares had he known in his

life? But this lay deserted under wind, chill, and hasty cloud shadows.

A militia squad stood six men on the Capitol verandah, six flanking the

bottom of the stairs; their capes flapped, their rifles gleamed whenever

a sunbeam smote and then went dull again. Aircraft circled far overhead.

Otherwise none save the newcomers were in sight. Yet surely watchers

waited behind yonder shut doors, yonder blank panes: proprietors,

caretakers, maybe a few police–a few, since the turmoil was elsewhere

in town and no disturbance expected here. Who besides? He walked as if

through a labyrinth of mirages. Nothing was wholly what he sensed,

except the blaster butt under his hand and a stray russet lock of

Kossara’s hair.

She had no such dreads. As they trod into the plaza, he heard her

whisper, “Here we go, my brave beloved. They’ll sing of you for a

thousand years.”

He shoved hesitation out of his mind and readied himself to fight.

But no clash came. Despite what they told him when the move was being

planned, he’d more or less awaited behavior like that when a gaggle of

demonstrators wanted to invade a legislative session on any human planet

he knew–prohibition, resistance, then either a riot or one of the sides

yielding. If officialdom conceded in order to avoid the riot, it would

be grudgingly, after prolonged haggling; and whatever protesters were

admitted would enter under strict conditions, well guarded, to meet

indignant stares.

Dennitza, though, had institutionalized if not quite legalized

procedures like the ispravka. Through the officer he met on the way,

Ywodh had explained his band’s intent. Word had quickly reached the

Chief Justice. Four hundred zmays would not lightly descend on

Zorkagrad, claiming to represent the whole Obala; they could be trusted

to be mannerly and not take an unreasonable time to make their points;

urged by Kyrwedhin, a majority in the third house of the Skupshtina

endorsed their demand. No guns greeted them, aside from those of the

corporal’s guard at the entrance; and they bore their own arms inside.

Up the stairs–past armored doors that recalled the Troubles–through an

echoful lobby–into a central chamber where the parliament in joint

session waited–Flandry raked his glance around, seeking menaces to his

woman and shelters for her.

The room was a half ellipsoid. At the far-end focus, a dais bore the

Gospodar’s lectern, a long desk, and several occupied chairs. To right

and left, tiers held the seats of members, widely spaced. Skylights cast

fleetingness of weather into steadiness of fluorescents, making the

polished marble floor seem to stir. On gilt mural panels were painted

the saints and heroes of Dennitza. The lawmakers sat according to their

groupings, Lords in rainbow robes, Folk in tunics and trousers or in

gowns, Zmayi in leather and metal. After the outdoors, Flandry breathed

an air which felt curdled by fear and fury.

Banners dipped to an old man in black who sat behind the lectern. Slowly

the fishers advanced, while unseen telescanners watched on behalf of the

world. In the middle of the floor, the ychans halted. Silence

encompassed them. Flandry’s pulse thuttered.

“Zdravo,” said the Chief Justice, and added a courteous Eriau “Hydhref.”

His hand forgot stateliness, plucked at his white beard. “We have …

let you in … for unity’s sake. My understanding is, your delegation

wishes to speak relevantly to the present crisis–a viewpoint which

might else go unheard. You in turn will, will understand why we must

limit your time to fifteen minutes.”

Ywodh bowed, palms downward, tail curved. Straightening, he let his

quarterdeck basso roll. “We thank the assembly. I’ll need less than

that; but I think you’ll then want to give us more.” Flandry’s eyes

picked out Kyrwedhin. Weird, that the sole Dennitzan up there whom he

knew should bear Merseian genes. “Worthies and world,” Ywodh was saying,

“you’ve heard many a tale of late: how the Emperor wants to crush us,

how a new war is nearly on us because of his folly or his scheming to

slough us off, how his agents rightly or wrongly charged the Gospodar’s

niece Kossara Vymezal with treason and–absolutely wrongly–sold her for

a slave, how they’ve taken the Gospodar himself prisoner on the same

excuse, how they must have destroyed the whole homestead of his

brother-in-law the voivode of Dubina Dolyina to grind out any spark of

free spirit, how our last choices left are ruin or revolution–You’ve

heard this.

“I say each piece of it is false.” He flung an arm in signal. With a

showmanship that humans would have had to rehearse, his followers opened

their ranks. “And here to gaff the lies is Kossara Vymezal, sister’s

daughter to Bodin Miyatovich our Gospodar!”

She bounded from among them, across the floor, onto the dais, to take

her place between the antlers of the lectern. A moan lifted out of the

benched humans, as if the fall wind had made entry; the zmayi uttered a

surflike rumble. “What, what, what is this?” quavered the Chief Justice.

Nobody paid him heed. Kossara raised her head and cried forth so the

room rang:

“Hear me, folk! I’m not back from the dead, but I am back from hell, and

I bear witness. The devils are not Terrans but Merseians and their

creatures. My savior was, is, not a Dennitzan but a Terran. Those who

shout, ‘Independence!’ are traitors not to the Empire but to Dennitza.

Their single wish is to set humans at each other’s throats, till the

Roidhun arrives and picks our bones. Hear my story and judge.”

Flandry walked toward her, Chives beside him. He wished it weren’t too

disturbing to run. Nike of Samothrace had not borne a higher or more

defenseless pride than she did. They took stance beneath her, facing the

outer door. Her tones marched triumphant:

“–I escaped the dishonor intended me by the grace of God and the

decency of this man you see here, Captain Sir Dominic Flandry of his

Majesty’s service. Let me tell what happened from the beginning. Have I

your leave, worthies?”

“Aye!”

Gunshots answered. Screams flew ragged. A blaster bolt flared outside

the chamber.

Flandry’s weapon jumped free. The tiers of the Skupshtina turned into a

yelling scramble. Fifty-odd men pounded through the doorway. Clad like

ordinary Dennitzans, all looked hard and many looked foreign. They bore

firearms.

“Get down, Kossara!” Flandry shouted. Through him ripped: Yes, the enemy

did have an emergency force hidden in a building near the square, and

somebody in this room used a minicom to bring them. The Revolutionary

Committee–they’ll take over, they’ll proclaim her an impostor–

He and Chives were on the dais. She hadn’t flattened herself under the

lectern. She had gone to one knee behind it, sidearm in hand, ready to

snipe. The attackers were deploying around the room. Two dashed by

either side of the clustered, bewildered fishers.

Their blaster beams leaped, convergent on the stand. Its wood exploded

in flame, its horns toppled. Kossara dropped her pistol and fell back.

Chives pounced zigzag. A bolt seared and crashed within centimeters of

him. He ignored it; he was taking aim. The first assassin’s head became

a fireball. The second crumpled, grabbed at the stump of a leg, writhed

and shrieked a short while. Chives reached the next nearest, wrapped his

tail around that man’s neck and squeezed, got an elbow-beaking

single-arm lock on another, hauled him around for a shield and commenced

systematic shooting.

“I say,” he called through the din to Ywodh, “you chaps might pitch in a

bit, don’t you know.”

The steadcaptain bellowed. His slugthrower hissed. A male beside him

harpooned a foeman’s belly. Then heedless of guns, four hundred big

seafarers joined battle.

Flandry knelt by Kossara. From bosom to waist was seared bloody

wreckage. He half raised her. She groped after him with hands and eyes.

“Dominic, darling,” he barely heard, “I wish–” He heard no more.

For an instant he imagined revival, life-support machinery, cloning …

No. He’d never get her to a hospital before the brain was gone beyond

any calling back of the spirit. Never.

He lowered her. I won’t think yet. No time. I’d better get into that

fight. The ychans don’t realize we need a few prisoners.

Dusk fell early in fall. Above the lake smoldered a sunset remnant.

Otherwise blue-black dimness drowned the land. Overhead trembled a few

stars; and had he looked from his office window aloft in the Zamok,

Flandry could have seen city lights, spiderwebs along streets and single

glows from homes. Wind mumbled at the panes.

Finally granted a rest, he sat back from desk and control board, feeling

his chair shape its embrace to his contours. Despite the drugs which

suppressed grief, stimulated metabolism, and thus kept him going,

weariness weighted every cell. He had turned off the fluoros. His

cigarette end shone red. He couldn’t taste the smoke, maybe because the

dark had that effect, maybe because tongue and palate were scorched.

Well, went his clockwork thought, that takes care of the main business.

He had just been in direct conversation with Admiral da Costa. The

Terran commander appeared reasonably well convinced of the good faith of

the provisional government whose master, for all practical purposes,

Flandry had been throughout this afternoon. Tomorrow be would discuss

the Gospodar’s release. And as far as could be gauged, the Dennitzan

people were accepting the fact they had been betrayed. They’d want a

full account, of course, buttressed by evidence; and they wouldn’t

exactly become enthusiastic Imperialists; but the danger of revolution

followed by civil war seemed past.

So maybe tomorrow I can let these chemicals drain out of me, let go my

grip and let in my dead. Tonight the knowledge that there was no more

Kossara reached him only like the wind, an endless voice beyond the

windows. She had been spared that, he believed, had put mourning quite

from her for the last span, being upheld by urgency rather than a need

to go through motions, by youth and hope, by his presence beside her.

Whereas I–ah, well, I can carry on. She’d’ve wanted me to.

The door chimed. What the deuce? His guards had kept him alone among

electronic ghosts. Whoever got past them at last in person must be

authoritative and persuasive. He waved at an admit plate and to turn the

lights back on. Their brightness hurt his eyes.

A slim green form in a white kilt entered, bearing a tray where stood

teapot, cup, plates and bowls of food. “Your dinner, sir,” Chives

announced.

“I’m not hungry,” said the clockwork. “I didn’t ask for–”

“No, sir. I took the liberty.” Chives set his burden down on the desk.

“Allow me to remind you, we require your physical fitness.”

Her planet did. “Very good, Chives.” Flandry got down some soup and

black bread. The Shalmuan waited unobtrusively.

“That did help,” the man agreed. “You know, give me the proper pill and

I might sleep.”

“You–you may not wish it for the nonce, sir.”

“What?” Flandry sharpened his regard. Chives had lost composure. He

stood head lowered, tail a-droop, hands hard clasped: miserable.

“Go on,” Flandry said. “You’ve gotten me nourished. Tell me.”

The voice scissored off words: “It concerns those personnel, sir, whom

you recall the townsmen took into custody.”

“Yes. I ordered them detained, well treated, till we can check them out

individually. What of them?”

“I have discovered they include one whom I, while a fugitive,

ascertained had come to Zorkagrad several days earlier. To be frank,

sir, this merely confirmed my suspicion that such had been the case. I

must have been denounced by a party who recognized your speedster at the

port and obtained the inspectors’ record of me. This knowledge must then

have made him draw conclusions and recommend actions with respect to

Voivode Vymezal.”

“Well?”

“Needless to say, sir, I make no specific accusations. The guilt could

lie elsewhere than in the party I am thinking of.”

“Not measurably likely, among populations the size we’ve got.” Beneath

the drumhead of imposed emotionlessness, Flandry felt his body stiffen.

“Who?”

Seldom did he see Chives’ face distorted. “Lieutenant Commander Dominic

Hazeltine, sir. Your son.”

XVIII

—–

Two militiamen escorted the prisoner into the office. “You may go,”

Flandry told them.

They stared unsurely from him, standing slumped against night in a

window, to the strong young man they guarded. “Go,” Flandry repeated.

“Wait outside with my servant. I’ll call on the intercom when I want

you.”

They saluted and obeyed. Flandry and Hazeltine regarded each other,

mute, until the door had closed. The older saw an Imperial undress

uniform, still neat upon an erect frame, and a countenance half Persis’

where pride overmastered fear. The younger saw haggardness clad in a

soiled coverall.

“Well,” Flandry said at last. Hazeltine extended a hand. Flandry looked

past it. “Have a seat,” he invited. “Care for a drink?” He indicated

bottle and glasses on his desk. “I remember you like Scotch.”

“Thanks, Dad.” Hazeltine spoke as low, free of the croak in the opposite

throat. He smiled, and smiled again after they had both sat down holding

their tumblers. Raising his, he proposed, “Here’s to us. Damn few like

us, and they’re all dead.”

They had used the ancient toast often before. This time Flandry did not

respond. Hazeltine watched him a moment, grimaced, and tossed off a

swallow. Then Flandry drank.

Hazeltine leaned forward. His words shook. “Father, you don’t believe

that vapor about me. Do you?”

Flandry took out his cigarette case. “I don’t know what else to

believe.” He flipped back the lid. “Somebody who knew Chives and the

Hooligan fingered him. The date of your arrival fits in.” He chose a

cigarette. “And thinking back, I find the coincidence a trifle much that

you called my attention to Kossara Vymezal precisely when she’d reached

Terra. I was a pretty safe bet to skyhoot her off to Diomedes, where she

as an inconvenient witness and I as an inconvenient investigator could

be burked in a way that’d maximize trouble.” He puffed the tobacco into

lighting, inhaled, streamed smoke till it veiled him, and sighed: “You

were overeager. You should have waited till she’d been used at least a

few days, and a reputable Dennitzan arranged for to learn about this.”

“I didn’t–No, what are you saying?” Hazeltine cried.

Flandry toyed with the case. “As was,” he continued levelly, “the only

word which could be sent, since the Gospodar would require proof and is

no fool … the word was merely she’d been sold for a slave. Well, ample

provocation. Where were you, between leaving Terra and landing here? Did

you maybe report straight to Aycharaych?”

Hazeltine banged his glass down on the chair arm. “Lies!” he shouted.

Red and white throbbed across his visage. “Listen, I’m your son. I swear

to you by–”

“Never mind. And don’t waste good liquor. If I’d settled on Dennitza as

I planned, the price we’d’ve paid for Scotch–” Flandry gave his lips a

respite from the cigarette. He waved it. “How were you recruited? By the

Merseians, I mean. Couldn’t be brainscrub. I know the signs too well.

Blackmail? No, implausible. You’re a bright lad who wouldn’t get

suckered into that first mistake they corral you by–a brave lad who’d

sneer at threats. But sometime during the contacts you made in line of

duty–”

Hazeltine’s breath rasped. “I didn’t! How can I prove to you, Father, I

didn’t?”

“Simple,” Flandry said. “You must have routine narco immunization. But

we can hypnoprobe you.”

Hazeltine sagged back. His glass rolled across the floor.

“The Imperial detachment brought Intelligence personnel and their

apparatus, you know,” Flandry continued. “I’ve asked, and they can take

you tomorrow morning. Naturally, any private facts which emerge will

stay confidential.”

Hazeltine raised an aspen hand. “You don’t know–I–I’m

deep-conditioned.”

“By Terra?”

“Yes, of course, of course. I can’t be ‘probed … without my mind being

… destroyed–”

Flandry sighed again. “Come, now. We don’t deep-condition our agents

against giving information to their own people, except occasional

supersecrets. After all, a ‘probe can bring forth useful items the

conscious mind has forgotten. Don’t fear if you’re honest, son. The

lightest treatment will clear you, and the team will go no further.”

“But–oh, no-o-o–”

Abruptly Hazeltine cast himself on his knees before Flandry. Words burst

from his mouth like the sweat from his skin. “Yes, then, yes, I’ve been

working for Merseia. Not bought, nothing like that, I thought the future

was theirs, should be theirs, not this walking corpse of an

Empire–Merciful angels, can’t you see their way’s the hope of humankind

too?–” Flandry blew smoke to counteract the reek of terror. “I’ll

cooperate. I will, I will. I wasn’t evil, Dad. I had my orders about

you, yes, but I hated what I did, and Aycharaych doubted you’d really be

killed, and I knew I was supposed to let that girl be bought first by

somebody else before I told you but when we happened to arrive in time I

couldn’t make myself wait–” He caught Flandry by the knees. “Dad, in

Mother’s name, let my mind live!”

Flandry shoved the clasp aside, rose, stepped a couple of meters off,

and answered, “Sorry. I could never trust you not to leave stuff buried

in your confession that could rise to kill or enslave too many more

young girls.” For a few seconds he watched the crouched, spastic shape.

“I’m under stim and heavy trank,” he said. “A piece of machinery. I’ve a

far-off sense of how this will feel later on, but mostly that’s

abstract. However … you have till morning, son. What would you like

while you wait? Ill do my best to provide it.”

Hazeltine uncoiled. On his feet, he howled, “You cold devil, at least

I’ll kill you first! And then myself!”

He charged. The rage which doubled his youthful strength was not amok;

he came as a karate man, ready to smash a ribcage and pluck out a heart.

Flandry swayed aside. He passed a hand near the other.

Razor-edged, the lid of the cigarette case left a shallow red gash in

the right cheek. Hazeltine whirled for a renewed assault. Flandry gave

ground. Hazeltine followed, boxing him into a corner. Then the knockout

potion took hold. Hazeltine stumbled, reeled, flailed his arms, mouthed,

and caved in.

Flandry sought the intercom. “Come remove the prisoner,” he directed.

Day broke windless and freezing cold. The sun stood in a rainbow ring

and ice crackled along the shores of Lake Stoyan. Zorkagrad lay silent

under bitter blue, as if killed. From time to time thunders drifted

across its roofs, arrivals and departures of spacecraft. They gleamed

meteoric. Sometimes, too, airships whistled by, armored vehicles

rumbled, boots slammed on pavement. About noon, one such vessel and one

such march brought Bodin Miyatovich home.

He was as glad to return unheralded. Too much work awaited him for

ceremonies–him and Dominic Flandry. But the news did go out on the

‘casts; and that was like proclaiming Solstice Feast. Folk ran from

their houses, poured in from the land, left their patrols to shout,

dance, weep, laugh, sing, embrace perfect strangers; and every church

bell pealed.

From a balcony of the Zamok he watched lights burn and bob through

twilit streets, bonfires in squares, tumult and clamor. His breath

smoked spectral under the early stars. Frost tinged his beard. “This

can’t last,” he muttered, and stepped back into the office.

When the viewdoor closed behind him, stillness fell except for chimes

now muffled. The chill he had let in remained a while. Flandry, hunched

in a chair, didn’t seem to notice.

Miyatovich gave the Terran a close regard. “You can’t go on either,” he

said. “If you don’t stop dosing yourself and let your glands and nerves

function normally, they’ll quit on you.”

Flandry nodded. “I’ll stop soon.” From caverns his eyes observed a

phonescreen.

The big gray-blond man hung up his cloak. “I’ll admit I couldn’t have

done what got done today, maybe not for weeks, maybe never, without

you,” he said. “You knew the right words, the right channels; you had

the ideas. But we are done. I can handle the rest.”

He went to stand behind his companion, laying ringers on shoulders,

gently kneading. “I’d like to hide from her death myself,” he said.

“Aye, it’s easier for me. I’d thought her lost to horror, and learned

she was lost in honor. While if you and she–Dominic, listen. I made a

chance to call my wife. She’s at our house, not our town house, a place

in the country, peace, woods, cleanness, healing. We want you there.” He

paused. “You’re a very private man, aren’t you? Well, nobody will poke

into your grief.”

“I’m not hiding,” Flandry replied in monotone. “I’m waiting. I expect a

message shortly. Then I’ll take your advice.”

“What message?”

“Interrogation results from a certain Mers–Roidhunate agent we

captured. I’ve reason to think he has some critical information.”

“Hoy?” Miyatovich’s features, tired in their own right, kindled. He cast

himself into an armchair confronting Flandry. It creaked beneath his

weight.

“I’m in a position to evaluate it better than anyone else,” the Terran

persisted. “How long does da Costa insist on keeping his ships here ‘in

case we need further help’?–Ah, yes, five standard days, I remember.

Well, I’ll doubtless need about that long at your house; I’ll be numb,

and afterward–

“I’ll take a printout in my luggage, to study when I’m able. Your job

meanwhile will be to … not suppress the report. You probably couldn’t;

besides, the Empire needs every drop of data we can wring out of what

enemy operatives we catch. But don’t let da Costa’s command scent any

special significance in the findings of this particular ‘probe job.”

The Gospodar fumbled for pipe and tobacco pouch. “Why?”

“I can’t guarantee what we’ll learn, but I have a logical suspicion–Are

you sure you can keep the Dennitzan fleet mobilized, inactive, another

couple of weeks?”

“Yes.” Miyatovich grew patient. “Maybe you don’t quite follow the

psychology, Dominic. Da Costa wants to be certain we won’t rebel. The

fact that we aren’t dispersing immediately makes him leery. He hasn’t

the power to prevent us from whatever we decide to do, but he thinks his

presence as a tripwire will deter secessionism. All right, in five

Terran days his Intelligence teams can establish it’s a bogeyman, and he

can accept my explanation that we’re staying on alert for a spell yet in

case Merseia does attack. He’ll deem us a touch paranoid, but he’ll

return to base with a clear conscience.”

“You have to give your men the same reason, don’t you?”

“Right. And they’ll accept it. In fact, they’d protest if I didn’t issue

such an order, Dennitza’s lived too many centuries by the abyss; this

time we nearly went over.”

Miyatovich tamped his pipe bowl needlessly hard. “I’ve gotten to know

you well enough, I believe, in this short while, that I can tell you the

whole truth,” he added. “You thought you were helping me smooth things

out with respect to the Empire. And you were, you were. But my main

reason for quick reconciliation is … to get the Imperials out of the

Zorian System while we still have our own full strength.”

“And you’ll strike back at Merseia,” Flandry said.

The Gospodar showed astonishment. “How did you guess?”

“I didn’t guess. I knew–Kossara. She told me a lot.”

Miyatovich gathered wind and wits. “Don’t think I’m crazy,” he urged.

“Rather, I’ll have to jump around like sodium in the rain, trying to

keep people and Skupshtina from demanding action too loudly before the

Terrans leave. But when the Terrans do–” His eyes, the color of hers,

grew leopard-intent. “We want more than revenge. In fact, only a few of

us like myself have suffered what would have brought on a blood feud in

the old days. But I told you we live on the edge. We have got to show we

aren’t safe for unfriends to touch. Otherwise, what’s next?”

“Nemo me impune lacessit,” Flandry murmured.

“Hm?”

“No matter. Ancient saying. Too damned ancient; does nothing ever change

at the heart?” Flandry shook his head. The chemical barriers were

growing thin. “I take it, then, in the absence of da Costa or some other

Imperial official–who’d surely maintain anything as atavistic as

response to aggression is against policy and must in all events be

referred to the appropriate authorities, in triplicate, for debate–in

the absence of that, as sector governor you’ll order the Dennitzan fleet

on a retaliatory strike.”

Miyatovich nodded. “Yes.”

“Have you considered the consequences?”

“I’ll have time to consider them further, before we commit. But … if

we choose the target right, I don’t expect Merseia will do more than

protest. The fact seems to be, at present they are not geared for war

with Terra. They were relying on a new civil war among us. If instead

they get hit, the shock ought to make them more careful about the whole

Empire.”

“What target have you in mind?”

Miyatovich frowned, spent a minute with a lighter getting his pipe

started, finally said, “I don’t yet know. The object is not to start a

war, but to punish behavior which could cause one. The Roidhunate

couldn’t write off a heavily populated planet. Nor would I lead a

genocidal mission. But, oh, something valuable, maybe an industrial

center on a barren metal-rich globe–I’ll have the War College study

it.”

“If you succeed,” Flandry warned, “you’ll be told you went far beyond

your powers.”

“That can be argued. Those powers aren’t too well defined, are they? I

like to imagine Hans Molitor will sympathize.” The Gospodar shrugged.

“If not, what becomes of me isn’t important. I’m thinking of the

children and grandchildren.”

“Uh-huh. Well, you’ve confirmed what–Hold on.” The phone buzzed.

Flandry reached to press accept. He had to try twice before he made it.

A countenance half as stark as his looked from the screen. “Lieutenant

Mitchell reporting, sir. Hypnoprobing of the prisoner Dominic Hazeltine

has been completed.”

“Results?” The question was plane-flat.

“You predicted aright, sir. The subject was deep-conditioned.” Mitchell

winced at a recollection unpleasant even in his line of work. “I’d never

seen or heard of so thorough a treatment. He went into shock almost at

once. In later stages, the stimuli necessary were–well, he hasn’t got a

forebrain left to speak of.”

“I want a transcript in full,” Flandry said. “Otherwise, you’re to seal

the record, classified Ultimate Secret, and your whole team will keep

silence. I’ll give you a written directive on that, authorized by

Governor Miyatovich.”

“Yes, sir.” Mitchell showed puzzlement. He must be wondering why the

emphasis. Intelligence didn’t make a habit of broadcasting what it

learned. Unless–“Sir, you realize, don’t you, this is still raw

material? More incoherent than usual, too, because of the brain

channeling. We did sort out his basic biography, details of his most

recent task, that kind of thing. Offhand, the rest of what we got seems

promising. But to fit the broken, scrambled association chains together,

interpret the symbols and find their significance–”

“I’ll take care of that,” Flandry snapped. “Your part is over.”

“Yes, sir.” Mitchell dropped his gaze. “I’m … sorry … on account of

the relationship involved. He really did admire you. Uh, what shall we

do about him now?”

Flandry fell quiet. Miyatovich puffed volcanic clouds. Outside, the

bells caroled.

“Sir?”

“Let me see him,” Flandry said.

Interlinks flickered. In the screen appeared the image of a young man,

naked on a bed, arms spreadeagled to meet the tubes driven into his

veins, chest and abdominal cavities opened for the entry of machines

that kept most cells alive. He stared at the ceiling with eyes that

never moved nor blinked. His mouth dribbled. Click, chug, it said in the

background, click, chug.

Flandry made a noise. Miyatovich seized his hand.

After a while Flandry stated, “Thank you. Switch it off.”

They held Kossara Vymezal in a coldvault until the Imperials had left.

This was by command of the Gospodar, and folk supposed the reason was

she was Dennitza’s, nobody else’s, and said he did right. As many as

were able would attend her funeral.

The day before, she was brought to the Cathedral of St. Clement, though

none save kin were let near. Only the four men of her honor guard were

there when Dominic Flandry came.

They stood in uniform of the Narodna Voyska, heads lowered, rifles

reversed, at the corners of her bier. He paid them no more mind than he

did the candles burning in tall holders, the lilies, roses, viyenatz

everywhere between, their fragrance or a breath of incense or the

somehow far-off sound of a priest chanting behind the iconostasis, which

filled the cool dim air. Alone he walked over the stones to her. Evening

sunlight slanted through windows and among columns, filtered to a domed

ceiling, brought forth out of dusk, remote upon gold and blue, the

Twelve Apostles and Christ Lord of All.

At first he was afraid to look, dreading less the gaping glaring

hideousness he had last seen–that was only what violent death

wrought–than the kind of rouged doll they made when Terran bodies lay

in state. Forcing himself, he found that nothing more had been done than

to cleanse her, close the eyes, bind the chin, gown and garland her. The

divided coffin lid showed her down to the bosom. The face he saw was

hers, hers, though color was gone and time had eased it into an inhuman

serenity.

This makes me a little happier, dear, he thought. I didn’t feel it was

fitting that they mean to build you a big tomb on Founders’ Hill. I

wanted your ashes strewn over land and sea, into sun and wind. Then if

ever I came back here I could dream every brightness was yours. But they

understand what they do, your people. A corner of his mouth bent upward.

It’s I who am the sentimental old fool. Would you laugh if you could

know?

He stooped closer. You believed you would know, Kossara. If you do,

won’t you help me believe too–believe that you still are?

His sole answer was the priest’s voice rising and falling through

archaic words. Flandry nodded. He hadn’t expected more. He couldn’t keep

himself from telling her, I’m sorry, darling.

And I won’t kiss what’s left, I who kissed you. He searched among his

languages for the best final word. Sayonara. Since it must be so.

Stepping back a pace, he bowed three times very deeply, turned, and

departed.

Bodin Miyatovich and his wife waited outside. The weather was milder

than before, as if a ghost of springtime flitted fugitive ahead of

winter. Traffic boomed in the street. Walkers cast glances at the three

on the stairs, spoke to whatever companions they had, but didn’t stop;

they taught good manners on Dennitza.

Draga Miyatovich took Flandry by the elbow. “Are you well, Dominic?” she

asked anxiously. “You’ve gone pale.”

“No, nothing,” he said. “I’m recovering fast, thanks to your kindness.”

“You should rest. I’ve noticed you hour after hour poring over that

report–” She saw his expression and stopped her speech.

In a second he eased his lips, undamped his fists, and raised memory of

what he had come from today up against that other memory. “I’d no

choice,” he said. To her husband: “Bodin, I’m ready to work again. With

you. You see, I’ve found your target.”

The Gospodar peered around. “What? Wait,” he cautioned.

“True, we can’t discuss it here,” Flandry agreed. “Especially, I

suppose, on holy ground … though she might not have minded.”

She’d never have been vindictive. But she’d have understood how much

this matters to her whole world: that in those broken mutterings of my

son’s I found what I thought I might find, the coordinates of Chereion,

Aycharaych’s planet.

XIX

The raiders from Dennitza met the guardians of the red sun, and

lightning awoke.

Within the command bridge of the Vatre Zvezda, Bodin Miyatovich stared

at a display tank. Color-coded motes moved around a stellar globe to

show where each vessel of his fleet was–and, as well as scouts and

instruments could learn, each of the enemy’s–and what it did and when

it died. But their firefly dance, of some use to a lifelong

professional, bewildered an unskilled eye; and it was merely a sideshow

put on by computers whose real language was numbers. He swore and looked

away in search of reality.

The nearest surrounded him in metal, meters, intricate consoles,

flashing signal bulbs, dark-uniformed men who stood to their duties, sat

as if wired in place, walked back and forth on rubbery-shod feet.

Beneath a hum of engines, ventilators, a thousand systems throughout the

great hull, their curt exchanges chopped. To stimulate them, it was cool

here, with a thunderstorm tang of ozone.

The Gospodar’s gaze traveled on, among the view-screens which studded

bulkheads, overhead, deck–again, scarcely more than a means for keeping

crew who did not have their ship’s esoteric senses from feeling trapped.

Glory brimmed the dark, stars in glittering flocks and Milky Way shoals,

faerie-remote glimmer of nebulae and a few sister galaxies. Here in the

outer reaches of its system, the target sun was barely the brightest, a

coal-glow under Bellatrix. At chance moments a spark would flare and

vanish, a nuclear burst close enough to see. But most were too distant;

and never another vessel showed, companion or foe. Such was the scale of

the battle.

And yet it was not large as space combats went. Springing from

hyperdrive to normal state, the Dennitzan force–strong, but hardly an

armada–encountered Merseian craft which sought to bar it from

accelerating inward. As more and more of the latter drew nigh and

matched courses with invaders, action spread across multimillions of

kilometers. Hours passed before two or three fighters came so near, at

such low relative speeds, that they could hope for a kill; and often

their encounter was the briefest spasm, followed by hours more of

maneuver. Those gave time to make repairs, care for the wounded, pray

for the dead.

“They’ve certainly got protection,” Miyatovich growled. “Who’d have

expected this much?”

Scouts had not been able to warn him. The stroke depended altogether on

swiftness. Merseian observers in the neighborhood of Zoria had surely

detected the fleet’s setting out. Some would have gone to tell their

masters, others would have dogged the force, trying to learn where it

was bound. (A few of those had been spotted and destroyed, but not

likely all.) No matter how carefully plotted its course, and no matter

that its destination was a thinly trafficked part of space, during the

three-week journey its hyperwake must have been picked up by several

travelers who passed within range. So many strange hulls together,

driving so hard through Merseian domains, was cause to bring in the

Navy.

If Miyatovich was to do anything to Chereion, he must get there, finish

his work, and be gone before reinforcements could arrive. Scouts of his,

prowling far in advance near a sun whose location seemed to be the

Roidhunate’s most tightly gripped secret, would have carried too big a

risk of giving away his intent. He must simply rush in full-armed, and

hope.

“We can take them, can’t we?” he asked.

Rear Admiral Raich, director of operations, nodded.

“Oh, yes. They’re outnumbered, outgunned. I wonder why they don’t

withdraw.”

“Merseians aren’t cowards,” Captain Yulinatz, skipper of the

dreadnaught, remarked. “Would you abandon a trust?”

“If my orders included the sensible proviso that I not contest lost

cases when it’s possible to scramble clear and fight another day–yes, I

would,” Raich said. “Merseians aren’t idiots either.”

“Could they be expecting help?” Miyatovich wondered. He gnawed his

mustache and scowled.

“I doubt it,” Raich replied. “We know nothing significant can reach us

soon.” He did keep scouts far-flung throughout this stellar vicinity,

now that he was in it. “They must have the same information to base the

same conclusions on.”

Flandry, who stood among them, his Terran red-white-and-blue gaudy

against their indigo or gray, cleared his throat. “Well, then,” he said,

“the answer’s obvious. They do have orders to fight to the death. Under

no circumstances may they abandon Chereion. If nothing else, they must

try to reduce our capability of damaging whatever is on the planet.”

“Bonebrain doctrine,” Raich grunted.

“Not if they’re guarding something vital,” Miyatovich said. “What might

it be?”

“We can try for captures,” Yulinatz suggested: reluctantly, because it

multiplied the hazard to his men.

Flandry shook his head. “No point in that,” he declared. “Weren’t you

listening when he talked en route? Nobody lands on Chereion except by

special permission which is damn hard to get–needs approval of both the

regional tribune and the planet’s own authorities, and movements are

severely restricted. I don’t imagine a single one of the personnel we’re

killing and being killed by has come within an astronomical unit of the

globe.”

“Yes, yes, I heard,” Yulinatz snapped. “What influence those beings must

have.”

“That’s why we’ve come to hit them,” the Gospodar said in his beard.

Yulinatz’s glance went to the tank. A green point blinked: a cruiser was

suffering heavily from three enemy craft which paced her. A yellow point

went out, and quickly another: two corvettes lost. His tone grew raw.

“Will it be worth the price to us?”

“That we can’t tell till afterward.” Miyatovich squared his shoulders.

“We could disengage and go home, knowing we’ve thrown a scare into the

enemy. But we’d never know what opportunity we did or did not forever

miss. We will proceed.”

In the end, a chieftain’s main duty is to say, “On my head be it.”

“Gentlemen.”

Flandry’s word brought their eyes to him. “I anticipated some such

quandary,” he stated. “What we need is a quick survey–a forerunner to

get a rough idea of what is on Chereion and report back. Then we can

decide.”

Raich snorted. “We need veto rights over the laws of statistics too.”

“If the guard is this thick at this distance,” Yulinatz added, “what

chance has the best speedster ever built for any navy of getting

anywhere near?”

Miyatovich, comprehending, swallowed hard.

“I brought along my personal boat,” Flandry said. “She was not built for

a navy.”

“No, Dominic,” Miyatovich protested.

“Yes, Bodin,” Flandry answered.

Vatre Zvezda unleashed a salvo. No foes were close. None could match a

Nova-class vessel. She was huge, heavy-armored, intricately

compartmented, monster-powered in engines, weapons, shielding fields,

less to join battle than to keep battle away from the command posts at

her heart. Under present conditions, it was not mad, but it was

unreasonable that she fired at opponents more than a million kilometers

distant. They would have time to track those missiles, avoid them or

blow them up.

The reason was to cover Hooligan’s takeoff.

She slipped from a boat lock, through a lane opened momentarily in the

fields, outward like an outsize torpedo. Briefly in her aft-looking

viewscreens the dreadnaught bulked, glimmering spheroid abristle with

guns, turrets, launch tubes, projectors, sensors, generators, snatchers,

hatches, watchdomes, misshapen moon adrift among the stars. Acceleration

dwindled her so fast that Yovan Vymezal gasped, as if the interior were

not at a steady Dennitzan gravity but the full unbalanced force had

crushed the breath from him.

In the pilot’s chair, Flandry took readings, ran off computations,

nodded, and leaned back. “We won’t make approach for a good

three-quarters of an hour,” he said, “and nothing’s between us and our

nominal target. Relax.” ‘

Vymezal–a young cadre lieutenant of marines, Kossara’s cousin and in a

sturdy male fashion almost unendurably like her–undid his safety web.

He had been invited to the control cabin as a courtesy; come passage

near the enemy destroyer they were aimed at, he would be below with his

dozen men, giving them what comfort he could in their helplessness, and

Chives would be here as copilot. His question came hesitant, not

frightened but shy: “Sir, do you really think we can get past? They’ll

know pretty soon we’re not a torp, we’re a manned vessel. I should think

they won’t be satisfied to take evasive action, they’ll try for a kill.”

“You volunteered, didn’t you? After being warned this is a dangerous

mission.”

Vymezal flushed. “Yes, sir. I wouldn’t beg off if I could. I was just

wondering. You explained it’s not necessarily a suicide mission.”

The odds are long that it is, my boy.

“You said,” the earnest voice stumbled on, “your oscillators are well

enough tuned that you can go on hyper-drive deep into a gravity

well–quite near the sun. You planned to make most of our transit that

way. Why not start at once? Why first run straight at hostile guns? I’m

just wondering, sir, just interested.”

Flandry smiled. “Sure you are,” he replied, “and I’m sorry if you

supposed for a minute I suppose otherwise. The reason is simple. We’ve a

high kinetic velocity right now with respect to Chereion. You don’t lose

energy of relativistic motion merely because for a while you quantum-hop

around the light-speed limit. Somewhere along the line, we have to match

our vector to the planet’s. That’s better done here, where we have elbow

room, than close in, where space may be crammed with defenses. We gain

time–time to increase surprise at the far end–by

A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows

posing as a missile while we adjust our velocity. But a missile should

logically have a target. Within the cone of feasible directions, that

destroyer seemed like our best bet. Let me emphasize, the operative word

is ‘bet.'”

Vymezal eased and chuckled. “Thank you, sir. I’m a dice addict. I know

when to fade.”

“I’m more a poker player.” Flandry offered a cigarette, which was

accepted, and took one for himself. It crossed his mind: how strange he

should still be using the box which had snapped shut on his son, and

give it no particular thought.

Well, why throw away a tool I’d want duplicated later? I’ve been taught

to avoid romantic gestures except when they serve a practical demagogic

purpose.

Vymezal peered ahead at the ruby sun. Yes, his profile against the

star-clouds of Sagittarius was as much like Kossara’s as young Dominic’s

had been like Persis’. What can I write to Persis? Can I? Maybe my

gesture is to carry this cigarette case in my pocket for the rest of my

days.

“What information have we?” the lieutenant almost whispered.

“Very little, and most we collected personally while we approached,”

Flandry said. “Red dwarf star, of course; early type, but still billions

of years older than Sol or Zoria, and destined to outlive them. However,

not unduly metal-poor,” as Diomedes is where I put her at stake for no

more possible win than the damned Empire. “Distribution of higher

elements varies a good bit in both space and time. The system appears

normal for its kind, whatever ‘normal’ may mean: seven identified

planets, Chereion presumably the only vitafer. We can’t predict further;

life has no such thing as a norm. I do expect Chereion will be, m-m,

interesting.”

And not an inappropriate place to leave my bones. Flandry inhaled

acridity and gazed outward. With all the marvels and mysteries yonder,

he wasn’t seeking death. In the last few weeks, his wounds had scarred

over. But scar tissue is not alive. He no longer minded the idea of

death. He wished, though, it had been possible to leave Chives behind,

and Kossara’s cousin.

A magnifying screen emblazoned the Merseian destroyer, spearhead on a

field of stars.

“Torpedo coming, sir,” Chives stated. “Shall I dispose of it?” His

fingers flicked across the gun control board before him. A firebolt

sprang hell-colored. Detector-computer systems signaled a hit. The

missile ceased accelerating. Either its drive was disabled or this was a

programmed trick. In the second case, if Hooligan maintained the same

vector, a moment’s thrust would bring it sufficiently close that

radiation from the exploding warhead could cripple electronics, leave

her helpless and incidentally pass a death sentence on her crew.

“Keep burning till we’re sure,” Flandry ordered. That required a quick

change of course. Engines roared, steel sang under stress,

constellations whirled. He felt his blood tingle and knew he was still a

huntsman.

Flame fountained. A crash went through hull and flesh. The deck heaved.

Shouts came faintly from aft.

Gee-fields restabilized. “The missile obviously had a backup detonator,”

Chives said. “It functioned at a safe remove from us, and our force

screens fended off a substantial piece of debris without harm. Those

gatortails are often inept mechanicians, would you not agree, sir?” His

own tail switched slim and smug.

“Maybe. Don’t let that make you underestimate the Chereionites.” Flandry

studied the readouts before him.

His pulse lifted. They were matched to their goal world. A few minutes

at faster-than-light would bring them there, and–

“Stand by,” he called.

XX

The eeriest thing was that nothing happened.

The planet spun in loneliness around its ember sun. Air made a thin

bordure to its shield, shading from blue to purple to the winter sky of

space. Hues were iron-rusty and desert-tawny, overlaid by blue-green

mottlings, hoar polar caps, fierce glint off the few shrunken seas which

remained. A small, scarred moon swung near.

It had to be the world of Flandry’s search. No other was possible. But

who stood guard? War raved through outer space; here his detectors

registered only a few automatic traffic-control stations in orbit,

easily bypassed. Silence seeped through the hull of his vessel and

filled the pilot’s cabin.

Chives broke it: “Analysis indicates habitability for us is marginal,

sir. Biotypes of the kind which appear to be present–sparsely–have

adapted to existing conditions but could not have been born under them.

Given this feeble irradiation, an immense time was required for the loss

of so much atmosphere and hydrosphere.” He paused. “The sense of age and

desolation is quite overwhelming, sir.”

Flandry, his face in the hood of a scannerscope, muttered, “There are

cities. In good repair, fusion powerplants at work … though putting

out very little energy for complexes their size … The deserts are

barren, the begrown regions don’t look cultivated–too saline, I’d

guess. Maybe the dwellers live on synthetic food. But why no visible

traffic? Why no satellite or ground defenses?”

“As for the former, sir,” Chives ventured, “the inhabitants may

generally prefer a contemplative, physically austere existence. Did not

Aycharaych intimate that to you on various occasions? And as for the

latter question, Merseian ships have maintained a cordon, admitting none

except an authorized few.”

“That is”–the tingle in Flandry sharpened–“if an intruder like us ever

came this close, the game would be up anyway?”

“I do not suggest they have no wiles in reserve, sir.”

“Ye-e-es. The Roidhunate wouldn’t keep watch over pure philosophers.”

Decision slammed into Flandry like sword into sheath. “We can’t learn

more where we are, and every second we linger gives them an extra chance

to notice us and load a trap. We’re going straight down!”

He gave the boat a surge of power.

Nonetheless, his approach was cautious. If naught else, he needed a

while to reduce interior air pressure to the value indicated for the

surface ahead of them. (Sounds grew muffled; pulse quickened; breast

muscles worked enough to feel. Presently he stopped noticing much,

having always taken care to maintain a level of acclimation to thin air.

But he was glad that gravity outside would be weak, about half a gee.)

Curving around the night hemisphere, he studied light-bejeweled towers

set in the middle of rock and sand wastes, wondered greatly at what he

saw, and devised a plan of sorts.

“We’ll find us a daylit place and settle alongside,” he announced on the

intercom. “If they won’t talk to us, we’ll maybe go in and talk to

them.” For his communicator, searching all bands, had drawn no hint of–

No! A screen flickered into color. He looked at the first Chereionite

face he could be certain was not Aycharaych’s. It had the same spare

beauty, the same deep calm, but as many differences of sculpture as

between one human countenance and the next. And from the start, even

before speech began, he felt a … heaviness: nothing of sardonic humor

or flashes of regret.

“Talk the conn, Chives,” he directed. A whistling had begun, and the

badlands were no longer before but below him. Hooligan was an easier

target now than she had been in space; she had better be ready to dodge

and strike back.

“You are not cleared for entry,” said the screen in Eriau which was

mellow-toned but did not sing like Aycharaych’s. “Your action is

forbidden under strict penalties, by command of the Roidhun in person,

renewed in each new reign. Can you offer a justification?”

Huh? jabbed through Flandry. Does he assume this is a Merseian boat and

I a Merseian man? “Em–emergency,” he tried, too astonished to invent a

glib story. He had expected he would declare himself as more or less

what he was, and hold his destination city hostage to his guns and

missiles. Whether or not the attempt could succeed in any degree, he had

no notion. At best he’d thought he might bear away a few hints about the

beings who laired here.

“Have you control over your course?” inquired the voice.

“Yes. Let me speak to a ranking officer.”

“You will go approximately five hundred kilometers northwest of your

immediate position. Prepare to record a map.” The visage vanished, a

chart appeared, two triangles upon it. “The red apex shows where you

are, the blue your mandatory landing site, a spacefield. You will stay

inboard and await instructions. Is this understood?”

“We’ll try. We, uh, we have a lot of speed to kill. In our condition,

fast braking is unsafe. Can you give us about half an hour?”

Aycharaych would not have spent several seconds reaching a decision.

“Permitted. Be warned, deviations may cause you to be shot down.

Proceed.” Nor would he have broken contact with not a single further

inquiry.

Outside was no longer black, but purple. The spacecraft strewed thunder

across desert. “What the hell, sir?” Chives exploded.

“Agreed,” said Flandry. His tongue shifted to an obscure language they

both knew. “Use this lingo while that channel’s open.”

“What shall we do?”

“First, play back any pictures we got of the place we’re supposed to

go.” Flandry’s fingers brushed a section of console. On an inset screen

came a view taken from nearby space under magnification. His trained

eyes studied it and a few additional. “A spacefield, aye, standard

Merseian model, terminal and the usual outbuildings. Modest-sized, no

vessels parked. And way off in wilderness.” He twisted his mustache.

“You know, I’ll bet that’s where every visitor’s required to land. And

then he’s brought in a closed car to a narrowly limited area which is

all he ever sees.”

“Shall we obey, sir?”

“Um, ‘twould be a pity, wouldn’t it, to pass by that lovely city we had

in mind. Besides, they doubtless keep heavy weapons at the port; our

pictures show signs of it. Once there, we’d be at their mercy. Whereas I

suspect that threat to blast us elsewhere was a bluff. Imagine a

stranger pushing into a prohibited zone on a normal planet–when the

system’s being invaded! Why aren’t we at least swarmed by military

aircraft?”

“Very good, sir. We can land in five minutes.” Chives gave his master a

pleading regard. “Sir, must I truly stay behind while you debark?”

“Somebody has to cover us, ready to scramble if need be. We’re

Intelligence collectors, not heroes. If I call you and say, ‘Escape,’

Chives, you will escape.”

“Yes, sir,” the Shalmuan forced out. “However, please grant me the

liberty of protesting your decision not to wear armor like your men.”

“I want the full use of my senses.” Flandry cast him a crooked smile and

patted the warm green shoulder. “I fear I’ve often strained your

loyalty, old chap. But you haven’t failed me yet.”

“Thank you, sir.” Chives stared hard at his own busy hands. “I …

endeavor … to give satisfaction.”

Time swooped past.

“Attention!” cried from the screen. “You are off course! You are in

absolutely barred territory!”

“Say on,” Flandry jeered. He half hoped to provoke a real response. The

voice only denounced his behavior.

A thump resounded and shivered. The tone of wind and engines ceased.

They were down.

Flandry vaulted from his chair, snatched a combat helmet, buckled it on

as he ran. Beneath it he already wore a mindscreen, as did everybody

aboard. Otherwise he was’ attired in a gray coverall and stout leather

boots. On his back and across his chest were the drive cones and

controls of a grav unit. His pouchbelt held field rations, medical

supplies, canteen of water, ammunition, blaster, slugthrower, and

Merseian war knife.

At the head of his dozen Dennitzan marines, he bounded from the main

personnel lock, along the extruded gangway, onto the soil of Chereion.

There he crouched in what shelter the hull afforded and glared around,

fingers on weapons.

After a minute or two he stepped forth. Awe welled in him.

A breeze whispered, blade-sharp with cold and dryness. It bore an iron

tang off uncounted leagues of sand and dust. In cloudless violet, the

sun stood at afternoon, bigger to see than Sol over Terra, duller and

redder than the sun over Diomedes; squinting, he could look straight

into it for seconds without being blinded, and through his lashes find

monstrous dark spots and vortices. It would not set for many an hour,

the old planet turned so wearily.

Shadows were long and purple across the dunes which rolled cinnabar and

ocher to the near horizon. Here and there stood the gnawed stump of a

pinnacle, livid with mineral hues, or a ravine clove a bluff which might

once have been a mountain. The farther desert seemed utterly dead.

Around the city, wide apart, grew low bushes whose leaves glittered in

rainbows as if crystalline. The city itself rose from foundations that

must go far down, must have been buried until the landscape eroded from

around them and surely have needed renewal as the ages swept past.

The city–it was not a giant chaos such as besat Terra or Merseia;

nothing on Chereion was. An ellipse defined it, some ten kilometers at

the widest, proportioned in a right-ness Flandry had recognized from

afar though not knowing how he did. The buildings of the perimeter were

single-storied, slenderly colonnaded; behind them, others lifted ever

higher, until they climaxed in a leap of slim towers. Few windows

interrupted the harmonies of colors and iridescence, the interplay of

geometries that called forth visions of many-vaulted infinity. The heart

rode those lines and curves upward until the whole sight became a silent

music.

Silent … only the breeze moved or murmured.

A time passed beyond time.

“Milostiv Bog,” Lieutenant Vymezal breathed, “is it Heaven we see?”

“Then is Heaven empty?” said another man as low.

Flandry shook himself, wrenched his attention away, sought for his

purposefulness in the ponderous homely shapes of their armor, the guns

and grenades they bore. “Let’s find out.” His words were harsh and loud

in his ears. “This is as large a community as any, and typical insofar

as I could judge.” Not that they are alike. Each is a separate song. “If

it’s abandoned, we can assume they all are.”

“Why would the Merseians guard … relics?” Vymezal asked.

“Maybe they don’t.” Flandry addressed his minicom. “Chives, jump aloft

at the first trace of anything untoward. Fight at discretion. I think we

can maintain radio contact from inside the town. If not, I may ask you

to hover. Are you still getting a transmission?”

“No, sir.” That voice came duly small. “It ceased when we landed.”

“Cut me in if you do … Gentlemen, follow me in combat formation.

Should I come to grief, remember your duty is to return to the fleet if

possible, or to cover our boat’s retreat if necessary. Forward.”

Flandry started off in flat sub-gee bounds. His body felt miraculously

light, as light as the shapes which soared before him, and the air

diamond clear. Yet behind him purred the gravity motors which helped his

weighted troopers along. He reminded himself that they hugged the ground

to present a minimal target, that the space they crossed was

terrifyingly open, that ultimate purity lies in death. The minutes grew

while he covered the pair of kilometers. Half of him stayed cat-alert,

half wished Kossara could somehow, safely, have witnessed this wonder.

The foundations took more and more of the sky, until at last he stood

beneath their sheer cliff. Azure, the material resisted a kick and an

experimental energy bolt with a hardness which had defied epochs. He

whirred upward, over an edge, and stood in the city.

A broad street of the same blue stretched before him, flanked by dancing

rows of pillars and arabesque friezes on buildings which might have been

temples. The farther he scanned, the higher fountained walls, columns,

tiers, cupolas, spires; and each step he took gave him a different

perspective, so that the whole came alive, intricate, simple, powerful,

tranquil, transcendental. But footfalls echoed hollow.

They had gone a kilometer inward when nerves twanged and weapons snapped

to aim. “Hold,” Flandry said. The man-sized ovoid that floated from a

side lane sprouted tentacles which ended in tools and sensors. The lines

and curves of it were beautiful. It passed from sight again on its

unnamed errand. “A robot,” Flandry guessed. “Fully automated, a city

could last, could function, for–millions of years?” His prosiness felt

to him as if he had spat on consecrated earth.

No, damn it! I’m hunting my woman’s murderers.

He trod into a mosaic plaza and saw their forms.

Through an arcade on the far side the tall grave shapes walked,

white-robed, heads bare to let crests shine over luminous eyes and

lordly brows. They numbered perhaps a score. Some carried what appeared

to be books, scrolls, delicate enigmatic objects; some appeared to be in

discourse, mind to mind; some went alone in their meditations. When the

humans arrived, most heads turned observingly. Then, as if having

exhausted what newness was there, the thoughtfulness returned to them

and they went on about their business of–wisdom?

“What’ll we do, sir?” Vymezal rasped at Flandry’s ear.

“Talk to them, if they’ll answer,” the Terran said. “Even take them

prisoner, if circumstances warrant.”

“Can we? Should we? I came here for revenge, but–God help us, what

filthy monkeys we are.”

A premonition trembled in Flandry. “Don’t you mean,” he muttered, “what

animals we’re intended to feel like … we and whoever they guide this

far?”

He strode quickly across the lovely pattern before him. Under an ogive

arch, one stopped, turned, beckoned, and waited. The sight of gun loose

in holster and brutal forms at his back did not stir the calm upon that

golden face. “Greeting,” lulled in Eriau.

Flandry reached forth a hand. The other slipped easily aside from the

uncouth gesture. “I want somebody who can speak for your world,” the man

said.

“Any of us can that,” sang the reply. “Call me, if you wish, Liannathan.

Have you a name for use?”

“Yes. Captain Sir Dominic Flandry, Imperial Navy of Terra. Your

Aycharaych knows me. Is he around?”

Liannathan ignored the question. “Why do you trouble our peace?”

The chills walked faster along Flandry’s spine. “Can’t you read that in

my mind?” he asked.

“Sta pakao,” said amazement behind him.

“Hush,” Vymezal warned the man, his own tone stiff with intensity; and

there was no mention of screens against telepathy.

“We give you the charity of refraining,” Liannathan smiled.

To and fro went the philosophers behind him.

“I … assume you’re aware … a punitive expedition is on its way,”

Flandry said. “My group came to … parley.”

Calm was unshaken. “Think why you are hostile.”

“Aren’t you our enemies?”

“We are enemies to none. We seek, we shape.”

“Let me talk to Aycharaych. I’m certain he’s somewhere on Chereion. He’d

have left the Zorian System after word got beamed to him, or he learned

from broadcasts, his scheme had failed. Where else would he go?”

Liannathan curved feathery brows upward. “Best you explain yourself,

Captain, to yourself if not us.”

Abruptly Flandry snapped off the switch of his mind-screen. “Read the

answers,” he challenged.

Liannathan spread graceful hands in gracious signal. “I told you,

knowing what darkness you must dwell in, for mercy’s sake we will leave

your thoughts alone unless you compel us. Speak.”

Conviction congealed in Flandry, iceberg huge. “No, you speak. What are

you on Chereion? What do you tell the Merseians? I already know, or

think I know, but tell me.”

The response rang grave: “We are not wholly the last of an ancient race;

the others have gone before us. We are those who have not yet reached

the Goal; the bitter need of the universe for help still binds us. Our

numbers are few, we have no need of numbers. Very near we are to those

desires that lie beyond desire, those powers that lie beyond power.”

Compassion softened Liannathan’s words. “Terran, we mourn the torment of

you and yours. We mourn that you can never feel the final reality, the

spirit born out of pain. We have no wish to return you to nothingness.

Go in love, before too late.”

Almost, Flandry believed. His sense did not rescue him; his memories

did. “Yah!” he shouted. “You phantom, stop haunting!”

He lunged. Liannathan wasn’t there. He crashed a blaster bolt among the

mystics. They were gone. He leaped in among the red-tinged shadows of

the arcade and peered after light and sound projectors to smash.

Everywhere else, enormous, brooded the stillness of the long afternoon.

The image of a single Chereionite flashed into sight, in brief white

tunic, bearing though not brandishing a sidearm, palm

uplifted–care-worn, as if the bones would break out from the skin, yet

with life in flesh and great garnet eyes such as had never burned in

those apparitions which were passed away. Flandry halted. “Aycharaych!”

He snatched for the switch to turn his mindscreen back on. Aycharaych

smiled. “You need not bother, Dominic,” he said in Anglic. “This too is

only a hologram.”

“Lieutenant,” Flandry snapped over his shoulder, “dispose your squad

against attack.”

“Why?” said Aycharaych. The armored men gave him scant notice. His form

glimmered miragelike in the gloom under that vaulted roof, where sullen

sunlight barely reached. “You have discovered we have nothing to resist

you.”

You’re bound to have something, Flandry did not reply. A few missiles or

whatever. You’re just unwilling to use them in these environs. Where are

you yourself, and what were you doing while your specters held us quiet?

As if out of a stranger’s throat, he heard: “Those weren’t

straightforward audiovisuals like yours that we met, were they? No

reason for them to put on a show of being present, of being real, except

that none of them ever were. Right? They’re computer-generated

simulacrums, will-o’-the-wisps for leading allies and enemies alike from

the truth. Well, life’s made me an unbeliever.

“Aycharaych, you are in fact the last Chereionite alive. The very last.

Aren’t you?”

Abruptly such anguish contorted the face before him that he looked away.

“What did they die of?” he was asking. “How long ago?” He got no answer.

Instead: “Dominic, we share a soul, you and I. We have both always been

alone.”

For a while I wasn’t; and now she is; she is down in the aloneness which

is eternal. Rage ripped Flandry. He swung back to see a measure of

self-command masking the gaunt countenance. “You must have played your

game for centuries,” he grated. “Why? And … whatever your reason to

hide that your people are extinct … why prey on the living? You, you

could let them in and show them what’d make your Chereionites the …

Greeks of the galaxy–but you sit in a tomb or travel like a

vampire–Are you crazy, Aycharaych? Is that what drives you?”

“No!”

Flandry had once before heard the lyric voice in sorrow. He had not

heard a scream: “I am not! Look around you. Who could go mad among

these? And arts, music, books, dreams–yes, more, the loftiest spirits

of a million years–they lent themselves to the scanners, the

recorders–If you could have the likenesses to meet whenever you would

… of Gautama Buddha, Kung Fu-Tse, Rabbi Hillel, Jesus the Christ, Rumi

… Socrates, Newton, Hokusai, Jefferson, Gauss, Beethoven, Einstein,

Ulfgeir, Manuel the Great, Manuel the Wise–would you let your war lords

turn these instruments to their own vile ends? No!”

And Flandry understood.

Did Aycharaych, half blinded by his dead, see what he had given away?

“Dominic,” he whispered hastily, shakily, “I’ve used you ill, as I’ve

used many. It was from no will of mine. Oh, true, an art, a sport–yours

too–but we had our services, you to a civilization you know is dying, I

to a heritage I know can abide while this sun does. Who has the better

right?” He held forth unsubstantial hands.

“Dominic, stay. We’ll think how to keep your ships off and save

Chereion–”

Almost as if he were again the machine that condemned his son, Flandry

said, “I’d have to lure my company into some kind of trap. Merseia would

take the planet back, and the help it gives. Your shadow show would go

on. Right?”

“Yes. What are a few more lives to you? What is Terra? In ten thousand

years, who will remember the empires? They can remember you, though, who

saved Chereion for them.”

Candle flames stood around a coffin. Flandry shook his head. “There’ve

been too many betrayals in too many causes.” He wheeled. “Men, we’re

returning.”

“Aye, sir.” The replies shuddered with relief.

Aycharaych’s eidolon brought fingers together as if he prayed. Flandry

touched his main grav switch. Thrust pushed harness against breast. He

rose from the radiant city, into the waning murky day. Chill flowed

around him. Behind floated his robot-encased men.

“Brigate!” bawled Vymezal. “Beware!”

Around the topmost tower flashed a score of javelin shapes. Firebeams

leaped out of their nozzles. Remote-controlled flyer guns, Flandry knew.

Does Aycharaych still hope, or does he only want revenge? “Chives,” he

called into his sender, “come get us!”

Sparks showered off Vymezal’s plate. He slipped aside in midair, more

fast and nimble than it seemed he could be in armor. His energy weapon,

nearly as heavy as the assailants, flared back. Thunders followed

brilliances. Bitterness tinged air. A mobile blast cannon reeled in

midflight, spun downward, crashed in a street, exploded. Fragments

ravaged a fragile facade.

“Shield the captain,” Vymezal boomed.

Flandry’s men ringed him in. Shots tore at them. The noise stamped in

his skull, the stray heat whipped over his skin. Held to his protection,

the marines could not dodge about. The guns converged.

A shadow fell, a lean hull blocked off the sun. Flames reaped. Echoes

toned at last to silence around smoking ruin down below. Vymezal shouted

triumph. He waved his warriors aside, that Flandry might lead them

through the open lock, into the Hooligan.

Wounded, dwindled, victorious, the Dennitzan fleet took orbits around

Chereion. Within the command bridge, Bodin Miyatovich and his chieftains

stood for a long while gazing into the viewscreens. The planet before

them glowed among the stars, softly, secretly, like a sign of peace. But

it was the pictures they had seen earlier, the tale they had heard,

which made those hard men waver.

Miyatovich even asked through his flagship’s rustling stillness: “Must

we bombard?”

“Yes,” Flandry said. “I hate the idea too.”

Qow of Novi Aferoch stirred. Lately taken off his crippled light

cruiser, he was less informed than the rest. “Can’t sappers do what’s

needful?” he protested.

“I wish they could,” Flandry sighed. “We haven’t time. I don’t know how

many millennia of history we’re looking down on. How can we read them

before the Merseian navy arrives?”

“Are you sure, then, the gain to us can justify a deed which someday

will make lovers of beauty, seekers of knowledge, curse our names?” the

zmay demanded. “Can this really be the center of the opposition’s

Intelligence?”

“I never claimed that,” Flandry said. “In fact, obviously not. But it

must be important as hell itself. We here can give them no worse setback

than striking it from their grasp.”

“Your chain of logic seems thin.”

“Of course it is! Were mortals ever certain? But listen again, Qow.

“When the Merseians discovered Chereion, they were already

conquest-hungry. Aycharaych, among the ghosts those magnificent

computers had been raising for him–computers and programs we today

couldn’t possibly invent–he saw they’d see what warlike purposes might

be furthered by such an instrumentality. They’d bend it wholly to their

ends, bring their engineers in by the horde, ransack, peer, gut, build

over, leave nothing unwrecked except a few museum scraps. He couldn’t

bear the thought of that.

“He stopped them by conjuring up phantoms. He made them think a few

million of his race were still alive, able to give the Roidhunate

valuable help in the form of staff work, while he himself would be a

unique field agent–if they were otherwise left alone. We may never know

how he impressed and tricked those tough-minded fighter lords; he did,

that’s all. They believe they have a worldful of enormous intellects for

allies, whom they’d better treat with respect. He draws on a micro part

of the computers, data banks, stored knowledge beyond our imagining, to

generate advice for them … excellent advice, but they don’t suspect

how much more they might be able to get, or by what means.

“Maybe he’s had some wish to influence them, as if they learned from

Chereion. Or maybe he’s simply been biding his time till they too erode

from his planet.”

Flandry was quiet for a few heartbeats before he finished: “Need we care

which, when real people are in danger?”

The Gospodar straightened, walked to an intercom, spoke his orders.

There followed a span while ships chose targets. He and Flandry moved

aside, to stand before a screen showing stars that lay beyond every

known empire. “I own to a desire for vengeance,” he confessed. “My

judgment might have been different otherwise.”

Flandry nodded. “Me too. That’s how we are. If only–No, never mind.”

“Do you think we can demolish everything?”

“I don’t know. I’m assuming the things we want to kill are under the

cities–some of the cities–and plenty of megatonnage will if nothing

else crumble their caverns around them.” Flandry smote a fist hurtfully

against a bulkhead. “I told Qow, we don’t ever have more to go on than

guesswork!”

“Still, the best guess is, we’ll smash enough of the system–whether or

not we reach Aycharaych himself–”

“For his sake, let’s hope we do.”

“Are you that forgiving, Dominic? Well, regardless, Intelligence is the

balance wheel of military operations. Merseian Intelligence should be

… not broken, but badly knocked askew … Will Emperor Hans feel

grateful?”

“Yes, I expect he’ll defend us to the limit against the nobles who’ll

want our scalps.” Flandry wolf-grinned. “In fact, he should welcome such

an issue. The quarrel can force influential appeasers out of his regime.

“And … he’s bound to agree you’ve proved your case for keeping your

own armed forces.”

“So Dennitza stays in the Empire–” Miyatovich laid a hand on his

companion’s shoulder. “Between us, my friend, I dare hope myself that

what I care about will still be there when the Empire is gone. However,

that scarcely touches our lifetimes. What do you plan to do with the

rest of yours?”

“Carry on as before,” Flandry said.

“Go back to Terra?” The eyes which were like Kossara’s searched him. “In

God’s name, why?”

Flandry made no response. Shortly sirens whooped and voices crackled.

The bombardment was beginning.

A missile sprang from a ship. Among the stars it flew arrow slim; but

when it pierced air, hurricane furies trailed its mass. That drum-roar

rolled from horizon to horizon beneath the moon, shook apart wind-carven

crags, sent landslides grumbling to the bottoms of canyons. When it

caught the first high dawnlight, the missile turned into a silver comet.

Minutes later it spied the towers and treasures it was to destroy, and

plunged. It had weapons ready against ground defenses; but only the

spires reached gleaming for heaven.

The fireball outshone whole suns. It bloomed so tall and wide that the

top of the atmosphere, too thin to carry it further, became a roof;

therefore it sat for minutes on the curve of the planet, ablaze, before

it faded. Dust then made a thick and deadly night above a crater full of

molten stone. Wrath tolled around the world.

And more strikes came, and more.

Flandry watched. When the hour was ended, he answered Miyatovich: “I

have my own people.”

In glory did Gospodar Bodin ride home.

Maidens danced to crown him with flowers. The songs of their joy rang

from the headwaters of the Lyubisha to the waves of the Black Ocean, up

the highest mountains and down the fairest glens; and all the bells of

Zorkagrad pealed until Lake Stoyan gave back their music.

Springtime came, never more sweet, and blossoms well-nigh buried the

tomb which Gospodar Bodin had raised for St. Kossara. There did he often

pray, in after years of his lordship over us; and while he lived, no

foeman troubled the peace she brought us through his valor. Sing, poets,

of his fame and honor! Long may God give us folk like these!

And may they hearten each one of us. For in this is our hope.

Amen

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