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A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows by Poul Anderson. Chapter 7, 8

VII

Where the equator crossed the eastern shoreline of a continent men

called Centralia, Thursday Landing was founded. Though fertile by

Diomedean standards, the country had few permanent residents. Rather,

migration brought tides of travelers, northward and southward

alternately, to their ancestral breeding grounds. At first, once the

sharpest edge was off their sexual appetites, they had been glad to hunt

and harvest those things the newcomers wanted from the wilderness, in

exchange for portable trade goods. Later this business grew more

systematized and extensive, especially after a large contingent of

Drak’ho moved to these parts. Descending, Flandry saw a fair-sized town.

Most was man-built, blocky interconnected ferrocrete structures to

preserve a human-suitable environment from monstrous rains and slow but

ponderous winds. He glimpsed a park, vivid green beneath a vitryl dome,

brightened by lamps that imitated Sol. Farther out, widely spaced in

cultivated fields, stood native houses: tall and narrow, multiply

balconied, graceful of line and hue, meant less to resist weather then

to accept it, yielding enough to remain whole. Watercraft, ranging from

boats to floating communities, crowded the harbor as wings did the sky.

Yet Flandry felt bleakness, as if the cold outside had reached in to

enfold him. Beyond the fluorescents, half the world he saw was land,

hills, meadows, dwarfish woods, dim in purple and black twilight, and

half was bloodily glimmering ocean. For the sun stood barely above the

northern horizon, amidst sulfur-colored clouds. At this place and season

there was never true day or honest night.

Are you getting terracentric in your dotage? he gibed at himself. Here’s

a perfectly amiable place for beings who belong in it.

His mood would not go away. Nevertheless it does feel unreal somehow, a

scene from a bad dream. The whole mission has been like that. Everything

shadowy, tangled, unstable, nothing what it seems to be … nor anybody

who doesn’t carry secrets within secrets …

Myself included. He straightened in the pilot chair. Well, that’s what

I’m paid for. I suppose these blue devils of mine come mainly from guilt

about Kossara, fear of what may happen to her. O God Who is also unreal,

a mask we put on emptiness, be gentle to her. She has been hurt so much.

Ground Control addressed him, in Anglic though not from a human mouth.

He responded, and set Hooligan down on the spacefield as directed. The

prospect of action heartened him. Since I can’t trust the Almighty not

to soldier on the job, let me start my share now.

He had slipped back into space from Lannach, then returned openly. The

sentinel robots detected him, and an officer in a warship demanded

identification before granting clearance, at a distance from the planet

which showed a thoroughness seldom encountered around fifth-rate outpost

worlds. No doubt alarm about prospective rebellion and infiltration had

caused security to be tightened. Without the orbital information he

possessed, not even a vessel as begimmicked as his could have neared

Diomedes unbeknownst.

The image of the portmaster appeared in a comscreen. “Welcome, sir,” he

said. “Am I correct that you are alone? The Imperial resident has been

notified of your coming and invites you to be his house guest during

your stay. If you will tell me where your accommodation lock

is–frankly, I have never seen a model quite like yours–a car will be

there for you in a few minutes.”

He was an autochthon, a handsome creature by any standards. The size of

a short man, he stood on backward-bending, talon-footed legs.

Brown-furred, the slim body ran out in a broad tail which ended in a

fleshy rudder; at its middle, arms and hands were curiously anthropoid;

above a massive chest, a long neck bore a round head–high, ridged brow,

golden eyes with nictitating membranes, blunt-nosed black-muzzled face

with fangs and whiskers suggestive of a cat, no external ears but a

crest of muscle on top of the skull. From his upper shoulders grew the

bat wings, their six-meter span now folded. He wore a belt to support a

pouch, a brassard of authority, and, yes, a crucifix.

I’d better stay in character from the beginning. “Many thanks, my dear

chap,” Flandry replied in his most affected manner. “I say, could you

tell the chauffeur to come aboard and fetch my bags? Deuced lot of

duffel on these extended trips, don’t y’ know.” He saw the crest rise

and a ripple pass along the fur, perhaps from irritation at his rudeness

in not asking the portmaster’s name.

The driver obeyed, though. He was a husky young civilian who bowed at

sight of Flandry’s gaudy version of dress uniform. “Captain Ahab

Whaling?”

“Right.” Flandry often ransacked ancient books. He had documentation

aboard for several different aliases. Why risk alerting someone? The

more everybody underestimated him, the better. Since he wanted to pump

his fellow, he added, “Ah, you are–”

“Diego Rostovsky, sir, handyman to Distinguished Citizen Lagard. You

mentioned baggage? … Jumping comets, that much? … Well, they’ll have

room at the Residency.”

“Nobody else staying there, what?”

“Not at the moment. We had a bunch for some while, till about a month

ago. But I daresay you know that already, seeing as how you’re

Intelligence yourself.” Rostovsky’s glance at the eye insigne on

Flandry’s breast indicated doubt about the metaphorical truth of it.

However, curiosity kept him friendly. When airlocks had decoupled and

the groundcar was moving along the road to town, he explained: “We don’t

fly unnecessarily. This atmosphere plays too many tricks … Uh, they’ll

be glad to meet you at the Residency. Those officers I mentioned were

too busy to be very good company, except for–” He broke off. “Um. And,

since they left, the isolation and tension … My master and his staff

have plenty to keep them occupied, but Donna Lagard always sees the same

people, servants, guards, commercial personnel and their families. She’s

Terran-reared. She’ll be happy for news and gossip.”

And you judge me the type to furnish them, Flandry knew. Excellent. His

gaze drifted through the canopy, out over somber fields and tenebrous

heaven. But who was that exception whom you are obviously under orders

not to mention?

“Yes, I imagine things are a bit strained,” he said. “Though really, you

need have no personal fears, need you? I mean, after all, if some of the

tribes revolted, an infernal nuisance, ‘speci’lly for trade, but surely

Thursday Landing can hold out against primitives.”

“They aren’t exactly that,” was the answer. “They have industrial

capabilities, and they do business directly with societies still further

developed. We’ve good reason to believe a great many weapons are stashed

around, tactical nukes among them. Oh, doubtless we could fend off an

attack and stand siege. The garrison and defenses have been augmented.

But trade would go completely to pieces–it wouldn’t take many rebels to

interdict traffic–which’d hurt the economy of more planets than

Diomedes … And then, if outsiders really have been the, uh, the–”

“Agents provocateurs,” Flandry supplied. “Or instigators, if y’ prefer.

Either way; I don’t mind.”

Rostovsky scowled. “Well, what might their bosses do?”

Martin Lagard was a small prim man in a large prim office. When he

spoke, in Anglic still tinged by his Atheian childhood, both his goatee

and the tip of his nose waggled. His tunic was of rich material but

unfashionable cut, and he had done nothing about partial baldness.

Blinking across his desk at Flandry, who lounged behind a cigarette, the

Imperial resident said in a scratchy voice, “Well, Fm pleased to make

your acquaintance, Captain Whaling, but frankly puzzled as to what may

be the nature of your assignment. No courier brought me any advance

word.” He sounded hurt.

I’d better soothe him. Flandry had met his kind by the scores, career

administrators, conscientious but rule-bound and inclined to

self-importance. Innovators, or philosophers like Chunderban Desai, were

rare in that service, distrusted by their fellows, destined either for

greatness or for ruin. Lagard had advanced methodically, by the book,

toward an eventual pension.

He was uncreative but not stupid, a vital cog of empire. How could a

planetful of diverse nonhumans be closely governed by Terra, and why

should it be? Lagard was here to assist Imperials in their businesses

and their problems; to oversee continuous collection of information

about this world and put it in proper form to feed the insatiable data

banks at Home; to collect from the natives a modest tribute which paid

for their share of the Pax; to give their leaders advice as occasion

warranted, and not use his marines to see that they followed it unless

he absolutely must; to speak on their behalf to those officials of the

Crown with whom he dealt; to cope.

He had not done badly. It was not his fault that demons haunted the

planet which were beyond his capability of exorcising, and might yet

take possession of it.

“No, sir, they wouldn’t give notice. Seldom do. Abominably poor manners,

but that’s policy for you, what?” Flandry nodded at his credentials,

where they lay on the desk. ” ‘Fraid I can’t be too explicit either.

Let’s say I’m on a special tour of inspection.”

Lagard gave him a close look. Flandry could guess the resident’s

thought: Was this drawling clothes horse really an Intelligence officer

at work, or a pet relative put through a few motions to justify making

an admiral of him? “I will cooperate as far as possible, Captain.”

“Thanks. Knew y’ would. See here, d’you mind if I bore you for a few

ticks? Mean to say, I’d like to diagram the situation as I see it. You

correct me where I’m wrong, fill in any gaps, that kind of thing, eh?

You know how hard it is to get any proper overview of matters. And then,

distances between stars, news stale before it arrives, n’est-ce pas?”

“Proceed,” Lagard said resignedly.

Flandry discarded his cigarette, crossed legs and bridged fingers. No

grav generator softened the pull of Diomedes. He let his added weight

flow into the chair’s crannies of softness, as if already wearied. (In

actuality he did his calisthenics under two gees or more, because thus

he shortened the dreary daily time he needed for keeping fit.)

“Troublemakers afoot,” he said. “Distinct possibility of hostiles taking

advantage of the disorganization left by the recent

unpleasantness–whether those hostiles be Merseian, Ythrian, barbarian,

Imperials who want to break away or even overthrow his Majesty–right?

You got hints, various of those troublemakers were active here, fanning

flames of discontent and all that sort of nonsense. How’d they get past

your security?”

“Not my security, Captain,” Lagard corrected. “I’ve barely had this post

five years. I found the sentinel system in wretched

condition–expectable, after the Empire’s woes–and did my best to

effect repairs. I also found our civil strife was doing much to heighten

resentment, particularly in the Great Flock of Lannach. It disrupted

offplanet commerce, you see. The migrant societies have become more

dependent on that than the sedentary ones like Drak’ho which have

industry to produce most of what they consume. But please realize, a new

man on a strange world needs time to learn its ins and outs, and develop

workable programs.”

“Oh, quite.” Flandry nodded. “At first you’d see no reason to screen

visitors from space. Rather, you’d welcome ’em. They might help restore

trade, what? Very natural. No discredit to you. At last, however, clues

started trickling in. Not every transient was spending his stay in the

outback so benignly. Right?

“You asked my Corps to investigate. That likewise takes time. We too

can’t come cold onto a planet and hope for instant results, y’ know. Ah,

according to my briefing, it was sector HQ you approached. Terra just

got your regular reports.”

“Of course,” Lagard said. “Going through there would have meant a delay

of months.”

“Right, right. No criticism intended, sir,” Flandry assured him. “Still,

we do like to keep tabs at Home. That’s what I’m here for, to find out

what was done, in more detail than the official report”–which was

almighty sketchy–“could render. Or, you could say, my superiors want a

feel of how the operation went.”

Lagard gave the least shrug.

“Well, then,” Flandry proceeded. “The report does say a Commander Bruno

Maspes brought an Intelligence team, set up shop in Thursday Landing,

and got busy interrogating, collating data, sending people out into the

field–the usual intensive job. They worked how long?”

“About six months.”

“Did you see much of them?”

“No. They were always occupied, often all away from here at once,

sometimes away from the whole system. Personnel of theirs came and went.

Even those who were my guests–” Lagard stopped. “You’ll forgive me,

Captain, but I’m under security myself. My entire household is. We’ve

been forbidden to reveal certain items. This clearance of yours does not

give you power to override that.”

Ah-ha. It tingled in Flandry’s veins. His muscles stayed relaxed. “Yes,

yes. Perfectly proper. You and yours were bound to spot details–f’r

instance, a xenosophont with odd talents–” Look at his face! Again,

ah-ha.–“which ought not be babbled about. Never fret, I shan’t pry.

“In essence, the team discovered it wasn’t humans of Ythrian allegiance

who were inciting to rebellion and giving technical advice about same.

It was humans from Dennitza.”

“So I was told,” Lagard said.

“Ah … during this period, didn’t you entertain a Dennitzan scientist?”

“Yes. She and her companion soon left for the Sea of Achan, against my

warnings. Later I was informed that they turned out to be subversives

themselves.” Lagard sighed. “Pity. She was a delightful person, in her

intense fashion.”

“Any idea what became of her?”

“She was captured. I assume she’s still detained.”

“Here?”

“Seems unlikely. Maspes and his team left weeks ago. Why leave her

behind?”

What would I have done if they were around yet? Flandry wondered

fleetingly. Played that hand in style, I trust. “They might have decided

that was the easiest way to keep the affair under wraps for a bit,” he

suggested.

“The Intelligence personnel now on Diomedes are simply those few who’ve

been stationed among us for years. I think I’d know if they were hiding

anything from me. You’re free to talk to them, Captain, but better not

expect much.”

“Hm.” Flandry stroked his mustache. “I s’pose, then, Maspes felt he’d

cleaned out the traitors?”

“He said he had a new, more urgent task elsewhere. Doubtless a majority

of agents escaped his net, and native sympathizers may well keep any

humans among them fed. But, he claimed, if we monitor space traffic

carefully, they shouldn’t rouse more unrest than we can handle. I hope

he was right.”

“You’re trying to defuse local conflicts, eh?”

“What else?” Lagard sounded impatient. “My staff and I, in consultation

with loyal Diomedeans, are hard at work. A fair shake for the migrants

is not impossible to achieve, if the damned extremists will let us

alone. I’m afraid I’ll be a poor host, Captain. Day after

tomorrow–Terran, that is–I’m off for Lannach, to lay certain proposals

before the Commander of the Great Flock and his councillors. They feel a

telescreen is too impersonal.”

Flandry smiled. “Don’t apologize, sir. I’ll be quite happy. And, I

suspect, only on this planet a few days anyhow, before bouncing on to

the next You and Maspes seem offhand to’ve put on a jolly good show.”

Gratified, visions of bonuses presumably dancing through his head, the

resident beamed at him. “Thank you. I’ll introduce you around tomorrow,

and you can question or look through the files as you wish, within the

limits of security I mentioned. But first I’m sure you’d like to rest. A

servant will show you to your room. We’ll have aperitifs in half an

hour. My wife is eager to meet you.”

VIII

—-

At dinner Flandry laid on the wit and sophistication he had

preprogrammed, until over the liqueurs Susette Kalehua Lagard sighed,

“Oh, my, Captain Whaling, how marvelous you’re here! Nobody like you has

visited us for ages–they’ve all been provincials, or if not, they’ve

been so ghastly serious, no sensitivity in them either, except a single

one and he wasn’t human–Oh!” Her husband had frowned and nudged her.

She raised fingers to lips. “No, that was naughty of me. Please forget I

said it.”

Flandry bowed in his chair. “Impractical, I fear, Donna. How could I

forget anything spoken by you? But I’ll set the words aside in my mind

and enjoy remembering the music.” Meanwhile alertness went electric

through him. This warm, well-furnished, softly lighted room, where a

recorded violin sang and from which a butler had just removed the dishes

of an admirable rubyfruit souffle, was a very frail bubble to huddle in.

He rolled curacao across his tongue and reached for a cigarette.

She fluttered her lashes. “You’re a darling.” She had had a good bit to

drink. “Isn’t he, Martin? Must you really leave us in less than a week?”

Flandry shrugged. “Looks as if Distinguished Citizen Lagard hasn’t left

me much excuse to linger, alas.”

“Maybe we can find something. I mean, you can exercise judgment in your

mission, can’t you? They wouldn’t send a man like you out and keep a

leash on him.”

“We’ll see, Donna.” He gave a look of precisely gauged meaningfulness.

She returned it in kind. The wine had not affected her control in that

respect.

His inner excitement became half sardonicism, half a moderately

interested anticipation. She was attractive in a buxom fashion, to which

her low-cut shimmerlyn gown lent an emphasis that would have raised

brows at today’s Imperial court–the court she had never seen. Jewels

glinted in black hair piled about a round brown countenance. Vivacity

had increased in her throughout the meal, till her conversation sounded

less platitudinous than it was.

Flandry knew her as he knew her husband, from uncounted encounters: the

spouse of an official posted to a distant world of nonhumans.

Occasionally such a pair made a team. But oftener the member who did not

have the assignment was left to the dismal mercies of a tiny Imperial

community, the same homes, bodies, words, games, petty intrigues and

catfights for year after year. He or she might develop an interest in

the natives, get into adventures and fascinations, even contribute a

xenological study or a literary translation. Lady Susette lacked the

gift for that. Since she had had no children when she arrived, there

would be none for the rest of Lagard’s ten-year hitch. The immunizations

which let her walk freely outdoors on Diomedes were too deep-going for

her organism to accept an embryo, and it would be too dangerous to have

them reversed before she departed. What then was Susette Kalehua Lagard,

daughter of prosperous and socially prominent Terrans, to do while she

waited?

She could terminate the marriage. But a man who had gotten resident’s

rank was a fine catch. He could expect a subsequent commissionership on

a prime human-colonized planet like Hermes, where plenty of glamour was

available; in due course, he should become a functionary of some small

importance on Terra itself, and perhaps receive a minor patent of

nobility. She must feel this was worth her patience. Her eyes told

Flandry she did have a hobby.

“Well, if our time’s to be short, let’s make it sweet,” she said. “May

I–we call you Ahab? We’re Susette and Martin.”

“I’m honored.” Flandry raised his glass in salute. “And refreshed. Folk

on Terra have gotten stiffish these past few years, don’t y’ know.

Example set by his Majesty and the inner circle.”

“Indeed?” Lagard asked. “Nuances don’t reach us here. I’d have

thought–with due reverence–the present Emperor would be quite

informal.”

“Not in public,” Flandry said. “Career Navy man of Germanian background,

after all. I see us generally heading into a puritanical period.” Which,

if Desal is right, is not the end of decadence, but rather its next

stage. “Luckily, we’ve plenty of nooks and crannies for carrying on in

the grand old tradition. In fact, disapproval lends spice, what? I

remember a while ago–”

His risqué reminiscence had happened to somebody else and the event had

lacked several flourishes he supplied. He never let such nigglements

hinder a story. It fetched a sour smile from Lagard but laughter and a

blush down to the decolletage from Susette.

The staff, assistants, clerks, technical chiefs, Navy and marine

personnel, were harried but cooperative, except when Flandry heard:

“Sorry, sir. I’m not allowed to discuss that. If you want information,

please apply at Sector HQ. I’m sure they’ll oblige you there.”

Yes, they’ll oblige me with the same skeleton account that Terra got. I

could make a pest of myself, but I doubt if the secret files have ever

contained any mention of what Tm really after. I could check on the

whereabouts of Commander Maspes & Co., and make a long trip to find

them–no, him, for probably the team’s dispersed … ah, more probably

yet, the files will show orders cut for them similar to those in Captain

Whaling’s papers, and the men have vanished … maybe to bob up again

eventually, maybe never, depending on circumstances.

More deceptions, more phantoms.

He sauntered into the civilian part of town and was quickly on genial

terms with factors and employees. Most of them found their work

stimulating–they liked the Diomedeans–but were starved for new human

contact. And none were under security. The trouble was, there had been

no need for it. They knew a special Intelligence force came to search

out the roots of the unrest which plagued them in then business. They

totally approved, and did not resent not being invited to meet the

investigators save for interviews about what they themselves might know.

None had seen the entire team together; when not in the field, it kept

apart, officers in the Residency, enlisted men in a separate barrack.

Yes, rumor said it included a xeno or two. What of that?

Otherwise the community had only heard Lagard’s brief announcement after

the group was gone. ” … I am not at liberty to say more than that

human traitors have been trying to foment a rebellion among the

Lannachska. Fortunately, the vast majority of the Great Flock stayed

loyal and sensible. And now the key agents have been killed or captured.

A few may still be at large, and information you may come upon

concerning these should be reported immediately. But I don’t expect they

can do serious harm any longer, and I intend to proceed, with your

cooperation, to remove the causes of discontent … ”

The next Diomedean day, Flandry donned a heated coverall and a dome

helmet with an air recycler, passed through pressure change in a lock,

and circulated among natives in their part of town. Most knew Anglic and

were willing to talk; but none had further news. He wasn’t surprised.

Finding a public phone booth, he took the opportunity to call Chives

when nobody who chanced to observe him was likely to wonder what a

solitary operative was doing there. He used a standard channel but a

language he was sure had never been heard on this world. The nearest

comsat bucked his words across the ocean to Lannach where, he having

paid for the service, they were broadcast rather than beamed. The relay

unit he had left under the cliff made contact with the Shalmuan’s

portable.

“Yes, sir, at present the young lady is eating rations taken from her

car before she abandoned it. They should last her as far as the sea, for

she is setting a hard pace despite the overgrowth and rugged topography.

I must confess I have difficulty following, since I consider it

inadvisable to go aloft on my gravbelt. I feel a certain concern for her

safety. A fall down a declivity or a sudden tempest could have adverse

effects, and she does not let caution delay her.”

“I think she can manage,” Flandry said. “In any event, you can rescue

her. What worries me is what may happen after she gets where she’s

going. Another twenty-four hours, did you estimate? I’d better try to

act fast myself, here.”

Susette didn’t wish to lose time either. Three hours after she and

Flandry had seen Lagard off, she was snuggled against him whispering how

wonderful he had been.

“You’re no slouch on the couch yourself, mlove,” he said, quite

honestly. “More, I hope?”

“Yes. As soon and often as you want. And do please want.”

“Well, how about a breather first, and getting acquainted? A girl who

keeps a bedside beer cooler is a girl whose sound mind I want to know as

well as her delectable body.” Warm and wudgy, she caressed him while he

leaned over to get bottles for them, and stayed in the circle of his

free arm when they leaned back against the pillows.

Too bad this can’t be a simple romp for me, he thought. It deserves

that. And by the way, so do 1. Kossara was making chastity come hard.

He savored the chill brisk flavor while his glance roved about. The

resident’s lady had a private suite where, she hinted, the resident was

an infrequent caller. This room of it was plushly carpeted, draped,

furnished, in rose and white. An incense stick joined its fragrance to

her own. A dressing table stood crowded with perfumes and cosmetics. Her

garments sheened above his, hastily tossed over a chair. In that

richness, her souvenirs of Home–pictures, bric-a-brac, a stuffed toy

such as she would have given to a child–seemed as oddly pathetic as the

view in the window was grim. Hail dashed against vitryl, thicker and

harder than ever fell on Terra, picked out athwart blue-black

lightning-jumping violence by an ember sunbeam which stabbed through a

rent in the clouds. Past every insulation and heaviness came a ghost of

the wind’s clamor.

Kossara … Yes, Chives is right to fret about her while she struggles

through yonder wildwood.

Susette stroked his cheek. “Why do you look sad all of a sudden?” she

asked.

“Eh?” He started. “How ridiculous. ‘Pensive’ is the word, my imp. Well,

perhaps a drop of melancholy, recalling how I’ll have to leave you and

doubtless never see you again.”

She nodded. “Me too. Though are you sure we won’t–we can’t?”

If I keep any control over events, yes, absolutely! Not that you aren’t

likable; but frankly, in public you’re a bore. And what if Kossara found

out?

Why should I care?

Well, she might accept my sporting as such. I get the impression hers is

a double-standard society. But I don’t believe she’d forgive my

cuckolding a man whose salt I’ve eaten. To plead I was far from unique

would get me nowhere. To plead military necessity wouldn’t help either;

I think she could see (those wave-colored eyes) that I’d have performed

the same service free and enjoyed every microsecond.

Hm. The problem is not how to keep a peccadillo decently veiled in

hypocrisy. The problem is what to do about the fact that I care whether

or not Kossara Vymezal despises me.

“Can’t we?” Susette persisted. “The Empire’s big, but people get around

in it.”

Flandry pulled his attention back to the task on hand. He hugged her,

smiled into her troubled gaze, and said, “Your idea flatters me beyond

reason. I’d s’posed I was a mere escapade.”

She flushed. “I supposed the same. But–well–” Defiantly: “I have

others. I guess I always will, till I’m too old. Martin must suspect,

and not care an awful lot. He’s nice to me in a kind of absent-minded

way, but he’s overworked, and not young, and–you know what I mean.

Diego, Diego Rostovsky, he’s been the best. Except I know him inside out

by now, what there is to know. You come in like a fresh breeze–straight

from Home!–and you can talk about things, and make me laugh and feel

good, and–” She leaned hard on him. Her own spare hand wandered. “I’d

never have thought … you knew right away what I’d like most. Are you a

telepath?”

No, just experienced and imaginative. Aycharaych is the telepath. “Thank

you for your commendation,” Flandry said, and clinked his bottle on

hers.

“Then won’t you stay a while extra, Ahab, and return afterward?”

“I must go whither the vagaries of war and politics require, amorita.

And believe me, they can be confoundedly vague.” Flandry took a long

drink to gain a minute for assembling his next words. “F’r instance, the

secrecy Commander Maspes laid on you forces me to dash on to Sector HQ

as soon’s I’ve given Diomedes a fairly clean bill of health–which I’ve

about completed. My task demands certain data, you see. Poor

communications again. Maspes tucked you under a blanket prohibition

because he’d no way of knowing I’d come here, and I didn’t get a

clearance to lift it because nobody back Home knew he’d been that

ultracautious.” If I produced the Imperial writ I do have, that might

give too much away.

Susette’s palm stopped on his breast. “Why, your heart’s going like a

hammer,” she said.

“You do that to a chap,” he answered, put down his bottle and gathered

her to him for an elaborate kiss.

Breathlessly, she asked, “You mean if you had the information you

wouldn’t be in such a hurry? You could stay longer?”

“I should jolly well hope so,” he said, running fingers through her

hair. “But what’s the use?” He grinned. “Never mind. In your presence, I

am not prone to talk shop.”

“No, wait.” She fended him off, a push which was a caress. “What do you

need to know, Ahab?”

“Why–” He measured out his hesitation. “Something you’re not allowed to

tell me.”

“But they’d tell you at HQ.”

“Oh, yes. This is a miserable technicality.”

“All right,” Susette said fast. “What is it?”

“You might–” Flandry donned enthusiasm. “Darling! You wouldn’t get in

trouble, I swear. No, you’d be expediting the business of the Empire.”

She shook her head and giggled. “Uh-uh. Remember, you’ve got to spend

the time you gain here. Promise?”

“On my honor” as a double agent.

She leaned back again, her beer set aside, hands clasped behind her

neck, enjoying her submission. “Ask me anything.”

Flandry faced her, arms wrapped around drawn-up knees. “Mainly, who was

with Maspes? Nonhumans especi’lly. I’d better not spell out the reason.

But consider. No mind can conceive, let alone remember, the planets and

races we’ve discovered in this tiny offside corner of the solitary

galaxy we’ve explored a little bit. Infiltration, espionage–such things

have happened before.”

She stared. “Wouldn’t they check a memory bank?”

Memory banks can have lies put into them, whenever we get a government

many of whose officials can be bought, and later during the confusion of

disputed succession, civil war, and sweeping purges. Those lies can then

wait, never called on and therefore never suspected, till somebody has

need for one of them. “Let’s say no system is perfect, ‘cept yours for

lovemaking. Terra itself doesn’t have a complete, fully updated file.

Regional bitkeepers don’t try; and checking back with Terra seldom seems

worth the delay and trouble.”

“Gollool” She was more titillated than alarmed. “You mean we might’ve

had an enemy spy right here?”

“That’s what I’m s’posed to find out, sweetling.”

“Well, there was only a single xeno on the team.” She sighed. “I’d hate

to believe he was enemy. So beautiful a person. You know, I daydreamed

about going to bed with him, though of course I don’t imagine that’d

have worked, even if he did look pretty much like a man.”

“Who was he? Where from?”

“Uh–his name, Ay … Aycharaych.” She handled the diphthongs better

than the open consonants. “From, uh, he said his planet’s called

Chereion. Way off toward Betelgeuse.”

Further, Flandry thought amidst a thrumming.

This time he didn’t bother to conceal his right name or his very origin.

And why should he? Nobody would check on a duly accredited member of an

Imperial Intelligence force–not that the files in Thursday Landing

would help anyway–and he could read in their minds that none had ever

heard of an obscure world within the Roidhunate–and the secrecy command

would cover his trail as long as he needed, after he’d done his damage

and was gone.

When at last, maybe, the truth came out: why, our people who do know a

little something about Chereion would recognize that was where he glided

from, as soon as they heard his description, regardless of whether he’d

given a false origin or not. He might as well amuse himself by leaving

his legal signature.

Which I’d already begun to think I saw in this whole affair. Dreams and

shadows and flitting ghosts–

“He’s about as tall as you are,” Susette was saying, “skinny–no, I mean

fine-boned and lean–except for wide shoulders and a kind of jutting

chest. Six fingers to a hand, extra-jointed, ambery nails; but four

claws to a foot and a spur behind, like a sort of bird. And he did say

his race conies from a, uh, an analogue of flightless birds. I can’t say

a lot more about his body, because he always wore a long robe, though

usually going barefoot. His face … well, I’d make him sound ugly if I

spoke about a dome of a brow, big hook nose, thin lips, pointed ears,

and of course all the, the shapes, angles, proportions different from

ours. Actually, he’s beautiful. I could’ve spent days looking into those

huge red-brown whiteless eyes of his, if he’d let me. His skin is deep

gold color. He has no hair anywhere I saw, but a kind of shark-fin crest

on the crown of his head, made from dark-blue feathers, and tiny

feathers for eyebrows. His voice is low and … pure music.”

Flandry nodded. “M-hm. He stayed in your house?”

“Yes. We and the servants were strictly forbidden to mention him

anywhere outside. When he visited the building his team had taken

over–or maybe left town altogether; I can’t say–he’d put on boots, a

cowl, a face mask, like he came from someplace where men cover up

everything in public; and walking slow, he could make his gait pass for

human.”

“Did you get any hints of what he did?”

“No. They called him a … consultant.” Susette sat upright. “Was he

really a spy?”

“I can identify him,” Flandry said, “and the answer is no.” Why should

he spy on his own companions–subordinates? And he didn’t bring them

here to collect information, except incidentally. Fm pretty sure he came

to kindle a war.

“Oh, I’m glad,” Susette exclaimed. “He was such a lovely guest. Even

though I often couldn’t follow his conversation. Martin did better, but

he’d get lost too when Aycharaych started talking about art and

history–of Terra! He made me ashamed I was that ignorant about my own

planet. No, not ashamed; really interested, wanting to go right out and

learn if only I knew how. And then he’d talk on my level, like

mentioning little things I’d never much noticed or appreciated, and

getting me to care about them, till this dull place seemed full of

wonder and–”

She subsided. “Have I told you enough?” she asked.

“I may have a few more questions later,” Flandry said, “but for now,

yes, I’m through.”

She held out her arms. “Oh, no, you’re not, you man, you! You’ve just

begun. C’mere.”

Flandry did. But while he embraced her, he was mostly harking back to

the last time he met Aycharaych.

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