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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“Any idea what became of her?”
“She was captured. I assume she’s still detained.”
“Seems unlikely. Maspes and his team left weeks ago. Why leave her
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
“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
“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.”
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
No, just experienced and imaginative. Aycharaych is the telepath. “Thank
you for your commendation,” Flandry said, and clinked his bottle on
“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
“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
“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
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
Flandry did. But while he embraced her, he was mostly harking back to
the last time he met Aycharaych.