“No,” murmured the ambassador. He was staring with both eyes at the poor image on the viewscreen. “Five hundred starships….”
There was a long pause before the ambassador continued dryly, “We think it safe to assume that a force of that size is intent on something rather more serious than the opening of general trade. Until your long-buried tale was resurrected there was unrelenting panic both among the Board of Operators here on Terra and among the Council of Eight. That has been reduced to merely relenting panic.”
“I am still only offering a guess,” Chaheel reminded him. “Commander Quazlet of my former monitoring ship should be here to give his opinion.”
“Commander Quazlet,” the ambassador informed the psychologist, “has been dead for two years. So have most of the crew of his ship. Truly, we had little hope of finding you alive either.”
“Accident?” Chaheel wondered.
“So it seemed at the time. You are our sole link with a possibly vital discovery. Tremovan, you called them?” He gestured with a tentacle-tip toward the screen.
“If that’s indeed who they are. Recognition of a certain kind of metal is hardly the same as recognition of species.”
“And this transmission that you and Quazlet puzzled over was between this human Lewmaklin and one of these Tremovan creatures?”
“So it is called. Furthermore, I have reason to believe that Loo-Macklin has been in contact with these people for more than twenty years.”
That shook the ambassador. He knew only of the intercepted transmission of two years ago. “What gives you reason to believe that, Chaheel Riens?”
So the psychologist related what he knew of the quiet contact between Loo-Macklin’s exploration ship and an unknown intelligent race living toward the galactic center.
“Since then I have spent much personal effort attempting to convince those in power that this extraordinarily secretive connection deserves deeper investigation. None would listen to me, none wanted to believe.”
The ambassador was still staring at the towering viewscreen. “I believe you, Chaheel Riens.”
“Where are they?” Chaheel grimly studied the cluster of slowly moving lights that indicated the presence of ships.
“Quite a ways from both the eighty-three worlds and the worlds of the Families. We were most fortunate that a human research vessel studying variable stars happened to be near enough to detect unusually strong long-range transmissions.”
“I could quote you the frequency for those transmissions,” Chaheel murmured. “That would be final proof.”
“Then by all means truly do so, psychologist.”
Once Chaheel had conveyed the necessary information to the human assistant, who went scurrying off toward the room’s nerve center, the ambassador continued to enlighten Chaheel.
“Transmissions went under mask shortly after they were detected, though surely not in response to such detection. I am sure they were not under mask earlier because whoever is in command of those vessels saw no reason to maintain silence while still so far from the nearest human or Nuel world.”
“Speaking of destinations,” wondered Chaheel, “toward whose sphere of influence do they run?” He had one eye on the screen and the other on the ambassador.
“As close as can be determined at such a great distance, they are heading for a point somewhere midtween. That research ship which first detected them has been shadowing them as best as possible. It is not a military craft, but the sensitive detection equipment it normally employs is proving of great use to us.”
“There is still time then for either the UTW or Family fleets to mass to counter this threat,” Chaheel pointed out. “I see reason only for determination, not panic.”
“You see not the entire problem.” The ambassador was anything but confident. “All we have on our side is time, thanks mainly to this fortuitous early interception. Unfortunately, according to the research vessel serving as our eyes and tentacle-tips, the five hundred or so vessels now ascertainable on our screens precede by several days’ travel time a much larger force whose strength our brave scientists estimate at some four thousand vessels.”
Chaheel tried to imagine a force of interworld ships that large. Though he was a social psychologist, not a military man, the sheer quantity of material and energy involved was intimidating.
“And,” the ambassador added glumly, “for all we can tell there may be more coming behind those. The instruments on the research ship can probe only so far. Joint military command has decided those scientists cannot be risked for a deeper probe. They constitute our only point of contact with the aliens.”
“A sensible decision, at last,” Chaheel muttered. “It is time to…” He hesitated and his second eye swung around to focus on the ambassador. “Pardon, First Father Ambassador. But you said ‘joint military command’?”
“Truly naturally,” was the reply. “The only possible way an invading force of such size could be countered is with the full armed might of both the UTW and the worlds of the Families.”
He escorted Chaheel to another part of the cavernous chamber and showed him humans and Nuel standing intermixed before another large screen. Bipeds and ciliates conversed busily, some with the aid of interpreters, a few without.
“The plotted approach indicates this alien armada is slightly more inclined to enter the UTW first,” he explained. “Hence command has been established here. Members of all military families have been arriving on Terra for days. Ships are being called in from all the family worlds.
“The combined fleets will assemble near a colony world named Larkin which lies somewhat northinner to Masermun, the family world nearest the alien’s path. From there the joint force will move out to an intercept point in free space.” He paused, added, “We know nothing of these Tremovan’s weapons or capabilities beyond the fact they have a unique communications system and the ability to muster a large force. Whatever the odds, we shall fight, of course.”
“You say we know nothing of the Tremovan’s military capabilities,” Chaheel said evenly. “That may be so, but there is one human who might have such information.”
“Ah.” The ambassador expressed himself wistfully. “The Kee-yes vain Lewmaklin of whom you have spoken. There may be members of the families who sleep through the obvious but, once awakened, they can move quickly enough.
“First detection of the aliens was made by the human scientific vessel some three weeks ago. We have spent most of that time trying to locate this Lewmaklin, ever since your profoundly ignored information was rediscovered and recredited.
“He is nowhere to be found. For such a powerful individual to vanish so quickly and utterly bespeaks much fear … or careful preplanning. Even his closest aides, who have been interrogated on truth machines, have no idea as to his whereabouts.”
Chaheel was thinking furiously. “He rose out of the human underworld many years ago. Is it possible he has run to cover there again?”
“No. Once the nature and magnitude of the emergency was made clear to those humans who dominate that peculiar social structure, they began searching for him just as intensely as the legal authorities. They have no knowledge of his present location either. There was one rumor which had him taking ship to Restavon from Evenwaith with only two close assistants, but the humans have turned Restavon inside out without finding a slimetrail of him.”
Chaheel considered this, as he turned away from the noisy cluster of milling military personnel, human and Nuel alike, and then gestured with a couple of tentacles back toward the towering screen, which still showed the silently advancing cluster of lights.
“I should venture to predict that he is now somewhere between there and here, assuming he has not reached his allies already. There is no telling what important information on human and truly also on family fleet strength and deployment he has already provided to these Tremovan.”
“But he is not a military man,” the ambassador objected. “Surely he cannot…”
“Naivete peers from beneath your skirt, First Father.” Chaheel’s quiet frustration finally overwhelmed his instinctive politeness to one of superior family standing. If they had listened to him in the first place…
“This human has spent most of his long life insinuating his tentacles into every imaginable business and aspect of commerce not only in the human sphere of influence but in that controlled by the Families as well. I would venture to predict that a check of commerce records would reveal that among other dealings companies controlled or directed by him have supplied ship frames to the military as well as armaments, engines, navigation equipment, and everything else.” He pointed toward the milling human soldiers.
“Likely he possesses as much knowledge of the military as any of those uniformed individuals working with our people, and quite possibly more.”
“Then we can do nothing about him,” said the ambassador with admirable resolve. “There are ships out looking for him, but space is very large and a single small vessel can go, if it so wishes, anywhere it desires without the rest of the galaxy noticing its passage. We shall have to confront these Tremovan as best we can. This Lewmaklin will have transmitted all useful information to his alien friends by this time anyway.