Three of A. E. van Vogt’s best late-period stories: "Itself" (1963), "Lost: Fifty Suns" (1972) and "The Timed Clock" (1972)
Thursday 25 February 2021, by
2. LOST: FIFTY SUNS (1972)  A gigantic Earth battleship has appeared in the Greater Magellanic Cloud galaxy to search out the rebels from the Milky Way who had hidden there thousands of years before. The leader of the ultra-gifted Mixed Men segment of the Fifty Suns civilization in that galaxy does his best to be loyal to the central government while at the same time trying to ensure the future of his own very gifted and ambitious kind. (18,000 words)
3. THE TIMED CLOCK (1972)  An unusually light, unpretentious and often very amusing tale  about the awkward problems that can arise when a mysterious old grandfather clock whisks you back to the days when your own granddad was starting to grow up. (5,000 words)
An e-book with these stories is available for downloading below.
ITSELF, king of the Phillipine Deep—that awesome canyon where the sea goes down six miles—woke from his recharge period and looked around suspiciously.
His Alter Ego said, "Well, how is it with Itself today?"
The Alter Ego was a booster, a goader, a stimulant to action, and, in his limited way, a companion.
Itself did not answer. During the sleep period, he had drifted over a ravine, the walls other thousand feet. Suspiciously, Itself glared along the canyon rim.
. . . Not a visual observation. No light ever penetrated from above into the eternal night here at the deepest bottom of the ocean. Itself perceived the black world which surrounded him with high frequency sounds which he broadcast continuously in all directions. Like a bat in a pitch dark cave, he analyzed the structure of all things in his watery universe by interpreting the returning echoes. And the accompanying emotion of suspicion was a device which Impelled Itself to record changing pressures, temperatures and current flows, Unknown to him, what he observed became part of the immense total of data by which faraway computers estimated the interrelationship of ocean and atmosphere, and thus predicted water and air conditions everywhere with uncanny exactness.
His was almost perfect perception. Clearly and unmistakably, Itself made out the intruder in the far distance of that twisting ravine. A ship! Anchored to rock at the very edge of the canyon.
"The Alter Ego goaded, "You’re not going to let somebody invade your territory, are you?"
Instantly, Itself was furious. He activated the jet mechanism in the underslung belly of his almost solid metal body. A nuclear reactor immediately heated the plates of the explosion chamber. The seawater which flowed through the chamber burst into hissing clouds of steam, and he jetted forward like a missile.
Arriving at the ship. Itself attacked the nearest of four anchor lines with the nuclear powered heat beam in his head. When he had severed it, he turned to the second cable, and burned through it. Then he moved for the third cable.
But the startled beings abound the alien ship had spotted the twenty-foot monster in the black waters below.
"Analyze its echo pattern!" came the command. That was done, with total skill.
"Feed the pattern back through the infinite altering system till the recorders register a response."
The significant response was: Itself forgot what he was doing. He was drifting blankly away, when his Alter Ego goaded, "Wake up! You’re not going to let them get away with that, are you?"
The defeat had galvanized Itself to a more intense level of rage. He became multiples more sensitive. Now, he simply turned out the alien echo copies.
The new greater anger triggered a second weapon.
Itself’s echo system of perception, normally monitored to be safe for all living things in the sea, suddenly strengthened. It became a supersonic beam. Purposefully, Itself started toward the ship.
Watching his approach, the enemy decided to take no chances. "Pull the remaining anchors in!"
Itself headed straight for the nearest part of the vessel. Instantly, those ultrasonic waves started a rhythmic vibration on the hard wall, weakening it.
The metal groaned under a weight of water that at these depths amounted to thousands of tons per square inch. The outer wall buckled with a metallic scream.
The inner wall trembled, but held.
At that point, the appalled defenders got a counter-vibration started, nullified the rhythm of Itself’s projections, and were safe.
But it was a sorely wounded ship that now drifted helplessly in a slow current. The aliens had thus far used no energy that might be detected from the surface. But they had come to Earth to establish a base for invasion. Their instructions were to accumulate enough data about underwater currents to enable them to leave the Deep, and eventually to be able to drift near land, launch atom bombs and drift away again. For this purpose they were mightily armed, and they refused to die in these black waters without a fight.
"What can we do about that demon?"
“Blast it" someone urged.
“That’s dangerous." The alien commander hesitated.
"We can’t be in greater danger than we already are."
"True," said the commander, "but frankly I don’t know why he’s armed at all, and I can’t believe he has anything more. Set up a response system. If he does attack with anything new, it will automatically fire back. We’ll take that much of a chance."
The second setback had driven Itself completely berserk. He aimed his nuclear pellet gun, firing twice. In the next split-second a blast from the invader pierced his brain.
The Alter Ego yelled, "You’re not going to let them get away with that, are you?"
But the king of the Phillipine Deep was dead, and could no longer be goaded.
In due course, a report was given to weather headquarters: "Computer Center shows no recent data from Itself. It therefore seems as if another of the wartime antisubmarine water-weather robots has worn out. You may recall that these electronic monsters were programmed to suspicion, anger, and the idea that they owned part of the ocean. After the war, we could never get these creatures to surface; they were too suspicious of us."
The ocean of water, like the ocean of air far above, flowed and rolled and moved in a ceaseless, dynamic, driving motion many, many times more powerful, however, than any comparable air current. Yet, in essence, the quadrillions of water movements solely and only balanced each other out.
Through the Phillipine Deep there began presently to flow an enormous balancing river. It carried the aliens’ invasion vessel in a long, slanting, upward direction. But several weeks passed before the drifting ship actually broke surface, and another day or two before it was seen.
A naval patrol boarded it, found the aliens dead more than a month from concussion, and— after examining the damage—correctly analyzed what had happened.
And so— a new King "woke" to the first "day" of his reign, and heard his Alter Ego say, "Well, Itself, what’s the program?"
Itself glared with a royal suspicion.
2. LOST: FIFTY SUNS
THE STREET loud-speaker clattered into life. A man’s voice said resonantly:
"Attention, citizens of the planets of the Fifty Suns. This is the Earth battleship Star Cluster. In a few moments, the Right Honorable Gloria Cecily, Lady Laurr of Noble Laurr, Grand Captain of the Star Cluster, will make an announcement."
Maltby, who had been walking toward an airlift car, stopped as the voice sounded from the radio. He saw that other people were pausing, also.
Lant was a new planet for him; its capital city was delightfully rural after the densely populated Cassidor, where the Fifty Suns Space Navy had its main base. His own ship had landed the day before, on general orders commanding all warships to seek refuge Immediately on the nearest inhabited planet.
It was an emergency order, with panic implicit in it. From what he had heard at officers’ mess, it was clear that it had something to do with the Earth ship whose broadcast was now being transmitted over the general-alarm system.
On the radio, the man’s voice said impressively, "And here is Lady Laurr."
A young woman’s clear, firm silvery voice began, "People of the Fifty Suns, we know you are there.
"For several years my ship the Star Cluster has been mapping the Greater Magellanic Cloud. Accidentally, we ran into one of your space meteorological stations and captured its attendant. Before he succeeded in killing himself, we learned that somewhere in this cloud of about a hundred million stars, there are fifty inhabited sun systems with a total of seventy planets with human beings living on them.
"It is our intention to find you, though it may seem at first thought that it will be impossible for us to do so. Locating fifty suns scattered among a hundred million stars seems difficult in a purely mechanical way. But we have devised a solution to the problem that is only partly mechanical
"Listen well now, people of the Fifty Suns. We know who you are. We know that you are the Dellian and non-Dellian robots — so-called; not really robots at all, but flesh-and-blood humanoids. And, in looking through our history books, we have read about the foolish riots of fifteen thousand years ago that frightened you and made you leave the main galaxy and seek sanctuary far away from human civilization.
"Fifteen thousand years is a long time. Men have changed. Such unpleasant incidents as your ancestors experienced are no longer possible. I say this to you in order to ease your fears. Because you must come back into the fold. You must join the Earth galactic union, subscribe to certain minimum regulations, and establish interstellar commercial ports.
"Because of your special reasons for concealing yourselves, you are allowed one sidereal week to reveal to us the location of your planets. During that time we shall take no action. After that time, for each sidereal day that passes without contact being established, there will be a penalty,
"Of this you may be sure. We shall find you. And quickly!"
The speaker was silent, as if to let the meaning of the words sink in. Near Maltby, a man said, "Only one ship. What are we afraid of? Let’s destroy it before it can go back to the galaxy and report our presence."
A woman said uneasily, "Is she telling the truth, or is she bluffing? Does she really believe they can locate us?”
A second man spoke gruffly. "It’s impossible. It’s the old needle in the haystack problem, only worse."
Maltby said nothing, but he was inclined to agree. It seemed to him that Grand Captain Laurr, of the Earth ship, was whistling in the greatest darkness that had ever hidden a civilization.
On the radio, the Right Honorable Gloria Cecily was speaking again:
"In the event that you do not keep time the way we do, a sidereal day is made up of twenty hours of a hundred minutes each day. There are a hundred seconds in a minute, and in that second light travels 100,000 miles exactly. Our day is somewhat longer than the old-style day in which a minute was sixty seconds and light-speed 186,300-odd miles a second.
"Govern yourselves accordingly. One week from today I shall call again."
There was a pause. And then the voice of a man—not the one who had introduced the woman—said:
"Citizens of the Fifty Suns, that was a transcribed message. It was delivered about an hour ago and was rebroadcast on the instructions of the Fifty Suns council in accordance with our desire to keep the populace abreast of all developments in this, the most serious danger that has ever threatened us.
"Continue about your daily business and be assured that everything possible is being done. Further information will be given out as it is received.
"That is all for now."
Maltby climbed aboard the airlift car, which settled down at his signal. As he sank into a vacant seat, a woman came over and sat down beside him. He felt the faintest tugging sensation at his mind. His eyes widened a little, but he gave no other sign that he had felt the probing of the woman spy’s mind.
She said after a little, "Did you hear the broadcast?"
"What did you think of it?"
"The commander seemed very positive."
"Did you notice that she had identified all of us here in the Fifty Suns as Dellian and non-Dellian robots?"
He was not surprised that she had got it, also. The Earth people did not know that there was a third group in the Fifty Suns—the Mixed Men. For thousands of years after the migration, a Dellian and non-Dellian marriage had not produced children. Finally, by what was known as the cold-pressure system, children became possible. The result was the so-called Mixed Man, with two minds, Dellian physical strength and non-Dellian creative ability. The two minds, properly coordinated, could dominate any person who had only one mind,
Maltby was a Mixed Man. So was the woman sitting beside him, as he had recognized from the way she had momentarily stimulated his brain. The difference between them was, he had a legal status on Lant and other planets of the Fifty Suns. She didn’t. If she were caught, she would be subject to imprisonment or death.
"Wo’ve been following you," she said, "intending to contact you ever since our headquarters heard this message something over an hour ago. What do you think we should do?"
Maltby hesitated. It was hard for him to accept his role of hereditary leader of the Mixed Men; he who was also a captain in the Fifty Suns space fleet. Twenty years before, the Mixed Men had tried to seize control of the Fifty Suns. The attempt had ended in disastrous failure, as a result of which they were declared outlaws. Maltby, then a small boy, had been captured by a Dellian patrol party. The fleet educated him. He was an experiment. It was recognized that the problem of the Mixed Men would have to be solved. A prolonged effort was made to teach him loyalty to the Fifty Suns as a whole; and to a considerable extent it was a success. What his teachers didn’t know was that they had in their power the nominal leader of the Mixed Men.
It had put a conflict into Maltby’s mind, one which he had not yet resolved. He said slowly, "At the moment my feeling is that we should automatically stick with the group. Let us act openly with the Dellians and non-Dellians. After all, we, too, are of the Fifty Suns."
The woman said, "There has already been talk of the possibility that we could gain some advantage by giving away the location of one of the planets."
For a moment, despite his own ambivalent training, that shocked Maltby. And yet he could see what she meant. The situation was alive with dynamic potentialities. He thought ruefully, I guess I’m not temperamentally suited for intrigue. He grew calmer, more thoughtful, more prepared to discuss the problem objectively. "If Earth located this civilization and recognized its government, then no changes would be possible. Any plans we might have for altering the situation in our favor—“
The woman—she was a slim blonde—smiled grimly, a savage light in her blue eyes. "If we gave them away." she said, "we could make the condition that we would hereafter receive equal status. That’s all we want, basically."
"Is it?" Maltby knew better, and he was not pleased. "I seem to remember the war we waged had other purposes."
"Well—" The woman was defiant. "Who has a better right to the dominant position? We are physiologically superior to the Dellians and non-Dellians. For all we know, we may be the only super-race in the Galaxy." She broke oft tensely. There’s another, greater possibility: These Earth people have never run into Mixed Men. If we had the advantage of surprise—if we could get enough of our people aboard their ship—we might capture new, decisive weapons. Do you see?"
Maltby saw many things, including the fact that there was a great deal of wishful thinking involved. "My dear," he said, "we are a small group. Our revolution against the Fifty Suns government failed despite initial surprise. It is possible that we might be able to do all these things, given time. But our ideas are bigger than our numbers."
"Hunston thinks the time to act is during a crisis."
"Hunston!" said Maltby involuntarily.
And then he was silent.
Alongside the colorful and demanding Hunston, Maltby felt himself drab. His was the unpopular role of holding in check the fierce passions of undisciplined young people. Through his followers, mostly elderly men, friends of his dead father, he could do nothing but advocate caution. It had proved a thankless task. Hunston was a sub-leader of the Mixed Men. His dynamic program of action now appealed to the younger people, to whom the disaster of the previous generation was mere hearsay. Their attitude was, “The leaders then made mistakes. We won’t."
Maltby himself had no desire for dominance over the people of the Fifty Suns. For years he had asked himself the question, "How can I direct the ambitions of the Mixed Men into less belligerent channels?” Up to now he had found no ready solution. He said slowly, firmly, "When the group is threatened, the ranks must close. Whether we like it or not, we are of the Fifty Suns. It may be that it would be advisable to betray this civilization to Earth, but that is not something for us to decide an hour after the opportunity presents itself. Advise the hidden cities that I want three days of discussion and free criticism. On the fourth day there will be a plebiscite on which the issue will be: betray, or not betray? That is all."
From the corner of his eye he saw that the woman was not pleased. Her face was suddenly sullen; there was suppressed anger in the way she held herself.
"My dear," he said gently, "surely you are not thinking in terms of going against the majority?”
He could see, then, from her changing expression that he had started the old democratic conflicts in her mind. It was his great hold on all these people, the fact that the Mixed Men council—of which he was head—appealed on all major issues directly to the group. Time had proved that plebiscites brought out the conservative instincts of a people. Individuals who for months had talked angrily of the forthright steps that must be taken grew cautious when con fronted by a plebiscite ballot. Many a dangerous political storm had blown itself out in the ballot box.
The woman, who had been silent, said slowly, "In four days some other group may have decided to do the betraying; and we will have lost the advantage. Hunston thinks that in a crisis government should act without delay. Later, it can ask the people if they think its action was correct.
For that at least Maltby had an adequate answer. "The fate of an entire civilization is involved. Shall one man or a small group commit, first, a few hundred thousand of their own people and, through them, sixteen billion citizens of the Fifty Suns? I think not. But now, here is where I get off. Good luck."
He stood up and presently climbed to the ground. He did not look back as he headed for the steel barrier beyond which was one of several small bases that the Fifty Suns Military Forces maintained on the planet of Lant.
The guard at the gate examined his credentials with a frown and then said in a formal tone, "Captain, I have orders to escort you to the Capitol building, where local government leaders are in conference with military commanders. Will you come peaceably?"
Outwardly, Maltby did not hesitate. "Of course," he said.
A minute later, he was in a military air car being flown back across the city.
It was not as yet, he recognized, an inescapable situation. In an instant he could concentrate his two minds in a certain pattern and control first his guard and then the pilot of the craft.
Ho decided to do neither. It struck him that a conference of government leaders did not spell immediate danger for Captain Peter Maltby. Indeed, he could expect to learn something.
The small ship landed in a courtyard between two ivy. covered buildings. Maltby was taken through a door into a broad, brightly lighted corridor and so was ushered into a room where a score of men sat around a conference table. His arrival had evidently been announced, for no one was talking as he entered. He glanced swiftly along the line of faces that turned toward him. Two he knew personally. Both wore the uniform of commanding officers of the fleet. Both nodded greeting. He acknowledged the recognition in each case with a nod of his own.
All the other men, including four men in uniform, he had not previously seen in person. He recognized several local government leaders and several local officers. It was easy to distinguish the Dellian from the non-Dellian. The former were, without exception, fine, handsome, strong-looking men.
The latter varied widely. It was a pudgy non-Dellian at the head of the table facing the door who stood up. Maltby recognized him from news photos as Andrew Craig, a local government minister. "Gentlemen," Craig began, "let us not be evasive with Captain Maltby."
He addressed himself to Maltby. "Captain, a number of conversations have been in progress in connection with the threat of the so-called Earth battleship whose woman commander a short time ago made the announcement you probably heard."
Maltby inclined his head. "I heard it."
"Good. Here is the situation. It has already been more or less decided that we shall not reveal ourselves to this intruder regardless of inducements offered. A few people argued that now that the Earth has come to the Greater Magellan Cloud discovery is inevitable sooner or later. But the time interval involved could be thousands of years. Our attitude is, let us stick together now and refuse contact. During the next decade—and it will take that long—we can send expeditions to the main galaxy and see just what is going on there. Having done that, we can then make our final decision on the matter of establishing relations. You can see that this is the sensible course."
He paused and gazed expectantly at Maltby. There was in his manner a hint of anxiety. Maltby said in an even tone, "That is undoubtedly the sensible course."
An audible sigh of relief went up from several men.
"However," Maltby continued, "can you be sure that some group or planet will not reveal our location to the Earth ship? Many people, many planets, have individual interests.”
"Of that," said the pudgy man, "we are well aware. Which is why you have been invited to this meeting."
Maltby wasn’t sure that it had been precisely an invitation, but he made no comment.
The spokesman went on. "We have now received communications from all Fifty Sum governments. They are uniformly agreed that we must remain hidden. But all are equally aware that unless we can obtain an agreement from the Mixed Men not to take advantage of this situation, then our unity will have been in vain."
For some minutes Maltby had guessed what was coming. And he had recognized it as a crisis in the relationship between Mixed Men and the people of the Fifty Suns. It was also, he saw clearly, a personal crisis for himself. He said, "Gentlemen, I have an idea that I am going to be asked to make contact with other Mixed Men. As a captain in the Fifty Suns military arm, any such contact will place me immediately in a very difficult position.”
Vice-admiral Dreehan, commanding officer of the battleship Atmion, of which Maltby was assistant astrogator and chief meteorologist, spoke up. "Captain, you may agree freely to any proposal here made to you. Have no fear that your anomalous position is not appreciated."
"I should like," said Maltby, "to have that written into the minutes and note taken."
Craig nodded at the stenographers. "Please note!" he said.
"Proceed," said Maltby.
"As you have guessed," Craig went on, we want you to convey our proposals to the—" He paused, scowling a little, obviously reluctant to use a word that lent an aura of legitimacy to the outlaw group—"to the governing council of the Mixed Men. You have, we believe, opportunity to make such a contact.
"Years ago," acknowledged Maltby, "I informed my commanding officer that I had been approached by emissaries of the Mixed Men and that permanent facilities for liaison existed on each planet of the Fifty Suns. It was decided at that time not to show any awareness of the existence of these agencies, as they would obviously go underground in a more thorough fashion—that is, they would not advise me of their future location."
Actually, the decision for him to inform the armed forces of the Fifty Suns that such agencies existed had been made by the plebiscite of the Mixed Men. It was felt that contact would be suspected and therefore should be admitted. It was further believed that the Fifty Suns would not molest the agencies except in an emergency. The action had proved soundly based. But here was the emergency.
"Frankly," said the pudgy man, "it is our conviction that the Mixed Men are going to regard this situation as one which strengthens their bargaining position." He meant political blackmail, and it was a significant commentary on the situation that he did not say so. "I am empowered, Craig went on, "to offer limited citizenship rights, access to certain planets, eventual right to live in cities—with the whole problem of legal and political rights to be taken up every ten years, with assurance that each time—depending on behavior during the previous decade—further privileges will be granted."
Ho paused, and Maltby saw that everyone was looking at him with a kind of tense eagerness. A Dellian politician broke the silence. "What do you think of it?"
Maltby sighed. Before the arrival of the Earth ship, it would have been a remarkable offer. It was the old story of a concession made under pressure at a time when those who made it no longer controlled the situation. He said as much, not aggressively but with a to-the-point candor. Even as he spoke, he thought over the terms, and it seemed to him that they were sound and honest. Knowing what he knew of the ambitions of certain groups among the Mixed Men, it seemed to him that further concessions would be as dangerous to them as to their peaceable neighbors. In view of the past there had to be restrictions and a period of probation. Therefore, he tended to support the proposals, while recognizing that it would be hard, under the circumstances, to put them over. He made his point quietly and finished: "We’ll just have to wait and see."
There was a brief silence after he had spoken; and then a heavy-faced non-Dellian said harshly, "My own feeling is that we’re wasting our time in this cowardly by-play. Although the Fifty Suns have been at peace for a long time, we still have more than a hundred battleships in service, not counting a host of smaller craft. Out there somewhere in space is one Earth battleship. I say, let’s send the fleet to destroy it! That way we’ll eliminate every human being who knows we exist. Ten thousand years may go by before they accidentally discover us again."
Vice-admiral Dreehan said, "We’ve discussed that. The reason it is inadvisable is very simple: the Earth people may have new weapons which could defeat us. We can’t take the chance."
"I don’t care what weapons one ship has," said the other flatly. "If the navy does its duty, all our problems will be solved by a single decisive action."
Craig said curtly, "That is a last resort." He faced Maltby again. "You may tell the Mixed Men that if they turn down our offer, we do have a large fleet to use against the intruder. In other words, if they should pursue the course of betrayal, It would not necessarily gain them anything. You may go, Captain."
Aboard the Earth battleship, Star Cluster, Grand Captain, the Right Honorable Gloria Cecily, Lady Laure of Noble Laurr, sat at her desk on the bridge, gazed out into space, and considered her situation.
In front of her was a multiplanal viewport set at full transparency. Beyond was blackness with, here and there, stars. Magnification was at zero, and so only a few stars were visible, with occasional splotches of light to indicate the star density in that direction. The biggest and blurriest haze was to her left: the main galaxy, of which Earth was one planet of one system, one grain of sand in a cosmic desert.
The woman scarcely noticed. For years some variation of that fantastic scene had been part of her life. She saw it and ignored it in the same moment. She smiled now, a smile of decision; pressed a button. A man’s face came on to the plato in front of her. She said without preamble, "I have been informed, Captain, that there is disgruntlement at our decision to remain in the Greater Magellanic Cloud and search for the Fifty Suns civilization."
The Captain hesitated, then said carefully. Your excellency, I have heard that your determination to make this search does not meet with universal approval."
His changing of her phrase "our decision” to “your determination” did not escape her.
The man went on. "Naturally, I cannot speak for all the members of the crew, since there are thirty thousand of them."
"Naturally," she said. And there was irony in her tone.
The officer seemed not to hear. "It seems to me, your excellency, that it might be a good idea to hold a general ballot on this matter."
"Nonsense. They’d all vote to go home. After ten years in space, they’ve become jellyfish. They have little mind and no purpose. Captain—" Her voice was soft, but there was a glint in her eyes— sense in your tone and bearing a sort of emotional agreement with this—this childish instinct of the group. Remember, the oldest law of space flight is that someone must have the will to go forward. Officers are selected with the utmost care because they must not give in to this blind desire to go home. It has been established that people who finally do rush madly to their planet, and their house, have a momentary emotional satisfaction and then restlessly join up for another long voyage. We are too far from our galaxy to cater to such juvenile lack of discipline."
The officer said quietly, "I am familiar with these arguments.”
"I am glad to hear it," said Grand Captain Laurr acidly. And broke the connection between them.
Next, she called Astrogation. A young officer answered. To him she said, "I want a series of orbits plotted that will take us through the Greater Magellanic Cloud in the quickest possible time. Before we’re through, I want us to have been within five hundred light-years of every star in the system.”
Some of the color faded from the youthful officer’s face. "Your excellency," he gasped, "that is the most remarkable order that we have ever received. This cloud of stars is six thousand light-years in diameter. What velocity did you have in mind, remembering that we have no knowledge of the location of the storms here?"
The boy’s reaction disconcerted her in spite of herself. Just for an instant she felt doubt. She had a brief abstract awareness of how great a volume of space she contemplated passing through.
The doubt passed. She stiffened herself. "I believe," she said, "that the density of storm areas in this system would limit us to about one light-year every thirty minutes."
She broke off curtly. "Have your chief advise me when these orbits have been completed."
"Yes, your excellency," said the young man. His voice was drab,
She broke that connection, snt back and manipulated a switch that altered the viewport in front of her into a reflecting surface. She stared at her image. She saw a slim, grim-faced, rather handsome young woman of thirty-five. The image was smiling faintly, ironically, an indication of her satisfaction with the two steps she had taken. The word would spread. People would begin to realize what she contemplated. There would be despair, then acceptance. She felt no regret. She had done what she had because she took it for granted that the governments of the Fifty Suns would not reveal the location of a single one of their planets.
She ate lunch alone on the bridge, feeling intense excitement. A struggle for control of the ship’s destiny was imminent; and she knew that she must be prepared for every eventuality. Three calls came through before she had finished eating. She had set up an automatic busy signal; and so she ignored them. The busy signal meant, "I’m here, but don’t bother me unless it’s urgent." Each time the calls ceased within seconds.
After lunch she lay down for a while to sleep and think. Presently, she rose, walked over to a matter transmitter, made the necessary adjustments—and stepped through to Psychology House half a mile away.
Lieutenant Neslor, the chief psychologist and a woman, emerged from a nearby room and greeted her warmly. The Grand Captain outlined her problems. The older woman nodded and said:
"I thought you’d be down to see me. If you’ll wait a moment, I’ll turn my patient over to an assistant; and then I’ll talk to you."
By the time she returned, Lady Laurr had felt an incidental curiosity. "How many patients do you have here?"
The older woman’s gray eyes studied her thoughtfully, "My staff does about eight hundred hours of therapy a week."
"With your facilities that sounds tremendous."
Lieutenant Neslor nodded. "It’s been on the increase for several years."
Lady Gloria shrugged and was about to dismiss the matter when another thought struck her. "What’s the troubleP" she asked. "Homesickness?"
"I suppose you could call it that. We have several technical names for it." She broke off. "Now, don’t you be too critical. This is a hard life for people whose work is purely routine. Big though the ship is, with each passing year its facilities are less satisfying to the individual."
The Right Honorable Gloria Cecily parted her lips to say that her own work was routine, also. Just in time she realized that the remark would sound false, even condescending. Nevertheless, she shook her head impatiently. "I don’t understand. We have everything aboard this ship. Equal numbers of men and women, endless activities, food in plenty, and more entertainment than a person could desire in an entire lifetime. You can walk under growing trees beside ever-running streams. You can get married and divorced, though of course no children are allowed. There are gay bachelors aboard, and bachelor girls. Everyone has a room of his own and the knowledge that his pay is no cumulating and that he can retire at the end of the voyage." She frowned. "And right now, with the discovery of this civilization of the Fifty Suns the voyage should be very stimulating."
The older woman smiled. "Gloria, dear, you’re not being very bright. It’s stimulating to you and me because of our special positions. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing how these people think and act, I’ve read up on the history of the so-called Dellian and non-Dellian robots, and there’s a whole new world of discovery here—for me; but not for the man who cooks my meals."
The Grand Captain’s face was determined again. "I’m afraid he’ll just have to stick it out. And now, let’s get to business. We’ve got a two-level problem: Keeping control of the ship. Finding the Fifty Suns. In that order, I think."
Their discussion lasted well into the main sleep period. In the end Lady Laurr returned to the bridge and to her apartment, which adjoined it, convinced that both problems were, as she had suspected, predominantly psychological.
The week of grace went by uneventfully.
At the precise hour that it ended, the Grand Captain called into council the divisional captains of her giant ship. And with her first words struck at the heart of the emotional tension she had divined was in the officers as well as the men. "As I see it, ladies and gentlemen, we must stay here until we find this civilization, even if it means remaining for another ten years."
The captains looked at their neighbors and stirred uneasily. There were thirty of them, all except four being men.
The Right Honorable Gloria Cecily Laurr of Noble Laurr went on. "Taking that into account, accepting the fact that long-run strategies are in order, has anyone a plan of procedure?"
Captain Wayless, chief of staff of the flight command, said, "I am personally opposed to the notion that this search should be continued."
The Grand Captain’s eyes narrowed. She guessed from the expressions of the others that Wayless was stating a more generally-held opinion than she had suspected. She said as quietly as had he, "Captain, there are procedures for overruling a ship’s commanding officer. Why not follow one of them?”
Captain Wayless was pale. "Very well, your excellency," he said. "I invoke clause 492 of the Regulations."
In spite of herself, his prompt acceptance of her challenge shocked her. She knew the clause, since it was a limitation of her own power. No one could possibly know all the regulations governing the minutiae of personnel control. But she had learned that each individual knew the regulations relating to himself. When it came to personal rights, everyone was a space-lawyer, herself included.
But she sat now, white-faced, as Captain Wayless read the clause in a resonant voice: "Limitation . . . circumstances justify the captains in council . . . a majority . . . two-thirds. . . . Original purpose of voyage . . ."
It was all there, as she recalled it, invoked against her now for the first time. The Star Cluster had been sent on a mapping expedition. The task was completed. In insisting on a change of purpose, she had brought her actions within the meaning of the regulation
She waited till Wayless had put down the book. Then she said in a mild tone, "How do we vote?"
It was twenty-one against her and five for her. Four officers abstained. Captain Dorothy Sturdevant, who headed the female clerical division, said, "Gloria, it had to be that way. We’ve been out a long time. Let someone else find this civilization."
The Grand Captain tapped with her pencil on the long. gleaming desk, an impatient gesture. But when she spoke, her voice was measured. "Regulation 492 gives me discretion to act as I see fit in a period varying between five and ten percent of the total length of the voyage to date, provided the discretionary power is not employed beyond six months. I therefore decree that we remain six months longer in the Greater Magellanic Cloud. And now let us discuss ways and means of locating a planet of the Fifty Suns. Here are my ideas."
Coolly, she proceeded to give them.
Maltby was reading in his cabin aboard the Fifty Suns battleship Atmion when the alarm sounded. “All personnel to stations!"
There was no whine of sirens, so it was not a battle alert. He put down his book, slipped into his coat, and headed for the Astrogation and instrument room. Several officers, including the ship’s executive astrogational officer, were al ready there when he arrived. They nodded to him rather curtly, but that was usual. He sat down at his desk and took out of his pocket the tool of his trade: a slide rule with a radio attachment that connected with the nearest—in this case the ship’s—mechanical brain.
He was in the act of taking out pencils and paper when the ship moved under him. Simultaneously, a loud-speaker came on, and the unmistakable voice of Commanding officer Vice-admiral Dreehan said:
"This message is going to officers only. As you know, slightly more than a week ago we were contacted by the Earth battleship Star Cluster and given an ultimatum, the time limit for which expired five hours ago. Up till now the various governments of our people have indicated that no further message has been forthcoming. Actually, a second ultimatum was received about three hours ago, but it contained an unexpected threat. It is believed that the public might be unduly alarmed if the nature of the threat was announced. The attitude of the governments will be that no second message was received. But here, for your private in formation, is the new ultimatum."
There was a pause, and then a deep, firm, resonant man’s voice spoke: "Her excellency, the Right Honorable Gloria Cecily, Lady Laurr of Noble Laurr, Grand Captain of the battleship Star Cluster, will now deliver her second message to the people of the Fifty Suns."
There was another pause. And then, instead of Grand Captain Laurr, Admiral Dreehan’s voice came on again.
“I have been asked," he said, "to call your attention to this imposing list of titles. Apparently a woman of so-called noble birth is in command of the enemy ship. That a woman should be commander seems very democratic, indicating equality of the sexes. But how did she gain her appointment? Through her rank? Besides, the very existence of rank is some indication of the kind of totalitarian government that exists in the main galaxy."
Maltby could not agree to the analysis. Titles were words that had meanings according to usage. In the Fifty Suns, there had been totalitarian eras where the leaders called themselves "Chief Servant." There had been "Presidents" whose whim could mean death for individuals, "Secretaries" who controlled governments absolutely, immensely dangerous individuals all, whose nominal rank covered a deadly reality. Furthermore, the desire for a verbal symbol of achievement permeated all human effort in every type of political system. Even as he spoke, "Admiral" Dreehan exercised his rank. In listening to this private transcription of an ultimatum "Captain" Maltby was being given a special privilege of rank and position. The "head" of a business, the owner of property, the trained "expert"—each in its fashion was rank. Each gave the possessor emotional satisfaction similar to that obtainable from position of any degree. In the Fifty Suns it had become popular to despise kings and dictators of all history. This attitude, in failing to take account of the circumstances, was as childish as its opposite: the inculcated worship of leaders. The Mixed Men, in their desperate situation, had reluctantly appointed a hereditary leader to avoid the bitter rivalry of ambitious men. Their plan had received a dangerous setback when the "heir" was captured. But the resulting struggle for power had decided them to reaffirm his status. It seemed to Maltby, ruefully, that no man had ever felt so little like a hereditary ruler. Yet even as he shifted uneasily under the rank, he recognized how necessary it had been. And how great was the obligation upon him to act decisively in a crisis. His thought ended because her "excellency" was speaking.
Grand Captain the Right Honorable Gloria Cecily said:
"It is with regret that we who represent the Earth civilization recognize the recalcitrancy of the government of the Fifty Suns. We can say in the most solemn fashion that the people have been misled. The coming of Earth power into the Greater Magellanic Cloud will be of benefit to all individuals and groups of all planets. Earth has much to offer. Earth guarantees to the individual basic rights under law, guarantees to the group basic freedoms and economic prosperity, and requires all government to be elective by secret ballot.
"Earth does not permit a separate sovereign state anywhere in the universe.
"Such a separate military power could strike at the heart of the human-controlled galaxy and drop bombs on densely populated planets. That has happened. You may guess what we did to the governments who sponsored such a project. You cannot escape us. If by any chance we should fail now with our one ship to locate you, then within a few years ten thousand ships will be here searching. This is one thing we never delay on. From our point of view, it is safer to destroy an entire civilization than let it exist as a cancer in the greater culture from which it sprang.
"However, we do not think that we shall fail. Starting now, my great battleship, Star Cluster, will cruise on a definite course through the Greater Magellanic Cloud. It will take us several years to pass within five hundred light years of every sun in the system. As we move along, we shall direct cosmic-ray bombs at random toward the planets of most of the stars in any given area of space.
"Realizing that such a threat might make you afraid to trust yourselves to us, I have indicated why we adopt this admittedly merciless attitude. It is not yet too late to reveal yourselves. At any moment the government of any planet can broadcast its willingness to identify the location of the Fifty Suns. The first planet to do so will henceforth, and for all future time, be the capital of the Fifty Suns. The first individual or group who gives us a clue to the location of his or its planet will receive a gift of one billion platinum dollars, good anywhere in the main galaxy, or if you prefer, the equivalent sum in your own money.
"Have no fear. My ship can protect you against the organized might of the Fifty Suns military forces. And now, as an evidence of our determination, I shall have our chief astrogator broadcast the figures that will enable you to follow our course through the Cloud."
The message ended abruptly. Admiral Dreehan came on and said, "I shall presently give these figures to the Astrogation department, since it is our intention to follow the Star Cluster and observe the result of its announced program. However, I have been asked to call your attention to another implication to the broadcast which Lady Laurr has made to us. Her manner, tone, and wording suggest that she commands a very big ship." The admiral went on quickly: "Please do not imagine that we are jumping to any conclusions, but consider some of her statements. She says that the Star Cluster will ‘direct’ cosmic-ray bombs to most of the planets of the Cloud. Suppose, when reduced to common sense, she meant one bomb for every hundred planets. That would require several million bombs. But our own bomb factories can turn out only one cosmic-ray unit every four days. At a minimum, such a factory would need a square mile of floor space. Then again, she stated that her one ship can protect traitors against the Fifty Suns military forces. At the moment we have more than a hundred battleships in service in addition to four hundred cruisers and thousands of smaller craft. Let’s consider also the original purpose of the Star Cluster in the Greater Magellanic Cloud. It was, by their own admission, a star-mapping expedition. Our own mapping ships are small obsolete models. It seems hard to believe that Earth would assign one of their greatest and most powerful ships to so routine a task." The admiral broke off. "I should like all officers to prepare for me their reactions to the foregoing statements. And now, that’s all for most of you. I shall broadcast for Astrogation and Meteorology the figures supplied us by the Star Cluster."
It required just over five hours of sustained, careful work to orient the map furnished by the Star Cluster to the long-established star-map system of the Fifty Suns. At that time it was estimated that the Atmion was about 1,400 light-years away from the Earth ship.
The distance was unimportant. They knew the location of all storms in the Greater Magellanic Cloud. And so they easily plotted an orbit that permitted a velocity of approximately half a light-year a minute.
The prolonged effort tired Maltby. As soon as his share of the task was finished, he retreated to his cabin and slept.
He woke to the sound of an alarm bell ringing. Quickly, he switched on a viewplate that connected with the bridge. The fact that a picture came on immediately indicated that officers were being permitted to watch events. He saw on the plate that it was focused at full magnification on a distant point of light. The light moved, and the plate kept adjusting, trying to hold it near center.
A voice said, "According to our automatic calculators, the Star Cluster is now approximately a third of a light-year away."
Maltby frowned at the explanation because it was not properly worded. The speaker meant that the two vessels were within each other’s upper-resonance fields, a secondary phenomenon of subspace radio, and a kind of damped echo of the virtually unlimited lower-resonance range. It was impossible to tell how far away the Earth ship was, except that it could not be further than a third of a light-year. It might be only a few hundred miles, though that was doubtful. There were radar devices for short-distance detection of objects in space. The voice went on. "We have reduced our own speed to ten light-days a minute. Since we are following the course broadcast by the Earthship and have not lost her, we can assume that we are matching her velocity."
That statement, also, was not exact. It was possible to approximate but impossible to match velocities with a ship traveling at more than light-speed. The error would show up as soon as the two ships lost touch with each other’s upper-resonance fields. Even as he had thought, the light on the plate winked out.
Maltby waited, and finally the announcer said unhappily, "Please do not be alarmed. I have been told contact will probably be reestablished."
An hour went by, and the light did not reappear. Maltby had long since ceased paying more than sporadic attention to the viewplate. His mind was on what Admiral Dreehan had said about the size of the Star Cluster.
He realized the commanding officer had stated the situation fairly. It was a problem laden with dangerous possibilities. It seemed impossible that any vessel could be a big as Grand Captain Laurr had implied. And therefore the Earth ship was putting on a bluff. At least a part of the proof would be in the number of bombs she set off.
On six successive days the Atmion entered the upper-resonance field of the Earth ship. Each time she maintained contact as long as possible; and then, having verified the enemy vessel’s route, examined the planets of nearby suns. Only once did they find evidence of destruction. And the bomb must have been badly timed, for it had hit an outer planet normally too cold and remote for its sun to support life.
It was not cold now but a seething hell of nuclear energy that had fired the rocky crust and penetrated to the metallic core itself. A miniature sun blazed there. The sight of it alarmed no one aboard the Atmion. The probability that one of a hundred bombs would strike an inhabited planet was mathematically so close to zero that the difference didn’t count.
It was on the sixth day of the search when Maltby’s view. plate clicked on; and the image of Vice-admiral Dreehan’s face appeared on it. "Captain Maltby, will you report to my office?”
Maltby went at once. The adjutant in charge nodded recognition and admitted him to Dreehan’s cabin. Maltby found the commanding officer sitting in a chair, contemplating what looked like a radiogram. The older man laid the document face down and motioned Maltby to sit down in the chair across the desk.
"Captain, what is your status among the Mixed Men?" So they had finally got around to that basic question.
Maltby did not feel alarmed. He stared at the officer and allowed an expression of puzzlement to creep over his face. Dreehan was a middle-aged Dellian with the fine physique and handsome appearance of his kind. Maltby said, "I couldn’t tell you exactly how they regard me. Partly as a traitor, I think. Whenever they contact me—which I always report to my superiors—I urge the agent who talks to me to tell his superiors that I recommend a policy of conciliation and integrity."
Dreehan seemed to consider that, and then he said, "What do the Mixed Men think of this business?
"I’m not sure. My contact is too vague. "Still, you probably have some idea."
I understand it," said Maltby, a minority group among them believes that Earth will locate the Fifty Suns sooner or later, they argue—advantage should be taken of the present position. The majority, which is tired of living in hiding, has definitely voted to go along with the rest of the Fifty Suns."
"By what percentage?
"Just over four to one." Maltby spoke the lie without hesitation.
Dreehan hesitated; then he said, "Is there any possibility that the dissident minority will act unilaterallyP"
Maltby said quickly, They might want to, but they can’t—so I’ve been assured."
"Why don’t they?"
They do not have a really skillful space meteorologist among them."
That was also a lie. The problem went deeper than any skill possessed by either group. The fact was that Hunston wanted to gain control of the Mixed Men by legal means. So long as he believed that he could do so, he would not take the law into his own hands—so Maltby’s advisers had informed him. On that information, he now based his verbal web of falsehood and truth.
Dreehan seemed to be considering his words. He said finally, "The governments of the Fifty Suns are alarmed by the nature of the latest ultimatum—which you have heard—in that it offers such an ideal opportunity to the Mixed Men. They can betray us and gain advantages as great as might have been theirs had they won the war a generation ago."
There was nothing Maltby could say to that except repent a variation of his earlier lie. "I think the four-to-one victory of those who prefer to stick with the Fifty Suns shows the trend."
Once more there was a pause. And Maltby wondered what was really behind the interview. Surely they couldn’t be basing their hopes on reassurances from Captain Peter Maltby. Drechan cleared his throat. "Captain, I’ve heard a great deal about the so-called double mind of the Mixed Men without ever getting a clear explanation of how it works and what it does. Will you enlighten me?"
"It’s really quite unimportant." Maltby spoke his third lie quietly. "I think the fear of it during the war had a great deal to do with the ferocity with which the final battles were fought. You know what a normal brain is like—innumerable cells, each one separately connectable to those adjoining it. On that level, the brain of the Mixed Man is no different than yours. Go down another level, and you have in each cell of a Mixed Man a whole series of large, protein, paired molecules. Yours are not paired; his are."
"But what does that do?”
"The Mixed Man has the Dellian ability to resist the breaking down of his mind and the non-Dellian potentiality for creative work."
That’s all that I know of, sir," lied Maltby.
"What about that devastating hypnosis they were supposed to have? There is no clear record of how that worked."
Maltby said, "I understand they used hypnotic devices, a very different thing. It caused a confused terror of the unknown.”
Dreehan seemed to come to a decision. He picked up the radiogram and handed it to Maltby. "This came for you," he said. He added frankly, "If it’s in code, we haven’t been able to break it."
It was in code all right. Maltby saw that in the first glance. And this was what the Admiral had been leading up to.
The message read:
TO: Captain Peter Maltby,
Aboard battleship Atmion
The government of the Mixed Men wishes to think you for acting as mediator in the negotiations with the governments of the Fifty Suns. Please be assured that agreements will be lived up to fully and that the Mixed Men as a group are anxious to obtain the privileges that have been offered.
There was no signature. Which meant that the call for help had been sent by subspace radio and monitored directly by the Atmion.
Ho had to pretend of course that he didn’t know that until he could make up his mind what to do. He said in a puzzled tone, "I notice there’s no signature. Was that left off on purpose?"
Vice-admiral Dreehan looked disappointed. Your guess is as good as mine."
Maltby felt briefly sorry for the officer. No Dellian or non-Dellian would ever break the code of that message. Solving the secret of it depended on having two minds trained to associate. The training was so basic in the education of Mixed Men that Maltby had received a full quota before he was captured more than twenty years before.
The essential meat of the real message was that the minority group had announced its intention of contacting the Star Cluster and had begun a week-long campaign to gain support for the action. Their platform warned that only those who supported them would benefit from the betrayal.
He would have to go there in person. How? His eyes widened a little as he realized that he had only one available method of transportation: this ship. Abruptly, he knew that he had to do it. Ho began to tense his muscles in the Dellian fashion. Ho could feel the electric excitement of that stimulation. All in a moment his minds were strong enough.
He sensed the near presence of another mind. He waited till the sensation seemed to be a part of his own body: then he thought, Blankness! For a moment he held conscious thought away from his own brain. Finally, he stood up. Vice-admiral Dreehan stood up, also, in exactly the same way, with the same movements, as if his muscles were controlled by Maltby’s brain. Which they were. He walked to the instrument board, touched a switch. "Give me the engine room," he said.
With Maltby’s mind directing his voice and his actions, he gave the orders that set the Atmion on a course that would bring it presently to the hidden capital city of the Mixed Men.
Grand Captain Laurr read the notice of "Nullification," sat for a few minutes with fists clenched, in anger. And then, controlling herself, called Captain Wayless. The officer’s face stiffened as he saw who it was. "Captain," she said plaintively, "I have just read your document with its twenty-four signatures."
"It’s legal, I believe," he said in a formal tone.
"Oh, I’m very sure of that," she retorted. She caught herself and went on: "Captain, why this desperate determination to go home immediately? Life is more than legality. We’re engaged in a great adventure. Surely you have some of that feeling left in you."
"Madam," was the cool reply, "I have both admiration and affection for you. You have tremendous administrative ability, but you do tend to project your own ideas and are amazed and hurt when other people have notions different from your own. You are right so often that you lose sight of the fact that once in a while you may be wrong. That is why a big ship like this has thirty captains to advise you and, in an emergency, or actually at any time, overrule you according to prescribed regulations. Believe me, we all love you. But we know our duty to the rest of those aboard."
"But you’re wrong. We can force this civilization out into the open." She hesitated, then, "Captain, won’t you please go along with me just this once?"
It was a personal appeal, and she regretted almost immediately that she had made it. The request seemed to release his tension. He laughed, tried to hold himself, then laughed again.
"Madam, I beg your pardon," he said finally. "Please forgive me."
She was stiff. "What amused you?"
He was sober-faced again. "The phrase ‘Just this once’. Lady Laurr, have you no recollection of ever having asked us to support some plan of yours before?”
"Perhaps a couple of times." She spoke with abrupt caution, remembering.
"I haven’t figured it out," said Captain Wayless, "but just on a rough estimate I would say that you have either asked for our support on a personal basis or else have used your legal command status no less than a hundred times on this voyage to put over or enforce some idea of your own, Now, for once, the legality is being used against you. And you resent it bitterly."
"I’m not bitter. I’m—" She broke off. "Ohhhhh, I can see there’s no use talking to you. For some reason or other you’ve decided that six months is all eternity."
"It’s not a matter of time. It’s a matter of the purpose. You believe without evidence that you can find fifty suns scattered among a hundred million. A big ship just does not take a one-in-two-million chance of that kind. If you can’t see that, then for once we have to overrule you regardless of our personal affection for you."
The Grand Captain hesitated. The argument was going against her. She saw the need for a more careful presentation of her reasons. She said slowly, "Captain, this is not a mechanical problem. If we were depending on chance alone, then your attitude would be correct. Our hope must be based on psychology."
Captain Wayless said quietly, "Those of us who signed the ‘Nullification’ did not do so lightly. We discussed the psychological aspect."
"And on what did you base your rejection of it? Ignorance?"
It was a sharp remark, and she saw that he was irritated. He said formally, "Madam, we have on occasion noted with misgiving your tendency to rely almost exclusively on the advice offered you by Lieutenant Neslor. These meetings you have with her are always private. What is said in them is never brought into the open, except that suddenly you make a move based on what she has told you."
The picture startled her a little. She said defensively, "I confess I hadn’t thought of it that way. I merely went to the legally appointed chief psychologist aboard this ship."
Captain Wayless went on. "If Lieutenant Neslor’s advice is so valuable, then she should be raised to captain’s rank and permitted to air her views before the other captains."
He shrugged, and he must almost have read her thought. Because, before she could utter the words, he said “And please don’t say that you will immediately make the appointment. It takes a month for such a promotion to be put through even if no one objects; and the new captain then sits silent for two months learning the procedure at a council meeting,"
Lady Laurr said grimly, "You won’t permit such a three-month delay?"
"You won’t consider by-passing ordinary procedure in making such an appointment?"
"In an emergency, yes. But this is merely a notion of yours for finding a lost civilization—which will be searched for and found eventually by an expedition dispatched for that purpose."
"Then you insist on ’Nullification’?"
"Very well. I shall order a plebiscite for two weeks from today. If it goes against me, and if nothing else turns up, we start for home."
With a gesture, she broke the connection.
She thought of herself consciously as engaged in warfare on two levels. On the one level, there was the struggle against Captain Wayless and the four-fifths majority that had enabled him to force a plebiscite. On the other there was the fight she was waging to force the Fifty Suns people out into the open. On both levels, she had just begun to fight. She called "Communication." Captain Gorson answered. She said, "Are we still in touch with the Fifty Suns ship that is observing us?"
"No. I reported to you when we lost contact. It has not yet been reestablished." He volunteered, "They’ll probably pick us up again tomorrow when we broadcast our position at that time."
She broke the connection and called "Weapons”. A subordinate answered, but she waited patiently till the captain in charge was called. Then:
"How many bombs have you dropped?"
"All dropped at random?"
"It’s the simplest method, madam. Probability protects us from hitting a planet capable of supporting life."
She nodded but sat frowning anxiously. She said, finally, feeling the need to restate the situation, "Intellectually, I agree with that. Emotionally—"She broke off. "A single mistake, Captain, and you and I would be put on trial for our lives if it were ever found out."
Ho was grim. "I am familiar with that law, your excellency. It is one of the hazards of being in charge of ’Weapons.’ " He hesitated, then, "My feeling is that you made a very dangerous throat—dangerous to us, that is. People should not be subjected to such pressures."
She said curtly, "That’s my responsibility!" And broke the connection.
She stood up then and paced the floor. Two weeks! It seemed impossible that anything could happen before then. In two weeks, as she had planned it, the psychological pressure on the Dellians and non-Dellians would barely have begun.
Thought of them reminded her. She walked swiftly to the matter transmitter, made the adjustments—and stepped through to the centrally located library, just over a third of a mile from her quarters.
She found herself in the private office of the chief librarian, who was sitting at her desk, writing. The Grand Captain began instantly. "Jane, have you got that information on the Dellian riots of—“
The librarian started, half-rose from her chair, then sat down again. She sighed. "Gloria, you’ll be the death of me. Can’t you even say hello before you start in?”
The Grand Captain felt contrite. "I’m sorry. I was intent. But have you?”
"Yes, I have. If you’d waited another ten minutes, it would have been sent up to you in an orderly fashion. Have you had dinner yet?"
"Dinner! No, of course not."
"I love the way you say that. And, knowing you, I know exactly what you mean. Well, you’re coming to dinner with me. And there’ll be no discussion of Dellians or non-Dellians until after we’ve eaten."
"It’s impossible, Jane. I just can’t give the time right now—“
The older woman had climbed to her feet. Now, she came around the desk and took Lady Laurr firmly by the arm. "Oh, you can’t. Then just consider this. You will not receive any information from me until you’ve had dinner. And go right ahead and invoke your laws and regulations, and see if I care. Come along now.”
For a second she resisted. Then she thought wearily: It’s this damned human factor. It’s too hard to make people realize! That tension ended, also, and she had a sudden picture of herself, grim and intent, as if the fate of the universe rested on her shoulders. Slowly, she relaxed. She said, "Thank you, Jane. I’d love to have a glass of wine and some dinner."
But she did not forget that she was right, that, though she might relax for an hour, the reality remained. The Fifty Suns had to be found now for a reason that was only gradually maturing in her brain in all its deadly potentialities.
After dinner, with soft music playing in the background, they discussed the Fifty Suns civilization. The historical outline, as given by the librarian, was remarkably simple and straightforward.
Some fifteen thousand years before, Joseph M. Dell had developed an early variation of the matter transmitter. The machine required mechanical synthesis of certain types of tissue, particularly of the endocrine glands, that could not be properly scanned. Since a human being could step in at one end and emerge an instant later a thousand miles or more—or less—away, it was not immediately noticed that extremely subtle changes were taking place in the individuals who used the method of teleportation.
It was not that anything was missing, though. Dellians were always afterward slow at creative work. But in some respects something seemed to have been added.
The Dellian proved to be less subject to nervous strain. His physical strength for exceeded anything over dreamed of by human beings. He could build himself up to superhuman effort by a curious process of internal stepping up of muscular tension.
Naturally—the librarian was ironic when she came to that part—they were called robots by the more alarmed of human beings. The name did not disturb the Dellians, but it excited humans to a height of hatred that was not immediately suspected by the authorities.
There was a period when mobs raged along the streets lynching Dellians. Human friends of the Dellians persuaded the government to let them migrate. Until now, no one had ever known where they had gone to.
The Right Honorable Gloria Cecily sat thoughtful for it while after the recount was completed. She said finally, "You haven’t been really helpful. I knew all that, except for a couple of minor details."
She was aware of the older woman studying her with shrewd blue eyes. "Gloria, what are you after? When you talk like that, you’re usually trying to prove a theory of your own.”
The remark hit home. The Grand Captain saw that it might be dangerous for her to admit such a thing. People who tried to force facts to fit their own private theories were unscientific. She had frequently been very sharp with officers who uttered vague opinions. She said slowly, "I simply want all the information we can get. It’s obvious that when a mutation like the Dellian is off somewhere for a hundred and fifty centuries all the possible eventualities will have taken place. My attitude is, we can’t afford to miss a single point that is available."
The librarian nodded. Watching her, Lady Laurr decided that the explanation has proved satisfactory and that the momentary Insight had faded from the forefront of the other’s mind.
She stood up. She couldn’t take the chance of any further revelations. The second one might not be so easy to dismiss. She said good night casually and returned to her quarters. After a few minutes of thought, she called "Biology," and asked as her first question, "Doctor, I have previously sent you information on the Dellian and non-Dellian peoples of the Fifty Suns. In your opinion, would it be possible for a Dellian and non-Dellian—married to each other—to have children?"
The biologist was a slow-thinking man who drawled when he spoke, "History says no," he said.
"What do you say?”
"I could do it."
"That," said Grand Captain Laure triumphantly, "is what I wanted to hear."
The stimulation the information brought her did not fade until she crept into bed hours later. She turned out the light, then, and lay for a while staring out into space.
The great night was slightly changed. The points of light were differently arranged, but without magnification she had no visual evidence that she was actually in the Greater Magellan Cloud. Not more than a hundred individual stars showed as separate units. Here and there was a fuzziness of light that indicated the presence of hundreds of thousands of stars, perhaps millions.
On impulse, she reached toward the vision control and turned the magnification to full.
A billion stars blazed at her. She saw the near brilliance of innumerable stars in the Cloud and the vast spiral wheel of the main galaxy, impregnated now with more light points than could ever be counted. And all that she could see was a mere speck in the cosmic scheme of things. Where had it come from? Tens of thousands of generations of human beings had lived and died, and there was still not even the beginning of a satisfactory answer.
She reduced magnification to zero and brought the universe back to the level of her own senses. Wide-eyed, she thought, "Suppose they did produce a cross-breed of the Dellian and non-Dellian? How could that affect me in two weeks?"
She couldn’t imagine. She slept restlessly. Morning . . . As she ate her lean breakfast, it struck her that only thirteen days remained. The impact of that hit her suddenly. She got up from the table, gloomily conscious that she was living in a dream world. Unless she took positive action, the entire enterprise upon which she had launched the great ship would collapse. She headed decisively for the control bridge and called Communications. "Captain," she said to the officer who answered, "are we in upper-resonance contact with the Fifty Suns ship that is trailing us?”
"No, madam. That was disappointing. Now that she had made up her mind, any delay was irritating. She hesitated, finally sighed her acceptance of the reality, and said, "The moment contact is made, communicate to Weapons."
"Very well, madam."
She broke connection and called Weapons. The proud-faced officer commanding that department swallowed as she explained her purpose. He protested finally. "But, madam, this would reveal our greatest weapon. Suppose—"
"Suppose nothing!" Her fury was instant. "At this stage we have nothing to lose. We have failed to lure the Fifty Suns fleet. I order you to capture that one vessel. All the Navigation officers aboard will probably be ordered to commit suicide, but we’ll get around that."
The officer frowned thoughtfully, then nodded. "The danger is that someone outside the field will detect it and analyze it. But if you feel we should take that risk—"
The Right Honorable Gloria turned presently to other tasks, but a part of her mind never quite let go of the command she had given. She grew restless finally when no further call came, and again contacted Communications. But there was nothing. The Fifty Suns ship was not in range.
A day went by, then another. And still no contact.
By the fourth day, the Grand Captain of the Star Cluster was a very difficult person to get along with. And that day also went by without incident.
"Planet below!” said Vice-admiral Dreehan.
Maltby, who had been cat-napping, woke with a start, climbed to his feet, and went to the controls.
Under his direction, the ship moved rapidly from ten thousand miles above the surface to a thousand, and then to less than a hundred miles. Through magnification, he examined the terrain; and presently, though he had never seen it before, his memory brought up photographic maps he had been shown in the past.
Rapidly, now, the Atmion headed toward the largest of the cave entrances that led down to the hidden capital of the Mixed Men. As a final precaution, he checked once more to make sure that junior officers were not able to watch what was happening in their viewplates—all fourteen senior key men were under his control—and then boldly he nosed the ship into the opening.
He watched tensely. He had radioed the leaders who supported him that he was coming. They had called back to say that all would be in readiness. But it was possible for a slip-up to occur. And here at the entrance a ship would be at the mercy of ground defenses.
The darkness of the cave closed around them. Ho sat with fingers on the searchlight switch, watching the night ahead. Suddenly, a light flickered far below. Maltby waited to make sure that it would not go out and then flicked the switch.
Instantly, the searchlights glared, lighting up the cave from ceiling to floor and into the distance ahead. The ship cruised forward and gradually downward. An hour went by; and still there was no indication that the end of the journey was near.
The cave curved and twisted, downward and sideways and upward. Several times he had the feeling that they were going back the way they had come. He could have kept track on an automatic graph, but he had been asked even before the Atmion neared the planet not to do so. It was said that no living person know exactly where under the planet’s crust the capital was located. Other Mixed Men cities on still other planets were hidden in the same way.
Twelve hours passed. Twice Maltby had turned the control over to the Vice-admiral while he slept. Now, he was in charge while the officer dozed peacefully on the cot in the corner.
Thirty hours! Physically worn out and amazed, Maltby wakened Dreehan and lay down. He had scarcely closed his eyes when the officer said:
"Buildings ahead, Captain. Lights."
Maltby made a leap for the controls and a few minutes later was guiding the ship over city of about eighty thousand population. He had been told that no vessel of its size had ever been in the caves; and therefore at this moment it would be the object of attention by all individuals and groups. He switched on ordinary radio and turned the dial till he heard a voice. He heard: ". . . and Peter Maltby, our hereditary leader, has temporarily taken over the battleship Atmion in order that he might personally reason with those who—"
Maltby clicked it off. The people were learning that he was here. In the plate, he searched the city below for Hunston’s headquarters. He recognized the building from the description he had been radioed and stopped the Atmion directly over it.
He focused an energy screen on the center of the street a block away. Then, swiftly, he laid down other screens till the area was completely blocked off. People could enter the screen area without noticing that they were coming into a trap, but they could not leave it. Invisible from the outside, the screen had a purplish tint when seen from inside. It gave anyone who touched it from the inner section a powerful electric shock.
Since Hunston lived at his headquarters, it seemed likely that he was now unable to escape. Maltby did not delude himself that the action would be decisive. This was a struggle for political control, that might be influenced by force but would not be resolved on that basis alone. In that struggle his very method of arrival had given his enemies a powerful argument against him. "Look," they would undoubtedly say, "one Mixed Man was able to take over a battleship—proof of our superiority." That was heady stuff for people whose ambition had been starved for a quarter of a century.
In the viewplate he saw that small craft were approaching. He contacted them by radio, identified those aboard as leaders who supported him, and presently watched as his officer-controls personally admitted them to the airlock. Minutes later he was shaking hands with men he had never before seen in person.
Tactical and strategical discussions began almost immediately. Several men who came aboard felt that Hunston should be executed. A majority believed that he should be imprisoned. Maltby listened uneasily to both groups, conscious that in a sense the men on the scene were the best judges. On the other hand, their very closeness to the danger had made them tense. It was even possible that he, who had watched this scene from afar, might have a more detached and therefore sounder attitude. That was a guess only, and he did not give too much weight to it. Nevertheless, he had begun to regard himself as being in the role of an arbiter when, abruptly, both groups began to question him.
"Can we be sure that the Fifty Suns will remain firm in their refusal to establish contact with the Earth ship?
"Was there any sign of weakening from what you saw and heard?"
"Why was the second ultimatum withheld from the people?"
"Is the battleship Atmion the only ship assigned to follow the Star Cluster?”
"Is there perhaps some secret purpose behind such a following move?”
"What would our position be if suddenly the Fifty Suns surrendered their location?"
For a little while, Maltby felt overwhelmed. And then, as he saw that the questions followed a pattern, and that behind them was a false implication, he held up his hand and said, "Gentlemen, you seem to be laboring under the theory that if the other governments should change their minds, we might still rush in and gain an advantage. This is not so. Our position is that we stand solidly with the Fifty Suns whatever their decision. Wo act as one with the group. We do not manoeuvre for special advantage other than within the frame of the offer that has been made to us." He finished in a more personal, less severe tone. "I can see you have all been under immense pressure. Believe me, I appreciate your position as a group and as individuals. But we’ve got to maintain our integrity. We cannot be opportunistic in this crisis."
The men looked at each other. Some, particularly the younger men, seemed unhappy, as if they were being asked to swallow a bitter pill. But in the end they all agreed to support the plan for the time being.
Then came the crucial question. "What about Hunston?"
Maltby said coolly, "I’d like to talk to him."
Collings, the oldest personal friend of Maltby’s father, studied Maltby’s face for several seconds and then walked into the radio room. He was pale when he came back. "He refuses to come up here. He says if you want to see him, you can come down. Peter, this is outrageous."
"Tell him," said Maltby steadily, “that I’ll be right down."
He smiled at their dour faces. "Gentlemen," he said in a ringing tone, "this man is playing into our hands. Broadcast that I’m going down for the sake of amity in a great crisis. Don’t overdo it, but put just a hint of doubt into your announcement, indicating that possibly violence will be done me."
He finished matter-of-factly. "Obviously, nothing will happen, with this ship floating here in a dominant position. However, if I’m not back in an hour and a half, try to contact me. Then, step by step, beginning with threats, reach the point where you start shooting."
Despite his confidence he had a curious feeling of emptiness and aloneness as his lifeboat settled down on the roof of Hunston’s headquarters.
Hunston was a tall, sardonic-looking man in his middle thirties. As Maltby entered his private office, he stood up, came forward, and shook hands. He said in a quiet, pleasant voice, "I wanted to get you away from those wet hens who rule the roost down here. No lese majesty was intended. I want to talk to you. I think I can convince you."
He made the attempt in a low, cultured, but very alive voice. His arguments were the stale arguments of the basic superiority of the Mixed Men. He obviously believed his own premises, and in the end Maltby could not escape the conviction that the man’s main fault was lack of general and specific information about the world outside. He had lived too long in this narrow environment of the Mixed Men cities, spent too many years talking and thinking without reference to larger realities. Despite his brilliance, Hunston was provincially-minded.
The rebel leader completed his monologue and asked a question. "Do you believe that the Fifty Suns will be able to remain hidden from Earth civilization?”
"No," said Maltby truthfully. "I believe eventual discovery is inevitable."
"Yet you support their deluded attempt to remain secret?”
"I support unity in dealing with the situation. I believe it is wise to be cautious in accepting contact. It is even possible that we could hold off discovery for a hundred years, perhaps longer."
Hunston was silent. There was a scowl on his handsome face. "I can see," he said at last, that we hold opposite views."
Watching the man, Maltby said slowly, "Perhaps our long-run intentions are the same. Perhaps we merely have different plans for arriving at the same goal."
Hunston’s face lighted; his eyes widened slightly. He said eagerly, "Your excellency, if I could believe that." He broke off, his eyes narrowing abruptly. "I’d like to hear your opinion of the future role of the Mixed Men in civilization."
"Given the opportunity, using legal methods," said Maltby quietly, they will inevitably gravitate toward positions of top leadership. Without taking unfair advantage of their ability to control others mentally, they will first dominate the Fifty Suns and then the main galaxy. If at any time in their rise to power they use force, they will be destroyed to the last man, woman, and child."
Hunston’s eyes were bright. "And how long do you think it will takeP" he asked.
"It can begin in your lifetime and mine. It will require at least a thousand years, depending on how rapidly Dellians and human beings intermarry—as of now, children are forbidden in such marriages, as you know—”
Hunston nodded scowling: then he said: "I have been misinformed about your attitude. You are one of us."
"No!" Maltby spoke firmly. "Please do not confuse a long-run with a short-term attitude. It’s the difference in this case between life and death. Even to mention that we expect in the end to gain domination would alarm people who have now been prepared by their governments to be cautiously friendly. If we show our unity regarding this issue, we can make a beginning. If we are opportunistic, then this little race of supermen of which you and I are members will sooner or later be destroyed."
Hunston was on his feet. "Your excellency, I’ll accept that. I’ll go along with you. We’ll await developments."
It was an unexpected victory for him who had come prepared to use force. Despite his belief, however, that Hunston was sincere, he had no intention of merely taking the other’s word. The man might change his mind as soon as the threat of the Atmion was removed. He said so, frankly, and finished: "Under the circumstances, I’ll have to ask you to submit to a six-month term of imprisonment at some point where you cannot be in touch with your supporters. It will be merely a form of house arrest. You can take your wife. You will receive every courtesy and be freed immediately if contact is established in the meantime between the Earth ship and the Fifty Suns. Your position will be that of hostage rather than prisoner. I’ll give you twenty-four hours to think it over."
No attempt was made to stop him as he returned to his lifeboat, and so back to the warship.
Hunston surrendered himself at the end of the twenty-four-hour period. Ho specified one condition: the terms of his house arrest must be broadcast.
And so the Fifty Suns were safe from immediate discovery, it being obvious that one ship could not without aid find even one planet of so well-hidden a civilization. Maltby was convinced of it. There remained the problem of the inevitable discovery when other ships came from the main galaxy a few years hence. Curiously, now that the main danger was over, that began to worry him. As he guided the Fifty Suns battleship Atmion back on its original course, Maltby considered just what he might do to ensure further the safety of the people of the Greater Magellanic Cloud.
Somebody, it seemed to him, ought to find out just how great the danger was. The more notion of how that would have to be done made him shaky; and yet with each passing hour he found himself becoming more determined and more convinced that he with his good will was the one person best suited to do the job.
He was still considering how he might let his ship be captured when the alarms began to sound.
Lady Laurr, we have established upper-resonance contact with a vessel of this system.”
Just how it was done, Maltby had no clear idea. In the early stages of the capture, he was too willing to be caught. By the time tractor beams gripped the Atmion it was a little late to analyze how the invader ship had manoeuvred his own craft into the tractor-beam field.
Something happened, physical sensation of being sucked into a vortex, a perceived tension and contortion of his own body, as if the basic matter of which he was composed was being subjected to strain. Whatever it was ended abruptly as the tractors took hold, and the Fifty Suns battleship was drawn toward the remote darkness where the other ship lay to, still hidden by distance.
Anxiously, Maltby watched the measuring instruments that might give him some estimate of the other vessel’s size. As the minutes sped by, he began to realize it was improbable he would actually see the enemy machine. In that vast night even nearby suns were dim points of light. The characteristics of any body out here could only be determined over a period of time. Anything as small as a ship was like a dust mote lost in inconceivable darkness.
His doubts were realized. When the Atmion was still several light-minutes from its captor, a sharp, tortuous pain twisted his muscles. He had time to guess: paralyzer ray. And then he was writhing on the floor of the control room, with darkness closing over him.
He woke up, tense, wary, convinced that he had to seize control of the situation, whatever it might be. He guessed that there would be methods for controlling his mind and forcing it to give information. He must even assume that his own powerful double brain could be overcome, once its potentialities were suspected.
He opened his eyes ever so slightly by relaxing the muscles of the eyelids. It was as if he had given a signal. From somewhere nearby a man said in an odd but understandable English:
"All right, ease her through the lock."
Maltby closed his eyes, but not before he had recognized that he was still inside the Atmion. And that apparently the process of taking the Fifty Suns battleship into the captor machine was just under way. The fact that he was still lying where he had fallen in the control room seemed to indicate that the officers and crew of the Atmion had not yet been questioned.
A wave of excitement swept through him. Was it going to be as simple as that? Was it possible that all he need do was probe cautiously with his two minds—and take control of any human being he contacted? And thus take control of the boarding crew? Was all that going to be possible?
It was. It happened.
Maltby was herded with the others along a corridor that stretched into the distance ahead. Armed crew members of the Earth ship—both men and women—walked ahead and behind the long line of captives.
It was an illusion. The real prisoners were the officers in charge of the prisoners. At the proper moment, the commander—sturdy young man of forty or so—quietly ordered the main body of captives to continue along the corridor. But Maltby and the other officers from Astrogation and Meteorology were taken down a side corridor and into a large apartment with half a dozen bedrooms.
The Earth officer said matter-of-factly, "You’ll be all right here. We’ll bring proper uniforms, and you can move around the ship whenever you wish—provided you don’t talk to our people too much. We’ve got all kinds of dialects aboard but none quite like yours. We don’t want you to be noticed, so watch yourselves!"
Maltby was not worried. His problem, as he saw it, was to familiarize himself with the ship and its procedures. It was already obvious that it was a huge vessel and that there were more people aboard than one man could ever control directly. He suspected that there also were traps for the unwary intruder. But that was something that had to be risked. Once he had a general picture of the ship and its departments, he would quickly explore the unknown dangers.
When the "captors" had gone, he joined the other Astrogation men in a raid on the kitchen. As he had half anticipated, there were many similarities in food. The Dellian and nonDellian humanoids had brought domesticated animals with them millennia ago. And now here in these deep freezers were steer steaks, pork and lamb chops, roasts and an enormous variety of Earth-origin fowl, each in its airtight transparent wrapper.
The men ate to satiation, and Maltby discussed in serious vein with them the mystery of why they were being treated as they were. He was acutely conscious of the fact that he had done a dangerous thing. There were sharp minds present; and if one of them ever made a connection between what had happened and the fear the Fifty Suns people had of the Mixed Men, his report might well frighten his superiors more than the Earth ship. He was relieved when the officer he controlled came back with a supply of uniforms.
The problem of control in front of Fifty Suns men was a delicate one. It involved the "slave" believing that he was doing what he was for a rational reason. The reason the man had accepted was that he was acting under orders to win the good will of the most valuable officers on the captured ship. He had the impression, moreover, that it would be unwise to communicate this information directly to his charges, and that he must not discuss it with brother officers of the ship.
As a result he was quite prepared to supply the indoctrination that would enable Maltby and the others to move in a limited fashion about the Star Cluster. He was not prepared to give them too much data about the ship itself. So long as the others were present, Maltby accepted the limitation. But it was he who accompanied the officer when the latter, feeling his job done, finally departed. To Maltby’s chagrin, the man proved Invulnerable to mind control when it came to information about the ship. He was willing, but he couldn’t impart that kind of data. Something—some suppressor on him, perhaps hypnotic in nature—prevented. It seemed clear, finally, that Maltby would have to learn what he wanted to know from higher officers who had freedom of choice. Lower-rank officers obviously did not, and the method used to protect them was one that he couldn’t take the time to analyze and overcome. He guessed that the ship’s authorities would by now be discovering that Atmion’s astrogators and meteorologists were missing. Somebody would be concerned about that in the determined and grim fashion of the military mind. If only he could get a chance to talk to the woman who was commander-in-chief of the Earth ship . . . But that in itself would make other steps essential. Escape?
Though it was important that he waste no time, it nevertheless required two hours more to control the officers who had charge of the captured Fifty Suns people and of the Atmion—to control them in such a way that, at a given signal, they would coordinate their actions and arrange an escape. In each case it was necessary to produce an actual or hallucinatory command from a superior officer in order to obtain the automatic acquiescence of the individual. As a precaution Maltby also provided the explanation that the Atmion was to be released as a friendly gesture to the Fifty Suns government.
That done, he successfully conveyed to a top officer that the Grand Captain insisted on seeing him. Just how it would all work out, Maltby had only the vaguest idea.
Lieutenant Neslor came onto the bridge and deposited her gaunt body in a chair. She sighed. "Something is wrong," she said.
The Grand Captain turned from what she had been doing at the control board and studied the older woman thoughtfully. She shrugged finally with a hint of anger in her manner and said in irritation, "Surely some of these Fifty Suns people know where their planets are."
The psychologist shook her head. "We have found no Astrogation officers aboard. The other prisoners were as surprised at that as I was."
Lady Laurr frowned. "I don’t think I understand." She spoke slowly.
"There are five of them," said Lieutenant Neslor. "All were seen a few minutes before we captured the Atmion. Now, they’re missing."
The younger woman said quickly, "Search the ship! Sound a general attention!" She half turned back to the great instrument board and then stopped herself. Thoughtfully, she faced the psychologist. "I see you don’t consider that is the method."
"We’ve already had one experience with a Dellian," was the reply.
The Lady Gloria shuddered slightly. The memory of Gisser Watcher, the man who had been captured on the meteorite station, was still not completely resolved within her. She said finally, "What do you suggest?”
"Wait! They must have had a plan, whatever method they used to escape our energy control. I’d like to see where they try to go, what they want to find out."
"I see." The Grand Captain made no comment. She seemed to be gazing far away.
"Naturally," said Lieutenant Nestor, “you’ll have to be protected. I’ll make that my personal task."
Lady Laurr shrugged. "I really can’t imagine how a newcomer aboard this ship could ever hope to find my apartment. If I should ever forget the method, I wouldn’t care to have to figure out how to get back here." She broke off. "Is that all you have to suggest Just wait and see what happens?"
The young woman shook her head. "That’s not enough for me, my dear. I’m assuming that my earlier commands about precautions have been taken and are still in force." She turned abruptly to the control board. A moment later a face came on the plate. "Ah, Captain," said Gloria, "what are your police doing right now?”
"Searching and guarding." was the reply.
"The ship is completely guarded against accidental explosions. All bombs are accounted for, with remote-control observers watching key entrances. No surprise is possible."
"Good," said Grand Captain Laurr. "Carry on." She broke the connection and yawned. "I guess it’s bedtime. I’ll be seeing you, my dear."
Lieutenant Neslor stood up. "I feel fairly sure that you can sleep safely."
She went out. The younger woman spent half an hour dictating memos to various departments, adjusting for each one the time at which it should be communicated. Presently, she undressed and went to bed. She was asleep almost at once.
She awakened with an odd sense of dissatisfaction. Except for the ever so faint glow from the instrument board, the bridge was in darkness, but after a moment she thought in amazement, "There’s someone in the room."
She lay very still, savoring the menace, and remembering what Lieutenant Neslor had said. It seemed incredible that anyone unfamiliar with this monstrously large vessel should have located her so quickly. Her eyes were becoming accustomed to the darkness now, and in that dimness she was able to make out the silhouette of a man standing a few feet from her bed.
He must have been waiting for her to discover him. He must have been aware, somehow, that she was awake, for he said, "Don’t tum on the light. And be very careful.”
His voice was soft, almost gentle; yet it convinced her that the speaker was an extremely dangerous man. His command held her in the bed and kept her hand where it was on the sheet, unmoving. It even brought the first anguish of fear, the realization that before any help could reach her she might die, She could only hope that Lieutenant Neslor was awake and watching.
The intruder spoke again: "Nothing will happen to you if you do exactly as I say."
"Who are you?" Her tone conveyed her will to know.
Maltby did not answer. He had located a chair now, and ho settled himself into it, but he was not happy with his situation. There were too many mechanical devices aboard a battleship for him to feel any sense of security in what he was doing. He could be defeated, even destroyed, without warning. He could imagine that, even now, the scene was under observation from some remote source beyond his power to control. He said slowly, "Madam, nothing will happen to you if you yourself make no overt moves. I’m here with the hope of having a few questions answered. To ease your mind, I am one of the astrogators of the Fifty Suns ship Atmion. I won’t go into the details of how we escaped your net, but I’m here talking to you this way because of your propaganda. You were right in thinking that there are differences of opinion among the people of the Fifty Suns. Some feel that we should accept your assurances. Others are afraid. Naturally, the fearful ones being in the majority have won. It always seems safer to wait and hope."
He paused and went back over his words with his mind’s ear; and though he could have worded them better— so it seemed to him—they sounded right in essence. If the people of this ship could ever be persuaded to believe anything he might say at this moment, it would be that he and others like him were still undecided. Maltby continued in the same careful, unhurried vein. "I represent a group that occupies a unique position in this affair, Only the astrogators and meteorologists on the various planets and ships are able to communicate the position of inhabited worlds. There are probably tens of thousands of would-be traitors who would betray their people in a moment for personal gain, but they are not among the trained and disciplined personnel of the government or the forces. I’m sure you will understand well what that means." He paused again to give her time to understand it.
The woman had relaxed gradually as Maltby talked. His words sounded rational, his intentions strange but not unbelievable. What bothered her was almost tiny by comparison: How had he found his way to her apartment? Any one less familiar than she with the intricacies of the ship’s operation might have accepted the reality of his presence and let it go at that. But she knew the laws of chance that were involved. It was as if he had come into a strange city of thirty thousand inhabitants and—without previous knowledge—walked straight to the home of the person he wanted to see. She shook her head ever so slightly, rejecting the explanation. She waited, nevertheless, for him to continue, His words had already reassured her as to her safety, and every moment that passed would make it more certain that Lieutenant Neslor was on the job. She might even learn something.
Maltby said, "We have to have some information. The decision you are trying to force upon us is one that we should all like to postpone. For us, it would be so much simpler if you would return to the main galaxy and send other ships back here at some later date. Then there would be time to adjust to the inevitable, and no one need be in the unenviable position of having to think of betraying his people."
Gloria nodded in the darkness. This she could under stand. She said, "What questions do you want answered?"
"How long have you been in the Greater Magellanic Cloud?"
Maltby went on "How much longer do you plan to stay?"
"That Information is not available," said the Grand Captain, her voice steady. It struck her that the statement was true even so far as she herself was concerned. The plebiscite would not take place for two days.
Maltby said, "I strongly advise that you answer my questions."
"What will happen if I don’t?"
As she spoke, her hand, which she had moved carefully toward a small instrument board at the edge of her bed, attained its goal. Triumphantly, she pressed one of the buttons. She relaxed instantly. Out of the darkness Maltby said, "I decided to let you do that. I hope it makes you feel more secure.”
His calmness disconcerted her, but she wondered if he understood clearly what she had done. Coolly, she explained that she had activated a bank of what was known as sensitive lights. From this moment on they would watch him with their numerous electronic eyes. Any attempt on his part to use an energy weapon would be met by counteracting forces. It also prevented her from using a weapon, but it seemed unwise to mention that.
Maltby said, "I have no intention of using an energy weapon. But I’d like you to answer more questions."
"I might." She spoke mildly, but she was beginning to be irritated with Lieutenant Neslor. Surely some action was now indicated.
Maltby said, "How big a ship is this?"
"It’s fifteen hundred feet long and carries a complement of three thousand officers and lower ranks."
"That’s pretty big." said Maltby. He was impressed and wondered how much she was exaggerating
The Grand Captain made no comment. The real size was ten times what she had stated. But it wasn’t size that counted so much as the quality of what was inside. She felt fairly sure that this interrogator had not even begun to understand how tremendous was the defensive and offensive potential of the vast ship she commanded. Only a few higher officers understood the nature of some of the forces that could be brought into play. At the moment those officers were supposed to be under constant surveillance by remote-control observers.
Maltby said, "I’m puzzled as to just how we were captured. Could you explain that to me?”
So he had finally came around to that. Lady Laurr raised her voice. "Lieutenant Neslor."
"Yes, noble lady." The reply came promptly from somewhere in the darkness.
"Don’t you think this comedy has gone on long enough?"
"I do indeed. Shall I kill him"
“No. I want him to answer some questions."
Maltby took control of her mind as he walked hurriedly to the transmitter. Behind him—
"Don’t fire!" said Gloria in an intense voice. "Let him go!"
Even afterward she did not seriously question that command or the impulse that had driven her to say it. Her explanation to herself—later—was that since the intruder had not threatened her and since he was one of the much-wanted astrogators, to destroy him in order to prevent his escaping to some other part of the ship would be an irrational act.
As a result Maltby left the bridge safely and was able to give the signal that freed the Atmion. As the Fifty Suns vessel fled into the distance, the officers of the Earth ship—acting on the final cue from him—began to forget their share in the escape . . .
Mentally, that was as far as Maltby had gotten. To enter the enemy vessel and to get away again—it had seemed a big enough venture in itself. What he had learned was not altogether satisfactory, but he did know they were dealing with a very large vessel. It was a vessel that would have to be careful in its dealings with a fleet, but he did not doubt that it had weapons capable of destroying several Fifty Suns battleships at the same time.
What bothered him was, how would the officers and crew of the Atmion, and the Fifty Suns people in general, react to the incident? That seemed too complex for any one man to calculate, And as for what would happen aboard the Star Cluster—that was even more difficult to forecast.
All the reaction did not show immediately. Maltby was aware that Admiral Dreehan modo a report to the Fifty Suns government. But for two days nothing occurred.
On the third day the Star Cluster’s daily broadcast of its course showed that it had drastically altered its direction. The reason for the change was obscure.
On the fourth day, Maltby’s viewplate lighted with the Image of Vice-admiral Dreehan. The commanding officer said gravely: "This is a general announcement to all ranks. I have just received the following message from the military headquarters of our fleet." Quietly, he road the message.
It is hereby declared that a state of war exists between the peoples of the Fifty Suns and the Earth ship Star Cluster. The fleet shall place itself in the path of the enemy and seek battle. Ships incapacitated and in danger of capture must destroy their star maps; and all Meteorological and Astrogation officers aboard such vessels are patriotically required to commit suicide. It is the declared policy of the sovereign government of the Fifty Sans that the invader must be destroyed.
Maltby listened, pale and tense, as Dreehan went on in a more conversational tone.
I have private information that the government has drawn the conclusion from our experience that the Star Cluster released us because they dared not rouse the anger of our people. From this and other data, the leaders have decided that the Earth ship can be destroyed by a determined attack. If we dutifully follow the exact instructions we have received, then even the capture of individual ships will give the enemy no advantage. I have already appointed executioners for all Meteorological and Astrogation officers in the event that they cannot act for themselves at the crucial moment, so please take note.
Captain Peter Maltby, chief meteorologist of the Atmion, and an assistant astrogator, noted with a sick awareness that he was committed. He had laid down a policy of united action with the people of the Fifty Suns. It was out of the question that he, for personal reasons, now hastily abandon that attitude.
His only hope was that the wolves of space—as the warships were often called—would by pack action make short work of a single Earth ship.
They ran into a tiger.
She had lost the plebiscite by a heart-breaking nine to ten vote. Grimly, she ordered the big ship to alter course for home.
Late that “day," Communications called her. "Shall we continue to broadcast our course?"
At least she still had control over that. "Most certainly," she said curtly.
The following afternoon, she awakened from a nap to the sound of alarm bells ringing.
"Thousands of ships ahead!” reported Captain Chief of Operations.
"Slow for action!" she commanded. "Battle stations."
When that was done and their speed was less than thousand miles a second, she spoke to the captains in council.
"Well, sirs and ladies," she said with unconcealed delight, "I should like to have authorization to wage battle against a recalcitrant government, which is now showing that it is capable of taking the most hostile action against Earth civilization."
"Gloria," said one of the women, "please don’t rub it in. This is one of your times for being right."
The vote to accept battle was unanimous. Afterward, the question was asked:
"Are we going to destroy them or capture them"
"All of them?”
When the Fifty Suns fleet and the Earth ship were some four hundred million miles apart, the Star Cluster set up a field that took in a vast section of space.
It was a miniature universe, intensely curved. Ships pursuing an apparently straight course found themselves circling back to their original positions. Attempts to break out of the trap by attaining velocities in excess of light-speed proved futile. A shower of torpedoes directed at the source of the field veered off and had to be exploded in space to avoid damaging their own ships.
It was found impossible to communicate with any planets of the Fifty Suns. Subspace radio was as silent as death.
At the end of about four hours, the Star Cluster set up a series of tractor beams. One by one, inexorably, ships were drawn toward the giant battleship.
It was at that time that stern orders were issued for all Fifty Suns Meteorological and Astrogation officers to commit suicide at once.
On the Atmion Maltby was one of a pale group of men who shook hands with Vice-admiral Dreehan; and immediately afterward, in the commanding officer’s presence, pointed a blaster at the side of his head.
At that penultimate moment he hesitated. “I could take control of him now, this instant—and save my life."
He told himself angrily that the whole affair was futile and unnecessary. Discovery of the Fifty Suns had been inevitable in tho sense that it would occur sooner or later, regardless of what he did now.
And then he thought, “This is what I’ve stood for among the Mixed Men. We must be one with the group, to death, if necessary."
His brief hesitation ended. He touched the activator of his weapon.
As the first captured ships were boarded by teams of technicians, the exultant young woman on the bridge of the greatest ship that had ever entered the Greater Magellanic Cloud learned of the suicides.
Pity touched her. "Revive them all!" she ordered. "There is no need for anyone to die."
"Some of them are pretty badly splattered," was the answer. "They used blasters."
She frowned at that. It meant an immense amount of extra work. "The fools!" she said. "They almost deserve death."
She broke off. "Use extra care! If necessary, put whole ships through the matter transmitter with emphasis on synthesis of damaged tissues and organs."
Far into the sleep period, she sat at her desk receiving reports. Several revived astrogators were brought before her; and, with the help of Lieutenant Neslor, of Psychology, she questioned them.
Before she retired to sleep, a lost civilization had been found.
3. THE TIMED CLOCK
"MARRIAGE," Terry Maynard will say when he’s feeling expansive, "is a sacred institution. I ought to know. I’ve been married twice, once back in 1905, and again in 1967.
That kind of time interval gives a man perspective for a fair judgment."
And having said that, he looks blandly over at his wife Joan. She sighed on this particular evening, lit a cigarette, loaned back, and murmured, "Terry, you mad daredevil, you. Again?"
Sho sipped at her cocktail, looked with guileless blue eyes at the visitors, and said, "Terry is going to tell you the story of our romance. If you’ve heard it before, you’ll find sandwiches and things in the dining room."
Two men and a woman got up and walked out. Terry called after them: "People laughed at the atomic bomb—till it dropped on them. One of these days, somebody is going to find I’m not just romancing. That what I say happened did happen and that it could happen to them. When I think of the deadly potentialities, the atomic bomb will look like a sputtering candle."
One of the men in the group that had remained said in a puzzled tone, "I don’t get that. What can your being married in 1905 as well as now have to do with the A-bomb — entirely aside from the annoyance your charming wife may feel at not being able to sink those long fingernails of hers into the fair skin of her ancient rival?”
"Sir," said Terry, "you are speaking of my first wife—may she rest in peace."
She never will," said Joan Maynard. "Not if I can help it."
But she settled herself comfortably. "Go on, Terry, darling." she said cozily,
"When I was ten years old," began her husband, "I used to be fascinated by the old grandfather clock in the hall—you can all look at it on your way out. One day, I opened the door at the bottom, and I was playing with the pendulum when I saw it was marked with numbers. They started near the top of the long bar, and the first number was 1840, and they went right down to the bottom, and the last number was 1970. That was in 1950, and I remember being surprised that the little indicator on the crystalline weight pointed exactly at 1950. I thought I had made a great discovery about how clocks worked. After I got over my excitement, I began, of course, to fool around with the weight, and I recall sliding it up to 1891.
"At that moment, I had a dizzy spell. I let go of the weight and sagged to the floor, feeling quite ill. When I looked up, there was a strange woman, and everything around me looked different. You understand, it was only a matter of furniture and rug arrangement. This house has been in our family for well over a hundred years.
"But at ten I was instantly scared, particularly when I saw this woman. She was about forty years old. She wore an old-fashioned, long skirt, her lips were pressed into a thin line of anger, and she held a switch in her hand. As I climbed shakily to my feet, she spoke: "Joe Maynard, how many times have I told you to stay away from that clock?”
"Her calling me Joe froze me. I didn’t know then that my grandfather’s name was Joseph. Another thing that held me was her accent. Her English was quite precise; I can’t describe it. The third thing that paralyzed me was that in a vague kind of way her face began to look familiar. It was the face of my great-grandmother, whose portrait hung in my father’s study.
"Swish! The switch caught me on one leg. I dived past her and headed for the door, yowling. I heard her calling after me: "Joe Maynard, you wait till your father comes home—”
"Outside, I was in fantasia, a primitive world in a small town in the late 1800s. A dog yipped after me. There were horses on the street, a wooden sidewalk. I had been brought up to dodge automobiles and ride on buses. I couldn’t take the change. My mind is blank about the hours that went by. But it grew dark, and I sneaked back to the big house ad peered through the only lighted window into the dining mom. I saw a sight I’ll never forget. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother sat at dinner with a boy my own age, and that boy was practically my living image except that he looked more frightened than I ever hope to be. Great-grandfather was speaking: I could hear him plainly through the glass, he was so angry:
“ ‘That settles it. Practically calling your own mother a liar. I’ll take care of you after dinner.’
"I guessed Joe was getting it for me. But all that really mattered was that they were not in the hall near the clock. I sneaked into the house, trembling and without really having a plan. I tiptoed over to the clock, opened the clock case, and set the weight back to 1950. I did that without thinking. My mind was like a block of ice.
“The next thing I knew, a man was yelling at me. A familiar voice. When I looked around, it was my own dad. ‘You young wretch,’ he shouted, ‘I thought I told you to stay way from that clock.’
“For once a licking was a relief. But I never as a boy went near the clock again. I did get to the point where I asked cautiously about my ancestors. Dad was very reticent. He’d get a faraway look in his eyes, and he’d say, ’I don’t understand a lot of things about my childhood, son. I’ll tell you about it someday.’
"He died suddenly of pneumonia when I was thirteen. It was a financial as well as emotional shock. Mother sold, among other things, the old grandfather clock; and we were thinking of transforming the old place into a rooming house, but a sudden industrial growth boomed the value of some land we had on the other side of town. I had been thinking about the old clock and about my experience, but what with college and then my stint in Vietnam—I was what you might call a glorified office boy with the rank of captain—I didn’t get a chance to look for it till early 1966. I traced it through the dealer who had bought it from us, and paid three times what we originally got for it, but of course it was worth it.
"The weight on the pendulum had slipped down to 1968. The coincidence of that startled me. But more important, under a panel at the bottom I found a treasure: my grandfather’s diary.
“The first entry was dated May 18, 1904. Kneeling there, grandfather’s diary in my hand, I naturally decided to make a test. Had my childhood experience been real, or had it been a delusion? I didn’t think then of actually arriving on the same day as the diary date, but I set it for 1904 as a matter of course. As a last-moment precaution, I slipped a .38 automatic into my coat pocket and then grasped the crystal weight.
"It felt warm to the touch. I had the distinct feeling that it vibrated.
“I had no sense of nausea this time; and I was just about to give up, rather sheepishly, when I glanced around. The hall seat had been moved. The rugs were a darker variety. Old-fashioned drapes of heavy, dark velvet hung over the door.
"My heart pounded. I worried about what I would say if I were discovered. Nevertheless, after a moment I realized that the house was silent except for the ticking of the clock. I stood up and in spite of what my eyes were seeing did not quite believe that the miracle had happened again.
"I walked out into a town that had grown since I had seen it as a boy. But it was still early twentieth century. Cows in back yards. Chicken coops. In the near distance I could see open prairie. The real growth hadn’t begun, and there was no sign of the city that would someday be. It could easily be 1904.
"In a haze of excitement, I walked along the wooden sidewalk. Twice, I passed people, a man, and then a woman. They looked at me in what I realize now was amazement, but I scarcely noticed them. It was not until two women approached me on the narrow sidewalk that I came out of my daze and realized that I was seeing flesh-and-blood people of the early 1900s.
They wore ground-length skirts that rustled. The day was warm. But it had evidently rained earlier, for I saw mud at the bottom of their skirts.
The older woman took one look at me and said, ’Why, Joseph Maynard, so you’ve come home in time for your poor mother’s funeral. Where did you get those outlandish clothes?’ The girl said nothing. She just looked at me.
I was about to protest that I was not Joseph Maynard but realized it would be unwise to do so. Besides, I was remembering what the entry in grandfather’s diary had been for May eighteenth:
Met Mrs. Caldwell and her daughter Marietta on the street. She couldn’t seem to get over my coming back for the funeral.
"I thought, slightly dazzled, slightly blank, if this was Mrs. Caldwell and her daughter, and this was that meeting, then —
The woman was speaking. "Joseph Maynard, I want you to meet my daughter Marietta. We were just speaking of the funeral, weren’t we, dear?”
"The girl continued to look at me. "Were we, mother? she asked.
“ ‘Of course we were, don’t you remember?’ Mrs. Caldwell sounded flustered. She went on hastily. ’Marietta and I are all ready for the funeral tomorrow.’
Marietta said calmly, ‘I thought you’d made arrangements to go to the Jones’ farm.’
“ ‘Marietta, how can you say such a thing? That’s for the day after. If I’ve made any such arrangements, they’ll have to be changed.’ She seemed in control of herself again. She said sympathetically, ‘We were always so friendly with your mother, Mr. Maynard, weren’t we, Marietta?’
" ‘I always liked her,’ said Marietta, with an ever so faint emphasis on the first-person pronoun.
" ‘We’ll see you then tomorrow at the church at two o’clock,’ Mrs. Caldwell said quickly. ‘Come along, Marietta, darling.’
"I drew back to let them pass, then walked around the block, back to the family home. I explored the house, half expecting to find a corpse, but evidently the body had been taken elsewhere.
"I began to feel badly. My own mother had died in 1963 when I was far off in Vietnam. And our family lawyer had had to make the funeral arrangements. On many a hot night in the jungle I had pictured the silent house when she was ill. It seemed to me that this was about as close as I had gotten to the actuality. The parallel depressed me.
"I locked the door, wound the clock, reset the weight to 1966, and returned to the twentieth century.
"The somber atmosphere of death departed slowly, and I came back to a most worrying thought: Had Joseph Maynard really returned to his home town on May 18, 1904? And if not, to whom did the May nineteenth entry in grandfather’s diary refer? The diary entry stated simply:
Attended funeral this afternoon and talked again to Marietta.
“Talked again! That’s what it said. And since it was I who had talked to her the first time, was it also I who would attend the funeral?
"I spent the evening reading the diary, searching for a word or phrase that would indicate the situation was as I was beginning to see it. I did not find a single reference to time travel, but that seemed natural enough after I thought it over. Suppose the diary fell into the wrong hands.
"I reached the entry where Joseph Maynard and Marietta Caldwell made their engagement announcement. And a little later I came to the date under which was written, ’Married Marietta today!’ At that point, perspiring, I put the diary aside.
"The question was, if it was I who had done that, then what had become of the real Joseph Maynard? Had the only son of my great-grandparents died on some American frontier, unknown to his fellow townsmen? From the beginning that seemed the most likely explanation.
"I went to the funeral. And there was no doubt about it. I was the only Maynard present, aside from my dead great-grandmother.
"Afterwards, I had a talk with the family lawyer, and I took formal possession of the property. I had him set up a trust for the land that fifty years later saved mother and me from having to become boarding-house keepers.
"Then I set to work to insure that my father would be born.
"Marietta was an amazingly difficult girl to marry for a man who know that the marriage was a cinch. She had another suitor, a young fellow I could have strangled half a dozen times. He had a bubbling personality but no money. Her parents were down on him for that last, but it didn’t seem to worry Marietta.
"In the end, because I couldn’t afford to lose, I played the game unfairly. I went to Mrs. Caldwell and told her bluntly that I wanted her to start encouraging Marietta to marry this other guy and to start criticizing me. I suggested that she point out that I was not reliable and that at any time I was apt to go wandering off to some far corner of the world, taking her with me to heaven only know what hardships.
"As I had begun to suspect, that little girl had an adventurous streak in her. I don’t know just how much her mother was able to reverse her attitude, but suddenly Marietta was more friendly. I had become so intent on the courtship that I’d kind of forgotten about the diary. After we became engaged, I looked it up, and there it was written up exactly for the day it happened.
That gave me a grisly feeling. And when Marietta set the wedding day for the date given in the diary, I came even further out of my fantasy and in the most serious fashion considered my position. If I went through with this thing, then I would be my own grandfather. If I didn’t go through with it, then what?
"Thinking about it just made me feel blank. But I looked around for a duplicate to the ancient leather diary, copied the old one word for word, and put the new one under the panel in the bottom of the clock. I suppose they were actually the same diary since the one I put in there must be the one I later found.
"Marietta and I were married as scheduled, and it wasn’t long before we were able to guess that my father would be born in due course—though, naturally, Marietta didn’t think of it in that way."
His account was interrupted. A woman said acidly, "Are we to understand, Mr. Maynard, that you actually went through with the marriage and that that poor girl is now going to have a baby?”
Maynard said mildly, "All this happened back in the early 1900s."
The woman’s color was high. "I think this is the most outrageous thing I have ever heard."
Maynard gazed quizzically at his audience. "How do the rest of you feel about this? Do you feel that a man hasn’t the moral right to insure that he be born?"
"Well—" a man began doubtfully. Maynard said, "Don’t you think I’d better finish the story before we talk?"
"My troubles," he went on, "began almost immediately. Marietta wanted to know where I went to when I disappeared. She was damnably inquisitive about my past. Where had I been? What places had I visited? What made me leave home in the first place? Since I was not Joseph Maynard it wasn’t long before I felt like a hen-pecked husband. I had intended to stick with her at least until the baby was born, with only occasional journeys to the twentieth century. But she followed me around the house. Twice, she almost caught me using the clock. I grew alarmed; then I realized that Joseph Maynard would have to vanish again from his age, this time forever.
"After all, what would be the point in my insuring my eventual birth if that was all I succeeded in doing? I had a life to live in 1967 and afterwards. There was even the problem of getting married again and having children who would carry on the line into the future.
"In the end I made the break. There was nothing else to do."
For a second time he was interrupted. "Mister Maynard," said the same woman who had previously spoken, do you mean to sit there and tell us that you deserted that poor girl and her unborn baby?"
Maynard spread his hands helplessly. "What else? After all, she was well looked after. I even told myself that she might eventually marry the bubbling young man—though quite frankly I didn’t like the idea."
"Why didn’t you bring her up here?"
"Because," said Terry Maynard, "I wanted the baby back there."
The woman was white-faced and so angry that she stammered. "Mr. Maynard, I don’t know whether I care to remain any longer under your roof."
Maynard was astonished. "Madam, do you believe this story?”
She blinked at that and said, "Oh!" Then she leaned back and laughed in an embarrassed fashion. Several people laughed at her, uncertainly.
Maynard went on. "You can’t imagine how guilty I felt. Every time I looked at a pretty girl the specter of Marietta would rise up before me. And I had a hard time convincing myself that she probably died somewhere in the 1940s or even earlier. And yet, after only four months, I couldn’t clearly remember what she looked like.
"Then one night at a party I met Joan. She reminded me instantly of Marietta. And that was all I needed, I guess. I have to admit that she was the aggressor in the courtship. I was glad of that, however, as I’m not sure I would have taken the plunge if there hadn’t been someone like Joan pushing at me.
"We were married, and as is the custom I carried her across the threshold of the old house. After I had set her down, she stood looking at me for a long time with the oddest expression on her face. At last she said in a low voice, ‘Terry, I have a confession to make.’
" ‘Yes?’ I couldn’t imagine what it might be.
""Terry, there’s a reason why I rushed you into this marriage.’
"That gave me a sinking sensation. I had heard of girls marrying hastily for certain reasons.
“Terry, I’m going to have a baby."
"Having said that, she came over and slapped me in the face. I don’t think I’ve ever been more bewildered in my life."
He paused, and looked around the room. People were staring at each other uncomfortably. Finally, the woman who had already been critical said with satisfaction, "Served you right."
"You think I deserved a deal like that?”
"Anybody," began the woman, "who will pull the kind of stunt—”
"But, look, madam," Maynard protested, "I discovered that unless I became my own grandfather, I would never be born. What would you have done in my position?"
"Sounds like bigamy to me," said a man. "Understand, I don’t condone any woman trying to saddle a man with her illegitimate child. Joan, I’m surprised at you." He was an old friend of the Maynards who was hearing the story for the first time.
Joan murmured, "A woman can get just so desperate."
Maynard said, "Is it bigamy if the first wife has presumably been dead for a generation?" He broke off. "Besides, I had to think of the whole human race.”
"What do you mean?" Several people spoke simultaneously.
"Try," was the earnest answer, "to imagine the forces that are at work in this time-travel process. I’m no scientist, but I have a picture of the whole world of matter moving through time according to an orderly law of energy.
“Beside that force, the atomic bomb can’t be more than a faint flicker of light in endless darkness. Suppose at a certain moment in the grand progression of space-time, a baby would fail to appear where a baby should have been Since this particular baby grew up to be my father, if he, as the original baby, had not been born, would he and I continue to exist? And if we didn’t, would our sudden disappearance affect the rest of the universe?"
Maynard leaned forward and said solemnly, "I think it would affect everything else. I think the entire universe would simply have vanished—poof!—gone instantly as if it had never been. The balance of life and existence must be immeasurably delicate. Put a strain on it, break the weakest link, and the whole structure crumbles. Could I, suspecting that possibility, have done other than I did?"
He shrugged, spread his hands questioningly, and leaned back.
There was silence, Then a man said, "Well, it looks to me as if you both got what you deserved." He frowned at Joan. "I’ve known you spasmodically for three years, and I don’t recall any baby. Did it die, and if so, why bring out the family wash and hang it out in the front yard?"
Maynard said, "Joan, you’d better finish this story."
His wife glanced at her watch. “Do you think there’s time, dear? It’s twenty minutes to midnight. People like to celebrate the New Year."
"You can make it brief," said Maynard.
Joan said, "Actually, Terry’s fear that his inquisitive Marietta would see him go into the future or come back from it was justified. As it happened, she saw him disappear. If you’ll think that over, you’ll realize that it had to take place that way. If she had seen him come back, she would in her hysteria have confronted him. As it was, she had time for a period of terrible turmoil and then for gradual recovery.
"No wonder she followed him around like a nervous hen. She had a burden of unspoken words to pour forth, but she dared not speak them. Several times, then, she saw him come and leave. The experience became less terrifying with repetition and finally she grew curious. One day, when he got up before she awakened, leaving a note on his pillow to the effect that he would be gone for two days, she dressed for travel, taking with her all the money in the house, and went down to the clock. She had previously examined it and formed a theory as to how it operated. She saw that once more it was set for 1967.
"She grasped the crystal as she had seen her husband do; and presently she had a moment of nausea. Although she didn’t know it immediately, she was in the twentieth century. Outside, she found herself in a nightmare. As she started to cross the street, a mechanical monster rushed at her, and there was a squeal as it came to a stop. An angry man leaned out of a window and berated her.
"Trembling, almost on the verge of fainting, she reached the sidewalk. She grew more cautious, and she learned quickly. In less than half an hour, she came to a store with dresses in the window. She went inside, took out her money, and asked the salesgirl who came up if it was any good. The girl called the manager. The manager sent one of the bills over to the nearby bank and had it checked.
"Marietta bought a dress, a suit, underclothing, accessories, and shoes. She went out of that shop, trembling at her temerity in wearing such shameless clothing but very determined. She was tired now, so she returned to the house and went back to her own age.
As the days went by, she grew more daring. She was suspicious of her husband’s intentions, and she had no standards by which to judge how far those twentieth-century hussies leaned in the direction of being modem. She learned to smoke, though it nearly choked her at first. She learned to drink, although after her first drink she slept for an hour, out like a light. She got herself a job in a store— they thought she had an old-fashioned accent that would please their customers. They fired her in less than a month, principally because she imitated the slangiest girls in the place but partly because she didn’t always turn up for work.
"She was pretty sure by now that she was going to have her baby. And since at that time her husband hadn’t left her permanently, she told him. I think she hoped he would take her into his confidence. I’m not sure of all that. It’s hard to tell all about a woman’s—or a man’s—motives. Anyway, it didn’t work. Presently, he went away and didn’t come back.
"Guessing what he planned, she was furious. And yet there was a conflict going on inside her. On the one hand, she was the woman scorned. On the other, she was the woman who might be able to do something about what had happened.
She closed up the house. She announced she was going away on a trip. Arrived in 1967, she got herself a job and rented a room under the maiden name of her mother, Joan Craig. She got herself invited to a party at which she met Terry Maynard. With her new hairdo and clothes, she resembled the original Marietta only vaguely.
"She married the guy and as punishment for what he had intended to do to her, gave him one of the big shocks of his life. And then, well, what could she do? When a man marries a girl twice, the second time without knowing who she is, it must be love—my goodness, it’s three minutes to midnight. I’ve got to go and feed the toddler."
She leaped to her feet and disappeared into the hall.
When she had gone about a minute, a man broke the silence: "Well, I’ll be hanged. So not only are you your own grandfather, but you’re married in 1970 to your grandmother. Doesn’t that make things a little complicated?"
Maynard shook his head. "It’s the only solution, don’t you see? We have one child—back there. He becomes my father. Any other children that are born we keep to carry on. It makes me feel a lot easier.”
Far away, whistles began to blow. Maynard raised his glass. "Ladies and gentlemen, to the future—to 1971 and all that may follow."
When they had drunk, a woman said diffidently, "Did your wife—Joan—go back just now?”
"What I don’t understand," she went on, "is, you said the figures on the pendulum of the clock went to 1970. Well, 1970 just ended.
"Huh!" said Terry Maynard. A startled look came into his face. He half rose from his seat, almost spilling his cocktail. Slowly, he sank back again. He mumbled, "I’m sure it’ll be all right. Fate couldn’t be that ironic."
The woman who had been so critical earlier climbed to her feet. Her lips were drawn into a thin line. "Mr. Maynard, aren’t you going to go and see?"
"No, no, it’s all right, I’m sure. There’s space for more numbers under the weight. It’ll be just a matter of carving more numbers. I feel very sure of that."
A man walked with deliberate strides to the hall door.
Ho came back frowning. "You will be interested to know," he said, "that your clock has stopped—exactly on the hour of midnight."
Maynard stayed where he was. "I’m sure it’ll be all right," he muttered.
Two women stood up. "We’re going upstairs to look for Joan," said one.
They came back presently. "She’s not there. There’s no sign of her."
The two men and the woman who had gone into the dining room when Maynard first started his story emerged. One of the men said cheerfully, "It’s after midnight, so I imagine it’s all over.” He glanced at Maynard. "Did you tell them the numbers ended at 1970?"
The guests stirred from their strained silence. The man addressed them in the same cheerful tone. "When I heard it, it was 1968—and exactly on the dot of midnight the clock stopped."
Somebody said, "Had Joan disappeared about three minutes before?”
Several guests went out into the hall to look at the clock. Words drifted back: "... By golly, it does end at 1970 . . . Wonder if Maynard has a new number carved in each year . . . Hey, Pete, grab the weight. . . . Not me, I feel just a little uneasy about that story . . . Maynard always was an odd fellow . . . Told it well, didn’t he?. . ."
Later, as the guests were leaving a woman said plaintively, "But if it was just a joke, why didn’t Joan come back?”
A disembodied voice sounded from the darkness beyond the door: " . . . The Maynards are such an interesting couple, aren’t they? . . ."
 Lost: Fifty Suns was first written as an important part (Chapters 1-7) of the novel The Mixed Men (1952). It was first published separately, with some minor modifications – including the change of the name of the galaxy from the ‘Lesser’ to the ‘Greater’ Magellanic Cloud – in the collection The Book of van Vogt in April 1972.
 a humorous tinge in a van Vogt story — who would have believed it possible?