The Currents of Space (Page 10)

Tiw SQUIRE of Fife was the most important individual on Sark and for that reason did not like to be seen standing. Like his daughter, he was short, but unlike her, he was not perfectly proportioned, since most of the shortness lay in his legs. His torso was even beefy, and his head was undoubtedly majestic, but his body was fixed upon stubby legs that were forced into a ponderous waddle to carry their load.

So he sat behind a desk and except for his daughter and personal servants and, when she had been alive, his wife, none saw him in any7 other position.

There he looked the man he was. His large head, with its wide, nearly lipless mouth, broad, large-nostriled nose, and pointed, cleft chin, could look benign and inflexible in turn, with equal ease. His hair, brushed rigidly back and, in careless disregard for fashion, falling nearly to his shoulders, was blue-black, untouched by gray. A shadowy blue marked the regions of his cheeks, lips and chin where his Florinian barber twice daily battled the stubborn growth of facial hair.

The Squire was posing and he knew it. He had schooled expression out of his face and allowed his hands, broad, strong and short-fingered, to remain loosely clasped on a desk whose smooth, polished surface was completely bare. There wasn't a paper on it, no communi-tube, no ornament. By its very simplicity the Squire's own presence was emphasized.

He spoke to his pale, fish-white secretary with the special lifeless tone he reserved for mechanical appliances and Florinian civil servants. "I presume all have accepted?"

He had no real doubt as to the answer.

His secretary replied in a tone as lifeless, "The Squire of Bort stated that the press of previous business arrangements prevented his attending earlier than three."

"And you told him?"

"I stated that the nature of the present business made any delay inadvisable."

"The result?"

"He will be here, sir. The rest have agreed without reservation."

Fife smiled. Half an hour this way or that would have made no difference. There was a new principle involved, that was all. The Great Squires were too touchy with regard to their own independence, and such touchiness would have to go.

He was waiting, now. The room was large, the places for the others were prepared. The large chronometer, whose tiny powering spark of radioactivity had not failed or faltered in a thousand years, said two twenty-one.

What an explosion in the last two days! The old chronometer might yet witness events equal to any in the past.

Yet that chronometer had seen many in its millennium. When it counted its first minutes Sark had been a new world of hand-hewn cities with doubtful contacts among the other, older worlds. The timepiece had been in the wall of an old brick building then, the very bricks of which had since become dust. It had counted its even tenor through three short-lived Sarkite "empires" when the undisciplined soldiers of Sark managed to govern, for a longer or shorter interval, some half a dozen surrounding worlds. Its radioactive atoms had exploded in strict statistical sequence through two periods when the fleets of neighboring worlds dictated policy on Sark.

Five hundred years ago it had marked cool time as Sark discovered that the world nearest to it, Florina, had a treasure in its soil past counting. It had moved evenly through two victorious wars and recorded solemnly the establishment of a conqueror's peace. Sark had abandoned its empires, absorbed Florina tightly, and become powerful in a way that Trantor itself could not duplicate.

Trantor wanted Florina and other powers had wanted it. The centuries had marked Florina as a world for which hands stretched out through space, groping and reaching eagerly. But it was Sark whose hand clasped it and Sark, sooner than release that grasp, would allow Galactic war.

Trantor knew that! Trantor knew that!

It was as though the silent rhythm of the chronometer set up the little singsong in the Squire's brain.

It was two twenty-three.

Nearly a year before, the five Great Squires of Sark had met. Then, as now, it had been here, in his own hall. Then, as now, the Squires, scattered over the face of the planet, each on his own continent, had met in trimensic personification.

In a bald sense, it amounted to three-dimensional television in life size with sound and color. The duplicate could he found in any moderately well-to-do private home on Sark. Where it went beyond the ordinary was in the lack of any visible receiver. Except for Fife, the Squires present were present in every possible way but reality. The wall could not be seen behind them, they did not shimmer, yet a hand could have been passed through their bodies.

The true body of the Squire of Rune was sitting in the antipodes, his continent the only one upon which, at the moment, night prevailed. The cubic area immediately surrounding his image in Fife's office had the cold, white gleam of artificial light, dimmed by the brighter daylight about it.

Gathered in the one room, in body or in image, was Sark itself. It was a queer and not altogether heroic personification of the planet. Rune was bald and pinkly fat, while Balle was gray and dryly wrinkled. Steen was powdered and rouged, wearing the desperate smile of a worn-out man pretending to a life force he no longer had, and Bort carried indifference to creature comforts to the unpleasant point of a two-day growth of beard and dirty fingernails.

Yet they were the five Great Squires.

They were the topmost of the three rungs of ruling powers on Sark. The lowest rung was, of course, the Florinian Civil Service, which remained steady through all the vicissitudes that marked the rise and fall of the individual noble houses of Sark. It was they who actually- greased the axles and turned the wheels of

government. Above them were the ministers and department heads appointed by the hereditary (and harmless) Chief of State. Their names and that of the Chief himself were needed on state papers to make them legally binding, but their only duties consisted of signing their names.

The highest rung was occupied by these five, each tacitly allowed a continent by the remaining four. They were the heads of the families that controlled the major volume of the kyrt trade, and the revenues therefrom derived. It was money that gave power and eventually dictated policy on Sark, and these had it. And of the five, it was Fife who had the most.

The Squire of Fife had faced them that day, nearly a year ago, and said to the other masters of the Galaxy's second richest single planet (second richest after Trantor, which, after all, had half a million worlds to draw upon, rather than two):

"I have received a curious message."

They said nothing. They waited.

Fife handed a slip of metallite film to his secretary, who stepped from one seated figure to another, holding it well up for each to see, lingering just long enough for each to read.

To each of the four who attended the conference in Fife's office, he, himself, was real, and the others, including Fife, only shadows. The metallite film was a shadow as well. They could only sit and observe the light rays that focused across vast world-sectors from the Continent of Fife to those of Balle, Bort, Steen, and the island Continent of Rune. The words they read were shadows on shadow.

Only Bort, direct and ungiven to subtleties, forgot that fact and reached for the message.

His hand extended to the edge of the rectangular image-receptor and was cut off. His arm ended in a featureless stump. In his own chambers, Fife knew, Bores arm had succeeded merely in closing upon nothingness and passing through the filmed message. He smiled, and so did the others. Steen giggled.

Bort reddened. He drew back his arm and his hand reappeared.

Fife said, "Well, you have each seen it. If you don't mind, I will now read it aloud so that you may consider its significance."

He reached upward, and his secretary, by hastening his steps,

managed to hold the film in the proper position for Fife's grasp to close upon it without an instant's groping.

Fife read mellowly, imparting drama to the words as though the message were his own and he enjoyed delivering it.

He said, "This is the message: 'You are a Great Squire of Sark and there is none to compete with you in power and wealth. Yet that power and wealth rest on a slender foundation. You may think that a planetary supply of kyrt, such as exists on Florina, is by no means a slender foundation, but ask yourself, how long will Florina exist? Forever?

"No! Florina may be d\estroyed tomorrow. It may exist for a thousand years. Of the two~ it is more likely to be destroyed tomorrow. Not by myself, to be sure, but in a way you cannot predict or foresee. Consider that destruction. Consider, too, that your power and wealth are already gone, for I demand the greater part of them. You will have time to consider, but not too much time.

"Attempt to take too much time and I shall announce to all the Galaxy and particularly to Florina the truth about the waiting destruction. After that there will be no more kyrt, no more wealth, no more power. None for me, but then I am used to that. None for you, and that would be extremely serious, since you were born to great wealth.

"Turn over most of your estates to myself in the amount and in the manner which I shall dictate in the near future and you will remain in secure possession of what remains. Not a great deal will be left you by your present standards, to be sure, but it will be more than the nothing that will otherwise be left you. Do not sneer at the fragment you will retain, either. Florina may last your lifetime and you will live, if not lavishly, at least comfortably."

Fife had finished. He turned the film over and over in his hand, then folded it gently into a silvery translucent cylinder through which the stenciled letters merged into a reddish blur.

He said in his natural voice, "It is an amusing letter. There is no signature and the tone of the letter, as you heard, is stilted and pompous. What do you think of it, Squires?"

Rune's ruddy face was set in displeasure. He said, "It's obviously the work of a man not far removed from the psychotic. He writes like a historical novel. Frankly, Fife, I don't see that such rubbish is a decent excuse to disrupt our traditions of continental autonomy by calling us together. And I don't like all this going on in the presence of your secretary."

"My secretary? Because he is a Florinian? Are you afraid his mind will be unsettled by such things as this letter? Nonsense." His tone shifted from one of mild amusement to the unmodulated syllables of command. "Turn to the Squire of Rune."

The secretary did so. His eyes were discreetly lowered and his white face was uncreased by lines and unmarred by expression. It almost seemed untouched by life.

"This Florinian," said Fife, careless of the man's presence, "is my personal servant. He is never away from me, never with others of his kind. But it is not for that reason that he is absolutely trustworthy. Look at him. Look at his eyes. Isn't it obvious to you that he has been under the psychic probe? He is incapable of any thought which is disloyal to myself in the slightest degree. With no offense intended, I can say that I would sooner trust him than any of you."

Bort chuckled. "I don't blame you. None of us owes you the loyalty of a probed Florinian servant."

Steen giggled again and writhed in his seat as though it were growing gently warm.

Not one of them made any comment on Fife's use of a psychic probe for personal servants. Fife would have been tremendously astonished had they done so. The use of the psychic probe for any reason other than the correction of mental disorders or the removal of criminal impulses was forbidden. Strictly speaking, it was forbidden even to the Great Squires.

Yet Fife probed whenever he felt it necessary, particularly when the subject was a Florinian. The probing of a Sarkite was a much more delicate matter. The Squire of Steen, whose writhings at the mention of the probing Fife did not miss, was well reputed to make use of probed Florinians of both sexes for purposes far removed from the secretarial.

"Now." Fife put his blunt fingers together. "I did not bring you all together for the reading of a crackpot letter. That, I hope, is understood. Actually I am afraid we have an important problem on our hands. First of all, I ask myself, why bother only with me? To be sure, I am the wealthiest of the Squires, but alone, I control only a third of the kyrt trade. Together the five of us control it all. It is easy to make five cello-copies of a letter, as easy as it is to make one."

"You use too many words," muttered Bort. "What do you want?"

Balle's withered and colorless lips moved in a dull gray face. "He wants to know, my Lord of Bort, if we have received copies of this letter."

"Th~s1 let him say so."

"Ffhought I was saying so," said Fife evenly. "Well?"

They looked at one another, doubtfully or defiantly, as the personality of each dictated.

Rune spoke first. His pink forehead was moist with discrete drops of perspiration and he lifted a soft square of kyrt to mop the dampness out of the creases between the folds of fat that ran semicircles from ear to ear.

He said, "I wouldn't know, Fife. I can ask my secretaries, who are all Sarkites, by the way. After all, even if such a letter had reached my office, it would have been considered a-what is it we say?-a crank letter. It would never have come to me. That's certain. It's only your own peculiar secretarial system that kept you from being spared this trash yourself."

He looked about and smiled, his gums gleaming wetly between his lips above and below artificial teeth of chrome-steel. Each individual tooth was buried deeply, knit to the jawbone, and stronger than any tooth of mere enamel could ever be. His smile was more frightening than his frown could possibly be.

Balle shrugged. "I imagine that what Rune has just said can hold for all of us."

Steen tittered. "I never read mail. Really, I never do. It's such a bore, and such loads come in that I just wouldn't have any time." He looked about him earnestly, as though it were really necessary to convince the company of this important fact.

Bort said, "Nuts. What's wrong with you all? Afraid of Fife? Look here, Fife, I don't keep any secretary because I don't need anyone between myself and my business. I got a copy of that letter and I'm sure these three did too. Want to know what I did with mine? I threw it into the disposal chute. I'd advise you to do the same with yours. Let's stop this. I'm tired."

His hand reached upward for the toggle switch that would cut contact and release his image from its presence in Fife.

"Wait, Bort." Fife's voice rang out harshly. "Don't do that. I'm not done. You wouldn't want us to take measures and come to decisions in your absence. Surely you wouldn't."

"Let us linger, Squire Bort," urged Rune in his softer tones, though his little fat-buried eyes were not particularly amiable. "I wonder why Squire Fife seems to worry so about a trifle."

"Well," said Balle, his dry voice scratching at their ears, "perhaps Fife thinks our letter-writing friend has information about a Trantorian attack on Florina."

"Pooh," said Fife with scorn. "How would he know, whoever he is? Our secret service is adequate, I assure you. And how would he stop the attack if he received our properties as bribe? No, no. He speaks of the destruction of Flora as though he meant physical destruction and not political destruction."

"It's just too insane," said Steen.

"Yes?" said Fife. "Then you don't see the significance of the events of the last two weeks?"

"Which particular events?" asked Bort.

"It seems a Spatio-analyst has disappeared. Surely you've heard of that."

Bort looked annoyed and in no way soothed. "I've heard from Abel of Trantor about it. What of it? I know nothing of Spatioanalysts."

"At least you've read a copy of the last message to his base on Sank before he turned up missing."

"Abel showed it to me. I paid no attention to it."

"What about the rest of you?" Fife's eyes challenged them one by one. "Your memory goes back a week?"

"I read it," said Rune. "I remember it too. Of course! It spoke of destruction also. Is that what you're getting at?"

"Look here," Steen said shrilly, "it was full of nasty hints that made no sense. Really, I do hope we're not going to discuss it now. I could scarcely get rid of Abel, and it was just before dinner, too. Most distressing. Really."

"There's no help for it, Steen," said Fife with more than a trace of impatience. (What could one do with a thing like Steen?) "We must speak of it again. The Spatio-analyst spoke of the destruction of Florina. Coincident with his disappearance, we receive messages also threatening the destruction of Florina. Is that coincidence?"

"You are saying that the Spatio-analyst sent the blackmailing message?" whispered old Balle.

"Not likely. Why say it first in his own name, then anonymously?"

"When he spoke of it at first," said Balle, "he was communicating with his district office, not with us."

"Even so. A blackmailer deals with no one but his victim if he can help it."

"Well then?"

"He has disappeared. Call the Spatio-analyst honest. But he broadcast dangerous information. He is now in the hands of others who are not honest and they are blackmailers."

"What others?"

Fife sat grimly back in his chair, his lips scarcely moving. "You ask me seriously? Trantor."

Steen shivered. "Trantor!" His high-pitched voice broke.

"Why not? What better way to gain control of Florina? It's one of the prime aims of their foreign policy. And if they can do it without war, so much the better for them. Look here, if we accede to this impossible ultimatum, Florina is theirs. They offer us a Iittle"-he brought two fingers close together before his face- "hut how long shall we keep even that?

"On the other hand, suppose we ignore this, and, really, we have no choice. What would Trantor do then? Why, they will spread rumors of an imminent end of the world to the Florinian peasants. As their rumors spread the peasants will panic, and what can follow but disaster? What force can make a man work if he thinks the end of the world will come tomorrow? The harvest will rot. The warehouses will empty."

Steen lifted a finger to smooth the coloring on one cheek, as he glanced at a mirror in his own apartments, out of range of the receptor-cube.

He said, "I don't think that would harm us much. If the supply goes down, wouldn't the price go up? Then after a while it would turn out that Florina was still there and the peasants would go back to work. Besides, we could always threaten to clamp down on exports. Really, I don't see how any cultured world could be expected to live without kyrt. Oh, it's King Kyrt all right. I think this is a fuss about nothing."

He threw himself into an attitude of boredom, one finger placed delicately upon his cheek.

Balle's old eyes had been closed through all of this last. He said, "There can be no price increases now. We've got them at absolute ceiling height."

"Exactly," said Fife. "It won't come to serious disruption anyway. Trantor waits for any sign of disorder on Florina. If they could present the Galaxy with the prospect of a Sark that was unable to guarantee kyrt shipments, it would be the most natural thing in the universe for them to move in to maintain what they call order and to keep the kyrt coming. And the danger would be that the free worlds of the Galaxy would probably play along with them for the sake of the kyrt. Especially if Traritor agreed to break the monopoly, increase production and lower prices. Afterward it would be another story, but meanwhile, they would get their support.

"It's the only logical way that Trantor could possibly grip Florina. If it were simple force, the free Galaxy outside the Trantorian sphere of influence would join us in sheer self-protection."

Rune said, "How does the Spatio-analyst fit in this? Is he necessary? If your theory is adequate it should explain that."

"I think it does. These Spatio-analysts are unbalanced for the most part, and this one has developed some"-Fife's fingers moved, as though building a vague structure-"some crazy theory. It doesn't matter what. Trantor can't let it come out, or the Spatio-analytic Bureau would quash it. To seize the man and learn the details would, however, give them something that would probably possess a surface validity to non-specialists. They could use it, make it sound real. The Bureau is a Trantorian puppet, and their denials, once the story is spread by way of scientific rumormongering, would never be forceful enough to overtake the lie."

"It sounds too complicated," said Bort. "Nuts. They can't let it come out, but then again they will let it come out."

"They can't let it come out as a serious scientific announcement, or even reach the Bureau as such," said Fife patiently. "They can let it leak out as a rumor. Don't you see that?"

"What's old Abel doing wasting his time looking for the Spatio-analyst then?"

"You expect him to advertise the fact that he's got him? What Abel does and what Abel seems to be doing are two different things."

"Well," said Rune, "if you're right, what are we to do?"

Fife said, "We have learned the danger, and that is the important thing. We'll find the Spatio-analyst if we can. We must keep all known agents of Trantor under strict scrutiny without really interfering with them. From their actions we may learn the course of coming events. We must suppress thoroughly any propaganda on Florina to the effect of the planet's destruction. The first faint whisper must meet with instant counteraction of the most violent sort.

"Most of all, we must remain united. That is the whole purpose of this meeting, in my eyes; the forming of a common front. We all know about continental autonomy and I'm sure there is no one more insistent upon it than I am. That is, under ordinary circumstances. These are not ordinary circumstances. You see that?"

More or less reluctantly, for continental autonomy was not a thing to be abandoned lightly, they saw that.

"Then," said Fife, "we will wait for the second move."

That had been a year ago. They had left and there had followed the strangest and most complete fiasco ever to have fallen to the lot of the Squire of Fife in a moderately long and a more than moderately audacious career.

No second move followed. There were no further letters to any of them. The Spatio-analyst remained unfound, while Trantor maintained a desultory search. There was no trace of apocalyptic rumors on Florina, and the harvesting and processing of kyrt continued its smooth pace.

The Squire of Rune took to calling Fife at weekly intervals.

"Fife," he would call. "Anything new?" His fatness would quiver with delight and thick chuckles would force their way out of his gullet.

Fife took it bleakly and stolidly. What could he do? Over and over again he sifted the facts. It was no use. Something was missing. Some vital factor was missing.

And then it all began exploding at once, and he had the answer. He knew he had the answer, and it was what he had not expected.

He had called a meeting once again. The chronometer now said two twenty-nine.

They were beginning to appear now. Bort first, lips compressed and a rough hangnailed finger rasping against the grain of his grizzly-stubbled cheek. Then Steen, his face freshly washed clear of its paint and presenting a pallid, unhealthy appearance. Balle, indifferent and tired, his cheeks sunken, his armchair well cushioned, a glass of warm milk at his side. Lastly Rune, two minutes late, wet-lipped and sulky, sitting in the night once again. This time his lights were dimmed to the point where he was a hazy bulk sitting in a cube of shadow which Fife's lights could not have illuminated though they had had the power of Sark's sun.

Fife began. "Squires! Last year I speculated on a distant and complicated danger. In so doing I fell into a trap. The danger exists, but it is not distant. It is near us, very near. One of you already knows what I mean. The others will find out shortly."

"What do you mean?" asked Bort shortly.

"High treason!" shot back Fife.