The Currents of Space (Page 13)
Tins FouR Great Squires regarded the Squire of Fife each in his own way. Bort was angry, Rune was amused, Balle was annoyed, and Steen was frightened.
Rune spoke first. He said, "High treason? Are you trying to frighten us with a phrase? What does it mean? Treason against you? Against Bort? Against myself? By whom and how? And for S ark's sake, Fife, these conferences interfere with my normal sleeping hours."
"The results," said Fife, "may interfere with many sets of sleeping hours. I don't refer to treason against any of us, Rune. I mean treason against Sark."
Bort said, "Sark? What's that, anyway, if not us?"
"Call it a myth. Call it something ordinary Sarkites believe in."
"I don't understand," moaned Steen. "You men always seem so interested in talking each other down. Really! I wish you'd get all this over with."
Balle said, "I agree with Steen." Steen looked gratified.
Fife said, "I'm perfectly willing to explain immediately. You have heard, I suppose, of the recent disturbances on Florina."
Rune said, "The Depsec dispatches speak of several patrollers killed. Is that what you mean?"
Bort broke in angrily. "By Sark, if we must have a conference, let's talk about that. Patrollers killed! They deserve to be killed! Do you mean to say a native can simply come up to a patroller and bash his head in with a two-by-four? Why should any patroller let any native with a two-by-four in his hand come close enough to use it? Why wasn't the native burned down at twenty paces?
"By Sark, I'd rattle the Patrol Corps from captain to recruit and send every dunderhead out on ship duty. The entire Corps is just an accumulation of fat. It's too easy a life for them down there. I say that every five years we should put Florina under martial law and scrape out the troublemakers. It would keep the natives quiet and our own men on their toes."
"Are you through?" asked Fife.
"For now, yes. But I'll take it up again. It's my investment down there, too, you know. It may not be as big as yours, Fife, but it's big enough for me to worry about."
Fife shrugged. He turned suddenly to Steen. "And have you heard of the disturbances?"
Steen jumped. "I have. I mean, I've heard you just saying-"
"You haven't read the Depsec announcements?"
"Well, really!" Steen became intensely interested in his long, pointed fingernails with their exquisitely applied coppery coating. "I don't always have time to read all the announcements. I didn't know it was required of me. In fact," and he gathered his courage in both hands and looked full at Fife, "I didn't know you were making rules for me. Really!"
"I haven't," said Fife. "Just the same since you, at least, know none of the details, let me summarize it for you. The rest may find it interesting as well."
It was surprising into how few words the events of forty-eight hours could be put and how flat they could sound. First, there had been an unexpected reference to Spatio-analysis texts. Then a blow on the head of a superannuated patroller who died of a fractured skull two hours later. Then a pursuit that ended with untouchability in the lair of a Trantorian agent. Then a second patroller dead at dawn with the murderer tricked out in the patroller's uniform and the Trantorian agent dead in his turn some hours later.
"If you wish the very latest nugget of news," Fife concluded, "you might add this to this catalog of apparent trivia. Some hours ago a body, or, rather, the bony remnants of one, was found in City Park on Florina."
"Whose body?" asked Rune.
"Just a moment, please. Lying next to it was a pile of ash that seemed to be the charred remnants of clothing. Anything of metal had been carefully removed from it, but the ash analysis proved it to be what was left of a patroller uniform."
"Our impostoring friend?" asked Balle.
"Not likely," said Fife. "Who would kill him in secret?"
"Suicide," said Bort viciously. "How long did the bloody bastard expect to keep out of our hands? I imagine he had a better death this way. Personally, I'd find out who in the Corps were responsible for letting him reach the suicide stage and put a one-charge blaster in their hands."
"Not likely," said Fife again. "If the man committed suicide he either killed himself first, then took off his uniform, blasted it to ash, removed the buckles and braid, and then got rid of them. Or else he first removed his uniform, ashed it, removed the buckles and braid, left the cave naked, or perhaps in his underwear, discarded them, came back and killed himself."
"The body was in a cave?" asked Bort.
"In one of the ornamental caves of the Park. Yes."
"Then he had plenty of time and plenty of privacy," said Bort belligerently. He hated to give up a theory. "He could have taken off the buckles and braid first, then-"
"Ever try to remove braid from a patroller uniform that hasn't been ashed first?" asked Fife sarcastically. "And ca~ you suggest a motive, if the body were that of the impostor after suicide? Besides, I have a report from the medical examiners who studied the bone structure. The skeleton is that of neither a patroller nor a Florinian. It is of a Sarkite."
Steen cried, "Really!"; Balle's old eyes opened wide; Rune's metal teeth, which, by catching a gleam of light now and then, added a bit of life to the cube of dusk in which he sat, vanished as he closed his mouth. Even Bort was dumfounded.
"Do you follow?" asked Fife. "Now you see why the metal was removed from the uniform. Whoever killed the Sarkite wanted the ash to be taken for that of the Sarkite's own clothing, removed and ashed before the killing, which we might then take for suicide or for the result of a private feud in no way connected with our patroller-impostor friend. What he did not know was that ash analysis could distinguish between the kyrt of Sarkite clothing and the cellulite of a patroller uniform even with the buckles and braid removed.
"Now given a dead Sarkite and the ash of a patroller uniform, we can only assume that somewhere in Upper City there is a live Townman in Sarkite clothing. Our Florinian, having posed as a patroller long enough, and finding the danger too great and growing greater, decided to become a Squire. And he did that in the only way he could."
"Has he been caught?" inquired Bort thickly.
"No, he hasn't."
"Why not? By Sark, why not?"
"He will be caught," said Fife indifferently. "At the moment we have more important things to wonder about. This last atrocity is a trifle in comparision."
"Get to the point!" demanded Rune instantly.
"Patience! First, let me ask you if you remember the missing Spatio-analyst of last year."
Bort said with infinite contempt, "That again?"
Steen asked, "Is there a connection? Or are we just going to talk about that horrible affair of last year all over again? I'm tired."
Fife was unmoved. He said, "This explosion of yesterday and day before yesterday began with a request at the Florinian library for reference books on Spatio-analysis. That is connection enough for me. Let's see if I can't make the connection for the rest of you as well. I will begin by describing the three people involved in the library incident, and please, let me have no interruptions for a few moments.
"First, there is a Townman. He is the dangerous one of the three. On Sark he had an excellent record as an intelligent and faithful piece of material. Unfortunately he has now turned his abilities against us. He is undoubtedly the one responsible for four killings now. Quite a record for anyone. Considering that the four include two patrollers and a Sarkite, it is unbelievably remarkable for a native. And he is still uncaught.
"The second person involved is a native woman. She is uneducated and completely insignificant. However, the last couple of days have seen an extensive search into every facet of this affair and we know her history. Her parents were members of the 'Soul of Kyrt' if any of you remember that rather ridiculous peasant conspiracy that was wiped out without trouble some twenty years ago.
"This brings us to the third person, the most unusual one of the three. This third person was a common mill hand and an idiot."
There was an expulsion of breath from Bort and another high-pitched giggle from Steen. Balle's eyes remained closed and Rune was motionless in the dark.
Fife said, "The word 'idiot' is not used figuratively. Depsec has driven itself mercilessly but his history could not be traced back more than ten and a half months. At that time he was found in a village just outside Florina's main metropolis in a state of complete mindlessness. He could neither walk nor talk. He could not even feed himself.
"Now note that he made this first appearance some few weeks after the disappearance of the Spatio-analyst. Note in addition that, in a matter of months, he learned how to talk and even how to fill a job at a kyrt mill. What kind of an idiot could learn so quickly?"
Steen began, almost eagerly, "Oh, really, if he were psycho-probed properly, it could be arranged so..." His voice trailed off.
Fife said sardonically, "I can think of no greater authority on the subject. Even without Steen's expert opinion, however, the same thought occurred to me. It was the only possible explanation.
"Now the psycho-probing could have taken place only on Sark or in Upper City on Florina. As a matter of simple thoroughness, doctors' offices in Upper City were checked. There was no trace of any unauthorized psycho-probing. It was then the notion of one of our agents to check the records of doctors who had died since the idiot first made his appearance. I shall see to it that he is promoted for that idea.
"We found a record of our idiot in just one of those offices. He had been brought in for a physical checkup about six months ago by the peasant woman who is the second of our trio. Apparently this was done secretly since she was absent that day from her job on quite another pretext. The doctor examined the idiot and recorded definite evidence of psycho-probic tampering.
"Now here is the interesting point. The doctor was one of those who kept double-deck offices in Upper City and Lower City. He was one of these idealists who thought the natives deserved first-rate medical care. He was a methodical man and kept duplicate records in full in both his offices to avoid unnecessary elevator travel. Also it pleased his idealism, I imagine, to practice no segregation between Sarkite and Florinian in his files. But the record of the idiot in question was not duplicated, and it was the only record not duplicated.
"Why should that be? If, for some reason, he had decided of his own accord not to duplicate that particular record, why should it have appeared only in the Upper City records, which is where it did appear? Why not only in the Lower City records, which is where it did not appear? After all, the man was a Florinian. He had been brought in by a Florinian. He had been examined in the Lower City office. All that was plainly recorded in the copy we found.
"There is only one answer to that particular puzzle. The record was duly entered in both files, but it was destroyed in the Lower City files by somebody who did not realize there would remain another record in the Upper City office. Now let's pass on.
"Included with the idiot's examination record was the definite notation to include the findings of this case with the doctor's next routine report to Depsec. That was entirely proper. Any case of psycho-probing could involve a criminal or even a subversive. But no such report was ever made. Within the week he was dead in a traffic accident.
"The coincidences pile up past endurance, don't they?"
Balle opened his eyes. He said, "This is a detective thriller you are telling us."
"Yes," cried Fife with satisfaction, "a detective thriller. And for the moment I am the detective."
"And who are the accused?" asked Balle in a tired whisper.
"Not yet. Let me play the detective for a moment longer."
In the middle of what Fife considered to be the most dangerous crisis that had ever confronted Sark, he suddenly found that he was enjoying himself hugely.
He said, "Let's approach the story from the other end. We will, for the moment, forget the idiot and remember the Spatio analyst. The first we hear of him is the notification to the Bureau of Transportation that his ship will soon land. A message received from him earlier accompanies the notification.
"The Spatio-analyst never arrives. He is located nowhere in near space. Furthermore, the message sent by the Spatioanalyst, which had been forwarded to BuTrans, disappeared. The I.S.B. claimed that we were deliberately concealing the message. Depsec believed that they were inventing a fictitious message for propaganda purposes. It now occurs to me that we were both wrong. The message had been delivered but it had not been concealed by the government of Sark.
"Let us invent someone and, for the moment, call him X. X has access to the records of BuTrans. He learns of this Spatioanalyst and his message and has the brains and ability to act quickly. He arranges that a secret sub-ethergram be sent out to the Spatio-analyst's ship, directing the man's landing on some small, private field. The Spatio-analyst does so and X meets him there.
"X has taken the Spatio-analyst's message of doom with him. There may be two reasons for that. First, it would confuse possible attempts at detection by eliminating a piece of evidence. Second, it would serve, perhaps, to win the confidence of the mad Spatio-analyst. If the Spatio-analyst felt he could talk only to his own superiors, and he might well feel that, X might persuade him to grow confidential by proving that he was already in possession of the essentials of the story.
"Undoubtedly the Spatio-analyst talked. However incoherent, mad, and generally impossible that talk might have been, X recognized it as an excellent handle for propaganda. He sent out his blackmailing letter to the Great Squires, to us. His procedure, as then planned, was probably precisely that which I attributed to Trantor at the time. If we didn't come to terms with him, he intended to disrupt Florinian production by rumors of destruction until he forced surrender.
"But then came his first miscalculation. Something frightened him. We'll consider exactly what that was later. In any case, he decided he would have to wait before continuing. Waiting, however, involved one complication. X didn't believe the Spatioanalyst's story, but there is no question that the Spatio-analyst himself was madly sincere. X would have to arrange affairs so that the Spatio-analyst would be willing to allow his 'doom' to wait.
"The Spatio-analyst could not do that unless his warped mind was put out of action. X might have killed him, but I am of the opinion that the Spatio-analyst was necessary to him as a source of further information (after all, he knew nothing of Spatioanalysis himself and he couldn't conduct successful blackmail on total bluff) and, perhaps, as ransom in case of ultimate failure. In any case, he used a psycho-probe. After treatment, he had on his hands, not a Spatio-analyst, but a mindless idiot who would, for a time, cause him no trouble. And after a time his senses would be recovered.
"The next step? That was to make certain that during the year's wait the Spatio-analyst would not be located, that no one of importance would see him even in his role as idiot. So he proceeded with a masterly simplicity. He carried his man to Florina and for nearly a year the Spatio-analyst was simply a half-wit native, working in the kyrt mills.
"I imagine that during that year he, or some trusted subordinate, visited the town where he had 'planted' the creature, to see that he was safe and in reasonable health. On one of these visits he learned, somehow, that the creature had been taken to a doctor who knew a psycho-probing when he saw one. The doctor died and his report disappeared, at least from his Lower City office. That was X's first miscalculation. He never thought a duplicate might be in the office above.
"And then came his second miscalculation. The idiot began regaining his senses a little too quickly and the village Townman had brains enough to see that there was something more to it than simple raving. Perhaps the girl who took care of the idiot told the Townman about the psycho-probing. That's a guess.
"There you have the story."
Fife clasped his strong hands and waited for the reaction.
Rune supplied it first. The light had turned on in his cubicle some moments earlier and he sat there, blinking and smiling. He said, "And a moderately dull story it was, Fife. Another moment in the dark and I would have been asleep."
"As nearly as I can see," said Balle slowly, "you have created a structure as insubstantial as the one of last year. It is nine tenths guesswork."
"Hogwash!" said Bort.
"Who is X, anyway?" asked Steen. "If you don't know who X is, it just doesn't make any sense." And he yawned delicately, covering his small white teeth with a bent forefinger.
Fife said, "At least one of you sees the essential point. The identity of X is the nub of the affair. Consider the characteristics that X must possess if my analysis is accurate.
"In the first place, X is a man with contacts in the Civil Service. He is a man who can order a psycho-probing. He is a man who thinks he can arrange a powerful blackmailing campaign. He is a man who can take the Spatio-analyst from Sark to Florina without trouble. He is a man who can arrange the death of a doctor on Florina. He isn't a nobody, certainly.
"In fact he is a very definite somebody. He must be a Great Squire. Wouldn't you say so?"
Bort rose from his seat. His head disappeared and he sat down again. Steen burst into high, hysterical laughter. Rune's eyes, half buried in the pulpy fat that surrounded them, glittered feverishly. Balle slowly shook his head.
Bort yelled, "Who in Space is being accused, Fife?"
"No one yet." Fife remained even-tempered. "No one specifically. Look at it this way. There are five of us. Not another man on S��rk could have done what X did. Only we five. That can be taken as settled. Now which of the five is it? To begin with, it isn't myself."
"We can take your word for it, can we?" sneered Rune.
"You don't have to take my word for it," retorted Fife. "I'm the only one here without a motive. X's motive is to gain control of the kyrt industry. I have control of it. I own a third of Florina's land outright. My mills, machine plants and shipping fleets are sufficiently predominant to force any or all of you out of business if I wish. I wouldn't have to resort to complicated blackmail."
He was shouting over their united voices. "Listen to me! The rest of you have every motive. Rune has the smallest continent and the smallest holdings. I know he doesn't like that. He can't pretend he likes it. Balle has the oldest lineage. There was a time when his family ruled all of Sark. He probably hasn't forgotten that. Bort resents the fact that he is always outvoted in council and cannot therefore conduct business in his territories in quite the whip-and-blaster fashion he would like. Steen has expensive tastes and his finances are in a bad way. The necessity of recouping is a hard-driving one. We have it there. All the possible motives. Envy. Greed for power. Greed for money. Questions of prestige. Now which of you is it?"
There was a gleam of sudden malice in Balle's old eyes. "You don't know?"
"It doesn't matter. Now hear this. I said that something frightened X (let's still call him X) after his first letters to us. Do you know what it was? It was our first conference when I preached the necessity of united action. X was here. X was, and is, one of us. He knew united action meant failure. He had counted on winning over us because he knew that our rigid ideal of continental autonomy would keep us at odds to the last moment and beyond. He saw that he was wrong and he decided to wait until the sense of urgency vanished and he could proceed again.
"But he is still wrong. We will still take united action and there is only one way we can do it safely, considering that X is one of us. Continental autonomy is at an end. It is a luxury we can no longer afford, for X's schemes will end only with the economic defeat of the rest of us or the intervention of Trantor. I, myself, am the only one I can trust, so from now on I head a united Sark. Are you with me?"
They were out of their seats, shouting. Bort was waving his fist. There was a light froth at the corner of his lips.
Physically, there was nothing they could do. Fife smiled. Each was a continent away. He could sit behind his desk and watch them foam.
He said, "You have no choice. In the year since our first conference, I, too, have made my preparations. While you four have been quietly in conference, listening to me, officers loyal to myself have taken charge of the Navy."
"Treason!" they howled.
"Treason to continental autonomy," retorted Fife. "Loyalty to Sark."
Steen's fingers intertwined nervously, their ruddy, copper tips the only splash of color upon his skin. "But it's X. Even if X is one of us, there are three innocent. I'm not X." He cast a poisonous glance about him. "It's one of the others."
"Those of you who are innocent will form part of my government if they wish. They have nothing to lose."
"But you won't say who is innocent," bawled Bort. "You will keep us all out on the story of X, on the-on the-" Breathlessness brought him to a halt.
"I will not. In twenty-four hours I will know who X is. I have not told you. The Spatio-analyst we have all been discussing is now in my hands."
They fell silent. They looked at one another with reserve and suspicion.
Fife chuckled. "You are wondering which of you can be X. One of you knows, be sure of that. And in twenty-four hours we shall all know. Now keep in mind, gentlemen, that you are all quite helpless. The ships of war are mine. Good day!"
His gesture was one of dismissal.
One by one they went out, like stars in the depths of the vacuum being blotted out on the visiplate by the passing and unseen bulk of a wrecked spaceship.
Steen was the last to leave. "Fife," he said tremulously.
Fife looked up. "Yes? You wish to confess now that we two are alone? You are
Steen's face twisted in wild alarm. "No, no. Really. I just wanted to ask if you're really serious. I mean, continental autonomy and all that. Really?"
Fife stared at the old chronometer in the wall. "Good day."
Steen whimpered. His hand went up to the contact switch and he, too, disappeared.
Fife sat there, stony and unmoving. With the conference over, the heat of the crisis gone, depression seized him. His lipless mouth was a severe gash in his large face.
All calculations began with this fact: that the Spatio-analyst was mad, there was no doom. But over a madman, so much had taken place. Would Junz of the I.S.B. have spent a year searching for a madman? Would he be so unyielding in his chase after fairy stories?
Fife had told no one this. He scarcely dared share it with his own soul. What if the Spatio-analyst had never been mad? What if destruction dangled over the world of kyrt?
The Florinian secretary glided before the Great Squire, his voice pallid and dry.
"WThat is it?"
"The ship with your daughter has landed."
"The Spatio-analyst and the native woman are safe?"
"Let there be no questioning in my absence. They are to be held incommunicado until I arrive... Is there news from Florina?"
"Yes, sir. The Townman is in custody and is being brought to Sark."