The Currents of Space (Page 17)

DIPLOMACY has a language and a set of attitudes all its own. Relationships between the representatives of sovereign states, if conducted strictly according to protocol, are stylized and stultifying. The phrase "unpleasant consequences" becomes synonymous with war and "suitable adjustment" with surrender.

When on his own, Abel preferred to abandon diplomatic double-talk. With a tight personal beam connecting himself and Fife, he might merely have been an elderly man talking amiably over a glass of wine.

He said, "You have been hard to reach, Fife."

Fife smiled. He seemed at ease and undisturbed. "A busy day, Abel." -

"Yes. I've heard a bit about it."

"Steen?" Fife was casual.

"Partly. Steen's been with us about seven hours."

"I know. My own fault, too. Are you considering turning him over to us?"

"I'm afraid not."

"He's a criminal."

Abel chuckled and turned the goblet in his hand, watching the lazy bubbles. "I think we can make out a case for his being a political refugee. Interstellar law will protect him on Trantorian territory."

"Will your government back you?"

"I think it will, Fife. I haven't been in the foreign service for thirty-seven years without knowing what Trantor will back and what it won't."

"I can have Sark ask for your recall."

"What good would that do? rm a peaceable man with whom you are well acquainted. My successor might be anybody."

There was a pause. Fife's leonine countenance puckered. "I think you have a suggestion."

"I do. You have a man of ours."

"What man of yours?"

"A Spatio-analyst. A native of the planet Earth, which, by the way, is part of the Trantorian domain."

"Steen told you this?"

"Among other things."

"Has he seen this Earthman?"

"He hasn't said he has."

"Well, he hasn't. Under the circumstances, I doubt that you can have faith in his word."

Abel put down his glass. He clasped his hands loosely in his lap and said, "Just the same, I'm sure the Earthman exists. I tell you, Fife, we should get together on this. I have Steen and you have the Earthman. In a sense we're even. Before you go on with your current plans, before your ultimatum expires and your coup d'etat takes place, why not a conference on the kyrt situation generally?"

"I don't see the necessity. What is happening on Sark now is an internal matter entirely. rm quite willing to guarantee personally that there will be no interference with the kyrt trade regardless of political events here. I think that should end Trantor's legitimate interests."

Abel sipped at his wine, seemed to consider. He said, "It seems we have a second political refugee. A curious case. One of your Florinian subjects, by the way. A Townman. Myrlyn Terens, he calls himself."

Fife's eyes blazed suddenly. "We half suspected that. By Sark, Abel, there's a limit to the open interference of Trantor on this planet. The man you have kidnaped is a murderer. You can't make a political refugee out of him."

"Well, now, do you want the man?"

"You have a deal in mind? Is that it?"

"The conference I spoke of."

"For one Florinian murderer. Of course not."

"But the manner in which the Townman managed to escape to us is rather curious. You may be interested..."

Junz paced the floor, shaking his head. The night was already well advanced. He would like to be able to sleep but he knew he would require somnin once again.

Abel said, "I might have had to threaten force, as Steen suggested. That would have been bad. The risks would have been awful, the results uncertain. Yet until the Townman was brought to us I saw no alternative, except of course, a policy of do-nothing."

Junz shook his head violently. "No. Something had to be done. Yet it amounted to blackmail."

"Technically, I suppose so. What would you have had me do?"

"Exactly what you did. I'm not a hypocrite, Abel. Or I try not to be. I won't condemn your methods when I intend to make full use of the results. Still, what about the girl?"

"She won't be hurt as long as Fife keeps his bargain."

"I'm sorry for her. I've grown to dislike the Sarkite aristocrats for what they've done to Florina, but I can't help feeling sorry for her."

"As an individual, yes. But the true responsibility lies with Sark itself. Look here, old man, did you ever kiss ~a girl in a ground-car?"

The tip of a smile quivered at the corners of Junz's mouth. "Yes."

"So have I, though I have to call upon longer memories than you do, I imagine. My eldest granddaughter is probably engaged in the practice at this moment, I shouldn't wonder. What is a stolen kiss in a ground-car, anyway, except the expression of the most natural emotion in the Galaxy?

"Look here, man. We have a girl, admittedly of high social standing, who, through mistake, finds herself in the same car with, let us say, a criminal. He seizes the opportunity to kiss her. It's on impulse and without her consent. How ought she to feel? How ought her father to feel? Chagrined? Pdrhaps. Annoyed? Certainly. Angry? Offended? Insulted? All that, yes. But disgraced? NoT Disgraced enough to be willing to endanger important affairs of state to avoid exposure? Nonsense.

"But that's exactly the situation and it could happen only on Sark. The Lady Samia is guilty of nothing but willfulness and a certain na��vet��. She has, I am sure, been kissed before. If she kissed again, if she kissed innumerable times, anyone but a Florinian, nothing would be said. But she did kiss a Florinian.

"It doesn't matter that she did not know he was a Florinian. It doesn't matter that he forced the kiss upon her. To make public the photograph we have of the Lady Samia in the arms of the Florinian would make life unbearable for her and for her father. I saw Fife's face when he stared at the reproduction. There was no way of telling for certain that the Townman was a Florinian. He was in Sarkite costume with a cap that covered his hair well. He was light-skinned, but that was inconclusive. Still, Fife knew that the rumor would be gladly believed by many who were interested in scandal and sensation and that the picture would be considered incontrovertible proof. And he knew that his political enemies would make the greatest possible capital out of it. You may call it blackmail, Junz, and maybe it is, but it's a blackmail that would not work on any other planet in the Galaxy. Their own sick social system gave us this weapon and I have no compunction about using it."

Junz sighed. "What's the final arrangement?"

"We'll meet at noon tomorrow."

"His ultimatum has been postponed then?"

"Indefinitely. I will be at his office in person."

"Is that a necessary risk?"

"It's not much of one. There will be witnesses. And I am anxious to be in the material presence of this Spatio-analyst you have been searching for so long."

"I'll attend?" asked Junz anxiously.

"Oh yes. The Townman as well. We'll need him to identify the Spatio-analyst. And Steen, of course. All of you will be present by trimensic personification."

"Thank you."

The Trantorian Ambassador smothered a yawn and blinked at Junz through watering eyes. "Now, if you don't mind, I've been awake for two days and a night and I'm afraid my old body can take no more antisom.nin. I must sleep."

With trimensic personification perfected, important conferences were rarely held face to face. Fife felt strongly an element of actual indecency in the material presence of the old Ambassador. His olive complexion could not be said to have darkened, but its lines were set in silent anger.

It had to be silent. He could say nothing. He could only stare sullenly at the men who faced him.

Abel! An old dotard in shabby clothes with a million worlds behind him.

JunzT A dark-skinned, woolly-haired interferer whose perseverance had precipitated the crisis.

Steen! The traitor! Afraid to meet his eyes!

The Townman! To look at him was most difficult of all. He was the native who had dishonored his daughter with his touch yet who could remain safe and untouchable behind the walls of the Trantorian Embassy. He would have been glad to grind his teeth and pound his desk if he had been alone. As it was, not a muscle of his face must move though it tore beneath the strain.

If Samia had not... He dropped that. His own negligence had cultivated her willfulness and he could not blame her for it now. She had not tried to excuse herself or soften her own guilt. She had told him all the truth of her private attempts to play the interstellar spy and how horribly it had ended. Sli�� had relied completely, in her shame and bitterness, on his understanding, and she would have that much. She would have that much, if it meant the ruin of the structure he had been building.

He said, "This conference has been forced upon me. I see no point in saying anything. I'm here to listen."

Abel said, "I believe Steen would like to have his say first."

Fife's eyes filled with contempt that stung Steen.

Steen yelled his answer. "You made me turn to Trantor, Fife. You violated the principle of autonomy. You couldn't expect me to stand for that. Really."

Fife said nothing and Abel said, not without a little contempt of his own, "Get to your point, Steen. You said you had something to say. Say it."

Steen's sallow cheekbones reddened without benefit of rouge. "I will, and right now. Of course I don't claim to be the detective that the Squire of Fife represents himself to be, but I can think. Really! And I've been thinking. Fife had a story to tell yesterday, all about a mysterious traitor he called X. I could see it was just a lot of talk so that he could declare an emergency. I wasn't fooled a minute."

"There's no X?" asked Fife quietly. "Then why did you run? A man who runs needs no other accusation."

"Is that so? Really?" cried Steen. "Well, I would run out of a burning building even if I had not set the fire myself."

"Go on, Steen," said Abel.

Steen licked his lips and turned to a minute consideration of his fingernails. He smoothed them gently as he spoke. "But then I thought, why make up that particular story with all its complications and things? It's not his way. Really! It's not Fife's way. I know him. We all know him. He has no imagination at all, Your Excellency. A brute of a man! Almost as bad as Bort."

Fife scowled. "Is he saying something, Abel, or is he babbling?"

"Go on, Steen," said Abel.

"I will, if you'll let me talk. My goodness! Whose side are you on? I said to myself (this was after dinner), I said, Why would a man like Fife make up a story like that? There was only one answer. He couldn't make it up. Not with his mind. So it was true. It must be true. And, of course, patrollers had been killed, though Fife is quite capable of arranging to have that happen."

Fife shrugged his shoulders.

Steen drove on. "Only who is X? It isn't I. Really! I know it isn't I! And I'll admit it could only have been a Great Squire. But what Great Squire knew most about it, anyway? What Great Squire has been trying to use the story of the Spatio-analyst for a year now to frighten the others into some sort of what he calls 'united effort' and what I call surrender to a Fife dictatorship?

"I'll tell you who X is." Steen stood up, the top of his head brushing the edge of the receptor-cube and flattening as the uppermost inch sliced off into nothingness. He pointed a trembling finger. "He's X. The Squire of Fife. He found this Spatio-analyst. He put him out of the way, when he saw the rest of us weren't impressed with his silly remarks at our first conference, and then he brought him out again after he had already arranged a military coup."

Fife turned wearily to Abel. "Is he through? If so, remove him. He is an unbearable offense to any decent man."

Abel said, "Have you any comment to make on what he says?"

"Of course not. It isn't worth comment. The man is desperate. He'll say anything."

"You can't just brush it off, Fife," called Steen. He looked about at the rest. His eyes narrowed and the skin at his nostrils was white with tension. He remained standing. "Listen. He said his investigators found records in a doctor's office. He said the doctor had died by accident after diagnosing the Spatio-analyst as the victim of psycho-probing. He said it was murder by X to keep the identity of the Spatio-analyst secret. That's what he said. Ask him. Ask him if that isn't what he said."

"And if I did?" asked Fife.

"Then ask him how he could get the records from the office of a doctor who was dead and buried for months unless he had them all along. Really!"

Fife said, "This is foolish. We can waste time indefinitely this way. Another doctor took over the dead man's practice and his records as well. Do any of you think medical records are destroyed along with a physician?"

Abel said, "No, of course not."

Steen stuttered, then sat down. -

Fife said, "What's next? Have any of you more to say? More accusations? More anything?" His voice was low. Bitterness showed through.

Abel said, "Why, that was Steen's say, and we'll let it pass. Now Junz and I, we're here on another kind of business. We would like to see the Spatio-analyst."

Fife's hands had been resting upon the desk top. They lifted now and came down to clutch the edge of the desk. His black eyebrows drew together.

He said, "We have in custody a man of subnormal mentality who claims to be a Spatio-analyst. I'll have him brought in!"

Valona March had never, never in her life dreamed such impossibilities could exist. For over a day now, ever since she had landed on this planet of Sark, there had been a touch of wonder about everything. Even the prison cells in which she and Bik

had been separately placed seemed to have an unreal quality of magnificence about them. Water came out of a hole in a pipe when you pressed a button. Heat came out of the wall, although the air outside had been colder than she had thought air could possibly get. And everyone who spoke to her wore such beautiful clothes.

She had been in rooms in which were all sorts of things she had never seen before. This one now was larger than any yet but it was almost bare. It had more people in it, though. There was a stern-looking man behind a desk, and a much older, very wrinkled man in a chair, and three others.

One was the Townrnan!

She jumped up and ran to him. "Townman! Townman!"

But he wasn't there!

He had gotten up and waved at her. "Stay back, Lona. Stay back!"

And she passed right through him. She had reached out to seize his sleeve, he moved it away. She lunged, half stumbling, and passed right through him. For a moment the breath went out of her body. The Townman had turned, was facing her again, but she could only stare down at her legs.

Both of them were thrusting through the heavy arm of the chair in which the Townman had been sitting. She could see it plainly, in all its color and solidity. It encircled her legs but she did not feel it. She put out a trembling hand and her fingers sank an inch deep into upholstery they could not feel either. Her fingers remained visible.

She shrieked and fell, her last sensation being that of the Townman's arms reaching automatically for her and herself f ailing through their circle as though they were pieces of flesh-tinted air.

She was in a chair again, Rik holding one hand tightly and the old, wrinkled man leaning over her.

He was saying, "Don't be frightened, my dear. It's just a picture. A photograph, you know."

Valona looked about. The Townman was still sitting there. He wasn't looking at her.

She pointed a finger. "Isn't he there?"

Rik said suddenly, "It's a trimensic personification, Lona. He's somewhere else, but we can see him from here."

Valona shook her head. If Rik said so, it was all right. But she lowered her eyes. She dared not look at people who were there and not there at the same time.

Abel said to Rik, "So you know what trimensic personification is, young man?"

"Yes, sir." It had been a tremendous day for uk, too, but where Valona was increasingly dazzled, he had found things increasingly familiar and comprehensible.

"Where did you learn that?"

"I don't know. I knew it before-before I forgot."

Fife had not moved from his seat behind the desk during the wild plunge of Valona March toward the Townman.

He said acidly, "I am sorry to have to disturb this meeting by bringing in a hysterical native woman. The so-called Spatioanalyst required her presence."

"It's all right," said Abel. "But I notice that your Florinian of subnormal mentality seems to be acquainted with trimensic personification."

"He has been well drilled, I imagine," said Fife. -

Abel said, "Has he been questioned since arriving on Sark?"

"He certainly has."

"With what result?"

"No new information."

Abel turned to Bik. "What's your name?"

"Rik is the only name I remember," said Elk calmly.

"Do you know anyone here?"

Rik looked from face to face without fear. He said, "Only the Towriman. And Lona, of course."

"This," said Abel, gesturing toward Fife, "is the greatest Squire that ever lived. He owns the whole world. What do you think of him?"

Bik said boldly, "rm an Earthman. He doesn't own me."

Abel said in an aside to Fife, "I don't think an adult native Florinian could be trained into that sort of defiance."

"Even with a psycho-probe?" returned Fife scornfully.

"Do you know this gentleman?" asked Abel, returning to Elk.

"No, sir."

"This is Dr. Selim Junz. He's an important official at the Interstellar Spatio-analytic Bureau."

Elk looked at him intently. "Then he'd be one of my chiefs. But," with disappointment, "I don't know him. Or maybe I just don't remember."

Junz shook his head gloomily. "I've never seen him, Abel."

"That's something for the record," muttered Fife.

"Now listen, Elk," said Abel. "rm going to tell you a story. I want you to listen with all your mind and think. Think and think! Do you understand me?"

Rik nodded.

Abel talked slowly. His voice was the only sound in the room for long minutes. As he went on, Elk's eyelids closed and screwed themselves tight shut. His lips drew back, his fists moved up to his chest, and his head bent forward. He had the look of a man in agony.

Abel talked on, passing back and forth across the reconstruction of events as they had originally been presented by the Squire of Fife. He talked of the original message of disaster, of its interception, of the meeting between Elk and X, of the psycho-probing, of how Elk had been found and brought up on Florina, of the doctor who diagnosed him and then died, of his returning memory.

He said, "That's the whole story, Bik. I've told you all of it. Does anything sound familiar to you?"

Slowly, painfully, Elk said, "I remember the last parts. You know, the last few days. I remember something further back, too. Maybe it was the doctor, when I first started talking. It's very dim... But that's all."

Abel said, "But you do remember further back. You remember danger to Florina."

"Yes. Yes. That was the first thing I remembered."

"Then can't you remember after that? You landed on Sark and met a man."

Rik moaned, "I can't. I can't remember."

"Try! Try!"

Elk looked up. His white face was wet with perspiration. "I remember a word."

"What word, Rik?"

"It doesn't make sense."

"Tell us anyway."

"It goes along with a table. Long, long ago. Very dim. I was sitting. I think, maybe, someone else was sitting. Then he was standing, looking down at me. And there's a word."

Abel was patient. "What word?"

Rik clenched his fists and whispered, "Fife!"

Every man but Fife rose to his feet. Steen shrieked, "I told you," and burst into a high-pitched bubbling cackle.