The Currents of Space (Page 18)
FifE said with tightly controlled passion, "Let us end this farce." He had waited before speaking, his eyes hard and his face expressionless, until in sheer anticlimax the rest were forced to take their seats again. Rik had bent his head, eyes screwed painfully shut, probing his own aching mind. Valona pulled him toward herself, trying hard to cradle his head on her shoulder, stroking his cheek softly.
Abel said shakily, "Why do you say this is a farce?"
Fife said, "Isn't it? I agreed to this meeting in the first place only because of a particular threat you held over me. I would have refused even so if I had known the conference was intended to be a trial of myself with renegades and murderers acting as both prosecutors and jury."
Abel frowned and said with chilling formality, "This is not a trial, Squire. Dr. Junz is here in order to recover the person of a member of the I.S.B., as is his right and duty. I am here to protect the interests of Trantor in a troubled time. There is no doubt in my mind that this man, Elk, is the missing Spatlo-analyst. We can end this part of the conference immediately if you will agree to turn over the man to Dr. Junz for further examination, including a check of physical characteristics. We would naturally require your further help in finding the guilty psycho-prober and in setting up safeguards against a future repetition of such acts against what is, after all, an interstellar agency which has consistently held itself above regional politics."
Fife said, "Quite a speech! But the obvious remains obvious and your plans are quite transparent. What would happen if I gave up this man? I rather think that the I.S.B. will manage to find out exactly what it wants to find out. It claims to be an interstellar agency with no regional ties, but it's a fact, isn't it, that Trantor contributes two thirds of its annual budget? I doubt that any reasonable observer would consider it really neutral in the Galaxy of today. Its findings with regard to this man will surely suit Trantor's imperial interests.
"And what will these findings be? That's obvious too. The man's memory will slowly come back. The I.S.B. will issue daily bulletins. Bit by bit he will remember more and more of the necessary details. First my name. Then my appearance. Then my exact words. I will be solemnly declared guilty. Reparations will be required and Trantor will be forced to occupy Sark temporarily, an occupation which will somehow become permanent.
"There are limits beyond which any blackmail breaks down. Yours, Mr. Ambassador, ends here. If you want this man, have Trantor send a fleet after him."
"There is no question of force," said Abel. "Yet I notice that you have carefully avoided denying the implication in what the Spatio-analyst has last said."
"There isn't any implication that I need dignify by a denial. He remembers a word, or says he does. What of it?"
"Doesn't it mean anything that he does?" -
"Nothing at all. The name Fife is a great one on Sark. Even if we assume the so-called Spatio-analyst is sincere, he had a year's opportunity to hear the name on Florina. He came to Sark on a ship that carried my daughter, a still better opportunity to have heard the name of Fife. What is more natural than that the name became involved with his trace memories? Of course, he may not be sincere. This man's bit-by-bit disclosures may be well rehearsed."
Abel thought of nothing to say. He looked at the others.~ Junz was frowning darkly, the fingers of his right hand slowly kneading his chin. Steen was simpering foolishly and muttering to himself. The Florinian Towriman stared blankly at his knees.
It was Rik who spoke, forcing himself from Valona's grasp and standing up.
"Listen," he said. His pale face was twisted. His eyes mirrored pain.
Fife said, "Another disclosure, I suppose."
Rik said, "Listen! We were sitting at a table. The tea was drugged. We had been quarreling. I don't remember why. Then I couldn't move. I could only sit there. I couldn't talk. I could only think, Great Space, rye been drugged. I wanted to shout and scream and run, but I couldn't. Then the other one, Fife, came. He had been shouting at me. Only now he wasn't shouting. He didn't have to. He came around the table. He stood there, towering over me. I couldn't say anything. I couldn't do anything. I could only try to turn my eyeballs up toward him."
Rik remained standing, silent.
Selim Junz said, "This other man was Fife?"
"I remember his name was Fife."
"Well, was he that man?"
Rik did not turn to look. He said, "I can't remember what he looked like."
"Are you sure?"
"I've been trying." He burst out, "You don't know how hard it is. It hurts! It's like a red-hot needle. Deep! In here!" He put his hands to his head.
Junz said softly, "I know it's hard. But you must try. Don't you see, you must keep on trying. Look at that man! Turn and look at him!"
111k twisted toward the Squire of Fife. For a moment he stared, then turned away.
Junz said, "Can you remember now?"
Fife smiled grimly. "Has your man forgotten his lines, or will the story seem more believable if he remembers my face the next time around?"
Junz said hotly, "I have never seen this man before, and I have never spoken to him. There has been no arrangement to frame you and I am tired of your accusations in that direction. I am after the truth only."
"Then may I ask him a few questions?"
"Thank you, I'm sure, for your kindness. Now you-Elk, or whatever your real name is-"
He was a Squire, addressing a Florinian.
Elk looked up. "Yes, sir."
"You remember a man approaching you from the other side of the table as you sat there, drugged and helpless."
'The last thing you remember is this man staring down at you."
Elk did so.
For a moment Fife did nothing. His lipless mouth might have grown tighter, the jaw muscles under the blue-black sheen of the stubble on his cheeks and chin bunched a bit. Then he slid down from his chair.
Slid down! It was as though he had gotten down on his knees there behind the desk.
But he moved from behind it and was seen plainly to be standing.
Junz's head swam. The man, so statuesque and formidable in his seat, had been converted withotit warning into a pitiful midget.
Fife's deformed legs moved under him with an effort, carrying the ungainly mass of torso and head forward. His face flushed but his eyes kept their look of arrogance intact. Steen broke into a wild giggle and choked it off when those eyes turned on him. The rest sat in fascinated silence.
Elk, wide-eyed, watched him approach.
Fife said, "Was I the man who approached you around the table?"
"I can't remember his face, sir."
"I don't ask you to remember his face. Can you have forgotten this?" His two arms went wide, framing his body. "Can you have forgotten my appearance, my walk?"
111k said miserably, "It seems I shouldn't, sir, but I don't know."
"But you were sitting, he was standing, and you were looking up at him."
"He was looking down at you, 'towering' over you, in fact."
- - --
"You remember that at least? You're certain of that?"
The two were now face to face.
"Am I looking down at you?"
111k said, "No, sir."
"Are you looking up at me?"
Rik, sitting, and Fife, standing, stared levelly at one another, eye to eye.
"Could I have been the man?"
"Are you certain?"
"You still say the name you remember is Fife?"
"I remember that name," insisted Rik stubbornly.
"Whoever it was, then, used my name as a disguise?"
"He-he must have."
Fife turned and with slow dignity struggled back to his desk and climbed into his seat.
He said, "I have never allowed any man to see me standing before this in all my adult life. Is there any reason why this conference should continue?"
Abel was at once embarrassed and annoyed. So far the conference had backfired badly. At every step Fife had managed to put himself in the right, the others in the wrong. Fife had successfully presented himself as a martyr. He had been forced into conference by Trantorian blackmail, and made the subject of false accusations that had broken down at once.
Fife would see to it that his version of the conference flooded the Galaxy and he would not have to depart very far from the truth to make it excellent anti-Trantorian propaganda.
Abel would have liked to cut his losses. The psycho-probed Spatio-analyst would be of no use to Trantor now. Any "memory" he might have thereafter would be laughed down, made iidiculous, however true it might be. He would be accepted as an instrument of Trantorian imperialism, and a broken instrument at that.
But he hesitated, and it was Junz who spoke.
Junz said, "It seems to me there's a very good reason for not ending the conference just yet. We have not yet determined exactly who is responsible for the psycho-probing. You have accused the Squire of Steen, and Steen has accused you. Granting that both of you are mistaken and that both are innocent, it still remains true that you each believe one of the Great Squires is guilty. Which one, then?"
"Does it matter?" asked Fife. "As far as you're concerned, I'm sure it doesn't. That matter would have been solved by now except for the interference of Trantor and the I.S.B. Eventually I will find the traitor. Remember that the psycho-prober, whoever he is, had the original intention of forcing a monopoly of the kyrt trade into his own hands, so I am not likely to let him escape. Once the psycho-prober is identified and dealt with, your man here will be returned unharmed to you. That is the only offer I can make and it is a very reasonable one."
"What will you do with the psycho-prober?"
"That is a purely internal matter that does not concern you."
"But it does," Junz said energetically. "This is not just a question of the Spatio-analyst. There's something of greater importance involved and I'm surprised that it hasn't been mentioned yet. This man Elk wasn't psycho-probed just becausp he was a Spatio-analyst."
Abel was not sure what Junz's intentions were, but he threw his weight into the scales. He said blandly, "Dr. Junz is referring, of course, to the Spatio-analyst's original message of danger."
Fife shrugged. "As far as I know, no one has yet attached any importance to that, including Dr. Junz over the past year. However, your man is here, Doctor. Ask him what it's all about."
"Naturally, he won't remember," Junz retorted angrily. "The psycho-probe is most effective upon the more intellectual chains of reasoning stored in the mind. The man may never recover the quantitative aspects of his lii ework."
"Then it's gone," said Fife. "What can be done about that?"
"Something very definite. That's the point. There's someone else who knows, and that's the psycho-prober. He may not have been a Spatio-analyst himself; he may not know the precise details. However, he spoke to the man in a state of untouched mind. He will have learned enough to put us far on the right track. Without having learned enough he would not have dared to destroy the source of his information. Still, for the record, do you remember, Elk?"
"Only that there was danger and that it involved the currents of space," muttered Rik.
Fife said, "Even if you find out, what will you have? How reliable are any of the startling theories that sick Spatio-analysts are forever coming up with? Many of them think they know the secrets of the universe when they're so sick they can barely read their instruments."
"It may be that you are right. Are you afraid to let me find out?"
"I am against starting any morbid rumors that might, whether true or false, affect the kyrt trade. Don't you agree with me, Abel?"
Abel squirmed inwardly. Fife was maneuvering himself into the position where any break in kyrt deliveries resulting from his own coup could be blamed on Trantorian maneuvers. But Abel was a good gambler. He raised the stakes calmly and unemotionally.
He said, "I don't. I suggest you listen to Dr. Junz."
"Thanks," said Junz. "Now you have said, Squire Fife, that whoever the psycho-prober was, he must have killed the doctor who examined this man Rik. That implies that the psycho-prober had kept some sort of watch over Elk during his stay on Florina."
"There must be traces of that kind of watching."
"You mean you think these natives would know who was watching them."
Fife said, "You are not a Sarkite and so you make mistakes. I assure you that natives keep their places. They don't approach Squires and if Squires approach them they know enough to keep their eyes on their toes. They would know nothing of being watched."
Junz quivered visibly with indignation. The Squires had their despotism so ingrained that they saw nothing wrong or shameful in speaking of it openly.
He said, "Ordinary natives perhaps. But we have a man here who is not an ordinary native. I think he has shown us rather thoroughly that he is not a properly respectful Florinian. So far he has contributed nothing to the discussion and it is time to ask him a few questions."
Fife said, "That native's evidence is worthless. In fact, I take the opportunity once more to demand that Trantor surrender him to proper trial by the courts of Sark."
"Let me speak to him first."
Abel put in mildly, "I think it will do no harm to ask him a few questions, Fife. If he proves unco-operative or unreliable, we may consider your request for extradition."
Terens, who, till now, had stolidly concentrated on the fingers of his clasped hands, looked up briefly.
Junz turned to Terens. He said, "Elk has been in your town since he was first found on Florina, hasn't he?"
"And you were in town all that time? I mean you weren't on any extended business trips, were you?"
"Townmen don't make business trips. Their business is in their town."
~l1 right. Now relax and don't get touchy. It would be part of your business to know about any Squire that might come to town, I imagine."
"Sure. When they come."
Terens shrugged. "Once or twice. Pure routine, I assure you. Squires don't dirty their hands with kyrt. Unprocessed kyrt, that is.
"Be respectful!" roared Fife.
Terens looked at him and said, "Can you make me?"
Abel interrupted smoothly, "Let's keep this between the man and Dr. Junz, Fife. You and I are spectators."
Junz felt a glow of pleasure at the Townman's insolence, but he said, "Answer my questions without side comments please, Townman. Now who exactly were the Squires who visited your town this past year?"
Terens said fiercely, "How can I know? I can't answer that question. Squires are Squires and natives are natives. I may be a Townman but I'm still a native to them. I don't greet them at the town gates and ask their names.
"I get a message, that's all. It's addressed 'Townman.' It says there'll be a Squire's Inspection on such-and-such a day and I'm to make the necessary arrangements. I must then see to it that the miliworkers have on their best clothes, that the mill is cleaned up and working properly, that the kyrt supply is ample, that everyone looks contented and pleased, that the houses have been cleaned and the streets policed, that some dancers are on hand in case the Squires would care to view some amusing native dance, that maybe a few pretty g-"
"Never mind that, Townman," said Junz.
"You never mind that. I do."
After his experiences with the Florinians of the Civil Service, Junz found the Townman as refreshing as a drink of cold water. He made up his mind that what influence the I.S.B. could bring to bear would be used to prevent any surrender of the Townman to the Squires.
Terens went on, in calmer tones, "Anyway, that's my part. When they come, I line up with the rest. I don't know who they are. I don't speak to them."
"Was there any such inspection the week before the City Doctor was killed? I suppose you know what week that happened."
"I think I heard about it in the newscasts. I don't think there was any Squire's Inspection at that time. I can't swear to it."
"Whom does your land belong to?"
Terens pulled the corners of his mouth back. "To the Squire of Fife."
Steen spoke up, breaking into the give-and-take with rather surprising suddenness. "Oh, look here. Really! You're playing into Fife's hands with this kind of questioning, Dr. Junz. Don't you see you won't get anywhere? Really! Do you suppose if Fife were interested in keeping tabs on that creature there that he would go to all the trouble of making trips to Florina to look at him? What are patrollers for? Really!"
Junz looked flustered. "In a case like this, with a world's economy and maybe its physical safety resting on the contents of one man's mind, it's natural that the psycho-prober would not care to leave the guardianship to patrollers."
Fife intervened. "Even after he had wiped out that mind, to all intents?"
Abel pushed out his lower lip and frowned. He saw his latest gamble sliding into Fife's hands with all the rest.
Junz tried again, hesitantly. "Was there any particular patroller or group of patrollers that was always underfoot?"
"I'd never know. They're just uniforms to me."
Junz turned to Valona with the effect of a sudden pounce. A moment before she had gone a sickly white and her eyes had become wide and stary. Junz had not missed that.
He said, "What about you, girl?"
But she only shook her head, wordlessly.
Abel thought heavily, There's nothing more to do. It's all over.
But Valona was on her feet, trembling. She said in a husky whisper, "I want to say something."
Junz said, "Go ahead, girl. What is it?"
Valona talked breathlessly and with fright obvious in every line of her countenance and every nervous twitch of her fingers.
She said, "I'm just a country girl. Please don't be angry with me.
It's just that it seems that things can only be one way. Was my
Elk so very important? I mean, the way you said?"
Junz said gently, "I think he was very, very important. I think he still is." -
"Then it must be like you said. Whoever it was who had put him on Florina wouldn't have dared take his eye away for even a minute hardly. Would he? I mean, suppose Rik was beaten by the mill superintendent or was stoned by the children or got sick and died. He wouldn't be left helpless in the fields, would he, where he might die before anyone found him? They wouldn't suppose that it would just be luck that would keep him safe." She was speaking with an intense fluency now.
"Go on," said Junz, watching her.
"Because there was one person who did watch Rik from the start. He found him in the fields, fixed it so I would take care of him, kept him out of trouble and knew about him every day. He even knew all about the doctor, because I told him. It was he! It was he!"
With her voice at screaming intensity, her finger pointed rigidly at Myrlyn Terens, Townman.
And this time even Fife's superhuman calm broke and his arms stiffened on his desk, lifting his massive body a full inch off his seat, as his head swiveled quickly toward the Townman.