The Currents of Space (Page 19)
IT ~AS as though vocal paralysis had gripped them all. Even Rik, with disbelief in his eyes, could only stare woodenly, first at Valona, then at Terens.
Then came Steen's high-pitched laugh and the silence was broken.
Steen said, "I believe it. Really! I said so all along. I said the native was in Fife's pay. That shows you the kind of man Fife is. He'd pay a native to-"
"That's an infernal lie."
It wasn't Fife who spoke, but the Townman. He was on his feet, eyes glistening with passion. -
Abel, who of them all seemed the least moved, said, "What is?"
Terens stared at him a moment, not comprehending, then said chokingly, "What the Squire said. I am in the pay of no Sarkite."
"And what the girl said? Is that a lie too?"
Terens wet his dry lips with the tip of his tongue. "No, that's true. I am the psycho-prober." He hurried on. "Don't look at me like that, Lona. I didn't mean to hurt him. I didn't intend any of what happened." He sat down again.
Fife said, "This is a sort of device. I don't know exactly what you're planning, Abel, but it's impossible on the face of it that this criminal could have included this particular crime in his repertoire. It's definite that only a Great Squire could have had the necessary knowledge and facilities. Or are you anxious to take your man Steen off the hook by arranging for a false confession?"
Terens, hands tightly clasped, leaned forward in his seat. "I don't take Trantorian money, either."
Fife ignored him.
Junz was the last to come to himself. For minutes, he could not adjust to the fact that the Townman was not really in the same room with him, that he was somewhere else on the embassy grounds, that he could see him only in image form, no more real actually than was Fife, who was twenty miles away. He wanted to go to the Townman, grip him by the shoulder, speak to him alone, but he couldn't. He said, "There's no point in arguing before we hear the man. Let's have the details. If he is the psycho-prober, we need the details badly. If he isn't, the details he'll try to give us will prove it."
"If you want to know what happened," cried Terens, "I'll tell you. Holding it back won't do me any good any longer. It's Sark or Trantor after all, so to Space with it. This will at least give me a chance to get one or two things into the open."
He pointed at Fife in scorn. "There's a Great Squire. Only a Great Squire, says this Great Squire, can have the knowledge or the facilities to do what the psycho-prober did. He believes it, too. But what does he know? What do any of the Sarkites know?
"They don't run the government. Florinians do! The Florinian Civil Service does. They get the papers, they make the papers, they file the papers. And it's the papers that run Sark. Sure, most of us are too beaten even to whimper, but do you know what we could do if we wanted to, even under the noses of our damned Squires? Well, you see what I've done.
"I was temporarily traffic manager at the spaceport a year ago. Part of my training. It's in the records. You'll have to dig a little to find it because the listed traffic manager is a Sarkite. He had the title but I did the actual work. My name would be found in the special section headed Native Personnel. No Sarkite would have dirtied his eyes looking there.
"When the local I.S.B. sent the Spatio-analyst's message to the port with a suggestion that we meet the ship with an ambulance, I got the message. I passed on what was safe. This matter of the destruction of Florina was not passed on.
"I arranged to meet the Spatio-analyst at a small suburban port. I could do that easily. All the wires and strings that ran Sark were at my finger tips. I was in the Civil Service, remember. A Great Squire who wanted to do what I did, couldn't, unless he ordered some Florinian to do it for him. I could do it without anyone's help. So much for knowledge and facility.
"I met the Spatio-analyst, kept him away from both Sark and the I.S.B. I squeezed as much information out of him as I could and set about using that information for Florina and against Sark."
Words were forced out of Fife. "You sent those first letters?"
"I sent those first letters, Great Squire," said Terens calmly. "I thought I could force control of enough of the kyrt lands into my own hands to make a deal with Trantor on my terms and drive you off the planet."
"You were mad."
"Maybe. Anyway, it didn't work. I had told the Spatio-analyst I was the Squire of Fife. I had to, because he knew that Fife was the biggest man on the planet, and as long as he thought I was Fife, he was willing to talk openly. It made me laugh to realize that he thought Fife was anxious to do whatever was best for Florina.
"Unfortunately, he was more impatient than I was. He insisted that every day lost was a calamity, while I knew that my dealings with Sark needed time more than anything else. I found it difficult to control him and eventually had to use a psychic probe. I could get one. I had seen it used in hospitals. I knew something about it. Unfortunately, not enough.
"I set the. probe to wipe out the anxiety from the surface layers of his mind. That's a simple operation. I still don't know what happened. I think the anxiety must have run deeper, very deep, and the probe automatically followed it, digging out most of the conscious mind along with it. I was left with a mindless thing on my hands m sorry, Rik."
Rik, who had been listening intently, said sadly, "You shouldn't have interfered with me, Townman, but I know how you must have felt."
"Yes," said Terens, "you've lived on the planet. You know about patrollers and Squires and the difference between Lower City and Upper City."
He took up the current of his story again. "So there I was with the Spatio-analyst completely helpless. I couldn't let him be found by anyone who might trace his identity. I couldn't kill him. I felt sure his memory would return and I would still need his knowledge, to say nothing of the fact that killing him would forfeit the good will of Trantor and the I.S.B., which I would eventually need. Besides, in those days, I was incapable of killing.
"I arranged to be transferred to Florina as Townman and I took the Spatio-analyst with me on forged papers. I arranged to have him found, I picked Valona to take care of him. There was no danger thereafter except for that one time with the doctor. Then I had to enter the power plants of Upper City. That was not impossible. The engineers were Sarkites but the janitors were Florinian. On Sark I learned enough about power mechanics to know how to short a power line. It took me three days to find the proper time for it. After that, I could murder easily. I never knew, though, that the doctor kept duplicate records in both halves of his office. I wish I had."
Terens could see Fife's chronometer from where he sat. "Then, one hundred hours ago-it seems like a hundred years- Rik began remembering again. Now you have the whole story."
"No," said Junz, "we have not. What are the details of the Spatio-analyst's story of planetary destruction?"
"Do you think I understood the details of what he had to say? It was some sort of-pardon me, Rik-madness."
"It wasn't," blazed Elk. "It couldn't have been."
"The Spatio-analyst had a ship," said Junz. "Where is it?"
"On the scrap heap long ago," said Terens. "An order scrapping it was sent out. My superior signed it. A Sarldte never reads papers, of course. It was scrapped without question."
"And Elk's papers? You said he showed you papers!"
"Surrender that man to us," said Fife suddenly, "and we'll find out what he knows."
"No," said Junz. "His first crime was against the I.S.B. He kidnaped and damaged the mind of a Spatio-analyst. He belongs to us."
Abel said, "Junz is correct."
Terens said, "Now look here. I don't say a word without safeguards. I know where Rik's papers are. They're where no Sarkite or Trantorian will ever find them. If you want them you'll have to agree that I'm a political refugee. Whatever I did was out of patriotism, out of a regard for the needs of my planet. A Sarkite or a Trantorian may claim to be patriotic; why not a Florinian as well?"
"The Ambassador," said Junz, "has said you will be given over to the I.S.B. I assure you that you will not be turned over to Sark. For your treatment of the Spatio-analyst, you will be tried. I cannot guarantee the result, but if you co-operate with us now, it will count in your favor."
Terens looked searchingly at Junz. Then he said, "I'll take my chance with you, Doctor... According to the Spatio-analyst, Florina's sun is in the pre-nova stage."
"What!" The exclamation or its equivalent came from all but Valona.
"It's about to explode and go boom," said Terens sardonically. "And when that happens all of Florina will go poof, like a mouthful of tobacco smoke."
Abel said, "I'm no Spatio-analyst, but I have heard that there is no way of predicting when a star will explode."
"That's true. Until now, anyway. Did Elk explain what made him think so?" asked Junz.
"I suppose his papers will show that. All I can remember is about the carbon current."
"He kept saying, 'The carbon current of space. The carbon current of space.' That, and the words 'catalytic effect.' There it is.
Steen giggled. Fife frowned. Junz stared.
Then Junz muttered, "Pardon me. I'll be right back." He stepped out of the limits of the receptor cube and vanished.
He was back in fifteen minutes.
Junz looked about in bewilderment when he returned. Only Abel and Fife were present.
He said, "Where-"
Abel broke in instantly. "We have been waiting for you, Dr. Junz. The Spatio-analyst and the girl are on their way to the Embassy. The conference is ended."
"Ended! Great Galaxy, we have only begun. I've got to explain the possibilities of nova formation."
Abel shifted uneasily in his seat. "It is not necessary to do that, Doctor."
"It is very necessary. It is essential. Give me five minutes."
"Let him speak," said Fife. He was smiling.
Junz said, 'Take it from the beginning. In the earliest recorded scientific writings of Galactic civilization it was already known that stars obtained their energy from nuclear transformations in their interiors. It was also known that, given what we know about conditions in stellar interiors, two types, and only two types, of nuclear transformations can possibly yield the necessary energy. Both involve the conversion of hydrogen to helium. The first transformation is direct: two hydrogens and two neutrons combine to form one helium nucleus. The second is indirect, with several steps. It ends up with hydrogen becoming helium, but in the intermediate steps, carbon nuclei take part. These carbon nuclei are not used up but are re-formed as the reactions proceed, so that a triffing amount of carbon can be used over and over again, serving to convert a great deal of hydrogen to helium. - The carbon acts as a catalyst, in other words. All this has been known back to the days of prehistory, back to the time when the human race was restricted to a single planet, if there ever was such a time."
"If we all know it," said Fife, "I would suggest that you are contributing nothing but a waste of time."
"But this is all we know. Whether stars use one or the other, or both, nuclear processes has never been determined. There have always been schools of thought in favor of each of the alternatives. Usually the weight of opinion has been in favor of the direct hydrogen-helium conversion as being the simpler of the two.
"Now Elk's theory must be this. The hydrogen-helium direct conversion is the normal source of stellar energy, but under certain conditions the carbon catalysis adds its weight, hastening the process, speeding it up, heating up the star.
"There are currents in space. You all know that well. Some of these are carbon currents. Stars passing through the currents pick up innumerable atoms. The total mass of atoms attracted, however, is incredibly microscopic in comparison to the star's weight and does not affect it in any way. Except for carbon! A star that passes through a current containing unusual concentrations of carbon becomes unstable. I don't know how many years or centuries or millions of years it takes for the carbon atoms to diffuse into the star's interior, but it probably takes a long time. That means that a carbon current must be wide and a star must intersect it at a small angle. In any case, once the quantity of carbon percolating into the star's interior passes a certain critical amount, the star's radiation is suddenly boosted tremendously. The outer layers give way under an unimaginable explosion and you have a nova.
"Do you see?"
Fife said, "Have you figured all this out in two minutes as a result of some vague phrase the Townman remembered the Spatb-analyst to have said a year ago?"
"Yes. Yes. There's nothing surprising in that. Spatio-analysis is ready for that theory. If Rik had not come up with it, someone else would have shortly. In fact, similar theories have been advanced before, but they were never taken seriously. They were put forward before the techniques of Spatio-analysis were developed and no one was ever able to account for the sudden acquisition of excess carbon by the star in question.
"But now we know there are carbon currents. We can plot their courses, find out what stars intersected those courses in the past ten thousand years, check that against our records for nova formation and radiation variations. That's what Rik must have done. Those must have been the calculations and observations he tried to show the Townman. But that's all beside the immediate point.
"What must be arranged for now is the immediate beginning of an evacuation of Florina."
"I thought it would come to that," said Fife composedly.
"I'm sorry, Junz," said Abel, "but that's quite impossible."
"When will Florina's sun explode?"
"I don't know. From Elk's anxiety a year ago, I'd say we had little time."
"But you can't set a date?"
"Of course not."
"When will you be able to set a date?"
"There's no way of telling. Even if we get Elk's calculations, it would all have to be rechecked."
"Can you guarantee that the Spatio-analyst's theory will prove to be correct?"
Junz frowned. "I am personally certain of it, but no scientist can guarantee any theory in advance."
"Then it turns out that you want Florina evacuated on mere speculation."
"I think the chance of killing the population of a planet is not one that can be taken."
"If Florina were an ordinary planet I would agree with you. But Florina bears the Galactic supply of kyrt. It can't be done."
Junz said angrily, "Is that the agreement you came to with Fife while I was gone?"
Fife intervened. He said, "Let me explain, Dr. Junz. The government of Sark would never consent to evacuate Florina, even if the I.S.B. claimed it had proof of this nova theory of yours. Trantor cannot force us because while the Galaxy might support a war against Sark for the purpose of maintaining the kyrt trade, it will never support one for the purpose of ending it."
"Exactly," said Abel. "I am afraid our own people would not support us in such a war."
Junz found revulsion growing strong within him. A planet full of people meant nothing against the dictates of economic necessity!
He said, "Listen to me. This is not a matter of one planet, but of a whole Galaxy. There are now twenty full novae originating within the Galaxy every year. In addition, some two thousand stars among the Galaxy's hundred billion shift their radiation characteristics sufficiently to render uninhabitable any habitable planet they may have. Human beings occupy one million stellar systems in the Galaxy. That means that on an average of once every fifty years some inhabited planet somewhere becomes too• hot for life. Such cases are a matter of historical record. Every five thousand years some inhabited planet has a fifty-fifty chance of being puffed to gas by a nova.
"If Trantor does nothing about Florina, if it allows it to vaporire with its people on it, that will serve notice to all the people of the Galaxy that when their own turn comes they may expect no help, if such help is in the way of the economic convenience of a few powerful men. Can you risk that, Abel?
"On the other hand, help Florina and you will have shown that Trantor puts its responsibility to the people of the Galaxy above the maintenance of mere property rights. Trantor will win good will that it could never win by force."
Abel bowed his head. Then he shook it wearily. "No, Junz. What you say appeals to me, but it is not practical. I can't count on emotions as against the assured political effect of any attempt to end the kyrt trade. In fact, I think it might be wise to avoid investigating the theory. The thought that it might be true would do too much harm."
"But what if it is true?"
"We must work on the assumption that it is not. I take it that when you were gone a few moments ago it was to contact the I.S.B."
"No matter. Trantor, I think, will have enough influence to stop their investigations."
"I'm afraid not. Not these investigations. Gentlemen, we will soon have the secret of cheap kyrt. There will be no kyrt monopoly within a year, whether or not there is a nova."
"What do you mean?"
"The conference is reaching the essential point now, Fife. Kyrt grows only on Florina of all inhabited planets. Its seeds produce ordinary cellulose elsewhere. Florina is probably the only inhabited planet, on a chance basis, that is currently pre-nova, and it has probably been pre-nova since it first entered the carbon current, perhaps thousands of years ago, if the angle of intersection was small. It seems quite probable, then, that kyrt and the prenova stage go together."
"Nonsense," said Fife.
"Is it? There must be a reason why kyrt is kyrt on Florina and cotton elsewhere. Scientists have tried many ways of artificially producing kyrt elsewhere, but they tried blindly, so they've always failed. Now they will know it is due to factors induced in a pre-nova stellar system."
Fife said scornfully, "They've tried duplicating the radiation qualities of Fife's sun."
"With appropriate arc lights, yes, that duplicated the visible and ultraviolet spectrum only. What about radiation in the infrared and beyond? What about magnetic fields? What about electron emission? What about cosmic-ray effects? I'm not a physical biochemist so there may be factors I know nothing about. But people who are physical biochemists will be looking now, a whole Galaxy of them. Within the year, I assure you, the solution will be found.
"Economics is on the side of humanity now. The Galaxy wants cheap kyrt, and if they find it or even if they imagine they will shortly find it, they will want Florina evacuated, not only out of humanity, but out of a desire to turn the tables, at long last, on the kyrt-gouging Sarkites."
"Bluff!" growled Fife.
"Do you think so, Abel?" demanded Junz. "If you help the Squires, Trantor will be looked on not as the saviors of the kyrt trade but of the kyrt monopoly. Can you chance that?"
"Can Trantor chance a war?" demanded Fife.
"War? Nonsense! Squire, in one year your holdings on Florina will be worthless, nova or not. Sell out. Sell out all Florina. Trantor can pay for it."
"Buy a planet?" said Abel in dismay.
"Why not? Trantor has the funds, and its gain in good will among the people of the universe will pay it back a thousandfold. If telling them that you are saving hundreds of millions of lives is not enough, tell them that you will bring them cheap kyrt. That will do it."
"I'll think about it," said Abel.
Abel looked at the Squire. Fife's eyes fell.
After a long pause he too said, "I'll think about it."
Junz laughed harshly. "Don't think too long. The kyrt story will break quickly enough. Nothing can stop it. After that, neither one of you will have freedom of action. You can each strike a better bargain now."
The Townman seemed beaten. "It's really true?" he kept repeating. "Really true? No more Florina?"
"It's true," said Junz.
Terens spread his arms, let them fall against his side. "If you want the papers I got from Rik, they're filed among vital statistic files in my home town. I picked the dead files, records a century back and more. No one would ever look there for any reason."
"Look," said Junz, "I'm sure we can make an agreement with the I.S.B. We'll need a man on Florina, one who knows the Florinian people, who can tell us how to explain the facts to them, how best to organize the evacuation, how to pick the most suitable planets of refuge. Will you help us?"
"And beat the game that way, you mean? Get away with murder? Why not?" There were sudden tears in the Townman's eyes. "But I lose anyway. I will have no world, no home. We all lose. The Floriians lose their world, the Sarkites lose their wealth, the Trantorians their chance to get that wealth. There are no winners at all."
"Unless," said Junz gently, "you realize that in the new Galaxy-a Galaxy safe from the threat of stellar instability, a Galaxy with kyrt available to all, and a Galaxy in which political unification will be so much closer-there will be winners after all. One quadrillion winners The people of the Galaxy, they are the victors."