The Currents of Space (Page 9)
SAMIA of Fife was five feet tall, exactly, and all sixty inches of her were in a state of quivering exasperation. She weighed one and a half pounds per inch and, at the moment, each of her ninety pounds represented sixteen ounces of solid anger.
She stepped quickly from end to end of the room, her dark hair piled in high masses, her spiked heels lending a spurious height and her narrow chin, with its pronounced cleft, trembling.
She said, "Oh no. He wouldn't do it to me. He couldn't do it to me. Captain!"
Her voice was sharp and carried the weight of authority. Captain Racety bowed with the storm. "My Lady?"
To any Florinian, of course, Captain Racety would have been a "Squire." Simply that. To any Florinian, all Sarldtes were Squires. But to the Sarkites there were Squires and real Squires. The Captain was simply a Squire. Samia of Fife was a real Squire; or the feminine equivalent of one, which amounted to the same thing.
"My Lady?" he asked.
She said, "I am not to be ordered about. I am of age. I am my own mistress. I choose to remain here."
The Captain said carefully, "Please to understand, my Lady, that no orders of mine are involved. My advice was not asked. I have been told plainly and flatly what I am to do."
He fumbled for the copy of his orders halfheartedly. He had tried to present her with the evidence twice before and she had refused to consider it, as though by not looking she could continue, with a clear conscience, to deny where his duty lay.
She said once again, exactly as before, "I am not interested in your orders."
She turned away with a ringing of her heels and moved rapidly away from him.
He followed and said softly, "The orders include directions to the effect that, if you are not willing to come, I am, if you will excuse my saying so, to have you carried to the ship."
She whirled. "You wouldn't dare do such a thing."
"When I consider," said the Captain, "who it is who has ordered me to do it, I would dare anything."
She tried cajolery. "Surely, Captain, there is no real danger. This is quite ridiculous, entirely mad. The City is peaceful. All that has happened is that one patroller was knocked down yesterday afternoon in the library. Really!"
"Another patroller was killed this dawn, again by Florinian attack."
That rocked her, but her olive skin grew dusky and her black eyes flashed. "What has that to do with me? I am not a patroller."
"My Lady, the ship is being prepared right now. It will leave shortly. You will have to be on it."
"And my work? My research? Do you realize-. No, you wouldn't realize."
The Captain said nothing. She had turned from him. Her gleaming dress of copper kyrt, with its strands of milky silver, set off the extraordinary warm smoothness of her shoulders and upper arms. Captain Racety looked at her with something more than the bald courtesy and humble objectivity a mere Sarkite owed such a great Lady. He wondered why such an entirely desirable bite-size morsel should choose to spend her time in mimicking the scholarly pursuits of a university don.
Samia knew well that her earnest scholarship made her an object of mild derision to people who were accustomed to thinking of the aristocratic Ladies of Sark as devoted entirely to the glitter of polite society and, eventually, acting as incubators for at least, but not more than, two future Squires of Sark. She didn't care.
They would come to her and say, "Are you really writing a book, Samia?" and ask to see it, and giggle.
Those were the women. The men were even worse, with their gentle condescension and obvious conviction that it would only take a glance from themselves or a man's arm about her waist to cure her of her nonsense and turn her mind to things of real importance.
It had begun as far back, almost, as she could remember, because she had always been in love with kyrt, whereas most people took it for granted. Kyrt! The king, emperor, god of fabrics. There was no metaphor strong enough.
Chemically, it was nothing more than a variety of cellulose. The chemists swore to that. Yet with all their instruments and theories they had never yet explained why on Florina, and only on Florina in all the Galaxy, cellulose became kyrt. It was a matter of the physical state; that's what they said. But ask them exactly in what way the physical state varied from that of ordinary cellulose and they were mute.
She had learned ignorance originally from her nurse.
"Why does it shine, Nanny?"
"Because it's kyrt, Miakins."
"Why don't other things shine so, Nanny?"
"Other things aren't kyrt, Miakins."
There you had it. A two-volume monograph on the subject had been written only three years before. She had read it carefully and it could all have been boiled down to her Nanny's explanation. Kyrt was kyrt because it was kyrt. Things that weren't kyrt, weren't kyrt because they weren't kyrt.
Of course kyrt didn't really shine of itself but, properly spun, it would gleam metallically in the sun in a variety of colors or in all colors at once. Another form of treatment could impart a diamond sparkle of the thread. It could be made, with little effort, completely impervious to heat up to 6oo degrees Centigrade, and quite inert to almost all chemicals. Its fibers could be spun finer than the most delicate synthetics and those same fibers had a tensile strength no steel alloy known could duplicate.
It had more uses, more versatility than any substance known to man. If it were not so expensive it could be used to replace glass, metal, or plastic in any of infinite industrial applications. As it was, it was the only material used for cross hairs on optical equipment, as molds in the casting of hydrochrons used in hy peratomic motors, and as lightweight, long-lived webbing where metal was too brittle or too heavy or both.
But this was, as said, small-scale use, since use in quantity was prohibitive. Actually the kyrt harvest of Florina went into the manufacture of cloth that was used for the most fabulous garments in Galactic history. Florina clothed the aristocracy of a million worlds, and the kyrt harvest of the one world, Florina, had to be spread thin for that. Twenty women on a world might have outfits in kyrt; two thousand more might have a holiday jacket of the material, or perhaps a pair of gloves. Twenty million more watched from a distance and wished.
The million worlds of the Galaxy shared a slang expression for the snob. It was the only idiom in the language that was easily and exactly understood everywhere. It went: "You'd think she blew her nose in kyrt!"
When Samia was older she went to her father.
"What is kyrt, Daddy?"
"It's your bread and butter, Mia."
"Not just yours, Mia. It's S ark's bread and butter."
Of course! She learned the reason for that easily enough. Not a world in the Galaxy but had tried to grow kyrt on jts own soil. At first Sark had applied the death penalty to anyone, native or foreign, caught smuggling kyrt seed out of the planet. That had not prevented successful smuggling, and as the centuries passed, and the truth dawned on Sark, that law had been abolished. Men from anywhere were welcome to kyrt seed at the price, of course (weight for weight), of finished kyrt cloth.
They might have it, because it turned out that kyrt grown anywhere in the Galaxy but on Florina was simply cellulose. White, flat, weak and useless. Not even honest cotton.
Was it something in the soil? Something in the characteristics of the radiation of Florina's sun? Something about the bacteria make-up of Florinian life? It had all been tried. Samples of Florinian soil had been taken. Artificial arc lights duplicating the known spectrum of Florina's sun had been constructed. Foreign soil had been infected with Floririian bacteria. And always the kyrt grew white, flat, weak and useless.
There was so much to be said about kyrt that had never been said. Material other than that contained in technical reports or in research papers or even in travel books. For five years Samia had been dreaming of writing a real book about the story of kyrt; of the land it grew on and of the people who grew it.
It was a dream surrounded by mocking laughter, but she held to it. She had insisted on traveling to Florina. She was going to spend a season in the fields and a few months in the mills. She was going to- But what did it matter what she was going to do? She was being ordered back.
With the sudden impulsiveness that marked her every act she made her decision. She would be able to fight this on Sark. Grimly she promised herself she would be back on Florina in a week.
She turned to the Captain and said coolly, "When do we leave, sir?"
Samia remained at the observation port for as long as Florina was a visible globe. It was a green, springlike world, much pleasanter than Sark in climate. She had looked forward to studying the natives. She didn't like the Florinians on Sark, sapless men who dared not look at her but turned away when she passed, in accordance with the law. On their own world, however, the natives, by universal report, were happy and carefree. Irresponsible, of course, and like children, but they had charm.
Captain Racety interrupted her thoughts. He said, "My Lady, would you retire to your room?"
She looked up, a tiny vertical crease between her eyes. "What new orders have you received, Captain? Ann I a prisoner?"
"Of course not. Merely a precaution. The space field was unusually empty before the take-off. It seems that another killing had taken place, again by a Florinian, and the field's patroller contingent had joined the rest on a man hunt through the City."
"And the connection of that with myself?"
"It is only that under the circumstances, which I ought to have reacted to by placing a guard of my own (I do not minimize my own offense), unauthorized persons may have boarded the ship."
"For what reason?"
"I could not say, but scarcely to do our pleasure."
"You are romancing, Captain."
"I am afraid not, my Lady. Our energometrics were, of course, useless within planetary distance of Florina's sun, but that is not the case now and I am afraid there is definite excess heat radiation from Emergency Stores."
"Are you serious?"
The Captain's lean, expressionless face regarded her aloofly for a moment. He said, "The radiation is equivalent to that which would be given off by two ordinary people."
"Or a heating unit someone forgot to turn off."
"There is no drain on our power supply, my Lady. We are ready to investigate, my Lady, and ask only that you first retire to your room."
She nodded silently and left the room. Two minutes later his calm voice spoke unhurriedly into the communi-tube. "Break into Emergency Stores."
Myrlyn Terens, had he released his taut nerves the slightest, might easily, and even thankfully, have gone into hysteria. He had been a trifle too late in returning to the bakery. They had already left it and it was only by good fortune that he Met them in the street. His next action had been dictated; it was in no way a matter of free choice; and the Baker lay quite horribly dead before him.
Afterward, with the crowd swirling, Rik and Valona melting into the crowd, and the air-cars of the patrollers, the real patrollers, beginning to put in their vulture appearance, what could he do?
His first impulse to race after Rik he quickly fought down. It would do no good. He would never find them, and there was too great a chance that the patrollers would not miss him. He scurried in another direction, toward the bakery.
His only chance lay in the patroller organization itself. There had been generations of a quiet life. At least there had been no Florinian revolts to speak of in two centuries. The institution of the Townman (he grinned savagely at the thought) had worked wonders and the patrollers had only perfunctory police duties since. They lacked the fine-pointed teamwork that would have developed under more strenuous conditions.
It had been possible for him to walk into a patroller station at dawn, where his description must have already been sent, though obviously it had not been much regarded. The lone patroller on duty was a mixture of indifference and sulkiness. Terens had been asked to state his business, but his business included a plastic two-by-four he had wrenched from the side of a crazy hovel at the outskirts of town.
He had brought it down upon the patroller's skull, changed clothing and weapons. The list of his crimes was already so formidable that it did not bother him in the least to discover that the patroller had been killed, not stunned.
Yet he was still at large and the rusty machinery of patroller justice had so far creaked after him in vain.
He was at the bakery. The Baker's elderly helper, standing in the doorway in a vain attempt to peer knowledge of the disturbance into himself, squeaked thinly at the sight of the dread black and silver of patrollerhood and oozed back into his shop.
The Townman lunged after him, crumpling the man's loose, floury collar into his pudgy fist and twisting. "Where was the Baker going?"
The old man's lips yawned open, but no sound came.
The Townman said, "I killed a man two minutes ago. I don't care if I kill another."
"Please. Please. I do not know, sir."
"'You will die for not knowing."
"But he did not tell me. He made some sort of reservations."
"You have overheard so much, have you? What else did you overhear?"
"He mentioned Wotex once. I think the reservations were on a spaceship."
Terens thrust him away.
He would have to wait. He would have to let the worst of the excitement outside die. He would have to risk the arrival of real patrollers at the bakery.
But not for long. Not for long. He could guess what his erstwhile companions would do. Rik was unpredictable, of course, but Valona was an intelligent girl. From the way they ran, they must have taken him for a patroller indeed and Valona was sure to decide that their only safety lay in continuing the flight that the Baker had begun for them.
The Baker had made reservations for them. A spaceship would be waiting. They would be there.
And he would have to be there first.
There was this about the desperation of the situation. Nothing more mattered. If he lost Rik, if he lost that potential weapon against the tyrants of Sark, his life was a small additional loss.
So when he left, it was without a qualm, though it was broad daylight, though the patrollers must know by now it was a man in patroller uniform they sought, and though two air-cars were in easy sight.
Terens knew the spaceport that would be involved. There was only one of its type on the planet. There were a dozen tiny ones in Upper City for the private use of space-yachts and there were hundreds all over the planet for the exclusive use of the ungainly freighters that carried gigantic bolts of kyrt cloth to Sark, and machinery and simple consumer goods back. But among all those there was only one spaceport for the use of ordinary travelers, for the poorer Sarldtes, Florinian civil servants and the few foreigners who managed to obtain permission to visit Florina.
The Florinian at the port's entry gate observed Terens' approach with every symptom of lively interest. The vacuum that surrounded him had grown insupportable.
"Greetings, sir," he said. There was a slyly eager tone in his voice. After all, patrollers were being killed. "Considerable excitement in the City, isn't there?"
Terens did not rise to the bait. He had drawn the arced visor of his hat low and buttoned the uppermost button of the tunic.
Gruffly he snapped, "Did two persons, a man and a woman, enter the port recently en route to Wotex?"
The gatekeeper looked startled. For a moment he gulped and then, in a considerably subdued tone, said, "Yes, Officer. About half an hour ago. Maybe less." He reddened suddenly. "Is there any connection between them and- Officer, they had reservations which were entirely in order. I wouldn't let foreigners through without proper authority."
Terens ignored that. Proper authority! The Baker had managed to establish that in the course of a night. Galaxy, he wondered, how deeply into the Sarkite administration did the Trantorian espionage organization go?
"What names did they give?"
"Careth and Hansa Barne."
"Has their ship left? Quickly!"
Terens forced himself to refrain from running, but his walk was little short of that. Had there been a real patroller in sight that rapid, undignified half run of his would have been his last trip in freedom.
A spaceman in officer's uniform stood at the ship's main air lock.
Terens panted a little. He said, "Have Gareth and Hansa Barne boarded ship?"
"No, they haven't," said the spaceman phlegmatically. He was a Sarkite and a patroller was only another man in uniform to him. "Do you have a message for them?"
With cracking patience Terens said, "They haven't boarded!"
"That's what I've said. And we're not waiting for them. We leave on schedule, with or without them."
Terens turned away.
He was at the gatekeeper's booth again. "Have they left?"
"Left? 'Who, sir?"
"The Barnes. The ones for Wotex. They're not on board ship. Did they leave?"
"No, sir. Not to my knowledge."
"What about the other gates?"
"They're not exits, sir. This is the only exit."
"Check them, you miserable idiot."
The gatekeeper lifted the communi-tube in a state of panic. No patroller had ever spoken to him so in anger and he dreaded the results. In two minutes he put it down.
He said, "No one has left, sir."
Terens stared at him. Under his black hat his sandy hair was damping against his skull and down each cheek there was the gleaming mark of perspiration.
He said, "Has any ship left the port since they entered?"
The gatekeeper consulted the schedule. "One," he said, "the liner Endeavor."
Volubly he went on, eager to gain favor with the angry patroller by volunteering information. "The Endeavor is making a special trip to Sark to carry the Lady Samia of Fife back from Florina."
He did not bother to describe exactly by what refined manner of eavesdropping he had managed to acquaint himself with the "confidential report."
But to Terens now, nothing mattered.
He backed slowly away. Eliminate the impossible and whatever remained, however improbable, was the truth. Rik and Valona had entered the spaceport. They had not been captured or the gatekeeper would certainly have known about it. They were not simply wandering about the port, or they would by now have been captured. They were not on the ship for which they had tickets. They had not left the field. The only object that had left the field was the Endeavor. Therefore, on it, possibly as captives, possibly as stowaways, were 131k and Valona.
And the two were equivalent. If they were stdwaways they would soon be captives. Only a Florinian peasant girl and a mindwrecked creature would fail to realize that one could not stow away on a modern spaceship.
And of all spaceships to choose, they chose that which carried the daughter of the Squire of Fife.
The Squire of Fife!