The Currents of Space (Page 29)

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!

9. The Squire

Tiw SQUIRE of Fife was the most important individual on Sark and for that reason did not like to be seen standing. Like his daughter, he was short, but unlike her, he was not perfectly proportioned, since most of the shortness lay in his legs. His torso was even beefy, and his head was undoubtedly majestic, but his body was fixed upon stubby legs that were forced into a ponderous waddle to carry their load.

So he sat behind a desk and except for his daughter and personal servants and, when she had been alive, his wife, none saw him in any7 other position.

There he looked the man he was. His large head, with its wide, nearly lipless mouth, broad, large-nostriled nose, and pointed, cleft chin, could look benign and inflexible in turn, with equal ease. His hair, brushed rigidly back and, in careless disregard for fashion, falling nearly to his shoulders, was blue-black, untouched by gray. A shadowy blue marked the regions of his cheeks, lips and chin where his Florinian barber twice daily battled the stubborn growth of facial hair.

The Squire was posing and he knew it. He had schooled expression out of his face and allowed his hands, broad, strong and short-fingered, to remain loosely clasped on a desk whose smooth, polished surface was completely bare. There wasn’t a paper on it, no communi-tube, no ornament. By its very simplicity the Squire’s own presence was emphasized.

He spoke to his pale, fish-white secretary with the special lifeless tone he reserved for mechanical appliances and Florinian civil servants. "I presume all have accepted?"

He had no real doubt as to the answer.

His secretary replied in a tone as lifeless, "The Squire of Bort stated that the press of previous business arrangements prevented his attending earlier than three."

"And you told him?"

"I stated that the nature of the present business made any delay inadvisable."

"The result?"

"He will be here, sir. The rest have agreed without reservation."

Fife smiled. Half an hour this way or that would have made no difference. There was a new principle involved, that was all. The Great Squires were too touchy with regard to their own independence, and such touchiness would have to go.

He was waiting, now. The room was large, the places for the others were prepared. The large chronometer, whose tiny powering spark of radioactivity had not failed or faltered in a thousand years, said two twenty-one.

What an explosion in the last two days! The old chronometer might yet witness events equal to any in the past.

Yet that chronometer had seen many in its millennium. When it counted its first minutes Sark had been a new world of hand-hewn cities with doubtful contacts among the other, older worlds. The timepiece had been in the wall of an old brick building then, the very bricks of which had since become dust. It had counted its even tenor through three short-lived Sarkite "empires" when the undisciplined soldiers of Sark managed to govern, for a longer or shorter interval, some half a dozen surrounding worlds. Its radioactive atoms had exploded in strict statistical sequence through two periods when the fleets of neighboring worlds dictated policy on Sark.

Five hundred years ago it had marked cool time as Sark discovered that the world nearest to it, Florina, had a treasure in its soil past counting. It had moved evenly through two victorious wars and recorded solemnly the establishment of a conqueror’s peace. Sark had abandoned its empires, absorbed Florina tightly, and become powerful in a way that Trantor itself could not duplicate.

Trantor wanted Florina and other powers had wanted it. The centuries had marked Florina as a world for which hands stretched out through space, groping and reaching eagerly. But it was Sark whose hand clasped it and Sark, sooner than release that grasp, would allow Galactic war.

Trantor knew that! Trantor knew that!

It was as though the silent rhythm of the chronometer set up the little singsong in the Squire’s brain.

It was two twenty-three.

Nearly a year before, the five Great Squires of Sark had met. Then, as now, it had been here, in his own hall. Then, as now, the Squires, scattered over the face of the planet, each on his own continent, had met in trimensic personification.

In a bald sense, it amounted to three-dimensional television in life size with sound and color. The duplicate could he found in any moderately well-to-do private home on Sark. Where it went beyond the ordinary was in the lack of any visible receiver. Except for Fife, the Squires present were present in every possible way but reality. The wall could not be seen behind them, they did not shimmer, yet a hand could have been passed through their bodies.

The true body of the Squire of Rune was sitting in the antipodes, his continent the only one upon which, at the moment, night prevailed. The cubic area immediately surrounding his image in Fife’s office had the cold, white gleam of artificial light, dimmed by the brighter daylight about it.

Gathered in the one room, in body or in image, was Sark itself. It was a queer and not altogether heroic personification of the planet. Rune was bald and pinkly fat, while Balle was gray and dryly wrinkled. Steen was powdered and rouged, wearing the desperate smile of a worn-out man pretending to a life force he no longer had, and Bort carried indifference to creature comforts to the unpleasant point of a two-day growth of beard and dirty fingernails.

Yet they were the five Great Squires.

They were the topmost of the three rungs of ruling powers on Sark. The lowest rung was, of course, the Florinian Civil Service, which remained steady through all the vicissitudes that marked the rise and fall of the individual noble houses of Sark. It was they who actually- greased the axles and turned the wheels of