The Currents of Space (Page 30)

government. Above them were the ministers and department heads appointed by the hereditary (and harmless) Chief of State. Their names and that of the Chief himself were needed on state papers to make them legally binding, but their only duties consisted of signing their names.

The highest rung was occupied by these five, each tacitly allowed a continent by the remaining four. They were the heads of the families that controlled the major volume of the kyrt trade, and the revenues therefrom derived. It was money that gave power and eventually dictated policy on Sark, and these had it. And of the five, it was Fife who had the most.

The Squire of Fife had faced them that day, nearly a year ago, and said to the other masters of the Galaxy’s second richest single planet (second richest after Trantor, which, after all, had half a million worlds to draw upon, rather than two):

"I have received a curious message."

They said nothing. They waited.

Fife handed a slip of metallite film to his secretary, who stepped from one seated figure to another, holding it well up for each to see, lingering just long enough for each to read.

To each of the four who attended the conference in Fife’s office, he, himself, was real, and the others, including Fife, only shadows. The metallite film was a shadow as well. They could only sit and observe the light rays that focused across vast world-sectors from the Continent of Fife to those of Balle, Bort, Steen, and the island Continent of Rune. The words they read were shadows on shadow.

Only Bort, direct and ungiven to subtleties, forgot that fact and reached for the message.

His hand extended to the edge of the rectangular image-receptor and was cut off. His arm ended in a featureless stump. In his own chambers, Fife knew, Bores arm had succeeded merely in closing upon nothingness and passing through the filmed message. He smiled, and so did the others. Steen giggled.

Bort reddened. He drew back his arm and his hand reappeared.

Fife said, "Well, you have each seen it. If you don’t mind, I will now read it aloud so that you may consider its significance."

He reached upward, and his secretary, by hastening his steps,

managed to hold the film in the proper position for Fife’s grasp to close upon it without an instant’s groping.

Fife read mellowly, imparting drama to the words as though the message were his own and he enjoyed delivering it.

He said, "This is the message: ‘You are a Great Squire of Sark and there is none to compete with you in power and wealth. Yet that power and wealth rest on a slender foundation. You may think that a planetary supply of kyrt, such as exists on Florina, is by no means a slender foundation, but ask yourself, how long will Florina exist? Forever?

"No! Florina may be d\estroyed tomorrow. It may exist for a thousand years. Of the two~ it is more likely to be destroyed tomorrow. Not by myself, to be sure, but in a way you cannot predict or foresee. Consider that destruction. Consider, too, that your power and wealth are already gone, for I demand the greater part of them. You will have time to consider, but not too much time.

"Attempt to take too much time and I shall announce to all the Galaxy and particularly to Florina the truth about the waiting destruction. After that there will be no more kyrt, no more wealth, no more power. None for me, but then I am used to that. None for you, and that would be extremely serious, since you were born to great wealth.

"Turn over most of your estates to myself in the amount and in the manner which I shall dictate in the near future and you will remain in secure possession of what remains. Not a great deal will be left you by your present standards, to be sure, but it will be more than the nothing that will otherwise be left you. Do not sneer at the fragment you will retain, either. Florina may last your lifetime and you will live, if not lavishly, at least comfortably."

Fife had finished. He turned the film over and over in his hand, then folded it gently into a silvery translucent cylinder through which the stenciled letters merged into a reddish blur.

He said in his natural voice, "It is an amusing letter. There is no signature and the tone of the letter, as you heard, is stilted and pompous. What do you think of it, Squires?"

Rune’s ruddy face was set in displeasure. He said, "It’s obviously the work of a man not far removed from the psychotic. He writes like a historical novel. Frankly, Fife, I don’t see that such rubbish is a decent excuse to disrupt our traditions of continental autonomy by calling us together. And I don’t like all this going on in the presence of your secretary."

"My secretary? Because he is a Florinian? Are you afraid his mind will be unsettled by such things as this letter? Nonsense." His tone shifted from one of mild amusement to the unmodulated syllables of command. "Turn to the Squire of Rune."

The secretary did so. His eyes were discreetly lowered and his white face was uncreased by lines and unmarred by expression. It almost seemed untouched by life.

"This Florinian," said Fife, careless of the man’s presence, "is my personal servant. He is never away from me, never with others of his kind. But it is not for that reason that he is absolutely trustworthy. Look at him. Look at his eyes. Isn’t it obvious to you that he has been under the psychic probe? He is incapable of any thought which is disloyal to myself in the slightest degree. With no offense intended, I can say that I would sooner trust him than any of you."

Bort chuckled. "I don’t blame you. None of us owes you the loyalty of a probed Florinian servant."

Steen giggled again and writhed in his seat as though it were growing gently warm.

Not one of them made any comment on Fife’s use of a psychic probe for personal servants. Fife would have been tremendously astonished had they done so. The use of the psychic probe for any reason other than the correction of mental disorders or the removal of criminal impulses was forbidden. Strictly speaking, it was forbidden even to the Great Squires.