Francois, who had been following our inspection tour at shadow's-length, interrupted. I suspected that his timing was no mere coincidence.
"We will be serving dinner at seven-thirty," he said. "If the lady would care to dress--"
"Of course," Joanna said. "Will you excuse me, Etienne?"
I bowed to her, and she was gone.
At fifteen minutes to the appointed dining time, I was ready, and hastened below to talk once more with my father. He was in the dining room, instructing the servants as to the placement of the silver and accessories. My father was proud of the excellence of his table, and took all his meals in the splendid manner. His appreciation of food and wine was unsurpassed in my experience, and it had always been the greatest of pleasures for me to watch him at table, stalking across the damask and dipping delicately into the silver dishes prepared for him. He pretended to be too busy with his dinner preparations to engage me in conversation, but I insisted.
"I must talk to you," I said. "We must decide together how to do this."
"It will not be easy," he answered with a twinkle. "Consider Joanna's view. A cat as large and as old as myself is cause enough for comment. A cat that speaks is alarming. A cat that dines at table with the household is shocking. And a cat whom you must introduce as your--"
"Stop it!" I cried. "Joanna must know the truth. You must help me reveal it to her."
"Then you will not heed my advice?"
"In all things but this. Our marriage can never be happy unless she accepts you for what you are."
"And if there is no marriage?"
I would not admit to this possibility. Joanna was mine; nothing could alter that. The look of pain and bewilderment in my eyes must have been evident to my father, for he touched my arm gently with his paw and said: "I will help you, Etienne. You must give me your trust."
"Then come to dinner with Joanna and explain nothing. Wait for me to appear."
I grasped his paw and raised it to my lips. "Thank you, father!"
He turned to Francois, and snapped: "You have my instructions?"
"Yes, sir," the servant replied.
"Then all is ready. I shall return to my room now, Etienne. You may bring your fiancee to dine."
I hastened up the stairway, and found Joanna ready, strikingly beautiful in shimmering white satin. Together, we descended the grand staircase and entered the room.
Her eyes shone at the magnificence of the service set upon the table, at the soldiery array of fine wines, some of them already poured into their proper glasses for my father's enjoyment: Haut Medoc, from St. Estephe, authentic Chablis, Epernay Champagne, and an American import from the Napa Valley of which he was fond. I waited expectantly for his appearance as we sipped our aperitif, while Joanna chatted about innocuous matters, with no idea of the tormented state I was in.
At eight o'clock, my father had not yet made his appearance, and I grew ever more distraught as Francois signalled for the serving of the bouillon au madere. Had he changed his mind? Would I be left to explain my status without his help? I hadn't realized until this moment how difficult a task I had allotted for myself, and the fear of losing Joanna was terrible within me. The soup was flat and tasteless on my tongue, and the misery in my manner was too apparent for Joanna to miss.
"What is it, Etienne?" she said. "You've been so morose all day. Can't you tell me what's wrong?"
"No, it's nothing. It's just--" I let the impulse take possession of my speech. "Joanna, there's something I should tell you. About my mother, and my father--"
"Ahem," Francois said.
He turned to the doorway, and our glances followed his.
"Oh, Etienne!" Joanna cried, in a voice ringing with delight.
It was my father, the cat, watching us with his gray, gold-flecked eyes. He approached the dining table, regarding Joanna with timidity and caution.
"It's the cat in the painting!" Joanna said. "You didn't tell me he was here, Etienne. He's beautiful!"
"Joanna, this is--"
"Dauphin! I would have known him anywhere. Here, Dauphin! Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!"
Slowly, my father approached her outstretched hand, and allowed her to scratch the thick fur on the back of his neck.
"Aren't you the pretty little pussy! Aren't you the sweetest little thing!"
She lifted my father by the haunches, and held him in her lap, stroking his fur and cooing the silly little words that women address to their pets. The sight pained and confused me, and I sought to find an opening word that would allow me to explain, yet hoping all the time that my father would himself provide the answer.
Then my father spoke.
"Meow," he said.
"Are you hungry?" Joanna asked solicitously. "Is the little pussy hungry?"
"Meow," my father said, and I believed my heart broke then and there. He leaped from her lap and padded across the room. I watched him through blurred eyes as he followed Francois to the corner, where the servant had placed a shallow bowl of milk. He lapped at it eagerly, until the last white drop was gone. Then he yawned and stretched, and trotted back to the doorway, with one fleeting glance in my direction that spoke articulately of what I must do next.
"What a wonderful animal," Joanna said.
"Yes," I answered. "He was my mother's favorite."
BY GEORGE O. SMITH.
You can keep a good man down, if you've got enough headstart, are alert and persistent ... so long as he limits himself to acting like a good man....
It was 047-63-10 when he opened the door. Before his superior could chew him for prepunctuality, Huvane said as the chief looked up and opened his mouth to start: "Sorry, but you should know. Terra is at it again."
Chelan's jaw snapped shut. He passed a hand over his face and asked in a tone of pure exasperation. "The same?" and as Huvane nodded, Chelan went on, "Why can't they make a mistake and blow themselves out of our hair? How far did they get this time?"
"All the way."
Huvane sat down shaking his head slowly. "Not yet, but they're over the hump, you know." Huvane's face brightened ever so slightly. "I can't be criticized for not counting them, chief. But I'll estimate that there must be at least a couple of hundred atoms of 109 already. And you know that nobody could make 109 if they hadn't already evolved methods of measuring the properties of individual atoms. So as soon as they find that their boom-sample doesn't behave like the standard mess out of a bombardment chamber, they won't rest until they find out why. They'll find out. Then it'll be 109, 109, 109 until we're forced to clobber them again."
Bitterly Chelan looked up. "I don't think I need the lecture. I admire their tenacity. I admire their ambition. I admire their blasphemous, consignatory, obscenity attitude of acting as if the Great Creator had concocted the whole glorious Universe for their own playground. Yes," said the chief wearily, "singly they aren't bad traits. Boiled down into the self-esteem of a single race, I don't admire them any more. I'm simply scared."
"Yeah. Well, we've got time."
"Not much. What's their space potential this time?"
"Still scragged on the mass-inertia-relativity barrier. Tailburners ... er, chemical reaction engines. Manned and unmanned orbital flights. Half a dozen landings on their sister planet. No," said Huvane as he saw the chief's puzzlement, "I don't mean Number Two ... the one they call Venus this time. I mean their co-orbital companion. The Moon. They still call it that."
The chief looked up wonderingly. "Do you suppose," he asked solemnly, "that there is really something called a 'racial memory'?"
"It's against all the theory," objected Huvane. "But there seems to be--" his voice trailed off absently. It returned after some thought: "I've tried to sort it out, just as if I were one of them. The recurrence of their ... er ... 'names of antiquity' as they call them, seem to recur and recur. Their Planet Two, now called Venus, was called Astarte last time, and before that it was Ishtar."
"Other way around."
"No matter. The names are still being used and, according to their belief, merely parallel names culled out of local pagan religious beliefs."
The chief nodded. "That's only part of the parallelism. The big thing is the way they follow the same pattern. Savage, agrarian, urban, right on up the ladder according to the rules of civic science but squabbling and battling all the way right on up and out into space. Hell, Huvane, warfare and conflict I can both understand and cope with, but not the Terran flavor. They don't come out bent on conquest or stellar colonialism. They come out with their little private fight still going on and each side lines up its volume of influence and pits one against the other until the whole section of that spiral arm is glittering like a sputtering spark along a train of black powder. I wish," he said savagely, "that we could cut off that arm and fling it deep into extragalactic space."
Huvane shook his head. "And leave the problem for our children to solve?"
"They'll have one to solve, I think," said Chelan. "In another twenty thousand years the Terrans will be right back doing business at the same old stand. Unless we can solve it for once and for all right now."
Huvane looked around as if he were seeking another door to the chief's office. "How?" he asked sarcastically. "The first time we greeted them and they took both our welcome and us for everything they could before we pulled the rug out from under them. The second time we boxed them off and they broke out after converting the isolation screen into an offensive weapon. The third time we tried to avoid them and they ran wild exploiting less ambitious races. The fourth time we missed the boat and they were chewing at our back door before we knew about them; containing them was almost a nova job. The fifth time we went in and tried to understand them, they traded us two for one. Two things they didn't want for one they did," Huvane's lips curled, "and I'm not sure that they didn't trade us the other way around; two they needed for one they declared useless. Sixth? that was the last time and they just came out shooting as if the whole galaxy automatically objected. This time? Who knows?" Huvane sat down again and put his hands between his knees.
"They don't operate like people. Sensible folk settle their own problems, then look for more. Terra? One half of the globe is against the other half of the globe. Fighting one another tooth and nail, they still find time to invent and cross space to other planets and continue their fight on unknown territory."
"Maybe we'd better just admit that we don't know the solution. Then we can clobber Terra back to the swamp, juggle the place into another ice age, put the details down in History, and hope that our remote progeny will be smarter than we."
"Like maybe we're smarter than our remote ancestors?" jeered Huvane.
"Got a better idea?"
"Maybe. Has anybody really taken a couple of them and analyzed them?"
"I agree, but--?"
"Get me a healthy, well-balanced specimen of somewhat better-than-average education and training. Can do?"
"Can do. But how are you going to keep him?"
"I don't intend to study him like I'd study a bug under a microscope. This one won't get away. Make it in fourteen versaids, Huvane."
"Make it in ten plus or minus a radite or two. So long!"
The beast at Cape Canaveral stood three hundred and fifteen feet tall dwarfing her creators into microscopic proportions. Swarming up and down the gantry, bug-sized humans crawled in and out of check ports with instrument checks, hauling hoses, cables, lines. Some thousand feet away, a puff-bomb of red smoke billowed out and a habit-flattened voice announced: "At the mark, X Minus Fifteen Minutes ... ... ... Mark! X Minus Fifteen Minutes!"
Jerry Markham said, "That's me!" He looked up at the lofty porthole and almost lost his balance over backwards sighting it. He was a healthy specimen, about twenty-four and full of life. He had spent the day going through two routines that were sometimes simultaneous and at other times serially; one re-stating his instructions letter by letter including the various alternatives and contingencies that involved his making decisions if the conditions on Venus were according to this theory or that. The other was a rigorous medical checkup. Neither of them showed that Jerry Markham had spent the previous night in activities not recommended by his superiors but nothing that would bounce him if they knew. He could hardly be broken for living it up at a party.
He shook hands with the boss and stepped into the elevator. It was not his idea of a proper send-off. There should be bands playing and girls throwing paper tape, flowers and a few drinks. Sally should send him off with a proud smooch of lipstick and a tearful promise to wait. Instead it was all very military and strict and serious--which is why he'd whooped it up the night before. He'd had his good night and good by with Sally Forman, but now eighteen hours later he was fit and raring for a return match.
Jerry's mind was by no means concerned with this next half hour, which would be the most perilous part of his flight. Tomorrow would take care of itself. The possibility that thirty minutes from now he might be dead in a flaming pyre did not cross his mind, the chance that an hour from now he could be told that his bird was off-course and his fate starvation if it obtained an untrue orbit or abrupt destruction if it didn't orbit at all--nothing bothered him.
He sat there chanting the count down with the official timer and braced himself when the call came: "Zero! Fire!"
Inwardly, Jerry Markham's mind said, "We're off!" and he began to look forward to his landing on Venus. Not the problems of landing, but what he would find there when he soared down through the clouds.
Determined to hold up through the high-G even though nobody watched, he went on and on and up and up, his radio voiced the progress tinnily. Shock followed roaring pressure, release followed shock. Orientation was lost; only logic and intellect told him where he was and which way he was going.
Then he was free. Free to eat and drink and read and smoke one cigarette every three hours and, in essence, behave in about the same way as a prisoner confined in solitary. The similarity did not bother Jerry Markham, for this was honor, not punishment.
Huvane collected him with the ease of a fisherman landing a netted crab. Easily, painlessly. Shockingly, for the crab doesn't exactly take to the net with docility.
Huvane collected the whole shebang, man and machinery; then opened the spacecraft with the same attitude as a man peeling the lid from a can of sardines. He could have breached the air lock, but he wanted the Terran to understand the power behind the act.
Jerry Markham came out blinking; very mildly wondering about the air. It was good. Without considering the rather high probability that nobody spoke the language, he blurted: "What gives?"
He was not very much surprised when one of them in uniform said curtly, "This way and make it snappy, Terran!"
No, he was not surprised. He was too stunned to permit anything as simple as surprise. And through the shock and the stun, his months of training came through. Jerry Markham worried his first worry: How was he going to get the word back home?
Confinement in the metal cell of his top-stage hadn't bothered him. The concept of landing on a planet that couldn't come closer to home than some twenty-seven million miles was mere peanuts. Isolation for a year was no more than a hiatus, a period of adventure that would be rewarded many-fold. Sally? So she might not wait but there were others; he'd envisioned himself fighting them off with a club after his successful return. Hell, they'd swarmed him before his take-off, starting with the moment his number had come up as possible candidate.
No, the meeting with competence in space did not shock him greatly. What bothered him was his lack of control over the situation. Had he seen them and passed on about his business, he recounted the incident.
As it was, his desire to tell somebody about it was cut off. As he sat, alone and helpless, it occurred to him that he did not mind so much the dying, if that was to be his lot. What mattered was the unmarked grave. The mourning did not move him; the physical concept of "grave" and its fill of moldering organic substances was nothing. It was mere symbol. So long as people knew how and where, it made little difference to Jerry Markham whether he was planted in a duridium casket guaranteed to preserve the dead flesh for a thousand years or whether he went out in a bright swift flame that glinted in its tongues of the color-traces of incandescent elements of human organic chemistry.
So long as people knew. Where and how. Vague, vague, mass-volumized concept. Granite tomb was one idea, here was a place. Point a spread-fingered hand in a waving sweep across the sky that encompasses the Plane of The Ecliptic and say, "It is there," and another place is identified. Lost on Venus is no more than a phrase; from Terra Haute or Times Square, Venus is a tiny point in the sky smaller to the vision than the granite of Grant's Tomb.
Imagination breeds irritation. Would they call it pilot error or equipment unreliability? Dying he could face. Goofing would be a disgrace that he would have to meet in fact or in symbol. Hardware crackup was a matter of the laws of probability. Not only his duty demanded that he report, his essence cried out for a voice to let them know.
Just the chance to tell one other human soul.
Chelan asked, "Who are you? Your name and rank?"