"Happily, I don't feel in the same spot," Jim said. He got up and went to the picture window that took up one entire wall. It faced out over a mountain vista. He looked soberly into the sky.
Vovo joined him, glass in hand.
"Possibly your position isn't exactly the same as ours but there'll be some awfully great changes if that military based economy of yours suddenly had peace thrust upon it. You'd have a depression such as you've never dreamed of. Let's face reality, Jim, neither of us can afford peace."
"Well, we've both known that for a long time."
They both considered somberly, the planet Earth blazing away, a small sun there in the sky.
Jim said, "I sometimes think that the race would have been better off, when man was colonizing Venus and Mars, if it had been a joint enterprise rather than you people doing one, and we the other. If it had all been in the hands of that organization ..."
"The United Nations?" Vovo supplied.
"... Then when Bomb Day hit, perhaps these new worlds could have gone on to, well, better things."
"Perhaps," Vovo shrugged. "I've often wondered how Bomb Day started. Who struck the spark."
"Happily there were enough colonists on both planets to start the race all over again," Jim said. "What difference does it make, who struck the spark?"
"None, I suppose." Vovo began to button his collar, readjust his clothes. "Well, shall we emerge and let the quaking multitudes know that once again we have made a shaky agreement? One that will last until the next summit meeting."
By James H. Schmitz
For twelve years at a point where three major shipping routes of the Federation of the Hub crossed within a few hours' flight of one another, the Seventh Star Hotel had floated in space, a great golden sphere, gleaming softly in the void through its translucent shells of battle plastic. The Star had been designed to be much more than a convenient transfer station for travelers and freight; for some years after it was opened to the public, it retained a high rating among the more exotic pleasure resorts of the Hub. The Seventh Star Hotel was the place to have been that season, and the celebrities and fat cats converged on it with their pals and hangers-on. The Star blazed with life, excitement, interstellar scandals, tinkled with streams of credits dancing in from a thousand worlds. In short, it had started out as a paying proposition.
But gradually things changed. The Star's entertainment remained as delightfully outrageous as ever, the cuisine as excellent; the accommodations and service were still above reproach. The fleecing, in general, became no less expertly painless. But one had been there. By its eighth year, the Star was dated. Now, in its twelfth, it lived soberly off the liner and freighter trade, four fifths of the guest suites shut down, the remainder irregularly occupied between ship departures.
And in another seven hours, if the plans of certain men went through, the Seventh Star Hotel would abruptly wink out of existence.
Some fifty or sixty early diners were scattered about the tables on the garden terraces of Phalagon House, the Seventh Star Hotel's most exclusive eatery. One of them had just finished his meal, sat smoking and regarding a spiraling flow of exquisitely indicated female figures across the garden's skyscape with an air of friendly approval. He was a large and muscular young man, deeply tanned, with shoulders of impressive thickness, an aquiline nose, and dark, reflective eyes.
After a minute or two, he yawned comfortably, put out the cigarette, and pushed his chair back from the table. As he came to his feet, there was a soft bell-note from the table ComWeb. He hesitated, said, "Go ahead."
"Is intrusion permitted?" the ComWeb inquired.
"Depends," the guest said. "Who's calling?"
"The name is Reetal Destone."
He grinned, appeared pleasantly surprised. "Put the lady through."
There was a brief silence. Then a woman's voice inquired softly, "Quillan?"
"Right here, doll! Where--"
"Seal the ComWeb, Quillan."
He reached down to the instrument, tapped the seal button, said, "All right. We're private."
"Probably," the woman's voice said. "But better scramble this, too. I want to be very sure no one's listening."
Quillan grunted, slid his left hand into an inner coat pocket, briefly fingered a device of the approximate size and shape of a cigarette, drew his hand out again. "Scrambling!" he announced. "Now, what--"
"Mayday, Quillan," the soft voice said. "Can you come immediately?"
Quillan's face went expressionless. "Of course. Is it urgent?"
"I'm in no present danger. But we'd better waste no time."
"Is it going to take real hardware? I'm carrying a finger gun at the moment."
"Then go to your rooms and pick up something useful," Reetal said. "This should take real hardware, all right."
"All right. Then where do I go?"
"I'll meet you at your door. I know where it is."
When Quillan arrived, she was standing before the door to his suite, a tall blonde in a sleeveless black and gold sheath; a beautiful body, a warm, lovely, humorous face. The warmth and humor were real, but masked a mind as impersonally efficient as a computer, and a taste for high and dangerous living. When Quillan had last met Reetal Destone, a year and a half before, the taste was being satisfied in industrial espionage. He hadn't heard of her activities since then.
She smiled thoughtfully at him as he came up. "I'll wait outside," she said. "We're not talking here."
Quillan nodded, went on into his living room, selected a gun belt and holstered gun from a suitcase, fastened the belt around his waist under the coat, and came out. "Now what?"
"First a little portal-hopping--"
He followed her across the corridor and into a tube portal, watched as she tapped out a setting. The exit light flashed a moment later; they stepped out into a vacant lounge elsewhere in the same building, crossed it, entered another portal. After three more shifts, they emerged into a long hall, dimly lit, heavily carpeted. There was no one in sight.
"Last stop," Reetal said. She glanced up at his face. "We're on the other side of the Star now, in one of the sections they've closed up. I've established a kind of emergency headquarters here. The Star's nearly broke, did you know?"
"I'd heard of it."
"That appears to be part of the reason for what's going on."
Quillan said, "What's going on?"
Reetal slid her arm through his, said, "Come on. That's my, hm-m-m, unregistered suite over there. Big boy, it's very, very selfish of me, but I was extremely glad to detect your name on the list of newly arrived guests just now! As to what's going on ... the Camelot berths here at midnight, you know."
Quillan nodded. "I've some business with one of her passengers."
Reetal bent to unlock the entrance door to the indicated suite. "The way it looks now," she remarked, "the odds are pretty high that you're not going to keep that appointment."
"Because shortly after the Camelot docks and something's been unloaded from her, the Camelot and the Seventh Star Hotel are scheduled to go poof! together. Along with you, me, and some twelve thousand other people. And, so far, I haven't been able to think of a good way to keep it from happening."
Quillan was silent a moment. "Who's scheduling the poof?" he asked.
"Some old acquaintances of ours are among them. Come on in. What they're doing comes under the heading of destroying the evidence."
She locked the door behind them, said, "Just a moment," went over to the paneled wall, turned down a tiny silver switch. "Room portal," she said, nodding at the wall. "It might come in handy. I keep it turned off most of the time."
"Why are you turning it on now?" Quillan asked.
"One of the Star's stewards is working on this with me. He'll be along as soon as he can get away. Now I'll give you the whole thing as briefly as I can. The old acquaintances I mentioned are some boys of the Brotherhood of Beldon. Movaine's here; he's got Marras Cooms and Fluel with him, and around thirty of the Brotherhood's top guns. Nome Lancion's coming in on the Camelot in person tonight to take charge. Obviously, with all that brass on the job, they're after something very big. Just what it is, I don't yet know. I've got one clue, but a rather puzzling one. Tell you about that later. Do you know Velladon?"
"The commodore here?" Quillan nodded. "I've never met him but I know who he is."
Reetal said, "He's been manager of the Seventh Star Hotel for the past nine years. He's involved in the Beldon outfit's operation. So is the chief of the Star's private security force--his name's Ryter--and half a dozen other Star executives. They've got plenty of firepower, too; close to half the entire security force, I understand, including all the officers. That would come to nearly seventy men. There's reason to believe the rest of the force was disarmed and murdered by them in the subspace section of the Star about twelve hours ago. They haven't been seen since then.
"Now, Velladon, aside from his share in whatever they're after, has another reason for wanting to wipe out the Star in an unexplained blowup. There I have definite information. Did you know the Mooley brothers owned the Star?"
"I've been working for the Mooleys the past eight months," Reetal said, "checking up on employees at Velladon's level for indications of graft. And it appears the commodore had been robbing them blind here for at least several years."
"Sort of risky thing to try with the Mooleys, from what I hear," Quillan remarked.
"Yes. Very. Velladon had reason to be getting a little desperate about that. Two men were planted here a month ago. One of them is Sher Heraga, the steward I told you about. The other man came in as a bookkeeper. Two weeks ago, Heraga got word out that the bookkeeper had disappeared. Velladon and Ryter apparently got wise to what he was trying to do. So the Mooleys sent me here to find out exactly what was going on before they took action. I arrived four days ago."
She gave a regretful little headshake. "I waited almost a day before contacting Heraga. It seemed advisable to move very cautiously in the matter. But that made it a little too late to do anything. Quillan, for the past three days, the Seventh Star Hotel has been locked up like a bank vault. And except for ourselves, only the people who are in on the plot are aware of it."
"The message transmitters are inoperative?" he asked.
Reetal nodded. "The story is that a gravitic storm center in the area has disrupted transmissions completely for the time being."
"What about incoming ships?"
"Yours was the only one scheduled before the Camelot arrives. It left again eight hours ago. Nobody here had been let on board. The guests who wanted to apply for outgoing berths were told there were none open, that they'd have to wait for the Camelot."
She went over to a desk, unlocked a drawer, took out a sheaf of papers, and handed one of them to Quillan. "That's the layout of the Star," she said. "This five-level building over by the shell is the Executive Block. The Brotherhood and the commodore's men moved in there this morning. The Block is the Star's defense center. It's raid-proofed, contains the control officers and the transmitter and armament rooms. About the standard arrangement. While they hold the Executive Block, they have absolute control of the Star."
"If it's the defense center, it should be practically impossible to do anything about them there," Quillan agreed. "They could close it up, and dump the air out of the rest of the Star in a minute, if they had to. But there must be ... well, what about the lifeboats in the subspace section--and our pals must have a getaway ship stashed away somewhere?"
"They have two ships," Reetal said. "A souped-up armed freighter the Brotherhood came in on, and a large armed yacht which seems to be the commodore's personal property. Unfortunately, they're both in subspace locks."
"Because they've sealed off subspace. Try portaling down there, and you'll find yourself looking at a battle-plastic bulkhead. There's no way of getting either to those ships or to the lifeboats."
Quillan lifted his eyebrows. "And that hasn't caused any comment? What about the maintenance crews, the warehouse men, the--"
"All the work crews were hauled out of subspace this morning," Reetal said. "On the quiet, the Star's employees have been told that a gang of raiders was spotted in the warehouse area, and is at present cornered there. Naturally, the matter isn't to be mentioned to the guests, to avoid arousing unnecessary concern. And that explains everything very neatly. The absence of the security men, and why subspace is sealed off. Why the Executive Block is under guard, and can't be entered--and why the technical and office personnel in there don't come out, and don't communicate out. They've been put on emergency status, officially."
"Yunk," Quillan said disgustedly after a moment. "This begins to look like a hopeless situation, doll!"
"Let's see now--"
Reetal interrupted, "There is one portal still open to subspace. That's in the Executive Block, of course, and Heraga reports it's heavily guarded."
"How does he know?"
"The Block's getting its meals from Phalagon House. He floated a diner in there a few hours ago."
"Well," Quillan said, brightening, "perhaps a deft flavoring of poison--"
Reetal shook her head. "I checked over the hospital stocks. Not a thing there that wouldn't be spotted at once. Unless we can clobber them thoroughly, we can't afford to make them suspicious with a trick like that."
"Poison would be a bit rough on the office help, too," Quillan conceded. "They wouldn't be in on the deal."
"No, they're not. They're working under guard."
"Gas ... no, I suppose not. It would take too long to whip up something that could turn the trick." Quillan glanced at his watch. "If the Camelot docks at midnight, we've around six and a half hours left, doll! And I don't find myself coming up with any brilliant ideas. What have you thought of?"
Reetal hesitated a moment. "Nothing very brilliant either," she said then. "But there are two things we might try as a last resort."
"Let's hear them."
"I know a number of people registered in the Star at present who'd be carrying personal weapons. If they were told the facts, I could probably line up around twenty who'd be willing to make a try to get into the Executive Block, and take over either the control offices or the transmitter room. If we got a warning out to the Camelot, that would break up the plot. Of course, it wouldn't necessarily save the Star."
"No," Quillan said, "but it's worth trying if we can't think of something better. How would you get them inside?"
"We could crowd twenty men into one of those diner trucks, and Heraga could take us in."
"What kind of people are your pals?"