The Niobians held the emergency session at Base Alpha, where our radio could carry the proceedings to the entire planet. Whatever else they may be, Niobian government sessions are open to the public. Since the advent of radio, practically the entire public listens in.
Like the natives, I listened too. I wasn't surprised when Kron appeared in my office, his eyes red and swollen from lack of sleep, but with a big grin on his face that exposed his sharp sectorial teeth. "Well, that's over, friend Lanceford. Now send us your starfish."
"That's easier said than done," I replied gloomily. "I've contacted the Confederation. They won't ship twenty pounds of starfish--let alone the twenty thousand tons Bergdorf says we'll need!"
"Why not? Are they crazy? Or do they want to destroy us?"
"Neither. This is just a sample of bureaucracy at work. You see, the starfish is classed as a pest on Earth. Confederation regulations forbid the exportation of pests to member planets."
"But we need them!"
"I realize that, but the fact hasn't penetrated to the highest brass." I laughed humorlessly. "The big boys simply can't see it. By the time we marshal enough evidence to convince them, it will be too late. Knowing how Administration operates, I'd say that it'd take at least a year for them to become convinced. And another two months for them to act."
"But we simply can't wait that long! Your man Bergdorf has convinced me. We're in deadly danger!"
"You're going to have to wait," I said grimly. "Unless you can find some way to jar them out of their rut."
Kron looked thoughtful. "I think that can be done, friend Lanceford. As I recall, your bureaus are timid things. Furthermore, we have something they want pretty bad. I think we can apply pressure."
"But won't your people object? Doesn't that deny your basic philosophy of non-interference with others?"
Kron grinned ferociously. "Not at all. Like others of your race, you have never understood the real significance of our social philosophy. What it actually boils down to is simply this--we respect the customs and desires of others but require in turn that they respect ours."
"You mean that you will use force against the rest of the Confederation? But you can't do that! You wouldn't stand a chance against the Navy."
"We will first try a method we have used with our own tribes who get out of line. I don't think anything more will be necessary." Kron's voice was flat. "It goes against the grain to do this, but we are left no choice." He turned and left the room without a farewell, which was a measure of his agitation.
I sat there behind my desk wondering what the Niobians could do. Like my ex-boss Alvord Sims, I had a healthy respect for them. It just could be that they could do plenty.
Organization! Man, you've never seen anything like what the Niobians tossed at our startled heads! We always thought the Planetary Council was a loose and ineffective sort of thing, but what happened within the next twenty hours had to be seen to be believed. I saw it. But it was days before I believed it.
Within a day the natives had whipped up an organization, agreed on a plan of action and put it into effect. By noon of the next day Niobe was a closed planet. A message was sent to the Confederation informing them that Niobe was withdrawing until the emergency was over. An embargo was placed on all movement of shipping.
And everything stopped.
No factories operated. The big starfreighters stood idle and empty at the polar bases. Not one ounce of gerontin or its concentrate precursor left Niobe. Smiling groups of Niobians, using subsonics to enforce their demands, paralyzed everything the Confederation had operated on the planet. No one was hurt. The natives were still polite and friendly. But Confederation business came to an abrupt halt, and stayed halted.
It was utterly amazing! I had never heard of a planet-wide boycott before. But Niobe was entirely within her rights. The Confederation had to accept it.
And, of course, the Confederation capitulated. If the Niobians were fools enough to want pests as a condition of resuming viscaya shipments--well, it was their affair. The Confederation needed viscaya. It was willing to do almost anything to assure its continued supply.
With the full power of the Confederation turned to giving Niobe what she wanted, it wasn't long before the oysters were under control. We established a systematic seeding procedure for the starfish that kept arriving by the freighter load. In a few months Bergdorf reported that an ecological balance had been achieved.
"But didn't the starfish create another pest problem?" Perkins asked.
"Not at all," Lanceford said. "I told you that the Niobians had an odd sense of taste. Starfish proved to be quite acceptable to the Niobian palate. They merely added another item to Niobe's food supply."
Perkins shuddered delicately. "I wouldn't eat one of those things in a million years."
"You're going to have to eat vorkum if you expect to survive on this world. Compared to vorkum, a starfish is sheer pleasure! But that wasn't the end of it," Lanceford added with a smile. "You see, shortly after things had simmered down to normal Kron dropped into my office.
"'I think, friend Lanceford,' he said, 'that we are going to have to create a permanent organization to keep unwanted visitors out. This little affair has been a needed lesson. I have been reading about your planetary organization, and I think a thing like your Customs Service is vitally needed on our world to prevent future undesirable biological importations.'
"'I agree,' I replied. 'Anything that would prevent a repetition of this business would be advisable.'
"So that was how the Customs Service started. The insigne you will recognize as a starfish opening an oyster. Unfortunately the Niobians are quite literal minded. When they say any biological importation will be quarantined and examined, they mean Confederation citizens too!
"And that, of course, was the entering wedge. You'll find things quite homelike once you get out of here. The natives have developed an organization that's a virtual copy of our Administrative Branch. Customs, as you know, is a triumph of the bureaucratic system, and naturally the idea spread. Once the natives got used to a permanent government organization that was available at all times, it was only a question of time before the haphazard tribal organization became replaced by a planetary union. You could almost say that it was an inevitable consequence."
Lanceford grinned. "The Niobians didn't realize that the importation of foreign Customs was almost as bad as the importation of foreign animals!" He chuckled at the unconscious pun.
BRIDE OF THE DARK ONE.
By Florence Verbell Brown
The outcasts; the hunted of all the brighter worlds, crowded onto Yaroto. But even here was there salvation for Ransome, the jinx-scarred acolyte, when tonight was the night of Bani-tai ... the night of expiation by the photo-memoried priests of dark Darion?
The last light in the Galaxy was a torch. High in the rafters of Mytor's Cafe Yaroto it burned, and its red glare illuminated a gallery of the damned. Hands that were never far from blaster or knife; eyes that picked a hundred private hells out of the swirling smoke where a woman danced.
She was good to look at, moving in time to the savage rhythm of the music. The single garment she wore bared her supple body, and thighs and breasts and a cloud of dark hair wove a pattern of desire in the close room.
Fat Mytor watched, and his little crafty eyes gleamed. The Earth-girl danced like a she-devil tonight. The tables were crowded with the outcast and the hunted of all the brighter worlds. The woman's warm body, moving in the torchlight, would stir memories that men had thought they left light years behind. Gold coins would shower into Mytor's palm for bad wine, for stupor and forgetfulness.
Mytor sipped his imported amber kali, and the black eyes moved with seeming casualness, penetrating the deep shadows where the tables were, resting briefly on each drunken, greedy or fear-ridden face.
It was an old process with Mytor, nearly automatic. A glance told him enough, the state of a man's mind and senses and wallet. This trembling wreck, staring at the woman and nursing a glass of the cheapest green Yarotian wine, had spent his last silver. Mytor would have him thrown out. Another, head down and muttering over a tumbler of raw whiskey, would pass out before the night was over, and wake in an alley blocks away, with his gold in Mytor's pocket. A third wanted a woman, and Mytor knew what kind of a woman.
When the dance was nearly over Mytor heaved out of his chair, drew the rich folds of his native Venusian tarab about his bulk, and padded softly to a corner of the room, where the shadows lay deepest. Smiling, he rested a moist, jeweled paw on the table at which Ransome, the Earthman, sat alone.
Blue eyes looked up coldly out of a weary, lean face. The voice was bored.
"I've paid for my bottle and I have nothing left for you to steal. We have nothing in common, no business together. Now, if you don't mind, you're in my line of vision, and I'd like to watch the finish of the dance."
The fat Venusian's smile only broadened.
"May I sit down, Mr. Ransome?" he persisted. "Here, out of your line of vision?"
"The chair belongs to you," Ransome observed flatly.
Covertly, as he had done for hours now, Mytor studied the gaunt, pale Earthman in the worn space harness. Ransome had apparently dismissed the Venusian renegade already, and his cold blue eyes followed the woman's every movement with fixed intensity.
The music swept on toward its climax and the woman's body was a storm of golden flesh and tossing black hair. Mytor saw the Earthman's pale lips twist in the faint suggestion of a bitter smile, saw the long fingers tighten around the glass.
Every man had his price on Yaroto, and Ransome would not be the first Mytor had bought with a woman. For a moment, Mytor watched the desire brighten in Ransome's eyes, studied the smile that some men wear on the way to death, in the last moment when life is most precious.
In this moment Ransome was for sale. And Mytor had a proposition.
"You were not surprised that I knew your name, Mr. Ransome?"
"Let's say that I wasn't interested."
Mytor flushed but Ransome was looking past him at the woman. The Venusian wiped his forehead with a soiled handkerchief, drummed fat fingers on the table for a moment, tried a different tack.
"Her name is Irene. She's lovely, isn't she, Mr. Ransome? Surely the inner worlds showed you nothing like her. The eyes, the red mouth, the breasts like--"
"Shut up," Ransome grated, and the glass shattered between his clenched fingers.
"Very well, Mr. Ransome." Whiskey trickled from the edge of the table in slow, thick drops, staining Mytor's white tarab. Ice was in the Venusian's voice. "Get out of my place--now. Leave the whiskey, and the woman. I have no traffic with fools."
"I've told you, Mytor that you're wasting your time. But make your pitch, if you must."
"Ah, Mr. Ransome, you do not care to go out into the starless night. Perhaps there are those who wait for you, eh? With very long knives?"
Reflex brought Ransome's hand up in a lightning arc to the blaster bolstered under his arm, but Mytor's damp hand was on his wrist, and Mytor's purr was in his ear, the words coming quickly.
"You would die where you sit, you fool. You would not live even to know the sharpness of the long knives, the sacred knives of Darion, with the incantations inscribed upon their blades against blasphemers of the Temple."
Ransome shuddered and was silent. He saw Mytor's guards, vigilant in the shadows, and his hand fell away from the blaster.
When the dance was ended, and the blood was running hot and strong in him, he turned to face Mytor. His voice was impatient now, but his meaning was shrouded in irony.
"Are you trying to sell me a lucky charm, Mytor?"
The Venusian laughed.
"Would you call a space ship a lucky charm, Mr. Ransome?"
"No," Ransome said grimly. "If it were berthed across the street I'd be dead before I got halfway to it."
"Not if I provided you with a guard of my men."
"Maybe not. But I wouldn't have picked you for a philanthropist, Mytor."
"There are no philanthropists on Yaroto, Mr. Ransome. I offer you escape, it is true; you will have guessed that I expect some service in return."
"Get to the point." Ransome's eyes were weary now that the woman's dancing no longer held them. And there was little hope in his voice.
A man can put off a date across ten years, and across a hundred worlds, and there can be whiskey and women to dance for him. But there was a ship with burned-out jets lying in the desert outside this crumbling city, and it was the night of Bani-tai, the night of expiation in distant Darion, and Ransome knew that for him, this was the last world.
After tonight the priests would proclaim the start of a new Cycle, and the old debts, if still unpaid, would be canceled forever.
Ransome shrugged, a hopeless gesture. Enough of the cult of the Dark One lingered in the very stuff of his nerves and brain to tell him that the will of the Temple would be done.
But Mytor was speaking again, and Ransome listened in spite of himself.
"All the scum of the Galaxy wash up on Yaroto at last," the fat Venusian said. "That is why you and I are here, Mr. Ransome. It is also why a certain pirate landed his ship on the desert out there three days ago. Callisto Queen, the ship's name is, though it has borne a dozen others. Cargo--Jovian silks and dyestuffs from the moons of Mars, narco-vin from the system of Alpha Centauri."
Mytor paused, put the tips of fat fingers together, and looked hard at Ransome.
"Is all of that supposed to mean something to me?" Ransome asked. A waiter had brought over a glass to replace the broken one, and he poured a drink for himself, not inviting Mytor. "It doesn't."
"It suggests a course, nothing more. In toward Sol, out to Yaroto by way of Alpha Centauri. Do you follow the courses of pirate ships, Mr. Ransome?"
"One," Ransome said savagely. "I've lost track of her."
"Perhaps you know the Callisto Queen better under her former name, then."
Again Ransome's hand moved toward the blaster, and this time Mytor made no attempt to stop him. Ransome's thin lips tightened with some powerful emotion, and he half rose to look hard at Mytor.
"The name of the ship?"
"Her captain used to call her Hawk of Darion."
Ransome understood. Hawk of Darion, hell ship driving through black space under the command of a man he had once sworn to kill. Eight years rolled back and he saw them together, laughing at him: the Earthman-captain and the woman who had been Ransome's.
"Captain Jareth," Ransome said slowly. "Here--on Yaroto."
The Venusian nodded, pushing the bottle toward Ransome. The Earthman ignored the gesture.
"Is the woman with him?"
Mytor smiled his feline smile. "You would like to see her blood run under the knives of the priests, no?"