"Very much so."
"Excellent," said the Sultan. "You do me honor with your presence."
Murphy waited patiently.
"I understand that you had a visitor this morning," said the Sultan.
"Yes. Mr. Trimmer."
"May I inquire the nature of the conversation?"
"It was of a personal nature," said Murphy, rather more shortly than he meant.
The Sultan nodded wistfully. "A Singhalusi would have wasted an hour telling me half-truths--distorted enough to confuse, but not sufficiently inaccurate to anger me if I had a spy-cell on him all the time."
Murphy grinned. "A Singhalusi has to live here the rest of his life."
A servant wheeled a frosted cabinet before them, placed goblets under two spigots, withdrew. The Sultan cleared his throat. "Trimmer is an excellent fellow, but unbelievably loquacious."
Murphy drew himself two inches of chilled rosy-pale liquor. The Sultan slapped his boots with the twig. "Undoubtedly he confided all my private business to you, or at least as much as I have allowed him to learn."
"Well--he spoke of your hope to increase the compass of Singhalut."
"That, my friend, is no hope; it's absolute necessity. Our population density is fifteen hundred to the square mile. We must expand or smother. There'll be too little food to eat, too little oxygen to breathe."
Murphy suddenly came to life. "I could make that idea the theme of my feature! Singhalut Dilemma: Expand or Perish!"
"No, that would be inadvisable, inapplicable."
Murphy was not convinced. "It sounds like a natural."
The Sultan smiled. "I'll impart an item of confidential information--although Trimmer no doubt has preceded me with it." He gave his boots an irritated whack. "To expand I need funds. Funds are best secured in an atmosphere of calm and confidence. The implication of emergency would be disastrous to my aims."
"Well," said Murphy, "I see your position."
The Sultan glanced at Murphy sidelong. "Anticipating your cooperation, my Minister of Propaganda has arranged an hour's program, stressing our progressive social attitude, our prosperity and financial prospects ..."
"But, Sultan ..."
"I can't allow your Minister of Propaganda to use me and Know Your Universe! as a kind of investment brochure."
The Sultan nodded wearily. "I expected you to take that attitude.... Well--what do you yourself have in mind?"
"I've been looking for something to tie to," said Murphy. "I think it's going to be the dramatic contrast between the ruined cities and the new domed valleys. How the Earth settlers succeeded where the ancient people failed to meet the challenge of the dissipating atmosphere."
"Well," the Sultan said grudgingly, "that's not too bad."
"Today I want to take some shots of the palace, the dome, the city, the paddies, groves, orchards, farms. Tomorrow I'm taking a trip out to one of the ruins."
"I see," said the Sultan. "Then you won't need my charts and statistics?"
"Well, Sultan, I could film the stuff your Propaganda Minister cooked up, and I could take it back to Earth. Howard Frayberg or Sam Catlin would tear into it, rip it apart, lard in some head-hunting, a little cannibalism and temple prostitution, and you'd never know you were watching Singhalut. You'd scream with horror, and I'd be fired."
"In that case," said the Sultan, "I will leave you to the dictates of your conscience."
Howard Frayberg looked around the gray landscape of Riker's Planet, gazed out over the roaring black Mogador Ocean. "Sam, I think there's a story out there."
Sam Catlin shivered inside his electrically heated glass overcoat. "Out on that ocean? It's full of man-eating plesiosaurs--horrible things forty feet long."
"Suppose we worked something out on the line of Moby Dick? The White Monster of the Mogador Ocean. We'd set sail in a catamaran--"
"No," said Frayberg impatiently. "Of course not us. Two or three of the staff. They'd sail out there, look over these gray and red monsters, maybe fake a fight or two, but all the time they're after the legendary white one. How's it sound?"
"I don't think we pay our men enough money."
"Wilbur Murphy might do it. He's willing to look for a man riding a horse up to meet his space-ships."
"He might draw the line at a white plesiosaur riding up to meet his catamaran."
Frayberg turned away. "Somebody's got to have ideas around here...."
"We'd better head back to the space-port," said Catlin. "We got two hours to make the Sirgamesk shuttle."
Wilbur Murphy sat in the Barangipan, watching marionettes performing to xylophone, castanet, gong and gamelan. The drama had its roots in proto-historic Mohenj[=o]-Dar[=o]. It had filtered down through ancient India, medieval Burma, Malaya, across the Straits of Malacca to Sumatra and Java; from modern Java across space to Cirgamesc, five thousand years of time, two hundred light-years of space. Somewhere along the route it had met and assimilated modern technology. Magnetic beams controlled arms, legs and bodies, guided the poses and posturings. The manipulator's face, by agency of clip, wire, radio control and minuscule selsyn, projected his scowl, smile, sneer or grimace to the peaked little face he controlled. The language was that of Old Java, which perhaps a third of the spectators understood. This portion did not include Murphy, and when the performance ended he was no wiser than at the start.
Soek Panjoebang slipped into the seat beside Murphy. She wore musician's garb: a sarong of brown, blue, and black batik, and a fantastic headdress of tiny silver bells. She greeted him with enthusiasm.
"Weelbrrr! I saw you watching...."
"It was very interesting."
"Ah, yes." She sighed. "Weelbrrr, you take me with you back to Earth? You make me a great picturama star, please, Weelbrrr?"
"Well, I don't know about that."
"I behave very well, Weelbrrr." She nuzzled his shoulder, looked soulfully up with her shiny yellow-hazel eyes. Murphy nearly forgot the experiment he intended to perform.
"What did you do today, Weelbrrr? You look at all the pretty girls?"
"Nope. I ran footage. Got the palace, climbed the ridge up to the condensation vanes. I never knew there was so much water in the air till I saw the stream pouring off those vanes! And hot!"
"We have much sunlight; it makes the rice grow."
"The Sultan ought to put some of that excess light to work. There's a secret process.... Well, I'd better not say."
"Oh come, Weelbrrr! Tell me your secrets!"
"It's not much of a secret. Just a catalyst that separates clay into aluminum and oxygen when sunlight shines on it."
Soek's eyebrows rose, poised in place like a seagull riding the wind. "Weelbrrr! I did not know you for a man of learning!"
"Oh, you thought I was just a bum, eh? Good enough to make picturama stars out of gamelan players, but no special genius...."
"No, no, Weelbrrr."
"I know lots of tricks. I can take a flashlight battery, a piece of copper foil, a few transistors and bamboo tube and turn out a paralyzer gun that'll stop a man cold in his tracks. And you know how much it costs?"
"No, Weelbrrr. How much?"
"Ten cents. It wears out after two or three months, but what's the difference? I make 'em as a hobby--turn out two or three an hour."
"Weelbrrr! You're a man of marvels! Hello! We will drink!"
And Murphy settled back in the wicker chair, sipping his rice beer.
"Today," said Murphy, "I get into a space-suit, and ride out to the ruins in the plain. Ghatamipol, I think they're called. Like to come?"
"No, Weelbrrr." Soek Panjoebang looked off into the garden, her hands busy tucking a flower into her hair. A few minutes later she said, "Why must you waste your time among the rocks? There are better things to do and see. And it might well be--dangerous." She murmured the last word off-handedly.
"Danger? From the sjambaks?"
"The Sultan's giving me a guard. Twenty men with crossbows."
"The sjambaks carry shields."
"Why should they risk their lives attacking me?"
Soek Panjoebang shrugged. After a moment she rose to her feet. "Goodbye, Weelbrrr."
"Goodbye? Isn't this rather abrupt? Won't I see you tonight?"
"If so be Allah's will."
Murphy looked after the lithe swaying figure. She paused, plucked a yellow flower, looked over her shoulder. Her eyes, yellow as the flower, lucent as water-jewels, held his. Her face was utterly expressionless. She turned, tossed away the flower with a jaunty gesture, and continued, her shoulders swinging.
Murphy breathed deeply. She might have made picturama at that....
One hour later he met his escort at the valley gate. They were dressed in space-suits for the plains, twenty men with sullen faces. The trip to Ghatamipol clearly was not to their liking. Murphy climbed into his own suit, checked the oxygen pressure gauge, the seal at his collar. "All ready, boys?"
No one spoke. The silence drew out. The gatekeeper, on hand to let the party out, snickered. "They're all ready, Tuan."
"Well," said Murphy, "let's go then."
Outside the gate Murphy made a second check of his equipment. No leaks in his suit. Inside pressure: 14.6. Outside pressure: zero. His twenty guards morosely inspected their crossbows and slim swords.
The white ruins of Ghatamipol lay five miles across Pharasang Plain. The horizon was clear, the sun was high, the sky was black.
Murphy's radio hummed. Someone said sharply, "Look! There it goes!" He wheeled around; his guards had halted, and were pointing. He saw a fleet something vanishing into the distance.
"Let's go," said Murphy. "There's nothing out there."
"Well, there's only one of them."
"Where one walks, others follow."
"That's why the twenty of you are here."
"It is madness! Challenging the sjambaks!"
"What is gained?" another argued.
"I'll be the judge of that," said Murphy, and set off along the plain. The warriors reluctantly followed, muttering to each other over their radio intercoms.
The eroded city walls rose above them, occupied more and more of the sky. The platoon leader said in an angry voice, "We have gone far enough."
"You're under my orders," said Murphy. "We're going through the gate." He punched the button on his camera and passed under the monstrous portal.
The city was frailer stuff than the wall, and had succumbed to the thin storms which had raged a million years after the passing of life. Murphy marvelled at the scope of the ruins. Virgin archaeological territory! No telling what a few weeks digging might turn up. Murphy considered his expense account. Shifkin was the obstacle.
There'd be tremendous prestige and publicity for Know Your Universe! if Murphy uncovered a tomb, a library, works of art. The Sultan would gladly provide diggers. They were a sturdy enough people; they could make quite a showing in a week, if they were able to put aside their superstitions, fears and dreads.
Murphy sized one of them up from the corner of his eye. He sat on a sunny slab of rock, and if he felt uneasy he concealed it quite successfully. In fact, thought Murphy, he appeared completely relaxed. Maybe the problem of securing diggers was a minor one after all....
And here was an odd sidelight on the Singhalusi character. Once clear of the valley the man openly wore his shirt, a fine loose garment of electric blue, in defiance of the Sultan's edict. Of course out here he might be cold....
Murphy felt his own skin crawling. How could he be cold? How could he be alive? Where was his space-suit? He lounged on the rock, grinning sardonically at Murphy. He wore heavy sandals, a black turban, loose breeches, the blue shirt. Nothing more.
Where were the others?
Murphy turned a feverish glance over his shoulder. A good three miles distant, bounding and leaping toward Singhalut, were twenty desperate figures. They all wore space-suits. This man here ... A sjambak? A wizard? A hallucination?