He could feel some of the effect himself. He went through a moment of indecision, but that was all. Then he stepped forward and shoved the Third Officer aside. The officer looked blank, then his face reddened in anger. As Thane tried to bring the armament to bear, the Third was clawing at his back. Thane bent and twisted. The Third went crashing into a bulkhead. Thane didn't even glance at him. There was no time. He turned back to the fire control. As he did, the first disrupter explosion came, not two kilometers ahead. The next one would get them.
Thane twisted the manual computer for there was no time to wait for the automatic to warm up. Two small adjustments and he touched the impeller. Instantly his disrupter burst appeared on the screen off the starboard bow of the black enemy. Not close enough to do real damage but enough to throw off the pirate's next shot. The shot came. Needles danced wildly on the board before Thane. The whole ship vibrated wildly. The power drain was tremendous, but the inner screens held. As Thane lined up the pirate again, the intercom said, "Five seconds to warp-line!" They'd be safe, then, after the micro second when the screens were down. And the pirate was in position to take full advantage of that moment. Thane's fingers moved with scherzo speed as he fed twelve adjustments to the fire control. He let go with everything they had on the port side, and switched off the guns, in preparation for the shummer. It came almost simultaneously, and the pirate disappeared as they went into the hyper-space of the warp-line. There was no time to see if any damage had been done. His last shots must have had effect, though, or they would never have made it back into the warp.
Thane turned away wearily from the fire-control panel. The whole encounter had lasted less than twenty seconds, but the strain of fighting against the Stoltz effect and of manually computing twelve variables had been wearing. He saw that the Third Officer was now standing close to Astrid. He started to say he was sorry that he had to act as he did. But the Third walked over to him, with military precision, his face set. He stood before Thane, young, military, and serious.
"You have impugned my honor and that of Onzar. For that your life is forfeit. We fight on Kadenar."
"I also saved your life and my own," Thane said drily, "but if you want me to take yours back, I'll be glad to oblige. See you at Kadenar." Thane turned on his heel and walked away.
Duelling was forbidden by the Systems Code but on such outposts as Kadenar it was not only allowed but even encouraged.
Therefore, no time was lost in customs. Thane's forged Onzarian passport was stamped "duellist priority" and that was that. Astrid came through as readily as his second. And the Third, with another junior officer, was just behind them.
The four of them sat side by side without a word as their automatic anti-grav taxi took them the ten kilos from the port to Kadenar City, and then beyond. The taxi continued over the City and its three "towns"--the spacetown, the bureaucrat's town, and the miner's town--and finally settled gently down in the foothills beyond. There was a clearing beneath them, with a fenced-in surface. A medic looked up as they got out.
"Differences to settle, gentlemen and my lady? Interne Pyuf at your service. The duelling tax is three sals. Always glad to accept any Systems currency. Then too, there's the cremation deposit required from both parties, the medication fee, and if you gentlemen are interested in insurance, I'm able to supply some very special policies."
After the principals and seconds had signed the register and all fees had been paid, Pyuf leaned back in his chair, lit one of the fashionable 30 centimeter cigarettes, and explained the rules. "In general, no criminal nor civil disability attaches to actions of the principals within this enclosure. Certain fines, however, are imposed if the rules are not followed. To wit: knives only can be used, not to exceed twelve inches. Each contestant may wear a personal anti-grav, limited to fifteen feet ascentability. Anti-gravs must be adjusted to compensate for native gravities." He smiled, in self-deprecation. "That's Pyuf the lawyer at work. Now perhaps you prefer Pyuf the bartender." He reached under his counter and pulled out a bottle, labelled in the local language, and poured out five glasses. "To your continued good health, gentlemen, and I sincerely hope I can return your cremation deposits--though of course, many previous contestants, grateful to be alive, have contributed the amounts to the Interne's Benefit Association."
Thane and the others picked up their glasses. The stuff was yellow, sticky, sweet, and without the slightest doubt, alcoholic. When Thane could manage to speak, he said, "By all means, Pyuf. I'm sure that both my opponent and I will contribute to the internes, dead or alive. Shall we proceed with the main event?"
Before answering, Pyuf poured a small chaser from the same bottle and stood up, a little unsteadily. "By all means. But before we start I might mention that I have been ordained in fourteen systems' religions and will be glad to perform last rites...."
"Enough, enough," said the Third, who was beginning to show signs of nervousness. "Let us get on with it."
Pyuf stepped over to the weapons racks and removed a set of knives and a pair of anti-grav jackets. He laid them on his table and gestured to the Third. "Take a knife and jacket." The Third chose the knife and jacket to the left without more than a cursory glance.
Pyuf reached in his jacket pocket and brought out one of the twelve-faced dies of Kadenar. "Pyuf, the gambler," he said. "You two gentlemen will now roll the die. He who is high has his choice of either group of weapons."
The Third Officer rolled first, and the Kadenar equivalent of nine came up. Thane rolled a five.
"Now," said Pyuf, "it's Pyuf, the couturier. Step forward, gentlemen, to be fitted."
Pyuf fitted the anti-grav jackets to Thane and the Third, and gave each a brief, efficient test. He stepped back and leaned against his counter. "And now, Pyuf, the referee." He pointed to a green line bisecting the enclosure. "You gentlemen will remain on the other side of the line during the contest. You remain within the fences. You do not ascend higher than fifteen feet. The contest lasts till blood has been drawn three times or until a prior fatality--or do I need add that? At any rate, that's all the rules. The State wishes you well, while it frowns on your activity. To your circles, gentlemen, and await my signal."
Thane judged the area marked off for the "contest" to be about ten meters square. It was smoothly surfaced with one of the hard local metals, and Thane noticed a few bloodstains near the edges. Most of them were the dark brown of dried human blood, but there were other alien colors mixed in here and there.
As he walked across the court Thane looked carefully at his opponent, appraising him. They were both about the same height but the Third had several centimeters more reach. Probably around the equivalent of 23 years, absolute time. Certainly at the peak of physical condition. Thane decided on his course. He would try first for his opponent's anti-grav. Probably the other would try to cover his throat and belly, and Thane might be able to get to the anti-grav by surprise. Then, draw the blood that was in the rules, and get the thing over. Not much of a plan, but at least a plan.
There was an inset ring of some cupra-alloy at each end of the duelling court, about a meter in diameter. Thane reached his end, watched his opponent, and waited for Pyuf's signal. Pyuf slowly poured another drink. As he raised it with his right hand, his left arm went up over his head. He swallowed the drink, and the left arm came down.
The Third Officer came on in all-out attack. His anti-grav assisted leap was long and shallow, aimed at Thane's throat. At the same moment Thane bent his knees slightly and dropped. Just before he hit the surface he pushed up and outward with all his strength and twisted his body sharply. With the assistance of the anti-grav he was floating now directly above and behind his opponent. He cut off the anti-grav completely and dropped, with all the planet's gravity. As he did, the Third twisted and raised his knife. He lacked a fraction of a second to complete the turn and get into lethal position. Thane hit him on the shoulder and instantly turned his anti-grav to the "full" position, grabbed his opponent's shoulders, and pushed against the court surface with both heels.
They both went up and over, almost to the fifteen meter limit. As they did, Thane worked his knife into the anti-grav pack on his opponent's back. Three connections, at the top, left, and bottom. His knife cut in and out rapidly, three times. Then he suddenly pushed away, slipped his own anti-grav to zero, and dropped to the surface.
The Third, suddenly without the assistance of his anti-grav, crashed into the fence and dropped leadenly to the metalled surface. Thane crouched a moment watching him. Thane had a cut above one eye, and the blood was beginning to run. He stepped forward....
... the knife in his hand ... what was it there for? He should be on his way to the rotor meet with the rest of the boys ... he was going to win this year ... he was going to win....
The first feeling Thane had when he came out of the Stoltz shock was lightness. He raised his right arm as he came back to consciousness, and he noticed that the effort required was less than he had expected. He opened his eyes, and they gradually came back into focus. He was lying on a cot in a dimly lit room. The light, he saw, came from a small window across the room. With an unfamiliarly light tread, Thane stepped over to the window. The pane was double, transparent metal. It took only one glance at the bleak, wintry landscape outside to explain the feeling of lightness. It could only be the landscape of Onzar II, whose gravity was about 80% that of Kadell IV.
Someone obviously had reason to cart him, unconscious, across a few light years. Apparently, the duel had not been what it seemed. But how? And why? Quite possibly the Third Officer was an agent of Onzarian counter-espionage. If so, what had happened to Astrid? How had Pyuf and the others been taken care of? On the other hand, it was quite possible that Astrid was behind it. He remembered how she seemed to have been talking to the Third just before the challenge. But for what motive? Thane smiled to himself. The speculation was interesting, but a little barren till more data turned up.
It was not long in coming. Thane had begun to explore the room carefully when a door opened. It was Pyuf, armed. "You'll come with me, please." No longer the half drunk duelling attendant, Pyuf was now quite sober and quite serious.
Thane went. There were questions to be answered.
He had somehow expected a long corridor with many doors. Instead, he walked directly into a brightly lighted room, filled with a great deal of equipment. He recognized the latest model lie-detector, a rather outdated narco-synthesizer, a Class B Psychocomputer. Much of the rest was unfamiliar.
There were two Onzarians in the room. Both, in contrast to Pyuf, who was dark and shorter than the average, had typical Onzar features--yellow eyes with a slight slant, and golden skin. Pyuf gestured towards Thane. "Give him the whole routine. We want to know everything you can get. Then let us know."
Thane, of course, had been prepared for this sort of thing. He'd spent time in Medico-Synthesis after every major job to immunize him against interrogation. He'd had three separate, integrated pasts built up, all quite fictional, which could be used during interrogation. He was protected, at a certain level, against physical torture, and he did have a certain protection against most of the drugs.
But the older medic simply asked him to sit down. He did, and his assistant twisted a few dials. Indicators gave readings, quite a few hundred readings. A metal recorder plate dropped out. The assistant dropped this into the computer which began busily to eject tape. The older man read the tape as it ticked out. The computer stopped and he crumpled up the tape and tossed it into a corner. "Injection A17," he said.
Vaguely he heard his name. He sat up, blinked his eyes open and looked around. He was in quite a different room. There were curtains at the windows, a desk, a rug, even a fire. There was a figure in front of him speaking to him. "Roger Thane, we know you now. There is much that we do not know, that has been hidden from even our methods. But we know enough."
Thane was now fully alert. The voice had been soothing, but the shock on seeing the face, when his eyes had come back into focus, was enough to change all his ideas. It was Manning Reine.
Reine was sitting close to him, one elbow casually thrown across the desk. He smiled, and asked if Thane would like coffee or a drink.
"I've had both," Thane said, "and they're not what I need now. Right now all I want is what goes on. My job, which I didn't particularly want, was to nursemaid you. Frankly, it's turned out to be quite a job. After three or four very thorough stoltzings, one space battle, a challenge, and a duel, you have me kidnapped. All right. I've got a reasonably open mind. I'll listen. Now just what in the hell is going on?"
Manning Reine said calmly, "Undoubtedly you have reason for anger, Thane. It is true that we have used you. We have had to. But you should know that there was nothing faked about my abduction. Those who took me were Onzarians, agents of Candar, and they were deadly serious. It was only with the greatest of good fortune that I was able to escape. Only the presence of Pyuf at Aberdeen Spaceport made it possible.
"And another point for your consideration. We did not know your position. Your appearance is Onzarian. We could not be sure that you were what you claimed, an agent of Liaison. And even if we could have been sure, there were considerations that required us to proceed with the greatest caution. Now, I hope you will accept my apologies and listen. There is much that you can do, important for us and for the whole Galaxy."
Thane controlled his anger and nodded assent. At the moment it was his job to listen if he was going to be useful from here on in.
"You already have some knowledge of the second-stage drive," Reine began. "You already know that it frees man for flight through the Galaxy at an average speed ten times greater than that now possible with the present warp-line drive. You are aware of the warp-line type of movement. We cannot leave the warps without reverting to finite drive. As you know, the warps are electro-gravitic lines of force in space, along which interstellar travel has proved possible with certain devices...."
"As you say," Thane broke in, "I know all that. I know too that the second-stage drive allows practically instantaneous travel across the warps. But just what does that have to do with your disappearance, and the attacks that have been made on me?"
"Just this. I am, you know, one of the researchers responsible for the development of the second-stage drive. I am more than that. I am also the present leader of the Onzarian underground."
Manning Reine relaxed in his chair and sipped his coffee. "At the same time I want you to understand that I am completely, wholeheartedly loyal to the Allied Systems. As you know, I was educated at Earth University at a time when that was possible for an Onzarian. I left Onzar for good at the beginning of the Candar revolution, expecting to devote the rest of my life to research within the A.S. But now I am convinced that Candar must be overthrown if our own systems are to survive."
"It's a proposition that will take some explaining," Thane said coldly.
"The basic ideas are simple enough," Reine said, "once you see how they fit together. There is, of course, nothing new about the basic theory of the second-stage drive. Even at the beginning of the ancient atomic era, scientists were groping for the Unified Field. The basic unified field equations were the first step. Then came the charting of the electro-gravitic lines of stress in space, which we know familiarly as warp-lines. That was the foundation for faster-than-light travel, and all that went with it. But of course it was awkward. We could not leave the warp-lines unless we returned to finite speed. We could change direction only at the intersection of warps. Many star-systems were far off the warp-lines, and could be reached only after days or weeks of travel at finite speeds."
"All very true," said Thane, "but it still doesn't explain a thing to me. About your place in this or Candar's."
Reine hardly noticed the interruption. He went on, professorially. "The solution has always seemed clear. In order to travel at will through space, at faster-than-light speeds all we needed to do was to create our own Field with its own warp-line. If a ship could generate its own electro-gravitic warp it would be able to travel in almost unlimited directions with no time lapse except for pauses at each warp-line crossed. The power factors were such that an entirely new principle of operation was needed. We have found it in the so-called gold catalyst principle, and we now have a practical, economical second-stage drive."
Thane frowned. "But that would seem to make Onzar less important. Why do we need to worry about them now?"
Reine was about to answer but the door opened and Pyuf was there. "How goes it, duellist?"
"It was a great fight," Thane said, "until you decided to tear up the rules. You forgot to tell me that you included 'kidnapper' in your list of trades."
Reine smiled. "That's just one of many that Pyuf forgot to mention. Forger, propagandist, and political theorist might also have been added." He turned to Pyuf. "I've about covered the technology. Why don't you give our friend the politics?"
"Sure." Pyuf sat on the desk swinging his short legs. "First, though, I'm sorry about the duel, Thane. We had to do it."
"Reine's already assured me of that once or twice," Thane said drily. "I would like to know, though, just how you did it."
"That's simple enough. For months now we've been using the duelling court on Kadenar as an exchange point in the underground. It's been very helpful because of the ease that duellists have in getting through customs. In your case we were lucky. Or I should say that Astrid was quick and intelligent enough to take advantage of a fortunate situation. A few words from her were enough to instigate the Onzarian officer to challenge you. Remember that Onzarians have a tradition of duelling, and you had insulted him. Furthermore, he was still confused from the stoltz artillery."
"Clear enough. But may I ask why you bothered to let the duel go on at all? Why not just take me when we got to the court?"
"We wanted to explain your disappearance. At the same time that you were unconscious, your opponent and the other junior officer were also out. With a touch of post-hypnotic suggestion, they were both quite convinced that the Third Officer had won the duel and that you were dead. We had no trouble getting your 'corpse' back through customs and to Onzar."
"Probably," Thane said, "you had a purpose for all this. Before we go any further, let's have it."
"If you were an agent of Candar we would have eliminated you," Pyuf said. "You had already learned too much, and you had shown that you were a dangerous man. If you were a Liaison agent, it was still necessary for you to 'die.' At the moment, it's imperative that no word of our activity gets to the Allied Systems. And, if we can convince you, we badly need your help."
"It'll take some convincing from what's happened up to now. But go ahead."
"Ever wonder," Pyuf went on, "why the Darzent Empire hasn't attacked? What are they waiting for? They're aggressive. They have the edge in power, with two inhabited systems to one in the A.S. Their technology matches ours and their heavily centralized dictatorship allows them to move faster, at least at the beginning of a war."
"Two reasons. One, they never could be sure that we didn't have the second-stage drive. Two, they couldn't be sure of the allegiance of Onzar."
"Onzar--the whole five systems--is probably more of an armed camp than any other political entity in the Galaxy. But that isn't the real reason for their overwhelming importance." Pyuf jumped down off the desk and flipped a switch on the far wall. The galactic map appeared, with the warp-lines superimposed in red.
Pyuf pointed with his cigarette. "Take a look at those warps. All nine of the principal ones, crossing the Galaxy between the Allied Systems and the Darzent Empire, pass within a parsec of Onzar. A faster-than-light fleet going either way has to surface at the Onzar Confluence. And Candar, no matter how he sounds to you or me, is no fool. He, you can bet, has taken some long quiet looks at a map like this and he knows his position. So does Darzent. So do the people who are presumably running things in the Allied Systems."
Thane stood up. He had been off at the perimeter of the struggle, working in obscure but possibly important systems for the past three years. He hadn't been in a position to see all the factors in the struggle that was shaping up. But now at a glance he saw that Pyuf was probably right. "It makes sense," he admitted, "but what about the second-stage drive? Isn't that supposed to cut across warp-lines? Wouldn't that reduce to zero the strategic importance of our friend, Candar?"
At this, Manning Reine broke in excitedly, "But that's just the point, Thane! Remember I mentioned there were certain limits to the second-stage drive. We can, to a large extent, manufacture our own lines. But they are never wholly independent of the existing natural lines through space. Our dependence on the galactic lines varies from almost zero to almost unitary, depending on our position in space. The Onzarian Confluence has much the same effect as a whirlpool. Theoretically, we could force our way out of the whirlpool and go through the center of the Galaxy by a different route. But the energy required approaches infinity."
Thane stepped over to the map. He pointed to the Onzarian Confluence. "O.K. There's our bottleneck. But where's the cork? Just how do you figure on stopping a fleet if it does surface at the Onzarian Confluence for two or three microseconds?"
Pyuf slapped the butt of his cigarette across the tray on Reine's desk. "There, Agent Thane, we reach the point of the whole show. But let's get the story straight from the source." His eyes went to Reine.
Reine, pouring his second cup of coffee, looked up. "If you mean me, that's not very accurate. It's true that it was developed in my laboratory but Astrid was the one who saw the hint, originally, and did all the development. I'm not even familiar with all the details." He smiled apologetically to Thane. "We're talking about the Tracer. As a by-product of our main job we discovered a new way of plotting warp-lines. Instead of doing it by mathematics we found a way of plotting warps directly by instrument. Well, I was on the main line of research, and I had three times as much as I could do already. I just regarded this as a curiosity. But Astrid took it and built the Tracer."
Pyuf interrupted. He was not the man, Thane saw, who could abide technical explanations when they had a clear political implication. "The Tracer," he said, "is the cork for your bottleneck. With the tracer, we know when any ship is operating on second-stage drive. With two tracers, separated on a baseline of a few million kilometers, we can plot position closely. Three tracers will pin-point them, and for a trip across the center of the Galaxy, we will know when and where they'll have to surface."
"That fits all right," Thane said, "but why tie in Onzar? Why not let the Allied Systems have the tracer?"
Pyuf shrugged impatiently. "Gentlemen, from here on, we need a drink. The explanation is simple, limpid, computable logic. As far as we can see, it's the only course." He stared pointedly at Thane. "But it also could be construed as treason. So we'd better have a drink." He stepped to the door. "Astrid, will you bring glasses and the bottle? We've got a bit of dialectics to dispense with."
After Astrid had handed the drinks around, Pyuf downed his. Then he went on. "First of all, Thane, don't get me wrong. Maybe I couldn't pass a security check with some of the boys in the Department of the Outside. Maybe I could, I don't know. I've never tried. But I like the Allied Systems as well as anything the Galaxy has to offer and I want to live there. But let's take a hard look at them." He stopped to pour another glass. "Within the A.S. you have the main federation, and you have a lot of loosely confederated systems. Space only knows what the confederations will do. We can only hope. But look at the rest of them. Every couple of years, absolute, they rear back and elect an assembly of 13,000 members, a really efficient size for a deliberative body. So that sterling group elects a senate of 300 or so, and then goes home. But it reserves a lot of rights, like declaring war. And the senate, of course, goes ahead and elects the council. Which does its best to keep things going."
"I know the system," Thane broke in. "Just what do you want to do about it?"
"I don't want to do anything about it," Pyuf looked up earnestly. "I want to prevent it from being wiped out. And right now the only way that can be done is to work outside it, rather than through it. Or do you want to hold a systems election when the Darzent fleet surfaces at Onzar Confluence?"
Manning Reine was on his feet now. "And they will, Thane, they will. We know there have been security leaks in the development of the drive. It's just a question of time."
Thane calmly reached over and took the bottle from Pyuf. He filled his glass and looked at the bottle, then at Pyuf, Astrid, and Reine. "All right. We have our bottleneck. And we have our cork--the Onzarian fleet. Just how do you propose we shove the cork into the bottle?"
Astrid was the first to answer. "We'll take the fleet! The Onzarians are ready for freedom!" After that they were all talking. The underground had convinced the people of the truth. They were ready to rise up and throw off the yoke of Candar. There was conflict between the government and the religion. The people would not stand any further reduction in their living standards. Two-thirds of the gross product went for armaments now, and the amount was steadily increasing.
At last Thane banged the desk until they had all stopped talking. He looked at them a moment in silence. "All right. You've got your gadgets. You've got your political theory. You've even got your strategy. But there hasn't been an atom's worth of tactics in anything you've said, any of you. I think you're badly in need of some engineering for your revolution."
Astrid walked over and looked up into his eyes. "That's about the way it is, Roger. And that's why we need you so badly."
That was when they began going into details. Strength of the underground, possible allies, weaknesses of Candar.... Thane was beginning to see the picture, and the tremendous obstacles to be overcome, when a buzzer sounded and a red light over the door blinked DANGER ... DANGER ... DANGER....
Pyuf ran over to a cabinet on the wall by the fire. Thane saw there were several dials and a visiscreen. As Pyuf twisted the dials he spoke rapidly over his shoulder to Thane. "We're quite isolated here. The house belongs to the old boy you met in the lab. He's been checked for security by Candar so we figured we were safe here. There's a detection screen about a kilometer hour from the house, and we have a force screen we can use as a last resort. Of course, we'd have to abandon this place once we did use it. Candar's detectors would pick it up right away."
The visiscreen came into focus and Pyuf turned the perimeter dial till it lined up with the degree mark on the disturbance indicator. Nine figures appeared, advancing toward the house. Three were short and squat--not over a meter and a half in height. They walked with the peculiar slouch of the Darzent entity in its humanoid phase. The other six were the Darzent robot infantry. Two and a half meters high, impervious to any hand weapon, with built-in blasters and the Darzent version of the Stoltz gun. Their ship was in the background. It had the outlines of an ordinary atmosphere jet of medium size, but there were alterations which made Thane suspect that it had been refitted for deep space, with at least the finite drive, and probably FTL.
Thane spun around to the others. "We either put up the force screen or get out now," he said. "Unless, that is, there's some heavy artillery around the house. Nothing else will stop a Darzent Robot. And even the screen probably won't last long. That ship looks as though it has enough high powered stuff to breach any screen we can put up."
Astrid looked up at him. "We do have the jet, Roger. It's armed, but it will take time to get it ready for take-off."
"Let's get the force screen up now, then."
Pyuf snapped switches. The whine of power at emergency levels began. The Darzent force had screen detectors, because they stopped at once and turned back to their ship. Short, sharp rocket blasts shot out from the bow tubes of the ship, as it turned on its axis to attack the force screen.
"Let's get going," Thane said.
"We all can't go," Pyuf pointed out. "Our jet is only two-place, and anyway, someone will have to cut off the screen to let the jet out."
"You and I can do it," Astrid said to Thane. "I can handle the engines and the defensive screens while you fly it and man the gun."
Thane considered quickly. If they succeeded in knocking out the Darzent forces they'd be able to get the others out without difficulty. If not, it would be wise to separate Astrid and her father. With one of them, the plan that was shaping up might succeed, but if both were lost there'd be no chance.
"All right," Thane said. "Let's go."
Just then the first attack on the screen came. There was vibration through the room and the needles of the indicators all jumped up over the red lines. The whine of power momentarily became a shriek and then died down.
"That was close," Thane said. "The sooner we stop them the better." He turned to Pyuf. "Drop the screen for two seconds when I signal, to let us out."