The bitterly cold wind cut into Astrid and Thane as they hurried outside. Astrid was ahead, leaning against the wind, running towards the outbuilding which housed the jet. They were in full view of the Darzent attackers who renewed their thrust at the screen when they saw the running figures.
"We won't take time to ease it out," Thane shouted above the wind. "Full power at the start. It'll knock over this shack but that's a small loss at the moment."
Thane climbed into the nose position of the little jet while Astrid slid in behind him. They ran a fast check while the engines warmed. Thane waited for the next attack on the force screen. It came and he gave a short sharp blast to signal their readiness. They had two seconds leeway before the screen went up again. The ship was not fully warmed. Thane flicked on all the rockets and gave the jet full throttle.
There was the barest hesitation, and then they were forced back in their seats, with 5G acceleration. The outbuilding flamed and collapsed behind them. As Thane went into semi-consciousness he pulled back on the control wheel to clear the hill ahead. The corners of his mouth pulled down, his eyeballs felt as if they were being forced down into his cheekbones. His vision became a red blur, then grey....
He came out and looked down. The house and the Darzent ship were tiny blurs in the storm, three kilometers below. He looked back at Astrid. "Make it all right?" he asked anxiously.
Her face was white and strained but she managed a smile. "Still with you, skipper. Let's get back down."
"Here we go. Hang on and hope. Keep the screens up till I nod. Then drop them fast." Thane put the jet into a steep dive, lining up the Darzent ship in the sights of the Baring gun. He was ready to fire when there was a tremendous jolt and a flash of light. The little jet was thrown over on its back and Thane fought the controls to steady it.
He went into a climbing turn and saw, above and behind him, the long black shape of an Onzarian atmosphere cruiser. "The protector screens are dead," Astrid cried in alarm. "Whatever that was that hit us burned them out!"
"That was a disrupter." He pointed at the Onzarian cruiser. "Our visitor is playing for keeps." His knuckles went white as he pulled back on the wheel into another long climb with emergency power. Another disrupter burst behind them barely missed.
"They've got everything on us," he said. "Speed, firepower and range. Except maneuverability." He turned to Astrid. "Just how far out is the force screen from the house?"
"Four hundred meters."
"Let's see if we can judge it," he said grimly. "It's going to be close." He put the jet into a tight turn and slipped off into a steep, screaming dive. There was another disrupter burst and a sudden flutter of the controls. He fought them to maintain the dive, straight for the house and its invisible bubble of force. The flutter became worse as their speed increased, and vibration racked the whole ship. He judged the distance by the range-finder on the Baring. At the last moment he pulled out and up. The ship skidded down sickeningly, and then caught. Thane fought bitterly to keep conscious.
They heard the explosion above the sound of the wind shrieking past them. Thane looked down and back. It had worked! The Onzar ship had followed them down, but it had not allowed for the invisible force screen. It had hit the screen, caromed off into a wild, twisting skid, and hit the ground, completely wrecked.
But Thane had time only for a glance. The vibration was getting worse. One more strain and the little jet would be torn to pieces.
He eased out of the climb and tried to put the jet into a long flat glide. It kept slipping off to the right, and the glide increased in steepness. The ground came up and he managed to pull back into a partial stall. At the last instant the jet dipped to the right and hit. It spun crazily on the ground, straightened, skidded and then buried itself in a drift of snow.
He was still numb with shock when he heard Astrid's voice. "What happened, Roger? Why did they attack us?"
"They must have been sent as soon as our force screen was detected. Let's get back."
They climbed out into the biting wind and started towards the house in the distance. The red sun of Onzar was setting and the cold deepened and chilled bitterly as they hurried on.
It was almost dark when they reached the house. In the lengthening shadows there was no sign of the Darzent ship. They hurried on in growing fear. The front of the house showed the signs of the blast that had knocked out the force screen. Inside the house was dark. All power had been burned out when the screen went. They went in through the smashed, tilted doorway. In the gloom they saw the old medic first. He was slumped in a chair against one wall. His neck was twisted and his head slanted back. His chest was a gaping hole, with the blood already frozen. His assistant lay beside the dead fire, headless. What had been Pyuf was at the instrument cabinet, one hand still on the fused panel. Manning Reine was not there.
There was a tremble of panic in Astrid's voice. "Roger, they killed them ... and ... where is Dad?"
"They killed them deliberately with hand weapons after they knocked down the screen. And they have your father now. That was their purpose."
"What will they do to him? Where have they taken him? Roger, we've got to find him!"
Roger Thane turned to her in the shambles of the wrecked room. The quaver in her voice indicated that she couldn't take much more. He took her arm and led her down the corridor to the laboratory. "We're going to fight back, Astrid, and we're going to win. Right now there's not much we can do for your father. But don't worry about him. He's safe. He's much too valuable to be mistreated by the Darzent Empire. But they will get everything they need from him with their interrogatory drugs."
In the laboratory nothing had been touched. Once the Darzent force had Reine they must have left at once. Astrid's shoulders were shaking as Thane led her to a chair. "We've got a lot to plan and a lot to do. It won't be easy and we'll be fighting all the way. But we'll win if we're steady."
Thane could see the effort Astrid was making. "I'm ... I'm ready, Roger. Where do we start?"
"We'll start with what we have, the underground. And Astrid, the really important jobs may be up to you because I'm going to be out of circulation for a while." Astrid looked up with a question on her lips but he went on before she could voice it. "Pyuf mentioned that we have some support among the Onzarian priestesshood. Just what do we have?"
"There's been general dissatisfaction with Candar all through the religion," she said. Her voice was low, carefully controlled, with an undercurrent of stress. "The whole priestesshood feels that Candar is their enemy. They feel that Candar's eventual aim is to destroy every organization not under his direct control. Of course, the church also has a long tradition of remaining aloof from the temporal government. And outwardly, Candar has so far usually respected the church."
She looked up at Thane. "That's the general picture. Actual proved sympathizers with the underground are scarce, but we do have some important ones. Probably the most important is the Priestess of Keltar, Selan. As she's the head of the church in Keltar, the capitol city, she's at least nominally the head of the whole organization, though it does have a good deal of autonomy. But her word carries enormous weight."
"What's she like?"
"She's old. Very old and very determined. She's always been on the liberal wing of the church. Willing to recognize the changes that have taken place, and to modify the church so that it will maintain its place in the system. She recognizes Candar for what he is but is willing to try to get along with him till someone can show her an alternative with a chance of success. At least, that's how she seemed to me when I met her."
"Do you think," Thane asked, "that she would be ready to help now if it meant the overthrow of Candar?"
Astrid was silent for a long time. Finally she nodded. "I think so. I don't know but I think she would."
Thane glanced at his watch. It might do. And they just might have time for what had to be done. "It's the best chance we have, and it may work. But now we've got things to do. We can use some of the equipment here, and the batteries will give us enough power."
Thane rapidly explained that he was going back into his own identity, and that some of the equipment present would help accelerate the change-over. He tried to give Astrid the general picture as they made the circuit changes on the equipment.
"Astrid, you are going to turn me in. You are going to surrender me to the Onzarians when they get here."
Astrid stopped. She had been re-fusing a circuit, and the fuse hung limply in her hand, forgotten.
Thane went on. "I'll explain while we finish the circuit. We haven't much time. You remember how we talked of driving the cork into the bottle? Well, that's what we're going to do. The Onzarians will be here before long when they've discovered their cruiser is missing. You will pass as an Onzarian. As an acolyte of the religion, you'll turn me over to them as a spy."
They had finished the identity accelerator circuit. Thane wasn't sure the rough equipment would do, but it might be close enough. He'd try it. He climbed on to the laboratory table and showed Astrid how to make the connections.
"I'm using all the power we have," he said. "I'll be out about 13 minutes, absolute. If they get here before then do everything you can to keep them out till the time's up."
Astrid looked down at him lying on the table. She was very serious, very quiet. She brushed her lips lightly against his forehead and said softly, "We'll manage."
She was gone and Thane heard the hum of power.
It went on and on, in the easy world of change. And then the power was gone. Thane struggled to open his eyes, minutes, years before he should. He looked up into the cold, unfriendly eyes of an Onzarian lieutenant.
Astrid appeared beside the lieutenant. She talked rapidly in Onzarian. Her manner was imperious, "He's the one. He did it all. He attacked us here, and after he had killed the others he admitted to me that he was a spy for the A. S. He would have killed me, too, if you hadn't come, lieutenant."
The lieutenant said harshly, "He won't trouble anyone now. Candar, himself will deal with him."
Thane was pulled to his feet by two crew members. Each grasped one of his arms, and they took him out of the house to the waiting Onzar cruiser. Inside the ship one of them opened a reinforced door and shoved him into a tiny cell.
Thane had been in jails before on other systems. Their politics varied but their jails were about the same. He didn't like it, but he did know what to expect. There was the take-off, and the trip to the sector patrol station. The lieutenant told his story and they questioned him, in a cursory, routine way. He was an important political prisoner and there were experts to take care of the questioning later on. Then there was another ship, and they flew through the long, bitterly cold night to the capitol city, Keltar. More guards, more questions on arrival. The receiving station. And finally the trip through the ancient streets of Keltar to the palace prison.
The cell there was just as small, just as dark, just as dirty as the others. But at least he was in a cell by himself. He was alone, and would have time to think through his plan.
Time went by. Thane, without light, without sound, did not know how long. But long enough. Long enough for the Darzent Empire to learn about the second-stage drive, from a drugged Manning Reine. Long enough to begin to equip their fleet with the drive. Could one man stop their attack? Thane wondered, and planned, and waited impatiently.
No prison sounds. No noise of any kind. Until suddenly the duralite door opened. "Let's go," the gruff Onzarian voice said.
Outside the cell door Thane's eyes gradually focused in the light. The guard was one he hadn't seen when they'd brought him in. Apparently he'd been in the cell through at least one watch, possibly longer. They walked down the long row of doors to the registry room.
The room was bare except for a bench along one wall, a chair and a small table. A non-com sat behind the table. He began to ask the usual questions. Thane answered in a flat, dull voice, and the non-com filled out a form, scribbling on a line or checking a box as each question was answered. Finally he shoved the form aside and looked up at Thane for the first time. "Oh, an Alien, eh? That should be interesting for you." He jerked a thumb at the bench. "Sit there till you're called." Thane went over to the bench. He saw that the non-com had lit a cigarette and was staring into endless boredom.
For long, empty minutes nothing happened. Then there was noise at the outer doors. The doors opened and two burly guards entered. Astrid Reine was between them.
They dragged her up to the desk. "They told us to bring her here."
The non-com looked up. "What's the purpose?" That, Thane was sure, was the correct translation of the Onzarian. Not 'charge,' not 'offense,' but 'purpose.' It was a one-word explanation of Candar's whole system of justice.
"... and she claimed to be an acolyte of the church," the bigger guard was saying. "Gave the name of a registered acolyte and everything. And funny thing, the Priestess of Keltar vouched for her. Had to let her go. But then we found out that the acolyte she was supposed to be was across the continent, in Akra. We picked her up just as she was leaving the cathedral." At the end of his long speech, the guard sucked in his breath and blew it out, hoarsely.
The non-com merely sighed, picked up his pad of forms, and began his questions. Astrid answered most of the questions in a monotone. She gave no sign that she had seen or recognized Thane. He noticed that on a few of her questions, her voice went up. He saw why.
The non-com had finished the body of his form and was filling in the "remarks." His stylus poised, he asked, "Why did you go to the priestess?"
Astrid's voice went up as she answered, "She's all right." Then her voice went back to a dull monotone. "I--I was confused. After I'd told them I was in the church I thought she would help me. But she couldn't."
"What were you trying to do?"
"I've done everything," she said in that slightly altered tone. "I don't know what I was going to do. I've been so confused." She bent her head and began to sob.
"Take her away," the non-com said. The two guards led her into the cell block. As they left, the intercom buzzed beside the non-com. He answered and gestured to Thane. "Time for you, Mister. Stand up and wait."
Two officers of the guard entered. The gold on the uniform of one indicated that he was at least a commander. They took him between them, without a word, and went out.
The wind tore at them as they walked across the palace court. Each sentry snapped to attention as they passed. Inside, they were inspected formally by a guard and more efficiently by a battery of detectors. They hurried on. After halls, corridors, steps, grav-wells, and more guards, they reached the door. One final check and they were through.
Glistered--that was the word--the whole room glistered. Gold inset in the wall panels. Golden arms on the chairs. Gold plating on the ceiling. A gold shagell, wings outstretched, at one corner of Candar's enormous desk. And Candar, in a perfectly plain uniform, staring up at him from behind the desk. His own expensive way, Thane considered, for showing his contempt for the gold fetish of the church.
Candar looked up at him steadily for a moment without speaking. Then: "I always greet the emissaries from the Allied Systems personally. They always have so much of interest to tell us in one way or another sooner or later."
Thane stared back and said, "You are right. I have information that will save Onzar if I give it to you. Perhaps, using your methods, you could get it eventually. Perhaps not. But eventually is too late, Candar."
Candar picked up a small gold knife. "Go on," he said, "but do not bluff. I do not like bluffs."
"There is no question of bluffing," Thane said impatiently. "But there are other matters that must be settled before I will go on."
"Just what would you have us settle, spy?" Candar asked sardonically.
"First, the matter of my own immunity. I'm being hunted throughout the Galaxy. The Allied Systems are searching for me. Darzent agents have attacked me twice. I have disregarded orders and I'm about to commit treason if I'm assured of safety."
Candar put down the knife and leaned forward. His voice showed his reluctant interest as well as his habitual suspicion. "Tell me why, spy. Why should I assure your safety?"
Thane said scornfully, "I didn't say that you should assure it. I said I wanted it assured. And it will be. If it isn't, you'll be wiped out, and what's left of the Onzar system will be in slavery."
"You may think, Systems Spy, that you know the kind of death you will die if this is a trick," Candar said slowly and coldly. "But you do not. There are specialists here, experts whose life work is the gradual dispatching of men who try to trick Candar." He paused for a moment. "If you can prove what you say, I, Candar, will personally guarantee your safety and immunity."
Thane snorted. "You'll get your proof, but not on your personal guarantee. You'll transfer me to the custody of the church on the condition that I'll be turned back to you if I can't prove everything I say."
Candar pushed himself to his feet. Thane could see the veins throbbing in his forehead. "That's enough!" The harsh voice mounted to a roar. "You have insulted Onzar and its ruler." He turned to his officers. "Take him out. We'll see what he knows, and how much he can stand before his death."
The room they entered was a spotlessly clean room, an antiseptic room. Thane wondered how often the blood was scrubbed from the floor as he recognized the instruments.
They pushed him into a chair and strapped him down. "Now let's see what he'll take," Candar said. The commander himself applied the fittings and turned on the switches. Then the pain came. In long shivering waves. No body pain. Just pure pain, applied directly to the synapses of his brain. It was unbearable--and then it got worse. It went up and up. Through a dim red haze, Thane saw Candar shove the dial up still another notch. Then he blanked out.
As he came back he looked up at them. Stinging drops of sweat blurred his vision but he managed to smile. "Now try your psychograph. Just try it. Here's what you'll read: conditioned against physical torture. Brain waves lack stable pattern. History inconsistent. Standard drug susceptibility predicted negative. Then decide, friends, if I'm bluffing."
Candar growled, "Do as he says."
The test was run. They looked at the results. All three of them walked over to the corner of the room behind him. With his head strapped he could not see them. He heard their conversation in undertones. He broke in. "There's your choice, Candar. Kill me or turn me over to the church. And if you're afraid to know what's coming, if you're afraid to know how you're going to die, you'd better kill me now."
There was a long silence. Then Candar: "Unstrap him." Candar walked up and stood before him as the straps were taken off. "You'll curse yourself for postponing the end, if this is a trick. The transfer papers will be prepared now." He gestured to the commander. "Bring him back to my chambers, and call the emissary of the church." The door slammed jarringly behind him as he strode out.
When the conditions were made out, signed and countersigned and sealed, and a copy transmitted to the Cathedral of Keltar, and when the young emissary in cloth-of-gold had signed the receipt for him, Thane began. "At this moment," he started, "the Darzent Empire is preparing an attack. They have a space-drive, stolen from the Allied Systems, which allows almost instantaneous travel through the Galaxy. You will learn of this drive, and you will learn something that Darzent does not know. You will learn how to locate any ship using this drive at any time the drive is in operation."
That was enough to stimulate Candar's driving, paranoid megalomania to the full. Thane had already threatened him with destruction. Now he held out to him the opportunity to be master of the Galaxy. Thane felt it would be simple now to obtain the transfer of Astrid to the custody of the church. He thought so, but there was another hour of argument before he had overcome Candar's suspicions and convinced him of the absolute necessity of having Astrid to supervise the building of the Tracer and the Drive.
At last it was settled. Then Thane committed his treason. He told all he knew, about the second-stage drive and the tracer, and when Astrid came in, she finished the job. Between them they gave away the most important secrets of the Galaxy to an enemy, a man of endless, pathologic ambition.
Candar, of course, wanted confirmation. It was fast in coming. With all the technical resources of Onzar at her disposal, Astrid had a prototype of the tracer in operation the following day. An hour later the existence of a ship using the catalyst drive was reported by the tracer. Its position could not be determined until a base line had been established. The following day, three more tracers were set up at widely separated points across the planet. More movement of ships was reported--and they were definitely placed within the Darzent Empire. One more day passed, and more tracers had been set up on Onzar III, across the sun from the capitol planet.
At the same time, Candar pushed work on the second-stage drive with all possible speed. As Thane had guessed, the use of gold in the catalyst principle gave Candar pause, but only momentarily. It was true that such a use of gold violated one of the oldest and strongest taboos in the religion but Candar's hunger for power was stronger than his fear of revolt. As Thane had supposed, Candar went ahead with the development of the drive, thinking that when he had it his power would enable him to ignore the church. The church was powerful on just this system. With the drive, Candar would rule the Galaxy.
Candar had taken certain precautions. Almost complete radio silence had been clamped down, partially to prevent any information getting out, and partially to provide enough power for the tracer. No ships of any registry could enter or leave the system. Only his personal adherents of unquestioned loyalty were allowed to work on the assembly of the drive. But there were leaks. And there was Thane....
With one legal pretext after another, Candar had succeeded in keeping Thane in isolation within the palace for three days. Finally, he gave in to the demand of the church that Thane be turned over to the Cathedral. He did not want Thane loose but still he could not afford a break with the church just a few days before his great victory.
So Thane at last managed to see Selan in her personal chambers in the Keltar Cathedral. It was a small, comfortable room that did not seem to share the bleakness of most of Onzar. Perhaps, as much as anything, that was due to the personality of the Priestess Selan. She was very old. She had remained slim, and her lined face retained much of its original golden color. Her yellow eyes were alert. The only term Thane could think of for their expression was cynical compassion. She sat by a small writing table in one of the traditional, intricately carved chairs of Onzar.
"The developments of the past few days, Priestess Selan, are of extreme importance to Onzar and the church. The tracer device has already confirmed our belief that Darzent is preparing to attack. Already their trial maneuvers with the second-stage drive have ceased, and they have begun the marshalling of their fleet. When they come, they must come through the Onzar Confluence, not more than a parsec from this system. This attack must be stopped, and we hope that time enough is left."
"I am aware of these developments, Roger Thane," she said with a slight smile. "We still have our sources of information."
"Perhaps," Thane said, "you are also aware of the industrial use of gold in the second-stage drive?"
"We have heard rumors," she said wearily, "but perhaps my position on such matters is not clear to you. I have never been a religious doctrinaire. I have lived through tremendous changes on this planet, and I know that the church must conform to survive. You certainly must know that from the history of religions in your own system. The church is conservative, yes. It can never move with the skeptical flexibility of the politician or the scientist. But it must change with them, sometimes leading, sometimes following. Otherwise it becomes a thing of quaintness, a building without an institution, a place for tourists."
Thane regarded her thoughtfully for a moment. Even this brilliant, experienced woman would be ensnared by her own long-range theories into a disastrous inaction in the short-run crisis. And there would be no long-range for her or her church unless there were victory in the present crisis. He said, "I agree with you completely. Like any organism, social or biological, the church must adapt to continue. It must survive. And the present situation is not merely one in which an ancient taboo is violated. It is a crisis of survival for you."