"I know," she said thoughtfully, "that Candar has never been friendly to the church. But I do not believe that he has the power to destroy it."
"Up to now," Thane answered, "Candar has been limited. Now, with the drive, he feels that unlimited power is his. His dream is to crush the power of Darzent in this attack, and then to turn upon the Allied Systems. I do not know if his dream of complete domination of the Galaxy can be realized. I do not think so. But it is something he will not put away. And when he makes the attempt, it will mean the destruction of millions, the killing of whole planets, the ending of all life of whole systems.
"There is no need to keep the useless old taboos that no longer fit into the present world. But they should be ended by the church itself, in its own time and its own way, not abrogated by a contemptuous politician."
She looked half-convinced, and he pressed his point at once. "The power of the whole planetary communications system is now being used by Astrid Reine for the tracer system now being built. With a word from you the whole radio system will be at your disposal for as long as we can keep it open. You can at last tell the people of Onzar the truth, which they have not heard for so long."
Selan stared at the floor for a long time. Finally she looked up. "I don't know. I just don't know." She paused again, and it was a long, agonizing pause for Thane. "The decision is too large for me now. It is a seizure of authority that goes against my whole nature." She looked directly at Thane. "But, be assured, you will have my word in time. You and I will witness this battle of the confluence, and then you will know my decision."
Thane's mind was full of reasons why the old priestess should not travel out into space, with all the stresses of that travel, to a position of great danger. But he met her determined eyes and saw at once that all arguments would be futile.
He got up to leave, and with the sincerest of respect, lied to her. "Your decision will be mine, Priestess Selan."
The ship used by Selan in her trips through the system was little larger than the usual scout class but it had been completely refitted for her purposes. She'd had a special acceleration couch built in to allow her to survive the stress of space travel. And Thane noted that the large visiscreen would be ideal for watching the battle. And the communications system was larger than usual. It might do for his purpose.
They stayed well back from the restricted area where the whole Onzarian fleet was orbited. On the screen images appeared--twenty-three Class I cruisers, each with its own fleet of cruiser escorts, scouts, disrupter carriers, tenders and screen amplifiers. Swarms of independent tactical squadrons. Controlling all of them, ready to put them into instant action, was the battle-control cruiser, with its tracers, its receivers, its computers, its nearly automatic message center--and Candar and his staff.
Thane turned to the tracer that had been installed. Selan was by his side. He switched on its galactic screen. The Darzent marshalling was now almost complete. A few flashes of light still crossed the screen, crossing countless light years at each jump, pausing, and then a vault through more light years. As Thane and Selan watched, the flashes changed direction. The marshalling was complete, and the assembled might of Darzent was on its way. Thane found it hard to believe that even the fleet waiting before him could cope with all the force of Darzent.
The Darzent fleets had started from points spanning the whole Galaxy. With each flash of lights they converged, arrowing toward the Onzarian Confluence. Thane could imagine the watchers at similar screens in each ship of the battle fleet. Eyes becoming, grimmer, nervous smiles appearing and disappearing on faces, hands clenching on instruments. And the waiting.
The flashing lights approached closer. The lead group of lights appeared, ten light years from the tiny orange circle marking the confluence. There was a pause--somewhat less than a second--and the lights appeared on the circle. Thane spun around to the visiscreen. The lead battle squadron of the Darzent Fleet had appeared there simultaneously, surfaced in space. Seven of the battle cruisers fired as one, and were joined by all the firepower of their escort ships.
The disrupter blasts, joining together, created a blinding sun in empty space. It was there. It was gone. And then just dead, empty space again, but without the slightest hint that the lead squadron of the mighty Darzent Fleet had ever been there. Thane quickly looked over at the galactic map to see if they could have managed to get back into warp-line drive. No, there were no lights below the circle of the confluence. But another light was approaching from above, still ten light years away. Thane turned back to the visiscreen just as the second division of Onzar's fleet opened fire on the surfacing Darzent forces. Again utter annihilation.
The battle continued, with more surfacing squadrons, more eruption, disappearing suns. Thane turned away, losing interest in the well-planned slaughter. Here, a parsec away from the Onzar system, they were well outside the intersystems communication jam. Selan's horrified attention was still completely on the battle. Thane stepped back into the communications section of the scout and flicked the powerful space set into life. Static from the now almost constant disrupter blasts ripped and crackled across the hum of the set. There was just a chance, he considered, that he could get the relay station at Kadenar.
He worked rapidly, setting the frequency, the directional beam, the gain control. It was only a question of time before the detector would pick up the clear beam on the Onzar fleet, even in the midst of battle. At last it came through.
Across space, the automatic code responder finally could be heard. Thane gave his own code and said, "A direct to Garth. Top urgent."
"That code has been changed," the mechanical voice replied at once. "Give current code."
"But I've been out of touch," Thane said, "and this must go through."
"That code has been changed," came the same, unvarying reply. "Give current code."
It was no use. With the mechanical monitor working he'd never get through. And of course they would have changed his code, after his disappearance and reported death. He began to talk rapidly giving his instructions. He couldn't get through to Garth, but there was the chance that someone would see the recording in time to act. Damn the mechanical efficiency of Liaison!
Now Selan was all he had to depend on. He started back to the forward compartment hoping that Selan had at last made her decision. The battle was still going on and lights were still flashing down the galactic screen to sudden, unwitting death. The bulk of the Darzent fleet had been destroyed and Thane saw that Candar had changed his tactics. Now, instead of disrupters, he was using concentrated, high-power Stoltz artillery.
After destroying the mass of their power, Candar was going to bring in the staff ships, with the fleet admirals as captives. It would immobilize whatever power Darzent had in reserve while Candar turned on the Allied Systems. Already, confused and blinded Darzent ships were drifting in space, with Onzar wrecker tugs swarming in on them.
Thane turned to the old priestess Selan. "Don't you see the crisis that is shaping? Don't you see what Candar intends? When this is done and he has re-powered, he'll turn on the Allied Systems. They'll fight back of course, but the war will make a shambles of the whole Galaxy. Don't you see?"
She turned slowly and looked at him. Her eyes seemed older, much more tired than they had before. "I have seen it, Roger Thane, and this cannot be repeated. It will not happen again. It is against all my training and belief and the tenets of the faith, but I, as Priestess of Keltar, will take it on myself to attack the temporal power."
Thane felt the sweat on his hands, and his smile was stiff though it was certainly heartfelt. So much depended on this woman's decision and on her performance from now on. Without the aid of Liaison to depend on it was up to this woman to prevent galactic war.
They started back for Onzar II and Keltar at once. They would have a good start on Candar while he was engaged in mopping up the Darzent fleet. Thane felt sure that Candar would stay to confront the high-ranking captives and to gloat over them. On the other hand Candar would not delay too long. He would be back to announce his victory and to prepare for the attack on the Allied Systems.
At the landing port outside Keltar, Selan's automatic anti-grav was waiting. It took them up over the outskirts of the bleak wintry city and towards its center. As they reached the solidly built-up area Thane could see the dim outlines of the old city wall beneath them. Not so many years ago, as time went in the Galaxy, that wall had been a vital protection against the spears of the hill men. And now Onzarians were in space, blasting away the power of a third of the Galaxy. But still, the descendents of the hill men, the descendents of the plains dweller, the city builders, were living here, underneath him.
In the midst of their technological revolution they were still living in their ancient superstitions. Still the old awe of the Word of the matriarchal, matrilineal church. Still the compulsion to have their little gold symbols of rank sanctified and made real. Still the.... Thane paused in his thoughts as he saw flames leaping into the night sky from a blast furnace, producing some of the finest alloys in the Galaxy. It was still the same, he hoped.
In another moment they were over the towering white shaft of the communications center. Then they slowly let down. Thane thought that Candar's constant suspicion, his unending compulsion for infinite control, direct control, was playing into their hands here. The communications center was exactly that. It controlled all electronic communications with the capitol system, and could easily tie in with subject systems. But how much time did they have? Thane didn't know. With luck, they'd have a few vital moments for the voice of the Holy Church to go out over the planets.
The anti-grav settled gently on the upper terrace. Thane helped Selan out into the stinging cold of the Onzar night. Just inside the gloomy passage to the grav-well a harsh voice sounded. "Halt!"
They stopped. Thane made out a uniformed man, his hand on his holster.
"We have come at the call of Astrid Reine," Thane said. "She wishes our assistance."
"All who come for the thirteenth level must have the code word. Give it and you will pass."
Thane's right arm went up and the side of his stiff hand flashed down, hitting the sentry between his neck and shoulder. The man's pistol was almost aimed at Thane when Thane hit. The guard relaxed and gently fell into an inert heap on the deck. Thane bent and took the blaster from the guard's inert fingers. He looked a moment and found a Stoltz. He took that, too. He straightened up and turned to Selan. "Sorry," he said. "We can't risk an examination now, and there's no time to lose. He'll be all right." Thane picked up a hand-control from the ledge in the sentry's cubicle and led Selan to the well.
They dropped gently, interminably. At last they reached "13." From the distance they had dropped, Thane judged they were far underground if this grav-well was timed as most were. He held Selan's arm and stopped their descent with his hand control.
They stepped out into a darkened corridor. A sentry was waiting. There was no 'halt!' this time. Without a signal from the roof they were automatically enemies. The blast echoed along the corridor. In the dim light the sentry's aim had not been good but Thane felt the first sting in his right arm. He aimed and fired the blaster with his left hand, and thus solved the problem of the sentry. They went down the corridor.
Thane pushed open the first lighted door with his foot, his right arm hanging useless. The blaster was ready in his left. Astrid looked up, sitting at a table. She ran to him.
"Roger, you did make it. You can't know how hard this waiting has been. I was sure you would make it but I've gone through days without hearing a thing."
He held her clumsily with his left arm, the hand still gripping the blaster, and winced when she pressed against his right shoulder. "We've made it so far, Astrid," he said, "but the biggest job is still ahead. How long can we keep the channels open for a newscast?"
Astrid stepped back, puzzled. "As far as the power goes, indefinitely, I believe. Of course there haven't been any newscasts since I've been here. All the power has been used for the Tracer. But it's easy enough to switch over. And all the other planet stations and systems stations are primarily just amplifiers and transmitters for this one."
"If the broadcasts haven't been on the air, what about the receivers? Will anyone be listening if we put a speech on?"
Astrid smiled. "We can take care of that. Candar installed a system for use on his own speeches. Each receiver automatically goes on when he is speaking."
"That's it, then," Thane said. "Switch all the power from the Tracer to the newscast beam. Put the Priestess on the circuit and I'll try to keep it open." He turned to Selan. "How long will you need?"
"Ten minutes will be enough," she said with determination.
"Let's make it fifteen to be sure," Thane said. "I'll be on the roof doing what I can to hold off whoever shows up. Meet me there in fifteen minutes if everything is all right, or come at once if anything at all goes wrong."
Astrid noticed that he had been hurt. "Your arm, Roger! What happened? Can I do anything for it?" The deeply concerned look in her eyes made him feel that he was a little more to her than just a part of an underground conspiracy.
"The arm's all right," he said. "A sentry grazed it. I'll see you." He turned away and started back for the roof.
There was a throbbing ache in his arm as he went back up the grav-well. He held the control in his teeth and twisted it with his left hand as he reached the roof level. He stepped out. The cold had deepened and the wind was bitter. He stepped over the unconscious sentry and placed his guns on the ledge before him. He twisted the dial of the Stoltz to 'lethal' and to 'max area.' With that sort of adjustment the Stoltz was dependable only for very short ranges, but he had to have something ready against a mass attack. The blaster was a precision, aimed weapon, and would do for one at a time.
The cold soaked in. His arm numbed and then ached, and numbed again. Thane waited. He had no way of knowing what Selan was saying or what effect it had in the minds of the Onzarians. Or did he? The normal street noises below seemed to be changing. Through the noise of the wind, a dull, confused murmur came up from below. That might be mass anger.
Thane picked up the blaster and walked over to the parapet. Far below he could see that crowds were beginning to gather in the street. Some were clumped around street loudspeakers.
There was a hum overhead. Thane spun around and looked up. A police patrol was just overhead. As it settled Thane threw himself flat on the icy tile. There was an immediate shrieking pain from his injured right arm. He gritted his teeth and aimed as the door of the anti-grav opened. The flash of his blaster was a bright orange in the night air. The man on his side crumpled. Thane was on his feet at once and dashed to the door of the patrol. One more flash of the blaster and the other occupant tumbled out the other side.
Thane hurried back to the sentry booth for his Stoltz. There would be more. As he reached it something hit him hard. He fell back towards the patrol anti-grav. He was fighting desperately. A hand went around his throat and tightened. A knee came down on his right arm. He wavered on the brink of unconsciousness. He fought his way back.
He jabbed savagely with the stiff fingers of his left hand and caught his opponent under the jaw. Thane pushed upward and back as hard as he could. Thane felt the hand loosen on his throat. Thane came up as the man went back. As they both reached their feet Thane saw it was the sentry. They struggled for a moment on the edge of the parapet. Then the sentry made a last grasp at Thane and went over.
Thane felt the sweat condense and freeze under his clothes as he searched for his lost blaster. He found it and started back for the entryway. Three more police ships were coming towards the roof. At that moment the grav-well door slid open and Astrid and Selan stood before him.
The first police ship fired before it landed. The blast came before Thane had reached Astrid and Selan. He saw Selan crumple. She was dead when he touched her. He had the impulse to do something, to say something, for one who had forced herself to do so much. But there was no time. He thrust the blaster at Astrid, who was still staring at the dead Selan. "I'll try to get them with the Stoltz. You hit anything that's dangerous with this!" He grasped the Stoltz from the ledge and stepped forward. Running figures were coming towards them now. He waited with a weary sort of calm for them to come close enough. An explosion burst the tile just off his right heel. He waited. Finally he pressed the impeller of the Stoltz. The wide-angle shot dissipated the power, but it did include all of them. They kept coming forward. One of them raised an arm and there was a blinding flash. Thane firmly pressed the impeller again as he fell forward.
There was a voice, and Thane tried to get ready for what was coming but it was too much effort. Anyway, the voice went away. And then someone else was there, and someone else was saying something important, if he could only catch it ... and then movement, up, and around, and down.
When Thane finally opened his eyes Garth was standing over him biting his cigar. "They tell me you've committed treason," Garth said.
Thane looked up at him steadily. "I guess that's right," he said.
"I suppose you know what we're going to do."
"I suppose so...." and Thane stopped. Full memory was coming back, and all its implications. "Wait ... it's all wrong. What are you doing here? And where is here? And ... if you're here--if we're together, then it must have worked! It must have worked!"
Garth lit his cigar. His face changed slightly. It might have been a smile. "Yes. It worked. The old girl really hit the Onzarians. They hadn't heard any news at all in all the days of radio silence. Then their sets came on and there she was telling them that all their gold gimmicks were no good any more. That death was approaching for all of Onzar. That Candar had ... well, you can hear the recording of it. She meant every word and they acted as if they believed every word. Of course, they'd been conditioned to that with the propaganda newscasts. But after the long silence she really hit them."
Some one moved at Thane's other side. He turned his head. It was Astrid. She was scowling at Garth. "You're a mean, bitter old bureaucrat," she said mockingly, "talking to Roger like that."
Garth's face twisted into the approximation of a grin. "Well, there actually were treason charges against him for a time. But I will say that things have changed."
Thane looked from one to another and then overhead. What he could see of the room looked vaguely familiar, but.... "Where are we?"
"At the space station," Astrid said. "Dad and Garth are working over a treaty between Onzar and the Allied Systems."
"Dad? Then Dr. Reine was rescued? But how?"
They both started talking. A moment later Manning Reine joined them, looking paler and more haggard than before. All three of them talked, constantly interrupting each other. Gradually Thane got the essential details.
After the first impulsive, unorganized revolt, the church took over. It, at least, had an organization. A large part of the armed forces had joined in. Some, though, had stayed on Candar's side, and there had been sharp, bitter fighting. But by the time Candar landed it was about over. This was his greatest victory. He had destroyed the power of Darzent, and was bringing back, as captives, most of the leadership of the fleet and of Darzent. In addition, there was Dr. Reine, who had been discovered in captivity, on the leading staff ship. But when Candar stepped out into the spaceport, instead of meeting his adulating subjects, a very determined group of his own soldiers stopped him.
Thane finally turned to Astrid. "But how did we get away? The last I remember...."
"You got them all, Roger. One of them hit your leg with a blaster as he went down. All I had to do was to get you to the anti-grav, and out of there."
Thane moved the leg, experimentally, and winced. "How is it?"
"Surface burn and shock," Astrid said. "In a week you can ski on it."
"Skiing--haven't done that since I was at Earth University." He thought for a moment. "How did you get into it, Garth? Did my message get through to Liaison?"
"Oh, yes. We picked up the recording an hour or so after it was recorded. I listened to it myself, and it convinced me. It sounded like you, and I could sort of see what you might have done. I shoved every available Liaison in the adjacent sectors right into Onzar, on my own responsibility. It worked out as it turned out. All they had to do was to clean up the tag-end of things."
HANGING BY A THREAD.
By Randall Garrett
It's seldom that the fate of a shipful of men literally hangs by a thread--but it's also seldom that a device, every part of which has been thoroughly tested, won't work....
Jayjay Kelvin was sitting in the lounge of the interplanetary cargo vessel Persephone, his feet propped up on the low table in front of the couch, and his attention focused almost totally on the small book he was reading. The lounge itself was cozily small; the Persephone had not been designed as a passenger vessel, and the two passengers she was carrying at the time had been taken on as an accommodation rather than as a money-making proposition. On the other hand, the Persephone and other ships like her were the only method of getting to where Jayjay Kelvin wanted to go; there were no regular passenger runs to Pluto. It's hardly the vacation spot of the Solar System.
On the other side of the table, Jeffry Hull was working industriously with pencil and paper. Jayjay kept his nose buried in his book--not because he was deliberately slighting Hull, but because he was genuinely interested in the book.
"Now wait," said Masterson, looking thoughtfully at the footprints on the floor of the cabin where Jed Hooker had died. "Jest take another look at these prints, Charlie. Silver Bill Greer couldn't have got much more than his big toe into boots that small! Somethin' tells me the Pecos Kid has...."
"... Traveled nearly two billion miles since then," said Hull.
Jayjay lifted his head from his book. "What?" He blinked. "I'm sorry; I wasn't listening. What did you say?"
The younger man was still grinning triumphantly. "I said: We are approaching turnover, and, according to my figures, nine days of acceleration at one standard gee will give us a velocity of seventeen million, five hundred and fifty miles per hour, and we have covered a distance of nearly two billion miles." Then he added: "That is, if I remembered my formulas correctly."
Jayjay Kelvin looked thoughtfully at the ceiling while he ran through the figures in his head. "Something like that. It's the right order of magnitude, anyway."
Hull looked a little miffed. "What answer did you get?"
"A little less than eight times ten to the third kilometers per second. I was just figuring roughly."
Hull scribbled hastily, then smiled again. "Eighteen million miles an hour, that would be. My memory's better than I thought at first. I'm glad I didn't have to figure the time; doing square roots is a process I've forgotten."
That was understandable, Jayjay thought. Hull was working for his doctorate in sociology, and there certainly wasn't much necessity for a sociologist to remember his freshman physics, much less his high-school math.
Still, it was somewhat of a relief to find that Hull was interested in something besides the "sociological reactions of Man in space". The boy had spent six months in the mining cities in the Asteroid Belt, and another six investigating the Jovian chemical synthesis planes and their attendant cities. Now he was heading out to spend a few more months observing the "sociological organization Gestalt" of the men and women who worked at the toughest job in the System--taking the heavy metals from the particularly dense sphere of Pluto.