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Top Rung

James L. Kevv, newly-appointed ambassador to Knackruth, stood up as the Secretary of State opened the door of his inner office. Kevv said, "Good morning, sir."

The Secretary of State eyed Kevv critically. "Come in," he growled. He studied Kevv's trouser creases, glanced at Kevv's shoes, squinted dubiously at Kevv's tie, grunted, and shut the door. He walked over to his desk and growled, "Sit down."

Kevv frowned and slowly sat down. The secretary scowled at him like a rocket engineer looking over an engine of doubtful design. "Hm-m-m," he said finally. "What do you know about Knackruth?"

Kevv took a deep breath and related, "Knackruth's the fourth planet of the sun Ostrago III. Principal export, quadrite. Form of government, heterogeneous independent states. The leading state is Gurt."

"You realize that for all intents and purposes, you will actually be ambassador to Gurt?"

"Yes," said Kevv. "I realize that."

"And what kind of government does Gurt have?"

"It's called an 'elective monarchy.' Actually, it amounts to a dictatorship."

The secretary seemed to relax slightly. "Know the language?"

"Of course."

"What do you think of it?"

"Well, it can be pretty straightforward and direct."

The secretary took out a thick black cigar. He studied Kevv with what looked like the first microscopic beginnings of approval. "For instance?"

"Well," said Kevv, "if a man wants to compliment a girl, using the Gurt language, he has a hard time being subtle. About the most roundabout thing he can say is, she 'heats his blood.'"

The secretary nodded and settled back in his chair. "What's the climate like?"

"It's mostly extreme—a sodden spring and fall; a hot, dusty summer; in the winter, blizzards and severe cold."

"Hm-m-m." The secretary opened a drawer, and pulled out a long wooden match with a big pink head. "Now," he said, "You've never actually been in Gurt?"

"No. But I've read a good deal in the native tongue. I think I have a working picture of the country."

"That's a help," said the secretary. "But I'll be brutally frank with you. Earth needs quadrite. Gurt has quadrite. It's important that you get along with the Gurt dictator, and I can tell you right now that is no easy job. Up till now, we've used military men for ambassadors, and limited their stay to one year. One year was about all they could stand."

Kevv blinked. "Why?"

The secretary touched the edge of his desk, and the lights in the room faded. His voice came to Kevv out of the blackness.

"Our last ambassador presented his papers with sight-and-sound recorders sewn into his suitcoat, so I can explain it to you very clearly. Turn your chair so you're facing toward the wall to your right."

Kevv turned. At his side there was a scraping snap, and the secretary's face and hands appeared cupped about yellow murky flames. The flames waved in the air and went out. The reek of burnt wood and hot fish oil filled the room.

"That," said the secretary. "was a Gurt match." A red glow the size of a man's thumbnail brightened and darkened. An odor like over-heated rubber began to seep across the room. "This," said the secretary, puffing, "is a Gurt cigar. The dictator is very fond of them. He smokes them constantly." The secretary coughed. "Whew. Well—" Kevv

choked on an overpowering stench like burning rubber, flue gas, and sulfur fumes. "There," said the secretary's voice, "now we have the right background." He sucked in a whistling breath. "Now just imagine you're going in to present your credentials on Gurt. Watch that wall opposite."

Kevv sucked in a breath of smoke. His eyes watered, and a sharp pain shot across his forehead. "O.K." he said.

* * *

A room seemed to light up around him, with a low ceiling, and unshielded lights set at six-foot intervals along the wall. The room was bare, and Kevv sat on a chair in a thick layer of smoke that hung about three feet above the floor, its bottom edge as clearly defined as a cloudbank. Opposite Kevv was a heavy door with a peephole. To the left of the door, a snout like that of a machine gun was thrust out a slit in the wall, and aimed at Kevv. In front of the door, like a mat, lay a polished metal plate, with a black rubber cord plugged into a socket at the base of the wall nearby. The doorknob was of polished metal the exact color of the plate. To the right of the door, something long, bright and thin, flicked out and back like a snake's tongue. Kevv watched, and saw it was a highly-polished blade, that flashed out sometimes toward the space before the door, and sometimes over the black cord.

The door opened. A man wearing a gray-and-blue uniform with silver insignia glanced at Kevv, looked around at the gun and the long sharp knife. He said dryly, "Vrin, ven tu dupit nal spung, spoopt, slitzt ater ossonplopt."

After an instant's hesitation, Kevv caught his meaning: "Come in, if you can do it without getting shot, fried, slit open, or squashed."

The officer stepped back, and a massive block of concrete dropped about a foot-and-a-half from the ceiling near the doorway. The block hung on a taut cable, turning slowly.

Kevv's viewpoint shifted rapidly. Walls and door swung sidewise and rushed forward. The polished plate flashed past below. The floor came up. Behind him there was a heavy shock and echoing blasts. His viewpoint shifted again, and he was standing in a room filled with smoke, and lined along the wall with maps. The Gurt officer in gray-and-blue helped brush him off.

"Nice jump," said the officer. He straightened up. "No doubt you will want to strike light with our ruler. But right now he has his teeth in General Potakel. Look there."

Kevv glanced around and saw, through the smoke, a powerfully-built man of above average height, a black, smoking cigar jutting out of the corner of his mouth, his hand gripping a fistful of a pale officer's gray-and-blue uniform jacket. Words were flying thick and fast, and both men's faces were twisted with violent emotions.

"Damn it!" shouted the general. "I tell you, we've got to retreat!"

"Not an inch!" roared the ruler. "We're going to attack!"

"Attack? Thundering damnation! What with? I tell you, I've got a fourth of my men up to their ears in that sinkhole! The Znyth line's a fortress from one end to the other. With twenty-five per cent of my men half-drowned in Bogmurk, I couldn't lead a decent attack on an army of starving cows!"

"All right, you've made your point. Now stop using your mouth for a minute and use your head. We aren't fighting cows, we're fighting Znyth! How many times in the past couple of hundred years have they chopped us into pieces? You want that to go on forever?"

"No. But now we've got them out of the country—"

"And who planned that?"

"You did. I concede that. I give you full credit. But this is risky, dangerous. If the Znyth attack us while we're mired in the swamp—"

"Didn't you tell me the Znyth line was a fortress from end to end? Didn't they just get collected from their worst licking in two hundred years? Do you think their minds and emotions are fit for an attack? I tell you, they're grown into the earth in their fortress line! They'll fight in it. But they won't come out of it. Not yet. Wait till they mend their wounds and brood on their defeat and then it will be another matter. The idea is smash them now and end this hell!"

"Yes, fine, but the swamp in impassible, and their line is too strong. Unless, my ruler, we take twenty divisions from Santok's front—"

"What a bright idea that is. Take those twenty divisions and the Ghisrans will have us ground up and stuffed in sausage skins before we know what hit us. Your mind is working like a loadbeast with its head down and all four heels dug into the ground. You can't see the answer unless you listen to me."

"My ruler, I have listened. But I tell you—"

"Listen again. Don't just stand there waiting for me to finish so you can pound your argument into my head. Put your mind on what I say and listen hard. There are only so many things we can do. If we attack the Znyth defenses head on, we fight on their ground, with everything planned and laid out to their advantage; and they'll fight to the death on the spot, while some of our men will hesitate because they see how strong the Znyth position is."

"I see that."

"Good. And right now we can't switch men from other places. There's too much danger. To do that now would be like pulling stones out of a thin dike in one place to build it higher in another. Furthermore there is no use hoping we can raise new troops fast enough to change matters, because the Znyth, too, get reinforcements. All that leads to is more men on both sides. And, of course, we can try to make peace with them. Since they look forward to chopping us into little pieces as soon as possible, you can see what that would be like."

The general shook his head. "Yes, my ruler, I see. Still—"

"Hold on a minute. Listen to me. The west end of their fortified line rests on Bogmurk. They think the big swamp is impassable, so it isn't defended—"

"Yes, yes. But—"

"All right. Here's the key to the whole problem. Build the causeway through Bogmurk. Mass our main strength on the left flank. Pour the troops over the causeway and stab like a knife into the rear of their line. And right then, a hard attack from in front. A sledgehammer blow on the hinge at the same instant the bolts are sheared from in back—"

"Yes, yes, but this swamp drains the men that ought to attack!"

"What do you expect? Do you want to stroll through on a purple carpet? If we lose one out of the four in that swamp, the three remaining are still worth ten!"

"My ruler, you don't know. You haven't seen—Mud, fog, drizzle, quicksand, snakes, clouds of stinging bugs, half-an-acre out of a hundred dry enough to camp on—"

"If it were easy, the Znyth would do it themselves."

"The men are worn out, discouraged—"

"Did you come here just to tell me that? Get it across to them what they're doing. Tell them what it means. Give them honest reasons and they'll give you honest work. Do you think they'll be worn out when the Znyth scatter in front of them like leaves in the wind? Every step through that swamp is a step closer to that. Show them that, and think what it will mean to you. Now, get out of here. Put your mind on it. You keep coming back here to yell complaints in my ear and you'll end up with your head in a basket."

Kevv had the vague impression of someone stepping forward. Then it all faded out, and he was sitting in the dark.

A light switched on. The Secretary of State looked at Kevv with a rueful smile. "I wanted to give you some idea of what you're getting into. My understanding is, that was a comparatively calm day on Gurt. Now you're forewarned, I think you can appreciate them better. Study them carefully." He shoved forward a thick stack of papers and microfilm, and reached out to shake Kevv's hand.

* * *

Kevv boarded the big, spindle-shaped spacer the next day. He immersed himself in the documents, and one word beat at him from nearly every page: quadrite. Earth needs quadrite. Quadrite is rare. Gurt has quadrite. Gurt has kept her agreements faithfully, and Gurt must be protected to safeguard the quadrite.

Kevv scowled, scanned the microfilm and studied the reports. Quadrite, he knew, was used to stabilize the drive tuning of Earth's interstellar fleet. He began to see the importance of Gurt in helping to supply quadrite, and he began to see his own job in helping to defend this supply. The only question was: How? Vigorous digging through the reports unearthed the fact that the total investment in Gurt seemed to consist of one ambassador, one communications technician, a general practitioner and a lung specialist.

Kevv spent the rest of the trip absorbing information and exasperatedly trying to understand the situation. But a piece of the puzzle eluded him. His first act in landing on Gurt was to see Colonel Martins, the retiring ambassador.

Martins turned out to be a weary-looking elderly man with a ramrod back and a twitching left eye. He also had a look of contentment. He greeted Kevv cheerfully, and after a few words lay down on a cot.

"Excuse me," he said, "I'm a little tired. It helps to get off my feet." His face settled into an expression of contented achievement.

Kevv, noting the expression, said, "I don't mean to sound trite, but is this assignment here a ... er ... a rewarding experience?"

Martins grinned. "Not exactly. But leaving here certainly is rewarding."


"No, I don't mean that exactly, either. Some experiences are rewarding after you're out of them. For instance, shooting the Belt at six g's in a scout spacer after an unsuspecting dope runner in a converted Class-B cruiser."

"That sounds nice," said Kevv, without enthusiasm.

"This has it beat," said Martins.

"What do I do?"

"First go see the Doc, get your nose plugs fitted. Try not to take a breath with your mouth open when you're around the ruler. And don't let your plug charges get run down or the effect is just as bad. If you have to smoke a ceremonial cigar yourself, don't inhale any more than you have to. Ah ... oh, and you might as well get your audience over today, one way or the other. Pray first. When your time comes, wait till the sword takes a stab toward the door, then go through the doorway fast. Take a flying leap over that plate, and don't brush the doorknob."

"What," said Kevv exasperatedly, "is the point of that thing, anyway?"

"The theory is, if you have any treachery in mind, you'll hesitate. That's all it takes. But if you get through, you're O.K. You only have to do it once."

"Assuming I live through it, exactly what is my function here?"

"You come back afterward, and I'll give you a few pointers."

"No," said Kevv, "maybe you'd better tell me now."

"You can take it in better after you have an audience with the ruler. Just act natural and you'll be O.K. It's hard to explain."

"Can't you at least give me an idea?"

"Well—" Martins hesitated. "O.K. What does an absolute ruler have that his followers don't have?"

"Position. Final authority."

"And what do the followers have that the ruler doesn't have?"

Kevv frowned. "Well—" He tried to analyze the problem, but it evaded his grip like smoke. "I don't know."

"Figure it out," said Martins. "Now, unless you want to get fumigated at the audience, you'd better get your plugs. It's bad enough with them, believe me."

Kevv located the Doc, who went to work on him with pincers, hoses, and thimblelike objects of varying sizes. The Doc had a gift for one-sided conversation, and a grip that held Kevv struggling but helpless with his head bent over the back of a chair. In the end, Kevv wavered off to the audience with his own built-in air purifier.

* * *

"Vrin," said the officer in gray-and-blue, "ven tu dupit nal spung, spoopt, slitzt ater ossonplopt."

Kevv prayerfully watched the blade lick out past the door, took a flying leap, heard a heavy crash and a hammering blast behind him, and stumbled to his feet. He expected to hear roars of rage, oaths and orders, but the smoky room was almost oppressively quiet. Somewhere, a voice said, "Yes, my ruler."

At Kevv's elbow, the officer remarked, "We've conquered Znyth. Think of it."

Kevv frowned, and saw the ruler wandering amongst groups of officers gathered around maps and tables. The ruler's face was an unhealthy gray, and he was being followed around by an eager little man with pad and pencil. The ruler took a burnt-out cigar out of one corner of his mouth, walked up to an officer at a map marked off in squares, frowned, started to say something, and hesitated. The officer glanced around and snapped to attention. "Yes, my ruler?"

"Nothing." The ruler grimaced. "I was just thinking of something to occupy our friends for the future."

The officer looked impressed. The little man raised his notebook and scribbled rapidly. The ruler looked gloomy, glanced up and spotted Kevv. "Aha!" he said. "You made it!"

Kevv nodded, and watched in alarm as the ruler cheerfully tossed away his burnt-out cigar and pulled out two big black fresh ones.

The little man rushed over, snatched up the cigar butt, and laid it away reverently in a plush-lined case.

The ruler glanced around, glared, started to open his mouth, the lips drawn back from his teeth, took a deep breath, glanced back at Kevv, studied him a moment, and looked relieved. He thrust out a cigar. "One of my own specials. This one's really got a bite." He struck a big match and held the flaring stick out for Kevv to get a light. "Suck it deep into your lungs," he said.

Kevv, half-strangled, the room swimming before his eyes, blew out a cloud of burning smoke and nodded with imitation enthusiasm.

"Aha," boomed the ruler, clapping him on the arm, "follow me back to my office. I'll show you where I make them."

Kevv wiped his arm across his eyes. Live sparks seemed to dance in the air before him. Clutching the smoldering cigar in one hand, he trailed after the ruler down a short hall, around a corner, and past two padded doors hinged from opposite sides of the same doorway to close against each other.

* * *

The ruler closed and locked both doors, and glanced suspiciously around the little room. He pointed to a small bench with several boxes, a covered jar, and a brush. "That's where I make the cigars," he said absently. He glanced around, took a deep breath, then burst out:

"Did you see that bird out there with the plush-lined box? What do you make of that? If I spit out a fleck of leaf—Pop. Into the box with it. Why? He says he's a historian. General Krakel vouches for him. All right, but what's this business with the cigars! Is he, maybe, going to analyze the leaf, find out where it comes from, and scatter poisoned insecticide around the crop, to be taken in as the plant grows?" He frowned. "That sounds foolish, now that I say it, but what is he doing with those cigar butts?"

Kevv sucked a breath through his nose filters. "Probably try to sell them for historical souvenirs—the ruler's own cigar butts—or maybe put them in a museum with his name on the case as donor. It looks to me like he's getting material together for something on a par with that."

"You think so? Well, it's a stupid thing, but then, the whole business is stupid. Did you see those people out there? Every time I open my mouth to yawn or sneeze, somebody's right there on the spot to say, 'Yes, my ruler.' You should have seen them three months ago. It wasn't 'Yes, my ruler,' then. It was 'No, no! You can't do it that way! That's impossible!' What's gotten into them anyway? I feel like a man who gets set to lift the iron weight and instead it's made out of hollow blackened wood. It isn't natural. Everything I do seems just perfect, but—"

He scowled. "There's a danger here." He squinted and walked back and forth. "Yes. Here's the danger. What if I get used to this? When everybody says 'yes,' and they don't think, I have to do it all. And then I won't get it right because I... even I—" he glanced at Kevv, looked foolish, and added hastily—"Well, we're all human. What if I make a botch of it? Then they'll come out of their stupor. Meanwhile, I'll have gotten to think of myself as The Great Ruler. I won't be myself. I'll be acting the part of The Great Ruler. Then everything will fly apart and I won't be able to do anything because I'll have lost the threads that make the pattern." He sucked in a deep breath. "Well, I'm glad I see that. When you've got light to see the hole, you've got a chance to put your foot somewhere else." He opened the two doors.

Kevv, dumbfounded, followed the ruler out. As they returned to the main room with the maps, the ruler turned around, and raised his smoking cigar. "Some day I'll show you how I make them."

"Oh," said Kevv. "Yes. I'd... er... I'd like to see that."

The ruler strode across to the little man with the pad, paper, and box, and thrust a fresh cigar into his hand. "Here. Take this. Then get out."

An officer with a hero-worshiping expression stepped forward. "He is taking down your words, my ruler—for the future."

The ruler fired up a fresh cigar and fixed his gaze on the little man. "It has been not bad to have you here, but now secret events are about to take place and you must loyally get out."

The little man reverently laid away the cigar in the box, seized another discarded butt, scribbled rapidly, and left.

"Now," growled the ruler, "let's see how we're going here. The idea is to find the mistake you make and bash it over the head before it grows up and has a family." He scowled, went over to a big map, and a crowd gathered. He stuck his head through the crowd to take a quick look at Kevv, looked reassured, and vanished again.

Kevv glanced at his half-burnt cigar, pulled over a chair, sat down heavily and frowned.

What do the followers have that the ruler doesn't have?

* * *

By the time Kevv got back to see Martins, he felt worn out. Martins, however, looked considerably fresher and stronger.

"All right," said Kevv. "I lived through the audience. Now, suppose you tell me what's going on here. What's my function, anyway?"

"What happened?" asked Martins.

Kevv told him, and added, "You know that saying, 'Power corrupts.' Well, I could swear I saw power corrupting when I got here. Then all of a sudden it quit."

Martins nodded. "That's the point of it all. Earth has to safeguard Gurt's quadrite supply. And as far as we can see, the present ruler is the greatest single safeguard that Gurt has—if he doesn't go off the deep end."

"You mean, get delusions of grandeur?"

"Partly. Think of what became of most of our emperors and dictators on Earth in the old days: Secrecy, suspicion, fear of plots, seizure of crushing authority, then overwork, frustration, rage, megalomania, and disaster on a grand scale. We don't want it to happen to Gurt."

"Yeah, but how do we stop it?"

"Well, remember: What do the followers have that the absolute ruler doesn't have? Think of the kind of life they live. You can look on success in their kind of life as a ladder. Once you can get to the foot of it and start up, you don't have to worry about larger questions—like where you're climbing to. The idea is to just get up to that next rung. There's somebody above you, and somebody below you. You just keep climbing and putting rungs behind you. O.K. But what if you're on the top rung? Your head thrusts up into the open air. There's no place higher to climb to. You look down and it's a long fall. Maybe it dawns on you that that fellow one rung below wants to keep climbing, and there's no place for you to go but off. There's no one above to serve as an example, no equal to trust. Nobody you can talk to, and nothing to keep you from going off the deep end but your own self-control."

Kevv frowned, then slowly began to nod his head. "I think I begin to get it."

Martins leaned forward. "Look at it from their point of view. You're the man from the stars. The ladder goes up and up, out of sight, and, if they can't grasp the next rung, you're living proof that it's there."

"Yes," said Kevv. "I think I see. And I can be trusted, because I'm not in the competition." He thought over his meeting with the ruler, then said abruptly. "But it's a strenuous life."

"Well," said Martins, complacently tossing a pair of socks in a suitcase, "it may be a little rough on you, but it's a great thing for Earth. Think of the quadrite." He grinned suddenly. "Besides, you get your reward at the end." He fished through a half-packed trunk and pulled out a small wooden case. "Here. Open it."

Kevv somberly raised the cover and looked in.

"Just as I thought," he said. "Well, I've heard you can stand almost anything if you can get enough sleep, and I intend to try it."

Kevv stood up. "But as for this reward, I'll leave it with you."

He handed back to Martins the box of big, thick, black, custom-made cigars.

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