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Outpost of Empire

"No dragons are flying—"

Karlsarm looked up. The fog around him was as yet thin enough that he could glimpse the messenger. Its wings sickled across nightblue and those few stars—like diamond Spica and amber Betelgeuse—which were too bright and near to be veiled. So deep was the stillness that he heard the messenger's feathers rustle.

"Good," he murmured. "As I hoped." Louder: "Inform Mistress Jenith that she can get safely across open ground now. She is to advance her company to Gallows Wood on the double. There let someone keep watch from a treetop, but do not release the fire bees without my signal. Whatever happens."

The sweet, unhuman voice of the messenger trilled back his order.

"Correct," Karlsarm said. The messenger wheeled and flew northward.

"What was that?" Wolf asked.

"Enemy hasn't got anyone aloft, far as Rowlan's scouts can tell," Karlsarm replied. "I instructed—"

"Yes, yes," growled his lieutenant. "I do know Anglic, if not bird language. But are you sure you want to keep Jenith's little friends in reserve? We might have no casualties at all if they went in our van."

"But we'd have given away another secret. And we may very badly want a surprise to spring, one of these times. You go tell Mistress Randa the main body needs maximum cover. I'm after a last personal look. When I get back, we'll charge."

Wolf nodded. He was a rangy man, harsh-faced, his yellow hair braided. His fringed leather suit did not mark him off for what he was, nor did his weapons; dirk and tomahawk were an ordinary choice. But the two great hellhounds that padded black at his heels could only have followed the Grand Packmaster of the Windhook.

He vanished into fog and shadow. Karlsarm loped forward. He saw none of his hundreds, but he sensed them in more primitive ways. The mist patch that hid them grew tenuous with distance, until it lay behind the captain. He stopped, shadow-roofed by a lone sail tree, and peered before and around him.

They had had the coastal marshes to conceal them over most of their route. The climb by night, however, straight up Onyx Heights, had required full moonlight if men were not to fall and shatter themselves. This meant virtually no moon on the second night, when they entered the cultivated part of the plateau. But with a sidereal period of two and a third days, Selene rose nearly full again, not long after the third sundown, and waxed as it crossed the sky. At present it was hardly past maximum, a dented disk flooding the land with iciness. Karlsarm felt naked to the eyes of his enemies. None seemed aware of him, though. Fields undulated away to a flat eastern horizon, kilometer after kilometer. They were planted in rye, silvery and silent under the moon, sweet-smelling where feet had crushed it. Far off bulked a building, but it was dark; probably nothing slept within except machines. The fact that agriculture took place entirely on robotized latifundia made the countryside thinly populated. Hence the possibility existed for Karlsarm of leading his people unobserved across it after sunset—to a five-kilometer distance from Domkirk.

Even this near, the city looked small. It was the least of the Nine, housing only about fifty thousand, and it was the second oldest, buildings huddled close together and much construction underground in the manner of pioneer settlements. Aside from streets, its mass was largely unilluminated. They were sober folk here who went early to bed. In places windows gleamed yellow. A single modern skyscraper sheened metallic beneath Selene, and it too had wakeful rooms. Several upper facets of the cathedral were visible above surrounding roofs. The moon was so brilliant that Karlsarm would have sworn he could see color in their reflection of it.

A faint murmur of machinery breathed across the fields. Alien it was, but Karlsarm almost welcomed the sound. The farmlands had oppressed him with their emptiness—their essential lifelessness, no matter how rich the crops and sleek the pastured animals—when he remembered his forests. He shivered in the chill. As if to seek comfort, he looked back westward. The fogbank that camouflaged the center of his army shimmered startlingly white. Surely it had been seen; but the phenomenon occurred naturally, this near the Lawrencian Ocean. Beyond the horizon, barely visible, as if disembodied, floated the three highest snowpeaks of the Windhoek. Home was a long march off: an eternal march for those who would die.

"Stop that, you," Karlsarm whispered to himself. He unshipped his crossbow, drew a quarrel from his quiver, loaded and cocked the piece. Hard pull on the crank, snick of the pawl were somehow steadying. He was not a man tonight but a weapon.

He trotted back to his people. The fog was thickening, swirling in cold wet drifts, as Mistress Randa sent ever more of her pets from their cages. He heard her croon a spell—

* * *

"Shining mist, flow and twist,
fill this cup of amethyst.
Buzzing dozens, brotherlings,
sing your lullaby of wings.
Ah! the moonlight flew and missed!"

* * *

He wondered if it was really needed. Why must women with Skills be that secretive about their work? He heard likewise the tiny hum of the insects, and glimpsed a few when Selene sparked iridescence off them. They kept dropping down to the ryestalks after they had exuded all the droplets they could, filling up with dew and rising again. Soon the cloud was so dense that men were almost blind. They kept track of each other by signals—imitated bird calls, chirrs, cheeps, mews—and by odor, most of them having put on their distinctive war perfumes.

Karlsarm found Wolf near the red gleam of one hellhound's eyes. "All set?" he asked.

"Aye. If we can keep formation in this soup."

"We'll keep it close enough. Got a lot of practice in the tidelands, didn't we? Very well, here we go." Karlsarm uttered a low, shuddering whistle.

The sound ran from man to man, squad to squad, and those who knew flutecat language heard it as: "We have stalked the prey down, let us leap."

The fog rolled swiftly toward Domkirk; and none in the city observed that there was no wind to drive it.

* * *

John Ridenour had arrived that day. But he had made planetfall a week earlier and before then had crammed himself with every piece of information about Freehold that was available to him—by any means necessary, from simple reading and conversation to the most arduous machine-forced mnemonics. His whole previous career taught him how little knowledge that was. It had amused as well as annoyed him that he ended his journey explaining things to a crewman of the ship that brought him thither.

The Ottokar was a merchantman, Germanian owned, as tautly run as most vessels from that world. Being short of bottom on the frontiers, the Imperial Terrestrial Navy must needs charter private craft when trouble broke loose. They carried only materiel; troops still went in regular transports, properly armed and escorted.

But Ridenour was a civilian: also on time charter, he thought wryly. His job was not considered urgent. They gave him a Crown ticket on Terra and said he could arrange his own passage. It turned out to involve several transfers from one ship to another, two of them with nonhuman crews. Traffic was sparse, here where the Empire faded away into a wilderness of suns unclaimed and largely unexplored. The Germanians were of his own species, of course. But since they were a bit standoffish by culture, and he by nature, he had rattled about rather alone on what was to be the final leg of his trip.

Now, when he would actually have preferred silence and solitude, the off-duty steward's mate joined him in the saloon and insisted on talking. That was the annoyance—with Freehold in the viewscope.

"I have never seen anything more . . . prachtig . . . more magnificent," the steward's mate declared.

Then why not shut your mouth and watch it? grumbled Ridenour to himself.

"But this is my first long voyage," the other went on shyly.

He was little more than a boy, little older than Ridenour's first son. No doubt the rest of the men kept him severely in his place. Certainly he had hitherto been mute as far as the passenger was concerned. Ridenour found he could not be ungracious to him. "Are you enjoying it . . . ah, I don't know your name?"

"Dietrich, sir. Dietrich Steinhauer. Yes, the time has been interesting. But I wish they would tell me more about the port planets we make on our circuit. They do not like me to question them."

"Well, don't take that to heart," Ridenour advised. He leaned back in his chair and got out his pipe—a tall, wiry, blond, hatchet-faced man, his gray tunic-and-trousers outfit more serviceable than fashionable. "With so much loneliness between the stars, so much awe, men have to erect defenses. Terrans are apt to get boisterous on a long voyage. But from what I've heard of Germanians, I could damn near predict they'd withdraw into routine and themselves. Once your shipmates grow used to you, decide you're a good reliable fellow, they'll thaw."

"Really? Are you an ethnologist, sir?"

"No, xenologist."

"But there are no nonhumans on Freehold, except the Arulians. Are there?"

"N-no. Presumably not. Biologically speaking, at any rate. But it is a strange planet, and such have been known to do strange things to their colonists."

Dietrich gulped and was quiet for a few blessed minutes.

* * *

The globe swelled, ever greater in its changing phases as the Ottokar swung down from parking orbit. Against starry blackness it shone blue, banded with blinding white cloudbanks, the continents hardly visible through the deep air. The violet border that may be seen from space on the rim of any terrestroid world was broader and more richly hued than Terra's. Across the whole orb flickered aurora, invisible on dayside but a pale sheet of fire on nightside. It would not show from the ground, being too diffuse; Freehold lacked the magnetic field to concentrate solar particles at the poles. Yet here it played lambent before the eye, through the thin upper layers of atmosphere. For the sun of Freehold was twice as luminous as Sol, a late type F. At a distance of 1.25 a.u., its disk was slightly smaller than that which Terra sees. But the illumination was almost a third again as great, more white than yellow; and through a glare filter one could watch flares and prominences leap millions of kilometers into space and shower fierily back.

The single moon hove into view. It was undistinguished, even in its name (how many satellites of human-settled worlds are known as Selene?), having just a quarter the mass of Luna. But it was sufficiently close in to show a fourth greater angular diameter. Because of this, and the sunlight, and a higher albedo—fewer mottlings—it gave better than twice the light. Ridenour spied it full on and was almost dazzled.

"Freehold is larger than Germania, I believe." Dietrich's attempt at pompousness struck Ridenour as pathetic.

"Or Terra," the xenologist said. "Equatorial diameter in excess of 16,000 kilometers. But the mean density is quite low, making surface gravity a bare ninety per cent of standard."

"Then why does it have such thick air, sir? Especially with an energetic sun and a nearby moon of good size."

Hm, Ridenour thought, you're a pretty bright boy after all. Brightness should be encouraged; there's precious little of it around. "Gravitational potential," he said. "Because of the great diameter, field strength decreases quite slowly. Also, even if the ferrous core is small, making for weaker tectonism and less outgassing of atmosphere than normal—still, the sheer pressure of mass on mass, in an object this size, was bound to produce respectable quantities of air and heights of mountains. These different factors work out to the result that the sea-level atmosphere is denser than Terran, but safely breathable at all altitudes of terrain." He stopped to catch his breath.

"If it has few heavy elements, the planet must be extremely old," Dietrich ventured.

"No, the early investigators found otherwise," Ridenour said. "The system's actually younger than Sol's. It evidently formed in some metal-poor region of the galaxy and wandered into this spiral arm afterward."

"But at least Freehold is old by historical standards. I have heard it was settled more than five centuries ago. And yet the population is small. I wonder why?"

"Small initial colony, and not many immigrants afterward, to this far edge of everything. High mortality rates, too—originally, I mean, before men learned the ins and out of a world which they had never evolved on: a more violent and treacherous world than the one your ancestors found, Dietrich. That's why, for many generations, they tended to stay in their towns, where they could keep nature at bay. But they didn't have the economic base to enlarge the towns very fast. Therefore they practiced a lot of birth control. To this day, there are only nine cities on that whole enormous surface, and five of them are on the same continent. Their inhabitants total fourteen and a half megapeople."

"But I have heard about savages, sir. How many are they?"

"Nobody knows," Ridenour said. "That's one of the things I've been asked to find out."

He spoke too curtly, of a sudden, for Dietrich to dare question him further. It was unintentional. He had merely suffered an experience that came to him every once in a while, and shook him down to bedrock.

Momentarily, he confronted the sheer magnitude of the universe.

Good God, he thought, if You do not exist—terrible God, if You do—here we are, Homo sapiens, children of Earth, creators of bonfires and flint axes and proton converters and gravity generators and faster-than-light spaceships, explorers and conquerors, dominators of an Empire which we ourselves founded, whose sphere is estimated to include four million blazing suns . . . here we are, and what are we? What are four million stars, out on the fringe of one arm of the galaxy, among its hundred billion; and what is the one galaxy among so many?

Why, I shall tell you what we are and these are, John Ridenour. We are one more-or-less intelligent species in a universe that produces sophonts as casually as it produces snowflakes. We are not a hair better than our great, greenskinned, gatortailed Merseian rivals, not even considering that they have no hair; we are simply different in looks and language, similar in imperial appetites. The galaxy—what tiny part of it we can ever control—cares not one quantum whether their youthful greed and boldness overcome our wearied satiety and caution. (Which is a thought born of an aging civilization, by the way).

Our existing domain is already too big for us. We don't comprehend it. We can't.

Never mind the estimated four million suns inside our borders. Think just of the approximately one hundred thousand whose planets we do visit, occupy, order about, accept tribute from. Can you visualize the number? A hundred thousand; no more; you could count that high in about seven hours. But can you conjure up before you, in your mind, a well with a hundred thousand bricks in it: and see all the bricks simultaneously?

Of course not. No human brain can go as high as ten.

Then consider a planet, a world, as big and diverse and old and mysterious as ever Terra was. Can you see the entire planet at once? Can you hope to understand the entire planet?

Next consider a hundred thousand of them.

No wonder Dietrich Steinhauer here is altogether ignorant about Freehold. I myself had never heard of the place before I was asked to take this job. And I am a specialist in worlds and the beings that inhabit them. I should be able to treat them lightly. Did I not, a few years ago, watch the total destruction of one?

Oh, no. Oh, no. The multiple millions of . . . of everything alive . . . bury the name Starkad, bury it forever. And yet it was a single living world that perished, a mere single world.

No wonder Imperial Terra let the facts about Freehold lie unheeded in the data banks. Freehold was nothing but an obscure frontier dominion, a unit in the statistics. As long as no complaint was registered worthy of the sector governor's attention, why inquire further? How could one inquire further? Something more urgent is always demanding attention elsewhere. The Navy, the intelligence services, the computers, the decision makers are stretched too ghastly thin across too many stars.

And today, when war ramps loose on Freehold and Imperial marines are dispatched to fight Merseia's Arulian cat's-paws—we still see nothing but a border action. It is most unlikely that anyone at His Majesty's court is more than vaguely aware of what is happening. Certainly our admiral's call for help took long to go through channels: "We're having worse and worse trouble with the hinterland savages. The city people are no use. They don't seem to know either what's going on. Please advise."

And the entire answer that can be given to this appeal thus far is me. One man. Not even a Naval officer—not even a specialist in human cultures—such cannot be gotten, except for tasks elsewhere that look more vital. One civilian xenologist, under contract to investigate, report, and recommend appropriate action. Which counsel may or may not be heeded.

If I die—and the battles grow hotter each month—Lissa will weep; so will our children, for a while. I like to think that a few friends will feel sorry, a few colleagues remark what a loss this is, a few libraries keep my books on micro for a few more generations. However, that is the most I can hope for.

And this big, beautiful planet Freehold can perhaps hope for much less. The news of my death will be slow to reach official eyes. The request for a replacement will move slower yet. It may quite easily get lost.

Then what, Freehold of the Nine Cities and the vast, mapless, wild-man-haunted outlands that encircle them? Then what?

* * *

Once the chief among the settlements was Sevenhouses; but battle had lately passed through it. Though the spaceport continued in use and the Ottokar set down there, Ridenour learned that Terran military headquarters had been shifted to Nordyke. He hitched a ride in a supply barge. Because of the war, its robopilot was given a human boss, a young lieutenant named Muhammad Sadik, who invited the xenologist to sit in the control turret with him. Thus Ridenour got a good look at the country.

Sevenhouses was almost as melancholy a sight from the air as from the ground. The original town stood intact at one edge; but that was a relic, a few stone-and-concrete buildings which piety preserved. Today's reality had been a complex of industries, dwelling places—mainly apartments—schools, parks, shops, recreation centers. The city was not large by standards of the inner Empire. But it had been neat, bright, bustling, more up-to-date than might have been expected of a community in the marshes.

Now most of it was rubble. What remained lay fire-scarred, crowded with refugees, the machinery silenced, the people sadly picking up bits and pieces of their lives. Among them moved Imperial marines, and warcraft patrolled overhead like eagles.

"Just what happened?" Ridenour asked.

Sadik shrugged. "Same as happened at Oldenstead. The Arulians made an air assault—airborne troops and armor, I mean. They knew we had a picayune garrison and hoped to seize the place before we could reinforce. Then they'd pretty well own it, you know, the way they've got Waterfleet and Startop. If the enemy occupies a townful of His Majesty's subjects, we can't scrub that town. At least, doctrine says we can't . . . thus far. But here, like at Oldenstead, our boys managed to hang on till we got help to them. We clobbered the blues pretty good, too. Not many escaped. Of course, the ground fighting was heavy and kind of bashed the town around."

He gestured. The barge was now well aloft, and a broad view could be gotten. "Harder on the countryside, I suppose," he added. "We felt free to use nukes there. They sure chew up a landscape, don't they?"

Ridenour scowled. The valley beneath him had been lovely, green and ordered, a checkerboard of mechanized agroenterprises run from the city. But the craters pocked it, and high-altitude bursts had set square kilometers afire, and radiation had turned sere most fields that were not ashen.

He felt relieved when the barge lumbered across a mountain range. The wilderness beyond was not entirely untouched. A blaze had run widely, and fallout appeared to have been heavy. But the reach of land was enormous, and presently nothing lay beneath except life. The forest that made a well-nigh solid roof was not quite like something from ancient Terra: those leaves, those meadows, those rivers and lakes had a curious brilliance; or was that due to sunlight; fierce and white out of a pale-blue sky where cumulus clouds towered intricately shadowed? The air was often darkened and clamorous with bird flocks which must number in the millions. And, as woodland gave way to prairie, Ridenour saw herds of grazers equally rich in size and variety.

"Not many planets this fertile," Sadik remarked. "Wonder why the colonists haven't done more with it?"

"Their society began in towns rather than smaller units like family homesteads," Ridenour answered. "That was unavoidable. Freehold isn't as friendly to man as you might believe."

"Oh, I've been through some of the storms. I know."

"And native diseases. And the fact that while native food is generally edible, it doesn't contain everything needed for human nutrition. In short, difficulties such as are normally encountered in settling a new world. They could be overcome, and were; but the process was slow, and the habit of living in a few centers became ingrained. Also, the Freeholders are under a special handicap. The planet is not quite without iron, copper and other heavy elements. But their ores occur too sparsely to support a modern industrial establishment, let alone permit it to expand. Thus Freehold has always depended on extraplanetary trade. And the system lies on the very fringe of human-dominated space. Traffic is slight and freight rates high."

"They could do better, though," Sadik declared. "Food as tasty as what they raise ought to go for fancy prices on places like Bonedry and Disaster Landing—planets not terribly far, lots of metals, but otherwise none too good a home for their colonists."

Ridenour wasn't sure if the pilot was patronizing him in revenge. He hadn't meant to be pedantic; it was his professional habit. "I understand that the Nine Cities were in fact developing such trade, with unlimited possibilities for the future," he said mildly. "They also hoped to attract immigrants. But then the war came."

"Yeh," Sadik grunted. "One always does, I guess."

Ridenour recollected that war was no stranger to Freehold. Conflict, at any rate, which occasionally erupted in violence. The Arulian insurgency was the worst incident to date—but perhaps nothing more than an incident, sub specie aeternitatis.

The threat from the savages was something else: less spectacular, but apt to be longer lasting, with more pervasive subtle effects on the long-range course of history here.

* * *

Nordyke made a pleasant change. The strife had not touched it, save to fill the airport with ships—and the seaport, as its factories drew hungrily on the produce of other continents—and the streets with young men from every corner of the Empire. The modern town, surrounding Catwick's bright turbulent waters, retained in its angular architecture some of the starkness of the old castle-like settlements on the heights above. But in the parks, roses and jasmine were abloom; and elsewhere the taverns brawled with merriment. The male citizens were happily acquiring the money that the Imperialists brought with them; the females were still more happily helping spend it.

Ridenour had no time for amusement, even had he been inclined. Plain to see, Admiral Fernando Cruz Manqual considered him one more nuisance wished on a long-suffering planetary command by a home government that did not know its mass from a Dirac hole. He had to swing more weight than he actually carried, to get billeted in a float-shelter on the bay and arrange his background-information interviews.

One of these was with an Arulian prisoner. He did not speak any language of that world, and the slender, blue-feathered, sharp-snouted biped knew no Anglic. But both were fluent in the principal Merseian tongue, though the Arulian had difficulty with certain Eriau phonemes.

"Relax," said Ridenour, after the other had been conducted into the office he had borrowed, and the Terran marine had gone out. "I won't hurt you. I wear this blaster because regulations say I must. But you aren't so stupid as to attempt a break."

"No. Nor so disloyal as to give away what would hurt my people." The tone was more arrogant than defiant, as nearly as one could make comparisons with human emotions. The Arulian had already learned that captives were treated according to the Covenant. The reason was less moral than practical—the same reason why his own army did not try to annihilate Nordyke, though Terra's effort was concentrated here. Revenge would be total. As matters stood, the prisoners and towns they held, the other towns they could destroy, were bargaining counters. When they gave up the struggle (which surely they must, in a year or two), they could exchange these hostages for the right to go home unmolested.

"Agreed. I simply want to hear your side of the story." Ridenour offered a cigar. "Your species likes tobacco, does it not?"

"I thank." A seven-fingered hand took the gift with ill-concealed eagerness. "But you know why we fight. This is our home."

"Um-m-m . . . Freehold was man-occupied before your race began space flight."

"True. Yet Arulian bones have strengthened this soil for more than two centuries. By longstanding agreement, the Arulians who lived and died here did so under the Law of the Sacred Horde. For what can your law mean to us, Terran—your law of property to us who do things mutually with our pheromonesharers; your law of marriage to us who have three sexes and a breeding cycle; your law of Imperial fealty to us who find truth's wellspring in Eternal Aruli? We might have compromised, after Freehold was incorporated into your domain. Indeed, we made every reasonable attempt to do so. But repeated and flagrant violation of our rights must in the end provoke secessive action."

Ridenour started his pipe. "Well, now, suppose you look at the matter as I do," he suggested. "Freehold is an old human colony, although it lies far from Terra. It was founded before the Empire and stayed sovereign after the Empire began. There was just no special reason why we should acquire it, take on responsibility for it, while the people remained friendly. But needing trade and not getting many human visitors, they looked elsewhere. The Merseians had lately brought modern technology to Aruli. Arulian mercantile associations were busy in this region. They had the reputation of being industrious and reliable, and they could use Freehold's produce. It was natural that trade should begin; it followed that numerous Arulians should come here to live; and, as you say, it was quite proper to grant them extraterritoriality.

"But." He wagged his pipestem. "Relationships between the Terran and Merseian Empires grew more and more strained. Armed conflict became frequent in the marshes. Freehold felt threatened. By now the planet had—if not a booming industry—at least enough to make it a military asset. A tempting target for anyone. Sovereign independence looked pretty lonely, not to say fictitious. So the Nine Cities applied for membership in the Empire and were accepted—as much to forestall Merseia as for any other reason. Of course the Arulian minority objected. But they were a small minority. And in any case, as you said, compromise should have been possible. Terra respects the rights of client species. We must; they are too many for suppression. In fact, no few nonhumans have Terran citizenship."

"Nevertheless," the prisoner said, "you violated what we hold hallowed."

"Let me finish," Ridenour said. "Your mother world Aruli, its sphere of influence, everything there has lately become a Merseian puppet. No, wait, I know you'll deny that indignantly; but think. Consider your race's recent history. Ask yourself what pronouncements have been made by the current Bearers of the Horns—as regards Merseia versus Terra—and remember that they succeeded by revolutionary overthrow of the legitimate heirs. Never mind what abuses they claim to be correcting; only recall that they are Merseian-sponsored revolutionaries.

"Reflect how your people here, on this planet, have always considered themselves Arulians rather than Freeholders. Reflect how they have, in fact, as tensions increased, supported the interests of Aruli rather than Terra. Maybe this would not have occurred, had the humans here treated you more fairly in the past. But we were confronted with your present hostility. What would you expect us to do—what would you do in our place—but decree some security regulations? Which is the prerogative of His Majesty's government, you know. The original treaty granting them extraterritoriality was signed by the Nine Cities, not by the Terran Empire.

"So you revolted, you resident aliens. And we discovered to our dismay that the rebellion was well prepared. Multiple tons of war supplies, multiple thousands of troops, had been smuggled beforehand into wilderness areas . . . from Aruli!"

"That is not true," the prisoner said. "Of course our mother world favors our righteous cause, but—"

"But we have census figures, remember. The registered Arulian-descended Freeholders do not add up to anything like the total in your 'Sacred Horde.' You yourself, my friend, whose ancestors supposedly lived here for generations, cannot speak the language! Oh, I understand Aruli's desire to avoid an open clash with Terra, and Terra's willingness to indulge this desire. But let us not waste our personal time with transparent hypocrisies, you and I."

The prisoner refused response.

Ridenour sighed. "Your sacrifices, what victories you have had, everything you have done is for nothing," he went on. "Suppose you did succeed. Suppose you actually did win your 'independent world in pheromone association with the Holy Ancestral Soil'—do you really think your species would benefit? No, no. The result would mean nothing more than a new weapon for Merseia to use against Terra . . . a rather cheaply acquired one." His smile was weary. "We're familiar with the process, we humans. We've employed it against each other often enough in our past."

"As you like," the Arulian said. By instinct he was less combative as an individual than a human is, though possibly more so in a collectivity. "Your opinions make scant difference. The great objective will be achieved before long."

Ridenour regarded him with pity. "Have your superiors really kept on telling you that?"

"Surely. What else?"

"Don't you understand the situation? The Empire is putting less effort into the campaign than it might, true. This is a distant frontier, however critical. Two hundred light-years make a long way from Terra. But our lack of energy doesn't matter in the long run, except to poor tormented Freehold.

"Because this system has in fact been taken by us. You aren't getting any more supplies from outside. You can't. Small fast courier boats might hope to run our blockade, I suppose, if they aren't too many and accept a high percentage of loss. But nothing except a full-sized task force would break it. Aruli cannot help you further. She hasn't that kind of fleet. Merseia isn't going to. The game isn't worth the candle to her. You are cut off. We'll grind you away to nothing if we must; but we hope you'll see reason, give up and depart.

"Think. You call it yaro fever, do you not—that disease which afflicts your species but not ours—for which the antibiotic must be grown on Aruli itself where the soil bacteria are right? We capture more and more of you who suffer from yaro. When did you last see a fresh lot of antibiotic?"

The prisoner screamed. He cast his cigar at Ridenour's feet, sprang from his chair and ran to the office door. "Take me back to the stockade!" he wept.

Ridenour's mouth twisted. Oh, well, he thought, I didn't really hope to learn anything new from any of those pathetic devils.

Besides, the savages are what I'm supposed to investigate. Though I've speculated if perhaps, in the two centuries they lived here, the Arulians had some influence on the outback people. Everybody knows they traded with them to some extent. Did ideas pass, as well as goods?

For certainly the savages have become troublesome.

* * *

The next day Ridenour was lucky and got a direct lead. The mayor of Domkirk arrived in Nordyke on official business. And word was that the Domkirk militia had taken prisoners after beating off a raid from the wilderness dwellers. Ridenour waited two days before he got to see the mayor; but that was about par for the course in a project like this, and he found things to do meanwhile.

Rikard Uriason proved to be a short, elegantly clad, fussy man. He was obviously self-conscious about coming from the smallest recognized community on the planet. He mentioned a visit he had once made to Terra and the fact that his daughter was studying on Ansa, twice in the first ten minutes after Ridenour entered his hotel room. He kept trying to talk the Emperor's Anglic and slipping back into Freeholder dialect. He fussed about, falling between the stools of being a gracious host and a man of the universe. Withal, he was competent and well informed where his own job was concerned.

"Yes, sir, we of Domkirk live closer to the outback than anyone else. For various reasons," he said, after they were finally seated with drinks in their hands. A window stood open to the breeze off Catwick—always slightly alien-scented, a hint of the smell that wet iron has on Terra—and the noise of streets and freight-belts, and the view of waters glittering out to the dunes of Longenhook. "Our municipality does not yet have the manpower to keep a radius of more than about two hundred kilometers under cultivation. Remember, Terran crops are fragile on this planet. We can mutate and breed selectively as much as we like. The native life forms will nonetheless remain hardier, eh? And, while robotic machines do most of the physical work, the requirement for supervision, decision-making human personnel is inevitably greater than on a more predictable world. This limits our range. Then too, we are on a coastal plateau. Onyx Heights falls steeply to the ocean, westward to the Windhoek, into marsh—unreclaimable—by us at our present stage of development, at any rate."

Good Lord, Ridenour thought, I have found a man who can out-lecture me. Aloud: "Are those tidelands inhabited by savages, then?"

"No, sir, I do not believe so. Certainly not in any significant degree. The raiders who plague our borders appear to be centered in the Windhoek Range and the Upwoods beyond. That was where the recent trouble occurred, on that particular margin. We have been fortunate in that the war's desolation has passed us by. But we feel, on this very account, our patriotic duty is all the more pressing, to make up the agricultural losses caused elsewhere. Some expansion is possible, now that refugees augment our numbers. We set about clearing land in the foothills. A valley, actually, potentially fertile once the weeds and other native pests have been eradicated. Which, with modern methods, takes only about one year. A Freehold year, I mean, circa about twenty-five per cent longer than a Terran year. Ah . . . where was I? . . . yes. A band of savages attacked our pioneers. They might have succeeded. They did succeed in the past, on certain occasions, as you may know, sir. By surprise, and numbers, and proximity—for their weapons are crude. Necessarily so, iron and similar metals being scarce. But they did manage, for instance, several years ago, to frustrate an attempt on settling on Moon Garnet Lake, in spite of the attempt being supplied by air and backed by militia with reasonably modern small arms. Ahem! This time we were forewarned. We had our guards disguised as workers, their weapons concealed. Not with any idea of entrapment. Please understand that, sir. Our wish is not to lure any heathen to their deaths, only to avoid conflict. But neither had we any wish for them to spy out our capabilities. Accordingly, when a gang attacked, our militiamen did themselves proud, I may say. They inflicted casualties and drove the bulk of the raiders back into the forest. A full twenty-seven prisoners were flitted to detention in our city jail. I expect the savages will think twice before they endeavor to halt progress again."

Even Uriason must stop for breath sometime. Ridenour took the opportunity to ask: "What do you plan to do with your prisoners?"

The mayor looked a little embarrassed. "That is a delicate question, sir. Technically they are criminals—one might say traitors, when Freehold is at war. However, one is almost obliged morally, is one not, to regard them as hostiles protected by the Covenant? They do by now, unfortunately, belong to a foreign culture; and they do not acknowledge our planetary government. Ah . . . in the past, rehabilitation was attempted. But it was rarely successful, short of outright brainscrub, which is not popular on Freehold. The problem is much discussed. Suggestions from Imperial experts will be welcomed, once the war is over and we can devote attention to sociodynamic matters,"

"But isn't this a rather longstanding problem?" Ridenour said.

"Well, yes and no. On the one hand, it is true that for several centuries people have been leaving the cities for the outback. Their reasons varied. Some persons were mere failures; remember, the original colonists held an ideal of individualism and made scant provision for anyone who could not, ah, cut the mustard. Some were fugitive criminals. Some were disgruntled romantics, no doubt. But the process was quite gradual. Most of those who departed did not vanish overnight. They remained in periodic contact. They traded things like gems, furs, or their own itinerant labor for manufactured articles. But their sons and grandsons tended, more and more, to adopt a purely uncivilized way of life, one which denied any need for what the cities offered."

"Adaptation," Ridenour nodded. "It's happened on other planets. On olden Terra, even—like the American frontier." Seeing that Uriason had never heard of the American frontier, he went on a bit sorrowfully: "Not a good process, is it? The characteristic human way is to adapt the environment to oneself, not oneself to the environment."

"I quite agree, sir. But originally, no one was much concerned in the Nine Cities. They had enough else to think about. And, indeed, emigration to the wilderness was a safety valve. Thus, when the anti-Christian upheavals occurred three hundred years ago, many Christians departed. Hence the Mechanists came to power with relatively little bloodshed—including the blood of Hedonists, who also disappeared rather than suffer persecution. Afterward, when the Third Constitution decreed tolerance, the savages were included by implication. If they wished to skulk about in the woods, why not? I suppose we, our immediate ancestors, should have made ethnological studies on them. A thread of contact did exist, a few trading posts and the like. But . . . well, sir, our orientation on Freehold is pragmatic rather than academic. We are a busy folk."

"Especially nowadays," Ridenour observed.

"Yes. Very true. I presume you do not speak only of the war. Before it started, we had large plans in train. Our incorporation into His Majesty's domains augured well for the furtherance of civilization on Freehold. We hope that, when the war is over, those plans may be realized. But admittedly the savages are a growing obstacle."

"I understand they sent embassies telling this and that city not to enlarge its operations further."

"Yes. Our spokesman pointed out to them that the Third Constitution gave each city the right to exploit its own hinterland as its citizens desired—a right which our Imperial charter has not abrogated. We also pointed out that they, the savages, were fellow citizens by virtue of residence. They need only adopt the customs and habits of civilization—and we stood ready to lend them educational, financial, even psychotherapeutic assistance toward this end. They need only meet the simple, essential requirements for the franchise, and they too could vote on how to best develop the land. Uniformly they refused. They denied the authority of the mayors and laid claim to all unimproved territory."

Ridenour smiled, but with little mirth. "Cultures, like individuals, die hard," he said.

"True," Uriason nodded. "We civilized people are not unsympathetic. But after all! The outbacker population, their number, is unknown to us. However, it must be on the same order of magnitude as the cities', if not less. Whereas the potential population of a Freehold properly developed is—well, I leave that to your imagination, sir. Ten billion? Twenty? And not any huddled masses, either. Comfortable, well fed, productive, happy human beings. May a few million ignorant woodsrunners deny that many souls the right to be born?"

"None of my business," Ridenour said. "My contract just tells me to investigate."

"I might add," Uriason said, "that Terra's rivalry with Merseia bids fair to go on for long generations. A well populated highly industrialized large planet here on the Betelgeusean frontier would be of distinct value to the Empire. To the entire human species, I believe. Do you not agree?"

"Yes, of course," Ridenour said.

He readily got permission to return with Uriason and study the savage prisoners in depth. The mayor's car flitted back to Domkirk two days later—two of Freehold's twenty-one hour days. And thus it happened that John Ridenour was on hand when the city was destroyed.

* * *

Karlsarm loped well in among the buildings, with his staff and guards, before combat broke loose. He heard yells, crack of blasters, hiss of slugthrowers, snap of bowstrings, sharp bark of explosives, and grinned. For they came from the right direction, as did the sudden fire-flicker above the roofs. The airport was first struck. Could it be seized in time, no dragons would fly.

Selene light had drenched and drowned pavement luminosity. Now windows were springing to life throughout the town. Karlsarm's group broke into a run. The on-duty militiamen, barracked at the airport, were few.

Wolf's detachment should be able to handle them in the course of grabbing vehicles and that missile emplacement which Terran engineers had lately installed. But Domkirk was filled with other men, and some of them kept arms at home. Let them boil out and get organized, and the result would be slaughterous. But they couldn't organize without communications, and the electronic center of the municipality was in the new skyscraper.

A door opened, in the flat front of an apartment house. A citizen stood outlined against the lobby behind, pajama-clad, querulous at being roused. "What the hell d'you think—"

Light spilled across Karlsarm. The Domkirker saw: a man in bast and leather, crossbow in hands, crossbelts sagging with edged weapons; a big muscular body, weatherbeaten countenance, an emblem of authority which was not a decent insigne but the skull and skin of a catavray crowning that wild head. "Savages!" the Domkirker shrieked. His voice went eunuch high with panic.

Before he had finished the word, the score of invaders were gone from his sight. More and more keening lifted, under a gathering battle racket. It suited Karlsarm. Terrified folk were no danger to him.

When he emerged in the cathedral square, he found that not every mind in town had stampeded.

The church loomed opposite, overtopping the shops which otherwise ringed the plaza. For they were darkened and were, in any event, things that might have been seen anywhere in the Empire. But the bishop's seat was raised two centuries ago, in a style already ancient. It was all colored vitryl, panes that formed one enormous many-faceted jewel, so that by day the interior was nothing except radiances—and even by moonlight, the outside flashed and dim spectra played. Karlsarm had small chance to admire. Flames stabbed and bullets sang. He led a retreat back around the corner of another building.

"Somebody's got together," Link o' the Cragland muttered superfluously. "Think we can bypass them?"

Karlsarm squinted. The skyscraper poked above the cathedral, two blocks farther on. But whoever commanded this plaza would soon isolate the entire area, once enough men had rallied to him. "We'd better clean them out right away," he decided. "Quick, intelligencers!"

"Aye." Noach unslung the box on his shoulder, set it down, talked into its ventholes and opened the lid. Lithe little shapes jumped forth and ran soundlessly off among the shadows. They were soon back. Noach chittered with them and reported: "Two strong squads, one in the righthand street, one in the left. Doorways, walls, plenty of cover. Radiocoms, I think. The commanders talk at their own wrists, anyhow, and we can't jam short-range transmissions, can we? If we have to handle long-range ones too? Other men keep coming to join them. A team just brought what I suppose must be a tripod blastgun."

Karlsarm rephrased the information in bird language and sent messengers off, one to a chief of infantry, one to the monitors.

The latter arrived first, as proper tactics dictated. The beasts—half a dozen of them, scaled and scuted crocodilian shapes, each as big as two buffalo—were not proof against Imperial-type guns. Nothing was. And being stupid, they were inflexible; you gave them their orders and hoped you had aimed them right, because that was that. But they were hard to kill . . . and terrifying if you had never met them before. The blast-gunners unleashed a single ill-directed thunderbolt and fled. About half the group barricaded themselves in a warehouse. The monitors battered down the wall, and the defenders yielded.

Meanwhile the Upwoods infantry dealt with the opposition in the other street. Knifemen could not very well rush riflemen. However, bowmen could pin them down until the monitors got around to them, after which a melee occurred, and everyone fought hand-to-hand anyway. A more elegant solution existed but doctrine stood, to hold secret weapons in reserve. The monitors were expendable, there being no way to evacuate creatures that long and heavy.

* * *

Karlsarm himself had already proceeded to capture the skyscraper and establish headquarters. From the top floor, he had an overview of the entire town. It made him nervous to be enclosed in lifeless plastic, and he had a couple of the big windows knocked out. Grenades were needed to break the vitryl. So his technicians manning the communication panels, a few floors down, must endure being caged.

A messenger blew in from the night and fluted: "The field of dragons has been taken, likewise a fortress wherein our people were captive—"

Karlsarm's heart knocked. "Let Mistress Evagail come to me."

Waiting, he was greatly busied. Reports, queries, suggestions, crisis; directives, answers, decisions, actions. The streets were a phosphor web, out to the icy moonlands, but most of the buildings hulked lightless again, terror drawn back into itself. Sporadic fire flared, the brief sounds of clash drifted faintly to him. The air grew colder.

When Evagail entered, he needed an instant to disengage his mind and recognize her. They had stripped her. They had stripped off her buckskins and gold furs, swathed the supple height of her in a shapeless prison gown; and a bandage still hid most of the ruddy-coiled hair. But then she laughed at him, eyes and mouth alive with an old joy, and he leaped across a desk to seize her.

"Did they hurt you?" he finally got the courage to ask.

"No, except for this battle wound, and it isn't much," she said. "They did threaten us with a . . . what's the thing called? . . . a hypnoprobe, when we wouldn't talk. Just as well you came when you did, loveling."

His tone shook: "Better than well. If that horror isn't used exactly right, it cracks apart both reason and soul."

"You forget I have my Skill," she said grimly.

He nodded. That was one reason why he had launched his campaign earlier than planned: not only for her sake, but for fear that the Cities would learn what she was. She might not have succeeded in escaping or in forcing her guards to slay her, before the hypnoprobe vibrations took over her brain.

She should never have accompanied that raid on Falconsward Valley. It was nothing but a demonstration, a test . . . militarily speaking. Emotionally, though, it had been a lashing back at an outrage committed upon the land. Evagail had insisted on practicing the combat use of her Skill; but her true reason was that she wanted to avenge the flowers. Karlsarm wielded no authority to stop her. He was a friend, occasionally a lover, some day perhaps to father her children; but was not any woman as free as any man? He was the war chief of Upwoods; but was not any Mistress of a Skill necessarily independent of chiefs?

* * *

Though a failure, the attack had not been a fiasco. Going into action for the first time, and meeting a cruel surprise, the outbackers had nonetheless conducted themselves well and retreated in good order. It was sheer evil fortune that Evagail was knocked out by a grazing bullet before she had summoned her powers.

"Well, we got you here in time," Karlsarm said. "I'm glad." Later he would make a ballad about his gladness.

"How stands your enterprise?"

"We grip the place, barring a few holdouts. I don't know if we managed to jam every outgoing message. Mistress Persa's buzzerwave bugs could have missed a transmitter or two. And surely our folk now handling the comcenter can't long maintain the pretense of being ordinary, undisturbed Domkirkers. No aircraft have showed thus far. Better not delay any more than we must, though. So we ought to clear out the population—and nobody's stirred from their miserable dens!"

"Um-m, what are you doing to call them forth?"

"An all-phones announcement."

Evagail laughed anew. "I can imagine that scene, loveling! A poor, terrified family, whose idea of a wilderness trip is a picnic in Gallows Wood. Suddenly their town is occupied by hairy, skinclad savages—the same terrible people who burned the Moon Garnet camp and bushwhacked three punitive expeditions in succession and don't pay taxes or send their children to school or support the Arulian war or do anything civilized—but were supposed to be safe, cozy hundreds of kilometers to the west and never a match for regular troops on open ground—suddenly, here they are! They have taken Domkirk! They whoop and wave their tomahawks in the very streets! What can our families do but hide in their . . . apartment, is that the word? . . . the apartment, with furniture piled across the door? They can't even phone anywhere, the phone is dead, they can't call for help, can't learn what's become of Uncle Enry. Until the thing chimes. Hope leaps in Father's breast. Surely the Imperials, or the Nordyke militia, or somebody has come to the rescue! With shaking hand, he turns the instruments on. In the screen he sees—who'd you assign? Wolf, I'll wager. He sees a long-haired stone-jawed wild man, who barks in an alien dialect: 'Come out of hiding. We mean to demolish your city.'"

Evagail clicked her tongue. "Did you learn nothing about civilization while you were there, Karlsarm?" she finished.

"I was too busy learning something about its machines," he said. "I couldn't wait to be done and depart. What would you do here?"

"Let a more soothing image make reassuring noises for a while. Best a woman; may as well be me." Karlsarm's eyes widened before his head nodded agreement. "Meanwhile," Evagail continued, "you find the mayor. Have him issue the actual order to evacuate." She looked down at her dress, grimaced, pulled it off and threw it in a corner with a violent motion. "Can't stand that rag another heartbeat. Synthetic . . . dead. Which way is the telephone central?"

Karlsarm told her. Obviously she had already discovered how to use gravshifts and slideways. She departed, striding like a leontine, and he dispatched men on a search for city officialdom.

That didn't take long. Apparently the mayor had been trying to find the enemy leader. Toms led him and another in at the point of a captured blaster. The weapon was held so carelessly that Karlsarm took it and pitched it out the window. But then, Toms was from the Trollspike region—as could be told from his breechclout and painted skin—and had probably never seen a gun before he enlisted.

Karlsarm dismissed him and stood behind the desk, arms folded, against the dark broken pane, letting the prisoners assess him while he studied them. One looked almost comical, short, pot-bellied, red-faced and pop-eyed, as if the doom of his city were a personal insult. The fellow with him was more interesting, tall, yellow-haired, sharp-featured, neither his hastily donned clothes nor his bearing nor even his looks typical of any place on Freehold that Karlsarm had heard of.

"Who are you?" the little man sputtered. "What's the meaning of this? Do you realize what you have done?"

"I expect he does," said his companion dryly. "Permit introductions. The mayor, Honorable Rikard Uriason; myself, John Ridenour, from Terra."

An Imperialist! Karlsarm must fight to keep face impassive and muscles relaxed. He tried to match Ridenour's bow. "Welcome, sirs. May I ask why you, distinguished outworlder, are here?"

"I was in Domkirk to interview, ah, your people," Ridenour said. "In the hope of getting an understanding, with the aim of eventual reconciliation. As a house guest of Mayor Uriason, I felt perhaps I could assist him—and you—to make terms."

"Well, maybe." Karlsarm didn't bother to sound skeptical. The Empire wasn't going to like what the outbackers intended. He turned to Uriason. "I need your help quite urgently, Mayor. This city will be destroyed. Please tell everyone to move out immediately."

Uriason staggered. Ridenour saved him from falling. His cheeks went gray beneath a puce webwork. "What?" he strangled. "No. You are insane. Insane, I tell you. You cannot. Impossible."

"Can and will, Mayor. We hold your arsenal, your missile emplacement—nuclear weapons, which some of us know how to touch off. At most, we have only a few hours till a large force arrives from another town or an Imperial garrison. Maybe less time than that, if word got out. We want to be gone before then; and so must your folk; and so must the city."

Uriason collapsed in a lounger and gasped for air. Ridenour seemed equally appalled, but controlled it better. "For your own sakes, don't," the Terran said in a voice that wavered. "I know a good bit of human history. I know what sort of revenge is provoked by wanton destruction."

"Not wanton," Karlsarm answered. "I'm quite sorry to lose the cathedral. A work of art. And museums, libraries, laboratories—But we haven't time for selective demolition." He drove sympathy out of his body and said like one of the machines he hated: "Nor do we have the foolishness to let this place continue as a base for military operations against us and civilian operations against our land. Whatever happens, it goes up before daybreak. Do you or do you not want the people spared? If you do, get busy and talk to them!"

* * *

Evacuation took longer than he had expected. Obedience was swift enough after Uriason's announcement. Citizens moved like cattle, streamed down the streets and out onto the airport expanse, where they milled and muttered, wept and whimpered under the bleak light of waning setting Selene. (With less luminescence to oppose, more stars had appeared, the stars of Empire, but one looked and understood how the gulf gaped between here and them, and shuddered in the pre-dawn wind.) Nevertheless people got in each other's way, didn't grasp the commands of their herders, shuffled, fainted, stalled the procession while they tried to find their kin. Besides, Karlsarm had forgotten there would be a hospital, with some patients who must be carried out and provided for in an outlying latifundium.

But, one by one, the aircraft filled with humans, and ran fifty kilometers upwind, and deposited their cargoes, and returned for more: until at last, when the first eastern paleness began to strengthen, Domkirk stood empty of everything save the wind.

Now the Upwoods army boarded and was flown west. Most of their pilots were city men, knives near to throats. Karlsarm and his few technicians saw the last shuttling vehicle off. It would return for them after they were through. (He was not unaware of the incongruity: skin-clad woodsrunners with dirks at their belts, proposing to sunder the atom!) Meanwhile it held Evagail, Wolf and Noach—his cadre—together with Uriason and Ridenour, who were helping control the crowds.

The mayor seemed to have crumpled after the pressure was off him. "You can't do this," he kept mumbling. "You can't do this." He was led up the gangway into the belly of the flyer.

Ridenour paused, a shadow in the door, and looked down. Was his glance quizzical? "I must admit to puzzlement about your method," he said. "How will you explode the town without exploding yourselves? I gather your followers have only the sketchiest notion of gadgetry. It isn't simple to jury-rig a timing device."

"No," Karlsarm said, "but it's simple to launch a missile at any angle you choose." He waved to unseen Evagail. "We'll join you shortly."

* * *

The bus took off and dwindled among the last stars. Karlsarm directed his crew in making preparations, then returned outside to watch the first part of the spectacle. Beyond the squat turret at his back, the airfield stretched barren gray to the ruined barracks. How hideous were the works of the Machine People!

But when the missiles departed, that was a heart-stopping sight.

They were solid-fuel rockets. There had been no reason to give expensive gravitic jobs to a minor colonial town so far from the battlefront that the Arulians couldn't possibly attack it in force. The weapons lifted out of their three launchers some distance away . . . with slow majesty, spouting sun-fire and white clouds, roaring their thundersong that clutched at the throat until Karlsarm gripped his crossbow and glared in defiance of the terror they roused . . . faster, though, streaking off at a steep slant, rising and rising until the flames flickered out . . . still rising, beyond his eyes, but drawing to a halt, caught now by the upper winds that twisted their noses downward, by the very rotation of the planet that aimed them at the place they should have defended—

And heavenward flew the second trio. And the third. Karlsarm judged he had better get into shelter.

He was at the bottom of the bunker with his men—tons of steel, concrete, force-screen generator shutting away the sky—when the rockets fell; and even so, he felt the room tremble around him.

Afterward, emerging, he saw a kilometers-high tree of dust and vapor. The command aircraft landed, hastily took on his group and fled the radioactivity. From the air he saw no church, no Domkirk, nothing but a wide, black, vitrified crater ringed in with burning fields.

He shook, as the bombproof had shaken, and said to no one and everyone: "This is what they would do to us!"

* * *

Running from the morning, they returned to a dusk before dawn. The other raiders were already there. This was in the eastern edge of wilderness, where hills lifted sharply toward the Windhoek Mountains.

Ridenour walked some distance off. He didn't actually wish to be alone; if anything, he wanted a companion for a shield between him and the knowledge that two hundred light-years reached from here to Lissa and the children, their home and Terra. But he must escape Uriason or commit violence. The man had babbled, gobbled, orated and gibbered through their entire time in the air. You couldn't blame him, maybe. His birthplace as well as his job had gone up in lethal smoke. But Ridenour's job was to gather information; and that big auburn-haired Evagail woman, whom he'd met not unamicably while she was still captive, had appeared willing to talk if she ever got a chance.

No one stopped Ridenour. Where could he flee? He climbed onto a crest and looked around.

The valley floor beneath him held only a few trees and they small, probably the result of a forest fire, though nature—incredibly vigorous when civilization has not sucked her dry—had covered all scars with a thick blanket of silvery-green trilobed "grass" and sapphire blossoms. No doubt this was why the area had been set for a rendezvous. Aircraft landed easily. Hundreds of assorted tools must have been stacked here beforehand or stolen from the city, for men were attacking the vehicles like ants. Clang, clatter, hails, cheerful oaths profaned the night's death-hush.

Otherwise there was great beauty in the scene. Eastward, the first color stole across a leaf-roof that ran oceanic to the edge of sight, moving and murmuring in the breeze. Westward, the last few stars glistened in a plum-dark sky, above the purity of Windhoek's snowpeaks. Everywhere dew sparkled.

Ridenour took out pipe and tobacco and lit up. It made him hiccough a bit, on an empty stomach, but comforted him in his chilled weariness. And in his dismay. He had not imagined the outbackers were such threats. Neither had anyone else, apparently. He recalled remarks made about them in Nordyke and (only yesterday?) Domkirk. "Impoverished wretches . . . Well, yes, I'm told they eat well with little effort. But otherwise, just think, no fixed abodes, no books, no schools, no connection with the human mainstream, hardly any metal, hardly any energy source other than brute muscle. Wouldn't you call that an impoverished existence? Culturally as well as materially?"

"Surly, treacherous, arrogant. I tell you, I've dealt with them. In trading posts on the wilderness fringe. They do bring in furs, wild fruits, that sort of thing, to swap, mostly for steel tools—but only when they feel like taking the trouble, which isn't often, and then they treat you like dirt."

But a much younger man had had another story. "Sure, if one of us looks down on the woodsrunners, they'll look down right back at him. But I was interested and acted friendly, and they invited me to overnight in their camp . . . . Their songs are plain caterwauling, but I've never seen better dancing, not even on Imperial Ballet Corps tapes, and afterward, the girls—! I think I might get me some trade goods and return some day.

"Swinish. Lazy. Dangerous also, I agree. Look what they've done every time someone tried to start a real outpost of civilization in the mid-wilderness. We'll have to clean them out before we can expand. Once this damned Arulian war is over—No, don't get me wrong, I'm not vindictive. Let's treat them like any other criminal: rehabilitation, re-integration into society. I'll go further; I'll admit this is a case of cultural conflict rather than ordinary lawbreaking. So why not let the irreconcilables live out their lives peacefully on a reservation somewhere? As long as their children get raised civilized—

"If you ask me, I think heredity comes into the picture. It wasn't easy to establish the Cities, maintain and enlarge them, the first few centuries on an isolated, metal-poor world like this. Those who couldn't stand the gaff opted out. Once the disease and nutrition problems were licked, you could certainly live with less work in the forests—if you didn't mind turning into a savage and didn't feel any obligation toward the civilization that had made your survival possible. Later, through our whole history, the same thing continued. The lazy, the criminal, the mutinous, the eccentric, the lecherous, the irresponsible, sneaking off . . . to this very day. No wonder the outbackers haven't accomplished anything. They never will, either. I'm not hopeful about rehabilitating them, myself, not even any of their brats that we institutionalized at birth. Scrub stock!

"Well, yes, I did live with them a while. Ran away when I was sixteen. Mainly, I think now, my reason was—you know, girls—and that part was fine, if you don't wonder about finding some girl you can respect when you're ready to get married. And I thought it'd be romantic. Primitive hunter, that sort of thing. Oh, they were kind enough. But they set me to learning endless nonsense—stuff too silly and complicated to retain in my head—rituals, superstitions—and they don't really hunt much, they have some funny kind of herding—and no stereo, no cars, no air-conditioning—hiking for days on end, and have you ever been out in a Freehold rainstorm?—and homesickness, after a while; they don't talk or behave or think like us. So I came back: And mighty draggle-tailed, I don't mind admitting. No, they didn't forbid me. One man guided me to the nearest cultivated land.

"Definitely an Arulian influence, Professor Ridenour. I've observed the outbackers at trading posts, visited some of their camps, made multisensory tapes. Unscientific, no doubt. I'm strictly an amateur as an ethnologist. But I felt somebody must try. They are more numerous, more complicated, more important than Nine Cities generally realize. Here, I'll play some of my recordings for you. Pay special attention to the music and some of the artwork. Furthermore, what little I could find out about their system of reckoning kinship looks as if it's adopted key Arulian notions. And remember, too, the savages—not only on this continent, but on both others, where they seemed to have developed similarly. Everywhere on Freehold, the savages have grown more and more hostile in these past years. Not to our Arulian enemies, but to us! When the Arulians were marshalling in various wilderness regions, did they have savage help? I find it hard to believe they did not."

Ridenour drank smoke and shivered.

He grew peripherally aware of an approach and turned. Evagail joined him on panther feet. She hadn't yet bothered to dress, but the wetness and chill didn't seem to inconvenience her. Ridenour scolded himself for being aware of how good she looked. Grow up, he thought; you're a man with a task at hand.

"Figured I'd join you." Her husky voice used the Upwoods dialect, which was said to be more archaic than that of the Cities. The pronunciation was indeed different, slower and softer. But Ridenour had not observed that vocabulary and grammar had suffered much. Maybe not at all. "You look lonesome. Hungry, too, I'll bet. Here." She offered him a large gold-colored sphere.

"What's that?" he asked.

"Steak apple, we call it. Grows everywhere this time of year."

He lay down his pipe and bit. The fruit was delicious, sweet, slightly smoky, but with an underlying taste of solid protein. Ravenous, he bit again. "Thank you," he said around a mouthful. "This should be a meal by itself."

"Well, not quite. It'll do for breakfast, though."

"I, uh, understand the forests bear ample food the year around."

"Yes, if you know what to find and how. Was necessary to introduce plants and animals from offworld, mutated forms that could survive on Freehold, before humans could live here without any synthetics. Especially urgent to get organisms that concentrate what iron the soil has, and other essential trace minerals. Several vitamins were required as well."

Ridenour stopped chewing because his jaw had fallen. Savages weren't supposed to talk like that! Hastily, hoping to keep her in the right mood, he recovered his composure and said: "I believe the first few generations established such species to make it easier to move into the wilderness and exploit its resources. Why didn't they succeed?"

"Lots of reasons," Evagail said. "Including, I think, a pretty deep-rooted fear of ever being alone." She scowled. Her tone grew harsh. "But there was a practical reason, too. The new organisms upset the ecology. Had no natural enemies here, you see. They destroyed enormous areas of forest. That's how the desert south of Startop originated, did you know? Our first generations had a fiend's time restoring balance and fertility."

Again Ridenour gaped, not sure he had heard right.

"Of course, the sun helped," she went on more calmly.

"Beg pardon?"

"The sun." She pointed east. The early light was now like molten steel, and spears of radiance struck upward. Her hair was made copper, her body bronze. "F-type star. Actinic and ionizing radiation gets through in quantity, even with this dense an atmosphere. Biochemistry is founded on highly energetic compounds. Freehold life is more vigorous than Terran, evolves faster, finds more new ways to be what it wants." Her voice rang. "You learn how to become worthy of the forest, or you don't last long."

Ridenour looked away from her. She aroused too much within him.

The work of demolishing the aircraft went apace, despite the often primitive equipment used. He could understand why their metal was often desired. The outbackers were known to have mines of their own, but few and poor; they employed metal only where it was quite unfeasible to substitute stone, wood, glass, leather, bone, shell, fiber, glue . . . . But the vehicles were being stripped with unexpected care. Foremen who obviously knew what they were doing supervised the removal, intact, of articles like transceivers and power cells.

Evagail seemed to follow his thought. "Oh, yes, we'll use those gadgets while they last," she said. "They aren't vital, but they're handy. For certain purposes."

Ridenour finished his apple, picked up his pipe and rekindled it. She wrinkled her nose. Tobacco was not a vice of the woodsfolk, though they were rumored to have many others, including some that would astonish a jaded Terran. "I never anticipated that much knowledgeability," he said. "Including, if I may make bold, your own."

"We're not all provincials," she answered, with a quirk of lips. "Quite a few, like Karlsarm, for instance, have studied offplanet. They'd be chosen, you see, as having the talent for it. Afterward they'd come back and teach others."


She studied him for a moment, with disconcertingly steady hazel eyes, before saying: "No harm in telling you, I suppose. I believe you're an honest man, John Ridenour—intellectually honest—and we do need some communicators between us and the Empire.

"Our people took passage on Arulian ships. This was before the rebellion, of course. It began generations ago. The humans of the Nine Cities paid no attention. They'd always held rather aloof from the Arulians: partly from snobbishness, I suppose, and partly from lack of imagination. But the Arulians traded directly with us, too. That wasn't any secret. Nor was it a secret that we saw more of them more intimately, learned more from them, than the City men did. It was only that the City men weren't interested in details of that relationship. They didn't ask what their 'inferiors' were up to. Why should we or the Arulians volunteer lectures about it?"

"And what were you up to?" Ridenour asked softly.

"Nothing, at first, except that we wanted some of our people to have a look at galactic civilization—real civilization, not those smug, ingrown Nine—and the Arulians were willing to sell us berths on their regular cargo ships. In the nature of the case, our visits were mainly to planets outside the Empire, which is why Terra never heard what was going on. At last, though, some, like Karlsarm, did make their way to Imperial worlds, looked around, enrolled in schools and universities . . . By that time, however, relations on Freehold were becoming strained. There was no predicting what might happen. We thought it best to provide our students with cover identities. That wasn't hard. No one inquired closely. No one can remember all the folkways of all the colonies. This is such a big galaxy."

"It is that," Ridenour whispered. The sun climbed aloft, too brilliant for him to look anywhere near.

"What are you going to do now?" he asked.

"Fade into the woods before enemy flyers track us down. Cache our plunder and start for home."

"But what about your prisoners? The men who were forced to pilot and—"

"Why, they can stay here. We'll show them what they can eat and where a spring is. And we'll leave plenty of debris. A searcher's bound to spot them before long. Of course, I hope some will join us. We don't have as many men with civilized training as we could use."

"Join you?" Ridenour choked. "After what you have done?"

Again she regarded him closely and gravely. "What did we do that was unforgivable? Killed some men, yes—but in honest battle, in the course of war. Then we risked everything to spare the lives of everybody else."

"But what about their livelihoods? Their homes? Their possessions, their—"

"What about ours?" Evagail shrugged. "Never mind. I suspect we will get three or four recruits. Young men who've felt vaguely restless and unfulfilled. I had hopes about you. But maybe I'd better go talk with someone more promising."

She turned, not brusquely or hostilely, and rippled back downhill. Ridenour stared after her.

* * *

He stood long alone, thinking, while the sun lifted and the sky filled with birds and the work neared an end below him. It was becoming more and more clear that the outbackers—the Free People, as they seemed to call themselves—were not savages.

Neither Miserable Degraded Savages nor Noble Happy Savages. All their generations, shaped by these boundless shadowy whispering woodlands and by what they learned from beings whose species and mode of life were not human: that alchemy had transmuted them into something so strange that their very compatriots in the Nine Cities had failed to identify it.

But what was it?

Not a civilization, Ridenour felt sure. You could not have a true civilization without . . . libraries, scientific and artistic apparatus, tradition-drenched buildings, reliable transportation and communication . . . the cumbersome necessary impedimenta of high culture. But you could have a barbarism that was subtle, powerful and deathly dangerous. He harked back to ages of history, forgotten save by a few scholars. Hyksos in Egypt, Dorians in Achaea, Lombards in Italy, Vikings in England, Crusaders in Syria, Mongols in China, Aztecs in Mexico. Barbarians, to whom the malcontents of civilization often deserted—who gained such skills that incomparably more sophisticated societies fell before them.

Granted, in the long run the barbarian was either absorbed by his conquests or was himself overcome. Toward the end of the pre-space travel era, civilization had been the aggressor, crushing and devouring the last pathetic remnants of barbarism. It was hard to see how Karlsarm's folk could hold out against atomic weapons and earthmoving machinery, let alone prevail over them.

And yet the outbackers had destroyed Domkirk.

And they had no immediate fear of punitive expeditions from Cities or Empire. Why should they? The wilderness was theirs, roadless, townless, mapped only from above and desultorily at that—three-fourths of Freehold's land surface! How could an avenger find them?

Well, the entire wilderness could be destroyed. High-altitude multimegaton bursts can set a whole continent ablaze. Or, less messily, disease organisms can be synthesized that attack vegetation and soon create a desert.

But no. Such measures would ruin the Nine Cities too. Though they might be protected from direct effects, the planetary climate would be changed, agriculture become impossible, the economy crumble and the people perforce abandon their world. And the Cities were the sole thing that made Freehold valuable, to Terra or Merseia. They formed a center of population and industry on a disputed frontier. Without them, this was simply one more undeveloped globe: because of its metal poverty, not worth anyone's trouble.

Doubtless Karlsarm and his fellow chiefs understood this. The barbarians could only be obliterated gradually, by the piecemeal conquest, clearing and cultivation of their forests. Doubtless they understood that, too, and were determined to forestall the process. Today there remained just eight Cities, of which two were in the hands of their Arulian friends (?) and two others crippled by the chances of war. Whatever the barbarians planned next, and whether they succeeded or not, they might well bring catastrophe on civilized Freeholder man.

Ridenour's mouth tightened. He started down the hill.

* * *

Halfway, he met Uriason coming up. He had heard the mayor some distance off, raving over his shoulder while several listening outbackers grinned:

"—treason! I say the three of you are traitors! Oh, yes, you talk about 'attempted rapprochement' and 'working for a detente.' The fact remains you are going over to the monsters who destroyed your own home! And why! Because you aren't fit to be human. Because you would rather loaf in the sun, and play with unwashed sluts, and pretend that a few superstitious ceremonies are 'autochthonous' than take the trouble to cope with this universe. It won't last, gentlemen. Believe me, the glamor will soon wear off. You will come skulking back like many other runaways, and expect to be received as indulgently as they were. But I warn you. This is war. You have collaborated with the enemy. If you dare return, I, your mayor, will do my best to see you prosecuted for treason!"

Puffing hard, he stopped Ridenour. "Ah, sir." His voice was abruptly low. "A word, if you please."

The xenologist suppressed a groan and waited.

Uriason looked back. No one was paying attention. "I really am indignant," he said after he had his breath. "Three of them! Saying they had long found their work dull and felt like trying something new . . . . But no matter. My performance was merely in character."

"What?" Ridenour almost dropped his pipe from his jaws.

"Calm, sir, be calm, I beg you." The little eyes were turned up, unblinking, and would not release the Terran's. "I took for granted that you also will accompany the savages from here."


"An excellent opportunity to fulfill your mission, really to learn something about them. Eh?"

"But I hadn't—Well, uh, the idea did cross my mind. But I'm no actor. I'd never convince them I was suddenly converted to their cause. They might believe that of a bored young provincial who isn't very bright to begin with. Even in those cases, I'll bet they'll keep a wary eye out for quite some time. But me, a Terran, a scientist, a middle-aged paterfamilias? The outbackers aren't stupid, Mayor."

"I know, I know," Uriason said impatiently. "Nevertheless, if you offer to go with them—telling them quite frankly that your aim is to collect information—they will take you. I am sure of it. I kept my ears open down yonder, sir, as well as my mouth. The savages are anxious to develop a liaison with the Empire. They will let you return whenever you say. Why should they fear you? By the time you, on foot, reach any of the cities, whatever military intelligence you can offer will be obsolete. Or so they think."

Ridenour gulped. The round red face was no longer comical. It pleaded. After a while, it commanded.

"Listen, Professor," Uriason said. "I played the buffoon in order to be discounted and ignored. Your own best role is probably that of the impractical academician. But you may thus gain a chance for an immortal name. If you have the manhood!

"Listen, I say. I listened to them. And I weighed in my mind what I overheard. The annihilation of Domkirk was part of some larger scheme. It was advanced ahead of schedule in order to rescue those prisoners we held. What comes next, I do not know. I am only certain that the plan is bold, large-scale and diabolical. It seems reasonable, therefore, that forces must be massed somewhere. Does it not? Likewise, it seems reasonable that these murderers will join that force. Does it not? Perhaps I am wrong. If so, you have lost nothing. You can simply continue to be the absent-minded scientist, until you decide to go home. And that will be of service per se. You will bring useful data.

"However, if I am right, you will accompany this gang to some key point. And when you arrive . . . . Sir, warcraft of the Imperial Navy are in blockading orbit. When I reach Nordyke, I shall speak to Admiral Cruz. I shall urge that he adopt my plan—the plan that came to me when I saw—here." Uriason reached under his cloak. Snake swift, he thrust a small object into Ridenour's hand. "Hide that. If anyone notices and asks you about it, dissemble. Call it a souvenir or something."

"But . . . but what—" Like an automaton, Ridenour pocketed the hemicylinder. He felt a pair of supercontacts on either end and a grille on the flat side and assumed that complex microcircuitry was packed into the plastic case.

"A communication converter. Have you heard of them?"

"I—yes. I've heard."

"Good. I doubt that any of the savages have, although they are surprisingly well informed in certain respects. The device is not new or secret, but with galactic information flow as inadequate as it is, especially here on what was a sleepy backwater . . . . Let me refresh your memory, sir. Substitute this device for the primary modulator in any energy weapon of the third or fourth class. The weapon will thereupon become a maser communicator, projecting the human voice to a considerable distance. I shall ask Admiral Cruz to order at least one of his orbital ships brought low and illuminated for the next several weeks, so that you may have a target to aim at. If you find yourself in an important concentration of the enemy's—where surely stolen energy weapons will be kept—and if you get an opportunity to call down a warcraft . . . . Do you follow me?"

"But," Ridenour stammered. "But. How?"

"As mayor, I knew that such devices were included in the last consignment of defensive materials that the Navy sent to Domkirk. I knew that one was carried on every military aircraft of ours. And several military aircraft were among those stolen last night. I watched my chance, I made myself ridiculous, and—" Uriason threw out his chest, thereby also throwing out his belly—"at the appropriate moment, I palmed this one from beneath the noses of the wrecking crew."

Ridenour wet his lips. They felt sandpapery. "I could've guessed that much," he got out. "But me—I—how—"

"It would not be in character for me to accompany the savages into their wilderness," Uriason said.

"They would be entirely too suspicious. Can I, can Freehold, can His Majesty and the entire human species rely upon you, sir?"

The man was short and fat. His words rose like hot-air balloons. Nevertheless, had he dared under possible observation, Ridenour would have bowed most deeply. As matters were, the Terran could just say, "Yes, Citizen Mayor, I'll try to do my best."

* * *

These were the stages of their journey:

Karlsarm walked beside Ridenour, amicably answering questions. But wariness crouched behind. He wasn't altogether convinced that this man's reasons for coming along were purely scientific and diplomatic. At least, he'd better not be, yet. Sometimes he thought that humans from the inner Empire were harder to fathom than most nonhumans. Being of the same species, talking much the same language, they ought to react in the same ways as your own people. And they didn't. The very facial expressions, a frown, a smile, were subtly foreign.

Ridenour, for immediate example, was courteous, helpful, even genial: but entirely on the surface. He showed nothing of his real self. No doubt he loved his family and was loyal to his Emperor and enjoyed his work and was interested in many other aspects of reality. He spoke of such things. But the emotion didn't come through. He made no effort to share his feelings, rather he kept them to himself with an ease too great to be conscious.

Karlsarm had encountered the type before, offplanet. He speculated that reserve was more than an aristocrat's idea of good manners; it was a defense. Jammed together with billions of others, wired from before birth into a network of communication, coordination, impersonal omnipotent social machinery, the human being could only protect his individuality by making his inner self a fortress. Here, in the outback of Freehold, you had room; neither people nor organizations pressed close upon you; if anything, you grew eager for intimacy. Karlsarm felt sorry for Terrans. But that did not help him understand or trust them.

"You surprise me pleasantly," he remarked. "I didn't expect you'd keep up with us the way you do."

"Well, I try to stay in condition," Ridenour said. "And remember, I'm used to somewhat higher gravity. But to be honest, I expected a far more difficult trip—narrow muddy trails and the like. You have a road here."

"Hm, I don't think a lot of it. We do better elsewhere. But then, this is a distant marchland for us."

Both men glanced around. The path crossed a high hillside, smoothly graded and switchbacked, surface planted in a mossy growth so tough and dense that no weeds could force themselves in. (It was a specially bred variety which, among other traits, required traces of manganese salt. Maintenance gangs supplied this from time to time, and thus automatically kept the moss within proper bounds.) The path was narrow, overarched by forest, a sun-speckled cool corridor where birds whistled and a nearby cataract rang. Because of its twistings, few other people were visible, though the party totalled hundreds.

Most of them were on different courses anyhow. Karlsarm had explained that the Free People laid out as many small, interconnected, more or less parallel ways as the traffic in a given area demanded, rather than a single broad highroad. It was easier to do, less damaging to ecology and scenery, more flexible to changing situations. Also, it was generally undetectable from above. He had not seen fit to mention the other mutant plant types, sown throughout this country, whose exudates masked those of human metabolism and thereby protected his men from airborne chemical sniffers.

"I've heard you use beasts of burden in a limited fashion," Ridenour said.

"Yes, horses and stathas have been naturalized here," Karlsarm said. "And actually, in our central regions, we keep many. City folk see just a few, because we don't often bring them to our thinly populated borderlands. No reason for it. You can go about as fast on foot, when you aren't overloaded with gear. But at home you'll see animals, wagons—boats and rafts, for that matter—in respectable totals."

"Your population must be larger than is guessed, then."

"I don't know what the current guess is in the Cities. And we don't bother with, uh, a census. But I'd estimate twenty million of us on this continent, and about the same for the others. Been stable for a long time. That's the proper human density. We don't crowd each other or press hard on natural resources. And so we've got abundant free food and stuff. No special effort involved in satisfying the basic needs. At the same time, there are enough of us for specialization, diversity, large-scale projects like road building. And, I might add, gifted people. You know, only about ten per cent of mankind are born to be leaders or creators in any degree. We'd stagnate if we were too few, same as we'd grow cramped and over-regulated if we became too many."

"How do you maintain a level population? You don't appear to have any strong compulsion mechanism."

"No, we haven't. Tradition, public opinion, the need to help your neighbor so he'll help you, the fact that out-and-out bastards get into quarrels and eventually get killed—such factors will do, when you have elbow room. The population-control device is simple. It wasn't planned, it evolved, but it works. Territory."

"Beg pardon?"

"A man claims a certain territory for his own, to support him and his family and retainers. He passes it on to one son. How he chooses the heir is his business. Anybody who kills the owner, or drives him off, takes over that parcel of land."

Ridenour actually registered a little shock, though he managed a smile. "Your society is less idyllic than some young City people told me," he said.

Karlsarm laughed. "We do all right—most of us. Can any civilization claim more? The landless don't starve, remember. They're taken on as servants, assistants, guards and the like. Or they become itinerant laborers, or entrepreneurs, or something. Let me remind you, we don't practice marriage. Nobody needs to go celibate. It's only that few women care to have children by a landless man." He paused. "Territorial battles aren't common any more, either. The landholders have learned how to organize defenses. Besides, a decent man can count on help from his neighbors. So not many vagabonds try to reave an estate. Those that do, and succeed—well, haven't they proven they're especially fit to become fathers?"

The paths ranged above timberline. The land became boulder-strewn, chill and stark. Ridenour exclaimed, "But this road's been blasted from the cliff side!"

"Why, of course," said Rowlan. "You didn't think we'd chip it out by hand, did you?"

"But what do you use for such jobs?"

"Organics. Like nitroglycerine. We compound that—doesn't take much apparatus, you know—and make dynamite from it. Some other explosives, and most fuels, we get from vegetables we've bred." Rowlan tugged his gray beard and regarded the Terran. "If you want to make a side trip," he offered, "I'll show you a hydroelectric plant. You'll call it ridiculously small, but it beams power to several mills and an instrument factory. We are not ignorant, John Ridenour. We adopt from your civilization what we can use. It simply doesn't happen to be a particularly large amount."

Even in this comparatively infertile country, food was plentiful. There were no more fruits for the plucking, but roots and berries were almost as easily gotten in the low brush, and animals—albeit of different species from the lowlands—continued to arrive near camp for slaughter. Ridenour asked scholarly little Noach how that was done, he being a beast operator himself. "Are they domesticated and conditioned?"

"No, I wouldn't call them that, exactly," Noach replied. "Not like horses or dogs. We use the proper stimuli on them. Those vary, depending on what you're after and where you are. For instance, in Brenning Dales you can unstopper a bottle of sex attractant, and every gruntleboar within ten kilometers rushes straight toward your bow. Around the Mare we've bred instincts into certain species to come when a sequence of notes is played on a trumpet. If nothing else, you can always stalk for yourself, any place. Hunting isn't difficult when critters are abundant. We don't want to take the time on this journey, though, so Mistress Jenith has been driving those cragbuck with her fire bees." He shrugged. "There are plenty of other ways. What you don't seem to realize, as yet, is that we're descended from people who applied scientific method to the problem of living in a wilderness."

* * *

For once, the night was clear above Foulweather Pass. Snow glistened on surrounding peaks, under Selene, until darkness lay drenched with an unreal brilliance. Not many stars shone through. But Karlsarm scowled at one, which was new and moved visibly, widdershins over his head.

"They've put up another satellite." The words puffed ghost white from his lips; sound was quickly lost, as if it froze and tinkled down onto the hoarfrosted road. "Or moved a big spaceship into near orbit without camouflage. Why?"

"The war?" Evagail shivered beside him and wrapped her fur cloak tighter about her. (It was not her property. Warm outfits were kept for travelers in a shed at the foot of the pass, to be returned on the other side, with a small rental paid to the servant of the landholder.) "What's been happening?"

"The news is obscure, what I get of it on that miniradio we took along," Karlsarm said. "A major fight's developing near Sluicegate. Nuclear weapons, the whole filthy works. By Oneness, if this goes on much longer we won't be left with a planet worth inhabiting!"

"Now don't exaggerate." She touched his hand. "I grant you, territories that's fought on, or suffers fallout, is laid waste. But not forever; and it isn't any big percentage of the total."

"You wouldn't say that if you were the owner. And what about the ecological consequences? The genetic? Let's not get overconfident about these plant and animal species we've modified to serve our needs while growing wild. They're still new and unstable. A spreading mutation could wipe them out. Or we might have to turn farmers to save them!"

"I know. I know. I do want you to see matters in perspective. But agreed, the sooner the war ends, the better." Evagail turned her gaze from that sinister, crawling spark in the sky. She looked down the slope on which they stood, to the camp. Oilwood fires were strewn along the way, each economically serving a few people. They twinkled like red and orange constellations. A burst of laughter, a drift of song came distantly to her ears.

Karlsarm could practically read her thought. "Very well, what about Ridenour?" he challenged.

"I can't say. I talk with him, but he's so locked into himself, I get no hint of what his real purpose may be. I could almost wish my Skill were of the love kind."

"Why yours?" Karlsarm demanded. "Why don't you simply wish, like me, that we had such a Mistress with us?"

Evagail paused before she chuckled. "Shall I admit the truth? He attracts me. He's thoroughly a man, in his quiet way; and he's exotic and mysterious to boot. Must you really sic an aphrodite onto him when we reach Moon Garnet?"

"I'll decide that at the time. Meanwhile, you can help me decide and maybe catch forewarning of any plot against us. He can't hide that he's drawn to you. Use the fact."

"I don't like to. Men and women—of course, I mean women who don't have that special Skill—they should give to each other, not take. I don't even know if I could deceive him."

"You can try. If he realizes and gets angry, what of it?" Beneath the shadowing carnivore headpiece, Karlsarm's features turned glacier stern. "You have your duty."

"Well . . . ." Briefly, her voice was forlorn. "I suppose." Then the wide smooth shoulders straightened. Moonfrost sparkled on a mane lifted high. "It could be fun, too, couldn't it?" She turned and walked from him.

* * *

Ridenour sat at one campfire, watching a dance. The steps were as intricate as the music that an improvised orchestra made. He seemed not only glad but relieved when Evagail seated herself beside him.

"Hullo," she greeted. "Are you enjoying the spectacle?"

"Yes," he said, "but largely in my professional capacity. I'm sure it's high art, but the conventions are too alien for me."

"Isn't your business to unravel alien symbolisms?"

"In part. Trouble is, what you have here is not merely different from anything I've ever seen before. It's extraordinarily subtle—obviously the product of a long and rigorous tradition. I've discovered, for instance, that your musical scale employs smaller intervals than any other human music I know of. Thus you make and use and appreciate distinctions and combinations that I'm not trained to hear."

"I think you'll find that's typical," Evagail said. "We aren't innocent children of nature, we Free People. I suspect we elaborate our lives more, we're fonder of complication, ingenuity, ceremoniousness, than Terra herself."

"Yes, I've talked to would-be runaways from the Cities."

She laughed. "Well, the custom is that we give recruits a tough apprenticeship. If they can't get through that, we don't want them. Probably they wouldn't survive long. Not that life's harder among us than in the Cities. In fact, we have more leisure. But life is altogether different here."

"I've scarcely begun to grasp how different," Ridenour said. "The questions are so many, I don't know where to start." A dancer leaped, his feather bonnet streaming in Selene light, flame light, and shadow. A flute twittered, a drum thuttered, a harp trilled, a bell rang, chords intertwining like ripple patterns on water. "What arts do you have besides . . . this?"

"Not architecture, or monumental sculpture, or murals, or multi-sense taping." Evagail smiled. "Nothing that requires awkward masses. But we do have schools of—oh, scrimshaw, jewelry, weaving, painting and carvings, that sort of thing—and they are genuine, serious arts. Then drama, literature, cuisine . . . and things you don't have—to call them contemplation, conversation, integration—but those are poor words."

"What I can't understand is how you can manage without those awkward masses," Ridenour said. "For example, everyone seems to be literate. But what's the use? What is there to read?"

"Why, we probably have more books and periodicals than you do. No electronics competing with them. One of the first things our ancestors did, when they started colonizing the outback in earnest, was develop plants with leaves that dry into paper and juice that makes ink. Many landholders keep a little printing press in the same shed as their other heavy equipment. It doesn't need much metal, and wind or water can power it. Don't forget, each area maintains schools. The demand for reading matter is a source of income—yes, we use iron and copper slugs for currency—and the transporters carry mail as well as goods."

"How about records, though? Libraries? Computers? Information exchange?"

"I've never met anybody who collects books, the way some do in the Cities. If you want to look at a piece again, copies are cheap." (Ridenour thought that this ruled out something he had always considered essential to a cultivated man—the ability to browse, to re-read on impulse, to be serendipitous among the shelves. However, no doubt these outbackers thought he was uncouth because he didn't know how to dance or to arrange a meteor-watching festival.) "Messages go speedily enough for our purposes. We don't keep records like you. Our mode of life doesn't require it. Likewise, we have quite a live technology, still developing. Yes, and a pure science. But they concentrate on areas of work that need no elaborate apparatus: the study of animals, for instance, and ways to control them."

Evagail leaned closer to Ridenour. No one else paid attention; they were watching the performance. "But do me a favor tonight, will you?" she asked.

"What? Why, certainly." His gaze drifted across the ruddy lights in her hair, the shadows under her cloak, and hastily away. "If I can."

"It's easy." She laid a hand over his. "Just for tonight, stop being a research machine. Make small talk. Tell me a joke or two. Sing me a Terran song, when they finish here. Or walk with me to look at the moon. Be human, John Ridenour . . . only a man . . . this little while."

* * *

West of the pass, the land became a rolling plateau. Again it was forested, but less thickly and with other trees than in the warm eastern valleys. The travelers met folk more often, as population grew denser; and these were apt to be mounted. Karlsarm didn't bother with animals. A human in good condition can log fifty kilometers a day across favorable terrain, without difficulty. Ridenour remarked, highly centralized empires were held together on ancient Terra with communication no faster than this.

Besides, the outbackers possessed them: not merely an occasional aircar for emergency use, but a functioning web. He broke into uncontrollable laughter when Evagail first explained the system to him.

"What's so funny?" She cocked her head. Though they were much together, to the exclusion of others, they still lacked mutual predictability. He might now be wearing outbacker garb and be darkened by Freehold's harsh sunlight and have let his beard grow because he found a diamond-edge razor too much trouble. But he remained a stranger.

"I'm sorry. Old saying." He looked around the glen where they stood. Trees were stately above blossom-starred grasses; leaves murmured in a cool breeze and smelled like spice. He touched a green tendril that curled over one trunk and looped to the next. "Grapevine telegraph!"

"But . . . well, I don't recognize your phrase, John, but that kind of plant does carry signals. Our ancestors went to a vast amount of work to create the type and sow and train it, over the entire mid-continent. I confess the signals don't go at light speed, only neural speed; and the channel isn't awfully broad—but it suffices for us."

"How do you, uh, activate it?"

"That requires a Skill. To send something, you'd go to the nearest node and pay the woman who lives there. She'd transmit."

Ridenour nodded. "I see. Actually, I've met setups on nonhuman planets that aren't too different from this." He hesitated. "What do you mean by a Skill?"

"A special ability, inborn, cultivated, disciplined. You've watched Skills in action on our route, haven't you?"

"I'm not certain. You see, I'm barely starting to grasp the pattern of your society. Before, everything was a jumble of new impressions. Now I observe meaningful differences between this and that. Take our friend Noach, for one, with his spying quasi-weasels; or Karlsarm and the rest, who use birds for couriers. Do they have Skills?"

"Of course not. I suppose you might say their animals do. That is, the creatures have been bred to semi-intelligence. They have the special abilities and instincts, the desire, built into their chromosomes. But as for the men who use them, no, all they have is training in language and handling. Anybody could be taught the same."

Ridenour looked at her, where she stood like a lioness in the filtered green light, stillness and strange odors at her back. "Only women have Skills, then," he said finally.

She nodded. "Yes."

"Why? Were they bred too?"

"No." Astonishingly, she colored. "Whatever we may do with other men, we seldom become pregnant by anyone but a landholder. We want our children to have a claim on him. But somehow, women seem able to do more with hormones and pheromones. A biologist tried to explain why, but I couldn't follow him terribly well. Let's say the female has a more complex biochemistry, more closely involved with her psyche, than a male. Not that any woman can handle any materials. In fact, those who can do something with them are rare. When identified, in girlhood, they're carefully trained to use what substances they can."


"It depends. A course of drugs may change the body secretions . . . delicately; you wouldn't perceive any difference; but someone like Mistress Jenith will never be stung by her fire bees. Rather, they'll always live near her. And she has ways to control them, make them go where she commands and—No, I don't know how. Each Skill keeps its secrets. But you must know how. Each few parts per million in the air will lure insects for kilometers around, to come and mate. Other insects, social ones, use odor signals to coordinate their communities. Man himself lives more by trace chemicals than he realizes. Think how little of some drugs is needed to change his metabolism, even his personality. Think how some smells recall a past scene to you, so vividly you might be there again. Think how it was proven, long ago, that like, dislike, appetite, fear, anger . . . every emotion . . . are conditioned by just such faint cues. Now imagine what can be done, as between a woman who knows precisely how to use those stimuli—some taken from bottles, some created at will by her own glands—between her and an organism bred to respond."

"An Arulian concept?"

"Yes, we learned a lot from the Arulians," Evagail said.

"They call you Mistress, I've heard. What's your Skill?"

She lost gravity. Her grin was impudent. "You may find out one day. Come, let's rejoin the march." She took his hand. "Though we needn't hurry," she added.

* * *

As far as could be ascertained, Freehold had never been glaciated. The average climate was milder than Terra's, which was one reason the outbackers didn't need fixed houses. They moved about within their territories, following the game and the fruits of the earth, content with shelters erected here and there, or with bedrolls. By Ridenour's standards, it was an austere life.

Or it had been. He found his canon gradually changing. The million sights, sounds, smells, less definable sensations of the wilderness, made a city apartment seem dead by contrast, no matter how many electronic entertainers you installed.

(Admittedly, the human kinds of fun were limited. A minstrel, a ball game, a chess game, a local legend, a poetry reading, were a little pallid to a man used to living at the heart of Empire. And while the outbackers could apparently do whatever they chose with drugs and hypnotism, so could the Terrans. Lickerish rumor had actually underrated their uninhibited inventiveness in other departments of pleasure. But you had only a finite number of possibilities there too, didn't you? And he wasn't exactly a young man any more, was he? And damn, but he missed Lissa! Also the children, of course, the tobacco he'd exhausted, friends, tall towers, the gentler daylight of Sol and familiar constellations after dark, the sane joys of scholarship and teaching: everything, everything.)

But life could not be strictly nomadic. Some gear was not portable, or needed protection. Thus, in each territory, at least one true house and several outbuildings had been erected, where the people lived from time to time.

Humans needed protection too. Ridenour found that out when he and Evagail were caught in a storm.

She had led him off the line of march to show him such a center. They had been en-route for an hour or two when she began casting uneasy glances at the sky. Clouds rose in the north, unbelievably high thunderheads with lightning in their blue-black depths. A breeze chilled and stiffened; the forest moaned. "We'd better speed up," she said at length. "Rainstorm headed this way."

"Well?" He no longer minded getting wet.

"I don't mean those showers we've had. I mean the real thing."

Ridenour gulped and matched her trot. He knew what kind of violence a deep, intensely irradiated atmosphere can breed. Karlsarm's folk must be hard at work, racing to chop branches and make rough roofs and walls for themselves. Two alone couldn't do it in time. They'd normally have sought refuge under a windfall or in a hollow trunk or anything else they found. But a house was obviously preferable.

The wind worsened. Being denser than Terra's, air never got to hurricane velocity; but it thrust remorselessly, a quasi-solid, well-nigh unbreathable mass. Torn-off leaves and boughs started to fly overhead, under a galloping black cloud wrack. Darkness thickened, save when lightning split the sky. Thunder, keenings, breakings and crashings, resounded through Ridenour's skull.

He had believed himself in good shape, but presently he was staggering. Any man must soon be exhausted, pushing against that horrible wind. Evagail, though, continued, easy of breath. How? he wondered numbly, before he lost all wonder in the cruel combat to keep running.

The first raindrops fell, enormous, driven by the tempest, stinging like gravel when they struck. You could be drowned in a flash flood, if you were not literally flayed by the hail that would soon come. Ridenour reeled toward unconsciousness—no, he was helped, Evagail upbore him, he leaned on her and—

And they reached the hilltop homestead.

It consisted of low, massive log-and-stone buildings, whose overgrown sod roofs would hardly be visible from above. Everything stood unlighted, empty. But the door to the main house opened at Evagail's touch; no place in the woodlands had a lock. She dragged Ridenour across the threshold and closed the door again. He lay in gloom and gasped his way back to consciousness. As if across light-years, he heard her say, "We didn't arrive any too soon, did we?" There followed the cannonade of the hail.

After a while he was on his feet. She had stimulated the lamps, which were microcultures in glass globes, to their bright phosphorescence and had started a fire on the hearth. The principal heat source, however, was fuel oil, a system antique but adequate. "We might as well figure on spending the night," she said from the kitchen. "This weather will last for hours, and the roads will be rivers for hours after that. Why don't you find yourself a hot bath and some dry clothes? I'll have dinner ready soon."

Ridenour swallowed a sense of inadequacy. He wasn't an outbacker and couldn't be expected to cope with their country. How well would they do on Terra? Exploring, he saw the house to be spacious, many-roomed, beautifully paneled, draped and furnished. Evagail's advice was sound. He returned to her as if reborn.

She had prepared an excellent meal out of what was in the larder, including a heady red wine. White tablecloth, crystal goblets, candlelight were almost a renaissance of a Terra which had been more gracious than today's. (Almost. The utensils were horn, the knifeblades obsidian. The paintings on the walls were of a stylized, unearthly school; looking closely, you could identify Arulian influence. No music lilted from a taper; instead came the muffled brawling of the storm. And the woman who sat across from him wore a natural-fiber kilt, a fringed leather bolero, a dagger and tomahawk.)

They talked in animated and friendly wise, though since they belonged to alien cultures they had little more than question-and-answer conversation. The bottle passed freely back and forth. Being tired and having long abstained, Ridenour was quickly affected by the alcohol. When he noticed that, he thought, what the hell, why not? It glowed within him. "I owe you an apology," he said. "I classed your people as barbarians. I see now you have a true civilization."

"You needed this much time to see that?" she laughed. "Well, I'll forgive you. The Cities haven't realized it yet."

"That's natural. You're altogether strange to them. And, isolated as they are from the galactic mainstream, they . . . haven't the habit of thinking something different . . . can be equal or superior to what they take for granted is the civilized way."

"My, that was a sentence! Do you acknowledge, then, we are superior?"

He shook his head with care.

"No. I can't say that. I'm a city boy myself. A lot of what you do shocks me. Your ruthlessness. Your unwillingness to compromise."

She grew grave. "The Cities never tried to compromise with us, John. I don't know if they can. Our wise men, those who've studied history, say an industrial society must keep expanding or go under. We've got to stop them before they grow too strong. The war's given us a chance."

"You can't rebel against the Empire!" he protested.

"Can't we? We're a goodly ways from Terra. And we are rebelling. No one consulted us about incorporation." Evagail shrugged. "Not that we care about that in itself. What difference to us who claims the overlordship of Freehold, if he lets us alone? But the Cities have not let us alone. They cut down our woods, dam our rivers, dig holes in our soil, and get involved in a war that may wreck the whole planet."

"M-m, you could help end the war if you mobilized against the Arulians."

"To whose benefit? The Cities'!"

"But when you attack the Cities, aren't you aiding the Arulians?"

"No. Not in the long run. They belong to the Cities also. We don't want to fight them—our relationship with them was mostly pleasant, and they taught us a great deal—but eventually we want them off this world."

"You can't expect me to agree that's right."

"Certainly not." Her tone softened. "What we want from you is nothing but an honest report to your leaders. You don't know how happy I am that you admit we are civilized. Or post-civilized. At any rate, we aren't degenerate, we are progressing on our own trail. I can hope you'll go between us and the Empire, as a friend of both, and help work out a settlement. If you do that, you'll live in centuries of ballads: the Peacebringer."

"I'd like that better than anything," he said gladly.

She raised her brows. "Anything?"

"Oh, some things equally, no doubt. I am getting homesick."

"You needn't stay lonely while you're with us," she murmured.

Somehow, their hands joined across the table. The wine sang in Ridenour's veins. "I've wondered why you stood apart from me," she said. "Surely you could see I want to make love with you."

"Y-yes." His heart knocked.

"Why not? You have a . . . a wife, yes. But I can't imagine an Imperial Terran worries about that, two hundred light-years from home. And what harm would be done her?"


She laughed anew, rose and circled the table to stand beside him and rumpled his hair. The odor of her was sweet around him. "All right, then, silly," she said, "what have you been waiting for?"

He remembered. She saw his fists clench and stepped back. He looked at the candle flames, not her, and mumbled: "I'm sorry. It mustn't be."

"Why not?" The wind raved louder, nearly obliterating her words.

"Let's say I do have idiotic medieval scruples."

She regarded him for a space. "Is that the truth?"

"Yes." But not the whole truth, he thought. I am not an observer, not an emissary, I am he who will call down destruction upon you if I can. The thing in my pocket sunders us, dear. You are my enemy, and I will not betray you with a kiss.

"I'm not offended," she said at last, slowly. "Disappointed and puzzled, though."

"We probably don't understand each other as well as we believed," he ventured.

"Might be. Well, let's let the dishes wait and turn in, shall we?" Her tone was less cold than wary.

Next day she was polite but aloof, and after they had rejoined the army she conferred long with Karlsarm.

* * *

Moon Garnet Lake was the heart of the Upwoods: more than fifty kilometers across, walled on three sides by forest and on the fourth by soaring snowpeaks. At every season it was charged with life, fish in argent swarms, birds rising by thousands when a bulligator bellowed in a white-plumed stand of cockatoo reed, wildkine everywhere among the trees. At full summer, microphytons multiplied until the waters glowed deep red, and the food chain which they started grew past belief in size and diversity. As yet, the year was too new for that. Wavelets sparkled clear to the escarpments, where mountaintops floated dim blue against heaven.

"I see why you reacted violently against the attempt to found a town here," Ridenour said to Karlsarm. They stood on a beach, watching most of the expedition frolic in the lake. Those boisterous shouts and lithe brown bodies did not seem out of place; a cruising flock of fowl overhead was larger and made more clangor. The Terran drew a pure breath. "And it would have been a pity, aesthetically speaking. Who owns this region?"

"None," Karlsarm answered. "It's too basic to the whole country. Anyone may use it. The numbers that do aren't great enough to strain the resources, similar things being available all over. So it's a natural site for our periodic head-of-household gatherings." He glanced sideways at the other man and added: "Or for an army to rendezvous."

"You are not disbanding, then?"

"Certainly not. Domkirk was a commencement. We don't intend to stop till we control the planet."

"But you're daydreaming! No other City's as vulnerably located as Domkirk was. Some are on other continents—"

"Where Free People also live. We're in touch."

"What do you plan?"

Karlsarm chuckled. "Do you really expect me to tell you?"

Ridenour made a rueful grin, but his eyes were troubled. "I don't ask for military secrets. In general terms, however, what do you foresee?"

"A war of attrition," Karlsarm said. "We don't like that prospect either. It'll taste especially sour to use biologicals against their damned agriculture. But if we must, we must. We have more land, more resources of the kind that count, more determination. And they can't get at us. We'll outgrind them."

"Are you quite sure? Suppose you provoke them—or the Imperial Navy—into making a real effort. Imagine, say, one atomic bomb dropped into this lake."

Anger laid tight bands around Karlsarm's throat and chest, but he managed to answer levelly: "We have defenses. And means of retaliation. This is a keystone area for us. We won't lose it without exacting a price—which I think they'll find too heavy. Tell them that when you go home!"

"I shall. I don't know if I'll be believed. You appear to have no concept of the power that a single, minor-class spaceship can bring to bear. I beg you to make terms before it's too late."

"Do you aim to convince a thousand leaders like me and the entire society that elected us? I wish you luck, John Ridenour." Karlsarm turned from the pleading gaze. "I'd better get busy. We're still several kilometers short of our campsite."

His brusqueness was caused mainly by doubt of his ability to dissemble much longer. What he, with some experience of Imperialists, sensed in this one's manner, lent strong support to the intuitive suspicions that Evagail had voiced. Ridenour had more on his mind than the Terran admitted. It was unwise to try getting the truth out of him with drugs. He might be immunized or counter-conditioned. Or his secret might turn out to be something harmless. In either case, a potentially valuable spokesman would have been antagonized for nothing.

An aphrodite? She'd boil the ice water in his veins, for certain! And, while possessors of that Skill were rare, several were standing by at present in case they should be needed on some intelligence mission.

It might not work, either. But the odds were high that it would. Damned few men cared for anything but the girl—the woman—the hag—whatever her age, whatever her looks—once she had turned her pheromones loose on him. She could ask what she would as the price of her company. But Ridenour might belong to that small percentage who, otherwise normal, were so intensely inner-directed that it didn't matter how far in love they fell; they'd stick by their duty. Should this prove the case he could not be allowed to leave and reveal the existence of that powerful a weapon. He must be killed, which was repugnant, or detained, which was a nuisance.

Karlsarm's brain labored on, while he issued his orders and led the final march. Ridenour probably did not suspect that he was suspected. He likeliest interpreted Evagail's avoidance of him as due to pique, despite what she had claimed. (And in some degree it no doubt is, Karlsarm snickered to himself.) Chances were he attributed the chief's recent gruffness to preoccupation. He had circulated freely among the other men and women of the force; but not having been told to doubt his good faith, they did not and he must realize it.

Hard to imagine what he might do. He surely did not plan on access to an aircar or a long-range radio transmitter! Doubtless he'd report anything he had seen or heard that might have military significance. But he wouldn't be reporting anything that made any difference. Well before he was conducted to the agrolands, the army would have left Moon Garnet again; and it would not return, because the lake was too precious to use for a permanent base. And all this had been made explicit to Ridenour at the outset.

Well, then, why not give him free rein and see what he did? Karlsarm weighed risks and gains for some time before he nodded to himself.

* * *

The encampment was large. A mere fraction of the Upwoods men had gone to Domkirk. Thousands stayed behind, training. They greeted their comrades with envious hilarity. Fires burned high that night, song and dance and clinking goblets alarmed the forest.

At sunset, Karlsarm and Evagail stood atop a rocky bluff, overlooking water and trees and a northward rise to the camp. Behind them was a cave, from which projected an Arulian howitzer. Several other heavy-duty weapons were placed about the area, and a rickety old war boat patrolled overhead. Here and there, a man flitted into view, bow or blade on shoulder, and vanished again into the brake. Voices could be heard, muted by leaves, and smoke drifted upward. But the signs of man were few, virtually lost in that enormous landscape. With the enemy hundreds of kilometers off, guns as well as picketposts were untended; trees divided the little groups of men from each other and hid them from shore or sky; the evening was mostly remote bird cries and long golden light.

"I wonder what our Terran thinks of this," Karlsarm said. "We must look pretty sloppy to him."

"He's no fool. He doesn't underrate us much. Maybe not at all." Evagail shivered, though the air was yet warm. Her hand crept into his, her voice grew thin. "Could he be right? Could we really be foredoomed?"

"I don't know," Karlsarm said.

She started. The hazel eyes widened. "Loveling! You are always—"

"I can be honest with you," he said. "Ridenour accused me today of not understanding what power the Imperialists command in a single combat unit. He was wrong. I've seen them and I do understand. We can't force terms on them. If they decide the Cities must prevail, well, we'll give them a hard guerrilla war, but we'll be hunted down in the end. Our aim has to be to convince them it isn't worthwhile—that, at the least, their cheapest course of action is to arrange and enforce a status quo settlement between us and the Cities." He laughed. "Whether or not they'll agree remains to be seen. But we've got to try, don't we?"

"Do we?"

"Either that or stop being the Free People."

She leaned her head on his shoulder. "Let's not spend the night in this hole," she begged. "Not with that big ugly gun looming over us. Let's take our bedrolls into the forest."

"I'm sorry. I must stay here."


"So Noach can find me . . . if his animals report anything."

* * *

Karlsarm woke before the fingers had closed on his arm to shake him. He sat up. The cave, was a murk, relieved by a faint sheen off the howitzer; but the entrance cut a blue-black starry circle in it. Noach crouched silhouetted. "He lay awake the whole night," the handler breathed. "Now he's sneaked off to one of the blaster cannon. He's fooling around with it."

Karlsarm heard Evagail gasp at his side. He slipped weapon belts and quiver strap over the clothes he had slept in, took his crossbow and glided forth. "We'll see about that," he said. Anger stood bleak within him. "Lead on." Silent though they were, slipping from shadow, he became aware of the woman at his back.

Selene was down, sunrise not far off, but the world still lay nighted, sky powdered with stars and lake gleaming like a mirror. An uhu wailed, off in the bulk of the forest. The air was cold. Karlsarm glanced aloft. Among the constellations crept that spark which had often haunted his thoughts. The orbit he estimated from angular speed was considerable. Therefore the thing was big. And if the Imperialists had erected some kind of space station, the grapevine would have brought news from the Free People's spies inside the Cities; therefore the thing was a spaceship—huge. Probably the light cruiser Isis: largest man-of-war the Terrans admitted keeping in this system. (Quite enough for their purposes. A heavier craft couldn't land if needed. This one could handle any probable combination of lesser vessels. If Aruli sent something more formidable, the far-flung scoutboats would detect that in time to arrange reinforcements from a Navy base before the enemy arrived. Which was ample reason to expect that Aruli would not "intervene in a civil conflict, though denouncing this injustice visited upon righteously struggling kinfolk.") Was it coincidence that she took her new station soon after Ridenour joined the raiders? Tonight we find out, Karlsarm vowed.

* * *

The blaster cannon stood on a bare ridge, barrel etched gaunt across the Milky Way. His group crouched under the last tree and peered. One of Noach's beasts could go unobserved among the scattered bushes, but not a man. And the beasts weren't able to describe what went on at the controls of a machine.

"Could he—"

Karlsarm chopped off Evagail's whisper with a hiss. The gun was in action. He saw the thing move through a slow arc and heard the purr of its motor. It was tracking. But what was it locked onto? And why had no energy bolt stabbed forth?

"He's not fixing to shoot up the camp," Karlsarm muttered. "That'd be ridiculous. He couldn't get off more than two shots before he was dead. But what else?"

"Should I rush?" Evagail asked.

"I think you'd better," Karlsarm said, "and let's hope the damage hasn't already been done."

He must endure the agony of a minute or two while she gathered the resources of her Skill—not partially, as she often did in everyday life, but totally. He heard a measured intake of breath, sensed rhythmic muscular contractions, smelled sharp adrenalin. Then she exploded.

She was across the open ground in a blur. Ridenour could not react before she was upon him. He cried out and ran. She overhauled him in two giantess bounds. Her hands closed. He struggled, and he was not a weak man. But she picked him up by the wrists and ankles and carried him like a rag doll. Her face was a white mask in the starlight. "Lie still," she said in a voice not her own, "or I will break you."

"Don't. Evagail, please." Noach dared stroke an iron-hard arm. "Do be careful," he said to Ridenour's aghast upside-down stare. "She's dangerous in this condition. It's akin to hysterical rage, you know—mobilization of the body's ultimate resources, which are quite astounding—but under conscious control. Nevertheless, the personality is affected. Think of her as an angry catavray."

"Amok," rattled in Ridenour's throat. "Berserk." He shivered.

"I don't recognize those words," Noach said, "but I repeat, her Skill consists in voluntary hysteria. At the moment, she could crush your skull between her hands. She might do it, too, if you provoke her."

They reached the gun. Evagail cast the Terran to earth, bone-rattlingly hard, and yanked him back on his feet by finger and thumb around his nape. He was taller than she, but she appeared to tower over him, over all three men. Starlight crackled in her coiled hair. Her eyes were bright and blind.

Noach leaned close to Ridenour, read the terror upon him, and said mildly, "Please tell us what you were doing."

In some incredible fashion, Ridenour got the nerve to yell, "Nothing! I couldn't sleep, I c-came here to pass the time—"

Karlsarm turned from his examination of the blaster. "You've got this thing tracking that ship in orbit," he said.

"Yes. I—foolish of me—I apologize—only for fun—"

"You had the trigger locked," Karlsarm said. "Energy was pouring out of the muzzle. But no flash, no light, no ozone smell." He gestured. "I turned it off. I also notice you've opened the chamber and replaced the primary modulator with this little gadget. Did you hear him talk, Evagail, before you charged?"

Her strange flat tone said: "'—entire strength of the outbacker army on this continent is concentrated here and plans to remain for several days at least. I don't suggest a multi-megatonner. It'd annihilate them, all right, but they are subjects of His Majesty and potentially more valuable than most. It'd also do great ecological damage—to Imperial territory—and City hinterlands would get fallout. Not to mention the effect on your humble servant, me. But a ship could land without danger. I suggest the Isis herself, loaded with marines, aircraft and auxiliary gear. If the descent is sudden, the guerrillas won't be able to flee far. Using defoliators, sonics, gas, stun-beam sweeps and the rest, you should be able to capture most of them inside a week or two. Repeat, capture, not kill, wherever possible. I'll explain after you land. Right now, I don't know how long I've got till I'm interrupted, so I'd better describe terrain. We're on the northeast verge of Moon Garnet Lake—' At that point," Evagail concluded, "I interrupted him." The most chilling thing was that she saw no humor.

"Her Skill heightens perceptions and data storage too," Noach said in a shocked, mechanical fashion.

"Well," Karlsarm sighed, "no real need to interrogate Ridenour, is there? He converted this gun into some kind of maser and called down the enemy on our heads."

"They may not respond, if they heard him cut off the way he was," Noach said with little hope.

"Wasn't much noise," Karlsarm answered. "They probably figure he did see somebody coming and had to stop in a hurry. If anything, they'll arrive as fast as may be, before we can disperse the stockpiles that'll give a scent to their metal detectors."

"We'd better start running," Noach said. Above the bristly beard, his nutcracker face had turned old.

"Maybe not." Excitement rose in Karlsarm. "I need at least an hour or two to think—and, yes, talk with you, Ridenour."

The Terran straightened. His tone rang. "I didn't betray you, really," he said. "I stayed loyal to my Emperor."

"You'll tell us a few things, though," Karlsarm said. "Like what procedure you expect a landing party to follow. No secrets to that, are there? Just tell us about newscasts you've seen, books you've read, inferences you've made."


Roused by the noise, other men were drifting up the hill, lean leather-clad shapes with weapons to hand. But Karlsarm ignored them. "Evagail," he said.

Her cold, cold fingers closed on Ridenour. He shrieked. "Slack off," Karlsarm ordered. "Now—slack off, woman!—have you changed your mind? Or does she unscrew your ears, one by one, and other parts? I don't want you hurt, but my whole civilization's at stake, and I haven't much time."

Ridenour broke. Karlsarm did not despise him for that. Few men indeed could have defied Evagail in her present mood, and they would have had to be used to the Mistresses of War.

In fact, Karlsarm needed a lot of courage himself, later on, when he laid arms around her and mouth at her cheek and crooned, "Come back to us, loveling." How slowly softness, warmth and—in a chill dawnlight—color reentered her skin: until at last she sank down before him and wept.

He raised her and led her to their cave.

* * *

At first the ship was a gleam, drowned in sun-glare. Then she was a cloud no bigger than a man's hand. But swiftly and swiftly did she grow. Within minutes, her shadow darkened the land. Men saw her from below as a tower that descended upon them, hundreds of meters in height, flanks reflecting with a metallic brilliance that blinded. Through light filters might be seen the boat housings, gun turrets and missile tubes that bristled from her. She was not heavily armored, save at a few key points, for she dealt in nuclear energies and nothing could withstand a direct hit. But the perceptors and effectors of her fire-control system could intercept virtually anything that a lesser mechanism might throw. And the full power of her own magazines, vomited forth at once, would have incinerated a continent.

The engines driving that enormous mass were deathly quiet. But where their countergravity fields touched the planet, trees snapped to kindling and the lake roiled white. Her advent was dancer graceful. But it went so fast that cloven air roared behind, one continuous thunderclap between stratosphere and surface. Echoes crashed from mountain to mountain; avalanches broke loose on the heights, throwing ice plumes into the sky; the risen winds smelled scorched.

Emblazoned upon her stood HMS Isis and the sunburst of chastising Empire.

Already she had discharged her auxiliaries, aircraft that buzzed across the lakeland in bright quick swarms, probing with instruments, firing random lightning bolts, shouting through amplifiers that turned human voices into an elemental force: "Surrender, surrender!"

At the nexus of the cruiser's multiple complexity, Captain Chang sat in his chair of command. The screens before him flickered with views, data, reports. A score of specialist officers held to their posts behind him. Their work—speech, tap on signal buttons, clickdown of switches—made a muted buzz. From time to time, something was passed up to Chang himself. He listened, decided and returned to studying the screens. Neither his inflection nor his expression varied. Lieutenant-Commander Hunyadi, his executive officer, punched an appropriate control on the communications board in front of him and relayed the order to the right place. The bridge might have been an engineering center on Terra, save for the uniforms and the straining concentration.

Until Chang scowled. "What's that. Citizen Hunyadi?" He pointed to a screen in which the water surface gleamed, amidst green woods and darkling cliffs. The view was dissolving.

"Fog rising, sir, I think." Hunyadi had already tapped out a query to the meteorological officer in his distant sanctum.

"No doubt, Citizen Hunyadi," Chang said. "I do not believe it was predicted. Nor do I believe it is precedented—such rapid condensation—even on this freak planet."

The M.O.'s voice came on. Yes, the entire target area was fogging at an unheard-of rate. No, it had not been forecast and, frankly, it was not understood. Possibly, at this altitude, given this pressure gradient, high insolation acted synergistically with the colloidogenic effect of countergravity beams on liquid. Should the question be addressed to a computer?

"No, don't tie facilities up on an academic problem," Chang said. "Will the stuff be troublesome?"

"Not very, sir. In fact, aircraft reports indicate it's forming a layer at about five hundred meters. An overcast, should be reasonably clear at ground level. Besides, we have instruments that can see through fog."

"I am aware of that latter fact, Citizen Nazarevsky. What concerns me is that an overcast will hide us from visual observation at satellite distance. You will recall that picket ships are supposed to keep an eye on us." Chang drummed fingers on the arm of his chair for a second before he said: "No matter. We will still have full communication, I trust. And it's necessary to exploit surprise, before the bandits have scattered over half this countryside. Carry on, gentlemen."

"Aye, aye, sir." Hunyadi returned to the subtle, engrossing ballet that was command operations.

After a while, Chang stirred himself and asked, "Has any evidence been reported of enemy willingness to surrender?"

"No, sir," the exec replied. "But they don't appear to be marshalling for resistance, either. I don't mean just that they haven't shot at us. The stockpiles of metallic stuff that we're zeroing in on haven't been moved. Terrain looks deserted. Every topographical and soni-probe indication is that it's normal, safe, not booby-trapped."

"I wish Ridenour had been able to transmit more," Chang complained. "Well, no doubt the bandits are simply running in panic. I wonder if they stopped to cut his throat."

Hunyadi understood that no answer was desired from him.

The ship passed through the new-born clouds. Uncompensated viewports showed thick, swirling gray formlessness. Infrared, ultraviolet and microwave scopes projected a peaceful scene beneath. It was true that an unholy number of tiny flying objects were registered in the area. Insects, no doubt, probably disturbed by the ship. Time was short in which to think about them, before Isis broke through. Ground was now immediately below: that slope on the forest edge, overlooking the lake and near the enemy weapon depots, which Chang had selected. It would have been a lovely sight, had the sky not been so low and gloomy, the tendrils and banks of fog drifting so many and stealthy among trees. But everyone on Isis was too busy to admire, from the master in his chair of command to the marines ranked before the sally locks.

Aircraft that had landed for final checks of the site flew away like autumn leaves. The cruiser hung until they were gone, extending her landing jacks, which were massive as cathedral buttresses. Then slowly she sank down upon them. For moments the engines loudened, ringing through her metal corridors. Words flew, quiet and tense: "—stability achieved . . . air cover complete . . . weapons crew standing by . . . detectors report negative . . . standing by . . . standing by . . . standing by . . ."

"Proceed with Phase Two," Chang ordered.

"Now hear this," Hunyadi chanted to the all-points intercom. The engines growled into silence. The airlocks opened. Inhuman in helmets, body armor, flying harness, the weapons they clutched, the marine squadrons rushed forth. First they would seize the guerrilla arsenals, and next cast about for human spoor.

* * *

The bridge had not really fallen still. Data continued to flow in, commands to flow out; but by comparison, sound was now a mutter, eerie as the bodies of fog that moved out of undertree shadows and across the bouldery hillside. Hunyadi looked into the screens and grimaced. "Sir," he said uneasily, "if the enemy's as skilled in moving about through the woods as I've heard, someone could come near enough to fire a small nuclear missile at us."

"Have no worries on that score, Citizen Hunyadi," Chang said. "Nothing material, launched from a projector that one or two men might carry, could reach us before it was detected and intercepted. A blaster beam might scorch a hull plate or two. But upper and lower gun turrets would instantly triangulate on the source." His tone was indulgent: like most Navy men serving on capital ships, Hunyadi was quite new to ground operations. "Frankly, I could hope for a show of resistance. The alternative is a long, tedious airborne bushbeating."

Hunyadi winced. "Hunting men like animals. I don't like it."

"Nor I," Chang admitted. The iron came back into him. "But we have our orders."

"Yes, sir."

"Read your history, Citizen Hunyadi. Read your history. No empire which tolerated rebellion ever endured long thereafter. And we are the wall between humanity and Merseian—"

A scream broke through.

And suddenly war was no problem in logistics, search patterns, or games theory. It entered the ship with pain in one hand and blood on the other; and its footfalls thundered.

"Bees, millions of things like bees, out of the woods—oh, God, coming inboard, the boys're doubled over, one sting hurts enough to knock you crazy—Yaaahhhh!"

"Close all locks! Seal all compartments! All hands in spacesuits!"

"Marine Colonel Deschamps to Prime Command. Detachments report small groups of women, unarmed, as they land. Women appear anxious to surrender. Request orders."

"Take them prisoners, of course. Stand around them. You may not be attacked then. But if a unit notes a dense insect swarm, the men are to seal their armor and discharge lethal gas at once."

"Lock Watch Four to bridge! We can't shut the lock here! Some enormous animal—like a, a nightmare crocodile—burst in from the woods—blocking the valves with its body—"

"Energy weapons, sweep the surrounding forest. All aircraft, return to bomb and strafe this same area."

Atomic warheads and poisons could not be used, when the ship would be caught in their blast or the gases pour in through three airlocks jammed open by slain monsters. But some gunners had buttoned up their turrets in advance of the bees. Their cannon hurled bolt after bolt, trees exploded and burned and fell, rocks fused . . . and fog poured in like an ocean. Simultaneously, the instrumentation and optical aids that should have pierced it failed. The crews must fire at random into horrible wet smoke, knowing they could not cover the whole ground about them.

"Radio dead. Radar dead. Electromagnetic 'scopes dead. Blanketed by interference. Appears to emanate from . . . from everywhere . . . different insects, clouds of them! What scanning stuff we've got that still works, sonics, that kind of thing, gives insufficient definition. We're deaf, dumb, and blind!"

Aircraft began to crash. Their instruments were likewise gone; and they were not meant to collide with entire flocks of birds.

"Marine Colonel Deschamps—reporting—reports received—catastrophe. I don't know what, except . . . those women . . . they turned on our men and—"

Troopers who escaped flew wildly through fog. Birds found them and betrayed them to snipers in treetops. They landed, seeking cover. Arrows whistled from brush, or hellhounds fell upon them.

"Stand by to raise ship."

"Lock Watch Four reporting—they've got in through the fog, under our fire—swarming in, wild men and animals—good-by, Maria, good-by, universe—"

* * *

Most aircraft pilots managed to break free. They got above the clouds and ran from that lake. But they were not equipped to evade ground fire of energy weapons with which there was no electronic interference such as continued to plague them. It had been assumed that the marines would take those emplacements. The marines were now dead, or disabled, or fleeing, or captured. The women called their men back to the guns. Stars blossomed and fell through the daylight sky.

"This is Wolf, commanding the Free People group assigned to HMS Isis. A prisoner tells me this thing communicates with the bridge. Better give up, Captain. We're inside. We hold the engine room. We can take your whole ship at our leisure—or plant a nuclear bomb. Your auxiliary forces are rapidly being destroyed. I hope you'll see reason and give up. We don't want to harm you. It's no discredit to you, sir, this defeat. Your intelligence service let you down. You met weapons you didn't know about, uniquely suited to very special circumstances. Tell your men to lay down their arms. We'll lift the interference blanket if you agree—not skyward, but on ground level, anyhow, so you can call them. Let's stop spilling lives and begin talking terms."

Chang felt he had no choice.

Soon afterward, he and his principal officers stood outside. The men who guarded them were clad and equipped like savages; but they spoke with courtesy. "I would like you gentlemen to meet some friends," said the one named Karlsarm. From the forest, toward the captured flying tower, walked a number of women. They were more beautiful than could be imagined.

* * *

Ridenour was among the last to go aboard. Not that there were many—a skeleton staff of chosen Imperialist officers, for the aphrodites could not make captives of more in the short time available, those women themselves, whoever of the army possessed abilities even slightly useful in space warship. But perhaps the measure of Karlsarm's audacity was his drafting of a known spy.

Whose loyalties had not been altered.

Standing in cold, blowing fogbanks, Ridenour shuddered. The cruiser was dim to his eyes, her upper sections lost. Water soaked the earth and dripped from a thousand unseen trees; the insects that made this weather flitted ceaselessly between lake and air, in such myriads that their wingbeats raised an underlying sussuration; a wild beast bellowed, a wild bird shrilled—tones of the wilderness. But the outback reaches were not untamed nature. Like some great animal, they had been harnessed for man, and in turn, something of theirs had entered the human heart.

A Terran went up a gangway, into the ship. His uniform was still neat blue, emblemmed with insignia and sunburst. He still walked with precision. But his eyes scarcely left the weather-beaten, leather-kilted woman at his side, though she must be twenty years his senior.

"There but for the grace of God," Ridenour whispered.

Evagail, who had appeared mutely a few minutes ago, gave him a serious look. "Is their treatment so dreadful?" she asked.

"What about their people at home? Their home itself? Their own shame and self-hate for weakness—" Ridenour broke off.

"They'll be released . . . against their wills, I'm sure; they'll plead to stay with us. You can make it part of your job to see that their superiors understand they couldn't help themselves. Afterward, you have reconditioning techniques, don't you? Though I expect most cases will recover naturally. They'll have had just a short exposure."

"And the, the women?"

"Why, what of them? They don't want to be saddled with a bunch of citymen. This is their wartime duty. Otherwise they have their private affairs."

"Their Skills." Ridenour edged away from her.

Her smile was curiously timid. "John," she said, "we're not monsters. We're only the Free People. An aphrodite doesn't use her Skill for unfair gain. It has therapeutic applications. Or I—I don't like raising my strength against fellow humans. I want to use it for their good again."

He fumbled out the tobacco he had begged from a Terran and began to stuff his pipe. It would give some consolation.

Her shoulders slumped. "Well," she said in a tired voice, "I think we'd better go aboard now."

"You're coming too?" he said. "What for? To guard me?"

"No. Perhaps we'll need my reaction speed. Though Karlsarm did hope I'd persuade you—Come along, please."

She led him to the bridge. Terran officers were already posted among the gleaming machines, the glittering dials. Hunyadi sat in the chair of command. But Karlsarm stood beside him, the catavray head gaping across his brow; and other men of the forest darkened that scene.

"Stand by for liftoff." Hunyadi must recite the orders himself. "Close airlocks. All detector stations report."

Evagail padded over to Karlsarm. Ridenour could not help thinking that her ruddy hair, deep curves, bare bronze, were yet more an invasion of this metal-and-plastic cosmos than the men were. A faint odor of woman lingered behind her on the sterile air.

"What's our situation with the enemy?" she asked.

"Fair, as near as we can learn," Karlsarm said. "You haven't followed events since the last fight?"

"No. I was too busy making arrangements for prisoners. Like medical care for the injured, shelter for everyone. They were too wretched, out in this mist."

"Can't say I've enjoyed it either. I'll be glad when we can let it up . . . . Well. We didn't try an aphrodite on old Chang. Instead, we had him call the Terran chief, Admiral Cruz, and report the capture of his ship. Naturally, having no idea we'd be able to raise her, he didn't give that fact away. Supposedly we'll hold vessel and personnel for bargaining counters. The stratosphere's full of aircraft above us, but they won't do anything as long as they think we're sitting with our hostages. Only one spaceship has moved to anything like immediate striking range of us."

"Are you certain?"

"About as certain as you can be in war, whatever that means. We gave the chief communications officer to an aphrodite, of course. He listened in and decoded orders for the main fleet to stand out to space. That was a logical command for Cruz to issue, once the evacuation notice went out."


"Loveling, you didn't think I'd vaporize the Cities and their people, did you? The instant I foresaw a chance to grab this boat, I got in touch with the Grand Council—by radio, for the other continents, because time was short, so short that it didn't matter the Terrans would hear. They're good codebreakers, but I think the languages we used must've puzzled them!" Karlsarm grinned. "As soon as we'd made this haul, orders went out to our agents in every City, whether Terran- or Arulian-occupied. They were to serve notice that in one rotation period, the Cities would be erased. But they were to imply the job will be done from space."

Fright touched Evagail. "The people did evacuate, didn't they?" she breathed.

"Yes. We've monitored communications. The threat's convincing, when there's been so much fear of intervention from Aruli or from Merseia herself. An invading fleet can't get past the blockade. But a certain percentage of fast little courier boats can. Likewise a flight of robot craft with nuclear weapons aboard: which wouldn't be guaranteed to distinguish between friendly and unfriendly target areas."

"But has no one thought that we, in this ship, might—"

"I trust not, or we're dead," Karlsarm stated. "Our timing was phased with care. The fog, and interference, and our ground fire, kept the Terrans from finding out what had happened to their cruiser. We informed them immediately that she was disabled, and they doubtless supposed it was logical. How could anyone take an undamaged Imperial warcraft, without equipment they know we don't have? In fact, they probably took for granted we'd had outside technical assistance in rigging a trap. Remember, the City warning was already preoccupying their thoughts. Chang's call was a precaution against their growing frantic and bombing us in the hope of getting our supposed Merseian or Arulian allies. He made it a few hours ago; and I made certain that he didn't say the ship was captured intact."

"They'll know better now," Hunyadi said. His face was white, his voice tormented.

"Correct. Lift as soon as you're able," Karlsarm said. "If we're hit, your woman will die too."

The executive officer jerked his head. "I know! Bridge to all stations. Lift at full power. Be prepared for attack."

Engines growled. The deck quivered with their force. Isis climbed, and the sun blazed about her.

"Communications to bridge," said the intercom. "Calls picked up from Imperialists."

"I expected that," Karlsarm said dryly. "Broadcast a warning. We don't want to hurt them, but if they bother us, we'll swat."

* * *

Sickly, Ridenour saw the planet recede beneath him.

Flame blossomed a long way off. "Missile barrage from one air squadron stopped," said the intercom. "Shall fire be returned?"

"No," Karlsarm said. "Not unless we absolutely must."

"Thank you, sir! Those are . . . my people yonder." After a moment: "They were my people."

"They will be again," Evagail murmured to Ridenour. "If you help."

"What can I do?" he choked.

She touched him. He winced aside. "You can speak for us," she said. "You're respected. Your loyalty is not in doubt. You proved it afresh, that night when—We don't belong to your civilization. We don't understand how it thinks, what it will compromise on and what it will die for, the nuances, the symbols, the meanings it finds in the universe. And it doesn't understand us. I think you know us a little, though, John. Enough to see that we're no menace."

"Except to the Cities," he said. "And now the Empire."

"No, they threatened us. They wouldn't leave our forests alone. As for the Empire, can't it contain one more way of living? Won't mankind be the richer for that?"

They looked at each other, and a thrumming aloneness enclosed them. A screen showed space and stars on the rim of the world.

"I suppose," he said finally, "no one can compromise on the basics of his culture. They're the larger part of his identity. To give them up is a kind of death. Many people would rather die in the body. You won't stop fighting until you're utterly crushed."

"And must that be?" Her speech fell gently on his ears. "Don't you Terrans want an end of war?"

An earthquake rumble went through the ship. Reports and orders seethed on the bridge. She was in long-range combat with a destroyer.

Undermanned, Isis could not stand off Cruz's whole fleet. But those units were scattered, would not reach Freehold for hours. Meanwhile, a solitary Imperial craft went against her with forlorn gallantry. Her fire-control men wept as they lashed back. But they must, to save the women who held them.

"What can I do?" Ridenour said.

"We'll call as soon as we're finished, and ask for a parley," Evagail told him. "We want you to urge that the Terrans agree. Afterward we want you to—no, not help plead our cause. Help explain it."

"Opposition attack parried," said a speaker. "Limited return broadside as per orders appears to have inflicted some damage. Opposition sheering off. Shall she be annihilated?"

"No, let her go," Karlsarm said.

Ridenour nodded at Evagail. "I'll do what I can," he said.

She took his hands, gladness bursting through her own tears, and this time he did not pull away.

Isis swung back into atmosphere. Her turrets cut loose. A doomed, empty City went skyward in flame.

* * *

Admiral Fernando Cruz Manqual stood high in the councils of this Imperial frontier; but he was a Terran merely by citizenship and remote ancestry. Military men have gone forth from Nuevo Mexico since that stark planet first was colonized. His manner toward Ridenour was at once curt and courteous.

"And so, Professor, you recommend that we accept their terms?" He puffed hard on a crooked black cigar. "I am afraid that that is quite impossible."

Ridenour made a production of starting his pipe. He needed time to find words. Awareness pressed in on him of his surroundings.

The negotiating commissions (to use a Terran phrase, the Free People called them mind-wrestlers) had met on neutral ground, an island in the Lawrencian Ocean. Though uninhabited thus far, it was beautiful with its full feathery trees, blossoming vines, deep cane-brakes, wide white beaches where surf played and roared. But there was little chance to enjoy what the place offered. Perhaps later, if talks were promising and tension relaxed, a young Terran spaceman might encounter a lightfoot outbacker girl in some glen.

But discussion had not yet even begun. It might well never begin. The two camps were armed, separated by three kilometers of forest and, on the Terran side, a wall of guns. Ridenour was the first who crossed from one to another.

Cruz's reception had been so cold that the xenologist half expected arrest. However, the admiral appeared to comprehend why he was there and invited him into his dome for private, unofficial conversation.

The dome was open to a mild, sea-scented breeze, but also to the view of other domes, vehicles, marines on sentry-go, aircraft at hover. Wine stood on the table between the two men, but except for a formal initial toast it had not been poured. Ridenour had stated the facts, and his words had struck unresponding silence.


"I think it's best sir," Ridenour ventured. "They can be conquered, if the Empire makes the effort. But that war would be long, costly, tying up forces we need elsewhere, devastating the planet, maybe making it unfit for human habitation; they'll retaliate with some pretty horrible biological capabilities. The prisoners they hold will not be returned. Likewise the Isis. You'll be compelled to order her knocked out, an operation that won't come cheap."

He looked straight into the hard, mustached face. "And for what? They're quite willing to remain Terran subjects."

"They rebelled," Cruz bit off; "they collaborated with an enemy; they resisted commands given in His Majesty's name; they occasioned loss to His Majesty's Navy; they destroyed nine Imperial communities; thereby they wrecked the economy of an entire Imperial world. If this sort of behavior is let go unpunished, how long before the whole Empire breaks apart? And they aren't satisfied with asking for amnesty. No, they demand the globe be turned over to them!"

He shook his head. "I do not question your honesty, Professor—someone had to be messenger boy, I suppose—but if you believe an official in my position can possibly give a minute's consideration to those woodrunners' fantasy, I must question your judgment."

"They are not savages, sir," Ridenour said. "I've tried to explain to you something of their level of culture. My eventual written report should convince everyone."

"That is beside the point." His faded, open-throated undress uniform made Cruz look more terrible than any amount of braid and medals. The blaster at his hip had seen much use in its day.

"Not precisely, sir." Ridenour shifted in his chair. Sweat prickled his skin. "I've had a chance to think a lot about these issues, and a death-strong motivation for doing so and a career that's trained me to think in impersonal, long-range terms. What's the real good of the Empire? Isn't it the solidarity of many civilized planets? Isn't it, also, the stimulus of diversity between those planets? Suppose we did crush the Free—the outbackers. How could the Cities be rebuilt, except at enormous cost? They needed centuries to reach their modern level unaided, on this isolated, metal-impoverished world. If we poured in treasure, we could recreate them, more or less, in a few years. But what then would we have? Nine feeble mediocrities, just productive enough to require guarding, because Merseia considers them a potential threat on her Arulian flank. Whereas if we let the real Freeholders, the ones who've adapted until they can properly use this environment, if we let them flourish . . . we'll get, at no cost, a strong, self-supporting, self-defending outpost of Empire."

That may not be strictly true, he thought. The outbackers don't mind acknowledging Terran suzerainty, if they can have a charter that lets them run their planet the way they want. They're too sensible to revive the nationalistic fallacy. They'll pay a bit of tribute, conduct a bit of trade. On the whole, however, we will be irrelevant to them.

They may not always be so to us, of course. We may learn much from them. If we ever fall, they'll carry on something of what was ours. But I'd better not emphasize this.

"Even if I wanted to accommodate them," Cruz said, "I have no power. My authority is broad, yes. And I can go well beyond its formal limits, in that a central government with thousands of other worries will accept any reasonable recommendation I make. But do not exaggerate my latitude, I beg you. If I suggested that the City people, loyal subjects of His Majesty, be moved off the world of their ancestors, and that rebels, no matter how cultivated, be rewarded with its sole possession . . . why, I should be recalled for psychiatric examination, no?"

He sounds regretful, leaped within Ridenour. He doesn't want a butcher's campaign. If I can convince him there is a reasonable and honorable way out—

The xenologist smiled carefully around his pipestem. "True, Admiral," he said. "If the matter were put in those words. But need they be? I'm no lawyer. Still, I know a little about the subject, enough that I can sketch out an acceptable formula."

Cruz raised one eyebrow and puffed harder on his cigar.

"The point is," Ridenour said, "that juridically we have not been at war. Everybody knows Aruli sent arms and troops to aid the original revolt, no doubt at Merseian instigation. But to avoid a direct collision with Aruli and so possibly with Merseia, we haven't taken official cognizance of this. We were content to choke off further influx and reduce the enemy piecemeal. In short, Admiral, your task here has been to quell an internal, civil disturbance."


"The outbackers did not collaborate with an external enemy, because legally there was none."

Cruz flushed. "Treason smells no sweeter by any other name."

"It wasn't treason, sir," Ridenour argued. "The outbackers were not trying to undermine the Empire. They certainly had no wish to become Arulian or Merseian vassals!

"Put it this way: Freehold contained three factions, the human City dwellers, the Arulian City dwellers, and the outbackers. The charter of Imperial incorporation was negotiated by the first of these parties exclusively. Thus it was unfair to the other two. When amendment was refused, social difficulties resulted. The outbackers had some cooperation with the Arulians, as a matter of expediency. But it was sporadic and never affected their own simple wish for justice. Furthermore, and more important, it was not cooperation with outsiders, but rather with some other Imperial subjects.

"Actually," he added, "when one stops to think about it, the Nine Cities have not at all been innocent martyrs. Their discrimination against the Arulians, their territorial aggressions against the outbackers, were what really brought on the trouble. Merseia then exploited the opportunity—but didn't create it in the first place. Why then should the heedlessness of the Cities, that proved so costly to the Empire, not be penalized?"

Cruz looked disappointed. "I suppose the Policy Board could adopt some such formula," he said. "But only if it wanted to. And it won't want to. Because what formula can disguise the fact of major physical harm inflicted in sheer contumacy?"

"The formula of overzealousness to serve His Majesty's interests," Ridenour cast back. He lifted one palm. "Wait! Please! I don't ask you, sir, to propose an official falsehood. The zeal was not greatly misguided. And it did serve Terra's best interest."

"What? How?"

"Don't you see?" Tensely, Ridenour leaned across the table. Here we go, he thought, either we fly or we crash in the fire. "The outbackers ended the war for us."

Cruz fell altogether quiet.

"Between you and me alone, I won't insult your intelligence by claiming this outcome was planned in detail," Ridenour hurried on. "But that is the effect. It was Nine Cities, their manufacturing and outworld commerce, their growth potential, that attracted the original Arulian settlers, and that lately made Freehold such a bait. With the Cities gone, what's left to fight about? The enemy has no more bases. I'm sure he'll accept repatriation to Aruli, including those of him who were born here. The alternative is to be milled to atoms between you and the outbackers.

"In return for this service, this removal of a bleeding wound on the Empire, a wound which might have turned into a cancer—surely the outbackers deserve the modest reward they ask. Amnesty for whatever errors they made, in seizing a chance that would never come again; a charter giving them the right to occupy and develop Freehold as they wish, though always as loyal subjects of His Majesty."

Cruz was unmoving for a long time. When he spoke, he was hard to hear under the military noise outside. "What of the City humans?"

"They can be compensated for their losses and resettled elsewhere," Ridenour said. "The cost will be less than for one year of continued war, I imagine; and you might well have gotten more than that. Many will complain, no doubt. But the interest of the Empire demands it. Quite apart from the problems in having two irreconcilable cultures on one planet, there's the wish to keep any frontier peaceful. The outbackers are unprofitably tough to invade; I rather believe their next generation will furnish some of our hardiest marine volunteers; but at the same time, they don't support the kind of industrial concentration—spaceships, nuclear devices—that makes our opposition worried or greedy."

"Hm." Cruz streamed smoke from his lips. His eyes half closed. "Hm. This would imply that my command, for one, can be shifted to a region where we might lean more usefully on Merseia . . . yes-s-s."

Ridenour thought in a moment that was desolate: Is that why I'm so anxious to save these people? Because I hope one day they'll find a way out of the blind alley that is power politics?

Cruz slammed a fist on the table. The bottle jumped. "By the Crown, Professor, you might have something here!" he exclaimed. "Let me pour. Let us drink together."

Nothing would happen overnight, of course. Cruz must ponder, and consult, and feel out the other side's representatives. Both groups must haggle, stall, quibble, orate, grow calculatedly angry, grow honestly weary. And from those weeks of monkey chatter would emerge nothing more than a "protocol." This must pass up through a dozen layers of bureaucrats and politicians, each of whom must assert his own immortal importance by some altogether needless and exasperating change. Finally, on Terra, the experts would confer; the computers spin out reels of results that nobody quite understood or very much heeded; the members of the Policy Board and the different interests that had put them there use this issue as one more area in which to jockey for a bit more power; the news media make inane inflammatory statements (but not many—Freehold was remote—the latest orgy given by some nobleman's latest mistress was more interesting) . . . and a document would arrive here, and maybe it would be signed but maybe it would be returned for "further study as recommended . . . ."

I won't be leaving soon, Ridenour thought. They'll need me for months. Final agreement may not be ratified for a year or worse.

* * *

Some hours passed before he left the Terran camp and walked toward the other. He'd doubtless best stay with the outbackers for a while. Evagail had been waiting for him. She ran down the path. "How did it go?"

"Very well, I'd say," he said.

She cast herself into his arms, laughing and weeping. He soothed her, affectionately but just a little impatiently. His prime desire at the moment was to find a place by himself, that he might write a letter home.


Marion Zimmer Bradley,

my lady of Darkover

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