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Chapter 1

To fall with a soundless scream through an empty chaos of contending forces, to be riven right out of your own dimensions and hurled quaking through alien continua . . . that was how it was, if you looked at it one way.

But not, thought Home, if you looked at it his way. It was a voyage through enchanted isles on the shores of the universe, through the great lamps of foreign suns, where pale planets rose up in colored sunlight like mysterious new Hesperides, and dropped behind you, and you went on and on, mystery into mystery.

"The trouble with me," he thought wryly, "is that I've still got a little of the romantic fourteen-year-old in me."

He was a long way from being a boy in a Connecticut city who had dreamed of stars. Eighteen years of time and a hundred-odd light-years of space. A long way, but he still got a bit of the old thrill when he looked out ahead through the pilot room windows. And this was nice, not only for his own sake but because he could share the thrill with Vinson, the young Second Pilot, who was making his first trip out here. Vinson spent most of his time staring out the windows as though he wanted to absorb into himself everything that he saw, so that he might keep it forever, unchanged.

The windows were not really windows. In a ship going many times faster than light by cross-cutting through dimensions, all you would see was a twisted blur. A ship's eyes were radar instruments of fantastic speed and scope, but human and near-human people had their psychological limitations, and it had been found that pilots functioned better when they could see with their physical eyes a summation of radar's information presented on window-like screens.

Home looked out at beauty and danger. This was the Fringe, where not many star-ships ever went. These swarms of high-piled suns, smoky red and pallid green, cruel white and warm, beckoning orange, lured and glittered like fabled islands. But they could lure to destruction. There were very few radar beacons or navigation aids out here, for this was far outside the vast network of the Federation. This was the coast of the galaxy, and if you went much farther you found yourself out in the black emptiness that ran all the way to Andromeda.

Home said to Denman, the third man in the pilot room, "Five, six times I've piloted through the Fringe, and I've never seen anything of all these wild world; but a few landing-fields for a few hours. I envy you."

"Don't," said Denman. He was a small, graying man, with a worried expression that had got more pronounced all the way. Not being ship's crew, he had no right to be in the pilot-room of the Vega Queen. But he was Federation personnel, and Captain Wasek had given him full freedom of the ship.

"Don't what?" said Home.

"Don't envy me. The Fringe may look like adventure and romance to you. What it really is, is a headache. To me, and to the Federation."

Vinson said knowledgeably, "I should think it would be. I mean, these primitive worlds don't belong to the Federation. Yet they depend on it for protection against invasion, that kind of thing. They're so far away and there's so much red tape about sovereignty and observers and so on. . . ."

"Well," said Denman, feigning astonishment, "the little rascal has been reading! Exactly right, my boy. Only you don't know the half of it, not till you've been through it as an observer." After a moment he added gloomily, "Three months on Allamar Two, observing. I hope I'm still there when the next ship stops to pick me up."

Home was a little shocked. "I thought the humanoids on nearly all these worlds were friendly."

Denman nodded. "They were. Whether they still are is doubtful. Something's going on out here. That's why I was sent here. Trouble in the Fringe? Need an observer? Send Denman. He's expendable."

As though regretting his little outburst, Denman shut his mouth up tight. He continued to look sourly at the window picturing the red spark of Binnoth, the twin golden suns of Vira, and, much nearer and brighter, the blue-white flare of Allamar.

"But," said Vinson, staring curiously now at Denman, "they must have asked for you on Allamar Two, or the Federation Council wouldn't have sent you."

"Oh, they asked," said Denman absently. "Or some of them did. But they could change their minds. And it wasn't entirely the natives of Allamar I was thinking about. . . ."

His voice trailed off. Vinson continued to stare at him.

Home said, "Time to check the board."

Vinson jerked a glance at the chrono and jumped up. "Sorry." He went to the navigation-board. Out in deep space, a ship flew itself by its own cybernetic controls. But even electronic brains had been known to slip a cog, and it required the human pilot to watch for the alarm-lights that would show such a lapse. Vinson bent over it, a tall wide-shouldered boy in immaculate uniform, full of pride at being Second Pilot on a Federation packet, full of youth and wonder and excitement. He was also full of ability, and Home forgot about the navigation-board. He turned to Denman.

"I'm not pumping for information . . . " he began.

"Meaning, you are," said Denman.

Home grinned. "All right, then, I am, but feel free to slap me down if I'm out of line. This trouble in the Fringe . . . has it any relation to all the stuff you were asking me, about possible unauthorized ships poking about out here?"

Denman nodded. "It has." Home thought that was all he was going to say but after a moment he added, "You're bound to hear it at Allamar or some other stop, so I might as well tell you. Unauthorized ships have indeed been prowling about the Fringe. Slavers."

For a moment, Home didn't get it, the idea was so outlandish. Over by the navigation-board, Vinson's dark head had snapped erect.

Home said, "Slavers? You mean, raiding for humanoid slaves . . . ?"

"Yes. Why anyone would want the poor devils, even for cheap labor, I don't know. But the complaints have been filtering through. So, send Denman to look into it."

Home shook his head, incredulous. "In this day and age . . . ? "

Vinson came back from the board. "But that," he said, "is against every law there is! The Federation has cruisers. Why don't they patrol the Fringe and break it up?" As an afterthought he turned and said to Home, "Board checked out, sir. A-OK."

Denman said, "You're not thinking, boy. Cruisers on extended patrol have got to have bases within reach on civilized worlds able to handle all the problems of supply and maintenance. There are very few civilized worlds out here, and not one of them has chosen to join the Federation."

Vinson nodded. "So, no bases, no patrols. I see."

Denman looked bitterly at an orange-yellow star shining out in the farther distance of the Fringe, and added, "Skereth would be the key to the whole Fringe, if we had it in the Federation. But it isn't. They've held off joining; they've argued; they've demurred. So instead of a decent force capable of going out and dealing with such a situation, we have to send an under-official out to 'investigate.' That's me."

Home began to understand why Denman was so sour. He said, "We're stopping to pick up passengers at Skereth, on the way back. I've heard . . . "

"I know," said Denman cynically, "I've heard the same thing. Special envoys going to Vega to talk about Skereth entering the Federation. Fine and dandy. I hope they do it. But it won't do me any good. All the preliminary talks, and the ratification red-tape, and the time required to build a base and get it operating . . . " He shook his head. "For the next two years, at least, I'll still be hitch-hiking on tramp freighters from one Fringe world to another—that is, if I'm alive to hitch."

"You're thinking of the slavers," Home said.

"They wouldn't be anxious to have me get back home, do you think? No. And of course the humanoids are always an uncertain quantity . . . most living things are, especially if they've been frightened or hurt." Denman sighed and looked at the diamond-clear flame that was Allamar. "I wish," he said, "that I was a drinking man."

Later, lying in the dark cabin in his bunk, listening to the deep faint throbbing of the drives and feeling the fabric of the ship around him like an extension of his own flesh, Home thought that Denman was taking the whole thing too big. He was a lonely man, obviously, far from what home and family he might have, and, just as obviously, he carried something of a grudge against his superiors, with all this talk of Denman being expendable and always getting the dirty jobs. Home thought he was dramatizing the situation, both its importance and its danger, in order to dramatize himself.

Later still, when he came trundling down the beam of the automatic beacon to land on the single primitive field of Allamar Two, he was not so sure.

Home had landed at Allamar once before, some five years ago. He remembered how it had been then, a festive occasion with much drumming and squealing of outlandish instruments, much waving of banners made out of feathers and bright leaves, and all-night sessions of solemn drinking after the business of trade was finished.

This time there were neither music nor banners. The Vega Queen settled down in a totally deserted field. After the smoke and dust cleared away and the gangway was run out, Home and Captain Wasek and the Third Officer went down with Denman to stand in the clear sunlight. A brisk cool breeze went by with a smell of distant snowfields in it, and there was nobody at all to meet them.

Then Home pointed toward the forest edge that hemmed the landing-field.

The people of Allamar Two were a tall race, averaging nine feet or so for the adult men, very powerful in build, richly furred from crown to toe in varying shades of brown. They had huge eyes that reflected their gentle and rather solemn natures, and a turn of feature that gave them a permanent expression of mild dejection, lightened only occasionally, even at festival times, by a smile.

This time, now, they stood ranked in the shelter of the trees with weapons in their hands, primitive things made clumsily of wood and stone, for they were a peaceable folk. There were no women or children that Home could see, only able-bodied men. They stood looking at the ship with an air of desperate incompetence that made Home want to laugh, only it was not in the least funny.

Denman said, "You see?"

He began to walk toward the trees, his hands held up with the palms forward. He called out to the people, not in lingua franca but in their own tongue, which Home did not understand. They answered him, and he stopped, and presently a group of five men came out from the trees to meet him. From their dress and ornaments Home knew that these were chiefs. They talked with Denman, and after a time all six of them turned and came back toward the ship. Then the chiefs stopped and would come no farther.

Denman came all the way and picked up his bag. "They don't trust anybody any more," he said to Wasek. "Will you come and speak to them? It might make things easier the next time a Federation ship wants to land here."

Wasek went back with Denman and talked to the chiefs in the lingua franca. The talking did not last long. Wasek shook hands with Denman and returned to the ship. Looking tiny and forlorn amid the massive shaggy shapes, Denman went the other way, toward the forest.

Wasek shook his head. "Something has them all upset. I didn't really believe that talk about slavers, but now I'm beginning to."

Home looked after Denman. "I hope he'll be all right. I certainly don't envy his job here."

He was worried about Denman. He was so worried that he felt guilty at the thought of leaving him and going on to the stopover at Skereth and the pleasant fleshpots there that awaited them before the return voyage.

He spoke of this to Vinson, and later he would remember that when he spoke he had not the slightest premonitory prickle down his spine.

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