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Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton


Authors' introduction to
"Stark and the Star Kings"

Twenty-six-and-a-half years ago, when we got married, we thought collaboration would be an easy and delightful thing. We could, we thought, begin now to turn out twice as many stories with half the effort.

We tried it.


Hamilton had to know the whole plot right to the last line before he began. Brackett was only interested in the opening. In short, our methods of working were diametrically opposed, and in order to keep peace in the family we made a firm decision that each one should stick to his/her own typewriter.

Over the years we find our working methods have changed. Hamilton no longer has to have a complete outline on paper. Brackett generally has one in her head. Ideas and style have changed as well. So we decided to try it again and see what happened, being in general agreement on basic concepts, and utilizing our own favorite characters.

So here is our first, one and only, true, authentic collaboration.

—Leigh Brackett
Edmond Hamilton


The great Rift Valley runs southeast just below the equator, a stupendous gash across the dry brown belly of Mars. Two and a half thousand miles it runs in length, and as much as twenty thousand feet in depth, and all that enormous emptiness is packed and brimming over with the myths and superstitions of more thousands of years than even the Martians can count.

Along the nighted floor of the valley, Eric John Stark went alone.

The summons had been for him alone. It had reached him unexpectedly in the gritty chill of a Dryland camp. A voice of power had spoken in his mind. A quiet voice, as compelling as death.

"Oh, N'Chaka," the voice had said. "Man-Without-a-Tribe. The Lord of the Third Bend bids you come."

All Mars knew that the one who called himself Lord of the Third Bend had laired for many lifetimes in the hidden depths of the Great Rift Valley. Human? No one could say. Even the Ramas, those nearly-immortal Martians with whom Stark had once done battle in the dead city of Sinharat, had known nothing about him. But they feared his strength.

Stark had thought about it for perhaps an hour, watching red dust blow across a time-eaten land made weird and unfamiliar by the strangely diminished sunlight.

It was odd that the summons should come now. It was odd that the Lord of the Third Bend should know enough about him to call him by that name that few men knew and fewer still ever used; not his true patronymic but his first-name, given him by the sub-human tribe that had reared him. It was odd, in fact, that the Lord of the Third Bend should call him by any name, at any time, as though he might have need of him.

Perhaps he did.

And in any case, it was not often that one was invited into the presence of Legend.

So Stark was riding his scaly beast through the perpetual night of the valley, toward the Third Bend. Although that voice of power had not spoken again in his mind, he had known exactly how to reach his destination.

He was approaching it now.

Far ahead, to the right, a little light showed. The rays were as feeble as though strangled at birth, but the light was there. It grew slowly brighter, shifting in his view as the beast changed direction. They were rounding the Third Bend.

The ruddy glow of light strengthened, contracting from a vague glow into a discrete point.

The beast shied suddenly. It turned its ungainly head and hissed, staring through the darkness to the left.

"And now what?" Stark asked it, his hand going to the weapon at his belt.

He could see nothing. But it seemed to him that he heard a faint sound as of laughter, and not in a human voice.

He took his hand away from his weapon. Stark did not doubt that the Lord of the Third Bend had servants, and there was no reason that the servants need be human.

Stark cuffed his mount and rode on, looking neither to right nor left. He had been invited here, and he was damned if he would show fear.

The beast padded on reluctantly, and the far-off witch-laughter drifted through the darkness, now louder and again soft and far away. The point of ruddy light ahead expanded and became an upright rectangle, partly veiled by mists that seemed to curl through it from beyond.

The glowing rectangle was a great open door, with a light beyond it. The door was in the side of a building whose shape and dimensions were unguessable in the shrouding darkness. Stark got the impression of a huge sombre citadel going up into the perpetual night of the abyss and showing only this one opening.

He rode up to the portal and dismounted, and went through into the curling mists beyond. He could see nothing of whatever hall or cavern he had entered, but there was a feeling of space, of largeness.

He stopped and waited.

For a time there was no sound at all. Then, from somewhere in the mist, whispered the sweet and evil laughter that was not quite human.

Stark said to it, "Tell your master that N'Chaka awaits his pleasure."

There were hidden titterings and scurryings that seemed to circle upon themselves, and then that quiet compelling voice he remembered spoke to him. He was not sure for a moment whether he heard it with his ears or with his mind. Perhaps both. It said,

"I am here, N'Chaka."

"Then show yourself," said Stark. "I bargain with no one whose face I cannot see."

No one appeared, and the voice said with infinite softness, "Bargain? Was there mention of bargaining? Does the knife in one's hand bargain with its owner?"

"This knife does," said Stark. "You must have need of me or you would not have brought me here. If you have need of me, you will not destroy out of mere annoyance. Therefore show yourself, and let us talk."

"Here in my remoteness," said the voice, "the winds have told me much of the Earthman with two names who is not of Earth. It appears that what I heard was true."

There came a sound of sandals upon the stone. The mists rolled back. The Lord of the Third Bend stood before Stark.

He was a young man, dressed in the very old High Martian costume of a toga-like garment whose ends brushed the floor. His smooth face was incredibly handsome.

"You may call me Aarl," he said. "It was my man-name once, long ago."

Stark felt the hairs lift on the back of his neck. The eyes in that young face were as black as space, as old, and as deep. They were eyes of knowledge and strength beyond anything human, eyes to steal a man's soul and drown it. They frightened him. He felt that if he looked full into them he would be shattered like flawed glass. Yet he was too proud to glance away. He said,

"Am I to understand that you have existed in this shape for all these ages?"

"I have had many shapes," said Aarl. "The outward semblance is only illusion."

"Perhaps for you," said Stark. "Mine is somewhat more integral. Well. I have come far and I am tired, hungry, and thirsty. Are wizards above the laws of hospitality?"

"Not this one," said Aarl. "Come with me."

They began walking through what Stark took, from the echoes, to be a high-roofed hall of some length. There was no more sound from the unseen servitors.

The mists drew farther back. Now Stark could see walls of dark stone that went up to a great height. Upon them were designs of fire, shining arabesques that constantly moved and changed shape. Something about them bothered Stark. After a moment he realised that the fiery designs were corroded, tarnished, like the sunlight of upper Mars.

"So," he said. "The darkness is here, too."

"It is," said Aarl. He glanced sideling at Stark as they walked. "How do the wise men of science explain this darkness to the people of the nine worlds?"

"You already know that, of course."

"Yes. Nevertheless, tell me."

"They say that the whole solar system has moved into a cosmic dust cloud that is dimming the sun."

"Do they believe that, these wise men with all their instruments?"

"I don't know. That is what they must say, of course, to forestall panic."

"Do you believe it?"


"Why not?"

"I have been among the tents of the Dryland nomads. Their wise men say differently. They say it is not an inert thing but an active force."

"They are wise indeed. It is not a dust cloud. It is more than that, very much more than that."

Aarl stopped walking and spoke with feverish intensity.

"Can you conceive of a vampire something that drinks energy, that steals it from across a great void . . . a greater void than you imagine? A thing that will, if it is not stopped, devour not only the light of the sun but even the force of gravity that holds this family of worlds together? That will literally destroy the solar system?"

Stark stared at him appalled, not wanting to believe yet knowing somehow that it was so.

The Lord of the Third Bend reached out and grasped Stark's wrist with an icy hand.

"I'm afraid, Stark. My powers are great, but against this they're useless without help. That is why I need you. Yes. Need you. Come, and I'll show you why."

* * *

They sat in a mist-bordered chamber high in the citadel. And Stark was remembering the words of an ancient bardic chant.

Fear the Lord of the Third Bend. Fear him, for he is the master of time.

"The great void of which I spoke," said Aarl, "is not only a dimension of space. Look."

Stark looked at the curtain of mist. And was caught by the incredible scene that formed within it.

A panorama of stars, the great glooms of the void a background for a wilderness of flaring suns. He felt himself drawn into that immensity, to rush through it at incredible speed. Chains of stars rose up before him, mountain-ranges of high-piled, shining nebulae loomed on either hand. He swept past them in all their glory and left them far behind.

The view shifted, changed perspective. And Stark beheld ships ahead of him, gleaming starships that raced through the celestial jungle.

He saw them brilliant and small as toys. With a vertiginous wrench he returned to the reality of his own body and the coldness of the stone he sat upon.

"You are adept," he said, "at putting all this into my mind. Which is what you're doing."

"True," said Aarl. "But it is not mere imagining. You see what I have seen across two hundred thousand years of time. You see the future."

Stark believed it. The Lord of the Third Bend had not acquired his stature in the minds of generations of men by means of fraud. The sort of shabby trickery known to any village thaumaturgist would not have stood the test. Aarl wielded the lost knowledge of forgotten Mars, a science that differed greatly from the science of Earth but was none the less a science.

He looked at the vision on the screen of mist. Two hundred thousand years.

"Those ships," said Aarl, "those very powerful ships that travel with such speed, are the ships of the Star Kings."

That name, heard for the first time, rang in Stark's mind like the strident call of a bugle.

"The Star Kings?"

"The men who rule that future umiverse, each in his own kingdom, principality, or barony."

"Ah," said Stark, and looked again. "That is right and fitting. The starlands are too bright for grubby clerks, and bureaucrats in rumpled suits each trying to be more common than the next. Yes. Let there be Star Kings."

"You must go there, Stark. Into the future."

A small pulse began to beat beneath the angle of Stark's jaw. "Into the future. Bodily? Your knowledge can send me bodily across two hundred thousand years?"

"Two years or two million. It is all the same."

"Can you bring me back? Bodily."

"If you survive."

"Hm," said Stark, and looked again at the vision. "How would I go? I mean, in what capacity?"

"As an envoy, a messenger. Someone must go and meet these Star Kings face to face." Aarl's voice was angry. "I have ascertained that this menace to our solar system exists in their time. I have attempted to contact them by mental arts, without success. They simply did not hear. That is why I sent for you, Stark."

"You sent for N'Chaka," Stark said, and smiled. N'Chaka, the Man-without-a-tribe who could not remember his real parents, naked fosterling of the beast-folk of wild sun-shattered Mercury; N'Chaka, who wore his acquired humanity like an uncomfortable garment and who still tended to use his teeth when angered. "Why N'Chaka as an ambassador to the courts of the Star Kings?"

"Because N'Chaka is an animal at heart, though he has a man's brain. Animals do not lie, they do not turn traitor because of greed for money or power, or because of that worse tempter, philosophical doubt." Aarl studied him with those space-deep eyes, "in other words, I can trust you."

"You think that if someone offered me a throne at Algol or Betelgeuse, I wouldn't take it?" Stark laughed. "The Lord of the Abyss overestimates the purity of the beast."

"I think not."

"And anyway, why a bastard Earthman? Why not a Martian?"

"We're too concerned with our past, too deeply rooted in our own sacred soil. You have no roots. You do have a devouring curiosity, and a rare capacity for survival. Otherwise you would not be here." He held up his hand to forestall comment. "Look."

The scene on the mist-curtain changed abruptly. Now a madman's dream of space appeared, a tangled nightmare of crowding suns, dead stars, filamentary nebulae. Stark seemed to be racing at blinding speed through this cosmic jungle.

"The region at the western limb of the galaxy," said Aarl. "it is called, in that future time, The Marches of Outer Space. It holds a number of the smaller star-kingdoms. It also holds this."

Two old red suns like ruby brooches pinned a ragged veil of darkness across the starfield. Stark plunged into the gloom of the dark nebula, past dim drowned stars dragging their nighted planets. The coiling dust seemed to tear like smoke with the wind of his passing. Out on the other side there was light again, but it was strangely bent, distorted around an area of blankness, of nothingness quite different from the dusty darkness of the nebula. He could not see into it. The vision seemed to recoil, as though struck back by a blow.

"Not even my arts can penetrate that blind area," said Aarl. "But it is from there that the force comes, leaping back through time, draining the energy from our solar system."

"And my task, if I go, will be a simple one," Stark said. "Find out what that force is, who is responsible for it, and put an end to it." He shook his head. "Your faith in my abilities is touching, but do you know what I think, Aarl? I think you've lived in this dark hole far too long. I think your senses have left you."

He stood up, turning his back to the screen of mist.

"The task is impossible, and you know it."

"Yet it must be done."

"If it's a natural phenomenon, some freak warping of the continuum . . ."

"Then of course we are helpless. But I don't think it is." Aarl rose. He seemed to have grown taller and his eyes were hypnotic in their intensity. "You have no love for Earth because of what Earthmen did to your foster-tribe, yet I think you would not truly wish all those millions dead and the planet with them, long before its time. And what of Mars, which has been something of a home to you? She too has a while to go before the night overtakes her."

The pulse hammered more strongly under Stark's jaw. "I wouldn't even know where to start. It could take a lifetime."

"We do not have a lifetime," said Aarl, "nor even half of one. The energy-drain is accelerating rapidly. And I can tell you where to begin. With a man named Shorr Kan, King of Aldeshar in the Marches. The most powerful of the petty kings, and wily enough for two. You will find him sympathetic."

"How so?"

"Because this strange force is causing him immediate trouble. You must find a way to enlist his help."

"You speak as though I've already made my decision."

"You have."

Stark turned and looked at the mist-curtain again. It was blank now, only mist and nothing more. Yet he could still see the ships of the Star Kings and the untamed jungle of the Marches. The future, undiscovered, unexplored. Could he have the chance to see it, and refuse?

He said, "I suppose you're right."

Aarl nodded. "You had no choice, really. I was sure of that before I summoned you."

Stark shrugged. Suppose he tried and failed; it was better than sitting helplessly. And he could make his own decision about coming back.

He followed Aarl out of the chamber.

They came at length into a long hall crowded with objects. Stark recognized several instruments of modern Earth science; there was a fine seismograph, spectroscopic equipment, an array of electronic items, the latest in lasers. There were other things that seemed to have survived out of ancient Mars, arrangements of crystalline shapes that had no meaning whatever for Stark. There were yet other objects that he surmised had been constructed by the Lord of the Third Bend himself.

One of these was a sort of helical cage of crystal ribbons whose upper part spiralled away toward the high-vaulted roof. It appeared to vanish up there. Stark attempted to follow its progressively blurring outlines and was forced to stop, overcome with vertigo.

Aarl took his place within the lower part of the cage. "This helix amplifies my mental powers and enables me to manipulate the time-dimension. Stand anywhere. I shall be able to retain contact with your mind, since we are now attuned to communication, but I shall not waste precious energy on conversation. When you are ready to come back, tell me."

He did something with his hands. The crystal ribbons began to run with subtle fires.

"When you awaken you will be in the future, and I shall have given you such knowledge of it as I possess."

Before the darkness took him, Stark felt an incongruous pang of hunger. Aarl's promised hospitality had not been forthcoming.

* * *

He had a strange dream. He was infinite. He was transparent. The spaces between his atoms were large enough to let whole constellations through. He moved, but his motion was neither forward nor backward; it was a sly sneaky sidelong slither through . . . what?

In his dream the motion made him very sick. He felt like vomiting, but there was nothing inside him and so he could only retch.

Perhaps that was why Aarl had not bothered to feed him.

Retching, he awoke.

And saw that he had stopped moving. There was solid ground beneath his feet. His stomach received this information gratefully.

The light was peculiar. It was greenish. He looked up and saw a green sun blazing in a blue-green sky flecked with minty clouds.

He recognized the sun. It was Aldeshar, in the Marches of Outer Space.

The planet whose solidity was so welcome to him must be Altoh, the throne-world.

He had appeared, materialized, reassembled . . . whatever it was he had done . . . on a low ridge above an alien city. It was a pleasant city, low-roofed and rambling, with here and there a tall fluted tower for variety. The people had done without the ugly cubism of functional building. A network of canals glittered in the sunlight. There was a profusion of trees and flowering shrubs. The wandering streets were thronged with people and the canals were busy with boats. There seemed to be no motorized traffic on the surface, so the air was blessedly clean.

All the movement in the streets seemed to be converging toward a point in the southwestern sector of the city, where he could see a clump of more imposing buildings, with taller towers and an enormous square. The city was Donalyr, the capital, and the buildings would be Shorr Kan's palace and the administrative center of the star-kingdom.

A vast deep-bass humming sound suddenly filled the heavens, drawing Stark's attention away from the city. Down across the sky, ablaze with light and roaring with the thunder of God, a colossal ship slanted into its landing pattern. Stark's gaze followed it down, to a starport far out beyond the northern boundaries of Donalyr. The ground trembled beneath him, and was still.

Stark went down to the city. In the time it took him to reach the outskirts, three more ships had landed.

He let himself be carried along with the flow of people toward the palace square. He found that Aarl had supplied him with a working knowledge of the language; he could understand the chatter around him. The folk of Altoh were tall and strong, with ruddy tan skins and sharp eyes and faces. They wore loose brightly-colored garments suitable to the mild climate. But there were many foreigners, in this place where the starships came and went, men and women and a sprinkling of non-humans, in all shapes and sizes and colors, wearing every sort of dress. Donalyr, apparently, was quite used to strangers.

Even so, the people he passed turned their heads to look at Stark. Perhaps it was his height and the way he moved, or perhaps it was something arresting about the harsh planes of his face and the peculiar lightness of his eyes, accentuated by a skin-color that spoke of long exposure to a savage sun. They sensed some difference in him. Stark ignored them, secure in the knowledge that they could not possibly guess the degree of his differentness.

Ships continued to drop in rolling thunder out of the sky. He had counted nine by the time he reached the edge of the great square. He looked upward to watch number ten come in, and he felt the tiniest movement close to him in the crowd, the lightest of touches as though a falling leaf had brushed him. He whipped his right hand round behind him, snapped it shut on something bony, and turned to see what he had caught.

A little old man stared up at him with the bright, unrepentant face of a squirrel caught stealing nuts from someone else's hoard.

"You're too fast," he said. "Even so, you'd never have had me if your clothing wasn't so unfamiliar. I thought I knew where every pocket and purse in the Marches is situated. You must come from way back in."

"Far enough," said Stark. The old man wore a baggy tunic of no particular color, neither light nor dark, brilliant nor dull. If you didn't look hard at him you wouldn't see him in the throng. Beneath the hem he showed knobby knees and pipestem shanks. "Well," said Stark, "and what shall we do with you, Grandfather?"

"I took nothing," said the old man. "And it's my word against yours . . . you can't prove that I even tried."

"Hm," said Stark. "How good is your word?"

"What a question to ask!" said the old man, drawing himself up.

"I'm asking it."

The old man shot off on another tack. "You're a stranger here. You'll need a guide. I know every stone of this city. I can show you all of its delights. I can keep you out of the hands of . . ."

" . . . of thieves and pickpockets. Yes." Stark pulled his captive around to a more comfortable position. "What's your name?"

"Song Durr."

"All right, Song Durr. There's no hurry, we can always decide later what to do." He kept a strong hold on the thin wrist. "Tell me what's going on here."

"The Lords of the Marches are gathering for a conference with Shorr Kan." He laughed. "Conference, my eye. What's your name, by the way?" Stark told him. "That's an odd one. I don't seem to place the world of origin."

"I am also called N'Chaka."

"Ah. From Strior, perhaps? Or Naroten?" He looked keenly at Stark. "Well, no matter." His voice dropped. "Perhaps that is your Brotherhood name?"

A brotherhood of thieves, of course. Stark shrugged and let the old man interpret the gesture as he would. "Why did you say, 'Conference, my eye'?"

"Some starships have been lost. The rulers of a dozen or so little kingdoms are hopping mad about it. They suspect that Shorr Kan is responsible." Song Durr cackled admiringly. "And I wouldn't be surprised if he were. He's the hell and all of a king. Give him a little more time and he'll rule all the Marches. Him, that didn't have a pan to cook in when he first came here." He added, "My hand will be quite ruined, Brother N'Chaka,"

"Not just yet. How were these ships lost?"

"They simply disappeared. Somewhere out beyond Dendrid's Veil."

"Dendrid's Veil. That would be a dark nebula? Yes. And who is Dendrid?"

"The Goddess of Death."

It seemed a fitting name. "And why do they blame Shorr Kan?"

Song Durr stared at him. "You must be from way back in. That's no man's land out there, and there's been a lot of pawing and picking at it . . . quarrels over boundaries, annexations, all that. A lot of it is still unexplored. Shorr Kan has been the most daring and ambitious in his activities, or the most unscrupulous, whichever way you want to put it, though they'd all do the same themselves if they had the courage. Also, we haven't lost any ships." He rubbed his skinny nose and grinned. "I'd like to be a fly on the wall when they have that conference."

Stark said, "Brother Song Durr, let us be two flies."

The old man's eyes popped. "You mean, get right inside the palace?" He pulled sharply against Stark's grip. "Oh, no."

"You mistake me," Stark said. "I don't mean to break in like thieves. I mean to walk in, like kings."

Or like ambassadors. Envoys, from another time and place. Stark wondered if Aarl were listening, in his misty Martian citadel two hundred thousand years ago.

Song Durr stood, rigid in all his stringy sinews, while Stark told him what he was going to have to do if he wanted to keep his freedom.

In the end, Song Durr began to smile.

"I think I would like that," he said. "Yes, I think that would be better than another stay in the convict pens. I don't know why . . . if it were anyone but you, Brother N'Chaka, I'd take the pens, but somehow you make me believe that we can get away with it." He shook his head. "You do have large ideas, for a country boy."

Cackling, he led the way toward the surrounding streets.

"We'll have to hurry, Brother. The Star Kings will be arriving soon, and we mustn't be late to the party!"

* * *

The procession of the Star Kings glittered its way from the landing place at the far end of the palace square, where the hover-cars came down, along the central space held open by rows of tough-looking guardsmen in white uniforms, toward the palace itself. There were jewels enough and royal costumes of divers sorts, and faces of many colors, four of them definitely non-human; a brilliant pageant, Stark thought, and suitable to the place, with the magnificent towers looming above in the fierce green glare of the sun, the vast crowd, the humming silence, the intricately carved and fluted portico where Shorr Kan, Sovereign Lord of Aldeshar, sat upon a seat of polished stone . . . a tiny figure at this distance, but somehow radiating power even so, a signal brightness among grouped and shining courtiers.

The brazen voice of a chamberlain echoed across the square, reproduced from clusters of speakers.

"Burrul Opis, King of the worlds of Maktoo, Lord Paramount of the Nebula Zorind. Kan Martann, King of the Twin Suns of Keldar. Flane Fell, King of Tranett and Baron of Leth . . . ."

One by one the Star Kings approached the seat of Shorr Kan and were greeted, and passed on into the palace with their retinues.

"Now," said Stark, and pushed Song Durr forward. From between two of the guardsmen the old man cried out,

"Wait! Wait, there! One other is here to confer with our sovereign lord! Eric John Stark, Ambassador Ex . . ."

His voice squeaked off as the guardsmen grabbed him. The chamberlain who was turning away from the last departing hover-car, looked with surprised annoyance at the commotion.

Stark stepped forward, thrusting the guardsmen apart. "Eric John Stark, Ambassador Extraordinary from the worlds of Sol."

He had shed his travel-stained garments, still patched with the red dust of Mars. He was clad all in black now, a rich tunic heavy with embroidery over soft trousers and fine boots. Song Durr had stolen them from one of the best shops catering to off-worlders. He had wanted to steal some jewels as well, but Stark had settled for a gold chain. For a moment everything went into a tableau as the chamberlain stared at Stark and the guardsmen hesitated over whether or not they should kill him where he stood.

Stark said to the chamberlain, "Tell your master that my mission is urgent, and deals with the subject of the conference."

"But you were not on the list. Your credentials . . ."

"I have travelled a very long way," said Stark, "to speak with your king. What I have to say concerns the death of suns. Are you a man of such courage that you dare turn me away?"

"I am not a brave man at all," said the chamberlain. "Hold them." The guardsmen held. The chamberlain sent an attendant scurrying toward the palace. Shorr Kan had paused in his rising, his attention drawn to the interruption. There was some hurried talk, and Stark saw Shorr Kan make a decisive gesture. The attendant came scurrying back.

"The Ambassador from Sol may approach, with an escort."

The chamberlain looked relieved. He nodded to the guardsmen, who stepped out of line, weapons at the ready, and positioned themselves behind Stark and Song Durr, who was now gloriously robed in crimson. The little man was breathing hard, holding himself nervously erect.

They strode through a rising babble as the crowd pushed and craned to see this new curiosity. They mounted the palace steps. And Stark stood before Shorr Kan, King of Aldeshar in the Marches of Outer Space.

King he might be, but he had not grown fat on it, nor unwatchful. He was still the hunting tiger, the cool-eyed predator with prey under his paw and his whiskers a-twitch with eagerness to get more. He looked at Stark with a kind of deadly good humor, baring strong white teeth in a strong hard face.

"Ambassador Extraordinary from the worlds of Sol. Tell me, Ambassador . . . where is Sol?"

That was a good question, and one Stark did not attempt to answer. "Very far away," he said, "but even so, of interest to Your Majesty."

"How so?"

"The problem facing you here in the Marches also affects us. When I heard of the conference, I didn't wait to present my credentials in the normal manner. It's vital that I attend." Was Shorr Kan ignorant of Sol because of its distance and unimportance, or because it no longer existed? In which case . . . Stark forced the thought resolutely away. If he let his mind become involved with time paradoxes he would never get anywhere.

"Vital," Shorr Kan was asking, "to whom?"

"This power beyond Dendrid's Veil, whatever it may be, is killing our sun, our solar system. Yours may be next. I would say it's vital to all of us to find out what that power is."

Deep in the tiger eyes Stark saw the stirring of a small shadow and recognized it for what it was. Fear.

Shorr Kan nodded his dark head once. "The Ambassador from Sol may enter."

The guardsmen stepped back. Stark and Song Durr followed the king and his courtiers through the great portal.

"I almost believed you myself," Song Durr whispered. His step was light now, his face crinkled in a greedy smile. "For a country boy, you do well."

Stark wondered how he would feel about that later on.

The conference was a stormy one, held in a huge high-vaulted hall that made kings and courtiers seem like dressed-up children huddled in the midst of its ringing emptiness. Some predecessor of Shorr Kan's had designed it most carefully. The dwindling effect of the architecture was deliberate. The throne-chair was massive, set so high that everyone must look up and become aware, not only of the throne and its occupant, but of the enormous winged deities that presided on either side of the dais. They had identical faces, very fierce and jut-nosed and ugly. Eyes made of precious stones glared down at the lesser kings. Stark surmised that the original of those unpleasant faces had been the builder's own.

Shorr Kan sat there now, and listened to his enemies.

Flane Fell, King of Tranett, seemed to be spokesman for the group, and the foremost in angry accusation. His skin was the color of old port, his features vulturine. He wore gray, with a diamond sunburst on his breast, and his bald skull, narrow as a bird's, was surmounted by a kind of golden tower. After a great deal of bickering and shouting he cried out,

"If you are not responsible for the loss of our ships, then who is? What is? Tell us, Shorr Kan!"

Shorr Kan smiled. He was younger than Stark had expected, but then youth was nothing against a conqueror.

"You believe that I am developing some great secret weapon out there beyond Dendrid's Veil. Why?"

"Your ambitions are well known. You'll rule the Marches alone, if you can."

"Of course," said Shorr Kan. "Isn't that true of every one of us? It's not my ambitions you fear, it's my ability. And I'd remind you that I've not needed any secret weapons so far." All their silken plumage rustled with indignation, and he laughed. "You have formed an alliance against me, I'm told."


"How do you propose to use it?"

"Force," said Flane Fell, and the others shouted agreement. "Overwhelming force, if you drive us to it. Your navy is powerful, but against our combined fleets Aldeshar couldn't stand for a week."

"True," said Shorr Kan, "but consider. What if I do in fact possess a secret weapon? What would happen then to your lovely fleets? I doubt if you'll take that chance."

"Don't be too sure, upstart," said Kan Martann furiously. "We've all lost ships, all but you, Shorr Kan. If you have no weapon, and you're truly ignorant of the force beyond Dendrid's Veil, why are you preserved from misfortune?"

"Because I'm smarter than you are. After the first ship disappeared, I kept mine out of there." He made a sweeping gesture, bringing Stark into the group. "I present to you Eric John Stark, Ambassador Extraordinary from the worlds of Sol. Perhaps we ought to hear what he has to say. It seems to have some bearing on our quarrel."

Stark knew from the beginning that he was talking against the barrier of completely closed minds. Still, he told them the meticulous truth, leaving out only the mention of time and characterizing Aarl simply as a scientist. They barely let him finish.

"What did you hope to gain by this?" asked Flane Fell, addressing the throne. "The fellow is an obvious imposter, intended to convince us that because some mythical system on the other side of the galaxy is being attacked by this menace, you could have nothing to do with it. Did you think we'd believe it?"

"I think you're a parcel of fools," said Shorr Kan, when the clamor had subsided. "Suppose he's telling the truth. If this thing can kill one sun, it can kill another . . . Aldeshar, Tranett, Maktoo, the Twins of Keldar."

"We're not that easily deceived!"

"Which simply means that you're frightened out of your royal wits. You want to believe in a weapon controlled by me because you feel you can do something about that. But suppose it's a weapon not controlled by me? Suppose it's some wild freak of nature not controlled, or controllable, by anyone? Wouldn't you be wiser to find out?"

"We've tried," said Flane Fell grimly. "We lost ships and gained no knowledge. Now it's up to you. This is our ultimatum, Shorr Kan. Dismantle your weapon, or give us proof that the thing is not of your making. In one month's time an unmanned vessel will be sent beyond the Veil. If it vanishes, and your proofs have not been forthcoming, it means war."

They lifted their clenched fists all together and shouted, "War!"

"I hear you, brother kings. Now go."

The group departed with a clatter of jewelled heels on the echoing floor.

"You, too," said Shorr Kan, and dismissed his courtiers. "Stay," he said to Stark. "And you, little thief . . ."

"Majesty," said Song Durr, "I am chamberlain to the Ambassador . . . ."

"Don't lie to me," said Shorr Kan. "I was one of the Brotherhood myself, before I became a king. You have my permission to steal, if you can do it without being caught, as much as will not bulge that borrowed finery. In one hour I shall send men to hunt for you, but they will not look beyond the palace doors."

"Majesty," said Song Durr, "I embrace your knees. And yours, country boy. We were well met indeed. Good luck to you." He scampered away, thin shanks twinkling beneath his robe.

"His worries are small," said Shorr Kan, and smiled.

"But you don't envy him."

"If I did, I would be in his place." Shorr Kan came down from the throne and stood before Stark. "You're a strange man, Ambassador. You make me uneasy, and you bring disturbing news. Perhaps I ought to have you killed at once. That is what my brother kings would do. But I'm not a born king, you see, I'm an upstart, and so I keep my eyes and ears and especially my mind wide open. Also, I have another advantage over my colleagues. I know I'm telling the truth when I say that. I have no secret weapon, and I do not know what force this is that eats up ships and stars. Do you believe me, Ambassador?"



"If you controlled the force, you'd use it."

Shorr Kan Laughed. "You see that, do you? Of course you do. That pack . . ." He jerked his chin contemptuously at the doorway. "Their spite blinds them. Their chief hope is to be rid of me, no matter what else befalls them."

"You must admit they've mousetrapped you rather neatly."

"They think they have. But they are only petty kings, Ambassador, and there is nothing more petty than a petty king."

He looked up and around the great hall. "Hideous, isn't it? And those two fellows there beside the throne, with their ugly great faces. I've thought of putting hats on them, but they look silly enough already. Aldeshar was always a petty kingdom, always will be. But first steps must be small, Ambassador. There are larger thrones ahead."

Ambition, intelligence, energy, ruthlessness, shone in him like a brilliant light. They made him beautiful, with the beauty of things which are perfect in their design and flawless in their functioning.

"Now there is a problem to be solved, eh?" The tiger eyes came back to Stark, fixed on him. "Why did you come to me, Ambassador? All this long, long way from Sol."

"It seemed that we might help each other."

"You need help from me," said Shorr Kan. "Do I need help from you?"

"How can I answer that until we know what threatens us?"

Shorr Kan nodded. "I have a feeling about you, Ambassador Stark. We shall be great friends, or great enemies, and if it's the latter, I'll not hesitate to kill you."

"I know that."

"Good, we understand each other. Now, there is much to do. My scientific advisors will want to hear your story. Then . . ."

"Your Majesty," said Stark, "of your mercy . . . it's been a long time since I tasted food."

A scant two hundred thousand years.

* * *

Two old red suns like ruby brooches pinned a ragged curtain of darkness across the starfield. Dendrid's Veil, looking exactly as Stark had seen it in the mist of Aarl's citadel chamber. The view was still a projection, this time on the simulator screen of a Phantom scout, the fastest ship in Shorr Kan's fleet, loaded with special gear.

Stark and Shorr Kan stood together studying the simulator. Beneath Stark and around him, tormenting the whole of the ship's fabric and his own flesh, was the throb and hum of the FTL drive, a subliminal sense of wrenching displacement coupled with a suffocating feeling of being trapped inside a shell of unimaginable power like an unhatched chick in an egg. The image on the screen was an electronic trick no more genuine than Aarl's, except that the actual nebula was ahead.

The flight was no spur-of-the-moment thing. There had been endless hasslings with counsellors; scientific advisors, military and civilian advisors, all of whom pulled furiously in totally different directions. In the end, Shorr Kan had had his way.

"A king is made for ruling. When he ceases to have the courage and the vision necessary to perform that function, he had damn well better abdicate. My kingdom is threatened with destruction by two things, war and the unknown. Unless the unknown is made known, war is inevitable. Therefore it is my duty to find out what lies beyond Dendrid's Veil."

"But not in person," said his counsellors. "The risk is too great."

"The risk is too great to send anyone but myself," said Shorr Kan. Nobility radiated from him, illumined the throne and the ugly genies. It was easy to see how he drew his followers to him. "What is a king, if he does not think first of the safety of his people? Prepare a ship."

After all the orders were given and the counsellors sent off to deal with them, Shorr Kan grinned at Stark. They were alone then in the great hall.

"Nobility is all very well, but one must be practical too. Do you see my point, Ambassador?"

Stark's patience had worn somewhat with the wrangling and delay. He had been conscious of an increasing urgency, as though Aarl were putting a silent message into his mind; "Hurry!"

He said rather curtly, "At best you'll bait your brother kings to follow you because they'll be afraid to let you go alone. You may find a way to destroy them, or use them as allies, whichever seems advisable at the time. At worst, with a fast ship under you, you may hope to have a line of escape open if things go too far wrong. How can you be sure they won't simply blow you out of space, thus negating both possibilities?"

"They'll want me to lead them to the weapon. I think they'll wait." Shorr Kan put his hand confidently on Stark's shoulder. "And since you'll be with me, you had better hope that I'm right. I've made some enquiries about you, Ambassador."


"I thought perhaps you might be a spy for my brother kings, or even an assassin. You do have the look of one, you know. But my agents could find no trace of you, and you don't seem to have sprung from any of our local planets. So I must believe you're what you say you are. There's only one small problem . . ." He smiled at Stark. "We still haven't been able to locate Sol. So I'm keeping you by me, Ambassador, close by, as an unknown quantity."

An unknown quantity, Stark thought, to be used or discarded. Yet he could not help liking Shorr Kan.

And now he stood in the bridge of the scout and wondered whether Shorr Kan had read his brother kings aright. Because the ships of the Kings of the Marches had followed them, were following, at a discreet distance but hanging stubbornly in their wake.

"We'll make planetfall in the nebula," said Shorr Kan. "Ceidri, the farthest inhabited world we know and the closest to the edge of this unknown power. They're strange folk, the Ceidrins, but the Marches are full of strange folk, the beginnings of new evolutions and the rags and bobtails of old ones driven out here by successive waves of interstellar conquest. Perhaps they can tell us something."

"They're scientists?"

"In their own peculiar way."

The chief of the scientists who had accompanied the battery of instruments mounted aboard made a derisive sound.

"Sorcerors. And not even human."

"And what have you been able to tell us?" Shorr Kan demanded. "That there is an area of tremendous force beyond the Veil, force sufficient to warp space around it, destroying everything that comes near it? We knew that. Can you tell us how to approach this force, how to learn its source without being destroyed ourselves?"

"Not yet."

"When you know, tell me. Until then, I'll take whatever knowledge I can get regardless of the source."

Time passed, time that was running out for all of them, here and now and for the nine little worlds of Sol two hundred thousand years in the past. The ship plunged into the dark nebula as into a cloud of smoke, and it was as Stark had seen it on Aarl's misty curtain, the coiling wraiths seeming to shred away with the speed of the ship's passing. An illusion, and then the ship dropped out of FTL into normal space. Here at the edge of the nebula the veil was thin and a half-drowned star burned with a lurid light, hugging one small planet close to it for warmth.

Through the torn openings of Dendrid's Veil, Stark could see what lay beyond, the area of blankness, secret and strange.

It seemed to have grown since last he saw it.

They landed on the planet, a curious shadowed world beneath its shrouded sun, a hothouse of pale vegetation. There was a town, with narrow lanes straggling off among the trees and houses that were themselves like clumps of vegetation, woven of living vines that bloomed heavily with dark flowers.

The people of Ceidri were dark too, and small, deep-eyed and shambling, with clever hands and coats of rich glossy fur that shed the rain. They received their visitors out of doors, where there was room for them to stand erect. Night came on and the sky glowed with twisting dragon-shapes of dull fire where the parent star lit drifts of dust.

Talk was through an interpreter, but Stark was aware of more than the spoken words. There were powerful undercurrents of both fear and excitement.

"It is growing," said the chief, "it reaches, grasps, sucks. It is a strong child. It has begun to think."

There came a silence over the clearing. A shower of rain fell lightly and passed on.

"You are saying," said Shorr Kan in a strangely flat voice, "that that thing out there is alive? Interpreter, make certain of the meaning!"

"It lives," said the chief. His eyes glowed in his small snubby face. "We feel it." And he added, "It will kill us soon."

"Then it is evil?"

"Not evil. No." His narrow shoulders lifted. "It lives."

Shorr Kan turned to his scientists. "Can this be possible? Can a force . . . a . . . nothing be alive?"

"It has been postulated that the final evolution might be a creature of pure energy, alive in the sense that it would feed on energy, as all life-forms do in one form or another, and be sentient . . . to what degree we can only guess, anything from amoeboid to God-like."

The chief of the scientists stared at the heavens, and then at the small brown creatures who watched with their strange eyes. "We cannot accept it. Not on this evidence. Such a momentous occurrence . . ."

" . . . ought to have been discovered by the proper authorities," said Shorr Kan, and added a short word. "It may be so, it may not be so, but let us keep an open mind." To the headman of the Ceidrins he said urgently, "Can you speak to the thing? Communicate?"

"It does not hear us. Do you hear the cry of the organisms in the air you breathe or the water you drink?"

"But you can hear . . . it?"

"Oh, yes, we hear. It grows swiftly. Soon we shall hear nothing else."

"Can you make us able to hear?"

"You are men, and men tend to be deafened by their own noises. But there is one here . . ." His glossy head turned. His eyes met Stark's. "One here is not like the rest, he is not quite deaf. Perhaps we can help him to hear."

"Very well, Ambassador," said Shorr Kan, "You came to learn what it is that eats your sun. Here is your chance."

They told him what to do. He knelt upon the ground and they formed a ring of small dark shapes around him, with the dark flowers shedding a heavy scent, and the dragon sky above. He looked into the glowing eyes of the chief, and felt his mind becoming malleable, being drawn out, a web of sensitive threads, stretching, linking with the circled minds.

Gradually, he began to hear.

He heard imperfectly with his limited human brain, and he was glad instinctively that this was so. He could not have supported the full blaze of that consciousness. Even the echo of it stunned him.

Stunned him with joy.

The joy of being alive, of being sentient and aware, of being young, thrusting, vibrant, strong. The joy of being.

There was no evil in that joy, no cruelty in the strength that pulsed and grew, sucking life from the cradling universe as simply and naturally as a blade of grass sucks nourishment from the soil. Energy was its food and it ate and was not conscious of life destroyed. That conception was impossible to it. In its view nothing could be destroyed, only changed from one form to another. It saw all of creation as one vast source of fuel for its eternal fires, and that creation now included all of time as well as space. The tremendous force gathering at the heart of the thing had begun to twist the fabric of the continuum itself, deforming it so fantastically that the Sol of two hundred thousand years ago was as accessible as the drowned sun of Ceidri.

It was very young. It was without sin. Its mental potential spanned parsecs. Already it had intimations of its own greatness. It would think, and grow, while the myriad wheeling galaxies swarmed like bees in the sheer beauty of their being, and in due course it would create. God knew what it would create, but all its impulses shone and were pure.

It was innocent. And it was a killer.

Yet Stark yearned to be a part of that divine strength and joyousness. He desired to be lost forever within it, relieved of self and all the petty agonies that went with human living. He felt that he had almost achieved this goal when the contract was broken and he found himself still kneeling with the Ceidrins round him and a soft rain falling. The rain had wet his cheeks, and he was desolate.

Shorr Kan spoke to him, and he answered.

"It is alive. A new species. And it means the end of ours, if we don't kill it. If it can be killed."

He stood up, and he saw their faces staring at him, the King of Aldeshar and his scientists and his experts in war and weaponry, doubtful and afraid. Afraid to believe, afraid not to believe.

And Stark added, "If it should be killed."

The voices began then, clamoring all at once, until they were silenced by a new sound.

Down across the dragon sky, the ships of the Star Kings came to land.

Shorr Kan said, "We'll wait for them here." He looked at Stark. "While your mind was straining at its tether to be gone, I had a report from my ship. The power cells are being drained. Only an infinitesimal loss so far, but definite. I wonder what my brother kings will make of it all."

His brother kings were jubilant. They had left their heavy cruisers standing off Ceidri, an overwhelming force against Shorr Kan's scout. They were delighted to have caught their fox so easily.

"If you have a weapon, you can't use it against us now without using it against yourself," Flane Fell told him. He had laid aside his silks and jewels, and his golden crown. Like the others, he was dressed for war.

"If I had a weapon," said Shorr Kan tranquilly, "that thought would have occurred to me. I imagine you're having the planet searched for hidden installations, possible control centers, and the like?"

"We are."

"And do you still suppose that any human agency could possibly create or control the force that lies out there?"

"All the evidence will be fairly evaluated, Shorr Kan."

"That gives me great comfort. In the meantime, have your technicians monitor the power cells of your ships with great care. Have them monitor mine as well. And don't be too long about your decision."

"Why?" demanded Flane Fell.

Shorr Kan beckoned to Stark. "Tell them."

Stark told them.

The Kings of the Marches, the human kings, looked at the Ceidrins and Flane Fell said, "What are these that we should believe them? Little lost brute-things on a lost planet. And as for this so-called ambassador . . ."

He did not finish. One of the non-human kings had stepped forward to confront him. This fellow's dawn-ancestor had bequeathed to him a splendid rangy build, a proud head with an aristocratic snout and only a suggestion of fangs, and a suit of fine white fur banded handsomely with gray. His smile was fearsome.

"As a brute-thing myself," he said, "I speak for my fellow kings of the minority, and I say that the hairless son of an ape is no less a brute-thing than we, and no more competent to judge truthfulness in any form. We ourselves will speak with the Ceidrins."

They went to do so. Shorr Kan smiled. "The King of Tranett has already given me allies. I'm grateful."

Stark had gone apart. He looked at the sky and remembered.

The morning came dark with drifting rain. When the clouds broke it seemed to Stark that the shrouded sun was dimmer than he remembered, but that of course was imagination. The four non-human kings rejoined the group. Their faces were solemn, and the chief of the Ceidrins was with them.

"The man Stark spoke truly," said the gray-barred king. "The thing has already begun to draw the life from this sun. The Ceidrins know they're doomed, and so shall we be in our turn if this thing is not destroyed."

Reports came in from the ships, those that had landed and those still free in space awaiting orders. All had unexplained losses of energy from the power cells.

"Well, brother kings," said Shorr Kan, "what is your decision?"

The four non-humans ranged themselves with the King of Aldeshar. "Our fleets are at your disposal, and the best of our scientific minds." The gray-barred king looked at Flane Fell with blazing golden eyes. "Leave your little spites behind, apeling, or all our kind, all things that breathe and move, are foredone."

Shorr Kan said, "You can always kill me later on, if we live."

Flane Fell made an angry gesture. "Very well. Let all our efforts be combined, to the end that this thing shall die."

* * *

"Let all our efforts be combined . . ."

Messages were flashed to the scientific centers of the far-flung star-worlds. Messages all asking the same question.

How can this thing be killed, before it kills us?

The ships had left Ceidri and returned to the hither side of the nebula, where they hung like a shoal of fingerlings against the Veil, catching palely the light of distant suns. They waited for answers. Answers began to come.

"Energy!" said Shorr Kan, and cursed. "The thing is energy. It devours energy. It lives on suns. How can it be destroyed with energy?"

Narin Har, chief of the joint scientific missions now aboard Flane Fell's flagship, that being the largest and possessed of the most sophisticated communications center, answered Shorr Kan.

"We have results from the three great computers at Vega, Rigel, and Fomalhaut. They all agree that we must use energy against energy, in the form of our most potent missiles."

Shorr Kan said, "Anti-matter?"


"But won't that simply feed its strength?"

"They're working on the equations now. But judging from the relatively slow rate at which it is presently absorbing energy from the stars it has attacked, we ought to be able to introduce the violent energy of anti-matter missiles into it in such quantities that it will be unable to assimilate rapidly enough. The result is expected to be total annihilation."

"How many missiles?"

"That is the information we're waiting for now."

It came.

Narin Har read the figures to the Kings of the Marches, assembled in the flagship. These figures meant little to Stark, who was present, but he could see by the faces of the kings that the impact of them was staggering.

"We must ask for every ship available from every ruler in the galaxy," said Shorr Kan. "Every available anti-matter missile, which may not be enough since the supply is limited, and a full complement of conventional atomics. We must beg for them, and with all speed."

The scout ship, sent back through the Veil, had brought word that the thing was growing now with frightening rapidity.

The message was sent, backed by all the scientific evidence they could muster.

Again they waited.

Beyond the Veil the thing fed contentedly and dreamed its cosmic dreams. And grew.

"If the Empire sends its ships," said Shorr Kan, "the rest will follow." He pounded his fist on the table. "How long does it take the fools to deliberate? If they insist on waggling their tongues forever . . ." He stood up. "I'll speak with Jhal Arn myself."

"Jhal Arn?" asked Stark.

"You are a country boy, Ambassador. Jhal Arn is ruler of the Mid-Galactic Empire, the most potent force in the galaxy."

"You sound as though you don't love him."

"Nor the Empire. That is beside the point now. Come along, if you like."

In the communications room, Stark watched the screen of the sub-space telecom spring to life.

"The Hall of Suns," said Shorr Kan, "at Throon, royal planet of Canopus and center of the Empire. Ah, yes. The Imperial Council is in session."

The hall was vast, splendid with the banners and insignia of a thousand star-kingdoms, Stark caught only a fleeting glimpse of that magnificence, and of the many alien personages . . . ambassadors, he thought, representing their governments at this extraordinary session, princes and nobles from worlds he did not know. The view narrowed in upon the throne chair, where a tall man sat looking into the apparatus before him so that he seemed to be staring straight at Shorr Kan. Which he was, across half a galaxy.

Shorr Kan wasted no time on regal courtesies.

"Jhal Arn," he said, "you have no cause to love me, nor I you, and you have no cause to trust me, either. Still, we are both citizens of this galaxy, and here we both must live or die, and all our people with us. We of the Marches are committed, but we have not the strength to fight this thing alone. If you do not lead the way for the Star Kings, if you do not send the ships we need, then you will have condemned your own Empire to destruction."

Jhal Arn had a fine strong face, worn with the strain of governing. There was wisdom in his eyes. He inclined his head slightly.

"Your feelings, and mine, are of equal unimportance, Shorr Kan. The lords of the Council have now understood that. We have conferred with all our scientists and advisors. The decision has been taken. You shall have the ships."

The screen went dark.

And they waited, watching the blank heavens where the far suns burned, while the great blazing wheel of the galaxy turned on its hub of stars, one infinitesimal fraction of a revolution so long that only a computer could comprehend it.

At last the ships came.

Stark watched them on the screens as they came, dropping out of the void. Shorr Kan told him what they were. The squadrons of Fomalhaut Kingdom, with the blazon of the white sun on their bows. The ships of Rigel and Deneb, Algol and Altair, Antares and Vega. The fleets of wide-flung Kingdoms of Lyra and Cygnus and Cassiopeia, of Lepus and Corvus and Orion. The ships of the Barons of Hercules, ensigned with the golden cluster. And on and on until Stark's head was ringing with star names and giddy with the sheer numbers of that mustering.

Last of all, huge sombre shadows of interstellar war, came the great battle-cruisers of the Empire.

The ships of the Star Kings, in massed rendezvous off Dendrid's Veil. The heavens were aglitter with them.

There was much coming and going of star-captains, discussions of strategy, endless pawings-over of data and clackings of on-board computers. The vast armada hung in the starshine, and Stark remembered the battle plans he had made in his own life, in a former time; the plotted charges of the men of Kesh and Shun in the Martian Drylands, the deadly tribal prowlings in the swamps and seas of Venus. Exercises for prattling babes. Here, on the screen, was magnificence beyond belief.

And on the other side of the Veil was an adversary beyond his former imagining.

He wondered if Aarl still waited and listened. He wondered if the worlds of Sol still lived.

At length Shorr Kan told him, "We are ready. The combined fleets will move In exactly six units, Galactic Arbitrary Time."

* * *

The fleets of the Star Kings moved. Rank on shining rank, they plunged into the gloom of the nebula, crashed headlong through the coiling clouds of dust to burst into open space beyond where the twisted enigma waited, sprawled carelessly across space and time.

Stark stood with Shorr Kan by the screens of the small scout, attached now to Shorr Kan's navy, three heavy cruisers and a swarm of lighter craft, everything that could carry a missile.

Aldeshar's fleet was in the first attack wave, with the other fleets of the Marches. The scout leaped away from the nebula, fired its conventional atomics into the looming blankness of the thing ahead, then spiraled upward and away, skirting the edges of destruction. It took up station where it could see, and if necessary, run. Shorr Kan was again being practical.

The first wave struck like a thunderbolt, loosing the full batteries of their missiles and swerving away a complicated three-dimensional dance of death, carefully plotted to avoid being swallowed by the enemy and to leave the way clear for the following wave.

And they came, the silver fleets with their proud insignia of suns and clusters and constellations; the might of the Star Kings against the raw power of creation.

They poured their salvos of unthinkable energy into the child of energy, lighting smothered flares across the parsecs, pounding at the fabric of the universe with which the creature was entwined until space itself was shaken and the scout ship lurched in the backlash as though upon a heavy sea.

The creature, roused, struck back.

Bolts of naked force shot from its blind face, spearing ships, wiping the heavens clean. Yet more ships came on, more missiles sped to seed the thing with deadly anti-matter. More dark lightnings flashed. But the thing still lived, and fought, and killed.

"It's defending itself," Stark said. "Not only itself, but its whole species, just as we are."

He could sense the bewilderment it felt, the fear, the outraged anger. Probably his previous contact through the Ceidrins had given him that ability, and he was sorry it had, dim though the echo was. The creature was still, he thought, unaware of living beings as such. It only knew that this sudden bursting of strange energy within it was dangerous. It had located the source of that energy and was trying to destroy it.

It appeared to have succeeded.

The fleets drew off. There was a cessation of all action. The lightnings ceased. The thing lay apparently untouched, undiminished.

Stark said, "Have we lost?" He was soaked with sweat and shaking as though he had himself been fighting.

Shorr Kan only said, "Wait."

The ships of the Barons of Hercules detached themselves from the massed ranks of the fleet. They sped away as though in flight.

"Are they running?" asked Stark.

Again Shorr Kan said, "Wait."

Presently Stark understood. Far away, greatly daring along the uncharted flank of this creature, the fleet of the Cluster struck. Annihilating lightnings danced and flared, and the creature struck out at those ships, forgetting the massed fleets that had now moved into a pattern of semi-englobement. It was after all a child, and ignorant of even simple strategies.

The fleets charged, loosing a combined shellfire of raving energies at a single area of the creature's being.

This time the fires they lit did not go out.

They spread. They burned and brightened. Great gouts of energy burst nova-like from out of that twisted blankness, catching ships, destroying them, but without aim or purpose. The savage bolts were random now, blind emissions of a dying force.

The fleets regrouped, pouring in all they had left to them of death.

And Stark heard . . . felt, with the atoms of his flesh . . . the last unbelieving cry of despair, the anguish of loss as strength and joy faded and the wheeling galaxies in all their beauty went from sight, a flight of brilliant butterflies swept away on a cruel wind.

It died.

The fleets of the Star Kings fled from the violence of that dying, while space rocked around them and stars were shattered, while the insane fury of total destruction blazed and roiled and fountained across the parsecs and the stuff of the universe trembled.

The ships took refuge beyond Dendrid's Veil. They waited, afraid that the chain-reaction they had set in motion might yet engulf them. But gradually the turbulence quietened, and when their instruments registered only normal radiation, the scout ship and a few others ventured to return.

The shape of the nebula was altered. Ceidri and its dim sun had vanished. Out beyond, there was a new kind of blankness, the empty blankness of death.

Even Flane Fell was awed by the enormity of what they had done. "It is a heavy thing to be God."

"Perhaps a heavier one to be man," said Shorr Kan. "God, as I recall, never doubted He was right."

They turned back then, and the fleets of the Star Kings, such as had survived that killing, dispersed, each one homing on its separate star.

Shorr Kan returned to Aldeshar.

In the hall of the ugly genie he spoke to Stark. "Well, Ambassador? Your little sun is safe now, if salvation didn't come too late. Will you return there, or will you stay with me? I could make your fortune."

Stark shook his head. "I like you, King of Aldeshar. But I'm no good running mate, and sooner or later we'd come to that enmity you spoke of. Besides, you're born for trouble, and I prefer to make my own."

Shorr Kan laughed. "You're probably right, Ambassador. Though I'm sorry. Let us part friends."

They shook hands. Stark left the palace and walked through the streets of Donalyr toward the hills, and through all the voices and the sounds around him he could still hear that last despairing cry.

He went up on the ridge above the city. And Aarl brought him home.

* * *

They sat in the mist-bordered chamber high in the ancient citadel.

"We ought not to have killed it," Stark said. "You never touched its consciousness. I did. It was . . . God-like."

"No," said Aarl. "Man is God-like, which is to say creator, destroyer, savior, kind father and petty tyrant, ruthless, bloodthirsty, bigoted, merciful, loving, murderous, and noble. This creature was far beyond mere godliness, and so perhaps more worthy than we to survive . . . but it did not survive. And that is the higher law."

Aarl fixed him with those space-black eyes.

"No life exists but at the expense of other life. We kill the grain to make our bread, and the grain in time kills the soil it grows in. Do not reproach yourself for that. In due course another such super-being may be born which will survive in spite of us, and then it will be our turn to go. Meanwhile, we survive, and that is our proof of right. There is no other."

He led Stark down the long and winding ways to the portal, where his saddled beast was waiting. Stark mounted and rode away, turning his back forever on the Third Bend.

And so he had seen the future, and touched beauty, and the thing was done, for better or worse. Beauty had died beyond Dendrid's Veil, and high above, where the walls of the Great Rift Valley towered against the sky, the sun was shining on the old proud face of Mars. Some good, some evil, and perhaps in the days to come Aarl's words would soothe his conscience.

And conscience or not, he would never forget the splendor of the ships of the Star Kings massed for battle.

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