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Chapter 2

Kettrick answered, in the same slurred speech, "Your advice was always good, Sekma, even if I didn't take it. So I'll take it now."

He sat down in the one empty chair, which had been placed as though by accident in such a position that all of the men could watch his every gesture and change of expression. Kettrick had a strange feeling that he was doing all this in a dream, a rather unpleasant dream, one of those things that seems quite normal on the surface but which the sleeper knows is a developing nightmare from which he will presently wake up screaming. But perversely, now that he was well into it, he did not want to wake up. He was consumed with curiosity.

"Would you like a drink?" asked Vickers.

"No, thank you," said Kettrick. There were times when the instinct of self-preservation was stimulant enough, and better left to itself.

"Very well. Then first of all, Mr. Kettrick, I will ask you to listen without interrupting. You know Mr. Sekma. I believe you do not know Dr. Takinu. He is chief of astrophysical research for the Bureau of Astronomy at Tananaru."

Kettrick bowed slightly to Takinu, who returned the acknowledgment. He was older than Sekma, beginning to show white circles in the tight copper-wire curls that covered his narrow head, and his face bore lines of strain, great and immediate, that one might look for in the face of a statesman but hardly in that of an astrophysicist concerned only with the remote crises of stars. Kettrick shot a quick glance at Smith and saw the shadow of the same thing in the Earthman's eyes.


"Dr. Takinu will tell you himself what he has already told us."

Vickers leaned back, and Takinu looked at Kettrick. "It is convenient for you that I speak my own tongue?"

"It is convenient," Kettrick said.


"Good," said Takinu. "That way is quicker." Wearily, as though he had repeated these same words until he hated them, he went on, "Our instruments picked up and recorded a change in one of the outlying stars of the Hyades—a small fringe sun with no habitable planets. It was a routine sweep of the sky and the new data was only noticed when the computers found the discrepancy in the gamma radiation level for that portion of the sweep. We pinpointed the source of emission and made very exhaustive studies. Very exhaustive, Mr. Kettrick, very careful. The small star had suddenly become lethal."

Takinu paused, frowning, and Sekma spoke.

"What he's trying to find the layman's language for, Johnny, is the explanation of how a star might suddenly, overnight, become deadly. How the solar processes might be changed, the cycle altered by some interference with the chemical balance, so that the output of gamma radiation is increased until every living thing on every planet of that star—if it had habitable planets—would be blasted out of existence. I don't think you have to go into the physics of it, Takinu. I think Johnny will accept the fact that it happened."

"That is not difficult to accept," said Takinu. "It is as you say, a fact, demonstrable, actual, unarguable. What he may not so easily accept is our speculation as to the cause of this fact."

His haunted eyes lingered on Kettrick, and now there was no doubt about the shadow. It was fear.

"I did not rely on my own judgment alone. I communicated with my old friend and respected colleague, Dr. Smith, of your Lunar Observatory." Takinu gestured to Smith and said in lingua franca, "It is your story now."

Smith said, "I made my own observations. Our instruments had of course detected the same aberration. My findings agree in every respect with those of Dr. Takinu."

There was a moment of complete silence in the library. Not really silence, because Kettrick's stretched nerves were aware of every small rustle of cloth and whisper of breathing, the preternaturally loud noises of burning from the hearth. Then Smith said, completely without dramatics: "We do not believe that the phenomenon was a natural one."

Now again there was silence, and everybody seemed to be waiting for Kettrick to say something. Instead it was Sekma who spoke, in the lingua franca so that everybody could understand him.

"I'll make it plainer, Johnny. Somebody did it. Somebody has found the way to poison a star."

"You were always a hard-headed man," said Kettrick slowly. "Damned hard, as I know to my sorrow. Dr. Takinu and Dr. Smith have their particular reasons for believing this unbelievable thing. What are yours?"

"Talk," said Sekma. "Rumors. Myths. Whispers. In my business I hear them. On a dozen planets, Johnny—not much, just here a word and there a word, sometimes in a city dive, sometimes at a jungle fire, but the word was an odd one and always the same. The word was Doomstar"

He let the word hang in the air for a moment, and Kettrick heard it like the solemn clang of a distant bell.

"I don't put too much faith in talk," said Sekma. "Any creature, human, semihuman, or nonhuman, with an articulate tongue, can be depended on to wag it, and most of them prefer marvels to cold truth any day of their lives. But when I read Takinu's report, the coincidence was just a little too much to accept."

Kettrick thought about it. "How did the tongue-waggers react to the news that an actual Doomstar had appeared?"

"Well, that's the odd part of it. They never knew it had. The occurrence was so obscure that only astronomers could be aware of it, and most of them would pass it by as a natural accident."

"Wouldn't it be simpler," said Kettrick, "to assume that it is just that?"

"Oh, much simpler, Johnny. Yes. But suppose it isn't. Suppose there is, say, only one chance in a million that it isn't." He smiled at Kettrick, a smile that had in it very little humor. "To quote one of your great poets, I am myself indifferent honest. But supposing you knew, or thought, that I might just possibly have in my hands the power to poison your sun. Would you sleep easily of nights?"

Kettrick nodded. "All right, I won't argue that." After a minute he said, "I won't argue that at all. My God, what blackmail! One demonstration, announced and carried through, and every solar system in the Hyades would be cringing at your feet."

"And no need to stop with the Hyades," said Sekma.

Kettrick frowned and shook his head. "But there wasn't one. A demonstration would be a necessity, and there wasn't one. Just one small obscure star."

"We believe this was a test, Johnny. Every new weapon needs a field test. And this was successful. We believe our demonstration will come later, if . . ."

"If what?" asked Kettrick, knowing the answer.

"If we don't stop it"

"And if there is, in truth and fact, a weapon."

"This is what we have to find out. Is there a weapon—in truth and fact—and if there is, who has it, and where."

"That could take a long time."

"But we don't have a long time. Assuming that there is a weapon, we have only as much time as those who control it choose to give us. How long would you guess that to be?"

"Well," said Kettrick, with a small edge of venom in his good-natured tone, "I'm a little out of touch with your calendar, but let's see. There was a meeting of the League of Cluster Worlds just before I—ah—left the Hyades. So the next one should be . . ." He muttered and grumbled to himself. "This interstellar arithmetic always did give me a headache. Say the next meeting of the League will be within six units of Universal Arbitrary Time . . ."

"close enough," Sekma nodded. "But why pick that particular event?"

"Because if I wanted to make a startling announcement, I would prefer to do it at a time when the representatives of the various solar systems were gathered together. Think of the money it would save in interstellar cables. Think of the vastly greater impact." Kettrick shrugged. "Of course, I'm only saying what I would do."

"It happens that we agree with that theory, Mr. Kettrick," said Vickers. He rose and stood before the fire, a professor with thin spread legs about to lecture his students. "Would you like a drink now?"

Again Kettrick said, "No, thank you." And he noticed that the eyes in that professorial face was flint-hard and flint-cold and direct as spear points.

"Perhaps," said Vickers, "you are beginning to understand why you're here?"

Kettrick shook his head. He still sat easily, apparently relaxed, in his chair, but the palms of his hands were sweating and his belly was full of hot wires.

"I'd rather have you spell it out."

Vickers nodded. "It's quite simple. We want you to go to the Hyades and find out what you can about the . . ." He hesitated very briefly before he said the word. "The Doomstar."

"Well," said Kettrick softly. "Well I'll be damned." He looked around, from Vickers to Fersen, from Fersen to Sekma. "Whose idea was this?"

"Not mine," said Fersen acidly. "I can assure you of that."

Sekma spread his hands in an eloquent gesture. "Johnny, who else knows the Hyades as well as you? You taught me at least a dozen places I didn't know existed, and I belong to the Cluster." He smiled. "You have a special talent, Johnny. The years I spent trying to catch up with you were the most exasperating and lively fun I've ever had. In my official capacity, that is. When it became obvious that we needed someone to undertake this mission, of course I thought of you."

Kettrick stared at him, eyes wide-open and astonished as a child's. "By God, that's magnificent," he said. "I'm not even angry, Sekma. Just awed." He got up, looking at Vickers. "I think I'd like that drink now."

"Help yourself."

There was a superbly stocked cellaret open and waiting. Kettrick poured himself a double shot and took it down neat, and felt the small explosion cancel out the rhythmic nerve stabbings in his middle. They were crying Danger!, but he had already received that message loud and clear and the repetitive warnings were merely distracting. He realized that Fersen was speaking. " . . . myself clearly on record. I consider it an act of sheer insanity to send this man on such a mission. Suppose he did find this—thing. If it does exist. What would prevent him from simply appropriating it for himself?"

"Johnny is an honest man," said Sekma, "in his own way. And besides . . ." He swung his blue gaze to Kettrick, smiling sweetly, speaking softly. "He knows that if he did that I would kill him."

Kettrick grinned. "You forget, I could destroy your whole solar system the minute you showed your ugly face." Sekma said, "It wouldn't save you." And Kettrick knew that he was telling the truth. "Well," he said, "it doesn't arise, because I'm not going. Get a Clusterer, Sekma . . . one of your own people. What do you want of an Earthman, anyway?"

"Not just any Earthman. You have another talent, Johnny. You get along with people, even people that aren't human. They like you. They trust you. And being an Earthman, you cut across all the lines. Any Clusterer, regardless of what world he comes from, has X number of enemies ready-made before he ever leaves home. We've had interstellar flight in the Hyades a lot longer than you've had it, and all the fools and knaves in the universe don't originate on Earth. You know all that, Johnny. I'm just repeating the explanation. Because of course that was the first question these gentlemen asked me."

"All right," said Kettrick. "And now I'll ask one." He faced them. Sekma, Vickers still standing before the fire and watching with his cold flint eyes, The Minotaur sitting with his heavy head bent over a drink, not speaking and apparently not even listening, Fersen stiff-spined and purse-mouthed as an angry dowager. The two astrophysicists had subtly withdrawn themselves from the fray, brooding over their particular nightmare.

"Sekma, you and the Department of Trade Regulation took my license away from me. You cost me close to a million credits. You barred me out of the Hyades. And for a year and a half after I came back here this pipsqueak Fersen sweated me up one side and down the other trying to find some excuse to throw me to Mr. Raymond, the well-known man-eater, and sobbing his little heart out when he couldn't do it. I assume you know this, Mr. Vickers." Vickers nodded. "I do."

"Then you tell me," said Kettrick quietly, "why I should bother to walk across the street to please any of you?"

Vickers glanced at Raymond, who said in a kind of offhand rumble, "Because you don't have any choice, Kettrick.

If you refuse, I'll clap you under hatches so deep and for so long you'll forget what the sky looks like."

Fersen smiled venomously.

"On what evidence?" asked Kettrick. "I paid my fine, and that's as far as anyone was ever able to carry it."

"Oh," said Raymond, "there are ways and means. Of discovering new evidence, that is. Mr. Sekma and I have discussed them."

"Disgusting, isn't it, Johnny?" said Sekma. "Dishonest, cruel, quite revolting. We frame you, we force you, and all the time we know that we may be sending you to your death."

There was a look in Sekma's blue eyes that Kettrick had never seen before. It held him silent, even while anger shook him like a great hand. And Sekma said very quietly, "You will see that our need is great."

Kettrick turned abruptly and walked away from them all and stood for some time staring at a blank curtained window. Nobody spoke to him. After a while, when he could trust himself, he went back to them and said in a perfectly steady voice, "All right, throw me behind bars and be damned to you."

Fersen opened his mouth and said shrilly, "Hah!" or some similar noise, and Kettrick hit him, very hard, so that he doubled up and hung sideways over the arm of the chair.

"I'm terribly sorry," Kettrick said to Vickers. "I've wanted to do that for such a long time."

Fersen put his hands over his face and began to whimper. Vickers nodded to his aide, who went over and helped Fersen to the door, closing it briskly behind him. The aide returned, smiling briefly at Kettrick.

"As you say, a pipsqueak."

He sat down again, resuming his alert impassivity, guarding his master's briefcase like a well-trained dog.

Raymond looked at Vickers and shrugged. "It's all one to me."

Kettrick said, "If your need is great, you can do better than that."

"Such as?" asked Vickers.

"Reinstate my license. Let me free of the Hyades again." He turned on Sekma. "You can't force me, you ought to know that even if they don't. I'll go back as a free man, or I won't go at all." In the liquid speech that only he and the Clusterers understood, he added, "You cost me something more than money when you barred me out. I will not pay that cost again."

Sekma appeared to think for a moment. Then he nodded and spoke to Vickers.

"Perhaps it is better this way. It gives him a stake then in the future, something to work for. If he fails, his license will be worth nothing. The Hyades will be all chaos, no good for trade. And if he lives, there will be a bar against him that can never be lifted. So I am willing to accept his terms."

"The mission is the important thing," said Vickers, "not the terms under which it is done. Since you consider Kettrick to be the man for the job—very well, I agree." He glanced at Raymond. "I assume you have no objection?"

Raymond said again, "It's all one to me." Then he looked squarely at Kettrick for the first time since he came in the door. "But it does seem odd that nowhere in this discussion has a single flicker of altruism shone forth—that is to say, that Mr. Kettrick might have taken on this job not to evade punishment or to gain a reward, but simply because it is in the best interests of all humanity that this power should not reside in the hands of any individual or group of individuals."

Kettrick laughed. "The answer to that is that I don't really believe in Sekma's Doomstar, any more than Mr. Vickers does." He was rewarded by a startled look, quickly hidden, in the Security Chief's eyes. "Mr. Vickers is in a position where he must investigate, now that the possibility has been raised, but I think he is quite confident that the eventual report will be negative. I agree, and therefore I feel that he can justly pay for the use of my neck."

He helped himself to another drink and sat down. "I'll expect the reinstatement of my license tomorrow, and preferably over Fersen's dead body. And now that that's settled, suppose we get down to the essentials, like what's the best way to do this and where do I start."

He smiled at them, feeling expansive, triumphant, and full of love even for The Minotaur. Something deep inside him was singing, and the song was a woman's name, and he was drunk with the light of far-off suns.

"Gentlemen?" he said. "I'm waiting."

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