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It was no place for a man to be.

Men were tissue, blood, bone, nerve. This place was not made for them. It was made for fire and force and radiation. Go home, men.

But I can't, thought Jay Birrel. Not yet. My feet ache, I didn't sleep well, I want to see my wife, but I can't go home, I have to go on into this place where a human being looks as pathetic as an insect in a furnace.

Such thoughts made Birrel uneasy. He disliked imaginative thinking and imaginative people, he regarded himself as a tough, practical man. They had a job to do and that was all there was to it, and he might as well quit mooning about it. He straightened up a little more. He was always doing that, trying to gain a little height, so that when he gave an order to a man he would not have to look up to him. It seemed a little foolish to do it, but he could not quite get over the nagging consciousness that his height was only average.

He said, "Radar?"

Joe Garstang, beside him, answered without turning. "Nothing has been monitored yet. Not yet."

Garstang was a younger man than Birrel, but he was so big and broad and slow-speaking that he made you think of a rock. The rock could worry, though. Birrel sensed the worry now and thought, He doesn't like this job . . . And he doesn't like having me aboard. No captain likes to be outranked on his own ship, especially on a mission like this one. Well, that is too bad, I do not like it either, but we are going ahead into that mess anyway.

He concealed his own profound distaste at the prospect they were watching. It was comparatively quiet here in the bridge, with only a muted chattering from the calc-room just aft. The place was almost like a metal-and-plastic shrine, with the broad control-banks as its mechanical altar, Venner and the two technicians their silent ministrants, and he and Garstang watching the screens like anxious supplicants.

The screens were not really windows. They were the final sensitive parts of a chain of incredibly complicated mechanisms that took hold of some of the faster-than-light radar information flowing into the ship, and translated it into visual images. But they looked like windows—windows through which smashed the light of a thousand thousand suns.

This place was cluster N-356-44, in the Standard Atlas. It was also hellfire made manifest before them. It was a hive of swarming suns, pale-green and violet, white and yellow-gold and smoky red, blazing so fiercely that the eye was robbed of perspective and these stars seemed to crowd and rub and jostle each other. Up against the black backdrop of the firmament, they burned, pouring forth the torrents of their life-energy to whirl in cosmic belts and maelstroms of radiation. Merchant ships would recoil aghast from the navigational perils here. Unfortunately, this was not a merchant ship.

There was a rift in the cluster, a narrow cleft between cliffs of stars, which was roofed by the flame-shot glow of a vast, sprawling nebula. It was the only possible way into the heart of the cluster, this channel. Had others gone in this way? Were they still in here? That was for them to find out.

He looked at the looming, overtopping cliffs of stars that went up to the glowing nebula above and down to a fiery shoal of suns below. He thought of Lyllin, waiting for him in the quiet house back at Vega. He thought that he had no business having a wife.

"Radar?" he asked again.

Garstang looked at the tell-tales and said, "Still nothing." He turned, his heavy brows drawn together into a frown, and said doggedly, "It still seems to me that if they're in here, we should have come in with the whole squadron."

Birrel shook his head. He had his own doubts riding him, but once you started showing doubt, you were through. He had made his decision, he had committed them, and now he had to look confident about it no matter how lonely and exposed he felt.

"That could be exactly what Solleremos wants. With the right kind of ambush, a whole squadron could be clobbered in this mess. Then Lyra would be wide open. No. One ship is enough to risk."

"Yes, sir," said Garstang.

"The hell with you, Joe," said Birrel. "Say what you're thinking."

"I am thinking that it was not my lucky day when you picked the Starsong for your flagship. That's all."

The ship moved onward through the fiery channel, toward the pair of red binary stars that marked its end. The binaries hardly seemed to change size, the swarm of stars on either side of them seemed to creep back with infinite slowness, even though the ship moved at very many times the speed of light. Once, thought Birrel, such velocities had been thought flatly impossible. Then the light-speed barrier had been cracked by the ultra-drive which altered the basic mass-speed ratio by bleeding off mass as energy and storing it, then automatically reconverting it into mass when a ship decelerated. At such velocities, Birrel felt that it was ridiculous for him to be chafing at their slowness. He always felt that, and he always chafed.

Looking at the upper screen that showed the flaring, billowing belly of the nebula above them, like the underside of a burning ocean, Birrel said to Garstang,

"Does it seem to you that the pace is speeding up? I mean, this jockeying for power between the Sectors has gone on a long time, ever since Earth lost real authority. But it seems different lately, somehow. More incidents, more feeling of something driving ahead toward a definite goal, a plan and a pattern you can't quite see. You know what I mean?"

Garstang nodded. "I know."

The computer banks back in the calc-room clicked and chattered. Relays kicked, compensating course, compensating tides of gravitic force quite capable of breaking a ship apart like a piece of flawed glass. The two red binaries gave them a final glare of malice and were gone. They were out of the channel.

A star the color of a peacock's breast lay dead ahead.

Venner, the anxious and alert young officer who stood not far from Garstang, said,

"That's the nearest star with E-type worlds, sir. We've plotted five others farther in."

Garstang looked at Birrel.

Birrel shrugged. "If they're based in here, it'd be on an E-type. Take them one by one."

Garstang gave his orders. Birrel watched the blaze of peacock-blue grow swiftly. No ambush in the channel, so now what? Ambush on the world of the blue star? Or nothing? Time and money wasted and maybe it was all just a feint on Solleremos' part, trying to draw the Fifth here while a move was made somewhere else.

Suddenly Birrel felt old and tired. He had been in the squadron for almost twenty years, ever since he was seventeen, and in all these years the great game of stars, the strain, the worry, had never let up.

It must have been nice in a way, Birrel thought, in the old days a couple of centuries ago when the United Worlds still governed in fact from Earth, and all the star-squadrons were part of one galactic fleet whose struggles were only with the natural perils of the galaxy itself. But that had not lasted long.

The trouble was that it had got too big, too fast. It should have taken millennia to expand so widely. But the fact that on scores of E-type star-worlds they had found peoples completely human in every respect, had upset all calculations. The anthropologists were still arguing whether that was because original germinal spores of life, seeding worlds of similar type, had produced identical chains of evolution, or whether there had been a long-ago spread of some human stock through all these worlds. Opinion inclined to the latter theory, but it didn't really matter. What mattered was that finding all these star-peoples, some of them semi-barbaric but others almost up to the technical level of Earth, had accelerated the expected slow expansion into a human explosion across the vast areas of the galaxy.

Too big, too fast. The United Worlds that had been set up back on Earth had handled it for a while, but it could not govern that vast sprawl of stars at anything like a local level. That was when the Sectors had been set up, the subdivisions of the UW. And that, thought Birrel, was when things had taken a different path.

There were five great Sectors, and there were five governors, who headed the Sector Councils. Solleremos of Orion, Vorn of Cepheus, Gianea of Leo, Strowe of Perseus, Ferdias of Lyra—and all of them jealous of each other. Five great proconsuls, paying only a lip-service allegiance to the shadowy UW far away on Earth, all of them hungry for space, hungry for power. Yes, even Ferdias, thought Birrel. Ferdias was the man he served, respected, and even loved in a craggy sort of way. But Ferdias, like the others, played a massive game of chess with men and suns, moving his squadrons here and his undercover operatives there, laboring ceaselessly to hold on to what he had and perhaps enlarge his Sector just a little, a small star-system here and a minor cluster there . . . .

And the game went on, and this mission was part of it. Ferdias wanted to know if Orion ships were secretly basing in here where they had no business to be. This cluster was no-man's-land, part of the buffer zones that were supposed to reduce friction between the Sectors. Actually, stellar wildernesses like this one were the scenes of frequent, nameless little struggles that were never reported at all. Birrel hoped, not too strongly, that he was not about to start another such.

"We're getting close," said Garstang.

Birrel shook himself and got down to business. There followed a few minutes of activity on split-second timing, and then the Starsong was shuddering to the vibration of her mass-reconverters as she plunged toward a bright world almost dangerously close to her. There was still no sign of any enemy, and the communicators remained silent.

An hour later by ship's chrono they had located the one port of entry listed for the planet and they had set the Starsong down in the middle of a large piece of natural desert that served well enough for what little space traffic ever came here.

It was night on this side of the planet. There was no moon, but, on a cluster world, a moon is a useless luxury. The sky blazes with a million stars, so that day is replaced not by darkness, but by light of another sort, soft and many-colored, full of strange glimmers and flitting shadows. By this eerie star-glow, through the now-unshuttered ports, a town of sorts was visible about a mile away.

Otherwise there was nothing. No ships, no base, no legions from Orion Sector.

"The ships could be hidden somewhere," Garstang said pessimistically. "Maybe halfway around the planet, but waiting to jump us as soon as they get word."

Birrel admitted that that was possible. He had put on his best dress coverall of blue-and-silver, and now he stuffed a portable communicator into one pocket. Garstang watched him dourly.

"How many men will you want?" he asked.

"None. I'm better alone on this one."

Garstang's eye widened a trifle. "I won't come right out and say you're crazy."

"Look, I know what I'm doing," Birrel said impatiently. "I was here once before, years ago, when old Volland commanded the Fifth, and I know these people. They're what you might call poor, but proud. They have a lot of traditions about long-ago splendor, how their kings once ruled the whole cluster and so one. They detest strangers, and won't let more than one in at a time."

"Fine," said Garstang. "But what if you run into trouble in there?"

"That's the reason I'm taking the porto." Birrel frowned, trying to plan ahead. "Exactly thirty minutes after I enter the town I'll contact you, and I'll continue to call at thirty-minute intervals. If I'm so much as a minute late, take off and buzz hell out of the place. It'll give me a bargaining point, anyway."

They went down to the airlock, which was open now and filled with a dry, stinging wind. Birrel paused, looking toward the distant town that was a lonely blot of darkness between the star-blazing sky and the gleaming sand. Here and there in it lights burned, but they were few and somehow not welcoming.

Garstang said, "A lot can happen in thirty minutes. Suppose you're not able to bargain?"

"Then you're on your own. But don't get yourself trapped—if it looks hopeless, you take her away."

Garstang snorted. "I'd get a fine reception from Ferdias if I went back and told him I left you here."

"Don't fool yourself," Birrel said roughly. "Ferdias would rather lose a commander than a ship, anytime. Just remember that."

He went down the ladder to the sand and began to walk.

He looked up at the incredible sky as he walked, and he thought of how wonderful that had seemed to him when he had first come here. But that had been a long time ago, he had been young and eager then and bursting with pride that he belonged to the Fifth, feeling somehow that space and stars were all his personal property.

What's changed me? Birrel wondered. I'm older, I'm thirty-seven, I'm a little tired, but it's more than that, I look at things differently now. Maybe it's the weight of command, or maybe being married, or it might be that this is something that happens to every man as he goes along, that the excitement goes out of things and, you have seen so much happen, that you glimpse the shape of possible disaster long before it ever reaches you. The devil with it, he thought, this is no time for brooding, I had better be on my toes.

The town took shape as he approached it. The stone-built houses, mostly round or octagonal, were scattered about with no particular plan. Under the red and gold and diamond-colored stars that burned above them as bright as moons, they looked curiously remote and evil, like old wizards in peaked hats, peering with winking eyes. The dry wind blew, laden with alien scents, and, apart from the wind, there was no sound at all.

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