THE BEST MADE PLANS
EVERETT B. COLE
Astounding Science Fiction
There are some people that it is extremely unwise to cross ... and the fireworks start when two such people cross each other!
Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Astounding Science Fiction, November and December, 1959. Extensive research did not reveal any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
Don Michaels twisted about uneasily for a moment, then looked toward the doors of the darkened auditorium. He shook his head, then returned his attention to the stage. Of course, he'd joined in the applause—a guy felt sort of idiotic, just sitting there while everyone else in the place made loud noises—but that comedy act had been pretty smelly. They should have groaned instead of applauding.
Oh, sure, he thought, the drama students had to have experience on the stage. And they really needed an audience—if they were going to have any realism in their performances. Sure, that part of it was all right, but why did the professionals have to join the party? Why did they have to have 'casts like that last thing—especially at a school Aud Call? It seemed anything but educational, and he'd had to skip a good class for this one. He shrugged. Of course, everyone else had skipped one class or another, he knew. So why should he be an exception? Too, some of the students would welcome and applaud anything that gave them a break from their studies. And the schedule probably took account of this sort of thing anyway. But....
A fanfare interrupted his thoughts. From the backstage speakers came the smooth rhythm of a band playing a march trio. He sat back.
The screen glowed and became a large rectangle of blue, dotted with fleecy clouds. In the distance, the towers of Oreladar poked up from a carpet of green trees.
Swiftly, the camera approached the city, to center for a moment on a large sports stadium. Players dashed across the turf, then the camera swung away. Briefly, it paused to record various city scenes, then it crossed the walls of the Palace and came to ground level on the parade grounds of the Royal Guards.
A review was underway. For a few seconds, the camera held on the massed troops, then it centered on the reviewing stand. The band modulated smoothly into a brilliant quickstep and a column of guards marched to center screen, the colors of their dress uniforms contrasting with the green of the perfectly kept field.
Now, the field of view narrowed, centering the view first on the color guard, then on the colors alone. The camera moved down till the gold and blue of Oredan's royal colors stood out against the blue sky.
The band music faded, to be over-ridden then replaced by a smooth baritone voice.
"This is your news reporter," it said, "Merle Boyce, bringing you the latest happenings of the day."
The colors receded, their background blurring then coming into focus again. Now, they stood before a large window. Again, the camera receded and a man appeared in the foreground. For a moment he sat at his plain desk, gazing directly out of the screen and seeming to look searchingly into Don's face. Then he smiled engagingly and nodded.
"As every citizen of Oredan knows," he said, "this nation has been swept by a wave of terrorism during the few days past. Indeed, the now notorious Waern affair became so serious that our Prime Minister found it necessary to take personal command of the Enforcement Corps and direct the search for the terrorists himself. Now, he is present, to bring to you, the people, his report of the conclusion of this terrible affair." He paused, drawing a breath.
"Citizen of Oredan," he declaimed slowly, "the Prime Minister, Daniel Stern, Prince Regent."
He faced away from the camera and faded from view. Again, the gold and blue of Oredan filled the screen.
There was a brief blare of trumpets. Then drums rolled and the heavy banner swept aside to reveal a tall, slender man, who approached the camera deliberately. He glanced aside for a moment, then pinned his audience with an intense stare.
"This has been a terrible experience for many of our people," he began. "And it has been a harrowing time for your public officials. One of our own—a one-time police commissioner—a man sworn to uphold law and order, has suddenly revealed himself as a prime enemy of the realm and of our people. This in itself is a bad thing. But this was not enough for Harle Waern." He held out a hand, his face growing stern.
"No, Waern was unwilling to abide by the results of a lawful trial, knowing the outcome of any full investigation into his activities, he chose to lash out further at authority and to burn his way out of detention. He killed some of his guards. He released other criminals. He formed them into a gang, enlisting their aid in cutting and burning his way across our land in an obvious effort to reach the hills and possibly stir some of the mountain clans to rebellion. And as he went, he left destruction and death." He nodded his head sadly.
"Yes, it is painful to report, but it must be admitted that no less than twenty innocent people have lost their lives as a result of Waern's actions. And many more have been injured or have suffered property loss. It has been a savage affair—one we'll be long in forgetting. And it is with considerable relief that we can report its final conclusion." He stepped back, then faded from view.
* * * * *
The screen brightened again to show a rambling white house which nestled in a grove of shade trees. Behind it, rose a small hill which acted as a mere step toward the peaks of high mountains beyond. Before it was a broad lawn, dotted with lounging furniture. Reflected in its windows was the glow of the rising sun, which flood-lit the entire scene. From the speakers came muted sounds. An insect chirped. Hurrying footsteps crunched on gravel. There were soft rattles and bangs, and somewhere a motor rumbled briefly, then coughed to silence.
"We are now," said a voice, "a few miles outside of the city of Riandar, where Harle Waern had this summer estate built for him."
As the announcer spoke, the camera moved about to pick out details of the estate. It showed a swimming pool back of the house. It swung briefly about landscaped gardens, scanning across cultivated fields and orchards. It flicked across a winding, tree-lined road, then came back to a rough area before the smooth lawn.
Partially concealed from the house by waving grass and field weeds, men were moving cautiously about the fields. Near a small hummock, a loudspeaker rose from its stand, to face the house. A man lay not too far from the base of the stand. Microphone in hand, he looked intently through the grass, to study the windows of the house. Then he glanced back to note the positions of the others.
The camera's viewpoint raised, to take in the entire scene beyond the field. The sky blurred, then seemed to open, to show Daniel Stern's long, thin face. He cast his eyes down for a moment, seeming to take in the details of the scene, then stared straight at the audience, his deep-set eyes glowing hypnotically.
"Here then," he said slowly, "is one of the properties which Harle Waern bought while acting as Police Commissioner of Riandar. Here is a mere sample of the gains he enjoyed for a time as the price of his defections from his oath of office. And here is the stage he chose for the final act, his last struggle against the nation he had betrayed."
His face faded from view, the deep-set eyes shining from the sky for a time after the rest of the face had faded from view.
Then the camera swung again, to show a low-slung weapons carrier which had pulled up a few dozen meters back of the man with the microphone. About it, the air shimmered a little, as though a filmy screen lay between vehicle and camera. It softened the harsh lines of the carrier and its weapon, lending them an almost mystical appearance.
The crew chief was clearly visible, however. He was making adjustments on one of the instruments on the projector mount. One of the crew members stood by on the charge rack, busying himself with adjustments on the charge activators. None of the crew looked toward the camera.
The loud-speaker clicked and rasped into life.
"Harle Waern, this is the Enforcement Corps. We know you are in there. You were seen to go into that house with your friends. You have one minute to throw out your weapons and come out with your hands in the air. This is your last chance."
There was another click from the loud-speaker. Then the scene was quiet.
Someone cleared his throat. The man with the microphone shifted his position and lay stretched out. He had sought cover behind the hummock near the speaker stand and now he raised his head cautiously, to watch the silent windows of the house. Other men lay in similar positions, their attention on the windows, their weapons ready. The windows stared blankly back.
The camera shifted back to the weapons carrier. A low voice spoke.
"Let's have a look at that scope, Walton."
A man's back moved aside and the light and dark pattern of the range detector showed on the screen. The low voice spoke again.
"Four of them," it said. "Looks as though they've got a small arsenal in there with 'em. See those bright pips?"
"Khroal?" queried another voice.
"A couple of those, yeah," the first voice said. "But that isn't too bad. Those are just antipersonnel. They've got a pair of rippers, too. Good thing we've got screens up. And there's a firebug. They could give those guys on the ground a real hard time." A finger appeared in front of the detector.
"See that haze with the lines in it?"
"Them the charges?"
"That's right. They show up like that on both scopes, see? You can always spot heat-ray charges. They look like nothing else. Only trouble is, they louse up the range scale. You can't tell——"
* * * * *
Don looked critically at the carrier.
There was, he thought, evidence of carelessness. No deflector screens were set up. A Moreku tribesman could put a stone from a sling in there, and really mess them up—if he could sneak in close enough. He grinned inwardly.
"Of course, if he hit the right spot, he'd go up with 'em," he told himself. "Be quite a blast."
He continued to study the weapons carrier arrangements, noting that the chargers were hot, ready for instant activation. Even the gun current was on. He could see the faint iridescence around the beam-forming elements. He shook his head.
"Hit that lens system against something right now," he muttered inaudibly, "or get something in the field, and that would be the end."
The loud-speaker clicked again and the camera swung to center the house in its field of view.
"Your time is running out, Waern." The amplified roar of the voice reverberated from the hills. "You have twenty seconds left."
Abruptly, the speaker became a blaze of almost intolerable light. The man near it rolled away hurriedly, dropping his microphone. Another man quickly picked up a handset and spoke briefly into it.
Again, the camera picked up the weapons carrier. The crew chief had his hand on his microphone switch. He nodded curtly and adjusted a dial. The lens barrel of the projector swung toward the house, stopped, swung back a trifle, and held steady.
The pointer, sitting in front of the crew chief, moved a hand and flicked a switch.
The crew chief glanced over the man's shoulder, reached out to put his hand on a polished lever, and pressed. Mechanism at the rear of the long projector clicked. The faint glow over the beam formers became a blaze. A charge case dropped out and rolled into a chute. Another charge slid in to replace it and for a brief instant, a coruscating stream of almost solid light formed a bridge between house and carrier.
Then the busy click of mechanism was drowned by the crash of an explosion. A ragged mass of flame shot from the house, boiled skyward, then darkened, to be replaced by a confused blur of smoke and flying debris. The crew chief took his hand from the lever and waited.
At last, the drumroll of echoes faded to silence—the debris fell back to ground—the smoke drifted down the valley with the light breeze. And the rising sun again flooded its light over the estate.
The rambling white house, shaded by its miniature grove of trees, had gone. Charred timbers reached toward the sky from a blackened scar in the grass. On the carefully kept lawn, little red flowers bloomed, their black beds expanding as the flaming blossoms grew.
Near the charred skeleton of the house, one tree remained stubbornly upright, its bare branches hanging brokenly. About it, bright flames danced on the shattered bits of its companions.
In the fields about the house, men were getting to their feet, to stretch cramped muscles and exercise chilled limbs. A few of them started toward the ruins and the man by the speaker got to his feet to wave them back.
"Too hot to approach yet," he shouted. "We'll let a clean-up crew go over it later."
The scene faded. For an instant, the royal colors of Oredan filled the screen, then the banner folded back and Daniel Stern faced his audience, his gaze seeming to search the thoughts of those before him.
"And so," he said, "Harle Waern came to bay and elected to shoot it out with the Enforcement Corps." He moved his head from side to side.
"And with the armament he had gathered, he and his companions might even have succeeded in burning their way to the mountains, despite the cordon of officers surrounding their hide-out. He thought he could do that. But precautions had been taken. Reinforcements were called in. And such force as was needed was called into play." He sighed.
"So there's an end. An end to one case. An end to a false official, who thought he was too big for the law he had sworn to uphold." He held out a hand.
"But there still remain those who hired this man—those who paid him the price of those estates and those good things Waern enjoyed for a time. Your Enforcement Corps is searching for those men. And they will be found. Wherever they are—whoever they are—your Enforcement Corps will not rest so long as one of them remains at liberty." He stared penetratingly at the camera for a moment, then nodded and turned away.
The musical salute to the ruler sounded from the speakers as the scene faded. Once again, the green grass of the Royal Guard parade field came into view. As the color guard stood at attention, the band modulated into the "Song of the Talu."
Don Michaels got out of his seat. The Aud Call would be over in a few minutes, he knew, and he'd have to be at his post when the crowd streamed out. He moved back toward the doors, opened one a trifle, and slid through.
* * * * *
Some others had already come out into the hall. A few more slid out to join them, until a small group stood outside the auditorium. They examined each other casually, then scattered.
Unhurriedly, Don walked through the empty corridors, turning at a stairwell.
How, he wondered, did a man like Harle Waern get started on the wrong track? The man had been a member of one of the oldest of the noble families—had always had plenty of money—plenty of prestige. What was it that made someone like that become a criminal?
"Should've known he'd get caught sooner or later," he told himself, "even if he had no honesty about him. I don't get it."
He got to the bottom of the stairs and walked into the boy's locker room.
Between a couple of rows of lockers, a youth sat in an inconspicuously placed chair. Don went up to him.
"Hi, Darrin," he said. "About ready to pack it up?"
The other gathered his books.
"Yeah. Guess so. Nothing going on down here. Wonder why they have us hanging around this place anyway?"
Don grinned. "Guess somebody broke into a locker once and they want a witness next time. Got to have something for us Guardians to do, don't they?"
"Suppose so. But when you get almost through with your pre-professional ... hey, Michaels, how did you make out on the last exam? Looked to me as though Masterson threw us a few curves. Or did you get the same exam? Like that business about rehabilitation? It ain't in the book."
"Oh, that." Don shrugged. "He gave us the low-down on that during class last week. Suppose your group got the same lecture. You should've checked your notes."
Darrin shrugged and stood up. "Always somebody don't get the news," he grumbled. "This time, it's me. I was out for a few days. Oh, well. How was the Aud?"
Don spread his hands. "About like usual, I'd say. Oh, they had a run on the end of the Waern affair. Really fixed that bird for keeps. Otherwise?"
He waved his hands in a flapping motion.
The other grinned, then turned as a bell clanged.
There was a rumbling series of crashes, followed by a roar which echoed through the corridors. Darrin turned quickly.
"I'd better get going," he said, "before I get caught in the stampede. Should be able to sneak up the back stairs right now. See you later." He strode away.
Michaels nodded and sat down, opening a notebook.
Students commenced rushing into the locker room and the roar in the hall was almost drowned out by the continuous clash and slam of locker doors. Don paid little attention, concentrating on his notes.
At last, the noise died down and Don looked up. Except for one slender figure, crouched by an open locker, the room was empty.
Don looked at the boy curiously. He was a typical Khlorisana—olive skinned, slightly built, somewhat shorter than the average galactic. Don looked with a touch of envy at the smooth hairline, wondering why it was that the natives of this planet always seemed to have a perfect growth of head fur which never needed the attention of a barber. He rubbed his own unruly hair, then shrugged.
"Hate to change places with Pete Waern now, though," he told himself. "Wonder where he stands in this business."
* * * * *
Hurrying footsteps sounded in the corridor and three latecomers rushed in. As Waern straightened to close his locker door, the leader of the group crashed into him.
"Hey," he demanded, "what's the idea trying to trip me?" He paused, looking at the boy closely. "Oh, you again! Still trying to be a big man, huh?" He placed a hand on Waern's chest, pushing violently.
"Out of our way, trash."
Pete Waern staggered back, dropping his books. A notebook landed on its back and sprang open, to scatter paper over the floor. He looked at the mess for an instant.
One of the three laughed.
"That's how you show 'em, Gerry."
Pete stared angrily at his attacker.
"What do you think you're doing?"
The three advanced purposefully. One seized Pete by an arm, swinging him about violently. Another joined him and between them, they held the smaller lad firmly.
Gerry swung an open hand jarringly against Pete's face.
"Guess you're going to have to have a little lesson in how to talk to your betters," he snarled. He drew back a fist.
Don Michaels had come out of his chair. He strode over to the group, to face the attacker.
"Just exactly what do you think you're doing?" he demanded icily.
"Who do you think you are?"
Don touched a small bronze button in his lapel. "I'm one of the guys that's supposed to keep order around this place," he said. "We've got self-government in this school, remember?" He swung about to confront the two who still held Waern.
"Now, suppose you turn this guy loose and start explaining yourselves."
Gerry placed a large hand on Don's shoulder, kneading at the muscles suggestively.
"Look, little man," he said patronizingly, "you'll be a lot better off if you just mind your own business. Like watching those lockers over there so they don't fly away or something. We'll take——"
Michaels swung around slowly, then put knuckles on hips and stared at the other sternly.
"Take that hand away," he said softly. "Now get over there, and start picking up those books. Get them nice and neat." His voice rose a trifle.
"Now, I said!" He stabbed a finger out.
The boy before him hesitated, his face contorted with effort. He forced a hand part way up.
Don continued to stare at him.
The other drew a sobbing breath, then turned away and knelt by the scattered books and papers.
Don wheeled to confront the other two.
"Get over by those lockers," he ordered. "Now, let's hear it. What's your excuse for this row?"
"Aw, you saw it. You saw that little gersal trip Gerry there." The two had backed away, but now one of them started forward again.
"Come to think of it, you don't look so big to me." He half turned.
"Come on, Walt, let's——"
"Be quiet!" Michaels' gaze speared out at the speaker.
"Now, get over to those lockers. Move!" He swiveled his head to examine the boy who had picked up the books.
"Put them down there by the locker," he said coldly. "Then get yourself over there with your pals." He took a pad and pencil from his pocket, then pointed.
"All right. What's your name?"
"Walt ... Walter Kelton."
"Three oh one." The boy looked worried. "Hey, what you——"
"I'll tell you all about it—later." Don scribbled on the top sheet of the pad, then tore it off. He pointed again.
"What's your name?"
"Aw, now, look. We——"
"Aw ... Gerald Kelton."
"Aw, same as his. We're brothers."
"What's the number of your class group?"
"Aw ... well, it's three oh one. Like I said——"
"Later! Now you. What's your name and class group?"
"Maurie VanSickle. I'm in three oh one, too."
Don finished writing, then snapped three shots of paper toward the three.
"All right. Here are your copies of the report slips. You're charged with group assault. You'll report at the self-government office before noon tomorrow. Know where it is?"
"Yeah. Yeah, we know where it is, all right," grumbled Gerry Kelton. He pointed at Pete Waern.
"How about him?"
"Never mind about that. Just get your stuff and get to your classes. And you better make it fast. Late bell's about to ring. Now get going." Don turned toward Pete Waern.
"Close your locker, fella, and come over here."
* * * * *
He glanced at the three retreating backs, then turned and went back to his chair. Pete hesitated an instant, then picked up his books and locked the door of his locker. Again, he hesitated, and went slowly over to stand in front of Michaels.
Don looked at him curiously.
"You ever have any trouble with those three before now?"
Pete shook his head. "Not really," he said. "Oh, one of the Keltons ... Gerry ... sneaked off the grounds a few weeks ago. I wrote him up." He grinned.
"Pushed on past me when I was on noon guard. I trailed him to his class group later and got his name."
Don nodded. "He ever say anything to you about it?"
"No. I've seen him in the halls a few times since then. He always avoided me—up to now."
"I see." Don nodded. "But today, he suddenly went for you—with reinforcements."
Pete grinned wanly. "I guess I'll have to get used to things like that," he said. "Ever since Uncle Harle was——" He clasped his hands together, then turned suddenly aside.
For an instant, he stood, head averted, then he ran over to lean against a row of lockers, facing away from Michaels.
"Uncle Harle didn't—— Oh, why don't you just leave me alone?"
Don considered him for a moment, then walked over, to place a hand on his shoulder.
"Hey, hold up a minute, Chum," he said. "I'm not trying to give you a bad time. Now suppose you calm down a little. Doesn't do you a bit of good to tear yourself apart. You're not responsible for whatever your uncle got into, you know."
Pete faced him, his back braced against the lockers.
"That's what you say here," he said bitterly. "Sure, we've been in the same classes. You know me, so you try to be decent. But what do you really think? And how about everyone else? You think they're being all nice and understanding about this?" He snorted.
"Know why I'm not in class now? Got no class to go to. I was in Civics Four this period. They threw me out. Faculty advisor said I'd do better in ... in some Shop Study."
Don frowned. "Funny," he said. "You always got good grades. No trouble that way?"
"Of course not." Pete spread his hands. "I——"
A low snicker interrupted the words and Don looked around, to see Gerry Kelton close by. Behind him were his brother and Maurie. Gerry laughed derisively.
"Go ahead," he commented, "let him talk. You might learn something from the little——"
Don motioned impatiently with his head.
"Get going, you three," he said sharply. "You've got less than a minute before late bell."
"Sure we have," Gerry told him. "We might even be late to class. Now wouldn't that be awful? Some jerk wants to write up a bunch of lousy report slips, make him look good, we're——"
"Move!" Michaels' voice rose sharply. "Don't try that one on me. It's been tried before. Doesn't work."
Gerry paused in mid-stride, then seemed to deflate. He turned away.
"Come on, guys," he said. "Let's get out of here. We'll take care of this later."
* * * * *
As the three disappeared down the hall, Don turned back. Pete was staring at him curiously.
"How do you do that?"
"Oh, you know what I mean." Pete shook his head impatiently. "Make people do things. There's only one of you and three of them. And they're all bigger than you are. Why did they just do what you told them without making a lot of trouble?"
Don shrugged, then touched the button in his lapel.
"They were in the wrong and they knew it. They've got enough trouble now. Why should they look for more?"
Pete shook his head again. "They didn't have to give their names," he said. "All you did was tell them to."
"What else could they do? After all, you know who Gerry is. So he had no out."
Pete laughed wryly. "Who'd take my word? Besides, Gerry's shoved guardians around before. He's got friends all over school. Ever hear of the 'Hunters'?"
"Who hasn't? Supposed to be some sort of gang, but I've never talked to anyone that knew much about who they are, or what they do." Don was thoughtful. "Supposed to be all galactic kids. I've heard the police are trying to break them up. Those three part of that bunch?"
Pete nodded wordlessly.
Don's eyebrows rose a little. "Prove that," he remarked, "and it won't just be the school that'll be giving them trouble. The police would probably give a lot to really get their hands on some of them."
"I'm not so sure about that," Pete told him. "It was my uncle who was interested in the Hunters. Now, it's different. Maybe the guy that went and got the proof of their membership would be the one who'd have the trouble. Real, final type trouble."
"Look, I just told you. Among other things, my uncle was interested in the Hunters." Pete bent his knees and took a squatting position. His elbows rested on his knees and he relaxed, resting his chin on folded hands and looking up at Don.
"Seems as though some other people didn't like to have him asking too many questions around." He paused.
"You think my uncle was getting a lot of money from the gamblers and some smuggling combine. That right?"
"Well——" Don hesitated.
"Sure you do. So does everybody else. The galactics are telling each other about why don't they get somebody in authority besides some stupid Khlorisana. And the Khlorisanu talk about the old nobility—how they can't stop robbing the people. It all goes along with what the papers have been saying. There's been more, too, but those bribery charges are what they've really worked on. They keep telling you some of the same stuff on the newscasts. And everybody believes them. But it isn't true. My uncle was an honest policeman. They got him out of the way because he wouldn't deal with them—and maybe for...." He held out a hand.
"Figure it out. Why didn't they just give him a trial and put him into prison if he were guilty? Or, if they were going to have an execution, why not make it legal—over in Hikoran?" He paused, then waved the hand as Don started to speak.
"They didn't dare have a trial. It would be too public, and there was no real evidence. So they say he escaped. They say he slugged a guard—took his weapons. And he's supposed to have shot his way out of Khor Fortress, after releasing some other prisoners. They say he forced his way clear from Hikoran to the Doer valley." He laughed bitterly.
"Did you ever see Khor Fortress?
"And you should have seen my uncle. He was a little, old man. He'd stand less chance of beating up some guard and taking his weapons than I would have of knocking out all three of those fellows a few minutes ago." Again, he paused, looking at Don searchingly.
"I don't know why I'm telling you all this, unless maybe I better tell someone while I'm still around to talk," he added.
"Now wait." Don shook his head. "Aren't you making——"
"A great, big thing? No." Pete shook his head decidedly. "I've talked to my uncle. I've heard my uncle and father talk about things. And ... well, maybe I've gotten mixed up in things a little, too. Maybe I'm really mixed up in things, and maybe——" He stopped talking suddenly and got to his feet.
"No, my uncle didn't escape. That whole affair was staged, so they wouldn't have to bring him to trial. Too many things would have come out, and they could never make a really legal case. This way ... this way, he can't talk. No one can defend him now, and no one will ask too many questions." He turned away.
"Oh, listen." Don was impatient. "That flight developed into a national affair. All kinds of witnesses. It was spread out all over the map. People got killed. Who could set up something like that and make it look genuine?"
Pete didn't look around.
"Look who got killed. A lot of old-line royalists," he said shortly. "And some of the Waernu. You think my uncle would kill his own clansmen?" He expelled an explosive breath.
"And there's one man who could set up something like that. He doesn't like the old royalists very well, either. And he hates the Waernu. Think it over." He walked quickly out of the room.
* * * * *
Don looked after him for a few seconds, then sat down and fixed an unseeing gaze on the far wall of the locker room.
"Gaah!" he told himself, "the kid really pulled the door open. Wonder why he picked me?"
Come to think of it, he wondered, why was it people seemed to tell him things they never mentioned to anyone else? And why was it they seemed to get a sort of paralysis when he barked at them? He scratched an ear. He couldn't remember the time when the ranch hands hadn't jumped to do what he wanted—if he really wanted it. The only person who seemed to be immune was Dad. He grinned.
"Imagine anyone trying to get the Old Man into a dither—and getting away with it."
He laughed and looked at the wall for a few more seconds, then opened a book.
"Wonder," he said to himself. "Seems as though anyone should be able to do it—if they were sure they were right." Then he shook his head. "Only one trouble with that idea," he added. "They don't." He shrugged and turned his attention to the book in his hands.
The click of heels on the flooring finally caused him to look up. He examined the new arrival, then smiled.
"Oh, hello, Jack."
"Hi, Don." The other looked at the array of books. "You look busy enough. Catching up on your skull-work?"
"Yeah. Guy has to study once in a while, just to pass the time away. Besides, this way, the prof doesn't have to spend so much money on red pencils."
"Yeah, sure." Jack Bordelle grinned. "Be terrible if he went broke buying red leads. I go to a lot of trouble myself to keep that from happening." He paused, looked sideways at Don, then rubbed his cheek.
"Speaking of trouble, I hear you had a little scrape here at the beginning of the period."
"That right? Where'd you get that word?"
"Seems as though Gerry Kelton didn't make it to class in time. Teacher ran him out for a late slip and he got me to write him up. He's pretty sore."
Don frowned. "Funny he'd need a late slip. He already had a write-up." He shrugged. "Oh, well. I should get excited about making some of the lower school crowd sore?"
Bordelle lifted one shoulder. "Well, Michaels, you know your own business, I guess, but Kelton's got a lot of friends around, they tell me."
"Yeah. I've heard." Don looked steadily at the other.
"And, well——" Bordelle examined the toes of his shoes carefully. "Well, maybe you ought to think it over about turning in those slips you wrote up, huh?"
"Well, I would." Bordelle looked up, then down again. "You know, I've known a few guys, crossed the Keltons. Right away, they found themselves all tangled up with the Hunters. Makes things a little rugged, you know?"
"A little rugged, huh?"
"Yeah." Bordelle spread his hands. "Look, Michaels, I've got nothing in this one. It's just ... well, I've known you for a few years now—ever since Lower School. Been in some classes with you. And you seem like a pretty decent, sensible guy. Hate to see you walk into a jam, see? Especially over some native kid with a stinking family record." He paused.
"Of course, it's your own business, but if it were me, I'd tear up those slips, you know?"
"Easy to tear up slips. Only one trouble. They're numbered. How would you explain the missing numbers?"
"Well, guys lose books now and then, remember? Maybe they wouldn't holler too loud."
Don smiled. "I knew a guy once that lost a book. They took it pretty hard. Got real rough about it."
Bordelle shrugged. "Yeah. But maybe Al Wells might not be so rough about it this time, huh? He might just sort of forget it, if you told him you just sort of ... well, maybe you were checking the incinerator on your way to the office, and the book slipped out of your pocket—you know?"
"You think it could happen that way?"
Don stood up.
"Tell you," he said, "I might lose a book some day. But they don't come big enough to make me throw one away." He picked up his books and put them under his arm.
"I'm going to turn those slips in tonight. Maybe you'd better turn in the one you wrote up, too. Then nobody'll get burned for losing a book."
"I always thought you were a pretty sensible guy, Michaels." Bordelle shook his head. "After all, you stopped that beef. Nobody got hurt, and you've got nothing to prove about yourself. Know what I mean? So why the big, high nose all at once?"
A bell clanged and the crash and roar of students dashing about echoed through the halls. Don shrugged carelessly.
"Oh, I don't know. Can't even explain it to myself. Maybe I just don't like people pushing other people around. Maybe I don't like to be threatened. Maybe I've even got bit by some of those principles Masterson's always talking about. I don't know." He turned away.
"Well, this is the end of my school day. See you."
Bordelle looked after him.
"Yeah," he said softly. "It's the end of your day all right. Better look out it doesn't turn out to be the end of all your days."
* * * * *
Don glanced down at his textbook, then looked out the window. A blanket of dark clouds obscured the sky. Light rain filtered coldly down, to diffuse the greenery of the school grounds, turning the scene outside into a textured pattern of greens, dotted here and there with a reddish blur. To the west, the mist completely hid the distant mountains.
It would be cold outside—probably down around sixteen degrees or so. It had dropped to fifteen this morning, and unless the weather cleared up, there'd be no point in going up to the hills this weekend. The Korental and his clan would be huddled in their huts, waiting for warmer weather. A wild Ghar hunt would be the last thing they'd be interested in. Besides, the Gharu would be——
He jerked his attention back to the classroom. A student was reciting.
"... And ... uh, that way, everything was all mixed up with the taxes and the government couldn't get enough money. So King Weronar knew he'd have to get someone to help un ... straighten the taxes out, so he ... uh, well, Daniel Stern had been in the country for a couple of years, and he had ... well, sort of advised. So the king——"
Don looked out the window again.
With this weather, the ranch would be quiet. Hands would be all in the bunkhouses, crowding around the stoves. Oh, well, he and Dad could fool around down in the range. Since Mom had—— He jerked his head around to face the instructor.
Mr. Barnes was looking at him.
"Um-m-m, yes. That's good, Mara," he said. "Michaels, suppose you go on from there."
Don glanced across at the student who had just finished her recitation, but she merely gave him a blankly unfriendly stare. He looked back at the instructor.
"I lost the last few sentences," he admitted. "Sorry."
Barnes smiled sardonically. "Well, there's an honest admission," he said. "What's the last you picked up?"
Don shrugged resignedly.
"The appointment of Daniel Stern as Minister of Finance," he said. "That would be in eight twelve."
"You didn't miss too much." Barnes nodded. "You just got a little ahead. Take it from there."
"After a few months, the financial affairs of the kingdom began to improve," Don commenced.
"By the middle of eight thirteen, the tax reforms were in full effect. There was strong opposition to the elimination of the old system—both from the old nobility, who had profited by it, and from some of the colonists. But an Enforcement Corps was formed to see that the new taxes were properly administered and promptly paid. And the kingdom became financially stable." He paused.
Actually, he realized with a start, it had been Stern who had founded and trained the Enforcement Corps—first to enforce the revenue taxes, and later as a sort of national police force. And it had always been Stern who had controlled the Enforcement Corps. It was almost a private army, in fact. Maybe Pete—— He continued his recitation.
"Then Prime Minister Delon died rather ... rather suddenly, and the king appointed Mr. Stern to the vacancy. And when King Weronar himself died a little more than four years ago, Prime Minister Stern was acclaimed as prince regent." Don paused thoughtfully.
* * * * *
Delon's death had been sudden—and a little suspicious. But no one had questioned Stern or any of his people about it. And the death of the king and queen themselves—now there was.... Again, he got back to his recitation.
"There was opposition to Mr. Stern's confirmation as Regent, of course, since he was a galactic and not native to the planet. But he was the prime minister, and therefore the logical person to take the reins." He frowned.
"The claims to the throne were—and still are—pretty muddled. No one of the claimants supported by the major tribes is clearly first in line for the throne, and no compromise has been reached." The frown deepened.
"Traditionally," he went on, "the Star Throne should never be vacant for more than five years. So we can expect to see a full conclave of the tribes within a few months, to choose among the claimants and select one to be either head of the clan Onar, or the founder of a new royal line."
Barnes nodded. "Yes, that's fairly clear. But we must remember, of course, that the tradition you mention is no truly binding law or custom. It's merely a superstitious belief, held to by some of the older people, and based on ... well——" He smiled faintly.
"Actually, under the present circumstances, with no claimant clearly in line, and with the heraldic branch still sifting records, it is far more practical and sensible to recognize the need for a continued regency." He took a step back and propped himself against his desk.
"In any event, most of the claimants of record are too young for independent rule, so the regency will be forced to carry on for some time."
He looked for a fleeting instant at the inconspicuous monitor speaker on the wall.
"As matters stand now, the tribes might find it impossible to decide on any of the claimants. As you said, there is no truly clear line. King Weronar died childless, you remember, and his queen didn't designate a foster son." He shrugged.
"Well, we shall see," he added. "Now, suppose we go back a little, Michaels. You said there was some opposition from the colonists to the tax reforms of eight twelve. Can you go a little more into detail on that?"
Don touched his face. He'd been afraid of that. Somehow, neither the book nor the lectures really jibed with some of the things he'd heard his father talk about. Something about the whole situation just didn't make full sense. He shrugged mentally. Well....
The door opened and a student runner came into the room. Don watched him walk up to Mr. Barnes with some relief. Maybe, after the interruption, someone else would be picked to carry on.
The youngster came to the desk and handed a slip to the instructor, who read it, then looked up.
"Michaels," he said, "you seem to have some business at the self-government office. You may be excused to take care of it."
* * * * *
Al Wells looked up as Don entered the office.
"What's the—— Oh, Michaels. Got some questions for you on that row you stopped in the locker room yesterday."
"Oh? I thought my write-up was pretty clear. What's up?"
The self-government chairman leaned back.
"You said this Gerry Kelton banged into this kid, Waern, started pushing him around, and struck him once. That right?"
Don nodded. "That's about what happened, yes."
"And there was no provocation?"
"None that I saw."
"And you saw the whole affair?"
"Everything that happened in the locker room. Yes."
"Uh huh. And you said that two guys, Walt Kelton and Maurie VanSickle, pinned this kid's arms while Gerry started to slug him. That it?"
Don smiled. "He only got in one slap before I mixed in," he said. "Had his fist all cocked for more, though."
Wells nodded, looking curiously at Don.
"But they quit and turned the kid loose when you told them to?"
"Didn't give you any trouble?"
"No." Don shook his head. "Just some talk. Gave their names and class numbers. Oh, yeah, they squawked a little, sure. Then they took off for class."
Wells looked at Michaels appraisingly.
"Know anything about this Gerry Kelton?"
Don shook his head. "Heard a rumor or so last night," he admitted. "Never heard of him before then."
Wells laughed shortly. "We have. He's only got one year in this school, but we've had him in here several times. Know him pretty well by now. He got set back quite a bit in Primary, so he's some older than most of the Lower School bunch." He waved a hand.
"Oh, he's a brawler. We know that. But he doesn't start fights. He finishes them."
"He started this one."
"That right? And he quit when you told him to?"
"Oh, no. That's not the Kelton. Last guy tried to stop him was out of classes for three days. Took five guys to bring Kelton in here." Wells shook his head.
"Look, we got him in here and he told us his story. The other two came up with the same thing later. Makes sense, too—if you know Kelton. It seems he and his brother ran into this kid, Waern, outside the auditorium right after Aud Call. They were talking about the newscast. And this kid came up and started an argument. Tried to slap Walt. They pushed him off and went on their way. VanSickle went with them. He'd been in the crowd." Wells leaned forward.
"Got four witnesses to that, too, beside the three of them."
Don moved his head indifferently. "I wouldn't know about that. I wasn't there. All I know is what I saw in the locker room."
"Yeah. Yeah, sure. Then, they say they went on down to the locker room, after talking to some other students. When they got there, the Waern kid came flying at them again. Tried to bite and kick. They say you helped Maurie pull him off Gerry, and told 'em you'd take it from there. So they went on to class. They can't figure out where you got the idea of writing them up over it. Didn't know they'd been written up till we sent some guys up and pulled them out of their classes." Wells flipped his hands out, palms upward.
"So there's their story. How about it?"
Don shook his head. "Pretty well worked out. Fits the situation, too. Only one trouble. There's almost no truth in it. Pete Waern made no effort to hit any of those three while I was watching. And I didn't touch any of the four myself."
Wells laughed shortly. "That's what you're telling me. I've got a batch of statements telling the other story."
Don looked at the other for a moment. "Now wait a minute," he said slowly. "Are you trying to tell me what I saw and did?"
Wells shook his head. "Just trying to fill you in. This isn't my problem any more. Dr. Rayson's picked it up. Wants to see you. He's got Mr. Masterson with him and they're waiting for you to show up so they can talk things over with you." He tilted his head.
"I don't know. I've heard about some funny things these Khlorisanu can pull off if they can get a guy's attention for a while. And that kid's the real thing—from way back. Better think things over a little, maybe. See if you can remember any dizzy spells or anything."
"Oh, now check your synchs, Wells." Don waggled his head disgustedly. "I've heard those yarns too—down here. Look. All my life, I've been living on a ranch out in the mountains. Got Khlorisanu all over the place. They work for us up there." He grinned.
"Isn't a thing they can do that you and I can't do, too. They've got no special powers, believe me. I know."
"You'd find it pretty hard to tell that one to Doc Rayson and make it stick," Wells told him. "And he's the guy you've got to talk to." He reached into a basket on his desk and took out a stack of papers.
"Look, I've told you more'n I was supposed to all ready. Suppose you go over and talk to them for a while. They're waiting for you over in room Five."
Don looked at him for a moment, then went out.
* * * * *
He swung about and examined the closed door thoughtfully, then massaged the back of his neck.
"What's wrong with these people?" he asked himself. "Don't they know how to break down a rigged story? Or can't they recognize one when they hear it?"
He crossed the hall.
"I'm Donald Michaels," he told the secretary. "I believe Dr. Rayson wants to see me."
The woman looked at him curiously.
"Oh, yes," she said. "Just a minute."
She got up and went into an inner room. After a moment, she came out and reclaimed her seat behind her desk.
"He's busy right now," she said. "I'll let you know when you can go in."
Don shrugged and sat down in one of the chairs that lined the wall. It wasn't a very comfortable chair.
"The anxious seat," he growled to himself. "Nice, time-tested trick."
There was no reading material at hand, and the walls of the oddly shaped room were blank. He amused himself by directing a blank stare toward the secretary. After a few minutes, she looked up from her work and jerked her head indignantly.
"Stop that," she ordered.
"Stop what?" Don looked innocent.
"Stop staring at me like that."
"Not staring at you," he told her. "I have to look somewhere and the chair faces your way. That's all."
The woman moved her hands. "Well, then face some other way."
"But I'd have to move the chair, and that would disturb your arrangements," Don told her reasonably. He continued his blank stare.
The woman resumed her work, then twitched her shoulders and looked at him resentfully for a few seconds. Finally, she got up and went to the inner office again. Don waited.
Again, she came out.
"They'll see you now," she said.
Don got up.
He went through the door.
To his right, a man sat behind a wide, highly polished desk. The other was across the room, at a smaller desk. Both looked up as the door opened.
The man to Don's right nodded pleasantly.
"Well, so you're Donald Michaels? I'm Dr. Rayson."
"That's good. Sit down." Rayson waved. "Right over there." He smiled confidently.
"Ah, that's fine. I'm the school psychologist, you know. You have met Mr. Masterson, the self-government faculty advisor, of course?"
Don nodded. "Of course. I'm in one of his classes."
"Well, that's good. Now, how do you feel this morning?"
"Quite well, thank you, sir."
"Well, then, we can talk about that little affair in the locker room, can't we? Your memory is clear on it by now, isn't it?"
"Well, that's fine. Now, suppose you give us the whole story. Don't leave out a thing. Then, we'll see what we can do for you."
Don smiled thinly, then flicked out a finger.
"I think that paper on your desk, sir, is the report I wrote last night. It's complete as it stands."
* * * * *
Masterson broke in, frowning. "We don't mean that thing," he said coldly. "What we want is a true, complete account of what actually happened."
Don faced him, his face tightening a little.
"Dr. Rayson has just that, sir," he said. "On his desk. I wrote it. I signed it."
Rayson raised a hand slightly.
"Just a moment," he said reprovingly. "There's no need for excitement or anger here. We're simply looking for a full, correct account." He cleared his throat. "Perhaps it would be well for me to make things clearer to you. Then, you'll recognize the problem." He looked down at the paper on the desk.
"You see, Donald," he continued, "we have already talked to a number of other students about this. And we have a complete account of the incident in so far as it concerned Petoen Waern." He smiled indulgently.
"What we are now concerned about is your own well-being. We need to know something of what happened to you after you were alone with the Waern boy." He spread his hands, then held them out, palms up.
"As to the actual physical action, that's quite simple. You see, there were a number of witnesses to the affair, and most of them have come forward." He rubbed his hands together, then laid them on the desk.
"So, we know precisely what happened that far.
"And we have a pretty good idea of what happened to you later, of course. This sort of thing has happened before. But by this time, you should have had time to recover to a great extent. At least, you should remember things much more clearly than you did when you wrote this report last night." He touched the paper with a smile.
"And with a little prompting and information, you should be able to fully recover your memory."
The smile became sympathetic. "Of course, I can understand your present confusion and your complete disbelief in your change of orientation. And I know it's quite an effort for a young man to admit he's been ... well ... shall we say influenced? But believe me, it's no disgrace. It's happened to quite a few others before you." He nodded thoughtfully.
"In fact, we are beginning to believe this Petoen Waern, like his uncle, is something of an adept at this sort of thing."
Don looked at him steadily.
"Do I act as though I were in a trance, sir?"
"Oh no. No, of course not. This sort of thing doesn't result in such a manifestation. This is something much more subtle than mere, gross hypnotism." Rayson smiled.
"However, you've had all night to partially recover. And these things seldom are fully effective for more than a few hours—unless the operator can get to his victim again, to fully fix the impression he has created."
Rayson placed the palms of his hands together. "No, by this time, one would expect your memories to be somewhat confused. So we can apply therapeutic methods." He nodded.
"Now go ahead. Try running through the whole story. Perhaps we can get a clue as to his methods. And if you have any ill effects remaining, I think they can be quite easily eliminated. Now, suppose you start with the time immediately after young Waern's attack on the Kelton boy."
* * * * *
Don shook his head wearily. "There was no such attack," he said. "It was the other way around. A large sized chap who later gave his name to me as Gerry Kelton, slapped a smaller fellow named Waern. At the time, two other fellows were holding Waern's arms. Rather tightly, too."
Masterson interrupted, shaking his head disgustedly. "We've got plenty of statements from witnesses. That isn't the way they read. Now how about it?"
"You mean the two Keltons and VanSickle?"
"No." Masterson was definite. "No. I don't mean them. There were several students around the doorway into that locker room during that entire show. We got stories from most of them." He waved a hand decisively.
"Now suppose you start using your head. Get busy and give us the thing the way it really happened. Then, we'll see what to do about you."
Don shook his head. "The locker room and the hall were empty for at least a full minute before those three came in," he said. "If you go over the people that signed those statements, you'll probably find that they were somewhere else at the time." He grinned.
"And from what I hear, this might give you an idea as to the membership of the Hunters, too."
"Hunters!" Masterson looked completely disgusted. "We've checked out a hundred crazy rumors about that alleged gang. Nothing there."
"Maybe so." Don looked at him critically. "But Jack Bordelle certainly sounded convinced last night. And how about Pete Waern? Didn't he tell you his side of this thing?"
"Ah yes, Waern." Dr. Rayson chuckled. "I believe these 'Hunters' are an invention of his uncle's. No, that young man didn't come in. His father is too smart for that. We won't see that young man again, unless we can have him brought in for this bit of work he did on you."
Don turned his head to stare across the desk.
Rayson smiled knowingly. "Oh, yes. Jasu Waern called early this morning. He said he was withdrawing Petoen from school. Said he planned to send him to a private school where he wouldn't be subject to indignities." He chuckled again.
"Jasu Waern is altogether too smart a man to let us question that youngster of his if he can prevent it." He looked searchingly at Don.
"You know," he added musingly, "I'm beginning to wonder about you, though. This might be serious. Possibly this Waern boy was more thorough than we thought possible. Possibly permanent damage could have been done." He got to his feet.
"Suppose you go over to that couch there and lie down. We'll try a little therapy, and see what we can do for you."
Michaels looked at him indignantly.
"I'm getting a little tired of all these tales about mental influence by the Khlorisanu. They're pure myth and I know it. I've lived all my life among these people. Believe me, if there were any such thing, my father or I would have come across it before now. And we'd know about it."
"You are then, ah, presenting yourself as an authority on parapsychology, perhaps?" Rayson pursed his lips. "This is a great accomplishment for one so young."
"I'm not an authority on anything." Don shook his head. "All I know is that I'd find it out right away if anyone tried anything like that on me. No one has—at least no Khlorisana has."
Rayson shook his head reprovingly. "Now, you say you have lived all your life among these people? Perhaps, then, you have been under——"
* * * * *
"Just a minute!" Masterson broke in sharply. "What's this about Jack Bordelle? He's your relief, isn't he, Michaels?"
"That's right." Don shrugged, then repeated his conversation with Bordelle. He smiled wryly as he finished.
"I'll have to admit," he added, "I did walk over and spend a few seconds checking the incinerator, at that. But ... oh, well." He waved at the paper on Rayson's desk.
"And you didn't put that in your report?"
"No, sir. I didn't think there was any place for it there."
"It wasn't material to the case in hand, sir. There was no evidence in Jack's comments. He made no threats or offers. And as far as I could tell, he was merely a disinterested person concerned in my welfare. Even though he seemed to believe what he was saying, it's pure hearsay."
"Hearsay!" Masterson snorted. "Pure invention." He leaned forward.
"Look," he said sharply, "we've been pretty patient with you. We've given you the benefit of every doubt we could think of. And we're getting to the time-wasting stage." He waved a hand sharply across in front of his body.
"Now, I'd like to get some truth out of you. You've told us a little truth already. I believe you when you say you weren't subjected to any mental influence. I think the influence was very material indeed—in nice, purple ink—and it seems to have been pretty effective. How much was it?"
"How much?" Don frowned. "I wish you'd make yourself clear on that. What are you trying to say?"
"Just what you think I said," snapped Masterson. "How much did that youngster offer you to write up that incident the way you did? And have you the cash in hand yet?"
Don looked at the man carefully, noting the details of his appearance. Finally, he shook his head.
"Mr. Masterson," he said slowly, "up to now, I've always thought you were a good instructor and a fine advisor. I've sat in your classes, and I even developed a lot of respect for you. All at once, you've shown me how wrong I could be." He held up a hand.
"Be quiet," he said sharply, "both of you. And listen carefully. I want to make myself fully understood. I want to drive one thought into your stupid heads. You're in the wrong part of the galaxy for such remarks as that one you just made." He touched the corner of his mouth, then looked at his fingers.
"You see, this is at the edge of the Morek. There are Moreku here, in this school. And some day, you might talk to one of them." He smiled thinly.
"I am the only son of a border rancher, Mr. Masterson. We have a few thousand square kilos up in the Morek area, in the hills. And I have worked and played with mountain tribesmen all my life." He drew a long breath.
"Had a few fights with some of them, too. And some of their customs and a lot of their moral values rubbed off on me, I guess, though I've never been adopted into any clan.
"You just made a remark that is the absolute last word in insults up in the Morek. Nothing you could do or say could be worse. And there are, as I said, others from that area right here, in this school. Real clan members." He laughed shortly.
"Mister, what you said was, 'you sell yourself.'" He reached up to his lapel, twisting at the bronze button.
"If you should say that to a tribesman, your life would be over. Right then, unless you were very quick. And if you should be quick enough, or lucky enough, to kill the man you insulted, his clan brothers would take it up. It would be either you—or the whole tribe." He stood up.
"I'm not a tribesman. I don't carry the sling, and I'm of galactic ancestry, so I don't have a compulsion toward blood vengeance. But I don't accept that insult. I shall go back to the Morek today and place you out of my mind." He paused.
"No, I won't kill you. I'll simply warn you so you'll have no excuse for such idiocy again." He smiled.
"You know, Mr. Masterson, I don't know how much they pay you by the year to sit around here, but I doubt that it's as much as I pay my beaters for a week end of hunting. So obviously, even if I were for sale, the man who could afford the tab could pick you up with his small change." He paused thoughtfully.
"Come to think of it, if your annual pay is more than my beaters get, I'll have to raise their wages. They do their job—intelligently."
He turned, then swung back for an instant. The bronze button had come out of his lapel. He tossed it on Masterson's desk.
"Here," he said. "A present for you. I can't stand the smell of it."
* * * * *
Dully, the two men sat, watching the closed door. At long last, Rayson turned his head with obvious effort, to stare at Masterson, who recovered a few milliseconds more slowly.
But Masterson's recovery was the more violent of the two. He stared blankly at Rayson for an instant, then sprang to his feet.
"Why that young...! I'll turn him every way but loose."
He sprang around his desk and took a stride toward the door.
"No, no." Rayson raised a hand warningly. "This is no way to handle such a matter." He smiled gently.
"After all, this young man succeeded in immobilizing both of us for a considerable time. In the first place, I doubt you'd be able to catch him. In the second, do you think he would stand still while you mauled him by yourself?"
Masterson turned around, frowning. "He caught me unprepared," he snarled. "He can't do that to me again. Not while I'm ready for him."
"No? I think he could. Any time, any place, and under almost any conditions. And I have much more experience in these matters than you, my friend. This is a very dangerous young man, and he requires special handling. Sit down and let us consider this young man."
Masterson growled impatiently, but returned to his desk. He sat down, glowering at his companion.
"Suppose you tell me what you're talking about," he demanded.
Rayson looked down at his hands, which rested on the desk.
"We have been talking about mental influence, I believe. In fact, we mentioned this very matter to our young friend. This is correct?"
"Sure we did. So?"
"And our young man was quite positive that he could never be so controlled and that any effort to do so would be immediately apparent to him. This is also correct, I believe?"
"That's about the way of it, yes. What are you driving at?"
Rayson sighed. "Let me remind you of something, then. You are, of course; of the Ministerial Investigative Force, just as I am. But our specialties are different. Your dealings are with the teaching and preparation of youth for useful citizenship, and with the prevention of certain gross misbehavior. Thus, you deal with those more obvious and material deviations from the socially acceptable and have little experience with the more dangerous and even less acceptable deviations with which I must concern myself." He smiled faintly.
"Your handling of this young man just now would indicate a quite complete lack of understanding of the specialty I have prepared myself for. And even if there were no other reasons, it would serve to point up the reason for our difference in relative rank. You must admit you got something less than desirable results." He cleared his throat and looked disapprovingly at Masterson.
"Of course, you are familiar with stories of mental influence. And I have no doubt that you have had some experience with this type of thing, even though it is not in your direct line of work."
Masterson shook his head. "Sorry," he admitted. "This is the first time anyone's ever pulled anything like that on me."
Rayson inclined his head slowly. "So," he said softly. "Your lack of caution and discretion is more understandable, then. You have been quite fortunate, I should say. Of course, extreme individualism is far from common now, and persons who combine extreme individualism with high empathic power are rare, but they do appear. And they are dangerous in the highest degree." He spread his hands.
"A fully developed person of this type could do almost as he pleased and there would be no one who would be able to deny him or even check his course. You can see what I mean, surely?"
* * * * *
Masterson stared contemplatively into space. "Yes," he said. "Yes, I think I get the idea. A person like that could demand almost anything from almost anyone—and get it. But how would you go about it to restrain one of those people?"
"It can lead to difficulties." Rayson smiled reminiscently. "I can remember cases where——" He frowned.
"But no matter. We seldom allow them to reach high development. Very often, they betray themselves in little ways and we discover them quite early. We are then able to take care of them before they can do serious harm. Some, even, we are able to ... ah ... reorient, so that they become normal, useful subjects of the realm. But sometimes ... well, we have to call upon the Guard and get heavy weapons. Complete elimination becomes necessary." He frowned.
"And sometimes, like our young friend, they gain considerable power which they manage to conceal, and only betray themselves when under stress. Then, they become dangerous in the extreme. And there is no really legal way in which they can be handled, since they haven't yet committed any overt act of violence." He shook his head.
"No, this young man will require quite special handling. He will have to be carefully watched, and will probably get to the stage where complete elimination is demanded. I shall set the process in motion immediately." He reached for the telephone on his desk.
Masterson looked at him thoughtfully.
"You say these people are pretty rare, and really dangerous?"
"Yes. To both questions, definitely yes."
"Well, then, I should think that anyone who managed to organize and direct the elimination of one of them would be likely to get quite a bit of credit. Might even lead to a good promotion."
Rayson took his hand from the telephone.
"This is true," he admitted. "You are thinking of——?"
Masterson nodded. "Why don't we pick up a few people and run this operation ourselves?" he asked.
Rayson shook his head. "The idea is excellent," he agreed. "But I really see no reason for a joint effort." He got to his feet.
"After all, you must admit the total implication of this matter was my discovery. I had to explain it to you. And thus, I can see no reason for making a full partnership of the matter." He raised a hand.
"Of course, you will receive credit in the matter," he added quickly, "and you might even find yourself advanced. But I shall have to insist on taking the final steps and directing the operation personally." He smiled coldly.
"I can consult with certain of my colleagues and get the necessary support. And when I have left, you may get in touch with your superiors and report the matter, telling them that action is being initiated. This way, we will both receive our due credit." He paused.
"Oh, yes," he added, "and you might interview this young Kelton again, with his companions. Thus, you will gather evidence for use in justifying my operations."
Masterson looked at him unhappily. "Well ... all right," he agreed reluctantly. "Rank has its privileges, I suppose. And I guess in this case, that includes the collection of more rank. Suppose I'd better take what I can get."
"To be sure." Rayson smiled at him benignly. "This way, you are sure of profiting. Otherwise, you might run into disaster." He rose and strode toward the door.
"You may get those boys in for interview as soon as I leave," he said. "From them, you can get sufficient evidence of these powers of your young friend. Ah ... and I would suggest that you use a little more discretion with them than you showed with this young Michaels of ours. You were a trifle—shall we say, crude?" He coughed.
"Then you may call in and advise Headquarters that evidence has been gathered and action is being taken in this case of Donald Michaels."
He turned and went out the door.
Masterson watched as the door closed, then reached into the back of a desk drawer. He took out a small box with a number of switches mounted on its top. For a moment, he examined the object, then he got to his feet and went to the window.
He stood, looking out of the window for a few moments, nodded, and let his fingers play among the switches. Finally, he nodded in satisfaction and went back to his desk.
He looked contemplatively at the telephone for a moment, then picked it up and started flipping at the dial.
* * * * *
The sports flier dropped free for the last few feet, bounced, tilted, and finally righted itself. It was not a very good landing.
Don snapped the switch off and sat for a moment, looking out at the long, low house. Then he let himself out of the flier and walked across the courtyard and through the door.
The front room was empty. He looked over at the wide glass panels that formed one side of the room. A small, dark man came from between the bushes of the inner garden. He slid a panel aside and looked expressionlessly at Don for a moment. Then he slowly allowed his head to drop.
"Master Donald," he said. He raised his head, looking at Don with brilliant yellow eyes. "Your father did not expect you until two days."
"I know, Dowro. But I came home early. I want to talk to him."
"It is well." The man motioned toward a curtained arch. "He is below."
"Thanks, Dowro. I'll find him." Don swept the curtains aside and turned, to open a heavy door.
As he started down the steep flight of stairs, a sharp crack came from the basement. He grinned. With this kind of weather, the range would be busy.
Kent Michaels stood on the plastic flooring, a rifle at his shoulder. The front sight weaved almost imperceptibly, then steadied. He seemed completely unaware of his son's presence.
Suddenly, a spurt of smoke came from the muzzle of the rifle. There was another sharp crack and the muzzle swept upward then dropped, to become steady again.
At last, the shooter took the weapon from his shoulder and opened the action. He looked around.
"Oh, Don," he said. "Didn't expect you for a couple of days. There's no holiday down there right now, is there?"
Don shook his head. "I made a new one," he said. "Permanent type."
His father bent over the rifle action, examining it. Then he stepped over to place the weapon in a rack. Finally, he turned, to look searchingly at his son.
"Afraid so, Dad. I guess I sort of blew up."
"Want to tell me about it?"
The older man motioned Don to a camp stool and pulled one over for himself. As Don talked, he listened intently. At last, he nodded.
"So that's all of that, eh?"
"Guess it is, Dad. Looks as though I'll have to start working for my keep. Won't be any police official in the family after all."
"Could be." Kent Michaels got up and reached out to the weapons rack.
"Got one more shot on this target. Then we'll talk it over, hm-m-mm?"
He stepped up to a line inlaid in the floor. Deliberately, he placed a cartridge in the rifle and closed the action. Then, he raised the weapon, seated it on his shoulder, and brought it into position with a twisting motion.
Don watched, smiling in spite of himself, as the front sight rose and fell with his father's breathing. That routine never changed. From the time the Old Man picked up his weapon till he laid it down, you could predict every move he'd make.
The motion stopped and for endless seconds, the man stood motionless, the muzzle of his rifle probing steadily toward the lighted space downrange. Then the front sight jumped upward, settled back, and steadied again.
"Looked good." Kent Michaels let the weapon down, opened the action and checked it, then racked the weapon. He touched a button near the firing line and waited for the target to come in to him.
Deliberately, he unclipped the sheet of paper, laid it down, and clipped another in its place. He touched another button, then picked up the fired target and bent over it, checking his score. Finally, he looked up.
"Ninety-seven," he said. "Four X's. Think you can beat it?" He walked back to the rack and picked out a rifle. After glancing into the action, he held it out toward Don.
"Zero hasn't been changed since you fired it last. Want to take a couple of free ones anyway, just to be sure?"
Don looked at him indignantly.
"Good grief, Dad," he objected. "This is no time for a rifle match."
"Good as any, I'd say," his father told him. "Go ahead. There's a block of ammo at the point. Take your time, but you'll have to make 'em good." He sat down on his camp stool and waited.
Don looked at him for a few seconds, then shook his head resignedly and stepped up to the line.
"Oh, well," he said. "I'll try. Never mind the zero rounds."
He loaded the rifle and brought it to his shoulder. The sight weaved and bobbed. He brought it down again and looked back at his father. The older man pulled a cigarette from his breast pocket.
"Go ahead," he said calmly. "Take a few deep breaths. And relax."
Don bowed his shoulders and let the rifle hang loosely from his outstretched arms. He looked downrange, trying to drive everything out of his mind but the target hanging down there. Finally, he raised the weapon again. The sight bobbed about, then steadied. He put pressure on the trigger, then growled softly as the weapon fired.
"Oh, no! Drifted off at three o'clock."
His father exhaled a small cloud of smoke and said nothing. Don looked at him unhappily for a moment, then reloaded and brought the rifle up again.
Finally, the tenth shot smacked against the backstop and he racked his weapon and punched at the target return button.
His father got up and unclipped the sheet.
"Well, let's see," he said. "Eight, nine, nine ... here's a nipper ten ... nine ... oh, me! You didn't do so well, did you?"
"What would you expect?" grumbled Don. "Give me a couple of hours to simmer down and I'll take you on. Beat you, too."
"Suppose you got into a fight, Don?" his father asked. "Think the guy'd give you a couple hours to simmer down? So you could maybe shoot his eye out?"
* * * * *
He turned and led the way to a couple of lounge chairs.
"Sit down," he advised. "And turn on that light, will you?" He leaned back.
"So you gave Andy Masterson a fast outline on manners, eh?" He laughed softly. "Boy, I'd like to have seen his face about then!"
Don jerked his head around. "You know him, Dad?"
"You could say I did once," his father answered. "We went through Guard training together. Served on the same base a few times. Some years ago, I retired. I'm pretty sure he didn't."
Don pushed himself out of the chair and stood in front of his father.
"You mean Mr. Masterson is——"
Kent Michaels nodded slowly. "Stellar Guard Investigations? Yes, and I suspect he could wear quite a bit of silver lace, too, if he wanted to get dressed up." He clasped his hands behind his head.
"Let's see, Don, you're almost twenty now. Right?"
"That's right, Dad."
"Uh huh. And you were born here on Khloris. Means I've been out of active duty for quite a while, at that." He smiled.
"Got papers upstairs. They say I retired a little more than twenty-one years ago. Got official permission to live on an outworld and joined the first group of colonists here. Of course, they don't say anything about the people that told me to do all that."
Don stared at him. "What are you getting at, Dad?"
His father smiled. "Man retires, he's supposed to be all through with duty. Not subject to recall except in case of galaxy-wide emergency." He nodded thoughtfully.
"True. But a lot of people never really retire from the Guard. Things keep coming up, and that pension begins to look more like a retainer fee."
He held up a hand.
"Suppose I give you a little go-around on some history that isn't in the books—at least not in the books they use in these schools.
"Of course, you know about the arrival of the Stellar Queen. You've read all about the original trade contracts here in Oredan. And you've read a lot about the immigrations. And the border settlements.
"Yes, and you know about the accession of Daniel Stern, first to the Ministry of Finance, then to the Prime Ministry, then to the Regency. Quite a success story, that. And you have read about the mixup in the royal succession." He smiled.
"It all went about that way. Oh, sure, it wasn't quite as peaceable and orderly as the books make it look, but no history bothers with the minor slugfests. What they're concerned in is the big picture.
"Well, when the king agreed to colonization of the outer provinces, quite a few people came crowding out here. And there was more than a little thievery and brawling and rioting. Naturally, the Federation Council was interested. And the Stellar Guard was more directly interested.
"So, they encouraged a lot of retired guardsmen to come out here, weapons and all. And they assigned a few more people to ... well, sort of keep an eye on things. They set some people up with reasonably decent claims, saw to it that the rest of us got a good start, and left us to take it from there." He smiled.
"We had some fun, now and then. Got the border pacified. Got the crooks and the tough boys calmed down. And we got the hill tribes cooled off some, too. Even made friends with them—after a while. And some guys got married and made noises like real Khlorisanu—genuine Oredanu, in fact. A few of them married Oredana girls." He laughed shortly.
"The Khlorisanu are humanoid—human to as many decimals as you need to go. There's a little minor variation in superficial appearance between them and the average galactic, but there's no basic difference. Quite a few of the fellows found the local girls made good wives.
"But anyway. There wasn't any real organization among us. We just ... well, sort of knew what the other fellow was about. Kind of kept our own personal policy files. And things went along pretty well.
"Oh, there were some fellows who stuck to some sort of organizational structure, I suppose. You know how that is—some guys can't draw a deep breath unless the rest of the team is there to fill in the picture.
* * * * *
"And then, there were several people like Andy Masterson, who showed up from nowhere. That was none of my business. Happened to know Andy, but I've never talked to him here. Those people had complete new backgrounds. No Guard experience—it says here. And they joined the economy—took out Oredan citizenship. Some of them got into government work.
"Then this guy, Daniel Stern, showed up. He started grabbing influence with both hands. Smart young guy. Killed off a prime minister—we think—and a king. Can't prove any of that, though." Kent shook his head.
"Don't think we didn't try to stop him, once we realized what he was up to. We did. About that time, a whole lot of us did get together and organize. But he's one of those people. If he tells a man to go out and shoot himself, the next thing you hear is the sound of a falling body." His eyes clouded and he looked searchingly at Don.
"You should know what I mean. Like when you told that Ghar thief to tell us all about it—remember?"
"Look, Dad, that's something I'd like to know...."
Kent Michaels waved a hand. "So would I. But I know less about it than you do, so it's no use. All I know is that some people can tell most anyone to do almost anything—and it gets done. As I said, Stern seems to be one of them." He shrugged.
"Anyway, we lost a lot of good colonists before we decided to sit back and wait this boy out.
"It's been a long wait. Some of us have gotten rich in the meantime, in spite of Stern's trick taxes. Some of us have had a pretty rough time, I guess. But we're all growing older, and Stern's pretty cagey about immigration. Doubt if many guardsmen are getting in these days. We're going to have to depend on our kids, I think."
Don leaned forward.
"In other words, I could have kicked over an applecart?"
"Well, let's say you might have bent an axle on your own pretty, blue wagon. It's a good thing Masterson was there when you blew up. Anyone else, and I might have come up short one son. I wouldn't like that too well. Might make me go down to Oreladar and try a little target practice." He frowned thoughtfully.
"You know, come to think of it, no one ever made me do anything I didn't want to do."
Don looked thoughtful.
"What do I do now?"
"Just what you said. Start working for your keep. If I get the news right, the waiting period is about over. Stern's finally dipped his toe in the water, with that business over Waern, and we might be able to do something. You just might get your teeth into it. And maybe I'll find myself going back to work.
"First, you'll have to go back to Riandar. Apologize to Masterson, of course, and give him a peace offering. I'll give you a bottle of Diamond Brandy before you leave. Be sure you hold the diamond in front of him when you stick the bottle out. Otherwise, he might throw something. He'll take it from there." The older man grinned.
"And if I remember Andy Masterson, he'll come up with enough work to keep you busy."
* * * * *
Andrew Masterson frowned at the bottle held before him.
"What's this?" he inquired. "You know better than to bring stuff like this on the grounds."
Don Michaels shrugged. "Dad said there wasn't too much of it around any more. Thought you might like some."
"Oh, he did? Yeah. Well, I'll take it as well meant. Might find someone who could use it." Masterson opened a drawer and thrust the bottle inside.
"He have anything else to say?"
Don nodded, looking at Masterson's suddenly watchful eyes. "He said if you'd come up our way, he'd show you how to hold 'em and squeeze 'em. Said maybe you might like to bring up some friends some time and give them a chance to find out what border life is like."
"Huh! You mean he's still playing games with those antique lead tossers?" Masterson grinned suddenly. "Thought he'd have outgrown that foolishness years ago. By the way, how's he shooting these days?"
"Fired a pinwheel after I told him about the row yesterday. Meant he only dropped three points on the target—standing."
"So? Maybe he could do damage with one of those antiques of his, at that—if he could get someone to hold still long enough for him to shoot at them. But nobody makes ammunition for the things any more. Where's he getting that?"
"Makes it himself." Don smiled. "He's got quite a workshop down in the basement."
Masterson nodded. "That's Kent Michaels, all right. O.K., youngster, I knew who you were in the first place. Just checking. Tell me, did he get you mixed up with that antique craze of his?"
Don nodded. "I beat him at it once in a while, sir."
"Did you hand him another beating yesterday? When you went out of here, it looked as though you were going to have to whip somebody."
Don frowned. "He made a monkey out of me. I couldn't stay on target."
"Uh, huh." Masterson nodded slowly. "Figures. Remember that, that it'll be the most valuable match you ever lost."
"That's right. Yesterday, you got pretty well charged up. Even managed to warm up a secret police agent. Doesn't pay, believe me. About the time you get emotionally involved in a problem, the problem turns around and bites you. You're lucky. Someone else got bit instead—this time. You see, one of us didn't get shook up."
Masterson tilted his head. "We had an unfortunate accident here right after you left. Dr. Rayson went rushing out of here and took off in his flier. Something went wrong—nobody's sure what. Maybe he didn't let his stabilizing rotors have time to lock in. Maybe a lot of things. Anyway, he flipped about fifty meters up. Came down pretty fast, and burned right by the parking lot. Quite a mess." He nodded sadly.
"Shame. Fine psychologist, and one of the best secret policemen in the realm."
Masterson held up a hand. "Let's just say he was careless." He motioned.
"Sit down. No, not in the hot seat. Take that one over there. Then you can see things." He drew a long breath.
"Your father say anything about Stern?"
Don nodded. "He doesn't like him too well."
"He's got company. Know what Stern's trying to do, don't you?"
Don laughed uneasily. "I'm pretty well mixed up, to be truthful. From what Dad told me, he's trying to turn Oredan into a Dictatorship, with him at the head. Then, he'll take over the rest of the planet—a piece at a time."
"Close. He's planned it pretty well, too. He's got the royal succession pretty well balled up. He's almost ready to move in right now. Only one stumbling block. Know what that is?"
Don shook his head.
"Youngster named Petoen Waern. He's old enough—older than he looks. His mother's a niece of the last king. Conclave of the tribes could put him on the throne tomorrow morning. He's a bet Stern missed a while back. Now, he's trying to make up for it."
Don frowned. "Is that really why——"
"Right. That's why the row in the locker room. That would have eliminated that claimant in a hurry. Nobody wants a king with a family criminal record and a habit of starting brawls—especially when he loses those brawls. Kings just aren't supposed to go in for that sort of thing." Masterson smiled mirthlessly.
"Anyway, I doubt he'd have survived that affair if you hadn't rammed your neck into it."
* * * * *
"But there are other claimants. They'll come of age pretty soon."
"Sure they will. But that's pretty soon—and not soon enough. Besides, Stern's got them under control, along with their families—the important ones, anyway. There'd be a deadlock when a conclave started checking their claims. And somehow, their councilors wouldn't be able to come up with quite the right arguments.
"If a formal conclave meets, and no claimant is clearly eligible for the throne—know who'll be called to start a new royal line?"
"But he——" Don shook his head doubtfully.
"Yes, he could." Masterson shook his head. "Sure, he's regent. But he hasn't renounced his position as prime minister. And with his personal effect on people, he couldn't lose. No, the only reason he can't stand a conclave right now is one youngster—and one family he's never been able to control, because they stay out of his personal reach. And he almost got the youngster out of the way. Neat little operation, with only one thing that could go wrong. You."
Don frowned. "But that affair was just a personal——"
"Think so? Oh, sure, I gave the Hunters a big horselaugh yesterday. Rayson was around then. And Rayson was a pretty big boy. He knew all about the Hunters, I'm pretty sure. And I know better than to laugh about them." He leaned forward.
"I can't prove it, and it wouldn't do too much good if I tried, but I know perfectly well who's behind not only the Hunters, but a flock of other criminal gangs—juvenile and adult as well. Think I didn't know I was talking to a bunch of Hunters when I listened to that rigged story of theirs about the Keltons? Think I didn't realize Rayson was sitting there prompting them whenever they started to get confused?" He smiled.
"Maybe I'm stupid, but I'm not that stupid. The reason I was rough on you was the fact I didn't want you signing any statements that Pete had hypnotized—or what would you call it—you. That would have fixed the whole thing and they'd have had him." He coughed.
"And, too, I knew who you were, of course. I didn't know for certain how you stood, or how much you could do, but you looked good. And it was pretty obvious you had capabilities." He smiled.
"Some of the retired guardsmen have had sons go sour on them, you know, so I can't take 'em just on faith. But, as I said, the locker room deal looked good, and the more you talked, the better I liked it."
"Yeah, I know. I wasn't taking such a chance, though, at that. Truth of the matter is I'm about as bad as your father. You couldn't make me give you the right time if I didn't feel like it." Masterson's eyes crinkled in an amused smile.
"Go ahead. Try it."
Don shook his head. "I'll take your word," he said. "I tried to tell Dad off once. Somehow, things get a little unpleasant."
"Yeah." Masterson stretched luxuriously. "Anyway, I figured you'd be a lot handier around here alive and in operating condition. The last thing I could let happen would be for Rayson to get you on that trick table of his. Once he got that thing to rocking and rolling, he'd stand back there, making soothing noises, and almost anyone would break down and give him all they'd ever known. After that, they'd lie back and believe anything he felt like telling them." He waved a hand back and forth as Don started to speak.
"Later, huh? We can discuss all the ins and outs some day when this is all over. Right now, let's be getting back to business." He smiled disarmingly and leaned back in his chair.
"Somehow, Stern's hand has got to be forced. He's off balance right now, and we want him further off. We want him to make a move he can't back out of. And you may be able to make him do just that."
"Yes. Suppose the hill tribes joined with the Waernu and demanded that a conclave consider Pete's claim to the throne. What then?"
"I guess there'd be a conclave."
"There might, at that. Now, let's go a little further. Suppose the Waernu claim were upheld and we got a new king—let's see, he'd drop a syllable—King Petonar. Where would our friend, Stern, end up?"