Выбрать главу

Brannoch felt relaxed and peaceful. Things were going well. His sources of information were operating quietly and efficiently, already he knew much about Sol which would be of value when the war started; he had bagged a dragon in Minister Tanarac’s African preserve, he had won grandly the last time he visited Luna Casino, he had bought a very satisfactory girl a few days ago, the last mail ship from Centauri had reported his estates on Freyja were yielding a bumper crop—of course, the news was more than four years old, but still welcome. Life could be worse.

The apologetic buzz of the robophone interrupted his reflections. Too lazy to get up, he steered the chair over to it. Someone who knew his special and highly unofficial number was calling, but that could be a lot of people. He thumbed the switch, and an unfamiliar face looked at him. The caller bowed ritually, covering his eyes, and said humbly: “Audience requested with you, my lord.”

“Now?” asked Brannoch.

“P-p-presently, my lord, when c-convenient.” The stutter would be taken for the normal nervousness of an underling in such an august presence, in case this secret line was tapped—which Brannoch knew very well it was. Actually, the pattern of repeated consonants was an identifying password. This was Varis t’u Hayem, a petty Minister and a captain in the Solar militechnic intelligence corps, dressed in civilian clothes and wearing a life-mask. He would not be reporting in person unless it was a matter of urgency. Brannoch led him through a routine of giving his assumed name and business, told him to come up, and cut the circuit. Only then did he allow himself a frown.

Rising, he made a careful check of the concealed roboguns and of the needler under his own tunic. It could be an attempt at assassination, if Chanthavar’s counterspies had learned enough. Or it could—

He went swiftly over t’u Hayem’s background, and a wry, half-pitying grin twisted his mouth. It was so easy, so terribly easy to break a man.

You met this proud, ambitious aristocrat, whose only real fault was youth and inexperience, at a couple of receptions, drew him out—oh, simple, simple, with the dazzling glow of your own birth and rank behind you. Your agents in his corps got his psychorecord for you, and you decided he was promising material. So you cultivated him, not much, but even a little attention from the agent of a foreign power was overwhelming if you were a High Noble, an admiral, and an ambassador. You pulled one or two wires for him. You introduced him to really top-flight company, gorgeous appareled nobles of every known state, their magnificent women, their cultivated conversation and splendid homes and rare wines. You gave him the idea that he was listening at the door to plans which would shake the stars- Naturally he did some favors for you, nothing to violate his oath, just stretching a point here and there.

You took him to pleasure houses operated with real imagination. You got him gambling, and at first he won incredible sums. Then you moved in for the kill.

In a few days his fortune was gone, he was sunk a light-year down in debt, his superiors were getting suspicious of him because of his association with you, his creditors (who were your creatures, which he did not know) attacked his property and wife—you have him. And for some three years, now, he had been your spy within his own corps, because only you and your organization propped him up, and because even a tiny illegality performed for you made it possible to blackmail him. Some day, if he gave you something really valuable, you might even buy his wife (with whom he was so foolish as to be in love) and give her back to him.

Very easy. Brannoch had neither pleasure nor pain in making a tool out of what had been a man. It was part of his job; in so far as he had any feeling about his broken men, it was one of contempt that they should ever have been so vulnerable.

The outer door of the suite scanned t’u Hayem’s fingers and retinae and opened for him. He entered and bowed with the proper formulas. Brannoch did not invite him to sit down. “Well?” he said.

“Most radiant lord, I have information which may be of interest to you. I thought I had best bring it personally.”

Brannoch waited. The pseudo-face before him twitched with an eagerness that some might have thought pathetic.

“My lord, I am as you know stationed at Mesko Field. The day before yesterday, a strange spaceship entered Earth’s atmosphere and was made to land there.” T’u Hayem fumbled in his tunic and brought out a spool which he threaded into a scanner. His hands shook. “Here is a picture of it.”

The scanner threw a three-dimensional image above the table top. Brannoch whistled. “Stormblaze! What kind of a ship is that?”

“Incredibly archaic, my lord. See, they even use rockets —a uranium-fission pile for energy, reaction mass expelled as ions—”

Brannoch enlarged the image and studied it. “Hm-m-m. yes. Where is it from?”

“I don’t know, my lord. We referred the question to the Technon itself—records division—and were told that the design is of the very earliest days of space travel, well before gravity control was discovered. Possibly from one of the oldest of the lost colonies.”

“Hm-m-m. Then, the crew must be—have been—outlaws. I can’t see explorers taking off knowing they wouldn’t be back for perhaps thousands of years. What about the crew?” Brannoch turned a knob, and the next image was of three humans in outlandish gray uniform, clean-shaven, hair cut short in the style of Solar Ministers. “That all?”

“No, my lord. If that were all, I wouldn’t have considered the business so important. But there was a nonhuman with them, a race unknown to anyone including the records division. We got a picture, snapped hastily—”

The alien was shown running. Big beast—eight feet long including the thick tail, bipedal with a forward-crouching gait, two muscular arms ending in four-fingered hands. It could be seen to be male and presumably a mammal, at least it was covered with smooth mahogany fur. The head was lutrine: round, blunt-snouted, ears placed high, whiskers about the mouth and above the long yellow eyes.

“My lord,” said t’u Hayem in a near whisper, “they emerged and were put under arrest pending investigation. Suddenly the alien made a break for it. He’s stronger than a human, trampled down three men in his path, moved faster than you would think. Anaesthetic guns opened up on him -rather, they should have, but they didn’t. They didn’t go off! I snapped a shot at him with my hand blaster, and the circuit was dead—nothing happened. Several others did too. A small robot shell was fired after him, and crashed. A piloted scoutplane swooped low, but its guns didn’t go off, the control circuits went dead, and it crashed too. The nearest gate was closed, but it opened for him as he approached it. One man close by focused a neutral tracker on him as he went into the woods, but it didn’t work till he was out of its range.

“Since then, we have been striving to hunt him down, there are patrols all over the district, but no trace has been found. My lord, it doesn’t seem possible!”

Brannoch’s face might have been carved in dark wood. “So,” he murmured. His eyes rested on the image of captured motion. “Quite naked, too. No weapon, no artifact. Are there any estimates of the range of his... power?”

“Roughly five hundred yards, my lord. That was approximately the distance within which our apparatus failed. He moved too fast for longer-range weapons to be brought against him in those few seconds.”

“How about the humans?”