“Of course, it didn’t work. Distances are still too great; different environments inevitably produce different civilizations, other ways of living and thinking. About a thousand years ago, the colonies broke loose, and after a war we had to recognize their independence. There are about a dozen such states now with which we have fairly close contact—the League of Alpha Centauri is much the most powerful of them.
“If you want to know more about outer-space conditions, you can talk to a member of the Commercial Society. At present, though, I wouldn’t bother, not till you’re better up on modern Earth.”
“Yes, how about that?” said Langley. “What is this Technate system, anyway?”
“The Technon is merely a giant sociomathematical computer which is fed all available data continuously, by all agencies, and makes basic policy decisions in view of them. A machine is less fallible, less selfish, less bribeable, than a man.” Chanthavar grinned. “Also, it saves men the trouble of thinking for themselves.”
“I get the impression of an aristocracy—”
“Oh, well, if you want to call it that, somebody has to take responsibility for executing the Technon’s policies and making the small daily decisions. The class of Ministers exists for that purpose. Under them are the Commoners. It’s hereditary, but not so rigid that occasional recruits from the Commons don’t get elevated to the Ministry.”
“Where I come from,” said Langley slowly, “we’d learned better than to leave leadership to chance—and heredity is mighty chancy.”
“Not enough to matter nowadays. I told you we had genetic engineering.” Chanthavar laid a hand on his, squeezing slightly: it was not a feminine gesture, Langley realized, only a custom different from his. “Look here, captain, I don’t give a damn what you say, but some people get rather stuffy about it. Just a hint.”
“What can we... my friends and I... do?” Langley felt a dim annoyance at the strain in his voice.
“Your status is a bit unusual, isn’t it? I’m appointing myself your patron, and you’ll have a sort of quasi-Ministerial rank with funds of your own for the time being. Not charity, by the way; the Technate does have a special cash-box for unforeseen details, and you are hereby classified as an unforeseen detail. Eventually we’ll work out something, but don’t worry about getting sent to the commons. If nothing else, your knowledge of the past is going to make you the pet of the historians for the rest of your lives.”
Langley nodded. It didn’t seem to matter much, one way or another. Peggy was dead.
Peggy was dead. For five thousand years she had been dust, darkness in her eyes and mold in her mouth, for five thousand years she had not been so much as a memory. He had held back the realization, desperately focusing himself on the unimportant details of survival, but it was entering him now like a knife.
He would never see her again.
And the child was dust, and his friends were dust, and his nation was dust; a world of living and laughter, proud buildings, song and tears and dreams, had sunk to a few ashen pages in some forgotten archive. And this was how it felt to be a ghost.
He bowed his head and wanted to weep, but there were eyes on him.
“It’s no fun,” said Chanthavar sympathetically. After a moment: “Take my advice and concentrate on immediate things for a while. That ought to help.”
“Yes,” said Langley, not looking at him.
“You’ll strike roots here, too.”
“Well, you’re better off if you don’t, anyway.” An odd, bitter note there. “Enjoy yourself. I’ll show you some interesting dives.”
Langley stared at the floor.
“There’s one thing you can help me with right now,” said Chanthavar. “It’s the reason I came here to see you, instead of having you sent to my office. More privacy.”
Langley touched his lips, remembering how Peggy’s had brushed them and then clung to them, fifty centuries ago.
“It’s about that alien you had along—Saris Hronna, was that the name you recorded for him?”
“More or less. What about him?”
“He escaped, you know. We haven’t found him yet. Is he dangerous?”
“I don’t think so, unless he gets too annoyed. His people do have a keen hunting instinct, but they’re peaceable otherwise, treated us with great friendliness. Saris came along to see Earth, and as a kind of ambassador. I think he only broke away till he could get some idea of the situation. He must have dreaded the possibility of being caged.”
“He can control electronic and magnetronic currents. You know that?”
“Of course. It surprised us, too, at first. His race isn’t telepathic in the usual sense, but they’re sensitive to neural currents—especially emotions—and can project the same. I ... I really don’t know whether he can read a human mind or not.”
“We have to find him,” said Chanthavar. “Have you any idea where he might go, what he might do?”
“I’d... have to think about it. But I’m sure he isn’t dangerous.” Langley wondered, inside himself. He knew so little about the Holatan mind. It wasn’t human. How would Saris Hronna react when he learned?
“You note their planet as being some thousand light-years from Sol. It’s unknown to us, of course. We don’t intend this being any harm, but we have to locate him.”
Langley glanced up. Under the mobile, smiling mask of his face, Chanthavar seemed almost feverish. There was a hunter’s gleam in his eyes. “What’s the hurry?” asked the spaceman.
“Several things. Chiefly, the possibility that he may carry some germ to which man has no immunity. We’ve had plagues like that before.”
“We were on Holat a couple of months. I’ve never been healthier in my life.”
“Nevertheless, it has to be checked. Furthermore, how’s he going to live except by robbery? Can’t have that, either. Haven’t you any idea where he might have gone?”
Langley shook his head. “I’ll think hard about it,” he said cautiously. “Maybe I’ll figure out an answer, but I can’t promise anything.”
“Well,” said Chanthavar wryly, “that’ll have to do for now. Come on, let’s get some dinner.”
He rose, Langley followed him out, and the two guards fell into step behind. The spaceman paid little attention to the halls and the anti-gravity rise-shafts along which he went. He was wrapped in his own desolation.
O my darling, I never came back. You waited, and you grew old, and you died, and I never came back to you. I... I’m sorry, dearest of all, I’m sorry. Forgive me, O dust.
And down underneath, sharp and cold, a thought of wariness and suspicion: Chanthavar seemed pleasant enough. But he was top brass. Why should he take personal charge of the hunt for Saris? His reasons were thin—somewhere the real one lay hidden.
And what should I do about it?
There was a party in the home of Minister Yulien, high commissioner of metallurgies; the cream of Solar and foreign society would be there, and Chanthavar brought the Explorer crew along.
Langley accompanied the agent down tall, columned passages where the air glowed with a soft light and murals traced shifting patterns on the gleaming walls. Behind him sat half a dozen bodyguards, identical giants. Chanthavar had explained that they were his personal slaves and the result of chromosome duplication in an exogenesis tank.; There was something not quite human about them.
The spaceman was getting over his feeling of awkwardness, though he still couldn’t imagine that he looked like much with hairy skinny legs sticking out from under his tunic. He, Blaustein, and Matsumoto had hardly been out of their palace suite in the day since they were released. They had sat around, saying little, now and then cursing in a whisper full of pain; it was still too new, too devastatingly sudden. They accepted Chanthavar’s invitation without great interest. What business did three ghosts have at a party?