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“No... no, of course not. But—”

Langley shrugged. He’d met this type before, back home. He mumbled an excuse and got away. Blaustein joined him, and they fell into English. “Where’s Bob?” asked Langley.

Blaustein gave a crooked grin.

“Last I saw, he was heading off-stage with one of the female entertainers. Nice-looking little piece, too. Maybe he’s got the right idea.”

“For him,” said Langley.

“I can’t. Not now, anyway.” Blaustein looked sick. “You know, I thought maybe, even if everything we knew is gone, the human race would finally have learned some sense. I was a pacifist, you know—intellectual pacifist, simply because I could see what a bloody, brainless farce it was, how nobody gained anything except a few smart boys—” Blaustein was a little drunk, too. “And the solution is so easy! It stares you right in the face. A universal government with teeth. That’s all. No more war. No more men getting shot and resources plundered and little children burned alive. I thought maybe in five thousand years even this dim-witted race of ours would get that lesson hammered home. Remember, they’ve never had a war at all on Holat. Are we that much stupider?”

“I should think an interstellar war would be kind of hard to fight,” said Langley. “Years of travel just to get there.”

“Uh-huh. Also, little economic incentive. If a planet can be colonized at all, it’s going to be self-sufficient. Those two reasons are why there hasn’t been a real war for a thousand years, since the colonies broke loose.”

Blaustein leaned closer, weaving a trifle on his feet. “But there’s one shaping up now. We may very well see it. Rich mineral resources on the planets of Sirius, and the government there weak, and Sol and Centauri strong. Both of them want those planets. Neither can let the other have them, it’d be too advantageous. I was just talking to an officer, who put it in very nearly those words, besides adding something about the Centaurians being filthy barbarians.”

“So I’d still like to know how you fight across four-plus light-years,” said Langley.

“You send a king-size fleet, complete with freighters full of supplies. You meet the enemy fleet and whip it in space. Then you bombard the enemy planets from the sky. Did you know they can disintegrate any kind of matter completely now? Nine times ten to the twentieth ergs per gram. And there are things like synthetic virus and radioactive dust. You smash civilization on those planets, land, and do what you please. Simple. The only thing to be sure of is that the enemy fleet doesn’t beat you, because then your own home is lying wide open. Sol and Centauri have been intriguing, sparring, for decades now. As soon as one of them gets a clear advantage—wham! Fireworks.” Blaustein gulped his wine and reached for more.

“Of course,” he said owlishly, “there’s always the chance that even if you beat the enemy, enough of his ships will escape to go to your home system and knock out the planetary defenses and bombard. Then you have two systems gone back to the caves. But when has that prospect ever stopped a politician? Or psychotechnical administrator, as I believe they call ’em now. Lemme alone. I want to get blotto.”

Chanthavar found Langley a few minutes later and took him by the arm. “Come,” he said. “His Fidelity, the chief of the Technon Servants, wants to meet you. His Fidelity is a very important man... Excellent Sulon, may I present Captain Edward Langley?”

He was a tall and thin old man in a plain blue robe and cowl. His lined face was intelligent, but there was something humorless and fanatical about his mouth. “This is interesting,” he said harshly. “I understand that you wandered far in space, captain.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Your documents have already been presented to the Technon. Every scrap of information, however seemingly remote, is valuable: for only through sure knowledge of all the facts can the machine make sound decisions. You would be surprised how many agents there are whose only job is the constant gathering of data. The state thanks you for your service.”

“It is nothing, my lord,” said Langley with due deference.

“It may be much,” said the priest. “The Technon is the foundation of Solar civilization; without it, we are lost. Its very location is unknown to all save the highest ranks of my order, its servants. For this we are born and raised, for this we renounce all family ties and worldly pleasures. We are so conditioned that if an attempt is made to get our secrets from us, and there is no obvious escape, we die—automatically. I tell you this to give you some idea of what the Technon means.”

Langley couldn’t think of any response. Sulon was proof that Sol hadn’t lost all vitality, but there was an inhumanness over him.

“I am told that an extraterrestrial being of unknown race was with your crew, and has escaped,” went on the old man. “I must take a very grave view of this. He is a completely unpredictable factor—your own journal gives little information.”

“I’m sure he’s harmless, my lord,” said Langley.

“That remains to be seen. The Technon itself orders that he be found or destroyed immediately. Have you, as an acquaintance of his, any idea of how to go about this?”

There it was again. Langley felt cold. The problem of Saris Hronna had all the VIPs—the VGDIPs—scared sweat-less; and a frightened man can be a vicious creature.

“Standard search patterns haven’t worked,” said Chanthavar. “I’ll tell you this much, though it’s secret: he killed three of my men and got away in their flier. Where has he gone?”

“I’ll... have to think,” stammered Langley. “This is most unfortunate, my lord. Believe me, I’ll give it all my attention, but—you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

Chanthavar smiled; the cliche, dead and now resurrected, amused him, and Langley thought what a reputation he could get for himself by merely cribbing from Shaw, Wilde, Leacock- Sulon said stiffly: “This horse had better drink, sir, and soon,” and dismissed them with a nod. Chanthavar saw an acquaintance and plunged into a hot argument on the proper way to mix some kind of drink called a recycler.

Langley was pulled away by a plump, hairy hand. It belonged to a large pot-bellied man in foreign-looking dress: gray robe and slippers, loops of diamond and rubies. The head was massive, with an elephantine nose, disorderly flame-red hair and the first beard Langley had seen in this age, surprisingly keen light eyes. The rather high voice was accented, an intonation not of Earth: “Greeting, sir. I have been most anxious to meet you. Goltam Valti is the name.”

“Your servant, my lord,” said Langley.

“No, no. I’ve no title. Poor old greasy lickspittle Goltam Valti is not to the colors born. I’m of the Commercial Society, and we don’t have nobles. Can’t afford ’em. Hard enough to make an honest living these days, with buyers and sellers alike grudging you enough profit to eat on, and one’s dear old homestead generations away. Well, about a decade in my case, I’m from Ammon in the Tau Ceti system originally. A sweet planet, that, with golden beer and a lovely girl to serve it to you, ah, yes!”

Langley felt a stirring of interest. He’d heard something about the Society, but not enough. Valti led him to a divan and they sat down and whistled at a passing table for refreshments.

“I’m chief factor at Sol,” continued Valti. “You must come see our building sometime. Souvenirs of a hundred planets there, I’m sure it’ll interest you. But five thousand years’ worth of wandering, that is too much even for a trader. You must have seen a great deal, captain, a great deal. Ah, were I young again—”

Langley threw subtlety aside and asked a few straightforward questions. Getting information out of Valti took patience, you had to listen to a paragraph of self-pity to get a sentence worth hearing, but something emerged. The Society had existed for a thousand years or more, recruited from all planets, even non-human races: it carried on most of the interstellar trade there was, goods which were often from worlds unknown to this little section of the galaxy. Luxuries chiefly, exotic things, but there were also important industrial materials involved, an item which was growing as the civilized planets used up their own resources. For Society personnel, the great spaceships were home, men and women and children living their lives on them. They had their own laws, customs, language, they owed allegiance to no one else. “A civilization in its own right, Captain Langley, a horizontal civilization cutting across the proudly vertical ones rooted on the planets, and in its poor way outliving them all.”