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Vaughan Roberts, in the control seat of the salvaged Interstellar Patrol ship that had cost most of his life savings, glanced briefly at the battle screen, which showed his two friends' second-hand space yacht being hauled around in a gravitor beam. Then he looked back at the auxiliary screen, where an exaggeratedly military-looking individual, with the insignia of a lieutenant colonel, spoke in brisk authoritative tones:

"By order of the Commanding Officer, Squadron R, 876th Interstellar Combat Wing, Space Fleet XII, you are hereby commanded to halt for inspection re Exotic Drugs Act, Section 16 . . ."

Roberts, who had spent some time in the Space Force himself, had never before seen such a combination of meticulously close-cropped iron-gray hair, stiff face, and ramrod-straight posture, with uniform pressed into dentproof, knife-edged creases. Over the left shirt pocket of this uniform were three rows of ribbons, and while Roberts did not recognize half of them, there was one that he knew to be the Cross of Space, with three stars. The Cross of Space was awarded sparingly—to win it required proof of heroism in the face of such danger that it was rare for the hero to come back alive. Try as he might, Roberts could not visualize the miracle that would enable the same man to win this award four times and live.

" . . . Paragraph E," the stiffly-erect figure went on. "You will not resist the beam. You will not attempt to parley. You will open outer hatches to admit boarding parties without delay . . ."

Roberts glanced around.

The patrol ship, the purchase of which Roberts considered an unusual stroke of luck, was equipped with devices he could never have afforded to buy new. One of these could extrude a set of metal arms, to spin a shell of camouflage around the ship, hide its formidable armament, and create the appearance of a harmless rebuilt derelict. Other devices could make fast precise measurements of shape, size, mass, and other characteristics, passing them to computers which searched almost instantaneously through hosts of reference standards to determine what the data might mean. On this information, presented to the pilot in symbols on the battle screen, the patrol ship's battle computer could act at once, bringing the ship's weapons to bear on changing targets, and altering speed, course, and attitude to meet the situation. Presiding over the weapons, sensing elements, computers, and various special devices, and acting toward the pilot as a combination conscience and subconscious mind, was what was known as the "symbiotic computer." At this moment, the symbiotic computer, in its own way, was doubtless considering the rasping, authoritative voice:

"You will at all times obey the instructions of the inspecting personnel. You will cooperate fully in exposing your ship to thorough search for contraband. Resistance, or procrastination, will be dealt with severely . . ."

But the many symbols now appearing on the battle screen were what riveted attention.

It gave Roberts pause to consider who would want such things as:

a) A large salvaged cruiser stripped for ultrafast acceleration.

b) An irregular rocky object some four hundred feet in diameter, hollowed out inside, with several large masses of undetermined nature floating around the interior.

c) A simulated Space Force dreadnought mocked up on a girder-ship frame.

d) An irregular metallic object eighty feet across, with fusion guns sunk in hidden wells.

Roberts fingered the curved surface of a small glowing ball recessed into the control console. As he turned the ball, a corresponding white circle on the battle screen moved from one symbol to the next, and each in turn was enlarged, to show fine detail. Roberts now saw such things as a big cargo section with what looked like severe damage; hidden inside were grapples to seize any ship that came close enough to give help.

Now it was clear why the "colonel" on the screen looked so exceptionally military. Real military men had work to do, and doing this work was their job. But this fellow's job was to look military. Where the fake-wreck artist collected his victims by drifting along a traveled route looking helpless; and where the trap-miner made his profit by maneuvering his chunk of "ore" into position to catch prospectors unaware; and where the slugger prospered by sudden attack—for the same purpose, the two-day wonder mimicked the Space Force.

Now the "colonel" was looking at Roberts with hard authority.

"Is that clearly understood?"

Roberts' course display now showed its line of big dashes drifting off to the right. The track display showed a curving line that wove past the asteroid belt to the stylized image of the blue-green world optimistically called Paradise—with the little image of the ship slipping well off the line. The battle screen showed the patrol ship caught in a wavy blur, representing another gravitor beam.

Roberts asked himself what all these commerce raiders were doing here. Two previous trips told him there wasn't enough commerce past this system to make a living for a tenth of them. If they weren't here to prey on commerce, what were they here for?

He considered one possible reason.

When he, Hammell, and Morrissey had been on Paradise before, Morrissey had invented a device to influence desires, and had developed it so it could be focused on a given place from a distance. Suppose someone had been shrewd enough to deduce, from what had happened, the existence of a want-generator?

What would a gang of commerce raiders do to get hold of a device that could influence desires from a distance?

But then, Roberts realized, if such a person had been on Paradise, he would have learned still more.

The last time Roberts, Hammell and Morrissey had been here, the only way they'd found to keep two of the planet's factions from slaughtering each other had been to use, not only the want-generator, but also Roberts' patrol ship, to create the myth of two outside factions fighting for control of the planet.

Now, Roberts asked himself, suppose the commerce raiders had learned of this myth, and of the formidable personages who were part of it. Would the commerce raiders care to tangle with such a crew? What if it should turn out that the creatures were real? What if Oggbad, the sorcerer, and the three Dukes were fighting for mastery of an Empire? Then what? The want-generator was worth taking on whoever had it, even if he was an armored Duke with an Empire behind him—but the risk should be spread by gathering a strong force, in case of trouble. That was how the commerce raiders would think.

While Roberts considered this, the imitation colonel gave signs of impatience.

"Let's have your attention here, Mister!"

The only way out Roberts could see was to convince the raiders the situation was too dangerous for them to handle. Yet, a simple calculation showed more firepower on their side.

It followed that Roberts would have to run a bluff.

On the screen, the two-day wonder's fuse burned short again, and he turned away, as if to rasp some order to an unseen subordinate.

Roberts spoke first: "This is a King's ship."

The "colonel" swung around. "What's that?"

Roberts looked the two-day wonder directly in the eye. "Sobeit you wish death, there is no surer way than this."

The two-day wonder stared at him.

Roberts spoke grimly: "A King's ship will not stand inspection by any mortal power in or out of space. He who attempts it, will face the full might of the Empire. You are warned."

The figure on the screen momentarily congealed into a living statue. Then he leaned completely back out of focus of the screen.

There was a garbled noise from the speaker, then the automatic descramblers went to work, the garble seemed to distort itself into new shapes and forms, and suddenly it came across, rough and low-pitched, but understandable: "Quick! Where's Maury?"

"Holed up with Parks and the lawyer. Why?"

"Get him on this screen!"

"Are you nuts? He'll—"

"I said, get him!"

The "colonel" reappeared, his manner conciliatory: "We certainly don't want to . . . er . . . detain a foreign ship against its will, Mr . . . ah . . . ?"

In a chill voice, Roberts said, "My name is not at issue. Neither is it at issue whether you will hold this ship against its will. You lack the power to hold this ship against its will. You will release this ship or die. That is what is at issue."

In the silence that followed, Roberts became aware that, around him, there were a great many quiet noises. There was a hum, and a low clank from the weapons locker. From outside came grating and whirring sounds, and from somewhere forward there was a continuous murmuring rumble. The patrol ship, though it lacked room, had a trait that endeared it to Roberts: When trouble was coming, the patrol ship got ready. Its captain didn't have to concern himself with the little details any more than a man on the brink of a fist fight had to consciously raise his own blood pressure.

On the screen, the "colonel" glanced around. "Yes! Put him on!"

The screen divided vertically, to show an additional face. This new face took a cool glance at Roberts, and turned very slightly toward the imitation colonel. "What's all this about?"

"It's like that stuff down on Three! I grabbed this guy on a beam, and—"

"Are you wasting my time over a reel-in on some spacer punk? We'll talk about this lat—"

"No! Hold it, Maury! This is that Empire stuff!"

"Nuts. That's a rebuilt dogship. Look at your long-range screen and read the lines. Grow up."

"But, this guy—"

Roberts flipped a switch on the control panel.

There was a slight jar, and the outside viewscreen showed torn camouflage drifting past.

"You hold a King's ship at your peril."

Roberts reached for the firing console, but the symbiotic computer got there first, and the switches moved of their own accord. A large white beam sprang out from the patrol ship toward the asteroid belt.

In the asteroid belt, there was a dazzling explosion.

From a previously-unused speaker to the left of the instrument panel came a clear questioning voice: "Imperial Dreadnought Coeur de Lion to masked Imperial Ship Nom de Guerre. Do you need help?"

On another auxiliary screen appeared the image of a tough officer in glittering helmet and breastplate, with eyes of a blue so pale that they resembled ice.

It took Roberts an instant to realize that the symbiotic computer was filling in the details. Then he answered: "Imperial Ship Nom de Guerre to Imperial Dreadnought Coeur de Lion. We are detained by outspacers, who claim the right to halt and board us, in search for contraband."

"Outspacers? In what strength?"

"Fleet strength, of varying type and quality."

"Do the dogs know they hold a King's ship?"

"They do."

"Inform them that if they wish a fleet action, they shall have it."

"I have already told them. They doubt my word."

"Demand if the scum be leagued with Oggbad."

Roberts glanced back at the communications screen. The two-day wonder looked ready to shut his eyes and slide under the table anytime. The other individual, Maury, had a look of intense awareness.

Roberts looked him in the eye, and spoke in a tone suggesting the crack of a whip: "Serve you Oggbad the Fiend?"

Maury's brow wrinkled. His face took on the look of a rocket specialist grappling with his first gravitor. He opened his mouth, shut it, then opened it again. "No."

Roberts glanced at the auxiliary screen. "He denies allegiance to Oggbad."

"It is the policy of the Empire to avoid clashes with the outspacers till our present wounds be bound up. Warn this dog to stand clear of the Earldom-Designate of Paradise. Demand that he let loose his hold on you and the bomb ship. If he does so, take your departure. If not, run the iron down his throat."

"Have I leave to slam home the bomb ship?"

"Do that first. Then the rest will go quicker."

Roberts glanced back at Maury. Robert's voice was brisk and businesslike: "I propose to you that you let loose my ships, and further that you agree to stand clear of the Earldom-Designate of Paradise, which is the third planet of this star, counting from the star outward. Do you agree?"

Maury, his expression baffled, said, "I agree."

Roberts turned back to the auxiliary screen. "He agrees."

The figure on the screen looked faintly disappointed. "If he does as promised, you have no choice but to break off. At some future time, we may settle these old accounts."

Roberts watched the battle screen. The wavy blurs vanished. The patrol ship and the space yacht were free.

Roberts nodded coldly to Maury.

Maury, his expression that of a person thinking very hard, nodded back.

Roberts broke the connection.

So far, so good. But one careless slip would unravel the whole illusion.

Roberts made certain the communicator was off, thought a moment, then tapped a button beside the glowing amber lens marked "Smb Cmp."

"Any fishnet pickups between us and the space yacht?"

The voice of the symbiotic computer replied, "Two. They were drifted out on narrow pressor elements of a compound beam. They're in position between here and the yacht."

"Fishnet pickups are expensive. If we don't hurt them, our friends in the asteroid belt will pull them back in again when we leave. If—"

The symbiotic computer spoke complacently. "The parasite circuits are already in place."

"Good. Let's see these fishnets on the screen."

The outside viewscreen promptly showed, outlined in red, two large fuzzy networks of fine lines, between the space yacht and the patrol ship.

"O.K." said Roberts, and carefully guided the patrol ship away from them, as if he were moving off on his own. When he reached an angle that would avoid the pickups, he switched on the communicator, and called the yacht on a tight beam.

Hammell and Morrissey appeared on the screen, their faces tense.

Roberts said, "Don't talk. Just follow me."

Hammell nodded, and Roberts snapped off the screen.

The patrol ship moved slowly off, and the space yacht swung slowly after it.

Carefully, Roberts watched the battle screen for any sign of trouble. When nothing developed, he glanced down at the course display, and sent the little symbol of the ship gradually angling back toward the line of red dashes. As he moved, Roberts gathered speed, so that not long after the symbol of the ship was again centered on the display's dashes, the dashes themselves faded to pale pink, then white. The ship was now back on course, and moving at the correct speed.

The asteroid belt by now was far behind.

But all the way down to the planet, Roberts could see Maury's face—thinking, weighing, calculating.

The landing itself was no problem. The two ships slid down through heavy clouds, moved low over dense forest, and came to rest a little before sunset in the same clearing where they'd set down before.

Roberts ran the stabilizer feet out, switched off the gravitors, and unbuckled the safety harness. He ducked under the three-foot-thick shiny cylinder that ran down the axis of the ship, and went up several steps in the cramped aft section. He released the clamp on the outer hatch, spun the lockwheel counterclockwise, pulled the hatch lever down cautiously, and peered out a one-inch slit. Past experience told him that to actually go outside, without battle armor, might be to wind up instantaneously in some creature's digestive tract. But after all the time he'd spent in the ship, he wanted a breath of fresh air.

As the hatch eased open, he peered out into the clearing, sniffed the cool fresh air, inhaled deeply, sighed with pleasure, raised the hatch further, felt the breeze on his face—

There was the faint tick of an automatic turret.


A blur of yellow fur and claws blew apart in mid air.

Roberts shook his head, shut the hatch, and went to the nearest weapons locker to get battle armor. He opened the locker, and out on its sling came a glittering metal suit with a tall tapering spire on the helmet, a gauzy pink cloth on the spire, and a dazzling coat of arms on the breastplate.

Again, to fit the part Roberts was playing, the patrol ship had "improved" the armor.

Roberts looked at it irritatedly, and tried another locker. Out came a more dazzling suit, with spire plus flashing crown on the helmet, and a larger broadsword in a lavishly jeweled scabbard.

Roberts tried the other two lockers—which stubbornly refused to open.

The voice of the symbiotic computer said dryly, "When playing a part, little inconsistencies add up to a big loss of belief."

"Exactly who," said Roberts, "is going to watch me go this short distance?"

"Those who are not seers should avoid predicting the future."

"Nuts." Roberts climbed into the armor, and made his way to the hatch. He turned backwards, head bent, and managed to get the hatch open without ramming anything with the spire. He crouched, turned around, aimed the spire out the opening, followed it through, and dropped to the ground. The hatch clanged shut behind him, and Roberts started for the space yacht.

About halfway there, he became conscious of a face back in the shadows, watching him with awe. Roberts corrected himself—watching the armor with awe.

That the symbiotic computer had been right again did nothing to improve Roberts' frame of mind—especially since he could now see that it was obvious. The accumulated effects of the want-generator had led thousands from the city to venture deeper into the forest, seeking adventure and trophies, and the most capable survivors might by now be on an almost equal footing with the creatures that naturally lived there.

Roberts climbed up the handholds of the yacht, and banged on the big cargo door. At once it swung open. Roberts used the spire to keep Hammell back, and as soon as he was inside, jabbed the button that swung the door shut.

"Ye gods," said Hammell, staring at the armor, "let's not bother with that until we need it. Incidentally, you almost stabbed me with that helmet spike when you came in."

Roberts said shortly, "There's somebody watching from the edge of the clearing. Don't forget, we've got a lot of these people interested in going into the forest. That's what they're doing."

Hammell momentarily had the foolish expression of one caught overlooking the obvious.

"Moreover," said Roberts, "I was using the spike to keep you away from the hatch. You don't look too much like Duke Ewald of Greme right now." He hesitated, then cleared his throat. "When you're playing a part, little inconsistencies add up to a big loss of belief. You want to remember that."

Hammell looked groggy. "I should have thought of it, but for some reason, I forgot."

Roberts said cheerfully, "Where's Morrissey?"

"Up on the fifth level, checking the gear."

"You'd better go up first. We don't want him to get speared with this helmet spike."


Hammell stepped onto the green half of the glowing oval on the deck, and drifted up the grav-lift. The doors overhead slid open and shut, and he was gone from sight.

Roberts allowed time to warn Morrissey, then followed. The doors slid open one after another, then the fifth level dropped into view, and Roberts gripped the handhold and pulled himself out.

Hammell and Morrissey were standing by a wide improvised control panel. Roberts said hello to Morrissey, got out of the armor, and glanced around.

"How are things in the city?"

"That's a good question," said Morrissey. "There's no broadcast from the city, and the spy screen doesn't work."

Roberts glanced at the blank gray screen. "Can you fix it?"

"If it was something wrong with the screen itself, maybe. But I tried a test transmission, and the screen's O.K. The trouble is, there's no transmission from the city."

"What would cause that?"

Morrissey shrugged. "If we had our own spy devices in the city, I might be in a position to say. But this setup is tapped onto the city's own surveillance system. Now, how does that system work? If the city's general power supply fails, does the system fail? If so, it could be that they've had a power failure. Or, it could be that the power supply is O.K., but that somebody has knocked out the surveillance system itself. Not knowing how the system works, I don't know what's possible."

"Could the technicians have found out someone had tapped the surveillance system?"

Morrissey nodded. "Among other things. It could even be that there's a gentleman's agreement that the system will only be used during certain hours. All I know is the screen doesn't show us anything, because there's no transmission to pick up."

Roberts shook his head. "What we're here for is to use the want-generator to straighten out the mess in that city. But how can we use it, when there's no way to watch the effect? Moreover, we've got this fleet of commerce raiders. How do we concentrate on what we're doing with a troop of baboons ready to drop in anytime?"

Hammell said, "It's worse than that. The odds are, they've got at least one agent already on the planet. Any time we make a public move, this guy will report it."

Morrissey frowned. "Come to think of it, they'll be able to use their instruments to follow the movements of our ships here. Then they can compare what we say, as reported by their agent, with what we do, as shown by their instruments. We can't say we're going off to fight Oggbad, for instance, and then just land our ships out of sight while we decide what to do next."

"No," said Hammell, "They'd know we were faking."

"And we can't afford that," said Roberts.

Morrissey said, "The wonder is that we ever got away from them at all. How did you work it?"

Roberts described what had happened, adding, "I'd think it was a pretty good bluff if we were far away by now. But since we aren't, our safety depends on keeping them afraid to try anything, for fear the mighty Empire will blow them to bits."

"Which," Hammell growled, "means every move we make not only has to make sense for our purposes, but also has got to be convincing to the commerce raiders."

"Correct," said Roberts.

Morrissey, scowling, said, "This is going to complicate things."

"When you consider the likely situation on this planet," said Roberts, "it's going to pile up complications to the point where it's a question whether we can move at all. Just think of the factions here. There's the planetary computer with its roboid devices and built-in directives. As a sort of semi-independent extension, there's Kelty and his army of roboid police. There's the technicians, and the machines and devices the technicians have made. Then there's the Great Leader and his fanatics—plus the general bulk of the populace itself. On top of all this is the effect of the measures we took while we were here the last time. And, of course, the whole thing is bound to have developed since then, even though we won't know how until we get the spy screen to work."

Morrissey nodded moodily. "And since the trouble is on the other end, there isn't much we can do."

There was a moody silence.

Out in the clearing, it was getting dim, and Roberts absently tapped the switch to opaque the portholes, lest they be watched from outside. Then the silence stretched out again.

Finally Hammell said, "There ought to be some way to simplify this."

Morrissey nodded. "Sure. What?"

Roberts was about to suggest, yet again, that they move into the patrol ship, where, at least, their skins would be safe. But just then—


The ship jumped underfoot.

Roberts instantaneously dove for his battle armor.

There was a rapid series of jolts and heavy crashes. Something clattered on the deck, hissed, spun, and bounced, in a blur of escaping mist.

Roberts heaved open the backplate.

Hammell and Morrissey, caught in the mist, stumbled toward the grav-lift, and were lost in swirling grayness.

Roberts squirmed into the armor, his eyes shut, and holding his breath. But even though he was now inside, so was a certain amount of gas. He staggered to his feet, swung shut the backplate, groped for the emergency-breathing chin-lever, couldn't find it, and suddenly, despite himself, his straining lungs sucked in a little breath of air that smelled sweetish and strange.

Roberts' thoughts vanished like startled fish. There was a gap when he was aware of nothing at all, and then he was standing, stuporous and empty-minded, as there appeared through the fog, from the direction of the grav-lift, a heavily-armed figure wearing an armored suit with wide transparent faceplate, flexible air hose looped over the left shoulder, and speaking diaphragm in the side of the mouthpiece.

From somewhere down in the clearing, an amplified voice boomed out:


A second armored figure loomed through the fog. The two figures bent, and carried Hammell and Morrissey below.

A third figure came in, peered around, stepped forward, looked straight toward Roberts, and froze.

Another armored figure, and another, came in the grav-shaft, peered through the fog toward Roberts, and suddenly stood motionless.

Roberts, aware of an urgent need to act, at the same time was unable to remember who or where he was. All he really knew was that he was standing still, breathing in air that smelled slightly less sweet at every breath. Then, dimly, he caught the tail end of a train of thought, struggled to hold it, sucked in a great breath of air, and in a blinding flash the situation was clear to him.

He fought off a host of other thoughts and kept his mind riveted on that one thought that clarified the whole situation:

I am Vaughan, Duke of Trasimere, Prince Contestant to the Throne. This planet is the Earldom-Designate of Paradise. Its every inhabitant is rightly subject to my command, save only Oggbad, the sorcerer.

That was straightforward.

Once Roberts knew who he was, everything simplified itself wonderfully.

Alertly, he studied the armored figures edging toward him. The expressions of fear and awe visible through their faceplates suggested that they were not ill-intentioned. What had happened, then?

In a kindly voice, with the natural overturns of power and authority that followed from a knowledge of who he was, Roberts said quietly: "Kneel to your liege lord."

The armored figures, wide-eyed, dropped to one knee.

This told Roberts that the men were not from off the planet, but from the city, and were acquainted with what had happened on his last visit, when the sorcerer Oggbad had escaped into the wilderness, and the leaders and population of the city, after a little unseemly wavering, had rallied to the true cause. Their allegiance once pledged, and his power to reward and punish once established, they would not readily turn against him.

* * *

With a tinge of regret and a hint of sternness in his voice, Roberts said quietly, "What brings you here?"

Nobody dared to speak, and now Roberts said, "I must have an answer. Rise. Was it Oggbad?"

They stumbled to their feet. But still no one could bring himself to speak.

Roberts now noticed that the armored suits bore the words, "Citizens' Defense Force." One of the armored suits bore the chevrons of a sergeant.

Roberts' voice became sharper. "Before this evil can be destroyed, I must know its source. Let whoever is of highest rank among you answer my questions. Did Oggbad send you here?"

The sergeant looked around, but there was no one else to do it. He said, "No, your . . . your highness. A man landed in a . . . ah . . . official Planetary Development Authority ship, and announced that we'd been tricked, and he was taking over the planet. He had an army of . . . 'administrators' . . .  with him. They're all over the Inner City. He gives the orders. We didn't know you were here."

"This fellow is an outspacer?"

"He . . . ah—?"

"He does not belong to the Empire?"


"Then he is an outspacer and has no right here. Did this fellow come with you?"

"Yes, he—"

"Is he in this ship?"

"He's outside, at the loudspeaker. There he goes now."

The amplified voice boomed out:


Roberts nodded. "Go below, and warn your companions that I shall be down to settle this shortly."

The men went out.

Roberts, breathing air that the suit had now cleared almost entirely of the fumes, was having more and more trouble fighting off a throng of distracting thoughts that conflicted with his new-found clarity of mind. He took a few moments to shove these thoughts out of his consciousness. There would be time enough for all that later. The main thing now was to take care of this officious usurper.

With this purpose clearly in mind, Roberts checked sword and gun, and stepped into the grav-shaft.

A throng of armored men moved back respectfully as Roberts walked to the cargo door to look down into the clearing.

Below, some eighty to a hundred heavily armed men nervously ringed the patrol ship. Closer to the patrol ship, redly-glowing fragments lay like driftwood marking high water at a beach. The larger turrets of the ship aimed straight ahead, as if disdaining such petty opponents, but the smaller turrets made little adjustments that served as warnings to come no closer.

Floodlights, mounted on dish-shaped grav-skimmers, lit the scene, which was given an inferno aspect by a thin mist blowing across the clearing from a ring of generators around the edge. Through the upper reaches of this mist, hosts of bats with glistening teeth dove at the clearing, but then with desperate twists and turns flitted away again.

Between the patrol ship and the space yacht stood a little cluster of figures beside a loudspeaker aimed at the patrol ship. One of these armored men spoke into a microphone, and his words boomed out:


His tone of voice spoke of close familiarity with rules and regulations, accompanied by a dim understanding of human nature. It came to Roberts that even if the fellow had any power over him, his conclusion would be the same:

Better dead than that man's prisoner.

The loudspeaker was now blaring the words:


Roberts suddenly had enough. The suit amplified his words into a voice of thunder:


From the patrol ship, a bright line of light reached out to the loudspeaker. There was a brief display of sparks, then a pleasant quiet.

Beside the loudspeaker, the man with the microphone swung around. "Take that man prisoner!"

Roberts rested his hand on his sword hilt.

No one moved.

Roberts studied the usurper coldly. "What false illusion of power emboldens a fool to challenge the true liege-lord of this world?"

The only sound was the murmur of wind and the hiss of the generators spaced around the clearing.

Then the armed men in the clearing were grinning at the little group by the loudspeaker.

The individual in the center, firmly gripping the useless microphone, spoke in a determined voice. "I am P. W. Glinderen, Chief of Planet. Owing to the . . . spectacular irregularities . . . which have taken place on this planet, the Planetary Development Authority has regressed the planet to pre-provisional status. I have duly and officially been appointed Chief. You are evidently the cause of the irregularities. I, therefore, place you under arrest, and instruct you to strip yourself at once of all weapons and armor, open this other ship to immediate inspection, and instruct those within to come out at once, disarm themselves, and surrender. If you carry out these instructions promptly, I believe I can endorse a plea for clemency in your case."

Roberts replied irritatedly: "No one can enforce his will where he lacks both right and power. The rulers of this world have yielded to me. Your vaunted authority is either fraudulent or void."

P. W. Glinderen opened his mouth, shut it, and then spoke determinedly:

"In other words, you admit to planetary piracy? You state that you have seized this planet by force?"

Roberts spoke as if to a child: "Is the authority of lord over vassal based on force alone? Better to die, than to yield to such a claim, and better never to seize such a perilous allegiance. None need yield to a foul or empty cause. Against such, there is the appeal to Heaven, which will grant victory or apportion vengeance."

P. W. Glinderen began to speak, looked thoughtful, and tried again:

"May I ask if your name is not—" he leaned over to another of his party, listened, nodded, and said, "—Vaughan N. Roberts, and if not, what is your exact identity?"

The question caused Roberts a moment of uneasiness. But one who has lost his identity, and then recovered it, is none too eager to let it go a second time. Roberts' voice came out with anger and conviction:

"To question another in this manner assumes a superiority dangerous to one who is, in fact, a trespasser, without right or power, and with his life in the hands of him he seeks to question. You ask my name. I am Vaughan, Duke of Trasimere. Seek you any further answers?"

The Planetary Development official stared at Roberts, then again gathered himself to speak.

A loud ticking sounded from the patrol ship.

Someone in Glinderen's party looked around, then urgently grabbed Glinderen.

The patrol ship's big fusion cannon aimed directly at him.

Glinderen opened his mouth, and tried to speak, but was unable to get any words out.

Roberts turned to the men who had surrounded the patrol ship and were now gathered between the patrol ship and the space yacht.

"Take this man and his fellows prisoner, and return them to the city. Give warning that I shall soon be there to set straight whatever folly these people have brought about."

The armored men below enthusiastically seized Glinderen and his companions, and hustled them onto the grav-skimmers. Then the men on the space yacht asked for orders, and Roberts sent them off with the rest. The whole outfit roared away with impressive efficiency, taking prisoners, loudspeakers, floodlights, and mist-generators with them.

Roberts, with the feeling of having satisfactorily completed an unpleasant task, turned to see Hammell and Morrissey, holding pressure-bottles and masks to their faces, watching him wide-eyed.

At that instant, with the tension relaxed and Roberts himself off guard, suddenly the thoughts he'd held off burst into consciousness.

Vaughan, Duke of Trasimere, Prince Contestant to the Throne, suddenly realized with a shock what was myth and what reality.

Morrissey held the mask away for a moment.

"Was that PDA Chief a fake—I hope?"

Hammell added nervously, "The whole Space Force will come out on a planetary-piracy charge." He sucked in a fresh breath through the mask. "You know that, don't you?"

Now Roberts knew it. Now that he had, in effect, challenged the whole human-occupied universe to war.

Then something more immediately urgent occurred to him.

"Once the fumes from the generators blow away, those gangbats will be down here, and no one knows what else. The yacht's hull is riddled. You'd better be in the patrol ship before it's too late."

For once, Hammell and Morrissey made no objection, but hastily followed him down the handholds and across the clearing. The instant they were inside, Roberts slammed shut the hatch and locked it tight.

Now, he thought, he would have to answer some awkward questions.

But already, the two weapons lockers, that Roberts had been unable to open, were swinging wide. Glittering suits of battle armor traveled out on their slings.

"The new recruits," said the symbiotic computer, "will suit up at once, and return to the yacht to gather necessary goods and equipment."

Hammell and Morrissey stared at the two glittering suits of battle armor.

"New recruits?" said Morrissey.

Roberts said reassuringly, "Don't worry about that. That's just how it talks. But you'd better go along with it; otherwise you don't get any food or water, and the bunk stays locked in place and you wind up having to sleep on the deck. But never mind that. We've got to get the want-generator over here anyway. Not only could animals damage it, but conceivably somebody might get at it while we're away."

"Away?" said Hammell. "Where are we going?"

"Where do you think?" said Roberts. "There's only one place to straighten out this mess, and that's the city."

Hammell and Morrissey got into the battle armor without a word. But they looked as if they were doing a good deal of thinking.

Transferring the want-generator and spy screen to the patrol ship took the better part of two hours, but things didn't stand still while they did it. At intervals they could hear, on the patrol's ship communicator, the voice of Kelty, in charge of the city's roboid police; the voice of the redbearded spokesman for the technicians; and the voice used by the planetary computer itself. On the other side was a harsh demanding voice that wrung the facts from stammering humans and toneless computer, and made it plain that everyone on the planet would obey his liege-lord the Duke, or his liege-lord the Duke would smash the place into smoldering rubble.

Once the want-generator and spy screen were set up, the three men got out of their armor and considered the restricted space in the patrol ship.

Standing near the hatch looking forward, the most prominent feature was the glistening three-foot-thick cylinder that ran down the axis of the ship, creating a shimmer of reflections exactly where anyone would naturally walk. Hammell and Morrissey had already banged into it, and now moved more warily. To the left of this cylinder was the control seat and console, forward of which was a blank wall. To the right of the cylinder, the space was now cluttered with the spy screen and want-generator, while straight ahead the deck itself warped sharply upward over the missile bay.

Aft of where Roberts stood, everything was constricted. Between the cylinder and the various drive and fuel-storage units, there was little but a set of claustrophobic crawl spaces so tight that it was necessary to exhale to get in.

Beside Roberts, however, was one of the patrol ship's better features. Whatever might be said about other details, the final maddening touch—cramped sleeping arrangements—had been left out. The bunks were large and comfortable, and once in his bunk, a man could stretch out for a full night's rest. But there was no denying, most of the ship lacked space.

Hammell and Morrissey, after looking around, glanced at each other, and then Hammell turned to Roberts accusingly.

"It's even smaller on the inside than on the outside."

Roberts was listening to the symbiotic computer warn Kelty that Glinderen's party shouldn't be allowed to use a communicator. Roberts replied absently. "It's a thick hull."

"Maybe so, but . . . what's behind that?" Hammell pointed to the wall that took up the space in front of the control console.

Roberts frowned. "At first, I thought it was some kind of a storeroom. But I've never been able to find any way into it."

Hammell said, "That looks like the edge of a sliding door, in front of the control console."

"When you're at the controls during an attack, that door slides shut. If the ship out here is holed, you can still function."

Morrissey looked around. "What's under the deck here?"

Roberts bent, and heaved back a section. Underneath was a tangle of tubes, cables, and freely-curving pipes, of various sizes and colors, smoothly branching and reconnecting, some sinking out of sight beneath the others, and the whole works set into a pinkish jellylike insulation or sealant of some kind. As they watched, a translucent pipe about the size of a man's forearm began to dilate. In a series of waves of contraction and dilation, ball-like lumps of something with a golden glint traveled along, to vanish under the next section of deck.

Roberts lowered the panel, and glanced at Morrissey. "Any more questions?"

Morrissey scratched his head, but said nothing.

Hammell looked around in puzzlement. "This seems to be pretty advanced." He stepped forward and glanced up through an opening overhead.

"Is there another deck up there?"

"No. That's the upper fusion turret."

"What's that . . . ah . . . thing like a wheel, with a handle?"

"The handwheel for elevating the gun."

Hammell blinked. "You aim the gun by hand?"

"There's a multiple control system. The gun can be operated by the battle computer or the symbiotic computer, with no one on board. Or, you can operate it yourself from the control console. But if you have to, you can also do it completely by hand."

"Which has precedence, the manual control, or the automatic?"

"So far as the guns are concerned, I think the manual. Where the flying of the ship is concerned, the computers can lock you out anytime. It's not that the manual controls are disconnected, or don't work, but that they take a setting and you can't move them. If a man were strong enough, I don't know what would happen."

Morrissey said, "What about the communicator?"

"Same thing as the flying controls, except that if you're around, at least you know what's going on. You can hear what the symbiotic computer is saying. The computer can take off in the ship, and unless you happen to hear the slide and click of the levers and switches, you won't know what happened."

Hammell looked around, and squinted at the bulkhead, or reinforced section of hull, or whatever it was, in front of the control console.

"I'll bet that symbiotic computer is in there. It's the logical place. You're on one side of the controls. It's on the other."

Morrissey shook his head. "Too vulnerable. The same hit might knock out pilot and computer both."

"Where is it then?"

Morrissey pointed at the deck.

Hammell shook his head. "There's a symmetry about having it on the other side of the control console. If it's heavily enough protected, that business about the same hit wouldn't count. And it would make it easier to—"

Just then, Roberts heard the communicator say, " . . . Preparations had best be complete to receive His Royal and Imperial Highness, the Duke Vaughan, at the Barons Council Hall within the quarter hour. Your own head will answer for it if aught traceable to you goes wrong. His Highness is in no sweet mood after what happened here a few hours ago . . ."

"O.K.," said Roberts. "Here we go."

Hammell and Morrissey, tied up in their argument, looked surprised.

"Wait a minute," said Hammell, "what are we going to do?"

Roberts pulled his battle armor out on its sling. "The only place we can straighten the mess out—or even find out what's going on—is in the city. So, we have to go to the city."

"Yes, but what do we do there?"

"We've got to simplify the situation. There are too many factions. It's like trying to go somewhere with half a dozen different pilots, each backing his own flight plan. We've got to simplify it. The only way I can see is for us to get control of the major factions ourselves."

Hammell shook his head. "That would have been fine—before Glinderen showed up. He's the Chief of Planet."

Roberts frowned. "I don't think Glinderen, or anyone else who approaches this planet on a routine basis, can ever hope to straighten things out. I don't see any way to unite these factions unless we do it."

Morrissey said, "Suppose we do unite the factions? Suppose we throw out Glinderen? Suppose we end this fighting? Suppose we scare off Maury and his fleet of commerce raiders? Suppose we even get halfway started on the job of straightening out this place? Then what? P. W. Glinderen merely goes off-planet, and signals his report to PDA Sector Headquarters; PDA Sector HQ then notifies Space Force Sector HQ and the Colonization Council; Space Force Sector HQ says it's overburdened and calls for reinforcements; that call gets to Space Force GHQ at the same time as an urgent recommendation from the Colonization Council; Space Force GHQ sends out the orders for a reserve fleet to come in here; meanwhile Glinderen brushes his teeth, takes a shower, slides in between the cool sheets, and sleeps the sleep of the just; down here, so far as any court in the known universe is concerned, we are planetary pirates. One fine day, the Space Force sets down, and we either give up or get blasted into molten slag. Glinderen comes back down here, and methodically undoes everything we've done, and puts it back together his way. Where's the gain?"

Hammell nodded. "That's what I mean."

Roberts silently got into his armor, then glanced at the instrument panel.

"Here's an example of what I mean. While we've been talking, the ship has taken off. We're almost there."

Morrissey said urgently, "Look, Glinderen has us on the horns of a dilemma. If we don't give up, the Space Force kills us. If we do give up, he imprisons us. I don't want to get gored. But if I have to, I'll pick the shorter horn."

Roberts checked fusion gun and sword. "You say the Space Force can finish us off. That's provided Glinderen notifies them. What if he gets no chance to do it? That horn breaks off."

Morrissey blinked, and, frowning, started getting into his armor; but Hammell looked worried.

"Let's not get out of a false charge of piracy by carrying out actual piracy. Glinderen is lawfully in charge here."

A sliding sound from the direction of the control console, and a quiet alteration in the tone of the gravitors, told them that they were starting down.

Roberts said quietly, "You're overlooking something."

Hammell said, with considerable strain in his voice, "I don't know what. Glinderen's authority is real. I don't like to do it, but this has gone far enough. I'll have to go to Glinderen, and—"

The voice of the symbiotic computer said, "We are now landing at Paradise City." The voice added, with the rasp of a drill instructor, "If the recruit standing with one hand on his armor will kindly put it on, this operation will proceed. If not, we will carry out disciplinary action now, and the recruit will spend the next five days aft cleaning out the maintenance tunnels."

Roberts said, "That's what you've overlooked. This is an Interstellar Patrol ship. The Interstellar Patrol is famous for its justice and incorruptibility. The symbiotic computer wouldn't even let the ship be sold until it was satisfied the buyer had the right moral standards. Would it let us do this if we were doing wrong?"

Even as he spoke, Roberts saw the flaw in his argument.

But Hammell, with an expression of profound relief, got into the battle armor.

The Barons Council Hall, near which the patrol ship landed, was floodlit and surrounded by roboid police and heavily-armed members of the Citizens Defense Force. More roboid police rolled up to form a double line, with narrow lane between, from the ship to the Council Hall.

The patrol ship promptly blew up the nearest roboid police, and blasted to bits those that tried to take their place.

Roberts, coming out the hatch, decided that what looked fishy to the patrol ship looked fishy to him. He drew his sword.

As Hammell and Morrissey came out, he called: "Be on your guard. This has a look I like not."

The two men, in glittering armor, whipped out their fusion guns.

The roboid police eased a trifle further apart.

Roberts, studying the Citizens Defense Force, observed that no one was faced out, to guard the site. They were all faced in.

Roberts strolled into the narrow lane between the roboid police. "Draw these lines apart!"

The roboid police backed up an inch.

With one violent blow of his sword, Roberts sliced the nearest roboid policeman in half. He chopped the next one apart, hewed his way through the third—

Suddenly there was room around him.

He strode between the lines toward the Council Hall, then abruptly came to a halt. Ahead and a little to his left, where he would have had to step if he had gone between the original lines, was what looked like a repaired place in the concrete.

Roberts drew his fusion gun, aimed deliberately, and fired.

A geyser of flame roared up. Chunks of concrete shot skyward like the discharge of a volcano.

From the patrol ship, searing shafts of energy reached out. There was a sizzling multiple Crack! like a dozen thunderbolts striking at once.

The roboid police were two lines of glowing wreckage.

Roberts jumped the smoking crater, and headed for the building. On the way, he shot down a large sign that proclaimed, "Municipal Detention Center," uncovering the more solidly anchored plaque bearing the words, "Barons Council Hall." Roberts kicked the fallen sign out of his way, and opened the door.

At the near end of a big table, two men came to their feet. They were Kelty, the lean, well-dressed assistant chief of the planetary computer's roboid police, and the redbearded giant who was spokesman for the technicians. At the foot of the table sat P. W. Glinderen, and to his right a knowing cynical individual who looked at Roberts with a smirk. Beside this individual was a bored-looking man with broad shoulders and a detectable bulge in his armpit. To Glinderen's left were seated several neatly-dressed smooth-shaven men who apparently were administrators of some kind.

Roberts stepped to the empty place at the head of the table, and pulled out the chair.

Hammell and Morrissey took their places to Roberts' right, but as he remained standing, they, too, stayed on their feet. At the far end, Glinderen and the officials to his left methodically glanced over papers, while to Glinderen's right, the shrewd-looking individual eyed Roberts, Hammell and Morrissey with a knowing smile.

Hammell's voice remarked, "Your Grace, I like not the air of this rabble at the foot of the table. They should stand till you are seated."

Glinderen looked up.

"You are at the foot of the table. And let me warn you, before you try any theatrical display, that I have notified the Space Force, and the three of you will be in prison before the week is out." His voice changed to a whiplike crack. "Now, sit down."

Roberts, aware of the orders he had earlier heard the symbiotic computer give, knew that Glinderen was not to have been allowed the use of a communicator.

Roberts glanced at Kelty. "Is this true?"

Kelty nodded unhappily. "I tried to stop him. But Glinderen convinced the planetary computer, and it blocked me."

Roberts said coldly, "Then this means war. Their so-called Space Force is in the asteroid belt. If it attempts to interfere with this world, I shall summon the battle fleets of the Empire."

At the other end of the table, the crafty individual to Glinderen's right laughed silently.

As Roberts contemplated this low point in his plans, Hammell's voice reached him:

"Your Grace, I know that these outspacers have customs different from ours. But their bearing is an insult. Not alone to Trasimere and the Empire, but to Malafont and Greme as well."

Roberts looked at the individuals at the far end of the table. Glinderen and his officials were ignoring everyone else. To Glinderen's right, the crafty individual sat back and grinned, while to his right, the tough was studying Hammell as if he were a peculiar kind of insect. No one at the far end of the table was taking Roberts and his party seriously. Moreover, they now controlled the planetary computer, and they had already called the Space Force.

Hammell's voice was courteous but firm:

"I know, Your Grace, of your desire to avoid conflict with the outspacers while our own struggles are yet unsettled. Nevertheless, Your Grace, I respectfully call to your attention that this world is yours, and that I am your guest upon it."

The shrewd individual rocked back in his chair, grinning.

Roberts said politely, "If the gentlemen to Mr. Glinderen's right belongs to Mr. Glinderen's party, I trust that Mr. Glinderen will call him to order while there is yet time for Mr. Glinderen to call him to order."

Glinderen glanced up, frowning. "Mr. Peen is a commercial representative for Krojac Enterprises. He is entirely—"

"I see," said Roberts.

Mr. Peen went into a fresh fit of silent laughter.

Through no volition of his own, the fusion gun jumped to Roberts' hand. A dazzling lance of energy reached across the table.

Glinderen and his aides sprang to their feet as Peen went over backwards.

Roberts heard his own voice say coolly, "I apologize to their Graces of Malafont and Greme for this incivility."

Hammell's voice said, "The stain is wiped away, Your Grace."

Morrissey's voice added coolly, "Say no more of it, Your Grace. However, that other fellow, also to the right of Glinderen, hath a look which I care not for."

Roberts' voice inquired politely, "That second gentleman, Mr. Glinderen, is of your party?"

Glinderen said, "No, no! He's Mr. Peen's—"


The second gentleman, springing to his feet and yanking a short-barreled weapon from his armpit, collapsed on the floor.

Roberts' voice said coolly, "I apologize to His Grace of Malafont, for this unpleasantness."

Morrissey's voice said cheerfully, "The unpleasantness is transmuted to pleasure, Your Grace."

As a matter of fact, the sudden departure of the grinning pair was a relief to Roberts. But the way they had departed was something else again. To see whether he now had control, or whether the battle armor was just going to operate on its own from now on, Roberts said experimentally, "Let us be seated."

The words were dutifully reproduced by the armor. He sat down, and Hammell, Morrissey, Kelty, and the redbearded giant, smiling cheerfully, followed his example.

At the far end of the table, Glinderen stared from the pair on the floor to Roberts.

"This is murder!"

Roberts was inclined to think Glinderen had a point. But, before he could open his mouth, a duplicate of his voice said coldly, "Had they been of your party, Mr. Glinderen, they might yet be alive, but you might not. The great houses of the Empire are not filled by hereditary lackwits or degenerate scions forty generations removed from greatness. Neither are they filled by those of such eager humility that they may at will be trodden underfoot by rats in human form. He who insults a Great Lord of the Empire, Mr. Glinderen, lives at the mercy of that Great Lord, out of religious motives, or as an exercise in self-command, not out of an innate right to insult his betters. You, Mr. Glinderen, are yourself deeply in my debt, and in the debt of their Graces of Malafont and Greme. Thus far I have used against you less than my full strength, out of recognition that you believe you do right. This is past. One wrong move on your part, and you go the way of the two on the floor. Seat yourself and let your men seat themselves. Let them keep silent, on peril of their lives. Let you answer my questions and ask none of your own. Your actions have already strung the bow of patience so tight that just a little more will break it."

Glinderen sat down, wide-eyed. His subordinates swallowed, sat down, and kept their mouths shut.

* * *

Roberts waited an instant, but the battle armor had apparently said all it—or the symbiotic computer speaking through it—intended to say. It was up to Roberts to fill the growing uncomfortable silence.

Roberts leaned forward. "Where is the Baron of the Outer City, Mr. Glinderen?"

Glinderen swallowed hard. "He was carrying on a brutal policy. I—deposed him. He is in prison."

Roberts glanced at Kelty. "Is this true?"

Kelty said, "From Glinderen's viewpoint, it's true. There was a lot of bloodshed in the Outer City—mostly in the attempt to straighten the place out in a hurry. I didn't have any authority there any more. The roboid police couldn't go in. That meant order had to be kept some other way. The way it was being kept was rough, all right. The general idea was that the first time a man was caught stealing, for instance, they beat him up. The second time, he lost a hand. The third time, they killed him. That was pretty tough, but it was creating a sense of property rights. Without that, they couldn't get anywhere, because if someone did do a good job, and got rewarded for it, the reward could be robbed or stolen anytime, so it was meaningless. Well, it was working, and then Mr. Glinderen came down, and convinced the computer, which placed the roboid police at his command, and the next time the Baron of the Outer City came in here, Glinderen imprisoned him. Glinderen then tried to take over all the rest of the city with the roboid police, but by now it was too tough a proposition. Then he tried to pacify the populace by being very lenient. In the process, crime skyrocketed. We have crimes now that we never dreamed of before."

At the other end of the table, Glinderen was beginning to show an impatient urge to speak.

Roberts deliberately laid his fusion gun on the table, the muzzle pointed at Glinderen.

The planetary administrator stopped fidgeting.

Roberts said to Kelty, "Release the Baron. Have him brought up here, with all the respect due his rank and duty."

"I don't know if the computer will cooperate."

"The computer will cooperate—or cease to exist."

Kelty got up, and left the room.

Roberts looked at Glinderen. "What was Mr. Peen's business here?"

"He was a . . . commercial representative for Krojac Enterprises."

"Why was he here?"

"To arrange for an emergency repair and salvage facility here. A new colonization route is being established. This will mean a sizable flow of traffic past this solar system. Krojac Enterprises is contractor for a rest-and-refit center farther along the route, and naturally they want to increase their business. The traffic past here should be sufficiently large that a repair-and-salvage facility would serve a useful purpose, and be profitable."

Roberts sat back. Suddenly the reason for the gathering of commerce raiders was clear. The looting of a colonization convoy offered enormous profits in captured ships.

He said, "Do these colonization routes of yours suffer from the attacks of brigands?"

Glinderen nodded. "Occasionally. These are usually very brutal affairs. Why do you—" He paused, looking at the fusion gun.

Roberts said easily, "This explains why your Space Force should set up a watch in the asteroid belt of this sun. It is a convenient place to protect against such attacks."

Glinderen's face cleared. "Yes," he said.

Just then, the door opened, and Kelty came in. "The computer has released him. He's on the way up."

"Good." Roberts glanced back at Glinderen. "Now, Mr. Glinderen, I am curious to know how you could seek to wrest a world of mine from my grip without fear of what would follow. I also wonder at your effort to name me as someone other than Vaughan of Trasimere. I want a short clear rendering, and it had best be courteous."

Glinderen's face took on the look of one asked, in all seriousness, why he thinks planets are curved and not flat.

"Well—" said Glinderen, his voice betraying his emotions, and then he glanced at the gun lying on the table. He started over again, in the voice of one humoring a dangerous lunatic: "Your . . . er . . . Grace may be aware—"

Hammell said, with a flat note in his voice, "None of lesser rank and station may so address His Royal and Imperial Highness. From you, though you intend it not, this is a familiarity."

Morrissey added, less graciously, "A complete foreigner, unfamiliar with the proper code, had best avoid such bungling meticulosity—lest he put his foot in the wrong place and be dead before he know it."

Roberts said courteously, "There is no need, Mr. Glinderen, to try to speak as one who belongs to the Empire. Just answer the question in plain words."

Glinderen was now perspiring freely. "Yes," he said. "First, I never heard of this Empire before. Second, there was an . . . an incredible reference to a certain 'Oggbad the Wizard.' Third, you and your men invariably appeared in battle armor of a type that offers little view of the face; this was an obvious . . . a . . . ah . . . apparent attempt at disguise. Fourth, only two of your ships ever appear at close range. That suggests that there are no more. Fifth, Vaughan N. Roberts and a number of companions were on this planet some time ago, and the records show that very strange things happened at that time also.

"It seemed to me that the conclusion was perfectly clear. To disprove it, you have only to remove your armor, one at a time if you wish, and show that your appearance is not that of the people who were on this planet before, and who were known to Mr. Kelty and others here. Also, if you will bring in, to close range, some more ships of your . . .  ah . . . Imperial Fleet—it might do a good deal to convince me. That such an Empire should exist, and be unknown, seems to me frankly incredible."

Glinderen snapped his jaw shut and sat silent, trembling slightly. Roberts studied him, well aware that Glinderen had, in a few well-chosen words, exposed the whole masquerade. Kelty and the red-bearded technician were glancing at Roberts, as if to try to read his concealed facial expression. At the door, the Great Leader, the fanatic known as the Baron of the Outer City, stood listening attentively. If these people should be persuaded by Glinderen, Roberts' only support would be the patrol ship's weapons.

To Roberts' right, Morrissey shoved his chair back. "This fellow hath a tongue that—"

Roberts put his hand on Morrissey's arm. "It is true he is frank-spoken, but it is at my request."

Morrissey settled reluctantly into his seat. Roberts looked at Glinderen. "First, you say you never heard of the Empire. Space is large, Mr. Glinderen. The Empire knows of the outspace worlds, if the outspace worlds know not of it. This planet is out of our way. We would never have come here save for an attempt on the part of Oggbad to seize the throne by intrigue and the use of his magical powers. That you know not of such things is proof of your ignorance, nothing more. Possibly you suppose that Oggbad is a harmless fellow, who with vacant mind recites some empty formula, traces a wandering sign in the air, and with palsied hand shakes a wand the while he gibbers his insanity at the yawning moon. If so, you judge not by the thing itself, but by your image of the thing. You hear the echo of a distant explosion, and smile that people feared it where it tore the earth open. You charge us that we do not expose our persons and faces, and yet Oggbad with all his powers is on this world! What would you have us do, hand ourselves over to him bound and gagged?

"You say that only two of our ships have appeared at close range, and it would perhaps convince you if there were more of them here. I have but to give the word, and this planet is ringed with them. But to bring them to the surface of this world were a source of grave danger. How, then, could we know that Oggbad, using arts that are the none less real for your disbelief, had not escaped aboard one of these ships? With Oggbad, one must keep a firm grip, lest a seeming illusion turn out real, and what was thought reality dissolve into mist. Next, you say a man with a name like mine passed this way before, and strange things took place. That this should convince you is not odd. My wonderment is greater yet, as I see here the design of Oggbad, forehanded to prepare a trap for the future, if it be needed.

"What you know not, Mr. Glinderen, is that at this time, the mere rumor of the escape of Oggbad would work great evil in the Empire. At this moment, the Electors are met in solemn conclave to weigh the might and worth of the contestants to the throne. None of the contestants may remain on hand, lest by threat or subtle blandishments they seek to weight the scales of judgment. All are retired from the lists, some to prepare their minds for the outcome, others to repair the neglect of their domains occasioned by the struggle for primacy. Just so am I here. But if word were now given that Oggbad were loose, no one knew just where, who could trust the deliberations of the Electors? Who would accept their decision, and who claim that the influence of Oggbad had weighed invisibly in the balance? The trouble we have had from this sorcerer beggars a man's powers of recollection. To risk that he be let loose on us again is too much. Only after the Electors' choice is made dare we think to risk it. His power for mischief shrinks once the choice is made. Then the Empire draws together, no longer split, but one solid whole."

Roberts paused, noting that Kelty, the redbearded technician, and even the fanatical leader of the Outer City, were all nodding with the satisfied expressions of those who hear their leader successfully defeat an attack that threatens them as well as him.

What surprised Roberts was the wavering expression on the face of Glinderen.

"Yes," said Glinderen, wonderingly, "this certainly does answer many of my objections. However—"

Roberts spoke very gently, "Remember, Mr. Glinderen, I am not on trial here. Have a care. Where I have explained to you, many would have said, 'The actions of this outspace dog, and the wreck he has made, offend me. Dismember the fool.'"

To Roberts' right, Hammell started, like one whose attention has wandered.

"Your Grace?" He glanced from Roberts to Glinderen, and there was a click as he gripped his sword.

"Not yet," said Roberts. "It was only a thought."

"Your Grace has but to give the word—"

"I know, but it is not yet given." Roberts glanced at the redbearded technician. "As we talk here, has Glinderen some hidden device to record our actions?"

"Not Glinderen, but that pair on the floor are wired from head to foot."

"We may wish to speak privately later. Let us take care of this now."

The technician called in some guards, who carried the bodies outside.

Roberts, considering what to do next, now heard a perfect reproduction of his voice say calmly, "This business is about complete. The authority of Glinderen here is at an end. The laws he has enacted exist now on the sufferance of you, my barons, who may do as you wish to right the damage as quickly as possible. I like not what I have heard here. This fellow Glinderen could not doubt Oggbad if Oggbad had acted full-force against him. Has Oggbad been quiet of late?"

Kelty nodded. "No attempt to break through since Glinderen has been here."

Roberts settled back to let the armor do the work—whereupon the armor quit talking.

Roberts said, "By holding back, Oggbad recuperates his strength, convinces Glinderen the tales of his prowess are naught but wild imaginings, and allows Glinderen free reign to turn our arrangements into chaos at no cost to Oggbad. The next move may be an attack by Oggbad in full strength. Are we prepared?"

Kelty said, "If the Baron of the Outer City will take over control of his territory, I can put back in line all the roboids we've pulled in to keep order."

The Baron nodded. "O.K. Provided you deliver to me that lot of special prisoners, and let go everybody jailed under the no-defense law."

"Done," said Kelty. He glanced at Roberts. "We'll have a far stronger setup than we had when Oggbad made that first big attack. I doubt that a similar attack would get by the walls, except for some coming in by air."

"Unfortunately," said Roberts, "Oggbad is not likely to attack the same way a second time. What if he ravages the crops?"

Kelty hesitated. "We have gas generators, an airborne corps of the defense force, and a few very fast gas-laying vehicles. We'd have more but our production program was cut back by Glinderen."

Roberts turned to the redbearded technician.

"How is your production of special devices?"

"Derailed. We're back on the old maintenance routine. Somebody in KQL block smashes a light bulb, so we put in another one, and he smashes that, and so on, until everyone who feels like smashing a light bulb gets bored, and they decide to let us put one there. It's PDA order that all kinds of stuff must be maintained. Well, you can see what level we're operating on."

Kelty said, "But the best of it is that whoever gets caught gets his picture and an account of his exploits in the Paradise Star. Some PDA administrator claims this 'gives the offender a sense of identity and beingness.' The lack of that was supposed to be the cause of the trouble, so this is to cure it." Kelty glanced at the technician. "Did you bring that—"

The redbearded giant smiled ironically, and handed over a folded glossy sheet, which Kelty opened out and turned around. "Yes, here we are. We wanted you to see this." He handed the sheet to Roberts.

Roberts flattened the sheet on the table. It was nicely printed, with the words "Paradise Star" in large flowing letters at the top, over the picture of a small angel carrying a harp and flying toward a stylized star. Under this was a banner headline:



LRP Block. Citizen Surl Dulger today killed sixteen women and children using as weapon a knife he made from a New Venusian wine bottle that he stole himself.
Asked if he did not feel sorry for the victims, Surl Dulger said, "They had it coming." When officers asked what they had done to have it coming, Dulger replied: "Grermer only got fifteen. This is a record, right? I got the record?"
Officers assured him that indeed he had.
This is a new homicidal record for LRP block. Surl Dulger, the new record holder, was born in a neat white room in the Heavenly Bliss Hospital just seventeen short years ago. Strange to say, seventeen is just one more than the number of women and children Dulger slew this morning.
Whether he . . . 

* * *

Roberts looked up. "What manner of joke is this?"

"Oh," said Kelty, "that's no joke. That's news. That paper is turned out by the millions of copies."

The technician said, "Right this minute, we've got between six and seven hundred of these guys undergoing rehabilitation downstairs, and we've got sixty more second-guesting after making new records."

Kelty nodded, "And at the present rate, it won't be long before they're coming around the third time. What gets me is that we have to arrest citizens if they try to defend themselves. If you protect yourself, you're denying the murderer his 'right to an identity,' and only a trained psychologist is competent to decide whether this will interfere with the murderer's later treatment."

Roberts looked at Glinderen. "This was your idea?"

"No," said Glinderen. "It was recommended by my Chief of Psychology."

"But you approved it?"

"I lack the specialized knowledge to evaluate the program. Therefore it received automatic approval."

"Where's your Chief of Psychology?"

"Probably in his office. I can—"

"Did you have any doubts about this procedure?"

"Well . . . I asked some questions. I was reassured, however, that this was a valuable therapeutic method."

The technician nodded. "I happened to be watching that conversation on the surveillance screen. That was before Glinderen ordered us to stop using the surveillance system. What happened was that the psychology chief said this method would 'create a sense of real importance and meaningful existence' in the criminal. Glinderen hesitantly asked, 'What about the victims?' The psychology chief said, 'Unfortunately, they are dead, and we can do nothing for them. Our duty is to rehabilitate the living.' Glinderen nodded, and that was it."

Hammell growled, "If I might have directions where to find this Chief of Psychology—"

"No," said Roberts, "that's too good for him." Roberts glanced at the fanatical leader of the Outer City. "Baron, have you considered this problem?"

"Yes, but I can't think of anything slow enough."

"Hm-m-m," said Roberts, forgetting he was in armor, and absently putting thumb and forefinger to the faceplate of the suit. "There must be some—"

Glinderen said, "He is a PDA—"

"But," said Roberts, "if he should volunteer to take up residence in Paradise—in order to give the planet the benefit of his vast experience—"

The Baron of the Outer City nodded agreeably. Kelty smiled. The redbearded giant absently flexed his large muscular hands.

"If he should volunteer," said Roberts, "then perhaps the best place for his services would be in whatever block has the most vigorous competition for a new homicide record. Possibly he can contribute to 'a sense of real importance and meaningful existence' in someone there."

"Yes," said the Baron of the Outer City, with a beautiful smile.

Glinderen burst out, "What if he should be killed?"

Roberts said regretfully, "Unfortunately, he would then be dead, and we could do nothing for him. Our duty is to rehabilitate the living."

Glinderen nodded, blinked, and stared at the wall.

Roberts said, "Then that is taken care of. Gentlemen, these matters must be settled, but the longer we dwell on them, the greater the danger that Oggbad may make some determined move—"

Kelty said suddenly, "If he's still here. I don't know why I didn't think of this. Glinderen's PDA ships have come down here and taken off again. He could have sneaked away on any of them."

Everyone looked at Roberts. Once again, the whole structure of his argument threatened to collapse.

Roberts thought fast, then shrugged. "Outspace ships. Yes, he could leave the planet, but what then? Oggbad's ambition is to seize the throne of the Empire. Luckily, to pass from here to the Empire requires special navigating devices which outspace ships lack, and which Oggbad himself does not understand and cannot build. His own ship, he has lost. Yet, if he escapes, it must be on a ship of the Empire, with such a navigating device installed, unless Oggbad wishes to carve out a new domain in the outspace realms. If so, why, we are well rid of him. I believe he is here."

Once again, everyone looked convinced. Roberts himself felt convinced. Oggbad and the Empire were taking on such reality that Roberts had to remind himself to do nothing that would commit him to produce proof.

Noticing this, Roberts felt a sudden suspicion. But there was no time to check on that. He turned to Glinderen. "If you are given the opportunity to leave this planet, how long will it take you?"

"Several weeks, to get everything in order."

"You may as well start now."

Glinderen and his party obediently left the room.

"Now, gentlemen," said Roberts, "there remains one problem. Glinderen has called for help from the outspace fleets. Of course, the Imperial battle fleets"—Roberts found himself believing this as he said it—"will defend the planet, but there is still the problem that our ships dare not come so close that Oggbad can use his powers upon them. This means that close defense must be handled by the city itself." Roberts glanced at the redbearded technician. "We need multiple rapid-fire guns and missile launchers. Have you plans for them, and can you make them?"

The technician nodded. "We were working on those, as a defense against Oggbad, when Mr. Glinderen landed. With this maintenance headache off our necks, we can get back to it."

"Good," said Roberts. "The city must quickly be put in order, and its defenses made strong."

His three principal human lieutenants expressed eagerness to get to work, and the planetary computer made no objection, so Roberts stood up, and everyone else at the table followed suit.

Just then, with the tricky meeting completed, with the major factions on the planet unified, and with Glinderen safely sidetracked, the outside door opened up and, one-by-one, there walked in to the quiet tap of a drum, six man-sized figures in silver armor.

Roberts watched speechlessly as they approached. The armored figures themselves he recognized as the type of roboid the patrol ship had put forth once before. Where they came from in the cramped ship was a good question. But even more pressing was the question why the patrol ship had chosen this instant, when everything seemed momentarily straightened out, to toss in a new complication.

The six silver-armored figures, meanwhile, crossed the room, directly toward Roberts. The first, with drawn sword, stopped to Roberts' right. The second, stopped to his left. The third, with a golden tray, halted directly before Roberts, and kneeled. The other three, heavily-armed, halted and stood guard.

Roberts did the obvious, lifted up a large glittering jewel, took the sealed envelope lying underneath on a silver cushion, and spent a few precious seconds futilely turning the envelope. The battle armor, strong enough to toss gigantic creatures around like kittens, had nothing corresponding to fingernails.

Roberts exasperatedly tore off an end, worked the message out, and read past a set of figures, dates, and code words, to the sentence:




What good this did, Roberts didn't know. But he was now stuck with it.

"The Electors have chosen," he said, and handed the paper to Hammell and Morrissey, who at once dropped to one knee, heads bowed, to murmur, "Your Majesty—"

Cursing inwardly, Roberts considered the problem of Kelty, the technician, and the fanatical leader of the Outer City. He held the message out to them, and said, "For the immediate future, this changes nothing. Oggbad in his rage may still lash out. All preparations must go forward without delay. But"—his voice took on a harder tone—"the day of faction in the Empire is gone. Outsiders now interfere at their peril. 'Tis customary to kneel, my lords and gentlemen, as a sign of fealty." The three men, with varied expressions, dropped to one knee.

Roberts considered how to quickly bring the thing to an end.

"Rise," he said, "we must be about our duties without delay. No one knows when Oggbad will attack, or what the outspace vermin will do next. Good evening, gentlemen."

With the silver-armored figures serving as guards, Roberts, Hammell, and Morrissey left the hall.

Once inside the ship, they watched the armored figures disappear through an opening forward of the control console. Once the figures disappeared, the opening disappeared. The three men got out of their armor, and looked at each other.

Hammell said, "When there's time—"

Morrissey nodded. "We'll have to go over this ship. There's more to it than I realized."

Roberts locked the hatch, and said, "What that business about the Electors did to improve things I don't know. But we've got Glinderen off our necks, and the chief factions on the planet are now united."

Hammell shoved his armor into the locker on its sling. "I had my doubts in there whether we were doing the right thing, but that business about Glinderen's Chief of Psychology did it for me. If we don't get anything done here but to deliver that guy to the wolves, we've accomplished something."

Morrissey shoved his armor into his locker, and glanced at the spy screen. "The screen's working. I don't like to say anything, but I left the want-generator set for 'desire to sleep' and it's now set for 'desire to believe, to accept on faith.' "

"Stands to reason," said Hammell dryly. "Where's it focused?"

"On the Barons Council Hall."

Roberts had already put his armor away and now stripped and jabbed a button in the wall. A cramped shower cubicle popped open. "The only thing that bothers me," he said, "is the Space Force expedition headed for the planet. But there must be a way to straighten that out, too—if we can just work it out."

The following weeks went by like a pleasant interlude between hurricanes. Glinderen was too busy getting ready to leave to make trouble. His Chief of Psychology, having made the mistake of walking alone past the wrong doorway, "volunteered" to become a citizen of Paradise, and was now cozily bedded down in the most murderous section of the city. Every authority in the city was working day and night to prepare against attack. Roberts, Hammell, and Morrissey devoted most of their time to the want-generator and spy screen. By now, they had a formidable total of partly-trained soldiers who could put up a fight in fixed defenses. The Citizens' Defense Force, and the fanatics of the Outer City, promised far worse trouble for an invader. The roboid police, so long as they were on solid footing, had the advantages of speed, uncanny coordination, and an impressive lack of fear.

The city's technicians, meanwhile, relieved of endless maintenance, put back in shape all the devices they had hidden on the arrival of Glinderen. These devices, combined with the rapid-fire guns the computer's automatic factories were now turning out, promised that the city would be able to put up a tough fight.

However, one little problem remained to be solved.

The day following the departure of Glinderen and his administrators, Hammell remarked, "So far, so good. Now, what do we do when the Space Force shows up?"

Morrissey suggested, "There's no love lost between the Space Force and the Planetary Development Administration. And Glinderen belongs to PDA. Can we make anything out of that?"

Roberts shook his head. "If we make PDA look silly, the Space Force will be secretly delighted. But it's still their duty to physically back up Glinderen. We'll be just as dead afterward, no matter how they chortle at his expense."

"One thing I wonder about," said Morrissey, "is why you told Glinderen the Space Force had a detachment in the asteroid belt?"

"Because Glinderen is almost sure to go straight to them. I'm eager to see what happens."

"How will we see what happens?"

"When Maury and his boys had us in their gravitor beam, they sent up some fishnet pickups to listen in on any tight-beam messages passed between our ships. The symbiotic computer planted parasite circuits in the fishnet pickups. Those pickups are expensive. They've long since been pulled back in, and stored where Maury can see that no subordinate appropriates them. Many of the parasite circuits—which outwardly are little more than electrically-charged dust particles—have floated off into the atmosphere of Maury's base, to stick to walls and viewports, and get carried out to other places on people's clothing. Every time Maury checks his pickups, more parasite circuits float out. Each of these circuits will relay signals from other circuits. And on the way from the asteroid belt to the planet, here, the patrol ship sowed microrelays at intervals to pass along the signals. That's how we'll know what happens."

Later that day, Glinderen's ships arrived off the asteroid belt, and were stopped by the two-day wonder. Glinderen immediately reported the situation on Paradise. The two-day wonder got hold of Maury. Maury appeared, dressed as a general, speedily dug out all the information he wanted, and gave orders to let Glinderen proceed. Glinderen refused, and demanded action.

The two-day wonder now exhausted his stock of military poses trying to get Glinderen to move on. Glinderen angrily accused the two-day wonder of trying to evade his responsibilities, and threatened to report him to Sector Headquarters. The two-day wonder called Maury. Maury, determined not to saddle himself with a horde of administrators who were worthless for ransom, but sure to bring on a crusade if he killed them, promised immediate action, and sent some followers disguised as Space Force men, who methodically smashed the infuriated Glinderen's transmitters, but otherwise left the ships undamaged.

Having got rid of Glinderen, Maury remarked to one of his chief lieutenants, "The more I hear of it the better this Empire looks."

"Tricky stuff to fool with," said his lieutenant uneasily.

Roberts listened alertly.

"Yes," said Maury, "but they'd ransom that king."

"Get our head in a sling if—" Maury's lieutenant paused. "But if they made trouble, we'd kill the king, right?"

"Right. And he's down there with just two ships. Get the latest on that convoy. It's already had a five-day delay at R&R XII-C. If we stick around waiting for it, we'll be here when the Space Force comes through after this king. If we grab him first, then if he's real, we get the ransom. If he's fake, we take over his racket, whatever it is."

Hammell said shakily, "Boy, that's all we need."

Morrissey, at the want-generator, said "Now what?"

"Maury," said Hammell, "is coming down here with his fleet of commerce raiders to grab 'the king' for ransom."

Roberts smiled the smile of the angler when the fish takes the worm. "Yes, and that gives us our chance."

"How?" demanded Hammell. "Maury may not be as tough as the Space Force, but he's next best."

"Yes, but if this preliminary bout with Maury turns out right, maybe the main event with the Space Force will get canceled."

"How do you figure that?"

"If we aren't here, there isn't much the Space Force can do to us."

"Meaning, if we run for it—"

"No. In that case, the situation is open-and-shut. We're guilty, and our story is a fake."

"Then, how—"

"If we disappear—If Maury is seen to capture us—"

"Then Maury's got us! How does that help?"

"Suppose the sequence of events goes like this: Maury attacks. After a stiff fight, he is seen to haul us into his ship on a gravitor beam. He leaves. The Space Force arrives. Beforehand, naturally, we've destroyed any identifying marks on the yacht. All the Space Force has to go on is that Maury swallowed us up, and then Maury vanished. Now, on that basis, who can prove anything about anything?"

Morrissey was nodding enthusiastically. "It's not foolproof, of course, but—"

"Not foolproof!" said Hammell. "Ye gods! Look, Maury captures us and then disappears. How do we get away from Maury?"

Roberts said irritatedly, "Obviously, he never captured us in the first place."

"You just said—"

"He is seen to haul our ship in on a gravitor beam. That's how it looks. Our ship disappears into his larger ship, and his ship, and his fleet, then leave. That's the appearance. But what actually happens is we capture him."

Hammell's eyes widened.

"We use our gravitor beam," said Roberts, "and once in Maury's ship, you and I get out, in battle armor, while Morrissey beams 'desire for peace' at Maury and his crew. We'll be drugged against the effect of the want-generator. We put it to Maury, do as we say or else. Then, if necessary, Morrissey beams 'desire to obey' at the rest of Maury's fleet as Maury orders them to leave. Bear in mind, Maury is out to capture us. He won't attack to kill."

"Hm-m-m," said Hammell. "That does seem to provide a natural explanation for everything. What Maury thinks, of course, won't match what everyone else thinks—but he won't be in any position to do anything about that."

Morrissey nodded. "It's risky. But it does give us a chance."

"I'm for it," said Hammell.

"Now," said Roberts, "it's just a question of working out the important details—"

Maury's commerce raiders came out of the asteroid belt like no Space Force fleet ever flown, each separate chief keeping his own ships of whatever size and class together.

The two-day wonder went to work at once:

"By order Space Force Sector H.Q., Lieutenant General Bryan L. Bender Commanding, this Force is directed to proceed to the planet Boschock III, and there establish formal relations with the representatives of the political entity known as The Empire."

The patrol ship was prompt to reply: "By command of His Royal and Imperial Majesty, Vaughan the First, surnamed The Terrible, this planet is inviolate soil, bounden into the fiefdom of His Majesty as Duke of Trasimere, and thereby into the Empire. You enter here at your own instant and deadly peril."

The two-day wonder lifted his chin heroically: "The Space Force has its orders. We can do no less than our duty."

The patrol ship headed directly for the onrushing fleet.

Hammell uneasily watched the battle screen. "That's a lot of ships."

"Yes," said Roberts, "but dead kings don't bring much ransom."

Maury's fleet closed in, and a new, more oily voice spoke up: "Certainly we of the Space Force do not have the slightest desire to do any harm to the most sacred person of your king. We are prepared to do whatever we can to accommodate these differences and smooth relations between our separate nations and viewpoints. We suggest that a meeting be held immediately following the landing—"

The patrol ship interrupted: "Following the landing, nothing will remain for you but penance in hell."

In quick succession, two gravitor beams reached out to grip the patrol ship.

In instantaneous reply, dazzling shafts of energy reached out from the patrol ship, to leave bright explosions in the distance.

An "asteroid" towed by two massive high-thrust ships, was now cut loose, and reached out with a narrow penetrating beam aimed at the patrol ship's reaction-drive nozzles.

The patrol ship deflected that, and two searing bolts of energy struck the massive asteroid, which was not visibly affected. There was a faint rumble as a missile dropped free from the patrol ship. There was another rumble, and another.

More of Maury's ships methodically lanced out with fusion beams aimed at the reaction-drive nozzles. While the patrol ship could frustrate each attempt, the response was taken account of in the next try, the individual blows woven together to create a net in which the patrol ship's efforts grew rapidly more constricted. This was happening so fast that to Roberts it appeared to be a blur of dazzling lines on the battle screen, leading to one obvious result, until suddenly the patrol ship was caught, its own fusion beams deflected harmlessly by the combined space-distorters of the commerce raiders—

—And then, in rapid succession, dazzling bursts of light sheared an enormous chunk from the asteroid, while others knocked out four of Maury's ships.

Roberts blinked.

The patrol ship's missiles had somehow gotten through, completely undetected.

The auxiliary screen, still transmitting the scene in Maury's headquarters on an ultrafast rebuilt cruiser, showed the commerce raiders' consternation. But then the patrol ship swerved crazily, and swerved again.

"Got it!" growled Maury, mopping his brow.

From the patrol ship, fusion bolts lanced out in all directions, striking two of Maury's ships apparently by sheer chance. A missile blew up short of the mark, shot-holing another of his ships with flying bits and fragments.

Cursing, Maury's gunners reported that neither they nor their battle computers could keep up with the patrol ship's movements. They couldn't predict whether a hit would be crippling or deadly.

"Aim to miss," snarled Maury. "As long as they don't know we're doing it, it won't matter."

Firing furiously, with an inferno of attack around it, the patrol ship withdrew toward Paradise, spun down through the atmosphere, and by a remarkable last-minute feat of piloting, set down in only a moderately hard landing outside the Barons Council Hall.

A roboid policeman immediately rushed out, to guard the ship. From all directions in the Inner City, roboid police began racing to the scene.

"O.K.," said Maury. "Lay smoke."

A series of missiles streaked through the atmosphere, landed within several hundred yards of the downed patrol ship, and exploded in enormous clouds of dirty gray smoke.

The inrushing roboid police slowed abruptly.

"Landing ships down," said Maury.

Four big ships dropped fast through the planet's atmosphere, to disappear in the boiling uprush of smoke.

"Landing teams out," said Maury.

Roberts depressed a communicator switch. "Kelty—open fire!"

The roar reached Roberts only faintly through the patrol ship's hull, but listening critically, Roberts was grateful not to be on the receiving end of the city's rapid-fire guns at short range. He gripped the controls. "Cease fire five seconds."

The firing died away.

The patrol ship burst up through the smoke. "Morrissey—"



As Roberts flashed toward the ultrafast cruiser that was Maury's headquarters, suddenly the symbols on the battle screen seemed to multiply. At the same instant, Maury's fleet broke into individual squadrons racing in all directions. Maury's headquarters ship exploded, and out of the fragments shot a streak that dwindled to a speck before Roberts realized what had happened.

Then the outside viewscreen changed its scale, and showed the whole scene shrunk down to small size.

From the distance, a sizable fleet approached, its ships precisely positioned for mutual support. Before this fleet, like startled fish, the commerce raiders dispersed in all directions. Already moving off the edge of the screen was the chief commerce raider of them all, his escape ship pouring on acceleration as it streaked for the nearest break-point to some quiet hideout far from trouble.

Roberts swore, whipped the patrol ship around, and shot after the fleeing commerce raiders, laying down a ruinous fire, and under its cover dropping inflatable deception packs among the widening clouds of debris.

Hammell, waiting in his battle armor to go into Maury's ship, called, "What's wrong?"

"The Space Force has showed up!"

Roberts spun the ship after another fleeing commerce raider, succeeded in laying a few more packs, and gave it up in disgust.

On the outside viewscreen, the approaching fleet was decelerating fast.

Morrissey said nervously, "Now what do we do?"

"Well, I've sowed a lot of deception packs—"

"What for?"

Roberts exhaled carefully. "The idea was that we could inflate them to dummy ships, beam 'desire to believe' at that fleet, and—"

Hammell said incredulously, "What, the Space Force?"

Roberts could now see just what likelihood there was of that working. "It's a chance," he said stubbornly, "and we're in no spot to ignore a chance."

"Then" said Morrissey, "let's get out of here! This ship is fast, isn't it?"

"That's an admission of guilt," said Roberts, inwardly kicking himself for not "chasing" the commerce raiders at top speed.

Hammell had the same idea. "Why didn't you go after Maury? Nobody would have known whether you were chasing him, running away, or what."

"It would have been out of character," said Roberts lamely, "for the king to leave with a larger force approaching."

"Nuts!" said Hammell. "His screen could have been damaged. He could have been wounded or knocked out."

The communicator buzzed imperatively.

Moodily, Roberts reached out to snap it on. Before he could reach the switch, there was a click, and a cold voice said, "What interstellar force is this? Stand warned! This is a King's ship, on the King's business, and you have no right to patrol here."

An auxiliary screen lit up, to show a frowning officer in the uniform of a Space Force lieutenant general.

"What ship is this?"

"Imperial ship Nom de Guerre. Who asks?"

"Lieutenant General Nils Larssen. What Empire?"

"The Empire."

"Who commands that ship?"

There was a silence, and Roberts, fearing that the symbiotic computer had run out of words, snapped on the sound transmission.

"I command this ship!"

Roberts suddenly found himself at the parting of the ways. He could meekly identify himself. Or he could carry the bluff to the ridiculous point where he challenged the Space Force.

Abruptly he discovered that he couldn't back down.

He said coldly, "You come too late to save your comrades. They are dead, or fled like cowards. Now I wait to test your steel."

Larssen looked blank. He pursed his lips, turned away, then turned back, apparently to rephrase the question.

Roberts waited, grimly aware of the cracking ice he stood on.

At this delicate juncture, the symbiotic computer put its oar in. With icy hauteur, using Roberts voice, it said: "I have spoken."

Larssen opened his mouth, and shut it. His face reddened. "Listen—I don't give a damn who you are! You'll answer my questions, and you'll answer them straight!"

Roberts groped for some way out.

Then he heard his own voice speak coldly from the communicator, as if to someone nearby, "The bark of this interstellar dog hath a petulant note."

Hammell's voice, though Hammell was standing by in silent paralysis, said coolly, "We know ways to train the surly cur, if he intrudes too far."

Morrissey was sitting at the want-generator, looking from Roberts to Hammell as if they'd gone insane, and now he had the added treat of hearing his own voice contribute, though his mouth was tightly shut.

"We'll send this rabble to the Earl of Hell, and let them mount patrol on the fiery march."

On the screen, Larssen paused, an odd listening expression on his face.

Roberts' own voice called, "Master of the Ordnance!"

"Ready, Sire!"

"Master of the Helm!"

"Ready, Sire!"

"Then we'll put it to the test! Master of the Helm, brace your engines! Master of the Ordnance, pick your targets!"

A roar and a howling whine sounded together as the gravitors counteracted the reaction drive, in a prelude to a furious burst of acceleration.

On the control console, a switch snapped forward, to activate the deception packs and create the appearance of a formidable squadron—though the Space Force detectors should quickly spot the trick.

Larssen, suddenly perspiring, called, "Wait!" Then he whirled and shouted an order.

On the screen, the hurtling formation of ships began slowly to turn, swinging away from Paradise.

Roberts, startled, saw Larssen turn back to the screen, his expression intent and wary.

"I didn't mean to intrude on a region you patrol."

An elaborately courteous voice replied, "To do so were an incivility bordering on the interstellar."

"Then patrol it if you want it so damned much!" snarled Larssen.

"The interstellar regions subject to the rule of His Royal and Imperial Majesty, Vaughan the First, we will patrol, surely."

Larssen shut his mouth with a click of the teeth.

The screen abruptly went blank, but a silent burst of profanity seemed to radiate from it after it was off.

Roberts, drenched in sweat, groped in his pocket for a handkerchief, but couldn't find one.

Hammell got out of his armor, looking like a ghost.

Morrissey staggered to his feet, and promptly banged his head on the shiny cylinder.

Roberts finally located the handkerchief, and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. He took another look at the outside viewscreen.

Larssen's fleet traveled past in formidable array.

Roberts glanced at the battle screen. On his side there was only the patrol ship, and the imitation ships blown up out of—Roberts blinked, and adjusted the outside viewscreen—

There amongst the seeming patrol ships and cruisers lay a gigantic ship—a dreadnought fit to take on whole fleets all by itself. The sunlit side was toward Roberts, and the name was clearly visible: Coeur de Lion.

The deception pack out of which a thing like that might be blown up would take a battleship to carry it.

Roberts took a deep breath. "Well, men, we're still alive. And here's one big reason."

Hammell ducked under the glittering cylinder, and looked at the screen.

Morrissey warily slid one hand along the cylinder and ducked under to stand beside Hammell.

"Great space!" said Hammell, suddenly seeing what Roberts was looking at.

Morrissey murmured, "Coeur de Lion. Isn't that the ship you said called you—when Maury stopped us at the asteroid belt?"

"Yes," said Roberts. "But I thought it was just a clever gambit of the symbiotic computer. Now there it is."

Hammell said uneasily, "It's friendly?"

"I hope so. But where did it come from?"

Hammell said hesitantly, "Apparently the Space Force didn't see it till the last minute. They were going to chop us into mincemeat, then all of a sudden, they changed their minds."

"It must have been undetectable—they've got some kind of device that blanks them out to radar, gravitor, and all the other standard detection systems!" said Roberts. "Wait, now. What—" Suddenly what he was trying to think of came to him: "Listen, our missiles got to Maury's ships undetected."

Morrissey said wonderingly, "They were the missiles originally supplied with this ship?"

"I haven't bought any."

Morrissey stared at the screen. "Listen, this may sound nuts, but when I look at that ship, it looks to me a lot like this one we're on. That one is a whole lot bigger, and the proportions aren't identical, but there's a kind of similarity of plan that . . ."

Hammell said nervously, "That dreadnought was undetectable. This ship's missiles were undetectable. That dreadnought looks like this ship, owing to a kind of similarity of plan. This ship is an Interstellar Patrol ship. It follows that that dreadnought—"

Roberts' throat felt dry.

Morrissey said, "What happens to unauthorized individuals who get caught using Interstellar Patrol ships?"

Hammell sucked in his breath. "The Interstellar Patrol is even worse to tangle with than the Space Force. They don't operate by the book. Setups nobody else can handle go to the Interstellar Patrol."

Roberts uneasily considered the bargain he had gotten—even though it had cost the better part of his life's savings—when he bought the patrol ship at the salvage cluster. Now he wondered if, through some piece of treachery, the original crew had been slaughtered, and now the dreadnought was waiting patiently for Roberts to identify himself, and if he didn't—

"Nuts," said Roberts. He snapped on the communicator.

"Imperial Ship Nom de Guerre, His Royal and Imperial Majesty Vaughan the First commanding, to Imperial Dread-nought Coeur de Lion. How many of that first batch of outspace dogs got away with their skins?"

Immediately, a tough-looking individual appeared on an auxiliary screen. His gaze drilled into Roberts' eyes.

Roberts saw no virtue in pussyfooting around. If the dreadnought was going to blow him up, well, then let it blow him up. He looked directly into the eyes of the face on the screen, and growled, "The Empire does not maintain these ships at heavy cost that her captains may use them for toys. Speak up! Hast swallowed thy tongue? Didst accomplish anything, besides to look pretty?"

The tough scarred face on the screen broke into a momentary grin. "Your Majesty, forgive my witless hesitation. We feared you dead from these verminous outspacers. We cleaned out the lot, save for one that broke into sub-space even as we poised thumb and forefinger to pop him like a grape."

"That one was the worst," said Roberts, as Hammell and Morrissey stared. "There went the brain and guiding will of the evil band."

"Some other time, he may run afoul of us, and have a slower ship, or we a faster."

"Hasten the day," said Roberts, smiling. He was beginning to think he had worked out the combination.

The face on the screen changed expression slightly.

"If Your Majesty please, the Empire anxiously awaits your return, to heal its wounds in the pomps and pleasures of the coronation. The Great Lords and Nobles count the days, till they may reaffirm their loyalty to the Crown, and swear allegiance to Vaughan the First. If we may accompany you—lest other outspace dogs pop up out of nowhere—'Tis daring greatly, I know, to suggest it, but Coeur de Lion has spacious accommodation—We may take aboard Nom de Guerre and all, if you like—'Twould speed the day of your return. I crave forgiveness if I presume—"

"And it were freely granted, but your offer is welcome. We shall come aboard at once."

The man on the screen bowed his head respectfully. "Your Majesty doth greatly honor us."

"'Tis an honor to honor such loyal subjects."

The tough face looked humbly appreciative. Then the screen went blank.

Hammell and Morrissey stood speechless as Roberts headed the patrol ship toward the dreadnought.

Hammell took a deep breath. "Look—no offense if I just call you 'sir'? Is this an Interstellar Patrol ship? You must know a lot more about this than we do. Or is it a . . .  ah . . . an Imperial ship?"

Morrissey swallowed and listened alertly.

Roberts said cheerfully, "We weren't talking on tight-beam, and there are plenty of technological ears on that planet, now that the technicians have had time to go to work. The more wide-awake among them will put together the number of times 'interstellar' and 'patrol' occurred in the conversation with Larssen, and then they will realize in whose tender hands their fate rests. But they can't prove a thing."

"Then," said Hammell, thinking hard, "this last conversation was a blind?"

"No, it just takes a certain piece of key knowledge to figure it out."

"What might that be?"

"Anyone listening to that conversation would be justified in thinking I was the boss. And because of the fact people might be listening, that's how it had to be. But what do you think?"

Hammell smote his forehead. "You were ordered to come on board?"

"That's right," Roberts said.

Morrissey said, "Why not just have the conversation on tight beam?"

"Because I wanted to put them on the spot, to see what they'd do."

Morrissey glanced at the gigantic dreadnought on the outside viewscreen. "Anyone who'd do a thing like that ought to be in the Interstellar Patrol."

Roberts nodded. "As Hammell says, they don't operate by the book."

Morrissey stared at him. Hammell said, "Holy—"

Roberts pressed the button to the left of the instrument panel, near the glowing lens lettered "SMB CMP," and said, "How does the Interstellar Patrol recruit new members?"

The symbiotic computer replied, "By whatever method works." It then described several reasonably conventional methods, and added, "Ships are sometimes used to obtain recruits, as nearly every independent individual actively operating in space, and hence basically qualified as a recruit, at one time or another needs a ship. The patrol ship is always modestly priced for its value, as the salvage operator finds it hard to dispose of, and impossible to break up. The ship attracts only a certain basic type. Those who want it must have the proper mental, physical, and moral equipment, and the right basic style of self-respect, or the ship's symbiotic computer won't accept them. Those accepted are next tested by the use to which they put the power of the patrol ship's equipment. Those who successfully pass the built-in obstacles become members of the Interstellar Patrol, captains of their own ships, and, in due time, they often recruit their own crew at no expense to the Patrol—sometimes before they really accept that they are members—"

"Oh, my God—" said Hammell.

Morrissey looked thunderstruck. "I knew we should have stayed on the yacht!"

"—Or before the prospective crew," the symbiotic computer went on, "expresses a truly sincere desire to enlist. However, just as the judgment of the symbiotic computer is accepted in the selection of the ship's captain, so is the judgment of the captain accepted in the selection of the ship's crew. This method has proved highly satisfactory and inexpensive." The symbiotic computer paused a moment, then added, "Moreover, the procedure is in accord with the highest traditions of the Interstellar Patrol."

Hammell nodded. "It would be."

"Well," said Roberts, "don't complain. It's not everyone who escapes from a routine space-transport to be a king or a duke—or a member of the Interstellar Patrol."

Roberts saw the look of puzzled surprise, a brief glint of pride, and the glow of interest light the faces of Hammell and Morrissey. They weren't going aboard the gigantic ship as prisoners, to be interrogated. They were actually going as members of the legendary Interstellar Patrol.

Roberts saw the brief outthrust of jaw that told of determination to make good. That was how he felt, too.

It occurred to him that neither he, nor Hammell, nor Morrissey, would have voluntarily tried to enlist in the Patrol. The thing was too much. They might not make it. Their qualifications might not meet the standards. They might not like it if they did make it. So the Interstellar Patrol, with deep-laid craft, so arranged matters that none of them had the faintest idea what was going on until the thing was accomplished.

An organization run on that basis must be no lover of red tape and stuffed shirts. In an organization so capable of understanding human nature, it might be possible to get things done.

Roberts guided the patrol ship on its course, and gradually, the gigantic curve of the dreadnought loomed closer, to fill the viewscreen.

Before them, the big hatch slowly swung wide, to reveal the brightly-lighted interior. Spacesuited figures stepped into view, to wave them forward.

Carefully, Roberts guided the patrol ship through the hatchway into the gigantic spaceship.


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