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The Power of Illusion

Written by Christopher Anvil
Illustrated by V. Shane



Colonel Valentine Sanders of the Interstellar Patrol passed a hand over his close-cropped iron-grey hair, leaned forward at his desk, and did his best to speak politely and persuasively:

"Sir, I just don't think I should put this off onto someone else. I wouldn't feel right about it."

He heard his voice come out with a quality suggestive of a crooked dealer in used spaceships. To expect anyone to miss that would be asking too much.

Just across Sanders' desk, where the bulkhead normally presented its neutral grey surface, was the convincing electronic image of a lean broad-shouldered man wearing the same style of uniform as Sanders, but with two stars at the lapel in place of Sanders' silver eagle. He, too, spoke politely, but with a frown that was becoming more pronounced as the conversation wore on.

"Val, you do understand, regardless who does it, it's against regulations to intervene on a planet classified as, in effect, alien?"

Sanders gave up on persuasion and tried stubbornness. Now, at least, he sounded natural. "Whose regulations, sir?"

"And this planet is so designated."

"By whom, sir?"

"By PDA, of course."

"Then, sir, Planetary Development Authority is insane. And I don't remember any regulation of ours that forbids intervention, provided we use some sense when we do it."

"PDA makes the rules for new planets. As for their being insane, that may well be—but why do you say it?"

"There are two intelligent races on this planet. One is so much like us that we can forget trying to find a difference that means anything. Their hearing and vision are unusually sharp, but that's it. The other race has a shorter average build and a kind of close dark hair or fur; people who have never been off their own home world might think the furred race is alien. Yet, when they're not killing each other, the two races trade, and interbreeding produces fertile offspring. The planet is earth-type. They even have rugged quadrupeds that look like and serve the function of horses. How does PDA see this place as an 'alien planet'?"

"No doubt they've got some esoteric reason."

"But does that make it so?"

"No. It also doesn't change regulations."

Sanders, feeling as if he were making his way across thin ice over deep water, again tried hard to sound reasonable:

"Sir, Planetary Development is bound by regulations. So is the Space Force. This tends to make their actions predictable. Yet they both can go on operating by the book, because every large-scale thug, racketeer, and confidence artist, human or alien, also has us to contend with. The rules of the Interstellar Patrol aren't known, and can't be worked into their calculations. Sir, if we adopt PDA's regulations, how do we do our own job?"

Sanders thought this was reasonable. He didn't see how anyone could object to it. But the expression on the General's face told him he had miscalculated somewhere.

"Now you're explaining my job to me, Colonel?"

"No, sir."

"That's what it sounds like to me."

"Well, sir—if we're bound by PDA's regulations—"

"There is such a thing as judgment."

"But—if we follow the same rules—"

"PDA obeys them slavishly. We use them voluntarily."

"If we use them 'voluntarily,' then we can suspend them at will. Sir, I think we need to suspend this rule that any planet they think is alien is automatically off-limits."

"So I gather. Look, Val, I have here your requisition for all this theatrical equipment, and an H-class ship and crew. This came in along with a mess of routine housekeeping stuff—glance at it, initial it, and forget it—but this requisition adds up to a traveling magic extravaganza, to be used on a planet listed by PDA as 'alien-inhabited.'"

"Sir, they aren't aliens. But if we follow PDA's rules, the planet could end up alien."

"What do you mean?"

Sanders decided to try taking the offensive. "Sir, are you aware that this planet is part of a star system so close to the border between Stath territory and ours that the Stath can use it to test us? That collection of murderous overgrown weasels can run rings around PDA. PDA thinks aliens are there? They are. But they aren't either of the races that inhabit that planet. The aliens there are the Stath!"

Sanders had expected the General to at least be startled. Instead, he looked faintly bored, and irritated.

"Spare me the red flags, capes, and picadors, damn it, and get to the facts. Naturally I know where the planet is, and of course the Stath can use it to test us, if they don't mind getting another bloody nose or broken jaw out of it. How does this answer the question?"

"Sir, that's the point."

"Look, Val, the point is that on the basis of some need I don't understand, and which has yet to be explained, I am to provide equipment, plus scarce personnel, for a peculiar junket that will take my Chief of Operations completely off the scene for who knows how long! Meanwhile, PDA is getting into what looks like the mess of the century, and I expect the yell for help any time. When it comes, I'll need everyone I can lay my hands on."

"Yes, sir. But—"

"But when I try to find out what this is all about, what happens? It turns into a philosophical discussion on accepting the rules of other organizations, followed by a shocker revelation that the Stath would like to eat us alive. Is that supposed to be news? This isn't an answer. It's a smoke screen."

"Sir, the main problem is that the Stath are working a stunt that PDA is too blockheaded to understand."

"That's the main problem, eh? All right. Specifically?"

"This planet has two races. The clearly human race has a feudal society. The other is a collection of warlike tribes. There's a wide river that separates them, and though they raid some, they usually respect each other's territory."

"I get the picture. What of it?"

"For several years, the Stath have been visiting the less obviously human part of the planet, disguising the visits as emergency landings, treaty-approved mapping missions, navigation errors, and so on. This spring, the furred race crossed the river, and, using weapons they never had before, started slaughtering the humans."

For the first time, Sanders could see his superior's interest. "And you think the Stath are behind it?"

"Yes, sir. While PDA piously bars us from the planet, the Stath are already there. That pack of bloodthirsty weasels backs a local race, and in return gets a useful ally in disputed territory. And having got away with this stunt, they will have a lower opinion of us in the future. Who knows what they'll try next? Sir, to obey PDA's regulations could be an expensive proposition. This is exactly the kind of thing we're meant to take care of."

Abruptly, it dawned on Sanders that, with the argument all but won, he had just said a few words too many.

The General nodded slowly, and looked up.

"Then why is this the first I've heard of it?"

"Sir, I just found it out myself—and only because of unusual circumstances. PDA didn't mention it, because they haven't caught on."

"Look, Val—Why didn't you make a little more noise? Why just send me this requisition?"

There was the catch. As Sanders had just said, this was the exact kind of thing the Interstellar Patrol was meant to take care of. Why, then, hadn't he handled it as usual? Of course, he knew why, but he desperately did not want to mention that. Sanders, who rarely acted impulsively, was even worse at explaining an impulsive action than the average person, who at least had a little more practice at it.

But the General was still waiting, with rapidly evaporating patience, for an explanation.

Inspiration failing to provide a way out, Sanders still had to say something. And improvising plausible-sounding excuses was another skill Sanders lacked. In horror, he heard himself say:

"Well,—I—ah—Sir, I just didn't want to bother you—with—ah—"

Across the desk, the strongly built uniformed figure leaned forward. The silver stars glinted. Sanders felt like an onion whose outer layers were rapidly being stripped away.



"Why are you approaching this backward?"


"We have here a legitimate request which you present to me hind-end first. There has to be some reason. The most obvious is to conceal something. Say, you want to go yourself, but don't want to explain why. A routine requisition might just slip through unquestioned. Val, do you have some personal interest in this mess?"

"Sir, I—"


Sanders could feel the perspiration trickle down.


"It must be even worse than it looks. All right, let's have the whole thing. Have you been on this planet? What are the 'unusual circumstances' that told you what's going on there? Is there an extra booby trap somewhere in this sink-hole? Let's have it, and from the beginning, for a change."

Sanders, pinned in his superior's searchlight gaze, with an effort began to talk.

"A long time ago, sir, a ship crashed on this planet. There was apparently just one survivor—" He hesitated.

"Just keep going, Val. A ship crashed. There was one survivor. I follow that. Go on."

Sanders took a deep breath. "The survivor was a baby in a safety cradle. The ship was on fire when it crashed, and there was the danger that it might explode. A second ship followed it down, but couldn't get there before the first ship blew up."

"Were you there?"

"Yes, sir. In the second ship."

"All right. I follow it, so far. Keep going."

"The father of the baby and the crew of the second ship rushed to the wreck, searched the remains, and found no survivors. After they had given up hope, there walked through the smouldering debris a local chief or king, carrying the cradle. He had risked his life, and gotten the baby out just before the explosion."

The General opened his mouth, then closed it without speaking. He nodded slowly.

Sanders said, "The crew of the second ship took the safety cradle. The father was overcome with emotion. He took the guard ring from his hand, and put it on the hand of the local chief."

"A guard ring?"

"Yes, sir."

There was a lengthy silence. It was this detail, which Sanders could not even explain to himself, that he had wanted to avoid mentioning.

The General stared at Sanders. "The father, of course, was a member of the Interstellar Patrol?"

"Yes, sir."

"He was a member of the Patrol when this happened?"

"Yes, sir."

"Was he aware of the PDA rule that no technological device is to be introduced onto an unclassified planet?"

"Yes, sir."

"This ring was not dropped, or lost inadvertently, in which case—"

"No, sir. It was placed intentionally on the chief's hand."

"In full awareness of the technological nature of the guard ring, and of the rule barring exactly such actions?"

"Yes, sir, and in full awareness that the rule was a rule of PDA, and not a rule of the Interstellar Patrol."

"This ring was, of course, a technological device of the Interstellar Patrol? Granted that there are other outfits—including the Stellar Scouts—that have devices disguised as jewelry—rings, pins, belt buckles, bracelets, watches, and so on. This was one of ours?"

"Yes, sir. It was one of ours."

"What justification for this could there be, bearing in mind that the guard ring was equipment of the Patrol, not the property of the person giving it away? Incidentally, where did this guard ring come from?"

"From an agent of the Patrol who had passed away—a retired member on a partly settled planet."

"Passed away how?"

"By natural causes, sir."

"This ring had not been issued to the member who gave it to the local chief?"

"No, sir."

"Had the ring been collected on orders to turn it in?"

"No, sir. It was being brought back voluntarily."

"I see. Was the transaction reported?"

"No, sir, it was not."

"Why not?"

"It might have been disapproved."

"I see . . . How long ago did this happen?"

"About twenty-three years ago, sir."

After a silence, the General cleared his throat. "You'll have to report it, Val. Never mind the details. Just state to me verbally that you do now report it."

Sanders, caught off-balance, hesitated, then said, "Yes, sir. I do now report it."

"Disposition of the guard ring is approved. This local king is obviously a capable individual, well suited to be an involuntary agent of the Patrol on the said planet, allowing for the possibility of subterfuge by the neighboring Stath. Now, what happened? Did the baby survive?"

"Yes, sir."

"And is now where—and what?"

"He's grown up, sir. A second lieutenant."

"In what organization?"

"The Interstellar Patrol, sir."

There was a brief pleasant interval as the General smiled. Sanders understood the reaction. In the Patrol, perpetually shorthanded, each recruit was precious.

"Well, now I can understand, at least. But Val, if there's anything more technological than a guard ring—"

"Sir, PDA wouldn't know one if they saw it."

"Granted. But we know what it is. All right, now, let's see. We not only have the Stath, and the local invasion, but this guard ring, introduced into this tinderbox years ago. Is there anything more?"

"That's most of it, sir. When the patrol ship took off, an outphased watch satellite was left in orbit, just in case. It would note landings on the planet, and could, to some extent, at our signal plant spy devices, so we could learn more if we needed to."

"This satellite transmitted reports at intervals?"

"No, sir. There was no interest in the place then. The satellite was set to send any accumulated information on our transmit signal. Since there was no suspicion of what the Stath were doing, no transmit signal was sent—until the guard ring alerted the communications net about three weeks ago."

"Three weeks?"

"Yes, sir."

"That's the unusual way you became aware something was going on?"

"Yes, sir."

"Okay. Now, let's be sure there's no misunderstanding. This guard ring was keyed to the person whose finger it was put on?"

"Sir, there wouldn't be much point giving a guard ring inactive. It was keyed."

"You know guard rings have been taken out of general use?"

"I didn't think they ever were actually in general use. I know they're dispensed with great caution."

"But this local king on this barbarian planet has been walking around all this time with this ring on his finger?"

"Sir, I don't know. The signal we got recently shows no change in identity, so he was wearing it then."

"In the meantime, it could have been traded back and forth for cattle, or nubile girls, for all we know?"

"Yes, sir. But I think he would have kept it, and worn it. We know he has it now."

"What style is this ring? Is it a plain regulation type, or an ornamental ring?"

"Ornamental, sir. The control crystal appears to be a large gem—like a star sapphire—until it's activated. There's a lion to either side of the gem. The setting looks like gold."

"Then he probably has worn it. Well, I don't know what the damned Stath gave their fur-bearing allies, but I can scarcely wait to find out what happens when they run into this ring."

Sanders kept his mouth shut. Right there was the reason he was anxious to get to the planet.

The General cleared his throat.

"Has the invasion got to this local king yet?"

"Not yet, sir. When we got the alert on the communications net, we sent the transmit signal to the satellite, and that's when we found out the Stath had been visiting the planet. Then we had to learn all we could in a hurry."

"I can imagine. We didn't know any of this before?"

"No, sir. Supposedly, PDA was taking care of it."

"PDA doesn't understand how the Stath think. So, this requisition you've sent in—All this theatrical equipment, an H-Class ship and crew—this was to try to recover this guard ring?"

"No, sir, it was to stop the Stath from taking over, through their local allies. Of course, in the process, that would hopefully keep the device from becoming fully activated."

There was a little silence, during which Colonel Sanders had time to consider how many different organizations would have had him drawn and quartered by now. Yet the General, who had had him in just the right position for a verbal beheading, or worse, instead had buried the really deadly question with a harmless one, then legitimized the impulse Sanders still couldn't explain to himself: Why had he put the guard ring on the local chief's hand? He could remember no calculation, no reasoning, no thought; he had just acted, and become aware of it afterward, as if he were a spectator in his own life. How did anyone explain an impulse? Then a clearing of the throat warned him the questioning wasn't over yet.

"How close is this invasion to our—ah—involuntary agent on this planet?"

"I think we might just have time to get there before he's hit. We've flooded the place with subminiaturized spy devices, and been pretty well swamped with information we haven't had time to digest. There's even a local prophecy of what sounds like our intervention on the planet."

"You've located the opposing forces?"

"Yes, sir, that's clear enough. Though there aren't two equal forces. The invaders heavily outnumber the defenders."

"Okay. I'm approving your requisition. I don't think we should fool around with this, whatever PDA might think. The planet may be near the boundary, but it's in our territory, and the mental processes of the Stath are as you describe them. We can't let them get away with this. However, these local inhabitants on both sides are also people, and the less gratuitous slaughter we inflict, the better."

"We aren't planning to use force alone, sir. With luck, we may be able to get by with something else, that PDA should incidentally find it harder to detect, or to understand if they do detect it."

His superior smiled. "All this theatrical equipment?"

The colonel nodded. "Yes, sir. Illusion. Of course, to use that effectively, we have to know how the people on this planet think, so we have to watch them closely."

* * *

The Chief stood by the stone parapet atop one of the high central towers of the fortress dominating the river valley. He stood a little apart from his remaining advisors, looking down over the lower walls and towers as, across the valley, the morning sun flashed on the shields and breastplates of the heavily armed troops, once his own, but now under the command of traitors, who were emerging in large numbers from the forest that rimmed the valley.

The same sun made visible the thinness of the numbers of defenders on the massive walls of the fortress. And, beyond the stone fortress itself, he could see the emptiness in his outermost works of earth and timber, where behind the pointed upright logs of the palisade built out on the rightmost side of the fortress, to menace the flank of any hostile approach, no-one waited to break the enemy's first attack.

Arion, the Chief's long-time friend and advisor, spoke quietly. "There is Summa's standard. Among the first."

The Chief's eyes, no longer young and sharp, sought out across the valley the red and orange banner, and spotted it coming in where an intervening slope still held off the sun. Briefly, his gaze blurred with emotion.

Marron, the state councillor, spoke in a wondering voice. "Who would have thought he could be bought?"

There was a murmur from the troops on the walls below, as the numbers of traitors and hirelings was made clear in the glitter and flash of the armor emerging from the forest.

Then, carrying clearly in the early morning stillness, came the low good-natured voice of Tarvon, the War Leader, second in command only to the Chief:

"The more traitors for us to kill, men. And if they should win, we are no deader if ten times as many come to do the deed."

Tarvon's voice soothed the Chief, inside, where the blows of life had left their unseen wounds. Most of the nobles were gone, turned traitor, and with them the clever luminaries of the court. But Tarvon, greatest of the great, was loyal. True, the hosts needed to properly embody his skill were turned traitor, bought, or fled, but his presence alone must weigh on those who approached. The Chief could almost hear the warnings of the approaching sergeants and captains:

"Tarvon is there, still with the King. Look right and left, men. Steady. We are fighting Tarvon, remember. Keep closed up, there!"

Arion spoke sharply.

"Hold that bolt! Wait till they're closer!"

The Chief glanced to his left, saw the flatbolt catapult on the open top of a tower, and the shame-faced crew that manned it.

Tarvon spoke again, his voice low and good-humored:

"Wait till they're closer, men. For now, just watch the show. They're trying to come forward, but their feet want to go to some other place."

The Chief noted the hesitation in the advancing host, and smiled despite himself. Though more were emerging from the forest, those in front had slowed. Seen from this viewpoint, the left of their line had actually halted, and a few there visibly drew back. It would pass, but for now it was pleasant to look upon.

For an instant, the Chief could see the scene from the enemy side. The sun, flashing impressively on their shields, was also glaring directly in their eyes, blinding them. The stone fortress on its rocky height before the river dominated them below in the valley, its massive walls rising menacingly high above them. And there before them waited their own King, justly angered by their treason, along with his shrewd councillor, Arion, and mighty Tarvon, whose mere presence on a battlefield was said to change a mob into an army, and an army into a conquering host.

What greeted the traitors was silence and menace, with God alone knew how many of the loyal, lances and swords ground sharp, with uncountable stocks of arrows and heavy bolts. Hidden high on and within the walls, unseeable in the glare of the sun, were the huge kettles of smoking oil that could blister and cook an attacker inside his armor. Behind the wooden outerworks of the palisade, there could be massed horsemen jostling in impatience to throw open the gates and kill the turncoats.

Out in the open, conscious of their treasonous cause, burdened down by their heavy armor, and weary already from the march here, the approaching troops were showing no enthusiasm for the fight, however it might profit their leaders. And, of course, they had worse if more vague worries.

The Chief absently fingered the intricately formed ring on the third finger of his right hand. His thumb slid over the cool smooth surface of the blue star jewel, then across the golden lions recumbent beside the blue star to the left, and to the right. The contact took his mind back to a night long before, when he had seen the flash streak down across the sky, wavering flames at its head, and realized that a star traveler was here and in trouble.

He had overruled the cautious Arion, ridden out in the night, and crossed the river, to find on a wooded hill a burning shell of metal—What metal could burn?—and his retainers had fallen back in fear.

With Arion trembling beside him, he had dared the dying flames and briefly entered the wreck, to see a charred corpse amidst the twisted shapes, and there, in clouds of white smoke, cold where he touched it, the Chief found a kind of closed cradle, with a baby moving fretfully under the cradle's transparent cover.

The Chief had put his cloak between his hands and the frosted surface, and carried the cradle out, and down the far slope of the hill. He had set it down, and Arion was bent at the closed cover when there had come from the wreck on the far side of the hill a dazzling burst of bluish whiteness, and the trees atop the hill were thrown flat with a rending crash, their budding leaves and outer twigs aflame.

Inside the cradle, the baby apparently saw Arion's face in the brief glare, smiled, and swung its hands to thump the inner surface of the cover.

Already, a second brightness was descending rapidly from the sky, there were the sounds of approaching voices, and then an anguished cry from the hill.

Arion had said, "These come to save the first, but are too late."

"Then we have good news for them." The Chief bent to pick up the cradle.

Arion said, "Their affairs are dangerous. Best we keep the child and raise him as our own. You have saved him, at least."

"He isn't ours. Call to them!"

"My voice will not function."

"Nor mine. But my legs will." The Chief picked up the cradle, and went back up the hill. Arion and the rest of the reluctantly following courtiers saw him outlined in the fading bluish glare, saw two figures in strange armor take the cradle, saw another figure in armor come and clasp him, heard a low voice rough with emotion, the words unrecognizable, then the armored figure had stepped back, and raised its hand in salute, and the Chief had come back down the hill like a man in a dream, and spoke to Arion.

"The baby was theirs. But for some reason, I miss him."

"Let us hope you get no hurt from this. My skin burns from those flames."

"And mine, too. The river is still cold. Let's see if it will draw the heat."

Arion and the Chief had bathed in the river until their teeth chattered, and to the touch their flesh felt like the flesh of a corpse in wintertime. But the next day, their burns were mild, and now the word of what the Chief had done had begun to work its magic, as his awed followers told of the flaming metal of the wreck, the magical cradle, the child, and the Star Man's clasp of affection and brotherhood. Now, too, the startled Chief made a discovery. On his right hand was a golden blue-star ring, and the wise men outdid themselves in interpreting this visible evidence of the Star Men's favor.

The Chief said privately to Arion, "The talk of these wise men can be as hard to follow as the gabble of drunkards. Does it make any sense to you?"

"No. To believe the half of it would be more dangerous than it was to go into that wreck. I trust none of it—and least of all that the ring is a 'crystallized omen of good fortune and invincibility.'"

"Let's hope our enemies believe that."

"That would be useful. But the ring is very beautiful, that is certainly true."

"There is a strange thing. Any other ring I have had is either too tight, or else at times it is loose. The fit of this is perfect. I can hardly tell it is there."

Arion examined it carefully. "It was formed by craft far beyond ours. Would that I had had the courage to go back up that hill with you. Perhaps I would have one like it."

"Here. Wear it if you like."

"No, it is yours. Anyway, I am not jealous. I have baubles as pretty as that. I only regret that I lacked the courage."

But all that time had passed, and now they stood together by the parapet, and the Chief thought to say to Arion that he had lacked no courage to stay beside him in this disaster. But at that moment, the wavering ranks of shields and armor across the valley were roughly broken from behind by a rush of unarmored alien horsemen.

Even at this distance, the Chief could recognize them by the thick short dark hair or fur that covered brow and cheek and throat. Seeing that, he could imagine that he saw their eyes, with a glint of craft and cleverness. On the walls, his men straightened.

Down below, the enemy rode in, spreading across the valley, undeterred by the menace of the fortress, no doubt content that they had conquered others like it, and could conquer it, too.

Tarvon's voice, reinforced by the low tone of his trumpeter's signal horn, warned the defenders, "Hold your bolts—Wait for the command—Let them get closer."

Behind the aliens, the armor again began to move, perhaps unaware that they had hung back. Pressing forward at the head was the red and orange banner.

The voice of Tarvon, the War Leader, was quiet but clear: "Catapult crews, see the traitor lead the way? He is the one in front, with fresh painted royal bearings on his shield. He is to be tyrant once we are dead—That's how they bought him. Hold your bolts till he is near. Wait till you hear the King's warhorn. Let Evertrue speak for us, who are loyal. Then, when Evertrue does speak, put the wax plugs in your ears so you can have your minds on the job. Then aim careful, and work fast."

The Chief gauged the height of the sun, looked down at the alien horsemen, coming straight for the wooden outerworks. He watched these horsemen, their drawn knives glittering as they rode to the base of the palisade, vanished from sight, then their flexible lines and hooks briefly appeared atop the palings, caught, then the lithe hairy forms were up on the wall, glancing over, and as suddenly they dropped onto the high footwalk, inside. The gates were opened, and the others rode in.

Down in the valley, Summa's men were rushing closer, losing their order in their haste. The other armored troops were coming on much less quickly; but Summa, who should be most loyal, must now prove his new loyalty to the invader.

The horsemen, meanwhile, having taken the wooden outerworks, were making no further attempt. Some sat grinning atop the palisade, speculatively eyeing the walls. Others, out in the valley, seeing no effective resistance, were coming forward now at a casual walk. From the direction of Summa's men, the Chief could actually hear a small excited voice:

"They've run away. There's no-one there!"

The Chief smiled, noted the angle of the sun, the men waiting at the catapults, and, behind him, the bare pole atop the massive tower. Everything must be done now, in order. He kept his voice low and even, the first time today his men would have heard him:

"Raise the war flag."

He turned, waited a few moments:

"Ready at the catapults."

He heard Tarvon's murmured repetition, then the trumpeter raised his signal horn, and he saw the men at the catapults stand ready to loose their first bolts.

With the sun behind it, its long ends like claws, the climbing flag would be a cheerless message to all but the grinning hairy aliens below. To them, all this was nothing but foreign play-acting. But the Chief could see the flashing line of armor in the valley waver, as at a blow, and he turned to two pages wearing dark green and leather, and spoke quietly. "Lift up the voice-thrower."

They lifted a long wide-flaring instrument, and held it on their shoulders.

Down there, Summa and his men were approaching the already captured palisade, perhaps to man it, releasing the aliens for other jobs, perhaps to try to take the fortress by entering the hidden tunnel that opened behind the outerworks.

The Chief drew a deep breath and spoke carefully and forcefully into the mouthpiece:

"Hear me, men of Summa! I, your King, before Almighty God sworn to defend this land and people, now strip from your traitor baron all right and power to command! The penalty for his treason is death!"

The Chief turned from the voice-thrower, keeping one hand on the shoulder of the nearest page, to warn him not to move, looked back at the main central tower, looming behind them, and spoke clearly:

"Let Evertrue speak!"

At once, a tone like a sound made of silver hung in the air, subtly turning, riveting the attention. Down below, the traitors' armored foot troops came to a halt, banging into one another. The mounted aliens, coming on at a walk, looked up in surprise. The aliens atop the palisade stared in wonderment.

Beneath the tone, as if somehow acting on a different level than those hearing the tone and held by it, there was a low creak of cord drawn tight, a metallic scrape, a sudden jarring snap and hiss as a metal-tipped bolt streaked out flat through the air, a thump as the parts that launched it struck the pads from whence they were hauled back with a clink of gears and iron dogs that drew the mechanism tight again as the next bolt was put into place—then a cry from below.

Atop the open towers, the men at the catapults, their ears blocked with wax, straightened and bent. The sounds of the catapults were repeated again, and again, dominated by the clear tones of the warhorn, whose silver note seemed to hang in the air, than vanish, still holding the minds of the hearers, involuntarily seeking to find it.

Abruptly a shout rose up from below:

"The Baron's down! Baron Summa's down!"

There was another shout:

"Evertrue has killed him!"

The Chief had time for a brief ironical thought that it was not Evertrue, but a bolt from a catapult that had done the job. Then he had drawn another breath, and spoke intently into the voice-thrower. The voice-thrower magnified his words in the sudden stillness:

"True men, will you fight for Right?"

From some one of the towers came the carrying voice of the chaplain, praying for the penance of those who had fallen into evil ways, calling upon them to repent while time still remained.

Through the minds of those below—except the aliens—there would now be moving a grim familiar prophetic chant:

"Above them rear the walls of stone.

The war flag climbs upon the wind.

The warhorn speaks in silver tone.

The traitor to the earth is pinned . . ."

Arion said, "They've passed the word up. Summa is dead and his men are milling around."

The Chief drew a deep breath, and spoke into the voice-thrower. He kept his voice even, but it came out like thunder:

"Men of Summa! Your place is at the palisade! You are stronger than the enemy there!

"Now is your chance! ATTACK!"

There was a shout from below. The armored men, already near, rushed the palisade with its wide-open gates. Tarvon's voice rang out. The aliens atop the palisade, some still watching bemused as if they were spectators, were struck by a hail of arrows from the walls and towers. Out in the valley, the long glittering line of those who had other treasonous leaders stood as if paralyzed. The mounted aliens for a long confused moment looked on as if baffled to understand what was happening.

The Chief noted the distance of the long line of armored troops still far from the fortress, remembered their weary and hesitant approach, noted now the movement among them of their traitorous leaders, doubtless steadying them with threats and offered rewards. He wanted those men back in the fortress, manning the walls and watchtowers, and he wanted them as a starving man wants food. He could sway them, could challenge the hold of the aliens and their own treasonous leaders—but he could only do it effectively once.

Down below, there was the sharp blast of a whistle. The Chief saw an alien horseman race forward, carrying a pole with one red and one yellow pennant whipping in the wind. The alien horsemen came awake, raced toward the palisade. The entire floor of the valley seemed suddenly in motion.

Tarvon's voice carried, his tone pleasant.

"Catapults, set your aim by the west marker! Line your shots up abreast, straight to the front. Let's get a few horses down. Archers, cover the palisade. Aim careful—those are our men coming in now! Men of Summa, welcome! Man the palisade! We'll cover you!"

The sound of the catapults was almost continuous. The dark heavy bolts blurred out, the horses reared and fell, the air filled with arrows, and beneath the fusillade the armored men of Summa crossed the front of the fortress, and fought their way into the palisade. They were scarcely inside when the palisade wall was freshly topped with loops and hooks, and the invaders pulled themselves up, but now Summa's armored men were atop the footwalk, and more than a match in closing fighting on the wall.

The Chief looked around. The fortress, barely manned, lacked lookouts, and nothing would be more natural than a party of furry invaders with ropes and grappling hooks coming down the river in boats, and up the rocky slope on which the fortress stood, to attack it from behind. But from here, at least, there was nothing in sight yet.

Arion, apparently with the same thought, was looking around, away from the battle, while Marron now pointed excitedly toward the valley.

Out there, more and still more horsemen were coming, but the host of armored men under traitor command stood stock still. Arion turned, and saw them. His voice was surprised. "They're uncertain."

Once again, the Chief saw it as it would seem to those below—except the aliens. He saw the high walls, and above them the war flag; he heard still in memory the silver tone; he saw the archtraitor struck down, heard the chaplain's call for repentance, heard the King's command, and saw before his eyes the troops of Summa change sides. He saw the invaders knocked from their horses, saw them picked off from the palisade, and in the distance heard the voice of Tarvon direct the battle. Those armored hosts might well be feeling desperately which side they should be on.

Marron pointed. "Could we not sway them, too?"

Arion glanced at the Chief, who shook his head.

Marron said, "The warhorn—"

The Chief said quietly, "Summa's men were close. These are still far away. Their armor is heavy, and they are already worn from the march here. Summa had just been struck dead. Their leaders are still with them. The men might try to obey, but they could not. Moreover, the aliens must not become accustomed to the warhorn. And Evertrue must speak only when the time is right, when its orders are possible to obey, and when hopefully the enemy is confused and uncertain."

"But the men hang back. Their leaders are traitors, but the men are loyal. If we could call them in—"

"At any moment the enemy main force may come onto the field. From the accounts, what we see here is only the beginning of them. Then our men out there would be slaughtered. Evertrue must give the order only when the men can obey it. They cannot obey now. We will wait."

Arion said, "Look, the palisade is ours!"

Down below, the armored troops of Summa had finished the enemy resistance inside the palisade, manned the wall and shut the gates. The mounted aliens swirled outside like waves against a rock. Here and there, ropes or hooks topped the sharp-pointed logs, and hairy warriors climbed up, to be enthusiastically struck down by the heavily armed defenders.

The Chief watched thoughtfully. So far, these aliens were not unbeatable fighters. Save for bribery and treason, the fortress would still be secure.

Just then, there rode rapidly over a rise before the forest, a squat horseman surrounded by pennant-bearers. This new arrival turned his horse, and in a flash he and the pennant-bearers crossed the front of the armored troops, followed by uncountable numbers of armored men.

The Chief glanced briefly at Marron. Above the thunder of all those hooves, his voice could not be heard, and even Evertrue would be made faint, while the size of the alien force would intimidate or crush opposition. If he had managed to bring those armored troops actively into the fight, they would now be destroyed. A single glance at Marron's look of horror showed that Marron realized it.

Below, the valley filled with onrushing horsemen, some of whom spread out to go up and downstream, no doubt to work their way through the rocks toward the sides of the fortress. A fresh cloud of dust now betrayed the arrival of something new—riders leading separate short teams that pulled carts.

Tarvon called out, "Catapults! Let's fool these newcomers! Drop bolts at three quarters pull, aimed at those carts."

Below, the carts were coming to a stop, were disconnected from their teams, and rushed forward by small groups of men pulling at the tongues and sides of the carts.

The Chief, watching, considered the disconnected rumors that had preceded the arrival of these conquerors. In these rumors, thunder, earthquakes, and lightning bolts shared the credit for the speed of the conquests with dragons that belched fire, and iron falcons that plunged from the sky. If anything as commonplace as carts had been mentioned, he could not recall it.

Below, the carts were stopped and swung around. From some were removed, with heavy effort, curious objects like very deep black iron cooking pots. From others came odd-shaped lengths of wood or metal. But then, from the fortress, the bolts reached out, and fell short. The bearers, setting up their curious objects, glanced up, watched, took fresh holds on their heavy burdens, and moved them in closer.

Tarvon called, "Catapults! Elevate! At three-quarters pull! Try again!"

Again, the bolts failed to make the distance. The aliens showed brief grins as they set up their odd-looking devices. They worked fast and smoothly. Already, there were puffs of smoke.

Tarvon said, "Catapults, from left to right, divide the target! Full strength! Strike at will!"

From the aliens' curious devices down below, things like black large-size children's balls were blurring up into the air.

Now the catapults, too, were in action. The iron-shod bolts flashed out.

The Chief, frowning, looked up, and it went through his mind that no fortifications, of whatever strength, had stopped these outlanders yet. For generations, they had been held beyond the line of the North River, and, save for raids, they could not come south, though in return few who raided their territory had come back to tell of their deeds. But now that had changed.

Now, they came south, through counties, duchies, and kingdoms, and nothing stopped them. With the plunder from one conquest, they bribed the faithless of the next conquest, slew the loyal, took their goods, and bribed the faithless of the next, creating a huge empire subject to them alone.

This went through the Chief's mind, along with the knowledge that, great though their numbers were, even such numbers could have had the work of half-a-year at the least to subject Great Keep, just below the North River, while Pinnacle Rock, inaccessible, with walls that were said to be a hundred feet high, could have held out as long as the food in its storehouse and the water in its cisterns. Both were lost before swift-riding messengers could bring help from the south.

Looking up as the black balls dropped, it once again came to the Chief that there was something else, and these black balls could be part of that something else. He seized Arion roughly.

"Below! Get to shelter, quick!" He turned to the pages. "Set down the voice-thrower! Follow Lord Arion!"

He saw that Tarvon must already have gone below, glanced around for Marron—balanced whether he should follow—

There was the beginning of a great wind, the start of a loud noise. A redness briefly surrounded the Chief. There was the start of another wind, the beginning of a heavy thunder. The redness faded. Again, the wind began, and the thunder. Dazed, he could not count the beginnings of the roar and the times the redness rose to shut it out. Then again the redness faded, and this time there was no wind, and no roar.

Beside him, Marron lay on the floor, half-turned, a black dart sunk in his head, the blood oozing out around it. Other black darts were in his body, or on the stone floor, and embedded in the mortar between the stones.

Half the crew of the catapult on the open top of the tower were stretched out, bleeding, while the others held their hands to their ears, stunned.

He looked far out, to see the crew that had worked the weapons that had dealt this slaughter. The bolts from the catapults had reached them. From behind, others were coming forward.

There was a cry from down below. "Tarvon! They've killed Tarvon!"

The Chief, stunned at Marron's death and the sudden loss of Tarvon, kept his countenance unchanged, straightened, saw the voice-thrower with two holes knocked in its sides; but it should still work. Resting the end on the parapet, he spoke into the mouthpiece, toward the men at an exposed catapult:

"All right, men, This is the King. Let's take a few more of them with us, for Tarvon. Crank up that catapult, and see who you can hit, around those black pots."

The remaining men looked around at him, their eyes wide, then raised their hands in acknowledgement, and bent to the work.

He turned the horn, calculated its aim.

"Archers, this is the King. Pass the word. When those black pots spit out those black balls, take cover behind stone, with stone overhead. Those balls burst apart into iron darts. But the stone will stop the iron. Pass the word."

There was a shout as the archers, dazed from the shock, noise, and sudden losses, recognized his voice, and went back into action. As he repeated the warning to other of the defenders, the fortress, temporarily silenced, again began to work ruin on the exposed hosts below. At the voice-thrower, the Chief straightened, drew a deep breath, and then saw the squat alien seated down below on horseback.

For an instant, they were looking directly at each other. The Chief was not certain how, with that fur on his face, it was possible for the alien leader to have any visible expression at all. But a look of intent wonder was clear on the alien face right now.

The Chief turned the voice-thrower toward another flat-topped tower. "Catapults, Tarvon's trick worked, but they're trying to get new men to those heavy pots. Let's pick off the men, and see if we can wreck the pots."

The heavy bolts flashed out again, and there came a cheer. Looking down, he could see one of the pots, burst into pieces where a bolt had hit it head-on. As he watched, another bolt slammed over the top of another one of the pots, missing it by less than an arm's reach.

If that aim could be maintained, it might conceivably be possible to wreck every one of them. If not, the aliens were certain to sneak in after dark to drag them off, and next time use them from out of range of the catapults. But, if they could all be destroyed now—

Obviously thinking the same thing, the enemy chief below gave a command. Messengers left his side to race through swarms of horsemen, who rushed toward the spot. Then another of the pots burst into fragments. The angle of the bolt indicated the crew of the main central tower, and the Chief turned toward them.

"Good work! Let's make them pay!"

There was a visible increase in the bombardment. The alien horsemen converging on the spot made a momentary confusion in which everyone there was in somebody else's way. In such a crowd, a bolt that missed one target might strike another. Men were thrown to the ground. The horses screamed and plunged. The thrown men were trampled under the horses' hooves. Fresh bolts slammed into the panicked mob.

The enemy leader sent new messengers to the spot.

The Chief, looking down on this chaos, balanced the odds if he were now to give the word for a sortie, but he shook his head. Even with Summa's men massed behind the palisade, he lacked the numbers.

Down below, the ruinous shambles was sorted out. At heavy cost, the remaining pots were dragged back out of range, the struggling panicked horses were killed, and the dead and wounded carried off.

The Chief used the voice-thrower. "Good work, men! They don't have quite as many of those things as before!"

The men were grinning. From below, fresh bolts were carried up. The captains were studying how best to take cover when the next bombardment of black balls should drop out of the sky. On the walls and towers, the dead and wounded were being carried below.

Down below, some of the hairy horsemen were shaking their knives at the walls—a change from their easy manner at the beginning.

Arion spoke close by.

"They're closing in—coming up the rocks from behind with sacks the size of grain bags. I've got archers picking them off, but the angle is steep, and we can't hope to hit them all."


"Leather sacks."

"At the north and south walls, or along the river?"

"All three. Naturally, they're having more trouble on the river side."

"What have they got beside the sacks?"

"Hammers, picks, bars—We don't know what there is inside the sacks, but the whole thing looks like some kind of working party. The ones that are armed seem to be just in case we should go out and attack the working parties. We don't have the men. But we're a lot better off than we were."

"Best we bring most of Summa's men inside, to help man the walls if need be. But for now keep a strong force near the main gate. We may want to hit the enemy once they're back inside the palisade."

"It's being done. Tarvon gave the orders just before he was hit."

"When these alien working parties get close enough, let them have a little oil."

Almost as he spoke, there was a terrible scream from somewhere behind and below.

Arion said drily, "I've already given the word."

"I wonder—what can they do with sacks?"

"What could they do with pots?"

"Yes . . . Look at them down there. They're waiting."

Below, the alien horsemen, from a safe distance, were looking up. Amongst them, some archers vainly tried to send their shafts up to the walls, then occasionally darted into motion as answering shafts came close. But there was no rush to get near the walls. Long ladders had been brought up, but no-one was using them. At a respectful distance, the peculiar deep pots were again being set up, so there would be that to live through before long. The Chief considered the situation.

"Where could we put our catapults, except at the tops of the flat-roofed towers?"

Arion frowned. "There's no other place right for them. We can't very well shoot them out an arrow slit. Maybe on the walls, here and there. But that's no better."

"What hit Tarvon?"

"He'd gone below, and crossed the covered bridge to West Two tower, to look out. One of those balls burst overhead, and the pieces smashed through the roof of the tower."

The Chief glanced at the conical roof of the tower called West Two, directly in front and on a lower level than where he stood. The tower was low enough not to block the view of the battlefield from here, but Tarvon, having gone below, would have found it in the way, and crossed the covered bridge to it, to get a better view.

"We'll have to reinforce the roofs." The Chief could see the holes plainly, along with a number of darts stuck in the cone-shaped roof. "The darts broke through the weathered shingles. Where they hit the timbers, they didn't go through."

He glanced up, to see the sun still well up in the sky.

"I don't see how they're going to take us before dark. By dawn, we can have some of these roofs reinforced."

From down below, toward the upstream side of the castle, there was a piercing scream, then another.

More hot oil, no doubt.

But if enough of the enemy were that close—

The stones jumped underfoot. There was a roar, and the sound of a crash, of an avalanche, and another heavy crash shook the fortress.

From the distance, a black ball blurred up into the air, followed by another, and another.

The Chief noted that the bulk of the enemy remained unmoving. He called to the exposed catapult crews. "Get below! Quick!"

The crews dove for the trapdoors.

He looked around.

A huge cloud of dust was rolling skyward from the wall along the river. At a second glance—

Arion said, "The wall's gone!"

"It can't be!"

"Look at the end tower. See those few rocks sticking out? That's all that's left! Look further. There's the wall again. In between, a big length has gone down!"

"You're right!" The Chief glanced up, and grabbed Arion. "Quick! Get below!" He thrust him toward the steps, saw out of the corner of his eye the concerted movement on the field, toward the fortress. He looked up, wincing as he glimpsed the black balls dropping. He lifted the end of the voice-thrower, calculated where below, under cover, his men should be.

"Archers! Put some arrows in that crowd! In that pack, anywhere you hit will do good! When they're close, tip some oil on them!"

He glanced around, to see that Arion had gotten below. There was the first rush of wind, the start of a roar, then a redness that cut out wind and sound, a flash as if he saw the scene around him briefly through a closing door, another roar, cut off by the redness, and another—

He was standing, one hand on the parapet. Below, the whole valley was alive with rushing horsemen. Behind him, there was a roar, a crash, an uprush of dust. He turned to the voice-thrower, saw it was holed from end to end, useless. He looked down, saw the enemy chief sending off a messenger, who rode hard toward the face of the fortress that looked upriver. Closer at hand, he saw the hook of a ladder over the outer wall, saw a hairy face rise up—

From the slit of a nearby tower, an arrow flashed. The climber, struck in the throat, toppled from the wall. The ladder was still there.

A warrior in armor stepped out of a tower in the wall, briefly studied the ladder, and swung an axe. The ladder dropped from sight. The warrior stepped back into the tower.

The Chief looked up, saw the sun still well overhead. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a blurred motion. The black balls were dropping in again, one after another.

It came to him then, looking at the black balls coming, and down at the voice-thrower, shot full of holes, that he must be dead, his body lying somewhere on the stone floor, or perhaps fallen over the parapet to down below, but he did not yet know it.

His consciousness, seated in his soul, looked out the eyes of his soul, and for now he could see, but surely not act in the world, because his worldly body could not be alive after this. And the teaching of those who had studied the matter was that the real man was in the soul, which, like the rider of a horse, at least in theory mastered and controlled the body, with its wild impulses and sudden unruly nature.

Uneasily, he rubbed his left hand across the Star Men's ring, felt the hard facets, glanced at it in surprise, saw the two lions risen up, their forepaws outstretched, their claws out, the ruby gemstone glowing as if lit from within.

There was the beginning of a wind and a roar, cut off by redness, and this time he was thinking: Did rings have souls? Did, then, a blue star gem have the soul of a ruby? Was a gold standing beast the soul of one lying down? No. It made no sense.

Then it followed that he was still alive, and since he could not possibly live through what had cut through the voice-thrower, killed half the catapult crew, and smashed through the roof of West Two to kill Tarvon—since he could not possibly have lived through that, it followed that he had not lived through it—something had kept it from him.

And since no known thing had powers that could have kept it from him, something of unknown powers had kept it from him. It could only be the ring, given him by the star traveler, in gratitude for a baby's life.

Just as an arrow could strike down the fiercest predator from a distance, the Chief thought, just as the enemy's sack of unknown substance could bring down the fortress walls, and just as these clearly impossible things were done by routine once understood, though they seemed like magic until understood, so the ring, like a beautifully decorated bow, was much more than an ornament.

Then once again the world was there, and the redness gone. The remains of the voice-thrower were scraps of metal against the parapet. The floor was covered with chips of stone and bits of mortar mingled with the black darts. There were black darts stuck upright in the mortar, and lying on the stone floor like hail after a storm.

From below, faintly to his deadened ears, came a muffled sound of hooves, then a ringing silence.

Looking down, the Chief saw the horsemen drawn back, like a tide that has pulled back from a shore in a huge wave, in order that it may smash more heavily against the rocks in its next blow.

The Chief, frowning, saw the enemy messengers, with their pennants, grouped around the squat alien leader, who was looking directly at him.

From behind, there was a rush of feet on the steps. Arion's voice was breathless.

"The river wall is breached at ground level! There's nothing but a pile of rocks they can climb over!"

The Chief looked around, but could not see through the dust.

Arion said, "The wall is all down between the middle tower and the northeast tower. But we've got archers to pick them off as they climb in over the rubble. Thank God we've got plenty of arrows!"

Looking back toward the river, it dawned on the Chief that this latest catastrophe was partly concealed by the massive bulk of the main central tower. But that tower must be as vulnerable as anything else. He looked back at Arion.

"They're not in anywhere yet?"


"Is the main gate still unhurt?"

"Yes, but the outer entrance, through the palisade, is partly blocked with fallen rocks. The tunnel entrance is clear, but the tunnel is too narrow to put men through in a hurry."

"Good. Now tell me, what's this?"

Arion stood beside him, looking down where the aliens had withdrawn.

Arion's voice was wondering. "Why should they—"

"Look at their faces."

The aliens' hairy faces as they watched the fortress were marked by three openings—two where their eyes looked out, and one where their mouths split into what appeared to be grins of anticipation.

Of all the aliens, only a few, here and there, appeared somber. Amongst them, squat and stolid, the Chief saw the alien leader, watching him with a look that was alert, and almost fearful.

In a brief flash of comprehension, it came to the Chief that just as he had unleashed carefully timed strokes against the waverers under Summa's banner, so the alien chieftain worked to a similar pattern in guiding his attack. And where his own alien men saw no reason to fear the outcome, the alien chief was conscious of a break in the accustomed pattern.

In this brief flash of insight, the Chief seemed to look up at the fortress, to see through a hell of fire and iron a single motionless figure which stood upright, unaffected, to counter blow with blow, waiting, knowing in advance the sequence of strokes that must follow, biding his time to let loose the final blow.

The stone floor of the tower jumped underfoot. There was a roar from all around them. Clouds of dust, on all four sides, rolled skyward.

Unbidden, the prophetic chant came to him:

"The alien host that bought our spears

With magic dust brings down our walls.

Still know, the trumpet has no fears.

Through smoke and flame, our duty calls."

The Chief looked back at the massive bulk of the central tower, looming through the rolling clouds of dust. He raised his voice, but kept it even as he called out:

"Let Evertrue speak!"

Back there, somewhere, was the trumpeter. Let him quaver just the slightest, and there would be a false note. The pattern that so far gripped the loyal might break. The prediction of the chant would be shown false. The alien pattern would prevail.

The silver tone spoke, over the noise and the dust.

The tone turned in the air, flawless, riveting the attention, holding the listeners motionless.

Then it was gone. The ear still sought for it, but found it only in memory.

The dust, slowly, blew away.

The Chief caught his breath.

The outer walls were down.

It was not just one part of a wall now. Looking around, it was clear why the enemy had pulled back. No-one would want to be close when those heavy rocks came down. The towers of the walls, here and there, still stood. Behind the rubble—and the Chief could see now that that rubble in places rested on structures that had not wholly collapsed—the towers behind the collapsed walls still stood. But the effect on the mind of the crash of those walls should have been crushing—except for the tone of the warhorn, and the remembered words of the prophetic chant.

Looking down across the wisps of dust still trailing from the collapsed heaps of masonry, the Chief could see the unmoving aliens in their hosts, and their squat leader somberly studying the fortress. From somewhere to the rear came a roar, a faint jar, and a heavy crash of falling rock, as some blast, that should have taken place earlier, joined in belatedly.

Illogically, the Chief felt cheerful. This time, there would be no holding the aliens at the wall. The wall was no longer there. They would get over the rubble, into the courtyard, would succeed in using their magic on the inner walls and towers—if they lived. But many of them would never make it through the hail of arrows that would greet them. And many who got in would never emerge from this place on their own feet. The Chief, foreseeing the attack, drew his sword.

There was a motion amongst the mounted enemy hosts, as if they sensed the order to attack just as the Chief had sensed it, before it came. But faintly across the gap between the enemy and the fortress, strewn with dead horses and the bodies of the enemy, there came a snarling repetition of sharp commands.

The enemy line of soldiers on foot, backed by a heavy mass of horsemen, had begun to move forward, but now stopped, and even, with much jostling, drew back.

The Chief, prepared for an attack, sensed what had happened. In the fortress, even in the rubble of the fortress, a determined defence might inflict untold casualties. The enemy chief had no desire to expend his strength in a killing match in a rock heap where his horses were worthless, and his tough but lightly armored troops were at a disadvantage.

The command to close for the kill, once given, could not easily be withdrawn. His war machine could be wrecked here against an unshaken enemy whose leader watched smiling from above, plainly looking forward to the finish fight at close quarters. And how did that leader still live after the bombardment that had burst around him? The alien chieftain sensed a trap, and suddenly turned on his horse to shout a fresh command.

Watching intently, the Chief realized with a shock that the pattern still held. That, in fact, so far from the aliens breaking it, it was coming to dominate them, through the mind of their leader. He turned to Arion.

"We have another voice-thrower, don't we?"

"Yes, in the armory downstairs."

"We may need it."

"I'll get it."

A moment later he saw the armored figure being brought forward, and realized that the alien leader was already working to free himself from the dilemma. As the Chief watched, an alien on horseback was leading one single man in armor slowly and reluctantly toward the fallen outer walls. A brief clatter beside him told the Chief that Arion had brought the voice-thrower. Down below, somewhat more than halfway to the fortress, the armored figure stopped, and called out. His voice seemed small, but clearly audible:

"Will you parley?"

The Chief sheathed his sword, and the click carried. He raised the voice-thrower, and his voice seemed unnaturally loud:

"What do they say?"

"They offer terms."

"So do we."

"Give your word of loyalty to their chief—their king—and pay the equal of one tenth of the yearly crop's worth to his collector. If you give your word, he will leave at once, and you may settle matters here as you choose."

The Chief spoke as much for his men, who would be intently listening, as to the enemy leader. He spoke also for those to hear whose leaders had been bought by the enemy, and who would just have heard their new hairy ruler offer their lives freely as part of the barter.

The Chief spoke carefully. "Tell him we thank him for his offer, but our word is pledged in an ancient oath that must be upheld by all those who are true. And we do not need to yield. We are at the center of our strength, and his force, though great, is not sufficient to break it.

"But he is far from home, and behind him for many days' march, there is no-one he can trust if he should have ill-fortune. There is no-one back there bound to him by blood, love, or loyalty. Save his own men here, there is no-one at his command but those who are cowards, who are unwilling, or whose loyalty could be bought. Here, if he attacks further, we will break his strength, and he will see what, in the final clash, false hirelings and those betrayed into his service by their own false leaders are worth. But we will make an offer of our own. Will he hear it?"

There was a silence, then, with an effort, the armored figure spoke: "He will hear it."

"Tell him that he has won so far by new and subtle means of unleashing force. Tell him that there are still subtler means that can lift men to the stars, set metal aflame, blot out the lightning and silence the thunder. His coming has been foretold by prophecy, and he who would defeat the prophets in their power must take care, lest unwittingly he fulfill the prophecy instead. We offer that he may withdraw now, and we will let him go with no further hurt. Neither will we, if he leaves at once, summon those whose loyalty will cast aside bribery and betrayal to join the true cause at our first call. We know their real feelings.

"We decline his offer, and remind him that he knows the subtle might of the stars. We call upon him to soberly weigh our offer, while there is still time."

The armored figure raised its gauntleted hand in salute, and the Chief returned the salute, knowing now which side this warrior wished to be on. He watched the armored figure return to the alien chieftain, saw the hairy interpreters confer with both, to clear up points that might be uncertain. There followed a silence, in which the predicament of the alien leader was clear enough to the Chief.

Obviously enough, to the alien ruler and perhaps a few of his leaders, some new power was in evidence here. Otherwise, the King who had just spoken from the fortress would have been killed in the first bombardment. Worse, this King was said to have friends amongst the star men, so the possibilities for unpleasant surprises were practically unlimited. On the other hand, the outer walls were down, and to turn back now, with his army convinced that one last assault would take the place—that would breed doubts as to his judgment and his courage, and be possibly even worse than a defeat.

The Chief, looking down, saw the enemy chief look up. Even at this distance, he could read a message of angry irresolution in the alien's gaze.

Briefly, despite himself, the Chief smiled. Suddenly, another part of the chant came to him:

"Look, a streak is drawn across the sky,

In answer to our King-Chief's cry.

Now see the enemy stand silent by,

As a mightier host comes marching nigh."

Down below, they were all looking up.

The Chief glanced up as a peculiar traveling thunder crashed and rumbled overhead.

There in the sky hung a long narrow cloud, at the head of which, like an armored forefinger, was a glittering something—a star ship!

The Chief felt his breath stop, but with an effort kept a grip on his sense of reality.

What was happening, so far, fit the chant with unvarying trueness. But prophecies had been known to fail before.

Arion spoke at his shoulder, his voice awed.

"They've come!"

The Chief spoke in a low voice. "They can see us from down there, and you aren't the only one with eyes as sharp as a bird of prey. Keep your own features impassive, and let me know how their ruler looks to you. He's the squat one, in the center of that group of messengers with pennants."

Arion said more soberly, "With all that fur on his face—H'm—To me, he looks stubborn, but none too easy in his mind."

"That's what I thought. Now, how do we take advantage of this?"

"But do we need to? Certainly it's the star men come to help us?"

"How do we know that? Is that the first star ship we've ever seen pass overhead?" The Chief kept his voice low. "Even if it should be the star men, how do we know they can help?"

"It fits the chant—the prophecy."

"It fits part of it, but let's not take leave of our senses just yet. How about that line that goes, 'The fallen walls with iron ghosts are manned'?"

"True . . . Unless it means, which is true, when those walls fell that we lost heavily . . . But, at least, we'd gotten the best part of Summa's men safe before the collapse, and they didn't get hurt. They're all loyal. The rot only touched the Baron."

"Now look, down there."

Down below, the armored figure came forward again. This time, with the visible streak across the sky overhead, he saluted before speaking.

"Chief and King, the alien knows of the prophecy, but he wants proof it is true."

The Chief glanced at the collapsed outer walls, considered the men lost in that collapse, and considered also the form of address, 'Chief and King.' That meant acceptance as both head of the clan and ruler. The armored figure below was now leaving no doubt as to which side he was on. To his natural loyalty was added, no doubt, an earnest desire to be on the right side when the forces of Justice proved mightier than the aliens. This same emotion might very naturally be shared by the bulk of the armored troops betrayed into the alien service by their self-seeking or overawed leaders.

The chief raised the voice-thrower.

"Tell him," he said carefully, "to open his ranks between the fortress and the landing place of the star men, and he will have proof. Tell him that, if he had attacked earlier, the star men, in their might, would have come onto the battlefield while his men were enmeshed in the ruins of the fortress."

The armored go-between glanced around, obviously uncertain just where the star men had landed. Overhead, the streak was still plainly in evidence, but, as usually happened, the star ship itself had disappeared. Certain wise men, the Chief remembered, surmised that the star ship, as one means of travel, used a mysterious fire which left its smoke behind it, but also, they thought, the star ship could glide, like a hawk, so that the fire was only lit at intervals, and hence the track of smoke appeared only now and then.

Down below, the armored figure looked up hesitantly and then asked, "The landing place?"

The Chief carefully raised his arm to point. The direction in which he pointed was not seriously inconsistent with the path of the streak overhead, and it incidentally would open up a route for the body of armored troops outside, whose leaders the aliens had bought, who were much closer now, and who by now might earnestly want to be on the right side when the rest of the prophecy came true. Those armored troops could make a big difference in the price the enemy had to pay to win—if those troops could be brought to change sides.

Arion cleared his throat.

"I think they have something to try to hear our words with."

The Chief noted a thing like a voice-thrower, the wide end now aimed roughly at him, the narrow end just being taken from the ear of someone near the alien chieftain.

The Chief nodded. "Look."

The enormous horde of mounted aliens was now separating, as half-a-dozen messengers on horseback moved through the ranks. But, the Chief noted, the path they made was curved to miss the armored troops. And yet, if those armored troops should move forward—

"Shrewd," said Arion. "I wonder—"

A small voice, oddly accented but understandable, reached them from below:

"Prove your prophecy."

Down there, one of the hairy translators lowered a voice-thrower.

The Chief considered the situation. In the little group around the alien leader, his couriers waited for orders. In the sky, the streak was still plainly visible, but spreading, and before long would begin to fade away. There was an intense and waiting silence in the motionless host below. This tension couldn't last forever. It would break, in one way or another.

The Chief turned to look back at the central tower, and was jarred as if by a physical blow. Back beyond the tower was the reflected glint of light on the river. Though he knew that the outer wall of the fortress was down, he hadn't expected to see the river. But the dust was settled, and there was nothing there now to cut off the view. He drew a deep slow breath, then faced the tower, and spoke slowly and clearly.



"Let Evertrue sound the Assembly."

When he turned back to face the aliens, he could feel the loss of the fortress wall behind him. It was as if his back were naked, exposed to whatever blow might be aimed at it.

Then the silver tone hung in the air, turned, fell and rose, its message more complex than before.

Across the field, the armored troops began to move. Down below, a single armored figure separated itself from the enemy messengers and interpreters, to walk with steady pace toward the fortress. Across the field, the entire mass of armor was thrusting its way into the wide cleared aisle, turning, the low-voiced commands clearly to be heard, even the rattle and clink of metal, with the sun glittering on the armor and the unsheathed weapons.

At once, two alien couriers raced up the cleared aisle. But the mass of the aliens, still held in the trancelike grip induced by Evertrue's clear silver tone, did not move as the tone rose, fell, and then faded insensibly away.

The armored troops were coming now, massed and purposeful, straight down the aisle toward the fortress. As they came, they threw up the visors of their helmets to stare, desperately earnest, toward the fortress and the two unmoving figures who looked down upon them from its high tower.

The Chief drew his breath carefully, looking from the approaching troops to the plainly baffled alien leader. However the alien might have been affected by Evertrue's tone, he could hardly guess the effect of that particular call to assemble by the colors. Neither could he tell by the purposeful advance whether conceivably an attack on the fortress was in progress, or an open changing of sides in the teeth of his own superiority.

The Chief let the uncertainty stretch out till he saw the alien leader turn to a messenger. Then he turned back toward the central tower and spoke very clearly.

"Let Evertrue sound the Welcome."

A cheerful call climbed into the air.

A shout of mingled relief and exultation burst from the armored troops as they realized they were welcomed back into the fold. They could have been treated as traitors, and once close enough, greeted with bolts, arrows, and taunts of contempt.

The Chief, feeling the sudden increase in strength like a man waking from a nightmare, reminded himself the odds were still none too good, and he had now the problem of getting these reinforcements into the fortress. The outer walls were mostly down. The mounted men among them could never get across that shambled of tumbled blocks. The palisade still stood, but from here he could see that its normal entrance, ordinarily dominated by the outer wall, was buried under a wreck of fallen masonry. But to judge by the clear ground that he could see, the main gate of the fortress still stood, and almost certainly the tunnel was undamaged.

Once inside the palisade, the way into the fortress, through the main gate or the tunnel, should be clear. But exactly how could he get these troops inside the palisade?

The leaders of the approaching armor were evidently contending with the same problem, and the called orders and direction of march showed that they intended to try to get in as close to the normal entrance as possible, over the fallen blocks, or through a gap in the palisade where the blocks had thrown down the upright logs.

The Chief glanced at Arion.

"We have to hold the palisade. Otherwise, the aliens will be over the outerworks and hit our men as they come in."

"Summa's men are still handy. I'll send the main body through the gate. The tunnel's too slow. Then I'll be back."

Down below, as if caught in a dream, the invaders stood unmoving. Then the alien leader, possibly uncertain at first what the shout of the armored troops had meant, turned sharply to the men around him. The messengers raced out with signal flags. The massed enemy horsemen gave a sudden roar, and surged forward.

Down below, the armored men, caught between the collapsed wall and a host of attackers, turned to fight. Behind them, on the palisade, armored men appeared. The mounted aliens were greeted from the fortress with flights of arrows and heavy bolts. But before the fight could be truly joined, from the far distance came a remote but clear golden tone.

This tone climbed, turned in the air, climbed again. It wasn't Evertrue, but it had Evertrue's ability to pin the mind, to stop the thoughts.

The clash below died away, everyone staring into the distance, no-one certain what this meant.

The Chief turned back toward the main central tower.

"Let Evertrue sound the Welcome!"

The passage of the chant rang in his head:

"Shall Evertrue call for help in vain?

No! Where was one, there shall be twain!"

The silver tone rose behind him.

From the distance, the golden tone responded, note for note.

Out there now, he could see dust drifting up, in the distance.

A quick glance showed him the alien chief, rapping out orders. Messengers raced over the field. The enormous host of horsemen moved like a single living thing, and now the enemy had changed position, and was drawn up with his main body facing to the west.

And there, passing across the flank of the enormous host of aliens, came a glitter and flash, and now the Chief could make out a small band—At once, even at this distance, he recognized the strange armor—that marched with solid unvarying tread straight for the fortress. The armor told him it was the star men. But now, for the first time, he felt a touch of fear.

They were few.

They had come. Years, decades, in the past, he had helped them. Across what unknown spaces the call had reached them—it must have gone out in some way from the ring—he could not know. But they had not hesitated. They were here.

But they were few.

Here seemed the first break in the accuracy of the prophetic chant, and the Chief damned himself for having felt relief. There was a tradition that the star men might, occasionally, mingle in human affairs—but that when they did, they would not openly use the tools and weapons of their full power. How had he imagined that the trouble was over because the star men had come? They had come to share the danger with him, that was all.

With equal illogic, he at once felt cheerful.

Let the aliens consider the meaning of such courage.

Arion, beside him again, and watching intently, gave a low exclamation.

"What?" said the Chief.

"I was," said Arion, "frightened at first by the smallness of their numbers. Now—"

"The aliens are not hastening to the attack."

"No," said Arion drily.

The Chief's vision, less sharp than Arion's, now revealed to him a curious fact. Where the little group of star men in armor walked, dust rose from the contact of their feet with the ground. That, at first, seemed natural. What was curious was that the dust continued to rise after the armored men had passed.

Looking from that compact little group, back across the field to the distant point where they had emerged from the forest, an unvarying drift of dust was rising still, fresh and none too thin.

Leaning forward at the parapet as the Star Men approached, the Chief caught his breath. He had begun to notice the details.

Before the staring motionless aliens, the armored men moved with a briskness unusual for men in armor. To move with such ease suggested that they bore a light weight. Yet, behind each of them in the packed dry earth, there stretched a line of footprints, and these footprints, looked at even from this distance, appeared to be two or three inches deep.

The only conclusion the Chief could reach was that the few men approaching in glittering armor were no ordinary warriors. Each individual must be bearing a weight of metal far beyond that of any normal armor. That they bore it so lightly could only suggest the strength of giants.

There was a movement in the close-packed ranks of the watching aliens, as if those in front, closest to the star men, and best aware of their nature, sought to draw away, while those behind, and hence less afraid and more curious, tried to get a better look. Only the alien leader and those close around him stayed truly unmoving.

Now the star men were passing the alien chief, and as if in greeting, salute, or possibly just out of exuberance, they did something that caused those around the alien leader to suddenly draw back, openly staring. For an instant, the Chief could not grasp it.

The star men were marching in unison, the left foot of each striking the ground at the same time. At this distance it was possible to hear the good-natured rhythmic chant with which they kept the beat of their pace. Their shields as they marched, hung on their left arms, while their right arms bore short thick spears slanted back across their right shoulders—save for their leader, who carried a naked broadsword in his right hand.

Except for the thickness of the spears and the size of the sword, there was nothing unusual in any of that. But as they passed the alien chief, the leader of the star men gave what appeared to be a greeting or salute with his sword—there was no menace in the gesture itself—and his men behind him at once changed their hold on shields and spears to the sound of a clashing of arms so harsh, loud, and ringing that it briefly left the Chief, looking down, feeling faint and dizzy.

There below, the Star Men marched, and as the right foot of each struck the ground, the shields were abruptly on their right arms, and the spears slanted back across their left shoulders, and the marchers enthusiastically banged the butts of their spears—the long sharp points thrust straight up in the air—twice against the shields.

Then, as their left feet struck the ground, the shields were again on their left arms and the spears on their right shoulders, and again there was a mighty ringing clash as the butts of the spears were banged twice on the shields. It happened so fast there was no way to see how it was done, yet it was done good-naturedly, exuberantly, as a boy tosses a ball and catches it in his hand.

And now something that had no doubt already dawned on the massed aliens dawned on the Chief. That deafening volume of sound could never have come from so few men. He took another look.

Down there, the dust was still rising where the Star Men marched, and now they were close enough so the Chief could get a better look behind them. Coming along in back of them were another set of fresh footprints, and another, and another—until it dawned on him that while he could see only a few men, the sounds, the visible dust, the trampling of the dirt—all the indications were of an uncountable host of fighting men in massive armor, and of such might as to bear such armor lightly. And most of these men could not be seen.

They were still passing the near end of the aliens, who were drawing back, and now they tossed their spears in the air and caught them. Now they clashed their spears on their upraised shields, making a clanging noise that hurt the ears at this distance. Then the head of the column was approaching the fallen walls, and there appeared ladders, and the ladders were swung up, so that the upper ends leaned forward as if against walls still there to receive them.

The sun was now low enough so that, even holding up his hand to protect his eyes, the glare was dazzling. Leaning forward, the Chief peered again at the ladders. They were up above the collapsed masonry, to where the walls had been before they had been brought down, and the ladders remained solidly upright, but now bent slightly as if unseen weight bore down upon them.

Now, passing the alien host as the sun descended, came different prints in the soil, and the Chief recognized the dust and the hoofmarks suggesting a formidable host of armored knights, invisible like the rest, that drew up outside the walls and faced the enemy.

At the fallen walls of the fortress, fresh lines of footprints reached the ladders, and there was the clang of metal, the scuff of feet, the clink and rattle of an uncountable host coming up the ladders and along the walls, spreading out on the vanished battlements ready for the fight—if anyone here should care to make a fight—and there was nothing wrong with it anywhere save that there were no walls, no battlements, no outer towers there to defend, but that did not trouble the Star Men. From them, now, there came a clash of spears on shields that traveled from the walls back up the dusty trail to echo from hill to hill from the fortress down the valley up into the forest and out of sight in the distance.

The sun was now low in the west, and the Chief peered down at the enormous and motionless host of silent alien horsemen. Amongst these horsemen, he located the enemy chief, looked at him steadily, and the enemy chief slowly turned his head and looked back. Written in the slowness with which he turned his head, and in the wideness of his eyes, was an acknowledgement of defeat. Solemnly, the Chief looked back, feeling no triumph but only a great relief as the prophecy completed itself.

Before the motionless and wide-eyed aliens, the dust was still rising. The earth where the Star Men passed was churned and pitted to such a degree that the entire surface looked beaten down below the general level of the fields to either side. From time to time, a good-natured clashing of weapons on shields broke out somewhere among the invisible marching host, to travel in both directions, and roll and echo like iron thunder, back and forth, from the walls to the valley, to the forest and back again.

Each time, this clashing was louder, and the sound now from atop the walls, as the walls would have been before they fell, was such as could have been equaled only by a solid mass of troops, shoulder to shoulder drawn up on the battlements three or four deep. And now a none too subtle change was there to be heard in the clash and shout and the gathering steady throb of drums—The sound was no longer so good natured. It began to carry a threat. It began to suggest the gnashing of the teeth of innumerable large and hungry beasts of prey.

The Chief looked down at the leader of the aliens.

The alien chief looked back. Then he glanced around.

The dust no longer rose from the beaten ground before him.

Abruptly the mounted messengers with their pennants raced in either direction along the front of the silent mass of horsemen. How it was done, the Chief couldn't grasp, but abruptly the huge mass moved, almost as one man, and with a pound that seemed to shake the earth, they went across the fields, over the hill, up the far side of the valley into the forest, and away.

They were gone.

The Chief exhaled slowly, and thanked God.

Arion gripped his arm.

The Chief turned.

There before him in the fading light was the armor he knew from long ago. The voice, too, was familiar, and this time the words were in his own tongue:

"We star men, as you call us, differ among ourselves, as you differ among yourselves—But there are those among us who believe in paying our debts. Your ring is like a knot in a net made of strands of force, and this force can defend you, while waves moving along the strands can travel at speeds well above that of light. So we learned of this trouble and came to try to repay you."

The Chief said carefully, "I have no way to thank you. Any debt is more than repaid." He twisted off the ring, and held it out.

The voice from the armored suit was warm, but no hand reached out to take the ring.

"Perhaps we have repaid our debt, but such things are hard to measure. And there is more to it."

A second figure in armor stepped forward to clasp the Chief's arm. The voice was like the first, but less deep:

"I was in the cradle that you saved from the wreck. This is my first chance to thank you."

"When," said the first voice, "we find those who do what is right, we remember them. We cannot be truly friends, because of such things as disease, and differences in customs and skills. But it is a pleasure to help, albeit that our help is at times mostly illusion. But there is a part that is real, as our gratitude is real. You risked your life for us, and we have not forgotten."

When they were gone—and their departure was a simple thing compared to their coming—the Chief saw that his friend, Arion, was standing apart, tears rolling silently down his cheeks. It struck the Chief with a pang, and he felt, found the ring again where it had been, on his finger, and was about to twist it off to try to comfort his friend; but Arion held out his own hand, where on his finger a wide silver band showed a lion seated, with two tiny bright white stones for eyes.

"The young Star Man," said Arion. "When he passed, he clasped my hand. He said, 'For courage,' and afterwards this ring was there. It soothes my soul, but it isn't right." He began to twist at the ring. "I showed no courage. I was afraid to go back to that burning ship."

"You were with me when we saved the boy. It is that that counts."

"When you saved him, not I. And I would not have given him back. I was afraid. I do not deserve this ring."

"H'm," said the Chief. "It is a ring from the Star Men, Arion. Who knows what power it may possess. It should not be lost."

"Then you take it," said Arion. "I am ashamed to cry, but I cry only that I do not deserve it."

The Chief turned the new ring in his hand, but did not put it on. Neither did he put it in the small leather pouch at his belt. He examined it, and then looked up.

"It is very pretty."

Arion did not reply, but nodded miserably.

"Arion," said the Chief, "I am not only your friend since childhood. I am also your Chief and your King. As you know, I have the power to reward those who deserve it. Now that you have given this ring into my care, I have, I think, the right to reward someone who has been true to his duty, who has courageously stood with me against hosts of alien horsemen so thick they covered the ground. So courageous as not even to think of this as courage. I am speaking of you."

"But that was my duty."

"It was also courage, beyond any doubt. Cup your hand so we do not lose this over the edge. If you had wavered, who knows who else would have gone over to the other side? The younger star man said, 'For courage.' He spoke truly."

Arion, eyes wondering, took the ring in his cupped hand, hesitated, then put it on. He smiled, looking at it, then looked up. "It eases a hurt, from long ago."

"Perhaps he sensed it." The Chief looked around at the wreckage in the moonlight. "Would that we had the skills of the Star Men. To rebuild this—" He paused.

Arion shook his head.

"We can never rebuild this, except as a monument."

"True. It would be useless against such weapons. In the future, our fortresses must be different."

They went down the steps to where the newly lighted torches smoked and flared in their brackets against the blackened stone of the tower. Tomorrow, they would start to think about correcting such of this terrible wreck as could be made right.

But, he thought with relief, at least, now, there could be a tomorrow, and at that thought, he felt also a flood of gratitude to the Star Men. Where, he wondered, were they now? What inconceivable deeds did they perform, up among the stars?

* * *

Colonel Valentine Sanders, speechless, watched his son, Lieutenant Colin Sanders, say earnestly to the General, "Sir, for weeks we've been immersed in the records from the spy devices. These are real people! It's impossible not to act toward them as we would toward our own people."

"Listen," said the General, "you were sent down there to straighten out that mess, not to compound it. To have one guard ring down there is bad enough. Why did you have to deliver another one?"

"Sir, we've seen the records of what happened down there. For more than twenty years Arion has been blaming himself that he didn't show courage when, in fact, he did. Besides, he helped rescue me. And, whatever the psychologists say as to how soon a person can remember things, I can remember Arion's face—I must have seen him when the ship blew up. When I met him, I was overcome with emotion."

The General said, very carefully, "I wonder if this is one of those sins of the fathers that is passed on unto the seventh generation? Just where did this guard ring come from?"

"Sir, from my uncle. He said that in thirty years, he'd really never felt the need to use it. Now that I was in the Patrol, Uncle Basil thought maybe I could use it."

Colonel Sanders looked blankly at his son.

The General looked equally blank. "Val, do you have a brother in the Patrol?"

The Colonel shook his head. "No, sir. I'm afraid not."

There was a considerable silence, as the General stared at the Colonel, while the younger Sanders looked on in puzzlement. Finally, the General said, his voice sounding a little hoarse, "You don't mean—"

Colonel Sanders said hesitantly, "Basil is a Stellar Scout, sir."

The General gave a grunt, as if he had come down a staircase in the dark, and stepped off with one more step still at the bottom.

Colin said, "But what's wrong with that, sir? They scout the planets ahead of the classification teams, ahead of the colonists—They're even ahead of the trapminers and freebooters. The Stellar Scouts are the most advanced outfit there is!"

The General managed a sketchy smile.

Colonel Valentine Sanders growled, "They're advanced in a different way than we are. They use the newest equipment available."

Colin began to ask what was wrong with that, then noted the expressions of his two superiors, and kept quiet.

The Colonel went on. "Ask Basil about his friend, Barnes, some time. Barnes spent a chunk of his life imprisoned on a planet in the Forbidden Zone, back before it was the Forbidden Zone. He wound up there courtesy of several pieces of exceptionally new equipment."

The General said carefully, "Very few people in their right senses use experimental equipment on a day-to-day operational basis. We ourselves use new equipment, when we think it's proven, and now and then we get a black eye or a broken arm out of it. But the Stellar Scouts, if they see something that looks interesting, will raid the research lab for it. I have it on good authority that Stellar Scout ships have gone through the middle of territory controlled by commerce raiders, and the raiders have come boiling out to surrender to the Space Force. Anything to keep away from the Scouts. Years ago, the Scouts had a thing that fired 'holes'—If they aimed it at you and pulled the trigger, chunks of your ship would vanish and reappear unpredictably all through adjacent volumes of space. They still use it—though with a little more discretion."

Colin Sanders blinked. "The chunks reappear unpredictably all through the adjacent space?"

"Right. Including, now and then, the space occupied by the ship using this weapon."

Colin grappled with this revelation.

The General added, "A little imperfection in their equipment won't stop the Scouts. They're used to it."

"I—I see, sir. But the guard ring—"

Colonel Valentine Sanders said thoughtfully, "What was it Basil said? That in thirty years he hadn't really found the need for it? He'd had it thirty years and hadn't tried it out yet?"

"Yes, and now I was in the Patrol, I could have it."

The General growled, "Generous of him."

Colonel Sanders nodded. "Aren't they always generous?"

The General said, "And if he had it for thirty years—"

"Then it's almost certainly one of their early models." The Colonel looked back at his son. "You see, Basil had it for thirty years. And he never used it. As you've pointed out, the Scouts get in dangerous spots. Why hadn't he used it?"

"I don't know. Unless—" Colin hesitated.

"Unless what?"

Colin said indignantly, "Unless he was nervous with it and wanted someone else to try it out first?"

The Colonel nodded. "The first time they go out, when they're still new to the Scouts, little more than recruits, they tend to use all this wonderful stuff. Once it blows up in their faces, provided they survive, they get wary. When two Stellar Scouts get together, what do you suppose they spend the first few hours doing?"

Colin said angrily, "Comparing notes on the equipment?"

"Exactly. And there may be items they both left strictly alone. It looks as if you've passed along one of those."

"But, if that's so—What about Arion?"

The General said, without enthusiasm, "What about him?"

"Sir—We can't leave him with this—this experimental guard ring—"

"Now you've given it to him, how do you take it back?"

Colin looked blank.

Colonel Sanders said, "It is keyed to him, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir. Otherwise, what would be the point?"

"All right. Considering what a guard ring is, how do you or anyone else now take it away from him? If you try to do that, you'll activate it. Then what?"

"That's true . . . Still, he'd give it back if I asked, wouldn't he? And I could replace it with a more reliable—"

The General shook his head. "One involuntary agent on that planet is plenty."

Colin said bleakly, "Poor Arion." He hesitated, then said miserably, "I meant well."

Colonel Sanders said, "Arion seems level-headed. He shouldn't wind up imagining he's a god because of the power of the device. And until it's activated, there should be no great risk. Then, who knows? It might even work as it should. Seeing who made it, probably the greatest risk is to these hairy invaders. And it could be quite a risk. The Stellar Scouts don't pull their punches."

"What if, some day, the wrong person should get it?"

The General said, "Why do you suppose we try to keep track of these things? Why does PDA have the rule against technological devices? Sure, it could make trouble. Lots of it."

Colonel Sanders said, "If Basil offers you anything else, think twice. He means well, too. But, just incidentally, you end up testing the thing for him."

"At least, there was no warning against it in that prophetic chant—and I don't understand that chant, either. How could anyone predict what would happen?"

"Well—When a given culture finds a method that seems to work—that they have the right talent to use—they tend to standardize it, and skip the rest. There may be another method that works, but they pass it by. We used to have prophets. But science seemed more useful and reliable, so we've put more effort into it, and developed it. You have to be prepared for these differences. We even have them from one generation to another."

The General nodded. "There used to be a good deal of wisdom in proverbs. Our ancestors relied on them as guides."

Colin said unhappily, "I could have used one for this situation."

"No problem," said the General, "I'll adapt one for you. A little late; but it might still be useful."

Colin blanked his face and stood straighter, in preparation for what he sensed was about to hit him.

The General thought a moment, then smiled benevolently, though he spoke with real feeling:

"Beware of nearly anyone who comes bearing free gifts. Yourself included."


* * *

Christopher Anvil is the author of many books and stories.

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