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The Guardians



The Guardians







From: The Guardians

It's not always "The Truth shall set you free!"
Sometimes it's "Want of the Truth shall drive
you to escape!" And that can be dangerous!




Mryna Brill intended to ride the god-car above the rain mist. For a long
time she had not believed in the taboos or the Earth-god. She no longer
believed she lived on Earth. This paradise of green-floored forests and
running brooks was something called Rythar.

Six years ago, when Mryna was fourteen, she first discovered the truth.
She asked a question and the Earth-god ignored it. A simple question,
really: What is above the rain mist? God could have told her. Every day
he answered technical questions that were far more difficult. Instead,
he repeated the familiar taboo about avoiding the Old Village because of
the Sickness.

And consequently Mryna, being female, went to the Old Village. There was
nothing really unusual about that. All the kids went through the ruins
from time to time. They had worked out a sort of charm that made it all
right. They ran past the burned out shells of the old houses and they
kept their eyes shaded to ward off the Sickness.

But even at fourteen Mryna had outgrown charms and she didn't believe in
the Sickness. She had once asked the Earth-god what sickness meant, and
the screen in the answer house had given her a very detailed answer.
Mryna knew that none of the hundred girls and thirty boys inhabiting
Rythar had ever been sick. That, like the taboo of the Old Village, she
considered a childish superstition.

The Old Village wasn't large--three parallel roads, a mile long, lined
with the charred ruins of prefabs, which were exactly like the cottages
where the kids lived. It was nothing to inspire either fear or legend.
The village had burned a long time ago; the grass from the forest had
grown a green mantle over the skeletal walls.

For weeks Mryna poked through the ruins before she found anything of
significance--a few, scorched pages of a printed pamphlet buried deep in
the black earth. The paper excited her tremendously. It was different
from the film books photographed in the answer house. She had never
touched anything like it; and it seemed wonderful stuff.

She read the pamphlet eagerly. It was part of a promotional
advertisement of a world called Rythar, "the jewel of the Sirian Solar
System."

The description made it obvious that Rythar was the green paradise where
Mryna lived--the place she had been taught to call Earth. And the
pamphlet had been addressed to "Earthmen everywhere."


Mryna made her second find when she was fifteen, a textbook in
astronomy. For the first time in her life she read about the spinning
dust of the universe lying beyond the eternal rain mist that hid her
world.

The solid, stable Earth of her childhood was solid and stable no longer,
but a sphere turning through a black void. Nor was it properly called
Earth, but a planet named Rythar. The adjustment Mryna had to make was
shattering; she lost faith in everything she believed.

Yet the clock-work logic of astronomy appealed to her orderly mind. It
explained why the rain mist glowed with light during the day and turned
dark at night. Mryna had never seen a clear sky. She had no visual data
to tie her new concept to.

For six years she kept the secret. She hid the papers and the astronomy
text which she found in the Old Village. Later, after the metal men
came, she destroyed everything so none of the other women would know the
Earth-god was a man.

At first she kept the secret because she was afraid. For some reason the
man who played at being god wanted the kids to believe Rythar was Earth,
the totality of the universe enveloped in a cloud of mist. She knew that
because she once asked god what a planet was. The face on the screen in
the answer house became frigid with anger--or was it fear?--and the
Earth-god said:

"The word means nothing."

But late that night a very large god-car brought six metal men down
through the rain mist. They were huge, jointed things that clanked when
they walked. Four of them used weapons to herd the kids together in
their small settlement. The two others went to the Old Village and
blasted the ruins with high explosives.

Vaguely Mryna remembered that the metal men had been there before, when
the kids were still very small. They had built the new settlement and
they had brought food. They lived with the children for a long time, she
thought--but the memory was hazy.

As the years passed, Mryna's fear retreated and only one thing became
important: she knew the Earth-god was a man. On the fertile soil of
Rythar there were one hundred women and thirty men. All the boys had
taken mates before they reached seventeen. Seventy girls were left
unmarried, with no prospect of ever having husbands. A score or more
became second wives in polygamous homes, but plural marriage had no
appeal for Mryna. She was firmly determined to possess a man of her own.
And why shouldn't it be the Earth-god?

As her first step toward escape, Mryna volunteered for duty in the
answer house. For as long as she could remember, the answer house had
stood on a knoll some distance beyond the new settlement. It was a
square, one-room building, housing a speaking box, a glass screen and a
console of transmission machinery. Anyone in the settlement could
contact god and request information or special equipment.

God went out of his way to deluge them with information. The simplest
question produced voluminous data, transmitted over the screen and
photographed on reels of film. Someone had to be in the answer house to
handle the photography. The work was not hard, but it was monotonous.
Most of the kids preferred to farm the fields or dig the sacrificial
ore.

A request for equipment was granted just as promptly. Tools, machines,
seeds, fertilizers, packaged buildings, games, clothing--everything came
in a god-car. It was a large cylinder which hissed down from the rain
mist on a pillar of fire. The landing site was a flat, charred field
near the answer house. Unless the equipment was unusually heavy, the
attendant stationed in the house was expected to unload the god-car and
pile aboard the sacrifice ores mined on Rythar.

God asked two things from the settlement: the pieces of unusually heavy
metal which they dug from the hills, and tiny vials of soil. In an
hour's time they could mine enough ore to fill the compartment of a
god-car, and god never complained if they sometimes sent the cylinder
back empty. But he fussed mightily over the small vials of Earth. He
gave very explicit directions as to where they were to take the samples,
and the place was never the same. Sometimes they had to travel miles
from the settlement to satisfy that inexplicable whim.


For two weeks Mryna patiently ran off the endless films of new books and
unloaded the god-car when it came. She examined the interior of the
cylinder carefully and she weighed every possible risk. The compartment
was very small, but she concluded that she would be safe.

And so she made her decision. Tense and tight-lipped Mryna Brill slipped
aboard the god-car. She sealed the lock door, which automatically fired
the launching tubes. After that there was no turning back.

The dark compartment shook in a thunder of sound. The weight of the
escape speed tore at her body, pulling her tight against the confining
walls. She lost consciousness until the pressure lessened.

The metal walls became hot but the space was too confining for her to
avoid contact entirely. Four narrow light tubes came on, with a dull,
red glow, and suddenly a gelatinous liquid emptied out of ceiling vents.
The fluid sprayed every exposed surface in the cubicle, draining through
the shipment of sacrifice ores at Mryna's feet. It had a choking,
antiseptic odor; it stung Mryna's face and inflamed her eyes.

Worse still, as the liquid soaked into her clothing, it disintegrated
the fiber, tearing away the cloth in long strips which slowly dissolved
in the liquid on the floor. Before the antiseptic spray ceased, Mryna
was helplessly naked. Even her black boots had not survived.

The red lights went out and Mryna was imprisoned again in the crushing
darkness. A terror of the taboos she had defied swept her mind. She
began to scream, but the sound was lost in the roar of the motors.

Suddenly it was over. The god-car lurched into something hard. Mryna was
thrown against the ceiling--and she hung there, weightless. The pieces
of sacrifice ore were floating in the darkness just as she was. The
motors cut out and the lock door swung open.

Mryna saw a circular room, brightly lighted with a glaring, blue light.
The nature of her fear changed. This was the house of the Earth-god, but
she could not let him find her naked.

She tried to run into the circular room. She found that the slightest
exertion of her muscles sent her spinning through the air. She could not
get her feet on the floor. There was no down and no up in that room. She
collided painfully with the metal wall and she snatched at a light
bracket to keep herself from bouncing free in the empty air again.

The god-car had landed against what was either the ceiling or the floor
of the circular room. Mryna had no way of making a differentiation.
Eight brightly lighted corridors opened into the side walls. Mryna heard
footsteps moving toward her down one of the corridors; she pulled
herself blindly into another. As she went farther from the circular
room, a vague sense of gravity returned. At the end of the corridor she
was able to stand on her feet again, although she still had to walk very
carefully. Any sudden movement sent her soaring in a graceful leap that
banged her head against the ceiling.


Cautiously she opened a thick, metal door into another hall--and she
stood transfixed, looking through a mica wall at the emptiness of space
pinpointed with its billions of stars. This was the reality of the
charts she had seen in the astronomy text: that knowledge alone saved
her sanity. She had believed it when the proof lay hidden above the rain
mist; she must believe it now.

From where she stood, she was able to see the place where the god-car
had brought her--like a vast cartwheel spinning in the void. The god-car
was clamped against the hub, from which eight corridors radiated outward
like wheel spokes toward the rim. Far below the gigantic wheel Mryna saw
the sphere of Rythar, invisible behind its shroud of glowing mist.

She moved along the rim corridor, past the mica wall, until she came to
a door that stood open. The room beyond was a sleeping compartment and
it was empty. She searched it for clothing, and found nothing. She went
through four more dormitory rooms before she came upon anything she
could use--brief shorts, clearly made for a man, and a loose, white
tunic. It wasn't suitable; it wasn't the way she wanted to be dressed
when she faced him. But it had to do.

Mryna was pawing through a footlocker looking for boots when she heard a
hesitant step behind her. She whirled and saw a small, stooped,
white-haired man, naked except for trunks like the ones she was wearing.
The wrinkled skin on his wasted chest was burned brown by the hot glare
of the sun. Thick-lensed glasses hung from a chain around his neck.

"My dear young lady," he said in a tired voice, "this is a men's ward!"

"I'm sorry. I didn't know--"

"You must be a new patient." He fumbled for his glasses. Instinctively
she knew she shouldn't let him see her clearly enough to identify her as
a stranger. She shoved past him, knocking the glasses from his hand.

"I'd better find my own--ward." Mryna didn't know the word, but she
supposed it meant some sort of sleeping chamber.

The old man said chattily, "I hadn't heard they were bringing in any new
patients today."

She was in the corridor by that time. He reached for her hand. "I'll see
you in the sunroom?" It was a timid, hopeful question. "And you'll tell
me all the news--everything they're doing back on Earth. I haven't been
home for almost a year."

She fled down the hall. When she heard voices ahead of her, she pulled
back a door and slid into another room--a storeroom piled with cases of
medicines. Behind the cartons she thought she would be safe.

This wasn't what she had expected. Mryna thought there might be one man
living in a kind of prefab somehow suspended above the rain mist. But
there were obviously others up here; she didn't know how many. And the
old man frightened her--more than the dazzling sight of the heavens
visible through the mica wall. Mryna had never seen physical age before.
No one on Rythar was older than she was herself--a sturdy, healthy,
lusty twenty. The old man's infirmity disgusted her; for the first time
in her life she was conscious of the slow decay of death.


The door of the supply room slid open. Mryna crouched low behind the
cartons, but she was able to see the man and the woman who had entered
the room. A woman--here? Mryna hadn't considered that possibility.
Perhaps the Earth-god already had a mate.

The newcomers were dressed in crisp, white uniforms; the woman wore a
starched, white hat. They carried a tray of small, glass cylinders from
which metal needles projected. While the woman held the tray, the man
drove the needles through the caps of small bottles and filled the
cylinders with a bright-colored liquid.

"When are you leaving, Dick?" the woman asked.

"In about forty minutes. They're sending an auto-pickup."

"Oh, no!"

"Now don't start worrying. They have got the bugs out of it by this
time. The auto-pickups are entirely trustworthy."

"Sure, that's what the army says."

"In theory they should be even more reliable than--"

"I wish you'd wait for the hospital shuttle."

"And miss the chance to address Congress this year? We've worked too
long for this; I don't want to muff it now. We've all the statistical
proof we need, even to convince those pinchpenny halfwits. During the
past eight years we've handled more than a thousand cases up here. On
Earth they were pronounced incurable; we've sent better than eighty per
cent back in good health after an average stay of fourteen months."

"No medical man has ever questioned the efficiency of cosmic radiation
and a reduced atmospheric gravity, Dick."

"It's just our so-called statesmen, always yapping about the budget. But
this time we have the cost problem licked, too. For a year and a half
the ore they send up from Rythar has paid for our entire operation."

"I didn't know that."

"We've kept it under wraps, so the politicians wouldn't cut our
appropriations."

Their glass tubes were full, and they turned toward the door. "It isn't
right," the woman persisted, "for them not to send a piloted shuttle
after you, Dick. It isn't dignified. You're our assistant medical
director and--"

Her words were cut off as the door slid shut behind them. Mryna tried to
fit this new information into what she already knew--or thought she
knew--about the Earth-god. It didn't add up to a pretty picture. She had
once asked for a definition of illness, and it was apparent to her that
this place which they called the Guardian Wheel was an expensive
hospital for Earthmen. It was paid for by the sacrificial ores mined on
Rythar. In a sense, Rythar was being enslaved and exploited by Earth.
True, it was not difficult to dig out the ore, but Mryna resented the
fact that the kids on Rythar had not been told the truth. She had long
ago lost her awe of the man called god; now she lost her respect as
well.

Mryna was glad she had not seen him, glad no one knew she was aboard the
Guardian Wheel. She would return to Rythar. After she told the others
what she knew, Rythar would send up no more sacrifice ores. Let the
Earthmen come down and mine it for themselves!


Very cautiously she pulled the door open. The rim corridor was empty.
She moved toward one of the intersecting corridors. When she heard
footsteps, she hid in another dormitory room.

This was different from the others. It showed more evidence of permanent
occupation. She guessed it was a dormitory for the people who took care
of the sick. Pictures were fastened to the curved, metal walls. Personal
articles cluttered the shelves hung beside the bunks. On a writing desk
she saw a number of typed reports. Five freshly laundered uniforms,
identical to the one she had lost in the antiseptic wash, hung on a rack
behind the door. Mryna stripped off the makeshift she was wearing and
put on one of the uniforms; she found boots under the desk. When she was
dressed, she stood admiring herself in the polished surface of the metal
door.

She was a handsome woman, and she was very conscious of that. Her face
was tanned by the mist-filtered sunlight of Rythar; her lips were red
and sensuous; her long, platinum-colored hair fell to her shoulders. She
compared herself to the small, hard-faced female she had seen in the
supply room. Was that a typical Earthwoman? Mryna's lips curled in a
scornful smile. Let the gods come down to Rythar, then, and discover
what a real female was like in the lush, green, Rytharian paradise.

Mryna went to the desk and glanced at the typed reports. They had been
written by a man who signed himself "Commander in Charge, Guardian
Wheel," and they were addressed to the Congress of the world government.
One typed document was a supply inventory; a second, still unfinished,
was a budget report. (You won't show a profit next time, Mryna thought
vindictively, when we stop sending you the sacrifice ore.) Another
report dealt with Rythar, and Mryna read it with more interest.

One paragraph caught her attention,

"We have asked for soil samples to be taken from an area covering ten
thousand square miles. Our chemical analysis has been thorough, and we
find nothing that could be remotely harmful to human life. Atmospheric
samples produce the same negative results. On the other hand, we have
direct evidence that no animal life has ever evolved on Rythar; the life
cycle is exclusively botanical."

The soil samples, Mryna realized, would be the vials of Earth which the
Earth-god had requested so often. Were the Earthmen planning to move
their hospital down to Rythar? That idea disturbed her. Mryna did not
want her garden world cluttered up with a lot of sick, old men discarded
by Earth.

She turned to the second page of the report. "The original colony
survived for a year. The Sickness in the Old Village developed only
after the first harvest of Rytharian-grown food. It is more and more
evident that the botanical cycle of Rythar must be examined before we
find the answer. To do that adequately, we shall have to send survey
teams to the surface; that requires much larger appropriations for
research than we have had in the past. The metal immunization suits,
which must, of course, be destroyed after each expedition--"

"And what, may I ask, is the meaning of this?"


Mryna dropped the report and swung toward the door. She saw a woman
standing there--another hard-faced Earthwoman, with a starched, white
cap perched on her graying hair.

"I must have come to the wrong room," Mryna said in a small voice.

"Indeed! Everyone knows this is command headquarters. Who are you?" The
woman put her hand on Mryna's arm, and the fingers bit through the
uniform into Mryna's flesh.

Mryna pulled away, drawing her shoulders back proudly. Why should she
feel afraid? She stood a head taller than this dried up stranger; she
knew the Earthwoman's strength would be no match for hers.

"My name is Mryna Brill," she said quietly. "I came up in a god-car from
Rythar."

"Rythar?" The woman's mouth fell open. She whispered the word as if it
were profanity. Suddenly she turned and ran down the rim corridor,
screaming in terror.

She's afraid of me! Mryna thought. And that made no sense at all.

Mryna knew she had to get back to the god-car quickly. Since the
Earthmen had built up the taboos in order to get their sacrifice ores
from Rythar, they would do everything they could to prevent her return.
She ran toward an intersecting spoke corridor. An alarm bell began to
clang, and the sound vibrated against the metal walls. An armed man
sprang from a side room and fired his weapon at Mryna. The discharge
burned a deep groove in the wall.

So they would even kill her--these men who pretended to be gods!

Before the man could fire again, Mryna swung down a side corridor, and
at once the sensation of weightlessness overtook her. She could not move
quickly. She saw the armed man at the mouth of the corridor. Frantically
she pushed open the door of a room, which was crowded with consoles of
transmission machines. Three men were seated in front of the speakers.
They jumped and came toward her, clumsily fighting the weightlessness.

Mryna caught at the door jamb and swung herself toward the ceiling. At
the same time the armed man fired. The discharge missed her and washed
against the transmission machinery. Blue fire exploded from the room.
The three men screamed in agony. Concussion threw Mryna helplessly
toward the rim again.

And the Guardian Wheel was plunged into darkness. Mryna's head swam; her
shoulder seethed with pain where she had banged into the wall. She tried
to creep toward the circular room, but she had lost her sense of
direction and she found herself back on the rim.

The clanging bell had stopped when the lights went out, but Mryna heard
the panic of frightened voices. Far away someone was screaming. Running
feet clattered toward her. Mryna flattened herself against the outer
wall. An indistinct body of men shot past her.

"From Rythar," one of them was saying. "A woman from Rythar!"

"And we've blasted the communication center. We've no way of sending the
warning back to Earth--"

They were gone.


Mryna moved back into the spoke corridor. She felt her way silently
toward the circular hub room and the god-car. Suddenly very close she
heard voices which she recognized--the man and the woman who had been
talking in the supply room.

"You're still all right, Dick," the woman said. "She hasn't been here
long enough to--"

"We don't know that. We don't know how it spreads or how quickly. We
can't take the chance."

"Then ... then we've no choice?" Her voice was a small whisper, choked
with terror.

"None. These have been standing emergency orders for twenty years. We
always faced the possibility that one of them would escape. If we'd been
allowed to use a different policy of education--but the politicians
wouldn't permit that. The Wheel has to be destroyed, and we must die
with it."

"Couldn't we wait and make sure?"

"It works too fast. None of us would be able to do the job--afterward."


The voices moved away. Mryna floated toward the hub room. She found the
air lock and pulled herself into the god-car. The metal lock hissed
closed and light came on. Then she knew she had made a mistake. This
ship was not the one she had used when she came up from Rythar. The tiny
cabin was fitted with a sleeping lounge, a food cabinet and a file of
reading films. Above the lounge a mica viewplate gave her a broad view
of the sky.

Mryna remembered that the man in the supply room had said he was waiting
for an auto-pickup; he was on his way back to Earth. Mryna had taken his
ship instead of her own. In panic she tried to open the door again, but
she found no way to do it. Machinery beneath her feet began to hum. She
felt a slight lurch as the pickup left the hub of the Guardian Wheel.

It swung in a wide arc. Through the viewplate she saw the enormous Wheel
growing small behind her, silhouetted against the mist of Rythar.
Suddenly the wheel glowed red with a soundless explosion. Its flaming
fragments died in the void.

Mryna dropped weakly on the lounge. Nausea spun through her mind. The
man had said they would destroy themselves. Because Mryna had come
aboard? But why were they afraid of her? What possible harm could she do
them? Mryna had left Rythar to discover the truth, and the truth was
insanity. Was truth always like this--a bitter disillusionment, an empty
horror?

She had something else to say to the people of Rythar now: not that the
gods were men, but that men were mad. Believe in the taboos; send up the
sacrificial ores. It was a small price to pay to keep that madness away
from Rythar.

And Mryna knew she could not go back. With the Wheel gone, she could
never return to Rythar; the auto-pickup was carrying her inexorably
toward Earth. The scream of the machinery slowly turned shrill,
hammering against her eardrums. The stars visible in the viewplate
blurred and winked out. Mryna felt a twist of vertigo as the shuttle
shifted from conventional speed into a time warp. And then the sound
was gone. The ship was floating in an impenetrable blackness.

Mryna had no idea how much time passed subjectively. When she became
hungry, she took food from the cabinet. She slept when she was tired. To
pass the time, she turned the reading films through the projector.

Most of the film stored in the shuttle covered material Mryna already
knew. The Earthmen, clearly, had not denied any information to Rythar.
Only one thing had been restricted--astronomy. And that would have made
no difference, if Mryna had not found the text in the ruins of the Old
Village. The people on Rythar never saw the stars; they had no way of
knowing--or caring--what lay above the rain mist.

Mryna was more interested in the history of Earth, which she had never
known before. She studied the pictures of the great industrial centers
and the crowded countryside. She was awed by the mobs in the city
streets and the towering buildings. Yet she liked her own world
more--the forests and the clear-running brooks; the vast, uncrowded,
open spaces.

It puzzled her that the people of Earth would give the Rytharian
paradise to a handful of children, when their own world was so
overcrowded. Was this another form of the madness that had driven the
people in the Wheel to destroy themselves? That made a convenient
explanation, yet Mryna's mind was too logical to accept it.

One film referred to the founding of the original colony on Rythar, a
planet in the Sirian System which had been named for its discoverer.
Rythar, according to the film, was one of a score of colonies
established by Earth. It was unbelievably rich in deposits of uranium.

That, Mryna surmised, was the name of the sacrificial ore they sent up
in the god-cars.

The atmosphere and gravity of Rythar duplicated that of Earth; Rythar
should have become the largest colony in the system. The government of
Earth had originally planned a migration of ten million persons.

"But after twelve months the survey colony was destroyed by an
infection," Mryna read on the projection screen, "which has never been
identified. It is called simply the Sickness. The origin of this plague
is unknown. No adult in the survey colony survived; children born on
Rythar are themselves immune, but are carriers of the Sickness. The
first rescue team sent to save them died within eight hours. No human
being, aside from these native-born children, has ever survived the
Sickness."


Now Mryna had the whole truth. She knew the motivation for their madness
of self-destruction. It was not insanity, but the sublime courage of a
few human beings sacrificing themselves to save the rest of their
civilization. They smashed the Guardian Wheel to keep the Sickness
there. And Mryna had already escaped before that happened! She was
being hurled through space toward Earth and she would destroy that, too.

If she killed herself, that would in no way alter the situation. The
ship would still move in its appointed course. Her body would be aboard;
perhaps the very furnishings in the cabin were now infected with the
germ of the Sickness. When the ship touched Earth, the fatal poison
would escape.

Dully Mryna turned up another frame on the film, and she read what the
Earthmen had done to help Rythar. They built the Guardian Wheel to
isolate the Sickness. Sealed in metal immunization suits, volunteers had
descended to the plague world and reared the surviving children of the
colonists until they were old enough to look out for themselves. The
answer house had been set up as an instructional device.

"As nearly as possible, the scientists in charge attempted to create a
normal social situation for the plague carriers. They could never be
allowed to leave Rythar, but when they matured enough to know the truth,
Rythar could be integrated into the colonial system. Rytharian uranium
is already a significant trade factor in the colonial market. An
incidental by-product of the Guardian Wheel is the hospital facility,
where advanced cases of certain cancers and lung diseases have been
cured in a reduced gravity or by exposure to cosmic radiation."

Mryna shut off the projection. The words made sense, but the results did
not. And she knew precisely why Earth had failed. When they matured--in
those three words she had her answer.

And now it didn't matter. There was nothing she could do. Her ship was a
poisoned arrow aimed directly at the heart of man's civilization.


Mryna had slept twice when the auto-pickup lurched out of the time drive
and she was able to see the stars again. Directly ahead of her she saw
an emerald planet, bright in the sun. And she knew instinctively that it
was Earth.

A speaker under the viewport throbbed with the sound of a human voice.

"Auto-shuttle SC 539, attention. You are assigned landing slot
seven-three-one, Port Chicago. I repeat, seven-three-one. Dial that
destination. Do you read me?"

Three times the message was repeated before Mryna concluded that it was
meant for her. She found three small knobs close to the speaker and a
plastic toggle labeled "voice reply." She snapped it shut and found that
she could speak to the Chicago spaceport.

Her problem was easily solved, then. She could say she came from Rythar.
Without hesitation, Earth ships would be sent to blast her ship out of
the sky before she would be able to land. But she knew she had to
accomplish more than that; the same mistake must not be repeated again.

"How much time do I have?" she asked.

"Thirty-four minutes."

"Can you keep this shuttle up here any longer than that?"

"Lady, the auto-pickups are on tape-pilot. Come hell or high water, they
land exactly on schedule."

"What happens if I don't dial the slot destination?"

"We bring you in on emergency--and you fork over a thousand buck fine."

Mryna asked to be allowed to speak to someone in authority in the
government. The Chicago port manager told her the request was absurd.
For nine minutes Mryna argued, with a mounting sense of urgency, before
he gave his grudging consent. Her trouble was that she had to skate
close to the truth without admitting it directly. She could not--except
as a last resort--let them kill her until they knew why the isolation of
Rythar had failed.

It was thirteen minutes before landing when Mryna finally heard an
older, more dignified voice on the speaker. By then the green globe of
Earth filled the sky; Mryna could make out the shapes of the continents
turning below her. The older man identified himself as a senator elected
to the planetary Congress. She didn't know how much authority he
represented, but she couldn't afford to wait any longer.

She told him frankly who she was. She knew she was pronouncing her own
death sentence, yet she spoke quietly. She must show the same courage
that the Earthmen had when they sacrificed themselves in the Guardian
Wheel.


"Listen to me for two minutes more before you blast my ship," she asked.
"I rode the god-car up from Rythar--I am coming now to spread the
Sickness on Earth--because I wanted to know the truth about something
that puzzled me. I had to know what was above the rain mist. In the
answer house you would not tell us that. Now I understand why. We were
children. You were waiting for us to mature. And that is the mistake you
made; that blindness nearly destroyed your civilization.

"You will have to build another Guardian Wheel. This time don't hide
anything from us because we're children. The truth makes us mature, not
illusions or taboos. Never forget that. It is easier to face a fact than
to have to give up a dream we've been taught to believe. Tell your
children the truth when they ask for it. Tell us, please. We can adjust
to it. We're just as human as you are."

Mryna drew a long breath. Her lips were trembling. Did this man
understand what she had tried to say? She would never know. If she
failed, Earth--in spite of its generosity and its courage--would one day
be destroyed by children bred on too many delusions. "I'm ready," Mryna
said steadily. "Send up your warships and destroy me."

She waited. Less than ten minutes were left. Her shuttle began to move
more slowly. She was no more than a mile above Earth. She saw the
soaring cities and the white highways twisting through green fields.

Seven minutes left. Where were the warships? She looked anxiously
through the viewport and the sky was empty.

Desperately she closed the voice toggle again. "Send them quickly!" she
cried. "You must not let me land!"

No reply came from the speaker. Her auto-shuttle began to circle a large
city which lay at the southern tip of an inland lake. Three minutes
more. The ship nosed toward the spaceport.

"Why don't you do something?" Mryna screamed. "What are you waiting
for?"


The shuttle settled into a metal rack. The lock hissed open. Mryna
shrank back against the wall, looking out at what she would
destroy--what she had already destroyed. A dignified, portly man came
panting up the ramp toward her.

"No!" she whispered. "Don't come in here."

"I am Senator Brieson," he said shortly. "For ten years Dr. Jameson has
been telling us from the Guardian Wheel that we should adopt a different
educational policy toward Rythar. Your scare broadcast was clever, but
we're used to Jameson's tricks. He'll be removed from office for this,
and if I have anything to say about it--"

"You didn't believe me?" Mryna gasped.

"Of course not. If a plague carrier escaped from Rythar, we would have
heard about it long before this. The trouble with you scientists is you
don't grant the rest of us any common sense. And Jameson's the worst of
the lot. He's always contended that the sociologists should determine
our Rytharian policy, not the elected representatives of the people."

Mryna broke down and began to cry hysterically. The senator put his hand
under her arm--none too gently. "Let's have no more dramatics, please.
You don't know how fortunate you are, young lady. If the politicians
were as addle-witted as you scientists claim we are, we might have
believed that nonsense and blasted your ship out of the sky. You
scientists have to give up the notion that you're our guardians; we're
quite able to look out for ourselves."





Next: Impact

Previous: Egocentric Orbit



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