Earth was being bet on to break
her blockade ... but what was the
purse ... and who was to collect?
The sight of an Earthman on Vega III, where it was impossible for an
outlander to be, brought angry crowds to surround John Crownwall as he
strode toward the palace of Viceroy Tronn Ffallk, ruler of Sector XII of
the Universal Holy Empire of Sunda. He ignored the snarling, the
spitting, the waving of boneless prehensile fingers, as he ignored the
heavy gravity and heavier air of the unfamiliar planet.
John Crownwall, florid, red-headed and bulky, considered himself to be a
bold man. But here, surrounded by this writhing, slithering mass of
eight-foot creatures, he felt distinctly unhappy. Crownwall had heard
about creatures that slavered, but he had never before seen it done.
These humanoids had large mouths and sharp teeth, and they
unquestionably slavered. He wished he knew more about them. If they
carried out the threats of their present attitude, Earth would have to
send Marshall to replace him. And if Crownwall couldn't do the job,
thought Crownwall, then it was a sure bet that Marshall wouldn't have a
He climbed the great ramp, with its deeply carved Greek key design,
toward the mighty entrance gate of the palace. His manner demonstrated
an elaborate air of unconcern that he felt sure was entirely wasted on
these monsters. The clashing teeth of the noisiest of them were only
inches from the quivering flesh of his back as he reached the upper
level. Instantly, and unexpectedly to Crownwall, the threatening crowd
dropped back fearfully, so that he walked the last fifty meters alone.
Crownwall all but sagged with relief. A pair of guards, their purple
hides smoothly polished and gleaming with oil, crossed their ceremonial
pikes in front of him as he approached the entrance.
"And just what business do you have here, stranger?" asked the senior of
the guards, his speaking orifice framing with difficulty the sibilances
of Universal Galactic.
"What business would I have at the Viceroy's Palace?" asked Crownwall.
"I want to see Ffallk."
"Mind your tongue," growled the guard. "If you mean His Effulgence,
Right Hand of the Glorious Emperor, Hereditary Ruler of the Seventy
Suns, Viceroy of the Twelfth Sector of the Universal Holy
Empire"--Universal Galactic had a full measure of ceremonial words--"he
sees only those whom he summons. If you know what's good for you, you'll
get out of here while you can still walk. And if you run fast enough,
maybe you can even get away from that crowd out there, but I doubt it."
"Just tell him that a man has arrived from Earth to talk to him. He'll
summon me fast enough. Meanwhile, my highly polished friends, I'll just
wait here, so why don't you put those heavy pikes down?"
Crownwall sat on the steps, puffed alight a cigarette, and blew expert
smoke rings toward the guards.
An elegant courtier, with elaborately jeweled harness, bustled from
inside the palace, obviously trying to present an air of strolling
nonchalance. He gestured fluidly with a graceful tentacle. "You!" he
said to Crownwall. "Follow me. His Effulgence commands you to appear
before him at once." The two guards withdrew their pikes and froze into
immobility at the sides of the entrance.
Crownwall stamped out his smoke and ambled after the hurrying courtier
along tremendous corridors, through elaborate waiting rooms, under
guarded doorways, until he was finally bowed through a small curtained
At the far side of the comfortable, unimpressive room, a plump thing,
hide faded to a dull violet, reclined on a couch. Behind him stood a
heavy and pompous appearing Vegan in lordly trappings. They examined
Crownwall with great interest for a few moments.
"It's customary to genuflect when you enter the Viceroy's presence,"
said the standing one at last. "But then I'm told you're an Earthling. I
suppose we can expect you to be ignorant of those niceties customary
among civilized peoples."
"It's all right, Ggaran," said the Viceroy languidly. He twitched a
tentacle in a beckoning gesture. "Come closer, Earthling. I bid you
welcome to my capital. I have been looking forward to your arrival for
* * * * *
Crownwall put his hands in his pockets. "That's hardly possible," he
said. "It was only decided yesterday, back on Earth, that I would be the
one to make the trip here. Even if you could spy through buildings on
Earth from space, which I doubt, your communications system can't get
the word through that fast."
"Oh, I didn't mean you in particular," the Vegan said with a negligent
wave. "Who can tell one Earthling from another? What I meant was that I
expected someone from Earth to break through our blockade and come here.
Most of my advisors--even Ggaran here--thought it couldn't be done, but
I never doubted that you'd manage it. Still, if you were on your home
planet only yesterday, that's astonishing even to me. Tell me, how did
you manage to get here so fast, and without even alerting my detection
"You're doing the talking," said Crownwall. "If you wanted someone from
Earth to come here to see you, why did you put the cordon around Earth?
And why did you drop a planet-buster in the Pacific Ocean, and tell us
that it was triggered to go off if we tried to use the distorter drive?
That's hardly the action of somebody who expects visitors."
Ffallk glanced up at Ggaran. "I told you that Earthlings were
unbelievably bold." He turned back to Crownwall. "If you couldn't come
to me in spite of the trifling inconveniences I put in your way, your
presence here would be useless to both of us. But you did come, so I can
tell you that although I am the leader of one of the mightiest peoples
in the Galaxy, whereas there are scarcely six billions of you squatting
on one minor planet, we still need each other. Together, there is
nothing we can't do."
"I'm listening," said Crownwall.
"We offer you partnership with us to take over the rule of the Galaxy
from the Sunda--the so-called Master Race."
"It would hardly be an equal partnership, would it, considering that
there are so many more of you than there are of us?"
His Effulgence twitched his ear stalks in amusement. "I'm Viceroy of one
of the hundred Sectors of the Empire. I rule over a total of a hundred
Satrapies; these average about a hundred Provinces each. Provinces
consist, in general, of about a hundred Clusters apiece, and every
Cluster has an average of a hundred inhabited solar systems. There are
more inhabited planets in the Galaxy than there are people on your
single world. I, personally, rule three hundred trillion people, half of
them of my own race. And yet I tell you that it would be an equal
"I don't get it. Why?"
"Because you came to me."
Crownwall shrugged. "So?"
* * * * *
The Vegan reached up and engulfed the end of a drinking tube with his
eating orifice. "You upstart Earthlings are a strange and a frightening
race," he said. "Frightening to the Sunda, especially. When you showed
up in the spaceways, it was decreed that you had to be stopped at once.
There was even serious discussion of destroying Earth out of hand, while
it is still possible.
"Your silly little planet was carefully examined at long range in a
routine investigation just about fifty thousand years ago. There were at
that time three different but similar racial strains of pulpy bipeds,
numbering a total of perhaps a hundred thousand individuals. They showed
many signs of an ability to reason, but a complete lack of civilization.
While these creatures could by no means be classed among the intelligent
races, there was a general expectation, which we reported to the Sunda,
that they would some day come to be numbered among the Servants of the
Emperor. So we let you alone, in order that you could develop in your
own way, until you reached a high enough civilization to be useful--if
you were going to.
"Intelligence is very rare in the Galaxy. In all, it has been found only
fifteen times. The other races we have watched develop, and some we have
actively assisted to develop. It took the quickest of them just under a
million years. One such race we left uncontrolled too long--but no
"You Earthlings, in defiance of all expectation and all reason, have
exploded into space. You have developed in an incredibly short space of
time. But even that isn't the most disconcerting item of your
development. As an Earthling, you have heard of the details of the first
expedition of your people into space, of course?"
"Heard about it?" exclaimed Crownwall. "I was on it." He settled
down comfortably on a couch, without requesting permission, and thought
back to that first tremendous adventure; an adventure that had taken
place little more than ten years before.
The Star Seeker had been built in space, about forty thousand
kilometers above the Earth. It had been manned by a dozen adventurous
people, captained by Crownwall, and had headed out on its ion drive
until it was safely clear of the warping influence of planetary masses.
Then, after several impatient days of careful study and calculation, the
distorter drive had been activated, for the first time in Earth's
history, and, for the twelve, the stars had winked out.
The men of Earth had decided that it should work in theory. They had
built the drive--a small machine, as drives go--but they had never dared
to try it, close to a planet. To do so, said their theory, would
usually--seven point three four times out of 10--destroy the ship, and
everything in space for thousands of miles around, in a ravening burst
of raw energy.
So the drive had been used for the first time without ever having been
tested. And it had worked.
In less than a week's time, if time has any meaning under such
circumstances, they had flickered back into normal space, in the
vicinity of Alpha Centauri. They had quickly located a dozen planets,
and one that looked enough like Earth to be its twin sister. They had
headed for that planet confidently and unsuspectingly, using the ion
Two weeks later, while they were still several planetary diameters from
their destination, they had been shocked to find more than two score
alien ships of space closing in on them--ships that were swifter and
more maneuverable than their own. These ships had rapidly and
competently englobed the Star Seeker, and had then tried to herd it
away from the planet it had been heading toward.
* * * * *
Although caught by surprise, the Earthmen had acted swiftly. Crownwall
recalled the discussion--the council of war, they had called it--and
their unanimous decision. Although far within the dangerous influence of
a planetary mass, they had again activated the distorter drive, and they
had beaten the odds. On the distorter drive, they had returned to Earth
as swiftly as they had departed. Earth had immediately prepared for war
against her unknown enemy.
"Your reaction was savage," said Ggaran, his tentacles stiffening with
shock at the memory. "You bloody-minded Earthlings must have been aware
of the terrible danger."
Ffallk rippled in agreement. "The action you took was too swift and too
foolhardy to be believed. You knew that you could have destroyed not
only yourself, but also all who live on that planet. You could also have
wrecked the planet itself and the ships and those of my own race who
manned them. We had tried to contact you, but since you had not
developed subspace radio, we were of course not successful. Our
englobement was just a routine quarantine. With your total lack of
information about us, what you did was more than the height of folly. It
"Could we have done anything else that would have kept you from landing
on Earth and taking us over?" asked Crownwall.
"Would that have been so bad?" said Ggaran. "We can't tolerate wild and
warlike races running free and uncontrolled in the Galaxy. Once was
enough for that."
"But what about my question? Was there any other way for us to stay
"Well, no. But you didn't have enough information to realize that when
you acted so precipitously. As a matter of fact, we didn't expect to
have much trouble, even after your surprising action. Of course, it took
us a little time to react. We located your planet quickly enough, and
confirmed that you were a new race. But by the time we could try to set
up communications and send ambassadors, you had already organized a not
inconsiderable defense. Your drones blew up our unmanned ships as fast
as we could send them down to your planet. And by the time we had
organized properly for war against you, it was obvious that we could not
conquer you. We could only destroy you."
"That old fool on Sunda, the Emperor, decided that we should blow you
up, but by that time I had decided," said His Effulgence, "that you
might be useful to me--that is, that we might be useful to each other. I
traveled halfway across the Galaxy to meet him, to convince him that it
would be sufficient just to quarantine you. When we had used your radio
system to teach a few of you the Universal Galactic tongue, and had
managed to get what you call the 'planet-buster' down into the largest
of your oceans, he figured we had done our job.
"With his usual lack of imagination, he felt sure that we were safe from
you--after all, there was no way for you to get off the planet. Even if
you could get down to the bottom of the ocean and tamper with the bomb,
you would only succeed in setting it off, and that's what the Sunda had
been in favor of in the first place.
"But I had different ideas. From what you had already done, I suspected
it wouldn't be long before one of you amazing Earthlings would dream up
some device or other, head out into space, and show up on our planet. So
I've been waiting for you, and here you are."
"It was the thinking of a genius," murmured Ggaran.
"All right, then, genius, here I am," said Crownwall. "So what's the
"Ggaran, you explain it to the Earthling," said His Effulgence.
* * * * *
Ggaran bowed. "The crustaceans on Sunda--the lobsterlike creatures that
rule the Galaxy--are usurpers. They have no rights to their position of
power. Our race is much older than theirs. We were alone when we found
the Sundans--a primitive tribe, grubbing in the mud at the edge of their
shallow seas, unable even to reason. In those days we were desperately
lonely. We needed companionship among the stars, and we helped them
develop to the point where, in their inferior way, they were able to
reason, almost as well as we, The People, can. And then they cheated us
of our rightful place.
"The Emperor at Sunda is one of them. They provide sixty-eight of the
hundred Viceroys; we provide only seventeen. It is a preposterous and
"For more than two million years we have waited for the opportunity for
revenge. And now that you have entered space, that opportunity is at
"If you haven't been able to help yourselves for two million years,"
asked Crownwall, "how does the sight of me give you so much gumption all
of a sudden?"
Ggaran's tentacles writhed, and he slavered in fury, but the clashing of
his teeth subsided instantly at a soothing wave from His Effulgence.
"War in space is almost an impossibility," said the aged ruler. "We can
destroy planets, of course, but with few exceptions, we cannot conquer
them. I rule a total of seven races in my Sector. I rule them, but I
don't let them intermingle. Each race settles on the planets that best
suit it. Each of those planets is quite capable of defending itself from
raids, or even large-scale assaults that would result in its capture and
subjugation--just as your little Earth can defend itself.
"Naturally, each is vulnerable to economic blockade--trade provides a
small but vital portion of the goods each planet uses. All that a world
requires for a healthy and comfortable life cannot be provided from the
resources of that single world alone, and that gives us a very
considerable measure of control.
"And it is true that we can always exterminate any planet that refuses
to obey the just and legal orders of its Viceroy. So we achieve a
working balance in our Empire. We control it adequately, and we live in
"The Sundans, for example, though they took the rule of the Empire that
was rightfully ours away from us, through trickery, were unable to take
over the Sectors we control. We are still powerful. And soon we will be
all-powerful. In company with you Earthlings, that is."
Crownwall nodded. "In other words, you think that we Earthmen can break
up this two-million-year-old stalemate. You've got the idea that, with
our help, you can conquer planets without the necessity of destroying
them, and thereby take over number one spot from these Sunda friends of
"Don't call those damn lobsters friends," growled Ggaran. He subsided at
the Viceroy's gesture.
"Exactly," said His Effulgence to Crownwall. "You broke our blockade
without any trouble. Our instruments didn't even wiggle when you landed
here on my capital world. You can do the same on the worlds of the
Sunda. Now, just tell us how you did it, and we're partners."
* * * * *
Crownwall lifted one eyebrow quizzically, but remained silent. He didn't
expect his facial gesture to be interpreted correctly, but he assumed
that his silence would be. He was correct.
"Of course," His Effulgence said, "we will give you any assurances that
your people may desire in order to feel safe, and we will guarantee them
an equal share in the government of the Galaxy."
"Bunk," said Crownwall.
His Effulgence lifted a tentacle swiftly, before Ggaran, lunging angrily
forward, could speak. "Then what do you want of us?"
"It seems to me that we need no wordy assurances from each other," said
Crownwall, and he puffed a cigarette aglow. "We can arrange something a
little more trustworthy, I believe. On your side, you have the power to
destroy our only planet at any time. That is certainly adequate security
for our own good behavior and sincerity.
"It is impossible for us of Earth to destroy all of your planets. As you
have said, there are more planets that belong to you than there are
human beings on Earth. But there is a way for us to be reasonably sure
that you will behave yourselves. You will transfer to us, at once, a
hundred of your planet-destroying bombs. That will be a sufficient
supply to let us test some of them, to see that they are in good working
order. Then, if you try any kind of double-cross, we will be able to use
our own methods--which you cannot prevent--to send one of those bombs
here to destroy this planet.
"And if you try to move anywhere else, by your clumsy distorter drive,
we can follow you, and destroy any planet you choose to land on. You
would not get away from us. We can track you without any difficulty.
"We wouldn't use the bombs lightly, to be sure, because of what would
happen to Earth. And don't think that blowing up our planet would save
you, because we naturally wouldn't keep the bombs on Earth. How does
that sound to you?"
"Ridiculous," snorted Ggaran. "Impossible."
After several minutes of silent consideration, "It is an excellent
plan," said His Effulgence. "It is worthy of the thinking of The People
ourselves. You Earthlings will make very satisfactory allies. What you
request will be provided without delay. Meanwhile, I see no reason why
we cannot proceed with our discussions."
"Nor do I," consented Crownwall. "But your stooge here doesn't seem very
happy about it all."
His Effulgence wiggled his tentacles. "I'm afraid that Ggaran had
expected to take what you Earthlings have to offer without giving
anything in return. I never had any such ideas. I have not
underestimated you, you see."
"That's nice," said Crownwall graciously.
"And now," Ggaran put in, "I think it's time for you to tell us
something about how you get across light-years of space in a few hours,
without leaving any traces for us to detect." He raised a tentacle to
still Crownwall's immediate exclamation of protest. "Oh, nothing that
would give us a chance to duplicate it--just enough to indicate how we
can make use of it, along with you--enough to allow us to begin to
make intelligent plans to beat the claws off the Master Race."
* * * * *
After due consideration, Crownwall nodded. "I don't see why not. Well,
then, let me tell you that we don't travel in space at all. That's why I
didn't show up on any of your long-range detection instruments. Instead,
we travel in time. Surely any race that has progressed as far as your
own must know, at least theoretically, that time travel is entirely
possible. After all, we knew it, and we haven't been around nearly as
long as you have."
"We know about it," said Ffallk, "but we've always considered it
useless--and very dangerous--knowledge."
"So have we, up until the time you planted that bomb on us. Anyone who
tried to work any changes in his own past would be almost certain to end
up finding himself never having been born. So we don't do any meddling.
What we have discovered is a way not only of moving back into the past,
but also of making our own choice of spatial references while we do it,
and of changing our spatial anchor at will.
"For example, to reach this planet, I went back far enough, using Earth
as the spatial referent, to move with Earth a little more than a third
of the way around this spiral nebula that is our Galaxy. Then I shifted
my frame of reference to that of the group of galaxies of which ours is
such a distinguished member.
"Then of course, as I continued to move in time, the whole Galaxy moved
spatially with reference to my own position. At the proper instant I
shifted again, to the reference frame of this Galaxy itself. Then I was
stationary in the Galaxy, and as I continued time traveling, your own
mighty sun moved toward me as the Galaxy revolved. I chose a point where
there was a time intersection of your planet's position and my own. When
you got there, I just changed to the reference plane of this planet I'm
on now, and then came on back with it to the present. So here I am. It
was a long way around to cover a net distance of 26 light-years, but it
was really very simple.
"And there's no danger of meeting myself, or getting into any
anachronistic situation. As you probably know, theory shows that these
are excluded times for me, as is the future--I can't stop in them."
"Are you sure that you haven't given us a little too much information
for your own safety?" asked Ffallk softly.
"Not at all. We were enormously lucky to have learned how to control
spatial reference frames ourselves. I doubt if you could do it in
another two million years." Crownwall rose to his feet. "And now, Your
Effulgence, I think it's about time I went back to my ship and drove it
home to Earth to make my report, so we can pick up those bombs and start
"Excellent," said Ffallk. "I'd better escort you; my people don't like
"I'd noticed that," Crownwall commented drily.
"Since this is a very important occasion, I think it best that we make
this a Procession of Full Ceremony. It's a bother, but the proprieties
have to be observed."
* * * * *
Ggaran stepped out into the broad corridor and whistled a shrill
two-tone note, using both his speaking and his eating orifices. A cohort
of troops, pikes at the ready and bows strapped to their backs, leaped
forward and formed a double line leading from His Effulgence's sanctum
to the main door. Down this lane, carried by twenty men, came a large
"Protocol takes a lot of time," said His Effulgence somewhat sadly, "but
it must be observed. At least, as Ambassador, you can ride with me in
the sedan, instead of walking behind it, like Ggaran."
"I'm glad of that," said Crownwall. "Too bad Ggaran can't join us." He
climbed into the chair beside Ffallk. The bearers trotted along at seven
or eight kilometers an hour, carrying their contraption with absolute
smoothness. Blasts from horns preceded them as they went.
When they passed through the huge entrance doors of the palace and
started down the ramp toward the street, Crownwall was astonished to see
nobody on the previously crowded streets, and mentioned it to Ffallk.
"When the Viceroy of the Seventy Suns," said the Viceroy of the Seventy
Suns, "travels in state, no one but my own entourage is permitted to
watch. And my guests, of course," he added, bowing slightly to
"Of course," agreed Crownwall, bowing back. "Kind of you, I'm sure. But
what happens if somebody doesn't get the word, or doesn't hear your
trumpeters, or something like that?"
Ggaran stepped forward, already panting slightly. "A man with knots in
all of his ear stalks is in a very uncomfortable position," he
explained. "Wait. Let me show you. Let us just suppose that that runner
over there"--he gestured toward a soldier with a tentacle--"is a
civilian who has been so unlucky as to remain on the street after His
Effulgence's entourage arrived." He turned to one of the bowmen who ran
beside the sedan chair, now strung and at the ready. "Show him!" he
In one swift movement the bowman notched an arrow, drew and fired. The
arrow hissed briefly, and then sliced smoothly through the soldier's
"You see," said Ggaran complacently, "we have very little trouble with
civilians who violate this particular tradition."
His Effulgence beckoned to the bowman to approach. "Your results were
satisfactory," he said, "but your release was somewhat shaky. The next
time you show such sloppy form, you will be given thirty lashes."
He leaned back on the cushion and spoke again to Crownwall. "That's the
trouble with these requirements of civilization. The men of my immediate
guard must practice with such things as pikes and bows and arrows, which
they seldom get an opportunity to use. It would never do for them to use
modern weapons on occasions of ceremony, of course."
"Of course," said Crownwall, then added, "It's too bad that you can't
provide them with live targets a little more often." He stifled a
shudder of distaste. "Tell me, Your Effulgence, does the Emperor's
race--the Master Race--also enjoy the type of civilization you have just
had demonstrated for me?"
"Oh, no. They are far too brutal, too morally degraded, to know anything
of these finer points of etiquette and propriety. They are really an
uncouth bunch. Why, do you know, I am certain that they would have had
the bad taste to use an energy weapon to dispose of the victim in a case
such as you just witnessed! They are really quite unfit to rule. They
can scarcely be called civilized at all. But we will soon put a stop to
all of that--your race and mine, of course."
"I sincerely hope so," said Crownwall.
* * * * *
Refreshments were served to His Effulgence and to Crownwall during the
trip, without interrupting the smooth progress of the sedan. The
soldiers of the cohort, the bearers and Ggaran continued to run--without
food, drink or, except for Ggaran, evidence of fatigue.
After several hours of travel, following Crownwall's directions, the
procession arrived at the copse in which he had concealed his small
transportation machine. The machine, for spatial mobility, was equipped
with the heavy and grossly inefficient anti-gravity field generator
developed by Kowalsky. It occupied ten times the space of the temporal
translation and coordination selection systems combined, but it had the
great advantage of being almost undetectable in use. It emitted no mass
After elaborate and lengthy farewells, Crownwall climbed into his
machine and fell gently up until he was out of the atmosphere, before
starting his enormous journey through time back to Earth. More quickly
than it had taken him to reach his ship from the palace of His
Effulgence, he was in the Council Chamber of the Confederation
Government of Earth, making a full report on his trip to Vega.
When he had finished, the President sighed deeply. "Well," he said, "we
gave you full plenipotentiary powers, so I suppose we'll have to stand
behind your agreements--especially in view of the fact that we'll
undoubtedly be blown into atoms if we don't. But from what you say, I'd
rather be in bed with a rattler than have a treaty with a Vegan. They
sound ungodly murderous to me. There are too many holes in that
protection plan of yours. It's only a question of time before they'll
find some way around it, and then--poof--we'll all be dust."
"Things may not be as bad as they seem," answered Crownwall
complacently. "After I got back a few million years, I'm afraid I got a
little careless and let my ship dip down into Vega III's atmosphere for
a while. I was back so far that the Vegans hadn't appeared yet. Now, I
didn't land--or deliberately kill anything--but I'd be mighty
surprised if we didn't find a change or two. Before I came in here, I
asked Marshall to take the ship out and check on things. He should be
back with his report before long. Why don't we wait and see what he has
* * * * *
Marshall was excited when he was escorted into the Council Chamber. He
bowed briefly to the President and began to speak rapidly.
"They're gone without trace--all of them!" he cried. "I went clear to
Sunda and there's no sign of intelligent life anywhere! We're all alone
"There, you see?" exclaimed Crownwall. "Our enemies are all gone!"
He looked around, glowing with victory, at the others at the table, then
slowly quieted and sat down. He turned his head away from their accusing
"Alone," he said, and unconsciously repeated Marshall's words: "We're
all alone now."
In silence, the others gathered their papers together and left the room,
leaving Crownwall sitting at the table by himself. He shivered
involuntarily, and then leaped to his feet to follow after them.
Loneliness, he found, was something that he couldn't face alone.
--L. J. STECHER, JR.
Next: The Risk Profession
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