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 PHOENIX OF MEGARON part 2

Mestor pointed his energy weapon at John, Helena, Maya, and Tony and
motioned for Myndon and other guard Gadarn to grab Alan and pin him to the
wall. Still holding the other Alphans at bay by point of his gun, Mestor
produced a metre-long, flexible rod and made it whistle in the air. It
cracked explosively into Alan's chest to make a period.
"Alan!" shouted Tony, breathing heavily with repressed rage. Raising a
firm hand to restrain his Security Chief, John said bitterly to Mestor, "You
are proving that you are barbarians on this planet. Where is the
civilization that built the cities we have seen?"
Mestor picked his spot and struck again. He said, "Hyria's vaunted
civilization came near to destroying life forever on Megaron. The ultimate
civilization is here in Caster, where all the people are satisfied with the
life they have."
He was about to strike again when Rhoda spoke. "That is a lie, Mestor,
and you know it. The people have no will of their own to know whether they
are satisfied or not. I will make a bargain with you. Do not punish the
stranger and I will answer some of your questions."
Alan had beads of sweat standing on his forehead, and there was a
trickle of blood on his chin from a convulsive bite at his lower lip.
Keeping his voice level, he said, "Don't sell out on my account, Rhoda. We
all have principles."
Mestor considered the rod and seemed to be waiting for the decision to
come from elsewhere. Finally, he said, "Very well. There is all the time in
the world. None of you are going anywhere. Tomorrow, you will be questioned
directly by the Council. Keep to your bargain and your punishment will be no
more than a year in the rehabilitation centre. I will leave you to think
about it. This madman can stay where he is."
Mestor, Myndon, Gadarn, and an again effectual Nergal made an orderly
withdrawal, taking no chances.
Rhoda, kept to her feet by her new interest, walked slowly across to the
victim in the pillory. Helena and Maya were already at his side. Failing
medicare, Rhoda's touch was as soft and healing a pad as anybody could have
put on the spot.
Alan queried, "How long have you been here?"
"Oh, four, perhaps five days. They want me to tell about my group. The
Outfarers."
"Outfarers?" Maya asked.
"The remains of Hyrian society. Caster considers our--" She referenced
Alan's use of the word, "our principle-- of personal freedom a threat."
Helena Russell, finding her occupation gone, turned her attention to the
food trolley. There was fruit, a container of some cereal product that could
be an oat porridge, a tall, stoppered jug, full of a rose-pink liquid, and
some round, brown biscuits like teething rusks. John and Tony were sizing up
their chances of jumping the next visitor to the cell before John joined
Helena at the trolley. "What about it, Helena? Can you make any judgement?
Rhoda seems quite certain they put in an additive?"
"I'd need lab facilities, to be sure. It would be easy to fix the drink.
Least easy to fix the fruit."
Tony looked at his time disk. He said, "Sahn will be making a last
call."
It was true, within a second. Even as he finished speaking, Sandra
Benes' voice was going out from the leading Eagle. "Eagle Fleet Command
calling Eagle One. Do you read me? Come in, please."
There was no answer. The passenger section of the Eagle had been set up
as executive command post for the mission. David Kano, Ben Vincent, Bob
Mathias, Alibe, Sandra, and Bill conferred. "That's it, then. We abort the
mission." Bill said. The others nodded glumly. "Get the signal out, Sahn.
It's a straight run to Alpha." Bill was about to rejoin his co-pilot in the
Eagle cockpit when Alibe spoke the question on everyone's mind.
"What about the Commander?"
Sandra replied, "There has been nothing from Eagle One since they went
close in. They would signal if they could. We can be sure of that."
"So you believe they're dead?" Ben put in.
"I believe they are unable to signal."
David added, "So they could be alive, and we're proposing to leave
them?"
Bill answered, "An Eagle could not reach the planet, search for them,
find them, and still get back to Alpha because of the unique trajectory the
Moon has taken in this case."
"I know that," David resumed.
"But you want to make it clear for the record that you don't like any
part of it?"
The Alpha computer expert nodded as did the others. Sandra's eyes were
filling with tears. So were Alibe's. But Sandra's voice was rock steady as
she called, "Eagle Fleet Command to all Eagles. There is no answer from
Recon Eagle One. It has to be assumed that the ship is lost. Evacuation is
canceled. The Eagle fleet will return to Moonbase Alpha. Stand by for
course data..."
The silvery Eagles, strung like a bead chain over the star map, swung in
an arc behind the Eagle leader.

There was no one on Megaron with the skill or interest to watch the
Eagles go. Time was when interceptor craft from Hyria would have been out
already to check on the visitors, but no longer. The great cities were dead.
Here and there, smaller enclaves like Caster had picked up the guttering
torch and were looking about them. But, for the most part, there was nothing
spare to go for outreach. They were content to snap up the unconsidered
trifles of the Golden Ages and keep their eyes down. Skies darkened over the
city. Telltale lights activated in the streets. In their Megaronian prison,
Rhoda was telling the Alphans about her comrades, Hyrian freedom-fighters
called the Outfarers, people whom the Spadec robotizing methods had not
reached.
"How far away from here is the Outfarers' camp?" Maya inquired.
"Some thirty kilometres."
"Within range of the air cars?" asked John.
"I believe so? Why?"
"Well, it's time we got out of here. We now have some place on this
planet to go to-- and a means of escaping to get there," John said.
Rhoda found his statement perplexingly pointless since they were so
effectively and extensively imprisoned. "How?" she asked.
Helena added, "It must be close to nighttime now. By the planet's
rotation period and the length of time we've been in here, I'd say the sun
must be setting."
"Yes," Maya contributed.
"Which means we'd have darkness on our side." John looked at Alan, "You
up to it?"
"Just give the word."
Rhoda remained confused. Her fellow prisoners were being cryptic.
John walked over to the metal cell door and ran his fingers along the
rim of the tribarred, glassless window. He looked over at his Psychon
co-prisoner. "Well, Maya, what do you think."
Maya joined him and also did a estimate measurement of the gap between
the three bars. "I'd say a mouse would do it," she replied with a confident
smile.
The others gathered around her. Rhoda was naturally confused. "A mouse?"
"What about the guard in the hall?" Tony inquired matter-of-factly.
"He'll never know what hit him," Maya replied with a nod and a glint in
her eye.
"Go ahead," John said. "And be careful."
Maya's form shimmered and, to Rhoda's amazement, was dissolved in a
flash of light. For a moment, she thought the Psychon had disintegrated, but
the squeaking sounds on the floor drew Rhoda's golden-brown eyes downward.
As Rhoda looked over to Alan for the obligatory explanation, Tony bent over
and picked up the Maya rodent, placing it in front of the door bars. The
mouse easily navigated through them and dropped over four feet to the floor
on the other side. The guard's back was turned, looking down the hallway to
the outer door to the administration room. The sound of an animal grunt
caused him to start to turn, but he never made it around. A gorilla's arm
threw him against the rocky wall. As the guard fell to the floor, the six-
foot-tall ape kicked the guard's dropped gun down the corridor in the
direction of the cell. The dazed guard tried to pick himself back up to face
the brawny creature, but a second strike by the gorilla's powerful arm put
the guard out like the proverbial light. The ape then reverted to the
luscious form of Maya, who grabbed the fallen guard's key and used it to
unlock the cell door.
The occupants moved out single file, Tony first. "Good girl," he said,
patting Maya on the arm.
"All in a day's work for your trusty Psychon," she replied.
John put his finger to his mouth as a "be quiet" signal. They then
advanced to the closed door that would take them out to the main office and
their closer possibility of freedom. They would face three Magaronian
obstacles, three staffers who were not likely to just let them walk out of
custody. But the element of surprise was theirs. John quietly nudged the
door partly open and peered out. He saw their opponents, diligently working
at their respective desks and saying nothing. With a nod from John, Maya
knew the next move was hers. She transformed into a spotted jaguar and ran
out into the office. The four men looked at once at the incongruous
occupant.
"What the--?" one of them started.
Then, the door burst open, and John, Alan, and Tony swiftly threw
themselves at the men before any weapons could be drawn. The fight was brief
in each case, and the Alphans were the undisputed victors. Alan, however,
grimaced in pain as he wiggled his punching hand. "Bone-jawed Megaronians
they have around here"
"And bone-headed, too," Tony put in.
"Let's save the one-liners for later," John told them dryly. "For now,
let's find our guns and commlocks."
They searched the office in a rush and found no trace of their desired
items.
"We'll have to apply our wits to getting up to ground level," Helena
said as she and Maya joined their male colleagues.
"Based on what we saw, I'd say we'd be hopelessly outnumbered once we
got up there," Tony said, always the expert strategist. "We'd have to trick
our way out."
"Yeah," said Alan, looking at Maya. "And who better to lead us outta
here than Mestor himself."
Maya, looking at an air duct that would lead her outside so that she
could become Mestor and pretend to escort the prisoners out for
interrogation, said confidently. "Right. I'll make them think I'm taking
you all to the Council for interrogation earlier than expected."
John said, "They'll probably put some guards on you as you take us out."
"In which case, we'll overpower them once we get out there," said Tony,
looking testingly at the others for agreement.
"We'd all have to shield our thoughts very carefully. You especially,
Maya," Helena added, very much cognizant of the ESP factor. The realization
was instantly picked up by each member of the escaping party.
"Yes," Rhoda said. "You must be very careful. Do not think at all about
what you're planning. If you do, they'll be onto you in seconds."
John cued Maya. "Can you do that?"
"Difficult to say. But the fact that they don't know about my ability
will probably make them inclined to believe I'm Mestor, regardless of what
psychic impressions they might get. After all, they aren't going to question
the evidence of their own eyes so easily."
"Even so, we will all have to block our thoughts when we get up there,"
Tony added.
Rhoda expressed further misgiving about the plan. "One of you," she
nodded at Maya, "will be missing."
Alan replied, "They probably won't notice it immediately. Even if they
do, they probably won't second-guess Mestor."
"It's a chance we'll have to take," said Tony, placing his arm on Maya's
as a show of confidence in her.
"It would seem our best chance," John concluded. He nodded at the
Psychon. "All right, Maya. Go ahead."
Maya's form flickered and was replaced with that of another mouse. Tony
knelt down, picked up the transformed Maya, and placed her inside of the air
duct. The four Alphans and their Megaronian friend then readied for the
coming escape. Within three minutes, Maya reached the outside, transformed
herself into Mestor, and entered the compound at ground level.
Totally concentrating her thoughts, Maya/Mestor approached the head duty
guard and said stolidly. "Spadec wants to interrogate the prisoners
immediately. I'll go down for them, and you have two guards wait here to
accompany us to the air cars." There was brief moment of tension on Maya's
part that somehow her ruse would be discovered by the psionic capabilities
of the men around her. She composed herself and suppressed the thought. The
head guard nodded in slow agreement, and Maya/Mestor descended in the
elevator. A minute later, the elevator opened at ground level, and Maya/
Mestor followed her five "prisoners" at gunpoint, the gun having been
confiscated from one of the unconscious guards below.
Two armed men joined Maya/Mestor, and they led their five "captives"
outside to the waiting air cars. It was evening. The bright yellow Megaron
sun had been fading on the horizon, turning the sky a beautiful shade of
deep violet. Once out of sight from those in the compound, Tony, Alan, and
John glanced at one another. This was Maya's cue. Her form of Mestor was
replaced by that of a husky thing that made a bellowing sound to divert the
attention of the two startled Megaronian men so that the male Alphans could
pounce and knock them out. Tony and Alan grabbed the guns, Rhoda confirmed
by the guns' appearance that they were high-power stun pistols, and all six
of the fugitives moved toward the air cars, Tony and Alan using their newly
acquired weaponry to subdue the guards stationed around the air cars. John,
Alan, and Rhoda climbed into one, and Helena, Maya, and Tony piled into
another. Having seen enough of the operation of the cars to pilot them with
reasonable efficiency, Alan and Tony launched their respective vehicles into
the air.
"Now, let's get out of the city and reach your group," Alan said to
Rhoda. "The Outfarers."
"Yes," John added, looking at the lovely Megaronian. "I know it's
getting dark, but can you direct us?"
The prospect of eating and drinking again in the company of her fellows
galvanized her senses. "Yes."
The pair of air cars zoomed through the dimming sky of Megaron. Rhoda
knew enough of the relevant landmarks to guide her Alphan companions in the
direction of the Outfarers.

Alan and Tony both landed the air cars in a small grove in the Caster-
Hyria hinterland notable by the remains of a destroyed house several hundred
metres nearby, a house whose roof was twisted into a surreal perpendicular
angle to the ground. Beside the house was a small field. Rhoda led her
Alphan companions to the section of the field where the tunnel entrance was,
and concealed beneath seemingly unyielding weeds was a green-yellow-painted,
hence camouflaged, manhole-like opening. Removing its cover by Rhoda's
instructions, Alan and Tony were first to descend. The others followed.
Rhoda re-sealed the entry from below. In the pitch-blackness, she moved her
fingers along the tunnel floor until she produced a metallic object
resembling an Earth screwdriver and then reached upward to a pipe and
commenced tapping.
"A signaling method," Maya speculated correctly.
"Yes," Rhoda replied. Outfarer sentinels are posted strategically in the
tunnels. I'm letting them know I'm all right and in the company of new
allies. They'll send someone to receive us. Please leave the explanations to
me."
Several minutes later, a short, powerfully built man with close-trimmed,
greying beard and deep-set eyes came running through the tunnel, a
phosphorescent lamp in his hand. "Karl!" Rhoda identified him as she and he
embraced like two fellow soldiers on an old Earth battlefield.
"Rhoda! You made it out of Caster?! How?!" When Karl saw Rhoda's Alphan
retinue, he tensed somewhat. "Who are these people, Rhoda?"
"You'll never believe it, Karl."
"Try me."
"They're not from Megaron at all."
Told her way, it was going to take some time. He said hastily, "It will
have to wait. The question is whether or not they are to come with us."
"Of course they come with us. They helped me, and Alan over there got
himself whipped on my account."
Karl saw the marks on Alan's tunic. He was about to inquire about Alan's
present condition before Alan forestalled the expected question with his
answer. "I'm okay."
"I refused to eat, and Mestor had his guards beat me. Alan stopped them
from administering further lashings." Rhoda continued.
Karl spoke to the Alphan five. "We are of course grateful for your help,
but you must understand our need for precaution." He smiled. "We shall trust
you. Come."
They penetrated into the maze of concrete catacombs. The air was
surprisingly fresh, colder, with a damp chill about it. Helena shivered.
This molelike tunneling and the whole bit since Eagle One had dived low over
Caster was a far cry from what they had expected of Megaron. It was
something like a dream. At this juncture, an unpleasant one. Although the
grounded Alphans were now evidently in the company of friends, Alpha was
beyond reach. Eagle One, its impaled centre section, laid on the Megaron
surface, unspaceworthy. There was as yet no indication that any segment of
Megaron society was capable of space travel, and Alpha was rapidly moving
out of range. From the light of Karl's lamp, she could see John's profile,
set and hard, as he stared ahead. It was worse for him. Knowing the way that
his mind worked, she knew that he would be blaming himself for the decision
that seemed certain to have robbed Alpha of five senior executives and
landed that same quintette on a dog's island.
Eventually, the character of one of the designated tunnels changed. It
opened out in height and width. Massive cross-ribs ran from side to side,
and a power feed was carried on hanging pylons. The squat piers that
supported the roof were designed to bear a tremendous load; but, in fact,
the faintly lit glimpse that they had of the structure before they went
under it, showed that there was only one intact floor, and above that, a
gaunt tangle of twisted girder work and fallen masonry, rearing its
grotesque bulk against the sky, like a man-made Eiger.
It was a warm, Mediterranean-type night, with stars in unfamiliar
constellations. John could imagine his Eagle fleet coming into a landfall on
such a night. Instead, his people were beating back to the silent cinder
heap that had carried them across the cosmos. It was a lot to accept.
Karl led the way up to a broad ramp which gave access to the ground
floor. They emerged into a vast lobby with subdued lighting that had no
identifiable source.
Rhoda said, "This is where the Outfarers live. There is plenty of room.
We hardly use a tenth of the space. If you are accepted, you will be given
an apartment and put on the schedules for whatever work you can do. That
will be easy for you, Helena, being a doctor. There's a whole clinic, but no
really professional staff. Then there's the technical service and the
defense corps." She gave Alan a confidential pat. "A niche for everybody,
you might say."
John was talking to Karl. "Will there be reprisals? They will know
where to look."
"So far, we have had very little trouble from Caster. They don't send
their people much beyond a ten-kilometre zone around the city. Outside that
limit, the mental control field is too weak to be fully effective. What we
get, we can deal with. You will understand when I show you our organization.
But first, there will have to be a meeting. You will have to be accepted by
our people."
"That sounds like democracy in action." Tony commented.
"The community is still small enough to make democracy a workable
system. Tonight, I will find you accommodation close to my quarters. Come
this way."
In its heyday, the first floor of the ziggurat had been given over to
public rooms and admin spreads. To bring in a domestic scale, divisions had
been run up to make apartments. Even so, they had tended to give themselves
plenty of elbow room. Karl's pad had a lounge area twenty-metres-square with
one wall as a continuous observation window, overlooking the sea.
As they trekked through it, a small, dark woman, in a flame caftan,
jacked herself out of a club chair, her formerly sombre appearance being
superseded by obvious pleasure, and she almost ran to meet them. Rhoda had
stayed with the party to see them settled, and there was enough family
likeness to make no surprise when she said, "Mother! Alan, this is my
mother, Gelanor."
Gelanor was naturally puzzled at the outlandish dress of Rhoda's strange
company, but she was so overjoyed by her daughter's deliverance from the
vile place that was Caster that her attention remained on Rhoda. "Oh, Rhoda,
my pet. When we heard of your capture, we could only assume the worst. We
knew you wouldn't let those brutes force-feed you. And I've slept so very
little, knowing that you were starving in some cell." Soberly wanting to
examine Rhoda's tortured and undernourished body, Gelanor reached outward,
to touch Alan's jacket still draped around Rhoda. "Why are you wearing that
bizarre jacket?"
"Alan gave it to me. For comfort." It was a concept not unknown to
Megaron, but the Alphans were strangers. Of her mother, Rhoda asked, "Where
is my father?"
"On duty in the power centre." In reference to the Alphans she turned to
Karl. "Where are you taking them, Karl?"
"That spare suite next door."
"Before they go, they must have something to eat and drink. Make them
comfortable. It won't take long."
Being home and dry suddenly got to Rhoda. The pressure and excitement of
the jailbreak had kept her moving. Now, all of the weariness of the past
days pushed her over the threshold. Alan, who was becoming the Alpha expert
in the field, caught her as her knees crumpled, and Gelanor said, "The
strain of the imprisonment and escape is catching up with her. Alan, isn't
it? Alan, bring her along. The rest of you make yourselves comfortable. I
shall not be long."
The family apartment was another division of the long room, reaching
through an arch hung with a tingling bed curtain. Following the animated
wiggle of her expressive back, Alan disappeared, to an ironic wave from
John. Coping with a mother would be like breaking new ground for his chief
pilot, and it looked as though he had met his Waterloo.
Helena said, "Don't be like that, John. He's enjoying it. She's a very
nice girl."
"I can see that."
"So I've noticed. Perhaps you'd rather be doing it yourself?"
There was no immediate answer to that one, and he conducted her
formally to a deeply cushioned chair. Maya and Tony remained standing,
perusing with their eyes Gelanor's taste in furniture. Gelanor was in again,
before the sudden silence had gotten out of hand. Alan, the new household
favorite, was carrying a large tray. On it was a tall, white pot of dark
liquid, which tasted not unlike hot chocolate when their hostess had handed
it around in delicate, ceramic beakers, and some freshly baked biscuits
stamped out to a heart shape.
Gelanor said, "Now, don't be taciturn, Karl. Tell them about us."
"About Megaron?"
"Don't they know about Megaron?"
"They say they came from another planet. On that moon that appeared."
Gelanor looked at each of the Alphans more attentively. She noted the
most obviously alien eyebrows on Maya, who smiled warmly and reassuringly to
indicate that she was not off-put by Gelanor's initial shock. To Maya,
Gelanor asked, "Is that true? Did you come from there?"
"We are from different mother planets, but that wandering moon has been
our mutual home for a number of years. We were the advance party and were to
signal the rest of our people to follow if Megaron was fit for occupation.
We came in peace, wishing to share your planet. But we were attacked near
Caster, and the signal was never made. The fleet will have turned back. We
have no ship and no choice but to stay."
Karl said slowly, "Megaron had an advanced civilization so long ago
that the records we have do not tell of its beginning. Caster is a barbaric
village compared with what had been. The ruins of the great cities are all
that remain of the last great phase. But we know that there have been many
civilizations that have risen and flourished and then died. As long as there
are a few free survivors like ourselves, the process will start over again.
We shall not see it, but there will be a great future yet for Megaron."
Helena said, "We crossed a great continent, which I believe you call
Hyria. There was evidence of radiation. Life there would be hazardous for
some years yet."
"True. Life here is not completely straightforward. We live unnaturally,
as you see, amongst the ruins. But a great deal of the farmland is poisoned.
We could not feed many more people than we have at the moment. We use a
hydroponic system, and that puts a limit on production."
Tony asked, "So, our people could not have landed anywhere and started a
farming commune?"
"Not at all. By no means. You would all have been dead in a week.
Turning up the soil would release nerve gasses. We were working very slowly
to clear a few hectares on this peninsula."
John inquired, "Are there other communities besides Caster?"
"There are some, we believe, but we have no communication. Nor do we
want any, until we are stronger. Who knows how they have organized
themselves? Caster has gone to one extreme to secure itself without
change. Others may be worse."
It was time for a question from Helena. "How did you get here?"
"Most of us were born here. There has been a small community of
Outfarers in this place for several centuries at least. From time to time,
others have found their way to join us. Equipment and supplies are
plentiful. Water from the sea, through a desalination plant. Food from the
hydroponic farm. Time is on our side. We can move slowly."
John considered it. In the quiet circle of lamp light, surrounded by the
trappings of comfort, it was a viable way of life. But Helena chimed with
his thinking when she said, "It is Moonbase Alpha over again, and maybe time
is not as firmly on your side as you suppose. As I understand it, there is
no standing still. Living is struggling, and a community either goes
forward or regresses."
Karl stood up and took his beaker to the tray. He said, "It is late. I
can see we shall have some interesting discussions. Thank-you, Gelanor. I
will take them to their quarters. We will all meet in the morning."

Except for a small duty group, detailed to keep the eager young busy,
and a few oldsters who were relieved of all citizen responsibilities, there
was a full set of Outfarers to hear the Alphans present their case. The
venue was an actualizer theatre where the long-gone Megaronians of the tower
block had watched sophisticated three-dimensional presentations on a
circular stage in the centre of the auditorium.
There was a line of chairs on the platform, five for the Alphans over on
the left, another five for Karl and his management team. The hoi polloi
filled three rows of the front stalls. House lights were dimmed, and the
platform party were isolated in a shaft of light from a battery of spots on
a boom.
Karl had introduced the business and was doing a fair job at being a
neutral chairman. When he had finished, the floor had been given an open
choice. Karl had explained that if the Alphans were accepted, they would be
full citizens with a right to negotiate pairing contracts, and this would
involve the acceptance of alien genetic strains into the Megaron stock. The
consequences would be good or bad, but they would certainly bring change.
The strangers had skills to offer, but they would also have ideas which
might rock the boat.
Nobody on the platform had anything to add, and Karl threw it open to
speakers from the floor. A rejuvenated Rhoda was first on her feet,
identifiable by her voice, which was husky and passionate in support. A more
sober, male voice followed, urging a period of trial. This was a very
unusual case- and they should meet again when they knew more about the
Alphans. Meantime, they could be given temporary status.
The debate went on for a half-hour by John's time disk, before one
speaker said that it would help him to make up his mind if a spokesman for
the Alphans could speak a piece.
Karl turned to the Alphans. "Which of you will speak?"
John stood and moved forward. There had been some chatter and a lack of
concentration as some citizens lost interest. The tall, impressive figure of
the Alphan made an impact. There was a sudden hush. "People of Megaron, this
is your place. The decision is yours. We can only abide by it. In our long
journey, we have seen many peoples. Some patterns of life have seemed
incredible to us. Your way is, on the whole, the nearest to our own that we
have seen. But I tell you, the difference between all life, anywhere, and
the great blank of unknowing in interstellar space is so great, that all
life-forms fall in one pan of the scale. What is common to intelligent life
is more important than any differences. For our part, we believe in the
future- and we will fight for it. The freedom of the human spirit to work
out its own salvation, we take to be an inalienable right. That right is
denied in the city. At some point, we would like to try to bring back
freedom there. Because, make no mistake, their system is a barbarism, and in
any long confrontation between barbarism and civilization, barbarism will
win out, unless the civilized people take the initiative. The choice is
yours."
Karl was looking grave. He was ready to accept the principles, but as an
experienced politician, he wished that John had taken a softer line.
There was only one comment from the floor. A woman's voice said, "We
have heard enough. Take the vote."
There was an orderly bustle, and tellers moved along the rows with
collecting boxes. House lights went up, and the audience was no longer
anonymous. The boxes were brought forward and the contents spilled out on
the table in front of the chairman. Karl began to make stacks of ten with
red and black draftsmen. He had twelve stacks of red and nine and a half
stacks of black. He said, "The majority are in favor of accepting the
Alphans. But it is not a clear majority, which would require two-thirds in
favor. I rule, therefore, that the executive will vote having regard for
this opinion expressed by the meeting."
On the left he had his brother, Melanion, an older version of himself
with a balding head and an unsmiling face. Beyond him was a younger man, who
had been watching both Alan and Tony with a speculative eye. His ID badge
said Golgos. On the right was an oldster, Urion, and on the far right the
only woman on the executive, a trim brunette in a green tabard, labeled
Hepa.
Karl passed around a closed box with a slot in the lid. All were
discreet. It was impossible to see how they voted. When he opened the box
and held up the counters, there were two red and two black. "The rules of
this assembly are plain. The decision has been put in my hand. Very well. I
have to tell you that I judge in the Alphans' favor. They are admitted to
citizenship as Outfarers."
There was sporadic applause, which masked, for a few seconds, a noise
which had been slowly rising to the threshold of attention. Inside the hall,
there was sudden silence as everybody strained to listen. To those passing a
black counter, it was almost a vindication and a judgement. The forces of
law and order in Caster had been needled into action and went out to redress
the balance. A squadron of air cars was sweeping in over the Outfarers'
sanctuary.

In spite of the grandiose label given to it, the defense corps had only
twenty citizens in full-time service. There was a fall-back militia force of
a hundred men and women with some training in the use of arms, but to
mobilize them for any length of time would put the base on a hand-to-mouth
footing, which could only be maintained for a few days. In living memory,
it had not been needed, and in the sudden emergency, the first reaction was
to leave it to the professionals.
There was an orderly scatter to hearth and home. Karl, after a hard look
at his brother, swept the voting counters into their box. He said, "Maya,
I'd like you to join Melanion. He can show you something of our technical
set-up. Commander, Mr. Verdeschi, Mr. Carter, come with me. Dr. Russell can
assist at our medical centre, and I only hope her services won't be needed."
Given the sheer size of the complex and the few defenders, John could
only suppose that there was no military genius in Caster, or the Outfarers
would have been overrun before this. The defense corps was already assembled
at a supply point, and Golgos, a taciturn, bearded type, was handing out
machine pistols and a bandolier of clips to every man. There was a shatter
of glass as an air car stormed along the sea frontage strafing a line of
living quarters. But it was more nuisance value than serious attack. There
was no way for a car to land there and install its crew into the building.
Golgos took close to half of the company and raced away along the
corridor. Karl took the rest, and they went for a jog trot for the ramp that
came up from the basement. As they went, he jerked out, "Only two ways into
this level. Two ramps we can defend."
Alan asked, "Can't they get in from above?"
"The cars could not land."
It could be true, but Alan could see a determined and skillful pilot
finding a toehold to drop a commando party. He said no more. They were at
the head of the stairs. The noise of the air cars was plainer. There was a
drumming reverberation as at least one dived along the track of the runabout
service and a sudden firework shower of explosive charges as it fired under
the basement itself.
Karl's party had flung themselves down in a line at the top of the ramp
and sent a withering volley at nothing in particular. Training was too
strong for Tony. He snapped out, "Hold your fire," in an authoritative
command that checked them all. The Outfarer defenders exchanged perplexed
glances. What was the Alphan thinking?
There was silence. The car appeared briefly, between two distant support piers, and then slid away out of view. John shared the rationale of his Security Chief's instinctive directive and spoke in its support. "It isn't an attack. It's reconnaissance."
"Yeah," Tony said. "Don't show our positions or our strength. If and when they're serious, they'll use ground forces with the cars in support.


John nodded. "With your permission, Karl, Alan I will go and take a
look."
"Help yourself."
"What about me, John?" Tony asked.
"Remain here with Karl. Confer on defense strategies. We shouldn't be
long."
Bent double in the shelter of the continuous, solid parapet, John and
Alan ran down the ramp to the basement area. They were in a stone jungle
with an endless vista of support piers in every direction. Cover was no
problem. John worked towards the land side, believing that any serious
attempt at mounting an assault would come that way. There was no sign that
any other car had penetrated below the building, and Alan knew that it
would need a cool and experienced pilot to take a machine that way.
There was still a lot of noise overhead as the squadron made its show
of force. When they reached the outer edge of the basement, they could see
debris showering down. The Outfarers would have a big repair program
ahead. John cautiously moved out on a flagged terrace which ran all around
the ruined building. A racing scan around the set confirmed his thinking.
There were three cars in line astern on his side, and they had worked along
the frontage. They were rising and turning. Even as he watched, they were
joined by three more which had come from round back and had been strafing
the seaward-facing rooms.
Alan's shout and the clatter of his pistol had him diving back for
cover. A seventh car, no doubt the one which had been nosing in towards the
ramp, had suddenly appeared in a murderous rush along the terrace. As it
passed, its rear gunner sprayed into the vaults and the curious energy
charges flared like star shells as they bounced and ricocheted against the
columns.
The six were waiting for the seventh to join. When it took its place as
the flight leader, they were away, arrowing off over the hill in the
direction of Caster.
John watched them go, standing out on the terrace. He said, "They know
that the Outfarers have no air defenses."
"What about the two cars we stole?"
"Too far from the Outfarer settlement. No doubt Caster has found them."
In reference to the attack, John resumed. "They know they can do that
anytime they like. The question is whether or not they want a final
solution. I guess they could wipe out this enclave if they thought it was
worth it, and our coming on the scene has probably given them incentive.
They may believe that we disturb the balance of power."
"Those Outfarers are no fools. Some thought of that and passed in those
black checkers."
"Could be. But what would you say is the standard answer in a situation
where a small power is expecting an attack from a larger and more powerful
neighbor?"
"Get in first."
"That's the way I see it. We're here. We aim to survive. I don't like it
one bit, but we didn't come all this way to end up as sitting ducks for some
black-coated zombies, whatever the glories of their past. Now, Karl is a man
open to a reasoned argument. We should talk to him and see what there is in
this scrap heap that we could use. Are you with me?"
"All the way, John."

The more that John thought about it, the more that he was convinced that
there was no other way. On Karl's own submission, there was no place for the
Outfarers to go. They were stuck on their neck of land, with only the
immediate neighborhood of the ruin as a place to live. If Caster was intent
on rooting them out, it was fight or go under.
But there was another idea coming to the bubble in his head. A
preemptive strike might buy them some time, but it was not the ultimate
solution. The real answer would lie in inducing a change of heart in Caster
itself. As John understood it, there were two things that kept Spadec in the
saddle. The people, by their own choice or not, had grown accustomed to a
diet which included an intake of drugs, so that they questioned nothing.
Together with some subliminal suggestion technique, which was on stream,
like a constant carrier wave, this was enough for a totally static society.
A community could not stand still- it went forward or back. But that was
only true if it was free to move. In this situation, there was equilibrium.
Forces had been established to resist change.
Almost all of the rooms with an open view had been strafed. There would
be months of work before they were back in full use. The Alphans had a
temporary suite in the centre area. It had been an information centre. There
were study carrels with selector gear so that data from a storage silo was
on tap at the flick of a switch. No longer operative. One wall had a
stylized diagram of the complex as it had been in its heyday, and Maya was
finding matters of wonder by the minute as she walked its length while
eating biscuits and cheese simulate.
Rhoda had joined them on the pretext that Helena would need help to open
food dispensers and issue the rations. She sat facing Alan, fixing him with
a bright eye and eating compulsively to make up for the loss.
John asked her, "What are the people in Caster like? Are they good
people or bad?"
"What they did to me and Alan could not be called good."

 

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