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 PHOENIX OF MEGARON part 3

"Not just the guards. The ordinary people."
"They are law abiding. They do what Spadec tells them. They are neutral.
They are not really people at all."
Helena said, "More like puppets."
"What are puppets?"
"Mechanical dolls, operated by strings so that they go through the
motions. Children played with them on planet Earth and made them act out
scenes in plays."
"What a good idea! We could do that in the nursery. I'll mention it to
Hepa and Gera. But why do you concern yourself with Caster, Commander
Koenig?"
"As I see it, the future lies there. The Outfarers can only hang on from
one generation to the next. Caster is big enough to be the starting point
for a new civilization on Megaron. What drug will it be, Helena?"
"There are several that would serve. Some variant of what was once used
on Earth as a truth drug."
"Could you work out an antidote?" Tony asked.
"I shouldn't think it would be necessary. All they have to do is to stop
taking it."
Maya was quicker off the mark. She left the information panel and joined
them at the table. "Commander, are you thinking of a neutralizer? Another
additive that would make the drug ineffective?"
"Something like that."
Tony mused. "Yeah. Now, if that could be introduced without their
knowledge, without alerting Spadec, it would be a move forward. It might
stir self-criticism. They'd begin to think for themselves."
Helena said, "Thinking by itself is no guarantee that they'd move in the
right direction. It could make them worse. We have to remember that there
are some psychotic types that can't be trusted to behave rationally unless
they're given suppressive drugs."
Rhoda had been watching each speaker and was ready for a telling piece
of logic. "But we know what happens when the drugs are not used. The
Outfarers are Megaronians just like the people of Caster. We don't use them.
That's why we're here- to avoid using them."
Alan concurred. "Right. We saw the people at the meeting. You couldn't
say they were worse for it."
Rhoda smiled at Alan for backing her argument. Clearly there was a
mating of minds occurring between the duo. The assembled Outfarers had
looked like any cross-section of any human community. They were living
vindication of the theory.
John said, "Then it's something to work on. Three steps. Identify the
drug. Manufacture a reagent. Introduce it to the supply."
There was a pause. Alan said, "I'm sure glad you didn't say three easy
steps, John. But to break it down, we'd need samples of the food. Then, it's
up to Helena to come up with analysis and production of the antidote. And
infiltrating Caster isn't exactly going to be a piece of cake, now that
they're on their guard more than ever."
Maya added, "Stage three would be very delicate indeed, since we don't
know how and where it gets into the food chain."
There was help from Rhoda. She had listened to Alan with flattering
attention, as though to some oracle. "We can start right away. There are
samples of the food here already, but we have not succeeded in isolating the
drug. Dr. Russell might be able to do that." Looking at Maya, she continued,
"There is only one place where it could be added to the food chain." She
looked around at all of the Alphans as she said, "All the food products are
made up from a protein staple which is processed in the hydroponic farm
spread outside Caster. I know the way. But getting inside is the problem."
Maya returned to the stylized diagram. "Commander, what is your opinion
of this?"
To orientate the searcher, there was a blue asterisk which marked the
place that they were in. The wall was parallel to the outer wall facing the
estuary. The tongue of land which held the ruined tower block and Caster
itself was faintly shaded in red. The rivers and the sea were pale green.
Caster could be seen on the estuary of the second river. There was a land
route marked with a miniature model of a toast rack which could be moved
along it to a terminus.
The others lined up beside John and Maya. Rhoda pointed a supple finger
at a collection of circles between Caster and the sea. "There it is. That's
the farm spread. It must have been there, even when this tower was a town.
It could have been one of the supply farms for this very place. You see,
Caster is shown there, but it isn't very big. Just a perimeter wall and some
living spaces. I expect it was first used to accommodate the people who
worked on the farms. Look, you can see the other farm spreads marked out.
that would be it. It was a collection centre."
Alan picked out another feature. "There was a sea route. That looks
like a wharf close to the farm." He walked along the panel following a faint
dotted line. "It comes all round the point and ends up here, below the
tower. It was always the most economical way to shift bulk supplies. You
could work an auto freighter on a fixed course. Bring it in at the
basement."
Again, Rhoda had information. "There's a whole complex down there. I've
been there with Melanion. They need to check sometimes. We get power from a
tidal race. It's pretty well self-maintaining, but once in a while,
something clogs the intake. You can get out into the sea in diving gear.
There's a swimming pool on this floor, and the intake for it comes in that
way, through a filter system."
John cleared his mind of the last lingering regrets for Alpha. They were
here to stay. The best therapy they could have would be a piece of work that
would put them on load. He said, "Right, then. I'll find Karl and get him to
take us down there. Meantime, Helena, if you go to work in the lab, you
could try to crack this drug. Maya, you give her a hand. The only thing we
can do if we hang about is grow older.
The two Alphan women nodded in agreement. Helena added, "If Rhoda would
come with us, it might be easier to explain what I'm doing."
Rhoda looked disappointed, but saw the wisdom in it. The three male
Alphans watched their love interests part from them. Gender roles in the
enterprise were clear. It was like old Earth, with the men going off into
battle and the women minding the store.

Karl took John, Tony, and Alan through Melanion's workshop section to an
elevator which dropped them below the basement level into what had been an
underground seaport, no less. There was even a broad-beamed freighter, dry-
docked in an immense, empty basin. Melanion had grudgingly turned on some
power, and there was a dim light from a few ceiling ports. At the end of the
quay, he turned left into a square-sectioned tunnel and followed it for a
good three hundred metres before the way was blocked by a ribbed concrete
seal.
Karl said, "It's some time since I was down this way. Last time, it was
dry as a bone, but we should be ready to drop this slab, if there's water
behind it." He indicated a recess in the tunnel wall with two stub levers,
one green and one red. He heaved down the green one, and there was a deep
rumble as a massive counterweight took the strain. He said, "Now it should
lift. The red lever disengages the counterweight. That's the one, if the sea
comes in."
Lined up along the face, the four men pushed with their palms flat. The
slab trembled and moved. Seconds later, it had retracted into the roof.
Ahead was the quayside of a second dock with the glint of seawater in it and
a few scattered wall lights to show them what it was all about.
On the quayside, a long row of torpedo-like submersibles lay on a
gravity conveyor, ready to be pushed down for launching into the pool. Alan
climbed the conveyor and settled himself astride one of the craft. There was
provision for two operators, each with a back rest and a small console set
in the deck. He checked around, throwing switches. There was no joy; the
machinery was dead.
Karl said, "Wait," and went over to an equipment bay set in the quay
wall. He returned with a huge brace and shoved a spade-shaped bit into a
slot in the decking, forward of the leading seat. A couple of turns and he
lifted off a metre-long section of the deck itself.
Tony whistled as he looked in side. "Very compact. Very neat. Similar to
the strike craft used back on Earth by Western Naval Intelligence. Rome
University had one on display. There was always the problem of finding a
power source that could not be picked up on sonar."
John thumped the cowling. "No use to us, unless we know what made them
tick. What about it, Karl? Did you ever have one mobile?"
Karl seemed to be debating how far he should go. Finally, he must have
decided that having brought the Alphans this far, there was no point in
being evasive at the last. He returned to the bay and brought out a grey
cannister. He said, "My brother is the specialist. He reckoned it was a type
of rocket propulsion. As you see, there's a cradle to take one of these."
Alan and Tony took ten minutes to sort out the angles. Meantime, John
had rooted about in a second equipment bay and emerged with a set of skin-
diving gear. His nebulous idea of a foray against Caster was crystallizing
out into a hard-edged plan. He asked, "Did I hear right? Is there a pool on
the ground floor?"
Karl replied, "Surely. We use it all the time. It's been the best way to keep in shape."
Tony asked, "What are you onto, John?"
John continued probing. "Could we get a couple of these gizmos upstairs for a trial?"
"No problem," Karl answered.
"John," Tony inquired, "Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?"
"A raid?" Alan added. John nodded. "Just supposing we make them work, how do we get out of here and into the estuary?" He resumed quizzing Karl.
"There's an exit lock. That works for sure. There was a time when some
of the youngsters had an aqua-lung club. But the tides are tricky. There was
an accident, and two were drowned. Our Council, in their wisdom, closed them
up. Rhoda was in it, as I recall."
Alan grinned. Trust it to Rhoda to be into so many things. He and Tony
had fixed the cannister in place and connected some valve gear. Alan tried
the console again. There was a muted thud as he hit an ignition sequence.
Telltales glowed on the hooded console. They were in business.
It took an hour to transport two strike craft to the pool, and there was
a full set of off-duty Outfarers to watch John and Alan in wet suits and
flippers take them through their paces in the huge, outdoor swimming bath.
They were easy. Very flexible and responsive. By nightfall, John thought
that he was ready for a sea trial.
He met with an ultimatum from the research team. Helena said, "As I see
it, John, you need either me or Maya along. We're beginning to see how to go
ahead on this neutralizing business, but quantities would be critical, and
it would matter how and where it was introduced in the cycle. We'd have to
see how they operate. Count one of us in, or we can't guarantee any
success."
John knew that Maya, in some sub-aquatic form, would have little problem
navigating the current. However, Helena was the doctor; Maya was a
scientist. In concocting the reagent, Helena would be the manager, Maya the
builder. Ultimately, it would be Helena's call as to where the antidote
should be introduced. On this occasion, it would have to be Helena who
braved the journey.
John explained the rationale for his decision to the ladies and had no
objection from Tony, who was content for Maya to be safe from the hazards on
this occasion. She would continue the distillation of chemicals in the
Outfarers' medical laboratory. However, Rhoda's volunteering to go could
not be logically countered. The team would need a guide, and she had been
along the coast.
"First light in the morning, then," John said. "We'll get these craft
refueled and leave them ready on the quay." With his mind on load and a
program on which to work, he was feeling more settled. But, as he stood by
Karl's shattered observation window and looked out on the night sky of
Megaron, he knew that he was only going through the motions. He was first
and last a spacefarer. His destiny was out there, where the Moon was still a
brilliant extra on the star map.

Rhoda proved her worth for a team place in the first half-hour of the
dummy run. She had a quick grasp of procedures and remembered, exactly, the
sequences for operating the exit locks from the strike craft pens. There was
an intercom system, which had been used by the aqua-lung club, and she
brought one of the ex-members along to stay on the quay to open up on the
return leg. He was a man of her own age group, Melas, very dark and intense.
As the two craft rode parallel at the entrance to the lock, he said, "Just
in case anybody is floating around out there, trying to get in, we should
have a code word-- 'resurge,' it is. Give me a test call as soon as you get
out into the channel."
John waved Alan to move forward. There was room for both craft to lie in
line astern in the narrow chamber. The gate closed behind them. Lamps on
their helmets lit the surface, which churned white as water jetted in from a
hidden sluice. Following the manual, they cleared pressure by thumping hard
against a closed nose. Then, the outer gate began to lift, and Alan, with
Rhoda riding pillion, edged forward into four metre's depth of clear water
lit by open sky above.
As they fed in power and moved slowly ahead, John called, "Resurge. Do
you hear me?"
Melas answered, "Loud and clear, Commander."
"We are moving out into the channel. Stand by."
"Check, Commander."
John took his strike craft ahead of Alan's and held course for a hundred
metres, keeping his distance from a sloping seabed of pale brown sand.
Overhead, the sea surface was still as a sheet of ridged Duralumin foil.
Helena, plugged in on a communications link through the two consoles,
spoke intimately into John's ear. "Water temperature's no problem, John. We
could stay in this all day."
"I'd like to know what can be seen from the surface, turbulence or an
air trail." He switched to the general net to bring in Alan. "Alan?"
"Yeah, John."
"I'm going up. Checking on how you look from above. Just slow ahead, and
I'll rejoin."
"Check. In water this clear, we'll need more depth to be hidden from air
survey."
"True, but the sea's a big place. They'd have to know where to look."
John broke through the luminous skin of the sea, and the sun was a
tangible warmth on their heads and shoulders. They were further out from the
coast than they expected. And from zero level, there was only a limited
horizon. The gaunt thumb of the tower block dominated the low-lying tip of
the peninsula. Only the higher crests of the sand dunes could be seen. A
broad belt of trees succeeded the dunes. Remnant of the forest which had
once covered the whole area and was slowly winning its way back.
Below them, Alan's craft was a moving shadow, leaving no surface trace.
There was no doubt about it. They had the transport side of the operation
nailed.
John spent fifteen minutes on practice dives, then, with both craft on
the surface and out of sight of land, he went for a speed trial. Opened
full out, the two craft tore away side-by-side. It was exhilarating, a kind
of holiday treat. With an eye on the fuel gauge, he called a halt.
"Hold it there, Alan. Slow ahead and pick up a course."
Alan's "Check" was followed by a second transmission as his strike
craft continued to tear away at the sea. "She's not answering. Stuck on open
throttle. I'll circle."
John and Helena were hove to, rocking gently on the troughs as Alan
effected a long sweep around them. His voice sounded disgusted. "No joy,
John. She won't shut down. In fact, she's building up more urge. The power
needle's over beyond 'max'. We can run her out and then tow in or let her
breach herself.
John was watching. It was true enough. The strike craft was pulling out
more speed by the second. The nudge of a sixth sense alerted him. He said,
"Alan, can you get clear? Get Rhoda away now. Then set a course for open sea
and get clear yourself. We'll pick you up. Do it now."
They heard Rhoda say, "But I like it. Why do I have to get off?"
"Because I say so. Stand up. Dive out to the rear but not over the jets.
Right?"
"Say please."
"As God's my witness, I'll turn her out with you sitting there. Get on
with it."
"You're a very hard man, Alan. I don't know why I bother."
They saw her haul herself to her feet, balance for a brief count, and
plunge clear. Alan was quicker. The strike craft came round in a turn as he
altered course, and he was on his feet and away before it had settled to the
new line.
The two shipwrecked submariners hung on either side of John's craft,
where grab handles had been provided by the designers. They were too low in
the water to see the other streaking away for the horizon. But they could
hear the explosion when it pulled a trick not on the maker's manifest.
There was a percussive smack as though a stingray had slapped down on
the sea. A tall plume of water and spray flowered briefly and fell away.
There was a single thread of black smoke tinged with a crimson flare, and
then it was all over.
Alan was no stranger to test runs with a risk surcharge, but he was
aggrieved about this one. "But I went through that panel with a tooth comb.
There was nothing in the mechanism to do that. She was answering sweet as a
nut on the trials."
John said, "That was last night. It stayed out on the quay until we
picked them up this morning. I suppose any engineer could have fixed it to
do that. Unless it's a freak failure."
Rhoda reacted indignantly, "What are you suggesting, Commander? My
friends would not do that. Even supposing they would do it to you, they
would not do it to me."
Alan lifted himself out of the water to lean over the hull and pat her
shiny head. "True, my flower, but there has to be some explaining done.
There was a fail-safe relay on the power feed. Not only did the control
fail to respond, but the relay failed to trip. What about this one, John?"
"We'll take it slowly. I don't fancy swimming all the way. Before we
move off, all hands take a look at this craft. If we have a saboteur at
work, he might have a second shot in his locker."
The underside of the hull was a one-piece pressing with a line of
shallow, circular depressions to give rigidity and strength. Lying on his
back, John finned slowly along its length. He was on a second trip before
the pattern registered. The second hollow from the stern had a feature which
had no practical purpose. Sited dead centre and looking innocent enough was
a plate-sized disk. Intakes for the buoyancy tanks were amidships. Fuel
maintenance hatches were on the deck head. He anchored himself to a lug,
shone his helmet lamp on the disk, and stared at it.
Seen close, it had two parts. The outer cover was set to a flange marked
around the rim in fractions of a degree. There was an indented arrow on the
rim of the cover and, unless it was a ripple in the water, it flipped a
whole gradation as he watched. Three more intervals to go and there was a
matching arrow incised on the rim.
John said urgently, "Everybody move away. Keep together."
Habits of obedience moved them off. Even Rhoda reacted to the tone
without argument. He drew a flat-bladed knife from the belt of his diving
suit and slid it along the hull under the rim of the device. There was a
bubble of released air and before he could catch it, this disk was away,
spinning and turning as it dropped through the clear water. He heaved
himself into the saddle, fed in a little power, and moved the strike craft
after the swimmers. When he caught up, he leaned over and heaved Helena
aboard by her harness straps. He said, "Alan, get yourself out of the
water. Rhoda behind Helena, you up in front here on the bow. As quick as
you like."
Rhoda was halfway home, draped over the stern like a comely, black sack,
when the sea erupted and a metre-high shockwave dipped the craft's cone in a
dive that was out of control. When John finned powerfully for the surface in
a welter of churning water and sand, his first, painful thought was that the
strike craft was no more. Then, he saw its black stern lift in a swell,
almost a hundred metres away. Helena broke surface beside him, and it was
all that he wanted to know. He was away in a racing crawl after their
lifeline.
Where there had been just an outside chance that a machine left in
store for so long could develop a fault, there was no doubt at all that a
deliberate hand had set the limpet mine. They now knew for a truth that they
would have to watch their backs at all times. Rhoda was bitterly ashamed
and could only repeat again and again, "Who would do such a thing? And why?
Why would they do it?"
There was no good answer to be had out in the bay. Alan and Rhoda
trailed like paravanes, and the strike craft cruised at half speed on the
surface. John, jaw set in a grim line, considered the angles. The only good
to come out of the exercise was that somebody had shown their hand. He was
still convinced that he had a workable plan. Next time, he would leave
without publicity. He called the pens. "Resurge. Come in."
Melas answered evenly, without any trace of surprise. It was unlikely
that he was the one. "Resurge. I read you."
"We're coming in."
"Tony Verdeschi to speak to you."
"Put him on."
Tony's voice came on the net. "John, an air car has been roaming around
for the last hour. Not attacking. I'd say it was on recon. Looks like a two-
man crew. It's been going low over the estuary, out to sea for a mile or so,
and then back over the same ground. If it wasn't impossible, I'd say he was
looking for you.
"Thanks, Tony. Believe me, it isn't impossible, but keep that to
yourself. Where is he now?"
"There's an operations centre down here that you didn't see. I have a
picture of the estuary. He's just turned and is going along the seawall and
heading out to sea. If you're on the surface, you'll see him in a couple of
minutes."
"Thanks, Tony. Over and out."
The twisted spire of the tower block was in sight, but the dunes and the
shoreline were still over the curve of the sea. John held on for another
hundred metres and then killed power. He said, "Hear this. There's a scout
out looking for us. He might as well find us. We'll see what he makes of it
if we leave the strike craft for him to see. Dive down and make like fish."
From ten metres down, the submersible looked like a black log breaking
onto the shiny roof. They gripped wrists and stood on the sea floor, looking
up like some sea anemone. A shadow passed over the surface, and a bland,
silvery oval shoved itself through the roof of their world. The air car had
landed beside the strike craft.
John transferred Helena's wrist to Rhoda's hand, tapped Alan on his
chest harness, and pointed upward. Simultaneously, they reached the
underbelly of the air car. John, fending off with his finger tips, traversed
to the starboard quarter where the strike craft lay alongside. He felt the
car dip, as a crewman left the co-pilot squab and moved aft to open a hatch.
When the man leaned out to grab for a lug on the strike craft decking, John
surged out of the water, grabbed the startled drugged Megaron's most
extended arm, and plucked him out of the air car hatch like some loose-
fitting cork.
The pilot, half turned in his chair, was watching the action with one
hand drumming on the console. Control had told him to check the sea
approaches and liquidate any Outfarers playing marine games. There were none
about. All of the euphoric drugs in the world could not stop his digestive
clock. He wanted to be back on station where a certain neat-handed Phyllis
was keeping it hot for him. When his partner slipped away with waving legs
into the drink, he stopped drumming and thumped the release stud of his
harness.
A voice from the panel said, "Come in Car Three Nine."
"Three Nine. Pilot Gara."
"Report."
"Investigating a torpedo craft at the mouth of the estuary. Hold it. I
have to see what that fool Max is doing."
"Very well."
Gara reached the hatch as Max's EEG went flat. He was floating face-down
in the space between the craft. The pilot considered it. There was no other
movement, except for the slow drift of the corpse out of the channel. He was
uneasy. Something did not jell. Without his load of tranquilizing serum, a
simple instinct of self-preservation would have been enough, but he leaned
out and grabbed for Max's nearest ankle. It was proof that in the long term,
the life-force in Caster was following a self-defeating path. Alan took his
wrist in a double grip and heaved him out of the air car. There was a short,
brutal flurry that could only have one end. Alan and John combined to
incapacitate Gara, whose unconscious body surrendered to suffocation by the
sea.
As Gara joined Max in a slow sarabande around the stationary craft, the
two watchers below finned up to the surface. John boarded the car. He leaned
down and pulled Helena through the hatch, then Rhoda. He called Alan. "Alan,
get on the net. Don't mention the car. Say we're still working out here. We
won't be in for a time yet. Tell him to keep on listening watch."
Helena had removed her face mask and was shaking residual water out of
her hair. Her eyes were bright and indignant. "You killed those men. Did you
have to do that?"
"They would have killed us."
"But they're not responsible for their actions."
"How would you explain that to your wandering spirit if it had been you
drifting out there in the sea?"
"I don't know, but it still isn't right. One wrong doesn't make another
wrong acceptable."
It was an argument that could have continued. A voice emanated from the
control panel. "Come in Car Three-Nine. Pilot Gara."
John scooped the microphone which Gara had left dangling. Funneling his
mouth with his hands for a muffled effect, he said, "Gara."
"Leave the underwater craft. We now know it has been mined. Take one
more circuit of the Outfarers' complex and come in. Acknowledge."
"Received. Out."
Rhoda was incredulous. "What can it mean? Is there somebody from Caster
on the inside? Why should there be a traitor amongst the Outfarers?
Everybody joins from choice and conviction."
John had enough imponderables for his computer to work on. From the
pilot seat of the air car, he could see the shoreline. There was still
something to be made of the mission, and he thought that the car might be
a worthwhile ace to hide away. The two that were used to escape Caster were
doubtless repossessed, but this one could be flown in daylight to secure
storage within the Outfarer camp.
He said, "All hands, get to work. I want the uniforms of these zombies.
Then, we take both air car and strike craft over to the shore, where the
trees come down to the water."
There was a slow burn from Helena and a near mutiny. But finally she
joined Alan, and they heaved Gara into the freight bay and stripped him of
his black tunic and pants. In the breast pocket, he carried a folder, and
when Helena flipped it open, there was a head-and-shoulders picture of a
dark, smiling girl and a caption in a round, feminine hand. She passed it to
Rhoda. "What does it say?"
"'I'll be waiting, Phyllis.'"
It was another black mark for John. But he was unrepentant. He said,
"She has my sympathy. I'm only glad we don't have hers."
"You're turning into a savage. Or perhaps you were always one under
civilization's veneer."
"For every activity there is an appropriate mode."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means launch that one into the bosom of the ocean and get busy with
the other one."
When it was done, he said, "Take the strike craft, Alan. I'll fly the
air car. Follow me in. We'll land at the point."
The tide was coming in. There was a metre of water right up to the tree
line. With the strike craft hidden under overhanging branches, John put the
two women ashore. He said, "Give us thirty minutes by the clock. If we're
not back, go for the pens."
Before they could argue, he was moving off with Alan beside him. He
hugged the coast, with the air car at zero height. It was Pullman travel
after the strike craft, and ten of the minutes had gone when he picked out
the tail of Eagle One, still poking up from the dunes.
As their air car flew above the fondly familiar outlines of the Moonbase
Alpha utility vehicle, John and Alan were pleased that there was not a
Caster troop in sight. Spadec did not order a cordon around the Eagle or a
scavenging of the Eagle's interior. It was unflyable, and Spadec evidently
thought the Eagle's contents unattainable by enemies and therefore innocuous
to Caster.
Alan had already shrugged into a uniform jacket and was ready to go out.
He said, "What are we looking for, John?"
"Lasers. Whip out the communications panel. We may be able to fix it.
Who knows? We might get a farewell message through to Alpha."
They did better. In a concentrated burst, they transferred survival
stores, chart manuals, the communicator module, a miniature nuclear
generator, a medical kit complete with a spectrum analyzer, and four laser
guns on the weapons rack. The high-power stun pistols that they had
appropriated from the Caster guards in the escape had lost their energy
supply and could not be recharged by the Outfarers, who lacked the precise
equipment required.
John believed, soberly, that it put them a little way ahead. They were
that much less dependant on the goodwill of the Outfarers.
On the return leg, he gunned the motors and swept into the hideaway as
Helena was checking her time disk and debating whether or not to give
Genghis Khan another minute of leeway.
There was room for the car in the overhang, and they moored it fore and
aft. The sun was almost vertical overhead as the strike craft slipped back
into the estuary and lined up for the entry channel.
John called, "Resurge. Do you read me?"
"Resurge. Come in"
"We're on the way. Entering the channel now. Prepare to activate the
lock."
As they waited, he said, "Hear this, one and all. No mention of the car.
No mention of the mine. Mechanical failure on one craft. With a bit of luck,
the saboteur will show his hand."

Maya and Tony did their best to keep the conversation going, but it was
an unusually quiet meal. Tony had been using his own chemistry skills, with
which he had used on Alpha to brew his deplorable beer, to assist Maya in
the distillation of the Caster food samples. They were teasing each other in
the usual manner about the beer and its dubious palatability and usefulness
and about Maya's "alien" difference in good taste, but neither John nor
Helena would contribute. Helena was still pondering on John's new rose as an
executioner. Tough and determined she knew him to be; but ruthless and cold-
blooded, that was something else. She looked at him as though at a stranger.
However much they had shared in the years since the Moon's first and second
divisions from its planetary nucleus, he was yet an enigma.
Rhoda was silent because the idea of sabotage by one of the Outfarers
still troubled her. It had undermined her sense of security. Somebody whom
she knew well had been instrumental in setting it up, and she was going over
the list. The vote had shown that the Alphans were not everybody's friend,
but she herself was on the home team. Who could have done that to her?
Since she was silent, Alan held his peace with a kind of instinctive
sympathy.
John himself hardly noticed the atmosphere. He was following a
complicated line of thought. The existence of a fifth column in the
Outfarers' enclave explained some things. With their overwhelming strength,
the high command in Caster could have overrun the place anytime that they
liked to do it. But they had held off. The plant on the inside was the
answer. They were prepared to let the Outfarers flourish, provided that they
knew every aspect of the Outfarers' activities. Clever. If the free-thinking
community produced anything that was likely to be of value, the other would
gain the benefit of it. In some ways, they were running an experimental farm
or a control group to monitor their own manipulated society.
But who would do that? On the face of it, such an idea would be outside
the scope of people who were all regimented by the authoritarian Spadec
organization. Unless Spadec was outside of its own control machinery.
With an effort, he shifted over to practicalities. It was still good
thinking to carry the war into the Spadec camp. The sooner the better. One
thing stood out a good sea mile: the fewer people who knew about it, the
better. He said to Helena, "You think you can crack it?"
It was a tribute to her intuition that she knew what he was referencing.
"The drug? Without a doubt. With the analyzer, we can cut corners."
He looked around the table at Helena, Maya, and Tony. "You haven't shown
that to anybody?"
Tony answered, "Not yet. But whoever's in the lab is bound to be
curious."
Helena added, "Manufacturing the neutralizing agent will be the tricky
part."
"I'd like to have it as soon as possible," John stated.
"The sooner we get to work, the better," was the reply from Helena.
He was not to be allowed an easy ride back to full-citizen status in the
Russell book, but he could be stubborn himself and believed that he had
nothing to apologize for. "Right, then. Maya can continue helping you with
it. Tony, see what you can do with the communicator module from Eagle One.
I know it isn't really your field, but..."
Tony nodded. "Right."
"I'll be working at the pens. Alan and Rhoda with me."
Before he went below, he called upon Karl, who was mobilizing all hands
to restore the damaged apartments. It would have been possible to leave them
and shift into another accommodation, but it would have been bad for morale.
Without being an expert, Karl was a practical psychologist of the old school
and knew by instinct what was best for community health. He was also
carefully studying the workers, but if any likely treacherous names had
risen in his head, he was keeping them there.
Karl asked of John, "Can you go ahead on your mission, believing that
you could be walking into a trap?"
"Now, there is a difference. For one thing, it is not widely known what
we intend to do. For another, there was no time set."
"Then we should keep it that way. Don't even tell me."
"But you agree that the attempt should be made?"
"It's a positive step forward and might do good. I'll defend it. But you
saw the vote. There's a strong conservative element. You could look like
dangerous partners to have."
"We'll take that risk. As of now, we're going down to the pens to fuel a
couple of strike craft. As soon as Helena is ready, we'll move."
"Melanion will need to know, or you won't have any power down there."
"Just Melanion, then. With Rhoda involved, he should be safe enough."
Karl turned away a shade too quickly and went to rejoin the chain gang.
Down at the pens, John and Alan checked four of the strike craft and
fitted them with fuel canisters. Two they manhandled down the slipway on
launching buggies; two they left on the conveyor with nothing to indicate
that they had been prepared for use.
It was all that they could do. The ball was in Helena's court. The next
step was up to her. Helena met them as they closed the seal to the dock
complex, and there was no doubt what she had to report.
"It wasn't too difficult. As it turns out, I've met something very like
it before. Quantities are vert small. By itself, it wouldn't amount to much,
but it would predispose a subject to react to suggestions."
"Exactly what we observed in the city," Alan added.
Helena resumed, "It was used as a preparation for hypnosis therapy, only
in a much stronger form. The way it is, we can synthesize an additive that
breaks it down into harmless components. I'd guess that they have a drip
input to the protein silos. There's no technical problem at all."
John asked, "When can you have the additive ready?"
"Give us an hour, and there'd be enough to neutralize a year's supply."
"A year ought to be long enough. Well done, apothecary."
"Don't patronize me."
"Nothing was further from my mind."

Twilight on Megaron, in the seaboard zone, was a short and dramatic
switch from bright day to velvet, black night. Photosensitive relays tripped
in the Outfarers' complex, and house lights brightened in the living
quarters. There was a tradition of a long and leisurely meal. Children came
in from the day-care centre. The community broke down into nuclear units.
The overall atmosphere was settled and domestic and at odds with the
Alphans' preparation to move in a hot war. Gelanor, on good-neighbor
principles, had them in for supper and being a compulsive talker, was the
only one who missed the undercurrents of strain. Melanion, dark, thin-faced,
and given to introspection, was very different from his brother and seemed
an unlikely consort for her. He listened and said little.
Maya said, "I can see that the Outfarers can only move slowly. But in
Caster, you have the manpower and resources to expand. I don't understand
this deliberate holding back. How can a society stay static for so long?"
Karl replied, "You have to understand the history of Megaron."
Tony quipped to Maya, "If it's anything like Earth history, maybe you
wouldn't mind not understanding."
Oblivious to the wryness in Tony's statement, Karl continued, "In the
past, we pushed to the frontiers of knowledge. When you think of it, all
that could be discovered had been discovered and lost. Probably more than
once. It's awaiting time. A period of lying fallow."
Helena said, "Lying fallow is fine, if it's done from choice. But as we
see it, it's enforced by Spadec, and Spadec isn't too particular how it uses
people. Where was the sense in the suicide attacks on our Eagle?"
Tony added, "Yeah, it only needed a little communication to establish
that we came in peace."
Breaking a long silence, Melanion said, "So you say. But your mission
was to bring a big group of Alphans to Megaron. Who is to say whether that
was for the long-term good or not?"
John asked, "What do you believe?"
"It is of no importance what I believe. I am saying how it could look to
those being invaded by an alien craft."
Tony could not let that one go. "But we weren't invading. If we didn't
have permission to stay, we'd have left," he declared matter-of-factly.
"Perception can be everything, Tony," said Alan. "It's the same
throughout the universe."
It could have gone on for a long time. John caught Karl's eye, and the
Outfarer took the hint. "I know our Alphan friends have work to do. Feel
free to go."
He joined them in their apartment and looked at the litre of colorless
liquid that Helena and Maya had brought in from the lab. "This is it, then?"
"If we can get it where it will do some good."
"Doing good by stealth. Who knows what good is?"
John said, "It puts their future back in their own hands, gives them
freedom to think and more to do than harass the Outfarers."

 

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