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 PHOENIX OF MEGARON part 4

Maya commented, "There's one possibility we haven't considered,
Commander. Freedom to choose is freedom to choose badly. They could be more
militant and not less."
"It hasn't worked out that way for the Outfarers," Alan responded.
To Karl, John quietly said, "It's tonight. we can't afford to wait for
our intentions to leak across to Caster. Who can you trust to be on stand-by
at the pens?"
"Do you trust me?"
"Yes."
"Then I'll be there."
"Who goes, John?" Tony inquired.
"Alan, Rhoda, Helena, and myself. We did it before. So, we know the
drill."
Karl asked, "What time?"
"Twenty-three hundred."
"Very well, then."
"Maya will keep watch with you. And Tony, keep working on that
communicator module."
Maya and Tony both signified agreement with nods of heads.
To all appearances, the vast, ruined tower was deserted when the Alphans
walked quietly through the corridors and dropped to the underground dock
system. Karl had provided hand-powered vibrators to compose the tool kit.
John and Alan concealed stun/laser guns in the waterproof pouches of their
diving gear. Helena's litre of reagent had been divided into four handy
flasks to clip onto their belts.
There was no opposition. No problem. At the dock, John ignored the
strike craft already launched and brought down the two left on the conveyor.
On visual check, there had been no sabotage. They slipped into water, warm
from the day's heat.
Beyond the channel, they surfaced below the night sky of Megaron, with
the errant Moon throwing a silver streak on the wine-dark sea. As they
rounded the point, there was a pale aureole over the land to mark out the
site of Caster itself. The strike craft ghosted through a flat calm, the
human cargo feeling the strangeness of their isolation after the domestic
comfort of the enclave.
Helena thought of the Eagles touching down on Moonbase Alpha and the
Alphans filling back into the empty rooms. There would be a reshuffle in the
command chain. Life would go on. It was like a foretaste of death, and they
were here in a fair mock-up for the traditional idea of limbo. They had to
work their passage to a rebirth. In those terms, what John was doing made a
kind of sense.
John had enough navigational problems to keep his mind on load. The
gaunt sentinel of the tower block and the arc of Caster's lights gave him a
fix. He had memorized the line of the coast and could visualize where the
wreck of Eagle One was stuck in the dunes and the location from there of
the hydroponic farm spread.
He had a moment's self-doubt. Here he was, fresh on the scene, where men
had been living out their time for untold centuries, taking a hand in a
social engineering job which they could have done for themselves if they had
wanted it. Then he remembered the air cars streaking in to destroy Eagle
One. It had to be done. Every man wanted to see progress in his own time.
He twisted in the saddle and looked at Helena. What he could see of her
face was pale as marble. "All right?"
"Yes."
"Here we go, then." He changed course, and the strike craft began to dip
and lift through a long swell as they bored in for the distant beach.
Closer in, there was the suck and slide of shingle as they beached the
strike craft, one at a time, on a flat, stony strip that pushed out into the
sea in a long tongue. Further up the beach, they discarded life-support
gear, replaced flippers with black foam-soled sneakers, and climbed the
first dune, four dark shadows melding into darkness.
At the top, they lay flat in a row. It was all there. Eyes adjusted to a
low lumen count, they could see the farm spread stretching away in all
directions. Close at hand, it looked huge.
At the bottom of the slope, there was a two-metre-high chain-link fence
that surrounded the complex. Inside, the culture tanks were set out as long,
shallow concrete troughs, each about three metres wide and thirty metres
long. The long strides carried rails, and a trolley, with a seat and
operating gear, straddled the trough. It could be pumped along the track by
a hand lever, and the farmer could go along dumping nutrients in the growing
medium or harvesting his crop.
Dotted about on a regular plan were white-painted silos. In the centre
was a squat, hexagonal tower. Three floors. Dark below and with lights from
two windows at the top. Mineral tracks from the silos led to it like spokes
to the hub of a wheel. Rhoda pointed and breathed. "That's the control
centre. Final processing will be done there. We do this on a small scale.
The end product is a protein pellet. That's the staple. All the food's made
from that. Except fruit. Fruit we grow by itself. There's a kind of fruit we
use to make bread."
John raised his hand. It was all good, interesting stuff, but better at
another time. "Alan, go down and take a look at that fence."
Alan was away, hardly visible until he appeared again with a dark shape
against the mesh. He was less than a minute before he came back up the dune.
"No problem, John. I tried one strand. This vibrator goes through like a hot
knife through butter. No electrification."
They took out a metre-long panel and rolled it back. One-by-one, they
slipped through. John meticulously refixed the wire, so that only the most
careful check would locate the break. Between the troughs, there was a paved
strip. They went along in single file, John in the lead with his laser rifle
set for a stun beam and Alan forming the rear.
They were halfway into the centre when John stopped and went down on one
knee. A moving light had separated from the pale glow of Caster and was
coming toward them on a course that would cross the farm. Behind it was the
familiar shadow of an air car.
As it came nearer, a pencil of light probed from the cone and lit the
distant area of the farm beyond. John said, "Down," and flattened himself
against the side of the trough. His mind raced through the possibilities. It
could be a routine patrol, or maybe there had been a signal from the
Outfarers. If the last, there was only Karl with precise information. Unless
there was electronic monitoring of which even Karl was not aware.
There was action from the tower. A light went on in the ground floor,
and then the whole area turned bright day. Floods on a high gantry made a
brilliant line. Seen clear, there was a paved apron on two sides of the
tower and a parking lot with half a dozen freight carriers in line. The
final delivery from the farm to Caster itself was done by an air-shuttle
service.
The incoming car swept into the pool of light, hovered, and dropped on
its hydraulic jacks close to the building. It was a personnel carrier. Its
lights went out, the hatch opened, and a black-coated Megaronian climbed
onto the pad. It was the farmer, home from a night out in the big city. His
progress was slow and erratic. He had done well to steer a course for home.
As he opened a door, the outside lights snapped out and he was
silhouetted in the opening. John was on his feet and padding forward at a
run. They reached the wall of the control centre as the downstairs lights
went out.
The door was flush fitting, with no visible means of opening it from the
outside. John moved to circle the building. In the centre of the face, there
was a hinged flap where the track from a silo made its entry. Dumper trucks
would push their way through. He went on hands and knees in the centre of
the track and shoved. It was open. He said, "Very carefully. There's no
prize for ending up as a protein pellet."
The warning was timely. They were moving from dim light into the
blackness of a pit. On hands and knees, John reconnoitered the ground by
touch. The rails on either side were continuous. He tried to visualize what
would be happening to a truck shunted in through the hatch. There would be
some mechanism for emptying it. There would be a self-tipping device. Hands
sliding along the rails, he identified holding clips and then another set a
half a metre further on. Why two sets? One would be enough to stop the
incoming carrier. What would happen to the load? Not tipped on the deck
between the tracks, for a sure thing. There was a slight trembling in the
floor, and even as it began to tilt away, he had arrived at the theoretical
answer. The truck would hit the spring-loaded stops. Its construction would
be asymmetrical, so that weight distribution would give it a turning moment
round the centre of a pivot. The whole section of floor would swivel, and
the contents would be dumped on a conveyor or into a tank.
It was nice to have it clear, but he was falling forward. Close behind
him, Helena had sensed that he was in trouble and flicked on her lamp. She
could see the floor lifting in front of her and John's heels going up. She
grabbed for the rising edge and held on. There was a halt and a moment of
stability as mechanical laws tried to sort it out. John himself arched his
back and grabbed for the solid floor ahead, shifting his grip a fraction of
a second before Helena's weight turned the scale and the revolving flap
snapped back in place.
The rising stench from the pit was enough to numb the brain and was
still lingering about as he wormed forward in a closed box-section conduit.
There was no need to worry about showing a light. The operating principles
were clear. Once having dumped its load, the truck would go on and pass out
of the factory without seeing the light of day.
John continued crawling, looking upward at the roof. There had to be an
inspection trap for maintenance. He found it, ten metres further along, and
waited for the others to join him. There was a round plate, dropped in a
seating, with lugs to engage in a couple of slots. Lights switched out, he
moved in a quarter turn and lifted slowly.
Seen from the inside, the ground floor of the control centre looked
much bigger. There were low-power courtesy lights dotted about, giving only
a faint glow, but enough to see by.
John lowered the lid to the housing of the conduit, pulled himself
through, and leaned in to pull Helena through. The conduits themselves
divided the floor space into areas, and the tops had been developed as work
heads. In the centre was a recognizable command island with flow diagrams
on freestanding display boards and a whole raft of electronic hardware.
Far over, against an outside wall, there was a long supply bay with
labeled bins and hoppers. Nutrients to be issued to the growing tanks. It
was not that much different from the supply department for the Hydroponics
Section on Moonbase Alpha, except that it was on a bigger scale. Helena took
her time, identifying departments, and then pointed, "Over there, I think,
John."
"Take the flasks, then, and see what you can do. Alan, cover down there.
I'll take the stairway. Stun beams if anybody shows. With a bit of luck,
they might not remember what it was all about."
It was surprising to John that the operation was not mounted around the
clock. Production must be streamlined during the day to feed Caster's
population from this one centre. There was room for a higher yield. Moving
silently, he climbed the spiral stairway to the first floor. It was a
duplicate of the floor below except that there was no provision for incoming
trucks. It was divided two ways. Half was stacked with the plastic sacks
beside a gravity conveyor belt. This was the supply reservoir. Perhaps a
month in hand? It would be a fair time before the neutralized food began to
pass into the supply chain. The rest of the space was reserved for machinery
spares and back-up stocks of nutrients.
The spiral stairway went on to the top floor. There was a murmur of
voices coming down the well. John crossed to a window and looked out. The
bowl of light under Caster had dimmed down. By his time disk, it was 0130. A
dark ribbon ran from the perimeter of the fence of the farm in the direction
of the town. Inside the fence, it connected with a broad paved strip coming
all the way to the apron of the control centre. So, there was a surface road
in addition to the air-car link. He was turning away, when a movement caught
his eye. Night glasses would have made it clear. As it was, he could not be
sure. He padded over to the head of the stairs, dropped down halfway, and
signaled Alan to join him. Helena was working with Rhoda at a long
preparation trough with carboys on an overhead rack.
Alan put his forehead to the glass and went still as death. There was a
slow count of five before he would commit himself. "It's a company on the
march. Classic camouflage. No bright metal. Hands and faces black. For us?"
There was no doubt in John's mind. "Surely for us. They've been tipped
off."
Even as he spoke, there was a change. The moving shadow on the road was
dividing left and right and melding into the darkness. A task force was
being deployed to surround the farm. At the same time, there was a melodic
pinger sounding on the floor above. It was still going as John appeared head
and shoulders out of the wall to check the set.
This floor had been developed as a living area for farm staff. The head
of the stairs came up into a lounge, with club chairs, what looked like a
bar across one corner and half a dozen archways leading off. A light was
winking on a wall console behind the bar, and it was from there that the
audio signal had its source.
Nobody was keen to answer. Then, close at hand, a woman's voice,
sounding surly, said, "What can they want at this time, in the Devil's name?
Answer it, Yaptan. Ring, ring, ring, ring. Do you want everybody out of
their bed? You can stir yourself quick enough to get into Caster to see that
vixen, Hella."
"Peace, Zarah. Hold your tongue, or I'll still it for you."
Other doors were opening in the distant reaches of the floor. The same
voice was lifted to a growl. "All right. I'll see to it."
It was probably the man who had arrived home late by air car. He emerged
barefoot and wearing only a green towel tucked around his waist, his hair
wet and plastered on his skull. He had been freshening up in a shower and
was now able to walk a straight course.
It was an interesting sidelight on the system. Neither the drug nor the
subliminal suggestion- if that was on stream- could guarantee fidelity or
foster universal goodwill. He shoved a stud on the box, and the pinger shut
itself off. His voice was no more friendly when he said, "Tylon is it? What
fool trick is this? Can't it wait until morning? All the lights... all
around the boundary? ...You've got me out of my bed to switch on all the
lights? ...Whose crazy idea was that?"
There was a pause as the questioner was listener for a spell. When
Yaptan spoke again, there was a marked difference in his voice. It was still
rough, but it was willing. "Spadec Directive Two-four for this day. At once,
Tylon. I'll see to that. Outfarers attacking the farm? They must have gone
out of their minds. We have tolerated them long enough. It's time Spadec
cleared them out. We should drive them into the sea. I have it clear. Spadec
Directive Two-four for this day."
John now had an insight into how the system worked. Given a
predisposition to follow instructions and a carrier wave going out
continuously to reinforce it, the directing genius would only need to put in
a cue word to trigger complete hypnotic response. At some stage, the people
of Caster could be given individual preparation. After that, they could be
turned loose without strings attached. The code phrase would be "Spadec
Directive," followed by the serial number of the order on a daily basis.
Yaptan was now on official business. He looked at his towel, as if
debating whether it would be right to throw switches on the master console
while in boudoir rig. There was a Spadec directive on file that personnel
should be dressed at all times in a manner suited to the activity on hand.
He was still debating it when John shot a stun beam with mathematical
precision at the centre of his forehead. Black night filled his eyes, and he
pitched forward on the thick pile carpet.
There was the sound of light, quick footsteps. Zarah was pushing her
luck and coming to investigate. John ducked below floor level. He heard her
say, "Yaptan? What did they want? Yaptan..." Another voice asked, "What is
it, Zarah"
"There was a call from Caster. Yaptan answered it and was coming back.
The drunken fool's fallen over his own feet. Help me to get him to his bed."
There was the light slap of a hand striking skin and Zarah went on.
"That's you all over, Alcon. Never miss a trick. Don't mess about. Take his
shoulders."
"I'd just as soon dump him down the stairwell. Why don't we do that?"
"Because we wouldn't get away with it. That's why."
John withdrew. Even with a thought-control system, the human scene had
its unresolved problems. He met Alan's enquiring eye and pointed down to the
lower level. When they were well out of earshot, he said, "It was a call
from Caster to light up the complex. We have a temporary holdfast on that,
but there's not a doubt they'll call again when they see it isn't being
done. Time to move out."
Helena had fixed every carboy on the rack. Her theory about how the
additive was put into the food chain had been right. A thick slurry from the
supply tanks below was sucked by vacuum to the work tops and mixed with a
calculated ration of the liquid from the carboys. Then, it was processed and
progressed through the system to leave at the far end as convenient-sized
pellets of protein material for use in Caster. There, it would be textured
and flavored to make a variety of different foods. In essence, it was the
same system that had served them well on Alpha.
John said, "Leave it now, Helena. Time to go-- and we have to make it
quick."
"I've finished."
"Can anyone tell that you've done it?"
"Not without sampling and analysis."
"Let's hope they think we never got this far."
"The flasks are full of liquid we had to take out to make room for the
neutralizer."
"As soon as we get outside, empty them."
The return leg through the conduit was no problem. John hurried them
along. Outside in the starlight, with the withdrawing Moon still a feature
of the night sky, he put himself in the place of the Megaronian commander.
He would know that the intruders had come by sea and would send a detachment
ahead to close that escape route. Very likely, they were already in place.
The one direction that he would be least concerned about would be the very
road along which he had marched from Caster. So, that was the way to go. Out
toward Caster and then in a flanking move behind the troops, who would all
be looking in toward the farm.
He said, "This way," and led off at a jog trot along the throughway to
the main gate.

The double-leaf gate of the farm complex opened outwards to the Caster
road. There was no visible locking mechanism. John had his hand on a cross
beam to push it open, when the nudge of a sixth sense stopped him dead. He
said, "Check the hinge posts. There could be a signal to the house."
Rhoda found it on the king post of the principal leaf. There was a
spring-loaded thud, held back by the hanging stile of the gate. As the gate
opened, it would act as a circuit-breaker. John took the pressure with the
flat of his knife until the others were through. Then, Alan took over.
They followed the road, walking five metres to the left of it on soft
sand, black shadows, hardly visible to each other. They had the tactical
advantage of the light. The reduced glow from Caster has ahead of them and
behind the Megaronians. John figured that somewhere up the road, there would
have to be a picket. It might be an unlikely route, but no commander would
know it completely. They would be off the road and in cover. It was all a
question of who saw whom.
They had leveled with the crest of a gradual rise. John, in the lead,
was bent double, to minimize his silhouette against the sky, when the whole
of the farm spread lit up like a stadium. Tylon, impatient with the
response, had tried again. This time, he had communicated with Zarah, who
sounded breathless but willing to cooperate.
There was no need to say it. John, Helena, Alan, and Rhoda dropped flat
to the sand and crawled the ten metres needed to take them below the top and
into the reverse slope. Except for the farm spread itself, which had been
dug out to a level, the whole area was crossed by parallel dunes, starting
close together and steep near the sea, and gradually smoothing toward the
plain around Caster. At the bottom of the one that they were in, they could
stand erect and still be screened from the control centre, but at any
second, a Megaronian could appear on either side. There was no cover.
They had to try. John set a punishing pace, with the drag of the sand
holding him back like a sequence in a half-remembered nightmare. From
somewhere near the coast, a thin, high whistle shrilled. It was answered by
another from way behind them and a third, very much nearer, on their side of
the farm. Laser rifles ready, John and Alan covered two arcs. From over the
ridge, between them and the sea, there was the chink of metal as somebody
hit the stock of a carbine against a clip case. They heard the scuff of
feet as the hidden patrol dashed to surround the farm.
John pointed ahead. For a time, at least, they could afford to walk.
The diminishing Moon was like a talisman wishing them luck. While it was
still there in vision, they were somehow part of it.
After a kilometre's march, Alan said, "When they draw blank, they'll
know we slipped through the net. They'll know we can't get far on foot. I'd
say they'll whistle up some cars and do an air search."
Rhoda put an arm around his waist and leaned her dark head on his
shoulder. "If we reach the trees, they won't be able to do that. But walking
overland is dangerous even in daylight. Karl says there are pockets of
poisoned soil even on the peninsula."
The valley that they were in had narrowed and deepened. John went up the
side on hands and knees to look at the topography. He could pick out glints
of water in the sea. The farm-spread complex was out of sight, except for
the top floor of the control block and one tall lighting gantry. It was
still brilliantly lit. If anything, their line of march had taken them
nearer to Caster, which was not good. The dark mass of the forested strip
was between them and the Outfarers. Distances on land were deceptive. It
had not seemed too far from sea, going in straight-lines. In his mind, he
had been making for Car Thirty-nine. It was still the best bet. But it was
all of four kilometres to the nearest edge of the trees. He noticed the
flask hanging at his belt and remembered that it was enough to blow the
mission, if they were caught. "Empty the flasks. It's a straight dash for
the tree line. But with the luck we're having, it should be in the bag."
Helena thought privately that only an optimist could see it way. John
Koenig philosophy again. If the chips were on the table, they were still in
the game. But the prospects of winning were not encouraging. Moving through
unfamiliar territory, one jump ahead of a posse, with a doubtful welcome at
the far end was no way to spend one's nighttime hours. She kept it to
herself and fell behind the leader as John fixed a line by a star cluster
and led off across the dunes.
It was a half-hour by his time disk before John called another halt.
Sweat and grit, working inside the suits, was rubbing them raw, and they had
already exhausted a lot of urge in simply moving up and down the slopes of
fine sand. With or without a pursuit force, it was going to be an physical-
endurance marathon. He could not understand why the search had not widened
out from the farm. By this time, Mestor, if he was in charge of the
operation, must be convinced that they were outside of the fence, and since
they had not returned to the strike craft, they would have to be on the
ground between the farm and their home base.
He gave the others two minutes and then stood up. There was no word
spoken. What could not be altered had to be endured. There was a change in
the ground. It was flatter and stonier. They could make better time. Eyes
well-adjusted to the starlight, they could see the black blur of the tree
line all the time as a visible goal. For two kilometres, they pressed on.
There was no other change. Wind-borne seed from the forest was working to
reclothe the man-made desert. Small clumps of stunted trees were struggling
for a foothold. It was an encouragement, but before they could take much
pleasure in it, there was a setback.
John had seen a dark line crossing the landscape even from the last dune
and had not been able to decide what it might be. They were a hundred metres
from it when Rhoda said, "Oh, no!"
It was enough to halt the column. "What is it?" inquired John.
"I should have remembered. There's a deep fault running across. It runs
all the way down to the sea. We can only cross it on the beach or way up
beyond Caster."
John could have said, "Now you tell me!" Instead, he nodded. "It would
still have been there, whether you remembered or not. We had to come this
way. Let's take a look."
When they reached the edge, it was clear enough that Rhoda was right.
The land had slipped along a pressure line and pulled apart for ten metres.
depth was lost in darkness, and the sides were sheer. The far side was
higher than where they stood, and it was the dark face of the rock that had
looked like a black line.
Without hesitation, John ventured along the edge toward the sea. It was
still the right direction. On the higher ground, it was easier to look
across at the distant farm spread. Pencils of light were criss-crossing
outside the lights of the complex itself. The search party was finally
airborne.
Flying low, with searchlights boring down to the ground, the cars were
working out toward them in a methodical pattern of search. John pushed up
the pace to a jog trot. Every hundred metres, the cover was improving. By
the time that the first pair of cars had reached the fissure, they were in
brush thick enough to slow them to a walk. Still seeing glimpses of his star
cluster, he changed direction, and they picked their way through the forest
toward the sea.
Progress was impossible to judge. Underfoot, tree roots and thick ferns
made every step a hazard. They went on, because there was nothing else to do
and nowhere else to go. Occasionally, the lights of a searching car would
cut a swathe through the darkness, and they froze against tree trunks until
it had gone.
Rhoda, weakened by her spell in Caster, was reeling like a drunk,
forcing herself to go on, but too stupid with tiredness to protect herself.
She was walking into more trees than she missed. Alan caught her on a
rebound and put her over his shoulder in a fireman's lift.
There had been no cars overhead for a good five minutes. Helena said,
"Can we believe it? Have they given up?"
John called a halt to consider it. Alan stood Rhoda against a tree. She
was asleep on her feet. he said, "I doubt it, John. My guess is they'll be
lined up on the other side of the forest, waiting for us to show."
John said, "You could be right at that. When we reach the car, we'll
float her out and get well away from land before we take her up."
He moved them out to more open ground at the edge of the wood. Alan's
analysis was standing up. There was no car in sight. They had checked to
that point and moved over. It was easier to cover the ground, and they could
measure progress with sight and sound of the sea. The last hundred metres of
beach was wide open with no scattered cover. They kept close to the tree
line, walking in the bed of a shallow gulley, ankle deep in brackish water
that drained from the forest. There was only one sure way of finding the car
from the land. They would have to wade out around the point and check along
the shore for recognition marks.
For that matter, it was a relief to slip into the water and take the
weight off of their feet. John stood waist deep, cupped his hands, and
rinsed the sweat and sand from his face. The action cleared his head. He was
in danger of thinking that the endgame would be too easy. For that matter,
there was no guarantee that Car Thirty-nine had not already been found.
There had been erosion on the coast. Some trees now had their roots in
water at some stages of the tide. There was a powerful bouquet of rotting
vegetation, and they were disturbing clouds of small midges that settled on
any patch of open skin. As they rounded a rocky spur, John held up his hand.
For a brief count, he believed that the car had slipped its moorings and was
drifting out to sea. Then he could distinguish two shadowy figures through
the plexiglass. An active unit of the task force doing a quiet survey of the
coastline.
There was movement, but it was desperately slow. The Megaronian car was
bows on the beach, making leeway toward the farm. How far would they go
before they used power to knock off or take up a new station was anybody's
guess. John gave them fifty metres, ducked under a floating log, and went on
slowly. Five minutes later, they were standing beside the hull of Car
Thirty-nine.
Alan took the co-pilot seat and switched on the communications net.
Somebody would be master minding the operation and might have information to
give. It was Mestor himself in mid-speech. What he was saying related to
another action. Since he was spending the night on a duty stint, he had
extended his brief. The Outfarers were taking another hammering.
"Spadec Directive Ninety-five... Squadron Three turn over the estuary
and take the seaward side. Maximum penetration into the living quarters. Use
incendiary charges. Re-form at three four nine eight seven zero. Make your
own way to Security Headquarters and stand down."
There had been more. From close at hand, there was the beat of a motor
starting up and a beam of light swept briefly across the sea. The car on
watch had taken off, no doubt summoned to share in the strike. Rhoda, who
had been lying full-length in the rumble, sat up and said, "That is
terrible. They are determined to destroy our homes. Where shall we go? If
they carry on this way, the Outfarers are finished. We cannot fight Spadec."
Bitterly, John assessed his own share. He had jumped in with both feet.
Theoretically, what the Alphans had done was right. But was that always
enough? He had stirred a hornet's nest, and the Outfarers were on the
receiving end of a punitive reprisal they had not invited. He could only
hope that alarm systems would stand up and the Outfarers would move to a
safe place. He said, shortly, "Cast off. We'll go out to sea. Make a detour.
Come in across the estuary."
Car Thirty-nine slipped out of cover, ghosted out, rose to zero height,
and sped away across the wine-dark sea. When they turned to follow the
coast, they could see the twisted ruin of the tower city bathed in a ruby
glow. Mestor's strike had already had its effect. Smoke and flame were
licking out from the lower floor.
When John brought the car down in the estuary close to the site of the
strike craft entry lock, Mestor's force had gone. The fire at the lowest
level of the tower city had either burned out or been put out. Higher levels
were still flaming like a gigantic torch, and charred debris was falling
from great height to shatter on the paved surrounds or plummet into the sea.
John said, "Use the strike craft frequency, Alan. See if you can talk to
Maya."
Alan was less than a minute setting it up. Then, he was speaking on the
net with Rhoda leaning over the squab and breathing emotionally down his
neck. "Resurge. Strike craft calling Outfarers. Come in, Outfarers."
There was no reply. Helena speculated, "Could it be that they suspect a
trap? Or they are all dead?"
Alan called again. "Resurge. Do you read me? Come in, Outfarers."
Rhoda said, "Maya would recognize your voice. But perhaps she is not
there. Let me try."
Even through the filter of the electronic gear, there would be no
mistaking the vibrations of her warm, brown tones. "Resurge. We are back.
All safe. But what has happened to you? Karl, it's me, Rhoda. Please
answer."
This time, there was progress. But it was not Karl's voice. She said,
"It's Melanion. It's my father."
He sounded less than pleased. "Resurge. We hear you. So, you have
returned. Look around you. Can you expect a welcome? Can we allow you to put
more lives at risk? You must wait until we decide what is to be done."
There was enough truth in it to be uncomfortable. But John could see the
faces of his companions in the glow of the burning tower. They had run a
taut mission and soldiered on without complaint. There was nothing wrong
with the theory that had set them to work. Their success had gone sour, but
it was a calculated risk. They deserved better than a brush-off. He said
harshly, "Commander Koenig. Let me speak to Maya."
"That is not possible. I will remind you that you are not our commander.
We listened too readily to your dangerous advice. You must now wait until we
have made our decisions. Out."
John shoved the handset back in its clip and flipped switches along the
instrument spread to lift Car Thirty-nine out of the sea. He circled the
tower. There was not much left to burn in the gaunt upper floors. Already,
the flames were less and would die of their own accord. The structure had
taken a greater hammering in the past and had settled into a monolithic
stability that would not be challenged now. All the loose material that was
being shaken out was coming down on the seaward face from the angle of tilt.
On the land side, there was no immediate danger. He took the car down and
landed on the terrace.
It was clear that some auto-sprinkler device had gone into action on the
first floor. Halfway up the ramp, they met a thick tide of grey sludge. The
first floor was ankle-deep in globules of grey foam. The air was acrid with
the stench of burning. It would be a long time before it was habitable
again.
Helena said, "On Alpha, we had deep shelters to use in emergency. That's
where they'll be. They'll all have gone underground."
Rhoda uttered, "The dock area. There's nowhere else that I know about."
John turned on his heel. There was no point in looking further in the
living quarters. When they reached the massive concrete seal, it was shut.
There was safety enough behind it. Only an atomic strike would breach that
barrier. But it moved easily enough on its counterweights and gave them
access to the long quay and the mute stranded freighter, silent testimony to
the long-gone aggro of another people in another time.
Even now, after all the years, the tiny remnant of the Megaronian
people were still at it. There was another feature, as old as time. All
along the quayside, the Outfarers' community was spread out in little family
groups, with their bundles of belongings arranged around them to mark out a
piece of territory in the confusion. It was a refugee camp.
Some had already settled down to sleep. Others were still standing
about, unable to come to terms with the spin of the wheel that had brought
their settled routine to a jarring full stop. They watched the Alphans pass.
Bewilderment and hostility were equally evident, but they made no open move
against them.
Farther on, as they turned into the strike-craft base, there was more
evidence that hard decisions had been made and a new line taken. The defense
corps was all present and under arms. But command of it had clearly passed
to the bearded Golgos. Hung around with sidearms and carrying a machine
pistol on a shoulder strap, he was conducting some kind of kangaroo court.
Those being brought for trial were isolated in a group on the slipway, as
though already part way out of the community home. Two men with machine
pistols at the ready were on guard to keep them there. The rest were sitting
or leaning on the gravity conveyor, listening to the new top hand.
There were eight for the pogrom. Karl had his arm around Gelanor's
shoulders and was doing his best to comfort her. Tony was sombrely leaning
on the wall, Maya sitting on the floor beside him. The other four were Hepa
and Orion- the two councillors of the platform party who had voted for the
Alphans and had, seemingly, refused to change their view, and a pair of
Rhoda's friends, Melas and his intimate lady, Deana.
As the Alphans came into earshot, they heard Golgos reach the key
section of his address. "...That emergency has arrived. I, therefore, invoke
Clause Twenty of the Constitution. I declare that the Code is suspended for
one month and that military law operates. This means that the defense corps
itself is our Council. Is that agreed?"
There was a chorus of assent. The only objection came from Karl, who
left Gelanor and strode up the ramp, until he was stopped by the muzzle of a
pistol at his chest. He said, "You have gone too far, Golgos. The
Constitution also says that such a decision can only be taken by a full
meeting of Outfarers. You are outside our law."
Whatever his expertise as a lawyer, Golgos could react smartly to a
situation. As Karl spoke, Golgos saw the Alphans and his pistol was swept
around to aim at Helena. He said, "Let them join their friends. We will deal
with them all at once."
Alan's hand was poised on his gun. John saw this out of the tail of his
eye. There was no doubt that they could make Golgos pay, but there was no
doubt, either, that they would end up dead. He said, "Law is law in any
community. We accept the need to live by it. What we were trying to do was
in the Outfarers' long-term best interest."
Another voice joined the dialogue. Melanion had been keeping himself off
the centre of the stage, but he came forward. "Tried, you say. So all this
is for nothing? We have lost out homes on a foolish gamble."
Before any of his party could speak, and Tony was fuming and verging on
exploding, John said, "Spadec was alerted. It was as though they knew there
would be a visit to the farm. As we reached it, a big force arrived from
Caster to guard it. We were lucky to escape. We did not expect
congratulations, but at least we should expect credit for working on your
behalf."
To John's relief, there was no further pressure on that one. He had no
wish that a signal should go to Caster saying that they had succeeded and
that there had been some tampering with the food supplies. If that could be
concealed, there was still a delayed-action psychological bomb planted in
Caster, which might give the human spirit a new twist.
Helena and Alan caught his drift. Rhoda, who might have blurted out the
truth, was hooked on a different train of thought. She was staring at
Melanion, as though seeing him plain for the first time and not liking it.
She said bitterly, "I don't understand you, father. Why are you not with
Gelanor and Karl? Why are you against my friends?"
"Your friends," he said with scorn, "have come near to destroying us
all. They should never have been accepted into this community. We had come
to a balance with Caster. They did not interfere with us as long as we kept
within these walls."
"They beat me! I still have the marks. Or had you not noticed? See!"
Rhoda ripped down the seals of her suit and peeled away the top half.
Aggravated by sea and sand, her stripes were livid and angry.
"Have you no shame, girl?" Melanion retorted. "Cover yourself. There was
no need for you to be taken. You are headstrong and disobedient. You were
outside the prescribed limits. You brought it on yourself. That is no
argument."
Alan and Tony both angrily advanced on Melanion, but they were
restrained by pistol-point. Golgos could see that the clear edges of
decision were blurring somewhat. He said harshly, "All this takes us
nowhere. The past is past. Move along before I lose all patience."
John could read the harmonics. Golgos was a young man with a reputation
to make. He might well push himself into a situation that could only be
resolved by blood. Carefully, John said, "The majority may be wrong.
Nevertheless, a community must come to its own decisions. I would only
suggest that they are best not taken in haste or on the rebound from a
disaster. Believe me, we understand how you must feel. But I would say this.
What you have just suffered shows only too clearly that you hold your
tenancy here on a thread. You should think about that when planning for the
future."
Before Golgos or Melanion could reply, the guards stood aside as the
three Alphans together with Rhoda joined the party already assembled there.
Gelanor put her arms around her daughter in away that she had not done
since Rhoda was a small child. Looking over her shoulder, she could see
Melanion staring down at them both, his thin face set and bitter.
Events had moved them all to a point of no return. Gelanor was making a
private statement to ease her daughter's mind, where she could see that
there was a deep hurt. In so doing, she set herself on the wrong side of the
law. But her voice was steady and carried the ring of truth. "Do not grieve
about Melanion, Rhoda. You owe him no duty. He is not your father."
Melanion was hearing aloud that which he had known for long enough in
his mind. The fact was no more palatable, however. For a moment, John
believed that Melanion would snatch a machine pistol from the nearest guard
and shoot both women where they stood. Karl had returned down the slipway to
join the Alphans and was about to speak. John took his arm in a vice-like
grip. "Save it, Karl. It will do no good."

 

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