Sometimes the most diligent and loyal thing
an old man can do is fumble,
drink beer, and let a young man get into trouble....
"We're almost there, my boy."
The big, gray-haired man who
would be Lieutenant Dale Hunter's
superior—Strategic Service's Special
Agent, George Rockford—opened
another can of beer, his
fifth. "There will be intrigue already
under way when this helicopter
sets down with us. Attempted
homicide will soon follow.
The former will be meat for me.
You will be meat for the latter."
Rockford was smiling as he
spoke; the genial, engaging smile
of a fond old father. But the eyes,
surrounded by laughter crinkles,
were as unreadable as two disks of
gray slate. They were the eyes of
a poker player—or master con man.
"I don't understand, sir,"
"Of course not," Rockford
agreed. "It's a hundred light-years
back to Earth. Here on Vesta, to
make sure there is an Earth in the
future, you're going to do things
never dreamed of by your Terran
Space Patrol instructors there.
You'll be amazed, my boy."
Hunter said nothing but he felt
a growing dislike for the condescending
Rockford. Only a few
weeks ago President Diskar, himself,
had said: For more than a century
these truly valiant men of the Space Patrol
have been our unwavering outer
guard; have fought and died by legions,
that Earth and the other worlds of
the Terran Republic might remain
"I suppose you know," Rockford
said, "that there will be no more
than four days in which to stop
the Verdam oligarchy from achieving
its long-time ambition of becoming
big enough to swallow the
"I know," Hunter answered.
Jardeen, Vesta's companion
world, was the key. Jardeen was
large and powerful, with a space
navy unsurpassed by that of any
other single world. A large group of
now-neutral worlds would follow
Jardeen's lead and Jardeen's alliance
with the Verdam People's Worlds
would mean the quick end for the
Terran Republic. But, if Jardeen
could be persuaded to ally with the
Terran Republic, the spreading,
grasping arms of the Verdam octopus
would begin to wither away—
Rockford spoke again:
"Val Boran, Jardeen's Secretary
of Foreign Relations, is the man
who will really make Jardeen's
decision. I know him slightly.
Since my public role is that of
Acting Ambassador, he agreed—reluctantly—to
come to Vesta so
that the talks could be on a neutral
world. With him will be Verdam's
Special Envoy Sonig; a wily little
man who has been working on
Boran for several weeks. He seems
to be succeeding quite well—here's
a message I received from Earth
early this morning."
Rockford handed him a sheet of
the green Hyperspace Communications
paper. The message was in
code, with Rockford's scribbled
Intelligence reports Verdam forces
already massed for attack in Sector A-13,
in full expectation of Jardeen's alliance.
Anti-Terran propaganda, stressing the
New Jardeen Incident, being used in
preparation for what will be their claim
of "defensive action to protect innocent
worlds from Terran aggression." Terran
forces will be outnumbered five to one.
The urgent necessity of immediate and
conclusive counter measures by you on
Vesta is obvious.
Hunter handed the paper back,
thinking, It's worse than any of us
thought, and wondering how Supreme
Command could ever have
entrusted such an important task
to a beer-guzzling old man from
Strategic Service—a branch so unknown
that he had never even
heard of it until his briefing the
day before he left Earth.
He saw that they had left the
desert behind and were going up the
long slope of a mountain. "The
meeting will be on this mountain?"
Rockford nodded. "The rustic
Royal Retreat. Princess Lyla will
be our hostess. Her mother and
father were killed in an airplane
accident a year ago and she was the
only child. You will also get to
meet Lord Narf of the Sea Islands,
her husband-by-proxy, who regards
himself as a rare combination of
irresistible woman-killer and
"The king worshiped his daughter
and his dying request to her was
that she promise to marry Lord
Narf. Narf's father had been the
king's closest friend and the king
was sure that his old friend's son
would always love and care for
Lyla. Lyla dutifully, at once,
married Narf by proxy, which is
like a legally binding formal engagement
under Vestan law. Four
days from now the time limit is
up and they'll be formally married.
Unless she should do the unprecedented
thing of renouncing the
Rockford drained the last of the
beer from the can. "Those are the
characters involved in our play.
I have a plan. That's why I told
Space Patrol to send me a brand-new
strong, fairly handsome—and expendable.
I hope you can be
philosophical about the latter."
"Sir," Hunter said, unable to
keep a touch of stiffness out of his
tone, "it is not exactly unknown
in the Space Patrol for a man to die
in the line of duty."
"Ah ... yes." Rockford was
regarding him with disturbing
amusement. "You are thinking, of
course, of dying dramatically behind
a pair of blazing blasters. But
you will soon learn, my boy, that
a soldier's duty is to protect the
worlds he represents by whatever
actions will produce the best results,
no matter how unheroic
those actions may be."
"Attention, please." It was the
voice of the pilot. "We are now
going to land."
Hunter preceded Rockford out
of the helicopter and onto the green
grass of a small valley, across which
tall, red-trunked cloud trees were
scattered. Pale gray ghost trees,
with knobby, twisted limbs, grew
thickly among the cloud trees.
There was a group of rustic cabins,
connected by gravel paths, and a
much larger building which he
assumed would be a meeting
He turned, and looked into the
brown eyes of a girl. Her green
skirt and orange blouse made a
gay splash of color, her red-brown
hair was wind-tumbled and carefree
about her shoulders, in her hand
was a bouquet of bright spring
But there was no smile of spring
in the dark eyes and the snub-nosed
little face was solemn and old
beyond its years.
"You're Lieutenant Hunter, aren't
you?" she asked in the same
low, quiet voice.
"Princess Lyla!" There seemed
to be genuine delight in Rockford's
greeting as he hurried over.
"You're looking more like a queen
Her face lighted with a smile,
making it suddenly young and
beautiful. "I'm so glad to see
you again, George—"
"Ah ... good afternoon."
The voice was loud, unpleasantly
gravelly. They turned, and Hunter
saw a tall, angular man of perhaps
forty whose pseudogenial smile
was not compatible with his sour,
square-jawed face and calculating
He spoke to Rockford. "You're
Ambassador Rockford, here to
represent the Terran Republic, I
believe." He jerked his head toward
Princess Lyla, who was no
longer smiling. "My wife, Princess
"Oh, she and I have been friends
since she was ten, Lord Narf."
"And this young man"—Narf
glanced at Hunter—"is your aide,
I presume. Lyla, did you think to
send anyone after their luggage?"
A servant was already carrying
their luggage—and cases of Rockford's
beer—out of the helicopter.
Hunter followed the other toward
the cabins. Narf, in the lead, was
"... Ridiculously primitive
here, now, but I'm having some
decent furniture and well-trained
servants sent up from my Sea
The cabin was large and very
comfortable, as Rockford mentioned
to Princess Lyla.
"I'm glad you like it," she said.
"Val Boran and Envoy Sonig are
already here and we'll meet for
dinner in the central hall. I thought
that if we all got acquainted in a
friendly atmosphere like that, it
might help a lot to...."
"That reminds me"—Narf
glanced at his watch—"I promised
this Boran he could have a discussion
with me—Vesta-Jardeen tariff
policies. I suppose he's already
waiting. Come on, Lyla—it will
do you no harm to listen and learn
a bit about interplanetary
For a long moment she looked at
Narf silently, her eyes thoughtful,
then she said to Rockford, "If you
will excuse us, please. And be prepared
for Alonzo to come bounding
in the minute he learns you're
She walked beside Narf to the
door and out it, the top of her dark
hair coming just even with his
"And that," Rockford said as he
settled down in the largest, softest
chair, "was king-to-be Narf, whose
business ability is such that all his
inherited Sea Island estates are
gone but the one Lyla saved for him
and who owes a total of ten million
monetary units, to everyone from
call girls to yacht builders."
"And she is going to marry
him?" Hunter asked. "Marry that
jackass and let him bankrupt her
Rockford shrugged. "You may
have noticed that she doesn't look
the least bit happy about it—but
she is a very conscientious young
lady who regards it as her most
solemn duty to keep the promise
she made to her father. For her,
there is no escape."
"Your first duty will be to cultivate
a friendship with her. I'm
going to use her, and you, to get
what I want."
"Yes. One of the most rigid requirements
of a Strategic Service
man's character is that he be completely
Rockford was asleep in his chair
an hour later, three empty beer cans
beside him. Hunter watched him,
his doubt of Rockford's competence
growing into a conviction.
Rockford had spoken knowingly of
his plan—and had done nothing
but drink more beer. Now he was
asleep while time—so limited and
precious—went by. He hadn't even
bothered to reply to Hunter's suggestion
that perhaps he should call
on Val Boran and counteract some
of Envoy Sonig's anti-Terran propaganda.
Hunter came to a decision. If
Rockford was still doing nothing
when morning came, he would
send an urgent message to Supreme
He went outside, to find a servant
and learn how mail was handled.
Gravel flew as overgrown feet
tried to stop, and something like
a huge black dog lunged headlong
around the corner and into his legs.
He went to the ground head first
over the animal, acutely aware as
he went down of the fascinated
interest on the face of a not-so-distant
"I sorry, Rootenant."
He got up, to look down at the
doglike animal. There was a concerned
expression in its brown eyes
and an apologetic grin on its face.
He recognized it as one of the
natives of the grim starvation
world of Altair Four. The Altairians
had emigrated to all sections
of the galaxy, to earn a living in
whatever humble capacity they
could fill. Many were empathic.
"I run too fast to meet, Mr.
Rockford, I guess. Are you hurt,
He pulled a cloud tree needle out
of his hand and looked grimly
down into the furry face. "In the
future, try to look where you're
"Oh, I rook, awr right. I just
not see. My name is Aronzo,
Rootenant, and I stay here awr the
time and guard everything for
Princess Ryra. I prease to meet you
and I wirr run errands for you, and
do things rike mair your retters,
for candy or cookies, which I are
not supposed to eat much of, but
Princess Ryra say not too many
wirr hurt me—"
"Mail letters?" Hunter's animosity
vanished. "I'm sorry I was
rude, Alonzo—all my fault. I may
write a letter to my dear old
mother tonight, and if you would
mail it for me in the morning—"
Rockford left ahead of Hunter
and it was a minute past the appointed
time when Hunter reached
the meeting hall. He heard Narf's
loud voice inside:
"... Boran must have stopped
to watch the sunset. Told him I
wanted everyone here on time—"
The low voice of Lyla said something
and Narf said, "Not necessary
for you to defend him, my
dear. I made it plain to him."
A new voice spoke from behind
"It seems I have annoyed Lord
He was a tall, black-eyed man,
with the dark, saturnine face of an
Indian. There was a strange, indefinable
air of sadness about him
which reminded Hunter of the
sombre little Princess Lyla.
"You're Val Boran, sir?" he said.
"I'm Lieutenant Hunter—"
Inside, Narf sat at the head of the
table. On his left was Lyla, then
Rockford. On his right was a
spidery little man of about fifty,
his slick-back hair so tight against
his skull that it gave his head the
appearance of a weasel's. His lips
were paper-thin under a long nose,
like those of a dry and selfish old
maid, but the round little eyes
darting behind thick glasses were
cold and shrewd and missed nothing.
He would be Verdam's Special
Envoy Sonig. Hunter appraised
him as a man very dangerous in his
own deceptive way.
A servant showed them to their
places at the table. Rockford and
Val Boran exchanged greetings.
The moment everyone was seated,
Narf said, "Dinner tonight will—"
"Excuse me," Lyla said, "but
Mr. Sonig hasn't yet met—"
"Oh ... the young fellow
there—" Narf gestured with his
hand. "Rockford's aide. Now, ring
the chime, Lyla. Those forest stag
steaks are already getting cold. I
killed the beast myself, gentlemen,
just this morning; a long-range
running shot that required a bit
more than luck...."
The dinner was excellent, but no
one seemed to notice. Narf was
absorbed in the story of his swift
rise to eminence in the Vestan
Space Guard. There were humorous
"... Can't understand why,
but I seem to attract women like a
magnet. I'm strictly the masculine
type of male and I approve of this
but it can be a blasted nuisance
when you're an ensign going up
fast and your commander finds one
of your blondes stowed away in
And there were scenes of tense
"... Made a boyhood vow
that I'd never settle for anything
less than to always be a man
among men. Seem to have succeeded
rather well. When I saw the crew
was almost to the snapping point
from battle tension I knew that as
commander I'd have to set the
example that would inspire."
Hunter recalled Rockford's words
of a few hours before: "Narf got to
be commander, finally, but only because
he was the son of the king's best friend.
His record is very mediocre."
Princess Lyla tried three times to
start a conversation of general interest
and was drowned out by
Narf each time. Sonig's pretense of
being spellbound by Narf's stories
was belied by the way his eyes kept
darting from Rockford to Val
Boran. Val's own attention kept
shifting from Narf to the silent
Lyla, whose downcast eyes betrayed
her discouragement. She
watched Val from under her eyelashes,
to look away whenever
their eyes met, and Hunter wondered
if she was ashamed because
Narf had given Sonig the seat of
honor that should have belonged
Of course, Narf's own position
at the head of the table was
"... So there's no substitute
for competent, unwavering leadership,"
Narf was saying. "Received
a citation for that one."
Sonig nodded appreciatively.
"Your military record well illustrates
the fact that the tensions of
danger and battle can bring forth
in a competent leader the highest
kind of courage. But it seems to me
that these same circumstances, if
the leader is frightened or incompetent,
can easily produce hysterical
actions with disastrous consequences.
Is this true, your lordship?"
Rockford was watching Sonig intently
and Hunter saw that there
was an eager anticipation in Sonig's
"You are quite right," Narf
answered. "I've always had the
ability to remain cool in any crisis.
Very important. Let a commander
get rattled and he may give any
kind of an order. Like the New
A frozen silence followed the last
five words. Hunter thought, So
that's what the little weasel was
Rockford quietly laid down his
fork. Val's face turned grim. Lyla
looked up in quick alarm and said
"Don't misunderstand me, gentlemen,"
Narf's loud voice went on.
"I believe the commander of the
Terran cruiser wouldn't have ordered
it to fire upon the Verdam
cruiser over a neutral world such
as New Jardeen if he had been his
rational self. Cold-war battle
nerves. So he shot down the Verdam
cruiser and its nuclear converters
exploded when it fell in the
center of Colony City. Force of a
hydrogen bomb—forty thousand
innocent people gone in a microsecond.
Not the commander's fault,
really—fault of the military system
that failed to screen out its unstable
"Yes, your lordship. But is it
possible"—Sonig spoke very
thoughtfully—"for a political
power, which is of such a nature
that it must have a huge military
force to maintain its existence, to
thoroughly screen all its officers?
So many officers are required—Can
there ever be any assurance that
such tragedies won't occur again
and again, until a majority of
worlds combine in demanding an
end to aggression and war?"
Rockford spoke to the grim Val:
"I know, sir, that your sister
was among the lost in Colony City.
I am sorry. For the benefit of Mr.
Sonig and Lord Narf, I would like
to mention that the Verdam cruiser
fired upon the Terran cruiser over
neutral New Jardeen in open violation
of Galactic Rule. An atmospheric
feedback of the Verdam
cruiser's own space blasters tore
out its side and caused it to fall. The
Terran cruiser never fired."
"But Mr. Rockford—" Sonig
spoke very courteously. "Isn't it
true that certain safety devices
prevent atmospheric feedback?"
"They do—unless accidentally or
Sonig raised his eyebrows. "You
imply a created incident, sir?"
"It doesn't matter," Val Boran
said. His tone was as grim as his
face and it was obvious he did not
believe Rockford's explanation.
"Colony City is a field of fused
glass, now, its people are gone, and
no amount of debating can ever
bring them back."
The dismal dinner was finally
over. Rockford stopped outside the
door of their cabin to fill and light
"It was a profitable evening,"
he said to Hunter. "I can start
planning in detail now—after a
little beer, that is."
He'll go to sleep after he drinks his
beer, Hunter thought, and there will
never be any plan unless I—
Soft footsteps came up the path
behind them. It was Princess Lyla.
"I want to apologize," she said,
"I just told Val ... Mr. Boran
the same thing."
Her face was a pale oval in the
starlight, her eyes dark shadows.
"I'm sorry my husband mentioned
the New Jardeen incident."
"That's all right, Lyla," Rockford
said. "No harm was done."
"He's an ex-military man, and
I guess it's his nature to be more
forthright than tactful."
"You certainly can't condemn
him for that," Rockford said. "In
fact, he's an extraordinary teller of
entertaining stories. It was a most
"And, in a way, it was," Rockford
said when she was gone and
they were in the cabin. He was
seated in the softest chair, a can of
beer in his hand, as usual.
Hunter thought of the way she
had looked in the starlight and
said, "Why did she let that windbag
sit at the head of the table and
ruin the meeting that she had
"He'll soon be her husband—I
suppose she feels she should be
loyal to him."
"Nothing. It's none of my business."
"Oh?" Rockford smiled in a
way Hunter did not like. "You
think so, eh?"
Hunter changed the subject. "Are
you going to start talking to
Boran to undo the damage Narf
and Sonig have done?"
"It would be a waste of time, my
boy. Val Boran's mind is already
"Then what are you going to
"Drink six cans of beer and go
"I thought you had a plan."
"I have, a most excellent plan."
"What is it?"
"You'd scream like a banshee if
you knew. You'll learn—if you
manage to live that long."
Rockford was sound asleep an
hour later, snoring gently. Hunter
sat thinking, hearing the steady
murmur of a voice coming from Val
Boran's cabin. Sonig's voice—using
every means of persuasion he could
think of, at the moment capitalizing
on the New Jardeen incident
and Boran's withheld grief over
the sister he had lost.
And the Terran Republic's representative
was sprawled fat and
mindless in a fog of beer fumes.
Hunter hesitated no longer. The
fate of Earth and the Terran Republic
hung in the balance and time
was desperately limited—if there
was now any time at all.
He took paper and pen and began
the urgent message to Supreme
Command, headed, TOP EMERGENCY.
It would be sent via
Hyperspace Communications from
the city and would span the hundred
light-years within seconds.
He was up before Rockford the
next morning, and went out into
the bright sunlight. He looked
hopefully for Alonzo, not wanting
to be seen mailing the letter in
person. Rockford, despite his drunken
stupors, could be shrewdly
observant and he might deduce
the contents of the letter before
Supreme Command ever received it.
He was some distance from the
cabin when he heard the pound of
padded feet behind him.
"Rootenant," Alonzo had the
grin of a genial canine idiot. "Do
you want me to mair your retter to
your dear ore mother?"
"Yes, I have the letter right here."
"O.K. I got to hurry, because
the mair hericopter reaves right
away. I charge six fig cookies or
three candy bars or—"
"Here—take it and run—and
try not to slobber all over it."
They were served breakfast in the
cabin. Afterward, Rockford went
for a brief talk with Princess Lyla.
He came back and settled down in
the easy-chair, his pipe in his hand.
"Your morning's duty won't be
at all unpleasant," he said. "The
obnoxious and repulsive things
will begin to happen to you later.
Maybe this afternoon."
"What do you mean?"
"This morning you will go for
a walk with Princess Lyla and
discuss changing the Vestan Space
Guard into a force along Terran
Space Patrol lines. Narf is still in
bed, by the way."
Rockford added, "I'll give you
a bit of sage advice, for your own
good—try not to fall in love with
Hunter and Princess Lyla sat
together on the high hill, their
backs against the red trunk of a
cloud tree. On the mountain's slope
to their right lay the dark and
junglelike Tiger Forest—he wondered
if it was true that the savage
tree tigers never left its borders—while
the toylike cabins of the
camp were below them. The mountain's
slope dropped on down to
the deserts, beyond which were
other mountains, far away and
"It was George who suggested
we come up here," she said. "He
knows I do that often when the
responsibilities of being queen of
a world—I'm such an ordinary and
untalented person—become too
much for me. I always feel better
when I sit up here and look down
on the mountains and deserts."
"Yes," he said politely.
"A ruling princess can be so
alone," she said. "That's why I
appreciate George's friendship so
much—it's never because of any
ulterior motive but because he
I'm going to use her, and you, to
get what I want.
He looked at her, at the lines of
sadness on the face that was too
old for its years, felt the way she
was so grateful to Rockford for
what was only a cold-blooded
pretense of friendship, and the
dislike for Rockford increased. He
could not force himself to speak
civilly of Rockford so he changed
"I understand you wanted to
talk to me about the Space Guard?"
"Yes. Even a neutral world can't
feel safe these days and George
"I'll be glad to help all I can. Of
course, the change will require
"I can understand that. They
say you Space Patrol officers begin
training at sixteen, after passing
almost impossible qualification
"The tests can seem extremely
difficult to a farm boy from Kansas.
"Kansas?" Her eyes lighted with
interest. "My grandmother was
from Kansas! She used to tell me
about the green plains of grain in
the spring, and how different
they were from the deserts of
It was almost noon when he took
her hand and helped her to her feet,
realizing guiltily that they had
talked all morning without ever
getting back to the cold, dry facts
of military efficiency.
"It was nice to talk up here this
morning," she said. She looked
down at the cabins and the shadow
fell again across her face. "But
nothing down there has been
changed by it, has it?"
He held to her hand longer than
was necessary as they went down
the steep part of the hill. She did
not seem to mind.
When they reached her cabin she
said, "It's still a little while until
lunch—time enough for you to
give me a rough outline of the Space
Everything inside the cabin was
feminine. None of Narf's possessions
were visible. There was a
heavy door leading into Narf's half
of the cabin, with a massive lock.
Hunter wondered if it was left unlocked
at night, thought of Narf's
sour face and leering little eyes, and
found the thought repulsive.
The answer to his conjecture
came with the entrance of a servant
as they seated themselves.
"By your leave, your highness,"
the servant said, bowing, "I came
to make Lord Narf a key for that
"A key?" There was alarm in her
tone. "But we're not married—not
A puzzled expression came to the
man's face. "Lord Narf told me,
your highness, that you had
ordered the duplicate key made and
given to him before evening. I
found I could not do this without
first borrowing your key for a
There was a frightened look in
her eyes as they went to the door
and back to the servant. "No ...
don't try to make a key!"
"Yes, your highness." The servant
bowed and turned away.
A familiar gravelly voice spoke
from behind them:
"Ah ... an unscheduled little
meeting, I see!"
It was Narf, anger on his face,
already within the doorway as the
servant went out it.
"We were going to talk about the
Space Guard," Lyla said in an
emotionless tone. "Lieutenant
Hunter has promised to show how
Space Patrol methods will improve
"By a coincidence, Sonig and
I were discussing military matters
only a few minutes ago," Narf
said. He looked at Hunter. "I'm
afraid that Sonig and I agree that
the Terran Space Guard is quite out
of date, now. The fighting force of
the galaxy is the Verdam's Peoples
Narf spoke to Lyla, "You may
go ahead and talk with this lieutenant
if you wish to, but it's a
waste of time. I'm arranging to
have Sonig send Peoples Guards
officers here to supervise the rebuilding
of the Space Guard.
"And now"—there was insinuation
in Narf's tone as he spoke to
Hunter—"I have to give Sonig a
demonstration of my skill with
weapons. He insists on it—he has
heard of several of my modest
Narf left the door open behind
him so that by turning his head as
he walked, he could see the two
"I suppose I might as well go,"
Lyla did not answer. She sat
motionless, staring unseeingly before
her, and he wondered if she
was thinking of how very soon
Narf would be king and his authority
as great as hers.
She did not notice when he
quietly left the room.
Rockford was waiting in the
cabin, still in the easy-chair.
"Well," Rockford said, "what
do you think of her?"
Hunter tried to keep the personal
dislike out of his coldly formal
"If you refer to your suggestion
that I not make love to her, sir,
I can assure you that such a suggestion
was never necessary. I happen
to have a code of ethics."
"I didn't say 'make love'. I said,
'fall in love'. That's quite ethical.
Did you complete your discussion
"Well ... no."
"You must do that this afternoon,
then. Can't let anything as
important as that be delayed."
Hunter stared at him, trying to
find one small grain of sanity in
Rockford's actions. The Verdam
empire already had Jardeen within
its grasp, and Vesta, and the end
for Earth was inevitable. And
Rockford slept, and drank beer,
and regarded it as very important
that the Vestan Space Guard discussions—of
a change that Narf
would never permit—be continued
He walked slowly into his own
room. In the nightmare situation of
frustration there was one single
sane and stable conviction for his
mind to cling to: Supreme Command
would by now have received
his message and shot back the reply
that would relieve Rockford of
his command. Perhaps it wasn't
yet too late—
Then his mind reeled as a new
conviction struck it.
There was a sheet of paper on
his bed—a message.
... SITUATION EXTREMELY
CRITICAL ... VAL BORAN
ALREADY CONVINCED BY
SONIG'S PROPAGANDA ...
MUST REPORT ROCKFORD IS
UTTERLY INCOMPETENT, HIS
MIND AND WILL DESTROYED
BY ALCOHOL ... REPEAT:
ROCKFORD IS DOING NOTHING,
HIS MIND DESTROYED
The words screamed up at him
and he felt the sickness of one who
sees the last faint hope shattered
and gone. All was lost, now....
He went outside, feeling a savage
desire for violence rising above the
"Rootenant!" Alonzo came
bounding to meet him and slid
to a halt with his saucer feet scattering
gravel and the idiotic grin
on his face. "I mair your retter and
you owe me six fig cook—"
It occurred to Hunter that it
was not Alonzo that should be
punished. He, Hunter, was the one
who deserved execution for ever
entrusting anything so important
as the message to an imbecilic
He said with cold distinctness:
"The ... letter ... is ... inside."
"Oh?" Alonzo blinked. "I sure
mair something, awr right. After
Mr. Rockford correct it."
"Oh, sure. Mr. Rockford, he up
rong before you this morning to
find me and say you are writing a
retter rast night and I must bring
it by for him to make awr your
mistakes over again."
So Rockford was watching all the
time, pretending to be in a drunken
"Rootenant—" Alonzo shifted
his big feet impatiently. "You stirr
owe me six fig—"
Hunter swung around and strode
away, afraid he might decide to
choke the animal after all. A
culture of twenty worlds was the
same as already destroyed, and he
was held in a maddening quagmire
of helplessness by a crafty alcoholic
and a dog with the mind of a small
"Ah ... my boy!" Rockford
came out of the cabin, beaming as
though nothing had ever happened.
"Look to your left, among those
ghost trees—Narf is demonstrating
his quick-draw skill to Sonig.
Narf is supposed to be a very dangerous
man, you know."
Hunter looked, and saw Narf
whipping up the blunt, ugly spread-beam
blaster—known to soldiers
as the Coward's Special, because at
short range it could not miss and
would always cripple and blind a
man for life even though it would
not always kill him. Sonig was
standing by, nodding his weasel
head and smiling in open admiration.
"Of course," Rockford said,
"Sonig isn't mentioning the needle
gun all Verdam envoys carry up
their sleeve. He's flattering Narf's
ego for a reason—he intends to
have Vesta, as well as Jardeen,
sewed up for the Verdam empire
when he leaves here."
"And so far as I can see,"
Hunter said coldly, "Sonig never
is going to have anything vaguely
resembling intelligent resistance to
"Ah, yes ... so far as you can
see," Rockford agreed amiably.
"But you obey my order to take
Lyla for another walk and everything
will turn out all right. In
fact, I'll speak to her about that
Hunter stared after Rockford as
he walked away. There could be
no possible shred of doubt—Rockford
The breeze shifted and the voice
of Narf came:
"... Certainly no weapon for
a timid man, this spread-beam
blaster. Have to meet the enemy
man-to-man at close range."
"In that respect, too," Sonig
said, "you remind me of our great
General Paluk. His skill in hand-to-hand
combat was something
Hunter quivered and steeled himself.
"Rootenant—" Alonzo came to
a flopping halt beside him. "I terr
Princess Ryra and she say I are bad
to be mad at you. So I not mad, even
if you didn't give me my pay."
"Thank you," Hunter said
acidly. "I was deeply disturbed
by your resentment."
"Oh, I know, you don't rike me.
But I think you not as mean as
you act. But Rord Narf—he is.
I terr you, he awready mad enough
to kirr you."
"What? Lord Narf wants to kill
"Oh, he know you hord Princess
Ryra's hand awrmost awr the way
down the hirr this morning. Mr.
Sonig, he see you, and he run and
terr Rord Narf and Mr. Boran, too."
"But I was only helping her
down the hill."
"Rord Narf, he are going to say
mean things about it to Princess
Ryra, too. I know. He are awrways
saying mean things to my Princess
Alonzo sighed, a sound strangely
humanlike in its sadness.
"Who wirr watch over my Princess
Ryra after she marry Rord
Narf? He said, 'The first thing to
go around here wirr be that stupid
brabber-mouth animar that are not
worth what it costs to feed it.' I
think maybe he are afraid that if
he ever hit my Princess Ryra, I wirr
kirr him." The brown eyes looked
up at Hunter, and suddenly they
were unlike he had ever seen them;
cold with deliberate decision. "I
Hunter was still standing by the
cabin, thinking of what Alonzo
had said, when Rockford returned.
"I also stopped by to see Val
Boran," Rockford said. "While
you're off with Lyla, we'll go to
the city. Lyla is giving us free
access to the Royal Library and the
records of a neutral world carry
more weight than anything I could
say. Not that it's going to change
his mind any—but it will give me
a chance to work on him in another
Rockford went into the cabin as
Val Boran came up the path, Princess
Lyla walking beside him. She
was saying, "... And anything
we have in the library is yours for
They were close enough for
Hunter to see her expression as
she looked up at Val and added
with what seemed a touch of wistfulness,
"I'll be glad to go in with
you and Mr. Rockford and do what
I can to help if you want me to."
"Lyla"—it was the grating voice
of Narf who seemed to have the
ability to materialize anywhere—"I'm
sure the man knows his business.
Besides, I want to talk to you
about something as soon as I have
finished my discussion with Mr.
With that, Narf started on toward
his cabin. Sonig, close behind
him, paused long enough to bow
to Lyla and say with the meaningless
smile, "Good afternoon, Princess
Lyla. Your husband was just
demonstrating his marvelous skill
with weapons. I would very much
dislike"—the little eyes darted to
Hunter and back again—"being
the man who aroused his lordship's
Then Sonig followed Narf, with
one last flickering glance at Hunter
to see how the remark had fallen.
Rockford came out of the cabin
with his brief case and said to Val,
"Are we ready to go?"
"I just told Val"—Lyla spoke
quickly—"that I would be glad
to go along and help any way I
can." The words were addressed to
Rockford but her eyes were on Val,
with the same wistful expression.
"Do you want me to?"
Val answered her with cool, formal
courtesy: "The librarian can
find all the records we will need,
Princess Lyla, without our interrupting
your schedule for the day
or your discussion with your husband.
Thank you very much."
For an instant Lyla's face had the
hurt expression of a child rebuffed
without reason. Then she looked
away and Val turned to Rockford
and said, "I'm ready when you are,
Lyla watched them walk away
and she was still watching when
the helicopter had lifted into the
air and faded from sight.
Hunter hesitated, then spoke to
"I understand you want to talk
more about the Space Guard, Princess
"Princess Lyla!" Her lips curled
as she turned to face him and she
seemed to spit the words at him in
sudden, unexpected resentment. "I
love the meaningless sound of my
official figurehead title! It's so much
better than being regarded as a
living person with feelings that
can be hurt!"
"But Princ ... I mean—" He
floundered, not quite sure what
had caused her reaction.
She made a visible effort to compose
herself. "I'm sorry," she said.
"I suppose my ... husband ...
is quite right; an immature female
has no business trying to rule a
world and the sooner the marriage
is confirmed, the sooner a competent
man can take over the job."
"No," he said. "I think—"
He decided that what he thought
had better be left unsaid.
"I'll"—she looked toward the
cabin she shared with Narf—"let
you know when we can talk."
She went back toward the cabin,
walking slowly. From inside Narf's
half of it came the sound of Narf's
voice as he spoke to Sonig:
"... Of course, this collection
of heads is nothing compared with
what I have in the Sea Islands ... but
some interesting stories here ... take
that snow fox there...."
Hunter sighed, and saw that
Lyla had stopped before her door,
as though dreading to enter. Narf's
voice droned on:
"... Only wounded, so I finished
it with a knife. Even with
its heart half cut out, it still wanted
to live ... beautiful pelt ... coat
for Janalee, the strip-tease
queen ... always had a way with
women—Lyla could tell you that ... had
my pick of hundreds but
I'm letting her be my choice...."
He saw Lyla half lift her hand,
as in some mute gesture of protest,
then she turned and walked swiftly
away; up the path that led into the
ghost trees, and out of sight.
He waited, but she did not come
back. He went into his cabin and
moved about restlessly, hearing
again Narf's sadism-and-sex boasting
and seeing again how she
turned and almost ran from it—
Alonzo was panting, a look of
frantic appeal in his eyes.
"Prease herp me ... Princess
Ryra ... she wirr die!"
He felt his heart lurch. "She's
hurt?" he demanded, and was
already on his way to the door.
"She are about to cry and she are
going to where the tree tigers riv.
They wirr kirr her—prease come
He asked no more questions but
went out the door and up the path,
Alonzo running ahead of him.
The ghost trees grew thinner as
they went up the mountain's slope,
and the blue-green fernlike trees of
the tiger forest began to appear.
They grew thicker and thicker,
until the ground was black with
their shadows and the midday sunlight
was filtered out by the foliage
overhead. Alonzo was trailing her,
his nose to the ground, and Hunter
hurried close behind him, watching
for the red-and-white of the clothes
she was wearing and hoping they
would not find her too late.
They were deep in the forest
when they found her.
She was standing motionless in
the center of a clearing, facing away
from him and looking as small and
alone as a lost child. She seemed to
He realized for the first time how
alone she really was, with only a
doglike alien, Alonzo, to love her
or care what might happen to her,
and with a future she could not
bear to face. But Rockford had been
wrong when he had said, For her,
there is no escape.
There was escape for her. She had
only to wait, as she was waiting
now, and it would come in the
windlike whisper of a tiger's rush
through the grass behind her....
He hurried to her. She turned,
and he saw the stains of tears now
dry on her face and in her eyes the
darkness of utter defeat.
"I was afraid you might get hurt,
Then, seemingly without volition
on his part, he put his arms
around her and she was clinging to
him and crying in muffled sobs and
trying to say something about,
"I didn't think anybody cared...."
It was some time later, when her
crying was finished, that he was
reminded of the tigers by Alonzo:
"Rootenant ... awr the time,
some tigers are coming croser and
croser. We better get her out of
here, Rootenant, before they find
Lyla looked down at Alonzo.
"Thank you, Alonzo, for watching
over me and ... and—" Her
voice caught and she dropped to
her knees and hugged the shaggy
head tight against her.
Hunter watched ahead, Lyla beside
him as they went through the
dense trees. Alonzo walked soft-footed
behind them, watching the
rear. When they came to the first
ghost trees and the dwindling of
the tiger trees, Hunter thought it
safe to walk slower and talk to
"I saw you go," he said. "I
didn't know where until Alonzo
came running to tell me."
"I heard him bragging about
killing, and about his women—I
was weak, wasn't I?"
"I was afraid to face the future,
just because it isn't to be exactly
like I thought I wanted."
"What was the kind you wanted,
"Oh ... I guess I wanted a
husband who could see me only,
and children, and evenings together
in the flower garden, and ...
well, all the silly, sentimental
little things that mean so much to
He thought, Even with its heart
half cut out, it still wanted to live ...
Coat for Janalee ... the strip-tease
They passed through the last of
the tiger trees and she said, "We're
safe, now. The tigers never attack
anyone outside their forest."
She was walking slowly and he
said, "We should get on back before
you're missed, shouldn't we?"
"Who would miss me?" she
asked. "So long as I remain physically
intact for the marriage night,
who cares where or why I went
There was the cold bleakness of
winter in her eyes as she spoke, and
in her voice the first undertone of
brass. He saw that this was already
the beginning of the change that
Narf would make in her; the transformation
of a girl young and
wanting to love and be loved into
a hard and cynical woman.
He put his arm around her
shoulder, thinking that he should
tell her that he cared and that she
must never let Narf change her.
He realized how futile and foolish
the words would sound. She
would marry Narf, he would return
to Earth, and they would never
meet again. There were no words
for him to speak on this last walk
together, no way to tell her that
he wanted to help her, to protect
and care for her. No way to express
the feeling inside him....
He did what seemed as natural
under the circumstances as it had
been for him to put his arm around
her in the clearing. He tilted up
her face and bent his head to kiss
And walked with jarring impact
into the knobby elbow of a ghost
The sun was down and dusk was
darkening the camp when they
arrived back at her cabin.
"Thank you, Dale," she said.
Her hand squeezed his arm. "I
didn't know I had a friend ...
but now we'll have to be strangers
Gravel crunched loudly on one
of the paths in the ghost trees and
they looked back, to see Narf and
Sonig coming, walking swiftly.
Even at the distance, there was
anger like a red aura about Narf.
"Well," Lyla said softly, "here
comes my medicine."
Sonig stopped at his own cabin,
to stand just within the doorway,
watching. Narf strode on and
stopped before Hunter and Lyla,
his face twisted with savage hatred
as he looked at Hunter. He spoke
to Lyla with grating vehemence:
"You've done an excellent job
of making an ass of yourself—and
of me—haven't you? Come on in
Narf seized her by the arm, towering
over her as he jerked her
around toward the door. Hunter
stepped quickly forward, feeling
the hot flash of his own anger, but
there was the paleness of Lyla's
face as she looked back, an appeal
on it that said, No! He stopped,
realizing that Narf would not
physically harm the woman who
would make him king of Vesta,
and that any interference on his
part would only make everything
the harder for her.
He watched the two go into the
cabin—into Lyla's half—and Narf
slammed the door shut behind
them. There followed the quick
bang of windows being closed, and
then Narf's muffled tirade began:
"... May think I'm a fool ...
I'm going to tell you a few things...."
Sonig was still standing within
his doorway. Hunter knew, without
seeing it, that the thin-lipped
smile would be on Sonig's face.
He turned and walked back to
his own cabin. There was nothing
he could do but withdraw—and
listen from a distance and be ready
to act if it seemed she was in danger.
He sat on his doorstep in
the darkness, hearing occasional
phrases in Narf's unrelenting abuse.
One was: "So prim you had to countermand
my order for a key to that
lock—then you went out to play with
that second lieutenant...."
Alonzo materialized out of the
darkness, coming as silently as a
shadow. He was no longer the
bumbling clown. The idiotic grin
was gone and his eyes were green
fire, slanted and catlike, his teeth
flashing white in a snarl as he
looked back toward the sound of
"She are my Princess Ryra,"
Alonzo said. "He are cursing her.
If he ever hurt her, I wirr tear out
his throat and his river."
"He won't hurt her, Alonzo,"
Hunter said, wishing he could be
sure. "He'll only use words on
"He never ask her why she run
away—he onry curse her and
threaten her because she embarrass
"He and Sonig, they see you
coming out of the forest with your
arm around her. They watch with
"But there was nothing wrong
"That are what Princess Ryra
say. She say you onry put your arm
around her because she are stirr
scared of the tigers. And then he
say, what about the other? And he
cawr her awrful bad names."
"Oh, when you are bending
down to kiss Princess Ryra and are
wawrking into tree."
He gulped. "They saw that?"
"Oh, sure. Rord Narf are so
mad he want to kirr you right then
but Sonig say, 'Wait, I have a
pran.' Then Sonig say, 'It are too
bad we don't have a camera—we
could have made that rootenant
the raffing stock of forty worlds.'"
The thought made Hunter gulp
"What was Sonig's plan that
Narf told Lyla about?" He asked.
"Oh, he not terr her. I hear
Sonig terr Rord Narf when I spy.
Sonig say, 'Tomorrow we be friendry
and we ret those two go for
another wawrk in the woods. And
we have cameras with terescope
rens and when they kiss and hug
we take moving pictures.'"
"Why, the gutter-bred rat—"
"And Rord Narf say, 'That is
what we wirr do. And then I
wirr kirr him as soon as we have
the pictures and she wirr have to
toe the mark from then on because
if I pubricry show the pictures of
what she did, she wirr be ashamed
to show her face anywhere on
"Why, the—" He could not
think of a suitable expression.
"And then Sonig say, 'To make
sure she go out tomorrow, you
bawr her out good so she wirr
want to cry on the rootenant's
shourder again.' And Rord Narf say,
'I wirr be very grad to terr the two-timing
hussy what I think of her,
"Why, she was only a scared girl
and that rat thinks she—"
"... Your promise to your dying
father," Narf's voice came in accusation.
"He's gone, now, and you can
betray him, too! Why don't you go all
the way in your deceptions ... your
father will never know...."
Alonzo said, "I think I go back
and stay croser to her cabin, Rootenant."
It was an hour later, and Narf's
voice had settled to a low, steady
growling, when Hunter heard a
helicopter settle down near the
camp. A minute later, Val Boran
was outlined momentarily in the
doorway of the cabin he shared
with Sonig. There followed the
exchange of a few words—interrogation
in Val's tone—and then
the sound of Sonig's voice alone,
which continued for minute after
Sonig is telling him all about it,
Hunter thought, including my walking
into that tree. But there won't be
one word in sympathy with Lyla.
Sonig's story ended and Hunter
saw Val leave the cabin. He came
straight up the path toward
Hunter, looming tall in the darkness
as he stopped before him.
There was the pale gleam of metal
in Val's belt—a blaster. His voice
came cold and flat:
"I want to talk to you, Lieutenant."
Hunter sighed, thinking, I suppose
he wants to kill me, too.
He got up and said, "We'll go
inside. Shut the door behind you—I
don't want your friend straining
his ears to hear us."
Val sat tall even in the chair, his
face like a carving in a dark granite
and his eyes as bright and hard.
"I understand that you took
Princess Lyla into the tiger forest
today." Val's hand was very near
the blaster. "I understand you
then played the role of affectionate
"Do you believe that story?"
"Do you have a different one?"
"You might ask Lyla. Or
Alonzo. Alonzo is the one who
came to me for help when he saw
she was going out to die."
"To die?" A startled expression
came into the black eyes. "She
wanted to die?"
"I'll tell you what happened,"
Hunter said, and told him the
story, omitting only the embarrassing
kissing incident and knowing
that Sonig had not.
Val was silent for a while after
Hunter finished speaking, then he
said, "It isn't for me to comment
upon Lord Narf's character or
actions. She is his wife by her own
choice. But the thought of someone
else taking her out and—"
"I know. It wasn't so." Then
Hunter added, "You think a great
deal of her, don't you?"
Val's face hardened and Hunter
thought he would not answer.
Then he smiled a little, even
though without humor, and said:
"Since I came here to kill you
if I thought you deserved it, I
suppose I am obligated to answer
your question. My regard for Princess
Lyla is the respectful one that
any civilized man would have for
another man's wife."
There was an unintended implication
in the statement and
Hunter made a conjecture:
"You and Princess Lyla were
engaged—how long ago?"
There was surprise on Val's face,
and something like pain quickly
masked. "So she's already making
it public information?"
"No. I learned of it from ...
other sources. I don't know, of
course, why you persuaded her to
break the engagement—that's none
of my business, anyway."
"No," Val said. "It's none of
your business. I'll tell you this: I
didn't ask her to break the engagement.
But so long as that was
what she wanted, I certainly wasn't
going to beg her to change her
Val stood up to go. "If you don't
mind, I would rather you said
nothing to Princess Lyla about this
visit tonight. I'm afraid my misplaced
surge of chivalry would
make me look like a fool to her."
Then, as an afterthought, Val
added, "Mr. Rockford had further
business in the city."
It was late when Narf finally left
Lyla's part of the cabin. He went
to the cabin occupied by Val and
Sonig, aroused Sonig, and the two
of them went to the helicopter
field. Hunter heard the helicopter
leaving for the city a few minutes
later. Val's cabin remained dark
and after a while, the light in
Lyla's cabin went out.
He went to bed, but not to sleep.
Over and over, a lonely little Princess
Lyla clung to him for comfort,
crying, while he held her close. He
twisted and turned restlessly as he
thought of the hours she had sat
alone and unloved while Narf
poured out his hatred and fury on
There was a yearning for her, a
desire to hold her and always protect
her, that would not let him
sleep. And he realized the reason
He thought miserably, I'm in love
Rockford was in bed, snoring
loudly, with six empty beer cans
on the floor beside him, when
Hunter got up. He went outside
and found Alonzo waiting for him.
"They got it awr pranned to
kirr you for sure today, Rootenant."
"How?" he asked.
"Rast night, Rord Narf and
Sonig go to the city and Rord Narf,
he hire four bad-rooking men with
brasters, and Sonig hire four more
that are his countrymen, and they
bring these men back and now they
are hiding in the woods. And they
awrso bring back movie cameras
with terescope renses. And Rord
Narf raff and say he wirr marry
Princess Ryra today before your
dead body is even coor."
"Oh?" Hunter said. He thought
of the snoring Rockford and his
words of two days before: If you
manage to live that long. How, he
wondered, could the lazy old
drunkard have made such an accurate
"And then," Alonzo said, "Rord
Narf wake up Princess Ryra—onry
I know she wasn't asreep—and he
terr her he ruv her and have awready
made awr the arrangement
for them to get married today,
right after runch. And he terr her
she is right about the Space Guard
and she wirr have until runch to
tawrk to you about it."
There was the sound of Narf's
door opening and closing and
Alonzo said, "I go now—Rord
Narf might guess that I are terring
A few minutes later Narf and
Sonig came down the path toward
Hunter. Both carried packsacks—the
cameras, of course—and both
carried long-range rifle blasters.
"Good morning, lieutenant!"
Narf was smiling and pseudogenial
again. "About last night—sometimes
a man has to be stern with
his wife to impress her. Very
foolish thing she did—might have
been killed. I'm afraid I was so
badly shaken with worry over her
that I didn't even thank you for
bringing her back."
"A beautiful morning, lieutenant!"
Sonig was smiling, coming
as close to beaming as the
nature of his face would permit.
"Lord Narf is going to take me
stag hunting this morning—I'll get
some lessons from a master. Did
you ever see his lordship's collection
of heads? Amazing!"
"But it seems a sportsman's collection
is never quite complete,"
Narf said. He was still smiling but
the hatred was burning like a fire
in his eyes as he looked at Hunter.
"There's one more head I must
have—I intend to get it this
Narf and Sonig were gone when
Lyla came out of her cabin, her
face pale and drawn. Val came out
of his cabin and the two spoke to
each other in greeting. There was
a silence, in which neither seemed
to know what to say.
Finally, awkwardly, Val said,
"I heard about yesterday, Lyla.
Why did you go into the tiger
"Oh ... I was just walking, I
guess, and didn't notice where."
"You went there to die, didn't
"I ... when you have nothing
left—" Then she lifted her head in
a proud gesture and said, "Should
it matter to you?"
For a moment Val had the look
of a man struck. Then it was gone
and he said in an emotionless voice:
"No. I was asking about something
that is only your husband's
business. I won't do it again."
He turned away, back to his
"Val—" She took a quick step
after him, the proud air gone and
her arms outstretched. "I didn't
He turned back, his tone politely
"I only wanted—" Then her
arms dropped and the life went
out of her voice. "What does it
matter ... what does anything
She hurried into her cabin and
the door closed behind her.
Rockford spoke from the doorway
"Well, my boy, are you ready for
your day's duties?"
He followed Rockford inside,
where Rockford settled down in
the easy-chair and yawned.
"I had a rather busy night," he
said. "Certain events occurred
yesterday afternoon which forced
me to change my own plans to some
extent. Or to set them ahead a day,
I should say."
He made an effort to put the
vision of Lyla from his mind and
asked, "Did you make any progress
with Val Boran?"
"No, I'm afraid not. Of course,
I didn't expect to." Rockford
yawned again. "There was another
message from Supreme Command.
The situation is getting worse.
Which reminds me of your Duty
For The Day and the fact that if
you can live through it, you will
have it made."
He's my superior, Hunter thought.
He's supposed to outrank a Space
Patrol General—and he's amused by
the situation he's here to remedy.
"Right now," Rockford said,
"Lyla faces a grim future and feels
like she doesn't have a friend in the
world. She needs a shoulder to cry
on. You will take her for a walk
and supply that shoulder."
Somehow, even though the order
had nothing to do with the Terran-Verdam
crisis, he did not have the
heart to object. She had been crying
before she even reached her door.
Later, after he had comforted her,
he would demand that Rockford
get down to determined effort on
the Verdam problem. No more than
an hour would be lost by that....
"Yes, sir," he said. "But in the
interests of Princess Lyla's safety,
I had better talk to her in her
cabin. Alonzo saw Narf and Sonig
bring back eight—"
"Professional killers, to dispose
of you," Rockford finished. "I
know all about it, and I know that
Narf took time last night to spend
an hour with his favorite girl friend
and brag even to her that he was
going to marry Lyla today before
your dead body had time to get
"But you just take Lyla for another
walk and you will cause the
beginning of the end for the Verdam
Peoples Worlds. You will go down
in history, my boy, as the man who
saved the Terran Republic."
Hunter went out the door, again
feeling a feverish sense of unreality.
He was to go forth and get blasted
into hamburger and by some mysterious
process known only to
Rockford, the Verdam empire
would contritely start collapsing....
He did not knock on her door.
He did not think of it as a violation
of her privacy. She would be feeling
too alone and unwanted to care.
She was not crying as he had
thought she would be. She was
standing by the window, staring
down at the gray, distant desert,
her eyes as bleakly empty as it.
"Hello, Lyla," he said.
"Hello, Dale. I was just thinking;
this is the day that I, as a
woman, should always have
dreamed about"—she tried to smile,
and failed, and the brass came into
her voice—"my wedding day!"
"Alonzo told me about it."
It seemed to him he should add
something, such as to wish her
happiness—but such words would
be meaningless and farcical and
they would both know it.
But there was no reason why he
should endanger her by obeying
Rockford's insane order. He would
not do it—
"Ah ... good morning, Lyla!"
Rockford loomed in the doorway,
jovial as a Santa Claus. "Did you
know Dale wants to go for a walk
in the woods with you this bright
spring morning—and he's no doubt
too bashful to tell you so? Do you
good to get away from camp"—there
was the suggestion of a pause—"while
you're still free."
He turned a beaming smile on
Hunter. "Don't stand there like
a dummy, boy—take her by the
arm and let her have a last walk
with someone who cares what happens
There was one thing about Rockford
not compatible with his air
of fond fatherliness: his eyes were
hard, gray slate as they looked into
Hunter's and there was no mistaking
their expression. Rockford had
not made a fatherly suggestion for
his own amusement. He had given
an order that he intended to be
Hunter and Lyla walked on
through the thickets of ghost trees
and arrow brush, each with little
to say, Hunter feeling more and
more like a ridiculous fool. They
had no destination, no purpose in
their walk, other than to abide
by Rockford's desire that a total of
ten assassins get a chance to slaughter
a certain expendable second
He did not put his arm around
Lyla as they walked. If they killed
him, it would have to be without
their having the satisfaction of the
pictures they wanted with which to
They came to a tiny clearing,
where a cloud tree log made an
inviting seat in the shade, and Lyla
"No matter how far we walk,
I'll have to go back to face it.
Let's stop here, and rest a while."
He saw that the clearing was
fairly well screened, but certainly
not completely so. It would have to
He sat down on the log several
feet away from her, not wanting
to take the chance of her getting
hit by accident.
Not that I'm enthusiastic about
getting hit by intent, myself, he
thought. What a way for a Space
Guard officer to die.
He wondered if Rockford would
ever inform Headquarters that Lieutenant
Dale Hunter had died in the
line of duty—by whatever twisted
logic this insane episode could be
called duty—and he wondered how
the Commemoration Roll would
read for him.... Displaying courage
above and beyond the call of duty,
Lieutenant Hunter sat conspicuously on
top of a hill and calmly waited for ten
assassins to slaughter him....
"It's peaceful and quiet here,
isn't it?" Lyla said.
He had been trying to watch
four different directions at once
and he realized that the constant
swiveling of his neck was causing
his stiff blouse collar to slowly cut
his throat. And he saw that it was—for
the moment, anyway—peaceful
and quiet where they sat. The
sun was warm and golden before
them, bright flowers sweetly
scented the air, and giant rainbow
moths were fluttering over them,
their tiny voices like the piping
of a thousand fairy flutes.
"I wish I had been born a country
girl," Lyla said. "I'd like to have
a life like this, and not—what mine
He asked the question to which
he had to have the answer:
"Once you were going to marry
Val and live on Jardeen, weren't
"I ... so my foolishness is no
longer a secret?"
"Foolishness?" he asked.
"We met two years ago when
I was attending the Fine Arts
university on Jardeen. I was
younger and a lot more naïve then
than I am now. I thought we were
desperately in love and would get
married as soon as I finished school
and would live happily ever after,
and all that."
"And it didn't turn out that
"I had to make that promise to
Daddy and when I wrote to Val
about it, he seemed to approve. He
didn't suggest I renounce the proxy
marriage when the time was up,
or anything. He just wrote that I
knew what I wanted to do. He
seemed relieved to be free to go
ahead with his political career."
"I see," he said, and then, "you
don't feel bad about it, do you,
"Feel bad? I wouldn't marry Val
Boran if he was the last man on
Vesta! Even Lord Narf isn't as
self-centered as he is!"
"You don't have to marry Narf
either," he said. "You know that."
She looked down at the ground
and said in a dead voice, "I made
"Rockford told me that your
father never really knew Narf—that
on the few times they met,
Narf put on the act of being a
refined gentleman, very respectful
toward the king's daughter."
She did not answer and he said,
"Is that the way it was?"
"Yes. That's the way it was.
But how could I tell Daddy, as he
"You couldn't, Lyla. But if your
father could be here today and
know what you know about Narf,
do you think he would want you
to marry him?"
"No ... I guess not. But Lord
Narf loves me in his own way, I
think—and that's more than anyone
Then her tone changed and she
said, "I'm so glad that you're here
today, Dale—I'm glad that there is
cares at least
a little about what happens to me."
On her face was a poignant longing
for someone to love and comfort
her. It seemed to him, now beyond
any doubt, that there could never
be anything for him in his career
but loneliness. How different the
warm love of Lyla would be from
the cold austerity of the military
and its endless succession of
weapons and killing—
He moved, to sit beside her and
put his arm around her shoulders.
"Lyla," he said, "I want to tell
"Dale...." The word was a
despairing sob as her composure
broke and she held tightly to him,
crying, her voice coming muffled
as she pressed her face against his
chest. "Help me, Dale! How can
I marry that sadistic beast when
it's someone else I can't live without—and
he doesn't even know I
"But he does!" He hugged her
closer, "He does know, and he
loves you even more than you love
"Are you sure?" She raised a tear-stained
face, hope like sunshine
through clouds on it. "Are you
really sure Val loves me, after all?"
The revelation was like the stunning
concussion shock of a blaster
beam passing two inches overhead.
His vision blurred and there was
a hideous roaring in his ears. She
was still holding to him for comfort
and it seemed to him that was
wrong—he should be clinging to
her for support....
"Dale ... what's the matter?"
"But I thought—" He swallowed
with difficulty. "I thought
you meant that I was the—"
Something struck the top of
his head; this time, for certain,
the concussion shock of a blaster
beam passing close above it. There
was a vicious crack as the beam
split the tree beyond, then a crash
and explosion of wood fragments
as a second beam followed the first.
He rolled from the log; taking
Lyla with him. The arrow bushes
shielded them briefly, long enough
for them to reach the temporary
safety of a small swale.
"Dale!" Her dark eyes were
wide with puzzled surprise and one
small foot was bare from the loss
of a sandal. "Someone shot at us!"
He thought, So Narf got his pictures,
"Rootenant!" Alonzo came running.
"They are that way—awr
spread out to be sure to kirr you."
Alonzo motioned with his nose,
a movement that seemed to cover
all the high ground beyond them.
At least, the enemy was not between
them and camp. Not yet.
A distant shout came, an order
from Narf to his men:
"All of you—down that ridge! Get
between Hunter and camp!"
"It's him!" Her fingers gripped
his arm. "He wants them to kill
They had fired from a distance
too great for his own blaster. He
could not defy them from where he
"I'll have to try to get within
range of them," he said. "I'll
"No!" Her grip on his arm
tightened. "Don't leave me, Dale—don't
let him find me here."
He looked down the length of
the swale. At its lower end the
ghost tree forest began, dense and
concealing—but all down the
length of the swale the snarevines
lay in thick, viciously barbed
entanglements, overlying a bed of
sharp rocks and boulders. She could
never get to the safety of the ghost
trees in time.
Narf had his pictures, now.
What would he do to her in the
insanity of his hatred and triumph
when he reached her?
"All right, Lyla," he said. "I'll
see that you get to the trees—"
There was a crashing of explosions
and debris leaped skyward
behind them and along both sides
of the swale. The firing continued,
scattered but very effectively consistent,
and he said as he drew his
blaster, "I guess they don't want
us to go away."
He set the regulator of the blaster
at lowest intensity so that the
beam would not clip dangerous
flying fragments from the boulders.
The green, tough vines disintegrated
reluctantly while the
precious minutes sped by; while
the unhindered assassins would be
hurrying to the point where the
entire swale would be visible to
them and under their fire.
Alonzo was following along near
the top of the swale's side, ignoring
the danger as he watched the
progress of the enemy and reported
it to Hunter: "Now they are halfway,
Rootenant, hurrying faster—"
They reached the lower end of
the swale. The last of the vines
disintegrated and the ghost tree
forest lay before them.
He touched her cheek in farewell.
"Get on to camp, as fast as you
The firing abruptly ceased as he
spoke. There was an ominous
silence. Alonzo came running, his
tone almost a yelp in its urgency:
"They are awrmost where they
can see us! We got to get her out of
here, Rootenant—awrfur quick!"
It was the voice of Val, sharp
with concern for her. He came running
out of the ghost trees, all his
cold impassiveness gone. "Are you
hurt, Honey—are you hurt?"
"You came for me!" She whispered
the words, her face radiant. Then
she ran to meet him, her arms outstretched,
crying, "Val ... oh,
Their arms went around each
Then the woods erupted as ten
blasters laid down a barrage to
block any escape to camp.
"I'll try to give you a chance
to get through," Hunter said
quickly. "Be ready for it when it
He ran toward the firing line,
taking advantage of the concealment
afforded by the first fringe of
ghost trees. They should be almost
within range of his own weapon,
Again, the firing abruptly ceased,
as though by some signal. There
came the furious raving of Narf:
"It's that Boran she wants! Kill
Sonig cursed with bitter rage.
"Jardeen is lost to Verdam if any
witness escapes—and we'll all hang,
There was a second of silence,
and then Narf's command:
"Kill the woman, too!"
There was a roar like thunder
as the firing began. The ground
trembled and debris filled the air
with flying fragments. Hunter,
still running toward the enemy
under cover of the trees, saw Val
trying to get Lyla to safety and saw
them both hurled to the ground as
a tree exploded in front of them.
They would never live to rise and
He saw Rockford's plan, at last,
and what his own duty would now
have to be. He knew why Rockford
had said of this day, "If you can
live through it, you will have it made."
And he had a cold feeling inside
him that he was not going to have
He took a deep breath and ran
toward the enemy, out of the concealment
of the ghost trees and in
the open where they could not fail
to see him, his blaster firing a
continuous beam that fell only a
little short of the enemy, that
showed them he would be close
enough to kill them within seconds
if he was not stopped.
The fire concentrated upon him,
giving Lyla and Val their chance
for escape. He ran through an inferno
of crashing explosions, twisting
and dodging on ground that
trembled and heaved under his feet,
while razor-sharp rock shrapnel
filled the air with shrill, deadly
Something ripped through his
shoulder, to spin him around and
send him rolling. He scrambled up,
firing as he did so, and ran drunkenly
Something struck the side of his
head and he went down again. He
tried to rise and fell back, a blackness
sweeping over him that he
could not hold away despite his
efforts to do so.
It seemed to him that the firing
had suddenly stopped, that in its
place was the hoarse buzz of a
police stun-beam. It seemed he saw
helicopters overhead, bearing the
bright blue insignia of the Royal
Guard and then there was nothing
but the blackness.
There was a brief, dreamlike
return to consciousness. He was in
a Royal Guard helicopter and
Alonzo was beside him, grinning,
and saying, "You be O.K.—I grad!
And my Princess Ryra—rook at
her now, Rootenant!"
He saw Lyla, her hand in Val's,
and her face was glowing and beautiful
in its new-found happiness.
Then she was bending down, kissing
him, and saying, "Dale ...
Dale ... how can we ever thank
you for what you did?"
When the blackness lifted the
second time he was lying,
bandaged, on a cot in the meeting
hall and the voice of Rockford was
saying, "... Ready to go in just
The hall was filled with members
of the royal court who had come
for the wedding. He saw the white
robes of Church of Vesta dignitaries
who had come to officiate at the
wedding. Then he saw the seven
grim old men seated at the far end
of the table.
The Royal Council—with the
judicial power to give even death
sentences in crimes committed
Sonig, his face white and staring,
was being half led, half carried,
away from them.
Narf, in the grip of another
Guardsman, was standing before
the Council and saying in a tone
both incredulous and sneering:
"Is that my sentence?"
"There is a qualification to it,"
one of the Council said. "It seems
only just, in view of your crime,
that you be tortured until death—"
The rest of the words were lost
as the blackness swept back. But
before unconsciousness was complete,
when all else in the hall was
gone from him, he heard Narf's
cry; an animal-like bawl of protest,
raw and hoarse with anguish....
"Ah ... you're coming out of
it, my boy."
Rockford was standing over him.
"They gave you a Restoration shot
on Vesta forty-eight hours ago.
It will be wearing off in a minute
and your head will clear."
He sat up, and the dizziness
faded swiftly away. He saw that
he was in the compartment of an
interstellar ship and he knew that
it was Earthbound.
And that Vesta, and brown-eyed
Lyla, were now part of the
"Don't look so sad, my boy,"
Rockford said. "You'll get due
credit and promotion for the invaluable
part you played in my
"I know. But she was never
yours. You'll find life is full of
heartbreaks like that, son.
"And we accomplished our mission.
Narf's crime neatly invalidated
the proxy marriage. Then
Lyla set a new precedent by marrying
Val that very day. Earth has
never had two such loyal and grateful
friends as Val and Lyla."
"You knew all about them,
didn't you?" he asked.
"Strategic Service has to know
everything. And I knew they were
still in love even though each was
too proud to admit it. That's why
I had to insist on Val coming to
Vesta. After that, it was only a
matter of using you to awaken Val
to the fact that she did not love
Narf. And of taking care of various
little details, such as faking an
official request for the helicopters
to come out two hours ahead of
time, getting Val off to find her at
the proper time, and so on."
Rockford smiled at him, "And
you learned that an old man's mind
can be mightier than the space
fleets of the Verdam empire—and
that the line of duty that produces
the best results can sometimes be
He thought of the white-faced
Sonig, and the anguished bawl he
had heard from Narf.
"I suppose they were going to
hang Narf and Sonig at once."
"The Council would have, no
doubt. But Lyla was so happy that
she begged the Council to give
them very light sentences—or just
let them go free. So I suggested a
compromise. The Royal Council
regarded it as very fitting."
"What was it?"
"For Sonig, no punishment. The
murder attempt, being news of
public interest, will be broadcast
upon Vesta and other worlds, including
a factual, unbiased account
of Sonig's participation in it.
Shortly afterward, Sonig will be
taken to Verdam and turned over
to his own benevolent government.
Vesta will file no charges."
"But Sonig lost Jardeen for his
government. They'll execute him
"Yes. I'm afraid so. Shall we
call it poetic justice?"
"What about Narf?"
"His sentence was life-long exile
on his Sea Island estate. He will be
provided with all the luxuries to
which he has been accustomed,
including a full staff of servants. He
will continue to enjoy all his possessions
there, including his gallery
of nude paintings, his risqué
films, his pornographic library,
and so on. In fact, since he is so
fascinated by pornography and
such a collector thereof, any pornographic
material which might become
available on Vesta in the
future will be sent to him."
"That's not right ... I mean,
they were going to torture him to
"Not 'to death'. It was 'until
death'. There's a difference."
"But that bawling noise he
"Ah ... that was due to the
one restrictive qualification to the
benign terms of his exile. Every
woman on his estate was to be
removed before he reached there,
leaving men servants only. Patrol
boats will see to it that for so long
as he lives no woman shall ever set
foot on the Sea Islands."
Rockford smiled again. "Lord
Narf succeeded beyond his wildest
dreams in keeping his boyhood
vow of being always a man among
Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Analog Science Fact and Fiction
December 1962. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling
and typographical errors have been corrected without note.