"Well, squelch me, Trader Hurst," piped Ghilidb through its translator tube, in what it fondly imagined to be Earth slang, "I deemed you more ambitious than that."
It then stared with its three eyes at the human who faced it across the small wooden table in a dim corner of the largest tavern in Traw City. The stare was amicable, but challenging. Such shades of meaning can be easily expressed on a Rhean face, and the man knew enough to read them - and the Rhean knew that he knew - so both beings realized that a calculated risk had been taken.
Conversation halted while a conical Tethyan twirled past the table to deposit two tall glasses which brimmed with fiery wepyj - the favourite poison of Rhea's northern hemisphere.
"Ambitious," echoed Hurst, unoffended. The moment of tension seemed over. He had no interest in a quarrel with Ghilidb, who in the intervals between bouts of haggling could be as much friend as customer. And he had found it safe to tease Rheans; safe to pretend to misunderstand them, when it suited him. He could tell that Ghilidb was trying to propose some sort of risky deal, but he chose instead to view the being's words as a dig at his restrained life-style. "I suppose," the Earthman sighed, "there are more romantic ways I could spend the evening, than sitting in this dive, face to face with a vertical three-armed dumb-bell... On the other hand, this scene is less heavy with emotion, than some of the alternatives."
"Before the evening is out," trilled Ghilidb, "you may change your mind on that point, Trader - or should I say," and it lowered its voice, "ex-TIA-agent Hurst?"
This unexpected turn to the conversation caused the Earthman to slump in his chair, while his face expressed a sudden wave of past regrets. His moment of depression and semi-collapse usefully concealed the tensing of his right arm and the approach of hand to holster. Habit, merely - irrational, this habit of caution - for if his past became known, then so what? There could be no danger for him here. Not in this system of moons policed by the formidably benevolent, godlike Saturnians. Nobody - not even the Terrestrial Intelligence Agency - ever dared mess with the Saturnians.
The Earth Government probably suspected - though they would never admit openly - that the beings of the Ringed Planet could dominate the System easily if they chose. Fortunately for the other worlds, Saturnians were not imperialistically-minded. They merely insisted on good behaviour in their own back yard. And countless small traders and outlanders such as Seth Hurst throve under the umbrella of that insistent protection. When he thought of it this way, he even felt a twinge of guilt at the one indiscretion which had caused him to be booted out of the TIA...
"All right," said Hurst. "Let's stop playing games. Get back to what you were hinting. You've got a new client for me, is that right, Ghilidb?"
The furry dumb-bell rotated its three eyes in a gesture that meant "yes".
"And he/she/it is here, in this building, and you want to introduce us?" (Another gesture of assent.) "Well - and may I ask, what are you, old friend, getting out of this?"
A wheeze through the translator tube, that might have been a deprecating laugh, was followed by a glib flow: "In accordance with common practice, I welcome an opportunity to fulfil an obligation to a third party while simultaneously doing a favour to a friend. It is, how do you say, like disintegrating two Jovians with one neutronium bomb. Everybody benefits."
"I see." Hurst leaned back in thought. Useless to pump Ghilidb further; the Rhean would not be baulked of its little surprise. So meanwhile he, Seth Hurst, peaceful Trader, must decide, on scant evidence, whether to accept what might turn into an adventure.
New clients often meant new types of commission, new contacts, new routes, new destinations... Hurst knew his way around the Saturnian moons as well as anyone, but that wasn't much compared with what there was to know. Risk today, profit tomorrow - but why rock his boat, his battered but serviceable space-boat, when business was chugging along nicely as things stood? On the other hand, his curiosity was now aroused.
Ghilidb obviously believed it had something eye-twitchingly important up its non-existent sleeve. Who could it be, this mysterious new client? Anyone seated in the common room right now, perhaps? Hurst's eyes roved, scanning the tables. What he saw was merely the typically stupendous ethnic complexity of a low-gravity satellite-system. You got used to the variations in shape eventually, though it sure took a while, what with the furry dumb-bell Rheans, the conical Tethyans, the Dionian hexapods, the Enceladan ice-clankers... and the occasional Titanic blow-pots whistling like kettles on the boil. No one in this menagerie looked especially rich, or on the look-out for recruits, or governmental...
But then, a deputation from some other worldlet could have lodged elsewhere in Traw City, or in Cleth City in the Southern hemisphere, or any one of a dozen other places. No, wait, Ghilidb had agreed that the being was somewhere in this building. But since how long? Hurst thought back to his own arrival on Rhea, six hours ago. Had he witnessed any important convoy? His space-boat had nosed in through the usual cloud of other midget ships and the occasional liner. And there had been one of the giant grey spheres of the Saturnians, floating on its mysterious way within a few miles of Traw, but that could be left out of account - the "gods" do not interfere with the little races... All these thoughts did not take long to run through his head.
Hurst gave up on speculation. "All right, I'll take your bait, Ghilidb," he decided. "But look here - just because I once confided in you some of my life-story, I don't want you to mention it again, not even to me, and certainly not to another. Understood?"
"Fear not," piped Ghilidb. "The being whom I have in mind, will never deign to ask you for your history."
Hurst took a swig, draining his glass, and said: "Then so long as that's understood... I'm ready."
Ghilidb got up immediately and, with a complex gliding waddle, meandered away among the tables, while Hurst was hard put to it to keep up. He was led into a corridor and round a corner, through a door into a soundproofed area. He had said he was ready, but when the Rhean approached a private suite, and turned a handle without knocking, a wail of primitive protest rose within the Earthman's mind. Things were happening too fast -
Ghilidb stood aside, rigidly careful not to look into the room with any of his eyes. Hurst, by contrast, was not able to avert his gaze. Permission was denied him. He advanced, under compulsion, while the door closed behind him and he was abandoned in the presence of hugeness. He halted after one further step, and stood, arms by his sides, facing the centre of the room which was filled with the bulk of a Saturnian.
Hurst’s limbs and his mind would have given way, granting him the mercy of collapse into oblivion, but for the muscle-lock which kept him rigidly upright and which must have been induced by some invisible stream of command from his “client”.
Aware that he was probably the first human being to see a Saturnian in the flesh, the Earthman had no relish for the honour – he would gladly have exchanged places with any of the countless scientists who had lamented their lack of knowledge about the rulers of the sixth planet.
In outline, the creature was just about acceptable to one’s belief. Saturn, unlike Jupiter, is not a high-gravity world; though it is immensely huge, its frozen-volatile crust is so comparatively light that its surface pull is hardly more than that of Earth; therefore it is reasonable for the dominant species to tower on legs that look spindly in comparison with the massive pendulant torso. The effect is vaguely comparable to a colossal, leathery, six-limbed mis-drawn spider, whose “elbows” reach to a height of three yards.
That was Hurst’s first impression. He might have corrected it if he had been given time for a second.
The wiry arms, which he had not at first noticed, moved – swung out and swung in – did something to an area of membrane, which became a sphincter, which opened and squirted a gob of semi-visible force like chaotic diamond jelly straight through the air to splat onto Hurst’s face and into his soul.
Power surged into him, power he did not want, a terrible gift of understanding which he could not immediately digest. But he also knew that it had to be this way. A “conversation” between human and Saturnian was necessarily one-sided. His own contribution, if any, was bound to be unconscious – it would consist of what the Being wrung out of him in those moments of contact.
Then it was over. He tottered back against the wall, gasping. He sensed another blast of force, this time not directed at him. The door re-opened and he was clasped and dragged out of the room.
Now that he was no longer forcibly kept conscious, his exhausted mind dived into blackness. But not for long. He was soon slapped awake to the accompaniment of a high-pitched scolding. “Come on, Earthman, don’t sink into it! It’s all right if one does not sink!”
“Ghurrrrr,” said Hurst, rolling his eyes, and became aware that Ghilidb, who was holding him, was alternating between shaking him and shaking itself.
“Earthman, it couldn’t have been that bad. You’re not even dead!”
“And you,” croaked Hurst as his pulse-rate slowed towards normal, “you’re not even trying to be funny.”
“Of course not. This is too important – ”
“Ghi, listen, you know what, I don’t want to hear that word from you, and you know what else, Ghi, I’d rather you didn’t try to introduce me to anyone in future... in fact,” he rambled, “this is the last time I’ll trust you, full stop...”
“Ah, be fair, Earthman. If I do a thing like this, it is because I have to.”
Oddly enough, within a minute or so, Hurst began to see the other’s point of view as clear as daylight, and with even swifter daybreak of awareness he grasped that he himself had no grounds for complaint, neither against the Rhean nor – and this was the dazzler – nor against the Saturnian.
For whatever a Saturnian might do to a human, was done only
when the human deserved it. That was the sort of godlike bastards they were...
“Got it now?” asked Ghilidb, watching the Earthman’s stumped expression.
“This is payback time, I suppose,” nodded Hurst, resigned to his fate. Like a grub hatching in his head, the command, the mission plan would grow, till the details became conscious, perhaps all at once but more likely one stage at a time, and he would do the Saturnian’s bidding.
“Payback?” chirped Ghilidb.
The Earthman, propped on one elbow, knew he had to get up and go, and yet he felt an urge to have one last say. There are times when a man feels he must leave a message to the world in general. In which case, the need is for a worthy carrier of the message. He looked at the Rhean narrowly. “I told you once, didn’t I, about why I got myself chucked out of the TIA? Yeah, full of indignation, that I was. The one man who had landed on Saturn and returned to tell the tale – all right, it was against the rules, but I got away with it, I got back safely, yet instead of being praised for the exploit, and rewarded, I was cashiered. Probably would have been locked up, had not the Saturnians themselves intervened. Heaven knows how they knew where I'd been. They don't use radar, my detectors made sure of that, and I’d landed in a thoroughly deserted area. South Temperate Zone, longitude 130, no sign of activity for ten thousand miles in any direction – yet they must have known I’d been there. And then they sent a message to the TIA, telling them not to punish me, that they would keep an eye on me themselves… and so they saved me from klink… and now it’s payback time. I must go…”
The Rhean helped him to his feet. “Where, Earthman?”
Hurst bent forward in a fit of coughing. He managed to say, “The Arc…” and then some inner compulsion closed his mouth before he could add, of Iapetus.
A sense of free will returned to him almost immediately afterwards. He could open his mouth again, could try again to say the name of that world.
But on second thoughts, he decided it was best to keep quiet. He would keep his own counsel, keep his options open… and perhaps he might, after all, manage to play a lone hand.
Hurst emerged from the shadow of the inn’s porch, into the open sunshine of Traw City.
Rhea feasts the eye with colour, despite receiving only one-hundredth the sunlight available to Earth. The glow, dubbed the “neon nacre”, which pervades the biota of the Saturn system, gets right into the paint which is used to coat the architectural exteriors on those worlds, so that although rooms may be dim, the street culture shines.
The resulting splendour of Traw City’s curved avenues was, for Hurst, a welcome contrast to the gloom of the inn. And though he was accustomed to the public beauty he saw, the Earthman appreciated it anew; he lingered with slow steps as he threaded the streets towards the space-boat hangar, for it seemed possible that he might never again see the famous glowing blue domes of Rhea.
Not lived in, lived on - the Rhean domes were packed with power plants, to emit light and heat through their surfaces, around which the citizens lived and moved on their exposed, outdoor housing-platforms encircling the blue hemispheres.
So when you stroll through Traw City, you see just about everybody in plain view; and when you come across the bizarre sight of Rheans doing something oddly familiar like beating their carpets – then, the mix of alien shapes with humdrum action can sear you with nostalgia for Earth.
Hurst smiled sadly; he knew himself well enough. If some twist of Fate were to return him to Earth, he would inevitably feel bittersweet longing for the other worlds. Spacers were like that.
But why these reflections, right now?
He recalled a line from literature: “You see, Watson, but you do not observe.”
He, by contrast with Dr Watson, was observing as well as seeing; more acutely than was his wont. And perhaps this was not surprising, in view of what had happened to him.
Every step he took, he was now aware of the slight “electrostatic” stickiness which forced him to make that much extra effort to lift his boot from the pavement – an extra effort which almost compensated for the tiny gravity of Rhea.
His flitting thoughts had perhaps alighted upon a clue, a hint concerning his present mission.
He clutched at it – gotcha! But no – the idea had gone! He’d been overconfident just then! But the idea was not gone for good, surely? Be patient, Seth Hurst.
Naturally, he wanted to work it all out himself, before the sealed orders in his brain were opened according to the Saturnian’s timetable. His human vanity impelled him to try. But even if he failed the first time, he might get another chance. For it would come in bite-size stages, or so he hoped. Not all in one go, please, Fate! He wasn’t keen on another wholesale mental shakeup, not even if it solved the whole mystery of the mission in one fell swoop; the price, he reckoned, would be too high.
Start again, thought Hurst. Think back to that observation about the boot, the stickiness of the stride.
It was easiest to allow the reminder he needed to rise at him out of the very ground he was treading.
Like all Saturn’s moons – except Titan which was large enough for more normal options – Rhea depended for its life upon retaining an atmosphere by means other than the gravity of mass. Right from its inception the bio-field must have depended upon complexity as an actual force: the “pull” of a life-system so varied that it brought hitherto unknown laws into play; laws which could never be discovered outside its unique zone… The complexity of the most colourful coral reef on Earth was as nothing compared to the variety found on Rhea, where almost every organism was its own subspecies. Only the highest forms, the intelligent forms, were stabilized to any marked extent; and even then, races varied outrageously – some had two sexes, some three, some a larger number… and some (like Ghilidb’s) were sexless and instead had 'grall', which meant that individuals could only digest their food with the help of someone of the opposite 'grall'… The capabilities of individuals varied just as drastically, some being as keen-sighted as eagles, others as keen-nosed as dogs, and others telepathic. As for the lower forms, the “ordinary” animals, they presented such apparent chaos as to drive a Terran biologist insane. Yet it was this “chaos” that generated the force that kept Rhea alive. The complexity-force, the gravitation of variety, somehow fenced the air-molecules into the bio-field, and, closer to ground, pulled at Hurst’s boot-soles as if he were shod with magnets on a metal path.
This made all the difference to the way he moved; it allowed him a grounded stride instead of the extravagant soaring hops he would otherwise have made; it gave him, in short, a proper world to live on. Admittedly the visual effect, especially when one looked at a crowd, was eerily reminiscent of the motion of seaweed wafting in a current, rather than of “proper” gravity, for solid bodies were “weighted” only within an inch or two of the satellite’s surface… Hurst’s brow furrowed as he sought furiously to guess where all these thoughts were leading.
If only he could guess it in good time, before the Saturnian agenda opened its Page One in his mind…
Failure! Here he was approaching his space-boat hangar, and he had not yet deduced the substance of his mission.
Ah, but perhaps he had managed to target the area where the mystery lay. It ought to be something to do with evolution, with the history of life on Iapetus.
Something the Saturnians were scared of.
The Saturnians scared??
And at that moment the page began to open…
Hurst scrambled up the ladder into his tiny space-boat, ironically named Jumbo, and sat himself at the controls, sweating. The first briefing or instruction sheet in his mind now told him what he was commissioned to look for at Iapetus – and it was so fantastic that he almost managed to class it as delirium.
He could not evade the truth: insistently, like a sheaf of photographic evidence presented in court, the Saturnian knowledge displayed itself, incontrovertibly, before his mind’s eye.
Hurst could not, would not believe it at first. Part of him protested so strongly that there came an adjustment, whereupon the thought receded. Perish all such thoughts! His mission must not be aborted by panic. If he had been given too much information, some of it had better be taken back, for he simply wasn’t ready, wouldn’t be ready until he reached his destination… Oh brother, he was in for it. He pulled the lever that sent the command to open the hangar roof and then even before the “clear” signal came on he pressed the take-off switch. Jumbo soared into the Rhean sky.
Within a quarter of a minute his ship was surrounded by the black of space.
Seth Hurst tapped the keys of his navigation system, which in theory gave him all he needed to set course for Iapetus.
At the same time, he kept a naked-eye watch through the windows. This was for his own peace of mind, as well as the beauty of the scene. The pilots who live longest in the Saturn system are those who actually look where they are going.
The bulking glory of Saturn and its rings,
the tiny brilliance of the Sun, the black of Space – these alone ought
to have comprised the view. Not the satellites: they ought to be just dots, most of the time, hardly noticeable, except for Titan. Yet such was
not the case.
Every one of the worldlets was accompanied by a coloured zone, a pale, glowing stain in the fabric of its surrounding space. Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Hyperion, Iapetus and Phoebe, as well as the much larger moon Titan, each sailed through space seemingly surrounded by a lenticular smudge twelve to twenty thousand miles in diameter. The tilts of these haloes varied seemingly at random. Their hues differed: red (Mimas), pale green (Enceladus), purple (Tethys), white (Dione), yellow (Rhea), orange (Titan), light blue (Hyperion), violet (Iapetus) and dark green (Phoebe).
None of this parade of glowing zones could possibly be due to ordinary electromagnetic radiation. Detectors outside the Saturn system could not pick any of it up. These rays, uniquely, were rays that went so far and then stopped.
Some natives might know the meaning of it all, but if so they were not telling. Let the scientists back on Earth tear their hair over it, shrugged Hurst; he had his destination to worry about. Anyhow, the awesome spectacle of the “haloes” was comforting, in a way – it encouraged the hope that “seat of the pants” navigation within this mini-system would be possible if the need arose.
If one had to make a quick getaway in an alien ship, for instance…
What was he thinking of now?
Grimly, he concentrated on what he had just had learned for sure.
The Saturnians were genuinely, no kidding, afraid of the Iapetans.
Hurst groaned at the thought. The Saturnians – afraid! And he was being sent where they feared to go!
The trouble was, he could not refuse. The Saturnian intelligence was overwhelmingly able to convince. It was pointless to complain of “compulsion”. He himself had no choice but to want to undertake this mission – whether he wished to want it or not.
Though he had no free will; though he were as a fish being reeled in to his doom – yet he could not disagree!
And all because of the fact he had learned. The news about Iapetus.
The Saturnian whom he had met had studied the place from orbit with remote-sensors so powerful as to enable it to carry out a species-count of the Iapetan biosphere.
The result was bad news, apparently. Left to himself, the Earthman would have struggled to understand why. His reaction would have been, "So what?" So what if the species on Iapetus were numbered in their thousands rather than in the tens of millions which were the norm for the Saturn system?
He did try to form that thought, but a blast of awareness put him right. A kaleidoscope of information-fragments, from previous inconclusive or contradictory studies, coupled with an amazing, deep-rooted fear of change (yes, the Saturnians were really worried!) - impressed upon him that the dominant race on Iapetus had something no one else had.
Call it Gravity Three.
Iapetus is small, too small to keep its atmosphere by means of Newtonian “Gravity One”. Nor has it the species complexity to live by biotic Gravity Two, in the manner of Rhea and the other worldlets.
Yet the Iapetans walk their world and breathe air… and (Hurst felt a stab of accusation from the alien force within his mind) the Iapetan troublemakers are humanoid.
Sort out the mystery, you Man, said the voice in his head. If they know more than we do, they must be Time-cheaters of some sort. Need I say more? A threat to us all.
Hurst slumped at the console for some minutes. Then, wearily, he sat up, stretched and blinked. Ignoring the various navigational indicators and screens, his gaze roved through the control cabin window and out into the halo-splotched firmament.
The violet smudge surrounding Iapetus, the eighth moon, had already grown noticeably larger in his field of view.
He stared while that world revealed itself as a disk, its equator banded by its incredible range of mountains, twelve miles high – the Arc of Iapetus.
As the eighth moon of Saturn swelled in the viewport, Hurst divided his attention between that vista and the magnified images he could get on his scanner. He detected a few dark urban patches on the approaching grey surface. The Iapetans, he knew, had towns and small cities. So far as was known, they had no space-port; they had not yet shown any interest in space travel. Nor did they show any warm welcome to visitors from their neighbouring worldlets. Only a few such visits had been recorded: fruitless embassies, a handful of unprofitable trade missions. And no authorisation had yet been granted for any scientific expedition. Therefore, not much was known about the place. In fact, the closer he got, the more Hurst felt he had to revise that knowledge-estimate downwards: rather than “not much”, it was really a case of knowing absolutely nothing.
Come now, he told himself, it can’t be that bad. Just the inevitable sense of fresh wonder and mystery you get when flying towards any world. I get it when approaching Earth, in fact. The sense that you’re seeing it for the first time…
This reminder, of the many privileged moments in his space-roving career, brought a brief smile to Hurst’s face, only to give way, next moment, to a grimace.
He had just tried to tap the key to bring Jumbo into a high parking orbit, about five hundred miles from the satellite’s surface. No go. His fingers would not co-operate. His body wasn’t obeying his mind.
Testily he grumbled at the Saturnian thing inside his head, the personality-fragment or whatever it was, which he now dubbed Perce.
I did think, Perce, that you might have left me a choice of landing-place, at least.
The space-boat was headed straight down towards the equatorial mountains. Hurst sighed. Had “Perce” really spotted something significant there? There on the heights where the air was too thin to breathe?
Perce, you’re just an artificial compulsion, with no independent ego, no motive for self-preservation; I bet it’s all one to you, what happens to me, so long as you get what you’re looking for. You know that if I fail your master will simply try again with another you inside another mug like me, and what do you care, if I leave my bones on Iapetus along with the expendable psychological mechanism that is you – ?
No answer from “Perce”.
The austere white-and-grey world now more than filled the viewport. The equatorial heights paraded past the field of view, their comparative brightness gleaming like bared teeth.
Hurst reviewed what he had learned.
Iapetus was an exception to the complex biota of the
Saturn system. Its species were numbered
in mere thousands, not tens of millions.
That was why it lacked their special biotic gravitation; its surface
pull ought to be low. So the Iapetans must
have discovered a third kind of gravity – not Newtonian, not biotic, but
something else, which enabled them to retain their atmosphere. Whatever it is, this Gravity Three, should
surely be beyond the resources of a small world to master. Yet they had mastered it, without outside
help. They could only have done this, by
a control of Time itself. Understand, Earthman? Time-cheaters!
No, said Seth Hurst, uneasily.
I think you do, said the “Perce” in him. I think you get it very well, actually. A small world can match a large one in research and development if it magnifies its available time with the opportunity for endless replays. Manipulations of reality. You therefore know that my ruthlessness is justified. This is the greatest ever threat to the existence of all the peoples of all the worlds. Go we must, go to the Arc and get proof, then get back to the Great World with our report; that will persuade the Great Ones to destroy the devil moon.
But why the Arc? wailed the appalled mind of Seth Hurst. Why these mountains? What do you see there?
The burst of brain-clarity was over and he got no further answers.
He shivered and wiped his brow of cold sweat. Altimeter readings showed he was now a mere sixteen miles from the satellite’s median surface – about four miles up from the high peaks. Out the window he glimpsed a stunning cosmic bauble setting behind a mountain: Saturn, the Great World, looking about the same apparent size as Earth seen from Luna. Emotionally, it suddenly seemed to him that the Great World was no longer unrivalled; that Iapetus, so immensely larger in his present field of view, was indeed preparing some frightful stroke of usurping power, and that even the Saturnians did well to be afraid.
Jumbo continued its unstoppable descent towards the immense, world-girdling, arc-like range that distinguished the eighth moon.
Hurst began to spot some small buildings, that looked little more than huts, sparsely dotted amid the icy mountains. There was no “neon nacre” on Iapetus; magnification by means of the scanner showed the structures were pebbledash in appearance, splotchy grey-white like the world itself, though darker than the ice on which they stood. Nothing to get impressed about, surely?
More silence from “Perce”. He/it had seen something, evidently, and had decided they must head for it, and that was that. Hurst was a mere passenger. He ground his teeth.
And then – he saw it too. Through the scanner, he saw a long thin upward flow of movement climbing one of the valleys towards the summit ridge.
Jumbo made one final course adjustment and then smoothly touched down, in a pass between two rounded icy summits, directly in the path of the ascending army. For that’s what it was – the driblet of information was kindly allowed him - an army plodding up towards the pass, for reasons he could not guess at.
Glumly he donned his pressure-suit and checked its oxygen supply and radio; then he went to the airlock.
Awe and expectancy vied with a sense of being played for a sucker, as Seth Hurst set foot upon the icy surface of Iapetus. One thing at a time, one driblet at a time, he thought to himself cynically, that’s how I get drawn in, isn’t it. Don’t tell me too much at once, else my mind would blow; just feed it to me piece by piece, so that I retain my usefulness.
But wasn’t it a good idea anyway? To enable a limited human mind to absorb an alien situation, should not the data be fed in step by step?
And as for the forced landing, could he really complain? What seemed like compulsion might merely be for his own good, and anyhow, one's own hunches were a kind of compusion. All pressures were simply input, like that of the sensors on board ship.
Thus he salved his pride, as he walked towards a silent watcher, a humanoid figure, one of a half-dozen visible on the sides of the pass.
The figure looked not much different from a tall, strangely attired Earthman. He wore a black-green leathery suit, a dark shapeless hat, and what looked almost like boxing gloves. The air pressure up at this height was far too low for Seth Hurst to breathe, yet the Iapetan wore no helmet, his face open to the sky.
As he approached, Seth scrutinised the man’s neck but saw no translator tube. But it hardly seemed worth the trouble to worry about communication – was not everything being taken care of?
The problem was indeed resolved when Seth halted two yards from the Iapetan who then spoke in Tsvairp, the harsh though splendid tongue of the Titanic blowpots, which – minus the whistles – had acquired currency as the lingua franca of the Saturnian moons.
High-pitched due to the thinness of the air, yet projected with sufficient force to be clear, the meaning of the greeting was unmistakable. Seth liked the first word – pity about the rest of the sentence...
“Welcome! Another Earthman-volunteer from the Great World, sent here to the summits of Khurrn, to participate in our experiments.”
Seth wanted to say: no, I am not a volunteer – and my allegiance is not to the Great World – since I am an Earthman I am a free man –
Of course, he could not say these things. He could not talk at all. But he could still think, could infer from the Iapetan’s words that the Saturnian who had sent him here had tried before, at least once, with other “volunteers”.
And I wonder what became of them…
But let me remind myself that I am not just any old guinea-pig – I am Seth Hurst, late of the TIA, the first and so far the only human being to land on the Great World and return alive –
Smiling, as if he had guessed the defiance in the Earthman’s heart, the Iapetan stretched out an arm and with a slight bow stepped aside to invite Seth forward.
Spellbound in more senses than one – if I ever get out of this, the fantastic knowledge I’ll have gained! – Seth Hurst walked obediently past the Iapetan, towards where the pass began to descend. He continued for some yards down the steepening slope, and stopped at a point from which he could clearly see the ascending army, which had now advanced to about a furlong below where he was placed.
To his inexpert eye (he naturally knew no details of Iapetan culture or history) those men, toiling upward in lines of infantry, looked more or less similar to the half-dozen watchers around him – except that they were wearing swords!
Then he turned his head and saw others, elsewhere in his field of view, differently attired. Same humanoid shape, but wearing bulbous furs. Hidden from the ascending army, they waited on either side of the defile.
A sense of doom invaded Seth’s mind. He could not understand, could not accept the direness of the situation. Iapetus was an advanced world, yet here was a medieval tragedy in the making. The contollers on the summit of the pass were doing nothing to prevent the ambush. Was it all an illusion, a fragment of the past brought to life by a kind of holovision? Was this to be a kind of lecture-demonstration?
“Ready, Earthman?” piped the sardonic voice of the Iapetan Controller, and Seth felt his mind hurled out of his body. The scene whizzed past his eyes and his mind buzzed and jolted into a different setting – uprooted, transplanted –
Next thing he knew, he was no longer space-suited; he was a Iapetan soldier, plodding up the slope, with his doomed comrades around him.
Acceptance was part of the scene; otherwise he might have gone mad.
Lift a boot, push it down, lift a boot, push it down, like the plodding figures around him, planting one step after the next, muscles straining against the rough ice-slope, as Gravity Three pulls his pack-straps against his shoulders.
Yes, he accepted all that, he had to, but -
Worst was the depression of spirit that came from a conviction that he, and all around him, were headed for annihilation.
Could he warn them? Start a mutiny?
Sidelong, he caught glimpses of the bowed expressions of the other men in his unit. Close up, they seemed maybe eighty per cent human in appearance. Their faces lacked animation, as no doubt did his own, the stress of the climb resulting in grim, set features.
Seth’s mind wandered, shying away from this crazy reality. He preferred to muse…
What would far-away Terran scientists say of his plight, if they knew? Trapped as he was, his mind thrown into the body of a Iapetan soldier – no, it must be a dream; it could not be! He imagined (in a kind of comfort-reflex) that he was back on Earth, talking about all this before a lecture-audience at a scientific meeting... “It’s obvious,” he rambled, “that the Iapetan haughtiness of feature is a mere tropism; one should not deduce cruelty or ruthlessness from their thin lips or hatchet jawline…”
Only, come to think of it, the Saturnian, yes the Saturnian, had been afraid.
Go on, guess it, he told himself: the Iapetans, who have exterminated their rivals to become one of the few remaining species on their world, derive and extend their power from re-takes, from historical re-plays, and you, Seth boy, are in the midst of one right now.
Re-takes – or wipe-outs?
A faint song in the air, composed not of sound but of huge currents of emotion, made him picture second-chancers waving flags, proclamations: “Let it happen differently this time!” Perhaps this army was not doomed after all. Or perhaps it was, and the other side was tired of being doomed, and it was their emotion he could sense. Either way, he could not grasp the specific content of the songs. But he got their essential message. It was accessible to him because the more advanced a system the easier and more effortless its compatibility with other systems. So, it adjusts from one mental field to another as it slides into universality. No mistaking the theme: doomed infantry headed under incompetent leadership towards disaster.
It self-arranged for Hurst's own background, his native land on Earth:
And why stands Scotland idly now,
Dark Flodden! on thy airy brow,
Since England gains the pass the while,
And struggles through the deep defile?
What checks the fiery soul of James?
Why sits that champion of the dames
Inactive on his steed,
And sees, between him and his land,
Between him and Tweed's southern strand,
His host Lord Surrey lead?
What 'vails the vain knight-errant's brand?
- O, Douglas, for thy leading wand!
Fierce Randolph, for thy speed!
O for one hour of Wallace wight,
Or well-skill'd Bruce, to rule the fight,
And cry - "Saint Andrew and our right!"
Another sight had seen that morn,
From Fate's dark book a leaf been torn,
And Flodden had been Bannockbourne! -
The precious hour has pass'd in vain,
And England's host has gain'd the plain;
Wheeling their march, and circling still,
Around the base of Flodden hill…
But not this time. Surely that must be the idea: that this time his host wasn’t going to “gain the plain”. This time, struggling through the deep defile, the English, or rather his bunch of Iapetans, were going to get well and truly clobbered; only, on the other hand, he wasn't sure how strong the analogy was, the “deep defile” might be just a coincidence, and in fact the topography was most likely irrelevant, in which case he had better hope that the tables were about to be turned some other way, so that the doom remained for the other side -
Breathless, confused thoughts. One clear fact: he had seen the ambush plainly prepared. If only he could talk to someone. He tried but he could not open his jaw. He could move some muscles but not others; he’d probably be allowed to draw his sword, when the moment came to do so, but it was no use trying to break the spell in advance and utter a warning to the other actors in this drama, who must be as helpless as himself; no use even to think of expecting them to step outside the flow of their own headlong verses, to discuss the practicalities of escape; for there is no escape from this resurrected corpse of dead time. Resurrected, to be vivisected, its tendons of cause and effect about to be drawn out and poked around by the Iapetan authorities...
This can’t be the first such meddling, thought Seth; the Iapetans must have carried out reality-dissections many times before, to learn to perform plastic surgery upon their world's history, and soon, perhaps, they’d be making it more special, re-writing the history of the whole Saturn system, and then of the Solar System…
At that moment, public anxieties faded before a more personal dread.
The most ominous of sounds – a sudden rumble above and ahead of him, intermingled with bleats of terror carried through the thin air – prompted Seth to halt and draw his sword, his useless sword. The ambushers must now be rolling their boulders down! He gazed up-slope. So did his companions, but whereas they were troubled and alarmed, he was hopelessly sure.
Yet as it turned out, he was no more prepared than they.
Disaster was interrupted as the wedge of deep violet sky at the top of the defile was almost blotted out by a vast grey shape. In a split second it flashed a paralysing light, which rayed the incipient ambush into immobility. The boulders rolling down upon the ascending army were halted in mid-plunge.
The soldiers, including Seth, could not move an eyelid.
Then came a gradual relaxation, and he could blink, and breathe, once more. Up ahead, the boulders rolled again but gently, as they were let down feather-light.
Next the giant ship itself descended to touch the top of the ridge.
So, after all, thought Seth, there are some Saturnians who are not afraid of the Iapetans.
The thought was hardly framed when, with a stomach-turning sensation, he was clutched by some force which lifted him off the ground and drew him with outrageous speed to stand before an extruded gangplank beside the Saturnian ship.
Things had happened so fast, his guts were a-churn with contradictory emotions. Not exactly keen on another one-sided bout of communication with a godlike denizen of the Ringed Planet, he yet did not flinch from the prospect as he would have done a few hours before. His recent experiences still echoed so strongly inside his skull, that rather than fret about any alien, no matter how powerful, he was more apt to ponder the defeat and death of Scots King James the Fourth and the destruction of his army, amid the wavering glimmers of all the lost might-have-beens of Earth history. So he stood his ground, while a bulky spider-shape moved into view at the top of the gangplank, and began to descend towards him, followed by another.
The first Saturnian came to a halt a couple of yards away and towered over Seth. Though not sure how, Seth thought to recognize the one who was responsible for his mission. Yes, this was the being who had afflicted him with Perce – who had “spoken” to him in the inn on Rhea.
Yet the being, now, was... subdued.
Behind it loomed an ever taller bulk, perhaps a yard taller, and heavier. A fully adult Saturnian, guessed Seth – which would make the other one a mere adolescent. Guesswork, admittedly; but an inner voice strongly hinted that the guess was true, and now he felt new fear.
The larger Saturnian moved forward, to stand beside the lesser one, and then began, from a point on its midriff, to twitch. Oh, no, thought Seth thought: oh no, that diaphragm is going to open, just as the other one did, to spit probably a yet worse gob of truth…
But what actually happened then filled the Terran with amazed relief: amazement instantly accepted, for who could set limits to the powers of a boss Saturnian? – who could question the ability of the great being to clang out words in perfect, idiomatic English – !
“Earthman – well met – none too soon. This rogue,” and it delivered a sideways tap at the side of its smaller fellow – “put a soul-tracer on you. Do you know what that means?”
“No – I’m not sure – yes I suppose so,” gabbled Seth.
“Never mind. Fortunately, I also had one on him.”
A pause. Seth saw a chance to draw a rasping breath. “Sir…”
“I am Xagelthad. You may address me as Commissioner.”
“Commissioner, I thank you for saving my life. And the lives of all these people…” He did not dare look round but he guessed the frozen army was still frozen, and whether or not the fighting would resume after the Saturnians had gone, at least the boulders had been deposited where they would no longer roll...
“You can and shall repay me, Earthman,” said Xagelthad.
Seth drooped at the words; but he caught himself and straightened, though nigh exhausted with foreboding. Another and even more formidable mission at the behest of this more powerful Saturnian – was that what lay in store? What must be, must be.
“The tracer,” the Commissioner went on, “would have stopped its signal if reality-change had occurred. It did not, because we arrived here in good time, but why such an urge to meddle in the Iapetan scene at all? Tgimvaru here needs a lesson, and this is the occasion for it."
Seth licked dry lips, sensing he was suppposed to say something. "And I...?"
"You, Earthman, are going to help me teach this impulsive rogue why it is stupid to fear the Iapetans and their experiments. Humble him, Earthman!"
"What - how - "
"Demonstrate to him that even you have more sense than he does. Speak!”
This was no dream; he, Seth Hurst of Earth, really was being required by one Saturnian to deliver a put-down to another.
The ploy at once became crystal clear, so that he had no difficulty in seeing how he was being used. But what to say? And what was the penalty for failure? Unthinkable – literally – and so Seth Hurst’s puny Terrestrial brain must somehow produce the goods; must without delay come up with an answer to satisfy Xagelthad.
Why is it stupid to fear reality-change?
He could give the obvious reply – could say, “Reality change, when it occurs, is retrospective so that it has always been so, so in a sense it had never ‘occurred’; a wipe-out leaves no trace, and that means, no trace of itself. It swallows itself, and so there is nothing left to fear.”
But might this clever answer seem trite? Insufficient, moreover, to cure those fears which occur in advance of the wipe-out?
Seth guessed that the Commissioner did not want this kind of clever answer. Rather, what was required was a low-level, practical view. Something to prove the point that a lowly Earth brain really can score over a neurotic though vast Saturnian rogue intelligence.
Seth opened his mouth… hoping that his tongue would find inspiration for itself – but at the same moment he understood why he was beaten: either he would fail to think of something, or else he would succeed, and if he succeeded, he would have experienced a triumph which he surely would not be allowed to take home with him.
Either way, he would never see Earth again.
With a shrug of the mind Seth let his personal hopes fall away. Now he could lean back relaxedly against his last prop – his pride. This calm resignation in the face of doom brought its reward: he could grasp, at last, what to say.
He could give Tgimvaru his lesson in how not to worry.
“Of all crimes,” Seth declared, “that of reality-change is least likely to spread, because the perpetrator must ‘draw the ladder up after him’, as it were. The guilty ones know full well they must make sure that the deed is only done once.”
Xagelthad shifted, the mighty Saturnian torso wobbling with some unguessable emotion as it turned a degree or two towards its smaller fellow.
“Hear the Earthman,” the Commissioner’s voice clanged. “The thing can only be done once.”
And don’t, please don’t, mention the further point I didn’t dare make, pleaded Seth in silence. If someone who changes history must do so in such a way that the result also wipes out the invention of the change-mechanism itself, so that it has never been, and no such alteration can recur or, indeed, has ever occurred – if, in other words, time-tampering results in itself being written out of existence as part of the deal - is that really much comfort, if another part of the deal is the rise of the Iapetans?
But the younger Saturnian, the rogue Tgimvaru, did not protest. Instead, when it spoke at last, it said one simple, satisfied English word:
It agrees with me, realized Seth with awe. It is content to believe in what I said.
The thing it fears can only be done “once”.
Sizzling Saturn – I’ve convinced it!
And now the super-beings of the Great World could depart – leaving him to the care of the Iapetans, from which there would be no return. My ship? wondered Seth – is it still intact, or have Iapetans or Saturnians destroyed it? Academic question; they’ll never allow me back to Jumbo. For me the next stage is to be put away.
Here it starts…
The scene blurred in front of his eyes. Minutes stretched. He saw the grey ships lift, their fields of influence fade… and he found himself no longer wearing the Iapetan soldier gear or, indeed, the Iapetan soldier body. Physically he was himself again, and he once more wore his own spacesuit, a temporary concession to his frail Terran needs. The Iapetan Controllers, four of them now, tall in their robes and huge gloves, stood around and murmured to him, making him understand that he was Iapetan from henceforth. They began to shepherd him back up the spine of the great ridge, the Arc of their world, and along its undulations, towards the laboratory complex which awaited him –
He consoled himself with his pride. Whatever might happen to him now, he had had his moment. He had spoken up and answered the great Xagelthad. All the more important to remember this, because compared with Iapetans or Saturnians, an Earth-human was hardly more than a “babe in the wood”. Had it been the Saturnians, or the Iapetans, who had flung him back into his own body again, displacing his consciousness for the second time? Either of them could have done it, he guessed.
Now he must brace himself, must keep hold of his dignity by budgeting in advance, emotionally preparing for what these savants of the Eighth Moon were going to do to an Earthling who knew too much.
They escorted him towards the collection of gunmetal cuboidal buildings, impressive though not beautiful, which loomed ahead on the ridge-path. It would have been easier, no doubt, to build such a colossus in the lowlands, but of course, thought Seth (as his fancy virtually whiffed the ominous metaphor which curled like mist through the near vacuum), of course they had to build their time-laboratory up here on the Arc, the bent bow aiming its arrows of greatness at the rest of the System…
So – face the worst. Stand tall as you can against despair, thought he, as they ushered him in through the heavy doors.
But the interior was surprisingly inviting. Despite his self-cautionings the entrance hall, carpeted in gentle orange, with walls in golden tints, soothed his soul. Same for the chamber in which they bade him sit: an attractive lounge, though its seats were trumpet-shaped, upended thorns stabbing the carpet. This, a lab?
Perhaps it was to be expected, in the hands of a people so super-scientific that the science begins to become invisible, like artless art in the work of a great poet.
They gave him food and drink; they let him rest; and Ghwepp, the Iapetan who spoke English, softened him up with truths in strange parables.
“Not only living tissue, but also events, are cellular in structure... The “DNA” of an event contains the germ of all its possible outcomes…”
“Stem-cells of probability,” murmured Seth, moved again by his pride to show them that he could follow what was being said, albeit weakly, hazily.
Ghwepp murmured, “Quite. They just need growth.”
It was then that Seth really understood.
Not a moment too soon, it burst upon him that “wipe-outs” and “reality-changes” were altogether the wrong ways to think about what was being done.
No wipe-outs, no, nothing like that; instead -
Gravity Three came from the will…
They were all looking at him.
It was time for him to undergo the experiment.
“Tell us,” said Ghwepp, “about the time you landed on Saturn.”
They had slid a screen in front of him, and his thoughts began to be pictured on the screen.
He might as well obey willingly. Certainly he could not blank out the memories. And besides, he would not. For this was the final mercy. If he had to be wrung dry, let it be through telling his captors what he was most proud to tell but could never have risked telling except when he was being forced -
As the good little ship Jumbo dropped the last fifty miles below the cloud layer towards the tawny glow of the Ringed Planet’s surface, Seth Hurst was heartened by the stupendousness of the vista. Sharpening gradually out of the haze of distance, the prairie seemed to go on for ever. No Terran ship had ever detected the use of radar by the Saturnians, and customarily it was assumed from this was that the Great World must use some effective substitute, but Seth’s idea – that there was no substitute; the Great Ones simply did not care – seemed ever more convincing as he gazed out of the cockpit window. Beings who possessed a planet on this scale would have egos and self-confidence to match its size, and would not feel the need for any snoopy defence network. With a bit of luck he could drop down, have a look around, and shoot back up again, taking with him the glory of being the first Terran to have stood upon Saturn.
He had descended to an altitude of fifteen miles when the sharpness of the detail below allowed him to note a splotch, perhaps on average twenty miles wide, on the prairie. It was a stain of relative brightness, like a sheen of sparkling dew. There was no reason to suppose it was anything dangerous; doubtless no more than a variation in the flora; but to play safe, he levelled out the ship’s course and made for the edge of the twenty-mile patch.
Finally all his cautious trains of thought chugged to a stop as his ship touched ground and he faced the full immensity of his achievement. He was here. And nobody was around to challenge him, or to stop him getting away again. He was going to do it – he was going to be the man who attained Planet Six, the most formidable world in the System.
The indicators assured him he’d be able to breathe the air outside, and stand the temperature, which was mild, doubtless due to thermal activity below ground... Earthlings might live on this world, if it were not for the fear of the Saturnians. Seth shrugged; that was an insurmountable “if”, and besides, he was happy to leave this planet to those who owned it. It looked good, but…
He stepped out of the needless airlock and into the waist-high Saturnian grass.
In the far distance, a few hundred miles off, loomed the hazy outlines of trapezoidal mountains. Apart from them, the scene was one of grass, grass, grass, interspersed every few miles by a dense hunk of taller, darker vegetation. The ubiquitous grass gave off a bracing scent, so that Seth found the air a tonic to breathe, yet there was something intimidating about its freshness, as though it committed the Terran soul to one type of greatness too many, one hugeness too far.
Absurd though it was even to think about surveying such a place to any meaningful degree, Seth decided he might as well poke his nose into something before he fled back into space. He remembered he had landed deliberately at the border of the brighter patch of grass. Well, before he left, he could at least walk over and have a look at that slightly different area.
He trudged through the “normally” tawny grass until he reached the border of the also-tawny-but-brighter sort.
Here he stopped for a while and listened to the ringing silence around him. It was extremely important for him, just then, to look back and reassure himself that Jumbo was where he had left it, and that no other additions to the landscape had appeared within his 360-degree field of view.
For now he strongly suspected that he had come upon a secret.
The realm of brighter grass was inhabited.
Semi-transparent humanoids, multitudes of them, six inches high, swarmed almost weightlessly over the grass-blades, hardly depressing them as they leaped from one to another. Their bodies were a very light blue, but they looked quite human.
They were leaping all the more urgently because they had seen him. Suddenly the edge of the bright area bristled with what looked to him like little pop-guns, made of stuff that looked solider than the folk who had constructed them.
Seth backed away slowly. He raised a hand in placatory greeting and farewell. He had seen enough. He did not want to become a new Gulliver ensnared by these Lilliputian Saturnians.
And were they the Saturnians? He realized that the question made no sense. This planet was so vast, it need not have just one intelligent race.
The midgets saw him retreat; they were content to see him go, without firing across that boundary which he had not violated. He hoped they understood that he had not been hostile. The possibility of his friendliness, at any rate, ought to have occurred to them. He waved again, and – was it a trumpet he saw? Some instrument that looked like it. A celebratory thing, anyhow. He glimpsed some wave-gestures just as the small trumpety sound washed through him.
Quite confident, those gesticulations…
And now the tone of the whole scene changed, for Seth remembered where he really was, remembered that he and his captors were watching these memories displayed on the screen in the laboratory up on the Arc of Iapetus.
And yet he felt a pull, as though his past exploit would not let go – would not admit it was merely a memory. So he felt he was living simultaneously in two times and places.
He overheard the self-satisfied Iapetans commenting on what he’d shown them.
“Stem cell event… we can grow real Saturnians from these… they will be the Saturnians… humans like us, under our tutelage. We will finally take our place as overlords of the Great World.”
Seth spoke. He no longer cared what he said.
“That’s what you think, fools that you are, Idiots of the Arc. Sure, you’ll do what you think you’ll do. And when you’ve done it, which will be the tail and which the dog? The real Saturnians will be the grass-people who invited me down there, without me knowing.”
As soon as Ghwepp had translated his remarks, all the Iapetans laughed.
“Oh, so they invited you, did they?” Ghwepp chortled.
No, smiled Seth, not yet. But eventually they will have done, for what grows from events’ stem-cells is the poets’ power of re-defining victory and defeat; of making true what is not yet true.
“And Flodden had been Bannockbourne…”