"Attack! Attack! Battle stations!" The passages and decks of the Lambian corvette Intrepid, patrolling in northern water, erupted in a frenzy of bodies tumbling out from doorways, pulling on pieces of kit as they scrambled to clamber through hatches and up ladders. Petty Officer Jissek came out of the wheelhouse onto the starboard bridge as the crew of Number Four gun were frantically finding their positions, just in time to see the black shape diving out of the night to the east. The torpedo struck amidships thirteen seconds later.
The concussion pitched him over the rail, into the signal bay above the foredeck main gun. He lay crumpled, semiconscious, pain shooting through seemingly every joint in his body. The sounds of shouting and screams penetrated through the ringing in his ears. He hauled himself up dazedly, using the mast stanchion by the flag locker. The deck beneath him was already tilting alarmingly. As he looked up, the center of the vessel lit up in a sheet of orange, silhouetting debris and bodies thrown into the air. Figures staggered out onto the bridge above him, and promptly disintegrated along with the door and companion way behind them as the aircraft made a second pass, firing rockets and cannon. . . .
The sea was choppy under a squally wind, its gray just a little darker than the sky. Jissek could feel the cold creeping into his bones through his wet, oil-sodden clothes and the rubberized canvas floor of the raft. They couldn't last long in this, he knew, barely fifty miles from the ice shelf. But it would have been unbecoming to say so.
There were just two of them now. Two of them alive, anyway. The sonar operator who had lost a leg had died maybe an hour before, but he was still lying with his head on Ensign Thorke's lap. Kept as a shred of extra cover from the wind? Or was it that they simply hadn't had the energy to lift the body overboard? Perhaps they just didn't see any point in it. The cold made thinking difficult and sporadic, an effort of will in itself.
Thorke was hurt too, having taken something in his back--a bullet, or piece of shrapnel or flying debris. His breathing was heavy, and he coughed intermittently, which brought trickles of blood to his mouth. Just nineteen, his first operational trip. But he hadn't complained. Jissek felt little more than a boy himself. Inwardly, he was bracing himself to the thought of having to face the rest of whatever was ahead alone. He looked at the boy's face. It was paler, developing a greenish tint. Thorke licked his lips dryly. Automatically, Jissek started weighing the risk of wasting their limited provisions. Then, catching himself and repulsed by his own meanness, he unscrewed the cap of the water flask and offered it across. Thorke took a sip, nodded gratefully, and passed it back. Jissek screwed the cap on without taking any himself and returned the flask to the survival box.
He had seen other rafts being inflated and figures hauling themselves or others into them in the light of the flames from the sinking corvette. But if they were still anywhere, they had drifted out of sight before daylight came. The only reminder from one cheerless horizon to the other that the Intrepid had ever existed was a corpse floating grotesquely about forty feet away, which had stayed with them doggedly along with some pieces of floating wreckage. It seemed strange. If the other rafts had drifted out of sight, why hadn't this local patch of flotsam dispersed to? Currents did funny things, he supposed. A shape that he had noticed earlier on the skyline seemed nearer and looked like ice. Did it mean they were being carried northward?
He thought about Ilia, fussing with her plants and painting the walls in the flat they had finally scraped together enough for, and Lochey just toddling the last time Jissek had been home on leave and seen him; about his parents, pottering in their garden and always worrying about him. If the end was going to be long and drawn out, he hoped they'd never know. Hunger was knotting his stomach. Time to measure themselves a breakfast, maybe. Or would it be more practical and sensible to wait until . . . He was doing it again.
"Sir? . . ." Thorke's voice came as little more than a dry croak but sounded suddenly urgent. Jissek looked up. Thorke was staring at something high up and behind him. Jissek turned himself stiffly to look over his shoulder.
How it could have come up on them without making a sound, he didn't know. It looked like a huge metal egg, the size of a truck, hanging in the air about a hundred feet away. "What is it, Sir?"
Jissek shook his head. "I'm not sure." He had never seen anything like it.
"Is it theirs?" the ensign asked fearfully.
"I can't tell."
After apparently inspecting them, the object moved closer. Jissek felt his own mouth go dry. It came to just feet away, looming over them, and then descended to immerse its lower part in the water so that the vertical part of its surface was alongside the raft. A panel that had been invisible opened to reveal a chamber with an inner door, beyond which was a larger, orange-lit space showing glimpses of fittings and equipment panels. "Can you hear me?" a voice called from within.
Jissek nodded numbly. "Yes. . . . Who are you?"
"That would be too much to go into right now. Besides, you don't look as if you've exactly got all day to sit there listening. This is about as close as I can get. Can you make it across? There's plenty of room for three."
"No," Jissek replied. The compulsion to correct was reflexive. "Just two."
They were progressing back in time, toward the war's beginnings.
The Shapieron's doctor pronounced that the uninjured sailor from the raft had slept, eaten well, and was strong enough for visitors. His companion was still unconscious after surgery, with chances of recovery that were not good. The situation did not call for the pestering of a crowd of interrogators. Frenua Showm, who was technically in charge of the political mission, decided that she and Hunt would talk to him. His name was Jissek, the medics had established, and he appeared to be a Lambian.
ZORAC had increased its proficiency as a translator rapidly with the contacts made in the course of these reconnaissance visits. Approaches had been restricted to isolated individuals, which did have the risk that the individual approached might have little of value to tell them. Hunt had suggested keeping things simple and saving time by putting a probe down in the middle of a university campus with a concentration of people who would be able to answer anything, and wrapping the whole thing up in one operation. Danchekker, however, felt that in all the hysteria and excitement that a stunt like that was likely to cause they would probably end up being too deluged with questions and demands for explanations themselves to have much chance of asking any, and the present policy had prevailed.
Showm was silent as Hunt walked with her along the corridor of pale yellow walls and glowing luminescence panels to the clinic and medical bay. Her decision to handle this herself was more than just to complement his scientific perspective and show a Thurien presence, Hunt knew. For her this had become a deep personal matter, involving aspects of her nature that she desperately needed to understand better and to master to progress toward in the inner development that Thuriens regarded as the fulfillment of existence. Hunt had seen her shaken reaction when one of the Shapieron's probes sent back views of the aftermath of a Lambian air strike on an industrial suburb of a city, and watched her face as an intercepted news broadcast showed young orphaned children, some blinded, others missing limbs, telling their stories. For her, the possibility of creating even a sliver of reality in which such things could be avoided was becoming an object of almost religious fervor.
An orderly admitted them to the room. Jissek was sitting in an easy chair by a small table in the outer room of the suite, wrapped in a robe, with baggy hospital pants and fluffy house socks. ZORAC had mentioned ahead that he had expressed a reluctance to receive visitors in bed. He stared at Hunt in surprise. Hunt was the first human Jissek had seen since coming aboard. He had watched over his companion through the probe's trip back to the Shapieron, and lost consciousness as soon as the Ganymean medics took charge.
Showm began. ZORAC's translation came from a grille above the table. "The doctor tells us it would be comfortable for you to talk now." Jissek's eyes strayed back to Hunt. "My name is Frenua Showm. We are here just for a short time, from a world that is far away. This is Doctor Hunt, a scientist. We would like to ask you some questions."
"Is there news of Ensign Thorke? The one who was with me. I was told he was being operated on."
"It does not look good, I'm afraid," Showm told him. Typically Thurien, Hunt thought. Incapable of bending anything, even a little. Jissek nodded. He seemed to have been ready for it. Hunt sat down in the other chair at the table. Showm took the couch by one wall.
"You are the Giants, who inhabited Minerva long ago?" Jissek said. "The stories we've heard are true? You went to another star?"
"That is correct."
Jissek looked at Hunt in puzzlement again. "So . . . are you a Lunarian?"
Hunt clasped his hands together on the table, looking affable. "This could get complicated. We've probably all got lots of questions to ask. But you owe us. . . ." He paused while ZORAC queried Jissek for a translation of the phrase. "So why don't you answer ours first?"
Jissek nodded. "I'll try."
Hunt looked toward Showm. She consulted some papers she was carrying and verified Jissek's name, that he was from Lambia, a naval officer, and other details that the doctor had already established. It was just to get a dialogue moving. Showm came to the subject of the war. "How long has it been going on now?" Jissek seemed unsure how to answer.
"Was there a formal declaration at some point?" Hunt asked. "A day when Lambia or Cerios announced that a state of war existed with the other?"
Jissek shook his head, as if such an idea were new to him. "It just . . . grew, year by year."
"How did it begin?"
"There was always a problem with the Cerians, for as long as I remember. They were driven by private greed and corruption, even at a time when the survival of all of us depended on working together as one race. We wanted to move everybody to Earth. . . ."
"Yes, we know about that," Showm said. The Cerians they had talked to put a different interpretation on it, of course.
Jissek went on, "Our king had tried to reason with them, to make them see that what they were doing would destroy the chances for everybody. But they said they would make us do things their way, and they began manufacturing weapons. Lambia had to do the same, to defend itself. The Cerians sent planes over our country to spy on us. One of their spy ships came into our coastal waters. When Lambian naval craft went out to turn it back, it fired on them, and it was sunk in the engagement that followed. That happened before my time in the Navy. But it was probably when the actual fighting began."
"You're talking about the Cerian frigate Champion," Showm said, glancing at her notes.
Jissek's eyebrows went up in surprise. "Yes."
The Cerian version was that the Champion had been attacked in international waters.
"And that was how long ago?"
"Two to three years. . . . Something like that."
"Does the name Xerasky mean anything?" Showm asked. Xerasky had been the Lambian dictator at the time of the final war.
So Xerasky hadn't succeeded Zargon yet.
Showm went on, "You mentioned your king. Do you still have a king in Lambia now?"
Jissek looked surprised again but this time shook his head. "No. He was killed. Freskel-Gar is king now."
Showm glanced at Hunt pointedly. This was interesting. Freskel-Gar had been the last of the kings before Lambia became a dictatorship under Zargon. "How about the name Zargon?" Hunt inquired.
Jissek nodded. "Oh yes. He's one of the king's generals. Very powerful. He commands the advanced weapons program. Highly secret. Cerian Intelligence has been trying to penetrate it--and with some success, due to Lambian traitors and double agents."
"What kind of weapons are we talking about?" Hunt asked curiously. When no immediate response was forthcoming, he prompted, "Nuclear fission, fusion? Particle and radiation beam? Advanced nucleonic? . . ."
"I . . . don't know anything about such matters."
Hunt let it go at that. "How about this General Zargon? Can you describe him?"
"Yes, everybody has seen him in the news and on TV. Not all that tall but very broad." Jissek brought his hands up to indicate his chest and shoulders. "Darkish skin, like a heavy tan, and a black beard--short beard, trimmed and neat. Big chin, pugnacious teeth." Hunt leaned back in his chair and gave a satisfied nod. It sounded like Imares Broghuilio all right. He would have staked an arm on it.
"Tell us about Zargon's background," Showm said. "His career, his record. Which part of Lambia is he from?"
"Not a lot is known about that," Jissek replied. "He seemed to come out of nowhere, very suddenly."
"When would this have been?"
"Again, around three years ago. It was before the Champion incident, but not very long before it. . . . Six months, maybe." Jissek hesitated, then added, "If you want my opinion, I think Zargon might not be from Lambia at all. I think he could be a Cerian."
That came as a surprise. "Why would you think that?" Hunt asked.
"He appeared on Freskel-Gar's staff with a group of followers who were very secretive. I don't know even today how many of them there were. But they brought new weapons technologies with them, and set up a program that involved all kinds of advanced scientific knowledge." Jissek made a gesture that asked what else could be made of it. "You see my point? It sounds as if it could have been Cerian armaments specialists from some other part of Minerva, who defected en masse. Just my theory."
"If they were Cerians, why would Cerios need to mount an espionage operation to find out what they were doing?" Hunt asked, smiling faintly.
Jissek had to think about it for a moment. "Maybe they were trying to get it back--if Zargon brought the whole program with him. It would explain all the secrecy, anyway." Hunt nodded that the answer was good enough.
Showm came back in. "Getting back to King Perasmon, you said he was killed. When was this?"
"Three years ago."
"Around the same time, then?"
"I suppose so."
"Had General Zargon actually appeared on Freskel-Gar's staff by this time? Was he around when it happened?"
"I'm . . . not sure."
"So how did it happen?"
"There was a time when many people thought the problems between us and the Cerians could be solved. I'm not sure of the details. . . . Something about the differences between us not being so important after all. I don't think anyone wanted the war. In those days such things were difficult to imagine--the kind of thing you saw in horror movies. So there were hopes everywhere that it could be avoided. The Cerian President--his name was Harzin--came to Melthis to meet the king personally . . ." Melthis was the Lambian capital city.
"Yes. And they made a big speech together saying they had come to an understanding, and from then on all of Minerva would work together. They would keep their system and we could stay with ours. It seemed like a nightmare that had ended." Jissek paused, poured a glass of water from a jug on the table, and took a sip.
"And?" Showm said.
"Afterward they were supposed to fly from Melthis to Cerios for Perasmon to visit there. But their plane was shot down."
Showm had to cover her eyes for a moment, even though she had been hearing a lot of this kind of thing by now. "Who did this?" she asked.
"Cerians. A rogue unit within their military establishment. You see, it was this obsession of theirs with self-seeking and private interests again--instead of thinking of common goals. The state of armed tension gave them a lot of power. They weren't prepared to give it up."
"And after that?" Hunt queried, although it wasn't difficult to guess.
"Oh, there could be no more compromising after that. Freskel-Gar became king. He turned out to be the strong leader that we needed, who wasn't deceived the way Perasmon had been. The Cerians had been arming all along. It was probably Zargon who saved us. Without the defenses he's built up over the last three years, it's practically certain that Lambia would have been invaded by now."
The pieces fitted. Broghuilio and his Jevlenese had arrived when Cerios and Lambia were on the verge of settling differences that had been building up over many years, but which as yet had resulted in no more than skirmishes. But the two leaders who had brought about the reconciliation were assassinated before it had taken any effect. The Cerians had a different version that put the blame on a Lambian plot engineered by Freskel-Gar. The timing invited the suspicion that Broghuilio might have been involved too, but that couldn't be concluded for sure. Whatever the true explanation, Freskel-Gar, the hardliner waiting in the wings, had seized his opportunity, and with Broghuilio either already on the scene or appearing soon afterward, the road toward intransigence, escalation, and eventual all-out war was set. At some point that still lay in the future, Freskel-Gar would reap as he had sown, when Broghuilio-Zargon judged the time right to get rid of him.
This information at last provided a clear pointer to where in time the mission should be aimed. Around three years previously, Minerva had been ready to take a completely different course. The markers to look for were that Freskel-Gar was still a Prince in Lambia, and Perasmon and Harzin were still alive. But it also needed to be before the Jevlenese arrived, to enable Harzin and Perasmon to make suitable preparations for dealing with them. But precisely when the Jevlenese had arrived was not known, and further questioning was unlikely to establish it, since the installation of Broghuilio and his entourage had been carried out in secrecy. The secrecy surrounding their presence and origins also meant that simply failing to find any sign of their ships couldn't be taken as indicative of anything--there was no sign of them now, but the Jevlenese were surely here.
The final marker to look for would be the absence of a response from the Shapieron's daughter probe that had followed the Jevlenese ships through the spacetime tunnel. ZORAC had signaled it on every reconnaissance visit and found it functioning, and it was there now, functioning normally, on this visit. When they reached a point upstream in time where no response could be evoked, it would mean that the probe wasn't there yet, and so the Jevlenese couldn't have arrived yet either.
Chien thought that the optimum psychological moment for the Shapieron to make its arrival would be as close as possible to the joint announcement of the new understanding by Perasmon and Harzin from the Lambian capital, Melthis, when the whole of Minerva would be optimistic and hopeful. Showm agreed, and the proposal was drawn up for Calazar to approve formally.
There was still the other side of the bargain to be fulfilled. After some clothes had been found for him from the Terran stores, Jissek was taken to the Shapieron's Command Deck to meet the other members of the mission. There, as he had promised, Hunt explained as fully as was pertinent the strange story of where the ship was from and why it had come back to Minerva. After the events since his rescue, however, it seemed that Jissek was capable of believing just about anything, and he accepted the account phlegmatically, though not pretending to comprehend all of it. The ship's doctor then called to break the news that Jissek's companion, Thorke, had died as feared.
Frenua Showm looked at the young officer with obvious concern and compassion. "Before very much longer, your world will end horribly and violently. We know that. It cannot be changed. But for you, it doesn't have to be that way. You can come back with us, to a world of peace and wonders that you are unable to imagine, with the rest of a life to look forward to, and a future."
Jissek stared back at a screen where one of the views of Thurien that they had shown him was still displaying. Smiling distantly in a resigned way, he told about his wife, their new son, and the parents who worried about him. "If such things are to pass, they will need me there all the more," he replied. "I thank you, but that is where I must be."
Hunt and Showm went with him in the transit tube to the stern docking bay where the probe was waiting. It would take him to a cove along the coast, near to a Lambian naval base. Jissek waved a farewell from inside as the doors closed. A minute later, they watched on a docking bay monitor as the probe exited from the ship and shrank away into the starfield. Frenua Showm's face was making strange twitching movements. It was the first time, Hunt realized, that he had seen a Ganymean cry.