The Galaxy Primes
Supper was over, but the four were still at the table, sipping coffee and smoking. During a pause in the casual conversation, James suddenly straightened up.
"I want an official decision, Clee," he said, abruptly. "While we're out of touch with United Worlds you, as captain of the ship and director of the project, are Boss, with a capital B. The Lord of Justice, High and Low. The Works. Check?"
"On paper, yes; with my decisions subject to appeal and/or review when we get back to Base. In practice, I didn't expect to have to make any very gravid rulings."
"I never thought you'd have to, either, but Belle fed me one with a bone in it, so..."
"Just a minute. How official do you want it? Full formal, screens down and recorded?"
"Not unless we have to. Let's explore it first. As of right now, are we under the Code or not?"
"Of course we are."
"Not necessarily," Belle put in, sharply. "Not slavishly to the letter. We're so far away and our chance of getting back is so slight that it should be interpreted in the light of common sense."
Garlock stared at Belle and she stared back, her eyes as clear and innocent as a baby's.
"The Code is neither long enough nor complicated enough to require interpretation," Garlock stated, finally. "It either applies in full and exactly or not at all. My ruling is that the Code applies, strictly, until I declare the state of Ultimate Contingency. Are you ready, Belle, to abandon the project, find an uninhabited Tellurian world, and begin to populate it?"
"Well, not quite, perhaps."
"Yes or no, please."
"We are under the Code, then. Go ahead, Jim."
"I broke pairing with Belle and she refused to confirm."
"Certainly I refused. He had no reason to break with me."
"I had plenty of reason!" James snapped. "I'm fed up to here--" he drew his right forefinger across his forehead, "--with making so-called love to a woman who can never think of anything except cutting another man's throat. She's a heartless conniver."
"You both know that reasons are unnecessary and are not discussed in public," Garlock said, flatly. "Now as to confirmation of a break. In simple pairing there is no marriage, no registration, no declaration of intent or of permanence. Thus, legally or logically, there is no obligation. Morally, however, there is always some obligation. Hence, as a matter of urbanity, in cases where no injury exists except as concerns chastity, the Code calls for agreement without rancor. If either party persists in refusal to confirm, and cannot show injury, that party's behavior is declared inurbane. Confirmation is declared and the offending party is ignored."
"Just how would you go about ignoring Prime Operator Belle Bellamy?"
"You've got a point there, Jim. However, she hasn't persisted very long in her refusal. As a matter of information, Belle, why did you take Jim in the first place?"
"I didn't." She shrugged her shoulders. "It was pure chance. You saw me flip the tenth-piece."
"Am I to ignore the fact that you are one of the best telekineticists living?"
"I don't have to control things unless I want to!" She stamped her foot. "Can't you conceive of me flipping a coin honestly?"
"No. However, since this is not a screens-down inquiry, I'll give you--orally, at least--the benefit of the doubt. The next step, I presume, is for Lola to break with me. Lola?"
"Well ... I hate to say this, Clee ... I thought that mutual consent would be better, but..." Lola paused, flushing in embarrassment.
"She feels," James said, steadily, "as I do, that there should be much more to the sexual relation than merely releasing the biological tensions of two pieces of human machinery. That's hardly civilized."
"I confirm, Lola, of course," Garlock said; then went on, partly thinking aloud, partly addressing the group at large. "Ha. Reasons again, and very well put--not off the cuff. Evasions. Flat lies. Something very unfunny here--as queer as a nine-credit bill. In sum, indefensible actions based upon unwarranted conclusions drawn from erroneous assumptions. The pattern is not clear ... but I won't order screens down until I have to ... if the reason had come from Belle..."
"Me?" Belle flared. "Why from me?"
" ... instead of Jim..." Ignoring Belle's interruption, Garlock frowned in thought. After a minute or so his face cleared.
"Jim," he said, sharply, "have you been consciously aware of Belle's manipulation?"
"Why, no, of course not. She couldn't!"
"That's really a brainstorm, Clee," Belle sneered. "You'd better turn yourself in for an overhaul."
"Nice scheme, Belle," Garlock said. "I underestimated--at least, didn't consider carefully enough--your power; and overestimated your ethics and urbanity."
"What are you talking about, Chief?" James asked. "You lost me ten parsecs back."
"Just this. Belle is behind this whole operation; working under a perfectly beautiful smokescreen."
"I'm afraid the boss is cracking up, kids," Belle said. "Listen to him, if you like, but use your own judgment."
"But nobody could make Jim and me really love each other," Lola argued, "and we really do. It's real love."
"Admitted," Garlock said. "But she could have helped it along; and she's all set to take every possible advantage of the situation thus created."
"I still don't see it," James objected. "Why, she wouldn't even confirm our break. She hasn't yet."
"She would have, at the exactly correct psychological moment; after holding out long enough to put you both under obligation to her. There would have, also, been certain strings attached. Her plan was, after switching the pairings..."
"I wouldn't pair with you," Belle broke in viciously, "if you were the only man left in the macrocosmic universe!"
"Part of the smokescreen," Garlock explained. "The re-pairings would give her two lines of attack on me, to be used simultaneously. First, to work on me in bed..."
"See?" Belle interrupted. "He doesn't think I've got any heart at all."
"Oh, you may have one, but it's no softer than your head, and that could scratch a diamond. Second, to work on you two, with no holds barred, to form a three-unit team against me. Her charges that I am losing my grip made a very smart opening lead."
"Do you think I'd let her work on me?" James demanded.
"She's a Prime--you wouldn't know anything about it. However, nothing will happen. Nor am I going to let her confuse the real issue. Belle, you are either inside the Code or a free agent outside it. Which?"
"I have made my position clear."
"To me, yes. To Jim and Lola, decidedly unclear."
"Unclear, then. You can not coerce me!"
"If you follow the Code, no. If you don't, I can and will. If you make any kind of a pass at Jim James from now on, I'll lock you into your room with a Gunther block."
"You wouldn't dare!" she breathed. "Besides, you couldn't, not to another prime."
"Don't bet on it," he advised.
After a full minute of silence Garlock's attitude changed suddenly to his usual one of casual friendliness. "Why not let this one drop right here, Belle? I can marry them, with all the official trimmings. Why not let 'em really enjoy their honeymoon?"
"Why not?" Belle's manner changed to match Garlock's and she smiled warmly. "I confirm, Jim. You two are really serious, aren't you? Marriage, declarations, registration, and everything? I wish--I sincerely and really wish you--every happiness possible."
"We really are serious," James said, putting his arm around Lola's waist. "And you won't ... won't interfere?"
"Not a bit. I couldn't, now, even if I wanted to." Belle grinned wryly. "You see, you kids missed the main feature of the show, since you can't know exactly what a Prime Operator is. Especially you can't know what Cleander Simmsworth Garlock really is--he's an out-and-out tiger on wheels. The three of us could have smacked him bow-legged, but of course all chance of that blew up just now. So if you two want to take the big jump you can do it with my blessing as well as Clee's. I'll clear the table."
That small chore taken care of--a quick folding-up of everything into the tablecloth and a heave into the chute did it--Belle set up the recorder.
"Are you both fully certain that you want the full treatment?" Garlock asked.
Both were certain, and Garlock read the brief but solemn marriage lines.
As the newlyweds left the room, Belle turned to Garlock with a quizzical smile. "Are you going to ask me to pair with you, Clee?"
"I certainly am." He grinned back at her. "I owe you that much revenge, at least. But seriously, I'd like it immensely and we fit like Grace and Poise. Look at that mirror. Did you ever see a better-matched couple? Will you give me a try, Belle?"
"I will not," she said, emphatically. I'll take back what I said a while ago--if you were really the only man left, I would--but as it is, the answer is a definite, resounding, and final 'No'."
"'Definite' and 'resounding, ' yes. 'Final, ' I won't accept. I'll wait."
"You'll wait a long time, Buster. My door will be locked from now on. Good night, Doctor Garlock, I'm going to bed."
"So am I." He walked with her along the corridor to their rooms, the doors of which were opposite each other. "In view of the Code, locking your door is a meaningless gesture. Mine will remain unlocked. I invite you to come in whenever you like, and assure you formally that no such entry will be regarded as an invasion of privacy."
Without a word she went into her room and closed the door with a firmness just short of violence. Her lock clicked sharply.
The next morning, after breakfast, James followed Garlock into his room and shut the door.
"Clee, I want to tell you ... I don't want to get sloppy but..."
"Want to lep it?"
"It's about Brownie, then."
"Uh-huh. I've always liked you immensely. Admired you. Hero, sort of..."
"Yeah. I quote. 'Harder than Pharaoh's heart.' 'Colder than frozen helium, ' and all the rest. But this thing about Brownie..." He reached out; two hard hands met in a crushing grip. "How could you possibly lay off? Just the strain, if nothing else."
"A little strain doesn't hurt a man unless he lets it. I've done without for months at a stretch, with it running around loose on all sides of me."
"But she's so ... she's got everything!"
"There speaketh the ensorcelled bridegroom. For my taste, she hasn't. She told you, I suppose, when explaining a certain fact, that I told her she wasn't my type?"
"She still isn't. She's a very fine person, with a very fine personality. She is one of the two most nearly perfect young women of her race. Her face is beautiful. Her body is an artist's dream. Her mind is one of the very best. Besides all that, she's a very good egg and a mighty tasty dish. But put yourself in my place.
"Here's this paragon we have just described. She has extremely high ideals and she's a virgin; never really aroused. Also, she's so full of this sickening crap they've been pouring into us--propaganda, rocket-oil, prop-wash, and psychological gobbledygook--that it's running out of her ears. She's so stuffed with it that she's going to pair with you, ideals and virginity be damned, even if it kills her; even though she's shaking, clear down to her shoes--scared yellow. Also, she is and always will be scared half to death of you--she thinks you're some kind of robot. She's a starry-eyed, soft-headed sissy. A sapadilla. A sucker for a smooth line of balloon-juice and flapdoodle. No spine; no bottom. A gutless doll-baby. Strictly a pet--you could no more love her, ever, than you could a half-grown kitten..."
"That's a hell of a picture!" James broke in savagely. "Even with your cold-blooded reputation."
"People in love can't be objective, is all. If I saw her through the same set of filters you do, I'd be in love with her, too. So let's see if you can use your brain instead of your outraged sensibilities to answer a hypothetical question. If the foregoing were true, what would you do, Junior?"
"I'd pass, I guess. I'd have to, if I wanted to look at myself in the mirror next morning. But that's such an ungodly cockeyed picture, Clee ... But if that's actually your picture of Brownie--and you're no part of a liar--just what kind of a woman could you love? If any?"
"Belle! Belle Bellamy? Hell's flaming furies! That iceberg? That egomaniac? That Jezebel? She's the hardest-boiled babe that ever went unhung."
"Right, on all counts. Also she's crooked and treacherous. She's a ground-and-lofty liar by instinct and training. I could add a lot more. But she's got brains, ability, and guts--guts enough to supply the Women's Army Corps. She's got the spine and the bottom and the drive. So just imagine her thawed out and really shoveling on the coal--blasting wide open on all forty torches. Back to back with you when you're surrounded; she wouldn't cave and she wouldn't give. Or wing and wing--holding the beam come hell or space-warps. Roll that one around on your tongue, Jim, and give your taste-buds a treat."
"Well, maybe ... if I've got that much imagination ... that's a tough blueprint to read. I can't quite visualize the finished article. However, you're as hard as she is--even harder. You've got more of what it takes. Maybe you can make a Christian out of her. If so, you might have something; but I'm damned if I can see exactly what. Whatever it turned out to be, I wouldn't care for any part of it. You could have it all."
"Exactly; and you can have your Brownie."
"I'm beginning to see. I didn't think you had anything like that in your chilled-steel carcass. And I want to apolo..."
"Don't do it, boy. If the time ever comes when you go so soft on me as to quit laying it on the line and start sifting out your language..." Garlock paused. For one of the very few times in his life, he was at a loss for words. He thrust his hands into his pockets and shrugged his shoulders. "Hell, I don't want to get maudlin, either ... so ... well, how many men, do you think, could have gone the route with me on this hellish job without killing me or me killing them?"
"Oh, that's not..."
"Lay it on the line, Jim. I know what I am. Just one. You. One man in six thousand million. Okay; how many women could live with me for a year without going crazy?"
"Lots of 'em; but, being masochists, they'd probably drive you nuts. And you can't stand 'stupidity'; which, by definition, lets everybody out. Nope, it's a tough order to fill."
"Check. She'd have to be strong enough and hard enough not to be afraid of me, by any trace. Able and eager to stand up to me and slug it out. To pin my ears back flat against my skull whenever she thinks I'm off the beam. Do it with skill and precision and nicety, with power and control; yet without doing herself any damage and without changing her basic feeling for me. In short, a female Jim James Nine."
"Huh? Hell's blowtorches! You think I'm like Belle Bellamy?"
"Not by nine thousand megacycles. Like Belle Bellamy could be and should be. Like I hope she will be. I'd have to give, too, of course--maybe we can make Christians out of each other. It's quite a dream, I admit, but it'll be Belle or nobody. But I'm not used to slopping over this way--let's go."
"I'm glad you did, big fellow--once in a lifetime is good for the soul. I'd say you were in love with her right now--except that if you were, you couldn't possibly dissect her like a specimen on the table, the way you've just been doing. Are you or aren't you?"
"I'll be damned if I know. You and Brownie believe that the poets' concept of love is valid. In fact, you make a case for its validity. I never have, and don't now ... but under certain conditions ... I simply don't know. Ask me again sometime; say in about a month?"
"That's the surest thing you know. Oh, brother! This is a thing I'm going to watch with my eyes out on stalks!"
For the next week, Belle locked her door every night. For another few nights, she did not lock it. Then, one night, she left it ajar. The following evening, the two again walked together to their doors.
"I left my door open last night."
"I know you did."
"And have you scream to high heaven that I opened it? And put me on a tape for willful inurbanity? For deliberate intersexual invasion of privacy?"
"Blast and damn! You know perfectly well, Clee Garlock, I wouldn't pull such a dirty, lousy trick as that."
"Maybe I should apologize, then, but as a matter of fact I have no idea whatever as to what you wouldn't do." He stared at her, his face hard in thought. "As you probably know, I have had very little to do with women. That little has always been on a logical level. You are such a completely new experience that I can't figure out what makes you tick."
"So you're afraid of me," she sneered. "Is that it?"
"And I suppose it's you that cartoonist what's-his-name is using as a model for 'Timorous Timmy'?"
"Since you've guessed it, yes."
"You ... you weasel!" She took three quick steps up the corridor, then back. "You say my logic is cockeyed. What system are you using now?"
"I'm trying to develop one to match yours."
"Oh ... I invited that one, I guess, since I know you aren't afraid of God, man, woman, or devil ... and you're big enough so you don't have to be proving it all the time." She laughed suddenly, her face softening markedly. "Listen, you big lug. Why don't you ever knock me into an outside loop? If I were you and you were me, I'd've busted me loose from my front teeth long ago."
"I'm not sure whether I know better or am afraid to. Anyway, I'm not rocking any boat so far from shore."
"Says you. You're wonderful, Clee--simply priceless. Do you know you're the only man I ever met that I couldn't make fall for me like a rock falling down a cliff? And that the falling is altogether too apt to be the other way?"
"The first, I have suspected. The second is chemically-pure rocket-oil."
"I hope it is ... I wish I could be as certain of it as you are ... You see, Clee, I really expected you to come in, last night, and there really wasn't any bone in it. Surely, you don't think I'm going to invite you into my room, do you?"
"I can't see why not. However, since no valid system of logic seems to apply, I accept your decision as a fact. By the same reasoning--however invalid--if I ask you again you will again refuse. So all that's left, I guess, is for me to drag you into my room by force."
He put his left arm around her and applied a tiny pressure against her side; under which she began to move slowly toward his door.
"You admit that you're using force?" she asked. Her face was unreadable; her mental block was at its fullest force. "That I'm being coerced? Definitely?"
"Definitely," he agreed. "At least ten dynes of sheer brute force. Not enough to affect a tape, but enough, I hope, to affect you. If it isn't, I'll use more."
"Oh, ten dynes is enough. Just so it's force."
She raised her face toward his and threw both arms around his neck. His right arm went into action with his left, and Cleander Garlock forgot all about dynes and tapes.
After a time she disengaged one arm; reached out; opened his door. He gathered her up and, lips still locked to lips, carried her over the threshold.
A few jumps later they met their first really old Arpalone. This Inspector was so old that his skin, instead of the usual bright, clear cobalt blue, was dull and tending toward gray. The old fellow was strangely garrulous, for a Guardian; he wanted them to pause a while and gossip.
"Yes, I am lonesome," he admitted. "It has been a long time since I exchanged thoughts with anyone. You see, nobody has visited this planet--Groobe, its name is--since almost all our humanity was killed, a few periods ago..."
"Killed? How?" Garlock asked sharply. "Not Dilipic?"
"Oh, you have seen them? I never have, myself. No, nothing nearly that bad. Merely the Ozobes. The world itself was scarcely harmed at all. Rehabilitation will be a simple matter, so there's no real reason why some of those Engineers..."
"The beast!" Lola shot a tight-beam thought at her husband. "Who cares anything about the rock and dirt of a planet? It's the people that count and his are dead and he's perfectly complaisant about it--just lonesome!"
"Don't let it throw you, pet," James soothed. "He's an Arpalone, you know; not a sociological anthropologist."
" ... shouldn't come out here and spend a few hours once in a while, but they don't. Too busy with their own business, they say. But while you are physically human, mentally you are not. You're all too ... too ... I can't put my thought exactly on it, but ... more as though you were human fighters, if such a thing could be possible."
"We are fighters. Where we come from, most human beings are fighters."
"Oh? I never heard of such a thing. Where can you be from?"
This took much explanation, since the Arpalone had never heard of inter-galactic travel. "You are willing, then, to fight side by side with us Arpalones against the enemies of humanity? You have actually done so, at times, and won?"
"We certainly have."
"I am glad. I am expecting a call for help any time now. Will you please give me enough of your mental pattern, Doctor Garlock, so that I can call you in case of need? Thank you."
"What makes you think you're going to get an S.O.S. so soon? Where from?"
"Because these Ozobe invasions come in cycles, years apart, but there are always several planets attacked at very nearly the same time. We were the first, this time; so there will be one or two others very shortly."
"Do they always ... kill all the people?" Lola asked.
"Oh, no. Scarcely half of the time. Depends on how many fighters the planet has, and how much outside help can get there soon enough."
"Your call could come from any of the other solar systems in this neighborhood, then?" Garlock asked.
"Yes. There are fifteen inhabited planets within about six light-years of us, and we form a close-knit group."
"What are these Ozobes?"
"Animals. Warm-blooded, but egg-layers, not mammals. Like this," and the Inspector spread in their minds a picture of a creature somewhat like the flying tigers of Hodell, except that the color was black, shading off to iridescent green at the extremities. Also, it was armed with a short and heavy, but very sharp, sting.
"They say that they come from space, but I don't believe it," the old fellow went on. "What would a warm-blood be doing out in space? Besides, they couldn't find anybody to lay their eggs in out there. No, sir, I think they live right here on Groobe somewhere, maybe holed up in caves or something for ten or thirteen years ... but that wouldn't make sense, either, would it? I just don't know..."
Garlock finally broke away from the lonesome Inspector and the Pleiades started down.
"That's the most utterly horrible thing I ever heard of in my life!" Lola burst out. "Like wasps--only worse--people aren't bugs! Why don't all the planets get together and develop something to kill every Ozobe in every system of the group?"
"That one has got too many bones in it for me to answer," James said.
"I'm going to get hold of that Engineer as soon as we land," Lola said, darkly, "and stick a pin into him."
They found the Engineering Office easily enough, in a snug camp well outside a large city. They grounded the starship and went out on foot; enjoying contact with solid ground. The Head Engineer was an Arpalone, too--Engineers were not a separate race, but dwellers on a planet of extremely high technology--but he did know anything about space-drives. His specialty was rehabilitation; he was top boss of a rehab crew...
Then Lola pushed Garlock aside. Yes, the Ozobes came from space. He was sure of it. Yes, they laid eggs in human bodies. Yes, they probably stayed alive quite a while--or might, except for the rehab crew. No, he didn't know what would hatch out--he'd never let one live that long, but what the hell else could hatch except Ozobes? No, not one. Not one single damn one. If just one ever did, on any world where he bossed the job, he'd lose his job as boss and go to the mines for half a year...
"Ridiculous!" Lola snapped. "If Ozobes hatched, they couldn't possibly have come from space. If they did come from space, the adult form would have to be something able to get back into space, some way or other. That is simple elementary biology. Don't you see that?"
He didn't see it. He didn't give a damn, either. It was none of his business; he was a rehab man.
Lola ran back to the ship in disgust.
"Something else is even more ridiculous, and is your business," James told the Head Engineer. "Garlock and I are both engineers--top ones. We know definitely that a one-hundred-percent clean-up on such a job as this--millions--simply can't be done. Ever. Under any conditions. Are you lying in your teeth or are you dumb enough to believe it yourself?"
"Neither one," the Engineer insisted, stubbornly. "I've wondered, myself, at how I could get 'em all, but I always do--every time so far. That's why they give me the big job. I'm good at it."
"Oh--Lola's right, Jim," Garlock said. "It's the adult form that hatches; something so different they don't even recognize it. Something able to get into space. Enough survivors to produce the next generation."
"Sure. I'll tell Brownie--she'll be tickled."
"She'll be more than tickled--she'll want to hunt up somebody around here with three brain cells working and give 'em an earful." Then, to the Engineer, "Do you know how they rehab a planet that's been leveled flat by the golop?"
"You've seen one? I never have, but of course I've studied it. Slow, but not too difficult. After killing, the stuff weathers down in a few years--wonderful soil it makes--what makes it slow is that you have to wait fifty or a hundred years for the mountains to get built up again and for the earthquakes to quit..."
"Excuse me, please--I've got a call--we have to leave, right now."
The call was from the Inspector. The nearest planet, Clamer, was being invaded by the Ozobes and needed all the help they could get.
In seconds the Pleiades was at the Port of Entry.
"Where is this Clamer?" Garlock asked.
The Inspector pointed a thought; all four followed it.
"Let's go, Jim. Maybe..."
"Just a minute!" Lola snapped. She was breathing hard, her eyes were almost shooting sparks as she turned to the old Arpalone and drove a thought so forcibly that he winced.
"Do you so-called 'Guardians of Humanity' care at all about the humanity you're supposed to be protecting?" she demanded viciously, the thought boring in and twisting, "or are you just loafing on the job and doing as little as you possibly can without getting fired?"
Belle and Garlock looked at each other and grinned. James was surprised and shocked. This woman blowing her top was no Brownie Montandon any of them knew.
"We do everything we possibly can," the Inspector was not only shocked, but injured and abused. "If there's any one possible thing we haven't done, even the tiniest..."
"There's plenty!" she snapped. "Plain, dumb stupidity, then, it must be. There must be somebody around here who has been at least exposed to elementary biology! You should have exterminated these Ozobe vermin ages ago. All you have to do is find out what its life cycle is. How many stages and what they are. How the adults get into space and where they go," and she went on, in flashing thoughts, to explain in full detail.
"Are you smart enough to understand that?"
"Oh, yes. Your thought may be the truth, at that."
"And are you interested enough to find out whose business it would be, and follow through on it?"