THE TWO THULIANS FELL in beside him quietly, one on each side. They didn’t draw their weapons, but it was unnecessary; as they had told him the first day, there was no place on Thule to hide. The whole planet was his prison.
Valin chuckled softly. “That was a nice trick you boys worked up with the music,” he said quietly. “I still don’t see how you got your parts down so neatly.”
“It grew out of the first hearing,” Bob told him. “I guess it didn’t work very well, since you managed to trail me.”
“It worked well enough for a few minutes. You just couldn’t know that we had a button on your jacket that broadcast where you were any time we put a tracer on it. Would you rather walk or ride?”
It was obviously all going to be very polite. Bob’s lips curled angrily, and then he shrugged.
Anger wouldn’t get him anywhere now. “Depends on where we’re going,” he answered.
Ondu looked at Valin in surprise. “You know, we didn’t tell him. Sorry, Bob. The president wants to see you, so we’re heading for the administration laboratory, where we first took you.”
“We might as well walk, then,” Bob decided. He set off in what seemed the most direct route toward the eight-story building. “I don’t suppose it would do me any good to ask questions of you two?”
Valin shook his head slightly. “I think the president would rather take care of that, Bob. And I also think you’ll find it a pleasanter walk if we turn off down here.”
“Definitely,” Ondu seconded him.
“Orders?” Bob asked.
They shook their heads. “Merely a more pleasant walk,” Ondu repeated.
Bob could have told them that no walk was going to be pleasant for a man under arrest. He preferred the shorter way, and kept on straight ahead, past alternate parks and business squares. It was the mam entrance to the city, but there were only a few cars and pedestrians using it.
Ahead, there was the sound of some kind of work going on, almost completely foreign to this quiet capital city of Thule. Bob passed down another business block and found a larger park on his left. The noise was coming from there, and he followed it to its source with his eyes.
Workmen were digging holes in the ground and tamping down a solid foundation, obviously getting ready to move the Navy patrol ship that stood at one side onto a permanent location.
The ship was a new model, suitable for one-or two-man control, and fast; it was about twice the size of the Icarius. Emblazoned on the side were the emblems of a Staff Courier and Junior Commander.
Bob had stopped abruptly to stare at it, and the two Thulians made no effort to hasten him onward. They had tried to keep him from going this way, but now that he was here they seemed content to let him stare at it.
He knew it had been the ship his father had come in. The rating and branch of service were both right. It fitted perfectly. But there was no way of telling how long ago it had been captured; it could have been a week before or within the hour. Bob studied it again, and saw that there were no signs of injury on it. Apparently the capture had been accomplished without any major battle.
But there was nothing more to be learned. Bob headed down the street toward the presidential offices, with the two Thulians beside him.
In the hall outside the offices of the president, there was a small mob of people numbering perhaps a hundred and fifty. All were from the Federation, and Bob realized that they were the prisoners whom he had never seen before. They seemed to be in good condition, though none looked too happy. Standing at both ends of the hall in which the moving belt had been stopped were groups of guards with guns in their hands.
Bob looked over their ranks quickly, trying to spot his father, but there was no sign of Griffith.
Apparently these men and women had come from the freighter and the passenger ship Thule had taken over months before.
Then President Faskin came hurrying down the hall with no pomp or ceremony and no body of guards. He jostled through the crowd of Federation citizens. They scowled, but nobody made a move toward him, and he passed through the doors and out of sight. A minute later, the doors were thrown open, and the guards began herding the prisoners in.
Ondu and Valin held Bob back. “Not with them. He’ll want to see you alone, Bob,” Ondu told him.
The doors had been closed behind the prisoners. Whatever went on took very little time, however, and they soon came out again, and were guarded down the hall toward the escalators.
This time when the doors opened, Ondu and Valin indicated that Bob was to go in. He walked ahead of them, and down the center of the room until he stood facing the desk of President Faskin. The man looked up and smiled at him.
“Good morning, Robert. Sit down, sit down. We’re not as formal as you people of the Federation.” He was speaking in perfect English, and the smile deepened at Bob’s start of surprise. “Naturally, I learned this as quickly as I could; the only way to understand a culture is to speak the language. We learned that in the days when we had fifty or more languages on Thule.”
He swung slowly to face Valin. “Ready to report on what happened, Valin?”
“Yes, sir. I tuned our transmitter to his receiver, and sent the message until I was sure he’d heard it. Then nothing much happened until we went out. I knew he had decided to act on it when he obtained some of our clothing in a neutral shade. I managed to substitute a locator for one of the buttons. Later the boys tricked me into leaving Bob alone in his suite, and he went out. I waited fifteen minutes before I followed. By the time I reached him, it was getting dark. Ondu went and stood on the grass ahead of him, and Bob drew his knife. He held it for a moment and put it back.”
It went on from there, a bare, factual account that showed Bob hadn’t been out of their sight for a moment after he entered the park. They must have used infrared scanning to see in the dark, since they reported every movement correctly.
President Faskin nodded quietly. “A good job. Anything wrong with the account, Robert?”
“No. Nothing wrong,” Bob answered bitterly. Whatever their purpose, they’d tricked him very neatly.
“Good. Then you admit drawing the knife?” He took Bob’s nod for an answer. “Why?”
“Because I thought the man there was endangering my father and myself.”
“I see.” Faskin seemed neither pleased nor displeased. “Why didn’t you use it?”
Bob shook his head. “I don’t know. I suppose because I’ve been taught not to stab a man in the back.”
“But he wasn’t a man, Robert,” Faskin insisted. “He was a native of Thule—resembling your race, but totally unrelated!”
“What’s the difference?” Bob asked wearily.
The president nodded again. “Um-m-m, a good question, Robert. It’s one I wish I knew the exact answer to.
Is there a difference in whether one is human or Thulian, and what is it? I can’t answer that question. But maybe you have some others?”
“I’m curious about how you got that message from my father,” Bob told him. “I know my father’s voice, and that was his voice.”
“Certainly. But he never said those words. We simply cut syllables out of recordings of his speech, pasted them up on a new tape as we wished, and then smoothed them over where we had to. It’s an old technique. Isn’t it, Commander?”
Bob swung about abruptly to see his father seated a few feet beyond him. “Dad!”
Griffith smiled weakly. “Hi, Bob. Yes, President Faskin, it’s an old trick. We’ve used it, too.”
He stood up and moved his chair to a position nearer Bob, while Faskin busied himself with the records.
“We seem to be good at fool missions, Bob,” he said, “but Wallingford was in on this. After Thule dropped your note and picture, he thought we might work a prisoner release and perhaps get a cooling-off period. So I volunteered. Only instead of flying over and dropping notes, I came down for a landing. And according to the law here, that makes me a spy. I…”
Faskin had swung back and now interrupted. “Commander, in the two days you’ve been here, we’ve kept our index machines busy working on precedents and collating results. But I frankly still don’t know what to do with you. Ignorance of our law is no excuse, as in the case of your own law. And you had the example of our own messenger-observation ship. You claim you can’t be a spy since you were in uniform and in a military ship. We believe you are because you came inside our lines on the false basis of being a lone messenger, and hence not suspected of trying to land. As usual, we’re proud of our own spies and very hard on others. I don’t see how we can help executing you, though I’d regret it…. Yes, Robert?”
Bob had stared unbelievingly through most of it. It had taken time to realize that the danger to his father was real. But now he was on his feet, moving toward Faskin.
The president motioned him back. “Sit down. We can talk just as well in comfort. You have an idea?”
“No,” Bob stated, trying to sound surer than he felt. “A protest. Since when did a man’s attempt to communicate with a son, from whom he had received no word, turn into spying on Thule? Are the ties of family here being mined by war?”
Faskin shook his head. “Robert, you know that isn’t so. We made every effort to send your communication to your father, and he received it. When relatives are known and communication possible, we respect it.”
“Did my father hear from Simon or Juan?” Bob asked quickly. “They were living within Dad’s home.”
Bob hadn’t been sure that Thule would regard the family important for enemies, but luck had been with him. In this society, nothing was as important as family ties.
Faskin nodded slowly, while Bob’s father stared from one to the other blankly. At the president’s question, he agreed that the two other boys had been living with him, but it was all nonsense to him, obviously.
The president reached out for a group of papers and stamped them. “Very clever, Robert,” he commented then, as he looked up. “You learn our ways almost too quickly. Commander Griffith, I find your landing justified as parental anxiety, and dismiss the charge of spying. But I’ll have to hold you as a prisoner, since you have seen too much of us to be returned.”
“Thank you.” Griffith accepted his reprieve with almost no signs of emotion. He reached for his pipe and seemed to dismiss that matter. “I gather there’s not much chance of getting the other prisoners returned?”
“None, I’m afraid,” Faskin admitted. “I’ve examined them and found them all in good physical condition. Your worry that they might suffer deficiencies from the diet here are unfounded.
And while none of them know much, together they might supply bits of information that would be valuable military knowledge. We’ll have to hold them.”
“What about the charges against me?” Bob asked. He wanted to get it over with, but it seemed that important things were being completely overlooked.
Faskin smiled. “No charges, Robert. We provoked you into an attempt to escape in order to study your attitudes toward us under an emergency.”
He turned toward Griffith. “Commander, you’re the first man of the Federation with any authority whom I’ve seen. And you don’t want war. I tell you that I hate the very thought of war.
Yet here we are, enemies, getting ready to start the greatest war either of us has seen. What are we going to do about it?”
“Fight, I’m afraid,” Bob’s father said bitterly. “At least, everything we’ve tried to bring peace has made war that much closer. And this isn’t going to help much.”
“Meaning your holding me.” Griffith paused to think, then shook his head. “I’m not important, of course. But I’ve come to be considered the leading voice for peace. Now I take off to hold trace talks—and I’m either killed or captured. It will make peace seem completely impossible to the Federation.”
“And we send a messenger ship alone over your Outpost, and it’s fired on.” Faskin nodded slowly. “That makes you look like a race determined to have war. All misunderstandings, of course. But can I be sure? Or are you sure? Commander, if I freed all prisoners and you, would it prevent this war?”
“Besides now we’d have to hold the three boys. Simon Jakes, for example, managed to obtain some of our secret documents with plans for weapons.” Bob grunted as Faskin confirmed his suspicions, but the president didn’t seem to notice. “We’ve substituted false papers since then—but if he has a good memory, he already knows too much. He may no longer need the documents.”
There was no answer that any of them could see. It was the most peculiar war that Bob could imagine. Nobody wanted it. But fear was driving them on. The Thulians couldn’t risk having their secrets stolen. For one thing, the Federation was far ahead of them in methods of production and in manpower. Given a few years of peace, Thule might find itself actually inferior in strength, instead of ahead of the Federation.
And the Federation already had reasons to feel that Thule could not be trusted. From their view, Thule had started the war. The business of trying to take a place around their sun was itself almost an act of war to most people. If Thule made any normal gestures of peace now they would only be taken as tricks to gain time while they revived the rest of their people.
Yet Bob was sure now that Thule was more like Earth than its mere outward appearance.
There was less difference between the race of Thule and the original inhabitants of Earth than there had been between various Earth cultures in times past.
Perhaps, at the first meeting of the two, things could have been settled. But then there had been no way to reach a full understanding, and mistakes had been inevitable. Now those mistakes had grown and multiplied.
For the first time, he saw no chance of peace, no matter what was done.
A sudden shout out in the corridor interrupted their dark thoughts. The guards threw the door open and looked out. Now the shouts increased.
Juan Roman came running into the room. His face was stretched tight with the strain of running, and he was gasping for breath, crying hoarsely. The clothes had been partly torn off him.
He stopped beside Bob, and his mouth worked as he tried to force coherent words out.
He couldn’t finish it.