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Silent as a sleeping serpent for sixty years, it spanned from the heart of Telphar to the royal palace of Toromon. From the ashes of the dead city to the island capital, it connected what once had been the two major cities, the only cities of Toromon. Today there was only one.
In Telphar, it soared above ashes and fallen roadways into the night.
Miles on, the edge of darkness paled before the morning and in the faint shadow of the transit ribbon, at the edge of a field of lava, among the whispering, yard-high ferns, sat row on row of squat shacks, cheerless as roosting macaws. They stood near the entrance of the tetron mines.
A few moments before, the light rain had stopped. Water dribbled down the supporting columns of the transit ribbon which made a black band on the fading night.
Now, six extraordinarily tall men left the edge of the jungle. They carried two corpses among them. Two of the tall men hung back to converse.
"The third one won't get very far."
"If he does," said the other, "he'll be the first one to get through the forest guards in twelve years."
"I'm not worried about his escaping," said the first. "But why have there been such an increase in attempts over the past year?"
The other one laughed. Even in the dull light, the three scars that ran down the side of his face and neck were visible. "The orders for tetron have nearly doubled."
"I wonder just what sort of leeches in Toron make their living off these miserable--" He didn't finish, but pointed ahead to the corpses.
"The hydroponic-growers, the aquarium manufacturers," answered the man with the scars. "They're the ones who use the ore. Then, ofcourse, there's the preparation for the war."
"They say that since the artificial food growers have taken over, the farmers and fishermen near the coast are being starved out. And with the increased demand for tetron, the miners are dying off like flies here at the mine. Sometimes I wonder how they supply enough prisoners."
"They don't," said the other. Now he called out. "All right. Just drop them there, in front of the cabins."
The rain had made the ground mud. Two dull splashes came through the graying morning. "Maybe that'll teach them some sort of lesson," said the first.
"Maybe," shrugged the one with the scars.
Now they turned back toward the jungle.
Soon, streaks of light speared the yellow clouds and pried apart the billowing rifts. Shafts of yellow sank into the lush jungles of Toromon, dropping from wet, green fronds, or catching on the moist cracks of boulders. Then the dawn snagged on the metal ribbon that arced over the trees, and webs of shadow from the immense supporting pylons fell across the few, gutted lava beds that dotted the forest.
A formation of airships flashed through a tear in the clouds like a handful of hurled, silver chips. As the buzz from their tetron motors descended through the trees, Quorl, the forest guard, stretched his seven-foot body and rolled over, crushing leaves beneath his shoulder. Instinctively his stomach tensed. But silence had returned. With large, yellow-brown eyes, he looked about the grove in which he had spent the night. His broad nostrils flared even wider. But the air was still, clean, safe. Above, the metal ribbon glinted. Quorl lay back on the dried leaves once more.
As dawn slipped across the jungle, more and more of the ribbon caught fire from beneath the receding shadows, till at last it soared above the yellow crescent of sand that marked the edge of the sea.
Fifty yards down the beach from the last supporting pylon whose base still sat on dry land, Cithon, the fisherman, emerged from his shack.
"Tel?" he called. He was a brown, wiry man whose leathery face was netted with lines from sand and wind. "Tel?" he called once more. Now he turned back into the cottage. "And where has the boy gotten off to now?"
Grella had already seated herself at the loom, and her strong hands now began to work the shuttle back and forth while her feet stamped the treadle.
"Where has he gone?" Cithon demanded.
"He went out early this morning," Grella said quietly. She did not look at her husband. She watched the shuttle moving back and forth, back and forth between the green and yellow threads.
"I can see he's gone out," Cithon snapped. "But where? The sun is up. He should be out with me on the boat. When will he be back?"
Grella didn't answer.
"When will he be back?" Cithon demanded.
"I don't know."
Outside there was a sound, and Cithon turned abruptly and went to the side of the shack.
The boy was leaning over the water trough, sloshing his face.
The boy looked up quickly at his father. He was perhaps fourteen, a thin child, with a shock of black hair, yet eyes as green as the sea. Fear had widened them now.
"Where were you?"
"No place," was the boy's quietly defensive answer. "I wasn't doing anything."
"Where were you?"
"No place," Tel mumbled again. "Just walking..." Suddenly Cithon's hand, which had been at his waist jerked up and then down, and the leather strap that had been his belt slashed over the boy's wet shoulder.
The only sound was a sudden intake of breath.
"Now get down to the boat."
Inside the shack, the shuttle paused in Grella's fist the length of a drawn breath. Then it shot once more between the threads.
Down the beach, the transit ribbon leapt across the water. Light shook on the surface of the sea like flung diamonds, and the ribbon above was dull by comparison.
Dawn reached across the water till at last the early light fell on the shore of an island. High in the air, the ribbon gleamed above the busy piers and the early morning traffic of the wharf. Behind the piers, the towers of the City were lanced with gold, and as the sun rose, gold light dropped further down the building faces.
On the boardwalk, two merchants were talking above the roar of tetron-powered winches and chuckling carts. "It looks like your boat's bringing in a cargo of fish," said the stout one.
"It could be fish. It could be something else," answered the other.
"Tell me, friend," asked the portly one, whose coat was of cut and cloth expensive enough to suggest his guesses were usually right, "why do you trouble to send your boat all the way to the mainland to buy from the little fishermen there? My aquariums can supply the City with all the food it needs."
The other merchant looked down at the clip-board of inventory slips.
"Perhaps my clientele is somewhat different from yours." The first merchant laughed. "You sell to the upper families of the City, who still insist on the doubtful superiority of your imported delicacies. Did you know, my friend, I am superior in every way to you? I feed more people, so what produce is superior to what you produce. I charge them less money, and so I am financially more benevolent than you. I make more money than you do, so I am also financially superior. Also, later this morning my daughter is coming back from the university, and this evening I will give her a party so great and so lavish that she will love me more than any daughter has ever loved a father before."
Here the self-satisfied merchant laughed again, and turned down the wharf to inspect a cargo of tetron ore that was coming in from the mainland.
As the merchant of imported fish turned up another inventory slip, another man approached him. "What was old Koshar laughing about?" he asked.
"He was gloating over his good fortune in backing that harebrained aquarium idea. He was also trying to make me jealous of his daughter. He's giving her a party tonight to which I am no doubt invited; but the invitation will come late this afternoon with no time for me to reply properly."
The other man shook his head. "He's a proud man. But you can bring him to his place. Next time he mentions his daughter, ask him about his son, and watch the shame storm into his face."
"He may be proud," said the other, "but I am not cruel. Why should I move to hurt him? Time takes care of her own. This coming war will see."
"Perhaps," said the other merchant. "Perhaps."
Once over the island city of Toron, capital of Toromon, the transit ribbon breaks from its even course and bends among the towers, weaves among the elevated highways, till finally it crosses near a wide splash of bare concrete, edged with block-long aircraft hangars. Several airships had just arrived, and at one of the passenger gates the people waiting for arrivals crowded closely to the metal fence.
Among them was one young man in military uniform. A brush of red hair, eyes that seemed doubly dark in his pale face, along with a squat, taurine power in his legs and shoulders; these were what struck you in the swift glance. A close look brought you the incongruity of the major's insignia and his obvious youth.
He watched the passengers coming through the gate with more than military interest.
Someone called, "Tomar!"
And he turned, a grin leaping to his face.
"Tomar," she called again. "I'm over here."
A little too bumptiously, he rammed through the crowd until at last he almost collided with her. Then he stopped, looking bewildered and happy.
"Gee, I'm glad you came," she said. "Come on. You can walk me back to father's." Her black hair fell close to broad, nearly oriental cheekbones. Then the smile on her first strangely, then attractively pale mouth fell.
Tomar shook his head, as they turned now, arm in arm, among the people wandering over the field.
"No?" she asked. "Why not?"
"I don't have time, Clea," he answered. "I had to sneak an hour off just to get here. I'm supposed to be back at the Military Ministry in forty minutes. Hey, do you have any bags I can carry?"
Clea held up a slide rule and a notebook. "I'm traveling light. In a week I'll be back at the university for summer courses, so I didn't bring any clothes. Wait a minute. You're not going to be too busy to get to the party Dad's giving me tonight, are you?"
Clea began a word, but pushed her tongue hard against the roof of her mouth. "Tomar?" she asked after a moment.
"Yes?" He had a rough voice, which, when he was sad, took on the undertones of a bear's growl.
"What's happening about the war? Will there really be one?"
Again he shrugged. "More soldiers, more planes, and at the Ministry there's more and more work to do. I was up before dawn this morning getting a fleet of survey planes off for a scouting trip to the mainland over the radiation barrier. If they come back this evening, I'll be busy all night with the reports and I won't be able to make the party.
"Oh," said Clea. "Tomar?"
"Yes, Clea Koshar?"
"Oh, don't be formal with me, please. You've been in the City long enough and known me long enough. Tomar, if the war comes, do you think they'll draft prisoners from the tetron mines into the army?"
"They talk about it."
"Because my brother..."
"I know," said Tomar.
"And if a prisoner from the mines distinguished himself as a soldier, would he be freed at the end of the war? They wouldn't send him back to the mines, would they?"
"The war hasn't even begun yet," said Tomar. "No one knows how it will end."
"You're right," she said, "as usual." They reached the gate. "Look, Tomar, I don't want to keep you if you're busy. But you've got to promise to come see me and spend at least an afternoon before I go back to school."
"If the war starts, you won't be going back to school."
"You already have your degree in theoretical physics. Now you're only doing advanced work. Not only will they conscript prisoners from the mines, but all scientists, engineers, and mathematicians will have to lend their efforts to the cause as well."
"I was afraid of that," Clea said. "You believe the war will actually come, don't you, Tomar?"
"They get ready for it night and day," Tomar said. "What is there to stop it? When I was a boy on my father's farm on the mainland, there was too much work, and no food. I was a strong boy, with a strong boy's stomach. I came to the City and I took my strength to the army. Now I have work that I like. I'm not hungry. With the war, there will be work for a lot more people. Your father will be richer. Your brother may come back to you, and even the thieves and beggars in the Devil's Pot will have a chance to do some honest work."
"Perhaps," said Clea. "Look, like I said, I don't want to keep you--I mean I do, but. Well, when will you have some time?"
"Probably tomorrow afternoon."
"Fine," said Clea. "We'll have a picnic then, all right?"
Tomar grinned. "Yes," he said. "Yes." He took both her hands, and she smiled back at him. Then he turned away, and was gone through the crowd.
Clea watched a moment, and then turned toward the taxi stand. The sun was beginning to warm the air as she pushed into the shadow of the great transit ribbon that soared above her between the towers.
Buildings dropped bands of shadow across the ribbon as it wound through the city, although occasional streaks of light from an eastward street still made silver half-rings around it. At the center of the city it raised a final two hundred feet and entered the window of the laboratory tower in the west wing of the royal palace of Toron.
The room in which the transit ribbon ended was deserted. At the end of the metal band was a transparent crystal sphere, fifteen feet in diameter which hovered above the receiving platform. A dozen small tetron units of varying sizes sat around the room. The viewing screens were dead gray. On a control panel by one ornate window, a bank of forty-nine scarlet-knobbed switches pointed to off. The metal catwalks that ran over the receiving platform were empty.
In another room of the palace, however, someone was screaming.
"...if your Highness would only wait a moment to hear the report," began the aged minister, "I believe..."
"...you would understand the necessity," he continued in an amazingly calm voice, "of disturbing you at such an ungodly hour..."
"I never want to hear the word tetron again!"
"...of the morning."
"Go away, Chargill; I'm sleeping!" King Uske, who had just turned twenty-one though he had been the official ruler of Toromon since the age of seven, jammed his pale blond head beneath three over-stuffed pillows that lay about the purple silken sheets of his bed. With one too-slender hand he sought feebly around for the covers to hide himself completely.
The old minister quietly picked up the edge of the ermine-rimmed coverlet and held it out of reach. After several halfhearted swipes, the pale head emerged once more and asked in a coldly quiet voice, "Chargill, why is it that roads have been built, prisoners have been reprieved, and traitors have been disemboweled at every hour of the afternoon and evening without anyone expressing the least concern for what I thought? Now, suddenly, at--" Uske peered at the jewel-crusted chronometer by his bed in which a shimmering gold light fixed the hour. "--my God, ten o'clock in the morning! Why must I suddenly be consulted at every little twist and turn of empire?"
"First," explained Chargill, "you are now of age. Secondly, we are about to enter a war, and in times of stress, responsibility is passed to the top, and you, sir, are in the unfortunate position."
"Why can't we have a war and get it over with?" said Uske, rolling over to face Chargill and becoming a trifle more amenable. "I'm tired of all this idiocy. You don't think I'm a very good king, do you?" The young man sat up and planted his slender feet as firmly as possible on the three-inch thick fur rug. "Well, if we had a war," he continued, scratching his stomach through his pink sateen pajama top, "I'd ride in the first line of fire, in the most splendid uniform imaginable, and lead my soldiers to a sweeping victory." At the word sweeping, he threw himself under the covers.
"Commendable sentiment," stated Chargill dryly. "And seeing that there may just be a war before the afternoon arrives, why don't you listen to the report, which merely says that another scouting flight of planes has been crippled trying to observe the enemy just beyond the tetron mines over the radiation barrier."
"Let me continue it for you. No one knows how the planes have been crippled, but the efficacy of their methods has lead the council to suggest that we consider the possibility of open war even more strongly. Isn't this more or less what the reports have been for weeks?"
"It is," replied Chargill.
"Then why bother me. Incidentally, must we really go to that imbecilic party for that stupid fish-peddler's daughter this evening? And talk about tetron as little as possible, please."
"I need not remind you," went on the patient Chargill, "that this stupid fish-peddler has amassed a fortune nearly as large as that in the royal treasury--though I doubt if he is aware of the comparison--through the proper exploitation of the unmentionable metal. If there is a war, and we should need to 'borrow' funds, it should be done with as much good will as possible. Therefore, you will attend his party to which he has so kindly invited you."
"Listen a minute, Chargill," said Uske. "And I'm being serious now. This war business is completely ridiculous, and if you expect me to take it seriously, then the council is going to have to take it seriously. How can we have a war with whatever is behind the radiation barrier? We don't know anything about it. Is it a country? Is it a city? Is it an empire? We don't even know if it's got a name. We don't know how they've crippled our scouting planes. We can't monitor any radio communication. Of course we couldn't do that anyway with the radiation barrier. We don't even know if it's people. One of our silly planes gets its tetron (Pardon me. If you can't say it, I shouldn't say it either.) device knocked out and a missile hurled at it. Bango! The council says war. Well, I refuse to take it seriously. Why do we keep on wasting planes anyway? Why not send a few people through the transit ribbon to do some spying?"
Chargill looked amazed.
"Before we instituted the penal mines, and just after we annexed the forest people, the transit ribbon was built. Correct? Now, where does it go?"
"Into the dead city of Telphar," answered Chargill.
"Exactly. And Telphar was not at all dead when we built it, sixty years ago. The radiation hadn't progressed that far. Well, why not send spies into Telphar and from there, across the barrier and into enemy territory. Then they can come back and tell us everything." Uske smiled.
"Of course your Majesty is joking." Chargill smiled. "May I remind your Majesty that the radiation level in Telphar today is fatal to human beings. Completely fatal. The enemy seems to be well beyond the barrier. Only recently, with the great amount of tetron--eh, excuse me--coming from the mines have we been able to develop planes that can perhaps go over it. And that, when and if we can do it, is the only way."
Uske had started out smiling. It turned to a giggle. Then to a laugh. Suddenly he cried out and threw himself down on the bed. "Nobody listens to me! Nobody takes any of my suggestions!" He moaned and stuck his head under the pillows. "No one does anything but contradict me. Go away. Get out. Let me sleep."
Chargill sighed and withdrew from the royal bedchamber.