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THEY CALLED HIM OLD ABEL, AND HE HAD BEEN there since the beginningbefore the beginning, really. He wandered freely, almost randomly, through the valleys and forests, finding shelter when he needed it in natural caves and depressions or in the flimsy lean-tos he built, then abandoned as his moods and whims dictated. No one knew his age, but it was considerable, and it was a mystery where and how he obtained his food, clothing, and other presumed necessities of life. Not that he needed much.
He was a small, stoop-shouldered man with a scraggly white beard, long, tangled hair, and sharp, suspicious eyes the color of the evening sky before a storm. His voice, on the rare occasions when he used it, sounded like a stick being dragged through dry leaves. He appeared and disappeared without preamble, and although he was recognized throughout the mining camps and sparse clusters of tumbledown shacks that dotted the slopes of the valley, no one could claim to know him. He seemed neither alien nor entirely humana species unto himself, indigenous and mysterious.
Sylvania was his world, as far as it was anyone's, and even the nabobs in the Lodge and the swaggering boomrats in the town and the camps treated him with a wary, deferential respect. When they saw him coming, leaning heavily on his wooden staff and lugging a sackful of Spirit-knew-what over his shoulder, the miners paused in their work and nodded to him. Some even ventured a greeting, perhaps receiving a nod of recognition in return; perhaps not. The bolder souls among them occasionally invited him to share their dinner, and sometimes he did. He might even engage in something that passed for conversation, exchanging a few words about the weather: a topic on which he was consideredin the absence of meteorological satellitesthe ultimate local authority. He knew to the hour when rain would begin or end, and precisely how high up the slopes it would turn to snow. On other subjects, he had little or nothing to say, but he listened carefully to the words of the boomrats about the progress of their diggings, the latest troubles with Grunfeld and his thugs, or the new whore down at Elba's.
He rarely bothered with the town these days, and when he did, people made way for him and whispered behind his back, telling the newcomersand there were many of them nowthat this strange, threadbare apparition was just Old Abel, the local "character," as if that explained everything that needed to be known about him. Elba gave him food and drinks and sometimes joined him at his table. He was even believed to spend time in the rooms upstairsbut if he did, the whores didn't talk about it. Some of the older boomers might buy him drinks in return for a few minutes of his almost wordless company. And then he would be gone again, quietly retreating to his silent wilderness.
A few of the boomrats actively sought him out in the forests, convinced that Old Abel knew better than anyone just where to find outcrops of the glimmering green crystals whose discovery, three years ago, had lured them here across the light-years. But Old Abel could seldom be found unless he wanted to be, and he had nothing at all to say on the subject that obsessed the boomers. His silence only served to convince them that he was in possession of secret knowledge that, if they had it, would make them wealthy beyond calculation. But it was no easier to find Old Abel than it was to find the crystals themselves; in fact, it was more difficult, for the Fergusite crystals rimmed the broad valley and littered its streambeds, but there was only one Abel, and he moved as he would.
Exactly what Abel knew, or might know, was a subject of endless debate around the campfires and cookstoves. Some advanced the opinion that he knew nothing at all and was, in fact, simply the ignorant, witless old hermit he appeared to bebut they could not really bring themselves to believe that. Others were convinced that Old Abel had a secret cache somewhere up in the mountains, and lived a life of luxury and ease when no one was looking. A few even suggested that he was really an Imperial agent, spying on the boomrats for the Empire, or for Dexta. Or for the Lodge, or one of the corporate titans.
The oldstersmen like Bill McKechnie and Amos Strunkknew better, but made no attempt to dispute the opinions of the latecomers. They kept their own counsel and merely smiled as they listened to the theories come gushing forth like water through a sluice. But Bill and Amos had heard the Voice, and most of the newbies hadn't.
They didn't talk much about the Voice. Those who hadn't heard it were convinced that the Voice was simply the delusion of men who had spent too much time in the silent hills of this lonely world, and some of those who had heard it feared that the doubters might be right. The easily frightened among them had taken heed of the Voice and quickly packed up their meager belongings and left the planet as soon as they could. Others, with stronger spines and a more resolute nature, had defied the Voice and remained at their diggings, but kept an ear to the wind and tended to jump at sudden noises.
The Voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, and whispered to them at odd moments as they squatted in the cold, rushing waters, panning for crystals, or sat among the high crags, fussing with their plasma drills. It came to them in the dead of night or in the blaze of noon, on the shining outcrops of the cliff faces or in the gloom of the forests, and it spoke different words to different men. To most, it breathed in soft, insistent tones, "Go away. Leave me alone." To Bill McKechnie and Amos Strunk, it had said only, "Don't hurt me."
Old Abel wouldn't talk about the Voice. "I hear what I hear," he had said one night at Bill McKechnie's campfire. "And you hear what you hear."
What Abel heard one morning in March of 3217, as the Empire reckoned time, was not the Voice, but a cry of pain and outrage. It echoed down from the high reaches of the slopes, up near the snow line, where some of the newbies had been testing their luck. Abel peered upward from the edge of the forest, where he had spent the night, and saw two men he recognized even from this great distance, and a third that he didn't knowand never would.
The two he knew were Karl Cleveland and Hank Frezzobig, tough, distinctive men who worked for the Mayor, the Honorable Kevin Grunfeld, tsar of the town of Greenlodge and anything else he cared to be tsar of. Cleveland and Frezzo held a third man between them, grasping each arm at the shoulder while their victim's feet kicked frantically at empty air. With a minimum of effort and only a final dying scream to mark the moment, the two tossed the third over the edge of the cliff face, sending him pinwheeling downward a hundred meters or more to the jumbled pile of scree at the base of the precipice. They peered over the edge for a few seconds, evidently satisfied with their work, then walked away and out of Abel's line of sight.
Abel waited a while to be sure they were gone, then laboriously picked his way upward through the scree to the place where the shattered body of the newbie had finally come to rest. Even if Abel had known the man, he would not have been able to recognize the smashed face that stared sightlessly upward toward the cold sun of Sylvania. Abel didn't touch the body or attempt to scavenge anything useful from his kit, although others undoubtedly would when they found him. Nothing was easy to get or hold on to on this planet, and even life itself was but a slippery possession.
He liked the newbies even less than he liked the oldsters, but Abel found himself feeling sorry for the dead man. Somewhere, perhaps a thousand or more light-years away, at the other end of the Empire, this man had once had a home, maybe even a family. When they heard the newsand they would eventually, for Dexta was remarkably efficient in such mattersthey would be saddened and mournful. Or perhaps not; perhaps the dead man was a good-for-nothing son of a bitch, like so many of the boomers, and the Empire would be a better place without him in it. Abel didn't know and didn't really care.
But he cared about Sylvania, and was disheartened by what this and other such incidents must inevitably mean for his world. Sooner or later, the Empire would have to do something about it. More boomers were already on their way, and now they must be joined by the grim, gray bureaucrats of Dexta, who ran the Empire and enforced its rules. And Dexta, in turn, would soon be followed by the corporate behemoths, who would rape this quiet valley, then kill it, as surely as Grunfeld's men had killed this sad specimen crumpled at his feet.
And what, Abel wondered, would the Voice have to say about that?
THE TWO MOST POWERFUL MEN IN THE EMPIRE stared at themselves and each other in the gently rippling waters of the reflecting pool, the replica of the Taj looming above them in carefully crafted splendor. The original had been destroyed in an alien attack during the Second Interstellar War, more than seven hundred years earlier in pre-Imperial days, before the men of Earth had come to dominate this corner of the galaxy. Reconstructed as one of six Imperial Palaces scattered around the terrestrial continents, the Taj Mahal no longer seemed a monument to love but to human persistence, ingenuity, and arrogance. The two men embodied those same qualities.
Norman Mingus was the first to break the spell of the reflection and look away. Tall, spare, slowed but unbowed by his 130 years, Mingus had a face that was pink and unlined and might have belonged to a retired and much-loved schoolteacher. Instead, it belonged to the Secretary of the Department of Extraterrestrial Affairs.
The Emperor Charles V, forty-seventh in an unbroken line stretching back nearly seven centuries, lingered another moment with his reflected image. When at Agra, he affected garb of flowing white robes and rather fancied the way they set off his athletic frame and regal features. He imagined that Alexander the Great, when he came east, might have cut a similar figure. With his closely cropped beard, longish curling locks of dark blond, and pale blue eyes, he knew that he looked like an Emperor, just as Mingus, 102 years his senior, with his dark business suit and beady, censorious eyes, looked like a bureaucrat.
"I do love it here," Charles said, finally looking away from the reflecting pool. "Next to Rio, I think Agra is my favorite Residence. Of course, Paris has its own particular charms, as well. And there's much to be said for Colorado. Tell me, Norman, which do you prefer?"
"I suppose, Highness," Mingus replied after a moment's thought, "it depends on what business brings me to them."
"It's always business with you, isn't it, Norman?" The Emperor shook his head regretfully. "Very well, then, business. We may as well go inside, lest we be distracted by this beautiful day and magnificent setting. Four walls and a couple of chairs will do, I suppose."
Charles led the way into the Residence, slowing his normally brisk gait to accommodate a man who was nearly five times his age and had been Secretary of Dexta ten times longer than Charles had been Emperor. Mingus followed at his own pace, feeling no need to match the Emperor stride for stride. He had been walking with Emperors for forty years and was no longer impressed by their companynever had been, in fact.
Charles was Mingus's third Emperor, and probably his last, although even that was far from certain, given the casualty rate in that office. His first had been Darius IV, bumbling and benign, who had somehow managed to die of old age in spite of his occupational hazards. Dour, dark-visaged Gregory III had come next, his brief reign cut short by a botched coup known as the Fifth of October Plot, which had swept the Emperor and the next five in line to the throne from the board, leaving the callow and untested Charles to carry on in their place.
It was far too early to judge Charles in any historical sense; it was entirely possible that he might yet wind up with "Great" affixed to his name. Possiblebut in Mingus's view, unlikely. Still, Charles's flawsself-absorption, self-indulgence, and outright selfishnesswere the flaws of youth. If he lived long enough, he might outgrow them. But the early signs were not encouraging and Mingus didn't much care for the young Emperor. He had a streak of meanness in him, more appropriate to a small-town bully than the leader of an Empire encompassing a sphere of space two thousand light-years in diameter, with 2645 planets populated by three trillion sentient beings. And Charles had surrounded himself with a retinue of truly detestable young chums, who lent the Household a pungent and unmistakable air of decadence.
On the other hand, Charles was intelligent, reasonably industrious when motivated, and had an excellent grasp of the complexities and realities of his realm. What he needed was guidancewhich Mingus was prepared to offer but which Charles was just as prepared to reject. Mingus knew that Charles resented him, just as every Emperor resented every Dexta Secretary, but at least Darius and Gregory had been willing to listen. And today, of all days, Charles needed to listen to what Mingus had to say; the very future of the Empire might depend upon it.
They sat opposite each other in comfortable chairs, surrounded by a profusion of elegant tapestries and opulent bric-a-brac, which they ignored as completely as they ignored the tea that had been brought by silent and quickly vanishing servants.
"As you know, Norman," the Emperor began, "I asked you here today to discuss the situation on Sylvania. We had expected to commence large-scale mining operations there at least six months ago. In that expectation, we have been disappointed. We would appreciate an explanation."
When Charles said "we," it was not necessarily the Imperial We. In this case, Mingus knew, the use of the plural pronoun referred to Charles and his coterie of intimates from the Big Twelve corporates, who were drawn to him like iron filings to a lodestone. Or like flies to shit, Mingus thought. It was an unworthy thoughtbut in this case, entirely apt.
"Highness," said Mingus, "it is a complicated problem."
"Of that, I have no doubt. I was hoping that you would uncomplicate it for me."
"Very well, then. In a nutshell, Sylvaniain a legal senseis neither fish nor fowl. It is, at this moment, still an Unincorporated Imperial Territory. Normally, that would entitle you to make whatever deals you wish with the corporates and begin mining operations at your pleasure. However, the planet has been continuously inhabited by a population of over one thousand for nearly twenty years. Under the provisions of the Imperial Code, those residents have certain rights that date back to the Homestead Acts of 2697 and supercede the provisions of the Code which would otherwise apply here."
Charles nodded vaguely.