Read an Excerpt
"But what are kings when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?"
--Marlowe, Edward the Second
"The imagination enlarges little objects so as to fill
our souls with a fantastic estimate..."
THE WAR STARS burned brightly in his memory, each sun a pulsing furnace of hate transforming plasma energies into the frozen grimace of armor, creating the base for war's iron game--machines, weapons, Whisper Ship hulls--power packaged and stored until the moment of kinetic deployment. There was enough energy here in the Hercules Globular Cluster for a million years of conflict. Some had even dreamed of gathering a hundred stars into a single unit and moving it through space as if it were a ship. No enemy system could have survived a collision with such a configuration.
As he walked down the stony corridor toward the war room located in the center of the underground base, Gorgias almost smiled at the absurdity of the scheme; but the bitterness set into the muscles of his face resisted even a faint smile. Any culture capable of calling up such a titanic force would have had no need of warfare to gain its ends. Those who had dreamed such dreams had been mad. He imagined the red thread of insanity as a thing, a subtle, spidery network of impulses reaching upward out of some infinitesimal corners of space-time to lace the tender systems of biological structure. Where was the force-center of this willful bestiality, this evil within intelligentbeings, so often wished away by well-wishers? The radiant energy of the Cluster had poured out with the martial will of its civilization; the suns of home had nurtured an armory of hate so powerful and tenacious that only the complete destruction of the home worlds had been enough to bring stillness.
Stillness, he thought, but not peace--there was no one to make peace with; New Anatolia and the twenty original worlds of the Empire would be lifeless for tens of thousands of Earth years. He felt the flow of hatred in himself, detachment followed by rationality, the silent shock of recognizing one's own workings. He remembered the sense of power that accompanied a noble ancestry, the prideful stance against death; a love of this power struggled to well up inside him and coil around his flesh. But at the same time he felt this strength passing from him, and he was not certain that he would miss it.
Once it might have won against the tall shadows from Earth, the pale Earthfolk from whose stock the Herculeans had sprung millennia ago, like sparks struck to light new stars. Earthfolk burned more slowly then Herculeans, reasoning, calculating, clinging to their leisure planet in fear of death. Or was this too an illusion?
He thought of his son. What was left for his namesake now? Should he encourage him to settle among the last Herculeans on Myraa's World? Should they continue to go out on nuisance raids against the Earth Federation? Or should they go back into stasis and pass into another time? As if from behind a mask he peered at possibilities beyond the dances of power which had consumed the life of his kind. Together with his son he still lived in the prison of their will; the will which had thrown a net across the stars, pulled together an empire, was ripped open now, lying on cold stones at the bottom of a dark sea.
The lights in the corridor flickered. A returning surge of hatred gripped him as he came to the door of the war room. He stopped and thought of the Whisper Ship lying in its berth in the bowels of the base; he knew what the ship could do, and it was only a matter of time before his son learned also. The base was still an efficient military teaching environment, designed to bring one or a thousand students into full possession of its powers; it was the only school his son had known.
The door opened. Gorgias stepped inside, knowing that he would not try to stop his son; the pressure of the past was too great to permit alternatives, at least any that his son might accept.
In the darkened war room, a haze of projected light stood in a column on the polished surface of the meeting table, casting a three-dimensional starmap into the space of the large gallery overhead. A long-dead, encyclopedic voice was speaking. His son sat on the other side of the large table, a motionless figure staring up at the stars.
Quietly, Gorgias sat down and listened with him.
"Visualize an imaginary translucent tubeway through normal space," the voice was saying, "one end attached to Earth's solar system, the other to the Great Globular Cluster in the constellation of Hercules...."
Overhead, the image showed the galaxy on edge. A glowing red snake grew out of the solar system, crossing the disk toward the center in short spirals and arcs until it buried its head in the cluster circling the galactic hub, 34,000 light-years from Sol.
"The fastest ships take five Earth months to pass through this winding volume of Federation Space, which varies from five to twenty light-years in diameter. A hundred thousand worlds circle their suns here, many of them earthlike; others are too young for intelligent life to have developed; some cradle prespace humanoid cultures; still others have in-system space travel; many are dead worlds. A continuous stream of human life colonizes these worlds, coming out from Earth as well as from other colonial planets. Rejecting engineered environments, this river of life hungers after natural worlds born of suns...."
Now it seemed that he was rushing toward the Hercules Cluster at a fantastic speed. The image grew until it took up the whole view, dominating the skymap like a galaxy.
"The greatest object of colonization was the Cluster in Hercules. Its settlement led to a cultural and biological branching of humankind. The biological divergence was accomplished through genetic engineering, specifically through the mixing of human DNA with that of the cluster's original humanoids, whose civilizations contributed much to the style of the emerging Herculean Empire. This hybridization of humankind from Sol led to the greatest recorded conflict in history...."
He looked at the darkened figure of his son. Brought up in an atmosphere of disintegrating mobilization, pushed along by the pressure of a past he could never rejoin, the young man of two hundred and twenty Earth years had grown toward a breaking point; he had to recreate the past or die. Inside, his son was a fortress.
Suddenly the lights came on in the gallery, banishing the starmaps. The surface of the table below became a lake of light. His son glared at him from the far shore.
"I want to hear only one thing from you," he said, "that you will remove Oriona from Myraa's clutches."
"We can't; you know that your mother won't have anything to do with us...."
"We will bring her here and she will help us with our plans."
"Our plans mean nothing to her. How many times do I have to tell you?" Our plans, he thought, wondering at how the words now startled him. When had he changed, when had he started thinking differently?
"She'll think differently when she leaves Myraa's influence. Then she'll believe and live as we do...."
Once, long ago, Oriona had been his other half in everything. Yes, living on Myraa's World had changed her, probably for the better; she no longer hated the old enemies, she was indifferent to them. He looked at his son across the bright table. What could he say to him that would turn back his natural energy? The black uniform with its orange star of the Empire fit him well. There were enough uniforms in the base to clothe a planet.
Characteristically, after a few moments of silence, his son changed the manner of his attack. "You see, we have to be willing to hurt them badly, with small things perhaps, but small things of great cruelty, acts which can never be forgotten, wounds which can never heal. We must hurt them as they hurt us. We can do this."
"No action we can take against Earth can be decisive, ever."
"Unless we raise troops and strategic weapons. Meanwhile small sorties will hurt them and preserve our will for a better day."
"What weapons, what troops? Are you still dreaming of the troop cylinder?"
"There was such a thing toward the end of the war. One day I'll find it."
"Even a hundred would do no good--at best they stored ten thousand, one division of hastily trained personnel. Even if you found the cylinder, there is no assurance that you could revive those soldiers stored in that way. Actually, I never saw any evidence for the cylinders."
"But we have the tripod that fits a cylinder here!"
"So maybe there was one--only one."
"Under good leadership we can grow--the lives in the cylinder are not just for combat."
"You're talking of committing unborn generations to vengeance. It's over, let it die." Oriona, you are right, he thought, we must come to the end of our wars; if we do not, we will not see what lies beyond. What do you see, my love, what is there for you on that green world?
"...In your weakness," his son was saying, "you fail to see that if we're terrible enough, often enough, we can blackmail a universe."
Perhaps he was right; what else was there beyond the old war? Inwardly he looked back into the past and saw a black pit.
"Only if we remain at large," he said to his son, "only if they don't catch us." The black pit was drawing him down; or was it rushing up to meet him?
"To remain at large is a matter of skill in avoiding a real test of strength," his son answered. "But consider--if we could destroy large populated centers, how long could they deny our demands?"
"You have demands? What could we ask for that they might not take back when we were made harmless?"
"The first demand is recognition of the need to rebuild our home world...."
"Sometimes I think you're a complete idiot--what can their promises mean after the toll you plan to inflict? Don't you see--any guarantee would be observed by them at their pleasure, not ours." He looked at his son carefully. Was this the descendant of Gorgias the First, Uniter of Worlds, creator of the Herculean Empire? Perhaps there was more to his plan, some shrewdness he had missed.
"We would keep a hidden strike force. At the first violation we make them pay! If we can remain at large, you and I, then so could such a force."
Gorgias felt his head shake in denial, as if it had become independent of his body; his right hand trembled and for a moment he was unable to speak. His son's will had entered him and taken possession, half-convincing him, reminding him of his own earlier self, with its resolve and hatred. All that would be required to make his son's terrible vision work was an iron terror, a will that would be ready to do anything against the enemy, a resolve that would not crumble when confronted by pity. This would be the game Oriona feared, the iron game that would set father and son in the service of an old hatred, turning them into devices to serve the dead. Father and son had skirted the edge of this game; now, finally, they would be drawn into its merciless logic and cruel satisfactions....
"One day," his son continued, "our worlds will be repopulated, our power rebuilt. We will have little need of threats then. But until then, you and I must be guardians of that future. Have you forgotten? Have you become a coward? Won't you even try--or will you abandon me as you abandoned Oriona?"
Gorgias looked into his son's eyes. I won't need you, they seemed to say, I'll become my own father, I'll deny you if you refuse me and you'll be left alone. Without Oriona and me you are nothing. A shuddering fear, like breaking metal, passed through him. He tasted its cold in his mouth. His stomach knotted in rage, and he knew for the first time that he would be able to kill his own son--if for no other reason than to abolish this monstrous resurgence of his own youth, this fortress self which had come out of him, out of the past, to stand alone in this way.
Oriona's eyes looked at him from beneath black eyebrows and black hair. "Well?" his son asked. "Will you plan with me?" The questions were now shouts, strong and insistent and convinced, assuming agreement. For a moment his son's shouting shape became a torso rising from the frozen lake of the polished table, an awesome creature imprisoned here by the sheer weight of its own hatred. His son was a creature of loveless power, making him doubt again, forcing him to feel once more the uncoiling insanity of the failed past.
"All right," Gorgias said softly, "but first--"
"--but first we'll visit Oriona." Perhaps she may be able to quiet her son, he thought, even though the life she lives is a delusion.
"We'll take her away," his son said.
"Let's see how she feels." A lie might save his son's life. Any delay might change the future; once his son started on this new course, there would be no turning back; his life would become a hunted thing, and one day he would die. Any delay might save him. There were worlds aplenty outside the Federation, where a life might be started anew; a small community ... simply existing ... perhaps Oriona was living that life right now.
"I'll prepare the ship," his son said.
Gorgias nodded and tried to quiet himself.