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The Enemy Stars
By Poul Anderson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1959 Poul Anderson
All rights reserved.
Sundown burned across great waters. Far to the west, the clouds banked tall above New Zealand threw hot gold into the sky. In that direction, the sea was too bright to look upon. Eastward it faded through green and royal blue to night, where the first stars trod forth and trembled. There was just enough wind to ruffle the surface, send wavelets lapping against the hull of the ketch, flow down the idle mainsail and stir the girl's loosened pale hair.
Terangi Maclaren pointed north. 'The kelp beds are that way,' he drawled. 'Main source of the family income, y'know. They mutate, crossbreed, and get seaweed which furnishes all kinds of useful products. It's beyond me, thank the honorable ancestors. Bio-chemistry is an organised mess. I'll stick to something simple, like the degenerate nucleus.'
The girl giggled. 'And if it isn't degenerate, will you make it so?' she asked.
She was a technic like himself, of course; he would never have let a common on his boat, since a few machines were, in effect, a sizable crew. Her rank was higher than his, so high that no one in her family worked productively – whereas Maclaren was one of the few in his who did not. She was of a carefully selected mutant Burmese strain, with amber skin, exquisite small features, and greenish-blonde hair. Maclaren had been angling for weeks to get her alone like this. Not that General Feng, her drug-torpid null of a guardian, cared how much scandal she made, flying about the planet without so much as an amazon for chaperone. But she was more a creature of the Citadel and its hectic lights than of the sunset ocean.
Maclaren chuckled. 'I wasn't swearing at the nucleus,' he said. 'Degeneracy is a state of matter under certain extreme conditions. Not too well understood, even after three hundred years of quantum theory. But I wander, and I would rather wonder. At you, naturally.'
He padded barefoot across the deck and sat down by her. He was a tall man in his early thirties, slender, with wide shoulders and big hands, dark-haired and brown-skinned like all Oceanians; but there was an aquiline beak on the broad high-cheeked face, and some forgotten English ancestor looked out of hazel eyes. Like her, he wore merely an informal sarong and a few jewels.
'You're talking like a scholar, Terangi,' she said. It was not a compliment. There was a growing element in the richest families who found Confucius, Plato, Einstein and the other classics a thundering bore.
'Oh, but I am one,' said Maclaren. 'You'd be amazed how parched and snuffy I can get. Why, as a student – '
'But you were the amateur swimwrestling champion!' she protested.
'True. I could also drink any two men under the table and knew every dive on Earth and the Moon. However, d'you imagine my father – bless his dreary collection of old-fashioned virtues – would have subsidised me all these years if I didn't bring some credit to the family? It's kudos, having an astrophysicist for a son. Even if I am a rather expensive astrophysicist.' He grinned through the gathering dusk. 'Every so often, when I'd been on a particularly outrageous binge, he would threaten to cut my allowance off. Then I'd have no choice but to come up with a new observation or a brilliant new theory, or at least a book.'
She snuggled a little closer. 'Is that why you are going out to space now?' she asked.
'Well, no,' said Maclaren. 'That's purely my own idea. My notion of fun. I told you I was getting stuffy in, my dotage.'
'We haven't seen you very often in the Citadel, the last few years,' she agreed. 'And you were so busy when you did show.'
'Politics, of a sort. The ship's course couldn't be changed without an order from a reluctant Exploration Authority, which meant bribing the right people, heading off the opposition, wheedling the Protector himself – d'you know, I discovered it was fun. I might even take up politics as a hobby, when I get back.'
'How long will you be gone?' she asked.
'Can't say for certain, but probably just a month. That ought to furnish me with enough material for several years of study. Might dash back to the ship at odd moments for the rest of my life, of course. It'll take up permanent residence around that star.'
'Couldn't you come home ... every night?' she murmured.
'Don't tempt me,' he groaned. 'I can't. One month is the standard minimum watch on an interstellar vessel, barring emergencies. You see, every transmission uses up a Frank tube, which costs money.'
'Well,' she pouted, 'if you think so much of an old dead star –'
'You don't understand, your gorgeousness. This is the first chance anyone has ever had, in more than two centuries of space travel, to get a close look at a truly burned-out star. There was even some argument whether the class existed. Is the universe old enough for any sun to have used up its nuclear and gravitational energy? By the ancestors, it's conceivable this one is left over from some previous cycle of creation!'
He felt a stiffening in her body, as if she resented his talk of what she neither understood nor cared about. And for a moment he resented her. She didn't really care about this boat either, or him, or anything except her own lovely shell.... Why was he wasting time in the old worn routines, when he should be studying and preparing – oh, hell, he knew precisely why.
And then her rigidity melted in a little shudder. He glanced at her, she was a shadow with a palely glowing mane, in the deep blue twilight. The last embers of sun were almost gone, and one star after another woke overhead, soon the sky would be crowded with their keenness.
Almost, she whispered: 'Where is this spaceship, now?'
A bit startled, he pointed at the first tracings of the Southern Cross. 'That way,' he said. 'She was originally bound for Alpha Crucis, and hasn't been diverted very far off that course. Since she's a good thirty parsecs out, we wouldn't notice the difference if we could see that far.'
'But we can't. Not ever. The light would take a hundred years, and I ... we would all be dead – No!'
He soothed her, a most pleasant proceeding which became still more pleasant as the night went on. And they were on his yacht, which had borne his love from the first day he took the tiller, in a calm sea, with wine and small sandwiches, and she even asked him to play his guitar and sing. But somehow it was not the episode he had awaited. He kept thinking of this or that preparation: what had he overlooked, what could he expect to find at the black sun? Perhaps he was indeed under the subtle tooth of age, or of maturity if you wanted a euphemism, or perhaps the Southern Cross burned disturbingly bright overhead.CHAPTER 2
Winter lay among the Outer Hebrides. Day was a sullen glimmer between two darknesses, often smothered in snow. When it did not fling itself upon the rocks and burst in freezing spume, the North Atlantic rolled in heavy and gnawing. There was no real horizon, leaden waves met leaden sky and misty leaden light hid the seam. 'Here there is neither land nor water nor air, but a kind of mixture of them,' wrote Pytheas.
The island was small. Once it had held a few fishermen, whose wives kept a sheep or two, but that was long ago. Now only one house remained, a stone cottage built centuries back and little changed. Down at the landing was a modern shelter for a sailboat, a family submarine and a battered aircar; but it was of gray plastic and fitted into the landscape like another boulder.
David Ryerson put down his own hired vehicle there, signaled the door to open, and rolled through. He had not been on Skula for half a decade: it touched him, in a way, how his hands remembered all the motions of steering into this place and how the dank interior was unaltered. As for his father – He bit back an inward fluttering, helped his bride from the car, and spread his cloak around them both as they stepped into the wind.
It howled in from the Pole, striking them so they reeled and Tamara's black locks broke free like torn banners. Ryerson thought he could almost hear the wind toning in the rock underfoot. Surely the blows of the sea did, crash after crash, through a bitter drift of flung scud. For a moment's primitive terror, he thought he heard his father's God, whom he had denied, roar in the deep. He fought his way to the cottage and laid numbed fingers on the anachronism of a corroded bronze knocker.
Magnus Ryerson opened the door and waved them in. 'I'd not expected you yet,' he said, which was as close as he would ever come to an apology. When he shut out the wind, there was a quietness which gaped.
This main room, brick-floored, whitewashed, irregular and solid, centered about a fireplace where peat burned low and blue. The chief concessions to the century were a radiglobe and a stunning close-up photograph of the Sirian binary. One did not count the pilot's manuals or the stones and skins and gods brought from beyond the sky; after all, any one sea captain would have kept his Bowditch and his souvenirs. The walls were lined with books as well as microspools. Most of the full-size volumes were antique, for little was printed in English these days.
Magnus Ryerson stood leaning on a cane of no Terrestrial wood. He was a huge man, two meters tall in his youth and not greatly stooped now, with breadth and thickness to match. His nose jutted craggily from a leather skin, shoulder-length white hair, breast-length white beard. Under tangled brows, the eyes were small and frost-blue. He wore the archaic local dress, a knitted sweater and canvas trousers. It came as a shock to realise after several minutes that his right hand was artificial.
'Well,' he rumbled at last, in fluent Interhuman, 'so this is the bride. Tamara Suwito Ryerson, eh? Welcome, girl.' There was no great warmth in his tone.
She bent her face to folded hands. 'I greet you most humbly, honorable father.' She was Australian, a typical high-class common of that province, fine-boned, bronzehued, with blue-black hair and oblique brown eyes; but her beauty was typical nowhere. She had dressed with becoming modesty in a long white gown and a hooded cloak, no ornaments save a wedding band with the Ryerson monogram on it.
Magnus looked away from her, to his son. 'Professor's daughter, did you say?' he murmured in English.
'Professor of symbolics,' said David. He made his answer a defiance by casting it in the Interhuman which his wife understood. 'We – Tamara and I – met at his home. I needed a background in symbolics to understand my own specialty and –'
'You explain too much,' said Magnus dryly. 'Sit.'
He lowered himself into a chair. After a moment, David followed. The son was just turned twenty years old, a slender boy of average height with light complexion, thin sharp features, yellow hair, and his father's blue eyes. He wore the tunic of a science graduate, with insignia of gravitics, self-consciously, but not so used to it that he would change for an ordinary civilian blouse.
Tamara made her way into the kitchen and began preparing tea Magnus looked after her. 'Well-trained, anyhow,' he grunted in English. 'So I suppose her family is at least heathen, and not any of these latter-day atheists. That's somewhat.'
David felt the island years, alone with his widower father, return to roost heavy upon him. He stifled an anger and said, also in English: 'I couldn't have made any better match. Even from some swinish practical standpoint. Not without marrying into a technic family, and – Would you want me to do that? I'll gain technic rank on my own merits!'
'If you stay on Earth,' said Magnus. 'Who notices a colonial?'
'Who notices an Earthling, among ten billion others?' snapped David. 'On a new planet – on Rama – a man can be himself. These stupid hereditary distinctions won't even matter.'
'There is room enough right here,' said Magnus. 'As a boy you never used to complain Skula was crowded. On the contrary!'
'And I would settle down with some illiterate beefy-faced good Christian fishwife you picked for me and breed more servants for the Protectorate all my life!'
The words had come out before David thought. Now, in a kind of dismay, he waited for his father's reaction. This man had ordered him out into a winter gale, or supperless to bed, for fifteen years out of twenty. In theory the grown son was free of him, free of everyone save contractual overlords and whatever general had most recently seized the title of Protector. In practice it was not so easy. David knew with a chill that he would never have decided to emigrate without Tamara's un-arrogant and unbendable will to stiffen his. He would probably never even have married her, without more than her father's consent, against the wish of his own – David gripped the worn arms of his chair.
Magnus sighed. He felt about after a pipe and tobacco pouch. 'I would have preferred you to maintain residence on Earth,' he said with a somehow shocking gentleness. 'By the time the quarantine on Washington 5584 has been lifted, I'll be dead.'
David locked his mouth. You hoary old fraud, he thought, if you expect to hook me that way –
'It's not as if you would be penned on one island all your days,' said Magnus. 'Why did I spend all I had saved to put my sons through the Academy? So they could be spacemen, as I was and my father and grandfather before me. Earth isn't a prison. The Earthman can go as far as the farthest ships have reached. It's the colonies are the hole. Once you go there to live, you never come back here.'
'Is there so much to come back to?' said David. Then, after a minute, trying clumsily for reconciliation: 'And father, I'm the last. Space ate them all. Radiation killed Tim, a meteor got Ned, Eric made a falling star all by himself, Ian just never returned from wherever it was. Don't you want to preserve our blood in me, at least?'
'So you mean to save your own life?'
'Now wait! You know how dangerous a new planet can be. That's the reason for putting the initial settlers under thirty years of absolute quarantine. If you think I – '
'No,' said Magnus. 'No, you're no coward, Davy, when it comes to physical things. When you deal with people, though ... I don't know what you're like. You don't yourself. Are you running away from man, as you've been trying to run from the Lord God Jehovah? Not so many folk on Rama as on Earth; no need to work both with and against them, as on a ship – Well.' He leaned forward, the pipe smoldering in his plastic hand. 'I want you to be a spaceman, aye, of course. I cannot dictate your choice. But if you would at least try it, once only, so you could honestly come back and tell me you're not born for stars and, and openness and a sky all around you Do you understand? I could let you go to your damned planet then. Not before. I would never know, otherwise, how much I had let you cheat yourself.'
Silence fell between them. They heard the wind as it mourned under their eaves, and the remote snarling of the sea.
David said at last, slowly: 'So that's why you ... yes. Did you give my name to Technic Maclaren for that dark star expedition?'
Magnus nodded. 'I heard from my friends in the Authority that Maclaren had gotten the Cross diverted from orbit. Some of them were mickle put out about it, too. After all, she was the first one sent directly toward a really remote goal, she is farther from Earth than any other ship has yet gotten, it was like breaking a tradition.' He shrugged. 'God knows when anyone will reach Alpha Crucis now. But I say Maclaren is right. Alpha may be an interesting triple star, but a truly cold sun means a deal more to science. At any rate, I did pull a few wires. Maclaren needs a gravitics man to help him take his data. The post is yours if you wish it.'
'I don't,' said David. 'How long would we be gone? A month, two months? A month from now I planned to be selecting my own estate on Rama.'
'Also, you've only been wed a few weeks. Oh, yes. I understand. But you can be sent to Rama as soon as you get back; there'll be several waves of migration. You will have space pay plus exploratory bonus, some valuable experience, and,' finished Magnus sardonically, 'my blessing. Otherwise you can get out of my house this minute.'
David hunched into his chair, as if facing an enemy. He heard Tamara move about, slow in the unfamiliar kitchen, surely more than a little frightened of this old barbarian. If he went to space, she would have to stay here, bound by a propriety which was one of the chains they had hoped to shed on Rama. It was a cheerless prospect for her, too.
And yet, thought David, the grim face before him had once turned skyward, on a spring night, telling him the names of the stars.
Excerpted from The Enemy Stars by Poul Anderson. Copyright © 1959 Poul Anderson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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