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The Best Made Plans
by Everett B. Cole
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Now, he could fly back to the hills. It would only take a few minutes, and——

Why should he? There was an easier way now.

It would be much easier to ride this flier right on into Oreladar. If he headed for the hills, questions might be asked which would be hard to answer. But Oreladar would be the normal place for Gorham to go. And the Federation compound wasn't too far from the Palace. He could feint at the Palace landing pad, then—— He nodded and studied the lighting plan and identification settings.

At last, he nodded in satisfaction, then turned his attention to the small card with the operations code. It was a simple, systematic arrangement, obviously arranged for day-to-day use, not for secrecy. He nodded and clipped it in front of him under the panel light, where he could see it easily. Then, he looked thoughtfully at the courtyard.

There was a small chance that some guard might decide to come into the house, he decided. Of course, it was still to be regarded as a private home, and they had no right to—— He laughed sarcastically.

"That would worry them!" he said aloud.

He got out of the flier and leaned over the body of Gorham. It was surprisingly light. The man had been carrying almost unbelievable strength and power of will in a tiny, frail body. Don threw his load over his shoulder and climbed back into the flier. Then he sat back and looked dully at the control panel.

* * * * *

Suddenly, he felt completely drained. It was just too much effort to get this ship off the ground. And that long flight to Oreladar? Just how much was a guy supposed to do in one day?

He sat supinely for a few minutes, simply staring at a nothingness beneath the surface of the panel. A small noise from the house aroused him, and he jerked up. He'd have to move.

Unwillingly, he pulled at the controls and the flier raised from the paving.

A blast of air hit the side of his face and he turned his head. He'd forgotten to close the door. He snarled at himself in annoyance, then leaned over and jerked at the handle. The ship swayed and dipped toward the lighted streets and he straightened quickly and righted it with a jerk. Then he snapped off the cabin lights and reached down to set up the identification patterns.

A tinny voice snapped at him.

"Rano ninety-one, Riandar control. Seven three seven."

Don looked at the code card before him. Yes, there it was. "Return to station." He glanced at the call sign on the panel before him. He was Onarati three. He nodded. Only an important official would be in this flier. Probably Gorham hadn't been bragging so much.

Another voice had acknowledged the order. Don looked at the speaker grill and shrugged. He set his course southward.

Again and again, the speaker rattled with calls and answers. Riandar control appeared to be busy tonight. Don smiled.

"The busier they are, the better," he told himself. "Then they can't bother me." He coughed.

"Wonder how Korentana made out?" He looked overside.

Abruptly, he was aware of another flier close to his. On its top a blue light blinked glaringly. He looked at it in consternation. Had they——? But how? He started to pull the control to him and go into evasive flight. Then he stopped.

"Use your head," he advised himself.

He reached out and scooped up the microphone. For an instant, he looked into space, thinking, then he spoke.

"Riandar control," he snarled in an imitation of Gorham's voice. "Onarati three. Got one of your guys on my back. What's the idea?" He released the button.

"Oh, boy," he told himself, "I hope that's the right approach." He looked toward the back of the cabin. If his short contact with Gorham had told him enough, and if he'd judged correctly ... and if Gorham was——

The speaker crackled. "Onarati three, Riandar control," it said. "Seven zero five?"

Don looked down at the card under the panel light. Yes, there it was. "Give your location."

He mashed the microphone button again. "Seven hundred meters," he snarled impatiently. "South edge of town. Come on, what's this guy doing, riding my tail?"

Another voice intruded into the speaker. "Your pardon, Onarati three," it said. "This is Rano two four. We cannot read your identification lights."

Don looked down at the panel, then shook his head in annoyance. He'd neglected one switch. He reached out and snapped it on. Then he pushed the mike button again.

"So now you happy?" he demanded. "So why ain't ya telling me something, instead of coming around with all them blinking lights?"

The other flier sheered away, its blinker off.

"Your pardon," said the speaker. "We were not sure."

Don sighed in relief. That had been too close for comfort. He glanced down, then blinked and looked again.

"Oh, no!" he growled incredulously. "I left my clothes by the pool."

* * * * *

Kent Michaels opened his eyes. In front of him was a shattered windshield. The light support struts were bent back. The heavy plastic had crackled and powdered. He stared at it. It must have been quite an impact. All he could remember was confused motion, then blackness.

He shook his head to clear his vision, then started to unfasten his seat belt.

And his whole left side exploded as each individual muscle and nerve set up a separate protest. He gritted his teeth against the sharp, red knives of agony.

"Got to reach that belt and get out of here," he told himself. "Wonder how long I've been out?"

He forced his hand to the buckle, then stopped.

"Oh, sure, you idiot," he said aloud. "Go ahead and let the belt go. You can't hurt yourself by landing on your thick head."

He forced himself to ignore the agony in his side and shoulder and looked around the cabin. Evidently, the ship had hit and rolled. He closed his eyes, trying to remember.

He'd evaded the pass that first guy had made at him. Then, when the second one showed up and dove in, he'd gone into a dead-duck spin. So far, so good. Evidently, they'd been fooled. Probably never saw that gag before. But what had happened after that? He searched his memory.

Oh, sure. He'd spun the ship under this overhang and set it down. And the ground had double-crossed him. Even a duck couldn't have kept a foothold on that ledge. He could remember the sudden tilt as the flier slid over and started to roll. Then everything had happened at once. He could remember trying to hold off the windshield from beating his brains out, but—— He opened his eyes. No use trying to analyze that part of it. Things had become confusing.

No matter how you figured it, he was here, hanging upside down in his seat belt in a pretty thoroughly wrinkled up ship. He moved his left arm experimentally.

His side went into screaming agony again.

Well, anyway, the shoulder wasn't broken. It could move—a little.

"Great," he told himself. "Now, how do you get out of this seat belt without breaking your stupid neck?"

He reached out with his right hand, to feel the padded roof under him. Well, maybe he could—— He set his teeth and forced his left hand to the belt release. If he could just hold enough weight with that right hand so that—— Well, no use worrying about it. Something had to be done. He pushed against the release. The shoulder screamed almost aloud. He started levering the buckle apart with his thumb.

Suddenly, the belt let go and he was struggling to put enough power into his right arm to hold himself away from the approaching roof.

For a seeming eternity, he struggled to maintain his balance and ease himself down. Then there was a soft bump. He sank into soft, cushioned blackness.

It was dark when he opened his eyes again. Incuriously, he rolled his eyes from side to side. He could see nothing. He let himself slip back into the soft nothingness.

Slowly, he came back to being. For a timeless instant, he examined a cushion which lay just before his eyes. Then pain messages started clamoring for attention. There were too many of them to unscramble. Everything was screaming at once.

He breathed in shallow gasps, then forced himself out of his cramped position. At last, he managed to get to his knees and crawl out of the gaping hole where a door had been. Outside, he collapsed to the ground and lay, panting.

Slowly, he gathered strength and struggled to his feet. At least, his legs were in working order.

He looked back at the ship, then whistled.

"What a mess! How'd I ever get out of that one?"

He shook his head to clear it, then examined the cave.

The ledge, he discovered, wasn't particularly high. It had just been enough to roll the ship. The slope of the ground and the back wall of the cave had done the real damage. He reached out with his right hand and grabbed a vine. Yes, he could walk himself up the ledge with that. And that would get him out of here.

He turned back and inched himself inside the flier again. The emergency food pack was there. Unbroken, too. He fished it out and opened it, forcing the almost useless left arm to lend a little support as the right worked at the fastenings.

The food concentrate actually tasted good.

It could be a lot worse, he thought. Those two murderers had jumped him only a few kilometers from Kordu valley. Unless he was badly mistaken, this would be Gharu Gorge. It was steep-walled, but it could be climbed. And once he got to the rim, it would be only a days walk to Korelanni.

"Not too bad," he told himself. "Anybody for mountain climbing?"

He got to his feet, reeling a little as his side protested against the indignity of being forced into motion. Probably a broken rib or two, he thought. He brought his right hand over and ran his fingers delicately over the left collar bone, from neck to shoulder. Then, he nodded. It seemed to be in one piece. Might be cracked, but it'd hold together—he hoped.

Slowly, he started pulling himself up the bank, pausing now and then to regain his balance and take a new grip.

* * * * *

Lieutenant Narn Hense gave a snort of irritation, then walked across the guardroom and switched the television off. Those news broadcasts gave him an acute, three-dimensional pain. It was normal, he supposed, for propaganda to sneak into a state-controlled broadcast, but did it have to be so damn——

"Oh, the devil with it," he said aloud. "I just help run the Security Guard around here. The Commissioner can worry about policy—and diplomatic relations, too."

He glanced at the clock on his desk, then reached out to grab his hat.

"Better take another look at the guard while I'm at it," he told himself.

He strode out of the office, hooking his sidearm belt from a hanger as he went by.

It would be a good idea, he decided, to check post number four first this time. The landing pad guard had been a little less than perfectly alert tonight.

"Probably worrying about last night," he told himself. He smiled reminiscently.

Moresma had been pretty worried and scared when the patrol had brought him in. They'd gotten him out of the jam and kept him out of trouble, but it had been close. The local authorities didn't seem to have much sense of humor when it came to Federation personnel. In fact, they seemed to welcome incidents that could——

"Funny," he told himself. "There are plenty of Galactics here, too. They get along fine, but let one of our guardsmen drop a chewing gum wrapper—— Oh, well. One of those things, I guess." He walked around the corner of the building and strode down a hedge bordered path.

As he walked, he looked about at the dark Commission buildings. It was a large compound. There were several posts and it took a large security guard detachment to give it adequate protection. He glanced up at the sky.

A blue-lit flier was coming toward him, flying rather low. Suddenly, its lights blinked out.

Hense looked at the suddenly dark shape incredulously. It seemed to be arcing down, toward the compound. He started forward at a run.

Either that pilot was out of control, or he was crazy. In any event, he was going to crash in the compound unless his luck was fantastically good. He'd been coming in fast, too. The lights had indicated an official Oredanian ship.

This, he decided, was definitely irregular.

As he got to the pad, the ship came to an abrupt halt overhead. Then, it came down in a blur of speed. Not more than half a meter from the pavement, it checked its fall and settled. A door popped open.

Hense flipped his light from his belt and snapped it on. The guard, he noted approvingly, had been prompt. The man had dashed up and now stood close by the flier, his weapon at the ready.

A figure came out of the flier and stopped.

"Put out that light!" snapped an annoyed voice.

Hense snapped the switch on his hand light, then stared at the figure by the flier.

Now, what was this? He wasn't accustomed to taking orders from some joker that barged in and shot an unauthorized landing. He was the one who should be giving the orders. He started to raise the light again.

"Leave that light out, hang it," said the voice sharply. "I don't feel like being a target. And you! Don't point that thing at me! Now come on, both of you. Let's get out of the open. Take cover!"

Hense shook his head dazedly. It wasn't right, but there didn't seem to be much room for argument right now. Somehow, that voice carried authority. Moresma hadn't hesitated. He was following the dim figure which ran from the side of the flier. The lieutenant turned and headed for a nearby building. There was a wide overhang there, close to the ground.

Another ship was screaming in, its lights darkened. As Hense dove for cover, brilliant light pinpointed the grounded flier. The guard and the unknown rolled in beside him.

There was a brilliant flash from the landing pad, then a heavy concussion made Hense's chest contract. Lurid flames rose skyward. The attacking flier rose sharply and disappeared. Hense looked after it incredulously.

"Close," commented the new-comer. "Thought for a few seconds I wasn't going to make it. Sure didn't think they'd be with it that fast." He turned and the lieutenant examined him curiously.

Even in the dim light, it was obvious he was pretty young. Khlorisana, as nearly as Hense could tell. Might be a half-caste, of course. But what was he doing here? Why a near crash landing? And who had the eternal gall to pull an attack on a grounded ship right in the Commission compound?

He continued to stare. Come to think of it, what had this joker done with his clothes? Nothing on him but a pair of shorts.

The other noticed the officer's gaze and looked down.

"Yeah, I know." He grinned. "I got busy a while ago. Forgot to put 'em back on. Didn't realize I'd left every rag behind till I was well on my way." He looked at the ground thoughtfully.

"Wonder if they'll trace Korentona through them? Well——" He faced Hense again.

"I'm Don Michaels," he announced. He held out a large book he had been carrying under his arm.

"Look," he added. "I've brought in something really hot. How about taking me over to see the commissioner? I've got to see him right away."

* * * * *

For more than five years, the ink of First Lieutenant Hense's commission had been perfectly dry. He'd been in one major campaign and he'd served on more than one outworld. For his entire commissioned career, he'd been a Security Guard Officer. And he'd never had a reputation for being at all tolerant when regulations were broken—or even bent.

He looked angrily at the man before him.

"I don't care," he said distinctly, "if you're Hosanna, the Great. What I want to——"

"Oh, be quiet!" Michaels held up an impatient hand. "I hate to be impolite about this, but it's no joke. I've got something hot here—really hot. I want to see Commissioner Jackson. And when he finds out what I've got, he's going to want to see me. Now let's get over and find him. Move!"

Hense turned and stepped off. This, he decided, wasn't real. He must be dreaming. He tried to stop, but found it was impossible. He'd been given definite instructions, and——

He walked toward the path to the Residence. Behind him, he heard the newcomer's voice.

"You can go back to your post, guard. Better watch it, though. One of those Royal Guard ships might try a landing. Might be a good idea to get a few more men out there."

Again, Hense tried to turn around and challenge this fellow. Hang it, he was the Officer of the Guard. He was supposed to be giving the orders. In fact, he should have this fellow in the detention cell by now, waiting for the major to see him in the morning. He paused in mid-stride.

"Never mind stopping, lieutenant," Michaels told him. "Just keep going. I want to see the commissioner before Stern's people figure out something really good."

Hense gave up. He must be asleep. It was the only possible answer. Of course, that was bad, too. On some stations, an Officer of the Guard was permitted to take a nap between guard checks. But Major Kovacs had some sort of a thing about that. He'd made it clear that there was plenty of time for napping during off-watch time. His officers, he said positively, would never sleep while their men were on guard.

And he made checks, too. Hense struggled with himself. He had to wake up.

It was insane. How, he wondered, could a guy be asleep and dreaming—and know it? And, knowing it, why couldn't he wake himself up? This was pure fantasy. Yeah, dream stuff. He waited nervously.

Any time now, the major could be coming around to check the guardroom. Then the roof would fall in. Any minute now, he could expect to hear a window-shattering roar.

"Halt!"

It was the Residence Guard. Post number two.

"All right," Michaels' voice was low. "Hold up. Answer him. Have him continue his tour, and let's be on our way."

Hense stopped. "Officer of the Guard," he said loudly.

"Advance, one, to be recognized."

Hense sighed and stepped forward, then halted again at the guard's command.

The man flashed a light on him, then raised his weapon to his face and snapped it to the raise position again.

"I recognize you, sir. Any special instructions?"

"None. Just continue on your post."

Inwardly, Hense was reaching the boiling point. That hadn't been what he'd intended to say, dammit! He——

"Pardon, sir," the guard was saying, "but how about this man here?"

Now, Hense realized, there must be something really going on. Dream creatures just couldn't walk out of a man's mind and show up in front of an alert guard. Or had he completely lost gyro synch? He——

Michaels broke in again. "It's all right, guard. Just continue on your post. And keep an especially sharp lookout from now on."

"Yes, sir." The guard snapped his weapon up to his face again, then holstered it and turned to continue his tour.

Hense looked after him.

It wasn't a dream. It was a nightmare.

He resumed his pacing, toward the Residence.

"Oh, well," he thought resignedly, "might as well relax and enjoy it. Wonder what'll happen next."

Commissioner Jackson himself came to the door.

"What was that fire, lieutenant?" he demanded. He noticed Michaels.

"And what have we here?" He drew his head back a little, frowning.

Don interrupted. "Are you Commissioner Jackson?"

"Yes. But——"

"Good! Here, take this." Don shoved the book out. "And let's go into your office."

Benton Jackson looked incredulously at the figure before him. He reached out and accepted the book, then turned.

"Another of those!" he said softly.

Hense followed them inside. There were, he was discovering, peculiar things about this dream business. He had completed his mission. He hadn't been dismissed. But he could wait here, or he could tag along and see what happened.

"Well, now," he told himself. "Things are looking up."

Jackson walked over to his desk, snapping on the room lights as he passed them. He sat down and placed the book on the desk.

"Well," he demanded, "what's next?"

Don Michaels reached over the desk and flipped the book open.

"Page seven oh one," he said simply. "Read it. Then, I'll start telling you a lot of things." He hesitated.

"You can read Oredanian script, I hope?"

Jackson nodded in annoyance. "Of course. Part of my business." He flipped over the pages, looking at numbers. Then he glanced up.

"How about the lieutenant?"

Don faced about. "Oh," he said. "Sorry. You can go back to your guardroom, lieutenant. I'm sorry I had to get rough with you, but I was in a hurry. Still am, for that matter. Only one more thing. For the love of all that's holy, have your people keep a sharp lookout for the rest of the night. I've a hunch Stern's people will try almost anything right now, short of risking full-scale battle."

Hense shook his head dazedly. Jackson looked up from the book.

"It's all right, lieutenant," he said. "Go ahead. And you might take this man's word on the heavy guard. If we've got what I think we've got, and if Stern knows it, he might even risk a battle."

Hense suddenly realized he was no longer under any kind of restraint.

And, he realized, this had been no dream.

He had actually been ordered around like some recruit. And that by some no-good, naked native kid.

His guard had been pushed around. Unauthorized orders had been given to them.

And they'd obeyed those orders—without question.

In fact, the whole compound had been virtually taken over.

And all by this same kid.

And the commissioner said it was all right?

Hense turned away. He'd——

He took a step, then reconsidered. He had a better idea.

"This place," he said savagely, "has just plain gone to hell!" He stalked through the door.

The commissioner's amused voice followed him.

"Not yet," it said, "but it very possibly might, lieutenant. Don't forget to double your guard."

* * * * *

As the door closed, Jackson looked at Don, a smile wrinkling the corners of his eyes.

"Afraid you were just a little rough on him," he said. "He'll get over it, but it's pretty unsettling, you know." He shrugged.

"But you haven't introduced yourself. Special Corps?"

Don looked at him blankly, then shook his head.



"I'm afraid I don't know what that is," he admitted.

Jackson examined him carefully. "Hm-m-m," he said slowly. "Interesting! Tell me, how long have you been ordering people around like this?"

Don spread his hands. "Why, I don't really know," he said. "You see, I——"

Jackson held up a hand, smiling. "Never mind. Do you always go around ... ah ... dressed like that?"

Don glanced down, then grinned. "I'm sorry, sir, but I was in something of a dither a while ago. Truth is, I forgot to dress after I——"

"Wait a minute." Again, Jackson held up a hand. "Start at the beginning. While you're giving me the story, I'll have some clothes brought in for you." He touched a button on his desk, then leaned back.

"All right," he said, "let's have it. First, of course, who are you?"

While Don was talking, an impassive aide brought an outfit for him. He slipped into the clothing as he finished his account.

"So," he concluded, "all we need to do now is to force a conclave and it's all over. From what Gorham told me, I'm pretty sure I can tear Stern apart myself." His eyes clouded.

"Of course, there's Mr. Masterson. I guess they've got him in one of the torture cells."

Jackson waved a hand. "There's no problem about Masterson. We'll have him over here by morning.

"And I have an idea your father is all right. From what you tell me, I'd say he used one of the evasion tricks they teach Guard pilots. Then, he probably made a safe landing." He leaned forward and snapped down the key on his intercom.

"Emergency operation schedule, Lorenz," he said, "as of now. Have the department heads report here immediately. Have Communications get out an immediate message to Deloran Base. I want at least three squadrons, and I want 'em now. Tell 'em to burn the grass." He lifted the switch and turned to Don.

"I'm not going to take any chances from here on," he remarked. "We'll send a squadron of fighters along with you to pick up young Waern and the clan leaders. That way, they'll have protection." He frowned.

"Now, that leaves us with only one more problem."

Don looked up questioningly and the commissioner nodded.

"We'll have to find someone to represent the Waernu before the conclave. And he'll have to be acceptable to the Waernu."

"That's simple. They've already picked me."

"Won't work now. You can bring them before the clans, of course. But they'd be in a hole if you got snapped out on civil charges right in the middle of the conclave."

"Civil charges?"

"That's right. Little matter of that body out in the flier. You know, and I know, the story on that. It's clearly line of duty. But up to the decision of the conclave, you're vulnerable. Remember, Stern can claim Gorham as a police agent. So, you were resisting arrest. Catch?"

"Ow!" Don looked down at the floor. Then he shrugged.

"But Stern has no way of knowing what happened to Gorham."

"Admitted." Jackson smiled. "But he might guess. You'd have to be consulting with his people for some time before the conclave, you know. And he'd have time to figure things out. Here you are. Here's the clan book. But where's Gorham? And Gorham went up to find that book. Adds up, you see."

"You mean I've got to stay under cover from now on?"

"Not necessarily. The clan warden doesn't have to be identified ahead of time. Usually, it's just an honorary job, any way. But this time, he might really have to perform his traditional duty." He looked at Don seriously.

"Remember the private conversation between claimant and prime minister? About that time, the warden is the only protection the claimant has.

"And this is one time a claimant may really need protection."

* * * * *

Daniel Stern slapped a folder down on his desk and got to his feet. He circled the large office, then stopped, looking down at Gorham's vacant desk.

What had happened to Gorham? Papers were stacked all over his own desk. And they should be here. Most of them had been old Jake's concern. He hadn't realized how much detail the old man had controlled.

But where was Gorham? He'd come in from Riandar. Reports showed that much. Then, his flier had suddenly dashed over and landed on the Federation pad. They'd tried to stop him, but——

Something must have gone wrong up there at Riandar. Something must have made Gorham decide to come back and make a separate deal of his own. But why? There was that pile of clothes in the Waern house. Had he——?

Maybe that blast had killed Gorham and destroyed his evidence.

He looked around hopefully. It was possible. No effort had been made to restrain him. He still controlled the Ministry. No effort had been made to limit his authority.

He picked up a sheet of paper. Oh, no? They didn't want to limit him—they wanted everything. Here was this demand for a conclave.

And with that Waern kid running around loose, that was bad.

And he had no one to talk to! Of all the people in this palace, not a single one could serve as confidant. With Gorham gone——

He shuffled through the papers. Yes, here was the formal demand for a conclave. He looked at it unhappily.

And here was the transcript of the Waern claim. It looked too good.

He tossed the papers back to the desk. It was good, and he knew it. He'd seen the originals in the heraldric files. They were destroyed, of course. But here was a photo of that clan book!

And worse, here was the notice from the Resident Commissioner that the claimant had requested protective intervention from the Galactic Federation. That was really bad. He could remember his interview with the commissioner on that.

Jackson had always been something of a problem. He was a stubborn man. But up to now, he'd always backed down—if enough pressure was put on him. This time? Hah!

He'd come in, bringing that rancher—that Kent Michaels. Stern frowned.

Hadn't old Jake said that guy had been shot down—was dead?

He hadn't looked very dead. As councilor of the Waern clan, Michaels was supposed to be calling on Jackson for backing. Who, Stern wondered, was backing who? He recalled the interview.

They'd come in. And he'd started to establish dominance over Jackson.

Then that Michaels had butted in. He was worse than old Jake. What with one thing and another, he'd backed Stern into every corner in the office.

It had ended very simply.

Jackson had simply declared that there would be a conclave.

The Stellar Guard detachment would be in attendance. No irregularities would be tolerated.

And he'd even named the day—today. Then the two of them had walked out.

Stern twisted his chair around viciously and sat down. He punched at a button on his desk.

An aide came through the door. That was another thing. After that fiasco at the Michaels ranch, he'd had to get a new aide. He motioned the man forward impatiently.

"You have made final arrangements for the conclave?"

"Yes, sir. The Heraldric Branch has everything set up. The clans have already gathered in the Throne Room. The private conversation will be held in the Blue Palace. After the conversation, you will escort the claimant across the south lawn, to the Throne Room." The aide half turned.

"I can get you the plan and diagrams, sir."

Stern waved a hand. "Never mind. I've seen them." He paused.

"Now, has my space yacht been positioned back of the Blue Palace? Is it properly serviced?"

The aide paused. "Yes, sir." He looked curious, but said no more.

Stern examined him haughtily. "Very well," he said. "You will remember my instructions. Discuss the yacht with no one. You may go."

He watched as the door closed, then got out of his chair again. It was time for the conversation. He glanced about the office, then went out into the private garden.

* * * * *

As he walked, he looked at the side paths among the trees, which seemed to beckon to ever more enticing vistas beyond. There were the miniature landscapes, with their mountains and lakes. There were the small cottages, where one could sit and enjoy a cooling drink. He smiled wryly and walked across a miniature bridge.

As he reached the other side, he stopped, to lean against the rail. This was not going to be easy to give up.

He watched the water birds for a while, then went on his way.

As he came through a small grove, he saw the yacht. It had been set down where it could easily take off, and yet where it was impossible to see unless one came within a few meters. The aide had done well. He'd have to remember——

No, he thought, someone else would be dealing with that aide in the future. He'd be long gone.

He walked up to the ship and opened the door, looking inside. Then, he climbed in, glancing at his watch. It was past time for the conversation. The claimant and his warden would be waiting. So would the other clan wardens, who waited to make up the advance guard of honor.

He wondered how long they'd wait.

He sat down in the pilot's chair and glanced at the gauges. Then he flipped on the view panels and looked outside at the trees.

It had been a lot of fun. But——

"No use taking foolish chances," he told himself.

He reached for the starting bar, then hesitated.

"Wait a minute," he told himself. "Who's the prime minister around here, anyway? I can——"

He sat back, thinking. Of course. It was such a beautifully simple idea. Really foolproof. He should have thought of it before.

There would be only the few of them in that private conversation. He should have realized that. They'd present no difficulty. The wardens? He snorted.

Just a bunch of dressed-up idiots. No trouble there. Anyway, only one of them was directly concerned. And he wouldn't really know what was going on. Only the claimant would know. He laughed.

"Wonder just how it feels to get ordered around like that?"

After the conversation, he could walk into the conclave with signed papers. And who would dare challenge that? Even the commissioner's people would have to admit defeat. He smiled. Michaels? He'd be standing there with his mouth open. Nothing he could do. It would be too late.

And once he got that crowd back into his jurisdiction, there'd be no further problems. He'd be sure of that.

This was actually what he'd been waiting for! This was a formal conclave, called at the request of the tribes themselves. They'd have to choose now. And there was no one else.

He, Daniel Stern, would walk out of that Throne Room with the silver robes over his shoulders.

King Daniel!

He climbed out of the yacht and paced toward the small doorway, at the back of the Blue Palace.

He came into the private conference room and walked with dignified stride toward his place. As he came under the canopy, he stopped and placed his hands on the rail.

With haughty appraisal, he allowed his gaze to roam over the men who stood to flank the outer door. At last, he stopped, to center his attention on the two who stood in the doorway.

Here were the two key figures—the claimant and his warden.

The man on the right was dressed as for battle, his polished sling stick shoved into his sash at an angle so as to be easy to his right hand, just to the left of it was thrust the long hillman's knife. There was only one thing unorthodox about his equipment. Stern frowned as he inspected that.

In his right hand, the man carried a long device of wood and metal. Obviously, it was a weapon of sorts. Stern examined it carefully, speculating as to its nature.

It was, he finally decided, some type of beam projector. Judging from the long barrel, it would throw a narrow cone. Mentally, Stern calculated the probable dispersion.

Some Stellar Guard weapon, he thought, that had been loaned to this fellow. Well, it made no difference. Whoever the fellow was, he'd never dare use such a device here. He turned his attention to the other—the claimant.

So this was Pete Waern?

The boy was slight, he noted, even for a native. Definitely, the studious type, decided Stern. He'd present no problem at all.

The regent almost allowed himself a smile. This was going to be easy! He motioned the two forward.

"You have matters for our attention?" he inquired formally.

Waern stepped to the rail.

"I here claim to be the rightful heir to the throne of Oredan," he said slowly. He took a book from under his arm and laid it on the table beside Stern.

"I here present the book of my ancestors," he went on. "In it, at the place marked, is the contract of the last lawful king of Oredan, and of his queen. I was designated to be their son."

Stern nodded. "It is well," he said. "We shall consider this matter."

He opened the book and glanced at the script and the two signature stamps. Then he jerked back dramatically, staring at the book in simulated consternation. He bent forward again, for a closer look.

"This is most strange," he said in a low, wondering tone. He shook his head.

"These looked authentic in reproduction," he murmured. "But now?" He glanced at Pete and was forced to repress a smile.

The expression on the Waern boy's face was perfect. He had him! He looked about the room, then gazed sternly at the claimant.

"I find it almost impossible to believe," he said coldly, "that there is a person in this realm who would have the temerity to bring such a document to my attention for serious consideration."

He stabbed a finger out to point at the book and fixed Pete with an accusing stare.

"I find this a complete forgery," he said harshly. "Your claim is, of course, denied and declared fraudulent." He stepped around the rail, to tower over the boy.

"You will, therefore, acknowledge your crime in writing." He reached out and took a pen from the table.

"You will now write the words, 'forgery, no genuine contract,' over these pages. And you will sign your name." He paused, thrusting the pen toward Pete.

"You will then——"

* * * * *

The warden stepped forward.

"Pete," he said sharply. "Listen to me!"

Stern looked up in annoyance. The Waern boy had started to take the pen. Now, he stopped and jerked around.

"You will listen to nothing this man tells you," ordered the warden. "You will do nothing he asks. Do you understand that?"

The boy nodded. "Thanks, Don," he said. "He almost got me that time."

Stern glared angrily at the warden.

"You will go back to your place," he ordered. "Do not attempt to interfere again."

Incredulously, he watched as the warden shook his head.

"Sorry, fellow," he heard the man say, "but that doesn't work on me. And it won't work on Pete—not again. Now suppose we do this thing right."

Stern examined the man more closely.

He was larger than the Waern boy, and more strongly built. But he was very little older—and definitely no giant. He was at least fifteen centimeters shorter than Stern himself, and much lighter. Looked, Stern decided, like a galactic. He felt a surge of hatred.

No little man could dare defy him!

He tilted his head a little and looked downward into the warden's eyes.

"Your duties are to protect the person of this boy, so long as he is a legitimate claimant for the throne," he said contemptuously, "not to advise him. Your presence here is merely required by tradition, not by real need."

He smiled coldly. "And, since his claim is obviously nonexistent, you have no standing here. Leave this palace at once!" He pointed imperiously at the door, then turned his attention to Pete again.

"You will write as I told you. Now!"

"Ignore him, Pete." The warden raised his weapon a little.

"Name's Michaels," he told Stern conversationally. "Donald Michaels. You've met my father already." He moved the long weapon again.

"You sent some of your people up to our place a while ago. I destroyed them with this." He jerked his head downward at the barrel of the weapon.

"Brought it along with me when I came down here. It's quite capable of taking you apart, I assure you." He moved a hand on the stock.

"And if you attempt any more of that unlawful coercion," he added, "that's just what will happen. I'll protect my claimant, you see."

He tilted his head, to indicate the other clan wardens.

"These men know what is supposed to be done here as well as you and I," he added. "We all know this is a purely formal meeting. The validity of these documents has already been determined."

"As Prime Minister, I——"

"It is no part of your duty here to rule on the validity of any document," Michaels interrupted. "And it certainly isn't proper to attempt in any manner to persuade a claimant to abandon his claim. Not here. These things are proper only before the full conclave."

"Are you trying to tell me my duties?" Stern looked incredulous. This was not going well at all!

"I am doing just that," Don told him evenly. "Apparently someone has to." He glanced around the room.

"Are there any other claimants present?"

Stern felt drained of energy. What was this? The father had been impossible to control—like Gorham. Did the son combine other powers with that resistance? Where had these Michaels people come from? He tried once more.

"There are no valid claimants present," he snapped sharply. "I——"

"That's not exactly what I asked," Don told him. "But we'll take it as meaning that Pete's the only claimant. So, I demand that you follow the ritual and escort him to the conclave." He waved the weapon.

"Come on. We've been held up here long enough. Let's go."

* * * * *

Suddenly, Stern felt powerless. This whole thing had fallen apart. He should never have come in here. He should have just taken off—as he had intended. In space, he would have been safe, at least. Here? He bent his head resignedly.

He could try one more thing. This was a young man—inexperienced. Maybe——

"You will precede us," he said.

"No," Don told him, "I don't think I will. I think it will be better if I leave that honor to one of the other wardens. I want to be able to see you." He jerked his head at a man who stood to the left of the door.

"Will you honor us, Mernar-dar?"

The other tilted his head. "It is I who am honored," he said. He turned and went out the door.

Dazedly, Stern walked forward, pacing with the claimant. He paused as he got to the porch. Michaels was still standing inside the door.

"Right here," he said coldly, "we shall return to a very old custom. I shall remain, to protect the rear. And I shall watch the entire progress of the advance to the Throne Room." He smiled grimly.

"You are, I suppose, familiar with the range of a medium duty blaster?"

Stern nodded. "I've seen them operate," he admitted.

"Good." Don nodded. "This thing will outrange them a little. I'll have you in my sights all the way. Remember that, and don't do anything that might cause me to fear for Pete's safety."

The wardens spread out, to fan out before Stern and Pete. Acting the part of scouts before a column, they started across the wide lawn, toward the Throne Room.

Stern watched them for a moment, then took Pete's arm. Together, they walked down the long flight of steps. For a moment, they paused at the path, as ritual demanded, for a signal to continue.

Stern allowed his thoughts to race.

There was no question about it now, he thought. This boy would be upheld by the conclave—if he got before it. And if he were now sustained, an ex-regent named Stern would find himself in very grave trouble indeed.

This was much worse than that mob in Tonar City. He glanced toward the gate in the wall ahead and to his right.

Just beyond that door lay his yacht—and safety. If he could only figure out a way——

* * * * *

Across the lawn, a warden was making the signal for the advance. The way, then, was ritually clear. Stern stepped forward, still glancing toward that door.

They would pass within just a few meters of it. Now, where was that Michaels?

Suddenly, he realized he could never hope to get out his hidden weapon, find Michaels with it, and vaporize him. Not until the other had plenty of time to release a beam of his own. He shuddered, remembering the destruction that weapon had caused up in the Morek.

At this range, even the narrowest blaster beam would fan out enough to destroy a man's entire body. And that thing, whatever it was——

Suddenly, he smiled. That was it! It would spread out too much.

He flipped out the little khroal from its hiding place in his sleeve and placed it against Pete's back. With his other hand, he gripped the boy around the throat. Then he turned, seeking to locate Michaels. The fellow was out of sight.

Probably, Stern thought, he had remained in the shadow of the huge pillars of the porch—or even inside the Blue Palace itself.

His whole body itched. The man might fire without thinking! He raised his voice.

"Can you hear me, Michaels?"

He had been right. The answering voice came from the palace doorway.

"I can hear."

"Then listen carefully." Stern put all his persuasive power into his voice.

"I shall not harm this boy unless I am forced to, but I assure you that if I am interfered with, I'll not hesitate. From where you are, you can do nothing. Any blast you release will spread out to kill him as well as me. You realize that?"

"I can hear you." Don's voice was expressionless.

"And," added Stern loudly, "if I am struck or attacked, I will have time to release this khroal. This is also obvious, is it not?"

There was no answer. Stern frowned. What was the fellow doing? He drew a deep breath. He'd have to go through with it now, no matter what.

"I am going to the gate in the wall over there. Shortly after I go through that gate, I shall release this boy, and use a means of escape which I have prepared. You may watch me, of course, but make no effort to stop me—or this boy dies."

He paused again, waiting for an answer.

The wardens, he could see, had stopped and stood, undecided. None of them was close enough to be dangerous.

This, he thought with a surge of hope, was going to work out after all. He turned his eyes for a swift glance at his captive.

Once at the yacht, he could release a bit of energy from the khroal. This boy had destroyed all his careful plans. No, he decided, Pete Waern could not be allowed to live and enjoy those good things the palace afforded.

He tightened his grip about the boy's neck.

* * * * *

Don Michaels had strapped his sling on his arm. Now, he lay on the floor of the Blue Palace. Stern's head was centered in the scope and the cross hairs bobbed slowly about a spot just in front of the man's right ear.

"No question about it," Don told himself, "if Stern gets Pete through that gate, that'll be the end of Pete."

He put pressure on the trigger.

"The guy's as sore as a singed gersal," he told himself. "And half nuts besides. He'll spray Pete with that thing if it's the last thing he ever does." He continued his pressure on the trigger. The cross hairs still hovered about the man's ear.

"Hope that anatomy book was right," he told himself.

Of course, he realized, if he missed the tiny target—if the bullet failed to destroy the motor centers on impact—Stern would die anyway. But he just might be able to press the release on that khroal. And that wouldn't be good.

The aiming point moved a trifle and Don eased back into position.

What had happened to the trigger on this thing? Had he forgotten to take off the safety? Again, the cross hairs started to wander and he eased them back—back toward that little spot.

The rifle leaped upward with a roar, slamming back against Don's shoulder. He let it settle again, examining the scene anxiously through his sight.

Stern was still on his feet, but his hands were dropping limply to his sides. Don could just see the glitter of the khroal by Pete's feet. Then, Stern's knees bent and he flowed to the ground.

Pete had turned at the sound of the shot. He looked back at the palace door, then glanced at the khroal.

At last, he knelt beside the body on the ground. He felt the throat, then examined the man's head. For an instant, he looked a little sick, then he looked away from the tiny hole in front of the man's ear. He got to his feet and waved a hand.

"Pinwheel," he shouted.

* * * * *

The newly enrobed King of Oredan settled back in his chair and shook the heavy cloth back from his shoulder.

"So," he said thoughtfully, "it's all over." He sighed.

"And it's all just beginning, too. Now, I'll have to form a government." He smiled sadly.

"It's funny, Don. For years, I've dreamed of actually being king. Now it's suddenly happened and I feel about as helpless as they come." He stretched out a hand. "All at once, I'm realizing it's pretty rough for a schoolboy to suddenly find himself with a whole nation to run. I don't know where to start."

"You'll get used to it, Pete." Don smiled at him. "Get yourself a few really competent advisors. Tell them what you want, and let them go out and get some competent people to do things. And you've got it whipped."

"Yeah." Pete nodded. "Yeah, I guess that's the way it's done. But—— Well, I asked for it. And they handed it to me." He looked directly at Don.

"How about you? You've got plenty of clan rank, you know. What department do you want?"

Don shook his head slowly. "Don't look at me," he advised. "They offered me a spot in the Stellar Guard and I'm signing up." He glanced around the room.

"I've got no place here."

"What are you talking about?" Pete frowned. "I owe this whole thing to you. I wouldn't even be alive if you hadn't been around. You can have anything you want here, and you know it. What can the Federation offer you?"

Don shrugged. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "Lot of work, of course. Pride of accomplishment, maybe. Peace of mind. Hard to say. Only one thing I'm sure of. I wouldn't work out here."

"I don't get it." Pete shook his head.

Don looked at him, his face expressionless.

"Look, Pete. Do you really like me?"

"Why, of course. You saved my life and set me on the throne. I told you that."

"Not just what I mean. Do you feel perfectly relaxed and easy when I'm around? Would you really call me a close friend?"

Pete squirmed in his chair. Uneasily, he looked overhead at the tassled canopy.

"That's a lousy way to put it," he complained.

"Well?" Don's face was still expressionless.

Pete forced himself to look directly at him.

"I don't know. I ... well, you've done so darn much. Well, I guess I am a little afraid of you, at that." He looked at the floor.

"Oh, all right. I'll have to admit it. You do actually make me uneasy. Always did, even back at school. Lot of fellows felt the same way."

Don stood. "That's what I mean. And it would get worse if I hung around. You'd get so you hated yourself—and me." He held out a hand.

"You're the king—the ruler of this whole nation. That means you've got to be the head man. No one can give you orders. They can suggest, but no one can be even capable of giving you orders." He smiled.

"Dad will rebuild the ranch, of course. And I may come back once in a while, in a very quiet way. But for the most part, I'd better not be around too often."

Pete got to his feet. Suddenly, he looked relieved and at ease.

"I'll make certain your ranch is never interfered with," he promised. "It's yours, so long as you or your father want it. And I hope that some day it'll be a home for your kids." He paused.

"If you ever do decide to come to the capital," he added, "you'll be a welcome guest at the palace."

"O.K." Don grinned. "Let's leave it that way. Good-by, then, and I hope yours is the longest reign in history."

He turned and walked through the curtain.

THE END

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