Belle whistled sharply to call Fao's attention, then tight-beamed a thought. "If you've got any part of a brain, slick chick, you'd better start using it. The boy friend not only plays rough, but he doesn't bluff."
"To hell with all that!" Fao rushed on. "We don't have anything to do with your organization—go on back home or anywhere else you want to. We'll finish our own ship and build our own organization and run it to suit ourselves. We'll...."
"That's enough of that." Garlock penetrated her shield as easily as he had the man's, and held her in lock. "You are not going to wreck this project. You will start behaving yourself right now or I'll spread your mind wide open for Belle and Deggi to look at and see exactly what kind of a half-baked jerk you are. If that doesn't work, I'll put you into a Gunther-blocked cell aboard the Pleiades and keep you there until the ship is finished and we leave Margonia. How do you want it?"
Fao was shocked as she had never been shocked before. At first she tried viciously to fight; but, finding that useless against the appalling power of the mind holding hers, she stopped struggling and began really to think.
"That's better. You've got what it takes to think with. Go ahead and do it."
And Fao Talaho did have it. Plenty of it. She learned.
"I'll be good," she said, finally. "Honestly. I'm ashamed, really, but after I got started I couldn't stop. But I can now, I'm sure."
"I'm sure you can, too. I know exactly how it is. All us Primes have to get hell knocked out of us before we amount to a whoop in Hades. Deggi got his one way, I got mine another, you got yours this way. No, neither of the others knows anything about this conversation and they won't. This is strictly between you and me."
"I'm awfully glad of that. And I think I ... yes, damn you, thanks!"
Garlock released her and, after a few sobs, a couple of gulps, and a dabbing at her eyes with an inadequate handkerchief, she said: "I'm sorry, Deggi, and you, too, Belle. I'll try not to act like such a fool any more."
Delcamp and Belle both stared at Garlock; Belle licked her lips.
"No comment," he thought at the man; and, to Belle, "She just took a beating. Will you sheathe your claws and take a lot of pains to be extra nice to her the rest of the day?"
"Why, surely. I'm always nice to anybody who is nice to me."
"Says you," Garlock replied, skeptically, and all four went to work as though nothing had happened.
* * *
They went through the shops and the almost-finished ship. They studied blueprints. They met all the Operators and discussed generators and fields of force and mathematics and paraphysics and Guntherics. They argued so hotly about mental control that Garlock had James bring the Pleiades over to new-christened Galaxian Field so that he could prove his point then and there.
Entlore and Holson came along this time, as well as the ComOff; and all three were nonplussed and surprised to see each member of the "crackpot" group hurl the huge starship from one solar system to any other one desired, apparently merely by thinking about it. And the "crackpots" were extremely surprised to find themselves hopelessly lost in uncharted galactic wildernesses every time they did not think, definitely and positively, of one specific destination. Then Garlock took a chance. He had to take it sometime; he might just as well do it now.
"See if you can hit Andromeda, Deggi," he suggested.
While Belle, James, and Lola held their breaths, Delcamp tried. The starship went toward the huge nebula, but stopped at the last suitable planet on the galaxy's rim.
"Can you hit Andromeda?" Delcamp asked, more than half jealously, and Belle tensed her muscles.
"Never tried it," Garlock said, easily. "I suppose, though, since you couldn't kick the old girl out of our good old home galaxy, she'll just sit right here for me, too."
He went through the motions and the Pleiades did sit right there—which was exactly what he had told her to do. And everybody—even the "crackpots"—breathed more easily.
* * *
And Belle was "nice" to Fao; she didn't use her claws, even once, all day. And, just before quitting time—
"Does he ... I mean, did he ever ... well, sort of knock you around?" Fao asked.
"I'll say he hasn't!" Belle's nostrils flared slightly at the mere thought. "I'd stick a knife into him, the big jerk."
"Oh, I didn't mean physically...."
"Through my blocks? A Prime's blocks? Don't be ridiculous, Fao!"
"What do you mean, 'ridiculous'?" Fao snapped. "You tried my blocks. What did they feel like to you—mosquito netting? What I thought was.... Oh, all he really said was that all Primes had to have hell knocked out of them before they could be any good. That he had had it one way, Deggi another, and me a third. I see—you haven't had yours yet."
"I certainly haven't. And if he ever tries it, I'll...."
"Oh, he won't. He couldn't, very well, because after you're married, it would...."
"Did the big lug tell you I was going to marry him?"
"Of course not. No fringes, even. But who else are you going to marry? If the whole universe was clear full of the finest men imaginable—pure dreamboats, no less—can you even conceive of you marrying any one of them except him?"
"I'm not going to marry anybody. Ever."
"No? You, with your Prime's mind and your Prime's body, not have any children? And you tell me not to be ridiculous?"
That stopped Belle cold, but she wouldn't admit it. Instead—"I don't get it. What did he do to you, anyway?"
Fao's block set itself so tight that it took her a full minute to soften it down enough for even the thinnest thought to get through. "That's something nobody will ever know. But anyway, unless ... unless you find another Prime as strong as Clee is—and I don't really think there are any, do you?"
"Of course there aren't. There's only one of his class, anywhere. He's it," Belle said, with profound conviction.
"That makes it tough for you. You'll have the toughest job imaginable. The very toughest. I know."
"Huh? What job?"
"Since Clee won't do it for you, and since nobody else can, you'll have to just simply knock hell out of yourself."
And in Garlock's room that night, getting ready for bed, Belle asked suddenly, "Clee, what in hell did you do to Fao Talaho?"
"Nothing much. She's a mighty good egg, really."
"Could you do it, whatever it was, to me?"
"I don't know; I never tried it."
"Would you, then, if I asked you to?"
"Answer that yourself."
"And it was 'nothing much,' it says here in fine print. But I think I know just about what it was. Don't I?"
"I wouldn't be surprised."
"You knocked hell out of yourself, didn't you?"
"I lied to her about that. I'm still trying to."
"So I've got to do it to myself. And I haven't started yet?"
"Check. But you're several years younger than I am, you know."
* * *
Belle thought it over for a minute, then stubbed out her cigarette and shrugged her shoulders. "No sale. Put it back on the shelf. I like me better the way I am. That is, I think I do.... In a way, though, I'm sorry, Clee darling."
"Darling? Something new has been added. I wish you really meant that, ace."
"I'm still 'ace' after what I just said? I'm glad, Clee. 'Ace' is ever so much nicer than 'chum.'"
"Ace. The top of the deck. You are, and always will be."
"As for meaning it, I wish I didn't." Ready for bed, Belle was much more completely and much less revealingly dressed than during her working hours. She slid into bed beside him, pulled the covers up to her chin, and turned off the light by glancing at the switch. "If I thought anything could ever come of it, though, I'd do it if I had to pound myself unconscious with a club. But I wouldn't be here, then, either—I'd scoot into my own room so fast my head would spin."
"You wouldn't have to. You wouldn't be here."
"I wouldn't, at that. That's one of the things I like so much about you. But honestly, Clee—seriously, screens-down honestly—can you see any possible future in it?"
"No. Neither of us would give that much. Neither of us can. And there's nothing one-sided about it; I'm no more fit to be a husband than you are to be a wife. And God help our children—they'd certainly need it."
"We'd never have any. I can't picture us living in marriage for nine months without committing at least mayhem. Why, in just the little time we've been paired, how many times have you thrown me out of this very room, with the fervent hope that I'd drown in deep space before you ever saw me again?"
"At a guess, about the same number of times as you have stormed out under your own power, slamming the door so hard it sprung half the seams of the ship and swearing you'd slice me up into sandwich meat if I ever so much as looked at you again."
"That's what I mean. But how come we got off on this subject, I wonder? Because when we aren't fighting, like now, it's purely wonderful. So I'll say it again. Good night, Clee, darling."
"Good night, ace." In the dark his lips sought hers and found them.
The fervor of her kiss was not only much more intense than any he had ever felt before. It was much, very much more intense than Belle Bellamy had either wanted it or intended it to be.
* * *
Next morning, at the workman's hour of eight o'clock, the four Tellurians appeared in the office of Margonia's Galaxian Field.
"The first thing to do, Deggi, is to go over in detail your blueprints for the generators and the drive," Garlock said.
"I suppose so. The funny pictures, eh?" Delcamp had learned much, the previous day; his own performance with the Pleiades had humbled him markedly.
"By no means, my friend," Garlock said, cheerfully. "While your stuff isn't exactly like ours—it couldn't be, hardly; the field is so big and so new—that alone is no reason for it not to work. James can tell you. He's the Solar System's top engineer. What do you think, Jim?"
"What I saw in the ship yesterday will work. What few of the prints I saw yesterday will fabricate, and the fabrications will work. The main trouble with this project, it seems to me, is that nobody's building the ship."
"What do you mean by that crack?" Fao blazed.
"Just that. You're a bunch of prima donnas; each doing exactly as he pleases. So some of the stuff is getting done three or four times, in three or four different ways, while a lot of it isn't getting done at all."
"Such as?" Delcamp demanded, and—
"Well, if you don't like the way we are doing things you can...." Fao began.
"Just a minute, everybody." Lola came in, with a disarming grin. "How much of that is hindsight, Jim? You've built one, you know—and from all accounts, progress wasn't nearly as smooth as your story can be taken to indicate."
"You've got a point there, Lola," Garlock agreed. "We slid back two steps for every three we took forward."
"Well ... maybe," James admitted.
"So why don't you, Fao and Deggi, put Jim in charge of construction?"
Fao threw back her silvery head and glared, but Delcamp jumped at the chance. "Would you, Jim?"
"Sure—unless Miss Talaho objects."
"She won't." Delcamp's eyes locked with Fao's, and Fao kept still. "Thanks immensely, Jim. And I know what you mean." He went over to a cabinet of wide, flat drawers and brought back a sheaf of drawings. Not blueprints, but original drawings in pencil. "Such as this. I haven't even got it designed yet, to say nothing of building it."
* * *
James began to leaf through the stack of drawings. They were full of erasures, re-drawings, and such notations as "See sheets 17-B, 21-A, and 27-F." Halfway through the pile he paused, turned backward three sheets, and studied for minutes. Then, holding that one sheet by a corner, he went rapidly through the rest of the stack.
"This is it," he said then, pulling the one sheet out and spreading it flat. "What we call Unit Eight—the heart of the drive." Then, tight-beamed to Garlock:
"This is the thing that you designed in toto and that I never could understand any part of. All I did was build it. It must generate those Prime fields."
"Probably," Garlock flashed back. "I didn't understand it any too well myself. How does it look?"
"He isn't even close. He's got only half of the constants down, and half of the ones he has got down are wrong. Look at this mess here...."
"I'll take your word for it. I haven't your affinity for blueprints, you know, or your eidetic memory for them."
"Do you want me to give him the whole works?"
"We'll have to, I think. Or the ship might not work at all."
"Could be—but how about intergalactic hops?"
"He couldn't do it with the Pleiades, so he won't be able to with this. Besides, if we change it in any particular he might. You see, I don't know very much more about Unit Eight than you do."
"That could be, too." Then, as though just emerging from his concentration on the drawings, James thought at Delcamp and Fao, but on the open, general band.
"A good many errors and a lot of blanks, but in general you're on the right track. I can finish up this drawing in a couple of hours, and we can build the unit in a couple of days. With that in place, the rest of the ship will go fast.
"If Miss Talaho wants me to," he concluded, pointedly.
"Oh, I do, Jim—really I do!" At long last, stiff-backed Fao softened and bent. She seized both his hands. "If you can, it'd be too wonderful for words!"
"Okay. One question. Why are you building your ship so small?"
"Why, it's plenty big enough for two," Delcamp said. "For four, in a pinch. Why did you make yours so big? Your Main is big enough almost for a convention hall."
"That's what we figured it might have to be, at times," Garlock said. "But that's a very minor point. With yours so nearly ready to flit, no change in size is indicated now. But Belle and I have got to have another conference with the legal eagle. So if you and Brownie, Jim, will 'port whatever you need out of the Pleiades, we'll be on our way.
"So long—see you in a few days," he added, and the Pleiades vanished; to appear instantaneously high above the stratosphere over what was to become the Galaxian Field of Earth.
* * *
"Got a minute, Gene?" he sent a thought.
"For you two Primes, as many as you like. We haven't started building or fencing yet, as you suggested, but we have bought all the real estate. So land the ship anywhere out there and I'll send a jeep out after you."
"Thanks, but no jeep. Nobody but you knows that we've really got control of the Pleiades, and I want everybody else to keep on thinking it's strictly for the birds. We'll 'port in to your office whenever you say."
"I say now."
In no time at all the two Primes were seated in the private office of Eugene Evans, Head of the Legal Department of the newly re-incorporated Galaxian Society of Sol, Inc. Evans was a tall man, slightly thin, slightly stooped, whose thick tri-focals did nothing whatever to hide the keenness of his steel-gray eyes.
"The first thing, Gene," Garlock said, "is this employment contract thing. Have you figured out a way to break it?"
"It can't be broken." The lawyer shook his head.
"Huh? I thought you top-bracket legal eagles could break anything, if you really tried."
"A good many things, yes, especially if they're long and complicated. The Standard Employment Contract, however, is short, explicit, and iron-clad. The employer can discharge the employee for any one of a number of offenses, including insubordination; which, as a matter of fact, the employer himself is allowed to define. On the other hand, the employee cannot quit except for some such fantastic reason as the non-tendering—not non-payment, mind you, but non-tendering—of salary."
"I didn't expect that—it kicks us in the teeth before we get started." Garlock got up, lighted a cigarette, and prowled about the big room. "Okay. Jim and I will have to get ourselves fired, then."
"Fired!" Belle snorted. "Clee, you talk like a man with a paper nose! Who else could run the Project? That is," her whole manner changed; "he doesn't know I can run it as well as you can—or better—but I could tell him—and maybe you think I wouldn't!"
"You won't have to. Gene, you can start spreading the news that Belle Bellamy is a real, honest-to-God Prime Operator in every respect. That she knows more about Project Gunther than I do and could run it better. Ferber undoubtedly knows that Belle and I have been at loggerheads ever since we first met—spread it thick that we're fighting worse than ever. Which, by the way, is the truth."
"Fighting? Why, you seemed friendly enough...."
"Yeah, we can be friendly for about fifteen minutes if we try real hard, as now. The cold fact is, though, that she's just as much three-quarters hellcat and one-quarter potassium cyanide as she...."
"I like that!" Belle stormed. She leaped to her feet, her eyes shooting sparks. "All my fault! Why, you self-centered, egotistical, domineering jerk, I could write a book...."
"That's enough—let it go—please!" Evans pleaded. He jumped up, took each of the combatants by a shoulder, sat them down into the chairs they had vacated, and resumed his own seat. "The demonstration was eminently successful. I will spread the word, through several channels. Chancellor Ferber will get it all, rest assured."
"And I'll get the job!" Belle snapped. "And maybe you think I won't take it!"
"Yeah?" came Garlock's searing thought. "You'd do anything to get it and to keep it. Yeah. I do think."
"Oh?" Belle's body stiffened, her face hardened. "I've heard stories, of course, but I couldn't quite ... but surely, he can't be that stupid—to think he can buy me like so many pounds of calf-liver?"
"He surely is. He does. And it works. That is, if he's ever missed, nobody ever heard of it."
"But how could a man in such a big job possibly get away with such foul stuff as that?"
"Because all the SSE is interested in is money, and Alonzo P. Ferber is a tremendously able top executive. In the big black-and-red money books he's always 'way, 'way up in the black, and nobody cares about his conduct."
* * *
Belle, even though she was already convinced, glanced questioningly at Evans.
"That's it, Miss Bellamy. That's it, in a precise, if somewhat crude, nutshell."
"That's that, then. But just how, Clee—if he's as smart as you say he is—do you think you can make him fire you?"
"I don't know—haven't thought about it yet. But I could be pretty insubordinate if I really tried."
"That's the understatement of the century."
"I'll devote the imponderable force of the intellect to the problem and check with you later. Now, Gene, about the proposed Galactic Service, the Council, and so on. What is the reaction? Yours, personally, and others?"
"My personal reaction is immensely favorable; I think it the greatest advance that humanity has ever made. I have been very cautious, of course, in discussing, or even mentioning the matter, but the reaction of everyone I have sounded—good men; big men in their respective fields—has been as enthusiastic as my own."
"Good. It won't surprise you, probably, to be told that you are to be this system's councillor and—if we can swing it and I think we can—the first President of the Galactic Council?"
Evans was so surprised that it was almost a minute before he could reply coherently. Then: "I am surprised—very much so. I thought, of course, that you yourself would...."
"Far from it!" Garlock said, positively. "I'm not the type. You are. You're better than anyone else of the Galaxians—which means than anyone else period. With the possible exception of Lola, and she fits better on our exploration team. Check, Belle?"
"Check. For once, I agree with you without reservation. That's a job we can work at all the rest of our lives, and scarcely start it."
"True—indubitably true. I appreciate your confidence in me, and if the vote so falls I will do whatever I can."
"We know you will, and thank you. How long will it take to organize? A couple of weeks? And is there anything else we have to cover now?"
"A couple of weeks!" Evans was shocked. "You are naive indeed, young man, to think anything of this magnitude can even be started in such a short time as that. And yes, there are dozens of matters—hundreds—that should be discussed before I can even start to work intelligently."
Hence discussions went on and on and on. It was three days before Garlock and Belle 'ported themselves up into the Pleiades and the starship displaced itself instantaneously to Margonia.
* * *
Meanwhile, on Margonia, James James James the Ninth went directly to the heart of his job by leading Lola and Fao into Delcamp's office and setting up its Gunther blocks.
"You said you want me to build your starship. Okay, but I want you both—Fao especially—to realize exactly what that means. I know what to do and how to do it. I can handle your Operators and get the job done. However, I can't handle either of you, since you both out-Gunther me, and I'm not going to try to. But there can't be two bosses on any one job, to say nothing of three or seventeen. So either I run the job or I don't. If either of you steps in, I step out and don't come back in. And remember that you're not doing us any favors—it's strictly vice versa."
"Jim!" Lola protested. Fao's hackles were very evidently on the rise; Delcamp's face was hardening. "Don't be so rough, Jim, please. That's no way to...."
"If you can pretty this up, pet, I'll be glad to have you say it for me. Here's what you have to work on. If I do the job they'll have their starship in a few weeks. The way they've been going, they won't have it in twenty-five years. And the only way to get that bunch out there to really work is to tell each one of them to cooperate or else—and enforce the 'or else.'"
"But they'd quit!" Delcamp protested. "They'll all quit!"
"With suspension or expulsion from the Society the consequences? Hardly." James said.
"But you wouldn't do that—you couldn't."
"Of course he wouldn't," Lola put in, soothingly, "except as a very last resort. And, even at worst, Jim could build it almost as easily with common labor. You Primes don't really have to have any Operators at all, you know; but all your Operators together would be perfectly helpless without at least one Prime."
"How come?" and "In what way?" Delcamp and Fao demanded together.
"Oh, didn't you know? After the ship is built and the fields are charged and so on, everything has to be activated—the hundred and one things that make it so nearly alive—and that is strictly a Prime's job. Even Jim can't do it."
"I see ... or, rather, I don't see at all," Fao said, thoughtfully. She was no longer either excited or angry. "A few weeks against twenty-five years ... what do you think of his time estimate, Deg my dear?"
"I hadn't thought it would take nearly that long; but this 'activation' thing scares me. Nothing in my theory even hints at any such thing. So—if there's so much I don't know yet, even in theory, it would take a long time. Maybe I'd never get it."
"Well, anyway, I want our Celestial Queen done in weeks, not years," Fao said, extending her hand to James and shaking his vigorously. "So I promise not to interfere a bit. If I feel any such urge coming on, I'll dash home and lock myself up in a closet until it dies. Fair enough?"
Since Fao really meant it, that was fair enough.
* * *
For a whole day James did nothing except study blueprints; going over in detail and practically memorizing every drawing that had been made. He then went over the ship, studying minutely every part, plate, member, machine and instrument that had been installed. He noted what each man and woman was doing and what they intended to do. He went over material on hand and material on order, paying particular attention to times of delivery. He then sent a few—surprisingly few—telegrams.
Finally he called all fourteen Operators together. He told them exactly what the revised situation was and exactly what he was going to do about it. He invited comments.
There was of course a riot of protest; but—in view of what James had said anent suspensions and expulsions from the Galaxian Society—not one of them actually did quit. Four of them, however, did appeal to Delcamp, considerably to his surprise, to oust the interloper and to put things back where they had been; but they did not get much satisfaction.
"James says that he can finish building this starship in a few weeks," Delcamp told them, flatly. "Specifically, three weeks, if we can get the special stuff made fast enough. Fao and I believe him. Therefore, we have put him in full charge. He will remain in charge unless and until he fails in performance. You are all good friends of Fao's and mine, and we hope that all of you will stay with the project. If, however, we must choose now between you—any one of you or all of you—and James, there is no need to tell you what the choice will be."
Wherefore all fourteen went back to work; grudgingly at first and dragging their feet. In a very few hours, however, it became evident to all that James did in fact know what he was doing and that the work was going faster and smoother than ever before; whereupon all opposition and all malingering disappeared. They were Operators, and they were all intensely interested in their ship. Morale was at a high.
Thus, when the Pleiades landed beside the now seething Celestial Queen, Garlock found James with feet on desk, hands in pockets, and scanner on head; doing—apparently—nothing at all. Nevertheless, he was a very busy man.
"Hey, Jim!" A soprano shriek of thought emanated from a gorgeous seventeen-year-old blonde. "I can't read this funny-picture, it's been folded too many times. Where does this lead go to?"
"Data insufficient. Careful, Vingie; I'd hate to have to send you back to school."
"'Scuse, please, Junior. Unit Six, Sub-Assembly Tee Dash Ni-yun. Terminal Fo-wer. From said terminal, there's a lead—Bee Sub something-or-other—goes somewhere. Where?"
"B sub Four. It goes to Unit Seven, Sub-Assembly Q dash Three, Terminal Two. And watch your insulation—that's a mighty hot lead."
"Uh-huh, I got that. Double Sink Mill Mill; Class Albert Dog Kittens. Thanks, boss!"
* * *
"Hi, Jim," Garlock said. Then, to Delcamp. "I see you're rolling."
"He's rolling, you mean." Delcamp had not yet recovered fully from a state of near-shock. "So that's what an eidetic memory is? He knows every nut, bolt, lead, and coil in the ship!"
"More than that. He's checking every move everybody makes. When they're done, you won't have to just hope everything was put together right—you'll know it was."
Jim was their man.
* * *
And Fao sidled over toward Belle. There was something new about the silver-haired girl, Belle decided instantly. The difference was slight—Belle couldn't put her finger on it at first. She seemed—quieter? Softer? More subdued? No, definitely. More feminine? No; that would be impossible. More ... more adult? Belle hated to admit it, even to herself, but that was what it was.
"Deg and I got married day before yesterday," Fao confided, via tight beam.
"Oh—so you're pregnant!"
"Of course. I saw to that the first thing. I knew you'd want to be the first one to know. Oh, isn't it wonderful?" She seized Belle's arm and hugged it ecstatically against her side. "Just too perfectly marvelous for anything?"
"Oh, I'm sure it is; and I'm so happy for you, Fao!" And it would have taken the mind of a Garlock to perceive anything either false or forced in thought or bearing.
Nevertheless, when Belle went into Garlock's room that night, storm signals were flying high in her almost-topaz eyes.
"Fao Talaho-Delcamp is pregnant!" she stormed, "and it's all your fault!"
"Uh-huh," he demurred, trying to snap her out of her obviously savage mood. "Not me, ace. Not a chance in the world. It was Deggi."
"You ... you weasel! You know very well, Clee Garlock, what I meant. If you hadn't given her that treatment she'd have kept on fighting with him and they wouldn't have been married and had any children for positively years. So now she'll have the first double-Prime baby and it ought to be mine. I'm older than she is—our group is 'way ahead of theirs—we have the first and only starship—and then you do that. And you wouldn't give me that treatment. Oh, no—just to her, that bleached-blonde! I'd like to strangle you to death with my own bare hands!"
"What a hell of a logic!" Garlock had been trying to keep his own temper in leash, but the leash was slipping. "Assume I tried to work on you—assume I succeeded—what would you be? What would I have? What age do you think this is—that of the Vikings? When SOP in getting a wife was to beat her unconscious with a club and drag her into the longboat by her hair? Hardly! I do not want and will not have a conquered woman. Nor a spoiled-rotten, mentally-retarded brat...."
"You unbearable, conceited, overbearing jerk! Why, I'd rather...."
"Get out! And this time, stay out!"
Belle got out—and if door and frame had not been built of super-steel, both would have been wrecked by the blast of energy she loosed in closing the door behind her.
In her own room, with Gunther blocks full on, she threw herself face down on the bed and cried as she had not cried since she was a child.
And finally, without even taking off her clothes, she cried herself to sleep.
Next morning, early, Belle tapped lightly on Garlock's door.
She did so. "Have you had your coffee?"
"So have I."
Neither Belle nor Garlock had recovered; both faces showed strain and drain.
"I think we'd better break this up," Belle said, quietly.
"Check. We'll have to, if we expect to get any work done."
Belle could not conceal her surprise.
"Oh, not for the reason you think," Garlock went on, quickly. "Your record as a man-killer is still one hundred point zero zero zero percent. I've been in love with you ever since we paired. Before that, even."
"Flapdoodle!" she snorted, inelegantly. "Why, I...."
"Keep still a minute. And I'm not going to fight with you again. Ever. I'm not going to touch you again until I can control myself a lot better than I could last night."
"Oh? That was mostly my fault, of course. But in love? Uh-uh, I've seen men in love. You aren't. I couldn't make you be, not with the best I could do. Not even in bed. You aren't, Clee—if you are, I'm an Australian bushman."
"Perhaps I'm an atypical case. I'm not raving about your perfect body—you know what that is like already. Nor about your mind, which is the only one I know of as good as my own. Maybe I'm in love with what I think you ought to be ... or what I hope you will be. Anyway, I'm in love with something connected with you—and with no other woman alive. Shall we go eat?"
They joined Lola and James at the table; and if Lola noticed anything out of the ordinary, she made no sign.
And after breakfast, in the Main—
"About three weeks, Jim, you think?" Garlock asked.
"Give or take a couple of days, yes."
"And Belle and I would just be in the way—at least until time to show Deggi about the activation ... and all those Primes to organize ... we'd better leave you here, don't you think, and get going?"
"I'll buy that. We'll finish as soon as possible."
Lola and James moved a few personal belongings planetside; Garlock and Belle shot the Pleiades across a vast gulf of space to one of the planets they had scanned so fleetingly on their preliminary survey. Its name was, both remembered, Lizoria; its two Primes were named Rezdo Semolo and Mirea Mitala—male and female, respectively.
After sending down a very brief and perfunctory request for audience—which was in effect a declaration of intent and nothing else—Garlock and Belle teleported themselves down into Semolo's office, where both Lizorian Primes were.
Both got up out of peculiar-looking chairs to face their visitors. Both were tall; both were peculiarly thin. Not the thinness of emaciation, but that of bodily structure.
"On them it looks good," Belle tight-beamed a thought to Garlock.
Both moved fast and with exquisite control; both were extraordinarily graceful. "Snaky" was Belle's thought of the woman; "sinuous" was Garlock's of the man. Both were completely hairless, of body and of head—not by nature, but via electric-shaver clipping. Both wore sandals. The man wore shorts and a shirt-like garment of nylon or its like; the woman wore just enough ribbons and bands to hold a hundred thousand credits' worth of jewels in place. She appeared to be about twenty years—Tellurian equivalent—old; he was probably twenty-three or twenty-four.
"We did not invite you in and we do not want you here," Semolo said, coldly. "So get out, both of you. If you don't, when I count three I'll throw you out, and I won't be too careful about how many of your bones I break. One.... Two...."
"Pipe down, Rezdo!" the girl exclaimed. "They have something we haven't, or they wouldn't be here. Whatever it is, we want it."
"Oh, let him try, Miss Mitala," Garlock said, through her hard-held block, in the depth of her mind. "He won't hurt us a bit and it may do him some good. While he's wasting effort I'll compare notes with my partner here, Galactic Vice-Admiral Belle Bellamy. I'm glad to see that one of you has at least a part of a brain."
"... Three!" Semolo did his best, with everything he had, without even attracting Garlock's attention. He then tried to leap at the intruder physically, despite the latter's tremendous advantage in weight and muscle, but found that he could not move.
Then, through Belle's solidly-set blocks, "How are you doing, ace? Getting anywhere?"
"My God!" came Belle's mental shriek. "What—how can—but no, you didn't give that to Fao, surely!"
"I'll say I didn't—nor to Delcamp. But you're going to need it, I'm thinking."
"But can you? Even if you would—and I'm just beginning to realize how big a man you really are—can that kind of stuff be taught? I probably haven't got the brain-cells it takes to handle it."
"I'm not sure, but I've reworked our Prime Fields into one and made a couple of other changes. Theoretically, it ought to work. Shall I come in and try it?"
"Don't be an idiot, darling. Of course!"
* * *
As impersonally as a surgeon exploring an organ, Garlock went into Belle's mind. "Tune to the field ... that's it—fine! Then—I'll do it real slow, and watch me close—you do like so ... get it?"
"Uh-huh!" Belle breathed, excitedly. "Got it!"
"Then this ... and this ... and there you are. You can try it on me, if you like."
"Uh-uh. No sale. I don't need practice and I'd like to preserve the beautiful illusion that maybe I could crack your shield if I wanted to. I'll work on Miss Snake-Hips here, the serpentine charmer—but say, I'll bet there's a bone in it. You can block it, can't you?"
"Yes. It goes like this." He showed her. "It takes full mastery of the Prime Field, but you've got that."
"Oh, wonderful! Thanks, Clee darling. But do you mean to actually say I can now completely block you or any other Prime out?"
"You're going too far, ace. Me, yes—but don't forget that there very well may be people—or things—as far ahead of us as we are ahead of pointer pups."
"Huh! Balloon-juice and prop-wash! I just know, Clee, that you're the absolute tops of the whole, entire, macrocosmic universe."
"Well, we can dream, of course." Garlock withdrew his mind from Belle's and turned his attention to the now quiet Semolo. "Well, my over-confident and contumacious young squirt; are you done horsing around or do you want to keep it up until you addle completely what few brains you have?"
The Lizorian made no reply; but merely glared.
"The trouble with you half-baked, juvenile—I almost added 'delinquent' to that, and perhaps I should have—Primes is that you know too damned much that isn't true. As an old Tellurian saying hath it, 'you're altogether too big for your britches.'
"Thus, simply because you have lived a few years on one single planet and haven't encountered anyone able to stand up to you, you've sold yourself on the idea that there's nobody, anywhere, who can. You're wrong—you couldn't be more so if you had an army to help you.
"What, actually, have you done? What, actually, have you got? Practically nothing. You haven't even started a starship; you've scarcely started making plans. You realize dimly that the theory is not in any of the books, that you'll have to slug it out for yourself, but that is work. So you're still just posing and throwing your weight around.
"As a matter of fact, you're merely a drop in a lake. There are thousands of millions of planets, and thousands of millions of Prime Operators. Most of them are probably a lot stronger than you are; many of them may be stronger than my partner and I are. I am not at all certain that you will pass even the first screening; but since you are without question a Prime Operator, I will deliver the message we came to deliver. Miss Mitala, do you want to listen or shall we drive it into you, too?"
"I want to listen to anyone or anything who has a working starship and who can do what you have just done."
"Very well," and Garlock told the general-distribution version of the story of the Galactic Service.
"Quite interesting," Semolo said loftily, at its end. "Whether or not I would be interested depends, of course, on whether there's a position high enough for...."
"I doubt very much if there's one low enough," Garlock cut in sharply. "However, since it's part of my job, I'll get in touch with you later. Okay, Belle."
And in the Main—"What a jerk!" Belle exclaimed. "What a half-cooked, half-digested pill! I simply marvel at your forbearance, Clee. You should have turned him inside out and hung him up to dry—especially behind the ears!" Then, suddenly, she giggled. "But do you know what I did?"
"I can guess. A couple of shots in the arm?"
"Uh-huh. Next time he pitches into her she'll slap his ears right off. Oh, brother!"
"Check and double-check. But let's hop to Number Two.... Here it is."
* * *
"Oh, yes," came a smooth, clear, diamond-sharp thought in reply to Garlock's introductory call. "This world, as you have perceived, is Falne. I am indeed Baver 14WD27, my companion Prime is indeed Glarre 12WD91. You are, we perceive, Bearers of the Truth; of great skill and of high advancement. Your visit here will, I am sure, be of immense benefit to us and possibly, I hope, of some small benefit to you. We will both be delighted to have you both 'port yourselves to us at once."
The Tellurians did so—and in the very instant of appearance Garlock was met by a blast of force the like of which he had never even imagined. The two Falnian Primes, capable operators both, had built up their highest possible potentials and had launched both terrific bolts without any hint of warning.
Belle's mind, however, was already fused with Garlock's. Their combined blocks were instantaneous in action; their counter-thrust was nearly so. Both Falnians staggered backward until they were stopped by the room's wall.
"Ah, yes," Garlock said, then. "You are indeed, in a small and feeble way, Seekers after the Truth; of which we are indeed Bearers. Lesser Bearers, perhaps, but still Bearers. You will indeed profit greatly from our visit. You err, however, in thinking that we may in any respect profit from you. You have nothing whatever that we have not had for long. Now let us, if you please, take a few seconds of time to get acquainted, each with the other."
"That, indeed, is the logical and seemly thing to do." Both Falnians straightened up and stepped forward; neither arrogantly nor apologetically, but simply as though nothing at all out of the ordinary had taken place.
Each pair studied the other. Physically, the two pairs were surprisingly alike. Baver was almost as big as Garlock; almost as heavily muscled. Glarre could have been cast in Belle's own mold.
* * *
With that, however, all resemblance ceased.
Both Falnians were naked. The man wore only a belt and pouch in lieu of pockets; the woman only a leather carryall slung from one shoulder—big enough, Garlock thought, to hold a week's supplies for an Explorer Scout.
His hair was thick, bushy, unkempt; sun-bleached to a nondescript blend of pale colors. Hers—long, heavy, meticulously middle-parted and dressed—was a startling two-tone job. To the right of the part it was a searingly brilliant red; to the left, an equally brilliant royal blue.
His skin was deeply tanned. The color of hers was completely masked by a bizarrely spectacular overlay of designs done in semi-indelible, multi-colored dyes.
"Ah, you are worthy indeed of receiving an increment of Truth. Hear, then, the message we bring," and again Garlock told the story.
"We thank you, sir and madam, from our hearts. We will accept with joy your help in finishing our ship; we will do all that in us lies to further the cause of the Galactic Service. Until a day, then?"
"Until a day." Then, to Belle, "Okay, ace. Ready? Go!"
And up in the Main—"Sweet Sin!" Belle exclaimed. "What a pair they turned out to be! Clee, that simply scared me witless."
"You can play that in spades." Garlock jammed his hands into his pockets and prowled about the room, his face a black scowl of concentration.
Until, finally, he pulled himself out of the brown study and said: "I've been trying to think if there's any other thing, however slight, that I have and you haven't. There isn't. You've got it all. You're just as fast as I am, just as sharp and as accurate—and, since we now draw on the same field, just as strong."
"Why Clee! You're worrying about me? You've done altogether too much for me, already."
"Anything I can do, I've got to do ... well, shall we go?"
* * *
They visited four more planets that day. And after supper that night, standing in the corridor between their doors, Belle began to soften her shield, as though to send a thought. Almost instantly, however, she changed her mind and snapped it back to full on.
"Good night, Clee," she said.
"Good night, Belle," and each went into his own room.
The next day they worked nine planets, and the day after that they worked ten. They ate supper in friendly fashion; then strolled together across the Main, to a davenport.
"It's funny," Belle said thoughtfully, "having this tremendous ship all to ourselves. To have a private conference right out here in the Main ... or is it?"
He triggered the shields, she watched him do it. "It is now," he assured her.
"Prime-proof? Not ordinary Gunther blocks?"
"Uh-huh. Two hundred kilovolts and four hundred kilogunts. Backed by all the force of the Prime and Op fields and the full power of the engines. I told you I'd made some changes in the set-up."
"Private enough, I guess ... what a mess those Primes are! And we'll have to make the rounds twice more—when we alert 'em and when we pick 'em up."
"Not necessarily. This new set-up ought to give us a galaxy-wide reach. Let's try Semolo, on Lizoria, shall we?"
"Tune in, then ace."
"Darling. You said you weren't going to fight with me any more. Okay—I'm not going to try any more to lick you until after I've licked myself. I'm tuned—you may fire when ready, Gridley."
They fired—and hit the mark dead center. Top-lofty and arrogant and belligerent as ever, the Lizorian Prime took the call. "I thought all the time you wanted something. Well, I neither want nor need...."
"Cut it, you unlicked cub, until you can begin to use that half-liter of golop you call a brain," Garlock said, harshly. "We're just trying out a new ultra-communicator. Thanks for your help."
On the fourth day they worked eleven planets; the fifth day saw the forty-sixth planet done and the immediate job finished. All during supper, it was very evident that Belle had something on her mind.
After eating, she went out into the Main and slumped down on a davenport. Garlock followed her. A cigarette leaped out of a closed box and into place between her lips. It came alight. She smoked it slowly, without relish; almost as though she did not know that she was smoking.
"Might as well get it out of your system, Belle," Garlock said aloud. "What are you thinking about at the moment?"
Belle exhaled; the half-smoked butt vanished. "At the moment I was thinking about Gunther blocks. Specifically, their total inability to cope with that new Prime probe of yours." She stared at him, narrow-eyed. "It goes through them just like nothing at all." She paused; eyed him questioningly.
"And yet you gave it to me. Freely, of your own accord. Even before I needed it. Why?"
"Still no comment."
"You'd better comment, Buster, before I blow my top."
"There is such a thing as urbanity."
"I've heard of it, yes; even though you never did believe I ever had any. You talk a good game of urbanity, but your brand of it would never carry you that far...."
She paused. He remained silent. She went on.
"Of course, it does put a lot of pressure on me to develop myself."
"I'm glad you used the word 'develop' instead of 'treat.'"
"Oh, sometimes—at rare intervals—I'm not exactly dumb. But you knew—you must have known—what a horrible risk you took in making me as tremendously powerful as you are."
* * *
"Some, perhaps, but very definitely less risky than not doing it."
"Getting information out of you is harder than pulling teeth. Clee Garlock, I want you to tell me why!"
"Very well." Garlock's jaw set. "You've had it in mind all along that this is some kind of a lark; that you and I are Gunther Tops of the universe. Or did that belief weaken a bit when we met Baver 14WD27?"
"Well, perhaps—a little. However, the probability is becoming greater with every planet we visit. After all, some race has to be tops. Why shouldn't it be us?"
"What a logic—excuse me, skip it...."
"Oh, you really meant it when you said you weren't going to fight with me any more?"
"I'm going to try not to. Now, remembering that I don't consider your premise valid, just suppose that when we visit some planet some day, you get your mind burned out and I don't—solely because I had something I could have given you and wouldn't. What then?"
"Oh. I thought that was what you ... but suppose I can't...."
"We won't suppose anything of the kind. But that wasn't all that was on your mind. Nor most."
"How true. Those Primes. The women. Honestly, Clee, I never saw—never imagined—such a bunch of exhibitionistic, obstreperous, obnoxious, swell-headed, hussies in my whole life. And every day it was borne in on me more and more that I was—am—exactly like the rest of them."
Garlock was wise enough to say nothing, and Belle went on: "I've been talking a good game of licking myself, but this time I'm going to do it."
She jumped up and doubled her fists. "If you can do it, I can," she declared. "Like the ancient ballad—'Anything you can do I can do better.'" She tried to be jaunty, but the jauntiness did not ring quite true.
"That's an unfortunate quotation, I'm afraid. The trouble is, I haven't."
"Huh? Don't be an idiot, Clee. You certainly have—what else do you suppose put me so far down into the dumps?"
"In that case, you certainly will. So come on up out of the dumps."
"Wilco—and I certainly will. But for a woman who has been talking so big, I feel low in my mind. A good-night kiss, Clee, darling? Just one—and just a little one, at that?"
There were more than one, and none of them was little. Eventually, however, the two stood, arms still around each other, in the corridor between their doors.
"But kissing's as far as it goes, isn't it," Belle said. The remark was not a question; nor was it quite a statement.
"So good night, darling."
"Good night, ace."
* * *
And when they next saw each other, at the breakfast table, Belle was apparently her usual dauntless self.
"Hi, darling—sit down," she said, gaily. "Your breakfast is on the table. Bacon, eggs, toast, strawberry jam, and a liter of coffee."
"Nice! Thanks, ace."
They ate in silence for a few minutes; then her hand crept tentatively across the table. He pressed it warmly. "You look a million, Belle. Out of the dumps?"
"Pretty much—in most ways. One way, though, I'm in deeper than ever. You see, I know exactly what you did to Fao Talaho; and why neither you or anybody else could do it to me. Or if they could, what would happen if they did."
"I was hoping you would. I couldn't very well tell you, before, but...."
"Of course not. I see that."
"... the fact is that Fao, and all the others we've met, are young enough, unformed enough—plastic enough—yes, damn it, weak enough—to bend. But you are tremendously strong, and twelve Rockwell numbers harder than a diamond. You wouldn't bend. If enough stress could be applied—and that's decidedly questionable—you wouldn't bend. You'd break, and I can't figure it. You're a little older, of course, but not enough to...."
"How about the fact that I've been banging myself for eight years against Cleander Garlock, the top Prime of the universe and the hardest? That might have something to do with it, don't you think?"
Garlock said, "Indefensible conclusions drawn from insufficient data. That's just what I've been talking about. No matter how we got the way we are, though, the fact is that you and I have got to fight our own battles and bury our own dead."
"Check. Like having a baby, but worse. There's nothing anybody else can do—even you—except maybe hold my hand, like now."
"That's about it. But speaking of holding hands, would it help if we paired again?"
Belle studied the question for two full minutes; her fine eyes clouded. "No," she said, finally. "I would enjoy it too much, and you'd ... well, you wouldn't...."
"Huh?" he demanded.
"Oh, physically, of course; but that isn't enough, or good enough, now. You see, I know what your personal code is. It's unbelievable, almost—I never heard of one like it, except maybe a priest or two—but I admire you tremendously for it. You would never, willingly, pair with a woman you really loved. That was why you were so glad to break ours off. You can't deny it."
"I won't try to deny it. But you can't bluff me, Belle, so please quit trying. Basically, your code is the same as mine. Why else did you initiate our break?"
Belle's block went solid, and Garlock said hastily, aloud, "Excuse it, please. Cancel. I've just said, and know as an empirical fact, that you've got to do the job alone—but I can't seem to help putting my big, flat foot in it by blundering in anyway. Let's get to work, shall we?"
"What at? Interview the Primes, I'd say—tell them to hold themselves in readiness to attend...."
"On very short notice...."
"Yes. To attend the big meeting on Tellus. We'll have to make a schedule. It shouldn't be held until after Fao and Deggi get their ship built—it can't be held, of course, until after you and Jim are out of SSE. Have you got that figured out yet?"
"Pretty much." He told her his plan.
Belle giggled, then burst into laughter. "So I'm in it, too? Wonderful!"
"You have to be. If we make him mad enough, he'll fire you, too."
"Without hiring me first? He couldn't."
"He could, very easily. He doesn't know one-tenth of one percent of his people. If we work it right he'll assume that you're one of us wage-slaves, too. Lola, too, for that matter."
"Careful, Clee. You and I think this is funny, but Lola wouldn't. She'd be shocked to her sweet little core, and she'd louse up the whole deal. So be very sure she doesn't get in on it."
"I guess you're right ... well, shall we go out and insult our touchy young friend Semolo? Ready.... Go!"
* * *
"Oh, it's you again. I tell you...." the Lizorian began.
"You will tell me nothing. You will listen. Link your mind to Mitala's," and the linked Tellurian minds enforced the order. "In about two weeks the Primes of many worlds will meet in person on Tellus. Arrange your affairs so that on ten minutes' notice you both can leave Lizoria for Tellus aboard our starship, the Pleiades. That is all."
"He'll come, too," Belle chortled. "He'll writhe and scream, but he'll come."
"You couldn't keep him away," Garlock agreed.
On the next planet, Falne, the procedure was a little different. The information was the same, but—"One word of warning," Garlock added. "It is to be a meeting of minds; not a contest to set up a pecking-order. If you try any such business you will be disciplined; sharply and in public."
"Suppose that, under such conditions, we refuse to attend the meeting?"
"That is your right. There is no coercion whatever. Whether or not you come will depend upon whether or not you two are in reality Seekers after Truth. Until a day."
And so it went. Planet after planet. On not one of those worlds had any Prime changed his thinking. Not one was really interested in the Galactic Service as an instrument for the good of all mankind. There were almost as many attitudes as there were Primes; but all were essentially self-centered and selfish.
"That tears it, Belle—busts it wide open. I can—I mean we together can do either job. That is, either be top boss and run the thing or put in full time beating some sense into those hard skulls. We can't do both."
"On paper, we should," Belle said, thoughtfully. "You're Galactic Admiral; I'm your Vice. One job apiece. But we're not going to be separated. Besides...."
"Two (minds) (brains) are much better than one," both said, except for one word, in unison.
Belle laughed. "That settles that. The Garlock-Bellamy fusion is Galactic Admiral—so we need a good Vice. Who? Deggi and Fao? They're cooperative and idealistic enough, but.... Oh, I don't know exactly what it is they lack. Do you?"
"No; I can't put it into words or thoughts. Probably the concept is too new for pigeon-holing. It isn't exactly strength or hardness or toughness or resilience or brisance—maybe a combination of all five. What we need is a pair like us but better."
"There aren't any."
"Don't be too sure." Belle glanced at him in surprise and he went on: "Not that we've seen, no. But each of those worlds centers a volume of space containing thousands of planets. Including the Tellurian and the Margonian, we now have forty-eight regions defined. Let's run a very fast search-pattern of Region Forty-nine and see what we come up with."
"All right ... but suppose we do find somebody who out-Gunthers us?"
"I'd a lot rather have it that way than the way it is now. I'll do the hopping, you the checking. Here's the first one—what do you read?"
"And this one?"
Until, finally: "Clee, just how long are you going to keep this up?"
"Until we find something or run out of time for the meeting. Belle, I really want to find somebody who amounts to something."
"So do I, really, so go ahead."
* * *
But they did not run out of time. At planet number four-hundred-something, Belle suddenly emitted a shriek—vocally as well as mentally. "Clee! Hold it! Here's something, I think!"
"I'm sure there is, and I'm gladder to see you two people than can possibly be expressed."
Belle whirled; so did Garlock. A man stood in the middle of the Main; a man shaped very much like Garlock, but with long, badly-tousled hair and a bushy wilderness of fiery-red whiskers.
"Please excuse this intrusion, Admiral—or should it be plural? Improper address, I'm sure, but your joint tenure is a concept so new and so vast that I am not yet able to grasp it fully—but you are working at such high speed that I had to do something drastic. You will, I trust, remain here long enough to discuss certain matters with my wife and me?"
"We'll be very glad to."
"Thank you. I will return, then, more decorously, and bring her. One moment." He disappeared.
"Wife!" Belle exclaimed, more than half in dismay. "They must be, then...."
"Yeah." The thought of a wife did not bother Garlock at all. "Talk about power! And speed! To get all that stuff and 'port up here in the millisecond or so we had the screens open? Baby Doll, there's a guy who is what a Prime Operator ought to be!"
In less than a minute the man reappeared, accompanied by a woman who was very obviously pregnant—eight months or so. Like the man, she was dressed in tight-fitting coveralls. Her hair, however—it was a natural red, too—was cut to a uniform length of eight inches, and each hair individually stood out, perfectly straight and perfectly perpendicular to the element of the scalp from which it sprang.
"Friends Belle and Clee of Tellus, I present Therea, my wife; and Alsyne, myself; of this planet Thaker. We have numbers, too, but they are never used among friends."
Acknowledgments were made and a few minutes of conversation ensued, during which the two couples studied each other.
"This looks mighty good to me," Garlock said then. "Shall we go screens half-down, Alsyne, and cry in each other's beer?"
* * *
In thirty seconds of flashing communication each became thoroughly informed. Those minds could send, and could receive, an incredibly vast amount of information in an incredibly brief space of time.
"Your ship should work and doesn't," Garlock said. "Show me; in detail."
Alsyne showed him.
"Oh, I see. You didn't work out quite all the theory. It has to be activated. Like this...." Garlock showed Alsyne.
"I see. Thanks." Alsyne disappeared and was gone for some ten minutes. He reappeared, grinning hugely behind his flaming wilderness of beard. "It works perfectly; for which our heartfelt thanks. And now that my mind is at complete peace with the universe, we will consider the utterly fascinating subject of your proposed Galactic Service. You two Tellurians, immature although you are, have made two tremendous contributions to the advancement of the Scheme of Things—three, if you count the starship, which is comparatively unimportant—each of such import that no human mind can foresee any fraction of its consequences. First, your Prime Field, the probe and its screen...."
"Clee!" Belle drove the thought. "You didn't give him that, surely!"
"Tut-tut, my child," Therea soothed her. "You are alarming yourself about nothing."
"The only trouble with you two youngsters is that you aren't quite—very nearly, of course, but very definitely not quite—grown up." Alsyne smiled again; not only with mouth and eyes, but with his whole hairy face. "To the mature mind there is no such thing as status. Each knows what he can do best and does it as a matter of course. Rank is not necessary.
"Second, the unimaginably important contribution of the ability to combine two dissimilar but intimately compatible minds into one tremendously effective fusion. While Therea and I have had only a few moments to play with it, we realize some of its possibilities. Thus, since she is a Doctor of Humanities...."
"Oh," Belle interrupted. "That's why you knew what I was thinking about, even though I tight-beamed the thought and my screens were tight?"
"Exactly so. But to continue. With her sympathy and empathy, and my driving force and so on, the job of licking these young Primes into shape is, as your idiom has it, 'strictly our dish.' It is a truly delicious thought.
"You two, on the other hand, have much that we lack. Breadth and depth and scope of imagination and of vision; yet almost incredible will-power and stamina and resolve...."
"That's the word I was trying to think of—will-power," Belle flashed a thought at Garlock.
"... qualities virtually always mutually exclusive; but the combination of which makes your fusion uniquely qualified to lead and direct this new and magnificent movement. But Therea and I have been idle and frustrated far too long. We can be of most use, at the moment, on Margonia; working with the Fao-Deggi unit. Therefore, with renewed deep thanks, we go."
* * *
Man and wife disappeared; and, ten seconds later, the Thakern starship vanished from its world.
"Well, what do you think of that?" Belle gasped. "I was actually afraid to think, even behind a Prime screen. I don't know yet whether I want to kiss 'em or kill 'em."
"I do. That guy is really a Prime, Belle. He's older, bigger, and a lot better than I am."
"Uh-uh," she demurred, positively. "Older, yes. More mature—you baby, you!" She snickered gleefully. "If he hadn't included you in that crack I'd've stabbed him, so help me, even though it wasn't true. He said himself it's you who has got what it takes to lead and direct, not him."
"Us. We, I mean," he corrected, absently.
"Uh-huh; us-we. One, now and forever. Hot Dog! Anyway, he wants us to and we want to so everything's lovely and so let's get to work on Fatso and his Foster. I think we ought to have some fun for a change and that'll be a lot. When do we want to hit him?"
"Any day Monday through Friday. Nine-fifteen A.M. Eastern Daylight time. Plus or minus one minute."
"Nice! Catch him in flagrante delicto. Lovely—shovel on the coal, my intrepid engineer!"
On a Wednesday morning, then, at twelve minutes past nine EDT, the Pleiades hung poised, high over the Chancellery of Solar System Enterprises, Incorporated.
"Remember, Belle!" Garlock was pacing the Main. "To keep 'em staggering we'll have to land slugging and beat 'em to every punch. You did a wonderful job on her last time, and it's been eating on her ever since. She's probably been rehearsing in front of a mirror just how she's going to tear you apart next time and just how she's going to spit out the pieces. Last time, you were cold, stiff, rigidly formal, and polite. So this time it'll be me, and I'll be hot and bothered, dirty, low, coarse, lewd, and very, very rough."
Belle threw back her head and laughed. "Rough? Yes. Vicious, contemptuous, or ugly; yes. A master of fluent, biting, and pyrotechnic profanity; yes. But low or dirty or coarse or lewd, Clee? Or any one of the four, to say nothing of them all? Uh-uh. Ferber's a filthy beast, of course; but even he knows you're one of the cleanest men that ever lived. They'd know it was an act."
"Not unless I give 'em time to think—or unless you do, before he fires Jim—in which case we'll lose the game anyway. But how about you? If I can knock 'em too groggy to think, will you carry on and keep 'em that way?"
"Watch my blasts!" Belle giggled gleefully. "I never tried anything like that—any more than you have—but I'll guarantee to be just as low, dirty, coarse, lewd, and crude as you are. Probably more so, because in this particular case it'll be fun. You see, you're a man—you can't possibly despise and detest that slimy stinker either in the same way or as much as I do."
"This ought to be good. Cut the rope, Jim."
Even before the starship came to rest, Garlock drove a probe into the sanctum sanctorum of the Chancellery—an utterly unheard-of act of insolence.
"Foster! This is the Pleiades coming in. Garlock calling. Hot up the tri-di and the recorder, Toots. Put Fatso on, and snap into it.... I said shake a leg!"
"Why, I.... You...."
"Stop stuttering and come to life, you half-witted bag! Gimme Ferber and hurry it up—this ship's tricky."
"Why, you ... I never...." Ferber's outraged First Secretary could scarcely talk. "He ... he is...."
"I know, Babe, I know—I could set that to music and sing it, with gestures. 'Chancellor Ferber is in conference and cannot be disturbed,'" he mimicked, savagely. "Put him on now—but quick!"
* * *
The tri-di tank brightened up; Chancellor Ferber's image appeared. He was disheveled, surprised and angry, but Garlock gave him no chance to speak.
"Well, Fatso—at last! Where the hell have you been all morning? I want some stuff, just as fast as God will let you get it together," and he began to read off, as fast as he could talk, a long list of highly technical items.
Ferber tried for many seconds to break in, and Garlock finally allowed him to do so.
"Are you crazy, Garlock?" he shouted. "What in hell's name are you bothering me with that stuff for? You know better than that—make out your requisitions and send them through channels!"
"Channels, hell!" Garlock shouted back. "Hasn't it got through your four-inch-thick skull into your idiot's brain yet that I'm in a hurry? I don't want this stuff today; I want it day before yesterday—this damned junk-heap is apt to fall apart any minute. So quit goggling and slobbering at me, you wall-eyed, slimy, fat toad. Get that three hundred weight of suet into action. Hump yourself!"
"You ... you ... Why, I was never so insulted...."
"Insulted? You?" Garlock out-roared him. "Listen, Fatso. If I ever set out to really insult you, you'll know it—it'll blister all the paint off the walls. All I'm trying to do now is get you off that fat butt of yours and get some action."
Ferber became purple and pounded his desk in consuming anger.
Garlock yelled louder and pounded harder. "Start rounding up this stuff—but fast—or I'll come down there and take your job away from you and do it myself—and for your own greasy hide's sake you'd better believe I'm not just chomping my choppers, either."
"You'll What?" Ferber screamed. "You're fired!"
"You fire me?" Garlock mimicked the scream. "And make it stick? You'd better write that one up for the funnies. Why, you lard-brain, you couldn't fire a cap-pistol."
"Foster!" Ferber yelled. "Terminate Garlock as of now. Insubordination, and misconduct, abuse of position, incompetence, malfeasance—everything else you can think of. Blacklist him all over the System!"
At the word "fired" Belle, had leaped to her feet and had stopped laughing.
"Miss Bellamy!" Ferber snapped.
"Yes, sir?" she answered, sweetly.
"You are hereby promoted to be Head of the...."
"Oh, yeah?" Belle sneered, her voice cutting like a knife. "You unprincipled, lascivious, lecherous Hitler! Have you got the unmitigated gall to take me for a floozie? To think you can add me to your collection of bootlicking, round-heeled tramps?"
"You're fired and blacklisted too!"
"How nice! You know, I don't know of anything I'd rather have happen to me?"
* * *
"Get James on there—you, James...."
"You don't need to fire me, you fat-headed old goat," James said, contemptuously. "I've already quit—the exact second you fired Clee."
"No you didn't!" Ferber screamed. "Resignation not accepted. You're Fired! Dishonorably discharged—blacklisted everywhere—you'll never get another job—anywhere! And here's your slip, too!" Miss Foster was very fast on the machines.
James 'ported his slip up into the Pleiades, just as Garlock and Belle had done with theirs, and disappeared with it as they had; reappearing almost instantly.
"Chancellor Ferber, are you completely out of your mind? You can't discharge either Miss Bellamy or me."
"I can't?" he gloated. "Why not?"
"Because neither of us is employed. By anybody."
"That's right, Fatso," Belle said. "We just came along. Just to keep the boys company. It's lonesome, you know, 'way out in deep space."
Miss Foster ripped a half-filled-out termination form out of her machine and hurled it into a waste-basket. Ferber's jaw dropped and his eyes stared glassily, but he rallied quickly.
"I can blacklist her, though, and maybe you think I won't. Belle Bellamy will never get another job in this whole solar system as long as she lives, except through me! Maybe I'll hire her some day, for something, and maybe I won't. Are you listening, Bellamy?"
"Not only listening, I'm reveling in every word." Belle laughed derisively. "I hate to shatter such wonderful dreams—or do I? You see, the Pleiades really works, and the Galaxians own her; lock, stock, and barrel. You wouldn't have any part of her, remember? Insisted on payment for every nut, wire, and service? Now, they want to hire us four for a big operation with this starship. Since you only loaned Garlock and James to them, you might have made some legal trouble on that score, but now that you've fired them both—and in such conclusive language!—we're all set. So when you blacklist us with the Society, please let me know—I want to take a tri-di in technicolor of you doing it. How do you like them parsnips, Your Royal Fatness?"
"I'll see about that!" Ferber stormed. "We'll have an injunction out in an hour!"
"Go ahead," Garlock said, with a wide grin. "Have fun—the Galaxians have legal eagles too, you know. One thing Belle forgot. Just in case you recover consciousness some time and want to steal our termination papers back—especially Belle's; what a howler that was!—don't try it. They're in a Gunther-blocked safe."
Then, as comprehension began to dawn on Ferber's face:
"S-u-c-k-e-r," Garlock drawled.
The Pleiades disappeared.
The Pleiades landed on Margonia's Galaxian Field, where the Tellurians found the project running smoothly, a little ahead of schedule. Delcamp and Fao were working at their fast and efficient pace, but the hairy pair from Thaker seemed to be, literally, everywhere at once.
"Hi, Belle." Fao 'ported up and shook hands warmly. "I thought I was going to have the first double-Prime baby, until she appeared on the scene."
"Didn't it make you mad? I'd've been furious."
"Maybe a little at first, but not after I'd talked with her for half a minute. She'd never even thought of that angle. Besides, she thinks the whole galaxy is fairly crawling with double-Primes."
"That's funny—so does Clee. But there are other things—strictly not angles—that she hasn't thought of, too. If those coveralls were half an inch tighter they'd choke her to death. You'd think she'd...."
"Huh?" Fao interrupted. "You should scream—oh, that ridiculous Tellurian prud...."
"It isn't ridiculous!" Belle snapped. "And it isn't prudishness, either—not with me, anyway. It's just that," she ran an indicative glance over Fao's lean, trim flanks and hard, flat abdomen, "it spoils your figure. It's only temporary, of course, but...."
"Spoils it! Why, how utterly idiotic! Why, it's magnificent! Just as soon as it starts to show on me, Belle, I'm going to start wearing only half as many clothes as I've got on now."
"You couldn't." Belle eyed the other girl's bathing-suit-like garment. Except for being blue instead of yellow, it was the same as the one she had worn before. "Not without the League for Public Decency sending the wagon out after you."
"Oh, Miss Experience? Well, three-quarters, maybe...."
"Hey, you two!" came Delcamp's hail. "How about cutting the gab and getting some work done?"
"Coming, boss! 'Scuse it, please!" and two fast and skillful women went efficiently to work.
* * *
With six Prime Operators on the job the work went on very rapidly, yet without error. The Celestial Queen was finished, tested, and found perfect, one full day ahead of James' most optimistic estimate for construction alone. The six Primes conferred.
"Do you want us to help you pick up the other Primes?" Delcamp asked. "Your Main, big as it is, will be crowded, and we have three ships here now instead of one."
"I don't think so ... no," Garlock decided. "We told 'em we'd do it, and in the Pleiades, so we'd better. Unless, Alsyne, you don't agree?"
"I agree. The point, while of course minor, is very well taken. We and our Operators—we brought six along; experts in their various fields—can serve best by working on Tellus with its Galaxian Society in getting ready for the meeting."
"Oh, of course," Fao said. "Probably Deg and I should do the same thing?"
"That would be our thought." The two Thakerns were thinking—and lepping—in fusion. "However," they went on carefully, "it must not be and is not our intent to sway you in any action or decision. While not all of you four, perhaps, are as yet fully mature, not one of you should be subjected to any additional exterior stresses."
"I hope you don't think that way about all Primes," Garlock said, grimly. "I'm going to smack some of those kids down so hard that their shirt-tails will roll up their backs like window shades."
"If you find such action either necessary or desirable, we will join you quite happily in it. We go."
The four remaining Primes looked at each other in puzzled surprise.
"What do you think about that?" Garlock asked finally, of no one in particular.
"I don't understand them," Fao said, "but they're mighty nice people."
"Do you suppose, Clee," Belle nibbled at her lower lip, "that we're getting off on the wrong foot with uniforms and admirals and things? That with really adult Primes running things the Galactic Service would run itself? No bosses or anything?"
"Umnngk." Garlock grunted as though Belle had slugged him. "I hope not. Or do I? Anyway, not enough data yet to make speculation profitable. But I wonder, Miss Bellamy, if it would be considered an unjustifiable attempt to sway you in any action or decision if I were to suggest—Oh, ever so diffidently!—that if we're going to saddle up our bronks and ride out on roundup tomorrow morning we ought to be logging some sack-time right now?"
"Considering the source, as well as and/or in connection with the admittedly extreme provocation," Belle straightened up into a regal pose, "You may say, Mister Garlock, without fear of successful contradiction, that in this instance no umbrage will be taken, at least for the moment." She broke the pose and giggled infectiously. "'Night, you two lovely people!"
* * *
Belle was still sunny and gay when the Pleiades reached Lizoria; Garlock was inwardly happy and outwardly content. Semolo, however, was his usual intransigent self. In fact, if it had not been for Mirea Mitala, and the fact that she—metaphorically—did pin Semolo's ears back, Garlock would not have taken him aboard at all.
Thus, after loading on only one pair of Primes, that auspiciously-beginning day had lost some of its luster; and as the day wore on it got no better fast. Baver of Falne had not learned anything, either—only Garlock's intervention saved the cocky and obstreperous Semolo from a mental blast that would have knocked him out cold.
Then there were Onthave and Lerthe of Crenna; Korl and Kirl of Gleer; Parleof and Ginseona of Pasquerone; Atnim and Sotara of Flandoon, and eighty others. Very few of them were as bad as Semolo; some of them, particularly the Pasqueronians and the Gleerans, were almost as good as Delcamp and Fao.
This was the first time that any pair of them had ever come physically close to any other Prime. Many of them had not really believed that any Primes abler than themselves existed. The Pleiades was crowded, and Garlock and Belle were not giving to any of them the deference and consideration and submissive respect which each considered his unique due.
Wherefore the undertaking was neither easy nor pleasant; and both Tellurians were tremendously relieved when, the last pair picked up, they flashed the starship back to Tellus and Delcamp, Fao, and the Thakerns 'ported themselves aboard.
"Give me your attention, please," Garlock said, crisply. Then, after a moment, "Any and all who are not tuned to me in five seconds will be returned immediately to their home planets and will lose all contact with this group....
"That's better. For some of you this has been a very long day. For all of you it has been a very trying day. You were all informed previously as to what we had in mind. However, since you are young and callow, and were thoroughly convinced of your own omniscience and omnipotence, it is natural enough that you derived little or no benefit from that information. You are now facing reality, not your own fantasies.
"Each pair of you has been assigned a suite of rooms in Galaxian Hall. Each suite is furnished appropriately; each is fully Gunthered for self-service.
"This meeting has not been announced to the public and, at least for the present, will not be. Therefore none of you will attempt to communicate with anyone outside Galaxian Hall. Anyone making any such attempt will be surprised.
"The meeting will open at eight o'clock tomorrow morning in the auditorium. The Thakerns and the Margonians will now inform you as to your quarters." There was a moment of flashing thought. "Dismissed."
* * *
At one second before eight o'clock the auditorium was empty. At eight o'clock, ninety-eight human beings appeared in it; six on the stage, the rest occupying the first few rows of seats.
"Good morning, everybody," Garlock said, pleasantly. "Everyone being rested, fed, and having had some time in which to consider the changed reality faced by us all, I hope and am inclined to believe that we can attain friendship and accord. We will spend the next hour in becoming acquainted with each other. We will walk around, not teleport. We will meet each other physically, as well as mentally. We will learn each other's forms of greeting and we will use them. This meeting is adjourned until nine o'clock—or, rather, the meeting will begin then."
For several minutes no one moved. All blocks were locked at maximum. Each Prime used only his eyes.
Physically, it was a scene of almost overpowering perfection. The men were, without exception, handsome, strong, and magnificently male. The women, from heroically-framed Fao Talaho up—or down?—to surprisingly slender Mirea Mitala, all were arrestingly beautiful; breathtakingly proportioned; spectacularly female.
Clothing varied from complete absence to almost complete coverage, with a bewildering variety of intermediate conditions. Color was rampant.
* * *
Hair—or lack of it—was also an individual and highly variant matter. Some of the women, like Belle and Fao, were content with one solid but unnatural shade. One shaven head—Mirea Mitala's—was deeply tanned, but unadorned, even though the rest of her body was almost covered by precious stones. Another was decorated with geometrical and esoteric designs in eye-searing colors. A third supported a structure—it could not possibly be called a hat—of spun metal and gems.
Among the medium-and long-hairs there were two-, three-, and multi-toned jobs galore. Some of the color-combinations were harmonious; some were sharply contrasting, such as black and white; some looked as though their wearers had used the most violently-clashing colors they could find.
The prize-winner, however, was Therea of Thaker's enormous, inexplicable mop; and it was that phenomenon that first broke the ice.
The girl with the decorated scalp had been glancing questioningly at neighbor after neighbor, only to be met by uncompromising stares. Finally, however, her gaze met another, as interested as her own. This second girl, whose coiffure was a high-piled confection of black, white, yellow, red, blue, and green, half-masted her screen and said:
"Oh, thanks, Jethay of Lodie-Yann. I'm glad everybody isn't going to stay locked up all day. I'm Ginseona of Pasquerone. They call me 'Jin' whenever they want to call me anything printable. And this," she dug a knuckle into her companion's short ribs, whereupon he jumped, whirled around, lowered his screen, and grinned, "is my ... the boy friend, Parleof. Also of Pasquerone, of course. Par, both Jethay and I...."
"Call me 'Jet'—everybody does," Jethay said: almost shyly, for a Prime.
"Both Jet and I have been wondering about that woman's hair—over there. How could you possibly give a head of hair a static charge of fifty or a hundred kilovolts and not have it leak off?"
"You couldn't, unless it was a perfectly-insulated wig ... but it looks as though she did, at that...." and Parleof paused in thought.
"Maybe Byuk would have an idea or two," and Jet uttered aloud a dozen or so crackling syllables that sounded as though they could have been ladylike profanity. Whatever they were, Byuk jumped, too, and tuned in with the other three.
"Oh, it's quite easy, really," Therea said then. "Look." Her mass of hair cascaded gracefully down around her neck and shoulders. "Look again." Each hair stood fiercely out all by itself, exactly as before. "All you young people will learn much more difficult and much more important things before this meeting is over. I cannot tell you how glad I am that so many of you are here."
* * *
And so it went, all over the auditorium. Once cracked, the ice broke up fast.
Fao and Delcamp worked hard; so did Belle and Garlock. Alsyne was a potent force indeed—his abounding vitality and his tremendous smile broke down barriers that logic could not affect. And Therea worked near-miracles; did more than the other five combined. Her sympathy, her empathy, her understanding and feeling, were as great as Lola's own; her operative ability was as much greater than Lola's as Lola's was greater than that of a bobby-soxed babysitter.
Thus, when half of the hour was gone, Garlock heaved a profound sigh of relief. He wouldn't have half the trouble he had expected—it was not going to be a riot. And when he called the meeting to order he was pleasanter and friendlier than Belle had ever before seen him.
"While I am calling this meeting to order, it is only in the widest possible sense that I am its presiding officer, for we have as yet no organization by the delegated authority of which any man or any woman has any right to preside. Yesterday I ruled by force; simply because I am stronger than any one of you or any pair of you. Today, in the light of the developments of the last hour, that rule is done; except, perhaps, for one or two isolated and non-representative cases which may develop today. By this time tomorrow, I hope that we will be forever done with the law of claw and fang. For, as a much abler man has said—'To the really mature mind, the concept of status is completely invalid.'"
"He's putting that as a direct quote, Alsyne, and it isn't." Belle lanced the thought.
"He thinks it is," Alsyne flashed back. "That is the way his mathematician's mind recorded it."
"This meeting is informal, preliminary and exploratory. A meeting of minds from which, we hope, a useful and workable organization can be developed. Since you all know what we think it basically should be, there is no need to repeat it.
"I must now say something that a few of you will construe as a threat. You are all Prime Operators. Each pair of you is the highest development of a planet, perhaps of a solar system. You can learn if you will. You can cooperate if you will. Any couple here who refuses to learn, and hence to cooperate, will be returned to its native planet and will have no further contact with this group.
"I now turn this meeting over to our first moderators, Alsyne and Therea of Thaker; the oldest and ablest Prime Operators of us all."
"Thank you, Garlock of Tellus. One correction, however, if you please. I who speak am neither this man nor this woman standing here, but both. I am the Prime Unit of Thaker. For brevity, and for the purposes of this meeting only, I could be called simply 'Thaker.' Before calling for general discussion I wish to call particular attention to two points, neither of which has been sufficiently emphasized.
"First, the purpose of a Prime Operator is to serve, not to rule. Thus, no Prime should be or will be 'boss' of anything, except possibly of his own starship.
"Second, since we have no data we do not know what form the proposed Galactic Service will assume. One thing, however, is sure. Whatever power of enforcement or of punishment it may have will derive, not from its Primes, but from the fact that it will be an arm of the Galactic Council, which will be composed of Operators only. No Prime will be eligible for membership."