The spacecraft Aknar II rode in orbit four hundred twenty-one miles above the planet Earth.
The small gray man sat in a small gray office in the ship. He was looking at small gray instruments.
He was only partly finished with a critical analysis and he was not even vaguely satisfied with it.
A bottle of pills sat on his desk, pills for indigestion. His job had its drawbacks. Drinking all manner of hospitable offerings including yarb tea had upset his stomach.
The small gray man was deeply troubled. The problems which assailed such a position as his were never easy: they required the most conservative possible judgment. He had faced many situations in his long life, a large number of them involving the most dangerous and overwhelming elements. But at no time– he did a hasty calculation with a rolling calculator– in three hundred thirteen thousand years had he or his predecessors ever been confronted with the ruin potential of this one.
He sighed and took another indigestion pill. This last packet of information that his communicator had given him contained elements which defied even the most expert mathematical dissection and reassembly. There were explosive elements in all this which could well wreak havoc.
For one thing, a lightning storm had grossly interfered with the clarity of the first item. An infrabeam sound transmitter, no matter how narrowly it could be focused, was after all an electronic device, and interference was not only possible, it had happened. He considered himself no
technician; that was not his role. But his technicians aboard could not get it clarified either. Compounding his trouble was this delay in all communications to competent labs. He was two and a half months in travel time away from any such help.
Wearily, he ran the data of the first item through the display machine for the seventh time.
There was the compound, the old central Psychlo minesite of the planet. There were some men in hiding behind rocks holding weapons. There was the arrival of the car, the departure of the first man into the compound. Then three men getting out of the car, two of them with weapons held on the third.
He had tried and tried to get a clearer picture of the third man but the interference due to the lightning was really bad. He once more got out one
of the several "one-credit bank notes” he had managed to procure and studied the picture. But he could not be sure it was the same man. It was useless to call in a technician again. He had already done that.
He let the signal decode into running visual again and spin forward. Then there came this second car. Truck. A small figure leaping out holding some sort of weapon. The small figure racing forward to attack. It didn't
really look like an attack. The man behind the rock might have thought it was an attack. Then the firing...
He skimmed through the battle. Yes, it really must be the one on the bank note. What a perfectly poor transmission! They were usually so clear.
Then the car followed by horses and the man getting up on the car and talking to a crowd and holding the small body...
This was where he had to have clarity and he didn't have it. The vocal was so interrupted by the lightning that it was just sparks. Only a few bits came through. The picture showed arms being broken out. But not used. Was it a plea for no war by the man on the car?
Who had that small body been to cause all this? A prince of a reigning
Well, thankfully the infrabeam transmission from the island country was better and the speech there came strong and clear. And it promised a war!
But against whom? Why?
It was the same man. The ship he had gotten into had been carefully tracked as it went over the pole of the planet.
One could not be absolutely sure, however, that it was the same man as on the bank note– firelight was a very long band and almost went off the bottom of the infrabeam spectrum.
The small gray man sighed again. He could not be sure at all. Not sure enough for a vital critical analysis.
He was just reaching for another pill when a light blinked from the people up on the flight deck– there was nothing much to do while in orbit and a warning signal was a rarity. He tapped a button to light a screen and get the picture being relayed to him. And then he looked out the port.
Ah, yes. He had half-expected this. A war vessel! There it was, settling into orbit near them. Bright and shining against the black sky. Always
unnecessarily dramatic, these war vessels. Let's see, diamond with a slash, the insignia of the Tolneps. He had wondered when they would arrive.
He flittered a rolling, lighted list in a round indicator on his desk. Tolnep...Tolnep war cruisers...did that one out there have a diamond-shaped bridge? Yes...Vulcor class. Vulcor...specifications...ah, here it was. “List weight two thousand tons, solar powered, main battery 64 Maxun blast cannons....” How dull these endless specifications, who cared about the number of blast-tight bulkheads...ah. “...complement five hundred twenty-four Tolnep marines, sixty-three operating crew...” Goodness, wouldn't one think that the computer clerks would realize the important items one would really want? "... commanded by a half-captain, autonomous authority over local tactical conditions but without authority over strategic decisions”!
That was what the small gray man was looking for.
The local space communication buzzer went on. The small gray man turned a visio screen on. The hard face of a Tolnep topped by a small shield helmet appeared. A half-captain insignia on the helmet. The small gray man knew he was talking to the vessel's commander. The small gray man flipped a little switch so the Tolnep's screen would show his own face.
“Good spacing to you, sir,” said the Tolnep. “I am Rogodeter Snowl." He was speaking Psychlo, which was pretty universal. He adjusted thick glasses to better see the small gray man.
“Greetings, half-captain," said the small gray man. “Could we be of service to you?”
“Why yes, Your Excellency. You might possibly oblige us with any vital information you might have regarding this planet.”
The small gray man sighed. “I am very much afraid, half-captain, that anything I have to give you has not yet resolved itself to critical analysis. It would not be complete, and while we are always happy to be of service, I fear we might erroneously advise you.”
“Ah. Well, it won't take very long to organize things here,” said the Tolnep. “It’s been a very long voyage and my crew is still in deep sleep, but we can launch a party in the next few hours and obtain preliminary data.”
The small gray man was afraid he would say that. "l, of course, would not presume to thwart your intentions, half-captain, but I should think it would be very inadvisable.”
“Oh? But a quick smash-bash, a few beings seized from here and there, and a rapid interrogation should give us all we need.”
"Half-captain, I feel I should advise you that I do not think it would yield fruit. I have been collecting information for some time now and have here anything you would get. I can transmit it over to you, whatever I happen to have.”
“That would be very thoughtful of you, Your Excellency. But why not a quick smash-bash minor raid? I detect some thoughts on this.”
“Well, as a matter of fact,” said the small gray man, “you do detect some reservations and it is very acute of you. It might be important to stand off and wait.”
“Do you think they're the ones?” asked Snowl. “My dear fellow,” said the small gray man, “I believe there are three hundred different planetary suspects.”
“Three hundred two, I think,” said Snowl. “At least that is the rumored figure.
“We cannot tell you that this is the one,” said the small gray man, “and I can't give you comparative evidence about other planets and systems for I am, of course, concerned with simply this sector, as you are. But it is my belief, based on very thin evidence, that this just could be the one.”
“Oh, I say!” said the Tolnep. “That's promising!”
“We are not in a position to adjudicate at this time. But it could be that a raid by you might disturb what appears to be a very critical political situation down there and possibly disturb it to our disfavor.”
“You're advising us to wait, then,” said the Tolnep.
“Well, yes,” said the small gray man. “I will send you across any file data I have been collecting and I think you will reach the same conclusion.”
“It’s difficult,” said the Tolnep. “No raids, no prize money is our position. But we do have this other strategic thing.
“Yes, and we should not make any tactical move that might upset it.”
“Ah,” said the Tolnep. Then, “How long would you think we should delay? Days, months, years?”
“Months, I should think.”
The Tolnep sighed. Then brightened and smiled– a Tolnep smile was a bit frightening since their fangs were poison-'All right, Your Excellency. It is very courteous of you to offer the information and I shall be very happy to review it. By the way, can we offer you escort and protection? I should think a Hockner ship might show up and they are quite nasty, you know.”
“I do thank you, half-captain," said the small gray man wearily, “but as you know, we have no quarrel, ourselves, with the Hockners."
“No, of course not,” said the Tolnep.
“Any supplies, anything like that we can provide?”
“Thank you, not just now. Possibly later. Your courtesy is always appreciated.”
“We're already in your debt,” said the Tolnep and laughed. “Come across for some tea sometime.” He clicked off.
The very thought of more tea made the small gray man's stomach hurt.
He reached for another indigestion pill. All things considered, this really was the worst hard-core problem that had ever come to his desk.
The indigestion pill was about to take effect when he suddenly realized that the Bolbods, the Hawvins, and who knows who else might show up. He hoped they wouldn't quarrel with one another. In the situation he was in, it took months now to get proper reports home and months to hear anything. He felt very much on his own.
He looked out the port again at the gun-bristling monster of a war vessel, flashing along beside them in the glaring sunlight. Tough beings, the Tolneps. But really not much worse than Bolbods or Hockners.
He glanced down at the planet face below them. Was it really the one? If it were, in one way it would be a relief.
But if it were, what violence could go shooting down at it!
His sigh was very deep.