A Cepheid Variable winked tauntingly at the edge of the Milky Way, the Large Magellanic Cloud strewn like diamonds in a vast cosmic spume behind it. It corruscated in glorious display as, far off, a great silvery ship of Space and a tiny jot of man-made metal resumed their headlong motion through the mighty legion of the stars.
And then for an instant, the Cepheid's bright wink was dulled; eclipsed. A tapering streamlined shape slipped silently across it, and then was gone in the blackness, and the white dwarf resumed its brilliant display.
But the commander of the Cepheid's interruptor had been giving little time to appreciation of the myriad beauties in the great darkness that had swallowed her ship. She had trebled her screens and had taxed her craft's colossal power installation to its limit, forcing it to absorb and reconvert every erg of radiant energy possible as it labored to maintain the awful output necessary to cling to the very edge of R-Space, barely clear of the E-continuum itself.
She might have been an Amazon of Earth save for the great intelligence behind the high plane of her forehead, yet she was not without beauty, nor were those of her ship's complement. On their close-fitting uniforms were emblazoned the Planet-and-Circle insignia of their homeland, for they were of the galactic hosts of Thrayx.
"They proceed toward a planet on the near side of this galaxy called Earth,"
the second officer said. "Their mission is to replenish their supply of breeders."
"You are certain of that?"
"I admit it is peculiar, for the breeders they seek are women of that planet."
" _Women?_ "
"Yes. However, the Earthmens' minds indicated a strong tendency to refuse cooperation."
"I see. Do you think our probe was detected?"
"No. I withdrew it immediately when the Earthmen were taken aboard the Ihelian destroyer."
There was a long moment of silence. The commander's eyes stayed unwaveringly on the control sphere mounted in gimbals before her. They remained concentrated on it when she spoke again.
"Women, you say. Hardly conceivable, Daleb, unless—unless it was _not_ simply a penal planetoid which we destroyed!"
"A startling thought, Lady!"
"Yes. And the Earthmen, you say, did not have cooperative thoughts?"
"That is correct. They are not taking the Ihelian craft to their planet of their own volition."
"That is difficult to understand, Daleb, for the Ihelians are like ourselves in at least one respect. They are not aggressors. And if they are refused their strange request, they will leave the planet Earth peacefully. But if they are not refused it, perhaps the Earthman's superiors will cooperate, Daleb! In which case—"
"Whatever their mission, it is our duty to prevent its success, Lady. But to do this without violating the Book, without infecting a foreign area of the galaxy with our conflict?"
"I think there is a way," the commander said. She twisted the sphere slightly, and again the two tiny pips it held were caught squarely at the intersection of the curving light traceries within it. "There is a way," she said. "Give me a complete description of the clothing these Earthmen wore, Daleb… ."
A tapering, streamlined shape slid shadow-like across the face of an undulating globular cluster, and then was swallowed quickly in the strange gray void of hyper-space.
Mason and Judith waited outside the towering New United Nations building in Greater San Francisco, their chauffeured government helio parked on a sky-ramp adjacent to the three hundredth floor.
They waited for Kriijorl; they had been assigned, as Earthmen best acquainted with the alien, as his official hosts during his stay on their planet. Mason had protested, but Judith had kept the protests from reaching the wrong ears.
"You won't make any mistakes. You're home, now!" she had whispered. "After all, he's only human!"
It had been the first time Mason had heard a hint of levity in her voice, and he had liked it, and decided to take the assignment gracefully. And, the orders said, Sergeant Judith Kent went with the assignment. Without Cain!
He hardly felt nervous at all as they waited for the Ihelian to leave the General Council chamber.
"Wonder how he made out?" he said idly, offering the girl a self-lighting cigarette. "Been in there for hours… ."
"We'll know soon enough," she said. "But I—I personally can't conceive of it, sir. Of course, the New-UN is very practiced in dealing with all kinds of cultures. Remember the time they had with those awful five-legged things from Canis Major? Wanted to trade all the tritium we'd need to blow up a planet just for trees; because they worshipped trees! Any and all kinds of trees… ."
Mason smiled. He was good looking when he smiled and the Space-tension was gone from his slate colored eyes. "I remember. But it looks as though they're going to have the toughest time with somebody just like us—two legs, two arms, oxygen-breathing… . Women, the man said. Just what the devil does he expect us to do? Draft 'em? Have an international lot drawing?"
She smoked quietly, and her gray eyes were thoughtful. "A matter of view- point, sir," she said finally. "As it always is. To them, females are for breeding only, to keep their war machine well stocked. From what Kriijorl said, they do not understand love as we do. There's simply one purpose… ."
"Well, that's why I think the whole thing is—well, as you say, inconceivable from our point of view. Our culture, our women just aren't conditioned for such an existence."
"Think back two centuries, sir."
"You don't have to keep calling me 'sir' like that!" Mason said, feeling a sudden warmth at the back of his neck as he said it. And then, "Two centuries back. Yes. After every war, Earth's birth rate would go crazy. Mother Nature ruled the roost in those days, didn't she? Supply and demand, cause and effect. It's a wonder Man ever got anywhere."
"More wonder some men do—"
Mason looked up. But Judith's face was, as usual, quite calm and detached.
"You say something?"
"I said I'd like to have you get Kriijorl to demonstrate that teleprobe thing of his for us, if you can, s—— Lance. How did he say it worked?"
"I still don't get it completely. A peculiar mixture of radio and the electroencephalograph, I think. He said it replaced radio on Ihelos and Thrayx centuries ago. You can communicate to a group or an individual with it in language, or in basic thought pictures. That's what they use it mostly for, of course, and as such, it's termed a mentacom. But he told me that it can also be used as it was on us as a teleprobe when the subject isn't screened. They use a specially tuned carrier wave of some sort, he said, that impinges on a thought wave pattern, but instead of registering the pattern's electronic impulse equivalents as does the electroencephalograph, it 'reflects' them.
Like a basic radar system. And the receiver, it's a tiny thing, breaks the reflected pattern down into values equivalent to those in which the 'listener'
thinks; amplifies, and that's it! Mind reading made easy, I guess."
Judith squirmed a little uneasily. "I'm glad they're not natural telepaths, anyway," she answered. "And even with a gimmick like that—"
And then the conversation was lost as Kriijorl, flanked by two New-UN guides, strode from the building. The stiff breeze at three hundred stories of what had once been called Nob Hill flicked his scarlet short-cape behind him and rippled the broad front of his black and silver tunic.
He climbed into the helio with a smiled greeting, seated himself to Judith's right as he knew Earth custom demanded, and the craft was lifting slowly over the central area of the ancient city before Mason spoke.
"Well, how did they treat you in there, sir?"
"Not as well as I had hoped," Kriijorl answered. "Your President-General spoke with me privately after the World Delegates Council met to question me, and he held out extremely little hope. However, the issue is to be debated. I think perhaps more out of diplomatic courtesy than actual consideration. I am to be informed of the official decision tomorrow… ."
"There were scientists present, of course?"
"Yes; you have brilliant men on Earth, Lieutenant. They are good thinkers. I am certain they were interested in me for more than the sole fact that I am an alien of a race so precisely a replica of your own. But it is again the old factor, cultural difference. Your entire world simply regards women differently than we. I imagine my request, to persons less learned than those with whom I spoke, would be quite shocking anywhere on the planet."
"Perhaps," Judith murmured. "Yet somehow I wonder. Somehow I wonder how much two hundred years has really changed us. Our history in such things is not pleasant, Kriijorl. Many of our women once gave their bodies for money. Shock us? I'm not sure you really could. For your breeders simply give their bodies to produce the flesh for war. And there was a time when we did that, too."
There was silence between them for a while, and then Lance began directing the Ihelian's attention to points of interest as the air phase of the diplomatic tour got under way.
The blue-green beauty of the Pacific stretched lazily below them from the colorful California shore line to the west. Surrounding air traffic was light, and the tour proceeded smoothly eastward; over the Great Divide, and then swung north. Kriijorl seemed impressed and grateful for the momentary respite.
It was near the end of the tour's air phase that Mason remembered Judith's request, and Kriijorl obliged with an amused smile, producing a personal mentacom for Judith to examine.
"And the receiver simply fits about the head like earphones?"
"Like this," Kriijorl said. They were nearing Denver, and air traffic at their level had picked up, and the helio was proceeding more slowly so that Kriijorl's demonstration caused him to miss little of the tour.
He fitted the compact headpiece to his ears and flicked a small switch. It was suddenly bathed in a warm orange glow. "This way, the device functions as a limited range mentacom," he began. And then he flicked the switch again. "And now, as a teleprobe, you see, I could tell you, Lady Judith, just what—"
She flushed furiously, but Kriijorl had suddenly stopped speaking. His face had blanched, and a look of bewildered fury was suddenly in his eyes.
"Lieutenant! That air bus! There!" He pointed to a thick egg shaped vehicle speeding to the north. "Tell your chauffeur to pursue it at once! It carries a full passenger-load of Earthwomen!"
For a moment Mason thought the Ihelian was attempting some strange joke. But a look at the man's face told him that here was no joke; that here was something he was failing to understand.
"Plus two other beings, Lieutenant. Two others using Thrayxite probe screens!"
On Mason's order the government chauffeur swiftly heeled the helio about.
"Those buses can make nearly a full Mach when they're wide open like that one," he told Kriijorl. "We can't overtake them, but maybe we can keep up.
I'll have the chauffeur try for radio contact—"
"No, no! They'll be alert for any signs of awareness of their presence! Wait—"
The Ihelian made a third adjustment on the mentacom, and it emitted a slight humming sound, and the orange glow vanished. "This will screen us for a short period, at least," he said. "And if we've not been already detected, perhaps we'll be able to follow. If you'll continue to help me, Lieutenant—"
"Looks as though they've got some of ours, doesn't it?" Mason said evenly.
There was a strange heat in his veins now, and with the Ihelian, his nervousness was somehow evaporated. "But how the devil—"
"They are clever, Lieutenant. We were somehow followed here even as we at first followed you in your Scout ship. We may have been probed before you were taken aboard our screened destroyer."
"But you said nothing about destroying _their_ breeders," Judith said above the throbbing roar of the helio's fast accelerating jets. "Why would they want—" and she let the sentence die as comprehension snapped in her gray eyes.
Her dark, slender eyebrows arched nearly together as she pushed the thought further.
The borderlands of Canada sped beneath them, and then there was pine forest, but the helio kept the fleeing bus in sight even as the shadows of a dying day crept inexorably from the east to engulf them. And then, abruptly, the bus had started down.
"They're hanging a neat frame on you, sir," Mason said. "Making certain you don't get the women you ask. By kidnaping some, they plan sure as hell to make it look as though Ihelian desperation is responsible. And bingo, your side's in the dog house in nothing flat. No deal!"
"They're damnably cunning," Kriijorl said. "It will not be the first time they have come near making utter fools of us. I can't understand that."
"But how would they have gotten those women?" Judith asked. The helio was slanting downward, and was now less than five miles distant from the fast vanishing bus. It began to skim the tree tops of a great tract of spruce, its chauffeur awaiting Mason's signal to drop quickly out of their quarry's line of sight.
"Video ads, of course," Mason answered quickly, straining his tensed eyes to estimate distance in the fast gathering darkness. "Some big deal. Spaceliner hostess at twice the going rate of payment. Anything like that… ."
The bus finally vanished less than a half-mile ahead of Mason's helio, and there was a dark vertical shadow jutting just above the tree tops. He knew it was one of their shuttle boats, and from its apparent size would easily hold all the bus would be able to carry—perhaps a full three hundred. He gave orders quickly to the chauffeur, and then the helio was hovering inches above the tree tops, and he tossed a plastiweave ladder over the side.
"Don't use the radio," he snapped to Judith. "Just get back to New-UN headquarters. Inform them any way possible of what's going on, and then flash the air patrol and tell 'em to come gunning!"
He didn't give her a chance to argue. He simply swung over the helio's side, Kriijorl after him, and within moments they were on the ground, and running with what silence they could through the darkness toward the towering Thrayxite ship a quarter-mile distant.
"Their action is incomprehensible to me," the Ihelian grunted between gulps of air. "It violates the most basic tenets of the ancient Book of the Saints, sacred to us both—"
"Better save your breath for running," Mason told him, and they sprinted across the soft pine needle forest floor, shielding their eyes from treacherous, low hanging boughs, dodging the trees themselves as best they could in the moonlit darkness.
And they burst upon the clearing in which the Thrayxite ship had landed almost before realizing it.
Mason caught a glimpse of Earthwomen, being led as though drugged into the yawning flank of the silent vessel.
There was a sudden movement in the darkness to his left, and he heard the start of an outcry on the Ihelian's lips. But it was all he heard or saw.
There was a quick knifing pain in his skull, and he crumpled to the ground.