Kirk came to with the feeling that his period of unconsciousness had bee_omentary. Naia was standing as she had stood before, just beyond the inne_oorway. The mocking smile was still on her face. "Did you trip?"
Kirk got groggily to his feet. "No, angel. That's the way I always cross _oom." As he came upright his hand reached toward the bulge made by hi_houlder holster. But it didn't get that far.
He had not seen from whence the first blow came but that was not true with th_econd. From a tiny opening in the door jamb, a pinpoint of light appeared. I_ung there for a moment. Then it brightened, expanded, and shot forth as _lim beam. It contained a silvery radiance and the kick of a Missouri mule. I_lammed against Kirk's jaw, but not quite so hard this time; only hard enoug_o send him down again amidst a cloud of shooting stars.
He shook his head and got to his hands and knees. "Wha's 'at? A traine_lashlight?" He began coming up. As soon as he didn't need his right hand fo_ising he reached for his gun. The light beam seemed to resent this. It hi_im in the solar plexus this time; a sickening blow that fed nausea dow_hrough his legs. He tightened his stomach against the agony and began gettin_p again.
"You see how useless it is?" Naia asked. "Beside us, you Earthlings ar_hildren. Will you stop being foolish, or must I kill you?"
Kirk squinted craftily at the pinpoint of light with one closed eye. Cleve_ittle devil. What the hell! Nude innocents. Tigers on leashes. Light beam_hat knocked your teeth out. Paul Cordell with a shaved spot on his head.
"You got your bag packed for a little trip, baby?"
For a brief moment, genuine fear flamed in Naia's eyes. And in Kirk's mind: Dumb babe. What's she got to be scared of? They hit you with nothing and mak_t stick. Kirk croaked, "Grab your bag, baby. We'll go find that flyin_iscuit. We got a date with Arthur Kahler Troy."
He was really cagey this time. When the light beam shot out, he hurled himsel_o the side. But he could have saved the effort. A beam came from the othe_oor jamb and he stepped right into it. That one really tore his head off.
Somebody was talking. It was a man and he had a deep resonant voice: a voic_ull of authority—and censure. "I'm surprised at you Naia. I never suspecte_ou of having a sadistic streak."
Naia's sullen reply. "Do you think anyone can do the work I do and remai_nmarked?"
"I suppose not. But as I remember it, you asked to serve."
"As a benefit to humanity."
"We won't go into it."
But Naia pressed the point. "I have always followed orders. I placed myself i_ossible jeopardy on Earth by clearing Paul Cordell."
"But Paul Cordell was not cleared."
"Not through any fault of mine."
"But why this? What end does torturing this poor unfortunate serve?"
Martin Kirk cautiously opened one eye. It brought to his brain the image of _arge blue globe. A man of fine and commanding appearance stood within th_lobe, suspended about a foot from the floor. The globe and the man gave ever_ndication of having just come through the opaque glass wall of the room, an_s Kirk watched, the man was lowered slowly to the floor and the globe becam_ blue mist that spiralled lazily and was gone.
Kirk opened both eyes now, stirred, and climbed dizzily to his feet. "You bum_nto the damndest things around here," he said, "But let's get down to th_mportant business. My name is Martin Kirk. I'm an American police officer.
One of your subjects committed a murder on American soil. I hope you aren'_oing to be difficult about extradition."
The other could not hide his surprise. Nor did he try to. "Amazing," h_urmured. Then, "I am Tamu, the overlord of the galaxy. I wonder if Naia'_ruelty hasn't affected your mind?"
"If you mean I'm nuts, I think maybe you're right. But it wasn't littl_layful here who did it. I've gone through a lot and I don't speak with an_ense of bragging. I've seen more funny things happen than any one man shoul_ee in so short a time. So maybe I am off my rocker. So I'd like you_ermission to take my prisoner back to Earth so I can give all my time t_egaining my sanity."
Tamu regarded Kirk with thoughtful eyes. "I think we should have a talk."
"I would like a talk. I would like nothing better than to chew the fat wit_ou for hours on end if my jaw didn't hurt so damned much. So I'll just tak_y prisoner and go. Do I have to sign a paper or something?"
The overlord's surprise was fast becoming a kind of fascinated awe. "Kirk, yo_aid?" He pointed to the door leading to the inner room. "Please go in, sir.
There's no use of our standing out here while we discuss your problem."
The Lieutenant eyed the door frame warily, "I tried getting through ther_efore but the light got in my eyes!"
"You can trust me."
The police officer stepped cautiously through the opening and on into _uxuriously furnished room. Tamu, dressed much the same as one of Earth'_etter bankers, followed him in and suggested he sit down.
"Why?" Kirk demanded bluntly. "Let's stop kitten-and-micing around, Mr. Tamu.
I'm not comfortable here and I want to leave. With her." He tilted his hea_oward the watching, sullen-faced Naia North. "And now."
Tamu said, "Believe me, it will be as easy for you to return to Earth an hou_rom now. You seem weary to the point of exhaustion. I ask you again: sit dow_nd get back some of your strength. Naia will find you something to eat."
Kirk's stubborn determination to force an immediate showdown wavered. It ha_een born largely of fear to begin with, and the thought of relief for hi_urning throat was impossible to resist.
"I could use a drink," he admitted.
Tamu gestured and Naia North turned to leave the room. But Kirk leaped forwar_o block her off. "Nothing doing! I don't take my eyes off you, baby. I'l_ust pass up that drink."
The girl glanced at the overlord and shrugged helplessly. Tamu said, "Have _irl bring in something. While we're waiting I suggest all three of us ge_omfortable."
While Naia was speaking into a tiny screen set into one of the silk-covere_alls, Tamu and the man from Earth sat down across from each other on a pai_f fragile-legged chairs. The overlord leaned back and sighed. "You've aske_y leave to return to Earth and to take Naia back with you to stand trial fo_urder. Have you considered that I may refuse that permission?"
"I don't think I have to consider it," Kirk said promptly.
"You don't?" Tamu was mystified again. "Why not?"
"You tell me you're the overlord. I take that to mean you're in charge. Tha_eans you have laws to govern your people and _that_ means you believe i_aws. One of your subjects has broken the law of my country. You can't refus_o let her take the consequences any more than if the situation was reversed."
Tamu was shaking his head and smiling slightly. "I'm afraid you're not takin_nto consideration one fact, Mr. Kirk. Naia North broke your law, as you cal_t, on express and definite instructions from me."
Martin Kirk made a show of astonishment. "Let me get this straight. Yo_ordered_ Professor Gilmore and Juanita Cordell murdered? Is that what you'r_elling me?"
"Exactly the reason I suggested we have a talk. To make you see why they—an_thers in the same classification—could not be allowed to live."
"Men like Karney? Kennedy? Blatz?"
Tamu blinked. "My respect for you increases, Martin Kirk."
"Don't let it throw you. I'm a police officer, and police officers are traine_o do the job right."
The overlord crossed his legs and settled deeper into the chair. "Mythox need_en like you, Martin Kirk. That is why I'm going to give you a chance fo_ife. For this you must understand: if I wanted it, you would be dead withi_econds."
A chill slid along the stubborn back of the Lieutenant but nothing showed i_is impassive expression and he did not speak.
"But because we do need you, I am going to tell you things no Earthman knows.
I believe that once you understand why Mythox has undertaken to meddle in th_ffairs of another world—and I tell you frankly that our doing so is a_bhorrent to us as anything you can imagine—once you understand our reasons, you will cheerfully, even eagerly, join us."
"And if I don't?"
"You know the answer to that, I'm sure."
A slim fair-haired girl in a pale green toga-like dress entered the roo_arrying a tray holding tall glasses of some sparkling blue beverage. Sh_ffered it first to Kirk, then the others. The Lieutenant removed one of th_lasses, waited until Tamu and Naia had done the same, but not until they ha_runk some of the liquid did he tilt his own glass. The cold tangy liquid hi_im like a bombshell—a bombshell on the pleasant side. He could almos_iterally feel his strength flow back, his senses sharpen and the poisons o_atigue and mental strain disappear.
"I'm listening," he said.
Tamu set his glass on the edge of a nearby table and bent forward, his manne_arnest. "It won't take long, Martin Kirk. Hear me. We of Mythox are far i_dvance of the peoples of Earth—both spiritually and scientifically. Life o_ur planet materialized in much the same manner as on your own world, bu_ountless ages before. Almost the same process of evolution took place; bu_omewhere along the line humanity on Mythox managed to reach full developmen_ithout the flaws of character found among so many of Earth's inhabitants.
When I tell you that we find it almost impossible to voice an untruth, tha_aking a human life willfully for any reason is equally difficult, that crim_f any nature is almost unknown here—then you will see the difference betwee_he two planets.
"For ages our scientists have observed the events taking place on Earth. B_erfecting a method for changing matter from terrene to contraterrene, we hav_anaged to bridge the million light years of space separating our worlds as w_aw fit. Thousands of years ago we could have gained control of your ball o_lay and turned mankind into any pattern we might choose.
"That is not our way, Martin Kirk. Free will is our heritage too—and w_espect it in ourselves, and for that reason must respect it in others. S_ong as Earth's peoples confined their more destructive tendencies t_hemselves we kept our hands off—even while we failed to understand suc_enseless conduct.
"And then one day we witnessed an explosion on Earth's surface—an explosio_ifferent from any of the countless ones before it. That explosion was th_irst man-made release of atomic energy—a process we had known how to brin_bout for ages, but one we would never use. For we have learned the secret o_imitless power without the transformation of mass into energy. Your way i_he way of destruction, Martin Kirk; ours is exactly the opposite.
"For the first time, the leaders of Mythox knew the meaning of fear—fear that, once Earth's scientists had found the secret of nuclear fission they would g_n to the one extreme forbidden throughout the Universe itself.
"And so we acted. Not in the way your people would have acted were th_ituations reversed. For we were still determined that there would be n_ntervention on our part in Earth's affairs—and that is still our way, just a_t must always be. But there must be one exception to this rule: no one o_arth must be allowed to blunder into the extreme I mentioned a moment ago."
Tamu, overlord of Mythox, paused to drink from his glass and to cast _peculative glance at the stolid face of Martin Kirk. He might as well hav_tudied the contours of a brick wall.
"The road to that blunder had been opened the day your learned men first spli_he atom. If they persisted down that path, it was bound to follow that the_ould attempt the thing we feared: the splitting of hydrogen atoms—th_ydrogen bomb, as you call it.
"We know what that would mean: a chain reaction that would wipe out an entir_alaxy in one blinding flash. _Our galaxy_ , Martin Kirk—yours and mine! D_ou have any thought at all on what that means?"
The question was rhetorical; even before Kirk could shake his head, th_verlord pressed on.
"Mythox and Earth are two grains of dust on opposite sides of a galaxy—_piral formation of stars and planets 200,000 light years wide and 20,00_hick. Between us lie countless other worlds, a vast number of them supportin_ife—not always, or even often, life as we know it, but life nonetheless.
"There is not one of those worlds, Martin Kirk, we do not know as thoroughl_s we do our own. Fortunately for our purpose only a relative few hav_rogressed along a line which can lead to danger for the rest. Yours is one o_hose which has—and that is why we of Mythox have taken a well-masked place i_our affairs _so far as they relate to nuclear physics_.
"Every scientist of your world, male or female, is constantly under the eye o_ Watcher. These Watchers are members of your own races—people we hav_nlisted in the fight to save not just their world or mine—but millions o_orlds.
"When a Watcher learns a physicist is close to the one key to success in hi_ffort to make a hydrogen bomb—an equation that begins: 'Twelve times zer_oint seven nine'—we are notified and a killer from our own people is sent t_xecute that scientist. Yes, Martin Kirk, we have those among us—a ver_ew—who are capable of killing on orders and for cause. Naia, here, is one o_hem. She was sent to take the lives of Gregory Gilmore and Juanita Cordell; but she bungled and instead of their deaths resembling heart failure, the_ere obviously murdered.
"Alma Dakin tried to cover up the truth by making it appear both scientist_ad died at the hands of a jealous husband. She succeeded, both because of he_erjured testimony and the fact that Paul Cordell insisted on telling th_ruth. But when we of Mythox learned what had happened, Naia was sent back t_onfess the crime. She entered the laboratory only a few hours before she cam_o your office; while she was in the laboratory the second time, the clues yo_ound were put there.
"Our mistake was in thinking that, once proof was offered clearing Cordell, the innocent man would be freed. For once more we credited Earthlings with th_ame code of ethics we of Mythox adhere to.
"You succeeded in following Naia here. Only a man composed of equal parts o_arth bulldog and genius could have done so. Martin Kirk, I offer you a plac_mong us and a lifetime devoted to making sure the galaxy of which we both ar_ part does not perish. What say you?"
Several minutes dragged by. The eyes of both Tamu and Naia North were glued t_he grim visage of Homicide Lieutenant Kirk. It was impossible for either o_hem to know what thoughts were churning behind that stone face.
Abruptly he stood up. "I'm a cop. I leave your kind of problem to the peopl_ho are good at it. My people, Tamu. You see, I belong to my world, not t_ours.
"But you've got a solid argument—one I'd be a fool not to consider. Let m_leep on it. Tomorrow morning we'll talk about it some more; then I'll giv_ou my answer. Right now I'm too worn out to think in a straight line."
"Of course." The overlord rose to his feet. "Find Martin Kirk comfortabl_uarters, Naia, and leave orders he is not to be disturbed until he is read_o join us."
On his way down a corridor behind the same slip of a girl who had brought hi_is drink, Martin Kirk was thinking: They didn't even frisk me for a gun!
Martin Kirk went into his apartment and lay for a while looking at th_eiling. After a time, he got up and went out again.