The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iv Part 45

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"Yes," said Orne. "But what if your Nathian underground is composed entirely of women bred the same way? What if the Heleb women were just a bunch who got out of hand because they'd lost contact with the main element?"

"Holy Moley!" blurted Stetson. "Do you have evidence--"

"Nothing but a hunch," said Orne. "Do you have a list of the guests who'll be here for the election party tomorrow?"

"We can get it. Why?"

"Check for women who mastermind their husbands in politics. Let me know how many and who."

"Lew, that's not enough to--"

"That's all I can give you for now, but I think I'll have more. Remember that ..." he hesitated, s.p.a.cing his words as a new thought struck him "... the ... Nathians ... were ... nomads."

Day began early for the Bullones. In spite of its being election day, Bullone took off for his office an hour after dawn. "See what I mean about this job owning you?" he asked Orne.

"We're going to take it easy today, Lew," said Diana. She took his hand as they came up the steps after seeing her father to his limousine flitter. The sky was cloudless.

Orne felt himself liking her hand in his--liking the feel of it too much. He withdrew his hand, stood aside, said: "Lead on."

I've got to watch myself, he thought. She's too charming.

"I think a picnic," said Diana. "There's a little lake with banks off to the west. We'll take viewers and a couple of good novels. This'll be a do-nothing day."

Orne hesitated. There might be things going on at the house that he should watch. But no ... if he was right about this situation, then Diana could be the weak link. Time was closing in on them, too. By tomorrow the Nathians could have the government completely under control.

It was warm beside the lake. There were purple and orange flowers above the bank. Small creatures flitted and cheeped in the brush and trees. There was a groomis in the reeds at the lower end of the lake, and every now and then it honked like an old man clearing his throat.

"When we girls were all at home we used to picnic here every Eight-day," said Diana. She lay on her back on the groundmat they'd spread. Orne sat beside her facing the lake. "We made a raft over there on the other side," she said. She sat up, looked across the lake. "You know, I think pieces of it are still there. See?" She pointed at a jumble of logs. As she gestured, her hand brushed Orne's.

Something like an electric shock pa.s.sed between them. Without knowing exactly how it happened, Orne found his arms around Diana, their lips pressed together in a lingering kiss. Panic was very close to the surface in Orne. He broke away.

"I didn't plan for that to happen," whispered Diana.

"Nor I," muttered Orne. He shook his head. "Sometimes things can get into an awful mess!"

Diana blinked. "Lew ... don't you ... like me?"

He ignored the monitoring transceiver, spoke his mind. They'll just think it's part of the act, he thought. And the thought was bitter.

"Like you?" he asked. "I think I'm in love with you!"

She sighed, leaned against his shoulder. "Then what's wrong? You're not already married. Mother had your service record checked." Diana smiled impishly. "Mother has second sight."

The bitterness was like a sour taste in Orne's mouth. He could see the pattern so clearly. "Di, I ran away from home when I was seventeen," he said.

"I know, darling. Mother's told me all about you."

"You don't understand," he said. "My father died before I was born. He--"

"It must've been very hard on your mother," she said. "Left all alone with her family ... and a new baby on the way."

"They'd known for a long time," said Orne. "My father had Broach's disease, and they found out too late. It was already in the central nervous system."

"How horrible," whispered Diana.

Orne's mind felt suddenly like a fish out of water. He found himself grasping at a thought that flopped around just out of reach. "Dad was in politics," he whispered. He felt as though he were living in a dream. His voice stayed low, shocked. "From when I first began to talk, Mother started grooming me to take his place in public life."

"And you didn't like politics," said Diana.

"I hated it!" he growled. "First chance, I ran away. One of my sisters married a young fellow who's now the member for Chargon. I hope he enjoys it!"

"That'd be Maddie," said Diana.

"You know her?" asked Orne. Then he remembered what Stetson had told him, and the thought was chilling.

"Of course I know her," said Diana. "Lew, what's wrong with you?"

"You'd expect me to play the same game, you calling the shots," he said. "Shoot for the top, cut and scramble, claw and dig."

"By tomorrow all that may not be necessary," she said.

Orne heard the sudden hiss of the carrier wave in his neck transceiver, but there was no voice from the monitor.

"What's ... happening ... tomorrow?" he asked.

"The election, silly," she said. "Lew, you're acting very strangely. Are you sure you're feeling all right." She put a hand to his forehead. "Perhaps we'd--"

"Just a minute," said Orne. "About us--" He swallowed.

She withdrew her hand. "I think my parents already suspect. We Bullones are notorious love-at-first-sighters." Her overlarge eyes studied him fondly. "You don't feel feverish, but maybe we'd better--"

"What a dope I am!" snarled Orne. "I just realized that I have to be a Nathian, too."

"You just realized?" She stared at him.

There was a hissing gasp in Orne's transceiver.

"The identical patterns in our families," he said. "Even to the houses. And there's the real key. What a dope!" He snapped his fingers. "The head! Polly! Your mother's the grand boss woman, isn't she?"

"But, darling ... of course. She--"

"You'd better take me to her and fast!" snapped Orne. He touched the stud at his neck, but Stetson's voice intruded.

"Great work, Lew! We're moving in a special shock force. Can't take any chances with--"

Orne spoke aloud in panic: "Stet! You get out to the Bullones! And you get there alone! No troops!"

Diana had jumped to her feet, backed away from him.

"What do you mean?" demanded Stetson.

"I'm saving our stupid necks!" barked Orne. "Alone! You hear? Or we'll have a worse mess on our hands than any Rim War!"

There was an extended silence. "You hear me, Stet?" demanded Orne.

"O.K., Lew. We're putting the O-force on standby. I'll be at the Bullones' in ten minutes. ComGO will be with me." Pause. "And you'd better know what you're doing!"

It was an angry group in a corner of the Bullones' main salon. Louvered shades cut the green glare of a noon sun. In the background there was the hum of air-conditioning and the clatter of roboservants preparing for the night's election party. Stetson leaned against the wall beside a divan, hands jammed deeply into the pockets of his wrinkled, patched fatigues. The wagon tracks furrowed his high forehead. Near Stetson, Admiral Sobat Spencer, the I-A's Commander of Galactic Operations, paced the floor. ComGO was a bull-necked bald man with wide blue eyes, a deceptively mild voice. There was a caged animal look to his pacing--three steps out, three steps back.

Polly Bullone sat on the divan. Her mouth was pulled into a straight line. Her hands were clasped so tightly in her lap that the knuckles showed white. Diana stood beside her mother. Her fists were clenched at her sides. She s.h.i.+vered with fury. Her gaze remained fixed, glaring at Orne.

"O.K., so my stupidity set up this little meeting," snarled Orne. He stood about five paces in front of Polly, hands on hips. The admiral, pacing away at his right, was beginning to wear on his nerves. "But you'd better listen to what I have to say." He glanced at the ComGO. "All of you."

Admiral Spencer stopped pacing, glowered at Orne. "I have yet to hear a good reason for not tearing this place apart ... getting to the bottom of this situation."

"You ... traitor, Lewis!" husked Polly.

"I'm inclined to agree with you, Madame," said Spencer. "Only from a different point of view." He glanced at Stetson. "Any word yet on Scottie Bullone?"

"They were going to call me the minute they found him," said Stetson. His voice sounded cautious, brooding.

"You were coming to the party here tonight, weren't you, admiral?" asked Orne.

"What's that have to do with anything?" demanded Spencer.

"Are you prepared to jail your wife and daughters for conspiracy?" asked Orne.

A tight smile played around Polly's lips.

Spencer opened his mouth, closed it soundlessly.

"The Nathians are mostly women," said Orne. "There's evidence that your womenfolk are among them."

The admiral looked like a man who had been kicked in the stomach. "What ... evidence?" he whispered.

"I'll come to that in a moment," said Orne. "Now, note this: the Nathians are mostly women. There were only a few accidents and a few planned males, like me. That's why there were no family names to trace--just a tight little female society, all working to positions of power through their men."

Spencer cleared his throat, swallowed. He seemed powerless to take his attention from Orne's mouth.

"My guess," said Orne, "is that about thirty or forty years ago, the conspirators first began breeding a few males, grooming them for really choice top positions. Other Nathian males--the accidents where s.e.x-control failed--they never learned about the conspiracy. These new ones were full-fledged members. That's what I'd have been if I'd panned out as expected."

Polly glared at him, looked back at her hands.

"That part of the plan was scheduled to come to a head with this election," said Orne. "If they pulled this one off, they could move in more boldly."

"You're in way over your head, boy," growled Polly. "You're too late to do anything about us!"

"We'll see about that!" barked Spencer. He seemed to have regained his self-control. "A little publicity in the right places ... some key arrests and--"

"No," said Orne. "She's right. It's too late for that. It was probably too late a hundred years ago. These dames were too firmly entrenched even then."

Stetson straightened away from the wall, smiled grimly at Orne. He seemed to be understanding a point that the others were missing. Diana still glared at Orne. Polly kept her attention on her hands, the tight smile playing about her lips.

"These women probably control one out of three of the top positions in the League," said Orne. "Maybe more. Think, admiral ... think what would happen if you exposed this thing. There'd be secessions, riots, sub-governments would topple, the central government would be torn by suspicions and battles. What breeds in that atmosphere?" He shook his head. "The Rim War would seem like a picnic!"

"We can't just ignore this!" barked Spencer. He stiffened, glared at Orne.

"We can and we will," said Orne. "No choice."

Polly looked up, studied Orne's face. Diana looked confused.

"Once a Nathian, always a Nathian, eh?" snarled Spencer.

"There's no such thing," said Orne. "Five hundred years' cross-breeding with other races saw to that. There's merely a secret society of astute political scientists." He smiled wryly at Polly, glanced back at Spencer. "Think of your own wife, sir. In all honesty, would you be ComGO today if she hadn't guided your career?"

Spencer's face darkened. He drew in his chin, tried to stare Orne down, failed. Presently, he chuckled wryly.

"Sobie is beginning to come to his senses," said Polly. "You're about through, son."

"Don't underestimate your future son-in-law," said Orne.

"Hah!" barked Diana. "I hate you, Lewis Orne!"

"You'll get over that," said Orne mildly.

"Ohhhhhh!" Diana quivered with fury.

"My major point is this," said Orne. "Government is a dubious glory. You pay for your power and wealth by balancing on the sharp edge of the blade. That great amorphous thing out there--the people--has turned and swallowed many governments. The only way you can stay in power is by giving good government. Otherwise--sooner on later--your turn comes. I can remember my mother making that point. It's one of the things that stuck with me." He frowned. "My objection to politics is the compromises you have to make to get elected!"

Stetson moved out from the wall. "It's pretty clear," he said. Heads turned toward him. "To stay in power, the Nathians had to give us a fairly good government. On the other hand, if we expose them, we give a bunch of political amateurs--every fanatic and power-hungry demagogue in the galaxy--just the weapon they need to sweep them into office."

"After that: chaos," said Orne. "So we let the Nathians continue ... with two minor alterations."

"We alter nothing," said Polly. "It occurs to me, Lewis, that you don't have a leg to stand on. You have me, but you'll get nothing out of me. The rest of the organization can go on without me. You don't dare expose us. We hold the whip hand!"

"The I-A could have ninety per cent of your organization in custody inside of ten days," said Orne.

"You couldn't find them!" snapped Polly.

"How?" asked Stetson.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iv Part 45

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The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iv Part 45 summary

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