Chapter 10 - The Planet Killer

Viceroy Merrill had two offices. One was large, ornately furnished, decorated with gifts and tributes from a score of worlds. A solido of the Emperor dominated the wall behind a desk of Samualite teak inlaid with ivory and gold, flowering carpets of living grasses from Tabletop provided soft footing and alr purification, and tri-v cameras were invisibly recessed into New Scot rock walls for the convenience of newsmen covering ceremonial events.
Rod had only a brief glance at His Highness' place of splendor before he was led through it to a much smaller room of almost monastic simplicity. The Viceroy sat at a huge duroplast desk, His hair was a tangled mess. He had opened the collar of his uniform tunic and his dress boots stood against the wail.
"Ah. Come in, Admiral. See you brought young Blaine. How are you, boy? You won't remember me. Only time we met you were, what, two years old? Three? Damned if I can remember. How's the Marquis?"
"Very well, Your Highness. I'm sure he would send -- "
"Course, of course. Good man, your father. Bar's right over there." Merrill picked up a sheaf of papers and glanced quickly through the pages, turning them so rapidly they were a blur. "About what I thought." He scrawled a signature on the last page; the out basket coughed and the papers vanished.
"Perhaps I should introduce Captain Blaine to..." Admiral Cranston began.
"Course, of course. Careless of me. Dr. Horvath, Minister Armstrong, Sir Traffin, Captain Blaine, MacArthur. Marquis of Crucis' boy, you know."
"MacArthur." Dr. Horvath said it contemptuously. "I see. If Your Highness will excuse me, I can't think why you'd want him here."
"Can't, eh?" Merrill asked. "Use some logic, Doctor. You know what the meeting's about, right?"
"I can't say I care for the conclusion I get, Your Highness. And I still see no reason why this-militaristic fanatic should be part of planning an expedition of such vast importance."
"Is this a complaint against one of my officers, sir?" Admiral Cranston snapped. "If so, may I ask you -- "
"That will do," Merrill drawled. He tossed another thick packet of papers into the out basket and thoughtfully watched it vanish. "Dr. Horvath, suppose you state your objections and be done with it." It was impossible to tell whom Merrill intended his thin smile for.
"My objections are obvious enough. This young man may have engaged the human race in war with the first intelligent aliens we've ever found. The Admiralty has not seen fit to cashier him, but I will strenuously object to his having any further contact with the aliens. Sir, don't you appreciate the enormity of what he's done?"
"No, sir, I dinna see the point," War Minister Armstrong interjected.
"But that ship came thirty-five light years. Through normal space. Over a hundred and fifty years in flight! An achievement that the First Empire couldn't match. And for what? To be crippled at its destination, fired on, stuffed into the hold of a battleship and ferried to -- " The Science Minister ran out of breath.
"Blaine, did you fire on the probe?" Merrill asked.
"No, Your Highness. It fired on us. My orders were to intercept and inspect. After the alien vessel attacked my ship, I cut it loose from the light sail it was using as a weapon."
"Leaving you no choice but to take it aboard or let it burn up," Sir Traffin added. "Good work, that."
"But unnecessary if the probe hadn't been crippled," Horvath insisted. "When it fired On you why didn't you have the good sense to get behind the sail and follow it? Use the sail as a shield! You didn't need to kill it."
"That thing fired on an Imperial warship," Cranston exploded. "And you think one of my officers would -- "
Merrill held up his hand. "I'm curious, Captain. Why didn't you do what Dr. Horvath suggested?"
"I -- " Blaine sat rigidly for a moment, his thoughts whirling. "Well, sir, we were low on fuel and pretty close to Cal. If I'd kept pace with the probe I'd have ended up out of control and unable to keep station on it at all, assuming that McArthur's Drive didn't burn up the sail anyway. We needed the velocity to get back out of Cal's gravity well...and my orders were to intercept." He stopped for a moment to finger his broken nose.
Merrill nodded. "One more question, Blaine. What did you think when you were assigned to investigate an alien ship?"
"I was excited at the chance of meeting them, sir."
"Gentlemen, he doesn't sound like an unreasoning xenophobe to me. But when his ship was attacked, he defended her. Dr. Horvath, had he actually fired on the probe itself-which was surely the easiest way to see that it didn't damage his ship-I would personally see that he was dismissed as unfit to serve His Majesty in any capacity whatsoever. Instead he carefully cut the probe loose from its weapon and at great risk to his own ship took it aboard. I like that combination, gentlemen." He turned to Armstrong. "Dickie, will you tell them what we've decided about the expedition?"
"Yes, Your Highness." The War Minister cleared his throat. "Two ships. The Imperial battleship Lenin and the battle cruiser MacArthur. MacArthur will be modified to suit Dr. Horvath's requirements and will carry the civilian personnel of this expedition. That is to include scientists, merchants, Foreign Office people, and the missionary contingent His Reverence demands, in addition to a naval crew. All contact with the alien civilization will be conducted by MacArthur."
Merrill nodded in emphasis. "Under no circumstances will Lenin take aliens aboard or place herself in danger of capture. I want to be sure we get some information back from this expedition."
"Bit extreme, isn't it?" Horvath asked.
"No, sir." Sir Traffin was emphatic. "Richard is primarily concerned that the aliens have no opportunity to obtain either the Langston Field or the Alderson Drive from us, and I am in full agreement."
"But if they-suppose they capture MacArthur?" Horvath asked.
Admiral Cranston exhaled a stream of blue pipe smoke. "Then Lenin will blast MacArthur out of space."
Blaine nodded. He'd already figured that out.
"Take a good man to make that decision," Sir Traffin observed. "Who are you sending in Lenin?"
"Admiral Lavrenti Kutuzov. We sent a courier ship for him yesterday."
"The Butcher!" Horvath set his drink on the table and turned in fury to the Viceroy. "Your Highness, I protest! Of all the men in the Empire there's not a worse choice! You must know that Kutuzov was the man who-who sterilized Istvan. Of all the paranoid creatures in the-Sir, I beg you to reconsider. A man like that could- Don't you understand? These are intelligent aliens! This could be the greatest moment in all history, and you want to send off an expedition commanded by a subhuman who thinks with his reflexes! It's insane."
"It would be more insane to send an expedition commanded by the likes of yourself," Armstrong replied. "I dinna mean it as an insult, Doctor, but you see aliens as friends, you look to the opportunities. You dinna see the dangers. Perhaps my friends and I see too many o' them, but I'd rather be wrong my way than yours."
"The Council..." Horvath protested feebly.
"Not a matter for the Council," Merrill stated. "Matter of Imperial Defense. Safety of the Realm and all that, you know. Be a neat question just how much the Imperial Parliament on Sparta has to say about it. As His Majesty's representative in this sector, I've already decided."
"I see." Horvath sat in dejection for a moment, then brightened. "But you said that MacArthur would be modified to suit the scientific requirements. That we can have a full scientific expedition."
Merrill nodded. "Yes. Hope we won't have anything for Kutuzov to do. Up to your people to sec to it he doesn't have to take action. Just there as a precaution."
Blaine cleared his throat carefully.
"Speak up, laddie," Armstrong said.
"I was wondering about my passengers, sir."
"Course, of course," Merrill answered. "Senator Powler's niece and that Trader fellow. Think they'd want to go along?"
"I know Sally-Miss Fowler will," Rod answered. "She's turned down two chances to get to Sparta, and she's been going to Admiralty headquarters every day."
"Anthropology student," Merrill murmured. "If she wants to go, let her. Won't do any harm to show the Humanity League we aren't sending a punitive expedition, and I can't think of a better way to make that obvious. Good politics. What about this Bury fellow?"
"I don't know, sir."
"See if he wants to go," Merrill said. "Admiral, you haven't got a suitable ship headed for the Capital, have you?"
"Nothing I'd want to trust that man in," Cranston answered. "You saw Plekhanov's report."
"Yes. Well, Dr. Horvath wanted to take Traders. I'd think His Excellency would welcome the opportunity to be there...just tell him one of his competitors could be invited. Ought to do it, eh? Never saw a merchant yet who wouldn't go through hell to get an edge on the competition."
"When will we leave, sir?" Rod asked.
Merrill shrugged. "Up to Horvath's people. Lot of work to do, I expect. Lenin ought to be here in a month. It'll pick up Kutuzov on the way. Don't see why you can't go as soon after that as you think MacArthur is ready."