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Master storyteller Fred Saberhagen continues his bestselling Berserker series, detailing humanity's war with the dreaded juggernaut-like machines programmed to destroy all life in the galaxy.
In the Twin World planets, Prairie and timber, Plenipotentiary Gregor is determined to serve his government. Even if it means executing innocent Huvean hostages, invaders from another planet. And even though Gregor's granddaughter, Luon, is in love with Reggie, a Huvean.
But now the Berserkers are threatening the TGwin Worlds, crashing a scoutship, capturing the planets' president, and reprogramming this brain to suit their violent agenda. And only the Huveans, in a desperate reprieve, can save the Twin Worlds' populace from annihilation.
--From the Cover blurb citing the magazine.
by Fred Saberhagen
Copyright (c) 2002 by Fred Saberhagen
The noise came snarling out of the distance, through the air and open windows, penetrating bedrock and reaching up into the foundations of Timber's capital city. It invaded the graceful building called the Citadel in the form of an ominous, droning bass note, blended with a grim vibration of even lower frequency. The latter component of the sound seemed to Plenipotentiary Gregor to be resonating somehow in his own aging bones. Gregor thought the projectors being tested, the planet-guarding weapons that could incinerate a spaceborne battleship at a range of thousands of kilometers, must be at least five kilometers from where he stood. The bulk of their output would of course be pouring up and out into space, but still enough energy was being wasted around the edges to shake a faint fall of dust out of the Citadel's fanciful grillwork, so delicately carved, in a time of peace, from ancient stone.
It was an ugly racket, but nothing compared to the war that it foreshadowed. A Huvean fleet might appear at any hour in Timber's lovely skies, ready to blast its cities and kill its people. After a peaceful interregnum that had lasted for standard centuries, two societies of Earth-descended humans might be in all-out, murderous conflict with each other.
Cheerful sunlight came streaming through tall windows into the high room on the Citadel's third floor, where Plenipotentiary Gregor had arrived. The panes of tinted glass had been turned wide open, probably by one of the attendant robots he had noticed on his way in, to a warm sky of early autumn. The flooding light awakened subtle shades of color in panels of century-old wood. Even the grillwork doors of the elevator were solid matter instead of forcefields, carved from strengthened stone. They opened to let Gregor's tall, spare figure, a trifle stooped with age, step out of the little cage, followed closely by his single escort, a trim young military man, sidearmed and neatly uniformed.
It jarred Gregor to think that this lovely, delicate complex of buildings was being put to use as a prison. Worse, it might soon become a place of execution. The name, Citadel, suggested a fortress, but with all its grace and beauty the building seemed wildly inappropriate as a place for fighting or even planning war. When it had been built, a hundred of this planet's Earth-like years ago, no one here on Timber could have been seriously expecting armed conflict on a massive scale. Certainly no one in any of the hundred solar systems colonized by Earth-descended humans had anticipated that such a catastrophe might lie less than a human lifetime in the future.
Gregor was clean-shaven in tune with current fashion. Gray hair, almost a requirement for one in his profession of diplomacy, fell in natural curls on both sides of a stern face displaying a mix of ancient racial traits. All in all, he showed more of his age and cared less about it than did most men past the century mark. Because of the solemnity of today's meeting, and the seriousness of the job he had to undertake immediately afterward, he had chosen to wear formal diplomatic dress, loose, dark robes over an upper body garment with tight sleeves. His feet were shod, somewhat incongruously, in gray, lightweight spacefarer's boots--if all went smoothly here, he would be on his way, within the hour, to an interstellar peace conference some light years away.
The long, high-ceilinged room that stretched out before him and his escort was empty of other people at the moment. Sunlight fell on graceful and impressive furniture, mostly of blond wood, and on the fair face of a late model anthropomorphic robot, standing beside a sideboard of rosewood and cherry. The sun tinted the delicate features of the machine's molded face, emphasizing an angelic, sexless beauty, and the light breeze from the open windows stirred fair artificial hair.
Simply but elegantly attired in plain, tight fitting male servant's garb, the machine stood gazing seemingly at nothing, awaiting orders. Anyone watching it from the distance of the elevator, on the far side of the big room, might easily have been fooled into thinking it alive.
In fact Gregor was deceived, but only for a second. The robot was too beautiful and too motionless to be human. Besides, it would be practically unthinkable that a live servant, a status symbol very much prized in certain quarters, would have been simply posted here, doing nothing in this otherwise unoccupied room.
As soon as the robot's senses registered that it had come under steady human scrutiny, it turned its whole body to face him, imbuing the brief movement with a grace that seemed partly that of a dancer, partly of a soldier in ceremonial formation. Then it spoke to Gregor in a pleasant voice, telling him its name, which was also almost human: "I am Porphyry here. At your service, sir."
"Where is the Executioner, Porphyry?" It had long been Gregor's opinion that calling a robot by its name tended to sharpen the machine's attention. Tension and irritation--and a certain resentment over having been fooled by it, even for a second-- caused him to speak sharply to the machine, whose friendly expression did not change in the least. Whether the human speaking to it might be angry, or why, was of no concern at all to any robot.
In soft mellifluous tones Porphyry told him that it served Huang Gun, who upon the recent arrival of the Huvean hostages had been appointed Executioner. Huang Gun had sent it to meet Gregor on his arrival and tell him that the Executioner would join him in this room shortly. It concluded simply: "I am uncertain of his exact location."
* * *
For a moment Gregor stood regarding the robot in silent contemplation. It struck him as somehow painfully wrong, even worse than using the Citadel for a prison, that this elaborate and beautiful device, as close an imitation of humanity as humanity could build, should have any part in arranging the imprisonment and approaching doom of real human beings--perhaps even carrying out certain preliminary steps in the process of their deaths.
On a sudden impulse he asked it: "Could you kill a human being, Porphyry? If a human authority you trusted assured you that the act would be perfectly legal, and gave you a direct command?"
Good lawyer that he was, Gregor knew what the answer to his question had to be. The expected words came immediately, and--as expected--without the slightest sign of surprise or agitation.
"No sir. Killing a human being would be completely contrary to my basic programming. As you must know." Porphyry's tone remained brisk and cheerful. Some things were unthinkable for robots, but nothing was disturbing.
"That is, if you knew that you were killing. And that the victim was human."
"Yes sir. I assumed that was your meaning."
Gregor's hands rose in a slow, complicated gesture, as if he were trying to grasp an object of uncertain shape. They were large hands, once very strong. Their wrinkled backs showed their age, and on one finger he wore a plain gold ring. Now for the question whose answer he did not know. "But if you could not predict what the result of a certain action would be . . ."
The robot waited.
Gregor shook his head, muttered something to himself, and started over. "I am talking specifically about the case of the Huvean hostages, who I assume are still being held somewhere in this building."
"Your assumption is correct, Plenipotentiary."
"Good. They are imprisoned here in accordance with the terms of an interplanetary treaty between our Twin Worlds government and the Huvean state--that is, the government of another solar system. The treaty is one of the highest forms of law."
"Yes sir. I am aware of the hostages' legal status. Also of the general organization of human governments, and the nature of treaties."
"Excellent. Then the situation will perhaps be as clear to you as--as it can be. One of the articles of this particular treaty says that if our government should decide that the rulers of Huvea have failed to live up to certain of its terms, the ten young hostages are liable to immediate execution."
"I understand, sir."
"Good--now, could you, for example, hand the weapon to the Executioner, if he should ask you to do that?"
The answer was as swift as ever. "I would expect to find no difficulty in doing that, Plenipotentiary Gregor."
* * *
Gregor had his mouth open to pursue the subject with another question, when from the corner of his eye he caught sight of a human figure approaching. He had never seen Huang Gun in the flesh, but from countless holostage images he recognized the man entering the large room through a doorway on Gregor's right.
The newly appointed Executioner was nearly as tall as Gregor, an ascetic looking, clean-shaven man of indeterminate age; in his official garb of long robes and antique headdress he could easily have been taken for a woman of striking appearance.
Gregor had an odd momentary impression that Huang Gun on entering the room bowed very slightly to the robot, as he might have done on encountering a respected human of near equal rank. Surely the figure that had introduced itself was only a robot--? Gregor stared hard at Porphyry again--yes, there could be no doubt
Evidently the robot was aware of the fact that the two high officials had never met face to face, for it urbanely performed the introduction, using formal and economical hand gestures, phrasing everything neatly, showing a nice awareness of the two humans' respective ranks.
Huang Gun's voice, like his appearance, might almost have been that of a cultured woman. His tone was cool, reserved. "We are honored by your presence here, Plenipotentiary. You have perhaps been conferring with the President?"
"The honor is mine, Executioner--no, unhappily I have not been able to schedule an appointment with Mr. Belgola. I was about to ask you the same question, whether you had spoken to him recently."
Huang Gun slightly shook his head. "Not since yesterday, sir, and then only briefly."
While the men were speaking the machine had moved again, gracefully in its finely balanced but not-quite-human walk, to stand immobile in the exact place where Gregor had first seen it. Now it was facing in a direction exactly between the two men, looking from one of them to the other as it awaited further orders.
Gregor remarked that it might seem in bad taste, to congratulate anyone on being appointed to such an office as High Executioner, which had been newly created for the occasion.
"But I will risk it. The appointment is a tribute to your unimpeachable honesty, your well known sense of duty and of fairness."
Acknowledging the praise with a slight bow, Huang Gun replied that it was indeed an honor to be entrusted with such an office, and he was proud to have been chosen.
After a moment of silence, Gregor remarked that he had come to see the hostages. "If that is possible."
The Executioner's eyebrows went up just slightly. He considered briefly. "For someone of your standing, sir, why not? Undoubtedly you have strong reason."
Huang Gun seemed about to add more, but there came another roaring test of distant weapons, and conversation had to wait until the noise died down.
When it was again possible to be heard, he continued: "They are being held in the rooms immediately below us. If the deadline passes, and our president should determine that their home government still persists in its aggression, I will be compelled as a matter of duty to execute at least some of them, according to the schedule specified in the treaty."
"And you will of course feel justified in doing this."
For the first time there was a pause, and a greater coolness in the cultured voice. "Of course. Do you suggest, Plenipotentiary, that I will not be justified?"
"No, I make no such suggestion. All I wish to say is that I do not envy you that responsibility. Of making the final determination."
"The law of the treaty will determine. In that event, I feel confident that I will have--all necessary support." And the Executioner's gaze turned thoughtfully, for some reason, back to the robot once again.
Gregor was faintly puzzled. "From the president, you mean."
"Yes, of course. From the president and others." Huang Gun smiled slightly. "There is no doubt that the terms of the treaty are clear enough."
* * *
In Gregor's legalistic judgment it would be easy to generate an argument on that last point. Not that there was anything secret about the treaty and its complicated requirements--unless effective secrecy lay in the machiavellian vagueness that shrouded several of the clauses. Vagueness, it seemed, was the price that had to be paid if two states dangerously close to war were going to have any agreement at all. Unhappily, the hostage clause, detailing the terms of what its opponents scathingly called human sacrifice, was anything but vague.
The Executioner cleared his throat, and pulled a small scroll of paper from inside his robe. "I have here, Plenipotentiary, an official list of the hostages' names, each accompanied by a few words of biography. Perhaps you would like to have it? As you doubtless know, they are all volunteers, and all are from families of standing and importance in the Huvean regime."
The hostages' names had never been kept secret either, and in fact they had been intensely publicized in recent days. Exactly half were men, half women. Gregor had earlier avoided learning personal details. He thought that if he could once meet the young people face to face, he would be sure to remember all their names. But now, to be courteous, he reached out to accept the list that Huang Gun offered. Unrolling the scroll and glancing at it briefly, he noted that it was indeed a list of names, printed, like many important official documents, in permanent ink on real paper. It was of no immediate use to him, and he put it into an inside pocket.
He murmured a few words of thanks, adjusted the tight sleeves of his own diplomatic uniform, and made sure that his face wore an expression of sympathy. Then he said: "I tell you frankly that I hope to be able to prevent these executions from taking place."
Huang Gun bowed an acknowledgment. His voice was cool and distant. "So I surmised, Plenipotentiary, from your first remarks. I assure you that I will be almost as pleased as the subjects themselves, if that can be done in the way the treaty mandates."
"Finding some way within the treaty's terms is of course what I had in mind."
* * *
The light breeze had freshened slightly. Scented with the subtle, familiar autumn flavors of the two men's native world, it was bringing comfortable coolness through open windows into the room where they stood and talked. In the quiet between periods of weapon testing, a bird sang, distantly. The robot watched and heard and waited.
Huang Gun asked: "And is it only a wish to see the hostages that brings you to the Citadel today?"
"I was passing nearby on other business." Gregor hesitated. "As you are doubtless aware, another peace conference has just been convened." He named a relatively distant solar system, neutral in the looming conflict. "I am on my way to take part in it."
The Executioner nodded slightly in confirmation. It would have been easy to offer some hope or prayer for success, but he did not.
Gregor cleared his throat. "Now, as to my visit here . . ." He was finding it surprisingly difficult to choose the words to make his purpose clear, first to himself then to the other. Some inner compulsion had driven him to stop off at the Citadel, before he immersed himself in yet another diplomatic meeting. Somehow in his own mind it had come to seem of great importance that he should confront the hostages, meet them face to face, listen to whatever they wanted to tell him. He wanted to keep himself from forgetting, when in the process of debating what the delegates were certain to call larger issues, that those standing in danger of death were all individual human beings. If he had faces to hold in his memory, live faces speaking their own names, he thought that would help.
Huang Gun was asking him: "But how soon must you leave for your conference? When is it scheduled to begin?"
The Plenipotentiary explained that a fast, small ship was waiting for him, on the ramp at the spaceport only a few minutes away. Then he added: "The most serious discussions can't take place until I get there. But you are right, I must not delay unnecessarily. Those who might begin a war at any moment will not need my approval."
The Executioner appeared to be developing a keen interest. He asked: "Is there any thought among those many leaders of seeking an entirely new solution to the ancient problem of human conflict?"
That stirred the old man's curiosity. "I suppose there are at least as many thoughts as there are leaders . . . what sort of new solution did you have in mind?"
"A bold one." Huang Gun moved to stand beside the robot. He put a hand on its shoulder--there was a trace of hesitation in the movement, as if he feared it might be rebuffed. "I mean the possibility of putting ourselves--not only the Twin Worlds, but more than a hundred settled planets, comprising all Earth-descended humanity--in the hands of a power greater than ourselves. No, I am not speaking of religious dreams. They are based in unreality, and can have only a partial and temporary success."
Gregor was intrigued. He shook his head slowly. "I did not suppose you were advocating a religious position . . . but what, then?"
The Executioner removed his hand from the beautiful robot. It was still facing directly between the two men, turning its eyes from one to the other as they spoke. The expression on its face had not changed, and would not change, whatever they might say.
Huang Gun said: "Porphyry here can serve as an indication of what I mean, a guide to the path that we should choose. Though he is but a prologue, a suggestion, of the benevolent power our machines are ready and waiting to offer us. Let them take the weapons from our faltering hands. Let them serve as judges in our disputes, and let them write our treaties. Whatever rules of conduct they may devise for us, they will not demand the death of any hostages."
The old man kept his voice diplomatically neutral. "I have recently heard similar arguments from others." Technically that was quite true, though there had been only a few others, and only one whose ideas had much weight. "It seems even our president is leaning somewhat in that direction. To the belief that we and the Huveans should trust our fate to the decision of the best computer program that can be made, and allow it to settle our disagreements for us."
Huang Gun nodded. "But in this you do not agree with the president, or with me."
Gregor said: "I must admit that I do not. I think the responsibility for the future of humanity lies with ourselves. Ultimately, no machine we build is likely to tell us anything but what we want to hear--and until we truly want peace--"
He broke off, shifted his position. "But I fear that I have no time just now for serious discussion. If I might just see the hostages--?"
* * *
For several days, Gregor In the back of his mind had been toying with an odd idea, a secret hope, that if he should go in among these young people unprotected, they would take him hostage in turn. If he himself were one of them . . . but he was not.
Putting himself among the hostages in some way would introduce a new factor into the equation--and by doing so, perhaps pull several worlds back from the brink of disaster.
But in his calmer moments he knew such ideas were irrational, that any dramatic gestures on his part would be foolishness. Bizarre behavior on the part of leaders would be more likely to trigger an explosion than prevent one.
* * *
Gregor turned to dismiss his personal guard, who had been standing silently at parade rest, a few paces behind him. "Please, wait for me outside the building."
The solemn officer--it was hard to tell from his face if he was old or young-- was obedient as a robot, though he was certainly of flesh and blood. He snapped up his arm in a sharp salute and turned away, heading back toward the elevator.
The Plenipotentiary turned back to his colleague. "Then shall we go down?"
"Of course." The Executioner seemed inclined to be helpful. "We can descend by the lift that brought you up--but to use the stairs, here, will actually be quicker."
As he started down the stair, Gregor cast one last look back, through the interstices of carved stone, at the beautiful robot. Even as Gregor looked at the machine, it began to move, walking smoothly after its currently assigned master, Huang Gun.
* * *
With the machine keeping deferentially a few paces behind them, its small feet treading the stairs with perfect balance, Huang Gun led Gregor downstairs two levels, to the ground floor room where, he said, the hostages were waiting. It was necessary to pass through a doorway guarded by two armed soldiers, who saluted the Executioner sharply, and at a word from him dialed the last forcefield barrier open.
They had entered a large, relatively dim room, furnished with several long tables, evidently a dining hall. The slightly littered condition of the table suggested that a meal had recently been concluded, and the maintenance machines had not yet tidied up. At one side, another stair, beside a glowing sign marked SHELTERS, went curving down. Gregor knew that more levels of this building existed below ground--some very far below. Deeper caverns had recently been dug out, finished and connected with all the systems of support, equipped with facilities and supplies, in anticipation of the day when an attack by humans from another world might drive the people of Timber to seek refuge.
Huang Gun halted just inside the room. The ten young people, who had been confined in the Citadel for about a standard month, were distributed about the room, some standing, some sitting. Gregor half consciously counted them, making sure there were indeed ten.
At the start of their confinement they had all been dressed alike, in uniforms that had been specially designed for the occasion, perhaps by one of the hostages themselves. Today most of the ten were wearing a motley mixture of the uniforms and random civilian clothes. The nature of their clothing while confined had been spelled out in the treaty--a fanatic haggling over details had marked the last stage of negotiation. But no one seemed to be trying to enforce those details.
The young Huveans all looked to be of very nearly the same age, in the late teens, but beyond that no common denominator was visible. They were a mixture of sizes, shapes, and physical characteristics, in a way that was representative of the population of Huvean, and of a majority of the hundred colonies.
* * *
On entering the room, the Executioner immediately said to the waiting group, in their common language: "Don't be alarmed, I have no information of vital importance."
Several hostages visibly relaxed; they were not going to be taken out and shot this minute.
"But as you know, tomorrow, or even this afternoon, that can change, and I may have to kill you.
"Nothing you and I can say to each other can alter these facts. Under the circumstances, can I say anything to you that is not insulting?"
One youth, who had not relaxed, spoke up sharply. "You might try telling us that a ship is waiting to take us home." Huvea and the Twin Worlds shared a common language; only a slight difference in accent was perceptible.
"Would that I could."
The protester's voice was just a little louder. "You enjoy listening to yourself talk, but we're getting sick and tired of it."
Huang Gun showed no reaction. There was a faint murmur of protest from some of the speaker's colleagues. Ignoring them, he turned to Gregor, and said: "My name is Glycas, by the way. I take it you are some kind of important visitor."
The Executioner calmly spelled out their visitor's identity. The reaction among the young people suggested that more than half of them had already recognized the Plenipotentiary, whose face and name were much in the news, and none of them were greatly impressed.
Gregor for his part rarely forgot a face, and one among the ten, that of a handsome youth of middle size, was somehow familiar--yes, but from where? "But I believe that you and I have met before--your name is--"
"Reggie Panchatantra, sir." The youth spoke the common interplanetary language, in the accents of the Huvean upper class.
"Of course, it comes back to me. We met only briefly, and almost a year ago--I think--"
"That is perfectly correct, sir. It was at a certain diplomatic function--" The young Huvean named the site, on a distant world that had come to be much used as a neutral meeting ground for face-to-face diplomacy.
"Yes, of course." It had been one of the semi-official kind of gatherings, where the families of society's leaders were also present. Only two thirds of a standard year ago, the gathering clouds of war had not been nearly so ominous as they were now.
With a minimum of internal prompting on Gregor's part, many of the details of that encounter came back.
Spreading his arms, he declaimed: "Oh, that our next meeting will be as peaceful and happy as that first one!"
Little changed in the young faces turned toward the speaker. Only one of them was turned away, that of another young man, evidently one who would rather spend the next few minutes of his endangered lifetime looking at sky and tree branches, rather than the faces of elderly authorities who brought no hope. Instead of being able to look forward to another hundred standard years, as might well be the case in the course of nature, it could be another hundred minutes.
Gregor couldn't blame him. Here in the middle latitudes of Timber's northern hemisphere, the next autumnal storm that came drifting in would be as likely to bring snow as rain. Perhaps similar scenes were common on the young man's home planet of Huvea, less than half a dozen light years away. What season of the year was it on Huvea now? Gregor had lost track, he could not remember.
* * *
A silence fell. It was obvious that everyone was waiting for this important, unofficial and unexpected visitor to take the next step. He had not yet tried to explain to the hostages why he was here; and now he realized that his sudden appearance must have roused false hopes, in some of them at least.
Gregor began with a routine question, asking the prisoners whether they had been well treated.
A couple of them at least, Glycas and another, were ready to speak up boldly. "So far we have." The speaker looked around at his colleagues, as if for confirmation. "As to the future, I think that only the last few minutes of my stay in this place is likely to give me any cause for concern." That evoked in the speaker's fellow hostages a feeble titter of laughter, that quickly died away.
Gregor moved a step forward. "I've made a large number of speeches in my time, to a great many different audiences. But I didn't come here today to make one. Rather I want to hear what you have to tell me, words I can take with me to the peace conference."
The second objector, a lean, intense looking young man, snapped to his feet, as if his body were on a spring. Proudly he introduced himself as Douras. His voice was hoarse, and he was quivering, evidently with anger. "Have I missed something, sir? Or are you saying you have come here simply to ask us whether we prefer to be alive or dead?"
"I have come to hear whatever it is you want to tell me." Gregor remained outwardly calm, but he was beginning to wonder why this visit had seemed like such a great idea. Was he only making a fool of himself to no purpose?
"You want some noble last words from us, is that it? So, when the talks fail, you'll have evidence to prove to everyone how concerned you are, how hard you tried?"
The youth burst out with curses. "You sons of worms may kill us, you probably will, but we will be avenged!" The guards who had been standing quietly in the background, hardly more than part of the furniture, shifted their positions slightly.
Huang Gun focused his cool, impassive gaze on Douras. But others in the protester's group restrained the young man whose nerves had given way.
* * *
Reggie was standing again, mildly rebuking his fellow hostages, reminding them that they had all volunteered for this distasteful duty.
"None of us were captured, or kidnapped, or dragged to this place by force.
"Yes, we volunteered." The speaker looked around at his colleagues. We are all of us, or almost all, children of the families who rule Huvea. Better that catastrophe should fall on our families than on those who had nothing to do with bringing it about."
"We were much younger then," another replied grimly, "even though it was only a few standard months ago. Now, are you going to try to tell us that shooting us down in your courtyard here will serve some great cause? We don't believe that any more." The speaker looked round, as if seeking support, and others in the small group nodded.
Suddenly, quietly, one of the young women began to weep. Gregor wanted to go and comfort her, but he did not. He wanted even more to get away, and was sorry that he had yielded to the impulse to come here. His intrusion was only making the situation more difficult for everyone. Some of the guards were looking at him unhappily. What exactly was it he had expected to learn from these people that would help them, or him, or the cause of peace?
Glycas was on his feet, and seemed about to try to make a speech, but before he could utter a word he was cut off. Again, some kind of weapons testing, this outburst sounding even closer than before, produced a vibration that shook the building. Little showers of dirt and dust came trickling from the vaulted ceiling. Gregor looked up in alarm, until he realized that the hostages were paying the dust fall no attention. The noise was louder this time, and for a full minute it made conversation difficult.
Evidently the technicians were not only testing the offensive weapons, but the planet's forcefield shields as well. Activation of the shields worked a sudden alteration in the whole cheerful sky, a dimming of the intensity of sunlight reaching the planetary surface by about a third.
Gregor noticed one of the soldiers, standing near the doorway. gazing up into the sky-gloom with evident satisfaction. It seemed quite possible to know the young man's thoughts: Let the motherless Huveans with their damned murderous weapons try to get through that.