Authors: Piers Anthony
The security guard was young, fresh from the most rigorous academy, and human. That, virtually by definition, meant trouble. As the acolytes of the Cluster Tarot Temple put it, the Suit of Gas equated with both the Sphere of Sol and the condition of Trouble for excellent reason. No wonder that suit's symbol was the sword of war, despite the efforts of euphemism to redefine it as the scalpel of science.
Yet in defense of this necessarily nameless Solarian guard, it must be stated that he acted in strict accordance with the nature and training of his kind. All the pertinent regulations were imprinted on his awareness, and his decision was guided reflex.
By the book, he was correct
He saw the intruder in the private office of the Minister of Population, poking a tentacle into the computer file cabinet. It was after hours, the illumination had been set low, and no pass had been authorized. So the Solarian fired his laser stunner without challenge.
The intruder fell as the beam touched. It was a good shot; the Academy might not turn out many original thinkers, but it never loosed a sloppy shooter. The guard alerted his immediatele superior by bodyphone, for of course he honored the chain-of-command requirements, and approached the suspect.
“A Dino!” the man remarked, employing a grossly vernacular term whose origin had been lost in Planet Outworld's antiquity.
Indeed, it was a Polarian, now heaped in a boneless mass about its spherical wheel, its tentacle as limp as a dead snake. Not dead, of course; spies were never killed, because of their interrogation value and because they often employed local hosts. It would not be right to kill the host for the actions of the transferee who possessed it. This creature of Sphere Polaris would recover in a few hours.
“Funny,” the guard remarked aloud. Despite the vulgarity he had used a moment before, he was not a Polaphobe; some of his best friends were alien creatures. This was, after all, the imperial planet, nexus of Segment Etamin, one of the ten major empires of Galaxy Milky Way. In fact, without the constant flux of galactics in human or alien guise, he would have no job. “Poles don't usually snoop. They call it uncircular.”
And this was true. Polarians, in the convenient informal analogy of the Cluster Tarot, equated with the Suit of Solid, symbolized by the Disk of Commerce and Culture. Circularity was the foundation of Polarian nature, and though to ignorant entities it sometimes resembled a runaround, it was also manifest that direct spying was foreign to Polarian concept. Something was very strange, here.
The guard lifted the flaccid tentacle and played his recoding beam over the little ball set in its end. “Suspect in minister's office,” he said tersely into his phone. “Identity on record?”
Identification procedures were efficient on the imperial Planet. Soon his superior's horrified voice came back. “You bet it's on record, soldier! That's the Minister of Research.”
For an instant the Solarian guard saw his future laid out: unskilled manual labor, trimming the thornsuckers off the great vinetrees of the wilderness reservation, bare-handed. Or maybe solitary duty aboard a farflung outpost planetoid, complete with pillmeals and femmecubes to satisfy his physical and emotional needs while his mind went slowly as berserk as the sanity shot permitted.
He had shot a minister in his own office, a monumentally colossal blunder worthy of redlining in the annals of punishment. The Regulations Book would not protect him from the ravages of an inter-spherical inquiry.
But then something clicked in the gray matter behind his frontlobe shock, a notion of almost whimsical desperation that abruptly fell into place. “But he's in the
office, not the Research officeâwithout a pass, outside hours.”
There was a pause. “It is not for Security personnel to question the affairs of segment ministers,” the officer said via the phone. “He could readily have obtained clearance. He must be in that office ten times a day, consulting with his associates. He just forgot, this time.”
The threat to his future forced the issue. “Sir, it
for us to question!” the Solarian insisted. “According to the Bookâ”
A human sigh, one that implied volumes about dealing with Academy recruits in non-ivory-tower situations. “You really want it by the book, soldier?”
Dry-mouthed, knowing his chances of salvaging even a vestige of respect were fading, the guard answered “Yes, sir.”
“So noted. You are the Entity on the Spot, per that Book. I decline responsibility for your action but I honor the Book. An investigation team will be with you immediately.”
“Thank you, sir.” It was like holding up one finger to stop an avalanche, pleading the book justification in defense against the coming charge of aggravated incompetence. He might well be shipped to to the sunside mines of Inworld, a fate marginally preferable to full personality obliteration for involuntary hosting.
shot a minister with impunity! Not even if he stood upon a stack of books. The ministers had
In just forty-three Solarian seconds the investigation team arrived: four entities from Executive. They had been selected by lot from the segment pool reserved for such occasions, and represented four spheres: Nath, Canopus, Polaris, and Sol.
The guard made a formal if shaky salute to the four. “I am the entity on the Spot,” he said.
“I stunned this Polarian, believing him to be an intruder. I proffer the Manual of Sentient Entity Protocol, Subsection Defense, on my behalf. I believe my action was technically justified.” He hoped no one would laugh out loud.
The Solarian officer made an elegant bow from the waist. “I represent the interest of this Entity, who is native to my Sphere of Sol,” he said. The guard noted with mixed satisfaction that the man wore the insignia of a full colonel, a thoroughly experienced officer of Sol's military apparatus. This was good because his decision would carry considerable force with the segment authorities, but bad because ranking officers were notoriously indifferent to the problems of enlisted men, especially when the image of the sphere was involved. Still, the human advocacy was vital; at least a Solarian had the
The Polarian glowed momentarily in salute, then buzzed his ball against the floor. “I circle the injured, who is of my Sphere of Polaris.”
The Nathian rippled its thousand miniature hoops in waves, resembling a windblown deep shag rug. A portable translation unit rendered its clicks into audible language. “I pull for the situation, concerned with proper procedure.”
“I supervise,” the Canopian Master said in perfect Solarian. He resembled a monstrous insect, and he did not deign to salute. The Canopian Master species had evolved to command, and what it commanded was a humanoid species. In many respects Canopians were the true governing force of Segment Etamin. When it came to the efficient exercise of authority, this species was matchless. Even the often-unruly Solarians preferred to allocate their supervisory positions to the insectoids, knowing that the job would be done with precision and dispatch.
The formalities completed, Polaris lifted the stunned minister by heaving him up with his trunk. “My brother is unconscious but undamaged,” he announced, letting the minister slump back to the floor.
“Then my client-entity can not be judged guilty of inflicting injury, merely of causing inconvenience,” the Solarian officer said. The guard relaxed slightly, his image of the sunside mines fading.
Nath swarmed over the body, blanketing it, his little hooks tapping everywhere. “Require Kirlian readout,” it clicked.
“One might question the need for this step,” Polaris objected in the roundabout fashion of his kind. “I recognize the minister directly.”
“Yet he was out of place,” Sol pointed out. “It is our duty as investigators to explore all potentially pertinent factors. A reading of his Kirlian aura could have bearing.”
“Agreed,” Canopus said, exerting his decision-making propensity. “Recognition is not the issue; circumstance is. The minister should have been aware he was in violation of regulations.” He produced a unit outlet and tuned it to the stunned minister.
And exhibited surprise, an emotion uncommon to his species. “This is not the aura of the Minister of Research.”
The guard looked up, hope flaring. “An impostor?”
“But I am certain of his identity!” Polaris protested with uncircular vigor.
“Both true. This is a Kirlian transferee. An alien mind in a minister's body. This aura is not in our records.”
“This is verging on the angular,” Polaris said. “Our minister would not lend his body to such use.”
“Not voluntarily,” Sol said.
“He has not been absent from these demesnes since the last routine Kirlian verification,” Polaris insisted. “He was under no pressure to depress his aura, and in any eventâ”
“He remains with us,” Canopus said, studying the indicator closely with several facets of his eyes. “I now perceive a second aura imprint, suppressed by the first. The second one matches his own.”
“He is an involuntary host?” Sol inquired challengingly. Such a thing was considered impossible.
“So it would seem. The minister's aura is normal, one point two intensity, not in good health at the moment. The alien aura is more potent, twenty-seven. It has apparently overwhelmed that of the host. There are certain indications that the hosting is not voluntary.”
“What is the identity of the alien aura?” Nath inquired.
“This is uncertain without computer analysis,” Canopus said. “But it corresponds to the aural family typical of Sphere *, of Galaxy Andromeda.”
There was a brief silence as the implication sank in. The War of Energy had ended a thousand years before, but only because the Milky Way had achieved parity. If that parity had been upset, the Second War of Energy was upon them. It could mean the destruction of a galaxy. Without energy, a galaxy became nothing, for energy was the very heart of matter.
“Well, verify it!” Sol cried in the thrusting manner of his kind. “We've got ourselves a spy!”
“That might be uncircular,” Polaris said. “If Andromeda can make hostage our Minister of Research, it may have done similar work elsewhereâperhaps in the most critical locations.”
“Hostage...” Sol mused. “Involuntary hosting, without the prior demolition of the host-mind and aura. Apt term.”
“Pull-hook,” Nath agreed. “And we cannot know how many other hostages are present. We cannot trust any entity of low aura anywhere. We may already be at war.”
“But if the highest levels of our government itself have been infiltrated, how can we save our segmentâeven our galaxy?” the guard asked. In this crisis, the distinctions of species and position were lost; all of them were galactics. “We can kill
spy, but our own chain of command may be suspect.” Then he glanced quickly at the human officer. “Present company excepted, sir.”
excepted,” the officer said. “You have made an excellent point, soldier.” There was a certain grimness about his mouth.
“We shall neither kill this entity nor ignore the implications,” Canopus said firmly. “Our own Minister of Research is hostage. We can not execute him without due procedure. To do this would be to advise Andromeda that we have discovered its plot. Obviously the infiltration is not yet complete, for the invading agents practice secrecy. This one must have been searching the records of Population for information on the strength of the aura of key personnel who can be taken or neutralized. It is reasonable to assume that it requires a stronger aura to control an entity, as with normal hosting. This infiltration may be only beginning. We can therefore counter it if we can ascertain the full extent and master the technology to nullify it. Therefore we let this hostage go. The security guard shall be duly disciplined for his unwarranted attack on a minister. He shall be removed to a far post for an extended tour, one no minister would visit. I shall authorize and implement this myself, on the authority of the unanimous decision of this investigation team, with the concurrence and waver of appeal by the Entity on the Spot. An innocuous report will be filed under the code name 'March.' I shall proffer the executive's sincerest apologies to this wronged minister for this blunder by one of our personnel. I doubt the Andromedan agent will take the matter further; he will not want any commotion that might expose him. Then, secretly, we shall indeed march.” He faced the guard, all facets seeming to bear on him momentarily. “Do you concur, Solarian?”