Ahja slammed his fist into the side of the communicator consule. He felt foolish immediatly afterward, realizing he was in danger of losing control of the situation. Loss of control was something that he couldn’t allow to happen, especially not at this time. Ruefully rubbing the reddened knuckles of his hand, the Master Translator stood in front of the blank screen. The communicator should have responded to the controls, but it hadn’t, not even after repeated attempts. For what must have been the hundredth time that hour, Ahja glanced at his watch; there was little time left. If he failed to activate the equipment, he would be cut off entirely from the Lodestar, and that meant that he might be marooned on Terra. The thought was the most frightening thing that he had ever experienced. Perspiration ran down his forehead even faster than it had before. It streaked and smeared the Terran style lenses, which now rested very precariously on the narrow bridge of his nose.
Despair mingled with disgust for his mechanical ineptitude. Paradoxically, trying harder only made things worse. Ahja turned away from the console to reach for the operations manual, when inexplicably the screen burst into a mass of bright, swirling colors. He tripped over his own feet as he scrambled back to his position at the console, and adjusted the reception in accordance with the musical pattern of the hailing frequency. Ahja stood back to study the test image as it formed on the screen. It was perfect, and he sighed with satisfaction and relief. In a few minutes he would know if his own transmission were just as good. He slid into the chair in front of the console and ran his fingers through his hair; it was wet with sweat, and his hands shook so badly that he sat on them.
Ahja studied the colors on the screen as he searched for the pattern, which would indicate the frequency that he was to use. Once he had determined the pattern, he would be able to transmit, the Lodestar’s computers would lock into his transmission, and the initial phase of contact would be complete. Suddenly, the color array of lights aligned into orderly bars. It was the signal that he had waited for; all was in readiness and the communication could begin. Ahja placed his trembling, sweaty hand on the transmitter. It felt warm, alive, and the man’s pulse quickened.
“Lodestar, this is the Master Translator to the Council of Ten, of the Second Federation, please acknowledge.” Ahja held his breath as he waited for a reply.
“Caution! Improper use of scrambler … switch over immediately.” The transmission ended and the screen went blank abruptly. A howl of protest escaped the normally staid Master Translator. He twirled dials and pushed switches, resettinh the scrambler until the familiar test pattern colors once again filled the screen. Ahja forced himself to be calm although his knees were still shaky and his throat, dry. This time, however, contact was established without difficulty. After the initial formal greetings, Ahja and the Lord Chairman settled down to an exchange of information.
Their privacy was assured by the ever‑vigilant scrambler that automatically changed frequencies, and at times even the code in use was changed, whenever the scrambler felt itself being scanned.
“I’m very pleased that you look so well, Ahja. It appears that the time you have spent on Terra has not been the extreme hardship that you feared it would be,” the Lord Chairman smiled warmly at his friend, his small, round eyes glittered with pleasure.
“No,” Ahja admitted, “it has not been much of a hardship.” He smiled happily as the memory of the recent bout with the communicator retreated from his mind.
“You will find that my time has been spent very well, Lord Chairman. I’m certain that the data now being transmitted to the Lodestar computers will prove invaluable to the Federation. The data could not have been collected in any other way, you were right as usual. Personal observation was key.”
“Tell me of those personal observations of your’s, Ahja, those subjective impressions and feelings that I value so highly.”
Ahja flushed with pleasure; the Chairman was not known to lavish praise indiscriminately. “It is rather beautiful here on Terra. Although this world belongs to a singular solar system, it is not too unlike Trag in topography. At times I could almost pretend that I was home on Trag.” The Tragian words felt almost strange in Ahja’s mouth after so many months of using the Terran idioms. As the words of his mother tongue flowed from him, Ahja realized how much he had longed to hear the sounds of the Tragian language again. The words filled his mouth; their taste was wonderful, and he savored them slowly.
“Poor, Ahja,” Minje murmured, “you are almost a Rizorian in your love for your home planet. It must have been more difficult for you away from Trag than I could ever imagine. The Federation will not forget the great sacrifices that you have made in her service. Nor shall l!”
Ahja remained silent. The praise being lavished upon him made him feel uneasy. Fro From the beginning, he had made it clear that this mission was not to his liking, yet they had ordered him to Terra, and he had come to serve the Federation and Trag. He had come because of his devotion to duty and to responsibility, and yet even as he had applied his skills to the task at hand, the strong feelings of bitterness had stayed with him. In fact, he had nurtured the bitterness and the resentment through the long, dark Terran winter, even though he knew that the Lord Chairman had been right to send him.
“The most difficult problem for me to overcome, Minje, was the total darkness of the Terran night. None of the conditioning that I received on Trag had truly prepared me for it. Even now I never leave this base at night.”
“How often is their night?”
“Once every revolution, and it lasts for at least half that time. In the winter, it lasts even longer,” Ahja could not suppress a little smile when he noticed Minje’s reaction. The Chairman had shuddered visibly.
“Now I see, friend Ahja, that my praise of you was not enough. That in itself is a great thing to endure. Soon all of this unpleasantness will be over, and you will be well rewarded.”
“A successful completion will be all the reward that I require, Lord Minje!” Ahja bowed his head slightly in acknowledgement of the Chairman’s words, which had in spite of Ahja’s initial resistence, soothed away some of the bitterness that had been his constant companion for such a long time.
The Chairman then asked Ahja to deliver a synopsis of his report; Ahja complied. “The range of racial diversity on Terra is extraordinary. The physical characteristics of almost every member planet of the Original Six are represented,” Ahja paused dramatically, and he smacked his lips with the satisfaction at the Chairman’s reaction.
“The presence of these peoples proves, in my opinion, that this is in fact the very same notorious prison planet, which according to Tragian legend, clawed its way from the status of second rate penal colony to become the major adversity of the First Federation.”
Ahja enjoyed Minje’s undivided attention. He leaned forward and dropped his voice to an almost conspiratorial whisper and continued his report. “Our scholars could spend lifetimes on Terra enriching our knowledge of the galaxy, and of ourselves. I am almost certain that somewhere on this planet lies a part of the puzzle of our own beginnings.” Immediately, Ahja noticed the change of expression on the Chairman’s face. Perhaps he had over‑stepped his bounds a little. He pressed ahead with another thought. “I haven’t found any leads as to what might have happened to the original Terran natives. It was thought to be an established fact that they did exist.” A germ of a thought tugged at Ahja, and he found it almost irresistable; he pursued it.
“It would be interesting to discover if those native Terrans were destroyed, assimilated, or are still living in an isolated part of the planet, which we have not yet studied, If the natives were assimilated, then that would make us genetically compatible! Don’t you think that this is exciting information that would set the imagination of our scholars and scientists on fire?
“And there is another interesting bit of information which might interest you, Minje. In one of the languages of this planet, the people refer to this world as the Earth.” Ahja was certain that Minje would react strongly to this information, and he was right.
“The Earth?” Minje had tried his best to control his reaction to the news that Ahja had just given to him, but he was betrayed by the speed that his bushy eyebrows flew upward to meet the shadow of the golden three corned hat, symbol of his high office. He regained his composure very quickly, and he continued his remarks in a stilted matter‑of‑fact voice. “Earth,” he repeated, “how very interesting.”
“Yes, I thought that you would find it so. As you know it is the very same name discovered in the ancient Luna Scrolls, which date hundreds of thousands of years before the First Federation, and which were not discovered until fairly recently,” Ahja’s voice grew shrill, “and the scrolls date back long before the establishment of the Terran penal colony!”
“Ahja, I grant you that this is interesting,” Minje looked uncomfortable, and it would have been obvious to anyone who knew him that he wanted to change the topic of conversation, “but please, continue with your report. Time is of the essence.”
Ahja sighed. He had not wanted to rush this interview, but he could tell from Minje’s tone of voice, and his facial expression that it would be best to continue with the one topic that he knew would interest the Chairman more than any other. “As to the question of the weapons‑” Ahja smiled knowingly. Minje’s interest had been recaptured just as the Master Translator knew that it would be.
The elderly Chairman leaned forward, his eyes grew wider in anticipation and his tongue licked his full pink lips nervously.
“I know that you’ll be pleased to hear, Minje, that I’ve found no evidence of the terrible weapons, which are described so vividly to us in our ancient writings. In fact, precious little remains of their contact with us eleven thousand Earth years ago. A few of their legends speak of contact with beings from the skies, but mostly they are treated as fanciful entertainment with no basis in fact.
“As the computers sort out the data, I feel that my own hypothesis will be proven,” Ahja added. He hoped that Minje would ask for elaboration, and he did, but not too enthusiastically.
Ahja breathed in deeply, and puffed up with pride. “I believe that I can prove that the great civilization built here by that incredible assortment of banished criminals, exiled political prisoners, rebel scientists and their renegade guards was destroyed thousands of Earth years ago by some planetary upheaval! Minje, I truly believe that the descendants of the original colony rebels sank into unparallelled barbarism. This means that perhaps the knowledge of those great weapons is lost to these present day Terrans, and that we no longer face the dangers described in the ancient writings!”
“Perhaps is not to be certain, Master Translator. When one deals with the security of the Federation, perhaps is not enough!” Minje admonished him firmly.
“I can’t begin to imagine what scope of catastrophe might be powerful enough to wipe out a civilization capable not only of holding the Federation at bay, but also of bending it to its will. The mere fact that the Prohibition is still in effect attests to that incredible power. And remember, Ahja, that the First Federation was at the height of its power when nothing more than a tattered band repulsed it. They then went further and declared that Terra was forever free and off limits to the Federation members and to its descendants for all time. So is it written.” Minje rubbed the smooth, pale skin of his cheek thoughtfully; he had spoken in a hushed, almost reverent tone.
“These thoughts of the Prohibition make me uneasy, Ahja,” the Chairman admitted, “for if we inadvertently release those forces again‑” his voice failed him, and the powerful Lord Chairman of the Council of Ten seemed to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of his thoughts. His words had faded into silence, and he stared at the communicator as he bit his full lips nervously, and blinked his eyes rapidly. It was as if he tried to wipe away some terrible vision that only he could see. Ahja bowed his head in respect and remained silent.
“Truly I fear, Ahja,” the great Lord spoke again to his trusted friend and translator. “I fear for your safety, and I fear the consequences of this mission.”
Ahja was horrified that Minje should express such open declarations of fear, nevertheless, he felt proud that the Lord Chairman had chosen to divulge such feelings to him.
“We are maintaining the blockade around this solar system at its outer reaches; we do not dare come too close to Terra itself. Every ship, that I know is loyal to me personally, has been called into service, but not even they know the true nature of this mission. Since you are now in my complete confidence,” the Chairman smiled broadly at the Master Translator, “I shouldn’t have to remind you what would happen if news of this operation were to leak out to the general population.” Minje’s face darkened suddenly.
Ahja felt uneasy once again.
“It is entirely possible that we might have to deal with massive opposition, perhaps even open rebellion!” The Lord Chairman’s voice grew shaky and dropped to a whisper.
“I feel that at that point, even our most loyal followers would turn against us; they would have to.”
Ahja leaned forward to catch his words.
“The Selenians, in particular, are already suspicious. I would give anything to know how they garner information. They have shown undue interest in our every move since the Rizorian audience. With your background, and experience with the Selenians, you know that this would be the perfect time for them to call for a vote of confidence. Frankly, it’s such a perfect opportunity that even I would find it irresistible were I in their place.”
Ahja’s head nodded in complete agreement; his feelings of loyalty strengthened. Often, he had envied the immense power of the Chairman, but the responsibility that accompanied that power was a fearsome thing. It was something that Ahja felt he could never accept. He could not help but admire this huge man, who through sheer force of personality had in the past held the Federation together during some of its most difficult moments. This now was the greatest crisis that the Federation had had to face since the collapse of the First Federation. A primary cause of that first collapse were the problems initiated by penal colony Terra. Ahja felt determined that history would not repeat itself, not if he could help it. At that moment, Ahja knew that he would rather die than to fail the Federation and his friend. The bitterness that he had felt during his long and lonely stay on Earth faded completely. He felt whole and filled with purpose again.
“Listen now, Ahja, we must find the fugitives before the Rizorians grow impatient and attempt to break through the blockade themselves. This is the time of the most personal danger, be careful! Our faith and our hope go with you. As soon as you locate the outlaws, we wilI remove them from the planet surface and hand them over to the waiting Purifications Squads. I know that I speak for both of us when I say that it will be a great relief when we withdraw from this system and return this sector to its undisturbed status.”
Once again Ahja nodded his head in agreement. “I do my best, Minje,” he said as he placed the palm of his right hand across his heart and bowed deeply.
“You will succeed,” the Chairman murmured as he returned Ahja’s bow. It was the greatest compliment that he could give.
Suddenly and without warning, the communicator went blank!
Ahja sat quietly, not moving a muscle and scarcely daring to breathe. The reason for the interruption had to be extremely important, a matter of Federation security. The minutes passed slowly, painfully, as wild thoughts of imminent doom raced through his mind. He comforted himself with the thought that it had to be nothing more than a malfunction, just as before, but he wasn’t totally convinced. Ahja’s eyes never once strayed from the blank screen until once again it came to life with Minje’s image.
The Lord Chairman’s face, usually pallid, appeared flushed, his small eyes seemed to bulge from their sockets and, most distressing of all, the elderly Chairman seemed to be having trouble breathing.
“We now have a very serious complication, Ahja!”
“A complication?” Ahja’s voice squeaked as he asked the question that he truly didn’t want to have answered. The Master Translator felt his mouth grow dry at the same time that his palms became unusually sweaty.
“It is what we feared,” Minje spoke slowly. “The Selenians are mobilizing! I had suspected that it was just a matter of time, but I had not expected it this soon. We have just received confirmed reports that one of their largest fleets is headed towards this solar system. It is obvious to me that they intend to prove violation of the quarantine!”
Minje seemed to be on the verge of collapse.
“Somehow I must stop them, or it may mean the fall of this government!” Minje had spoken mournfully as if the government’s fall were already an accomplished fact.
The news struck Ahja like a blow across his face. How could the Selenians have moved so quickly? Ahja shook his head. He knew little of espionage; the life of a scholar was all that had ever interested him, and all that he ever knew. As a scholar, he was unsurpassed, but now caught in the midst of the greatest conspiracy in the history of two mighty Federations, he wondered just how long he would be able to function effectively.
The Selenians was the general term applied to a group of three planets in the outer rim of the Selenian system. These were the only three planets that had actually been forced into joining the Second Federation as a condition of surrender after the Third Intergalactic War. At that time, it was the opinion of the leaders of the Federation that the Selenians could be better watched and controlled as members of the Federation.
Surprisingly human in appearance, those reptilian life forms spent most of their lives in the warm, green oceans of their planets. They had repeatedly demonstrated no bond of affection for the warm‑blooded members of the Second Federation, and they had insisted that membership existed purely out of political necessity. During the past decade, however, resistance had seemed to diminish somewhat due to a very favorable balance of trade. Furthermore, Selenian diplomats were growing increasingly skillful in their trade negotiations. Selenians were highly intelligent and adaptable, and to the increasing discomfort of all those who wished to keep them in their place, their rapid growth in learning and in acquiring wealth seemed to be boundless.
It didn’t take the resourceful Selenians long to realize the value of the vast quantities of food harvested from their oceans. And they were just realizing the enormous potential of their minerals and metals, some of which were considered rare and valuable by the other Federation planets. For the past few years, it seemed to the casual observer that the Selenians had at last settled down as responsible members of the Federation. Some had even commented that with increasing prosperity, the Selenian philosophy would ripen and mellow into a more acceptable peaceful one. No serious student of the Selenian Triplets had been fooled. The Selenians hadn’t settled down; they were biding their time.
Ahja was no casual observer of the Selenian Triplets, and he knew that the emergence of the Rizorian problem was tailor‑made for Selenian conspiracy. With just the right amount of effort, they might be able to weaken the ruling Council of Ten and gain control.
Life under Selenian domination would be a nightmare, if life as Ahja knew it, and loved it, could exist at all. Ahja closed his eyes and shuddered as he remembered his last visit to Selenia One. Few people had ever been given the honor, and for a long time after his visit, he had wished that he had not been quite so lucky. He had left the Selenian system convinced that mammal and reptile were too different ever to reconcile their differences fully.
Long after his interview with Minje was over, Ahja sat and stared at the blank communicator screen as if somewhere on it was hidden the answers to all of his questions and problems. He needed to focus his energies and attention on planning his next moves, yet constantly overriding his planning was his incessant longing to be home on Trag.
Trag, the center of the galaxy, and home to the Central Council of the Federation, was his native planet. Ahja loved Trag with a passion that surprised many of those who knew him. Speaking with Minje had made him terribly homesick. He would have paid any price to be able to abandon his mission and rush back to Trag. More than anything, he hungered to be busy with his duties as Master Translator, scholar and teacher. The necessity of having to attend the sometimes long, and almost always boring sessions of the Council, and even the endless rounds of social functions became strangely appealing to him. In spite of his feelings, however, Ahja was not ready to abandon his hateful mission. It was a part of his function as Master Translator, and he had never shirked any of his responsibilities. He was here because he was needed and the quickest way home was the successful completion of his assignment.
Ahja got up from his seat shakily. He went to the small bathroom to splash his face with cold water. For the first time in a long while he stood in front of the mirror to study his image. He could pass for Terran easily. The long months of Terran winter with its weak sun, and long nights had faded his skin to a pale beige color, so that now his dark brown hair, against his unnaturally pale skin, looked almost black. The weight that he had gained had softened the sharp angles of his high cheek bones. His face definitely looked rounder; he would have to watch his diet, he noted dourly. The one thing that he had enjoyed most about Earth was its food, but he would have to strive to maintain his physical condition and his appearance. It was very important to his function as Master Translator, and spy.