Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  


Gordon R. Dickson


  Gordon R. Dickson

  Earth was only a primitive outpost, its people dubbed primitive “wolflings” by the rulers of the galactic empire. James Keil was sent to the High-Born rulers’ Throne World, with orders only to observe—until he cast away his orders from Earth and proved himself a Wolfling indeed.


  by Gordon R. Dickson

  Chapter 1

  The bull would not charge.

  James Keil stamped his foot and shouted at the animal, but still it would not charge—and it was programmed to charge. Or rather, it was programmed to still be willing to charge at this point in the bullfight.

  There was nothing to be done about it. The finest physical tests available could not measure the probable endurance, or bravery, of a bull. This one was tired. Jim would have to step up the pattern and make the kill, now.

  He moved toward the bull, stamped and shouted again, and tempted the weary beast into one more attack. As the near horn swept by, grazing his hip and waist, he sucked his belly in hard, feeling a little streak of internal coldness along the line of the graze. Like the bull, he was programmed; and as long as they both stuck to their programming, he was safe. But he was a bullfighter only by courtesy of six months of intensive training. Also, he had free will, where the bull had not—and free will meant the power to break programming and make mistakes.

  If he made a mistake, this bull could still kill him.

  Therefore he was careful to make no mistakes, even now. The bull was almost at the end of its strength. He led it carefully through a few more passes, then took his sword and went in over the horns for the kill.

  The bull grunted, went to its knees, and rolled over on its side as he withdrew the blade. As he watched its death with an impassive face, a female figure appeared without warning on the sand of the arena beside him, looking down at the fallen bull.

  He turned to face her. It was the Princess Afuan, aunt of the All-Emperor and head of the visiting party of Highborn who had occupied the official box across the arena, surrounded there by the short, brown-skinned local humans of Alpha Centauri III. Afuan was neither short nor brown—no more than she was, in height or color, in any way similar to an Earth-born Caucasian like Jim himself.

  She was dressed—if that was the word—in some sort of white, filmy, cloudstuff. It left her arms bare but covered her otherwise, from the armpits to the ankles, dividing only with the movement of her legs as she walked. Above that cloudstuff, her skin also was white, but not in the sense that Jim’s skin was “white.”

  Afuan’s skin was the color of white onyx, and Jim could see the blue veins pulsing dimly within the marble column of her throat. Her face was narrow, and her eyes were large and a startling lemon yellow in color. So that, even though they lacked any epicanthic fold similar to the Oriental, they gave the impression of being slitted and feline below the whitish eyelashes and eyebrows on either side of her long, straight nose. In a sculptured, abstract way, she could have been called beautiful—and she was as tall as Jim himself, who stood six-feet-six.

  “Very entertaining,” she said now to Jim, speaking the Empire tongue with a rapid, almost hissing accent. “Yes, we’ll certainly take you with us, ah—what’s your world name, Wolfling?”

  “Earthman, High-born,” Jim answered.

  “Yes, well—come to our ship, Earthman. The Throne World will appreciate seeing you,” she said. She glanced past him at the other members of his cuadrilla. “But not these others, these assistants of yours; no point in cluttering up the ship. We can supply you anything you need to perform, once you get to the Throne World.”

  She started to turn away, but Jim spoke.

  “Excuse me, High-born,” he said. “You can supply me with new assistants; but you can’t supply me with the fighting bulls. They’ve been genetically selected over generations. I’ve got half a dozen more in cryogenic storage with me here. I’d like to take those.”

  She turned back to look at him. Her face was completely unreadable. For a moment Jim was not sure but that in speaking up he had angered her, to the point where she would destroy the work of five years by saying she would not take him along to the Throne World after all. But then she spoke.

  “Very well,” she said. “Tell whoever takes you aboard our ship that you need these animals shipped too, and that I said they should be.”

  She turned away again, then, finally, and stood gazing down with interest at the dead bull. As if her movement was a cue, suddenly a dozen or more members of her retinue had also winked into existence on the sand of the arena and were examining the bull and even the suits and equipment of other members of the cuadrilla. The women were none of them more than an inch or two shorter than Afuan; and the tall, slim, onyx-skinned men ranged between six-feet-ten and seven feet in height. Unlike the High-born women, the men wore short kilts and tunics made out of some material more like ordinary cloth. But in almost all cases the color of their clothing was white, except for a single design in some other color, written on either the front or the back of their tunics.

  No one offered to examine Jim, as they were examining the others of the cuadrilla. He turned and walked away, sheathing his sword, across the sand and down under the seats of the arena, along a sloping concretelike passageway illuminated by some source of light apparently within the very material of the walls themselves—one of the Empire luxuries which the local humans of Alpha Centauri III seemed to use without making any effort to understand their workings.

  He reached the door of his room, opened it, and stepped inside. Within the windowless main dressing room he saw two things in a single glance.

  One was Max Holland, the man from the U.N. Special Committee Section. The other was his own two suitcases, already packed in hopes of the trip to the Throne World, which had now become a reality. But now the suitcases were opened and their contents had been strewn about on the furniture of the room.

  “What’s this?” Jim said, stopping and looking down at the smaller man. Holland’s face was dark with anger.

  “Don’t think—” he began in a choked voice, and then got control of himself. His voice firmed. “Just because Afuan’s agreed to take you doesn’t mean you’re going to take some of these things to the Throne World!”

  “So, you know I’m invited?” Jim asked.

  “I’m a good lip-reader,” answered Max thickly, “and I had binoculars on you from the moment you started your bullfight until you walked away, just now.”

  “And you came ahead of me down here and decided to have a look at my luggage?” said Jim.

  “That’s right!” said Max. He turned sharply and snatched up two items from the couch beside him. One was a Scottish kilt in the Black Watch tartan, with a small knife in a sheath attached to it. The other was a suntan shirt with shoulder tabs, through one of which ran the shoulder belt of a Sam Browne belt, to which was fitted a holster containing a forty-five caliber revolver. Max all but shook these two articles under Jim’s nose.

  “You’re going into the Throne World of a human Empire a hundred thousand years old! A world where they outgrew primitive weapons like this so long ago they probably don’t even remember them.”

  “That’s just the point in taking them,” said Jim.

  He took back the kilt with its small knife and the shirt with its Sam Browne belt from Max’s hands so smoothly that the other for a second did not seem to know that they were gone. Jim carried both items of clothing back over to the open suitcases, where he laid them down. He began calmly to repack the luggage.

  “What point?” Max blazed behind him. “Jim, somehow you seem to have got the idea that you’re a loner in this whole project! Just let me remind you—it took a hundred and sixty-two governments, a couple of bil
lion dollars, and the work of thousands of people to train you and bring you here, to the point where you could get yourself invited to play bullfighter on the Throne World!”

  Jim, without answering, folded the kilt and placed it back into one of the open suitcases.

  “Listen to me, damn you!” snarled Max behind him. The smaller man grabbed Jim’s arm and tried to swing him around. Jim turned.

  “I’ll tell you—you’re not going to take those things!” said Max.

  “Yes, I am,” said Jim.

  “I say you’re not!” shouted Max. “Who do you think you are, anyway? You’re just the man who was picked to go into the Throne World and observe. Got that? Observe! Not stick people with knives, or shoot them with guns, or do anything else to draw any more Imperial attention to Earth than there is already. You’re an anthropologist, play-acting a bullfighter, not some cloak-and-dagger spy!”

  “I’m all three,” said Jim quickly and a little coldly.

  The color slowly went from Max’s face. “God…” said the smaller man. His hand fell away from Jim’s arm. “Ten years ago we didn’t know they existed—a whole empire of human-occupied worlds stretching in from Alpha Centauri here toward the galactic center. Five years ago you were only a name on a list. I could have put a pencil mark through you, and you wouldn’t have been here now. Even a year ago I was ready to start questioning whether we’d been training the right man—and you picked just then to put on such a good show nobody’d have listened to me. Now it turns out I was right, after all. An Empire of a thousand worlds, and one little Earth. They forgot us once, and maybe they could forget us again—but not if you’re the man who goes in and observes them. I was right a year ago. You’ve got some ax of your own to grind with these High-born—”

  He choked and broke off. He breathed deeply and straightened his back.

  “Forget it,” he said more calmly. “You’re not going. I’m aborting the project—on my own responsibility. Earth can ask me all the questions they want, after that Imperial ship leaves—”

  “Max,” said Jim almost gently. “It’s too late for you to stop me now. I’ve been invited by the Princess Afuan. Not you, or the whole project, or the whole Earth would be permitted to interfere with her invitation now. Do you think she’d allow that?”

  Max stood staring at Jim with dark-circled, bloodshot eyes. He did not answer.

  “I’m sorry, Max,” said Jim. “But it was bound to come to this sooner or later. From here on out the project can’t guide me any longer. From now on I have to follow my own judgment.”

  He turned back to his packing.

  “Your judgment!” A little moisture flew with the words, to touch coldly against the side and back of Jim’s neck. “You’re so sure of your judgment? Compared to those High-born like Afuan, you’re just as ignorant, just as primitive, just as savage as all the rest of us back on Earth! You don’t know anything! Maybe Earth is one of their colonies that they forgot about… Or maybe it’s just coincidence that we seem to belong to the same race as them and these people we found here on Alpha Centauri III! Who knows? I don’t; no Earthman does. And neither do you! So don’t talk about your judgment to me, Jim! Not with the whole future of Earth riding on what you do, once you get there, into the Imperial household!”

  Jim shrugged. He turned back to his packing and felt his arm violently seized and wrenched as Max tried to turn him around once more.

  Swiftly, this time, Jim turned. He knocked Max’s grip loose with the edge of his right hand, and then put that same hand, calmingly, it seemed, upon the smaller man’s shoulder. But the thumb reached up from the grip of the other four fingers to lay itself against Max’s neck behind the right point of the angle of his jawbone; and it pressed in slightly.

  Max’s face whitened, and he gasped. He drew a quick, short breath and tried to back away. But the grip of Jim’s hand held him.

  “You—you’re a fool!” stammered Max. “You’d kill me?”

  “If I had to,” said Jim calmly. “That’s one of the reasons I’m the right man to go.”

  He released his grip, turned away, closed the open suitcase into which he had put the kilt and the shirt with the Sam Browne belt, and picked up both the heavy suitcases. He turned and went out through the door, turning left and away up the corridor in the opposite direction, which led to the street and the vehicle that was waiting for him outside the arena. As he neared the entrance, he heard Max shouting after him, his words distorted by the long tunnel of the corridor. Glancing back, he saw that the other man had come out of the dressing room to stand staring after him.

  “Observe!” Max shouted in English after him up the corridor. “Do anything else, Jim, get Earth into trouble with the High-born, and we’ll shoot you for it, like a mad dog, when you get home again!”

  Jim did not answer. He stepped out into the bright, yellow sunlight of Alpha Centauri III, and into the open, four-wheeled, jeeplike vehicle that was there waiting for him with its driver at the controls.

  Chapter 2

  The driver of the vehicle was a staff member of the Earth Trade Delegation, which, with the trade delegations from two other Empire-inhabited solar systems, had combined with the Alpha Centaurans of this planet to put on various local-culture shows for the visiting High-born. It was always the hope of those putting on such shows that the result would be some form of preference by the High-born visitors. Earth had stood the best chance of arousing interest, being, in theory, a newly rediscovered part of the Empire, and now its show of the art of bullfighting was being carried back by the visitors to the Throne World to amuse the Emperor.

  The driver took Jim and his luggage through the surrounding city and out to the open spaceport, an endless stretch of brownish, cementlike material. In one area of this, all by itself, sat a huge ovoid that was the ship of the High-born. The driver drove Jim up to this ship and stopped.

  “Want me to wait?” asked the driver.

  Jim shook his head. He took the two suitcases out of the vehicle and watched as the driver put it in motion and drove off, dwindling to toy size in the distance across the spaceport area.

  Jim set his suitcases down and turned to look at the ship. From the outside it seemed perfectly featureless. There were no ports, no airlocks, no signs of apertures or entrances to the interior. Nor did anyone aboard the huge vessel seem to be aware that Jim was there.

  He sat down on one of his suitcases and began to wait.

  For a little over an hour nothing happened. Then, abruptly, while he was still sitting on his suitcase, he was no longer on the spaceport concrete, but with both bags in what appeared to be a green-walled, egg-shaped room with some sort of darker green carpet underfoot and cushions of all colors and sizes, from six inches in diameter to something like six feet, furnishing it.

  “Were you waiting long, Wolfling?” asked a girl’s voice. “I’m sorry. I was busy taking care of the other pets.”

  He stood up and turned about from his suitcase; and he saw her then. By the standards of the High-born, she was short—probably no more than five feet, ten inches in height. Also her skin, although it approached the onyx-white of the Princess Afuan and the others, had a brownish tinge, like a pale shadow of the brownishness of an American Indian. The brownishness extended to her eyes, which were rather a dark gold, flecked with little sparkles of red highlights—not like the lemon yellow Jim had seen in Afuan. Her face was less long than Afuan’s, and more rounded of jaw. She smiled in a way that was very unlike the inscrutability of the High-born princess; and when she smiled, the ghosts of a small cloud of something like freckles appeared across her nose and up her cheeks. Finally, her hair, though she let it hang straight down her back, as had the other High-born females Jim had seen in the arena, was plainly yellow-blond rather than white, and it did not hang as straight as Afuan’s, but had a perceptible wave and thickness to it.

  Her smile vanished and her face darkened suddenly with an abrupt flood of blood below the skin. It was a
literal flush—the last thing Jim had expected to discover upon the face of one of the High-born.

  “That’s right, stare at me!” she said spiritedly. “I’m not ashamed of it!”

  “Ashamed of what?” asked Jim.

  “Why—” She broke off suddenly. Her blush fled, and she looked at him contritely. “I’m sorry. Of course—you’re a Wolfling. You wouldn’t even know the difference, would you?”

  “Evidently not,” said Jim. “Because I don’t seem to understand what you’re talking about.”

  She laughed—but a little sadly, it seemed to him; and patted his arm unexpectedly, with a light, consoling touch.

  “You’ll learn soon enough,” she said, “even if you are a Wolfling. I’m a throwback, you see. Something in my gene pattern was atavistic. Oh, my father and mother were as High-born as anyone outside the Main Royal Line; and Afuan will never dismiss me from her household. But, on the other hand, she can hardly show me off. So I’m left with doing things like taking care of the pets for her. That was why I was the one who brought you on board just now.”

  She glanced down at his two cases.

  “Is that your equipment there?” she asked. “I’ll put it away for you.”

  Instantly the two pieces of luggage vanished.

  “Just a minute,” said Jim.

  She looked up at him, a little puzzled.

  “Didn’t you want them put away just yet?” she asked. Instantly the bags were back at their feet.

  “No,” answered Jim. “It’s just that there are other things to bring aboard. I told your Princess Afuan that I’d need the bulls—the creatures I work with when I put on my show. I’ve got six more of them in cryogenic storage back in the city. She said I could bring them along, and to tell whoever brought me aboard the ship that she said it was all right.”

  “Oh!” said the girl thoughtfully. “No—don’t try to tell me. Just think about where they are in the city.”