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Page 11

Tchung swallowed. The Dornbaker Account! Oh, Holy Director of Heavenly Archives! If I open those circuits, these government jackals may go directly to the Dornbaker Account.

"What are those circuits doing?" Ambroso demanded.

Tchung hesitated on the brink of an outright lie, then the conditioning of a lifetime's devotion to his Code took over. "They are working on the problem of greater economy in our operations, Ser Ambroso."

"We will take care of your economy problems," Ambroso said. "You clear those circuits."

"Immediately." Tchung turned to his controls, flipped the computer switch, said: "The government accountants working in Section CC of the two hundred and twenty-fourth sublevel will have top priority on all computer time. All previous priority commitments are rescinded by this order."

The speaker emitted a curious coughing buzz, then: "Acknowledged and filed."

Once more, Tchung looked up at Ambroso. "Forgive us, please. It was not a deliberate obstruction. The first rule of our Code is that we must obey the government."

"So you say." Ambroso allowed himself a slow smile. "But if there are further indications that you are attempting to obstruct us, I will land a force from the monitor to insure that there are no recurrences."

"I'm sure that will not be necessary," Tchung said.

Again, Ambroso smiled. It was like a tic, gone almost before Tchung could be sure of it. Ambroso started to turn away, paused, his attention caught by the curios on the table behind Tchung. In four swift strides, Ambroso was at the table, lifting the golden statuette from it. The figure was of a small winged boot with a Naos inscription on the base.

"Expensive bauble," Ambroso said. "Did official funds go for this decoration?"

"A gift from the Researchers of Naos on our ten thousandth anniversary," Tchung said.

Again, the tic-smile touched Ambroso's face. He replaced the statuette delicately. "So very long. So very, very long. And all of those centuries you have beamed your nonsense into space. So many wasteful broadcasts without an iota of information."

Tchung's features stiffened. "We broadcast many things, that is true. Our information has a varied value. Program selection is, as you know, purely random. Our charter assumes a mathematical probability that significant data will be selected every. . . ."

"Yes, yes," Ambroso said. "So it's claimed."

"Concepts of value differ," Tchung said. "That does not alter the fact that we gather artifacts and information from the far reaches of our universe . . . and that we hold back nothing in what we disseminate."

"Too much rubble to wade through for the occasional gem," Ambroso said. "Your gems come to be more and more unexpected."

Tchung concealed his anger and murmured: "It has been said that we deal in the unexpected. But there are times when the unexpected can be devastating."

"As devastating as the weapons on our monitor?" Ambroso asked.

"Ours are not the ways of violence," Tchung said. "And times change," Ambroso said. "New ways clear out the errors of the past. They make way for . . ."

"The errors of the future," Tchung said.

Ambroso glowered at him. "You collect useless junk! Pack Rats!"

"They once were known as Trade Rats," Tchung said. "The original animals, I mean. They stole from campers in the wilderness, and always left something behind from the nest. That Trade Rat nest might contain a ruby which would be traded for a small piece of elastic. Fortunate the camper when that happened."

"What about the camper who lost a ruby and got a small bit of elastic?" Ambroso asked. He grinned at Tchung, whirled away and strode from the office.

When the fandoors closed, Tchung picked up the winged boot, rubbed it with his thumb. The Naos Researchers had been particularly grateful. Archives had saved them three centuries of work on the problem of random-desire adjustment in conflicting human groups. The Naos planets were known today for the dynamic spirit of their people, a fact recorded in the inscription beneath the golden boot:

"Information is the tool and the goad of intelligence."

Tchung replaced the winged boot on the shelf. The thing had filled him with a momentary sense of the hoary antiquity over which he presided -- a sense he had not experienced in quite that way since his youth. This was followed immediately by a nostalgia which tightened his throat.

Is it about to end?

Unconsciously, he turned in the direction of Free Island Dornbaker. Your secret is out, but the stakes are higher than anyone anticipated. Act wisely, Sil-Chan . . . but not too wisely.

Sil-Chan had approached Free Island Dornbaker at mid-morning, his hands on the jetter's controls slippery with perspiration. He found himself in the grip of an illogical desire to turn and run. The closer he came to the island, the greater this feeling became.

There had been nerve-straining delays at Magsayan while officials cleared his flight to the island. The officials had professed surprise that an island lay out there in the misty sea, although they had cleared flights around the area all of their professional lives. Sil-Chan had provided them with a special channel code, however, and a voice-only communication had ensued, someone out there identified as Free Island Control being very obstructive and then, unexplainably helpful.

Sil-Chan kept his equipment tuned to the Free Island channel while he winged over the sea. The island was growing more distinct by the minute, emerging from silvery mists. He saw steeply wooded hills, the flashing blue of streams, rare white dots of buildings half hidden in greenery. White surf frothed the coastline.

The place looked wild . . . un-Terran -- not at all like the familiar rolling contours of the parklike mainland. He emerged from the last of the mists into sunlight and more details impressed themselves upon him. Sil-Chan gasped. What had appeared from a distance to be steep hills covered with mossy scrub was actually ranks of gigantic trees. They speared the sky. Monstrous trees!

His speaker burped, crackled and a feminine voice came on: "This is Free Island Control calling the jetter."

Sil-Chan punched his transmit button: "This is the jetter."

The feminine voice said: "We have you on longshot. You are approaching on isthmus and bay. At the head of the bay you will see a line of low white buildings. Turn inland directly over them. Come down close. You want to be no more than fifty meters above the ridge behind those buildings when you cross it."

"Fifty meters, right." Sil-Chan tuned his altimeter.

The feminine voice continued: "Just over that hill we've mowed an east-west landing strip for you. If you line up over the white buildings and stay low, you should . . ."

"Mowed?" Sil-Chan blurted the word with his finger pressed hard on transmit.

The feminine voice paused, then: "Yes, mowed. You should've taken a copter instead of that hot jobby. I was about to suggest it when the PN said he would like to see one of the new jetters."

Sil-Chan tried to swallow past a thickness in his throat. "I see the white buildings. There are three of them. I am turning."

"Fifty meters, no more."

Sil-Chan checked his crash harness. "Right."

"Do you see one taller tree on the hill?"


"As low as possible over that tree. Dip into the valley beyond. Line up with the flagpole at the far end of the mowed field. Stay right down the middle and you'll miss the tall grass. I sure hope the strip's long enough."

So do I, Sil-Chan thought.

The tall tree loomed ahead. He lifted slightly, then dipped and gasped as he saw the tiny field. There was time only for a blurred glimpse of flagpole, trees beyond and a mist-colored cliff rising abruptly right behind the trees. No time to swerve or climb out. He kicked on full flaps, fired the rocket idiot-brakes in the nose and fought to hold control as the ship bucked down into dangerous low speed.

A path of darker green lay down the middle of the lighter green field. He aimed into the center, slammed on the wheel brakes when he felt the ground. The jetter bounced up onto its nose wheel, skidded in the slippery grass, crabbed sideways into tall grass. One wing dipped. The ship cartwheeled -- once, twice.

It came to rest upside down.

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