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Page 18

As a sudden thought swept through his mind, Sil-Chan swept his gaze around the room, looking for the Merlin. Where was that wizened little plotter? Nowhere in sight.

The realized images of many faces began appearing at the rhomboid focus across the room. Sil-Chan abandoned his search for the Merlin and looked at the faces, recognizing many from the Directory of Planetary and System Rulers -- Presidents, Dictators, Imperators, Regents . . . There was the Regent of Naos . . . and the Holy Didactum of Jacun . . . the bloody little Messala of Hornaruth with her flat-lipped smile.

A larger focus at the center came alive with the round face of Hobart of Myrmid, Imperator of the Enclave, rulers of the Galactic Union. His features were flat, eyes bright and darting. The fact was oddly similar to that of Ambroso. Related, perhaps? Sil-Chan wondered.

The PN bowed to the Imperator. "We can begin."

There was a cold lump in Sil-Chan's stomach. The PN's going to try for personal power!

Hobart of Myrmid responded. His voice boomed out over the background crackling of subspace transmission. "My advisors have just informed me that this is an illegal calling of a General Assembly. The persons responsible will be arrested and confined in . . ."

"You'll hear me!" the PN bellowed. "I am the legal sovereign of this planet!" He took two strides toward the realized image.

The Admiral and guard moved to interfere, but froze as weapons appeared in the hands of the Dornbakers around the walls.

The PN said: "I have a legal claim against the Union for a sum that would drain your coffers."

"A mere technicality!" the Imperator shouted.

"You sovereign Assemblymen hear me," the PN said. "What you do to me could be done to any of you. I propose a compromise. Confirm my sovereignty here and I will write 'Paid-in-full' on the debt you owe me."

Anger boiled in Sil-Chan. He tugged Hepzebah several steps closer to the PN. "He's selling us out." Sil-Chan muttered.

Assemblymen were clamoring: "Explain! Explain!"

Hobart overrode the clamor: "This is no more than a technicality!"

"Hear him!" the Assemblymen shouted.

The PN strode even closer to the images as the rhomboid lenses tracked him. In the abrupt silence which ensued, he explained, finishing: "Is your Imperator a supreme dictator not answerable to the authority of the Assembly?" "He rules by law!" one Assemblyman shouted. Others took it up: "By law! By law!"

The PN nodded. "Then I propose . . ."

Sil-Chan had taken enough. "You're being tricked!" he roared. He strode to the PN's side, dragging Hepzebah with him. Dornbaker weapons turned toward them.

"Who is this?" the Imperator demanded.

"I am an official of Galactic Archives!"

"This man has no authority here," the PN said.

Sil-Chan jerked credentials from his pocket, waved them at the lenses. The Imperator's gong intruded, bringing silence. Hobart of Myrmid spoke in a stern voice:

"Let us hear this official of Galactic Archives. I, too, think we are being tricked."

"Hobart of Myrmid is one of those tricking you," Sil-Chan said.

It took twenty strokes of the gong to silence the bedlam of the Assemblymen. "Seize that man and hold him under arrest!" the Imperator roared.

But the room already was echoing with the voices of the Assemblymen. "No! No! Hear him! Hear him!"

Hobart of Myrmid hesitated.

Sil-Chan seized his opportunity: "I charge Hobart of Myrmid with planning to become absolute dictator of the Union."

Rapt silence greeted this.

"I can prove that charge with Archives Records," Sil-Chan said. "Hobart of Myrmid plans to disband Galactic Archives and scatter the important pieces among his friends."

"You waste our substance!" the Imperator shouted. "Efficiency must come even to you!"

"And which planet gains monopoly of our weapons lore?" Sil-Chan demanded.

Assemblymen's faces bent closer.

"And who gets our physical sciences?" Sil-Chan asked. "The Planet Myrmid, perhaps?"

"He lies!" the Imperator screamed.

"The Assembly can send its own investigators, "Sil-Chan said. "Then we will see who lies."

The Imperator gestured to the Admiral: "Silence that fool!"

Dornbaker weapons centered on the Admiral. "Do you want control of these Archives to fall into the hands of a few ambitious men?" Sil-Chan asked.

An Assemblyman high on the right shouted: "If Archives is so dangerous, let's vaporize it!"

Sil-Chan said: "Which of you knows which files have been copied in recent months? Destroy the originals and the people with copies have it all their own way."

Silent faces stared at him.

"Renew our original charter but directly under the Assembly," Sil-Chan said. "You all know our impartiality. We are open to anyone. You are the real government and you know our Code: obedience to government."

"Truth! Truth! He is right!" the images roared. The yellow lights of affirmative votes filled the image areas. They cast a golden glow over David Dornbaker's living room.

"And give us a guardian patrol to protect us from a repetition of this incident!" Sil-Chan demanded.

Again, the room glowed yellow.

An Assemblyman in the high center addressed the Admiral: "Admiral! You will be held personally responsible for the Archives until the patrol arrives. Your life and the lives of all your officers are the price of failure!"

In the lower left bank of images, the Regent of Naos rang a chime. "Closed conference!" he called. The demand was repeated across the images.

The Imperator's image vanished. Others began to blank out. Soon all were blank.

The PN turned: "You took long enough before interrupting," he said. "I was beginning to wonder if we'd misjudged you."

"Mis . . ." Sil-Chan shook his head.

"It had to be natural and dramatic," Tchung said, moving up to Sil-Chan's left. "Very good."

"By the Stone," Hepzebah breathed. "A put-up!"

"I was afraid I might have to deal with an entire planet," the PN said. "I have enough trouble with my own family."

"And it would've destroyed one of the most precious things we've ever acquired," Tchung said.

Sil-Chan blinked at him.

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