FEELING REASONABLY SECURE BEHIND HIS COVER, Kelexel paused just inside the salon- office of the story-ship director. He cast a searching look around the room: such interesting signs of wear on furnishings supposedly resistant to such depletion. The control supports of an editing chair showed a polished glitter where Fraffin's arms had rested.

He has been here a very long time indeed, Kelexel thought. We are right to suspect the worst. A Chem's attention span cannot be that long -- unless there are forbidden attractions.

"Visitor Kelexel," Fraffin said, rising. He indicated a chair facing him across the desk, a simple wooden artifact native to this place. It was a nice touch of the exotic, made a stranger feel uncomfortably alien and un-adapted to outpost living. Fraffin himself occupied a conventional floater seat, its body sensors tuned to his personal needs.

Kelexel bowed over the immersed viewer in the desk, used the formal greeting: "Director Fraffin, the light of a billion suns could not add one candlepower to thy brillance."

Oh, Lords of Being, Fraffin thought. One of those! He smiled, timed his seating to coincide with Kelexel.

"I grow dim in the presence of my guest," Fraffin said. "How may I serve such a distinguished person?" And he thought: Preferably on buttered toast.

Kelexel swallowed, felt suddenly uneasy. Something about Fraffin bothered him. The director was such a small man -- dwarfed by the desk and its instruments. Fraffin's skin was the milk-silver of the Sirihadi Chem, almost matching the room's walls. It was the man's stature; that was it. Kelexel had expected someone larger -- not as large as the vassals of this planet, certainly ... but ... larger ... something to go with all the power visible in his features.

"You were very kind to grant me your time," Kelexel said.

Conventionally, Fraffin said: "What is time to the Chem?"

But Kelexel didn't rise to the clich�. The power in Fraffin's face! It was a famous face, of course -- the black hair, the pits of eyes under jutting brows, crag cheeks, outcroppings of nose and jaw. Large reproductions of that face danced on the air wherever a Fraffin story was shown. But the actual flesh and bone man bore an unretouched resemblance to the reproductions that Kelexel found disturbing. He had expected more false drama in one or the other. He had expected disparity, a sham somewhere to help him see through these people.

"Visitors don't usually request an interview with the director," Fraffin said, prodding.

"Yes, yes, of course," Kelexel said. "I've a ... " He hesitated, realization coming over him. Everything about Fraffin-timbre of voice, the rich skin color, the total aura of vitality -- it all spoke of recent rejuvenation. But Fraffin's cycle was known to the Bureau. He wasn't due for rejuvenation in this period.

"Yes?" Fraffin said.

"I've ... a rather personal request," Kelexel said.

"Not for employment, I hope," Fraffin said. "We've so ... "

"Nothing for myself," Kelexel said. "My interest level is quite low. Travel seems to satisfy me. However, during my last cycle I was permitted to have a male offspring."

"How fortunate for you," Fraffin said, and he held himself still and watchful, wondering: Could the man know? Is it possible?

"Mmmm, yes," Kelexel said. "My offspring, however, requires constant diversion. I'm prepared to pay a very high price for the privilege of placing him with your organization until my contract of responsibility terminates."

Kelexel sat back, waiting. "He will be suspicious of you, naturally," the Bureau's experts had said. "He will think you seek to place a spy among his crewmen. Be alert to his inner reactions when you make your offer."

Watching now, Kelexel saw the Director's disquiet Is he fearful? Kelexel wondered. He shouldn't be fearful -- not yet.

"If saddens me," Fraffin said, "But no matter the offer, I must refuse."

Kelexel pursed his lips, then: "Would you refuse ... " And he named a price that astonished Fraffin.

That's half as much as I could get for my entire planetary holding, Fraffin thought. Is it possible Ynvic's wrong about him? This couldn't be an attempt to put a spy among us. All our crewmen are bound to the compact of shared guilt. No new man can learn what we do until he's hopelessly compromised. And the Bureau wouldn't try to buy one of us. They don't dare give me grounds for pleading entrapment.

"Is it not enough?" Kelexel asked. He stroked his chin. The Bureau's experts had said: "You must act the part of a responsible citizen concerned over his parental contract, perhaps even a bit doting and slightly embarrassed by it."

"It, uhh, grieves me," Fraffin said, "but there's no price I'll accept. Were I to lower the barriers to one rich man's offspring, my ship soon would become a haven for dilettantes. We're a working crew, chosen only for talent. If your offspring wishes to tram for a post, however, and go through the normal channels ... "

"Not even if I doubled the offer?" Kelexel asked.

Is it really the Bureau behind this clown? Fraffin wondered. Or could he be one of the Galaxy Buyers?

Fraffin cleared his throat. "No price. I am sorry."

"Perhaps I've offended you?"

"No. It's just that my decision is dictated by self-preservation. Work is our answer to the Chem nemesis ... "

"Ahh, boredom," Kelexel murmured.

"Precisely," Fraffin said. "Were I to open the doors to any bored person with enough wealth, I'd multiply all our problems. Just today I dismissed four crewmen for actions that'd be commonplace were I to hire my people the way you suggest."

"Four dismissed?" Kelexel said. "Lords of Preservation! What'd they do?"

"Deliberately lowered their shields, let the natives see them. Enough of that happens by accident without compounding it."

How honest and law abiding he tries to appear, Kelexel thought. But the core of his crew has been with him too long, and those who leave -- even the ones he dismisses -- won't talk. Something's at work here which can't be explained by legality.

"Yes, yes, of course," Kelexel said, assuming a slightly pompous air. "Can't have fraternizing with the natives out there." He gestured toward the surface with a thumb. "Illegal, naturally. Damnably dangerous."

"Raises the immunity level," Fraffin said.

"Must keep your execution squads busy."

Fraffin allowed himself a touch of pride, said: "I've had to send them after fewer than a million immunes on my planet. I let the natives kill their own."

"Only way," Kelexel agreed. "Keep us out of it as much as possible. Classic technique. You're justly famous for your success at it. Wanted my son to learn under you."

"I'm sorry," Fraffin said.

"Answer's definitely no?"


Kelexel shrugged. The Bureau'd prepared him for outright rejection, but he hadn't quite prepared himself for it. He'd hoped to play out the little game of negotiation. "I hope I haven't offended you," he said.

"Of course not," Fraffin said. And he thought: But you've warned me.

He had come around to complete agreement with Ynvic's suspicions. It was something about this Kelexel's manner -- an inward caution that didn't fit the outer mask.

"Glad of that," Kelexel said.

"I'm always curious about the merchant world's current price," Fraffin said. "I'm surprised you didn't bid on my entire holding."

You think I've made a mistake, Kelexel thought Fool! Criminals never learn.

"My holdings are too diverse, require too much of my attention as it is," Kelexel said. "Naturally, I'd thought of bidding you out and giving all this to my offspring, but I'm quite certain he'd make a mess of it, ruin it for everyone. Couldn't invite that sort of censure on myself, you know."

"Perhaps the alternative, then," Fraffin said. "Training, the normal channels of application ... "

Kelexel had been prepared and sharpened for this task over a period long even to the Chem. The Primacy and the Bureau contained men who fed on suspicion and they smarted under continued failure with Fraffin's case. Now, the tiny betrayals in Fraffin's manner, the patterned evasions and choice of words were summed up in the Investigator's awareness. There was illegality here, but none of the crimes they'd considered and discussed. Somewhere in Fraffin's private domain there was a dangerous something -- odorous and profoundly offensive. What could it be?

"If it is permitted," Kelexel said, "I shall be happy to study your operation and make appropriate suggestions to my offspring. He will be delighted, I know, to hear that the great Director Fraffin granted me these few attentions."

And Kelexel thought: Whatever your crime is, I'll find it. When I do, you'll pay, Fraffin; you'll pay the same as any other malefactor.

"Very well, then," Fraffin said. He expected Kelexel to leave now, but the man remained, staring offensively across the desk.

"One thing," Kelexel said. "I know you achieve quite complex special effects with your creatures. The extreme care, the precision engineering of motives and violence -- I just wondered: Isn't it rather slow work?"

The casual ignorance of the question outraged Fraffin, but he sensed a warning in it and remembered Ynvic's words of caution.

"Slow?" he asked. "What's slow to people who deal with infinity?"

Ahh, Fraffin can be goaded, Kelexel thought as he read the signs of betrayal. Good. He said: "I merely wondered if ... I hesitate to suggest it ... but does not slowness equate with boredom?" Fraffin sniffed. He'd thought at first this creature of the Bureau might be interesting, but the fellow was beginning to pall. Fraffin pressed a button beneath his desk, the signal to get the new story under way. The sooner they were rid of this investigator the better. All the preparations with the natives would help now. They'd play out their parts with rigorous nicety.

"I've offended you at last," Kelexel said, contrition in his voice.

"Have my stories bored you?" Fraffin asked. "If so, then I've offended you."

"Never!" Kelexel said. "So amusing, humorous. Such diversity."

Amusing, Fraffin thought. Humorous!

He glanced at the replay monitor in his desk, the strip of story action in progress, shielded and displayed there for only his eyes. His crews already were getting to work. The time was ripe for death. His people knew the urgency.

His mind went down, down-immersed in the desk viewer, forgetting the Investigator, following the petty lives of the natives.

They are the finite and we the infinite, Fraffin thought. Paradox: the finite provides unlimited entertainment for the infinite. With such poor creatures we insulate ourselves from lives that are endless serial events. Aii, boredom! How you threaten the infinite.

"How pliable your creatures are," Kelexel said, probing.

Such a bore, this clod, Fraffin thought. And he spoke without looking up from the viewer: "They've strong desires. I saw to that from the beginning. And enormous fears -- they have enormous fears."

"You saw to that, too?" Kelexel asked.


How easily he's goaded to anger, Kelexel thought.

"What is that you're watching?" Kelexel asked. "Is it something to do with a story? Do I interfere?"

He begins to take the hook, Fraffin thought And he said: "I've just started a new story, a little gem."

"A new story?" Kelexel asked, puzzled. "Is the war epic completed then?"

"I've cut off that story," Fraffin said. "It wasn't going well at all. Besides, wars are beginning to bore me. But personal conflict now -- there's the thing!"

"Personal conflict?" Kelexel felt the idea was appalling.

"Ah, the intimacies of violence," Fraffin said. "Anyone can find drama in wars and migrations, in the rise and fall of civilizations and of religions -- but what would you think of a little capsule of a story that focuses on a creature who slays its mate?"

Kelexel shook his head. The conversation had taken a turn that left him floundering. The war epic abandoned? A new story? Why? His forebodings returned. Was there a way Fraffin could harm a fellow Chem?

"Conflict and fear," Fraffin said. "Ahh, what a wide avenue into the susceptibilities these are."

"Yes ... yes, indeed," Kelexel murmured.

"I touch a nerve," Fraffin said. "Greed here, a desire there, a whim in this place -- and fear. Yes, fear. When the creature's fully prepared, I arouse its fears. Then the whole mechanism performs for me. They make themselves ill! They love! They hate! They cheat! They kill! They die."

Fraffin smiled-clenched teeth in the wide mouth. Kelexel found the expression menacing.

"And the most amusing part," Fraffin said, "the most humorous element is that they think they do it of and by themselves."

Kelexel forced an answering smile. Many times he'd laughed at this device in a Fraffin story, but now he found the idea less than amusing. He swallowed, said: "But wouldn't such a story ... " He groped for the proper expression. " ... be so ... small?"

Small, Fraffin thought. Such a clown, this Kelexel.

"Is it not an ultimate artistry," Fraffin asked, "if I use a microscopic incident to display immensity? I take the Forever-Now right here." He lifted a clenched fist, extended it toward Kelexel, opened it to show the palm. "I give you something you don't have -- mortality."

Kelexel found the thought repellant -- Fraffin and his grubby personal conflict, a slaying, a petty crime. What a depressing idea. But Fraffin was absorbed once more in the shielded viewer on his desk. What did he see there?

"I fear I've overstayed my welcome," Kelexel ventured.

Fraffin jerked his gaze upward. The clod was going. Good. He wouldn't go far. The net already was being prepared. What a fine, entangling mesh it had!

"The freedom of the ship is yours," Fraffin said.

"Forgive me if I've taken too much of your time," Kelexel said, rising.

Fraffin stood, bowed, made the conventional response: "What is time to the Chem?"

Kelexel murmured the formal reply: "Time is our toy." He turned, strode from the room, thoughts whirling in his mind. There was menace in Fraffin's manner. It had something to do with what he saw in that viewer. A story? How could a story menace a Chem?

Fraffin watched the door seal itself behind Kelexel, sank back into his chair and returned his attention to the viewer. It was night up there on the surface now and the crucial first incident was beginning to unfold.

A native killing its mate. He watched, and struggled to maintain his artistic distance. Subject female, appellation Murphey, a figure of staggering scarlet under artificial lights. The fog of all pretense scorched from her features by the unexpected alien who had been her husband. She submitted her life now to formidable auguries of which she'd had not the slightest hint. The weirds and shades of her ancestral gods no longer awakened mysteries in her mind. The doomfire faces of superstition had lost their accustomed places.

With an abrupt, violent motion, Fraffin blanked out the viewer, put his hands to his face. Death had come to the creature. The story would go on of itself now, under its own momentum. What a way to trap a Chem!

Fraffin lowered his hands to the smooth cold surface of his desk. But who was trapped?

He felt himself stretched suddenly upon a rack of vision, sensed a frightened multitude within him -- the whisperings of his own past without beginning.

What were we -- once? he wondered.

There lay the Chem curse: the infinite possessed no antiquities. Memory blurred off back there and one went to the artificial memory of records and reels with all their inaccuracies. What was lost there? he wondered. Did we have damned prophets with the sickness of butchery on their tongues, their words casting out the salt of fate? What spiced fantasy might we uncover in our lost beginnings? We've gods of our own making. How did we make them? Do we spit now upon our own dust as we laugh at my foolish, pliable natives?

He could not deflect the sudden swarming of his own past -- like hungry beasts glowing in a sky he'd beheld only once but which had terrorized him into flight. As quickly as it had come, the fear dissipated. But the experience left him shaken. He stared at one of his own hands. The hand trembled.

I need distracting entertainment, he thought. Gods of Preservation! Even boredom's preferable to this!

Fraffin pushed himself away from his desk. How cold its edge felt against his hands! The room had become a foreign place, its devices alien, hateful. The soft curves of his massage couch, still shaped to his body, caught his attention on the right and he looked away quickly, repelled by his own body's outline.

I must do something rational, he thought.

With a determined effort, he stood, made his way across the room to the steely convolutions of his pantovive reproducer. He slumped into its padded control seat, tuned the sensors directly to the planet surface. Satellite relays locked onto the machine's probes and he searched out the daylight hemisphere, looked for activity there among his creatures -- anything in which to bury his awareness.

Land swam through the viewer stage, a wash of checkerboard outlines in greens and yellows with here and there a chocolate brown. Highways ... roads ... the glittering amoeba shape of the city -- he focused down into the streets and abruptly had a small crowd centered on the stage, the quarter-sized figures huddled like dolls at a corner. They were watching a pitchman, a weasel-faced little giant in a wrinkled gray suit and greasy hat. The native stood covertly alert behind a flimsy stand tray with transparent cover.

"Fleas!" the pitchman said and his voice carried that intimate imperative of the natural confidence man. "Yes, that's what they are: fleas. But through an ancient and secret training method I make them perform fantastic acrobatics and marvelous tricks for you. See this pretty girl dance. And there's a little woman who pulls a chariot. And this little girl leaps hurdles! They'll wrestle and race and romp for you! Step right up. Only one lira to look through the magnifying viewers and see these marvels!"

Do those Fleas know they're someone's property? Fraffin wondered.