THE GREETER'S REPORT CAME TO FRAFFIN WHERE HE sat at his pantovive editing the latest rushes on his current story.
The war, the war, the lovely little war, he was thinking.
And oh, how Chem audiences loved the effect of flamelighted nights, the naked panting of these creatures in their mortal struggles. One of their leaders reminded him of Cato -- the same eternally ancient features, the cynical glaze of inward-drinking eyes. Cato, now ... there'd been a grand story.
But the pantovive's three-dimensional images faded, the tracing light receded before the priority of a message, and there was Ynvic's face staring at him, her bald head glistening under the lights in her surgery, her heavy brows arched in a quizzical frown.
"A visitor calling himself Kelexel has arrived," she said. (And Fraffin, watching the flash of her teeth, the heavy lips, thought: She's overdue for rejuvenation.) "This Kelexel most likely is the Investigator we've been expecting," she added.
Fraffin straightened, uttered a curse that'd been popular on his world in the time of Hasdrubal: "Bal, burn their seed!" Then: "How certain are you?"
"The visitor is a visitor to perfection," Ynvic said. She shrugged. "He is too perfect. Only the Bureau could be that perfect."
Fraffin settled back into his editing chair. She was probably correct. The Investigator's timing was about right. Out in the Chem universe they didn't have this feeling for the nicety of timing. Time ran at such a crazy speed for most Chem. But association with the creatures of this world imparted a pseudosense of time. Yes, it was probably the Investigator.
He looked up and around at his silver-walled salon-office in the heart of the storyship. This long low place crammed with creative machinery and the devices of relaxation usually remained insulated from transient planetary distractions. As a rule, only Ynvic dared disturb him at his work here. She would not do it lightly. Something about this visitor, Kelexel, had alerted her.
Even through the storyship's sophisticated barriers and the deeps of ocean in which they hid, he often felt that he could sense the passage of the planet's sun and moon and that troubles waited for the worst conjunctions to plague him.
Waiting behind him on his desk was a report from Lutt, his Master-of-Craft, that new three-man shooting crew, youngsters of promise all, had been out on the surface with shields down letting the natives see them, stirring up a storm of local speculation. Teasing the natives was, of course, an ancient diversion with the Chem of this storyship.
But not now.
Why did they choose this particular moment? he wondered.
"Well throw this Kelexel a sop," he said. "The shooting crew that was out teasing the natives. Dismissal for all of them and for the dispatcher who allowed them to surface without an old hand as guide."
"They may talk," Ynvic said. "They don't dare," he said. "Anyway, explain what's happened and send them along with recommendations to one of the new ships. I hate to lose them, but ... " He shrugged.
"Is that all you're going to do?" Ynvic asked.
Fraffin passed a hand over his eyes, scratched his left brow. Her meaning was clear, but he hated to abandon the lovely little war. He stared into the glittering shell of the pantovive where his memory still held the lingering images of violence. If he pulled out his Manipulators, the natives likely would settle their differences across a conference table. They had that tendency more and more of late.
Again, he thought of the problems awaiting him at his desk. There was the memo from Albik, the story-chief, the usual complaint: "If you wish me to cover this much story action simultaneously then I must have more skimmers and platforms, more shooting crews, more cutting-room operators ... more ... more ... more ... "
Fraffin longed for the good old days when Birstala had been his story-chief. There was a man capable of making his own decisions when the equipment and crews wouldn't stretch. But Birstala had succumbed to the immortal nemesis, boredom. He had his own story-ship now with the seed from this planet and his own world somewhere off beyond the beyond. He had his own problems.
"Maybe you should sell out," Ynvic said.
He glared at her. "That's impossible and you know why!"
"The right buyer ... "
Fraffin pushed himself out of the editing chair, crossed to his desk. Its immersed viewscreen showed the discus galaxies and variable stars of the Chem birthworlds. A touch of the controls and this scene vanished to present a view from space looking down on their private little planet, this blue-green world with its patterns of clouds over seas and continents, the sharp flakes of star cosmos beyond.
His own features lay there suddenly reflected in the desk's polished surface as though swimming out of the planet: the sensual mouth in a straight line, nostrils flared in his narrow hooked nose, dark eyes brooding under overhanging brows, the high forehead with twin coves of silvery Chem flesh in the short black hair.
Ynvic's face came through the Central Directory's message center relays to dance above the desk and stare at him expectantly.
"I've given my opinion," she said.
Fraffin looked up at the Shipsurgeon, a bald, roundfaced Chem of the Ceyatril breed -- old, old even by Chem standards-extravagant with age. A thousand stars such as the sun which whirled this planet in its loop of gravity could have been born and died in the life of Shipsurgeon Ynvic. There were rumors she'd been a planet buyer once and even a member of the Larra crew which had probed the other dimensions. She wouldn't say, naturally, but the story persisted.
"I can never sell my world, Ynvic," he said. "You know that."
"A Chem is wise to avoid the word never," she said.
"What do our sources say about this Kelexel?" he asked.
"That he's a rich merchant, recently allowed to breed, favored by the Primacy." "And you think he's the new snooper."
"I think it."
If Ynvic thinks it, then it's probably true, he thought.
He knew he was stalling, vacillating. He didn't want to drop the lovely little war and gear the ship to meet this new threat.
Perhaps Ynvic's right, he thought. I've been here too long, eaten too much identification with our poor, ignorant natives.
Another snooper from the Bureau came to watch us!
And what the man sought could not be hidden long. Ynvic was saying that to him with every word and gesture.
I should abandon this planet, he thought How did I absorb so much identification with these gross, stupid savages? We don't even share death in common. They die; we don't.
I've been one of their gods!
What if this snooper cannot be tempted?
Damn the Bureau!
"He's not going to be an easy one, this Investigator," Ynvic said. "He poses as one of the very rich. If he bids on the ship why not confound them -- sell out. What could they do? You could plead ignorance; the entire ship would back you."
"Dangerous ... dangerous," Fraffin said.
"But enough profit to oppose any danger," she said.
"As the parable has it," Ynvic said, "the Gods smile on profit."
Gods, commerce and bureaucracy, Fraffin thought. These endure, even among our poor savages. But I'm trapped here, grown too much like my simple creatures. He held out his right hand, looked at the palm. My hand's in their every heritage. I'm the germ of yesterday resurrecting faces out of Babylon.
"Kelexel has requested an interview with the great Fraffin," Ynvic said. "He's been ... "
"I'll see him," Fraffin said. He hid his palm in a clenched fist. "Yes. Send him to me."
"No!" Ynvic said. "Refuse him, let your agents ... "
"On what grounds? I've seen other rich merchants."
"Any grounds. Whim, an artist's impulse, pressure of work."
"I think I shall see him. Is he internally instrumented?"
"Of course not; they wouldn't be that simple. But why would you ... "
"To feel him out."
"You've professionals for that job."
"But he wants to see me."
"Here is real danger. Let him once suspect and hell not bid. He'll just snoop until he has us all in his noose."
"He may not bid anyway. Someone must find what will tempt him." "We know what'll tempt him! But let him get just the faintest hint that we can interbreed with these savages, the most vague suspicion and we've lost him ... and ourselves as well."
"I'm not a child to be lectured to, Ynvic. I'll see him."
"You're determined, then?"
"I am. Where is he?"
"Out on the surface with a tour crew."
"Ahhh. And we're monitoring, of course. What does he think of our creatures?"
"The conventional things: they're so gross, ugly -- like caricatures of Chem humanity."
"But what do his eyes say?"
"The females interest him."
"Of course they do."
"Then you're going to withdraw from the war drama and set up a story for him?"
"What else can we do?" his voice revealed frustration and resignation.
"What'll you use, that little group in Delhi?"
"No, I'm saving that one for an emergency, a real emergency."
"The girls' school in Leeds?"
"Inappropriate. What do you think, Ynvic -- will violence catch his mind?"
"Definitely. It's the murder school in Berlin, then, eh?"
"No, no! I think I have something much better, I'll discuss it after I've seen him. As soon as he returns, have ... "
"One moment," Ynvic said. "Not the immune -- not that one!"
"Why not? Compromise him completely."
"That's all this investigator would need! That alone without ... "
"The immune can be killed at any time," Fraffin said.
"This Kelexel is not stupid!"
I'll be cautious."
"Just remember, old friend," Ynvic said, "that I'm in this as deeply as you. Most of the crew could probably get off with sentences of constructive labor, but I'm the one faked the gene samples we sent the Primacy."
"I heard you," Fraffin said. "The word is caution."