Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
THROUGH THREE black doors and two roseate ovals Bran and Peganna traveled before they put foot on the planet Molween. The Crenn Lir had another, unknown name for this world; Molween was an Empire term given it by an explorer five hundred years before who had vaned down on its surface after coming out of hyperspace. In those days, before the invention of the hyper-spatial compass, men had no way of knowing where in space they would emerge from that misty universe through which man first traveled to the stars. It was a hit or miss proposition all the way.
Twice since then had men set foot on Molween, each time returning to confirm the story told by that initial explorer. There was a well on Molween. It did grant wishes, after a fashion. What a man asked for, the well gave, the men said.
One man told of a needed bearing for a damaged motor that the well supplied. Another said he asked for gold, and produced a golden ingot as proof of what he claimed. They always added that the well did not grant every wish, for some reason, only an occasional one. But it was enough to begin the legend.
“Did you make a wish, Bran?” asked Peganna as they emerged from the tele-door into a small chamber in the walls of which were set dioramic displays behind glass panes.
“I did. I asked for a map of the planet. There wasn’t any answer.” He paused, waiting for Peganna who stood staring into a dioramic display of green desert across which a tiny deer fed before a pack of howling dune wolves. She murmured, “The law of the universe. The strong destroy the weak.” Her chin firmed as she swung on him. “I intend to be weak no longer, Bran Magannon.”
He nodded understandingly. “The Empire Counsel only understands a show of force, at times.”
Her eyes never left his face. “I intend to ask the well for a weapon, a weapon against which there is no defense.”
“I hope you get it.”
She moved ahead of him, hips swaying, toward the bronze door that opened to the touch of her palm so that she went out into the sunlight and stood a moment breathing in crisp, cool air. She made a wistful picture in her white chlamys with its hood thrown back so that her silver hair blew free about her white face. She is so small to be a queen, so lonely and so lovely. In his heart he cursed the stupidity of officialdom that had denied her people the right to live among them, to become a part of Empire.
He wondered if a weapon would help her.
She walked ahead of him down metal steps to broad grasslands stretching away toward the horizon, broken only here and there with stands of tall, stately trees. Molween had survived the disaster that had overwhelmed her sister planets in rather good fashion, Bran thought. All it seemed to lack was people.
When he mentioned this to Peganna, suggesting that her people come here, she shook her head. “We tried a few of the Crenn Lir planets and found there is an unknown force that makes us ill, very ill. Almost as if a curse still hangs over the Crenn Lir worlds.”
“I never felt it,” he said.
“You never stayed long on any one planet, Wanderer. The force never had a chance to build up in you.”
“And on Miranor, where your people now live?”
She shrugged. “The force is weak. We’ve developed drugs that counteract its effects for a little while. But to go on like that is intolerable. This is a period of marking time for the Lyanir, Bran. Until I find what I want from the well of Molween.”
They walked across the grasslands with the wind blowing sweet and clean in their faces. Bran Magannon realized that he felt fully alive for the first time in years, walking here with the woman he loved. It was as if, by not being near her, he had been half dead. When they were under the shadows of a tree, he put a hand on her arm and drew her back to him.
He kissed her hungrily, thrilling to the softness of her mouth. She trembled in his arms like a wild thing in the hands of a hunter.
“Bran, I’m so afraid. So afraid!”
There were tears in her eyes; he kissed them away while she sobbed laughter. “I’m so alone, so alone,” she whispered.
“Not now. Not with me beside you.”
“But you’re an Earthman. Not a Lyanir.”
“I’m a man, first of all. My first duty is to the race of men whether they wear the star cluster of Empire or the twin axes of Lyanol.”
Her eyes glowed up at him. “Oh, Bran! You mean that, don’t you? Knowing you’re with me all the way means so much. So much!”
He grinned at her, still locking her in the grip of his arms. “Did you honestly doubt me? While men like Alvar Drexel control the Intergalactic Fleet for Empire, I want no part of it. My hope is that by uniting the Lyanir with the men of Empire–we can make something better than either.”
“To do that, we need a weapon to compel Empire to accede to our demands.” She said it almost as a question, looking up into his eyes.
“It’s the only thing I can think of that will put the fear of the Lord in them. And to force the Empire to do something, you’ve got to shake them up pretty badly.”
Her hand caught his, warm fingers gripping him tightly. “Then come on, Bran. Come on!”
Laughter trailed from her lips as she ran through the high grasses like a wood nymph. Just so had she been those years before on the treaty planet, Kuleen. Bran sorrowed for the years they had been apart and ran with her.
In the distance now they could see the topless towers of a Crenn Lir city. There was no char of ruin here as there had been on Deirdre, however. The buildings of this world had crumbled in upon themselves with age. There was an air of desolation about them that came with abandonment, not with destruction.
“It’s as though the people living here just packed up and went away,” Peganna murmured as they moved across the smooth streets.
“Or–died of,” he growled.
“As suddenly as all that? Leaving everything almost as it had been while they were alive?”
“Something like that, yes.”
She eyed him wonderingly. “What could possibly cause such a thing? Neither Empire nor the Lyanir know a power as great as that.”
“I know, I know. It’s what worries me.”
She seemed startled but only tightened the grip of her hand on his as they walked. There was a new eagerness in her stride, reflecting the troubled attitude of her thoughts.
Then the buildings on either side of them opened to a great square where once had been set metal rods and chains connecting them, surrounding a metal platform that shone in the sunlight as though it were brand new. Built upon the metal platform was an oval structure resembling a towering sea wave rushing shore-ward Set into that curving lip was a smooth black oval that glittered like glass.
Bran gestured with his hand. “The well of Molween, acushla.”
Peganna shivered. Her hand fell from his and moved to her upper arm, stroking slowly as if to restore its circulation. Cold and suddenly frightened, her eyes seemed held hypnotically by that black opening.
“Bran, suppose it doesn’t work?”
“Then we’ve lost a little time, no more.”
His big hand at the small of her back urged her forward. Just so might a supplicant have approached her god ages ago on Earth, with fear etched on her face and in the writhings of her fingers twisting together. Her eyes touched him and fell away. Her lips quivered as she sought to cry a protest and could not.
She stood before the oval on a blue metal band, putting a hand up to her hair, pushing it back. Her lips were a little open.
“What shall I say, Bran?”
“Ask for the perfect weapon.”
She nodded, then touched her lips with a tongue-tip “I need a weapon, the perfect weapon,” she said slowly. “Give it to me, please.”
The black oval glittered, mute.
Peganna uttered a cry of dismay. “Bran, it won’t work. It’s refused me! After I counted so much on it.”
“Don’t panic,” he told her. “Maybe you didn’t ask the right way. Maybe you have to speak in the Crenn Lir tongue. No–that isn’t so, if the men who found the well told the truth. They wouldn’t have known the language.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
He said slowly. “The thing may work by some sort of mental telepathy. Try that. Try picturing a weapon in your mind.”
Peganna concentrated. One after another she visualized the weapons of the Lyanir, of the space navies of the Empire. She even thought of handguns and swords, but the black oval remained dead.
She began to sob in her frustration.
“The Crenn Lir had weapons. We know from what we learned of their language and from the paintings we found. Fantastic weapons, some of them, that operated on principles entirely unknown to us. Why doesn’t it bring them to me? Why?”
“Maybe it can’t, Peganna. They may not exist any more.”
Her shoulders slumped as she nodded. “I suppose not. It’s been so long–so many centuries. But I felt sure . . . There was a vault that contained all their weapons, sealed away against the ravages of time, which they hoped any who survived the catastrophe could go and open.”
Peganna buried her face in her hands, muffling her words. “There must be a way to open that vault–a key of sorts–a word or symbol. . .”
His words were like an electrical stimulation to the woman. Peganna lifted her head, stared with wet eyes at the black oval that was growing lighter, paling to a faint rose. She found herself looking into swirling reds and pinks and lavenders, as if tinted smokes were being blown about by titanic winds, shifting, whirling, driving back and forth, mingling with one another.
“. . . a vault of arms, a place where the Crenn Lir could go if any were left alive, to get their weapons, the artifacts of their sciences. There must be a key to that vault–a way to open it! Give me that key. Give the key to me, to Peganna of the Silver Hair. . . .”
A blue egg formed in the oval and moved toward her.
It fell from the oval and bounced across the blue metal dais and rolled to the booted feet of Bran Magannon. He bent down and picked it up.
The reds and pinks and lavenders of the oval blackened swiftly. In an instant it was dark and dead. Peganna gave a sigh and stepped off the dais, staring at the blue egg.
“What is it, Bran?”
“Who knows? A key of some sort, I guess.”
His fingers turned it over and over. It was a jewel, they saw when the light struck it, of a crystalline hardness fashioned so that thin red lines ran this way and that inside the blueness. In the hand it was heavy. Cold. Of the size of a chicken egg, it was like nothing Bran the Wanderer had ever seen.
Peganna began to laugh, standing before him with back-thrown head. “We have the key and–we don’t know where the lock is that it opens!”
When she grew hysterical between laughter and weeping, Bran drew her into his arms and cradled her head on his chest. He put his words into the thick silver hair that tickled his lips.
“Easy now, mavourneen. There’s no need for panic. Somewhere the vault exists. All we have to do is find it.”
“Do you know how many planets we’d have to search? Over a thousand! And the vault may be hidden so cleverly that–”
She broke off to weep more fiercely.
Bran said slowly, “For a moment I thought the metal square on Deirdre that hums might be the vault. But there’s no place on it in which to put the egg.”
“Maybe all we need do is touch it to its surface,” Peganna said hopefully, rubbing wet cheeks with the back of her hand.
“I don’t think so, but we can try.”
Peganna sought to make her voice light, but the undertone of bitter disappointment could not be hidden. “At least we have the key, Bran.”
“It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing.”
He put the blue egg into his belt pouch.
Tiredness was an ache in both of them. They had traveled many worlds through the tele-doors. On some of them it had been day; on some night. Time had become for them only an eternity of movement. Peganna looked pale and drawn, and there were lines at the corners of Bran’s eyes.
“We’ll stay here a while,” he announced.
He found shelter for them in an empty building that once had been a dwelling. Old draperies and furniture were piles of dust now, but Bran built a fire of wood he found beyond the city and made a cozy warmth for them as they slept.
They had no way of knowing how long a day might be on Molween, or how long its nights, but when they woke there was a hushed redness in the air which might have been dawn or dusk. They were very hungry but there was no food to be found on Molween.
Bran lifted Peganna to her feet. “We’ll go back to Deirdre,” he smiled.
“And test the egg on the humming thing?” she asked. The Wanderer nodded and put his arm about her in reassurance.
The blue egg did nothing to the metal machine when they stood before it once again. Bran touched it to its surface, felt the vibrations through the jewel, but nothing happened. Peganna took her turn, sliding the egg across the metal, holding it high, resting the egg against the metal and walking away.
In despair, she handed it to Bran. “We’re getting nowhere. We might as well go home to Miranor. Maybe our scientists have found something in the Crenn Lir writings they’re deciphering on Miranor that will give us a clue.”
She broke of suddenly and put a hand to her mouth. Above her fingers, her green eyes were wide with dismay. “Oh, I forgot! We have no spaceship! And we can’t go back to Makkador for the Crenn Lir ship.”
“I have my own ship, Peganna. The one I used before I discovered the tele-doors. It’s on one of the Frontier worlds.”
The Frontier worlds were planets on the very perimeter of the Empire, lifeless planets for the most part, rich in metals and minerals but unfit for agriculture and with little water. For reasons as yet undetermined by Empire astrologicians, they were to be found close to such shell stars as had been discovered by Empire space explorers. They made excellent hideouts for outlaws and those who grew rich by preying on the merchant ships that plied the space lanes.
There was a tele-door on the planet called Lethe by Empire star mappers, in a small chamber that seemed to have been erected hurriedly by panic-ridden Crenn Lir engineers. Perhaps in the last few hours any of them had to live, as an escape hatch. It was an incomplete building, a desperate searching out for a world on which to flee the mysterious death that hounded down their people.
But the tele-door worked. It had taken Bran the Wanderer out among the Crenn Lir worlds, and now it brought him back. He led Peganna into the Lethean sunlight where his one-man cruiser rested on its vanes.
It was not a large ship; it had been a reject from a consignment ordered by Empire Fleet Command Headquarters nine years before; Bran Magannon had taken advantage of the surplus equipment sales held while he had been a Commander. Ordinarily, no single individual could afford a space ship, except a few multi-billionaire merchants.
“I’ve never regretted the money it cost,” he remarked as Peganna went up the ladder ahead of him. “Without it I couldn’t have wandered around the way I did. I’d never have found the tele-doors, either.”
He closed the port behind him with a little clang. A quick glance told him the ship was as he had left it, so many months ago. At least the Intergalactic Command troops hadn’t seen through one tele-door.
Peganna followed him into the tiny galley, helped him pen sealed cans of meat and pre-cooked vegetables. She put plates and cups on the stilfoam top of a wall folding table ind arranged knives and forks beside them. A sudden thought made her turn toward the open control room door with a smile.
“This will be our second meal together since the Treaty Dinner before you went to Earth from Kuleen,” she called.
“Let’s hope we have lots more,” he replied from the control seat forward. He was adjusting coordinates and relay circuit diodes so that the cybernetic controller could take over the chores of liftoff and shifting into hyperspace gear.
When he was done he threw the starting lever and felt the answering hum sound from beneath the floor-plates. The ionic engine began revving up to takeoff power. Bran came out of the chair. From now on, every move the ship made, until it slowed for a landing on Miranor, would be guided by its own relay circuits.
As they ate, anti-gravitic plates lifted them above Lethe and hurled them outward into space fifty thousand miles. The ship lurched an instant–Bran made a mental note that the hyper-drive gears needed adjustment–then the deep black of space beyond the port windows turned to the misty gray of hyperspace, that universe of no-thing and no-when through which the star-ships traveled.
“A day,” he said to Peganna. “No more than at that, surely. Then we’ll be on Miranor. I’m going to check my weapons.”
“Weapons?” she wondered.
“I’ll be frank with you, acushla. I’m thinking about your brother, Gron Dhu. He was mighty friendly with Alvar Drexel eight years ago on Kuleen when we were working out those Treaty details.”
Peganna shook her head. “You worry too much. Gron Dhu is Commander of the Lyanir war forces, no more. I’m his sister and his queen. He is bound by custom to obey me.”
“Has no one among the Lyanir ever broken a custom, Peganna? Unless I miss my guess, Gron Dhu is an ambitious man.”
“Not that ambitious,” she stated.
Bran only shrugged and went on eating.
Gron Dhu turned from the window that looked out over the rolling grasslands of the world of Miranor. He was a tall man, heavily muscled through the shoulders that glistened nakedly where the ocana-fur of his military cloak failed to cover them. A dress sword hung in silver chains at his side; when he moved, the chains made faint clanking sounds. His hair was black and closely cropped above a hard brown face. He was a fighting man, and looked it.
He said easily, “You worry too much, Commander Drexel. I have explained it to you, quite thoroughly.”
Alvar Drexel gloomed at the tall young Lyanirn from under frowning brows. Necessity and a similarity of ambitions had drawn him to this younger brother of Peganna of the Silver Hair, right from the beginning; as time wore on, he was finding that their destinies were linked even more closely than he had realized.
“You don’t know Bran Magannon. He’s a devil.”
Gron Dhu let his lips thin. “I know Bran Magannon. He and he alone defeated my people. Oh, I remember him, all right. But devil or not, there isn’t anything he can do when he and Peganna put themselves in my power by coming back to Miranor. As they will do, sooner or later.”
The Empire feet commander shook his head. “The Wanderer always finds a way. It isn’t there for you or me to see–but Bran sees it.”
The Lyanirn made an impatient gesture. “I’ve told you what Peganna seeks. A weapon, to use as a wedge to force the Empire to give my people living room. If she finds it, she will bring it here. We capture her–and Bran Magannon–take away the weapon and as ruler of the Lyanir I make peace with the Empire, turning Peganna over to you as a warmonger. If she doesn’t find the weapon we’re no worse off. She’ll come back eventually and when she does, I’ll turn her over to you as we’ve arranged. No matter what, she loses her throne.”
“And Bran Magannon his life.”
Gron Dhu nodded. He moved away from the window, stepped before a map that took up an entire wall of the large chamber in which he entertained Alvar Drexel. His fingertip touched it, made a circling gesture.
“I’ve put patrols in the back country, from Wurll to Pandimar. If Peganna tries to avoid us by taking refuge there, my patrols will seize her. But she’ll come straight to Andelkrann, which we have made our capitol on Miranor.”
“I wish I were as confident as you.”
The younger man let his cold black eyes assess his companion. “You had them once, on Makkador. If I’d let them slip from my fingers as you did, perhaps I’d be as worried. You’re in a sweat, Commander– which you betrayed by running here to Miranor for my help when Bran and Peganna escaped you on Makkador.”
Alvar Drexel half rose from his seat, his face flushed. He sank back soon enough; he was in no position to give free rein to his galled pride. He commented lightly, “Maybe I deserve that, maybe not. I could do no more than give the orders. I could not ride in every zad nor walk with every foot patrol across the planet.”
His palm slapped the tabletop with an explosive sound. The golden wine-cup at his elbow trembled. His eyes glowed in feral rage. “A devil! That man’s an absolute devil. Always he finds the one way out, the one way to do what must be done!”
“Not this time,” snarled Gron Dhu confidently.
The fleet officer brooded at him. “Listen to me. Bran Magannon got off Makkador without a spaceship. Do you understand that? He used no spaceship, yet he left the planet!”
“Maybe he’s still there.”
Alvar Drexel shook his head. “No, no. He has some other way of traveling. He came to Makkador without a spaceship. He left it the same way. Gods! What I’d give to learn how he did it. Teleportation? Could he have learned its secret during his years among the stars?”
“He won’t be able to do his tricks in a prison cell–and we have some fine old dungeons here on Miranor, built eons ago by the Crenn Lir race who called it home.” He gestured at the window through which the red ball of a star-sun could be seen. “Were this a younger world, it would suit the Lyanir, but it’s old–old. Worn out! Drained of its ancient metals, its chemicals, its loams and vegetation. And bathed by some mysterious force that kills my people unless they swallow medication against its effects.”
He swung about, put both palms on the tabletop as he glared down into the upturned face of Alvar Drexel. “Peganna has failed her people, Commander. I shall not fail. You have promised–for my help–that you will see the Lyanir accepted into the Empire.”
“As a subject people only,” the uniformed man pointed out. “Liable to tribute payments and forced conscriptions. Not as equals. That much, I could not promise.”
“The other is enough,” Gron Dhu nodded. “From such a beginning, we may hope for more. Peganna was too proud to accept the role of subject people. I’m not–just so long as I’m made rayanor.”
He stood with high held head, young and eager, hard and unscrupulous. I was such a youth, mused Commander Drexel, before the years and the disappointments ate so deeply into me. A man does what he may with what talents he possesses. The trouble is, we can boast of so few. So few! Even those we do not learn to control, to use to their best advantage. We can never attain the visions of our inmost selves, never quite create the godlike images we believe ourselves to be. Idols all, with clay feet.
The fleet commander sighed. To be young was to be arrogant of failure, intolerant of anything less than the absolute. Wryly he thought, I hope Gron Dhu has not fashioned his own feet with clay. If Gron Dhu falls, I fall with him. It was not a nice prospect.
Glumly he sipped the tart Molarian wine.