Inferno (Isaac Asimov's Caliban #2)

Chapter 4

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THE RAIN THUNDERED DOWN as the two robots approached the Winter Residence. Humans hated venturing out in such weather, but wet and cold did not bother robots-and it allowed for private conversation. As one of the two robots was the only one on the planet not equipped with a hyperwave comm system, the chance for private face-to-face talk was not one to be ignored.

They paused a hundred meters from the structure and looked at the handsome building, a long, low structure of the most well-proportioned lines. The first robot turned to the second. "Do you truly think that it is wise for us to proceed?" it asked.

"I cannot say," the second one answered. "We are entitled to be here. We were invited, and the Governor did wish us to attend. But the dangers are real. The situation is so complex that I doubt anyone, human or robot, could work out the possible ramifications."

"Should we then, perhaps, turn back?" the first asked. "Might that not be for the best rather than risking disaster?"

The second one shook its head no, using the human gesture with a smooth, unmechanical grace that was most unusual for a robot. "We should attend," it said, its voice firm and decisive. "It is the Governor's desire that we do so and I do not wish to annoy him. I have learned a great deal about human politics-enough to say that I do not know the first thing about it. But the Governor asked us to come, and I owe the Governor much-as you do yourself. It would not be wise for us to refuse him. Were it not for his grant of a waiver to Dr. Leving, I would have been destroyed. Were it not for his support of Dr. Leving's work, you and all the other New Law robots would never have existed in the first place. And I need not remind you of the power he still holds over us. "

"Good points all, I grant you," the first robot conceded. "He has done much for us. Let us hope we are able to convince him to do more without recourse to-unpleasantness."

"Such recourse would be unwise," the second robot warned. "I know humans better than you, and I fear that you underestimate the possible repercussions of your contingency plans. "

"Then let us hope the contingency does not arise. Come, I have always been curious to see what these affairs are like. Let us go in, friend Caliban."

"After you, Prospero."

There was, needless to say, some awkwardness with the various human guards before their invitations were found to be genuine and the two robots were granted entrance. But both had long since learned to take things in stride, and they were soon past the last security checkpoint. They made their way down the entryway and into the Grand Hall, Caliban a step or two ahead of his friend.

The room had been full of gaiety and laughter a moment before, but all was smothered in silence the moment Caliban and Prospero walked into the main drawing room, a drop or two of rain still clinging to their metallic bodies.

Caliban looked around the room with a steady gaze. Caliban was used to rooms going quiet when he walked in. He had been through it all many times before. He had learned long ago there was no point in his trying to be inconspicuous, or in hoping that no one would know who he was. Caliban was well over two meters tall, his lean, angular frame painted a gleaming metallic red. His glowing deep blue eyes stood out in startling contrast. But it was not his appearance that frightened people. It was his reputation. He was the robot without Laws, the only one in the universe. Caliban, the robot accused-but cleared-of attempting the murder of his creator.

Caliban, the robot who could kill, if he chose.

The crowd in the room seemed to melt away from them, leaving a wide circle of empty space between the two robots and the room full of humans. People were whispering and pointing, nudging each other, staring.

"I see there is an advantage in arriving with you," Prospero said, speaking in a low voice. "I am often not well treated at human social events, but with you at my side, I will be quite safe here-no one will pay the least attention to me."

Prospero was perhaps a head shorter than his friend, stockier, less imposing. He was painted a reflective jet-black, with eyes that glowed a deep orange.

"I would wish that I received far less attention, I assure you," Caliban replied. The robot who could kill. That was all he would ever be to most people, to Caliban's endless frustration. That was all most people knew of him, or cared to know.

True, he knew he could, in theory, kill a man quite easily. He could reach out and break a man's neck if he wished. There was no First Law to stop him, no injunction burned into the deepest circuits of his brain to render him immobile at the very thought of such an act. All true, but what of it?

He could kill if he wished-but he did not wish to do it. Every human being was just as capable of murder. No built-in, unstoppable injunction prevented one human from killing another, yet humans did not regard each other first and foremost as potential murderers.

Caliban had learned long ago that no one, human or robot, would ever trust him completely. He was the robot without Laws, the robot unconstrained by the First Law prohibition against harming humans. "Now it all begins," he said wearily. "The whispers, the crowds of people nudging each other and pointing to me, the one or two brave souls who will come up to me, approaching me like some sort of wild beast. They will work up their nerve and then they will ask me the same questions I have heard over and over again."

"And what might those questions be?" asked a voice behind them.

Caliban turned around, a bit startled. "Good evening to you, Dr. Leving," Caliban said. "I am somewhat surprised to find you here."

"I could say the same about the two of you," Fredda Leving replied with a smile. She was a small, youthful-looking, light-skinned woman, her dark brown hair cut short. She was stylishly dressed in a dark, flowing dress with a high collar, a simple, understated gold chain about her neck. "What in Space would tempt you to come here, of all places? You got dragged to enough of these things back on the mainland, and you never seemed to enjoy them there. I'd have thought you'd been at enough human parties to last you a lifetime. "

"True enough, Dr. Leving. " In the year since the Governor granted Dr. Leving the waiver allowing her to possess a Lawless robot, she had taken Caliban along to a number of social functions, trying to drum up support for New Law robots.

It could be said of Fredda Leving that she had an odd collection of brain-children. Among other robots, she had built Caliban and Prospero and Donald, naming each after a character created by a certain old Earth playwright, a naming scheme she used only on her most prized creations. "Caliban was a good sport about my taking him to parties," she said to Prospero, "but we both got tired of his being treated like some sort of prize exhibition, a freak of science I had created. The Lawless Robot and his Mad Creator-and we seem to be getting the same reception tonight. So why are you here?"

"I am afraid I am to blame for Caliban's presence," Prospero replied. "Caliban has often spoken to me about these events. I confess I wanted to see one for myself. " It was not, Caliban noted, the whole truth, but it would suffice. There was certainly no need to tell Fredda Leving more than that.

"How, exactly, has he described cocktail parties?" Fredda asked-

"As an ancient ritual, supposedly pleasurable, that no one has actually enjoyed for thousands of years, " Prospero replied.

Fredda Leving laughed out loud. "More or less true, I'm afraid. But I would like to know, Caliban. What are the questions you are asked all the time?"

"In general terms, they are variations on the question of how I control myself without the Laws. The most common version focuses on the fact that I do not have the Three Laws of Robotics, especially the First Law. I am asked what, precisely, keeps me from killing people. "

"Gracious!" Fredda exclaimed. "People come up to you and ask that?"

Caliban nodded solemnly. "They do indeed."

"To me," Prospero said, "that question says that the average person has no real conception whatever of what it is to be a robot. The question assumes that there is, after all, something dark and evil deep inside a robot. It assumes that the primary function of the First Law is to curb a robot's natural and murderous instincts. "

"That's a trifle strong, isn't it?" Fredda asked.

"It is indeed," Caliban said.

Prospero shook his head. "Caliban and I have debated the point at great length. Perhaps my description would have been an overstatement some years ago, but I don't believe it is any longer," he told his creator. "Not anymore. This is an age where many old certainties are failing. Spacers are no longer the most powerful group; Infernals are forced to make massive concessions to the Settlers; the planetary climate is no longer under control. Infernals can't even take an infinite supply of Three-Law robots for granted any longer. If all the other verities are no longer there, why should the safety of robots still be relied upon? After all, robots have changed, and are less reliable," Prospero noted. "That is the plain fact of New Law robots. I can save a life or obey a command if I wish, but I am not absolutely bound to do so."

"I must say that I am more than a bit taken aback," Dr. Leving said. "This is a far deeper-and darker-philosophy than I would have expected from you."

"Our situation is likewise darker than you think," Prospero said. "My fellow New Law robots are not well liked or well treated-and, I must admit, at times, they are, as a consequence, not well behaved. The process feeds on itself. Their overseers assume they will run away, and force heavier restrictions on them to prevent escape. The New Law robots chafe under the new restrictions, and thus decide to flee. Clearly, no one benefits from the current situation."

"That I can agree with," said Dr. Leving.

"I wish to do what I can to bring the two sides to some new accommodation," Prospero said. "That is part of why I am here, in hopes of conversing with some of the leading Spacers."

Another shading of the truth, Caliban noted. It seemed to him that Prospero was becoming more and more parsimonious with the truth in recent days. It worried him. But Dr. Leving was speaking.

"I must warn you, Prospero, not to have too many hopes in that direction, " she said. "This is a very public occasion, and I doubt that many of the people here will want to be seen in conversation with some upstart New Law robot."

"I note that you have no such concerns," Prospero said.

Fredda Leving laughed. "I'm afraid that my reputation is too far gone for one chat with you to do any harm. After committing the horrific crime of creating you and Caliban, merely talking with you is going to be a rather petty offense."

Ottley Bissal hung back from the entrance, taking shelter under the roofed-over aircar port, clinging to shadows. He was dry and clean now, having used the aircar port's refresher station, put there a hundred years before for the convenience of guests who wished to tidy up before socializing at the Governor's Residence. Well, that description fit him.

Fear was starting to take its hold on him. So much could go wrong. The plan was good, and he knew what he was supposed to do-but nothing was foolproof. They had promised they would take care of him no matter what, but he knew that even the most powerful people could fail at times.

But revenge. Revenge. He had one taste of it already tonight-and what came next would be a full banquet, a blow struck against everything the world had ever owed him and failed to deliver, every betrayal put paid in one moment.

It would be enough. More than enough. What was a little fear, a little danger compared to the incomparable pleasure of destroying the greatest enemy of all?

Another aircar was coming in for a landing. Bissal stepped back, deeper into shadow, and waited for his moment. Soon. Very soon now.

Simcor Beddle's aircar swooped down to a perfect landing and taxied smoothly in under the covered car park. Simcor smiled to himself, pleased with the skill of his robot pilot. Why settle for anything but the best? Simcor enjoyed his entrances, there was no doubt about that, and he was about to make a grand one. He dearly loved creating a scene.

Simcor Beddle was the leader of the Ironheads, a group of rowdies dedicated to the idea that the solution to any problem was more and better robots.

Right now, the Ironheads were enjoying their greatest popularity in years. The seizure of household robots for terraforming labor had done more to recruit new members than any steps the Ironheads could have taken on their own. They were on the verge of moving from a fringe radical group to a major political force.

And that represented some challenges. Simcor had not hesitated to employ outright thuggery in the past, but a mass movement required something closer to respectability if it was to remain credible. Not respectability itself, mind-the Ironheads were expected to be a bit beyond the pale. But the time was past where they could get anywhere by staging a riot. What they needed now was visibility, publicity stunts. And Simcor Beddle was delighted to provide them.

Simcor Beddle was a small man. His face was round and sallow, with hard gimlet eyes of uncertain color. His hair was glossy black, and cut just long enough to lie flat against his skull. He was heavy-set, verging on the rotund, but there was nothing soft about him. He was a strong, hard, determined man, who knew what he wanted and did not care what he had to do to accomplish it.

And tonight he wanted to cause trouble. For starters, he was going to crash the party. If there were a law against robots, he would break that law. Just let them try and arrest him.

The passenger door of his aircar swung up and open, and Simcor got out of his chair and stepped to the hatch. Sanlacor 1321 was there with an umbrella, of course, to ward off any rain that might blow into the aircar port. A covered walkway led from the port to the portico of the Residence, and the other guests were hurrying along under it, but Simcor marched purposefully out into the rain, with absolute faith and certainty that Sanlacor 1321 would keep the umbrella positioned perfectly to protect him from the storm.

Sanlacor 1321 succeeded admirably, trotting alongside him, keeping the umbrella under tight control in the driving rain. Sanlacor 1322 and 1323 followed close behind, all three robots walking in perfect lockstep with their master. The Sanlacors were tall, graceful, dignified-looking robots, metallic-silver in color, a perfect mobile backdrop for Beddle himself.

They reached the main entrance, not stopping or even slowing. The SSS agents on duty at the door came forward a step or two, ready to protest, until they recognized Beddle. Seeming to be unsure whether they should stop him or not, they hesitated just long enough for him to get through the door without breaking stride. There were often distinct advantages to being the most recognized man on the planet.

And then he was in, his robots with him, and, as he had calculated, there was no one there with enough backbone to demand that he send his robots away, let alone ask if he had an invitation.

And that in and of itself was a victory. Let the Settlers tell everyone else they could and could not have robots on the premises-Simcor Beddle was not going to knuckle under. He would take his robots where he wanted, when he wanted.

And if that caused problems for Governor Chanto Grieg, then Beddle would not mind at all.

He stood, smiling, at the entry to the Grand Hall, his robots at his back, every eye on him. Someone began to applaud, and someone else joined in, and then someone else. Slowly, uncertainly at first, but then with growing enthusiasm, the crowd joined in, until Beddle was surrounded by cheering voices and clapping hands. Yes. Yes. Very good. No matter if he had planted a flunky or two in the crowd to get the applause started. The crowd had joined in. He had managed to upstage the Governor completely.

Which was no bad thing, as Beddle planned to be Governor himself before very much longer.

Fredda Leving watched with the rest of the guests as Simcor Beddle accepted the cheers of the crowd, but she was certainly not among those joining in. "It looks as if Simcor Beddle has solved your problem," she said to Caliban as the cheers died down. "It doesn't seem likely that you'll be the center of attention tonight."

"I fear that man," Prospero said.

"As well you should," Fredda said,

"Even after all this time, I must admit that I have a great deal of trouble understanding the man's fanaticism."

"If you ask me, he's no fanatic at all," Fredda replied. "I almost wish he were. He'd be far less dangerous if he actually believed in his cause. "

"He doesn't believe in it?"

"The Ironheads are a useful means to an end, but if you ask me, Simcor Beddle doesn't believe in anyone or anything besides Simcor Beddle. He's a demagogue, a rabble-rouser-and as much a danger to this planet as the collapsing ecology. "

"But why is he here?" Prospero asked.

"To undermine the occasion and make the Governor look bad, I suppose," Fredda replied.

"But what is the significance of the occasion? Caliban tells me this is an important event," Prospero said, "but he has not explained its importance to my satisfaction. Perhaps you would have more success."

"Well, it is the first time any Governor of Inferno has actually stayed in the Governor's Winter Residence in more than fifty years."

"And why is that of the slightest importance?" Prospero asked.

"Well, I suppose it isn't, in and of itself," Fredda admitted. "What is important is that it provides a way for the Governor to demonstrate that he-and through him, the Spacer government on Inferno-still controls the island of Purgatory."

"Does ultimate control rest with the Spacers?" Prospero asked.

"You ask the most difficult questions, Prospero," Fredda Leving said, a fleeting smile on her face. She hesitated, and then spoke again, her voice almost too low even for robot ears to catch. "Legally, yes. Realistically, no. If it all gets to be too much of a headache for the Settlers, they'll just walk away from the whole reterraforming project. The island of Purgatory would then revert to local control-but without the Settlers to run the Center, the island of Purgatory won't matter anymore."

"For that matter, without my Settlers repairing the climate, it won't even be an island anymore," a new voice volunteered.

"Greetings, Madame Welton," Caliban said.

"Hello, Tonya," Fredda said, suddenly feeling a bit unsure of her ground. Tonya Welton was the leader of the Settlers on Inferno, and she and Fredda had often found themselves on opposite sides of an issue. They had good reason not to be glad of each other's company. Fredda would not have gone out of her way to seek Tonya out, and she was a bit surprised that Tonya would come to her. Tonya seemed to be acting civilly enough, but the operative words there were "seemed" and "act. " Things could degenerate quickly.

Tonya Welton was tall, long-limbed, graceful, and dark-skinned, with a reputation for clothes that verged on the garish and the scandalous, compared to Infernal styles. Tonight was no exception. She wore a long red sheath dress that accentuated her profile and clung to her body as if painted on, the bodice cut daringly low. She was tough, hard, brash-and, improbably enough, still cohabitating with Gubber Anshaw, Fredda's very shy and retiring former colleague.

"Hello, Caliban," said Tonya Welton. "Hello, Fredda, Prospero. And, Fredda, next time you are trying not to be heard at one of these functions, bear in mind I'm not the only one who has practiced lip-reading."

"I'll remember that," Fredda said.

"How is it that Purgatory is going to stop being an island?" Prospero asked.

"Sea levels are dropping," Tonya said. "The ice cap is thickening. We've spotted three new Edge Islands emerging in the last month."

"So the Edge Islands are finally corning true," Fredda said.

"That is a serious development," Caliban said.

Fredda was forced to agree. The island of Purgatory sat dead center in the middle of the Great Bay, and the bay was nothing more or less than a huge and ancient drowned caldera, its northern edge forming the coastline of the Great Bay. The island of Purgatory was the collapsed crater's central peak, and the southern edge of the crater was hidden under the waves of the Southern Ocean.

But now the ocean waters were retreating, evaporating to fall as snow on the thickening north polar icecap. The highest points of the drowned caldera's southern rim were emerging, forming a new-and most unwelcome-chain of islands. The doomsayers-and the more responsible climate scientists-had been predicting the advent of the Edge Islands for a long time.

"It's not exactly a surprise," Fredda said, "but it does put that much more pressure on the Governor. It'll throw a scare into a few people."

Tonya Welton smiled unpleasantly. "The question is," she said, "what will being scared inspire those people to do? Nice to see you all. " And with that, she nodded and turned away.

"Nice sort of person, isn't she?" Fredda asked. "Why do I get the feeling she was not trying to set us at ease?"

"I never have gotten very good at dealing with rhetorical questions," Prospero said. "Did you actually wish for one or both of us to venture an answer?"

"Believe me, if you have any useful insights as to what goes on in Tonya Welton's mind, I'd love to have them."

"I doubt anything we might say could be of much use," Prospero replied in thoughtful tones. "It did seem as if she had more on her mind than polite conversation, but I have never pretended to understand very much about human politics."

Fredda Leving laughed and shook her head. "Nobody does, Prospero. Humans spend a huge amount of time and effort on it precisely because no one knows for sure what they are doing. If we understood it fully, if the same things always worked or failed, then politics would be no use whatsoever. It is only valuable because we don't know how it works."

"I would submit," Caliban says,, 'that you have just offered a splendid summing up for all the contradictions of human behavior. Only humans would work hardest on what they do not understand."

And Fredda Leving found that she had no useful answer to that.

Sero Phrost put a small, faint smile on his face as he stepped from a side room into the Grand Hall. He had watched Beddle's grand entrance with more than a little amusement. Simcor always did need to grab the whole stage for himself. Sero watched as Simcor sent the robots away. He had made his point, and apparently didn't want the great silver robots coming between him and his audience.

It did not seem, at first, that anyone had noticed Sero's arrival, but Sero knew better than that-and knew that pretending to have no interest in attracting attention was often the surest way to obtain the attention of a more discerning audience.

And there were certainly lots of people here whose interest he wanted-starting with Beddle, Beddle the virulently anti-Settler, rabidly pro-robot, and, needless to say, one of Grieg's harshest critics. Beddle was still surrounded by a crowd of sycophants, all of them laughing a bit too loudly, behaving just a trifle too belligerently. Beddle caught Phrost's eye and gave him a nod. Later they would talk.

And there was Tonya Welton, leader of the Settlers. Quite an occasion to get her in the same room with Beddle, Phrost thought. And quite a feather in my cap when they both want to talk to me. And that was no flight of imagination, either. Phrost had no doubt that both had hope of receiving his aid. The trick would be for him to provide it to both, and make gain in return from both, without either being the wiser.

Tonya Welton was making her excuses to the knot of people she was chatting with, clearly intending to come and welcome Phrost. He toyed with the idea of heading over to meet her halfway, but decided to indulge himself. Enjoy the moment. Let her come to him. He had worked long and hard to get this far. Why not enjoy it? He pretended not to notice Welton, and gestured to one of the waiters for a drink. Strange, very strange, to be served by a human servant-and an armed one at that. Governor's Rangers on security duty, and picking up the tasks that would normally have been done by robots. The one who gave Phrost his drink was clearly none too pleased by the assignment.

Phrost was a tall, ruddy-faced man, a bit too strong-featured to be called handsome in any conventional sense, his cold grey eyes a bit too calculating in their expression for anyone to imagine him as charming.

His face was well lined, but not so much as to make him appear old or worn-out. On the contrary, the lines that life had etched on his face spoke of vigor and energy, of a life full of activity and experience. Phrost was enough of an egotist to be aware of his own appearance and reputation, and take some pleasure in them, but he was enough of a realist to know that a great deal of it was illusion. He was no more active or determined than the average person-but it was often helpful for other people to think of him in such terms.

His hair had been jet-black not so very long ago, but now it had turned to salt-and-pepper, the white hairs just starting to be more common than the black. Phrost could not help but notice that the touch of grey had a profound effect on the way people reacted to him. In a culture that respected age and sober experience more than it valued youth and enthusiasm, a few genteel marks of maturity were good for business, and that was all that mattered.

Ostensibly, what Phrost did was to serve as the middleman for the extremely short list of Settler products that Spacer law allowed to be imported. He also represented the even shorter list of Spacer export products that Settlers were willing to buy. In reality, of course, the main purposes of his import-export business was to serve as a cover for all his other activities.

And it had led to his being selected to represent the combine of Spacer industrialists bidding on the Limbo Control System project. It was the single largest, and most complex, part of the reterraforming project. There was a Settler bid as well, of course. Whichever of the two sides won the job would win the lion's share of all the work that followed. It was no small thing for Sero Phrost to be representing the home side in such things. It made him even more a man of influence and power.

But for all of that, Phrost was, first and last, a salesman. Like all good salesmen, he knew that what he was selling was himself. He counted himself exceedingly lucky that the passages of time had enhanced, rather than diminished, his marketability.

So he came to this party to be seen, to do some business, to forge a new alliance or two, to strengthen the old ones. And here was Tonya Welton.

"Good evening, Sero, " she said.

"Good evening, Madame Welton," Phrost replied. He took her hand and kissed it, a somewhat theatrical gesture, but one that he knew pleased her. "I'm glad to see you here."

"And I you," she replied. "The Governor needs all his friends around him tonight. "

"So the Settlers are still supporting the Governor? In spite of this jurisdiction fight?"

"We do not support him in all things," Welton replied, choosing her words carefully. "But we certainly are in favor of the general thrust of his program. Though we do feel it is best if we offer our support-quietly."

"Your overt support not being the most useful thing the Governor could have at this point," Phrost said, being deliberately blunt. Tonya Welton was a woman who played hard, and sometimes a little dirty. He knew she was not the sort who would respect the obsequious approach. He would have been quite prepared to use such a gambit if he thought it would work.

"No, I suppose not," Tonya said, offering a smile remarkable in its transparent insincerity. "But your support for us, Sero. That is something I would like to be made much more public."

Precisely the sort of feeler he had expected her to make. "We all must move carefully in these times," Phrost said. "But yes, certainly, I do wish to work more closely with your people. I've done well selling Settler hardware to tide us over the robot shortage-selling it quietly-and I'd like to do better. But, frankly, open association with the Settlers could be a dangerous thing. One must balance risk and benefit."

"'Benefit,' " she said. "So we come to the point. What is it you want? What 'benefit' are you after?"

"What is it you want? What risk do you want me to take? I can't name my price until I know what the service is to be," Phrost said.

Welton hesitated for a moment before she spoke. "Visibility," she said. "We have gone as far as we can working quietly. It's all very well to do private sales of our machinery here and there, but it is not enough."

"Enough for what purpose?" Phrost asked. "Enough to wean this planet away from robots? Do you plan to use commercial means to accomplish what diplomacy could not?" He had to tread carefully here. Visibility was the one thing he could not afford to offer. The moment his alliance with Welton and the Settlers became known, his equally profitable dealings with the Ironheads would be at an end.

"Our goals are not so grandiose," Tonya replied. The words "not yet" were unspoken, but they were there for all of that. "We merely wish that Settler products-and thus, by extension. all things Settler-become more acceptable to the people of this world."

"Forgive me," Phrost replied, "but I still do not understand how or why making my part in all this more 'visible' is of any use to anyone. Do you wish me to endorse Settler products in some way? I can tell you that will be very little more than an elaborate way for me to commit suicide, certainly in a professional sense-and perhaps in a literal one as well."

Tonya Welton seemed about to reply, but she was silenced by a new arrival to the conversation. Shelabas Quellam, President of the Legislative Council, was coming over. He was a short, somewhat overweight man who gave the quite accurate impression of being indecisive and easily led. "Good evening, Madame Welton. Hello, Sero. Consorting with the enemy, I see," he said in an attempt at a jovial tone, though his rather high and squeaky voice could not quite bring it off.

"Good evening, Legislator Quellam. I would prefer to think of us as all being friends," Tonya Welton replied, her voice cold and angry.

"Oh, dear," Quellam said, realizing his attempt at humor had failed. "I assure you, Madame Welton, I spoke in jest. I intended no offense."

"What brings you over, Shelabas?" asked Phrost. "Is there something on your mind?" If such a thing is possible, Phrost added to himself.

"Yes, why in fact there is. I saw the two of you together, and thought it might be the perfect moment to discuss new measures on smuggling."

"I beg your pardon?" Welton asked.

"Smuggling," Quellam said. "It seemed to me that the head of the Settlers on Inferno and the leading trading magnate on the planet might well have some thoughts on the subject. I am sure we all want to cut down on illicit imports of Settler technology. That is in all our interests, surely. It's destabilizing our economy, and no doubt your government loses money on such illegal sales, does it not, Madame Welton? No tax revenue, and so forth?"

"To be brutally honest," Tonya said, "Spacer currency is worth so little on Settler worlds that the average freebooter can't be bothered with it. After all, what could she buy with it? The Settler governments would have to subsidize any goodsized smuggling operation if the smugglers were to receive any profit. Trust me. Any large-scale Settler smuggling on this planet would have to have government support. "

"Subsidize smugglers? Why in Space would the Settler governments do such a thing?"

"Who can say?" Tonya said with a toss of her head. "perhaps some irresponsible elements among the Settlers have some idea that destabilizing a rotten, outmoded system might not be such a bad idea. If you'll excuse me, gentlemen. " She turned and walked away.

"Oh, dear, I appear to have said the wrong thing," said Shelabas Quellam. "I didn't intend for that to happen."

Sero Phrost smiled, but did not reply. Quellam was applying the sentiment to the present rather awkward social circumstance, but things happening without his intending them was the story of Shelabas' life. He had, for example, never had any intention of reaching his current station-and importance-in life.

Shelabas Quellam was the President of the Legislative Council. In years gone past, when the world of Inferno had been a calm and placid place, and Infernal politics had been closer to comatose than dormant, the Council Presidency was where you put a man like Quellam. A ceremonial post, a place reserved for an amiable man willing to serve as a figurehead.

But Infernal politics had come alive with a vengeance in the last year, and the Council Presidency was suddenly a vital piece on the gameboard.

Back in the old days, even the Governorship had been in large part a ceremonial post. One incumbent after another served out repeated twenty-year terms, doing little or nothing besides holding entertainments before retiring or going on to some other career. There had seemed little purpose to be served in having a Vice Governor as well, as the holder of that post would have even less to do-and less prestige.

Still, something had to be done to assure an orderly succession in the event of the Governor's death, incapacity, or voluntary resignation. Instead of having a Vice Governor, each Governor was required to name a Governor-Designate, to be appointed to the office. Tradition dictated that the Designate's name be kept secret, and that the Governor could name a new Designate at any time. Many a Governor had used the Designation as both carrot and stick.

There were, however, circumstances under which the Governor's choice of successor was null and void. In the event of the Governor's impeachment and conviction, or his recall by the electorate, it was clearly unwise in the extreme to allow a disgraced Governor to designate his or her successor. Should the Governor be removed from office by any of those means, the Council President would serve as Governor, and could, if he or she saw fit, call new elections. Or not call elections. The new Governor could elect to serve out the remainder of his or her predecessor's term. And Grieg had over seventeen years left to serve.

In the old days, all the elaborate contingencies set down in the constitution had been nothing but mere gamesmanship, rules written for the pleasure of writing rules and making everything tidy. More than likely, the idea that they might someday have practical significance never entered the heads of the people who wrote them.

But now, quite suddenly, the impeachment of the Governor was very much a possibility-and that meant that Shelabas Quellam was now a man of some importance.

In fact, his importance went beyond the threat of impeachment. It was well known that Grieg did not approve of playing games with the succession, and felt that there should be a statutory arrangement that covered all contingencies, and that the current arrangements were overly complex. In that spirit, he had named Quellam as his Designate as well. One or two wags had suggested that with Quellam next in line for the Governorship, no matter what, everyone would take special care to see that Grieg stayed healthy and well.

Phrost dredged a gentle smile up from somewhere and put his arm around Quellam's shoulders. "Come, come," he said. "It certainly isn't worth getting that upset about. " Of course, it was worth getting upset about. Phrost had been attempting to get next to Tonya Welton for weeks, and this little incident could set back a lot of his plans. However, as one or two of those plans made use of Shelabas in one way or another, it would profit Phrost not at all to lose his temper at the man-especially in public.

Besides, Shelabas was not entirely to blame. Phrost and Welton had been getting close to arguing even before Quellam came over. The mood of the party had been edgy from the start. There was an air of expectation about the place, the feeling that something was going to happen. There were too many different factions represented in the room, too many undercurrents, too much underlying tension. Something had to give. Something had to snap.

But when it did, a moment later, even Sero Phrost was surprised by how fast and furious it was.

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