The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
—H. L. Mencken
"I'm frankly somewhat embarrassed to have called you like this, Professor," Deputy-Mayor Hubertstein said. "I understand you've been on a field trip today."
"Not much of a trip. But I can't think what this is about."
"We're setting up rather a rushed conference to put a number of experts in the picture, including a biologist.
"A bit of a possible problem has come up. I've got to tell you straight away, though: this meeting and its . . . subject matter . . . are, well, potentially embarrassing at the moment. I know you are a responsible man. You'll keep secret about this?"
"I still don't know what 'this' is, but yes, I suppose so."
"All right. Come this way, please."
There was Police Chief Grotius, Captain von Thetoff and another, more senior, officer of the Meteor Guard, with both spacer and Herrenmann written all over him. Others joined us in the capsule that took us up to the Lesser Hall. Most of the seats there were already filled.
A string of my colleagues from different departments of the university. There was Herrenmann Kristin von Diderachs, spokesman (dictator, some said) to the City Council for the Nineteen Families, smooth, confident, plump and complacent, radiating pride and authority, who I had been presented to but who would hardly have deigned to acknowledge me. There was van Roberts, his opposite number for the Progressive Democrats. Some other politicians had cross-party friendships but I knew these two hated each other and were said to be barely on speaking terms even in the Council.
Others I recognized as political figures and industrialists. And in a majority of them the dress, features, and unmistakable body language of the Nineteen Families.
There was The Markham, there was Freuchen, there was Thor Mannstein, there was a representative of the Feynman clan, and there were others: Montferrat-Palme, of an old family coming down in the world, Talbot with his defiantly symmetrical beard, The Dunkley of Dunkley, Schleisser, The Argyl, Mannteufel, Franke, Johnston, Buxton, von Kenaelly, Lufft. Golden or flaxen hair and those mobile ears. A more than usual number of asymmetrical beards with their own subtle identifications and codings of status. But there were other people too: as well as professionals of nebulous status like me (our beards asymmetrical but not blatantly so), there were a couple of obviously wealthy and successful prolevolk and a good number of the new déclassé . Also a man who I knew slightly as one of the town librarians.
I had been vaguely annoyed at having my evening interfered with, and further by being sworn to secrecy by someone like Hubertstein. I hadn't had anything like that done to me before.
As we entered the hall annoyance gave way to curiosity. Not just because of the caliber of those present. With modern communications, any sort of large face-to-face meeting like this was rare. And there was something in the body language of some of those already gathered: Grotius, who called us to order, and Mayor Larsen, who took the podium.
I had met the mayor socially a few times. I had even heard her speak formally before. But never like this. She opened new buildings and presided at civic banquets. She was another mouthpiece for the Nineteen Families. Her speeches were as a rule long on sonorous bromides and short on content. She normally began by working through the titles of the more or less distinguished ones present. This time she did not.
"We have had a warning from Sol system about hostile aliens in space. They have been attacking Sol ships."
There was a long moment of echoing silence.
"It seems the aliens have no interest in negotiation or communication. They have some kind of gravity control that gives them acceleration and maneuverability which no conventional ship can match. They have matched velocities with ships travelling at .8 lightspeed."
There was a brief hubbub of exclamations. She waited for it to subside before continuing to state the obvious.
"Of course, this message is more than four years old."
The hall was on a column, high above nearly all of the city lights, and had a plexidome for a roof. The designers wanted to make the most of Wunderland's sky. Sol was there, easy to pick out as part of a constellation in the new Wunderland zodiac, the Tigripard, made principally from the great "W" of Cassiopeia.
Both Alpha Centauri B and Wunderland's prime moon had set, so that the sky above us was as dark as it ever got. There was the white point I knew was Sol, and Earth was somewhere hanging in that blackness. A blackness that was suddenly strange. Somebody spoke.
"What are these aliens like?"
"Something like big cats. We have pictures."
The mayor clicked a switch and a holo appeared.
"This was sent back by a colony ship called the Angel's Pencil . It encountered one of them—one of their smaller scout ships, Earth now thinks, and got lucky with a drive mounted in tandem with a big com-laser. It escaped and destroyed the alien ship." She clicked through other holos. "These pictures have come a long way. They've deteriorated a bit, but you get the general idea. This is the wreckage of the alien."
She paused. There was a thick, heavy silence as the pictures stood there. Not shock, not horror, I think, not then. We were simply finding ourselves, too suddenly, in the presence of something too large and strange to understand.
"What does a whole ship look like?" That was von Thetoff.
Grotius answered. "We've got that." The holo changed and flowed into a red near-ovoid thing. "But I guess that if you see something coming at you at .8 light and making inertialess turns, you won't have to ask."
There was another dead silence in the hall. Whatever we had been expecting, it was nothing like this. Then a score of voices began to rise. The mayor held up her hand.
Another figure stood. I didn't know him, but he looked like a Herrenmann gone physically somewhat to seed and certainly to low-gravity fat. (That was one thing about Wunderland that irked us then: with workouts we could be the handsomest people in the universe but in later life without frequent sessions at the gym most of us tended to become either elongated stick figures or balloons. No world was perfect, some of us thought.)
"Do Tiamat and the Serpent Swarm know of this?"
"They will have got the messages as we did."
"Have you contacted them?"
"Not yet. Why?"
"Might it not be a good idea. This is surely going to mean some . . . special executive action."
"That is the purpose of tonight's meeting." said the mayor. "To decide what action." She looked us up and down and there was something curiously hesitant in her manner.
To decide what action! They don't know what they're doing!I realized suddenly, looking from one blank and bewildered face to another. They're making it up as they go along. A sudden, unexpected moment of panic for me, and then a reflection that was somehow calming: Well, the situation is pretty unprecedented. And then I thought suddenly and quite certainly: She's lying. They're all lying . And I remembered my thought of the previous evening of how busy the spaceport had become.
I suppose I'm at the making of history, I decided a few moments later. This could be a late night . The next question, when it came, seemed almost bizarrely irrelevant:
"What do they call them?" Instead of telling the questioner not to waste everyone's time, the mayor answered seriously.
"The aliens? 'Dinofelids' was one idea, but apparently there's already a Dinofelis among Earth's fossils. Not something one would have wanted to meet, by all accounts. The Angel's Pencil crew officially named them Pseudofelis sapiens , and the Earth term now seems to be Pseudofelis sapiens ferox . Bit of a mouthful. However, computers have translated some of their script, and it seems they call themselves"—she had difficulty in pronouncing it—"Kzin."
Another man on his feet now amid the flurry of whisperings. Without knowing his name I recognized him as a politician. One of van Roberts's allies in the Progressive Democratic Party who had weakened the grip of the Herrenmanner on city politics and were moving to weaken it in the countryside.
"You say this will mean special executive action. What exactly does that mean? More power for you and your friends?"
"It's obvious we'll have to do a number of things. It may mean radical measures. Obviously government must have appropriate powers to deal with an emergency! We are looking at questions of military security."
"Military!" Another hubbub. It was a bizarre word.
Van Roberts was on his feet: "This is all very convenient for you. What do we know of the bona-fides of this message?"
"You know what interstellar communication costs. Who do you think would send it but the authorities?"
"You mean the precious ARM! Since when have they been friends of democracy? And how do we know the message is real at all?"
Quite obviously people did not want to believe in such a message. There were sudden shouts from all over the hall: "Yes! how do we know it's real!" I saw some Herrenmanner joining in. Somebody should be taking this in hand , I thought. And then I thought: Who is there to take it in hand? Us. Only us. I think it was easier for us than it would have been for Flatlanders to take it in, but a lot of us were stunned, all the same.
"Excuse me!" That was van Roberts again. He pointed to a date at the corner of one picture.
"These are more than four years old. Much more."
"They were taken light-years from Earth. Then, apparently, they were dead-filed for years. It was thought they were some sort of hoax. About the time it was decided that they weren't, other ships began disappearing. Closer to Earth."
"And if these aliens are real," someone was saying, "when can we expect them here?"
There was a moment's silence. It was, I thought, one of those stupid and meaningless questions somebody had to ask. The mayor replied:
"Well, obviously, they could be here . . . now."
Grotius turned to the Meteor Guard officer with von Thetoff. "Commander Kleist, have there been any . . . anomalous events that . . . are worth commenting on in this context?"
Kleist was a tough, fit-looking young man, typical of the somehow almost feral deep-spacer type. But he spoke carefully now.
"There are always anomalous events in a system as full of debris as this one is."
"The Sol reports say the Aliens have gravity control. Do you know of any gravity anomalies?"
"There have been things on our mass detectors, yes. And we have seen new monopole sources."
"When and where!" That was Grotius, with a snap in his voice I had never heard before.
"Continually. But more so lately, I must say. As a matter of fact, we've got extra ships on alert now. We can predict meteors fairly well but we thought gravatic anomalies might herald a comet shower. There is an increase in anomalies. Out in the cometary halos at first. But they are moving closer."
"How long has this been going on?"
"A few days. That's all." His hand went up to his mouth and his eyes darted to Grotius. I knew he was lying and was not used to doing so. My major feeling was total puzzlement.
"Can't we reason with them?" That was Peter Brennan, much taken up with good works and a bore of planetary and possibly interplanetary reputation, a leading light of the local Rotary Club and also of my lodge, a purveyor of pharmaceuticals.
"These people?" Only Peter Brennan, I thought, would refer to threatening aliens as "these people." One of his more futile projects was publishing a small Internet newspaper called The Friend , retailing stories of acts of kindness between Herrenmanner and Prolevolk and between Teuties and Tommies. But he had inherited money and had a good business sense and could afford his hobbies.
The mayor was speaking again.
"One way or another, we here represent the leaders, responsible people and relevant experts of Wunderland who could be gathered quickly. I don't need to tell you that we may be facing a situation that is unprecedented. As soon as the message was received—earlier today—I called Chief Grotius, Commander Kleist, Herrenmann von Diderachs and others who I could reach quickly. Hence this meeting." I was sure she was lying too.
The mayor continued: "We have agreed that the first thing to do is form a group of interlocking committees to formulate aspects of policy. Recommendations will be implemented by an executive committee composed of representatives of the Nineteen Families, the existing exco including special interest nominees, and the City Council."
"Point of order, Madam Mayor!" It was one of the politicians. "Giving executive powers to such a committee without the normal procedures is simply unconstitutional!"
"Yes!" From another part of the hall, "With due respect, Madam Mayor, what you are proposing sounds like a simple exercise in administrative lawlessness!"
"We have both a Constitution and a Constitutional Court. Any proposals of this nature should go to that court for a ruling. To side-step Constitutional procedures for administrative convenience is simply the way to chaos!" That another dark-haired, professional-looking man. "I've never heard anything like it."
"None of us have heard anything like this!"
"That's just the point!"
There were voices rising all over the room. The mayor banged her gavel. I saw her ears were flat and wondered if that was an uncontrollable sign of anger or a deliberate reminder to us that she too was a Herrenfrau of the Nineteen Families. Yet she was speaking in broad hints of the Platt dialect—was that to remind us she also had a foot in the Democrat camp?
"I note your objections. But the point is, I think, that putting some administrative structures into place to deal with this matter may be urgent! The best I can do to reassure you is to suggest that we entrench a provision that the situation be reviewed—radically reviewed if necessary—after one month. By that time we should have more information from Sol and know a bit more about what we are trying to do to solve this tanj snafu."
That last was Tommie slang. Was she putting that in deliberately also? There was a lot of muttering. Then Grotius played a trump card.
"Before the resolution foreshadowed by Madam Mayor is put to the meeting," he said, "I should point out that it is envisaged that all invited to be present here tonight will have positions on at least one of the committees. Therefore if anyone is unhappy about policy he or she will be in a position to make a direct input in policy direction."
That quieted a lot of objections. Most of the people at the gathering were not going to do anything to compromise prospects of their own power, I thought. No politician or Constitutional expert myself, I found I was on something called the Biology Committee and something else called the Defense Committee. Peter Brennan had us set up a Friendship Committee.
It went on a long time. At length I got home for a few hours' sleep.