Frej Wasastjerna


     "Thanks for the compliment, Nils, but I'm afraid the answer is no. We dwalers don't marry outsiders -- not spacers, nor flyers or shippers."

     Well, at least Janina was polite enough to use the official names of the other cultures instead of talking about vacuumheads, cloudcuckoos and nutfuckers, as the dwalers no doubt often did in private. For that matter, members of the other cultures more often than not referred to dwalers as tapeworms.

     "Actually I'm one eighth dwaler myself," Nils answered. "One of my great-grandmothers was born a dwaler."

     "An adoptee spacer?"


     Janina shook her head. "That doesn't help. She counts as a spacer. After all, the reason I don't want to marry a spacer or flyer is that I don't want to risk my children having reduced oxygen tolerance. If your great-grandmother had to be given away, it shows that she had bad genes in that respect, regardless of her ancestry and birthplace.

     "Anyway, you yourself are living here in a module with reduced oxygen pressure. By the way, what's the oxygen partial pressure here? Forty kilopascals?"

     "No, twenty, like back on Earth."

     "That bad?" Janina clicked her tongue. "I'm afraid I really can't marry a man who has to live in such an oxygen-poor atmosphere. I don't want to risk having to give away my children."

     Trying to hide his disappointment, Nils turned towards the porthole, away from Janina. Not that the view through the porthole was much to look at any longer. He had originally considered himself lucky to get a cabin with a porthole. In those days this module had been located at the periphery of the Karl Popper, and his cabin had been on the outside, so he had a view of the ocean -- one of the few good things about living here, at the bottom of a gravity well. But later another module had been added outside this one, so now he could only see the other module and the hinges and flexible tubes connecting the two modules, so that the ship could flex with the waves.

     "What about genetic modification?" he asked. "That way we could make sure that any children of ours had adequate oxygen tolerance."

     "No," Janina replied as she came to stand at his side, placing a hand on his shoulder in sympathy. "You know that we dwalers don't accept genetic modification."

     He turned his head towards her and lifted his eyebrows. "Don't accept genetic modification? But, after all, the dwales you live in were created through genetic modification of Terran whales. The cavities you live in, the extra milk glands that feed you, the nerve endings that enable you to control the dwales by touch, the electric organs that power your TV sets, the digestive modifications that enable the dwales to eat native Thalassan life forms as well as Terran food, all that is the result of genetic modifications."

     Janina frowned. "That's another matter. I should have said that we don't accept genetic modification of humans."

     Nils turned back towards the porthole. "Okay. Actually, I've wondered whether that's for reasons of principle or simply because you can't afford it."

     "It's a matter of principle. After all, we don't even take anti-aging treatments."

     Nils tactfully forbore mentioning that that too could have been due to inability to afford such treatments. Living in a dwale, essentially as a parasite on it, one didn't need money to survive, but, on the other hand, one also had very little opportunity to earn any money. About the only useful thing the dwalers did was to guide their dwales and the accompanying dolphins so that they grazed mostly at the boundaries between native and Terran ecologies, helping to keep the two separate. And that, according to the Fundamental Rules, was the way they paid taxes, earning the upkeep of their Assembly delegation, the federally funded, rather primitive TV sets that were their sole concession to technology, and the programs they received on these sets. Sure, any technically advanced society, like the shipper culture, was so rich that it could easily have afforded giving medical care to outsiders for free, but the rather strained relations between shippers and dwalers precluded such generosity.

     So much for musing on economics. What was more important to him right now was to find somebody who would be willing to end his loneliness as a divorcee.

     He really ought to find himself a spacer wife. But very few spacers were willing to live down here. That was actually one of the factors that had broken up his marriage. Most of the spacers living downside were members of the Assembly, but there were few women in the spacer delegation. In fact, Janina Christensen was the only attractive and unattached woman in the Assembly. Tough luck she had to be a dwaler.

     At that moment Nils's wristcom buzzed. He lifted it to his face and said, "Assemblyperson Nils Skardhamar."

     "This is a one-way transmission from President Oshmera. Please record."

     "Bother it," Nils muttered as he pressed the record button on his wristcom. He hated these one-way transmissions. Unfortunately two-way conversations between Thalassa and Matloff oneill were impracticable due to the time lag.

     Anyway, what did the top boss of the Spacer culture want?  Nils hoped it was nothing secret, since Janina would overhear the message.

     It was a fairly lengthy message, and as they listened to it, Janina's eyes widened in horror even more than Nils's.


     "Assemblyperson Nils Skardhamar, you have the chair," said the voice of the AI serving as Speaker of the Assembly.

     "Thank you." Nils stood up and made his way to the lectern. Having reached it, he briefly surveyed the Chamber.

     Of the one hundred seats in the slightly squashed octant of a sphere, only two were empty. Both the missing delegates were dwalers who happened to be far away from the Karl Popper at the moment, and both had sent messages that they would come as soon as they could, even agreeing to letting themselves be fetched by seaplanes.

     "Honorable Assembly members," he began, "I apologize for having asked the Speaker to convene you at such short notice, but what I have to tell you is extremely important. It may be a matter of life or death for all humankind.

     "Yesterday I received a message from President Oshmera. I recorded it and will now play it back to you."

     He plugged his wristcom into the appropriate socket on the lectern and pressed a button. On the screen in front of the Assembly appeared the frowning face of the President of the Spacer Culture.

     "A little while ago I received a message from the Leclerc Orbiting Observatory," Oshmera began. "It informed me that six very energetic explosions, apparently inversion bombs, had been observed in the vicinity of Delpav III.

     "I suspect that it may be best to fill you in on the background. Undoubtedly most Assembly members already know all about these background matters, and I apologize to them for wasting their time, but just in case anybody might be unaware of some items, I decided to include this briefing.

     "To begin with, Delpav III is the planet where an expedition for the first, and so far only, time encountered alien intelligence. The planet was found to be inhabited by a bipedal, armless species with long tails."

     The snakaroos, as they were unofficially called, bearing a very slight resemblance to a cross between a snake and a kangaroo. However, that term was considered too undignified for official use, and no human could pronounce their own word for their species.

     Their homeworld also didn't yet have an officially accepted name of its own. Even if the nickname Burden, due to its 1.32 g gravity, had been accepted for official use, calling the natives Burdenites would also have been considered unacceptable, since it would have brought to mind the old expression "beasts of burden." So, in official speech, one had to call them "natives of Delpav III".

     Well, it could have been worse. At least one didn't have to refer to Delta Pavonis.

     "Not having any hands or other manipulative organs, these aliens had no technology, but they had a quite advanced social order.

     "The expedition eventually succeeded in establishing some degree of communication with the natives. One of the stories the natives told could mean that the planet had recently been visited by other spacefarers, a six-legged centauroid species, though it wasn't clear whether this interpretation was correct. The expedition member who was primarily responsible for dealing with the natives favored the explanation that what she had been told was a religious myth, not a factual account of an alien visit.

     "In any case, as I said, six explosions were recently observed, apparently arranged in an octahedral pattern around the planet. The spectrum and brightness of these explosions indicated that they were inversion bombs."


     Many decades ago, machines had sought out seven asteroids with masses of about seven hundred billion tons each. They had drilled into the core of each asteroid and installed a gravity amplifier and a mass inverter, while other machines built spaceships around these drive cores.

     When the work was finished, the gravity amplifiers were started. The resulting gravitational pulse had collapsed each asteroid to a density high enough to provide the gravitational field required for the mass inverter to work and to maintain this density against the intense repulsive forces between overcrowded atoms. That this compression had destroyed the gravity amplifiers didn't matter, they had done their job, and the mass inverters could stand the pressure.

     The inverters began their work, converting positive mass to negative. The enormous flood of energy that resulted was used to create charged particle-antiparticle pairs that were channeled in one direction at speeds near that of light, thrusting the ships in the opposite direction. The negative-mass particles were sent in the direction the ships were accelerating, increasing this acceleration, and the energy gained as these particles were accelerated to relativistic velocities was partly used for housekeeping functions on the ships.

     The first six ships carried neither crew nor passengers. In due time they reached a speed close to that of light, on courses chosen so that at a certain instant they would form the corners of an octahedron with Delta Pavonis III at its center. At that instant their drive cores were pushed into complete gravitational collapse, and much of their remaining mass was converted into an enormous flood of hard gamma radiation.


     The sky of Delpav III blazed. Most of the incoming gamma radiation was absorbed in the upper parts of the atmosphere, heating it to such incandescence that everything alive on dry land was vaporized in a matter of seconds. All living beings in the top few meters of the sea were boiled alive. Those deeper down survived for a while, though many of them later starved to death since the phytoplankton forming the first link of their food chain was gone.

     Also, for good measure, enough gamma radiation penetrated the atmosphere that any higher life forms on land would have been killed by radiation sickness or, if they survived that, by cancer. However, that was really superfluous, since there was nothing left for this radiation to kill.


     The seventh ship arrived later, having started somewhat later and also having traveled more slowly so that it could decelerate and enter an orbit around Delta Pavonis near the fried planet. Shuttles ferried down colonists with all the equipment they needed to build up a new ecology where not even ashes remained of the former one, all such traces having been washed into the sea when a few hundred trillion tons of water condensed into rain after having been boiled off the surface of the seas.


     "This image shows what we observed at gamma wavelengths," the voice of the Leclerc Observatory's chief astronomer explained in the record. Six brilliant dots suddenly appeared on the screen, then they suddenly went black. "The radiation burned out our gamma telescope, at a range of more than twenty-one light-years. The next image shows the same thing at visible wavelengths." A dot was visible in the middle of the image. "This dot is the planet, Delpav III." Then six other, rather faint, dots appeared around it, and the central dot suddenly increased enormously in brilliance.

     For a layman it was hard to tell what it all meant, but some of the better informed Assembly members were already growing pale with shock. As Oshmera took over from the scientist and went on explaining what had happened, all members were beginning to show signs of distress.

     "Now," Oshmera concluded at last, "obviously a vitally important question is who perpetrated this atrocity. Unfortunately I can't answer that. I can only say that there seem to be two possibilities. Either it was done by an alien species, or, sorry to say, it could also have been done by humans. It can't have been done by the natives of Delpav III themselves. Even if, for some reason, they wanted to commit collective suicide, they lacked the required technology.

     "So we have to try to find out who did it. If one assumes that the crime was committed in order to gain an empty planet, the guilty party will presumably soon colonize it. Thus one thing we should do is to send an expedition of one or more spaceships to the Delpav system to see if anyone colonizes the third planet. These ships should be armed, and they also need to be as fast and stealthy as possible, so nega-mass ships appear to be best suited for the purpose.

     "Since there is a strong possibility that we may have to fight a war against the perpetrators of this genocide, I also propose that all anti-war conditioning in our schools be discontinued immediately. In addition, the adult population should have its anti-war conditioning weakened, though perhaps not removed entirely to avoid conflicts among ourselves."

     Many members of the Assembly were now retching. Nils switched off the playback, and the Speaker ordered a recess to let the members regain some composure while the cleaning robots removed the vomit.


     After the recess the first to address the Assembly was Ulrike Eichenhain of the dwaler delegation.

     "Will you fall for this hoax?!" she shouted. "It's a transparent plot by Delegate Skardhamar and his cronies to get the anti-war conditioning canceled for some nefarious purpose..."

     She was interrupted by the bang of Janina's fist on her desk. "That's a lie!" Janina shouted. "I was present when he got the message and he was obviously as shocked as I was..."

     "And just what were you doing there?" Eichenhain asked in a quiet but venomous voice.

     "Having dinner," Janina replied calmly.

     "Vacuumhead whore!"

     This time the bang was a recording of a gavel hitting something hard, played from the Speaker's loudspeakers. "Delegate Eichenhain, either you apologize immediately or you leave the chamber!" the Speaker said in as angry a voice as Nils had ever heard from an artificial intelligence.

     Looking as if she had been forced to eat excrement, Eichenhain said, "Very well, I apologize.

     "But in any case, as I was saying, we have no reason to believe this bizarre story we just heard..."

     She went on for a while and finally wound down. Next the Speaker gave the floor to Yukio Deryabin of the spacer delegation.

     "Delegate Eichenhain, would you please enlighten me as to what the purpose of such a bizarre hoax would be?"

     "Plainly the perpetrators want us to discontinue the anti-war conditioning of children!"

     "And why?"

     "How should I know? Maybe they want a war between our cultures, expecting the spacer culture to emerge victorious at the end. The trouble with conspiracies is that often you don't know what their goal is until it's too late to do anything about it, but in fact it makes sense to assume that war might be the goal in this case. You spacers, along with the shippers, have most of the technology, while we dwalers have none, so of course you would win. Presumably the conspirators want to lord it over the whole system, with us dwalers reduced to slavery, so we must prevent the breakdown in our social order that ending the anti-war conditioning would represent."

     Deryabin shook his head. "What a scenario. What would anyone need slaves for? We have machines that can do anything slaves could do, only better, so what would be the point?"

     "Some people just want power, regardless of whether it's any practical use."

     Deryabin shook his head again. "How can one prove the absence of a conspiracy? That sort of charge is very difficult to refute, regardless of its veracity. In any case, I recommend that we investigate the original records of the Leclerc Observatory.

     "Personally I don't believe in the paranoid fantasies of Delegate Eichenhain. I'm inclined to take President Oshmera's message at face value. And, if it's true that an entire planetary population was recently annihilated, it obviously behooves us to take steps to defend ourselves if necessary, and preferably to bring the perpetrators of this atrocity to justice. I therefore move that we do as President Oshmera suggested."

     Skardhamar seconded the motion.

     "It has been moved and seconded," said the Speaker, "that we follow President Oshmera's suggestion to send ships to Delta Pavonis III to investigate who sterilized the planet, and also to discontinue or weaken the anti-war conditioning. We will consequently vote on this motion, but before that the debate may continue."

     The next delegate to get the floor was Oliver Blocker of the dwalers.

     "My friends and colleagues, members of the Assembly! What we now face is the gravest crisis since our remote ancestors boarded the Leif Eriksson to colonize the first habitable alien planet that humankind had discovered. I said habitable, but those colonists faced two serious problems, a complete absence of dry land and an oxygen pressure at the upper limit of what humans can tolerate in the long term..."

     Oh no, thought Nils as his eyes glazed over, here he goes again. Sure, the Blockhead had a good voice and could use it skillfully, but did he have to be so enamored of it that he always reviewed things everyone knew? Luckily he didn't start with Homo erectus, so maybe he'd get to the point before lunch. The only good thing about his orotundity was that sheer boredom might alienate some of his supporters and drive them to vote for Deryabin's motion.

     "In their efforts to solve these twin problems, our intrepid ancestors developed the Four Cultures of our system. Some chose to live on vast ships plying the shoreless ocean of our world, while others eschewed this artificial life in favor of symbiosis with genetically modified whales. Yet others chose to live in great airships at altitudes where the oxygen pressure was more tolerable, and finally some abandoned Thalassa altogether, in favor of still less hospitable worlds or the deeps of space itself, drawn by the promise of mineral wealth and by the fact that, when they had to provide their own air anyway, they could as well choose any oxygen pressure that suited them.

     "In fact, much as we dwalers dislike admitting it, technology was essential to all these lifestyles, initially even to ours. But technology was not the only requirement. Another, equally essential, had also been developed on Terra, sorely tried by catastrophic wars. After a world government was finally established, this government initiated a program of conditioning all children against war. And this conditioning, my friends, is a veritable cornerstone of our society.

     "It is frightening to think of what the consequences might be, if the regrettable hostility between our diverse cultures were not held in check by anti-war conditioning..."

     Hmmpf. Again this theme: "anti-war conditioning is the only thing that keeps us from each other's throats". Doubtful. In the first place the hostility between the different cultures wasn't all that bad. At least the spacers, flyers and shippers got on tolerably well with each other, though they all despised the dwalers, viewing them as parasites on their dwales rather than symbionts. And anyway, the dwalers didn't have much contact with the other cultures, since they mostly stayed in the dwales, which tended to keep well away from the ships. Besides, what was there to gain from a war?


     The discussion went on, more civil in tone than Eichenhain's first outburst but no less paranoid in content. It was soon clear that nearly the whole dwaler delegation refused to believe Oshmera's message, believing instead that it was a hoax. A substantial fraction of the three other delegations took the same line, presumably willing to grasp at any straw rather than face up to the possibility of war. Some of the shippers, flyers and spacers supported Deryabin's motion, however. As far as the parties were concerned, the Libertarians seemed to support the motion solidly, while the Skeptics and Egalitarians were split, with the Skeptics mostly in favor and the Egalitarians opposed. It was fortunate that the opinions didn't strictly follow party lines, otherwise the motion would have had no chance, considering the Egalitarian majority in the Assembly.


     During the lunch recess Nils shared a table with three other spacer delegates.

     "If this was done by humans," asked Deryabin, "which system do you think might be the guilty one?"

     "Most likely the Solar Federation," answered Mauri Jakobsson. "They are the only ones with serious overpopulation problems."

     "I've never really understood the ups and downs of the Sol system's population," interjected Paramita Kumar. "Why has it oscillated so wildly?"

     "It's a kind of evolution. After all, there's nothing that says evolution has to be beneficial," Jakobsson answered. "In any human population, unless reproduction is strictly regulated, there will be some people who have few children and some who have many. And, the important thing is, in some cases those who have many children may pass on a tendency to do so to their children. It doesn't matter if this happens genetically or culturally, what matters is that it gets passed on somehow. And, in a society where almost all children survive to adulthood, those who have many children and pass on this tendency come to form a larger and larger part of the population.

     "This didn't happen in primitive societies, because there many children died young. It was more important how many children you managed to raise to adulthood than how many were born. Those who showed some restraint in breeding were usually more successful in ensuring that their children survived, so they could hold their own. But with modern medicine and the welfare state, most children reach adulthood, so nowadays it's raw reproduction that counts.

     "Here in the Taucet system we've been lucky. Living in a relatively inhospitable system, we've always had laws limiting the number of children we could have, so we've escaped this selection for unrestrained breeding.

     "Some other systems haven't been so lucky. Most of them started off with rather small populations when they were colonized a century or two ago, so the situation hasn't become critical yet. In the Sol system, on the other hand, this process has been going on for a long time now, and they already had a large population to start with. The last I heard, in 2761 there were fifteen trillion people in the Sol system, and a majority of them belong to churches that preach that it's a religious duty to have as many children as possible. They're building oneills like crazy to house all those people, but even they are beginning to wonder how long that can go on. Even so, it's difficult to stop a population explosion in a population that has been bred for lack of restraint for most of a millennium."


     After lunch the debate in the Chamber continued, but no new ideas were introduced by either side. A shipper delegate, whose name Nils didn't remember, made a suggestion to wait until those delegates who so wished could check the original records of the Leclerc Observatory for themselves. Other delegates objected, however, that since faking electronic records was easy, there was no point in delaying the proceedings for several days. The suggestion was voted down by fifty-three votes against forty-five. Nils noticed that, as far as he could see, the votes against the suggestion came from delegates who opposed Oshmera's proposal. Were they even afraid to examine the evidence for themselves?

     More important, did this vote foreshadow the outcome of the final vote on the proposal itself?

     Finally the delegates got tired of rehashing the same arguments, and no more requests to speak were made. The Speaker announced, "We are now ready to vote. First, however, I ask Delegate Skardhamar to present his own views on the matter, since he has had more time to ponder the problem we face than the other delegates have had. Delegate Skardhamar, if you please."

     Some mumbling greeted this unusual, though perfectly legal, move of offering the floor to someone who hadn't asked for it. Nils was too busy quelling his panic to pay any attention to this mumbling. Here the Assembly was engaged in making a decision which might determine whether humankind would survive, and he, Nils, was asked to make the final speech -- moreover, to do that in a situation where a slight majority of the Assembly seemed to be leaning what he considered the wrong way. Now it was up to him to try to sway a few crucial votes to save humankind.

     If he only were a good speaker! Unfortunately, he was everything but. His nature and his training both predisposed him to deal with facts, not with people and rhetoric. Well, he could only do his best, he told himself as he made his way to the lectern, utterly failing to calm the hordes of butterflies in his stomach.

     "It seems that some of you think the message I got from President Oshmera is a hoax," he began. "All I can say is that I have replayed the message to you the way I got it, as Delegate Christensen can attest, and that I don't believe for a moment that this message is anything but the truth.

     "The reasoning of those who claim that the message is a hoax appears to be that the purpose of this purported hoax is to pave the way for a war between our different cultures. I must say that I find this hypothesis utterly unconvincing. In the first place, although it's true that there is a lot of mutual contempt between the dwalers and our other cultures, I don't believe that this could really lead to outright war. With or without anti-war conditioning, I believe we'll simply go on despising each other without actually fighting.

     "In the second place, what would there be to fight about? What would we want from the dwalers? About the only useful thing they can do is to help keep the native and imported ecologies separate, and you are doing that already," he said, looking at the dwaler delegates.

     "True, it has been suggested that some people would want, out of sheer powerlust, to reduce the dwalers to slavery. I can see no way of proving this imputation false, but I consider it most bizarre and improbable.

     "Thus, although I can't deny that we may run some risks if we reduce or abolish the anti-war conditioning in our schools, those risks seem very remote.

     "On the other hand, let's consider the probable consequences if we reject President Oshmera's proposal. Assuming that, as I consider almost certain, the message I received was nothing but the truth, some entity out there has recently annihilated an entire planetful of sentient beings -- in fact, an entire sentient species. Can we afford to ignore that? What will happen if we do? It seems likely that the same fate will then befall ourselves after a while. All right, if the perpetrators of this atrocity are human, there is a possibility that they might leave us alone -- a possibility, no more. Human or not, could we trust mass murderers like that?

     "And, if they are alien, what reason is there to believe they will consider our lives worth any more than those of the unfortunate natives of Delpav III?

     "In short, we must prepare. We must find out who sent those inversion bombs. And then," he lowered his voice, "I'm sorry to say, we must prepare to defend ourselves. If we don't, we may one day find Thalassa itself destroyed and the spacer colonies in our system hunted down and likewise destroyed by a hostile space fleet."

     Having finished, he returned to his seat, dissatisfied with himself. Sure, he had put forth the facts as cogently as he could. But he had really done nothing to address what he believed was the emotional dynamic behind the resistance to the proposal. The very idea of war was violently revolting to anyone who had been conditioned against it, even to the point of inducing nausea in some people when the possibility was broached, as he had seen. Thus many delegates might seize any excuse to hide their heads in the water rather than face the truth. And he didn't have any idea of how to cope with that.

     Maybe he should have calmed people's fears, playing down the danger rather than hitting them over the head with it. But would that really have been any better? Probably not, it would have weakened the argument in favor of the proposal.

     No doubt about it, he was out of his depth in this situation. Somebody who understood more about psychology should have been chosen to make the final speech. But the decision was out of his hands.

     At this stage in Nils's ruminations, the Speaker said, "Now it is time to vote on Delegate Deryabin's motion. Those who favor President Oshmera's proposal, vote yes, those opposed vote no."

     Nils hesitated for a moment to make absolutely sure he got it right. In favor of the proposal, vote yes -- that was the green button on the left, so his right index finger pressed that button.

     After a few seconds, the result was clear. Forty-nine votes in favor, forty-nine against. The breakdown by delegation was:

   - Dwalers: One vote in favor, twenty-two against.

      Who was the one vote in favor? Nils looked at the board showing the votes of individual delegates -- yes, it was Janina!

   - Shippers: Seventeen votes in favor, eight against.

   - Flyers: Twelve in favor, thirteen against.

   - Spacers: Nineteen in favor, six against.

       The Speaker announced, "Forty-nine delegates voted in favor of the proposal and forty-nine against it. Thus neither side received more than fifty votes. Consequently we wait for the two missing delegates."

     Nils buried his face in his hands. The two absent delegates were both dwalers. Thus, judging by the way the rest of the dwaler delegation had voted, they were almost certain to vote against the proposal.

     What would that mean for the future of the Taucet system -- maybe for all humankind, if the destroyers were aliens? True, even with Oshmera's proposal rejected, there were some things one could do. At least he could spread the word of what had happened, both in the system and, if he could get access to an interstellar radio transmitter, to other human-inhabited systems -- and then he had better hope that it was none of them that had detonated those inversion bombs! But, in any case, with the Assembly in favor of doing nothing, any effective response to the threat would be difficult.


     After a while Nils got up and, moving as if he had been denied anti-aging tretament, started making for the exit. Just then Bengt Linklater, one of the two missing delegates, entered. Nils waited to see what would happen.

     Linklater conferred with his fellow dwalers for a while and then announced that he voted against the proposal.

     "That makes forty-nine votes in favor of the proposal and fifty against," the Speaker announced. "Bill Soininen, who is still absent, will soon arrive but has notified me that he wishes to study the issue after his arrival. Since it is already getting late, he will vote tomorrow morning."

     Things were going exactly as expected, Nils thought dejectedly, as the delegates filed out of the Chamber. Linklater had voted against the proposal, and no doubt Soininen would do the same, sealing the issue. Of course, it was still possible that some delegates might change their minds.

     He spent most of the evening meeting the six spacers who had voted against the proposal, trying to persuade them to change their minds. He got nowhere and decided not to try talking with any other of the opposing delegates. He really didn't know any of them, so there was a risk that trying to reason with them might do more good than harm. Better to leave the business of persuading them to those who knew them better.

     He wondered what Janina was doing. He could certainly use some friendly company to cheer him up, and though Janina wasn't willing to marry him and hadn't shown any inclination to share his bed without marriage, she was still the person he would most like to spend a while with before going to his lonely bed. But when he called her on his wristcom, he got a "Do not disturb" signal. That could be overridden in an emergency, but heck, this was no emergency, so he just went to bed and, emotionally exhausted, fell asleep sooner than he had expected.


      The next morning he arrived in the Chamber early, as did most of the other delegates. The official opening time was nine o'clock in the morning by clocktime (which on this day meant about an hour before midnight, astronomical time). Nils arrived about twenty minutes before this, and as soon as he had seated himself, he asked his personal AI for an analysis of the mail. The screen showed the analysis results: "Most of the mail relates to President Oshmera's proposal to prepare for war. The messages divide as follows:


                          In favor     Undecided          Oppose


                             22638                 195             31417

         Spacers only

                             17432                   88             15018


     The figures changed while he watched them, as usual. What was less usual was the rest of the analysis:

"Death threats: 4

Other threats of violence: 3

2 of those who issued death threats and all of those who issued threats of lesser violence have been arrested, and the police are on their way to arrest a third of those who issued death threats. The fourth has not yet been traced. Police protection will be provided for you until further notice."


    So the public's feelings were really aroused. Well, that was hardly surprising. In any case, the fact that most of the messages opposed Oshmera's proposal wasn't all that significant. He had supported that proposal himself and knew that people who objected to his decisions were more likely to send messages than those who agreed. In view of that, the figures for messages from spacers suggested that among his own constituents the proposal probably had rather solid support.    Not that that really mattered. It was his duty to decide for himself, and it was clear where his duty lay.    By 8:55 every seat was occupied except two: those of Soininen and Janina. At 8:58, they arrived together, looking tired but talking animatedly. Then they went to their seats, ignoring the glares the other dwaler delegates aimed at Janina.

     The Speaker spoke, "Before Delegate Soininen votes, does anyone else wish to change his or her vote?"


     "Apparently not. Then, Delegate Soininen, how do you vote?"

     Soininen stood up and let his gaze sweep over the attentive faces of the other delegates, his eyes finally fixing on Ulrike Eichenhain, the chairperson of the dwaler delegation.

     "I have spent the night thinking the matter over, and I found the arguments in favor of preparing for war more reasonable than those against. In particular, I found Delegate Skardhamar's summation convincing. I regret disappointing the overwhelming majority of my fellow dwaler delegates, but I have concluded that I have no other choice than to vote in favor of President Oshmera's proposal."

     Several of the dwalers gasped. The Speaker said, "That makes fifty votes in favor of the proposal and fifty against. Thus the Assembly is tied. In such a situation it is, by the Fundamental Rules, my responsibility to decide. I also agree with the summary given yesterday by Delegate Skardhamar and consequently cast my vote in favor of the proposal. Thus, President Oshmera's proposal is accepted."

     Pandemonium broke out among the dwalers. There were boos, hisses and several more articulate insults shouted at Janina and Soininen. Ignoring the hubbub, Janina stood up and hugged Soininen.

     The supporters of the proposal were, for the most part, much quieter. There were a few cheers, but most of the supporters merely looked relieved but thoughtful. This was only the beginning, Nils thought. Now the proposal had to be implemented, and many lesser but still difficult decisions would have to be made along the way. Still, that would largely be a matter for the Executive Comittee rather than the Assembly, so he himself would relatively rarely be involved.

     Anyway, the fact that the people of the Taucet -- Tau Ceti -- system could now begin to prepare for war only meant that there was now a chance, that they would not be delivered to the enemy, whoever that was, hogtied by their own unwillingness to face the facts. There was certainly no guarantee of victory.

     What about the rest of humankind? Should it be informed? If the attack was done by aliens, the answer was obviously yes. But if it was a human atrocity, warning the perpetrators that their act had been discovered was dangerous. Well, that question had to be debated in the Executive Committee first, and maybe the Assembly would get involved later.

     On a more private note, Janina Christensen and Bill Soininen were no longer hugging each other, but the look on their faces suggested that the hug had been something more than just a victory celebration. Was there something going on between them? And, if that was the case, had that influenced Soininen's decision?

     And, if it had, was this outcome worth losing Janina?

     Of course it was. That was the only sane answer. If he had had a choice in the matter, he simply couldn't have jeopardized the future of humankind merely to get Janina. Besides, there was, of course, no reason to believe that he could have got her even if she had not had -- or did not have -- any sort of relationship with Bill Soininen.

     Still, that didn't mean he had to be happy about seeing her look that way at another man.