Tonight the Stars Revolt!
Originally published in PLANET STORIES, March, 1952
In the Black Pools he found the 50,000-year—lost wisdom of the Ancients. For a day Red Angus held victory in his sword-hand. But it was too short a glimpse, too elusive a thought to bolster the star-rabble against the Citadels iron guard.
THE pools were like the gaping mouth of space, dark and fathomless, extending into bottomless wells, the depths of which the people of Karr could only guess. Some faid the god Stafor dwelt in the glistening black. Others claimed the emptiness was the hollow interior of the planet. None of them right.
All men feared the pools. Only a man fifty thousand years old knew their incredible secret, and he lived an invisible city. . .
RED ANGUS fled like a frightened hound through the twisted alleys of the Lower City. Dim lamplight from the towering white walls of the Citadel threw glowing brilliance across his naked chest, glinted on the metal studs of his broad leather belt, and on the rippling muscles of his long legs. He skidded on a patch of slops, righted himself and dove for the darkness of an arched doorway. He drew back in the shadows, barely feeling the burn of the new brand on his shoulder that stamped him as a pirate.
Faintly, he heard the shouts and drumming feet of the Diktors police as they ravened in the streets, hunting him. His heart thudded swiftly under the high arch of his rib-case Red Angus smiled wryly.
He was a hunted space pirate, just free of the cell blocks below the palace. But he was more than that to the Diktor of Karr. He was a Karrvan noble who had gone bad, who had fled into space and established an eyrie on a wandering asteroid, who had set himself up as a one-man crusade against Stal Tay, ruler of Karr by the grace of the god Stasor.
I’ll find a way,” the pirate swore in the shadows, listening to the shouts and running of the guards, the sharp, barking blasts of their heat-guns
There was a faint sound behind the thick oaken door. Angus moved his naked back, still welt and scarred, away from the damp wood. He clenched a big fist and stood silent, waiting.
He was a tall man, lean in the belly and wide about the shoulders. His mouth was thin but curved at the corners as though used to smiling. Close-cropped reddish hair gave his hard, tanned face a fiery look. Dark blue eyes glistened in the half-squint of the habitual spaceman.
The oaken door swung open. A cowled form stood in the darkness of the archway putting out a thin, old hand toward him. Where the cowl hung there was only a faint white dimness for a face.
“The Hierarch will see you, and save you, Red Angus,” said the old man. “Come in. He hopes you’ll listen to reason.”
“The Hierarch?” snorted the lean man in disbelief, “His hand in arm with Stal Tay. He’d land me back with my ankles in a manacle chain."
The cowled man shook his head and whispered, “Hurry, hurry. There’s no time to argue!”
A shout from a street less than sixty feet away decided the half-naked, winded Angus. He moved his shoulders in a bitter shrug and slid inside the door. The latch clicked on the door and a hand caught his. A voice, gentle with age, said softly, Follow me.”
TWO hundred feet from the door the walls began to glow. Angus looked at his guide and saw an old man, a member of the Hierarchy, a priestly cult of scientists who were honored and protected by the Diktor. Thirty years before, when the people of the Lower City had been ravaged by disease, they had stormed the block of buildings where the scientists worked.
They had wrecked machines and killed men.
The people of the Lower City were no better than savages and the pagan Superstitions they boasted were encouraged by Stal Tay. It pleased the Diktor to believe that science was something only the rich deserved. So Stal Tay stepped in. He withdrew the scientists from the world of men and gave them a little world of their own that was called the Citadel.
Red Angus and the scientist went through corridors that bent and twisted in subtle fashion. It was quiet in this underground tunnel. Once Angus heard the subterranean rush of a hidden river seeking an outlet in the great Car Carolan Sea. Water condensed in oozing droplets on the cold stone walls.
Then they were going up hand-hewn stone steps toward an archway in which a thick, soot-blackened door was opening. Lights glared beyond the doorway in a large room with a high, groined ceiling.
He saw Tandor first, standing big and massive among the cowled priests, the wall light glinting from his bald head. They had had a time taking him from the Lower City, Angus saw. There were cut marks on him, and the blood here and there on his rough wool tunic had dried.
A tall man in a white cowl that was bordered with purple came toward them.
He said, "I saved your man from the Diktor's torturers. Money will do much in the Citadel. Even a pirate's first captain is not as valuable as a handful of sestelins."
Red Angus shrugged. "What do you want from me?”
The Hierarch nodded. "They told me you were a sensible man. Tonight I will free Tandor after you do me a service.”
The Hierarch studied him carefully. “Kill the Diktor!"
Angus barked derisive laughter. "As well ask me to find the Book of Nard. I'd stand as much chance!"
"I may well ask that too, before you and I are through."
"Suppose I refuse?"
The Hierarch sighed. His black eyes glittered in the shadow of his cowl. "I'll Smash your legs so you can't run, and let Stal Tay send his men for you. I'll put red-hot daggers in Tandor's eyes until he confesses your crimes. I— ”
Angus scowled. "I thought the Diktor was your friend."
"He keeps us penned in the Citadel as his slaves. The scientific discoveries we make he claims as his own. He sent the diseases that the people blamed on the scientists.”
Angus said, "I will kill him." But he thought to himself, I only play for time. It's promise or get my legs broken.
They led Angus to a little room where a cowled man waited for him with garments that were living reds and ochres, braided with gold and ornate with jewels. The scientist said coldly, "You are to impersonate the Ambassador of Nowk. He's red-headed and big with a scar on his face like your own.”
The night air was crisp as Angus stepped with the cowled scientist through a stone gateway and into a long, sleek wheeler. He gathered his cloak of black sateenis about him and sank into the foamisal upholstery.
The cowled man whispered, "Everything is arranged. A woman dancer, Berylla by name, will dance for the Diktor. Right after that he plans to call you to his side to discuss the new trade agreement with Nowk. The dancer will give you the signal as she leaves. When you're summoned strike at the Diktor's neck. A divertissement in the form of drunken revelers has been planned. In the excitement, you will be spirited away."
Angus touched the slim dagger at his side and nodded.
THE Diktor of Karr was a big man. He was solid in the shoulder and slim at the waist. His head was bald, and there was a jagged scar across his right temple. He sat on his jeweled throne and drummed restless fingers against the hand-carved arm.
Beside him sat a woman with sloe eyes and hair the color of a raven's wing. The thin stuff of her gown clung to supple haunches and proud breasts. She watched the new Ambassador from Nowk thread a path through the guests, unable to decide whether the man was ugly or ruggedly handsome. But he was big, with long, heavily-muscled arms and legs, and he had the look of a fighter.
Moana laughed softly. There was music in her voice and art in the manner of her movement as he drew closer. Her eyes ran over his big frame slowly, slumberously.
Red Angus came to a stop at the base of the dais and bowed low. He was a pirate but he had been in the great capitals of the Six Worlds.
"Your first visit to Karr?” smiled Stal Tay.
"The first, excellency."
"You like the court we keep?"
Red Angus knew of the taverns and swill-wet streets of the Lower City. He knew the people were slaves to the Hierarchy and to the Diktor, and his little coterie. Girls danced and pandered to the desires of the rich—if they did not, things were done to them in secret. He knew men grew old before their time, working to pay for the rare jewels that Moana and others like her flaunted.
But he murmured, "Plegasston of Nowk has said, "For the good of the State, the greatest number of its people must enjoy the greatest amount of its highest rewards." But Plegasston was a dreamer."
Moana gestured Angus to the golden chair beside her. She let her fingertips brush his hand as he took the seat. "Tell me about yourself, Ben Tal.”
Angus grinned, "I'm a relative of his Eminence of Nowk. That explains all about me. But you. You're priestess to the god Stasor. You've gone into the black pool to face him. You've heard his pronouncements!"
Moana made a wry face and shrugged. Strains of music swept down from the fluted ceiling, diffused throughout the room. Her black eyes glowed. "Don't talk religion to me, Ben Tal. Take me in your arms and let us dance."
She was warm and fragrant, following his movements. Her dark eyes enticed as her hands fluttered from his arm to his shoulder to his neck. She made the moments fly. Seated with her at a table, letting her feed him playfully, he almost forgot his mission.
And then. . . .
The room darkened. The hidden musicians made their stringed instruments dance with savage rhythm. And in a circle of golden light, her white flesh gleaming fitfully through a garment of diamonds, a woman swayed out onto the cleared floor.
And Angus remembered. He was here to kill a man.
The woman in the service of the Hierarchs was a fire flame out there with the jeweled dress cloud of living rainbows swirling about her. She pirouetted, dipped, and leaped. She was motionless—and a storm of movement. She laughed. She wept. She taunted and cajoled. She was everything any woman ever was.
Angus saw her eyes darting, hunting him. They slid over his deep chest and long legs, square jaw and close-cropped red hair many times without recognition. Only toward the end, as the beam of light that spotlighted her dance touched him too, did she know him.
Her surprise made her stumble but she recovered swiftly. She whirled around the room, diamonds tinkling faintly to the stamping of her bare feet. She threw herself into the Dance of the Garland of Gems, and made it a living thing. When she came to the black curtains she posed for an instant, moved her arm in the agreed signal, and was gone.
The Diktor lifted a hand and gestured. Angus bowed to Moana and got to his feet. With all the iron control he had developed on the lonely star-trails he fought to keep his hand from his knife-haft.
He bent to take his seat. Now his right hand was sheltered by his body and he put it on the dagger.
The thin blade whispered, coming out of the scabbard.
Red Angus leaned forward and thrust at the throat before him.
Four hands came out of midair and fastened to his wrist. They dragged him down by surprise and by the weight of their bodies. He went off his chair in a rolling fall, hitting the man to his left, toppling him backwards into Stal Tay.
MEN were shouting. A woman screamed. Angus brought his hard left fist up in a short arc, drove it into the stomach muscles of the man on his right. The man grunted and went backwards. Red Angus stood free, his clean blade still naked in his hand.
He leaped for Stal Tay but other guards had come running. One threw himself before the dagger, both hands catching at it. Another hit the pirate across the legs with his hurtling body. A third man clawed himself to a position astride his back, hooking a hairy forearm under his chin. That was when the rest of them hit him.
Angus went back off his feet into a mass of struggling, cursing flesh. The guards yelped triumphantly but Red Angus had fought in tavern brawls in the Lower City, had wrestled with salt slavers on the desert dunes, had fought fights from Karr to Rimeron. He surged up. His fists went up and down. His right hand flashed out, closing on a guard's wrist. The guard screamed and fell away, moaning.
Angus breathed through distended nostrils, dancing back, fists thudding into rib and jaw. He fought to get room and he almost made it. But a guard left his feet in a wild dive before the pirate could brace himself. The man hit his knees and took them out from under him. Angus went down under a dozen leaping warriors. Grimy, blooded, Red Angus shook his head and gave up.
Moana was standing above him, laughing scorn through the queer, awed light in her eyes. Her white breasts rose and fell swiftly under their scant covering. "The little dancer knew you, Ben Tal. I saw that. But she's never been out of Karr City. And this is your first visit. Who are you?"
Red Angus shrugged as the guardsmen lifted him to his feet and sat him roughly down in a chair before the Diktor. He made a wry face. There was a taste like bitter ashes dragging down the corners of his mouth. His belly quivered under the glistening cloth of his breeches. He seemed to hear the Hierarch's drawling voice, "If you fail, you die!”
The Diktor waved a hand. The guards lifted him, dragged him behind velveteen drapes and along a stone corridor, into a small room. The Diktor and Moana followed at his heels. It was the Diktor who turned the key in the lock.
"Who sent you?" the stocky ruler asked softly. "Who paid for my death? Tell me that, and you'll walk out of here a free man.”
Red Angus shook his head. He met the hazel eyes of the Diktor grimly.
Stal Tay smiled. “Berylla the dancer knows you. I can always have her brought in, you know."
Moana had been walking around Angus. She came close, put a hand on the tunic that fitted his chest like a glove, and ripped. His heavily muscled shoulder was laid bare, where the inflamed interlocking triangles gleamed.
Moana cried out. "A pirate!"
The Diktor opened his eyes wide. "Of course. Now I know you. Red Angus. My men captured you a week ago. But how in Stasor's name did you get free?”
Angus said briefly, "Does it matter?"
"No." Stal Tay went and sat on a curved sigellis-chair and crossed his heavy legs. He drummed short, powerful fingers against the beethel-wood arm. "But the fact that you came back after getting free—that is important. You wouldn't have stayed in Karr City unless you had to. Who made you stay? Certainly you didn't hate me enough to risk your neck on such a long chance.”
Angus grinned through the fear in him. "A—million people hate you, if you want to know. You keep the lower-city men and women in filthy poverty to buy you and your kind jewels and luxury. You subsidize the Hierarchy, using their science to make your life easier and safer. Why deny those poor devils down below what you could give them so cheaply? Heat. Light. Power to operate a few machines. Let them taste something from life besides slops and sweaty clothes and hard beds."
"Oho,” laughed the Diktor softly. "Plegasston of Nowk made a convert. What else did he say, Angus?"
He said that government and science should serve the people, not enslave them. Doesn't Stasor teach that?”
MOANA laughed softly. Her black eyes taunted him. She said, "You want to hear what Stasor says about government and Science and people, Angus the Red? Let me take him through the Veil, Eminence. Let the god himself tell the fool."
The Diktor Smiled thinly, looking from man to woman. He shook his head. Moana moved to one side of the square-set ruler. Her black eyes bored straight at Angus. He tried to understand their expression.
The Diktor stood up. "I've used reason, Angus. You're a pirate. You've preyed on my space-caravans. You've stolen and plundered from me. I tell you again, I'll forgive all that—even reward you—if you tell me who sent you here this night."
The black eyes burned at him in Moana's pale white face. She touched her full upper lip with a red tongue-tip.
"If I could see Stasor," fumbled Angus, trying to fathom what Moana wanted him to say. When she nodded almost imperceptibly, he went on, "perhaps he could make me change my mind. If Stasor says I've been a fool, why then everything I've believed in will have gone smash. In that case I'd like to serve your Eminence."
Moana's black eyes laughed, silently applauding him. The Diktor scowled thoughtfully. He swung around on the girl. "Will you be his vow-companion?"
Angus knew what that meant. If he found a way to escape, the Diktor would stretch that lovely white body on the rack in place of his own, give those thighs and breasts and face to the red-hot pincers, the nails, the barked hooks. He would never let her suffer that fate.
Maybe the Diktor knew that. He smiled a little as Moana promised. He went, without another glance at Angus.
Moana said softly, "It was all I could do, Red Angus. He would have taken you to the Pits tonight if I hadn't delayed it."
"You don't owe me anything," he told her crisply.
"I do, though. My brother angered the Diktor a year ago. He was sent to the Salt marshes of Ptixt. You raided the caravan that carried him and set him free. My brother lives safely hidden today, in one of your pirate cities. I remember that, Angus. Sometimes good deeds do pay off. What does Plegasston say about that?"
She went past him and through the doorway.
He followed her swaying body along the drape-hung Corridors, into small rooms and past oak-beamed doors. She came to a blank wall, reached up and pressed pink fingertips against a rose-red stone.
"The whorls at the tips of my fingers set off a light-switch mechanism within the stone," she explained. "It's better than any key."
Somewhere an engine hummed faintly and the rock wall began to turn. It swung aside to reveal a narrow corridor leading downwards. The walls were coated with a luminescent blueness that glowed brightly, lighting the way.
Angus saw the pool long before he came to it. A round metal collar bordered the glistening blackness, that seemed to press upward as though striving to burst free of whatever held it. It shimmered and quivered. It pulsed and throbbed with something close to life itself.
Angus came to a stop, staring at it. He put out a hand and thrust it into the darkness. It felt light, biting, and he thought it might taste like heady wine.
Moana took his other hand. She whispered, "Come," and stepped down into the pool.
The darkness swam all around Angus. He felt it on his skin, in the pores of his arms and hands and legs. It made him giddy, so that he wanted to laugh. It was like walking on air, to stride in this thing.
They went down into the pool and stood in a strange space, where there was only blackness, unrelieved by light. It was cold. Faintly, Angus could hear what he thought was music.
"Will yourself ahead,” he heard a musical voice whisper.
He floated effortlessly.
“Where are we?" he wondered aloud.
"Out of space. Out of time. In the abode of the god. Soon now, we shall see Stasor."
A bright point of red glowed faintly, as a pinhead might gleam when heated in a fire. It grew swiftly to the size of a fist, to the size of a head.
The red glow burst, and sent streamers of flame out into the darkness.
Where the red had been was Stasor.
HIS FACE floated in a white mist, ancient and wise and sorrowful. The dimly veined lids were shut. The forehead was high, rounded, surmounted by Snowy hair. On either side of the great hawk-nose, high cheekbones protruded. The eyelids quivered, slowly arose.
Angus stared dumbly into living wisdom. He wondered deep inside him how old Stasor must be, to know what those eyes knew; how many worlds he must have gazed on, how many peoples he must have seen grow to statehood, to degeneracy, to death.
"You entered the pool. I felt your emanations. What do you wish?"
Moana said, "I am your priestess, Stasor. I have brought a man to see you."
"Let the man speak.”
Angus wet his lips. He scowled, trying to find words. He mumbled, "I've been sentenced to die for attempting to kill the Diktor of Karr. He's an evil man.”
“What is evil, my son? Is a man bad because he opposes your will?"
Angus growled, "He's a curse to his race. He sends disease and death on his people when they disobey him. He keeps improvement from them. He makes them slaves when they might be gods."
"That is your belief. What says the Book of Nard?”
Moana whispered, “The Book of Nard is lost, High One."
Stasor was silent a long time. He said, finally, "The Book must be found. In it are the secrets of the Elder Race. Go to the City of the Ancients. There you will find the Book.”
“No one today knows where the City is, either. It is lost, with all the secrets of the Elder Race.”
“The City lies across the Car. Carolan Sea, through the Land of Living Flame. Go there.”
The lips closed. The eyelids shut. Swiftly the old face faded into nothingness. The blackness came and pressed around them.
Angus turned slowly, as in a dream. Still in that dreamlike trance he found him. self staring at three tall, cowled forms that stood like sentinels.
One of the cowled figures lifted an arm and gestured assurance. "There is no cause for fear. The Hierarch sent us to bring you before him."
Moana shuddered. Angus felt her cold hand seeking his, trying to hide itself in his palm. Hand in hand they willed themselves after the cowled forms. They swam bodily through the blackness, moving eerily, without muscular movement.
A round curtain of shimmering bluish motes ahead of them was like a glowing patch in the darkness. One of the cowled forms turned and waited. He said, "Another pool, Moana. The pool of the Hierarchy. We, too, know the way into this world.”
“What is the blackness?" wondered Angus.
"What man knows? It was formed and built by the Elder Ones before they went on.”
They were in the pool, passing upward through its queer surface. It sizzled and bubbled all around them, tingling on the skin.
They passed the pool and stood in a low-ceilinged, bare room.
A cowled man opened a door for them and stood aside.
The Hierarch sat in a curved chair ornate with gold edgings. His pale, ascetic face gloomed from the shadow of his big cowl. He stared at them, a thin smile touching his lips. He stared so long that Angus asked impatiently, "What do you want with us? Tandor, is he free?”
Moana gasped, Sudden understanding waking her mind. The Hierarch brushed her with his eyes and sighed.
"Tandor is free. I fulfill my promises. You tried and failed, yet you tried. Now—"
He paused, fingertips pressed together, brooding down at Angus.
"Many thousands of eons ago, before our race came into existence, all Karr belonged to the Elder Race. It lived a long time on this world, before it went on."
Angus grinned, "Your priest said that. You and he mean—"
The Hierarch spoke patiently, as if lecturing a child. "It did not die out. It went on, to another plane of existence. Everything must progress. That is the immutable law of nature. The First Race progressed, far beyond our understanding, beyond the natural laws as we know them. They exist today—somewhere outside.
"Stasor, now. Take him, for instance." The Hierarch flicked burning black eyes at Moana. "Some think he is a god. He is a member of the Elder Race.”
Moana said harshly. "Blasphemy! You speak blasphemy of Stasor."
The Hierarch shrugged. “I tell you Stasor is a four-plane man, one not bound by our three dimensions. He and his kind have gone on to that other world. They left behind them rules to guide those who came after them. They left the pools. They were a great race, the Elders, and the black pools are their greatest discovery. Those rules they gave us are contained in the Book of Nard. I want that book!"
The Hierarch smiled gently. "With the secrets of the Elders at my fingertips do you think the Diktor could keep us penned here in the Citadel?”
A faint hope burned in Angus' chest. "You mean, you wouldn't be cloistered any more? That you'd give your science to the people and help them up?"
"Pah!" snapped the Hierarch. "The people? Pigs! They wallow in their filths and love it." His burning black eyes glittered fanatically. "No. I mean II—and not the Diktor—will rule all Karr!”
He is mad, too, thought Angus. He and the Diktor—mad with the lust for power. If the Diktor dies and the Hierarch rules the people will change a boot-heel for a mortar and pestle. Even the stars must revolt against that.
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