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«Ensign Flandry», Poul Anderson

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—To Frank and Beverly Herbert

 

Excerpts (with some expansion of symbols) from Pilot’s Manual and Ephemeris, Cis-Betelgeusean Orionis Sector, 53rd ed., Reel III, frame 28:

 

IGC S-52,727,061. Saxo. F5, mass 1.75 Sol, luminosity 5.4 Sol, photosphere diameter 1.2 Sol … Estimated remaining time on main sequence, 0.9 begayear …

Planetary system: Eleven major bodies … V, Starkad. Mean orbital radius, 3.28 a.u., period 4.48 years … Mass, 1.81 Terra. Equatorial diameter, 15,077 Km. Mean surface gravity, 1.30 g. Rotation period, 16h 31m 2.75s. Axial inclination, 25° 50’4.9” … Surface atmospheric pressure, ca. 7000 mm. Percentage composition, N277.92, O221.01, A 0.87, CO20.03 …

Remarks: Though 254 light-years from Sol, the system was discovered early, in the course of the first Grand Survey. Thus the contemporary practice of bestowing literary-mythological names on humanly interesting objects was followed. Only marginally man-habitable, Starkad attracted a few xenological expeditions by its unusual autochthons … These studies were not followed up, since funds went to still more rewarding projects and, later, the Polesotechnic League saw no profit potential. After the Time of Troubles, it lay outside the Imperial sphere and remained virtually unvisited until now, when a mission has been sent for political reasons.

 

The 54th edition had quite a different entry.

1

Evening on Terra—

His Imperial Majesty, High Emperor Georgios Manuel Krishna Murasaki, of the Wang dynasty the fourth, Supreme Guardian of the Pax, Grand Director of the Stellar Council, Commander-in-Chief, Final Arbiter, acknowledged supreme on more worlds and honorary head of more organizations than any one man could remember, had a birthday. On planets so remote that the unaided eye could not see their suns among those twinkling to life above Oceania, men turned dark and leathery, or thick and weary, by strange weathers lifted glasses in salute. The light waves carrying their pledge would lap on his tomb.

Terra herself was less solemn. Except for the court, which still felt bound to follow daylight around the globe for one exhausting ceremony after another, Birthday had become simply an occasion to hold carnival. As his aircar hummed over great dusking waters, Lord Markus Hauksberg saw the east blaze with sky luminosity, multi-colored moving curtains where fireworks exploded meteoric. Tonight, while the planet turned, its dark side was so radiant as to drown the very metro-centers seen from Luna. Had he tuned his vid to almost any station, he could have watched crowds filling pleasure houses and coming near riot among festively decorated towers.

His lady broke the silence between them with a murmur that made him start. “I wish it were a hundred years ago.”

“Eh?” Sometimes she could still astonish him.

“Birthday meant something then.”

“Well … yes. S’pose so.” Hauksberg cast his mind back over history. She was right. Fathers had taken their sons outdoors when twilight ended parades and feasts; they had pointed to the early stars and said, Look yonder. Those are ours. We believe that as many as four million lie within the Imperial domain. Certainly a hundred thousand know us daily, obey us, pay tribute to us, and get peace and the wealth of peace in return. Our ancestors did that. Keep the faith.

Hauksberg shrugged. You can’t prevent later generations from outgrowing naïveté. In time they must realize, bone deep, that this one dustmote of a galaxy holds more than a hundred billion suns; that we have not even explored the whole of our one spiral arm, and it does not appear we ever will; that you need no telescope to see giants like Betelgeuse and Polaris which do not belong to us. From there, one proceeded easily to: Everybody knows the Empire was won and is maintained by naked power, the central government is corrupt and the frontier is brutal and the last organization with high morale, the Navy, lives for war and oppression and anti-intellectualism. So get yours, have fun, ease your conscience with a bit of discreet scoffing, and never, never make a fool of yourself by taking the Empire seriously.

Could be I’ll change that, Hauksberg thought.

Alicia interrupted him. “We might at least have gone to a decent party! But no, you have to drag us to the Crown Prince’s. Are you hoping he’ll share one of his prettyboys?”

Hauksberg tried to ease matters with a grin. “Come, come, m’love, you do me an injustice. You know I still hunt women. Preferably beautiful women, such as you.”

“Or Persis d’Io.” She sagged back. “Never mind,” she said tiredly. “I just don’t like orgies. Especially vulgar ones.”

“Nor I, much.” He patted her hand. “But you’ll manage. Among the many things I admire about you is your ability to carry off any situation with aplomb.”

True enough, he thought. For a moment, regarding those perfect features under the diademed hair, he felt regret. So his marriage had been political; why couldn’t they nonetheless have worked out a comradeship? Even love—No, he was confusing his love for ancient literature with flesh-and-blood reality. He was not Pelléas nor she Mélisande. She was clever, gracious, and reasonably honest with him; she had given him an heir; more had never been implied in the contract. For his part, he had given her position and nearly unlimited money. As for more of his time … how could he? Somebody had to be the repairman, when the universe was falling to pieces. Most women understood.

To entropy with it. Alicia’s looks came from an expensive biosculp job. He had seen too many slight variations on that fashionable face.

“I’ve explained to you often enough,” he said. ” Lot rather’ve gone to Mboto’s or Bhatnagar’s myself. But my ship leaves in three days. Last chance to conduct a bit of absolutely essential business.”

“So you say.”


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