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Transcriber’s Note:

This etext was produced from Astounding Science Fiction, August, 1950. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the copyright on this publication was renewed.











The last enemy was the toughest of all—and conquering him was in itself almost as dangerous as not conquering. For a strange pattern of beliefs can make assassination an honorable profession!




Illustrated by Miller



Along the U-shaped table, the subdued clatter of dinnerware and the buzz of conversation was dying out; the soft music that drifted down from the overhead sound outlets seemed louder as the competing noises diminished. The feast was drawing to a close, and Dallona of Hadron fidgeted nervously with the stem of her wineglass as last-moment doubts assailed her.

The old man at whose right she sat noticed, and reached out to lay his hand on hers.

“My dear, you’re worried,” he said softly. “You, of all people, shouldn’t be, you know.”

“The theory isn’t complete,” she replied. “And I could wish for more positive verification. I’d hate to think I’d got you into this—”

Garnon of Roxor laughed. “No, no!” he assured her. “I’d decided upon this long before you announced the results of your experiments. Ask Girzon; he’ll bear me out.”

“That’s true,” the young man who sat at Garnon’s left said, leaning forward. “Father has meant to take this step for a long time. He was waiting until after the election, and then he decided to do it now, to give you an opportunity to make experimental use of it.”

The man on Dallona’s right added his voice. Like the others at the table, he was of medium stature, brown-skinned and dark-eyed, with a wide mouth, prominent cheekbones and a short, square jaw. Unlike the others, he was armed, with a knife and pistol on his belt, and on the breast of his black tunic he wore a scarlet oval patch on which a pair of black wings, with a tapering silver object between them had been superimposed.

“Yes, Lady Dallona; the Lord Garnon and I discussed this, oh, two years ago at the least. Really, I’m surprised that you seem to shrink from it, now. Of course, you’re Venus-born, and customs there may be different, but with your scientific knowledge—”

“That may be the trouble, Dirzed,” Dallona told him. “A scientist gets in the way of doubting, and one doubts one’s own theories most of all.”

“That’s the scientific attitude, I’m told,” Dirzed replied, smiling. “But somehow, I cannot think of you as a scientist.” His eyes traveled over her in a way that would have made most women, scientists or otherwise, blush. It gave Dallona of Hadron a feeling of pleasure. Men often looked at her that way, especially here at Darsh. Novelty had something to do with it—her skin was considerably lighter than usual, and there was a pleasing oddness about the structure of her face. Her alleged Venusian origin was probably accepted as the explanation of that, as of so many other things.

As she was about to reply, a man in dark gray, one of the upper-servants who were accepted as social equals by the Akor-Neb nobles, approached the table. He nodded respectfully to Garnon of Roxor.

“I hate to seem to hurry things, sir, but the boy’s ready. He’s in a trance-state now,” he reported, pointing to the pair of visiplates at the end of the room.

Both of the ten-foot-square plates were activated. One was a solid luminous white; on the other was the image of a boy of twelve or fourteen, seated at a big writing machine. Even allowing for the fact that the boy was in a hypnotic trance, there was an expression of idiocy on his loose-lipped, slack-jawed face, a pervading dullness.

“One of our best sensitives,” a man with a beard, several places down the table on Dallona’s right, said. “You remember him, Dallona; he produced that communication from the discarnate Assassin, Sirzim. Normally, he’s a low-grade imbecile, but in trance-state he’s wonderful. And there can be no argument that the communications he produces originates in his own mind; he doesn’t have mind enough, of his own, to operate that machine.”

Garnon of Roxor rose to his feet, the others rising with him. He unfastened a jewel from the front of his tunic and handed it to Dallona.

“Here, my dear Lady Dallona; I want you to have this,” he said. “It’s been in the family of Roxor for six generations, but I know that you will appreciate and cherish it.” He twisted a heavy ring from his left hand and gave it to his son. He unstrapped his wrist watch and passed it across the table to the gray-clad upper-servant. He gave a pocket case, containing writing tools, slide rule and magnifier, to the bearded man on the other side of Dallona. “Something you can use, Dr. Harnosh,” he said. Then he took a belt, with a knife and holstered pistol, from a servant who had brought it to him, and gave it to the man with the red badge. “And something for you, Dirzed. The pistol’s by Farnor of Yand, and the knife was forged and tempered on Luna.”

The man with the winged-bullet badge took the weapons, exclaiming in appreciation. Then he removed his own belt and buckled on the gift.

“The pistol’s fully loaded,” Garnon told him.

Dirzed drew it and checked—a man of his craft took no statement about weapons without verification—then slipped it back into the holster.

“Shall I use it?” he asked.

“By all means; I’d had that in mind when I selected it for you.”

Another man, to the left of Girzon, received a cigarette case and lighter. He and Garnon hooked fingers and clapped shoulders.

“Our views haven’t been the same, Garnon,” he said, “but I’ve always valued your friendship. I’m sorry you’re doing this, now; I believe you’ll be disappointed.”

Garnon chuckled. “Would you care to make a small wager on that, Nirzav?” he asked. “You know what I’m putting up. If I’m proven right, will you accept the Volitionalist theory as verified?”

Nirzav chewed his mustache for a moment. “Yes, Garnon, I will.” He pointed toward the blankly white screen. “If we get anything conclusive on that, I’ll have no other choice.”

“All right, friends,” Garnon said to those around him. “Will you walk with me to the end of the room?”

Servants removed a section from the table in front of him, to allow him and a few others to pass through; the rest of the guests remained standing at the table, facing toward the inside of the room. Garnon’s son, Girzon, and the gray-mustached Nirzav of Shonna, walked on his left; Dallona of Hadron and Dr. Harnosh of Hosh on his right. The gray-clad upper-servant, and two or three ladies, and a nobleman with a small chin beard, and several others, joined them; of those who had sat close to Garnon, only the man in the black tunic with the scarlet badge hung back. He stood still, by the break in the table, watching Garnon of Roxor walk away from him. Then Dirzed the Assassin drew the pistol he had lately received as a gift, hefted it in his hand, thumbed off the safety, and aimed at the back of Garnon’s head.

They had nearly reached the end of the room when the pistol cracked. Dallona of Hadron started, almost as though the bullet had crashed into her own body, then caught herself and kept on walking. She closed her eyes and laid a hand on Dr. Harnosh’s arm for guidance, concentrating her mind upon a single question. The others went on as though Garnon of Roxor were still walking among them.

“Look!” Harnosh of Hosh cried, pointing to the image in the visiplate ahead. “He’s under control!”

They all stopped short, and Dirzed, holstering his pistol, hurried forward to join them. Behind, a couple of servants had approached with a stretcher and were gathering up the crumpled figure that had, a moment ago, been Garnon.

A change had come over the boy at the writing machine. His eyes were still glazed with the stupor of the hypnotic trance, but the slack jaw had stiffened, and the loose mouth was compressed in a purposeful line. As they watched, his hands went out to the keyboard in front of him and began to move over it, and as they did, letters appeared on the white screen on the left.

Garnon of Roxor, discarnate, communicating, they read. The machine stopped for a moment, then began again. To Dallona of Hadron: The question you asked, after I discarnated, was: What was the last book I read, before the feast? While waiting for my valet to prepare my bath, I read the first ten verses of the fourth Canto of “Splendor of Space,” by Larnov of Horka, in my bedroom. When the bath was ready, I marked the page with a strip of message tape, containing a message from the bailiff of my estate on the Shevva River, concerning a breakdown at the power plant, and laid the book on the ivory-inlaid table beside the big red chair.

Harnosh of Hosh looked at Dallona inquiringly; she nodded.

“I rejected the question I had in my mind, and substituted that one, after the shot,” she said.

He turned quickly to the upper-servant. “Check on that, right away, Kirzon,” he directed.

As the upper-servant hurried out, the writing machine started again.

And to my son, Girzon: I will not use your son, Garnon, as a reincarnation-vehicle; I will remain discarnate until he is grown and has a son of his own; if he has no male child, I will reincarnate in the first available male child of the family of Roxor, or of some family allied to us by marriage. In any case, I will communicate before reincarnating.

To Nirzav of Shonna: Ten days ago, when I dined at your home, I took a small knife and cut three notches, two close together and one a little apart from the others, on the under side of the table. As I remember, I sat two places down on the left. If you find them, you will know that I have won that wager that I spoke of a few minutes ago.

“I’ll have my butler check on that, right away,” Nirzav said. His eyes were wide with amazement, and he had begun to sweat; a man does not casually watch the beliefs of a lifetime invalidated in a few moments.

To Dirzed the Assassin: the machine continued. You have served me faithfully, in the last ten years, never more so than with the last shot you fired in my service. After you fired, the thought was in your mind that you would like to take service with the Lady Dallona of Hadron, whom you believe will need the protection of a member of the Society of Assassins. I advise you to do so, and I advise her to accept your offer. Her work, since she has come to Darsh, has not made her popular in some quarters. No doubt Nirzav of Shonna can bear me out on that.

“I won’t betray things told me in confidence, or said at the Councils of the Statisticalists, but he’s right,” Nirzav said. “You need a good Assassin, and there are few better than Dirzed.”

I see that this sensitive is growing weary, the letters on the screen spelled out. His body is not strong enough for prolonged communication. I bid you all farewell, for the time; I will communicate again. Good evening, my friends, and I thank you for your presence at the feast.

The boy, on the other screen, slumped back in his chair, his face relaxing into its customary expression of vacancy.

“Will you accept my offer of service, Lady Dallona?” Dirzed asked. “It’s as Garnon said; you’ve made enemies.”

Dallona smiled at him. “I’ve not been too deep in my work to know that. I’m glad to accept your offer, Dirzed.”

Nirzav of Shonna had already turned away from the group and was hurrying from the room, to call his home for confirmation on the notches made on the underside of his dining table. As he went out the door, he almost collided with the upper-servant, who was rushing in with a book in his hand.

“Here it is,” the latter exclaimed, holding up the book. “Larnov’s ‘Splendor of Space,’ just where he said it would be. I had a couple of servants with me as witnesses; I can call them in now, if you wish.” He handed the book to Harnosh of Hosh. “See, a strip of message tape in it, at the tenth verse of the Fourth Canto.”

Nirzav of Shonna re-entered the room; he was chewing his mustache and muttering to himself. As he rejoined the group in front of the now dark visiplates, he raised his voice, addressing them all generally.

“My butler

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