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Crown of Infinity

By Alan Matthews,2014-11-04 20:35
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Published by Ace Books on 1968/09/15

CROWN OF INFINITY

    Copyright ?, 1968, by John M. Faucette

    All Rights Reserved

     Cover by Kelly Freas.

    PROLOGUE

    THE SHIP WAS READY.

    Soothed by the soft stuttering of the computers and the myriad tiny ship noises that spelledlife, Captain Corrindus clasped his hands behind his back. Actually, in terms of humanreference, he joined two jade blue pseudopods across the gelatinous mass of that part of hisbody directly op-posite the light-sensitive group of cells that went into action whenever hisbrain decided to take in visual stimuli. He looked out the control module port at the sweepingand majestic panorama of the multicolored stars of the worlds of Civilization. The closest ofthem visibly moved from right to left against the backdrop of space as the battle fortress Warrior of Civilization crawled slowly ahead. Corrindus sighed, his boneless body quiveringin the master cup before the control panel, conscious of the weight of the presence of hisofficers. Citizens of a half dozen planets, members of an equal number of species, theyclustered be-hind him, waiting. He knew they were expecting answers, but answers were lacking.

    The silence was broken, finally, by Guidi, the impatient feathered creature.

    "The ship is ready, Captain. We are ready."

    Corrindus sighed again, the upper portion of his amorphous bulk rippling in imitation of amovement once observed on one of the legendary Star Kings.

    The ship was ready—but for what? There was no enemy at hand, no orders to give. Only theunceasing questions that came first from his own crew, and then as the news spread throughoutthe galaxy, from ships and planet-bases far away.

    "Advice, gentlemen?" asked Corrindus, almost begging, as he extruded an eyestalk. The humanoidand hominid mem-bers of the staff shrugged shoulders in a fashion pain-fully reminiscent of thevanished Star Kings. None spoke.

    "We're wasting time," said Corrindus. His body shifted and plopped in the cup. The ship

    spoke in its normally quiet voice, unaware that the Universe had changed—not physically, butin a subtle way that registered only as the presence or absence of a race.

    The ship was bred for battle—needed battle as the very stuff of its life, bred as it was fromhalf-sentient non-life crystal cultures in a region of the galaxy mist-thick with dust cloudsthat might someday be part of stars. The weaponry bristled behind the ready shields, storagecells half-drained against the possible surge of power from enemy beams . . .

    But there was no enemy, and the absence was a pang almost as deep-hurting as the absence of theStar Kings.

    The ships of the vanished past still existed. The rolling names came easily to mind: Omaha!

     Pacific!

     Lancaster!

     Rio Grande!

    Meaningless syllables to these representatives of races not from the planets that had givenbirth to the mightiest race the galaxy had ever known. Even so, they were capable of stirringstrong emotions. Alps!

     Britain!

     Harvard!

    The mighty ships of the Star Kings, deserted hulks now, populated only by withered husks thathad once been flesh and bone, husks no longer recognizable in the absence of the moving spirit.The Star Kings were dead. The news tolled throughout the galaxy and beyond, shocking, numbing,stirring a million races to unreasonable anger with the heart-rending knowl-edge ofirreplaceable loss. The Star Kings were dead, but they did not die quietly. At the instant ofannihilation, their Death Calls burst forth, spreading through the entire galaxy, speeding everonward to the very end of Existence. This great lament marked their passing, tolled the end of

a race, and gave the friendly races of the Universe the hope of vengeance.

    There was a reason for the sudden death of a race, and answers did exist—somewhere. The galaxydecided to find that reason.

    The galaxy declared vengeance, a vengeance that would spread across the vast canvas ofeternity. The peoples of the galaxy embarked on the journey of vengeance, examining the entirehistory of the Star Kings for a clue toward the mysterious disappearance.

    On one ship, one commander was struck by sudden in-spiration that he intuitively knew to beright. I

    the main ramp fell to the bare, burnt rock ground with-out a sound since there was no air tocarry it. For a moment he stood there, a space-suited silhouette against the lights from withinthe ship. Then he walked down the ramp to place his thick soled boots upon the hard ground.

    The landscape of pitted, charred, glazed rock blurred as Fleet Commander Grey, a citizen of theobsolete national division known as the United States of America, stood sur-veying the homeplanet of Mankind. This lifeless region was once known as the District of Columbia. It was noexception to the general rule, no minor spot of ruin and devastation. The entire planet was nowbut a ball of scorched rock. His hand went briefly to the blue and gold insignia of a FleetCommander on the helmet and shoulders of his silver space suit. He resisted the urge to clawthose painted mark-ings off. Tears rolled down his sunken cheeks as his eyes swept the barrenwastes.

    He had been born on this planet, in this city that no longer was. He had sworn to protect it,and every other city of every other planet of the United Stars of Man.

    He had failed. He had not kept his word. The United Stars were dead now, lifeless, airlessworlds like the Earth. His slight muscular body trembled with rage and futility.

    Why? he screamed silently, clenching his hands until they ached. He ignored the pain; the

    physical sensation was as nothing to that he felt in his heart.

    More than just a world had died here; an ethic of being had been swept from the galaxy.Contradictory, obstinate, unreasoning, the greatest race the galaxy had known was gone. Notthat there was anything particularly holy about the passing, for Man the race had been in themidst of one of the interminable wars of his history. For no good reason, they fought theShraix, golden creatures whose ancient empire commanded an even larger volume of space thantheir own. Oh, there were great battles! Glories were being won on both sides . . .

    And then a third force, a civilization incredibly more ancient than either Human or Shraix,stepped in and an-nihilated both.

    The worlds of Man and Shraix were scorched clean of life and artifacts. And of the outposts,fleets, secret bases— of every being of two great races, only Command Division, 43rd TerranFleet, survived. Everything else had been de-tected and destroyed, leaving no life trace toindicate that they had once been there.

    The tears stopped, the last tears Man would ever know. Commander Grey turned back to survey theremnants of his command, the heavy cruiser, Crusader, and the protective light missile ships

    that was all that remained of Command Division, 43rd Fleet. This display of former militarymight was all that was left of Man.

    And Grey knew why! It was the only thing that kept him alive, that kept him from opening hisface plate there on that airless plain, as a number of his men and women already had. His, thecrack 43rd, was to have been the first fleet to be equipped with the new device that would havegiven victory to the hard pressed fleets of Man: the Ramdic Shield. A fleet so equipped wouldhave been undetectable at FTL speeds since vibrations in the fabric of space were cut to aminimum and radiations from the Ramdic FTL Drive were neutralized.

    Eager to test the device, he had taken the Command Division out on a communications-silencedshakedown cruise instead of waiting for the eleven remaining home divisions to have theirsinstalled. While the 43rd cruised outside the fabric of normal space, the unknown murderers

    struck. The attack, the computer section calculated, had totally destroyed the worlds of Manand the Federated Stars of the Shraix in less than thirty seconds!

    Grey, Commander of the last few men and women alive, cast one final look around at thedesolate, barren planet. There was a coldness in the region of his heart. He stared up at theuncaring stars, bright and brittle over the airless world, and made a personal vow.

    Vengeance.

    He recognized the futility of his vow, but even more futile was the senseless destruction ofthose two races.

    Man and Shraix would be avenged—in full!

    Slowly he entered the ship. It was a long walk to the Command Room, the nerve center of a fleetthat was no more. He could have taken a gravity tube, but he wanted the time to think. Allheads swiveled around to watch him as he entered. He ignored their pleading eyes, snapping

    Crusader rose to become part of the umbrella that hadorders, his train-ing taking over. The

    protected it. He followed Standard Op-erating Procedures: scouts ahead, flankers out, rearguard behind. All radiating devices were cut off; all communications prohibited except fortight beamed directional rays. He gave more orders; the twenty warships pointed their blunt,black noses at Mercury and began accelerating.

    The blowers whirred loudly in the Command Room as the uniformed officers stood stiffly atattention. Grey knew they were trying not to think of the fellow men and women they had justburied, of the men and women under sedation in the Med-wards, or of those in straitjackets incompartments aft. He read their faces. Young and old, man and boy, woman and girl; there wouldbe no help from any of them. Numbed and shocked, they all looked at him. At twenty-seven, hewas younger than the most senior of them. They had once resented his meteoric rise to FleetCommander—but that was all forgotten now. The future of humankind was in his hands.

    As he hit the com-switch, he found himself staring at the red-headed woman rating who hookedhim into the fleet's broadcast system. He hesitated a moment, and then she smiled at him,shyly. He spoke. "Men and women of the 43rd Fleet, we've been together a long time. We'vefought many battles, we've buried our fallen comrades on alien worlds; we've grown to know andlove and respect one another."

    Suddenly the past years of fighting came back; the as-saults upon the Shraix defensive sphere,the silent, deadly battles in deep space with the nearest star light-years away; the times theyhad fought, alongside their sister fleets, turn-ing back the thrusts of Shraix suicide fleets.

    "It will not be easy to do what must be done, yet I know you will do it." He remembered thetime when the 43rd had encountered a complete Shraix invasion force— six fleets—and held themuntil reinforcements had arrived. Then there was the time they had been assigned to take out akey Shraix planet and how the 43rd had fought its way through everything the Shraix could throwat them for two hundred light-years to accomplish their mission. And, like the others, heremembered the long fight coming back, and the ships that had not made it.

    "We're proceeding to Mercury. Indications are that the robot supply dumps there were unknown tothe attacker. We may be able to construct additional ships fitted with the Ramdic Shield.Suitably armed, and manned by crews consisting of one fertile man and one fertile woman, Com-mand Division, 43rd Fleet will then be disbanded forever. All ranks abolished. The United Starsthemselves must be for-gotten. We must break completely with the past. There will be no timefor nostalgia, homesickness or tears. We can never go back. The past is finished, as is theEarth.

    "Once away, no ship shall ever contact another again. The race must survive, somehow. Thesingle ships will disperse to the far corners of the galaxy, seeking out colony worlds. It willbe the duty of each ship to populate their world."

    A grizzled gray-haired woman in her sixties held up her hand. She wore the arm patch of abiotechnician. Grey recognized her.

    "Impossible, Commander. One couple can't populate a planet. Genetic drift—inbreeding. You'llhave total disaster within a very few generations."

    "Duplicates of the Master Life Banks were included in the Mercury Dumps, Technician. I proposeeach ship carry a miniature Life Bank. The women can host other ova, while the sperm of theages is available for the taking.

    "We're setting a monumental task for the children that are yet to be born. We must locate thehome base of the enemy, learn his secrets—above all, we must bide our time. The day ofvengeance may not come for a thousand—for ten thousand years.

    "But it will come! That I promise! That I promise as a Man!" II

    it was on its return sweep, as it came hurtling out of the black depths, that the Master'sPatrol Vessel picked up the Ramdic radiations that could only be an attempt at com-munication.Stars leaped as the huge nonreflecting surfaced ship, driven by the power equivalent of a halfdozen suns, raced for the source of those radiations.

    Twenty miles of ultra-pressurized seamless-hulled alloyed metal, ten miles in diameter, came toa halt over the radiating object. Like a large black egg it hovered over the offending objectwhich was buried beneath the surface of Earth.

    Invisible probe rays flashed out, passing through the ve-hicle's hull as if it weren't there.The buried vessel was analyzed down to each particle of errant dust. The languages of thesystem's inhabitants were plucked from the minds of the thousand collected specimens in coldvaults within the Master's craft. Computers went through the scores of major languages andsilently broke the code. Then the broadcasting vessel was vaporized, leaving only a wisp offast dispersing white mist. The message was totally without purpose; therefore the strange,lizard-like creature in charge reasoned that the ship had not been left as a purposefultransmitter. He smelled a trap; someone had wanted to attract him while that someone observedfrom a safe position.

    The creature set up the computers to search the system of Sol cubic yard by cubic yard. Onlyminutes elapsed before they found the prey hiding in a lunar crater. The patrol vessel swoopeddown, instruments measuring and analyzing defensive and offensive capabilities of the ship. Theinformation was noted and sneered at—billions of years old his species might have had a shiplike it. In microseconds every map, book, tape, pad and drawing on the ship was in the memorybanks of the Master's com-puter. Then the Master unleashed the mind probes; they bored in,scooping up whatever thoughts and information they could detect from the poorly shielded life-force. At last, all the mighty armament of the Crusader was loosed, but the Master's screens

    barely registered the attack. The creature calmly continued his examination of the crew of theTerran ship. When the probes were finished, the creature touched a button and the Crusader

    followed the unmanned decoy into oblivion. Seconds later an instrument just below the frozencrust of Pluto sensed the vaporizing of the Crusader. It immedi-ately began to broadcast a

    continuous burst of nondirectional Ramdic radiations. Across the system, another instrumentpicked up the signals and proceeded to relay them across the galaxy.

    The Master gave the equivalent of a smile. At last he had found something to break the monotonyof endless patrols. He set up a search pattern and began hunting.

    The Master had early decided that the continued domi-nance of the Universe could be possibleonly by the instant and utter destruction of intelligent life as soon as it ap-peared. Anyexception could spell their end, for nature could evolve superior races fantastically fast,when the time span was measured against the clock of galactic history.

    The first Masters, creatures of the first planet to bear life after the creation of theUniverse, made their choice billions of years ago, after they had barely escaped completedestruc-tion at the hands of the Tashi, a race of equally intelligent beings that had laterevolved on the same planet. After centuries of bloody warfare, the Masters decided that theywould rule or they would die, but they would never live in the shadow of another species.

    As the Masters expanded into the Universe, they at first found few other races to compete withthem. These were quickly overcome. But as the Universe aged and the sphere of the Masters'influence increased geometrically, the problem became greater and greater, until finally themajor portion of their economy was aimed toward support of the myriad Patrol Ships that sweptacross the length, breadth, and depth of the galaxy.

    The Masters multiplied many times over as they ex-panded to fill the galaxy, until finally theywere homed upon nearly ten thousand worlds, all formerly homes of other races. Even so, andeven though the number of their ships was uncountable except to the uncaring minds ofcomputers, the galaxy was so large that certain less likely areas were patrolled only at longintervals.

    Perhaps fifty thousand years had passed since the last patrol of the Terran sector, duringwhich time both Man and Shraix had achieved a level of intelligence recognizable as dangerousto the Masters. The Master's smile increased, the long, forked tongue darting out; he could

    two intelligent, space-faringim