Royal Road

Royal Road

by A. Arthur Smith

Illustrated by Kelly Freas

Success and failure are the same;

One thing beneath a double name.

That piece of Arkadian doggerel-philosophy had never much impressed Duke Harald; not, that is, until he came to Terra as a student.

The situation was itself a paradox of sorts. There was his very presence on the mother world; he, Lord of the Outer Marches, premier duke of Arkady, a scarred and dark-faced soldier among a crowd of boys. And then, he had allowed himself but two months to achieve what others won with hardship in a full two years.

Two months on Terra—and scant progress yet!

“There must be a faster way,” he said aloud, running heavy fingers through close-cropped hair.

The slim and elegant Terran who was his sole companion in the study cell looked up and threw a brief smile across the low partition of the double lectern. For a moment, Duke Harald ignored the unspoken question; then:

“You know why I’m here on Terra, young Melton?”

“To learn telepathy—why else?”

“I don’t mean that. I mean, what use is this telepathy to me, that I should come a thousand parsecs just to gain the knack of it?”

“Why… well, you’re a soldier, I’m told, and I suppose that esper skills must have some place in warfare—” The Terran’s voice trailed off in silence. For generations war had been unknown on Terra, and the mental frame of reference that was needed had all but faded from the planet’s culture.

“On the contrary.” Indeed, Duke Harald thought with sudden insight, the broad intimacy of telepathic contact might prove unhandy to a soldier. Efficiency demanded an abstract, an impersonal attitude towards the enemy of the moment. Was that, perhaps, why Terra didn’t make war too readily these days?

“Of course,” the Arkadian went on, “for military intelligence—finding out what the other side’s planning to do, so you can do it sooner and better—it might be useful. But even so, wars have been won before, and will be won again, without the esper skill.”

“What then?” asked Melton. “If the skill is of no use—”

“No use,” said Duke Harald, “only if we of Arkady were faced with the usual war against the usual human enemy. But we’re not. We’re up against that galactic rarity, an alien species that’s as ready and willing to fight, almost, as any of human stock.”

“Terrans don’t fight.” Melton’s tone held a shade of self-satisfied condescension.

“No. I suppose not. But out there”—Duke Harald made a sweeping ges-ture that took in the far reaches of the universe—“we haven’t the time or the leisure to grow soft! Particularly on the newer worlds, like Arkady. On and off, we’ve had to trade blasters and bombs with aliens ever since my grandfather brought the first starship in from Old Altair.”

Looking down at the papers on his desk, the Terran murmured dryly, “That would be, I presume, at the time of the revolution on Altair?”

“Aye,” said Duke Harald, curtly. And paused to regain composure. Even after two generations, any mention of the fall of the old dynasty of Altair could prick the touchy pride of an Arkadian nobleman. But he had learned that it was futile to argue the point with a Terran. Their histories taught such a queerly twisted version of the Great Exile.

“Well! Right now there’s a truce—of sorts. Great Khrom alone knows how long it will last! But to get to the bones and marrow of the problem: our nonhuman opponents are also natural telepalhs. Pure telepaths,” the Arkadian repeated, stressing the adjective pointedly.

“Pure telepaths?” Melton was interested, puzzled, and faintly skeptical. “You can’t mean—no language, no sensory communication at all?”

“I mean just that,” said Duke Harald flatly. “You see the problem? It’s not a question of screening off a few special operators. Any man of theirs—if you want to call them men!—is a potential spy, once he’s within esper range. And we can’t learn their plans, at least not soon enough or in sufficient detail. Why,” his voice grew harsh, “we don’t even bother to take prisoners any morel What use, when that prisoner can’t be questioned; when he just squats there, dumb and insolent, picks your brains, and relays the information back to his home base?”

“And so, they have an edge?”

“A slight one,” Duke Harald admitted. “Just enough to match our superiority in technical skill, and in sheer fighting ability. Otherwise they wouldn’t have lasted six months—old Homo sapiens is still the fightingest animal of them all!”

And then Duke Harald grinned suddenly, at the look of shocked surprise that crossed the Terran’s face.

“Yes,” he said, still smiling, “I know that’s almost an indecent remark, here on Terra. But it’s still a fact of nature out among the stars. How else do you suppose people from old Nerra managed to grab off so many of the choicest worlds of the galaxy? By sweet reasonableness?”

“But surely,” asked Melton, fascinated despite himself, “if you have no telepaths of your own, you could have had the services of an esper adept from Terra? Would that not have been faster than this lengthy training?”

“Faster, sure.” And almost certainly fatal to his own plans, and perhaps even to the whole present culture of Arkady. For he had not forgotten—if the other had—the rumor that a Terran adept had been in part responsible for the fall of the old kings of Altair. And Arkady, its throne long vacant, ruled by a divided and quarrelsome Council of Peers, was ripe at last to herald a new dynasty. No, this was decidedly not the time to let Terran ideas of “democracy” loose among the commoners.

“Yes, it would be faster,” Duke Harald said again, choosing his words with care. He could not, he reminded himself, afford to become embroiled in political arguments. “But we of Arkady have always tried to make our own way in the universe. And,” he paused briefly, “would any Terran, adept though he might be, either enjoy or be particularly good at military problems?”

Melton said nothing; made only a silent gesture of distaste.

“And so,” Duke Harald finished, “here am I, a somewhat reluctant student at your Esper Institute, while the aliens are up to Khrom knows what! Again I say, I wish there were something faster. Surely your scientists ought to have come up with something new by now! Some wonder drug or other?”

That last was a fishing expedition; a search for confirmation, however slight, of the rumor that had first reached him on distant Arkady. Would Melton rise to the bait?

“Well,” said the Terran slowly, poker-faced, “so far there’s only TPH.”

“TPH? What’s that?”

“Telepathic hormone. But,” Melton’s smile seemed as much for himself as for the Arkadian’s ill-concealed glare of interest, “unfortunately it’s just a myth. No, wait,” as Duke Harald began to voice protest, “I apologize for taking advantage of you; I realize only too well how you must feel. But did you think you were the only one who was ever impatient to acquire esper skill? You should have been born a Terran, then; brought up in the conviction that knowledge of the mind is the highest human knowledge. And yet, we Terrans have our share of laziness. Hence the common dream—so common that we’ve even given it a name!—the fantasied wish-fulfillment of a magic potion that will shortcircuit all this work and study. I’m afraid,” his tones were apologetic, “that our early training is not perhaps so reality-centered as we sometimes like to think.”

So the pattern had repeated itself; the same tale told, with the same disclaimer of its truth! But Melton was speaking again.

“To be blunt,” he was saying with an air of finality, “there really does not seem to be any easy way—any royal road to telepathy.”

Nevertheless Duke Harald’s sense of urgency remained. There was still the problem of the aliens. And, a part of that problem, and yet peculiarly distinct, was his own private plan, now working so slowly towards fruition. As premier duke of Arkady, he had been able to persuade the Council to send him on this quest. But he was not naive enough to think that grudging consent meant an end to opposition. For he had rivals in the Council—Duke Charles, for one. And if those rivals came to realize how near completion were his plans—attainment of the esper skill was all that he now needed—then the noble weather vanes would change their minds, vote for his recall, and bring in a Terran adept. The more fools they, to risk another Altair!

The feeling of impatience was still with him as the hour drew on for another grueling session with his robot therapist. Of all the training at the Institute, these daily sessions seemed least relevant. And yet the adept-masters were without exception firm in their insistence on this aspect of the lengthy course. With slow reluctance Duke Harald made his way to the Hall of Therapy, and to the quiet windowless room where the robot waited.

The machine that faced him as he sank into the relaxing embrace of the special chair was, he knew, but an extension of the great computer banks buried bedrock deep in vaults beneath the Central Library. Yet he tended to endow it with an austere personality of its own.

Pressing his hands lightly to the glowing sensiplate that registered his personal pattern, he relaxed deeply and allowed the silent mechanisms to carry out their wonted ministrations. Deft mechanical hands swabbed his skin with pungent ether, massaged it with astringent conducting jellies, strapped ...

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