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Master storyteller Fred Saberhagen continues his Berserker series, detailing humanity's war with the dreaded Juggernaut-like machines programmed to destroy all life in the galaxy.
In the Twin World planets, Prairie and Timber, Plenipotentiary Gregor is determined to serve his government. Even if it means executing innocent Huvean hostages, invaders from another planet. And even though Gregor's granddaughter, Luon, is in love with Reggie, a Huvean.
But now the Berserkers are threatening the Twin Worlds, crashing a scoutship, capturing the planets' president, and reprogramming his brain to suit their violent agenda. And only the Huveans, in a desperate reprieve, can save the Twin Worlds' populace from annihilation.
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In addition to the popular Dracula Series, Fred Saberhagen is the author of the popular Berserker (tm) Series and the bestselling Lost Swords and Book of Lost Swords. Fred Saberhagen lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The noise came snarling out of the distance, through the air and open windows, penetrating bedrock and reaching up into the foundations of Timber's capital city. It invaded the graceful building called the Citadel in the form of an ominous, droning bass note, blended with a grim vibration of even lower frequency. The latter component of the sound seemed, to Plenipotentiary Gregor, to be resonating somehow in his own aging bones. Gregor, thought the projectors being tested, the planet-guarding weapons that could incinerate a spaceborne battleship at a range of thousands of kilometers, must be at least five kilometers from where he stood. The bulk of their output would of course be pouring up and out into space, but still enough energy was being wasted around the edges to shake a faint fall of dust out of the Citadel's fanciful grillwork, so delicately carved, in a time of peace, from ancient stone.
* * *
It was an ugly racket, but nothing compared to the war that it foreshadowed. A Huvean fleet might appear at any hour in Timber's lovely skies, ready to blast its cities and kill its people. After a peaceful interregnum that had lasted for standard centuries, two societies of Earth-descended humans might be in all-out, murderous conflict with each other.
Cheerful sunlight came streaming through tall windows into the high room on the Citadel's third floor, where Plenipotentiary Gregor had arrived. The panes of tinted glass had been turned wide open, probably by one of the attendant robots he had noticed on his way in, to a warm sky of early autumn. The flooding light awakened subtle shades of color in panels of century-old wood. Even the grillwork doors of the elevator were solid matter instead of forcefields, carved from strengthened stone. They opened to let Gregor's tall, spare figure, a trifle stooped with age, step out of the little cage, followed closely by his single escort, a trim young military man, sidearmed and neatly uniformed.
It jarred Gregor to think that this lovely, delicate complex of buildings was being put to use as a prison. Worse, it might soon become a place of execution. The name, Citadel, suggested a fortress, but with all its grace and beauty the building seemed wildly inappropriate as a place for fighting or even planning war. When it had been built, a hundred of this planet's Earthlike years ago, no one here on Timber could have been seriously expecting armed conflict on a massive scale. Certainly no one in any of the hundred solar systems colonized by Earth-descended humans had anticipated that such a catastrophe might lie less than a human lifetime in the future.
Gregor was clean-shaven in tune with current fashion. Gray hair, almost a requirement for one in his profession of diplomacy, fell in natural curls on both sides of a stern face displaying a mix of ancient racial traits. All in all, he showed more of his age and cared less about it than did most men past the century mark. Because of the solemnity of today's meeting, and the seriousness of the job he had to undertake immediately afterward, he had chosen to wear formal diplomatic dress: loose, dark robes over an upper body garment with tight sleeves. His feet were shod, somewhat incongruously, in gray, lightweight spacefarer's boots--if all went smoothly here, he would be on his way, within the hour, to an interstellar peace conference some light-years away.
The long, high-ceilinged room that stretched out before him and his escort was empty of other people at the moment. Sunlight fell on graceful and impressive furniture, mostly of blond wood, and on the fair face of a late model anthropomorphic robot, standing beside a sideboard of rosewood and cherry. The sun tinted the delicate features of the machine's molded face, emphasizing an angelic, sexless beauty, and the light breeze from the open windows stirred fair artificial hair.
Simply but elegantly attired in plain, tight fitting male servant's garb, the machine stood gazing seemingly at nothing, awaiting orders. Anyone watching it from the distance of the elevator, on the far side of the big room, might easily have been fooled into thinking it alive.
In fact Gregor was deceived, but only for a second. The robot was too beautiful and too motionless to be human. Besides, it would be practically unthinkable that a live servant, a status symbol very much prized in certain quarters, would have been simply posted here, doing nothing in this otherwise unoccupied room.
As soon as the robot's senses registered that it had come under steady human scrutiny, it turned its whole body to face him, imbuing the brief movement with a grace that seemed partly that of a dancer, partly of a soldier in ceremonial formation. Then it spoke to Gregor in a pleasant voice: "I am Porphyry here. At your service sir."
"Where is the executioner, Porphyry?" It had long been Gregor's opinion that calling a robot by its name tended to sharpen the machine's attention. Tension and irritation--and a certain resentment over having been fooled by it, even for a second--caused him to speak sharply to the machine, whose friendly expression did not change in the least. Whether the human speaking to it might be angry, or why, was of no concern at all to any robot.
In soft mellifluous tones Porphyry told him that it served Huang Gun, who, upon the recent arrival of the Huvean hostages, had been appointed executioner. Huang Gun had sent it to meet Gregor on his arrival and tell him that the executioner would join him in this room shortly. It concluded simply: "I am uncertain of his exact location."
* * *
For a moment Gregor stood regarding the robot in silent contemplation. It struck him as somehow painfully wrong, even worse than using the Citadel for a prison, that this elaborate and beautiful device, as close an imitation of humanity as humanity could build, should have any part in arranging the imprisonment and approaching doom of real human beings--perhaps even carrying out certain preliminary steps in the process of their deaths.
On a sudden impulse he asked it: "Could you kill a human being, Porphyry? If a human authority you trusted assured you that the act would be perfectly legal, and gave you a direct command?"
Good lawyer that he was, Gregor knew what the answer to his question had to be. The expected words came immediately, and--as expected--without the slightest sign of surprise or agitation.
"No sir. Killing a human being would be completely contrary to my basic programming. As you must know." Porphyry's tone remained brisk and cheerful. Some things were unthinkable for robots, but nothing was disturbing.
"That is, if you knew that you were killing. And that the victim was human."
"Yes sir. I assumed that was your meaning."
Gregor's hands rose in a slow, complicated gesture, as if he were trying to grasp an object of uncertain shape. They were large hands, once very strong. Their wrinkled backs showed their age, and on one finger he wore a plain gold ring. Now for the question whose answer he did not know. "But if you could not predict what the result of a certain action would be..."
The robot waited.
Gregor shook his head, muttered something to himself, and started over. "I am talking specifically about the case of the Huvean hostages, who I assume are still being held somewhere in this building."
"Your assumption is correct, plenipotentiary."
"Good. They are imprisoned here in accordance with the terms of an interplanetary treaty between our Twin Worlds government and the Huvean state--that is, the government of another solar system. The treaty is one of the highest forms of law."
"Yes sir. I am aware of the hostages' legal status. Also of the general organization of human governments, and the nature of treaties."
"Excellent. Then the situation will perhaps be as clear to you as--as it can be. One of the articles of this particular treaty says that if our government should decide that the rulers of Huvea have failed to live up to certain of its terms, the ten young hostages are liable to immediate execution."
"I understand, sir."
"Good--now, could you, for example, hand the weapon to the executioner, if he should ask you to do that?"
The answer was as swift as ever. "I would expect to find no difficulty in doing that, Plenipotentiary Gregor."
* * *
Gregor had his mouth open to pursue the subject with another question, when from the corner of his eye he caught sight of a human figure approaching. He had never seen Huang Gun in the flesh, but from countless holostage images he recognized the man entering the large room through a doorway on Gregor's right.
The newly appointed executioner was nearly as tall as Gregor, an ascetic looking, clean-shaven man of indeterminate age; in his official garb of long robes and antique headdress he could easily have been taken for a woman of striking appearance.
Gregor had an odd momentary impression that Huang Gun, on entering the room, bowed very slightly to the robot, as he might have done on encountering a respected human of near equal rank. Surely the figure that had introduced itself was only a robot--? Gregor stared hard at Porphyry again--yes, there could be no doubt.
Evidently the robot was aware of the fact that the two high officials had never met face to face, for it urbanely performed the introduction, using formal and economical hand gestures, phrasing everything neatly, showing a nice awareness of the two humans' respective ranks.
Huang Gun's voice, like his appearance, might almost have been that of a cultured woman. His tone was cool, reserved. "We are honored by your presence here, Plenipotentiary. You have perhaps been conferring with the president?"
"The honor is mine, executioner--no, unhappily I have not been able to schedule an appointment with Mr. Belgola. I was about to ask you the same question, whether you had spoken to him recently."
Huang Gun slightly shook his head. "Not since yesterday, sir, and then only briefly."
While the men were speaking the machine had moved again, gracefully in its finely balanced but not-quite-hum...
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Book Description Tor Science Fiction, 2005. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0765345439
Book Description Tor Science Fiction, 2004. Mass Market Paperback. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0765345439