The Stars, Like Dust

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The first book in the Galactic Empire series, the spectacular precursor to the classic Foundation series, by one of history’s most influential writers of science fiction, Isaac Asimov

His name was Biron Farrill and he was a student at the University of Earth. A native of one of the helpless Nebular Kingdoms, he saw his home world conquered and controlled by the planet Tyrann—a ruthless, barbaric Empire that was building a dynasty of cruelty and domination among the stars.

Farrill’s own father had been executed for trying to resist the Tyrann dictatorship and now someone was trying to kill Biron. But why?

His only hope for survival lay in fleeing Earth and joining the rebellion that was rumored to be forming somewhere in the Kingdoms. But once he cast his lot with the freedom fighters, he would find himself guarding against treachery on every side and facing the most difficult choice of all: to betray either the woman he loved or the revolution that was the last hope for the future.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Stars, Like Dust

1. THE BEDROOM MURMURED

The bedroom murmured to itself gently. It was almost below the limits of hearing—an irregular little sound, yet quite unmistakable, and quite deadly.

But it wasn’t that which awakened Biron Farrill and dragged him out of a heavy, unrefreshing slumber. He turned his head restlessly from side to side in a futile struggle against the periodic burr-r-r on the end table.

He put out a clumsy hand without opening his eyes and closed contact.

“Hello,” he mumbled.

Sound tumbled instantly out of the receiver. It was harsh and loud, but Biron lacked the ambition to reduce the volume.

It said, “May I speak to Biron Farrill?”

Biron said, fuzzily, “Speaking. What d’you want?”

“May I speak to Biron Farrill?” The voice was urgent.

Biron’s eyes opened on the thick darkness. He became conscious of the dry unpleasantness of his tongue and the faint odor that remained in the room.

He said, “Speaking. Who is this?”

It went on, disregarding him, gathering tension, a loud voice in the night. “Is anyone there? I would like to speak to Biron Farrill.”

Biron raised himself on one elbow and stared at the place where the visiphone sat. He jabbed at the vision control and the small screen was alive with light.

“Here I am,” he said. He recognized the smooth, slightly asymmetric features of Sander Jonti. “Call me in the morning, Jonti.”

He started to turn the instrument off once more, when Jonti said, “Hello, Hello. Is anyone there? Is this University Hall, Room 526? Hello.”

Biron was suddenly aware that the tiny pilot light which would have indicated a live sending circuit was not on. He swore under his breath and pushed the switch. It stayed off. Then Jonti gave up, and the screen went blank, and was merely a small square of featureless light.

Biron turned it off. He hunched his shoulder and tried to burrow into the pillow again. He was annoyed. In the first place, no one had the right to yell at him in the middle of the night. He looked quickly at the gently luminous figures just over the headboard. Three-fifteen. House lights wouldn’t go on for nearly four hours.

Besides, he didn’t like having to wake to the complete darkness of his room. Four years’ custom had not hardened him to the Earthman’s habit of building structures of reinforced concrete, squat, thick, and windowless. It was a thousand-year-old tradition dating from the days when the primitive nuclear bomb had not yet been countered by the force-field defense.

But that was past. Nuclear warfare had done its worst to Earth. Most of it was hopelessly radioactive and useless. There was nothing left to lose, and yet architecture mirrored the old fears, so that when Biron woke, it was to pure darkness.

Biron rose on his elbow again. That was strange. He waited. It wasn’t the fatal murmur of the bedroom he had become aware of. It was something perhaps even less noticeable and certainly infinitely less deadly.

He missed the gentle movement of air that one took so for granted, that trace of continuous renewal. He tried to swallow easily and failed. The atmosphere seemed to become oppressive even as he realized the situation. The ventilating system had stopped working, and now he really had a grievance. He couldn’t even use the visiphone to report the matter.

He tried again, to make sure. The milky square of light sprang out and threw a faint, pearly luster on the bed. It was receiving, but it wouldn’t send. Well, it didn’t matter. Nothing would be done about it before day, anyway.

He yawned and groped for his slippers, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his palms. No ventilation, eh? That would account for the queer smell. He frowned and sniffed sharply two or three times. No use. It was familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

He made his way to the bathroom, and reached automatically for the light switch, although he didn’t really need it to draw himself a glass of water. It closed, but uselessly. He tried it several times, peevishly. Wasn’t anything working? He shrugged, drank in the dark, and felt better. He yawned again on his way back to the bedroom where he tried the main switch. All the lights were out.

Biron sat on the bed, placed his large hands on his hard-muscled thighs and considered. Ordinarily, a thing like this would call for a terrific discussion with the service staff. No one expected hotel service in a college dormitory, but, by Space, there were certain minimum standards of efficiency one could demand. Not that it was of vital importance just now. Graduation was coming and he was through. In three days he’d be saying a last good-by to the room and to the University of Earth; to Earth itself, for that matter.

Still, he might report it anyway, without particular comment. He could go out and use the hall phone. They might bring in a self-powered light or even rig up a fan so he could sleep without psychosomatic choking sensations. If not, to Space with them! Two more nights.

In the light of the useless visiphone, he located a pair of shorts. Over them he slipped a one-piece jumper, and decided that that would be enough for the purpose. He retained his slippers. There was no danger of waking anybody even if he clumped down the corridors in spiked shoes, considering the thick, nearly soundproof partitions of this concrete pile, but he saw no point in changing.

He strode toward the door and pulled at the lever. It descended smoothly and he heard the click that meant the door release had been activated. Except that it wasn’t. And although his biceps tightened into lumps, nothing was accomplished.

He stepped away. This was ridiculous. Had there been a general power failure? There couldn’t have been. The clock was going. The visiphone was still receiving properly.

Wait! It could have been the boys, bless their erratic souls. It was done sometimes. Infantile, of course, but he’d taken part in these foolish practical jokes himself. It wouldn’t have been difficult, for instance, for one of his buddies to sneak in during the day and arrange matters. But, no, the ventilation and lights were working when he had gone to sleep.

Very well, then, during the night. The hall was an old, outmoded structure. It wouldn’t have taken an engineering genius to hocus the lighting and ventilation circuits. Or to jam the door, either. And now they would wait for morning and see what would happen when good old Biron found he couldn’t get out. They would probably let him out toward noon and laugh very hard.

“Ha, ha,” said Biron grimly, under his breath. All right, if that’s the way it was. But he would have to do something about it; turn the tables some way.

He turned away and his toe kicked something which skidded metallically across the floor. He could barely make out its shadow moving through the dim visiphone light. He reached under the bed, patting the floor in a wide arc. He brought it out and held it close to the light. (They weren’t so smart. They should have put the visiphone entirely out of commission, instead of just yanking out the sending circuit.)

He found himself holding a small cylinder with a little hole in the blister on top. He put it close to his nose and sniffed at it. That explained the smell in the room, anyway. It was Hypnite. Of course, the boys would have had to use it to keep him from waking up while they were busy with the circuits.

Biron could reconstruct the proceedings step by step now. The door was jimmied open, a simple thing to do, and the only dangerous part, since he might have wakened then. The door might have been prepared during the day, for that matter, so that it would seem to close and not actually do so. He hadn’t tested it. Anyway, once open, a can of Hypnite would be put just inside and the door would be closed again. The anesthetic would leak out slowly, building up to the one in ten thousand concentration necessary to put him definitely under. Then they could enter—masked, of course. Space! A wet handkerchief would keep out the Hypnite for fifteen minutes and that would be all the time needed.

It explained the ventilation system situation. That had to be eliminated to keep the Hypnite from dispersing too quickly. That would have gone first, in fact. The visiphone elimination kept him from getting help; the door jamming kept him from getting out; and the absence of lights induced panic. Nice kids!

Biron snorted. It was socially impossible to be thin-skinned about this. A joke was a joke and all that. Right now, he would have liked to break the door down and have done with it. The well-trained muscles of his torso tensed at the thought, but it would be useless. The door had been built with nuclear blasts in mind. Damn that tradition!

But there had to be some way out. He couldn’t let them get away with it. First, he would need a light, a real one, not the immovable and unsatisfactory glow of the visiphone. That was no problem. He had a self-powered flashlight in the clothes closet.

For a moment, as he fingered the closet-door controls, he wondered if they had jammed that too. But it moved open naturally, and slid smoothly into its wall socket. Biron nodded to himself. It made sense. There was no reason, particularly, to jam the closet, and they didn’t have too much time, anyway.

And then, with the flashlight in his hand, as he was turning away, the entire structure of his theory collapsed in a horrible instant.

- About the author -

Isaac Asimov began his Foundation series at the age of twenty-one, not realizing that it would one day be considered a cornerstone of science fiction. During his legendary career, Asimov penned more than 470 books on subjects ranging from science to Shakespeare to history, though he was most loved for his award-winning science-fiction sagas, which include the Robot, Galactic Empire, and Foundation series. Named a Grand Master of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction Writers of America, Asimov entertained and educated readers of all ages for close to five decades. He died in 1992.

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The Stars, Like Dust

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The Stars, Like Dust

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