This etext was produced from Analog Science Fact & Fiction July and August 1963. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
THE ETHICAL ENGINEER
That mores is strictly a matter of local custom cannot be denied. But that ethics is pure opinion also...? Maybe there are times for murder, and theft and slavery....
BY HARRY HARRISON
Illustrated by John Schoenherr
All nature is but art, unknown to thee; All chance, direction which thou canst not see; All discord, harmony not understood; All partial evil, universal good: And, spite of pride, in erring reasons spite, One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
Alexander Pope Essay on Man
* * * * *
Jason dinAlt looked unhappily at the two stretchers as they were carried by. "Are they at it again?" he asked.
Brucco nodded, the scowl permanently ingrained now on his hawklike face. "We have only one thing to be thankful for. That is—so far at least—they haven't used any weapons on each other."
Jason looked down unbelievingly at the shredded clothing, crushed flesh and broken bones. "The absence of weapons doesn't appear to make much difference when two Pyrrans start fighting. It seems impossible that this damage could be administered bare-handed."
"Well it was. Even you should know that much about Pyrrus by now. We take our fighting very seriously. But they never think how much more work it makes for me. Now I have to patch these two idiots up and try to find room for them in the ward." He stalked away, irritated and annoyed as always. Jason usually laughed at the doctor's irascible state, but not today.
Today, and for some days past, he had found himself living with a persistent feeling of irritation, that had arrived at the same time as his discovery that it is far easier to fight a war than to administer a peace. The battle at the perimeter still continued, since the massed malevolence of the Pyrran life forms were not going to call a truce simply because the two warring groups of humans had done so. There was battle on the perimeter and a continual feeling of unrest inside the city. So far there had been very little traffic between the city Pyrrans and those living outside the walls, and what contact there had been usually led to the kind of violence he had just witnessed. The only minor note of hope in this concert of discord was the fact that no one had died—as yet—in any of these fearsome hand-to-hand conflicts. In spite of the apparent deadliness of the encounters all of the Pyrrans seemed to understand that, despite past hatreds, they were all really on the same side. A distant rumble from the clouded sky broke through his thoughts.
"There is a ship on the radar," Meta said, coming out of the ground-control office and squinting up at the overcast. "I wonder if it is that ecology expedition that Brucco arranged—or the cargo ship from Ondion?"
"We'll find out in a few minutes," Jason said, happy to forget his troubles for the moment in frank admiration, since just looking at Meta was enough to put a golden edge on this gloom-filled day. Standing there, head back searching the sky, she managed to be beautiful even in the formless Pyrran coverall. Jason put his arms around her waist and exacted a great deal of pleasure from kissing the golden length of her up-stretched throat.
"Oh, Jason ... not now," she said in exasperation. Pyrran minds, by necessity, run along one track at a time, and at the present moment she was thinking about the descending spaceship. With a quick motion, scarcely aware of her action, she pulled his hands from her and pushed him away, an easy enough thing for a Pyrran girl to do. But in doing so she half fractured one of his wrists, numbed the other, and knocked Jason to the ground.
"Darling ... I'm sorry," she gasped, suddenly realizing what she had done, bending quickly to help him up.
"Get away, you lady weight-lifter," he growled, pushing aside the proffered hand and struggling to his feet. "When are you going to realize that I'm only human, not made of chrome steel bars like the rest of your people...." He stifled the rest of his words in disgust, at himself, his temper, this deadly planet and the cantankerousness of its citizens that was scratching away at his nerves. He turned and stamped away, angry at himself for taking out his vile mood on Meta, but still too annoyed to make peace.
Meta watched him leave, trying to say something that would end this foolish quarrel, but unable to. The largest blank in the Pyrran personality was an almost complete lack of knowledge of human nature, and her struggle to fill in the gaps—gaps she was only just beginning to realize existed—was a difficult one. The stronger emotions of hate and fear were no strangers to her; but for the first time she was discovering how difficult and complex was this unusual feeling of love. She let Jason go because she was incapable of any other action. Of course she could stop him by force, but if she had learned anything in the past few weeks, it was the discovery that this was one area where he was very sensitive. There was no doubt that she was far stronger than he—physically—and he did not like to be reminded about it. She went back into the ground-control room, almost eager to deal with the impersonal faces of the dials and scopes, material and unchanging entities that posed no conflicting problems.
* * * * *
Jason stood at the edge of the field and watched the ship come in for a landing, his anger forgotten temporarily in the presence of this break in routine. Perhaps this was the shipful of scientific eggheads that Brucco was expecting; he hoped so. It would be a pleasant treat to have a conversation with someone about a topic more universal than the bore dimensions of guns. With practiced eye he watched the landing which was a little sloppy, either a new pilot or an old one who didn't care much. It was a small ship so not many people would be aboard. Then the spacer turned for a moment, in a landing correction, and he had a quick glimpse of a serial number and tantalizingly familiar insignia on its stern—where had he seen that before?
The ship touched down and the flaring rockets died. There was only the click of cooling metal from the ship: no one emerged, nor did any of the Pyrrans seem interested enough in the newcomer to approach it. That must mean that no one had any business with it, and, of course, no curiosity either, for this along with imagination was in very short supply on the war-torn planet. Since no one else was making any moves, Jason went forward to investigate for himself.
A stingwing that had escaped the perimeter guards dived towards him and he blasted it automatically with his gun. The corpse thudded to the ground and the soil churned around it as the insectile scavengers fought for the flesh; only bare bones remained by the time he had taken two paces.
A muffled whine of motors told him that the lower hatch was opening, and Jason watched as a hairline crack appeared in the thick metal, then widened as the heavy door ground outwards. Through the opening he had a glimpse of a figure muffled in a heavy-duty spacesuit. That must be Meta's work, she would have contacted the ship by radio while it was on its way down and explained the standing orders that no off-worlders were to be allowed out of their ships unless wearing the heaviest armor. Since the armed truce between the human inhabitants there had been a lessening of the relentless warfare the Pyrran life forms waged against the city, but only to a slight degree. Deadly beasts still abounded, and the air was thick with toxic diseases. A stranger, unprotected, would be ill in five minutes, dead within ten—or much sooner if a horndevil or other beast got to him in the interval.
Jason felt a justified pride that he could walk this planet under his own power. The natives, adapted to the deadliness and heavy gravity since birth, were still his superiors, but he was the only off-worlder who could stand the dangers of Pyrrus. His gun whined out of his power holster into his waiting hand as he searched for some target to use his talents on. An armored piece of nastiness, with a lot of legs, was crawling into hiding under a rock and he blasted it neatly with a single shot. The gun snapped back into the holster and he turned to the open door of the spacer, his morale greatly improved.
* * * * *
"Welcome to Pyrrus," he told the ungainly figure that clumped out of the ship. There was a hefty maser-projector clutched in the armored gloves and whoever was inside the suit, the face was invisible behind the thick and tinted faceplate, seemed exceedingly nervous, turning to look in all directions.
"Don't worry," Jason said, fighting to keep a tone of smug satisfaction out of his voice, "I'll take care of things for you. I don't know what kind of horror stories you may have heard about Pyrrus—but they're all true. That's a nice looking heat ray you have there, but I doubt if you could move fast enough to use it."
The figure lowered the gun and fumbled for a switch on the front of the space armor, it clicked and a speaker diaphragm rustled.
"I'm looking for a man called Jason dinAlt. Can you tell me if he is on this planet or if he has left?"
It was impossible to tell the speaker's tone from the rasping diaphragm, and no face was visible that might betray an emotion. This was the moment when Jason should have shown caution, and have remembered that there were thousands of policemen scattered across the galaxy who would heartily enjoy putting him under arrest. Yet he couldn't imagine any of them going to the trouble of following him here. And certainly there could be very little danger from a spacesuited man with a rifle, not to the man who had learned to take Pyrrus on its own terms, and live.
"I'm Jason dinAlt," he said. "What do you want me for?"
"I've come a long way to find you," the speaker rasped. "Now"—the gloved hand pointed—"what is THAT?"
Jason's reactions were instantaneous, conditioned to move without thought. He wheeled, crouched, the gun in his hand and finger quivering lightly on the trigger, pointed in the indicated direction. There was nothing unusual to be seen, just an empty field and the control building at the edge.
"Whatever are you talking about ..." Jason asked, then stopped as it became very obvious what the stranger had been talking about. The large, flanged mouth of the maser-projector ground into the small of his back. His own gun snapped halfway out of its holster, buzzed briefly, then slipped back as he realized his position.
"That's much better," the stranger said. "If you attempt to move, turn, lower your gun hand or do anything I don't like I'll pull this trigger and...."
"I know," Jason sighed, careful to stand with every muscle frozen. "You will pull the trigger and burn a nice round hole through my backbone and intestines. But I would just like to know why? Who is it that is so interested in my worthless old carcass that they were willing to pay interstellar freight charges to send you and that oversize toaster all the way here in order to threaten it?"
Jason was only talking to kill time, since he knew this situation would not stay static for long, not on Pyrrus. He was completely right because before he had finished the ground-control door burst open and Meta ran out, circling to the left. At the same moment Kerk appeared from behind the building, his Pyrran reflexes absorbing the situation in an instant and with no perceptible delay he ran in the opposite direction. Both Pyrrans had their guns ready and closed in with the merciless precision of trained predators.
"Tell them to stop," the suit speaker grated at Jason. "I'll shoot you if they try anything."
"Hold it!" Jason shouted, and the running Pyrrans stopped instantly. "Don't come any closer and whatever you do don't shoot." He half-turned his head and spoke in a quieter voice to the suited figure behind him. "Now you see where you stand. Lower the gun and get back into your ship, I guarantee you'll stay alive if you do that at once."
"Don't try and buff me, dinAlt," the maser barrel pushed harder against his back. "You are my prisoner and your friends can't save you. Start walking backwards now—I'll stay right behind you."
"Look," Jason said calmly, not permitting himself to get angry. "Those are Pyrrans out there. Either of them could kill you so quickly that you couldn't possibly have time to pull that trigger. I'm saving your life—though I don't know why I'm bothering—so be a good boy and get back into your ship and go home and we'll give you a T for trying."
"Could I have him, please Kerk?" Meta called out, the deadly assumption of her remark punctuating Jason's logic. "After all, Jason means more to me than you. Shall I kill him yet, Jason?"
"Just shoot his gun hand off, Meta," Kerk told her, in the same emotionless tone. "I want to know who this is, why he came here, before he dies."
"Get back into your ship, you fool," Jason hissed. "You've got only seconds to live."
"Start walking backwards," his captor said. "You are under arrest. I'll count to three, then shoot. One ... two...."
Jason shuffled a cautious step to the rear and the Pyrran guns snapped up at the same instant, extended at arm's length. Jason was so close to the man in the spacesuit that the guns could have been pointed at him, the eyes sighting carefully over the dark muzzles.
"Don't shoot!" Jason shouted to his friends.
"Don't worry," Kerk called back. "We won't hit you."
"I know that—it's this idiot here that I'm worrying about. You just can't shoot him for trying to do his job. In fact I'm surprised to find out that there is one honest cop left on any of the places I've been."
"Don't talk so crazy," Meta said with maddening sweetness. "We'll kill him, Jason. We'll take care of you."
Anger hit him. "You will NOT take care of me because I can take care of myself. Either of you kill him and so help me I'll kill you." Jason shuffled backwards faster now until his legs hit the lower edge of the hatch. He clambered into it and burst out laughing at the dumfounded expressions of his friends' faces. The laugh died as something pricked the back of his neck. The pressure of the gun was gone and he swung around, surprised to see the floor rushing up towards him, but before it struck him blackness descended.
Consciousness returned, accompanied by a thudding headache that made Jason wince when he moved, and when he opened his eyes the pain of the light made him screw them shut again. Whatever the drug was that had knocked him out, it was fast working, and seemed to be oxidized just as quickly. The headache faded away to a dull throb and he could open his eyes without feeling that needles were being driven into them. He was seated in a standard spacechair that had been equipped with wrist and ankle locks, now well secured. A man sat in the chair next to him, intent on the spaceship's controls; the ship was in flight and well into space. The stranger was working the computer, cutting a tape to control their flight in jump-space.
Jason took the opportunity to study the man. He seemed to be a little old for a policeman, though on second thought it was really hard to tell his age. His hair was gray and cropped as short as a skull cap, but the wrinkles on his leathery skin seemed to have been caused more by exposure than advanced years. Tall and firmly erect, he appeared underweight at first glance, until Jason realized this effect was caused by the total absence of any excess flesh. It was as though he had been cooked by the sun and leeched by the rain until only bone, tendon and muscle were left. When he turned his head the muscles stood out like cables under the skin of his neck and his hands at the controls were the browned talons of some bird. A hard finger pressed the switch that actuated the jump control, and he turned away from the board to face Jason.
"I see you are awake. It was a mild drug. I did not enjoy using it, but it was the safest way."
When he talked his jaw opened and shut with the seriousness of a bank vault. The deep-set and cold blue eyes stared fixedly from under dark brows. Jason stared back just as steadily and chuckled.
"I suppose you didn't enjoy using the maser-projector either, nor threatening to cook holes in me. For a cop you seem to be very tender hearted."
"I did it only to save your friends. I did not want them to get hurt."
"Get hurt!" Jason roared with laughter. "Space-cop, don't you have any idea what Pyrrans are like, or what kind of a setup you were walking into? Don't you realize that I saved your life—though I really don't know why. Call me a natural humanitarian. You may have a swollen head and a ready trigger-finger, but you were so far out of your class that you just weren't in the race. They could have blasted you into pieces, then shot the pieces into smaller pieces, while you were still thinking about pulling the trigger. You should just thank me for being your savior."
"So you are a liar as well as a thief," Jason's captor answered with no change of expression. "You attempt to play on my sympathies to gain your freedom. Why should I believe this story? I came to arrest you, threatening to kill you if you didn't submit, and your friends were there ready to defend you. Why should you attempt to save my life? It does not make sense." He turned back to the controls to make an adjustment.
It didn't make sense, Jason agreed completely. Why had he saved this oaf who meant nothing to him? It was not an easy question to answer, though it had seemed so right at the time. If only Meta hadn't said that they would take care of him; he knew they could and was tired of it. He could take care of himself: he felt the anger rising again at the remembered words. Was that the only reason he had let this cop capture him? To show the Pyrrans that he was able to control his own destiny? Was the human ego such a pitiable thing that it had to keep reassuring itself of its own independence or lie down on its back and curl up its toes?
Apparently it was. At least his was. The years had taught him a certain insight into his own personality and he realized that his greedy little subconscious had collected all the cues and signals from the encounter at the spaceport and goaded him into a line of action that looked uncomfortably like suicide. The arrival of the stranger, the threat to himself, the automatic assumption by the Pyrrans that they would take care of him. Apparently his ego and his subconscious felt that he had been taken care of too long. They had managed to get him into this spot from which he could only be extricated by his own talents, far away from Pyrrus and the pressures that had been weighing on him so long.
He took a deep breath and smiled. It wasn't such a bad idea after all. Stupid in retrospect, but the stupidity could hopefully be kept in the past. Now he had to prove that there was something other than a death wish in his subconscious flight from Pyrrus, and he must find a way to reverse positions with this cop, whoever he was. Which meant that he had to find out a little more about the man before making any plans.
* * * * *
"I'm afraid you have the advantage of me, officer. How about telling me who you are and showing me a warrant or something under which you are performing this deed of interstellar justice."
"I am Mikah Samon. I am returning you to Cassylia for trial and sentencing."
"Ah, yes," Jason sighed. "I'm not surprised to hear that they are still interested in finding me. But I should warn you that there is very little remaining of the three-billion, seventeen-million credits that I won from your casino."
"Cassylia doesn't want the money back," Mikah said as he locked the controls and swung about in his chair. "They don't want you back either. You are their planetary hero now. When you escaped with your ill-gotten gains they realized that they would never see the money again. So they put their propaganda mills to work and you are now known throughout all the adjoining star systems as 'Jason 3-Billion', the living proof of the honesty of their dishonest games, and a lure for all the weak in spirit. You tempt them into gambling for money instead of working honestly for it."
"Pardon me for being thick today," Jason said, shaking his head rapidly to loosen up the stuck synapses. "I'm having a little difficulty in following you. What kind of a policeman are you to arrest me for trial after the charges have been dropped?"
"I'm not a policeman," Mikah said sternly, his long fingers woven tightly together before him, his eyes wide and penetrating. "I'm a believer in Truth—nothing more. The corrupt politicians who control Cassylia have placed you on a pedestal of honor. Honoring you, another—and if possible—a more corrupt man, and behind your image they have waxed fat. But I am going to use the Truth to destroy that image, and when I destroy the image I shall destroy the evil that produced it."
"That's a tall order for one man," Jason said calmly—much calmer than he really felt. "Do you have a cigarette?"
"There is, of course, no tobacco or spirits on this ship. And I am more than one man. I have followers. The Truth Party is already a power to be reckoned with. We have spent much time and energy in tracking you down, but it was worth it. We have followed your dishonest trail into the past, to Mahaut's Planet, to the Nebula Casino on Galipto, through a series of sordid crimes that turns an honest man's stomach. We have warrants for your arrest from each of these places, in some cases even the results of trials and your death sentence."
"I suppose it doesn't bother your sense of legality that those trials were all held in my absence," Jason asked. "Or that I have only fleeced casinos and gamblers—who make their living by fleecing suckers?"
Mikah Samon wiped away this consideration with a wave of his hand. "You have been proven guilty of a number of crimes. No amount of wriggling on the hook can change that. You should be thankful that your revolting record will have a good use in the end. It will be the lever with which we shall topple the grafting government of Cassylia."
"I'm beginning to be sorry that I stopped Kerk and Meta from shooting you," Jason said, shaking his head in wonder. "I have a very strong suspicion that you are going to cause yourself—and a lot of other people—a good deal of trouble before this thing is over. Look at me for instance—" he rattled his wrists in their restraining bands. The servo motors whined a bit as the detector unit came to life and tightened the grasp of the cuffs, limiting his movement. "A little while ago I was enjoying my health and freedom and I threw it all away on the impulse to save your life. I'm going to have to learn to fight those impulses."
"If that is supposed to be a plea for mercy, it is sickening," Mikah said. "I have never taken favors nor do I owe anything to men of your type. Nor will I ever."
"Ever like never is a long time," Jason said very quietly. "I wish I had your serenity of mind about the sure order of things."
"Your remark shows that there might be hope for you yet. You might be able to recognise the Truth before you die. I will help you, talk to you and explain."
"Better the execution," Jason choked.
"Are you going to feed me by hand—or unlock my wrists while I eat?" Jason asked. Mikah stood over him with the tray, undecided. Jason gave a light verbal prod, very gently, because whatever else he was, Mikah was not stupid. "I would prefer you to feed me of course, you'd make an excellent body servant."
"You are capable of eating by yourself," Mikah responded instantly, sliding the tray into the slots of Jason's chair. "But you will have to do it with only one hand. If you were freed you would only cause trouble." He touched the control on the back of the chair and the right wrist lock snapped open. Jason stretched his cramped fingers and picked up the fork.
While he ate Jason's eyes were busy. Not obviously, since a gambler's attention is never obvious, but many things can be seen if you keep your eyes open and your attention apparently elsewhere. A sudden glimpse of someone's cards, the slight change of expression that reveals a player's strength. Item by item his seemingly random gaze touched the items in the cabin: control console, screens, computer, chart screen, jump control chart case, bookshelf. Everything was observed, remembered and considered. Some combination of them would fit into the plan.
So far all he had was the beginning and the end of an idea. Beginning: He was a prisoner in this ship, on his way back to Cassylia. End: He was not going to remain a prisoner—nor return to Cassylia. Now all that was missing was the vital middle. It looked impossible at the moment, but Jason never considered that it couldn't be done. He operated on the principle that you made your own luck. You kept your eyes open as things evolved and at the right moment you acted. If you acted fast enough, that was good luck. If you worried over the possibilities until the moment had passed, that was bad luck.
He pushed the empty plate away and stirred sugar into his cup. Mikah had eaten sparingly and was now starting on his second cup of tea. His eyes were fixed, unfocused in thought as he drank. He started slightly when Jason called to him.
"Since you don't stock cigarettes on this ship—how about letting me smoke my own? You'll have to dig them out for me since I can't reach the pocket while I'm chained to this chair."
"I cannot help you," Mikah said, unmoving. "Tobacco is an irritant, a drug and a carcinogen. If I gave you a cigarette, I would be giving you cancer."
"Don't be a hypocrite!" Jason snapped, inwardly pleased at the rewarding flush in the other's neck. "They've taken the cancer-producing agents out of tobacco for centuries now. And even if they hadn't—how does that affect this situation. You're taking me to Cassylia to certain death. So why should you concern yourself with the state of my lungs in the future?"
"I hadn't considered it that way. It is just that there are certain rules of life...."
"Are there?" Jason broke in, keeping the initiative and the advantage. "Not as many as you like to think. And you people who are always dreaming up the rules never carry your thinking far enough. You are against drugs. Which drugs? What about the tannic acid in that tea you're drinking? Or the caffeine in it? It's loaded with caffeine—a drug that is both a strong stimulant and a diuretic. That's why you won't find tea in spacesuit canteens. That's a case of a drug forbidden for a good reason. Can you justify your cigarette ban the same way?"
Mikah started to talk, then thought for a moment. "Perhaps you are right. I'm tired, and it is not important." He warily took the cigarette case from Jason's pocket and dropped it onto the tray. Jason didn't attempt to interfere. Mikah poured himself a third cup of tea with a slightly apologetic air.
"You must excuse me, Jason, for attempting to make you conform to my own standards. When you are in pursuit of the big Truths, you sometimes let the little Truths slip. I'm not intolerant, but I do tend to expect everyone else to live up to certain criteria I have set for myself. Humility is something we should never forget and I thank you for reminding me of it. The search for Truth is hard."
"There is no Truth," Jason told him, the anger and insult gone now from his voice since he wanted to keep his captor involved in the conversation. Involved enough to forget about the free wrist for a while. He raised the cup to his lips and let the tea touch his lips without drinking any. The half-full cup supplied an unconsidered reason for his free hand.
"No Truth?" Mikah weighed the thought. "You can't possibly mean that. The galaxy is filled with Truth, it's the touchstone of Life itself. It's the thing that separates Mankind from the animals."
"There is no Truth, no Life, no Mankind. At least not the way you spell them—with capital letters. They don't exist."
Mikah's taut skin contracted into a furrow of concentration. "You'll have to explain yourself," he said. "You're not being clear."
"I'm afraid it's you who aren't being clear. You're making a reality where none exists. Truth—with a small T is a description, a relationship. A way to describe a statement. A semantic tool. But capital T Truth is an imaginary word, a noise with no meaning. It pretends to be a noun but it has no referent. It stands for nothing. It means nothing. When you say 'I believe in Truth' you are really saying 'I believe in nothing'."
"You're wrong, you're wrong," Mikah said, leaning forward, stabbing with his finger. "Truth is a philosophical abstraction, one of the tools that mankind's mind has used to raise it above the beasts—the proof that we are not beasts ourselves, but a higher order of creation. Beasts can be true—but they cannot know Truth. Beasts can see, but they cannot see Beauty."
* * * * *
"Arrgh!" Jason growled. "It's impossible to talk to you, much less enjoy any comprehensible exchange of ideas. We aren't even speaking the same language. Aside from who is right and who is wrong, for the moment, we should go back to basics and at least agree on the meaning of the terms that we are using. To begin with—can you define the difference between ethics and ethos?"
"Of course," Mikah snapped, a glint of pleasure in his eyes at the thought of a good rousing round of hair-splitting. "Ethics is the discipline dealing with what it good or bad, or right or wrong—or with moral duty and obligation. Ethos means the guiding beliefs, standards or ideals that characterize a group or community."
"Very good, I can see that you have been spending the long spaceship-nights with your nose buried in the books. Now make sure the difference between those two terms is very clear, because it is the heart of the little communications problem we have here. Ethos is inextricably linked with a single society and cannot be separated from it, or it loses all meaning. Do you agree?"
"Come, come—you have to agree on the terms of your own definition. The ethos of a group is just a catch-all term for the ways in which the members of a group rub against each other. Right?"
Mikah reluctantly produced a nod of acquiescence.
"Now that we agree about that we can push on one step further. Ethics, again by your definition, must deal with any number of societies or groups. If there are any absolute laws of ethics, they must be so inclusive that they can be applied to any society. A law of ethics must be as universal of application as is the law of gravity."
"I don't follow you...?"
"I didn't think you would when I got to this point. You people who prattle about your Universal Laws never really consider the exact meaning of the term. My knowledge of the history of science is very vague, but I'm willing to bet that the first Law of Gravity ever dreamed up stated that things fell at such and such a speed, and accelerated at such and such a rate. That's not a law, but an observation that isn't even complete until you add 'on this planet.' On a planet with a different mass there will be a different observation. The law of gravity is the formula
mM F = —— d squared
and this can be used to compute the force of gravity between any two bodies anywhere. This is a way of expressing fundamental and unalterable principles that apply in all circumstances. If you are going to have any real ethical laws they will have to have this same universality. They will have to work on Cassylia or Pyrrus, or on any planet or in any society you can find. Which brings us back to you. What you so grandly call—with capital letters and a flourish of trumpets—'Laws of Ethics' aren't laws at all, but are simple little chunks of tribal ethos, aboriginal observations made by a gang of desert sheepherders to keep order in the house—or tent. These rules aren't capable of any universal application, even you must see that. Just think of the different planets that you have been on and the number of weird and wonderful ways people have of reacting to each other—then try and visualize ten rules of conduct that would be applicable in all these societies. An impossible task. Yet I'll bet that you have ten rules you want me to obey, and if one of them is wasted on an injunction against saying prayers to carved idols I can imagine just how universal the other nine are. You aren't being ethical if you try to apply them wherever you go—you're just finding a particularly fancy way to commit suicide!"
"You are being insulting!"
"I hope so. If I can't reach you in any other way, perhaps insult will jar you out of your state of moral smugness. How dare you even consider having me tried for stealing money from the Cassylia casino when all I was doing was conforming to their own code of ethics! They run crooked gambling games, so the law under their local ethos must be that crooked gambling is the norm. So I cheated them, conforming to their norm. If they have also passed a law that says cheating at gambling is illegal, the law is unethical, not the cheating. If you are bringing me back to be tried by that law you are unethical, and I am the helpless victim of an evil man."
"Limb of Satan!" Mikah shouted, leaping to his feet and pacing back and forth before Jason, clasping and unclasping his hands with agitation. "You seek to confuse me with your semantics and so-called ethics that are simply opportunism and greed. There is a Higher Law that cannot be argued—"
"That is an impossible statement—and I can prove it." Jason pointed at the books on the wall. "I can prove it with your own books, some of that light reading on the shelf there. Not the Aquinas—too thick. But the little volume with Lull on the spine. Is that Ramon Lull's 'The Booke of the Ordre of Chyualry'?"
Mikah's eyes widened. "You know the book? You're acquainted with Lull's writing?"
"Of course," Jason said, with an offhandedness he did not feel, since this was the only book in the collection he could remember reading, the odd title had stuck in his head. "Now let me see it and I shall prove to you what I mean." There was no way to tell from the unchanged naturalness of his words that this was the moment he had been working carefully towards. He sipped the tea. None of his tenseness showing.
* * * * *
Mikah Samon got the book and handed it to him.
Jason flipped through the pages while he talked. "Yes ... yes, this is perfect. An almost ideal example of your kind of thinking. Do you like to read Lull?"
"Inspirational!" Mikah answered, his eyes shining. "There is beauty in every line and Truths that we have forgotten in the rush of modern life. A reconciliation and proof of the interrelationship between the Mystical and the Concrete. By manipulation of symbols he explains everything by absolute logic."
"He proves nothing about nothing," Jason said emphatically. "He plays word games. He takes a word, gives it an abstract and unreal value, then proves this value by relating it to other words with the same sort of nebulous antecedents. His facts aren't facts—just meaningless sounds. This is the key point, where your universe and mine differ. You live in this world of meaningless facts that have no existence. My world contains facts that can be weighed, tested, proven related to other facts in a logical manner. My facts are unshakeable and unarguable. They exist."
"Show me one of your unshakeable facts," Mikah said, his voice calmer now than Jason's.
"Over there," Jason said. "The large green book over the console. It contains facts that even you will agree are true—I'll eat every page if you don't. Hand it to me." He sounded angry, making overly bold statements and Mikah fell right into the trap. He handed the volume to Jason, using both hands since it was very thick, metal bound and heavy.
"Now listen closely and try and understand, even if it is difficult for you," Jason said, opening the book. Mikah smiled wryly at this assumption of his ignorance. "This is a stellar ephemeris, just as packed with facts as an egg is with meat. In some ways it is a history of mankind. Now look at the jump screen there on the control console and you will see what I mean. Do you see the horizontal green line? Well, that's our course."
"Since this is my ship and I'm flying it I'm aware of that," Mikah said. "Get on with your proof."
"Bear with me," Jason told him. "I'll try and keep it simple. Now the red dot on the green line is our ship's position. The number above the screen our next navigational point, the spot where a star's gravitational field it strong enough to be detected in jump space. The number is the star's code listing. DB89-046-229. I'll look it up in the book"—he quickly flipped the pages—"and find its listing. No name. A row of code symbols though that tell a lot about it. This little symbol means that there is a planet or planets suitable for man to live on. Doesn't say if any people are there though."
"Where does this all lead to?" Mikah interrupted.
"Patience—you'll see in a moment. Now look, at the screen. The green dot approaching on the course line is the PMP. Point of Maximum Proximity. When the red dot and green dot coincide...."
"Give me that book," Mikah ordered, stepping forward. Aware suddenly that something was wrong. He was just an instant too late.
"Here's your proof," Jason said, and hurled the heavy book through the jump screen into the delicate circuits behind. Before it hit he had thrown the second book. There was a tinkling crash, a flare of light and the crackle of shorted circuits.
The floor gave a tremendous heave as the relays snapped open, dropping the ship through into normal space.
Mikah grunted in pain, clubbed to the floor by the suddenness of the transition. Locked into the chair, Jason fought the heaving of his stomach and the blackness before his eyes. As Mikah dragged himself to his feet, Jason took careful aim and sent the tray and dishes hurtling into the smoking ruin of the jump computer.
"There's your fact," he said in cheerful triumph. "Your incontrovertible, gold-plated, uranium-cored fact.
"We're not going to Cassylia any more!"
"You've killed us both," Mikah said with his face strained and white but his voice under control.
"Not quite," Jason told him cheerily. "But I have killed the jump control so we can't get to another star. However there's nothing wrong with our space drive, so we can make a landing on one of the planets—you saw for yourself that there is at least one suitable for habitation."
"Where I will fix the jump drive and continue the voyage to Cassylia. You will have gained nothing."
"Perhaps," Jason answered in his most noncommittal voice, since he did not have the slightest intention of continuing the trip, no matter what Mikah Samon thought.
His captor had reached the same conclusion. "Put your hand back on the chair arm," he ordered, and locked the cuff into place again. He stumbled as the drive started and the ship changed direction. "What was that?" he asked.
"Emergency control. The ship's computer knows that something drastic is wrong, so it has taken over. You can override it with the manuals, but don't bother yet. The ship can do a better job than either of us with its senses and stored data. It will find the planet we're looking for, plot a course and get us there with the most economy of time and fuel. When we get into the atmosphere you can take over and look for a spot to set down."
"I don't believe a word you say now," Mikah said grimly. "I'm going to take control and get a call out on the emergency band. Someone will hear it." As he started forward the ship lurched again and all the lights went out. In the darkness flames could be seen flickering inside the controls. There was a hiss of foam and they vanished. With a weak flicker the emergency lighting circuit came on.
"Shouldn't have thrown the Ramon Lull book," Jason said. "The ship can't stomach it any more than I could."
"You are irreverent and profane," Mikah said through his clenched teeth, as he went to the controls. "You attempt to kill us both. You have no respect for your own life or mine. You're a man who deserves the worst punishment the law allows."
"I'm a gambler," Jason laughed. "Not at all as bad as you say. I take chances—but I only take them when the odds are right. You were carrying me back to certain death. The worst my wrecking the controls can do is administer the same end. So I took a chance. There is a bigger risk factor for you of course, but I'm afraid I didn't take that into consideration. After all, this entire affair is your idea. You'll just have to take the consequences of your own actions and not scold me for them."
"You're perfectly right," Mikah said quietly. "I should have been more alert. Now will you tell me what to do to save both our lives. None of the controls work."
"None! Did you try the emergency override? The big red switch under the safety housing."
"I did. It is dead, too."
Jason slumped back into the seat. It was a moment before he could speak. "Read one of your books, Mikah," he said at last. "Seek consolation in your philosophy. There's nothing we can do. It's all up to the computer now, and whatever is left of the circuits."
"Can't we help—repair anything?"
"Are you a ship technician? I'm not. We would probably do more harm than good."
* * * * *
It took two ship-days of very erratic flight to reach the planet. A haze of clouds obscured the atmosphere. They approached from the night side and no details were visible. Or lights.
"If there were cities we should see their lights—shouldn't we?" Mikah asked.
"Not necessarily. Could be storms. Could be enclosed cities. Could be only ocean in this hemisphere."
"Or it could be that there are no people down there. Even if the ship should get us down safely—what will it matter? We will be trapped for the rest of our lives on this lost planet at the end of the universe."
"Don't be so cheerful," Jason interrupted. "How about taking off these cuffs while we go down. It will probably be a rough landing and I'd like to have some kind of a chance."
Mikah frowned at him. "Will you give me your word of honor that you won't try to escape during the landing?"
"No. And if I gave it—would you believe it? If you let me go, you take your chances. Let neither of us think it will be any different."
"I have my duty to do," Mikah said. Jason remained locked in the chair.
They were in the atmosphere, the gentle sighing against the hull quickly climbed the scale to a shrill scream. The drive cut out and they were in free fall. Air friction heated the outer hull white-hot and the interior temperature quickly rose in spite of the cooling unit.
"What's happening?" Mikah asked. "You seem to know more about this. Are we through—going to crash?"
"Maybe. Could be only one of two things. Either the whole works has folded up—in which case we are going to be scattered in very small pieces all over the landscape, or the computer is saving itself for one last effort. I hope that's it. They build computers smart these days, all sort of problem-solving circuits. The hull and engines are in good shape—but the controls spotty and unreliable. In a case like this a good human pilot would let the ship drop as far and fast as it could before switching on the drive. Then turn it on full—thirteen gees or more, whatever he figured the passengers could take on the couches. The hull would take a beating, but who cares. The control circuits would be used the shortest amount of time in the simplest manner."
"Do you think that's what is happening?" Mikah asked, getting into his acceleration chair.
"That's what I hope is happening. Going to unlock the cuffs before you go to bed? It could be a bad landing and we might want to go places in a hurry."
Mikah considered, then took out his gun. "I'll unlock you, but I intend to shoot if you try anything. Once we are down you will be locked in again."
"Thanks for small blessings," Jason said, rubbing his wrists.
Deceleration jumped on them, kicked the air from their lungs in uncontrollable gasps, sank them deep into the yielding couches. Mikah's gun was pressed into his chest, too heavy to lift. It made no difference, Jason could not stand nor move. He hovered on the border of consciousness, his vision flickering behind a black and red haze.
Just as suddenly the pressure was gone.
They were still falling.
The drive groaned in the stern of the ship and relays chattered. But it didn't start again. The two men stared at each other, unmoving, for the unmeasurable unit of time that the ship fell.
As the ship dropped it turned and hit at an angle. The end came for Jason in an engulfing wave of thunder, shock and pain. Sudden impact pushed him against the restraining straps, burst them with the inertia of his body, hurled him across the control room. His last conscious thought was to protect his head. He was lifting his arm when he struck the wall.
* * * * *
There is a cold that is so chilling it is a pain not a temperature. Cold that slices into the flesh before it numbs and kills.
Jason came to with the sound of his own voice crying hoarsely. The cold was so great it filled the universe. Cold water he realized as he coughed it from his mouth and nose. Something was around him and it took an effort to recognize it as Mikah's arm; he was holding Jason's face above the surface while he swam. A receding blackness in the water could only have been the ship, giving off bubbles and groans as it died. The cold water didn't hurt now and Jason was just relaxing when he felt something solid under his feet.
"Stand up and walk, curse you," Mikah gasped hoarsely. "I can't ... carry you ... can't carry myself...."
They floundered out of the water, side by side, four-legged crawling beasts that could not stand erect. Everything had an unreality to it and Jason found it hard to think. He should not stop, that he was sure of, but what else could he do? There was a flickering in the darkness, a wavering light coming towards them. Jason could say nothing, but he heard Mikah cry out for help.
Nearer came the light, some kind of a flare or torch, held high. Mikah pulled to his feet as the flame approached.
It was a nightmare. It wasn't a man but a thing that held the flare. A thing of angles, sharp corners, fang-faced and horrible. It had a clubbed extremity it used to strike down Mikah. The tall man fell wordlessly and the creature turned towards Jason. He had no strength to fight with, though he struggled to climb to his feet. His fingers scratched at the frosted sand, but he could not rise, and exhausted with this last effort he fell forward face down. Unconsciousness pulled at his brain but he would not submit. The flickering torchlight came closer and the scuffle of heavy feet in the sand; he could not have this horror behind him. With the last of his strength he levered himself over and lay on his back, staring up at the thing that stood over him, with the darkness of exhaustion filming his eyes.
It did not kill him at once, but stood staring down at him, and as the slow seconds ticked by and Jason was still alive he forced himself to consider this menace that appeared from the blackness.
"K'e vi stas el...?" the creature said, and for the first time Jason realized it was human. The meaning of the question picked at the edge of his exhausted brain, he felt he could almost understand it, though he had never heard the language before. He tried to answer but there was only a hoarse gargle from his throat.
"Ven k'n torcoy—r'pidu!"
More lights sprang from the darkness inland and with them the sound of running feet. As they came closer Jason had a clearer look at the man above him and could understand why he had mistaken him for some inhuman creature. His limbs were completely wrapped in lengths of stained leather, his chest and body protected by thick and overlapping leather plates covered with blood-red designs. Over his head was fitted the cochlea shaped shell of some animal, spiraling to a point in front: two small openings had been drilled in it for eye holes. Great, finger-long teeth had been set in the lower edge of the shell to heighten the already fearsome appearance. The only thing at all human about the creature was the matted and filthy beard that trickled out of the shell below the teeth. There were too many other details for Jason to absorb so suddenly; something bulky slung behind one shoulder, dark objects at the waist, a heavy club reached and prodded Jason in the ribs, but he was too close to unconsciousness to resist.
A guttural command halted the torch-bearers a full five meters from the spot where Jason lay. He wondered vaguely why the armored man had not let them approach closer since the light from their torches barely reached this far: everything on this planet seemed inexplicable. For a few moments Jason must have lost consciousness because when he looked again the torch was stuck in the sand at his side and the armored man had one of Jason's boots off and was pulling at the other. Jason could only writhe feebly but not prevent the theft, for some reason he could not force his body to follow his will. His sense of time seemed to have altered as well and though every second dragged heavily by events occurred with startling rapidity.
The boots were gone now and the man fumbled at Jason's clothes, stopping every few seconds to glance up at the row of torch-bearers. The magnetic seals were alien to him, the sharp teeth sewn into the leather over his knuckles dug into Jason's flesh as he struggled to open the seals or to tear the resistant metalcloth. He was growling with impatience when he accidentally touched the release button on the medikit and it dropped into his hand. The shining gadget seemed to please him, but when one of the sharp needles slipped through his thick hand-coverings and stabbed him he howled with rage, throwing the machine down, and grinding it into a splintered ruin in the sand. The loss of this irreplaceable device goaded Jason into motion, he sat up and was trying to reach the medikit when unconsciousness surged over him.
* * * * *
Sometime before dawn the pain in his head drove him reluctantly back to awareness. There were some foul-smelling hides draped over him that retained a little of his body heat. He pulled away the stifling fold that covered his face and stared up at the stars, cold points of light that glittered in the frigid night. The air was a stimulant and he sucked deep gasps of it that burned his throat but seemed to clear his thoughts. For the first time he realized that his disorientation had been caused by that crack on the head he had received when the ship crashed; his exploring fingers found a swollen rawness on his skull. He must have a brain concussion, that would explain his earlier inability to move or think straight. The cold air was numbing his face and he willingly pulled the hairy skin back over his head.
He wondered what had happened to Mikah Samon after the local thug in the horror outfit had bashed him with the club. This was a messy and unexpected end for the man after he had managed to survive the crash of the ship. Jason had no special affection for the under-nourished zealot, but he did owe him a life. Mikah had saved him after the crash, only to be murdered himself by this local assassin. Jason made a mental note to kill the man just as soon as he was physically up to it, at the same time he was a little astonished at his reflexive acceptance of the need for this blood-thirsty atonement of a life for a life. Apparently his long stay on Pyrrus had trodden down his normal dislike for killing except in self-defense and from what he had seen so far of this world the Pyrran training would certainly be most useful. The sky showed gray through a tear in the hide and he pushed it back to look at the dawn.
Mikah Samon lay next to him his head projecting from a covering fur. He hair was matted and caked with dark blood, but he was still breathing.
"Harder to kill than I thought," Jason grunted as he levered himself painfully up onto one elbow and took a good look at this world where his spaceship sabotage had landed them.
It was a grim desert, lumped with huddled bodies like the aftermath of a battle at world's-end. A few of them were stumbling to their feet, holding their skins around them, the only signs of life in that immense waste of gritty sand. On one side a ridge of dunes cut off sight of the sea, but he could hear the dull boom of waves on the shore. White frost rimed the ground and the chill wind made his eyes blink and water. On the top of the dunes a remembered figure suddenly appeared, the armored man, doing something with what appeared to be lengths of rope; there was metallic tinkling, suddenly cut off. Mikah Samon groaned and stirred.
"How do you feel," Jason asked. "Those are two of the finest blood-shot eyeballs I have ever seen."
"Where am I?"
"Now that is a bright and original question—I didn't pick you for the type who watched historical spaceopera on the TV. I have no idea where we are—but I can give you a brief synopsis of how we arrived here, if you are up to it."
"I remember we swam ashore, then something evil came from the darkness, like a demon from hell. We fought...."
"And he bashed in your head, one quick blow and that was about all the fight there was. I had a better look at your demon, though I was in no better condition to fight him than you were. He's a man dressed in a weird outfit out of an addict's nightmare and appears to be the boss of this crew of rugged campers. Other than that I have little idea of what is going on—except that he stole my boots and I'm going to get then back if I have to kill him for them."
"Do not lust after material things," Mikah intoned seriously. "And do not talk of killing a man for material gain. You are evil, Jason, and.... My boots are gone—and my clothes, too!"
Mikah had thrown back his covering skins and made this startling discovery. "Belial!" he roared. "Asmodeus, Abaddon, Apollyon and Baal-zebub!"
"Very nice," Jason said admiringly, "you really have been studying up on your demonology. Were you just listing them—or calling on them for aid?"
"Silence, blasphemer! I have been robbed!" He rose to his feet and the wind whistling around his almost-bare body quickly gave his skin a light touch of blue. "I am going to find the evil creature that did this and force him to return what is mine."
Mikah turned to leave but Jason reached out and grabbed his ankle with a wrestling grip, twisted it and brought the man thudding to the ground. The fall dazed him and Jason pulled the skins back over the raw-boned form.
"We're even," Jason said. "You saved my life last night, just now I saved yours. You're bare-handed and wounded—while the old man of the mountain up there is a walking armory, and anyone with the personality to wear that kind of an outfit will kill you as easily as he picks his teeth. So take it easy and try to avoid trouble. There's a way out of this mess—there's a way out of every mess if you look for it—and I'm going to find it. In fact I'm going to take a walk right now and start my research. Agreed?"
A groan was his only answer since Mikah was unconscious again, fresh blood seeping from his injured scalp. Jason stood and wrapped his hides about his body as some protection from the wind, tying the loose ends together. Then he kicked through the sand until he found a smooth rock that would fit inside his fist with just the end protruding, and thus armed made his way out through the stirring forms of the sleepers.
* * * * *
Mikah was conscious again when Jason returned, and the sun was well above the horizon. The people were all awake now, a shuffling, scratching herd of about thirty men, women and children. They were identical in their filth and crude skin wrappings, milling about with a random motion or sitting blankly on the ground. They showed no interest at all in the two strangers. Jason handed a tarred leather cup to Mikah and squatted next to him.
"Drink that. It's water, the only thing that anyone here had to drink. I didn't find any food." He still had the stone in his hand and while he talked he rubbed it on the sand: the end was moist and red and some long hairs were stuck in it.
"I took a good look around this camp, and there's very little more than you can see from here. Just this crowd of broken down types, a few bundles rolled in hide, and some of them are carrying skin water bottles. They have a simple me-stronger pecking order so I pecked a bit and we can drink. Food comes next."
"Who are they? What are we doing?" Mikah asked, mumbling a little, obviously still suffering the after-effects of the blow. Jason looked at the contused skull, and decided not to touch it. The wound had bled freely and clotted. Washing it off with the highly dubious water would accomplish little and might add infection to their other troubles.
"I'm only sure of one thing," Jason said. "They're slaves. I don't know why they are here, what they are doing or where they are going, but their status is painfully clear—ours, too. Old Nasty up there on the hill is the boss. The rest of us are slaves."
"Slaves!" Mikah snorted, the word penetrating through the pain in his head. "It is abominable. The slaves must be freed."
"No lectures please, and try to be realistic—even if it hurts. There are only two slaves that need freeing here, you and I. These people seem nicely adjusted to the status quo and I see no reason to change it. I'm not starting any abolitionist campaigns until I can see my way clearly out of this mess, and I probably won't start any then either. This planet has been going on a long time without me, and will probably keep rolling along once I'm gone."
"Coward! You must fight for the Truth and the Truth will make you free."
"I can hear those capital letters again," Jason groaned. "The only thing right now that is going to make me free is me. Which may be bad poetry, but is still the truth. The situation here is rough but not unbeatable—so listen and learn. The boss, his name is Ch'aka in case you care, seems to have gone off on a hunt of some kind. He's not far away and will be back soon, so I'll try and give you the entire setup quickly.
"I thought I recognized the language, and I was right. It's a corrupt form of Esperanto, the language all the Terido worlds speak. This altered language plus the fact that these people live about one step above the stone-age culture is pretty sure evidence that they are cut off from any contact with the rest of the galaxy, though I hope not. There may be a trading base somewhere on the planet, and if there is we'll find it later. We have enough other things to worry about right now, but at least we can speak the language. These people have contracted and lost a lot of sounds and even introduced a glottal stop, something that no language needs, but with a little effort the meaning can still be made out."
"I do not speak Esperanto."
"Then learn it. It's easy enough even in this jumbled form. And shut up and listen. These locals are born and bred slaves and it is all they know. There is a little squabbling in the ranks with the bigger ones pushing the work on the weak ones when Ch'aka isn't looking, but I have that situation well in hand. Ch'aka is our big problem, and we have to find out a lot more things before we can tackle him. He is boss, fighter, father, provider and destiny for this mob, and he seems to know his job. So try to be a good slave for a while...."
"Slave! I?" Mikah arched his back and tried to rise. Jason pushed him back to the ground—harder than was necessary.
"Yes, you—and me, too. That is the only way we are going to survive in this arrangement. Do what everyone else does, obey orders, and you stand a good chance of staying alive until we can find a way out of this tangle."
* * * * *
Mikah's answer was drowned out in a roar from the dunes as Ch'aka returned. The slaves climbed quickly to their feet, grabbing up their bundles, and began to form a single widespaced line. Jason helped Mikah to stand and wrap strips of skin around his feet then supported most of his weight as they stumbled to a place in the open formation. Once they were all in position Ch'aka kicked the nearest one and they began walking slowly forward looking carefully at the ground as they went. Jason had no idea of the significance of the action, but as long as he and Mikah weren't bothered it didn't matter: he had enough work cut out for him just to keep the wounded man on his feet. Somehow Mikah managed to dredge up enough strength to keep going.
One of the slaves pointed down and shouted and the line stopped. He was too far away for Jason to make out the cause of the excitement, but the man bent over and scratched a hole with a short length of pointed wood. In a few seconds he dug up something round and not quite the size of his hand. He raised it over his head and brought the thing to Ch'aka at a shambling run. The slavemaster took it and bit off a chunk, and when the man who had found it turned away he gave him a lusty kick. The line moved forward again.
Two more of the mysterious objects were found, both of which Ch'aka ate as well. Only when his immediate hunger was satisfied did he make any attempt to be the good provider. When the next one was found he called over a slave and threw the object into a crudely woven basket he was carrying on his back. After this the basket-toting slave walked directly in front of Ch'aka who was carefully watchful that every one of the things that was dug up went into the basket. Jason wondered what they were—and they were edible, too, an angry rumbling in his stomach reminded him.
The slave next in line to Jason shouted and pointed to the sand. Jason let Mikah sink to a sitting position when they stopped and watched with interest as the slave attacked the ground with his piece of wood, scratching around a tiny sprig of green that projected from the desert sand. His burrowings uncovered a wrinkled gray object from which the green leaves were growing, a root or tuber of some kind. It appeared as edible as a piece of stone to Jason, but obviously not to the slave who drooled heavily and actually had the temerity to sniff the root. Ch'aka howled with anger at this and when the slave had dropped the root into the basket with the others he received a kick so strong that he had to limp back painfully to his position in the line.
Soon after this Ch'aka called a halt and the tattered slaves huddled around while he poked through the basket. He called them over one at a time and gave them one or more of the roots according to some merit system of his own. The basket was almost empty when he poked his club at Jason.
"K'e nam h'vas vi?" he asked.
"Mia namo estas Jason, mia amiko estas Mikah."
Jason answered in correct Esperanto that Ch'aka seemed to understand well enough, because he grunted and dug through the contents of the basket. His masked face stared at them and Jason could feel the impact of the unseen watching eyes. The club pointed again.
"Where you come from? That you ship that burn, sink?"
"That was our ship. We come from far away."
"From other side of ocean?" This was apparently the largest distance the slaver could imagine.
"From the other side of the ocean, correct." Jason was in no mood to deliver a lecture on astronomy. "When do we eat?"
"You a rich man in your country, got a ship, got shoes. Now I got your shoes. You a slave here. My slave. You both my slaves."
"I'm your slave, I'm your slave," Jason said resignedly. "But even slaves have to eat. Where's the food?"
Ch'aka grubbed around in the basket until he found a tiny and withered root which he broke in half and threw onto the sand in front of Jason.
"Work hard you get more."
Jason picked up the pieces and brushed away as much of the dirt as he could. He handed one to Mikah and took a tentative bite out of the other one: it was gritty with sand and tasted like slightly rancid wax. It took a distinct effort to eat the repulsive thing but he did. Without a doubt it was food, no matter how unwholesome, and would do until something better came along.
"What did you talk about?" Mikah asked, grinding his own portion between his teeth.
"Just swapping lies. He thinks we're his slaves and I agreed. But it's just temporary—" Jason added as anger colored Mikah's face and he started to climb to his feet. Jason pulled him back down. "This is a strange planet, you're injured, we have no food or water, and no idea at all how to survive in this place. The only thing we can do to stay alive is to go along with what Old Ugly there says. If he wants to call us slaves, fine—we're slaves."
"Better to die free than to live in chains!"
"Will you stop the nonsense. Better to live in chains and learn how to get rid of them. That way you end up alive-free rather than dead-free, a much more attractive state. Now shut up and eat. We can't do anything until you are out of the walking wounded class."
* * * * *
For the rest of the day the line of walkers plodded across the sand and in addition to helping Mikah, Jason found two of the krenoj, the edible roots. They stopped before dusk and dropped gratefully to the sand. When the food was divided they received a slightly larger portion, as evidence perhaps of Jason's attention to the work. Both men were exhausted and fell asleep as soon as it was dark.
During the following morning they had their first break from the walking routine. Their foodsearching always paralleled the unseen sea, and one slave walked the crest of the dunes that hid the water from sight. He must have seen something of interest because he leaped down from the mound and waved both arms wildly. Ch'aka ran heavily to the dunes and talked with the scout, then booted the man from his presence.
Jason watched with growing interest as he unwrapped the bulky package slung from his back and disclosed an efficient looking crossbow, cocking it by winding on a built-in crank. This complicated and deadly piece of machinery seemed very much out of place with the primitive slave-holding society, and Jason wished that he could get a better look at the device. Ch'aka fumbled a quarrel from another pouch and fitted it to the bow. The slaves sat silently on the sand while their master stalked along the base of the dunes, then wormed his way over them and out of sight, creeping silently on his stomach. A few minutes later there was a scream of pain from behind the dunes and all the slaves jumped to their feet and raced to see. Jason left Mikah where he lay and was in the first rank of observers that broke over the hillocks and onto the shore.
They stopped at the usual distance and shouted compliments about the quality of the shot and what a mighty hunter Ch'aka was. Jason had to admit there was a certain truth in the claims. A large, furred amphibian lay at the water's edge, the fletched end of the crossbow bolt projecting from its thick neck and a thin stream of blood running down to mix with the surging waves.
"Meat! Meat today!"
"Ch'aka kills the rosmaro! Ch'aka is wonderful!"
"Hail, Ch'aka, great provider," Jason shouted to get into the swing of things. "When do we eat?"
The master ignored his slaves, sitting heavily on the dune until he regained his breath after the stalk. Then after cocking the crossbow again he stalked over to the beast and with his knife cut out the quarrel, notching it against the bowstring still dripping with blood.
"Get wood for fire," he commanded. "You, Opisweni, you use the knife."
Shuffling backwards Ch'aka sat down on a hillock and pointed the crossbow at the slave who approached the kill. Ch'aka had left his knife in the animal and Opisweni pulled it free and began to methodically flay and butcher the beast. All the time he worked he carefully kept his back turned to Ch'aka and the aimed bow.
"A trusting soul, our slave-driver," Jason mumbled to himself as he joined the others in searching the shore for driftwood. Ch'aka had all the weapons as well as a constant fear of assassination. If Opisweni tried to use the knife for anything other than the intended piece of work, he would get the crossbow quarrel in the back of his head. Very efficient.
Enough driftwood was found to make a sizable fire, and when Jason returned with his contribution the rosmaro had been hacked into large chunks. Ch'aka kicked his slaves away from the heap of wood and produced a small device from another of his sacks. Interested, Jason pushed as close as he dared, into the front rank of the watching circle. Though he had never seen one of them before, the operation of the firemaker was obvious to him. A spring-loaded arm drove a fragment of stone against a piece of steel, sparks flew out and were caught in a cup of tinder, where Ch'aka blew on them until they burst into flame.
Where had the firelighter and the crossbow come from? They were evidence of a higher level of culture than that possessed by these slave-holding nomads. This was the first bit of evidence that Jason had seen that there might be more to the cultural life of this planet than they had seen since their landing. Later, while they were gorging themselves on the seared meat, he drew Mikah aside and pointed this out.
"There's hope yet. These illiterate thugs never manufactured that crossbow or firelighter. We must find out where they came from and see about getting there ourselves. I had a quick look at the quarrel when Ch'aka pulled it out, and I'll swear that it was turned from steel."
"This has significance?" Mikah asked, puzzled.
"It means an industrial society, and possible interstellar contact."
"Then we must ask Ch'aka where he obtained them and leave at once. There will be authorities, we will contact them, explain the situation, obtain transportation to Cassylia. I will not place you under arrest again until that time."
"How considerate of you," Jason said, lifting one eyebrow. Mikah was absolutely impossible, and Jason probed at his moral armor to see if there were any weak spots. "Won't you feel guilty about bringing me back to get killed? After all we are companions in trouble—and I did save your life."
"I will grieve, Jason. I can see that though you are evil you are not completely evil, and given the right training could be fitted for a useful place in society. But my personal grief must not be allowed to alter events: you forget that you committed a crime and must pay the penalty."
Ch'aka belched cavernously inside his shell-helmet and howled at his slaves.
"Enough eating, you pigs. You get fat. Wrap the meat and carry it, we have light yet to look for krenoj. Move!"
* * * * *
Once more the line was formed and began its slow pace across the desert. More of the edible roots were found, and once they stopped briefly to fill the water bags at a spring that bubbled up out of the sand. The sun dropped towards the horizon and what little warmth it possessed was absorbed by a bank of clouds. Jason looked around and shivered—then noticed the line of dots moving on the horizon. He nudged Mikah who still leaned heavily on him.
"Looks like company coming. I wonder where they fit into the program?"
Pain had blurred Mikah's attention and he took no notice and, surprisingly enough, neither did any of the other slaves nor Ch'aka. The dots expanded and became another row of marchers, apparently absorbed in the same task as Jason's group. They plodded forward, making a slow examination of the sand, followed behind by the solitary figure of their master. The two lines slowly approached each other, paralleling the shore.
Near the dunes was a crude mound of stones and the line of walking slaves stopped as soon as they reached it, dropping with satisfied grunts onto the sand. The cairn was obviously a border marker and Ch'aka walked to it and rested his foot on one of the stones, watching while the other line of slaves approached. They, too, stopped at the cairn and settled to the ground: both groups stared with dull-eyed lack of interest and only the slave-masters showed any animation. The other master stopped a good ten paces before he reached Ch'aka and waved an evil looking stone hammer over his head.
"Hate you, Ch'aka!" he roared.
"Hate you, Fasimba!" boomed back the answer.
The exchange was as formal as a pas de deux and just about as warlike. Both men shook their weapons and shouted a few insults, then settled down to a quiet conversation. Fasimba was garbed in the same type of hideous and fear-inspiring outfit as Ch'aka, differing only in unimportant details. Instead of a conch, his head was encased in the skull of one of the amphibious rosmaroj, brightened up with some extra tusks and horns. The differences between the two men were all minor, and mostly a matter of decoration or variation of weapon design. They were obviously slave masters and equals.
"Killed a rosmaro today, second time in ten days," Ch'aka said.
"You got a good piece coast. Plenty rosmaroj. Where the two slaves you owe me?"
"I owe you two slaves?"
"You owe me two slaves, don't play like stupid. I got the iron arrows for you from the D'zertanoj, one slave you paid with died. You still owe other one."
"I got two slaves for you. I got two slaves more I pulled out of the ocean."
"You got a good piece coast."
Ch'aka walked down his line of slaves until he came to the over-bold one he had half-crippled with a kick the day before. Pulling him to his feet he booted him towards the other mob.
"Here's a good one," he said, delivering the goods with a last parting kick.
"Look skinny. Not too good."
"No, all muscles. Works hard. Doesn't eat much."
"You're a liar!"
"Hate you, Fasimba!"
"Hate you, Ch'aka! Where's the other one?"
"Got a good one. Stranger from the ocean. He can tell you funny stories, work hard."
Jason turned in time to avoid the full force of the kick, but it was still strong enough to knock him sprawling. Before he could get up Ch'aka had clutched Mikah Samon by the arm and dragged him across the invisible line to the other group of slaves. Fasimba stalked over to examine him, prodding him with a spiked toe.
"Don't look good. Big hole on the head."
"He works hard," Ch'aka said. "Hole almost healed. He very strong."
"You give me new one if he dies?" Fasimba asked doubtfully.
"I'll give you. Hate you, Fasimba!"
"Hate you, Ch'aka."
The slave herds were prodded to their feet and moved back the way they had come, and Jason shouted after Ch'aka.
"Wait! Don't sell my friend. We work better together, you can get rid of someone else...."
The slaves gaped at this sudden outburst and Ch'aka wheeled raising his club.
"You shut up. You're a slave. You tell me once more to do what and I kill you."
Jason shut up since it was very obvious that this was the only thing he could do. He had a few qualms about Mikah's possible fate: if he survived the wound he was certainly not the type to bow to the inevitabilities of slave-holding life. Yet Jason had done his best to save him and that was that. Now Jason would think about Jason for a while.
* * * * *
They made a brief march before dark, apparently just until the other slaves were out of sight, then stopped for the night. Jason settled himself into the lee of a mound that broke the force of the wind a bit and unwrapped a piece of scorched meat he had salvaged from the earlier feast. It was tough and oily but far superior to the barely edible krenoj that made up the greater part of the native diet. He chewed noisily on the bone and watched while one of the other slaves sidled over towards him.
"Give me some your meat?" the slave asked in a whining voice, and only when she talked did Jason realize that this was a girl; all the slaves were alike in their matted hair and skin wrappings. He ripped off a chunk of meat.
"Here. Sit down and eat it. What's your name?" In exchange for his generosity he intended to get some information from his captive audience.
"Ijale." She tore at the meat, held tightly in one fist, while the index finger of her free hand scratched for enemies in her tangled hair.
"Where do you come from? Did you always live here—like this?" How do you ask a slave if she has always been a slave?
"Not here. I come from Bul'wajo first, then Fasimba, now I belong to Ch'aka."
"What or who is Bul'wajo? Someone like our boss Ch'aka?" She nodded, gnawing at the meat. "And the D'zertanoj that Fasimba gets his arrows from—who are they?"
"You don't know much," she said, finishing the meat and licking the grease from her fingers.
"I know enough to have meat when you don't have any—so don't abuse my hospitality. Who are the D'zertanoj?"
"Everyone knows who they are." She shrugged with incomprehension and looked for a soft spot in the sand to sit down. "They live in the desert. They go around in caroj. They stink. They have many nice things. One of them gave me my best thing. If I show it to you, you won't take it?"
"No, I won't touch it. But I would like to see anything they have made. Here, here's some more meat. Now let me see your best thing."
Ijale rooted in her skins for a hidden pocket and dragged out something that she concealed in her clenched fist. She held it out proudly and opened it and there was enough light left for Jason to make out the rough form of a red glass bead.
"Isn't this so very nice?" she asked.
"Very nice," Jason agreed, and for an instant felt a touch of real sorrow when he looked at the pathetic bauble. This girl's ancestors had come to this planet in spaceships with a knowledge of the most advanced sciences. Cut off, their children had degenerated into this, barely conscious slaves, who could pride a worthless piece of glass above all things.
"I like you. I'll show you my best thing again."
"I like you, too. Good night."
Ijale stayed near Jason the next day, and took the next station in line when the endless krenoj hunt began. Whenever it was possible he questioned her and before noon had extracted all of her meager knowledge of affairs beyond the barren coastal plain where they lived. The ocean was a mystery that produced edible animals, fish and an occasional human corpse. Ships could be seen from time to time offshore but nothing was known about them. On the other flank the territory was bounded by desert even more inhospitable than the one in which they scratched out their existence, a waste of lifeless sand, habitable only by the D'zertanoj and their mysterious caroj. These last could be animals—or mechanical transportation of some kind, either was possible from Ijale's vague description. Ocean, coast and desert, these made up all of her world and she could conceive of nothing that might exist beyond.
Jason knew there was more, the crossbow was proof enough of that, and he had every intention of finding out where it came from. In order to do that he was going to have to change his slave status when the proper time came. He was developing a certain facility in dodging Ch'aka's heavy boot, the work was never hard and there was ample food. Being a slave left him with no responsibilities other than obeying orders and he had ample opportunity to discover what he could about this planet, so that when he finally did leave he would be as well prepared as was possible.
Later in the day another column of marching slaves was sighted in the distance, on a course paralleling their own, and Jason expected a repeat performance of the previous day's meeting. He was agreeably surprised that it was not. The sight of the others threw Ch'aka into an immediate rage that sent his slaves rushing for safety in all directions. By leaping into the air, howling with anger and beating his club against his thick leather armor he managed to work himself into quite a state before starting off on a slogging run. Jason, followed close behind him, greatly interested by this new turn of affairs. Ahead of them the other slaves scattered and from their midst burst another armed and armored figure. They churned towards each other at top speed and Jason hoped for a shattering crash when they met. However they slowed before they hit and began circling each other, spitting curses.
"Hate you, M'shika!"
"Hate you, Ch'aka!"
The words were the same, but shouted with fierce meaning, with no touch of formality this time.
"Kill you, M'shika! You coming again on my part of the ground with your carrion-meat slaves!"
"You lie, Ch'aka—this ground mine from way back."
"I kill you way back!"
Ch'aka leaped in as he screamed the words and swung a roundhouse blow with his club that would have broken the other man in two if it had connected. But M'shika was expecting this and fell back, swinging a counter-blow with his own club that Ch'aka easily avoided. There followed a quick exchange of club-work that did little more than fan the air, until suddenly both men were locked together and the fight began in earnest. They rolled together on the ground grunting savagely, tearing at each other. The heavy clubs were of no use this close and were dropped in favor of knives and knees: Jason could understand now why Ch'aka had the long tusks strapped to his kneecaps. It was a no-holds-barred fight and each man was trying as hard as possible to kill his opponent. The leather armor made this difficult and the struggle continued, littering the sand with broken off animal teeth, discarded weapons and other debris. It looked like it would be called a draw when both men separated for a breather, but they dived right back in again.
* * * * *
It was Ch'aka who broke the stalemate when he plunged his dagger into the ground and on the next roll caught the handle in his mouth. Holding his opponent's arms in both his hands he plunged his head down and managed to find a weak spot in the other's armor: M'shika howled and pulled free and when he climbed to his feet blood was running down his arm and dripping from his fingertips. Ch'aka jumped after him but the wounded man grabbed up his club in time to ward off the charge. Stumbling backward he managed to pick up most of his discarded weapons with his wounded arm and beat a hasty retreat. Ch'aka ran after him a short way, shouting praise of his own strength and abilities and of his opponent's cowardice. Jason saw a short, sharp horn from some sea animal lying in the churned up sand and quickly picked it up before Ch'aka turned back.
Once his enemy had been chased out of sight Ch'aka carefully searched the battleground and scavenged anything of military value. Though there was still some hours of daylight left he signaled a halt and distributed the evening ration of krenoj. Jason sat and chewed his portion reflectively while Ijale leaned against his side, her shoulder moving rhythmically as she scratched some hidden mite. Lice were inescapable, they hid in the crevices of the badly cured hides and emerged with clicking jaws whenever the warmth of human flesh came near. Jason had his quota of the pests and found his scratching keeping time with hers. This syncopation of scratch triggered the anger that had been building within him, slow and unnoticed.
"I'm serving notice," he said, jumping to his feet. "I'm through with this slave business. Which way is the nearest spot in the desert where I can find the D'zertanoj?"
"Over there, a two-day walk. How are you going to kill Ch'aka?"
"I'm not going to kill Ch'aka, I'm just leaving. I've enjoyed his hospitality and his boot long enough and feel like striking out for myself."
"You can't do that," she gasped. "You will be killed."
"Ch'aka can't very well kill me if I'm not here."
"Everybody will kill you. That is the law. Runaway slaves are always killed."
Jason sat down again and cracked another chunk from his krenoj and ruminated over it. "You've talked me into staying a while. But I have no particular desire now to kill Ch'aka, even though he did steal my boots. And I don't see how killing him will help me any."
"You are stupid. After you kill Ch'aka you'll be the new Ch'aka. Then you can do what you want."
Of course. Now that he had been told, the social setup appeared obvious. Because he had seen slaves and slave-holders, Jason had held the mistaken notion that they were different classes of society, when in reality there was only one class, what might be called the dog-eat-dog class. He should have been aware of this when he had seen how careful Ch'aka was to never allow anyone within striking distance of him, and how he vanished each night to some hidden spot. This was free enterprise with a vengeance, carried to its absolute extreme with every man out for himself, every other man's hand turned against him, and your station in life determined by the strength of your arm and the speed of your reflexes. Anyone who stayed alone placed himself outside this society and was therefore an enemy of it and sure to be killed on sight. All of which added up to the fact that he had to kill Ch'aka if he wanted to get ahead. He still had no desire to do it, but he had to.
* * * * *
That night he watched Ch'aka when he slipped away from the others and Jason made a careful note of the direction that he took. Of course the slave master would circle about before he concealed himself, but with a little luck Jason would find him. And kill him. He had no special love of midnight assassination, and until landing on this planet had always believed that killing a sleeping man was a cowardly way to terminate another's existence. But special conditions demand special solutions, and he was no match for the heavily armored man in open combat, therefore the assassin's knife. Or rather sharpened horn. He managed to doze fitfully until some time after midnight, then slipped silently from under his skin coverings. Silently he skirted the sleepers and crept into the darkness between the dunes.
Finding Ch'aka in the wilderness of the desert night was not easy, yet Jason persisted. He made careful sweeps in wider and wider arcs, working his way out from the sleeping slaves. There were gullies and shadowed ravines and all of them had to be searched with utmost care. The slave master was sleeping in one of them and would be alert for any sound. The fact that he had also made special precautions to guard against assassination was only apparent to Jason after he heard the bell ring. It was a tiny sound, barely detectable, but he froze instantly. There was a thin strand pressing against his arm, and when he drew back carefully the bell sounded again. He cursed silently for his stupidity, only remembering now about the bells he had heard from Ch'aka's sleeping site. The slaver must surround himself every night with a network of string that would sound alarm bells if anyone attempted to approach in the dark. Slowly and soundlessly Jason drew back deeper into the gully.
With a thud of rushing feet Ch'aka appeared, swinging his club around his head, coming directly towards Jason. Jason rolled desperately sideways and the club crashed into the ground, then he was up and running at top speed down the gully. Rocks twisted under his feet and he knew that if he tripped he was dead, yet he had no choice other than flight. The heavily armored Ch'aka could not keep up with him and Jason managed to stay on his feet until the other was left behind. Ch'aka shouted with rage and hurled curses after him, but he could not catch him. Jason, panting for breath, vanished into the darkness and made a slow circle back to the sleeping camp. The noise would have roused them and he stayed away for an estimated hour, shivering in the icy predawn, before he slipped back to his waiting skins. The sky was beginning to gray and he lay awake wondering if he had been recognized: he didn't think he had.
As the red sun climbed over the horizon Ch'aka appeared on top of the dunes, shaking with rage.
"Who did it?" he screamed. "Who came in night." He stalked among them, glaring right and left, and no one stirred except to draw away from his stamping feet. "Who did it?" he shouted again as he came near the spot where Jason lay.
Five slaves pointed silently at Jason.
* * * * *
Cursing their betrayal Jason sprang up and ran from the whistling club. He had the sharpened horn in his hand but knew better than to try and stand up to Ch'aka in open combat; there had to be another way. He looked back quickly to see his enemy still following and narrowly missed tripping over the outstretched leg of a slave. They were all against him! They were all against each other and no man was safe from any other man's hand. He ran free of the slaves and scrambled to the top of a shifting dune, pulling himself up the steep slope by clutching at the coarse grass on the summit. He turned at the top and kicked sand into Ch'aka's face, trying to blind him, but had to run when the slaver swung down his crossbow and notched a steel quarrel. Ch'aka chased him again, panting heavily.
Jason was tiring now and he knew this was the best time to launch a counterattack. The slaves were out of sight and it would be a battle only between the two of them. Scrambling up a slope of broken rock he reversed himself suddenly and leaped back down. Ch'aka was taken by surprise and had his club only half-raised when Jason was upon him, and he swung wildly. Jason ducked under the blow and used Ch'aka's momentum to help throw him as he grabbed the club arm and pulled. Face down the armored man crashed against the stones and Jason was straddling his back even as he fell, clutching for his chin. He lacerated his fingers on a jagged tooth necklace then grasped the man's thick beard and pulled back. For a single long instant, before he could writhe free and roll over, Ch'aka's head was stretched back, and in that instant Jason plunged the sharp horn deep into the soft flesh of the throat. Hot blood burst over his hand and Ch'aka shuddered horribly under him and died.
Jason climbed wearily to his feet, suddenly exhausted. He was alone with his victim. The cold wind swept about them carrying the rustling grains of sand, chilling the sweat on his body. Sighing once he wiped his bloody hands on the sand and began to strip the corpse. Thick straps held the shell helmet over the dead man's head and when he unknotted them and pulled it away he saw that Ch'aka was well past middle age. There was some gray in his beard, but his scraggly hair was completely gray, his face and balding head pallid white from being concealed under the helmet. It took a long time to get the wrappings and armor off and retie them over himself, but it was finally done. Under the skin and claw wrappings on Ch'aka's feet were Jason's boots, filthy but undamaged, and Jason drew them on happily. When at last, after scouring it out with sand, he had strapped on the helmet, Ch'aka was reborn. The corpse on the sand was just another dead slave. Jason scraped a shallow grave, interred and covered it. Then, slung about with weapons, bags and crossbow, the club in his hand, he stalked back to the waiting slaves. As soon as he appeared they scrambled to their feet and formed a line. Jason saw Ijale looking at him worriedly, trying to discover who had won the battle.
"Score one for the visiting team," he called out, and she gave him a small, frightened smile and turned away. "About face all and head back the way we came. There is a new day dawning for you slaves. I know you don't believe this yet, but there are some big changes in store."
He whistled while he strolled after the line and chewed happily on the first krenoj that was found.
That evening they built a fire on the beach and Jason sat with his back to the safety of the sea. He took his helmet off, the thing was giving him a headache, and called Ijale over to him.
"I hear Ch'aka. I obey."
She ran hurriedly over to him and flopped onto the sand.
"I want to talk to you," Jason said. "And my name is Jason, not Ch'aka."
"Yes, Ch'aka," she said, darting a quick glance at his exposed face, then turning away. He grumbled and pushed the basket of krenoj over to her.
"I can see where it is not going to be an easy thing changing this social setup. Tell me, do you or any of the others ever have any desire to be free?"
"What is free?"
"Well ... I suppose that answers my question. Free is what you are when you are not a slave, or a slave owner, free to go where you want and do what you want."
"I wouldn't like that." She shivered. "Who would take care of me? How could I find any krenoj? It takes many people together to find krenoj, one alone would starve."
"If you are free, you can combine with other free people and look for krenoj together."
"That is stupid. Whoever found would eat and not share unless a master made him. I like to eat."
Jason rasped his sprouting beard. "We all like to eat, but that doesn't mean we have to be slaves. But I can see that unless there are some radical changes in this environment I am not going to have much luck in freeing anyone, and I had better take all the precautions of a Ch'aka to see that I can stay alive."
He picked up his club and stalked off into the darkness, silently circling the camp until he found a good-sized knoll with smooth sides. Working by touch he pulled the little pegs from their bag and planted them in rows, carefully laying the leather strings in their forked tops. The ends of the strings were fastened to delicately balanced steel bells that tinkled at the slightest touch. Thus protected he lay down in the center of his warning spiderweb and spent a restless night, half awake, waiting tensely for the bells to ring.
* * * * *
In the morning the march continued and they came to the barrier cairn, and when the slaves stopped Jason urged them past it. They did this happily, looking forward to witnessing a good fight for possession of the violated territory. Their hopes were justified when later in the day the other row of slaves was seen far off to the right, and a figure detached itself and ran towards them.
"Hate you, Ch'aka!" Fasimba shouted as he ran up, only this time he meant what he said. "Coming on my ground, I kill you!"
"Not yet," Jason called out. "And hate you, Fasimba, sorry I forgot the formalities. I don't want any of your land and the old treaty or whatever it is still holds. I just want to talk to you."
Fasimba stopped, but kept his stone hammer ready, very suspicious. "You got new voice, Ch'aka."
"I got new Ch'aka, old Ch'aka now pushing up the daisies. I want to trade back a slave from you and then we'll go."
"Ch'aka fight hard. You must be good fighter Ch'aka." He shook his hammer angrily. "Not as good as me, Ch'aka!"
"You're the tops, Fasimba, nine slaves out of ten want you for a master. Look, can't we get to the point, then I'll get my mob out of here." He looked at the row of approaching slaves, trying to pick out Mikah. "I want back the slave who had the hole in his head. I'll give you two slaves in trade, your choice. What do you say to that?"
"Good trade, Ch'aka. You pick one of mine, take the best, I'll take two of yours. But hole-in-head gone. Too much trouble. Talk all the time. I got sore foot from kicking him. Got rid of him."
"Did you kill him?"
"Don't waste slave. Traded him to the D'zertanoj. Got arrows. You want arrows?"
"Not this time, Fasimba, but thanks for the information." He rooted around in a pouch and pulled out a krenoj. "Here, have something to eat."
"Where you get poisoned krenoj?" Fasimba asked with interest. "I could use a poisoned krenoj."
"This isn't poisoned, it's perfectly edible, or at least as edible as these things ever are."
Fasimba laughed. "You pretty funny, Ch'aka. I give you one arrow for poisoned krenoj."
"You're on," Jason said throwing the krenoj to the ground between them. "But I tell you it is perfectly good."
"That's what I tell man I give it to. I got good use for a poisoned krenoj." He threw an arrow into the sand away from them and grabbed up the vegetable as he left.
When Jason picked up the arrow it bent, and he saw that it was rusted almost completely in two and that the break had been craftily covered by clay. "That's all right," he called after the retreating slaver, "just wait until your friend eats the krenoj."
* * * * *
The march continued, first back to the boundary cairn with the suspicious Fasimba dogging their steps. Only after Jason and his band had passed the border did the others return to their normal foraging. Then began the long walk to the borders of the inland desert. Since they had to search for krenoj as they went it took them the better part of three days to reach their destination. Jason merely started the line in the correct direction, but as soon as he was out of sight of the sea he had only a rough idea of the correct course, however he did not confide his ignorance to the slaves and they marched steadily on, along what was obviously a well-known route to them. Along the way they collected and consumed a good number of krenoj, found two wells from which they refilled the skin bags, and pointed out a huddled animal sitting by a hole that Jason, to their un-voiced disgust, managed to miss completely with a bolt from the crossbow.