1. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the copyright on this publication was renewed.
2. Several misprints corrected. The complete list may be found at the end of the file.]
"Yes sir. Well, there are three men outside trying to kill me...."
"Quite right," Mr. Frendlyer said. "And today is Landing Day. You came off the ship that landed today, and have been classified a peon.... I'm happy to say that everything is in order. The Landing Day Hunt ends at sundown. You can leave here with the knowledge that everything is correct and that your rights have not been violated."
"Leave here? After sundown, you mean."
Mr. Frendlyer shook his head and smiled sadly. "I'm afraid not. According to the law you must leave here at once."
"But they'll kill me!"
"That's very true. Unfortunately it can't be helped. A victim by definition is one who is to be killed.... We protect rights, not victims."
OMEGA: PRISON PLANET LIFE EXPECTANCY: THREE YEARS MAXIMUM MOST PEOPLE ARE LUCKIER THAN THAT....
Books by ROBERT SHECKLEY:
CITIZEN IN SPACE IMMORTALITY, INC. MINDSWAP PILGRIMAGE TO EARTH THE 10TH VICTIM UNTOUCHED BY HUMAN HANDS DIMENSION OF MIRACLES THE JOURNEY OF JOENES THE STATUS CIVILIZATION/NOTIONS: UNLIMITED
From ACE Science Fiction
THE STATUS CIVILIZATION
A Division of Charter Communications Inc. A GROSSET & DUNLAP COMPANY
360 Park Avenue South New York, New York 10010
THE STATUS CIVILIZATION
Copyright (C) 1960 by Robert Sheckley
First appeared under the title Omega in Amazing Science Fiction Stories, published by Ziff-Davis.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review, without permission in writing from the publisher.
All characters in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
An ACE Book
Cover art by David Bergen
First Ace printing: November 1979
Manufactured in the United States of America
THE STATUS CIVILIZATION 1
THE STATUS CIVILIZATION
His return to consciousness was a slow and painful process. It was a journey in which he traversed all time. He dreamed. He rose through thick layers of sleep, out of the imaginary beginnings of all things. He lifted a pseudopod from primordial ooze, and the pseudopod was him. He became an amoeba which contained his essence; then a fish marked with his own peculiar individuality; then an ape unlike all other apes. And finally, he became a man.
What kind of man? Dimly he saw himself, faceless, a beamer gripped tight on one hand, a corpse at his feet. That kind of man.
He awoke, rubbed his eyes, and waited for further memories to come.
No memories came. Not even his name.
He sat up hastily and willed memory to return. When it didn't, he looked around, seeking in his surroundings some clue to his identity.
He was sitting on a bed in a small gray room. There was a closed door on one side. On the other, through a curtained alcove, he could see a tiny lavatory. Light came into the room from some hidden source, perhaps from the ceiling itself. The room had a bed and a single chair, and nothing else.
He held his chin in his hand and closed his eyes. He tried to catalogue all his knowledge, and the implications of that knowledge. He knew that he was a man, species Homo sapiens, an inhabitant of the planet Earth. He spoke a language which he knew was English. (Did that mean that there were other languages?) He knew the commonplace names for things: room, light, chair. He possessed in addition a limited amount of general knowledge. He knew that there were many important things which he did not know, which he once had known.
Something must have happened to me.
That something could have been worse. If it had gone a little further, he might have been left a mindless creature without a language, unaware of being human, of being a man, of being of Earth. A certain amount had been left to him.
But when he tried to think beyond the basic facts in his possession, he came to a dark and horror-filled area. Do Not Enter. Exploration into his own mind was as dangerous as a journey to—what? He couldn't find an analogue, though he suspected that many existed.
I must have been sick.
That was the only reasonable explanation. He was a man with the recollection of memories. He must at one time have had that priceless wealth of recall which now he could only deduce from the limited evidence at his disposal. At one time he must have had specific memories of birds, trees, friends, family, status, a wife perhaps. Now he could only theorize about them. Once he had been able to say, this is like, or, that reminds me of. Now nothing reminded him of anything, and things were only like themselves. He had lost his powers of contrast and comparison. He could no longer analyze the present in terms of the experienced past.
This must be a hospital.
Of course. He was being cared for in this place. Kindly doctors were working to restore his memory, to replace his identity, to restore his judgment apparatus, to tell him who and what he was. It was very good of them; he felt tears of gratitude start in his eyes.
He stood up and walked slowly around his small room. He went to the door and found it locked. That locked door gave him a moment of panic which he sternly controlled. Perhaps he had been violent.
Well, he wouldn't be violent any more. They'd see. They would award him all possible patient privileges. He would speak about that with the doctor.
He waited. After a long time, he heard footsteps coming down the corridor outside his door. He sat on the edge of the cot and listened, trying to control his excitement.
The footsteps stopped beside his door. A panel slid open, and a face peered in.
"How are you feeling?" the man asked.
He walked up to the panel, and saw that the man who questioned him was dressed in a brown uniform. He had an object on his waist which could be identified, after a moment, as a weapon. This man was undoubtedly a guard. He had a blunt, unreadable face.
"Could you tell me my name?" he asked the guard.
"Call yourself 402," the guard said. "That's your cell number."
He didn't like it. But 402 was better than nothing at all. He asked the guard, "Have I been sick for long? Am I getting better?"
"Yes," the guard said, in a voice that carried no conviction. "The important thing is, stay quiet. Obey the rules. That's the best way."
"Certainly," said 402. "But why can't I remember anything?"
"Well, that's the way it goes," the guard said. He started to walk away.
402 called after him, "Wait! You can't just leave me like this, you have to tell me something. What happened to me? Why am I in this hospital?"
"Hospital?" the guard said. He turned toward 402 and grinned. "What gave you the idea this was a hospital?"
"I assumed it," 402 said.
"You assumed wrong. This is a prison."
402 remembered his dream of the murdered man. Dream or memory? Desperately he called after the guard. "What was my offense? What did I do?"
"You'll find out," the guard said.
"After we land," the guard said. "Now get ready for assembly."
He walked away. 402 sat down on the bed and tried to think. He had learned a few things. He was in a prison, and the prison was going to land. What did that mean? Why did a prison have to land? And what was an assembly?
* * * * *
402 had only a confused idea of what happened next. An unmeasurable amount of time passed. He was sitting on his bed, trying to piece together facts about himself. He had an impression of bells ringing. And then the door of his cell flew open.
Why was that? What did it mean?
402 walked to the door and peered into the corridor. He was very excited, but he didn't want to leave the security of his cell. He waited, and the guard came up.
"All right, now," the guard said, "No one's going to hurt you. Go straight down the corridor."
The guard pushed him gently. 402 walked down the corridor. He saw other cell doors opening, other men coming into the corridor. It was a thin stream at first; but as he continued walking, more and more men crowded into the passageway. Most of them looked bewildered, and none of them talked. The only words were from the guards:
"Move along now, keep on moving, straight ahead."
They were headed into a large circular auditorium. Looking around, 402 saw that a balcony ran around the room, and armed guards were stationed every few yards along it. Their presence seemed unnecessary; these cowed and bewildered men weren't going to stage a revolt. Still, he supposed the grim-faced guards had a symbolic value. They reminded the newly awakened men of the most important fact of their lives: that they were prisoners.
After a few minutes, a man in a somber uniform stepped out on the balcony. He held up his hand for attention, although the prisoners were already watching him fixedly. Then, though he had no visible means of amplification, his voice boomed hollowly through the auditorium.
"This is an indoctrination talk," he said. "Listen carefully and try to absorb what I am about to tell you. These facts will be very important for your existence."
The prisoners watched him. The speaker said, "All of you have, within the last hour, awakened in your cells. You have discovered that you cannot remember your former lives—not even your names. All you possess is a meager store of generalized knowledge; enough to keep you in touch with reality.
"I will not add to your knowledge. All of you, back on Earth, were vicious and depraved criminals. You were people of the worst sort, men who had forfeited any right to consideration by the State. In a less enlightened age, you would have been executed. In our age, you have been deported."
The speaker held out his hands to quiet the murmur that ran through the auditorium. He said, "All of you are criminals. And all of you have one thing in common: an inability to obey the basic obligatory rules of human society. Those rules are necessary for civilization to function. By disobeying them, you have committed crimes against all mankind. Therefore mankind rejects you. You are grit in the machinery of civilization, and you have been sent to a world where your own sort is king. Here you can make your own rules, and die by them. Here is the freedom you lusted for; the uncontained and self-destroying freedom of a cancerous growth."
The speaker wiped his forehead and glared earnestly at the prisoners. "But perhaps," he said, "a rehabilitation is possible for some of you. Omega, the planet to which we are going, is your planet, a place ruled entirely by prisoners. It is a world where you could begin again, with no prejudices against you, with a clean record! Your past lives are forgotten. Don't try to remember them. Such memories would serve only to restimulate your criminal tendencies. Consider yourselves born afresh as of the moment of awakening in your cells."
The speaker's slow, measured words had a certain hypnotic quality. 402 listened, his eyes slightly unfocused and fixed upon the speaker's pale forehead.
"A new world," the speaker was saying. "You are reborn—but with the necessary consciousness of sin. Without it, you would be unable to combat the evil inherent in your personalities. Remember that. Remember that there is no escape and no return. Guardships armed with the latest beam weapons patrol the skies of Omega day and night. These ships are designed to obliterate anything that rises more than five hundred feet above the surface of the planet—an invincible barrier through which no prisoner can ever pass. Accommodate yourselves to these facts. They constitute the rules which must govern your lives. Think about what I've said. And now stand by for landing."
The speaker left the balcony. For a while, the prisoners simply stared at the spot where he had been. Then, tentatively, a murmur of conversation began. After a while it died away. There was nothing to talk about. The prisoners, without memory of the past, had nothing upon which to base a speculation of the future. Personalities could not be exchanged, for those personalities were newly emerged and still undefined.
They sat in silence, uncommunicative men who had been too long in solitary confinement. The guards on the balcony stood like statues, remote and impersonal. And then the faintest tremor ran through the floor of the auditorium.
The tremor came again; then it changed into a definite vibration. 402 felt heavier, as though an invisible weight were pressing against his head and shoulders.
A loudspeaker voice called out, "Attention! The ship is now landing on Omega. We will disembark shortly."
* * * * *
The last vibration died away, and the floor beneath them gave a slight lurch. The prisoners, still silent and dazed, were formed into a long line and marched out of the auditorium. Flanked by guards, they went down a corridor which stretched on interminably. From it, 402 began to get some idea of the size of the ship.
Far ahead, he could see a patch of sunlight which shone brightly against the pale illumination of the corridor. His section of the long shuffling line reached the sunlight, and 402 saw that it came from an open hatchway through which the prisoners were passing.
In his turn, 402 went through the hatchway, climbed down a long stairway, and found himself on solid ground. He was standing in an open, sunlit square. Guards were forming the disembarked prisoners into files; on all sides, 402 could see a crowd of spectators watching.
A loudspeaker voice boomed, "Answer when your number is called. Your identity will now be revealed to you. Answer promptly when your number is called."
402 felt weak and very tired. Not even his identity could interest him now. All he wanted to do was lie down, to sleep, to have a chance to think about his situation. He looked around and took casual note of the huge starcraft behind him, of the guards, the spectators. Overhead, he saw black dots moving against a blue sky. At first he thought they were birds. Then, looking closer, he saw they were guardships. He wasn't particularly interested in them.
"Number 1! Speak out!"
"Here," a voice answered.
"Number 1, your name is Wayn Southholder. Age 34, blood type A-L2, Index AR-431-C. Guilty of treason."
When the voice had finished, a loud cheer came up from the crowd. They were applauding the prisoner's traitorous actions, and welcoming him to Omega.
The names were read down the list, and 402, drowsy in the sunshine, dozed on his feet and listened to the crimes of murder, credit theft, deviationalism, and mutantism. At last his number was called.
"Number 402, your name is Will Barrent. Age 27, blood type O-L3, Index JX-221-R. Guilty of murder."
The crowd cheered, but 402 scarcely heard them. He was trying to accustom himself to the idea of having a name. A real name instead of a number. Will Barrent. He hoped he wouldn't forget it. He repeated the name to himself over and over again, and almost missed the last announcement from the ship's loudspeaker.
"The new men are now released upon Omega. You will be given temporary housing at Square A-2. Be cautious and circumspect in your words and actions. Watch, listen, and learn. The law requires me to tell you that the average life expectancy on Omega is approximately three Earth years."
It took a while for those last words to take effect on Barrent. He was still contemplating the novelty of having a name. He hadn't considered any of the implications of being a murderer on an underworld planet.
The new prisoners were led to a row of barracks at Square A-2. There were nearly five hundred of them. They were not yet men; they were entities whose true memories extended barely an hour in time. Sitting on their bunks, the newborns looked curiously at their bodies, examined with sharp interest their hands and feet. They stared at each other, and saw their formlessness mirrored in each other's eyes. They were not yet men; but they were not children either. Certain abstractions remained, and the ghosts of memories. Maturation came quickly, born of old habit patterns and personality traits, retained in the broken threads of their former lives on Earth.
The new men clung to the vague recollections of concepts, ideas, rules. Within a few hours, their phlegmatic blandness had begun to pass. They were becoming men now. Individuals. Out of a dazed and superficial conformity, sharp differences began to emerge. Character reasserted itself, and the five hundred began to discover what they were.
Will Barrent stood in line for a look at himself in the barracks mirror. When his turn came, he saw the reflection of a thin-faced, narrow-nosed, pleasant-looking young man with straight brown hair. The young man had a resolute, honest, unexceptional face, unmarked by any strong passion. Barrent turned away disappointed; it was the face of a stranger.
Later, examining himself more closely, he could find no scars or anything else to distinguish his body from a thousand other bodies. His hands were uncallused. He was wiry rather than muscular. He wondered what sort of work he had done on Earth.
He frowned. He wasn't ready to accept that.
A man tapped him on the shoulder. "How you feeling?"
Barrent turned and saw a large, thick-shouldered red-haired man standing beside him.
"Pretty good," Barrent said. "You were in line behind me, weren't you?"
"That's right. Number 401. Name's Danis Foeren."
Barrent introduced himself.
"Your crime?" Foeren asked.
Foeren nodded, looking impressed. "Me, I'm a forger. Wouldn't think it to look at my hands." He held out two massive paws covered with sparse red hair. "But the skill's there. My hands remembered before any other part of me. On the ship I sat in my cell and looked at my hands. They itched. They wanted to be off and doing things. But the rest of me couldn't remember what."
"What did you do?" Barrent asked.
"I closed my eyes and let my hands take over," Foeren said. "First thing I knew, they were up and picking the lock of the cell." He held up his huge hands and looked at them admiringly. "Clever little devils!"
"Picking the lock?" Barrent asked. "But I thought you were a forger."
"Well, now," Foeren said, "forgery was my main line. But a pair of skilled hands can do almost anything. I suspect that I was only caught for forgery; but I might also have been a safeman. My hands know too much for just a forger."
"You've found out more about yourself than I have," Barrent said. "All I have to start with is a dream."
"Well, that's a start," Foeren said. "There must be ways of finding out more. The important thing is, we're on Omega."
"Agreed," Barrent said sourly.
"Nothing wrong with that," Foeren said. "Didn't you hear what the man said? This is our planet!"
"With an average life expectancy of three Earth years," Barrent reminded him.
"That's probably just scare talk," Foeren said. "I wouldn't believe stuff like that from a guard. The big thing is, we have our own planet. You heard what they said. 'Earth rejects us.' Nova Earth! Who needs her? We've our own planet here. A whole planet, Barrent! We're free!"
* * * * *
Another man said, "That's right, friend." He was small, furtive-eyed, and ingratiatingly friendly. "My name is Joe," he told them. "Actually, the name is Joao; but I prefer the archaic form with its flavor of more gracious times. Gentlemen, I couldn't help overhearing your conversation, and I agree most heartily with our red-haired friend. Consider the possibilities! Earth has cast us aside? Excellent! We are better off without her. We are all equal here, free men in a free society. No uniforms, no guards, no soldiers. Just repentant former criminals who want to live in peace."
"What did they get you for?" Barrent asked.
"They said I was a credit thief," Joe said. "I'm ashamed to admit that I can't remember what a credit thief is. But perhaps it'll come back to me."
"Maybe the authorities have some sort of memory retraining system," Foeren said.
"Authorities?" Joe said indignantly. "What do you mean, authorities? This is our planet. We're all equal here. By definition, there can't be any authorities. No, friends, we left all that nonsense behind on Earth. Here we—"
He stopped abruptly. The barracks' door had opened and a man walked in. He was evidently an older resident of Omega since he lacked the gray prison uniform. He was fat, and dressed in garish yellow and blue clothing. On a belt around his ample waist he carried a holstered pistol and a knife. He stood just inside the doorway, his hands on his hips, glaring at the new arrivals.
"Well?" he said. "Don't you new men recognize a Quaestor? Stand up!"
None of the men moved.
The Quaestor's face went scarlet. "I guess I'll have to teach you a little respect."
Even before he had taken his weapon from its holster, the new arrivals had scrambled to their feet. The Quaestor looked at them with a faintly regretful air and pushed the weapon back in its holster.
"The first thing you men better learn," the Quaestor said, "is your status on Omega. Your status is nowhere. You're peons, and that means you're nothing."
He waited a moment and then said, "Now pay attention, peons. You are about to be instructed in your duties."
"The first thing you new men should understand," the Quaestor said, "is just exactly what you are. That's very important. And I'll tell you what you are. You're peons. You're the lowest of the low. You're statusless. There's nothing lower except mutants, and they aren't really human. Any questions?"
The Quaestor waited. When there were no questions, he said, "I've defined what you are. From that, we'll proceed to a basic understanding of what everybody else on Omega is. First of all, everybody is more important than you; but some are more important than others. Next above you in rank is the Resident, who hardly counts for more than any of you, and then there's the Free Citizen. He wears a gray finger ring of status, and his clothes are black. He isn't important either, but he's much more important than you. With luck, some of you may become Free Citizens.
"Next are the Privileged Classes, all distinguished by various recognition symbols according to rank—such as the golden earrings, for example, of the Hadji class. Eventually you'll learn all the marks and prerogatives of the various ranks and degrees. I might also mention the priests. Even though they're not of Privileged rank, they're granted certain immunities and rights. Have I made myself clear?"
Everyone in the barracks mumbled assent. The Quaestor continued, "Now we come to the subject of deportment when meeting anyone of superior rank. As peons, you are obliged to greet a Free Citizen by his full title, in a respectful manner. With Privileged ranks such as Hadjis you speak only when spoken to, and then you stand with eyes downcast and hands clasped in front of you. You do not leave the presence of a Privileged Citizen until permission has been granted. You do not sit in his company under any circumstances. Understood? There is much more to be learned. My office of Quaestor, for example, comes under the classification of Free Citizen, but carries certain of the prerogatives of Privilege."
The Quaestor glared at the men to make sure they understood. "This barracks is your temporary home. I have drawn up a chart to show which men sweep, which wash, and so forth. You may question me at anytime; but foolish or impertinent questions can be punished by mutilation or death. Just remember that you are the lowest of the low. If you bear that in mind, you might be able to stay alive."
The Quaestor stood in silence for a few moments. Then he said, "Over the next few days, you'll all be given various assignments. Some of you will go to the germanium mines, some to the fishing fleet, some will be apprenticed to various trades. In the meantime, you're free to look around Tetrahyde."
When the men looked blank, the Quaestor explained, "Tetrahyde is the name of the city you're in. It's the largest city on Omega." He thought for a moment. "In fact, it's the only city on Omega."
"What does the name Tetrahyde mean?" Joe asked.
"How should I know?" the Quaestor said, scowling. "I suppose it's one of those old Earth names the skrenners are always coming up with. Anyhow, just watch your step when you enter it."
"Why?" Barrent asked.
The Quaestor grinned. "That, peon, is something you'll have to find out for yourself." He turned and strode from the barracks.
When he had gone, Barrent went to the window. From it he could see a deserted square and, beyond, the streets of Tetrahyde.
"You thinking of going out there?" Joe asked.
"Certainly I am," Barrent said. "Coming with me?"
The little credit thief shook his head. "I don't think it's safe."
"Foeren, how about you?"
"I don't like it either," Foeren said. "Might be better to stay around the barracks for a while."
"That's ridiculous," Barrent said. "It's our city now. Isn't anyone coming with me?"
Looking uncomfortable, Foeren hunched his big shoulders and shook his head. Joe shrugged and lay back on his cot. The rest of the new men didn't even look up.
"Very well," Barrent said. "I'll give you a full report later." He waited a moment longer in case someone changed his mind, then went out the door.
* * * * *
The city of Tetrahyde was a collection of buildings sprawled along a narrow peninsula which jutted into a sluggish gray sea. The peninsula's landward side was contained by a high stone wall, pierced with gates and guarded by sentries. Its largest building was the Arena, used once a year for the Games. Near the Arena was a small cluster of government buildings.
Barrent walked along the narrow streets, staring around him, trying to get some idea of what his new home was like. The winding, unpaved roads and dark, weatherbeaten houses stirred an elusive tag-end of memory in him. He had seen a place like this on Earth, but he couldn't remember anything about it. The recollection was as tantalizing as an itch; but he couldn't locate its source.
Past the Arena, he came into the main business district of Tetrahyde. Fascinated, he read the store signs: UNLICENSED DOCTOR—ABORTIONS PERFORMED WHILE-U-WAIT. Further on, DISBARRED LAWYER. POLITICAL PULL!
This seemed vaguely wrong to Barrent. He walked further, past stores advertising stolen goods, past a little shop that announced: MIND READING! FULL STAFF OF SKRENNING MUTANTS! YOUR PAST ON EARTH REVEALED!
Barrent was tempted to go in. But he remembered that he hadn't any money; and Omega seemed like the sort of place that put a high value on money.
He turned down a side street, walked by several restaurants, and came to a large building called THE POISON INSTITUTE (Easy Terms. Up to 3 Years to Pay. Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back). Next door to it was THE ASSASSIN'S GUILD, Local 452.
On the basis of the indoctrination talk on the prison ship, Barrent had expected Omega to be dedicated to the rehabilitation of criminals. To judge by the store signs, this simply wasn't so; or if it was, rehabilitation took some very strange forms. He walked on more slowly, deep in thought.
Then he noticed that people were moving out of his way. They glanced at him and ducked in doorways and stores. An elderly woman took one look at him and ran.
What was wrong? Could it be his prison uniform? No, the people of Omega had seen many of those. What was it, then?
The street was almost deserted. A shopkeeper near him was hurriedly swinging steel shutters over his display of fencing equipment.
"What's the matter?" Barrent asked him. "What's going on?"
"Are you out of your head?" the shopkeeper said. "It's Landing Day!"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Landing Day!" the shopkeeper said. "The day the prison ship landed. Get back to your barracks, you idiot!"
He slammed the last steel shutter into place and locked it. Barrent felt a sudden cold touch of fear. Something was very wrong. He had better get back in a hurry. It had been stupid of him not to find out more about Omegan customs before....
Three men were walking down the street toward him. They were well dressed, and each wore the small golden Hadji earring in his left ear. All three men carried sidearms.
Barrent started to walk away from them. One of the men shouted, "Stop, peon!"
Barrent saw that the man's hand was dangling near his gun. He stopped and said, "What's the matter?"
"It's Landing Day," the man said. He looked at his friends. "Well, who gets him first?"
"Here's a coin."
"No, a show of fingers."
"Ready? One, two, three!"
"He's mine," said the Hadji on the left. His friends moved back as he drew his sidearm.
"Wait!" Barrent called out. "What are you doing?"
"I'm going to shoot you," the man said.
The man smiled. "Because it's a Hadji privilege. On every Landing Day, we have the right to shoot down any new peon who leaves his barracks area."
"But I wasn't told!"
"Of course not," the man said. "If you new men were told, none of you would leave your barracks on Landing Day. And that would spoil all the fun."
He took aim.
Barrent reacted instantaneously. He threw himself to the ground as the Hadji fired, heard a hiss, and saw a jagged heatburn score the brick building next to which he had been standing.
"My turn now," one of the men said.
"Sorry, old man, I believe it's mine."
"Seniority, dear friend, has its privileges. Stand clear."
Before the next man could take aim, Barrent was on his feet and running. The sharply winding street protected him for the moment, but he could hear the sounds of his pursuers behind him. They were running at an easy stride, almost a fast walk, as if they were completely sure of their prey. Barrent put on a burst of speed, turned down a side street, and knew immediately he had made a mistake. He was facing a dead end. The Hadjis, moving at an easy pace, were coming up behind him.
Barrent looked wildly around. Store fronts here were all locked and shuttered. There was nowhere he could climb to, no place to hide.
And then he saw an open door halfway down the block in the direction of his pursuers. He had run right by it. A sign protruding from the building above the doorway said THE VICTIM'S PROTECTIVE SOCIETY. That's for me, Barrent thought.
He sprinted for it, running almost under the noses of the startled Hadjis. A single gun blast scorched the ground under his heels; then he had reached the doorway and flung himself inside.
He scrambled to his feet. His pursuers had not followed him; he could still hear their voices in the street, amiably arguing questions of precedence. Barrent realized he had entered some sort of sanctuary.
He was in a large, brightly lighted room. Several ragged men were sitting on a bench near the door, laughing at a private joke. A little further down, a dark-haired girl sat and watched Barrent with wide, unblinking green eyes. At the far end of the room was a desk with a man sitting behind it. The man beckoned to Barrent.
He walked up to the desk. The man behind it was short and bespectacled. He smiled encouragingly, waiting for Barrent to speak.
"This is the Victim's Protective Society?" Barrent asked.
"Quite correct, sir," the man said. "I am Rondolp Frendlyer, president of this nonprofit organization. Could I be of service?"
"You certainly could," Barrent said. "I'm practically a victim."
"I knew that just by looking at you," Frendlyer said, smiling warmly. "You have a certain victim look; a mixture of fear and uncertainty with just a suggestion of vulnerability thrown in. It's quite unmistakable."
"That's very interesting," Barrent said, glancing toward the door and wondering how long his sanctuary would be respected. "Mr. Frendlyer, I'm not a member of your organization—"
"That doesn't matter," Frendlyer said. "Membership in our group is necessarily spontaneous. One joins when the occasion arises. Our intention is to protect the inalienable rights of all victims."
"Yes, sir. Well, there are three men outside trying to kill me."
"I see," Mr. Frendlyer said. He opened a drawer and took out a large book. He flipped through it quickly and found the reference he wanted. "Tell me, did you ascertain the status of these men?"
"I believe they were Hadjis," Barrent said. "Each of them had a little gold earring in his left ear."
"Quite right," Mr. Frendlyer said. "And today is Landing Day. You came off the ship that landed today, and have been classified a peon. Is that correct?"
"Yes, it is," Barrent said.
"Then I'm happy to say that everything is in order. The Landing Day Hunt ends at sundown. You can leave here with knowledge that everything is correct and that your rights are in no way being violated."
"Leave here? After sundown, you mean."
Mr. Frendlyer shook his head and smiled sadly. "I'm afraid not. According to the law, you must leave here at once."
"But they'll kill me!"
"That's very true," Frendlyer said. "Unfortunately, it can't be helped. A victim, by definition, is one who is to be killed."
"I thought this was a protective organization."
"It is. But we protect rights, not victims. Your rights are not being violated. The Hadjis have the privilege of killing you on Landing Day, at any time before sundown, if you are not in your barracks area. You, I might add, have the right to kill anyone who tries to kill you."
"I don't have a weapon," Barrent said.
"Victims never do," Frendlyer said. "It makes all the difference, doesn't it? But weapon or not, I'm afraid you'll have to leave now."
Barrent could still hear the Hadjis' lazy voices in the street. He asked, "Have you a rear door?"
"Then I'll simply not leave."
Still smiling, Mr. Frendlyer opened a drawer and took out a gun. He pointed it at Barrent, and said, "You really must leave. You can take your chances with the Hadjis, or you can die right here with no chance at all."
"Lend me your gun," Barrent said.
"It isn't allowed," Frendlyer told him. "Can't have victims running around with weapons, you know. It would upset things." He clicked off the safety. "Are you leaving?"
Barrent calculated his chances of diving across the desk for the gun, and decided he would never make it. He turned and walked slowly to the door. The ragged men were still laughing together. The dark-haired girl had risen from the bench and was standing near the doorway. As he came close to her, Barrent noticed that she was very lovely. He wondered what crime had dictated her expulsion from Earth.
As he passed her, he felt something hard pressed into his ribs. He reached for it, and found he was holding a small, efficient-looking gun.
"Luck," the girl said. "I hope you know how to use it."
Barrent nodded his thanks. He wasn't sure he knew how; but he was going to find out.
The street was deserted except for the three Hadjis, who stood about twenty yards away, conversing quietly. As Barrent came through the doorway, two of the men moved back; the third, his sidearm negligently lowered, stepped forward. When he saw that Barrent was armed he quickly brought his gun into firing position.
Barrent flung himself to the ground and pressed the trigger of his unfamiliar weapon. He felt it vibrate in his hand, and saw the Hadji's head and shoulders turn black and begin to crumble. Before he could take aim at the other men, Barrent's gun was wrenched violently from his hand. The Hadji's dying shot had creased the end of the muzzle.
Desperately Barrent dived for the gun, knowing he could never reach it in time. His skin pricked in expectation of the killing shot. He rolled to his gun, still miraculously alive, and took aim at the nearest Hadji.
Just in time, he checked himself from firing. The Hadjis had holstered their weapons. One of them was saying, "Poor old Draken. He simply could not learn to take quick aim."
"Lack of practice," the other man said. "Draken never spent much time on the firing range."
"Well, if you ask me, it's a very good object lesson. One mustn't get out of practice."
"And," the other man said, "one mustn't underestimate even a peon." He looked at Barrent. "Nice shooting, fellow."
"Yes, very nice indeed," the other man said. "It's difficult to fire a handgun accurately while in motion."
Barrent got to his feet shakily, still holding the girl's weapon, prepared to fire at the first suspicious movement from the Hadjis. But they weren't moving suspiciously. They seemed to regard the entire incident as closed.
"What happens now?" Barrent asked.
"Nothing," one of the Hadjis said. "On Landing Day, one kill is all that any man or hunting party is allowed. After that, you're out of the hunt."
"It's really a very unimportant holiday," the other man said. "Not like the Games or the Lottery."
"All that remains for you to do," the first man said, "is to go to the Registration Office and collect your inheritance."
"Your inheritance," the Hadji said patiently. "You're entitled to the entire estate of your victim. In Draken's case, I'm sorry to say, it doesn't amount to very much."
"He never was a good businessman," the other said sadly. "Still, it'll give you a little something to start life with. And since you've made an authorized kill—even though a highly unusual one—you move upward in status. You become a Free Citizen."
People had come back into the streets, and shopkeepers were unlocking their steel shutters. A truck marked BODY DISPOSAL UNIT 5 drove up, and four uniformed men took away Draken's body. The normal life of Tetrahyde had begun again. This, more than any assurances from the Hadjis, told Barrent that the moment for murder was over. He put the girl's weapon in his pocket.
"The Registration Office is over this way," one of the Hadjis told him. "We'll act as your witnesses."
Barrent still had only a limited understanding of the situation. But since things were suddenly going his way, he decided to accept whatever happened without question. There would be plenty of time later to find out where he stood.
Accompanied by the Hadjis, he went to the Registration Office on Gunpoint Square. There a bored clerk heard the entire story, produced Draken's business papers, and pasted Barrent's name over Draken's. Barrent noticed that several other names had been pasted over. There seemed to be a fast turnover of businesses in Tetrahyde.
He found that he was now the owner of an antidote shop at 3 Blazer Boulevard.
The business papers also officially recognized Barrent's new rank as a Free Citizen. The clerk gave him a ring of status, made of gunmetal, and advised him to change into Citizen's clothing as soon as possible if he wished to avoid unpleasant incidents.
Outside, the Hadjis wished him luck. Barrent decided to see what his new business was like.
* * * * *
Blazer Boulevard was a short alley running between two streets. Near the middle of it was a store front with a sign which read: ANTIDOTE SHOP. Beneath that it read: Specifics for every poison, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral. Carry our handy Do It Yourself Survival Kit. Twenty-three antidotes in one pocket-sized container!
Barrent opened the door and went in. Behind a low counter he saw ceiling-high shelves stocked with labeled bottles, cans and cartons, and square glass jars containing odd bits of leaves, twigs, and fungus. In back of the counter was a small shelf of books with titles like Quick Diagnosis in Acute Poisoning Cases; The Arsenic Family; and The Permutations of Henbane.
It was quite obvious that poisoning played a large part in the daily life of Omega. Here was a store—and presumably there were others—whose sole purpose was to dispense antidotes. Barrent thought about this and decided that he had inherited a strange but honorable business. He would study the books and find out how an antidote shop was run.
The store had a back apartment with a living room, bedroom, and kitchen. In one of the closets, Barrent found a badly made suit of Citizen black, into which he changed. He took the girl's weapon from the pocket of his prison ship uniform, weighed it in his hand for a moment, then put it into a pocket of his new suit. He left the store and found his way back to the Victim's Protective Society.
* * * * *
The door was still open, and the three ragged men were still sitting on the bench. They weren't laughing now. Their long wait seemed to have tired them. At the other end of the room, Mr. Frendlyer was seated behind his desk, reading through a thick pile of papers. There was no sign of the girl.
Barrent walked to the desk, and Frendlyer stood up to greet him.
"My congratulations!" Frendlyer said. "Dear fellow, my very warmest congratulations. That was a splendid bit of shooting. And in motion, too!"
"Thank you," Barrent said. "The reason I came back here—"
"I know why," Frendlyer said. "You wished to be advised of your rights and obligations as a Free Citizen. What could be more natural? If you take a seat on that bench, I'll be with you in—"
"I didn't come here for that," Barrent said. "I want to find out about my rights and obligations, of course. But right now, I want to find that girl."
"She was sitting on the bench when I came in. She was the one who gave me the gun."
Mr. Frendlyer looked astonished. "Citizen, you must be laboring under a misapprehension. There has been no woman in this office all day."
"She was sitting on the bench near those three men. A very attractive dark-haired girl. You must have noticed her."
"I would certainly have noticed her if she had been here," Frendlyer said, winking. "But as I said before, no woman has entered these premises today."
Barrent glared at him and pulled the gun out of his pocket. "In that case, how did I get this?"
"I lent it to you," Frendlyer said. "I'm glad you were able to use it successfully, but now I would appreciate its return."
"You're lying," Barrent said, taking a firm grip on the weapon. "Let's ask those men."
He walked over to the bench with Frendlyer close behind him. He caught the attention of the man who had been sitting nearest the girl and asked him, "Where did the girl go?"
The man lifted a sullen, unshaven face and said, "What girl you talking about, Citizen?"
"The one who was sitting right here."
"I didn't notice nobody. Rafeel, you see a female on this bench?"
"Not me," Rafeel said. "And I been sitting here continuous since ten this morning."
"I didn't see her neither," the third man said. "And I got sharp eyes."
Barrent turned back to Frendlyer. "Why are you lying to me?"
"I've told you the simple truth," Frendlyer said. "There has been no girl in here all day. I lent you the gun, as is my privilege as President of the Victim's Protective Society. I would now appreciate its return."
"No," Barrent said. "I'm keeping the gun until I find the girl."
"That might not be wise," Frendlyer said. He hastily added, "Thievery, I mean, is not condoned under these circumstances."
"I'll take my chances on that," Barrent said. He turned and left the Victim's Protective Society.
Barrent needed time to recuperate from his violent entry into Omegan life. Starting from the helpless state of a newborn, he had moved through murder to the ownership of an antidote shop. From a forgotten past on a planet called Earth, he had been catapulted into a dubious present in a world full of criminals. He had gotten a glimpse of a complex class structure, and a hint of an institutionalized program of murder. He had discovered in himself a certain measure of self-reliance, and a surprising quickness with a gun. He knew there was a great deal more to find out about Omega, Earth, and himself. He hoped he would live long enough to make the necessary discoveries.
First things first. He had to earn a living. To do so, he had to find out about poisons and antidotes.
He moved into the apartment in back of his store and began reading the books left by the late Hadji Draken.
The literature on poisons was fascinating. There were the vegetable poisons known on Earth, such as hellebore, setterwort, deadly nightshade, and the yew tree. He learned about the action of hemlock—its preliminary intoxication and its final convulsions. There was prussic acid poisoning from almonds and digitalin poisoning from purple foxglove. There was the awesome efficiency of wolfsbane with its deadly store of aconite. There were the fungi such as the amanita toadstools and fly agaric, not to mention the purely Omegan vegetable poisons like redcup, flowering lily, and amortalis.
But the vegetable poisons, although dismayingly numerous, were only one part of his studies. He had to consider the animals of Earth, sea, and air, the several species of deadly spiders, the snakes, scorpions, and giant wasps. There was an imposing array of metallic poisons such as arsenic, mercury, and bismuth. There were the commoner corrosives—nitric, hydrochloric, phosphoric, and sulphuric acid. And there were the poisons distilled or extracted from various sources, among which were strychnine, formic acid, hyoscyamine, and belladonna.
Each of the poisons had one or more antidotes listed; but those complicated, cautiously worded formulas, Barrent suspected, were frequently unsuccessful. To make matters more difficult, the efficacy of an antidote seemed to depend upon a correct diagnosis of the poisoning agent. And too often the symptoms produced by one poison resembled those of another.
Barrent pondered these problems while he studied his books. In the meantime, with considerable nervousness, he served his first customers.
He found that many of his fears were ungrounded. In spite of the dozens of lethal substances recommended by the Poison Institute, most poisoners stuck single-mindedly to arsenic or strychnine. They were cheap, sure, and very painful. Prussic acid had a readily discernible odor, mercury was difficult to introduce into the system, and the corrosives, although gratifyingly spectacular, were dangerous to the user. Wolfsbane and fly agaric were excellent, of course; deadly nightshade could not be discounted, and the amanita toadstool had its own macabre charm. But these were the poisons of an older, more leisurely age. The impatient younger generation—and especially the women, who made up nearly 90 per cent of the poisoners on Omega—were satisfied with plain arsenic or strychnine, as the occasion and opportunity demanded.
Omegan women were conservatives. They simply weren't interested in the never-ending refinements of the poisoner's art. Means didn't interest them; only ends, as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Omegan women were noted for their common sense. Although the eager theoreticians at the Poison Institute tried to sell dubious mixtures of Contact Poison or Three Day Mold, and worked hard to put across complex, haywire schemes involving wasps, concealed needles, and double glasses, they found few takers among women. Simple arsenic and fast-acting strychnine continued to be the mainstays of the poison trade.
This quite naturally simplified Barrent's work. His remedies—immediate regurgitation, lavage, neutralizing agent—were easy enough to master.
He encountered some difficulty with men who refused to believe they had been poisoned by anything so commonplace as arsenic or strychnine. For those cases, Barrent prescribed a variety of roots, herbs, twigs, leaves, and a minute homeopathic dose of poison. But he invariably preceded these with regurgitation, lavage, and neutralizing agent.
After he was settled, Barrent received a visit from Danis Foeren and Joe. Foeren had a temporary job on the docks unloading fishing boats. Joe had organized a nightly pokra game among the government workers of Tetrahyde. Neither man had moved much in status; with no kills to their credit, they had progressed only as far as Second Class Resident. They were nervous about meeting socially with a Free Citizen, but Barrent put them at ease. They were the only friends he had on Omega, and he had no intention of losing them over a question of social position.
Barrent was unable to learn very much from them about the laws and customs of Tetrahyde. Even Joe hadn't been able to find out anything definite from his friends in government service. On Omega, the law was kept secret. Older residents used their knowledge of the law to enforce their rule over the newcomers. This system was condoned and reinforced by the doctrine of the inequality of all men, which lay at the heart of the Omegan legal system. Through planned inequality and enforced ignorance, power and status remained in the hands of the older residents.
Of course, all social movement upward couldn't be stopped. But it could be retarded, discouraged, and made exceedingly dangerous. The way one encountered the laws and customs of Omega was through a risky process of trial and error.
Although the Antidote Shop took up most of his time, Barrent persisted in his efforts to locate the girl. He was unable to find a hint that she even existed.
He became friendly with the shopkeepers on either side of him. One of them, Demond Harrisbourg, was a jaunty, moustached young man who operated a food store. It was a mundane and slightly ridiculous line of work; but, as Harrisbourg explained, even criminals must eat. And this necessitated farmers, processors, packagers, and food stores. Harrisbourg contended that his business was in no way inferior to the more indigenous Omegan industries centered around violent death. Besides, Harrisbourg's wife's uncle was a Minister of Public Works. Through him, Harrisbourg expected to receive a murder certificate. With this all-important document, he could make his six-months kill and move upward to the status of Privileged Citizen.
Barrent nodded his agreement. But he wondered if Harrisbourg's wife, a thin, restless woman, wouldn't decide to poison him first. She appeared to be dissatisfied with her husband; and divorce was forbidden on Omega.
His other neighbor, Tem Rend, was a lanky, cheerful man in his early forties. He had a heat scar which ran from just beneath his left ear down almost to the corner of his mouth, a souvenir given him by a status-seeking hopeful. The hopeful had picked on the wrong man. Tem Rend owned a weapon shop, practiced constantly, and always carried the articles of his trade with him. According to witnesses, he had performed the counterkill in exemplary fashion. Tem's dream was to become a member of the Assassin's Guild. His application was on file with that ancient and austere organization, and he had a chance of being accepted within the month.
Barrent bought a sidearm from him. On Rend's advice, he chose a Jamiason-Tyre needlebeam. It was faster and more accurate than any projectile weapon, and it transmitted the same shock-power as a heavy caliber bullet. To be sure, it hadn't the spread of heat weapons such as the Hadjis used, which could kill within six inches of their target. But wide-range beamers encouraged inaccuracy. They were messy, careless weapons which reinforced careless traits. Anyone could fire a heat gun; but to use a needlebeam effectively, you had to practice constantly. And practice paid off. A good needlebeam man was more than a match for any two widebeam gunmen.
Barrent took this advice to heart, coming, as it did, from an apprentice assassin and the owner of a weapon shop. He put in long hours on Rend's cellar firing range, sharpening his reflexes, getting used to the Quik-Thro holster.
There was a lot to do and a tremendous amount to learn, just in order to survive. Barrent didn't mind hard work as long as it was for a worthwhile goal. He hoped things would stay quiet for a while so he could catch up to the older inhabitants.
But things never stayed quiet in Omega.
One day, late in the afternoon as he was closing up, Barrent received an unusual-looking caller. He was a man in his fifties, heavy-set, with a stern, swarthy face. He wore a red ankle-length robe and sandals. Around his waist was a rawhide belt from which dangled a small black book and a red-handled dagger. There was an air of unusual force and authority about him. Barrent was unable to tell his status.
Barrent said, "I was just closing up, sir. But if there's anything you wish to buy—"
"I did not come here to buy," the caller said. He permitted himself a faint smile. "I came here to sell."
"I am a priest," the man said. "You are a newcomer to my district. I haven't noticed you at services."
"I hadn't known anything about—"
The priest held up his hand. "Under both the sacred and the profane law, ignorance is no excuse for nonperformance of one's duties. Indeed, ignorance can be punished as an act of willful neglect, based upon the Total Personal Responsibility Act of '23, to say nothing of the Lesser Codicil." He smiled again. "However, there is no question of chastisement for you as yet."
"I'm glad to hear that, sir," Barrent said.
"'Uncle' is the proper form of address," the priest said. "I am Uncle Ingemar, and I have come to tell you about the orthodox religion of Omega, which is the worship of that pure and transcendent spirit of Evil which is our inspiration and our comfort."
Barrent said, "I'll be very happy to hear about the religion of Evil, Uncle. Shall we go into the living room?"
"By all means, Nephew," the priest said, and followed Barrent to the apartment in back of the store.
"Evil," the priest said, after he had settled comfortably into Barrent's best chair, "is that force within us which inspires men to acts of strength and endurance. The worship of Evil is essentially the worship of oneself, and therefore the only true worship. The self which one worships is the ideal social being; the man content in his niche in society, yet ready to grasp any opportunity for advancement; the man who meets death with dignity, who kills without the demeaning vice of pity. Evil is cruel, since it is a true reflection of the uncaring and insensate universe. Evil is eternal and unchanging, although it comes to us in the many forms of protean life."
"Would you care for a little wine, Uncle?" Barrent asked.
"Thank you, that's very thoughtful," Uncle Ingemar said. "How is business?"
"Fair. A little slow this week."
"People don't take the same interest in poisoning," the priest said, moodily sipping his drink. "Not like when I was a boy, newly unfrocked and shipped out from Earth. However. I was speaking to you about Evil."
"We worship Evil," Uncle Ingemar said, "in the incarnate form of The Black One, that horned and horrid specter of our days and nights. In The Black One we find the seven cardinal sins, the forty felonies, and the hundred and one misdemeanors. There is no crime that The Black One has not performed—faultlessly, as befits his nature. Therefore we imperfect beings model ourselves upon his perfections. And sometimes, The Black One rewards us by appearing before us in the awful beauty of his fiery flesh. Yes, Nephew, I have actually been privileged to see him. Two years ago he appeared at the conclusion of the Games, and he also appeared the year before that."
The priest brooded for a moment over the divine appearance. Then he said, "Since we recognize in the State man's highest potential for Evil, we also worship the State as a suprahuman, though less than divine, creation."
Barrent nodded. He was having a difficult time staying awake. Uncle Ingemar's low, monotonous voice lecturing about so commonplace a thing as Evil had a soporific effect on him. He struggled to keep his eyes open.
"One might well ask," Uncle Ingemar droned on, "if Evil is the highest attainment of the nature of man, why then did The Black One allow any Good to exist in the universe? The problem of Good has bothered the unenlightened for ages. I will now answer it for you."
"Yes, Uncle?" Barrent said, surreptitiously pinching himself on the inside of the thigh in an effort to stay awake.
"But first," Uncle Ingemar said, "let us define our terms. Let us examine the nature of Good. Let us boldly and fearlessly stare our great opponent in the face and discover the true lineaments of his features."
"Yes," Barrent said, wondering if he should open a window. His eyes felt incredibly heavy. He rubbed them hard and tried to pay attention.
"Good is a state of illusion," said Uncle Ingemar in his even, monotonous voice, "which ascribes to man the nonexistent attributes of altruism, humility, and piety. How can we recognize Good as being an illusion? Because there is only man and The Black One in the universe, and to worship The Black One is to worship the ultimate expression of oneself. Thus, since we have proven Good to be an illusion, we necessarily recognize its attributes as nonexistent. Understood?"
Barrent didn't answer.
"Do you understand?" the priest asked more sharply.
"Eh?" Barrent said. He had been dozing with his eyes open. He forced himself awake and managed to say, "Yes, Uncle, I understand."
"Excellent. Understanding that, we ask, why did The Black One allow even the illusion of Good to exist in an Evil universe? And the answer is found in the Law of Necessary Opposites; for Evil could not be recognized as such without something to contrast it with. The best contrast is an opposite. And the opposite of Evil is Good." The priest smiled triumphantly. "It's so simple and clear-cut, isn't it?"
"It certainly is, Uncle," Barrent said. "Would you like a little more wine?"
"Just the tiniest drop," the priest said.
He talked to Barrent for another ten minutes about the natural and charming Evil inherent in the beasts of the field and forest, and counseled Barrent to pattern his behavior on those simple-minded creatures. At last he rose to leave.
"I'm very glad we could have this little chat," the priest said, warmly shaking Barrent's hand. "Can I count on your appearance at our Monday night services?"
"Of course," Uncle Ingemar said. "Every Monday night—at midnight—we hold Black Mass at the Wee Coven on Kirkwood Drive. After services, the Ladies Auxiliary usually puts out a snack, and we have community dancing and choir singing. It's all very jolly." He smiled broadly. "You see, the worship of evil can be fun."
"I'm sure it can," Barrent said. "I'll be there, Uncle."
He showed the priest to the door. After locking up, he thought carefully about what Uncle Ingemar had said. No doubt about it, attendance at services was necessary. Compulsory, in fact. He just hoped that the Black Mass wouldn't be as infernally dull as Ingemar's exposition of Evil.
That was Friday. Barrent was kept busy over the next two days. He received a shipment of homeopathic herbs and roots from his agent in the Bloodpit district. It took the better part of a day to sort and classify them, and another day to store them in the proper jars.
On Monday, returning to his shop after lunch, Barrent thought he saw the girl. He hurried after her, but lost her in the crowd.
When he got back to his store, Barrent found that a letter had been slipped under his door. It was an invitation from his neighborhood Dream Shop. The letter read:
Dear Citizen, We take this opportunity of welcoming you into the neighborhood and extending to you the services of what we believe to be the finest Dream on Omega.
All manner and type of dreams are available to you—and at a surprisingly low cost. We specialize in memory-resurrecting dreams of Earth. You can be assured that your neighborhood Dream Shop offers you only the finest in vicarious living.
As a Free Citizen, you will surely wish to avail yourself of these services. May we hope that you do so within the week?
Barrent put down the letter. He had no idea what a Dream Shop was, or how the dreams were produced. He would have to find out. Even though the invitation was graciously worded, it had a peremptory tone to it. Past a doubt, a visit to a Dream Shop was one of the obligations of a Free Citizen.
But of course, an obligation could be a pleasure, too. The Dream Shop sounded interesting. And a genuine memory-resurrection dream of Earth would be worth almost any price the proprietors wished to ask.
But that would have to wait. Tonight was Black Mass, and his attendance there was definitely required.
Barrent left his store at eleven o'clock in the evening. He wanted time for a stroll around Tetrahyde before going to the service, which began at midnight.
He started his walk with a definite sense of well-being. And yet, because of the irrational and unexpecting nature of Omega, he almost died before reaching the Wee Coven on Kirkwood Drive.
It had turned into a hot, almost suffocatingly humid night when Barrent began his walk. Not the faintest breath of air stirred along the darkened streets. Although he was wearing only a black mesh shirt, shorts, gunbelt, and sandals, Barrent felt as if he were wrapped in a thick blanket. Most of the people of Tetrahyde, except for those already at the Covens, had retired to the coolness of their cellars. The dark streets were nearly deserted.
Barrent walked on, more slowly. The few people he met were running to their homes. There was a sense of panic in that silent, dogged sprint through heat which made walking difficult. Barrent tried to find out what the matter was, but no one would stop. One old man shouted over his shoulder, "Get off the street, idiot!"
"Why?" Barrent asked him.
The old man snarled something unintelligible and hurried on.
Barrent kept on walking, nervously fingering the butt of his needlebeam. Something was certainly wrong, but he had no idea what it was. His nearest shelter now was the Wee Coven, about half a mile away. It seemed best to keep on moving in that direction, staying alert, waiting to see what was wrong.
In a few minutes, Barrent was alone in a tightly shuttered city. He moved into the center of the street, loosened the needlebeam in its holster, and prepared for attack from any side. Perhaps this was some special holiday like Landing Day. Perhaps Free Citizens were fair game tonight. Anything seemed possible on a planet like Omega.
He thought he was ready for any possibility. But when the attack came, it was from an unexpected quarter.
A faint breeze stirred the stagnant air. It faded and returned, stronger this time, perceptibly cooling the hot streets. Wind rolled off the mountains of the interior and swept through the streets of Tetrahyde, and Barrent could feel the perspiration on his chest and back begin to dry.
For a few minutes, the climate of Tetrahyde was as pleasant as anything he could imagine.
Then the temperature continued to fall.
It dropped rapidly. Frigid air swept in from the distant mountain slopes, and the temperature fell through the seventies into the sixties.
This is ridiculous, Barrent thought to himself. I'd better get to the Coven.
He walked more rapidly, while the temperature plummeted. It passed through the forties into the low thirties. The first glittering signs of frost appeared on the streets.
It can't go much lower, Barrent thought.
But it could. An angry winter wind blew through the streets, and the temperature dropped into the twenties. Moisture in the air began forming into sleet.
Chilled to the bone, Barrent ran down the empty streets, and the wind, rising to gale force, pulled and tugged at him. The streets glittered with ice, making the footing dangerous. He skidded and fell, and had to run at a slower pace to keep his footing. And still the temperature dropped, and the wind growled and snapped like an angry beast.
He saw light through a heavily shuttered window. He stopped and pounded at the shutters, but no sound came from inside. He realized that the people of Tetrahyde never helped anyone; the more who died, the more chance there was for the survivors. So Barrent continued running, on feet that felt like chunks of wood.
The wind shrieked in his ear, and hailstones the size of his fist pelted the ground. He was getting too tired to run. All he could do now was walk, through a frozen white world, and hope he would reach the Wee Coven.
He walked for hours or for years. At one corner he passed the bodies of two men huddled against a wall and covered with frost. They had stopped running and had frozen to death.
Barrent forced himself to run again. A stitch in his side felt like a knife wound, and the cold was creeping up his arms and down his legs. Soon the cold would reach his chest, and that would be the end.
A flurry of hailstones stunned him. Without conscious transition he found that he was lying on the icy ground, and a monstrous wind was whirling away the tiny warmth his body was able to generate.
At the far end of the block he could see the tiny red light of the Coven. He crept toward it on hands and knees, moving mechanically, not really expecting to get there. He crawled forever, and the beckoning red light always remained the same distance from him.
But he kept on crawling, and at last he reached the door of the Coven. He pulled himself to his feet and turned the doorknob.
The door was locked.
He pounded feebly on the door. After a moment, a panel slid back. He saw a man staring at him; then the panel slid shut. He waited for the door to open. It didn't open. Minutes passed, and still it didn't open. What were they waiting for inside? What was wrong? Barrent tried to pound on the door again, lost his balance and fell to the ground. He rolled over and looked despairingly at the locked door. Then he lost consciousness.
* * * * *
When he came to, Barrent found himself lying on a couch. Two men were massaging his arms and legs, and beneath him he could feel the warmth of heating pads. Peering anxiously at him was the broad, swarthy face of Uncle Ingemar.
"Feeling better now?" Uncle Ingemar asked.
"I think so," Barrent said. "Why did you take so long opening the door?"
"We almost didn't open it at all," the priest told him. "It's against the law to aid strangers in distress. Since you hadn't as yet joined the Coven, you were technically still a stranger."
"Then why did you let me in?"
"My assistant noticed that we had an even number of worshipers. We require an odd number, preferably ending in three. Where the sacred and the profane laws are in conflict, the profane must yield. So we let you in despite the government ruling."
"It's a ridiculous ruling," Barrent said.
"Not really. Like most of the laws of Omega, it is designed to keep the population down. Omega is an extremely barren planet, you know. The constant arrival of new prisoners keeps swelling the population, to the enormous disadvantage of the older inhabitants. Ways and means must be sought to dispose of the excess newcomers."
"It isn't fair," Barrent said.
"You'll change your mind when you become an older inhabitant," Ingemar said. "And by your tenacity, I'm sure you'll become one."
"Maybe," Barrent said. "But what happened? The temperature must have dropped nearly a hundred degrees in fifteen minutes."
"A hundred and eight degrees to be exact," Uncle Ingemar said. "It's really very simple. Omega is a planet which revolves eccentrically around a double star system. Further instability, I'm told, comes from the planet's peculiar physical make-up—the placement of mountains and seas. The result is a uniformly and dramatically bad climate characterized by sudden violent temperature changes."
The assistant, a small, self-important fellow, said, "It has been calculated that Omega is at the outer limits of the planets which can support human life without gross artificial aids. If the fluctuations between hot and cold were any more violent, all human life here would be wiped out."
"It's the perfect punitive world," Uncle Ingemar said proudly. "Experienced residents sense when a temperature change is about to take place and get indoors."
"It's—hellish," Barrent said, at a loss for words.
"That describes it perfectly," the priest said. "It is hellish, and therefore perfect for the worship of The Black One. If you're feeling better now, Citizen Barrent, shall we proceed with services?"
Except for a touch of frostbite on his toes and fingers, Barrent was all right. He nodded, and followed the priest and the worshipers into the main part of the Coven.
* * * * *
After what he had been through, the Black Mass was necessarily an anticlimax. In his warmly heated pew, Barrent drowsed through Uncle Ingemar's sermon on the necessary performance of everyday evil.
The worship of Evil, Uncle Ingemar said, should not be reserved solely for Monday nights. On the contrary! The knowledge and performance of evil should suffuse one's daily life. It was not given to everyone to be a great sinner; but no one should be discouraged by that. Little acts of badness performed over a lifetime accumulated into a sinful whole most pleasing to The Black One. No one should forget that some of the greatest sinners, even the demoniac saints themselves, often had humble beginnings. Did not Thrastus start as a humble shopkeeper, cheating his customers of a portion of rice? Who would have expected that simple man to develop into the Red Slayer of Thorndyke Lane? And who could have imagined that Dr. Louen, son of a dockhand, would one day become the world's foremost authority on the practical applications of torture? Perseverance and piety had allowed those men to rise above their natural handicaps to a pre-eminent position at the right hand of The Black One. And it proved, Uncle Ingemar said, that Evil was the business of the poor as well as the rich.
That ended the sermon. Barrent awoke momentarily when the sacred symbols were brought out and displayed to the reverent congregation—a red-handled dagger, and a plaster toad. Then he dozed again through the slow inscribing of the magical pentagon.
At last the ceremony neared its end. The names of the interceding evil demons were read—Bael, Forcas, Buer, Marchocias, Astaroth, and Behemoth. A prayer was read to ward off the effects of Good. And Uncle Ingemar apologized for not having a virgin to sacrifice on the Red Altar.
"Our funds were not sufficient," he said, "for the purchase of a government-certified peon virgin. However, I am sure we will be able to perform the full ceremony next Monday. My assistant will now pass among you...."
The assistant carried around the black-rimmed collection plate. Like the other worshipers, Barrent contributed generously. It seemed wise to do so. Uncle Ingemar was clearly annoyed at not having a virgin to sacrifice. If he became a little angrier, he might take it into his head to sacrifice one of the congregation, virgin or not.
Barrent didn't stay for the choir singing or the community dancing. When the evening worship was finished, he poked his head cautiously out the door. The temperature had gone up to the seventies, and the frost was already melted from the ground. Barrent shook hands with the priest and hurried home.
Barrent had had enough of Omega's shocks and surprises. He stayed close to his store, worked at his business, and kept alert for trouble. He was beginning to develop the Omegan look: a narrow, suspicious squint, a hand always near gun butt, feet ready to sprint. Like the older inhabitants, he was acquiring a sixth sense for danger.
At night, after the doors and windows were barred and the triplex alarm system had been set, Barrent would lie on his bed and try to remember Earth. Probing into the misty recesses of his memory, he found tantalizing hints and traces, and fragments of pictures. Here was a great highway curving toward the sun; a fragment of a huge, multi-level city; a closeup view of a starship's curving hull. But the pictures were not continuous. They existed for the barest fraction of a second, then vanished.
On Saturday, Barrent spent the evening with Joe, Danis Foeren, and his neighbor Tem Rend. Joe's pokra had prospered, and he had been able to bribe his way to the status of Free Citizen. Foeren was too blunt and straightforward for that; he had remained at the Residency level. But Tem Rend promised to take the big forger as an assistant if the Assassin's Guild accepted his application.
The evening started pleasantly enough; but it ended, as usual, with an argument about Earth.
"Now look," Joe said, "we all know what Earth is like. It's a complex of gigantic floating cities. They're built on artificial islands in the various oceans—"
"No, the cities are on land," Barrent said.
"On water," Joe said. "The people of Earth have returned to the sea. Everyone has special oxygen adaptors for breathing salt water. The land areas aren't even used any more. The sea provides everything that—"
"It isn't like that," Barrent said. "I remember huge cities, but they were all on land."
Foeren said, "You're both wrong. What would Earth want with cities? She gave them up centuries ago. Earth is a landscaped park now. Everyone has his own home and several acres of land. All the forests and jungles have been allowed to grow back. People live with nature instead of trying to conquer it. Isn't that right, Tem?"
"Almost but not quite," Tem Rend said. "There are still cities, but they're underground. Tremendous underground factories and production areas. The rest is like Foeren said."
"There aren't any more factories," Foeren insisted stubbornly. "There's no need of them. Any goods which a man requires can be produced by thought-control."
"I'm telling you," Joe said, "I can remember the floating cities! I used to live in the Nimui sector on the island of Pasiphae."
"You think that proves anything?" Rend asked. "I remember that I worked on the eighteenth underground level of Nueva Chicaga. My work quota was twenty days a year. The rest of the time I spent outdoors in the forests—"
Foeren said, "That's wrong, Tem. There aren't any underground levels. I can remember distinctly that my father was a Controller, Third Class. Our family used to trek several hundred miles every year. When we needed something, my father would think it, and there it'd be. He promised to teach me how, but I guess he never did."
Barrent said, "Well, a couple of us are certainly having false recall."
"That's certain," Joe said. "But the question is, which of us is right?"
"We'll never find out," Rend said, "unless we can return to Earth."
That ended the discussion.
Toward the end of the week, Barrent received another invitation from the Dream Shop, more strongly worded than the first. He decided to discharge the obligation that evening. He checked the temperature, and found that it had risen into the high nineties. Wiser now in Omegan ways, he packed a small satchel full of cold-weather clothing, and started out.
The Dream Shop was located in the exclusive Death's Row section. Barrent went in, and found himself in a small, sumptuously furnished waiting room. A sleek young man behind a polished desk gave him an artificial smile.
"Could I be of service?" the young man asked. "My name is Nomis J. Arkdragen, assistant manager in charge of nightside dreams."
"I'd like to know something about what happens," Barrent said. "How one gets dreams, what kind of dreams, all that sort of thing."
"Of course," Arkdragen said. "Our service is easily explained, Citizen—"
"Barrent. Will Barrent."
Arkdragen nodded and checked a name from a list in front of him. He looked up and said, "Our dreams are produced by the action of drugs upon the brain and the central nervous system. There are many drugs which produce the desired effect. Among the most useful are heroin, morphine, opium, coca, hemp, and peyote. All those are Earth products. Found only on Omega are Black Slipper, nace, manicee, tri-narcotine, djedalas, and the various products of the carmoid group. Any and all of these are dream-inducers."
"I see," Barrent said. "Then you sell drugs."
"Not at all!" Arkdragen said. "Nothing so simple, nothing so crude. In ancient times on Earth, men administered drugs to themselves. The dreams which resulted were necessarily random in nature. You never knew what you would dream about, or for how long. You never knew if you would have a dream or a nightmare, a horror or a delight. This uncertainty has been removed from the modern Dream Shop. Nowadays, our drugs are carefully measured, mixed, and metered for each individual. There is an absolute precision in dream-making, ranging from the Nirvana-like calm of Black Slipper through the multicolored hallucinations of peyotl and tri-narcotine, to the sexual fantasies induced by nace and morphine, and at last to the memory-resurrecting dreams of the carmoid group."
"It's the memory-resurrecting dreams I'm interested in," Barrent said.
Arkdragen frowned. "I wouldn't recommend it for a first visit."
"Dreams of Earth are apt to be more unsettling than any imaginary productions. It's usually advisable to build up a tolerance for them. I would advise a nice little sexual fantasy for your first visit. We have a special sale on sexual fantasies this week."
Barrent shook his head. "I think I'd prefer the real thing."
"You wouldn't," the assistant manager said, with a knowing smile. "Believe me, once one becomes accustomed to vicarious sex experiences, the real thing is pallid by comparison."
"Not interested," Barrent said. "What I want is a dream about Earth."
"But you haven't built up a tolerance!" Arkdragen said. "You aren't even addicted."
"Is addiction necessary?"
"It's important," Arkdragen told him, "as well as being inescapable. All our drugs are habit-forming, as the law requires. You see, to really appreciate a drug, you must build up a need for it. It heightens pleasure enormously, to say nothing of the increase in toleration. That's why I suggest that you begin with—"
"I want a dream about Earth," Barrent said.
"Very well," Arkdragen said grudgingly. "But we will not be responsible for any traumas which accrue."
He led Barrent into a long passageway. It was lined with doors, and behind some of them Barrent could hear dull moans and gasps of pleasure.
"Experiencers," Arkdragen said, without further explanation. He took Barrent to an open room near the end of the corridor. Within sat a cheerful-looking bearded man in a white coat reading a book.
"Good evening, Doctor Wayn," Arkdragen said. "This is Citizen Barrent. First visit. He insists upon an Earth dream." Arkdragen turned and left.
"Well," the doctor said, "I guess we can manage that." He put down his book. "Just lie down over there, Citizen Barrent."
In the center of the room was a long, adjustable table. Above it hung a complicated-looking instrument. At the end of the room were glass-sided cabinets filled with square jars; they reminded Barrent of his antidotes.
He lay down. Doctor Wayn put him through a general examination, then a specific check for suggestibility, hypnotic index, reactions to the eleven basic drug groups, and susceptibility to tetanic and epileptic seizures. He jotted down his results on a pad, checked his figures, went to a cabinet, and began mixing drugs.
"Is this likely to be dangerous?" Barrent asked.
"It shouldn't be," Doctor Wayn said. "You appear healthy enough. Quite healthy, in fact, and with a low suggestibility rating. Of course, epileptic fits do occur, probably because of cumulative allergic reactions. Can't help that sort of thing. And then there are the traumas, which sometimes result in insanity and death. They form an interesting study in themselves. And some people get stuck in their dreams and are unable to be extricated. I suppose that could be classified as a form of insanity, although actually it isn't."
The doctor had finished mixing his drugs. He was loading a hypodermic with the mixture. Barrent was having serious doubts about the advisability of the whole thing.
"Perhaps I should postpone this visit," he said. "I'm not sure that I—"
"Don't worry about a thing," the doctor said. "This is the finest Dream Shop on Omega. Try to relax. Tight muscles can result in tetanic convulsions."
"I think Mr. Arkdragen was right," Barrent said. "Maybe I shouldn't have a dream about Earth for my first visit. He said it was dangerous."
"Well, after all," the doctor said, "what's life without a little risk? Besides, the most common damage is brain lesions and burst blood vessels. And we have full facilities for taking care of that sort of thing."
He poised the hypodermic over Barrent's left arm.
"I've changed my mind," Barrent said, and started to get off the bed. Doctor Wayn deftly slid the needle into Barrent's arm.
"One does not change one's mind," he told Barrent, "inside a Dream Shop. Try to relax...."
Barrent relaxed. He lay back on the bed, and heard a shrill singing in his ears. He tried to focus on the doctor's face. But the face had changed.
The face was old, round, and fleshy. Ridges of fat stood out on the chin and neck. The face was perspiring, friendly, worried.
It was Barrent's 5th Term Advisor.
"Now, Will," the Advisor said, "you must be careful. You must learn to restrain that temper of yours. Will, you must!"
"I know, sir," Barrent said. "It's just that I get so mad at that—"
"All right," Barrent said. "I'll watch myself."
He left the university office and walked into the city. It was a fantastic city of skyscrapers and multi-level streets, a brilliant city of silver and diamond hues, an ambitious city which administered a far-flung network of countries and planets. Barrent walked along the third pedestrian level, still angry, thinking about Andrew Therkaler.
Because of Therkaler and his ridiculous jealousy, Barrent's application for the Space Exploration Corps had been turned down. There was nothing his Advisor could do about the matter; Therkaler had too much influence on the Selection Board. It would be a full three years before Barrent could apply again. In the meantime he was Earth-bound and unemployable. All his studies had been for extraterrestrial exploration. There was no place for him on Earth; and now he was barred from space.
Barrent left the pedestrian level and took the highspeed ramp into the Sante district. As the ramp moved, he fingered the small weapon in his pocket. Handguns were illegal on Earth. He had procured his through untraceable means.
He was determined to kill Therkaler.
There was a wash of grotesque faces. The dream blurred. When it cleared, Barrent found himself aiming his handgun at a thin, cross-eyed fellow whose scream for mercy was abruptly cut short.
The informer, blank-faced and stern, noted the crime and informed the police.
The police, in uniforms of gray, took him into custody and brought him before the judge.
The judge, with his vague parchment face, sentenced him to perpetual servitude upon the planet Omega, and handed down the obligatory decree that Barrent be cleansed of memory.
Then the dream turned into a kaleidoscope of horror. Barrent was climbing a slippery pole, a sheer mountainside, a smooth-sided well. Behind him, gaining on him, was Therkaler's corpse with its chest ripped open. Supporting the corpse on either side were the blank-faced informer and the parchment-faced judge.
Barrent ran down a hill, a street, a rooftop. His pursuers were close behind him. He entered a dim yellow room, closed and locked the door. When he turned around, he saw that he had locked himself in with Therkaler's corpse. Fungus was blossoming in the open wound in the chest, and the scarred head was crowned with red and purple mold. The corpse advanced, reached for him, and Barrent dived headfirst through the window.
"Come out of it, Barrent. You're overdoing it. Come out of the dream."
Barrent had no time to listen. The window turned into a chute, and he slid down its polished sides into an amphitheatre. There, across gray sand, the corpse crept toward him on the stubs of arms and legs. The enormous grandstand was empty except for the judge and the informer, who sat side by side, watching.
"Well, I warned him...."
"Come out of the dream, Barrent. This is Doctor Wayn. You're on Omega, in the Dream Shop. Come out of the dream. There's still time if you pull yourself out immediately."
Omega? Dream? There was no time to think about it. Barrent was swimming across a dark, evil-smelling lake. The judge and the informer were swimming just behind him, flanking the corpse, whose skin was slowly peeling away.
And now the lake was turning into a thick jelly which clung to his arms and legs and filled his mouth, while the judge and the informer—
Barrent opened his eyes and found himself on the adjustable bed in the Dream Shop. Doctor Wayn, looking somewhat shaken, was standing over him. A nurse was near by with a tray of hypodermics and an oxygen mask. Behind her was Arkdragen, wiping perspiration from his forehead.
"I didn't think you were going to make it," Doctor Wayn said. "I really didn't."
"He pulled out just in time," the nurse said.
"I warned him," Arkdragen said, and left the room.
Barrent sat up. "What happened?" he asked.
Doctor Wayn shrugged his shoulders. "It's hard to tell. Perhaps you were prone to circular reaction; and sometimes the drugs aren't absolutely pure. But these things usually don't happen more than once. Believe me, Citizen Barrent, the drug experience is very pleasant. I'm sure you'll enjoy it the second time."
Still shaken by his experience, Barrent was certain there would be no second time for him. Whatever the cost, he was not going to risk a repetition of that nightmare.
"Am I addicted now?" he asked.
"Oh, no," Doctor Wayn said. "Addiction occurs with the third or fourth visit."
Barrent thanked him and left. He passed Arkdragen's desk and asked how much he owed.
"Nothing," Arkdragen said. "The first visit is always on the house." He gave Barrent a knowing smile.
Barrent left the Dream Shop and hurried home to his apartment. He had a lot to think about. Now, for the first time, he had proof that he was a willful and premeditated murderer.
Being accused of a murder you can't remember is one thing; remembering a murder you have been accused of is another thing entirely. Such evidence is hard to disbelieve.
Barrent tried to sort out his feelings on the matter. Before his visit to the Dream Shop he had never felt himself a murderer, no matter what the Earth authorities had accused him of. At worst, he had thought that he might have killed a man in a sudden uncontrollable fit of rage. But to plan and perform a murder in cold blood....
Why had he done it? Had his lust for revenge been so great as to throw off all the restraint of Earth's civilization? Apparently so. He had killed, and someone had informed on him, and a judge had sentenced him to Omega. He was a murderer on a criminal's planet. To live here successfully, he simply had to follow his natural bias toward murder.
And yet, Barrent found this extremely difficult to do. He had surprisingly little taste for bloodshed. On Free Citizen's Day, although he went into the streets with his needlebeam, he couldn't bring himself to slaughter any of the lower classes. He didn't want to kill. It was a ridiculous prejudice, considering where and what he was; but there it was. No matter how often Tem Rend or Joe lectured him on his Citizen's duties, Barrent still found murder quite distasteful.
He sought the aid of a psychiatrist, who told him that his rejection of murder had its roots in an unhappy childhood. The phobia had been further complicated by the traumatic qualities of his experience in the Dream Shop. Because of this, murder, the highest social good, had become repugnant to him. This antimurder neurosis in a man eminently suited for the art of killing would, the psychiatrist said, inevitably lead to Barrent's destruction. The only solution was to displace the neurosis. The psychiatrist suggested immediate treatment in a sanitarium for the criminally non-murderous.