The great Eric Frank Russell’s masterpiece And Then There Where None, is called Anarchy in action. It is something far more profound and powerful I think. It is the power of one’s Consent. Consent is something entirely unique in all human activity. It is what gave us The 5000 Year Leap, The United States. Liberty. The Bill of Rights. The finest document ever written: The Declaration of Independence. Inalienable God given natural rights practiced for the first time in all of history is consent in action. Consent can only be given. Not taken. Not coerced. Not forced. It can not be stolen, bought, sold. You always have to make the choice first. Even tacit consent is still a choice. A lazy choice, a dos out, but still it requires a choice.
Consent is unlike any other thing. Those who presume to rule over us, remarkably, require at the very least the illusion of tacit consent of the dirt people in order to have any power over us dirt people to begin with, aside from the power that grows from the barrel of their guns. And it is consent what will redress all the wrongs foisted on us dirt people. And we have guns too.
Consent is the tyrants great conundrum.
Sic Semper Tyrannis: thus always to tyrants
The phrase is meant to signify that tyrants will always be overthrown and removed from power.
The idea if America, is to never let the tyrants get into the situation to begin with where we have to throw them out. But so be it. That’s where our consent and our rifles come in.
AND THEN THERE WHERE NONE
By Eric Frank Russell
|His Excellency fastened a cold eye upon him and demanded, ‘Well?’
‘He refuses to come.’ Bidworthy’s veins stood out on his forehead. ‘And, sir, if only I could have him in the space troops for a few months I’d straighten him up and teach him to move at the double.’
‘I don’t doubt that, Sergeant Major,’ the Ambassador soothed. He continued in a whispered aside to Colonel Shelton. ‘He’s a good fellow but no diplomat. Too abrupt and harsh-voiced. Better go yourself and fetch that farmer. We can’t loaf around forever waiting to learn where to begin.’
‘Very well, Your Excellency.’ Trudging across the field, Shelton caught up with the farmer, smiled pleasantly and said, ‘Good morning, my man.’
Stopping his machine, the farmer sighed as if it were one of those days one has sometimes. His eyes were dark brown, almost black as they regarded the newcomer.
‘What makes you think I’m your man.’
‘It is a figure of speech,’ explained Shelton. He could see what was wrong now. Bidworthy had fallen foul of an irascible type. They’d been like two dogs snarling at one another. Oh, well, as a high- ranking officer he was competent to handle anybody, the good and the bad, the sweet and the sour, the jovial and the liverish. Shelton went on oilily, ‘I was only trying to be courteous.’
‘It must be said,’ meditated the farmer, ‘that that is something worth trying for—if you can make it.’
Pinking a little, Shelton continued with determination, ‘I am commanded to request the pleasure of your company at the ship.’
‘Really and truly commanded?’
The other appeared to wander into a momentary daydream before he came back and asked blandly, ‘Think they’ll get any pleasure out of my company?’
‘I’m sure of it,’ said Shelton.
‘You’re a liar,’ said the farmer.
His colour deepening, Colonel Shelton snapped, ‘I do not permit people to call me a liar.’
‘You’ve just permitted it,’ the farmer pointed out. Letting it pass, Shelton insisted, ‘Are you coming to the ship?’
‘Myob!’ said the farmer.
‘What was that?’
‘Myob!’ he repeated. It sounded like some sort of insult. Shelton went back, told the Ambassador, ‘That fellow is one of those too-clever types. At the finish all I could get out of him was ‘Myob’ whatever that means.’
‘Local slang,’ chipped in Grayder. ‘An awful lot of it develops in four centuries. I’ve come across one or two worlds where there has been so much of it that to all intents and purposes it formed a new language.’
‘He understood your speech?’ asked the Ambassador of Shelton.
‘Yes, Your Excellency. And his own is quite good. But he won’t leave his work.’ He reflected briefly, suggested, ‘If it were left to me I’d bring him in by force with an armed escort.’
‘That would encourage him to give essential information,’ commented the Ambassador with open sarcasm. He patted his stomach, smoothed his jacket, glanced down at his glossy shoes. ‘Nothing for it but to go and speak to him myself.’
Shelton was shocked. ‘Your Excellency, you can’t do that!’
‘Why can’t I?’
‘It would be undignified.’
‘I am fully aware of the fact,’said the Ambassador dryly. ‘What alternative do you suggest?’
‘We can send out a patrol to find someone more co-operative.’
‘Someone better informed, too,’ Captain Grayder offered. ‘At best we won’t get much out of one surly hayseed. I doubt whether he knows one quarter of what we require to learn.’
‘All right.’ The Ambassador dropped the idea of doing his own chores. ‘Organise a patrol and let’s have some results.’
‘A patrol,’ said Colonel Shelton to Major Hame. ‘Nominate one immediately.’
‘Call out a patrol,’ Hame ordered Lieutenant Deacon. ‘At once.’
‘Parade a patrol forthwith, Sergeant Major,’ said Deacon.
Bidworthy lumbered up the gangway, stuck his head into the airlock and shouted,’ sergeant Gleed, out with your squad and make it snappy!’ He gave a suspicious sniff and went farther into the lock. His voice gained several more decibels. ‘Who’s been smoking? By heavens, if I catch the man—’
Across the fields something quietly went chuff-chuff while fat wheels crawled along.
The patrol formed by the right in two ranks of eight men each, turned at a barked command and marched off in the general direction of the ship’s nose. They moved with perfect rhythm if no great beauty of motion. Their boots thumped in unison, their accoutrements clattered with martial noises and the orange-coloured sun made sparkles on their metal.Sergeant Gleed did not have to take his men far. They were one hundred yards beyond the ship’s great snout when he noticed a man ambling across the field to his right. Treating the ship with utter indifference, this character was making toward the farmer still toiling far over to the left.
‘Patrol, right wheel!’ yelled Gleed, swift to take advantage of the situation. The patrol right-wheeled, marched straight past the wayfarer who couldn’t be bothered even to wave a handkerchief at them. Now Gleed ordered an about-turn and followed it with a take-him gesture.
Speeding up its pace, the patrol opened its ranks and became a double file of men tramping on either side of the lone pedestrian. Ignoring his suddenly acquired escort the latter continued to plod straight ahead like one long convinced that all is illusion.
‘Left wheel!’ roared Gleed, trying to bend the whole caboodle toward the waiting Ambassador.
Swiftly obedient, the double file headed leftward, one, two, three, hup! It was neat, precise execution beautiful to watch. Only one thing spoiled it: the man in the middle stubbornly maintained his self-chosen orbit and ambled casually between numbers four and five of the right-hand file.
That upset Gleed, especially since the patrol continued to thump steadily ambassadorwards for lack of a further order. His Excellency was being treated to the unmilitary spectacle of an escort dumbly boot-beating one way while its prisoner airily mooched another way. In due course Colonel Shelton would have plenty to say about it and anything he forgot Bidworthy would remember.
‘Patrol!’ hoarsed Gleed, pointing an outraged finger at the escapee and momentarily dismissing all regulation commands from his mind, ‘Get that mug!’
Breaking ranks, they moved at the double and surrounded the wanderer too closely to permit further progress. Perforce he stopped.Gleed came up and said somewhat breathlessly, ‘Look, the Earth Ambassador wants to speak to you—that’s all.’
The other gazed at him with mild blue eyes. He was a funny looking sample, long overdue for a shave. He had a fringe of ginger whiskers sticking out all around his face and bore faint resemblance to a sunflower.‘I should care,’ be said.
‘Are you going to talk with His Excellency?’ Gleed persisted.
‘Naw.’ The other nodded toward the farmer. ‘Going to talk to Zeke.’
‘The Ambassador first,’ retorted Gleed, wearing his tough expression. ‘He’s a big noise.’
‘I don’t doubt that,’ remarked the sunflower, showing what sort of a noise he had in mind.
‘Smartie Artie, eh?’ grated Gleed, pushing his face close and making it unpleasant. He signed to his men. ‘All right, hustle him along. We’ll show him!’
Smartie Artie chose this moment to sit down. He did it sort of solidly, giving himself the aspect of a squatting statue anchored for the remainder of eternity. But Gleed had handled sitters before, the only difference being that this one was cold sober.
‘Pick him up,’ commanded Gleed, ‘and carry him.’
So they picked him up and carried him, feet first, whiskers last. He hung limp and unresisting in their hands, a dead weight made as difficult as possible to bear. In this inauspicious manner he arrived in the presence of the Ambassador where the escort plonked him on his feet.
Promptly he set out for Zeke.
‘Hold him, darn you!’ howled Gleed.
The patrol grabbed and clung tight. The Ambassador eyed the whiskers with well-bred concealment of distaste, coughed delicately and spoke.
‘I am truly sorry that you had to come to me in this fashion.’
‘In that case,’ suggested the prisoner, ‘you could have saved yourself some mental anguish by not permitting it to happen.’
‘There was no other choice. We’ve got to make contact somehow.’
‘I don’t see it’ said Ginger Whiskers. ‘What’s so special about this date?’
‘The date?’ The Ambassador frowned in puzzlement. ‘What has the date got to do with it?’
‘That’s exactly what I’m asking.’
‘The point eludes me.’ The Ambassador turned to the others. ‘Do you understand what he’s aiming at?’
Shelton said, ‘I can hazard a guess, Your Excellency. I think he is hinting that since we’ve left them without contact for four hundred years there is no particular urgency about making it today.’ He looked to the sunflower for confirmation.
That worthy rallied to his support by remarking, ‘You’re doing pretty well for a halfwit.’
Regardless of Shelton’s own reaction, this was too much for Bidworthy purpling nearby. His chest came up and his eyes caught fire. His voice was an authoritative rasp.
‘Be more respectful while addressing high-ranking officers!’
The prisoner’s mild blue eyes turned upon him in childish amazement, examined him slowly from feet to head and all the way down again. The eyes drifted back inquiringly to the Ambassador.
‘Who is this preposterous person?’
Dismissing the question with an impatient wave of his hand, the Ambassador said, ‘see here, it is not our purpose to bother you from sheer perversity, as you seem to think. Neither do we wish to detain you any longer than is necessary. All w—’
Pulling at his face-fringe as if to accentuate its offensiveness, the other interjected, ‘It being you, of course, who determines the length of the necessity?’
‘On the contrary, you may decide that for yourself,’ gave back the Ambassador, displaying admirable self-control. ‘All you need do is tell us—’
‘Then I’ve decided it right now,’ the prisoner chipped in. He tried to heave himself free of his escort .‘Let me go talk to Zeke.’
‘All you need do,’ the Ambassador persisted, ‘is tell us where we can find a local official who can put us into touch with your central government.’ His gaze was stern, commanding, as he added, ‘For instance where is the nearest police post?’
‘Myob!’ said Ginger Whiskers.
‘What was that?’
‘The same to you,’ retorted the Ambassador, his patience evaporating.
‘That’s precisely what I’m trying to do,’ insisted the prisoner, enigmatically. ‘Only you won’t let me do it.’
If I may make a suggestion, Your Excellency,’ but in Shelton, ‘allow me—’
‘I require no suggestions and I won’t allow you,’ said the Ambassador, somewhat out of temper. ‘I have had enough of all this stupid tomfoolery. I think we have landed at random in an area reserved for imbeciles. It would be as well to recognize the fact and get out of it with no more delay.’
‘Now you’re talking,’ approved Ginger Whiskers. ‘And the farther the better.’
‘We have no intention of leaving this planet, if that is what’s in your incomprehensible mind,’ asserted the Ambassador. He stamped a proprietory foot into the turf. ‘This is part of the Terran Empire. As such it is going to be recognized, charted and organized.’
‘Heah, heah!’ put in the senior civil servant who aspired to honours in elocution.
His Excellency threw a frown behind, went on, ‘We’ll move the ship to some other section where brains are brighter.’ He turned attention to the escort. ‘Let him go. Probably he is in a hurry to borrow a razor.’
They released their grips. Ginger Whiskers at once turned toward the distant farmer much as if he were a magnetized needle irresistibly drawn Zekeward. Without another word he set off at his original slovenly pace. Disappointment and disgust showed on the faces of Bidworthy and Gleed as they watched him depart.
‘Have the vessel shifted at once, Captain,’ the Ambassador said to Grayder. ‘Plant it near to a likely town—not out in the wilds where every yokel views strangers as a bunch of crooks.’
He marched importantly up the gangway. Captain Grayder followed, then Colonel Shelton, then the elocutionist. Next, their successors in correct order of precedence. Lastly, Gleed and his men. The airlock closed. The warning siren sounded. Despite its immense bulk the ship shivered briefly from end to end and soared without deafening uproar or spectacular display of flame.
Indeed, there was silence save for a little engine going chuff-chuff and the murmurings of the two men walking behind it. Neither took the trouble to look around to see what was happening.
‘Seven pounds of prime tobacco is a heck of a lot to give for one case of brandy,’ Ginger Whiskers protested.
The great ship’s next touchdown was made on a wide flat about two miles north of a town estimated to hold twelve to fifteen thousand people. Grayder would have preferred to survey the place from low altitude before making his landing but one cannot handle a huge space-going vessel as if it were an atmospheric tug. Only two things can be done when so close to a planetary surface—the ship is taken straight up or brought straight down with no room for fiddling between-times.
So Grayder dumped the ship in the best spot he could find when finding is a matter of split-second decisions. It made a rut only ten feet deep, the ground being hard with a rock bed. The gangway was shoved out. The procession descended in the same order as before.
Casting an anticipatory look toward the town, the Ambassador registered irritation. ‘Something is badly out of kilter here. There’s the town not so far away. Here we are in plain view with a ship like a metal mountain. At least a thousand people must have seen us coming down even if all the rest are holding seances behind drawn curtains or playing poker in the cellars. Are they interested? Are they excited?’
‘It doesn’t seem so,’ contributed Shelton, pulling industriously at an eyelid for the sake of feeling it spring back.
‘I wasn’t asking you. I am telling you. They are not excited. They are not surprised. They are not even interested. One would almost think they’d had a ship here that was full of smallpox or that swindled them out of something. what’s wrong with them?’
‘Possibly they lack curiosity,’ Shelton ventured.
‘Either that or they’re afraid. Or maybe the entire gang of them is more cracked than any bunch on any other world. Practically all these planets were appropriated by dotty people who wanted to establish a haven where their eccentricities could run loose. And nutty notions become conventional after four hundred years of undisturbed continuity. It is then considered normal and proper to nurse the bats out of your grandfather’s attic. That and generations of inbreeding can create some queer types. But we’ll cure them before we’re through.’
‘Yes, Your Excellency, most certainly we will.’
‘You don’t look so well-balanced yourself, chasing that eyelid around your face,’ reproved the Ambassador. He pointed south-east as Shelton stuck the fidgety hand firmly into a pocket. ‘There’s a road over there. Wide and well-built by the looks of it. They don’t construct a highway for the mere fun of it. Ten to one it’s an important artery.’
‘That’s how it looks to me,’ Shelton agreed.
‘Put that patrol across it, Colonel. If your men don’t bring in a willing talker within reasonable time we’ll send the entire battalion into the town itself.’
‘A patrol,’ said Shelton to Major Hame.
‘Call out the patrol,’ Hame ordered Lieutenant Deacon.
‘That patrol again, Sergeant Major,’ said Deacon.
Bidworthy raked out Gleed and his men, indicated the road, barked a bit and shooed them on their way.
They marched, Gleed in front. Their objective was half a mile away and angled toward the town. The left-hand file had a clear view of the nearest suburbs, eyed the buildings wistfully, wished Gleed in warmer regions with Bidworthy stoking the hell-fire beneath him.
Hardly had they reached their goal than a customer appeared. He came from the town’s outskirts, zooming along at fast pace on a contraption vaguely like a motorcycle. It ran on a big pair of rubber balls and was pulled by a caged fan. Gleed spread his men across the road.
The oncomer’s machine suddenly gave forth a harsh, penetrating sound that reminded everybody of Bidworthy in the presence of dirty boots.
‘Stay put,’ warned Gleed. ‘I’ll skin the fellow who gives way and leaves a gap.’
Again the shrill metallic warning. Nobody moved. The machine slowed, came up to them at a crawl and stopped. Its fan continued to spin at slow rate, the blades almost visible and giving out a steady hiss.
‘What’s the idea?’ demanded the rider. He was lean-featured, in his middle thirties, wore a gold ring in his nose and had a pigtail four feet long.
Blinking incredulously at this get-up, Gleed managed to jerk an indicative thumb toward the metal mountain and say, ‘Earthship.’‘Well, what do you expect me to do about it?—throw a fit of hysterics?’
‘We expect you to co-operate,’ informed Gleed, still bemused by the pigtail. He had never seen such a thing before. It was in no way effeminate, he decided. Rather did it lend a touch of ferocity like that worn—according to the picture books—by certain North American aborigines in the dim and distant past.
‘Co-operation,’ mused the rider. ‘Now there is a beautiful word. You know exactly what it means, of course?’
‘I’m not a dope.’
‘The precise degree of your idiocy is not under discussion at the moment,’ the rider pointed out. His nose-ring waggled a bit as he spoke. ‘We are talking about co-operation. I take it you do quite a lot of it yourself?’
‘You bet I do,’ Gleed assured. ‘And so does everyone else who knows what’s good for him.’
‘Let’s keep to the subject, shall we? Let’s not sidetrack and go rambling all over the conversational map.’ He revved up his fan a little then let it slow down again. ‘You are given orders and you obey them?’
‘Of course. I’d have a rough time if—’
‘That is what you call co-operation?’ put in the other. He hunched his shoulders, pursed his bottom lip. ‘Well, it’s nice to check the facts of history. The books could be wrong.’ His fan flashed into a circle of light and the machine surged forward. ‘Pardon me.’
The front rubber ball barged forcefully between two men, knocking them aside without injury. With a high whine the machine shot down the road, its fan-blast making its rider’s plaited hairdo point horizontally backward.
‘You substandard morons!’ raged Gleed as the pair got up and dusted themselves. ‘I told you to stand fast What d’you mean by letting him run out on us like that?’
‘Didn’t have much choice about it, Sarge,’ answered one surlily.
‘I want none of your back-chat. You could have busted one of his balloons if you’d had your guns ready. That would have stopped him.’
‘You didn’t tell us to use our guns.’
‘Where was your own, anyway?’ added a sneaky voice.
Gleed whirled on the others and demanded, ‘Who said that?’ His eyes raked a long row of impassive faces. It was impossible to detect the culprit ‘I’ll shake you up with the next quota of fatigues,’ he promised. ‘I’ll see to it that—’
‘The Sergeant Major’s coming,’ one of them warned.
Bidworthy was four hundred yards away and making martial progress towards them. Arriving in due time, he cast a cold, contemptuous glance over the patrol.
‘Giving me a lot of lip, he was,’ complained Gleed after providing a brief account of the incident. ‘He looked like one of those Chickasaws with an oil-well.’
‘Did he really?’ Bidworthy surveyed him a moment, then invited, ‘And what is a Chickasaw?’
‘I read about them somewhere once when I was a kid,’ explained Gleed, happy to bestow a modicum of learning. ‘They got rich on oil. They had long, plaited haircuts, wore blankets and rode around in gold-plated automobiles.’
‘Sounds crazy to me,’ said Bidworthy. ‘I gave up all that magic-carpet stuff when I was seven. I was deep in ballistics before I was twelve and military logistics when I was fourteen.’ He sniffed loudly and gave the other a jaundiced eye. ‘Some guys suffer from arrested development.’
‘They actually existed,’ Gleed maintained. ‘They—’
‘So did fairies,’ snapped Bidworthy. ‘My mother said so. My mother was a good woman. She didn’t tell me a lot of goddam lies—often.’ He spat on the road. ‘Be your age!’ Then he glowered at the patrol. ‘All right, get out your guns—assuming that you’ve got them and know where they are and which hand to hold them in. Take orders from me. I’ll deal personally with the next character who comes along.’Sitting on a large rock by the roadside, be planted an expectant gaze on the town. Gleed posed near him, slightly pained. The patrol remained strung across the road with guns held ready. Half an hour crawled by without anything happening.
One of the men pleaded, ‘Can we smoke, Sergeant Major?’
They fell into lugubrious silence, licking their lips from time to time and doing plenty of thinking. They had lots about which to think. A town—any town of human occupation—had desirable features not to be found anywhere else in the cosmos. Lights, company, freedom, laughter, all the makings of life. And one can go hungry too long.
Eventually a large coach emerged from the town’s outskirts, hit the high road and came bowling towards them. A long, shiny, streamlined job, it rolled on twenty balls in two rows of ten, gave forth a whine similar to but louder than that of the motorcycle, and had no visible fans. It was loaded with people.
At a point two hundred yards from the road-block a loud-speaker under the vehicle’s bonnet blared an urgent, ‘Make way! Make way!’
‘This is it,’ commented Bidworthy with much satisfaction. ‘We’ve caught a dollop of them. One of them is going to confess or I’ll resign from the space-service.’ He got off his rock and stood in readiness.
‘Make way! Make way!’
‘Perforate his balloons if he tries to bull his way through,’ ordered Bidworthy.
It wasn’t necessary. The coach lost pace, stopped with its bonnet a yard from the waiting file. Its driver peered out of the side of his cab. Other faces snooped curiously farther back.
Composing himself and determined to try the effect of fraternal cordiality, Bidworthy went up to the driver and said with great difficulty, ‘Good morning!’
‘Your time-sense is shot to pot,’ responded the other ungratefully. He had a heavy blue jowl, a broken nose, cauliflower ears and looked the sort who usually drives with others in hot and vengeful pursuit. ‘Can’t you afford a watch?’
‘It isn’t morning. It’s late afternoon.’
‘So it is,’ admitted Bidworthy, forcing a cracked smile.
‘I’m not so sure about that,’ mused the driver, leaning on his steering-wheel and moodily scratching his head. ‘We get an afternoon in every day. It’s always the same. Morning goes and what happens? You’re stuck with an afternoon. I’ve become hardened to it. And this one is just another nearer the grave.’
‘That may be,’ conceded Bidworthy, little struck with this ghoulish angle, ‘but I have other things to worry about and—’
‘Fat lot of use worrying about anything, past, present or whatever,’ advised the driver. ‘Because there are far bigger worries to come. Stick around long enough and you’ll have some real stinkers in your lap.’
‘Perhaps so,’ said Bidworthy, inwardly feeling that this was a poor time to contemplate the darker side of existence. ‘But I prefer to deal with my own troubles in my own way.’
‘Nobody’s troubles are entirely their own, nor their methods of coping,’ continued the tough-looking oracle. ‘Are they now?’
‘I don’t know and I don’t care,’ growled Bidworthy, his composure thinning down as his blood-pressure built up. He was irefully conscious of Gleed and the patrol watching, listening and probably grinning like stupid apes behind his back. There was also the load of gaping passengers. ‘I think you’re talking just to stall me. You might as well know that it won’t work. I’m here for a purpose and that purpose is going to be served. The Terran Ambassador is waiting—’
‘So are we,’ emphasised the driver.
‘He wants to speak to you,’ Bidworthy went stubbornly on, ‘and he’s going to speak to you.’
‘I’d be the last to prevent him. We’ve got free speech here. Let him step up and say his piece so that we can go our way.’
‘You,’ informed Bidworthy, ‘are going to him.’ He signed to the rest of the coach. ‘The whole lot of you.’
‘Not me,’ denied a fat man sticking his head out of a side window. He wore thick-lensed glasses that made his eyes look like poached eggs. Moreover, he was adorned with a tall hat candy-striped in white and pink. ‘Not me,’ repeated this vision with considerable firmness.
‘Me neither,’ supported the driver.
‘All right.’ Bidworthy displayed maximum menace. ‘Move this birdcage one inch backward or forward and we’ll shoot your pot-bellied tyres to thin strips. Get out of that cab.’
‘Ha-ha. I’m too comfortable. Try fetching me.’
Bidworthy beckoned to the nearest six men. ‘You heard him—take him up on that.’
Tearing open the cab door, they grabbed. If they had expected the victim to put up a futile fight against heavy odds, they were disappointed. He made no attempt to resist. They got him, lugged together and he yielded with good grace. His body leaned to one side and came halfway out of the door.
That was as far as they could get him.
‘Come on,’ urged Bidworthy, showing impatience. ‘Heave him loose. You don’t have to be feeble. Show him who’s who. He isn’t a fixture.’
One of the men climbed over the body, poked around inside the cab and announced, ‘He is, you know.’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘He’s chained to the steering column.’
‘Nonsense. Let me see.’ He had a look and found that it was so. A chain and a small but heavy and complicated padlock linked the driver’s leg to his coach. ‘Where’s the key?’
‘Search me,’ invited the driver.
They did just that. The effort proved futile. No key.
‘Who’s got it?’
‘Shove him back into his seat,’ ordered Bidworthy, looking savage. ‘We’ll take the passengers. One yap is as good as another so far as I’m concerned.’ Striding to the doors, he jerked them open.‘All out and make it snappy.’
Nobody budged. They studied him silently, with various expressions not one of which did anything to help his ego. The fat man with the candy-striped hat mooned at his sardonically. Bidworthy decided that he did not like the fat man and that a stiff course of military calisthenics might thin him down a bit.
‘You can come out on your feet,’ he suggested to the passengers in general and the fat man in particular, ‘or on your necks. Whichever you prefer. Make up your minds.’
‘If you can’t use your head you can at least use your eyes,’ commented the fat man happily. He shifted in his seat to the accompaniment of metallic clanking noises.
Bidworthy accepted the idea, leaning through the doors for a better look. Then he clambered into the vehicle, went its full length while carefully studying each passenger. His florid features were two shades darker when he emerged and spoke to Sergeant Gleed.‘They are all chained. Every one of them.’ He glared at the driver. ‘What’s the purpose of manacling the lot?’
‘Myob!’ said the driver airily.
‘Who has the keys?’
Taking a deep breath, Bidworthy declaimed to nobody in particular, ‘Every once in a while I hear of somebody running amok and laying them out by the dozens. I’ve always wondered why—but now I know.’ He gnawed his knuckles, added to Gleed, ‘We can’t run this contraption to the ship with that dummy blocking the controls. Either we must find the keys or get tools and cut them loose.’
‘Or you could wave us on our way and then go take a pill,’ offered the driver.
‘Here’s the Colonel,’ muttered Gleed, giving him a nudge.
|Colonel Shelton arrived, walked once slowly and officiously around the outside of the coach, examined its construction and weighed up its occupants. He flinched at the striped hat whose owner leered at him through the glass. Then he came over to the disgruntled group.
‘What’s the trouble this time, Sergeant Major?’
‘They’re as crazy as all the others, sir. They’re full of impudence and say, ‘Myob’ and couldn’t care less about His Excellency. They don’t want to come out and we can’t make them because they’re chained in their seats.’
‘Chained?’ Shelton’s eyebrow lifted halfway toward his hair. ‘What on earth for?’
‘I don’t know, sir. All I can tell you is that they’re fastened in like a bunch of gangsters being hauled to the pokey and—’
Shelton moved off without waiting to hear the rest. He had a look for himself, came back.
‘You may have something there, Sergeant Major. But I don’t think they are criminals.’
‘No.’ He threw a significant glance towards the fat man’s colourful headgear and several other sartorial eccentricities including a ginger-haired individual’s foot-wide polka-dotted bow. ‘It’s more likely they’re a consignment of lunatics being taken to an asylum. I’ll ask the driver.’ Going to the cab, he said, ‘Do you mind telling me your destination?’
‘Yes,’ responded the other.
‘Very well, where is it?’
‘Look,’ said the driver, ‘are we talking the same language?’
‘You’ve just asked me whether I mind and I said yes.’ He make a disparaging gesture. ‘I do mind.’
‘You refuse to tell?’
‘Your aim’s improving, Sonny.’
‘Sonny?’ put in Bidworthy, vibrant with outrage. ‘Do you realize that you are speaking to a colonel?’
‘What’s a colonel?’ asked the driver interestedly.
‘By hokey, if your—’
‘Leave this to me,’ insisted Shelton, waving the furious Bidworthy down. His expression was cold as he returned attention to the driver. ‘On your way. I’m sorry you’ve been detained.’
‘Think nothing of it,’ said the driver with exaggerated politeness. ‘I’ll do as much for you some day.’
With that enigmatic remark he let his machine roll for-ward. The patrol parted to make room. Building up its whine to the top note, the coach sped down the road and diminished into the dusty distance.
‘This planet,’ swore Bidworthy, staring purple-faced after it, ‘has more no-good bums in need of discipline than any place this side of—’
‘Calm yourself, Sergeant Major,’ urged Shelton. ‘ I feel exactly the same way as you do—but I’m taking care of my arteries. Blowing them full of bumps like seaweed won’t solve any problems.’
‘Maybe so, sir, but-’
‘We’re up against something mighty peculiar here,’ Shelton went on. We’ve got to find out precisely what it is and how best to cope with. In all probability it means we’ll have to devise new tactics. So far the patrol has achieved nothing. It is wasting its time. Obviously we’ll have to concoct a more effective method of getting into touch with the powers-that-be. March the men back to the ship, Sergeant Major.’
‘Very well, sir.’ Bidworthy saluted, swung around, clicked his heels, opened a cavernous mouth.
‘Patro-o-ol . . . right form—’
Aboard ship the resulting conference lasted well into the night and halfway through the following morning. During these argumentative hours various oddments of traffic, mostly vehicular, passed along the road. But nothing paused to view the monster spaceship, nobody approached for a friendly word with its crew. The strange inhabitants of this world seemed to be afflicted with a local form of mental blindness, unable to see a thing until it was thrust into their faces and then surveying it squint-eyed.
One passer-by in mid-morning was a long, low truck whining on two dozen balls and loaded with girls wearing bright head-scarves. The girls were tunefully singing something about one little kiss before we part, dear. A number of troops loafing near the gangway came eagerly to life, waved, whistled and yoohooed. Their effort was a total waste for the singing continued without break or pause and nobody waved back.
To add to the discomforture of the love-hungry, Bidworthy stuck his head out of the airlock and rasped, ‘If you monkeys are bursting with surplus energy I can find a few jobs for you to do—nice, dirty ones. ’ He seared them one at a time before he withdrew.
Up near the ship’s nose the top brass sat around the chart-room’s horseshoe table and debated the situation. Most of them were content to repeat with extra emphasis what they had said the previous evening, there being no new points to bring up.
‘Are you certain,’ the Ambassador asked Grayder, ‘that this planet has not been visited since the last emigration transport dumped its final load four centuries ago?’
‘I’m quite positive, Your Excellency. Any such visit would be on record.’
‘Yes, if made by a Terran ship. But what about others? I feel it in my bones that at sometime or other these people have fallen foul of one or more vessels calling unofficially and have been leery of spaceships ever since. Perhaps somebody got tough with them and tried to muscle in where he wasn’t wanted. Or perhaps they’ve had to beat off a gang of pirates. Or maybe they’ve been swindled by unscrupulous traders.’
‘Absolutely impossible, Your Excellency,’ declared Grayder, suppressing a smile. ‘Emigration was so widely scattered over so large a number of worlds that even today every one of them is under-populated, under-developed and utterly unable to build spaceships of any kind no matter how rudimentary. Some may have the technical know-how but they lack the industrial facilities, of which they need plenty.’
‘Yes, that is what I’ve always understood.’
Grayder went on, ‘All Blieder-drive vessels are built in the system of Sol and registered as Terran ships. Complete track is kept of their movements and their whereabouts are always known. The only other spaceships in existence are eighty or ninety antiquated rocket jobs bought at scrap price by the Epsilon system for haulage work between its fourteen closely-spaced planets. An old-fashioned rocket-ship couldn’t reach this world in a hundred years.’
‘No, of course not.’
‘Unofficial boats capable of this long range just don’t exist,’ Grayder assured. ‘Neither do space buccaneers and for much the same reason. A Blieder-drive ship is so costly that a would-be pirate would have to be a billionaire to become a pirate.’
‘Then,’ said the Ambassador heavily, ‘back we go to my original theory; that a lot of inbreeding has made them crazier than their colonizing ancestors.’
‘There’s plenty to be said in favour of that idea,’ put in Shelton. ‘You should have seen the coach- load I looked over. There was a fellow like a bankrupt mortician wearing odd shoes, one brown and one a repulsive yellow. Also a moon-faced gump sporting a hat apparently made from the skin of a barber’s pole, a1l. stripy.’ With a sad attempt at wit, he finished, ‘The only thing missing was his bubble-pipe-and probably he’ll be given that when he arrives.’
‘I don’t know, Your Excellency. They refused to tell us where they were going.’
Giving him a satirical look, the Ambassador remarked, ‘ Well, that is a valuable addition to the sum total of our knowledge. Our minds are now enriched by the thought that an anonymous individual may be presented with a futile object for an indefinable purpose when he reaches his unknown destination.’
Shelton subsided wishing that he had never seen the fat man or, for that matter, the fat man’s cockeyed world.
‘Somewhere they’ve got a capital, a civic seat, a centre of government wherein function the people who hold all the strings,’ the Ambassador asserted. ‘We’ve got to find that place before we can take over and reorganize on up-to-date lines. A capital is big by the standards of its own administrative area. It is never an ordinary, nondescript place. It has obvious physical features giving it importance above the average. It should be easily visible from the air. We must make a systematic search for it—in fact that’s what we should have done in the first place. Other planets’ capital cities have been identified without trouble. What’s the hoodoo on this one?’
‘See for yourself, Your Excellency.’ Grayder poked several photographs across the table. ‘The situation is rather similar to that on Hygeia. You can see the two hemispheres quite clearly. They reveal nothing resembling a superior city. There isn’t even a town conspicuously larger than its fellows or possessing enough outstanding features to set it apart from the others.’
‘I don’t put great faith in pictures especially when taken at high speed or great altitude. The naked eye can always see more. We’ve got four lifeboats that should be able to search this world from pole to pole. Why don’t we use them?’
‘Because, Your Excellency, they were not designed for such a purpose.’
‘Does that matter so long as they get results?’
Patiently, Grayder explained, ‘They were built to be launched in free space and to hit up forty thousand miles an hour. They are ordinary, old-style rocket-ships to be used only in a grave emergency.’
‘Well, what of it?’
‘It is not possible to make efficient ground-survey with the naked eye at any speed in excess of about four hundred miles per hour. Keep the lifeboats down to that and you’d be trying to fly them at landing-speed, muffling their tubes, balling up their motors, creating a terrible waste of fuel and inviting a crash which you’re likely to get before you’re through.’
‘Then,’ commented the Ambassador, ‘it is high time we had Blieder-drive lifeboats for Blieder- drive ships.’
‘I couldn’t agree more, Your Excellency. But the smallest Blieder apparatus has an Earth-mass of more than three hundred tons. That’s far too much for little boats.’ Picking up the photographs, Grayder slid them into a drawer. ‘The trouble with us is that everything we’ve got moves a heck of a lot too fast. What we really need is an ancient, propeller-driven air-plane. It could do something that we can’t-it could go slow.’
‘You might as well yearn for a bicycle,’ scoffed the Ambassador, feeling thwarted.
‘We have a bicycle,’ Grayder informed. ‘Tenth Engineer Harrison owns one.’
‘And he has actually brought it with him?’
‘It goes everywhere he goes. There’s a rumour that he sleeps with it.’
‘A spaceman toting a bicycle! ’The Ambassador blew his nose with a loud honk. ‘I take it that he is thrilled by the sense of immense velocity it gives him, an ecstatic feeling of rushing headlong through space?’
‘I wouldn’t know, Your Excellency.’
‘H’m! Bring this Harrison here. I’d like to see him. Perhaps we can set a crackpot to catch a crackpot.’
Going to the caller-board, Grayder spoke over the ship’s system. ‘Tenth Engineer Harrison will report to the chart-room at once.’
Within ten minutes Harrison appeared, breathless and dishevelled. He had walked fast three-quarters of a mile from the Blieder room. He was thin and woebegone, expecting trouble. His ears were large enough to cut the pedalling with the wind behind him and he wiggled them nervously as he faced the assembled officers. The Ambassador examined him with curiosity, much as a zoologist would inspect a pink giraffe.
‘Mister, I understand that you possess a bicycle.’
At once on the defensive, Harrison said, ‘There’s nothing against it in the regulations, sir, and therefore—’
‘Damn the regulations,’ swore the Ambassador. ‘Can you ride the thing?’
‘Of course, sir.’
‘All right. We’re stalled in the middle of a crazy situation and we’re turning to crazy methods to get moving. Upon your ability and willingness to ride a bicycle the fate of an empire may stand or fall. Do you understand me, Mister?’
‘I do, sir,’ said Harrison, unable to make head or tail of this.
‘So I want you to do an extremely important job for me. I want you to get out your bicycle, ride into town, find the mayor, sheriff, grand panjandrum, supreme galootie or whatever he is called, and tell him that he is officially invited to evening dinner along with any other civic dignitaries he cares to bring. That, of course, includes their wives.’
‘Very well, sir.’
‘Informal attire,’ added the Ambassador.
Harrison jerked up one ear and drooped the other. ‘What was that, sir?’
‘They can dress how they like.’
‘I get it. Do I go right now, sir?’
‘At once. Return as quickly as you can and bring me the reply.’
Saluting sloppily, Harrison went out. His Excellency found an easy-chair, reposed in it at full length, smiled with satisfaction.
‘It’s as easy as that.’ Pulling out a long cigar, he bit off its end. ‘If we can’t touch their minds we’ll appeal to their bellies.’ He cocked a knowing eye at Grayder. ‘Captain, see that there is plenty to drink. Strong stuff. Venusian cognac or something equally potent. Give them lots of hooch and an hour at a well-filled table and they’ll talk all night. We won’t be able to shut them up.’ He lit the cigar, puffed luxuriously. ‘That is the tried and trusted technique of high diplomacy—the insidious seduction of the distended gut. It always works. You’ll see!’
|Left to himself, Harrison scratched his large ears and thought it over. Somewhere, he felt, there was an obscure sort of confidence trick. A candidate named Harrison was being tempted to qualify for his sucker certificate. But if the play was beneficial to its organizer it might be worth learning because it could then be passed on to other victims. One must speculate in order to accumulate.
So he dealt with the cases as required. It cost him twenty minutes of hard, slogging work after which he returned to the shop.
‘Now,’ explained Baines, ‘you’ve done something for me. That means you’ve planted an ob on me. I don’t thank you for what you have done. There’s no need to. All I have to do is get rid of the ob.’
‘Obligation. Why use a long word when a short one is plenty good enough? An obligation is an ob. I shift it this way: Seth Warburton, next door but one, has got half a dozen of my obs saddled on him. So I get rid of mine to you and relieve him of one of his to me by sending you around for a meal.’ He scribbled briefly on a slip of paper. ‘Give him this.’
Harrison stared at it. In casual scrawl it read, ‘Feed this bum.’
Slightly dazed, he wandered out, stood by his bicycle and again examined the paper. Bum, it said. He could think of several on the ship who’d explode with wrath at the sight of that. Then his attention drifted to the second shop farther along. It had a window crammed with comestibles and two big words on the sign-strip above: Seth’s Gulper.
Coming to a decision which was encouraged by his insides, he walked into Seth’s holding the paper as if it were a death warrant. Beyond the door there was a long counter, some steam and a clatter of crockery. He chose a seat at a marble-topped table occupied by a gray-eyed brunette.
‘Do you mind?’ He inquired politely as he lowered himself into the chair.
‘Do I mind what?’ She examined his ears as if they were curious phenomena. ‘Rabies, dogs, aged relatives or standing around in the rain?’
‘Do you mind me sitting here?’
‘I can please myself whether or not I endure it. That’s freedom, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ said Harrison, ‘sure it is.’ He fidgeted in his seat, feeling that he’d made a move and promptly lost a pawn. He sought around for something else to say and at that point a thin-featured man in a white coat dumped before him a large plate loaded with fried chicken and three kinds of unfamiliar food. The sight unnerved him. He couldn’t remember how many years it had been since he’d last seen fried chicken or how many months since he’d been offered vegetables in other than powder form.
‘Well,’ demanded the waiter, mistaking his fascinated reaction, ‘doesn’t it please you?’
‘Yes.’ Harrison handed over the slip of paper. ‘Sure it does. You bet it does.’
Glancing at the note, the other called to somebody semi-visible at one end of the counter. ‘You’ve wiped out one of Jeff’s.’ He strolled away, tearing the slip into small pieces.
That was a fast pass,’ commented the brunette, nodding at the loaded plate. ‘He dumps a heavy feed-ob on you and you bounce it straight back, leaving all quits. I’ll have to wash dishes to get rid of mine. Or kill one Seth has got on somebody else.’‘I stacked a ton of canned stuff.’ Harrison picked up knife and fork, his mouth watering. There were no knives and forks on the ship; they weren’t needed for powders and pills. ‘Don’t give you much choice here, do they? You take what you get.’
‘Not if you’ve got an ob on Seth,’ she informed. ‘When you have, he must work it off the best way he can. You should have put that to him instead of waiting for fate and complaining afterward.’
‘But I’m not complaining.’
‘It’s your right. That’s freedom, isn’t it?’ She mused a bit, went on, ‘It isn’t often I’m an ob ahead of Seth but when I am I scream for iced pineapple and he comes running. When he’s one ahead I do the running.’ Her gray eyes narrowed in sudden suspicion. ‘You’re listening as if all this is new to you.’
He nodded, his mouth full of chicken. A little later he managed, ‘I’m off that spaceship.’
‘Good grief!’ She froze considerably. ‘An Antigand! I wouldn’t have thought it. Why, you look almost human.’
‘I’ve long taken pride in that similarity.’ He chewed, swallowed, looked inquiringly around. The white-coated man came up. ‘What’s to drink?’ Harrison asked.
‘Dith, double-dith, shemak or coffee.’
‘Coffee. Big and black.’
‘Shemak is better,’ advised the brunette as the waiter went to get it. ‘But why should I tell you?’
The coffee came in a pint-sized mug. Putting it down, the waiter said, ‘It’s your choice seeing that Seth is working one off. What’ll you have for after—apple pie, yimpik delice, grated tarfelsoufers or canimelon in syrup?’
‘Ugh ! ’The other blinked at him, gave the brunette an accusing stare, brought it and dumped it on the table.
Harrison pushed it across. ‘Take the plunge and enjoy yourself.’
‘Couldn’t eat it if I tried.’ He dug up another load of chicken, stirred his coffee, he began to feel at perfect peace with this world. ‘Got as much as I can manage right here.’ He made an inviting motion with his fork. ‘Go on, be greedy and to heck with the waistline.’
‘No.’ Firmly she pushed the pineapple back at him. ‘If I ate my way through that I’d be saddled with an ob.’
‘I don’t let strangers dump obs on me.’
‘Quite right, too. Very proper of you,’ approved Harrison. ‘Strangers often have strange notions.’
‘You’ve been around,’ she remarked. ‘Though I don’t know what’s strange about the notions.’
‘Cynic!’ The pineapple got another pass in her direction. ‘If you feel that I’ll be burdening you with an ob that you’ll have to pay off you can do it in seemly manner here and now. All I want is some information.’
‘What is it?’
‘Just tell me where I can put my finger on the ripest cheese in this locality.’
‘That’s easy. Go round to Alec Peters’ place, middle of Tenth Street.’ With that she helped herself to the dish.
|He carried on with his own meal, finished it, lay back expansively. Unaccustomed nourishment persuaded his brain to work a bit more dexterously for after a minute an expression of chronic doubt clouded his face and he inquired, ‘Does this Peters run a cheese warehouse?’
‘Of course.’ Emitting a sigh of pleasure, she pushed the empty dish aside.
He groaned low down, then informed, ‘I’m chasing the mayor.’
‘What is that?’
‘Number one. The big boss. The sheriff, pohanko, or what-ever you call him.’
‘I’m still no wiser,’ she said, genuinely puzzled.
‘The man who runs this town. The leading citizen.’
‘Make it a little clearer,’ she suggested, trying hard to help him. ‘Who or what should this citizen be leading?’
‘You and Seth and everyone else.’ He waved a hand to encompass the entire burg.
Frowning, she asked, ‘Leading us where?’
‘Wherever you’re going.’
She gave up, beaten, and signed the white-coated waiter to come to her assistance.
‘Matt, are we going any place?’
‘How should I know?’
‘Well, ask Seth then.’
He went away, came back with, ‘Seth says he’s going home at six o’clock and what’s it to you?’
‘Anyone leading him there?’ she inquired.
‘Don’t be daft,’ Matt advised. ‘He knows his own way and he’s cold sober.’
Harrison chipped in. ‘Look, I don’t see why there should be so much difficulty about all this. Just tell me where I can find an official, any official—the police chief, the city treasurer, the mortuary keeper or even a mere justice of the peace.’
‘What’s an official?’ asked Matt, openly baffled.
‘What’s a justice of the peace?’ added the brunette.
His mind side-slipped and did a couple of spins. It took him quite a time to reassemble his thoughts and try another tack.
‘Let us suppose,’ he said to Matt, ‘that this joint catches fire. What would you do?’
‘Fan it to keep it going,’ retorted Matt, fed up and making no effort to conceal the fact. He returned to the counter with the air of one not inclined to waste words on a congenital halfwit.
‘He’d put it out,’ informed the brunette . ‘What else would you expect him to do?’
‘Suppose that he couldn’t?’
‘He’d call in others to help him.’
‘And would they?’
‘Of course.’ She surveyed him with a touch of pity. ‘They’d jump at the chance. They’d be planting a nice, big crop of strong obs, wouldn’t they?’
‘Yes, I guess so.’ He began to feel completely stalled, but made a last desperate shot at the problem. ‘What if the fire were much too big and fast for passers-by to tackle?’
‘Seth would summon the fire squad.’
Defeat receded, triumph replaced it.
‘Ah, so there is a fire squad? That’s what I mean by some-thing official. That’s what I’ve been after all along. Quick, tell me where I can find its headquarters.’
‘Bottom end of Twelfth Avenue. You can’t miss it.’
‘Thanks!’ He got up in a hurry. ‘See you again sometime.’ Going out fast, he grabbed his bicycle, shoved off from the curb.
The fire depot proved to be a big place containing four telescopic ladders, a spray tower and two multiple pumps, all motorized on the usual array of fat rubber balls. Inside, Harrison came face to face with a small man wearing immense plus fours.
‘Looking for someone?’ asked the small man.
‘Yes, the fire chief.’
By now prepared for this sort of thing, Harrison spoke as one would to a child. ‘See here, Mister, this is a fire-fighting outfit. Somebody bosses it. Somebody organizes the whole affair, fills forms, presses buttons, shouts orders, recommends promotions, kicks the shiftless, grabs all the credit, transfers all the blame and generally lords it around. He’s the most important man in the bunch and everybody knows it.’ His forefinger tapped imperatively on the other’s chest. ‘And he is the fellow I’m going to talk to if it’s the last thing I do.’
‘Nobody is more important than anyone else. How can he be? I think you’re crazy.’
‘You’re welcome to think what you please but I am telling you that—’
A shrill bell clamoured, cutting off his sentence. Twenty men appeared as if by magic, boarded a ladder and a multiple pump, roared into the street.Squat, basin-shaped helmets formed the only article of attire that the crew had in common. Apart from these, they plumbed the depths of sartorial iniquity. The man with the plus fours, having gained the pump in one bold leap, was whirled out standing between a fat fire-fighter wearing a rainbow-hued cummerbund and a thin one sporting a canary yellow kilt. A late-comer decorated with ear-rings resembling little bells hotly pursued the pump, snatched at its tailboard, missed, sourly watched the outfit disappear from sight. He mooched back, swinging his helmet from one hand.
‘Just my lousy luck,’ he griped at the gaping Harrison. ‘The sweetest, loveliest call of the year. A big brewery. The sooner they get there the bigger the obs they’ll plant on it.’ Licking his lips at the thought, he sat on a coil of canvas hose. ‘Oh, well, maybe it’s for the good of my health.’
‘Tell me something, Harrison probed, ‘How do you earn a living?’
‘There’s a dopey question. You can see for yourself. I’m on the fire squad.’
‘I know. What I mean is, who pays you?’
‘Gives you money for all this.’
‘You talk mighty peculiar. What is money?’
Harrison rubbed his cranium to assist the circulation of blood through the brain. What is money? Yeouw! He tried another angle.
‘If your wife needs a new coat, how does she get it?’
‘Goes to a store that’s carrying fire-obs, of course. She knocks off one or two for them.’
‘But what if no clothing store has had a fire?’
‘You’re pretty ignorant, brother. Where in this world do you come from?’ His ear-bells swung as he studied the other a moment. ‘Almost all stores have fire-obs. If they’ve any sense they allocate so many per month by way of insurance. They look ahead, just in case, see? They plant obs on us in advance so that when we rush to the rescue we’ve got to wipe out a dollop of theirs before we can plant any new ones of our own. That stops us overdoing it and making hogs of ourselves. Sort of cuts down the stores’ liabilities. It makes sense, doesn’t it?’
‘I get it now,’ interrupted the other, narrowing his eyes. ‘You’re from that spaceship. You’re a lousy Antigand.’
‘I’m a Terran,’ informed Harrison with suitable dignity. ‘What’s more, all the folk who originally settled this planet were Terrans.’
‘Are you trying to teach me history?’ He gave a harsh laugh. ‘You’re wrong. There was a five per cent strain of Martian.’
‘Even the Martians are descended from Terran stock,’ Harrison riposted.
‘So what? That was a devil of a long time ago. Things change, in case you haven’t heard. We’ve no Terrans or Martians on this world except for your crowd which has barged in unasked. We’re all Gands here. And you noseypokes are Antigands.’
‘We aren’t anti-anything that I know of. Where did you get that idea?’
‘Myob!’ said the other, suddenly determined to refuse further argument. He tossed his helmet to one side, spat on the floor.
Harrison gave up and did just that. Gloomily he cycled back to the ship.
His Excellency pinned him with an authoritative optic. ‘So you’re back at last, Mister. How many are coming and at what time?’
‘None, sir,’ said Harrison, feeling kind of feeble.
‘None?’ August eyebrows lifted querulously. ‘Do you mean that they have refused my invitation?’
‘Come out with it. Mister,’ urged the Ambassador. ‘Don’t stand there gawping as if your push-and-puff contraption has just given birth to a roller-skate. You say they have not refused my invitation—but nobody is coming. What am I supposed to make of that?’
‘I didn’t ask anyone.’
‘So you didn’t ask?’ Turning, he said to Grayder, Shelton and the others, ‘He didn’t ask!’ His attention came back to Harrison. ‘You forgot all about it, I presume? Intoxicated by liberty and the power of man over machine, you flashed around the town at nothing less than eighteen miles per hour, creating consternation among the citizenry, tossing their traffic laws into the ash-can, putting children and elderly persons in peril of their lives, not even troubling to ring your bell or—’
‘I don’t have a bell, sir,’ stated Harrison, inwardly resenting this list of enormities. ‘I have a whistle operated by the rotation of the rear wheel.’
‘There!’ said the Ambassador like one abandoning all hope. He sat down and smacked his forehead several times. ‘I am reliably informed that somebody is going to get a bubble-pipe.’ He pointed at Harrison. ‘And now I learn that he possesses a whistle.’
‘I designed it myself, sir,’ Harrison said helpfully.
‘I’m sure you did. I can imagine it. I would expect it of you.’ The Ambassador took a fresh grip on himself. ‘See here, Mister, I would like you to tell me something in strict confidence, just between the two of us.’ Leaning forward, he put the question in a whisper that ricochetted seven times around the room. ‘Why didn’t you ask anyone?’
‘I couldn’t find out who to ask, sir. I did my level best but nobody seemed to know what I was talking about. Or they pretended they didn’t.’
‘Humph!’ The Ambassador glanced out of the nearest port, consulted his watch. ‘The light is fading already. Night will be upon us pretty soon. It’s too late for further action.’ An annoyed grunt. ‘Another day gone to pot. Two days here and we’re still fiddling around.’ Then he added with grim resignation. ‘All right, Mister. We’re wasting time anyway so we might as well hear your story in full. Tell us what happened in complete detail. That way, we may be able to dig some sense out of it.’
Harrison told it, finishing, ‘It seemed to me, sir, that I could carry on for weeks trying to argue it out with people whose brains are oriented east-west while mine points north-south. One can talk with them from now to doomsday, become really friendly and enjoy the conversation—without either side fully understanding what the other is saying.’
‘So it appears,’ said the Ambassador dryly. He turned to Grayder. ‘You’ve been around a lot and seen many new worlds in your time. What do you make of all this twaddle, if anything?’
‘It’s a problem in semantics,’ diagnosed Grayder, who had been compelled by circumstances to study that subject. ‘One comes across it on many worlds that have been long out of touch, though usually it hasn’t developed far enough to become tough and unsolvable. For instance, the first fellow we met on Basileus said, cordially and in what he imagined to be perfect Terran, “Joy you unboot now!” ’
‘Yes? And what did that mean?’
‘Come inside, put on your slippers and be happy. In other words, welcome. It wasn’t difficult to understand, Your Excellency, especially when one expects that sort of thing.’ Grayder cast a thoughtful glance at Harrison and continued, ‘Here, the problem seems to have developed to a greater extreme. The language remains fluent and retains enough surface similarities to conceal underlying changes, but basic meanings have been altered, concepts discarded and new ones substituted, thought-forms re-angled and, of course, there is the inevitable impact of locally created slang.’
‘Such as “myob”, ’ offered the Ambassador. ‘Now there is a queer word without recognizable Earth-root. I don’t like the sarcastic way they use it. They make it sound downright insulting. Obviously it has some kind of connection with these obs they keep throwing around. It means “my obligation” or something like that, but the real significance eludes me.’
‘There is no connection, sir,’ put in Harrison. He hesitated, saw that they were waiting for him to go on. ‘On my way back I met the lady who had directed me to Baines’ place. She asked whether I’d found him and I told her I had. We chatted a short while. I asked her what “myob” meant. She said it was initial-slang.’ He stopped and fidgeted uneasily.
‘Keep going,’ urged the Ambassador. ‘After some of the sulphurous comments I’ve heard emerging from the Blieder-room ventilation-shaft, I can stomach anything. What does it mean?’
‘M-y-o-b,’ informed Harrison, slightly embarrassed. ‘Mind-your-own-business.’
‘Ah!’ The other gained colour. ‘So that is what they’ve been telling me all along?’
‘I’m afraid so, sir.’
‘Evidently they’ve a lot to learn.’ His neck swelled with undiplomatic fury, he smacked a fat hand upon the table and declaimed loudly. ‘And they’re going to learn it!’
‘Yes, sir,’ agreed Harrison, becoming more uneasy and anxious to get out. ‘May I go now and tend to my bicycle?’
‘Yes, you may,’ said the Ambassador in the same noisy tones. He performed a couple of meaningless gestures, turned a florid face on Captain Grayder. ‘Bicycle! Does anyone on this vessel own a slingshot?’
‘Don’t be an imbecile,’ ordered the Ambassador. ‘We have our full quota of hollow-heads already.’
|Edging ponderously around on his stool, Jeff reached to the wall, removed a small, shiny plaque from its hook and passed it across the counter.
‘You may keep it,’ he said. ‘And much good may it do you.’
Gleed examined it, turning it over and over between his fingers. It was nothing more than an oblong strip of substance resembling ivory. One side was polished and bare. The other bore three letters deeply engraved in bold style:
F.—I.W.Glancing up at Baines, his features puzzled, he said, ‘You call this a weapon?’
‘Then I don’t get it.’ He passed the plaque to Harrison. ‘Do you?’
‘No.’ Harrison examined it with care. ‘What does this F.—I.W. mean?’
‘Initial-slang,’ informed Baines. ‘Made correct by common usage. It has become a worldwide motto. You’ll see it all over the place if you haven’t noticed it already.’
‘I have seen it here and there but attached no importance to it and thought nothing more about it. I remember now that it was inscribed in several places including Seth’s and the fire depot.’
‘It was on the sides of that bus we couldn’t empty,’ put in Gleed. ‘It didn’t mean anything to me.’It means plenty,’ said Jeff, ‘Freedom-I won’t!’
‘That kills me,’ Gleed responded. ‘I’m stone dead already. I’ve dropped in my tracks.’ He watched Harrison thoughtfully pocketing the plaque. ‘A piece of abracadabra. What a weapon!’
‘Ignorance is bliss,’ asserted Baines, strangely sure of himself. ‘Especially when you don’t know that what you’re playing with is the safety catch of something that goes bang.’
‘All right ’challenged Gleed, taking him up on that. ‘Tell us how it works.’
‘I won’t.’ Baines’ grin reappeared. He seemed to be highly satisfied about something.
‘That’s a fat lot of help.’ Gleed felt let down, especially over that momentary hoped-for reward. ‘You brag and boast about a one-way weapon, toss across a slip of stuff with three letters on it and then go dumb. Any folly will do for braggarts and any braggart can talk through the seat of his pants. How about backing up your talk?’
‘I won’t,’ repeated Baines, his grin broader than ever. He gave the onlooking Harrison a fat, significant wink.
It made something spark vividly within Harrison’s mind. His jaw dropped, he dragged the plaque from his pocket and stared at it as if seeing it for the first time.
‘Give it me back,’ requested Baines, watching him.
Replacing it in his pocket, Harrison said very firmly. ‘I won’t.’
Baines chuckled.’ some people catch on quicker than others.’
Resenting that, Gleed held his hand out to Harrison. ‘Let me have another look at that thing.’
‘I won’t,’ said Harrison, meeting him eye to eye.
‘Hey, don’t start being awkard with me. That’s not the way—’ Gleed’s protesting voice petered out. He stood there a moment, his optics slightly glassy, while his brain performed several loops. Then in hushed tones he said, ‘Good grief!’
‘Precisely,’ approved Baines. ‘Grief and plenty of it. You were a bit slow on the uptake.’
Overcome by the flood of insubordinate ideas now pouring upon him, Gleed said hoarsely to Harrison, ‘Come on, let’s get out of here. I’ve got to think. I want to sit somewhere nice and quiet while I think.’
There was a tiny park with seats and lawns and flowers and a little fountain around which a small group of children were playing. Choosing a place facing a colourful carpet of exotic un-Terran blooms, they sat and brooded for quite a time.
Eventually, Gleed commented, ‘For one solitary, mulish character it would be martyrdom, but for a whole world—’ His voice drifted off, came back. ‘I’ve been taking this as far as I can make it go and the results give me the leaping fantods.’
Harrison said nothing.
‘For instance,’ Gleed continued.‘Suppose that when I go back to the ship that snorting rhinoceros Bidworthy gives me an order. And I give him the frozen eye and say, ‘I won’t.’ What happens? It follows as an inviolable law of Nature that he either drops dead or throws me in the clink.’
‘That would do you a lot of good.’
‘Wait a bit—I haven’t finished yet. I’m in the pokey, demoted and a disgrace to the service, but the job still needs doing. So Bidworthy picks on somebody else. The victim, being a soul-mate of mine, also donates the icy optic and says, ‘I won’t.’ Into the jug he goes and I’ve got company. Bidworthy tries again. And again and again and again. There are more of us crammed in the brig. It will hold only twenty. So they take over the engineers’ mess.’
‘Leave our mess out of this,’ requested Harrison.
‘They take over the mess,’ insisted Gleed, thoroughly determined to penalize the engineers. ‘Pretty soon it’s filled to the roof with I-won’ters. Bidworthy is still raking them in as fast as he can go—if by then he hasn’t burst a dozen blood vessels. So they take over the Blieder dormitories.’
‘Why keep picking on my crowd?’
‘And pile them ceiling-high with bodies,’ Gleed said, deriving sadistic pleasure from the picture. ‘Until in the end Bidworthy has to get buckets and brushes and go down on his knees and do his own deck-scrubbing while Grayder, Shelton and the rest take turn for guard-duty. By that time His Loftiness the Ambassador is in the galley busily cooking for the prisoners and is being assisted by a disconcerted bunch of yessing pen-pushers.’ He had another look at this mental scene. ‘Holy smoke!’
A coloured ball rolled his way. Stooping, he picked it up, held on to it. Promptly a boy of about seven ran near, eyed him gravely.
‘Give me my ball, please.’
‘I won’t,’ said Gleed, his fingers firmly around it.
There was no protest, no anger, no tears. The child merely registered disappointment and turned away.
‘Here you are, sonny.’ He tossed the ball.
‘Thanks.’ Grabbing it, the other chased off.
Harrison said, ‘What if every living being in the Terran Empire, from Prometheus to Kaldor Four, across eighteen hundred light-years of space, should get an income-tax demand, tear it up and say, “I won’t.” What happens then?’
‘No tax. Authority does without it because it darned well has to.’
‘There would be chaos.’ Harrison nodded toward the fountain and the children playing around it. ‘But it doesn’t look anything like chaos here. Not to my eyes. Evidently they don’t overdo this blank refusal business. They apply it judiciously on some mutually recognized basis. But what that basis might be beats me completely.’
Read The Whole Thing: And Then There Where None