Authors: A. Bertram Chandler
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Space Opera, #Adventure, #Fiction
A. Bertram Chandler
Baen Books by
A. Bertram Chandler
To the Galactic Rim
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
, copyright © 1969 by A. Bertram Chandler.
copyright © 1972 by A. Bertram Chandler.
The Big Black Mark
, copyright © 1975 by A. Bertram Chandler.
The Far Traveler
, copyright © 1979 by A. Bertram Chandler.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book
or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by Stephen Hickman
First Baen paperback printing, August 2011
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: t/k
Printed in the United States of America
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Whose Idea It Was
THERE WAS THAT SOUND AGAIN—
thin, high, querulous, yet audible even above the rhythmic stamp and shuffle of the dance that beat out through the open windows of the Club. It sounded as though something were in pain. Something was.
Brasidus belched gently. He had taken too much wine, and he knew it. That was why he had come outside—to clear his head and, he hoped, to dispel the slight but definitely mounting waves of nausea. The night air was cool, but not too cool, on his naked body, and that helped a little. Even so, he did not wish to return inside just yet.
He said to Achron, “We may as well watch.”
“No,” replied his companion. “No. I don’t want to. It’s . . . dirty, somehow . . .” Then with a triumphant intonation he delivered the word for which he had been groping. “Obscene.”
“It’s not. It’s . . . natural.” The liquor had loosened Brasidus’ tongue; otherwise he would never have dared to speak so freely, not even to one who was, after all, only a helot. “It’s we who’re being obscene by being unnatural. Can’t you see that?”
“No, I can’t!” snapped Achron pettishly. “And I don’t want to. And I thank Zeus, and his priesthood, that we don’t have to go through what that brute is going through.”
“It’s only a scavenger.”
“But it’s a sentient being.”
“And so what? I’m going to watch, anyhow.”
Brasidus walked briskly to where the sound was coming from, followed reluctantly by Achron. Yes, there was the scavenger, struggling in the center of the pool of yellow light cast by a streetlamp. The scavenger—or scavengers . . . had either of the young men heard of Siamese twins, that would have been the analogy to occur to them—a pair of Siamese twins fighting to break apart. But the parallel would not have been exact, as one of the two linked beings was little more than half the size of the other.
Even in normal circumstances the scavengers were not pretty animals, although they looked functional enough. They were quadrupedal, with cylindrical bodies. At one end they were all voracious mouth, and from the other end protruded the organs of excretion and insemination. They were unlovely but useful, and had been encouraged to roam the streets of the cities from time immemorial.
Out on the hills and prairies and in the forests, their larger cousins were unlovely and dangerous, but they had acquired the taste for living garbage.
“So . . . messy,” complained Achron.
“Not so messy as the streets would be if the beasts didn’t reproduce themselves.”
“There wouldn’t be the same need for reproduction if you rough hoplites didn’t use them as javelin targets. But you know what I’m getting at, Brasidus. It’s just that I . . . it’s just that some of us don’t like to be reminded of our humble origins. How would you like to go through the budding process, and then have to tear your son away from yourself?”
“I wouldn’t. But we don’t have to, so why worry about it?”
“I’m not worrying.” Achron, slightly built, pale, blond, looked severely up into the rugged face of his dark, muscular friend. “But I really don’t see why we have to watch these disgusting spectacles.”
“You don’t have to.”
The larger of the scavengers, the parent, had succeeded in bringing one of its short hind legs up under its belly. Suddenly it kicked, and as it did so it screamed, and the smaller animal shrieked in unison. They were broken apart now, staggering over the cobbles in what was almost a parody of a human dance. They were apart, and on each of the rough, mottled flanks was a ragged circle of glistening, raw flesh, a wound that betrayed by its stench what was the usual diet of the lowly garbage eaters. The stink lingered even after the beasts, rapidly recovering from their ordeal, had scurried off, completing the fission process, in opposite directions.
That was the normal way of birth on Sparta.
THAT WAS THE NORMAL WAY
of birth on Sparta—but wherever in the universe there is intelligence there are also abnormalities.
Achron looked at his wristwatch, the instrument and ornament that marked him as something more than a common helot, as almost the social equal of the members of the military caste. He said, “I have to be getting along. I’m on duty at the créche at 2400 hours.”
“I hope you enjoy the diaper changing and the bottle feeding.”
“But I do, Brasidus. You know that I do.” His rather high voice dropped to a murmur. “I always feel that one or two of them might be . . . yours. There are a couple in this new generation that have your nose and eyes.”
Brasidus put a large, investigatory and derisory hand to his face. “Impossible. I’ve still got them.”
“Oh, you know what I mean.”
“Why not keep a lookout for your own offspring, Achron?”
“It’s not the same, Brasidus. In any case, it’s not often I’m called upon to contribute . . .”
The two friends walked back to the Club House, but did not go farther inside than the cloakroom. Brasidus watched Achron slip into his tunic and sandals, then, on an impulse, Brasidus followed suit. Somehow he was no longer in the mood for the dance, and his prominent nose wrinkled a little at the acrid smell of perspiration, the sweet-sour reek of vomit and spilled wine that drifted into the anteroom from the main hall. The thudding of bare feet on the polished floor, in time to the drums and the screaming, brassy trumpets, usually excited him, but this night it failed to do so, as even did the confused shouting and scuffling that told him that the inevitable brawl had just broken out. On other occasions he had hurled himself gleefully into the press of struggling, sweating naked bodies—but this, too, had lost its attraction for him.
More and more he was feeling that there was something missing, just as there had been something missing when he had been a guest at Achron’s Club. He had thought, at the time, that it was the boisterous good fellowship, the hearty food and the strong, rough wine. Now he had sated himself with all of these, but was still unsatisfied.
He shrugged his heavy shoulders, then tugged the hem of his tunic down to its normal midthigh position. He said, “I’ll stroll down to the créche with you, Achron. I don’t feel like going back to the barracks just yet. And, anyhow, tomorrow’s my free day.”
“Oh, thank you, Brasidus. But are you sure? Usually you hate to leave while there’s any wine left in the jars.”
“Just don’t feel like any more drinking or dancing. Come on.”
It was dark outside the building. The sky, although clear, was almost starless, and Sparta had no moons. The widely spaced streetlamps on their flutd columns seemed to accentuate the blackness rather than to relieve it, and the glimmering white pillars of street-fronting buildings appeared to be absorbing rather than reflecting what little light there was. In their shadows there was furtive movement, but it was no more than the scavengers going about their appointed tasks. Then, overhead, there was the drone of engines.
Brasidus stopped abruptly, laid a detaining hand on Achron’s upper arm. He looked up, staring at the great, shadowy bulk that drove across the night sky, its course set for the blinking beacon atop the Acropolis, its tiers of ports strings of luminous beads, its ruby and emerald navigation lights pendants at the end of the necklace.
Achron said impatiently, “Come on. I don’t want to be late clocking in. It’s only the night mail from Helos. You must have seen it dozens of times.”
“At least,” agreed Brasidus. He fell into step again beside his companion. “But . . .”
“But you always wanted to join the Air Navy yourself, Brasidus. But you’re too big, too heavy. A pity.” There was a hint of spite in Achron’s voice.
Brasidus recognized it, but ignored it. He murmured, “And there are even better things to be than an airman. I’ve often wondered why we didn’t build any more spaceships after we colonized Latterhaven, why we allowed the Latterhaveneers to have the monopoly of the trade between the two worlds. We should own and operate our own spaceships.”
Achron laughed unkindly. “And what chance do you think you’d have of being a spaceman? Two ships are ample for the trade, and the spice crop’s only once a year. What would you do between voyages?”
“We could . . . explore.”
“Explore?” Achron’s slim arm described an arc against the almost empty sky. “Explore what? And on the other side of the world there’s the Lens—and we all know that it’s no more—or less—than a vast expanse of incandescent gases.”
“So we’ve been told. But . . . I’ve managed an occasional talk with the Latterhaven spacemen when I’ve been on spaceport guard duty, and they don’t think so.”
“They wouldn’t. Anyhow, you could be a lot worse things than a soldier—and in the Police Battalion of the Army at that. And as far as the possibility or otherwise of other worlds is concerned, I’d sooner listen to our own priests than to that atheistical bunch from Latterhaven.”
They were almost at the créche now, a huge, sprawling adjunct to the still huger temple. Its windows glowed with soft yellow light, and above the main doorway, in crimson neon, gleamed the insignia of the State Parenthood Service, the red circle from which, at an angle, a barbed arrow jutted up and out. Brasidus wondered, as he had wondered before, how the créche had come to take for its own the symbol of Ares, the God of War. It was, he supposed, that the highest caste into which a child could grow was, after the priesthood, the military. Then he thought about his own alleged parenthood.
“These babies like me . . .” he said abruptly.
“I . . . I think I’ll come in with you, to see for myself.”
“Why not? It’s outside visiting hours—not that anybody does ever visit—but you’re a police officer. Old Telemachus at the desk won’t know if you’re on duty or not.”
Telemachus, bored by his night duty, welcomed the slight deviation from normal routine. He knew Brasidus slightly but, nonetheless, insisted that he produce his identity card. Then he asked, his wrinkled head protruding turtle-like from his robes, “And what is the purpose of your visit, Sergeant? Has some criminal taken refuge within our sacred precincts?”
“Achron tells me that two of his charges might be . . . mine.”
“Ah. Potential criminals.” The old man cackled at his own humor. “But seriously, Sergeant, it is a great pity that more of our citizens do not evince greater interest in their sons. Even though the direct physical link was abolished ages ago, there should still be responsibility. Yes. Responsibility. Before I was asked to resign from the Council, I succeeded in having the system of regular visiting hours introduced—not that anybody has taken advantage of them . . .”
“Phillip will be waiting for his relief,” broke in Achron sulkily.
“So he will. But it will not hurt that young man to be kept waiting. Do you know, at the 2200-hours feed he failed to ensure that the bottles were at the correct temperature! I could hear Doctor Heraklion carrying on, even out here. Luckily the Doctor came into the ward at just the right time.” Telemachus added spitefully, “I honestly think that Phillip will make a better factory hand than a children’s nurse.”
“Is the correct temperature so important, sir?” asked Brasidus curiously. “After all, we can eat hot things and cold things, and it never seems to do us any harm.”
“But we are fully developed, my dear boy. The children are not. Before the priests learned how to improve upon nature, a child, up to quite an advanced age, would be getting his nourishment directly from the father’s bloodstream. So—can’t you see?—these immature digestive organs must be coddled. They are not ready to handle what we should consider normal food and drink.”
“Phillip will be in a bad temper,” complained Achron. “I hate him when he’s that way.”