Barrent visited a sanitarium, and heard the mad inmates screaming about goodness, fair play, the sanctity of life, and other obscenities. He had no intention of joining them. Perhaps he was sick, but he wasn't that sick!
His friends told him that his uncooperative attitude was bound to get him into trouble. Barrent agreed; but he hoped, by killing only when it became necessary, that he would escape the observation of the highly placed individuals who administered the law.
For several weeks his plan seemed to work. He ignored the increasingly peremptory notes from the Dream Shop and did not return to services at the Wee Coven. Business prospered, and Barrent spent his spare time studying the effects of the rarer poisons and practicing with his needlebeam. He often thought about the girl. He still had the gun she had lent him. He wondered if he would ever see her again.
And he thought about Earth. Since his visit to the Dream Shop, he had occasional flashes of recall, isolated pictures of a weathered stone building, a stand of live oaks, the curve of a river seen through willows. This half-remembered Earth filled him with an almost unbearable longing. Like most of the citizens of Omega, his only real wish was to go home.
And that was impossible.
The days passed, and when trouble came, it came unexpectedly. One night there was a heavy knocking at his door. Half asleep, Barrent answered it. Four uniformed men pushed their way inside and told him he was under arrest.
"What for?" Barrent asked.
"Non-drug addiction," one of the men told him. "You have three minutes to dress."
"What's the penalty?"
"You'll find out in court," the man said. He winked at the other guards and added, "But the only way to cure a nonaddict is to kill him. Eh?"
* * * * *
He was taken to a room in the sprawling Department of Justice. The room was called the Kangaroo Court, in honor of ancient Anglo-Saxon judicial proceeding. Across the hall from it, also of antique derivation, was the Star Chamber. Just past that was the Court of Last Appeal.
The Kangaroo Court was divided in half by a high wooden screen, for it was fundamental to Omegan justice that the accused should not see his judge nor any of the witnesses against him.
"Let the prisoner rise," a voice said from behind the screen. The voice, thin, flat and emotionless, came through a small amplifier. Barrent could barely understand the words; tone and inflection were lost, as had been planned for. Even in speaking, the judge remained anonymous.
"Will Barrent," the judge said, "you have been brought before this court on a major charge of non-drug addiction and a minor charge of religious impiety. On the minor count we have the sworn statement of a priest. On the major count we have the testimony of the Dream Shop. Can you refute either of these charges?"
Barrent thought for a moment, then answered, "No, sir, I can't."
"For the present," the judge said, "your religious impiety can be waived, since it is a first offense. But non-drug addiction is a major crime against the state of Omega. The uninterrupted use of drugs is an enforced privilege of every citizen. It is well known that privileges must be exercised, otherwise they will be lost. To lose our privileges would be to lose the very cornerstone of our liberty. Therefore to reject or otherwise fail to perform a privilege is tantamount to high treason."
There was a pause. The guards shuffled their feet restlessly. Barrent, who considered his situation hopeless, stood at attention and waited.
"Drugs serve many purposes," the hidden judge went on. "I need not enumerate their desirable qualities for the user. But speaking from the viewpoint of the state, I will tell you that an addicted populace is a loyal populace; that drugs are a major source of tax revenue; that drugs exemplify our entire way of life. Furthermore, I say to you that the nonaddicted minorities have invariably proven hostile to native Omegan institutions. I give you this lengthy explanation, Will Barrent, in order that you may better understand the sentence which is to be passed upon you."
"Sir," Barrent said, "I was wrong in avoiding addiction. I won't plead ignorance, because I know the law doesn't recognize that excuse. But I will ask you most humbly for another chance. I ask you to remember, sir, that addiction and rehabilitation are still possible for me."
"The court recognizes that," the judge said. "For that reason, the court is pleased to exercise its fullest powers of judicial mercy. Instead of summary execution, you may choose between two lesser decrees. The first is punitive; that you shall suffer the loss of your right hand and left leg in atonement for your crime against the State; but that you shall not lose your life."
Barrent gulped and asked, "What is the other decree, sir?"
"The other decree, which is nonpunitive, is that you shall undergo a Trial by Ordeal. And that, if you survive such a trial, you shall be returned to appropriate rank and position in society."
"I'll take the Trial by Ordeal," Barrent said.
"Very well," said the judge. "Let the case proceed."
Barrent was led from the room. Behind him, he heard a quickly concealed laugh from one of the guards. Had he chosen wrong? he wondered. Could a trial by ordeal be worse than outright mutilation?
On Omega, so the saying went, you couldn't fit a knife blade between the trial and the execution of the sentence. Barrent was taken at once to a large, circular stone room in the basement of the Department of Justice. White arc lights glared down at him from a high, arched ceiling. Below, one section of wall had been cut away to provide a reviewing stand for spectators. The stands were almost filled when Barrent arrived, and hawkers were selling copies of the day's legal calendar.
For a few moments Barrent was alone on the stone floor. Then a panel slid away in one curved wall, and a small machine rolled out.
A loudspeaker set high in the reviewing stand announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please! You are about to witness Trial 642-BG223, by Ordeal, between Citizen Will Barrent and GME 213. Take your seats, please. The contest will begin in a few minutes."
Barrent looked over his opponent. It was a glistening black machine shaped like a half-sphere, standing almost four feet high. It rolled restlessly back and forth on small wheels. A pattern of red, green, and amber lights from recessed glass bulbs flashed across its smooth metal hide. It stirred in Barrent a vague memory of some creature from Earth's oceans.
"For the benefit of those who are visiting our gallery for the first time," the loudspeaker said, "a word of explanation is in order. The prisoner, Will Barrent, has freely chosen the Trial by Ordeal. The instrument of justice, which in this instance is GME 213, is an example of the finest creative engineering which Omega has produced. The machine, or Max, as its many friends and admirers call it, is a murder weapon of exemplary efficiency, able to utilize no less than twenty-three killing modes, many of them extremely painful. For trial purposes, it is set to operate upon a random principle. This means that Max has no choice over the way in which it kills. The modes are selected and abandoned by a random arrangement of twenty-three numbers, linked to an equally random time-selection of one to six seconds."
Max suddenly moved toward the center of the room, and Barrent backed away from it.
"It is within the prisoner's power," the loudspeaker voice continued, "to disable the machine; in which case, the prisoner wins the contest and is set free with full rights and privileges of his station. The method of disabling varies from machine to machine. It is always theoretically possible for a prisoner to win. Practically speaking, this has happened on an average of 3.5 times out of a hundred."
Barrent looked up at the gallery of spectators. To judge by their dress, they were all men and women of status; high in the ranks of the Privileged Classes.
Then he saw, sitting in a front row seat, the girl who had lent him her gun on his first day in Tetrahyde. She was as beautiful as he had remembered her; but no hint of emotion touched her pale, oval face. She stared at him with the frank and detached interest of someone watching an unusual bug under a jar.
"Let the contest begin!" the loudspeaker announced.
Barrent had no more time to think about the girl, for the machine was rolling toward him.
He circled warily away from it. Max extruded a single slender tentacle with a white light winking in the end of it The machine rolled toward Barrent, backing him toward a wall.
Abruptly it stopped. Barrent heard the clank of gears. The tentacle was withdrawn, and in its place appeared a jointed metal arm which ended in a knife-edge. Moving more quickly now, the machine cornered him against the wall. The arm flickered out, but Barrent managed to dodge it. He heard the knife-edge scrape against stone. When the arm withdrew, Barrent had a chance to move again into the center of the room.
He knew that his only chance to disable the machine was during the pause when its selector changed it from one killing mode to another. But how do you disable a smooth-surfaced turtle-backed machine?
Max came at him again, and now its metal hide glistened with a dull green substance which Barrent immediately recognized as Contact Poison. He broke into a spring, circling the room, trying to avoid the fatal touch.
The machine stopped. Neutralizer washed over its surface, clearing away the poison. Then the machine was coming toward him again, this time with no weapons visible, apparently intending to ram.
Barrent was badly winded. He dodged, and the machine dodged with him. He was standing against the wall, helpless, as the machine picked up speed.
It stopped, inches from him. Its selector clicked. Max was extruding some sort of a club.
This, Barrent thought, was an exercise in applied sadism. If it went on much longer, the machine would run him off his feet and kill him at its leisure. Whatever he was going to do, he had better do it at once, while he still had the strength.
Even as he thought that, the machine swung a clubbed metal arm. Barrent couldn't avoid the blow completely. The club struck his left shoulder, and he felt his arm go numb.
Max was selecting again. Barrent threw himself on its smooth, rounded back. At the very top he saw two tiny holes. Praying that they were air intake openings, Barrent plugged them with his fingers.
The machine stopped dead, and the audience roared. Barrent clung to the smooth surface with his numbed arm, trying to keep his fingers in the holes. The pattern of lights on Max's surface changed from green through amber to red. Its deep-throated buzz became a dull hum.
And then the machine extruded tubes as alternative intake holes.
Barrent tried to cover them with his body. But the machine, roaring into sudden life, swiveled rapidly and threw him off. Barrent rolled to his feet and moved back to the center of the arena.
The contest had lasted no more than five minutes, but Barrent was exhausted. He forced himself to retreat from the machine, which was coming at him now with a broad, gleaming hatchet.
As the hatchet-arm swung, Barrent threw himself at it instead of away. He caught the arm in both hands and bent it back. Metal creaked, and Barrent thought he could hear the joint beginning to give way. If he could break off the metal arm, he might disable the machine; at the very least, the arm would be a weapon....
Max suddenly went into reverse. Barrent tried to keep his grip on the arm, but it was yanked away. He fell on his face. The hatchet swung, gouging his shoulder.
Barrent rolled over and looked at the gallery. He was finished. He might as well accept the machine's next attempt gracefully and have it over with. The spectators were cheering, watching Max begin its transformation into another killing mode.
And the girl was motioning to him.
Barrent stared, trying to make some sense out of it. She gestured at him to turn something over, turn it over and destroy.
He had no more time to watch. Dizzy from loss of blood, he staggered to his feet and watched the machine charge. He didn't bother to see what weapon it had extruded; his entire attention was concentrated on its wheels.
As it came at him, Barrent threw himself under the wheels.
The machine tried to brake and swerve, but not in time. The wheels rolled onto Barrent's body, tilting the machine sharply upward. Barrent grunted under the impact. With his back under the machine, he put his remaining strength in an attempt to stand up.
For a moment the machine teetered, its wheels spinning wildly. Then it flipped over on its back. Barrent collapsed beside it.
When he could see again, the machine was still on its back. It was extruding a set of arms to turn itself over.
Barrent threw himself on the machine's flat belly and hammered with his fists. Nothing happened. He tried to pull off one of the wheels, and couldn't. Max was propping itself up, preparing to turn over and resume the contest.
The girl's motions caught Barrent's eye. She was making a plucking motion, repeatedly, insistently.
Only then Barrent saw a small fuse box near one of the wheels. He yanked off the cover, losing most of a fingernail in the process, and removed the fuse.
The machine expired gracefully.
On Omega, the law is supreme. Hidden and revealed, sacred and profane, the law governs the actions of all citizens, from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high. Without the law, there could be no privileges for those who made the law; therefore the law was absolutely necessary. Without the law and its stern enforcement, Omega would be an unthinkable chaos in which a man's rights could extend only as far and as long as he personally could enforce them. This anarchy would mean the end of Omegan society; and particularly, it would mean the end of those senior citizens of the ruling class who had grown high in status, but whose skill with a gun had long passed its peak.
Therefore the law was necessary.
But Omega was also a criminal society, composed entirely of individuals who had broken the laws of Earth. It was a society which, in the final analysis, stressed individual endeavor. It was a society in which the lawbreaker was king; a society in which crimes were not only condoned but were admired and even rewarded; a society in which deviation from the rules was judged solely on its degree of success.
And this resulted in the paradox of a criminal society with absolute laws which were meant to be broken.
The judge, still hidden behind his screen, explained all this to Barrent. Several hours had passed since the end of the Trial by Ordeal. Barrent had been taken to the infirmary, where his injuries were patched up. They were minor, for the most part; two cracked ribs, a deep gouge in his left shoulder, and various cuts and bruises.
"Accordingly," the judge went on, "the law must simultaneously be broken and not broken. Those who never break a law never rise in status. They are usually killed off in one way or another, since they lack the necessary initiative to survive. For those who, like yourself, break laws, the situation is somewhat different. The law punishes them with absolute severity—unless they can get away with it."
The judge paused. In a thoughtful voice he continued, "The highest type of man on Omega is the individual who understands the laws, appreciates their necessity, knows the penalties for infraction, then breaks them—and succeeds! That, sir, is your ideal criminal and your ideal Omegan. And that is what you have succeeded in doing, Will Barrent, by winning the Trial by Ordeal."
"Thank you, sir," Barrent said.
"I wish you to understand," the judge continued, "that success in breaking the law once does not imply that you will succeed a second time. The odds are increasingly against you each time you try—just as the rewards are increasingly greater if you succeed. Therefore I counsel you not to act rashly upon your new acquisition of knowledge."
"I won't, sir," Barrent said.
"Very well. You are hereby elevated to the status of Privileged Citizen, with all the rights and obligations which that entails. You are allowed to keep your business, as before. Furthermore, you are granted a week's free vacation in the Lake of Clouds region; and you may go on that vacation with any female of your choice."
"I beg pardon?" Barrent said. "What was that last?"
"A week's vacation," the hidden judge repeated, "with any female of your choice. It is a high reward, since men outnumber women on Omega by six to one. You may pick any unmarried woman, willing or unwilling. I will grant you three days in which to make a choice."
"I don't need three days," Barrent said. "I want the girl who was sitting in the front row of the spectators' gallery. The girl with black hair and green eyes. Do you know which one I mean?"
"Yes," the judge said slowly, "I know which one you mean. Her name is Moera Ermais. I suggest that you choose someone else."
"Is there any reason?"
"No. But you would be much better advised if you selected someone else. My clerk will be pleased to furnish you with a list of suitable young ladies. All of them have affidavits of good performance. Several are graduates of the Women's Institute, which, as you perhaps know, gives a rigorous two-year course in the geishan arts and sciences. I can personally recommend your attention to—"
"Moera is the one I want," Barrent said.
"Young man, you err in your judgment."
"I'll have to take that chance."
"Very well," the judge said. "Your vacation starts at nine tomorrow morning. I sincerely wish you good fortune."
* * * * *
Guards escorted Barrent from the judge's chambers, and he was taken back to his shop. His friends, who had been waiting for the death announcement, came to congratulate him. They were eager to hear the complete details of the Trial by Ordeal; but Barrent had learned now that secret knowledge was the road to power. He gave them only the sketchiest outline.
There was another cause for celebration that night. Tem Rend's application had finally been accepted by the Assassin's Guild. As he had promised, he was taking Foeren on as his assistant.
The following morning, Barrent opened his shop and saw a vehicle in front of his door. It had been provided for his vacation by the Department of Justice. Sitting in the back, looking beautiful and very annoyed, was Moera.
She said, "Are you out of your mind, Barrent? Do you think I have time for this sort of thing? Why did you pick me?"
"You saved my life," Barrent said.
"And I suppose you think that means I'm interested in you? Well, I'm not. If you have any gratitude, you'll tell the driver that you've changed your mind. You can still choose another girl."
Barrent shook his head. "You're the only girl I'm interested in."
"Then you won't reconsider?"
"Not a chance."
Moera sighed and leaned back. "Are you really interested in me?"
"Much more than interested," Barrent said.
"Well," Moera said, "if you won't change your mind, I suppose I'll just have to put up with you." She turned away; but before she did, Barrent caught the faintest suggestion of a smile.
The Lake of Clouds was Omega's finest vacation resort. Upon entering the district, all weapons had to be checked at the main gate. No duels were allowed under any circumstances. Quarrels were arbitrarily decided by the nearest barman, and murder was punished by immediate loss of all status.
Every amusement was available at the Lake of Clouds. There were the exhibitions such as fencing bouts, bull fighting, and bear baiting. There were sports like swimming, mountain climbing, and skiing. In the evenings there was dancing in the main ballroom, behind glass walls which separated residents from citizens and citizens from the elite. There was a well-stocked drug bar containing anything the fashionable addict could desire, as well as a few novelties he might wish to sample. For the gregarious, there was an orgy every Wednesday and Saturday night in the Satyr's Grotto. For the shy, the management arranged masked trysts in the dim passageways beneath the hotel. But most important of all, there were gently rolling hills and shadowy woods to walk in, free from the tensions of the daily struggle for existence in Tetrahyde.
Barrent and Moera had adjoining rooms, and the door between them was unlocked. But on the first night, Barrent did not go through the door. Moera had given no sign of wanting him to do so; and on a planet where women have easy and continual access to poisons, a man had to think twice before inflicting his company where it was not wanted. Even the owner of an antidote shop had to consider the possibility of not being able to recognize his own symptoms in time.
On their second day, they climbed high into the hills. They ate a basket lunch on a grassy incline which sloped away to the gray sea. After they had eaten, Barrent asked Moera why she had saved his life.
"You won't like the answer," she told him.
"I'd still like to hear it."
"Well, you looked so ridiculously vulnerable that day in the Victim's Society. I would have helped anyone who looked that way."
Barrent nodded uncomfortably. "What about the second time?"
"By then I suppose I had an interest in you. Not a romantic interest, you understand. I'm not at all romantic."
"What kind of an interest?" Barrent asked.
"I thought you might be good recruitment material."
"I'd like to hear more about it," Barrent said.
Moera was silent for a while, watching him with unblinking green eyes. She said, "There's not much I can tell you. I'm a member of an organization. We're always on the lookout for good prospects. Usually we screen directly from the prison ships. After that, recruiters like me go out in search of people we can use."
"What type of people do you look for?"
"Not your type, Will. I'm sorry."
"Why not me?"
"At first I thought seriously about recruiting you," Moera said. "You seemed like just the sort of person we needed. Then I checked into your record."
"We don't recruit murderers. Sometimes we employ them for specific jobs, but we don't take them into the organization. There are certain extenuating circumstances which we recognize; self-defense, for example. But aside from that, we feel that a man who has committed premeditated murder on Earth is the wrong man for us."
"I see," Barrent said. "Would it help any if I told you I don't have the usual Omegan attitude toward murder?"
"I know you don't," Moera said. "If it were up to me, I'd take you into the organization. But it's not my choice.... Will, are you sure you're a murderer?"
"I believe I am," Barrent said. "I probably am."
"Too bad," Moera said. "Still, the organization needs high-survival types, no matter what they did on Earth. I can't promise anything, but I'll see what I can do. It would help if you could find out more about why you committed murder. Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances."
"Perhaps," Barrent said doubtfully. "I'll try to find out."
That evening, just before he went to sleep, Moera opened the adjoining door and came into his room. Slim and warm, she slipped into his bed. When he started to speak, she put a hand over his mouth. And Barrent, who had learned not to question good fortune, kept quiet.
The rest of the vacation passed much too quickly. The subject of the organization did not come up again; but, perhaps as compensation, the adjoining door was not closed. At last, late on the seventh day, Barrent and Moera returned to Tetrahyde.
"When can I see you again?" Barrent asked.
"I'll get in touch with you."
"That's not a very satisfactory arrangement."
"It's the best I can do," Moera said. "I'm sorry, Will. I'll see what I can do about the organization."
Barrent had to be satisfied with that. When the vehicle dropped him at his store, he still didn't know where she lived, or what kind of an organization she represented.
* * * * *
Back in his apartment, he considered carefully the details of his dream in the Dream Shop. It was all there: his anger at Therkaler, the illicit weapon, the encounter, the corpse, and then the informer and the judge. Only one thing was missing. He had no recollection of the actual murder, no memory of aiming the weapon and activating it. The dream stopped when he met Therkaler, and started again after he was dead.
Perhaps he had blocked the moment of actual murder out of his mind; but perhaps there had been some provocation, some satisfactory reason why he had killed the man. He would have to find out.
There were only two ways of getting information about Earth. One lay through the horror-tinged visions of the Dream Shop, and he was determined not to go there again. The other way was through the services of a skrenning mutant.
Barrent had the usual distaste for mutants. They were another race entirely, and their status of untouchability was no mere prejudice. It was well known that mutants often carried strange and incurable diseases. They were shunned, and they had reacted to exclusion by exclusiveness. They lived in the Mutant Quarter, which was almost a self-contained city within Tetrahyde. Citizens with good sense stayed away from the Quarter, especially after dark; everyone knew that mutants could be vindictive.
But only mutants had the skrenning ability. In their misshapen bodies were unusual powers and talents, odd and abnormal abilities which the normal man shunned by day but secretly courted by night. Mutants were said to be in the particular favor of The Black One. Some people felt that the great art of Black Magic, about which the priests boasted, could only be performed by a mutant; but one never said so in the presence of a priest.
Mutants, because of their strange talents, were reputed to remember much more of Earth than was possible for normal men and women. Not only could they remember Earth in general, but in particular they could skren the life-thread of a man backward through space and time, pierce the wall of forgetfulness and tell what really had happened to him.
Other people believed that mutants had no unusual abilities at all. They considered them clever rogues who lived off people's credulity.
Barrent decided to find out for himself. Late one night, suitably cloaked and armed, he left his apartment and went to the Mutant Quarter.
Barrent walked through the narrow, twisting streets of the Quarter, one hand never far from his weapon. He walked among the lame and the blind, past hydrocephaloid and microcephalous idiots, past a juggler who kept twelve flaming torches in the air with the aid of a rudimentary third hand growing out of his chest. There were vendors selling clothing, charms, and jewelry. There were carts loaded with pungent and unsanitary-looking food. He walked past a row of brightly painted brothels. Girls crowded the windows and shrieked at him, and a four-armed, six-legged woman told him he was just in time for the Delphian Rites. Barrent turned away from her and almost ran into a monstrously fat woman who pulled open her blouse to reveal eight shrunken breasts. He ducked around her, moving quickly past four linked Siamese quadruplets who stared at him with huge mournful eyes.
Barrent turned a corner and stopped. A tall, ragged old man with a cane was blocking his way. The man was half-blind; the skin had grown smooth and hairless over the socket where his left eye should have been. But his right eye was sharp and fierce under a white eyebrow.
"You wish the services of a genuine skrenner?" the old man asked.
"Follow me," the mutant said. He turned into an alley, and Barrent came after him, gripping the butt of his needlebeam tightly. Mutants were forbidden by law to carry arms; but like this old man, most of them had heavy, iron-headed walking sticks. At close quarters, no one could ask for a better weapon.
The old man opened a door and motioned Barrent inside. Barrent paused, thinking about the stories he had heard of gullible citizens falling into mutant hands. Then he half-drew his needlebeam and went inside.
At the end of a long passageway, the old man opened a door and led Barrent into a small, dimly lighted room. As his eyes became accustomed to the dark, Barrent could make out the shapes of two women sitting in front of a plain wooden table. There was a pan of water on the table, and in the pan was a fist-sized piece of glass cut into many facets.
One of the women was very old and completely hairless. The other was young and beautiful. As Barrent moved closer to the table, he saw, with a sense of shock, that her legs were joined below the knee by a membrane of scaly skin, and her feet were of a rudimentary fish-tail shape.
"What do you wish us to skren for you, Citizen Barrent?" the young woman asked.
"How did you know my name?" Barrent asked. When he got no answer, he said, "All right. I want to find out about a murder I committed on Earth."
"Why do you want to find out about it?" the young woman asked. "Won't the authorities credit it to your record?"
"They credit it. But I want to find out why I did it. Maybe there were extenuating circumstances. Maybe I did it in self-defense."
"Is it really important?" the young woman asked.
"I think so," Barrent said. He hesitated a moment, then took the plunge. "The fact of the matter is, I have a neurotic prejudice against murder. I would rather not kill. So I want to find out why I committed murder on Earth."
The mutants looked at each other. Then the old man grinned and said, "Citizen, we'll help you all we can. We mutants also have a prejudice against killing, since it's always someone else killing us. We're all in favor of citizens with a neurosis against murder."
"Then you'll skren my past?"
"It's not as easy as that," the young woman said. "The skrenning ability, which is one of a cluster of psi talents, is difficult to use. It doesn't always function. And when it does function, it often doesn't reveal what it's supposed to."
"I thought all mutants could look into the past whenever they wanted to," Barrent said.
"No," the old man told him, "that isn't true. For one thing, not all of us who are classified mutants are true mutants. Almost any deformity or abnormality these days is called mutantism. It's a handy term to cover anyone who doesn't conform to the Terran standard of appearance."
"But some of you are true mutants?"
"Certainly. But even then, there are different types of mutantism. Some just show radiation abnormalities—giantism, microcephaly, and the like. Only a few of us possess the slightest psi abilities—although all mutants claim them."
"Are you able to skren?" Barrent asked him.
"No. But Myla can," he said, pointing to the young woman. "Sometimes she can."
The young woman was staring into the pan of water, into the faceted glass. Her pale eyes were open very wide, showing almost all pupil, and her fish-tailed body was rigidly upright, supported by the old woman.
"She's beginning to see something," the man said. "The water and the glass are just devices to focus her attention. Myla's good at skrenning, though sometimes she gets the future confused with the past. That sort of thing is embarrassing, and it gives skrenning a bad name. It can't be helped, though. Every once in a while the future is there in the water, and Myla has to tell what she sees. Last week she told a Hadji he was going to die in four days." The old man chuckled. "You should have seen the expression on his face."
"Did she see how he would die?" Barrent asked.
"Yes. By a knife-thrust. The poor man stayed in his house for the entire four days."
"Was he killed?"
"Of course. His wife killed him. She was a strong-minded woman, I'm told."
Barrent hoped that Myla wouldn't skren any future for him. Life was difficult enough without a mutant's predictions to make it worse.
She was looking up from the faceted glass now, shaking her head sadly. "There's very little I can tell you. I was not able to see the murder performed. But I skrenned a graveyard, and in it I saw your parents' tombstone. It was an old tombstone, perhaps twenty years old. The graveyard was on the outskirts of a place on Earth called Youngerstun."
Barrent reflected a moment, but the name meant nothing to him.
"Also," Myla said, "I skrenned a man who knows about the murder. He can tell you about it, if he will."
"This man saw the murder?"
"Is he the man who informed on me?"
"I don't know," Myla said. "I skrenned the corpse, whose name was Therkaler, and there was a man standing near it. That man's name was Illiardi."
"Is he here on Omega?"
"Yes. You can find him right now in the Euphoriatorium on Little Axe Street. Do you know where that is?"
"I can find it," Barrent said. He thanked the girl and offered payment, which she refused to take. She looked very unhappy. As Barrent was leaving, she called out, "Be careful."
Barrent stopped at the door, and felt an icy chill settle across his chest. "Did you skren my future?" he asked.
"Only a little," Myla said. "Only a few months ahead."
"What did you see?"
"I can't explain it," she said. "What I saw is impossible."
"Tell me what it was."
"I saw you dead. And yet, you weren't dead at all. You were looking at a corpse, which was shattered into shiny fragments. But the corpse was also you."
"What does it mean?"
"I don't know," Myla said.
* * * * *
The Euphoriatorium was a large, garish place which specialized in cut-rate drugs and aphrodisiacs. It catered mostly to a peon and resident clientele. Barrent felt out of status as he shouldered his way through the crowd and asked a waiter where he could find a man named Illiardi.
The waiter pointed. In a corner booth, Barrent saw a bald, thick-shouldered man sitting over a tiny glass of thanapiquita. Barrent went over and introduced himself.
"Pleased to meet you, sir," Illiardi said, showing the obligatory respect of a Second Class Resident for a Privileged Citizen. "How can I be of service?"
"I want to ask you a few questions about Earth," Barrent said.
"I can't remember much about the place," Illiardi said. "But you're welcome to anything I know."
"Do you remember a man named Therkaler?"
"Certainly," Illiardi said. "Thin fellow. Cross-eyed. As mean a man as you could find."
"Were you present when he was killed?"
"I was there. It was the first thing I remembered when I got off the ship."
"Did you see who killed him?"
Illiardi looked puzzled. "I didn't have to see. I killed him."
Barrent forced himself to speak in a calm, steady voice. "Are you sure of that? Are you absolutely certain?"
"Of course I'm sure," Illiardi said. "And I'll fight any man who tries to take credit for it. I killed Therkaler, and he deserved worse than that."
"When you killed him," Barrent asked, "did you see me anywhere around?"
Illiardi looked at him carefully, then shook his head. "No, I don't think I saw you. But I can't be sure. Right after I killed Therkaler, everything goes sort of blank."
"Thank you," Barrent said. He left the Euphoriatorium.
Barrent had much to think about, but the more he thought, the more he became confused. If Illiardi had killed Therkaler, why had Barrent been deported to Omega? If an honest mistake had been made, why hadn't he been released when the true murderer was discovered? Why had someone on Earth accused him of a crime he hadn't committed? And why had a false memory of that crime been superimposed on his mind just beneath the conscious level?
Barrent had no answers for his questions. But he knew that he had never felt like a murderer. Now he had proof, of sorts, that he wasn't a murderer.
The sensation of innocence changed everything for him. He had less tolerance for Omegan ways, and no interest at all in conforming to a criminal mode of life. The only thing he wanted was to escape from Omega and return to his rightful heritage on Earth.
But that was impossible. Day and night, the guardships circled overhead. Even if there had been some way of evading them, escape would still have been impossible. Omegan technology had progressed only as far as the internal combustion engine; the only starships were commanded by Earth forces.
Barrent continued to work in the Antidote Shop, but his lack of public spirit was growing apparent. He ignored invitations from the Dream Shop, and never attended any of the popular public executions. When roving mobs were formed to have a little fun in the Mutant Quarter, Barrent usually pleaded a headache. He never joined the Landing Day Hunts, and he was rude to an accredited salesman from the Torture of the Month Club. Not even visits from Uncle Ingemar could make him change his antireligious ways.
He knew he was asking for trouble. He expected trouble, and the knowledge was strangely exhilarating. After all, there was nothing wrong in breaking the law on Omega—as long as you could get away with it.
* * * * *
Within a month, he had a chance to test his decision. Walking to his shop one day, a man shoved against him in a crowd. Barrent moved away, and the man grabbed him by a shoulder and pulled him around.
"Who do you think you're pushing?" the man asked. He was short and stocky. His clothes indicated Privileged Citizen's rank. Five silver stars on his gunbelt showed his number of authorized kills.
"I didn't push you," Barrent said.
"You lie, you mutant-lover."
The crowd became silent when they heard the deadly insult. Barrent backed away, waiting. The man went for his sidearm in a quick, artistic draw. But Barrent's needlebeam was out a full half-second before the man's weapon had cleared his holster.
He drilled the man neatly between the eyes; then, sensing movement behind him, he swung around.
Two Privileged Citizens were drawing heat guns. Barrent fired, aiming automatically, dodging behind the protection of a shop front. The men crumpled. The wooden front buckled under the impact of a projectile weapon and splinters slashed his hand. Barrent saw a fourth man firing at him from an alley. He brought the man down with two shots.
And that was that. In the space of a few seconds, he had killed four men.
Although he didn't think of himself as having a murderer's mentality, Barrent was pleased and elated. He had fired only in self-defense. He had given the status-seekers something to think about; they wouldn't be so quick to gun for him next time. Quite possibly they would concentrate on easier targets and leave him alone.
When he returned to his shop, he found Joe waiting for him. The little credit thief had a sour look on his face. He said, "I saw your fancy gun-work today. Very pretty."
"Thank you," Barrent said.
"Do you think that sort of thing will help you? Do you think you can just go on breaking the law?"
"I'm getting away with it," Barrent said.
"Sure. But how long do you think you can keep it up?"
"As long as I have to."
"Not a chance," Joe said. "Nobody keeps on breaking the law and getting away with it. Only suckers believe that."
"They'd better send some good men after me," Barrent said, reloading his needlebeam.
"That's not how it'll happen," Joe said. "Believe me, Will, there's no counting the ways they have of getting you. Once the law decides to move, there'll be nothing you can do to stop it. And don't expect any help from that girl friend of yours, either."
"Do you know her?" Barrent asked.
"I know everybody," Joe said moodily. "I've got friends in the government. I know that people have had about enough of you. Listen to me, Will. Do you want to end up dead?"
Barrent shook his head. "Joe, can you visit Moera? Do you know how to reach her?"
"Maybe," Joe said. "What for?"
"I want you to tell her something," Barrent said. "I want you to tell her that I didn't commit the murder I was accused of on Earth."
Joe stared at him. "Are you out of your mind?"
"No. I found the man who actually did it. He's a Second Class Resident named Illiardi."
"Why spread it around?" Joe asked. "No sense in losing credit for the kill."
"I didn't murder the man," Barrent said. "I want you to tell Moera. Will you?"
"I'll tell her," Joe said. "If I can locate her. Look, will you remember what I've said? Maybe you still have time to do something about it. Go to Black Mass or something. It might help."
"Maybe I'll do that," Barrent said. "You'll be sure to tell her?"
"I'll tell her," Joe said. He left the Antidote Shop shaking his head sadly.
Three days later, Barrent received a visit from a tall, dignified man who stood as rigidly erect as the ceremonial sword that hung by his side. The old man wore a high-collared coat, black pants, and gleaming black boots. From his clothing, Barrent knew he was a high government official.
"The government of Omega sends you greetings," said the official. "I am Norins Jay, Sub-Minister of Games. I am here, as required by law, to inform you personally of your good fortune."
Barrent nodded warily and invited the old man into his apartment. But Jay, erect and proper, preferred to stay in the store.
"The yearly Lottery drawing was held last night," Jay said. "You, Citizen Barrent, are one of the prize winners. I congratulate you."
"What is the prize?" Barrent asked. He had heard of the yearly Lottery, but had only a vague idea of its significance.
"The prize," Jay said, "is honor and fame. Your name inscribed on the civic rolls. Your record of kills preserved for posterity. More concretely, you will receive a new government-issue needlebeam and, afterwards, you will be awarded posthumously the silver sunburst decoration."
"Of course," Jay said. "The silver sunburst is always awarded after death. It is no less an honor for that."
"I'm sure it isn't," Barrent said. "Is there anything else?"
"Just one other thing," Jay said. "As a Lottery winner, you will take part in the symbolic ceremony of the Hunt, which marks the beginning of the yearly Games. The Hunt, as you may know, personifies our Omegan way of life. In the Hunt we see all the complex factors of the dramatic rise and fall from grace, combined with the thrill of the duel and the excitement of the chase. Even peons are allowed to participate in the Hunt, for this is the one holiday open to all, and the one holiday that symbolizes the common man's ability to rise above the restraints of his status."
"If I understand correctly," Barrent said, "I'm one of the people who have been chosen to be hunted."
"Yes," Jay said.
"But you said the ceremony is symbolic. Doesn't that mean no one gets killed?"
"Not at all!" Jay said. "On Omega, the symbol and the thing symbolized are usually one and the same. When we say a Hunt, we mean a true hunt. Otherwise the thing would be mere pageantry."
Barrent stopped a moment to consider the situation. It was not a pleasing prospect. In a man-to-man duel he had an excellent chance of survival. But the yearly Hunt, in which the entire population of Tetrahyde took part, gave him no chance at all. He should have been ready for a possibility like this.
"How was I picked?" he asked.
"By random selection," said Norins Jay. "No other method would be fair to the Hunteds, who give up their lives for Omega's greater glory."
"I can't believe I was picked purely by chance."
"The selection was random," Jay said. "It was made, of course, from a list of suitable victims. Not everyone can be a Quarry in a Hunt. A man must have demonstrated a considerable degree of tenacity and skill before the Games Committee would think of considering him for selection. Being Hunted is an honor; it is not one which we confer lightly."
"I don't believe it," Barrent said. "You people in the government were out to get me. Now, it seems, you've succeeded. It's as simple as that."
"Not at all. I can assure you that none of us in the government bear you the slightest ill will. You may have heard foolish stories about vindictive officials, but they simply aren't true. You have broken the law, but that is no longer the government's concern. Now it is entirely a matter between you and the law."
Jay's frosty blue eyes flashed when he spoke of the law. His back stiffened, and his mouth grew firm.
"The law," he said, "is above the criminal and the judge, and rules them both. The law is inescapable, for an action is either lawful or unlawful. The law, indeed, may be said to have a life of its own, an existence quite apart from the finite lives of the beings who administer it. The law governs every aspect of human behavior; therefore, to the same extent that humans are lawful beings, the law is human. And being human, the law has its idiosyncrasies, just as a man has his. For a citizen who abides by the law, the law is distant and difficult to find. For those who reject and violate it, the law emerges from its musty sepulchers and goes in search of the transgressor."
"And that," Barrent said, "is why I was chosen for the Hunt?"
"Of course," Jay said. "If you had not been chosen in that way, the zealous and never-sleeping law would have selected another means, using whatever instruments were at its disposal."
"Thanks for telling me," Barrent said. "How long do I have before the Hunt begins?"
"Until dawn. The Hunt begins then, and ends at dawn of the following day."
"What happens if I'm not killed?"
Norins Jay smiled faintly. "That doesn't happen often, Citizen Barrent. I'm sure it need not worry you."
"It happens, doesn't it?"
"Yes. Those who survive the Hunt are automatically enrolled in the Games."
"And if I survive the Games?"
"Forget it," Jay said in a friendly manner.
"But what if I do?"
"Believe me, Citizen, you won't."
"I still would like to know what happens if I do."
"Those who live through the Games are beyond the law."
"That sounds promising," Barrent said.
"It isn't. The law, even at its most threatening, is still your guardian. Your rights may be few, but the law guarantees their observance. It is because of the law that I do not kill you here and now." Jay opened his hand, and Barrent saw a tiny single-charge weapon. "The law sets limits, and acts as a modifier upon the behavior of the lawbreaker and the law enforcer. To be sure, the law now states that you must die. But all men must die. The law, by its ponderous and introspective nature, gives you time in which to die. You have a day at least; and without the law, you would have no time at all."
"What happens," Barrent asked, "if I survive the Games and pass beyond the law?"
"There is only one thing beyond the law," Norins Jay said reflectively, "and that is The Black One himself. Those who pass beyond the law belong to him. But it would be better to die a thousand times than to fall living into the hands of The Black One."
Barrent had long ago dismissed the religion of The Black One as superstitious nonsense. But now, listening to Jay's earnest voice, he began to wonder. There might be a difference between the commonplace worship of evil and the actual presence of Evil itself.
"But if you have any luck," Jay said, "you will be killed early. Now I will end the interview with your final instructions."
Still holding the tiny weapon, Jay reached into a pocket with his free hand and withdrew a red pencil. In a quick, practiced motion he drew the pencil over Barrent's cheeks and forehead. He was finished before Barrent had time to recoil.
"That marks you as one of the Hunted," Jay said. "The hunt-marks are indelible. Here is your government-issue needlebeam." He drew a weapon from his pocket and put it on the table. "The Hunt, as I told you, begins at first light of dawn. Anyone may kill you then, except another Hunted man. You may kill in return. But I suggest that you do so with the utmost circumspection. The sound and flash of needlebeams have given many Hunteds away. If you try concealment, be sure you have an exit. Remember that others know Tetrahyde better than you. Skilled Hunters have explored all the possible hiding places over the years; many of the Hunted are trapped during the first hours of the holiday. Good luck, Citizen Barrent."
Jay walked to the door. He opened it and turned to Barrent again.
"There is, I might add, one barely possible way of preserving both life and liberty during the Hunt. But, since it is forbidden, I cannot tell you what it is."
Norins Jay bowed and went out.
* * * * *
Barrent found, after repeated washings, that the crimson hunt-marks on his face were indeed indelible. During the evening, he disassembled the government-issue needlebeam and inspected its parts. As he had suspected the weapon was defective. He discarded it in favor of his own.
He made his preparations for the Hunt, putting food, water, a coil of rope, a knife, extra ammunition, and a spare needlebeam into a small knapsack. Then he waited, hoping against all reason that Moera and her organization would bring him a last-minute reprieve.
But no reprieve came. An hour before dawn, Barrent shouldered his knapsack and left the Antidote Shop. He had no idea what the other Hunteds were doing; but he had already decided on a place that might be secure from the Hunters.
Authorities on Omega agree that a Hunted man experiences a change of character. If he were able to look upon the Hunt as an abstract problem, he might arrive at certain more or less valid conclusions. But the typical Hunted, no matter how great his intelligence, cannot divorce emotion from reasoning. After all, he is being hunted. He becomes panic-stricken. Safety seems to lie in distance and depth. He goes as far from home as possible; he goes deep into the ground along the subterranean maze of sewers and conduits. He chooses darkness instead of light, empty places in preference to crowded ones.
This behavior is well known to experienced Hunters. Quite naturally, they look first in the dark, empty places, in the underground passageways, in deserted stores and buildings. Here they find and flush the Hunted with inexorable precision.
Barrent had thought about this. He had discarded his first instinct, which was to hide in the intricate Tetrahyde cloaca. Instead, an hour before dawn, he went directly to the large, brightly lighted building that housed the Ministry of Games.
When the corridors seemed to be deserted, he entered quickly, read the directory, and climbed the stairs to the third floor. He passed a dozen office doors, and finally stopped at the one marked NORINS JAY, SUB-MINISTER OF GAMES. He listened for a moment, then opened the door and stepped in.
There was nothing wrong with old Jay's reflexes. Before Barrent was through the doorway, the old man had spotted the crimson hunt-marks on his face. Jay opened a drawer and reached into it.
Barrent had no desire to kill the old man. He flung the government-issue needlebeam at Jay, and caught him full on the forehead. Jay staggered back against the wall, then collapsed to the floor.
Bending over him, Barrent found that his pulse was strong. He bound and gagged the sub-minister, and pushed him out of sight under his desk. Hunting through the drawers, he found a CONFERENCE: DO NOT DISTURB sign. He hung this outside the door, and locked it. With his own needlebeam drawn, he sat down behind the desk and awaited events.
Dawn came, and a watery sun rose over Omega. From the window, Barrent could see the streets filled with people. There was a hectic carnival atmosphere in the city, and the noise of the holiday celebration was punctuated by the occasional hiss of a beamer or the flat explosion of a projectile weapon.
By noon, Barrent was still undetected. He looked through windows, and found that he had access to the roof. He was glad to have an exit, just as Jay had suggested.
By mid-afternoon, Jay had recovered consciousness. After struggling with his bonds for a while, he lay quietly under the desk.
Just before evening, someone knocked at the door. "Minister Jay, may I come in?"
"Not at the moment," Barrent said, in what he hoped was a fair imitation of Jay's voice.
"I thought you'd be interested in the statistics of the Hunt," the man said. "So far, Citizens have killed seventy-three Hunteds, with eighteen left to go. That's quite an improvement over last year."
"Yes, it is," Barrent said.
"The percentage who hid in the sewer system was larger this year. A few tried to bluff it out by staying in their homes. We're tracking down the rest in the usual places."
"Excellent," said Barrent.
"None have made the break so far," the man said. "Strange that Hunteds rarely think of it. But of course, it saves us from having to use the machines."
Barrent wondered what the man was talking about. The break? Where was there to break to? And how would machines be used?
"We're already selecting alternates for the Games," the man added. "I'd like to have your approval of the list."
"Use your own judgment," Barrent said.
"Yes, sir," the man said. In a moment, Barrent heard his footsteps moving down the hall. He decided that the man had become suspicious. The conversation had lasted too long, he should have broken it off earlier. Perhaps he should move to a different office.
Before he could do anything, there was a heavy pounding at the door.
"Citizen's Search Committee," a bass voice answered. "Kindly open the door. We have reason to believe that a Hunted is hiding in there."
"Nonsense," Barrent said. "You can't come in. This is a government office."
"We can," the bass voice said. "No room, office, or building is closed to a Citizen on Hunt Day. Are you opening up?"
Barrent had already moved to the window. He opened it, and heard behind him the sound of men hammering at the door. He fired through the door twice to give them something to think about; then he climbed out through the window.
* * * * *
The rooftops of Tetrahyde, Barrent saw at once, looked like a perfect place for a Hunted; therefore they were the last place a Hunted should be. The maze of closely connected roofs, chimneys, and spires seemed made to order for a chase; but men were already on the roofs. They shouted when they saw him.
Barrent broke into a sprint. Hunters were behind him, and others were closing in from the sides. He leaped a five-foot gap between buildings, managed to hold his balance on a steeply pitched roof, and scrambled around the side.
Panic gave him speed. He was leaving the Hunters behind. If he could keep up the pace for another ten minutes, he would have a substantial lead. He might be able to leave the roofs and find a better place for concealment.
Another five-foot gap between buildings came up. Barrent leaped it without hesitation.
He landed well. But his right foot went completely through rotted shingles, burying itself to the hip. He braced himself and pulled, trying to extricate his leg, but he couldn't get a purchase on the steep, crumbling roof.
"There he is!"
Barrent wrenched at the shingles with both hands. The Hunters were almost within needlebeam distance. By the time he got his leg out, he would be an easy target.
He had ripped a three-foot hole in the roof by the time the Hunters appeared on the next building. Barrent pulled his leg free; then, seeing no alternative, he jumped into the hole.
For a second he was in the air; then he landed feet-first on a table which collapsed under him, spilling him to the floor. He got up and saw that he was in a Hadji-class living room. An old woman sat in a rocking chair less than three feet away. Her jaw was slack with terror; she kept on rocking automatically.
Barrent heard the Hunters crossing to the roof. He went through the kitchen and out the back door, under a tangle of clotheslines and through a small hedge. Someone fired at him from a second-story window. Looking up, he saw a young boy trying to aim a heavy heat beamer. His father had probably forbidden him to hunt in the streets.
Barrent turned into a street, and sprinted until he reached an alley. It looked familiar. He realized that he was in the Mutant Quarter, not far from Myla's house.
He could hear the cries of the Hunters behind him. He reached Myla's house, and found the door unlocked.
* * * * *
They were all together—the one-eyed man, the bald old woman, and Myla. They showed no surprise at his entrance.
"So they picked you in the Lottery," the old man said. "Well, it's what we expected."
Barrent asked, "Did Myla skren it in the water?"
"There was no need to," the old man said. "It was quite predictable, considering the sort of person you are. Bold but not ruthless. That's your trouble, Barrent."
The old man had dropped the obligatory form of address for a Privileged Citizen; and that, under the circumstances, was predictable, too.
"I've seen it happen year after year," the old man said. "You'd be surprised how many promising young men like yourself end up in this room, out of breath, holding a needlebeam as though it weighed a ton with Hunters three minutes behind them. They expect us to help them, but mutants like to stay out of trouble."
"Shut up, Dem," the old woman said.
"I guess we have to help you," Dem said. "Myla's decided on it for reasons of her own." He grinned sardonically. "Her mother and I told her she was wrong, but she insisted. And since she's the only one of us who can skren, we must let her have her own way."
Myla said, "Even with us helping you, there's very little chance that you'll live through the Hunt."
"If I'm killed," Barrent said, "how will your prediction come true? Remember, you saw me looking at my own corpse, and it was in shiny fragments."
"I remember," Myla said. "But your death won't affect the prediction. If it doesn't happen to you in this lifetime, it will simply catch up to you in a different incarnation."
Barrent was not comforted. He asked, "What should I do?"
The old man handed him an armful of rags. "Put these on, and I'll go to work on your face. You, my friend, are going to become a mutant."
* * * * *
In a short time, Barrent was back on the street. He was dressed in rags. Beneath them he was holding his needlebeam, and in his free hand was a begging cup. The old man had worked lavishly with a pinkish-yellow plastic. Barrent's face was now monstrously swollen at the forehead, and his nose was flat and spread out almost to the cheekbones. The shape of his face had been altered, and the livid hunt-marks were hidden.
A detachment of Hunters raced past, barely giving him a glance. Barrent began to feel more hopeful. He had gained valuable time. The last light of Omega's watery sun was disappearing below the horizon. Night would give him additional opportunities, and with any luck he could elude the Hunters until dawn. After that were the Games, of course; but Barrent wasn't planning on taking part in them. If his disguise was good enough to protect him from an entire hunting city, there was no reason why he should be captured for the Games.
Perhaps, after the holiday was over, he could appear again in Omegan society. Quite possibly if he managed to survive the Hunt and altogether escape the Games, he would be especially rewarded. Such a presumptuous and successful breaking of the law would have to be rewarded....
He saw another group of Hunters coming toward him. There were five in the group, and with them was Tem Rend, looking somber and proud in his new Assassin's uniform.
"You!" one of the Hunters shouted. "Have you seen a Quarry pass this way?"
"No, Citizen," Barrent said, bowing his head respectfully, his needlebeam ready under his rags.
"Don't believe him," a man said. "These damned mutants never tell us a thing."
"Come on, we'll find him," another man said. The group moved away, but Tem Rend stayed behind.
"You sure you haven't seen one of the Hunted go by here?" Rend asked.
"Positive, Citizen," Barrent said, wondering if Rend had recognized him. He didn't want to kill him; in fact, he wasn't sure he could, for Rend's reflexes were uncannily fast. Right now, Rend's needlebeam was hanging loosely from his hand, while Barrent's was already aimed. That split-second advantage might cancel out Rend's superior speed and accuracy. But if it came to conclusions, Barrent thought, it would probably be a tie; in which case, they would more than likely kill each other.
"Well," Rend said, "if you do see any of the Hunted, tell them not to disguise themselves as mutants."
"That trick never works for long," Rend said evenly. "It gives a man about an hour's grace. Then the informers spot him. Now if I were being hunted, I might use mutant's disguise. But I wouldn't just sit on a curbstone with it. I'd make a break out of Tetrahyde."
"Most certainly. A few Hunteds every year escape into the mountains. The officials won't talk about it, of course, and most citizens don't know. But the Assassin's Guild keeps complete records of every trick, device, and escape ever used. It's part of our business."
"That's very interesting," Barrent said. He knew that Rend had seen through his disguise. Tem was being a good neighbor—though a bad assassin.
"Of course," Rend said, "it isn't easy to get out of the city. And once a man's out, that doesn't mean he's clear. There are Hunter patrols to watch out for, and even worse than that—"
Rend stopped abruptly. A group of Hunters were coming toward them. Rend nodded pleasantly and walked off.
After the Hunters had passed, Barrent got up and started walking. Rend had given him good advice. Of course some men would escape from the city. Life in Omega's barren mountains would be extremely difficult; but any difficulty was better than death.
If he were able to get by the city gate, he would have to watch for the hunting patrols. And Tem had mentioned something worse. Barrent wondered what that was. Special mountain-trained Hunters, perhaps? Omega's unstable climate? Deadly flora and fauna? He wished Rend had been able to finish the sentence.
By nightfall he had reached the South Gate. Bent painfully over, he hobbled toward the guard detachment that blocked his way out.
There was no trouble with the guards. Whole families of mutants were streaming out of the city, seeking the protection of the mountains until the frenzy of the Hunt was over. Barrent attached himself to one of these groups, and soon he found himself a mile past Tetrahyde, in the low foothills that curled in a semicircle around the city.
The mutants stopped here and made their camp. Barrent went on, and by midnight he was starting up the rocky, windswept slope of one of the higher mountains. He was hungry, but the cool, clear air was exhilarating. He began to believe that he really would live through the Hunt.
He heard a noisy group of Hunters making a sweep around the mountain. He avoided them easily in the darkness, and continued climbing. Soon there was no sound except the steady rush of wind across the cliffs. It was perhaps two in the morning; only three more hours until dawn.
In the small hours of the morning it began to rain, lightly at first, then in a cold torrent. This was predictable weather for Omega. Predictable also were the towering thunderheads that formed over the mountains, the rolling thunder, and the vivid yellow flashes of lightning. Barrent found shelter in a shallow cave, and counted himself lucky that the temperature had not yet plunged.
He sat in the cave, half-dozing, the remnants of his makeup running down his face, keeping a sleepy watch over the slope of the mountain below him. Then, in the brilliant illumination of a lightning flash, he saw something moving up the slope, heading directly toward his cave.
He stood up, the needlebeam ready, and waited for another lightning flash. It came, and now he could see the cold, wet gleam of metal, a flashing of red and green lights, a pair of metal tentacles taking grips on the rocks and small shrubs of the mountainside.
It was a machine similar to the one Barrent had fought in the cellars of the Department of Justice. Now he knew what Rend had wanted to warn him about. And he could see why few of the Hunted escaped, even if they got beyond the city itself. This time, Max would not be operating at random to make a more equal contest out of it. And there would be no exposed fuse box.
As Max came within range, Barrent fired. The blast bounced harmlessly off the machine's armored hide. Barrent left the shelter of his cave and began to climb.
The machine came steadily behind him, up the treacherous wet face of the mountain. Barrent tried to lose it on a plateau of jagged boulders, but Max couldn't be shaken. Barrent realized that the machine must be following a scent of some kind; probably it was keyed to follow the indelible paint on Barrent's face.
On a steep face of the mountain, Barrent rolled boulders onto the machine, hoping he could start an avalanche. Max dodged most of the flying rocks, and let the rest bounce off him, with no visible effect.
At last Barrent was backed into a narrow, steep-sided angle of cliff. He was unable to climb any higher. He waited. When the machine loomed over him, he held the needlebeam against its metal hide and held down the trigger.
Max shuddered for a moment under the impact of the needlebeam's full charge. Then it brushed the weapon away and wrapped a tentacle around Barrent's neck. The metal coils tightened. Barrent felt himself losing consciousness. He had time to wonder whether the coils would strangle him or break his neck.
Suddenly the pressure was gone. The machine had backed away a few feet. Past it, Barrent could see the first gray light of dawn.
He had lived through the Hunt. The machine was not programmed to kill him after dawn. But it wouldn't let him go. It kept him captive in the narrow angle of the cliff until the Hunters came.
They brought Barrent back to Tetrahyde, where a wildly applauding crowd gave him a hero's welcome. After a two-hour procession, Barrent and four other survivors were taken to the office of the Awards Committee. The Chairman made a short and moving speech about the skill and courage each had shown in surviving the Hunt. He gave each of them the rank of Hadji, and presented them with the tiny golden earrings which showed their status.
At the end of the ceremony, the Chairman wished each of the new Hadjis an easy death in the Games.
Guards led Barrent from the office of the Awards Committee. He was brought past a row of dungeons under the Arena, and locked into a cell. The guards told him to be patient; the Games had already begun, and his turn would come soon.
There were nine men crammed into a cell which had been built to hold three. Most of them sat or sprawled in complete and silent apathy, already resigned to their deaths. But one of them was definitely not resigned. He pushed his way to the front of the cell as Barrent entered.
The little credit thief grinned at him. "A sad place to meet, Will."
"What happened to you?"
"Politics," Joe said. "It's a dangerous business on Omega, especially during the time of the Games. I thought I was safe. But ..." He shrugged his shoulders. "I was selected for the Games this morning."
"Is there any chance of getting out of it?"
"There's a chance," Joe said. "I told your girl about you, so perhaps her friends can do something. As for me, I'm expecting a reprieve."
"Is that possible?" Barrent asked.
"Anything is possible. It's better not to hope for it, though."
"What are the Games like?" Barrent asked.
"They're the sort of thing you'd expect," Joe said. "Man-to-man combats, battles against various types of Omegan flora and fauna, needlebeam and heatgun duels. It's all copied from an old Earth festival, I'm told."
"And if anyone survives," Barrent said, "they're beyond the law."
"But what does it mean to be beyond the law?"
"I don't know," Joe said. "Nobody seems to know much about that. All I could find out is, survivors of the Games are taken by The Black One. It's not supposed to be pleasant."
"I can understand that. Very little on Omega is pleasant."
"It isn't a bad place," Joe said. "You just haven't the proper spirit of—"
He was interrupted by the arrival of a detachment of guards. It was time for the occupants of Barrent's cell to enter the Arena.
"No reprieve," Barrent said.
"Well, that's how it goes," Joe said.
They were marched out under heavy guard and lined up at the iron door that separated the cell block from the main Arena. Just before the captain of the guards opened the door, a fat, well-dressed man came hurrying down a side corridor waving a paper.
"What's this?" the captain of the guards asked.
"A writ of recognizance," the fat man said, handing his paper to the captain. "On the other side, you'll find a cease-and-desist order." He pulled more papers out of his pockets. "And here is a bankruptcy-transferral notice, a chattel mortgage, a writ of habeas corpus, and a salary attachment."
The captain pushed back his helmet and scratched his narrow forehead. "I can never understand what you lawyers are talking about. What does it mean?"
"It releases him," the fat man said, pointing to Joe.
The captain took the papers, gave them a single puzzled glance, and handed them to an aide. "All right," he said, "take him with you. But it wasn't like this in the old days. Nothing stopped the orderly progression of the Games."
Grinning triumphantly, Joe stepped through the ranks of guards and joined the fat lawyer. He asked him, "Do you have any papers for Will Barrent?"
"None," the lawyer said. "His case is in different hands. I'm afraid it might not be completely processed until after the Games are over."
"But I'll probably be dead then," Barrent said.
"That, I can assure you, won't stop the papers from being properly served," the fat lawyer said proudly. "Dead or alive, you will retain all your rights."
The captain of the guards said, "All right, let's go."
"Luck," Joe called out. And then the line of prisoners had passed through the iron door into the glaring light of the Arena.
* * * * *
Barrent lived through the hand-to-hand duels in which a quarter of the prisoners were killed. After that, men armed with swords were matched against the deadlier Omegan fauna. The beasts they fought included the hintolyte and the hintosced—big-jawed, heavily armored monsters whose natural habitat was the desert region far to the south of Tetrahyde. Fifteen men later, these beasts were dead. Barrent was matched with a Saunus, a flying black reptile from the western mountains. For a while he was hard-pressed by this ugly, poison-toothed creature. But in time he figured out a solution. He stopped trying to jab the Saunus's leathery hide and concentrated on severing its broad fan of tailfeathers. When he had succeeded, the Saunus's flying balance was thrown badly off. The reptile crashed into the high wall that separated the combatants from the spectators, and it was relatively easy to administer the final stroke through the Saunus's single huge eye. The vast and enthusiastic crowd in the stadium gave Barrent a lengthy round of applause.
He moved back to the reserve pen and watched other men struggle against the trichomotreds, incredibly fast little creatures the size of rats, with the dispositions of rabid wolverines. It took five teams of prisoners. After a brief interlude of hand-to-hand duelling, the Arena was cleared again.
Now the hard-shelled criatin amphibians lumbered in. Although sluggish in disposition, the criatins were completely protected beneath several inches of shell. Their narrow whiplash tails, which also served them as antennae, were invariably fatal to any man who approached them. Barrent had to fight one of these after it had dispatched four of his fellow prisoners.
He had watched the earlier combats carefully, and had detected the one place where the criatin antennae could not reach. Barrent waited for his chance and jumped for the center of the criatin's broad back.
When the shell split into a gigantic mouth—for this was the criatin method of feeding—Barrent jammed his sword into the opening. The criatin expired with gratifying promptness, and the crowd signified its approval by showering the Arena with cushions.
The victory left Barrent standing alone on the blood-stained sand. The rest of the prisoners were either dead or too badly maimed to fight. Barrent waited, wondering what beast the Games Committee had chosen next.
A single tendril shot up through the sand, and then another. Within seconds, a short, thick tree was growing in the Arena, sending out more roots and tendrils, and pulling all flesh, living or dead, into five small feeding-mouths which circled the base of the trunk. This was the carrion tree, indigenous to the northeastern swamps and imported with great difficulty. It was said to be highly vulnerable to fire; but Barrent had no fire available.
Using his sword two-handed, Barrent lopped off vines; others grew in their place. He worked with frantic speed to keep the vines from surrounding him. His arms were becoming tired, and the tree regenerated faster than he could cut it down. There seemed no way of destroying it.
His only hope lay in the tree's slow movements. These were fast enough, but nothing compared with human musculature. Barrent ducked out of a corner in which the creeping vines were trapping him. Another sword was lying twenty yards away, half-buried in the sand. Barrent reached it, and heard warning shouts from the crowd. He felt a vine close around his ankles.
He hacked at it, and other vines coiled around his waist. He dug his heels into the sand and clashed the swords together, trying to produce a spark.
On his first try, the sword in his right hand broke in half.
Barrent picked up the halves and kept on trying as the vines dragged him closer to the feeding mouths. A shower of sparks flew from the clanging steel. One of them touched a vine.
With incredible suddenness the vine burst into flame. The flame spurted down the length of the vine to the main tree system. The five mouths moaned as the fire leaped toward them.
If matters had been left to continue, Barrent would have been burned to death, for the Arena was nearly filled with the highly combustible vines. But the flames were endangering the wooden walls of the Arena. The Tetrahyde guard detachment put the fire out in time to save both Barrent and the spectators.
Swaying with exhaustion, Barrent stood in the center of the Arena, wondering what would be used next against him. But nothing happened. After a moment, a signal was made from the President's box, and the crowd roared in applause.
The Games were over. Barrent had survived.
Still no one left his seat. The audience was waiting to see the final disposition of Barrent, who had passed beyond the law.
He heard a low, reverent gasp from the crowd. Turning quickly, Barrent saw a fiery dot of light appear in mid-air. It swelled, threw out streamers of light, and gathered them in again. It grew rapidly, too brilliant to look upon. And Barrent remembered Uncle Ingemar saying to him, "Sometimes, The Black One rewards us by appearing 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 Games, and he also appeared the year before that...."
The dot became a red and yellow globe about twenty feet in diameter, its lowest curve not quite touching the ground. It grew again. The center of the globe became thinner; a waist appeared, and above the waist the globe turned an impenetrable black. It was two globes now, one brilliant, one dark, joined by a narrow waist. As Barrent watched, the dark globe lengthened and changed into the unforgettable horn-headed shape of The Dark One.
Barrent tried to run, but the huge black-headed figure swept forward and engulfed him. He was trapped in a blinding swirl of radiance, with darkness above it. The light bored into his head, and he tried to scream. Then he passed out.
Barrent recovered consciousness in a dim, high-ceilinged room. He was lying on a bed. Two people were standing near by. They seemed to be arguing.
"There simply isn't any more time to wait," a man was saying. "You fail to appreciate the urgency of the situation."
"The doctor said he needs at least another three days of rest." It was a woman's voice. After a moment, Barrent realized that Moera was speaking.
"He can have three days."
"And he needs time for indoctrination."
"You told me he was bright. The indoctrination shouldn't take long."
"It might take weeks."
"Impossible. The ship lands in six days."
"Eylan," Moera said, "you're trying to move too fast. We can't do it this time. On the next Landing Day we will be much better prepared—"
"The situation will be out of hand by then," the man said. "I'm sorry, Moera, we have to use Barrent immediately, or not use him at all."
Barrent said, "Use me for what? Where am I? Who are you?"
The man turned to the bed. In the faint light, Barrent saw a very tall, thin, stooped old man with a wispy moustache.
"I'm glad you're awake," he said. "My name is Swen Eylan. I'm in command of Group Two."
"What's Group Two?" Barrent asked. "How did you get me out of the Arena? Are you agents of The Black One?"
Eylan grinned. "Not exactly agents. We'll explain everything to you shortly. First, I think you'd better have something to eat and drink."
* * * * *
A nurse brought in a tray. While Barrent ate, Eylan pulled up a chair and told Barrent about The Black One.
"Our Group," Eylan said, "can't claim to have started the religion of Evil. That appears to have sprung up spontaneously on Omega. But since it was there, we have made occasional use of it. The priests have been remarkably cooperative. After all, the worshipers of Evil set a high positive value upon corruption. Therefore, in the eyes of an Omegan priest, the appearance of a fraudulent Black One is not anathema. Quite the contrary, for in the orthodox worship of Evil, a great deal of emphasis is put upon false images—especially if they are big, fiery, impressive images like the one which rescued you from the Arena."
"How did you produce that?" Barrent asked.
"It has to do with friction surfaces and planes of force," Eylan said. "You'd have to ask our engineers for more details."
"Why did you rescue me?" Barrent asked.
Eylan glanced at Moera, who shrugged her shoulders. Looking uncomfortable, Eylan said, "We'd like to use you for an important job. But before I tell you about it, I think you should know something about our organization. Certainly you must have some curiosity about us."
"A great deal," Barrent said. "Are you some kind of criminal elite?"
"We're an elite," Eylan said, "but we don't consider ourselves criminal. Two entirely different types of people have been sent to Omega. There are the true criminals guilty of murder, arson, armed robbery, and the like. Those are the people you lived among. And there are the people guilty of deviational crimes such as political unreliability, scientific unorthodoxy, and irreligious attitudes. These people compose our organization, which, for the purposes of identification, we call Group Two. As far as we can remember and reconstruct, our crimes were largely a matter of holding different opinions from those which prevailed upon Earth. We were nonconformists. We probably constituted an unstable element, and a threat to the entrenched powers. Therefore we were deported to Omega."
"And you separated yourselves from the other deportees," Barrent said.
"Yes, necessarily. For one thing, the true criminals of Group One are not readily controllable. We couldn't lead them, nor could we allow ourselves to be led by them. But more important than that, we had a job to do that could only be performed in secrecy. We had no idea what devices the guardships employed to watch the surface of Omega. To keep our security intact, we went underground—literally. The room you're in now is about two hundred feet below the surface. We stay out of sight, except for special agents like Moera, who separate the political and social prisoners who belong in Group Two from the others."
"You didn't separate me," Barrent said.
"Of course not. You were allegedly guilty of murder, which put you in Group One. However, your behavior was not typical of Group One. You seemed like good potential material for us, so we helped you from time to time. But we had to be sure of you before taking you into the Group. Your repudiation of the murder charge was strongly in your favor. Also, we questioned Illiardi after you had located him. There seemed no reason to doubt that he performed the murder you were charged with. Even more strongly in your favor were your high survival qualities, which had their ultimate test in the Hunt and the Games. We were badly in need of a man of your abilities."
"Just what is your work?" Barrent asked. "What do you want to accomplish?"
"We want to go back to Earth," Eylan said.
"But that's impossible."
"We don't think so," Eylan said. "We've given the matter considerable study. In spite of the guardships, we think it's possible to return to Earth. We'll find out for certain in six days, when the breakout must be made."
Moera said, "It would be better to wait another six months."
"Impossible. A six months' delay would be ruinous. Every society has a purpose, and the criminal population of Omega is bent upon its own self-destruction. Barrent, you look surprised. Couldn't you see that?"
"I never thought about it," Barrent said. "After all, I was part of it."
"It's self-evident," Eylan said. "Consider the institutions—all centered around legalized murder. The holidays are excuses for mass murders. Even the law, which governs the rate of murder, is beginning to break down. The population lives near the edge of chaos. And rightfully so. There's no longer any security. The only way to live is to kill. The only way to rise in status is to kill. The only safe thing is to kill—more and more, faster and faster."
"You exaggerate," Moera said.
"I don't think so. I realize that there seems to be a certain permanence to Omegan institutions, a certain inherent conservatism even to murder. But it's an illusion. I have no doubt that all dying societies projected their illusion of permanence—right up to the end. Well, the end of Omegan society is rapidly approaching."
"How soon?" Barrent asked.
"An explosion point will be reached in about four months," Eylan said. "The only way to change that would be to give the population a new direction, a different cause."
"Earth," Barrent said.
"Exactly. That's why the attempt must be made immediately."
"Well, I don't know much about it," Barrent said. "But I'll go along with you. I'll gladly be a part of any expedition."
Eylan looked uncomfortable again. "I suppose I haven't made myself clear," he said. "You are going to be the expedition, Barrent. You and only you.... Forgive me if I've startled you."
According to Eylan, Group Two had at least one serious flaw: the men who composed it were, for the most part, past their physical prime. There were some younger members, of course; but they had had little contact with violence, and little chance to develop traits of self-sufficiency. Secure in the underground, most of them had never fired a beamer in anger, had never been forced to run for their lives, had never encountered the make-or-break situations through which Barrent had lived. They were brave but unproven. They would willingly undertake the expedition to Earth; but they would have little chance of success.
"And you think I would have a chance?" Barrent asked.
"I think so. You're young and strong, reasonably intelligent, and extremely resourceful. You have a high survival quotient. If any man could succeed, I believe you could."
"Why one man?"
"Because there's no sense in sending a group. The chance of detection would simply be increased. By using one man, we get maximum security and opportunity. If you succeed, we will receive valuable information about the nature of the enemy. If you don't succeed, if you are captured, your attempt will be considered the action of an individual rather than a group. We will still be free to start a general uprising from Omega."
"How am I supposed to get back to Earth?" Barrent asked. "Do you have a starship hidden away somewhere?"
"I'm afraid not. We plan to transport you to Earth aboard the next prison ship."
"Not at all. We've studied the landings. They follow a pattern. The prisoners are marched out, accompanied by the guards. While they're assembled in the square, the ship itself is undefended, although loosely surrounded by a cordon of guards. To get you aboard, we will start a disturbance. It should take away the guards' attention long enough for you to get on board."
"Even if I succeed, I'll be captured as soon as the guards return."
"You shouldn't be," Eylan said, "The prison ship is an immense structure with many hiding places for a stowaway. And the element of surprise will be in your favor. This may be the first time in the history of Omega that an escape has been attempted."
"And when the ship reaches Earth?"
"You will be disguised as a member of the ship's personnel," Eylan said. "Remember, the inevitable inefficiency of a huge bureaucracy will be working for you."
"I hope so," Barrent said. "Let's suppose I reach Earth safely and get the information you want. How do I send it back?"
"You send it back on the next prison ship," Eylan said. "We plan to capture that one."
Barrent rubbed his forehead wearily. "What makes you think that any of this—my expedition or your uprising—can succeed against an organization as powerful as Earth?"
"We have to take the chance," Eylan said. "Take it or go down in a bloody shambles with the rest of Omega. I agree that the odds are weighted against us. But our choice is either to make the attempt or to die without making any attempt at all."
Moera nodded at this. "Also, the situation has other possibilities. The government of Earth is obviously repressive. That argues the existence of underground resistance groups on Earth itself. You may be able to contact those groups. A revolt both here and on Earth would give the government something to think about."